Title: Sacrifices
Author: Enigmaticblue
Written: March 2001
Rating: PG
Spoilers: Triangle; Paperhearts
Classification: MSR
Disclaimer: These characters are not mine. I don't own them, and I know I'm not making money off of them. So there you go. You've heard it before. "Down in the Valley" is an old lullaby I found in "Christy" by Catherine Marshall, and "To Make you Feel My Love" is from the Hope Floats soundtrack, performed by Garth Brooks, by Bob Dylan. Again, no infringement, blah, blah, blah.

Summary: Mulder and Scully are off of the X-Files, but onto what could be a life-changing case. What would it take to make Mulder decide not to go back?

Captain Evan Combs looked at the tousled heads of the children. They slept peacefully, undisturbed. Their cheeks were flushed, their breathing deep. He wished, more than anything, that the morning would never arrive, that it would somehow be possible to remain in the half-lit dawn hours forever.

Unwilling to destroy the peace of their slumber, he moved over to the window and stared at the letter. Combs wondered for a moment if he was doing the right thing, but he shoved the doubts out of his mind. Tucking the letter into an envelope, he walked over to the side of the bed.

He gently shook Danny awake, then moved over to the other side of the bed. "Come on, Chrissy," he said quietly. "It's time to get up." She stretched and yawned, her wide green eyes looking up at him with that mixture of innocence and knowing that he found so gripping.

Both children rose and went to wash their faces in the sink. Belongings were tucked into backpacks, the last two stale donuts were eaten. Combs helped them with their coats, mittens, and hats, and then made sure their backpacks were secure. When he was sure they would be warm on their trek from the hotel to their destination, he tucked some money into Danny's pocket. "For lunch," he said, choking out the words past the lump in his throat. "And bus fare. You know where to go?"

They both nodded, swallowing hard. He pulled both children into his arms one last time. Then, he tucked the envelope into the inner pocket of Danny's coat. "Watch out for each other," he whispered thickly. "Don't let yourselves get separated."

These children who had seen so much, who had been through so much- what else could he tell them? He thought of the thousands of words he would never say, the million days he would miss, and he wished he had time to weep.

"When will we see you again, Evan?" Chrissy asked, her green eyes wide with worry.

"Someday, little one. Someday we'll be together again. But for now you must be very brave..." he stopped, the hairs on the back of his neck standing up. With the sixth sense of a soldier, he knew they had run out of time.

"You have to go," Combs whispered urgently. "Right now! No tears!"

He pushed them firmly out the door and went to watch out the window. They were not here yet, but they soon would be. He checked the loaded gun one more time, and prayed that he might pass quickly, that he might be brave, and that the children would be safe.

Danny and Chrissy walked out of the building and no one stopped them. No one shouted or whistled. Nothing marked their passage except for the soft sound of their sneakers on the sidewalk.

Chrissy held tightly to her brother's hand, hoping that somehow it would be okay, even after this. As if sensing her thoughts, Danny said quietly, "It's gonna be all right."

"What will happen to us, Danny? What if the man won't help us?"

"We stay together. That's all that matters," Danny said gruffly, almost angrily, trying to sound older than his eleven years. He looked down at his sister. She was only eight and had already seen more of the hardness of life than many old women.

Dan looked up as the bus pulled to a stop. He stepped up, handing the driver the money, and sat down on the nearest seat, pulling Chrissy down beside him. The route had been carefully planned. A long bus ride in the morning, then lunch at a McDonald's near the bus stop. Then another long ride, which would bring them to the man's apartment by six that evening. If he wasn't there, they were to wait for him, though the trip had been planned to get them there after he was home from work.

Evan had gone over the directions with him until he could say them in his sleep. Now, the boy only hoped that the safety they were heading towards was not another dream.

Fox Mulder was bored. Normally, he would have had paperwork to do, reports to file, something. He had, however, finished that at the office that afternoon. If he'd still been on the X-Files there would have been something interesting on his desk, but the scut work they had been assigned to recently left a sour taste in his mouth.

Mulder had almost asked Scully if she wanted to do something tonight, dinner maybe, or a movie. Before he could, she announced that she was going to her mom's for a late supper, and she hadn't invited him.

He switched on the TV almost angrily, but there wasn't anything good on anyway. He sighed and headed for the fridge, hoping that there might be something that wasn't too old.

Mulder was still staring at the bare shelves when he thought he heard a knock. Closing the door to the fridge, he turned towards the sound and frowned as the knock came again, less timid this time.

He wondered who would be at his door, since he didn't know of anyone except Scully who would stop by, and then opened it. And looked down-

Scully shook her head in consternation. When she had arrived home late last night, Mulder's cryptic message had been on her answering machine.

She reviewed it in her head silently. "Scully, it's me. Come over as early as you can tomorrow morning. It seems we have a situation."

It had been the way he said "situation" that made her shudder. Every other time he said that word in that tone, one or both of them had ended up hurt and in the nearest hospital.

As she waited for the elevator to reach his floor, she wondered for the hundredth time what he was getting them into this time. Scully got off the elevator as the doors opened and strode quickly down the hall to his apartment.

Feeling like someone who was about to go in front of the firing squad., she squared her shoulders and knocked. "It's open!" she heard his voice say, and opened the door.

The sound of her jaw hitting the floor was almost audible. Whatever she had been expecting, this was not it.

Mulder was seated on the couch, a young boy on one side and a small girl on the other, and all three of them were eating egg McMuffins and watching Saturday morning cartoons. "Hi, Scully," Mulder said cheerfully. If it hadn't been for that early morning enthusiasm, Scully would have been sure that it wasn't really Mulder. Someone who looked like him, yes, but not really Mulder.

"Do you want one?" he asked, holding up the last egg McMuffin. She shook her head, and he offered it to both children who silently refused. "No? Well, I guess it's up to me then."

Scully watched as he took a huge bite and swallowed. "Scully, this is Danny and Chrissy," he said, indicating the two children, "and this is my partner, Dana Scully." Both children waved, saying nothing.

"Mulder, you called me last night. Now what was that all about?"

Mulder smiled at her strainedly, his eyes begging for her silence. "You guys just keep watching cartoons, okay?" he said quietly, and then led her into the kitchen.

"What's going on here?" Scully hissed.

Mulder handed her a letter and a newspaper clipping. "Just read those, and you'll know everything I do," he replied.

Scully scanned the letter quickly, and then went back to read it again. It was dated with yesterday's date, and read:

"Agent Mulder,

"I understand that you do not know me, but your reputation precedes you. I have heard of your search for the truth as well as your unorthodox beliefs. I have also heard that you are unafraid of those in power. I know of no one else to whom I can entrust the care of these children, and can only hope that you are the man you are said to be. Thank you, "Captain Evan Combs."

Scully stared at the letter for a few moments longer and then turned her attention to the newspaper clipping. The story was simple; Captain Evan Combs had been shot through the head, execution style, in what was thought to be a drug-related robbery. Combs had reportedly gone AWOL three weeks ago.

Scully pushed her hair back from her face. "Their father?" she asked quietly.

Mulder shook his head. "No, actually their cousin. Their parents were killed about a year ago in a car accident. Combs was apparently their only living relative."

Scully watched the two children sitting on the couch. They were quiet, the sounds of the coyote and roadrunner filling the room. It was odd, but they could have passed for Mulder's children. Both were dark-haired, with thin serious faces and lean frames. The boy's eyes were hazel and the girl's were green; a dusting of freckles spread across their noses.

Scully knew from watching her own niece and nephew that cartoons usually guaranteed giggling, but there was no laughing, no smiles...it was eerie.

Mulder leaned in next to her, startling her out of her reverie. "I need to go see the Lone Gunmen. They said they might have some information for me. Then, I need to go do some research of my own. Find out some more about their parents."

"And what do you want me to do?" Scully was sure she knew the answer before she finished asking.

"Watch them for a while. You might want to get them checked out by a doctor, maybe get them something decent to eat." Concern flashed across Mulder's face. "I don't think they've had a good meal or been able to play outside in a while."

He gave her a quick smile, squeezed her shoulder, and was at the door before she could say yea or nay. "Give me a call if you need anything, Scully." He waved to the kids. "Scully's gonna stay with you guys for a while. Be good." And then he was gone.

Both children stared at her, wariness obvious in both their eyes and their body language. "Hi." Scully was painfully aware that it was a pitiful beginning. "My name is Dana."

"Is Agent Mulder coming back?" Danny asked. The seriousness of the question made Scully wonder how many times someone had left and not returned.

"Of course he is. He just needed to run some errands."

"Do we have to watch cartoons, Agent Scully?" Chrissy asked, her large green eyes focused on Scully.

"Not if you don't want to," Scully replied. "What would you like to do?"

"Take a bath."

The voice was a whisper, and Scully mentally cursed Mulder's complete ineptness where children were concerned. "Sure, sweetie. And then maybe we could do something nice with your hair."

Chrissy's eyes lit up at that, and Scully realized that she had found the right button. "Danny, what about you?"

The boy shrugged, still unsure what to make of the female agent. "Well, you think about it, and we'll get it taken care of, okay?" she said as gently as possible. He nodded.

As she and Chrissy headed for the bathroom, he looked at the newspaper article she'd left on the table and silently sobbed.

Mulder knocked on the door and was quickly pulled inside by Frohike. "You've gotten yourself into some deep crap this time, Mulder." The other Lone Gunmen barely looked up from what they were doing.

"Hey guys, what do you have for me?" Mulder was undaunted by Frolicker's dire tone.

Byers was the first to look up from his computer screen. "Frolicker's right, Mulder. This isn't your normal case." "What's normal?" Mulder quipped, but sobered quickly at the Gunmen's sober expressions. "All right, what exactly is going on?"

The three anti-conspirators looked at each other, and then by mutual agreement, Langley began. "Captain Evan Combs was a test pilot for some of the military's top secret planes," he began. "After about two years of flying, he married a woman named Judy Scols. Ring any bells?"

Mulder frowned. He'd heard the name somewhere before, but... "I think I heard the name in connection with the MUFON group."

"Correct," Frohike took up the narrative. "Miss Schols had several disappearances over the course of three years. The government warned Combs against marrying her, but he persisted."

Byers passed a file folder over to Mulder. In it were several pictures of a man and a woman, obviously Combs and his wife. "Mrs. Combs disappeared again shortly after their marriage, and then again one year later. After the second time, the implant in her neck was found and removed. She was also have found to have miscarried the child she was carrying before her disappearance."

Langley again took up the story. "As you can probably guess, Mrs. Combs got sick and died. It was at this point that Combs started asking questions. He got warned off, but he didn't listen. Our sources say someone was payed to silence him."

Mulder sat silently, digesting the information. "So where do the kids fit into all this?"

"They don't." Frolicker's voice betrayed his frustration. "By the time they arrived in the picture, Mrs. Combs was already sick. Records from the school they attended show them missing for three months before Combs' death, and police records have them listed as runaways, which is odd because they're so young." Frohike hesitated for a moment. "Those records might be the only things that protect them. If anyone were to suspect that they knew anything about either of the Combs' deaths their lives wouldn't be worth jack."

Mulder was still unsure of what to do with the information he had. Too much uncertainty clouded his mind. The possibility of danger was there of course, but he was unsure of the scope, or of the measures those in power might take to neutralize the perceived threat.

