Title: Baccarat Piece: Proof
Author: Kiyoko Ishimura
Written: November 1999
Category: Sra
Rating: Nc-17
Keywords: Mulder/Skinner Slash
Spoilers: Young At Heart
Archive: Yes

Summary: How far will you go for your lover?

Disclaimer: Fox Mulder, Walter Skinner and Dana Scully are the properties of Chris Carter, 1013 Productions and Fox Television.

Copyright infringement is not intended or implied in their use in this work of fiction.

WARNING: This story contains a sexual (non-explicit) relationship between two consenting men. Please turn back, if this is not your cup of tea. The description is not graphic, but strong MulderTorture combined with SkinnerAngst is present. Although I've never treated them cruelly, please do no read the story if the subject matters offend you.

Timeline: The event of this story occurs between Chapters 14 and 15 of "Baccarat Figurines 4."

Author'S Note: As always, I would like to heartily thank Sean for his total support, advise and editing. I also would like to thank Sandy for her beta-work and my Requited friends for their opinion and encouragement.


Sunday, October 19
11:20 PM
Crystal City, Virginia

Silently, patiently, he waited in the car. Time didn't matter; he had lots of time.

A small white light in the distance.

It split the darkness, spread its glare as it came his way. At first, he didn't expect it to be *their* car. It was a late Sunday night. Why were they home already?

He knew their schedule like the back of his hand. It was a good thing he was out here tonight.

The future was so near he could taste it. The future that involved the execution of his 15-year plan.

The execution.

A ravenous anticipation and feeling of hope, a small jolt of delight, ran through him. He smiled at the light growing nearer and brighter.

Come on, he urged silently to the light. Come on, come closer. Show me who you are.

He was so lucky tonight. He could make out the solid line of the Range Rover. Though it was far from where he was, he could make out the figures -- two figures up front.

The bespectacled man was behind the wheel. Beside him was the younger man, with his head resting on the shoulder of the man next to him.

Sometimes, he even felt a kind of closeness and affection towards them.

They were so devoted to each other. Catching those small displays of affection -- a stolen kiss in the car or brief touch on each other's bodies when they thought no one was watching -- was a pleasure in itself.

A grim smile twisted his face. He knew it was not the time, but it was always encouraging to catch a glimpse of his targets. It fueled the hatred that had been smoldering inside him for years.

The time is near, he told himself. The time is near.

Today was a good day. He drove away, but his eyes were peeled for the hunt.

He had to find a new "guest" very soon. He needed a guest until the two would be available to him. And, as always, the next guest would be treated thoroughly.


"Fox, wake up. We're home."

Walter Skinner halted the Range Rover in the parking space of the basement lot, killed the engine, and gently spoke to the man still dozing beside him. He smiled as Fox Mulder finally stirred, gave a big yawn, and stretched his lean and lanky form in the passenger's seat. The digital clock on the dashboard read 23:23. Still not too late. It was mid-October and not too chilly yet.

Skinner had to admit that their weekend in the cabin was more passionate than usual, and the younger man had slept most of the way back. Last Friday afternoon, Mulder and Scully had been urgently summoned by AD Wilson and assigned to a case currently handled by the VCS, starting Monday at 8 AM sharp. That was the reason Skinner and Mulder had to come home on Sunday night instead of their usual early Monday morning.

There was a serial killer on the loose in the DC area, and the VCS's investigation had been on the rocks, so Mulder was reluctantly called in to weave his profiling magic. That would keep the agent preoccupied for a while. Since Mulder had pinpointed the Militia group that had taken Skinner a few months ago, the recognition within the Bureau towards the agent had changed.

However, Skinner didn't know that Mulder had privately asked Director Freeh to assign him to the case, so that the agent could work near home.

Mulder didn't want to leave Skinner alone; he knew that the older man was still suffering from his recent traumatic experience, and he wanted to be close to him as much as possible.

"Home? Already?" Sleepily, Mulder rubbed his eyes and blinked several times. "Damn, my back aches..." Then he grimaced a little and grinned at Skinner. "My whole body aches, and you're responsible for it, Walter."

"Stop complaining and get up, soldier. Don't blame it solely on me. You didn't try to stop me when we were having fun up there."

Skinner patted the agent's thigh lightly and got out of the car, secretly chuckling at Mulder's accusation. Surely, they did have too much fun at the cabin this weekend. And very soon they would be having many more good times there.

In two months, Skinner was going to retire from the Bureau. This case might be the last time that he and Mulder would serve as the DD and Special Agent. Skinner didn't know much about this specific case, as AD Wilson was Mulder's direct supervisor. The less he knew about Mulder's cases, the less he had to worry about his safety -- well, that was not entirely true, but it was the main reason Skinner had accepted his promotion to Deputy Director. Since they had become lovers, Skinner couldn't stand being Mulder's direct supervisor and having to assign the agent to dangerous cases.

As for this case, Skinner didn't worry too much; Mulder's involvement was categorically on a consultant basis only, and the agent wouldn't be so involved that he would be in any personal physical danger. However, the DD had slight concerns about Mulder's mental health, as the VCS's cases were all extremely gruesome. When Mulder had been working in the ISU under Patterson, he had been really consumed and affected by the cases he had handled.

Skinner himself was busy preparing for his retirement, which he faced with mixed feelings. He had been devoted to his work for 25 years, and thinking about leaving made him melancholy, though he strongly hated the word. However, at the same time, he felt all the burden and tension had been lifted off from his shoulders once the announcement of his retirement had been made official. Moreover, he wouldn't be worried anymore if someone found out about him and Mulder.

As he headed for the elevator, Skinner winced as the two-month-old wound in his leg suddenly hurt; the pain provoked the memory of the ordeal that had nearly killed him, and made him shudder despite himself. He had to admit that he needed more time to be healed, at least physically, if not mentally.

Fortunately, Mulder didn't notice, and Skinner forced himself to shake off the ominous feeling as they headed for their apartment, via the entrance hall, checking their mail and greeting the doorman and janitor at the lobby.

It's just a minor flashback. Nothing more, Skinner told himself, and reached out to touch Mulder's back.

But the dull pain in his leg didn't leave him the whole night, faintly but persistently nagging the older man.

Like an omen.


Thursday, October 27
11:00 PM
DC General Hospital

Walter Skinner strode through the hospital entrance. Despite the late hour, the place was full of concerned people. When Scully had finally called his cell phone a half-hour ago and informed him that the coast was clear, Skinner wasted no time getting there.

Earlier that afternoon, a casual remark by AD Wilson in the elevator had chilled him. Mulder's AD had obviously came from a field situation. The man's tie was askew and there was a visible spot of dirt on his tan trenchcoat.

"Agent Mulder's at it again," AD Wilson had sighed, the back of his salt-and-pepper head repeatedly bouncing off the elevator wall in frustration. "Back in the hospital."

"What?" Skinner had snapped and looked at him. His voice had stayed even despite his shock at the news.

"UNSUB beat him up with a pipe," the AD had said shortly. Before Skinner could ask any more details, the AD had stepped out of the elevator at his floor. Skinner had lost no time getting in touch with Scully.

That was five-and-a-half hours ago. The period of time Skinner spent worrying over Fox. The DD couldn't inquire about the agent openly while he had been in the Hoover and, logically, he should understand that Scully would have called him sooner if Mulder's condition had been critical, or if other agents hadn't still been hanging around the hospital.

But emotionally -- that was a different matter. He was angry and scared to death.

Skinner was practically running down the halls of DC General. At least Fox isn't in the ICU this time, Skinner thought, trying to calm himself.

It was a small consolation. His long black coat flapped as he covered the distance with quick, long and angry strides. No one could tell that he felt nauseated. It seemed like the vein in his temple would explode any minute.

No matter how many times Fox was admitted to the hospital, whether for minor or major injuries, Skinner could never get used to it.

As the DD turned the corner, he recognized the figures waiting in front of the hospital room. Scully and -- to Skinner's surprise -- Gutierrez.

They stood up from the long battered vinyl couch in the waiting room.

Skinner didn't miss Gutierrez's flinch at the sight of him.

"Sir, I'm sorry to have kept you waiting. The VCS left here just a -- " Scully began, but Skinner interrupted her.

"What happened?" he demanded in a tight voice.

Don't be emotional, he reminded himself. He had to rein in his own feelings. The fact that he didn't have to hide his distress before Scully and Gutierrez didn't help at all.

"How's Mulder?" the DD practically barked.

"The suspect hit him over the head. Mulder regained consciousness two hours ago."

Skinner made a quick calculation, which made him angrier.

"Then how long was he out for?"

"Four hours." Undaunted by Skinner's demeanor, Scully answered calmly.

The older man's anger and distress were palpable. She knew the DD was simply anxious about his lover's condition, but it wasn't easy on her, either.

"And?"

"A concussion and minor injuries, sir. Nothing grave. The CT scan showed no fracture or hemorrhage. Mulder should be okay. The severe headache, nausea and blurred vision are expected in a concussion."

"Sir." For the first time, Gutierrez spoke up. "I'm so sorry, sir. It's my fault Agent Mulder was hurt."

That made Skinner's blood boil. For a second he saw red. The DD was surprised by his own raw emotion. Regardless of his long years in the Bureau, it was difficult because Skinner was here not professionally but personally for Mulder. As Fox's family, not as his boss. But his professional mode took over and he put on a mild face for the junior agent.

"No one's blaming anyone, Gutierrez," he said. "You're dismissed. It's time you went home."

He turned to Scully.

"If your job here is finished, you can go, too, Dana," Skinner said in a lower voice. He used her first name as a sign of gratitude. He couldn't keep calling her Scully when she was here on as personal a reason as his.

"Thank you for being here for him."

"He's my partner, sir." Scully smiled faintly. "And my best friend."

With a lot of trepidation, Skinner entered the hospital room. He gasped despite himself when he saw the figure on the bed.

This time, Mulder had gone through the wringer. Bandages swathed his head. All the scratches, bruises and cuts couldn't hide his pain-contorted face. Skinner didn't notice as Scully quietly shut the door to give them privacy. He slumped onto the bedside chair and tentatively touched Mulder's arm. The agent moaned and stirred in bed.

"Fox? It's me."

"Shit," Mulder mumbled. He shifted painfully. "I tried to be careful, honest. But he was there, Walter. Just within my grasp."

Through his blurred vision, Mulder squinted at Skinner as he reached out his right hand. Skinner clasped it. After finding an unbruised spot on his lover's face, the DD leaned over and gave him a brief kiss.

"What happened?"

"I'm sorry for being back here, but it's not serious..." The end of his words slurred. The agent groaned again.

"Keep quiet, if it's too much for you." Skinner brushed the hair off Mulder's pale forehead. "God, I've been worried about you for hours -- " "... Hours?"

"AD Wilson filled me in on the elevator."

Mulder sighed deeply. "Sorry, Walter. I told Scully not to call you...

until everyone was gone."

"You'll be all right. Thank God your skull's extra-thick, Fox. How do you feel?" Skinner's hand went under Mulder's collarless hospital gown to caress the bare skin of neck and shoulder. It was rough with gooseflesh from the room's chill.

"My head hurts... like someone's kicking from inside." Mulder blinked several times, as if adjusting his sight. "But then that's nothing new when you've had your nth concussion. I know...I know. Make this my last concussion. You told me that a few months ago."

"You have trouble seeing?"

"Just a little out of focus, but you still look great..." Mulder quipped.

His eyes closed when the room started to spin. He had enough experience with concussions to know what to do.

"Should we call a doctor? Do you need something for the pain?"

"No. Just stay beside me." He grasped Skinner's hand tightly. Mulder mumbled something, but Skinner couldn't make out what he was saying.

"What, Fox?"

"... Gutierrez? Did he tell you anything?"

The DD nodded, still feeling tightness around his jaw. "He said it was his fault that you got beaten up."

"No, Walter, he's not to blame. He couldn't do anything from where he was... and I wasn't careful enough." That was barely audible and Mulder began to groan, again.

"Fox, quiet. You need to rest."

For once, Mulder took the older man's advice.

After about one hour, Mulder finally fell into fitful sleep. Feeling punchy himself, Skinner dragged himself from the room for some fresh air.

Just outside the door, Gutierrez stood bolt upright from the couch in the hallway. The junior agent's face was still strained and he looked exhausted, too.

"Agent Gutierrez, didn't I tell you to go home?" Skinner asked, tiredly rubbing a hand over his bald head.

"Yes, you did, sir. Sorry, sir."

Skinner sighed. How well he knew that being a witness to someone's suffering or physical pain can be almost as painful.

"I could use a cup of coffee. How about you?"

"Yes, sir." Nodding, the young agent followed Skinner to the vending machines.


Skinner and Gutierrez sat outside Mulder's room. The door was left partially open in case Mulder might need them for any reason.

"I should have shot the suspect," the younger agent began a little shakily as he took a sip of his coffee.

Skinner was familiar with the case they were working on. A serial killer had been terrorizing the immediate DC area for a year. The victims were all white males in their late-twenties to early-thirties, abducted near their homes. They all died a slow and brutal death approximately 72 hours after their abduction.

Originally, Gutierrez himself had been included in the task force, so he had been genuinely surprised and glad when Mulder and Scully joined the team. It was a great chance to work with the legendary duo he respected.

"Agent Mulder has been working on this case extremely hard, sir."

At Gutierrez's words, Skinner nodded. For the last week, Mulder had been practically staying in the Hoover. Skinner's naturally protective nature had to be reined in during times like these, when Mulder was deep into a killer's mind and he withdrew from the outside world. Nothing mattered except the hunt for Mulder, of zeroing in on the UNSUB.

