The Prelude Series - The Collector's Edition by Mad Martha

Prelude to an X
Prelude II: Toomed
Prelude III: Flying Saucers
Prelude IV: Here's the Season ....
Prelude V: Dark Forest
Prelude VI: Smokescreens

Title: Prelude to an X
Author: Mad Martha
Spoilers: The Pilot/Squeeze/Tooms/Fallen Angel/Deep Throat/Jersey Devil/Lazarus/Beyond The Sea/Duane Barry/Darkness Falls
Overall Rating: R
Content Warning: Alternate Universe/MSR
Classification: S,X,R
Summary: Mulder's a freelance journalist and Scully's just been assigned an "X" file to work on, when they meet.

Disclaimer: "The X Files" and all the characters etc. associated with it are the property of 20th Century Fox and 1013
Productions. I am not making any profit from this story, and no infringement is intended.

Acknowledgements: I could not have written the Prelude Series without the enormous help, encouragement and assistance of Gerry Hill, who patiently proof-read and commented on them throughout the writing and editing process. Suggestions and encouragement were also given by Danielle Culverson; and Part 4 in particular owes its accuracy to Cheryl, who advised me on all things Jewish. Many thanks to these three ladies.

Special Agent Dana Scully unfastened her seat belt, and took a deep breath, trying to steady her nerves. She *hated* flying, but once she'd been promoted to Field Agent status, it had become an almost daily necessity. She would have to get used to it.

She opened her briefcase with fingers that shook just the tiniest bit, and pulled out the case file. Nerves were no excuse for wasting valuable investigation time, and Assistant Director Skinner had barely given her time to snatch her overnight bag before throwing her onto the plane to Oregon. She needed to catch up on the case she would be investigating. She flipped open the file and began to sort through the assembled papers. Three kids at Bellefleur High School had died in mysterious circumstances after a graduation party in the local woods some four years ago. The FBI had been called in, but after several weeks of fruitless effort, had returned to Washington claiming a lack of evidence. Two years later, two more kids from the same year group had died under similar circumstances, and once again the FBI investigated, only for the agents concerned to be recalled. Now a sixth kid had died, and Scully was taking on the case.

*Third time's the charm,* she thought dryly, well aware that she was being dispatched in the main because she was new to the Violent Crimes Section. Pacify the locals with an FBI presence, and hope she either solves the case or the whole thing dies down again. She wondered how it would look on her record if she failed. Or maybe she, like the last set of agents, would be recalled before any conclusions could be drawn.

She examined the autopsy reports and was interested to note that while the first five victims had no apparent cause of death, the latest had thrown up a few anomalies. Scully checked the names of the medical examiners and discovered that the latest victim had been autopsied by a different pathologist.

Well, that was a good starting point. Maybe something had been missed in the previous exams; in which case, it was fortunate that she'd had the foresight to request exhumation orders on two of the previous bodies. In addition, two more kids from the same year were currently residing in the psychiatric ward of Bellefleur's hospital; one, a girl, was periodically released, only to be re-admitted with severe mental disturbance, while the other, a boy, had been in a persistent vegetative state since the night of the graduation party. Scully made a note to check on them too, and see if it was possible to talk to the girl; if her mental condition went back to the party too, she might be able to shed some sort of light on events.

Deep in her thoughts, Scully was unaware of the man in the next row, two seats back, who was watching her with shrewd-eyed interest.

*This investigation,* Scully thought, *is going to be even less of a party than I originally thought.*

Arriving in Bellefleur, she got herself a motel room and a rental car and headed straight to the local coroner's office to see what was happening about the exhumations - only to discover that one had been cancelled, thanks to the family getting a court order. The second, that of a boy called Ray Soames, was still okay to go ahead, although the Coroner himself didn't seem terribly happy about it. They drove out to the cemetery, only to be met by an angry delegation of townspeople, headed by the County Medical Examiner who was indignant at the suggestion that he might have been remiss when conducting the previous autopsies.

Scully, watching the digger slowly emptying out the grave, closed her eyes briefly. After a short and rather snappy exchange between herself and Dr. Nemman, he had been persuaded to leave by his young daughter - who, Scully had been interested to note, appeared to be one of the same year group as the victims - and after that, the rest of the crowd had been persuaded to break up by the sheriff. But there was no mistaking the animosity towards the agent that was hanging over the entire town.

Almost as if they didn't *want* to know what had happened to their kids.

Scully flipped open her file again, trying to pass the time, and ran over one part of the saga which was particularly curious in light of the townspeople's behavior. After the first three deaths, one of the year-group, a boy called Danny Doty, had handed himself in to the police and confessed to the killings. He was found to be severely psychotic and immediately locked up in the psychiatric wing of the state prison, and the case was apparently closed despite the fact that he had been unable to explain how his supposed victims had died. And for some reason, no one had questioned this, even when two more kids had died while he was locked away. This latest murder - of a girl named Karen Swenson - underlined the peculiar attitude of the townspeople, given that Danny Doty had hung himself in his cell six months ago.

Scully was abruptly dragged out of her reverie by a sharp creaking and tearing sound. The workmen had just begun to lift the coffin out of the grave with a hoist, but one of the straps holding it was fraying, and as Scully watched, it was strained too far ... and snapped.

The coffin, violently released from its bonds, burst loose and crashed down the bank for several yards before it was brought up sharply against the headstone of another grave. Scully, the sheriff and the coroner all rushed after it. Already tilting at an odd angle, the shock of the final blow burst open the coffin's lid and exposed its contents to the three onlookers who were just slithering to a halt beside it.

The smell from the corpse was appalling, but that was not what brought three simultaneous gasps from Scully and the others.

Scully hoped to God that this was just someone's idea of a sick joke, because if what was in that coffin was the late Ray Soames, then something utterly beyond her experience had happened to him either just before or after death. The body was wizened and shriveled, the skull abnormally large and shaped, the feet and hands huge and malformed. Ray Soames's records stated that he had been well over six feet tall and athletic, the picture of health just before his graduation.

"Sweet Jesus!" the coroner muttered, covering his nose with his sleeve and trying not to turn away in disgust.

Scully pulled herself together quickly and indicated to the shocked sheriff that he should help her try and replace the lid of the coffin. It was just starting to rain. "Mr. Truit," she said firmly to the coroner, "I want this sealed up - I don't want anyone touching the coffin or its contents until I've performed the autopsy on it."

The coroner was together enough to realize the significance of this statement. "An autopsy - you? But Dr. Nemman - "

"This is an FBI matter now," Scully cut him off. "I'm a qualified pathologist, and I'll be performing any examinations necessary to this case."

Her sharp statement was appreciated by only one person; a tall, lanky, dark-haired man with sharp eyes who was watching and photographing the entire affair from behind some trees a short distance away.

The same man who had watched Agent Scully on the plane to Oregon.

Up close, the corpse was even more disturbing than during the brief encounter in the cemetery, and Scully only got herself through the autopsy by virtue of sheer grit and professionalism. Examining it, she was more than ever convinced that someone had switched the bodies - for what purpose, she couldn't imagine - but while her mouth was saying calm, reasoned, scientific things into the recorder, her brain was in a whirl.

"Subject is one hundred and fifty-six centimeters long, and weighs fifty-two pounds. It is in an advanced state of decomposition, consistent with the length of time it has been interred; and it has large ocular cavities and an oblate cranium, which indicate that the corpse is almost certainly not human. My guess is that it's the corpse of an ape of some kind, possibly an orangutan."

Scully switched off the recorder and surveyed the body uneasily, before glancing up at a set of x-rays she had taken before starting the post-mortem. Whatever it was, she still needed to open the body up, unpleasant though that necessity was, for the x-ray had revealed two unidentified objects buried in the tissues - one embedded in the nasal cavity, and one, slightly smaller, at the base of the neck. The one in the nose at least looked too big to be buckshot, and was worth investigating.

She said as much into the recorder, and set about the grisly task.

Several hours later, and very much tireder, Scully had completed her preliminary examination and prepared the body for shipping back to the FBI laboratories for further tests. The locals being singularly reluctant to help her, she had done all the prepping, examination and clean-up herself, and was now heading back to her motel, x-rays, recorded observations and other bits and pieces stashed in her briefcase for examination later. Tomorrow, the tiresome round of questioning would have to begin, and Scully was under no illusions about how difficult it was going to prove to be.

Right now, she didn't care. She wanted a bath and something to eat - always supposing she could swallow anything after *that* autopsy - and some sleep, if her imagination would let her. But the day had one further trial in store for her.

Halfway to the motel, as she was driving through down a road surrounded by thick woodland, the car abruptly gave up the ghost and died on her.

Scully wanted to weep. *Goddamn rental cars!* Instead, she took a deep breath and twisted the key in the ignition. The engine turned over wheezily a couple of times, coughed, spluttered, and gave up again.

Muttering a few choice phrases learned from her Naval Captain father, Scully secured the handbrake, pulled the hood-release, and climbed out. She didn't know much about the innermost workings of automobiles, but taking a peek was better than sitting around waiting for inspiration. There was no ominous steam or smoke escaping, at least, but that reduced her ideas of what was wrong to nil.

Scully sighed and went back to get her cell-phone out of her bag, but as she was doing so, another sleek silver-grey Taurus passed her and pulled up a few yards ahead. A tall, rather lanky dark-haired man, dressed in weathered jeans and a dark turtleneck sweater, got out and smiled at her.

"Broken down?" he asked, surveying the insides of the engine. His voice was pleasant, sort of silk-on-sandpaper.

"I don't know. It just died on me," Scully admitted. "Do you know anything about Tauruses?"

"Not much. Any strange noises before it gave up?"

"No, none - it just slid to a halt."

He nodded thoughtfully, leaning on the edge of the hood, then glanced up at her, an odd smile on his face. "You're the FBI agent, aren't you? Here to investigate Karen Swenson's death?"

Scully eyed him warily. "Yes - how did you know?"

He shrugged. "Pretty obvious. Guess this isn't a good end to the day for you."

"That's an understatement," she sighed, thinking of the autopsy.

Warm hazel eyes surveyed her thoughtfully, before turning back to the engine. "Well, the only thing I can think of is that the battery's gone. One sure-fire way to find out - " He walked around the driver's seat, leaned in and switched on the radio.

The high-pitched, varying whistle that suddenly blasted out made them both jump and wince, and Scully grimaced. "Looks like it's not the battery either," she commented, but the man wasn't listening to her.

He was staring at the radio with a sudden look of fierce, concentrated thought. Abruptly, he abandoned her car and jogged back to his own. To Scully's bewilderment, he switched his own radio on, and she could hear the same nerve-crawling, high- pitched squeal coming from it. He went to stand between the two cars, staring around, lost in thought.

"What are you looking for?" Scully asked finally.

The sound of her voice jerked him back to reality with a start. He stared at her for a few seconds, then gave her an oddly sweet smile. "Probably nothing," he admitted, "but all the same - " He went back to his car, and rummaged through the trunk until he came out with a large can of spray-paint.

To Scully's increasing perplexity, he found a spot precisely between the two parked vehicles and sprayed the tarmac with a large orange X. He looked up, caught sight of her open-mouthed expression and grinned almost mischievously. "Well, you never know," he explained.

"Never know *what*?" she demanded.

"If I knew, I'd tell you," he assured her.

*Oh, great!* she thought wearily. *He's some kind of nut after all. And he seemed like such a nice guy - * Proof, if she had ever needed it, that you should never judge people by appearances.

She watched him stash his can of paint back in the trunk of the car, and viewed his return with some trepidation. He seemed to read her expression, because a look of mingled resignation and sadness crossed his otherwise smooth features.

"I'm not crazy," he told her, but his tone said he didn't expect to be believed. Scully kept a neutral expression, and he sighed. "Look, can I give you a lift back to your motel? I promise you I'm not going to turn into a rapist or mad axe-man on the way."

Scully closed her eyes. She was very tired, and wanted to put today behind her; tomorrow was going to be bad enough as it was. "I don't even know who you are," she said finally - and hoped her voice didn't sound as feeble to him as it did in her own ears.

He looked more than a little relieved, and offered his hand. "Fox Mulder," he said. "I'm a journalist - well, part-time. I teach as well."

Scully took his hand after a moment. It was warm and the grip reassuringly firm, like her father's. "Dana Scully," she replied.

He smiled tentatively. "Grab your stuff, Agent Scully."

The first few minutes of the journey were stiff and uncomfortable. Finally, Scully decided she couldn't stand it any longer, and broke the silence.

"So ... what paper do you work for?"

"Huh?" He shot her a startled look.

"You said you were a journalist."

"Oh yeah. No, I'm freelance. I work for a couple of specialist magazines, generally, but mostly I teach."

"Oh. Here in Oregon?"

He half-smiled. "No, Georgetown University, actually. I teach psychology and - related subjects."

Scully blinked. *Georgetown?* "So what brings you out here?"

"The same thing as you - Karen Swenson and the other high- school kids." He flashed her a quick grin. "My turn, Agent Scully. Can I buy you dinner?"

Scully stiffened slightly. Tired she might be; stupid she was not. "Thanks, but no. I've got a lot of work to be getting on with."

He seemed to accept the rebuff philosophically, pulling into the motel car park. "As you wish. The offer'll still be open if you change your mind."

Scully accorded this a perfunctory smile, supposing that as a journalist he had to try and pump her for information. She grabbed her stuff and got out of the car. "Thanks for the lift, Mr. Mulder."

"Mulder," he corrected her. She raised a brow, and he gave her an embarrassed smile and shrug. "Just - Mulder. Really."

She accepted this with a bemused look and set off toward her room, trying not to think about the orange X in the road.

"Don't work too hard," he called after her.

After a leisurely bath and quick snack, Scully went back to her x-rays and recording of the autopsy; by 1.00AM she had begun the first draft of her report, and was beginning - finally - to sag from exhaustion.

The last couple of sentences on the screen of her laptop computer were mocking her, though.

".... X-rays confirm that the corpse is that of a mammal, but they do not explain the presence of two small implants found in the nasal cavity and at the base of the neck. Both are grey and metallic; the one in the nasal cavity is approximately one centimeter long, the other approximately two millimeters long. They are as yet unidentified ...."

She picked up a small glass vial containing the two pieces of metal and stared at them thoughtfully. The one she'd found in the nose was particularly odd, about the size of a small plug fuse with rounded ends. The other one could easily be mistaken for buckshot, but *this* one was smooth and polished and looked manufactured. As though it had been put there for a purpose.

Which was ridiculous.

Abruptly, Scully decided she'd had enough and began to tidy up the scattered x-rays, photos and assorted sheets of paper around her. A good night's sleep was what she needed; she was tired and her mind was starting to conjure up fantasies.

But at the last minute, she paused in the act of shutting down her laptop. There was one last thing she could clear up tonight .... She found the telephone socket, jacked in her modem and called up her e-mail program, sending a quick message to a colleague at the Bureau.

Just for her peace of mind, she could find out just who Fox Mulder was.

The morning saw Scully driving out to the hospital in the hopes of seeing Billy Miles and Peggy O'Dell, the two kids receiving psychiatric care. She took her time about it, telling herself that it was important to become familiar with the town's layout, but the truth was rather more basic; Scully hated mental illness.

She wasn't afraid of it; nor did she have anything but the utmost compassion for its sufferers. But the helplessness, and the loss of both control and dignity suffered by the mentally ill was something she found difficult to tackle. It was similar to at least some of the reasons for which she had specialized in pathology, much to her family's horror; totally aside from the fascination of persuading the dead to give up their secrets, Scully had discovered early on in her medical training that while healing the sick was a rewarding career, being *unable* to heal them was too traumatic. She hated to see suffering she was unable to alleviate - hence her distress at mental illness.

But the Bureau didn't pay her to be sentimental. Six of these two kids' year mates had died in suspicious circumstances, and she was here to find out what had happened. They might be able to help her.

Not that Billy Miles would be saying much, but his condition alone might be a pointer, and there was still Peggy O'Dell.

Fox Mulder stayed in his car, parked carefully out of sight a short way away from the hospital. He watched Agent Scully park and walk up the to entrance with interest, but not much surprise. He had seen all this before.

He had been intrigued when he'd heard that the FBI was re- opening the case, intrigued enough to poke his nose in again, for he had thought it had been permanently buried after the last investigation. But when he'd followed the agent in question aboard the plane to Oregon, he'd begun to feel angry.

Oh, not at her! At the Bureau, for saddling a young, lone, obviously inexperienced Field Agent with a case which had managed to defeat several seasoned hands in the past and which would bring her few kudos even if she managed to solve it successfully.

After observing her brisk, purposeful actions upon arrival in Bellefleur, and her skillful annihilation of both the County Medical Examiner and the Coroner, he revised his opinions significantly in her favor. She might be young, she might be inexperienced, but she was gutsy - and if that was what she could manage after a tiring flight from DC (which, if he wasn't much mistaken, she hadn't enjoyed in the slightest), then God help the locals when she *really* geared up into investigative mode.

And it got better still, for she had actually performed the autopsy on the late Ray Soames herself. If it *was* Ray Soames. Mulder paused, cracking a sunflower seed between his teeth pensively, and wished once more that he could have got a close look at the corpse. He'd got a pretty good view through the telephoto lens, but it was no substitute for a close-up.

It was enough, though. And she hadn't even flinched! He thought of one or two FBI agents he'd known in the past, men who'd talked like Mafia hit-men and passed out colder than the corpses every time they had to attend an autopsy, and grinned. She'd coolly ordered the Coroner to seal up the coffin, and practically rolled up her sleeves and got the scalpels out there and then.

He'd waited discreetly outside the police morgue until she'd finally reappeared, and was pleased he'd done so, for the breakdown had given him a prime opportunity to introduce himself. He'd wondered briefly if she'd recognize his name - it was a ticklish moment, considering his reputation - but there had been nothing but weariness and relief at the offer of a lift.

It wouldn't last long, he thought ruefully. If she was as smart as he thought she was, she'd have done a background check on him by now, and all the unfortunate details would be dredged up. Which was a shame because, totally aside from getting the story, he'd rather hoped she might accept his help on this case. She was going to need all the help she could get, if the investigation followed the pattern of the previous two.

He cracked another sunflower seed and watched her mounting the hospital steps thoughtfully.

She was a pretty woman, although like all female FBI agents she wore the almost-uniform of severely tailored suits that deliberately downplayed her femininity. She was short, barely 5' 2", with a pleasantly curved, rather delicate-looking figure. Her softly rounded face was dominated by a pair of penetrating blue eyes and a head of magnificent red hair which she wore shoulder-length in a severely practical style.

On the face of it, she was nothing particularly special, but there was something about her ....

Mulder caught himself up sharply. *Don't go down there,* he warned himself. He had travelled that path only once before in his life, but it had rebounded upon him with extraordinary vengeance, and he wasn't sure he wanted to risk making a mistake like that again.

*Help the nice lady agent out, then get back to your own life again,* he told himself sternly. *She thinks you're a nut anyway - or if she doesn't, she soon will, and small blame to her.*

He settled down to wait for her to come out of the hospital again. He doubted she would be long.

Scully hoped that if she ever, through some terrible mischance, ended up like Billy Miles, someone would have the kindness to shoot her and have done with it. Death had to be better than this.

If she had just stumbled in off the street and knew nothing about him, first glance would suggest that there was nothing wrong with Billy. He was propped up in bed, clean and neatly dressed, he was physically healthy and his eyes were open. There wasn't a drip, monitor or other piece of medical equipment in sight to suggest that there was anything wrong. But the most Billy Miles did in a day was blink. He was in a waking coma.

"Are there *no* prospects of him coming out of this?" Scully asked the man stood next to her, Dr. Glass.

He shook his head, apparently unaffected by the sight. That was something else Scully hoped would never happen to her. A certain detachment was necessary in all branches of medicine, but the level necessary in Glass's area, the ability to view even Billy Miles as just another number on his roster, wasn't something she was comfortable with.

"He hasn't responded to stimuli since the day he was brought in here, and it's unlikely he ever will," Glass told her. "A terrible shame - he had a promising career ahead of him. His family visit perhaps once a month now. His most constant companion, as you can see, is Peggy O'Dell - when she's with us."

Scully looked at the pale young woman in the wheelchair by Billy's bed dubiously. Peggy didn't show signs of being much more responsive than him at the moment. "And she was diagnosed with post-adolescent schizophrenia shortly after the incident in at the graduation party?"

Glass nodded.

"According to notes taken by previous agents who investigated the incident, she wasn't the only one," she observed.

"That's right," the doctor acknowledged. "I've treated several of the class for schizophrenia since, although of course I can't go into individual cases with you."

"On a general basis, though, what would you say caused it?" Scully persisted.

Glass looked her straight in the eye. "I honestly couldn't say, Agent Scully. If I was forced to make a guess - a terrible shock of some kind, perhaps. But you'll understand that that's a theory with no real basis. Whatever caused it - whatever happened at that party - my job is to sort out the messed up heads of the kids. The investigation is yours."

Scully inclined her head in acknowledgement and looked at Peggy O'Dell again. "Would it be possible to speak to her? Would asking her about what happened be a problem?"

"Go ahead," he shrugged. "I doubt you'll get much sense out of her at the moment, though. She's going through another bad patch."

Scully didn't honestly think she'd get much from Peggy either, but she had to try. She followed Glass over to the girl's side, observing dubiously the almost instant tension their approach provoked in the thin figure.

"Peggy, honey, this nice lady's come to talk to you and Billy," Glass was saying kindly. "Are you going to say hello?"

Peggy neither moved nor raised her head, but Scully could see her eyes moving restlessly. "I'm reading to Billy," she said in low, nervous voice - and indeed, they could see that she held a book open in her lap. "Billy *needs* me to read to him."

"Why is that, Peggy?" Scully asked, striving to keep her voice level and gentle. "Does he like you to read to him?"

Peggy said nothing, but her fingers began to grip the book tightly in a white-knuckle grip.

"You went to school with him, didn't you?" Scully persevered. "Can you tell me about him?"

Peggy shook her head sharply.

"But you're friends, aren't you?"

"Billy needs me," the girl said tensely. "Billy knows I understand."

Scully's brows drew together in a slight frown. "Understand what, Peggy?"

"The light."

"And what light is that?"

Glass shifted slightly, from one foot to the other. "She often talks about lights, but - "

"Billy and I have seen the light," Peggy interrupted him, "the light that came down out of the sky and ...." Abruptly her voice erupted into a high-pitched scream, and she flailed out with her arms and legs.

Scully and Dr. Glass hurried to try calm her, but before they could even move, the wheelchair was tipped over by the violence of the girl's actions. Orderlies appeared out of nowhere, and Scully was gently pushed to one side as they swarmed to control Peggy before she could hurt herself. Scully got one quick glimpse of the thrashing body on the floor before it vanished from sight - and saw something that made her eyes widen in surprise and sudden thought.

In the small of Peggy O'Dell's back, revealed when the top of her pajamas rode up, were two small but livid raised bumps.

Scully almost ran from out of the hospital, her mind in a feverish whirl of speculation. She had left the original case file in her car - a replacement rental car she had got by a combination of threats and cajolery early that morning - but she badly wanted to get it out and re-examine all the previous scene- of-crime photographs, to see if she really did remember seeing similar lumps on the backs of the other victims.

"Did you see the bumps on her back?" a voice said suddenly, somewhere in the region of Scully's right ear. It was so unexpected and she was so keyed up, that Scully jumped violently, dropping her keys and her bag in the process. The owner of the voice leapt back hastily, raising his hands in apology at once. "Hey, relax!"

It was the journalist, Fox Mulder. Scully leaned back against her car, taking a couple of deep calming breaths, while he picked up her things.

"Kind of nervous, aren't you?" he joked as he handed them back. Then he saw her expression and, bizarrely, a slow flush began to work its way up from his neck. "Look, I'm sorry," he said more quietly. "I thought you saw me, or I wouldn't have done that."

"What do you want?" Scully demanded, fumbling with her keys to unlock the car door.

"I was wondering how you were getting on."

"No comment!" she snapped icily, finally getting the door open, and was stunned to hear a wry chuckle from behind her. She turned to look at him, and found him giving her a very mocking look.

"Oh, come on!" he said, seeing her expression. "Don't give me that crap about being the press - I know you know about me."

Scully stared at him blankly. "What?"

"You ran a check on me last night," Mulder reminded her. "You e-mailed Danny Vallodeio at the Bureau."

Scully closed her eyes. *God, I must be cracking up.* She hadn't remembered to check her e-mail that morning.

"Danny's an old friend of mine," Mulder was saying. "He mailed me straight after. You'd be amazed what you can do with a Psion - "

"I didn't check my mail today," Scully interrupted, "so I don't know what you're talking about."

There was a pause, and when she opened her eyes, he was regarding her thoughtfully and with some sympathy. "Didn't sleep well, huh?"

It seemed pointless to deny it. "Not really," she muttered.

"And you didn't eat last night or have breakfast this morning."

Scully gave him an outraged glare. "I suppose you know the color of my underwear as well," she remarked sarcastically.

"Nah, you pulled your drapes too tight," Mulder chuckled. "Come on, get your stuff. I'm buying you breakfast."

"I don't - " she began, but he cut her off.

"I mean it, Agent Scully. Since you didn't read your mail this morning, I think we need to have a serious talk."

In the end, they headed back to the motel. When they got there, Scully made an excuse and stopped off at her motel room; and when she met up with Mulder in the restaurant twenty minutes later, her expression was grave and wary.

"You read your mail." It wasn't a question, and at her tight nod he sighed inwardly, even though he'd been expecting this reaction ever since he first spoke to her. "Danny told me what he told you," he offered. "We've been friends for a long time - we still talk sometimes, and when you started asking questions, he let me know. I was surprised you hadn't already heard about me, to be honest."

"He didn't tell me exactly why you were thrown out of the Bureau," Scully replied curtly. "He said there was an internal investigation, though."

"He didn't tell you because I wasn't thrown out: I resigned," Mulder replied. There was a tense pause while the waitress took their orders. When she was gone again, he looked at Scully, but she was avoiding his eyes. "Danny couldn't tell you much anyway," he continued quietly. "Most of the investigation was hushed up, and the details about my resignation are probably buried in my personnel file. I wasn't forced to leave, though - I went voluntarily."

"What difference does it make?" Scully demanded.

"Actually, it makes a lot of difference. But are you willing to listen?"

There was a tense silence; then finally Scully sighed and nodded. She leaned her forehead on one hand tiredly, and was surprised when Mulder shoved a packet of Advil towards her. She looked up at him in and saw his faint smile.

"Most of the time I live on Advil and fresh air," he explained.

"Thanks," she mumbled, and downed a couple of the pills dry. Fortunately, the waitress chose to return at that moment with their orders; the black coffee did wonders to make her feel better, as did two toasted teacakes. Mulder had chosen a cooked breakfast; when he saw her meagre portion, he shoved two of his slices of fried bread, all of his bacon and his second egg onto her plate.

"Eat it!" he said firmly, when Scully protested. "You didn't eat last night - two teacakes won't get you very far. Besides, I've eaten once this morning already."

Scully blinked, wondering where in his lean frame he'd put it all, but didn't argue. She didn't normally eat fried stuff, but she had to admit that the bacon smelled pretty good.

He grinned devilishly at her as she dug in. "And I'm Jewish."

Scully choked, making him laugh.

"You realize the bread and bacon were probably fried together," she warned, when she'd got her breath back.

Mulder shrugged. "If you don't tell my mother, I won't," he smiled. Seeing her brows rise, he explained, "Mom's pretty strict, but I don't bother much. I eat kosher at home to please her, but I'm not religious myself."

"You live with your mother?"

"For now. It's easier."

There was a more comfortable silence while they both ate, then when Scully had finished, Mulder shoved his plate to one side and looked down into his empty coffee cup for a moment or two thoughtfully. "The investigation wasn't into me really," he began abruptly. "It was my wife."

"I didn't realize you're married," Scully said, surprised.

"Divorced. I married an agent in Serious Fraud - we were old friends, we went to Oxford together. It was a big mistake though." Mulder kept his eyes on his cup. "She started seeing other guys - and a lot of them were other agents - and then we separated."

Scully began to feel uncomfortable. "You don't have to tell me this."

He looked up sharply. "Yes I do. Believe me, it's relevant - I wouldn't tell you otherwise." He took a deep breath. "Anyway, after we'd been separated for a while, I got called in by the OPC and given the third degree. What did I know about Phoebe's activities outside work hours, who were her friends, what guys had she been seeing - I had to give them a list. Then they started asking about *me*, about what I did outside work, who my friends were and what my relationship with Phoebe was. They went into everything - and I do mean *everything*."

He took a shaky breath and, encouraged by Scully's startled and sympathetic silence, continued. "So then they suspended her and confined me to office work pending the results of an internal investigation. At that point, I didn't know what the hell was going on, which is probably the only thing that saved my neck, because the next thing I knew, I was called in by the Assistant Director and informed that Phoebe had vanished. They'd been investigating her in connection with drugs and the Mafia. They put me through the third degree again, this time with AD Skinner in attendance, and then I was put on paid suspension - not because they thought I'd done anything, but because they had to be seen to be taking all possible measures until they caught her. But it was the worst thing they could have done from my point of view, because when I went home that afternoon, she was waiting for me."

"What happened?" Scully asked after a moment.

He looked up at her. "I honestly don't know," he replied. "I have no recollection of that afternoon whatsoever - I woke up in Georgetown Medical Center two days later. My former partner, Jerry Castamir, had tried to raise me all evening and came round when he couldn't get a reply. He found me in the bedroom, stoned out of my mind - they had to pump my stomach when they got me to hospital."

Scully opened her mouth to say something, then saw his desperately uncomfortable expression, and shut it again. There was a veiled warning in his eyes; this was obviously something he didn't want to discuss in too much detail. "So then what happened?" she asked.

"Oh, it was a mess. There's no point in going into much detail, but basically when I was allowed to return to work, there was a big question-mark over my head. Despite the evidence to the contrary, there was this idea in some people's heads that I'd maybe colluded with Phoebe after all, or that even if I hadn't, I knew where she was and I was holding back out of some remnants of sentimental feeling for her." His sudden smile was bitter, almost a sneer. "Which is a joke, but never mind. I was working with Violent Crimes at that point; I was initially put on desk-work, and then side-lined into a low priority area of the Division. But that involved field work, and some of the higher-ups still weren't happy with letting me out on my own, so they started talking about transferring me back into Behavioral Sciences and profiling, which is where I started out."

Scully's brows drew together in a tiny frown. "Profiling is a high prestige area," she observed cautiously. "I was under the impression that there are only nine or ten profilers in the BSU at any one time."

"It is," he nodded, "but what you probably *don't* know, because they make a point of keeping quiet about it, is that that most profilers are borderline basket-cases." She looked at him, and he smiled back. "It took a nervous breakdown and a three-month stay in a private psychiatric clinic - paid for by the Bureau, I might add - to convince me that I'd be better off being shot at by the perps while I worked for the VCS. No way was I going back there. Besides," and he looked down at his hands, "by that time there'd been a serious domestic complication which made leaving the Bureau a sensible move."

He didn't elaborate, and Scully felt it would be tactless to ask. "So you quit and started teaching instead?"

He looked up and the smile was back, this time much more genuine. "Yeah. The journalism's a sideline - I've got friends who run a magazine, and now and then I do an article for them. Makes life interesting."

Scully smiled, but decided it was time they got back to the point. "So what exactly's got you so interested in this case?"

"Well, if you remember, I said I was pushed into a low- priority area of Violent Crimes for a while. It's called the X Files Division."

She stared; then rummaged in her briefcase and pulled out the case file. The number - #X-1.01-091093 - stared up at her from the front of the large, heavy-duty manila envelope which held the file folder and other materials pertinent to the case. "There's a significance to it being numbered "x"?"

"Uh-huh." Mulder dug out his bag of sunflower seeds, and fished one out, cracking it between his teeth and discarding the shell before continuing. "The X files are all cases which were initially investigated by one department of the FBI or another, but were deemed unsolved because of unexplainable phenomena, and quietly stashed away in the basement. Periodically, one will float to the surface again - like this one - and they assign someone to investigate it as a PR exercise."

Scully began to feel a burning sensation of anger in her gut. "A *PR exercise*? But something really happened to those kids!"

Mulder nodded, his eyes grave. "That's the real issue for me, too. The press got hold of the story, which is why the Bureau sent someone out here. But in case you hadn't noticed, Agent Scully, the people here aren't exactly desperate to find out what happened. If you *really* want to get something out of this, to close the case, you're going to have to move fast, because I can guarantee you that if you don't, in a couple of days you'll be recalled to Washington willy-nilly. That's what happened to me."

She looked up sharply, blue eyes questioning. "You - ?"

He nodded, smiling faintly. "I was the last agent to investigate this case."

"I was pulled off the case before I really got to do much in the way of interviews," Mulder explained. He offered his bag of seeds to Scully, who took one rather absently. "I got to see Peggy O'Dell and Billy Miles, though, and I saw the marks on Peggy's back."

"Karen Swenson had them too," Scully told him, and pulled out the autopsy report.

Mulder's eyes widened in interest. "They turned up in the autopsy? There was nothing on the others."

"Different medical examiner."

He grinned at her dry tone. "Ah, you share my opinion of the loveable Dr. Nemman. Lovely daughter, by the way - if she wasn't as unstable as the rest of her classmates, she'd have a great future in the diplomatic corps."

Scully looked up sharply. "What do you mean?"

He had the grace to look a little guilty, but not much. "Let's just say I have a very long telephoto lens."

"Bet you say that to all the girls," she retorted before she could stop herself, and received a chuckle and exaggerated leer for her pains. "So how did you know about the marks on the other kids' backs?" she asked.

"Well, when I investigated this case, I'd had the opportunity to go through a lot of the other X files, and I found several other cases which bore a remarkable similarity to the Bellefleur kids," he explained. "If you're interested, you'll probably need to dig the files out of storage again, but I can give you the case numbers and Danny'll be able to help you. Take a look at the analysis of those marks on Karen Swenson, though."

Scully flipped hastily through the papers until the chemical analysis sheet surfaced. Her eyes widened. "What is *that*?"

"You tell me."

Scully considered. "Well, it's organic, but it's nothing I've ever seen before. Some sort of synthetic protein?"

Mulder nodded cheerfully, inwardly delighted by the look of fascination on her face. "Beats me, too. And the Crime Labs at the Bureau when they saw it." He considered telling her about how all the samples at the Bureau had mysteriously vanished, and his personal theories on the subject, but decided - reluctantly - that he didn't want to damage his credibility with her too soon.

At least she was really interested in solving the case - all the other agents previously involved had been only too happy to be recalled to Washington.

Except for him, of course.

"And this was present in all the other autopsies from the other cases?" she was saying.

"Apparently." Mulder helped himself to another seed. "What are you going to do next?"

Scully looked up, for the first time looking a little uncertain. "Well, I was going to interview the parents of the other victims first."

He nodded. "And then?"

She gave him a thoughtful look. "You sound like you don't think I'm going to find much out."

"*I* didn't," he acknowledged, "but there's no saying that it might not be different for you. You're a woman - they may respond better to you."

He didn't sound convincing, and Scully sighed. "Okay, maybe I won't find anything out, but it's what I'm expected to do - "

"Do you always do what people expect?"

She ignored that. "And if I don't, there'll be questions asked when I return to Washington. After that, though, I was planning to take a look in the woods, especially the crime scene. I want to know what Karen Swenson was doing out there in her nightwear."

"Good idea," Mulder approved. He eyed her thoughtfully, before adding rather tentatively, "Like some company?"

Scully hesitated. They'd reached a truce, sure, and she was fairly certain at this point that he wasn't really here for the story, but she still wasn't sure exactly how to treat him. He'd been out of the Bureau for a while, after all, and she was on official business.

"Look," she said finally, "what's your interest in this case? Because if it's just journalistic - "

"It's not," he said at once, interrupting her. "I'm interested because I never got a chance to solve it myself, and I was curious to see if the Bureau really was reopening the case or just pacifying the press again." His hazel eyes were earnest, fixing on Scully's and holding them in an attempt to convey his sincerity. "And I genuinely want to know what happened to those kids. I want to know why the agents sent here keep getting recalled before they can do anything, and why everyone seems to want to cover up what really happened, whatever that was."

"Okay," Scully said, taking a deep breath, "okay. But you've got to level with me, Mr. Mulder - "

"Mulder," he corrected, smiling.

She stared at him, momentarily distracted.

"Mr. Mulder was my father," he explained, a little self- consciously."

"What's wrong with your first name?" she demanded.

"Look, if you had to go through high-school with a name like Fox, you'd be using your surname," he retorted, and she smiled in spite of herself.

"Okay, *Mulder* - level with me. I know you must have some sort of theory about this case, and I want to know what it is."

"I have plenty of theories, Agent Scully," he acknowledged reluctantly, "but I don't think you're ready to hear them."

That earned him a raised brow and a look that told him to quit dancing around the subject. "Try me," she suggested dryly.

Okay. She wasn't going to let it go, so maybe it was time to shock her out of her standardized FBI thinking. And he admitted to himself that there was a tiny little devil inside him somewhere that was itching to see the look on her face. "Tell me, Agent Scully - do you believe in the existence of extra-terrestrials?"

*He's kidding me, right?* Scully peered at him uncertainly, but although it was quite obvious from the quirky smile on his lips that he was teasing her, his eyes were dead serious. *Extra-terrestrials, riiiight.* For no particular reason, the orange X on the road swam back into her mind. "Logically, I would have to say no," she said finally. "The distances from the far reaches of space are so vast, the energy needed alone would exceed - "

"Conventional wisdom," Mulder interrupted impatiently. "Agent Scully, Karen Swenson was the *sixth* kid in her class to die under mysterious circumstances. Conventional wisdom has so far offered no explanations. Now, if science doesn't have the answers, shouldn't we start looking towards the unconventional - the fantastic - for answers instead?"

Okay. That almost sounded like a challenge to Scully, and it was one which, as a scientist, she couldn't ignore. "What I find fantastic is that there are any answers which lie outside the realms of science," she retorted sharply. "The answers are there, Mulder - you just have to know where to look."

He sat back in his chair, with an unfathomable look on his face. He didn't seem at all offended by her opposition - rather the reverse, as if he enjoyed arguing with her. Finally, a wicked smile crossed his lips. "Well - I'm told that's why they put the 'I' in FBI, Agent Scully. What's your *scientific* explanation of what happened to those kids?"

Crunch time - and Scully had to admit that she didn't have even a working theory which was particularly plausible. "I started out with the idea that maybe the kids in the class were taking some kind of drugs at that party in the woods," she admitted, wishing it didn't sound so feeble. "It might explain the schizophrenia, and Billy Miles's condition, but -"

"But it doesn't explain the deaths or the marks on their backs," Mulder finished for her, nodding.

"No, or ...." Scully hesitated, and he leaned forward, his eyes alert.

"Or what?"

She fished in her pocket reluctantly, and pulled out a small glass vial containing the two metal implants from Ray Soames's body. "It doesn't explain these, or the condition of Ray Soames's corpse - if it *was* Ray Soames, which I doubt."

Mulder took the vial from her fingers, and stared at the two bits of metal in fascination. "Where were they?"

"The small one was in the base of the neck, and the larger in the nasal cavity."

A wild excitement began to build in Mulder's stomach. This was more than he'd ever hoped to find. "Do you know what they are?"

Scully shook her head, viewing his obvious delight dubiously. "No - do you?"

He shook his head cheerfully. "Not a clue. I wonder what they're made of?"

"That's for the Bureau crime labs to find out," Scully said, firmly taking possession of the objects again, and stowing them safely back in her pocket.

"And what did you make of Ray Soames?" Mulder prodded.

"I didn't," she replied shortly. "That body was someone's idea of a sick joke, Mulder - it's probably the corpse of an ape or something similar."

"Sure about that?"

"No," Scully snapped, nettled, "but the crime labs will be." She started packing all her bits and pieces back into her briefcase.

He nodded, apparently accepting this. "And how's the head?"

Scully paused, and in spite of herself she softened a little. "Better, thanks, much better," she admitted, with a small wry smile.

"So, are you going to head out and start questioning the good citizens of Bellefleur?"

She grimaced. "'Fraid so."

Mulder nodded. "Best of luck," he said dryly. "The Advil's with me, when you've finished."

It was just beginning to get dark when Scully finally returned to the motel, and she felt drained, frustrated, and short-tempered. What was the matter with the people in this town? Six of their kids were dead, one was a vegetable, and a number of others were suffering serious psychiatric disorders. Any normal town would be screaming at the Bureau's doors, demanding answers.

Not the good citizens of Bellefleur. They were keeping their collective mouth shut tighter than a rusted lock.

Mulder was waiting for her outside her motel room door, but as she'd been expecting that, she wasn't particularly surprised. He was wearing a sympathetic expression and holding the bottle of Advil, which she waved aside wearily.

"No, it's okay, thanks. I'm just tired - I could do with a coffee though."

He produced the other hand, which held a bag containing a thermos flask and something else. "Coffee and sandwiches," he said, watching her dump her briefcase and jacket on the bed. "Are you going to get changed?"

She looked at him blankly. "What for?"

"Our trip to the forest," he reminded her. "The crime scene - remember?"

"Oh, that. The area's on private land, so I've arranged for an official search warrant for tomorrow."

"Yeah, I tried that too," Mulder nodded, "and the next day all that was waiting for me were orders to ship back to DC. Case closed."

Scully closed her eyes. *God, I hate this case,* she thought fervently. She wished she had some shred of evidence which would prove him wrong, but the attitude of the sheriff when she spoke of getting a warrant told her all she needed to know. "Mulder, it's going to be dark by the time we get there," she protested feebly.

His response was to produce two high-powered flashlights. "I'll say this for Bellefleur - they have a really good hardware store," he commented cheerfully.

Wandering around the forest, flashlight in hand, Scully wondered when exactly she had started seeing Mulder as some sort of unofficial partner on this case. The man was nuts, no doubt about it. He was an *ex* FBI agent, and despite the fact that she believed his story, she still had no real evidence to substantiate it. If her superiors found out she'd been working with him on this case - especially since he was a self- confessed freelance journalist - she'd almost certainly be in hot water. And on top of that, she'd allowed him to talk her into searching a site which was on private property, where *she* had no business being without a search warrant, and *he* had no business being, period.

Yet here they were, searching the forest in classic FBI style, one partner taking one half of the site, and the other partner taking the other half.

Something told Agent Scully that ex-Agent Mulder missed his old job more than he would admit.

Seeing a large clearing ahead, she increased her pace, pushing through the undergrowth eagerly. After all, the sooner she found what she was looking for, the sooner they could get out of here. Breaking through into the clearing, she played the flashlight around her, trying to get a decent look at the place.

It was bigger than she had originally imagined from the crime reports, some thirty or forty paces at the widest point, and the ground appeared to have been cleared of all vegetation. Scully scuffed at the earth beneath her boots, and was interested to note that it seemed to be deeply scorched all over. Crouching down to get a better look, she picked up a sample of the surface and peered at it - fine grey-ish ash. Not having any evidence bags on her person, she finally shrugged and put a reasonable handful in one pocket for later analysis.

As she stood up, another flashlight flashed directly in her eyes, making her flinch. "Mulder, is that you?" she demanded.

But it wasn't Mulder. It was the sheriff, and when he spoke his tone was distinctly hostile.

"Just what exactly do you think you're doing on private property at this hour, ma'am?"

Scully flung her flashlight into the trunk of the Taurus under the watchful eye of the sheriff, and strode hastily around the driver's door, biting her lip angrily. She wondered where the hell Mulder was, but daren't wait to find out. As far as the sheriff was concerned, she was out here on her own; and she wanted it to remain that way for *both* their sakes.

She started up the car and set off down the road, wondering what to do about the journalist. She couldn't just leave him here, miles from anywhere -

"Did he chew you out?"

Scully let out a muffled shriek and the car almost swerved. "JESUS CHRIST, don't DO that to me!"

"Sorry," Mulder said, quite unrepentantly, hanging over the back of the passenger seat. "I keep forgetting you're the nervous type."

"Two days in your company would drive any woman insane!" Scully snarled, furious.

"Ooooh. And we hardly know each other ... yet." Mulder grinned at her, and rummaged in a pocket, producing a packet which he thrust in front of her. "Seeds?"

At which point, Scully lost it completely and told him, with great medical precision, exactly what he could do with his seeds, and his flashlights, and his theories of extra- terrestrial abductions. And where he could do it, and with what parts of his body. It took several minutes, and impressed Mulder no end.

"Feeling better?" he asked, at the end of it.

"Yes," she grumbled, wondering if he was completely insensate.

"I'm sorry I startled you, but I thought I ought to play least in sight, just in case he wasn't aware I was with you."

"Well, I think he was suspicious, but he couldn't prove you were around, so it was probably a good idea," she conceded wearily.

"I didn't find anything," Mulder continued. "What about you?"

"Hm. I'm not sure." Scully dug in her pocket, and found some of the ash, which she passed back to him. "There was this - the clearing where they found Karen Swenson was covered in it, as though the entire area had been subjected to intense, localized heat."

While he was examining the gritty sample, she flicked on the windscreen wipers. It had started to rain as she and the sheriff had emerged from the forest, and now it was threatening to become a downpour. *Just what we needed,* she thought sourly. *Rain to cap off a perfect investigation.* "Well, what do you think?" she demanded, when Mulder didn't voice an opinion of the sample.

Mulder wasn't looking at the ash; he'd got a small compass in the palm of his hand and was staring at it like it held the secret of the Holy Grail. "Scully, try the radio," he told her distractedly.

*Scully?* Oh well, he couldn't really call her Dana; they weren't well enough acquainted. She reached out and fumbled with the knobs until the radio hissed and screeched into life.

The abrupt high-pitched squeal it emitted made her flinch and protest, and Mulder jumped but didn't react otherwise. He was still staring at his compass, the needle swinging and jumping erratically.

"Mulder, what's going on?" Scully demanded, her face screwed up painfully against the radio noise which refused to get any lower despite her frantic twisting of the volume control. "Mulder ...?"

There was an abrupt flash of glaring white light, and the car died, sliding to a halt in the middle of the road.

For a moment there was silence. Then Scully broke it, her voice tense with the many strains of the day. "What the hell was that?"

"We lost power," Mulder replied. His voice was tense too, but for an entirely different reason. "Everything cut out."

"But what was that flash?"

He wasn't listening. Instead he was staring at his watch. "We lost nine minutes."

"What?!" Scully was getting more than a little tired of all this.

But when he looked up at her, Mulder's eyes were glowing with excitement. "We lost nine minutes, Scully! *Nine* minutes! I checked my watch just before the flash." And he was out of the car and into the pouring rain before she could pummel her brain into framing a question.

There was nothing to do but follow him, so she did, and found him standing a few yards in front of the car, staring raptly down at the road.

"Look at this!" he shouted to her over the noise of the hammering rain. Scully obediently looked.

And froze, wide-eyed.

Between them, glowing amiably in the meagre moonlight, was a bright orange X spray-painted on the asphalt.

"Nine minutes!" Mulder yodeled jubilantly. "Oh YES, thank you, God!" He seized her shoulders, obviously sensing her confusion. "Abductees, Scully, and people who've made sightings of UFOs - they all report strange time loss."

"But - " This was all getting too much for Scully. "But time doesn't just disappear, Mulder! It's a universal invariant -"

As if to make a liar of her, the car engine abruptly started up again of its own accord, and the headlights flashed on.

Mulder burst out into excited laughter. "Not in this zip code!"

The relief Scully felt at being back in her normal, dingy little motel room was too great to be measured. Stripping off her sodden out layer of clothes, she wrapped herself in a toweling robe, roughly dried her hair, then forced herself to methodically set out her job again; retrieving the last soggy handful of ash from her coat pocket and putting in an evidence bag for analysis, and setting up her laptop to continue her field report.

This was all getting way to weird for her. She needed something normal to cling onto, something that definitely wasn't tainted by Mulder and his theories, and with that in mind she set about trying to put the evening's unauthorized venture onto the crime scene into some form her superiors wouldn't suspend her for.

Which was just about when Fate decided things were getting to easy for her, and the lights decided to cut out.

Scully stifled an unprofessional and almost hysterical scream of frustration. What *was* it with this hateful little backwater of a town, with its psycho kids, and Stepford-like residents, and its own personal time zones, and its power outages of one form or another?

She rummaged around for a while, wishing she'd remembered to retrieve her flashlight from the trunk of the car before she came to her room, and finally found a chunky stub of a candle. Okay, so she wasn't meant to finish her report - or at least, not if she wanted to have any eyesight left at the end of it. She could at least maybe have a shower.

Taking the candle into the bathroom with her, Scully set it down in a reasonably safe spot, pulled the curtain across and set the shower going. Then she slipped her robe off, and was pinning her hair up out of the way when she thought she saw something.

Twisting her upper body about so that she could see her back in the mirror, Scully finally gave way to the pressures of the case and screamed.

Scully was fumbling frantically with the ties of her bathrobe when there was a loud hammering on her door.

Her nerves were completely shot, her hands shaking violently. Where had she put her gun? She rummaged around the bedroom blindly, wishing desperately for lights. The candle had gone out while she was flailing around in the bathroom.

More hammering. "Scully, are you okay? What's going on? Scully!"


Scully gave up the search for her weapon, and stumbled to the door, yanking it open. Mulder almost fell inside.

"Scully, what on earth - did you scream?"

"Yes, I ...." She pushed her hair back with a trembling hand. "Look, I need you to look at something for me."

He stared, concerned at how pale her face was. "Sure. Let me put the lights on a second."

She looked at him blankly, then registered the fact that he was in running shorts and a sweatshirt, and looking flushed and sweaty. He must have been out running when the power went out. "There's been a power-cut, but I've got a candle in the bathroom -"

Mulder didn't look particularly surprised. He retrieved the candle and lit it. "Okay, what's up?"

Scully hesitated, then turned her back to him and dropped the robe. "Look," she said over her shoulder, and gestured to her lower back, "what are they?"

Mulder was seriously grateful that she was at the wrong angle to get a good look at his face, for he was sure it must be a picture. All the air had suddenly escaped his lungs, and something in his stomach began jigging about nervously. Somehow he forced himself to crouch down and bring the candle closer to the spot she was pointing at just above - he swallowed convulsively - the elastic of her oyster-colored silk panties.

There were three small raised lumps standing out in relief from an expanse of smooth, creamy skin.

Mulder was just about successful in preventing himself from using them as an excuse to touch her. He swallowed again. This was *not* a good situation for him to be in, as a small but vocal and rational part of his mind kept pointing out.

"Mulder, what ARE they?"

Her voice, raised and panicky, managed to snap his attention back into focus, and he grinned in spite of himself. "Mosquito bites," he said, straightening up again.

"Are you sure?" Scully quavered, beginning to pull her robe back around herself.

Something inside Mulder bade a mournful goodbye to the vision of velvet skin in oyster satin, but he ruthlessly stamped it down. "Yeah - I got eaten alive myself out there," he began nonchalantly - and staggered slightly when Scully abruptly flung herself into his arms. She was shaking like a leaf. He awkwardly rubbed her shoulders, trying to rein in his galloping hormones.

*Control, dammit, control.*

"Are you okay?" he asked, and was amazed at how calm his voice sounded.

Scully suddenly realized what she was doing, and began to extricate herself. "Yeah - yeah, I'm fine. I just - need to sit down for a minute."

He steered her towards the edge of the bed. "Take your time."

She nodded and sat, drawing her feet up under her and pulling the top blanket over her lap, while Mulder dragged a solid wooden chair by the window closer and straddled it.

"Are you cold?" she asked, belatedly remembering that he was only half-dressed too.

Cold? At any other time, Mulder might have laughed. God, he was anything *but* cold right now - in fact, it might justifiably be argued that he had a serious case of hot.

"No - no, I'm fine," he managed. His eye fell on a white plastic bag propped against the table where Scully's laptop was set up, and he suppressed a sigh of relief. At last - a neutral, harmless topic. "You know, we never did drink that coffee, or eat - do you think it's still hot?"

"How'd you end up in Violent Crimes, Scully?"

She blinked at him through the thin steam of her coffee. "Haven't you started in the middle there?" Mulder tilted his head on one side questioningly, and Scully smiled. "The usual question is 'how'd you end up in the FBI, Scully?'", she explained.

He smiled back. "Okay. How'd you end up in the FBI, Scully?"

"Post-adolescent contrariness. My parents wanted me to be a pediatrician, but I wanted to be a pathologist. We had a major bust-up about it, and I went my own way - for the first time ever, I might add - and the Bureau recruited me out of college." Scully looked down at her mug thoughtfully. "It seemed like a really good idea - I thought I'd be able to distinguish myself there. So ... I taught at Quantico after I graduated. Dad still wasn't happy about it, but he didn't mind so much. And it felt right for me."

Mulder noticed the wistful tone in her voice. "You liked teaching."

She nodded. "And it was interesting when I actually got called to do autopsies."

"That's one word for it," he commented wryly, and she chuckled.

"Each to his own."

"So how *did* you end up in Violent Crimes?"

Scully fell silent. This was territory she'd rather not go over, or at least not in any detail. "I asked for a transfer," she replied evasively.

"Got bored at Quantico?" he hazarded. He fished around in the plastic bag and found a packet of sandwiches. They looked a bit dry and sad after all those hours, but he shrugged and unwrapped them anyway. Like most single men, food quality was not a big issue with him.

"No, I ... had a few problems with a fellow instructor, and in the end it seemed better to move on. And I wanted to move into field work anyway," she added quickly.

Mulder apparently accepted this, to her relief. "Can't imagine your father being happy about you working in the VCS, though. My mom nearly went through the roof when I transferred." He grinned briefly. "Just as well she didn't know what I did in Behavioral Sciences."

Scully smiled. "Dad's just overprotective. He doesn't come out and *say* it, but the FBI is no place for a woman."

Mulder's face changed ever so slightly in the dim candlelight. "You're lucky," he said after a moment. "Have you got brothers and sisters?"

"Two brothers, one older, one younger, and an older sister," she nodded. "What about you?"

The sandwich lost its appeal. "I had a younger sister," Mulder said after a moment.

Scully didn't miss the past tense. "What happened to her?" she asked quietly.

"Died in a car crash when she was eight." Mulder looked up at Scully, and his half-smile was bitter. "My father was driving - he was drunk. Still is, I should imagine. A drunk, I mean."

"Oh." Scully looked down at her mug, saddened for him. He didn't seem to have much luck in his life. "I'm sorry. You must miss her."

"Yeah." Mulder re-wrapped what was left of the sandwich and tossed it back into the bag. "But it was a long time ago and I can't change what happened."

The silence which followed this was abruptly ruptured by the phone ringing.

Scully leaned over and picked it up, listening for a couple of minutes. When she put it down again, her face was grim.

"Peggy O'Dell is dead."

"Who was on the phone?" Mulder demanded, as Scully started the car.

"I don't know - whoever it was was disguising their voice," she replied. "Apparently Peggy was found dead at a railroad crossing in the forest."

"You know, this could just be a ruse to pull you away from the motel," Mulder pointed out.

"What for?" she demanded.

"I don't know - to grab your stuff, or the evidence maybe. It's just a thought."

"So stop thinking," she advised him tartly. "If it bothers you that much, why did you come with me?"

"Must be your overwhelming charm."

The crossing was a sea of squad cars when they arrived. There was a freight train halted on the tracks, and police swarming around it.

Scully groaned softly.

"What's up?" Mulder asked.

"That's the sheriff. I'm sure he's going to be delighted to see me again tonight."

He sized up the situation, and came to a decision. "Look, the paramedics are still here, so it looks like they haven't moved the body yet. I'll cause a diversion, while you slip around the side and take a look."

"What are you going to do?" Scully demanded, alarmed. His grin as he grabbed the door handle was not reassuring. "Scully, surely you know how popular the press are at crime scenes?" And he was gone.

Cursing him softly, Scully waited until she saw him jog up to the sheriff and brazenly demand his attention, then slipped out of the car and skirted around the squad cars.

Mulder was right; Peggy O'Dell's body was still lying across the tracks, although someone had covered her decently with a blanket. The paramedics were just laying a body-bag out on a stretcher for her.

Scully touched the nearest one on the shoulder and flashed her ID. "What happened here?"

The woman shook her head sadly. "The girl just walked out onto the tracks. Train never had a chance to stop."

Scully's eyes widened. "*Walked*?"

The paramedic looked puzzled. "That's right."

"But this girl was in a wheelchair when I saw her this morning. This *is* Peggy O'Dell, isn't it?"

The woman shrugged. "Beats me. But there's no wheelchair around here, Miss, and from the condition of her feet, it looks like she walked a fair distance barefoot."

"Do you mind if I take a look?" Scully asked, and the paramedic nodded.

"Make it quick, though - we've got to bag her and take her to the morgue."

She knelt down by the side of the body, dimly aware of Mulder's voice in the background, upraised in argument with someone. She tuned it out and gently drew back the blanket. It was definitely Peggy O'Dell, although she had suffered terrible injuries. The girl was dressed in a night-dress - *Like Karen Swenson,* Scully thought - and the paramedic was right; Peggy's feet were coated in dirt and scraped, as though she had walked over a rough surface.

She noticed something else. Peggy was wearing a watch. Scully gently turned the cold wrist until she could see the cracked face. The digital display had frozen at 9:03.

"Excuse me, we've got to take her now," the paramedic reminded her. Scully stepped back, and let them zipper the body up and carry it away to the waiting ambulance.

There was some significance to 9:03, but she couldn't put her finger on what.

An escalation in the arguing voices, followed by a scuffle, snapped her back to the present; Mulder was in the process of being forcibly removed from the scene. Scully quickly scooted back around the squad cars, and slid into the passenger seat moments after he'd hopped in the driver's side.

"Find anything?" he asked at once, apparently unabashed by the violence with which he'd been ejected from the sheriff's presence. He started up the car and reversed back out onto the main road.

"Other than the fact that Peggy O'Dell walked all the way to the crossing and out in front of the train in her night-dress?" Scully replied.

"Without her wheelchair?" Mulder sounded interested, but not especially surprised. "What else?"

"Her watch was frozen at 9:03."

*That* was almost productive of a swerve. "Seriously?" He sounded genuinely excited, and Scully's brow furrowed.

"Yes. What's the significance?"

"It was 9:03 when the car cut out on us on the road tonight," Mulder replied. "I checked my watch just before the flash - remember?"

"I repeat: what's the significance?"

"How should I know? But it's interesting, don't you think?"

Scully didn't think she could answer that one in good conscience, so she ignored it. "So, did you find anything out?" she asked dryly.

"Actually, I did," he replied, grinning at her tone. "While the good sheriff was bawling me out, I overheard one of the local boys answering a call from the Coroner. Apparently the civic offices - including the Coroner's office - got trashed tonight by person or persons unknown."

"Let me guess," Scully said tiredly. "The paperwork on Ray Soames's body is gone."

"No idea, but it's a good bet."

"Then it's a good thing I got the body itself packed and sent off to the crime labs yesterday. *With* copies of all the relevant paperwork."

Any comments Mulder might have had were stalled by the scene that met their eyes as they pulled up at the motel. The place resembled the scene they had just left, with one major difference - the squad cars were replaced by fire engines.

The motel was a mass of flames.

Scully was sat on the low wall enclosing the motel's parking lot when Mulder found her. He'd been talking to a couple of the fire-fighters.

"They think it's arson," he told her, taking a seat beside her.

Scully nodded morosely. "Of course." She watched the flames for a while, then turned to look at him. "You guessed this would happen, didn't you?"

Mulder rubbed his chin, a little embarrassed. "Actually, I thought they might trash your room. This," he waved at the burning building, "is going a hell of a lot further than I expected. They really want to stop this investigation bad."

"You realize all the portable evidence - my report and laptop, the case file and the crime scene photos - were all in there."

"Yeah, but at least you weren't." Scully's eyes widened, and Mulder smiled faintly. "Hopefully they wouldn't have gone *that* far," he added, although in his own mind he was none too sure.

The sheriff hadn't known Scully was with him at the railroad crossing. And Mulder felt fairly certain that the sheriff had a good idea what was going on in Bellefleur.

"So, what next?" It was a rhetorical question, for Scully's main concern was finding a bed for the rest of the night, but unfortunately for her, Mulder had an answer.

"Next we talk to Dr. Nemman's daughter."

"Huh?" Scully blinked, and followed his gaze. Standing a few yards away was the drooping figure of the County Medical Officer's daughter.

"Was it you who called Agent Scully?" Mulder asked the girl, over a coffee in the nearby diner.

Theresa nodded mutely, cupping her hands around the coffee mug as though she were chilled, despite the heat of the room. She was dark haired and eyed, and would have been a pretty girl had it not been for her almost anorexic thinness and the dark circles around her eyes. She had a slightly unkempt look about her too; although her clothes were obviously good quality and expensive, they were rumpled and too big for her, her hair was lank and her skin dull.

And she was obviously scared, of someone or something unknown.

"How did you find out about Peggy, Theresa?" Scully asked.

The girl seemed to shrink in on herself. "I heard my dad talking about it to someone on the phone," she replied.

"Do you know who that was?"

"Sheriff Miles ... I think."

Well, that made sense. "What made you call and tell me, though?" Scully wanted to know.

Theresa's eyes filled with tears. "Because I didn't think they'd tell you about her until it was too late," she said, "and because I don't want it to be me next. I want you to make it stop."

Mulder leaned forward on his elbows, regarding her thoughtfully. "Theresa, what is "it"? Can you tell us what happened to your class in the woods that night?"

She shook her head, fumbling in her jacket pocket for a handkerchief. Scully silently offered her a couple of paper tissues. "I don't remember, really I don't. We were just having a party, then there was this really bright light, and then I woke up in hospital."

"And the others were the same?"

She nodded. "All except Billy. He never woke up at all."

"What about Peggy?" Scully asked quietly. "Was she always in a wheelchair?"

Theresa began to cry harder. "No - no, she was worse. There was something wrong with her, and they took her away for months. And when she came back, she couldn't walk. My cousin said she'd had a baby, but something had gone wrong, something weird, and the baby had died."

Scully saw Mulder's eyes widen in interest, but mercifully he didn't question the girl any further on that point. For herself, she felt reasonably certain that the baby story was just one of the horror tales teenagers liked to pass around when one of their number had anything odd happen to them. It was more likely that Peggy had suffered a back injury during whatever had happened at the party. Maybe. Scully wished she could shake off that one niggling doubt at the back of her mind.

A choked cry from the girl snapped Scully's attention back on her. There was blood pouring from Theresa's nose.

"Mulder, get some napkins!" she exclaimed, dragging the last couple of tissues from her pocket and trying to staunch the flow. In the scramble to help the girl, neither she nor Mulder heard the door to the diner swing open.

"I'll take care of this, thank you," Dr. Nemman's sharp angry voice said.

Scully slumped back into the molded plastic diner seat, and contemplated her third coffee. She glanced at her watch; 2:34. God, it didn't seem possible that it could still be so early, after such action-packed events.

Their talk with Theresa Nemman had wrapped up quickly after her father's arrival. He had been accompanied by the sheriff, whom Scully had fast taken an unswerving dislike to. Between them, they'd ushered the resisting girl out of the diner without saying much to Scully and Mulder, but the sheriff's parting words had stung her.

"You should be more discriminating in the company you keep, Agent Scully," he had said, casting a venomous look at an unimpressed Mulder.

"I am," she'd retorted. "That's why I'm getting out of this town as soon as possible."

But the words had annoyed her all the same. They'd been a threat. *Well don't you worry, Sheriff Miles,* she thought sourly. *When AD Skinner sees my report, Mulder's presence will be the least of his concerns.*

"Here," a voice said at her shoulder. Scully looked up and found Mulder offering her some sort of cake in a plastic wrapper. It was covered in sticky chocolate topping, and looked horrendously calorific. "Sorry it's not home baked lasagna with a crisp side-salad, but this place isn't as well-stocked as their hardware store," he added.

"Thanks," she smiled. She made a mental apology to her bathroom scales, and tore the wrapper off. To hell with the calories; she needed food. Mulder slid into the seat opposite and dug into his just as heartily. "You know," Scully said after a moment, swiping futilely at a rim of chocolate sauce on her upper lip, "I don't think I've seen you stop eating yet."

He looked up and grinned. "I've got used to eating and sleeping at odd times," he told her. "You know, I've been thinking about Theresa's nosebleed. Do you think - "

"It could have been caused by an implant like the one in Ray Soames's nose?" Scully finished for him. "Please, I'm trying *not* to think of that."

"It's logical, though."

"Well, there's no way of finding out short of an x-ray, and if you think Dr. Nemman's going to let us come within fifty yards of her again, you're even crazier than I first thought."

Mulder paused and lowered his cake. "You think I'm crazy?"

Scully sighed and leaned her head on one hand. "No," she admitted, "I don't. But I think this entire town is certifiable."

Mulder shrugged. "Selected members of it, maybe. But I think the rest are mostly scared - so scared that they'd rather risk pissing off the FBI rather than face up to what's going on."

Scully fiddled with her discarded cake wrapper. "What do you think of that story she spun us about Peggy O'Dell having a baby?"

"I don't know," he said honestly, "but it's not the first time I've heard a story like that, so I can't just discount it as teenage hysteria. There are cases in the X files of perfectly rational adult God-fearing women who claim to have been abducted by aliens and impregnated by them. And they also tell of being whisked away afterwards by persons unknown, only to return months later with no knowledge of where they've been, but with the fetus missing. Doctors put it down to post-abortion trauma, but I find that unlikely when so many women in so many different places should all have had identical experiences." Mulder studied Scully's uncertain face, and reached across to squeeze her hand reassuringly. "Look, I'm not asking you to believe all of this - I'm just asking you to keep an open mind."

"Okay." Scully took a deep breath, and smiled at him weakly. "Quite frankly though, Mulder, I don't know where else I can take this investigation. Most of the evidence is gone, and I've already hit a dead end with witnesses. And something tells me that I'll be getting instructions to fly back to Washington tomorrow, if the sheriff has his way."

Mulder was about to admit that they were probably defeated, when an idea struck him. "Most of the evidence is gone," he said slowly, "but there might be one last place to look ...."

Scully's brows rose in confusion. "What do you mean?"

But he was already getting to his feet, and searching in his pockets for the car keys. "Come on!"

"Oh my God," Scully said blankly.

They were back at the cemetery, not far from where Ray Soames's grave had been exhumed only the day before. The grave this time was that of the other high school kid Scully had taken out an exhumation order on ... and it looked like someone had finally executed her original instructions.

The grave had been dug up, and the coffin thrown out. The body was missing.

"This is sick," she said angrily, but Mulder was shaking his head.

"No, it makes sense, Scully. It's the last piece of evidence, if you don't count Peggy, Billy and Theresa. Someone's making sure you don't get a look another of their dead kids."

"But who the hell would do this?" she protested. "These are their own kids! I swear to God, if I find out it was Nemman or Sheriff Miles who did this - "

But Mulder was shaking his head. "Can't have been. We know where both of them were - Miles was at the railway crossing, and Nemman was at home, because Theresa saw him take the phone call about Peggy O'Dell."

"Okay - then maybe it was the Coroner, Truit!"

"And he was in town," he reminded her. "The offices were trashed, remember?" There was an excited look about Mulder, though.

"I give up," Scully sighed. "You obviously have some idea who it was. Who?"

"Billy Miles."

Scully looked at him. "Billy Miles the vegetable, who hasn't so much as twitched in God knows how long."

Mulder nodded, his enthusiasm undampened.

"I take it back. You're crazy," she informed him.

"No I'm not, Scully. Think about it - Peggy O'Dell, who hadn't walked in over three years, somehow walked nearly ten miles unaided out to the railway line tonight and threw herself under a train. If she could do that, despite being paralyzed from the waist down, why shouldn't Billy be able to get up and about?"

Scully could think of a number of answers, but something told her that Mulder wouldn't be listening. "There's one way to find out," she said reluctantly.

"If Billy had moved," the orderly informed Mulder flatly, "believe me, I would have known about it. They pay me extra to keep a very close watch on this boy, just in case he ever *does* move. But trust me, it ain't going to happen."

"So you always look after Billy?" Mulder asked. "You would have been here at 9:00?"

The orderly paused. "I would have been at the nurses' station, watching TV," she admitted.

"Do you remember what was on?"

Another pause. That one had got her. "Well ...."

Scully wasn't listening to this exchange. She had briskly flipped up the sheets at the end of the bed while Mulder was distracting the woman, and was examining Billy's feet. And what she found disturbed her.

The boy's bare feet were covered in dirt, just like Peggy O'Dell's.

Which was impossible.

Mulder caught up with Scully out in the corridor. "Scully, where are you going?"

"I don't know," she replied tensely.

"What did you find?"

"Dirt. The same dirt that was on Peggy O'Dell's feet. They were *both* out in the forest tonight, Mulder. But that's impossible."

Mulder caught hold of Scully's arm and gently pulled her to a halt. She wouldn't look him in the eye and he recognized the wooden expression on her face; this case wasn't just calling her beliefs into question, it was tearing the whole system of them apart. And she didn't like it one bit.

He sympathized entirely. "Look Scully, I know this is hard to take, but you've got to hang in there just a little longer."

"Why?" she demanded. God, she felt exhausted to her marrow.

"Think about what you just said," Mulder urged.

"I don't understand ...."

"Yes, you do. They both had dirt on their feet from walking in the forest."

Scully paused. Dirt from the forest .... She dug in her jacket pocket and pulled out the last pinch of the ash she'd picked up from the Swenson crime scene hours earlier. She smeared it across her palm ... it was black and gritty, like the dirt on Billy Miles's feet. She looked up at Mulder, sudden comprehension flooding her eyes. "They were both out at the crime scene tonight."

"I think we should take another look," Mulder nodded, relieved beyond measure to see the animation returning to her face.

"But won't the sheriff or Dr. Nemman have cleaned it up by now?"

"They've been busy bees tonight, Scully, but hopefully they won't have had time yet - or they won't think we've made the connection."

*Good thing we left the flashlights in the car,* Scully thought absently, as they made a careful approach towards the crime scene through the forest. This time they stuck together, largely because only Scully was armed ("Had to give up my Sig when I left the Bureau," Mulder had said wryly). It was a good thing she'd remembered to strap on the holster when they left the motel earlier, too - especially considering the hell she would have to pay for losing the laptop.

Funny how expense reports went through your mind at a time like this.

Mulder halted suddenly, and Scully almost ran into him. "What's wrong?" she hissed.

"Look at this," he hissed back and crouched down. There was a bare patch of mud in front of him, with a faint imprint of a foot in it, half washed away by the earlier rain. A bare foot.

Scully squatted down to take a closer look. "It's a woman's," she said. "Peggy O'Dell's?"

"Who knows. But at least we're heading in the right direction - I was beginning to wonder. The trouble with this forest is it all looks the same."

"What happened to your compass?"

"It got a little scorched." They carried on, and few minutes later came to the clearing.

"More footprints," Scully observed softly. "Bare, both male and female. What were they doing out here?"

"Looking for Peggy's 'light' maybe." Mulder paused, and raised his head, listening. "Scully, did you hear something?"

Scully listened. Nothing. She opened her mouth to say so, when something hit her hard in the middle of her back, sending her flying into the rain-sodden dirt. She hit the ground hard, knocking the breath out of her, and saw a pair of bare feet hurtling past her.

"HEY!" Mulder yelled.

The figure ran off into the forest at a seemingly impossible speed for someone who was barefoot, and Mulder gave chase. Scully dragged herself upright with an effort, spitting dirt out, and tried to follow them more slowly. She could see Mulder's flashlight bobbing ahead of her somewhere, but it soon became obvious that she wasn't going to catch up, and she turned back to the clearing.

*This really is a pig of a case,* she thought sourly, no longer capable of surprise. Then she noticed something strange.

There was a light coming from the clearing.

*What the ...?*

Scully quickened her speed to a run, the light growing stronger as she got closer. But when she finally broke into the clearing, the sight in front of her eyes brought her to an abrupt halt.

The light was almost painfully bright, so much so that she had to shield her eyes with her hand. Something was happening - she couldn't tell what, but there was a curious low humming sound and the leaves of nearby undergrowth were whipping as if in a strong breeze.

In the center of the clearing stood Billy Miles still in his hospital pajamas, with Theresa Nemman in his arms.

Scully wanted to shout out or something, but couldn't. She was frozen to the spot, her vocal cords numb. From behind her she could hear a crashing sound, as if someone were running towards her; then whoever it was stopped.

Scully heard a shout, and what sounded like a shotgun being fired; then there was a sharp flash of brilliant white light.

"Scully? Scully, come on, wake up!"

Scully groaned. "Oh God, my head ...."

Mulder was raising her into a sitting position and gently supporting her. "I'm afraid the Advil's back at the motel," he told her. "What happened?"

She blinked at him for a few moments in the reflected glow of his flashlight. "I'm not sure .... There was another flash."

"Do you remember what happened before that?"

"No - yes - It was Billy Miles!" Scully sat up sharply, her head forgotten. "Billy Miles was stood in the clearing! He had Theresa Nemman with him ...."

Mulder's eyes widened. "Are you sure? Because ...." His voice trailed off, and he moved out of her line of sight.

Sheriff Miles was crouched in the center of the clearing, a shotgun by his side. It took a few seconds for Scully to register that he was crouched over the body of his son, weeping.

"The sheriff shot him," Mulder said quietly. "He said he had to stop him - had to stop whatever he was doing. But there's no sign of Theresa Nemman anywhere, Scully."

"So what are your conclusions on this case, Agent Scully?" Assistant Director Skinner asked. He hadn't given any overt reactions either one way or another while he read her report, but that didn't mean a thing.

Scully, once again neatly dressed in a tailored suit, was outwardly calm as she sat in front of his desk, but inwardly tense. "I am still of the opinion that the Class of '89 at Bellefleur High school were the victims of some sort of incident - perhaps drug-related - which caused extreme shock and mental imbalance, Sir," she said steadily. "That may account for the atypical behavior which led a number of them to wander outside their homes in the night and meet with accidents which caused their deaths. However - " she took a deep breath, "that does not, in most cases, explain the lack of a cause of death. Nor does it explain the condition of the corpse found in the grave of the late Ray Soames, or the attitude and actions of the sheriff, the County Medical Officer, or the Coroner. Nor does it explain these."

Scully dipped one hand in her pocket and drew out a small vial containing the two metal implants. She put it carefully down in front of AD Skinner.

Skinner picked it up and held it to the light, looking at the two objects thoughtfully. "These are the two implants you mentioned in your report?"

"Yes, Sir. I had them in my pocket all the time, and they are the only surviving pieces of evidence."

"What are they?"

Scully shook her head. "We haven't been able to determine that yet, but the crime labs have established that the metal they're constructed of is an unknown substance."

Skinner sat back in his seat, the fluorescent strip light reflecting off his glasses, and passed one hand over his balding head. "Off the record, Agent Scully - what do you believe happened?"

But Scully shook her head again. "I don't know, Sir."

Skinner picked up his pen and studied it thoughtfully. "And what does your friend, *ex*-Agent Mulder believe?"

Scully hesitated. "Mr. Mulder believes we are not alone, Sir," she offered finally.

Skinner nodded. "That will be all, Agent Scully."

She got up and went to the door. But just as she was turning the handle, Skinner added, "Agent Scully?"

She turned back nervously. "Sir?"

"You did a good job. A very good job."

The address was in a pleasant residential area of Virginia, and it had cost Scully two tickets to the Redskins game. Just as well she hadn't been planning to use them after all - but Danny Vallodeio wasn't to know that. She mounted the steps to the front door, casting an appreciative glance around her, and rang the bell.

There was a significant pause, then the door opened to reveal a rather harassed-looking Fox Mulder. His face broke into a delighted smile when he saw her, though. "Hey, Scully! What brings you to this neighborhood?"

Scully hesitated. "Have I arrived at a bad time?" she asked doubtfully.

"Not at all. Come on in."

The house was very neat, but with a curiously old-fashioned feel, and not at all the kind of place Scully would have expected to find Mulder living in. It didn't seem very ... him. Then she remembered that he lived with his mother, and was consumed by a sudden desire to meet Mrs. Mulder.

"My mom's out at the moment, visiting some friends," Mulder said, as if reading her mind. "Can I get you a coffee?"

"That would be lovely."

He ushered her into a small sitting room, and promised to be back shortly, leaving Scully to look around her in fascination.

In fact, it wasn't a sitting room at all, but a small library. Scully put her bag down on a little table and went to study the bookshelves. She was abruptly reminded, looking over them, that Mulder was Jewish; there was an old and beautifully bound copy of the Talmud, alongside other books. Scully wracked her brains, trying to remember what little education she had received in other religions at her convent school. Some of them were prayer books, she knew. There was a small glass cabinet in between two of the bookcases, containing various beautifully wrought articles in silver, including a Menorah.

A sudden rattling noise on the polished wooden floor of the hallway made her turn ... and stare in surprise.

In the doorway of the library, staring back at her, was a toddler seated on a sturdy wooden train. He had dark hair which stuck up a little in an endearing tuft at the front and big hazel eyes; he looked to be about eighteen months old. Probably he couldn't walk properly yet, but he obviously had no problems getting where he wanted to go on his toy train.

Mulder appeared behind him carrying a tray with a coffee pot, cups, cream jug and a squat plastic baby-mug on it. He looked down at the toddler, who was tipping his head back to look up at him. "Well," he said chidingly, "you can say hello, can't you? You were talking enough earlier."

The little boy looked at Scully again, but obviously decided against speaking, eyeing her dubiously.

Mulder stepped around him and put the tray down on the coffee table. Something about his expression told Scully he was nervous. "I hope you don't mind," he said, setting out the cups. "He's going to bed in a moment, but if I don't give him his milk, he'll take forever to settle down."

Scully smiled in spite of herself. He sounded like her sister- in-law. But she was alive with curiosity. "He's cute," she said, watching the little boy propel himself further into the room, "but whose is he?"

There was an uncomfortable pause in which she instantly felt like an idiot; then Mulder said awkwardly, "He's mine. And Phoebe's."

"I'm sorry, but I couldn't tell you before," Mulder said quietly. "It was hard enough telling you the rest." He got a firmer grip on the squirming toddler and sat him squarely on his lap, before offering him the baby-mug. "Sit still, you little terror! Besides," he continued, "I don't know if I could have explained in a way you'd have believed at that point, even if I'd wanted to. It still seems pretty fantastic even to me."

Scully wasn't sure what she was feeling at the moment, but the curiosity still seemed to be predominant, fortunately. "You're saying that he wasn't born before you separated from her?"

Mulder nodded. "I told you she drugged me. Well ... when I came out of hospital, she was gone and I thought that was it. The divorce still went ahead, and although I've never been able to hand her the 'get', legally speaking we're divorced. But about a week after the decree nisi came through, I got a call from a guy in Denver who'd been at Quantico with me. He was visiting his sister in hospital after she'd had a baby, and while he was there he thought he saw Phoebe in the next room.

"So he thought about it a bit, and went back to the Denver field office and checked up, and when he realized she was wanted, he hot-footed it back to the hospital with his SAC and a couple of other agents. Only to find that Phoebe was gone - leaving behind the baby she'd given birth to the day before."

"Oh God," Scully murmured, beginning to feel slightly sick.

Mulder paused and looked up at her. The toddler, oblivious to the conversation, continued sucking on the baby-mug as though his life depended on it. "This is the bit of my file which Danny couldn't tell you about," he explained. "They classified it, so that half the Bureau couldn't go taking a look when they felt like it. So, anyway ...

"Simon's SAC contacted Washington, and when AD Skinner heard what was going on, he threw me and Reggie Purdue - who was my SAC at the time - on a plane to Denver. Where they did emergency DNA tests and established that the baby was mine. And that's when the huge mess I told you about started." Mulder smiled suddenly, in spite of himself. "Parts of it are quite funny, in retrospect - like Reggie phoning my mother to tell her what was going on. She went absolutely nuts, and had him running around trying to find a Rabbi to get Sam circumcised. I've got to hand it to him - he was really organized, and just took over and dealt with everything, which is just as well, because I couldn't have ordered a coffee from a drinks machine at that point."

"It must have been a shock," Scully observed, fascinated.

He looked wry. "That's an understatement. I never expected to have kids, I hadn't got a clue what to do with a baby. Reggie wasn't much better. Sam kept crying on the plane home, and neither of us knew what to do, so we ended up with one of the Flight Attendants sat with us. I kept wondering what I was going to do with him when we got home, and how I was going to manage, which was stupid because - "

"Your mother had already picked out which room you were going to have, and which one would make a good nursery," Scully finished, grinning, and Mulder snorted a laugh.

"You have a mother like that too?"

"You have *no* idea."

There was a companionable silence for a while. Scully drank her coffee thoughtfully, and Mulder patiently mopped his son's face and front clean of the inevitable spills.

One thing was niggling at Scully, though. "Mulder ... why did she do it?"

He didn't pretend not to understand what she was asking. "I honestly don't know, Scully," he said bluntly. "Phoebe never wanted children, and she was the last person alive to have scruples about abortion. I can't imagine why she let herself get pregnant like that, let alone carry it to term and then give birth. The only remotely characteristic part of the whole thing is that she abandoned him."

"Cup," Sam interrupted suddenly, and offered his father the baby-mug.

Mulder took it. "Yeah, it's your cup," he said affectionately. "Have you finished?" The toddler nodded. "And are you ready for bed now?" Another nod. "Okay, say goodnight to Agent Scully."

When he returned, Scully was gazing once more at the Menorah in the glass cabinet.

"My great-grandfather made it," he said, seeing her interest. "He was a silver-smith. My grandparents brought it with them from Holland just before the War; this house was theirs too. Mom and I rent it from one of my uncles."

She nodded, but her mind was elsewhere. "Mulder," she said abruptly, "I thought you'd want to know - all the evidence has disappeared."

He looked at her thoughtfully. "You mean Ray Soames's body?"

Scully nodded. "The crime labs never received it."

"It's a good bet it never actually left Bellefleur," he pointed out gently, and watched the anger and frustration cross her face; the same anger and frustration he'd felt two years before. "What did AD Skinner say?"

She snorted a rather humorless laugh. "That I'd done a good job."

"You *did*," he said sharply. "Don't beat yourself over this, Scully - you did the best job anyone could possibly expect of you, but you were never meant to win. That's not your fault."

"But if I'd moved faster, maybe Billy Miles and Theresa Nemman - "

"Theresa Nemman turned up in her bed two days later," he interrupted. "She survived, which is more than Karen Swenson and Peggy O'Dell did. As for Billy Miles - he was already dead. They'll charge Sheriff Miles with manslaughter, and he'll probably get a suspended sentence on compassionate grounds. End of story." Mulder reached out and gripped her shoulder. "Let it go, Scully. There'll be other occasions with better odds."

She smiled in spite of herself. "You think?"

He nodded wryly. "Believe it."

Scully accepted this with a nod, and picked up her bag. "I'd better be going."

But as Mulder showed her to the door, she remembered one other thing. "Oh, I nearly forgot - I had those implants analyzed."

Mulder's brows rose in interest. "And?"

"The crime labs couldn't identify the metal, let alone what they were for." Scully patted her pocket, looking for the vial, then checked in her bag. "I could have sworn I ... no, dammit, I must have left them in Skinner's office. Looks like I can't give you a souvenir from Bellefleur after all."

Mulder grinned. "Hey, I still have my flashlight," he reminded her, and Scully laughed.

The room in the basement of the Pentagon was very large and stacked high from floor to ceiling with row upon row of shelves, and the door to it had a complex lock which buzzed faintly before releasing to allow a tall, dark-haired woman to enter.

Pausing briefly to switch the lights on, she scanned the shelves before heading down one narrow walkway, trailing her fingertips across the locked steel boxes stacked there as if she was she was searching for something. Apparently she found it, for a moment later she stopped, pulled out a key and unlocked one particular box.

Inside were rows of little glass vials. The woman brought out a similar vial from her coat pocket and compared it to the others.

It was the two metal implants from Ray Soames's body; and the box contained dozens of identical vials containing identical implants. Satisfied, the woman added the Bellefleur evidence to the box, and locked it up again.

That done, she headed down another walkway between two sets of shelves until she came to a huge bank of filing cabinets at one end. Pulling out a slender case file marked "FBI", with the number #X-1.01-091093 hand-written in the corner, she selected a cabinet and opened it, putting the file inside very precisely, and locking the drawer again.

The woman turned to leave - and paused. She turned back to the cabinets again and scanned the identifying labels on the front of the drawers, then selected one, unlocking and opening it. For a moment, she hesitated again, but came to a decision and began looking through the tightly-packed files there.

After a moment, she half drew one out and checked the label.


She put it back and pulled out another.


And another.


She paused, and pulled that one out fully. For several minutes she flipped through it, a half-smile on her face, then she slapped it shut and put it back. She pulled out the next one.


It was a very small file, but that was hardly surprising for the subject of its contents was also - as yet - very small. The woman opened the file and examined the birth documents and tissue samples thoughtfully.

From the expression on her face, it would be hard to say whether Phoebe Green-Mulder actually felt anything at that moment, but her actions a few minutes later laid to rest any doubts.

Shrugging her shoulders, she closed the file and shoved it back in the filing cabinet, locking the drawer briskly.

Then she walked back out of the room, switching off the light as she went. The door clunked shut behind her and the lock buzzed briefly.

Just another day's work.

Title: Prelude II: Toomed

Spoilers: The Pilot/Squeeze/Tooms/Fallen Angel/Deep Throat/Jersey Devil/Lazarus/Beyond The Sea/Duane Barry/Darkness Falls
Overall Rating: R
Content Warning: Alternate Universe/MSR
Classification: S,X,R
Summary: Scully's asked to officially take over the X Files Division, and her first case involves a man with ten inch fingers ....

Scully arrived at work in a positive mood, which was not diminished by the unattractive prospect of spending the day sitting opposite her colleague, Agent Colton, while she sorted out her expenses and paperwork from her latest case, an official request for assistance on a multiple homicide in Cleveland.

Colton had been a classmate at Quantico, which perhaps helped a little when dealing with him. Scully had become inured to his vaulting ambition and casual ability to use others for his own purposes, while making it seem like he was doing it for their benefit; these days she filtered out ninety percent of his conversation - if you could call it conversation, one-sided as it was.

He was reading a newspaper when she arrived, and glanced up at her briefly over the top of it. "Morning, Dana," he said distractedly, and vanished again.

Good; he wasn't in a mood for talking or - more likely - didn't have some tidbit of gossip to pass on. That suited Scully fine. "Morning, Tom," she replied, dumping her coat and briefcase before booting up her computer.

By the time she'd returned from hanging up her coat and getting a coffee, the e-mail icon was blinking impatiently in the bottom right-hand corner of the screen. She clicked on it, and the program sprang to life. Three messages. Scully clicked on the first.



Subject: Mostly Harmless.

So, Sherlock, is the game afoot? Or do you have time to

share a cup of something almost, but not quite, entirely

unlike tea with me this lunchtime?

I'll meet you at the Restaurant at the End of the



Scully grinned in spite of herself. The man was a nutter. The last time she'd seen him, he'd wanted her to accompany him to a psychic convention in Baltimore, but the multiple homicide got in the way. He'd probably picked up some horrible Outer Mongolian herbal remedy for veruccas, and wanted to palm it off onto her.

She'd have to meet him for lunch just to find out.

The grin vanished when she clicked on the second message, though.



Subject: -

D -

This is stupid. We need to talk. I'll meet you at

Valchera's for lunch, okay? 1:00.


Scully angrily shoved the cursor-arrow towards the 'delete' button, and consigned the message to the recycle bin. He had a damn nerve! He hadn't even bothered to ask if she was available, just casually assumed she'd fall in with his plans. Well, she most certainly wasn't meeting Jack for lunch, and she made a mental note to avoid Valchera's like the plague for the next few weeks.

She wheeled the cursor to the third message, and clicked.



Subject: Meeting.

Assistant Director Skinner has asked to see you at 10:30

this morning.

Please contact me immediately if you will be unavailable

for this interview.

Kimberley Manton

A.D.'s office.

Scully glanced reflexively at the clock, but knew she had over an hour yet. What could the AD want? She hadn't seen him since the Bellefleur case, although she knew he'd been behind her being sent to Cleveland two weeks ago. Maybe it was another of those 'special' cases, like Bellefleur. Mulder had warned her that others tended to surface once in a while ....

Then she smiled. Mulder also believed in *aliens*, for God's sake. She thought about the dark, lanky, good-looking college lecturer-cum-part time freelance journalist for a moment. They met up for coffee or lunch once in a while; Mulder claimed that he was on a self-imposed mission to broaden her mind, but Scully suspected it was simply because he missed his old job at the Bureau and wanted to talk to someone who spoke the same language.

Well, if AD Skinner *did* want to hand her one of the so- called "X" files, she'd be able to ask Mulder's opinion of it.

"Agent Scully, please take a seat."

Assistant Director Walter Skinner's voice embodied the term "gravelly". He was a tall, muscular man, an ex-Marine in his early- or mid-forties, balding and wearing glasses, but was otherwise impressively fit and youthful; a man who gave a strong impression of energy held in check and complete control of his surroundings. He was also rather good-looking, but Scully noticed this only in the abstract, having long ago schooled herself into an unawareness of such things in her male superiors.

It was a trick some of her fellow female agents could have stood to learn, if half what she overheard in the washrooms was true.

Skinner waited until she was seated before sitting down behind his desk and picking up a file; it was thick and vaguely familiar to Scully, which was hardly surprising, as it was her personnel file.

"I've been reviewing your performance during the Cleveland case, Agent Scully," he said, without preamble. He flipped a few pages over in the file, but wasn't really reading them. "SAC Shinton was very impressed with your work, and his report was highly favorable."

Scully murmured a few confused words of thanks, unsure what this was leading to, and Skinner looked at her over the top of his reading glasses.

"I've been looking over your work on the Bellefleur case again as well. Considering the unusual circumstances, your performance was exemplary and produced a better result than was originally expected. All in all, Agent Scully, and considering the rather - unfortunate - nature of your transfer out of Quantico, your record has so far been very good with Violent Crimes. Agent Blevins speaks very highly of you, and your work has been consistently high quality." Skinner closed the file and leaned back in his chair, fiddling with his fountain pen. "It's been suggested that you might like to consider taking on a more challenging project, something which will make better use of your abilities as both a pathologist and an investigator.

He paused for a few moments, considering, and Scully strove to look suitably interested, whilst wondering just who had done the "suggesting". "I'm aware that you are acquainted with a former agent named Fox Mulder," Skinner continued abruptly. "Has he ever mentioned a project known as the X-files to you?"

"Only in passing, Sir," Scully said carefully. "I believe they have to do with unexplained phenomena."

"In part," Skinner agreed, "but - well, you'll see. Mulder worked on the X-files in the period leading up to his resignation, but since then they haven't been touched. It's been suggested that you would be a good candidate to continue the work. How do you feel about that?"

There was only one possible response to such a question. "I'll give it my best shot, Sir," Scully said, doing her best to mask the mélange of thoughts and emotions racing through her.

"Good." Skinner stood up, and so did she. "You'll want to check out the office they're kept in and get started. I suspect," he added dryly, "knowing the way Mulder worked, there'll be some tidying up to be done. I'll require regular reports on your progress."

It was a dismissal of sorts, and Scully took it as such. As she went to the door, however, his voice halted her again.

"Oh, and Agent Scully - you'll be reporting to me directly in future."

The office was in the basement; she'd had to ask Kimberley, the AD's secretary, where to find it, and then retrieve the keys from Security, who'd been incredulous that anyone was going to work down there again.

Their reactions didn't give Scully a warm, fuzzy feeling about the project, and nor did the poorly lit corridor leading to the room in question. She stared around her at all the abandoned equipment from previous eras in the Hoover building, and wondered what she'd got herself into.

She unlocked the door, noting the scratched and faded sign on it that said "Photocopier", and pushed it open warily. Darkness. She fumbled around on the wall until she found a switch and pressed it. The light that flickered on was nothing like as bright as the fluorescents up in the VCS offices, but was adequate to give her a good look at the room.

It was bigger than it looked, but the piled steel shelves and filing cabinets around the walls, and lack of an adequate window to provide natural light, made it look dark and cramped. Everything was swathed in plastic sheeting.

Scully hesitated, then stepped confidently forward and pulled the huge plastic cover off the desk, to reveal in-trays, out-trays, assorted rubbish and paperweights ... and a sturdy brass name-plate. She smiled suddenly, and picked the latter up, running her fingers over the engraved letters.

Special Agent Fox Mulder.

She put it down again, feeling less like an outsider, and walked around the desk. Her shoes crunched something on the floor; looking down, she saw a scattered mass of sunflower seed shells. Looking up again, her eyes fell directly on a Unipart calendar, two years out of date, with an improbably busty Miss August staring back at her. She smiled wryly. Typical.

She pulled up the chair, wincing at the squeal of the wheels, and began to turn over the contents of the two trays on the corner of the desk. Most of the stuff was fit only for the wastepaper basket; ditto the contents of the drawers. There was a computer on a table behind her which looked as if it had received some serious abuse in the past, and a poster on the wall opposite which had a picture of a so-called UFO with the legend "I Want To Believe" underneath.

It was all very Mulder, right down to the faint scent of his cologne which still clung to the chair she sat on. The latter kept distracting her ... much to her irritation when she realized.

An hour later, Scully was cleaning out a percolator in the corner, in the hopes of making some real coffee, and wondering if the computer was still linked into the FBI network.

Her desk upstairs had been forgotten.

The rude clatter of something metallic hitting the formica table-top jerked Mulder out of his perusal of the Washington Post's sports section.

"What the - " He looked up, and saw a pair of smiling blue eyes. "Oh, hi!" He tossed the paper to one side and picked up the brass name-plate which had been tossed on the table. "Scully, where did you get this?"

Scully dropped her bag into the corner of the cubicle and slid into the seat opposite him. "Where do you think?" she smiled.

"Last time I saw it, it had crawled under a pile of files to die."

"In a certain basement office?"

"That'd be the one." Mulder suddenly registered what she'd said, and looked at her sharply. "What were you doing in the basement?"

"Cleaning up. Can't you tell by the layer of dust on me?" Scully grabbed the menu from where it was propped up by the salt and pepper shakers. "God, I'm starving! By the way, Mulder, you have filthy habits."

"Have you been talking to my mother again?" he joked, but his eyes were fixed on her steadily. "Come on, Scully, give - what were you doing in the basement?"

"Like I said - cleaning." She scanned the menu thoughtfully. "The vegetable lasagna sounds good ...."

"Scully, if you don't start talking, I'm going to pin you to the floor and tickle you, right here in front of all your fellow agents."

"The gossip network would love it, I'm sure." Scully sighed and put the menu down. "Okay, it's quite simple. Skinner called me in this morning and said that I was to take over the X-files project."

Mulder stared. "You're kidding me, right?"

"'Fraid not. I spent half the morning sweeping up sunflower seed shells and persuading the computer to work. From the looks of it, I'd say you dropped coffee on the keyboard the last time you used it - the right cursor key keeps sticking."

A waitress approached, and there was a brief pause while they both ordered. When she was gone again, Mulder shifted uneasily in his seat. "Scully," he began uneasily, "are you sure you want to do this?"

She stared at him for a moment, wondering at the sudden change in his attitude. "You've spent the best part of the last three months trying to get me to believe in aliens," she pointed out, "and now you're saying I shouldn't get into this stuff?"

"Talking you into going to a NICAP meeting is a far cry from proving - *officially* proving - that the Government is covering up alien abductions," Mulder replied. He did not look happy. "I don't think you realize how risky this is."

Scully peered at him, her brow furrowed. "You know, just for a moment there I could have sworn it was my father sat opposite me."

"Scully - "

"Mulder, I'm a big girl, I can look after myself! And you're talking like I had a choice in the matter."

"You can refuse an assignment like this."

"Not after already making a prejudicial transfer once in my career," she retorted sharply. "Besides, what makes you think I want to refuse it? At least it means I don't have to work with Tom Colton anymore."

Mulder snorted in spite of himself. He'd never met Colton, but Scully's descriptions were colorful enough to make him wish for a chance encounter, just to see if the guy really was as pushy as she said.

"Anyway," Scully added, as the waitress hove into view with their orders, "from the looks of things, I'll be spending ninety percent of my time debunking the hoaxers."

"It'll look good on your solve rate, but don't be too quick to consign them to the bin, Scully," he warned her.

Scully's eyes narrowed. "Mulder, I've been looking through some of the files and - please tell me you don't really believe in Bigfoot."

Mulder grinned; they were back on common ground again. "Show me the proof that it doesn't exist," he challenged her.

Scully opened her mouth - and shut it again. She began to pick nonchalantly at her pasta.

"I had some great casts of its footprints somewhere in the office," he added, delighted with her reaction.

"I know," she retorted. "I'm using one of them as an umbrella stand. And by the way, Mulder, I don't know what you did to the filing system, but it's going to take me months to sort it out. How you ever found anything is beyond me."

He shrugged, smiling. "I have a good memory. Speaking of which - " He rummaged around in his coat pockets and pulled out a couple of packages. "I got you this at the psychic faire."

Scully smiled as she unwrapped it, unable to repress an inner chuckle. "Mongolian cures for veruccas?" she asked, pulling out a nondescript muslin bag of what looked like fine gravel.

"Close," he grinned. "Ground dragons' teeth. The woman who sold it to me swore it would bring you health, wealth and lasting happiness."

Scully looked at the little bag dubiously. "I'll take it in the spirit it was intended, then. But I have to tell you, Mulder - I have this lovely bridge I'd like to sell you, with marvelous views of Brooklyn."

He laughed, and handed her the second package. "Sam bought you a present too."

Scully's face creased into a broad smile. "You took him with you? How is he?"

Mulder glowered. "He's driving me nuts. He found Mom's purse this morning and posted all her money into my PC's disk- drive. Looks like I'm going to spend tonight trying to pick it out again with a pair of tweezers."

Scully couldn't help it; she laughed helplessly. "It could have been worse, Mulder," she managed, when she'd got her breath back a little. "My nephew put a peanut butter sandwich in the VCR once, and no one knew until they tried to play a brand new copy of "Dances With Wolves"."

