N. Y. Smith: The Mettle of Honor

The Mettle of Honor

Title: The Mettle of Honor
Author: N. Y. Smith
Author's Page: https://www.fanfiction.net/u/3437/
Category: X-Files, RX
Spoilers: Through Third Season
Words: 12,639
Written: 11/08/1998
Disclaimer: Story copyright reserved by the author. (Who else would want it?) Most of the characters contained herein (Mulder, Scully, Skinner, Bill Mulder, et al) are the property of Fox, Chris Carter, Ten-Thirteen Productions, et al, who retain the rights to those characters.
Rating: PG-13 for mildly disturbing themes, sensuality
Keywords: Mulder/Scully UST, Mulder/Scully/Skinner Friendship

Summary: Sent to investigate the birth of "alien" babies at a Marine Corps base, Mulder and Scully race to uncover the mystery behind the suicide of career officer.

Author Notes: This is my second effort and bears NO relation to the story "Between Lies." The usage of veterans' issues from the Vietnam and Gulf War eras is intended with the utmost respect for the veterans and their families.

Mulder turned Scully's car into the gravel driveway. The gravel crunched underneath his boot. "You know you still don't have to do this, Scully. I could hire someone from one of those estate sales companies to come help me."

"And miss the chance to prowl through embarrassing items from your childhood? Not a chance. Besides, if there's one thing I learned being a Navy brat, it's how to pack and move. This is my milieu, you might say."

Mulder smiled and paused on the front walk, looking the house over.

"Are you okay?" she asked.

"Yeah." The front door groaned and they stepped inside.

Scully was tormenting Mulder with one of his teenage school pictures when they noticed a figure peering through the glass in the front door. An elfin cheery old grey-haired lady stood in the door with a pitcher of tea and some glasses.

Mulder was not happy, and rolled his eyes behind her back. "Well hello, Mrs. Kravitz. Won't you come in?"

"Look at you," she gushed. "I can't believe it. Little Fox is all grown up. And so tall. Just like your father."

"Thank you Mrs. Kravitz," he said. "Can I help you?"

"Oh, my yes," she giggled. "I just thought you might enjoy a little refreshment while you do your sad work."

Scully struggled not to giggle at his discomfiture. "Well,

thank you, Mrs. Kravitz."

"And is this your young lady, Fox? Before he died, your father said he'd thought you'd found someone." She extended her tiny hand to Scully. "I'm Gladys Kravitz."

"Dana Scully." She nodded toward Mulder. "I'm not . . ."

"Such a beautiful girl," She took Scully's left hand and it was Mulder's turn to nearly giggle at Scully's discomfiture. "And now a wedding," she eyed the diamond ring. "Your mother must be thrilled, Fox."

Both Scully and Mulder flushed bright scarlet. "Oh, I'm sure she's tickled pink and blue." Mulder scooted her toward the door. "Thank you so much for coming over, Mrs. Kravitz. We'll just bring over the tea pitcher later."

Scully closed the door behind Mrs. Kravitz. "The Vineyard Voice?"

"Great. It'll be all over the Island by dark."

"Since when have you been concerned with what the Islanders thought?" Scully asked.

"I'm not. But you don't deserve this."

"Mulder, it's okay." The chirp of his ever-present cellular interrupted her.

"Mulder . . . Yeah, we can be there in the morning . . ."

"What is it, Mulder?"

He began rummaging through his pockets. "Do you remember that tabloid story about the alien baby born in North Carolina?"

"Yes, and the child was cremated without autopsy, so there's no way to prove anything."

"Well, there's been another "alien" baby. This time in the Marine Corps hospital at Camp Lejeune. He's fading fast." He finally fished the door key out of his jacket pocket. "We can take the shuttle to DC tonight. Skinner's got us scheduled on a military transport out of Quantico at 6:00 am. He said he'd put the travel orders and the 302 under my door."

"The 302? Skinner? He's already signed the 302?"

"Yeah. Wonder what's so exciting about an alien baby that gets Skinner's signature on a 302?" Again he closed the door to his past.

The noise level was astoundingly loud inside the belly of the transport plane. Mulder almost doubled over so Scully could speak directly into his ear to be heard over the engines and wind. "How long have you been following these 'alien' births?"

He raised his head slightly so that he spoke directly into her ear. "They were first brought to my attention earlier this year when one of these children was born at Camp Pendleton. I would have chalked just one up to birth defect. But now there have been at least 6, all born to military parents. The numbers are getting too large to ignore."

"So you're not really expecting to find an 'alien' baby?" Her lips brushed his ear as she spoke.

"Hardly. Something's going on, though." He rolled his neck to relieve the throbbing in his head.

"What do you think," a tug on his lapel pulled him so close she could take in his after-shave, "What do you think Skinner's connection is to this?"

As he spoke he tasted her spicy-sweet perfume. "Probably none; he's probably following orders."

She looked quizzical. "You don't think the Marine connection is significant?"

"Are you kidding? Skinner is the original Mr. Clean. He'd never use Bureau resources to advance his own agenda."

Her eyebrows--always expressive-- replied with "Okay, Mulder, if you say so . . . " before she lay her head back against the headrest and, with a tender smile, closed her eyes. He studied her face for a moment and then laid his head back never realizing that their fingers were intertwined--like the Gordian strands of their souls.

Despite the early hour the sun was quite bright and it was already oppressively hot. A marine "light" colonel in perfectly- creased khakis with SP on his black armband met them on the heat-softened tarmac. He was tall and his blond hair was cropped short. His face was boyish, but the impressive ribbons and service stripes on his uniform attested to his long years in the service. He stuck out his hand. "Agent Scully, Agent Mulder, --Allen Sandlin. I'm the Provost Marshal for Camp Lejeune. Thanks for coming down."

The handshake was strictly military issue--two firm pumps, stiff-wristed. Mulder could not resist the temptation to tweak an authority figure. "You're welcome, but I'm a little confused. In my experience the military tends to resent civilians nosing in their business."

Sandlin stopped, surprisingly rising to the bait. "You see these, Agent Mulder? They tell you I survived Vietnam, Granada, Panama, Liberia, Beirut, and Desert Storm. And it wasn't by accident. I survived because I was smart enough to know when to call for support. Now I've been told that you and Agent Scully are the best at getting to the bottom of the unexplainable, but you're welcome to hop right back on that plane and us jarheads will just figure it out as best we can."

Scully used the uncomfortable silence to shoot a "You're being a jerk" look at Mulder. "We'll be glad to assist your office where we can, Colonel. I understand you have a body for us to look at."

He turned and walked toward the vehicle--the traditional military dark sedan. "I wish it were only one," he mumbled over his shoulder.

The morgue was in a stand of long-leaf pines. There was a guard standing watch in front of one of the crypts. The crypt had a Provost Marshal evidence seal and there was a string wrapped around the handle that apparently went inside the locker.

"The mortuary tech was checking on the infant's body this morning when we found this." He motioned toward the locker. "Go ahead; it's been dusted."

As Scully carefully opened the door the string attached to the handle pulled out the tray. Instead of the body of an infant alone, it was the body of a tall, thin man. He was covered in a mortuary sheet and was cradling the body of the infant.

Mulder tried to appear unfazed by the sight--unsuccessfully. "I assume you're not running short of freezer space . . ."

"No. We put the infant's body in here last night." Sandlin never looked directly at the body.

Scully lifted the sheet while Mulder maintained an odd distance. "Did you remove the clothes?"

"No, m'am. Everything is just as I found it." The mortuary technician seemed just as upset as Sandlin.

"His uniform is over here." The Provost Marshal motioned toward neatly hung full dress blues. The shirt and skivvies were neatly folded. The shoes were perfectly lined up, ready for inspection. It was an impressive uniform--many battle ribbons and the Medal of Honor. "Full dress blouse, ship-shape, spit-and- polish, just like the IG was walkin' down the hall."

