Title: Antidote
Authors: Rachel Howard & Karen Rasch
Feedbackl: greatfuldane@yahoo.com Krasch@earthlink.net
Disclaimer: We don't own 'em, wish we did, we don't plan on making money off of 'em, so don't sue.
Classification: XRA
Rating: NC-17
Spoilers: None to speak of. Cancer isn't an issue here.

Summary: Strange doings in a tiny western town bring Mulder and Scully out to investigate. Once there, they uncover a deadly experiment that may cost both of them their lives.

::Rachel starts us off::

Welcome to our little experiment. Neither of us had ever collaborated on a story before, but, hey, first time for everything. We played fast and loose with the description of Gateway, which is a real place that I've actually been to. But it's all in a good cause - the further glory of fanfic. So please forgive me, and if you're planning on visiting western Colorado - buy a good map.

Okay, Karen, you want to write a

REAL disclaimer?

Your turn.

::Karen assumes the podium.::

Real disclaimer? Who the hell reads those things anyway? Okay. As you guys probably know, this is a post as you go kind of thing. I don't think it'll wind up being as scary as it may sound. Rachel and I went to the trouble of hammering out an outline for this (something I've only done once before when writing fanfic), so we have a pretty good idea where we're headed. We're taking turns writing chunks and then going back and editing each other's work. So far, it's been working out really well. But we reserve the right to go back and change things between the time the story is posted on my page and it makes its debut on ATXC. Your feedback will help shape that process. So, feel free to comment. The addys are above.


I believe in the refusal to take part.
I believe in the ruined career.
I believe in the wasted years of work.
I believe in the secret taken to the grave.

These words soar for me beyond all rules
without seeking support from actual examples.
My faith is strong, blind, and without foundation.

Wislawa Szymborska, "The Discovery"


October 17
Gateway, Colorado

It smelled bad.

Worse, the damp chill of the garage was totally at odds with the lovely, baking heat of the October afternoon. After two days of snow, all Norm wanted to do was sit on the front porch and roast the stiffness out of his joints, just like the rest of the respectable old farts in Gateway.

All the old farts whose wives hadn't been nagging for two months about the state of the garage. The garage, where the workbench, groaning with the weight of fixable clocks, moderately rusted hand saws, cans of rusty nails, three-legged waffle irons, and other projects had somehow overflowed onto the floor.

Norm admitted privately that Mary had a point: when you couldn't fit the truck in anymore, it might be time to take stock of things, tidy up a little. And, knowing that the coming weeks and months would only bring more snowstorms to western Colorado, he could easily see that putting off the garage clean-up would only bring another problem: digging snowdrifts off his truck.

So, reminding himself that it was either dig out the garage today or dig out the truck for the rest of the goldarn winter, Norm Orban stood in front of the open garage door, peering into the semidarkness and rubbing a hand absently through his thinning gray hair.

And wrinkled his nose in disgust as his eyes adjusted to the dim light.

A rat. Dead one. Not too dead, not dead enough for its shining eyes to have sunk far back into the skull, but where there was one rat, there were more, and probably more dead ones adding to that bad, damprot smell that hung inside the garage.

He stepped inside, frowning as he nudged the small, stiff corpse with the toe of his work boot. It was a fat one, white, with a pink hairless tail and pink-rimmed eyes. Looked like a fancy pet-store rat, not a wild one. Which damn kid in town was keeping pet rats?

Norm mentally inventoried the handful of kids, all seven of them that he could recall, and settled on Charlie Cutler as the likely culprit.

Damn kid. Oughta get a dog.

Resigned, he rummaged in the back of the garage for a dustpan and a broom, and settled for a hand-brush and a rusty piece of tin.

Wincing slightly, he bent to sweep the rat's body onto the metal, walked a few yards behind the building and heaved the refuse into the scrub.

Returning to his task, he forgot about the dead rat, even forgetting when Bonnie Cutler stopped by to share news about her new grandniece with Mary, who ate it up with the same intensity she usually reserved for Ding-Dongs and soap operas. Seventeen year-old Linda Cutler had gone to Grand Junction for a weekend last January and stayed with some cousins, which would have been fine except little Linda had gotten fond of a boy she met at a party and now, as Bonnie was breathlessly reporting, Linda was talking about taking the baby and going away, maybe to Glenwood Springs or maybe even Denver, and becoming a waitress.

Norm half-listened, watching the Broncos take another pasting from the Steelers, and scratched absently at his wrist, thinking again, damn Cutler kids.

Not even Bonnie's visit reminded him of the rat. Not until the following afternoon, when a sprinkling of small red bumps had become visible on his left wrist, did he remember it. And then it was only because over a beer John Soames was complaining that you couldn't eat anywhere but home these days, what with bad burger meat in the stores, and just yesterday, leaving the men's restroom at Gateway's only diner-gas-station-convenience store he saw a rat running off toward the pumps.

"Was it white? Pink eyes?" Norm asked, surprising himself nearly as much as Soames.

"Yeah, y'know, it was," replied Soames, after a moment of consideration. "It was."

And the following day, Norm was far too sick to worry about rats.

The little red bumps were receding, but the wrenching cough and dull ache radiating from his chest more than took their place, and before long the high, sweet humming in his head drowned out the noise of the occasional car passing by, Mary's panicked voice on the phone with the doctor, the sounds of lazy breezes ruffling the few leaves left on the trees, the sounds of fall coming to an end.

Of a long winter beginning.


October 22
Basement of the FBI headquarters

"Hey Scully, you ever actually read 'The Lone Gunmen'?"

Dana Scully peered up from the notes she had been struggling for the past several hours to decipher, shot Special Agent Fox Mulder her most withering look, and murmured, "Are you referring to the publication you gave me a subscription to last Christmas?"

Smiling ever so slightly, he nodded from his desk across the room, his hazel eyes twinkling behind his wire-rimmed lens.

"That's the one. Do you ever check out what the boys have to say? Or is their little periodical strictly liner for your birdcage?"

"I don't have a bird, Mulder."

"Figuratively speaking."

She hesitated for a moment, wondering at her partner's unexpected interest. "I look at it each month. Every once and awhile, I'll even read it cover to cover. Why?"

"Just to be polite?" he asked, ignoring her question. "Because I got it for you? Or do you do it because you think there might actually be something to the boys' findings?"

"Mostly the former," she admitted, her confusion growing slowly but steadily, "and partly because I can't bear to hurt Frohike's feelings by admitting I haven't read the thing."

"You better watch it, Scully," Mulder advised playfully, stabbing at the air with his pen for emphasis. "You keep feeding his ego that way and one day the little guy is going to show his appreciation by making you the magazine's first centerfold."

She grimaced before she could stop herself.

Noticing immediately, he pounced on her reaction. "You know, I may even suggest that to the fellas myself. I have a feeling their readership would really go for a babe in Kevlar."

She cocked a brow. Don't push it, Mulder, the look warned.

Smiling, he accepted her silent challenge. "And little else."

Deciding to rein things in before they got utterly out of control, Scully sat back in her chair, folded her arms across her chest and drawled, "You want to explain to me why you're suddenly so interested in my opinion of the 'Gunmen'? I mean...it's October. I'm down to my last few issues. Are you fishing for ideas for this year's holiday gift-giving?"

"Not exactly. I'm more of a Christmas Eve shopper myself,"

he said as he stood and snagged a sheet of paper from the printer on his way over to her side of the office. Perching a hip on the corner of her desk, he leaned in just a touch and confessed in an innuendoloaded voice. "I find I do my best work under pressure."

"Ah. So that explains why you're always putting off paperwork till the last minute," she said, not at all impressed by flirtatious tone.

"All work and no play..." he softly murmured.

"Succinctly describes my life," she finished dryly.

"Which is exactly why I'm bringing this up."

"What? Are you trying to tell me you're looking to play, Mulder?" she queried with a lift of her chin, trying her own luck with the double entendre.

"Ah, Scully, believe me--when it comes to you, I'd want to get right down to business," he parried, a certain indefinable warmth in his eyes.

Biting back a smile, Scully slowly crossed her legs and studied her partner. Something was up. He had been behaving strangely all day.

It wasn't the bantering that had clued her in. True, Mulder was being a tad friskier in that department than he had been lately, but their verbal sparring was nothing new. And it wasn't his appearance. He looked just as he always did. Starched white shirt, pressed gray pants and coat that were excellent complements to her tailored navy suit.

Rather, it was the palpable energy she could very nearly visualize rolling off him in waves. When she had first made her realization she had considered perhaps chalking up the observation to an odd manifestation of cabin fever. After all, they had both been confined to the Hoover Building for the past week and a half. And a little of that went a long way. Even for her. Maybe what she was sensing was simply a build-up of adrenaline, she had thought. But, as the hours wore on, and Mulder had sat rapt, first before his computer monitor and then later bent over a succession of increasingly eclectic research books, she had concluded that boredom wasn't to blame. Excitement was. Something had him revved that morning. Something decidedly out of the ordinary. He hadn't told her what it was. Not yet. But he would.

Who else was there for him to tell?

But maybe she should help him out just a bit. "So, what kind of business do you have in mind?"

"Aren't you bored?" he asked, his gaze intent but not without the humor that had lurked there since he had begun.

"With what exactly?" she feinted as, sitting forward once more, she closed her pen with a snap, all thoughts of administrative details banished in the face of Mulder's enthusiasm. "With my life? My job?"

She leaned in on him, just as he had previously. "This conversation?"

He placed his hand over his heart as if he were afraid the organ might make a run for it. "Scully, you wound me. I was talking about desk detail, about these endless mountains of official documents we're expected to wade through when we're not in the field."

"Are you telling me we've got a new assignment?" she asked with surprise.

"Not officially," he conceded. "Not yet."

"I'm not so certain I like the sound of that," she mumbled ruefully.

Mulder grinned down at her for a beat before setting in front of her the paper in his hands. "This was emailed to me this morning.

Courtesy of our journalistic friends."

She glanced at the sheet, her eyes skimming the page with practiced speed. "What is it? A letter to the editor?"

He gave a small shrug. "In a manner of speaking. The Gunmen had an email account set up for the magazine over a year ago. They use it to drum up subscriptions, pick up anonymous information, that sort of thing."

"And this letter came through that address?" she asked, reading over its contents again, this time perusing it a bit more carefully.

"Yeah," he confirmed, watching her read. "They received it yesterday afternoon."

Coming to the end of the missive, Scully looked up at him, her brow knit with concern and amazement. "Mulder, this man says that an entire town has disappeared."

The man seated on her desk nodded happily.

It was all she could do not to push him off of it.

"That's impossible," she said, tamping down on the urge to do damage to her partner. "Scores of people do not just suddenly vanish."

"Don't forget the Lost Colony," he reminded her blithely.

She glared up at him.

"And anyway," he continued, heedless of her disgruntled expression, "you can hardly consider Gateway, Colorado a booming metropolis.

According to what the Gunmen have told me, the population hovers just below 50."

"I'm not familiar with Gateway," she admitted with a small shake of her head. "Where's it located?"

Mulder rose and crossed to his desk to retrieve a road atlas. "In the middle of nowhere. It's in far west-central Colorado, close to the Utah border."

He strode back to stand beside her, and set Rand McNally's latest edition on the desk. Flipping quickly to the proper page, he pointed out the mysterious Gateway.

"Boy, it really is out there all by itself," Scully murmured, studying the map.

"If you were looking to get away with something, Gateway wouldn't be a bad place for it," he murmured in agreement as he hunched over her, one hand braced on the back of her chair, the other pressed flat on the corner of the atlas.

"Get away with something?" she echoed as she peered over her shoulder at him. She didn't have far to peer, Mulder's face was only inches from her own. "What do you mean?"

He didn't draw away. "Well, doesn't it strike you as odd that when our letter-writer, a Mr. Vaughn W. Franklin, went into town for his mail all the people had disappeared?"

She just looked at him.

The corner of his mouth quirked upwards. "Seems to me that 'people stealing' would indicate that *somebody* is doing something they shouldn't."

This made Scully pull back just a bit, a scowl crinkling her features.

"Mulder, we know nothing about this Franklin guy. This letter could be a crank, or he might have simply imagined the whole thing. Maybe the missing postal clerk he referred to had just stepped outside for a moment. Franklin had to wait for his mail, he got upset, and that was reason enough for him to blow the whole thing out of proportion."

Mulder picked up the letter, searching it for ammunition to refute her theory. "Just the mail clerk, Scully? What about the gas station attendant? Or the guy at the convenience store? According to Franklin, no one--not a soul--was where they would normally be at 10:00 on a Tuesday morning. The streets were empty. He heard no noises, saw no sign of life save for a dog that scared the hell out of him by running out in front of his truck."

Pulling the letter from his hands, she sighed and looked it over once more. "Mulder, when you read this, did you look past the whole 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers' thing?"

"I don't recall seeing any mention of pods," he murmured.

She pursed her lips. "Pods or no pods, our Mr. Franklin is a poster boy for paranoia."

"Just for subscribing to 'The Lone Gunmen'?" Mulder asked with amusement. "Don't forget, you and I are also on that list."

"And look what people say about us," she retorted.

"Just because you're paranoid..." he began meaningfully.

She shook her head. "Mulder, by his own admission, Franklin is a man who built himself a cabin out in the middle of the wilderness because he no longer felt able to deal with 'society'. It says so.

Right here in black and white."

Reluctantly, Mulder nodded.

"Keeping that sort of acute anxiety in mind, delusions--particularly those involving separation from other people--would seem to me not entirely unexpected," Scully asserted reasonably.

Hands shoved in his pants pockets, Mulder seemed to actually consider that argument for a moment before he said with a certain relish. "Would it make any difference if I told you that it now appears Vaughn Franklin has also vanished?"

"What?"

He nodded, his eyes alight behind their lens once more. "The Gunmen have been emailing him non-stop since receiving his message, but have gotten nothing back in the way of a reply.

They think he's disappeared like the rest of Gateway."

"Did you stop to think that if Franklin was as frightened as he says he was, he might have simply taken off?" she queried dryly, her small hands folded neatly atop the map of Colorado.

"I did," he said evenly. "I considered that Franklin might be scared enough to run."

She nodded.

"But I also questioned if perhaps poor Vaughn might not be the latest in a series of disappearances."

"Mulder--"

"Aren't you curious, Scully?" he asked quietly as he squatted down beside her chair. This arrangement brought their eyes level with each other. Scully could see the silent entreaty shining in his.

"Don't you want to know what's going on out there?"

"I'm not convinced that anything is," she murmured, struggling not to fall victim to her partner's persuasive capabilities.

However, Mulder saw her slight weakening, and played upon her vulnerability. "But you don't know for certain, do you?"

She said nothing.

"Don't you want to be sure?" he asked softly, almost seductively.

She chewed on her lower lip.

He gently smiled. "Don't you want to get out of this basement?"

"It'll only mean more paperwork when we get back," she warned in jest, her decision having already been made.

"That is one risk I'm willing to take."


Chapter II

October 23
Denver CO, Airport

"Mulder, wouldn't it have been closer to fly into Telluride?" Scully was studying the huge map on the wall. The small airport lounge where they waited for their connecting flight to Grand Junction was only half-full. "It looks like a much shorter drive."

"Hate to disappoint you, Scully, but it's not ski season yet. What, you thought we'd have time to get in a few runs before heading up to Gateway?" Mulder teased.

"Seriously, Mulder, why are we flying into Grand Junction?"

Looking up, he took in her expression and realized that, as usual, deflecting Scully's curiosity was a lost cause. "It's actually about the same drive-time, and renting a car is a lot cheaper in Grand Junction."

She nodded, turning back to the map. Inwardly, he sighed in relief.

The Telluride airport was also notoriously inaccessible; more than saving the Bureau money on the car, he had been eager to save Scully, always a nervous flier, the hair-raising descent onto Telluride's tiny airstrip. However, his solicitousness was more likely to earn him a chilly rebuff from Scully than any thanks; it was lucky that she had accepted the car-rental as an excuse.

As it turned out, even the commuter flight to Grand Junction was rough enough to leave her a striking shade of green. As usual, she hung on gamely throughout the blessedly short flight, only giving a nearly inaudible sigh of relief as they disembarked. Brushing aside his suggestion that she sit down and let him collect their luggage, she resolutely carried her own bags to the rental counter, leaving him to trail behind her like an errant puppy. She did manage to fall asleep as soon as he got onto the highway, however, leaving him to enjoy the scenery in silence.

Though the dry slopes of the buttes and mesas decorating the landscape were appealing, he found himself thinking about his sleeping partner before long. Adversity only stiffened Scully's backbone. Had that tendency always been there? Had she always been this stoic, or had joining the Bureau brought her to a point where she was acutely uncomfortable letting any weakness show? He guessed it was the job that had done it; that, or being partnered with him.

He snuck another look at her sleeping profile. Her red-gold hair, luminous in the afternoon sunlight, floated slightly with the stale air pushing through the vents. She shifted restlessly against the car upholstery pillowing her head, but slept on.

The rise and fall of the jutting mesas and buttes was giving way to foothills. They were climbing again, and the air was getting cooler.

A half-hour after turning south onto 141, Scully woke up to a completely different vista, the dark sweep of the Uncompaghres swelling to fill the skyline.

Much later, Mulder would remember thinking, you could get lost out here. Really lost.

It was late afternoon when they saw the first bend of the Dolores River ahead.

"Gateway's only a few miles from here." She wasn't green anymore, but she still looked tired. "You feeling okay?"

"I'm fine, Mulder."

The roadblock was three-quarters of the way through a blind corner.

Mulder had to hit the brakes hard, bringing the car down from a smooth seventy-five to a quaking, shuddering stop that left him whiteknuckled and angry. A uniformed man waved at the sign: "ROAD CLOSED."

Mulder banged on the steering wheel twice. "Shit. We're five miles from town and if we have to go around, drive up from the south, we're probably a hundred miles out of our way. I hope this is just an accident."

"I don't think so, Mulder. Those aren't highway patrolmen over there."

She was right, he realized with growing alarm. Two dark-suited figures stood aloof from the rest of the group, their white shirts and ties as out of place on the remote highway as Smoky the Bear would be at FBI headquarters. For that matter, the six or eight men in commando getup looked pretty weird, too. The few men in state trooper uniforms seemed nervous, sipping from styrofoam cups, huddled together.

Mulder and Scully got out of the car. Following his instincts, he headed for the men in suits. Flipping open his ID, he introduced himself.

"Special Agent Fox Mulder, FBI. Why is this road closed?"

For a long minute, no one answered him. Then, almost casually, one of the suits replied, "Quarantine. Got a contagious illness here."

"What illness?"

"Hasn't been determined yet."

"Then how do you know it's contagious?"

No answer.

Mulder tried again. "My partner is a medical doctor. Could we be of any assistance?"

The man replied, "No. The CDC is already here."

Scully had appeared at his side, silent as a shadow. "Special Agent Dana Scully. How long has this town been under quarantine?"

"Since this morning."

"Could you describe the nature of the disease?"

Finally, one of the two men looked directly at them. His gaze was cold, and it crawled avidly, blatantly over Scully's chest. "No."

She felt a quick wave of impatient anger but supressed it with the ease borne of long practice. "What agency?"

"What?" The man was looking at her again, at her face this time. She noticed that glaring at him required her to tilt her head back even farther than an argument with Mulder at close quarters did. The man was tall and lean, with disproportionately large hands that flexed unnervingly as he looked down at her.

"Who do you work for? And what right do you have to withhold information from the FBI?"

She let her tone change, deliberately challenging him. Scully thought she saw anger and a more complex emotion flare briefly in his eyes, and for a second he looked eerily familiar. Then it was gone and he replied, in the same even tone, "The CDC is here. The FBI has been informed."

He paused for a moment, then looked directly into her eyes. She saw the flare again in his before he said, in a low snarl, "You should go back home, *doctor.* Before you get sick yourself."

She knew where she had seen that look before. Donnie Pfaster.

It was like standing on the tracks, looking down a long, dark tunnel at a train coming fast.

Only murderers looked like that.

But she couldn't afford to dwell on that realization. Not right at that moment. Not when watching Mulder's jaw set, she knew it was probably time to back off before the conversation took a turn for the worse. She brushed her fingers against his sleeve, a gesture that he seemed to interpret correctly, since he took a step backwards almost immediately. When his eyes met hers, she saw his growing frustration and silently implored him to hold it together.

They left the men in suits and approached the state troopers. Scully felt a little of her tension dissipate as Mulder mildly asked the men, "Hey.

Looks like we're not getting any farther. Any decent motels around here?"

She watched him warily as he chatted easily with the men, staying close until she was certain he was in check. She had been equally offended by the offhanded dismissal that had met their questions, and her instincts were telling her that something was wrong here, very wrong.

But she didn't share Mulder's habit of doggedly pursuing unproductive conversations. He had probably been the kind of kid who had bugged his parents about the mystery surrounding Santa Claus until they gave in and told him it was a myth, she thought to herself, a child's story.

Then she remembered his parents. No, maybe not, she amended. Poor Mulder, whose fine, searching mind had found so many closed doors.

No wonder he got angry when people refused to give him straight answers.

"Scully?"

She looked up at her partner's quizzical stare. "Sorry. What?"

"We should get going. There's a motel about a half-hour from here.

What say we head back up the road, grab some dinner, and fly back to D.C. tomorrow?"

And as he had heard her silent plea to give up on the men in dark suits, she heard his unspoken message: Let's make it *look* like we're leaving.

Mulder never gave up on anything.

"Okay," she said, her face deliberately expressionless.

Without another look back, they retreated to the rental car and turned around. The carefully neutral cast of Mulder's face disappeared as soon as they rounded the bend. "Dammit, Scully, did you see those guys? We've *got* to get into that town." His eyes narrowed in concentration. "No ID--although I should have asked to see some, just to see what they'd do--"

"No, Mulder."

"What?"

"You handled that just right."

"Oh." He sounded partly miffed, partly flattered. "Just right?"

She rolled her eyes, but said calmly, "A confrontation with those men would only have drawn attention to us and you wouldn't have gotten any more information from them. You were smart to walk away."

He looked smug for a moment, then serious again. "We need to get into the town and find out what's wrong with those people. I don't think those guys were with the CDC."

"I suppose you want to try and sneak into Gateway tonight. Through the forest."

"Did anyone ever tell you you're sexy when you're psychic?"

She didn't smile. "In spite of the fact that the town's under quarantine, and from what we've heard, there probably *is* a nasty disease infecting the townsfolk? That would explain why our elusive friend, Mr. Franklin, didn't see anyone. They might all be sick. Or dead."

"So we don't get too friendly with the locals, and we wash our hands before we eat."

"Mulder."

"You *know* there's something going on there, Scully."

She did. "All right. Did you bring a compass?" His blank look told her clearly that he hadn't. "Hiking boots? Dark clothing?"

"Hey, do I look like an amateur to you?"

She snorted, but the curl of her lip answered him.

"Thanks, Scully, I'll remember that when I'm shopping for your Christmas present."

"I already know what I'm getting for Christmas, remember? A renewal to the "Paranoids-'R-Us" newsletter. And I didn't say you were amateurish."

He peeked over at her, but her hands were folded in her lap and her face gave nothing away. "Okay, but you'd better look out when it's time for your birthday present."

"Oh please, Mulder. What am I getting this year? Another keychain?"

"But I gave you a really *cool* keychain last year," he wheedled.

"A pet rock? A subscription to 'Celebrity Skin'?"

"That's not fair. You liked the keychain."

"Mulder, this is silly. You win, okay? You're a big sugar daddy, I just never noticed."

"That wasn't fair either, Scully. If we're going to have a dumb argument, you might as well put some effort into it. Otherwise, it isn't any fun."

"How far is this motel?"

He sighed, giving up. "A ways."

"Well, before we're out of the neighborhood, why don't we stop by Mr.

Franklin's place? With this map and the information we got from the Gunmen, we ought to be able to find it fairly easily. His place is supposedly on this road that runs perpendicular to the highway." She studied the map. "I think these dashes mean it's unpaved."

"How far is the road?"

She examined the map further for a minute. "Just before mile marker 41."

It took him two passes by the mile marker to spot the dirt track heading into the forest. The trail proved barely visible from a moving car.

"Jesus. This guy sure doesn't get out much. Look at his driveway."

She murmured assent. "It's about five miles from here."

Mulder thanked whatever gods were listening for the lack of snow. The bumpy road was nearly impassable in the rental sedan as it was. Finally, they spotted a cabin through a thick stand of trees. A rusted-out pickup truck with a gun rack was parked in front of the small rustic structure.

"Looks like Mr. Franklin's at home."

But he wasn't. They knocked politely, waited, and finally Mulder tried the door. It wasn't locked.

The one-room cabin was cold and dark. Mulder found the light, and they both simply stood for a minute, taking in the place.

It was a puzzle, Scully thought, looking around. On the one hand, the computer set up on a long, low table was clearly a nice one. A rack on the far wall held four shotguns along with a crossbow. So the man was no Luddite. But the wood-burning stove in the center of the room was the only visible heat-source, and judging by the iron grill and pans set up on the top of the stove, this was where he cooked, too. Rows of books filled the shelving on two walls, and more were stacked in piles that threatened to topple over onto the wood floor. A neatly made double bed, covered by a wool blanket, was tucked into one corner. It would be cozy with the stove going, she mused.

She didn't see an entry leading to a bathroom. So apparently the guy had electricity, but no central heat; a phone line, but no indoor plumbing.

Walking back to the open door of the cabin, she peered out into what passed for a yard, and immediately spotted a pump and, further off, an outhouse.

Mystery solved.

Still...weirdness.

"Where do you suppose he..."

"Outhouse." Mulder was looking out the window on the rear wall of the cabin. "And look in here." He pulled back a checkered curtain to reveal an old-fashioned iron tub. He grinned at her. "Soap, shampooBreck!"

"Mulder, I was going to say, where do you think he is, not where do you suppose he...bathes."

He was peering at the floor. "I dunno, Scully," he said slowly, "but I don't think this is a good sign."

Barely visible on the dark wood of the cabin's floor, blood had spattered and smeared in streaks that had long since dried to an opaque brown. The streaks pointed towards the door.

Like something--or someone--had been dragged bleeding from the cabin.

"With the guns on the wall, there's a good chance he hunts..."

Scully began softly, but her heart wasn't in it.

"The blood begins here," Mulder said, gesturing to the center of the room. "So unless he shot Bambi indoors and then lugged him outside to gut him..."

She nodded thoughtfully. Mulder was right. Franklin's gun rack was fully stocked; his truck was parked outside. Add to that the splash pattern on the man's floor, and it appeared far more likely that the cabin's occupant had been the shootee rather than the shooter.

"I guess we're figuring this guy probably isn't just off in Miami for the weekend, or something."

When her eyes met his, they were somber. "No, probably not."


With twilight, it had gotten cold. The sky was darkening from a rich tapestry of pinks and blues streaked with golden clouds to deep blue sprinkled with stars. Scully put her hand to the car window; it was freezing to the touch. I hope Mulder brought warm clothes, she thought; then, why do I worry about him? It's not that he's amateurishthat isn't it. He just doesn't care about himself enough. He'll forget to bring warm clothes, then suffer the cold like he deserves it.

He doesn't care about himself as much as I care for him. That's why I worry.

The Prairie Dog Motel wasn't glamorous, but it was Mulder's kind of place. The flickering neon glow was visible from several miles away on the dark highway. Mulder, driving in silence, brightened visibly as they approached the motel. He parked so haphazardly Scully scolded him, but he was oblivious, eyes pinned to the sign as he unfolded his lanky frame from behind the steering wheel. She collected her luggage and joined him.

He was in seventh heaven, gazing appreciatively up at the massive, buck-toothed rodent outlined in yellow neon that leered down at them from the motel's sign.