He was still trying to clear his thoughts when he pulled up across the street from the house that Danny and Chrissy had lived in with their parents. He got out of the car and headed up the walk to their neighbor's door, hoping to find someone nosy and talkative enough to give him the information he needed.

He knocked on the door and then stepped back to wait. The woman who greeted him was middle-aged and heavy-set, dressed in blue jeans and a pink sweatshirt. She looked at Mulder warily, saying, "I'm not interested in buying anything today."

Mulder put on his most charming grin, and replied, "I'm not selling anything. I'm looking for some information on the family who used to live next door to you." He flashed his badge, and explained, "It would be of great help in locating their children."

It was apparently the right angle to take. The woman, Mrs. Rudolfski, was obviously rather lonely, and didn't mind filling Mulder's ears with stories of her late neighbors, all the while keeping Mulder's coffee cup filled. By the time he left, he had a very interesting picture of life at the Walkers'.

On a hunch, he called the Lone Gunmen again. "Byers, I need the medical files for Danny and Chrissy Walker. Call me when you've got them." That accomplished, he settled down for the drive back to D.C.

Scully had a rather uneventful day. After both children had showered and changed, she had taken them both to an old friend of hers from medical school. While she had opted for a career in the FBI, using her talents as a doctor in pathology, Ralph Cunningham had gone on to become a very successful pediatrician.

Neither Danny or Chrissy were very excited about seeing a doctor, but Scully thought Mulder was probably right. They were both too pale for her comfort, and so she overrode all protests and took them to the clinic.

Ralph greeted her with enthusiasm. "Dana! How are you? And you guys must be Danny and Chrissy."

His smile, usually enough to win over the shyest child, did not seem to affect either. Undaunted, he continued. "It's been so long, I thought for sure you'd dropped off the face of the earth."

Scully smiled. "No, I've just been busy," she replied as the three of them followed the doctor back to his office.

He was all smiles as he lifted them up onto the examining table, telling jokes and funny stories until both of them cracked a smile. Bloodwork, reflex checks, and the other parts of a routine exam were done with a running commentary that had even Scully laughing.

Scully understood why Ralph was so popular with children. His patients were too busy trying to keep up with him to notice what he was doing. Afterward, he gave them each a sucker and sent them out to the waiting room.

"The bloodwork won't be in until Tuesday, but I expect it to show that they are both malnourished and most likely anemic. I'd recommend a better diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, and grains, and I'm going to give you some vitamins for them. Other than that, physically they're fine. However, you might want to get them into some counseling. They could both probably use it." Ralph smiled at her, and said in a very different tone, "I hope you won't be a stranger, Dana."

Scully smiled at him uncomfortably. They had gone out a few times in med school, but it had always been more serious on his part than on hers. "We'll see, Ralph."

He smiled a little sadly, understanding a "no" when he heard one. "See you around, Dana. Let me know if Danny or Chrissy need anything else, okay?"

She thanked him and went back to the waiting room, and then led the kids back to the car. Scully called her mom and quickly outlined what was going on. She instinctively recognized their need for mothering, and knew her mom would be able to do that better than she would.

Over a cup of tea, she explained the situation more fully while Danny and Chrissy played outside. "So you see, Mom," she finished, "they need a place to stay until we can get them into a foster home where they'll be protected."

Margaret Scully sat thoughtfully, both hands wrapped around her mug of tea. "You know, Dana, I looked into being a foster parent after your father died. I was approved, but never had any kids placed here."

Scully was startled at her mom's offer. "Are you sure, Mom? I mean, if the kids are in danger-"

Maggie waved her daughter's concern aside. "They need a safe place and a lot of love. I can give them both. Besides, the house feels pretty empty these days."

Scully nodded. "I'd better call Mulder and tell him where we are. Should I invite him to dinner?"

"Of course."

Chrissy liked Mulder and Scully. She liked Maggie too, and the meal that she set in front of them that first night was incredible. Her mom had been an indifferent cook at best, and Judy had been too sick to cook when they'd stayed there. Evan had stuck mostly to frozen foods and take-out, but this- Well, homemade spaghetti and garlic bread and salad kept both she and Danny occupied for the entire meal.

Only when they were both nearly too full to move did either look up from their plates. "Thank you for dinner, Mrs. Scully," they both said.

"Just Maggie," Scully's mom replied. "Why don't you two help me clear the dishes?" As Danny and Chrissy began to help clear the table, Mulder and Scully retreated to the living room. "What did you find out?" Scully asked.

Mulder quickly filled her in on Combs' story, and then went on to tell her what Mrs. Rudolfski had said. "Apparently both parents were alcoholics. The father was drunk when he wrecked the car, and both parents were killed instantly. The neighbor also said that the police and Children's Services were called several times for domestic disturbances."

"They were abused?" Scully was appalled.

"She thought so, but there was never any real proof, and they were never convicted. I got the boys to dig into their medical files, though, and their records were longer than mine." Mulder's voice was sarcastic, knowing his own medical files could legitimately fill several volumes.

Scully neglected to comment on the illegality of opening sealed medical files, and told Mulder of her mom's offer. "There doesn't seem to be any other way to do it, Mulder. We need to have some sort of legal hold, otherwise there may be nothing we can do to protect them under the law." Scully hesitated, unsure of how Mulder would react to her next suggestion, and also knowing that he was not above flaunting the law if it meant doing what he felt to be right. "I think we need to call Skinner in on this, Mulder. He might be able to get us some help that we wouldn't be able to find otherwise."

To Scully's surprise, Mulder agreed right away. "You've got a good point, Scully. But you make the call."

To say Skinner was surprised by Scully's call was an understatement. Since they had been reassigned to Kersh, all contact between his former agents and himself was to have stopped. Admittedly, he had overstepped the bounds in the Bermuda Triangle affair, but further contact had not been expected.

Quite frankly, Skinner was somewhat bored with his current role. As infuriating as Mulder could be at times, life with him was never boring. So, it was more out of dissatisfaction with the status quo than anything else that prompted him to go so far as a meeting.

Which was why he found himself standing outside the front door of Margaret Scully's house at 8 pm. A small girl opened the door and stared up at him with the biggest green eyes he'd ever seen, looking at him with the wariness of a small animal. The boy who skidded to a stop behind her had a similar look in his eyes, as if he were going to bolt any second. What struck Skinner immediately was their resemblance to the two children in the picture on Mulder's desk. "Hi. I'm looking for Agents Mulder and Scully."

The girl opened the door a little wider in an unspoken invitation to come inside. He stepped in, and then waited for a moment in the hallway, a thick silence falling. He was convinced that he might have waited there forever had Mulder not shown up. Dressed in blue jeans, a white T-shirt, and work boots, he looked younger than usual.

"Good to see you again, sir." Mulder shook Skinner's hand, then looked down at the two children. "Say hi, guys."

"Hi," they both said in unison.

Skinner squatted down in front of them and said, "I used to be Agent Mulder's boss."

The boy looked at him, and then asked very seriously, "Were you a good boss?"

"I think the better question might be whether Mulder was a good employee," Skinner replied with equal seriousness. Wide grins split their faces and they ran off. Mulder shook his head, "Kids."

Skinner followed him back to the living room where Scully and her mom sat. Within five minutes, he was seated with a cup of hot coffee in one hand and a plate of cookies in front of him. Once Margaret was assured of his comfort, she went upstairs to put the children to bed. Apparently the Scully efficiency was inherited.

The situation was quickly explained and Skinner thought for a moment. "I've got a friend in Children's Protective Services. I can call him tonight and have him here tomorrow afternoon," Skinner said slowly. "I might even know of a way to get you two assigned to the case." He wasn't quite ready to believe the alien abduction story, but he was willing to admit that the children could very well be in danger and that they needed protection.

Relief showed immediately on both agents' faces. "We'll be here all day tomorrow, sir," Mulder assured him.

A scream tore through the house. Mulder was first on his feet, taking the stairs three at a time to get to Chrissy's bedroom. Skinner started to follow, but Scully shook her head. "It's a nightmare. Mulder can handle it."

The AD looked at her questioningly, wondering how she knew. Reading the look on his face, Scully said, "I've heard people having nightmares before, sir. Hotel walls are notoriously thin."

Mulder came down a few moments later carrying Chrissy. Her arms had a chokehold around his neck, and her face was buried in his shoulder. He nodded a bit uncomfortably at Skinner. Good night, sir, I'll see you tomorrow."

Both watched as Mulder started back up the stairs, Chrissy still in his arms, then Scully walked Skinner to the front door. They stopped there and Scully cleared her throat uneasily. "I've been meaning to talk to you about some of the things I said to you, sir." She rushed on without waiting for him to respond. "Some of those comments I made were rude and unforgivable. My actions in the elevator were an overreaction and were totally unprofessional-"

She would have gone on, but Skinner shook his head. "What you said needed to be said, Agent Scully. It was no more than the truth. The rest will just be our little secret." And with that, he nodded stiffly and left.

Scully stood, deep in thought, for a few moments. Then, she turned and mounted the stairs slowly. She was surprised to hear something coming from Chrissy's bedroom. She drew nearer, standing by the doorframe, entranced by the tableau in front of her.

Mulder sat on the edge of Chrissy's bed, singing softly. She couldn't quite catch the words, and so moved closer.

"Down in the valley, Valley so low. Hang your head over Hear the wind blow. Hear the wind blow, love, Hear the wind blow. Hang your head over And hear the wind blow."

The song was slightly off key, soft and melancholy, a lullaby. Mulder sang it over and over until Chrissy's eyes drooped and closed, and then in a peculiarly paternal gesture, he kissed her forehead.

Scully quickly retreated down the hallway towards her own room, not wanting him to catch her watching. It had been an intensely private moment, one she didn't want to intrude upon. As she got ready for bed, she couldn't help but wonder at the different side of him that she had seen. And with that picture of him in her mind, she fell asleep.

Mulder woke up the next morning feeling as though he hadn't slept at all. He had pulled all-nighters before, but staying up with a child was different. Four nightmares in one night was a record as for as he was concerned.

The knock on the door caused him to moan. "Just a sec," he called out. He hurried to pull on a pair of jeans and a T-shirt, then went over to the door and opened it.

Scully stood there, obviously dressed to go out. "Sorry to wake you, Mulder, but Mom, Danny, and I are going to go to church. We thought we'd let Chrissy sleep since she had such a rough night."

"And I didn't?" Mulder wanted to ask, but didn't. Instead, he gave her a lopsided grin. "Sure, Scully. It's my turn to babysit anyway."

Her eyes smiled at him even though her face was still serious. "I haven't forgotten that, Mulder," she warned. As they stood there, a connection was made, and something passed between them. Neither said anything, but they both smiled at one another.

After Scully left, Mulder showered and headed for the kitchen, glad to see that someone had left the coffee pot filled. He poured himself a cup, and stood at the window looking out at the newly fallen snow.

The sound of small feet caused him to turn around. Rumpled and sleepy, Chrissy looked at him, her eyes still haunted by the monsters in her dreams. Mulder was startled by the sudden urge to gather her up into his arms, but hid it quickly. Instead, he grinned at her and asked, "Have you ever seen a card trick?"

When she shook her head, he grabbed a deck of cards from the drawer by the sink where he'd seen Maggie put them the night before, after she'd finished playing solitaire. Card tricks soon degenerated into a quick lesson on how to play poker. He was still explaining values and betting when Scully, Maggie, and Danny returned.