Scully continued observing the bodies. "I take it he was stationed here?"

Sandlin adjusted a button on the uniform blouse. "Oh, you bet he was. Meet Captain David Chavez of the 2nd Battalion (Recon). And son."

Mulder edged closer to the bodies. "One end of the string is tied around the crypt latch and the other end is tied loosely around his neck. Strangulation?"

"No," Scully lifted the string. "The ligature marks are down on the shoulder rather than the neck."

"On the shoulder?" Mulder leaned in closer. "So he tied the string around his neck, crawled up on the tray, and . . ."

"Took his son in his arms, and waited for the oxygen to run out." Scully covered the soldier's face with the sheet.

Mulder shifted uncomfortably. "Was this his only child?"

Sandlin still had not looked at the body. "No, he has 3 grown children with his first wife. She died while he was in the Gulf. He married his second wife 3 years ago. This is their first child."

Scully closed the crypt. "Is there a history of birth defects in either of their families?"

"Not that he ever mentioned, but you'll need to check with the docs about that." A corpsman handed Sandlin a thick file folder and a thin file folder. "These are his medical records and his son's."

"Did he complain of any ongoing health problems?" Scully glanced through the medical files.

"He still carries some shrapnel in his neck he picked up in the Saudi. Said it made his fingers tingle. Corpsman, show Agent Scully the "facilities." Give her whatever assistance she needs."

The corpsman stiffened but did not salute. "Aye, sir."

Mulder followed Sandlin down the hall. "You knew Capt. Chavez?"

Sandlin did not look at Mulder as he spoke. "Davey and I went through infantry school together before we shipped out in '67."

"Vietnam?" Mulder's steps were long and gangly in comparison with Sandlin's precise stride.

Sandlin nodded. "Our rifle company was out of a firebase on the McNamara line near Khe Sanh. We suffered 50% casualties the first six months of our first tour. In the fall they moved us to DaNang just in time for Tet."

"Sounds like you saw some pretty intense fighting."

"Yeah, we saw some heavy contact." Sandlin was giving away nothing.

Mulder stepped in front of Sandlin and stopped. "Why do you think he did it? Could it have been something from Vietnam?"

Sandlin looked around as if looking for some way to escape. "I doubt it. Davey did four tours. He was a tunnel rat with fourteen registered VC kills."

"Tunnel rat?" Mulder looked perplexed.

Sandlin explained. "The VC hid most of their military complex in elaborate tunnel systems. Barracks, ammo dumps, even hospitals. They even had tunnels under our base at Cu Chi. We didn't know a thing about it until after the war. Davey was the best of the tunnel rats."

"Which explains why being inside the crypt didn't bother him."

"In '70 I watched him spend 6 hours searching through VC tunnels for an 18-year-old kid from Iowa City."

"Sounds like a tough man."

Sandlin stiffened. "Sounds like a Marine. I've arranged for you to examine his office and his home. The SP will show you the way." Mulder followed the SP out the window.

Sandlin's office was large but Spartan. "Well, here we go," he said to the shadows.

"You think they can pull it off?" an older voice asked.

From the area of the room half-lit, half-dark came a deep, resonant voice. "If they can't no one can," said Walter Skinner.

Mulder followed the Marine out to a dingy green car. The oppressive heat slapped Mulder in the face like steamy cotton the moment he stepped outside. He did not fight the urge to peel off his suit coat and loosen his tie. "Is it always this hot, Sergeant--" He leaned over and looked at the Marine's nameplate, "Edwards?"

The non-com turned between barracks. "No, sir. It's actually quite a nice morning with the breeze and all." Mulder was about to argue when the flag which marked the company command barracks stirred ever-so-slightly. He opted instead for directing the air conditioner vent at his scowling face. The car stopped and Mulder followed the SP across the gravel parking lot. "Prob'ly rain this afternoon. Then it'll really be hot." He shot Mulder a grinning good-natured "dumb-ass-civilian" look as his heavy footsteps made the wooden barracks steps shudder.

The air conditioner inside the office was struggling to keep up with the heat even this early in the day. The sergeant spoke with the clerk who retrieved two men from a back office.

The younger man was around 40 and wore the same office- dress that Sandlin had. There was a single gold bar on his collar and he wore a discreet wedding ring on his left hand and a large class ring on his right--an "Academy" man. "Agent Mulder, I'm 1st Lieutenant Bill Hansen. We've been instructed to give you our full cooperation." Mulder extended his hand in thanks. "Sergeant- Major Cahill, give Mr. Mulder whatever he needs to resolve this unfortunate matter. If you'll excuse me, gentlemen, there's a million things to attend to . . . " The Lieutenant scurried back into his office. Mulder caught the tail end of the wincing look the sergeants exchanged.

Edwards snapped-to. "Will there be anything else, Sergeant- Major?"

"No, Sergeant Edwards. You are relieved." Sergeant Edwards seemed somewhat relieved now that he was "relieved." Cahill accepted a sheaf of papers the clerk had proffered him and leafed through them, signing and initialing here and there. It was the first chance Mulder had to really look at him. He was shorter than Mulder but much more "solid". His iron-gray hair was brush-cut and his sharply creased fatigues were adorned only with the fabric "field insignia." He had about him the weary, wary, wily way of the warrior. He didn't even look at Mulder when he spoke, "So, Agent Mulder, where would you like to begin?"

It wasn't her own autopsy theater, but it was the next best thing. It was Spartan, but adequately stocked and well-organized. Yes, she would do just fine here. All of her training had taught her to think of the task before her simply as an evidence-gathering exercise. But she stalled. It wasn't that she was appalled at the condition of the body; she had often worked on remains ravaged by violence or the elements. Perhaps it was the lack of mayhem against the corpse. She didn't think of it as "the subject"; it was still Captain David Chavez. She clicked the tape recorder "ON." "August 18, 1996. David Jaime Chavez. Subject is a male, Hispanic, 48 years old. Subject appears to be in excellent physical condition with no obvious injury that would have precipitated death."

The captain's office had been just as Mulder expected: well- organized, orderly, everything with a place and in its place. Nothing out of the ordinary, the usual reports (Mulder mused the Marine Corps had more reports than the FBI) and such. There were a few personal items, but the office had the feel of someone who'd made a career of "traveling light."

"I assume you've already gone through the Captain's office, Sergeant Cahill?" Mulder didn't even look at the Marine as he spoke.

"At the Lieutenant's request, I did remove the pending items that needed immediate attention, Agent Mulder. Sent a full list to the Provost Marshal, according to procedure." Cahill even sat at attention, Mulder noted with a bit of jealousy.

"How long did you serve with Chavez, Sergeant-Major?" Mulder continued to idly shuffle through papers.

Cahill went behind Mulder, straightening the papers Mulder had just "shuffled." "I've served with Captain Chavez for 6 years, Agent Mulder. He was a fine officer, respected by his men."

Mulder had surmised that Cahill was too cagey for circumlocution, so he stuck with direct questions. "And what about you, Sergeant-Major? Did you respect Captain Chavez?"

Cahill reddened and stiffened, as if coming to Chavez' defense. "Captain Chavez embodied the best of the Corps, Agent Mulder. You won't find any better."

Mulder stood stiffly. "Well, there's obviously nothing here. Can you take me to his home?"

The catechism taught that whatever made bodies sentient, spiritual beings departed at the time of death. The body was merely the exoskeleton of the soul. She tried to believe it; she really did. She made it through the Captain; but now it was time for the child.

Scully has just completed the autopsy on the infant. Mulder enters the room and peers over her shoulder--he stands extremely close. She acknowledges his presence by looking over her shoulder at him then back at the infant. She covers the unfortunate child with the drape--except for the tiny hand the slender fingers of which she wraps around her finger. She is pensive. "Each of us carries from birth the full measure of our reproductive potential--millions of miracles waiting to happen. But that miracle is vulnerable to any number of outside influences -- illness or injury, environment, diet. And because of those influences those miracles can become tragedies." She paused, then slid the tray back into the crypt.