"Thank God we don't have a camera," she sighed, mostly to herself.

"Why?"

"Because you'd be asking me to take your picture under that awful sign,"

she retorted.

He stared at her for a moment, then let loose a yelp of laughter. Still laughing, he pushed his way into the motel office, leaving her standing under the garish glow of the sign, grinning at his retreating back.

They got adjoining rooms, as usual. She always felt a moment of quiet satisfaction when they walked into two rooms next to each other. Usually, she glossed it over mentally by reminding herself that it was safer to have him within earshot--look at all the times one of them had gotten into trouble, alone and asleep or unguarded. Tonight, however, the justification rang false. Why?

Why else would she feel such contentment at having him sleeping nearby?

She pushed the thought away before it could cause any real trouble.

She was halfway into her jeans when Mulder knocked on the connecting door. "Hang on a second," she called out, but he was walking into the room practically before she was done zipping up. "Mulder, what...?"

His fingers closed around her wrist and he tugged her unceremoniously into his room. "I called my voicemail. You gotta hear this, Scully." He handed her the receiver, still off the hook, and pressed 3 to start the message playing again.

The recording said, "Agent Mulder, this is Assistant Director Skinner.

I've come up with some new information on the case that you're investigating with Agent Scully, and I don't think it's a wise use of the Bureau's resources for you to continue with the investigation."

The voice paused, then added, "I want you both back here tomorrow.

Let my secretary know what time we can expect you at the office; I'll need to speak with you as soon as you're back." Another pause, and a steely note was now present in the AD's voice: "Tomorrow, Mulder.

I mean it."

"Press one to delete this message," the automaton broke in smoothly.

"Press two..."

Scully hit one, and looked up at her partner, who was standing unnervingly close.

"Wow."

"Yeah, wow. Must be something good to make him sound that nervous,"

Mulder said happily. "You ready?"

"I don't believe you. Two seconds ago, I was listening to Skinner, our *boss*, give us a *direct* order not to investigate this case, to return to D.C. *immediately*. . ."

"Scully," he entreated. "Scully, there's no flights out of that rinky-dink airport until tomorrow morning. So we're stuck here for the night anyway.

And Skinner even said, and I quote, 'tomorrow,' unquote. So we're on our own tonight--shouldn't we do a little poking around?"

"Mulder..."

"It's either that or sit in this motel and watch dirty movies on the Spice Channel. Unless you'd prefer to stay here and watch dirty movies with me," he teased.

She regarded him steadily. "Okay."

"Okay, you're ready to go?"

"Okay, let's find out what's on the Spice Channel."

His jaw actually dropped slightly, she was pleased to see. "Scully..."

"What's wrong, Mulder? You all talk and no action?"

Now he was actually goggling at her, jaw slack, eyes wide as she reached for the remote. His expression did her in, though, and she relented. "Mulder, this is ridiculous. What if Skinner talked to the CDC and there really is something contagious in Gateway?"

"We don't even have to go *into* town, Scully. We could just get close enough to scope the place out, see if there's anything going on that we could pick up through binoculars."

"You brought binoculars?"

"Yup."

"And if we get busted by the state police or those other guys, we're in deep shit with our boss."

"C'mon, Scully, you *know* you're itching to find out what's going on here. What happened to Franklin."

And the simple truth was--she was. Years at Mulder's side had made her curiosity nearly as urgent as his own. She sighed, ready to capitulate.

"Atta girl."

"I didn't *say* anything."

"Yeah, but you're ready to go. I can tell." He crouched in front of her, leaning in with both hands on his knees. "And you *know* it's got to be big if I'm willing to pass up a night of watching skin flicks with you."

She administered one careful push to the center of his chest and primly watched as he toppled over backwards. The astonished look on his face was priceless, even better than when he thought she was serious about the pornography. That's twice in one night, she noted with a distinct twinge of satisfaction. Gotcha again, Mulder.


Chapter III

October 23
Just outside Gateway, CO

It was cold enough out to make her wish she'd brought an extra sweater. Unfortunately, she couldn't just dash back to the motel and don another layer. In a few more minutes, they would reach their destination. So the thin, black wool turtleneck she wore would have to suffice.

Oh well, Scully thought as she peered out the car window at the inky landscape, at least she had had the foresight to pack jeans and a pair of sturdy boots. Of course, work alongside Mulder long enough and a person learns to be prepared for any and all eventualities, she wordlessly grumbled. She might not have planned on a midnight visit to a supposedly quarantined hamlet, but that didn't mean she couldn't dress for it.

She glanced over at the man who had talked her into this little jaunt.

He sat behind the wheel, staring straight ahead, his eyes narrowed against the night. He was garbed much as she was--jeans, navy blue pullover, boots, and a dark, heavy jacket. Hell, Mulder had even remembered gloves, she realized with a lift of her brow, her gaze dropping to her lap where she considered her own bare hands. What d'ya know? And here she had been worried about him. Damn. What she wouldn't give to have her nice, fleece-lined Isotoners with her instead of sitting on her closet shelf back home. She had almost tossed them in her suitcase too; but the temperature had been over fifty degrees when they had left D.C. Bringing along such decidedly winter accessories had seemed, to her practical mind, like overkill.

Thank God for pockets.

Mulder drove silently on, unaware of her dilemma, seemingly lost in thought. Two miles from the roadblock, he cut the headlights, and they slowed to a crawl, navigating by moonlight.

A half a mile from the roadblock, he eased the rental car onto the shoulder and let it crunch through the weeds in the dark. "If we circle around to the left, I think the woods will give us enough cover to use a flashlight for awhile, at least."

She nodded her assent and they slipped out of the car into the frosty night. He slung the small backpack with their supplies over his shoulders and they melted into the cover of the trees.

Mulder clicked the flashlight off when they were deep enough into the woods for Scully to have lost sight of the road. They stood silently side by side, waiting for their eyes to adjust to the light. Or lack thereof.

Even standing as closely as they were, all she could initially make out of her companion was the ghostly oval of his face. Searching for a way to calm her nerves, she listened to Mulder's steady, even breathing.

That simple sound, unnaturally loud in the silent forest, soothed her.

She smiled softly to herself at that realization. Then, her smile still curving her lips, she felt her partner's fingertips brush the sleeve of her jacket. "Ready?"

"I wish we had some of those night-vision goggles," she admitted ruefully.

"I bet those guys in the commando outfits have some. Want me to find one of them and steal his shit?"

"Just keep track of where we are, okay?"

"Right, boss."

They eased their way down the wooded slope toward the town as quietly as they could. She heard Mulder grunt softly as he tripped over something on the forest floor, then heard a branch crack under her foot.

This wasn't such a great idea, she thought. If anyone is on perimeter watch, we're as good as caught. It was impossible to walk quietly in the dark forest.

But no one stopped them as they approached the outskirts of town. A few more minutes of careful walking took them to the edge of a backyard. A gleam of white on the ground caught Scully's eye and she began to bend down to see what it was only to recoil immediately when a fetid odor reached her.

"What is that?"

"Something dead, from the smell of it," she whispered. She nudged the object carefully with the toe of her small hiking boot. "A dead rat, I think." It shone dully in the moonlight. "A white one." A slight frown crossed her face.

I wonder what the hell that's doing out here, she thought.

And then thought no more. Because Mulder slipped his hand around her upper arm, and leaning in so that his breath kissed her ear, he whispered, "This way." Treading cautiously across the treacherous, leaf-covered ground, she followed her partner around the perimeter of the property.

At first, she thought that Mulder was merely trekking blindly through the brush, keeping just inside the tree line for cover, but having no particular destination in mind. Then, as she trailed slowly in his wake, she saw what had captured his attention. On the horizon, radiating through the pines like a biblical star was a pale wash of light; high and diffuse as if from an oversized street lamp.

Stretching out her hand, Scully caught hold of his jacket. Mulder immediately pulled up and, turning, bent his head once more to hers.

"What do you think that is?" she hissed, gesturing towards the glow.

"I don't know," he whispered in reply. "Let's find out." Together, they set off towards the light.

The forest thinned as they drew closer to the center of town. Gradually, the trees that had cloaked their approach were giving way to bushes and tall, yellowed grasses. Fearing that eventually the mysterious light would bleed into the surrounding forest and betray their location, Scully scanned the area for a vantage point that would allow them to see but not be seen.

When a misshapen oak came into view, she was struck by inspiration.

Tugging on Mulder's arm to gain his attention, she pointed to the tree. Still clinging to some of its resplendent fall color, it stood outside the circle of light. Twisted as if with a case of acute arthritis, its bottom-most branches dipped low to the ground. If the boughs were sturdy enough, it would make an ideal lookout tower, Scully thought.

Taking the lead, she walked quietly to the foot of the oak, her partner on her heels. "Give me a leg up," she murmured softly.

Understanding her intention, Mulder complied, knitting his fingers together into a footrest. Bracing her hands against his shoulders, Scully stepped into his hand. Smoothly, he lifted her towards her target. Grabbing hold of the branch overhead, she hoisted herself up onto it.

Bark scraped her palms, burrowed beneath her fingernails. Wincing slightly, she swung her leg over the limb and, straddling it, pushed herself into a sitting position. Peering down at her partner, she gave a little wave. Don't look now, Mulder, she told him silently, but it appears all those hours spent working my upper body have paid off.

The notion brought her no small measure of satisfaction. Shedding his gloves and shoving them in his pockets, he smiled back.

Her satisfaction was short-lived, however. Because once he was certain she was solidly ensconced on her perch, Mulder sprang for the bough himself. Moving with an easy, fluid strength, he first latched on, then effortlessly swung his legs up and around the limb. In no more than a matter of seconds, he was seated opposite her. Show-off, she mouthed with an arch of her brow. His mouth pulled up in a lopsided smile, and he shrugged sheepishly.

Then, from the edge of town, engines roared. It sounded like a fleet of automobiles approaching. One after another they rolled in, rocks and gravel crunching beneath their tires. Getting his feet beneath him with the care and grace of a tightrope walker, Mulder stood, using the branch above him for balance. Turning, he climbed to the limb above theirs; and finally, to the one above that.

Scully scrambled skyward after him, eventually taking the hand Mulder extended to her, and settling beside him. From this new, higher perch they had a superb view of what she guessed the locals must once have called Main Street.

But no longer.

Because if the scene before them was any indication, Gateway, Colorado no longer had any residents.

"Oh my God, Scully," Mulder murmured breathlessly, his tone as horrified as it was awed.

Scully not only understood, but sympathized.

Beneath a harsh white spotlight, a platoon of haz-mat suited drones were carting away what looked to be bodies. Lots and lots of bodies, zippered up tight in shiny black bags.

"Mulder, what's going on here?" she whispered, her hand resting lightly on his shoulder, her cheek nearly brushing his.

"I don't know," he mumbled with distraction. "I just don't know."

Apparently unaware of their audience, the clean-up crew continued.

They moved precisely, as a team, their fluidity suggesting the group had worked in this capacity before. Scully found herself praying that their seamless efforts had been honed by drills, and not actual practice.

The squads went from building to building, exiting quickly; inevitably bearing yet another bag on a stretcher. Once outside, they would load their cargo onto one of several large transport vehicles. With the distance, it was hard to be sure, but they appeared to be Army regulation Hum-Vees.

"Military?" she queried softly, her brow furrowed.

"Maybe," he replied. "There's not a uniform in sight. But still...

that sure as hell isn't the CDC down there."

She shrugged thoughtfully. "Well, we don't know that. I mean...

the CDC may be involved. Judging by the way those guys are dressed, they must believe that there's *some* sort of contagion involved."

He turned to look at her in the dim light. "Yeah, but what? What kills that quickly? So quickly that no one other than Franklin was able to get word to the outside world? If it was simply some new, killer strain of virus, this decade's Legionnaire's Disease, we would have heard. We would have been made aware. But there's been nothing. No news reports, no warnings."

She shook her head, at a loss.

"There's a cover-up going on here, Scully. One of virtually catastrophic proportions. Something unnatural killed those people. I'm sure of it.

And someone is trying to make just as sure that no one else finds out about it."

She took a deep breath, wishing she could formulate some sort of argument to dissuade him; but instead, coming up empty. "So what do you want to do?"

The corner of his mouth raised. "Well, I suppose walking in and flashing our badges is out of the question."

She smiled in spite of herself. "I don't think we're dressed for it."

"So, that leaves us with two options: one, go back to the car and use our cell phones to call for back-up."

She nodded.

"Two, go back to the car, and play funeral procession."

"Play what?"

"Follow them."

"Mulder," she murmured, drawing out his name, almost as if she were tasting it on her tongue, "you and I alone are not enough to go up against that entire squadron. It would be suicide."

"Only if we get caught," he said softly, anticipation gleaming in his eyes.

She shook her head. Judging by the number of men in the area and the ferocity with which they were guarding their secrecy, capture was an all too deadly threat. "In which case, we'd be no good to anyone."

With that, she stepped away, and pinning him with her gaze, whispered, "Come on. Let's get out of here. We can talk about it in the car."

He hesitated for just an instant, and in that moment, Scully feared he might insist on being left behind to continue their surveillance. But finally, he nodded slowly, the gesture screaming reluctance.

She smiled her thanks. And saying nothing more, they began making their way cautiously down the tree. It was tricky going.

Darkness draped the branches, making it difficult for them to judge where best to grab hold or brace their feet. It took them easily twice as long to descend as it had to climb. At last, they found themselves both sitting on the bough they had started from. Scully began swinging her leg over the side in preparation for dropping to the forest floor below. But, Mulder halted her progress by placing his hand on her shoulder. "Let me go first. I'll spot your jump."

Smiling at his unexpected chivalry, she nodded. He smiled in reply, and bending, hooked himself around the branch to hang from his hands.

A second later, he let go and landed without incident, although Scully winced at the sound of twigs crunching loudly under his feet. Looking up, he gestured for her to take the plunge. Following his example as best she could, she leaned over and slid her lower body off the limb. Dangling from the bough, she was just ready to release, when she felt Mulder's hands close around her hips. She relinquished her grip and let him guide her gently down. Their bodies slid, one over the other, as he lowered her.

The friction was minimal. Slight, really. But she could have sworn sparks flew.

After they were both on solid ground once more, she looked up at her partner. They stood closely together, facing each other.

"Well, that wasn't so bad," she quietly commented, wondering why the hell she felt the need to say something, but needing to just the same.

Seemingly bemused, Mulder shook his head.

"Let's go," she whispered as she turned to head back the way they had come.

"Just a minute," he said, grabbing hold of her sleeve. She stopped in her tracks and felt his fingers comb gently through her hair. Lost in the shadows, it was impossible to see his face. Scully stood dumbstruck.

What did he think he was doing? she wondered. It wasn't that she minded his touch. She liked it. Could, in fact, learn to crave it. But this was hardly the time or the place...

"Leaf," he murmured, effectively ending her silent tirade.

"What?"

"You had a leaf in your hair," he explained, twirling the offending bit of plant life before her eyes.

A leaf.

"Oh," she mumbled, suddenly feeling beyond foolish.

"Come on," he whispered, his fingers closing around her forearm, utterly unaware that she currently wanted to shoot one or the both of them.

Though somehow she suspected she was the one more deserving of it.

"Okay," she replied just as quietly, determined to forget all about things like Mulder's hands and Mulder's body, and concentrate on the case at hand.

The exceedingly dangerous case at hand.

When all at once, it got much easier to focus.

Because a steely voice behind them ordered, "Put your hands up."

They halted in unison, their arms at their sides.

"I said, 'put your hands up.' Now."

Stealing a glance at each other, they complied.

"Turn around. Slowly."

Once more doing as they were told, they pivoted. And discovered they were face-to-face with three men, all garbed much as they were--dark clothes, boots, parkas. All holding semi-automatic rifles.

"You don't belong here," said the man standing center. She couldn't see him clearly. From where she stood, shadows bathed his features.

But there was something familiar about him. Judging by his voice and carriage, she guessed him to be Mulder's age, perhaps a year or two older. All evidence pointed to him being the man in charge.

"Would you believe we got lost?" Mulder ventured dryly.

"I believe you need to," the man countered. "Get lost, that is."

He took a step closer. As he drew near, Scully could just make out the menace shining in his eyes. The rest of his face remained hidden to her gaze.

Slowly, the man looked them over, then smiled. His expression was anything but kind. "And my friends and I are going to help you do just that."


Chapter IV

October 23
Gateway, Colorado

The men who had seized them worked just like the automatons toting body-bags through Gateway's streets, Mulder thought. Cold and precise, and utterly ruthless.

He got a look at the man behind him when the gunman turned him around and frisked him rapidly, relieving him of his Sig Sauer and his ID. Visibility wasn't a problem. Not when one of the other two men had popped on an industrial strength flashlight the moment the guy seemingly in charge had begun patting the agent down. Instantly, the small clearing had glowed as if lit by a particularly roaring bonfire.

And in that light, Mulder made a positive ID. The trio's leader was their friend from the roadblock. Same face, same sneer.

Same shitty attitude, Mulder silently fumed as their captor next turned his attention to the lone woman in the group. This bozo really needs to take some classes on gender issues in the workplace, he thought darkly, icy fury creeping up his chest as he watched the object of his tirade advance on Scully. Because Mulder detected a marked shift in the big man's attitude. Separating the male fibbie from his weapon had been standard operating procedure, a necessary task, nothing more.

But it appeared to Mulder as if Goon #1 was looking forward to repeating the process on Scully; the heated anticipation he saw in the man's gaze was enough to chill his blood.

Scully must have recognized in the man the same malicious intent.

She never took her eyes off the guy. Still, although her gaze narrowed slightly, she didn't flinch when he spun her so that she stood in profile to her partner, then began sliding his hands along her sides with unctuous care. You perverted son of a bitch, Mulder wordlessly railed, his eyes shuttered as he watched the man stroke slowly along Scully's back, pulling her gun from the holster resting just above her hip and handing it off to one of his accomplices. Yet, although the words were screaming inside his head, he said nothing; instead he stood stoically by as those treacherous hands then made their way around to the front of Scully's slender form, intimately tracing the contours of her slender waist.

Again, the gorilla took his time, allowing the woman under his control to think about what was to come. To worry about it. Fear it.

What the man didn't understand, however, was that his delicate-looking prisoner didn't scare all that easily. So, despite his best efforts to intimidate her, to reduce her to tears or trembling, she simply endured, her face impassive as at last he pawed at her chest with all the subtlety of a hormone-riddled adolescent.

Unfortunately, Mulder wasn't holding up nearly as well. He clung to his composure for as long as he could, breathing in harsh, short pants, his teeth grinding viciously against each other. Keep it cool, he told himself over and over again, knowing that any outbursts on his part would most likely accomplish nothing other than to embarrass Scully. But when that sick bastard had the fucking audacity to glide his hands up the inside of her thighs, to cup one meaty palm intimately around the juncture of her spread legs...

Mulder lost it. Letting out a low, ugly growl, he lunged towards the pair before him.

And in the space of a breath, he found himself retching on the ground, clutching his stomach. The fist had come from the man holding him, not the guy groping Scully. But in the end, it didn't matter who had delivered the blow; Mulder had accomplished what he had set out to do. The guy who had slugged him warned in a bored voice, "Let's go, Carl."

And, just like that, Scully's ordeal ended.

So despite the fact that Mulder's middle burned as if someone had driven a red hot poker through it, he was feeling pretty smug. After all, a single sucker punch wasn't so much to suffer. Not for what he had gained.

He reconsidered that optimistic viewpoint when the men dragged him to his feet and he saw Scully's stricken expression. He mouthed "I'm okay" at her as their hands were duct-taped behind their backs. She looked relieved.

As soon as the agents were bound, the man holding Mulder up shoved him forward. He stumbled, then righted himself quickly, anticipating another blow if he couldn't walk. Scully fell wordlessly into step beside him; Mulder saw that the man who had frisked her trailed behind them both.

He tried to get a look at the town as they were marched past it, through the thick scrub that marked the edge of the forest. When his sightseeing won him a hard jab in the side from the butt of someone's gun, he kept his head down, able only to peer out furtively from time to time.

Gateway looked cold, awash with white light. The few houses he caught glimpses of were dark and still. Mulder saw loose boards curling up like jagged teeth on the back porch of a small home trimmed in garish blue paint and thought, crazily, 'That's dangerous. Someone could trip.'

He spied a number of body bags laid out in neat rows, like playing cards on a table. He tried to look beyond the corpses, to the trucks and equipment that had taken up residence on the street, but all he could see were the shrouds of the dead. Some -- a few -- were quite small.

They stopped beyond the edge of town. Mulder estimated that they weren't far from where they had parked their rental car at the side of the road. However, there was no sign of their blue sedan. Instead, a short convoy of military vehicles was lined up along the shoulder. A group of figures in haz-mat suits turned their bubbled heads towards him, then incuriously away.

He chanced a look at Scully. Her face reflected little of the horror they had seen on the short walk past the town, but her expression changed quickly as she watched something happening behind him. He turned his head in time to see Carl's burly companion preparing a syringe. He struggled until he felt the sharp sting of the needle and then everything faded into whirling gray, then blackness.

When he woke up, it was dark, and his arms ached terribly.

The steady, grinding noise beneath his ear slowly resolved itself into the sound of an engine. As his head cleared slowly, he took an inventory of his tactile discoveries. Rough carpeting under his cheek. A dusty, filthy taste in his mouth, like he had slept off a bad drinking binge.

The sweet smell of Scully's hair, the heat from her body.

Wiggling his hands, he found out why they hurt so badly; they were still duct-taped behind his back. His unconscious partner lay only inches from him. Twisting his head slightly, he saw that her wrists were tied too. But, by some miracle, her left hand looked to have slipped partially free of the loop of tape.

Unfortunately, she was still out cold.

He laid perfectly still as he tried to figure out just where the hell their captors had taken them. It looked like they were in the back of a truck.

A wide truck. But not in the back seat.

No, wait. Not a truck, a Hum-Vee, he deduced. Like the ones they had seen in Gateway. Over the grumble of the engine, two voices were discussing the Redskins' defensive line. Mulder immediately recognized the voices: Carl and his buddy. Lovely.

Mulder flexed his toes experimentally and felt something solid. We're behind the bucket seats in the back, he realized, dumped in the vehicle's long, low cargo area. They had probably been tossed there hours ago, bodies packed closely together to accommodate whatever supplies their captors had stashed in the back

He didn't really mind the close quarters. He and his partner laid cozily front to back. The top of Scully's head was just beneath his chin. If he weren't tied up, half-stoned and aching horribly, he'd be enjoying her proximity.

As far as he could tell in his still muddled state, aside from their hands, they weren't secured in any way. He could still move his legs. Geez.

For an operation that was obviously well funded, the hired help's work bordered on lackadaisical. Then, mulling it over, Mulder decided to give Carl and his cronies the benefit of the doubt. We weren't supposed to wake up, he guessed, his hope rising. And if they think we're still unconscious, that's a good indication that they're not really paying attention to what's going on.

Terrific.

Now if Scully would just come to, they'd be batting a thousand.

But her breath was flowing slowly and evenly and she looked like she could stay out forever.

He needed to wake her up without alerting the Thug Brothers. And his options were somewhat limited, since they were within spitting distance.

"Hey, turn that up."

Mulder sent a silent thank-you to whatever deity was watching them as Carl leaned over and turned up the radio. It wasn't much, but it was a small break. Mulder listened as the two men began talking again; louder this time. He took a chance and scootched down a few inches so that his mouth was next to his partner's ear. He breathed in the clean scent of her shampoo for just a second before he murmured her name.

"Scully."

Nothing. Not even a twitch.

A little louder. "Scully."

Damn it, she wasn't moving and he didn't dare risk more than a loud whisper, even with the radio playing.

He considered his options. He was within easy reach of her ear, and its delicate lobe was incredibly tempting. He knew she was going to kill him later, but this was too good an opportunity to pass up.

He stole another look at the oblivious pair in the front seat, then stretched his neck out far enough to nuzzle Scully's ear. He gently tugged her earlobe into his mouth and bit down lightly.

That did it. She made a soft sighing sound, then he felt her body go rigid next to his. He whispered, "Stay quiet and don't move." She didn't say anything and he was worried that she wasn't fully awake until he felt her hands move against his stomach.

He murmured, "Sorry about that, Scully, but my hands are tied literally. Your left hand is loose. Can you get it free?"

She wiggled her hands again, paused, then moved them again. He kept his eyes nearly shut, but he could feel her working at the tape.

Eventually, these guys have to stop, Mulder thought. To take a piss, if nothing else. If we can surprise them while they're getting out of the truck, we've got a chance. Not much of a chance, but it's better than nothing.

Finally, he felt Scully shift against him, and her palms pressed flat into his stomach.

"Good job," he whispered. "I can't get my hands loose, though. I had the car keys in my front pocket. See if you can dig them out and drop them into my hands, behind my back."

She fumbled at the front of his pants until her fingertips brushed the edge of his pocket. At least a dozen sophomoric jokes flitted through Mulder's mind, but remembering that talking was dangerous, he squelched them.

Her index finger was inching back up the inside of his pocket, and he felt the keys scrape the fabric. Not bad, not bad at all. But then, Scully had wonderfully dexterous hands, doctor's hands.

Now she was curving the hand with the keys over his hip, back toward his hands.

"Gotcha," he murmured as the keys, warm from his body heat, dropped noiselessly into his joined palms.

Turning the small objects around so that the serrated side was against the edge of the tape was excruciating, with his nearly immobilized, stiffened muscles screaming at him every millimeter of the way. He supposed he could have asked Scully to simply roll over and free his hands from the tape herself. But, he feared that too much movement on the part of he and his partner would alert their captors. No. Despite the discomfort, this was the tack to take.

If he only had enough time and mobility to make the effort successful.

To take his mind off the pain, he mapped out a strategy as he sawed.

Carl was farther from him, but it would be easier to surprise the driver, who would be distracted by the business of shutting off the engine. So, Scully could go for the man behind the wheel while he went after the guy riding shotgun. Mulder was almost looking forward to it.

He hadn't forgotten the way the bastard had groped Scully back in Gateway.

He felt a slight give in the wad of duct tape, but his hands were cramping. Shit. He stopped and bent his mouth to Scully's ear again.

He whispered his plan to her, and felt her hands press into him again in assent.

By the time the frayed edge of the tape loop parted, he had become seriously worried about his chances of overcoming his lean yet stronglooking nemesis. His hands were nearly numb. Oh well. Work with what you've got, Mulder. He sized up the distance to Carl's neck.

Okay, then. If he could get an arm around the man's neck, at the elbow, it wouldn't matter that his grip was useless.

"Gotta take a leak."

Yeah, you do. Go for it, Mulder silently thought. Wait 'till you see what I've got for you, fucker.

"You want me to drive?"

"Nah. We need to give them another shot, though."

Mulder shut his eyes, anticipating Carl's move a split second before it came. The seats creaked as the man turned around and looked at the two prone agents, then turned back. "They're still out. Just as well. I gotta take a leak, too."

Nothing more was said, and Mulder prayed that Scully was ready. It was too quiet without the two men talking for him to risk another whisper.

The Hum-Vee ground to a halt, and Scully, keeping low, had centered herself precisely between the two bucket seats. Without warning, she moved first.

Silently, she sprang to her left and launched herself towards the driver, drilling her elbow into the base of the his neck. The element of surprise now lost, Mulder threw himself over the rear seat, stretching out his long frame, and locking his arm around Carl's throat. Though his attack was met with a satisfying gasp turned groan, Carl wasn't giving up without a fight. Battling for oxygen, the man's arms whipped up and back, fingers digging into Mulder's scalp seconds later. Wincing with pain, the agent hung on grimly, like an angry terrier stubbornly refusing to release its hold on a larger dog.