Matchsticks lay in a pile between them, while both held the cards in their hands. What Mulder hadn't seen, or hadn't taken into consideration, was the gleam of mischief in Chrissy's eyes. The look on her face was confused when Mulder patiently asked her if she wanted to fold, and then explained again what folding was.

"Um, I'm not sure," she said uncertainly. "Does this beat anything?"

She put down her cards, revealing a Royal Flush and a broad grin that said plainly that she knew exactly what she was doing.

Mulder was dumbfounded, realizing that he'd been had. Scully and the others looked on, trying hard not to laugh. "You said you didn't know how to play poker," he accused.

"No," she contradicted. "You said you were going to teach me how to play."

The humor finally caught up to Mulder, and he laughed. "I give up, then. You're too sneaky for me." His eyes narrowed suddenly, and he asked, "Do you know how to play chess?"

Chrissy grinned. "Yes, but Danny's better at it than me."

Mulder eyed Danny speculatively. Danny grinned at him, eyes bright with challenge. "Best out of three?" he asked.

"You're on," Mulder responded.

Skinner looked over at Nat, wondering what was going on behind the poker face he had on. He had explained the situation and was now waiting for a reaction. Nat finally broke the silence. "I looked at Mrs. Scully's file. She seems perfect for the job, but tell me about these agents of yours."

Skinner hesitated, unsure of what to say, how to describe them. All he could see was Mulder with Chrissy in his arms. How to explain what he saw last night, their complicated relationship of mentor/boss and agent... Unable to find the words, he simply said, "You'll have to see for yourself."

They rode in silence the rest of the way, and Skinner wondered again what his friend was thinking. When they arrived at the house, Maggie met the two men at the door. She smiled, saying, "Come in. Mulder and Danny are just finishing a game of chess."

The smell of freshly baked cookies greeted them as they followed her inside. Mulder and Danny were sitting across from one another, a chess board in between them. Each had a look of serious concentration on his face.

Danny reached out, moving a knight from one square to another. "Check and mate, Mulder," he said cheerfully. Mulder's face fell. He had been drawn into a trap and beaten soundly. Suddenly, a spark of mischief lit his eyes.

Standing, he held out his hand in a gesture of good sportsmanship. Danny reached out and took it, only to be pulled into Mulder's chest. The agent's long fingers quickly found the boy's most ticklish spots, and soon he was howling with laughter. "Chrissy!" he gasped. "Help-" Before long, all three were on the floor in a tangle of arms and legs, the children's laughter echoing off the walls.

Whatever Nat had been expecting from Skinner's agents, he had not found it with Mulder, at least. Instead he had heard laughter from two children with little to laugh about.

Chrissy was the first to see the two men standing there. Mulder and Danny both sensed the change, and they stopped mid-howl. Mulder stood up and brushed himself off with as much dignity as he could muster. "Good to see you again, sir." His voice though serious, was a bit breathy as he tried to get his wind back. He turned to the kids. "Why don't you two see if you can help Maggie with those cookies," he suggested.

They both set off for the kitchen and Mulder waved the two men into the living room and invited them to sit down. "Scully had some errands to run, but she should be back shortly."

Nat Avery looked at him for a long moment. "Whatever concerns I had before I got here are gone now, Agent Mulder. If your partner is anything like you, then I have no qualms about leaving the children in your care."

"Actually," Mulder replied, "she's nothing like me, but she's good with children."

Nat nodded, satisfied for the moment. "I'll want to talk with her as well as the children after I talk with you. However, I feel that the paperwork can be finished today."

The social worker asked Mulder a series of questions, making it seem more like a conversation than an interview. He then spoke with Danny and Chrissy, and then to Scully when she returned.

Papers were pulled out, signed, and Nat promised the legal details would be finished in a few days at most, "and will be kept as quiet as possible," he finished assuring them. "I understand that this needs to be kept hush-hush."

He shook all of their hands, and then he and Skinner left. "Are you sure those aren't Agent Mulder's kids?" Nat asked, having seen the resemblance right away.

Skinner nodded. "I'd stake my pension on it. Uncanny, though, isn't it?"

Nat nodded thoughtfully.

Tap, tap, tap. Tap, tap, tap. Tap, tap, t-

"Mulder, would you stop that?!"

Scully was feeling a little on edge, and she knew Mulder was as well. If Skinner didn't approach this exactly right, the case would end up on someone else's desk. And that would not be good.

Mulder stopped tapping his pencil. "Scully, I-"

Suddenly, Kersh's secretary appeared beside their desks. "Assistant Director Kersh wants to see you, Agents."

They both headed towards Kersh's office, and Mulder was rather curious to see how Skinner had pulled this one off.

"I have a new assignment for you two," Kersh said rather smugly.

Both agents were getting worried. "There are two witnesses to a murder who need to be protected. Two children."

Mulder knew immediately why Kersh was so smug. He thought he was giving them a babysitting job, which he was, but it was one that they wanted. Mulder wasn't going to let that show though. He schooled his features into a properly horrified expression. "You're asking us to babysit?!"

If anything, Kersh looked even more smug. "Indeed, Agent Mulder. You will do what you are told to do. They will be at school during the day, so you will continue to do background checks, but one or the other of you will need to be with them at all other times."

Mulder started to open his mouth as if to say something, but Kersh handed him a file folder, cutting off his response. "The address of the safe house is in there. You might be on time to pick the children up from school if you hurry." He turned back to his work, dismissing them, and Mulder and Scully left.

It was Mulder's turn to look smug. "He just wanted to make us hurry."

Scully looked at him and smiled slightly. "Then let's not disappoint him."

The office was crowded when Mulder and Scully appeared. Danny was the first to see them, and he slouched lower in his chair as if to avoid being seen. "They're gonna kill me," he muttered.

Chrissy looked at him disdainfully. "You're the one who threw the first punch. You should've thought about that before you hit him."

Danny slouched a little lower, but it was too late; Mulder had already seen the two of them. He crouched down in front of them, and asked, "Okay, you guys, what happened?"

Danny looked at his skinned knuckles and mumbled, "A kid called me a name."

"What name?" Mulder was firm, but his voice was not unkind.


Scully sighed. She had been afraid of something like this. Those who were different were often targets, no one knew that better than she and Mulder did, and both children were thus easy targets.

"Did you knock him down?" Mulder was serious.

Danny wasn't sure what Mulder was getting at, so he nodded somewhat suspiciously.

"Good," Mulder said. "Then you probably won't have to do it again." Danny looked at him in disbelief and Mulder ruffled his hair. "Guess it's time to go talk to the principle now," he said cheerfully, and then headed towards the office.

"See? I told you they wouldn't kill you," Chrissy said as they went inside.

"Shut up."

"IQ tests are standard at this school, simply because it's an easy way to assess placement, especially when time has been lost, as in Danny and Chrissy's case." Mrs. Carlisle was the epitome of what a school principal should be. Her gray hair was pulled back into a bun and her navy blue suit practically screamed "Principal!"

"We were asked to come and see you about IQ tests? What about-" Scully didn't finish

"The fight? The other boy did start it, and due to Danny's recent problems it's very natural that he should respond with aggression." She almost smiled.

"So, what's so urgent about IQ tests?" Mulder was curious now.

Mrs. Carlisle smiled. "I wasn't sure who else to call, really," she explained, "since they tested so high. Danny scored at 146 and Chrissy at 150. They are both highly gifted."

"What are we supposed to do about it?" Scully was confused.

"Well, they'll need special sessions with mentors, special classes to get them caught up, that sort of thing. I was under the impression that you were the ones in charge of their welfare...?

Mulder and Scully looked at each other. It seemed as though they were already being cast in the role of parents. "Actually, my mother is their foster parent for now, though we're the ones who are responsible for their protection," Scully responded.

Mrs. Carlisle frowned. "Well, who would be responsible for making sure they get back and forth to school?" she asked.

"That would be us," Mulder said.

The principal smiled again. "In that case, I think we can make an exception. Since you two will be the ones responsible for getting them to and from school and class, I'll need you to fill out these forms..."

Mulder wandered down the hall past his own door to Scully's. It really wasn't imperative that he stay at the house; he probably should have gone back to his own apartment. Maggie had invited him to stay, though, and he was enjoying the feeling of belonging to a family. Besides which, he was concerned about leaving them alone, afraid that if he did he would lose Danny, Chrissy, perhaps even Scully again, due to his own negligence. He could never quite assuage that old guilt.

He looked at Scully's door, wondering for a moment what he was doing even as he knocked, but went through with it anyway.

"Come in."

Mulder opened the door cautiously. "Scully, it's me."

Scully put the book she'd been reading down on her lap. "What's the matter, Mulder?"

Mulder stared at her. She sat cross-legged on the bed, dressed in a pair of boxers and a tank-top. Her red hair was shoved carelessly behind her ears and her face was free of make-up. And she was beautiful.

"What is it, Mulder?" Scully asked in that tone of amused exasperation she used so often when addressing him.

He blurted out what he was thinking before he could stop himself. "You're gorgeous, Scully." He half-expected her to respond as she had when he told her he loved her, but she didn't. Recognizing the spontaneous compliment as being sincere (possibly since he wasn't doped up), she smiled. They looked at each other for a long time before Mulder broke the silence between them. "I was wondering what we're going to do with this thing," he said finally.

Scully patted the side of the bed, inviting him to come and sit. "With the kids, you mean?" she asked once he settled beside her. At his nod, she pursed her lips. "I don't know, Mulder."

A comfortable silence filled the room. They had been friends for so long that they never felt as though someone always had to be talking. "You're getting attached," Scully observed after a while.

"So are you."

She couldn't deny the veracity of that statement. "It's like a dream, Mulder. Like playing house, but what happens when it ends? What happens when we wake up, and the dream disappears?"

Mulder smiled a little sadly. He reached up and brushed a lock of hair from her face. "Maybe we don't have to wake up, Scully. Or maybe we already are awake, and it's the past that's just a dream."

Scully shook her head. "I don't think that reality works that way, Mulder. It's too perfect this way. Who's going to end up getting hurt?" she persisted.

His hand still on her face, he replied softly, "We'll always have each other, Scully, whether this is a dream or reality."

Danny stood in the doorway listening. He was amazed by the tenderness he'd witnessed between the two agents, but he was frightened by the implications of their words. He retreated down the hall to his bedroom, unwilling to intrude.

Chrissy was waiting in his bedroom when he got there, and in his own frustration, he snapped at her. "What are you doing in here?"

His sister looked at him calmly. She knew Danny well enough to know the reasons behind his anger. Though young, she had a great deal of insight, what some might call an "old soul," and she used it especially well with her brother. "You were eavesdropping," she observed.

"So?" In a burst of frustration, he gave his pillow a punch. "How else am I supposed to find anything out?" He was stubbornly trying to hold back the tears that threatened. He had grown extremely attached to both agents in the few days he had spent with them, and he hated the thought of them leaving.

Chrissy came up to him and impulsively gave him a hug. Holding onto him tightly she whispered, "Remember what Evan said? We'll always be together, and that's what matters."

Danny gave a bitter little laugh. "I know. I just want what everyone else has, but I guess happy endings are only in once upon a time."