He grinned in spite of himself. "Well, I wouldn't have minded, but when I told one of the other lecturers this morning, all she could say was that he was "exploring his environment", and I shouldn't stop him doing things like that or he'd grow up repressed and resentful. Which does nothing for how repressed and resentful *I* feel at spending an evening fishing $10.26 out of my PC."

"Well, he's not two yet, Mulder," Scully said reasonably, smiling. "He doesn't understand."

"Don't be too sure of that. He knew enough to hide after he'd done it."

The image this conjured up made Scully laugh again. She began to carefully unwrap the second parcel, and was delighted to find a delicate little bracelet, made of a fine copper chain with tiny crescent moons and stars hanging from it.

"It's lovely!" she exclaimed, putting it on and then twisting her wrist to watch the charms. Seeing Mulder's smug smile, she couldn't resist prodding just a little, though. "So Sam chose this, huh?"

The smile didn't slip, but a tiny hint of a flush climbed Mulder's cheeks. "Yeah, well ... he may not know much about PC's, but he's got good taste. It's been painted with something so it won't tarnish."

"That was going to be my next question." Scully finished the last couple of bites of her lunch. "So - any advice before I throw myself headlong into your filing system?"

"Mind the wobbly wheel on the chair?" he offered, grinning. He took another forkful of his own meal, and looked at his plate for a moment. The grin slipped. "Just - be careful, Scully. And - "

She raised a brow questioningly, and he shrugged, his smile a little uncomfortable.

"Well, you know where to find me."

"Mulder, you can have any newsworthy stories I dig up, just so long as you keep my name out of them," she replied with a smile, deliberately misunderstanding him.

He knew what was really being said, though. She'd tell him what was going on, and involve him if she possibly could. A relieved smile crossed his face.

Mulder missed his old job badly. Being a lecturer and part- time journalist, while being steady and more reliable work for a single father of an eighteen-month-old son, did not provide the excitement levels he thrived on.

Scully picked up her bag. "Look, I've got to go. I'll give you a call if anything interesting comes up. In the meantime ... give Sam a big hug and kiss for me."

A devilish glint entered Mulder's eye. "Oooh, Scully, I don't know if I'll be able to replicate that accurately without first-hand knowledge."

Scully gave him a look, and patted his cheek as she passed him. "In your dreams, Mulder, in your dreams."

He twisted in his seat to watch her as she walked out of the door, and smiled wistfully. "Scully, if only you knew."

Two days later, Scully had beaten the filing system into submission and had begun the painstaking job of working her way through it, trying to find a case worth re-opening and working on. Despite the comments by AD Skinner, she wasn't entirely sure exactly how she was to proceed - whether he was going to actually assign her cases, or if she was supposed to find her own. For the time being, she was working on the latter assumption, guessing that a good portion of what she did would be sifting through old case files and seeing if they could be closed on technical grounds, details that had been overlooked in previous investigations.

Despite that decision, it still wasn't easy to decide where to start. She suspected beginning at 'A' and working her way through would not be particularly helpful; nor would shutting her eyes and opening a file drawer at random. In the end, she chose a promising subject - poltergeists - and dragged all the files out on the subject. There were a lot, especially when she finally worked out Mulder's weird system of cross- referencing.

She was sat in the middle of the floor with them piled around her, when there was a knock on the door.

It was Tom Colton, and he was looking around him with a wrinkled nose. "So this is where they've buried you. Who did you tick off to get *this* detail, Dana?"

There were a lot of possible answers to that, but Scully chose the diplomatic one, aware that there was little point in aggravating him unnecessarily. "I've no idea. How can I help you, Tom?"

But Colton wasn't ready to talk business yet. "Someone told me this was Spooky Mulder's old office. That true?"

Scully's ears pricked up in spite of herself. "*Spooky* Mulder?"

"Yeah. The guy was some kind of nut - believed in aliens and things that go bump in the night. He got thrown out of the Bureau a couple of years ago."

Scully couldn't tell from Colton's expression or tone whether this was genuinely what he'd heard, or whether he was just fishing to find out what she knew, but she couldn't let it pass without trying to set the record straight. "That's not what I heard," she said evenly, as she picked up a small stack of files and deposited them on the desk.


"I heard he resigned from the Bureau to look after his son, after his wife left him."

"Really." The tone was just a little too casual. "Well, I heard you knew him."

"Really?" Scully recovered another pile of files from the floor, and feigned disinterest. "Says who?"

"Says Jack Willis."

Scully stiffened slightly.

"He says you're pretty cozy with Mulder - you had lunch with him the other day at Rosenthal's." Colton came up behind her and took hold of her left wrist, examining the delicate copper bracelet with apparent interest.

*Damn! How did Jack find out about that?* Scully pulled her hand away and turned, leaning back against the edge of the desk. "Okay, Tom, what's your point?"

He smiled amiably at her. "Nothing! I just thought you could lay the rumors to rest about him."

*Bullshit!* she thought sourly. "I don't think he'd thank me if I tried, and besides, he's just a friend. Is that all you came down here for? To do Jack's dirty work for him?"

But she knew as soon as she said it that it wasn't true. Tom Colton never did anyone's dirty work unless it was to his own advantage; and there was no advantage to be had in annoying Dana Scully. Besides, Jack did his own dirty work. Scully mentally resigned herself to another round of e-mails and answerphone messages from him.

"Actually," Colton replied quickly, "I came down here to see if you were too busy to help out with a case of mine."

Scully raised a brow, and glanced at her files. "Well I'm busy, but it's nothing that can't rot for another couple of years. What is it?"

"Baltimore PD have asked for our help. They've had three murders, the first of which happened six weeks ago. The victims have no known connection to each other."

Scully's interest was caught almost immediately. "So what's the pattern?"

"The killer's point of entry." Colton paused, then added, "Or lack of it, rather. The first victim was killed in her ten- foot-by-twelve-foot college dorm. The windows were locked, and the door bolted and chained from the inside. The latest killing occurred in a high security office block. There was nothing on the security cameras; the guy was working late, and had locked his office from the inside. No one was seen entering or leaving."

"So could they just be suicides?" Scully asked reasonably.

But Colton shook his head - and to her surprise, he actually seemed to pale slightly, although that could just have been an effect of the weak fluorescent light in the office. "The victims' livers were removed," he said, and offered her a stack of photos he'd been holding all along.

Scully's eyes widened as she looked through them. "My God ... what tools did this guy use? They look as if - "

"He used bare hands," Colton finished for her. "That's the conclusion we've come to, anyway - there's no evidence of any other tool being used."

She took a last look at the pictures and handed them back. "So what do you want me to do?"

Colton looked slightly uncomfortable, although he tried to hide it. "Since you've taken on Spooky's mantle, I thought you could maybe come down to the crime scene - take a look - check over the case histories maybe."

Scully gave him a thoughtful look. "I've only been working down here a few days, Tom. It's hardly my area of expertise yet."

"Yeah, well ...."

There was a pause in which he looked anywhere but at her. Finally, Scully asked carefully, "Do you want me to ask Mulder if he can help out at all?"

Colton twitched irritably. "Look, let's not get carried away here," he warned her. "I'm going to solve this case. But ... if Mulder wants to do you a favor - " Scully did her best to ignore the thinly veiled insinuation in this, " - and knows any background information which might help, then great."

He paused, examining a plaster cast of a footprint which was holding up a row of books on a shelf. "If I can solve this case, I'll get my boost up the ladder," he said abruptly.

*At last, we come to the nitty gritty,* Scully thought wryly.

He turned to face her. "And if you help me out, Dana ...." His voice trailed off suggestively, and she tilted her head to one side questioningly.

"Maybe you won't have to be Mrs. Spooky anymore," he shrugged.

When he was gone Scully slumped down in her chair, uncaring of the slight list the wobbly wheel gave it, and stared pensively at the "I Want To Believe" poster opposite.

*What if I want to be 'Mrs. Spooky'?*

What struck Scully first about George Usher's office was how neat it appeared; the murderer of the businessman was amazingly tidy, given the method of the killing. In the few minutes she had to herself at the crime scene before Colton arrived, she studied the room, correlating the visual evidence with the conclusions of the examining pathologist.

Security in the high-rise office block was impressively tight, and there had been no security camera evidence of an intruder. Usher had arrived late, at around 7.30pm after a meeting, and after getting himself a drink from the machine just down the corridor, had locked himself inside his office and telephoned his wife to let her know he would be late home. During that brief absence from the room, the camera opposite the door had recorded no signs of anyone else entering or leaving.

The camera had, however, recorded a violent impact against the inside of the door some ten minutes after Usher had locked himself in there. Scully looked at the back of the door and noted a decided dent in the flimsy plywood, which would appear to be the cause of a fractured right humorous bone in the deceased and bruising along the right side of the face. Usher had been flung against the door during a struggle ... if there had been much of a struggle which, judging by the condition of the office, Scully doubted.

The rest of the visible evidence comprised a large patch of blood on the carpet at the side of the huge pine desk. Given the wound left after the attacker had removed the liver, the quantity of blood was hardly surprising.

"Dana, hi." Colton arrived in a rush, anxious (Scully suspected) to lay claim to his case before she could. "Have you taken a look around? What do you think?"

"I think your killer knew what he was doing," she replied diplomatically. She looked around her thoughtfully. "The windows can't be opened and the door was locked from the inside. Has there been any progress on the point of entry?"

"None," Colton admitted gloomily, "just like the other two crime scenes."

Scully's eyes wandered over the room again, searching every corner for some hint or clue. The only other opening into the room beside the door, however, was an air conditioning vent covered by a fine grille. And that was barely a foot square - impossibly small to permit entrance to an attacker capable of taking out the six foot tall and heavily built George Usher.

Nevertheless .... Scully couldn't help but remember her training at the Academy. She herself was barely five foot two and lightly built, but had succeeded in making fools of men twice her size during unarmed combat lessons. The memory made her smile inwardly, but she looked again at the vent thoughtfully. It *was* the only other opening in the room.

And in her head, Fox Mulder's voice was whispering that she should take nothing at face value.

It wouldn't hurt to look.

Tom Colton thought otherwise, when he saw her walk over to the vent and look up at it. "Dana, you can't be serious! That opening's barely a foot square - "

"You're probably right," Scully agreed absently, but her eye had been caught by something glinting in the pile of the carpet directly below the vent.

To her relief, Colton was called away then by one of the local police officers. She quickly fished a thin surgical glove out of her pocket, and crouched down to take a closer look. There was a faint scattering of what looked like iron filings on the surface of the carpet. Scully carefully pressed a finger to one of them to pick it up, and examined it more closely.

It was more like a tiny twisted shred of metal. Scully looked up again at the vent. The grille was screwed down at each corner, and it seemed likely that tightly-fitting screws being turned could have produced the filings.

Why would Usher have been unscrewing the vent cover? And with what? There was no sign anywhere of a screwdriver or other tool that could have been used for that purpose. *Had* it been Usher at all?

Perhaps .... Scully looked around, and found the finger- printing kit left on a chair by the forensics team while they searched the other offices on the floor. Then she hesitated.

Colton was right, after all - no one could get through this air conditioning vent.

But Mulder's voice in her head pointed out that there was still the mystery of the metal filings. Someone had touched the vent and might have left prints. If it was Usher, there was the question of why he had done so. If it wasn't Usher ....

Scully grabbed the brush and powder from the kit. She had to stand on tiptoe to reach the edge of the grille, but when she had carefully dusted all around it, the effort was rewarded.

Scully's eyes widened in satisfaction as a single print was revealed by the fine black powder ... only to become round with astonishment a second later when the shape of the print became clear.

It was a finger-print all right. But Scully doubted if George Usher had made it.

"Hi Bill!"

The duty officer, manning the security desk at the J. Edgar Hoover Building's main entrance, froze at the breezy greeting. *That* voice he hadn't heard in nearly two years. He hadn't expected to ever hear it again after its owner had, according to rumor, been drummed out of the Bureau in disgrace.

It couldn't be. He looked up warily.

It was.

The smooth, blandly amiable face of Fox Mulder beamed back at him happily. But it wasn't the smile that bothered Bill. It was the lurking twinkle in the shrewd hazel eyes.

Mulder leaned on the desk with folded arms, smiling sweetly at the guard's sour expression. "Got a pass for me?"

"And why would I have a pass for you, Age - " Bill caught himself up sharply, and chomped on the inside of his lip for a couple of seconds irritably. "*Sir*," he finished finally, with sullen emphasis.

"Because I'm here to see someone," Mulder pointed out helpfully.

Bill restrained himself. "And who would that someone be? *Sir*."

"Special Agent Dana Scully."

Of course. Bill had been on duty when Agent Scully had collected the keys to the basement office less than a week ago. Rumor said (Bill listened to rumors, because a good member of Security needed to be up to date with events in the Bureau) that Agent Scully had taken over *former* Agent Mulder's job.

The Spooky Patrol, as it was casually known around the Hoover building.

Bill thought it was a pity - she had always seemed like such a nice young woman. "Do you have an appointment?" he demanded disapprovingly.

Mulder's brows rose and his face assumed a well-feigned "who, me?" look of hurt. "Of course."

The guard dragged out the visitors' book from under the counter, and slapped it and a pen in front of the former agent. "Sign in," he snapped. "I'll let Agent Scully know you're here."

The implication was clear: pass or no pass, Fox Mulder was not going to be allowed to roam the Hoover Building unescorted.

Mulder accepted this with unruffled equanimity, and signed the book with a flourish. Then he pocketed the pen, and turned away casually to watch the milling crowd of tourists waiting for a guide to arrive.

Bill gritted his teeth and tapped Mulder on the shoulder, holding out a hand menacingly when the younger man turned with raised brows. "My pen."

"Oh, did I - ?" Mulder fished in his pocket, feigned surprise when he found the pen there, and handed it back. "I'm so forgetful," he smiled.

Since it had been common knowledge in the Bureau that Spooky Mulder had a photographic memory, the only possible reply to this was a searing glare and retreat. Mulder grinned at Bill and returned to his people-watching.

"Mulder, what are you doing?" a voice asked, and Scully appeared in his line of vision, one auburn brow raised admonishingly.

Mulder permitted himself a quick five-second appreciation of her tailored burgundy suit with two regulation inches of knee appearing from the hem of her skirt. "Waiting for you," he replied, smiling and ignoring the stern note in her voice.

Scully gave him a Look, and leaned over the Security desk. "Do you have a visitor pass, Bill?"

Bill grudgingly handed one over, and Mulder made a show of pinning it to the lapel of his jacket.

"Come on," Scully sighed, and tried not to notice as he waved a coy goodbye to Bill. She led him over to the elevators and punched the "call" button. "Mulder, what *were* you doing?"

He blinked at her innocently. "Huh?"

"What is it with you and Bill?"

"Oh - nothing. Bill and I go way back."

"I noticed," she commented dryly. "How to win friends and influence people ...."

The elevator doors opened and she pushed him inside. "Come on, I've got something to show you."

"I gathered that much from your message." Mulder eyed her curiously as the doors shut and she pressed the basement button. "What's so urgent?"

Scully stalled, unwilling to talk about the case in the lift. "Was it inconvenient for you?"

"No, but - "

The lift stopped, and the doors opened on a group of chattering agents from Serious Fraud. They piled into the elevator car and as the doors shut, the temperature seemed to drop by several degrees. There was a deafening silence.

"What floor?" Scully asked, and her words seemed to drop to her feet dead as she said them. She looked around, astonished, and realized that everyone else was staring at Mulder.

Mulder himself had suddenly discovered an acute fascination for the floor.

The hostility was tangible, and Scully felt a sudden surge of anger. "What floor?" she snapped sharply.

"Lower ground two," one agent said finally.

Scully punched the button viciously and proceeded to stare that agent in the eye icily until the doors opened again and the lift disgorged the entire group. Even so, she heard someone whistling the theme to "The Twilight Zone" as the doors closed again behind them.

There was an uncomfortable silence as the lift proceeded on to the basement.

"Mulder - " she began finally.

He looked up and gave her a wry little smile that did unnerving things to Scully's insides. "Nice to know I'm still news around here," he observed.

There wasn't much she could say to that.

For Mulder, stepping back into the basement was a surreal experience. It didn't feel like nearly two years since he'd left.

There were still piles of old office equipment littering the corridor - old metal shelves, chairs, desks stacked one on another, an old computer monitor or two - and the tired old fluorescent strip-light on the ceiling still fizzed and flickered a little, as if it was about to give up the ghost. The label on the door to the office still said "Photocopier" in faded letters. And the air-conditioning still didn't work.

The office had changed a little inside, though. His desk, the chair with the wobbly wheel, and the metal shelves and filing cabinets, were all still in their places, as were all his weird posters and pictures on the bulletin board. But Scully had already made an impact of her own; there was a much better angle-poise lamp on one side, the computer looked - well - as though the IT technicians had finally taken the time to come and give it an overhaul, and he could actually see the blotter and trays on the desk. His old Unipart calendar was gone, to be replaced by a very functional-looking pharmaceuticals one, and the perennially-dying Swiss Cheese Plant which was balanced on one of the filing cabinets had obviously been given a stiff dose of something it liked, because it was looking unfeasibly perky.

Although how it had survived this long anyway, was an X-file in itself.

Mulder felt uncomfortably like an intruder. Coming here hadn't been such a good idea, after all. "You've cleaned," he said to her accusingly, to cover his discomfort. "Don't you realize the only thing that holds this part of the building up is the dust?"

Scully raised a brow at him, unimpressed. "If you mean I got rid of the fine layer of seed shells coating everything, then you're right," she told him calmly. "I emptied your drawers too."

Mulder gave her a sharp look - her tone had an odd note in it. "I don't recall leaving anything behind - "

"Not even in the bottom drawer? There were some videos in there ...."

It was hard to tell in the chancy lighting, but Scully was convinced she could detect a slight flush on his face. His tone remained casual though. "Any videos you found in that drawer aren't mine."

"Good. Because I've put them in that big box of rubbish over there, along with the calendar and magazines which probably aren't yours either."

Scully gave him a look of mingled amusement and superiority, and went to the desk, grabbing the case file and an assorted pile of materials on top of it. "Did you get the case details I sent you?"

"Yeah. Did you say three murders so far?"

"That's right - no obvious point of entry in any of them." Scully put the file and other stuff on top of a light-table in the corner and switched it on. "The forensic team supposedly didn't come up with anything when they went over the crime scenes, but I found this print in the last victim's office."

She produced a photographic slide and put it on the table. The dark image of a strangely elongated and attenuated fingerprint showed up starkly, and she silently handed Mulder a magnifying glass so he could take a closer look.

"Where did you find it exactly?" he asked, fascinated.

"On an air-conditioning vent cover, about five feet off the floor. The team hadn't looked at it because it was barely a foot square."

"And what made *you* look at it, Dr. Scully?"


Mulder paused in his intense scrutiny of the slide and grinned up at her. "Please don't say I'm rubbing off on you at last - "

"Can I plead the fifth?" she returned blandly.

"What does the good Agent Colton think of this?"

"Nothing much. He thinks it must be a smeared print, probably left by a workman recently."

"Really," Mulder drawled, "and what does he think of you finding it?"

"That I'm shaping up as a worthy *Mrs.* Spooky."

Mulder glanced up at her sharply, no longer amused. "I'd avoid a reputation of that kind like the plague, Scully," he observed rather dryly. "The last Mrs. Spooky wasn't someone to model yourself on."

For some reason, Scully hadn't expected quite that reply - she'd expected some sort of leering come-back from him. Then she scolded herself for being self-obsessed. Given Mulder's past, and the former Mrs. Fox Mulder's transgressions in just about every conceivable area, it was hardly surprising he should put that particular interpretation on Colton's sobriquet.

Perhaps it was just as well. After all, did she really want Mulder to know that Colton thought they were having an affair?

"I've got to admit, that's the first time I've heard that particular nickname in connection with you," she commented.

"Well, you've led a sheltered life up until now." Mulder's tone was slightly sour. "Get used to it, Scully - if "Spooky" is the worst they call you, you'll be getting off lightly." He straightened up and put the magnifying glass to one side. "I've seen something like this before," he told her abruptly, and went to the filing cabinets.

Scully waited patiently for the explosion, which came almost a minute later.

"Scully! What have you done to the filing system?"

*At least he didn't call it 'his' filing system,* she thought philosophically. "What are you looking for?"

"The two files covering the previous murders." Mulder slammed a drawer shut, frustrated.

Scully gave him a perplexed look. "Colton has all the files on this case."

"Not the current three murders," he replied impatiently, "the other ten."

"*Ten*?" Scully was stunned. "Tom didn't say anything about ten other murders - what are you talking about?"

"He probably doesn't even know about them," Mulder admitted, leaning back against the file cabinet. He pointed to the slide still lying on the light table. "Prints like that one were lifted from five crime scenes in 1963. Same MO - no discernible point of entry, and the liver was removed from each of the victims. The killer was never caught."

"You said ten," she reminded him, and he nodded.

"Five identical murders were committed in 1933, with the same prints being found again. All in the Baltimore area. When the killer wasn't caught in both cases, they were buried in the X-files, where I found them a couple of years ago. In fact, there was at least one similar crime committed in 1903 on record, but fingerprinting hadn't come into its own then, so evidence was thin on the ground. Five murders every thirty years." He looked gravely at her. "That's three murders down, Scully - two to go."

There was a pause as Scully struggled to assimilate this information. Then: "So you're saying these are copycat crimes."

Mulder gave her an old-fashioned look. "What's the first thing we both learned at the Academy? Every fingerprint is unique. All eleven prints here are identical - this is the same killer."

"I have a meeting with Colton and the Violent Crimes team assigned to this in ten minutes," she said dryly. "Are you suggesting I should tell them that these crimes were committed by an alien?"

"Of course not," he replied, amused. "I find no evidence of alien involvement."

Scully glowered. "So, what - that this is the work of a hundred-year-old serial killer, capable of overpowering a healthy six-foot businessman?"

"And he should stick out in a crowd, with ten-inch fingers."

She slapped the surface of the light table in frustration. "Do you think this is some kind of joke - "

"No," Mulder replied gently. "The X-files are about unexplained phenomena, Scully, things that don't necessarily have a rational or scientific explanation. I haven't met Agent Colton, but based on what you've told me, do you honestly think he can handle the unconventional?"

Scully folded her arms and looked at the floor for a moment. "Bottom line, Mulder," she said quietly, "this is *Colton's* case."

"Your case file - if I can find it now you've revolutionized the system - was first opened in 1903," he pointed out. "That gives you jurisdiction. But to make it easier on the touchy Agent Colton, why don't you leave him to his investigation, and conduct your own?"

"I have a meeting to go to," Scully said, avoiding the question. "Is it safe for me to leave you down here on your own while I'm gone? I shouldn't be more than half an hour or so."

Mulder knew when to fight and when to back down, and judging by the look on Scully's face this was one of the latter occasions. He grinned at her good-naturedly. "Well, I don't make any promises about the file cabinets, but ...."

When she'd gathered up her materials and gone, he went to the cabinets and began rooting around for the two case-files he'd told her about. Perhaps if she saw the evidence, she'd think about it a little more .... Once he'd worked out her system, it was a piece of cake finding them. Mulder dumped the files on her desk and began looking around for something to mark them with, a highlighter pen or even some sticky Post-It notes. Scully's preternatural tidiness extended to the surface of her desk, though; there wasn't even a paperclip in sight. He pulled open the top drawer.

No pens, paperclips or Post-It pads, but a small stack of personal bits and pieces whose very untidiness told him that she'd dumped them there when she moved offices and hadn't had the time to sort them out.

Mulder paused.

Like any good investigator, he'd been born with more than his fair share of curiosity, a desire to know that bordered on nosiness. There was no question where his son Sam came by his enquiring mind. But that aside, Mulder had noticed a while ago that while he had told Scully quite a bit about himself, for one reason or another, and those being things that were often quite personal, he still knew very little about her.

Her father was a retired naval captain; her mother, to use an old-fashioned and politically-incorrect term, a housewife. She had two brothers and a sister. Scully herself had joined the FBI Academy straight out of medical school, to the apparent dismay of both parents, and she'd taught at Quantico until circumstances - according to her, in the form of a falling-out with a colleague - had forced her to make a prejudicial transfer.

And that was about the sum total of his knowledge - or at least, it was as far as she had told him. Mulder actually now knew more than he had a week ago, although he suspected Scully herself would be mortified if she knew about a certain ... informative encounter he'd had after she left him at Rosenthal's three days ago.

And Mulder, being both human and curious, wouldn't mind knowing if what he'd learned from that encounter was borne out in any way by Scully's personal belongings. To do him justice, he did struggle against the impulse for a moment or two. But then curiosity won out.

It was mostly photographs, a handful of which were in frames. The first was a rather formal, posed picture of a distinguished older man in naval uniform and a charming older lady with dark hair. Mulder would have known this to be Scully's parents without being told; aside from the man's uniform, there was a marked facial resemblance between Scully and her mother. Another picture showed Scully stood beside a Christmas tree with two younger men, one also in a naval uniform and the other with unmistakable red hair. A third showed her with another red-headed woman, slightly taller and with a more flamboyant dress style. These were presumably her brothers and sister.

The next one was a group photograph of her Academy class, and the one after that, bigger and framed rather handsomely, her Academy graduation picture. Mulder smiled a little as he examined those, then put them aside.

The next half-dozen or so were, unfortunately, what he had half been expecting to find. Various pictures of Scully with another agent Mulder knew slightly from his time in Violent Crimes, an older man called Jack Willis. The same man who had accosted Mulder in Rosenthal's three days ago.

Mulder laid all the photos down on the desk top carefully, and thought about this. Scully had mentioned falling out with an instructor at the Academy once or twice, but although he had never called her on those facts - which she was obviously reluctant to talk about - he knew better than anyone that a simple "falling out" would not in itself be adequate reason to transfer out of a section of the Bureau. If, however, she had had a relationship with an instructor at the Academy which had turned sour, then any resultant transfer would indeed be prejudicial. Personal involvement with a colleague you worked closely with was professional misconduct in itself.

Jack Willis had been injured in the line of duty while Mulder was still with Violent Crimes, and had been offered a job as an instructor at Quantico.

Mulder abruptly scooped up the photos and pushed them back into the drawer. *They say listeners never hear any good of themselves,* he thought guiltily. *Snoops probably never find anything to their own benefit, either.* He shut the drawer decisively and opened the one underneath, intent on finding a pen.

Apparently the Imp of the Perverse hadn't finished with him yet, though. The middle drawer was a mad tangle of pens, pencils, message pads, rubber bands and assorted other detritus which had apparently been tipped in there in a hurry and had yet to be sorted out. Mulder rummaged around, searching for a highlighter pen - there *had* to be a highlighter pen in there somewhere - and instead pulled out a small, velvet-covered box.

He didn't need to open it. He knew what was in there.

He opened it anyway.

And shut it again with a snap of the spring-fastened lid, shoving it back into the depths of the drawer grimly. *At least she's not wearing it,* he thought, trying to convince himself that this was a good sign. *But why has she still got it at all?* a traitorous part of his mind whispered.

"Looking for something?" a dry voice enquired from the doorway.

The highlighter pen finally surfaced from the murk, and Mulder fished it out. "Just a pen," he replied, shutting the drawer.

And he looked up to meet the gaze of Assistant Director Skinner.

When Scully returned to her office three quarters of an hour later, there was no sign of Mulder. On her desk were two files, and a brief note.

I had to go. Let me know what

happens with the case.


Two days later, Scully was on stakeout with the rest of the Violent Crimes team assigned to catching George Usher's killer. Based on a profile she had written - and which Colton had taken a large part of the credit for - they were waiting in the underground parking lot of Usher's office block to see if the killer would, as she had predicted, return to the scene of the crime to recreate the emotional high of the killing.

Scully's feelings on these events were mixed. She was not feeling charitable towards Tom Colton right now, not just because of the business over her profile, but because of his proprietorial and somewhat condescending attitude toward her. He wanted her help: fine, she was prepared to extend it. He had offered to help her out in return: she hadn't decided yet if she wanted the help he was offering, but she was willing to go along with the idea for now. What she didn't need were his wisecracks about the X-files, or the snide remarks he occasionally dropped which the other members of the team apparently felt free to join in with.

Like Agent Fuller at the meeting the other day. "I know you're assigned to another area," he'd said, "but if you don't mind some overtime, you're welcome to join us. That is, if you don't mind working in an area that's a little more down-to- earth."

It wasn't so much the comment, as the sneer it had been said with, and the snickers from the rest of the agents.

And Scully was getting more than a little tired of Colton's continual jabs about Mulder. She was beginning to rethink her original assumption that he hadn't been Jack's errand boy earlier in the week. No less than twelve messages on her answerphone from Jack in the last four days hadn't helped; the content of some convinced her that Tom must have been talking.

She hadn't heard from Mulder since he'd left her office the other day, either. She'd e-mailed him to let him know what was going on, but hadn't received a reply.

*Life,* she thought gloomily, *was a lot simpler back at Med School. At least all I had to worry about there was passing my exams.*

Her radio suddenly let out a soft crackle of static. "Position Ten, this is a station check."

Scully grabbed it quickly. "Position Ten, I copy." She put it back on the dashboard and peered out into the gloomy lighting of the parking lot. Nothing moved. She wasn't sure whether to be glad or disappointed.

Mulder's two files kept floating in front of her mind. He had highlighted a number of points for her to look at, including the fingerprint analyses and another detail which had initially escaped her, the fact that the killer took a trophy from each crime scene. Examination of Colton's files had shown that an article had indeed been lifted from each victim's belongings; and the fingerprints were all identical to the one from Usher's office.

The sudden sound of footsteps roused Scully from her confused reverie. She leaned forward in the driver's seat and peered out into the garage.


All the same .... She drew her gun from its holster, picked up a flashlight from the seat beside her, and quietly got out of the car to look.

Silence. She looked around, aimed her flashlight into some of the gloomier corners, but saw nothing.

Then she heard it again; quick purposeful footsteps coming in her direction. Scully put the flashlight down and pressed her back against the wall, gun at the ready. The footsteps got closer ... closer .... She rounded the corner fast, her gun aimed directly -

- At Mulder's chest. He raised his hands reflexively, a bag of sunflower seeds still clasped in the right, but didn't look in the slightest bit fazed. Scully jerked the gun away hastily, and half-turned away for a second, taking a couple of quick, steadying breaths before turning back to fix him with an angry glare.

"You wouldn't shoot an unarmed man, would you, Copper?"

"Mulder, what the hell are you doing here?" she demanded sharply, in no way pleased to see him.

"He's not coming back here," Mulder told her placidly, ignoring her question.


"The killer - he's not coming back. The stakeout's pointless, Scully. He gets his thrill from the challenge of a seemingly impossible entry. Now he's conquered this building, he'll move on - if you'd read the notes I left for you, you'd have come to the same conclusion."

Scully wondered if shooting Mulder right now would be considered justifiable homicide. "Mulder, you are jeopardizing my stakeout," she snapped. "And in any case, you shouldn't be here."


She ignored him, holstering her gun and retrieving the flashlight before returning to her car.

"You're wasting your time," he called after her. "I'm going home." He turned on his heel and began to walk back through the abandoned parking lot.

Mulder wasn't exactly sure why he'd come down here. Aside from the risk of being picked up by the VCS team, he'd vowed to stay away from Scully for a while, judging the situation between them to be too complicated; but her e-mail, enclosing both a copy of her profile and details of the stakeout, had proven too tempting. He had to be there, to know first-hand what happened, even though he was certain nothing would come of it.

So it came a something of a surprise when, as he was passing a fenced off area of the basement containing the air conditioning pumps, he heard several sharp clangs and thumps coming from somewhere inside the large pipes the circulating air was pumped through. For several seconds he paused, staring at the pipes and telling himself that it was just random mechanical noise. Then there was a particularly loud bang, and Mulder's eyes widened in disbelief as something dented the metal air conditioning shaft from the *inside*.

Shock held him for barely a second; then he was off, running through the parking lot.

"Scully! Call for back-up and get over here!"

Watching the oddly youthful, if grimy, man emerge from the air conditioning vent backwards was an eerie feeling, Mulder reflected as he concentrated on keeping out of the FBI agents' way. Even more peculiar for him were the feelings running through him as he watched Scully, Colton and company bustling about and reading the suspect his rights, but having no part of the activity.

It felt lonely.

Not that he hadn't often felt quite lonely even when he was working for the Bureau and supposedly part of the team, but this was worse; not just the feeling of being an outsider, but knowing that he actually *was*.

*Get a grip, Mulder!* he thought acidly, catching himself in the act of self-pity as he watched the innocuous-looking vent crawler being taken away. Then he saw Scully approaching, and straightened up.

For a moment they stared at each other, Scully at least being unable to think of something to say. Then Mulder spoke up, driven by a need to have the first word if not the last.

"You were right."

It was the nearest he would get to saying he was wrong, and it had the additional benefit of acknowledging that her work was valid on its own merits, without any help from him. Mulder felt pleased with himself for having successfully conveyed that without any sour undertones.

Scully tried to smile, but it wasn't a total success. She didn't know why, but she felt almost guilty. "Will you come down to the precinct while we question him?"

Mulder gave her a wry look. "You think Colton's going to want me there?"

"I thought you might want to know what happens - they're going to do a polygraph."

"Not tonight - they won't get that fixed up until tomorrow at the earliest," he pointed out logically.

"So come down then," she persisted. "Take a look over the interview transcripts - you might be able to suggest something we've missed."

He doubted it, but the look on her face melted his resolve. "Okay. Let me know what time they schedule it for, and I'll see if I can't shift classes."

When Mulder arrived at the police precinct, he had about five minutes to speak to Scully before she was whisked away by Colton and Agent Fuller.

"I'm sorry," she told him tensely. "I tried, but Fuller and Colton won't hear of you being in on the polygraph."

Mulder grinned at her. "Did you honestly expect anything else?"

Scully sighed. "No, I guess not. Did you get a chance to look at the interview transcript?"

"Yeah, but don't say that too loud - Colton could drag you in front of the AD for spilling that to me."

"I'd like to see Skinner's face," she retorted.

*No, you wouldn't,* Mulder thought wryly, still smarting from his encounter with Skinner a few days ago, but he said nothing.

"Any ideas before I go?" she asked him. "You'll stay, won't you?"

"Seems like a reasonable idea now I'm here. What sort of questions are you asking him?"

Scully handed him a sheet of paper, and he scanned it quickly. Then he whipped a retractable pencil out of his pocket and leaned the paper on the wall while he added a couple more. "See what happens with these."

Scully looked. And blinked, getting a sinking feeling in her stomach. "Mulder, you've got to be kidding."

He smiled. "Honestly. If Colton gets antsy, you can always say they're control questions."

Someone called Scully's name then, and she gave his arm a quick squeeze. "Stay out of trouble, Mulder, and I'll see you in a minute."

"Me, trouble?" Mulder watched her go with a smile, then looked around for something to do. His eye fell on a young female officer working at the Enquiries desk. Maybe ....

Twenty minutes later the suspect, Eugene Victor Tooms, was led out of the soundproofed room where the polygraph had been conducted. Mulder looked up, and watched as Colton and Fuller walked in there, then Scully emerged from the observation room. She looked up at him, and the tension in her face was obvious.

"Well, do you want to take a look at the results?" she asked. He nodded and followed her into the room, where the technician was beginning to put her equipment away.

Colton and Fuller were bent over a long strip of printout from the polygraph, and as Scully and Mulder walked in, Fuller let out a frustrated exclamation and pushed the paper away.

"Well that screws *that* up," he said angrily. "Tooms is clean."

Scully bit her lip, but Mulder quietly reached around her for the printout. "Mind if I take a look?" No one answered, so he took it to a free area of the table to examine it.

"If it wasn't Tooms, what was his explanation for being inside the ventilation system?" Scully demanded of her two colleagues.

"He's a vermin control officer," Colton replied, in a calmer voice than she'd expected. "Someone complained about a smell in the air conditioning system, so he was investigating it. We checked his story and there was a dead rat inside the system."

"He was doing that at nearly midnight?"

"So he's one of the few civil servants with initiative and we busted him for it!" Fuller snapped.

"Tooms was in that building by himself without alerting security - "

"Dana," Colton said, his tone one of exaggerated patience, "he passed the test. So he was the wrong guy; it happens. It doesn't mean your profile was wrong."

"Oh, so it's *my* profile now, is it?" Scully noted sarcastically, her temper rising, and Colton flushed angrily.

"Scully's right - Tooms is the killer," Mulder interrupted suddenly.

Fuller rolled his eyes impatiently. "What have you got, Mulder?" he asked, in a tone of exaggerated patience.

"He failed the test on questions eleven and thirteen - the readings nearly go off the scale."

There was an ominous pause, in which Mulder raised his head to look at the three agents with an expression of mild inquiry. He knew what was coming.

"If those are the questions about him being a hundred years old or being alive in 1933," Colton said in a poisonous tone, "then let me tell you, *Spooky* - I would have had a reaction!"

"Tooms is the guy," Mulder replied steadily.

"Well, I'm letting him go," Fuller said flatly. "I don't need that machine to tell me that Tooms wasn't alive in 1933 - whatever the relevance of *that* might be - so we've got nothing on him. Nothing we can use, that is!" he added acidly, and he walked out.

Colton paused, pointedly ignoring Mulder, and looked at Scully. "Are you coming?"

She straightened slightly, looking him in the eye. There was a brief silence, during which something unpleasant seemed to hang in the air between the two agents that even Mulder couldn't analyze. Then Scully's back stiffened. "I'm officially assigned to the X-files, Tom."

Surprisingly, Colton persisted. "I'll see what I can do about that - "

"Thanks," she retorted, "but I'm well able to look after myself."

"Dana - "

"Let it go, Tom," she warned him.

Colton's restraint finally snapped. "You know, I'd heard a lot of stories about how "out there" this guy Mulder was," he sneered, "but I'm beginning to think maybe Jack Willis is right." Scully's eyes flashed murderously, but he ignored it, leaning toward her and stabbing one finger in the impassive Mulder's direction. "He isn't just "out there", Dana - the guy is *insane*. And it says something about you, that you hang out with him!"

He stalked out of the room, leaving a deathly hush behind him.

Scully felt a twinge of sick alarm, for Jack Willis was not a subject she particularly wanted to discuss with Mulder, and yet questions seemed inevitable. But when Mulder met her gaze, to her relief his expression was as smooth and non-committal as ever, and he showed no signs of wanting to pursue the topic.

"Nice colleagues you have," he commented amiably.

"You know," Scully said, as they walked out of the room, "you must have realized they wouldn't believe you, so why did you push it?"

"Maybe I thought you'd caught the right guy," Mulder offered.

Scully gave him a look. "*And*?"

"*And* ... maybe sometimes the urge to mess with their heads outweighs the millstone of humiliation," he acknowledged wryly.

Scully still wasn't convinced. "I don't know ...." She studied his face, looking for some clue to help her, but all he offered her was his perfected, patented bland smile. She took a risk. "It seemed like you were being almost ... territorial back there."

"Of course I was," he said at once, surprising her. "Scully, you're not a fool, but Colton is. You're not afraid to take a risk on the unconventional if you think it might possibly yield the answers you need, but in case you hadn't noticed, Colton is terrified to do anything that might make him look an idiot or spoil his chances of climbing the ladder. Unconventional isn't a word in his vocabulary."

"I think you're seeing something in me that isn't there," she said doubtfully.

"You took a risk on me, didn't you?"

Scully smiled in spite of herself. "Yes, but - "

"No buts. I'm an unacceptable risk to most guys at the Bureau." Now she was silent and when Mulder saw the troubled look on her face, he thought perhaps he'd pushed her too far. "Look, I wouldn't blame you if you wanted to drop this," he said gently. "Like you said, it *is* Colton's case. And if I'm honest with both of us, you'd be a fool not to take him up on his offer to get you out of that basement. It's a crying shame that someone of your abilities should be stuck with the X- files, because believe me, Scully, you're unlikely to make any spectacular career moves from down there - it's a dead-end job."

"AD Skinner doesn't seem to think so," she replied neutrally.

She got him there. The one unfathomable detail in the whole business was Skinner's involvement - as it had been when Mulder himself had been given the assignment.

Scully saw that she'd confounded him, at least temporarily, and pressed her advantage. "Look, Mulder, I'm not taking this crap," she told him bluntly. "You're not fobbing me off - I know you know something more than those polygraph results, and I want to know what it is."

Something sparked in his eyes and a small grin appeared. "Okay ... prepare to be unconventional." He went over to the Enquiries desk and Scully watched disapprovingly as he charmed the young female officer there into handing over a visitor pass and a key.

*Quite a mutual admiration society,* she thought sourly, as the girl and Mulder flirted shamelessly with each other.

Then she told herself off for being catty. After all, what did it matter to her whom he flirted with?

The key turned out to have a purpose; Mulder had somehow persuaded the young officer to let them borrow a room where there was a computer with some sophisticated software for matching fingerprints to suspects.

"I did some thinking after you showed me the print from Usher's office the other day," he told her, expertly manipulating the program to call up Eugene Tooms's arrest sheet, "and I used a computer at the college to try something out. It has a similar program to this one."

"So?" Scully asked, not getting the point.

Mulder pushed his bag of sunflower seeds toward her, and highlighted one of Tooms's finger prints. Then he called up the print Scully found at the crime scene and laid them side by side. "I tried it on one of my own prints, just to satisfy my curiosity. But anyway; look at this - " He set the computer to scan both prints and it bleeped almost immediately. "Obviously no match," he said calmly.

Scully helped herself to a seed and popped it in her mouth. "I could have told you that."

"Indubitably, my dear Watson. However, what if you were to do this ...." Mulder punched another command into the computer and they both watched as the program stretched Tooms's print vertically and superimposed it on the one from Usher's office. The machine bleeped again - but this time it was a hundred percent match.

Scully stopped chewing and stared. Then she turned to look at Mulder, wide-eyed. "But ... how can that be?"

He shrugged. "Beats me. All I know is - they let the guy go."

"Shit!" she muttered angrily, and went to stand up, but Mulder restrained her with a hand on her arm.

"What do you think you're going to do?"

"I've got to see Colton and Fuller, and - "

Mulder shook his head tiredly. "Scully, haven't you learned yet? They don't want to hear it. As far as Fuller's concerned, Tooms cleared the polygraph - he's clean. They're not going to listen to you telling them that Spooky Mulder used computer graphics to fix the prints!"

Scully sat down again, opened her mouth to say something, then changed her mind. She looked thoughtfully into mid-air for a moment or two, and Mulder was entranced by the sight of some steely resolve appearing in her eyes.

*Whoa!,* he thought, watching her with a kind of awed delight. *No doubt about it - this is war. Better watch your ass, Colton.*

The next day started badly for Mulder. Sam, having slept most of the evening, awoke at just after two with a formidable amount of energy in his small body and proceeded to keep his father awake until nearly five. After that Mulder went off to sleep like a dead thing, and when the alarm re-awoke him at seven, he was in a foul mood, exhausted and feeling like hell.

His son, however, still managed to be impossibly lively at breakfast, creating havoc among the cornflakes until the time came to get dressed ... and then the real fun began. Four small outfits and twenty minutes later, Mulder finally wrestled the toddler into the car seat and strapped him in. He mentally reviewed one or two really select profanities from his days with the VCS (all of which were now strictly prohibited from his vocabulary, lest certain small, sharp ears picked them up) and hit the road, acutely conscious of morning traffic and a class which was due to start in less than half an hour.

Just under three quarters of an hour later, he finally pulled into his parking spot - miracle of miracles, no one had taken it - and glanced at Sam in the rear-view mirror just before he opened his door.

The round, deceptively cherubic face was relaxed and peaceful; the little monster had finally fallen asleep.

Aggrieved, Mulder set about the next monumental task - gathering up both Sam and the extraordinary amount of baggage he seemed to need for a few hours in day-care. Sam himself never stirred.

"He's fast asleep."

Mulder jumped and dropped a bag, which Scully calmly retrieved, her face alight with mischief. "Payback time, Mulder," she told him, shouldering the bag herself and taking another out of his hand.

"Huh?" he asked intelligently, wondering what she was doing there.

"You did the same to me, in Bellefleur," she reminded him. He still looked blank, so she filled in the gaps for him. "When we met, remember? In Oregon. You nearly gave me a heart- attack."

"If you say so," he grunted, and headed for the faculty entrance.

Scully fell in beside him, studying his face with a mixture of amusement and sympathy. "Bad night, huh?"

"You have no idea." He headed straight for the day-care center, intent on handing the child over to someone who actually got paid to put up with pre-school psychopaths. The level of noise and activity coming from the suite made him grateful that Sam wasn't twins, even though it sometimes seemed that way.

Scully silently handed over the extra luggage at the door, and watched Mulder grimly giving the toddler to a woman wearing a large badge that had the University logo and "Hi! I'm Mandy!" printed on it.

"Poor Mandy," she commiserated, when he reappeared.

"Tell me about it," Mulder snorted. "Bosnia's a tea party compared to what'll happen in there when he wakes up."

"He had you up all night?"

"Most of it. I need a caffeine drip this morning - no, make that two." He rubbed his face vigorously - then it finally dawned on him that this really was Scully stood next to him in the college corridor. "Scully, what are you doing here?" he frowned.

"How are your classes fixed this morning?" she asked.

The frown deepened. "I'm late for them - *very* late. Why?"

"There was another murder last night."

It was past midday when Mulder's car finally drew up outside Thomas Werner's house. Scully was waiting for him by the official yellow tape which prevented any stray members of the public invading the crime-scene, and when he looked her cool, collected smile, he had the feeling that she'd only just arrived herself.

He was right. Scully had spent the morning persuading AD Skinner to sign the paperwork which would allow her to bring Mulder in on the investigation - or her investigation at least - in a semi-official capacity. It hadn't been easy, and the interview had left her feeling almost as bruised and battered emotionally as the 'unofficial' reprimand she'd received from AD Hill before leaving Quantico.

Skinner had had one or two things to say regarding Mulder, and her connection with him. But she'd got the documents, and that was all that mattered right now.

"How's the demon-child?" she asked, as Mulder climbed out of his car.

He smiled wryly. "Wreaking havoc still. What have you got here?"

"Thomas Werner, age 52, a senior exec with a plastics company. No wife or family; he lived alone. His secretary raised the alarm when he didn't arrive for an important meeting this morning."

"I guess he's hepatically challenged now, huh?" Mulder scanned the building curiously. "Where's Colton?"

"Still inside," Scully smiled, "going crazy, trying to think up plausible reasons for the liver being removed and driving the forensics team nuts."

Mulder gave her an uneasy smile. "How welcome are we going to be at this party? I mean, it's not that I don't enjoy going a couple of rounds with old colleagues, but I'm not exactly on form this morning."

She looked at her watch pointedly. "This afternoon, you mean."

"Told you so."

"It's okay - Skinner's okayed my investigation and your involvement. I've got the paperwork if Colton gets difficult."

"It'll take more than paperwork to shut that guy up," Mulder sighed, but followed her up to the house. They could hear Colton's voice before they ever entered the door.

"... And I want a check done on liver transplants - this could be black market, someone selling livers privately to people desperate for treatment ...."

In spite of himself, Mulder began to grin at the idea which was, in his book at least, as bizarre as any abduction theory *he'd* ever cooked up. Apparently someone else on the team felt the same way, because there was a mumble of dissent just before Colton came barreling out to see who was invading his crime scene.

"Yeah I know it's a long shot, but I'm ready to give any theory a run at this stage," he retorted. Then he stopped, seeing Scully and Mulder, and scowled. "Any *sane* theory, that is," he bit out, and moved to block their path. "I'm sorry, Dana, but I want only *authorized* members of my team here."

As an attempt at politeness it wasn't bad, Mulder judged, considering how Colton obviously felt about them. Besides, he'd received brush-offs like this for years, even before his reputation became so unsavory, so it didn't bother him.

But Scully saw it differently, smelling condescension in the other agent's tone, and her eyes flashed. "We do *have* authorization, Tom."

"*We*?" Colton snapped, the facade of politeness slipping almost at once. "I see only *one* federal agent here, Dana!"

Scully had been prepared for this, and thrust the authorization papers she'd wrung out of Skinner into Colton's hands contemptuously. "*We*. Mulder's working with me as a consulting criminal psychologist."

For a moment, Mulder thought Colton might actually stamp his foot in temper - the tension in the young agent's body was almost palpable and his face turned a most unattractive shade of crimson. As it was, the poisonous look he gave Scully should have killed her where she stood. "Whose side are you on, Dana?"

Scully's eyes turned cold as ice. "The victim's," she replied, and pushed past both men into the house.

Mulder was left to take the full weight of Colton's fury, but fortunately for him, the agent couldn't seem to think up a thing to say. "What's the matter with you, Colton?" he asked finally. "Are you really so afraid she'll solve your case?"

Colton stalked away without answering, and after a moment Mulder followed Scully into the building.

When he walked in she was already crouched by the side of the body, talking medical jargon to one of the forensics team, so he left her to it and began to look around the room. He'd had time, during his sleepless night, to do some thinking about the fingerprint revelation and had begun formulating a theory, so after a quick look around the living room he headed straight for the fireplace. The opening was wide, but one look told Mulder that the actual chimney flue could never give admittance to an adult human, or even a fairly robust child.

But the fingerprinting team had been more thorough with this crime scene, and when he straightened up to examine the wide white marble mantelpiece, the elongated smudge of a print stood out in sharp relief.

It matched the other prints in the X-files. Not that Mulder was in the slightest surprised. He was merely pleased to have clear evidence of something he already knew - that Eugene Tooms had been in Thomas Werner's house last night. His eyes drifted long the mantle, noting the few personal effects on display there, when something else caught his eye.

Werner had been a bachelor, and like most bachelors he was a little careless in the household tidiness stakes. Possibly he had a regular cleaning service to help out, but whatever the case, this mantelpiece hadn't been dusted in perhaps as much as a week. And among the dust at one end, Mulder could see four small marks, as if something which had been stood there recently had just been moved. He looked down the mantelpiece again and saw that at the opposite end there was a small crystal jar with four short curvy feet. It was positioned in such a way as to suggest that there *could* have been a second, matching jar at this end.

Scully appeared at his shoulder, her expression grim. "It was an identical M.O.," she told him. "The was liver ripped out, apparently with bare hands, and there was no obvious entry point; the house was locked tight from the inside, and the police had to break a window to get in."

"It was Tooms," Mulder said simply. He almost - but not quite - touched the marks in the dust on the mantelpiece. "He was here, and he took something away with him besides the liver."

*Finding out information on Eugene Victor Tooms could become a competitive sport,* Mulder thought with some amusement, an hour later. He was taking a break in his own allotted task and watching Scully do battle with the officers of the Baltimore PD for details of the case. What made the scene all the more entertaining for him was that he was watching it through the glass window of the office he was sat in, with Scully on the other side. He couldn't hear a word being said, but the visuals were stunning.

Definitely a hell of a lot more fun than sitting in here with a microfiche machine for company, but as he'd been the one to suggest combing the records for details of Tooms's past, he supposed he had only himself to blame when Scully had smilingly told him to enjoy himself. God, she was a cruel woman.

He loved it.

Mulder sighed, adjusted his reading glasses and turned back to the reader, preparing to start again.

A sharp click of the door saved him from certain boredom. Scully came in quickly, her face alight with triumph at having finally vanquished the enemy.

"Baltimore PD checked out Tooms's apartment after the arrest," she told him, and waved a sheaf of papers. "The address was false - no one ever lived there. And Tooms himself hasn't turned up for work since we pulled him in."

Mulder wasn't surprised. "I've found out a few things," he offered.

"Oh?" Scully dumped the papers on a nearby desk and came to stand beside him. "What have you got?"

He smiled. "'How do we learn about the present? We look to the past'," he quoted, and she groaned softly.

"Not the Thoughts of Patterson, Mulder. Spare me, at least until I've had a strong coffee."

Mulder chuckled. "What do you expect from me? I worked with the guy for four years." He nodded to the microfiche reader. "In this case he was right. This is where it all began, in 1903 on Exeter Street."

Scully's brow rose. "Tooms gave his address as Apartment 103, 66 Exeter Street."

"Exactly. He may not have been lying after all. Look at the census form for that year."

"'Eugene Victor Tooms ... Date of birth: unknown ... Apartment 103, 66 Exeter Street, Baltimore, Maryland ... Occupation: dogcatcher.'"

Mulder handed her one of the older X-files. "Now check out the address of the first murder."

Scully gave him a suspicious look, but opened the file. "'Apartment 203, 66 Exeter Street - " Her head jerked up and she stared at Mulder, wide-eyed. "He killed the guy above him!" Then she paused and reconsidered. "It's not him, of course."

"Of course not."

"It's a relative maybe. His what? - grandfather?"

"Great-grandfather more likely," Mulder supplied obligingly. "There's just one problem with that - the prints are identical."

"Genetics could explain that, and the sociopathic behavior."

He looked at her, both amused and amazed, and realized she was serious. "How?" he demanded.

Scully knew she was stretching credibility a little, but surely no more than he was. "It's conditioning," she explained. "It begins with a parent who raises a sociopathic child, and the pattern repeats itself in the next generation, and so on and so forth. It's been proven in violent, anti- social families - "

"So what are we dealing with here, the anti-Waltons?"

"Mulder - "

He raised a placating hand. "No, look, we aren't going to get anywhere like this. What we need to do is track Tooms, find him before he kills again. He has a definite pattern of five killings every thirty years, which means he's got one more to go this year, and if we don't catch him now, the next chance we'll get will be in - "

"The year 2023."

" - And by that time, you'll be the head of the Bureau with a high court judge for a husband and half a dozen kids. So I suggest that you take over going through the census records and I'll start ploughing through the marriage, birth and death certificates. And ...."

"And what?" she asked, beginning to smile.

"You wouldn't happen to have some Dramamine on you, would you?" He gave her a pathetic look. "These machines make me seasick."

The smile widened. "I think I can find some." She headed for the door.

Mulder watched her go. "That smile had better not be for the high court judge," he muttered ruefully.

It seemed to take forever. It was at times like this that Mulder cursed his photographic memory, for although the microfiche was moving too fast most of the time for him to actually *record* what he was seeing, it was still enough to guarantee that he would be dreaming of legal forms for the next three or four nights. Always supposing Sam let him sleep long enough to dream -

Hell! He'd left Sam with the day-care center. Mulder checked his watch hurriedly and huffed a sigh of relief when he saw that he still had an hour's grace before collecting the kid.

Scully looked up at the sound, and smiled wearily, stretching her back stiffly after sitting in one position too long. "Found anything?"

"Nah. I swear the guy was never born, never married, and he sure as hell never died. How can someone just not *exist* in this day and age?"

"Beats me. I've found out one useful piece of information, though."

Mulder felt some of his fatigue flow away at her pleased tone. "Sock it to me."

"The current address of the officer who investigated the Powhatan Mill murders in 1933." She passed a slip of paper to him with the information on, and stood up to try and relieve one stubborn kink in the small of her back.

"Lynne Acres Retirement Home," Mulder mused. "That's not far from here."

"We could go see him now," Scully suggested. "I'll give the home a call and see if it's convenient."

Mulder hesitated. "I'll have to fetch the Terror of the West from day-care and hand him over to my mother first."

"Okay. Tell you what; you go pick up Sam and take him home, and I'll pick you up in - what? Hour and a half?"

"Fine." Mulder grabbed his jacket and headed for the door, grateful just to be leaving the microfiche behind.

*I knew I should have just opened a vein this morning,* Mulder thought bitterly, an hour later. *Life was obviously out to get me the moment the clock struck midnight last night.* At least Sam was behaving himself for now.

That was probably the only good part of the scenario. Mulder had arrived home with his son, after battling rush-hour traffic, only to discover a note from his mother on the kitchen table announcing that she was meeting friends and wouldn't be back until much later. Experience had taught Mulder that "much later" inevitably meant some time around midnight.

Fortunately, the early stages of his crash course in single parenthood had taught the former FBI agent the benefits of the old Boy Scout motto, "Be Prepared". Sam was now happily shoveling an emergency dinner of baked beans and fingers of toast into his mouth and down his front, while his father tried frantically to get hold of Scully on her cell phone. Finally, he gave up and returned to the table to try and keep the chaos there down to manageable levels.

"Grandma would have a fit if she knew you'd had something out of a tin twice today," he told Sam, gently wiping a splotch of sauce from the front of the toddler's hair. Spaghetti shapes had been on the lunch menu at day-care. "Never mind; Grandma's not here. Again," he added under his breath.

Sam paused, looking at Mulder anxiously, and offered him a spoonful of beans.

"It's okay, Sunshine, Daddy's not hungry. You eat them." Mulder stroked his soft, dark hair gently and absently tried to flatten the obstinate cowlick at the front which so closely mirrored his own.

It was weird, he mused, how quickly you adapted to new situations. Three years ago, if anyone had suggested he'd be here with an almost-two-year-old son, no longer an FBI agent but a college lecturer in post-graduate psychology, he'd have laughed in their faces.

He'd never wanted children. It was something he and Phoebe had agreed upon right from the beginning, she having no maternal instincts and he having a mortal horror of fatherhood. His experiences with his own father's drunkenness (among other things) had proved to be the best contraceptive ever devised. And when he'd stood in the maternity wing of that hospital in Denver and seen the product of what had, in essence, been Phoebe's rape of him, he'd nearly thrown up there and then. 'Fear' didn't begin to describe the mélange of emotions running through him at the sight of the child he'd planned never to have.

Things had changed quickly, though. They had to. Despite his mother's initial energy in moving both him and the baby in with her - ostensibly so she could help out - Mulder had fast discovered that she was in fact almost no help at all. She showed him how to do things, then left him to it. Everything was fine while the baby was clean, quiet and presentable, and could be shown off to her friends, but when Sam started to fret she couldn't hand him back fast enough. And although she tended these days to have a lot of opinions on how the boy should be raised, fed, dressed, whatever, she was often short on practical assistance.

*I suppose I should have guessed,* Mulder thought, as he cleared away the dishes and mopped up before taking Sam to get changed. Mrs. Mulder had never been a 'close' parent herself; he could remember he and his sister Samantha having a nanny at one point, and later they'd spent a lot of time with his Aunt Rachel. It had seemed normal at the time, although his mother had never worked and he was hard put to discover exactly what she *had* done with her time.

His initial plans, of leaving Sam with his mother while he went back to work at the Bureau, had been blown apart almost immediately. She'd had no intention of taking on the full-time care of a baby, which left him with few options. Desperate, and unable to conceive of giving up a job he loved and had worked so hard to achieve in, Mulder had reached the stage of considering giving his son up for adoption. He couldn't see any other way of managing, and actually consulted an uncle who was lawyer on how to proceed. A cousin had come forward and offered to take Sam herself, to be raised with her children.

But at the last minute, he hadn't been able to do it. Despite six weeks of sleepless nights, bitterly resenting the noisy, messy, demanding intrusion into his life, and being unable to look at the baby without seeing his mother, Mulder had suddenly realized he simply couldn't give him away to someone else. This, at least in part, had its roots in the fact that he had spent most of his own life abandoned by his parents, and he couldn't do that to his own son. But it also had a lot to do with something a lot less tangible; something which had made it physically impossible to hand Sam over when Annie and her husband arrived to take him.

Mulder remembered that moment very vividly; the feeling that it would have been easier to take a knife and hack off a limb, than to give his son to someone else.

The next day, he'd handed his resignation to AD Skinner, and thereafter Sam had always come first on his list of priorities. As he changed the toddler into a clean shirt and pair of dungarees now, Mulder wondered if Scully would take this particular manifestation of those priorities philosophically.

Not for the first time, of course, he was underestimating Scully.

"My son moved to Florida with his wife and kids two years ago," Frank Briggs said. The former detective was happily holding a rather sleepy Sam in his lap. "They visit now and again, but - you miss them. How old is he?"

"Twenty months." Mulder gave him a concerned look. "Are you sure he's not too heavy - "

"No, he's fine." Briggs transferred his attention from the toddler to his other two guests. "I've been waiting for you for twenty-five years," he said abruptly.

Scully's eyes widened, surprised. "Sir?"

"I called it quits in 1968," he explained.

Mulder was less fazed. "Can you tell us about the 1933 murders at Powhatan Mill?"

Briggs paused, and for a moment the look in his eyes was far away. Finally, he sighed and looked down at Sam, before meeting their eyes again. "Powhatan Mill was like nothing else in my career," he said quietly. "There were other murders, some of them equally horrific in their own way, but I could always put it behind me and go home to play with my kids. I mean, you've got to be able to do that when you're a cop. You'd go crazy else, right?"

Scully nodded in silent agreement. Detachment was something you had to learn in law enforcement work, the ability to separate your work from the rest of your life.

"But those murders at Powhatan Mill .... They were different. As soon as I walked into that room, my heart went cold, my hands went numb .... I could feel *it*."

"'It'?" Scully questioned.

Briggs paused, searching for the words to explain. "It was like all the horrors mankind is capable of, condensed into one space," he said finally. "When I heard about the Nazi concentration camps ... and the atrocities in Bosnia, I was reminded of those murders. It was as though all the horrible acts people are capable of somehow gave birth to a human monster. That's why I've been waiting for you. That ... *thing* ... has killed again, hasn't it?"

"Four times so far," Mulder confirmed.

Briggs nodded, and carefully moved his wheelchair slightly so that he had a clearer view of the room behind him. "There's a box in that trunk over there," he said to Mulder, pointing to a corner by the head of his bed. "Get it out for me, will you?"

Mulder opened the trunk and retrieved a strong cardboard box, setting it down on a small table at Briggs's elbow. The retired detective pulled the flaps open, then gestured to Scully and Mulder to take the contents out. It was packed with file folders, surveillance photos and other bits and pieces.

"This is all the evidence I collected, officially and unofficially."

Scully raised a brow at him. "Unofficially?"

He smiled faintly. "I knew the murders in 1963 were committed by the same person, but by that time I'd been retired to desk-work. The sheriff's department didn't want me there, said I was too old. But I couldn't let it go, so I kept tabs of my own. I knew someday someone might need it."

Mulder pulled out a glass jar filled with clear liquid and a chunk of ... something. "What the - ?"

Scully's eyes widened. "Is that a piece of a liver?" she demanded.

Briggs nodded. "Left at one of the crime scenes. Livers weren't the only trophies he took, though."

"What do you mean?"

"In each case, the families of the deceased reported personal items missing - a hairbrush in the Walters case, a coffee mug in the Taylor murder. Something small."

Mulder put the jar down carefully, and looked at the old man. "Have you ever heard the name Eugene Tooms?" he asked.

The faint smile returned. Briggs tapped on one of the files with a finger. "Take a look in there."

Mulder opened it, pulled out a sheaf of photos - and stopped cold. "Scully, look."

"Like I said, when they wouldn't let me on the case in 1963, I did some of my own work," the Briggs's voice continued dryly. "But that was Tooms thirty years ago, of course."

If it hadn't been for the black-and-white pictures, and the anachronistic clothing worn by the man in them, no one would have known they hadn't been taken yesterday.

"Oh my God," Scully murmured, staring at the familiar boyish face in the photos. "He hasn't aged a day."

"Doing pretty good for a guy of over a hundred," Mulder agreed, a little shaken himself at this unexpected confirmation of his theories. He turned the next picture over and they were confronted with a photo of an old, rather ratty-looking apartment block with a large sign over the front saying "Pierre Paris and Sons".

"That's the apartment block where Tooms lived," Briggs put in grimly. "It was at - "

"66 Exeter Street?"

"That's the one."

Mulder looked at the photo again silently, then looked up and met Scully's determined gaze.

By the time they got back to Mulder's house it was dark, and Sam was dead to the world in the back seat. Mulder looked up at the windows of the house and noticed that they were still dark; and his mother's car wasn't in the drive.

Scully noticed too. "Does your mom often stay out this late?"

"Yep." Mulder changed the subject quickly. "Will you stop for a coffee?"

She noticed the evasion, but decided not to mention it. "That would be nice," she smiled.

"Okay. I've just got to put the car away - "

"Give me your key and I'll take Sam in if you like."

He looked surprised. "Are you sure?"

Scully chuckled at his tone. "In case you hadn't noticed, I'm a fully paid-up member of the Maiden Aunts' Society, Mulder. I've been handling pre-school psychopaths since I was sixteen and my eldest brother got married. I think I can manage Snoozy back there."

"Okaaaay ...." Mulder gave her the key. "Though I have to warn you - he snores. I think it's a family trait."

"I'll remember that for future reference," she smiled, and got out of the car.

It wasn't until Mulder had got the car into the garage that he suddenly registered what she'd said. *What the hell is *that* supposed to mean?* he wondered, staring at himself wide- eyed in the rear-view mirror.

For the sake of his sanity, he decided not to consider that question too closely right now.

"I'll see you tomorrow, then," Scully said as Mulder escorted her to the door an hour later.

"Yeah, okay." He paused and added quietly, "Always supposing he doesn't strike again tonight."

The small frown on her face showed that Scully had considered this possibility herself. "Would he be that reckless?" she asked finally. "With all the other killings, he left at least a few days in between each."

"That *is* his pattern," Mulder agreed, "but we still don't know what he wants the livers for, or how urgent he considers the need to take them. And even if we did - there's nothing we can do tonight. There's no way I can come with you to search that place now, and even if I could, I don't constitute proper back-up anymore. You won't get that kind of back-up at this hour even if you could persuade Colton and Fuller to let you have it, and if you so much as consider going in tonight without back-up, Scully, I'll - "

"Call Skinner and denounce me as a Republican?"

He chuckled. "Something like that."

"Don't worry, it's not an option," she assured him. "I'm not interested in unnecessary heroics."

"Good." Mulder shuffled his feet slightly. "You need a partner," he said abruptly. His tone was constricted and uncomfortable.

"That too is not an option," Scully grimaced. "I don't think you'd get anyone to work with me right now."

"Yeah. Besides ... anyone who *wants* to work with you is suspect, Scully, and anyone who doesn't could be a liability. It's the same problem I faced, and I can't see any easy way around it."

"All the same, they won't let me work solo for long."

Mulder knew it. And it worried him, not just because the projected partner was statistically likely to be male. Irrational jealousies aside, he meant what he'd said: anyone willing to work on the X-files had to be viewed with caution in his experience. There were too many potentially 'sensitive' areas of investigation on file.

Scully was so damn vulnerable, and there wasn't a thing he could do about it except be there for her, in whatever role she would permit.

"Anyway, I've got to go," she said, breaking in on his thoughts.

"Okay ...." Mulder walked out to her car with her and watched as she strapped herself in. At the last minute, he leaned in through the window. "Hey, Scully, tell me something."

She raised an enquiring brow.

"How come you aren't married with six kids?"

For a brief second, so fast he thought he'd imagined it, Mulder saw a shadow cross her face. Then Scully was giving him her usual wry half-smile.

"Obviously I haven't met that high court judge yet, Mulder." And she slipped the clutch, letting the car pull slowly out of the drive.

66 Exeter Street looked more like an abandoned warehouse than an apartment block. Stacks of refuse and rubble were piled up in the street outside and the building itself had been condemned for some time; although whoever was responsible for the actual act of demolition had apparently forgotten the place, as the shell of it at least was still standing.

Scully judged that no one could possibly have lived in this place for a good twenty years; and judging by Detective Briggs's photographs, it had been in a pretty ropy condition even in the 1960s when apartments were still being let out there. The whole area was a slum, but there was a curious feel about this building in particular, as if the rot had somehow started here and spread outwards through the streets.

It was not the most enticing prospect on a bright sunny morning. She glanced sideways at Mulder who was also viewing the block with disfavor. "Ready to go?" she asked.

He grunted. "Did we bring any bug repellent?"

"Mulder, I don't think even cockroaches would live in this place."

"Not with Tooms for company, they wouldn't." Mulder dragged himself out of the car and winced in the bright sunlight.

Scully almost winced in sympathy. He looked terrible; exhausted and more than a little grumpy, although he'd seemed relieved when she'd arrived, as though he wanted to get out of the house. She was reluctant to ask questions, but she was beginning to wonder if all was not well between Mulder and his mother; aside from the incident the day before when Mrs. Mulder hadn't been around to take care of Sam, Scully had been to the house half a dozen or so times since she'd met him, and his mother had never yet been in. Comments he'd dropped once or twice suggested that this was a bone of contention between them and that Mrs. Mulder was not the devoted grandparent she liked to portray herself as.

But then, Mulder's family was difficult for her to fathom anyway. Scully herself came from a large Catholic family of Irish descent, and they were all almost oppressively close. A situation like Mulder's could never have happened to one of the Scullys; there would have been a whole host of female relatives positively panting to take over the care of little Sam while Mulder himself got on with his job and his life.

But Mulder's family .... Scully knew he had a large extended family and that they were Jewish, but he seemed to have very little contact with them and received almost no support. This seemed extraordinary to her; it ran contrary to everything she knew of Jewish families. His mother, despite giving the appearance of supporting him, was never there. His father .... His father was out of the picture, but according to his son, William Mulder was a drunk who had killed his daughter in a road accident and then abandoned the rest of his family.

And then, of course, there was Mulder's ex-wife Phoebe, of whom Scully knew almost nothing except that she was on the FBI's most wanted list.

'Dysfunctional' was not the word to describe the Mulders.

But the one Scully was most concerned about at the moment was the one who had obviously spent most of the night sat up with a fretful little boy, and yet was still determined to help her track down a serial killer this morning in spite of it. She worried about him disproportionately.

She would have been extremely surprised to discover that part of his sleepless night had been spent worrying about her. Mulder had come with her today at least in part because he was concerned at the idea of her investigating a man like Eugene Tooms alone. But he knew better than to air his worries aloud; she wouldn't appreciate it. Instead, he focused on the matter at hand.

"You think we should have some sort of safety gear, hard- hats or something, going in here?" he commented as they entered the building.

"Probably, but I think it's a little late to worry about it now." Scully eased her way around the semi-boarded-up doorway, and coughed a little as her feet stirred up clouds of dust.

Emerging through the hole with a little more difficulty, Mulder straightened up beside her in the gloom and flicked on his flashlight. There were in what had once been the hallway of the building: to one side were the heavily secured doors of two elevators, and opposite the entrance was a narrow staircase. He cast the light around, scanning the small area, noting the graffiti on the walls and general vandal damage.

"That's weird," he said softly. Crossing the wooden floor cautiously, Mulder examined the graffiti with his fingertips. "Scully, look how old this is. None of it's recently done."

"There's no sign of habitation by transients either," she agreed, flashing her own light into the corners. "You'd think this place would be a safe haven for drug users and tramps, but ...."

Mulder's expression, when he turned around, mirrored her own. Neither of them was really surprised at the level of desertion here. There was a curious feel to the building, something ... not right. It was too silent. Too abandoned. And Scully had been unwittingly right about the cockroaches; bizarrely, there was no evidence of infestation, by rats or anything else.

"I guess we'd better check out apartment 103," he said, gesturing towards the stairs.

"I guess so," Scully agreed unenthusiastically.

"After you?"

"No, really - age before beauty."

Mulder grinned weakly and started up the staircase. "Mind your feet, Scully, some of the steps are a bit rickety."

The feeling of wrongness grew as they reached the first floor and peaked when they stopped outside apartment 103. Mulder hesitated, glancing at Scully who had drawn her gun, then pushed on the door.

It wasn't locked or even closed properly, and swung open under his hand. Scanning the room warily, they edged inside, but there was nothing to be seen. The 'apartments' of 66 Exeter Street had obviously never been more than bedsits in the first place. The single room was stripped bare of furnishings, with nothing left but a filthy, dried up sink in one corner. The window was boarded up, with only a few narrow strips of sunlight filtering through it; what paint and paper there had ever been on the walls was peeling away; the floor was bare, rotting boards; and generally there was nothing left to show it had ever been inhabited, but an old mattress propped against one wall.

But something *had* been here. They could both feel it, even Scully, who had been trying to deny the sickening sensation the building was giving her ever since they stepped through the front entrance.

"Briggs was right," Mulder said, breaking the tense silence. "You can feel ... *it*. Something really bad happened here sometime, Scully."

She nodded. "I'm not denying that, Mulder, but I can't see anything of relevance here. There's no sign of habitation, and Tooms obviously isn't around."

"I don't know ...." Mulder looked around him uncertainly, until his eyes came to rest on the mattress by the wall. Grimacing, he gingerly pulled it forward and was rewarded by the sight of a large-ish hole in the wall behind. "Hey, Scully, look at this!"

She helped him pull the mattress away completely, then leaned carefully into the hole, flashing her light around. "It seems to lead down through the gap inside the walls," she reported, "and - " she paused and tested something with one foot, "there's a metal ladder here."

She looked back at Mulder and saw the expression on his face - a combination of excitement, curiosity and apprehension. "What do you think's down there?" he asked.

In answer, Scully holstered her gun safely and picked up her flashlight. "Only one way to find out," she replied matter-of-factly.

The ladder was short, only a handful of rungs down, and when Scully reached the bottom she found herself in what appeared to be the building's basement. Shining the light around, she saw heavy-duty pipework everywhere and what looked like ancient electrical fuse boxes on the walls. It was cold, damp, dirt- encrusted and pitch black, her flashlight barely making an impression on the gloom.

"Mind your head, Mulder," she called quietly. "The ceiling's pretty low down here."

He appeared beside her and added his light to hers. "What have we got?"

"A basement, by appearances."

"Okay, let's take a look."

Scully stepped forward slowly and cautiously panned the area with her light. The basement spread out in front of them, with nothing much worthy of note except what appeared to be a table against the far wall with a number of objects on it.

"Somebody having a garage sale?" Mulder commented, and went to look.

It was an old packing crate, the top loaded down with a bizarre assortment of trinkets and personal belongings. Scully peered over Mulder's shoulder as he picked one particular object up: a small crystal jar with four squat little feet. He glanced up at her. "Werner's?"

She pointed to something else: a photo cube. "That's Usher's."

"I think we've established that the killer has a connection to this building," Mulder nodded grimly. "And I think we can safely say, based on the evidence, that it's Tooms. Do you think he lives down here?"

Scully looked around her again. "There's no sign of anything to suggest he sleeps here." Her flashlight illuminated the far wall, revealing something odd. "Mulder, look at this - there's something wrong with the wall." He followed her over to take a closer look.

"It looks like it's deteriorating," she frowned.

"No ... someone made it that way. Look - " Mulder fingered a piece of old rag sticking out from the mottled surface. "It's mostly paper and stuff, like papier mache. Jesus, Scully, I think it's a nest."

Scully stared at the mess. "It's been stuck together with something - look at this yellow stuff."

Mulder saw what she was looking at and touched his fingers to it gingerly. "Stinks," he commented.

"I know. It smells kind of familiar." She wrinkled her nose in disgust - when suddenly it dawned on her what the substance was, and she tried not to gag. "Oh God, Mulder! It must be ... I think it's *bile*."

He jerked his hand away from the structure as if it was burned. "Shit!" He looked at her with a queasy expression. "Is there any way I can get it off my fingers fast without betraying my cool exterior?" he asked with feeble humor, and tried to wipe his hand on a small section of rag sticking out of the fake wall.

Then he stood up quickly, his brain gearing into rapid thought. "You know, Scully, I don't think this is where Tooms lives as such - I think this is where he *hibernates*."

She blinked at him in the chancy flashlight light. "Hibernates?"

"Yeah. In your profile, you said that the source of fascination with the livers could be their rejuvenate powers on the human system, the cleansing of blood and so forth, right?"

"Yes, but - "

"I don't think you were so far wrong," he interrupted. "Scully, what if he *eats* them?"

The nausea in her stomach grew at the idea. "What do you mean? Why would he want to do that?"

"Suppose this isn't just a serial killer with a particular kink," Mulder said intensely. "Suppose he actually has a physiological need he has to satisfy to survive. Hibernation could explain both this nest and the thirty year cycle, Scully. He wakes up, consumes five human livers to satisfy his bodily needs, then holes up in this structure here and sleeps for thirty years. It probably explains the lack of ageing, too, because the hibernation process would slow down all bodily functions to nearly nil."

Scully stared at him. He had definitely flipped. "Mulder, we're talking about a man here, not a B-movie monster."

"I'm not suggesting he is, Scully. What I'm suggesting is that he's some kind of genetic mutant, a freak of nature like albinos." God, he *had* to believe that Tooms was a one-off event, for his own sanity's sake. "I think when Briggs suggested that all the horrors in humanity had given birth to an inhuman monster, he was closer to the truth than he realized."

"That's one hell of a leap, Mulder," Scully retorted. "This ... this structure and a lot of bile do not provide even a shred of evidence to support such a theory. The objects on that crate over there, though - those, and the fact that this apartment belonged to Tooms at some point, are evidence enough to suggest that he's behind this."

Mulder didn't waste his breath arguing with her. "Okay, fine. In that case, you have to assume that Tooms will come back here, so you need a warrant for his arrest and a surveillance team out here to wait for him."

Scully smiled wryly at this. "That'll take some finagling," she told him, thinking of Colton's likely reaction when she demanded VCS agents to watch a condemned building for a man he was convinced hadn't committed a crime.

Mulder knew it too, but there wasn't a lot he could do about it. "I'll keep watch while you go finagle," he offered.

"Okay. Let's get out of here."

They headed back to the ladder, Mulder in the lead. He had just put his foot on the first rung when Scully let out a sharp breath.


"I'm caught up on something - no, wait - it's okay."

"Sheesh, don't do that to me! This place gives me the heebies as it is."

She chuckled and they headed out.

Behind them in the darkness, a hand appeared out of the pipework in the ceiling holding the copper charm bracelet Mulder had given Scully a week before, and a pair of curiously yellow eyes glared ferally out of the boyish face of Eugene Tooms as he watched Scully leave.

Four victims down.

One to go ....

Mulder shifted restlessly in the front seat of Scully's car while he waited for the official surveillance team to arrive. *Damn Bureau-issue Tauruses are all the same,* he thought irritably. *Never enough leg-room ....*

That wasn't strictly true, though, and he knew it. The real issue was his growing discomfort over Scully. Sat here, he had far too much time to think.

It wasn't just the fact that as a lone agent she was vulnerable, although that did bother him. The true issue, however, was something more personal - his growing attraction to her. He had sworn that after Phoebe he would not, absolutely *not*, get involved again, and that went double for any female agent. Sam's arrival had helped cement the resolve, and in fact Mulder had discovered that most single women, while finding the idea of a single father rather cute and New Man- ish, did not generally want to get involved in helping raise another woman's baby; an attitude he was more than happy with.

But when he met Scully in Bellefleur, he'd had to repeat his resolve to himself quite sternly on a couple of occasions. And the number of occasions thereafter had grown steadily; in fact, until the day she'd walked into that bar and announced she was taking over the X-files, he'd almost forgotten his resolve altogether. She was young, she was intelligent, she was beautiful, she was on his wavelength - more or less - and most importantly, she was happy to mother Sam when he was around. He'd started to view something happening between them as not only being inevitable but something to be anticipated.

Five minutes after she'd walked out of the bar, the daydream was shattered. Jack Willis had appeared beside the table where Mulder was finishing his iced tea, and sat himself down in Scully's vacated seat uninvited.

Frustrated, and not wanting the run that conversation in his head again, Mulder rummaged in the glove compartment for something, anything, that would take his mind off it. A bag of boiled sweets fell out and, oddly, a guide to the pubs and clubs of London. He tried to interest himself in an out-of- date description of Stringfellows and the Hard Rock Cafe, but it wasn't enough.

Willis's voice had been cold, almost threatening. "Dana's going up the ladder, Spooky. She doesn't need her reputation in the Bureau wiped out because you won't stay off her back."

"You mean *you* don't want *your* chances with her ruined because I won't stay out of your way!" he had snapped back unwisely.

But Willis had been perfectly calm. "I'm not worried about where I stand with Dana. We've been seeing each other for the better part of eighteen months now - or didn't she tell you that?"

No, she hadn't. She still hadn't. Although why should she? And yet .... Mulder wanted to discount the things Willis had said, simply because there was no evidence to support them and a number of indications to suggest that Scully was interested in him.

And that was the problem. Mulder had been caught out once before by a woman who played husband off against lover. He had thought Phoebe loved him; perhaps once she *did*, but she also loved playing with his mind and playing with his loyalty. Every instinct screamed that Scully was different, not like that, but experience and the memory of that ring with its square-cut diamond solitaire in its velvet box in Scully's drawer, coldly warned him to be wary.

*I wish I really knew what was going on,* he thought, staring blankly at the decrepit facade of 66 Exeter Street. *I wish I had the nerve to ask Scully outright. I wish .... I wish my life was different. I wish my father wasn't a drunk, that my sister hadn't died, that my mother was everything she appears to be, that I hadn't screwed up my life by marrying Phoebe, and that I didn't have to give up my job at the Bureau. I wish ....

*I wish I'd never met Scully, then I'd be at home playing trains with Sam, not sitting here waiting for a serial killer to appear -

*No, that's not true.*

He couldn't regret having met Scully. He didn't regret having got into this investigation. But he had to get over this attraction to her, which was going to get him into trouble if he wasn't careful. They were good friends; they could stay that way, and there would be no damage done.

Mulder was jerked out of his reverie by the sound of another car drawing up behind him. A few minutes later, two male agents he was vaguely familiar with got into the car with him.

"Okay," the one in the front passenger seat said, without preamble. "We've got the warrant, but what are we looking for again?"

Mulder found the arrest report and mug shot of Tooms Scully had left with him. "Eugene Victor Tooms. He's unarmed, but consider him extremely dangerous."

Both of them studied the picture, and the man next to him shrugged. "Okay. We'll take over from here."

Mulder handed the picture and report over. "Scully will be back with someone else to relieve you in eight hours, if he doesn't show."

"You got it ... Spooky."

His companion in the back seat choked back a laugh, and Mulder got out of the car with a sigh. He didn't think he'd ever get used to that name.

Eight hours later, Scully was impatiently waiting at the Baltimore police headquarters for the agent who was supposed to be partnering her on the stakeout. He was late, very late, and she was getting angry.

Abruptly, the door opened and Tom Colton walked in. His face was flushed and he was wearing an expression of combined anger and excitement. "We have to talk," he told her.

"Damn right we do!" Scully snapped. "Where's Esgrave? We were supposed to be relieving Kennedy and Kramer half an hour ago!"

"Esgrave won't be joining you. I've called off the stakeout."

Scully stared at him in disbelief. "What?! But - "

"What the hell are you playing at, Dana?" Colton interrupted. "I got called in this afternoon but the Regional SAC to be told that you'd got a warrant out for the arrest of a suspect we'd already eliminated from our enquiries!"

"If you'd looked at the evidence Mulder and I collected - "

"Mulder, Mulder, Mulder," he snapped. "That's all I hear from you! When I asked you to join me on this case, it was because of my respect for you as an agent. But now I've seen how you've been brainwashed by that guy - I couldn't have you far enough away."

"My investigation is separate from yours, Tom," Scully said, trying to keep her voice level, "and it was approved by AD Skinner. You had no right to call off that stakeout."

"No," he agreed, a nasty smile appearing, "but SAC Claymont did, especially when he heard about the waste of his manpower. I understand he'll be filing a report with the Assistant Director in the morning."

Scully stared at his smug expression, fuming, but knew she was defeated. There was nothing for it but to go home and wait for the fifth and final murder to occur. She picked up her bag and coat. "Is this what it takes to climb the ladder, Tom?" she enquired coldly.

"All the way to the top, Dana."

"Then I can't wait to see you fall off and land on your ass!" she snapped and stalked out of the room, slamming the door behind her.

Her temper was not helped during the drive home by getting caught in the traffic, so she was in an evil mood by the time she pulled up in front of her apartment block. Walking into her apartment, she threw her bag, coat and gun down on the coffee table and stood for a moment, trying to physically rub some of the tension out of her shoulders.

This was no good. She had to calm down.

Scully walked through to her bathroom, deciding that a long soak was just what she needed, and set the taps running. Then she went into the bedroom, kicked off her shoes, and picked up the cordless phone by her bed and dialed Mulder's number. She felt he had a right to know about Colton's actions. The line was engaged. She sighed, and put the phone down.

Back in the bathroom, she tested the water with her fingers - still running cold. She went into the kitchen to get herself a drink, then went back to the bedroom and began to unbutton her blouse. She tried Mulder's number again; still engaged.

Scully went back to the bathroom again and tested the water. It was running hot, so she shoved the plug in and selected a bath oil, tipping in a generous measure of the herb-scented liquid. *I need something soothing,* she thought wryly.

She was just capping the bottle again when something splattered on her hand. Scully stared uncomprehendingly at the yellowish fluid for a second, then her brain suddenly kicked in.

*No ....* Slowly, reluctantly, she raised her hand to her nose and sniffed.

It was bile.

Her head jerked back reflexively as she looked up at the ceiling. There was a grill above her head, an air-conditioning vent less than a foot square, and the yellow liquid was dripping from the bars.

Mulder had spent the afternoon playing with Sam and getting his papers ready for a test in class the next day. By six- thirty he'd fed the boy and put him to bed, and then he had dinner with his mother. Afterwards, some friends of Mrs. Mulder's had arrived and, feeling decidedly out of place, Mulder decided to call Scully and find out what was happening. A call to her cell phone got the message that it was switched off; and there was no reply from her home number. When he checked the clock, he realized that by now she was probably heading out to take her turn on the stakeout.

He was restless and had little to do, with his mother monopolizing the study and Sam asleep, so in the end he put his head around the door and told his mother he was going out for a while.

He headed for 66 Exeter Street, thinking that he might as well spend some time swapping banter with Scully - and whatever bonehead she had with her - on stakeout. But when he arrived, the alley was dark and empty, with no sign of a Bureau-issue Taurus.

"What the hell - ?" he muttered. He parked the car, and got out. Definitely no one about. Had they caught Tooms already? But if they had, Scully would have called him - she promised she would.

Mulder had a bad feeling about this, though. He headed for the trunk of his car and dug out his flashlight. Much as he hated the thought, he had to pay a visit to Tooms's hideout and see what was going on.

Entering the building was twice as bad in the dark and alone as it had been that morning in Scully's company, but Mulder forced himself to make his way up to apartment 103 and through the hole in the wall.

The basement was as still and empty as before. Mulder checked the wall, but it didn't seem to have been disturbed, so he turned to the packing crate and looked over the objects gathered there. And when he did, his blood ran cold.

Among all the other trinkets was something new, hanging from the neck of an ornate crystal vase and glowing richly in the beam of the flashlight.

It was the bracelet he'd given Scully, its little moon and stars charms twinkling.

Mulder let out an explosive breath as the sense of something being wrong peaked.

"Oh Jesus - Scully!"

It would be inaccurate to say that Scully didn't panic, but she controlled the impulse sharply. Moving swiftly, aware that Tooms could be anywhere in her apartment already, she went through to the living room and retrieved her gun from the coffee table. Having the cool metal of the Sig Sauer in her hands restored her confidence, but she was by no means out of the woods yet.

Scully knew she had to get help and fast, because she had a strong notion that shooting Tooms wouldn't necessarily stop him. She grabbed the phone on the sideboard and dialed 911.

It was then that she discovered the phone was dead.

This time, when the panic set in there was little she could do to hold it back. With no help from the police, her colleagues or even Mulder, she was a sitting duck in her own apartment - she had to get out.

Without stopping to take anything with her, Scully ran for the door, but as she ran through the hallway leading to the kitchen, a ventilation grill down by the floor burst open. A filthy hand shot out, grabbing her ankle and yanking hard, bringing her crashing to the floor with a muffled shriek. The gun was knocked from her hand and went skittering out of reach.

He was monstrously strong. Scully kicked out frantically and succeeded in freeing herself, but her triumph was short; she barely had time to pull herself back across the floor a couple of feet before his other hand slithered through the hole ... then both arms and elbows ... and his head .... In front of her shocked and terrified eyes, Tooms's whole body seemed to ooze out of the vent at high speed.

She just had time to drag herself into the bathroom doorway before he was out and leaping onto her, his boyish face contorted and bestial. Scully scrabbled for her gun desperately, but in vain. Tooms flipped her over onto her back like a playing card, and straddled her thighs. Her blouse, which she had unbuttoned in preparation for undressing for her bath, gaped open; he planted his left hand solidly on her chest, pinning her to the floor, and raised the other, fingers stiffened like claws, above her stomach.

Scully closed her eyes, aware that nothing she could do would save her now.

Then, like a gift from God, she heard the front door crashing open.


Tooms jerked his head back, staring at the doorway, and suddenly the pressure on her chest and thighs was gone as he made a leap towards her bathroom window. But the glass was reinforced, defeating his first attempt to break through it, and giving Scully a chance to drag herself to her feet and hurl herself after him.

Mulder burst through the bathroom door as she did so, and flung himself into the fray. Tooms fought like a madman, tossing Scully to one side with ease, but Mulder was a tougher opponent.

There was a confused tussle after that, in which Mulder was later convinced he'd got a close-up of just about every nook and cranny of Scully's bathroom, before Scully herself reappeared, seizing one of Tooms's flailing arms. There were two sharp rasping clicks, and Tooms found himself handcuffed by one wrist to the cold tap of Scully's antique, claw-footed bath.

Mulder dragged himself to his feet, panting and feeling as though he'd just gone ten rounds with Mike Tyson. He looked at Scully; she'd sunk down onto the lid of the toilet, her hair wild and her blouse in shreds, but she was alive and relatively unharmed.

Thank God.

Then he looked at Tooms, who was glaring back at him balefully, panting and tugging futilely at the handcuffs.

"You won't get your quota this year," Mulder told him, with concentrated venom.

The aftermath of the incident seemed to take forever to clear up.

Mulder went to Scully's neighbors to borrow their phone and call Baltimore PD, and within twenty minutes the building was swarming with police and FBI agents. Tooms was taken away, heavily handcuffed, statements were taken from the two of them. The Regional SAC appeared to find out what was going on, calls were made to the Bureau headquarters, more statements were taken, and then a medical examiner appeared to check both Scully and Mulder over. Fortunately, neither had more than bruising and scrapes.

Finally, about three hours later, the last of the officers and agents vanished again, leaving the pair of them alone. Mulder, who had forgotten what a long-drawn-out pain in the rear the aftermath of a case was, was glad to see the back of them.

He shut the door, and went to see where Scully was. She was flaked out on her sofa, looking exhausted.

"You look like you could do with a strong coffee or something," he said gently, concerned at the worn look on her face.

"Or something," she admitted.

"Stay here and I'll go make coffee."

Scully elected to follow him into the kitchen, though, and sat at the pine table, watching him rummaging through her cupboards, measuring coffee out and boiling the kettle. She found the mugs for him, and after a pause, went to one cupboard and rummaged around at the back of it until she found a bottle of Navy rum her father had given her a couple of years back.

"Here," she said, and poured a stiff dose into each mug. "I think we need it."

Mulder didn't argue. He felt numb right now, a state he recognized from cases in his past as being a form of shock, and he knew that while he would be fine tonight, and possibly for as much as a week, sooner or later he was going to suffer for this incident in the form of nightmares - it was always the same, especially after the close call Scully had had. His brain would be running and re-running the scenario, pointing out what *could* have happened. He took a deep swallow of the strong black coffee and felt the rum burn the back of his throat.

"How did you know to come here?" Scully asked suddenly, startling him.

"What do you mean?" he returned blankly.

"Mulder, you turned up just in the nick of time. How did you know Tooms was here?"

"Oh .... Well, I didn't have much to do so I thought I'd join you on stakeout, but when I got there, there was no one around. So I took a look in his hideaway, and saw - " Mulder paused, and suddenly remembered that he had something for her. He rummaged in his pocket and found the delicate little bracelet, which he held out to her mutely.

Scully stared for a moment, then slowly went to take it from his hand. But instead, his fingers closed around hers tightly, shaking a little. Her vision blurred, and she scrambled from her seat to go to him, almost throwing herself into his arms. Mulder grabbed and held her tightly, burying his face in her hair, and felt her nose rubbing his collarbone. She was trembling ever so slightly.

There was nothing platonic about the embrace. He could feel her breasts pressed against his chest and smell the very female scent of her body, and all the good intentions he'd made before lunch flew straight out of the window. The physical reaction was almost instantaneous, and there was no way he could hide it from her. But Scully didn't care; this was exactly what she wanted. She reached up on tiptoe and captured his lips with hers.

For several minutes, Mulder made no attempt to resist, so engrossed as he was in the taste and feel of her mouth. But when he felt her beginning to ease his shirt from his jeans, reality suddenly zoomed back into focus with a vengeance, and he remembered with bitter clarity that she was not free to do this with him.

Mulder broke the kiss and gently eased her hands away from his body. He was shocked at how cold the room suddenly seemed with the cessation of physical contact. "Scully ... no ...." he managed, trying to get his breath back.

At once he was confronted by a pair of very bewildered and rather hurt blue eyes. "But Mulder - "

She reached out again, and he took her wrists, holding her gently but firmly away from him. "No, Scully, we can't do this."

"Yes, we can - "

"No, we can't," he insisted quietly.

Scully swallowed hard, blinking rapidly, and it twisted his heart to see that she was trying not to cry. But she looked him straight in the eye nevertheless. "Why not?" she demanded, trying to keep her voice steady.

Mulder let go of her wrists and backed away slightly. "Because you're not free to do this with me."

She looked surprised. "What do you mean?"

"I mean that you're seeing someone else."

For a moment she looked blank, then understanding suddenly flooded in and she straightened up, folding her arms. "How did you find out about Jack?" she asked, the sharpness of the question at radical odds with her breathy voice moments before.

*Oh God.* Mulder felt a horrible leaden lump of dread and depression settling in his stomach at her tone. This was suddenly shaping into one of his fights with Phoebe, back in the days before he'd summoned up the courage to leave her. *I don't need this, I don't want this, not again ....* "He told me," he said flatly, and wondered how fast he could get out of her apartment and avoid this conversation.

His bald statement actually gave Scully a pause, though. "How?" she demanded finally. "When?"

"Does it really matter?" *Where's my jacket, dammit?*

"Yes," she retorted, "it matters to me. What did he tell you?"

"Look, Scully, I really don't see the need for this conversation," Mulder stated, growing desperate. He pushed past her, out of the kitchen and into the living room.

"Mulder - "

His jacket was on the sofa; he grabbed it and headed for the door. *Let me out, let me out, let me out - *

"Mulder, please don't leave."

The simple statement was so sad and quiet that it halted him in his tracks. His hand was on the door handle, and he was dimly conscious of it shaking.

Scully stepped up behind him quietly, close enough that he could smell her distinctive perfume, but far enough away that she wasn't invading his personal space. "Mulder ... I know it must be hard for you to trust women after what Phoebe did to you, but if you leave now you'll never know if Jack was really telling you the truth."

"You could have told me right from the beginning," Mulder replied, disgusted with the way his voice was shaking but unable to stop it. "There were a dozen opportunities when you could have."

She sighed. "Yes, I know, and with hindsight I should have. But it wasn't something I wanted to talk about, Mulder - I don't exactly come out of it with much credit myself, and when I transferred from Quantico, it seemed like too many people already knew why."

Mulder swallowed, his throat dry. That was one thing he could empathize with; he too had stood under the glare of his colleagues' scrutiny when his personal life was dramatically made public to what seemed like everyone working for the Bureau, right down to the lowliest cleaner.

There was a long pause, then Scully said gently, "Please come and sit down. We need to talk about this - no strings, just talk."

Mulder sagged, feeling very tired. He nodded. "Okay."

"For the record, I haven't dated Jack in nearly eight months," Scully stated, from where she was sat curled up on the sofa. Mulder was sat in an armchair opposite, cradling his coffee mug in his lap. "We got involved just before I graduated from Quantico, but it didn't get serious until I took a teaching position there. It was okay for a while, but we ... had differences that just never seemed to get resolved and eventually we had a pretty acrimonious bust-up, as I'm sure you've already worked out. We both got called on the carpet by Assistant Director Hill - "

"Gerry Hill?" Mulder interrupted.

"Yes - you know her?"

A wry smile crossed his face. "Yeah, we've had a few run- ins in the past."

Scully stared, bemused but not especially surprised. "Is there anyone you *haven't* had a run-in with at the Bureau, Mulder?"

"I'd have to plead the Fifth on that ...."

She shook her head and decided to leave it. "Anyway ... with Jack unable to return to field duty, and there being no other openings available in Forensics or Pathology for me at the time, I took a voluntary transfer which allowed them to move me without putting an official reprimand on my record. And when I moved to the VCS, I decided that was the end of it between us. Aside from it being over anyway, I didn't need to give the gossips any more encouragement than they already had to talk about me. But Jack wouldn't leave it there."

"He seems to think you're still dating," Mulder commented blandly.

"Is that what he told you?"

"Words to that effect."

"I'm not surprised." Scully looked down at her hands for a moment, and then back up at him. "He never really let go. I think there was a space of about a month after the initial split, then he started calling me - "just to talk", he said. He seemed quite resigned to what had happened, and I didn't want to be on bad terms with him, so I went along with it. Then one day it was "how about lunch?" and like a fool, I accepted. Next thing I knew, it was flowers, e-mails, three and four calls a day ... so I cut him off pretty sharply again, and thought that was it. But no such luck. Now I can go for two or three weeks without hearing from him, then I'll get a rash of messages on my answering machine. He e-mailed me the other day, when I met you for lunch at Rosenthals, demanding to meet up somewhere."

Mulder suddenly became very interested in the arm of his chair. "That was when I ran into him," he said after a moment.

Scully's eyes widened slightly. "When?"

"Five minutes after you left. He was there all the time, watching us, and I guess what he saw really pissed him off, because he had a lot to say."

Her eyes narrowed. "Such as?"

Mulder shook his head. "Doesn't matter."

"Yes it does. To me." Scully uncurled herself and went to his side, crouching beside the chair. He wouldn't look at her, staring into his coffee mug instead, so she reached out and gently lifted his chin until he was looking her in the eye. "Mulder, please don't let Jack come between us. I value what we have, and I could kill him for making you think I was playing with you. I would *never* do that, do you understand? I couldn't hurt you that way."

He let out a long breath and relaxed, leaning back in the chair rather limply. After a moment he gave her a faint smile. "I'm too tired for all this, Scully."