Carl's breath whistled through his teeth in agonizing hisses, his chest lurching as he desperately tried to suck in air. But still the man managed to wind one hand back to Mulder's shoulder, where his fingers sank in again, this time digging for a nerve. Mulder gritted his teeth and tightened his grip on his adversary's throat. Vision blurring with the effort, Mulder heard a thud, and a male grunt. Not Carl, though. The driver. Did that sound mean Scully had clobbered the guy? Or had her opponent overpowered her? He couldn't look to his left to check because Carl chose that moment to wrap his hand around the back of Mulder's neck.

Through what had to be dumb luck, Carl found the nerve ending he sought and a sharp involuntary twitch ran through Mulder's back.

Dimly, Mulder recognized a small snarl of pain as his own. But even as the agent suffered, Carl was weakening. And just when the raw agony shooting through Mulder's neck and shoulder threatened to make him lose his grip, Carl's hand went slack and his head fell forward.

Mulder reached across for the gun resting on the console before he completely released Carl's neck. The unconscious gunman slumped forward as Mulder pulled his arm back and at last turned his attention to his partner.

She was extricating herself from underneath the limp figure of the driver. Judging from their position, the man must have recovered from the blow to his neck. In the midst of their battle, he had apparently crawled over the back of the seat and gotten on top of Scully. But she had somehow disabled him.

"Scully?"

She pushed her hair away from her face, and he saw that she was grinning. "Oldest trick in the book. But it's a good one."

"Ooh, Scully, did you grab his nuts?"

"Yup. He'll be singing soprano for a while. A blow to the head finished him off." Crawling, she opened the back door and shoved the man unceremoniously to the cold, hard ground. Mulder opened the door next to Carl and imitated her. The man groaned but didn't move.

Standing over the unconscious body, he restrained a ridiculous urge to high-five Scully.

"Looks like we got ourselves a Hum-Vee, Scully," Mulder said, grinning evilly as he tried to catch his breath.


Chapter V

October 24
Somewhere West

Moving stiffly, Scully climbed out of the vehicle and frowned, looking it over. "Wow. I think this is a genuine Army model."

"So, do we do the chivalrous thing and take them back with us, or do we just leave them here?"

Scully considered this briefly. "Do you think they'll live?"

"Yeah, probably. They can walk out of here - it'll take them awhile to hike out to a road, but they should be okay. I think. Except for maybe some frostbite if it gets any colder." He glanced at his partner and saw that she was giving him her special, patented Look. "Scully, I'm sorry, but you know as well as I do that these guys didn't drag our unconscious bodies all the way out here just to give us a stern lecture." She grimaced.

"I just can't get too worked up about their welfare right now. They were planning on killing us. I'm fairly comfortable with the idea of letting them take their chances with Mother Nature."

Scully shrugged, then turned resolutely back toward the Hum-Vee.

"Okay, then. Leave them. Let's get out of here."

Nodding, he crossed around and settled into the front seat. Flipping on the interior lights, he examined the gears. "Hey, Scully? This would be a good time to dazzle me with your navigation skills. I see a compass, but no map."

"Really? So how did these guys know where they were going?"

"I have no idea, but it'd be nice if we had at least a general clue which direction we're headed in." He looked at his watch. "Twelve-thirty. I'd like to say we were only out of it for a few hours, but I don't think so, do you?"

She shook her head. "No. Judging by how hungry I am, I think we were unconscious for the rest of the night, then all day, and into the next night.

And I'm sorry to disappoint you, but I have no idea where we are. My navigation skills are a lot more useful when I haven't been out cold for the entire drive."

"So pick a compass point."

"How about east? If they'd driven west from Gateway, we'd be in eastern Utah by now - which is possible, since it's pretty sparsely populated."

"There's a river in the way. But, yeah, it's a good theory. They could have taken I-70 part of the way."

She nodded, squirming slightly in the seat.

"Scully? Got ants in your pants?"

She shot him a disgusted look before admitting with a touch of chagrin, "Bathroom. But would you mind driving a ways first? I don't really feel like answering nature's call with our two friends out there."

He grinned at her wry tone. "Now that you mention it, I probably could use the facilities myself."

Scully smiled in spite of herself. "Yeah, well...if it's been as long as we think it's been, I can't say that I'm surprised. You get us going. I'll go look in the back and see if they've got any food."

Keeping a careful eye on the compass, Mulder put the heavy vehicle in gear, and they trundled off slowly into the darkness.

"Wait!"

He hit the brake hard, throwing his partner roughly against the back of his seat.

"What? What's wrong?" he queried, peeking over his shoulder at her.

Rather than immediately answering, she crossed away from him and opened the rear door. Bending at the waist, she retrieved a couple of bottles of water and heaved them at the prone figures of their former captors. She then slammed the door shut once more, saying sheepishly, "You can live without food for days, but they'll need some water." He smiled at her softhearted nature but didn't reply - a charitable gesture, since he knew how easy it would be to tease her about her humanitarian impulse. He started driving again as she went back to rummaging in the back.

After a while, Scully snaked around the gearshift and eased herself carefully into the passenger side.

"Anything?"

"Lots of drugs. Ibuprofen and Percocet and some stuff I don't recognize, plus more sedatives and syringes. They had enough to keep us under for another couple of days. Also, a bunch of antibiotics and some first-aid stuff. They were pretty well prepared. Plus, I found these." She tore open a box of crackers and dumped a handful into his lap.

"Wow." With this bounty before him, Mulder suddenly realized that he was starving. Scully uncapped a can of Cheez Whiz and thoughtfully doused a cracker for him, popping one into her own mouth. For a time, they chewed happily in silence while the Hum-Vee rumbled ponderously over the rough, rocky terrain. Mulder was just about to ask Scully to pass him one of the bottles of water when he caught her flipping the top off the bottle of ibuprofen and shaking a couple into her palm. "Scully?"

She gave a resigned sigh. "I think I pulled a muscle when that guy landed on me. I kicked him in the gut and something didn't bend the way it should have. No biggie, Mulder." Her steely gaze dared him to make something of it.

He declined. "Is that all the food there is?"

"Some apples, more bottles of water, chocolate bars, beef jerky, Cokes, plus a few cans of baked beans, which should come in handy if we're farther from civilization than we think we are. A few other things."

"Scully, we have to go back to Gateway."

She took another sip of her water before answering him. "I know."

They ate for a while, the silence interrupted only by the sounds of the engine growling and tires churning. In the small pool of light cast by their headlights, Mulder could see faint, wide tire tracks. Tire tracks had to come *from* somewhere, he reasoned. They were doing all right so far.

"There're clothes back there, too," Scully said quietly. "Plaid jackets and daypacks. Two sets. I checked the packs - there's ID in there for a Tom and Sally Parker. I think they were going to make it look like we'd gone hiking and gotten lost."

He winced. "They knew we were here before they caught us, then.

They wouldn't have had the IDs otherwise. So the only question at this point is, was Skinner calling to warn us, or..."

"...Don't, Mulder," she broke in. "Just don't. He wouldn't have called if he'd given our location to them himself." He heard the worry in her voice, but he couldn't stop himself.

"Maybe he didn't have a choice, Scully."

She didn't answer.

After a minute, he asked, "Any camping gear back there?"

"A couple of blankets. Nothing else that I could see. Why?"

"We need to get back into town and figure out what's going on without anyone catching us. If they think these guys already killed us and dumped our bodies, they won't be looking for us for awhile. But we need enough time to investigate what's wrong in Gateway. Obviously, the motel is out - hell, with as remote as this place is I wouldn't be surprised if Carl's buddies were staying there themselves. So, I was thinking we could camp near the town and try sneaking in again at night."

"Well, I didn't see a tent back there. But we can always sleep in the back - there's enough room, I think."

At that, the corner of Mulder's mouth lifted. Cuddling under a blanket with Scully in the back of a truck. Suddenly, things were looking up.

"Did we finish those crackers?" he asked, trying to push all those terribly inappropriate thoughts to the outermost reaches of his psyche. Down, boy.

"Sorry."

"How 'bout the Cheeze Whiz?"

"No, but what are you going to put it on?"

"Just hand it over."

Scully lifted a skeptical brow, but did as he asked.

Keeping one hand on the steering wheel, he tipped his head back, aimed for his mouth and pressed the little plastic button.

Stressful as the past couple of days had been, all his partner could do was laugh.


After two hours of driving at ten miles an hour in total darkness, Mulder's eyes were crossing. He looked over at the woman dozing beside him and decided that enough was enough. He coasted to a stop and switched off the ignition. Without the dashboard lights, the night seemed nearly suffocating. Only thin slivers of starlight found their way in through the windows.

"Hey, Scully? Time to check into Motel Hum-Vee."

She lifted her head and yawned. "Hmm."

Smiling at the sleepy sound, he climbed carefully into the back, feeling his way to the carpeted floor, and was totally unprepared when, before he could get settled, Scully fell heavily on top of him. "Scully, I didn't know you cared," he began, then stopped when he heard her soft gasp.

"What's wrong?"

"Nothing."

Without another word, he fumbled for the ibuprofen tablets in the front seat and, stretching out his hand like a blind man, passed them to her.

She dry-swallowed two before he had finished twisting the cap off a bottle of water.

Peering through the inky void separating them, he watched her tug the blankets out from behind the seats. "Anything I can do?" he asked, hating the way the question sounded.

She surprised him, replying wryly as she handed him his portion of the bedding, "Yeah. Draw me a hot bath."

He grinned back in the darkness, settling down next to her under his own blanket. Disappointingly, there was enough room for both of them to lie down without actually touching, although his legs were too long to stretch out comfortably in the Hum-Vee's cramped interior. He astounded himself by falling asleep almost immediately.

However, at one point in the night, he woke up with a jolt.

A GPS.

Shit.

That's what Carl and the other guy had been using.

He grimaced. With the exertion of the fight and the drugs in their systems, neither he nor Scully had been thinking quite clearly enough.

If they had, one of them would have undoubtedly come up sooner with the answer to the puzzle.

When you're sending a couple of mercenaries out in the woods to dump a body or two, do you rely on their navigation skills? No way.

That's why they hadn't found a map in the Hum-Vee. He'd stake his life that the two men had been outfitted with a Army-issue GPS, a Global Positioning System. A handy gadget that told them exactly where they were at any given time. And, unless it had fallen under a seat during the struggle, Mulder was willing to bet that one of the two men they had left behind hours ago still had it.

Lucky them.

Eyes closed, he debated waking Scully up to let her in on his reasoning.

Listening to her slow, steady breathing, he ruled against it. Morning was plenty early enough for the bad news.

And it was bad news, he reminded himself wearily. He had been hoping that the tire tracks that he had been carefully following would eventually lead to a road of some kind, so that he wouldn't have to rely entirely on the compass and his skimpy knowledge of western geography. But Carl and Company wouldn't have needed a road with the GPS.

And the light snow that had begun falling outside the Hum-Vee's windows would soon obliterate yesterday's tire tracks.

It was a long time before Mulder fell asleep again.

It was the sun streaming directly into her eyes that finally woke Scully up. She laid perfectly still at first, eyes shut, trying to remember why she hadn't pulled the curtains shut before she went to bed last night.

Then she smelled the musty wool of the blanket underneath her chin, felt the steady in-and-out of Mulder's breathing, and remembered.

Hum-Vee.

Mulder.

And it was Mulder who was curled snugly against her back, one arm wrapped around her middle, holding her securely, his body fitted as closely as possible to hers from the curve behind her knees to the back of her head. His breath ruffled her hair. She was perfectly warm, and Mulder's other arm, pillowing her head, was divinely comfortable.

Altogether, it felt heavenly.

She considered her options. One, struggle out of his arms, waking him up in the process so they could get this show on the road. Which would certainly be the appropriate course of action.

Two, lie next to him and surreptitiously enjoy being held by her partner until he woke up too.

Her conscience nattered dimly at her, but she wasn't completely awake yet. So, feeling only a trifle guilty, she ignored it.

Sighing with pleasure, she shut her eyes again and shifted slightly, trying to avoid the bar of sunlight angled directly into her face, and unwittingly made a small discovery.

Well, actually,...not small at all.

It's a normal physiological response, she reminded herself logically.

All men get morning erections from time to time. And Mulder probably hasn't woken up next to another warm body for a long time.

Clearly, this is nothing personal.

So why was she feeling an answering warmth spreading through her own body?

Suddenly option one seemed like a much more viable choice.

Briskly, she plucked Mulder's arm off her midsection and began to sit up, but with a small cry stopped dead at the white-hot bolt of agony that seared through her right leg.

Mulder was instantly awake, and battling into a sitting position himself. "Scully?"

Stretching it would help, she thought, hitching herself over to the door on her butt. She opened the door and carefully swung both legs down to the uneven ground, shivering with the bite of the cold air that rushed up to meet her.

"Scully?"

"I'm fine, Mulder," she gritted out. She took a step forward gingerly, and almost cried out again at the fresh jolt of pain through the injured leg. Ow, ow, ow. Probably just pulled the hamstring. Walk it out, Dana, she admonished herself, carefully hobbling a couple of steps.

From out of nowhere, Mulder's hand clamped down on her upper arm and she found herself gazing up into his tight-lipped face.

"I said, let me give you a hand."

She stared at him. "What?"

"What do you mean, 'what'? You're obviously hurt, and it's got to be pretty damn bad, judging by the way you're walking. Or not walking.

When are we going to get past this, Scully?"

What the hell was he so angry about? "Get past what?"

"Get past your not being able to admit when you need help. Get past your being so unwilling to accept my help that you suffer unnecessarily and make me feel like an asshole for not doing something for you.

I mean...Look at you." He glared angrily at her leg. "You gonna tell me what's wrong with you? *Were* you planning on telling me that you couldn't walk -- before we get into a situation where we might have to run?"

She gaped up at him. Mulder wasn't just angry. He was livid. He loomed over her like a storm cloud, bed-head and all, his cheeks pink with a combination of cold and fury. Try though she might, Scully couldn't remember if she had ever before seen him in such a state.

Then, she recalled a one instance that came close.

When, alone, she had followed Luther Lee Boggs' directions and found Liz Hawley's bracelet.

Not sure what to do to diffuse the situation, she said, in a small voice, "Mulder, I think I pulled a hamstring. It's probably just stiff. That's all. It's nothing life-threatening, nothing you need to worry about."

"Why not let me decide whether or not I need to worry?"

"I'm *fine*, Mul..."

His fingers clamped down painfully and he bent his head until he was within an inch of her face. "*Stop*, Scully. Just stop saying that.

You're not fine. In fact, if I never heard those words from you again, it'll be too soon. I want to KNOW when you're not fine. Even if it's not a big deal, even if you just have a pulled muscle. I *need* to know."

She still couldn't seem to put together a complete sentence. "Why?"

At first, he didn't answer her. Instead, he just looked at her, his hazel eyes boring into hers. Finally, something seemed to loosen inside of him, and he let go of her arm. "I just do."

And before she could compose a reply, he wheeled away from her.

Returning to the Hum-Vee, he dug out the ibuprofen and a water bottle and handed them to her. She took them without meeting his eyes and swallowed two more. She then stretched out the right leg cautiously.

This time, the pain was less intense.

Carefully, she walked back and forth, elasticity slowly returning to the injured muscle. Mulder was spreading one of the blankets on the ground, which was lightly dusted with snow. He dumped an armful of food in the center of the blanket and went back to the Hum-Vee to grab two Cokes.

"Breakfast?" He asked as he drew next to her once more. She tried to catch his eyes, but he wouldn't let her. Instead, he took a seat on the blanket and ripped open a package of beef jerky.

Turning to him, she knelt painfully beside him, putting a hand on his shoulder. "I'm sorry, Mulder."

At last he looked up. Covering her hand with his own, he squeezed it briefly. "I got carried away."

Normally, apologies such as these cleared the air between them. But this time a current of tension lingered. She wasn't clear on exactly what was going on in his head, but Mulder was obviously still upset.

"I'll try, okay?" she said, hoping her offer might do the trick.

After a moment, he nodded. "Jerky?"

Hmm. Hard to tell. His reply could be interpreted as a peace offering.

Or he might have simply wanted to change the subject.

Deciding to follow his lead regardless, she let the matter drop.

Wrinkling her nose at the greasy strips of dried beef, she reached for a bag of salted peanuts instead.

While he chewed on the jerky and Scully nibbled away at the peanuts, Mulder told her his theory about the GPS. She listened thoughtfully, then shrugged. "So they're not lost in the woods."

"Apparently not."

"Then I want our water back."

Mulder chuckled, though the effort was labored at best. The men would make it back to Gateway, he thought, but not until after he and Scully did, thanks to the Hum-Vee. Whatever investigating they wanted to do would have to be done quickly, before Carl and his pal raised the alarm.

"Maybe we should finish this in the car," he said. Scully agreed.

They had been on the move again for almost an hour when Scully asked, "How do we know we're not in Arizona, or New Mexico, or New Jersey, for that matter?" She was frowning. "You know, we've both been assuming that we were transported from Gateway in this vehicle. But we were out for such a long time, we could be almost anywhere. They could have flown us out in a helicopter, or even a small plane if they went all the way to an airport."

He squinted at the view through the windshield. A jagged line of peaks was faintly visible in the distance.

"I don't think so, Scully. The terrain looks a lot like it did when we were driving down from Grand Junction to Gateway. See those buttes?"

He gestured at the horizon.

It was pretty, he thought as he looked out over the landscape, the realization taking him by surprise. Like something straight out of an Ansel Adams photograph. Only their view was in color. He had been so focused on following their almost invisible path, he hadn't really noticed before. The silvery green shrubs jutting up from the arid ground were still frosted with last night's snow, but sunlight dappled the gently rolling terrain, highlighting every swell and dip in the land. Miles away, a lone tree stood out like a sentinel. He was steering them along the contours of a dry wash, and where water had cut away the dirt from its sides, waves of subtle color flowed through the exposed earth. The air was crisp and cold, and it made Mulder's head feel clear and sharp.

"Mesas, not buttes." Scully delivered herself of this pronouncement smugly.

"What's the difference?"

"Uh, I don't know. Why don't you look in the glove box and check the triple-A guide?"

He threw his head back and laughed. "Did you take a couple extra funny pills before we left D.C., Scully?"

Her answering smile left him feeling a little giddy. Did Scully have any idea what it did to him when she lit up like that? That sweet curve of her perfect mouth, that slightly knowing, teasing lift of her lips that, when accompanied by a slight flutter of her lashes, left him completely at her mercy? She was the only woman he'd ever known who could turn him on just by smiling at him.

On the other hand, maybe she *did* know, and that was why she hardly ever did it. "You should do that more often."

"Do what?" she queried as she turned to look at her, that killer smile still clinging to her lips.

Think, Mulder. You need to think.

And speak.

"Ah,...never mind. Um . . anyway...I think we're still in the same region. Look at those." He pointed at the mountain range in the distance, her eyes followed his finger. "Maybe Utah, maybe Colorado.

But unless those guys made much better time than we've been making, we're probably not more than one state away. If they'd gone east, we'd have gone through Colorado, and since the mountains are in *front* of us, not behind, that kind of rules that theory out. No, I think we're somewhere on the western side of the Rockies."

"I guess I really did sleep through the whole car ride down to Gateway."

She gave him a sidelong glance, and admitted, "The flight shook me up a little. I wasn't feeling so hot."

Startled, he glanced quickly at her. She was pointedly not looking in his direction. Well, what do you know? Mulder mused with delight. Scully was admitting to a weakness. Would wonders never cease? It appeared as if that morning's tirade hadn't fallen on deaf ears after all. Good, because he'd been kind of worried about it. Berating the woman when she had obviously been hurting made him feel like a school yard bully.

But she couldn't do that to him, or do it to herself. They only had each other to depend on out here. Secrets of any kind were a definite no-no.

He longed to thank her for her honesty, but feared she might misinterpret the gesture as gloating. So, he decided to show his appreciation with a little confession of his own. Taking a deep breath, he said, "I know. I know every once and awhile you have a hard time with flying. That's why I picked Grand Junction. Telluride's airport is tiny and it can be pretty terrifying even if you have an iron stomach. So..." He waited.

"You mad?"

After a long pause, she said softly, "No."

Phew.

Then after an even longer pause, he ventured, "It's too cold for bees."

Mulder knew that with anyone else, his comment would have earned him an odd look and a disparaging remark. But, as was typically the case, Scully followed his train of thought as easily as if it were a line she commuted on daily. She sat silently for a minute, but he could almost feel her making the transition back to pathologist mode. And as they slipped back into their accustomed roles, the tension left the air almost immediately.

Oh sure, we work beautifully together, Mulder reminded himself sarcastically. It's only the personal stuff that we can't handle. Bugs carrying a deadly virus are a lot less scary than discussing our communication problems.

Still, they were getting somewhere. Scully had opened the door for him on the airsickness issue. And he had returned the favor by confessing to his airport scam. He had a feeling, though, that he was going to pay for demanding from her such disclosures. Not that she was harboring any resentment - Scully never held grudges - but that she'd expect some kind of concession from him. One that was instigated by him this time rather than her. What that might be, he didn't want to think about.

"What made you think of bees?" she asked at last, returning him to the conversation at hand.

Other than the need to change the subject? he silently queried before saying aloud, "I don't know. The Consortium. I can't think of anyone else who would want us dead, can you?"

She frowned, but he could tell her agile mind wasn't on the bees comment any longer. "Mulder, why not dump us someplace closer?

This is a hell of a long way to go just to get rid of a couple of bodies.

Why didn't they dump us closer to Gateway?"

A vision of the heavy forest surrounding the town flashed into his mind.

"I think I know where we are."

"What?"

"I mean it. You're right, Scully, why not dump our corpses near town?

Because they didn't want them found too quickly. So they went somewhere that you might logically expect to find dead hikers -- in the spring. A national forest."

She was slowly shaking her head, the puzzle pieces not falling into place quite as quickly for her as they had for him.

"Hiking and hunting," he explained. "People go out in the fall, get lost, die of exposure. It happens every so often. Then the bodies don't turn up until spring. Once the winter rolls in around here, there's not much of a chance of being found until the snow melts in late spring. Especially if no one knows you're out here to begin with."

She nodded thoughtfully. "So why do you think you know where we are?"

"There are lots of national forests around here -- obviously, it's the West but there's one just the other side of the Colorado - Utah border from Gateway. I saw it on the map. That would be the easiest one for them to get to. So they dump us, and no one catches on. Even if, by chance, someone *did* find our bodies, the fake IDs would throw them off, at least for a while. It was a pretty good plan, but Mike and Ike were too lazy to shoot us up as often as they shoulda. Or too stupid. Anyway, here we are."

"Which is where?"

"Somewhere southwest of Gateway, in Utah. On the wrong side of the Dolores River." He looked at the mountains and turned slightly so they were headed roughly northeast. "With any luck, we're pointed toward I-70 now."


Chapter VI

October 26
West of Gateway, Colorado

As the day dragged on, Scully's leg, which had earlier stubbornly fought her best attempts to put weight on it, continued to ache. First, the pain centered in the area surrounding her knee. But as she and Mulder bounced their way across the Wild, Wild West, the entire limb began to cramp and burn. She just couldn't get comfortable, couldn't figure out a way to properly brace herself against their truck's incessant bucking and rolling. With a doctor's detached eye, she reminded herself that the injury was still far from serious - with ibuprofen, moist heat and stretching, the leg would be fine. Unfortunately, she was currently lacking two of the three healing elements her injury required.

To further darken her mood, they were making almost no time at all.

She understood why Mulder didn't chance urging the HumVee much above 10 miles an hour. After all, they were quite literally traveling cross-country, without signposts or curbs to guide them. Obstacles were plentiful; boulders dotted the landscape like freckles on an Irishman. Thankfully, they hadn't been plagued with further snow.

What had already fallen was proving treacherous enough. Almost as if laughing at their attempts to see what lay beneath, the pristine white stuff played hide-and-seek with the terrain, its feathery crystals lifting and drifting on the whim of the wind.

And that wind appeared to be picking up, she noted with thinned lips.

The brush rippled with it; the HumVee shimmied and creaked. The sunlight that had awakened her had long since said its farewells, having been swallowed by a menacing grayscale sky; its clouds piled one on top of the other, like mounds of dingy mashed potatoes. A front was blowing in. All signs pointed to it. And this time of year that usually meant one thing.

Snow.

Or rather, more snow.

Brow creased, she pondered exactly how far they were from civilization.

"How's the gas gauge?" she asked, stealing a look at Mulder. Without any discussion of the issue, he had done all the day's driving. She wasn't complaining, not with the way her leg was bothering her.

He glanced down at the dashboard. "Not bad. We're still above three quarters of a tank."

She nodded, her frown easing just a bit. "Good. Something tells me the nearest Gas-n-Go is a ways yet."

The corner of his mouth lifted. "The reservoirs on these things are huge. We should be okay. Besides, our two friends were going to have to return from wherever the hell it was they planned on disposing of us. I can't imagine even they were dumb enough to drive out here without making sure they had enough gas to get home."

"No. I guess not."

Reassured, she settled back in her seat, striving once more to find the angle at which her leg would stop reminding her it was attached to her torso. Unfortunately, despite her most imaginative contortions, it seemed a losing proposition at best. Still, she made no mention of her discomfort to Mulder. The topic wasn't exactly the best conversation fodder.

So, they drove for a time, saying nothing. Scully couldn't tell for certain, but she thought the temperature might have dropped a few degrees. The draft seeping in through the floor was more pronounced than it had been when they had first set out.

Idly, she wondered if the moonsuited men labored still in Gateway's streets. And just how much protection their hi-tech garments afforded them from such bitter cold.

"So how do you think it's transmitted?"

Chuckling mirthlessly, she slowly shook her head. Who needed Psychic Friends when you had a partner like Mulder? Once again, her thoughts and his were on convergent paths. And yet, she supposed she shouldn't be surprised. Journeying across the windswept, empty West, it was too easy to envision Gateway's future -- as Colorado's newest ghost town.

"My guess is it's not airborne," she murmured, her eyes trained not on her companion, but on the still landscape before them.

Mulder cocked his head, mulling over her statement. "Why do you say that?"

"The guys who caught us. They weren't suited up."

"So?"

"So, we weren't that far from town," she said reasonably, turning to look at him at last. "Not far at all, really, from where the bodies were being collected. If there was any chance of contagion by inhalation, I can't imagine Carl and his men would have agreed to be on perimeter guard without some form of protection. A gas mask, if nothing else."

"True. The clean-up crew was fully shielded from any sort of contact with Gateway and its citizens. I suppose that points to whatever killed those people being spread by contact--"

Without warning, the HumVee's right front tire slammed against a half-buried boulder. The vehicle lurched, then rolled up and over the obstacle. Hand grabbing for the dashboard, her good leg shoved firmly against the floor mat for balance, Scully was jerked first one way, then another upon her perch. When her sore hip slapped against the console separating her seat and Mulder's, it was all she could do to hold back a whimper. Jaw clenched, she felt the impact shudder all the way down her already throbbing limb.

"Wow." Mulder whistled appreciatively, his fingers locked around the jittery steering wheel. "That's amazing. That would have broken the axle on a regular car, but this thing just rolled right over it." He belatedly turned to his partner, who only just managed to hide a grimace.

"You okay?"

"Fine," she assured him softly, wishing she could get out and stretch, or even just take a moment and massage her damned leg. But if she broke down and admitted the need for such indulgences, Mulder would only blow the whole thing up to way more than it actually was. Besides, it wasn't as if they had time to dawdle. Nightfall was probably only a few hours away. They had to take advantage of what little light the overcast sky provided. Dark was dark out here in the middle of nowhere. It would be far too easy to miss a particularly dangerous dip in the terrain and wind up with a flat tire - and who knew if this thing had a jack? She could deal with the pain. Although perhaps it was time for a couple more ibuprofen.