Skinner knew too well the toll profiling took on Mulder, but he could never get used to it. The agent would be "off" for the duration of the case, until the killer was caught. Then he would return home, exhausted, drained -- but triumphant.

"Agent Mulder narrowed down the profile, but our SAC, Agent Watt, didn't fully agree with his opinion of where the next strike will be. Two days ago, a victim was reported missing for 48 hours. The team was divided into two to search the likely areas where the victim might be..."


In his semiconscious state, Mulder heard a distant voice. Gutierrez.

Mulder could tell from the nasal quality of the younger agent's voice.

Like he had a bad case of adenoids.

Mulder shuddered as he recalled the photos of the victims and the autopsies. As near as the forensic team could determine, the young men were held without food and water for several days. This was followed by the carnage of torture and mutilations. Some of the victims had been raped repeatedly prior to their death.

Based on his profiling, Mulder narrowed down the area of the UNSUB's activity. Mulder, Gutierrez, Scully and Agent Donaldson headed for the possible hideout, a deserted casting factory site in suburban DC.

"... but we found nothing convincing. We still decided to comb the site.

I teamed up with Agent Mulder and searched the ground floor. Just when we were about to leave, Agent Mulder heard something by the entrance. I couldn't -- I didn't believe him," Gutierrez droned on.

...I didn't hear him, Mulder remembered in his half-dream. I felt him.

The presence: almost palpable malice and pain. I smelled the pain. A gut feeling. So he searched further.

There was a hidden trapdoor to the basement, a storage space. A rack of rusting tools hid the door. The absence of dust in the area was a dead giveaway. Mulder called out to Gutierrez, who was about to leave the building. Without waiting for the junior agent's response, Mulder descended the squeaky steps, his sidearm drawn.

Down there, it was dark, dusty and close. Only a few thin shards of light found their way from the floor to the basement. Then Mulder smelled blood and heard someone moan weakly.

He turned his head, only to be bludgeoned.


"I was about to leave the building. When I turned around, Agent Mulder wasn't behind me. He'd found a trapdoor. Then I heard something move.

"When I got to the basement, I saw someone. A big, tall guy, about 6 foot 1, holding something like a pipe and about to hit Agent Mulder from behind. It was dark but I aimed my gun at the suspect. I tried to shoot him, sir. I really tried. But -- "

Gutierrez hesitated and looked at the DD tentatively. The agent knew if he honestly confessed to Skinner, it would be fatal to his career.

Before a concerned Skinner, however, Gutierrez had to be honest and tell the DD how everything really happened.

"I... I couldn't shoot him. I didn't have a clear shot and I was afraid I might hit Agent Mulder. He got another blow to the head. It happened so fast. The UNSUB kept beating him with the pipe."

The junior agent bit his lip and forced himself to continue.

"I... I have never actually shot someone before. But it isn't an excuse.

I'm so sorry. If I shot him, Agent Mulder wouldn't have a concussion and the suspect would have been caught by now."

Skinner sighed deeply, just looked at Gutierrez straight in the eyes, and urged him further.

"What happened then?"


From where he lay in his hospital bed, Mulder could hear Gutierrez's accurate narration of events. He remembered how it had happened...

...he'd heard someone's mocking voice.

In the next moment, the blow to his head made Mulder literally see his living daylights. He cried out and tried to hold onto anything that would save him. He collapsed onto the damp, stinking floor, reeling from shock. Blood from his lacerated scalp obscured his vision. The sudden attack and being blinded by his own blood had incapacitated him.

Even as he tried to roll himself up into a protective ball, more blows rained over him. He held his breath in anticipation of each blow.

Stop! Mulder had cried under his breath. If he moved even an inch, he thought his head and body would burst.

It was when his sense of time had been warped.

Through the pain and fear, Mulder felt the malevolent presence straddling him. Someone breathing heavily. Mulder tried hard to see who was there. The UNSUB had chuckled, the enjoyment of overpowering him quite evident.


"...In the dim light, I saw the suspect trying to hit Agent Mulder again.

Out of the corner of my eye, I also saw the victim tied to a chair. He was bloody all over."

Gutierrez's voice failed him and the younger agent looked pale. From his pallor, Gutierrez was reliving the basement fracas even as he spoke.

"I shouted to the suspect and finally shot at him but missed."


Well, this is a surprise. You're --

The mocking voice was etched in Mulder's memory, despite the innumerable blows he suffered under the UNSUB's hand. It was a male voice. No distinct accent.

What did he say? I'm "what?" Why can't I remember? The question with its unfinished thought niggled at Mulder's throbbing head. I'm "what?" Does the suspect *know* me?

Catch me, sweetheart, if you can, the suspect had said, the evil cackle trailing off into the distance.

Mulder couldn't remember anything more except a gunshot. Maybe two.

Everything went black and when he had woken in his hospital bed, he was surrounded by a roomful of VCS agents, a protesting nurse, and Scully's concerned face.

Mulder had been lucid enough to quickly ask Scully to hold the news from Skinner. Some of the VCS team had been around here, trying to squeeze information from Mulder. It had been too risky for Skinner to come here, even if Mulder had badly wanted the older man at his side.


"... The suspect fled through a hidden passage. The victim was alive$B!D(B barely. He's in the ICU here, unable to give us any information concerning the suspect. That's all, sir. I've already reported to our SAC what happened."

Finished, Gutierrez slumped, waiting for the inevitable reprimand from the DD. The agent well knew that the DD would not tolerate such a blunder, even if Mulder didn't mean so much to Skinner.

"What was SAC Watt's comment?"

"Sir -- " Gutierrez looked extremely uncomfortable.

"Tell me." Skinner pushed him.

"SAC Watt commented that...Agent Mulder was... half-cocked. He should have waited for back-up. Once the trapdoor was discovered, it shouldn't have been just me and Mulder there...sir..."

Gutierrez avoided the DD's probing stare. He braced himself for Skinner's rage that was forthcoming.

Instead, he heard a deep sigh. "I see. Your SAC was correct, Agent. A trapdoor leads to an enclosed space. Apprehending a suspect in closed quarters is downright suicidal. Mulder's lucky he got away with just a few bruises and a concussion. You said so yourself: once you got down there, you couldn't get a clear shot of the UNSUB."

Gutierrez looked up, surprised. Skinner's face was grim.

"Mulder told me not to blame you. He should be more experienced in search and rescue procedures than you are. You're dismissed, Agent Gutierrez."

Skinner retreated to Mulder's room. Gutierrez didn't move from his seat for a while, looking at the silent door. He finally left to head back to the Hoover. He'd have to make up for his mistake.


Wednesday, October 29
1:30 PM
Crystal City Condominium

It was raining and the poor, wounded fox came home today.

He was clumsy as he got out of the cab.

Poor Fox.

From his car down the road, he enjoyed himself greatly as he watched.

His mouth drew into a rictus. The fox was really lovely. The fox's voice of pain still sang sweetly in his ears.

When the fox straightened himself, his face grew distorted and he put a hand to his head. Over there in the old factory, the observer had pointedly adjusted his strength when he had hit the fox, or his head would have been smashed. That would have spoiled all the fun.

He wanted the fun all the way.

The fox was alone. Poor fox, his big serious daddy with the wire rims apparently couldn't make time for him today for some reason. With an unsteady gait, the fox disappeared into the lobby of their apartment.

In the meantime, the observer had to find another "guest" to kill time until the couple would be available for him. He knew he had to be patient, as he hadn't expected the fox to be clever enough to track him so fast.

But not smart enough. The fox couldn't nab him and he was free. Free to do whatever he wanted to do.


Walter Skinner hurriedly headed home. Fox had been released from the hospital today. The DD had intended to bring him home. However, as usual, Mulder had insisted on coming home on his own, claiming that he was used to concussions and that he didn't want The DD to take off from work more than he had to. They had an argument, which, to Skinner's chagrin, he lost.

Skinner sighed. It was already past 10 PM. Skinner unlocked the door and headed upstairs, where he found Mulder lying asleep in their bed, with a sympathetic Taylor by his side. The agent was clutching the dog's neck with his right arm.

"Okay, you can stay for a while, but only until I take over," Skinner told the dog.

The DD patted Taylor's head lightly and prepared to take a shower. There were several small plastic bottles containing pills -- Mulder's regular souvenir from hospital.

After two days in the hospital, Mulder was still complaining of headaches and vertigo. According to the doctor, these were sequelae of the injury and would subside in a while.

The investigation was going on, but there were still no crucial leads.

The only person who could accurately identify the suspect right now was Mulder, but the agent didn't remember much of the encounter.

With the victim still in critical condition in the ICU, trace evidence was all they had at the moment. The suspect was meticulous enough to leave virtually no hard evidence at the scene of the crime. SAC Watt of the VCS had legitimate complaints regarding Mulder's breach of tried-and-true procedures, which had jeopardized the case.

If that's it, fine, Skinner thought in frustration as he stripped for shower. Fox is going to rest at home, thoroughly and safely. The case had been originally in the jurisdiction of the VCS. It was *them* the VCS -- who had requested Mulder's involvement because they'd been helpless before the growing toll. Honestly, Skinner was angry with SAC Watt. Now, when he was close to the suspect thanks to Mulder's profiling, Sac just laughed at the agent for having been knocked out, and was going to take the credit. And Fox was injured because of this extra activity.

Skinner sighed in frustration. Even after Mulder's contribution when Skinner had been kidnapped, there was still someone who wasn't changed, after all. The DD well knew Watt's narrow-minded attitude towards Mulder was due to incomprehension of Mulder's ability and jealousy combined.

Before he retired from the Bureau, Skinner had to make sure to secure the X-Files section somehow, as well as to take measures so that Mulder would be treated with duly deserved respect. That would be the last thing that Skinner could do professionally for the younger man.

At the same time, Skinner realized that he was going to worry about Mulder's well-being after his retirement as well. It was beginning already, as Skinner found that he had almost lost his self-control when Mulder was put in a dangerous situation -- like this time -- even prior to his retirement. But there was nothing he could do about it, and he hoped Fox would be okay down the road.


The sound of water flowing somewhere pulled Mulder slowly from his drug-induced sleep. At first he thought it was rain, but he smiled when he realized it was the shower. Walter was home, finally. Considering the time, Mulder knew that Skinner had tried his best to come home as early as possible. Finding Taylor still by his side, Mulder smiled again. The stern DD condoned Taylor's company in bed. When the agent tried to sit up, the dull but persistent headache made him grimace. Taylor whined with sympathy at Mulder's pained movements.

Then on the bedside table, Mulder's phone rang. He pointedly ignored it, letting the answering machine pick it up.

"Mulder, it's Scully." Her voice sounded tense. Mulder grabbed the receiver.

"Hi, Scully."

"Hi, Mulder. How's your head?"

"Still aches, but not too bad, thanks. How about you?" Mulder asked with concern, as Scully's voice sounded ragged and exhausted.

"I'm fine Mulder. I'm at the Hoover now. Just back from DC General."

Mulder knew something bad had happened. "The latest victim died two hours ago."

"Shit!" Mulder exclaimed, frustration washing over him. Their only witness was gone. Mulder had been told that the torture victim had sustained very grave blunt abdominal and head injuries in addition to the loss of his eyes and tongue.

If the agent had acted faster, the victim might have survived. If...

All these ifs and the nagging regret were always a part of his job.

"Are you okay, Scully?"

"Don't worry about me. I'm fine, but earlier today, an anonymous envelope was delivered to the hospital. Reception didn't notice it until now."

"What was in it?"

"Maybe it wasn't related to this case but..." Scully sounded uncharacteristically hesitant.

"What was it, Scully?"

"Your photo. A digitized one," Scully said. "It must've been taken today.

You were in front of the hospital, about to get into a cab. You were wearing a dark green sweater and beige trousers, weren't you?"

"Yes. That was me."

"Also, the processed picture had a message imposed on it. It says -- " Scully hesitated again. "Bait."

Something cold touched the small of Mulder's back. He remained silent for a few seconds.

"We just started working on it. So far, nobody in the hospital can remember who delivered this. Mulder, you know what this might mean$B!D(B"

"Uh-huh." Mulder's mind was spinning quickly and processing all the possibilities, while an ominous feeling wrapped his body.

"Maybe the suspect is linked to one of your old cases, like John Barnett." In an instant, the every details of that incident came back to the injured agent. That one had been weird enough. Dr. Ridley's documents were never retrieved.

Scully cleared her throat. "The lab people are doing their job, but it seems they won't be able to lift anything from the photo. The VCS is planning to visit your place to discuss each and every possibility. I just thought you might want to...prepare for that visit. You and Skinner still keep the other apartment on the 10th floor, don't you? Of course, I'll let you know when they hit you, and *I'll* volunteer to be the one who'll visit your place."

"Thank you, Scully. Yes, we still do," Mulder said heartily to his partner, who fully understood the situation. But to Mulder, it wasn't safe enough. They couldn't let the VCS step into their condo on the 17th floor. Even letting them know that Mulder lived in the same building with Skinner could be compromising enough.

"How are things going at the factory? Any progress?" Mulder asked.

"Today the VCS finished the rough analysis of the evidence collected from the factory, but there's nothing viable so far." Scully sighed.

"I see." Mulder sighed, too.

"One more thing, Mulder."

"What?"

"A man was just reported to be missing for the last two days. He seems to fit the description of the victims of this case. It might not be related, but it's starting to get out of control in many ways." She sighed again, heavily this time. It was not like Scully, who was always resilient and tough under any situation. Mulder couldn't help himself from being concerned.