She smiled back, a little sadly. "Yeah, so am I." She stood up and held out one hand. "Here, let me have your cup." He handed it over, and she took it out to the kitchen, rinsing both mugs under the tap.

After a moment, she heard him come up behind her and was surprised to feel his arms snaking around her waist from behind. She turned in his grasp and ran her hands lightly over his chest, looking up at him with a small smile. "I thought you were tired?"

The returning smile held a hint of mischief in it. "Maybe, maybe not."

Scully swallowed a grin and brushed her hands over his chest, shoulders, throat and then gently over his chin and lips. When her fingertips met the latter, she felt him press a kiss to them, and was surprised to feel a sudden powerful surge of heat through her body.

*Yes ....* "Stay with me," she whispered, "just for a while at least."

For a moment Mulder hesitated, remembering his responsibilities at home. But they would be alright for a couple of hours. He bent and kissed her, hard. "I'd like that."

Perhaps half an hour later, Scully's phone rang in the living room. It continued for a few rings, then the answering machine picked it up.

"Hi, this is Dana Scully. I can't come to the phone right now; please leave a message and I'll get back to you."

There was a pause, then a male voice spoke rather roughly. "Dana, it's Jack. I heard what happened tonight - if you're there, pick up .... Dana, come on, I know you're there - "

Neither of the two in the bedroom heard.

Title: Prelude III: Flying Saucers
Author: Mad Martha
Spoilers: The Pilot/Squeeze/Tooms/Fallen Angel/Deep Throat/Jersey Devil/Lazarus/Beyond The Sea/Duane Barry/Darkness Falls
Overall Rating: R
Content Warning: Alternate Universe/MSR
Classification: S,X,R
Disclaimer: "The X Files" and all the characters etc. associated with it are the property of 20th Century Fox and 1013 Productions. I am not making any profit from this story, and no infringement is intended.

Summary: Mulder and Scully investigate a few aliens and meet a few contacts.

As cages went, he supposed it could be worse. Not that he had a lot of experience of cages, but it had a cot with some folded blankets and a pillow on it and there was a small chemical toilet in one corner. It might be constructed of heavy wire mesh and situated in what looked like a small aircraft hanger, but it could definitely be worse.

Fox Mulder, a phlegmatic man by and large, accepted the situation philosophically and tested the cot by sitting on it.

Not bad. Not bad at all. Frankly, he was more concerned about the fate of his new camera, which the military goons outside had handled with unnecessary roughness while trying to extract the film.

Mulder stretched out full length and decided he might as well take a nap until his captors had decided what to do with him.


One eye popped back open and squinted in the direction of the voice. A figure loomed up against the wire division opposite; a short man with long hair, beard and spectacles and a baseball cap on backwards. He looked to be in his early thirties at most and was shifting from one foot to the other nervously.

Mulder opened both eyes and sat up slowly, swinging his legs over the side of the cot to the floor. He studied his cell-mate with interest, but didn't say anything, waiting on developments; his natural caution made him wary of speaking, even to someone who was apparently in the same place for the same reasons as him.

"Oh, let me guess; you're with that new group, SICARP, right?" the other man continued, almost babbling with nervous excitement. He cleared his throat and smiled hesitantly at Mulder, but was a little unnerved by the lack of response.

"Er - say no more, you're a cautious man - trust no one, very wise!" He let out a laugh that was almost a giggle, and his eyes slid away from Mulder's for a moment, as if shy of direct scrutiny. Then he sobered. "After what happened to JFK, I understand completely. Oh, let me introduce myself - the name's Max Fenig, I'm with the National Investigative Committee of Aerial Phenomenon." He pulled his baseball cap around the right way and tilted his head forward so that Mulder could see the legend stitched on the front in bold letters. "NICAP!" he proclaimed proudly. Still getting no more reaction than a slight lift of the brows, he stumbled on. "Er - pleased to make your acquaintance. Wish we could shake on it - you know, firm grip, look you right in the eye - you learn a lot about a guy that way! Can - can I ask you a question?"

"Go ahead," Mulder replied, watching the jumpy little caricature of a man curiously.

"Did you see anything - did you get close? Me, I saw *nothing*." He raised his voice slightly, his eyes behind the thick pebble glasses scanning the ceiling as if they were being watched, although Mulder doubted it. "I DIDN'T SEE ANYTHING!" He lowered his voice again and turned back to Mulder intensely. "Nada, zip - hundred yards past the roadblock, they nailed me - I've no idea how they did it. I'm telling you, it's like the Roswell cover-up all over again."

Mulder stared at him thoughtfully. "What makes you so sure there's something out there?" he asked after a moment.

Max laughed again nervously. "Same thing that makes you so sure?"

That gave Mulder a pause, and he eyed Max more warily. "What's that supposed to mean?"

Max blinked at him in surprise, then chuckled again. "Well, looking at you ... you're Fox Mulder, right?"

"I am?" The question was asked more out of surprise that Fenig would know him than the sarcasm it implied, but Max was a little stung all the same.

"Sure," he said, rather indignantly. "I've seen you at a couple of MUFON meetings before - that's why I thought you were here."

"I'm not a member," Mulder said curtly, and laid back on his cot again.

"No - no, I know that. But everyone knows - "

"Knows *what*?"

Max backed away from the fence. "Th-that you were with the FBI," he stammered. "We followed some of your cases. Everyone knows you quit because of the cover-ups in the Government."

Mulder stared at him for a moment, then he let out a snort of laughter. "Then "everyone" is wrong," he advised Max, amused, and shut his eyes again.

And people thought *he* was a nutcase!

The wake-up call was somewhat ruder than Mulder had expected; a sudden harsh groaning of metal as the door was roughly pulled open, followed by a blinding shaft of light pouring directly down onto his face. He jerked himself upright sharply, squinting briefly at the figure which had appeared in the doorway, and tried to rub some sense into his eyesight.

Then the door was shut again, and the figure coalesced into a neatly dressed, five foot two woman with auburn hair whom Mulder would have been delighted to see under any other circumstances. One glance at her glaring blue eyes this morning, though, convinced him that he would be unwise to display any premature signs of pleasure.

So he fell back on his usual routine; flippancy.

"I didn't order room service."

Special Agent Dana Scully folded her arms over her chest and pursed her lips angrily for a moment. "This isn't funny, Mulder."

No, it certainly wasn't. What was she doing here anyway? No way would her superiors have authorized an investigation of *this* as an X-file. Mulder searched for a way to deflect her until he could properly get his head sorted out. "Did you see Max?"


Her tone was like the crack of a whip, and he winced inwardly. Yep, he was definitely in the brown smelly stuff this time, but he continued doggedly. "Max, from NICAP." Mulder looked across to Max's cage, but it was empty. "They must have released him." He turned back and offered Scully a small smile. "Another intrepid soul in search of a close encounter."

"Is *that* what this is about?" she demanded, staring at him.

"What else?" The blue eyes were like lasers; Mulder was almost surprised not to feel scorch-marks left behind as they flicked over him.

"Try explaining that to Skinner for me."

"Huh?" Mulder blinked up at her in surprise.

Scully's expression was angry and let down. "He told me you were here, and sent me to pick you up. They contacted your *mother*, for God's sake, and she didn't know who else to ask for help."

"Shit - " Mulder instantly felt nauseous at the thought of his mother's reaction.

"I don't understand you, Mulder!" Scully burst out. "Why the hell do you keep taking these risks? It's not like you have even a shred of official sanction anymore - they could put you away for two years for this, and where would your mother and Sam be then?"

Mulder, not liking to examine this idea too closely, shied away and dragged the conversation back to his reasons for being there in the first place. "Oh, c'mon Scully! Don't tell me you believe that "toxic spill" crap they were putting out?"

"Oh, you don't?" she retorted sarcastically. "Why not?"

"Because I know what I saw, Scully! There weren't train tracks anywhere near that site, so how could it have been a de-railed container?"

"Because it wasn't," Scully stated flatly. "What you saw was not a toxic spill. But it wasn't a UFO either."

Mulder's head jerked up at her tone, and his eyes raked over her. "I'm all ears - what was it?"

"It was a downed Libyan jet with a nuclear warhead."

He began to laugh in spite of himself. "Over *US airspace*?"

Scully's temper began to rise. "They've been picking up low-grade levels of radiation, indicating that the plutonium casing may have cracked, so to avoid mass panic - "

"You really believe that story?" he interrupted scornfully.

"That story happens to be highly classified!"

"A highly classified lie." Mulder glanced up, hearing a helicopter pass overhead. "Listen to that, Scully - they're searching for someone."

"If they're searching for anyone, it's probably the pilot," she told him tiredly.

"Oh, you think they'd roll out all this material for one Libyan fighter-jock?"

Scully began to pace in front of his cage, trying to keep her anger at him under control.

"Besides," Mulder continued, losing interest in the argument, "no human pilot walked out of the wreckage I saw."

"Well, maybe he ejected," she snapped.

"Maybe." He rubbed his faced tiredly, and looked up at her. "So, are you going to get me out of here?"

Scully's expression tightened, but she turned and banged on the door for the guard.

The flight back to Washington was almost painful. Mulder tried in vain to initiate neutral topics of conversation, but Scully wasn't having any; she sat rigidly in the seat next to him and stared out of the window without saying anything.

Finally, in frustration Mulder sat back and closed his eyes, reviewing what had happened mentally. Which was when one detail, which had passed him by during the heat of the moment, suddenly lit up in his mind. His eyes popped open in surprise.


No reply. He tried again. "Scully, why did they contact my mother?"

For a moment he thought she wouldn't answer; then she turned to stare at him. "Because she's your next of kin, I suppose. Who else would they contact?"

"How about the military police?" he suggested dryly. "After all, I'm such a dangerous criminal."

Scully sighed and turned away again. "Mulder, quite frankly I don't care. All I know is that it was your mother who contacted Skinner. I don't know the exact sequence of events."

Even that seemed odd to Mulder. Why would she contact Skinner and not, for example, his father or the uncle who handled all her legal affairs? His mother didn't know Skinner.

As far as Scully was concerned, though, the subject was closed. She had more pressing concerns. "Mulder, you might as well know - Skinner had something else to tell me while I was there. He seemed to think it was particularly relevant under the circumstances."

Instantly, Mulder's entire attention was fixed on her. "Go on."

"I'm being assigned a partner." There was a deafening silence at her side, which Scully hastily took advantage of. "Skinner ... didn't actually say so, but I got the impression he isn't happy that you're involved so much in my work. So he's assigning a guy from Violent Crimes to partner me whenever I have to go out in the field. It's not full-time - just back-up I guess."

Mulder found his voice again, but his mind was reeling. "Do you know who?"

"Not yet." Scully looked down at her lap. "I got the feeling that detail hadn't been sorted out yet."

"Jesus." Now Mulder had something else to worry about at night; the very real possibility that whoever was assigned to Scully might have a hidden agenda. In a world where the Government actively sought to cover up evidence of extraterrestrial life, with deadly force if necessary, one lone female FBI agent was very vulnerable. Especially to someone who worked closely with her. "You should ask for a transfer out of the X-Files," he heard himself say.

Scully turned her head to fix him with an incredulous look. "*What*?"

She got a very sober look in return. "Scully, being attacked by liver-eating mutants and closing a dozen files a day on bogus poltergeist reports is not worth your time or expertise, and getting killed over supposed UFOs and illegal Government experiments is pointless. You could do so much better - "

"Oh, so it's okay for you, a college lecturer and lone parent of a two year old boy, to risk your life chasing supposed UFOs, but it's pointless for me, a female FBI agent?" she interrupted.

He winced. "No, I just - "

"Or is it just that seventy-five percent of agents are male, and therefore my new partner is statistically likely to also be a man?"

"Hey, what?" Mulder blinked at her, genuinely startled. "Where did *that* come from?"

Scully stared back at him coolly for a minute or two, arms folded and one brow raised. The look of confusion on his face was probably genuine, she decided, and let him off the hook. "Forget I said that," she said, with a slight smile.

Now he looked perplexed and slightly worried. Good. She hadn't forgotten their trip to the Taj Mahal Restaurant a month ago, even if he had. Halfway through the meal, the management had discreetly swapped the waiters so that a woman was serving them; Mulder's behavior towards the first one had been ... chilly to say the least. Scully was prepared to admit that the man had been almost uncomfortably attentive, but then, so had Mulder been once he'd got a look at the cleavage revealed by her new frock.

He was just as bad as any other man, once you managed to drag his head out of the latest paranormal publication.

Still, she didn't think he was the type to get jealous for no reason, but it was worth raising the subject just to see the look on his face. And she genuinely didn't need another Jack Willis in her life - the original was causing a big enough nuisance as it was.

"Mulder, if you're planning to get over-protective of me, you can drop it now," she warned, only semi-humorous. "Let me remind you; *I'm* the one carrying the gun and the badge. And *you're* the one who just spent the night in a pre-fabricated military jail for criminal trespass."

"It wasn't criminal trespass, that land is public property!" he protested.

"It was quarantined," Scully retorted, exasperated, "and for good reason."

"Yeah, so they could stash any possible evidence before Joe Public got an eyeful!"

She stared at him, amazed for the hundredth time at his inability to consider any explanation but the irrational one. "Mulder, would *you* want the good citizens of Wisconsin to know that a Libyan fighter pilot was roaming at large in their vicinity?"

Mulder glared at her. "I don't know, Scully, but I guess if I was someone high up in the Government or the military, I wouldn't want Chewbacca galumphing around the locality in an uncontrolled manner," he snapped back sarcastically.

Scully tried unsuccessfully to stifle a snort of laughter at the image this conjured up in her mind. "Bigfoot is an alien after all?"

"Fine. Laugh." Mulder folded his arms and stared ahead stiffly.

His expression reminded Scully irresistibly of his son Sam when he threw a tantrum, but she hastily buried the thought. "Oh Mulder, come on - I was just teasing." No response. He glowered at the back of the man's head in front. "You haven't told me what brought you out here in the first place, anyway."

"I had some information from reliable friends of mine."


Mulder didn't respond to the question in her voice, and Scully was disappointed but not entirely surprised. He'd declined to tell her about his sources before, and she wasn't entirely sure whether it was because he didn't trust her or they didn't. Not really wanting an answer to that question, she'd never pushed the issue, although it had occurred to her a long time ago that although he claimed to be a freelance journalist, and appeared to spend considerable time pursuing that activity, she'd never yet discovered who he sold his stories to. Come to that, she'd never yet *read* one of his stories.

Maybe it was time she did.

Nearly a week passed before Scully saw Mulder again. This wasn't unusual; given their respective schedules and the fact that she was apt to be out of town a lot these days, meeting up tended to be a little hit and miss. All the same, she was beginning to wonder exactly what he was up to, for it was unusual for her not to find at least one message on her answering machine from him, and more commonly two or three.

Arriving home at 6.30 in the evening on the Friday, Scully dumped her bag and coat and pushed the 'play' button on the answering machine in passing, as she went to the kitchen to grab a glass of water. To her surprise, there was only the one message from her mother, and nothing at all from Jack Willis for once.

No Mulder either. She briefly debated calling him, but was daunted by the prospect of getting his mother again; on two previous occasions she had spoken with Mrs. Mulder and left messages with the older woman for him to call her back. Neither message had reached him. And although he did actually possess a cellphone, for some reason it was almost always switched off.

Scully sighed. Okay, maybe she would e-mail him after she ate. He was probably just piled up with work.

She changed out of her suit into an outsized sweatshirt and leggings, washed off her make-up, pulled her hair into a tail, and went to investigate the contents of her fridge. The remnants of a pasta salad and a carton of skimmed milk stared back at her forlornly.

Fortunately, at that moment the doorbell rang. Scully answered it, and to her surprise Mulder stood outside. They stared at each other for moment.

"Hey," he said finally, rather nonplussed by her stare.

"Hey," she managed in return. "I was going to e-mail you."

"I can go again ...."

Scully pulled the door open wide and gestured for him to come in. "Actually, you came at a good moment. I was just going to order take-out."

Mulder didn't appear to hear her; he was staring at her chest. "So that's where my shirt went."

She peered down at herself, surprised, and registered the crest of the Oxford University ... Polo Team? "You must have left it here sometime - I'll change it - "

"No - no, it looks better on you than me. Did you say take-out?"

"Uh-huh ...."

Mulder nodded. "We'll pick it up on the way back."

Scully blinked. "Way back from where?" she demanded.

He shifted under her sharp gaze uncomfortably. "There's some people I want you to meet."

"Mulder," Scully began, eyeing the locality they were in with disfavor, "there are three points I think you should consider before we go any further."

The corner of his mouth twitched, but otherwise his expression remained serious. "Shoot."

"If this is another UFO/Government conspiracy theorists' meeting, forget it. If we're here to speak to a group of down-and- outs who saw a flying saucer land in the locality, forget it. And if this is your idea of a great place to start spicing up our relationship, you can forget that too."

Mulder grinned. "You rate spicing up our relationship third on the list of things you won't do?"

She gave him look. "Does it need spicing up?"

He made a show of considering the matter. "Maybe we should discuss this elsewhere."

"Fine. I'm ready to leave here."

"Oooh, so keen." He unbuckled his seatbelt. "But I'm afraid you'll have to wait; we have a prior appointment."

Scully peered out of the windshield again at the rather run-down industrial estate. "Here?" she asked doubtfully.

"Here," he confirmed.

"And who do we have this appointment with again?"

"I didn't mention who they were," Mulder grinned at her.

"That's what I thought," she muttered, disgruntled, and reluctantly unbuckled her own seatbelt. "There'd better not be rats or roaches around here, Mulder."

"Scully, you used to do autopsies for a living; how can you be bothered by something like a roach?" Mulder locked the car and began to lead the way through the buildings.

Scully followed him, treading gingerly around puddles and heaps of refuse. "I don't know, you're the psychologist," she returned distractedly. "What is this place, anyway?"

"Just an industrial estate. They rent some space here for now."


"Patience!" Mulder guided her through a door in what looked like an abandoned storage warehouse, and through another door and down some dimly lit stairs.

Great - a basement. As if she didn't already spend large portions of her working life in a basement, albeit a more hospitable one than this. "What's the big secret?" she demanded.

"Let's just say that these people value their privacy." At the bottom of the stairs was another door, with a video camera positioned above it and an illuminated key pad to one side. Mulder pushed a button for a couple of seconds, then stood back to wait, arms folded.

Scully began to get annoyed. "I was right, wasn't I? These people *are* some kind of UFO nuts after all."

Mulder pursed his lips noncommittally. "They run a magazine," he offered.

She eyed him narrowly. "This is the magazine you work for?"

"One of them."


"Some of it, but not exclusively. You'll see."

"Hm. And why do I want to meet them?"

Mulder shrugged. "Information," he replied cryptically.

Scully gave him a frustrated glare. "Are they going to let us in this side of the year 2000?"

He smiled at her. "Actually, I think the delay is because they're checking you out. Why don't you smile for the camera?"

She took in the lurking twinkle in the hazel eyes and promised herself revenge later. Then the door clunked open and she forgot all about it.

"After you," Mulder said gravely, holding the door wide. She gave him a wary look, but stepped cautiously inside.

The basement room was large but economically lit and seemed to be stacked from floor to ceiling with an extraordinary range of electronic equipment. Scully stared wide-eyed at it all, trying vainly to identify the more unfamiliar parts ... which included most of it. The best she could come up with was that it was surveillance equipment of some kind, and apparently as high-tech as any military base. But who and what were these people watching with this stuff? What kind of magazine needed this?

Then she felt Mulder's hand in the small of her back, gently propelling her past some stacked crates and into a more brightly lit area full of computer monitors and CCTV screens.

For a moment, Scully was completely caught by all those screens; links to the Internet, weird computer graphics, black-and-white shots of the stairs outside, the warehouse, Mulder's car, someone's office ....

"Hey, that's my office!" she exclaimed, before she could stop herself, and suddenly three pairs of eyes were fixed on her.

"So it is," Mulder agreed, peering over her shoulder. "Guys, I thought I told you to quit surveilling there when I left?"

"It's not ours," one man said. He was neatly dressed in a suit and tie, which seemed rather incongruous to Scully considering the surroundings, and had a beard and earnest eyes. "We're just piggy-backing the security system there. Someone else put that camera in place."

"Seriously?" Mulder leaned closer to the screen to scrutinize it. "I wonder how long it's been there? Looks like it's behind those racks on the wall to the right of the door when you come in."

"We've been monitoring it for nearly three weeks now," the second man volunteered. He was tall and lanky, like Mulder, but had long straggling blond hair and thick pebble glasses which gave his eyes a perpetually wide-eyed look.

"Oh yeah?" Now Mulder's tone held just a hint of menace. "See anything you like?"

The third man, who had been sitting with his back to them in a swivel chair, gave a rough chuckle and swung around to look at them both. He was a little troll of a man, short, overweight, balding and scruffily-dressed, and he gave Scully what he doubtless thought was an ingratiating smile - although it looked more like a leer to her.

"Let's just say it's made me a happy man," he confirmed with a grin. He picked up a camera from the table next to him and snapped off a couple of shots of Scully before she could protest, and winked at Mulder. "She's hot."

Mulder suppressed a grin and turned back to Scully, who was giving him the evil eye. "Byers," he said, gesturing to the bearded man, who nodded gravely at her, "Langley," he pointed to the blond one, "and the creep in the chair is Frohike. They call themselves the Lone Gunmen, after the guy in the Kennedy conspiracy."

"Charmed, I'm sure," Scully muttered, and wondered how soon she could leave.

"So this is the lovely Agent Scully - in the flesh at last?" Frohike commented, swinging his chair around a little so that he could prop his feet up on the table.

Scully ignored him, having more pressing concerns. "Why is there a camera in my office?" she asked Mulder. She wasn't sure she wanted an answer, but she had to ask. "And why are they monitoring me?"

"To the second question, all I can say is - why don't you ask them?" Mulder replied blandly. "As to the first, I don't know but get used to it. I was pulling cameras and bugs out of that office twice a week by the time I resigned, and I never did find out who put them there."

Scully digested this for a moment, and began to get an uneasy feeling in her stomach. She looked at Byers, who seemed like the safest of the bunch. "Okay, so why were you watching me?"

He glanced at the others, and shrugged. "You took over the X-files; we wanted to see what sort of person you are."

"A lot of people are interested in what happens to the X-files," Langley put in. "People not in the FBI. We had the means to get them that information."

"Great, so now they all know what stores I buy my suits at," she retorted sardonically.

The polite laughs she got in response to this were not reassuring. Even less reassuring was the wicked sparkle in Mulder's eyes as he sat back and watched the confrontation. Scully eyed him thoughtfully. "And just how much of this information came from you?" she demanded.

He grinned at her maddeningly. "Naturally I told them when you took over the X-files."

"Naturally," she nodded. "And ...?"

"And when he wouldn't give me your e-mail address, I hacked into the FBI Intranet and pulled your personnel file," Frohike put in.

Scully stared at him disbelievingly, then saw the look on Mulder's face. "He's kidding, right?" she asked, horrified.

He winced. "Well, it wasn't your personnel file, but - "

"Mulder, no one can just hack into the FBI network!"

The laughs this time were genuine, and bordered on sniggers.

"Scully, I hate to break this to you, but people can hack into virtually *anything* - all it takes is a little know-how, persistence and luck. A teenager in England hacked into the US defense systems recently; beside that, the Bureau network is kindergarten stuff."

Scully began to get angry. "And just what, exactly, is so fascinating about me to your readers?" she demanded of Frohike.

He didn't answer, but Byers seemed to take this as a challenge to their integrity. "We didn't print anything about you," he said rather defensively. "We just ... checked you out. There are people within the Government who'd like nothing better than a good reason to set a light to the X-files. We needed to know if you were there just to keep important issues buried."

Scully shot Mulder a glance, but his expression was noncommittal once more, so she turned back to Byers. "Poltergeists and Bigfoot are important issues?" she asked dryly.

"It's not the supernatural stuff we're interested in," Byers replied dismissively. "It's the evidence of extensive Government involvement in cases of suspected alien abduction, and the cover-up of cases of downed aircraft of possible extraterrestrial origins - "

Scully looked at Mulder. "*This* is why you got yourself locked in a cage in Wisconsin?"

"You were right, Mulder - she *is* skeptical," Frohike observed.

Mulder ignored him. "Why don't you just hear what they have to say?" he asked Scully reasonably.

"I heard it all before, at that whacked-out meeting you took me to after Bellefleur. And I wasn't impressed with it then."

He regarded her steadily for a moment, then sighed. "Okay - you carry on believing it was a Libyan jet, if that makes you feel more comfortable."

Frohike looked up at this and gave Scully a look of genuine surprise. "You don't believe that story, do you?"

"And why wouldn't I?" she asked irritably, tired and fed up.

He exchanged curious glances with his colleagues, who both looked equally startled.

"Because it's the most transparent story they've come up with since "hey, folks - it was just a weather balloon"," Langley managed, after a moment. "If it was a Libyan jet, they'd have been jumping up and down on every news broadcast across the country by now, and selling pictures of the wreckage to the papers. Instead - nada."

"Maybe it's not a good idea to let the residents of the area know there was possibly a fractured nuclear warhead in the area - "

"That aircraft wasn't carrying a nuclear warhead, Scully," Mulder sighed wearily. He'd never met anyone so stubborn.

"Oh yeah?"

"Frohike, have you got those pictures I took?"

Scully eyed him suspiciously. "I thought you said they confiscated your camera?"

He smiled. "They did, but they didn't get the film."

"Excuse me, but wouldn't they have noticed if the film was missing? And I thought you were searched?"

"You know, I had a bulldog like you once," Frohike told her admiringly. "He never let go of anything either."

Mulder swallowed a laugh, seeing death in Scully's expression. "The only film they got was the one with the pictures of my cousin Nathan's bar mitzvah on it," he told her, "and as for the other one ... well, let's just say I was very creative. Fortunately, they didn't strip-search me."

As he'd thought, the implication was enough to keep Scully occupied for a moment, and in the meantime Langley whipped out a bunch of black-and-white pictures. He presented them to Scully and waited hopefully as she scanned through the pile.

Mulder was less hopeful; he could see her expression, and while it might look blank to some, he knew better.

Finally she sighed and looked up at him. "What I see here, Mulder, are a lot of shots of guys suited up in safety gear, performing standard hazardous waste containment procedures on a pile of anonymous wreckage. There's nothing here to say *what* the wreckage was, because it's too damaged."

"So it doesn't *have* to be a Libyan jet," he prodded gently.

"No," she agreed mildly, "but it doesn't *have* to be a downed UFO either, and on the balance of probabilities - "

"Scully, do me a favor, will you? Take another look at that wreckage."

She pursed her lips, but complied. "Okay. What am I looking for?"

"The size of the pieces of fuselage. If it *is* what we would call fuselage."

Now her lips twitched, but she did as he said. "And?"

"*And* look at the size of it. You said they quarantined the area because there was possibly a fractured nuclear warhead on board. Does anything you see in those pictures look big enough to disguise the said warhead?" Mulder folded his arms, watching her. "Scully, if there was a warhead on board that 'Libyan jet', the whole world would know about it by now, because no way could it have survived that kind of impact in one piece, let alone be 'fractured'."

Scully put the photos down and folded her own arms, staring back at him uncompromisingly. "Mulder, I hate to be the one to break it to you, but science doesn't stand still. Nuclear devices, especially armaments such as a jet would be carrying, are getting smaller every day - "

The collective groan that met this statement heated her temper, although Mulder merely sat back, resigned.

"Then what can I say?" he asked her. "If you are so determined not to see ...."

Scully shook her head. "Mulder, it's not my inability to see that's the problem here. It's *your* desperate need to believe."

"Or desperate need for something," Frohike suggested - and let out a startled 'oof' as Mulder thumped him.

"Those were the most paranoid people I have ever met," Scully told Mulder half an hour later, as she unlocked her apartment door and flicked the lights on. She walked straight through to the kitchen, leaving him to juggle a bulging plastic bag from the supermarket and a small stack of take-out cartons. "I don't know how you can find anything they say remotely credible."

"Oh, I don't know," he replied, managing to shut the door behind him with one foot - but carefully, knowing how sensitive she was about her paintwork. He had noticed that it seemed to be a universal female trait. "I think it's remotely credible that someone might think you're hot."

She gave him the evil eye as he dumped the groceries and take-out on her kitchen table, but he only grinned. "You're just sore because Byers ripped up your money."

"Mulder, it was a twenty! They don't grow on trees, you know - some of us work for a living. Besides," and Scully began to decant the contents of the bag into the fridge and various cupboards, "I do not believe the Government is keeping track of the general public's money and movements via the scanners at the airport. I mean, what's the point, for crying out loud? And come to that, why on earth am I keeping your favorite brand of iced tea in my refrigerator?"

Mulder blinked at the sudden change of subject and tried to kick his brain up a gear. He had a hard time keeping up with Scully when she was in this kind of mood. "Because you love me?" he suggested, a little rashly.

She paused, a bottle in each hand, and raised a quelling brow. "That isn't the first answer that comes to mind, Mulder."

"Well, if you feel like that - " He reached over and made to take the bottles from her, but she pulled them back out of reach.

"Uh huh. I paid for these." She stashed them in the fridge, then went to one of the cupboards and pulled out a couple of plates, which she put in front of him. "You know where the cutlery drawer is - dish up while I check my mail, will you?"

"Yes dear," he replied meekly.

Scully snorted and left the kitchen.

When Mulder followed her with the Chinese food ten minutes later - having paused to give the food a quick blast in the microwave for good measure ("No sense in being blamed for cold food," he told himself) - Scully was standing by the reading lamp with her glasses on, fiddling pensively with the mouse from her computer.

He slid the two plates carefully onto the coffee table, and looked across at her. "What's the problem?"

"Oh, nothing." Scully was unscrewing the base of the mouse carefully. "This thing's been giving me trouble for a couple of days now - either it doesn't run smoothly or ...."

Her voice trailed off and Mulder's brows drew together in a slight frown. Scully's face had gone blank with shock.


She turned mutely and held the palm-sized device out to him; he stood up quickly and went to look. Inside the plastic cover of the mouse was a small piece of electronic gadgetry which was most definitely not part of its usual workings.

A bug.

Two hours later, the two of them wearily slumped down on the sofa amid the random disorder of what had been Scully's neat little apartment. On the table, between two forgotten and congealed plates of lo mein, was a small pile of disassembled circuits.

They'd found five listening devices in all. The one that bothered Scully the most had been inside her bedside reading lamp. It bothered Mulder to find one in the bedroom too, although he would never admit it.

"Do you think we found them all?" she asked in a small voice, at length.

Mulder opened his mouth to reassure her - and realized that he couldn't bring himself to voice what would more than likely be a lie. "I can arrange for the place to be swept," he offered instead.

That she agreed almost immediately was an indication of how rattled Scully was. She knew who the 'arrangement' would be with. There was a dismal silence for a moment, then something else occurred to her. "What about my office?"

Monday morning found Scully walking as confidently into the VCS bullpen as she could. It wasn't easy; her departure from the mainstream dealings of the Bureau hadn't been smooth, despite her best attempts to keep her relationship with her former colleagues friendly. The Tooms case had put Tom Colton against her for a start, and he was not a man to keep his grievances to himself.

Scully wondered what the reaction to today's little visit would be. Under the circumstances, she imagined it would add quite a bit to the rumor mill.

Her new partner. That had been the last subject on her mind when she entered the building this morning, but Skinner had caught her on the way to the elevator and diverted her into his office to give her the good news. Such as it was.

Scully had very real reservations about this; not least that this guy - an Agent Castamir - could be a complete jerk, with an eye to the main chance like Tom Colton. He could be a disaster, someone no one else in the Bureau wanted under their command.

Or he could be someone planted to keep an eye on her and report back to their superiors on her work.

She grimaced. Mulder had pointed out once that if they saddled her with a partner, the chances were he would either be a plant or someone who wouldn't take the work seriously, and either one could get her killed in a situation like - for example - the Tooms case.

Mulder, of course, was paranoid.

Scully gave herself a mental shake and strode into the VCS offices confidently. There was only one way to find out what this guy was like, and that was to meet him.

She ignored the stares and muttered conversation as she crossed the room. She knew where he'd be; all newcomers to the VCS got shoved into the smallest, most poorly lit corner of the room when they first arrived, the idea being that you worked your way out into a better seating position. Scully herself had been put there when she first arrived at the Hoover building from Quantico.

Sure enough, the rickety desk was already sporting a cardboard box full of personal items, only a few of which had been laid out as yet, and a dark navy suit jacket was slung over the back of the ancient chair. Of Agent Castamir himself there was nothing to be seen.

Scully hesitated, glancing around at her former colleagues, none of whom made a move to greet her or even acknowledge her presence, and decided she'd better wait. She sat down gingerly on the chair, not having yet forgotten the dangerous list it developed for the unwary - really, it was worse than Mulder's old chair down in the basement, with its wobbly wheel - and glanced casually at the few bits her new, if part-time, partner had managed to set out on the desk before he was called away.

There was a small desk calendar, with a picture of Magritte's "The Future of Statues" on it. A coffee mug with Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote. And a couple of photographs in studio cardboard frames, one of which was instantly recognizable as an Academy class photo. Scully picked it up and studied it curiously.

Then she felt a sudden jolt in her stomach and looked closer. She had no idea which of the men in the picture was Agent Castamir, but one face in the back row jumped out at her.

It was Mulder, fresh-faced and improbably earnest in his standard Bureau-approved suit. His hair was shorter, and he was some six or seven years younger, but she would have known him anywhere.

Mulder and Castamir had been classmates?

"Pretty criminal line-up, huh?" an amused voice said at her elbow.

Scully jumped and looked around. A tall man with very short, very tightly curled blond hair was grinning at her amiably; he had a pleasant face and rather piercing grey eyes, but two other details struck her most forcibly.

He had an indefinable air of ... mischief about him, which was particularly noticeable in that grin; and he had the most diabolical taste in ties.

Just like Mulder. Oh God.

Scully got a grip on her composure with an effort, and stood up, offering her hand. "Agent Castamir? I'm Agent Scully. AD Skinner said you'd be working with me occasionally."

He clasped the hand firmly, looking impossibly cheerful for someone who'd been shipped into the VCS, apparently in some disgrace wherever he came from. "Nice to meet you - and please, it's Jerry."

Scully smiled uneasily, extricating her hand from his grip, but did not reciprocate with her own name. She honestly wasn't sure what to make of him yet, and didn't feel like getting too chummy too soon.

He didn't seem to notice her unease, but instead gestured to the photo on the desk. "See anyone you know?" He raised a brow at her.

That sounded suspiciously like fishing. "Only my predecessor in the X-Files Division," Scully replied coolly, deciding to be blunt. She might as well find out his opinion sooner rather than later.

Castamir wasn't fazed. "Fox Mulder? Great guy - pity he had to quit." Oddly enough, his regret sounded genuine.

"Did you know him well?" she asked curiously.

Jerry Castamir smiled wryly. "Pretty well. We were partners for about six months while he was here in the VCS, and I knew him before from the BSU."

Only practice kept Scully from gaping at him, and a thousand questions ran screaming around her mind. Fortunately, it was the single intelligent one which made its way to her mouth. "You're a profiler? Then what ...." She shut her mouth hastily before a really rude and intrusive question popped out, but the rest of the sentence hung between them.

*Then what are you doing here?*

Castamir's eyes sparkled wickedly. "I'm a bad boy," he murmured confidentially, and his eyes slid around to scan his fellow agents.

Several heads quickly vanished back behind the low partitions which surrounded some of the desks.

Scully beat down the urge to ask in what way he'd been "bad" and told herself sternly that she was clearly going to have to keep an eye on this guy, for her own peace of mind. She folded her arms and got back to business. "Have you been told anything about this assignment?" she asked.

He straightened up and his expression became serious. "Officially - no. Unofficially, I've been told to watch the sky for visitations."

"Hm." Scully eyed him warily, and decided she couldn't resist just one little tweak of his tail. Associating with Mulder had given her some bad habits. "Do you believe in the existence of extraterrestrials, Agent Castamir?"

Castamir eyed her back as though he suddenly wasn't quite sure what to make of her. He gave her a nervous grin. "You're kidding me, right?"

Scully heaved an inner sigh of relief. *Thank God, he's not a UFO loon.* "Come on," she smiled. "If you're not busy, you can come take a look at the office. And there's a job I'd really appreciate your help with."

"This was Mulder's office before he left?" Castamir asked in a slightly disbelieving tone.

Scully glanced across at him as she switched the lamp on her over desk and dropped her bag onto the chair. "Yes - why?"

He was looking around with some amusement. "It's too tidy."

"I've been here for a few months now."

"That explains it." He found the cast of Bigfoot's footprint and examined it interestedly. "Mulder could never work in anything short of a crap-heap, at least when I worked with him. The only time I saw his desk clean was when we had some new desks delivered and he had to move everything. Half an hour, and it was buried under paper again." Castamir put the cast back on the shelf and wandered over to look at the "I Want To Believe" poster opposite Scully's desk. "I never did break him of spitting seed shells on the floor," he added over his shoulder.

"If it's not an indelicate question, Agent Castamir - "

"Jerry," he corrected absently.

"Okay ... Jerry," Scully agreed, although she still wasn't sure she wanted to be on first name terms with him. "If it's not an indelicate question, how come you're in the VCS at all if you're a profiler?"

"Because I was really only an okay profiler," he replied equably enough. "I was never brilliant, like Mulder was, and the mighty Patterson only wanted the really bright boys on his team. So I transferred out. I've been in Denver for the last three years, but I had ... a little trouble recently and took a prejudicial transfer."

Fair enough. Scully decided against prying any further; she'd done a similar thing herself not long ago and had preferred not to discuss it. Castamir's career was his own business.

Besides, she still had a very important matter to deal with, and two heads - and pairs of hands - were better than one. She dug a small penlight out of her drawer and went over to the shelves near the door. As she recalled, the perspective had been from this angle ....

"Can I ask what you're looking for?" Castamir asked after a moment, watching curiously as she stood on tiptoe and peered between a pile of files at the wall behind.

"If I find it, you'll see," Scully replied, her voice a little muffled.

"Had you considered switching the main light on in here? It might help." "Can't, I'm waiting for Maintenance to bring a new strip-light."

"Oh." He watched her, with a perplexed look on his face and a slowly dawning twinkle of amusement in his eyes. "Can I help?"

"I just - ah!" Scully stood back, breathless and triumphant, clutching something in one hand. "Found it."

"Found what?"

She tossed him the device and waited to see what his reaction would be. She was not disappointed.

Shock and bemusement crossed Jerry Castamir's face in equal measures. "Is it .... It's a video camera. Isn't it?"

"That's right," Scully said grimly.

"But - why was it behind your shelves?"

"I don't know. I'm open to ideas. Mulder tells me he was pulling them out of this office all the time."

It was about that time that Agent Castamir began to wonder if he wanted to be involved in Agent Scully's work ... not that he actually had much choice in the matter. He put the little camera down on the corner of her desk and gave her an uncertain look. "You said there's a job you want my help with."

Scully nodded. "I need you to help me search this office for any more little hidden surprises."

An hour or so later, they'd put the office back to rights and Scully was brewing coffee in the little percolator she had inherited from Mulder.

Jerry was looking over the small collection of bugs they'd found rather pensively. "Does this kind of thing happen often?" he asked, with a feeble attempt at cheer.

"No," Scully sighed. She felt rather discouraged herself. "This is a new development for me. Mulder and I fished half a dozen of the things out of my apartment Friday night - I guess it makes a change from going to the movies."

He looked up at her a little sharply when she said that. "You must know him pretty well."

Scully smiled in spite of herself. "Stick around, and listen to the rumor mill."

Jerry flushed. "I didn't mean - "

She put a mug of coffee in front of him. "It's okay. Did you know his wife?"

"Thanks. Yeah, I knew Phoebe, though not in the Biblical sense. I was about the only guy who didn't, mind you." He changed the subject quickly. "I've never seen the kid - do you know what he's like?"

"Sam?" Scully felt a silly grin beginning to cross her face. "He's ... well, he's a lot like Mulder, really. To look at, I mean."

"Nose and all, huh?" Jerry grinned.

She chuckled in spite of herself. "I guess. He's a sweet little boy, really cute."

"Nothing like his mother, then," her new partner grunted.

Scully was suddenly sobered by this sour comment. She looked at Jerry thoughtfully. "You know, I've heard bits and pieces about Phoebe, but I don't really know much about her. What was she like?"

He looked her straight in the eye, and Scully was stunned at the depth of remembered disgust and anger she saw there.

"Phoebe Green was one of the most poisonous bitches I've ever met," he said quietly. "I mean that. What she put Mulder through was unforgivable, and I swear to God if I ever get my hands on her, I'll break her neck. It never surprised *me* that she was bent - what does amaze me is how long it took them to find her out."

Across the city at Georgetown University, Mulder had just finished his first class of the morning and was heading for his small office to grab a coffee and pick up his papers for the second.

He was running a few minutes ahead, so he took the opportunity to stop and log into his e-mail program. Lunch with Scully was a tempting idea, since he had the hour straight after free, and he wanted to find out how her de-bugging session had gone that morning.

But when he opened his mail, all thoughts of lunch abruptly left his head. There was a message from Frohike waiting for him.



Subject: Stuff.

Some people should get themselves less obvious e-mail

addys, if they want to avoid their mail being hacked.

By the way, your work-related mail is very boring,

did you know that?

Have got something that will blow your mind, see

attachments, and will swap for intimate details of

certain hot red-heads; i.e. is it real or Clairol?

See you later.


Mulder shook his head ruefully and wheeled his cursor to the 'open attachments' prompt. The machine thought about it for a moment - it wasn't as powerful as the one he had at home - then brought up the attached file.

It was a portion of a newspaper article, and Mulder's mouth went dry when he saw it.

Lunch with Scully would have to wait.

Making time to go and see the Gunmen meant that Mulder was decidedly late home from work that night, which was not a good thing given the state of his son's temper when deprived of his evening meal. A chocolate chip cookie from Frohike had only gone so far towards pacifying the little boy, and now the need to get home and feed his offspring was getting pressing.

Pulling the car into the driveway, Mulder hopped out and went to unlock Sam's door and get him out.

"Mr. Mulder."

Mulder jerked around, his hand going automatically to his hip for a weapon which he hadn't carried in over two years. Obviously some habits died really hard. "Who - "

A man stepped out of the shadows beside the garage and into the beam of the security light over the front door of the house, which had flicked on when Mulder got out of the car. He was middle-aged, some five or six inches shorter than Mulder, with a craggy face, greyed and receding hair, and was wearing a nondescript beige trench coat which he kept firmly wrapped about himself against the cold.

Mulder was struck silent for a moment, wondering who the hell he was and what he was doing lurking casually around his mother's rhododendrons at this time of night. Whoever the man was, he seemed perfectly at his ease. His appearance and demeanor looked vaguely official, reminding younger man of some of the higher-ups at the FBI; but he doubted anyone within the Bureau hierarchy would be contacting him these days, least of all in this cloak-and-dagger manner.

The man made no greeting nor any attempt to introduce himself; his first words were blunt and to the point. "Leave this case alone, Mr. Mulder."

Mulder's brows snapped together at once in consternation. "*What*?"

"The military will not tolerate a journalist poking his nose into their affairs," the man warned, "least of all one who is a former FBI agent with connections to a decidedly dubious section within the Bureau."

"Who are you?" Mulder demanded, wondering what the hell this guy thought he was playing at. And how did he know about the information Byers, Langley and Frohike had passed to him less than an hour ago?

The question was met with a faint, world-weary smile. "I - ah - can be of help to you, and I've had a certain interest in your work in the past," was the reply.

"How do you know about my work?" Mulder wanted to know, suspicious.

The man's brows drew together. "Let's just say I'm in a position to know quite a lot of things - including things about our Government."

Not very reassuring. "Who are you? Who do you work for?"

"That's not important. I came here to give you some valuable advice. You are exposing yourself and Agent Scully to unnecessary risks. I advise you to drop this case."

Mulder's suspicions grew. "I can't do that," he replied.

The man shook his head regretfully, and began to turn to go. "You have much work to do, Mr. Mulder. Don't jeopardize the future of your own efforts." He began to walk away down the driveway.

"Hey, wait a minute - !" Mulder made to follow him, but was briefly distracted by a very restless and disgusted Sam who was kicking his feet and banging on the inside of the rear passenger door, wanting to be let out. "Hold on, Sam!"

He turned to follow the mysterious stranger, but the man was gone.

"What the hell - ?" Mulder ran down the drive and looked up and down the street, but there was no sign of anyone around. His visitor had apparently vanished into thin air.

"Shit!" He turned back and jogged up the drive. Sam had now added his voice to his protest, and Mulder didn't want the little menace bringing the neighbors out.

"Alright, alright!" He unlocked the door and unfastened the buckles that strapped Sam into the child-seat. The little boy scrambled out and ran up to the front door while his father scooped up a stack of papers from the back seat and locked the vehicle up.

"Hungry, Daddy!"

"Yeah, well you'll have to wait a little longer. Fish doesn't cook itself in five minutes."

Mulder found his door key and let them in. The house was in darkness; evidently his mother had decided to go out for the evening - again. He flicked on the lights and dumped his papers in the study, then went to the kitchen and switched the oven on to warm up.

Working for the FBI, and then single parenthood, had taught Mulder to deal with a number of things at once.

He made short work of preparing potatoes, peas and Sam's favorite parsley sauce; the microwave made short work of the fish he'd forgotten to put out to defrost that morning. Meanwhile one half of his brain was keeping an ear out for Sam, who was rattling around in one of the other rooms, while the other half was constantly turning over the conversation he'd had with the man outside.

Two points stuck out most clearly; that the enigmatic stranger appeared to know about the information passed to him by the Lone Gunmen - although it hadn't taken Mulder long to note that he had, in fact, spoken only in generalizations - and that he was warning Mulder that he was placing himself and Scully at risk.

Mulder chewed on his lip, examining that second point again. The man had seemed perfectly serious. He had also seemed ... non-threatening, even by Mulder's rather paranoid standards; disturbingly genuine.

He suddenly became aware that Sam was being very quiet - always a warning sign.

"Sam, what are you doing?"

No reply. Mulder took a quick look at his pans, decided he could safely leave them for a minute, and quickly went to see what his son was up to.

In the living room, Sam was balancing precariously on a chair, while trying to reach the telephone where it stood on cabinet which was too high for him to reach from the floor. He loved the telephone, and had recently run up an enormous bill by dialing random numbers before Mrs. Mulder caught him.

"What are you doing?!" Mulder snatched him off the chair unceremoniously; Sam squealed indignantly and got a swat on the rear for his pains. "Don't ever let me catch you doing that again!" He put the little boy on the floor and Sam retreated behind the arm of the sofa, his full lower lip - so much like Mulder's own - wobbling ominously.

Mulder checked the telephone, but it appeared to be untouched. Then he noticed that the light on the answering machine was blinking steadily. Giving Sam an admonitory glare, he rewound the tape and set it to play back. There were two messages, the first being from a friend of his mother.

The second was nothing but a full minute of silence, followed by a couple of odd clicks ... and then nothing.

Mulder stared at the machine for a moment, aware that every muscle in his body had suddenly gone rigid. He wasn't sure why, but the oddity of that recording made him very nervous; and for some strange reason it reminded him of Scully's unexpected discovery of a bug in her PC's mouse.

Stiffly, he picked up the receiver of the telephone and examined it carefully, before unscrewing the mouthpiece. There was nothing there - but then, he supposed, there wouldn't be. It was the most obvious place in the world, after all.

But just because the telephone wasn't bugged didn't mean the rest of the house wasn't. He could have kicked himself for not thinking of that long before now.

Mulder replaced the receiver grimly, and turned to see Sam peering at him apprehensively from behind the sofa. And in a well-timed reminder, the oven's buzzer sounded.

"Come on, Sunshine, dinner's ready."

But although Sam wolfed down his fish, mashed potatoes and peas with a healthy appetite, it was all his father could do to force his own portion down.

*You are exposing yourself and Agent Scully to unnecessary risks.*

Mulder didn't feel he could give up his investigation this quickly. And in all honesty, he didn't see any reason for this particular inquiry to be any riskier than, say, the one in Bellefleur where he'd met Scully.

But he wasn't sure, and so for that reason he decided to abandon his original plan to show Scully the information the Gunmen had passed to him. Besides, after what had happened in Wisconsin, he wasn't sure she'd be interested in helping him out anyway.

Not hearing from Mulder for a few days in a row was something Scully was used to, so it didn't bother her much when he didn't contact her for the better part of a week. She was pretty busy herself, what with introducing Agent Castamir to the X-files, acquainting him with the details of some of her recent cases, and struggling with a small mountain of paperwork which had mysteriously landed on her desk while she was in Wisconsin retrieving Mulder.

The weekend came around again before it occurred to her that she hadn't seen him in a while, and then it was only a passing thought; she sent him a brief e-mail, and arranged to meet her sister for shopping and lunch on Saturday when he didn't reply.

Scully didn't see much of her sister Melissa now they were adults, which - she had to ruefully admit - was probably a good thing for both of them. Missy was without a doubt the family rebel; two years older than Dana, she had noisily abandoned the catholic faith at fourteen and proceeded to follow a course which brought her into endless conflict with their father and never failed to set the entire family by the ears. She had left home shortly after graduating from college, to 'travel', and thereafter only alighted on the family doorstep at irregular intervals. For the moment she was back home, probably even for Christmas, but for how long after that was anyone's guess.

Given that Melissa was heavily into New Age philosophies, and also strong-minded and rather opinionated, she and Dana only got along for limited periods before they inevitably brushed each other up the wrong way. Then there would be a dignified parting of ways, the cause of which was generally forgotten by the time they next met.

Scully had consequently forgotten what had caused them to come to blows the last time they met, and was eager to meet up and just natter for a few hours. They spent a long while trawling through the malls and spending money on early Christmas gifts for family and friends, then landed up in a cafe for some much-needed tea and pastries.

"So ...." Melissa Scully broke off a small piece of her almond danish and looked at her younger sister over the teapot. "What will you be doing at Christmas?"

Scully toyed with her own sweet pastry, smiling a little. "I'll go to Mom and Dad's, of course, to do my duty as a maiden aunt and take care of Bill's kids while he and Tara relax for a while."

Melissa made a disgusted noise. "Honestly, Dana ...! Get a life, find yourself a man, and tell Bill where to get off this year. You're not an unpaid nanny they can dump the kids with whenever they feel like a break. It's *Christmas*, for crying out loud - it's your holiday too."

"I don't mind!" Scully protested. "Really - I love seeing the kids - "

Her sister made a rude noise. "Bill makes use of you, and tells himself he's doing you a favor," she pointed out brutally. "You know as well as I do that he thinks - "

"Melissa, please."

Melissa paused, frustrated, but seeing Dana's tight expression, she reluctantly abandoned the touchy subject she'd been about the raise. "I still think you need to get yourself a man," she pointed out irritably after a moment.

Scully laughed in spite of herself. "I think I can manage that without anyone's help, Missy."

"Huh." Her sister stared at her broodingly. "You're not still seeing that jerk Willis, are you?"

Scully's eyes flicked up, surprised. "I haven't been out with Jack in nearly two years."

Melissa grunted. "Good. That guy was a freaky experience waiting to happen. I wouldn't be surprised if you told me he was stalking you."

"Well ...."

"Please don't tell me he did!"

"Not quite, but he got pretty pushy." Scully saw her sister's expression and quickly sorted through the various incidents that had dogged her break-up from Jack Willis, trying to find a few examples which would illustrate the events sufficiently without alarming Melissa. If she was honest with herself, Willis's endless telephone calls and e-mail messages almost constituted harassment, but she didn't want to worry her family.

Before she could speak, however, there was an unexpected interruption.


Scully looked around, startled by the shriek of a familiar voice, and found little Sam Mulder hurtling towards her. He threw himself into her lap, giggling excitedly, and instantly began to size up the contents of the table with a complete lack of concern for the company.


Familiar with his behavior, Scully quickly wrestled him into a sitting position on her lap, where she could keep control of his inquisitive hands, and looked around for Mulder himself, convinced that he couldn't be far behind. But there was no sign of him.

"Sam! Sam, what are you doing here?" she asked the little boy.

Melissa, who was watching wide-eyed and amused as the dark-haired cherub investigated everything within arm's length, quickly moved the hot water jug out of his reach and gave him a paper napkin to shred instead.

"Come shopping," Sam announced happily, rapidly reducing the napkin to confetti.

Scully's brows drew together, and she looked around again. Still no Mulder. He was probably tearing his hair out somewhere in the mall, looking for the tyke. "Where's daddy, sweetheart?" she asked.

Sam craned his neck backwards so he could peer up at her. "Gone."

"Gone where?"

The small brow furrowed as he considered the question. "Gone to see the flyin' sawzers," he told her, and made a curious sweeping gesture in the air with his hands.

It took Scully a moment to realize that he must be mimicking Mulder's own explanation to him. Then she felt a sharp jab of alarm in her stomach. What the hell was Mulder up to now?

"Flying saucers?" she repeated.

"Yep. Gonna take pictures for Uncle Fro." Sublimely unconscious of the effect his words had had on his audience, Sam helped himself to the rest of Scully's danish pastry.


Melissa looked at her sister with an expression of alarm combined with amusement. "Dana, I think the nursery patrol just arrived," she warned.

A slender, dark-haired woman appeared out of the crowd, dragging a little girl behind her. When she saw that Sam was in the company of two quite respectable females, she relaxed a little, but not much. Seeing her expression, however, Scully moved quickly to forestall trouble.

"It's okay," she said hastily. "I know Sam's father." She scanned the other woman's familiar features and remembered Mulder telling her once or twice that his cousin sometimes babysat for him. "Are you Annie? Mulder's cousin?"

Annie Rosens paused, a little thrown by this. "Yes, but - "

"I'm Dana Scully. Mulder's a friend of mine, so Sam knows me quite well."

Sam looked up, covered in icing and pastry flakes, and nodded vigorously. "Day," he said, as if this explained everything.

Annie's expression relaxed into one of curiosity. "You're Dana?" She hesitantly took the spare seat Melissa obligingly pulled out for her, and pulled her little girl - who looked to be about four years old - into her lap. "Oh, I'm so pleased to meet you at last! Fox has told us so much about you."

Scully could feel the color flooding her cheeks, and tried to ignore her sister's look of avid enquiry. "I wish I could say the same," she replied, embarrassed.

To her surprise, Annie laughed. "Oh, Fox wouldn't tell you about the family - he says we should all be certified and locked away."

"He's a fine one to talk!" Scully retorted before she could stop herself, but that only made the other woman laugh more. "So," she said, trying to sound casual, "where is he? Sam says he's hunting flying saucers. I was wondering why I hadn't heard from him in a while."

Annie nodded, her expression rueful. "Someone gave him a newspaper clipping, about experimental aircraft I think, and he was off again. He brought Sam to stay with me, because the last time he went off, he got into some kind of trouble and Aunt Rachel - that's his mother - got a little hysterical about it." She looked amused. "I don't suppose it was anything nearly as bad as she said, and besides, Fox is a grown man - he can look after himself."

Scully thought it prudent not to say anything at this point. It was obvious Mulder's cousin had little idea what he really got up to when he "went off", which was probably just as well.

She, on the other hand, had a pretty good idea what he got up to, and suddenly every nerve was itching with the need to chase after him ... despite her not having a clue where he'd gone.

It was a sign of just how much Melissa was trying not to offend Dana that she managed to *not* ask her any questions until they got home, even though she was bursting to do so. Scully, for her part, was desperately praying her mother had a houseful of guests so that she could dump Melissa and skulk away before the inquisition started.

She was in luck. Maggie Scully was drinking tea at the kitchen table with two of the Scully aunts, and with any luck Missy would remember to keep her tongue between her teeth while the nosy old biddies were in earshot.

Cries of pleasure resounded as the two young women walked in, burdened with purchases. Melissa's eyes shot meaningful daggers at her sister even as she fielded the rather tentative queries from Aunt Rose and Aunt Claudia over what she had been doing with herself over the past year. Dana avoided the looks and prepared to spend a *lot* of time talking to her aunts - forever if necessary - so Melissa settled down and resigned herself to a couple of hours of meaningless chatter.

Scully's mind was only half on what was going on; the other half was frantically engaged in making and discarding plans to discover Mulder's whereabouts. She was disinclined to wait for Skinner to inform her a second time, and the prospect of knocking on Mrs. Mulder's door was unappealing despite the distinct possibility that the clues she needed were somewhere on Mulder's hard-drive at home. That left only two possible avenues that she could see. The first was going to Georgetown University and flashing her badge around until someone gave her access to Mulder's work PC. The second was trying to contact the Lone Gunmen.

*Go with option one,* Scully told herself, shuddering inwardly.


"Huh? - Oh, I'm sorry." She gave herself a mental shake and met the enquiring eyes of both her mother and two aunts. "What did you say?"

"I *said*," Aunt Claudia repeated, "are you going to be on your own this Christmas, Dana honey, or will you invite a friend?"

That was a loaded question if ever she'd heard one. Scully hesitated, uncertain exactly what she could say that wouldn't set the pair of them twittering or exchanging meaningful looks; and Melissa, who had been waiting for just such an opportunity, stepped neatly into the gap.

"Maybe you should invite Fox," she suggested blandly.

Aunt Rose actually dropped her macaroon in surprise; and three pairs of eyes fixed on Scully with varying degrees of surprise and sudden interest. Melissa merely smiled sweetly at her sister's outraged glare.

*Next time, tell me,* the look said.

*Next time I'll kill her,* Scully thought bitterly.

Finding Mulder proved to be even more difficult than Scully had anticipated. Visiting Georgetown University elicited the information that he'd taken three days of personal time, starting on the previous Friday, and that he hadn't told anyone what he had planned. Examination of his office had proven fruitless, and his PC, although easily accessed, had contained nothing of value - it was nearly all work-related.

Scully returned to the office, discouraged and worried. Mulder had gone off like this before, even prior to Wisconsin, but he generally left her a message giving some sort of explanation, even if the details were sketchy.

Jerry Castamir was waiting for her.

"Say, are we ever actually going to pick a case and work on it?" he asked, as she dumped her bag and coat. "It's just that whenever I go back upstairs, Craythorpes keeps muttering about people who do no work."

When there was no reply, he took a good look at her and his brows snapped together. "Are you okay? What's up?"

Scully hesitated for a moment, then decided she might as well tell him. "Mulder's gone off somewhere - I don't know where, but he's chasing UFOs again. Something to do with experimental aircraft."

Jerry's brow furrowed. "Doesn't he do this all the time? It's his hobby, isn't it?"

"Yes, but ...." Scully rubbed her forehead wearily. "The last time he did this, he got arrested by the military for breaching a quarantined area. And this time, he didn't even bother to tell me he was going off. He usually does, even if he doesn't tell me where."

The other agent gave this some thought. "You don't have any clues where he might be?"

"No. I tried his office at Georgetown, but there was nothing there. In fact, I only know what he's up to because I ran into his cousin over the weekend and she told me he was looking into something he'd found in a newspaper clipping."

"And you think he's going to get himself into trouble again?"

Scully gave him a wry smile. "Jerry, I *know* he's going to get himself into trouble."

He grinned back. "Okay, obviously a stupid question. But it's not a dead end. Experimental aircraft, did you say? We can check the recent publications and see if anything comes up. And if all else fails, he keeps a PC at home, doesn't he? Had you considered asking his mother if you could take a look?"

Scully bit her lip, recalling her earlier decision to avoid Mulder's mother.

She'd ruled it out partly because she'd never even met Mrs. Mulder before, but also partly because some things Mulder had said in the past suggested that his mother wouldn't ... approve of his relationship with a gentile.

"I'd rather not do that unless I have to," Scully replied, after a moment. "Let's see if we can't find something in the newspapers first."

"Mulder told me once that his mother had a nervous breakdown after his sister died, and she's been a bit flaky ever since," Jerry observed quietly, as they pulled up outside the Mulder residence. "Something to do with the medication prescribed her. Have you ever met her?"

Scully shook her head as she checked her gun and ID were in place.

"Me neither. I'll be honest; I'm surprised he moved in with her. I don't think he had contact with her from one year's end to the next when I worked with him, because they couldn't really get along."

"The idea was that she would help him with Sam," Scully replied. "I wonder if she's in? She never has been when I've been here before."

"Let's go see."

Looking at the carefully maintained lawn and rhododendrons lining the driveway, Scully wondered if Mrs. Mulder did the gardening herself or whether someone was hired to do it for her. One thing was for sure - Mulder didn't do it. He was never here long enough for that.

She couldn't imagine him weeding anyway.

Jerry rang the doorbell and they both stood awkwardly on the steps, looking around and trying not to look conspicuous. It was hard not to in the rather uniform regulation suits they wore - as far as the neighbors were concerned, they might just as well have "FBI" painted on their backs.

At length, the door opened and Scully was confronted for the first time by Mrs. Mulder.

It was obvious where Mulder got his looks from. She was tall and slender, like her son, with the same nose - although it was rather less noticeable on her - and the same deep-set hazel eyes. Her hair was pure white and neatly styled, and her clothes were well-tailored; Scully got an impression of mature elegance rather than age, which was reinforced by an aloof and wary manner.

She didn't ask who they were, but merely waited.

Scully wondered if Mrs. Mulder would connect the Dana Scully who had telephoned for her son once or twice with the Agent Scully in front of her. There was only one way to find out, so she dug out her ID and displayed it. "Mrs. Mulder? I'm Agent Scully, this is Agent Castamir - we're looking for your son. Do you know his present whereabouts?"

Something flickered in the woman's eyes, but was gone before Scully could identify it. "No," she said, after a pause. "No, I've no idea where he is. Why, is there a problem?"

"We've reason to believe he may be in trouble," Jerry said smoothly, "and we need to find him. Does he have a desk - somewhere where he might keep papers and important documents? There might be an indication of where he's gone."

Mrs. Mulder hesitated, then opened the door and stood back. "In the study," she said, and indicated the door. "Help yourselves."

She didn't actually follow them into the room, but stood in the doorway watching as they rummaged through Mulder's rather untidy collection of papers, magazines and books. The PC was switched on, though powered down; Scully glanced at Mrs. Mulder for permission and booted it up.

When she clicked on the e-mail icon, it demanded a password. Scully hesitated, wondering what on earth someone with a personality like Mulder's might use as a password. She tried SAMUEL. It didn't like that. Nor did it like ELVIS or PRESLEY, which were Jerry's suggestions, based on Mulder's musical preferences.

Finally, Jerry gave her an odd look and typed something else.


The machine beeped and the e-mail program opened up. Scully prayed Mrs. Mulder wouldn't notice she was blushing. Then she noticed something herself and all thoughts of embarrassment faded away.

There was just one message in Mulder's in-box and its subject was her name. Clicking on it, she glanced at Jerry, and he pretended to busy himself with a bunch of promising-looking cuttings he'd found in a drawer.

The message opened up, and it was addressed to her.

Scully -

Frohike's right, you *are* like a bulldog if

you've found this. Chances are you won't; with any

luck I'll be back before you've noticed I'm gone,

but just in case I'm not and you've started looking

for me, I've gone to the Spud State to investigate

a little kidnapping. The Bureau had this case, but

decided not to pursue it, which is why I guess it

didn't land on your desk. Or maybe it has by now,

who knows? It's probably not worth your time,

Scully, although when you find the file in my desk

you'll see why I just *had* to take a look. I'll

tell you all about it when I get home.


Scully stared at this breezy note and felt a surge of rage. What the hell did he think he was playing at? If he wanted to leave her a note like this, why didn't he just e-mail it to her properly, instead of hiding it in a program he knew perfectly well she wouldn't attempt to get at unless she was at her wits' end? And what -

"Scully, look at this," Jerry said suddenly, interrupting her train of angry thoughts. He was holding a cardboard file folder stuffed with blurry photographs, bits of paper and print-outs from the internet. He held up a small newspaper cutting. "Exhibit A," he said dryly.

She took it, gesturing for him to read the e-mail message while she was reading, and took a look. The cutting was a tiny story about a woman married to aircraft pilot at Ellens Air Base in South West Idaho, who claimed her husband had been kidnapped by the military. It was dated two weeks previously, and it was no wonder they hadn't seen it in the publications they'd searched before coming here; the article had been a small story in a regional Idaho newspaper which appeared to have only one issue per week.

Scully frowned over the scrap of paper. Okay, it explained Mulder's reference to "a little kidnapping", but it didn't explain his interest. Then she looked at a few of the other items in the folder and the pieces began to fall into place.

Ellens Air Base was reputedly a mecca for UFO enthusiasts; rumor had it that some of the wreckage from the alleged crash at Roswell had been taken there, and that unusual aircraft were frequently spotted flying over the nearby town.

Scully slapped the folder shut and tapped Jerry on the arm. "Come on, I need to get back to the office."

He saw the grim look on her face, and didn't argue. "What's back at the office?"

"Hopefully, a file on the alleged kidnapping of one Colonel Robert Budahas," she replied.

Mrs. Mulder watched broodingly out of the living room window as the two FBI agents got into their car and drove off, then quietly went to find her purse. She rummaged in it for a couple of moments until she found her address book, then spent another ten staring at one particular telephone number she kept hidden at the back of it. The number had no name or address attached to it.

She preferred it that way. A name might trigger too many ugly memories.

Finally, she summoned her courage, took the telephone off the cabinet, and dialed the number. It was answered almost immediately.

"It's me," she said without preamble. No fear that the person on the other end of the line wouldn't know her; no such luck. Apparently they said something to that effect, for she flinched and her voice hardened. "Don't tell me you weren't expecting me to call - I know you better."

Silence as the other person spoke at some length. Rachel Mulder's fingers tightened on the handset, her knuckles white. "I don't want to know!" she snapped. "You listen to me. I didn't call you over that business in Wisconsin because I have never asked you for anything, and I'm not about to start now. Do you understand? I'm not calling you now because I want something. I'm calling because I ... have information. And I'm not selling. I want nothing in return. Is that clear? There are no favors involved here."

Another pause; and her lips grew pinched with anger. "I'm not the fool you think me. I wasn't twenty years ago, and I'm certainly not now. I'm giving you this, and I don't care what you do with it - you probably know anyway, but I'm not giving you an opportunity to say *I* knew and withheld it from you. So. Are you listening? My son's gone off on another of his little goose-chases. To Idaho - you know where, don't pretend you don't .... What do you mean, how do I know? *She* was here less than half an hour ago, that Irishwoman he's been sniffing around. Obviously he didn't bother to tell her where he was off to again. What? A newspaper cutting, I think - I don't know, she took a folder full of his stuff away with her."

Another silence, and then her voice became cool, indifferent. "Frankly, I don't care. If he's poking his nose in where he shouldn't, then I suppose you'll have to take action. No, I don't want to know anymore about it. I've told you what I know - now stay away from me."

She put the telephone down decisively and stared at it for a moment. Then she tucked her address book away in her purse and went to make herself a coffee.

The next morning Jerry Castamir found himself on a plane with his new partner, on their way to South West Idaho. He still wasn't sure how Scully had managed to persuade AD Skinner to let them go. He wasn't sure he *wanted* to know. What did intrigue him was how she had managed to make a case out of a flimsy accusation of kidnapping which had already been deemed unworthy of investigation by another section of the Bureau. And he wondered just how much the case was an excuse to look for Fox Mulder.

Not that he was complaining ... yet. It got him away from the bullpen and some of his less charitable colleagues for a while. All the same, it seemed prudent to examine the 'case' a little more closely, so he flipped the file open and began to look through its contents.

"That's Colonel Robert Budahas," Scully said quietly, watching as he examined a picture of a stocky man in Air Force uniform. "That photo was taken last year when he was a test pilot stationed at Ellens Air Base in South West Idaho. Four months ago, Colonel Budahas experienced a psychotic episode and barricaded himself inside his home. The military police were called in; Budahas was removed and apparently hospitalized for the treatment of his condition."

"Which was what exactly?" Jerry asked, interested.

Scully shrugged. "The military won't comment on the cause, nature or status of his case - in fact, the military won't comment on Colonel Budahas at all. Mrs. Budahas hasn't seen or heard from her husband in over four months, and her enquiries to the military have gone unanswered. Last month she contacted the FBI and reported it as a kidnapping."

His brows rose. "What reason would the military have to kidnap one of their own pilots?"

"That's the big question, Jerry. I've been looking into this a little, besides reading Mulder's notes. Since 1963 six pilots have been listed as missing in action from Ellens Air Base. The military only say that these pilots accepted the risks of flying experimental aircraft."

Jerry flipped through the papers rapidly. "It says here there were rumors those pilots were shot down at high altitudes, while they were routinely penetrating Russian airspace."

"Maybe that's so, but none of this explains what happened to Colonel Budahas, or why no one has set his wife's mind at rest as to his condition."

"I guess we try and find out then."

"I guess so. But first, we need to find Mulder."

"You know, I didn't think of this before," Scully commented absently, as they drove through the small Idaho town that housed most of the Air Base staff's dependents, "but I've no idea how we're going to find Mulder, even if he *is* here. It's quite a big place."

Jerry glanced at her and chuckled a little. "Trust me, Dana -*finding* Fox Mulder won't be the problem."

She raised her brows questioningly. "Oh?"

"Sure. I know Mulder from way back - we just find the rattiest motel in town, and he's sure to be holed up there. He loves dives. The one thing the Bureau never reprimanded him for was accommodation expenses. Or food - if he's not at the motel, he'll be at the nearest roadside diner."

Scully had to admit the justice of this observation. While it was true that she had been to a couple of extremely classy restaurants with Mulder, they were vastly outnumbered by a large range of down-at-heel cafes, bars, diners and hot-dog stands which for some reason seemed to have a siren allure for him. It came as no surprise that his taste in accommodation should be similar.

Sure enough, when they pulled up at a rather weathered little motel on the outskirts of town - called, rather implausibly, The Beach Grove Motel - neither agent was disappointed. Mulder's name was ahead of theirs on the booking-in register, although when they knocked on his door, he was apparently not around.

"Okay ...." Scully sighed, having dumped her overnight bag in her room. "Any suggestions?"

Jerry looked a bit dubious. "What do you want to do - find Mulder or get on with the case?"

"I'm not sure there *is* a case, quite honestly."

"All the same, that's the pretext we came out here on. We're going to have to put something in our reports when we get back."

Scully gave her new partner a narrow look when he said that; it sounded *almost* like a rebuke. On the other hand, he had a point. The Bureau wasn't paying her to be a wet-nurse to Fox Mulder. "In that case, let's go see Mrs. Budahas."

"I don't think I'd want to live here," Jerry muttered to Scully as they stood on the doorstep of Mrs. Budahas's house, waiting for her to open the door. There was a low background rumbling - the remnants of a jet screaming past seconds before which had made him nearly leap out of his skin.

Scully, however, smiled faintly. "You get used to it," she assured him, remembering her childhood spend on Naval bases, where assorted noises day and night were a feature of the general background.


The door opened before Jerry could pass an opinion, and Mrs. Budahas stood before them - a small woman with short curly dark hair and a worried expression. "Hello?"

They glanced at each other and Scully stepped forward. "Mrs. Budahas? We're from the FBI." She produced her badge, and the woman gave her a wavering, hopeful smile.

"Oh - yes. Please, come in."

It was a nice little house, very homelike, but typical of the houses the military built for servicemen's families. Scully was once again reminded sharply of her own upbringing in a selection of houses not unlike this; you could decorate it as you wished, spray it with personal effects, but it remained a military home. Mrs. Budahas had apparently declined to even attempt to disguise that fact, and her husband's medals and so on were proudly displayed on the walls of her living room, including, rather remarkably, a Presidential Commendation.

Jerry opted to remain standing, for the better examination of these honors, but Scully sat down, guessing that Mrs. Budahas would feel easier talking to her.

"I started noticing it about two years ago," Mrs. Budahas began.

She was sat nervously on the edge of the couch, her hands twisting in her lap. Outside, Scully could hear her two children playing in the garden. "Bob developed this rash under his arms. We'd been doing some renovations to the house, so we thought it was a reaction to the paint stripper. But then - everything just went crazy."

"How do you mean?" Scully asked gently.

"Bob's whole personality just became unpredictable. He started ... doing things."

Jerry looked around at this. "What kind of things?"

"It was kind of embarrassing at first," she said, her voice high and nervous. "We were having a dinner party once and he started sprinkling fish flakes all over his food." Her eyes darted from Scully to Jerry and back again, but their expressions remained neutral and sympathetic.

"Did you ever talk to him about this?" Scully asked.

"I tried - it was extremely difficult. Bob would get so angry; he'd yell at the kids for no reason, and then he'd shake like he was having a seizure."

"Did you ever talk about his work?"

Mrs. Budahas shook her head quickly, decisively. "That was never discussed - even before the problems," she replied firmly. "I knew he worked on top secret projects - word gets around - but Bob was always a patriot first." Her mouth suddenly trembled. "He took loyalty to his country as an oath - and now they treat us like strangers ...." She looked down at her hands, fighting for control. "I just want my husband back," she muttered finally.

Scully bit her lip sympathetically. "You know, the Government is not above the law. It cannot withhold information."

But Mrs. Budahas was not reassured. She had first-hand experience of what the Government felt it could do; and in any case, a greater specter haunted her. "Wh-what if he's - ?" She swallowed, unable to continue the thought. "How will I support the family?"

There was no answer to that, and Scully realized that any further attempts at reassurance would only be an insult to this woman under the circumstances. After all, she wasn't sure exactly what they could do, although she intended to find out.

It was only when Mrs. Budahas was showing them out again, that Scully remembered her original reason for following this case.

"Mrs. Budahas," she said, turning back on the steps. "Has anyone else been here in the last couple of days, asking you about your husband's disappearance?"

"Why yes," she said, a little surprised. "There was a man - he said he was a journalist. I sent him away."

"Which begs the question of where Mulder is now," Jerry observed dryly, when they were back in the car.

"And, more to the point, what he's doing," Scully agreed, with a sigh.

But both questions were answered less than ten minutes later, as they drove through a quiet suburb filled with larger houses that appeared to be the homes of the more important individuals at the base. Passing one rather neat and well-ordered-looking abode Scully noticed two men arguing in the driveway - and abruptly realized that one of them was a certain delinquent university lecturer of her acquaintance.

She swerved, which brought the matter to Jerry's attention rather forcibly, and pulled up a few yards further down the road.

"Sorry, Jerry," Scully managed, fighting a recalcitrant seatbelt.

"It's okay. What the hell's he doing?"

The answer to that became fairly obvious as they hurried up to the two men.

"Why won't you talk to me about Colonel Budahas?" Mulder was demanding, as the other man, a uniformed officer from the air base, retreated into his home.

"Why don't *you* get the hell out of my face!" the other man retorted angrily, and slammed the front door behind him.

"Mulder, what the hell are you doing?" Scully called from the driveway entrance.

No way was *she* going to be accused of trespass.

Mulder spun on his heel, surprised, and his face - previously a mask of exasperation - broke into a delighted smile. He jogged back down the drive to her. "Hey, Scully, you made it!"

"I repeat," she snapped, eyes blazing, "what the hell are you doing?"

"Oh, you know - the usual." The smile vanished. Mulder had registered her companion, and his eyes were wary. "Hey, Jerry, what are you doing here?"

"By the looks of it, pulling your ass out of the fire," Jerry replied rather acidly. "Quite like old times."

Apparently this didn't go down very well. Scully could sense what remained of Mulder's good-humor dissipating, although his expression remained blandly amiable. "Isn't that my tie?" he asked his former partner in passing, as he began to head back to his car.

"You left it in your desk drawer - I assumed you didn't want it," Jerry retorted. "Where are you going?"

"Isn't that Scully's line?"


One word; but the deadly note in it brought him up short with his hand on the door of his rental car. He turned to face her, his expression polite, but his eyes had a dangerous glint in them.

"I think you owe me an explanation," Scully said, her voice lethally soft.

Mulder's voice was equally soft and dangerous. "I am not accountable to you for my actions, Scully."

The atmosphere between them was suddenly so tangible and bad that Jerry Castamir almost looked around to see if a skunk had wandered by. And quite suddenly he realized that he didn't want to be anywhere within a radius of a square mile when the *real* fight broke out.

"Don't make me make this official, Mr. Mulder."

Oh shit.

"What exactly are you suggesting, Agent Scully?"

"I suggest that you come with us now."

"There's just this minor difficulty of my car. How about I meet you back at the - "

"Get in our car. Now. Agent Castamir - "

Jerry stepped forward very warily, trying to avoid looking at Mulder. "Agent Scully?"

Scully held out her hand to Mulder peremptorily and after a significant pause, he handed her his car keys. She handed them to Jerry. "You drive his car back to the motel, please."

Which suited Jerry just fine. No way did he want to share a car with that pair right now. He watched Mulder resignedly following Scully to the other car, and sighed. It was going to be a long afternoon.

When they reached the motel Jerry vanished, muttering something unconvincing about making a phone call. His reluctance to get involved in the impending quarrel between his current and former partners was so obvious that it tickled Mulder's ever-ready sense of humor and wiped out any annoyance he was feeling at the earlier confrontation.

Unfortunately, the same could not be said of Scully, who was tight-lipped with suppressed anger. She waited only long enough for the flimsy door of Mulder's motel room to be shut behind them before she vented it.

"Just what the hell do you think you're playing at, Mulder?" she demanded. "Who was that officer you were hassling back there?"

"His name's Colonel Kissel," Mulder replied blandly, watching her pace the room with wary eyes. "He's on the staff at Ellens Air Base and he's one of the guys Colonel Budahas's wife has been trying to talk to for the last four months. As you can see, he didn't particularly want to talk to the press either."

"I'm not surprised!" But Scully wasn't really interested in why Mulder had been trying to talk to Colonel Kissel. "Perhaps you could explain to me why you're here at all, though?"

"If you saw my message, you know why."

"Your message was no more informative than you're being now," she retorted. "And was I even supposed to receive it?"

Mulder raised his brows innocently. "It was addressed to you, wasn't it?"

"Yes - and then left in a place where I might reasonably be expected not to find it!"

"But you *did* find it," he pointed out gently.

Scully stared at him for a moment and saw the beginnings of a smile quivering at the corner of his mouth. Suddenly she realized why some women were driven to hit the men in their lives; her palm itched to slap that infuriating smile off his face. She barely mastered the impulse by folding her arms tightly across her chest.

"No thanks to you," she said coldly. "I found out you were gone purely by accident. Tell me; would you have bothered telling me where you'd been afterwards, if I *hadn't* found out? Or maybe I'd be springing you from military custody again, who knows."

"You're not going to let me forget that, are you?" he muttered.

"Why should I? I'm not going to forget it in a hurry." Scully eyed him resentfully for a moment, then transferred her gaze to the view out of the window and forced herself to take a couple of calming breaths. Nagging was an unattractive trait in any woman, and one guaranteed to be counter-productive. "Okay," she said in a milder tone, after a moment. "Perhaps you'll explain to me why you are here."

Mulder sat down on the end of the bed. "Like I said, I'm just investigating a little kidnapping."

"Come on, Mulder," Scully sighed. "I saw your notes, remember? The real reason, please."

He looked up warily, and saw from her face that the worst of the storm was over. "Okay. Maybe the words 'experimental aircraft' have this curious allure for me, especially when spoken in conjunction with 'Ellens Air Base'."

"You don't really believe this stuff about wreckage from Roswell being brought here, do you? You don't seriously think that the military are using scrap metal from UFOs to build aircraft?"

"Let's just say that I'm keeping an open mind."

"Oh, Mulder ...."

"Scully, according to the local people Colonel Budahas was displaying psychotic and repetitive behavior patterns before he vanished. So are several other pilots who were working out of Ellens Air Base. What exactly do you think caused that?"

Scully looked at him. "Seriously? There's a stress-related condition called stereotypy which produces those symptoms, Mulder. I'd say flying the kind of aircraft which have been screaming overhead all afternoon would be stressful."

He gave her an incredulous look. "Oh, come on, Scully! A guy like Budahas? Look at his record - this guy lives on stress. It would have to be a pretty extraordinary aircraft to freak him out."

Scully squeezed the bridge of her nose wearily. "I'm not going to argue with you, Mulder, especially not when I haven't eaten since we flew in."

"Okay," he said obligingly. "Let's go get something to eat. There's a place up the road I know you'll just love."

"Hm. Where have I heard that before?"

He grinned, recognizing from her tone that the status quo had been re-established. "I don't know what you mean."

She grinned back tiredly. "Fine. We'd better find Jerry first, though. He probably thinks we've killed each other by now."

"He's the new partner, huh?"

"Yes .... He told me you two worked together."

"Briefly. He's a good guy - you got luckier than I thought you would." Mulder's expression was difficult to read as he said this. "What do you make of him?"

"He seems okay - I haven't spent that much time with him yet. But on first impression, he reminded me a lot of you."

This did not produce the reaction she had expected.

"Is that a good thing or a bad thing?" he asked softly.

Scully wasn't sure how to answer that, so she didn't even try.

"I might have known," Scully murmured resignedly when they pulled up outside the diner. The sign above her head proudly proclaimed the establishment to be "The Flying Saucers" in cheerful neon lights.

"Pretty neat, huh?" Mulder enthused. "I only found out about it today."

"I'm not sure I believe that."

Jerry merely sighed as he unfolded his long legs from the rear passenger seat and looked at the place. Then he looked at Scully. "What did I tell you?" he said wryly. "Bad food and bad motels."

She chuckled in spite of herself, and Mulder gave him a later-for-you look.

"As I recall, you were the one who booked us into that pay-by-the-hour joint in Chicago, where all the local transvestites hung out," he observed musingly.

"But you were the one who wanted to stay," Jerry shot back.

"I'd like to eat sometime today," Scully interjected plaintively, recalling them to the present.

Watching both Jerry and Mulder putting away hearty mixed grills fifteen minutes later, she couldn't see any evidence of finer culinary tastes in either of them and had to smile inwardly. They were bickering like a pair of children over cases past and incidents at the academy which each strenuously asserted the other had precipitated, while Scully sat back and listened in amusement.

*This* was a Mulder she had never seen before; the man he had probably been in his early days with the Bureau, before he married Phoebe and everything went wrong. The only thing she couldn't understand was why, if he got along so well with Jerry, he hadn't kept in touch with him; it might have made his isolation from the FBI easier to bear ... for there was no doubt in her mind that he missed his old job.

Of course, one did lose touch with one's academy classmates remarkably quickly, and Jerry had already told her that he'd transferred out of Behavioral Sciences after a relatively short stint there. And it was quite possible that during his troubles with Phoebe, Mulder had deliberately isolated himself from any friends he might have; that would be like him.

Well, if such a mixed blessing as her being saddled with an unwanted partner reaped the unexpected benefit of him being able to reconnect with an old friend, then - so be it.

Mulder happened to glance up at that moment and caught the affectionate look on her face. He raised a questioning brow, and she gave him a deliberate Mona Lisa smile, but just as he began to ask her what was on her mind, another jet went screaming overhead, rattling every glass on the long shelves behind the bar.

The landlady, a sturdily-built and laid-back character, rolled her eyes as she dumped another tall glass of Pepsi down in front of Jerry.

"F15 Eagle doing about 4 g's," she commented dryly, seeing his rather ruffled expression. "Those boys think they are *such* hot shots. Get a few drinks in them - you'd think it was them up there flapping their wings."

Mulder snorted a laugh. His eyes fell on a long row of photos pinned to the shelf behind her, which had probably (Scully thought) been on his mind ever since they walked in, and he gestured to them. "Who's the photographer?"

The landlady took a casual look at them. "Various and sundry. I took the one on the end there." She pointed out a rather blurred picture of a something triangular shaped apparently hovering over a stand of trees.

It was Scully's turn to roll her eyes, but Mulder was impressed.

"You're kidding? Where?"

"Out on the back porch. Taking out the garbage - and there it was, just hovering. Quiet like a hummingbird. For a minute there I thought it was going to land in the parking lot, and I was going to have to serve them lunch."

Scully looked at Mulder disbelievingly. Surely he wasn't going to fall for this ...? But apparently he was, and worse still, Jerry appeared equally agog.

"I'm selling limited edition prints - $20. I'm down to the last five if you're interested."

"Put it on my tab," Mulder told her, without hesitation.

This was too much. Scully leaned over as she got up, and gave him the full benefit of a raised and skeptical eyebrow. "Sucker!"

But he merely took that as a challenge and turned back to the landlady. "What would be the chances of someone like me seeing a UFO?"

"Catch you outside," Scully told him, and headed for the ladies' room, shaking her head. Mulder watched her go then turned to the landlady and shrugged deprecatingly.

A few hours later, having abandoned the case temporarily in favor of a good night's sleep, Scully was sat on her bed studying a map of the area with a small frown on her face when there was a light tap on her door.

It was Mulder, of course.

"Whatever you want, you can't have it. Jerry's only next door, and the walls are paper-thin," she told him as she let him in.

"You keep making me these great offers in the most uncomfortable places," he grinned at her. "What are you doing?"

"Checking out the lay of the land. Want to see something weird? Ellens Air Base isn't even on my USGS Quadrant Map."

"I know," Mulder nodded. "Do *you* want to see something weird?"

She eyed him suspiciously. "Such as?"

"Get your coat."

Scully balked. "Hold on a minute, Mulder - where are we going?"

"To see the local floor show."

"I'd better go get Jerry - "

"*Leave* Jerry," Mulder interrupted, a little impatiently. "Two's company, three is definitely kinky. Nothing's going to happen that you'll need official back-up for - I just want you to see something really neat. You can tell Jerry in the morning."

Still Scully hesitated, for his expression suggested he wanted Jerry out of the way for another reason altogether. "Mulder," she said uncomfortably, "I'm on Bureau time, and - "

He sighed. "Relax, it's case-related. Now, are you going to come? We'll miss it if you don't make your mind up soon."

Scully hesitated, but the temptation of playing hooky with Mulder for an hour or so overrode caution. She grabbed her coat and followed him out to his car.

It was a nice clear night, although a little chilly; that was Mulder's excuse for dragging a blanket from his motel room out with them and putting on the ground. Scully wasn't going to argue with him, since it undeniably stopped the cold from striking up from the grass. As for the apparently non-existent 'floor show' he'd mentioned, she was curious but less inclined to argue about that too.

After all, she hadn't done anything like this since she was a teenager, and there was something very enticing about breaking the rules just this once .... Mulder apparently agreed with her for his grin, when he flopped out beside her and slung an arm around her shoulders, was very little-boy wicked.

"See? I told you - two's company."

Scully pretended to give it serious consideration. "Hmm - maybe. I don't know though - maybe Jerry would have enjoyed this."

"With Jerry you never know, but I don't intend to find out. Seeds?"

"Thanks." She helped herself. "So tell me, Mulder - why are we stuck out here on a hill above the base?"

He smiled. "Other than for the joy of each other's company?"

"I'm sure we could have had that in more comfortable locations," she replied mildly.

"Be patient. With any luck, you'll see what I dragged you out here for shortly. You're not cold, are you?"



Scully chuckled. "Come here."

"Oooh!" Mulder took the invitation and wrapped his arms around her, resting his chin on top of her head comfortably. "You're nice and warm, Agent Scully."

"So are you, Mr. Mulder." Scully snuggled up shamelessly, enjoying the warm male smell of him. Just as well they were out here, where the cold made certain activities less than inviting. If they'd been back at the motel, poor old Jerry would have been getting an earful in no time at all. Her attention began to wander. "I met your cousin Annie the other day," she murmured into his chest.


"Hmm. She was chasing Sam around the mall." Scully felt the chuckle deep in his chest, and smiled. "That's how I found out you'd run off again - Sam blew the whistle on you."

"He's reached the stage where he blurts out whatever's on his mind, regardless of how secret or embarrassing it is." Mulder shifted slightly, getting more comfortable. "So - what did you make of her?"

"Annie? She seems really nice. She had a little girl with her - "

"Sarah, her youngest. She's four. The other two are boys."

"She said you'd told the family all about me."

Mulder raised his head and gave Scully a look of consternation. "I have not!"

Scully laughed softly at his tone. "So when we got home, my sister Melissa told my mother and two of my nosiest aunts about you. In revenge for me not having told her all about you before, you understand."

He gave her a look of trepidation. "Is that good or bad?"

She squinted thoughtfully and waggled one hand in the air. "Debatable. I could have done without the aunts in the equation, because the whole family probably knows by now that the confirmed old maid of the family has a man in her life, but I don't mind my mother knowing. She's keeping a tactful silence until I decide to unburden myself to her voluntarily."

A humorous note entered Mulder's voice. "And your sister?"

Scully snorted and burrowed back against his chest. "Missy'll make a pest of herself until she meets you - which, as far as I'm concerned, will be when hell freezes over, after the way she stitched me up."

Mulder chuckled - and suddenly noticed something. "Hey, Scully, I think we're on!"

"Huh? What?"

He released his hold on her and pointed out over the base. Scully sat up, a little disappointed at the interruption, and suddenly saw what he was referring to. She scrambled to her feet to get a better look.

Two brilliant white lights soared up into the air and seemed to dance with each other way above the air base. They moved faster than anything she'd ever seen before, performing seemingly impossible aerial maneuvers.

"What are they?" Scully murmured, transfixed.

Mulder pulled himself upright beside her. "I don't know. Just keep watching - it's unbelievable. I've been watching them for the last couple of nights."

Above them, the aerial display continued, the two lights breaking apart, zipping across the sky at incredible speeds, coming to abrupt halts and making startling changes of direction in split seconds, then coming together again.

"That's unreal - I've never seen anything like it."

"They were going at it like that for almost half an hour last night," Mulder breathed in her ear.

"They can't be aircraft - aircraft can't maneuver like that," Scully pointed out, ever prosaic.

He merely smiled. "What else could they be?"

"I don't know. Lasers, maybe, being shot from the ground and reflecting across the clouds."

Abruptly, the two lights met, swooped upwards into the clouds and vanished from sight.

There was a loud crash, as if two planes had collided mid-air. Mulder and Scully looked at each other, wide-eyed and stunned.

"Oh - my - God!"

There was a long pause, and suddenly another light appeared, apparently heading straight towards them.

"Here comes another one ...." Mulder observed - and did a double take. "Scully, that's a helicopter - "

Motels - especially the cheaper ones - tend to be busy places, even at the oddest hours of the night. Consequently, Jerry Castamir wasn't particularly suspicious when he heard a car leaving the parking lot outside, or several others arriving. However, perhaps by an association of ideas, he did decide to pay his partner a visit and find out what she was intending to do the next day, in the vain hope that it might involve hopping on a plane back to Washington DC.

He was realistic enough to recognize that leaving any time before Scully was good and ready - which probably meant before Mulder was good and ready - was unlikely. But it was worth a try.

Finding Scully's room unlit was a mild surprise, but when he thought about it a little it made sense. Jerry sighed a little irritably, and went to check his premise ... so it was something of a surprise to discover that not only was there a light on in Mulder's room but the door was also open.

Jerry had no cause yet to be a paranoid man, like Mulder, nor was he a fraction as wary as Scully had become over the past few months. Nevertheless, he was an FBI agent of considerable experience, and finding the room the such a condition sent his hand under his armpit for his gun.

The door wasn't just open, it was wide open, and when Jerry stepped cautiously inside he was shocked to see the room in complete turmoil. Mulder was no one's idea of a tidy man, but this was something else entirely. Someone had turned the place over, and that someone was apparently completely unconcerned about evidence of their activities being discovered. Mulder's few possessions had been spread over the maximum possible area and the furniture turned over and inside out.

Jerry hesitated for a moment, trying to decide the best course of action. This break-in put an uncomfortable new idea into his head about the current whereabouts of both Mulder and Scully; he turned, intending to check and see if Mulder's car was still in the parking lot, when he felt something cool and chillingly familiar pressed against the back of his neck. He stiffened and cursed silently, but there was nothing for it but to wait and see what happened next.

What *did* happen was completely unexpected.

"Hello, Jerry," an amused-sounding female voice said in his ear. A voice he recognized.

Jerry had a fraction of a second to register astonishment and disbelief before a sharp blow to the head put an end to him registering anything for quite some time.

Scrambling down the steep side of the embankment was a deal more difficult than climbing the gentle slope Mulder had led Scully up half an hour before. On the other hand, heading down, towards the perimeter fence, which surrounded the air base, was also a better option than being out in the open where the people in the helicopter could see them. There were trees and bushes lining the dip below thickly, providing better shelter to hide in - for there was no doubt in either of their minds that the helicopter was looking for them. Scully slipped several times and resigned herself to getting covered in mud and grass stains.

The fence was a huge 20 foot wire construction. The top was bound in barbed wire and had another single length of narrow cable running through the upper edge, which was possibly electrified. Mulder kept a wary distance from it just in case, and dragged Scully into a stand of trees, far enough that they would be hidden from sight but not so far that they couldn't see what was going on. Interestingly, the helicopter pilot was combing the area with a strong beam of light, but not the area where they had been sat. Instead, he appeared to be concentrating on an area just inside the fence, which was covered in tall weeds, some of them taller than Mulder.

Scully pulled his head down so that she could speak into his ear over the noise the chopper was making. "What are they looking for?"

"Not what," Mulder told her. "Who!"

He pointed and she turned to see a couple of small figures sudden break out of the weeds by the fence. Now that Scully's attention was drawn to it, she could see that there was something wrong with the section of fence in that area. One of the two figures bent and grabbed hold of the bottom edge of the wire and held it up for the other. In a second or two they were both through, and Mulder was already running to intercept them and drag them into the trees.

It was two teenaged kids, a boy and a girl, and to Scully's amazement neither seemed to think more of what had happened than that it was a good joke. The fact that they had both been trespassing on military property and had been within minutes of being apprehended for a serious offence didn't seem to have occurred to them; they were both giggling and congratulating each other on the close shave. Nor did they seem to find it at all odd that they were sharing their current refuge with two adults.

Then Scully looked at them both again more closely, aware of a peculiar sweetish smell clinging to their clothes, and realized that they were both high. They'd probably been smoking hash.

If Mulder was aware of this fact - and given how observant he was, it was unlikely he'd missed it - he chose to ignore it. Scully was not surprised to discover that he was more interested in the hole in the fence and where it led.

"What were you guys doing in there?" he demanded.

"We didn't do anything!" the girl said, her eyes wide. She had long blonde hair, and looked to be about sixteen. Her companion looked to be about the same age, but had shoulder-length brown hair and the rather uncertain teenaged beginnings of a goatee beard.

"I didn't say you did," Mulder replied patiently, "but what were you doing in there?"

They looked at each other, and the girl giggled.

"We've got this kind of spot," the boy explained, looking vaguely pleased with himself. Looking at his glazed eyes, Scully wondered just how much junk they'd smoked tonight. "We go there and we kind of kick back and listen to some tunes, and watch the air show."

Mulder glanced across at Scully, and couldn't resist a ghost of a grin at her. She pretended to ignore it, and he turned back to the two kids. "What're your names?"

"Emil," the boy said, "and Zoe." He indicated the girl, who nodded.

"Were you ever chased out before, Emil?"

"No! First time, right? Our friend showed us the hole in the fence about a year ago."

"One time they dropped these bombs," Zoe interjected enthusiastically.

"That was *heavy*," Emil agreed. "There's this base, right?" He gestured towards the area behind the fence some distance away. "It's called the yellow base, or some shit like that. That's where they're supposed to store all this stuff, and my friend says that there's land mines all around it and junk like that."

Mulder was staring at the hole in the fence in a speculative way that alarmed Scully.

"Mulder, what are doing? Come on, we've got to get out of here before they send out people to look for us on foot!"

He glanced at her blankly for a moment, then suddenly seemed to register what she'd said. He shook himself, and nodded. "Yeah, of course. Let's get out of here - come on, you two, we'll give you a ride back into town."

Emil and Zoe looked a little uncertain about this. "We brought our moped," Emil pointed out.

"We'll put it in the trunk. Come on - you lead the way."

With Zoe leading, they pushed their way through the bushes and tall grass, Mulder bringing up the rear.

Which was Scully's big mistake. It wasn't until they got out onto the road and found both the car and the moped, that she turned around thinking Mulder had been awfully quiet - and found him gone.

For several minutes, she was too speechless with anger for words.

"Where'd he go?" Emil asked stupidly, and the agent rounded on him furiously.

"Back through that damned hole you made the goddamned fence!" She stared at the two kids, who were staring back apprehensively, and for a moment she toyed with the notion of abandoning them here and going back after Mulder. But a second's reflection told her how stupid that would be. She had no idea when he'd left them and turned back, but he had a head start on her and with his long legs he could cover the ground at considerable speed. She'd never catch up with him. Also, once inside the fence she had no idea which direction to go in.

And leaving these doped up kids here on their own would be downright irresponsible. Scully had no choice; she sighed and gestured to the moped. "Here, help me get this in the trunk," she told the two of them tiredly.

She was better off heading back to the motel and waking Jerry.

Mulder had an idea that he should be feeling remorse for having ditched Scully again, but he had known the minute he saw that hole in the perimeter fence that she would never countenance a foray onto the base to see if they could get an eyeful of what was going on. Rather than have the argument with her there and then, wasting time, he'd acted. He'd ride out the storm with her later.

After all, what was the big deal? Those two kids had been coming in here for months and hadn't been seen until tonight - and Mulder was willing to bet that that had only been because of the explosion he and Scully had witnessed. If the chopper hadn't been out anyway, no one would have been the wiser. And he wasn't going to try and enter any of the buildings or anything like that; he was just going to ... look. See what was going on.

Oh, temptation ....

Mulder ploughed through the tall grasses and other vegetation, following a roughly trampled track made, presumably, by Emil and Zoe during one of their expeditions. Despite the darkness, he was glad that the weeds reached above head height, offering some sort of protection. The helicopter was still cruising the area, although the pilot seemed to have given up on the area nearest the perimeter fence.

After a walk of about fifteen or twenty minutes, Mulder found himself at the end of the tall weeds and on the edge of what looked like an airfield of considerable size. He eyed the cruising helicopter warily, but it seemed to be concentrating on a corner of the field some distance away. Mulder scanned the area and in the distance saw a cluster of lights. He began to walk in that direction, keeping close enough to the tall weeds that he could duck back into them should the need arise.