"So, if what we've got here is a disease transmitted by touch, what do you suppose it is?" Mulder queried a few moments later, once their way had grown easier to navigate.

Scully's lips curved with indulgent humor as she dug in her coat pocket for the ibuprofen she had secreted there hours ago. Leave it to Mulder to get right back to the business at hand. The man's power of concentration was ferocious when he chose to exercise it. Good.

If he kept his attention on the case and the tricky driving, she might actually be able to swallow a few painkillers without his noticing.

Yet even as that thought registered, their morning conversation replayed inside her head. He needed to know, he had said.

Why?

What difference did it make? His knowing that her leg was sore wasn't going to change things. He couldn't just magically cure her or really even alter their course. They had to get back to Gateway. Time was of the essence. And in the greater scheme of things, her pulled hamstring was of little consequence.

So why make him feel badly?

Guilt assuaged, she successfully palmed two of the tablets, then searched for a third, taking care to make her efforts as inconspicuous as possible.

What the hell, she cavalierly reasoned, the extra pill only brought the dosage up to prescription strength. "Well, it could be a lot of things,"

she said, continuing their conversation as much to cover her actions as to answer Mulder's question. "Some highly toxic or mutated form of bacteria. Perhaps some sort of organic poison like those found in arrowpoison frogs. There are even several forms of pesticides that are lethal once they're absorbed into the skin."

"So what--are you suggesting that someone crop-dusted poor Gateway?"

he asked with a wry, lop-sided smile.

She shrugged, her fingers straining inside her pocket's slippery interior.

Ah, there we go. Pill number three. "I don't know. One thing is for sure--whatever killed those people wasn't a natural occurrence."

"You think it was planned?"

She shook her head. "Not necessarily planned, but engineered."

"Oooh, I love it when you talk semantics," he murmured, leering playfully.

She smiled in spite of herself. "What I mean is that what we witnessed had all the markings of a manmade disaster. Those men might not have meant to kill the entire town. But I'd bet my life that they're directly responsible for the deaths."

Mulder nodded his head vigorously. "I agree. But why would they target such an insignificant community? Gateway has no strategic value. There was no industry to speak of. No famous citizens--"

"Maybe that was the point," she said, reaching beside her for her halfempty bottle of water

He turned to regard her, his hazel eyes shadowed in the muted light.

"What do you mean?"

Scully thought before she spoke, taking advantage of the pause to swallow down the pills she had popped in her mouth while Mulder had been focused on the road. "What if what happened to Gateway happened specifically because it's in many ways so unimportant?

It's like you said back in D.C.--if someone wanted to get away with something, a town like Gateway isn't a bad place to do it in. It's inaccessible. It has no local media. No attraction that would normally draw outsiders. It's the perfect place to stage a cover-up."

Restlessly, he gnawed on his lower lip, his eyes narrowed thoughtfully.

"So what are you suggesting, Scully? Do you think that Gateway was used as a kind of testing ground, a laboratory of sorts?"

She sat there stunned. She hadn't actually been postulating anything specific. She had only been brainstorming aloud, airing out her impressions of the case thus far. What Mulder implied was awful.

Like the Tuskeegee experiments all over again. And yet, given the evidence they had, such a hypothesis made a sort of sick sense.

Stomach slightly queasy, she allowed, "I suppose such a thing would be possible. With its population being as small and as varied in age as it was, Gateway's citizens would be a sort of ready-made sampling."

Then, almost angrily, she shook her head; negating the notion before it could even fully take shape. "But why, Mulder? Why ruthlessly slaughter more than four dozen people? What could the ones responsible for such a thing ever hope to learn by doing so?"

"How to kill more efficiently," he answered, his voice hoarse, his words echoing around the suddenly hushed cabin.

For a moment neither said anything. Then, Scully whispered faintly, "God." And looking out at the endless horizon, she couldn't help but feel as if the darkness that threatened them with close of day not only represented night, but evil.

An evil that grew nearer and more dangerous the longer they drove.


Chapter VII

October 26
The Middle of Nowhere

This didn't look good.

No way. No how.

It wasn't even nine o'clock when Mulder was forced to suggest to Scully that they call it quits for the night.

It was either that or chance driving off a cliff.

They couldn't see more than a foot in front of them. Not with the snow whipping against the windshield as if Mother Nature herself was firing the stuff. The storm had begun rather unremarkably, a light shower at twilight. Pretty, in a child's snow globe kind of way. But before long, the wind that had dogged them since early afternoon had reasserted itself. Soon, what had at first reminded Mulder of Currier and Ives had seemed more like Stephen King. And all at once, Scully and he were trapped smack dab in the middle of the sort of tempest he had prayed for as a kid, the variety guaranteed to close roads and the schools they led to.

God, what he wouldn't give for an open road right about now.

But, traffic-free interstates not being an option, Mulder had instead concentrated on guiding the Hum-Vee as best he could, his shoulders hunched over the wheel, until it became clear that continuing would be suicidal.

"I think we need to find a place to spend the night," he said at last, the words as much apology as opinion.

His partner agreed.

Scully's softly murmured assent was one of the few things she had shared with him since they had discussed Gateway's possible selection as a kind of test site. She hadn't admitted as much, but he suspected her leg was still acting up. Throughout their journey, she had been restlessly shifting her weight upon the seat, her movement subtle, yet telling. He wished that she would just come right out and say, "You know, Mulder--my leg hurts like hell." But, no. Despite some of the inroads they had made earlier in the day, she had remained mute on the subject, stubbornly pretending that all was well.

Mulder knew better.

Particularly, when it came to their immediate predicament.

"Well, I don't know what kind of wind break this rise is going to give us," he said as he brought the Hum-Vee to a stop on what appeared to be the beginnings of an incline, and put it into park. "But, I have a feeling it's not going to be enough for us to mistake Colorado in October for Barbados in July."

Scully shook her head as she stared out at the storm, her expression grim. "How cold do you think it is out there?"

He shrugged and, leaving the motor running, slipped from behind the wheel to turn to the cargo area behind. "I don't know for sure. But with those gusts, I'd guess we're looking at a minus wind chill. Maybe even minus double digits."

Scully looked longingly at the temperature controls on the dashboard; turned up to maximum capacity, the heating unit was only just managing to keep the fierce winds at bay. Grimacing with sympathy, Mulder shook his head. "We can't leave the engine running, Scully.

Even if we didn't have our gas supply to worry about, we'd still run the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning."

She nodded, the motion weary and resigned. "I know. It's just...

we've got our coats and one blanket each. I'm not sure that's going to be enough, Mulder. Not on a night like this."

"I'm afraid I have to agree with you," he mumbled ruefully as, flipping on the vehicle's interior lights, he began hunting through the supplies stowed in the back of the Hum-Vee; checking inside packs and boxes, searching behind and beneath their meager stash of food . The dome light illuminating the rear hold got only a C for effort. Its glow was weak, casting shadows far more impressive than the light it imparted.

"What are you looking for?" Scully queried curiously as she peered over the seats at him.

"Anything that we can use for insulation."

Immediately picking up on his train of thought, she remembered, "The jackets. The ones I found with the daypacks. They aren't the heaviest things in the world, but they're something."

"Great," he replied with enthusiasm as he found the items in question and draped them over the back seat so as not to lose track of them. "Do you recall seeing anything else back here we could use? It wouldn't have to be cloth. Plastic or even rubber might do the trick."

Brow furrowed in thought, she shook her head. "Not really. Aside from the food and water and the traveling medicine chest, there wasn't all that much back there. Some rope maybe..."

"Paydirt!"

"What?" Scully asked with interest, as she carefully knelt and began to crawl over the console splitting the driver's seat from that of the passenger. But, as she slowly navigated the narrow path leading to his side, her injured leg suddenly buckled. Her hand outstretched, her face taut with pain, she grabbed wildly for support.

"Shit!"

Mulder caught her just before her hip hit the ground.

"What happened?" he asked, his voice gruff with concern, his body wrapped around hers, holding her up. "What's wrong?"

She shook her head and sighed, her hands braced on his forearms.

"It's this damned leg. It's stiffened up on me after all those hours sitting."

"Does it hurt?" he queried, his face bent to hers.

"No--"

He slipped his hand beneath her chin and tipped her head so that her eyes met his. "The truth, Scully."

She looked up at him, her gaze faintly rebellious. They just eyed each other for a moment, fixed in a silent contest of wills. At last, she wet her lips with her tongue and softly admitted, "A little. It keeps cramping."

He nodded slowly, trying to judge if she was minimizing the situation for his benefit or being straight with him. They were locked in an awkward sort of kneeling embrace, his one arm twined around her waist, her face balanced on his fingertips, their legs tangled like tree roots.

Thrust as closely together as they were, he was even more aware than usual of her size, her delicacy. Hell. Her head didn't even clear his shoulder. He wasn't a terribly big guy, yet he was looming over her.

Maybe that's why he so strongly felt the urge to protect her, Mulder realized with a spark of insight. To scoop her up, and hide her away, and make certain that nothing would ever threaten or harm her again.

Not goons named Carl, not dangerous treks out to the middle of nowhere, not killer snowstorms, and certainly not something as mundane as a pulled hamstring.

Mulder vs. The Hamstring.

Yeah. That ought to be one battle he stood a chance of winning.

Bemused by his own silliness, he quietly chuckled, his hand sliding around the curve of Scully's face to brush lightly against her cheek, the caress seeming to him at that moment like the most natural thing in the world. His odd fit of whimsy seemed to erase the last of his partner's lingering vexation. Lifting a brow, she drawled, "Are you laughing at me, Mulder?"

"No, ma'am," he said meekly.

"Then what's so funny?"

His lips lifted still, he combed behind her ear a few strands of cool auburn hair. "Scully, you and I are about to bed down for the night in weather a popsicle would find chilly. Our bed is a vehicle we stole from thugs bent on killing us. We're somehow going to have to manage to grab some shut-eye without the comfort of heat. We're miles from anywhere, without a road or maps to guide us, and yet we're doing our damnedest to get back to a town with nary a live citizen to greet us upon our return."

He shrugged.

"If I don't laugh, I may cry."

That coaxed a smile out of her. "I see your point."

"I'm nothing if not persuasive," he sardonically assured her. "Remember, I'm the one who talked you into coming out here in the first place."

"But you were in a slightly better mood a minute ago," she murmured as she ever so cautiously stretched and flexed her leg. A small shadow of pain darkened her eyes, yet she didn't cry out. Rather, she continued, "What did you find that got you so excited?"

"Oh!" Mulder mumbled, feeling a bit foolish for forgetting to have shared with her the good news. Guess that's what happens when a beautiful woman literally falls into a guy's lap, he reasoned. "Here.

Sit down a minute and I'll show you."

Guiding her to one of the back seats, he gently lowered her down, then turned and retrieved his discovery from behind him.

"Voila!"

Scully squinted in the half-light. "What is that?"

"A tarp," he explained, shaking it out. "I think. I found it folded and shoved under that big carton of bottled water. I don't know what the hell Carl and his buddy had planned on doing with it, but I have a feeling we can probably find a use for it."

She nodded thoughtfully. "Are you thinking we should try layering all this stuff?"

He shrugged. "You tell me, Scully. You're the doctor."

"I think that's our best bet," she said with another small bob of her head. "If we're to have any hope of conserving our body heat, we're going to have to pool our resources."

Pool our resources. In other words, he was going to finally get to live out his fantasy of Scully, him, and a lone sleeping bag.

Or at least, some sadly less sensual version of it.

Beggars can't be choosers, Mulder, he dryly reminded himself. Better make that fantasy a reality.

After convincing Scully to sit back and let him ready their sleeping quarters, Mulder quickly constructed a sort of makeshift nest. The tarp proved nearly double the size of their blankets. So he used that as the foundation of their bed, figuring that half the fabric could go beneath them and half on top. Next, he took their coats and unzipped them so they lay flat upon the bottom portion of the canvas, then did the same with the two plaid jackets.

"You know, we're assuming that the Gunmen didn't hear from Franklin again because someone physically stopped him from communicating with anybody," Scully said as she watched him work. "But what if it was something simpler? Like a downed phone line?"

"Scully, you saw the bloodstains on the floor," Mulder argued as he arranged the coats upon the tarp.

"I know. I'm just saying...wouldn't they have cut the phone lines to Gateway first? If this really is what we think it is, a man-made catastrophe?"

"Which would mean we're heading back to an area that we can't dial out of," Mulder said, finishing her thought. "I don't know though...

did you see the setup Franklin had? I'm pretty sure he was pirating his electricity, and the phone line, too."

"Mulder, that's not possible. He wouldn't have a phone number, for starters."

"Exactly. That guy wasn't looking to be reachable to the outside world. He just wanted modem access so he could get onto the net,"

Mulder said with a grin. "A man after my own heart. Pretty effective way to keep the telemarketers from interrupting your dinner. Anyway, I doubt anyone cutting phone lines would have nuked Franklin's little arrangement. His cabin is too far out for them to have bothered with.

At least at first."

She slowly nodded her agreement. "Well, if the cabin does still have internet access that would make it a good place to hide out while we try to figure out what happened in Gateway."

Mulder considered for a moment. "That's true. After all, when I got the okay from Skinner to look into this, I never mentioned how we got our lead. No one knows that we first learned about Gateway from Franklin."

"Except the Gunmen," Scully reminded him.

"I feel pretty sure they'll keep it to themselves," he assured her with a wry smile.

She smiled back at him.

Her grin threw more light than that stupid overhead bulb.

For just a second or two, Mulder froze, his behind on his heels, his gaze trained on his partner's sunny expression. "Um...it occurred to me that we should actually sleep on top of the coats to help cushion us from the floor," he muttered at last, gesturing weakly at the handiwork in question. "I don't know about you, but even with the heat on, I can feel the wind seeping in from underneath."

"Good thinking."

"I like yours better."

"How do you mean?" she queried.

"The cabin," he replied, turning to regard her more fully. "After all, a man may have died there..."

She wrinkled her nose with distaste.

"But it does have heat," he reminded her. "And food."

"And a real bed."

Oh God. It was like his fantasy on steroids--Scully, him, and one lone bed.

Easy, tiger.

"Hey! Don't knock this one till you've tried it," Mulder finally said, mock indignation masking certain other musings. Scully appeared not to notice anything amiss. She merely lifted a brow in reply.

"Why don't you go ahead and get situated," he said, taking hold of her arm and settling her atop the would-be mattress. "No sense in two of us crawling in after the fact and messing everything up."

Moving carefully, Scully did as he suggested, stretching out on her back and looking up at him with wide, dark eyes. For just a millisecond, Mulder paused at the picture she presented gazing up at him, her bright hair fanning out from her pale cheeks in tousled waves. Then, shaking himself free from his persistent reverie, he draped their two blankets over her and folded the tarp on top of that.

"Do what you can to warm that up for me, will ya, Scully?" he entreated with a grin. "I'm gonna go back up front for a second and shut everything down."

"Just think of me as your very own personal hot water bottle, Mulder,"

she murmured dryly.

"Ooh. Can I share that nickname with the guys back at the Bureau?"

he queried over his shoulder.

"Do, and I'll deny everything," she retorted from beneath the tarp.

Chuckling, he slipped behind the wheel. Outside the Hum-Vee the world was a white whirlwind. He could make out nothing but snow and more snow, the vision leaving him vaguely claustrophobic.

Taking a deep breath, he first snapped off the lights, then finally the engine.

Darkness, black as pitch.

Almost at once, he could feel the frigid north wind pushing through the vehicle's seams.

Please God, let their preparations be enough.

"Talk to me, Scully," he mumbled. "I don't want to step on you."

"I'm over here," she called softly.

Crawling cautiously in the direction of her voice, he found the edge of the tarp with his hand. Bending down, he lifted up the covers and eased beneath them. Pulling the combination of canvas and wool to just beneath his chin, he twisted slightly in an attempt to adjust himself more comfortably atop the coats.

"Ow!"

He couldn't be certain, but he thought that it might have been her head with which his elbow had made contact.

"Sorry," he apologized contritely. "I'm sorry. This is tricky. I can't see a damn thing. And I'm afraid I'm going to kick your leg or something."

"It's okay," she murmured from right beside his shoulder. "Don't worry about it. I'm fine."

Once he was comfortably arranged, it was Scully's turn to adjust. She scooted up, then to her side; trying, as he had earlier, to find the best possible position. The problem was, their cocoon was economy-sized at best. There just wasn't a lot of room to maneuver. Not if a person wanted to stay beneath the tarp.

Which meant that her soft little body couldn't help but wiggle alongside his longer, harder frame. Rub against it. Warm and firm. Curved and sweet.

Christ.

No doubt about it. Parts of his anatomy were getting harder by the minute.

"Come here," he nearly growled a heartbeat or two later. Wrapping his arm around her shoulder, he tugged her to him so that her head rested on his shoulder and her tummy pressed against his hip. In her surprise at this sudden turn of events, her hand fluttered for just an instant to his exposed throat.

At her touch, Mulder almost jumped straight through the covers. "Geez, Scully!!"

"What?" she queried, her tone disgruntled.

"Your hands are like ice," he said, trying his best not to sound like a parent. "Where are your gloves?"

"Nice and warm back in D.C."

"Do you want mine?"

"No. You need them as much as I do," she told him firmly. "Besides, yours wouldn't fit me. They'd just fall off overnight."

"We could share."

"No, Mulder."

Sighing in frustration, he pondered the problem for a moment, silently cursing her stubbornness. Honest to God, there were times when he swore that his partner's independence was a curse. She wouldn't take his gloves, eh? Well, she probably wouldn't approve of his back-up plan either. But this time, Dana Scully simply wasn't going to get her way.

Pointedly refraining from asking for permission, he lifted her dainty hand in his and raising it to his lips. Cupping it in his gloved palm, he opened his mouth and slowly exhaled. Gently, he bathed her fingers in moist heat, then took another deep breath and repeated the action.

His lips grazed her knuckles, the edges of her nails scratched with phantom force against the coarse stubble on his chin. It took every ounce of willpower he possessed to keep from pulling one of those slim digits into his mouth and tasting her skin with his tongue, from suckling lightly on a forefinger or a pinkie. But somehow, reason prevailed.

After a few moments, he instead took her hand and placed it against his cheek to assess his work.

"That's better," he murmured with satisfaction, tucking both their hands beneath the covers once more so that hers was sandwiched between his and his chest.

Scully said nothing. But he thought he detected a slight softening of her body, a relaxation of sorts as she rested against him from shoulder to knee.

They lay there for a time, not speaking. Mulder could feel the gradual drop in temperature on his face. But, so far, his homemade sleeping bag was holding up admirably. His bed partner was throwing heat like a miniature furnace.

"Are you comfortable?" he asked softly, his hand gliding lightly along her shoulder and arm.

"Hmm" she hummed from just below his ear, her voice husky and low, and astonishingly intimate in the darkness. "Yes. I am."

He nodded, thinking that even though she couldn't see him, she could probably feel the motion of his cheek against her hair.

"Thank you."

He had nearly dozed off when he heard the words, whispered in a hush.

God, what he wouldn't give to be able to see her. To look in her eyes and try to gauge just what had brought this about. He couldn't tell. And he had damn few clues to go by. As far as he could judge, she hadn't moved. She still laid curled against him, her head tucked beneath his chin. And her voice gave away no secrets; he detected no tremor, no temper.

What in the world was she thanking him for? For dragging her in to this mess when in reality they had no official case to investigate?

Perhaps he should simply ask her.

"For what?" he queried softly, giving her hand the gentlest of squeezes.

She didn't answer him immediately. Instead, she shook her head which, given their positions, meant she was for all intents and purposes nuzzling his shoulder.

Which, when he stopped to think about it, was probably what it had seemed as if he had been doing to her earlier.

"Just thank you," she said again, and sighing, melted against him.

And while the warmth her words imparted would have been sufficient to get him through a week of nights as cold as the one they were presently being forced to endure, the sensation of a trusting Dana Scully nestled in his arms was enough to keep Fox Mulder up for many hours to come.


Yet, he still fell asleep before his partner. Long after Mulder's breathing had turned slow and deep, hours past the point where his arms had grown slack and heavy around her, Scully laid awake in the cold, starless night.

Thinking.

The evening's chill was biting, nipping at her ears and nose until she was forced to seek refuge even deeper beneath the covers. Sliding lower, so that only the top of her head peeked out from under the tarp, she burrowed against the man sharing her bed, drinking in his warmth, his comfort, his familiar scent. The wind howled outside their shelter, shaking the Hum-Vee. The low, mournful racket should have been worrisome; or at the very least, lonely.

But, it seemed neither. Not to her. Why should she be concerned?

She rested snug and content beside a man she knew would face down the devil himself to keep her safe. So what, in the end, was a little wind? Sure, they were edging ever closer to a confrontation with forces who clearly wanted them dead. It looked like one of their own had given away their mission. They had no one to trust, save each other. Such betrayal should have been devastating to her psyche.

Instead, she lay there, smiling in the frigid blackness, wry humor striking at what many would have deemed a rather inappropriate time.

Tickling her unexpectedly, just as it had Mulder earlier. She was no reckless thrill-seeker. She knew the seriousness of their predicament, the ruthlessness of those they sought to bring down. She didn't take the work that lay before them lightly. Didn't underestimate the danger facing them.

It was only that she had reached a kind of epiphany that day. One that had begun when she had awoke in her partner's arms and grown to maturity in that same locale hours later. It hadn't come upon her like a bolt of lightning. Hadn't swept over her in a wave. Rather it had crept up on her, stolen around her like most wily of thieves. Making off with bits of her pride, pieces of her restraint.

And the entirety of her heart.

Yet, that trophy wasn't really as grandiose as it might first appear, she mused, her cheek to his chest, her hand rubbing gently against his sweater. After all, Fox Mulder had owned a significant portion of that particular organ for years. She had just never taken the time to fully understand what such a thing meant. She had never questioned whether she loved him. Of course, she did. She had accepted that fact early in their relationship.

But exactly what kind of love did she feel for the man beside whom she worked?

That thorny issue was one she had always preferred to avoid. Love was love. What difference did it make? It certainly didn't affect the way things were between them. Their obvious affection for each other didn't make them any less effective as investigators. If anything, it had molded them into a better team. Had more sharply attuned them to each other's moods, had made each sensitive to the manner in which the other was prone to evaluate a situation. Hell, half the time she could guess what Mulder was going to say before he said it. She would bet that he could boast the same about her.

And if at the times, despite the deep, spiritual bond they had forged, the friendship she and Mulder shared fell short, if instead she confessed to struggling with simpler, earthier, physical needs...

Well, that was just too damned bad. There were rules. They might not be written down in some official FBI handbook, but every agent knew them just the same.

Thou shalt not sleep with thy partner.

The first of several such commandments. Understood, but not recorded.

It didn't matter that she found Mulder attractive. That, try though she might, she couldn't help but measure every potential romantic interest against the one man she couldn't have.

Not smart enough.

Not intense enough.

Not sexy enough.

The would-be Romeo invariably wouldn't touch her right, or listen to her with the proper degree of concentration. He wouldn't gaze down at her with knowing, hazel eyes, a sly sort of humor twinkling in their depths, and deliver an innuendo-laden comment that probably should have earned him a slap, but instead only made her want to zing him one better.

No matter who he was, he wasn't Mulder.

Get over it, Dana, she would wearily tell herself. And get on with your life.

So she had. She had resolutely ignored certain impulses and contented herself with what was possible. She had followed the rules.

But gradually, as the years had passed and one by one the ideals she had held dear--her beliefs regarding elected officials, those sworn to protect innocent civilians, even the workings of the universe itself--had been undermined, she had begun questioning what was supposedly proper and just. She had started to wonder if perhaps other truisms she had taken for granted might not be unworthy of her esteem.

Why couldn't Mulder and she have something more than what they already enjoyed? Why did this--the most all-consuming, satisfying relationship she had ever known--have to remain platonic?

Who said so?

Maybe it was time to add a footnote to the old rule book.

Of course, all this was moot if Mulder was indifferent to her, she would silently grumble, if he viewed her as nothing more than a good buddy. Even as--and the idea had occurred to her years ago--a kind of stand-in for Samantha. But, she didn't think that was the case.

Even with the recent sorry state of her love life, she still remembered the way a man looked at a woman he desired. And from time to time, her partner would direct such a gaze her way. And then there was the verbal foreplay, the jokes and quips, and occasional "I just got very turned on." She sensed the strangely charged energy that flowed between them, knew he often touched her not because he had to, but because he wanted to. She was guilty of such indulgences herself.

So, the man she loved was seemingly as attracted to her as she was to him. Why didn't she act upon the knowledge?

Her work. Plain and simple. If they ever entered into a sexual relationship, if he started looking at her as more woman and lover than partner, who knew what that might translate into? How it would alter their on-the-job dynamic.

And then there were her own hang-ups with which to contend. Her need to remain steadfast and strong no matter what . She didn't know where those impulses came from, didn't really understand why it was so desperately important to her to show that she could take it, that she was equal to any and all challenges. Maybe it was a lifetime of trying to compete with her brothers for her father's approval. Perhaps it had developed instead as she had struggled to excel in her chosen career.

Regardless, she recognized her tendency to hold the world at arm's length, to go it alone.

Yet, that day's events had shown her, not for the first time, just how unfeasible such leanings had become. For reasons she felt certain even he himself did not fully understand, Mulder had begun making demands on her. Not for her time or her loyalty; but for her honesty, her openness.

He had told her he wanted to know when she was hurting or in need; had expressed this desire with a passion he usually reserved for extraterrestrials and their earthly collaborators. At first, she had fought him, had fallen into her usual pattern of behavior.

I'm fine, Mulder.

Really.

But as time had passed and she had begun rationalizing to herself and lying to her partner, Scully had slowly started to realize just how twisted her logic had become. Since when was it more noble to purposefully mislead the man who most depended upon her being forthright with him?

And when push finally did come to shove, and she had been forced to admit her infirmity, had the world stopped spinning? Had Mulder suddenly started treating her as a helpless female, someone to be coddled and cosseted?

Uh-uh.

All had been business as usual. Just as she would have handled it had it been he who had been injured.

Then there had been their sleeping arrangements; the pleasure to be had by being held so sweetly in his arms, and the way Mulder had reacted to her closeness. Did he really believe she wouldn't notice the effect it had on him? For crying out loud, she was a doctor. And a woman. She couldn't help but recognize the subtle tension drawing his body tight, shortening his breath, and deepening his voice. Did he even realize how his hand had begun stealing softly through her hair as they had laid entwined, almost as if his fingers had a mind of their own? She thought not. But she had certainly been aware of the tender caress. It was all she could do to keep from returning it.

But not here.

Not now.

Soon. With a killer disease waiting for them in Gateway, they had no guarantees from one day to the next, no assurance that their "someday"

would ever actually roll around. No. Carpe diem, and all that nonsense.

Dana Scully was sick and tired of doing what she thought she should do, what was expected of her. The time had come for her to do what she had yearned to do, seemingly forever.

Watch out, Fox Mulder, she silently warned, smiling against his soundly slumbering form. Ready or not, here I come.


Chapter VIII

October 27
Just Outside Gateway, Colorado

The snow around the cabin was untracked, pristine. Mulder drove the Hum-Vee nearly to the structure's front door, then hopped out and floundered around the vehicle, leaving Scully to struggle out of her side on her own. She did so carefully, her leg stiff after a night spent on the four-wheeler's floor and a day spent propped in one position. The winds had piled the snow into drifts which grew deeper near the cabin.

Mulder's jeans were already wet to the knee from wading through the frozen waves.