"Scully, are you really okay? You sounds so tired. Go home. Maybe tomorrow I'll go to work."

"What? No way, Mulder. You're not up to it yet."

"I'm fine, Scully."

"Don't be ridiculous. Skinner will kill me. I'll be fine without you, partner. Get some rest. Bye, Mulder." The line went dead.

Suddenly, Mulder felt sick, as the sharp pain pieced him around the temple. He put his right palm to the aching area and sank to the bed, still clutching the receiver with his left hand, which became wet from the cold sweat. Damn, his head hurt.

Bait.

Someone's watching me. Watching closely enough to know to catch me coming home. Now he knows where I live.

Bait. Bait. Bait.

The weird message was turning round and round in Mulder's head. But, bait for what?

That time with John Barnett, Mulder himself was the prime target, and Reggie Perdue had been killed in the process. What was it this time?

Nothing came into his mind. Driven by a frustration, Mulder sprang out of the bed and made for his den.


When Skinner walked out of the bathroom in his bathrobe, Taylor was sitting on the floor and Mulder was nowhere to be seen. The DD walked about the apartment and found the agent working in his office downstairs.

Skinner didn't fail to notice that Mulder was wearing his glasses, which was a rarity these days. Without asking, he knew his lover was working on the current case.

"Fox, I don't think you should be working." Alarmed, Skinner approached the Mulder, whose profile was rigid.

"I'll be fine, Walter..." Mulder started but fell silent at Skinner's concerned face, realizing he had no right to worry Walter over him anymore. "Sorry. I'll turn in." He cut his PC, stood up and went to the bedroom with the older man. Moreover, he had to admit that right now, his head wasn't working clearly enough.

"What happened?" Once they were both under the warm bedcovers, Skinner asked him.

"The victim's dead."

Then the DD remembered that he'd heard the phone ring while he was in the bathroom. "I'm sorry."

Mulder nodded and closed his eyes as Skinner gave him a light kiss.

"I'll catch the guy," he said in a small, but determined voice.

Mulder was finally able to doze off after half an hour. As he watched the younger man's troubled sleeping face, Skinner sighed silently. The whole incident worried the DD. Remembering he had another important meeting very early the next morning, Skinner clenched his jaw in frustration. He really didn't want leave Mulder when he hadn't fully recovered, but he had no choice.


Thursday, October 30
5:00 PM
FBI HQ, VCS

He really shouldn't be back at work this soon, Dana Scully thought, looking at her partner's tired face. Again, Mulder ignored the doctor's order to take a few days' leave. At a glance, he looked fine, but Scully could see that Mulder was still pale with dark circles around each eye.

"Mulder, go home." Scully told Mulder with a huge sigh.

"I'm fine, Scully."

"No, you're not. It'll do no good to you or to the case if you make yourself sick again by working this soon. You need rest." Now Scully felt guilty to have forced Mulder, in a way, to come to work; last night's phone call had obviously pushed him. Mulder didn't seem to consider her advice. The room was quiet; all the other agents had gone out to continue the investigation.

"Mulder..." Scully lowered her voice in a slightly threatening tone.

"*He* doesn't know that you're working, does he?"

The seemed to work. In silence, Mulder pleaded her with his patent forlorn look.

"No, but I'll be fine," Mulder said sheepishly.

"Then I'll be not fine, Mulder. It's not only you who knows the DD well enough to know how he'd react to a situation like this." Scully crossed her arms and looked him straight in the eye.

That morning, once Skinner had gone to work at 7:30 AM, Mulder called Scully to give him a ride to the Hoover; he had no confidence to drive by himself, yet, especially with the strong analgesics he was taking every six hours.

Scully had objected to the idea , but eventually she was persuaded by Mulder that he just wanted to brief SAC Watt on the case and it wouldn't take long. Scully knew her partner well enough; without her help, he would have called a cab. Ostensibly, Mulder looked so-so in the Viva Towers' lobby when Scully had met him. After she'd driven him to the Hoover, she went to Quantico to perform the autopsy on the latest victim.

After finishing the autopsy that afternoon, Scully had been truly surprised to find Mulder still in the VCS conference room. He looked pale and looked like having a bad case of hangover while discussing the case with the other agents. But he held the fort and at least had been functioning professionally. From their long partnership, only Scully could see the self-control Mulder had. It had been almost out of stock by the time the meeting was dismissed.

So it had been a great relief for both Scully and Mulder that the VCS decided to pursue the investigation outside the conference room.

She knew the reason Mulder had to come to work despite the head injury: he couldn't risk letting anyone come near his and Skinner's home.

As expected, Mulder didn't even tell Skinner that he was going to the office today. The agent had snuck out of bed after the older man had reluctantly gone to work. Skinner would be absolutely furious once he found out...

"Okay, I'll go home." Mulder gave in and started to gather his papers.

At Scully's relieved face, Mulder felt guilty for worrying her also. His head had been slightly aching since a few hours earlier. Unless there was any new trace or he came up with something, there would be no difference in office and at home.

"Hopefully before the DD gets home, you mean," Scully concluded. "You know, Mulder, you've put me in a very dangerous situation. He'll kill me if you ever mention that I -- "

"I know, I know," Mulder moaned. "I'll never name you, Scully. No matter how hard Wal -- *he* corners me, I won't sell out my best friend."

"Okay. I'll drive you home when you're fit and ready." Scully smiled sweetly. After all, for her, Mulder was irresistible as her chronologically older but mentally little brother.

"Sorry, Scully."

She looked tired, and Mulder felt sorry for her. He also felt responsible, as though his absence was causing her to be bogged down with work.

"Have you found anything yet?" Scully asked to ease the tension.

"No. We've checked all my past case files, but there was nothing that might lead to the message. Their MOs didn't fit. Maybe the UNSUB modified it, but the core pattern wouldn't change. At least I couldn't find that," Mulder concluded. "All in all, the VCS also holds the same opinion. They dismissed it, as it was irrelevant, at least for now... ah, I feel better."

Surprisingly, the little ice bag Scully had offered him was doing the trick and Mulder felt the pain diminish a little.

"Really?"

"Yeah. The cases that seemed relevant were all closed, or all of these good ol' boys are doing their time in prison. Maybe it has nothing to do with it. Or, maybe I missed something. I don't know yet."

"So you think there definitely is a connection?"

"When the suspect hit me, I'm sure he said something to me. It didn't sound to me as babbling, Scully. And this photo. I..." Mulder paused for a second. "I think the UNSUB knows me."

It was strange, because Scully looked worried, exactly like Skinner had last night.

"Okay, I respect your intuition." Scully smiled and looked concerned.

"By the way, how's your head now? Be honest, Mulder."

"It's still hurting, but not too much. I'll be back to normal tomorrow."

"Mulder, you should be in bed this very moment. You still look terrible.

And if the UNSUB is really stalking you, it's also dangerous to be walking around when you're not fully recovered. If the UNSUB doesn't kill you, the DD surely will. Do you understand?"

"But you'll protect me, G-woman. Won't you?" Mulder asked innocently, which made Scully raise her eyebrows and smile despite herself.

"Yeah, you can count on me. I'll drive you home. Can you stand and walk, or should I drag you to the car?"

"Will you carry me nicely, please?"

"That's a tall order, Mulder." Scully smiled, then made a serious face.

"You know, Mulder, I won't be able to cover for you every time."

"I know," Mulder sighed. He managed to stand up. "But I appreciate your help, Scully."


Friday, October 31
5:00 PM
Crystal City Condominium

Before Mulder's eyes, the computer display started to blur and all the data appeared to run together, but he couldn't drag himself away. Since 8 AM, again long after Skinner had gone to work, Mulder had been searching the Bureau database for any relevant cases$B!D(Bnot only his own cases, but all serial murder cases over the past 20 years. Actually, Mulder had wanted to go back to work, but Skinner wouldn't listen to him and they'd almost started WW III over the breakfast table.

Mulder knew that Skinner was deeply worried, so he promised the older man that he wouldn't go to the Hoover but would rest at home instead. It was a miracle Skinner hadn't handcuffed Mulder to the bed when he'd left for work today. The DD had been truly furious yesterday evening when Mulder walked into their apartment.

In exasperation, Skinner had told Mulder that he'd left the office early out of concern. Mulder knew it was indeed impossible to commit the perfect crime. Luckily, the older man hadn't asked him how he'd escaped; in fact, he'd been too angry to pay attention to that aspect of the deed.

Skinner hadn't simply been angry; he'd looked very tired and drained from too much worry. Worry over him. Mulder winced as he remembered last night's conversation.

Fox, have you ever thought, for God's sake, that I would trade my reputation over your well-being?

Walter had snapped tersely when Mulder had tried to explain. Yeah, Walter had been really angry, and that remark had gotten to Mulder.

Skinner was hurt. Hurt with too much worry.

The agent felt guilty. But he couldn't stop himself from working, with copies of most of the case files "smuggled" here.

The agent knew from the pattern that the UNSUB would most likely pick up the next victim in the near future. Or maybe he already had. That missing person hadn't been found yet. On top of that, this case seemed so weird and... personal. Mulder shook his head slightly to ease the fatigue around his eyes, but the movement caused the exact opposite effect and he felt a sharp pain behind his eyes.

Mulder continued his research, impatient with his current condition. He knew the reason behind his obsessive attitude towards this case. If the UNSUB were really after *him*, the situation might lead to the total exposure of his relationship with Walter. That possibility made Mulder shudder. With the older man's retirement so close, the agent was determined not to spoil it. However, Mulder was ready to do anything in order to stop the UNSUB. He'd already learned his lesson about doing the right thing the hard way.

At the same time, Mulder still wasn't sure why he was targeted, but it was fortunate that he'd been assigned to this case. At least he was privy to its progress and could anticipate the monster's next move.

If only not for this goddamn headache...

Mulder groaned. Damn, why was he tired so easily? The headache had subsided, but he felt as if his strength was cut in half. Hang on, find the UNSUB before this gets out of hand. You had concussions worse than this before, Mulder told himself. He stood up groggily, went to the bathroom, washed his face, and returned to his PC.

After two more hours' searching, Mulder finally gave up. He just couldn't concentrate and want to lie back on a sofa. Just as he was about to log off from the database, Mulder brought up the next case.

Just one more try. His eyes were now too dry, so he had to really focus on the screen to see the contents.

It was a serial killer case from 1982. Austin, Texas...

Mulder stopped scrolling as the detailed description sank into his foggy head. His face turned paler as he read on.

The MO and pattern of this case was really similar -- almost identical to the current one. The victims were all Caucasian males, mid-twenties to late-thirties, abducted from their neighborhoods, killed in a cruel manner, et cetera, et cetera.

But that wasn't what got Mulder's attention in the first place. It was the name of the SAC assigned to the case.

Walter S. Skinner.

Mulder suddenly felt his mouth dry up. *His* Walter Skinner, not a different person with the same name as his lover. He knew Skinner's badge number by heart. Continuing to read while enduring the headache, Mulder became deathly pale. His heart was also racing with excitement over this eerie coincidence. No, it wasn't a coincidence. This is the guy.

Frantically, Mulder kept reading the record.

Nearly 15 years ago, SAC Skinner had been able to catch the UNSUB before he killed his tenth victim. The suspect had been identified as Ian McGregor, who was working as an AAA engineer at the time and had killed nine men in a row. All nine victims had met a slow, painful and horrific death that was stretched out over a week in McGregor's basement.

McGregor had been sentenced to death and was executed three years later.

The case had been closed, and there had been no more such killings in that area since.

Until now, and in DC.

But the suspect was dead.

Another John Barnett holding a grudge? But, this time, against Walter?

No way...


At 6:30 PM, Walter Skinner swiftly exited the elevator on their floor, heading for apartment 1704. He was anxious to see if Fox had stayed home today, as he'd been told.

He didn't want to end this day with angry words between them. Finally, the process of handing over the reins of power was going to be finished with his successor. There would be no long business trip or meeting, and Skinner was going to spend his remaining one-and-a-half months with the Bureau in peace.

The only concern for Skinner was, of course, Mulder. The DD hoped the younger man would recover fast from his injury. Skinner knew he had been too harsh towards Mulder, even if the younger man deserved the reprimand.

The possibility of Mulder being targeted by the serial killer made Skinner shudder. Earlier today, he had contacted the private security firm he had known and discussed the matter with them. Fortunately, the security system at Viva Towers turned out to be tight. In other words, Mulder would be safe as long as he stayed at home.

When Skinner opened the door to their apartment, it was Taylor who met him at the door. The big retriever seemed antsy and was pleading something with his big eyes to his master.

"Taylor? What is it?"

The dog whined several times and looked meaningfully towards Mulder's den.

"Fox? Are you in there?"

No way. He had told Fox to stay in bed today. Alarmed, Skinner rushed into Mulder's den to find the younger man asleep on the couch, with the papers all over the coffee table. The computer display was flickering.

"Fox?"

Skinner touched the agent's body, and was relieved to know that he was only sleeping. Nevertheless, Skinner didn't miss the fatigue on Mulder's face, who seemed to lost weight since his assignment to the case.

For a while, Skinner looked at his sleeping lover. Anyway, Fox was resting, although he should have a word or two with him for working.

Carefully not to wake Fox, Skinner left the den and returned there with a blanket. Mulder didn't stir as he put the blanket over him and sat beside on the couch.