Less than five minutes later, the lights began to move. Mulder strained his eyes, trying to see what was happening, but he was at the wrong angle. So, throwing caution to the wind, he moved out into the middle of what seemed to be a kind of runway ... and was rewarded, moments later, by something swooping through the air towards him.

Stunned, he stood stock still, staring up at it as it came to an incredibly swift halt above him and hung there.

It was difficult to tell in the darkness, but it appeared to be roughly triangular in shape and was about the length of a juggernaut. It had three *things* on its dark underside - lights, landing equipment, whatever - which glowed in the dark, and as Mulder watched, breathless with amazement and awe, it seemed to rotate itself gently in the air above him. It was, as the landlady of "The Flying Saucers" had so descriptively said, as quiet as a hummingbird, despite being only a matter of two or three yards above Mulder's head.

Then, as fast as it had appeared, it was gone again, racing away in the darkness and leaving Mulder craning his neck and fighting the urge to shout "come back!" after it.

For several minutes he stared after it, panting from the adrenaline surging through his body and straining his eyes to see where it had gone.

It was real. He'd seen it.

Oh god oh god oh god oh god oh wow -

Mulder was suddenly conscious of a noise. He spun around, and saw the headlights of a truck coming straight for him.

The drive back to the motel was an uncomfortable one. The two kids seemed to be pretty much off on their own planet somewhere, which was just as well for Scully was acutely conscious of her stomach roiling with anger and anxiety. This was the first time Mulder had actually ditched her in person, and she wasn't sure how she felt about it - 'angry' didn't begin to describe her emotions.

She dropped the two kids off in town, and drove back to the motel, debating what she was going to say to Jerry. She wondered how he would take the news that she had clandestinely gone off with Mulder and somehow lost him, and suddenly felt ashamed of herself. When had she become so damned unprofessional?

*It's not unprofessional,* she tried to rationalize. *It's not like I would have been doing anything constructive towards the case tonight anyway.*

But she couldn't convince herself. The fact was, she was in town on a case, on the Bureau's time and money, and running around at night with Mulder was downright unprofessional. And if the trip out to the base *had* been connected to the case - which was debatable - then she should have taken her partner with her.

In fact, she could hardly complain about Mulder ditching her when she had done the self-same thing to Jerry.

Damn, this was all so complicated ....

Scully squared her shoulders. Okay, it was time to face the music. She needed to find Jerry, confess to the evening's activities, and take the situation from there. And in future, she would regulate her own behavior more strictly, no matter what carrot Mulder waved under her nose.

She wondered if she would be able to keep to that resolve.

She pulled into the motel's parking lot and parked her car in front of her room. The lights in Jerry's room were blazing, and she wondered rather queasily if he already knew she'd been out and was waiting for her to arrive back. That made him seem like her father, but Scully had a gut feeling that he would take a rather dim view of her stretching regulations, and she couldn't really blame him. They both had firsthand experience of the Bureau's ideas of revenge when agents stepped out of line.

Thinking of that made Scully wonder absently what Jerry's particular crime had been. He tended to pass the matter off with a joke, but she was aware that he was a little sensitive about the issue. Then she put it out of her mind again, and got out of the car.

At once, she realized something was wrong. The lights in her partner's room were blazing, but the door was half open and for some reason she couldn't pinpoint, that seemed odd. Also, the curtains weren't drawn at the window and she couldn't see him at all, even though she could see the bed quite clearly. Jerry was a big man, almost as tall as Mulder; he should have been visible even if he was sat down.

Scully groped for the gun holstered in the hollow of her back and approached the room warily. Easing the door open, she looked around quickly and realized at once that Jerry wasn't there. She glanced around searchingly, but there was no sign of disorder or forced entry. She backed out of the room again, and looked around the parking lot. He hadn't gone anywhere by car; their rental was still there and she was driving Mulder's.

Then she became conscious of another set of lights blazing brightly - further down the row, where Mulder's room was. Her nerves beginning to jingle with alarm, Scully jogged down there quickly and burst into the room.

She almost fell over Jerry's prone body in her haste.

For a few precious seconds Mulder stood frozen, pinned like a rabbit in the beams from the oncoming vehicle. This he came to himself with a jolt, and turned, starting to run. Behind him, a second set of headlights joined the first, and an increasing hum overhead, plus a powerful light being shone directly down on him, warned that he was being tracked by a helicopter.

Shitshitshitshit -

Running had to be futile; Mulder was a passionate advocate of running as a healthful activity, but he couldn't fool himself that it was going to get him away from here tonight. All the same, the attempt had to be made. If he could just get to the weeds, he might have a chance ....

One truck speeded up and cut across his path. Mulder ducked to one side, stumbling a little, but was swiftly cut off by the second vehicle, and before he could decide what to do next, he was tackled from behind and brought crashing to the ground. Then the breath was really knocked out of him by someone landing heavily on his back. He yelped as his arms were forced up behind him and his face pressed down in the gravel surface of the runway, and he was conscious of shouted orders and the noise of yet another vehicle swerving to a halt nearby. There was a pause, then a startling crash next to him as a gurney was dropped to the ground.

A gurney? What - ?

Hands seized him, jerking him upwards quickly. Before he knew it, Mulder was stretched out the gurney and was being strapped down by a number of hard-faced individuals in uniform. He protested and struggled, but was ignored, and the gurney was swiftly transferred to a waiting military ambulance. Once inside, the doors were slammed shut and the vehicle sped off again.

It was all so neatly and precisely done that Mulder had to wonder if they'd done all this before to some other foolhardy snooper.

Then all thoughts of *that* were driven out of his head by the sight of one of his captors testing a hypodermic in midair above him.

"Hey, what - NO!"

It took several hours for Jerry to come around, a fact which Scully knew had nothing to do with the lump on the back of his skull and probably everything to do with a fresh needle mark on the inside of his left elbow. Since she strongly doubted that her partner was an intravenous drugs user, the only conclusion she could come to was that the mark had been inflicted by whomever had coshed him; but the combination of the two had almost sent her to the phone for paramedics more than once. If he hadn't been reasonably responsive to being pinched in a sensitive spot, she would have done so for sure; as it was, she sat most of the night beside him, fretting and wondering what on earth had happened. He had a number of bruises and abrasions, which suggested he had been dragged somewhere, and all in all he was in miserable shape.

Mulder's room was also in miserable shape, and Scully wondered what the hell Jerry's attackers - if they were indeed one and the same people, which seemed overwhelmingly likely - had been looking for. More to the point, she wondered if they had found it.

She hadn't stopped to look in her own room, but she was half expecting to find similar signs of destruction when she got the opportunity to check it out. For some reason, parts of this case reminded her of that first "X" file she had investigated in Oregon, including the unhelpful locals and disappearing evidence.

Except that there wasn't much in the way of evidence in this case, unless there were things Mulder still wasn't telling her. The idea ate at her.

By the time Jerry stirred, Scully had almost eaten her nails down to the quick, and the first hints of dawn were creeping over the horizon. He was groggy, nauseous and decidedly vague.

Scully felt guilty for being relieved at this; at least she wasn't going to have to undergo the 'why did you ditch me' speech just yet.

"Jerry? Jerry, what happened? Do you remember?"

Jerry blinked up at her, squinting a little, and she reached out to pull the bedside lamp away so that it didn't shine on his face. He swallowed dryly and Scully found him a glass of water, thrusting down her impatience as he sipped. "Jerry?"

"I was lookin' f'r you," he rasped after a moment's painful thought. He reached slowly to the back of his head and winced as his fingers brushed the painful lump there. "Ow .... I - went to Mulder's room, an' they'd trashed it." His voice became a little stronger, and he began to look around, seeing that he was still in Mulder's room. "What happened?"

"It looks like someone coshed you," Scully told him slowly. "I found you on the floor beside the bed, but I think you were taken somewhere and brought back, Jerry - you've got a needle-mark inside your left elbow, and you look like you've been dragged halfway around the parking lot."

Jerry's eyes widened, and he tried to sit up. His stomach protested sharply at once, and he lay back down again in a hurry. "Where's Mulder?"

"Never mind that for the moment. Do you remember who hit you?"

He was silent, and Scully had the oddest feeling that he was in two minds about telling her something. "You said I've got a needle-mark on my arm?" he temporized.

"Yes, and you were out for hours. I think they must have doped you up, but on what I don't know. You've almost certainly got concussion as well, so you'd better stop here for a while. What time did you come looking for me?"

"About 10.30."

"It's nearly 5.00 am now."

"Shit!" Jerry stared up at the ceiling for several moments, then turned his head - cautiously - to look at Scully, and she was dismayed to see what looked suspiciously like a note of sick alarm in his eyes. "Scully ... look, this is going to sound as crazy as hell, but just before I got coshed - "


He swallowed. "I was looking around the room, wondering who the hell had turned it over, when somebody came up behind me and spoke to me."

Scully looked at him narrowly, wondering where this was going. "Male or female?"

"Female," he sighed. "Scully - Dana - look, where is Mulder? It could be important."

Scully suppressed a sudden urge to add a second lump to the one on his head. "Jerry, will you just get to the point, and tell me what the hell happened?" she demanded sharply.

"The woman who spoke to me - I didn't see her, but I'd know that voice anywhere. It was Phoebe."

Things were becoming very confused for Mulder now. The ambulance had drawn up in front of what looked like a large, floodlit hanger building and he'd been neatly decanted, protesting weakly all the way. Whatever they'd injected him with, though, was certainly effective for his vision was extremely blurred and he was feeling decidedly queasy, a sensation which wasn't helped by the speed at which they were towing his gurney through the hanger.

His eyes were open, though, and he was doing his best to use them, fighting their natural inclination to slide closed.

The hanger was mostly a blur to him, but he was conscious of an extraordinary number of people running around, many of them in some sort of protective clothing. There were assorted mechanical noises, and what sounded blaringly like a klaxon alarm; and whole of the inside of the hanger seemed to be draped in clear plastic sheeting which allowed light in from the high windows but semi-concealed vast areas of the building. Mulder blinked and desperately tried to focus his vision as they passed a huge, vaguely triangular shaped object which was swarming with people, but they were moving too fast for him to get any clear idea of what it was.

Then he was dragged through more doors, down a corridor and into a room that looked horribly like an operating theatre. He was swiftly and efficiently transferred from the gurney to a table, where his arms and legs were strapped down tightly, and there was a pause while a medic prepared yet another injection.

Mulder tried to summon the energy to protest, to fight the confining leather straps at his wrists, waist and ankles, but it seemed too much of an effort. He was watching dully as the medic fired the hypodermic into the air, when something happened that provided him with enough incentive to struggle, albeit futilely.

The doors to the theatre opened and a new figure walked in, who leaned around the medic to take an appraising look at the captive.


The sudden, violent surge of adrenaline which coursed through Mulder cleared away most of the fog clouding his mind. He let out a yell of fury - surprising even himself - and fought the straps binding him. One must have been weak; his right arm tore free of it and he lunged clumsily at the face of his tormentor, missing her by several feet and hitting the medic instead. The two MP's who had accompanied him into the room leapt to hold him down, as the medic recovered himself and dove in to apply the injection.

It took nearly a full minute for the jab to take effect, during which time Mulder cursed up a blue streak and fought the two soldiers like a madman. He had only one thought in his mind - to get to that woman and break her neck, a fact which seemed to amuse her.

Eventually, though, his struggles began to weaken, until the soldiers cautiously let go of him. His right arm was strapped down again, but the fight had gone out of Mulder, along with most of his thought processes. He stared dully at Phoebe, trying desperately to make his brain function enough just for one coherent phrase, but when it finally came out it would be hard to say exactly what answer he was hoping for.


Phoebe folded her arms across her chest and strolled casually over to his side. She tilted her head, looking down at him, and her expression held the same kind of curiosity a collector might display for a butterfly on the end of a pin.

And after a moment her lips moved in reply, but Mulder was too far gone to hear her.

It took another hour or so, but the nausea eventually subsided enough that Jerry felt he could get up and move to his own motel room. By that time, the sun was well and truly up and Scully was beginning to seriously worry about Mulder's whereabouts. Even if he'd had to walk back from the base, he should have been back by now.

Supporting Jerry back along the row of chalets to his room, she decided she'd better get herself cleaned up and go take a look for him, and said so.

"I'll go with you," was Jerry's immediate response.

"No!" Scully told him forcefully. "Jerry, you can hardly stand up on your own - you should be in a hospital, not here, and - "

"So I'll stay in the car!" he exploded. "For crying out loud, Scully, why the hell am I here if you're just going to abandon me whenever there's a problem?"

Scully bristled and opened her mouth to snap back at him - and paused, fuming. There was a tense silence for a few seconds, broken eventually by Jerry pointing out rather dryly: "You still haven't told me where the pair of you went last night ... or is that something I shouldn't be asking?"

She flushed, aware that she had no real grounds to object to the insinuation. "Mulder turned up on my doorstep saying he had something he wanted me to see," she muttered. "And it's not what you're thinking, Jerry, despite appearances."

"I don't think you have any idea how it appears," he retorted.

Scully's temper snapped. She abandoned him by the door of his motel room and headed for the car, unlocking the driver's door with a hand that shook slightly. Once inside, she had to stop and breathe deeply, gripping the steering wheel.

She had to get a grip on herself. She had a job to do, and she still didn't know where Mulder was.

Then the passenger door was flung open and Jerry threw himself into the seat beside her. She shot a look at him, and realized that he was battling with his own anger, for his face was white and his eyes blazed.

But when he spoke, it was with surprising mildness. "So what *were* you doing?"

"Watching lights above the airbase," she replied curtly. "I don't know what they were - they moved too fast for aircraft, but Mulder was convinced they were some kind of plane or something. We watched them for about ten minutes from a hilltop just outside the base perimeter fence, then there was a crash and the next thing we knew, there was a helicopter heading straight for us."

Jerry suppressed a sigh. He wasn't sure he needed to hear the rest of the story, and his head was aching miserably. "And?"

"*And* when we hid under some trees, we ran into a couple of kids coming out of a hole in the fence. They'd been going in there and watching the lights for months."

"So, let me guess. Mulder went straight through the hole in the fence, leaving you to baby-sit the kids."

Scully started up the car with a vicious twist of the keys. "Something like that."

"Great," Jerry muttered. "You realize they probably caught him?"

"That thought *had* occurred to me. But I want to check the spot where he went in anyway."

"And if he's not there?"

Scully bit her lip. "Then we go round to the base entrance and ask."

Jerry leaned his head back on the rest and closed his eyes. "Logical."

Silence reigned after that. Scully drove out of the town and took the road leading out to the base that Mulder had taken the night before. They were perhaps halfway to the base, and Scully's mind was less than half on her driving, when she became aware of another vehicle approaching from the opposite direction at speed. The road was quite narrow; two vehicles could pass each other, but only if they were driving carefully, and she quickly realized that the truck coming towards her had no intention of slowing down.

"Jerry, brace yourself!" she warned, and swerved just in time to avoid being hit. They ended up nearly in a ditch at the side of the road, and Scully hit the horn in an angry rebuke to the other driver. "Are you okay?" she asked her partner.

He gave her a rather shaken nod and tapped the strap of the seatbelt across his chest. Scully sighed with relief and twisted in her seat to get a look out of the rear window. Then she blinked, for the truck had stopped a short distance up the road.

"They've stopped," she said in surprise.

"Uh-oh," Jerry muttered.

For a moment, nothing happened. Then the rear doors of the truck were flung open and something was shoved out onto the road by two uniformed figures. The doors were quickly pulled shut again, and the truck was turned around with a squeal of tires, before being driven back down the road at speed.

Scully nearly fell out of the car in her haste to get to what had been thrown in the road - the battered and unmoving body of Fox Mulder.

"How is he?"

Scully glanced up at her partner and pursed her lips. "Still out of it."

Jerry stepped over to the bed and looked down at Mulder searchingly. "Head injury or drugs?"

Her mouth tightened and she pushed Mulder's left sleeve up to show him a couple of needle marks. "He might have had a bump as well, but nothing significant compared to this."

Jerry leaned over and brushed his fingers over the unconscious man's wrist. "Hullo - he's been restrained ."

Scully nodded. "Wrists and ankles. He's been knocked about a bit, like someone got him in a flying tackle - he has gravel marks on his face and palms - and look at this." She lifted Mulder's right hand and showed Jerry the bruised and scraped knuckles. "Seems like he got a bit of payback somewhere along the line."

"His life's never dull, is it?" Jerry commented sourly. "I could handle mine being a little less exciting, come to that." He touched the lump on the back of his head gingerly.

Scully's eyes searched his face. "How is it?"

"Sore. I'll live. Can I have a word with you a sec?"

She nodded and the stepped outside into the brilliant morning sunlight. Jerry winced again a little, but turned to his partner. "I just got a call from Mrs. Budahas. She says her husband has come home."

Her eyes widened. "When? How?"

"She didn't give me any details, but I understand he turned up on her doorstep at about ten or eleven last night. She sounds pretty shaky, Dana, and she wants to see us."

"I'll get changed - "

Jerry caught Scully's elbow quickly, holding her back. "What about Mulder?"

*Damn.* Scully looked at the motel room indecisively. *He shouldn't be left alone ....*

Jerry nodded. "It's okay - you stay here. Someone should. I'll go and see Mrs. Budahas, and find out what's going on."

"No, Jerry, it's okay - "

"Dana." He sighed and gave her a rueful smile. "Look, don't take what I said earlier too much to heart, huh? I'm sorry - I had a crack on the head and I'm always cranky after something like that. I had no business saying that stuff. I don't want you to think I don't trust you to do your job - "

"No, you were right," Scully interrupted. "I've not been behaving in a particularly professional manner with this case, Jerry, and you were right to get mad at me about it. It's just that ...." She paused, choosing her words. "It's just that I've got used to working ... not exactly alone, but on my own with Mulder looking over my shoulder. And I've got to break that habit. This case - hasn't been a good one for you and I to start on together. If there *is* a case, and I'm beginning to doubt it."

"There's a case alright. Mulder and I both seem to have had a head-on collision with it, in case you've forgotten."

She studied his face thoughtfully. "True - but on the other hand, the Military authorities often don't have give an explanation for their actions around experimental bases."

His tipped his head to one side quizzically. "Huh?"

Scully gave him a small smile. "At the risk of sounding like Mulder - think of the security measures permitted at Area 51. And Mulder and I *were* trespassing last night."

"*I* wasn't. And that doesn't explain what Phoebe was doing here."

She frowned a little. "No .... But are you sure it was Phoebe?"

Jerry's shoulders slumped a little. "No," he admitted, "although it sure as hell sounded like her, and she knew my *name*, dammit!"

"There are plenty of women working for the military, Jerry, and our ID's must have been picked up by the base security pretty quickly. And I have no difficulty in believing Mulder's done something since he arrived here to warrant them wanting a closer look at his room - hassling Colonel Kissel for a start." She sighed. "That doesn't explain why they coshed you and doped you up, though, and it doesn't explain what they did to Mulder either."

In the end, Jerry got himself cleaned up and went to investigate Mrs. Budahas's call, while Scully stayed to keep an eye on Mulder. It hadn't been easy to persuade her to do so, but the clincher had been her medical training; if anything untoward happened, she would be the one in the best position to help him.

Sitting by his bedside, watching his pale face, Scully wondered absently if this was becoming a habit - hanging around by one man's bedside while the other ran off to do the real work. Then she told herself sternly to stop being fanciful. After all, aside from the fact that Jerry had been the logical choice to go and talk to Mrs. Budahas, it wasn't like she was in some bizarre menage a trois situation with him and Mulder ....

The idea was enough to keep her entertained for nearly fifteen minutes though, and the idle speculation was only brought to a halt by the sound of a faint rasping cough from the bed. Mulder was coming around slowly, shifting his head a little and moving his limbs stiffly. Scully picked up a glass of water from the bedside table, remembering Jerry's dehydration, and gently touched one shoulder.


His reaction stunned her.

"NO!" He jerked upright, eyes wide, and took a swing at her which Scully only just managed to avoid. The glass of water went flying and with his balance affected by the drugs, Mulder promptly tumbled to the floor.

Scully said a word which her mother would have been horrified to know she had learned from her father, and hauled him back upright. He was blinking dazedly and had only just missed hitting his head on the corner of the bedside table. "Mulder? Mulder, are you okay?"

He stared up at her, confused, and swallowed dryly, coughing slightly. Scully sighed and propped him up against the bed before going to find more water. When she returned he seemed to be more himself and gulped the cold liquid gratefully. She crouched beside him and gently checked his eyes. His pupils seemed to be the normal size, and he acquiesced to the examination docilely enough.

She sat back on her heels finally and looked at him. "Do you know who I am now?" she asked.

He nodded. "Yeah. Sorry about that."

"What happened just then?"

He shook his head, searching his mind, but it was blank even of the reason for his panic upon awakening. "I don't know, Scully."

Scully gave him a frustrated look. "What happened to you at the base, Mulder? Where have you been all night?"

Mulder looked at her blankly. "All night? I don't .... Scully, what happened after the helicopter appeared?"

She stared at him. "You don't remember?"

"I ... no. Why - ?" His eyes widened in horror. "How long have I ...."

"Jerry and I picked you up about two hours ago," Scully told him bluntly. "You were unconscious and had been thrown out of a jeep into the road by people I assume to be personnel from the base. As to where you were all night, only you can answer that. You ditched me shortly after we saw the helicopter and got into the base via a hole in the perimeter fence. I'm assuming you got caught - judging by the marks on you, you've been physically restrained and drugged."

Mulder looked at his wrists blankly. "I - I don't remember."

Scully sighed in frustration and stood up. "You're in good company then, because Jerry got knocked on the head while we were gone and given a dose of something too. And they turned your room over - you'd better take a look and see if anything's missing."

He slowly climbed to his feet and propped himself up against the end of the bed. "Jerry got done over too?"

"That's what I said," she replied dryly.

"Where is he?"

"He's gone to see Mrs. Budahas. Apparently her husband turned up again last night."

Mulder nearly fell over in his sudden attempt to get to the door. "Colonel Budahas? Scully, we've got to - "

"No, we *haven't*!" Scully snapped, losing patience. She told herself she was allowed one outburst, given a sleepless night and two injured men on her hands. She grabbed Mulder's arm and forcibly pushed him down onto the edge of the bed. "Listen to me, Fox Mulder," she said clearly, bending slightly to look him in the eye, "you are in no condition to go anywhere short of a hospital, so you either sit still and do as I tell you, or I'm taking you to one now! Is that understood?"

"But Scully - " he protested.

"No 'buts', Mulder! Is that understood?"

He fumed for a moment or two, but was quelled by the dangerous light in her eyes. "Okay," he muttered.

"Good. Jerry is perfectly capable of handling the situation. Now, help me check your stuff and see if anything's been taken. Then we're packing up and getting out of here."

Mulder, aware that he was feeling decidedly queasy and ill, decided it would be better not to protest.

Jerry arrived back less than half an hour later, impotently fuming.

"What happened?" Scully demanded, as he flung himself down in the chair beside Mulder's bed.

"Mrs. Budahas refused to let me in," he said curtly. "She swore she never called us - in fact, from the way she was behaving I'd say that if you asked her right now, she'd swear she never called the FBI in to look for her husband at all. She was acting as if there was someone holding a gun to the back of her head, Scully."

"She's been got at," Mulder said at once.

Jerry gave him a weary look. "No shit. Anyway, she's not talking. Her husband is home, he's fine, everything's fine - now please piss off."

Scully pursed her lips for a minute or two, thinking. Then she shrugged and made a decision. "Fine, that's it," she said.

Both men looked up at her, and Mulder raised a brow. "What is?"

"The case. That's it. We came here to look for Mrs. Budahas's husband. He's now home, and she's clearly doesn't want our assistance anymore. There's nothing more we can do, so we get our stuff and go. There's no point in hanging around here, upsetting the military anymore, and waiting to see if *I* can get a blow to the head and matching set of needle marks too. Go get your stuff together, Jerry, and I'll phone the airport."

Mulder opened his mouth to protest, and Scully pinned him with a glare. "No arguments, Mulder."

He shut his mouth again. She was probably right.

"And no trying to run off while our backs are turned. I'm watching you."


Their rather hurried departure from Idaho was uneventful. Aware of Scully's watchful eye, Mulder behaved himself impeccably, and when they arrived back at Dulles the partners gave him a lift to his cousin Annie's home, so that he could collect both his car and his son.

After that, Scully didn't hear from him for nearly a month - except for a medium-sized, anonymous brown envelope landing on her mat one morning, which contained two slender magazines and a printed note:

Our mutual friend asked us to put you on our mailing

list. This year's subscription's on him.

Would you consider meeting me for lunch next



Scully puzzled over this for a moment, then examined the two publications. One was a neatly produced broadsheet newspaper titled "The Magic Bullet"; the other was a glossy magazine called "The Lone Gunman".

Enlightenment dawned. She flipped quickly through them, noting that they were chock-full of conspiracy theories and alien abductions, then tucked them under her arm to read over breakfast. It was only when she was halfway through her blueberry bagel that she found the article about the downed plane in Wisconsin, complete with inconclusive photographs and a mention of "unlawful" detentions of US citizens by the military. Forewarned, she was less surprised when the next piece - "by an anonymous investigator" - related the mysterious disappearance and reappearance of Col. R. Budahas but Scully still nearly choked on her breakfast as she read the account of the "FBI-sanctioned investigation" and the "suspicious actions" of the local military at Ellens Air Base.



Subject: Your article.

I saw your article in TLG. I suppose the best that can be

said for it is that you mentioned no names. But I don't

recall telling you that you could do a story on this

investigation anyway. What are you playing at?




Subject: Huh?

I was onto that 'investigation' before you were, and

I seem to recall that in fact, the Bureau had already

*closed* the case. You had to re-open it.

Let's not get pissy about this, Scully - you knew what

I was the first time we met. And I thought we agreed

before the Tooms case that I could write up any

investigations we were both in on? What's the

problem all of a sudden?


Scully stared at the message on the screen in front of her, and bit her lip. Mulder had a remarkable way of transmitting his little-boy-hurt look and pouting lower lip via e-mail - the surprise and injury coming off the note were palpable. She already regretted sending such a sharp message, but she'd arrived back in DC feeling pretty grim about the entire affair, and when she and Jerry arrived in at work the next day, they'd endured a chewing out from Skinner that still made her feel hot with embarrassment. On top of that, his parting words had been "I sincerely hope, for your sakes, that the press doesn't get a hold of this or we'll never hear the last of it". The minute they'd got out of his office, Jerry had turned to her and said "Can you shut Mulder up?"

Things had been a little tense between them for an hour or two over that, but Scully had forgotten about it until the two magazines arrived at her apartment. She'd rattled out the message without thinking about it.



Subject: Sorry.

Sorry. I ... had some trouble from Skinner over it.

He's concerned the press may find out, and have a





Subject: Re: Sorry.

S'okay. What kind of trouble?




Subject: Re: Re: Sorry.

The usual. Forget it.

How's Sam?




Subject: Re: Re: Re: Sorry.

Sam's fine. Stop changing the subject. What kind

of trouble?


P.S. We really need a new subject title here ....



Subject: Let it drop, you a


It was just the usual! Slapped wrist, "don't do it again"

- you know the routine. Forget it.




Subject: Wash your mouth out!

Agent Scully!

Will you have dinner with me tonight? My mom's

looking after Sam for me; she's having friends over so

she can play Grandma of the Year.




Subject: I have a better idea.

No way - I've studied your behavior patterns and

I know we're due for a trip to MacDonald's. Why

don't you come over to my place, and I'll cook dinner?




Subject: Re: I have a better idea.

It'll break Frohike's heart - you're on.

All this, and she cooks too!


Scully smiled, and made a mental note to leave a few minutes early and do some shopping.

Mulder gingerly poked a plate sticking up out of the hot soapy water. "Can't I dry instead?"

"No. I'm not sure I trust you with my favorite china." Scully fished a clean tea-towel out of a drawer and shook out the crisp folds.

Mulder wondered idly if she was the kind of woman who ironed her towels. "But there are floaty bits in the water," he objected.

"I'm sure a dedicated New Man like you can handle it, Mulder." She gave him an amused smile, and went to rummage in a cupboard. After a moment or two she found the packet she wanted and waved it enticingly under his nose. "Be good, and I'll make popcorn," she wheedled.

He gave an exaggerated sigh. "It's a sacrifice, but I'll do it." He rolled up his sleeves and plunged both hands into the water. "Although won't the popcorn make an uncomfortable mess on the sheets?" he added.

The end of the tea-towel slapped his shoulder. "Get washing!"

"Yes ma'am!"

"How's Jerry?" Mulder asked after a while, handing a dripping plate to Scully.

"He's okay," she shrugged. "I don't see a lot of him - he's working with the VCS at the moment. And I'm stuck sorting through the files again. Really, he's only supposed to join me on active cases."

Mulder considered this. "What happens if he's involved in another case elsewhere at the time?"

"I don't know - why?"

"Just wondering."

Scully studied his face for a moment, but he didn't elaborate; his expression seemed to be rather far away for a moment. "Mulder," she began hesitantly, "can I ask you something?"

He looked at her in surprise and smiled. "Sure."

"When Jerry and I first arrived in Idaho ... you seemed to have mixed feelings about him being there. Why was that?"

Mulder hesitated, then shook his head slightly. "I don't know, Scully. Jerry's ... changed. I can't put my finger on what it is, but there was something just a little off-balance about him."

Scully's brows drew together. "Are you sure?"

He let out a little frustrated puff of breath. "No! I wish I was."

"Mulder, you haven't seen him in some time," she pointed out reasonably. "People do change - I don't suppose you know what's been going on in his life since you left the Bureau, do you?"

"No ...."

Scully polished the plate thoughtfully for a moment or two. "He's had some sort of reprimand recently," she said finally. "They sent him to work with me because he got thrown out of the Denver office. He seems to treat it pretty lightly but he won't tell me what the big deal is, and I can't find anyone who knows what happened."

"They probably found out he's gay," Mulder said casually. The startled silence at his shoulder made him look up, and he grinned at Scully's expression, reaching out to gently shut her bottom jaw with the tip of one finger. "I guess you didn't know either - so much for the myth that says women always know these things!"

"But .... You knew?"

"I just said so, didn't I?"


"He hit on me when we were partners. Kind of gave the game away." He handed her a wine glass.

Scully leaned her rear against the worktop and studied his face for an incredulous moment. Then her brain started to turn the matter over at its usual efficient speed. "Mulder - being gay is not against the regulations at the Bureau, so how ...."

Mulder shrugged. "I worked at the Denver office on a case once. Is Schwartz still the SAC there?"

"I don't know - I think so."

"He's pretty old-fashioned, Scully - he wouldn't want a goddamned queer on his team, trust me. He'd have been looking for a reason to get rid of Jerry the second he found out." Mulder swirled the water with one hand for a moment, staring into the suds. "All the same, that's not the feeling I'm getting," he told her abruptly. "I know Jerry - he'd have accepted a reprimand philosophically. This is something else."

"Mulder, you're paranoid," Scully told him.

"From you, I'll accept the compliment," he grinned. He fished around, found one final tumbler, rinsed it and handed it to her with a flourish. "There - all finished." And he pulled the plug before she could find anything else for him to wash.

"Since you've been so good, I'll put the popcorn on." Scully turned away to put the tumblers up in a cupboard.

Suddenly, two wet hands seized her around the waist. "No, don't bother," Mulder murmured into her hair.

Jerry Castamir wasn't much of a drinking man, but he'd been doing more of it lately, and tonight he would be the first to admit that he'd had a little too much. He dragged himself back to his apartment, trying to remember if he had any aspirin in the bathroom cabinet, and leaned himself against the wall as he sorted out his door-key from the bunch. It took a couple of minutes, because his fingers weren't entirely co-operative, but eventually he managed to find it and insert it into the lock. He pushed the door open wearily, and when he'd managed to get inside, he leaned back against it to shut it. His head was pounding, and he dimly wondered why he shouldn't just let himself slide to the floor and sleep there.

"Good evening, Agent Castamir."

Oh shit. Jerry opened his eyes and looked at the man sitting in the chair on the opposite side of the dark room. The street lights shining through the uncurtained window illuminated his profile, and the cherry-colored tip of his cigarette burned a single point of color into the inebriated agent's brain.

"What are you doing here?" he demanded.

"I thought I'd pay you a little visit," the quiet, unnervingly cold voice replied. "I thought we should discuss your trip to Idaho, for a start."

"There's nothing to discuss," Jerry replied curtly. "If there ever was, you dealt with that when you blanked Mulder's memory and mine. But since you're here, you can damn well answer a few questions."

There was a pause as the visitor took a leisurely pull on his cigarette. "Well?" he asked finally.

"What the hell was Phoebe Green doing there?" Jerry demanded, pushing himself away from the door with an anger-induced effort. "Is she one of your 'operatives' too, like Alex?"

The man was unmoved. "Was she there?" he asked, raising one brow. "How ... odd."

"It's not odd, it's sick! And she damn well coshed me and doped me up with Christ knows what! But given her track record, I guess I shouldn't have expected anything else, should I?" Jerry sneered at the other man. "What I want to know is why it was necessary for me to get the same treatment as Mulder."

"My dear fellow, I can't possibly answer all your questions. Some things are better for you not to know, especially since - under the circumstances - you can't really be considered a reliable operative."

Jerry went very white about the mouth. "I've given you my word," he whispered. "I'm not doing this willingly - for Christ's sake, Mulder's a friend of mine - but I'll do it. Do you really think I'd endanger - " He stopped and swallowed. "I still don't understand why Phoebe is in on this."

The smoking man stood up. "Let's just say that she has certain skills which are valuable to us at the present time. I assume you didn't mention her presence to anyone?"

Jerry hesitated. "I mentioned it to Scully, but she didn't believe it was really Phoebe."

"Hm. Let us hope for *your* sake that she doesn't decide to change her mind. Meanwhile, I suggest you get about whatever normal business a man in your position has. I'll let you know when I have need of you again."

Jerry watched mutely at the man calmly walked to the door and let himself out, then collapsed onto the sofa and put his head in his hands.

"Like I have a choice," he muttered bitterly.

Mulder came awake suddenly, with a sickening feeling that he'd overslept. He raised his head slightly, but the room was in darkness. For a moment he wondered if he'd actually had a disorientating dream and was really in his own bed, but almost at once he was aware of the warmth and weight of Scully lying against him.

Damn. He rolled onto his back carefully and disentangled both arms enough that he could operate the tiny light on his watch.


Shit! Adrenaline burned through his veins and into his stomach. He should have been home hours ago. Mulder began to ease himself out of Scully's grip, wondering if he'd be able to find his clothes without putting the light on.

"Mulder?" Her voice was soft and sleep-fogged. "What's wrong?"

"It's really late, Scully. I've got to go."

There was a rustling of the sheets and suddenly the light snapped on. Mulder blinked and squinted; Scully was propped up on one elbow, looking at her clock. She gave him a concerned look as he found his jeans and pulled them on. "It'll be okay, won't it?"

"I hope so." He scooped up his shirt and yanked it over his head, uncaring of the fact that it was inside out. He found his boots under a chair near the door and pulled them on, stuffing his socks into his pocket, then remembered that he hadn't put his boxers on either. Too bad; a cursory sweep of the room failed to reveal them, and they'd just have to be left there.

He paused and looked back at Scully. She was sat up in bed, the crisp, pale blue sheet tucked modestly around her, and her hair tousled and blue eyes concerned. Mulder quickly went back and bent to kiss her. "I'll call you," he promised.

"You'd better," she smiled. She watched him hurry out, scooping up his black leather jacket on the way, and waited until she heard the door shut with a quiet *snick*. Then she flopped back onto the pillows with a sigh.

Sometimes it felt like she was having an affair with a married man.

Mulder wasn't entirely sure why he felt the need to rush home like he had demons on his tail, but one thing he did know; if he'd given way to a very powerful impulse and stayed with Scully all night, there would have been hell to pay with his mother in the morning. She had already made one or two barbed comments about his relationship with the FBI agent, and she was not afraid to express her opinions, despite the fact that she had never met Scully before the trip to Idaho.

Life with his mother was not easy for Mulder, and he suspected that it was going to get more difficult. She had never been the same since Samantha's death, and after that tragic event Mulder had spent a large portion of his life being looked after his grandparents. After her divorce, Rachel Mulder had lived for several years under the influence of a variety of tranquillizers, and at one point had become incapable of looking after her son. The teenaged Fox had run wild and eventually been picked up by the authorities.

Mulder flinched at the recollection, but one of the curses of his excellent memory was that once an event was called up, it was hard to banish again. He'd spent the larger part of two weeks in a home for juvenile offenders before his grandparents had been given the okay to come and fetch him. The time was not ill-spent however; he'd learned a lot from the experience and it was one of a number of incidents in his life which made him determined to raise Sam properly. After that, he'd only spent short breaks with his mother, and they were always supervised by one or other of his watchful relatives. His visits to his father were even briefer and more closely supervised. And Mulder was in no doubt of the reasons for *that*.

With an effort, he managed to switch off those particular memories, and turned the car into his mother's driveway. Parking up and switching off the engine, Mulder divested himself of his seat-belt and glanced up at the windows of his grandparents' old house, expecting to find them dark. But to his surprise, the windows of the study on the ground floor were dimly lit.

That was unusual. Surely his mother wasn't waiting up for him? It would have to be the first time in his experience that she'd done such a thing.

Mulder locked the car up and ran up the front steps, letting himself in quickly.

"Mom?" he called softly. No reply. She'd probably just forgotten to switch the light out. Mulder pushed the study door open - and stood, transfixed, in the doorway.

Given that Sam was a restless child - hardly surprising in an active and well-developed two-year-old - Mrs. Mulder kept a large playpen which she erected whenever she had guests, and popped the little boy inside with his favorite toys. That way, they were both in each other's eyesight, but not getting in each other's way. Mulder had no argument with this - in fact, he sometimes used the same method to keep Sam under control himself, when they were alone in the house together and he was trying to work. Sam was usually quite happy to play on his own, provided he knew where his father or grandmother was.

The sight that met Mulder's eyes was of his small son still inside the playpen, fully dressed and sprawled across a fat cushion, asleep.

For a moment he couldn't breathe; then his instinct was to go running upstairs and shake his mother within an inch of her life. Mulder leaned limply against the door post, fighting the impulse; it wouldn't achieve anything, and hearing his father and grandmother fight would frighten Sam.

After a moment or two, Mulder dragged himself away from the lintel and mechanically took his jacket off, throwing it over the arm of a chair. He bent over the side of the playpen and woke Sam enough to pick him up, then switched the light out and carried him upstairs. The little boy was very tired and fretful, but he managed to change him into his sleepsuit without much difficulty.

Then Mulder carried Sam into his own room and settled himself into the reclining chair there, which had been a gift from his cousin Annie and her husband when he'd decided to look after Sam himself instead of giving him up to them for adoption. He knew he wouldn't be able to sleep himself tonight, but he wanted the boy with him while he thought. While Sam slumbered peacefully in his arms, his father sat staring into the darkness, wondering what to do next.

When dawn came, Mulder had reached a kind of emotional plateau. He gently put Sam into his crib without waking him, then changed into his shorts and battered sleeveless sweatshirt and went for a run. He felt a need for the physical exercise to get him into the right frame of mind to deal with his mother when he got home.

He arrived home nearly an hour later to find that someone was waiting for him; his visitor from the prior to his trip to Idaho was stood at the corner of the driveway. Mulder slowed from a jog to a walk until he came to standstill in front of the man. For a moment they both studied each other in silence, then the older man spoke.

"Your lives may be in danger."

Mulder didn't pretend not to understand him. "Why?"

"You've seen things that weren't meant to be seen. Care and discretion are now imperative," the man told him.

Mulder frowned, considering this. "I saw - " he began, but he was cut off impatiently.

"As I said, I can provide you with information, but only so long as it's in *my* best interests to do so."

"What *is* your interest?" Mulder demanded, frustrated.

He got a sad smile in return. "The truth."

"I *did* see something!" Mulder stated, seeing confirmation in the older man's resigned and weary expression. "But it's gone - they took it from me, they erased it. You have to tell me what it was."

The man's brow rose almost mockingly. "A military UFO?" His tone changed then, became almost fatherly. "Mr. Mulder - why are those like yourself, who believe in the existence of extraterrestrial life on this earth, not entirely dissuaded by all the evidence to the contrary?"

"Because ...." Mulder hesitated. "Because all of the evidence to the contrary is not entirely dissuasive," he said finally.

Their eyes met, and the older man gave a short, soundless laugh. "Precisely!" He turned and began to walk away.

Mulder watched him go, puzzled by the encounter, then suddenly called after him, "They're here, aren't they?"

The man paused, half-turning, and shook his head tiredly. "Mr. Mulder, "they" have been here for a very long time." Mulder watched him go, debating on whether he should follow him, but a recollection of his responsibilities stopped him. Besides, he had a feeling this wasn't the last he'd seen of this man. Aware that his muscles were beginning to cool and stiffen, Mulder forced himself into a slow jog up the driveway and let himself into the house again. He needed a shower and clean clothes before he faced his mother.

Upstairs, Mrs. Mulder stepped back from the bedroom window as her son came up the driveway, and forced herself not to watch the other man's swift retreat down the street. Her hands were shaking at witnessing the unexpected encounter, and she wrapped her arms around herself, tucking her fingers under her armpits in an attempt to stop the tremors. This was bad; this was *very* bad. But she didn't think she could handle another phone call to *him* again.

Rachel Mulder had had enough of this. She was tired of having her efforts to remain distant from her past thwarted, and she wanted it to end. Now.

When Mulder emerged from the shower, he swiftly dried himself and got dressed. He popped his head into Sam's room, but the little boy was still fast asleep - which was hardly surprising, considering the night he'd had - so he quickly headed for the stairs. His stomach was turning somersaults, but this had to be got over with before the boy awoke.

He found his mother sitting at the kitchen table, wrapped in an elegant dressing gown and sipping black coffee. Her back was ramrod straight and her gaze focused somewhere in the middle distance; she didn't acknowledge his arrival, and indeed Mulder had to wonder if she even noticed he was there.

Too bad. She wasn't getting out of this by pretending he didn't exist. A vague sense of injustice stirred at the very back of Mulder's mind as he paused in the doorway and stared at her; a remembered hurt. She'd got herself out of a lot of arguments and situations during his childhood and teens by behaving just as she was now; pretending that it wasn't happening, that the world around her was vague and incorporeal.

"Why didn't you put Sam to bed last night?"

For a moment, it seemed as though she hadn't heard him; then her gaze shifted to look at him, although she didn't reply. Her eyes were far away, as though she was looking at him from the other side of the street.

Mulder began to feel the burn of acid, white-hot anger, and he wrestled with it fiercely, determined not to lose his temper and start shouting as he remembered his father doing. Apart from anything else, he knew it would have no effect on her, and besides - he never wanted to be like his father.

"I said - "

"I heard you." Mrs. Mulder slowly and carefully put her cup on the saucer, and folded her hands in her lap. "Where were you all night?"

"I wasn't out *all* night," Mulder retorted.

"Don't lie to me, Fox. You were with her again, weren't you? I'm surprised you even bothered to come home."

"What the hell does it matter where I was?" he demanded, incredulous. "This isn't about me, it's about Sam."

"Yes." Her eyes fixed on him coolly. "He's your son and you have a responsibility to him."

That stung. A lot of people had been going on about Mulder's responsibility to Sam lately. "What about *your* responsibility? You agreed to look after him last night. I told you I might be late back, but you still agreed. But when I did arrive home, I found him still in his playpen, at nearly four in the morning! How could you just go to bed and leave him there?"

"He's not *my* responsibility," Mrs. Mulder replied, her tone still level and cool. Indifferent. "I agreed to mind him during the evening, Fox, not all night. If you can't come home at a reasonable hour, that's your problem."

Mulder stared at her, his brain whirling. He couldn't believe he was hearing this. "He's your *grandson*," he said, his tone stunned.

Her shoulders lifted in the tiniest of shrugs. "Perhaps. I don't see what difference that makes. He's still your problem. And if you'd rather spend time with that Irishwoman, then perhaps you should be making different arrangements for him."

Mulder nodded slowly, still staring at her. "Maybe you're right. This arrangement obviously isn't working anymore." He watched as she calmly picked the cup and saucer up and took them over to the sink to rinse out. His eyes drifted blindly over the kitchen for a moment, noting almost in passing that she'd quite deliberately only made enough coffee this morning for one, and slowly came back to rest on her back. "Okay. I guess I'd better go see Uncle Max this morning."

*That* drew her attention. "What? Why?"

Mulder's eyes met his mother's grimly. "It's obviously time Sam and I found a place of our own," he told her quietly, "and since you and I lease this place from Max jointly ...."

She recovered her poise almost immediately, and nodded with ill-concealed relief. "Very well. I'll come with you."

He nodded, and then, because he couldn't bear to look at her any longer, he turned sharply on his heel and left the room.

Title: Prelude IV: Here's The Season ....
Author: Mad Martha
Spoilers: The Pilot/Squeeze/Tooms/Fallen Angel/Deep Throat/Jersey Devil/Lazarus/Beyond The Sea/Duane Barry/Darkness Falls
Overall Rating: R
Content Warning: Alternate Universe/MSR
Classification: S,X,R
Disclaimer: "The X Files" and all the characters etc. associated with it are the property of 20th Century Fox and 1013 Productions. I am not making any profit from this story, and no infringement is intended.

Summary: A nice trip to the forest goes hideously wrong.

Fox Mulder was up to his knees in it again; although on this occasion 'it' was merely tiring and mildly depressing, not boring, annoying, dangerous or downright terrifying.

Which made a change.

On this particular occasion 'it' was not the doings of liver-eating mutants, aliens both seen and unseen, Government conspiracies, or even the serial killers of his FBI past which now and then rendered his nights sleepless. 'It' on this occasion was newspaper, and lots of it.

He paused in his labors for a moment, mentally calculating how much more he had to do, and smiled suddenly as his two-year-old son solemnly dragged a very large and much-abused teddy-bear into the room and struggled to put it into a packing crate which was nearly as big as he was.

"Not that one, Sam - your stuff's in the other room."

Sam gave up on the crate and turned to give his father a disgusted look. He huffed a melodramatic sigh and dragged the teddy out of the room again. Mulder grinned, and turned back to his own crate. The bulk of the packing was done, but the study was taking almost more time than the rest of the house entirely. He wondered absently how his grandfather had managed to collect so much stuff, and grabbed up another couple of sheets of newspaper.

The doorbell interrupted him, and the newspaper went flying as he made a dive to get to the front door before Sam did. The little boy had recently discovered he could reach the lock and Mulder hadn't got around to putting a more secure latch higher up yet. Nothing entertained Sam so much these days as using the telephone and answering the doorbell.

"I get it!"

"Sam - !" Mulder tripped on the abandoned teddy in the hallway and only just caught himself on the doorframe.

Sam stretched up on his toes and nimbly managed both lock and door handle, pulling the door open a few inches and peering around it. "Yeeeeesss?"

Mulder had to swallow a laugh at the exaggerated voice, but got hold of the boy's hand very firmly and drew him away from the door. He pulled it open a little further, and met the amused gaze of Dana Scully. His face broke into a smile. "Hi! I wasn't expecting to see you." He pulled the door open completely and let her in. "I called you the other day, but you were out of town."

"I was in Atlantic City - "

"Hold on a minute, Scully." Mulder shut the door, and turned to his son sharply. "What have I told you about opening the door?"

Sam backed up against the wall, his mouth going into instant droop mode. He turned heart-melting puppy eyes on his father, only to meet a pair of nearly identical hazel orbs gazing back at him unbendingly.

"What have I told you?" Mulder repeated.

Having lost the first round, Sam resorted to a chin wobble. Mulder crouched down in front of him. "I said not to open the door, didn't I? Not everyone behind it is nice like Dana - you could open it and let someone really bad in. Couldn't you?"

The little boy nodded dolefully and a finger crept into his mouth. His father took him by the shoulders and gave him a gentle shake. "You don't open the door, okay? You wait for Daddy to come."

He stood up and gave Sam a little push. "Go on - go put Bear in your box before he gets lost."

He watched as the boy scampered away, then turned to Scully with a rueful look. "He'll be the death of me yet."

Although her face was suitably grave, her eyes were mischievous. "I had no idea you could be such a ... hard taskmaster, Mulder."

He didn't miss the deliberate emphasis. "Oh no? Don't tempt me to show you so early in the day." He slung an arm around her shoulders and pulled her close, kissing her.

But Scully only allowed the contact for a few seconds, before gently pushing him away again. "Where's your mom?" she demanded breathlessly.

Mulder choked on a laugh and released her, leading the way into the study. "She moved out nearly a week ago. That's why I was calling you."

Scully stopped short in the doorway and stared at the bare walls, scattered newspaper and packing crates. "What in the world - ?"

"Fast job, huh?" He stood in the middle of the room, hands on hips, looking at the self-made devastation. "Sam and I have to be out by Friday."

"But what happened?"

"Mom and I failed to reconcile our differences, so we had an emotional meeting with my Uncle Max and the upshot is - she's gone back to live with Aunt Esther in Chilmark, and I've got Sam and I an apartment in Alexandria. Max wants to put this place up for rental, so I've got to clear all my belongings and the stuff left by my grandparents. Most of the furniture's going into storage."

Scully was stunned. "When did all this happen?"

"Last Monday. I spent most of the evening with Max, trying to sort it all out."

"Well, that explains why I couldn't reach you to tell you I was going out of town.

"Yeah - I called you Tuesday morning and got your answering machine." Mulder looked at her curiously. "What took you to Atlantic City?"

Scully took her jacket off and slung it over the nearest chair, and picked up a sheet of paper. "Reports of a Neanderthal killing a father of three on the highway after his car broke down. Come on, I'll give you a hand here."

Mulder obediently opened the glass-fronted cupboard where his grandfather's prized Menorah was kept, but wasn't distracted. "A Neanderthal? Seriously?"

"The fabled Jersey Devil no less."

"And was it?"

"Hard to say. The local Ranger shot the first suspected culprit, but the body went missing before I could look at it. The second one was a woman, though, in her early thirties at most. Led us quite a chase, but the police finally shot her in the woods and when I examined the body, there was human bone in her digestive tract. An anthropologist at the Smithsonian is still trying to decide what exactly she was, but my guess is she was a normal modern human."

Mulder handed her a small pile of prayer books, his brow furrowed. "Any chance there were others?"

Scully hesitated. "Examination of the woman's uterus would seem to suggest she'd given birth at least once, but that's all I know. We searched those woods for hours and didn't see any sign of a lair at all. I've closed the file for now."

He nodded, giving her a small smile. "Good stuff, huh?"

She smiled back. "I wouldn't miss it for the world."

"So what's next on the agenda?"

"I don't know." Scully helped him wrap the Menorah carefully, and then they stored it next to the embroidered bag containing his grandfather's tallit. "That one came from Skinner, but he didn't hand me anything else when I gave him my report, so I guess I'll be looking through the files again on Monday."

"Got a few days off?" he asked a little wistfully.

"I could take a couple - why, you want help moving into your new place?"

"It'd be nice."

There was an awkward pause, then Scully said in a different, quieter voice: "So what really happened, Mulder?"

He shrugged, knowing what she was referring to but not wanting to go into it. The details of what had caused the rift between him and his mother were too difficult to discuss, at least at present. "Oh, stuff ... the usual, you know."

"Was it because of me?"

Mulder gave her a startled look, then laughed softly. "Scully, she only met you once, and that was business!"

"I know," Scully said steadily, watching his face, "but I'm not stupid, Mulder. I know she wasn't happy about us."

"It wasn't that. Well," he amended, recalling something his mother had said and wincing inwardly, "not only that. Mostly it was other stuff - stuff about Sam, stuff about me. The same kind of things we've been fighting about for years. Scully - Mom and me, we've never really had a lot to say to each other. I hardly ever saw her when I was a kid, and after ... after Samantha died, she spent most of her time in la-la land, thanks to the doctor giving her enough pills to keep a regiment quiet. It's just the way it is with us." He gave her a searching look. "Look, you mustn't think all of this is because of you. Maybe my seeing you didn't help, but it was waiting to happen right from when I first moved in with her."

Scully tried to smile but still looked a little depressed. "All the same, Mulder - "

"No, seriously - don't start imagining it's some kind of Greek tragedy! I'd have had to move out sooner or later, it's just happened a little more abruptly than I expected. We ... had a row about Sam. There's been friction about him for some time, and I honestly think it's better we move away from her now, before he gets old enough for it to be a major trauma for him." Mulder brought out a beautifully engraved Passover seder plate and gave that to Scully to wrap. She was neater with the piles of tissue and newspaper than he was.

They continued packing in companionable silence. After a while, Scully screwed up the courage to ask a question, which had been bugging her for a long time. "Mulder, where's your father these days?"

"Martha's Vineyard," he answered shortly. "We had a house there."

"What did he do? For a living, I mean."

"Worked for the State Department - I don't know exactly what he did there." Mulder forced himself to try and loosen up over the questions. It was perfectly natural for Scully to ask, after all, but somehow it would have been easier to talk about his ex-wife. "We didn't see him a lot, and when we did see him, he always had other men with him, people he worked with. It used to bug Mom a lot, especially when they turned up at the summerhouse during vacations. He drank a lot even then, and they'd have business - he didn't have much time for Samantha and me. Then when Samantha got killed, Mom packed up and we went to live with my grandparents and Aunt Esther."

"What - you lived here?" Scully looked around her.

"Yeah. This house belonged to Mom's parents.

We lived here for a while after the divorce. My other grandparents lived in Chilmark and I can't recall ever meeting them."

Scully debated how to put the next question. "You told me once that your father's given name was William."

Mulder looked up in surprise at the apparent non sequitur. "Yes?"

She smiled. "I've been curious about how you came to have his name. I mean, you're Jewish and if I remember my lessons at school, it's against custom to give a child the name of a living relative."

Mulder smiled. "It is, but I'm only half Jewish. Dad was a lapsed Presbyterian or something like that .... Actually, I don't know how my mom came to marry him, because my grandparents were fairly strict and traditional - not Orthodox, but going that way. No way did they approve of him ...." He paused, his expression turning inwards for a moment. "Thinking back, I think there were a lot of fights when I was small, especially about how Sam and I were brought up. I wasn't circumcised until I was seven or eight, and I don't think Dad was present even then. But Mom wanted it, because she didn't want to completely lose contact with her family. Must have been one of the few times she ever stood up to him," he mused. "Most of the time he got his way, and he never let her forget that *he* wasn't Jewish and he didn't want to know about that side of our heritage."

Scully looked at him, fascinated. "Why didn't your mother make a fuss? I thought she was very devout."

"She is - now. She only really started getting that way after Samantha was born, though, and after Sam died and she had all the fuss of the divorce straight after, I guess it was something for her to hang onto. Up until then, she only kept the traditions to please Grandpa."

Mulder went back to his excavation of the cupboards, a little uncomfortable with the memories this was stirring up. This conversation with Scully reminded him of the ruthless questioning he'd put his maternal grandfather through after he'd finally been circumcised and introduced to the synagogue. It had all been fascinating to him back then, and a welcome distraction from the discord at home. They'd stayed here in this house, he and Samantha, for a period of nearly six months at one point. He remembered the way his grandmother had clung to him and how his grandfather tried not to weep when they had to go home to Chilmark again.

He hadn't really understood why at the time - too many nuances of his parents' relationship were beyond a child's understanding and didn't make sense until he was in his teens, after his grandfather had successfully sued for custody of him.


He started, and turned to see Scully staring at him anxiously. He managed a smile. "Sorry. Just remembering something ...."

"Bad?" she asked softly.

Mulder waggled one hand in the air. "So-so. There's some stuff from back when I was a kid that's ... kind of uncomfortable, Scully. After the divorce ... well. My dad was a drunk, my mom was spaced out for most of the time, and her parents were old. So I guess I got out of hand for a while. I ended up living here until I went to college."

Scully studied the look on his face and decided that the subject should be dropped for now, fascinating as it was to her. "That's where you met Phoebe, isn't it?" she smiled.

"Yeah. She had dual nationality - her father was a British diplomat but her mother was a US citizen and Phoebe was born here. Hence her coming to live here in the end and joining the Bureau." He put a couple of books in the crate, and gave her a quizzical look. "Scully, all this is old history. It's kind of late to be vetting me, isn't it?"

She chuckled. "I'm not trying to check your pedigree, Mulder, I'm just curious. I don't know so much about you really."

"Hm - I could say the same thing."

Scully had been waiting for an opportunity like this. "Well there's a remedy for that. Both my brothers are home for Christmas, so the whole family's together. Come and meet them."


She looked up and saw a look of concern on his face. "What?"

"Scully, does your family know you're seeing me?" he asked uneasily.

"My family - no. My parents, yes. They'd like to meet you, and Sam."

He ran a hand over his hair and tried to think of an inoffensive way to phrase the next question. There wasn't one. "Do they - do they know I'm Jewish?"

That got him the raised eyebrow. "Yes. Why?"

"How do they feel about that? I mean, I know you're Catholic and - "

"Mulder," she interrupted firmly, "it's not an issue."

His mouth opened and shut again as he tried to think of a way to express what he was thinking, but nothing suggested itself. Scully watched his expression with a rather sinking feeling, and decided finally to put him out of his misery.

"It's okay," she told him as lightly as she could. "You don't have to come if you don't want to. It was just a suggestion."

Despite her best efforts, the disappointment showed through and Mulder instantly felt like the world's worst heel. "It's not that," he said uncomfortably. "It's just that - I don't want ..."


"I don't know." Mulder sat down on the edge of the packing crate heavily. He risked a look at her face, and decided to be blunt. "Look, Dana, don't take this the wrong way, but I've got a gut feeling your father won't like me. And if that's the case, Christmas is the wrong time for me to be introduced to him - I don't want to upset him on a day when you should all be having a good time together."

There was a pause, then Scully perched herself on a corner of the crate next to him. "You think he won't like you because you're Jewish?"

Well at least she didn't sound insulted. "No. I think there are other reasons he won't like me, and that will just make things worse."

"What other reasons?"

Mulder had to smile slightly. "From things you've said to me, I've come to the conclusion that your father and I have radically different world-views."

Scully's brow furrowed. "That wouldn't annoy him, Mulder. What *might* annoy him was if you didn't stand up to him for what you believed in. He might think you're a crank for believing in aliens, but he wouldn't hold it against you. Being Jewish won't come into it. Besides ...." A smile suddenly threatened. "My sister Melissa abandoned the Catholic Church years ago and took up New Age philosophies. After spending Christmas Day with her and her Wiccan boyfriend, Chris, trust me - Dad will be welcoming you into the family with open arms."

Mulder let out a tiny snort of laughter and Scully's smile widened, at least partly with relief that the intense atmosphere was lightening.

"Anyway, as for people getting upset - that's a family Christmas for you. There's a whole pile of relatives coming, and half of them can't be in a room together without tearing each others' eyes out, so I don't know what you're worrying about."

"Are you trying to break it to me that you have family like mine after all?"

"Mulder, I hate to break your bubble, but everyone has *some* family like yours. You just ...."

He raised a brow at her. "I just have more so?"

She gave him a devilish smile. "I could say that about a number of things."

Mulder gave her a look of mock horror. "Agent Scully! Not in front of the children!"

Scully looked around and found Sam regarding her soulfully from the doorway. "Hey, Sam! Would you like to come have tea with me and my Mom and Dad on Christmas Day?"

The little boy's eyes brightened immediately. "Yeah!"

"That's a low down trick," Mulder stated indignantly, but Scully only laughed.

The move itself provided more excitement than Mulder felt he really needed in his life, with Sam racing around excitedly for most of the day and all sorts of confusion occurring over which crates went where.

Perhaps it was just as well that in the event, Scully was unable to help out; she was called away on a case at the last minute, but Mulder had to admit that he was grateful for her sake. His temper was a little short, which would have been unfair on her.

It took a couple of weeks to get fully settled in, and by that time it was getting perilously close to Christmas. Mulder viewed the coming seasonal festivities with some trepidation; during his early childhood, the period around Chanukah and Christmas had been an odd one, where his family had enjoyed a curious mixture of both festivals without actually supporting the religious aspects of either. They had had a Christmas tree and decorations; given and received eight gifts; brought the Menorah out, but not used it. Later, his mother had slowly begun reintroducing the Jewish celebrations, until he eventually reached adulthood and left home. Left to himself, Mulder would never have bothered with either festival, especially during his short-lived marriage and just after. He was himself agnostic at best; Phoebe, although also Jewish by birth, was equally uninterested in religion. But the advent of Sam and moving back to live with his mother had brought Mulder back into contact with the religion his grandparents had tried so hard to instill in him.

The question of exactly how to handle Chanukah was fortunately taken out of Mulder's hands. He had been concerned for Sam's sake, for his mother had been assiduous in introducing the child into the Jewish faith properly, and he was reluctant to change that. On the other hand, he did wonder how he was going to manage to raise Sam properly when he wasn't really a believer himself. However, Chanukah would be spent with his cousin Annie and her family, which solved at least part of that problem.

Christmas had also been taken care of, thanks to Scully. But that raised the problem of a Christmas present for her. And that meant a trip to the mall.

Actually, it wasn't as bad as Mulder feared, although the mall was very crowded, especially since it was a Saturday. Wiser to Sam's tricks than Annie, he had the little boy on a set of reins which prevented him wandering more than a few steps away, and he was careful to steer a wide berth around any potential problem areas - such as large toy shops with enticing displays. Aside from Sam's probable reaction, Mulder knew himself too well to suppose that he would be able to resist anything particularly neat.

Only one minor hiccup occurred in this area. Mulder was debating over a display of lockets in a jewelry shop, when a small hand tugged on his jeans, demanding attention.

"Daddy, look at the tree!"

The mall boasted a considerable number of very large, very brightly decorated Christmas trees, most of which they had already passed, but given how small Sam was next to most of them, Mulder supposed it wasn't unreasonable of the boy not to have taken a lot of notice yet. He turned to look through the floor-to-ceiling shop window, preparing to admire the lights and tinsel dutifully, and clapped eyes on a whole display of artificial monstrosities out in the aisle. It was clear why these had caught Sam's eye, though - for one thing, they were about his height, and for another, several of them were musical; the electronic jangling could be heard over the general hubbub outside.

Mulder wondered how he'd missed hearing the 'music', even as he winced at the flashing lights and glitter. No one could call him a man of great taste, and being color-blind didn't help, but even he recoiled from these festive abominations.

Sam, with a true child's taste, was gazing at them raptly, utterly enchanted.

"No, Sam, we're not having a tree," Mulder told him firmly, and repressed a shudder.

The small face tipped back to look up at him. "Please, Daddy?"

"No, Sam."

Sam's face dropped. "Why?"

*Rats,* Mulder thought ruefully, wavering. *The one question which is nearly impossible to answer!* "Because they're horrible," he said finally, aware even as he said it that it was a losing argument. Sam would not understand the distinction at his age.

The little boy's lip began to wobble. "Please, Daddy? Please?"

Mulder sighed, knowing he was doomed. He rapidly debated the question in his mind, wondering if this was a precedent he could afford to make. It was a *Christmas* tree, after all. On the other hand, the tree wasn't really a Christian thing - it was one of the many pagan additions to a celebration which was questionable as a religious event in any case, date-wise. And it was such a small thing, really, something that would make the boy happy. They could decorate it together .... "All right," he conceded finally. "But just a *small* one, Sam, okay?"

That matter settled, the tree was subsequently purchased and arrangements made for it to be delivered, and they continued on their way.

In the end, they wandered the mall for nearly two hours. They had lunch - which went off, amazingly, with none of the mishaps generally associated with Sam during meals - and he considered the problem of gifts soberly. The trouble was that he wasn't really familiar enough yet with Scully's tastes to know what she might appreciate. He had to be careful, because much as he might like to give her something very personal, he had a feeling she might not appreciate it - at least not in front of her family.


They set off again, Mulder carrying Sam now, as the child was tiring out. They passed a branch of Victoria's Secret (Mulder pausing to look wistfully through the window at some silk items, which he thought would look particularly, attractive on a certain redhead of his acquaintance) and carried on. Nothing inspired him. Finally, aware that the time was running on and he had grocery shopping to do, he headed for the exit.

Which was when he came across one rather modest establishment selling rare books.


Scully presented herself at Mulder's new address three days later, tired and in a state of mild but restless depression. The case she had been called away on had been, in her opinion, something of a red herring and was inconclusive in any event. She felt a low-level irritation and unease in the pit of her stomach, and was desperately hoping that spending an evening with Mulder and Sam would take her mind off it.

She was in luck. When Mulder opened the door, she was amused to see that he was liberally splashed with water and soapsuds, and had splotches of dried poster paint here and there on his shirt and jeans.

"Do I need to ask what you're doing?" she laughed, as he closed the door behind her and took her coat.

"We can do better than that - come and join in," he grinned. He raised his voice slightly. "Sam! Look who's here."

Accepting her cue - and her fate - Scully did the same. "Hi Sam!"

Happy shrieks and the sound of water splashing. "DAY!"

"Coffee?" Mulder smiled, raising his brows.

"Sure," she smiled, and followed the sound of Sam singing through to the bathroom, while Mulder ducked into the kitchen. The apartment was very Mulder, she decided, taking a quick peep into each room on her way. Quite plain and simple; none of the fussier, more feminine-style textiles, which was probably wise. Fancy rugs and cushions don't last long around boisterous little boys.

Sam was sitting in the bath, splashing the water happily and pushing a couple of small plastic boats around amid the bubbles. He let out a shout of excitement when he saw Scully and stood up, stretching his chubby arms out to her.

For a moment, Scully had to swallow an unexpected lump in her throat at such a simple but warming gesture. It was just the lift her spirits needed. She dropped to her knees beside the tub and gathered him up for a hug, uncaring of getting her clothes wet.

"Hi Day," Sam said in her left ear, and planted a sloppy kiss on it for good measure.

"Hi sweetie." Scully sat back on her heels, and managed a reasonably normal laugh. "Sam, you're all wet! What have you and Daddy been doing today?"

"Painting!" Sam sat down in the water again and found one of his boats. "Look!"

"Oh, that's a nice blue boat - "

"Coffee," Mulder's voice said in her ear, and his hand appeared over her shoulder holding a mug.

"My hero!" she told him fervently.

Mulder perched on the edge of the bathtub. "So, what do you think so far?" he asked, making a sweeping gesture to the apartment at large.

Scully smiled. "I only got a quick look, but it looks great," she told him. "I'm sorry I wasn't here to help - "

"That's okay, don't worry. I was like a bear that day anyway." Mulder took a sip of his coffee, studying her face thoughtfully. "So what happened?"

Scully's smile abruptly vanished, to be replaced by the slightly pinched, anxious look he'd caught on her as he opened the door. She shrugged. "I got pulled away on a wild goose chase."

"Some goose chase to take you to New York for nearly three weeks. Not an x-file, I take it?"

She shook her head quickly. "Nope. I was called in, supposedly to take a look over the ME's findings in four homicides. Skinner finally pulled me back yesterday, since the case was going nowhere and my input wasn't really required."

Mulder was at a loss to account for her unease. "Was it bad?" he ventured, careful not to ask for specifics in front of Sam.

"No - no, it wasn't that."

"So what's the problem, Scully?"

"It's just - " She broke off and sighed. "It's just that I never needed to be there in the first place. The stuff about the autopsies was a ruse to get me there."

His brows shot up in surprise. "By who?"

She looked down at her hands for a moment, then up at Mulder reluctantly. "Jack." At his blank look, she elaborated. "Jack Willis."

"Why didn't you tell me he was harassing you?" Mulder asked curtly as he slapped pans around in the kitchen.

"Because I knew you'd react like this," Scully muttered. She dropped wearily into a chair by the kitchen table and watched as he yanked jars and packets out of different cupboards and slopped water around. Sam had been put to bed nearly half an hour before, after which Mulder had demanded a full explanation. His reaction to her reply had been predictable. "Look, Mulder - what was the point? He was just doing the usual Jack stuff. He's been bugging me with phone calls and so on since we split up. You already knew that."

Mulder bit back a sharp retort. He stared down at the packet of pasta quills in his hands for a moment, and struggled to get a grip on his temper. "Hasn't it occurred to you yet that there's something not right about a guy who can bug you with phone messages three days out of every seven for a year or more?" he asked as mildly as possible.

"Mulder - "

"No, Scully! This is *harassment*. There are laws against it. What if it doesn't stop at phone calls?"

"Oh, don't be ridiculous!" she snapped back. "You said it yourself - he's stuck to messages for two and a half years. Why should he change now?"

Mulder turned to stare at her in disbelief. "So that makes it okay with you?"

Scully closed her eyes briefly. "No, of course it doesn't, but -"

"No 'buts'. And in case you hadn't noticed, he just started to escalate his behavior. He cooked up a half-baked case to drag you out to New York!" He flung the bag of pasta down on the counter with suppressed violence and turned to face her fully, leaning back against the edge of the sink, gripping it tightly. "So tell me - was it just business as usual, agent to agent, while you were there, or did he pull the "let's discuss this over dinner" routine?"

"I'm not listening to this." Scully got to her feet and stalked through to the living room, snatching up her coat and bag angrily.

Mulder never moved, watching her grimly. "Fine, go," he called, as she made her way to the door, "but do me one favor, Scully. You think about this carefully. You think about his behavior while you were in New York and ask yourself if it was really professional, and nothing else."

Scully paused and turned back. Then she walked back into the kitchen, her face rigid, and put her bag and coat down on the table. "What do you want me to say?" she demanded. "Yes - he took me out to dinner every night? Do you want me to tell you he was knocking on my hotel room door after I'd gone to bed?"

"That depends on what kind of answer you're expecting from me, doesn't it?" Mulder said quietly. "What do you think I'm saying this for - because I'm jealous?"

"Isn't that it? Because it sounds like you don't trust me to have behaved myself while I was gone, Mulder."

"If that's what you really think, then there's no point in us continuing this conversation," he told her, suddenly a little pale.

There was a tense silence. Then Scully's shoulders slumped a little. "I don't think you're jealous," she admitted, "but I do think you're over-protective."

"If it's over-protective to worry, because a guy who can't let go of you has suddenly started blurring the boundaries between your personal and professional lives, then I'm over-protective," Mulder said steadily. "And I refuse to be ashamed of that."

"Oh, Mulder ..." she sighed. "Jack's no threat to me. He's just ... sad, I guess.

It's pathetic and irritating that he won't let go, and I know his behavior over the case was unprofessional, but I won't drag his name through the mud at the Bureau unless I'm forced to. For one thing, I'm damned if I'm going to remind everyone of all that mess between us, just as I'm finally starting to scrape together some professional respect again. And for another, it would look petty and vindictive."

Mulder bit back a tart retort and reminded himself that he didn't want to fight with her. Her expression was tight with weariness and tension; pushing the issue would just create a rift between them. "Okay. I'll drop it - for now. But Scully, for Christ's sake keep an eye on him. Don't let it get any further out of hand than this."

"It won't," she told him, and slowly sat down again. "Let's change the subject a little."

"Okay." Mulder went back to his pans and began sorting out the pasta again, this time a little more calmly. "What do you want to talk about?"

"Actually, I wanted to ask you a favor."

He glanced over his shoulder at her, raising one brow slightly. "Oh yeah? And what would that be?"

"Will you be my escort to the FBI Christmas ball?"

There was a sharp yelp of pain as Mulder nearly scalded himself in the pan of boiling water. "Ow! - What?!"

Scully smiled tiredly. She had expected a reaction of this sort. "You heard me. I want you to strap yourself into a tux and trip the light fantastic with me at the Watergate Hotel on December 18th. I need an escort, and so far Jack has been the only contender."

Mulder gave her a look of profound unease. "What about Jerry?"

"He's not going - he's pleading a prior engagement, and given his behavior when we picked up a car a couple of weeks ago from the motor pool, I'd guess it has something to do with one of the mechanics."

Mulder rolled his eyes. "Great. Tell me, does that mean he's going after all?"

Scully laughed in spite of herself. "I hope he does! It should makes things a little more interesting ....

Look, Mulder, if you really don't want to - "

"It's not that, Scully." He paused, trying to find the right words. "Are you sure you really want the kind of excitement my appearance is likely to cause?"

"Flattering yourself, aren't you?" she smiled.

"Not particularly. There's going to be a hell of a lot of brass there, and some of them aren't exactly fond of me. Totally aside from all the 'friends' I made during my time."

"Well, I'm not exactly popular myself these days. I don't want to go with Jack, Mulder, and I don't want to go on my own. And it's been hinted to me that it might be a good idea for me to attend. So ...."


In spite of everything, Scully's eyes widened a little. "Okay? You mean you will?"

He threw her a tiny grin over his shoulder, and rolled his eyes, sighing exaggeratedly. "If I must ...."

"Thank you," she said, relieved. "You have no idea what a weight that is off my mind."

"You're welcome." Mulder tipped the pasta into the water and found another pan for the carbonara sauce. "You've reminded me; there's been something I've been meaning to talk to you about, Scully."

"Hmm? What's that?"

He glanced over his shoulder at her. "That particular week is also Chanukah."

"Oh! I didn't realize it fell so close to Christmas this year."

"Yeah, it's on time for once." Mulder saw her bemused expression and smiled. "Sorry - joke. Jewish holidays are never on time. Anyway, Sam and I will be staying with Annie's family on the Friday and Saturday, which is when the family all get together." He paused, lighting the gas under the second pan, then turned to face her fully. He looked uncomfortable. "Annie wanted to invite you as well."

"That's kind of her," Scully said, not sure what answer he was looking for.

"I've said no."


"It's not because I don't want you there," Mulder said quickly, "because I do. But my mother's going to be there, and I don't think it would be a good idea .... "

Scully gave him a wry smile. "Mulder, it's okay, I understand!"

"And in any case, I had a better idea," he continued doggedly. "Sam and I were going to set up the Menorah anyway, and I'm going to give him his presents here, so I thought one evening you might like to come over when we light the candles."

"I'd love to," she smiled.

It was his turn to look a little wry. "You can listen to me making a complete mull of the prayers."

"How long is it since you last did anything like this?" she asked, amused at his pensive expression.

"Oh, I go to Annie's or Max's house almost every year for Chanukah, but I don't think I've actually gone through the service myself, out loud, since ...." He paused, considering. "Probably since the year I got married. And I'm not sure why I bothered then, since you-know-who had other places she wanted to be during Chanukah."

His tone was calm and off-hand, but Scully instinctively knew that it would be better not to touch on this subject any further, so she changed it. "Aside from eight presents, is there anything else I should bring?"

"Well, it's a party, so if you feel you want to cook .... Latkes are traditional."

She rolled her eyes. "I'll have to ask my mother about that - I'm sure she knows how to make them!"

Mulder grinned. "I was kidding! You can get the Gelt - the chocolate coins - if you like. And I wouldn't go overboard on eight presents, Scully - we only open one each night, so one would be enough. Sam's going to be spoiled enough when we go to Annie's. He's the youngest kid in the family, so everyone goes mad buying him stuff."

Scully gave this some consideration for a few minutes, then smiled. "Okay ..."

Scully drummed her fingers nervously and looked up at the office clock.

4:30. Late enough.

She jumped up and locked the office door, then plunged under her desk and pulled out the huge plastic garment bag she'd hidden under there after a lightning spree at lunch-time. She had just kicked off her shoes and was unzipping the bag, when there was a knock on the door.

Scully swore softly, draped the bag carefully over her chair and spun it around so that the back was facing the door. Then she unlocked it and opened up a crack.

Peering back at her were the wide eyes of Agent Pendrell, a goofy but endearing denizen of the Crime Sciences team. He had a rather obvious crush on her, which Scully tried hard not to encourage while being reluctant to tread on his feelings in a way he would notice. He hadn't actually made a move on her yet, but one look at his face told her he had suddenly gathered his courage.

She hoped she was wrong.

"Er - Agent Scully?"

Scully pinned a neutral smile on her face. "Hi, Pendrell - can I help you?"

"I was wondering ...." He hesitated, and to her quickly suppressed amusement, he actually shuffled his feet slightly.

"I was wondering if you had a date for tonight?" he blurted out in a rush.

*Rats.* On the other hand, she couldn't help but feel sorry for him - the poor man's face was almost as red as his hair, and that was saying something. He had hair redder than hers.

Scully hoped her tone was light an inoffensive. "Oh Pendrell - ! That's really kind of you, but I do have a date.

It's sweet of you to offer though."

"Oh." He looked crestfallen, compelling Scully to say apologetically that she was sorry.

"You will be going, though, won't you?" she added hurriedly. "Save one dance for me."

*I must be nuts,* she told herself as she closed the door on his ecstatic smile. Then she quickly locked the door again and hurried back to her garment bag.

The telephone rang. Scully swore again roundly and seized the receiver. "Scully," she barked, in her best imitation of AD Skinner.

There was a startled pause, and then Mulder chuckled into her ear. "*Major* Scully," he corrected, and she sighed, relaxing.

"Oh, it's you. "

"Hard day, sweetness?"

"It wouldn't be nearly so bad if people would go away and leave me alone for half an hour," she retorted blandly. 'Sweetness' indeed!

"Ouch! I can take a hint. There's just one problem, though, and I'll leave you alone."

"My nerves won't take a problem right now," she grumbled. "I'm fending off rejected dates left, right and center here, Mulder! Where were they all last week, when I didn't *have* a date?"

"Hush! A lady doesn't brag about her conquests," he admonished, stifling a laugh. "Seriously, Scully, I've got a problem. Annie can't look after Sam tonight. Do you know any handy - and trustworthy - babysitters who can take him at a couple of hours' notice?"

Scully paused, considering. "Give me twenty minutes. I think I know someone who'll look after him for us."

"I'm on the move. Call me back on my cell phone."

"It had better be switched on, Mulder, or I swear I'll kneecap you! I *know* you and your cell phone."

He rang off with a laugh, and she reluctantly smiled as she pressed the cut-off. Then she dialed her mother's number.

"Hi, Mom? It's me .... Dana. Yes. Look, Mom, could you do me an enormous favor ....?"

Ten minutes later, Scully put the phone down with a smile. Then she glanced up at the clock again and swore for the third time in half an hour. She seized the garment bag again and all but tore the zip fastener open, fumbling the contents out with nervous fingers and holding it up against herself.

The sleek black velvet draped to her ankles, and Scully wondered briefly if she'd made a big mistake. Only one way to find out. Wondering absently if there were any new cameras hidden in the office since she checked two days ago, she quickly stripped off her suit and blouse, and wriggled into the dress.

There was another knock at the door.

"Oh, get real!" she exclaimed, annoyed. "Who is it?"

"Jerry," a rather bemused voice said from the other side. "Why's the door locked?"

Scully flipped the lock over and jerked the door open, exasperated. "Why do you think?"

He raised a brow at her attire. "Nice frock."

"Well? Now that you're here, you can zip me up."

He performed this service, still a little perplexed. "Isn't it a little early to be getting changed?"

"I wanted to make sure I hadn't made a really crucifying mistake," she admitted, and turned around to face him. "I forgot there isn't a full length mirror here. What do you think?"

He studied the dress thoughtfully. "Nice."

Scully's brow furrowed. "Nice? That's it?"

"Well, it depends who you're trying to impress, doesn't it?"

"No comment," she sighed. "Can you hop outside for a minute while I take it off again?"

"It's okay, I only came to pick up that CD ROM Wilcox lent me the other day." Jerry picked up the case from the spare desk he used when he was working with Scully, and gave her a thoughtful look. "Is Mulder going with you?" he asked abruptly.

"It was him or Jack Willis," she told him frankly, "or Agent Pendrell."

Jerry snorted. "As if Lab-boy would ever get up the courage to ask you!"

"He did, half an hour ago." Scully began to straighten out the garment bag. "So, are you going?"

"I wasn't, but if Mulder's going to be there maybe I'll go anyway, just to see the fun."

Scully eyed him suspiciously. "Meaning?"

Jerry grinned at her. "I wouldn't dream of spoiling the surprise."

By seven-thirty, Scully began to feel like she was setting out on a second prom, although without all the careful preparations and success of the first one. Last minute delays at work had made her late leaving; then she'd had a sudden crisis of confidence in the shoes she'd selected, which meant she was also late leaving to go to her parents' house. And once she got there, she discovered she'd left her jewelry box at home. It was enough to make her want to scream, only she didn't have the time to waste.

Under the laughing eyes of her sister Melissa, who was still staying with their parents, Scully fought flyaway hair and a satin slip that was charged with enough static to light up Manhattan. It took their combined efforts to persuade the latter to stay in place while she slid into the black velvet dress, but once it was zipped up and draping as it should, Scully felt calmer and more confident.

It wasn't exactly an original style, but it was a classic. The skirt was long and narrow, with a back slit to the knee; the waist was slightly higher than usual, and the bodice, low enough to reveal a modest amount of cleavage, was cut straight across the bosom. It was sleeveless and had broad shoulder straps that crisscrossed at the rear to midway down her back. Revealing enough, but not too revealing.

"You look good," Melissa approved, after some consideration.

It was hardly an ecstatic response, but given the gulf between their tastes, Scully was relieved. "It's not a mistake, is it?" she asked, turning from one side to the other as she frowned at herself in her mother's full-length mirror. "I bought it in a rush."

"Don't be silly. Black always looks good on you - I can't imagine why, because it makes *me* look like a nun. It's hardly a thunderclap of daring, though, Dana - you might just as well be wearing a sign saying "FBI Official Function" on your back and be done with it."

"Thanks a bunch," Scully sighed. "Why don't you just come straight out with it? You think it's boring, don't you?"

"Well .... " Melissa tilted her head to one side. "What about him? Wouldn't he prefer to see you in something a little more ... adventurous?"

Scully glared at her sister as she picked up her hairbrush for another assault on the auburn tangle roughly pinned in the nape of her neck. "He has a name, Missy. And for your information, he'd probably be happy to see me wearing cling film." She seized a tortoiseshell comb and tried to put her hair up into a respectable pleat once more.

Melissa stifled a giggle, and snatched the comb out of her sister's fingers. "Here - sit down, and I'll do that." She tossed the comb on the dressing table. "Pass me some pins, and we'll see if we can't make your hair look something, if nothing else."

"I can't believe I forgot my earrings," Scully grumbled as she sat down. "I could get away with just my cross, but without earrings - "

"You can borrow a pair of mine."

"Missy - "

"Relax. They're a pair of Grandma Scully's Mom gave me a couple of years ago; gold half-hoops. I never wear them anyway, they don't suit me."

"Thank you," her sister sighed gratefully.

Mulder arrived nearly fifteen minutes later, having had nearly as exasperating a day as she had. He mentally cursed the inventor of the tuxedo, even as he unobtrusively eased his bow tie with one finger, and eyed Sam in the rear-view mirror with misgiving. Cherubic hazel eyes peeped at him innocently from the back seat, disguising the little monster's true demonic nature, and Mulder wondered if it was fair to hand his son over to Mrs. Scully for an evening, since he was fairly certain he would never be welcome in this neighborhood again after tonight.

The words "rock" and "hard place" came to mind. With a sigh, he heaved himself out of the driver's seat and opened the rear passenger door.

"You behave, Sam, do you hear me?" he admonished the little boy as he unstrapped him. "You be nice to Dana's mom, or there'll be trouble when we get home."

Sam wasn't impressed. "Where you goin', Daddy?"

"I'm taking Dana to a party," Mulder sighed. He grabbed the bag of items necessary whenever Sam stayed with a babysitter.

"Wan' to come *too*."

*Here we go,* his father thought grimly. "You can't, kiddo - it's a grown-up party with lots of boring people. You wouldn't enjoy it." *Neither will I, come to that.*

"Yes, I would! I would too!"

"You'll enjoy it with Dana's mom much more," Mulder said persuasively. Sam gave him a skeptical look that was so bizarrely like Scully's that he had to grin. "Come on, Sam, please? We'll be back later, I promise."

Sam shut up, but his lower lip protruded in an ominous way and when his father held the door open for him to jump out, he held his arms out to be picked up instead. Mulder tried to view this as positive, however, praying it was a sign that his son was too tired to make much of a fuss.

*Fat chance,* a traitorous voice whispered in the back of his mind. He scooped the boy up and slammed the car door shut.

*Nice house,* he thought, as he trudged up to the door. He glance d over the white painted brickwork and little portico with roses growing around it, and could almost hear his mother sniffing dismissively. What the hell, though! It looked downright homey to Mulder, with lights shining invitingly from nearly all the front windows, and when he considered the number of times he had arrived home in the past to find his house in darkness, cold and uninviting ....

He wondered what Scully's parents were like and felt a twinge of apprehension as he mounted the steps and tapped on the glowing brass knocker. The sight of that made him smile nostalgically, as he remembered visiting the houses of friends while he was at college in England.

Consequently, when Margaret Scully opened the door she was treated to a sight of Mulder at his best, dressed up with unusual care, holding his son on one arm and smiling a little shyly at her.

Not that she was ever fooled by appearances, but she was still a sucker for a good-looking family man.

A broad smile threatened as she took in the pair of them. "Let me guess," she teased gently, "you're here to try and sell me a set of encyclopedias."

Mulder's nervous smile turned into a grin. "Got 'em out in the trunk, Ma'am, if you'll give me five minutes of your time!" She laughed softly. "Fox and Sam?" "Mulder - it's just Mulder," he said quickly, "and *he's* Samuel today because he's been driving me nuts ...."

"Oh, I don't believe that!" Mrs. Scully smiled encouragingly at Sam, who was eyeing her dubiously, and stood back so that they could come inside. "I'm Maggie Scully, by the way. Dana's still upstairs getting dressed, but she won't be long."

Mulder quickly put Sam's bag down and shook her hand. "Nice to meet you, ma'am. Look, are you sure you don't mind keeping an eye on him? He's being really wild today."

"Not at all, I've been looking forward to it," she assured him, and looked at Sam, who had pulled his head out of Mulder's shoulder and was peering around him. "Do you like cookies, my little man?" Sam's eyes lit up, and he nodded enthusiastically. Maggie gave Mulder a conspiratorial smile. "I thought you might. We'll go and have a look in my kitchen in a minute, and see what we can find in there. Come inside, Fox, and put him down - he must be heavy for you." "You get used to it," Mulder observed wryly, following her into a neat and inviting living room.

Five minutes later, when Melissa and Dana entered the room, they found Maggie showing Sam her ornaments in a sturdy cabinet. Mulder was watching with interest and a certain air of relief as his son behaved impeccably. How long it would last he didn't know, but it was a promising start.

Then he turned and saw Scully. His brows shot up and there was a pause.

"Well?" she demanded finally, unnerved by his gaze.

Mulder began to smile. "Very nice, Scully. *Very* nice."

She eyed him suspiciously for a moment, chewing this over, then a reluctant smile dawned. "Ditto, Mulder - though your tie looks like someone tied it with their teeth."

"Who the hell invented the bow tie anyway?" he said feelingly, running his finger around his collar again.

Scully slapped his hand away and tugged the knot undone. "Someone with more manual dexterity than you, obviously. Oh, this is my sister Melissa, by the way. Stand still."

Mulder gave Melissa an embarrassed grin, and tried to roll his eyes around far enough to see what Sam was up to without moving his head. Mrs. Scully was talking to the little boy in an undertone, and whatever she was saying was apparently agreeing with him because he was nodding vigorously.

"We might actually get out of here without a fight," Mulder observed softly to Scully.

She smiled, concentrating on the tie.

"There - I think that'll do. Where on earth did you get a bow tie with Marvin the Martian on, though?"

He grinned. "That's nothing - look at this!" He unbuttoned his jacket to display a matching cummerbund. Scully rolled her eyes.

"And I was worried people might notice my earrings were missing."

He gave her a blank look. "But you're wearing earrings."

"They're Missy's - I forgot my jewelry, because I left home in a hurry."

"Oh." For a moment he looked like he might say something else, but he obviously changed his mind. "Okay, we'd better get moving or we'll be late."

A small hand tugged on the skirt of Scully's dress and she looked down to find Sam giving her a solemn look. "I's comin' too," he told her firmly.

"Oh sweetie ...." Scully scooped him up, and grunted a little under his weight. "You *are* a big boy now, aren't you? I'm not going to be able to do this for much longer."

He wasn't diverted. "*Want* to come too," he stated, a quiver appearing in his lip as he looked from her to his father and back again.

"But I thought you were going stay and play with me?" Maggie reminded him. "It'll be so much more fun here," she added coaxingly.

"Our party's going to be so boring," Scully told him. "Just grown-up people talking. Not fun at all. You don't want to go to that, do you? Not really?"

He wasn't convinced, but allowed her to hand him over to Maggie and Melissa.

"We'll be home very soon," Mulder promised him. "You be a good boy for me, Sam, okay?" He ruffled his son's dark hair affectionately, and Scully leaned over to kiss him.

"Okay, guys, see you later," she said, straightening up.

Mrs. Scully smiled. "You look beautiful, honey. Have a good time."

Scully and Mulder gave her nearly identical harassed looks. "You've got to be kidding," the latter said wryly, making Melissa grin.

The initial stage of the journey, as Mulder maneuvered to join the beltway, was performed in relative silence. Scully nervously poked at the carefully arranged knot of curls on top of her head, and Mulder tried to keep his hands occupied on the steering wheel so that they wouldn't wander to his bow tie.

"Did you have problems with Sam tonight?" she asked finally.

Mulder's face flashed into a rueful grin. "Did I ever. I held off telling him I was going out because I knew he'd have a tantrum, but he drove me nearly crazy while I was getting dressed. He lost my watch and cufflinks, by the way. I found a spare pair of cufflinks, but try not to ask me the time because I'm wearing an old Mickey Mouse watch someone gave me for a joke a few years ago."

Scully let out a soft snuffle of laughter. "Oh my God! What a pair we are - you with a Mickey Mouse watch and me with no jewelry but a pair of borrowed earrings."

"That reminds me ...." Mulder suddenly pulled off the road and onto the hard shoulder.

"What are we stopping for?" she asked, surprised. "Mulder, we'll be late."

"Us, and the Director." He switched off the engine and leaned over to rummage in the glove compartment. After a moment he grunted with satisfaction and pulled out a small gilt plastic bag. "I bought you a present; let's just hope it matches your sister's earrings, for tonight at least."

"Mulder, you shouldn't have - "

He gave her a look that shut her up and brought an unexpected blush to her cheeks. Then he produced a small, delicately wrapped box, which he placed in her hands. "No fuss, Scully. Please accept it."

She played with the tiny little bow on it for a moment. "I should be giving *you* presents, for agreeing to come tonight," she smiled at him.

"You could always have gone with Agent Pendrell," he replied blandly.

Scully gave him a startled look. "How did you know Pendrell asked?"

Mulder gave her a noncommittal look. "I have my sources!"

She relaxed. "And are they still making use of the various devices planted weekly in my office?" she demanded, raising a brow.

He only grinned. "Just open the box, Scully."

She paused a moment longer, admiring the paper and narrow satin ribbons, before carefully easing the bow off the package and delicately picking the paper undone. It was a jewelry box the size of her palm and marked with the name of an unfamiliar shop. Then she opened the lid.

And drew a sharp breath. "Mulder ...."

It was a small, delicate, heart-shaped locket, flat and plain except for the tiniest filigree rose standing out from the surface in sharp relief. It was made of red gold and glowed in its dark nest of jewelers' padding.

"If you dare say anything about the expense ...." he threatened, only half-joking.

"I've got better manners than that," she managed, "but Mulder, you shouldn't have."

"Yes I should. Call it a Chanukah gift if you like .... Now, are you going to put it on?"

"Just try stopping me." Scully carefully unclipped her cross and curled it up in the lid of the box, then undid the clasp of the locket. "Can you give me a hand here?"

Mulder reached over and helped her put the locket on, fumbling with the tiny clasp awkwardly. "Is the chain the right length?"

"It's fine." Scully pulled the sunshield down to look at herself in the little mirror. The locket went nicely with the earrings, but it wouldn't have mattered if it hadn't; she would have worn it anyway. "Mulder, it's beautiful."

"Matches the wearer, then," he said casually, then saw her expression. He raised a brow. "Didn't I tell you? You look fantastic tonight."

Scully reflected, smiling, that Mulder was probably the only man who could make such a statement in such a tone and not only get away with it, but somehow make it seem more of a compliment than something more effusively expressed.

Mulder found himself surreptitiously wiping his palms against each other as Scully presented herself at the reception desk of the Watergate Hotel and got them checked against the guest list. At any other time he would have been interested in his surroundings - how could any conspiracy theorist *not* be? - but on this occasion, the butterflies in his stomach were overwhelming all other sensations.

Then Scully was returning to him, a rather lopsided smile on her lips. "Relax, Mulder! You look like you're waiting for a hidden sniper to take a pot-shot at you."

He snickered nervously. "What makes you think there *isn't* one?"

"Lighten up!" she admonished him, and took his arm. "Come on. Couple of hours, and we'll be out of here again."


"And don't mumble at me." She pointed down a corridor. "That one."

As only one door to the function room was open, Mulder managed to hang back enough to let her go first, but it was a pretty paltry delay and not nearly long enough for him to steel his nerves.

Then he was inside the door and face to face with -

- Bill Patterson.

It was true; there was *no* God.

Scully had never met Patterson, the fabled head of the Investigative Sciences Unit, but she knew him by reputation - as did all agents - and his handbook on serial killers and profiling (known to the irreverent as "The Thoughts of Chairman Bill") was standard reading at the Academy.

She had spent long enough in Jerry Castamir's company now to know that Mulder had once been tipped as Patterson's chosen successor. Rumor suggested that Mulder's abrupt and undignified departure from the ISU - first to the VCS, then the x-files, and finally from the Bureau entirely - had not only robbed Patterson of the one person who could have taken over from him, but also of the coveted title of Assistant Director. Consequently he'd been unable to leave the Unit.

Five minutes in his company served to convince Scully that rumor was way off the mark. Personally, she doubted very much whether Patterson would ever have been able to relinquish his hold over the ISU; he was a man who not only liked to be in charge, but also liked to personally supervise every detail. He would never have been able to tolerate anyone, even a trusted lieutenant, taking his place. He had made the ISU; it was his creation, his baby.

And for the same reason, he would never forgive Mulder for leaving. In his eyes, Mulder was also his creation - the bright boy he had mentored and who had raised the ISU's reputation above the crank status it had held for years in the FBI; his chosen right-hand man and hand-picked successor. Leaving would be an unforgivable act of ingratitude, which Patterson would take personally.

Consequently, their meeting here tonight was a disturbing experience.

Patterson's expression was inscrutable; he was a balding man in his late forties or early fifties, a couple of inches shorter than Mulder and reasonably fit for his age and position. He wore small round-lensed spectacles that hid his eyes under the glare of the artificial lighting, and it was hard to tell what precisely was going on in his head when he clapped eyes on the younger man. Mulder's own reaction was less opaque to Scully, however; he stiffened slightly, and a kind of impassive mask slid over his face. His eyes alone betrayed him; they were wary.

Then Patterson promptly betrayed himself by opening his mouth. "Well, look who's here!" he said, to a much younger male agent stood at his elbow. "If it isn't the boy-wonder himself!"

From the uncertain look on the agent's face - Scully rummaged in her memory and came up with the name Nemhauser, someone she had met once or twice at similar functions - he'd never met Mulder and consequently didn't have a clue what his boss was referring to. Nor did he apparently care; his eyes were riveted to Scully's bosom from the moment he saw her.

Then Patterson's voice turned unpleasant. "What the hell are you doing here, Mulder? Two years ago, you told me to my face that you hoped you never set eyes on anyone from the Bureau again!"

Scully winced, wondering if the man had been drinking too heavily already. It seemed likely. Things Mulder had told her in the past suggested that most of the profilers at the ISU hit the bottle at one time or another.

"How are you, Bill?" Mulder asked levelly.

Patterson didn't answer. His gaze shifted to Scully, and she instantly felt as though she was wearing a see-through dress. His eyes, suddenly visible through the thick lenses of his glasses, were like lasers.

"You must be Agent Scully," he commented, and his lip curled slightly.

She felt Mulder tense angrily, and pinched his arm hard. She was used to older male agents behaving something like this, although it was rare for someone in Patterson's position to be so blatantly offensive.

"That's right, Sir," she responded neutrally, and applied enough pressure to Mulder's arm to let him know that she wanted to move on.

Obedient to the signal, Mulder nodded to Nemhauser and made to move off, but Patterson hadn't quite finished with him yet.

"So, Mulder, when are you coming back?"

A rather bemused smile lit the younger man's face. "Bill, you know the answer to that."

He turned away, smiling faintly into Scully's concerned eyes.

Patterson's voice followed them as they eased their way through the crowd. "I know you, Mulder. You *will* come back."

"Yeah, me and King Arthur," Mulder muttered, and Scully squeezed his arm gently.

"Is he always like that?" she asked, in a low voice.

"No," he sighed, "he's usually worse."

"Come on, let's get a drink."

By dint of smiling and gently easing past people, they managed to make it to the bar at the back of the room, where they found Jerry making inroads into the punch. This was a rather disturbing sight for Scully; she hadn't thought her sometimes-partner was inclined to drink much, but apparently he was getting into the spirit of Christmas rather easily.

It was worrying for Mulder too; the Jerry he'd worked with almost never touched alcohol. They'd been alike in that regard. "Having a good time?" he asked him, raising a brow.

"Almost as good as you," Jerry retorted.

"That's debatable." Mulder eyed Jerry's companion, a younger man with the regulation haircut and overly clean appearance of someone not long out of the Academy. He was dark-haired and fresh-faced, and straightened up when Mulder and Scully approached, waiting to be introduced. Unlike Jerry, he wasn't trying to drink the bar dry, a point in his favor in Mulder's book. He sincerely hoped that if he *was* Jerry's companion for the evening, he was the one driving.

"I don't think we've met," Scully prompted gently, when it became evident Castamir wasn't going to introduce them.

The man glanced quickly at Jerry, smiled wryly and extended a hand to her. "Alex Krycek. You must be Agent Scully." Then he turned almost eagerly to Mulder.

"I don't need to ask who you are. Fox Mulder - I heard all about you at Quantico."