Well, don't just sit there -- get out, Scully silently coached herself.

Taking a steadying breath, she shifted slowly on her seat, and opening the car door, slid from her perch to the chilling whiteness below.

Mulder opened the cabin door just as she landed, the noisy creak of its hinges obscuring her grunt of pain. Half her weight had settled awkwardly on her bad leg, sending a whip crack of pain up the back of the limb. Although he hadn't heard her yelp her distress, Mulder did turn towards her in time to see the grimace that crossed her face.

His own expression tight with chagrin, he took two long strides and wrapped his arm around her waist. Leaning her weight against him, they hobbled into the darkened cabin.

"It's just stiff from being in the car," she began as they stomped across the threshold, snow trailing in after them like feathers molting from a bird.

"I know. It's okay, Scully." The quiet resignation in his tone stopped her. How in the hell was she supposed to respond to something like that? Mulder didn't really seem to care one way or another. He released her almost immediately, leaving her to point and flex the toes on her bad leg to chase away the ache while he got out some of his aggression by kicking shut the door. Slightly bemused by his macho display, she glanced at him and saw that he was studying her, watching her gingerly shift her weight back and forth as she tested the depth of the injury.

Right. Trust.

She took a deep breath. "Okay. I think, I really think, that this is a pinched nerve and maybe a strained ligament. If I were examining a patient with these symptoms -- without any diagnostic instruments, that is -- I would suggest resting the affected areas, careful stretching, ibuprofen, heat, maybe massage therapy. Then I would reevaluate the injury in a day or two." She looked up at him again, and saw that he was listening to her closely. "Mulder?"

He brushed some snow off her sleeve. "Pretty good, Doc. Did the patient happen to mention if it hurt?"

He was testing her, she realized, vastly uncomfortable at being put on the spot. Then, she reminded herself again that this was Mulder, and it was all right to need him a little. "Yeah, it hurts."

Nodding slowly, Mulder refrained from commenting at first. Instead, he reached over her shoulder and flicked on the light switch. The small cabin looked just as it had the first time they had seen it; Scully guessed that no one had been inside it since their brief visit, days ago.

With one more appraising look at her, he bent swiftly and began unlacing her boots.

"Mulder?"

He tugged on one ankle, and she obligingly lifted her foot so he could remove the boot. As he repeated the process with her other foot, he said, "Thanks for the diagnostic help, but now it's my turn to play doctor." He leered at her comically while he yanked his own boots off.

When he straightened up in front of her he had two pairs of wet boots hanging from his hands. "Thank you for telling me the truth."

She found that she was having trouble meeting his gaze. "Why?"

she muttered, breathing in the smell of wet wool as she examined the pattern on his jacket with much greater interest than it should have commanded.

He tossed the boots in the general direction of the door, where they landed with a thud, then tilted her face up towards his before he answered her. "Because it matters to me. You're always cleaning up after my mistakes, Scully. Always. You're the one who bails us out when Skinner gets pissed at us -- after I get us into some kind of stupid trouble that the FBI could do without. Like being here, for example.

You get stuck with all the messes I get us into, and you never say a damn word."

Without thinking about it, she glanced over to where the dripping boots had started to form a puddle by the door. He looked over at them as well, grinned, and said, "See what I mean? It must be worse than having a dog." He then slid his hand from beneath her chin and moved to properly store their boots, centering them on the mat in front of the door. Finding a pot-holder on the stove, he used it to start mopping up the puddle. As he focused on his task rather than on her eyes, he lightly said, "I know I'm not easy to live with."

"Mulder," she interrupted quietly, but he didn't let her get any farther.

"Wait, Scully. Let me say this. You've been bailing me out for years.

I can't even count the times you've patched me up after something went wrong --you've saved my life at least half a dozen times. And don't," he looked up with an expression she couldn't place, halfstern, half-tender, "tell me anything about it being part of the job description, because that's not all of it." He ran his hand through his hair in frustration. "I'm not doing a very good job of this, am I? I guess," he paused, and she saw a thousand things flit across his face, faster than she could possibly identify the emotions, even with her years of experience reading Mulder's thoughts. "I guess I just want to say that...that it makes me feel good to be able to take care of you for once."

Gazing down at him as he knelt on the wet floor, holding a soggy pot-holder up to her like a shy suitor offering a bouquet, she wanted nothing more than to tell him that she loved him and be done with it.

Tell him and find out if she had been reading him correctly, if all those smoldering looks and bits of innuendo had meant what she hoped they had.

But in the half-heartbeat it took for her to think of the words, she lost her nerve and instead simply reached out and took the pot-holder from him, tossing it towards the sink. Finally, she said, in a low voice, "That's what I wanted to thank you for. Last night."

Standing once more, he looked at her, their bodies close, their eyes locked.

"You're welcome," he murmured at last.

Keeping his gaze trained on hers for a moment longer, he then dragged a chair over to her and helped ease her down on to it. A trifle confused by his mute yet thoughtful courtesy, she allowed herself to be seated. And hunched for warmth, she watched as he got the stove going.

"When are we going to Gateway?" she inquired as she watched him work. "I mean...since that was the purpose of this little expedition."

Her query sounded forced to her ears, as if she had asked solely to make conversation. And in many respects, she had. Silence usually wasn't a problem between them, neither being the sort to speak without reason. Yet, this time she had felt compelled to shatter the cabin's quiet.

Subtle yet disturbing currents were eddying around them, dangerous and deep. It seemed as if at any instant she might be sucked under.

But Mulder appeared unaware of such things. In contrast to her jumbled emotions, he looked to be the very picture of calm. Moving with an ease she envied, he pulled kindling from a box at the base of the stove and shoved it inside its pot-bellied girth. A neat stack of split logs lay conveniently nearby. He soon availed himself of these as well. "Early tomorrow morning, when we see how your leg is doing, we'll figure out a plan. If I need to go alone, I will."

That's what you think, buddy, she silently grumbled, her lips thinning.

Skillfully arranging wood atop the pile he had fashioned of newspaper and twigs, Mulder anticipated her protest, cutting her off before she could voice it. "Don't, Scully. Just forget about it for tonight. We both need a break before we do anything else. Those people will all still be dead tomorrow."

Well, that was true enough, she supposed. Still, she didn't like it. She couldn't stomach the thought of Mulder going after those thugs alone, of either of them doing so.

But, she said nothing. Instead, she watched as her partner patiently coaxed the stove's contents to blaze. After a minute or two, the wood caught, burning nicely. Sharp snaps and pops punctuated the cabin's stillness. Throwing a toothy grin her way, Mulder stood, wiped his hands against his legs, and crossed to the makeshift desk on the room's far side.

"Well, let's see if this gamble paid off," he said as he reached for the power button.

Two minutes later, they both heard the humming and burst of static that signaled a modem connecting. Success. They had a means of communicating with the outside world. Shutting down the computer, Mulder cheerily remarked, "That should come in handy tomorrow."

"Score one for the good guys," Scully mumbled softly, her arms folded on the back of her chair, her cheek resting on top of them. It had been one hell of a long day. It must have been two by the time she had fallen asleep the night before. She had awakened a little after eight, and they had been on the road soon after. Now, at twilight, seated snugly beside a toasty warm stove, drowsiness was stealing over her like fog. Even the ache in her leg was fast becoming meaningless. Maybe if she just closed her eyes for a minute . .

She didn't think she had dozed, or at least not for more than a moment or two. However, the sudden, loud clanging jolted her awake. She opened her eyes and saw that Mulder was on his knees a few feet from her. She watched with curiosity as he rummaged under the stove, among the pots and pans stored there, and came out with a huge stewpot, and several smaller vessels. It wasn't until he crossed to the small alcove opposite her, yanked back the curtain, and eyed the tub with a thoughtful gaze, that she realized what he was planning to do.

"Mulder, are you drawing a bath for me?"

Mulder turned from his study of Vaughn Franklin's pseudo-bathroom to regard his partner. She sat sideways on the ladder back chair he had deposited her on, her chin propped on her forearms, staring back at him with sleepy blue eyes. Her hair was tousled and wind-ratted, and she had a smudge of dirt just to the side of her full, soft mouth.

Even bedraggled she took his breath away.

"Uh-huh," he mumbled, unsure suddenly whether his plan would be welcomed by the woman he sought to please. He couldn't tell by her expression. "This is going to take awhile, though. How about some dinner while the water's heating up?"

When she didn't answer right away, he had to resist the urge to shuffle his feet like a bashful schoolboy. Scully could be so contrary sometimes.

Would she be angry at his attempt to do something nice for her?

She was surveying him steadily, head tipped slightly to one side, her bad leg stretched out in front of her. Uh-oh. He recognized the expression on her face; it was the one she usually wore right before he switched off the lights in the office and turned on the slide projector.

"Scully?"

She grinned suddenly. "Why didn't I think of this before?"

"Think of what?" He felt like he had missed a step somewhere.

"Maybe I should get hurt more often."

"Oh." Well, what do you know? It appeared Special Agent Doctor Dana Scully was in the mood to be pampered.

He felt a foolish smile break across his face, and said smugly, "See? That's why I always let the bad guys beat on me for awhile."

"That's going to cost you, Mulder," she warned, heaving herself out of the chair. He quickly returned to her side and hovered while she peeled off her jacket and tossed it over the seat. Chuckling at her imperious gesture, he moved in to help her when she extended an arm.

"You make dinner," she directed, "I'm going to follow the doctor's advice and lie down while you do all the work."

And with his arm locked around her waist, he guided her to the room's double bed.

"I won't fall asleep," she predicted as she curled up atop the covers, ruining her pronouncement with a yawn.

"I know," he murmured, his tone indulgent as he unfolded an afghan he found at the foot of the bed and settled it over her small form.

"If you need any help, Mulder, you get me up," she mumbled into the pillow, her eyes sliding shut. "I was only kidding about you doing all the work."

"Okay," he assured her, having no intention of doing any such thing.

He gazed down at her, affection naked in his regard, and watched her body slowly relaxing its way into sleep. It didn't take long. The past couple of days had really worn her out. "Sweet dreams, Scully," he wished her softly, his fingers lightly smoothing a few flyaway strands of hair from her cheek. She didn't feel his touch. She had already nodded off.

And for a long minute he just stood there, looking at her. Thank you, he told her silently. Thank you for letting me do something for you, for letting me repay even a fraction of the enormous debt I owe.

A quick scan of Franklin's larder revealed a surprising number of options for their evening meal. None of the choices were particularly glamorous. Like Mulder, Franklin appeared to have been a cook by necessity, not choice. Still, anything was bound to look good after their diet of jerky and snack food. Mulder settled on warming up a package of frozen beef stew with rice as a side dish. As an afterthought, he also set out on the table a nearly full bottle of no-name bourbon he had found stashed behind a cereal box and an open bag of flour.

Scully slept until just before he pulled their dinner off the stove to make room for the pots that would heat her bathwater. She seemed embarrassed by her nap, and insisted on helping set the table. Mulder assured her it wasn't necessary, but in the end, let her hobble around the kitchen, finding plates and utensils and generally getting in his way.

The meal would never be featured on the cover of "Bon Appetit", but it tasted delicious just the same. Sitting back in his chair after filling his belly, Mulder studied his partner as lit by a stubby candle he had found rolling around in a cupboard. Scully had praised his cooking until he blushed, and the heady combination of her approval and the two shots of bourbon he had downed while cooking had left him feeling mildly euphoric. He had talked her into joining him for a shot when they first sat down. Just one, for "medicinal purposes." But he'd caught her eyeing the bottle a couple of times while they ate. Now, as he scraped up the last of the stew on his plate, she reached over and poured them each another shot.

"Medicine must be working, huh, Doc?"

"Mmmm. Sort of."

He watched her knock it back professionally, with a practiced flick of her wrist. She grimaced and coughed a little as it went down, and he laughed. Scully shot him a pissed-off look, but the corners of her mouth were twitching. He saluted the woman seated across from him with his flowered plastic cup, and imitated her. It was a huge shot and he felt it blaze a fiery trail down his esophagus. Struggling, he almost managed not to cough, but not quite. Once he got started, he began choking in earnest, and he had to grope for the glass of water Scully pushed towards him. Subsiding, he wiped his eyes and saw Scully was giggling. Would wonders never cease.

"Mulder, you forget, I'm Irish."

"Yeah, well, thanks for nothing." He wiped his eyes again and, standing, peeked into the pots on the stove. They were all boiling away. When he mixed their contents with cold water in the tub, Scully would have a pretty good soak. "You ready for bath-time?"

Scully nodded and began to get up. "I feel a little better already. I think it was mostly not being able to move my leg for so long that did me in." She watched him begin carefully carrying the pots of hot water over to the tub. He had already brought in buckets of cold water from the pump outside. A little mixing and measuring, and she should be in bath heaven. The only thing missing was some bubble bath. Curious as to what passed for indoor plumbing in this remote spot, she ducked her head and peered under the tub; it looked as though the single pipe beneath ran straight down. Did it empty out under the cabin? She wrinkled her nose, amused at Franklin's priorities. No running water, but a nice speedy connection for his modem. He'd get along just fine with the Lone Gunmen.

Oh man, she was really looking forward to this. She had more than two days of road grime to wash off. She was already warm from the food and the bourbon, and lifting her arms above her head languorously, she couldn't help but think of her upcoming bath as the perfect end to what had turned out to be a surprisingly nice evening.

Wrapped in her musings, Scully felt Mulder's eyes on her, watching her body lengthen and twist as she stretched out the kinks. Swiveling her head to meet his gaze, a clear picture popped into her head, one formed without any conscious exertion on her part--the tub, full of bubbles and hot water, and Mulder in it with her, his long limbs twining with hers as he soaped her shoulders. Instead of shoving the vision away with the professional brusqueness she had hidden behind for the last few years, she let the image linger for a moment, dulled into sensual indulgence by liquor, candlelight and the heat of the stove beside her.

Almost as if he sensed her thoughts, Mulder cleared his throat selfconsciously and the scene popped out of her mind like a bursting soapbubble. "Need any help?" He wasn't looking at her anymore, but his face was a little flushed, and she wondered if he had had a vision of his own.

"No, thanks." Scully shook herself slightly and limped into the alcove as Mulder added more cold water and tested the bath again. She dipped a hand into it and sighed with approval. "This is perfect, Mulder."

Smiling at her words, he crossed away from her, retrieving the small candle from the table, and carrying it back to the shadowy alcove.

Carefully setting it on the rickety table at the far end of the tub, he pulled the curtain across the opening as he left, taking a last look at her as Scully neatly toed off first one sock, then the other.

Tugging her sweater over her head, she heard him moving about the cabin, cleaning up the table and refilling the pots. She shivered as the cold air hit her bare skin and reached hurriedly for the zipper on her jeans.

As she got undressed, she thought about Mulder's demand for honesty.

Funny. It hadn't been as difficult for her to comply as she had feared.

The sense of vulnerability she had felt when she had first realized that her pulled muscle was going to be hindrance was gone, replaced by a quiet glow of serenity that she couldn't completely explain.

For years, she had expected so little from Mulder. And now, he was so much better -- better at caring for her, better at supporting her without making her feel helpless -- than she had ever hoped.

Shaking her head with a sort of amazement, she wondered how Mulder viewed their new and seemingly improved relationship. Did he fully appreciate what a leap it was for her to open up as she had? Did he understand how strange it felt for her to be dependent on someone else? To allow him to be responsible for her well-being?

She could hear him washing the dishes in the dry sink. Had he saved a little of that hot water for himself? she mused. Or was he instead reflecting that the whole escape-from-it-all backwoods experience would be greatly enhanced by the addition of plumbing? And maybe cable TV. More importantly, was he as sensitive as she was to the reality of her stripping naked mere feet away, a worn cotton curtain the only thing separating them?

Smiling ruefully at the notion, she wriggled out of her panties, her last remaining article of clothing, and kicked them toward the heap at the edge of the curtain. Hands braced on its lip, she began to swing her leg over the side of the tub.

Instantly, her leg and lower back seized up. It was by far the worst pain the limb had given her all day, and Scully couldn't suppress a small cry of alarm.

"Scully? Are you okay?"

She buried her face in her hands and fought the urge to howl with frustration. "Yes. No. I...I can't get into the tub. The sides are pretty high, and my leg..."

She knew he must have heard the catch in her voice because he was already trying to soothe her. "It's okay, it'll be a lot better after you soak it for awhile."

True, she thought. The only problem was, to do that, she first had to climb into the blasted tub.

"Scully..." he called after a beat. Then, he hesitated, and she could hear a catch in his voice, too. "Would you like me to help you get into the tub?"

She looked down at herself and tried to keep her voice steady. "Mulder, I'm not..."

Of course, you're not, thought the man on the other side of the curtain, a dish towel clenched in his hands. You're naked. Nude. In the buff.

And I just offered to not only sneak a peak, but cop a feel.

God, he was so noble sometimes, he made himself sick.

"I know," he interrupted hastily, babbling now just a bit. "I'm sorry, Scully. I really am, I just don't know how else..."

"Okay," she said. Her voice sounded calm again and he felt an absurd sense of relief. Good. She hadn't taken offense, and he hadn't managed to single-handedly sabotage all they had achieved relationship-wise over the last couple of days. Thank God. He should have known that his practical Dr. Scully wouldn't get a case of the vapors. They could work around this. There had to be a better way of getting her...maybe she could put on a big t-shirt or something before he helped her into the tub.

At least that would be some slight concession to modesty. Franklin probably had something like that on one of these shelves...

Then suddenly his terribly reasonable musings melted away like ice before a flame. He couldn't think at all. Not when he saw Scully's hand reach around the edge of the curtain and draw it back.

She was standing by the edge of the tub, completely nude. Steam curled up from the water and the light from the candle in the corner lapped at her body, creating pools of light and darkness that delineated the exquisite curves of her shoulders, the swells of her pink-tipped breasts, the triangle of copper-colored curls at the apex of her thighs.

With acute clarity, Mulder heard his photographic memory go click and thought, there is absolutely no way I am ever going to be able to forget this.

Dragging his eyes from what had been, to that point, undiscovered country, he finally met her gaze. And found himself entirely incapable of reading what he saw there.

"Do you think you could pick me up and set me in the tub?" she asked, very politely, as if they were discussing whether or not it was going to rain on Friday.

Her voice broke the paralysis that had frozen his brain and rendered him incapable of speech. "Uh...yeah. Uh,...do we need to keep your leg straight while I do it?"

She frowned slightly, and in the same polite tone she had earlier employed, said, "No, I don't think so. Just lower me in."

He ran a hand over his face and found he was sweating lightly. He was peripherally aware that he was already half-hard and that putting his arms around her was going to eliminate any chance of solving that problem before it got any bigger.

Both him and the problem.

He tossed the towel onto the counter, and took a tentative step towards the naked woman opposite him. He was actually bending down, circling his left arm around her, when she said, "Ah, Mulder?"

He jerked back a half-step and looked at her guiltily.

"Mulder, you're going to get your sweater and that shirt you have on under it totally soaked if you don't roll up the sleeves. In fact," she said thoughtfully, looking him over, "I think you might just have to take it off for this little operation."

Inwardly, he groaned. That was all he needed; he was hard as a fucking rock now. Of course, she was technically right, easing her into the water would invariably get him soaked too...shit. There wasn't any way to get out of it gracefully. Trying to keep from looking at her face, he quickly stripped off his sweater and T-shirt together, slinging them behind him.

Turning to her again, something in him rebelled.

This was unfair.

Completely fucking unfair and uncalled-for.

There was no way he was going to get through this without enjoying it.

No fucking way.

The realization emboldened him and he managed to, at last, look at her face. What he saw, floored him.

She was smiling. Not a big, sunny smile, it was her small, enigmaticDr. Scully-smile, the one that came with a slightly cocked eyebrow.

All the blood remaining in his brain rushed south.

Okay, then.

His hesitation finished, Mulder stepped forward and slid his arms around his partner, winding one around her waist, and the other behind her knees. He stood up slowly and deliberately, taking his time, letting his cheek brush her bare shoulder. He savored her small gasp when his three-day stubble scraped her skin. Straightening, he shifted her weight so that she nestled more securely against his body. Scully clung to him, one arm curved around his shoulders, the other twined loosely around his waist.

The smooth press of her warm skin against him felt glorious. Daringly, he allowed himself a long, sweeping look, starting at her dainty, curled toes, traveling up over her knees, dawdling on the dense nest of curls.

He shifted her weight lower, mainly for the pleasure of feeling her rounded hip press into the tip of his solid erection, and his cock twitched when she gasped again. He let his gaze travel up the downy fuzz on her belly, then up further, to the small, furled, rose-pink nipples and perfect, creamy-pale breasts. He lingered on her shoulders. He had always enjoyed his infrequent peeks at them -- they were nicely rounded, with firm muscles that reminded him of her strength and contrasted with her delicate, reed-thin collarbones.

Then, finally, he again looked at her face. She was flushed. Her eyes were slightly dilated, her lips parted, and Mulder knew with absolute, joyous certainty that she was as aroused as he was. He held her gaze for a moment before inclining his head towards hers. He brushed his lips along her hairline, pressed a brief, chaste kiss to her forehead, and murmured, "Dana?"

She tipped her head back and met his eyes. Hers were wide, shocked.

At him, or at herself? Or both? He wished he knew.

He flexed his thumb, stroking it along her leg. "Want me to put you in now?"

He could hardly hear her reply. "Uh,...yeah."

Mulder took the two steps to the tub and bent at the waist, lowering her in gently, carefully, as if she were made of glass, until she was safely settled, submerged up to the tops of her breasts. He withdrew his dripping arms from the tub, and said, "Call me when you want to get out, okay?"

"Okay," she murmured, her eyes never leaving his.

Mulder left the alcove, pulling the curtain shut after him. Scully sat completely still for a minute or more, listening to her heart pound.

Mechanically, she reached for the soap.

What the hell had she just done?


Chapter IX

October 27
Vaughn W. Franklin's Cabin

What the hell had she just done?

What about him? He had more than met her halfway. She could still feel his lips on her forehead, could still smell his skin, feel him stroke her leg. She closed her eyes, remembering the wave of heat that had raced through her when he looked her over, a kind of possessiveness in his gaze.

She began washing her hair, keeping her eyes shut as she tried to explain her own actions to herself. A couple of drinks, a little too much closeness...No. Not enough to excuse what she had done.

Was she sorry?

She stopped rubbing the shampoo into her hair, her lids lifting, and remembered the look on his face when he had kissed her.

Not really.

She started scrubbing again. No matter how it had happened, she had wanted him to touch her for years. And now he had.

But exactly how far would they go?

She pondered that question until the bathwater turned tepid. Her fingers wrinkled like a newborn's, she managed to pull the stopper out with her toes. Then she sat there, watching the water swirl lazily down the drain, and pondered some more. Still, the answer to her question eluded her.

Sighing, she stood up and toweled off slowly, wondering what to do next. Mulder had said to call when she wanted to get out. But was that really necessary? Scully stretched the leg out to the side and lifted it cautiously. The hot water and whiskey had helped a lot. She raised it nearly to the edge of the tub before she felt a twinge. Probably not the sciatic nerve, then. But she was still going to require assistance.

Steeling herself for that eventuality, she dried her hair and wrapped the towel neatly around herself, tucking the end in carefully.

"Mulder?"

He appeared almost instantly, pulling the curtain back. She saw that he had shaved, and that he hadn't put his shirt back on. "Need a lift?"

Nodding, she held her arms out to him, and he lifted her as easily as he had the first time. Instead of putting her immediately down, however, he carried her out of the alcove entirely. Surprised at first, she felt her heart start to beat double-time when she saw he was heading for the bed on the far wall. He had turned back the covers. The sheets looked thin, but clean. He carefully settled her atop them. She felt a faint stab of disappointment when he straightened up rather than joining her.

"Did you say something about massage therapy before, Doc?" He looked perfectly innocent, but her pulse was speeding even faster.

"I think it would be beneficial, yes."

He grinned at her crisp, businesslike reply, but he was eyeing her bare shoulders again with something other than amusement. "I stink. First let me wash some of this topsoil off, then I'll see what I can do." He pulled the covers up over her, then headed for the alcove to take his bath.

Turning over onto her stomach, she listened sleepily to the sounds of Mulder getting undressed. She heard the echo of cloth sliding over skin, of water lapping against metal, of fire greedily consuming wood.

Willing herself to stay awake, she closed her eyes, and tried to remember what Mulder looked like naked.

When had she last seen him like that?

After she had shot him in the shoulder, when she had realized that her original plan -- to send him to New Mexico to talk to Albert Hosteen while she tried to clear her own name at the Bureau -- wasn't going to work anymore. Had she been in love with him even then? If she hadn't, would she have risked everything for his sake?

She had driven him, feverish and wounded, across the country. Taking his temperature at every stop, she found it had climbed to nearly one hundred and one degrees by the time they reached western Nebraska.

She had struggled him, unresisting, into a motel bathroom, undressed him, and bathed him with cool water. He was only semiconscious, and she was scared that she would lose her job, that he would die, or get better only to disappear so that he could chase his demons alone, leaving her for good.

"Dana?" She drifted back part way and saw that he was sitting beside her on the edge of the bed. His hair was slicked back, and his damp skin glistened in the dim light. A memory, she thought in thanksgiving.

A dream. This was Colorado, and he was well again, and she could feel the heat coming off of him in waves. She came all the way awake and saw that he had turned out the overhead light and set the candle on the table next to the bed. The room glowed golden with only that stub of wax and the busily burning stove to light it.

"Dana?" he murmured again. His voice was uncertain.

She slid over a little farther, making more room for him. His face smoothed out as she welcomed him, worry lines disappearing. He had a towel wrapped around his waist, and a bottle of cheap lotion in his hand. "Still want that leg massage?"

She studied at him more carefully and saw that he wasn't sure, was maybe just as confused as she was. And all at once, she had the answer to the question that had plagued her earlier. Propping herself up on one elbow, she stretched out her arm and grabbed hold of Mulder's free hand. Laying back once more, she guided him by the wrist to the slope of her breast, her eyes locked on his. Pressing firmly against the back of his hand, she curled his fingers around the fold of toweling tucked just beneath her arm. She held him there until Mulder himself gripped the fold of nubby fabric. Then, lifting both arms away from her body so that they framed her head upon the pillow, she murmured simply, "Yes."

Setting the lotion to the side, he tugged on the tail of toweling, easing it free. Slowly, he unwrapped her, his knuckles grazing her tender skin, his fingertips trailing fire. Drawing the moment out, savoring it.

And when she finally lay before him naked, when he had pulled the towel from under her and tossed it carelessly to the floor, Scully had to at last close her eyes. Much as she wanted to, she could no longer lie there watching him watching her. Not with Mulder looking down at her with four years worth of longing in his gaze.

Her lashes lowered, she heard him uncap the lotion and, sucking in her breath, she shivered as the cold droplets hit her skin. "Oooh. Mulder, you're supposed to warm it up in your hands first."

"So you're bossy in bed, too? What a surprise." She snapped open her eyes, all set to show him who was bossy, and saw that he was smiling sleepily at her, teasingly, tenderly. "Roll onto your stomach."

He began with the back of her thigh, then gradually worked up to her hip, pressing firmly, working in a circular pattern. His fingers stroked along her skin, setting a gentle rhythm that pulsed through her. She knew he was trying to work the stiffness out of her leg, but his touch was so undeniably erotic that she found herself easing her legs apart a little, seeking to answer the ache between them. Immediately, his fingers dipped lower, to her inner thigh, no longer rubbing, but stroking lightly, as if he were testing the texture of the silky skin there. Then he sighed, and slid his hand up to cup her ass briefly with both palms. The bedsprings creaked and she felt him shift his legs, then lie down next to her.