Right now, it was Skinner's head that was aching because of the tension and stress. It was a long-awaited Friday. He would never let Mulder work over this weekend. The man in question stirred and mumbled something in his sleep. Skinner reached out and rubbed his lover's back, when he noticed the mess in the den. Not only the papers, but the files are piled in the desk and even on the floor. Tiredly the DD stood up.

Approaching the desk, he noticed that the PC was still on and obviously logged onto the FBI database. Skinner turned off the computer without paying much attention to it.

Then he stepped on some papers scattered the coffee table. Skinner thought about leaving them, but his sense of order prevailed. He gathered all of the papers, sorted them out, then froze on the spot.

Skinner couldn't believe what he had in his hand.

It was That One.

Why was it here?

Skinner remembered that old case too well -- it was one of the most horrible cases he had been assigned as a field agent. The victims had been killed in cold blood. Their horribly mangled bodies had turned Skinner's stomach, even after all the atrocities he had seen in Vietnam.

In a way, it had been worse than 'Nam, because it had happened in a peaceful town, in a peaceful time. It had been by sheer luck that Skinner's team had caught the suspect, who had become too confident and sloppy after killing dozens of men and leaving crucial evidence.

Even now, the case made Skinner's skin tingle.

Why Fox was interested in it? His gut instincts told him that something nasty was going on. If Skinner had a motto, it was to follow his own hunches. He picked up the case file that Mulder was working on; the papers inside were already well battered from Mulder's intense study and filled with illegible scribbles and remarks.

Reading the first page gave Skinner enough impact. The DD stood there, without moving, until he had read all of them. Then, he turned on the PC and logged onto the database. Outside the window, frosty rain started to pour over the DC area.


Saturday, November 1
1:30 AM
Unknown place

The sound of heavy rain irritated the observer. He was sitting on the battered sofa at his place. These days, the winter tended to be warmer and it often rained in November. The tapping sound was goddamned persistent. The rain always reminded him of the saddest day of his life.

The day his other half had died.

He hated November. At this time of year, his urge and impulse to kill someone became uncontrollably intense. Before he had shifted his hunting ground here, he used to make ends meet so he could go to neighboring states and select guests occasionally -- say, one every four months. He had cleaned up thoroughly after these guests and never made mistakes. It had sufficed once, but not anymore. Now he wanted to kill as much as possible.

Maybe I'm not lucky these days, the observer cursed. He had tried to pick another guest yesterday, but had failed.

Late last night, he did his hunting in the parking lot of some office buildings. Men, especially the tall and muscular ones, tended to think they were safe when they were in the vicinity of their homes or so-called decent workplaces. Since it had always been so easy, he hadn't expected the guest would resist so hard. But that one had been strong enough to give him trouble. Then he had heard other people approaching.

So, he had to kill the guest on the spot, using his favorite ice pick, the one that he usually used to finish his guests off, stabbing him in the chest and fleeing.

What a shame. That man was so pretty and promising, just like the fox.

This failure made him mad and upset. And anxious. Maybe he had to hurry up a bit, before the fox fully recovered. The observer couldn't afford to repeat what had happened 15 years ago. The memory made him even more furious. Maybe the waiting was over. He looked at the calendar fixed on the dirty, wet wall of his place. On it, a specific day was circled in red ink.

The 7th of November. The anniversary.

He stood up. Maybe it *was* time.


Tuesday, November 4
5:00 PM
FBI HQ, VCS

Mulder was sitting in the VCS conference room with several agents who were typing or checking evidence. Most of them had barely slept these days. Mulder himself was numbly looking at one of the photos. The brutally mangled body of a victim, the image that had been well ground into his mind.

Because of the heavy rain last weekend, there had been a landslide in a new construction site in suburban DC, where two more bodies had been excavated earlier that morning. One of them was the man who had been missing recently. The other was almost fully decomposed, and the estimated time of death was eight months ago. But the injuries sustained by both men had been determined as being linked to the current case.

On top of that, a man had been found dead in the parking lot of his workplace, stabbed in the heart. Clean work. Might be a pro. Another new case for the VCS.

Scully and the rest of the team were now running around the city, trying desperately to come up with any vital leads. Only Mulder was left in the Hoover, because he felt too tired to go out. He had a persistent mild headache, and he couldn't sleep well. Still, Mulder had come to work today. Maybe he shouldn't have. Mulder sighed.

Skinner was silently upset. Scully was anxious. The agents at the VCS, surprisingly even the SAC Watt, seemed concerned, but there was no way Mulder could rest at home. Once he had gotten into a case, he couldn't stop midway. Especially not with this one. Mulder personally compared it to pulling out a rotten molar. Once you start, you finish -- even if it often leaves only the pain of your bleeding gum and the hollow in your heart.

Skinner was apparently uneasy about all this, but he didn't tell Mulder to back off.

Being in the Hoover made it easier to concentrate on profiling than at home. At home, Mulder felt somewhat vulnerable. He wanted to shake off the ominous feeling, because this case had definitely something to do with Skinner.

Mulder had regretted not having discussed this case with the older man earlier. Skinner's involvement was something Mulder hadn't counted on at all. On Sunday afternoon, the DD had given him first-hand detailed information about his old case, while the agent slumped on the sofa and Scully took notes.

Then Mulder had called SAC Watt and informed him about the possible link.

It had been a risky step but essential. After all, Mulder had found it while researching the closed case, so anyone could have. Skinner and Mulder had agreed that solving the case and preventing more deaths was more important than keeping their relationship from being exposed.

Mulder went further, deeper into the case. Even when he was confined to his bed, he was thinking about the case and the UNSUB. After all these incidents, Mulder's profiling for the current case basically hadn't changed, and he was surprised to see how perfectly it fit Ian McGregor.

In other words, the UNSUB could be no one but McGregor.

If he hadn't been dead, of course.

For the past two days, Mulder's colleagues had been re-evaluating the old case anyway, but the search ended up in a dead-end$B!D(B literally. The convict had been dead for 12 years, and there was no accomplice. Every possible database had been searched, but there were no blood relatives, no soul-mates, no close inmates who would succeed Ian McGregor. Maybe it was a copy-cat case. After all, it was possible that some psychopath had hacked into the FBI's database for a nice recipe for mass murder.

Now the VCS had narrowed down a few suspects in this area, and they were put under surveillance. Yes, there had to be a culprit among them. The profile fit them quite nicely. Mulder tried to assure himself, but somehow he couldn't convince himself at all. Something wasn't right.

Something was missing...

Glancing up the wall clock, Mulder stood up; it was past 6 PM. Time to go home. Over the past two days, Mulder had gingerly obeyed this minimum requirement that Skinner had laid down. To be honest, Mulder didn't want to aggravate his own condition$B!D(B or Walter's mental health. Since it was still early, and both Scully and Gutierrez were out, he would have to call a cab: he still had an occasional bouts of vertigo and he was strictly forbidden to drive because of the pain relievers he was taking..

"Hey, you guys! Sorry, but I'm going home," Mulder called to a colleague, who looked up.

"Are you alright, Agent Mulder? Do you want me to give you a ride?"

Agent Simms, a polite guy, stood up and offered. Among the agents in the VSC, Simms was especially friendly to Mulder after Skinner's kidnap case.

"No, thanks. I'll be fine. I'll catch a cab."

If there were any by-products of this case, it would be a rapport with the most of the agents in the VCS.

Luckily, it wasn't raining or snowing outside, but the cold November air squeezed Mulder's tired body further. The agent groaned to see there was no cab waiting at the taxi pool in front of the Hoover's main entrance but, miraculously, the agent saw a taxi come from around the corner and halt in front of him. Hastily, Mulder got in the cab and told the driver, "Crystal City. Viva Towers."

Without turning back, the cabby with the baseball cap nodded and started the meter. The evening rush hour had already begun, and the drive was rather slow. It was quite chilly in the cab: the heater was not on.

"Can you turn the heat up some more, please?" Mulder asked.

The cabby adjusted the heater silently. It became warmer, but after an eternity, when the Viva Towers came into view.

"Is this the right place?" the cabby asked, slowing down the car.

"Yeah... drop me right here, thanks." Mulder fished in his pocket and brought out a banknote as the cab halted near the entrance. The cabby looked around over his shoulder and reached out his left hand. Mulder noticed that the driver was wearing thin gloves. Suddenly, he grabbed Mulder's hand and hit it hard against the headrest. The bill was cramped and something stung the agent's palm.

"What -- ?" Mulder tried to pull back his hand but the man kept vice-like grip on it.

"Sorry, but you're not going home, Fox."

Mulder$B!G(Bs vision tilted and became distorted, and the voice he heard was distant. What the hell is he saying? It took him an awful lot of effort to focus on the cabby, who was now smiling broadly under the brim of his cap. His mouth extend from ear to ear. A face of evil.

A dull and falling sensation spread from Mulder's palm, which was still held by the man. Then their eyes locked. The man's eyes were a striking blue.

Mulder knew this man's face. He saw it attached to that old case file.

Suddenly a chilly and hot realization washed over his whole body. Mulder felt as if something -- someone invisible -- licked him on the neck.

Suddenly he recognized the voice. Remembered what it had told him in the casting factory.

Well, this is a surprise. You're his lovely fox, aren't you?

The dizzy feeling took over Mulder's body. He opened his mouth but nothing came out.

Mulder knew everything and that he was going to faint.

The fox was bait.

He was the bait to get *Walter*.

"You're my guest now," the cabby chuckled happily.

Then Mulder blacked out.


Tuesday, November 4
7:30 PM
Crystal City Condominium

How MANY times do I have to tell Fox? Walter Skinner simply couldn't believe it.

It was long past seven in the evening, but there was no sign of Mulder.

Angrily, Skinner strode around the living room, tried to settle in the den, almost tore the newspaper while he pretended to read it, listened to the ding of the elevator or the footsteps in the hallway rehearsing the reprimanding words to greet Fox properly. But Mulder didn't come home. Even Taylor felt something was wrong, and anxiously looked up at his master from the corner of the living room.

By the time the wall clock announced 9 PM, the older man's anger had turned into deep concern.

What if Fox had collapsed in the Hoover? Then somebody would have taken him to the hospital. Maybe Scully was with him and Suddenly the phone rang and Skinner nearly jumped out of his skin.

Cursing, he grabbed the handset and barked, "Skinner!"

"Sir? This is Gutierrez."

"Gutierrez? What happened?"

"I just wanted to let you know that we've just confirmed one of the prime suspects of the current case, sir -- a man called Claude Danchaud, who fled from his apartment. He had a vast collection of the victims'

photos and some of their body parts in his place. His appearance was a perfect match for Ian McGregor, and also Agent Mulder's profile."

Gutierrez sounded disgusted. "We have determined him as our UNSUB."

"So, did you have a breakthrough?"

"Yes, thanks to Agent Mulder's profile. Moreover, Claude Danchaud's identity is a cover. A Mr. Claude Danchaud was reported missing back in 1980, and we're checking into the case. In the meantime, we$B!G(Bre having a composite drawing of the suspect made up."

The background was noisy with activity, but not loud enough to erase the excitement in Gutierrez's voice. Briefly forgetting his current anxiety towards Fox, the DD sighed with a smile. So Mulder's efforts were going to be rewarded after all.

"Could I speak with Agent Mulder?" Gutierrez asked urgently.

"No, um, in fact, Mulder hasn't come home yet," Skinner said bitterly, feeling somewhat stupid. Why did he have to reveal his domestic problems to Agent Gutierrez? Skinner knew that this young agent was discreet and honest with him and Mulder; nevertheless, it made him uncomfortable.

"Not yet? But I've just heard from Agent Simms that Agent Mulder had left the Hoover at exactly 6 PM. Said he'd take a cab."

The knot inside Skinner's chest became bigger in an instant. "What?"

"Would you like me to check it, sir? Just in case? Maybe he became sick and went to the hospital instead."

"Yes. Maybe. I appreciate this, Agent Gutierrez," Skinner answered, his mouth dry. And he hung up.

Their spacious apartment became suddenly quiet, cold and vulnerable without Fox.


Tuesday, November 4
9:00 PM
Unknown place

The first thing Fox Mulder felt was the chill mingled with nausea. He felt fuzzy and ached all over. It was so cold and, at the same time, he really seemed to be burning up. Then, he felt a bright light. It was so bright that it stung his feverish eyes. He squinted hard to adjust his blurred sight. I was riding in a cab --

Damn, it was cold! He was only wearing his dress shirt, which was already wet from the cold sweats, and trousers, sans socks. The battered floor was cold against his bare feet. The place looked like some deserted warehouse. There was no window. Might be a basement.

"Are you awake, Fox?"

Then Mulder saw a man in front of him. Middle-aged, tall, muscular, and clad simply in grey and black. He was still wearing that thin pair of gloves. Categorically, the man was even good-looking, but something was wrong. He recognized the man as that cabby, with those eerily cold blue eyes.

The man with Ian McGregor's face.

Mulder tried to stand up but he couldn't move at all: his arms were bound behind him and his feet were efficiently tied to a steel chair with a high backrest and bolted to the floor. Moreover, Mulder felt a strange numbness all over.

"What-" Mulder hissed in anger and tried to stand up, only to realize he couldn't move at all. The restraint wouldn't give in after his futile struggle. As the effect of the drug wore off, reality sank into Mulder: he was held captive by this man.

Then Mulder caught a glimpse of an old pair of pliers and a syringe on it. What were they for? Primitive terror hit Mulder in the gut but he tried not to show it. Mulder looked around the room for anything that would help him escape, or improve the current situation.