Mulder moved a stool next to her desktop and placed his files on it. His foot that was away from the worktable was on the rung of the chair and the other foot on the floor, so that one knee was high and the knee closest to the table was extended. "Do you ever wonder?"

"Wonder about what?"

"How the things we've experienced will affect us and our future families?"

She paused. "According to the women MUFON women in Allentown, I have no future--much less a future family."

"But you've only been taken once," he protested. "They've never come back for you since--"

"That I can remember--"

"So you could be worrying for nothing." He tried to sound reassuring.

She bit her bottom lip. "But what if once is all it takes--"

He reached across the tabletop and took her hand, pulling her between his knee and the worktable--very close, but only touching the knee and the hand. He replied in the small, quiet voice he reserved for her. "I know you believe in miracles. Believe in one for yourself."

She responded sotto voce. "And you? Are you in need of a miracle?"

He dropped her hand and fiddled with the file folder on the worktable. "Miracles are for those who believe in them. The rest of us are left with," his words soured in his mouth, "the truth."

"And what is your truth, Mulder?" She arched her eyebrows.

Spotting Sandlin coming to the door Mulder turned Scully so that she faced the worktable rather than him. He replied in his FBI voice. "That Davey Chavez believed that his son was more than just a loss at genetic roulette."

She also used her business voice. "What do you mean, Mulder?"

"I found a ton of information at his office and his home about Gulf War syndrome--apparently he was making quite a study of it."

Scully turned to Sandlin. "Did Chavez have any symptoms of Gulf War syndrome? Rashes, joint inflammation and pain, unexplained fatigue--"

"He was probably one of the few Saudi veterans on base who didn't," Sandlin replied.

"You have a high incidence of Gulf War syndrome on this base?" Mulder asked.

"We're a Recon battalion, Agent Mulder. That means we're the first to land and the last to leave. We start it up and we clean it up."

"And in-between?" Scully asked.

"We were heavily exposed to everything Saddam had to throw at us."

"Including biological agents?" Mulder asked.

"There was never any official evidence of that; but we were prepared for it."

Scully asked, "What do you mean--prepared?"

"Look, for Vietnam, Panama, Beirut, Grenada, Haiti we were given a tetanus booster and the appropriate standard travel inoculations. But Saddam was threatening some really nasty stuff. I felt like a pincushion by the time I left."

"Do you know what kind of inoculations?" Mulder asked.

"No, but they should be in Chavez' med file. He'd have taken the same ones."

Scully glanced through the file. "There's nothing on the shot record. Who else could tell me?"

"You might try the docs. And NIH should know."

"NIH?" Mulder asked.

"Yeah, they spent about month down here studying Gulf War syndrome. They came to the official conclusion that there was no evidence it existed."

"And you disagree?" Scully asked.

"You bet I disagree. Look, it's late. We're renovating the Bachelor's Officers Quarters so I have you both billeted in the same 2-bedroom guest cottage. I hope that's OK."

"The billets will be fine," Scully replied. "Who can we talk to here on base?"

Sandlin replied surreptitiously. "Talk to the doctors in the family clinic. We gotta go." *****

Mulder took the smaller bedroom in the guest cottage. He lay on the bed, propped against pillows on the headboard. There were several large evidence bags containing file folders scattered on the bed. He pulled on sweat pants, hair wet, just out of the shower. Scully appeared in the door in much the same condition-- no makeup, hair pulled back. Both wore glasses. Mulder merely glanced at her as she paused at the door. "That Chavez' research?"

"He must have every word ever written on Gulf War syndrome," Mulder replied. "You'd think he was planning the Normandy invasion."

Scully looked absently at one of the files. "Reconnaissance is the key to every successful operation, Mulder." She closed the file. Gently she took the file from Mulder and placed the stack of folders on the dresser. She cross-legged on the bed, facing him. "Maybe we need to pass on this one for a while. Maybe it's too close for now."

"We've never walked away from those kinds of cases before-- "

She shrugged. "Not walk away; just put on hold. Mulder, time is not critical to this case. I've sent all the samples to Quantico and NIH. Let's just finish up the background and wait on the lab findings."

"And just walk out in the middle of an investigation?"

"Mulder, unless something turns up on background, we're stalled anyway until the lab results come back."

Mulder started to argue back, but resigned with a ragged sigh. "And there'll be no truth for David Chavez."

"But we already know most of the truth. Captain Chavez killed himself in despair over the death of his son."

"Scully, Chavez had served in every war for the last 30 years. Death was not a stranger to him."

"Mulder, the death of a child is never easy. Maybe Chavez had seen one death too many."

"If this is Gulf War Syndrome, the government will bury it beneath a mountain of false studies and smug denial. If we quit now, there will be no truth for David Chavez or his son."

"Mulder, what is so important about this case? There's obviously no "alien babies" here."

"Maybe not. But maybe I'll find some reason not to do exactly what he did."

"Mulder, I never realized you thought about having a family."

"Neither did I until," he gathered the courage to say the rest. "I knew I couldn't."

"How do you know you can't?" She scoffed.

Mulder pulled a folded piece of paper from his wallet on the bedside table and handed it to her. "I guess I think the results will change if I look at them often enough."

She looked over the lab report. "Who was your doctor?"

"Williams at GWU."

"He's pretty good. Who's your second opinion from?"

He grinned shyly. "I thought that's what I was getting . . ."

Scully put on her "doctor" face. "Well, Genetics and Endocrinology are little out of my arena. Until we get a second opinion I'd consider these results compelling but inconclusive. How about Sorcza at Brandeis? She's one of the best in the world. When we get back I'll fax this to her and if she needs any more information . . ."

Mulder sat up, leaning on the arm he placed in front of Scully. "Scully . . . I, I appreciate what you're trying to do, but you're just delaying the inevitable."

Sensing that further discussion right now would be fruitless Scully said. "Funny how you don't realize how badly you want something until you learn that you can't have it."

He avoided looking at Scully. "I've known for a while that I wanted it." He met her gaze, sadly, and moved closer. "I just didn't know how to ask the person I wanted it with."

Scully gazed at him for a long instant. Her emotions registered in her eyes--first shock, then realization, then terror, and finally, trust. Her hands trembled as she drew his face to hers to kiss away the tears coursing down his cheeks. Each kiss grew more tender full not of passion, but of longing--as if two damaged souls were about to find in each other that which would make them whole again. And when their lips met it was a kiss in which each found forever. They trembled when their lips parted. As he leaned back his eyes were full of terror in the realization that he might despoil the only friendship that mattered to him.

"We should . . . stop," he said breathlessly in the voice he reserved for her.

But her eyes showed neither anger, nor fear as she followed him. With her tiny hand she lifted his chin so that his eyes met hers. And her cheek brushed red-hot against his as she angel- kissed his ear as she whispered, "Fox." If there is something beyond white-hot, they found it just before their passion exploded in a million shimmering stars.

"Mulder . . . Fox, it's time to get up . . . " The words slowly drew him from his deep slumber. He stirred slightly then grew still again. "Mulder, wake up." He stirred again before opening his eyes. Her fingertips brushed his forehead and cheek.

"What time is it?" He mumbled and struggled to shake off the drowsiness.

"It's late. You were actually sleeping peacefully so I didn't have the heart to wake you." She stood up and tried to fasten the buttons on the back of her blouse. He sat up and pulled her in front of him on top of the tousled bedclothes to button her blouse. She pulled her hair to one side so he could fasten the top button. His heart began to race again and he baby-kissed her snowy neck. He slipped his arms around her waist and pulled her closer. She leaned back into him and sighed. He swallowed hard. This was not at all the awkward "morning after" scene he had feared. In fact, it was everything he'd hoped for. He leaned back and drew her even closer. And there they stayed for a long moment--each enjoying how they just seemed to "fit" together. Her fingers stroked his forearms as he stroked her belly. Through the tailored pants he could feel its softness--a softness that deserved to be filled with many happy babies--happy babies that he could not give her. He withdrew his hand quickly as if he'd touched something hot.