Moving with slow, sensual languor, Scully opened her eyes and rolled onto her side, gazing at him. Mulder smelled the sweetness of the shampoo and soap she had used in the bath. "I just want to be sure that you're not getting more than you bargained for," he said, seriously. His fingers still tingled from the feel of her skin and he had to fight the urge to nestle one of her breasts in his hand. "Are you sure you want to do what I think we're about to do?" He tried to keep his question neutral -- he knew he needed to give her a chance to back out before they went any further but his heart was racing.

She looked up into his worried yet hopeful face. "I didn't plan any of this. But," and one small hand settled on his chest, "yes, I'm sure. Are you?"

He lifted his head and looked down at her small body before he met her eyes again. They were luminous, reflecting the candlelight, and he wished he had the words to tell her how beautiful she was. "Sure? Are you kidding me? Do you know how long I've wanted to make love to you?"

She stroked his chest, tracing the lines of muscle. "Tell me."

He opened his mouth, then shut it again. "You remember our first case, in Oregon? When the thunderstorm knocked the power out, and you..."

"Came down to your room in a total panic and practically got naked in front of you?"

"Yes...No. It was when you hugged me. But it's different, now."

He thought of long plane rides she had spent sleeping on his shoulder, of the time she'd helped him face down Modell, of all the instances when he had left her behind because he was afraid for her, or of her, or both. He felt her fingertip circling his nipple, then rubbing it softly.

And suddenly it was torture to try to think at all. "I'm not good at saying this stuff, Scully. Can I show you instead?"

She smiled up at him. "Yes. Would you kiss me now, please?"

He smiled back and whispered, "See? Bossy." Then he did as he was told, settling his mouth over hers.

The kiss was nearly as chaste as the one he had deposited on her forehead earlier; innocent, as if she were not lying naked next to him.

Then he flicked his tongue once across her upper lip, teasingly, and she sighed softly into his mouth. Her lips parted under the pressure of his. And the kiss deepened into something raw and hungry, flavored by years of wanting. When he lifted his head, they were both gasping.

He reached for her, but she gently batted his hand away. She grabbed hold of the edge of the towel he still wore around his waist and tugged it loose. With an indulgent smile, he watched her slowly look him over, his face shifting into a smug grin as he saw her eyes widen slightly when they reached his erection.

"Hey, Doc? You done checking me out yet?"

"Quit calling me that, Mulder," she muttered, examining his abdominal muscles intently.

She took her time studying him, and he waited, restraining his desire to touch her until she had looked her fill. Finally, she rested her palm against his cheek and brushed her lips over his chin, then lightly bit the mole on the side of his face. He felt her lips open against his skin and turning his head to hum his approval, kissed her again, feeling her smile.

Her weight shifted and her hand closed firmly around his penis. He squeezed his eyes shut and fireworks exploded behind his lids. Her mouth was warm and she tasted faintly of bourbon and of something much more intimate, a Dana-taste that he loved immediately because he knew he was tasting the essence of her. She stroked him slowly, from root to tip, and he thrust once, twice. Hard. Up into her fist.

He pulled her hand away and eased her onto her back, sliding a hand under her lower back so that he could adjust her position. He settled between her spread legs and bent his lips to one nipple. It was gumdrophard and he drew it into his mouth, sucking hard and grazing it repeatedly with his teeth until he heard her make a low, animal noise.

Her hands tangled in his hair, her hips shifting restlessly beneath him.

He shifted to the other breast and nuzzled it as he eased a hand between her legs.

Scully heard herself cry out as Mulder sank two fingers into her at once.

She was almost embarrassingly wet, and he brushed his thumb against the source of that moisture before he began circling it around her clitoris.

He lifted his head to kiss her again, and she met him hungrily, openmouthed and panting, reaching for his face, for the smooth, hot skin on his back, for any part of him that she could reach. She felt his engorged penis prodding her hip. She was moaning steadily now, and she could sense the tension building in her center. When he took his hand away, she made a new sound, one which he interpreted correctly as disappointment. Grinning evilly at her for a second or two, he pushed her legs farther apart and scooted down between them, to rest on his stomach.

She sighed with relief when she felt his mouth close gently around the small bundle of nerves hidden in her folds. His tongue flicked out to worry at her clitoris, suckling and licking at it, as if trying to commit her taste to memory. He slid his fingers inside her again, three this time. Stretching her, teasing her, readying her for the invasion of his rigid penis. Slowly, he increased the friction with his tongue until she arched helplessly against him, crying out sharply as she came.

He rode it out with her, making it last as long as he could, then slowed down, easing off gradually until he felt her relax completely once more.

Crawling from between her legs, Mulder laid back down beside her and put his arms around her, holding her patiently as her heartbeat eased.

Breathless, she reached up for his head and kissed him deeply, tasting herself there, her eyes squeezed shut.

"Are you still sure?"

His voice was rough with his need, but she knew he was asking for permission. "Oh, Mulder. Please, yes." She slung a leg over him and opened her eyes. His were clear hazel, warm and wonderful, and she knew with perfect clarity that she loved him more than she had ever loved anyone in her life.

He grasped her hip and rolled her smoothly onto her back. She felt the head of his penis nudging against her opening as he kissed her, and then he was inside of her in one smooth thrust.

He was huge and hot, stretching her fully, and she sighed her pleasure.

He held perfectly still for a few seconds, breathing deeply, letting her get used to the feel of him buried within her, and brushed another light kiss across her lips. She edged her hips up towards him, wordlessly urging him on. Reverently, he murmured her name, soft and gentle, and began to move.

They found their rhythm immediately, like long-time lovers. Dropping his head to her shoulder, he bit down, the impact measured. In retaliation, she dug her fingers into the long muscles of his back.

Mulder could only moan his satisfaction. Breathing fast and hot, he bowed his head to touch his forehead tenderly to hers. Feeling his gaze, she opened her eyes again to watch his face. Between surges, he stole another kiss, and she smiled up at him.

"God, Scully."

The weight of his body blanketing hers was exquisite; the taste of the sweat sheening his skin drove her to lap at his shoulder for more. Love you...God, I love you, Mulder. But she never spoke the words, letting her body tell him as it joined with his.

He was moving faster now, and she rose to meet him, tucking her pelvis to pull him deeper within her body. Her leg throbbed quietly, rhythmically, but she ignored it. "Dana. Dana. I want to watch you come."

His sweet entreaty, whispered in her ear, husky and soft, made her stiffen.

"I, oh, I don't think..."

He drove smoothly into her again, hooked an arm underneath her and rolled them over with a grunt, never leaving her body. "Mmm. Yes, you can. Let me try."

The quick spin momentarily jarred her leg. Sucking in a harsh gasp of air, she froze just for an instant. But, the pain didn't last long. Then, palms braced against his chest, she looked down at Mulder. His hair was feathered and mussed from her fingers tangling in it. His cheeks were flushed; his lips glistened from her kisses. He was beautiful.

Pulsing with energy and heat, he laid beneath her, like the most docile of mounts, waiting for her to ride him.

Docile? Somehow, she knew better.

Slowly, carefully, she started to move above him, rocking along his length with small, shallow dips of her hips. Tipping back his head, and letting loose with a low, rough groan, Mulder deliberately licked both thumbs and reached down between her legs, just above where their bodies joined. Moving in tiny, devastating circles, he began to stroke her again.

The point of contact was electric and his caresses sparked a new fire in her. She rose higher over him before sinking back heavily upon his length. The feeble sounds coming from deep in her throat were steadily building. She could feel the wave rising in Mulder as well, sense him struggling for control. She wouldn't allow it. Not for him. No control.

Her eyes half-shut, her lips parted, Scully reached behind her to cup his testicles in one hand, stroking gently. He thrashed against her, his eyes squeezed tight in ecstasy.

Lying beneath her, slicked with sweat, his long, slim fingers teasing her as he thrust up into her, focused on her pleasure, he was easily the most erotic thing she had ever seen. She tried to think of what else she could do to please him but he had already taken her beyond coherent thought, beyond anything but pure sensation. Pure joy.

Mulder moaned again, his stomach muscles tensing, the bucking of his hips fierce and wild. Scully knew he was trying desperately, but wouldn't be able to hang on much longer. Thankfully, she was close as well. The tension built in her belly, rising, spiraling, soaring.

And all at once, she took flight. Resting her hand on his leg, she ground down against him sharply, her leg forgotten, the pitch of her cries crescendoing as she found her release. Mulder tried to keep his eyes open to watch her orgasm. But finally the wave of white-hot pleasure found him, and he shut his eyes once more, shouting low and hoarse as he followed her over the edge.

Shivering in the aftermath, Scully collapsed bonelessly onto him, burying her face in the side of his neck. Trembling himself, Mulder wrapped his arms around her, murmuring sweet words of love, praise, passion.

And, muffled, spoken from where she had tucked her face into the hollow of his throat, she whispered her response. "...love you, too."

Then, saying nothing more, they drifted off to sleep.


Chapter X

October 28
A Cabin Outside Gateway, Colorado

Mulder awoke to the smell of coffee, its familiar aroma rousing him from slumber with a gentle nudge. Sighing quietly into the bedding, he sleepily blinked his eyes and tried to recall when exactly he had phoned down for room service.

Then, as he lay on his stomach, his arms wrapped tightly around his pillow, cool sheets encasing his sated body in starchy softness, another faint fragrance made itself known. One that had nothing whatsoever to do with food or drink, but one which stirred his appetite nonetheless.

Scully.

That's right...

The cabin.

The bath.

The bed.

Last night. When all the elements had woven together so beautifully. The planets had aligned. The earth had moved...

Oh yeah.

It was all coming back to him now.

Smiling with a kind of drowsy satisfaction, he inhaled once more, this time more deeply, reveling in the fact that he could smell her on the bed linens, under the covers, on his own skin. It might have been masked by an unfamiliar soap and shampoo, but nothing could hide the unmistakable scent that belonged to her alone. It was everywhere, surrounding him, saturating his senses.

Well, what do you know? he mused with a touch of whimsy.

Scully had marked him, like an animal claiming something as their own.

Animals.

Claiming.

Yeah, there had been a little of that going on the previous night as well.

He had the scratches to prove it.

Then, as sleep slipped further and further away, a more detailed awareness began filtering back to his consciousness.

Impressions of a long and almost sinfully enjoyable night.

The sound of Scully sobbing for breath, gasping high and helpless, as he moved over her, in her.

The sensation of her small hands clutching at his buttocks, his shoulders; digging into the muscle there, urging him to plunge deeper, harder, faster.

The sight of her beneath him, her lips swollen and parted, her lashes hanging heavy and low. Her watching him, her gaze cloudy with arousal, soft with yearning.

And all at once, he missed her, desperately. Wanted her beside him in that dead man's bed with a longing that was nearly powerful enough to assume form and mass. He opened his eyes to look for her.

And smiled when he spied the object of his search.

The woman who had scant hours earlier used his back as an emery board, who had sapped his strength and will as surely as Delilah had Samson's, looked markedly different in the soft, early-morning light. Gone was the seductress, and in her place was the sweetly rumpled girl next door.

Oblivious to his scrutiny, Scully padded about the cabin's kitchen in borrowed clothes. Her limp remained, although it appeared less pronounced than it had the day before.

Oversized rag socks covered her feet, bunching sloppily at her slender ankles. Draping her torso was a vastly over-sized blue plaid flannel shirt, its hemline hitting midway down her thigh. She had neatly folded back the garment's sleeves to just below her elbows, yet this small attempt at tailoring in no way disguised that she was in danger of being swallowed whole by her second-hand garb. Her face was scrubbed clean, her hair pulled back in a high, lopsided ponytail. It looked like she was doing a bit of laundry. A small pair of lavender panties and matching bra were strung up over the sink, water dripping from them in fat, measured drops.

How odd, he realized with a start. He had seen the woman fully dressed and he had seen her in the buff. But, aside from that first time, ages ago, he had never seen Scully modeling the latest from Victoria's Secret.

Suddenly, he wondered just how long it might take for those delicate slips of purple to dry.

She must have sensed his eyes on her, because all at once she turned to unerringly meet his gaze. Mulder pushed up on to his elbows, fiercely conscious of the fact that he was naked beneath the bedcovers while she, at least in some fashion, was clothed.

"Hey," she murmured from across the room, her voice throaty and a tad shy.

"Morning," he mumbled in reply, the corner of his mouth lifting in greeting.

"I'm...uh . . I'm washing out a few things," she explained, gesturing over her shoulder, a dish towel in her hand. "After all, it's been a more than a couple days now, and it's not like I'm going to see a change of clothes anytime soon."

"True enough," he said evenly, wishing she would stop talking about nothing and simply come to him. He wanted to touch her, to draw her into his arms and kiss her good morning. To ease the ache that had seemingly begun throbbing the moment he had laid eyes on her.

But Scully didn't appear ready to do this, didn't seem to know precisely how to behave in this strange, uncharted stage in their relationship. Mulder sympathized with her confusion.

The night before, they had had candlelight and cheap bourbon to get them over the rough spots. Yet, in the cold light of day, that buffer had vanished. Now, it was just the two of them.

Naked. And nearly so.

"How's your leg?" he ventured, thinking this was safe, neutral territory.

Judging by her even-tempered response to his query, Scully agreed. "Good. Well...better. It's not nearly as stiff."

"Are you going to be able to walk on it for any distance?"

"Yeah, I think so. Shouldn't be a problem."

He nodded, watching her closely as, with a small smile, she turned to finish tidying up the sink. Mulder had to hand it to her. To the casual observer, Scully looked as if she were perfectly at ease. Like they did this sort of cozy, domestic thing all the time.

Waking up side by side.

Her puttering about the kitchen.

Him lounging in bed.

Unless a person looked really, really hard they would no doubt miss the signs which pointed to a slightly different reality. Like the way her hands kept finding just one more task to complete. First she had been wiping down the counter.

Then, she had carefully returned the cleaning supplies to their proper places. Now, she was folding the fraying dish rag in her grasp with the kind of precision he usually associated with origami. Tidiness was one thing, but her current fastidiousness bordered on the compulsive.

Yet what most set off Mulder's alarms were Scully's eyes. He couldn't see them. She stubbornly refused to meet his gaze for any length of time, choosing instead to focus on the floor, her hands, anywhere, but on his own increasingly troubled face.

"Hey, Scully," he said at last, his voice soft, his chin propped on his fist.

She instinctively looked up from her perusal of the towel.

Then, true to form, her gaze skittered away. "What?"

"Come here a minute. Would'ja? I promise I won't bite."

She arched a brow.

"I'd come to you," he murmured soothingly, "but I have a feeling it's kinda chilly out there."

That earned him a soft chuckle. "Are you telling me you aren't dressed for autumn in the Rockies, Mulder?"

"I'm telling you I'm not dressed, period," he retorted dryly.

She smiled again, and for just a moment their eyes connected and held. "I know. I remember."

"So do I," he told her, his voice rumbling low.

It was not his own nakedness he recalled, of course. But hers.

She swallowed hard. "Mulder..."

He didn't try and squash her protest with words. Instead, braced on his forearm, he held out to her his hand; extended the woman he loved an invitation.

And waited to see if she would accept it.

It took a beat or two, but at last she left the toweling on the counter and crossed to the bed, her stride uneven. Taking his hand with one of hers, she used the other to smooth the flannel plaid beneath her derriere, and perched beside him, settling herself even with his hips. Balancing on his side, Mulder looked up at her, his fingers tangled with hers.

"Scully...you're not regretting what we did last night, are you?"

Her eyes widened with what was to him a satisfying measure of shock and dismay. "No. No, of course not."

He nodded slowly, his gaze trained on their linked hands.

"Good. Because if you had said otherwise, I would have tried to do the right thing."

He stole a look at her. She sat, her brows lifted, her head cocked in question.

"I would have told you not to worry about it," he murmured, his eyes averted, his thumb rubbing lightly over the back of her hand. "That it was okay. Just a one-time thing. That it didn't have to mean anything. Didn't have to change who we are or how we are together."

She didn't speak, didn't move; seemingly content to let him ramble.

He slicked his parched lips and continued. "And then, after I had tried my best to convince you, I would have done my damnedest to behave as if all of that was true."

"Mulder..." she whispered, her grip tightening on his.

"But it would have been a lie," he finished softly, lifting his shoulders in a small, helpless shrug. "Every word of it."

He lifted her hand to his lips and pressed a kiss just below her wrist. "I wouldn't change a single thing about last night, Scully," he said, looking at her once more. Her big, blue eyes stared back at him gravely. Shadows darkened her gaze. But he couldn't discern their cause. "I wouldn't trade a second of it. But that doesn't mean that what happened here hasn't changed things for us."

"I know," she said quietly. "I've been thinking about that...

about us, ever since I got up this morning."

"Come up with anything you feel like sharing?" he queried wryly.

The corner of her mouth quirked. She paused for a moment, gathering her thoughts.

"Mulder, you know as well as I do that I instigated the majority of what happened here last night," she began, her vision concentrated on her lap. There, her free hand repeatedly bunched and released the hem of her shirt, kneading it, like a kitten seeking comfort.

"Scully..." he mumbled in protest.

"I stood before you naked, Mulder, and asked you to take me in your arms," she said flatly, a vaguely sheepish cast to her lowered gaze.

He smiled. "Yeah. I remember."

She peered at him through her lashes, her lips similarly curved.

"Not one of my more subtle moments."

"Hey, you of all people know that subtle only rarely works with me," he said lightly.

They looked at each other, their smiles lingering, their hands yet joined.

"I wanted you, Mulder" she told him simply, her tone hushed and husky. "Badly. To tell you the truth, I want you still."

He dipped his head in understanding, his cheeks suddenly flushed with heat.

"But we can't do this," she said, shaking her head. "We can't let our feelings for each other get in the way of what we're here to do."

"What do you mean? Are you saying you're worried we might get careless or lazy?" he queried with surprise. "Because that's not going to happen, Scully. We're not kids mooning over some crush. I know better than that. And I sure as hell know you do."

She thinned her lips and lifted her shoulders. "I don't know. I don't know what I'm saying. All I know is that right now part of me wants nothing more than to crawl back under those covers with you."

Mulder took a deep breath and nodded, thinking just how good that sounded.

"But we're not going to figure out what happened in Gateway if we spend all day in bed," Scully said with a regretful shake of her head.

"No," he agreed ruefully. "I don't suppose we would."

They sat there for a moment, each recalling the horrors they had seen before being discovered in the woods, steeling themselves for what was still to come.

Then, Scully smiled suddenly, almost as if consciously trying to dispel the gloom, the light in her eyes nearly impish. "Sorry for needing to make this an all or nothing kind of proposition, Mulder. But, I have to be careful. You're just too damned distracting."

He chuckled warmly, squeezing her fingers with his. "Hey, don't talk to me about distracting. I'm not the one hanging up my unmentionables all over the place."

She lifted a brow as if accepting blame.

"So what do you want to do?" he asked, aware as he did so that while his question sounded casual enough, a great deal was riding on it. Possibly everything.

She pondered for a moment, changing her grasp on his hand so that it now lay nestled in both of hers. "I want to get through this case alive. For us both to. But to do that, we have to be focused. We can't go into a situation where some infectious disease might be waiting for us to slip up unless we're concentrating one hundred percent on the investigation. Do you agree?"

He solemnly nodded.

She inclined her head in turn. "With that in mind, I'm afraid we can't risk a repeat of last night. Not while we're on assignment."

"And after that?" he asked, hoping he didn't sound as concerned as he feared he did.

"And after that, we figure out a way to make this work," she said, her gaze locked on his. "That is...if you want it to."

"I want it to," he said firmly.

She smiled, her face transformed by its glow. "Good. So do I."

He looked up at her, the hunger he had suffered earlier intensified by her nearness. And by the knowledge that, for the foreseeable future, he was going to be on the strictest of diets.

"Hey, Scully," he murmured, rolling onto his back and tugging her nearer. She scooted forward, her hip rubbing along his.

"What?"

"Have we decided that from now until we get back to D.C. you and I will be back to our old platonic selves?"

The corner of her generous mouth lifted infinitesimally. "'Fraid so."

"Then do you think you could maybe do something for me?"

"What's that, Mulder?" she said, her voice laced with amusement.

"Do you think you could give me a kiss for the road?"

"For the road?" she echoed, her brow shooting skyward.

"For the road, for old time's sake--hell, for new time's sake," he said, drawing her gently but surely down onto his chest. At last she rested above him, her forearms braced on his breast, her face floating inches from his, the slight weight of her upper body teasing his senses, reminding him of pleasures past. "Think of it as an early birthday present if you have to. I would just really like to kiss you now."

She pursed her lips and considered.

"Just one more time," he cajoled, his fingertips stroking lightly along her cheek. "To tide me over. Then I'll be good. I swear."

She smiled tenderly. "You swear?"

"Scout's honor."

"Okay," she murmured, nuzzling his nose with hers. "Only you better make it a good one, Mulder."

"You got complaints about the way I kiss, Scully?" he growled in mock indignation.

She slowly shook her head. "No. That's just it."

"What is?"

"I like the way you kiss," she whispered. "A lot, actually."

"Yeah?" he said, his voice coming out dangerously close to a squeak.

"Yeah," she confirmed lowly, tracing his brow with her index finger. "And now that I've had a chance to know what that's like--what you feel like, taste like--I know I'm going to miss not having you. Like that."

Mulder swallowed thickly, wondering if Scully was purposefully adopting that marvelously sultry tone just to make him squirm a bit.

If so, it was working.

"You're planning on missing me even though I'm gonna be right here, Scully?" he mumbled, cupping the back of her head in his palms and guiding it towards him.

"I plan on missing your kiss," she told him, her breath softly bathing his lips. "And...other things."

He captured her lower lip between his teeth and nibbled ever so lightly before echoing, "Other things?"

"Oh yeah," she whispered and lapped softly at his mouth with her tongue. "Things you do very, very well. So make me miss you, Mulder."

She brushed her lips against his then, teasingly.

"Make me miss you terribly."

And crushing her wonderfully soft mouth to his, Mulder realized that he had never before wanted to solve a case so badly in his life.


Chapter XI

October 28
Outside of Gateway, Colorado

Just shy of noon, the two agents left the shelter of Franklin's cabin and set out for Gateway. They had spent the morning charting strategy and gathering supplies. Luckily, their absent host's particular interests matched their current needs.

They were able to appropriate binoculars, firearms, a battered U.S.G.S. topographical map, a compass, a battered backpack to carry their equipment, snow boots for Mulder, and two pairs of snowshoes.

The largest chunk of time had been spent battling with bailing twine. Mulder had let loose with more than a few muttered curses, but in the end they were both satisfied that the smaller pair of snowshoes would stay attached to Scully's boots. This was a good thing. With the snow as deep as it was and her Timberlands coming up only as high as her anklebones, there was no way she would have been able to keep up otherwise.

As they made ready to head off, loaded down with Franklin's belongings, Scully couldn't help but feel badly about the way she and Mulder kept helping themselves to the man's possessions.

Even though she knew deep down inside that their modern day mountain man was in no position to miss them.

And given his fate, would no doubt applaud their usage.

"You know, Mulder...something has been bothering about that night in Gateway."

The sun was now almost directly overhead. Warmed by its rays, the pair tromped through the snow-covered countryside, the unfamiliar contraptions lashed to their boots hindering their progress, forcing them to move slowly and carefully so as to refrain from stepping on their own feet. Or the feet of the person walking beside them. Yet, despite the inconvenience, neither was complaining. Were it not for the snowshoes, the fluffy white stuff would have been hitting Mulder just below the knees and Scully just above them. Headway of any kind would have been next to impossible under those circumstances.

"Something has been bothering you?" Mulder echoed, his hand reaching out to steady her as they crossed over a particularly slippery bit of terrain. The weather had turned moderate once more, with temperatures hovering at what had to be close to forty degrees. But a great deal of snow had fallen. It would take a day or more of this kind of warmth before they saw any substantial thaw. "You mean besides the rows of body bags?"

She grimaced, recalling. "Yeah. Believe it or not."

"What exactly?"

"That rat."

"What rat?" he queried, frowning.

"The one I nearly stepped on," she said as they crested a rise and began a cautious descent down the other side. The pain in her leg had dulled to a throbbing, low-level ache. But one unexpected slip or twist, and she would be back where she had started from.

Which wouldn't have been all that bad were it not for the agreement Mulder and she had reached earlier that day. The one that for all intents and purposes prohibited the sorts of activities they had indulged in the night before.

In other words--no more long, hot soaks.

Or massage therapy.

Or anything else.

Mores the pity.

"Oh, that's right," he murmured as they sidestepped their way down the slope, searching beneath the unspoiled whiteness for footholds, for any rock or twig against which to brace themselves. "It was like a pet rat, right?"

"Or a lab rat," she mumbled, her eyes trained on her feet, her fingers clenched on Mulder's sleeve for balance. "I didn't really get a good look at it. All I know is it was white and very dead."

"So why is that important?" he asked as they once more reached level ground.

"It may not be," she said with a small shrug and a shake of her head. "It may have simply been someone's pet. One thing is for sure though--it wasn't a natural occurrence of albinism. Rats like that don't survive to adulthood in the wild."

Mischievously, he leaned in to her as they ducked beneath a tree branch, a lop-sided smile tugging at his lips. "Maybe he was just big for his age."

She wrinkled her nose and shot him a sideways glance. "It just...it feels odd to me, Mulder. That's all. I mean...

you have to admit--if it was from a lab, it's one hell of a coincidence. Dead lab rat, dead town."

Saying nothing, he grimly nodded.

"If I can find the corpse, I'd like to bag it, maybe send it off to the labs in D.C. and see what they come up with."

"You saying you've got a hunch, Scully?" he teased as they began picking their way carefully through the snow-covered underbrush.

"What can I tell you," she said dryly. "You're a bad influence."

"That goes without saying."

They hiked for awhile in silence, consulting both the map and compass from time to time. They aimed their path in a wide circular swath, their plan being to ultimately approach Gateway from the west, the opposite direction from that which they had taken before. This meant their journey was longer, but ideally safer. They weren't heading for a confrontation with those responsible for Gateway's tragedy. They only hoped to observe.

Listening to the birdsong and the wind fluting through crannies made of pine needles and twigs, Scully allowed herself a moment's pleasure as they walked. A short, indulgent minute or two to simply enjoy the brisk autumn afternoon, to raise her face to the sun like a child silently asking for a kiss. Before they had begun their trek, they had debated the wisdom in making a daytime trip to town. Scully had pointed out the obvious danger of discovery in the cold, harsh light of day, while Mulder had countered with the reasoning that while the bad guys could more easily see them, they also stood a better chance of spotting the bad guys first.

A sweep of brown caught her eye, the unexpected movement startling her. She lifted her head once more and caught sight of a hawk circling lazily above the tree line, his wings wide and still as he rode the air currents like a kite. Taking a deep breath to steady her nerves, she prayed his was the only patrol they would run across that afternoon.

Mulder had followed the direction of her gaze. Bringing to his eyes the high-powered field glasses hanging around his neck, he focused on the bird of prey above them, watching him swoop and dive, a smile lifting the corners of his mouth.

It had been those binoculars which had finally tipped the scales in favor of them making their jaunt in the afternoon rather than the evening

"We should be able to see for miles with these things," Mulder had said excitedly, holding the glasses to his eyes and giving them a test run out the cabin window. "If we can make our way to that elevation just west of Gateway, Baron's Peak, we should stand a pretty good chance of seeing whether the town is still being watched."

She had crossed to join him at the window, curious to see what sort of magnification the binoculars offered. Taking the glasses from him, she had leaned close and peered through their lens.

"I have to confess, Mulder. I'm miserable at map-reading.

Which hill did you have in mind?"