It was the wrong thing to say, although Krycek couldn't have known it. Mulder knew precisely what rumors had gone around the Academy about him, and he doubted very much that they'd improved in the two and a half years he'd been out of the Bureau. He wondered how the hell Jerry had picked up with this boy scout.

"Nothing good, I hope," he said flippantly.

Krycek grinned with unexpected humor. "So-so. You were still a role model for most of the guys when I was there."

"In that case, they're probably all in padded cells by now," Mulder observed dryly.

"Nah, they're all here, sucking up to Patterson," Jerry said maliciously.

"Jesus, Jerry!" Mulder leaned over between them and signaled the bartender. "What'll you have, Scully?"

"Something non-alcoholic. I don't think I want to get muddled in this crowd," she smiled.

"After the way that guy with Patterson was looking at you, I guess not."

"Nemhauser?" Jerry snorted. "He wouldn't have the spine!"

This was said a little too loudly, getting them sidelong looks from a handful of people nearby, and Mulder looked at his former partner measuringly. "Easy," he said, a gentle warning in his tone.

Jerry shrugged this off irritably, but shut up. Scully saw Krycek giving him a concerned and speculative look, and willed him to keep his own mouth shut. She had an uncomfortable feeling that her partner would create a scene if anyone tried to persuade him to stop drinking or go home.

This evening was turning into a nightmare rapidly; everywhere she turned it felt like there was another patch of quicksand waiting for her. Scully briefly wished she had never suggested this to Mulder; or that she'd had the presence of mind on the way here to suggest a detour to the nearest all-night diner. A greasy burger and fries in run-down surroundings would have been infinitely preferable to *this*.

Then Mulder turned back to her, offering her a long cool glass of fruit-juice, and gave her a quirky little grin. In spite of herself, she grinned back. Knowing him, he was probably waiting with joyful anticipation for a full-scale brawl to break out.

"Throw the first punch and you'll be in deep trouble," she told him, eyes sparkling, and Mulder laughed.

"Me? I'm a peaceful man - "

"Yes," a cool feminine voice interrupted. "That's what makes the chaos you create so astonishing."

Mulder's eyes widened, and a rather sickly smile appeared on his lips. Scully hid a smile behind her glass and turned to greet the woman who, until about eight months previously, had been her direct superior: Assistant Director Geraldine Hill, the AD in charge at Quantico.

If Bill Patterson *had* been thwarted in his ambition to become AD, this was the person who had done it. Although only Scully's height and build, Gerry Hill was a formidable personality; she was in her late forties, and had worked her way up through the ranks at the Bureau to become one of the first female SAC's, in charge of Forensics. Nowadays she shared command of the entire Quantico facility with the military authorities who ran the Academy, and Scully knew from personal experience that she ran it with a strong grip and an eagle eye. Her personal qualifications were similar to Scully's own, with the addition of about twenty years more experience.

Someone like Mulder wouldn't have fazed her in the slightest, for her inability to be caught by surprise was legendary. Scully watched, fascinated, as the woman fixed him with her razor-sharp gaze. Predictably, he lost several inches in height and a decade off his age almost at once.

*I hope I can do that when I'm her age," Scully thought admiringly. Even more amusing was the fact that Jerry had sobered up and made himself scarce, Krycek in tow, as soon as he could.

"So ...." AD Hill said musingly. "Fox Mulder." A small smile tugged at the corner of her lips, and she stretched out one hand. "How are you these days? How's the little boy ... Samuel, isn't it?"

Mulder managed to relax and produce the smile which he had used with such effect on Scully's mother less than an hour ago.

*Charmer,* Scully thought, amused, and turned to put her empty glass back on the bar. A hand touched her arm, and she turned to face her boss, AD Skinner. The brass were evidently turning out in force tonight.

"Good evening, Agent Scully; I'm glad you could make it," he said formally. His eyes slid over to where Mulder was standing, but he didn't seem surprised to see him. "While your ... escort is occupied, perhaps I could borrow you for a few minutes?"

Scully hesitated, and glanced over at Mulder; but he hadn't missed the exchange and gave her a tiny nod of encouragement. So she sighed inwardly, and allowed Skinner to sweep her away to meet some of the other major players in the Bureau hierarchy.

An hour and half later Scully found herself sitting in a corner, nibbling half-heartedly at a vegetarian selection from the buffet and listening while several other female agents around her gossiped with rather less restraint than usual - which was saying something. Truth be told, she was bored and beginning to think that she might like to go home. She had danced once with poor nervous Pendrell, who kept tripping over her feet; once, very formally, with Skinner; and twice with Mulder, but the rest of the evening seemed to have been spent moving from one group of people to another and listening until her ears ached to anything from horror stories of impending family Christmases, to the coming year's budget constraints on various departments. Her time spent with Mulder had been minimal, as they were each seized by old acquaintances and dragged away into the crowd.

At least listening to gossip didn't require brainpower and diplomacy, two things which she felt she was fast running out of. Scully fixed her eyes on Agent Henderson's face and tried to concentrate on what the woman was saying, rather than keeping a watchful eye on Mulder, where he stood half the room away and listened as a couple of older agents talked at him.

Henderson, a vivacious brunette wearing a red dress that left nothing to the imagination, had a rather poorly disguised personal interest in Mulder, and was trying to draw Scully out on the subject by giving her a detailed account of his personal life prior to leaving the Bureau.

"I'm surprised you never heard about it," she was saying, stirring her Martini gently with the cocktail olive. "But then, you were at Quantico, and I guess the rumor mill isn't so active out there. It was quite a big deal when they finally separated. I mean, *everyone* knew what she'd been up to, but nobody really thought he'd go ahead and leave her. He seemed like such a patsy where she was concerned."

Scully grimly suppressed her reaction to this artless assessment of Mulder's character, and forced a look of interest onto her face. Not that it mattered. Henderson didn't need active audience participation; just an audience.

Besides, Scully had to admit she wanted to hear this, avid and gossipy as the speaker was. She knew relatively little about his marriage, really.

"It was a really nice wedding," the other agent went on, judiciously. "Not huge or over the top, but nice. Three of the Assistant Directors went, including AD Hill and the guy before Skinner. Jewish, of course, and a really lovely traditional ceremony, which seemed a little strange at the time because no one could say Phoebe Green was religious. I didn't even know she *was* Jewish."

*Neither did I,* Scully thought, *but it explains a few things. And flippant though he is, I suspect there was a time when things like that meant a lot to Mulder - or else he wouldn't be so determined to raise Sam the Jewish way. I'm willing to bet Phoebe agreed to the wedding because it looked good for her to be married to the Bureau's top profiler.* This was a rather biased opinion, and she readily admitted as much to herself, but Scully was beginning to build a picture of Mulder's ex-wife, and it wasn't a pretty one by any means.

Henderson all but confirmed her suspicions with her next words. "The guys she had wrapped around her finger," she said, lowering her voice slightly. Her eyes sparkled with enjoyment as she related the story. "I heard she even had a try at Patterson himself! You know, career advancement. She was desperate to get into the ISU, you know."

Scully gave her an astonished and disbelieving look. "Seriously? Why the hell didn't he report her?"

"Oh!" The other woman shrugged. "You know Patterson."

"No, I don't. I met him for the first time tonight."

"He probably just blasted her out," Henderson said casually. "He hates women - I mean, how many female agents are there in the ISU?"

Scully already knew the answer to that one; none. There was only ever a dozen profilers in the ISU at any one time, as it was.

"Patterson believes women have one use, and trust me - being a functioning member of the FBI isn't it."

That explained a lot. Scully looked across at Mulder again, and wondered how on earth he had survived, working with that man for so long. According to him, he hadn't - or at least, not well.

Henderson drifted onto other topics, and after five minutes or so Scully excused herself, making her way out to the Ladies' Room. It was cooler out there - the function room was appallingly hot and stuffy, probably because of the sheer number of people crowded into it - and she paused to fan overheated cheeks, and to check if her make-up and hair were still in place.

The bathroom was temporarily empty of clients except herself. She looked into the long mirrors over the hand-basins and caught sight of the delicate little locket around her neck. Smiling softly, Scully touched it, wondering what had suddenly prompted Mulder to buy her such a beautiful gift.

"Pretty," a rough voice said, and she nearly leapt out of her skin as a tall figure stepped out of the shadows behind the swing door leading into the room.

"Jesus, Jack!" she gasped, taking a step back and suddenly wishing that she wasn't alone in there. "This is the Ladies' Room, for crying out loud! What do you think you're doing?"

"Trying to get a moment alone with you," Willis retorted. He pushed the door shut and stepped towards her. "You've been avoiding me all evening - "

"No, I haven't," she said, quite truthfully. She'd forgotten he was even going to be at the ball. She eyed his stocky figure warily and prayed for someone, anyone, to come in and give her an excuse to get the hell out of there.

"Yes, you have. And you turn up with *him* ... although I might have known!"

*He's talking like a bad novel,* she thought wonderingly. *And he's drunk.* She could smell it on his breath, even from a few feet away, and felt a niggle of disgust.

"Did *he* give you that?" he demanded.

"Did who give me what?" she retorted, suddenly feeling very tired. She didn't need this.

"*That* - " Willis reached out sharply and grabbed the locket. "I didn't give you that."

Scully slapped his hand hard, but daren't do anything rougher to free the little pendant in case he snapped the delicate chain. "Strange as it may seem, Jack, I *do* possess jewelry you didn't give me. Let go - "

He ignored her, roughly fumbling the tiny clasp undone so that the locket sprang open. This angered Scully more than anything else, for she suddenly realized that she hadn't even had a chance to open the locket and see for herself what was inside. It might be nothing at all, but that wasn't the point. She dug her nails into the back of his hand, forcing him to release it, but not before he'd got a look and let out an exclamation that was mostly a jeer.

"Aw, sweet! Half-man Mulder sends his love and kisses!"

That was it. Before she even knew what she was doing, Scully swung her hand and gave Willis a resounding slap across the face that sent him staggering.

And right on cue, Henderson and a bunch of her cronies walked in on them. There was a stunned silence as six pairs of wide and intrigued eyes fixed on the scene in front of them.

Scully didn't care. She was tired and overwhelmingly angry, infuriated that Willis could have precipitated a scene like this. Well, he might have started it, but she would finish it and in a way he wouldn't like.

"I've had it with you, Jack!" she snapped, uncaring of her audience. "I've had it with your endless phone-calls and e-mails, and phoney cases. Quit trailing me like a bad smell and get the hell out of my life! It's over, do you hear me? It was over two years ago, and I'm fed up with you harassing me. If I get one more late night call from you, just *one*, I'm going to go straight to Skinner, and to hell with what anyone says!"

She turned on her heel and pushed past an open-mouthed Henderson, all but running out into the lobby.

Mulder was standing outside the function room door, looking for her. When he saw her hurried exit from the bathroom, he quickly approached, concerned. "Scully?"

She discovered to her increased annoyance that she was shaking slightly. "Mulder, I want to go home - *now*."

He took one look at her face and nodded. "Sure. I'll get your coat; you go wait by the main entrance."

To Scully's relief, Mulder didn't ask any questions. He retrieved the car and ushered her into it like a princess, then quickly pulled away from the hotel. While he was occupied with that, Scully tried to wrestle her emotions back under control. She couldn't believe that Willis had actually accosted her like that in a relatively public place, and felt irrationally angry that he'd laid hands on her locket. Against her will, her fingers kept sneaking to it, stroking the satiny surface of the gold as though wiping away an actual stain.

When she'd failed to say anything for almost ten minutes, Mulder shot a concerned glance at her and made a decision. He wasn't going to deliver her back to her parents' house in this state, so he took the next left turn and drove on until he spotted somewhere promising.

Scully started out of her reverie to discover that they were pulling up in front of an all-night diner of the kind she'd briefly fantasized about earlier. She turned to look at him, surprised. "Mulder - ?"

"I don't know about you, but I could do with something a little more substantial to eat than a couple of breadsticks and a lettuce leaf," he said gently, and she was surprised to feel a hesitant smile on her lips.

"Good idea."

Despite it not being quite midnight, the diner was nearly half full with a varied assortment of customers. It wasn't a particularly prepossessing place, but Scully sank into a corner booth with a feeling of intense relief and watched with a half smile as Mulder energetically divested himself of both bow tie and cummerbund, and undid the top two buttons of his dress shirt with a sigh of relief. A tired-looking waitress appeared, and took his order of two cheeseburgers with double fries and coffee, without blinking at their unusual dress.

When she was gone, Mulder leaned over the table and took Scully's hands gently. "Are you okay?" he asked.

She looked down at their linked hands, and felt him squeeze her fingers gently. Scully bit her lip. "I'm fine."

"What happened?"

She shrugged, but the look on his face said that he wasn't going to drop it, so she sighed. "It was Jack."

To her surprise he merely nodded. "I thought so. I saw him follow you out of the room, but I was stuck by the bar with Patterson and Skinner or I'd have come after you sooner. What happened?"

"He made a grab for my locket - " her fingers went to it again, "so I hit him. That's about it, really."

Scully felt a surge of anger again as she remembered, but when she looked up she was surprised to see Mulder grinning at her. "What?" she demanded, bewildered.

"I hope you broke the bastard's nose," he told her, eyes dancing.

For a moment, she stared at him incredulously; then a reluctant giggle surfaced. It wasn't funny, really, but on the other hand .... "Cathy Henderson and some others heard me chew him out," she told him. "I guess it'll be all over the Hoover building by Monday." She leaned back in the plastic seat with a sigh. "Damn! I should have just kicked him in the balls while I had the chance."

The choke of delighted laughter from Mulder dragged another weary chuckle out of her, and by the time their burgers arrived, she was feeling considerably better.

"He didn't damage it, did he?" she asked Mulder, polishing her fingers fastidiously on a paper napkin after finishing her meal.

"I was afraid he'd snap the chain."

Mulder wiped his own hands and leaned over to take a look. "No, it's okay .... He didn't hurt you?" His index finger traced a gentle line around her neck under the chain.

Scully's eyes met his for a pregnant moment, but she merely said, "No, he just opened it. I was mad because I realized I hadn't looked inside myself yet."

She reached around the back of her neck and pulled the clasp around so she could get at it. "If you'll help me undo this ...."

Mulder's hand gripped hers gently. "Leave it," he told her quietly. "Look at it when you come to us for Chanukah."

There was another pause, longer this time, and Scully began to feel decidedly warm. Mulder took both her hands in his and stared down at them for a moment; and when he looked up at her again, there was a look in his eyes which she'd never seen before.

"Scully," he began awkwardly, "I know this isn't exactly the best place or time, but ...." He hesitated, looking away for a moment, then turned back to her again, swallowing hard. His eyes, normally a warm hazel, had turned a curious dark green in the dim light of the diner. Scully stared into them, mesmerized, and for a moment didn't register what he said next.

"Scully - will you marry me?"

Scully rubbed weary eyes and drearily watched as coffee slowly dripped from the filter into the jug below. She dragged herself out of the kitchen chair briefly, to collect a mug, sugar and cream-jug from the refrigerator, then poured herself a cup of the comfortingly dark and aromatic liquid.

It wasn't going to help her sleeping problem any, but she needed the bite of mocha on her tongue.

"Pour me one as well," her mother's voice said gently and Scully started, staring up at Maggie Scully surprise.

"Mom, what are you doing up?"

"I heard you moving around and couldn't sleep myself."

Scully didn't believe the latter part of her mother's explanation in the slightest, but went to fetch a second mug anyway. Maggie sat down at the kitchen table and watched silently for a moment as her younger daughter poured coffee and cream.

"So," she said finally. "You didn't get around to telling me how your evening was."

Scully shrugged, sitting down again and picking up her mug. "It was the usual flat, boring, FBI affair. Poor Mulder got picked on by every agent he ever offended and Jerry got embarrassingly drunk."

Maggie raised a brow. "Is that why Fox looked so worn out when you both got back?"

"I guess," Scully replied, after a tiny hesitation.

Her mother cocked her head on one side. "You didn't seem very happy either, sweetheart. Was everything okay?"

Scully forced a smile onto her lips. "Oh, it was nothing, Mom! I ran into Jack, that's all, and he upset me a little. Mulder brought me home straight after - it was getting late, anyway."

Given that the FBI Christmas Ball had been known to linger on into the early hours of the morning in the past, and that Dana and Mulder had arrived back not long after eleven, Maggie was understandably unconvinced by this explanation. She was reluctant to be nosy, but something had to be bothering her daughter seriously for her to be losing sleep over it.

"Nothing's wrong between you and Fox, is it?" she asked finally, deciding to be blunt.

"No, of course not!"

"It's just that you seemed a little ... uneasy with each other when you came in. And you seemed to spend a long time talking to him outside before he left."

Scully sighed. There was no point in trying to hide anything from her mother; she could smell trouble a mile off.

"Mom, really - it's nothing."

"I don't think it is, Dana," Maggie told her gently, "but if you really don't want to tell me, that's okay."

"No, I just ...." She hesitated again and looked down into her mug, tracing her fingertip lightly around the rim. "Mom - he asked me to marry him, and I had to say no," she said in a rush. "And he's not very happy, as you can probably guess."

Well! Maggie leaned back in her chair, and tried to think of something to say. "That's - quite a surprise," she ventured finally. "I guess you weren't expecting it?"

"I wasn't, but I should have been," Scully admitted. "It wasn't likely while he was still living with his mother, but now he and Sam are on their own and she's out of the picture .... I should have realized he was beginning to think along those lines."

"You can't know people inside out, honey."

"No, but I know Mulder, Mom. In retrospect, I can see that he was building up to this; he has a really old-fashioned streak, and I think having Sam has domesticated him." Then she grinned in spite of herself. "As much as someone as independent as Mulder *can* be domesticated," she added ruefully.

Maggie gave her a thoughtful smile. "Do you really think he's independent?" she asked. "I would have said he was rather the opposite."

Scully gave her a wide-eyed look. "Mulder? You've got to be kidding! Mom, this is the man I seem to spend large amounts of Bureau time fishing out of military custody and defending to my boss - and he doesn't even work for the Bureau himself!"

"Yes," Maggie agreed tranquilly. "It's nice that he knows he can rely on you like that."

Scully shut her mouth, unsure what she could say which would counter this.

"You haven't told me why you turned him down yet," her mother added, after a moment.

"Lots of reasons," Scully sighed, "but mostly because I don't really know whether it would work. I've known him for less than a year, and although I'm very fond of him - although I *think* I love him - I don't know if it would be such a good idea to be married to him. There are issues I don't think we've even considered yet. It's too soon."

*Easy to say all that now,* she added to herself silently. *Why wasn't it so easy to say earlier, to him?* Trying to convince Mulder that her rejection of his proposal wasn't a total rejection of him as a person and lover had been so difficult. His ego, so far as personal relationships was concerned, was very fragile.

Maggie considered her daughter's downcast face and wondered what she could say. She didn't know Fox Mulder well enough to venture an informed opinion ... although having spent an entertaining evening in the company of his son, she certainly felt well disposed towards him. Although it cost her a guilty pang to admit it, Sam Mulder was a pleasure to take care of and wholly unlike her own two grandsons in that respect.

"You say there are issues you haven't considered yet - what do you mean?" she asked finally.

"Well, there's Sam for a start," Scully said candidly. "Much as I would love to be his stepmother, would it be the right move for *him*?"

"I don't see how it could be the wrong one," Maggie protested. "Fox may be doing a wonderful job of raising him on his own, honey, but there's going to come a time when that little boy wants to know why he doesn't have a mommy like everyone else. There's no substitute for two parents."

"I know - but Mulder's raising him Jewish, Mom."

"Would that be a problem for you?"

"No - but I don't know whether having a Catholic stepmother might be a problem for Sam later."

"Well, I'm not convinced about that," her mother told her frankly. "It sounds like you're looking for excuses to me."

"Maybe I am," Scully admitted, sighing. "I'm looking for rational excuses for irrational feelings that I can't express."

Maggie leaned across the table and squeezed her hands gently. "That's different, then. If it doesn't feel right, it doesn't feel right, and there's nothing more to be said."

Scully smiled faintly. "It's not that it doesn't feel right, Mom - it's that it doesn't feel right *now*. Maybe later ...."

"Does he know about - ?"

"No." Scully winced. "There's never been a good time to tell him."

"There probably never will be, you know," Maggie said softly, sympathetically.

"I know, but now most definitely is the wrong time. He'll assume that's my main reason for saying no, and I'll have double the problems convincing him otherwise."

"Well, I can't argue with that." Maggie sat back again, and tried to think of a way to turn the topic. Dana's face was getting a familiar pinched look of distress. "So ... will he still be coming at Christmas?" she asked finally.

Scully's face looked a little blank. "You know, I hadn't thought of that," she said, after a moment. "I'd better find out." It occurred to her that this might disrupt Mulder's plans for Chanukah as well, and she felt a fresh wave of depression.

"I hope they will come," her mother said softly. "That little boy is a darling, and I wouldn't mind getting to know his father better too. Under the circumstances."

Dana smiled faintly, getting the message.

Mulder was lying on his couch, watching a Chinese movie on cable with the sound off and the subtitles on, when he heard a light knock at his door. Surprised, he looked at his watch and was amazed to discover that it was nearly 3 am. Who the hell ...?

When he dragged himself to the door and opened it, he found Scully outside. She was dressed in leggings and a huge sloppy sweater with a steel grey parka over the top, and looked apprehensive.

As for Mulder, he wasn't sure how he felt about her being there. They had parted on rather strained terms, despite Scully's best efforts, and the events of the evening had been the cause of him being wide-awake at such an hour. He blinked at her uncertainly, and she bit her lip.

"Mulder .... Can I come in?"

"I - of course." He stepped back to let her pass him, then secured the door again. They stood just inside, staring at each other. In spite of himself, he felt a surge of warmth and affection for her, seeing the anxiety and distress in her eyes. "It's okay, Scully," he told her. "I'm not sitting in here with a gun to my head."

"I know, but - "

"Hold it a second," he interrupted. "Come inside, and let me take your coat."

When she walked into the living room, Scully glanced around her, unsure what to say. Her eye fell on the TV. "What are you watching?" she asked rather lamely, but he seemed glad of an excuse to make small talk for a moment or two.

"Some Chinese thing - "Raise the Red Lantern"?"

"I've seen that, it's good."

"I don't know - there's not a lot going on. A girl just pretended to be pregnant and got caught out, so they covered up all the lanterns outside her house." Mulder gave her a nervous grin. "Beats me why. It's got to be the most original pro-life demonstration I've seen yet."

She smiled, but it was weak. "Mulder ...."

"No, Scully - please." His tone was strained. "Let's just forget that I said anything. It was a stupid thing to do, anyway."

"No it wasn't." She reached out and took his hands firmly. "Look at me, Mulder. Please." He reluctantly obeyed, and she tried desperately to put all her sincerity into her face and voice. "It wasn't stupid at all - it was the most wonderful thing you could have asked, and I so want you to realize that I didn't say no because I don't love you. It's not that I don't want to marry you, do you understand? It's just that now is the wrong time."

"Why?" Mulder tried hard not to make that sound bitter, but he genuinely didn't understand what the problem was.

"Because nothing is settled for either of us, least of all you. You've just had a bust-up with your mom and had to move out. You've got Sam to consider, too, and you know he hasn't settled yet. And as for me ...." Scully sighed. "I don't know where my job is going right now, and I've got an ex who seems hell-bent on making trouble. It's not a good mix."

He still didn't look totally convinced, though, and she wondered what she could say to make him see. "Mulder - where do you see yourself in five years' time?"

"I don't ...." He looked uncomfortable. "I don't know. The same, I guess, except that Sam will be at school, but - "

"Be honest with me," Scully interrupted. "Do you still see yourself teaching at Georgetown?"

She hit a tender spot there, because they both knew that Mulder didn't really find teaching satisfying. He gave her a look of weary amusement. "What's your point?"

"The point, Mulder, is that you never really wanted to leave the Bureau, did you?"

"Scully - "

"*Did* you?"

"No," he admitted.

"And I think in your heart of hearts you always hoped you'd be able to go back there someday. Probably when Sam was at school."

"I - " Mulder gave her a frustrated look. "Dammit, I don't know! I never thought about it in that much detail."

"Think about it now," Scully told him quietly. "If you went back, where would you want to work, ideally? Not with Patterson, that's for sure."

"You *know* where I'd want to work," he told her wearily.

"And you know it would be impossible if we were married. It would probably be impossible even now."

"You think I'd change my mind about marrying you because of that?" he demanded. "Dana, you're more important to me than the damn Bureau!"

"I don't think that at all," she replied steadily, "but I think if we allowed ourselves to become carried away now, it could become an issue later. If you want the unvarnished truth, Mulder, I think we don't know each other well enough yet to take such a big step as marriage. There are probably other things that could be a problem between us that we simply don't know about yet. We need time - time to get to know each other better, time to work out any potential difficulties.

"Which is why I said no. I'm not turning you down forever, just for now." Scully paused and looked at him searchingly. He had that hurt little boy look on his face, not in a manipulative way, but simply because that was how he felt. He was probably still feeling rejected, but there wasn't much she could say that would change that.

The silence built between them for a few minutes until Scully finally realized that Mulder wasn't going to say anything else. Her shoulders slumped and she reached for her coat. "I'd better go home."

She reached the door before a miserable voice said, "Scully - don't go .... "

Scully paused and sighed inwardly. For the first time, she began to wonder just how needy Mulder might really be. Her mother had observed that he wasn't as independent as he seemed, and although her mother didn't even particularly know Mulder, Scully had to wonder just how right she was. Emotionally, he was difficult to fathom; although he maintained a wall of glib, black humor and apparent unconcern, underneath he was a seething mass of insecurities. Although he would undoubtedly deny it, his proposal to her was almost certainly a part of this; it wasn't just his old-fashioned streak prompting him to do things the 'right' way, but some desperate need to know that he wasn't going to lose her.

And Scully, already strung out and tormented by one possessive lover, began to wonder what she was getting herself into. Jack Willis was prompted almost entirely by alpha-male ideas of ownership; Mulder would never be so arrogant, but his need for reassurance might prove just as selfish and insidious.

Or it might not.

There was only one way to find out. She turned around with a sigh, and looked at him. "Mulder, we've got to get past this," she told him quietly, but with a determined note in her voice. "You've got to realize that just because I said no, it doesn't mean it's all over between us. And you've got to get used to the idea that I'm not going to walk away from you."

He twitched. "I never - "

"You didn't have to say it," she interrupted gently, "but it's definitely there, believe me." She walked back to him and reached up, gently pulling his head down until their foreheads were resting against each other. "I'm not Phoebe, you know," she told him conversationally.

Mulder breathed a tiny, shaky laugh. "No, that you're not."

"I'm not going anywhere. We have plenty of time."

"Don't go."

Scully drew in an exasperated breath. "Mulder - "

"No, I mean don't go tonight. Stay here."

"I'm not going anywhere. Not even tonight."

The countdown to Christmas had started, as far as Scully was concerned, when her mother announced that both her brothers had confirmed they would be coming home for the holiday, complete with wives and families. That meant two things to Scully: firstly, that she wouldn't have to worry about buying the kind of presents which could be trusted to the mail; and secondly, that she *would* have to get shopping now and that the choice had consequently become more difficult now that she couldn't use weight constraints as an excuse.

On top of that, she had to get presents for Mulder and Sam. Which meant a trip to the mall. In the end, Scully scooped up her sister and made what she hoped would be a flying visit there the last Saturday before Christmas.

In the event, of course, it wasn't nearly that quick and simple. She and Melissa spent hours trawling in and out of various stores, looking for that perfect gift, and once they got into the toy shops - filled with shrieking, squalling children - all hope seemed lost.

"Doesn't it make you want one of your own?" Melissa said sarcastically at one point, firmly detaching a fair-haired toddler who apparently thought her knees were a climbing frame.

Scully looked wry. "I can only assume that you must feel differently about your own kids."

"Or your boyfriend's," her sister suggested, amused.

"You make Mulder sound like someone a bit shady, who I met behind the school bike sheds," Scully told her irritably.

"Meeting him in a cheap motel in Oregon, during a UFO investigation, *isn't* shady?"

"It was not a UFO investigation!"

"We're drifting from the point here," Melissa said. "The fact is that you're quite besotted with that guy's kid. It's got to be love, because you only tolerate Bill Junior's boys."

Scully grimaced. "Matt and Jimmy are spoiled, Missy. Even Mom admits that she's not looking forward to spending three days with them *and* the rest of the family. I feel so sorry for Tara when they come over - every time she says no, Bill says something different. The boys are never going to mind her when they get older. They only take notice of me because they know I'll stand up to Bill if there's trouble."

"Which is what Tara ought to do," Melissa pointed out, "although if she'd ever shown signs of standing up to him, Bill would never have married her in the first place."

Scully couldn't disagree with that. She hoped she valued all her family the way she should, but Bill was enough to make her scream. Where the hell he'd got his attitude from, she couldn't imagine, but he was every inch the stern and unbending patriarch her father had never been.

Not surprisingly, Bill Junior and his father didn't see eye to eye. Scully had had a number of heated arguments with her father in the past when her views clashed with his, but she infinitely preferred the arguments to the stiff disapproval that he bestowed on his oblivious eldest son.

"So Mulder is coming on Christmas Day?" Melissa broke in on her thoughts.

Scully nodded, wondering if her sister knew about the 'situation' with Mulder. She knew better than to ask her mother not to say anything, but hoped she'd exercised the option of saying nothing all the same. Not that she minded Melissa knowing; so much as she feared Bill Junior or her aunts finding out. "They're coming after lunch," she said. "I think he's trying to minimize the excitement Christmas might give Sam, and seeing all our family unwrapping presents wouldn't be kind. He'll be getting a lot of stuff at Chanukah after all, so obviously Mulder isn't giving him anything else."

"But you are?"

"I'm doing both, although it'll be something small for Chanukah. Mulder and I agreed that, although he doesn't know I'm getting Sam a Christmas present as well." She smiled at her sister. "I've got an idea about that, but I need to talk to Ahab first. The Chanukah present is the one I haven't solved yet ... this cross-festival gift giving is a problem!"

"Hmm. Oh, hey - how about this!" Melissa picked up a small clockwork caterpillar made of wood. It had five separate, rounded sections, big eyes and a pair of thick antenna, and when she turned it over, Scully could see that it ran on wheels.

"Sam would love that!" she exclaimed, pleased.

Eventually they left the shop and tried hunting around for presents for the menfolk in their lives.

"What kind of stuff does Mulder like?" Melissa demanded after about an hour, fed up of brooding around menswear stores.

"Aliens," Scully told her absently. She was staring at a rack of novelty ties, but something told her that even if he hadn't got one or all of these monstrosities, he probably didn't wear a tie much these days anyway. And in any case, he didn't need encouragement in the bad-taste area.

"Get him a copy of a sci-fi classic," was the impatient response to this. "'Close Encounters' or something like that."

"He already has most of them."

"Tickets to a Planetarium?"

"I think he already gets subsidized access because he's a lecturer," Scully replied doubtfully.

"Sheesh .... Then just buy yourself a new silk teddy and tell him to enjoy unwrapping his present!"


"We're going to be here all day and probably all night if you don't make your mind up, Dana," her sister complained.

"Haven't you got to buy something for Chris?" Scully suggested pointedly.

"I've already got his present," her sister shrugged. "Anyway, I'm starving. For Christ's sake, let's at least get something to eat before we go any further."

Scully scanned the crowded mall doubtfully. "We're never going to find anywhere in this crush," she observed pessimistically, and she was right. Most of the cafes and fast-food bars were crowded to bursting point, and some even had growing queues outside.

"I know a place," Melissa sighed finally, "but whether you'll like it is another matter. Let's get out of here - we can come back after lunch."

The place in question turned out to be a tiny little New Age shop in a back alley, with a restaurant at the back of the store. It was vegetarian of course, but Scully was hungry enough not to care and she had to admit that the mixed pepper salad with feta was delicious.

They finished up with tea and slices of rich carrot cake, then took a look around the shop. There was a surprisingly large second-hand book section where Scully was pleased to find a copy of the original 1970 edition of "Chariots of the Gods" that Mulder had been talking about a few days previously, and Melissa found a few chunks of crystal which she wanted; then they exited onto the street.

It was when they were passing the shop next door that Scully had a sudden brainwave.

It was a tropical fish dealer.

"Think he'll like it?"

"God, I hope so! I haven't a clue what else to get him if he doesn't." Scully stepped back to view the fish tank, and flipped a smile over her shoulder at her father. "Thanks for letting me put them in here for now. You're sure it's not a bother?"

"Be something to look at." Captain Scully stooped to peer at the Angelfish swimming languidly around their new, if temporary, home on his bookcase. "Hell, if I get used to them, I may just get a tankful myself!"

Scully chuckled, watching him affectionately. "Ahab, if you ever feel the need for a fish tank, just let me know and I'll buy you one, but I'll make sure to fill it with toy boats, not fish. You'd be much happier with those."

"You may just be right." He straightened up and gave her a reminiscent smile. "We had fun on your grandmother's pond, didn't we?"

Scully tucked her hand through his arm, nodding. "Spent hours sailing that old boat of Bill Junior's - do you remember him breaking the mast and throwing it away? You fixed it for me and we repainted it - "

"And you renamed her 'Mary-Lou' after your rag-doll. We had that grand christening with a bottle of Pepsi ...." Captain Scully stared into space for a moment, then gave her a sudden, oddly saddened smile. "I gave Bill's boys a boat each for their birthdays this year, you know."

Scully did know. "Mom told me."

"They weren't really interested - didn't have motors," he said wryly.

"Kids are different these days, Ahab," she said gently, irrationally angry with her elder brother - as if he could do anything about the fickleness of children, even his own. But it hurt her to see the look on her father's face. It would have been a slap in the face to him, that his grandsons weren't able to appreciate the toys he gave them, toys that had given their aunts and uncle so much enjoyment.

"So ...." Captain Scully quickly changed the subject, uncomfortable with too much emotion being displayed. "Your mother seems to like this Mulder. The boy certainly seems to be sound enough."

Scully gave her father a sideways look. "You met Sam?"

He gave a soft hrumph of laughter. "He introduced himself!"

"Sounds like Sam! He's not backwards in coming forward."

"Marched in here like he owned the place." But Captain Scully looked amused, and she wasn't surprised; he would like Sam's self-confidence and energy. It was another disappointment in Bill Junior's boys, for they were both in awe enough of their grandfather that they would never consider entering his study, let alone uninvited. "We chatted for quite a while."

"Ah! Did he tell you the saga of moving out of Grandma's house, or did he give you the life story of his Christmas tree?" Scully smiled.

"Both." Captain Scully chuckled reminiscently. "I wondered though - I thought your mother told me they were Jewish. What's he doing with a tree?"

His daughter fought a losing battle to hide a soft smile. She'd asked Mulder the same question, and he'd looked so guilty .... "Sam wanted one," she shrugged, "and Mulder couldn't think of a way to explain properly to him - not that Sam really cares what it's for, he just wanted a tree with lights on. And that's literally all it is!"

Her father laughed at this, then patted her hand and released it. "Come on, let's get that pump working before your mother serves up dinner."

"Just a minute, Ahab - you've reminded me, I need your advice on something ...."

Captain Scully raised a brow at his daughter, but allowed her to draw him back into the room.

"You'll be sorry you came," Mulder observed darkly, as he took Scully's coat the next day.

"Why?" she smiled, amused at his expression.

"He knows he's got a present," the long-suffering parent explained, "and he knows he'll get it after we light the candles, so he's been pestering me to light them all afternoon. I had this all yesterday and the day before, too ...."

Scully stifled a laugh. "You'd better find me somewhere to put this quickly, then!" she told him, displaying a brightly-wrapped box.

Mulder groaned in alarm and hastily stuffed it behind the coats hanging in the hall closet. There was a sudden scrambling noise, and he barely shut the door before Sam came hurtling out of the living room.


He hurled himself at her, and Scully pretended to stagger, laughing.

Another small face appeared around the edge of the door; a little girl with long dark braids who looked startlingly like a picture Scully had once seen of Mulder's sister, Samantha. She saw the stranger, and retreated shyly. Scully shot Mulder a look of surprised query, and his expression managed to become even more wry.

"That's Sarah. Annie's here," he explained.


"Sam told her you were coming, and she doesn't think men can make latkes like Grandma could, so ...."

Scully grinned. Mulder's cousin Annie was clearly a woman after Maggie Scully's heart - although she'd kind of worked that out when she met her previously. "Where is she?"

"In the kitchen, doing something to a pile of potatoes with a grater - "

Scully walked through to the kitchen, to be greeted effusively by Annie. "I'm going to have to introduce you to my mother," she commented, accepting an invitation to take control of the grater.

"Any time you like," Annie said cheerfully, as she searched the cupboards for a mixing bowl. "Does she make latkes?"

"I don't know, but she's always up to a challenge." Scully peered at the heap of rapidly discoloring potato mush under the grater. It looked vile.

Annie saw her expression and laughed. "I know, it looks like hell! But it doesn't matter. I hope you're handy with a frying pan, Dana, because you're going to have to cook these."


"You don't think she's going to let me cook in my own kitchen, do you?" Mulder commented sourly from the doorway.

"You - out!" his cousin retorted, waving a tablespoon threateningly. "Do something useful, and wake my husband up. The pair of you can take the kids out for half an hour while I show Dana Grandma's secret recipe."

"The creaking sound you can hear is Grandma turning in her grave at Annie's cooking," Mulder advised Scully, but he wisely retreated all the same. She heard mumbled conversation in the living room, and after a few minutes a tall blond man appeared in the doorway, wearing a similar expression to Mulder's.

"We're taking the kids over to the park," he sighed.

"Good," Annie said absently. She was measuring flour carefully. "Say hello to Dana."

He grinned at Scully and rolled his eyes. "Hello Dana!"

"My husband, Simon," Annie said in an aside to Scully, and she made a shoo-ing gesture at him. "Go on! And no longer than half an hour, mind - don't forget we've got to get home before sunset."

"Like I'll forget," he grumbled, and wandered off.

"Men," his wife said acidly. "No use at all!"

Watching her energetic perambulations around the kitchen with a fascinated eye, Scully tried not to laugh.

When Mulder, Simon and the children returned, they found Scully flipping a latke in the frying pan with a fair appearance of confidence. Annie was watching critically.

"See? Nice and thin," she was saying. "There's nothing worse than a stodgy latke." She looked around and caught Sam stretching up on tiptoe to see what was on the kitchen table. "Here - try it out on Sam," she told Scully.

"Proof of the pudding?" Scully asked humorously. She dished up the pancake and watched as Annie spooned apple sauce onto it.

"Here, Sammie, see what Dana made?"

Sam didn't have to be asked twice. In short order, there was nothing left but his sticky fingers and a splotch of sauce. This was enough to lure shy Sarah into the kitchen with a protest of "Me too!"

"You've got the hang of it," Annie confirmed to Scully with a nod. Then she turned to her offspring, all three of whom were crowding into the small kitchen hopefully. "No, kids, get your things. Grandma Rosen's promised to make latkes for you later."

"You aren't staying?" Scully said, surprised.

"I'd love to, but we've promised Simon's family we'll be going there tonight. I just wanted to make sure Fox didn't poison you!" Annie threw Mulder a roguish look, to which he sighed exaggeratedly.

"Strange how healthy Sam and I both are, considering how terrible my cooking is ... in *your* opinion."

"It's a mystery to me too," Annie agreed. She took her coat and scarf from her husband and put them on, then gave Mulder a hug. "Have a good party, and we'll see you and Sam tomorrow. Dana, you're coming to us for dinner sometime soon, you hear? And remember - keep the oil really hot!"

Simon just gave Mulder and Scully a look of wry apology and bundled his wife and children out of the door.

Mulder heaved a sigh of relief. "Sorry about that. She just *arrived* and took over. She has this urge to manage things."

Based on some of the comments Annie had made while the men were absent, Scully suspected her motives were more ulterior than that, but she merely smiled. "Do I make the rest of these latkes now, or do we wait until later?" she asked.

Mulder glanced at the clock. "We've got just over half an hour before we light the candles .... Let's do them, it'll keep Sam occupied. I'll give you a hand."

"You can't cook," she pointed out mischievously.


He wrinkled his nose at her then made a quick grab for his son, who had climbed on a chair beside the kitchen table and was enthusiastically stirring the bowl of apple sauce with his hands.

"Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who hast sanctified us by thy commandments, and commanded us to kindle the light of Chanukah. Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who wroughtest miracles for our fathers in days of old, at this season."

The graceful silver Menorah, Mulder had told Scully, had been made by his great-grandfather in Holland at the turn of the century. It was one of a pair that his grandparents had brought with them to the US when they emigrated just before the war; the other one was in the keeping of Annie's father, his Uncle Max.

Having spoken the blessing, Mulder lit the shamas or 'servant' candle, taking care to keep both it and the taper out of Sam's reach. The little boy was standing on a chair in front of him where he could get a good look at what was going on and Scully, standing to one side, smiled as she saw Mulder gently discouraging Sam's attempt to reach out and touch the flame. She glanced briefly out of the window, across the street, and noticed interestedly that amid a myriad of windows decorated with fake snow and flashing lights was one other sporting a newly lit Menorah. Mulder obviously wasn't the only observant Jew on the block tonight.

Mulder had other things on his mind. He lit the first candle from the shamas. "We kindle these lights on account of the miracles, the deliverances and the wonders which thou didst work for our fathers, by means of thy holy priests. During all the eight days of Chanukah these lights are sacred, neither is it permitted us to make any profane use of them; but we are only to look at them, in order that we may give thanks unto thy name for thy miracles, thy deliverances and thy wonders."

For Scully's benefit he said the prayers in English, and secretly felt a little guilty for being grateful for that; he heard the Hebrew version every year when he visited his family for Chanukah, but hearing it and *saying* it were two different things, and he wasn't sure he would remember the Hebrew correctly. He lit the second and third candles, and carefully replaced the shamas in the central bracket of the Menorah.

However, the following chanted hymn Mulder remembered quite well, it having always been a favorite part of the ceremony when he was younger. To his surprise Scully joined in with this, which quelled any embarrassment he might have felt about his rather rough voice, and the hymn was rendered even more enjoyable by Sam happily humming an off-key accompaniment. The significance of Chanukah might not mean a lot to him yet, but he knew a singalong when he heard one.

Afterwards, Sam brought out his wooden dreidel to show Scully, and she produced a couple of bags of chocolate coins so they could play with it. He pestered Mulder for his present, which reminded her of the parcel languishing in the hall closet, and as she was retrieving it she remembered the other, smaller package hidden in the pocket of her parka.

"What, you thought I wouldn't get you a present too?" she said, seeing his look of surprise as she handed it over.

"It's just ... I haven't got anything for you," Mulder replied, embarrassed. "I was going to wait until Christmas Day."

Scully seated herself back on the floor beside him. "Yes you have. You've already given it to me." He looked at her blankly, so she pulled down the collar of her high-necked sweater and touched the locket he'd given her the night of the FBI ball.

He flushed. "I forgot that. Did you ever open it?"

"Not yet - "

"Daddy, look!" Sam had torn the wrapping-paper around his present to confetti and was trying to make the wooden caterpillar move by pushing it along the carpet.

"No, sweetie, like this." Scully found the discarded key in the mound of paper scraps and fitted it into the winding slot underneath the toy, giving it a couple of firm twists. The caterpillar began to roll across the floor, nodding its head and chiming. Sam shouted with excitement.

Scully smiled and turned back to Mulder. "You haven't opened yours."

"Neither have you," he pointed out reasonably. "After you."

"No, I insist - after *you*!"

He sighed exaggeratedly, and began to peel the paper off.

"It's only second-hand, I'm afraid," Scully confessed, "but you *did* say you were looking for a copy, and that it had gone out of print."

Mulder fingered the copy of "Chariots of the Gods" delightedly. "Scully, where did you find this? I've been looking everywhere."

"I have my sources," she smiled, "although I can't imagine what difference the earlier edition makes ...."

He looked up, eyes glinting wickedly. "You'll just have to read both versions, then, won't you?"

She gave him a look of mock-horror. "I'll pass!"

"So," Mulder said, putting the book to one side for a moment, "are you going to open that now?" He nodded towards the locket.

Scully fingered it, considering. "Do you want me to?" She hadn't forgotten that he'd given her the locket on the same evening he'd proposed.

This point had apparently slipped his mind though, for he was giving her a bemused half-smile. "Of course."

"Okay ...." Scully took the locket off and fumbled with the tiny catch. "You didn't mean me to get into this, did you - Oh!"

The locket only had one compartment for a photograph, and into that Mulder had put a picture of her, himself and Sam, taken some months previously when they'd gone to the park on the next block. Scully was sitting on one of the swings with Sam on her lap, and Mulder was pushing them both.

She looked up at Mulder, a startled question in her eyes, and he shrugged, smiling. "Frohike gave it to me. God knows when he took it - or even if he was the photographer. He wouldn't tell me."

Scully shook her head, smiling, and examined the picture again for a few moments before moving on to the other half of the locket. On that was a very simple inscription: To Dana, love Fox. She gave Mulder a sly sideways glance. "'Fox'?"

He reddened a little. "There wasn't room for Mulder," he mumbled.


Scully grinned, but decided not to tease him any further. She closed the locket carefully and fastened it around her neck once again. Then she leaned across and kissed him, catching him by surprise. "Thank you."

For some reason Mulder reddened even more. He made to scratch his head, but encountered the yarmulke and let his hand drop. "You hungry?" he asked her abruptly, and suddenly he was on his feet and heading into the kitchen.

Scully stared after him, bemused, then turned and encountered an equally quizzical stare from Sam. "What was that about?" she asked him rhetorically in a soft voice. The little boy took this as an invitation and climbed into her lap, planting a kiss on her chin.

Scully shook her head, smiling, and let the matter drop.

"Where we goin', Daddy?"

Mulder knelt in front of his small son, concentrating on the fine art of getting Sam's arms into the right sleeves of his coat and his hands into the attached mittens. "You know where we're going. We're going to tea with Dana's family."

Sam's face lit up. "Day!"

"Yeah." His father looked around, found the knitted woolen hat that matched the mittens and pulled it over the fine, tufted brown hair. It probably wouldn't stay put for longer than it took to get him to the car, but that was better than nothing. Finally he zipped the front of Sam's coat up and looked around him. He picked up a brightly-wrapped parcel. "Are you going to carry her Christmas present for me?"

"Yes!" Sam held out his arms and Mulder gave it to him. "Try not to drop it, Sunshine." He stood up and began to put his own coat on.



"Why don' we have Kissmuss?"

Mulder paused. *Rats. He had to choose now to ask!* "Because we have Chanukah." Sam squinted up at him, perplexed, and he tried to think of a way to phrase it that the little boy would understand, without going into the birth of Christ in detail. "Christmas is a Christian thing, Sam, and we're Jewish. Christians believe in God like we do, but they worship Him differently."

*Probably not the explanation Rabbi Neuberger would give him,* he thought ruefully, *but hopefully it'll do for now.*

Sam was happy with that, though, and was really more interested in getting into the car and going. "Let's go!"

Mulder shut the door firmly behind him and followed Sam's skipping figure down the passage and stairs and out to the car. He had to admit to himself that he was a little nervous about this visit to the Scullys.

*Be calm!* he told himself sternly. *How bad could it be?* Unfortunately, he had an idea just how bad - Christmas being the season of family battles .... *I've got to snap out of this idea that all families are as weird as mine,* he thought.

He strapped Sam into the back of the car, and got into the driver's seat himself, beginning to warm up the engine gently. There wasn't any snow - yet - but it was still hellaciously cold and although he'd been out in the car once today, it had been standing long enough to become cold again. He didn't much fancy a breakdown on Christmas Day.



"The dragon," Sam stated, rather plaintively.

"What - ? Oh, Sam! Why didn't you say before we came out?" Mulder looked in the rear view mirror at his son, but the little boy merely looked puzzled at the question. He sighed. "Have you got the one I gave you?" Sam nodded. "Okay, wait here a minute. I'll go get the other one." He switched the engine off again, checked the handbrake *very* carefully - Sam liked to fiddle with things - and hauled himself out of the car again.

This trip *could* have started out better ....

Scully had spent most of the day so far trying to avoid huge swathes of family. She was almost beginning to regret having invited Mulder over today - aside from her own parents, her sister, her sister's new boyfriend, her two brothers, their wives and a few assorted children, there were her Aunts Maureen, Claudia and Rose, her Uncles Peter, Giles and Fredrick, and a handful of stray cousins. It was a madhouse, and it had just occurred to her that coming from a rather different family situation, Mulder might not be prepared for this.

It was a bit late to put him off, though, and besides - she rather selfishly wanted him here, if only to provide a certain amount of leaven from the overwhelming Irishness of the occasion. And she wanted him to get to know her parents, in any event.

There were one or two sticky situations to navigate, though. One was the aunts: having been balked of prey in the form of Melissa (who at lunchtime had crushingly announced over the goose and trimmings that she was absolutely, categorically *not* getting married, ever), they were now desperate to size up "Dana's young man".

Scully winced at the idea of Mulder being referred to in those terms.

Then there was her elder brother, Bill Junior. The less said about *that*, the better. He'd been sour ever since he, his wife Tara and their two sons had arrived three days ago. Scully had actually been driven back to her own apartment until Christmas Eve; ever since her mother had told him about Mulder and Sam, he'd been making pointed comments. God only knew how he was going to behave to Mulder's face.

Scully was debating retiring to her room with a set of worry beads, but she didn't really have time. When she'd once told Mulder she was a fully paid-up member of the Maiden Aunts' Society, she hadn't been joking - she'd been taking care of her brother's kids for years now when the family got together. It felt like a full time occupation, and she was convinced the only reason her sister-in-law agreed to come for Christmas year after year was the relief of handing her kids over to good old Auntie Dana for a couple of days.

She acknowledged the injustice of this thought even as it sprang to mind. Scully was very attached to both her sisters-in-law, but she couldn't help feeling that Tara at least was 'taking pity' on her. She was probably wrong, but Bill Junior's attitude was so indicative of this, that it tarnished her relationship with his wife.

No such accusation could be levelled at Charlie or *his* wife, Melanie, fortunately. Scully just hoped that her younger brother's good nature would balance out the elder's attitude when Mulder arrived.

*Next year,* she promised herself, *if we're still seeing each other, Mulder and me - and Sam - are going to spend Christmas elsewhere. Anywhere would be good, so long as it puts a few miles between Bill and me ....*

Feeling a hundred years old, she chased the kids, including three younger cousins, out into the garden for half an hour to play ball with Charlie, and hid in the kitchen with her mother. Half an hour of decorating trifles, with a bottle of sherry between them, suited her mood right now.

Maggie Scully watched her younger daughter with amusement. "Your father gave up an hour ago and locked himself in his study," she commented, handing Scully a dish of maraschino cherries, "and when your Aunt Rose got the playing cards out after lunch, Maureen decided she suddenly needed an afternoon nap. Missy and Chris have gone for a walk."

"I guess the rest are vegging out in front of the TV?"

"Giles and Bill Junior are in the basement, playing pool."

"Oh God ...."

Maggie topped up her sherry glass. "So when's Fox arriving?"

"Mulder," Scully corrected, smiling. "I'm not sure, but probably any time now."

"Good. Your father's looking forward to meeting him."

"I'm glad someone is."

Mrs. Scully's eyes met her daughter's for a pregnant moment, but all she said was "Well, your aunts are nearly dying of curiosity by now. Given that he's tall, dark and handsome, he should get quite a good reception!"

Scully smiled wryly. "I don't think he knows what he's in for, so if he tries to escape, don't blame me."

Her mother smiled - and cocked her head to one side, listening. "That sounds like a car pulling into the drive now."

Scully got up and went to look out of the window. "It's them." She pulled the door open and went out to meet Mulder.

The impromptu soccer match going on in the garden had come to a temporary halt as Charles Scully went to greet the new arrivals. Scully paused in the doorway for a moment, wanting to see what her brother and lover would make of each other. It was difficult to tell from a distance, because she couldn't hear what was being said, but Charlie's smile was cheerful and she saw Mulder grin slightly as they shook hands. There was a pause, some talk, and Charlie half turned, waving an arm at the kids who were standing a little distance away, watching.

*Probably explaining what he's doing out in the freezing cold,* Scully thought, aware of the bite in the wind. She stepped out from the doorway and began to approach them unhurriedly.

"....The hoop got blown down last spring, so we're trying soccer," Charlie was saying. "It's better than being indoors at the moment, believe me."

"I played soccer for a while at Oxford," Mulder observed casually.

"Sounds like a volunteer!" Charlie grinned, and winked at his sister.

"Don't you dare, Charlie! Mom was about to call you all in, anyway; it's too cold out here." She looked up at Mulder, smiling slightly. "You're earlier than I expected."

"Do you want me to drive around the block a couple of times?" he smiled back, raising a brow. "I warn you, Sam will be *very* put out."

Scully looked through the rear door window and saw Sam staring back at her, his lower lip protruding rather obviously. "He's looking pretty put out now, Mulder," she said, amused. "Better let him out."

"He's got something for you. I just hope he doesn't crush it in the excitement ...." Mulder opened the door and Sam scrambled out, all arms, legs and loud voice.


His father winced. "Keep it down, Sam - "

Scully braced herself for impact as Sam hurled himself at her, and scooped him up in her arms, then submitted with every appearance of enjoyment to a very wet kiss. She wasn't given long to enjoy it, though; seconds later, Sam was wriggling out of her grip and racing for the side door of the house where he could see Mrs. Scully was standing. His greeting to her was even briefer, and he disappeared inside almost immediately.

Mulder gave Scully a mute look, and she gave a little snuffle of laughter. "I guess he knows where he's going, Mulder!"

"The *nerve* of the little tyke - !"

Mrs. Scully was also laughing as she joined them. "I know where he's gone," she chuckled, and exchanged knowing looks with her daughter.

"Dad's room?" Scully asked and her mother nodded, amused.

"He'll be disappointed, though; your father's locked the door."

"That won't stop him," Mulder said, alarmed. "He'll hammer on the door until someone opens it. I'd better - "

"Leave it," Scully interrupted, smiling. "Dad won't mind in the slightest - he likes Sam."

Not sure what to say to this, Mulder wisely let it go. "I'd better bring his thing in - he'll never forgive me if *I* give it to you, but I don't feel like trekking out to the car when he finally remembers it." He rummaged around on the back seat of the car and came out with a long, knobbly package wrapped in assorted fragments of Christmas paper.

Mrs. Scully gave it an experimental poke, and gave Mulder a knowing look. "Is this what I think it is?"

"I couldn't possibly comment," he said, straight-faced, and quietly slipped a much smaller, squarer parcel into his jacket pocket while Scully wasn't looking.

"Come on, let's go inside everyone," she said, shuddering. "The wind's like a knife."

Scully reflected that Mulder had probably arrived at the best time of the day, all things considered. Her sister was missing; the more objectionable of her two brothers was otherwise occupied, along with the most irritating uncle; the nosiest aunt was taking an afternoon nap; and the rest of the adults were bickering around a card table in the living room.

Having confiscated his jacket, she dragged Mulder through to meet her father, while her mother and Charlie attempted to occupy five restless kids ranging in ages from six to thirteen.

Captain Scully was enjoying himself. As Scully predicted, he hadn't minded in the slightest when Sam had knocked imperiously on the door of his study, and no sooner had the little boy been let in than he'd homed in on the aquarium in the corner. They were currently identifying the fish together, with the aid of an encyclopedia from Captain Scully's bookshelf. Sam was standing on a chair, where the captain held him warily. The boy was too energetic to be trusted on a wobbly chair by himself.

"That one there's a catfish," he pointed out now.

"Ca'fish," Sam repeated, peering into the tank. "Why?"

"Because he's got whiskers like a cat - see?" Captain Scully showed him the picture in the book. "And you know what? He's a kind of shark. Do you know what a shark is, Sam?"

"Iss got teeth an' eats people," Sam nodded, with gruesome enjoyment. "Do ca'fish eat people too?"

Captain Scully chuckled. "No, he's not big enough! Look - what's that one there, then?"

"Angelfiss," Sam said, pressing his nose against the cool glass. "Swim, swim, swim ...." he murmured, watching the delicate fins waving in the water.

"You've stolen my thunder," Scully said from the doorway. When Captain Scully looked up, she was smiling and behind her was a tall, dark man who needed no further identification; the resemblance between him and the little boy ogling the fish tank was unmistakable. He straightened up

"Well," Captain Scully said amiably. "You must be this Fox I keep hearing so much about."

When Mulder emerged nearly an hour later, there was no sign of Scully or his son. He went looking for them and found Mrs. Scully in the kitchen with Sam. In the center of the table was the egg-box dragon the little boy had labored over for several days (with some help) to give Scully, and the heap of wrapping paper it had needed was in the process of being smoothed out and folded carefully, presumably for re-use later. Mulder watched for a second or two, with some amusement, as Mrs. Scully held each piece of paper down so that Sam could press the creases out.

True to form, the kid was showing *no* signs of tiredness yet, despite having had an exciting day so far.

Then Mrs. Scully looked up and smiled. Mulder came a little further into the kitchen. "He's not bothering you, is he? Can I take him off your hands?"

"You dare!" Maggie Scully told him. "While I'm in here with Sam, I won't get dragooned into playing gin rummy."

Mulder chuckled. "All the same - "

"Daddy look!" Sam commanded, interrupting them. He dragged a box over the table and pointed inside. "Look what Day gived me!"

Mulder grinned at Maggie, and peered into the box. It was a boat; not quite a foot in length, it had two masts and sails, and when Mulder very carefully lifted it out of the box, he could tell that it was made of wood and had a proper lead keel. It was a proper little ship, intended to be sailed on a pond, with a dark red hull and crisp white sails. There was even a tiny red pennon on the main mast, and when he turned the boat around Mulder saw that although there was a space on the stern for a name, it was blank and ready for its new owner to name it. A long length of waxed twine had already been attached to a ring on the prow, ready for its first venture onto the water.

"Hey, Sam, this is really cool!" Mulder fixed his son with a stern eye. "Did you thank her?"

Sam nodded, unimpressed by the implied threat, and patted Maggie's hand imperiously. "More paper please," he stated clearly, and Maggie pretended to stand to attention. "Yes, Sir!"

"Is Scully - Dana - around?" Mulder asked her.

"I think she went up to her room," Maggie replied, after a moment's hesitation. "Go take a look, Fox - upstairs, first on the left."

He hesitated, then followed her instructions.

She was in her room, sitting in the window seat, and when Mulder knocked on the door she smiled a welcome. It was a rather melancholy expression though and Mulder, taking a seat beside her, was uncertain at first what to say.

"I didn't get a chance to thank you for the fish," he said, after a moment's silence. "I've been trying to think what I could put in the living room to liven it up a little - I'm not good with houseplants, and the room's a little small for pictures. And I'm not into art anyway. An aquarium never occurred to me, though."

Scully gave him a small smile. "It was a spur of the moment idea," she admitted. "I was pretty much at a loss what to give you."

"You didn't have to give me anything," he said softly.

"I know. But I wanted to."

Another pause. Then Mulder remembered, and handed her a square, heavy-ish package in gilded foil wrapping paper. "Tit for tat," he smiled. "Merry Christmas."

"Muld-er ...." Scully smiled, and gave him a mock admonitory look. "You've already given me this beautiful pendent - " she touched the locket in the hollow of her throat, "you didn't have to give me anything else."

"That wasn't a Christmas present. This is. Go on, open it!"

After a moment, Scully peeled the wrapping off and found an old book. The cover was worn, tooled leather, dark and anonymous, and when she looked at the spine, the title had been rubbed off with age. But when she carefully opened the front cover, releasing a familiar musty smell of old paper, her eyes widened. "Mulder! How did you know "Moby Dick" was my favorite?

He shrugged, pleased by her reaction. "I heard you call your father "Ahab" once or twice, and leapt to one of my infamous Spooky Mulder conclusions."

"Good guess - he used to read this to me when I was a kid." Scully ran a loving hand over the covers. "It's not a first edition, is it?"

"Second. They had a first edition, but I thought you'd prefer a copy that actually had its covers and most of the pages," was Mulder's wry reply, and Scully chuckled softly.

"I should thank you for the boat you gave Sam, too," Mulder continued after another brief pause. "He's really pleased. You'll come with us when we launch it, won't you?"

"I might even know a really good pond for it," she smiled.

"Somewhere not too deep, because if there's any water around he'll jump in it and then I'll have to jump in after him .... " Mulder trailed off, because it was obvious Scully wasn't getting into the spirit of this conversation. "What's bothering you?" he asked softly, studying her face. She'd been so cheerful when he and Sam had arrived, but now she was the complete opposite. Despite her delight over the book, and Sam's enjoyment of his present, she looked almost miserable.

"Oh, it's nothing!" Scully tried to force a smile, but he wasn't fooled.

"You don't have to tell me," he began carefully, "but - "

"Mulder, really ...." She sighed, and stared out of the window for a moment. When she turned back to him, her expression was a little wry. "I had a spat with my brother while you were talking to Ahab. It's nothing major - Bill and I are always fighting. He gets a little much after a while, and I have to scream."

"All the same ...." Mulder wasn't sure how to proceed. He didn't have much personal experience of sibling spats, but this didn't look like just a minor matter to him.

"He just said a few things that touched a raw nerve. He has a gift for it."

Mulder made no reply, but raised a questioning brow, and Scully acknowledged that he was not going to be put off with half stories. Perhaps it was as well. They were going to have to have this conversation at some point, and there was never going to be a good time for it, as her mother had pointed out recently.

"Mulder .... Look, he was laying down the law as usual. Bill has ... some funny notions about Missy and I, and he's not afraid to express his opinion. And Bill is always right."

Mulder considered this. "I haven't met him yet, but surely ... well, if anyone has a right to express an opinion about you and your sister, isn't it your father or mother who should be doing it?"

Scully smiled in spite of herself. "They do, when they really feel it's necessary, but they don't like to interfere. Bill, on the other hand, doesn't see it as interfering. Actually, I'm glad we're having this conversation now, because when you do meet Bill, you need to know that he's the ultimate authority on anything."

Mulder's eyes began to twinkle. "*Anything*?" he drawled.

"And everything," she confirmed. "Just ... don't argue with him, Mulder. It's a hell of a lot easier to let him think he has the last say, and everyone will bless you for not setting him off. He's almost certain to try and draw you out on your politics, for a start, and whatever you say, he'll take the opposite position."

"Nice guy," he commented, beginning to grin. "So, what did he say to get *you* mad?"

Scully's smile abruptly vanished. She should have known better than to try a diversionary tactic with Mulder; he always came back to the original point of the conversation eventually.

"Well, he started on you for a start," she told him, deciding that frankness was the best approach at this stage.

"He won't be the first," Mulder observed philosophically, "although it's kind of cheeky when we haven't even been introduced yet. What particular detail gets his goat?"

"You're divorced."


"And you're Jewish, although he didn't actually say that."

"Mixed marriages?"

"Something like that." Scully took a deep breath. "He was good enough to tell me that the mixed marriage bit was less of a problem than the divorced bit, though."

Mulder's brow furrowed. "Go on. I would have thought the mixed marriage would have been a bigger problem, because of raising the kids one way or the other, but - "

She sighed. "Mulder - that was what he meant. I ... I can't have children." She looked away and hurried on. "Actually, I'm not putting this very well - "

"Scully - "

"His problem was with Sam, you see - he thinks I'm making a grab at motherhood whatever way I can, and - "

"Scully!" Mulder grabbed hold of her hands. "Hold up a minute!" He took a shaken breath, and tried to decide what to say. "Back up a little - I thought you just said - "

"I can't have children," she repeated, and tried to tell herself that it was no big deal, that she'd known for several years, and shouldn't be getting emotional about it now. Then she looked at Mulder and saw the stricken look on his face. She tried to smile. "Mulder, really - it's no big deal anymore."

"No big deal, she says." He tried to get a grip on himself, but it was hard to know what to say. "How long have you known?"

Scully shrugged. "Since my late teens. I always had a problem with my - "


His discomfort over 'woman stuff' made her smile inwardly, but she continued. "And eventually I had a whole battery of tests. There's something wrong with my ovaries and fallopian tubes, and the chances of conceiving naturally are pretty much non-existent. It didn't bother me at the time. It doesn't now, really."

*Liar,* he thought, but chose not to challenge her on that. "Scully .... I don't know what to say really. But are you telling me your brother actually threw that in your face?"

"He thinks he's doing her a favor," a dry voice said from the doorway. Melissa Scully walked in and pulled her heavy outdoor coat off, tossing it across one of the twin beds.

"Missy, let it go," Scully said uncomfortably.

Melissa ignored her, looking at Mulder. "Bill thinks Dana is a great nanny for his kids. He'll hate you, because you've got a kid of your own - after all, Dana should accept her fate and not go hankering after what she can't have when she's got nephews she can dote on."


"Speak the truth and shame the devil, Dana."

Scully rolled her eyes. "He's not *quite* that Victorian." She gave Mulder a wry look, her normal good-humor beginning to re-emerge. "God knows what kind of image you're getting of Bill Junior, Mulder - really, he's just got an attitude, and after a while he starts to look like a caricature of someone worse."

"Ignore her," Melissa told Mulder. "He's an ass - a pompous ass."

"You're only saying that because he made fun of your crystal ball." Scully got to her feet. "Come on, you guys. Mom's going to wonder what's going on up here."

Mulder looked at her face and saw her fixing her walls in place, but now was no time to challenge the change of subject, not with her sister present. He got up reluctantly. "We'll talk about this again some other time," he said to her softly as they walked down the stairs.

Scully nodded reluctantly.

It took about half an hour of listening in a half-hearted way to the adults talking, before Sam became bored enough to get restless. After they'd finished putting the wrapping paper to rights, Mrs. Scully had assembled a tea tray and taken it through to the various family members playing cards. Sam had gone with her, and for a short while had enjoyed being cooed over and admired, but now he was looking for something else to do. Day had given him a present, a really good wooden boat that was red with white sails and had a string to pull it along by, but now everyone had seen it and they didn't seem to be terribly interested anymore.

Sam knew someone who hadn't seen it though, someone he knew would be interested. He wriggled off Mrs. Scully's lap, clasping the boat to his chest with both arms, and trotted quietly out of the living room. No one paid a great deal of attention to where he was going; there wasn't much trouble he could get himself into without an adult being near to hand.

Outside in the entrance hall, it was quiet. He paused to look at the evergreen boughs decorating the walls, entranced by the little sparkling ornaments hanging from them, then continued on to his destination.

The door was closed again when he found it, but shut doors were never a problem for him unless they were locked; and in that event, Sam had discovered that shouting to be let in or out was a pretty effective approach. He gave it an experimental push, but it was definitely *shut*. So he put his boat down on the floor carefully - he was always very careful with his toys - and stretched up until his fingers reached the handle and pulled.

The door unlatched very nicely and opened up a few inches. Pleased, Sam picked up his boat again, and pushed his way inside. Peering around the edge of the door, he could see Day's daddy sitting at the desk, and rushed over to show him his boat.

Captain Scully never moved, though, and that seemed a little odd to Sam, because the latch on the door had made quite a lot of noise when he'd opened it. Adults were, in his experience, pretty quick to react when he made a noise, even when he tried to be really quiet.

Okay, maybe he hadn't heard. "Cap!" he said hopefully. "Cap" was the best he could manage for "Captain", which was what Day's mommy had called him.

No response. Sam shifted from one foot to the other, trying to work this out. The boat was getting a little heavy, so he decided to put it down. Then he walked hesitantly over to Cap's chair.


Then he saw that Cap had his head on the table. Maybe he was asleep; when Sam got tired at day-care, Mandy would let him sleep on the table sometimes. But Cap didn't have a cushion to lean on, and Sam knew how uncomfortable that was. He moved a little closer, to see if Cap really was asleep.

He wasn't. His eyes were open, and they moved a little when Sam came into view. But his face looked funny to the little boy, and he made a strange croaking noise.

Something wasn't right. Sam hesitated, unsure what to do, then turned and ran out of the room.

Mulder had paused in the hallway to admire the same evergreen boughs his son had, when Sam came hurtling out of Captain Scully's room.

"Hey, hey, hey!" he said sharply, catching the boy. "No running, Sam - you could hurt yourself or someone else."

But Sam had other things on his mind, and tugged at his father's arm insistently. "Daddy, come see."

"Not now, Sam. It's nearly time for tea - show me later."

"No, Daddy!

Come see *now*," Sam said firmly.

"Sam ...." Mulder sighed. "Come see what?"

Sam seized his hand and all but dragged him out of the room and down the hallway. Mulder's brow knitted when he found himself being pulled into Captain Scully's study - then he saw the man at the desk and the way he was slumped over.

"Oh no - " He hurried to Captain Scully's side, and to his horror saw the blank eyes and blue lips.

"DANA! Sam, go get Day! Go on, run!"

Sam, his eyes wide, turned and scampered from the room, but Scully had heard Mulder's shout and came running, with one of her brother's close on her heels. She took one look at her father, and turned on Charlie.

"Charlie, get my bag from my room NOW."

Mulder was gently leaning Captain Scully back in the chair, loosening his collar and feeling for a pulse. "He's still with us, Scully, but the pulse is weak - "

"Is he breathing?" She was already checking as she spoke, and answered her own question. "Just about .... Dad - Ahab - can you hear me?"

There was a cry from the doorway; Mrs. Scully.

"Mom, call for the paramedics," Scully told her, without turning. "Tell them he's having a heart-attack - "

Charlie reappeared and had to fight his way through the sudden crowd of Scully relatives who were gathered outside the door, babbling questions. Scully snatched the bag out of his hands and began to rummage in it frantically.

"Scully, I think - I think he's stopped breathing - "

The bag was equally quickly thrust back into Charlie's hands. "Let's get him on the floor. Charlie, there should be a bottle of diamorphine in there. Find it."

"You're not going to be able to help me lift him," Mulder said sharply. "Someone bigger ...."

"Here," a voice said curtly, and a bulky but younger replica of Captain Scully appeared. Mulder had no idea who he was, and didn't really care.

"You get him that side .... Lift - "

They laid him flat and Scully pushed them both out of the way, beginning CPR.

"Has someone called an ambulance?" Mulder heard the other man say sharply above his head.

"They're on their way ...." Mrs. Scully's voice faltered in the background.

"How long has he been like this?"

"It can't have been long," Mulder interrupted, seeing the distress on Maggie's face. "I only left here about twenty minutes ago, and he was fine then."

"Mulder, can you take over from me?" Scully gasped.

He nodded and took her place, ignoring the other man's glare and sharp comment of "Who is he?"

"Shut your mouth, Bill. Mulder found him; and if he hadn't, Ahab would probably be dead." Scully's voice was measured and even, but the lash of anger was still unmistakable. She looked around at the doorway, wondering if her mother had managed to get the paramedics, and saw a tight crowd of relatives outside the door. Her eye fell on Sam, who was clinging to the doorpost with one hand, with his thumb in his mouth. His eyes were wide and frightened.

She nearly swore. This was *not* something any of the kids needed to see. "Will someone *please* exercise some sense and take Sam and the other kids out of here?"

Her sister pushed through the gaggle of cousins, white-faced, and quickly snatched Sam up, carrying him away. Scully turned back to Mulder, and tapped his shoulder. "Lean back, Mulder, and let me take a look - "

There was a tense pause as she checked respiration and pulse; then she let out a shaky sigh of relief. "Okay - he's holding in there. Now, where's that Goddamned ambulance?"

As if her words were a cue, Mulder heard the faint sound of sirens in the distance, and let out his own sigh of relief.

With a little luck, there might just be *one* miracle this Christmas.

It was nearly one in the morning when Mulder heard the knocking at his door. Casting a wary eye over the bundle of blankets on the sofa that was Sam, he went to the door and answered it.

It was Scully, her face lined with exhaustion.

"You look a wreck," he said softly, in an undertone. "You haven't been at the hospital all this time, have you?" He didn't know how to ask the most important question, but fortunately she made it unnecessary.

"He's in the ICU now, and he's stable and comfortable," she told him, shedding her coat. "They kicked everyone out but Mom a couple of hours ago. I went home with Missy to organize the house, but my sisters-in-law have got everything covered." A brief flash of her usual humor showed. "First time they've agreed on anything this Christmas - usually they fight like cats, but I'm not looking a gift horse in the mouth right now."

Mulder gently steered her into the kitchen and dug out his tin of cocoa. "Was it a heart-attack?" he asked, busying himself with the kettle.

The strain and worry reappeared on Scully's face almost at once. "It was - they're not sure about the extent of the damage yet, but it was big." Her voice cracked slightly. "Thank God you found him, Mulder - he would have died for sure if we'd been even two or three minutes later."

"Thank Sam, not me; he found your father, and had the sense to fetch me when he thought there was something wrong."

"Oh God - Sam! - Is he okay? He saw everything that happened ...."

"He's fine," Mulder cut in gently. "A little clingy and scared, maybe. He's sleeping on the couch right now, because he kept waking up earlier, but I think he's sound enough asleep to be put back to bed in a minute."

Scully relaxed back into her chair at the kitchen table, but the worry didn't leave her face. "Mulder, I'm so sorry ...."

"For what?"

"I wouldn't have had Sam see that for the world, but - "

"Scully!" Mulder added hot water to the cocoa and put a mug in front of her. "It's no big deal; he's pretty resilient, you know. Besides, think what would have happened if he hadn't found your father."

Scully's face suddenly crumpled, and Mulder cursed himself for his lack of tact. He quickly put his own mug down, and pulled her to her feet, wrapping his arms around her. She was resistant for a moment, then buried her face in his shoulder. Mulder rubbed her back soothingly, much as he did Sam's when his son was upset, feeling her much smaller body shake convulsively for several minutes; then she pulled free again, pretty much as he expected she would, and rubbed a hand over her eyes.

She gave him a wavering smile, a little embarrassed. "Sorry - I didn't mean to turn into a waterfall on you."

Mulder shook his head silently, but respected her need to be in control of the situation. "It's okay ...."

"Look - I'd better just ...." She waved a hand uncomfortably, aware that her mascara had streaked, and he smiled.

"Bathroom's where it's always been."

She nodded, her smile wavering a little, and slowly went to clean her face up. A few minutes in the bathroom also helped her get a grip on herself and reassert a little self-control. When she emerged, she felt better than she had since Mulder had shouted for her help that afternoon.

When Scully returned to the kitchen, it was to see Mulder holding Sam on one hip while he prepared a glass of milk and put it in the microwave. She paused for a second, just out of sight, watching. Sam was sprawled bonelessly against Mulder's shoulder, probably half asleep, and she could just about hear Mulder murmuring softly to him, although the words were impossible to hear.

*He is such a good father,* she thought, and felt a sudden pang of remembrance of the conversation she'd had with him earlier that day.

Then Mulder turned and saw her, and smiled. "Look who's here," he said softly to Sam, and Scully smiled. The boy gave her a sleepy smile and held a hand out, so Mulder surrendered him to her while he got the milk out of the microwave, tested it carefully and added a straw.

Sam managed less than a quarter of it before he fell asleep again in Scully's lap. The transfer to his crib was achieved with relative ease, and after a few minutes of watching the two adults left him to his slumber.

Out in the living room, Mulder ran one hand over his hair in a reflexive gesture and looked at Scully. "Will you stay tonight?"

She gave him a weak smile. "If it's okay."

"Sure. You look done in - why don't you go and get ready for bed while I clean up the kitchen?"

For some reason this tickled Scully's sense of humor. "You are sooooo domesticated, Mulder!" she told him, rubbing one hand affectionately over his chest.

He grinned, catching her hand and stilling it. "Yeah - I'm some catch, huh?" Instantly he regretted saying it, for her expression was stricken. "Scully, I didn't mean it like that - "

"No, Mulder," she told him quietly. "It's not you who should be apologizing. I obviously haven't dealt with this situation as well as I could, or we wouldn't be treading on eggs around each other."

Mulder sighed and let go of her hand, turning away. "No, it's not you - it's me." He went into the kitchen, and after a moment Scully followed him. He began slowly washing up oddments of china and cutlery, his expression troubled.

"I don't handle relationships well," he said abruptly.

"I wouldn't have said that myself." Scully leaned back against the worktop, watching his face. "I would rather say that you don't handle the ups and downs of relationships well. It's not like you're some serial monogamist, always running away."

"Yeah well, maybe .... I could give you all the psychotherapy crap about my childhood affecting the way I look at relationships," he gave her a humorless smile, "but that's just looking for excuses. All I can honestly say is that every relationship I've been in so far has gone wrong for some reason, and right now I keep looking around, trying to work out what's lurking around the corner for me *this* time."

"I can't say there's nothing, Mulder," she told him gently. "I can't predict what's going to happen to us a month or six months down the line. All I can tell you is that I want to be with you, and I'm doing all I can to ensure that I'll stay with you. Okay, you jumped too soon and proposed, but that's not a crime; you've done nothing wrong. At least now we both know we're thinking along the same lines and that we're committed to this. More than that, what can I say?"

"Not much," he admitted. He rinsed Sam's milk glass and turned it upside down on the drainer, then dried his hands. "It's just ...." He hesitated. "It's just when you told me today - "

"I was afraid you'd think that," Scully interrupted, sighing. "That's not why I turned you down, Mulder. I've been looking for a good time to tell you about it, but it's not like there are ready opportunities in everyday conversation. And then you sprang that on me .... I still don't really know how you feel about it."

Mulder turned out the kitchen light and gently steered her back to the living room sofa. "I feel bad for you," he said. "I don't know what else to say, actually, other than that I'm still astounded your brother can treat it in such a cavalier manner."

Scully laughed softly. "I can deal with Bill's attitude, Mulder, because it's just an irritation, an extension of how he's always treated Missy and me. What irritates me more than anything is Tara's - his wife's - behavior. I hate being *pitied*."

"I'll bear that in mind." He leaned back against the sofa cushions, and grinned contentedly when Scully pulled her feet up under her and used his chest as a pillow. He wrapped his arms loosely around her and felt her sigh. "Scully ...."


"This problem ... you're not actually infertile, are you? I mean, could you have IVF treatment or something if you wanted?"

"Actually, yes," she responded, her voice a little muffled in his sweatshirt, "but I didn't want to scare you off." And she gave him a gentle poke in the stomach, making him snort a laugh.

"Nothing scares me, Scully."

"Not even my father?"

Mulder grinned, remembering his doubts when she first invited him to spend Christmas Day with her family. And he recalled the conversation in Captain Scully's study, which had been more like a mutual sounding-out session than anything else; each of them trying to get the measure of the other without causing offence. "Well ... maybe a little," he conceded, sensing rather than seeing her smile, "but I like him."

"Good." Her good humor melted away. "God, I hope - "

"He'll be okay," Mulder told her quickly. "He's a tough man."

"Yeah, but it's times like this when it's suddenly brought home to me that even tough old sailors are mortal."

"Don't think like that. You've got to be positive - he survived against some pretty stiff odds this afternoon, and now he has the best possible care. He's going to be okay. The doctors wouldn't have told you and your sister to go home if they thought otherwise."

That was true enough, and Scully began to relax a little as she mentally reviewed all the treatments and precautions being used in her father's case. Coronary care advanced in leaps and bounds these days and his room had looked, even to her experienced eyes, almost like something out of "Star Trek" with the levels of technology commonly in use. He couldn't possibly be in better hands, and her mother was with him.

"I should be at home, making sure my sister isn't fighting with Bill," she mumbled sleepily.

Mulder rubbed her back soothingly. "No you shouldn't. Your sister's a big girl; she can handle him herself. Besides, it's nearly two a.m. and if they've got any sense, they'll be in bed."

There was no reply; Scully had fallen asleep. He smiled wryly, dropping a kiss on her hair, and dragged Sam's blanket off the back of the sofa to cover her with.

Morning - and the everyday anxieties of real life - would come soon enough, dragging them apart again. Meanwhile, if she was comfortable here, he was more than happy to play mattress for her for a few hours.

Title: Prelude V: Dark Forest
Author: Mad Martha
Spoilers: The Pilot/Squeeze/Tooms/Fallen Angel/Deep Throat/Jersey Devil/Lazarus/Beyond The Sea/Duane Barry/Darkness Falls
Overall Rating: R
Content Warning: Alternate Universe/MSR
Classification: S,X,R
Disclaimer: "The X Files" and all the characters etc. associated with it are the property of 20th Century Fox and 1013 Productions. I am not making any profit from this story, and no infringement is intended.

Summary: A nice trip to the forest goes hideously wrong.

Acknowledgements: I could not have written the Prelude Series without the enormous help, encouragement and assistance of Gerry Hill, who patiently proof-read and commented on

them throughout the writing and editing process. Suggestions and encouragement were also given by Danielle Culverson; and Part 4 in particular owes its accuracy to Cheryl, who

advised me on all things Jewish. Many thanks to these three ladies.

Dana Scully dumped her overnight bag on the floor, tossed her trench coat over the frilled, rose-colored bedspread, and laid her laptop on the bedside table. Then she slumped down onto the bed and looked around the room resentfully. Delicate rose-colored curtains at the window and a fairly nice view. Clean appointments around the room, potpourri in a jar on the table, the usual fresh towels and wrapped soaps in the bathroom augmented by a basket of complimentary lotions and shampoos and a hairdryer on the wall. A mini-bar in the main room, and a TV with cable.

Okay, so it was a nice room in a nice hotel. That didn't change the fact that this was not where she wanted to be.

It just had to be *this* Friday that the judge decided to adjourn the case until Monday, just before *her* evidence was due to be given. She was stuck in Seattle over a weekend when she should have been at home, enjoying a third birthday party with a little boy and his family. She should have been participating in an afternoon of mayhem at MacDonald's with seven kids and two other adults, and spending the evening with a man who ....

Scully sighed, and kicked off her shoes. No point in thinking about it; thanks to the Bureau accountants, who had decided it was cheaper to put her up in this admittedly nice hotel for the weekend instead of flying her home for two days, she would be fending off the unwelcome attentions of the local SAC all weekend and going out of her mind with boredom. She pulled off her suit jacket, flinging it carelessly at the chair in the corner, wriggled out of her skirt and pantyhose, and sprawled across the bed. She glared up at the ceiling for several minutes, then rolled over and reached for the telephone.

Fox Mulder was typing furiously at his computer, surrounded by open text books and scattered papers. He had a deadline to meet for his latest article, and he wanted to get well ahead with the first draft before spending the next day chasing around after his son and several other small boys at MacDonald's and the local cinema.

Behind the sofa, Sam was making "vroom vroom" noises and talking to himself. Mulder paused for a moment, listening to him with a grin. Yesterday, his new printer had been delivered, encased in a cardboard box several times larger than was strictly necessary. While he'd been sorting out cables and attaching it to his computer, Sam had quietly appropriated the box, so that when his father turned around the box had become a truck. Sam had expressed, in his own terms, a desire to go into the road haulage business when he grew up, and Mulder - hoping that the box wouldn't be needed again - had agreed with this ambition, even going to far as to draw some wheels on the box.

Amazing. Sam had a perfectly good wooden train, with a proper seat and wheels that worked, which he hadn't yet outgrown, but he preferred to shuffle himself around in a cardboard box. Kids.

The noise suddenly stopped, and Sam appeared around the edge of the sofa wearing a baseball cap one of Mulder's friends had given him. Mulder watched, entertained, as the boy stopped, heaved an exaggerated sigh, removed the cap and wiped his brow.

"Sure is hot here!" Sam chirped, and Mulder fought the desire to laugh. "Mister, is this bar open?"

Okaaaay .... He could do with a break himself. Mulder took his glasses off and sat back in his chair. "Sure is. What can I get you?"

The boy's brow wrinkled as he tried to think of something suitably trucker-like. "A Pepsi would go down cool," he stated after a moment, with remarkable precision for a three-year-old.

His father blinked, wondering which diabolical TV show he'd picked that up from. Although he supposed he shouldn't really be surprised; Sam was a bright child, already well in advance of his age verbally, as Mulder himself had been as a kid. "Coming right up," he replied and headed for the kitchen, Sam at his heels. "You want a cookie with that, fella?"


Mulder fished the bottle of decaffeinated cola out of the fridge and poured Sam a glassful, adding a couple of candy-striped straws, and found him a couple of chocolate-chip cookies. When he turned around, the boy was gravely offering him three Tiddly-Winks counters in payment, which he accepted with equal gravity.

"You have a nice day, now," he told him, and watched with amusement as Sam trundled back into the living room with his snack.

He was making himself a coffee when he heard the telephone ring, and by the time he got there, Sam had already discarded his trucker persona and was answering it.


"Sam!" he called, exasperated. The little boy's fascination with the telephone still endured.


Mulder slowed his rush to grab the receiver. "Sam, let me have that - "

Sam wasn't listening. "Day, are you coming to my party?"

Mulder firmly detached the boy's grip on the phone. "Give me that, you tyke - Hey, Scully."

"He's getting too quick for you," her voice said, amused.

"Tell me about it. So - you want me to come pick you up from the airport?"

There was a sigh. "Mulder, I'm still in Seattle."

"Uh-oh." He picked up the whole phone and went to sit on the arm of the sofa. "Let me guess - the case got adjourned."

"Right before my evidence, too. I tried, but they wouldn't fly me to DC just to fly me back here again on Sunday night. So I'm stuck here with three other agents, and the local SAC is an octopus."

Mulder snorted. "Who is he?"

In her hotel in Seattle, Scully smiled and rolled onto her back. "Who said it was a he?" She reveled in the startled silence at the other end of the phone.

"You're kidding me - aren't you?"

"I am, but it was worth it to hear you chewing the idea over."

Mulder looked at the receiver in his hand with a surprised grin. "Scully, are you trying to suggest I'm kinky?"

"What's "kinky"?" Sam suddenly demanded, reasserting his presence.

Scully laughed softly in Mulder's ear. "Get out of that one!"

"Daddy, is Day coming to my party?"

Mulder heard Scully sigh. "Mulder, put him on and I'll have a go at explaining to him."

"I thought you'd be at home tonight, keeping the luscious Agent Scully warm," Frohike observed, dropping a can of beer into Mulder's lap.

"Scully's out of town." Mulder cracked the can open and craned his neck around the monster PC monitor that was blocking his view of Sam and Langley. The pair of them were suspiciously quiet over in the corner, and he wasn't entirely sure he trusted the long-haired hacker with his son's moral welfare - an incident involving a potted cannabis plant named Delilah was still fresh in the ex-FBI Agent's memory.

"They're playing Pacman," Byers reassured him. "I think Sam's winning."

"She up to anything juicy?" Frohike persisted.

Mulder gave him an amused look. "You tell me. *You* trace her expenses claims for a hobby."

"Sure, we know she's staying at the Royal Grange Hotel in Seattle. The Bureau's local office is picking up the tab this time. But what's she *doing* there?"

"Testifying. She's the expert witness."

The troll-like little man chuckled. "Now *that* I can believe ...."

"Cut it out, Frohike. Besides, I don't know that I'm talking to Scully. She left me to fend for myself today with six pre-school terrorists. Ronald MacDonald may never recover from the assault - not to mention what happened to Barney." He grinned reluctantly. "Not that I haven't wanted to drown Barney myself before, but the strawberry ice cream and M
M's were just plain sadistic."

"You've got to hand it to kids," Frohike agreed. "They're born with a real gift for torture. So ... Scully's not looking up that abductee in Tacoma?"

Mulder raised a brow at him. "What abductee in Tacoma?"

"I sent you the file last week," Byers told him.

"I've got a stack of stuff I haven't looked at yet. We were three lecturers down last week, and I had to cover for two of them."

"Man, you've got to get your priorities right," Langley observed from the corner, proving that his mind wasn't totally on his game.

"Yeah - and feeding my son and heir comes pretty high on my list of priorities," Mulder retorted amiably. "I've got an unfashionable interest in keeping my rent paid, too."

"If you live on the high side of Alexandria, what do you expect?"

He forbore to answer this. Mulder didn't consider that he lived on the "high side" of Alexandria, if there was such a thing; when he'd rented the apartment, his main considerations had been the area's marginally better crime rate and its proximity to a good school. It was also closer to where his cousin Annie lived. But it was pointless to say this to Langley, whose priorities lay in entirely different areas. He probably thought Mulder and Sam could manage in a trailer park, so long as they had access to a decent computer.

"Did you finish that piece on crop circles?" Frohike asked.

"Nearly. I'll e-mail it to you on Monday, before I go to work."

Byers looked doubtful. "Cutting it close."

Mulder sighed. "I know, but I don't have limitless time like you guys. I have to do *some* prep-work for my lectures. Besides, if you'd just let me have the e-mail address of the real editors, I could send it to them directly, instead of using you as intermediaries."

It was plain that this viewpoint didn't go down well.

"Sorry - no can do," said Langley, suddenly appearing beside Byers. "These people are very jumpy about direct contact with their contributors. *Very* jumpy."

"Even more careful than us," Frohike nodded.

Mulder was tempted to ask what an article on crop circles could contain that warranted such paranoia, but he had a notion that he didn't really want to know. Some of the people the Gunmen worked with were even weirder than he could handle.

"Show him the Tacoma stuff," Langley told Frohike.

"Do I really want to know?" Mulder asked doubtfully, but they weren't listening. Frohike was rummaging around in a huge cardboard monitor box beside his computer desk, and he wondered how the little man ever found anything in there; it was stuffed full of papers, magazines, unlabeled floppy disks and writable CD's.

Eventually he re-emerged with a video cassette, which he brandished triumphantly. "The evidence!"

"Evidence of what?" Out of the corner of his eye Mulder saw Sam appearing around the stacks of equipment and other clutter, and he picked him up, settling the boy on his lap.

Byers switched on a TV and slipped the cassette into the VCR. "This man is a multiple abductee," he explained. "The last time he was returned, his brother video-taped his injuries and - "

"Hold it right there," Mulder said sharply. He grabbed the video remote and snapped the machine off. "Not with Sam here - what are you thinking of?"

Byers and Frohike had the grace to look abashed, but Langley merely looked bemused. "It's educational," he said, and Mulder gave him an annoyed look.

"That's what you said about Delilah. Here - give me the tape and I'll look at it later."

"I'll make you a copy," Frohike agreed. "The editor of one of our sister magazines was hoping you'd consider going out there and talking to this guy. He claims to get a warning just before he's taken - a signal transmitted to a computer chip in his neck."

Mulder was interested in spite of himself. "*Has* he got a chip in his neck?"

"We don't know," Byers admitted, "but what makes his claims so interesting is that a number of abductees in MUFON have small pieces of metal which were removed from their necks after they were returned." His expression was fleetingly wistful. "We've been trying to get our hands on a sample to examine, but it's difficult to obtain anything from MUFON without them becoming ... suspicious."

"Have you ever considered just asking them, instead of all this cloak and dagger stuff?" he asked, amused.

The horrified looks he got told him everything he needed to know.

"Serious breach of security!" Langley said, his eyes almost popping out behind his thick-lensed glasses.

"We might have to divulge our sources," Frohike added.

"And besides - most of them are women," Langley concluded, as if this was the biggest problem they could face.

Mulder looked at Byers, who was looking only fractionally less disturbed than his comrades. "Are you with them on this?" he asked.

The bearded man shifted uncomfortably in his seat. "Well .... They're a little too keen on publicity for our comfort," he offered.

"So you'd rather I fly out to Tacoma and interview a guy who probably has a shotgun pellet lodged in his back from a hunting accident, and who sees fairies at the bottom of the garden."

There was a pause, and Frohike gave him a narrow look. "You know, you're even beginning to sound like her," he observed.

Mulder was nettled. "What's that supposed to mean?"

The three men exchanged speaking glances. "Scully's rubbing off on you," Langley commented acidly. "A year ago you'd have been on the next plane out there."

"A year ago I was sharing accommodation and expenses with my mother and could afford to jump on the next plane. These days I have trouble just finding a babysitter when I have an evening lecture." Mulder sighed and rubbed his face with one hand. "Look, let me see the video and any other stuff you have, and I'll think about it. But they'd better be paying good money for the article, or no deal, no matter how good the story looks."

Mulder leaned back against the sofa cushions and stared thoughtfully at the TV screen, which was showing a frozen image of a man in his late forties. The individual in question was bare from the waist up, displaying a pale and malnourished-looking torso, but Mulder wasn't interested in the physique. He was staring contemplatively at a number of scars on the man's chest and abdomen, most notably the navel.

He clicked the remote and the screen sprang to life again. The man slowly rotated and the camera zoomed in on the back of the neck. There was another faint scar there.

Mulder clicked the TV off and looked at the small sheaf of hand-written notes in his lap. Several pieces of metal had apparently been removed from the man's chest and navel, and x-rays showed another tiny fragment lying subcutaneously at the base of the neck. This was the so-called "chip" he claimed received messages warning him when he was going to be abducted. Mulder wondered absently at the purpose of this - why warn the victim in the first place? But that was something presumably only the man himself could answer.

Of course, this could all be hokum. The abductee - Duane Barry - had made claims of extensive experimentation on the part of his kidnappers, involving surgical incisions with no anesthetic. There was no physical evidence of this whatsoever, but claims that his teeth had been drilled had proved to be true. More importantly, the holes left behind appeared to have been made with an unidentified implement, something which on the face of it was far in advance of any current dentistry techniques.

Interesting. Very, very interesting.

Mulder tossed the papers to one side and leaned back, staring up at the ceiling thoughtfully. Langley had been right - a year ago this would have had him on the plane as soon as he could pack an overnight bag. But this was now, and he simply didn't have the finances to cover it.

The phone rang, and he leaned over the arm of the sofa to reach it. "Mulder."

"It's me." On the other side of the continent, Scully leaned back against the pillows and smiled. "I thought you'd like to know I'll be out of here by Wednesday."

"That's good news. Hold on, I'm switching to the mobile ...." Mulder switched phones and sprawled back on the sofa, kicking his shoes off and stretching himself out. "Are you coming straight back, or will you stop and take a look around?"

"Oh, I think I'll come home. Not that I wouldn't like to take a look around while I'm here, but it's kind of boring on my own." She sighed. "Besides, I don't know that I want to hang around in Seattle. Agent Dubois has gone from being mildly irritating to seriously annoying. He'd probably think I was staying on just to see him - the guy has an ego the size of the Empire State Building."

Mulder's brow furrowed. "This is the octopus SAC?"

"Correct. I had to have dinner with him and the other agents tonight." He could hear the combination of annoyance and amusement in her voice. "I thought I was going to have to stab him with my fork if he didn't keep his hands to himself."

"And did he?"

"Did he what?"

"Keep his hands to himself."

"No." She blew out a frustrated breath. "It was difficult, though - I didn't really want to make a fuss in front of three senior male colleagues, and he's the kind of creep who .... Well, never mind. I've barricaded my door now, just in case."

Mulder sat up sharply. "What?! ....You're okay, aren't you?"

There was a sudden smile in her voice. "Mulder, I'm fine. He's just a nuisance - you can meet them anywhere. Sorry ... I haven't really barricaded my door, unless you count mentally."

"Okaaaay ...." He blew out a relieved breath, and leaned back again. "How about your testimony?"

"That's fine too, even if I *haven't* practiced it with Dubois at his place this evening."

Mulder was startled into a burst of laughter, although it was mostly relief. "You've got to give the guy credit for trying!"

"Yeah - in a cheap and obvious way." Scully dismissed SAC Dubois without another thought. "So - how did the party go today?" Mulder groaned, and she laughed. "That bad?"

"I may never be allowed in MacDonald's again - although that may not be a bad thing. Scully, it was a real food-fight. And even with Annie to help me, it was hell trying to keep track of six little boys and one five year old girl. Where do they get all their energy from? There was ice-cream and fries everywhere! And I swear if you turn your back on them for five minutes, they try to kill each other."

Scully began to giggle. "Did his "bestest friend" turn up in the end?"

"Which one?" Mulder asked in a long-suffering voice. "He had a massive falling out with Martin over the popcorn bucket at the movie, and by the time the mothers came to pick them all up from my place, he was hobnobbing with a kid called Li-Weng ... who wasn't even one of our party."

"Huh? Where did he come from?"

"His family just moved in upstairs, and the kid was mooching around the staircase looking lonely. I can see that I'm going to be spending a lot of time escorting Sam up and down the stairs in the near future, when he visits."

"Poor baby!"

"Yeah, it's a hard life. And I'm not sure I've forgiven you yet for abandoning me to my fate."

He could hear the smile in her voice. "How can I make it up to you?"

"Oh, I don't know .... What are you wearing?"

Stretching against the pillows, Scully's smile became wicked. "Well, I *was* wearing that pale lemon-colored dress - you know, the sleeveless one with the round neckline."

Mulder did know. It was very simple, and the hemline was three inches above her knee. At least. "You wore that dress for the Federal Octopus?" He was a little hurt, for he felt that he had first claim on Scully's knees.

"No," she said mildly, "I wore it for me. I needed the confidence boost."

"Oh." Suddenly he caught up with her and blinked. "Hang on - you wore it, past tense? Aren't you wearing it now?"

"No." Scully stretched again, a very satisfied smile on her lips. Now she really had his attention. "I took it off just before I called you. It was ... a little confining."

"Oh. So you're what - in bed already?"

"No - I'm lying on top of it. I only took my dress off, Mulder. And my shoes, of course."

A pause. "Do you still wear that ivory-colored satin slip under that dress?" he asked finally.

"Not this time. I had a new cream lace merrywidow I wanted to try for size, and it seemed a shame to wear too many layers when it's been so warm here for the last couple of days. Not so warm that I went without stockings, of course ...."

Mulder swallowed. "You're wearing stockings?" He liked it when she wore stockings; there was something indescribably feminine about them as a garment, and it was an outward display that although she was a very tough individual, she was still all woman. Besides, he liked the sound they made when her legs brushed together.

"Hm." Scully idly raised one leg and ran her hand caressingly down her thigh from the knee, tracing the lacy top of the stocking with her fingertip. "Hold-ups. Not that I've got anything against garters, but the hold-ups seemed more ... convenient. They're cream, with two inches of lace at the top." Her tone was musing. "I wasn't really sure when I bought them, but they're kind of nice. They match my lingerie."

Mulder's eyes drifted shut. The woman was a witch, without a doubt, and would probably have been burned at the stake three centuries previously for what she was doing to him now. He shifted restlessly on the sofa, aware that his jeans were becoming uncomfortably tight in one particular area. "So ... they match your lingerie?" he parroted, unable to think of anything original to say.