"I know what you're thinking, Fox. There is no way for you to escape from here on your own."

"Who are you? What do you want from me?"

There was silence. Then the man smiled gracefully, and the smile made Mulder's skin crawl.

"From you, I want Walter Skinner."

"What? What are you talking about? I don't think I have met you before, or even know your name."

"I think you know the answer already, but I$B!G(Bll try to be patient with you." The man smiled again. "I'm Brian, Ian McGregor's other half. I'm his identical twin."

"Ian McGregor?"

"Don't play innocent, Fox. You've got to be better than this. You must have asked your beloved Walter about him."

Brian cleared his throat and leaned over the helpless agent. Their eyes locked. Mulder felt even colder as he looked into a set of cold, cruel eyes. The man was smiling, but his eyes were dead serious. The face in the mugshot flashed in Mulder's mind. The man was surely a double for the executed serial killer. Only this man was about 15 years older than Ian McGregor.

"My family name isn't important, as it isn't my native one anyway, nor was it Ian's. And I'm also the man you've been looking for. However, we have met already, haven't we?"

"You can't blame me, Brian. Last time, you seemed to forget self-introduction." As he spoke, Mulder's mind was working in rapid-fire.

The agent knew he didn't fit the categories of men Brian chose as his victims: blond and blue eyes. The complexion, Mulder realized, resembled to Brian and Ian McGregor themselves! If Brian's purpose was a revenge on Walter, maybe he would take another approach to Mulder rather than torturing him like his past victims. "Brian, Honestly, I also didn't know Ian McGregor had a twin brother."

"Nobody knew, except for our biological parents. We were separated and adopted illegally when we were born. But I always had a strange feeling that I had another other half, that I was not complete on my own... but let's save my life history for later, my dear Fox. Let's let your Walter know that you're enjoying your stay here. He might be anxious about you by now."

Slowly, Brian picked up the pliers, walked around and stopped behind Mulder, then put his arms around the agent$B!G(Bs rising chest. Warm breath fell on Mulder's neck, then he felt Brian's hands go behind him and slowly feel about his numb fingers.

The crime scene report. The victims' fingers had often been severed...

"Don't touch me." Mulder hissed. It was getting difficult to maintain his cool. Despite his attempts to struggle, Mulder couldn't budge his restraints. Rapidly, his eidetic brain sifted through every detail of this case. Even a tiny overlooked piece of information might give him leverage against this malevolent creature standing before him.

The sexual molestation and the body mutilation...

Don't panic, there has to be a way, Mulder swallowed hard. "Brian, wait -- " He said in an agitated voice. A primitive fear squeezed his gut.

"We've got to talk."

Now, Brian's bigger frame bent over behind him and hummed into Mulder's ears. The tune was "Over the Rainbow." Mulder clenched his fists, but Brian was far stronger. Without much effort, he pried Mulder's fingers open.

From the corner of his eye, Mulder saw Brian reach for the pliers. The agent stiffened and shut his eyes for a second and held his breath.

This is going to be bad. He's gonna kill me, Walter. He's gonna hurt me slowly and painfully as he$B!G(Bs done with the rest of his victims. WALTER, HE'S GONNA KILL ME! WALTER! PLEASE HELP ME$B!D(B

"Shhh, Fox. Nobody will come to help you. I really hate to do this to you, but you'll have to stick with me until you make a certain choice..." Brian's cloying manner contrasted sharply with what he was doing.

Sour water filled Mulder's mouth. He turned his head, trying to catch a glimpse of the pliers behind him.

WALTER --

Next moment, pain exploded in his hands.


Wednesday, November 5
6:00 AM
Crystal City Condominium

Skinner had sat up all night, waiting for Fox to return home, or for a phone call regarding the younger man's whereabouts.

But no calls came. His chest was heavy, as if it were full of sand.

Skinner called in sick. In a sense, he really felt sick, sick with anxiety. He called Scully and Gutierrez, but there was no news. Skinner also checked for any reports of injuries, accidents -- even murder victims, but no one matching Mulder$B!G(Bs description had been admitted to either the hospital or the morgue.

There was only one other possibility. And Walter Skinner waited because he knew what would come next. He braced himself but couldn't help praying for Fox's safety. Skinner knew if something were to happen to Fox, he would die with him at that moment.

And a dead man could do anything.

So Skinner kept waiting in front of the phone.

No phone call was forthcoming. Instead, at 1 PM, a UPS envelope was delivered to apartment number 1704. Walter Skinner carefully opened it, and dropped the envelope on the floor.

The package contained a familiar ring, a Rolex watch, and a set of clean, washed thumbnails.


Wednesday, November 5
6:00 PM
Crystal City Condominium

Dana Scully thought the DD was about to explode at any moment. She had already called Skinner from the Hoover. Surprisingly, her former boss was clean-shaven, clad in his usual crisp white shirt, and was restlessly prowling the spacious apartment. Scully could tell the DD was furious for being unable to do anything for Mulder.

Underneath Skinner's rigid expression, however, Scully saw his anguish.

He was holding up amazingly well, but Scully could tell his nerves were pulled taut.

In the living room, Scully saw Gutierrez hang up his cell phone.

"Well, Agent Scully?" the young agent asked tentatively.

"The DNA was a match -- the nails are Mulder's. According to forensics, the USP envelope and its contents did not yield any trace evidence. The UNSUB seems to be really meticulous." At Skinner's devastated expression, Scully hated herself for saying this.

Now the whole VCS was working on Mulder's abduction. When Skinner had informed Director Freeh of this incident, Freeh had done the same thing he'd done the last time: assigned Scully and Gutierrez to work closely with Skinner, while the rest of the team tracked down every possible lead. Freeh kept the location of exactly where Mulder's belongings had been delivered strictly confidential; the Director didn't want to add to the burden of Skinner's anguish.

And, somehow, no one was asking questions about it.

But Skinner didn't care about that anymore. All he wanted was to get Fox back, safely. Now he was ordered by Freeh to stay home, and was frustrated to the limit.

"Damn!" Gutierrez cursed. "The VCS is still working on Agent Mulder's disappearance as being related to the current case. But so far they've found nothing. Nobody saw or noticed the cab at the Hoover. Now we're checking out all of the taxi companies here in DC, and all of their employees. It will take some time, but it seems to be the only lead so far."

Scully sighed and put the files on the coffee table. "How about Ian McGregor's possible family?" she asked Gutierrez, trying to avoid provoking Skinner. The DD was now standing by the window, looking nowhere. His back was visibly tense.

"Nothing. They're checking his background, but nothing has surfaced so far. We're running out of time." Anxiously, Gutierrez looked at the clock and continued. "It's already been 24 hours since the UNSUB took agent Mulder. Usually -- "

Scully tried to stop him but it was too late.

"Usually, what?"

Skinner couldn't take it anymore. He turned to the agents, who saw the DD's upset face for the first time.

"As it is, he can kill Fox anytime he pleases! He sent no notes, no ransom demand. Just tore off his nails and sent them to me! He can just kill him in order to -- " Suddenly aware that he was barking at them, Skinner held his tongue for a moment. "I'm sorry."

"No, *I* am sorry, sir," Gutierrez said with agitation.

"Sir, you probably need some rest," Scully offered.

"No, I'm fine." Skinner cleared his throat. "I've called Director Freeh again but... It's damn frustrating to be confined here and not be able to do anything for him."

"I know that well, sir, but you still shouldn't be involved in this case in the first place."

"I wish I could be involved, Scully." There was a hint of emotional breakdown in the DD's tense voice. "I wish I could function any way to get Mulder back. So far, I've been just waiting. Scully, I wish the bastard would contact me. Hopefully very soon. Fox hasn't even recovered from the injury."

Scully nodded in sympathy. She was also emotionally tormented, but she couldn't afford to break down for Mulder's sake.


Wednesday, November 5
9:00 PM
Unknown place

"I'm cold," Mulder whispered through chattering teeth. "Let me go..."

Damn it, I promised myself I won't beg. However, Mulder couldn't stand it anymore. The place was cold, too bright, and Mulder was already losing track of time. How long had he been here? He had been delirious from the cold and sleep deprivation. He really needed to get out of here.

The bastard had shot Mulder up with some drug, and he hadn't been able to sleep since then. He could hear his pulse pounding in his ear. Every sound was magnified from the dripping of water from the damp walls to the scraping of his captor's shoes against the rough floor. From his bare bones knowledge of psychotropic drugs, Mulder knew that he might have been drugged with amphetamines. Each time the drug wore off, however, Brian roughly and persistently shook him awake.

The fact that Brian had not hurt him physically, except for ripping his thumbnails off, just served to stir Mulder's sense of fear. Mulder knew Brian's MO too well. Brian savored his victims' anticipation of suffering, maybe more so than the actual application of physical harm.

Mulder shivered involuntarily.

The possibility hit him like a ton of bricks. This time, he might not survive this. Maybe he would never see Walter again.

Damn. Brian whatever-his-name-was had taken Mulder's nails and then his precious ring and watch. Saying it would be a nice announcement for Walter. And then he asked Mulder something.

Damn. Damn. Damn. Walter must be worried by now, Mulder thought bitterly.

Worried to death. Because *he* was stupid. Thinking of the older man made him all the more vulnerable, so Mulder had to rein in his own feelings. The last thing he wanted to do was to give the bastard the satisfaction.

Above all, Mulder wanted to see Walter. Desperately wanted to. But that was the last thing he could do. He would never, *ever* do that. Shit, my fingers hurt! Mulder grit his teeth and tried to preserve his bearing.

Mulder knew what Brain aimed for: torment him enough to lure Walter. Not a chance, Mulder thought. He would be strong for Walter. He had to believe that Scully and other would find him before Brian would break him.

But it was so cold . . .

"How are you feeling, Fox? You don't look very good."

Suddenly, Mulder heard Brian's ostensibly patronizing voice so near, and flinched as his captor touched his burning forehead. Brian was sitting in a chair, right in front of him, totally relaxed. How long has he been watching me? He was suddenly seized with coughing.

"I'm cold," Mulder simply stated. Damn, the bastard was wearing comfortable outdoor gear in this freezing basement warehouse. He was even holding a steaming mug. As if they were having some friendly chat.

"I suppose you are. Maybe you're running a fever. How about your head?"

"Thank you very much for hurting me," Mulder said sarcastically. He had no intention giving an ounce of satisfaction to this bastard.

"Fox, I didn't hurt you. You know about that, don't you? If you were a regular guest of mine, your fingers would have been all long gone, as well as your eyes... I fully appreciate your beautiful hazel eyes so much, so it would be a lot of fun for me to gouge them out, Fox. However, I'm going to treat you like that once I'm convinced you're really, really stubborn."

Brian was smiling but his eyes were not. "You must understand, my dear Fox, that my promise is trustworthy, because I've been waiting for this for as long as 15 years." Brian picked up Mulder's badge and wallet from the wooden table and fumbled with them.

"By the way, I found it interesting that you appointed a Dana Scully as your next of kin... If I remember correctly, she's your partner, isn't she? Why not Walter Skinner? Isn't Skinner the most important person in your life? Are you... *ashamed* of the relationship between you? You are, aren't you?" His voice sounded angry.

"I'd say you're wasting your time." Mulder used every ounce of defiance left in him. Another bout of harsh coughing racked through him. It was more persistent and left his chest on fire each time he heaved. "I'll never call him."

"No, I didn't think so, and I understand. It might be really tough for you and Skinner to remain in the closet. The insignia on your ring is Skinner's family crest$B!D(B And that expensive watch with that lovely, touching inscription. I'm impressed. Once I thought of taking his wife.

But you can't get much fun from women. I'm glad that I waited.

Apparently, Skinner dotes on you and really cares for you. The long wait has been rewarding.

"I know where and how you live with DD Skinner. If need be, I can recite every detail of your life to the best of my knowledge, Fox."

Mulder didn't say anything: he was trying desperately to find a way to get free. The restraints on both his ankles and wrists were so tight that Mulder was afraid they were uselessly numb.

"You live in condo number 1704 with Walter Skinner, and wake up usually around seven if it's fine because you run in the morning. Skinner is more of the early bird, isn't he? His escorted limo shows up around 7:30.

On weekdays, you two have little time to have fun, with you often being out of town and Skinner being a workaholic. What a waste of a life, when he's got such a charming life-partner as you! When you get sick from the illness that you two would be kind of shy about, you have a nice home doctor in Baltimore. But you two have a nice, isolated cabin for weekends." At Mulder's shocked face, Brian chuckled cheerfully. "Ah, I got your attention at last!"

"That's bullshit," Mulder whispered.

"Which one of you picked up that nice green curtain in the cabin bedroom?

Chic, comfortable and expensive. Maybe Skinner, right? He has good taste.

Let me see . . . you have two medicine cabinets in the bathroom. Skinner seems to be meticulous, so he's using the one in the right."

Mulder was speechless. Brian had been there.

"See, you believe me now. Maybe you should reconsider inactivating the cabin's security system when you are not there," Brian chuckled. "Of course, it took me a looong time to learn this much about you two. It was fun, too. Because I've had nothing to do but to track down Walter Skinner and make him pay for what he did a long time ago: your Walter killed Ian -- my Ian."

Brian sipped his coffee and enjoyed its aroma. Suddenly Mulder felt an aching thirst. He hadn't eaten or drank anything for the past 24 hours.

"You know, Ian and I were really having fun. We didn't know we were twins until we found each other quite accidentally. Ian's boyfriend at that time was on a business trip in my town, and while looking for a one-night stand, he found me in a bar! Of course, after Ian and I had our dramatic reunion, that poor guy ended up as *our* first guest.