Chrissy laid her head against his shoulder in a gesture of tenderness. "Maybe we'll make our own happy ending this time."

The next month was the happiest time of their lives. Danny and Chrissy put on weight, had more color in their faces, and were more relaxed than they had ever been before. Three square meals a day, a secure home environment, and the time and attention of three caring adults did more for them than a thousand therapists could have done. Even school was going well, since Mulder had been right. After Danny knocked the boy down once, he never had to do it again. Grudging respect became acceptance, and both of them became popular with their own crowds.

Both Mulder and Scully were concerned about the number of events, parties, and school outings that they were invited to attend, but they also wanted the kids to have as normal a life as was possible. When weighing the need for normalcy against the risk involved, they agreed that the risk was worth it, as long as some ground rules were followed.

They had what Mulder jokingly referred to as a "family conference." "We want you to have fun and make friends, but there's a very real danger. So you have to follow the rules."

Danny and Chrissy looked at each other. Mulder was hard to know how to take sometimes because one minute he would act like a father or an older brother, and the next like an uncle intent on spoiling them rotten behind Scully and Maggie's backs. But they knew that he was first and foremost the one in charge of their safety.

Scully, on the other hand, was stricter. She was the one who made sure they got to bed on time, that they didn't ruin their dinner with too many snacks, and that they got their homework finished. And even though Maggie was listed as the primary guardian, it was Mulder and Scully who usually tag teamed to take care of them. It was as if they had a mom, a dad, and a grandma, all under the same roof. It almost seemed perfect.

"Don't be taking rides from strangers," Mulder began. "Scully or I will drive you. Period. Don't go anywhere other than school without one of us, or without our permission. If possible, we need to go with you." He looked over at Scully and she nodded.

"The best thing," she said, "would be to have other kids come over here. We want you to feel like you can bring friends home, and we'd really prefer you do that before anything else." After that conference, Danny and Chrissy both usually had one or two friends over on weekends, and sometimes after school. An invitation from one of the two came to be rather coveted, since Maggie always had cookies ready for them, and would usually invite them to stay for dinner.

They spent Thanksgiving with Maggie and her family. Danny and Chrissy had never heard a table groan as it did at the Scully house. Scully's brothers, in their starched white uniforms, and their families, made the house seem very full. Mulder spent the holiday with them, though he and Scully went back to their apartments to sleep in order to make room. Danny stayed with Mulder, and Chrissy stayed with Scully for those few days.

During the days though, they were at the Scully house, in the middle of everything. Maggie was excited just to have her children home, and Mulder and Scully were acting like a married couple, teasing and laughing. Everyone went out of their way to make them feel as though they were at home.

Mulder and Scully were also amazed, though not at the holiday activity around them, but at something less tangible. It was one thing to spend all day with your partner, but to come home with them, to be discussing "ground rules" and discipline, to drive kids to school and outings, to generally act married, was a different matter entirely.

Ever since that conversation about wanting to keep the dream, Scully had wondered at Mulder's words. Even more, she wondered at his new contentment. He was happy. Happy being with the kids, happy helping around the house, doing things her father might have done. He was happy being with her in a new way that was at once very exciting and very frightening.

He was, in short, learning to be content without the X-Files, without his quest, and he was looking at her in a way that he had never done before. Their conversation just a few days after Thanksgiving only deepened those feelings of being off-balance.

Scully's brothers and their families had gone home, and Scully and Mulder were back in the house again, along with the kids. They were both in his office when she approached him. "Mulder," Scully said. "I need to talk to you about something."

"Sure, Scully. What is it?" Mulder leaned back from his desk and stretched.

"I got a phone call from Quantico." She hesitated for a moment. "They want me to come back to pathology." She rushed on. "I won't accept the offer if you don't want me to, Mulder, but I feel useless here. I don't know that we'll ever get the X-Files back, and I like the work at Quantico. But I don't want to leave you."

Scully felt almost ashamed to have brought it up. She felt his hand cover hers, and his voice was quiet when he answered her. "Funny, Scully, but I got an invitation to join the Behavioral Science team at Quantico. They want me to come and teach." He looked at her steadily. "I think I could do it, but I didn't want to leave you either."


"Scully, it has to be your decision. Whatever you decide, I'll respect and stand by you."

Scully was relieved. "Thank you, Mulder. You don't know how much that means to me."

He grinned at her. "Anytime, sunshine." He checked his watch. "Uh, oh. I've got to get going or I'll miss the kids. Are you going to your mom's house right away?"

"No," she replied. "I thought I'd go back to my place and do a few things."

Mulder smiled at her. "Okay then. I'll see you later."

Danny looked at the watch that Mulder had given him. Mulder was over an hour late, and he was worried. He had tried to call him on his cell phone several times, and then had tried his apartment. Mrs. Scully wasn't answering the phone either, and neither Scully's cell phone or apartment phones were being picked up.

He was trying very hard not to cry, to be strong for Chrissy and not let on how worried he was. With each passing minute, her eyes grew more fearful, and he hated to see that look come back again.

The office lady was looking at him concernedly. "Do you have anyone else you could call?"

Danny dug around in his pack for the list of phone numbers. "Yeah, I do." He picked up the phone and dialed the number.

"Assistant Director Skinner's office."

"Hi. I have to talk to Mr. Skinner right away please. This is Danny Walker." Danny was fidgeting. Skinner had been over several times since the first night, but Danny wasn't any more comfortable around him. He was a very big, very formidable man with a commanding presence.

"Skinner. What's going on?"

Um, Mr. Skinner? This is Danny. Mulder hasn't come yet and Mrs. Scully and Dana aren't answering their phones." To his shame, he couldn't keep the tears back anymore.

"Just hold on, Danny. I'll be there as soon as I can." Skinner hung up the phone and slung his jacket over his shoulder. He strode quickly through the door, and as he passed his secretary said, "Kim, I want you to call Dana Scully until you can get a hold of her. Tell her to meet me at the safe house. She'll know where that is."

Skinner raced over to the school, silently cursing Mulder, though he also felt a tinge of fear. It had been easy to hear the fear in Danny's voice, and he had seen little evidence of it the last couple times he had seen them. That fear should have been erased, but it took so little to bring it back. He cursed Mulder for making them afraid all over again, and he feared for him, because Mulder would never have intentionally left them like that.

Skinner had spent little time around children, and did not normally like them, but he did not have a completely cold heart, either. He knew what they had been through, and as a man of honor, he would never hurt a child. So he had found himself sympathizing with them, and in some way, wishing he liked kids better than he did.

He pulled up to the school, parked in the fire lane, and then moved as quickly as possible to the front doors. Skinner entered the building and immediately saw the office. Stepping through the glass doors, he pulled out his badge and showed it to the secretary, all the while looking for the two children.

Danny was standing there, manfully trying to control his emotions. Chrissy was sniffling a little. "Are you okay?" he demanded.

The boy just nodded, but Chrissy was on her feet and had her face buried in his jacket before he could react. He awkwardly held her, reaching out to ruffle Danny's hair. "I'm sure Mulder has a good reason for not being here," he reassured them. "And if he doesn't, I'll beat the snot out of him," he added silently.

The AD guided them out of the building and to his car, and, making sure they were buckled in, he pulled out. Both were silent all the way over to Margaret Scully's house, and when they arrived, the children got out and ran up the front steps. Skinner followed more slowly, waiting as Danny pulled the extra key from his backpack and unlocked the door.

He was not really surprised when Chrissy's small hand slipped into his own. He looked down at her, and she smiled up at him tremulously. Suddenly, Skinner, ex-Marine, tough-guy, chronic fence-sitter, understood how his agents had become so attached. He said nothing however- simply squeezed her hand and allowed her to lead him inside.

The house was empty. For one brief moment, Skinner wondered if everyone had disappeared. Just as he wiped that thought away, the phone rang. He moved quickly to answer it. "Skinner."

"Sir?" The woman's voice on the other end sounded surprised.

"Scully? Where the hell have you been?"

"I'm at my apartment. Your secretary told me you'd picked the kids up from school today. Where's Mulder?"

Skinner's stomach tightened. He looked at the two children, aware that they were hanging on his every word. "Mulder was over an hour late when they called me. He still hasn't showed, your mom isn't home, and they couldn't reach you either."

Scully was silent for so long, he was beginning to think she had hung up. "Mom's probably at the store," she said slowly. "I was running some errands, and stopped by here to take care of some things. I must have been in the shower when they called. But, sir, Mulder left the office on time, and he told me he was going to the school."

The AD was not happy with the news. "All right. Go by his apartment and see if he's there, just in case, Agent Scully. I'll stay here and make some phone calls while we wait for your mom."

"Are you sure you'll be all right with the children, sir?"

Skinner looked at their serious faces, so like Mulder's. "I'll be fine, Scully. They're good kids."

As he hung up, Danny asked, "Are you going to call the hospitals and the police stations now?"

Skinner was a little surprised that he would have known, and Danny, noticing his expression, said, "When Dad didn't come home, we'd have to call the hospitals and the police. Mom, too, but not as often."

The AD nodded. "Do you want to help?"

"Yeah. If you'll call the police stations, I can call the hospitals." Danny got the phone book out and used Maggie's phone to call, while Skinner used his cell phone. He was amazed at the way Danny worked the admissions nurses, feeding them the same sob story each time. His father was late, Danny explained. He was never late, and their mother was sick, and he didn't know what to do... About that point, he usually started to sniffle a little, and that got them every time.

Skinner called the police stations and put out an APB, and then called the Bureau to do the same. He had enough clout to get things done, though not fast enough to suit him. They had both finished up their phone calls at about the same time, and Danny asked, "Do you want a cup of coffee? Mrs. Scully taught me how to make it."

Skinner understood that the boy needed to feel as though he were doing something useful. "Sure."

Chrissy had gone upstairs, and Skinner sat down at the kitchen table, watching him. "Everything's going to be fine," he said to reassure him.

Danny's eyes were very old as he looked at Skinner. "Maybe. Maybe not. Our luck hasn't ever been that good."

Mulder's luck had definitely taken a turn for the worse. He hasn't even heard the man come up behind him, and the next thing he knew he was tied to a chair, blindfolded, with his hands cuffed behind him.

He wasn't happy with the situation. The kids would be waiting at school for him, and Scully would be worried. He was grateful that he hadn't had the kids with him when they grabbed him. Mulder twisted his hands behind him, wondering if he could somehow slip out of the cuffs. He had no idea how long he'd been out or what day it was, and that bothered him too. His head hurt badly enough to make him think that he might have a concussion, though, and he figured he'd been unconscious for a few hours at least.

Footsteps echoed as someone walked towards him. From the sound, Mulder knew he was in a large room with hard floors, probably concrete. The smell of cigarette smoke reached his nostrils as the footsteps grew louder. Mulder knew immediately who it was. "You black-lunged, SOB!" Mulder said angrily. "I figured you'd have had something to do with this!"

"I'm touched that you recognized me, Agent Mulder," CSM said drily. "I've come to offer you a deal."

"A deal?" Mulder said incredulously. "Hell will freeze over before I'll have any part in your deals."

"Oh, really?" came the smooth voice. "Even if I could guarantee the safety of those children you hold so dear?" Mulder was silent, sullen. "Think about it, Agent Mulder. The safety of those you love is at stake." The footsteps echoed again, drawing away, but the smell of smoke lingered in his nostrils.