It probably had something to do with all the blood rushing south from his brain.

"Yes - it's a cream lace merrywidow. I *told* you so a few minutes ago," she replied. There was a tiny hint of reproach in her voice, as though she thought he hadn't been paying attention.

"Yeah, but you didn't give me a *full* description."

"Didn't I?"

"No," and he shifted again, wondering if he should just go to his bedroom and get rid of the confining jeans.

"It's mostly lace," Scully was murmuring in his ear. She looked down at herself contemplatively, and ran her fingers lightly over the underwired bra cups. "The legs are cut quite high and it fits snugly - "

She was cut off by a groan. "Scully, you're killing me here."

Her voice became a purr. "Oh, Mulder .... I haven't even *started* yet."

Mulder fought a losing battle with himself, and finally gave in with a sigh. "In that case, give me a minute to move this to my bedroom ...."

The telephone was an annoying buzz in Mulder's ear. He groaned and swatted at it with one hand, but the noise wouldn't go away. Strange how it seemed so loud .... He peeled back one sleep-fogged eyelid and realized that the mobile extension was actually in bed with him. What - ? Oh yeah ....

He reached out and blearily thumbed it on. "Yeah?" he mumbled thickly.

"Mulder, what the hell have you been doing? We've been trying to get through to you for more than an hour!"

"Huh?" Mulder rolled onto his back and peered at his watch. "Give me a break, Frohike - it's one-thirty in the morning!"

"Yeah, and you were on the phone steady from eleven-thirty onwards! We gave up at twelve-fifteen ...."

"So why are you ringing me now?" Mulder snarled indignantly.

"Have you looked at that tape?" Frohike demanded.

"Actually, I did." Mulder sighed, and hauled himself into a sitting position, hampered a little by the embarrassing fact that his boxers were still wrapped around his knees and his tee-shirt was trying to twist itself back to front with him still inside it. "Interesting, I'll admit, but why hasn't the guy had the chip in his neck removed?"

"Our source says Barry prefers to know when he's being 'summoned'."

"Even if the information is useless?" His brows rose.

"Abductees. Go figure."

"The bit about his teeth was what really caught my eye. Can anyone account for that?"

"Not so far, but no one's really done an in-depth interview with him yet. He's kind of paranoid, but he's heard of you and he's expressed a willingness to talk."

Mulder sighed again. "Great. I'm interested, Frohike, but the original objection still stands. What's the fee?"

The little man's grin was almost visible down the telephone. "That's why we were trying to get hold of you. The editor's going ape - his main story this month got blown by another publication. Apparently the writer sold it twice, and did a runner, so they're relying on you."

"Not so fast - you haven't answered my question. I repeat; what's the money like?"

"Still the standard fee, but they've offered to pay for your flight out there."

There was a pause as Mulder considered this. "Frohike, between you and me - how desperate is this editor of yours for the whole nine yards?"

Frohike began to chuckle. "Between you and me? Pretty desperate - he can't get anyone reliable to take it, or not anyone he trusts anyway."

"Okay. Ask him if he'll stump up for me *and* Sam, return tickets to Seatac Airport. *Open* return tickets."

"Wicked," was the appreciative reply. "I'll get back to you, but I think he'll go for it."

"You know, sometimes you sound just like my manager," Mulder yawned, as he dragged the quilt up around his neck again.

"No way - you're too much of a prim donna," was the quick reply, and the line went dead as Frohike hung up.

Two days later, Mulder and Sam arrived at Seatac Airport, to be met by Scully in a hired jeep.

"Let me guess," Mulder said, dryly humorous. "You were a Girl Scout." He hefted his bags and Sam's into the back of the jeep, then paused and leaned on the side of the vehicle, looking down at Scully with a lurking twinkle. "You're going to regret this, you know."

"Why?" she demanded.

"You've never yet spent more than a few hours in Sam's company in one go. And now you're *volunteering* to spend three days in a tent with him?" He shook his head in mock sadness. "You're nuts, Scully."

"Where did you get this idea that I'm a shrinking violet?" she shot back, chuckling. "You've seen my nephews, Mulder - trust me, Sam is a lamb by comparison. And I'm looking forward to this. I haven't been camping in years."

"I would never dream of calling you a shrinking violet," he assured her. "In fact, I'm so convinced of your machismo, that I'm even going let you drive."

"That's big of you, considering that I rented this thing."

Mulder grinned, and jumped in the passenger side. He glanced into the back seat, where Sam was strapped into a child's seat already. "You okay back there, Sunshine?"

"Yes, Daddy."

"Good boy." Actually, the kid looked tired to Mulder, which was no surprise. He'd been active all through the flight out to Seattle, but with any luck he'd crash now and sleep for a few hours. They had a drive of something like three or four hours to Olympic National Forest - with a stopover in Tacoma first to interview the paranoid Duane Barry - and keeping him occupied for that length of time would be a full-time job.

"This could be a long drive," Scully observed, as she got behind the wheel. "I checked the driving conditions earlier and Interstate 5 is pretty busy." She started the car and pulled out. "How was the flight?"

"Busy. Is there something going on that we don't know about?"

She shrugged slightly. "Might be a game on."


There was silence for a short period while Scully maneuvered in and out of the morning traffic, then she glanced sideways at him. "So what's the interview about?"

"The guy's an alleged multiple abductee," Mulder replied readily enough. "He claims to have undergone a variety of medical procedures during his experiences, one of which involved the implantation of a number of metal devices in his body. He says he still has one such device implanted at the base of his neck and furthermore, he claims that he receives signals from it warning him when he's about to be taken away by "them"."


"Presumably the little grey Reticulans, although I won't know for sure until I talk to him."

Scully spared enough attention from the road to give him a curious look. "Mulder, you almost sound blasé about this. Don't you believe his story?"

"Well ...." He rubbed the side of his nose reflectively. "I've done a little research on this guy - as much as I can do, given that I don't know a whole lot about him to begin with - and there's some suggestion that he might have mental problems. Now granted your average alien abductee isn't always totally stable, due to his or her experiences. But I still feel a little wary about *this* guy. There's stuff that strongly suggests he's genuine, but just because he really *was* taken up into spaceships by the Greys doesn't mean he can't be a total loon as well."

"Do you want me to come along, just in case?" she asked, concerned.

"Not really. In fact, I think you and Sam should stay well out of the way. The guy's completely paranoid, and he's only expecting to see me - if you come along, and he *is* a nut, he could flip entirely."

"Now I'm worried," she told him quite seriously.

Mulder chuckled. "Don't be! He's probably just a harmless conspiracy freak, but since I'm out here to interview him - and screwed two plane tickets out of the magazine on the strength of it - I don't see the point in scaring Barry off before he talks. I might as well do the job properly."

"Hm. I'm not going to argue with you but be careful, Mulder."

His grin was untroubled. "Aren't I always?"

"Hm ... let's not go there." She gave him a look of mock admonition, which he only smirked at. "Okay .... Let's change the subject. How's Annie?"

"Ouch." Mulder looked a little wry. "Can we change *this* subject as well?"

Scully blinked in surprise. "Why?"

"Let's just say that I'm not Annie's favorite person at the moment."

"Mulder ... what have you done?"

"It's not exactly what *I've* done," he said defensively. "It's how I reacted to something she did."


"Yeah." There was a pause, and Mulder seemed to be preoccupied with watching the scenery out of the side window. Scully sighed.

"Okay, fine. Don't tell me."

"Scully .... Sheesh! Okay - she invited you and me to dinner with her and Simon. On Shabbat."

Scully was puzzled. "What's so terrible about that?"

"I refused, and she got a little bent out of shape. She'll get over it, Scully."

There was another pause as Scully switched lanes. After a moment, she asked in a level voice, "That's the second time you've refused an invite to Annie's on my behalf. Want to tell me why?"

"Simon tipped me off about one of the other guests." Simon was Annie's husband.

"Mulder, this is like pulling teeth - "

"She invited Rabbi Neuberger," he interrupted, a little desperately. "You know what Annie's like, Scully - she's got this idea in her head ...." His voice trailed off briefly as he glanced over his shoulder at Sam. The little boy was fast asleep, and Mulder warily lowered his voice. "She's got this idea that you and I might be considering getting married. And Annie being Annie ... well, I don't think it's occurred to her that you might not want to convert. She tends to think in straight lines, and anything other than a conventional temple wedding would be inconceivable. So ...."

"So she invited the Rabbi along to discuss it with me?"

"Something like that."

Scully suppressed a grimace. "Mulder, I wouldn't want to upset her but you do realize that even if we were thinking of such a thing - "

"*Scully*." She looked at him, and he was grinning at her. "I can't think of many things that would persuade me to have another traditional wedding at this stage in my life," he told her, amused, "and Annie doesn't have what it takes to change my mind, trust me. Nor would I want you to convert. Even if I *did* want all that, I'd have to track Phoebe down and hand her the 'get', the final bill of divorce, before I'd be free to go through with it. And since we both already know where we stand on the subject of marriage anyway ...."

"But she won't see it that way, will she?"

"Oh, she probably will, but it'll take time for her to get used to the idea. We'll probably have to sit down with her and discuss it at some point - but now isn't the right time. She's a little aggrieved at being thwarted."

Scully smiled reluctantly. "I can imagine- she's a masterful person."

"Actually, I was thinking "interfering", but you're kinder than I am." There was another pause, and Mulder dug into his pocket for his bag of sunflower seeds. Cracking one between his teeth, and offering Scully the bag, he asked, "Did Skinner make any objections to you taking a few days off?"

"Not after the trouble with the adjournment. In fact, he suggested I should take a little longer since I've got some vacation time stocked up, so I've got next week free as well." Scully glanced at him. "You're working, I guess."

"Yeah." He grimaced. "I've got a couple of evening classes too ... my punishment for coming here, probably."

"You want me to take Sam off your hands next week?"

"Ask me that again when we're flying out of here on Sunday," Mulder suggested, amused.

Scully looked at Sam in the rear view mirror. He was fast asleep with his mouth open, head lolling against one of the 'ears' of his seat, and looked as though butter wouldn't melt in his mouth. Her nephews looked exactly the same when they were asleep, and she had long ago privately decided that Matt and Jimmy were possessed.

Mulder was watching her with a tiny, wicked grin on his face.

"Hm," she said, and left it at that.

Mulder had arranged to meet Duane Barry in the center of town, somewhere that was presumably busy enough that the man would feel secure. Although Mulder had his doubts that *anywhere* would be secure enough for this guy. All the same, he couldn't help feeling, when he finally set eyes on Barry, that his precautions were wasted. The man was so jumpy that people were eyeing him warily as he passed.

*Great,* Mulder sighed inwardly. "Duane Barry?"

The man gave him an unnerving five second stare. He was painfully thin, and decidedly unkempt, with collar-length greasy hair and clothes that had seen better days. But this barely attracted Mulder's notice; he was more concerned by the grimly manic light in Barry's eyes.

He'd been right not to allow Scully and Sam to come along to the meeting; this man was definitely unhinged.

"You Fox Mulder?" Barry demanded finally.

Mulder fished in his pocket, grateful that he'd thought to bring along an old White House press card he'd been issued during one of his more respectable assignments. Barry accepted it at arm's length and examined it minutely. "This is out of date," he said suspiciously.

"Yeah, I'm not welcome at the White House these days."

Again, the hungry, penetrating stare. "They try to shut you up?"

"Not exactly. But they weren't keen on the questions I was asking." Mulder grinned inwardly at the memory. "Neither was the editor I was writing for."

"Huh." Barry handed the card back, and there was an uneasy silence.

Finally Mulder gave up and made the next move. "So ... where do you want to talk?"

"Somewhere where there's people - lots of people. They won't take me in front of witnesses."

*This is going to be a long afternoon,* Mulder thought. Out loud, he merely observed, "Okay, how about we get a beer?"

When Mulder caught up again with the others, Scully was trying to discourage Sam from chasing birds outside an ice cream parlor. Her efforts were only meeting with marginal success, he was amused to note; Sam had inherited his father's ability to become selectively deaf when he chose (although Mulder would never have admitted that the trait came from him).

Scully greeted him with an apologetic smile. "Sorry, Mulder. I tried to keep him clean, but he still managed to get ice cream down his front."

Mulder chuckled and swooped down on his son, scooping him up firmly. "I don't know," he replied, surveying the damage to the boy's shirt philosophically. "You've done pretty well, all things considered. He usually manages to get it in his hair as well." He swung Sam up and blew a raspberry on his neck, making him giggle.

"I uh ... washed it out when I was trying to clean him up."

He grinned at her wry expression. "I did warn you." He put Sam down again. "So, what do you want to do? Get something to eat now, or buy something to eat on the road?"

Scully glanced at her watch. "I think we should pick something up and get moving," she decided.

"Okay .... Sam! Come on, kiddo."

Scully hid a smile as Sam, who had rapidly edged away from them, stopped and eyed Mulder speculatively, clearly weighing up how serious his father was. He took an experimental step toward the flock of birds pecking up crumbs and rubbish thrown by the tourists nearby.

"Sam - " Mulder's voice took on a warning note. "You come now, or I'll put the reins on you."

Sam's chin instantly began to jut out stubbornly. "No!"

Mulder took a step towards him, and at once the little boy scampered off. There was a brief chase amid a cloud of panicking birds, making Scully snort with laughter; then a young woman, gripping her own two-year-old firmly by the hand, grabbed the tail of Sam's shirt as he passed her.

Sam was red-faced and bawling with temper when Mulder carried him back, kicking his feet in the air. "Ignore him," Mulder said mildly when he saw Scully's raised brow. "If he wants people to stare at him, that's fine with me!"

She nodded and proceeded to change the subject. "How did the interview go?"

"Pretty much as I expected," Mulder sighed. Sam continued to vent his feelings as he was carried bodily along. "Barry is a seriously disturbed individual, Scully, but a lot of the things he came out with I've heard other abductees say."

"Which probably means he's well-read on the subject. Obsessive ...."

"You could say that about me."

She gave him an amused look. "You said it, Mulder; not me."

He gave her a mock glower, but his mind was really elsewhere. "He doesn't look to me like the kind of guy who sits and reads for pleasure, Scully," he commented after a moment. "He's manic, jumpy - he was on the twitch the whole time we were talking. I would expect someone with a UFO fixation - as opposed to a supposed abductee - to be more intense, more knowledgeable. Someone more educated, to be honest. I could be wrong about Barry, but that's not the way he presented himself. Hell, he had a hard time stringing a coherent sentence together, although verbal dysphasia could easily be a symptom of his mental problems."

"I think you're crediting UFO freaks with more mental acumen than they deserve," Scully told him skeptically. "Remember, I've read some of those publications you've forced onto me. I'll grant you that the Gunmen can produce logical, credible arguments with considerable - if dubious - evidence to back them up. You can't say that about a great many of the others. And some of the people you've introduced me to are pretty poor in the verbal communications department too."

Mulder had to give her that. Some of the publications produced by UFO groups he'd encountered would lead no one to believe that fully educated adults were behind them; nor did meeting these people engender much confidence. But long term association with them at least fostered a belief in their sincerity if nothing else. And he had no doubts about Duane Barry's sincerity. The man might be mentally unsound, but he fervently believed what he was saying.

And there was still the implant to be explained.

Sam had finally given up yelling, when it became obvious that the two adults were going to ignore him. "Daddy! Want to walk."

Mulder stopped and looked at his son. "Oh, you do, do you? Well, I think you'll go on the reins all the same, mister."

Sam pouted, but obediently stood still while he was buckled up. Mulder straightened up.

"Okay, guys, let's get something to eat and hit the road."

Having spent the first night at a larger campsite relatively close to the outer edge of the forest, they decided the next day to keep on driving to another site further in, with the objective of doing a little hiking.

"We could do with stopping at the Ranger Station and seeing if we could get a better map," Scully frowned, as she rummaged through the glove compartment. Mulder was taking his turn driving. "The one we've got is okay, but it would be good to have something a little more detailed. How far do you think we'll manage, anyway?" She was a little doubtful about their chances, given that they had Sam with them. Little legs would only be able to manage so far.

"If you're thinking of Sam, don't worry. I've got that problem covered."

Scully glanced back at Sam, who was entertaining himself with his Marvin the Martian toy. She smiled. "How far can you walk, Sam?"

"All the way!" he asserted, and Mulder grinned.

"Yeah, sure you can, Sunshine, with me carrying you."

Sam temporarily lost interest in the adventures of Marvin the Martian, and began taking an interest in the view out of the window. "When are we stopping, Daddy?"

Abruptly, there was a jolt and a bang, making the little boy squawk with alarm. The vehicle skidded, and with some difficulty Mulder wrestled it into a controlled swerve. They jolted to a halt, and there was a tense pause. "I guess we're stopping here," Mulder said, shaken.

"What the ... holies was that?" Scully gasped. She unfastened her seatbelt and opened the door, sliding out.

When she met Mulder around the other side, he was examining the front tire. "Look at this," he said, touching the jagged edge of a tear in the thick rubber treads. "Clean through the side wall."

Scully crouched beside him, and peered at the ground behind the front wheels. "Oh my God ...." She dropped onto her knees and reached under the vehicle, pulling out a chunk of metal the size of her hand. It was a spidery contraption made of thick iron prongs welded together, which were razor-sharp and bent out at angles. The device couldn't lie flat on the ground but was designed so that any object such as a tire catching on one of the spikes would drag it over, either embedding it more securely or ripping it free.

Mulder took it from her and examined it grimly. "I've seen something like this before," he commented after a moment. "Did you take the basic course with Domestic Terrorism?"

She nodded. "It's a ... caltrop?"

"That's right. Real caltrops were a medieval device designed to lame horses. *These* things are made by terrorists to take out rough terrain vehicles." He sat back on his haunches and looked around. It was a beautiful day ... but suddenly the shine had been taken out of the trip for him. "From the locality, I'd guess this was laid by so-called 'ecoterrorists'. We'd better take a good look up the road and make sure there aren't any others, because we can't afford to lose another tire."

Changing the wheel took the better part of an hour, and left both of them dirty and short-tempered. Then Scully hopped back into the jeep and drove slowly up the road behind Mulder as he scouted it out. The road itself was pretty good, and fairly wide, but the surface showed the inevitable wear and tear made by heavy trucks - probably logging lorries, although this part of the forest wasn't currently being felled as far as Mulder could see.

He found two or three more of the vicious little metal traps before they reached the next junction, all of which had been near the side of the road and were showing signs of weathering.

"Probably been there some time," he grunted to Scully as he climbed back into the vehicle. "Guess it was just our bad luck."

"Not much of a consolation," she sighed. "Okay, let's hot-foot it to the Ranger Station. If nothing else we need to let them know what happened."

"Monkey-wrenchers," Ranger Moore said succinctly, and without much surprise. He fingered the tear in the wall of the damaged wheel, and whistled slightly through his teeth. "Won't be able to fix that with a patch. I've seen upwards of two dozen wheels done like that in the last six months, but this is the first one on that particular road. I'll get one of my men to go and check it out, just in case there's any more of those things."

Mulder's brows rose at the man's matter-of-fact tone. "This happens a lot?"

Moore grinned humorlessly. "That? That's nothing! Come take a look at this." He led them outside to where three trucks bearing the Federal Forest Service badge were parked. Moore gestured to the windscreen of the nearest one. "Check it out."

Mulder stepped a little closer and examined the roughly circular chip off-center of the shield. "Is this a bullet hole?"

"Point two-two caliber," the ranger nodded. "Lucky they were too far off for it to do more than crack the glass, huh?"

"Was it a hunting accident?" Scully asked, uneasily aware of Sam clinging to her hand, his eyes very round.

Moore glanced at her. "Not much to hunt out here but Freddies, Agent Scully."


"Employees of the Federal Forest Service - it's what the ecoterrorists call us."


"And you're sure it's ecoterrorists?" Mulder asked, curious. "Seems a little extreme." Although he didn't seem too surprised either, Scully noticed.

Moore shrugged. "There's not much I reckon they'd stop at." He rubbed the back of his neck wearily. "Let's get this straight - I have no quarrel with these guys in principle. I'm as much in favor of saving the environment as anybody. Hell, that's why I became a ranger. But I can't condone their methods. And out here, I'm stuck in the middle of the argument."

"You have to work with the lumber companies as well," Mulder nodded.

"Right. And right now I've got a dozen loggers missing out there, every man of them with survival experience. I'm not saying the monkey-wrenchers have anything to do with it, mind, but ...." He let his voice trail off significantly.

"How long have they been missing?" Scully asked quietly.

"Two weeks. We got a radio message from them saying that a couple of the known terrorists had been on a spree up there - spiking trees, sabotaging equipment, etc. - then nothing. I sent two guys up there a week ago to take a look, one of my own men, and one from Schiff-Immergut Lumber, the logging company, and we haven't heard from them since either." Moore turned abruptly on his heel and walked back into the station.

Mulder and Scully exchanged glances and followed him inside.

"I can provide you folks with a map, and I'll mark the areas to avoid - areas where the lumber companies are in operation," the ranger said. "I'm afraid we can't do much about your spare wheel, but if you stay on the main roads and drive carefully, you should be fine. There are a couple of good campsites not too far away, not much used at this time of year, and the trails shouldn't be too hard for the little fella to manage."

"What are you going to do next about the missing men?" Mulder asked as Moore escorted them back to their vehicle.

"I'm escorting Steve Humphreys, Schiff-Immergut's head of security, up there in a couple of days' time. We'll see what we find."

"Good luck," Mulder said soberly. He turned to go, then suddenly turned back. "Say, have you got a phone here I could borrow?"

"Sure. There's a public phone around the side there."

"You weren't surprised by any of this," Scully said to Mulder in a low voice as she and Sam followed him to the phone.

"Well, you've heard of ecoterrorists too, haven't you?"

"Yes, but nothing recently."

He gave her a thoughtful look. "You know, I hadn't thought about this before but .... When you moved into my office, did you get the computer fixed?"

Scully looked at him for a moment, debating whether it was worth challenging the possessive "my office", then decided to leave it for another occasion. "I got the gummed up keyboard sorted out, if that's what you mean, but the computer itself was really ropy. After I'd had a couple of complete crashes, they replaced the whole thing."

"Did they copy all the software over?"

"Not after the hard-drive fried itself completely the second time. There was nothing left, although fortunately I'd backed up all the files to a zip disk - "

"That explains it," Mulder said, satisfied.

"Explains *what*?" Scully demanded indignantly.

"Why you aren't intercepting a lot of stuff coming into the Bureau which should really be classified as x-files but aren't." Mulder located the phone and began to rummage in the pocket of his jeans for change. "I had a piece of software on my computer that the Gunmen designed for me - basically it monitored the network drives and made copies of any files loaded which fell into certain parameters. I had it monitoring Central Records and the VCS files all the time. That's how I found most of my contemporary cases."

Scully was speechless. When she finally found her voice, it was a whispered explosion of outrage. "Mulder, you can't do that! Most of those files are confidential - "

"So? I was an agent loosely attached to the VCS - I was hardly hacking in from the outside. It's just a useful tool, Scully - you have to be ahead of the game. I'll get Frohike to make you a copy." He shoved a few coins into the slot and dialed a number. "Speaking of hacking, though .... Byers, it's me. You can turn off the tape .... Yes .... What? No, it's not about that. Look, can you get Langley to check something out for me? It's probably in the disks I gave you a couple of years ago, but you might have to hack into the Bureau network. There should be an x-file on loggers going missing in the Olympic National Forest about sixty years ago ...."

"You've been spending too much time with the Gunmen," Scully told Mulder severely. She shot him a condemnatory look in the rear-view mirror, but his eyes only twinkled at her mischievously from the back seat.

"Funny. They think I've been spending too much time with you," he commented mildly, returning his attention to the device in his lap. "You *have* got your laptop with you, haven't you?"

"I thought you said your Psion Organizer can do everything a laptop can?"

"It can, but it'll be quicker on your laptop. Here, Sam - hold this for Daddy." Mulder gave his son a heavy-ish box-like piece of equipment - a separate 3.5 inch disk drive that was bigger than the miniaturized computer he was holding. "I'll transfer this stuff to disk - that is, if you've got Winzip loaded."

"I can't believe what you did to that payphone," Scully muttered, ignoring him. "I didn't even know is was *possible* to use a payphone line as an Internet link ...."

"I put it right again afterwards, didn't I?"

"And using Sam as a look-out while you did it - "

"Anyone would think I robbed the coin reserve on it. Relax, will you, Scully? It's not like I didn't pay for the call."

"*I* paid for the call, Mulder, after you ran out of quarters."

"So that makes you an accessory to the crime. All you had to do was refuse to stump up the cash." Mulder rummaged in the case he kept the disk drive in, and found a couple of clean, high density disks. He slotted one into the drive Sam was patiently holding, and began transferring zipped text files.

"So what is this stuff?" Scully asked finally.

"Not long before I left the X-Files, the guys helped me scan most of the files onto disk, so I had a back-up copy if anything untoward happened. Of course, at that point I didn't realize I was going to leave the Bureau, but I won't deny it's been handy having a spare copy of everything."

Scully made a slight huffing sound. "And you leave a copy of confidential Bureau files with the *Gunmen*!"

Mulder raised a brow at her. "Sure. Let's face it, Scully - who would you rather leave them with? The Gunmen, who are friends of ours, or someone like Tom Colton?"

"Point," she admitted, and let the subject drop.

"Here, take a look at this," Mulder said later, after they'd pitched their tent for the night. Sam was already fast asleep in his Spiderman sleeping-bag inside the tent, but neither of the adults had felt inclined to bed down early on such a pleasantly mild night.

Scully took possession of her laptop and peered at the JPEG file displayed. "What am I looking at?"

"Thirty loggers working a clear-cutting contract in this very forest. Rugged, manly men in the full bloom of their manhood."

"Right, but what am I looking for?"

"Anything strange, unexplainable, unlikely ... new boyfriend?"

"Ha. I still don't get it."

"Oddly enough, neither did the Forest Service."

Scully looked up at him curiously. "Past tense? Isn't this the current file on the loggers Moore was telling us about?"

Mulder cracked a sunflower seed between his teeth very casually. "Look again."

"Huh." Scully scrutinized the picture again. "Okay, so it's kind of old ... 1960s?"

"Good guess. 1962." He leaned over her and manipulated the touchpad mouse until another picture file appeared. "What about this one?"

The picture was black and white, making Scully blink. "Well, it's definitely pre-War."

"Right again - 1934. These are both groups of loggers - tough, survivalist types - who went missing in this forest without a trace." Mulder leaned over again and switched the picture once more. "Meet Steven Teague and Doug Spinney, monkey-wrenchers extraordinaire. They drive spikes into trees, sabotage logging equipment and otherwise make life miserable for lumberjacks and lumber-mills. Generally considered to be the prime suspects in the current disappearances, although there's little more than some very dubious circumstantial evidence. Not enough to charge them with, and none of it explains what happened to the other two groups. Ecoterrorism was a non-issue in 1934, of course, because there was less of an environmentalist movement centered around the forests."

Mulder sat back. "According to the guys, there *has* been an official request from Schiff-Immergut Lumber for the FBI to investigate, but the Bureau have one or two other things on their mind at the moment and haven't given it a very high priority. Hence Ranger Moore and the company's head of security taking a trip up to the site themselves."

Scully shut down the laptop. "You think these ecoterrorists had something to do with the disappearances?" She didn't think it was likely Mulder would; it was far too mundane an answer to interest him.

"Not really," he replied readily enough. "Think about it, Scully - these guys are taking a radical approach to protecting the environment, but taking out the loggers and Rangers would put them on a par with the kind of animal rights activist who bombs scientists' families. It would lose them public support. And there's just no hard evidence ."

"So you suspect what?" she asked tolerantly. "Bigfoot?"

He grinned. "That's a hell of a lot of flannel to choke down even for Bigfoot."

She chuckled softly, but her mind was already moving on. "Mulder .... Do I need to remind you that (a) you are not with the FBI anymore, (b) I'm on holiday, and (c) even if I wasn't, this is not my case? We have no jurisdiction here, and Ranger Moore will not be amused at our intrusion."

He shrugged. "It's a big forest, Scully, but the site of the 1962 disappearances is only a few miles from here. We could drop past tomorrow, just to take a look, and then be on our way."

Scully looked at him for a moment. "There's got to be a catch," she said doubtfully.

But his eyes were sincere. "Just a look out of curiosity. There's probably nothing left of the site by now anyway. Besides, I don't particularly feel like getting embroiled in a disappearing persons case with Sam tagging along."

She almost sighed with relief. "Okay, it's a deal. We take a look at the previous site and go our own way."

The logging site had not been touched since the previous camp had been found abandoned in 1962. The trees had been re-planted and were re-growing strongly, but the cabin which had served as living quarters for the logging team had been shut up and left.

Mulder eased the back-pack he carried Sam in to the ground - there had been a reasonable hike from the road and the little boy had tired out before they'd gone a third of the distance - and looked around him, while Scully scouted around the cabin itself.

"Is the door locked?" Mulder called softly, aware of an uneasy kind of stillness around the site.

"Yes, but ...." There was a pause and a rattling sound. "The lock's corroded. Give me a hand here."

"Agent Scully, you're not attempting an illegal forced entry, are you?" But Mulder joined her and between them they managed to persuade the lock to give way.

"I'm surprised they didn't board this place up properly," Scully observed, fumbling on her keyring for the tiny penlight Mulder had given her for her birthday. The cabin was shrouded in gloom from tightly shuttered windows.

Impatient to get a look, Sam pushed between the two adults and ran inside. His nose wrinkled in disgust and he sneezed as a faint cloud of dust arose from under his feet. "It smells, Daddy."

"No kidding." Mulder followed him in and took a quick glance around. "I'm surprised the people who shut this place up didn't clean up a little before they left. It almost looks like they just left it the way they found it." There were still dishes and mugs on the table in the middle of the main room, covered in dust and a dark layer of dried-up mold. The ceiling was festooned with enough cobwebs to make Scully watch them a bit sharply as she walked underneath; and on the far wall was a row of hooks still bearing the mildewed remains of lumberjacks' jackets.

"Hardly 'home sweet home'," Scully commented. She crossed to the stove in the corner and peered gingerly into a couple of rusting pans, then equally warily opened the store cupboard next to it. "Maybe they just got tired of franks'n'beans?" she suggested, swinging the door open wide enough to display row after row of tin cans in peeling, mildewed labels. She pushed it shut again, and absently wiped her fingers on her jeans. The surface of the door had felt slightly greasy.

"What are you lookin' for, Day?" Sam wanted to know. His small brow was furrowed and he had cobwebs in his hair.

"Some people who got lost when Daddy and I were little like you, sweetie," she replied absently.

"Maybe they didn't like it here, an' went home," he said. This place wasn't very interesting to him and was just a little bit creepy.

"You never know, Sunshine," Mulder agreed, brushing the webs off his son's head. He exchanged a look with Scully as he did so, though.

Neither of them thought it was very likely. In their experience, people who were going home didn't leave all their gear and their dirty dishes behind them.

Despite the ample re-growth of trees, there was plenty of evidence of the forestry work that had been carried out in the area during the early- to mid-1960s. Mulder found one huge tree still lying where it had been felled, half obscured by thick undergrowth, covered in lichens and slowly decomposing under the attentions of many tiny forest creatures and the forces of natural decay. The size was staggering; he estimated that the trunk was as much as a hundred and fifty feet long.

"I don't know much about the felling laws in this forest," Scully commented from the other side of the trunk, "but it seems wrong that a redwood this large should have been cut down for the lumber trade. It must be pretty old." She surveyed the dead tree sadly.

"What do you think - a couple of hundred years?" Mulder asked. He was bent over, peering at a faded orange mark on the blackened and crumbling bark.

"At least. What a waste."

He nodded and straightened up, turning away. "Sam? Kiddo, where are you?"


Mulder followed the piping voice and blinked; his son had apparently grown over a foot taller in the past five minutes. Sam had discovered the stump of the tree where it was surrounded by some thick leafy plant life and was standing on it.

"My God, it's like a table," Scully said, gazing at the stump.

"Yeah. Makes you wonder how many more trees like this were felled illegally."

She looked up at Mulder sharply. "What do you mean?"

He nodded towards the trunk. "There's a Forestry Service mark on it - an orange cross. According to those information leaflets we picked up at the Ranger Station, only trees marked with a blue cross can be felled. The orange ones are supposed to be left alone."

"Are you sure?" she asked, incredulous.

"Unless the marks have changed over the last thirty years, but I don't think that's likely."

Scully let out a disgusted puff of breath. "If that's the case, let's hope the lumber company responsible has cleaned up its act since then."

"Probably," Mulder admitted. "Conservation has become a bigger issue over the last fifteen or twenty years, just because of incidents like this." He reached out to Sam. "Come on, Sunshine - jump!"

Sam allowed himself to be lifted down. "Daddy, is this tree *very* old?"

"Sure is, kiddo." A conscientious parent could not allow an educational opportunity like this to pass by. Mulder dug his penknife out of his jeans pocket and cut back some of the vegetation around the stump, then crouched beside it and began to scrape the flat surface clean of dead leaves and lichens with a twig. He drew Sam a little closer. "Look at this." He pointed out the weathered rings in the stump. "You can tell how old a tree is by the rings - do you see? You can count them ... a year for each ring, is that right, Scully?"

"That's what I learned at school," she agreed, smiling.

"So if we counted these rings," Mulder continued, "we'd be able to tell exactly how old this tree is." He paused, running a finger from the center of the stump outwards. "This is a *very* old tree, Sam," he said, and the note of respect and awe in his voice wasn't just for the little boy's benefit. "There are almost too many rings to count."

Scully leaned over too, and drew a measuring finger over the dead wood. "I'm no expert so this is a guess, but I'd estimate this tree was anything up to five hundred years old when it was felled," she said after a moment.

Five hundred years was probably too big a period for Sam to imagine at his age, and Mulder struggled to think of a way he could make the boy understand. "Five hundred years ago, our ancestors were still living in Holland, Sam, and Dana's family were still living in Ireland. Five hundred years ago, there were no white people in America." That was stretching history a little, but it would be good enough for Sam.

"I wonder what this is, here?" Scully said suddenly. She ran her finger over a spot in the wood, a ring that was different. Pulling her own knife out, she knelt beside the stump and scraped carefully at the surface, cleaning away the decaying upper layer of wood from a few inches across. The rings were exposed more clearly and Mulder saw that one of them, perhaps two thirds of the way into the middle of the trunk, was a deep yellowish-green color. "Looks like something happened to this tree early on in its life," she commented.

Mulder was intrigued. "Such as?"

She shrugged. "I don't know - like I said, I'm anything but an expert. But it's possible there was some kind of localized environmental event which led to it drawing up some unusual material during its natural feeding process." Her brow wrinkled. "Perhaps I could take a sample ...."

Mulder gave her a look of mild surprise. "Why bother?"

She shot him an amused smile. "Curiosity, Mulder! Besides, what happened to exploring the unknown?"

He grinned. "Okaaaay .... What are you going to put it in, though? It's not like we have any nice, sterile sample vials with us."

"I'm not going to be sending it to the labs at Quantico, so a plastic bag will probably do. Have a look in my lunch box, will you, while I dig out a chunk of this wood." She proceeded to attack the tree stump with the point of her blade, while Mulder obediently rummaged around in her pack for a plastic bag.

"There!" She dug out several thick shavings of the discolored wood and put them in the bag Mulder waved under her nose, knotting it tightly. Then she put it into the empty lunch box, pressing the lid shut tightly. "I'll take a look at that when we get back to DC."

They stood up, Scully brushing off the knees of her jeans.

"We'd better be getting back to the car," Mulder decided. "We've still got to get to the next campsite before dark."

The next day they left the car at the campsite and hiked into the woods, Mulder carrying Sam in the back-pack again when the boy got tired. They were following one of the main trails, but by lunchtime, despite both their efforts, it became evident they had somehow strayed from the path marked on the map.

"Great," Scully sighed finally, coming to a halt and flapping the map dejectedly. She took another look at her compass, but it was clear from her expression that she wasn't very hopeful.

"Relax." Mulder took the map out of her hands. "Where's the last spot on the map where we *know* we were still on the trail?"

"Here - that's the last trail marker."

"Okay .... I don't think we can have gone more than about five or six miles since then, so we must be around here somewhere - " he drew a circle with his fingertip. "If that's the case, we just need to keep bearing right as much as possible and we should come back onto the trail at some point."

"We've been bearing right for nearly an hour now," she grumbled, but she started off again, following the narrow and overgrown path to the right.

When he knew she wasn't looking, Mulder grinned at her petulance. He wasn't particularly worried about having lost the path, since he was calmly confident that they would find it again long before nightfall; and even if they didn't, a mild night out in the open was hardly the worst thing that could happen to them. He and Scully were both healthy, adaptable individuals, and Sam had all the bouncy resilience of a boisterous childhood.

But he had noticed over the last couple of days that despite being an apparently experienced camper, Scully was not really the outdoorsy type at heart. She could build a camp fire and pitch a tent with the best of them, but she also liked the comfort of being in a properly maintained campsite. Roughing it was not her style, as he had discovered the night before when the campsite they arrived at turned out to be one of the lesser-used ones. Its facilities had been decidedly crude and Scully had been put out to say the least.

Hitching Sam and the back-pack up a little, Mulder set off after her. "You know," he observed, perhaps fifteen minutes later, "it's pretty quiet here."

"That's the beauty of the forest," Scully returned, her tone suggesting that, right now, the beauty of the forest wasn't doing much for her.

"No, I mean it's *really* quiet." So much so, in fact, that Mulder was beginning to feel a little uneasy. "There's no bird noise anymore. When we set out, you couldn't hear anything else. And I've noticed something else."


He stopped and gestured to one of the trees. "The trees here are marked, Scully. Fresh paint."

She looked around and realized he was right. Several of the nearest tree trunks bore blue crosses, the Forestry Service mark for a tree to be felled. She halted. "Looks like we've strayed into a felling area. That's probably why we can't hear much in the way of wildlife. Still, if we can find the loggers, they might be able to direct us back to the main path." The thought cheered her.

Mulder was less enthusiastic. "I don't know - I can't hear any chainsaws, can you?"

"Mulder, it's midday. They've probably stopped for lunch."

"I'm hungry!" Sam piped up at the mention of a meal.

"You're always hungry," Mulder informed him, but he had to admit that his own stomach was reminding him how long it had been since breakfast. Scully had doled out some snack bars made of dried fruit and nuts just before they started out, but the confectionery didn't rate highly with his taste buds. Sam, of course, had practically devoured them wrappers and all - but then, no one had ever accused Mulder's son of being choosy about his food. "We could do with finding someplace to stop and eat, though."

"If there are loggers here, then there's probably another cabin nearby. Let's take a look."

"Hungry!" Sam reiterated more energetically.

Mulder and Scully looked at each other, and she produced a rueful smile. "Okay, let's eat first," she agreed.

Mulder winked at her and began the awkward process of unhitching the back-pack with Sam in it, while Scully found a convenient tree stump and dumped her own pack on it. Rummaging around, she found the plastic box containing the sandwiches and fruit she'd packed up earlier, and for the next half an hour the three of them munched in near silence.

Crunching into a pear, Scully glanced around herself and had to admit that the area seemed almost ominously quiet. Mulder was right; there was no bird noise and it wasn't until you couldn't hear it that you realized just how much the sounds contributed to the comfort of the surroundings. The towering trees seemed a whole lot less friendly as a result. Sam had noticed it too; up until now it had been hard for them to keep him within a safe distance when he was walking on his own two feet, but now he seemed content to stay close and was looking around himself uncertainly.

"We should try and find that cabin," Mulder said finally, throwing his apple core into the undergrowth. Scully nodded and began to pack up the debris of the meal. Meanwhile, Sam had latched onto Mulder's hand and was whispering. "You what? Oh ...." Mulder straightened up. "Scully, we've just got to take a trip into the bushes, okay?"

"Sure, so do I. I'll just go up here, and meet you back on the path."

When Scully same back to the path five minutes later, though, there was no sign of Mulder and Sam. She sighed, swinging her rucksack onto her back, and walked back down the path a short way. "Mulder?"

"Over here," he called quietly.

Scully frowned and followed his voice until she found him and Sam standing in a small clearing just off the main trail. Mulder was looking up at something in the branches above his head.

"What are you doing?"

"Come and look at this, Scully." Mulder pointed upwards. "What do you make of it?

She tilted her head back and saw that there was a large greyish mass hanging above them from one of the lower branches of a sturdy redwood. For a moment or two, she thought it might be an old piece of sheet or a grey blanket wrapped around the branch; then she felt her throat go dry. Whatever it was, it looked *spun*, like a spider's web or the cocoon of a moth ... only it was far too large to be an insect structure.

"What do you think it is?" Mulder asked her.

Scully shook her head, her eyes riveted. "I don't know. Is it - can it be natural?"

"I was hoping you could tell me - "

"Aren't you folks a little far out of your way up here?"

All three of them jumped, and Mulder nearly fell over a log in his haste to turn around. It was Ranger Moore, and he was accompanied by a heavy-set older man.

Moore looked at them curiously. "This is a fair way off the route I showed you," he commented.

"Yeah, well we got a little lost this morning," Scully admitted. "I didn't realize this was the area where your loggers went missing, though. Have you found them yet?"

"Not so far." Moore indicated the other man. "This is Steve Humphreys, the head of security at Schiff-Immergut. We reached the site cabin this morning, although we had to hike part of the way up here ourselves - we got wheel-spiked, like you did." He glanced at Humphreys. "This lady here's an FBI Agent, Steve. These people got spiked further down in the forest a couple of days ago."

Humphreys grimaced. "Damn monkey-wrenchers spoil this forest for everyone," he said curtly, but his gaze as he took in the three of them was not unfriendly. "FBI, huh? We've been waiting for you people to help us out for weeks."

"Not my department, Sir," Scully said briefly.

"Any signs of what happened to your people?" Mulder asked.

"Nope. We found the cabin abandoned, their truck's fuel tank full of rice, and the generator trashed. Monkey-wrenchers again. I'd like to know what they did with my men, though - I've got families back at home wanting to know where their bread-winners are."

Mulder grimaced, and looked at Moore. "We were just wondering what this is," he told him, and gestured to the object in the tree. "What do you make of it?"

Moore squinted up at it and shook his head. "Never seen one of those before. Looks like some kind of nest ... fairly heavy by the looks of it."

"How about we take a look?" Mulder suggested, and gave Scully a meaningful look. She sighed, only too aware what *that* meant.

Moore nodded his agreement, and although Humphreys looked for a moment as though he might question the relevance of checking out an old sack in a tree, after a second he shrugged and acquiesced.

Moore - by this time he had dropped the formality and told them to call him Larry - retrieved a long coil of rope from the loggers' cabin, and between them they managed to fashion a sling harness. The three men then hoisted Scully up the tree, encouraged by Sam's delighted shouts. Scully was less enthusiastic, but was fully cognizant that, being the lightest of the adults, it should be her who took a closer look at the cocoon in the tree.

Viewed more closely, she found she liked the look of it less and less. Reaching the branch, she grabbed hold of it to control the movement of the sling and maneuvered herself a little closer. It was definitely a nest or cocoon of some kind, being formed of a myriad of tiny silk-like threads, and there was something dark inside it. Unwillingly, she reached out and touched the edge of the thing, making it shift slightly ... and jerked backwards.

"Can you see anything?" Mulder called.

Scully swallowed. There was a gap in the fibers and something dark and dry was poking out. It looked like a finger.


"There's something inside it," she managed. She glanced down and saw the three men and Sam all staring up at her expectantly. Sam - she had to remember Sam. "Hold on - " She fumbled at her waist and found the sturdy hunting knife Mulder had bought her while they were provisioning for the trip a few days before. With some difficulty she was able to get herself close enough to the cocoon to widen the hole.

Oh God. Peering back out at her from the hole was the unmistakable eye socket of a skull.

*Sam - remember Sam. He mustn't see this.*

"Mulder, it looks like there might be the body of an animal in here," she called and sent him a look which she hoped was full of meaning.

For a moment he stared back up at her, his face immobile. Then he nodded. "Okay ...."

"I'm going to cut it down," and she determinedly turned her attention to the thick rope-like extensions that were fastening the cocoon to the branch.

The bundle of fiber landed on the forest floor with a dry thump, and Moore immediately left Mulder and Humphreys to the job of lowering Scully down, while he went to check the object out. Seeing Sam at his heels, Mulder said quickly, "You might want to wait, Larry - Scully's a pathologist. Sam, leave it alone."

Perhaps something in his voice warned the ranger, but he instantly abandoned the cocoon and steered Sam away. A few minutes later, Scully was back on her own two feet and shedding the ropes as fast as she could.

"There's a body in there," she said to Mulder and Humphreys in an undertone. "I don't know how the hell it got up there, but it looks for all the world like some gigantic spider parceled it up for a meal."

"That's impossible!" Humphreys stated disbelievingly. "You said it was an animal - "

"Shut up!" she hissed, furious at him for saying it where Sam could overhear. From a short distance away she was aware of Moore watching them, concerned, his hands firmly on Sam's shoulders.

"Let's get it opened up," Mulder interjected quietly. "I'll keep Sam occupied for now."

Doing that was easier said than done, but he achieved it by popping the boy into the rope harness and giving him a ride up and down the tree in it. And after a few minutes, Humphreys volunteered to take his place, looking pale under his weathered tan.

Scully and Moore had cut the cocoon open and spread the fibers apart as much as they were able. Ignoring its contents for a moment, Mulder examined the thing, struck by how much the material was like fiberglass; there were umpteen layers of the stuff, none of them looking thicker than a single-ply paper tissue, and every one of them was as stiff as sized canvas. The contents, when he finally looked, were grisly. It was undoubtedly a human corpse, but it was less than two thirds of the size of a normal adult due to shriveling of the soft tissues. It was curled up into a semi-fetal position and it was impossible to judge age or sex.

Scully had donned her impassive doctor's mask and was dealing with the matter with professionalism. She reached inside the cocoon and felt the body's neck and face. "It feels ... desiccated and dry, like it's been preserved," she observed after a moment.

"Like it's been embalmed," Moore suggested rather hesitantly. From the look on his face, Mulder guessed he was holding back his nausea by sheer strength of will, and felt a strong twinge of sympathy. Apart from anything else, there was a peculiar odor drifting up from the body which was utterly unlike any smell of human decomposition he could remember, and it was making the lunch he had consumed less than an hour previously sit heavily in his stomach.

"No ...." Scully felt the corpse a little more. "It's more like the fluids have been drained from the body - like it's been cured. I - uh - I think it's a male. Yes, it is."

"Barely," Mulder shuddered. "What do you think of this stuff it's encased in, Larry?"

The ranger swallowed hard. "I'd say it's some kind of spider's nest or insect cocoon."

"What kind of insect could have got a man all the way up into that tree?" Scully objected.

Mulder stood up and looked up at the tree.

"Itsy-bitsy spider," he muttered, and tried to fend off the feeling that the forest was suddenly closing in around him.

The group that headed back to the loggers' cabin was a somber one, even Sam catching the uneasy quiet of the group and hopping along next to his father in silence. They had closed the cocoon up once more as best they could, binding it up with the rope, and Moore and Humphreys carried it between them. No one had dared voice the question of the dead man's identity yet.

"We were hoping one of the logging team here could point us back onto the right path to the campsite," Scully said to Moore at one point, "but under the circumstances, perhaps you could do that."

"I can give you directions when we get to the cabin," he replied, and there was silence again until they got there.

The cabin was a sturdy wooden structure not unlike the older version Mulder and Scully had investigated the day before at the other loggers' camp, and was a matter of a hundred yards from where they'd stopped for lunch. There was a battered flatbed truck parked in front the building, but other than that there was little sign of habitation. Without a word, Humphreys and Moore loaded the cocoon into the back of the truck and covered it with a sheet of tarpaulin.

"How are you planning on getting back to the ranger station when you've finished here?" Mulder asked Humphreys.

The older man hesitated. "We were going to hike back to our Explorer, and take a couple of the wheels from this vehicle to swap with the damaged ones," he said.

"Except that all the wheels have been slashed on this truck too," Moore put in grimly. "Besides, we'll have to take - that - with us when we go, now." And he nodded at the tarpaulin in the back.

"We could give you a ride," Scully offered. "We daren't risk bringing the jeep up here, though, with more of those caltrops lying around. We don't have a spare ourselves anymore."

"Could we take a wheel from your Explorer as a spare?" Mulder suggested.

"That's a good idea," Moore nodded, "but if you're camping where I think you are, our vehicle's too far in the opposite direction for you to reach today and get back to the campsite before nightfall. In fact - " he glanced around, " - chances are you won't make it back to the camp before dark now anyway. Better let me check your map, but you might want to consider stopping here overnight. Hiking through this forest in the dark is no joke, especially with a kid."

"I'll see if I can get the generator fixed," Humphreys grunted, "or we'll be cooking over campfires tonight." He headed off around the side of the building.

Moore cleared his throat slightly. "Look, don't take Steve's manner the wrong way," he said quietly. "He's worried about his men, and this latest development must have been a shock."

"Well, he's not alone in that," Mulder admitted, trying to banish the image of the wizened corpse from his mind. "Larry, has it occurred to you that the thing we found must be ...?" He trailed off significantly, and watched the ranger's adam's apple bob convulsively.

"Surely it's too old - been there too long?" He looked at Scully, who wasn't sure what to say.

"We don't know, Larry," she admitted finally. "Without a proper autopsy ... lab tests .... But the cocoon didn't look particularly weathered to me, and it was in a fairly exposed position."

"Jesus." The ranger paused, then shook his head. "I guess we won't know until we get back to civilization, and since that depends on your jeep now ...." He held out his hand. "Let's take a look at that map. But I'm pretty sure you're camped too far out to start out now. You must have really come off the beaten track."

A sudden noise inside the cabin made them all turn, and then Humphreys' voice rang out.

"Don't move! Who the hell are you?"

Moore started. "What the - ?"

"Doug Spinney! I ought to shoot you where you stand!"

Moore grabbed up his shotgun from where he'd propped it against the wheel arch of the truck and headed for the cabin entrance, with Mulder and Scully at his heels.

Just inside the cabin was a stand-off, Humphreys partially blocking the doorway and holding another man, thin and bedraggled, at the point of his shotgun. The other man - presumably Doug Spinney - was apparently unconcerned by the weapon and was methodically stripping the kitchen table of leftover food, despite it being covered in mold.

"Might as well shoot yourself too," he observed in a colorless voice, and headed for the refrigerator. There was a half-empty bottle of what looked like orange juice in there; it must have been stale to the point of fermentation, but he drank it down in several quick gulps nonetheless.

"You're in a hell of a spot to be testing my temper," Humphreys grated. "What happened to my men?"

Spinney eyed him with casual contempt. "What men?"

"The men who were working this camp."

"I don't know what happened to them. Probably the same thing that'll happen to us when the sun goes down."

Moore stepped into the doorway behind Humphreys. "What's going on here, Steve?" he asked warily.

Humphreys snorted. "This animal's Doug Spinney."

"The ecoterrorist?" Mulder asked, surprised, from behind Moore.

"The goddamned murdering monkey-wrencher," the man spat.

"I'm no murderer," Spinney said, and ran a curious eye over the people crowding into the cabin behind the Schiff-Immergut man.

"You're a liar."

"Maybe we should hear what he has to say," Moore told Humphreys in a warning tone, and took hold of the barrel of the gun, pushing it down. "Pointing that at him won't get you anywhere, Steve, and could just land *you* in a whole lot of trouble instead of him."

"If we stand around here talking, there'll be nothing left for any of us to say," Spinney stated laconically. "We should be getting that generator started. Darkness is our enemy." He pushed past them all and stalked out of the door.

"What the hell?" Humphreys stared around at the others. "What is he talking about? And where the hell is he going?"

>From around the side of the building came the sound of someone trying to work the generator.

"Whatever he's talking about, it sounds like he's serious," Mulder said. "I'll go give him a hand." He shot a cautious look at Scully, and followed the other man out.

Humphreys was incensed. "Why the hell aren't you arresting this guy?" he raged at Scully. "The man's a proven terrorist, and he's probably single-handedly responsible for the disappearance of my men!"

Scully gave him a long, cool look before she spoke. "Putting aside the matter of concrete evidence, and the fact that as an off-duty agent this is nothing to do with me," she observed, "it doesn't look like he's in a hurry to go anywhere, Mr. Humphreys. So what do you want me to do? Handcuff him to the nearest tree? Well, I'm sorry to disappoint you, but I left my handcuffs back in Washington DC. And we still haven't heard this man's story."

There was a rattling roar as she finished speaking, and the generator came to life, albeit temporarily. Then Spinney appeared in the doorway again.

"Where's the spare gas kept?"

"Why did you say that darkness is our enemy?"

Mulder's question fell into a sea of quiet which was otherwise broken only by the sounds of Spinney scraping his plate. Once the generator had been topped up with gas, the group had somehow come to a truce - threatened only by Humphreys' muttering - and a meal had been put together from the non-perishable goods Scully and Moore had been able to find in the cabin's store cupboards. That had consisted largely of beans, beans and more beans, enlivened by a few tinned sausages and potatoes, but Spinney fell on the meal as though eating was going out of fashion.

Scraping the last smear of tomato sauce from his plate with a finger, Spinney looked up at Mulder where he was sat opposite with Sam in his lap, and sucked the sauce off his finger with deliberation. "That's when they come."

"When who comes?" Scully asked.

"I don't know what it is. They come from the sky, take a man right off his feet and devour him alive. I saw it happen."

"To who?" Mulder wanted to know.

"What kind of a bull - " Humphreys broke off, remembering Sam's presence, and modified his language if not his tone. "What kind of a stupid story is this? You can't tell me you believe him?"

"You saw that cocoon thing," Moore said quietly from the other end of the table.

Spinney's eyes moved from one person to another. "'Cocoon thing'?"

"Go take a look if you want," Moore told him, in the same controlled tone. "It's out in the back of the truck."

The other man tensed. His eyes were already showing the signs of long-term strain, and his hands had not been quite steady ever since he'd arrived. "I'll pass," he replied curtly. "Besides, I've already seen something like that. Don't want to see another if I can help it."

Humphreys' lip curled contemptuously. "What, you're afraid of the dark?"

Spinney eyed him with dislike. "You don't want to go out in the night, take my word on that. It's out there."

"What? If I go out that door, something's going to attack me, eat me alive and spin me in its web?"

"That's right." Spinney didn't look like he cared if Humphreys believed him, or anyone else, and Scully felt a sudden tightening in her gut at the expression on his face. She looked across at Mulder and the look in his eyes when they met hers was worried - very worried. Since it took a lot to overtly rattle his nerves, she was anything but reassured.

Humphreys was still mocking Spinney, though, and Scully wondered how the man could so easily put aside what he'd seen in the cocoon.

"What - it's too polite to come in here and get me, Spinney?"

"It's afraid of the light," the ecoterrorist said wearily. "We'll be okay in here so long as we keep the lights on."

"First I ever heard of an insect that's afraid of the light - "

"Drop it, Steve, will you?" Moore snapped finally.

Humphreys exploded into rage. "I don't believe you're taking this son of a bitch's word on this!" he shouted. "Whose side are you on, Larry? This murdering fuck and his friends have probably topped a dozen of my men, and you sit here like a bunch of schoolgirls listening to dorm-room horror stories!"

Sam cringed in Mulder's arms, and Mulder drew him close. "It's okay, Sunshine, it's okay."

"Sit DOWN, Steve," Moore barked, "and if you can't watch your language, keep your mouth shut." He shot a meaningful look across at the little boy, and Humphreys hissed between his teeth impotently.

"Jesus Christ, what kind of parents bring a kid that age up into a forest like this anyway?" he snarled, and turned away.

"What, you don't think kids should see the beauty of the forest you and your company are destroying?" Spinney asked, snidely amused. "Better to bring him up here now - if the lumber companies have their way, there won't be a forest here for him to visit when he's an adult."

"Don't you start," Moore warned him.

"Why not? You afraid I'll tell these good people how the Freddies are letting Schiff-Immergut take out marked trees?"

There was a pause, and Moore's brow darkened with anger. "Just what the hell is that supposed to mean?"

Spinney shrugged. "What I said." He looked at Scully. "Any of those beans left, ma'am?"

"Now you hold on one minute!" Moore was on his feet and grabbing Spinney's arm roughly. "What do you mean by "taking out marked trees"?"

"Just that - those loggers were taking out trees marked with an orange cross."

Moore stared. "Old growth trees?"

"That's what I said."

"He's talking a crock of shit!" Humphreys snapped.

"No, he isn't," Mulder said quietly.

The three men turned to stare at him. "What do you mean?" Moore demanded.

"Scully and I passed through a previous loggers' camp two days ago. We found a felled tree, a huge old redwood, with an orange mark on the bark." Seeing Moore's horrified expression, he was compelled to add honestly, "Mind you, that one was felled twenty-odd years ago. It was an old camp."

"They haven't changed," Spinney drawled, eyeing Humphreys. "There's a felled tree not five hundred yards from here I could show you, if I cared to risk my neck against what's out there. Orange paint, not blue."

Moore looked across at Humphreys. "You know anything about that, Steve?"

"No." Humphreys looked from one face to another and saw barely masked disbelief - overt in Spinney's case. "You're going to take his word over mine?"

"I'm taking no one's word until I see this tree he's talking about in daylight and can judge for myself," the ranger said heavily.

"I see." Humphreys' breathing quickened with anger, but there was no further explosion. He walked to the door and grabbed his jacket from the pegs there. Then he stooped and scooped up his shotgun and a heavy flashlight from where he'd stowed them inside the doorway earlier.

"Where are you going?" Moore demanded.

"I'm heading back to the Explorer," the other man told him shortly.

"Don't be stupid! Two of the tires are blown out - "

"You don't want to go out there right now," Spinney interrupted. His tone was bland, but Mulder noticed he had suddenly lost what little color his skin possessed.

"Yeah, right." Humphreys looked at Moore. "I don't like the company you're keeping," he stated deliberately, "and I'm heading out of here tonight if I have to drive that old Explorer out on the wheel-rims. Maybe someone at the FBI field office in Seattle will be prepared to do what *you* - " and he stabbed a malicious finger at Scully, " - should be doing but aren't, and that's arrest that son of a bitch!" And he turned on his heel and stalked out of the cabin.

"I sure hope they know how to hold séances at the FBI," Spinney observed, blackly amused.

Moore slammed one fist into the table impotently ... but made no attempt to follow the Schiff-Immergut man out into the dark.

Under the circumstances, it was hardly surprising that the tension in the cabin should rise more than a notch or two. Moore began pacing at intervals, possessed by an itchy kind of cabin fever, and Mulder - only too aware of his own jumpiness at being confined - sought to find a way to distract them all.

Having bedded Sam down on a small folding camp bed, he helped Scully make another kettle of tea and sat down opposite Spinney.

"What happened here?" he asked.

Spinney eyed him wearily, but dragged himself more upright from where he was slumped in his seat. "There were four of us - three now. We camped out two valleys over. Our truck has a dead battery, so we drew straws to see who would make the hike over here to steal one from the loggers."

"Why not just hike out?" Scully asked, pouring the man a mug of tea.

"It's more than a day's hike from where we are. No way did any of us want to be caught out in the forest after dark, not after what happened to Teague."

Mulder recognized the name; it was Spinney's cohort from the photos he'd shown Scully. "What happened to him?"

"Same as what happened to the guy you've got out in the truck, I guess," Spinney said, and gulped the hot tea down. His hands shook slightly.

"What were you guys doing out here in the first place?" Moore demanded.

Spinney's lip curled slightly at the ranger's tone. "Camping."

"Right. The kind of camping you do is a federal offence."

"They can take it out of my hide if we ever make it back to civilization - "

"Let's just take the argument about the rights and wrongs of this as read, okay?" Mulder demanded, exasperated. "I'm more interested about this ... menace ... we're all cowering from in here. Spinney, did you see it? What did it look like?"

"Insects," the man sighed, and put his empty mug down on the table, pushing it away from him. "Little green insects - clouds of them."

"There isn't an insect in this forest that can suck a man's body dry of fluids and string it up in a tree," Moore objected. "I've worked in the Olympic National for eight years and I've never seen anything like you describe."

"Yeah, well a couple of weeks ago I'd have agreed with you, but now .... Don't ask me how they do it, Moore, I've no more idea than you. But I saw those ... things ... land on Teague thicker than a swarm of bees, and by morning he was - " Spinney suddenly retched and struggled up from the table to be noisily sick in the kitchen sink. It was several minutes before he could return, and when he did his eyes were haunted. "There was nothing we could do to help him," he muttered thickly as he slid back into his seat.

"Wait a minute," Scully said, her quiet, calm voice falling soothingly into the sudden silence. "There have been logging teams working in this forest for decades, and from the looks of things, this particular team have been up here for some time."

"Four months," Moore confirmed, and Spinney nodded.

"So why should these ... insects ... suddenly become a problem now? How long have you and your people been up here, Mr. Spinney?"

"'Bout as long as the logging team," he admitted. "Things only started going wrong a couple of weeks ago."

"So what's the common factor?" Mulder wanted to know. "What changed around here two weeks ago?"

Spinney thought about it, but shook his head. "Nothing that I can tell."

"Think, Spinney!" Mulder said sharply. "You're the only one of us who was up here at the time. What changed? It could be anything - even the most insignificant thing."

The other man shrugged. "The only thing that changed was the loggers started cutting down old growth trees."

There was a pause, and Scully saw from Mulder's expression that his brain was suddenly working overtime. Then he looked up and his eyes met hers. "Maybe it's something to do with those trees being cut down then."

She cocked her head to one side, questioning. "What - you think Bigfoot got peeved about the violation of nature after all? Or is this the work of rogue hamadryads?"

He smiled briefly, but his mind was already chasing other ideas. "I'm thinking about the climatic event that caused that green ring in the trunk of the tree we found," he said patiently.

Moore was looking from one of them to the other. "What are you talking about? Green ring?"

Mulder glanced at him. "That tree Scully and I found was near to the remains of a former loggers' camp - a camp that had been mysteriously abandoned, the same way this one has, only twenty years ago. The FBI has records of the event. When we examined the tree stump, Scully found a green ring just over halfway through its growth period. We thought maybe there had been some huge climatic event that had affected the growth, and now I'm wondering if the two things are connected."

"You think cutting the tree down released some kind of insect from the inner rings?" Moore rubbed his chin, considering, then shook his head. "Unlikely. Anything caught up in an old growth ring would be dead. Organisms can only live in the very outer layers of the tree, under the bark and so on."

"That we know of," Mulder pointed out.

"Well, we'd need a sample to be sure, and that's kind of out of the question right now."

"But we have a sample," Scully told him. "I took a small amount of wood for analysis later, to satisfy my curiosity."

The ranger stared at her, and a faint impressed smile crossed his lips. "Do you have it with you?"

They had no microscope, but Moore had the next best thing: a high-powered magnifying glass set into a frame with a small steel specimen dish fixed underneath and a couple of maneuverable clamps for holding things in place. "Useful for quick, on-the-spot examinations," he commented to Scully.

Scully dug the plastic bag out of the pocket on the side of her rucksack and carefully emptied out the chunk of wood. Moore clamped it in place and took a look through the glass. There was a pause, and even Spinney showed signs of interest.

"Well?" Mulder demanded impatiently.

Moore looked a little green. He sat back and pushed the magnifier towards Scully. "Take a look."

Scully shot him a suspicious glance, and bent over the glass herself.

The chunk of wood jumped out at her, the resolution far less than that of a microscope but still sufficient to show the fibers of the wood ... and the tiny pale green insects crawling among them. The fact that they were not visible to the naked eye told Scully that they were far smaller than aphids, and it seemed incredible that these creatures could even be conceived of enacting the horrors Spinney and Mulder were suggesting.

Scully sat back and pushed the magnifier over to Mulder, and looked at Moore. "What do you make of this?"

He scratched the back of his neck uncomfortably. "They look like wood mites. But that's impossible - the central rings of a tree are essentially dead wood, with the vascular system limited to the outer rings. Surely these things can't live without water?"

"They appear to be eating the wood," Mulder observed, peering through the glass.

"And from the look of things, they're still hatching out," Scully added. "Maybe by cutting into the trunk of that tree I disturbed a nest. Creatures that small still couldn't do the kind of damage we saw done to that body, though."

"I don't know about that," Moore admitted reluctantly. "A nest of ants can overwhelm a man and kill him."

"They don't string him up in a tree."

Moore shrugged, having no answer.

"It doesn't explain how they got into the tree in the first place, either," Scully pursued.

Mulder sat back and looked at her. "What do you know about insects, Scully?"

"Just what I learned in my biology courses - they're the foundation of our ecosystem, and there's something like 200 million of them per human being on this planet."

"And they've been around for a long time, right?"

"Something like 600 million years - pre-dinosaurs certainly."

"And we already determined that this tree had to be over 500 years old, didn't we?"

"If it was a marked tree, it could have been considerably older than that," Moore interjected. "There are redwoods in this forest that are anything up to 800 years old. But I don't see what you're getting at."

Mulder rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Well - this whole chain of mountains running from Washington to Oregon is still active. Look at Mount St. Helens, for example. The last time it erupted, all sorts of radiation was released and weird things started to grow in the local area."

"Mutant bugs?" Scully asked, skeptically.

"Don't laugh, Scully. There was actually a lake where they discovered a kind of amoeba that could literally suck a man's brains out."

"A brain-sucking amoeba," she sighed. "Why didn't I work that one out for myself?"

Spinney looked at her in surprise. "No, it's true. Spirit Lake. There's documented cases of swimmers being affected."

"But an amoeba is a single-celled organism - it can be mutated relatively simply. An insect is a complex creature which would take years and years to evolve!"

"Maybe what we're dealing with isn't a mutation at all," Moore offered, surprising himself. "Maybe it's some kind of ... extinct insect larvae in that ring, deposited during a period of volcanic activity and brought up through the tree's root system. Ancient insect eggs lying dormant until the loggers cut into the tree and provided them with the right conditions to hatch."

Mulder gave him an admiring look. It was a theory worthy of himself.

The idea seemed to please Spinney too, although for entirely different reasons. "That would be rather poetic justice, don't you think? Unleashing the very thing that would end up killing them and your friend Humphreys?"

"We don't know that Humphreys is dead," Scully said quickly, seeing Moore's expression. "All this is just speculation."

"All the same," Mulder sighed, pushing the magnifier away from him, "I think I'd prefer it if we slept with the light on tonight."

"Too damn right," Spinney muttered.

Abruptly, as if to mock them, the rattling of the generator outside seemed to hitch and pause, and the single light bulb above them flickered in response. There was a tense silence as they all looked at each other.

It flickered again, and steadied once more.

Mulder swallowed, and looked around the cabin. Humphreys had taken the only flashlight, but by the stove in the corner stood a tall, old-fashioned hurricane lantern, the kind that used paraffin for fuel. He picked it up and dumped it on the table, giving it a slight shake to judge the fuel levels. The faint splashing inside was not reassuring, and neither was the condition of the wick inside the glass dome.

"Mulder, what are you doing?"

He glanced sideways at Scully. "I was hoping there would be enough paraffin in here to use it as an alternative light if the other one fails, but there isn't. Still, it should be enough to let me check on the generator and see what's up with it."

"You're planning on going out there?" demanded Spinney.

"Someone's got to," Mulder retorted. "Unless you'd rather sit here and watch the light bulb all night, wondering if it's going to go out? With the light from the lamp and the windows, I should be okay - and if I won't, we'll soon find out." He closed up the lantern again and rubbed his fingers together, frowning. "That's weird - it's greasy, like someone gave it a coating of gun oil or something."

"Everything over in that corner was like that when we arrived," Scully said.

Mulder looked over at the stove. Whoever had wired up the cabin hadn't placed the light quite centrally; instead, it was hanging over the table, which left the far corner in a slight shadow. There was a thought tickling at the back of his mind, but he let it go with an inner shrug; it was more important that he check on the generator.

"I'll come with you," Moore offered, and he produced a box of matches to light the hurricane lamp.

The trip outside was brief and nerve-wracking. The generator was naturally in a spot where the glow from the cabin windows didn't fall on it, so Moore held the hurricane lantern up high to cast the maximum possible pool of light, while Mulder examined the rattling piece of machinery.

"I don't think there's anything wrong with it that we can do anything about," he said, straightening up and wiping his hands on the seat of this jeans. "When Spinney and his friends trashed it, they did a good job - hopefully it'll hold out until the morning, but no way do I want to risk a second night here with it in this condition."

He and Moore exchanged grim looks, and the ranger suddenly blurted out a question that had been bugging him for hours. "Do you seriously believe Spinney's story?" he asked softly.

Mulder hesitated. "I've seen a lot of weird things," he said finally, his voice equally soft, "enough that I won't count or discount his story without further evidence. Unlike your friend Humphreys, I'm not prepared to risk my own skin to find out if these bugs really *do* kill. I say we keep the light on tonight, and get the hell out of here tomorrow morning."

Moore nodded. "Agreed." He turned around ... and gasped. "Jesus Christ - !"

Perhaps ten or fifteen yards away from where they stood was the dark shape of a tree - only it wasn't dark anymore. The trunk was dimly outlined in a faint greenish glow which shimmered with the motion of thousands upon thousands of tiny creatures smaller than the eye could see.

Mulder felt his chest constrict and pulse begin to hammer with fright. He looked around, scanning the area in front of them, and counted five or six similarly illuminated trees, all of them just beyond the light cast by the cabin and the hurricane lantern in Moore's hand. None of them should have been visible at this distance and in this light.

"Get back in the cabin," he managed, and heard his voice catch slightly.

When they bolted through the door moments later, they ran smack into Scully, who was shaking slightly.

"We went into the back room to get more cot-beds for the night," she stammered, and gestured towards a doorway which Spinney was in the process of barricading with a chair, however futile the act might be.

The ecoterrorist's face was grey. "We can't go in there," he stated flatly. "The place is covered with them ... like a green carpet over everything."

"They're out of the light," Mulder nodded, "but we still need those cots. It should be okay if we take the lamp in with us and bring the cots out into the light."

Nevertheless, it took all the nerve he possessed to enter the back room and haul out cot-beds that were covered in a menacing green glow. He was right, however; the glow vanished under the light.

The cot-beds had the same oily coating as the hurricane lantern.

"The cupboards in the other camp were like this," Scully mentioned, as she scrubbed at the frame of her cot with the cotton lining torn out of a logger's discarded jacket. "I wonder what it is?"

It occurred to Mulder that it had to be something to do with the insects, like a trace left behind wherever they'd been. It also occurred to him that since they had to sleep on these beds, it would probably be better not to mention this to his companions.

Bedding down under thin, slightly greasy blankets was not a comfortable experience. Having found only three cots, Mulder folded himself into the one occupied by Sam, but despite the additional warmth of the little boy snuggled against him, it was a long time before he or any of the others could sleep.

A faint scraping noise dragged Mulder out of an uneasy doze; it was daylight again, and the light streaming through the windows was bright enough to suggest that he had slept longer than he should. He raised his head and saw that Scully and Moore were both still fast asleep. Spinney's cot, however, was empty.

It was tricky climbing out of the cot without waking Sam, but he managed it and slipped out of the front door, blinking slightly.

Spinney had the hood of the loggers' truck open and was unscrewing the battery.

"What are you doing?"

The man jumped and spun around. When he saw it was Mulder, he relaxed and turned back to the truck. "I'm taking what I came here for in the first place," he said shortly. "We need this battery to get our own truck back on the road. Any objections?"

Mulder wasn't quite sure what to say. "You think they're still alive?"

"They should have had enough gas to get them through the night, but there won't be enough for tonight as well unless they drain the truck's fuel tank. That'll only buy them another night, and leave them without a way out of this damn forest, so I've got to get back there." Spinney dragged the battery out, grunting slightly under the weight. Then he turned back to Mulder. "I've left it late as it is. Are you going to try and stop me?"

Mulder shook his head slowly. "No, I don't think so. Where will you guys be heading when you get out of here?"

"Home," Spinney replied. "None of our people can risk hanging around here while this thing is on the loose - and maybe this forest is just capable enough of looking after itself after all. There are other causes. I'd rather be alive to fight them."

"You'd better go then."

"Yeah." Unexpectedly, Spinney balanced the battery on the corner of the truck and stuck out one hand. "Pity we didn't meet under better circumstances, Mr. Mulder. I hope you and Miss Scully and your kid get out of here okay."

Mulder shook his hand gravely and watched as the other man hefted up the battery again and headed off into the forest.

Moore looked disgruntled when Mulder told him half an hour later that Spinney was gone, but made no other comment than to observe that they'd better get hiking themselves if they wanted to at least get back to the ranger station before nightfall.

"How far is the campsite from here?" Scully wanted to know. She was testing a small pot of beans on the stove as she spoke; they couldn't start out without feeding Sam some kind of breakfast, and it was agreed that they'd be better for the hike if they all ate first anyway.

"Four or five hours, depending on how fast we can go with the kid," Moore replied restlessly.

"I'll carry him," Mulder told him.

"All the same, it's going to slow us down. It rained heavily in the night too - parts of the trail are going to be treacherous."

Scully decided the beans were as warm as they needed to be, and quickly dished them up. Mulder lifted Sam onto his lap at the table and put a spoon in the boy's hand. "Come on, Sunshine, eat up."

Sam, however, was not at all pleased by any of this, for it contained none of the routines he was accustomed to. He had slept in his clothes, the same clothes he was wearing now, and had not had his morning wash or brushed his teeth. And now he was being offered something for breakfast which he had already had for dinner the night before. He didn't like it. This wasn't the way things were supposed to be done.

"No," he stated firmly, and dropped the spoon.

"Yes," Mulder told him, equally firmly, and handed the spoon back. "Eat up, or go without, Sam. We don't have time to discuss it."

Sam scowled, taking a very reluctant spoonful of the beans, and from the expression on his face, you might have assumed he was being fed worms. When it was clear that this approach wouldn't garner him any sympathy, however, he dropped the sulky lip and cleared his plate.

A few minutes later, Scully was tossing the dirty plates into the sink and they were all zipping up jackets and strapping on rucksacks. Sam was inserted, protesting, into Mulder's backpack and they were off, abandoning the cabin without a second glance.

The sun was already climbing too high above the forest canopy.

Moore had been right; thanks to the rain, the trail paths were slippery and treacherous, and in places there had been minor landslides, with piles of mud and forest trash making it difficult to pass. It was a problem enough for Scully and Moore who were relatively unencumbered, but for Mulder, burdened down with a three-year-old child, it was a serious problem keeping his footing. There was an unspoken agreement between the three adults that they should move as fast as they could; in practice, it was hard to keep up even a normal hiking pace without placing themselves and Sam at risk of a dangerous fall. No one could afford a sprained or broken ankle out here.

After a couple of hours, Moore called a halt and insisted that Mulder let him take Sam for a while. The former FBI agent was sweating and tired, tired enough that he didn't argue, although Sam grumbled a little at being handed over to someone else when he wanted to get out of the backpack and walk.

It must be bliss, Scully thought as she helped Mulder try to distract him with I-Spy and other games, to be a child and not have the obligation of understanding the dangers that were lurking out in the world. She was painfully conscious, as she knew Mulder and Moore must be, of the eerie silence of the forest, the lack of animal and bird noises and the feeling that there was something out there just waiting for dark to fall before it struck.

She was so busy with her own thoughts that she suddenly missed her footing, skidded in the mud and landed on her backside, hard. The wind was knocked out of her for a second; then Mulder was hauling her to her feet.

"Are you okay?" he demanded, checking her over.

"I'm fine," she gasped, and took a cautious step or two. No damage. "Where's Moore?" she said suddenly, aware that the ranger had vanished out of sight ahead of them.

"Here," he called, and there was relief in his voice. "We've reached the road." When they pushed through the undergrowth, he was stood on the edge of a tall bank just above the road. His face was wreathed in smiles. "Another hour, and we'll be at the campsite," he told them. "It'll be easy going from here."

*Easy going?* Mulder thought wryly an hour or so later, as they tramped into the campsite. They were all liberally mud-splattered and exhausted, the road having not proved the sinecure Moore had predicted. A couple of hours of heavy rain had produced some sizeable drifts of mud and silt in places, which almost made Mulder grateful that they hadn't tried to traverse this route by car.

The campsite was as they'd left it, with the jeep parked to one side of the site cabin out of the sun. There was a fair amount of mud hanging around, and Mulder knew he wouldn't be sorry to see the back of this place. This was one of the rougher camps off the beaten track - the little cabin was nothing more than a hut with a large map and a list of instructions on respect for the forest pinned to the wall, a rack of old leaflets and a couple of taps outside for water.

"Damn!" Moore muttered, circling the building. "This is one of the places that doesn't have an emergency radio yet. No generator either - we'd better get out of here fast if we're going to get to the station before dark."

Mulder helped him unstrap Sam's harness and they got the boy into the jeep. Scully was already climbing into the driver's seat, and as Moore and Mulder climbed inside, she twisted the key in the ignition. There was a wheezy grinding from the engine, but after turning over a couple of times, it failed to start. Scully took a deep breath and reminded herself that panicking would not help. She twisted the key again.


"Jesus ...." Moore hissed.

Scully tried once more, her heart in her mouth ... and the engine roared into life.

Mulder let out a shaky breath. "Let's get the hell out of here."

Scully needed no second prompting; she let the brake out and put her foot down on the accelerator. Meanwhile, Moore was pulling a map out of his jacket pocket.

"There's a secondary road that the loggers use, which cuts about five miles off the trip out to the main road," he told her, unfolding the map and studying it. "It's near here - Humphreys and me, we came up by that route on the way in. Take the next turning on the right."

She nodded, and glanced in the rear view mirror at Mulder. "Buckle Sam in, Mulder - I'm going to try and keep up the stiffest speed I can without crashing this thing."

"You're just thinking of your deposit," he joked, but he was strapping Sam into his seat as he spoke.

The track Moore referred to was rough and interrupted by the same mud slides as the one they'd walked into the camp on. Most of Scully's concentration was taken up with preventing them landing up in the trees, so it was hardly surprising that she didn't see the vehicle ahead until she was nearly on top of it. She swerved with a curse, and brought the jeep to a shuddering halt.

"Christ, it's my Explorer!" Moore swore.

"Don't - " Mulder began, but Moore was already fumbling his door open.

Humphreys had not made it more than five hundred yards in the crippled vehicle. The heavy Explorer had swerved into a tree, but the damage was minimal and this was not what had killed him; Moore found his body hanging half out of the driver's seat, covered in a thick spidery webbing.

The ranger gagged and turned away; then stumbled back to where Mulder and Scully were waiting. "We'd better get out of here," he muttered thickly as he slid back into his seat.

Scully revved up the engine again without a word, and steered them away from the grisly scene. There was silence for a good twenty minutes then, until Mulder finally plucked up the courage to ask the question that had been on everyone's mind.

"Are we going to make it to the station before dark?" It was already late afternoon, and the going was rough enough that Scully could not drive as fast as they'd hoped.

"If we can keep up this pace, we should make it with maybe an hour to spare," Moore replied after a pause, but he too was glancing out of the windows in concern. The weather was chancy, and Scully had already switched the windscreen wipers on twice to clear a light coating of drizzle.

On a day like this, it would probably get dark early.

And as if to mock them, there was a sudden loud bang, and the jeep lurched horribly to the right. Scully fought with the steering wheel as the jeep skidded on a slick patch of mud, and the vehicle spun to a halt.


"Tell me that wasn't what I thought it was," Mulder whispered.

Scully was gripping the wheel with white-knuckled hands, but Moore reacted with adrenaline-induced speed, seizing his rucksack.

"Everybody out!" he snapped, throwing open his door. "We're going to have to run for it."

"You've got to be kidding!" Scully gasped. "It's nearly thirty miles to the station, and we've got Sam to carry - "

"There's another campsite around here somewhere," the ranger broke in. "With any luck it'll be one of the ones with a radio and we can call for help. It beats the hell out waiting here to die, anyway." He was fighting with the unfolded map as he spoke, scanning it for signs of the campsite.

Mulder was already ripping the buckles on Sam's car seat undone, and hauling out the backpack. "Come on, Kiddo, quickly - "

Scully threw her own door open and jumped out, running to help him. Between them they managed to get Sam into the pack, the little boy co-operative out of sheer fright, and hauled it up onto Mulder's back.

"Let's go," Moore said grimly, and they abandoned the jeep, setting off at a fast jog. The rain was closing in again, and Mulder knew with despair, even as he tried to concentrate on keeping his footing, that they were not going to find help that night.

Then, like a gift from God, he heard the faint sound of a truck in the distance.

Spinney barreled to a halt beside them. "Get in!" he yelled, and was gunning the engine even as he spoke. Somehow he looked even wilder-eyed and more disheveled than when they'd first set eyes on him the night before, but no one was about to question his appearance

The three of them piled in without a word, Mulder struggling out of Sam's harness as he did so.

"I'm low on gas," the ecoterrorist grunted as he set off again at a wild speed. "Hang on tight because I'm going to coast down the easier slopes if I can, to save fuel."

"Be damned careful!" Moore snapped in alarm, as they lurched horribly over a pothole. "We were on foot because we lost a wheel to one of your damn tire-spikes - "

"Don't you worry, Mr. Forestry Service Man, I aim to get out of this forest alive - "

"Oh yeah? So where are your pals, Spinney?"

"Same place as your friend Humphreys, my friend! I got there too late."

"Could be too late for all of us, you maniac - "

"I radioed for help," Spinney snapped. "If we can just make it to your precious ranger station - "

"Look, can you guys swap witty repartee later?" Scully demanded, feeling Sam trembling against her side.

"Don't like it, Daddy!"

Spinney barked what might have been a laugh under other circumstances, and swerved to avoid a fallen branch. The light was already growing dim; he flicked on the headlights, increasing the tension in the vehicle tenfold, and applied the foot-brake slightly as a sharp corner came into view ahead. The worn tires of the truck spun on the surface of the sodden dirt track, temporarily got enough grip for him to turn into the bend, and then lost the grip again entirely over another pothole.

Spinney was no driver. Faced with a dangerous skid, he did all the wrong things; braked hard and failed to turn into the swerve. The engine screamed, the truck spun out of control, and less than ten seconds later they fetched up in a ditch on the side of the road, the truck listing over at ninety degrees.

Moore swore violently as he fought to open his door and climb out. He slid out with some difficulty, and ran around the other side, wrenching open Spinney's door and dragging the other man out. "Come on, you son of a bitch, we've got to get this thing out of here and back on the road!"

"You've got to be kidding," Mulder retorted grimly. "How do you suggest we manage *that* little miracle?" He was easing himself out as he spoke, and it was obvious that the situation was disastrous.

The truck was nose-down in the ditch, and it was impossible to see the off-side front wheel in this light, but Mulder suspected it was damaged. On top of that, the ditch itself was half full of filthy water and deceptive in depth, with unknown hazards lurking beneath the surface - something that could be "small, sharp and pointy" as a humorous Defensive Driving instructor had put it at Quantico Academy when he'd still been a green recruit. Even if it hadn't been, it was going to be hell trying to get this bulky, ageing vehicle out of the ditch without tow-ropes and other truck to haul it.

Nevertheless, they had to try.

"Okay, guys, I guess we're all going to impress Agent Scully with a display of masculine muscle," he commented, and tried to swallow the gnawing fear in the pit of his stomach.

"Just make it fast," she advised him as she lifted Sam out of the truck, and hoped no one had heard the slight quiver in her voice. "The light's definitely beginning to go."

That thought was all that was needed to goad the three men into action. They climbed into the ditch, sloshing through the water, braced themselves against the radiator grill of the truck and began to heave, without much success. It was hard for their feet to get a grip on the uneven and slippery bottom of the ditch, and the truck was nearly the twice the size of an ordinary saloon car; it shuddered and grated against the jagged lip of the road, but every time it seemed like it was going to shift, it slipped back again, and Moore expressed the opinion that something on the chassis must be catching on the edge of the ditch.

Scully put Sam in a safe position with instructions to stay put, and joined the men in their efforts, hoping that one extra person might provide enough extra leverage to make the difference. Certainly the truck seemed to shift with slightly more alacrity, but it was still stubborn in its refusal to be ejected from the ditch.

Finally, Moore's chancy temper snapped and he swore roundly, thumping the hood of the truck in frustration. Mulder couldn't blame him, even as the father in him deplored the interesting new vocabulary Sam would be picking up.

"What the hell ever happened to hysterical strength?" he asked Scully helplessly, and she shrugged, too breathless to reply.

In the silence that followed, he was suddenly aware of the ominous stillness of the forest around them. The rain had stopped. It was now getting difficult to make out individual trees more than a few hundred yards away, and the landscape was beginning to take on grey, washed-out tones as the light faded. Mulder looked toward the horizon in alarm, and saw a thin blood-red rim over the forest canopy. The sun had gone down.

He looked at the others, and without a word they all put a shoulder to the truck again and began to heave desperately.

Feet slid in the muddy water, breath gasped, and the chassis grated horribly on the edge of the road. The truck tilted backwards once more, the back wheels connecting with the road. The grating sound grew louder.

"Don't stop now!" Spinney gasped, and they all tried to feed almost non-existent strength into a final effort.

The truck lurched back, and the front wheels were suddenly back on the road surface, to the accompaniment of Sam cheering. The speed of the unexpected move made Scully lose her grip and fall virtually face down in the water. Mulder and Moore seized her, dragging her upright, and the three of them scrambled after Spinney, who was already out of the ditch and climbing into the driver's seat. Mulder grabbed Sam and swung the little boy up into the back seat, and clambered in after him. Scully had already jumped in on the other side.

Spinney turned the key in the ignition, and they listened to the engine turning over fruitlessly.

"Oh Jesus God - " the ecoterrorist moaned, and tried again. Still nothing.

"Shit!" Moore whispered, and Mulder saw him staring at the windows.

Around the edges was a faint greenish glow, flickering, moving. He looked down and saw a luminous carpet moving slowly over the floor of the truck.

Spinney let out a choking moan, and fumbled at the handle of his door, only to recoil in horror when he saw the handles were covered in the slick green presence of the insects. Beside Mulder, Sam began to whimper, and when the former agent looked at Scully he could see her eyes were wide with fear.

Spinney tried once more, desperately, to start the engine but with no success, and Mulder made a decision.

"Scully, give me your jacket," he said, surprised at how steady his voice was. She stared at him, but he was already struggling out of his own, and after a moment she followed suit.

"What are you doing?" Moore demanded.

"We've got to protect Sam." Mulder spread his jacket out and looked down at his son. The little boy's face was white and his lips were quivering in a prelude to tears. He tried to smile reassuringly at him. "Come on, kiddo. I want you to get under my coat, and Dana's, and don't come out, all right? It'll be okay."

It was manifestly a lie, and the first time Mulder had ever lied to Sam, but as he glanced across at Scully, he knew there was nothing else he could say. She spread her own coat out and helped Mulder lay the two jackets carefully over Sam, worrying even as she did so that the little boy might actually suffocate before anything else could happen to him.

Would that be worse?

That thought was uppermost in Mulder's mind too, even as he felt Sam curling up into a tight ball beneath the layers of cloth, his head butting against his father's knee. Nevertheless, Mulder tucked the coats around him tightly, and - for the first time in many years - began to pray.

His last conscious image was of Scully's lips moving silently in similar prayer, even as a cloud of insects swarmed from every crack and crevice in the truck and settled around them.

By daylight the truck was still and silent.

Three jeeps pulled up a few yards away, one of them a Forestry Service Explorer. The ranger stayed put in his cab, however, watching as the occupants of the other jeeps - four men in white anti-contaminant suits - jumped out and cautiously approached the seemingly abandoned vehicle. One of them held a square device, similar in appearance to a Geiger Counter, with a kind of microphone attached. He waved the handset in front of the truck, checking dials as he did so.

"I'm getting heartbeats," he called, his voice muffled inside the helmet of his suit, and one of his colleagues instantly turned to the ranger.

"Radio in for a helicopter! We need emergency evacuation with quarantine facilities."

The other men had got the doors of the truck open and were examining what they found inside. The cab of the truck was a solid mass of fiberglass-like webbing, and as they tried to decide the best way to remove it and the people trapped in it, there was feeble movement underneath.

"Tell 'em we need quarantine for four individuals with undiagnosed infection or exposure to unknown biological vectors," one of them stated. Then he did a double-take as they peeled back the first layer of webbing and felt the bodies for signs of life. "No, make that five - I think there's a kid in here!"

The high containment facility was part of Winthrop Military Base in Washington, and that was about all Mulder knew of his whereabouts. He suspected it was all he was ever going to know, but for once he couldn't give a damn. He was simply grateful that such a facility existed.

The medics in charge had told him when he woke up that he'd been there for nearly three days, undergoing treatment for severe dehydration, and chronic irritation to the skin and airways. He was also, naturally, under the most careful observation and numerous tests had been done to determine the nature of irritant - Luciferene was suspected, an enzyme usually found in fireflies.

Both he and Moore were now awake and mobile, although still receiving oxygen through tubes in their noses and still in some discomfort from the extensive bites they had suffered. Their injuries had been relatively minor in comparison to Scully, though, who was in a great deal of pain from the burn-like rashes on her face and upper body and consequently under light sedation most of the time. Spinney had suffered a minor case of anaphylactic shock from the bites, and was under observation in the intensive care section of the facility.

He was sharing the ICU with Sam, in whom the dehydration had been considerably worse due to his smaller body mass. The boy's breathing was also being closely monitored, and the medic in charge of his care had told Mulder bluntly that burying him under the coats was probably the only thing that had saved his life. As it was, his airways had been swollen enough to stop his breathing twice, and they were currently keeping him under sedation, like Scully, in order to control the pain from the rashes that covered 80% of his body.

They were allowing Mulder to visit him briefly twice a day, and it was there that the medic in charge found him on the sixth day of their treatment.

"The tests have confirmed that Luciferene is the main irritant," he told the former agent. "We can now start a more aggressive form of treatment for the inflammation. You'll soon see an marked improvement in your son."

Mulder nodded acknowledgement of this news, but his attention did not waver from Sam's unnaturally flushed face. The medic was used to this lack of reaction, and calmly went about checking the monitors attached to the child's small body, and adjusting the flow of the drips attached to him.

"Agent Scully is also showing considerable improvement, and we'll probably cease the sedation this afternoon. You're none of you entirely out of the woods, of course - if you'll pardon the pun - but it's looking pretty good. Provided there are no setbacks, you'll only be here for the standard forty-day quarantine."

Mulder looked up at this. "Sam too?"

The man nodded. "So long as he keeps doing as well as he is. Kids are resilient, Mr. Mulder - the hard part will be keeping him occupied when he's up on his feet."

"Then he'll be okay?"

"I don't see why not. The main concern was kidney damage from the dehydration, but we've seen no evidence of it - although we'll keep monitoring him for that for some time to come."

The relief Mulder felt could not be measured. On the fourth day of their treatment, a senior officer from the base had come in, fully suited up, and talked to him and Moore at some length about what had happened. The suggestion from this officer had initially been that they could all have somehow prevented what had happened, and despite his later retraction of the statement, a confrontation had ensued which - in retrospect - Mulder was embarrassed about.

But the insinuation had been made, and since it was in his nature to blame himself for things he couldn't help, Mulder had begun to turn over the events in the forest obsessively, trying to see if there was some way he could have prevented what had happened to them all. He was particularly distressed by what had happened to Scully and Sam; he tended to be a little cavalier about his own safety, but Sam's welfare was of the utmost importance to him and this was the first time that his obsession with the paranormal had put his son at risk.

Hopefully, it would be the last time.

"What measures are being taken to control the outbreak in the forest?" he asked the medic finally, trying to drag himself out of the depression that kept taking a grip of his spirits.

The man finished his alterations to the drips around Sam. "The government has initiated eradication procedures, Mr. Mulder," he said after a moment. The words sounded careful, measured. "They're quite certain that by using a combination of controlled burns and pesticides, they'll be successful."

Mulder glanced reflexively across at Spinney's bed, but the ecoterrorist was fortunately asleep with his back to them. It was hard to say how he would take the news of "controlled burns" at that point. "What if it doesn't work?" he asked, turning back.

The medic was halfway to the door, and merely glanced over his shoulder. "That is not an option, Mr. Mulder," he said with a note of finality, and left the room.

Mulder digested this for a moment, wondering what other measures the Government would feel it was appropriate to employ should the pesticides and burning not be sufficient to control the insect swarm. Then Sam stirred a little, and he dismissed speculation from his mind, turning instead to stroke his son's hair gently.

"So much for our nice trip to the forest," he muttered bitterly.

FINIS (for now)

TITLE: Prelude VI: Smokescreens
Author: Mad Martha
Spoilers: The Pilot/Squeeze/Tooms/Fallen Angel/Deep Throat/Jersey Devil/Lazarus/Beyond The Sea/Duane Barry/Darkness Falls
Overall Rating: R
Content Warning: Alternate Universe/MSR
Classification: S,X,R
Disclaimer: "The X Files" and all the characters etc. associated with it are the property of 20th Century Fox and 1013 Productions. I am not making any profit from this story, and no infringement is intended.

SUMMARY: Mulder and Scully are faced with some hard choices when two cases collide.

Acknowledgements: On this occasion I had no less than three wonderful beta-readers: the marvelously calm and painstaking Gerry Hill; Cheryl, who as always gives me valuable advice on all things Jewish for these stories; and Ten, who leapt in with both feet first to help me out. I also owe Brandon Ray a debt of gratitude, without whose advice I would never have been able to settle on a theme for this latest Prelude in the first place. Finally, I would like to acknowledge the book "Mindhunter" by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker, which gives a marvelous insight into the workings of the ISU.

NOTES: You try your best to research everything thoroughly, and your beta-readers do their best to catch all your mistakes, but there's always something that slips though the net somehow .... If there are factual errors, I apologize in advance. Also, to the best of my knowledge there is no school in Washington D.C. called the Alexandria Jewish Community School, but if by some quirk of fate such a place *does* exist, again I apologize and would stress that the similarity in names is purely coincidental.

Comments would be welcome, as always.


Anyone watching the high speed car chase might have been forgiven for thinking they'd accidentally stepped onto the set of some TV cop show. A silver Ciera came flying over the brow of a small hill - quite literally, the wheels actually left the ground in the manner more often associated with Steve McQueen movies - and hit the ground with a hair-raising squeal of tires. Barely missing a beat, the driver gunned the engine and the car roared on down the road.

Seconds behind it, a police car followed the maneuver almost exactly, taking to the air over the hill and landing heavily again. Siren blaring, it shot after the Ciera, leaving a whirl of street debris behind it and the smell of burning rubber.

Anyone watching might have been agog; but in this part of Arlis, Maryland, no one was hanging about on the street to watch car chases, and the minor drama passed unnoticed.

The chase continued for another five or ten minutes, the two cars weaving in and out of streets and traffic at high speed, until the driver of the Ciera finally made a mistake. He took a wrong turning into a dead end and found himself trapped in a short alleyway that was fenced off at one end. On the other side of the fence was a pier jutting out into the small harbor that served the Arlis Shipworks.

Behind him, the police vehicle came to a halt and one of the officers, his voice magnified by a loudhailer, demanded "This is the police! Get out of your vehicle, put your hands on the roof and freeze!"

The man behind the wheel of the Ciera shot a quick glance at the police in the rear view mirror, then flung open the door and jumped out of the car. Ignoring his pursuers completely, he made a mad dash for the high fence at the end of the alleyway and seized hold of the links, trying to climb it.

Swearing, the two officers piled out of the car and ran after him. The one who had used the bullhorn took a swing at the suspect, hitting him heavily behind the knees; the man fell from the fence. The other officer pulled out his own night-stick and paused.

"Hold it! Get down on the ground - "

The suspect ignored him, trying to get up, and the first officer hit him again, knocking him back to the ground.

"Get down on the ground - do it!" he ordered, but was ignored. The second officer took a swing at the suspect. "Face down, dammit!"

Behind them, a second police vehicle drew up and another officer got out in time to see the suspect all but ignore another blow and reach out to seize one of the officers' night-sticks, yanking it out of his hands. To his disbelief, he saw the suspect lash out, catching one of the officers viciously behind the knees with the weapon, bringing him to the ground. A defensive maneuver by the second officer was countered with almost contemptuous ease and the suspect, now on his feet, drove the end of the night-stick into his stomach and followed up with a sharp upward blow to the man's chin. With two police officers out of commission, he turned a desperate and determined face onto their remaining colleague.

Something told this officer that he was facing an unequal contest. Nevertheless, he waded in and was ruthlessly beaten to the ground. The suspect cast the night-stick aside, and launched himself back at the fence, hauling himself up it. As he reached the top, a third police car was screeching to a halt and another officer was leaping out.

This man didn't even attempt to pull out his night-stick. Instead, he produced a fat black box and pointed it at the suspect. Two small conductors flew out of the "taser" and hit the suspect in the back, but he never even paused despite a jolt of electricity that should have felled him. Throwing himself over the top of the fence, the conductors were yanked out of his body without him apparently noticing, and he dropped to the other side untouched. Scrambling to his feet, he made a dash for the pier.

Stunned, the young police officer pulled his gun. "Halt! Armed officer!"

He fired, and the suspect was temporarily knocked off his feet. Blood ... or something ... blossomed at his side, but it didn't stop him; he was up again and staggering on to the end of the pier. The officer fired again as he jumped, and the suspect vanished. There was a distant splash from the harbor.

Holstering his weapon, the police officer scaled the fence with a little difficulty and dropped down on the other side. But when he ran to the end of the pier, there was nothing to be seen. Behind him, one of his injured colleagues dragged himself to his feet in time to see the young officer's puzzled investigation of the end of the pier.

"Where is he?" he shouted.

The other man shook his head. "I hit him," he called back. "I *know* I hit him. He was bleeding bad .... Where the hell did he go?"

By this time a fourth police vehicle had arrived and drew up at the edge of the harbor. Two more officers got out. They joined the young officer on the end of the pier.

As they did so, he looked down and saw some odd green patches of liquid on the top step of the pier. In a weird way they looked almost like ... blood.