"We were really identical, inside and out. As a child, I loved to kill small creatures such as cats and dogs, and so did Ian. After I successfully got rid of my foster parents and inherited their money, I secretly moved to Austin and together Ian and I had a lot of fun."

There *had* been an accomplice, Mulder thought bitterly. The DNA and the fingerprints had been only of Ian McGregor. But identical twins had also identical DNA and fingerprints. And, if the twins had been adopted illegally, there would have been no official records. Unless there was a confession.

"We were the perfect team, Agent Mulder, but we had only two years together." Brian's voice had a hint of tears. "Only two years! Thanks to SAC Walter Skinner, Ian and I were separated$B!D(B for good. Ian protected me, he didn't tell them about me. He didn't negotiate. He did nothing to harm me. Until the last moment. I wanted to go with him, but I thought, 'I've got to live and avenge my Ian.'" As Brian's voice became more excited, Mulder became all the more scared.

"He was like my father, my mother. He was my only family. He was everything I had. I... I promised Ian that I'd get even with your Walter.

Of course, I had to lay low because of my face, but I've been keeping track of him all these years, just waiting for the chance. I've never lost him. But just killing him wasn't enough for me, my dear Fox. I wanted to take away from him what was most important to him, just like he's done to me. And that's the reason you're here now," Brian finished, looking down at Mulder with cold eyes.

"So, you're going to kill me anyway." Just like he'd done with all his other victims. Mulder had to voice the forbidden words. He thought he was going to pass out; the fear, fever and tension were almost driving him over the edge.

Brian didn't answer and just kept looking at him. Then he licked his lower lip.

"Yes or no. It totally depends on you. As I said before. Make a call, Fox. Ask Skinner to come here."

"What?" Mulder felt the chill again.

"It's simple, Fox. For you to be comfortable, you only have to make a phone call. As I've said before, I really don't want to hurt you, Fox.

Ask Skinner to drop by here, then you'll soon be free. I promise."

"I won't buy it, Brian," Mulder spat out. Who would believe the promise from a criminal, especially a psychopath? "I won't let you kill him."

"You're free to believe or not to believe, Fox, but I don't want to kill *you*. Believe me." It might be even harder for you if you made him come here and die, and I'd love to see that, Brian said to himself. Well, I can see that later... "But I'm rather afraid for your well-being, since you don't look very good." Again, his smooth hand went around Mulder's cheek, neck, heaving chest . . . and even down to his crotch, rubbing there briefly. Mulder gasped, betraying his surprise. Brian licked his lower lips, the put his hand on Mulder's chest.

"You might even have developed pneumonia... you're wheezing. You need to rest, sleep and eat a little. I can give you all of this if you'll be a good boy and agree to call Skinner. How's that?"

"No, I'll never call him." Mulder glared at him as hard as possible.

"Okay. I'll try to be more patient with you. Meanwhile, do you want to chill out?"

"What?" Suddenly Brian turned around and headed for the corner of the room. There was a battered tin bucket, which Brian picked up. As he was approaching him, Mulder saw it was full of water.

"No. D-don't."

"The water would be good for your fever, Fox. Or will you call Skinner?"

"No."

I won't call Walter. I'll never call Walter. Mulder repeated these words in despair.

"Then let's make you more comfortable," Brian said cheerfully, and there was a splashing sound that echoed around the room.


Wednesday, November 6
6:00 AM
Crystal City Condominium

"Fox!"

Shouting, Walter Skinner sat bolt upright on the sofa in the den. The sudden move caused him to experience slight nausea, and he winced. His heart was racing and, for a short moment, he didn't know what was going on. It was bright around him, he was in the den -- and then he remembered everything.

"Damn!" Skinner saw the wall clock and cursed. For a few hours, he had fallen asleep. The documents were neatly arranged on the table and a blanket was covering his body. Must have been Scully, Skinner thought bitterly. There was a note on the table saying that Scully and Gutierrez had returned to the Hoover. During the night, they'd received a promising lead.

Oh, please, God! Please let them find him!

Putting his hands on his forehead, Skinner prayed. Right now, it was all he could do for Fox. In Skinner's nightmare, Mulder had been alone, hurt and calling for him.

Silence pervaded the condo. So quiet that it stung Skinner. He stalked over to the nearest window and looked vacantly at the morning light. It was going to be a fine day today.

Skinner knew that, at this very moment, Fox was being kept somewhere and was suffering. His mouth tasted bitter and dry.

The DD had been convincing himself that the UNSUB would contact him to get revenge. But what if he was wrong? The UNSUB could simply kill Mulder and return his body. This dreadful possibility grabbed him from inside, and Skinner dashed for the bathroom, where he retched and dry heaved. Then he sobbed, hating himself and everything in the world. It wasn't fair. Not fair at all.


Wednesday, November 6
3:00 PM
Unknown place

Nagged by constant pain and discomfort, Fox Mulder groaned. His mind was blurred, as well as his sight. He was stiff all over. Every joint in his body was now screaming. He wanted to lie down, lean on the one whom he loved more than anyone and who loved him more than anyone. To have that one near, who would comfort him and tell him that everything would be okay. That he didn't have to worry about anything, didn't have to be afraid of anything.

Where am I? Fox wondered. Why he couldn't see things well? Everything was foggy and sunk into the grayish fog. Why does it hurt so much?

'Fox.'

He heard someone's distant voice.

'Fox, baby?'

The deep, warm, caring voice. And the touch. Walter. The name almost made him cry with aching affection. Yes, it's Walter. Why did I ever forget him? Why is it so cold here?

Walter, I'm here. I'm here, please come help me. I can't move. I'm chilled to the bone and it hurts a lot.

'Fox, I'm here. I've got you.'

A strong arm was put around Fox's torso but still he couldn't see anything. Panicked, Fox tried to rub his eyes but, again, he couldn't lift a finger. I can't see you, Walter! Fox cried out. Why can't I see you? Where are you?

Wait, I know. This happened before. A while ago, when I was hit on the head... then Walter came to the hospital and sat up with me. Am I still in the hospital with Walter? Or at home? Mulder didn't know.

How many times have I become sick? But, every time, Walter was there for him and encouraged him, saying it would be soon okay.

At home, in hospitals and in their cabin. Wherever. Walter was always there for him.

I'm sorry Walter, Mulder mumbled. I won't do this again. I'm really sorry that I always make you worry.

Walter said nothing, but a hot breath touched Fox's cheek and he surrendered himself to the older man, as always. Nothing had been more comforting. Then Fox felt Walter's hands, big and powerful, with firm knuckles but extremely gentle fingers only for him, tracing his hairline, his lips and his jaw line, then down to the neck, gently teasing him.

'It's okay, Fox,' his voice said. 'It's okay. I love you...'

The end of his words slurred as the gentle lips touched Fox's closed eyelids, cheeks, and then lips. The kisses trailed down his neck and near the right collarbone, as the older man's body and its warmth covered his. It was just like he was being enveloped by Walter's presence. Like he was immersed in him. A pleasant weight of a hefty and masculine body settled onto him and Fox gasped a sigh of relief. Now he could feel safe and protected. Even if his body was still burning and hurting so much. Fox didn't care. All he needed know was to be one with Walter. And when his body was finally connected to his lover, nothing was more pleasant. They were both so hot and it seemed to Fox that they were fused into one entity.

'You're so precious to me. You are more precious to me than my own life.' A deep, hypnotizing voice. Walter often said it to him when they made love.

Baby Baby Baby.

I love you, Walter --

"Fox, wake up."

Suddenly, a rough hand jerked Mulder awake. He gasped in shock -- and pain. Then Walter was gone.

"Fox!" Someone was shaking him violently.

"No!" Already sobbing, Mulder pleaded to his tormentor voicelessly.

"Please..."

No, no, no, please don't do this to me. Please don't take Walter away from me.

The gap between dreaming and reality was so enormous that Mulder felt as if he'd fallen from a three-story building. Then someone's hand slapped him hard across his cheek mercilessly. The bright white lamp was just before his eyes and it stabbed them. A sharp pain ran through Mulder from temple to hipbone.

"Did I interrupt anything?" A pair of smiling eyes stared at him.

Oh, no! It was Brian.

"Go away," Mulder protested weakly. "Just go away..." His clothes were still wet from last night's drenching, and now he was freezing.

"But I thought I heard you sweetly talking to your lover... Were you dreaming of him making love to you? Hmmm?"

A knowing hand teased his crotch and Mulder flinched, shouting, "Don't touch me!"

The agent was taken with a fit of coughing. It was a violent one and lasted more than a minute. His throat, his chest, his stomach everything hurt, and he couldn't stop the tears from filling his eyes or the saliva from his mouth.

"Poor baby." Brian ran his hand over Mulder's forehead but didn't bother to wipe his sweat. Instead, he licked his own palm, which was wet from the agent's sweat, and smiled. "You definitely have pneumonia and your temperature is about 104, I'm afraid... hey, you're not supposed to sleep, Fox. That's our deal, remember?" Another merciless shake of his shoulder.

"No... p-please let me sleep, let me go home." Mulder shook his head. "I want to go home."

Again, Mulder was delirious and nearly passing out: he couldn't understand why this stranger was making him suffer this much or why he was here, why Walter was not here beside him.

It was too much, all of it.

"Then, will you make a call?"

That question suddenly dragged Mulder out of his delirium. Strangely, for a short moment, his consciousness was clear, even in pain and fever.

Mulder looked at Brian, hard, panting.

"Here you are."

Brian was holding a familiar cell phone right under Mulder's nose. Even if he knew their telephone numbers by heart, breaking Mulder's tendency to protect Skinner was more important for Brian.

For safety reasons, Mulder hadn't registered Skinner's private cell phone number as a speed dial number. Star 1 was for Scully, Star 2 was for his mother in Connecticut. His mother, who hadn't called him back for years... Would she miss me if I were dead? the agent wondered. Would she cry if I died?

"It's easy. Call Skinner and you'll be relieved from the suffering."

"No." The answer was barely audible. Of course it means you'll put me out of this misery, doesn't it, you bastard?

"Why not? Don't you want to see Walter? Hear his voice?"

Mulder wanted to hear Skinner's assuring voice. But it would be the end if he ever did that. Mulder was almost over the edge, and one phone call and his lover's voice would break him completely.

"I... I can't."

"But everything has a limit. You're dying right now, Fox. You're *dying*.

I can tell that your condition is deteriorating. Or do you want to die?"

Mulder said nothing. It was really getting harder to think anything clearly.

Brian was silent, his face emotionless. The serial killer turned around, and made for the door. Maybe he would leave me alone. At least for a while.

Mulder was wrong. Shortly, Brian returned to him -- with the bucket.

"Well, Fox," Brian smiled. "Since you are so unreasonable, I'll make it easier for you to reconsider. If you call Skinner, you'll be nice and warm . . . I promise. See that warm parka and blanket on the table? This bucket or the parka." Brian shook the bucket threateningly. "What do you say, Fox?"

Mulder's body was betraying him, and he was shaking.

I'd rather die than betray anyone. Especially Walter. He was the one of very few people who had never betrayed Mulder, and who had been always there for him.

I can't call Walter. I would never call him, Fox thought desperately.

But he was nearly over the edge. But he wanted to sleep. Thousands of "buts" were reeling in his mind. If he was going to die, Mulder desperately wanted to see Walter one last time.

"I won't call him!" Mulder's hoarse voice echoed through the walls.


Brian looked with mixed feelings down at the limp form tied to the chair.

His victim was really stubborn and holding up better than he had expected. All wet again, the agent was breathing heavily now and barely conscious. Food, water and sleep deprivation were having the desired effect on the poor agent.

However, today, for the first time, Fox broke down and sobbed openly, for a brief moment. The agent was delirious, his physical and mental state was nearly over the edge. It was a good sign.

Hypothermia was a very simple weapon. Adding amphetamines into the mix counteracted the apathetic stupor and allowed his victims to experience every freezing moment. Tomorrow, Mulder would give in. Brian was convinced of it, and looked over his shoulder at the calendar. Perfect.

Tomorrow was the 7th of November. The day Ian McGregor had perished in the death chamber 12 years ago.

Tomorrow, Brian would kill both of them. That was for sure. As for *how*, that remained to be decided later. Brian licked his lips, still looking at Mulder, yawning himself from lack of sleep. After he killed Walter Skinner, Brian would have fun with Fox Mulder. His agonized screams would be sweet to his ears.

Brian picked up the syringe and checked for air bubbles. He roughly grabbed Mulder's arm and plunged the needle into one cold arm. Mulder flinched.

"Noooo..."

"Yes!" Brian hissed as he tossed the empty syringe into the trash. He banged the door behind him and went to take a nap in the next room. He fell asleep to the sounds of Mulder's wordless moans.


Thursday, November 7
5:00 AM
Crystal City Condominium

Daybreak was still far off, and the city was dark outside the window.

Walter Skinner sagged on the sofa and covered his face in frustration and agony. There was no progress and no new leads. Mulder had been missing for four days now, and the DD knew that time was really running out.

Scully and Gutierrez had dropped by his apartment very late last night to re-check and re-evaluate all the evidence, all the information and background of the whole case, but nothing came of it.

What was most frustrating for Skinner was that he virtually could do nothing for Fox. How hard he wanted to participate in rescuing Mulder!

But, being a Deputy Director and not a field agent, Skinner had to sit back and wait.

There was one thing only he could do.