"There," Mulder had said softly, his face near hers, his hand pointing off just to their right. "The center one there of the three. See that cluster of wavy lines?"

"Okay. I see it."

"So, what do you think? Might not be a bad lookout point. If it's as steep as the map indicates, there shouldn't be a lot of trees obstructing the view."

"Which also means not a lot of trees offering cover," she had murmured dryly.

"Shouldn't be a problem. They won't know we're coming."

"All right," Scully had said with a nod, her brow furrowed behind the eye-piece. "But I'm still not sure what we're supposed to do once we get up there. Take a look around, then run?"

Mulder had shrugged a bit sheepishly and folded his arms across his chest. "I don't know, Scully. I think our best bet is to play it by ear."

At that, she had lowered the binoculars and looked at her partner, her eyebrow cocked, not pleased at all with the apparent improvisational nature of their plan.

Sensitive to her reservations, he had immediately laid his hand on her arm, his expression earnest, his voice low and soothing. "Scully, I have the same doubts as you. The same fears. And I would like nothing more than to get on that computer, e-mail Skinner to call in the troops, then catch the next flight out of Grand Junction. But we know for a fact that someone is on to us. Was probably watching us from the moment we took off from D.C. And that someone has got to have come from inside the Bureau. No one else knew where we would be. We made a mistake when we went through official channels. We should have investigated this one on our own."

"And you're sure the information regarding our whereabouts couldn't have come from the Gunmen?" she had asked, already knowing how he would respond, but needing to ask the question just to clear it out of her mind.

"No, Scully," he had replied at once. "The boys would never betray us. After you, I trust them more than anyone."

Sighing, she had nodded wearily in agreement. "I know. I do too. It's just...it's so much easier believing the leak might be on their end rather than on our own."

"I know," he had murmured sadly. "That's why we have to wait and go to the Bureau with something concrete. If we try and contact Skinner now, we run the risk not only of disclosing our whereabouts, but of forcing Carl and his buddies to destroy what little evidence may remain."

Evidence, Scully now silently grumbled as they neared the final leg of their journey. How could she have imagined when she had first joined the Bureau that such a basic thing would prove so great a luxury. Well, at least if all went according to plan, they would have in their possession a photograph or two illustrating Gateway's desolation. Maybe if they were really lucky they might even capture one of the moonsuited men on film. While neither would necessarily prove what had happened to the town's citizens, such pictures could perhaps persuade their superiors that something untoward had taken place.

They began their ascent up Baron's Peak with Mulder in the lead and her on his heels. They had been walking for upwards of two hours, and although her leg had improved, it still wasn't one hundred percent. Gradually, she began to tire, her condition exacerbated by their mode of travel. Over the course of the afternoon, Scully had learned a valuable, if painful, lesson.

Snowshoeing required a weird gait, one that put stress on the muscles in her thighs and calves, straining them in ways in which they were not accustomed. Again, that old, deep ache began inching its way down the back of her leg as they inched their way up the side of the hill. The higher they climbed, the further she fell behind. Mulder kept looking back at her worriedly, almost as if he were hoping she would call a halt to their march. Or at least, ask for a rest. But head bowed, she plowed on, determined to reach the top. It was already midafternoon. They couldn't afford to waste the light.

At last, they hit the summit. Surveying the valley below, Scully braced her hands on her knees and bent forward at the waist, trying to simultaneously catch her breath and ignore the fiery twinge radiating through the lower half of her body.

"You all right?" Mulder asked, his hand on her shoulder, his brow drawn tight with concern.

"I'll live," she panted, her breath expelling in little puffs of steam.

He didn't look convinced.

"It's okay," she insisted, standing upright once more. "Come on. Let's do what we came here to do."

With that, she crossed away to the edge of the incline.

To the side that overlooked Gateway.

Trailing after her, Mulder settled himself awkwardly atop the snow, stretched out on his belly so as to minimize his chances of being seen. After a minute or two she joined him, wincing as she lowered herself to his side. Giving her one last look, her partner made no comment, choosing instead to simply bring the binoculars to his eyes, blocking her from view.

"See anything?" she asked quietly after a time, almost as if they were in danger of being overheard.

"No," he murmured flatly, his elbows braced before him.

"Not a damn thing."

"No sign of the trucks?"

"No trucks. No people. Not even a dog. The place looks completely deserted."

He handed her the glasses and she took a look for herself.

It wasn't long before she had to concede that Mulder was right. Not a soul wandered Gateway's streets. No traffic.

Nothing.

The town was seemingly empty.

Haunted.

Its ghosts newly dead, and not at all at rest.

"It's kind of spooky, isn't it?" she whispered, a slight shiver shuddering down her spine.

"What is?" he asked just as softly, his lips near her ear.

"It's like they were never there. Like no one was. Like nothing ever happened there at all."

"We know better, Scully," he said, pressing his shoulder to hers in comfort. "We're their witnesses."

She nodded, and was just about to return the binoculars to Mulder when she saw something on Gateway's outskirts, half hidden by brush.

"Mulder, what is that?" she asked, peering intently through the glasses, realizing even as she fired her question that he couldn't possibly see clearly from this distance. Not with the naked eye.

"What? What are you looking at?"

"There," she said, handing him the binoculars and pointing to the road running between Route 141 and Gateway, the narrow two-lane strip of asphalt that connected the tiny enclave with the world. She couldn't be sure, but just the other side of the roadblock, hidden from anyone who might have been driving down the highway by a bend in the road, she thought she spied something. She just couldn't tell what. The sun reflecting off the snow was making it difficult for her to see. "Do you see it?

It appears as if there may be something in the gully there at the side of the road. Something big by the looks of it."

He pointed the glasses in the direction she had indicated and stared long and hard, his brow wrinkled with concentration, saying nothing.

"What do you suppose that is?" she queried at last, her eyes narrowed against the glare, craning her neck as if trying to get a better view.

At last, Mulder lowered the binoculars and turned to regard her, their faces close, his eyes glowing with excitement. "I'm not sure. But, I think that may be a truck, Scully. Not a HumVee, like ours. Something bigger. More like a supply truck.

And, call me crazy, but something tells me it didn't find its way into that ditch all on its own."

"What are you saying?" she asked a bit cautiously.

"I'm saying that it looks as if the coast is clear. So we owe it to ourselves and to the citizens of Gateway to get our butts back down this hill and check out that truck."


Chapter XII

October 28
On the Outskirts of Gateway, Colorado

Moving cautiously, they picked their way down the slope. It was trickier than going up had been; Mulder tripped himself twice on the edges of his snowshoes. Scully just kept her head down and tried her best to ignore the throbbing in her thigh.

Finally, however, they made it to the edge of the forest.

They stepped out onto the shoulder of the unplowed road, and stopped.

It was perfectly quiet.

Far off in the distance, a plane hummed its way across the sky.

But from the town, from the road, came no sounds of life at all.

They walked a bit further down the highway to where the barricade was set up, barring the curious from visiting tiny Gateway. Navigating through the sawhorses and sandbags, they made a very pleasant if unexpected discovery.

Mulder stopped dead in his tracks. "What the hell..."

There, tucked away behind tightly packed grove of evergreens lay a small fleet of Hum-Vees, six in all.

"What are these doing here?" Scully murmured in confusion.

"Why park these so close to the road and then walk to town.

That makes no sense."

"Unless you weren't planning to go to town in the first place."

"What are you saying?"

"What if whoever was assigned to these trucks were doing border patrol?" he said softly, his brow furrowed in thought.

She nodded slowly. "To keep people out."

He looked pointedly at the truck lying nearby in the ditch.

"Or to keep people in."

Scully sighed, her lips flattened. "So where did everyone go?"

Her partner shook his head. "I don't know."

The truck they had spied from above lay on its side, boxes spilling out of its back. It didn't look as if the vehicle had hit anything, and any skid marks that might have told the story of the accident had long since been covered by the snow.

The two agents plodded carefully over to the back of it.

Scully frowned when she read the lettering on the side of the box at her feet.

RACAL.

She reached down and pulled at the tape sealing the box.

Mulder reached down to help her, and together they struggled with the box until one of the flaps gave way.

It held an orange plastic suit with bubble helmet.

"Mulder, this is a field bio-containment suit."

"Like what they were wearing when we got here?"

"Yes. But this truck is headed away from town." She looked up at her partner. The wind had ruffled his hair and dried the sweat on his face. He looked worried.

"Mulder," she said slowly, "put it on."

"What, the suit?"

"Yeah, the suit." She began tearing at another box. "I have a very bad feeling about this."

Taking off the snowshoes and putting on the bulky plastic suit was no easy task. Scully was still wrestling with the Velcro wrist and ankle closures on hers when Mulder called out from the front of the truck, his voice muffled by the helmet, "Well, I don't need a medical degree to tell you what killed this guy."

She picked her way through the snow to where Mulder stood, peering into the cab of the truck.

The driver had been shot point blank in the side of the head.

From the way the left side of his face was missing, brains splattering the passenger seat, Scully guessed that someone had put a gun to his temple and summarily executed the man. What had caused him to drive off the road into the ditch, however, remained a mystery.

Mulder put a hand on her shoulder. "Shot trying to escape?"

"Maybe. But escape what exactly?"

He could only shake his head.

"We've got to get into town, Mulder."

"Quaint as these snowshoes are, it's at least a mile into Gateway.

I vote for firing up one of these HumVees. What do you think?"

Scully nodded. The snowshoes could puncture their suits, anyhow, and that simply wasn't an option. "When was the last time you hot-wired a Jeep?"

He grinned mischievously at her through the clear plastic mask.

"I'm pleading the fifth. But I think I can manage."

As they waded through the snow -- a much more wearing task minus the snowshoes, which Mulder was carrying in one hand Scully drilled him on the do's and don'ts of wearing a biocontainment suit.

Do examine yourself for tears or rips in the fabric. Do tape up any hole, no matter how small.

Don't handle sharp objects that could pierce the suit. Don't get claustrophobic, panic and tear off the face mask.

"How am I supposed to keep from panicking?"

"I'm just telling you, Mulder, these things don't work if you breach them in any way. You have to stay completely insulated from the infectious agent. Viruses and bacteria are microscopic; they can get through even the tiniest hole in your suit. " She stopped and made him stand still while she examined every inch of his suit for tears, then had him do the same for her.

Thankfully, they were both intact.

As it turned out, the first HumVee they reached had the keys in the ignition. They clambered into the vehicle with some difficulty, trying to keep their bulky suits from getting caught on anything.

The engine roared into life, and they headed for town.

The HumVee churned through the snow as if it weren't there.

Mulder was chortling and saying, "I have GOT to get me one of these" when they rounded the bend in the road.

Then, all at once, he stopped talking and hit the brakes. When they ground to a halt, the agents sat and looked through the windshield in silence.

The steep hillside and the few buildings that had once been Gateway's business district had partially protected the road from the snowdrifts that had accumulated elsewhere. But the blanket of snow that covered the small town didn't conceal the stacked body bags.

They were piled haphazardly on the front porch of the "Gasn-Go", and lined up along the narrow shoulder of the road.

Despite the cold air, an odor hung over the town.

"Why are these still here?" Mulder murmured. "We saw them ...days ago...we saw them loading these on those trucks."

"We saw some of them loaded on trucks," Scully corrected softly. "We also saw plenty of them left behind. Maybe the first batch were taken somewhere to be studied."

"Then what are these?" he asked.

"To properly contain a severe biohazard such as this, all infected biological material--in other words, these corpseswould have to be destroyed," she said, scanning the carnage before them with a narrowed gaze. "Generally that would mean incineration."

He grimaced. "So why not simply strike a match and get it over with?"

"Destroying them all at once would require one hell of a bonfire," she said softly, her expression bleak. "The resulting smoke would be sure to alert the authorities."

Mulder turned to regard her, a sickly sort of amazement shining in his eyes. "Are you saying...?"

"I'm saying that if I was in charge I'd burn only a few of them at a time and I'd burn them at night to camouflage what I was doing."

He nodded solemnly. "That way it would be simpler to explain away any smoke detected."

"Exactly," she murmured. "Slowly but surely the evidence and the danger it imposed would conveniently vanish."

Yet, for some reason, it hadn't. Not even all of the dead had been sealed neatly into plastic. Uniformed figures were scattered, unbagged, in the mix. The corpses of three young men rested on the front stoop of the convenience store, leaning up against the wall. If they had been alive, they might have been talking about their trucks and their girlfriends. But none of them would ever speak again, Mulder thought. One body was lurched drunkenly to the side, listing badly, and the agent was somehow bothered by this. He longed to go sit the boy upright, to somehow make him more comfortable. But other things were demanding his attention.

Like the large white tent pitched unexpectedly in the middle of the road. While its function was still unknown, it had obviously been raised post-crisis. A smaller tent snuggled up against it, its purpose also a mystery. The larger structure was big enough to hold a wedding party, and stood rakishly, almost gaily amidst the destruction. The roof had held up admirably against the storm; snowdrifts along the sides of the makeshift shelter indicated that the snow had slid harmlessly off the top of the tent, and on to the ground below.

The whole thing was unspeakably eerie. The tent, the snow, the rotting dead.

The silence. Again.

The town was as still as a morgue.

Which was what it had become, Mulder noted grimly.

He turned to Scully. "What could kill all these people this fast?"

She shook her head, the movement loose and strange inside the suit. "Not much. Whatever you do -- be careful."

He nodded. "I'm going to look inside that tent. Why don't you take a look at one of these poor people and see what you can figure out."

Going inside the tent was harder than he had expected. The smell was more pronounced when he lifted the flap, and he had to steel himself against the stench.

It looked like a command center. Lab equipment and computers were lined up neatly on long counters. Cots draped in clear plastic lined the wall of the tent and a quick glance told Mulder all he needed to know; more dead. He was thinking that he should summon Scully so that she could examine the victims out of the cold wind when he heard a sound from the far side of the tent.

He picked his way carefully around the tables, remembering Scully's warnings about keeping the suit free of pinpricks.

It was a man.

The helmet of his bubble suit had been torn off and it lay limply beside him. Whatever had attacked him had rendered his technology and its defenses completely useless. Looking down into his face, Mulder was shocked to see that it looked like the man had been beaten. Livid bruises covered his face, and his eyes were bright red, the skin around them puffy and swollen.

Whatever damage the beating might have done, it couldn't explain the bright red flecks that speckled his face, or its odd lack of expression, as if the man were wearing a mask.

The still face didn't change, but suddenly the muscles around the mouth moved and the man said, quite clearly, "Hot."

"You're hot?"

But the man didn't answer.

Reaching down with one gloved hand, Mulder turned over the ID badge on the man's chest. Dr. Lucas Criddon.

Stepping back, Mulder said, "Dr. Criddon, if you can hear me, try to hang on. There's a doctor here." The man didn't move.

Mulder ducked under the flap of the tent and dashed outside.

He thought about pulling off his mask so he could call for Scully, but remembered the bodies lining the street and thought again.

He found her a few hundred yards away, kneeling over an open body bag. She was completely still, staring down, and didn't move when he touched her shoulder. He looked past her, down into the black zippered bag, and nearly vomited into the plastic face mask of his suit.

It was the remains of a man's body, and in all the years that spent following Scully into autopsy bays, Mulder had never seen anything worse.

Small brown flecks of dried blood dotted the man's skin like an obscene parody of freckles. His face looked eerily familiar until Mulder realized that what had struck him was the lack of expression and bruising he had witnessed only moments before. Thinking of Dr. Criddon's face, he guessed that the bruises he had attributed to a beating had instead been caused by whatever sickness had killed this man.

Blood had dried in streaks down the side of the corpse's face and had run down his neck. But the streaks of blood didn't stop there. It almost looked as if the man had been sweating blood. And the body looked bloated, like it had been decomposing in the bag for weeks. But it couldn't have been; it was cold, the town had been alive and well a week and a half ago; and surely even these men wouldn't have left corpses to rot in the street?

Worst of all was the smell, the rancid odor that rose from the body. It was rank and thick, an earthy, rotten stench more stomach-turning than the inside of an exhumed grave.

Scully reached down and touched one fingertip to the corpse's arm. She pressed down gently, and the skin immediately split under her touch, separating like the skin on a badly rotted peach.

Blood spilled from the breach, staining the fingers of her glove.

Mulder staggered backward a step, then two. I will not throw up, I will not throw up, he chanted silently. Scully stood, her glove still dripping, and he saw she was white under the mask.

Somehow emboldened by his partner's disquiet -- he had seen her cheerfully sit down to a rare lamb chop ten minutes after finishing an autopsy -- he managed to catch his breath and tell her, "There's a live one in there, a doctor. Barely alive, though."

"Is he conscious?"

"Semiconscious. He said something when I found him - 'hot.'"

"Hot?" She was so pale, paler than he had ever seen her before.

"I need to talk to him." She brushed past him towards the tent.

He wordlessly followed her back inside.

Dr. Criddon was lying where Mulder had left him, and his eyes opened slightly when Scully read his lapel tag and called his name.

"Dr. Criddon, I'm Special Agent Dana Scully, FBI. I'm a doctor. Can you talk?"

The man's lips moved, but no sound came out. The agents bent down and this time the word was audible.

"Hot. Got to."

They waited, and finally he whispered, "Hot agent."

Mulder was as confused as he had been a half an hour ago, but looking at Scully's horrified face, he could see that the words had some meaning for her. Must be doctor-speak, like the scrawl they use on their prescription pads, he thought.

Criddon's red eyes were fluttering, but he was trying to speak again.

"Filovirus."

This time Scully's gasp was audible. "Jesus. Are you sure?

Which one?"

It was nearly thirty seconds before the doctor responded, and his jaw flapped weakly as he tried to summon the breath to speak. With a detached kind of horror, Mulder saw that the man's tongue looked like raw meat.

"Rings. But. Not. Like. Marburg." A rattling sound was coming from the man's chest. He gasped twice, and said.

"Journal. Laptop. File Gateway...password Antidote."

There was a sound like fabric ripping, and Mulder realized it was coming from inside the man's body. Suddenly, the agent smelled the same putrid stench that had earlier emanated from the body bag. It was all Mulder could do not to gag on the hideously foul odor. Then Criddon began to convulse, limbs flailing.

And Mulder feared that the hideous twitching dance the man performed in his death throes would be all his own stomach would need to send it over the edge.

Scully grabbed the arm of his orange suit and was pulling him back, away from Gateway's last survivor, when they were both drenched by the spray of black fluid that geysered up from the man's gaping mouth. He was vomiting, Mulder realized, vomiting blood and a much darker substance that spattered their suits and his face shield.

Scully was yanking on his arm, shouting at him, but he barely registered her words, staring instead with horror at the dying man.

"Mulder!" She was clutching a laptop computer, her gloves still stained with blood and worse.

"We have to get out of here, Mulder! Right fucking now!"

Distantly, he saw that she was terrified and thought, shock. Or something pretty close to it. That's what I'm feeling.

"We have to get out of here and decontaminate! Whatever you do, don't open your mask or take off your gloves!"

She didn't let go of his arm as she led him across the tent. He hadn't seen this exit before -- it was that of the smaller tent, the one pitched flush against the larger structure in which they stood.

They ducked into what was almost an antechamber, and Scully picked up something that looked like a super-soaker.

Which it effectively was, he realized, as his partner ordered, "Turn around and stretch your arms out." He did, and she began spraying him with a clear fluid. Bleach, his nostrils told him, before his eyes began to sting from the fumes.

She sprayed him for a long time, front and back, then handed him the pump sprayer and said, "Now me."

He did as he was told, watching the bleach wash the blood and black stuff off her suit. She was still pale under the mask, but calm. She was studying the computer. When he stopped dousing her, she said, "We're going to have to decontaminate the laptop, too. I don't know what it'll do to it, but we can't take the chance of bringing it outside otherwise."

He nodded, and turned the sprayer on the computer.

When she finally signaled him that it was okay to stop, his arm ached dully from the effort of working the pump.

Wordlessly, she then pushed open the tent flap, letting the sunshine and clean air spill in, and slipped outside. He picked up the laptop and followed her.

"Keep the suit on for now," she ordered.

He meekly complied.

They made the trek back to their HumVee and the drive to the perimeter in silence. Mulder tried to concentrate on the swishing sounds their suits made when they moved, on the smell of bleach -- anything but the corpses they had left behind.

Scully picked a different HumVee from the still row of vehicles, slipping behind the wheel without a word. She made no effort to remove her Racal suit, and he followed her lead, fitting himself into the passenger seat with some difficulty.

They were a good two miles past the roadblock when she pulled over.

"We can get out of these now."

He climbed out and stripped off the layer of plastic. He could smell his own sweat, rank and familiar, a relief after the bleach and the bodies of the dead. As soon as the suit was off, he took two steps to the side of the road and threw up.

He continued heaving long after the last remnants of their longago breakfast were gone. Scully rested one cool hand on the back of his neck, but didn't say anything until he had stopped.

He sniffled painfully, cleared his throat and spat, trying to clear the awful taste from his mouth.

She was still wan, but composed. "Are you all right?"

"Yeah," he rasped, his throat still burning from bile. Spitting again, he said, "That was..."

"I know." Her face was sweaty but calm. They each stood for a moment willing away the images blazing just behind their eyes. Then, leaning heavily against the side of their vehicle, she spoke once more. "Do you know what a hot agent is?""

He shook his head. "You?"

She sighed. "It's a highly infectious biological entity. What we saw back there was what happens when a hot agent moves through a population." She rubbed her hand wearily across her forehead. "I've read about devastation like that before, but I never thought I'd see it for myself. A filovirus.

Jesus Christ."

"What's a filovirus?" he asked, slouching beside her.

"It's a family of viruses that includes Marburg and the various strains of Ebola."

That rang a faint bell in Mulder's brain. "Ebola?"

"Yes. The deadliest virus known to mankind. It's a Level Four biological hazard." He made an inquiring noise, and she explained, "Diseases are categorized by their deadliness and infectiousness. For example, HIV is Level Two. It's very deadly but relatively hard to catch -- you have to come into intimate contact with body fluids from an infected person.

Ebola and Marburg are both Level Fours -- extremely deadly and very easy to catch. Theoretically, both can be transmitted through the air."

"How would they crop up here?"

"Good question. No human outbreak of either disease has ever been recorded in America. Most epidemiologists think they originated in sub-Saharan Africa. But something's bothering me, Mulder. Even the hottest strain of Ebola --it's called Mayinga it only has a ninety percent kill rate."

"'Only'? That means it kills nine out of ten people that get it, right?"

"Right. But everyone back there was dead, Mulder. Everyone.

And do you remember what that poor man said? Dr. Criddon?

He said it was ring-shaped. Well, there's only one known ringshaped filovirus -- Marburg. And Marburg isn't nearly as deadly as Ebola."

"So that means that..."

"That it isn't Marburg."

"What is it then, Scully?"

"Something worse."


Chapter XIII

October 28
Vaughn W. Franklin's Cabin

Scully sat in the stove-side chair, hunched over the laptop they had salvaged from what had once been Gateway, Colorado. Mulder was stationed at Vaughn Franklin's desktop, writing a detailed memo to the Lone Gunmen, recording the devastation they had seen and Scully's interpretation of what Criddon had told them.

Darkness had descended hours before. Still stunned by that afternoon's events, neither agent had particularly noted the passage of time. They had returned to the cabin in near silence, each engrossed in their thoughts. Exchanging nothing but the most innocuous of small talk, they had taken care of basic needs: changed clothes, washed up, kindled a fire, and eaten dinner. Scully had cooked. Soup and sandwiches.

Mulder couldn't recall tasting either.

He straightened up, back cracking after nearly an hour of typing, and looked at his partner. She was still reading Dr.

Criddon's field journal. He studied her for a second or two, inexplicably fascinated by the vulnerable nape of her neck.

It gleamed in the lamplight like ivory, exposed by the forward sweep of her hair as she bent over her work.

Unaware of his scrutiny, Scully kept her eyes glued to the small computer screen, her concentration palpable, even from half a room away.

Mulder wondered what information she was gleaning from Criddon's tortured accounting. They had gotten into the file labeled "Antidote" without any trouble, hoping that its title was indicative of its contents. However, it seemed the good doctor had possessed a twisted sense of humor, because the very first entry had dashed their hopes.


October 23

RACAL suits not in shipment. Ordered team out until they do arrive, but Dacus and Cook already out collecting samples in the half-hour before I arrived. Issued reprimand; this is the problem with researchers who haven't done a tour of duty on the other side of the line. Regular Army USAMRID, even CDC-trained scientists don't make mistakes like that. Had them de-conned and then quarantined for forty-eight hours, mainly to teach them a lesson. Nothing like a good scare.

Numerous dead civilians. Team One began preparations for disposal, postponed for the present; need to determine if remains pose health threat.

Personal note: Clearly, our orders were deliberately vague. No sign at all that the reports from Team One were hysterical or stress-induced; even from this necessary distance I can see physical symptoms that should warrant concern from any medical specialist, particularly in a bio-containment operation.

Whatever Agent M is, our team needs more information to treat these cases effectively.

Summary of first order sent: bio-containment suits; equipment necessary to intravenously feed patients. Reportedly, Agent M has no known antidote; requested clarification on origins of agent.

Sent samples back to lab for analysis under electron microscope backup to field analysis.


October 24

RACAL suits in. Suited up and performed initial exam of effected members of Team One. Results inconclusive, but symptoms are startling. Seven members of Team One in advanced stages of disease; massive subdural bleeding, most unresponsive, one or two belligerent, not lucid. Symptoms seem almost certain to be of infection from Agent M, but method of transmission unclear.


Disheartened, Mulder had stopped reading at that point and made his way to Franklin's computer. Now, reading over his missive to the Gunmen, he made a swift decision and cc'd Skinner. Whether or not the A.D. could be trusted with the information, in their present predicament, it seemed better to tell as many people as possible what they had seen in Gateway.

Sending off the email, he turned to regard again at the small, auburn-haired woman opposite him. Scully was nibbling on her lower lip as she read, and the sight filled him with unexpected tenderness. Without her, he would have walked into the town unprepared, and would probably have died within the week from the unknown disease. He wanted to go over to her and bury his face in her hair with a kind of thanksgiving, but resisted the temptation, smiling inwardly at the censure he imagined it would earn him.

His brief happiness faded when she raised her head and looked at him. She was pale. "Mulder, I can hardly stand to read this.

I can't imagine what it was like for Criddon to live through it.

He was probably clinically insane when he wrote the last couple of entries. Filoviruses affect the brain..." Her voice trailed off as she glanced back down at the laptop's screen, swallowing hard.

He got up, crossing to stand just behind her, and gently laid his hands on her shoulders. Bending his head, he pressed a soft kiss to the back of her neck, nuzzling with his lips the curve of skin that had only moments earlier commanded his attention. She shivered beneath his mouth.

"Mulder..." she murmured in breathy rebuke.

Oh, that's right. That sort of thing wasn't allowed.

Regardless of how badly they both needed the comfort.

Straightening, he sighed and came around to squat in front of her, resting his hands heavily on her knees. "Why don't you come sit down at the table and try to summarize it for me?

Most of the stuff in the entries I read didn't make a lot of sense to me."

If he couldn't touch her, he could at least speak to her. Try to get her to approach this thing as a team, rather than wrestling with their fears and their mutual disgust for the horrors they had seen on their own.

Scully wrinkled her nose, but complied, trailing him back to the scarred wooden trestle table. They sat, he at its head, she just to his right, their elbows braced against the stained pine, their heads close together. "I know you got the general gist, but it gets worse after that," she began. "Much worse. Criddon's team was sent in to evaluate what was going on with Team One. Apparently, that team had an epidemiologist on it but he didn't know what they were dealing with and the team wasn't adequately prepared for the disease we saw back there. So they sent Criddon's team, Team Two." She sighed, her eyes flickering away from his.