"Thank you for last night--for everything." He whispered huskily, desperately.

Feeling the barrenness within him she took his hands and replaced them on her belly, covering them with her own hands. "I believe in miracles. I believe there's one for us both."

To his own wonderment he realized that, when he was with her, he too believed in miracles. And for a moment longer they held each other, wishing that it would last forever.

The delicately spicy scent of Scully's perfume invaded his slumber. "Mulder, Mulder wake up." He stirred slightly and became still again. "Mulder, it's time to wake up." Her hand felt cool on his bare chest.

Mulder propped himself on one elbow. The case folders were still scattered on the bed, he noted. "What time is it?" he asked as he tried to focus on his watch.

"It's after 7. Sandlin's expecting us at 8 at the Officers' Mess. Look, it's late. You were actually sleeping so I didn't have the heart to wake you earlier." She stood and tried to fasten the buttons on the back of her blouse. Mulder sat upright, suddenly completely awake. He motioned for her to sit on the bed in front of him. She hesitated slightly but sat primly at the edge.

"I promise, I won't bite," he said wryly. He liked the dream better. The buttons were stiff and hard to fasten.

She could feel his warmth--radiant, tempting. She shifted uncomfortably and tried to ignore the fact that every time he touched her electrical surges shot downward from her brain. After he buttoned the last, bottom, button, those electric fingers gathered her auburn hair from the neckline of her blouse, exposing that delicious neck. She could feel the roughness of his unshaven face grazing her neck. Involuntarily, she arched her back and leaned into him, turning her head until his hot breath touched her ear.

She felt his breath quicken as his hands encircled her waist and clasped on her belly. Trembling, she covered his hands with hers. But the diamond on the ring on her left hand had turned under and was between them. Both sat bolt upright, blinking rapidly.

He raised his hand to comfort her, but the wall between them was now impenetrable. "I'm sorry," he whispered. "I'm sorry," he pleaded.

She stood and walked to the door, never facing him. Her voice was husky as she closed the door, "It's late; you'd better hurry."

Mulder dropped his head into his hands and cursed himself.

The decor of Officers' Mess at Camp Lejeune was, not surprisingly, rather Spartan. What was surprising was the appetizing aroma emanating from the kitchen.

"Is it just me or does that smell too good to be military cooking?" Mulder said under his breath while looking for Sandlin.

"It does smell too good to be military cooking." Spotting Sandlin at the back corner of the dining room, she gently touched Mulder's arm as she passed. He, as usual, "ushered" her past with his hand, touching her just between the shoulder blades.

Sandlin was seated with an older gentleman in civilian clothes. He left the table and met them about halfway across the room. "I trust your billets were satisfactory . . . " he said as they approached the table.

Scully stole a glance at Mulder as he answered, "They were . . . fine."

The older gentleman rose in greeting.

"Admiral Zaricor, may I present Special Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully of the FBI?" Sandlin motioned for the waiter to remove a half-eaten plate and coffee from Mulder's place explaining that "the other gentleman" would not be returning.

The Admiral extended his hand to Mulder; his grip was surprisingly firm. "Scully," he said, taking her hand. "You must be Bill Scully's baby girl. You certainly have his way about you."

"Thank you, sir." She murmured in surprise. "Are you here on official business?"

"No, no. I retired some years ago. I just came down to be with Chavez' family."

Sandlin offered the explanation. "Chavez and I served under the Admiral's son Phil in a rifle platoon in '67."

The Admiral looked somewhat sad. "Phil always said that if it hadn't been for those guys and Gunny Hall he'd have never made it off the McNamara line--much less home." He paused. "Sometimes I wish he had taken something as quick as a bullet." He looked out the window.

"Cancer took Phil in '78." Sandlin said quietly.

"It just ate him alive." The Admiral stirred his coffee absently. "So what is the FBI doing at Camp Lejeune?"

Mulder struggled for a way to make the explanation sound less than ridiculous. "We were asked to investigate reports of babies with rather striking birth defects."

"Rather striking birth defects?" he asked quizzically while Mulder made a show of concentrating on his eggs. "You mean you're investigating those tabloid reports of alien babies?"

Mulder tap-danced as fast as he could. "Admittedly those reports may have triggered the investigation, but the fact remains that there seems to be a cluster of the same irregular births centered around military bases."

The Admiral looked confused. "And that's within the purview of the FBI? I would think the Provost Marshal or the Naval Investigative Service would look into it." "Scully and Mulder are experienced in investigating things that are, um, unusual. I asked them to assist me." Sandlin finished off his coffee. "Which brings us to the investigation. What do you want to accomplish today?"

Scully stabbed at the last of her breakfast. "What about Mrs. Chavez? Is she available for questioning?"

"Selena," Sandlin hesitated, "Selena tried to kill herself after we found Davey. She's heavily sedated and under a suicide watch."

"Is she remotely lucid?" Mulder wiped his hands on his napkin and dropped it in his plate.

"No. Look, I was best man at their wedding but when I tried to question her, she didn't even realize I was there. The docs say she's psychotic." Sandlin picked up his cup, but it was empty. "Several of the wives are staying with her--trying to bring her back to reality."

"Well, we've got to try." Mulder stood up.

"It was a pleasure to meet you, sir." Scully extended her hand to the Admiral.

"And you, Special Agent Scully." Shaking Mulder's hand. "Good luck in your investigation."

Mulder waited for Scully to precede him

"Will you excuse me, sir? I think I'll tag along today." Sandlin adjusted his sweater and pulled his cover from its epaulette.

"Go on, go on. I'm fine here." Sandlin followed Mulder and for an instant the Admiral was alone. And then the other gentlemen who would "not be returning" returned along with a new cup of coffee.

A large but surprisingly quiet voice came from the large man. "At least you could have saved my coffee for me."

"And have them inquiring about it? I thought you didn't want them to know you're here." As affable and dotty as he had seemed before, he was now sharply focused. "How do you think it's going?"

"It's hard to tell with those two. Their investigative routes are quite often, shall we say, unconventional." His elbows were on the table and he stared out the window after Scully and Mulder.

"They were the ones who found the Ardent?" A waiter refilled the Admiral's cup.

"Yes, sir. Their theories seemed outlandish, but they provided the clues that saved their lives." The steaming coffee fogged his glasses as he took another drink. "Their reports are usually quite entertaining," Walter Skinner said dryly.

"I bet they present a managerial challenge," observed the Admiral.

Skinner finished his coffee and looked at the Admiral. "You have no idea."

The hospital corridor was painted the usual green and footsteps on the asphalt tile echoed through the cinder block halls. Mulder had barely had time to lean, stand, shuffle and fidget before Sandlin and Scully closed the door of Mrs. Chavez' room behind them.

"She's non-responsive," Scully shrugged. Mulder sniffed in frustration.

Sandlin's head snapped when he recognized the voice of a woman interrogating a doctor down the hall. "I'll check ahead in the Family Clinic and see if the doctor's available," he said huskily and took off down the hall.

Slowly, they followed him down the corridor. Mulder turned around and looked back at Selena Chavez' room. "It's easy to forget that there's more to a soldier than just a uniform."

"One may wear the uniform, but the whole family serves . . . " She spoke with the voice of experience--her rapid footsteps sounding a staccato counterpoint to his long, purposeful strides. She had become comfortable with that rhythm. Even though it seemed so discordant to outsiders, to them it seemed organic, basic, elemental. She glanced at her feet and saw Mulder's, too. As always, not quite a half-step behind her and so close she occasionally felt the hem of his coat brush against her leg. An intimate distance the gossips might say. A friendly distance she would always retort. But John Cutre knew the truth. He knew that they were intimate in every way but One.