So Walter Skinner had waited, enduring all of the unbearable pain and horror.

He had been convinced that the UNSUB originally wanted to get him, not Fox. He was sure. More precisely, he wanted to be sure.

And there was one dreadful possibility. If the UNSUB forced Fox to make a choice... Fox, you don't have to be a hero, Skinner tried to tell him with his mind. You don't have to suffer. Please don't endure anything for me. Ask the SOB to call me. Fox, call me.

What if he was wrong to believe that the UNSUB would contact him anyway?

What if Mulder had been killed already, only to be found in some remote, pathetic dumpsite? It made perfect sense, though. That would be the most effective and perfect revenge against Walter Skinner. He would live every second of the rest of his life cursing himself. If Fox died, everyday he lived would be unbearable torment.

"Fox," Skinner whispered into his palm and found that his fingers were trembling. They were numb and cold. He knew the feeling; when he had been in Vietnam, his fingers had been like this all the time.

Skinner was startled to hear his private cell phone begin to ring. He dashed to the table where it was lying. Very few people knew the cell's number. He hesitated for a second before picking it up, hopeful and afraid at the same time.

"Sir?"

It was Scully. Her hesitant, soft voice shook Skinner hard. The tension and its sudden release were too much for his battered psyche. If he would cry, this might be the time.

"Yes?" Skinner sighed tiredly and said nothing more. He had given Scully and Gutierrez this number since Mulder vanished. Skinner's lips were numb and cold. Except for the short nap, he hadn't slept for almost four days and had hardly eaten.

"Are you okay, sir?"

The DD was surprised by her deep concern. I must sound way too ragged, he thought bitterly, but he didn't care anymore.

"No, I'm fine. Anything?"

"Gutierrez and I have just found a possible lead. The Austin field office just returned the detailed inquiry on Ian McGregor's parents and family acquaintances. One old lady, a close friend of the family, remembered that Ian's mother had once mentioned that her son had been adopted through a lawyer named Charles Petersen in Philadelphia.

According to her, the lawyer was 'very capable.'"

"Go on."

"In fact, this lawyer was murdered back in 1980. His body was found in a dumpsite in Philadelphia. The MO was surprisingly similar to Ian McGregor's. Furthermore, we tried to dig up some information about his clients -- nothing much was found, though, because of lawyer-client privilege -- but there were two sets of clients who also died in 1980, just like Charles Petersen. One set was Ian McGregor's parents, who were killed in a fire. The other was an elderly New York couple named Early.

The Earlys were killed while they were driving to the airport and the brakes of their car malfunctioned. According to a neighbor, they had a son named Brian who inherited his parents' money and moved to California." Scully cut her words off, breathing in. "His appearance was identical to that of Ian McGregor."

"So he might be a blood relative of McGregor. And this person might have killed his foster parents and the lawyer, possibly with Ian McGregor, all in 1980," Skinner said, not surprised much. "Where is he now?"

"We don't know yet. He seemed to vanish from the earth. Apparently, Brian Early didn't move to California -- at least, he never paid income tax there. We're expecting a further report on this Brian Early."

"Thank you. Where are you now?"

"Gutierrez and I are on our way to your place, sir. We'll be there in five minutes. The necessary information will be available soon through our server. We have something more to discuss."

"I see." Skinner hung up. Courageous Scully. Abruptly, the DD remembered what Mulder had said once. She was strong, Walter. When you were taken and I thought I'd lost you, I lost my hope, I lost everything. But Scully was there and helped me the whole time. I might really have lost everything if it hadn't been for her.

You were right, Fox, Skinner thought ruefully, and thanked Scully in his mind.

Then his cell phone rang again, while he was holding it for dear life.

Skinner pushed the button. Might be Scully again. "Yes."

There was a silence. And labored breathing.

"Hello?" Skinner asked, and his heart skipped a beat. "Fox?" Then he heard a sob.

Oh, God, let it be him! the DD prayed. Let it be him. Please say it's not too late yet. I'll do anything. I'll do anything for him "Fox, answer me! Where are you?"

"W... Walter..." Mulder's voice faded at each hoarse intake of breath.

A hot wave of relief filled Skinner's chest and he gasped.

"I'm sorry, Walter. I'm really sorry. I didn't want..." Mulder's words were slurred, incoherent. Then he started to cough violently. It was so painful that it made Skinner's gut ache.

"Fox, are you okay? Fox! Talk to me!"

Desperately talking to his lover, Skinner realized what was tormenting Mulder right now. Patiently and painfully, he waited until his lover stopped coughing, then said gently, "Fox, it's okay. I understand. Just tell me where you are. I'll go wherever you are now."

"Walter..."

"It's really okay. I'll go get you now. Where are you?"

A broken whisper. "I... I can't..."

His voice drifted away, as if talking to someone near him. It nearly drove Skinner mad to hear Mulder sobbing so brokenly, like a lost child.

He had never heard his lover weep with such intensity.

I'll kill the bastard, Skinner thought in a blind rage.

"Fox, tell me! It's okay...it's okay..."

He heard a deep, resigned breath, and then Mulder repeated the address hollowly. "You -- you must come..." Mulder couldn't finish the instructions. His voice was broken completely. "Walter, I want to see you." The ending of his words was slurred and cracked. "I want to see you."

"I'll be there, alone. Hold on, Fox -- " Then the line went dead abruptly.

Skinner hung up and scribbled a note for Scully, then left it on the table. Scully had said she and Gutierrez would be here soon. The DD grabbed his service weapon and headed out.


"You're really a good boy, Fox."

Smiling, Brian took the cell phone away from Mulder. Walter Skinner's poor baby was barely conscious and really weak. He was wheezing, too.


Riding up the Viva Towers' elevator, Dana Scully rubbed her face despite herself and regretted it instantly. Her makeup was messed up. Actually, it had been messed up long ago. Scully looked at Gutierrez standing next to her. They hadn't slept for more than seven or eight hours during the last three days, but the young agent was still holding up well. Scully had thought the *last* time had been bad enough, but she was wrong.

Skinner was almost over the edge, and would be overcome with worry at any moment.

The two agents reached the 17th floor and made for 1704. Surprisingly, the door was open. Taylor greeted them there, staring at them pleadingly.

"Taylor, where's your master?" Scully asked, and the dog whined sadly.

Alarmed, they entered the apartment to find it empty.

"Agent Scully, over here!" Picking up a memo from the table in the living room, Gutierrez called.

In it, a clue as to his and Mulder's location was written.

"Let's go after him," Scully said, already in motion. "I'll call Director Freeh from the car."


Thursday, November 7
7:00 AM
Sewing Factory Site

Walter Skinner got out of the car and assessed the place before he entered. A signboard said that the factory was being auctioned off after the sewing factory went bankrupt. It was so battered that the vast buildings were about to tumble down at any moment. There was much graffiti on the dirty brick walls, and tons of garbage illegally dumped and accumulating nearby.

The strong wind pushed away the morning clouds. It was going to be a bright day. However, the building before him was dark and gloomy, unwilling to give up any of its secrets.

There was a sound; something heavy was banging against something.

Skinner climbed over the wall without difficulty. He carefully scanned the building, counting windows and doors, trying to determine its layout from the outside.

The banging sound was a metal door hitting the wall. Only this door was open. How thoughtful, Skinner winced. The DD took out his flashlight and gun, and went in. The wet and cold air surrounded his body.

The door led to steps down to a dark basement. The steps were narrow, and it took some time to reach the basement. The visibility was fairly low. From its appearance, this place must have been a material warehouse or the power maintenance section. Big thick pipes were running in the low ceiling. Except for the discarded machines and broken forklifts, the place was empty. The damp smell pervaded everywhere.

After his eyes were used to the semi-darkness, Skinner proceeded carefully. He didn't have to use his flashlight, as it was not entirely dark: the skylights provided some illumination.

As he walked slowly, Skinner's senses sharpened. He ignored the pounding of his heart, forcing himself to calm down and catalog every bit of information the warehouse had yielded so far. He wasn't afraid of the bastard or for his own safety; only Fox's safety was paramount. However, the gnawing fear of what he might soon find couldn't be ignored.

Skinner turned sharply when he heard something.

Desperately, Skinner scanned the place. Beyond the big pillars, he found a room, hidden by abandoned machines, almost near the dead-end wall. A thin layer of light was leaking from its closed door. Then he heard the sound again. it was a hoarse, stifling cough.

Fox.

No doubt it would be his destination. Quickly, Skinner checked if there was any other entry to the room, or if he could get a visual of the inside. Nothing. Slowly, Skinner made for the room and opened the door.

Next moment, Before Skinner was blinded by a bright light, he saw his lover. Everything turned to white nothingness but the image of his Fox, sitting on a chair in the center of the empty room. That image was burnt into Skinner's eyes.

Mulder was not alone: someone was standing behind the agent.

"Hello, Mr. Skinner," the man said, putting a handgun to Mulder's head.

"Walter, I'm..." Mulder tried to say, only to be interrupted by a fit of violent coughing.

It took a while for Skinner to adjust his eyes to the light. It was unusually bright. Skinner knew it was going to be very bad, because Mulder's captor wasn't wearing a mask to hide his identity. The DD knew he wouldn't let either of them leave this place alive.

Likewise, Skinner wasn't surprised to see that familiar face. Ian McGregor, albeit aged about 15 years, grinned before him.

Then he was jolted to see Mulder again, how sick he seemed to be. The younger man was horribly weakened, close to passing out. His face was gaunt, both cheeks were red, and his eyes' tense wariness barely disguised a bone-deep exhaustion. Despite the frigid air in the room, Mulder was wearing only his dress shirt and trousers, which were damp no, *wet*--and sticking unpleasantly to his heaving body. He was also barefoot. Mulder's limbs were tied to the chair, and a wire encircled his throat to tie him securely to the back of the chair.

Skinner quivered with rage. He wasn't appeased by the apparent lack of blood on Mulder's person. The only traces he could find were on Mulder's shirtcuffs.

"What did you do to him?" Suppressing his rage, Skinner addressed the man, who kept smiling. "What did you do to him?!? Answer me!"

"Nothing serious, Skinner. Though, your Fox didn't seem to be feeling well when I took him. To my chagrin, Fox refused to cooperate with me.

So I've been punishing him by not giving him anything -- no food, no sleep. Lots of water, but I can't say if he drank any."

A rhythmic, noisy and low sound was echoing inside Skinner's head. It was his throbbing, pulsating, screaming rage. For a second, he literally saw red. He was being choked by his own wrath.

"But it was Fox's choice not to call you. I've never expected him to be this stubborn. A good boy. Faithful to you... until this morning, that is."

"No...stop it," Mulder protested, unable to bear the accusation from his tormentor. The younger man didn't want to look at Skinner's face, so angry, battered and anguished. It was all his fault. "Walter, I'm sorry."

"Fox, you did nothing wrong," Skinner said, trying to be calm. "I'm glad you called me."

"Ooh, how touching." The man pressed the gun hard to Mulder's exposed throat, making the agent gag.

The painful moan hit Skinner like a hammer. He lost his cool but didn't care anymore. Skinner advanced a few steps, shouting, "Get your hands off him!"

"Then why don't you drop your weapon? Do you want to further damage him?

Drop your gun! Kick it to me *now*!"

Gritting his teeth, Skinner complied. He stood there, silently glaring at the man before him. Skinner's heart lurched as a brief second of raw terror filtered through Mulder's impassively schooled face.

"Why are you doing this to him?" Skinner growled. "It's me you want."

"Because it's more effective. You did the exact same thing to me, Mr.

Skinner. Remember the old case in Austin?"

"Ian McGregor. I'll never forget that case," Skinner spat out without missing a beat. "You're his twin. You killed Claude Danchaud and stole his identity. You killed those men with Ian and once Ian was gone, on your own."

"Exactly. Just call me Brian."

Skinner held his breath when Brian's agitation caused him to dig the barrel of his gun harder against Mulder's neck.

"A poor guy whose other half was ripped away because of you. Ian was executed exactly 12 years ago today. For your information, Danchaud was our first guest. You killed Ian so I've been watching you to get even.

And I took the liberty of inviting your Fox to be my guest."

"Ian McGregor was a criminal," Skinner stated flatly. It was risky challenging Brian like this, but Skinner wasn't about to let his wild statements pass him by. "I didn't kill him. He killed himself...the justice system simply did its job."

"But he was so precious to me."

"It still doesn't justify what he did, or what *you* have done, Brian.

Why don't you release Fox? He has nothing to do with all of this." Buy time, Skinner told himself. A few more minutes were all he could give Scully and Gutierrez. He had to save Mulder by any and all means. "The FBI knows where you live now, and it's just matter of time before you're arrested. Your time is running out."

"It doesn't actually matter, Skinner." Brian licked his lips, shoved the gun so hard that the agent could scarcely squirm away.

Skinner felt as if his own heart would stop, watching Mulder struggle against the wire.

"I don't mind getting caught. After Ian was killed there was no purpose in my life except to avenge him by killing you, Skinner. I've been doing my recent killings rather sloppily so that your Fox could track me down."

"Release him," Skinner demanded. It was getting harder to stand still, watching the bastard touching Mulder's upper body.

"I can't do that, Skinner, and you're in no position to give me orders.

Now your life -- or your Fox's life, more precisely -- is at my mercy.

I'd really love to see your face when the most important person in your life is taken away from you forever, like this -- " Suddenly, he released the safety of his gun, which was still pushed hard against Mulder's temple. His finger was dancing teasingly on the trigger.

"NO!"