Scully was becoming frantic. It had been 48 hours since Mulder had disappeared. His car had been located in the parking garage, and a search of the premises had been made. It was obvious that he had not left of his own free will.

She was beginning to understand how Mulder must have felt when she was abducted. A feeling of helplessness overwhelmed her, and her stomach refused to unknown itself. The difference now was that she had two children who were depending on her to be strong. His disappearance had hit both of them hard, and Scully found herself in the uncomfortable position of needing to be strong when all she wanted to do was fall apart.

To her surprise, Skinner had stuck close by all three of them. He was there at the house until late, and then came over early. Having someone to share the burden of fear with made it easier, but Scully still fought with the terror. What if she never found him, if he was gone forever? Her need of him frightened her, but she could not push it aside as she did so many of the other strong emotions in her life. She found herself with the very real possibility that she would not be able to go on without him.

Even while those thoughts tormented her though, she kept up a strong front, afraid to break down even once, for fear she would not be able to put the facade up again. Chrissy's nightmares, having dissipated in the last month, were back in full force. Danny was silent and moody, his eyes, so strangely like Mulder's, dark with hidden emotion.

Peculiarly, both children had seemed to form a bond with the normally reticent Skinner, Danny especially. And it was Skinner that he turned to when his emotions finally broke.

He was sitting on the couch, curled up, when Skinner came into the living room. "How are you doing, Danny?"

The boy didn't reply.

"Are you OK?" Skinner asked again, this time more insistently. He knew that Danny was burying his emotions, and that it wasn't good for him. Sometimes the boy reminded him so much of Mulder that it scared him.

"It's our fault," he finally whispered, looking at Skinner with tortured eyes.

"What are you talking about?"

"Agent Mulder was watching out for us. If he dies it's my fault."

The level of guilt in his voice was heart wrenching. He sounded exactly as Mulder had when Scully went missing, and then when she was dying of cancer. No one should have to bear that kind of burden. "It's not your fault, Danny. It's the fault of the men who took him," Skinner said.

It was then that the boy started to cry. Unable to find release in front of Scully or her mother, he could cry in front of Skinner. So, the AD took him in his arms and waited for the sobs to subside. He said nothing, knowing instinctively what he needed.

When Danny had cried himself out, Skinner handed him a handkerchief. "Feel better?"

"A little." His breath came in hitches.

"Good." Skinner almost smiled at him. "Mulder's been in some tough situations before. He'll be all right."

Mulder was definitely not all right at the moment. His head hurt from the blow he'd received earlier, he was thirsty and hungry, and he really had to pee. He had no idea how long he'd been there, but figured that it was probably more than a day.

Footsteps moved toward him again. "Well, Agent Mulder," came the disembodied voice of the Smoking Man. "Are you a little more willing to cooperate?"

"What do you want?" Mulder rasped.

A dry chuckle echoed. "A deal, Agent Mulder. I'm making you an offer you can't afford to refuse."

"Spit it out," Mulder grated.

"I understand you've become emotionally attached to the Walker children, Agent Mulder." The voice was smug.


"So, I would think you'd be concerned for their safety. Their continued existence is viewed as a threat to some of my colleagues."

That frightened him. "They don't know anything!" he said desperately.

Mulder heard the flick of a lighter and, seconds later, smelled the smoke. "As I have tried to convince them, but it is believed that the little they did witness could be dangerous, if given certain other bits of information." CSM took another drag on his cigarette. "In exchange for their continued safety, my colleagues have asked for certain concessions from you, Agent Mulder."

"What do you mean?"

"You will accept the posting to Behavioral Sciences, and Agent Scully will accept the position at Quantico in pathology. Neither one of you will involve yourselves in any way with the X-Files again."

Mulder snarled. "And if we don't?"

"Then those children you hold so dear will disappear more completely and irrevocably than your partner did. You have one week, Agent Mulder," the man said as his voice faded away.

Mulder felt hands on him, uncuffing his wrists. He struck out, and a fist connected with something solid. His hand scrabbled for his blindfold, ripping it off just as the butt of a gun connected with his temple.

When Mulder woke up, he was lying in a ditch by the side of the highway, surrounded by darkness. From the lights in the distance, he surmised that he was just outside of a large city, hopefully D.C. He got up carefully, trying to assess the damage done to his body. Judging from his headache, he probably had a concussion, and the ribs on his left side hurt badly enough to be cracked, though he didn't think they were broken. His right eye was swollen almost shut, and his lip was split and still bleeding a little. He sighed. It was going to be a long night.

He moved up, out of the ditch to the road, feeling his pockets for his badge and wallet. Both were there, but they had taken his gun and his cell phone. At that discovery, he sighed again. "Figures," he thought to himself. Mulder was glad that the cars on his side of the road were moving to, and not away from, the city, at least. He stuck out his thumb, wearily hiking toward the distant lights.

He had probably walked for about a half an hour, feeling like he was going to puke, and trying hard to ignore the dizziness that threatened to overwhelm him. Finally, an old truck pulled up beside him, containing an old man and a dog.

The man leaned out the passenger side window and called, "You all right, mister?"

Mulder was relieved that someone had finally stopped. He showed the man his badge, and said, "I'm Agent Fox Mulder. I was cold cocked, and my car and gun were stolen. I'd appreciate a ride to the nearest gas station if it isn't too much trouble."

I can do better than that, Agent Mulder<" the old man replied. "Just tell me where you want to go."

Scully had just fallen asleep when the phone rang. She'd had perhaps 8 hours of sleep over the past 60 hours. Skinner had finally ordered her to bed, but it had taken her hours to get to sleep, exhausted though she was.

She picked up her phone wearily. "Hello?"


"Mulder?!" she gasped. "Where are you?"

"I'm at my apartment," he said. Mulder sounded infinitely weary. "A really nice old man just gave me a ride into town from where they dumped me."

"'They,' Mulder? What's going on?" Scully was only a little less worried than when he'd been missing. He sounded awful.

"I'll let you know later, Scully. I would have come to the house first, but I wanted to get cleaned up a little. If you could-" his voice faded alarmingly.

"Give me five minutes," Scully replied. "I'll be right over." She quickly woke her mom to let her know where she was going, and then pulled on a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt.

When she got there, she let herself in. She found him on the couch, slumped wearily. He looked like hell, his right eye almost swollen shut, his lip split, and three days' growth of beard shadowing his face.

"Hi, Scully," he whispered.

"Oh, Mulder. What did they do to you?" She was by his side in an instant. "You should be at the hospital."

"No, I'm fine, Scully. Really." He met her eyes for a second. "I need to get cleaned up before the kids see me, but I feel like I'm going to get sick any minute now."

Scully smoothed his hair back from his forehead. It seemed so natural then to help him get undressed and to start his shower. She stayed close, just in case, and pulled out some clean clothes for him.

Mulder got out and dried off, wrapping the towel around his waist. He knew that Scully would insist on checking him out. She looked at the bruise on his side, and felt his ribs carefully, wincing in sympathy when he flinched. Breathing a sigh of relief, she informed him that they were only bruised, and that it actually looked a lot worse than it was.

Her partner got dressed slowly, and she suddenly saw the chafe marks on his wrists where the handcuffs had been. She grabbed his arm and looked at the red ring. "Oh, Mulder," she whispered again.

He gave her a sad, tired smile, and enfolded her in his arms. They stood there for a long time, holding each other, giving and receiving the comfort they so badly needed. He was surprised to see tears on her cheeks when he finally released her. As he wiped them away with his thumb, he asked, "Why, Scully?"

"I was worried you'd weren't coming back, Mulder." She let the tears run down, unchecked, a needed release from the tension of the past three days.

"Could I do that to you?" he replied. "I need you too much, Scully." He held her face in his hands for a brief moment. "Come on. Let's go."

Scully was not happy with Mulder's insistence on not going to the hospital, but she understood. The concussion did not seem to be a bad one, and his dilation was almost back to normal. But he was haggard and bruised, and even the kids didn't bring a smile back to his face.

He held them for a long moment, but his face was serious, solemn, and there was a fierceness in his eyes that Scully had rarely seen. She and Skinner both understood his mood when he had explained what happened, though, and the deal that he'd been offered.

"So what are you going to do?" Skinner asked.

"Do I have a choice?" Mulder's eyes burned with anger. "I'm not going to let anything happen to those kids."

Skinner and Scully watched him as he rose from the couch. "Damn them," he whispered. "I thought, maybe if we were careful, put a 24 hour guard on them... But we can't do that forever, and they got to me. All it would take would be a few seconds inattention, and they'd be gone." Mulder sat down again. "I don't have a choice. I never did."

Scully didn't know what to say. She knew Mulder would have a rough time going to Behavioral Sciences, and she knew the kind of flak he would take. She also knew he was right. There was no choice.

Skinner knew, too, and he said quietly, "I can make the transition as easy as possible, Mulder." He put a heavy hand on the agent's shoulder.

"Thank you, sir," he replied. "I'm sorry, but I've got to get some sleep. Excuse me."

He rose to leave, giving Scully's shoulder a squeeze on his way out. They watched him leave in silence, both understanding the kind of sacrifice that he was making.

Scully knocked softly, and receiving no answer, entered. Mulder slept peacefully for once, his bare chest rising and falling evenly. She moved to the side of the bed, marveling that even with a black eye and a split lip he was one of the most handsome men she'd ever known.

Reaching down, she brushed his hair away from his forehead. He shifted and murmured something, but did not waken. She ran her hand down his jaw, feeling the rough bristles he had not yet shaved.

He had been sleeping for over 16 hours now, and as far as she could tell, had yet to stir. She understood his exhaustions, and even more, his earlier anger. Even though they had been officially off the X-Files for several months now, Mulder had never given up hope.

In fact, because of the nature of work they'd been assigned, he'd still had time to poke around, getting himself into as much trouble as possible. If he went over to the Behavioral Sciences, they'd keep him so busy with profiles and training he wouldn't be able to do anything, especially anything connected with the X-Files.

But that wasn't the worst of it. The worst of it was that they wouldn't be partners anymore. The very thought of it almost made her cry.

Instead, she leaned down and brushed her lips against his forehead. She looked at him, once again admiring the masculine beauty of his face and body, and then gently shook him awake. "Come on, Mulder. Rise and shine."

He opened his eyes slowly, looking at her with sleepy hazel eyes. He smiled then, so beautifully that her heart almost stopped. "Hi, Scully," he rasped.

"Hi," she replied. "We've got work today."

"I'll be ready." Though the voice was cheerful enough, his eyes had lost their light.

Danny could sense that something had changed. Mulder was too quiet, and Scully too pensive. Ever since he was a toddler, Danny had relied on his ability to read the emotions of the adults around him. When he lived with his parents, failure to do so often resulted in a beating. Around Evan and Judy, it meant being able to avoid, as much as possible, the emotions surrounding the death of a loved one. Now he was unsure, knowing only that something was wrong. So, he did the safest thing he could. He withdrew.

Chrissy saw that things had changed as well, and she watched in silence as her brother retreated into his shell. The difference was that Chrissy knew what had happened to change everything. She had overheard Mulder's explanation, and knew that Mulder was giving up what he loved most to protect them.