"Did you talk with my friend John Cutre this morning?" They didn't call him Spooky for nothing. She inclined her head toward him. "Last night. Their suspect's on a lunar calendar, so we couldn't talk long."

"Ah, for the callow days of my youth in VCS." He almost smiled. He was trying to make amends, trying to reassure her that this morning's events would not reoccur.

"I can't imagine the two of you together on a case." She brightened slightly. "You must have been the Intensity Twins."

"Bull and Spooky--it was almost enough to drive Bill Patterson to drink." He definitely smiled.

"If your clearance rate hadn't been so good he'd probably have shipped John to California to mellow out and made you a Resident Agent in Idaho," she teased.

"Montana. He threatened me with Montana." This was going well. Maybe he hadn't screwed everything up.

"I stand corrected." She slowed up to let him move even closer--to show she still trusted him. They followed the arrow left to the family clinic past the nursery. Scully had passed the window when she realized she heard only her own footsteps. She stopped and turned, expecting that he'd stopped to tie his shoe or check his hair in his reflection in the window. He was staring at the window; rather he was staring through the window into the nursery. A nurse approached the window, but he waved her off.

"I thought we'd seen it all, Scully. We've seen the face of evil, avarice, even death. Every day I look at you and see the face of faith and love. But I never realized that there was one face I'd never seen ---"

She stepped toward him and raised her eyebrows in inquiry.

"Hope, Scully. I'd never seen the face of Hope." His eyes were desperate.

"And do you see it now?" Her face tilted upward at him.

"Yes." He looked at the tiny faces one last time. "It was right in front of me the whole time, wasn't it?"

She hooked her arm through his and led him toward the family clinic. "For those with the eyes to see it."

The Family Clinic at Camp Lejeune was not exactly four- square standard Marine issue. For one thing, the waiting room was painted an absurd shade of sky-blue. The room was full of, well, of families. There were children with various varieties of coughs and sniffles sitting in an area marked "Under the weather" with a sad rain cloud over the painted sun. A bright yellow partition separated that section from the one marked with a happy sun--"Feelin' sunshiny!" Scully checked in with the receptionist and they selected the middle two of four adjacent chairs under the cheerful orb.

Mulder leaned and whispered, "Is this your usual Marine hospital?"

"Navy, Mulder. The Marine Corps doesn't have a medical service." She corrected him.

"Okay, Navy. Is this your usual Navy hospital?" Slightly annoyed at the hair-splitting.

"No, it's not your usual Navy hospital. It's so friendly it's almost like a civilian clinic." She reached for a magazine. "Except for these; I think there's some that have been here since the fifties . . . "

As Mulder smiled Sandlin's face appeared from behind a really purple unmarked (Can a purple door be unmarked? Mulder mused) door. He beckoned them wordlessly. This hall was also green, but was much brighter. And each door was painted an intense color and had an animal number on it. Instead of the usual colored stripes on the floor, there were colored dinosaur footprints to follow.

Mulder face brightened into that little-boy "golly-gee" look that Scully found at once endearing and embarrassing. "Wow, Colonel, which dinosaur trail do we follow today?"

Sandlin gave him a brief "Have you lost your mind?" look before realizing what Mulder was talking about. "Oh, uh, follow the blue T-Rex."

Scully was truly curious. "Not exactly standard issue, Colonel . . . " as she pointed at the dinosaur footprint.

"No, they're not. The wives from 1st platoon did it while we were in the Saudi. Because of all the babies they were going to have when we returned." Mulder thought he could see Sandlin blush slightly.

"And did they?" Mulder asked naughtily, watching Sandlin's blush fade and blue eyes turn steel-grey.

"Camp Lejeune has the largest family clinic on any Marine or Navy installation outside of Camp Pendleton." Sandlin said by way of explanation. "Marines don't do anything half-way, Agent Mulder." He stopped in front of a door with a blue T-Rex and a blue 3. "Here we are."

Mulder waited just a moment before he started fidgeting. "And what are we 'here' for?"

Sandlin was about to answer when the door swung open. "Now you stay off those skates for at least a week, Mr. Ho. You want to give that wrist a chance to get set." The voice from inside the room was resonant with a mellifluous, erudite, Southern accent. "He'll be OK." She reassured the mother who followed the boy down the hall.

"Doctor?" Sandlin called into the room.

"Oh, Colonel, I'll be right there." Scully could hear her dictating notes for the patient's file.

"Our chief medical officer is on leave. Dr. Cleveland is his assistant and head of our Family Medical Services."

As if on cue, a dark face that shone like finely burnished mahogany appeared in the door. She extended an elegant hand to Scully. "I'm Eugenie Cleveland."

Scully's hand was smaller than hers. "Dana Scully. This is Fox Mulder."

Cleveland walked slowly, but purposefully down the hall with the air of someone who was in charge. "Allen tells me you're here about the Chavez family."

Scully quickened her stride to keep pace. "Yes, we are. Did Captain Chavez have any medical condition that might have driven him to suicide?"

"Like what?" Cleveland was not forthcoming.

"Like a chronic, debilitating, possibly even terminal illness?" Scully's voice showed just the edge of annoyance.

"What's more debilitating than having a genetically-damaged child?" Cleveland quickened her pace and even Mulder had trouble keeping up.

"Was there a history of birth defects in either family?" Mulder piped up from the rear.

Cleveland stopped in a doorway marked "AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY." "You have the medical files, Agent . . . Mulder, is it? Everything I know is in those files. Read them." The door swung shut behind her.

Scully wheeled on Sandlin. "I thought you said she'd be helpful."

Sandlin looked genuinely perplexed. "I thought she would, too."

"What about the medical records?" Mulder asked. "Can we get access to those?"

Sandlin shook his head. "Not unless you want to get the Judge Advocate General's office involved--"

Mulder leaned his head back and scrunched his eyes.

"But we still have the pathology." Scully reminded. "Preliminary reports should be ready this afternoon. Until then--"

"Until then we can have lunch." Mulder could change courses quicker than a spastic gnat.

"Lunch?" Even Scully was caught off-guard.

"Yeah. North Carolina is renowned for having great barbecue. I figure by the time we run into town and have a pork plate it'll be time to call about the pathology reports." Mulder smiled. "I'm sure the colonel knows a good place--"

Sandlin looked perplexed but recovered quickly. "Thank you, but I, uh, have meetings the rest of the day." He turned to leave, but stopped. "You might try Smitty's in Atlantic Beach. Take Highway 24 to 68. It's at the end of the Bogue Banks."

Mulder had little chance to nod thanks before Sandlin hurried away. He turned to Scully. "So, are you ready for some local cuisine?"

Scully shook her head. "No, Mulder, let's just pick up a burger or something in Jacksonville."

"Oh, come on, Scully," he mock-whined. "What's the use of traveling unless we can try new stuff?"

She waved her hand in dismissal and started for the car. He followed knowing she'd made up her mind and would not be dissuaded.

In town, he was able to persuade Scully to try the Food Court at the mall. Well, it wasn't really a mall--just 10 or 12 stores that shared a common roof. In the center of the cluster was the Food Court. Scully selected a table away from the kiddie rides and picked at her salad while she waited for Mulder who was waiting for a hamburger cooked "in the same grease since 1956," or so the sign said. He dodged the obstacle course of kids and strollers to reach their table. Scully was smiling at a little girl with red curls toddling around the next table. Uncharacteristically, he sat with his back to the crowd.

"They'll be beautiful."

"Who?" she asked.

"Your babies." He wiped grease from the corner of his mouth. "Yours and Cutre's."