End Prologue.

The hand that appeared over Annie Rosen's shoulder and stole a peeled carrot got a swift slap for its pains. "Don't do that!" she scolded. "You're worse than the kids."

Fox Mulder crunched on the carrot, unimpressed, and studied the cluttered kitchen worktop thoughtfully. They were standing on the 'green' side of the kitchen; the side Annie reserved for preparing and cooking dairy and other non-meat foods. Annie kept a strict kosher kitchen, and since she and her husband Simon were not short of a penny or two, the entire room was divided down the middle; two ovens, two sinks, two worktops, two sets of utensils. On the 'meaty' side everything was in red.

The worktop was currently heaped high with dishes and vegetables in various states of preparation. It seemed like an extraordinary amount of food to Mulder, even given that it was Friday night and he and Sam were staying the weekend with Annie's family. "Who's coming to dinner?" he asked.

"Rabbi Neuberger," she replied, chopping the carrots with ruthless efficiency and scooping them into a dish. She wiped her hands on a dishcloth, whipped a cover off a large ceramic bowl and tested the Challah dough with a careful fingertip. "Isn't it time you got ready for Temple?"

Mulder studied his cousin through slightly narrowed eyes. She was lousy at concealing anything, and right now he could tell something was up just by the way she avoided looking at him. "Why's the rabbi coming tonight?" he wanted to know.

"He sometimes does," she responded shortly. "Fox, you'll be late - "

"There's plenty of time. I haven't even decided if I'm going yet. You know I don't normally attend." Mulder heard the telephone ringing out in the hallway, and heard Simon pick it up.

"I know, but Sam wants to go and you'll go with him," Annie was saying firmly.

Well, it was Annie's house and she made the rules, Mulder ruefully acknowledged. If she said he was going to attend Temple, he'd *better* attend Temple. Besides, the entire family had him by the balls where Sam was concerned, and he knew it.

"Okay, okay, I'll go. But at least let me set the table for you first ... how many places do you want?" He opened the cupboard where she kept the best cutlery and reached for the place mats.


Startled by her almost-shout, Mulder stared at Annie. She took the place mats out of his hand and shoved them back in the cupboard, closing the door sharply. She was flushed and almost agitated. "Go and get ready for Temple, Fox."

"Annie ...."

"Fox - "

"Annie, what are you up to?" he demanded.

"Nothing! Will you just go and get ready for Temple?"

Simon appeared in the doorway of the kitchen. "That was Dana on the phone," he said and paused, eyeing the pair of them warily. "She said she's having a little trouble with her car and she might be a few minutes late."

Mulder sucked in a deep breath and turned a baleful glare on his cousin. "Dana's coming tonight? Why didn't you tell me?"

Annie crossed her arms defensively, her mouth setting in a stubborn line. "Every time I've asked her to dinner you've said no, so I decided to invite her myself. I don't know why you don't want us to get to know her better, Fox."

"And you just *happened* to invite Rabbi Neuberger over tonight as well, huh? It was just a coincidence?" Mulder made a disgusted sound in his throat, and turned to Simon. "Did you know about this?"

"I told her it was a bad idea," Simon shrugged.

"Great, just great! Annie, I've told you before - this is *my* life and I don't need you meddling in it. You are not the local matchmaker, dammit! And even if you were, Dana is not Jewish - "

"There's no harm in her just meeting Rabbi Neuberger and - "

"Where do you get this arrogance that makes you assume she'd want to convert?" Mulder snapped, interrupting her.

"She'll have to if the pair of you want to get married," Annie flung back at him.

"Oh, for crying out loud - ! For the last time, Annie, we are NOT talking about getting married." Mulder angrily stalked to the door.

"And you never will, if you don't ask her!"

Mulder halted with his back to her, and for a brief second his eyes closed. "For your information, I already *have* asked her," he said curtly. "And she said no!"

He stormed out of the kitchen, and a moment later they heard the front door slam. Simon leaned against the door-post and a raised a brow at his stunned wife. "I told you!"

"Yes, but he's asked her already!" Annie was a woman of mercurial moods; suddenly her anger was gone, and she was in a froth of speculation. "Why hasn't he said anything about it before?"

"Probably because he guessed you wouldn't let it drop once you knew," Simon observed dryly, but as usual Annie wasn't listening. She hurried back to her worktop and seized her knife, aware that time was rolling on and she had a meal to prepare.

"I wonder why she said no?" she continued, and Simon rolled his eyes in exasperation. Would she never learn?

"Annie .... Annie! Listen to me." She looked up, surprised, and he fixed her with a steady stare. "You are *not* to say anything to Dana about this when she arrives, okay?"

She gave him an old-fashioned look. "Simon!"

"I mean it. It's unfair to both of them, when it's their private business ... and besides, it's Shabbat. I'm not playing referee between you and Fox over dinner, okay?"

Annie grumbled and reluctantly acquiesced; but when Simon had left her to go and get ready for Temple, she wiped her hands again and headed purposefully for the telephone hanging on the wall by the door, and pressed number one on the speed-dial.

"Hi, Mom? It's Annie .... Mom, you'll never guess what - "

Mulder did not reappear to join the family for the Sabbath meal.

Scully, whose arrival had coincided with Simon and the rabbi returning from Temple with the children, felt deeply uncomfortable throughout dinner. Despite Simon and Annie's best efforts to appear as though nothing was wrong, Sam's excited chatter to her, and Rabbi Neuberger's flow of cheerful conversation, there was a subtle 'atmosphere'. Afterwards, when Annie and the children were clearing the table, Scully made an excuse and escaped into the hallway, where she rummaged in her bag for her cellphone.

She had a pretty good idea where Mulder was.

She hit number five on the speed-dial and waited; and when the answer eventually came, the voice on the other end of the line was obviously computer-distorted.

"Lone Gunmen."

"It's Dana Scully," she said patiently, and was mildly amused at the sudden scrambling noises on the other end, as whoever had picked up the phone tried to disconnect it from the voice-modulator. Frohike, at a guess.

It was. "Agent Scully!" He sounded slightly breathless. "To what do we owe this pleasure?"

"I think you know, Frohike," she said with a sigh. "Is he there?"

There was a slight pause. "Well, he *is*," Frohike said cautiously, "but - " his voice dropped slightly, "he's not very happy. Are you sure you want to speak to him?"

"Yes. Would you put him on?"

There was another pause, and the sound of mumbling voices in the background, then Mulder picked up the phone. "You could have just called my cellphone," he said.

His tone was both sulky and defensive, and the corners of Scully's mouth turned down a fraction. "Oh, is it actually switched on?" He mumbled something that she decided it would be better not to hear. "This was childish of you, Mulder," she told him bluntly. "I can understand that you were angry earlier, but you hurt Annie very much by not turning up for dinner."

"Scully - "

"No, Mulder! It was rude and uncalled-for, and frankly I didn't think you could be so unkind."


"You're going to apologize to her."

"Like hell!" he snapped angrily.

"Oh, you *will*," she replied grimly. "Let me put it another way: I don't want to see you until you have." And she hit 'end' before he could say anything else. For a moment she wondered if she'd been right to say anything. Possibly not, but .... *If I can't speak my mind to him by now, then we're in a poor state,* she thought wryly.

She put the phone back in her bag and walked through into Annie's beautifully furnished living room. Rabbi Neuberger was already there, comfortably disposed in a large armchair and idly studying a copy of the "Washington Gazette". He was an elderly man, probably in his mid-seventies, with an open friendly face that was universally disarming. He looked up when she appeared, and there was a twinkle in his eyes.

"You think he'll listen to you, my dear?" He gave her an apologetic look when she stared. "The door was open, and I couldn't help but overhear."

Scully relaxed and gave him a rueful smile. "To be honest with you, I don't know," she admitted. "I hope he will."

"It'll be the first time in my experience that he's listened to anyone, if you'll pardon me saying so," he told her.

Scully took a seat on the sofa opposite him and gave him a curious look. "Do you know Mulder well, Rabbi?"

He made a noncommittal sound in his throat, and folded up the newspaper, putting it to one side. "So-so ... I know the family. I've seen less and less of Fox over the last five years. Since his grandfather died he rarely attends Temple, and when he comes now it seems to be more for Samuel's benefit." The rabbi smiled a little. "Even if he only attends for another's sake, it can't be a bad thing, and I'm hopeful that he may eventually appreciate the benefits to himself as well."

Knowing Mulder's feelings and general ambivalence about religion, Scully wouldn't have liked to offer an opinion either way, so instead she said, "You know his mother as well?"

"Ah." At this Rabbi Neuberger looked wry. "I see even less of Rachel than I do of her son. She attends another synagogue, my dear - I don't think she likes my style."

"Oh! I don't really know Mrs. Mulder," Scully explained. "I've only met her the once, and that was an official visit in my capacity as an FBI agent."

"I shouldn't think it would have made much difference if it was an informal occasion," the rabbi observed shrewdly. "I doubt she would have liked your style either, my dear." At her look of surprise he smiled again, this time a little sadly. "Rachel Mulder is an embittered woman - she's had some unfortunate experiences in her life, and she uses her religion as a refuge from them. The longer she goes on, the more insular and narrow she becomes. It's a pity, but I think it was inevitable that she would take a dislike to you."

"I ... had an idea she was more violently opposed to me than Mulder actually let on," Scully admitted. "He doesn't say much, but he's gone out of his way to avoid the two of us meeting again, which tells its own story."

"Does her opinion matter to you, my dear?"

"Only inasmuch as it affects Mulder," she replied frankly. "I hope you'll forgive me for saying so, Rabbi, but our relationship is really none of her business."

"It could become an issue if you become a member of the family, though," he suggested.

There was a pause ... then Scully saw that his eyes were twinkling again. She relaxed muscles that had tensed up without her realizing, and grinned at him. "Annie?" she asked, and he laughed.

"If Annie is to be believed, you and Fox are practically under the Chuppah! I know her rather well, though, and I suspect the case is somewhat different, no?"

"We've talked about it," Scully said, choosing her words carefully, "and we've put it to one side as an option for now. Does that make sense?"

He chuckled. "It makes perfect sense to me, my dear, and seems only sensible under the circumstances. Forgive me, but ... I think you are unlikely to wish to convert, am I right?"

"I was raised a Catholic, Rabbi, and I still practice my faith ... although not perhaps as stringently as Father McCue would like. I know, from things Mulder has told me, that Annie feels strongly on the subject, and I wouldn't want to offend her, but - "

"My dear, you have nothing to explain!" he interrupted quickly. "Annie spoke to me about this several months ago. And, rather to my surprise, so did Fox shortly afterwards. I understand your situation better than you realize, and although I would naturally like to think that eventually the two of you would see a way to settling things the traditional way, frankly I can't see how you would manage it at the present time. Aside from the differences in your faith, there is the matter of Fox still being married by our law. He has the civil divorce, of course, and that would allow him to marry again outside the Temple, but I doubt such a solution would satisfy either of you in your hearts. Not to mention how both families would feel ... and I personally believe that the feelings of the two individuals' families *do* need to be taken into consideration in any marriage. A little care and thought beforehand can prevent many a marital difficulty later on."

"I don't think there's any great likelihood of Mulder being in a position to hand the 'get' to Phoebe in the foreseeable future," Scully commented, with a slight humorless smile.

"No," the rabbi agreed quietly. "A great pity. Much as it pains me to say it, he would be well-rid of her."

There was a brief silence, which was suddenly interrupted by Simon walking in with Sam and the older of his two sons, Brian. Sam was dressed in his pajamas and he had obviously just been bathed, for his skin was pink and his hair damp and sticking up a little at the front.

"I'm putting Sam to bed, since Fox isn't here," Simon explained, smiling. "He's just here to say goodnight."

Scully accepted a sloppy kiss from the little boy, and watched with a smile as he trotted over to Rabbi Neuberger and gravely bid him goodnight as well. The rabbi leaned forward and laid one hand on his dark hair briefly. "Shalom Shabbat, Shmuel. Sleep well."

Simon took him out again, and Brian produced what looked like a copy of the Talmud. He took the seat next to the rabbi, and Scully abruptly realized that this was probably going to be some sort of religious instruction session. It seemed to be her cue to leave, and she got to her feet ... just as Mulder walked through the door with Annie.

"So ...." Mulder loitered uneasily on the gravel driveway as Scully unlocked her car door. "How was dinner?" he asked finally.

"It was nice." Scully regarded him thoughtfully for a minute or so. "It would have been better if you'd been there, though, Mulder," she told him gently. "It was a lovely meal, and it was nice to finally meet your family properly. And Rabbi Neuberger, for that matter. I had a long chat with him after I spoke to you .... It was interesting to hear his point of view on things."

"What things?" Mulder demanded, not sure he liked the sound of this.

"Why don't you ask him? You might be surprised."

There was a pause as they both looked at each other, and finally Scully sighed. "Look, I've got to go. I'll give you a call."

She turned to open the car door and was stopped by his hand on her arm. "Look ... I'm sorry about tonight," he said awkwardly. "I lost my temper, and .... Well, I've spoken to Annie about it."

Scully suppressed a smile, and patted the hand affectionately. "It's okay," she told him, and reached up to give him a quick peck on the cheek before she got into the car.

Mulder and Sam returned home late on Sunday evening. Since the main reason for their stay with Annie's family had not been the Sabbath, but rather an infestation of cockroaches in their apartment block, Mulder could be forgiven for being a little preoccupied as he parked the car and located his apartment keys. Supposedly the landlord had been bringing in the pest control people on Saturday to fumigate the entire building. Consequently Mulder's mind was more on chemical smells and dead cockroaches than security as he unlocked the front door and urged his son through it; but even so, he wondered a little at the remarkable darkness he encountered as they walked inside.

A craggy-faced older man appeared out of the shadows of the kitchen as he shut the door, making him jump violently and hiss a word that under ordinary circumstances he would never allow anyone to say in front of his son. Without thinking, one hand reached out to pull a squeaking Sam behind him, and the other went to his hip where, three years ago, his gun would have been holstered. It was a reflex Mulder had never quite lost, and he nearly swore again when his hand failed to encounter the reassuring butt of his old Sig Sauer.

"What the - !" he began, then he recognized his "visitor". It was a man he'd met only twice previously, just before and just after his abortive trip to Ellens Air Base in Idaho. "What are you doing in my apartment?" he demanded angrily, and tried to loosen Sam's anxious death-grip on his leg. "And why have you drawn all the blinds?"

"I'm taking a considerable risk just coming here," the man retorted, "and the danger attached to being seen in your apartment is beyond your imagination. I called you earlier - where were you?"

"I do have family, you know," Mulder snapped. He flicked one of the light switches on, making the man flinch and duck back into the kitchen. "Sam, go in the other room and take your coat off." He waited until the little boy was out of earshot, and turned to his uninvited guest, studying him. "You've got a lot of nerve," he stated. "It wasn't as though I was exactly expecting a call from you. I've had no contact with you at all since Ellens Air Base."

The man's expression became impatient. "On the contrary, who do you think has been providing you with information for the last six months?"

Mulder's brows snapped together as he suddenly recalled various tidbits of information turning up on his desk at work, folded inside his morning newspaper, or appearing under the front door. "That was you?"

"I told you before: I have an interest in your work and I can help you, but only so long as it's in *my* best interests to do so."

But Mulder was unimpressed. "You sent me the cryptic hints about the so-called Litchfield cloning project? Yeah, fascinating stuff, but what's the use if the evidence keeps disappearing before Scully and I can do anything with it?" His tone turned sharp, angry. "And an agent died during the investigation of the deaths at the Eurisko building. Granted it was partly his own fault for running in there without proper back-up, but with a little more solid information on what we were dealing with, Scully might have been able to prevent that. Do you know how it feels to blame yourself for the death of a fellow agent? Do you know how other agents treat you after something like that?" He made a disgusted sound in his throat.

"No one said this was a game for the weak, or those without a vested interest," was the indifferent reply. "Failure is something you have to learn to accept, Mr. Mulder - you're not dealing with amateurs, after all."

"Brilliant. So what are you doing here now? What do you want from me?"

The man dug into the pocket of his nondescript beige trench-coat and drew out a video tape. "I'm assuming you haven't watched television tonight."

Mulder accepted it warily. "If it's "Debbie Does Dallas", I've already got a copy."

The flippant comment was ignored completely, and the man walked briskly past him and out of the door.

"Hey, wait a minute!" Mulder followed him out, but the other man continued on down the corridor as though they'd never met.

As much as Mulder would have liked to watch the tape immediately, there were other more important things to do first. He went through the usual evening routines of making Sam's supper, snatching a few minutes to check his answering machine and e-mail, bathing the boy and putting him to bed.

Sam was unusually subdued, a fact that Mulder put down to a combination of alarm at the unexpected visitor earlier, and general weariness from an exciting weekend with his cousins. He ate his boiled egg and bread fingers without pushing any of it around his plate, and got into the bath without an argument. He even let his father soap up and rinse his hair without undue protest, accepting the tousling of the towel placidly afterwards. Mulder took out a clean pair of pajamas and helped the boy wriggle into them.

He was just adjusting the cuffs around the wrists and ankles when the previously silent Sam suddenly floored him by asking, "Daddy, is Day my mommy?"

Mulder froze, unsure what to say. "Why'd you ask, Tiger?" he asked finally, trying to maintain as normal a tone as he could. He was kneeling on the floor in front of the boy, and sneaked a quick glance up at him; Sam was gazing in a vague manner at the starfish-patterned tile border halfway up the bathroom walls.

"Sarah, an' Bri, an' Johnno have a mommy," he said.

"Aunt Annie is their mommy, you know that," Mulder told him.

"An' Li-Weng has a mommy."

"Yes ...."

"So is Day *my* mommy?"

Mulder hesitated, a little nonplussed. He really hadn't expected to face this particular question from Sam so soon, and wondered if his son had overheard some of the argument with Annie over the weekend. "No, she isn't," he said finally, because he never lied to Sam. "Why, would you like her to be your mommy?"


That could mean anything. Mulder sat back on his heels and regarded Sam, perplexed. "Are you okay, Sunshine?"

"Yes. Can we read "Green Eggs an' Ham" tonight, Daddy?"

Well, that seemed normal enough and Sam didn't seem to be upset. Nevertheless, Mulder was reminded of a conversation he'd had with his mother in one of her more expansive moments, when she'd told him that as a child he'd been prone to asking odd questions for no apparent reason. The two cases weren't entirely similar, of course, for Sam's question was hardly "odd" under the circumstances, but it made Mulder feel a little twitchy all the same. It was tempting to try and find out why the boy had asked in the first place, but a conversation like that could lead anywhere, and he wasn't ready to explore the question of Sam's real mother with him yet.

So Mulder reluctantly put the question to one side, and prepared himself instead for a session with Dr. Seuss.

Half an hour later, Mulder wandered back into the living room and prowled around restlessly for five minutes or so. The tape his informant had left behind was lying on the coffee table, taunting him; but although Mulder felt a vague urge to look at it, the impulse was not as strong as it had been earlier.

Finally, he went into his own bedroom, switching the light on in passing, and opened the closet doors. He rummaged around at the back until he uncovered an old box tied up with string, and took it back out into the living room, grunting a little under the weight of it.

The box contained a stack of old documents and photographs which Mulder reluctantly drew out one by one and examined. On top of the pile was a plain manila envelope containing a copy of his marriage certificate and the decree absolute from his divorce. He gave these a passing glance, but put them to one side. Underneath was another document, framed and wrapped in tissue paper; he unwrapped it and studied the beautiful illuminated Hebrew script of the Ketubah - the marriage contract - pensively. A lot of hopes and plans had been wrapped up in this single elegant piece of parchment, but looking back he now realized that they'd been *his* hopes and plans, and that was probably one of the reasons they'd never been realized. Briefly Mulder wondered what Phoebe had hoped for when they married; it was depressing and rather chastening to realize that he'd never really known what she wanted. Had he been that blind to his wife's personality? Evidently he had ....

Hastily, he re-wrapped the Ketubah and put it to one side. At least his grandparents hadn't been alive to see the mess he'd made of things; that was something to be grateful for. He dipped into the box again and pulled out a thick bundle of letters, most of them bearing British stamps and postmarks. Why on earth had he kept these things? He didn't need to be reminded of the nauseating state he'd been in over Phoebe after he returned from Oxford. The bundle was tossed hastily to one side, and a photograph album emerged from the box to take its place. Mulder leafed through it, beginning to feel irritable. This had been what he was really looking for, but he had to grit his teeth as he examined the cross-section of photos he'd kept of his ex-wife.

Wedding photos. Nice Chuppah ... pity about the couple standing beneath it. Her dress showed way too much cleavage; no wonder Aunt Esther had spent most of the service and reception muttering. Come to think of it, Annie didn't look too happy in the group photos either, although his former mother-in-law looked worryingly triumphant. The honeymoon photos were ... bright, sunny. Mulder squinted at himself and his scantily-clad bride. Was there anything in these pictures to suggest what was to come? Not unless an outsized bottle of sun tan lotion could be counted as grounds for divorce.

More pictures; standard stuff, the kind in everyone's albums. A skiing holiday ... a party somewhere ... a shot of Phoebe with a new car. Mulder finally closed the album and stared down at the cover pensively. He'd kept these photographs deliberately, a random selection taken from the crates of stuff that had gone into storage after Phoebe vanished.

Shortly after Sam's arrival, he'd made a point of picking out this box of documents and pictures so that he would have something to show his son when the boy was old enough to ask about his mother. It had seemed a very distant event at the time, but at least the other fear - that he would end up some day escorting Sam to a maximum security jail to actually *meet* Phoebe - had yet to be realized. Small mercies ....

Mulder sighed and began to tuck all the other bits and pieces back into the box, leaving the photograph album out. If Sam asked again - if he asked the next big question about his mother - he would be prepared for it.

Then he sneered at himself as he took the box back into the bedroom and stashed it in the closet again. Who was he kidding? He would *never* be prepared.

Mulder switched the bedroom light out again, and stomped back into the living room. The photograph album was roughly tucked away in a drawer full of other 'important' documents that were kept carefully out of Sam's reach. Then he stalked over to the coffee table and snatched up the video tape, ripping the cardboard cover off it and shoving it into the slot of the VCR. A brief search, accompanied by caustic comments, uncovered the whereabouts of the remote control and Mulder flicked the television on, throwing himself down on the sofa.

This had better be good.

"New hairstyle," Mulder observed appreciatively, when Scully collected him from the reception desk at the Hoover building the next morning. "Suits you."

Scully gave him an unreadable look as she checked to see that he was wearing a visitor pass. "You came all this way, bunking off your classes, just to talk about my hair?" she asked dryly, although secretly she was pleased he'd noticed. She steered him into an empty elevator and pressed the button for the basement.

"Au contraire, ma petite. But the hair's pretty cool too."

Scully relaxed and smiled at him. "Thanks - it was a snap decision on Saturday morning, and I wasn't too sure about it, but no one's commented so far. I can't decide if that's a good or a bad thing."

"I like it." Mulder reached out and touched the curled-under ends of her hair lightly with his fingertips. "It's getting longer. I was expecting you to get it cut off again soon, but I like it this length."

"It feels kind of weird, but I think I'll keep it like this for a while." She made an effort and dragged her mind back to professional matters. "So, to what do I owe the pleasure of your visit?"

"Better wait until we get to your office. Have you checked it for devices lately?"

"I check it most days," she responded, puzzled and a little surprised. "I haven't found anything for the last couple of weeks, but we can look again if you like."

"No ... no, it'll be okay."

Scully shot a searching glance at him, but he was obviously unprepared to say any more, so she changed the subject. "How's Sam?"

"He's fine." Mulder hesitated, then decided he might just as well say something. "He threw me a little last night, though."


"Yeah .... He asked me if you were his mother."

To his surprise, Scully seemed unfazed by this. "I guess that's a natural reaction, Mulder. He sees other kids with their mothers and since I'm around a lot of the time, he made a connection somewhere." She studied his face for a moment, and realized that he was uncomfortable for some reason. "Was it a problem? For you, I mean?"

"It's not that." He gave her an embarrassed smile. "It was just ... really unexpected. I'd like to know what triggered it."

"I don't think you have to look far for that," she observed. "He's bright, Mulder, and I can't believe he hasn't overheard various adults talking about you and me."

"Yeah - Annie, for a start. And probably I'm just as responsible." The lift came to a halt and they stepped out. "I feel under siege at the moment," Mulder admitted, as they walked slowly down the corridor to her office. "It's not just Annie. I got a lecture from Rabbi Neuberger as well, before he left on Friday."

"About you and me?"

"No, just me. He told me he'd spoken to Annie about things - well, I guessed that, because while I was upstairs with Sam, they were talking for a long while. But he thinks I ought to sit down sometime and really *consider* what I want to get out of my faith, and not just what I want for Sam." He gave Scully a look that was more than a little aggravated. "Then he got on to me about keeping in contact with my mother, which is a joke really, because she never keeps in contact with me."

It was on the tip of Scully's tongue to point out that two wrongs hardly made a right, but she bit the comment back, knowing that he wouldn't appreciate it. Besides, to be fair to Mulder, he had a certain amount of right on his side where his mother was concerned. "So what will you do?" she asked finally.

Mulder's mind flashed briefly to the box of Phoebe-related memorabilia, but decided that it wasn't worth mentioning right now. "Leave things alone for a week or two, until I get my head straight," he replied wryly.

He let Scully lead the way into her office, but he shut the door behind them firmly and, after a brief hesitation, threw the lock. Scully raised a brow at him, a little puzzled by his behavior. "Is that necessary?" she asked, sitting on the edge of her desk and folding her arms. For once, a raised brow and teasing smile failed to get the usual leering response.

"I don't know," he replied, "but I'd rather not take chances until I find out."

"Sounds suitably mysterious. Can you tell me what this is about now?"

Mulder pulled the video tape out of his pocket. "I want you to take a look at this and tell me if you can see anything odd in it."

Scully raised a brow at him but accepted the tape, slipping it out of its cover and putting it into the office VCR. She pressed the 'on' button on the TV and set the tape rolling. It was a newsreel, and they both watched in silent concentration as a female reporter talked about a high speed car chase into the Arlis docklands in Maryland, that had ended with several injured police officers and a missing suspect. It was early evening in the shot, but behind the reporter could be seen numerous police cars, extensive artificial lighting and some kind of underwater search going on. The harbor edge was crowded with people.

"This was yesterday," Mulder murmured as the reporter tried to tackle the police captain in charge of the search. "I checked out a couple of the Maryland newspapers this morning and they're referring to it as "an intense manhunt". The search was called off for the night, and they were going to drag the harbor this morning."

"What did the guy do?" Scully wanted to know.

"Apparently he refused to pull over for a moving violation."

"Well, there's a good reason for Federalizing the case," was her dry observation.

"Don't be too quick to judge. It took me a couple of viewings to see what was odd about this too."

Scully swallowed a sigh but allowed him to rewind the tape and show it again. And again. Finally she pinpointed something that looked a little out of place. "Who are these guys here?" she asked, freezing the tape and pointing to a small group of men in trench coats who were standing a little apart from the action.

"Agent Scully wins the prize!" Mulder congratulated her, and rooted around in his pocket until he found a foil-wrapped toffee to give her.

Scully accepted it gingerly, but gave him a doubtful look. "That's the odd thing about this?"

"Yep." Mulder glanced around the office vaguely. "Have you got that thing that prints screen-shots?"

"If you bothered to look, you'd see that it was hitched up to the VCR already," she told him reprovingly.

Mulder gave her an affectionate look and set about printing a selection of shots from the tape. Scully was still puzzled, though.

"Mulder, I don't get this. You just happened to see this on TV last night and decided to tape it?"

"Is that a problem?" he evaded, fiddling unnecessarily with the equipment.

"No, but .... Apart from those guys, what made this stand out to you? You've just admitted yourself that it took you a couple of looks before they stood out."

"Scully, why is there so much interest in this missing driver?" he pointed out. "Look at the police presence there! They're putting a hell of a lot of effort into finding a guy who was breaking the speed limit."

"Maybe it's because he brained three of Maryland's finest," Scully suggested mildly.

"Yeah, right." Mulder was unimpressed. "Did you see the papers this morning? There's one suspected serial killer on the loose, two rapists, and a drive-by shooting. But they're concentrating all their efforts on this one guy who wouldn't pull over when he was asked nicely. He could even be dead, since one of the officers knew he shot him and the guy jumped off the end of the pier! It doesn't add up."

"And you want me to do ... what?"

"Go take a look at the crime scene. Ask a few questions - see if you can get a look at the car. Anything. There's got to be more to this than meets the eye."

Scully considered this, eyeing Mulder thoughtfully. He was keeping something back from her, she knew. There was some other reason he wanted her to look into this, but for some reason best known to himself, he didn't want to tell her about it. That ought to set alarm bells ringing straight away, she thought uneasily.

Then the silence was ruptured by someone trying the door handle. There was a puzzled silence, then they knocked. "Scully?" a male voice said.

Mulder raised a brow at Scully. "You could take Jerry with you," he suggested.

Agent Jerry Castamir, Scully's occasional partner, was even less impressed by Mulder's reasoning than Scully was; and his reaction still managed to fall short of the obvious disdain displayed by Captain Lacerio of the Arlis Police when he found the FBI on his patch. It took considerable effort on the part of both Scully and Castamir to get any kind of information out of him, and what little information he did have was unrevealing.

"There were three different law enforcement agencies out here last night, Ma'am," he told Scully curtly, and handed back the screen shot of the men in trench coats. "Damned if I could keep track of everyone."

"Three different agencies looking for one man on a moving violation?" Castamir asked, incredulous.

"Look, son, it may not be "Silence of the Lambs", but it's what we do," was the irritable response.

"You said the suspect was shot," Scully intervened hastily. "Do you have any explanation of why the body hasn't been found yet?"

The captain glanced sideways across the harbor, where a couple of scuba divers were tipping backwards off a boat. "This is a working harbor, Ma'am. There's a lot of debris - cables, pipes, that sort of thing - on the bottom. It'll take time. Now if you don't mind me asking - what's the FBI's interest in this?"

"The suspect matches the description of a federal fugitive," Castamir replied smoothly.

The captain rewarded him with a scathing look. "Oh yeah? That's kind of interesting ... since no description of the suspect has been released."

Once again, Scully intervened. "Would you object to us taking a look at the car?"

For a moment Captain Lacerio gave her a hard, searching look. Then he shrugged, evidently deciding the problem wasn't worth his time. "It's been impounded."

"Why are we here?" Castamir demanded in an undertone, as they headed back to their car.

"I think you said it yourself, Jerry. It's extremely odd that three agencies - two unnamed - were all out here searching for man who tried to avoid a speeding ticket."

"It's hardly FBI business."

"That remains to be seen."

"This is an x-file? *That's* what Mulder was in the office for this morning?"

Scully gave him a sharp look. "Does that bother you?"

Jerry chewed his bottom lip as they got back into the car. "Look," he said finally. "Don't take this the wrong way, but I was under the impression that we got our assignments from AD Skinner. Do we have his authorization for this investigation?"

"Jerry, I had no idea you were so by-the-book," Scully muttered.

He winced slightly. "I'm not. It's just ... well, I'm kind of comfortable with this partnership, and working part-time with the VCS. I'd really like *not* to be censured and shipped back out to a field office just yet, you know?"

Scully, who was about to put the key in the ignition, paused and stared at his barely-visible reflection in the windscreen for a moment. His expression was blank, but something about his eyes wasn't right. "Nothing's happened so far, Jerry," she told him after a moment. "We're just *looking* so far. We'll take a look at this car in the impound and see if it tells us anything. It probably won't and if it doesn't, that's the end of the matter. Okay?"

Jerry gave her a weak smile. "And if it does tell us something?"

"Then *I'll* go to Skinner for a 302."

"Right. Fine. That's cool. Let's go look at the car." Jerry looked away from her, out of the side window, and Scully turned the keys in the ignition.

The journey to the Police Impound was completed in total silence, Jerry apparently lost in his own thoughts and Scully busily turning over their conversation in her mind.

On the face of it, Jerry's concerns were perfectly reasonable; they had absolutely no legitimate business interfering in the Arlis PD's hunt for the fugitive, and if Skinner found out they'd been doing so without a good reason, let alone a 302, then they'd probably get roasted alive. On the other hand, something was gnawing at the edges of her mind. Since when had Jerry become so joyless? The man she'd originally been partnered with had had a real spark of mischievous good humor in him, not unlike Mulder. Yet they'd barely returned from that debacle at Ellen's Air Base before he'd turned into ... well, the voice of her conscience, for the want of a better description. The investigation into the Eurisko building a few months ago, which had culminated in the death of Agent Jerry Lamana, had been a serious low point in their working relationship and he had been difficult to work with ever since. They'd looked into a couple of cases together where he'd almost seemed to recover - both of them wildly improbable ghost hunts that had led to the exposure of some serious hoaxes - but by and large he was a cheerless companion, twice as skeptical than she could ever be and, on occasion, downright short-tempered.

Not that she knew Jerry Castamir all that well, of course. The nature of their partnership was such that she didn't seem to spend an awful lot of time in his company, and when she did, it was hardly in a social context. She had no idea what he did with his free time or who he associated with. She knew he was gay - although she would never have known that if Mulder hadn't told her - and presumably he had relationships; possibly he even had a significant other, but she didn't know who that person might be.

In fact, he was something of an enigma to her. He knew a hundred percent more about her than she did about him, and for the first time that struck her not as odd, but faintly disturbing. Scully was not a woman to pry into other people's lives, but it was strange that he should never spontaneously mention anything about himself - not even the most innocuous of details. He could talk the leg off a table when he was in the mood to do so, but it was only now she was realizing that he never said anything that related to him.

Frowning a little, Scully pondered this anomaly. Perhaps she was over-reacting; perhaps he was naturally reticent. Of course, it could just be that she was a woman; she wondered if he talked to the other agents on the Violent Crimes team, and hard upon that thought was the urge to find someone in the VCS as soon as possible, and pump them for information.

Then she almost laughed at herself. The only person she knew really well on the current VCS team was Tom Colton, and it would be a cold day in hell before either of them would willingly talk to each other. Which left ... Mulder. The only other person who knew Jerry Castamir well.

Mulder it would have to be.

"The car was registered to a rental agency in Gaithersburg, according to this," Jerry commented, waving a file at Scully. She was checking the glove compartment, although it had been emptied by the police earlier. "They had no idea the vehicle was even missing." He watched her get out of the car, and added, "I think we're wasting our time, Scully."

"Could be," she admitted, stepping back and scanning the Cierra irritably. "I wish I knew what I was looking for." She rummaged around in her pocket and pulled out one of Mulder's photos, looking first at it and then at the car again.

Jerry leaned over her shoulder. "That a shot from the video Mulder showed you?"


"That's interesting." He took it out of her hand, and went to look at the front of the car. "You can't make out the license plate in the photo. Pity." Then he paused. "Wait a minute - look at this."

"What?" Scully followed him.

"Well ... I might be wrong, but I don't think this is the same car."

Scully shot him a startled look and took the photo back, comparing it to the vehicle in front of her. For a moment she couldn't see what Jerry meant - then she saw it. "There should be a sticker inside the windshield."

"I guess the police could have removed it ...." Jerry went to have a look, running his fingers over the spot inside the toughened glass where the sticker should be. "No, there's no glue residue. And the glass is quite dirty - there would have been a mark if something had been peeled off."

They looked at each other. "Interesting?" Scully asked finally.

Jerry nodded soberly. "Interesting."

Back in the office, they took another look at Mulder's tape, slowing it down and examining it frame by frame.

"Definitely a different car," Jerry commented. "Do we tell the Arlis PD that someone switched it?" He cocked a brow at Scully, who gave him an amused look.

"Not yet," she told him, and he grinned slightly.

"I had a feeling you'd say that. Okay, what next?"

"Let's take a closer look at that sticker." Scully fiddled with the VCR and other equipment until she got a slightly enlarged photo of the car's windscreen. She took it over to the light table in the corner, and found a magnifying glass under which she could study it. "That's interesting," she commented, at length. "It's a caduceus - sort of the adopted symbol of the medical profession."

"So maybe the driver was a doctor?" Jerry suggested idly.

"It's a good bet." Scully put the magnifier down, frowning a little. "It's not something I recognize off-hand, but there's a good chance that this is a sticker from some kind of research society or pharmaceutical company."

Jerry perked up. "I'll see if I can get a decent shot of it, and find out who's it is," he offered.

"Okay." Scully handed the photo over to him and ejected the video tape from the VCR. "While you're doing that, I'll take this up to Danny and see if he can get a clearer picture of the car's license plate."


Scully gave him a quick smile, grabbed her jacket and purse, and headed out of the office.

Jerry listened to her heels clicking down the corridor for a moment, his teeth worrying at his lower lip. When he heard the elevator doors 'ting' open softly and shut again, he crossed the office quickly and shut the door, locking it. Then he hurried back to Scully's desk.

For several minutes, he stared at the array of photographs scattered across the neat expanse of wood. It had been a mistake to point out the sticker in the car's windshield, but the words had been out of his mouth before he realized. Although there had been a sporting chance that Scully would have seen it anyway .... But now he knew with certainty what the sticker was, he couldn't risk not reporting it. Reluctantly, Jerry reached for the phone and dialed a number.

Whoever was on the other end of the line, answered immediately. "It's me," Jerry said, his throat dry. "There's ... there's a problem."

It was a weary Scully who arrived on Mulder's doorstep late that evening.

"You look like you could use a stiff drink," he observed as he relieved her of her coat. "Bad day?"

"So-so," she sighed, and rotated stiff shoulders a little. "I spent most of the afternoon in a budget meeting, trying to justify a receipt for photographic services from Sci-Crimes. Internal transfer orders are a bitch - they come back to haunt you at the worst moments."

"One of the many things I never thought I'd have to deal with again when I left the Bureau," he agreed, "although trying to do the same thing with the University bursar is ten times worse. They tried to sting me for an order of encyclopedias the other day. What they thought I was going to do with fifty of the things is anyone's guess."

"Prop up wobbly table legs?" Scully suggested.

Mulder snorted good-humoredly. "Don't even get me *started* on the tables!"

"I brought your tape back," she said, as he led her through to the kitchen. "We checked out the car in the video at the impound, and found that it wasn't the same car any more."

"Seriously?" Mulder's eyes were bright with interest as he poured her a glass of white wine.

"As I live and breathe. Danny managed to enhance the tape enough to get the true license number, though, and between us, we tracked it down to a Doctor Berube. We're going to go see him tomorrow."

"That's brilliant. Any ideas about this doctor's background?"

Scully swallowed a sip of the wine appreciatively. "Jerry did a little research into a sticker on the windscreen - Berube appears to have connections with a company called Pinck Pharmaceuticals, although that could just be a coincidence. We'll probably find out more tomorrow ... although I have to say, Mulder, I don't know exactly *what* you think we'll find."

"Maybe nothing," he acknowledged. "But if the cars were switched, I'd like to know why."

"I doubt Berube will know," she said with a sigh. "He reported the car stolen the morning before the police tried to flag it down. All the same, it's worth talking to him just in case." She rotated her shoulders again, trying to loosen the knots in the muscles, and rubbed her forehead absently.

"Come in the other room and sit down," Mulder said gently. "Forget about the case for a while and veg out."

"Sounds good to me. Where's Sam?" she asked suddenly, realizing that she hadn't heard any of the usual little-boy noises around the apartment. She followed Mulder through into the living room, but there was no sign of his son.

"He's in bed. I wore him out with half a dozen games of Twister earlier." As proof Mulder had to scoop up the Twister mat from the floor, and Scully laughed softly.

"You're having to get creative, Mulder."

"Hey, I've always been creative!" he protested, grinning. He tossed a couple of cushions onto the floor, and they both settled down on the rug with their backs against the sofa.

"This is nice," Scully sighed, and let her eyes wander vaguely around the room, not really taking anything in. "There was something I was going to ask you, but I can't remember what."

"It'll come back to you." Mulder eyed her with concern. "You look really drained. Are budget meetings that bad these days?"

"Oh! No, it's not that."

There was a long pause, and Mulder finally asked, "Are you sure you don't want to just go home and get some sleep?"

"I've already been home once." Scully thought about it for a minute and turned her head so that she could see his face. "I wasn't going to tell you this, but ...."

"What?" His stomach tightened with concern.

She reached into her jeans pocket and pulled out a folded buff envelope. "This was waiting for me with my mail." When he hesitated about taking it, she pushed it into his hand. "It's okay - I want you to read it."

Mulder sat up slightly and examined the envelope. It had obviously been delivered by hand - there was nothing on it but Scully's name in firm, hand-written black script. When he opened it, there was a single piece of stiff cream-colored paper with the same firm black writing tilting across it.


Ignoring me won't do you any good. I'm not going to go away. I *need* to see you; we *have* to talk.

I know why you're doing this; I know you're trying to punish me. I can accept that. We've had our problems. I'm telling you, though - screwing another guy is *not* the answer. I can forgive a lot of things, but my patience isn't infinite.

Give it up, Dana. You can't win. I'm always going to be here, so why don't you just meet with me and we'll talk about it? Our old place, the bench on the Potomac - be there tomorrow.

I'll be waiting.


Mulder let out a slow breath and dropped the letter and envelope on the floor between them.

"I know what you're going to say," Scully said quickly, her tone half-defensive, half-apprehensive.

"No, you don't," he responded quietly. "I'm not going to scream at you anyway, if that's what you're thinking. Is he still phoning you?"

"Occasionally," she muttered.

"How often is "occasionally"?" She hesitated, and her body-language told him everything he needed to know. "How often, Scully?"

"I find messages on my answerphone two or three times a week."

Mulder let out a shaken breath. "Every week?" he asked, and she nodded reluctantly. "Holy shit! What about e-mail?"

"I don't get them at work, but I get - or did get - quite a few at home. I've got the program set up to filter them out now."

Mulder stared at her with wide eyes - her tone was so calm. "Why aren't you going out of your mind?" he demanded.

"What?" Scully was genuinely surprised.

"Most women would be going nuts if some guy had been harassing them for nearly two years. Hell - *I'd* be going nuts! But you don't seem to have a problem with it."

Scully opened her mouth - and shut it again. "It's not that I don't have a problem with it, Mulder," she said after a moment or two, and shrugged helplessly. "It's just that ... well, it's just *Jack*. I guess I've got used to it."

"Back at Christmas you were ready to turn him in to Skinner," he pointed out. "Why the change of heart?"

"Well, he left me alone for all of a month.." She smiled wryly. "I had time to cool down."

Mulder didn't know what to say. That she could treat this so cavalierly was beyond his comprehension. Finally he picked up the letter again. "This - is this the first time he's sent you letters?"

"No, but it's the first one in maybe a year." Scully plucked it out of his fingers and put it back into the envelope. "I guess that's why it rattled me so much."

"Or maybe it's the threatening terms it's couched in," Mulder retorted bluntly.

"Oh, Mulder! He's not threatening me."

"The phrase "you can't win - I'm always going to be there" doesn't bother you? Because it sure as hell bothers me!"

"Are we going to fight about this?" Scully asked quietly.

"I don't know - are we?" Mulder studied her closed expression and sighed, reaching out to take her hands. "We've had this out before, Dana. If I'm pushing the issue, it's because I'm worried." His eyes fell on the envelope in her hands. "No, scratch that - I'm *frightened*. You can argue until you're blue in the face that he's never done more than harass you, but the VCS file store is full of stories about harassers and stalkers who waited *years* before they suddenly lashed out at their victims. Willis has escalated his behavior at least three times now - he went from the occasional e-mail and phone call right up to dragging you out to a case in New York, and lying in wait for you at the Bureau ball. Now it's this. Okay, it may seem like a little thing compared to him actually confronting you, but it came out of the blue, didn't it? You don't know what's fueling his obsession with you, or what triggers the variations in his behavior. And when you don't know that, you don't stand a chance in hell of predicting what he'll do next."

Scully looked down at their linked fingers for a moment, her hair screening her face from his view. When she finally looked up again, there was a tiny rueful smile on her lips. "Is that Agent Mulder, the profiler, talking?" she asked softly.

But Mulder couldn't smile back. "By the time I profiled someone, Scully, the victim was dead already."

The smile vanished, and she looked away again.

"I'd rather it didn't come to that," he added, when it was evident she wasn't going to say anything. "I'd rather someone like Skinner took a good hard look at Jack Willis *now* and gave the bastard the fright of his life. The chances are that it's all he needs - he's probably only trying his luck because he knows you're reluctant to bring your relationship with him to everyone's notice again."

Scully bit her lip, but nodded reluctantly. "I guess that's what it comes down to," she confessed. "I keep thinking that Skinner or the OPC won't believe me, or they'll think I'm being vindictive. And no matter what I do, Mulder, it's going to look bad."

"The longer you leave it, the worse it'll look," he pointed out. "How much evidence do you have? Have you kept copies of the letters and e-mails he sent you? What about the tapes from your answering machine?"

"I wiped the tapes," she said tiredly, "and I got rid of a lot of the messages and letters. Out of sight, out of mind, I thought."

"Okay, so start now. Keep a file of everything he sends you and start keeping your answering machine tapes .... Is it the kind of machine that dates and times each message? If it isn't, get one that does. And notify your service provider that you're being harassed - find out what their policy is for dealing with internet stalkers."

At this, Scully gave a soft snort of laughter and looked at him affectionately. "Mulder, who's the FBI agent here?"

"Just what I was thinking." He grinned, relieved at her change of mood. "All the same ... will you see Skinner tomorrow?"

"Jerry and I are supposed to be seeing Dr. Berube tomorrow morning," she pointed out, but Mulder was having none of it.

"Screw Dr. Berube - see Skinner first. This is more important."

"Okay, I'll give his PA a call first thing," she agreed. She gave him a mock-stern look. "Happy?"

"Ecstatic." Mulder sat back, looking relieved.

Scully remembered her wine and picked the glass up, draining it in two quick swallows. "So," she said casually, "are you going to invite me to stay tonight?"

He chuckled. "Scully, you don't need an invitation - my bedroom door is always open to you."

"Good, because I thought you were never going to ask."

"Assistant Director Skinner will see you now," his PA, Kimberley, told Scully.

*Thank God for that,* Scully thought, smiling mechanically at the other woman as she stood up and went to the office door. She had been able to get an appointment with him in the morning, but an over-running meeting had delayed him and she consequently spent twenty minutes in the outer office battling sweating palms and a churning stomach.

She had promised Mulder that she would deal with the Jack Willis problem immediately, but that didn't mean she had to like it. She had only a vague idea of what happened when charges were filed against a fellow agent for harassment, but she knew enough to know that this was the very beginning of a descent into hell.

Nobody liked disciplinary hearings. And nobody liked the person who instigated one.

*You can do this,* she told herself, and turned the door handle resolutely.

Skinner was standing behind his desk when she entered the room, and he looked up at her briefly.

"Agent Scully, I'm glad you're here. I wanted to see you about something anyway." He waved her to the seat in front of the vast desk, and Scully slipped into it, feeling hot and cold all over. Skinner sat down and looked at her. "Are you working on anything major at the moment?"

Scully's mind scampered briefly over the case-not-case that Mulder had shoved under her nose, pausing at the visit to see Dr. Berube that she and Jerry Castamir were supposed to be making that morning and the Section 302 request that she had intended to ask Skinner for at some point ... and she gave the expected response. "Not at the moment, Sir."

"Good. Have you seen the papers this morning?"

"No, Sir ...." Not between waking slightly later than usual, having a lightning assignation with Mulder in his shower, followed by two drives from hell, one back to her apartment to get changed and the other into the office. She hadn't even had breakfast, although that was more due to her stomach churning in anticipation of this interview with Skinner.

Skinner frowned. "Are you aware of the unimaginatively named "Slasher" murders, Agent Scully?"

Her eyes widened slightly. "Yes, Sir. Four victims found in the DC area over the last four months with multiple lacerations, puncture wounds to the eyes and mutilation of the face - "

"Five murders, Agent," he corrected her grimly. "There was another one found last night."

There was a pause, and Scully ventured to comment: "I take it the Bureau has been called in on this one?"

"We were called in when victim number four was discovered two weeks ago," Skinner nodded. "Unfortunately, this latest killing would seem to suggest that the UNSUB is escalating suddenly, and we're under a lot of pressure to catch him before he kills again." He pulled a file out of one of the trays on his desk and held it out to her. "The initial VCS team is being enlarged in response to this, and both yourself and Agent Castamir have been requested - you especially, given your background in forensic pathology. The Special Agent in Charge is hoping that a new ME on the case, particularly one with field experience, will find something that may have been missed previously."

"Of course, Sir." Scully accepted the file. "Who do I report to?"

It might have been her imagination, but she thought she saw a line or two of disapproval briefly dragging the corners of Skinner's mouth downwards. "Special Agent Jack Willis," he stated heavily, and she felt her stomach plummet in response. After a stiff, unnatural moment of silence, he added, "Agent Willis was cleared for field duty again nearly a year ago ... as you may know. He has a strong interest in this case, and it was the decision of Assistant Director Rolfe to let him take charge of it."

Was that Skinner's oblique way of telling her that it wasn't *his* fault she was being put in this situation?

*Breathe!* Scully commanded herself silently, fighting for control. *You will NOT break down in front of AD Skinner. You're a Federal Agent, damn it, not some shrieking heroine from the silent movies - you can handle this.*

Jesus, she was supposed to be here to make a complaint against Willis ... what the hell happened now?

"Agent Scully?" Skinner was frowning even more heavily now.

Scully dragged in a deep breath and straightened up in her chair. "Yes, Sir?"

"There's a meeting of the task force at 10.30 am. Agent Willis will brief you then, so I suggest you take the remaining ..." he glanced at his watch, "fifteen minutes to take a look at the precis in the file that's been prepared for you. Is there anything else?"

"No, Sir." Scully gratefully took refuge in the routine monosyllables, and dragged herself out of the chair.

She had just reached the door when Skinner's voice called her back. "Agent Scully?"

She turned back to him reluctantly. "Sir?"

"You wanted to see me about something else, I believe?" When she looked at him blankly, her mind reeling, he added, "Kimberley said it was urgent."

"Oh!" Abruptly, her mind lurched into action again, saving the day. " I was only going to ask for a few days off, Sir, but under the circumstances ...."

Skinner nodded. "Maybe later, Agent," he told her gruffly. "When the UNSUB's off the streets."

Scully nodded and made her escape.

Out in the busy corridors, her conscience suddenly piped up, disconcertingly taking on Mulder's voice.

*What about Willis? Aren't you going to explain to Skinner about the harassment? What if this is just another ploy?*

But what would be the point? This had to be the worst of bad timing - Skinner would never believe in the coincidence, was unlikely to want to take action immediately even if he did. And Scully's mind couldn't help going back to the words of the letter tucked inside her purse.

*Ignoring me won't do you any good. I'm not going to go away.*

Jerry Castamir was waiting for her outside the briefing room. "You heard," was his dry greeting, and she nodded curtly. "I guess this means we won't be continuing with Mulder's case," he added.

Scully was unreasonably irritated by his tone, but managed to hang onto her temper by a thread. "You don't have to sound so pleased about it," she responded, as mildly as she could.

Clearly it wasn't quite mild enough, for Jerry raised his hands defensively. "Hey, it was only an observation! Why, did you ask Skinner about the 302?"

"I didn't get an opportunity."

"Huh. Well, we might get a gap sometime today. We could, uh, swing past Dr. Berube's lab if we get a chance. It shouldn't take long."

Scully blinked at him, and he ventured a tentative smile.

"Maybe," she sighed, trying to relax. "Although I'll be honest, Jerry - I don't think it's likely we'll get that chance."

He frowned a little. "That bad, huh? All I had was a note on my desk telling me it was the Slasher case and to be here at ten. Do you know who's in charge?"

"Jack Willis," she bit out, and pushed past him to knock on the briefing room door.

"Oh shit ...." she heard him say softly behind her.

Two of the victims' bodies had already been released for burial, but the other three - two of which had so far been unclaimed by family or friends - were laid out in the autopsy bay at Quantico waiting for her. Scully surveyed the three sheet-covered forms silently for a second before taking refuge in the case files in her hands.

"So, Agent Scully," an insinuating male voice drawled from behind her, "any observations so far?"

The muscles in her shoulders twitched imperceptibly, but she managed to contain any other outward reaction to Willis' snide tone. Instead, she glanced up again at the bodies and seemed to study them meditatively for a moment. "I think," she said slowly, thoughtfully, "that they might be dead. I'd need to take a closer look, of course, just to be sure ...."

There was a soft snicker, also from behind her, that was quickly suppressed and Scully's mouth twitched involuntarily. Bless Jerry for sticking his neck out and insisting on coming along too. She hadn't appreciated the mother-hen behavior when he suggested it, but his presence, despite their uneasy relationship, was a comfort and would undoubtedly keep Willis from stepping over the line, at least for now.

"It's not another medical examiner you need here ... Sir," she said stiffly, turning to face Willis. "You need a profiler. I doubt I can tell you any more about these victims - "

"I didn't ask for another medical examiner," he interrupted her curtly. "I asked for you. A set of fresh eyes, coupled with field experience, instead of just a career scalpel-man. Of course, if you're not up to it ...."

Scully gritted her teeth, and was grateful when Jerry jumped into the gap. "A profiler's been requested, Scully," he told her. "But I'm guessing he'll need all the extra information you can give him."

He placed only the tiniest emphasis on "you", but she was amused by the insinuation all the same. Yes, she'd seen Willis' reaction to the suggestion that a profiler was needed on the case; not just now, but also earlier in the briefing when someone else had muttered the suggestion. This was *his* case and it was galling him beyond measure that someone from outside the team was being brought in to take all the glory. More than that, he resented the implication that he couldn't find this killer on his own efforts. That his own profile had failed to get them anywhere so far was immaterial.

"How long's this going to take?" Willis snapped, his eyes fixed on Scully coldly.

She took a quick glance at the three bodies again. "Two of them have already had most of the basic work done on them, so ... four to five hours, at a guess."

He made a harsh sound in his throat. "I've got other things to do. Let me know when you have the results. Castamir ...." He swung towards the door, clearly expecting Jerry to follow.

Jerry held his ground though, smiling blandly at the SAC. "Oh, I thought I'd hang around for a while. You'll be doing the latest victim first, right Scully?" She nodded. "Well, someone needs to be here to relay any relevant new information to the task force."

Willis stared at him for a moment, then shrugged and was gone.

Scully took a deep breath, almost welcoming the sour smell of formaldehyde in place of the equally bitter smell of Willis' rancor. "Thanks, Jerry."

"No sweat," he smiled. "If you ask me, the population's more at risk from *that* crazy son of a bitch right now, not our UNSUB. What's his problem?"

It was tempting to say "me", but Scully was well aware that she was only a side issue right now. Jack Willis' problem was that he clearly felt he had something to prove, and that, in Scully's opinion, was bad news for everyone on the task force, not just her.

"I don't know," she said instead, "but I *do* know that I don't want to give him any excuses to fault my work right now, so this could take a little longer than I said. You don't have to hang around here - why don't you go and get yourself some lunch? There's a really good diner nearby ...."

His nose wrinkled. "I don't know ... formaldehyde as a dressing just doesn't work for me."

She chuckled softly. "It clings, doesn't it? I'm used to it, but ...."

"I'll get a coffee and study the files for a while," he told her and grinned. "I don't know if you heard Mike Rawlings, but there's a suggestion this could be a copycat, and I'd like to go over the previous file and get a feel for what we could be dealing with. Willis is denying it, of course, but that's one of the things the team are hoping the profiler will clarify."

Scully got a sinking feeling at this statement. Agent Rawlings was Willis' second in command, and the suggestion that he and Willis were divided in their opinion on the case - and worse, that Rawlings felt strongly enough to express his opinion to others - was very bad news. Divided leadership was the last thing the task force needed.

"Well, whatever," she nodded. "Let me know what you find out. I didn't have a lot of time to go over the files myself."

"How's it going?"

Scully glanced up from the open body cavity of victim number five and saw Jerry poking his head around the door so that he didn't have to see too much of the cadaver's insides ... or get too much of the smell. She smiled, switched off the recorder and stripped off her latex gloves, and joined him outside in the corridor. He was holding two large cardboard cups and had a file tucked under one arm.

"Frankly, it looks just the way the previous ME described victims two, three and four," she told him, and accepted the cup he was offering. "Is this coffee?"

"Starbucks' best Costa Rican," he nodded, and smiled at her sigh of relief.

"Jerry, you're a marvel."

"I try. So ... there's nothing new?"

"Not yet," she admitted. "I think it's a fair bet there won't be. This is definitely our UNSUB so far, although I want to take another look at the other victims, especially the first one. I took a look through the ME's notes on that one, and there's a suggestion that it may differ from the others." She frowned. "If that's the case, I'd like to know why it was so quickly lumped together with the other murders."

"Well, I've taken a look through the files and there are few things you might like to know."

"Oh?" She looked at him with interest.

Jerry nodded and put his cup down on a nearby surface. He took the file from under his arm, and flipped it open to show her a prison mug-shot of a thin, staring-eyed man with a shaven haircut. The picture was a copy but disguised none of the lurking insanity in the face. "This is one John Mostow, born in Uzbekistan and emigrated to the US ten years ago. Absolute certified lunatic now, doing time in the Druid Hill Sanatorium, Baltimore."

"Druid Hill?" Scully shuddered slightly. That was where Eugene Tooms was incarcerated, hopefully for the rest of his natural life ... however long that might be.

"He got put away, oh ... six years ago now, for a string of murders involving puncture wounds to the eyes, multiple lacerations, facial mutilation .... Sound familiar?"

"So we've got a good reason for Agent Rawlings to believe it's a copycat," she observed gloomily. "Presumably this guy Mostow is still locked up?"

"Absolutely - it was the first thing Rawlings checked out. Then, in an act that undoubtedly just killed SAC Willis with happiness, he tossed the files like a hot potato over to Patterson at the ISU. And as a point of interest, Patterson himself passed me in the corridor twenty minutes ago, moving like an express train and looking way too happy for my comfort levels. But you want to know the really cool thing about this?"

Scully raised a brow at his evident amusement. "How can anything about this case be "cool", Jerry?"

He grinned. "Trust me, you'll love it." He flipped a couple of pages over in the file to show a photocopy of a rather messily typed document that bore all the headers of an official profile. Then he turned another page so that she could see the footers and signature at the bottom of the document.

Special Agent Fox Mulder.

"That's excellent," she stated after a moment, her voice indicating that it was anything *but*. "I can't imagine who'll be more pleased about this - Jack Willis or Bill Patterson."

"I doubt it'll make a great difference," Jerry replied, a little surprised at her sour tone. "Mulder isn't with the Bureau anymore, and since this is clearly a copycat a new profiler will be brought in. Besides, this is anything but a full profile. Mulder's best works of art used to take up an entire stationery store. This is just a working draft, and from the paperwork it looks like they caught Mostow before he needed to take it any further. This time around, it'll probably be a different story."

"Whatever," Scully sighed. She couldn't work up a great deal of enthusiasm either way, partly because she had a feeling that this was going bite her on the rear if Willis could possibly arrange it, but also because her shoulders and back were starting to ache. They always did if she had more than one autopsy to perform.

"Are you nearly finished?" Jerry asked, concerned.

She snorted. "Not yet, not by a mile. I've got to finish up on the latest victim, then I need to look over the others. Really, Jerry, you don't have to hang around."

"Well, I'll wait for you to finish up this one, then I'll take your notes to be typed up if you like."

"That would be great," she agreed thankfully. Then an idea occurred to her. "I was thinking ...." She trailed off hesitantly, and he raised an expectant brow at her. "Well, I was thinking maybe you could drop by Berube's lab and see what he knows about our vanishing carjacker."

Jerry's brows went up. "Without a 302?"

"Yeah, okay, it was a stupid idea," Scully sighed, and he felt a twinge of contrition.

"Well, so long as you cover for me ...." He gave her a quirky smile at her look of surprise. "You can always say I was upstairs, chatting up the new recruits."

Berube worked for the EmGen Corporation in Gaithersburg, an organization working on the Human Genome Project. On the face of it, this was perfectly legitimate - in fact, Jerry had no real reason to believe it was anything but.

.... Except that there was a sticker on the window of Berube's stolen car which spoke of a connection to another, less innocent company he had definitely heard of before; one which he didn't think it would be a good idea to have Scully sniffing around. And, of course, there was the fact that for some inexplicable reason, Fox Mulder was interested in the missing driver of that car.

Jerry Castamir was a man in a quandary. He wanted nothing to do with this investigation, but for various reasons he was obliged to be involved if Scully chose to pursue it. He was terrified of what he might find, of what *she* might find, and of what he might be forced to do in either case. And yet .... There was still enough of the original man left inside him that he badly wanted to do damage to those holding his chains. And although he was supposed to lead her away from situations like this, part of him couldn't help but wonder if he might not be doing himself a favor by leading Scully towards them instead.

So hard to know which way to turn, so hard to know where the traps and pitfalls lay ....

Pulling up outside the EmGen Corporation laboratories, Jerry was not entirely surprised to see a string of police cars parked around the building, and yellow crime scene tape festooning the steps around the entrance. The only question was: had he arrived too late or too soon?

Chewing on his lower lip, he climbed out of his car and flashed his badge at the police officers who were keeping a watch on the inevitable rubber-neckers outside the building. "What have we got here?" he asked the most senior officer, ducking under the tape. Like he didn't already know.

"Someone broke in here and attacked one of the research staff," the woman replied. "He was already dead by the time we arrived, and the place is a mess." She cast him a curious look. "FBI, huh? One of your guys is already in there."

That nearly brought Jerry up short, but he nodded smoothly as though it was what he'd been expecting, and turned to run up the short flight of steps to the entrance.

"Be careful in there!" the woman called after him. "Some of the animals are still loose ...."

Animals? Jerry stepped through the front door, letting it swing shut behind him, and paused in the short hallway outside the laboratory. The police officer had been right; the place *was* a mess. In the middle of all the broken glass, toppled shelves and empty cages, the coroner's team was zipping up a body bag on a stretcher. Meanwhile, various members of the police and representatives from a nearby animal center were trying to recapture a score of small monkeys who appeared to have been released during the break-in. Most of them were already safely shut up inside small carrying cages, but a couple were still resisting capture, and the handlers were trying to corner them at the far end of the room.

Watching them with a cynical little smile on his face was Special Agent Alex Krycek. Jerry regarded him with sour resignation, thinking, *Yep, some of the animals are *definitely* still loose ....* He swallowed and, stepping carefully around the coroner's people, took a quick look down at the body on the stretcher, before the final few inches of the bag were zipped. Staring back up at him blankly was the battered face of Dr. Berube, a length of nylon rope still twisted around his neck from where he had supposedly hung himself out of the window. Not that Jerry had many doubts that it would be the good doctor, but it was always as well to check.

Krycek looked up then and saw him. "Castamir," he said casually, when Jerry approached him.

"Krycek." *"Skunk" would suit you so much better ....*

The younger man gave him a quick, appraising look. "What brings you down here?"

"I think you already know," Jerry countered, keeping his voice low.

Krycek smiled, that little warped boy scout smile that made his flesh creep. "Ah ...! Ditto, my friend."

Not sure what to say in reply to this, Jerry looked around at the wreck of the laboratory. "Someone did a real number here." It might have been a statement ... or a question.

"Yeah. Someone knew their business, I'd say." Krycek's response was casual, but the brow he raised at the other man was mocking. "I guess we'll never know now how far Dr. Berube's work progressed."


"The gene therapy he was working on. All his papers seem to have been burned - a pity, but I guess his colleagues will be able to recreate his work."

*"Recreate his work", huh?* Jerry watched as Krycek casually sauntered away, following the coroner's people out with the body. He wasn't sure he liked the sound of this: he'd been given the impression that the whole point was to shut Berube down, although what exactly that had to do with the missing driver of the doctor's car was still a mystery. He could, of course, simply *ask* Krycek what was going on, and the answers would surely be forthcoming, but it was instinctive in Jerry to resist being dragged any further into this horror he already lived in. And besides, the answers would almost certainly have to be paid for at some point, and whether it was to Krycek himself or to the men who held his leash, Jerry was not willing to pay it.

The only other way to find answers was through Scully and Mulder. Jerry wondered if it was worth it, considering that it would be extremely dangerous, both for them and for him. On the other hand, there was the question of how long he was prepared to carry on being a spy and double-agent for Krycek's paymasters. The more 'jobs' he did for them, the less likely escape was, and the threat they held over his head no longer outweighed his desire to be free. Perhaps it was time to start looking for a way out.

Start small ... start with something that would hopefully go unnoticed. He looked around, wondering if anything in this lab had been left undamaged, and noticed a wire rack containing several substantial glass containers on a desk in the corner. Two of the flasks held a dark reddish-brown liquid.

Jerry glanced quickly out of the window and saw that Krycek was talking to the police lieutenant on the steps. The animal handlers, meanwhile, were occupied in the opposite corner of the room, struggling to put a screaming monkey into a cage. He slipped quickly over to the table and picked up one of the flasks gingerly; it had a tightly-fitting rubber bung in the top with a kind of wire latch holding it securely in place, and a printed label on the side saying "purity control".

He didn't stop to wonder what was in it. Glancing around once more to make sure he was unobserved, Jerry slipped the flask into the capacious pocket of his trench-coat, and quietly made his exit.

Krycek caught up with him as he reached his car. "So," he said, his eyes searching Jerry's face. "Did you find what you came for?"

Jerry gave him an equally sharp look in return, uncomfortably aware of the cold weight of the flask in his pocket. "I wasn't looking for anything," he retorted.

"So why did you come?"

*Good point,* he thought sourly. *Trust Krycek to make it.* "I was curious to see if any action had been taken after yesterday."

"You could have asked," Krycek told him impatiently.

Jerry began to wonder if the creep was telepathic, and gave him a smile that was more than half snarl. "Yeah, but the day I ask you for anything, Krycek, is the day I eat my gun," he stated bitterly.

The younger man sneered at him. "You took a risk, Castamir. Don't do it again."

Jerry ignored the threat, opening the car door and sliding inside. He slammed it shut again and was about to put his keys in the ignition when he remembered something else, and wound the window down. "What about the driver of the car?" he demanded.

Krycek shrugged, indifferent. "We'll find him."

So they hadn't found him yet. Jerry meditated on that fretfully as he drove back to Quantico to pick up Scully. If they hadn't found the driver yet, everything still had time to go pear-shaped ... or not, depending on how you looked at it. He wondered if he should tell Scully.

Then he had to take a sharp turn, and the bottle in his pocket bumped against his leg, reminding him. The decision whether to tell or not had already been made.

Scully was waiting when he got there, looking tired and distracted.

"Eeuuuch! If I didn't know better, I could have sworn you'd just spent the last four and a half hours cutting up dead bodies," Jerry quipped, wrinkling his nose a little as she climbed into the passenger seat and tossed her briefcase and coat onto the back seat. Despite having changed into scrubs for the examinations, Scully's clothes had nevertheless acquired a slight taint of disinfectant.

"Ha." Scully pulled the seatbelt on, and leaned her head back against the headrest wearily. "Do we have to join the rest of the team anywhere now, or can we leave it until the morning?"

"Under the circumstances I think it's safe for you to go home. You want me to take you straight there, or do you want to pick your car up?"

"I'd better get my car - there's some stuff in the trunk that I need. What happened with my notes about the latest victim?"

"I dropped them off with Secretarial Services. Holly said she'd e-mail the document to you as soon as they were finished."

"Good - that's great. I'm going to need to amend them."

"Oh?" Jerry shot a quick glance at her, noticing the odd tone in her voice.

"Yeah .... There's definitely a difference in the first victim." Scully slipped one hand behind her neck and rubbed at it, trying to ease the ache of tension. "I might be jumping to conclusions here, but it looks almost as if there were two different attackers. Of course, it could just be that the killer hadn't got into his stride yet ...."

Jerry was silent for a moment, puzzled. "What makes you think there were two?"

"The other four victims all died from blood loss and the severity of their wounds. This first guy ... superficially it looks like the same kind of mutilations, but the original ME was right - at least some of the damage was done post mortem, most significantly the cuts to the face. And if you ignore the post mortem slashes, there's not a lot to connect that victim to the others."

"And the ME reported all that to Willis originally?"

"He did. And Willis ignored it," she nodded grimly. "Or discounted it, depending on your point of view. That said, I don't want to go into a meeting with the rest of the team cold, without having studied all five of the autopsy reports more closely. I particularly need to look at the reports on the two bodies I didn't see for myself, so I'll take a look at that tonight and present my report tomorrow."

"I'll remember to wear my asbestos underwear," Jerry joked, but her answering smile was weak and distracted.

"Did you get a chance to drop by Berube's lab?" she asked after a moment of uncomfortable silence.

Jerry could have wished she hadn't remembered that, given that he still wasn't one hundred percent certain what he wanted to do about the Berube situation. Still, if it took her mind off the other case .... "Yeah."

Scully raised her head, instantly interested. "What did he have to say?"

"Nothing much. Berube's dead."


"The lab was broken into and trashed. Berube was attacked, and by the time the Gaithersburg PD arrived, he was dead."

Scully was stunned. "When did this happen?"

"I don't know for sure but it can't have been too long ago, because they were only just taking the body out when I arrived." Jerry hesitated, then added: "Looks like a dead end, huh?"

"That depends. Shit!" Scully ignored the startled look he gave her at the unexpected expletive. "I wish I'd been with you ...."

He shuddered inwardly, remembering Krycek. "There wasn't much to see," he told her firmly. "Whoever trashed the place did a really thorough job - the lab was a wreck, and they even released all the monkeys he had in there. I only got a brief look at the body, but he was pretty badly beaten up. It looks like they were aiming for his research - most of his papers had been burned."

"Did it look like animal rights people had done it?" she demanded skeptically.

"Well, the animals *were* released," he shrugged. "And the deliberate destruction would seem to suggest that kind of motive. According to what I could find out about him, he was supposed to be working on the Human Genome Project ...."

"Really?" Scully considered this for a moment, making Jerry feel a little uneasy. She was too damn quick and had a habit of veering off at unexpected tangents. Then she shook her head. "I might check with the Gaithersburg PD later, but at the moment I've really got too much else to think about. Thanks for checking it out, though, Jerry."

"No problem," he murmured, unsure whether to be relieved or not.

Jerry dropped her just outside the Hoover Building parking lot. Scully walked to her car wearily, her mind obstinately refusing to leave the image of the first victim's body. There was certainly an argument to be made for the killer having hesitated over the first victim, and it was possible, she supposed, that he could have left the body for a while before coming back to complete his handiwork. But somehow it just didn't gel for her. It looked more to Scully like he (or she - there was always that chance) had stumbled upon the victim of a violent robbery or similar and been overcome with the urge to mutilate the corpse. And the cautious notes left by the first medical examiner suggested that he'd thought the same.

What kind of bearing this might have on the case, her tired brain couldn't decide. But later - when she'd had a long soak in her bath and something to eat - she would study the reports on the other victims and see if there was anything else yet to be discovered.

She was only a few feet away from her car when she realized someone was leaning casually against the hood, waiting for her.

Jack Willis.

"I began to think you weren't coming back here," he said. His tone and body language were friendly, non-threatening, but Scully was in no mood for any kind of confrontation with him.

"I wish I hadn't now," she replied curtly. She unlocked the driver's door and threw her briefcase over onto the passenger seat.

"So .... Any new information for me?"

"You'll have my full report in the morning, when I've typed up my notes."

"I've already seen the stuff you sent to Holly," he countered. "What I want is your opinion."

Scully's jaw clenched for a second as they stared at each other. "The notes I sent to Holly aren't complete - I want to work on them further tonight."

"So we'll discuss them over dinner." His tone suggested he would not brook a refusal, and she didn't like the way he was studying her, like the proverbial bug under a microscope.

"Is that an order - Sir?"

"Does it have to be?" His voice lowered, becoming caressing, and he shifted to invade her personal space. "C'mon Dana - give me a break! This is just work."

"Yeah - like it was in New York," she snapped, tensing at his unwelcome proximity. "Like all your phone calls, and letters and e-mails are, no doubt. Well, you'll just have to report me for insubordination, Jack, because I'm going home. *Alone.*" She jerked the door of her car open, barely missing hitting him in the groin with the handle, and scrambled inside quickly, slamming it shut again behind her.

For a second, as she was fumbling the seatbelt on, she thought he might push the issue - his hand actually went to the door handle, and she swiftly slapped down the lock before he could open it. Apparently accepting this with equanimity, he backed away, watching as she started the car and reversed out of her parking space. Alarm made her put on an unnecessary burst of speed as she pulled away, and when she looked in her rear-view mirror, she saw that he was still watching as she drove off.

It was only when she was out on the highway that full reaction suddenly set in. To her shame and infuriation, Scully could feel herself beginning to shake, and she was even angrier with herself when she realized that she was afraid to go back to her apartment alone. What if he was there? Common sense told her that even Willis wouldn't take the risk of harassing her in her own home in the middle of an investigation, but her nerves were screaming otherwise.

She was halfway to her apartment before she finally gave in and turned the car around, heading back to Alexandria.

Mulder was grinning when he opened the door. "How did you know I made too much casserole?" he began, and was startled when Scully practically wrapped herself around him. The briefcase in her hand gave him a rather rude bump on the rear, but he let that pass, hugging her uncertainly. "Hey ... what's going on? Eww! Formaldehyde ...."

Scully gave a muffled chuckle that sounded more like a sob. "It's what the well-dressed pathologist's wearing this season," she managed, and pulled back a little, sniffling. "Sorry, it's been a long day."

"That's okay ...." Mulder drew her back into his arms for another squeeze of reassurance, then pulled her gently inside, shutting the door behind her. That something else had upset her was obvious, but he let it pass for now, knowing it would probably come out later. "How about you grab a quick shower while I dish up the dinner?"

"I don't have anything else to wear, and this stinks ...."

"I'll find a t-shirt or something for you," he said firmly, and pushed her towards the bathroom. "Go on!"

Sam came running out of the living room then, and grabbed her around the knees, beaming. "Hi Day!"

"Hey, baby!" Scully bent to give him a kiss, and the little boy screwed his face up.

"Pooh, Day, you're stinky!" he complained.

Mulder snorted with laughter and pointed mock-sternly at the bathroom, taking her briefcase and trench-coat out of her hands. "Into the tub with you, miss!"

"A girl could get a complex about this," she smiled, but obediently shut herself into the bathroom. It was a relief to strip off clothes that had been tainted by hours in a morgue, and climb under the hot spray.

When she emerged, it was to a wonderful savory aroma wafting through from the kitchen. Mulder had left a plain black cotton t-shirt and a pair of his silk boxers on his bed, and Scully pulled them on gratefully before dragging a comb through her damp hair and going to join the other two.

Sam was already sitting at the table, propped up in his chair on a couple of large books and a thick cushion, and watching his father keenly as he removed a large casserole dish from the oven. "I'm hungry, Daddy."

"I know you are, you've been telling me so for the last twenty minutes." Mulder carefully settled the dish on a woven raffia mat in the center of the table and smiled at Scully. "I hope you've got an appetite, Scully, or I could end up taking this to work with me for the rest of the week."

"Actually, I have." That surprised her a little, given the kind of day it had been. An hour ago she would never have believed she could eat a piece of dry bread, let alone this. "Can I help?"

"There's a jug of ice-water in the fridge, and Sam's juice ...."

When she returned to the table with the jugs and three tumblers, Mulder had put a plate of sliced crusty bread next to the casserole, and lifted the lid on the dish. A cloud of fragrant steam rose and parted to reveal succulent chicken and vegetables. Scully sighed with pleasure. "My God, Mulder, I think you've been seeing my mother behind my back."

He grinned modestly and was just about to start dishing up when the doorbell rang. "Who on earth ...?" He frowned and put the spoon down, heading for the door.

Moments later, Jerry Castamir was standing in the kitchen doorway like an orphan child.

"I knew my cooking was good, but I didn't realize it would bring stray dogs to the door," Mulder commented, grinning at his one-time partner, and returned to his place by the table, picking the spoon up again. "I guess I won't be taking it to work with me after all. Take your coat off, Jerry, and grab a seat - there's enough for four."

Jerry was flustered. "I didn't mean to - I mean I wasn't - " He flushed. "I mean, I suddenly realized there was something I meant to give Scully, but there was no reply on your home phone or your cellphone, and I guessed you must be here - "

"I'm hungry, Daddy!" Sam interrupted, finding the stranger less interesting than his dinner.

"Sit down, Jerry. You're holding up the food," Scully said, amused. "Sam, this is Jerry - he works with me."

Sam eyed Castamir with disfavor. "Are you stinky too?" he demanded.

"Samuel!" Mulder fixed him with a freezing glare, which was quickly transferred to Scully when she failed to smother a laugh.

Jerry paused in the middle of taking his trench-coat off and sniffed his arm rather self-consciously. "I don't think so," he said nervously, and cast a look of agonized enquiry at Scully. He didn't have much experience of small children.

"I didn't smell too good when I got here," she clarified. "The formaldehyde."

"Oh - yeah, right." Then he was thrown for another loop when Mulder suddenly pounced on him, all but ripping his holstered weapon off his belt and stuffing it into a cupboard above the worktop.

"We don't leave things like that where small fingers can get at them," was Mulder's explanation, and he shoved a loaded plate into a speechless Jerry's hands. "Sit down, for crying out loud."

Jerry gave in with good grace and took the empty seat opposite Sam.

The conversation during the meal was composed almost entirely of neutral topics, for it was an unspoken rule between Scully and Mulder that "shop-talk" was avoided around Sam where possible.

"Are you going to tell Dana what we did today?" Mulder asked Sam, as he helped him cut up his meal into more manageable portions.

Sam's face screwed up. "Nope."

"Why not, sweetheart?" Scully looked enquiringly at Mulder, who was looking faintly amused.

"We had interviews at a couple of elementary schools," he explained, sitting down and tucking into his own dinner but keeping one eye on his son.

"Oh!" Scully's mouth twitched. "Didn't you like it, Sam?" He shook his head vigorously, negotiating a large mouthful of potato. "But you'll like school," she told him encouragingly, ignoring Jerry's snort. "It'll be so much more interesting than day-care."

Sam clearly did not agree, and set about pushing his peas carefully to one side of his plate, scowling.

"He had an admissions test for one of them," Mulder explained, "and he didn't like the teacher who showed us around, did you?" Sam shook his head again, and mumbled around a mouthful of chicken. "Don't speak with your mouth full, sunshine. It was the beard," he added. "He doesn't like beards. And I have to admit that the guy was a little patronizing. We're having a look at another place tomorrow, and I've got to make an appointment to see the principal at the Alexandria Jewish Community School. Time's rolling on." Suddenly he looked a little sad.

"Growing up fast, huh?" Jerry observed with unexpected perception.

"Too damn fast." Mulder leaned over and used the serving spoon to push Sam's peas back into the middle of his plate. "Don't mess with your peas, kiddo. Eat them up." He glanced up at Scully and Castamir, his expression a little wry. "It's bad enough hearing what the assistants at day-care say every day. I don't know that I'll much like being replaced as the source of all wisdom by a teacher, either."

"Is the Community School where Annie's kids go?" Scully asked after a moment.

"Yeah." Mulder pulled himself together. "It's private and pretty heavily subscribed, but Sam's name has been on the list since he was a baby. My mom's idea."

"Are you still working part-time?" Jerry asked.

"Sort of. I do mornings at Georgetown, and occasional evening and relief cover. I'm still doing some journalism, though, and I have a couple of regular magazine columns."

"So will you go back to work full-time when Sam's at school?"

There was a pause, and Mulder's expression twisted slightly. "Probably."

"I just wondered if you'd go back to the Bureau."

"To work with Patterson? I don't think so." Mulder's tone was dry and discouraging, and as if to emphasize his reluctance to continue this topic, he put his napkin on the table and started to gather up the empty plates. "Anyone for raspberry cobbler?"

"What was it you wanted to give me?" Scully asked Jerry, while Mulder was finishing the washing up. Sam was in the living room, lying on the floor with some of his picture books.

"What? Oh yeah." Jerry rescued his trench-coat from the sofa and fumbled in the pockets. "I forgot about this earlier." He pulled out the Erlenmeyer flask, relieved to discover that it had survived its travels, and handed it over to Scully, hoping that his ongoing internal conflict about this course of action wasn't showing in his face.

Scully accepted it gingerly. "What is it?"

"I don't know, but it was one of the few unbroken objects in Dr. Berube's lab." Jerry grinned at her. "I grabbed it while everyone else was chasing the monkeys around."

Mulder appeared out of the kitchen, drying his hands on a towel. "What's that?" he demanded, staring at the flask.

Jerry explained, adding "I was thinking maybe we could get it analyzed and see what Berube was up to."

Scully wrinkled her nose. "Jerry, if this turns out to be monkey-pee, I'll make you regret it."

"Monkey-pee!" a small voice piped up gleefully, and Mulder sighed.

"Thanks, Scully. I'll be hearing that for the rest of the week."

She gave him an apologetic look, and turned back to Jerry. "I'll drop it in to Pendrell in Sci-Crimes tomorrow, but I don't suppose it'll tell us much."

He shrugged philosophically. "Oh well, you never know. I checked up on the driver of Berube's car, as well - the Arlis PD still haven't found him, so what happens next is anyone's guess."

"'What happens next' is that I submit my report on the five victims to Jack Willis, and he blows a gasket when the profiler contradicts whatever theories he has," Scully sighed. Suddenly she remembered the work she'd planned to do on her report that evening, and all the tension rushed back into her neck and shoulders with a vengeance.

Mulder was giving her a sharp look. "What 'five victims'?" he asked.

"I think I'd better be going," Jerry mumbled hastily, sensing a sudden atmosphere, and he began to pull his trench-coat on. "Thanks for the dinner, Mulder ...."

Mulder perched on the back of the sofa when he was gone and regarded Scully steadily. "Okay, give," he told her. "What five victims and what has Willis got to do with them?"

This was not the way Scully had intended to break this news to Mulder, but the cat was truly out of the bag. "When I went to see Skinner today, he had a new assignment for me," she admitted reluctantly. "The so-called "Slasher" killings. You've probably seen it in the papers."

"And ...?"

"And Jack is SAC of the task force."

Mulder was silent for a moment, watching her, but Scully was studying the carpet. "I thought Willis was on restricted duties at the Academy?" he said finally.

"He was re-certified for active duty just under a year ago. Apparently he has a particular interest in this case, and one of the other Assistant Directors let him take it. He ... appears to have specifically requested that Jerry and I be assigned to the team, me in particular because he wanted an ME with field experience to review the forensic evidence."

"Great. So did you tell Skinner about the problems you've been having with Willis?"


Mulder sighed and rubbed his face with both hands. One step forward, two steps back .... When he looked up again, he saw Sam standing to one side, regarding them both anxiously. The atmosphere was obviously upsetting him.

"Come on, sunshine. You can watch your Scooby-Doo video for half an hour."

Scully watched Mulder take the little boy into his bedroom without a backward glance. This was not what she had wanted when she came here, but she supposed that she shouldn't be surprised at his reaction under the circumstances. Willis was too sore a subject between them, even after all this time.

Finally, she went into the main bedroom and found her clothes, changing out of Mulder's t-shirt and boxers quickly. When she returned to the living room, he was standing by the sofa uneasily, arms crossed over his chest. He viewed her change of attire without surprise.

"You're going home." It wasn't a question, but she nodded all the same.

"I have to work on my report for tomorrow."

Mulder nodded and picked up her briefcase from the coffee table, holding it out to her. This made it feel uncomfortably like she was being shown the door, but Scully told herself not to be paranoid. After all, she'd made the first move to go.

"I'll ...." Her throat closed up for a second, and she swallowed. "I'll call you."

He nodded again, his expression unreadable, and - realizing that this was probably all the response she was going to get - Scully sighed and headed for the door.

When Jerry arrived home, his apartment was dark and cold.

*Sort of like a metaphor for my life right now,* he thought sourly, switching lights on, and dumping his trench-coat and suit jacket on the couch.

Stalking through to the kitchen, he yanked the fridge door open and pulled a tray of ice cubes out of the icebox. He found a clean tumbler in one of the cupboards and dumped three ice cubes into it, followed by an unhealthy slug of vodka from a half-empty bottle of Vladivar on the countertop.

It was indicative of how often he'd been over-imbibing lately that the first long swallow of the drink failed to do more than give him a mild buzz. Leaning back against the counter, Jerry loosened his tie and reviewed the day's events morosely.

It was done. He'd taken the decision to take the Erlenmeyer flask from Berube's lab and, having done that, he'd then gone one step further and handed the flask over to Scully. For good or ill, events were now out of his control and he could only wait to see what happened next.

Soberly, he acknowledged that the next step could easily be his own execution if the men yanking his leash discovered what he had done. The risks were enormous for him personally ... and possibly for others, although that remained to be seen. But it couldn't be any worse than the way things had been going so far.

Tossing down the rest of the vodka, Jerry refilled his glass and slowly walked through to his living room.

He was just considering switching on the TV when a flicker of movement from the open bedroom door caught his eye. For a split-second he froze ... then he was putting the tumbler down on the coffee table and unholstering his gun in one smooth movement, his eyes riveted to the dark aperture.

"Relax, it's me," a mocking voice said, and Alex Krycek stepped out of the bedroom in to the light, his hands raised. He was dressed casually in jeans and sweatshirt under a light jacket.

There was an appreciable pause before Jerry relaxed his grip on the trigger and slipped the safety back on the weapon, which made Krycek raise a questioning brow.

"A little jumpy, aren't we?"

"What the hell are you doing in my apartment?" Jerry demanded, unamused.

"I thought I'd drop in after what happened this afternoon," the younger agent said pointedly. "Where've you been all evening?"

"I had dinner with Scully." It wasn't a lie, after all.

Krycek managed to cross a sneer with a leer. "I didn't think she was your type!"

"She's my partner, asshole." Jerry slowly re-holstered his weapon. "Now what do you want? I'm not in the mood for company - least of all yours."

"Like I said, I was wondering what was going on today." Krycek considered him thoughtfully. "The old man wasn't too happy when I told him you were at Berube's lab. He got to thinking that maybe you were up to something."

"Such as?" The older agent suddenly felt cold.

"Who knows?" The retort was scornful. "That old fool would suspect his own furniture of betraying him .... I told him you were just making sure everything was cleaned up. That *was* what you were doing, after all ... wasn't it?"

"That's right," he managed.

Krycek's brown eyes, sharp and bright with false sincerity, studied him for a moment. "I mean, you wouldn't do anything stupid, now, would you? I like you, Jerry. It'd be a pity to have to ... make you redundant."

"I haven't forgotten how I got into this mess, if that's what you mean." Jerry didn't have to feign the bitterness in his voice. It was already eating him alive.

Krycek studied him a little longer, then nodded. "Okay. It's forgotten. It's just ... if you get any more ideas about checking up on operations, talk to me first. Don't forget what happened at Ellen's Air Base - memory loss will be the least of your problems if they get the idea that you're snooping around."

Jerry eyed him wearily. "Get out."

The younger man shrugged. "Don't say I didn't warn you." He hesitated a moment longer and left, the front closing with a 'click' that was somehow not as final as it should have been.

Alone, Jerry Castamir slumped down into the embrace of his sofa and mechanically picked up his drink again, wondering how much further he had to go down this path to madness before it was all over for him ... one way or another.

Mulder was not a man who handled inactivity well. Over the past few years he'd learned enough patience to deal with the restrictions Sam placed on his movements, but it didn't mean he liked it, and at times like this when he was under more than ordinary stress, it was hard not to climb the walls with frustration. As it was, the rug in front of the sofa was in danger of developing a bald patch as he resorted to pacing for the second time in three days.

He didn't like being at odds with Scully, but on the other hand he didn't feel equal to the situation as it presented itself. The problem of Jack Willis was both deeply frustrating and - as he had told her the night before - alarming, but what bothered Mulder more was Scully's apparent reluctance to deal with it. She was a strong woman who hated to show a weakness, yet she kept backing down from Willis and apologizing for him like a battered wife.

*Not* a simile he liked much. Fortunately, his analysis of Scully told him that such a scenario was in reality highly unlikely, despite appearances.

And of course, it didn't help things any that he still felt ... well ... a little concerned about Willis' place in Scully's life; and her obvious ambivalence about the man made those feelings worse. Mulder accepted that he was an insecure person and fought against the tendency manfully, but it was an uphill battle. It was at times like this that his mind, despite his best efforts, willfully returned to his mistimed proposal back at Chanukah. Her rejection had been a solid blow to his self-esteem, and come to think of it, it had followed close upon yet another encounter with Jack Willis.

*A guy could really become paranoid over things like that,* Mulder thought to himself, blackly humorous. Then he was brought up short by new and uncomfortable idea. *Would I behave the way Scully's behaving if Phoebe suddenly returned?*


Well, of course, it wasn't the same thing at all. For one thing, Phoebe was a wanted criminal, the list of her crimes including not least a charge of sexual assault and battery against his own person. The chances of her turning up in town with the intention of playing merry-cob with his personal life and relationships were pretty small.

Well. Maybe not so small. You never knew with Phoebe.

Did that make him a battered husband? *Actually, yes, it does,* a small mental voice pointed out sternly. Totally aside from the final physical assault he'd suffered at her hands, he'd put up with a year or more of outrageous behavior on her part without more than a token complaint. He'd made excuses for her to his friends and family, excuses which he was ashamed to admit he'd more than half believed himself. No one would ever know what it had taken for him to start the legal separation and divorce proceedings, nor what the official investigation into her professional misconduct had done to him. The coup de grace had been the discovery of Sam, abandoned in a Denver maternity unit nine months later; and all in all, the psychological battery she'd subjected him to was just as great, if not greater, than the sexual assault.

The Bureau had given him compulsory counselling at varying points during the Phoebe incident, a resource which he was prepared to admit he had totally wasted. The lure of playing mind-games with the poor guy, of proving that Fox Mulder, the hot-shot FBI profiler, could run rings around the common psychologist, had seemed more attractive at the time. As a consequence, he undoubtedly had "issues" with Phoebe which would probably trip him up big time should he ever come face to face with her again.

At which point Mulder recognized that he was being unfair to Scully. However confused her treatment of Jack Willis was, he had no right to condemn her for a behavior pattern that he was surely just as guilty of.

The temptation to phone her at this point was strong, but not quite strong enough. With a grunt of frustration, Mulder strode over to the desk in the corner and switched on his computer. He could at least download his e-mail and attempt to work on his latest article. His state of mind was not improved, however, when the only messages to appear in his mailbox turned out to be job offers - one from Georgetown University (again) and the other from a reasonably respectable science magazine based in New York.

Mulder grimaced, his hand hovering over the mouse. It was tempting simply to dump both offers straight into the recycle bin, but it was also true that time was running out for him to make a decision on his own future. When Sam started school he would need to get back to work full-time. With a sigh, he clicked to print out both messages and deferred the decision. There was no harm in looking at them, after all.

He closed the e-mail program and was just about to open WordPerfect when the telephone rang. Scully? He made a dive for the phone before the answering machine could pick up.


There was silence, followed by a couple of clicks, and the dialing tone returned. Mulder stared at the handset for a moment and put it down again. Almost at once it rang again, and he snatched it up. "Mulder - " Two more clicks, and the dialing tone.

What the ...? He put the receiver down again and stared at it fixedly for a moment, but now it was silent. Mulder went over to the window and lifted the edge of the curtain, peering out.

Across the road, standing underneath a streetlight, was his informant. The man was staring up at the window patiently.

Great, just great. Now what was he supposed to do? He couldn't leave Sam in the apartment on his own, and it was patently obvious that the man was not going to come up here again. For a moment he stared out of the window in frustration, then he swore softly and headed back to the phone and dialed the number of the Li family upstairs. He'd looked after Li Weng often enough that Mrs. Li surely wouldn't mind keeping an eye on Sam for five minutes.

When Mulder finally ran out into the street, the other man was looking considerably less patient and had switched positions to a handy bush by the side of the entrance.

"You took your time," he commented sourly.

Mulder was so frustrated by this time that he nearly took a swing at him. "In case it's escaped your notice, I have a three-year-old son," he snapped. "Babysitters aren't just crawling out of the ether, you know."

"Spare me your personal problems," was the curt response, and Mulder lost his temper.

"Fuck this." He turned around and was heading back up the steps, when the other man's voice pulled him up short.

"I'm surprised at you - your level of commitment seems to have diminished. I would have expected you to be working harder on the information I gave you."

Mulder swung back to face him. "My "level of commitment" as you call it, is directly commensurate to the amount of disruption it creates for my son," he retorted angrily. "I'm sorry if that causes problems for you! If it's such a big deal, I suggest you find some other dumb bastard to do your donkey work - otherwise you'll just have to wait until I have a chance to look into things on my own time. Besides, it's not like you gave me much to work with in the first place."

"Under the circumstances, I've given you all I can," the man told him heavily.

Mulder laughed humorlessly. "A news report?"

"And where has it led you?"

"It hasn't led *me* anywhere. It led Scully and her partner to a dead man."

The man nodded. "Just so."

Mulder opened his mouth to speak - and paused. There had been a curious emphasis on those two words. "Who is Dr. Berube and why is he dead?" he demanded bluntly.

"Berube worked on the Human Genome Project," the other man replied. He looked thoughtfully into the distance for a moment. "It's a noble and worthy endeavor, Mr. Mulder, an attempt to map every gene in the human body. Thousands of scientists are involved in it."

"So what was so special about this particular scientist that he deserved to die, and only days after his car had been stolen?"

"That's the question, isn't it? They destroyed all the data in his laboratory, so I'm told. A dedicated man ... he worked all hours, sometimes even taking his work home with him." The man's focus returned to Mulder's face and he gave him an almost paternal smile. "Goodnight, Mr. Mulder."

And he turned and walked away.

He could have chosen to wait for Scully to get Jerry's mysterious flask analyzed, of course, but as Mulder had recognized in himself earlier, he was not a patient man. Or he could have called her and suggested they make this a joint venture, but right now he could think of a number of admittedly specious reasons why it would be so much better if he did this himself.

Having taken a good look at Dr. Berube's house from all sides, Mulder found a window that was open a crack and let himself in.

Inside, the building was dark and silent. He rummaged in his jacket pocket and pulled out a small flashlight. The narrow beam gave him enough light to navigate, and it didn't take him long to find a room at the front of the house that looked like a study.

Mulder wandered around for a few minutes, taking a sweeping look at the books on the shelves and other bits and pieces scattered about the room. Eventually he came to a desk, and a swift glance at the clutter there convinced Mulder that the small flashlight wasn't going to be sufficient. He glanced at the wide window and decided to take a risk. He pulled the drapes closed and snapped on a small desk lamp, adjusting the shade on it to ensure the minimum possible beam of light.

Sitting down in the chair, he looked around the surface of the desk and began flicking through the stacks of papers lying there. A lot of the material was dry scientific stuff, which made him wish he'd brought Scully along after all. None of it seemed to relate to the work Berube had been doing at the EmGen labs. Finally, he put them back into the untidy piles he'd found them in, and started opening drawers. Files, notebooks, magazines and journals, bills .... Mulder paused and pulled out a sheaf of telephone bills. Looking down it, one number seemed to have been called far more times than any other.

There was a telephone on the desk. He reached out and picked up the receiver, dialing a number.

"Lone Gunmen."

Mulder smiled faintly. "Guys, it's me - turn off the tape."

There was a pause, and the distorted voice asked cautiously, "Mulder?"

"Who else? Look, quit screwing around - I'm in a tight spot and I can't hang around here."

There was a sudden scramble and Langley's voice emerged. "Dude, what are you doing now?"

"Never mind that. I've got a telephone number here - can you get me a name?"

"No problem." Langley was confident.

"Okay. It's 555-2804, area code 301. An address would be good, too."

"We're on it. Can we call you back?"

Mulder hesitated, then shrugged. In for a penny, in for a pound. "All right - I'm at the same prefix ... 1516."

"Be there - " Langley hung up.

Mulder put the receiver down, suddenly feeling jittery. To distract himself, he continued to go through the drawers of the desk and was intrigued to find several equipment invoices on paper headed with the logo and credentials of Pinck Pharmaceuticals, the company Scully had said Berube had a car sticker from. He wondered if it was worth looking into them, but decided he currently had enough on his plate.

Then the phone rang, making him jump. Mulder snatched up the receiver quickly. "That was fast - "

But it wasn't Langley.

"Terry? Is that you?"

Mulder paused, staring blankly at the telephone. Unknown to him, a plain black van with a satellite receiver on the roof had drawn up outside the house, the driver staring intently at the one window that had the dim glow of a light inside.

Finally Mulder decided to take a risk. "Yeah. Who is this?"

"They shot me, Terry. Oh God .... I've been in the water for three days - I'm hurt."

Mulder blinked at the phone, his brain in overdrive at this information. This was the missing driver of the car! But ... in the water for three days? Was it possible? "Where are you now?" he asked quickly.

"I'm at a pay-phone - "

"I'm going to pick you up. Tell me where you are."

There was a long pause, and a sudden agonized wheeze. Mulder became alarmed. "Hey, are you still there? What's going on? .... Hello?"

The silence stretched out for ages, in which time Mulder could the faint background noises of traffic and a mumble of voices. It sounded like someone was protesting. Then a new male voice came on the line.

"Hello? This man's been hurt here - I think he needs medical attention. He's in pretty bad shape."

"What's the street?" Mulder demanded, frustrated. "Can you tell me where he is?"

"I'm going to call an ambulance," the other man said.

"Hey, Sir? Wait a minute - " But the line went dead. Mulder swore violently and slammed the handset down. Almost at one it rang again, and he snatched it up. "Don't hang up - "

But it was Langley this time. "We got it."

Outside, the man in the van switched off his equipment and quietly drove away.

Mulder slumped back into the chair. "Oh, you guys .... Hold on, let me find some paper." He rummaged around on the desk until he found a sheet of paper and a pen. "Okay, go ahead."

"All right, the number belongs to a company called Zeus Storage."

"Yeah?" Mulder frowned as he scribbled.

"...1616 Pandora Street. That okay?"

"That's great. You guys are the best."

"You'd better remember it, man!" Langley snorted. "Later ..." And he rang off.