She felt guilty since she and Danny had caused all of this. If they hadn't shown up on Mulder's doorstep, he wouldn't have gotten hurt, and he wouldn't have had to give up the job he liked. Her nightmares increased as a result of her stress and guilt, but she had learned how to wake herself up before she started screaming. So it wasn't until Wednesday, three days after Mulder's return, that all hell broke loose.

Security had been stepped up on both kids. Mulder had put in his request for transfer to the Behavioral Sciences unit as soon as he returned, but he didn't trust CSM. Skinner was over at the house quite a bit, talking to both agents late into the night, about their transfers, security, and about the best way to ease them both back into mainstream FBI.

One such conversation took place on Wednesday night. Mulder's bruises were fading, and he was even getting used to the idea of not getting back onto the X-Files again. Skinner's assurances about sending him interesting cases also were helping his peace of mind.

They were still discussing different issues when they heard Chrissy's screams. Mulder was up the stairs in seconds, Scully and the AD right behind him.

Danny stood in the doorway to his sister's room, his face stricken. Seeing Mulder, he backed up against the wall. "I- I couldn't wake her up."

The frightened look on his face didn't even register with Mulder. He went straight to Chrissy, and grabbed her by the shoulders, giving her a little shake. "Chrissy! Chrissy! It's me. Come on, it's me, Mulder!"

The screams stopped, but then she began to sob. "I'm sorry. We can leave. We promise not to tell." Slowly, the meaning behind her words began to dawn on Mulder. They knew. They knew about the deal he'd made, and they were blaming themselves.

He held her for a moment more, and then left abruptly, brushing past the others in his hurry to leave. Scully looked at Skinner helplessly, and asked, "Sir-?"

He nodded curtly, and she quickly followed Mulder. Skinner looked over to where Danny stood by the wall and motioned him over. "Come here, son."

Sitting down on Chrissy's bed, he gathered both children up and let them cry. "It's all right," he comforted them. "It's not your fault. It's all going to be just fine."

Scully followed Mulder into his room and closed the door behind her. She say down on the bed and watched as he paced. As she listened, Mulder began to curse, steadily, creatively. She had heard him rage in the past, but never like this.

He had cursed the Consortium, cursed CSM, but it had always been with an underlying sense of guilt and self-blame. She knew that on some level he had blamed himself for his sister's disappearance, her cancer, his father's death, and Melissa's murder.

Now as he cursed she understood that he had relieved himself of all responsibility for those things beyond his control. And as his anger dissipated, the overwhelming sorrow took him, and he seemed to crumple.

Mulder sank to the floor next to the bed, sobs shaking his frame. Scully slid down next to him and pulled him into her arms. She held him as his body shook, murmuring meaningless words of comfort. Years of hiding his emotions behind humor and an intense passion for the truth had caught up to him, and they were as powerful as his need for release.

Finally, his sobs began to subside, his tears to slow, though he allowed her to continue to hold him. She waited silently, and he began to speak. "You know, I was watching the kids play in the snow the other day, and I was reminded of when Sam and I were that age. We would play for hours outside. She would throw a snowball at me and I would put snow down her back.

"She'd scream for Mom, but she always came back for more. Watching them yesterday, I could accept losing the X-Files, because looking at them, I saw myself and Sam, and I have a second chance now. I'm not 12 anymore, and I'm not helpless."

Mulder was silent for a moment. "I lost my sister 26 years ago, Scully, and there wasn't squat I could do about it. I refuse to lose those kids like I lost her, like I almost lost you."

Scully listened in silence. He had rarely spoken of his sister like this before, and had never referred to his own feelings of responsibility. She wasn't sure what she should say, but turned to look at Mulder, and their eyes met.

It was a magical moment, where the intense emotions of the past few days brought their normally concealed attraction dangerously close to the surface. Afterwards, no one could say who initiated the kiss, not that it mattered.

Mulder's lips, salty with tears, gently met Scully's for one breathless moment... and then, by mutual consent, they withdrew. "I'm not sorry, Scully."

"Neither am I."

"I'd better go talk to the kids."


Mulder entered Chrissy's room to find Skinner still in there. "I can handle it from here, sir."

Skinner gave him a hard look, but finally nodded. He ruffled Danny's hair and gave Chrissy's braid a tug. "Good night, kids, Mulder."

Mulder sat down on the edge of the bed. He felt better now than he had in years, even though he was exhausted in every way imaginable. He was unsure of himself not, not knowing how to repair the damage that had been done. After a long moment of silence, he decided the best thing to do was to be honest with them, and hoped that they would understand.

"I'd like to tell you guys something," he began. "I had a sister once, a long time ago..."

Neither Mulder nor the kids ever talked about their conversation that night. The emotions exposed were too raw, too real for words. Mulder made sure that they received what he had never had, though. He made certain that someone held them and told them that none of it had been their fault, and he said it until they believed it.

The rest of the week and the weekend passed normally, and on Monday the children went back to school. The agents busied themselves with paperwork, and both received word that their transfers would take place at the beginning of the year.

Even though it was Scully's turn to pick up the kids, Mulder decided to go with her. "Nothing to do around here, anyway," he explained.

She shrugged, secretly glad that he was going with her, and they both headed out to her car. "You know, Scully," he said as they got in, "there might be one good thing about not being partners anymore."

"What's that, Mulder?"

"We could fraternize without breaking the rules."

Scully's head spun around to look at Mulder who was grinning at her. "How about it? Would you like to fraternize with me, Scully?" he asked, wriggling his eyebrows at her.

Slightly stunned, Scully stared at him. "I'll let you know, Mulder," she said, but she smiled at him.

The car soon pulled up in front of the school, and the two agents sat in the car, idly chatting for a few minutes. When 15 minutes had gone by, and Danny and Chrissy still hadn't shown up, Mulder checked his watch with a frown. "I'll go in and see what's keeping them," he told Scully.

He got out of the car and entered the school, looking for the kids. Not seeing them, he went into the office. He approached the receptionist and asked, "Do you know where Danny and Chrissy Walker are?"

The receptionist looked at him suspiciously. "And you are-?"

Mulder pulled out his badge and showed it to her. "I'm Agent Fox Mulder."

The scared look on her face sent his heart into his stomach. "They left with you over an hour ago."

"What are you talking about?" He was fighting for control now.

"A man identifying himself as Agent Mulder called and said they needed to leave early. He gave a badge number that corresponded with the one we had on file for you, and told us to have the children to meet him out front. We thought you were the only one who would know the badge number." The woman looked like she might burst into tears, but that was the least of Mulder's concerns at the moment.

He pulled out his cell phone and called Scully. "We have a problem." Almost choking on his fear, he whispered, "I'm going to find you. I swear it."

Twenty-four hours later, Mulder was frantic, Scully trying to keep her cool. Even Skinner was losing his normally stoic demeanor. The fact was, they had absolutely nothing. No one had seen the car or the man inside. They could be anywhere by now, and Mulder knew it. There was nothing he could do, nowhere he could go for help.

Skinner watched as he paced the living room. "Look, Mulder, I think you should get some rest."

"I'm not tired."

Skinner almost made a face. "Well, even if you aren't, I am."

Mulder looked at the AD and saw the dark rings under his eyes. "Yeah, it's late. Why don't you take my bed tonight, sir? You probably shouldn't drive home."

"Thanks. I think I'll take you up on that one." Skinner rose to leave, and then opened his mouth to say something. "Mulder-" He stopped. "Good night."

Mulder watched as he left and then picked up his cell phone. "Do you guys have anything?" he asked when Frohike answered.

"No, sorry, Mulder. There's nothing to work with here." Frohike was sympathetic, but he couldn't do anything, no one could.

Forty-eight hours passed and Mulder still hadn't eaten, slept, or showered. He was exhausted, they still didn't have any leads, and fear was gripping his heart like a clenched fist.

"Mulder," Scully began, "you need to get to sleep."

"I'm fine, Scully."

"No, you are not. You're exhausted, and there's nothing more you can do. If you don't start taking care of yourself, you won't be good to anyone." Scully was angry.

"I lost them, Scully! I made the damn deal, and I still lost them." Mulder sat down wearily in the armchair.

"You don't know that, Mulder. But you aren't going to be able to help them if you collapse." Scully grabbed his hand and hauled him up. She pulled him up the stairs and into his bedroom, and then shoved him towards the bed. "Get some sleep, Mulder. Doctor's orders."

She walked out and shut the door behind her, walking right into Skinner's chest. "Did you finally get him to go to bed?"

"Finally." Her smile was wry.

Skinner followed her downstairs and into the kitchen. "You know, sir, I really appreciate everything you've done."

He watched her silently as she poured him a cup of coffee. "I had to make a decision on where I stood at some point, Scully. I should be thanking you for giving me a push."

Scully met his eyes and held them for a moment. There had always been a special connection between the two of them, even when he and Mulder were at odds, even when they had not trusted him. Skinner had put his life and his career on the line for her, and he had an admiration for her that went way beyond the professional. Perhaps, if Mulder had not been there, if she had never been on the X-Files, if they had simply met at some party- But Skinner would take what he could get, and he was content with her respect, and her friendship.

She sat down with him at the table and they drank their coffee in silence, waiting for something to happen. The waiting was always the hardest.

Mulder was floating above his bed, looking down on his body which tossed and turned restlessly in the bed. Hovering there, he was calm, though curious, and he felt removed from the frantic anxiety of the past two days.

Suddenly, he felt an impatient tug, and he began to move- no, fly was the better term. Above the roads and highways he flew, and though he didn't know how, he knew exactly where he was going. A wooded area appeared below him; he dipped down over a gravel road, then to a cabin. He could see the two children inside, and tried to call to them. His mouth formed the words, but no sound came.

Mulder sat up suddenly in bed, hearing his cell phone ringing close by. He had tossed his coat over the chair by the bed, and he found his phone in the pocket. "Mulder."

"Agent Mulder, listen carefully. Write these directions down."

"Who is this?" Mulder demanded.

"This is someone who doesn't have time to argue with you if you want to save those kids." He rattled off the directions, and without even thinking about it, Mulder knew that the cabin the man was talking about was the one he was just at in his dream. "I'd hurry if I were you, Agent," the man advised. "The man who has them isn't very patient, and he hasn't realized that he isn't going to get what he wants yet."

"What do you mean?" Mulder asked, but he realized that he was talking to a dead phone. Suddenly sure of himself, he got up quickly, feeling a sense of urgency brought on by the unknown informant as well as his dream. He hesitated outside Scully's door, and decided he would at least leave her a note on the kitchen table where she'd be sure to find it in the morning. Shoes in hand, he tip-toed downstairs, only to find Skinner and Scully at the kitchen table.

"Where do you think you're going, Mulder?" Skinner asked.

"I know where they are," Mulder blurted out.

"How?" Scully asked incredulously.

Mulder quickly explained about the dream and then the phone call. "I could have taken you there even without the directions from the stranger, though," he said.

At the strange look on Scully's face, she reminded him, "He did it once before, sir."

Skinner remembered the case well. Mulder had led investigators to several burial sites of children through his dreams, and had been convinced that one of the children was his sister, Samantha. "All right. I'll call for some back up. What the hell are we going to do about a warrant, though?"

"It'll be all right. It's one of those old ranger cabins in a state park. Besides, we don't have time right now. Come on, Scully."

Skinner picked up his cell phone. "Hold on, Mulder. We have to follow you."