She reddened. "We haven't really discussed--"

His look said "Oh, come on."

"No, really, we haven't. Not that he hasn't wanted to--" She stirred the remnants of her salad. "You asked me earlier if I ever wondered about the long-term effects of the things that have happened to us."

"Scully, I was just--"

"I do wonder. I wonder how John and I would cope if we ended up like that family over there--" she pointed with her fork at a family whose only child could not hold its own head up. "Or like them--" She pointed to a family with a child in a walker. "Or like them--" She froze.

Mulder followed her gaze to a family whose little girl's hands--flippers, really--were attached at the shoulder. She had a beautiful face. A beautiful, familiar face. The face of Dr. Eugenie Cleveland. No wonder Sandlin had thought her an ally.

"How many people are in here, Mulder? A couple of hundred?"

He looked around "About. So?"

"So what are the odds of finding 3--no, 4,5,6-- families with children with genetic defects in a crowd of 200?"

Mulder surveyed the sea of children. "Pretty slim, I'd say."

"So would I." She continued looking over the crowd. "I wonder what percentage of them served in the Gulf."

"I don't know. But I know someone who does--" He bounded out the door. "Dr. Cleveland?" he shouted. "Dr. Cleveland?"

The doctor hurriedly put her family in her car and roared off.

"Follow her, Scully!"

"Why? Where will she go? If she doesn't show up for work, Sandlin will send the SPs after her."

Mulder conceded to her logic. "So, what's next?"

"Next, we call Quantico."

Scully's devotion to science was both boon and bane to Mulder. Her insistence upon scientific explanations gave their work more legitimacy. But it was frustrating when she chose to follow the scientific trail over more anecdotal leads. Like now.

"No, I overnighted them to you yesterday. The package number is T123456. Yes, I'll wait."

"Bureaucracy at work?" Mulder asked.

"They can't find the samples. They don't show they've received them yet."

"Surprise, surprise." He fiddled with the car's air vents while they waited.

"Yes, I'm here." Her voice rose. "No record? What do you mean no record? I sent them from the base yesterday." Her voice fell. "No, no. I'll send another set."

"Let me guess. The courier company has no record you sent the samples."

"Surprise, surprise," she said as he started back to the base.

They were waiting in line at the base's north gate when Scully pointed out the smoke. "Where's the fire?" he asked the guard.

"Mortuary, sir," the guard replied as he returned the pass to Mulder.

"Hurry," Mulder muttered under his breath as the guard slowly raised the gate and he roared through. They followed the smoke plume to the south side of the lake.

"The roof's gone," Scully said sadly. The cinder block building was tumbling in on itself.

Mulder jumped out of the car and showed his ID to the highest-ranking SP. "We need to get inside."

"Sorry, sir. It'll be hours before it's cool enough to go inside."

Scully looked up at the captain. "You don't understand. We have 2 bodies stored inside that are essential to a Federal investigation."

The SP hesitated for a moment, then keyed his radio. "This is Rabb. I need to know the condition of the bodies in crypts--"

"13." Scully answered.

"13," the captain relayed.

Mulder fidgeted as they waited. Finally a soot-covered fireman approached the SP. "You wanted to know about the bodies in crypt 13?"

"They did," he pointed toward Scully and Mulder.

"The fire started in the refrigeration unit before spreading to the rest of the building. All of the bodies inside the crypts are toast."

Mulder kicked a pile of pine needles and returned to the car. "They're gonna win, Scully. They're gonna sweep it under a pile of whitewash and denial--"

"Maybe not, Mulder."

He raised his eyebrows quizzically.

"I sent a duplicate set of specimens to a friend of mine who teaches pathology at Duke."

His face brightened into a smile. "Marry me, Scully."

"You'll have to wait in line," she grinned as she dialed her cell phone. "Dr. David Sanders. David? Dana Scully. Have you had time to work up the samples I sent you?" She cut her eyes toward Mulder. "Of course we can come up there. Later this afternoon?" She looked at Mulder and he nodded. "Great. We'll see you then. Thanks, David."

"Let me guess: he doesn't want to talk about it over the phone."

Scully nodded. "Durham's about 3 hours away. Do you want me to drive?"

"No, thanks. I don't think I can ride that long with my knees up underneath my chin."

Mulder welcomed the walk through the university quadrangle after the drive from Camp Lejeune. "So, where do you know David Sanders from?"

"We were classmates at Berkeley." She ran forward as a gurney was wheeled from a room up the hall. "David?"

"He can't hear you, M'am." The paramedic continued pushing the gurney.

"What happened?"

"You'll have to talk to the officer."

Mulder had already flashed his ID. "You're saying Dr. Sanders was almost electrocuted? How?"

"Well, it looks like it happened when he touched this thingamajig--"

"Centrifuge--" Scully corrected.

"Okay, centrifuge. See, the cord on it is frayed." He touched the frayed section with a wooden pencil. "Anyway, when he touched it, it electrocuted him. Everything in this room is on the same 60-amp fuse and the resulting short fried everything on the circuit." He looked them both over. "What's your interest in the case?"

"We were consulting with Dr. Sanders in the course of an investigation. Agent Scully had sent him some specimens for analysis."

"Scully? Would this be the envelope you sent the samples in?" The officer held up a courier service envelope.

"Yes," Scully confirmed sadly. "But where are the samples?"

"It looks like that's what he was working on when the accident happened."

"And the specimens?" Mulder asked.

Scully checked the different pieces of equipment. "Destroyed."

A loud voice boomed in the hall. "But I was supposed to meet him here. I talked to him just an hour ago and he told me to meet him."

The officer stepped to the door. "May I help you, sir?"

"Yes, I'm Dr. Andrew Byrd. I was supposed to meet David, Dr. Sanders. What's happened to him?"

"There's been an accident, Dr. Byrd. Dr. Sanders is on his way to the hospital."

"Is he OK?"

"It took the paramedics a long time to revive him, sir. Things don't look too good for him." The officer wrote down his name. "Are you on faculty here, sir?"

"Yes, I teach endocrinology at the medical school. David had asked me to consult on basal cell samples he'd been sent by an FBI agent he knew."

"That would be me, Dr. Byrd. I'm Dana Scully. Did David tell you anything about the samples?"

"No. He just said I might be interested in them for my research project."

"What's your research project?" Mulder asked.

"Gulf War illnesses. He said the samples were from a veteran and that I would find them very interesting. Where are they?"

"Destroyed, Dr. Byrd," Mulder replied.

"In the same accident that nearly killed Dr. Sanders," Scully added.

"What kind of accident?" asked the professor.

"He was electrocuted when he touched this centrifuge. As you can see, the cord is frayed," Mulder pointed.

The academic traced the cord from the centrifuge to the fray then to the wall outlet. "Impossible," he announced. "The university installed ground-fault-protected outlets in all the labs two years ago," he explained.

Scully peered at the outlet and Mulder peered over Scully. "Then the outlet is either defective . . ."

"Or," Mulder continued. "Officer, have you dusted this outlet for prints?"

"Why?" he asked angrily. He looked closely at the outlet and urgently poofed black powder on the outlet plate. "Looks like 3 or 4 partials and 1 complete print." He transferred each to a labeled card. "So, does anyone want to know the answer to the $64,000 question?" he asked rhetorically, for he had already started unscrewing the plate screw. Two more screws came out quickly and the outlets fell out of the outlet box. He carefully poofed black dust on this, too, and removed 3 more partial prints. "Now what makes this work is this breaker-like assembly. It opens the circuit when the amperage exceeds a particular amount. In this case, 65 amps."

"Unless the breaker is defective," Mulder said.

"Or has been circumvented," said the officer, pointing out a wire that bypassed the breaker entirely.

"Poor David," lamented the professor.

The shadows of the buildings surrounding the quadrangle had grown longer as the sun waned. The gathering gloom mirrored the growing pall of Scully's spirit.