Mulder put the receiver down and sighed, looking around. Then he looked down at the scrap of paper in his hand. Whatever was at Zeus Storage was going to have to wait for another night - he had a small boy to get home to.

Sam collapsed bonelessly against his shoulder as he carried him downstairs from Mrs. Li's apartment. The little boy was exhausted, and Mulder had to admit that he felt pretty wiped out himself. It had been one hell of an evening, all things considered.

But when he reached the bottom of the stairs, one further surprise was in store for him. Waiting outside his apartment were two men dressed in the almost-uniform FBI dark suits and trench-coats, who turned to look at him as he approached.

Mulder groaned inwardly, for they didn't present the appearance of people who were going to leave soon.

"What have I done now?" he demanded flippantly, as he dug in his pocket for his keys.

"Fox Mulder?" The older of the two displayed his ID. "Could we have a word? I'm - "

"Assistant Director Lyle Rolfe," Mulder finished for him. "I know, I remember you." He glanced at the other man, cocking his head to one side questioningly. "You I don't know."

This man was nearer Mulder's own age, a tall man of African extraction with a lean face that showed a lot of laughter lines. He produced his own ID hastily. "Special Agent Mike Rawlings," he said, and offered his hand. "You won't remember me, Mr. Mulder, I joined the VCS the week you left."

"VCS, huh?" Mulder unlocked his door and gestured for them to enter. "I've got a sneaking suspicion I know what this is about." He flicked the lights on with a sigh. "You'd better give me a few minutes to put my kid to bed."

Scully arrived at work at 7.00 am the next morning, after spending a restless night. A note in her e-mail the night before had warned her that there was a team meeting at 7.30 am, so she took the opportunity to run upstairs to Sci-Crimes first, on the off-chance that someone there might also have arrived early. Weaving her way through the cluttered workstations, she saw that she was in luck: Agent Pendrell's ginger hair stood out like a beacon in an otherwise empty room.

Predictably, he all but fell off his chair when he saw her. "Agent S-Scully!" He flushed to the roots of his hair. "W-what ... how ... how can I help you?"

He was sweet, Scully thought, but really far too nervous. The stammering adoration might have amused her when she was a girl, but not when she was in her thirties. Nevertheless, she couldn't be sharp with him, and offered a warm smile that she was far from feeling. "I was hoping you could analyze a substance for me."

To her surprised approval, he pulled himself together almost at once and became more businesslike. "Sure. What have you got?"

She pulled out the Erlenmeyer flask Jerry had given her - now prudently wrapped in a couple of layers of bubble-wrap - and handed it over. "I need to know what this is."

Pendrell unwrapped the flask, his eyes sharpening with interest. "Any clues?" he asked.

Scully felt her mouth twitch in spite of herself. "Well ... it was found in a room full of monkeys," she offered.

He gave her a shy grin. "So it could be, uh, simian urine, Agent Scully?"

She grinned back at him. "That was my first thought, but you never know."

"Okay ... how long can you hang around?"

"Twenty minutes tops ...."

"Let's take a look under the microscope."

Pendrell was quick and efficient, she gave him that. He had a sample on a slide and under the microscope practically before he finished speaking. There was a moment of silence as he adjusted the lens, then he continued speaking, his voice a little abstracted. "Looks like some kind of bacteria sample. Where did you get it?"

"It was found at a crime scene," Scully replied. "It's probably nothing - "

"No, you've definitely got something here." Pendrell's voice indicated sudden interest. He sat back and fiddled with an attachment to the microscope that linked it to his computer. "Here, look at this."

The knobbly image of what looked like a simple organism appeared on the screen, and Pendrell zoomed in the images.

"Wow, look at this!"

Scully shook her head. "What are they?"

"Well ... they're the size of bacteria but this is like no bacteria *I've* ever seen."

"How do you mean?"

"Most bacteria are symmetrical and smooth. These are ...." He shook his head, clearly fascinated. "I don't know, Agent Scully, these are strange."

"Well, do you have any way of identifying them?" Scully asked.

He pursed his lips, considering.

"I could do a freeze fracture. Take a slice off and see what's going on inside these things. You want to leave it with me?"

"If it's not a problem ...." But Scully could see that it wasn't. Pendrell was so clearly intrigued by the challenge that he'd lost all his former awkwardness and was grinning at her in a way that really made him look quite handsome.

*Maybe he wouldn't be such a loss as a date after all,* she mused as she left the labs ... then told herself off for even *thinking* such a thing.

When it became evident that the investigation was going to take time and manpower, the VCS relocated the "Slasher" taskforce to the Bureau's Washington Metropolitan Field Office, taking over a spare set of offices there. Most of the agents involved in the 'grunt work' - the routine footwork and interviewing of witnesses - were field agents from that office anyway.

Scully arrived at the incident rooms with barely a minute to spare and walked squarely into the middle of what sounded like a regular free-for-all. The small meeting room seemed to be crowded with agents talking and arguing, but she saw Jerry keeping to himself on the sidelines and went to join him.

"What on earth's going on?" she demanded in an undertone, grabbing a spare seat and sliding into it.

He gave her an irritable look. "You mean you don't know?"

"Jerry, I only just got here - "

"But I thought ...." His voice trailed off as the SAC's door at the other end of the room flew open, and he shook his head hastily. "Never mind - you're about to find out."

Jack Willis came storming out, his face red with fury. Following more slowly was Assistant Director Rolfe, wearing an expression of wary inscrutability, and behind him was .... Scully sucked in a sharp breath, staring. It was Mulder, dressed in black jeans and a leather jacket, his bland expression hiding what probably only she would recognize as mockery. He glanced around the crowded incident room and for the briefest of seconds their eyes met. She saw a flicker of a smile on his lips, then he turned away, following Rolfe over to the oblong boardroom-style table where the rest of the agents were congregating.

Willis seized on Agent Mike Rawlings, his second in command. "I told you to leave the profiler to me!" he snarled. "The last person I want touching this case is Bill Patterson, for crying out loud - "

Rawlings stood his ground though. "When I showed the case file to SAC Patterson, he recognized the UNSUB's MO and signature immediately," he interrupted. "This is a copycat killer we're dealing with - "

"Copycat my ass! That crazy son of a bitch is losing his mind."

Scully wondered if she was the only person who saw the expression of unholy glee that flashed across Mulder's face at Willis' loudly asserted opinion of Patterson.

"As I've said already, Jack, *I* concur with the opinions of Agent Rawlings and Bill Patterson," Rolfe was saying, interrupting forcefully in his turn. "I spoke to Bill about it myself yesterday - based on the evidence we have at this time, it seems fairly clear that this current killer is modelling himself on John Mostow."

Willis wheeled around, too angry to moderate his behavior in front of his superior. "Great!" he snapped. "So why isn't the mighty god Patterson on this case himself? Or why, if he won't condescend himself, hasn't he assigned one of his bootlickers at the ISU to help us? Why do we get some burned-out former agent who'll probably try and tell us that the victims were killed by pot-smoking aliens in the Pentagon?"

"How the hell did he say all that in one breath?" Jerry whispered to Scully, briefly amused.

Scully shook her head, not daring to speak. There was a sick feeling in her stomach and she was praying it wasn't going to become actual nausea.

AD Rolfe took a moment or two to consider his reply, his eyes fixed on Willis in a disconcerting manner. Mulder beat him to it.

"There are no aliens in the Pentagon, Willis," he said in a pitying tone. "It's too damn cold there. Why do you think they built Area 51 in the middle of Nevada?"

Rawlings managed to hide his snicker of laughter, but the agent standing behind him was less restrained, and there was a tiny ripple of amusement throughout the room. Willis glared around impartially but failed to quell it.

"Besides," Mulder continued in a more normal tone, "It doesn't matter if I'm a Federal Agent or not - I'm still certified to act as a profiler, regardless of who I'm legally employed by."

"I don't give a rat's backside what you're qualified to do," Willis stated angrily. "I don't want you on my team."

"Suits me," Mulder shrugged. "I don't want to be here either."

"Enough!" Rolfe said sharply. "Mulder, cut it out! Jack, the formalities are sorted - he's on the taskforce. If you don't like it, you have the option of putting your objections in writing and stepping down as SAC in this investigation. Otherwise, I suggest we get the hell on with this meeting. We've wasted enough time already."

For a moment it seemed like Willis might actually force the issue. Then he took a step back, making an inarticulate sound of disgust in his throat. Wheeling around, he started calling the room to order, and the other agents slowly began to shuffle into the places at the long table.

Scully let out a shaky breath and hastily elbowed her way into a space at the table. The room was packed tight despite the relatively small size of the taskforce, with many of the agents being forced to pull up seats around the edge of the room. She needed to be nearer the front if she was to present her autopsy findings effectively. Looking around, she was grateful to see that Mulder was several places up from her, sitting slightly turned toward the head of the table. She wondered if he was deliberately avoiding eye-contact with her; if so, she was grateful, for it would be easier to concentrate without his attention on her.

Willis took his place at the head of the table, shuffled a few papers, and glanced around, gathering everyone's attention. "Okay, everybody, as you know we had a fifth victim yesterday morning - Peter Gilson, art student and life model at George Washington University. Agent Scully, you were detailed to do the autopsy and to look over two of the previous victims. Are you able to give your report on that now?"

Scully stood up slowly, wondering if anyone else had caught the slight sarcastic emphasis on Willis' final word. Or maybe she was just being paranoid. "I completed the examination of Gilson's body, and re-examined victims one and four, yesterday afternoon. I also spent most of last night going over the previous autopsy reports for all of the first four victims. This is my report on my findings - " She passed around copies of the thick document. "In brief, the injuries to Gilson match those of the other victims. Cause of death was primarily loss of blood in all cases, but the victims suffered extensive facial mutilations during the attacks, including the puncturing of both eyes. The lacerations were primarily deep, heavy gashes running from the corners of the mouth to the ears, and there was very little in the way of hesitation cuts. Our UNSUB is clearly someone with physical strength, confidence and a clear idea of what he wants to achieve. In all but one of the victims, the slashes were made prior to death, and in the case of the latest victim there are so few signs of a struggle or restraint that I would conclude the wounds were made within seconds of him being surprised by his killer. He literally didn't have time to defend himself, although there are some marks around his hands and wrists that would suggest he made subsequent attempts to fend off his attacker."

There was a slight murmur from the gathered agents at this, but Willis held up one hand to silence them. "Weapon?" he asked tersely.

"I would have to concur with the previous ME. The UNSUB used a very sharp, short-bladed knife, with a blocky, easily-gripped handle - something like a heavy-duty craft knife, probably one with a retractable blade."

"John Mostow was an artist," Mulder commented quietly. "He used a craft knife with a retractable blade, one he kept for sharpening pencils."

"It's hardly unusual as a weapon," Willis retorted. "They're available in every craft store in the country."

Mulder shrugged. "Just an observation."

Agent Rawlings hastily stepped in. "You said that all but one of the victims were mutilated prior to death, Agent Scully?"

Scully threw him a grateful look. "That's right. The first victim's facial injuries were inflicted post-mortem, and from the condition of the cuts I would hazard a guess that he'd been dead a short while before they were made. The body had started to cool. Also, the punctures to the eyes were different, and he was the only one to have had his throat deliberately cut - the severing of the jugular occurred prior to death and was certainly the wound that killed him. Two of the other victims had minor cuts to the throat, but they were incidental."

Mulder leaned forward, his expression deeply interested. "Was there anything else different about the first victim's injuries?" he asked.

"His throat was cut with a different kind of knife," she nodded. "From the shape of the incision, I would say something bigger and not so sharp - a carving knife, or maybe a hunting knife."

Mulder glanced across at Willis and then over to where AD Rolfe was sitting off to one side. "I took a look at the files you gave me last night. Descriptions of the crime scene showed a lot of scuffling around the area of the kill, and the forensics team suggested more than one person had been there."

"The body was found in an area frequently used by homeless people at night," Agent Rawlings commented neutrally, but there was a spark in his eyes that Scully noted.

"But with a gap between the victim's death and the mutilation of the body, it could have been two different UNSUBs - especially if there were two totally different weapons involved."

"Or the UNSUB could have gone away and come back," Willis said curtly.

"Unlikely," was Mulder's assessment. "Let's assume the killer used a bowie knife to kill the victim. Okay, yes, he could have wandered off and come back a little later. Maybe he was shocked by what he did, went a little way away, but came back - kept looking at the body maybe. But then he suddenly switches to another knife - a completely different kind, designed for a completely different purpose - and slashes the victim's face violently, with what looks like a lot of rage." He shook his head. "It doesn't fit. For one thing, the knives are just wrong. A guy who carries a hunting knife isn't usually the kind of guy who keeps a craft knife as a spare in his pocket - it's not man enough for him. Likewise, a guy who uses a craft knife won't touch a bowie knife - it's just not the tool for the job. So if Bowie-knife Man has already killed the guy, and then wandered around agonizing about it, I guess he might suddenly rediscover his anger ...." Mulder paused, his face distant for a moment as he considered this. "Yeah, I can see why he *might* do that, but not with another knife. That doesn't fit with his personal rage. And the method of the cuts, almost carving the face - that's wrong for Bowie-knife Man too. No, you've got two different guys here."

"The wounds to the eyes were different, too," Scully put in, and everyone's eyes instantly swiveled back to her. "They were probably the last wound inflicted, and the method was different." She hesitated, then leaned over and borrowed a pen from the agent on her right, holding it like a knife in her hand. "In all the other victims, the eyes were punctured with one quick stab each from the point of the blade." She demonstrated with the pen. "But in this victim it was slower, more of a gouging twist ...."

"Is that relevant?" Willis asked, his tone almost bored.

Mulder shot him a quick look, his eyebrows twitching briefly in genuine surprise. "Could be. Everything about this victim is different, and the guy who worked him over was probably practicing for his later killings." He leaned back in his chair looking thoughtful. "The first body that turns up is always an interesting one, because it can tell you a lot about how the killer got started - what's on his mind, what kind of victim triggers his impulses, and so on. What's strange about this is that this probably wasn't even his kill. This body was just a canvas for his art ...."

Mulder's voice drifted off and seemed to totally lose awareness of his surroundings for a moment. He didn't seem to notice the looks he was getting from the other agents, but Scully was acutely aware of them. More disturbing to her, however, was the tone of his voice, the look on his face, his apparent disconnection. With an inner start of surprise, she realized this was a side of him that she'd never seen before - this was Mulder the profiler, Mulder as he would have been when he was an agent. And it made her uneasy. She wasn't sure she liked the sudden change in him.

AD Rolfe spoke up then. "Okay, I think we've got more to go on. However, after discussions with SAC Willis, I have agreed that with the assistance of the DC Police, we can downsize the taskforce a little and redirect some of you back to your previous assignments." Scully saw Willis' head come up at that, a sudden sharp look at Rolfe followed by a quick smoothing of his expression.

Willis' *hadn't* been consulted on this move; this was Rolfe's own decision. Another indication of Willis' lack of a grip on the case, and it was beginning to make her very nervous. If everyone was so doubtful about his ability to run this show, why wasn't he just removed?

"Agents Carmichael, de Lancie, Wollerton and Castamir - thank you for your help. You've all done good work. Your usual senior agents will advise you on your reassignment," Rolfe was saying.

A "little" downsizing? That was half the taskforce gone, Scully thought, surprised. That left just her, Rawlings, Willis, Rolfe, and Rawlings' partner Addersley. They must be pretty confident that they would catch this guy.

Then Scully glanced across at Mulder once more and saw that he was still mentally someplace else. The penny dropped. It wasn't the *team* Rolfe had confidence in ....

It was Mulder.

The agents who had been dismissed by Rolfe were filing out of the door. Scully saw Jerry lingering there, and quickly scooted over to speak to him.

"Will you be going back to the VCS?" she asked.

He looked tired and out-of-sorts. "I guess. Why, is there anything you want me to do?"

"I left that stuff you gave me with Agent Pendrell," she explained quickly in an undertone. Jerry's manner was a little off-putting, but perhaps his pride had been pricked by the sudden dismissal by Rolfe; she let it pass. "He's doing some tests on it - can you drop in there later and see what he's found? Maybe follow up on it, if it's anything interesting?"


Scully touched his arm in a quick gesture of gratitude. "Thanks, Jerry - I'll talk to you later."

He nodded, then looked across at Mulder. "Er - Dana?"

She cocked her head on one side. "What?"

"You might want to keep an eye on him," Jerry said quietly.

"How so?"

"Well ... it's been a while since he did this, but when he profiles he can get ... kind of intense and wrapped up in it."

She gave him a puzzled look. "What do you mean?"

"Unh .... Well .... He's a graduate of the Patterson School of Profiling, if you get my meaning."

"No I don't. What are you talking about?"

Jerry sighed. "Look, take my word for it, Mulder gets *very* wrapped up in his cases. Ask him about Patterson's methods if you get a chance. I've got to go."

Scully turned back into the room, wondering what he meant. ASAC Rawlings came over to speak to her.

"Agent Scully, Agent ... I mean *Mr.* Mulder has asked for permission to visit John Mostow at the Druid Hill Sanatorium. Since he's not with the Bureau anymore, would you be willing to accompany him?"

It wouldn't be her first choice, given what the inmates at Druid Hill were like, but Scully could recognize an order when she was given it. "Of course."

"Good." Rawlings shot Mulder a thoughtful look. "I understand he wants to talk to Mostow, because he never had the opportunity the first time."

Mulder suddenly became aware that he was the topic of conversation and looked up at them. "The profile I wrote for Mostow was only an outline," he said, although whether the comment was directed at them or the room at large was debatable. "The Baltimore PD would have caught him without it. I need to talk to him to work up an accurate profile of the new UNSUB."

"Or find out who Mostow's working with," Willis interjected sharply.

Mulder gave him a strange look, unfocussed and disconnected. "Maybe," he said after a moment.

"Has anyone spoken to the warden at Druid Hill about our visit?" Scully asked Rawlings quickly.

"He's expecting you," the other agent nodded.

"Okay .... Mulder?"

He nodded, apparently shaking off whatever was going on in his head, and stood up. As he did so, Jack Willis picked up his jacket and moved to follow him. Scully's heart sank; the last thing she wanted was to make a trip to a Baltimore asylum in the company of both Willis and Mulder, but it looked like she wasn't going to be able to avoid it.

Then AD Rolfe looked up. "Jack, you're needed here."

Willis paused, and his eyes went from Scully to Mulder and back again, his expression bland and unreadable. But to Scully the look was transparent; he didn't want the pair of them working together, at least not without his supervision.

Apparently Rolfe saw something there he didn't like too. "Jack?" he repeated sharply.

Willis dumped his jacket over the back of a chair, turned his back on them and stuffed his hands into his pockets.

They didn't speak until they were in the car; then it was Mulder who broke the ice, and not with the topic of conversation Scully had expected.

"I'm sorry about last night." Mulder grimaced a little. "I had no right to get on your case about Willis."

"Oh ...." Uncomfortable, Scully paid more than her usual amount of attention to starting up the Bureau rental car and backing it out of the parking lot. For a moment or two there was silence, until she drove out into the street. "Mulder ... there's nothing to apologize for. You were right, after all. It's just ... I was jumpy already last night because when Jerry dropped me off at my car, Jack was waiting there for me. His behavior weirded me out, and what with the case and everything else - I didn't know what to think."

"Jesus - ! And I made it a hundred times worse by laying into you about it."

"No, you *didn't*," she told him sharply. "Don't start blaming yourself for Jack's behavior."

"It's not that ...." Mulder sighed. "I got to thinking after you left - not just about you and me and this thing with Willis, but about me and Phoebe as well. I kept wondering what would happen if she suddenly turned up again."

"You'd call me immediately and I'd arrest her as a federal fugitive," Scully said promptly, and he laughed softly.

"Yeah ... at least we'd have that option with her." He sobered. "I just wondered how you would feel about the situation with her."

She smiled slightly. "Nauseated? Outraged?"

"You think? I don't know .... Looking back, I know she didn't get along well with other women - she never had time for them." Mulder's tone became slightly dry. "She thought men were more important ... in every conceivable way."

"There's a basic difference between us right away," Scully commented, trying hard to keep the slight note of humor in the conversation.

Mulder wasn't having it. "Dana, what I'm trying to say is I don't think I'd be able to deal with Phoebe any more rationally than you can deal with Willis. So for me to expect you to just *deal* with him - coldly, logically - is unfair."

"Maybe," she admitted slowly, "but you're right about him, all the same. His behavior is beyond unacceptable ... and yet I don't know what to do about it at the moment."

"So don't do anything," was Mulder's response. "Just take the precautions I suggested and wait a while. I doubt he'll get up to anything for now anyway - he's got too much to focus on with this case."

Scully drove for a while in silence. Then, finally, she spoke again. "He's not the Jack Willis I dated," she admitted, glancing quickly at Mulder. His face was open and sympathetic, non-judgmental. "His behavior is ... strange. I don't suppose you noticed back there, but - "

"He's not firing on all cylinders," Mulder finished for her. "I noticed all right - along with everyone else in that room. He doesn't have anything like control of the situation, and I've never seen anything like that meeting before - I've never seen an Assistant Director do what Rolfe was doing. If it's bad enough that he's actually colluding with Rawlings to keep things on course, then they should simply remove Willis before the team fragments completely. I don't understand why Rolfe hasn't done that."

"Jack used to be a good agent," Scully stated, her voice low.

"I know he was," he replied, surprising her. "I don't say I knew him personally, because I didn't, but I knew other agents who worked with him in the field and they had nothing but praise for him. He was a good investigator, dedicated and with a good feel for the victims as well as the perps. And that's the only reason I can think of that they're letting him hold on to this case. He already had one major career set-back when he got invalided out as an instructor at Quantico - as good an agent as he was, it must have nearly driven the poor bastard crazy. To be given an opportunity like this and then have it taken away again would probably be the finish of him."

"But for the sake of the case, it should be done?"

"What do you think?"

"Logically, I have to think of the victims," she replied, keeping her eyes on the road.

"Especially since there were moments back there where he was almost being actively obstructive." Mulder sighed and shifted in his seat restlessly. "Look, let's forget Willis for now, since we can't do anything about him. Focus on Mostow instead."

"Okay. What do you know about him?" Scully asked.

"Not a lot. Ordinarily, I would have followed up on him after his trial and conviction - the ISU has an ongoing program of interviewing dangerous serial offenders, did you know that? But I never finished the profile and by the time he was convicted, I was in no shape to follow it up."

Scully shot Mulder a quick glance, and saw that he was staring out of the window on his side. "How so?" she asked.

"I was just starting my first three week stay at the Bremermann Clinic," he responded. He turned his head and flashed her a grin. "I was flying off the handle for no reason, and seeing ghosties and ghoulies crawling out of the walls at night. Patterson got me booked into the clinic before anyone could seriously start threatening me with Psych Services. I think he visited Mostow himself in the end, but if he did, he didn't get much out of it. Mostow was declared legally insane."

Scully took a few anxious moments to digest this, before framing the question that had been bugging her ever since Jerry's parting comments. "Mulder ... do these cases affect you badly? Mentally, I mean."

He gave the question the serious consideration it deserved. "It depends," he said after a while. "Some scenarios affect me worse than others - child killings are a bad one for me to deal with."

"Those cases get to everyone."

"No, you'd be surprised. There was one guy in the ISU with us who didn't have any more problem with dealing with child deaths than he did with straight homicides. But that's not necessarily a good thing for a profiler. Patterson always gave me the kids because he knew how they screwed me up - I guess his theory was that with my empathy for the victims, I'd work twice as fast to solve the case." Mulder sighed, and tried to stretch his legs out a little in the cramped foot well. "It wasn't so much the individual cases, Scully - it was the number of them I was dealing with. I could be working up profiles on seven or eight cases at any one time. And on top of that, I was teaching - the whole team was."

"At the Academy?" Scully tried to recall if she'd ever seen him there.

"At the Academy, and to law enforcement agencies across the country. It's part of what the ISU does, but sometimes it felt like I was perpetually living out of a suitcase. You'd be teaching a course during the day, then go back to the motel and try to work on one of your current cases. Nine times out of ten, one of the guys you were teaching during the day would call and ask for your opinion on this or that case he was having problems with. Then the next day you'd be on a plane to the *next* training venue, and the whole thing would start again. You could be on the road for two or three weeks at a time."

Scully blinked, unsure what to say. This was something she hadn't known about the ISU, and it was gradually becoming clear why, when they'd first met, Mulder had referred to his former colleagues in the Unit as being "borderline basket-cases".

"Anyway," he continued, after a moment. "To answer your original question: yes, sometimes the cases affect me badly and my behavior becomes ... erratic, for want of a better word. But this is just one case, Scully - I don't think it'll be a big problem unless I have trouble getting into the guy's head."

For some reason, she didn't feel very reassured by this. "One more question," she said presently, slowing down and taking the turning into the sanatorium gates. "Why would Patterson advise AD Rolfe to bring you in on this case?"

"Beats me," Mulder replied, shrugging. "There was nothing he liked better than screwing with my head, and he's never forgiven me for transferring out of the ISU. This could very likely be his twisted idea of a joke."

After his dismissal from the task-force, Jerry Castamir spent most of the morning in the VCS bullpen trying to reorganize his desk, which appeared to have been the dumping ground for every unwanted background check and wiretap file in the office while he was gone. Since he inevitably got stuck with those kind of duties when he wasn't working with Scully, he accepted this philosophically, although he was more than a little annoyed to discover that his absence had encouraged someone to pilfer not only his Wile E. Coyote mousepad but the mouse *and* keyboard to his PC as well. A quick search, followed by a snappy exchange with Agent Rayburn, ensured their return but left him feeling decidedly ruffled.

It was petty stuff, the kind of thing that always went on in large offices occupied by groups of people who weren't necessarily compatible, but Jerry had been on the receiving end of it a lot since he was transferred back to Washington. Working with Scully didn't help his relations with his fellow agents, despite Scully herself being fairly well-respected; the inevitable "spooky" taint that seemed to go hand in hand with the X-Files assignment had somehow missed the more legitimate target and fastened itself squarely on *his* back, not hers. And Jerry didn't particularly appreciate being the Mulder-surrogate of the team.

On top of that, he was hung-over and stressed out from the night before, which didn't help his mood at all. Feeling irrationally out of charity with his occasional partner - and more than a little reluctant to involve himself with that damn flask of gunk any more than he had to - Jerry decided that visiting Agent Pendrell for Scully's test results could wait a while. He put in a phone call to the Sci-Crimes team asking for the other agent to call him when he got a chance, and then buried himself in a wiretap transcription for a couple of hours.

Scully studied Mostow's file again while they were waiting, and after a moment or two of restless prowling around the neat, sterile little consulting room, Mulder finally sat down next to her and glanced over her shoulder.

"Wondering what Mostow is like?" he asked.

"Wondering what makes someone kill not just one, but several other human beings in such a vicious and calculated manner," she replied absently.

He cocked a brow at her. "The state says he's insane, Scully. Do you need any more of an answer than that?"

She gave him a curious look, aware of an underlying challenge in his question. "You don't agree with the verdict?"

Mulder leaned back in his seat. "Oh, I agree that he did these murders," he conceded. "But despite being a legal term, "insane" is an interesting word to associate with most serial killers. For one thing, it's not particularly precise."

Scully flipped the file shut and looked at him, wondering what he was getting at. "What do you mean?"

"Well, most people assume that insane means ... off your rocker, foaming at the mouth, seeing fairies at the bottom of the garden. Not in control of your actions."

"As a psychologist, I would assume you to have a more precise description than that," she smiled.

He chuckled. "Okay, so the relevant phrase there was "not in control". As a psychologist and a criminal analyst I could pin a couple of more precise tags on most serial killers - psychopath and sociopath are the ones that spring readily to mind. I could give you a brief outline of the kind of behavior that characterizes such personalities and show you how it relates to known serial offenders. But one thing that would not be in that outline is a lack of control. On the contrary, a great many of the worst murderers suffer from the complete opposite." Mulder paused, looking thoughtful. "Actually, that's something I learned from Bill Patterson. When I started out in the ISU, I was idealistic - I'd only done limited clinical practice and during training at the Academy I soaked up all this shit about legal definitions of insanity. The first thing Bill did was drag me out to various institutions to meet some of these so-called lunatics. It was an eye-opener."

"So Patterson doesn't believe guys like John Mostow are really insane?"

"I don't know about Mostow - I haven't seen his notes on him - but Bill always said that a good ninety-nine percent of the killers he helped catch weren't insane by ordinary definitions. They were highly intelligent and self-aware, and they'd made a conscious choice to do what they did. And he believed that if they were capable of making a reasoned choice to kill, then they were capable of taking whatever punishment the full weight of the law demanded."

Scully sat back in her chair, considering this. Then one of Jerry's parting comments came to mind. "Mulder, Jerry told me that you were, and I quote, "a graduate of the Patterson School of Profiling". What did he mean by that?"

Mulder gave a soundless laugh. "He was probably referring to Bill's oft-stated maxim on tracking serial killers. "If you want to know the artist, look at his art." What he meant was that if you wanted to catch a monster, you had to become one yourself."

"Sounds like a one-way ticket to the nearest mental institution," Scully commented, and instantly wished she hadn't. That was a stupid thing to say ....

Mulder was giving her a look that seemed to be equally composed of irony, amusement and affection. "Yeah well, for some of us it was," he smiled, "probably Bill included, although you would never get him to admit it."

"Is that what you do, though?"

Mulder didn't have a chance to respond, for the door opened then and two well-built orderlies were bringing in John Mostow, shaven-headed and heavily shackled.

Scully wasn't sure what she had expected to see, but John Mostow came as something of a surprise. He was a thin, slightly-built man, made shorter by a severe stoop. The shackles on his ankles reduced his movements to a clumsy shuffle, but she got the impression from his bearing that his natural movements would be clumsy and hesitant anyway. And he was squinting badly in the brightly-lit consulting room; a normal reaction, they had been told, given that he refused all forms of lighting in his cell.

He took the seat across the table from them, and after one lightning glance, quickly turned away from them.

"I have nothing to say to you," he said curtly, his voice heavily accented. "Leave me alone."

"You may not have anything to say to us, sir, but we have questions we want to ask you and we're not leaving until we get the answers," Scully replied pleasantly. She felt a creeping prickle up the back of her neck as she regarded Mostow, and was aware that the comforting weight of her gun was missing from the small of her back - removed by the Sanatorium's staff when they first entered the building.

"There is nothing I can tell you," Mostow stated sullenly.

Scully ignored him. "I'm Special Agent Dana Scully with the FBI, and this is Fox Mulder, a behavioral psychologist working with me. We want to ask you some questions about the killings that got you committed to this institution, Mr. Mostow."

"Six years ago you got sent down for the murders of seven men between the ages of nineteen and twenty-five," Mulder put in quietly. "The important question has to be: Why did you do it?"

"I did not do it." Mostow huddled in his seat, looking pointedly away from them. His face was twisted, but whether from pain at the exposure to light or from Mulder's question was not clear.

"I'm told that's what you claimed at the time." Mulder's fingers caressed the surface of the table between them absently. "It's what you've claimed ever since. If you didn't do it, John, who did?"

Mostow shot him a quick, savage look. "Not "who" - "what"," he hissed. "I did not do it - *it* did."

Mulder nodded as though he had been expecting this response. He bent down and picked up a slim brown folder from beside his chair; Scully had noticed the Warden of Druid Hill handing it to him earlier. He laid it on the table but instead of opening it, he reached across for the bulky FBI file in front of Scully and quickly flipped through it, extracting a couple of sheets of paper. He spread them out, glancing down briefly at them, then turned them around and pushed them across to Mostow.

"This "it" you're referring to - it wouldn't look like this, would it?"

The two sheets of paper were thick white artists' cartridge paper, now yellowing faintly at the edges from having spent several years in a folder. Both bore crude drawings, one in a smudgy charcoal and the other in sharp black ink, of a grotesque face with sharp pointed features and evil eyes. Gargoyles.

After a moment of rigid and determined silence from the thin prisoner, Mulder opened the folder in front of him and pulled out a sheaf of newer drawings, all essentially the same - more gargoyles and grotesques; some full-face, some sideways; some with bodies, some with just faces.

"You draw these images a lot," Mulder mused, studying them critically. "I'm told that if you can't get paper, you'll draw them on the walls and floor of your cell, with your fingernails and your own blood if necessary. Tell me about this thing, John - tell me why you have to keep drawing it."

Mostow shuddered. "It killed those men," he muttered.

"Does it have a name?"

"All men know its name," was the contemptuous response.

"But what do *you* call it?" Mulder persisted. "Satan? The devil?"

"Maybe it's just the name of your accomplice," Scully suggested, hoping her voice didn't sound as uneasy as she felt.

The thin man gave her a searing look. "I had no accomplice!"

"So you killed all of those young men yourself," she nodded.

"No! *It* killed them! How many times do I have to tell you?"

"Its fingerprints weren't on the murder weapon, Mr. Mostow, yours were. *It* didn't escape the death penalty by a hair's breadth, and *it* wasn't committed to this institution for the rest of its natural life. You were."

Mostow glared at them both impartially. "That is why it laughs at fools like you ... fools who would pretend evil can be brought to heel like a brindle bitch or held by your pathetic gulags. While with a snap of its fingers, it makes men lick the greasy floor of hell, just to see its reflection."

The imagery this conjured up did nothing for Scully's sense of unease, but she refused to let this be seen in her face. "Is that what it's been doing these last few months?" she asked calmly. "Snapping its fingers and letting more young men die?"

For a second she thought Mostow hadn't heard her. Then he sucked in a gasping breath, his eyes wide with terror.

"It has killed again?" The staring, crazed eyes searched first her face, then Mulder's. "Then it has found somebody else ... somebody, like it found me."

"Possessed by an evil spirit," Scully sighed, as they walked back through the sterile, echoing halls of the sanatorium. "I guess I should have expected that."

"Satan, the ultimate accomplice," Mulder commented absently.

"Well, I think that answered the question of whether Mostow really is one of Agent Patterson's one percent of genuinely insane people, don't you?"

"You think?" Mulder's mind was elsewhere. "Well, I guess we'll soon find out."

Scully gave him a concerned look. "Mulder, are you okay?"

He blinked, and smiled at her. "Sure. Just thinking."

She wasn't convinced, but let it go. "I just want to speak to the Warden about something, okay? Then we can get out of here."


"I guessed you'd want to know that," the Warden, a portly man in his early fifties said, when Scully spoke to him. "I got the records out just in case .... John Mostow has received only three different visitors since he's been an inmate here, and all three of them were FBI agents."

"Seriously?" Scully accepted the relevant log books and looked down the entries. "Patterson ... Nemhauser ... Kingsley. Kingsley?"

"Nemhauser and Kingsley are both profilers," Mulder put in. "Phil Kingsley took on part of my workload just after the arrest of Mostow - he's one of Patterson's bootlickers." Scully shot Mulder an astonished look, and found that he was grinning at her. "According to Jack Willis," he amended. "He probably came here with Patterson to do the follow-up with Mostow that I told you about."

"What about Nemhauser?"

"He's Patterson's shadow, and acts as his partner on the rare occasions Bill actually does field work."

"Well, they all came here on the same day," she admitted. "But look at this - Patterson came back here several times on his own. At least twice in the first year after Mostow's incarceration, and once ... three months ago?" She looked up at Mulder, eyes wide. "Why would he do that after all this time?"

Mulder glanced across at the patiently waiting Warden. "Does Mostow have contact with anyone else? Letters, phone calls ...."

The man shook his head. "No sir. Apart from those Agents, and sessions with the resident shrinks, John Mostow hasn't had contact with the outside world since he was admitted. Not even his lawyer visits him - if he even has one anymore."

"I'd like a list of the personnel, medical or otherwise, that he's been in contact with since he came here," Scully requested. "What about other inmates? Are there any he might have had regular contact with, who have since left Druid Hill?"

"No ma'am." The Warden gave her a dryly humorous look. "Most of the people who come here, *stay* here, if you'll pardon me saying so. And in any case, we tend to keep Mostow separated from the other patients - on the few occasions when he leaves his cell willingly, his behavior is too unpredictable. But I'll check, if you like."

"There's one question we haven't asked ourselves," Mulder said thoughtfully, as Scully slipped the car into gear and pulled out of the Sanatorium car park.

"What's that?" she asked absently, concentrating more on the traffic.

"How did this new killer know about the mutilations? Apart from the fact that the victims were knifed to death, no detailed information on the injuries was released to the press or public."

"That's been bothering me," Scully acknowledged, "although I admit that I hadn't really focused on it until now. I assumed that the new killer must have had contact with Mostow - it's the only explanation. And it's still possible - we won't know until the Warden gets us the information on people he's had contact with, and we can follow it up."

"I guess that would explain why the killer picked Mostow to emulate rather than some of the more dramatic serial killers we've known." But Mulder sounded dissatisfied with this explanation.

"Yeah, he could have picked Eugene Tooms," she muttered.

Mulder gave a her a look full of amusement. "That was said with a lot of personal feeling, Scully."

"It may have escaped your notice, Mulder, but we probably passed within feet of Tooms while we were in that place." She shuddered slightly.

"Don't dwell on it," he said gently. "He's locked up, and he's staying there." But Scully made no comment, and he let it go. "Where are we heading for now?"

"Back to the Bureau," she replied, glancing at him. "I have to make my report. Why?"

"Could we take a slight detour?"

"If you want .... Where to?"

"Annie's place." The humor had totally drained from Mulder's face. "I need to ask her to look after Sam for a while."

Scully looked surprised. "Why?"

"I'm erring on the side of caution," he replied, and sighed, rubbing his eyes with one hand. "This case might take more for me to get my head around than I originally anticipated, and if it does ... I don't want Sam to see any of the stuff that goes with it."

John Mostow had, so his file said, been apprehended in his studio/workroom in an old factory building. Evidence had suggested that he lived there most of the time, probably in perpetual twilight as there had been no evidence of artificial lighting and the only natural light had been filtered through a single, dirt-crusted skylight.

The need to live in twilight was only one aspect of Mostow's character that Mulder wanted to explore. As yet, he had few theories on the nature of the new killer and he needed to familiarize himself with Mostow's case before he could understand what attracted his copycat to him. However, given the length of time that had elapsed since Mostow's capture, the studio itself would no longer be available for inspection. So Mulder did the next best thing - he got the complete FBI case files and evidence box out of storage.

Taking them to a spare meeting room, Mulder rummaged around until he found a sheaf of crime scene photographs, which he spread out across the table in a rough order. He was staring at them thoughtfully, along with another broader selection of Mostow's gargoyle drawings, when Scully appeared in the doorway.

"I bought you lunch," she told him, offering him a wrapped sandwich and glancing curiously at the scattered pictures.

"Huh? .... Oh, thanks. I'm not really hungry, though."

"Suit yourself." Scully put the food to one side and looked down at the crime scene pictures. They made grim viewing, if only because of the crude monochrome shades and grim surroundings of Mostow's lair. His mania for gargoyles had led him to paper every surface of his studio with black and white grotesques, which did nothing to improve the spartan living area he had occupied in one corner. There was a narrow, metal-framed cot stuffed in one corner under a shelf, and the floor had apparently been grimy, undressed concrete. "Nice place he had," she commented after a moment. "What are you looking for?"

"Him," was Mulder's distant response.

"Him? You mean Mostow?"

"And the guy who's mimicking him. But mostly Mostow right now."

Scully gave him a curious look. "Is the new killer likely to copy him this closely?"

"He is if he's driven by the same kind of mania that drives Mostow." Mulder looked up at her, his brow furrowed. "Whatever. The important bit is the art."

"Which will enable you to know the artist."

"According to Bill." He gave her a faint smile. "In this case, he's probably nearer to the truth than he knows. Look - " He gestured at the gargoyle drawings. "Mostow drew just one image, over and over, in different poses and with different media."

"One of those different media was human flesh," Scully observed. She pulled one of the drawings towards her and traced the wide slash-like mouth of the gargoyle with a light fingertip. It stretched almost from ear to ear, and the sharp line extended into the shape of the ears, nose and chin of the creature.

"Exactly. Mostow drew gargoyles - still draws gargoyles - as a defense against the spirit or demon he believes is using him, and he was driven so insane by it in the end, that he actually started carving up the victims in the hope that it would drive it away. There are probably other, earlier victims we will never find - ones who show little or no sign of his signature. The big question, of course, is how closely the UNSUB is mimicking Mostow now, though. There's no doubt that he's copying Mostow's signature and MO, but the question is - is that *his* signature or is it just his MO? Is that his particular quirk or is it just what he needs to achieve his ends? Is he an artist or a forger?"

Scully blinked, gazing uncertainly into Mulder's tense face. "How do we find out?"

Mulder shrugged. "By studying the art. You examined most of the latest victims, Scully. Would you say that he's getting better at what he's doing as he goes along?"

"You know he is - it's in my report. The first victim's mutilations are clumsy by comparison to the others, even given that they occurred post-mortem."

"But he's worked on only five. How quickly do you think he's improved his technique? Is there a noticeable difference between, say, victims two and three?"

Scully began to feel slightly queasy at the casual way he spoke of victims and their injuries, as though they were nothing but ... canvas. "The wound patterns of the latest victim showed considerably more control and - and technique, for want of a better word," she admitted.

"And there was a bigger gap between the death of victim five and victim four." Mulder glanced down at the crime scene photos again. "He could be practicing."


"Improving his technique by practicing somehow - probably drawing or carving or sculpting .... Becoming more familiar with the images he's trying to produce. Just like Mostow ...."

Scully tore her eyes away from Mulder for a moment and looked down at the photographs of Mostow's studio. "If he's doing that, then he needs somewhere to work and materials to work with. That's somewhere to start looking - "

"Until we know what kind of person we're looking for, checking out art supplies is no good," Mulder commented absently.

"I was thinking more of a place to work," she retorted, with a certain amount of asperity.

He glanced up at her, surprised, and his face suddenly softened into a rueful smile. "Sorry, Scully, I didn't mean to imply otherwise. I was just thinking out loud, I guess."

"It was more likely your stomach talking," she huffed. She picked up the abandoned sandwich and shoved it at him. "Eat. You're rumbling worse than an elephant with gas."

He made a face but accepted the offering and, tearing the plastic wrapper off, devoured it with a starved speed that refuted his earlier claim of not being hungry. Meanwhile, Scully took a closer look at the scattered pictures.

"Do you have any idea yet of what kind of person we're looking for?" she asked. "I mean, is it going to be someone who resembles Mostow a lot - age, appearance, mental history?"

"Difficult to say," Mulder mumbled around a mouthful. He swallowed quickly. "At first glance, that's the kind of person we'd look for since we don't have anything else to go on. You would assume that it's someone who feels he has an affinity with Mostow in a number of ways, and that would influence his behavior a lot. But until we get the list of contacts back from Druid Hill, we won't know if there's anyone who's got close to him and answers that description. But ...." He hesitated, considering. "If I had to make a guess based solely on what we know now, I'd say that it's someone older. Assuming that it's one of the narrow selection of people who've had contact with Mostow since he was locked up, he probably doesn't have a history of mental illness, since it would have been picked up when he was screened for employment. But he might have an obsessive personality, both with people and things - the choice of weapon and the economy of action in the mutilations would appeal to this guy, and it might explain his interest in Mostow. And he probably has the kind of background history we often see in serial killers ... abuse - "

" - Fire-starting and animal torture," Scully finished for him, nodding and smiling slightly. "Why do you say he's older?"

"Well, there didn't seem to be a lot of younger staff at Druid Hill. But aside from that, the early hesitation in the mutilations, and the fact that he hasn't bothered to improvise on Mostow's basic design, suggests to me that it's someone who isn't intrinsically artistic. This is something new to him, a skill he's having to develop against his basic nature. On the other hand, he's also taking a lot of care to make the face-carving look like Mostow's work - he's making a real effort to show us that connection. That speaks of patience, Scully, and I think someone younger, with less experience of life, would be less inclined to make the effort. It's also why I say he's practicing - he's taking his time, making his point, and he wants it to look exactly right. I don't think a young guy would do that."

"Bravo, Mulder," a sarcastic voice said from the doorway. Jack Willis was standing there, his eyes cold. "Tell me something - if you can produce a profile that good in a matter of hours, why haven't you shared it with the rest of us?"

Scully jumped at the unexpected intrusion, but Mulder showed no reaction other than to turn and face the other man.

"It's not a profile," he replied calmly. He finished the last bite of his sandwich and balled the wrapper up, tossing it into a wastepaper basket in the corner. "It's just an outline at the moment - I need more information before I can attempt the profile."

"You've talked to Mostow, you've read his file, you've had all of his crap out of Evidence - how much more information do you need?" Willis demanded. "And where the hell do you think you're going to find anything else? Mostow's been locked up for the last six years - the only other evidence we have is the new victims and crime scenes, but you spent less than half an hour on them!"

Mulder cocked his head on one side, studying the other man curiously. "Do you have a problem with the way I work, Willis? Because if you do, I'm quite happy to step back and let a different profiler take over. But I feel obliged to warn you that I don't think they'd work any differently."

Scully, watching the confrontation with carefully disguised concern, noticed something odd; Willis had given no indication that he knew she was there. Despite the fact that they were standing practically shoulder to shoulder, his attention was totally centered on Mulder, and she might just have well been invisible. Which was completely at variance with Willis' previous behavior towards her, although come to think of it, apart from the confrontation in the parking lot, he'd been strangely detached with her from the moment she was pulled in on the investigation. What this meant she couldn't tell, but she filed the observation away in her brain for later consideration.

"I've got news for you, Mulder," he was saying now, his voice tense and harsh. "The Bureau's moved on since you left. Things are done differently ... everything's changed."

"Basic human nature hasn't," Mulder replied coolly, "and that's why I'm here. You may not like me or my techniques, Willis, but you still need a profile and someone bigger than you has decided I'm the best person to do it. Live with it."

"This is my case," was the savage retort, "and I'm going to solve it, with or without your profile!"

"I never doubted that." Scully was surprised to hear the sincerity in his voice. "Any good investigator knows that the profile is just another tool, a means to narrowing down the suspect pool - it's no replacement for old-fashioned investigative skills."

Willis stared at Mulder for a moment, his eyes narrowed. "You just remember that, then, and stay out of my way." He turned on his heel and strode from the room.

"Whew!" Mulder exclaimed softly, watching him go. "What the hell was that about?"

"I was right earlier, wasn't I?" Scully said, worried. "There is definitely something wrong with him - he's not himself."

"That's an understatement. What was with all that crap about the Bureau changing? He wasn't even expressing himself coherently." Mulder gave her a concerned look. "He's seriously on the edge about this case .... I think the sooner I can pull together a working profile, the better." He paused for a moment, tapping his fingertips restlessly on the table and thinking. "Look, there's some research I need to do about this stuff - " he gestured vaguely at the crude drawings littering the surface. "I'm going to head over to the library at Georgetown."

"Well, while you're doing that, I'm going to speak to Rawlings and Addersley and see if we can come up with some places to look for the UNSUB's hide-out," Scully replied. She gave him a look tinged with a tiny bit of mischief. "While you've still got your psychic profiler hat on, can you give me any hints?"

Mulder grinned and shrugged. "You could try looking around the area Mostow hung out in - it's always possible that the guy has taken his obsession that far. Of course, there's a chance that he's simply doing this stuff at home but if he's the obsessive I'm thinking he is, particularly with objects, then he might try and separate the mess of his work from his home life." He paused, his eyes unfocussing for a moment. "Actually, that's a real possibility ... he may be trying to divorce the side of him that kills from the rest of him ...." He shook his head. "I need to think about that. But in any case, take a look at the layout of the crime scenes - whether he's working at home or from a separate studio, I think he's probably nearby. And if he has a separate workshop, it's going to be a lot like Mostow's - somewhere dark and out of the way, where he won't be disturbed by people or daylight."

"An abandoned factory, in fact."

"Well ...."

Scully rolled her eyes. "Thanks, Mulder. I can tell what the rest of my day's going to be like. Give me a call when you've finished at the library, okay?"


But Mulder's attention was already drifting away again to the drawings on the table.

By lunchtime Jerry Castamir's hangover had eased and he was generally feeling more human, so when Pendrell finally called him back in the early part of the afternoon he was more than happy to abandon the wiretap detail and run over to the labs to find out what was in the flask he'd appropriated the day before. Except that Pendrell wasn't in the Bureau's labs. He was at the Georgetown Microbiology Department, borrowing a friend's lab there to the do the work.

Intrigued in spite of himself, Jerry agreed to join him, and eventually found Pendrell in one of the smaller labs at the facility.

"What have you found?" he demanded as he walked in, amused at the younger agent's obvious excitement.

"I've definitely got something here for Agent Scully," Pendrell told him, and practically beamed.

Jerry hid his grin, wondering if the huge smile was in response to whatever the younger man had discovered or merely anticipation of Scully's hoped-for reaction. He also wondered if Pendrell knew Scully was already seeing Mulder ... not that it was any business of his. "So ... what *is* it?" he prompted. "And why did you come all the way out here for it?"

"Better containment procedures." Pendrell maneuvered the screen of his computer around so that Jerry could see a picture of the bacteria after the freeze fracture. It didn't look much to the agent, a greenish thing with little blue dots all over it. "It's some kind of bacteria and each of them contains a virus. It looks to me as if whoever was doing this was cloning them."

Jerry's brows snapped together in concern. "Cloning ...."

Pendrell nodded, his adam's apple bobbing as he swallowed. Suddenly all his excitement was gone and he looked concerned. "They also contain something that looks like chloroplasts - plant cells - but I've ... well, I've never seen anything like it before. Bacteria like this may have existed, but not for millions of years, not since before our ancestors first crawled out of the sea."

"Any idea what they could be doing with them?" the older agent asked slowly.

"Well, the only reason you clone a virus inside a bacteria is in order to inject it into something living," the younger man explained. "It's called gene therapy and it's still highly experimental. Agent Scully told me this stuff was found in a lab full of monkeys - is that right? The scientist working with this could have been testing it on them."

Jerry grimaced. "And you say that it contains plant cells? I don't want to think about that too closely." His own science was only average but even he knew that there was something not quite right about this scenario, especially given the circumstances under which he had retrieved the flask in the first place. "So what happens next?"

Pendrell shrugged. "We're running some primary cell cultures and a DNA sequence as we speak. If you want to hang around, I should have some results shortly."

"Okay." Jerry nodded and smiled at Pendrell, suppressing the anxiety he was beginning to feel. He dug inside his trench coat pocket and pulled out his cell phone. "I'll try and get Agent Scully, and let her know what's happening."

Pendrell nodded and turned back to his computer, leaving Jerry to go out into the hallway and attempt to call Scully. But her number came up with the 'out of range' message. After a minute or two of pondering, he tried Mulder's number instead.


"It's Jerry. I've been trying to get Scully but she's out of range."

"She's not with me," Mulder told him. "She went off with Rawlings and Addersley some time ago, I think. They're supposed to be checking out some possible workshop sites."

"Workshop sites ...? Never mind, I don't need to know. Look, I'm at the Georgetown Microbiology Department with Agent Pendrell. He's been analyzing the contents of that flask I lifted from Berube's lab."

Mulder's slightly distracted tone instantly sharpened into interest. "What's he found?"

In as few words as possible, Jerry explained Pendrell's discoveries, finishing with, "We know Berube was part of the Human Genome Project so some of this is hardly a surprise, Mulder, but why does the inclusion of plant cells in a bacteria that was being tested on primates bother me? Especially when it's teamed with the word "cloned"?"

Mulder hesitated. "I'm not a scientist like Scully, but I'm sure she'd come up with a logical link between the Human Genome Project and cloning."

"Yeah, Scully's good with the logical links," Jerry muttered a little sourly.

"It's the chloroplasts I'm interested in," Mulder continued, letting the other man's comment pass for the moment. "Why include plant cells?"

"More to the point, I'd like to know what any of this has got to do with that missing driver."

"Shit! I forgot about that," Mulder hissed. There was an agitated pause which had Jerry raising his brows, then he said, "Look - I had some information about that from a source of mine, but in the excitement of this case, I forgot about it. I think the driver got picked up by a paramedic team last night."

"How? Where?" Jerry demanded, astounded. "And how the hell did you find this out?"

"Probably somewhere in the Arlis area, but I'm not sure. And I told you, it came from a source."

Jerry took the phone away from his ear for a moment and stared at it incredulously. Mulder receiving information from a "source" and not acting on it immediately? He briefly wondered if he should phone the Vatican and find out if the Pope had converted to Buddhism. Shaking his head, he put the phone back to his ear.

"Jerry, are you still there?"

"Yeah, I'm here - I think. So, what - you want me to find out if and where he got admitted?"

Mulder hesitated. He wasn't stupid and he knew that Jerry was probably supposed to be somewhere else entirely, after being dismissed from the Slasher case. On the other hand, he wasn't able to follow up this lead right away and neither was Scully. Jerry was the logical person to do it. "Will you get any grief over it?"

Jerry rolled his eyes. "Please! Let *me* worry about the ass-kicking I'll get from Skinner, will you? Besides, I doubt anyone's seriously going to miss me from wiretap duty until tomorrow at the earliest."

"Well, I'll leave it up to you what you do," Mulder replied, shrugging it off. "I've got a profile to write."

"Yeah, all right. Let Scully know I called, will you? I'll call back later." Jerry pressed "end" and tucked the phone back into his pocket. Then he turned and walked back into the lab, where Pendrell was bending over a monitor again. "I've got to go and check on something," he told the younger agent. "How long will these tests take?"

"Not long - a few hours," Pendrell responded absently, not even raising his head.

Jerry supposed that a few hours wasn't long in terms of scientific discovery, however much it might be to the rest of humanity. But in the meantime, he had other things to be getting on with. Like finishing up the wiretap tapes.

On Mulder's advice, Scully, Rawlings and Addersley began their search for the killer's 'workshop' at the site of Mostow's own studio. The building, a disused factory in one of the city's more run-down areas, had recently been consumed by a fire and pulled down for safety reasons, but there were more like it in the old industrial district and they began the slow, rather tedious search with the two nearest.

It was dangerous work, for most of the buildings were derelict and in poor shape, so the three of them stayed together in case of accidents.

"Makes you wonder how the owners of these places can afford to let them get into this condition," Scully observed, shining her flashlight into a couple of murky areas while Rawlings checked out a room further along.

"These days, the land's worth more than the buildings," Addersley replied. "It won't be long before someone buys this area up, pulls these places down, and builds office blocks." He watched her investigate a metal staircase to one side for a moment, looking at her thoughtfully. "Say, Scully ...."


"You known Mulder long?"

"About two and a half years," she replied absently, panning her flashlight over the walls. "Why?"

"Is it true what the guys are saying about him?"

Suddenly all Scully's attention was fixed on the other agent. "What are they saying?"

Addersley's eyes were looking anywhere but at her. "Oh, you know ... stuff," he replied uncomfortably.

"'Spooky Mulder' stuff?" she asked coolly. "Little green aliens, that kind of thing?"

"Look, Scully, I just heard some ... stuff ... about him. About him leaving the Bureau."

Scully stared at him. "Go on."

"Some of the guys are saying he didn't *leave* at all. They're saying he was disciplined and lost his badge because of some corruption case involving a female agent called - "

" - Phoebe Green," she finished for him, feeling sick. "His ex-wife."

"Well, yeah .... The thing is, Scully, is this true? Because if it is, should the Bureau be using this guy to ...."

Suddenly Rawlings was there, looming up behind her. "What the hell is this crap, Drew?" he demanded.

"Hey!" Addersley took a step back, spreading his hands defensively. "I'm just repeating what I've been told. There's a lot of talk, Mike, and I don't like what I'm hearing."

"Do you seriously think *Rolfe* would countenance using a bent agent on this case?" Rawlings snapped at his partner. "Besides, I never heard anything like that about Mulder .... Scully? Do you know anything about this?"

"It's true that Mulder's ex-wife is wanted on a number of charges, including corruption," Scully replied reluctantly, "but Mulder himself was never suspected of anything. He resigned from the Bureau because he needed more time to look after his little boy. Mulder told me all this himself, but I was under the impression that the official file was sealed. Who told you about this, Agent Addersley? It's not supposed to be general knowledge around the Bureau."

"I told you, some of the guys were talking about it," he muttered, a little sullenly. "I don't know where the hell the information came from originally."

Scully gave him a hard stare, but he seemed to be telling the truth. All the same, the fact that such information was being bandied around bothered her and she made a mental note to look into it when she got back to the office. "Let's just get back to case," she said curtly. "Was there anything down there, Agent Rawlings?"

He shook his head. "A couple of old offices; nothing we're looking for. You want to try someplace else? There are a couple of buildings across the street, and one of them was supposedly rented out for storage not so long ago."

"You don't want to check the upper floors?" Addersley asked, grateful to seize on the change of subject.

"Too dangerous." Rawlings glanced around, and turned decisively back towards the entrance. "Let's go."

Scully turned to follow - and hesitated. She turned back to the staircase she'd been examining and stepped closer, shining her flashlight over the metal framework that secured it.

"Scully?" Rawlings and Addersley were watching, perplexed. "Scully, come on. It's too big a risk."

"I don't know ...." she said slowly. "Maybe we're meant to think that."

"What do you mean?" Rawlings came to take a look.

"The bolts on some of the steps look newer than the rest of the stairs," she commented, "like it's been reinforced."

They exchanged glances and Rawlings' lips tightened with concern. "It's still a risk."

"Still," Scully said decisively, "there's only one way to find out, and I'm the lightest of the three of us." She took hold of the handrail and gave it a rough shove. It wobbled unnervingly but the steps themselves didn't move, so she put a cautious foot on the bottom step and put her weight on it. The staircase didn't move. "Okay ...." Slowly, taking it step by step, she climbed up to the second floor of the old factory building.

This was the part of her job that Scully secretly hated the most. As a child, her brother Bill had locked her in the basement of their house on one of the Navy bases; it had been damp, cold and the single light-bulb had been faulty, flickering and going out at intervals. She'd been stuck in there for nearly three hours until her sister Melissa heard her whimpers and rescued her, and to this day she retained a creeping horror at having to investigate dark, disused spaces. No amount of scientific rationalization had succeeded in curing her of it.

Nevertheless, there was a job to be done and Scully would never have allowed anyone to know how much doing this creeped her out. She straightened her shoulders as she reached the top of the staircase and panned her flashlight around warily. Aside from the faint sound of water dripping somewhere, the building was silent and still.

"Scully, what's up there?" Rawlings called.

She panned the light around again, noting the huge expanse of floor marred by remnants of equipment and other trash. "It's just a huge factory floor," she called back, restraining a shudder at the way her voice echoed. "There are what look like offices and storage areas down one side, though. I'm going to take a look."

"Be careful!"

"Yeah, like I'm going to deliberately be careless," she muttered under her breath, and struck out cautiously across the floor. She didn't like the look of some of the boards under her feet and had no desire to rejoin her colleagues via a more direct route.

The offices and store rooms were obviously empty from the moment she shone her flashlight through the doors. Nevertheless, Scully resolutely examined each one, finding little more than some evidence of habitation by junkies and homeless persons. The smell was appalling. Finally, she turned back towards the stairs.

Something leapt out of the shadows, making her cry out with surprise and alarm, and blundered past her into the room she had just exited.


Addersley and Rawlings were up the staircase before she had time to catch her breath, and Scully instantly felt a complete fool.

"It's okay," she gasped. "It was a cat ... I think." She took a deep breath to steady herself and turned back to the old storeroom resolutely, flashing the light through the door. "Where on earth did it come from? I didn't see it when I was checking out the other rooms ...."

Two more flashlights joined hers to probe the room. There was no sign of the cat.

"Are you sure that's what it was?" Addersley asked finally, stepping into the room and flashing his light into the dim corners. "There's nothing here now."

"It felt like a cat - it was too big to be something like a rat, anyway."

Rawlings was checking out the room methodically. "What's this?" he said suddenly. He crouched down and was peering at what looked like a small hole at the bottom of the wall. "A cat could have got through here," he held his hand in front of the hole for a moment, "and there's a draft coming through." He stood up straight again, checking the edges of the wall with an intense expression that Scully realized held controlled excitement. "I wonder what's behind it? Drew, give me a hand here - "

The two men set their shoulders against the wall, giving it a solid shove - and it moved. The stained material was nothing more than a plasterboard partition painted to match the rest of the room and carefully fitted to look permanent in the semi-darkness. At some point it must have become damaged, which had allowed the cat access to whatever was beyond.

Between them, the three agents managed to move the fake wall just enough that they could squeeze through into the hidden room behind it. They were greeted by a cold draft of air, dank and carrying a faint undertone of something sickly sweet and decaying.

"Oh my God ...." Rawlings whispered blankly.

Mulder was in one of the reading rooms at the Georgetown University Library. He had staked a claim to one of the tables there at mid-afternoon, and had been steadily building a fortress of books around himself ever since.

He was researching the history of the gargoyle, writing up swift notes in his spidery longhand, jumping from one idea to another across the pages of a lined notepad - some of it direct quotes from the books before him, some of it his own mental ramblings, snatches of a draft profile here and there, occasional sketches of pictures and ideas.

Mulder's style had earned him something of a reputation with both his fellow profilers and his senior agents. No one else - except, perhaps, Patterson - could work with his files; they might look neat and orderly on the surface, but they were crammed with page upon page of rambling notes that only he could decipher. The final profile, when it was written, was always typed up by Mulder himself, for aside from his dislike of letting the clerical team touch his work, no one could read his manuscripts anyway. It had caused immense frustration among his superiors, as it meant they had to rely on Mulder himself for a rundown on how a case was proceeding ... and he was notoriously vague and uncommunicative.

The notes forming on the pad in front of him now were a typical example of his style.

*The name is from the French - "gargouille" .... The name of a medieval dragon that prowled the River Seine, whose horrible image became the symbol of the soul of the condemned turned to stone .... Or of the devils and demons of the underworld spared eternal damnation.*

*.... The embodiment of the lesser forces of the universe who inspired dread, the threat of our own damnation; ushers into hell or into the realm of our own dark fears and imagination. .... For over 1200 years, this grotesque image has found its expression in stone, clay, wood, oil and charcoal, born again and again as if resurrecting itself by its own will through tortured human expression, almost as if it existed, haunting men inwardly so that it may haunt mankind for eternity. As it must have haunted John Mostow ....*

*But what impulses moved it to kill? Could this be the same dark force at work? Is its ultimate expression the destruction of the flesh, of the very hand that creates it? Is this evil something born in each of us, crouching in the shadow of every human soul waiting to emerge? A monster waiting to violate our bodies and twist our will to do its bidding .... Is this the monster called madness?*

Here and there on the page he had sprinkled half-formed images of gargoyles, the barest pencil outlines of pointed and hideous faces. Deep in concentration, Mulder was comparing one of Mostow's crude charcoal drawings and one of his own efforts to an old monochrome photograph in one of the books, when he was jerked rudely out of his thoughts by a crisp, familiar voice.

"The library's getting ready to close."

He looked up and was not entirely surprised to see Bill Patterson standing in front of his table. The older man's face was as unreadable as ever, the round-lensed glasses presenting too much of a reflection in the low lights of the library to be revealing, and his face fixed in its customary expression of cynicism. Not that it mattered: the cynicism was just a shield, and Mulder had given up trying to read the real Bill Patterson years before. He leaned back in his chair, and waited to see what happened. Nothing Patterson did was without a purpose; if he was here, it was for a good reason ... although that reason might not necessarily become clear to the profiler's former acolyte.

They stared at each other a little challengingly for a moment, then the older man walked around the edge of the desk and picked up Mulder's notepad, flipping the pages over and studying the notes. Then he picked up one of the many books piled up on the desk and studied the title on the spine.

"So ...." He dumped the book and notepad back in front of Mulder, and perched on the edge of the desk next to his one-time protégé. "This is how you intend to find the second killer? Jesus, Mulder ... haven't you learned? What do you expect to find in *here*?"

Mulder shrugged, apparently unconcerned by the implied criticism. "I'm not sure yet."

"But you must have some idea - some kind of theory."

A weary little smile crossed the younger man's lips. "I always have theories. I'm just trying to stitch them together right now."

"With your face stuck in a library book," Patterson sneered. It was an expression his face seemed uniquely suited to.

Mulder's brows rose. "You said it yourself: If you want to know the artist, look at his art. I'm finally agreeing with you, Bill - because if ever there was a case that bore out your maxim, this one is it."

He more than half expected an explosion of wrath and criticism from Patterson for this, and braced himself for it, but to his surprise the older profiler merely sat there silently for a moment, only the bunching of the muscles around his jaw giving a hint of how annoyed he really was. Such restraint was completely atypical of him, and it disturbed Mulder far more than a full-scale tongue-lashing would have.

"I know where you're going with this, Mulder," Patterson said finally, with even more surprising mildness, "and I'm telling you that you're wrong."

Mulder gave his former mentor an exasperated look. "Then maybe you can also tell me why this man is compelled - like Mostow - to sculpt and draw the same face over and over again. Why he's still doing it now."

"Because, like Mostow, he's insane."

"Oh, come on! Who was it told me that insanity is the *last* thing most serial killers suffer from?"

"*Most* of them, yes," Patterson responded patiently, "but I studied Mostow, Mulder - you never got the chance. And Mostow is a text-book case of Multiple Personality Disorder. He's insane, all right."

"That doesn't mean the guy who's copying him is," Mulder retorted. "Do you seriously believe that there's another guy out there, suffering from the same mental illness as Mostow, being driven by some crazy coincidence to kill in *exactly* the same way?"

"No, I don't."

There was a pause as the two men stared at each other, Mulder a little defensively despite his best efforts not to let Patterson rile him.

"Mostow said this thing wants to see its own reflection," he said finally.

"Mostow said everything but what you need to hear - the name of the guy who's copying him."

"Unless he's telling the truth."

Now it was Patterson's turn to raise his brows. "About being possessed? I'm disappointed in you, Mulder. After all this time, and with a kid to look after, I thought you would have put your feet firmly back on the ground, but clearly I was mistaken."

Mulder snorted, stung more than he wanted to admit. "Well, I wouldn't want to disappoint you by *not* disappointing you!" he retorted.

"Maybe, instead of blinding yourself with pictures of demons and grotesques, you should be considering the *other* common factor with these two killers," Patterson suggested sharply.

"Shock me," Mulder invited him.

"He's sitting on his dumb ass, looking at me!"

Mulder was silent for a moment, genuinely startled. "What do you mean?"

"You profiled Mostow, didn't you?"

"Barely. They caught the guy before I had a chance to do any really in-depth work on him - "

"Don't give me that crap, Mulder! I saw the notes you made that never reached the file." Mulder felt the hair on his arms stand on end as Patterson threw that scornfully at him. "You went in deeper than you let on with the Mostow case - and while it might not have been *that* case that tipped you, it was the last one you profiled before you went over the edge."

"Do you have a point?" Mulder snapped. Patterson's casual reference to the breakdown he'd suffered infuriated him.

"You profiled Mostow; you're profiling this killer. You're the common denominator."

"I'm not an agent anymore, Bill. There's no way in hell this killer could have known I'd be pulled in on this case!"

"Don't be too sure of that," Patterson advised him and stood up. Whatever purpose he'd had in coming here had clearly been served.

"Only you could have known," Mulder realized suddenly, staring at him. "And you visited Mostow at Druid Hill on several occasions."

Patterson frowned. "What are you talking about? Of course I visited Mostow after he was committed - that's ISU procedure, you know that. Kingsley and Nemhauser went with me."

"But you visited him three months ago - it's in the Warden's records!"

Patterson stared at him, looking genuinely bemused. "Mulder, you're losing it," he said finally. "I haven't been near Druid Hill in over five years." He turned impatiently, shaking his head slightly, and walked away.

Mulder stared after him, his mind whirling. But before he could even begin to sort out his thoughts, his cell phone rang. He fumbled it out of his pocket and pressed the 'connect' button.


"It's me." Scully's voice was saturated with weariness, and something else he couldn't quite identify.

"What's up?"

"We've found the killer's workshop."

"Seriously?" Mulder was astounded; he hadn't honestly expected them to find it so easily.

"I thought you might want to come down here and take a look before they move the other ... remains."

"I'm on my way."

It was growing dark by the time Mulder got there, but the old factory building was flooded with artificial lights brought in by the forensic teams that were scurrying around the new crime scene. There seemed to be an extraordinary amount of people present, considering that the task force had only that morning been downsized, but as he ducked under the yellow crime scene tape and stepped inside the building, Mulder realized that a great many of the people there were actually safety workers and structural engineers.

Scully met him at the bottom of the metal staircase she'd climbed only a couple of hours before. "The engineers are here to make sure the floor doesn't collapse," she told him by way of greeting. Under the harsh halogen lamps the forensic team had set up everywhere, all the color in her face seemed to have leached into her hair; she was pale and clearly exhausted.

He touched her elbow gently, a tiny gesture of support that made her smile weakly at him. There was no real enthusiasm in the expression though, and he realized after a moment that she was probably contemplating a night in the nearest mortuary, performing any necessary medical examinations.

"What have we got?" he asked softly, knowing her well enough to guess that expressions of concern would be unwelcome.

But Scully shook her head. "Come and see for yourself. It has to be seen to be believed."

"You said there were more remains?" Mulder asked, following her up the staircase.

"You could say that," was the grim reply. "Stick to the roped off areas," she added, as they reached the top of the stairs. "Parts of the floor up here are dangerous, but the engineers have cleared a small section that's safe to walk on, provided no one starts jumping around."

"It's been a while, but this area looks very familiar to me. Is this near the building where Mostow was holed up when he was caught?" Mulder observed quietly.

"It's adjacent to that site," Scully confirmed. She led him by a rather more circuitous route to the abandoned office, past a number of forensic workers who were meticulously examining the outer room for trace evidence.

Mulder didn't envy them their job. Even a casual glance could tell him that the place was thick with debris and had probably been used extensively by vagrants and addicts since it had fallen derelict. Sorting out hair, fiber and other forensic evidence could take weeks or even months ... and might not tell them anything at the end of it.

Then he noticed something else. One of the female agents was sorting out a pile of equipment on a plastic sheet just inside the door. There were no body bags, as Mulder would have expected if more bodies had been found, just a stack of specially constructed plastic crates. He knew what that meant, even had the smell in the room not given him a hint.

The artificial wall had been completely removed to allow access to the hidden room, and the grisly contents were revealed.

"Flash," a photographer warned, and Mulder quickly turned his head away. When he turned back, he had suppressed any hint of initial nausea and the profiler in him had taken over, making him step forward confidently, far more fascinated than revolted.

The room was full of full-sized clay images, sculpted busts of gargoyles that almost exactly matched the two dimensional drawings Mulder had been studying earlier. Most of them were slowly drying out in the cold air of the makeshift studio, but at least one of them was fresh, the clay still glistening wetly in the harsh halogen lamps brought in by the forensics team. The faces were sickeningly real, twisted into grimaces of agony.

"Looks like you were right, Mulder," Willis' cool voice observed from where he was standing to one side with Agent Rawlings. "The guy's practicing his technique."

But Mulder barely glanced at him, focusing instead on the wet clay model. Half of the material had been scraped away, with someone's bare hands to judge from the appearance of it, to reveal what lay underneath - the cold, decaying flesh of a human face and torso. The eyes were mercifully closed, but the mouth had been slashed and mutilated in the same way as the bodies previously discovered.

"Are they all like this?" he asked, glancing around to find Scully at his shoulder.

"Bodies underneath the clay? Yes ... that is, we're still examining them, but of the six we've checked so far, all of them have the head and torso of - of a victim underneath."

"And there's how many?" Mulder did a quick count himself even as Scully said "Eleven", and let out a silent whistle of disbelief. "This guy is escalating way too fast. And he's getting inventive - Mostow never did anything like this."

"That you know of." Willis' tone was cutting. "The truth is, *Mr.* Mulder, you don't know half as much about John Mostow as you should."

Mulder felt a flicker of real annoyance. "I don't have to," he replied curtly. "The ISU did a full investigation of Mostow after he was incarcerated - whatever could feasibly be discovered about him was uncovered even after I had to leave the case, and I've had full access to the reports of the three profilers who interviewed him. But if you've got any personal insights, Agent Willis, I'd be happy to hear them."

"Oh no!" Willis sneered. "I wouldn't dream of treading on your toes, wonder boy. You take your time dreaming yourself into this asshole's twisted little mind, while the rest of us do the real work." He pushed past Rawlings, and stalked out of the room. After an indecisive moment, Rawlings followed him, leaving Mulder and Scully alone in the room apart from a couple of the forensics people.

Whatever effect Willis had hoped to have was wasted, however; the moment he was gone, Mulder forgot about him entirely, turning his attention back to the room.

In general layout, ignoring the structural differences, it bore a marked resemblance to Mostow's workshop. There was little provision for artificial lighting, the room being crudely rigged with a single battery-powered lamp hanging from the ceiling, and it lacked the skylight that had been a feature of Mostow's rooms. What ventilation there was came through a grille in the outside wall on a level with the floor, and there was no heating; like the rest of the abandoned factory, it was damp and chilly. The UNSUB had a small metal-framed cot in one corner, with a single, stained blanket tossed across it, but there were few other signs that he was doing more than working and occasionally sleeping there. The clay-encased figures were standing on a random selection of small tables; there were different tools - mostly an assortment of stained and rusting knives - scattered randomly around the room, along with heaps of filthy rags and old pots containing water and clay residue. In one corner there was a large plastic tub, the supplier's mark scraped off, containing a supply of fresh clay.

"I can't decide what this tells us about our killer," Scully observed quietly, watching him examine the room carefully. "He's obviously not doing his day-to-day living here, though."

"No - he's compartmentalizing," Mulder agreed absently. "The part of him that kills is being contained here, while he probably has an apartment somewhere else where he goes about his daily routine with little or no indication of this side of his personality. That other part of him may not even consciously recognize what he's doing. That's a big difference between him and Mostow - Mostow didn't have another existence, he lived and breathed his "art", even though he claims that something else was acting through him. He knew what he was doing the whole time; this guy might not."

Scully frowned. "But if he's a copycat - ?"

"That's the bit I don't get either." Mulder looked around again, trying to make some order of the random pieces of evidence building in his mind and link them together with theory. "I take it there's no indication of what he did with the other body parts?"

"Not so far, but we're searching the rest of the building and the surrounding area."

He shook his head. "They won't be here, Scully. He's too clever. He knows how to cover his tracks when he wants."

"He didn't cover his tracks to this place," she pointed out dryly.

"No," he agreed, and felt his mouth go ever so slightly dry at the thought. "This is deliberate. He wanted to make absolutely sure that we understood the Mostow connection."

"Which brings us back to one of my original questions: Why Mostow?"

"He couldn't get access to Monty Propps?"

Scully stared at him blankly. "What's that supposed to mean?"

Mulder smiled humorlessly, avoiding her eyes. "Bill Patterson has a theory; he says the only connection between Mostow and our UNSUB is me."

"When did you speak to Patterson about this?" she demanded.

"He dropped by earlier and did his usual 'Your theories are crap and your methods stink' routine," Mulder said with a shrug.

"And he's suggesting that the UNSUB is trying to get your attention in particular? Why?"

"Jesus, Scully, how the hell would I know? This is the kind of shit Bill comes out with all the time. Half the time when I closed cases while I was working with him, I'd be left wondering if he knew who the killer was all along - like it was some sick little test, to see how long it took me to figure it out."

"Mulder!" Scully was horrified. "Whatever you think of his methods, Patterson was - and is - a senior agent in a position of huge responsibility. Surely you can't think - "

"I don't know what I think," he snapped impatiently, trying to keep his voice down, and ran a nervous hand over his hair, eyeing the other agents in the room warily. Finally, he spat out what was really bothering him. "He told me he didn't visit Mostow three months ago."

Scully opened her mouth, and shut it again, blinking. "His name was in the register at Druid Hill," she stated after a moment's silence. "His signature was there. I'm not saying I examined it with a magnifying glass but dammit, Mulder, it looked just like his signatures for the earlier visits."

"You think I don't know that!"

"Do you think he was lying?"

"I don't know what to think."

Scully let out a very shaky breath. "Well, you know him better than I do, Mulder - you probably know him better than most people. What reason could he have to lie to you about something like that?"

"I don't know ... I don't know ...." He shifted from one foot to the other. "Thing is, Scully - I keep thinking about what he said - "If you want to know the artist, look at his art." If you want to catch a monster, *become* a monster. Bill Patterson has profiled more cases than practically any other profiler in the history of the ISU. But I know from my own experience that it's hard to drag yourself out of the killer's mindset when it's all over. What if Bill's lost the ability to - to detach himself?"

"Whoa, there!" Scully put a restraining hand on his arm. "Back up a minute, Mulder - think about what you're saying. You've just leapt from a minor discrepancy in his story to him being a full-blown homicidal maniac! Don't let him get to you like this - can't you see what he's trying to do? I haven't forgotten what he said to you at Christmas about re-joining the Bureau. This is probably just more of the same."

"Yeah, but that's just it! This *isn't* the same. Bill was acting ...." He hesitated, searching for a word, and finally said, rather lamely, "He was acting weird."

Scully's brow puckered. "In what way?"

"He was almost being nice to me."

Her expression turned to one of exasperation, and she gave him an ironic look. "Great. I can just see you explaining *that* one to Rolfe or Skinner. Being nice to someone isn't an indication of psychotic tendencies, Mulder, even in someone like Patterson." Then her smile turned wry. "Now, if you'd said *Jack* was being nice to you ...."

But Mulder couldn't smile at the joke. "Look, I've seen all I need to see here," he told her. "I'm going to head home and think about this. Let me know if you find anything else."

"Mulder ...." Scully reached out a hand to grab him, but one of the agents from forensics suddenly popped up beside her.

"Agent Scully?"

She sighed and let him go, turning to face the woman. "Yes?"

The other agent held up a plastic evidence bag. "We just found this in a pile of trash the corner - behind the tub of clay?"

Scully accepted the bag initially without much interest ... then she saw what it contained and suddenly clutched at it tightly, staring. It was an empty pill bottle.

"We've found scores of discarded needles and syringes around the outer room, and assumed they were left by addicts," the woman was saying, "but I guess this could put a different slant on things."

"Damn right," Scully breathed, still staring at the bottle, her mind working furiously. Something about this seemed familiar, but she couldn't quite put her finger on it. She straightened up. "Someone tell Agents Willis and Rawlings about this," she ordered, " and go through the stuff you found in both rooms again, with a fine tooth-comb. If you find anything else that could link to this, call me immediately."

"Where will you be?" the woman asked, a little taken aback by Scully suddenly snapping out orders.

"I'll be checking something out," Scully replied. She was already heading for the door, the bagged bottle in hand. "Get me on my cellphone if you need me."

Later, Scully was unable to say what exactly what made her react the way she did to the discovery of the pill bottle. It wasn't as if Micronase was an unusual medication, and God knew there were enough people suffering from Type II Diabetes in North America; there was nothing to say that their killer couldn't be one of them.

Maybe it was her subconscious putting two and two together and making six, or maybe after associating with Mulder for so long she had finally started putting faith in baseless hunches. Whatever it was, she paid a quick - and very late - visit to the Human Resources offices at the Hoover building, and headed out to the Druid Hill Sanatorium.

It was perhaps a measure of her state of mind that this time she never even gave a thought to Eugene Tooms. The two personnel photographs in her pocket were occupying her mind far more.

Mulder was drawing gargoyles again. Using a stack of thin paper and cheap-grade charcoal pencils, he was working on the pictures with a single-minded intensity, carving out the lines of the twisted faces over and over again. As fast as he finished one image, he would slap it up on the wall of his apartment with blue tack, and begin another one. His mind wasn't precisely on what he was drawing, however. Instead it was turned inward, searching his thoughts and feelings for something that would clue him in to what the killer thought and felt as he worked.

Finally, Mulder slowed to a halt and blinked dazedly around the small living room of his apartment. Two of the walls were covered with crude drawings crookedly placed. He gritted his teeth with frustration, aware that whatever it was he was looking for was simply not coming to him. There was something there ... something that tickled at the back of his mind darkly, but he was unable to get a grip on it.

There was only one thing for it. Mulder threw aside the stub of charcoal in his hand, and reached for his leather jacket. He glanced at the clock in a cursory way, noting with passing satisfaction that it was after midnight.

Good. The killer's workshop would have been sealed up for the night and he would be undisturbed.

"Are you sure about this?" Scully asked the Warden of Druid Hill. She pushed the two photographs towards him slightly.

He sighed, stifling a yawn. Scully had been lucky to catch him still on the premises; it had been pure chance that there had been an emergency requiring his attention there earlier. "Yeah, that was definitely the guy who came here a few months ago. He was asking a shitload of questions - I wondered at the time why he didn't just check out his own files, but that's none of my business."

"Do you even recognize the other man?" she persisted.

"No, ma'am. Look, what the hell is all this about?" He narrowed his eyes suspiciously. "Is this some oblique way of telling me that this guy is *not* an FBI agent? 'Cause I'm telling you, he had a badge and - "

Scully shook her head, ignoring his sudden blustering indignation and gathering up the two photographs numbly. "No sir, you have nothing to be concerned about. He's an FBI agent all right."

*Just not the FBI agent he claimed to be,* she finished silently, as the Warden let her out of the building.

Out in the parking lot, she sat behind the wheel for several minutes without moving. It was hard to get her mind around what she had just heard, but the Warden's identification had been unequivocal. He might not recognize Agent Patterson - he had been Warden at the facility for only a couple of years - but he certainly recognized Jack Willis.

*There has to be some rational explanation,* she told herself desperately. *There must be some reason Jack came out here ....* Her mental voice tailed off helplessly. There was also the pill bottle to be considered. Willis had taken Micronase for a number of years to control his diabetes; the condition had been one of the reasons he'd been taken off active duty in the first place - and why Scully herself had been so surprised when she found him back on active duty and in charge of this case.

Of course, it was impossible that Willis could have anything to do with these killings, but ....

There was only one way to find out the truth of the situation, she decided. Starting the car up, she set out for Jack Willis' apartment.

Blithely ignoring the 'crime scene' warnings on the wads of tape stuck across the old office door, Mulder pulled out a penknife and sliced them open. The door creaked a little as he pushed it open, but made no other protest. The workshop was dark and cold, echoing emptily, but Mulder's flashlight picked out the tall halogen lamps left behind by the forensics team and in minutes the room was lit up garishly.

The small tables and upended packing crates were empty, their grisly displays removed earlier for proper forensic examination. The tools and rags had been removed as well, and every corner of the room swept clean of dust and debris, but the tub of clay was still standing in the corner with a single metal pot abandoned beside it.

Good enough. Mulder took off his jacket, tossing it across one of the tables by the door, and rolled up his sleeves. The clay inside the tub was not as damp as he had expected, but was certainly much colder, and it took him some time to dig out enough with his bare hands to make a respectable mound in the center of one of the tables. It was also a lot stiffer and rougher in consistency than he had bargained for. Standing back for a moment, Mulder knew that he needed water to make it more malleable but was at a loss to find the UNSUB's source. In the end he ran outside to his car and dug out a half bottle of Evian that Scully had left in the pocket of one of the doors at some point.

The next hour or more was spent on the serious business of making the clay do what he wanted. It wasn't easy, as he had never been particularly artistic. In fact his profile hypothesis, that the killer was working against his own nature, was a trait that could just as easily have been applied to Mulder himself when it came to forcing his hands to draw with charcoal or mold clay. All afternoon and evening he had been trying to follow unfamiliar lines and mimic skills he didn't possess, but the effort was not wasted. Now, as he squeezed and smoothed the cold, silky material between his hands, a glimmer of understanding was dawning.

He knew that when they eventually found the killer, there would be few if any drawings of gargoyles as there had been in the Mostow case. The texture and feel of the clay had spoken to him, and he recognized that *this* man would not be satisfied with paper drawings in an attempt to silence the demon riding him. Somewhere along the line, *this* man had felt the cold, moist texture of dead flesh on his hands, and his use of clay as a medium of expressing himself was logical in that the touch of the material mimicked the feel of a corpse.

But this was not someone who necessarily dealt with death routinely in his everyday life. Mulder stepped back from the growing demonic shape on the table for a moment, his mind only partly on what he was doing. The UNSUB had killed sixteen people that they knew of, horribly disfiguring the corpses in the process, and eleven had been dismembered, the limbs and lower body being removed and presumably dumped elsewhere. Yet those eleven torsos, with heads intact, had been brought here, smothered with clay and the clay then molded to resemble the nightmare - or entity - that was driving the killer.

The killer was not irrational or totally out of control. His actions, twisted as they were, were nevertheless calculated, driven not only by the need to kill but by his need to be noticed. He was almost desperately saying to the task force "Look at this! Come catch me!" And yet at the same time, something within him was equally driven by a need to cover up what he had done and place the blame on something else - the grotesques he molded the clay into.

Who *was* this guy? He would not, Mulder felt sure, be someone like an undertaker or member of the emergency services, who dealt with corpses on practically a daily basis. No, this man was killing to relive the feel and scent of dead flesh, which argued that he generally had little contact with it. And yet he had had some contact with the dead, or he would never have developed the craving in the first place ....

Maybe the necrophiliac-like urge was incidental. If what Patterson said was true, this individual's motivations went far beyond the simple need to kill; indeed, horrific as it was to contemplate, the killings themselves could be merely incidental. If someone was doing this to get Mulder's attention, for whatever reason, then it severely narrowed down the pool of possible suspects. It could be someone he'd put away when he'd been an agent ... or someone he'd tried to put away but failed.

Or it could be someone he'd worked with.

Mulder knew now, without a doubt, that it couldn't be Bill Patterson. He wondered if he'd ever seriously considered that option. But working here in the studio this evening had given him enough insight to know that it couldn't be his former mentor, if only for the simple reason that Patterson, despite outward appearances, had an artistic bent. The head of the ISU was a keen watercolorist in his free time, and had surprised a number of rookie profilers in his time with startlingly accurate crime-scene sketches drawn solely from descriptions by others.

It couldn't be Patterson, but that didn't mean it couldn't be someone else in the Bureau. Someone with the interest in Mulder, and the level of access necessary to perpetrate a series of copycat crimes this close to Mostow's originals.

Mulder hesitated then, wondering exactly where this train of thought was leading. And in that moment he heard a noise behind him.

Spinning around, wide-eyed, he was startled to see Agent Willis standing in the doorway of the workshop.

Scully hadn't been near Jack Willis' apartment in the better part of two and a half years, and it gave her a creepy feeling of deja-vu to be standing in the hallway outside his door now. She pressed the buzzer, feeling jumpy and exposed, and wished he would hurry up ... not that she had much idea of what she was going to say to him when he opened the door.

Fortunately, she was spared the decision, for after a couple of minutes of buzzing and knocking it become obvious that he was out. Racked with indecision, Scully finally pulled out her cellphone and dialed his number, only to get the "caller unavailable" message. Now what?

Reluctantly, but driven by her need to know, she began to rummage in her shoulder bag for a handy - if extremely illegal - little device that Frohike had unexpectedly presented her with a few months before: an electronic lock-pick. Which was when her hand brushed against something else and she was struck with an uncomfortable realization. Digging a little deeper into the detritus at the bottom of the bag - Scully was really no different from any other woman in this respect, and her bags collected old receipts and shredded tissues just like everyone else's - her fingers finally located a worn leather keyring. Pulling it out, she turned the plain, brass-colored key over and looked at the crooked "J" scratched onto the fob.

*What does it say about me, that I still have a key to Jack's apartment?* she wondered, even as she glanced furtively down the hallway and unlocked his front door. Although there was really no deep psychological reason for it: she had simply forgotten until that moment that she hadn't given it back. She wondered how Mulder would react if he knew, and decided that she didn't want to consider that.

The apartment was dark and still when she entered. For a moment Scully fumbled for her flashlight, feeling uncomfortably like a burglar. Then she told herself not to be a fool, and reached out to switch on the lights. She stood for a moment just inside the living room and listened, but there was nothing - no sound, no stirring of the air - to suggest that another person was somewhere around. Nevertheless, she took a quick, cautious look around to reassure herself.

It was much as she remembered it, a typical bachelor's apartment, short on furnishings and a little untidy. The walls were lined with books and he possessed a worn leather couch not unlike the piece of furniture Mulder was so attached to. Over in one corner was his computer, surrounded by small messy heaps of CDs and print-outs. The desk it stood upon was an ugly old metal office desk she remembered him rescuing from Quantico during a refurbishment exercise; it had deep, lockable drawers and a battered, scratched surface. She had never understood why he wanted it.

The lock-pick was useful for unlocking the drawers, and in moments she was perched on his uncomfortable typing chair and rummaging through the papers she found.

The contents did nothing to settle her mind and were, indeed, even a little frightening. Copy after copy of official FBI files surfaced from the heap, each neatly hidden away inside a bland yellow cardboard folder. Many of them were the most recent x-files she had been working upon, but more disturbing than that by far were the copies of old case files that had been signed off by Mulder years ago - the Monty Propps case, the abductions of Bellefleur, one about a killer called John Barnett, another about a husband and wife team called Dupree ... and the Mostow case file, complete with drawings of gargoyles, photostats of autopsy notes, and a vastly annotated copy of Mulder's original profile. Most of the attached notes were copies of details made by Agent Patterson during the later interviews with Mostow, but the margins of the profile itself were filled with cramped biro notes in Willis' own handwriting. Most of them were so abbreviated and disjointed as to be unreadable.

This was *not* what Scully had wanted to see, and she was shaking by the time she dropped the files back into the drawer and slammed it shut. For a moment she stood by Willis' desk, staring blindly at the opposite wall, then she managed to force herself to move. Pulling the empty pill bottle out of her pocket, she turned into Willis' bedroom and walked quickly through to the bathroom.

In the medicine cabinet on the wall, she found a stack of medications, most of them connected with his diabetes. Redundant as it seemed, she compared the bottles and felt her heart sink a little further when the scuffed and filthy label on the bottle from the crime scene appeared to match up. Then she saw something else: at the back of the cabinet was a syringe and pack of brand new disposable needles. Rummaging further, she found three little vials.

Pulling them out, she sat down on the edge of the bathtub to study them, noting the word "Humulin R" on the labels. Humulin was a human-derived form of injectable insulin usually used by diabetics with Type I of the condition - insulin-dependent. But Willis had Type II diabetes .... Puzzled, Scully examined the labels more closely and noted that, while the Micronase pills had been prescribed by the Bureau doctor Willis usually saw, the Humulin had the name of a different medical practice and pharmacy on it.

It was not inconceivable that Willis had developed a condition that required him to take insulin intravenously on occasion, as she was well aware - she had looked into the various ramifications of diabetes when they had been seeing each other. But Scully also knew that if the Bureau had been aware that his diabetes had progressed to this degree, he would never have been allowed back into active service. It was questionable that he should have been allowed to do so anyway, and this had puzzled her from the beginning for she knew that his diabetes had been one of the reasons he'd been assigned to Quantico.

But there was more, which - grasping at straws though it was - might explain some of Willis' erratic behavior. Scully had read in one of her scientific journals only recently that some diabetics suffered adverse reactions to human-derived insulin which could, in extreme cases, lead to hallucinations and worse.

None of this could be considered anything other than circumstantial evidence in the case they were working on, she argued with herself. The files could easily be explained away as professional interest, the pill bottle as coincidence. The only case that could be made against Jack Willis was that of failing to disclose a condition that was potentially life-threatening to himself, and which could endanger the safety of those colleagues he was in the field with. It was a disciplinary matter, but one which she knew would be dealt with by the Bureau in the quietest manner possible.

Suddenly exhausted, she glanced at her watch and was shocked to realize that it was nearly three in the morning. Where on earth had Jack got to? Not that it was any of her business, she supposed, and knowing the habits of her fellow agents, it was more than likely that he was back at the DC field office, still working. At any rate, it was more than time she got out of here before he came back and surprised her. At this point, a confrontation was the last thing she wanted.

She stood up, and as she did so she happened to glance down at the bathtub. The surface was filthy, with a dark reddish-brown ring halfway up the sides, and a thin deposit of silt-like material around the plug. It looked like -

Scully stopped. *No ....* Dragging a latex glove out of her pocket, she bent down and touched the silt with a trembling fingertip. It was thick and slightly gritty, like clay residue.

In the corner of the room was a wickerwork laundry basket. Before she fully realized what she was doing, Scully had the lid off it and was turning out the discarded jeans, check shirt and worn fleece jacket that had been stuffed untidily into it. All three were smeared and caked with drying clay, particularly around the cuffs of the shirt, and there was a dark brown stain on the front of the fleece that could not be anything other than blood.

For several minutes she stood in the middle of the bathroom floor, clutching the stained garments blindly. This was it. This was undeniable proof - only the murder weapon itself could be more damning.

Scully's hands were now shaking so badly that it took her several attempts to get her cellphone out of her pocket again and press the speed-dial. She needed to speak to Mulder ... but his phone was ringing out, unanswered. Concerned, she selected another number and waited impatiently for a reply. After several long moments, Addersley's voice responded.

"Incident room."

"Addersley? What are you still doing up?" she demanded.

"Scully? I've been down at the morgue." His voice was saturated with weariness. "Where the hell were you? I've been trying your cellphone for the last couple of hours - have you got it switched off? We were hoping to get some of the examinations done tonight."

"I ... had some things I had to do," the responded reluctantly. "Look, Addersley, is Agent Willis still there?"

"Jack?" He sounded surprised. "No - we haven't seen him since we finished up at the factory. In fact, I thought he was with you."

For a second, Scully was silent. If Willis wasn't with the rest of the task force and wasn't at home, where was he? Alarm knifed through her as she remembered that Mulder was unaccounted for as well. "What about Rawlings or AD Rolfe?"

"*Rolfe*?" Now Addersley was confused. "Sure, they're both here - Scully, what the hell's going on?"

"There's no time, Addersley! Put me through to Rolfe *now* - I have to speak to him."

"What?! I - jeez! Okay ...."

There was a fumbling sound, and a low buzz, then Assistant Director Rolfe came on the line. "Agent Scully? What's going on? Where have you been?"

"Sir, I'm at Jack Willis' apartment," she stated, trying to keep calm. Rolfe was a straight, old-fashioned kind of agent - if she became emotional now, it would prejudice anything she said to him.

"Is Agent Willis there?" he demanded.

"No, Sir. I don't think he's been back here tonight - "

"Then what are *you* doing there, Agent?"

"I came here to speak to him, Sir. I found something at the crime scene which raised some concerns and I wanted to speak to him directly about them. But when I got here - " Quickly, and in as dispassionate a manner as she could manage, Scully related her findings, including the revelation that Willis had posed as Agent Patterson to get access to Mostow, and the possible side-effects of the insulin he had been taking.

Rolfe heard her out, but when she finished there was an ominous silence at his end of the line. "Agent Scully," he said finally, and there was a dangerous edge to his voice, "I'm going to pretend that I didn't hear what you just suggested."

"Sir?" She was confused.

"Jack Willis is a fine agent, and a very old friend of mine. I would be ... extremely *distressed*, if I thought that you were using this case, and his health problems, as an opportunity to take some kind of twisted revenge upon him for the loss of your position at Quantico."

Scully's heart sank. Now she knew how and why Jack had been put in charge of the task force, and why closer checks had not been kept on him. "Sir," she said, and her voice shook despite her strenuous efforts to control it, "I can assure you that I would never - "

"That's enough, Agent! I don't want to hear any more. Consider yourself off this case - and I want to see you in my office first thing tomorrow morning, is that understood?"

"Yes, Sir." Scully disconnected the line. Her hands were white-knuckled where she gripped the cellphone. After a moment, she tried Mulder's number again, but still received no reply. Staring blindly around her, she wondered desperately what to do next.

Then it came to her, and with fingers that trembled she punched out the number of the FBI's central switchboard.

For a heartbeat, Mulder and Willis stared at each other.

Then Mulder straightened up, calming nerves that had been jolted by the sudden and unexpected appearance of the agent. "What the hell are you doing here?" he demanded.

Unlike Mulder, Willis didn't seem in the slightest bit rattled. "Shouldn't I be asking you that?" He paused, then took a slow step into the room. "It's three o'clock in the morning, Mulder, and this is - or *was* - a sealed crime scene. Just what the hell do you think you're doing breaking in here?"

"You want me to profile this guy," Mulder replied warily. "I'm profiling."

"This much-vaunted profile of yours ...." Willis circled around Mulder and studied the half-formed clay gargoyle on the table. "Is there any chance we lesser mortals will see it before the turn of the century?"

"If you'll leave me alone long enough, you'll see it first thing in the morning."

"It might have escaped your notice, Mulder, but it *is* morning already." Willis' mind was clearly not on what he was saying, though. He gazed distractedly at the unfinished sculpture and, in a move that gave Mulder a very queer sensation down his spine, he reached out and drew a finger down the length of the face. "Word of advice," he observed after a moment. "Don't give up your day job."


"Yeah." Willis turned back to stare at him and smiled. "If you're going to make a sculpture out of clay, Mulder, you need something underneath to give it shape and structure."

"Like a body?" Mulder suggested, thinking of the gargoyle sculptures that had been removed earlier. "Since when did you become an authority on art, Willis?" Then, watching that eerie little smirk, the facts suddenly snapped together and comprehension dawned. "Jesus ... it's *you*, isn't it? But - "

He never got a chance to finish what he was saying.

For a man of his age, who had been sitting behind a desk at Quantico for nearly four years, Willis moved incredibly fast. Mulder saw the flash of a blade as the other man's arm came up, and threw himself backwards. He wasn't quite fast enough and felt the raw sting as the short-bladed craft knife just nicked his cheek.

Then he was on his back on the floor and Willis was on him. Mulder managed to throw up his left arm to block the second murderous slash and gasped as the blade gouged him deeply just below the elbow. He kicked out frantically, feeling his boot connect with the other man's knee, and followed it up with a rather poorly executed punch. Willis gasped and reared back, lashing out wildly with the knife, and Mulder managed to roll free. By the time he had scrambled to his feet, clutching his arm, Willis was up and running for the door.

Stumbling a little, Mulder followed.

Under any circumstances this was a bad place for a chase; the derelict factory was pitch black and filled with hazards, and Willis knew the terrain far better than his pursuer. Mulder followed doggedly, stumbling and tripping, relying more on his ears fo