"When we get there, I'm going in alone." Mulder refused to look at his partner, but kept his eyes on the road.

"What are you talking about, Mulder?"

He was silent. The road off the highway came up and he turned onto it. "Call Skinner and tell him to stay back. I won't risk their lives."

They bounced along the gravel road until it petered out. Mulder parked the car and got out, moving up a wooded trail in the early dawn light. She followed close behind him. "Mulder, you can't go in alone."

Mulder turned to face her. "He'll let me in if I'm alone and unarmed, Scully. I can distract him until the cavalry gets there. You can get by back." He handed her his gun.

She took it reluctantly. "Mulder-"

He looked at her, hard. "Wish me luck," he said with a tight grin. Scully grabbed the front of his shirt. "This is for luck," she whispered, and kissed him.

Skinner came up behind Scully just a few moments after the way Mulder had gone. "Where's Mulder?" he asked curtly. Scully didn't reply, but simply looked at the house in the small clearing. Skinner followed her look and cursed. "I'm going to kill him."

Chrissy had pegged their kidnapper for a moron the minute he asked Danny to tie her up. Maybe he thought they would be too scared to try anything. Fat chance, that. He'd given Danny cotton rope, which anyone with brains knew stretched. Her brother had been sure to tie her up in such a way as to leave plenty of room for wriggling out of, and the kidnapper hadn't done much better tying Danny up.

So now they were both busy moving their hands to loosen the rope up even more, and waiting for some chance to escape. "When do you think Mulder will get here?" Chrissy whispered. Even though she knew that Mulder had no way to find them, that it was beyond the realm of possibility that he would even know where they were, she had full confidence that he would rescue them somehow.

"Shut up!" the man snarled from across the room, cutting off her brother's reply.

Danny tapped his fingers on the floor to get her attention. He had done a science project on the telegraph and had learned morse code for the project. Since what Danny knew, she had to know too, they both had memorized the code and had practiced at night through the wall between their rooms. "Soon, I hope," he tapped. "That guy's getting antsy."

Suddenly, the man raced over to the door and flung it open. "Who are you?" he demanded. "You aren't the one who was supposed to meet me."

Mulder held up his hands to show he was unarmed. "I've just come for the kids," he replied. Taking a chance, he said, "Plans have changed. I'll get you what you want, but you have to let the kids go."

"This isn't the way it was supposed to be," the man grunted. "I don't know you."

"Look," Mulder responded. "I'll get you whatever you want, just let the kids go."

The man waved him inside with the gun, apparently uncertain of what he was supposed to do with this new complication. Mulder took the chance to edge himself around so he stood between the kidnapper and the children. "Why don't you just let the kids go, huh? You'll get what you were promised." He glanced back at the two children and Chrissy and Danny both nodded and moved their hands to let him know that they were free. He looked at the man and knew that he was like a powder keg, and would go off at any moment.

As if on cue, he said, "I don't believe you! Well, I'm not getting screwed this time."

Mulder watched as he advanced, gun ready, and knew that he and the kids were dead. Unless, of course, he made sure they didn't get hit. Calculating rapidly, he knew that the man's gun was a revolver and held six bullets. Could he take six? He supposed that he would have to, if Danny and Chrissy were going to make it out alive. Mulder knew he had to pick his time, and not wait for it to happen if they were to walk out of here.

Mulder tried one more time. "Why don't you just let them go? You don't really want to hurt a couple of kids."

It was the wrong thing to say. "You don't think I'm capable? You think I'm chicken?" He was almost hysterical now. "Get out of my way! I'll show you what I'm made of!"

Mulder didn't wait any longer. He lunged for the man, his hands going for the wrist. As he felt the bullets slam into him, he was counting the shots. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six.

Seven. The man's bulk bore down on the agent as the seventh shot went through his head. Mulder lay there, hearing voices shouting. Skinner's voice calling out, "Agent down!" Scully shouting his name, the children crying. As darkness descended, he whispered, "Scully, take care of them for me."

Scully sat in the hard plastic hospital chairs between the two children. Her left arm was around Danny's shoulders, her right hand held Chrissy's. By silent agreement, the adults flanked the kids, Maggie sitting on the other side of Chrissy, the AD on the other side of Danny.

Mulder had been in surgery for almost six hours, and no one had wanted to leave. Both kids had protested suggestions that they needed rest and food, insisting that they were fine and wanted to stay until Mulder was better. Scully didn't blame them. There had been so much blood, most of it Mulder's, and he had been hit so many times, it just didn't seem possible that he would pull through this time.

She looked over Chrissy's head at her mom, who gave her a weary smile. "Fox is tough, Dana. He'll be fine."

Scully was about to reply when the doctor came out, rubbing his hands on his OR scrubs. She was on her feet in an instant. "Is he all right?"

The doctor looked at the group, and thought it an odd mixture. "Agent Mulder took several bullets, he began, sitting down across from them. "One bullet creased his scalp, but didn't cause much damage. One passed through his shoulder, and another went through his side. Luckily they didn't strike anything vital."

"He got hit in the leg too," Skinner said, concerned that the doctor hadn't yet mentioned the wound.

The surgeon nodded. "That was the most serious injury. The bullet struck bone just above his knee. We had to put in a rod and some screws, and we can't be sure how badly the joint's been damaged yet."

"Can we see him?" Scully asked urgently.

He looked at her. Blood stained the front of her jeans and T-shirt, and dirt smudged her cheek. She looked exhausted, as did the others, and he was strongly tempted to say no, and tell them all to go home. "For a few minutes only," he stipulated. "Then you should all go home and get some rest."

All of them started to follow him back, but he stopped them. "I'm sorry, but we don't allow children into the recovery room. When he's been moved into a private room, you can all visit him."

Skinner and Maggie looked at each other. "Why don't I take the kids home, and get them cleaned up and fed, Dana," her mom suggested. "You two can have a little time together."

Scully nodded, and Skinner patted her shoulder awkwardly. "I'll go get some coffee," he offered.

She followed the doctor into the recovery room. Her eyes went immediately to Mulder's still form as he lay swathed in bandages. "What kind of prognosis can you give?" she asked, her hand reaching out to touch his stubbled cheek.

"He's extremely weak right now from loss of blood," he replied quietly. "We almost lost him a couple of times on the table, but he's quite a fighter. The leg's the worst of it, though. He'll almost certainly have a limp.

Scully didn't care about that; she was simply grateful that he would live and be whole again. The doctor left then, and she was alone with him.

She knew that she had never felt such gut-wrenching fear before she'd seen him, lying there, covered in blood. She'd known then that had Skinner's bullet not killed the kidnapper she would have strangled him with her bare hands.

She was unsure of how long she'd sat there, stroking his hand, when Skinner came in. "Your mom called. Both Danny and Chrissy are sleeping." He gently touched her on the shoulder. "Dana, you're exhausted. You need to go home. Get some rest, some clean clothes. I've already called a taxi."

Scully felt like protesting, but she was too tired. Mulder's blood still stained her clothes, and had soaked through to the skin. She felt grimy and exhausted, and it almost felt good to have someone tell her what she needed to do, since her brain was numb. "Thank you, sir."

"Go home, Agent Scully. I'll sit with him."

As Mulder awoke, the seventh shot seemed to echo in his head, and he was desperately counting bullets. He opened his eyes to see Skinner sitting next to the bed. "Scully? Where's Scully? Where are the kids?"

His voice rasped harshly in his throat, and fear twisted his stomach. Had the seventh shot been for Scully?

Skinner gave him a drink of water, gently lifting his head and holding the glass to his lips. "They're all fine, just tired. I'm supposed to call when you wake up."

"What happened?" Mulder urgently needed to know.

Skinner hesitated, and then said, "You took a bullet in the shoulder, the side, the leg, and one creased your scalp. You're damn lucky to be alive, and you're double damn lucky to be in a hospital bed, or I'd kick your ass right now."

Mulder was too busy counting bullets to respond to the threat. "That's only four. There were six bullets, seven shots. Are you sure the kids are OK?"

Skinner was stunned. As an FBI agent, you're trained to get in between the assailant and his victim, but the fact that Mulder had been cold-bloodedly counting bullets, that he had been prepared to take six...well, it was a dedication and love he had rarely seen before.

"One went into the ceiling, and the other went into the floor," he replied gently. "The seventh shot was mine. I blew his brains out."

"That's good to hear," Mulder said, relieved.

Skinner gave him a small smile. "I'd better go call your partner," he said as he left. When he had gone, Mulder groaned. Everything hurt, and it was no wonder. He had expected to die, and he almost wished he had. Footsteps sounded on the floor, and he smelled smoke.

"What are you doing here?" Mulder demanded as CSM came into view. "Come to admire your handiwork?"

"Actually, I came here to apologize," the Smoking Man said smoothly. "That wasn't supposed to happen. Our agent ignored the abort message."

Sarcasm dripped from Mulder's words. "Oh really? Somebody screw up your perfect plan to kill a couple of kids? Or was the whole thing just a trick to get me out of your way?"

"I can understand your bitterness, Agent Mulder. But I think I have an offer for you that might make it up to you."

"What do you want?" Mulder was tired of the games.

"I'm going to give you what you want most, Agent Mulder. Either the X-Files or the children." CSM's polished voice echoed in the hospital room, making Mulder's aching head hurt even more.

He gave a bitter little laugh. "Deja vu all over again."

"I don't think you understand," Cancer Man said coldly. "Full custody of the children or full control of the X-Files. If you choose the children, you will be named their sole legal guardian, but the X-Files will be out of your reach forever. If you take choice number two, they will become wards of the state."

There was really no choice. Or, rather, he'd made his choice. There was no real difference now from a week ago. The X-Files were no longer his life. The children were. His decision was already made. "The children."

"I thought you might say that," CSM replied quietly. "I wish you luck, Agent Mulder." And he was gone.

Mulder sighed as he realized that it was all over. He felt unutterably weary. Just then, Skinner walked in. "What was he doing here?" the AD demanded.

"He wanted to offer me another deal." Mulder's face showed his tiredness. "It doesn't matter now. I don't know that it ever did."

By the time Scully got back to the hospital, Mulder had been moved into his own room. Danny and Chrissy trailed slowly behind her. The doctor had limited their visits to 15 minutes daily, and Scully was glad of that. They had had enough disruption and trauma; it would be good for them to get back into a routine.

When she entered the room, Skinner rose to his feet and headed for the door. "I'll be right outside when you're ready to go," he told the two children. He was supposed to take them home after their visit, while Scully stayed with Mulder.

Mulder smiled at his partner, and then looked at the kids. "Come on over here, guys. Are you okay?"

They moved nearer and Mulder talked to them quietly for a few moments. "None of this is your fault. All right? I think we've got this whole mess straightened out now. Everything's going to be fine."

"Are you going to be home for Christmas?" Chrissy asked tearfully.

"No, sweetie, I'm going to be stuck here, but I'll be happy just knowing that you're safe and having a good time. So can you do that for me?" Mulder asked.

Danny was trying hard not to cry. "But it won't be the same without you."

"I know. I'm going to miss you guys too. But Skinner's going to join you, and he's a real scrooge. I'll give you both ten bucks if you make sure he gets into the spirit of Christmas. I'll give you twenty if you get him to wear a Santa hat and take a picture." Mulder grinned at them, trying to cheer them up.