"Hey, I'm feeling sooo good and important. Now look at you, Skinner. You can't stop me killing Fox. You can't protect him. You can't do anything about it. Just a little more pressure on the trigger and your precious Fox's brains will be scattered all around. How are you feeling right now?

Angry? Desperate? Helpless?"

Brian's voice rose gradually. He grew animated at the very visible distress of former SAC Skinner. "That how I felt when you arrested my Ian! When you killed my Ian! I'm just returning the favor!"

"No! Don't do that! Don't kill him!" Skinner shouted in despair. "Don't kill Fox. Release him...please. I'll do anything."

Begging was the last thing he wanted to do, but there was no option. He had to save Mulder no matter what, whatever slim chance there might be.

"Really? Are you saying you'll do anything to save Fox? You can *say* anything," Brian snickered at him. "Words aren't enough, Skinner. You've got to prove it."

His eyes were cold and cruel, enjoying the torment.

"Then let me prove it." Skinner nodded and looked at Brian hard without blinking. He kept his hands down along his body. "Do whatever you want with me."

"Walter, no!" Mulder cut in, his own control finally snapping. "He'll just kill us anyway!"

"But you'll never know, Fox." Brian gave a light peck to Mulder's cheek.

The agent wriggled in disgust. "Okay, if you can prove yourself, I'll let Fox go."

"Walter, NO!"

"How can I be sure that you'll let him go?" Skinner asked.

"You have my word. Now..." After a short silence, Brian took out another gun from his hip pocket. It was a revolver.

"This one belonged to Ian. By the way, do you like to play roulette? Yes, *that* kind of roulette."

Damn. Despite himself, Skinner stiffened but tried his best not to show it to Mulder.

"Walter, please." Mulder couldn't believe it. All of this was absurd and cruel nonsense. "Don't make him do this to you..." His vision blurred, again. The damned wire was now eating into the skin of his neck and it was getting really hard to breathe.

"Come here, but slowly. Yes. This way. Stop right there."

When Skinner stopped in front of Mulder, Brian stepped aside and held the DD at gunpoint, aiming at his massive chest. Mulder was looking desperately at both of them, with eyes wide open.

Skinner was calm -- at least he looked so, and the older man even managed a faint, assuring smile towards his lover. Mulder's fury caused tears to well up in his eyes. He knew too well the psyche of serial killers. There was no way Brian would set him free. Why would Skinner play his game?

"The rules are simple. There's only one bullet in the chamber. You stand in front of Fox, and I'll put this gun to your head and pull the trigger.

Yes, only *I* get to pull the trigger. This could be called a modified, one-way Russian Roulette."

Brian was smiling at Skinner, who was silent. The serial killer wanted to see any sign of fear or faltering, but there was none so far.

Skinner's expression was even, displaying only silent hatred towards McGregor. Brian didn't like that.

Well, wait and see...

"If you stand all the way and take the bullet eventually, proving your word, I'll let Fox go. If you chicken out and try to move or run, I'll shoot you anyway and kill Fox very, very slowly."

Skinner said nothing, but Mulder could see what the older man was thinking.

"No, Walter," Mulder hissed. "He can't be trusted!"

This wasn't even Russian Roulette at all, as only Skinner would be exposed to the danger. Both options offered by Brian would end with Skinner dead.

"There's no guarantee that he'll keep his word! I don't want to live if you -- "

"Don't say that, Fox!" Skinner cut him off sharply. Skinner couldn't believe Brian either, but there was no other option for him. All he needed was a little time.

"Why do you think I can't be trusted? Fox, you hurt my feelings." Maybe it'd be more interesting to *really* allow Fox to live after he saw Skinner killed in front of him and because of him, Brian mused. Poor Fox would blame himself for the rest of his life.

"Well, Skinner, what do you say? Would you like to play and prove yourself?"

"I will," Skinner said.

"No!" Mulder gasped. "Please don't do this!"

This was insane. This was truly insane. Why were they caught up in this nightmare? The panic was building inside the agent and, for one short moment, he forgot about the cold, numbness and pain all over his body.

All he could think about was Walter. Walter's imminent death.

"Okay. Let's get down to business. Face Fox."

"Walter! No!"

Mulder heard Skinner breathe in deeply, then the older man turned to him, his back to the serial killer. The burly body of his lover was big enough to block Brian from Mulder's sight. Mulder saw this in horror, trembling.

I have to stop this. I have to stop this. Or Walter will be killed.

Killed right in front of me.

"Walter, please! Run! Don't do this! Don't do this for me!"

Then an unbelievable thing happened. Skinner smiled. Like nothing bad was happening. Like he smiled when they were at home. Assuring.

Encouraging. Loving. Just like that.

Why is he smiling? Doesn't he understand what's happening? Mulder was so frantic that he was hyperventilating. Everything around him was turning red. From the corner of his eye, Mulder could see with horror that Brian had put the revolver to the side of Skinner's head, so that Mulder could watch the spectacle clearly.

"Okay. Are you ready?"

"No!" Mulder couldn't keep his eyes off the gun. With a small but distinct metallic sound, the safety was off. The hammer was falling ...

falling ...

A single tear fell from Skinner's eye.

"Shhh." Still smiling, Skinner reached out with his right hand and gently shielded Mulder's own eyes. Fox shouldn't see him get killed.

"You'll be all right, Fox."

Then choking silence fell and --

CLICK! Mulder felt a small jolt on his eyelids.

"NO!!"

Skinner's hand was still there, securely covering his eyes. The hand was warm and big, smelling of the aftershave Mulder knew so well. All was going to be lost to him if he didn't stop this madness.

"Oh, you're lucky this time." Brian's voice rose with excitement. He was a bit disappointed that Walter Skinner was so calm; the man had only reacted with instinctive reflex. Brian didn't like that so, without warning, he squeezed the trigger for the second time.

CLICK! Another painful outcry from Fox Mulder. "No! PLEASE! No!"

Skinner was standing there, unnerved. His eyes were fixed to the younger man tied to the chair. He didn't want to die, let alone leave Fox behind.

Still, this was the only thing he could do for the younger man. Buying time was their only hope.

Don't cry, Fox, Skinner told him with his mind as he felt dampness under his upraised palm. Don't cry for me. You'll live after ...this.

Find a way to get over me after I'm gone.

... CLICK!

"Brian! NO! DON'T KILL HIM!"

Mulder couldn't even hear his own voice screaming, begging the killer to stop. His heart was going to explode. His life would be over.

"KILL ME!" Mulder begged desperately. "Kill me, kill me, kill me if you take him away!"

Mulder heard Brian's hysterical, triumphant laughter -- then the voice of Walter Skinner, quivering with emotion.

"Live for me, Fox."

Eerie silence -- then the gunshot shattered everything.

Suddenly, Mulder's retinas were flooded with painful light.

Walter's hand was ripped from his face.

Brian was standing in front of him. Mulder couldn't even look down his feet at his lover, restrained by the wire on his neck. The only sound was his labored, harsh breathing.

Walter.

Wrath burnt his entire being. Mulder was beyond caring if he himself was alive or dead. He frowned in incomprehension as Brian swayed.

Brian reeled and fell on the concrete floor, with a flower of blood blooming on his back.


For a split second, Walter Skinner thought he was dead. Everything went numb and silent.

"Sir! Mulder!"

Scully's voice and the click of her heels brought Skinner back completely. Gutierrez was running with her. Both agents' guns were drawn.

After assessing that Brian wasn't moving, Scully nodded to Gutierrez.

"Untie Mulder," she ordered as she crouched against the dying man. She administered CPR on the mortally wounded Brian.

The DD spun to see Mulder, who was deathly pale and quiet. Skinner sprang to his feet, and cupped his lover's face. Mulder was so still, so silent. He stared at Skinner with painfully stunned eyes. Skinner broke into a sudden cold sweat. His heart was frantically beating against his chest. Everything lost reality. All sounds were muffled, the consequence of a gun fired in an enclosed space.

"Fox," Skinner said in a tight voice. He removed his jacket and placed it over his lover. Behind Mulder, Gutierrez was frantically unravelling the ropes and wires. "Fox, it's over."

Then after an agonizing silence, Skinner felt Fox stir. With a deep sigh, Skinner touched his lover's quivering face. "All over, babe."

Mulder barely nodded. His face was still blank. Slowly, his head rolled, and he fainted onto Skinner's hands.

"Sir, are you all right?" His agents asked Skinner at the same time.

Scully's coat and hands were crimson-stained from the dead man's blood.

She shook her head at her fruitless efforts of CPR.

Skinner nodded vaguely, then noticed a thin streak of smoke rising from Gutierrez's gun.

"Thank you," Skinner said to him in a tight voice. The young agent nodded shakily. Gutierrez couldn't afford to think about this now. All he knew was he was right on time. And that was what mattered most.

"Thank you, Scully." Skinner felt the sign of one helluva headache around his temples.

"Let's get him free, sir."

Then the three started to release Mulder from the chair. His battered and limp body slumped into Skinner. The DD wrapped Mulder with his jacket, anything to keep him warm.

That was when it hit Skinner hard, the fear, tension and anguish Fox had endured finally overwhelming him. From the touch, Skinner knew it. His throat closed up and he choked. His legs lost what remaining strength they had. He slumped to the floor with Mulder tight in his arms.

"Oh, Fox."

Skinner buried his head into the icy shoulder of his lover, and briefly sobbed despite himself. Scully and Gutierrez quietly looked away, listening to the distant siren of the approaching ambulance.


Thursday, November 7
9:00 PM
DC General Hospital

Fox Mulder awoke to see a beige ceiling.

Not again, he groaned inwardly. The beige acoustical tiles of DC General was well known to him.

A vice-like panic and fear gripped him. Walter. Brian. Gunshot. He could see things.

No one was shielding his eyes.

"No!" Trying to sit upright, Mulder found he couldn't move at all. His vision turned a little darker and dull pain shot through his body. He was blacking out, again. "No, no, no," he moaned, squeezing his eyes shut tightly. Mulder didn't want to see anything if *he* wasn't in this world anymore....

"Fox, it's okay. I'm here." Suddenly he felt someone's hands touch his arm and chest, stroking there gently. "Look at me."

"Walter?" Mulder gasped and opened his eyes. This time, his vision was still blurred and he couldn't see things well. He thought he had a glimpse of his lover, but it was scratched away the next moment.

Everything was out of focus.

"Walter, where are you?" Maybe he was dreaming, or hallucinating, anything to escape from the awful reality. He didn't try to hide the edge of panic he was feeling.

"I'm here." Skinner saw Mulder's frantic, aimless movements on the hospital bed. Damn, he shouldn't have dozed off. Skinner lowered his body and brushed his lips and hands against the younger man's cheek, forehead and hair "It's over. All over...I'm here. Everything's all right."

"Don't wake me up," Mulder begged. "Don't wake me, if this is a dream, please don't wake me up..."

Mulder prayed desperately and managed to lift both his arms. Both his hands were bandaged and two IV lines entangled everything, but Mulder put up his heavy arms around the neck of the man hovering over him.

"It's not a dream, Fox."

It didn't vanish at his touch. Then Mulder remembered. Walter hadn't been killed. His solid and massive body was there right beside him. This was real. A hot wave of relief gushed out from deep inside him and he sobbed, clutching his lover for dear life.

Mulder sighed deeply. After an eternity, he opened his eyes and could see Skinner's face. It was ragged and so exhausted.

"How?" It took a lot for him to say anything.

"Scully and Gutierrez got there in time. Gutierrez shot him to death.

You'll be staying in the hospital for a while because of pneumonia."

"And you look terrible," Mulder mumbled grimly. "I'm sorry."

"Don't be. It's not your fault and I'll be fine." Skinner flashed a warm smile. Despite his exhaustion, his smile dazzled Mulder. "You'll be fine and..." A kiss fell on his lips.

"We'll live."


Epilogue
Sunday, November 16
2:00 PM

Mulder woke to gentle snoring sounds beside him. He had fallen asleep after the light lunch, and Mulder smiled at his lover still sleeping next to him. When Mulder had been finally discharged from the hospital, Skinner bundled him off to the cabin. After all they'd been through, they wanted a little privacy.

Skinner didn't mention it, but Mulder knew the experience had been extremely hard on him: the older man was taking additional pills for hypertension. Skinner had tried to hide his own prescription bottles in the midst of Mulder's own antibiotics, painkillers and muscle relaxants.

Careful not to wake him, Mulder sat up in bed and watched as Skinner continued his slumber. After all these years together, Mulder never got tired of looking at his lover. Now, something stung him deep inside and Mulder's throat tightened.

Live for me, Fox.

That day, Skinner had literally proved his words, when he had once said that Mulder was more precious than his own life. A tear escaped from Mulder's eyes as he kept watching his lover.

But Walter, Mulder told Skinner with his mind. You didn't have to prove anything to me.

Because I knew it. I didn't need any proof, Walter. I just want you. I want to live with you.

Skinner said something in his sleep, moving his hand around as if searching for something that should be there. Mulder smiled, lay down next to his lover, and snuggled into his arms. Skinner held him protectively, finally at ease.

"Walter, we'll live for us..."

Mulder held the older man and together they fell into a deep, safe sleep.

END OF BACCARAT PIECE: PROOF

Kiyoko Ishimura

Feedback much appreciated at: kiyoko32@hotmail.com "A beacon in the night."

Mulder in reference to Skinner

Nisei


"Baccarat Piece - Proof" by Ishimura, Kiyoko

This story was downloaded from the Gossamer Project on 10 October 2018.

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