"For the past 8 years I've been a researcher in a joint Department of Defense-National Institutes of Health study to isolate and identify the group of ailments known collectively as Gulf War Syndrome."

"What have you found?" Scully asked.

"Well," he hemmed and hawed. "We've been able to isolate a limited number of autoimmune disorders among soldiers who took both the neuroantitoxin and the inoculation for the sandfly."

"That's it?" Mulder stammered. "That's all you have to show for 8 years' work?"

The researcher hung his head.

"What about the birth defects?" Scully insisted. "There have been any number of articles in news journals."

"Come on, Agent Scully. News outlets do not have to meet the same scientific standard of verification as researchers," he pleaded.

"Of course not, Dr. Byrd. But you would be derelict if you dismissed a body of anecdotal information without investigation."

"We didn't dismiss it. Look, I personally would like nothing better than to find the cause of the agony these families suffer. But the numbers just aren't there."

Mulder snorted. "Do you realize, Dr. Byrd, that you are one of the few people in America who doesn't believe that these birth defects are a direct result of Gulf War Syndrome?"

"Oh, I believe it, Agent Mulder." A tear rolled down the researcher's cheek. "I just can't prove it."

The air conditioner on their rental car gave out about halfway back to Camp Lejeune so even though daylight was waning they were soaked by the time they returned to their cottage. Mulder had already showered and put on his lounging clothes by the time Scully came in wearing lounge wear, too, and scrunching her hair with a towel.

"It's amazing how refreshing a little thing like a shower can be . . ." he observed over the rim of his glasses and a file folder.

"For you and for those around you," she joked. "So what's next?"

"Beats me. Start at the beginning?" He let the folder flop onto his belly. His head rested on two pillows which were propped against the headboard. His bare feet stretched nearly to the foot of the bed. She sat next to his feet, but he caught the scent of soap.

"I can see why John loves you," he said before he censored himself. His face flushed. "You 'clean up' good," he floundered in a phony Southern accent.

She smiled and the freckles on her freshly-scrubbed face glittered like gold dust on creamy velvet. "I wish I could say the same for you," she scratched his kneecap through the hole in his sweat pants.

His heart flip-flopped. "So, how is Cutre?" he parried. "Catch the bad guy yet?"

"No," Scully answered. Unconsciously, she worried with the hole in Mulder's sweat pants. She drew her knees up under her chin. "Mulder, why did you introduce us?"

"Are you sorry I did?" he replied, almost hopefully.

She thought a moment. "No, I just wondered what led you to do it."

Here's your chance; tell her the truth, Mulder. Let her decide. Don't be such a jerk. "Well, you are the last two people on earth who aren't ready to make standing reservations for me at the loony bin," he smiled wanly. "How could I pass up the opportunity to save on postage on Christmas cards?"

Dissatisfied with his flippant reply, she examined his face. He hoped she would see nothing and prayed she would see everything. "What about you?" she asked resignedly. "Who can we introduce you to?"

He ran his fingers through his hair. "Nobody." His voice wavered.

She covered his hand with hers. "Why not?" she asked gently.

"Because," he swallowed and looked away. "Because any woman I love enough to make my wife I love too much to make Spooky's wife." She stroked the back of his hand. He returned her hand to her lap and met her tender gaze. "I could never do that to the woman I love." How he wanted her all of her.

For once, the words would not come to her. She gently brushed his cheek and knee-walked off the bed. "Good night, Mulder," she said from the closing door.

He turned off the table lamp and listened to his pounding heart. Finally he rolled over and pulled the sheet over himself. A floor tile popped behind him. "Scully?" he called and the darkness tasted sickly sweet before nothingness.

He was sitting up, in a chair, in fact. His head felt thick and numb and his hands were tied behind his back. When his eyes were able to focus enough he saw Scully's head leaned against his arm before he felt it. "Scully?" She was limp and didn't even moan. The pitch of his voice raised almost an octave. "Scully?"

"Relax, Mulder," a familiar voice comforted.

As blurred as his vision was Mulder recognized the face of Walter Skinner between Scully and Sandlin. "Wha ?" he began, thickly.

"It's just the knockout spray. She should start coming

around in a little while."

Skinner was coming into focus. He, and Sandlin too, was in a chair with his hands tied behind him. "Where are we?" Mulder asked. Some odor burned his nostrils.

"Helo hangar," Sandlin replied weakly but he didn't seem at all groggy. "It didn't have to be this way, Eugenie," he chastised.

Scully moaned softly and Dr. Cleveland materialized in front of her. "She's okay," she reassured Mulder. "Maybe not, Allen. But there's too much at stake to take any chances."

"What kind of chances?" Skinner growled.

"Chances," Sergeant-Major Cahill growled as he advanced. "Chances that your poking around will foobar the whole deal." He looked them over. "I think you can remove the binders, Sergeant Edwards."

His hands finally freed, Mulder supported Scully as she gradually became more alert.

Sandlin tried to stand but swayed so badly that Skinner helped him ease back into his chair. "What kind of deal, Cahill?" he nearly whispered.

"The only kind they were offering," Eugenie Cleveland answered. "Lifetime medical care for certain Gulf War veterans and their families."

"Certain Gulf War veterans?" Skinner said sharply.

"Affected Gulf War veterans," Cahill clarified.

Scully sat up. "Affected by what?" she asked.

Cahill hesitated until Cleveland nodded. "In the early days of the Gulf War the Air Force pounded locations along the Iraqi border. The second Recon battalion was assigned to a suspected supply bunker complex near an oasis called Q'Un. We were secure by noon of the second day. We didn't find any materiel but we did find a truckload of old boxes that were marked "Smallpox Vaccine" in Russian."

"I thought smallpox had been eradicated." Skinner said.

"It has," Scully answered.

Sandlin wriggled. "Which begs the question . . ."

"What was in the boxes?" Mulder finished.

Cahill snorted derisively. "We called the bright boys in Intelligence who, as usual, didn't display any."

"What did they do?"

"The best those bright boys could come up with was to take a sample, then seal the bunker with a couple of feet of concrete until they could figure out what we'd found." Cahill explained.

"What was wrong with that?" Mulder asked.

"What was wrong with that," Cahill answered, "was that they missed a breach in the bunker. Didn't find it for 4 more days. By that time, everyone within a 100 mile radius of that TAO had been exposed."

"Exposed to what?" Skinner asked.

"Oh, just a little chem warfare agent Saddam had picked up on the Russian black market." Cahill continued. "It was designed during the early part of the Cold War to act as an . . .

"-- immunotoxin." Cleveland completed the sentence. "The agent itself was not lethal, but it altered the immune system so that even the mildest opportunistic infection could prove fatal."

"The Russians claim to have destroyed it before it turned up." Cahill explained. "Saddam's been buying on the black market for years. There's no telling what he has buried in bunkers all over the desert."

"What do you want from us, Cahill?"

"Simply put, your cooperation." Cahill replied. "Your silence."

"Why would we do that?" Sandlin sneered.

"We were hoping that you would see benefit of the, uh, arrangement." Eugenie Cleveland waved her arm behind her.

Mulder had not noticed it before, but they were surrounded by men, women and children special children with special needs. And in their eyes was fear. "What kind of deal?" he asked.

"Medical treatment, for life, for the personnel and their families." Cleveland replied.

"That's a real bargain, Eugenie," Sandlin snorted. "They owe you that."

"Just like they owed you, Allen?" she shot back. "Ten years ago you would have been just another veteran with Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma who would spend years trying to convince the DoD of the connection between your cancer and your exposure to Agent Orange."

"These people couldn't afford to wait 20 years for a public apology, Sandlin." Cahill bristled.

Mulder looked at Scully and tilted his head toward the 3 veterans. What's Skinner's stake in this? he asked himself.