They finally gave him a watery smile. "All right."

Mulder reached out with his good arm and ruffled Danny's hair, and then gave Chrissy a one-armed hug as best he could. "Go on, get out of here," he said affectionately. "Skinner needs his beauty rest."

Scully gave them both hugs as they left, and then walked over to the side of Mulder's bed. "You almost killed me, you know," Scully said quietly.

"What are you talking about, Scully? Skinner said you were fine." Guilt filled Mulder's eyes.

"You almost got yourself killed," she replied. "When I saw you lying there, I wasn't sure if I could go on without you."

Mulder opened his mouth to say something, and then shut it again. His hazel eyes were gentle as he reached for Scully's hand. "You're the best thing that ever happened to me, Scully."

She smiled at him, and, with her free hand, stroked his cheek. "If you ever scare me like that again, Mulder, I'll kill you myself, so help me God."

"The way I feel right now, I'd probably let you, Scully."

Six Months Later

If anyone had told Scully that Mulder would ever be a poster-boy candidate for the father-of-the-year club, she probably would have laughed hysterically. Had they told her he would give up the X-Files without a fight to become a dad to two stray kids, she would have had them quietly committed to the nearest rubber room, but your point of view can change in time.

Mulder had spent two weeks in the hospital before they'd let him leave, and even then it was on the condition that he stay with Maggie and not go home. A week later, he'd gotten a visit from a social worker, and they'd spent an hour closeted in the study. When Scully had gotten back from work that day, he'd asked to speak with her in private.

"Good news, Scully."

She'd been curious, but not overly so, and before she could say anything, he had handed her a sheaf of papers. She looked them over quickly, her eyebrows going up as she realized what they meant. "They gave you complete custody, Mulder?"

"It seems that Evan Combs' will was found last week, and I was named executor and guardian. Quite a piece of luck, huh?" Mulder kept his face and voice neutral as he explained what went on in the hospital with CSM. Though Scully was a little upset that he hadn't told her before, she was happy that everything was settled and that the children would finally be safe.

After Mulder was well enough, he moved out of his apartment and bought a house not too far away from her mom's. The kids' school was within walking distance, and they went to her house every afternoon after school until Mulder could pick them up after he got off work. He was home every evening at five or six, and made sure that he spent time with both Danny and Chrissy, often working late into the night to get his profiling done.

He still walked with a slight limp, but otherwise was completely recovered, though Scully knew how lucky he had been. How lucky she had been not to lose him. It was partly out of that awareness that she spent more time at Mulder's than at her own apartment. Weekends, especially, were given to the kids for outings into DC and to different sites or just relaxing. Other times, her mom would take care of them and give her and Mulder some time to themselves. It seemed as though she and Mulder were living in a dream.

As Scully drove down Mulder's street, she caught sight of him walking between the two children. Chrissy skipped beside him, holding tightly to his hand, while Danny held a ball and glove, Mulder's other hand on his shoulder. Had she not known differently, she would have sworn they were his, so strong was the resemblance between them.

Mulder saw her as she drove by, and waved when she honked. They met her on the front porch, Chrissy slightly breathless with excitement. It was her birthday.

"Okay, guys. Go get dressed for dinner," Mulder said with easy authority. As they ran upstairs, Mulder turned to Scully with a sly grin. "Is everything set?"

"Mom should be here in about thirty minutes, and everyone else will be here about 6:30."

They'd planned a surprise party for her. Scully and Mulder were taking her to dinner, and Maggie was supposed to get the house ready while they were gone. Mulder gave her hand a squeeze. "I'd better get dressed," he whispered conspiratorially, then raced up the stairs. Scully was amazed at how much joy there was in him now. He had finally healed.

Dinner was a success, and everyone's spirits were high as they drove back to the house. Mulder kept catching her eyes with a look of pure mischief. She laughed to herself, thinking that he was probably as excited as Chrissy.

She had to admit that the whole thing was worth it though, just to see the look on the girl's face. They'd invited some of her friends from school and around the neighborhood as well as Skinner, and a few other adults who had befriended her.

Maggie had done a great job decorating. Balloons and streamers covered the living and dining rooms, and there was cake and ice cream and music. Chrissy squealed as she opened each one of her presents, hugging everybody.

The party was still going at ten, though the kids had all gone home, and both Danny and the birthday-girl were looking sleepy. Scully sat at the dining room table with Skinner and her mom, drinking a cup of coffee.

Mulder sat next to her, idly watching Chrissy look through a new book she'd gotten, and not really paying much attention to the conversation. As a new song started on the radio, Mulder got up abruptly and walked over to where the girl sat on the couch. Leaning down, he whispered something that made her whole face brighten.

Mulder stood up and reached down, offering his hand. When she took it, he lifted her up off the couch and stood her on his feet, moving to the music, dancing slowly. Scully, Skinner, and Maggie stopped talking to watch.

When the rain comes blowing in your face And the whole world is on your case I would offer you a warm embrace To make you feel my love.

When evening shadows and the stars appear, And there is no one to dry your tears I could hold you for a million years To make you feel my love.

Mulder's eyes never left Chrissy's through the first couple of verses, but as the song progressed, he looked up and his eyes caught Scully's and locked. I know you haven't made your mind up yet But I would never do you wrong I've know it from the moment we first met No doubt in my mind where you belong.

I'd go hungry, I'd go black and blue I'd go crawling down the avenue No, there ain't nothing that I wouldn't do To make you feel my love.

The storms are raging on a rolling sea Down the highway of regret The winds of change are blowing wild and free You ain't seen nothing like me yet.

Nothing that I wouldn't do Go to the ends of the earth for you Make you happy, make your dreams come true To make you feel my love.

Mulder gave Scully the smile he reserved only for her, and then turned his attention back to Chrissy. He bent down and gave her a hug, whispering, "Happy birthday, sweetie."

"I love you, Daddy," she whispered back, and then kissed his cheek.

As she ran upstairs, Mulder turned back to the adults at the table. As if on cue, both Skinner and Maggie rose to go, making their excuses. The two left together, sending Mulder's eyebrows up, though he made no comment. He had other, more important things on his mind.

Scully began to clear the table, but Mulder grabbed her hand. "Leave it. It'll wait til tomorrow." He pulled her towards the stairs, explaining, "I need to show you something."

Curious, Scully followed him upstairs, letting Mulder keep her hand. He led her to the bedroom, and she smiled as she sat down on the bed. "I thought you'd never sleep anywhere but on the couch," she teased.

"Black leather is more comfortable," he replied facetiously. He had kept the couch, putting it against the wall, across from the bed. Seeing it, Scully chuckled. "So which do you sleep on?" she asked.

"Depends on who's having nightmares," he responded more seriously. "It's important that the bed's there for the kids if they need me close by."

Scully smiled, touched by the care he showed just in getting a bed so the kids would be happy. "So what did you want to show me, Mulder?"

Mulder took a deep breath and said, "I miss you, Scully. Maybe you're here all the time, but it isn't the same. I miss seeing you every day, and I miss working with you."

"Well, I miss you too, Mulder, but-"

Mulder cut her off. "Just let me get this all out. I want us to be partners again, Scully. Maybe we won't have the X-Files, but there's another way." Scully sat in silence, holding her breath, wondering if he was going where she thought he was going.

"This is hard for me, but it's something that I've wanted to do for a long time, ever since you walked into my office and I gave you crap because you were supposed to debunk me. I didn't have the guts to say anything then. I didn't feel like I had much to offer. I still don't, except maybe my love. I come with a lot of baggage and a few unexercised demons, but I love you with all of my heart. I need you, Scully, more than I've ever needed anyone before."

He stopped for a moment, drawing in another deep breath to calm jangled nerves. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a black velvet box and opened it to show her the ring inside. "Will you marry me, Dana Katherine Scully?"

She stared at the ring, a hundred thousand thoughts flashing through her head. "Mulder, you are such a great father, and I can't give you any children. I can't bring that into a marriage. I don't want to deprive you-"

Mulder pulled her into his arms, aware that the battle had already been won. "Do you love me?" he demanded gently.

"Yes, but-"

"Then that's enough for me," he said quietly. "Besides, we've dealt with seemingly impossible things before, haven't we?"

"Well, yes..."

"So we can certainly try, can't we?"

"Yes." A small smile appeared on Scully's face.

"And we can certainly have fun trying." Mulder grinned, looking into her eyes.

Scully laughed, meeting his playful stare, letting herself get lost in the feeling of being in his arms. "We can, at that," she replied, and her kiss cut off anything he might have said, answering his question.

Outside, Danny and Chrissy stepped away from the door, drinking glasses in hand. Eavesdropping was, after all, a perfectly acceptable way of getting information if you're little and no one tells you anything until after it's all over. Wordlessly, they both headed downstairs, and Danny poured each of them a glass of milk.

Then, as one, they went out onto the back porch into the warm summer night. They sat in silence, looking up at the stars. "I'd call this a happy ending, wouldn't you?" Danny asked finally.

Chrissy just smiled and said, "I think maybe our luck is changing."


"Scully! We're going to be late!" Mulder yelled up the stairs. Skinner stood in the entranceway with Chrissy, who grinned at her father's rush.

"I'm coming," Scully said breathlessly as she ran down the stairs. She looked Chrissy over, smiled, and then reached up to straighten Mulder's tie. "All right. Let's go." The three of them headed for the car, where Maggie was waiting, and then they were off.

It was graduation day for Danny, six years after he and Chrissy appeared on Mulder's doorstep. In that time, they had learned to be a family, and though there had definitely been rough spots, those six years had been the best of their lives.

Mulder had not stayed in Behavioral Sciences as a profiler for long. The work load had been horrific, and the scenes that he was constantly subjecting himself to took a toll on his ability to parent. Finding the kids looking at the case files he had brought home with him one night was the last straw for him. He asked for reassignment, and had been placed at Quantico, teaching profiling to young agents. Mulder had found that he had a knack for teaching, and was soon known as one of the best to train under. Best of all, he was working with Scully again.

Now, the first of their children was graduating from high school, and it wouldn't be too long before Chrissy followed. And as much as they loved them, both partners were looking forward to what married couples normally have at the beginning of their marriage: time alone. Mulder definitely had plans.

But today was Danny's day, and they were all going to watch him graduate. Mulder sat between Scully and Chrissy, and watched for his son. As Pomp and Circumstance started, Mulder craned his neck, looking for a clear shot. When the dark-haired young man came walking down the aisle, Mulder nearly burst with pride. He was the spitting image of Mulder. Of his father.

Scully watched her husband with amusement, and shared a look with Chrissy. She was trying hard not to laugh at her father's antics, but at the same time was pleased that he was so proud. He had managed to do more than survive; he had prospered. They both had.

Watching him, Scully was proud of Mulder. For a man who had little parental love and support, he gave unstintingly, instinctively. And for a man who had no idea what a successful marriage was supposed to look like, he was more than successful. Looking around at all the friends and family, at what their lives had become, Scully was happy.

Mulder caught her eye as she watched him, and he gave her the smile he reserved only for her. For a moment the world stopped. Scully remembered all the sacrifices he had made to get to this place, and she suddenly knew it was right. More than that, it was perfect.

The End

"But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted but not forsaken; struck down n but not destroyed."
2 Cor 4:7-9

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