"Neither could we, Cahill." Skinner stood stiffly. "A lot of good people died waiting for help that was too late in coming."

"And you think it's happening again, do you?"

Skinner bulled his neck. "I'm here to make sure it doesn't."

"We're here." Sandlin joined.

Mulder cast a sidelong glance at Scully who sighed confusion. Straight-arrow Skinner, who probably never fudged even a penny on an expense report, had sent them here. On a personal crusade. On the government's nickel.

"They've promised to take care of us," Cleveland pleaded.

"In exchange for what?" Sandlin derided.

"Our silence," she finally admitted.

"Any if we choose not to cooperate?" Skinner remained defiant.

"Damned if you aren't still a mule-headed Texan." Cahill exploded. "This isn't about what happened to us; it's about what can be done for them!"

"I would hope we could," Cleveland continued cautiously, "convince you."

Scully was now fully awake. "Like you convinced David Sanders?"

Both Cahill and Cleveland held their hands palms-up. "Who's he?"

"He's a Duke University pathologist who was seriously injured in his lab this afternoon." Mulder spat.

"While he was working up samples from Captain Chavez and his son." Scully finished. "The samples were destroyed and Dr. Sanders isn't much better."

"You can't think we . . ." Cahill sputtered.

"If it wasn't you then who was it?" Sandlin asked.

Eugenie Cleveland's eyes grew round. "Oh, my God," she breathed, realizing that the source of their good fortune was definitely south of the Divine.

Skinner stormed out the hangar door. For once, Mulder and Scully followed, silently listening.

"Skinner," Cahill called. "Texas!"

Skinner stopped. So, they do know each other, Mulder surmised.

"You've been out of uniform for a lot of years, Texas. What makes this so important to you?"

Skinner glared at the Sergeant-Major. Then he looked uneasily at his agents before beginning. "For years my wife and I tried to have children. And then, after so much time, came a son. But he was, um," Skinner drew a ragged breath as Sandlin steadied his friend. "I stood by my son's coffin and realized that my, my seed was forever spoiled and the very government I had served denied it. They stood straight-faced and told us that the defoliants were not the cause even as they were hiding the reports that proved their culpability. At that moment I knew that there was nothing to be done for me and my family. But I resolved that it would not happen again. And I will do everything in my power to make certain that these soldiers are not denied the respect and assistance they and their families deserve." He closed his eyes. "But it's happening all over again."

"Maybe so," Cahill acknowledged. "But maybe not."

"Right." Skinner picked up a rock and tossed it high into the air before loping off into the muggy moonlight. *

Near every Marine installation is a drinking establishment that uses some variation of the Globe and Anchor in the decor. Most of them were traps for the "greenies" who liked to prove they were Marines by drinking too much and talking loudly about their valor when they got to fight. And then there were the places the real Marines went. Places where the coffee was as good as the whiskey and the bar closed before the kitchen. Places where Marines went to forget the war but remember the men who fought the war. Places like Gunny's. A "yuppie" would have called it a dive, but many a Marine had, for some period in their career, called it a home away from home. "Gunny" Peterson had served in the Pacific in WWII, in Korea, and as an "advisor" to Montagnard villagers in Vietnam. For those who kept score, he liked to say he was 1-1-1. We'd won in the Pacific, fought to a draw in Korea, and lost before we even started in Vietnam. He'd developed a healthy respect for the fighting man and an unhealthy loathing for the old men who sent them to fight.

He set up the wake in the back room. There was a bottle of whiskey for every 4 shot glasses and a shot and a mug for every chair. Whiskey--beer back--was the order of the day. Uniforms were not. But, despite the lack of pomp, there was an order to the thing. Mulder, Scully, and Ellen Sandlin arrived with the last of the enlisted men and were seated, not in the back room, but in a raised booth that separated the back room from the rest of the bar. The men had seated themselves leaving one table empty. They milled about the room, quaffing beer, but leaving the whiskey bottles sealed. Then a Lance Corporal noticed Sergeant-Major Cahill, Sandlin, and Skinner at the door. "Attention to honors!" Chairs scraped the floor as each man set down his beer and sprung to his feet facing the trio. Mulder and Scully shot confused looks at the formality then leapt to their feet when they noticed they were the only two people in the entire bar not standing. Surprised and humbled by the honor Cahill, Sandlin, and Skinner made their way to the empty table. When they had found their places at the table, the Lance Corporal called, "Attention to orders!" and the men sat down.

"Translation, please?" Mulder asked.

The Colonel's wife explained. "Seasoned Marines aren't impressed by much, but they do take the Medal of Honor seriously."

Scully leaned forward. "Medal of Honor? Who?"

"Four--if you count Davey."

Someone fed the jukebox and they broke the seals on the whiskey. Ellen Sandlin grimaced when Cahill passed the fifth to Sandlin, who poured and passed the bottle on to Skinner who also poured.

And so they drank, each honoring Chavez by raising a memory and a toast until each of the enlisted men who wished had spoken. All eyes turned to Cahill. Cahill was a man of few words so the fact that he spoke at all indicated his high regard for Chavez. "I first laid eyes on Davey Chavez in 1970. My rifle company had stumbled on a tunnel complex just outside Pleiku. Our tunnel rat--a red-haired kid from Iowa City--still hadn't come up after 4 hours. So we called for the King Rat--Chavez. An hour later we hear this slick coming in hot. It was the dry season and the rotor wash created a hell of a cloud. The door gunner tossed a rope out the door and here comes this hot shot rappelling through the trees with his M16 slung on his back. He crawled down in that hole with nothin' but his sidearm and a k-bar. Six hours later we were haulin' that kid out of that god-forsaken hole. I asked Chavez why he'd spent so much time. 'I couldn't just leave him there, Sarge,' he said. 'We take care of our own.' Then he grinned at me and headed for his dust-off. I am honored to have called him a brother Marine." The Sergeant-Major tossed back the shot and turned the glass upside-down on the table before he sat down.

Sandlin stood and opened his mouth to speak, but no words would come. Skinner stood and spoke, "Sandlin, Chavez, and I met as green recruits at Parris Island in 1967. He once told me he had 3 goals in his life. The first was to be a good husband and father. I've never known anyone more devoted to his family. The second goal was to be a good friend. Chavez stood by us through illness, death, and divorce. His third goal was to be a good Marine. And he was." Skinner blinked rapidly, praying the tears wouldn't come yet. "I can think of only 2 more words to say about David Chavez--" He raised the glass, but his voice was quiet, full of sorrow and pride, "Semper Fi!"

The chairs scraped the floor as each stood. "Koo rah!" came the benediction.

The water from the gutter splashed the underside of the car as Mulder stopped at the curb in front of Scully's apartment. A face--John Cutre's face flashed in the window. By the time Mulder dragged Scully's bag from the trunk of the car, Cutre had joined them on the curb.

"So, how was your flight?" His bear-like embrace completely engulfed Scully.

"Fine," she replied when she could breath again. "Did you wrap up your case?"

Cutre reached for her bag with one hand and Scully with the other. "Yeah, the locals made an arrest late last night. Prelim on the serology says he's our guy."

"That's great," Mulder congratulated.

"So, how about your case? You wrap things up?" Cutre asked with genuine interest.

Mulder shrugged. "Nothing to wrap up. The baby died of natural causes and the father committed suicide. No case."

"Sad," Cutre consoled. He inclined his head upstairs at Scully. "You ready?"

"Yes," she said wearily, leading Cutre to the steps. "Good night, Mulder."

"Hey, Mulder," Cutre called back. "Thanks for watching over my lady."

"G'night," Mulder ignored the gentle verbal jab. He leaned back in the car seat, watching the shadows pass in front of Scully's window. The window went black. Mulder started the car and looked up at the window again. Thanks for watching over my lady, he sighed. He ached to taste her sweetness but on his lips he found the bitterness of his own tears.

The End

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