"It looks like the first two men on the scene - Dacus and Cook probably got infected when they went to get samples, and maybe they infected the rest of the group. Or maybe not; Criddon couldn't figure it out, and I can't either, not from reading his notes. All Criddon knew going in was what you read; that there was an infectious agent out there, but he was told it was treatable.

From what we saw back there - it isn't."

Mulder grimaced, his expression pained. "I got that general idea.

So what is it?"

She shrugged. "Criddon thought it was an engineered version of Marburg. Someone tried to take the Marburg virus and make some strategic changes to it." Her voice had grown strident, bitter. Mulder stared at her, confused by her sudden vehemence.

"Don't you get it, Mulder? Mengele looks like a schoolyard bully next to these men. They deliberately attempted to take a dreadful disease and make it even more terrible. This virus was intended to be a weapon of mass destruction."

"I'm sure you're right, Scully," he said gently, reaching for her hand. His touch seemed to calm her and she took a deep breath as he asked, "But how did they do it? How did they try to change the virus? What were they trying to make it do?"

"Kill more people, faster," she said tiredly. "That's what efficient weapons of mass destruction do. I don't have all the answers we want, Mulder. The only thing that seems clear at this point is that somewhere along the line, they screwed up.

The virus did something they didn't expect it to do. I don't think they intended for it to go airborne, but it did."

He nodded, slowly beginning to be able to put all the pieces together into a cohesive whole. "So Team One got it by breathing it in from the infected people or from the bodies?"

"Criddon thought so. He thought it was a spontaneous mutation."

"And Marburg isn't normally transmitted through the air?"

"No one's sure that it isn't. There's just so much that isn't known about Marburg. But this one is airborne. That's one difference," she said, ticking it off on her fingers. "Two, it's much deadlier."

That seemed evident enough. "Any other differences?"

"I'm not sure yet. Criddon was at a loss to explain how the disease got into the population in the first place. The initial victims have very little in common, but close examination revealed that all had small bumps or lightly abraded areas on their extremities, usually the hands, that are consistent with insect bites. But no one's even postulated that Marburg is carried by insects. So that's another point of departure."

She rose, shaking her head, and returned to the laptop.

Scrolling down the screen, she searched for a moment, her brow furrowed. Then, finding what she had sought, she looked up and caught his eye, her expression drawn with concern.

"Listen to this. This entry was made two days ago."

"Lost O'Malley and Sowrey this morning. Sowrey had seemed to be responding to the AZT combination, but went into a coma at 5:45 AM; sloughed his gut before pronounced dead at 10:53 AM." She glanced up again and added, " 'Sloughed his gut'

means that he shed the lining of his intestines through his anus.'"

Twisted in his chair to face her, Mulder winced. "Christ. Is it all like that?"

"No, some of it's worse," she said, without looking at him.

"Want me to stop?"

"No." Horrible as it was, she needed to share some of this, he thought. He would never want her to have to bear the burden of this alone.

She nodded, slicking her lips with her tongue. Then, taking a deep breath as if to brace herself, she continued, "'We are all dying, all of us. This has been a terrible drama, a farce played out with my team and Team One the unwitting actors on a stage not of our choosing. I am afraid, Susie, that you will never know what overtook us here and cut us down. I am afraid that we are going silent into the night, that no one will hear our rage as the light dies all around us. I love you, Susie, more than I could ever tell you, even if words were not failing me in this dark and terrible place."

She stopped, her eyes still trained on the screen. Deeply troubled, Mulder bowed his head as well, his gaze focused on his hands.

He waited without saying anything for a long minute, then asked, softly, "Was that the last entry?"

"No," Scully said, her voice thick. "There's a little more, but it doesn't make much sense. I think the virus had invaded his brain by then. And there are other entries in here that I want to look at; inventories of equipment used, observations of the scene. Things like that. I might be able to tell you more from those."

This time he did not try to discipline himself. He simply went to her, fell to his knees, and wrapped his arms tightly around her. She relaxed against his chest, balancing the laptop carefully on her lap, and said, muffled by his shirt, "I'm sorry."

"Don't be."

She took a slow, shuddering breath. "No, I'm sorry because I messed up."

He tilted her chin with his fingertips so he could see her eyes.

"How?"

"In my fear...my panic...I forgot the most important thing.

A sample. We need a sample, Mulder, or all of this has been worthless. Without a sample of the virus, we have no proof.

And no hope of ever succeeding where Criddon failed. Of finding a cure for whatever this thing is. We're going to have to go back to Gateway to get one."

He shook his head in disgust. "You're right, Scully. I should have thought of it before."

She gave him a wan smile. "I think our minds were elsewhere."

He chuckled grimly. "Yeah. Like on self-preservation."

They were silent for a time, content to simply rest against each other.

"We should go first thing tomorrow," Scully said at last, her voice quiet, but resolute. "We don't know when the men responsible for this might decide to come back and clean up their mess. And I don't know about you, but I don't want to be wandering around Gateway when they return."

Lips thinned, Mulder shook his head. "No. That's one party I wouldn't mind missing."

Dropping a kiss on her cool, silky hair, he stood and strode away from her, his hands shoved in his jeans pockets, his head tipped towards the ceiling in thought. "That's what I don't get, Scully."

"What?" she queried, shutting down Criddon's computer.

"Why leave Gateway unguarded like that? You and I both know not everyone involved with whatever happened there is dead. The real masterminds behind this fiasco are undoubtedly safely tucked away, directing the action from a distance. So, why did they pull everyone out? Why not keep a detachment on watch? Hell, with the way things stand now, anyone could have wandered in, not just two curious FBI agents."

She shrugged. "We don't know how long it's been like that.

Until today, there was still life in that place, still someone to report to the powers that be."

"Not with any coherency, judging from those entries you were reading," he countered.

She sadly nodded in agreement.

They pondered for a time; Mulder pacing, Scully stowing the laptop away for safekeeping.

"I don't know why Gateway was deserted save for the dead,"

she at last said thoughtfully as she carefully opened the stove and added more wood to the fire. "My gut reaction is to believe that whoever did this was initially as shocked as we were."

She stood and, brushing the wood chips from her palms, crossed to stand before him. "I may not be able to tell you what exactly killed those people, Mulder. But I can tell you one thing."

"What?" he quietly asked, his fingers stretching out to toy with a lock of her hair.

"What happened in Gateway was not planned. Not by the men we found, and not by the people who sent them there."

He nodded.

"The ones responsible are probably doing exactly what we are; they're reviewing what they know of the situation and trying to figure out what the hell to do next."

"What do you think we should do next?" he asked.

"After we get that sample?" she queried. Mulder nodded once more.

"Get us and it back to Washington as soon as possible, and hope to God someone there can come up with a way to stop this thing."


October 29

The following morning dawned almost perversely beautiful. The sun shone blindingly upon the snow, reflecting off its crystals so they glittered like diamonds. A brisk yet mild breeze stirred the brush and trees. Squirrels chattered noisily as they dashed from trunk to trunk, chasing each other in a game to which only they knew the rules.

Yet Dana Scully was aware of none of this. Her focus had narrowed to one thing and one thing only.

Get the samples and get out.

Upon awakening, she had begun repeating this inside her head over and over again. Like a litany.

Or a prayer.

She and Mulder had arisen soon after sun-up. They had spent the night in each other's arms, lying close and quiet, drawing strength from the embrace, but taking matters no further.

They each knew now was neither the time nor the place for other things. To Scully, it seemed almost sacrilegious to contemplate physical pleasures when a town of rotting corpses awaited redemption just a few miles away.

So they had refrained, lying instead chastely beneath the covers, sketching their plans in hushed voices until sleep had swept over them, drowning them in oblivion.

They had decided to approach matters much as they had the day before. Lashing on their snowshoes, they hiked through the woods surrounding Gateway, avoiding the road until the last possible instant. Her leg was still slightly sore, but thankfully not as much a hindrance as it had been previously. She was able to keep up with Mulder without greatly overexerting herself.

By mid-morning, they had reached the Hum-Vee they had abandoned the day before. It lay half-hidden behind a stand of tall, narrow pines.

And inside it, lying neatly in the cargo hold like shed snakeskin, were the Haz-Mat suits they had worn less than twenty-four hours before.

"I am really not looking forward to this," Mulder muttered beneath his breath as he stood in the vehicle's rear doorway and moodily contemplated what was to come.

"Me neither," she assured him, laying a comforting hand on his rigid forearm. "So, let's make this quick."

After first carefully checking the gear for any tears or worn patches, they suited up, their eyes watering from the bleach fumes still clinging to the material.

"I'll drive," Mulder volunteered as he eased himself behind the wheel. "You have your weapon ready. If we see anyone at that roadblock, Scully, anyone at all, I'm punching the gas and not letting up until I hit ocean."

"I doubt even this Hum-Vee has that big a gas tank," she murmured dryly, her voice echoing inside her helmet.

He smiled at her from behind his visor, the effort lop-sided yet warm. She rested her gloved hand on his arm once more.

"Let's get the show on the road," Mulder said. And turning the key in the ignition, he threw the car into drive.

Taking her job as co-pilot seriously, Scully craned her neck, searching for sentries as they approached Gateway. Yet, nothing caught her eye. The road was clear. They didn't even pass any vehicles headed in the opposite direction.

The whole thing gave her the creeps.

"Remind me never to complain about Beltway traffic again," she mumbled.

"You lonely, Scully?" Mulder queried lightly, sparing her an almost playful sideways glance.

"No," she told him seriously, turning her attention away from the road to pin it instead on him.

He nodded slowly. Their eyes held.

"We're almost there," he assured her.

They made it past the roadblock without incident. After conferring with his partner, Mulder drove the Hum-Vee to just outside the central tent before killing the engine.

"Criddon had nearly a fully-staffed lab here," Scully said as she disembarked, one of Franklin's dated but well-oiled Smith and Wessons held tightly in her grip. "We should be able to find the specimen containers, scalpels, and everything else we need to take samples. We can disinfect the containers themselves just like we did the laptop. It's not foolproof, but it's the best we're going to be able to do."

"What kinds of samples are you planning on taking?"

Mulder asked as he came around the vehicle to walk beside her, his weapon now drawn as well.

"I'm thinking I should probably take one of some still relatively healthy tissue and some of tissue that has already begun to decay."

He grimaced, his mouth pulled tight. "Do you think there's still any 'relatively healthy tissue' left to be had?"

She lifted her brows and shrugged. "Well, I suppose there's Criddon..." she began, her voice trailing off.

He nodded. "He was the last to die."

They had reached the front flap of the tent. Mulder held it open for her; she ducked beneath his arm. Everything was just as they had left it. Tables lined with equipment, cots sagging with corpses.

Criddon, twisted like a discarded doll, gazing unseeing at the canvas covered sky.

Scully looked down at the dead man, covered in his own vomit, the evidence of his final agony spattering the floor around him.

Her stomach began to churn and clench, and her eyes moistened yet again. This time, bleach was not to blame.

"You know, I realize this is one hell of a time to get squeamish, but I don't think I can cut Dr. Criddon," she confessed softly, her head bowed. "Not after reading his notes...his journal entries. Mulder...it feels as if it would almost be a desecration.

An invasion of his privacy."

Shaking her head in self-directed disgust, she turned away.

"Listen to me...I sound ridiculous."

Mulder crossed to stand behind her, and laid his hand on her shoulder, the caress awkward with their suits separating them.

"You don't sound ridiculous, Scully."

She pivoted to regard him, still not wholly convinced. "I don't sound like a scientist either."

"No. You sound like a human being. Someone who recognizes that their fellow human beings are something more than lab rats," he said, the words muffled behind his helmet.

She nodded ever so slightly.

"And that's a hell of a lot more than can be said for the men responsible for this disaster," he finished, his expression bleak.

She smiled for him, the effort strained but genuine. "Thank you."

His eyes warmed. "You're welcome."

Taking a deep breath, she squared her shoulders. "Let's get this over with."

With Mulder trailing behind her as a kind of assistant-intraining, Scully quickly gathered the tools she would need for her task. She had been right in her assessment of Criddon's lab. Specimen containers were plentiful. Setting her gun to the side, she grabbed several of these, a scalpel and some toweling, and got to work.

"Do you remember what we talked about yesterday?" she queried. "These instruments clearly weren't ordered with this kind of operation in mind."

"Why?"

"They're too sharp. If the epidemiologist had known he'd be working in a field biocontainment suit, he would have had blunt instruments. Be damn careful - these scalpels are wicked.

It's too easy to breach the suits with stuff like this," she said, frowning over her work, her delicate hands moving precisely even hampered by the bulky gloves.

"Some of these men look to be in better shape than those on the street," Mulder said, gesturing to the bodies laying in state in what had been a sort of makeshift infirmity.

She crossed the floor of the tent, thinking to offer her own opinion on the subject. One raised eyebrow ultimately sufficed.

"All things being relative," her partner said with a wry tilt of his head.

Yet, in the end, she agreed with him, and was able to obtain from one of Criddon's last remaining patients a sample of tissue that was still days away from the sort of decomposition they had witnessed on the older corpses.

"Let's head outside for the rest of it," she suggested, a long dormant claustrophobia stirring more strongly to life with every minute spent cloistered behind those white cloth walls.

"Good idea," he replied.

Together, they tromped back out into the bright October sunshine. Handing her gun and the specimens they had already collected to Mulder, she crossed to the nearest body bag, knelt beside it and, steeling herself, took similar samples from the remains encased within.

Mulder hung back a discreet distance.

She couldn't say she blamed him.

Satisfied that they had finally secured what they had come for, she stood once more.

"Okay. Let's head over to that sprayer--," she began, her newly obtained samples cradled carefully in her palms.

When something large and dark bounded out of nowhere, and launched itself at her back, knocking her and her samples to the ground.

"SCULLY!"

Later, she would have to ask Mulder just where the dog had come from, why they had not noticed it earlier. When questioned, he would tell her that the large Labrador mix had shot like a skinny black bullet from between two of Main Street's businesses, seemingly hungry, terrified, and desperate to defend what had been until quite recently its home.

She never got a good look at it. Not until after it was dead.

She was too busy rolling from beneath the beast, samples crushed to her breast, intent both on saving the specimens and giving Mulder a clean shot.

"Get clear! Get clear!!" he urged from somewhere above her.

She struggled to comply, turning furiously on the snow covered ground, the dog's strangled growls roaring in her ears.

When, at last, she was rewarded. A single shot rang like a bell tone in the hushed mountain sky. A horrible, pinched yelp of pain chimed in almost simultaneously from right beside her, the sound awful and piercing.

Breathing heavily, she lay on her back, stunned, staring up at the cloudless blue above her, the tissue samples still clutched tightly in her hands.

"Scully...Oh my God, are you all right?" Mulder asked frantically as he loomed over her, blocking the sun from her view.

"Yeah," she whispered. "Yeah, I think I am."

"He didn't bite you, did he?" her partner asked, extending a hand to help her up.

Laying the specimens on the ground beside her, she ignored his hand and shakily pushed herself up to a seated position.

"No. No, he didn't bite me."

"Oh, thank God," Mulder muttered fervently, his arms gesturing weakly, almost flailing, the gun forgotten in his grip. "Thank God. Then everything is all right."

Scully just sat there, numb, unable to meet his eyes.

And felt the snow that had seeped in through her now lacerated suit trickle cold and deadly down her spine.


Chapter XIV

October 29
Gateway, Colorado

Dana Scully was in shock.

Or at least she thought she might be. She sat unmoving on the snow-covered earth, blinking slowly, breathing fast and hard. She was aware in some distant, fragmented way that odds were good the frosty, tainted air had already breached her bio-containment suit, trickling in through the gaping furrows marking her back like lash strokes.

Yet all she could think about was the dog responsible.

It was stocky and black, with a single blaze of tan running down the center of its wide, blunt snout. A mutt. With long legs and big paws. And thick, jagged nails. Judging by its body type and the shape of its ears, she thought it was probably a mix of Labrador and Shepherd. Or had been.

It was dead now.

Like she soon could be.

"You shot him," she mumbled numbly to her partner. He stood before her, his gun still clutched in his hand; their samples and her weapon scattered on the ground nearby.

Their eyes met through their visors, but the sun's reflection kept his expression largely hidden from her. She wondered if she appeared as great a mystery to him.

At that moment, she very much hoped so.

"Yeah. Do me a favor and keep it from the NSPCA, all right?"

Fox Mulder quipped, regarding the downed animal regretfully.

"I didn't want to shoot Rover here, but he really didn't leave me any choice."

"No," she quietly agreed, her eyes drifting from his to stare vacantly at the array of specimen containers peppering the whiteness surrounding them both. "He didn't."

"Give you a hand?" he offered, his gloved palm extended towards her once more.

"Uh...I think I'd like to just sit here for a minute," she dodged, her gaze flickering again to his, then away. "I...

um . . I feel a little shaky. You know?" As long as she remained seated they could pretend all was well, she reasoned with a kind of skewed logic. It was only when she stood she would have to explain to Mulder what had happened.

Only when he caught sight of the gouges in her protective wear she would have to tell him farewell.

"Take your time," Mulder said.

"Thanks," she murmured softly, grateful beyond all measure he had unwittingly granted her a reprieve.

Mulder nodded and, pivoting, crossed away from her to stand instead over the canine, seemingly contemplating his hand in its demise. "Do you suppose this is the one Vaughn saw?"

"Vaughn?" she echoed dumbly, her brain still alarmingly sluggish and dull.

"Yeah. Remember, he said in his letter a dog ran out in front of his truck? I wonder if this is the same one."

She turned her head to look up at the man she worked with.

He was staring down at the carcass near his feet, his attention diverted from her. Good. Even stepping around her as he had, he still hadn't noticed the damage to her suit. "I don't know," she said, struggling to her feet, careful to keep her back hidden from view. Her knees seemed to lack their usual strength and she had difficulty gaining her balance, especially with her weakened leg. "I suppose it could be the same.

Maybe he got scared away when the town was overrun by strangers, and, with the snow and everything, didn't wander back until things...quieted down."

"Where he found us," Mulder muttered ruefully, glancing up in her direction. "Or, more accurately, you."

Lips thinned, she nodded.

He cocked his head as he considered her, his eyes narrowed.

"Scully, are you sure you're okay?"

Tell him, Dana. Tell him now.

She shook her head, her gaze skittering away yet again.

Facing her once more, he took a step towards her. She retreated an equal distance from him, her bad leg nearly buckling in her haste, her fear.

"What's wrong? Is it your leg?" he queried, his hand reaching out as if to steady her. "Let me help you. The ground is still pretty slippery."

Get the samples and get out get the samples and get out...

Before he could touch her, she stayed him, her arm straight out in front of her; her palm, a flesh and blood stop sign.

"Mulder, I need you to do something for me."

Even through his helmet, she could see he was confused; his brow was wrinkled in consternation. Still, he responded to her request readily enough. "Sure. Anything."

She took a deep, shuddering breath. "Take the specimens, and go to the de-con tent. I'll spray you down there."

He shrugged, then nodded, his befuddlement yet evident.

"Fine. I figured as much. I know the drill."

"Then I want you to get out of here and deliver those tissue samples back to D.C."

Something in her voice must have tipped him off. Ever so subtly, he paled, a kind of sickly horror dawning on his face.

"And just where do you plan on being?"

She swallowed hard. "Here. Or at least...close by."

"Scully, what the hell...? What are you talking about?" he muttered, the sound harsh and cutting.

Almost as sharp as the claws that had ripped open her suit.

He tromped towards her, slipping a bit on the snow, his stride aggressive yet awkward. She stumbled back a few more steps, desperate to keep some space between them, not certain she could do what had to be done if he was touching her. But Mulder was too quick and, sliding to an abrupt halt before her, grabbed hold of her arms, preventing any further attempt at escape.

"What's going on, Scully?" he asked, almost bellowing his query into her upturned face, the twin Plexiglas shields separating them doing little to muffle the volume. "Just what the fuck is going on?"

He was terrified. Scully could see the fear shining plainly in his hazel eyes. She knew exactly how he felt. But rather than strike out, rail against fate as Mulder did, she ruthlessly squelched the urge to panic. Now was neither the time nor the place. She would never convince him if she surrendered to her despair.

"The dog...when it jumped on me, its nails tore the fabric of my suit," she said, her words quick yet composed, as if she were relating to him the most mundane information imaginable.

I think this sun may continue all afternoon.

I'm very likely only days away from vomiting up the lining of my stomach.

"What?" he gasped, spinning her around for confirmation.

His manhandling made her dizzy and losing her equilibrium, she pitched forward towards the snow. But with surprising speed, Mulder's fingers curled around her biceps, their pressure almost painful, and yanked her upright.

"Sorry. I'm sorry," he mumbled in apology.

"It's okay."

His hands tightened around her slender shoulders once more, this time in reassurance.

Her back to her partner, Scully stood very still and let him examine the damage. She was curious, after all, not being able to actually see the tears herself. In contrast to his earlier, almost violent maneuvering, his touch was gentle. She felt his fingertips trail lightly across her upper back, then down, quivering ever so slightly as they stroked over her body.

And crazy though she knew the impulse was, she couldn't help but remember the similar way his hands had trembled.

Only two nights before. When he had caressed her rather differently

"Oh, my God...my God, Scully. My God."

The hushed, broken-sounding words pricked at her heart like a pin. Drawing blood. And tears.

"How bad?" she asked.

"There are three long tears running along your left shoulder blade, and two shorter ones below those on the right. They end just above your waist. He must have come at you at an angle."

It was worse than she had thought. Struggling for composure, she asked, "Do they go all the way through?"

"Yeah," he answered hoarsely, his hands finally dropping away from her. "All the way through."

Well, that settles that.

"Mulder, with the integrity of my suit compromised, there is a very good chance I have been infected with whatever killed these people," she said thickly, turning back to face him.

"You don't know that," Mulder gritted out.

"No, I don't," she replied evenly. "But I can't pretend it isn't possible. Neither one of us can."

"Forget it, Scully. I--"

"I can't go back with you, Mulder," she said flatly. "Not until I know for sure it's safe. The disease is too virulent and the risk is too great."

"But the sprayer...we could--"

"According to Criddon's notes, the agent appears to be airborne," she said wearily, turning to stumble away from him, her legs still fighting her efforts. She had to put a little room between she and Mulder, had to escape from the pleading in his eyes. She knew if they gazed at each other long enough, he would spy a similar desperation in hers.

He'd see her terror, her weakness. Her need.

And then he'd never leave her.

"I'm breathing it into me...have been breathing it in ever since that dog jumped me," she said, her booted toe digging angrily in the dirtied, trampled snow. "Bleach isn't going to kill a virus that's floating around in the air."

He said nothing to that. Scully almost chuckled at his silence.

Poor Mulder. She had him at a disadvantage. He didn't possess enough understanding of the disease to effectively combat her science.

Unfortunately, this was one argument she wouldn't have minded losing.

"Do what we came here to do," she instructed in a hushed yet heated voice, her head bowed. "Take the samples to someone who can figure out a way to prevent this from ever happening again."

"While you do what?" he asked from just behind her, something unidentifiable in his tone, the words sounded strangled to her, almost garbled beyond recognition.

She shrugged. "I don't know. One thing's for sure--I don't want to stay here. But I can't take a chance of infecting anyone else. I guess I should probably hike to one of the other Hum-Vees, drive it out a ways where no one is likely to stumble across me, and wait. With the speed at which this thing develops, I would know in a day or two if I've got it."

"Alone?"

For some reason, the mere mention of that word made her throat tighten painfully. How cruel really, how ironic. To be forced to say goodbye so soon after they had truly found each other. "I don't really see much of a choice, Mulder, do you?"

He said nothing for a time. Curious, she turned to peer over her shoulder at him. Mulder stood in profile to her, staring at the ground, his hands on his hips. She couldn't see his face.

"Mulder?"

Hearing his name, he lifted his head and looked at her, his countenance carefully devoid of expression. Then, saying nothing, he pivoted and stalked away from her down Gateway's wide, main thoroughfare.

Chewing on her lip, she tried not to be hurt by his abandonment. After all, she knew he wasn't marching back to the cabin; he was only blowing off a little steam.

And besides, she was the one who had insisted on their separation in the first place. It would be decidedly perverse to find fault with him simply for following her advisement.

Still, she ached to see him go.

God. If she thought this was tough, how in the world did she think she was going to be able to handle driving off into the wilderness to die?

One step at a time, she silently coached herself. One step at a time. Sighing over the twisted workings of her mind, she bent to retrieve her gun and their samples, her focus on what was to come.

Not on what was right before her.

Or rather, behind.

"So you want me to just let you go it alone, huh?"

Mulder had returned. She started at the sound of his voice, and, standing, turned to face him, her hands full of specimen cases.

"I think that would be best," she murmured, the sun blinding her when she gazed upwards, hoping to meet his eyes.

"Well, Scully, you know what Mick and the boys say..."

She heard rather than felt the narrow metal bracelet encircle her wrist. It locked around her with a soft, sibilant, snick.

"You can't always get what you want."

Stunned and confused, she looked down at her arm. A shiny handcuff hung like jewelry from her wrist. Mulder raised his arm, displaying the manacle's mate. It shone just as brightly from its place on his wrist.

Her partner had chained the two of them together.

"Mulder, what the hell do you think you're doing?" she cried, tugging against the restraint, livid and afraid.

"Watch it, Scully!" he warned. "You'll rip our suits."

Instantly, she stopped her struggles.

"Explain to me what this is all about," she demanded, her voice low and fierce. "Where did you even get these?"

"Borrowed 'em off a dead guy," he said, gesturing back the way he had come. "One of the uniformed men. Figured he wouldn't be needing them."

"While you would?" she countered with a growl.

"Yeah. I would." Through the visor, she could see him lift his brows, almost blithely. As if this were all a game.

"I've done some thinking. And I've decided you're not going anywhere without me."

"Obviously," she retorted, shaking their joined wrists. "Give me the key, Mulder."

"When we're out of these suits and back at the cabin."

It was all she could do not to weep with fury. "That's crazy.

You're crazy! By then, it will be too late!"

"Sorry, Scully. This is non-negotiable."

She took a deep breath, and tried to get her nerves under control. Reason. She had to reason with him. "Mulder, think!

Would you? Just think for a minute. There is no reason for you to do this. Why take the chance of infecting yourself?

Even if I do have whatever this thing is, you can't help me."

"Scully, I don't know what kind of man you think I am," he said harshly, "but I can't just turn around, go home, and leave you here to face this on your own."

"That is exactly what you have to do!" she countered heatedly.

They looked at each other for a beat, their gazes molten, neither backing down.

Finally, her composure cracked. "Mulder...please."

He could only shake his head. "I'm sorry, Scully. I can't."

She wanted to scream, to rage, to throw herself on the ground and indulge in the mother of all temper tantrums. But instead, she told him quietly, "If I am sick, you've just committed suicide."

His expression grim, his eyes infinitely sad, he said softly, "I can live with that."

She looked at him hard, never more furious with him than she was at that moment. "Did you ever stop to wonder if I could?"


She spoke not another word to him as they prepared to leave Gateway for the last time. Moving carefully, clumsily, they doused each other and their samples with bleach. Rivulets of the irritant trickled inside Scully's ruined suit, stinging her skin.

She said nothing. The pain was almost welcome; it took her mind off of Mulder, his unwanted heroism, and the awful end to which it all might lead.

Apparently sensing he had pushed his luck to the breaking point, he refrained from goading her. Instead, he behaved with the utmost restraint and courtesy. Moments that might have turned weirdly comical, such as their clambering aboard their Hum-Vee whilst wearing both containment suits and handcuffs, were handled without comments or quips. It wasn't easy, but they managed it.

Please let the rest of it be this simple, Scully prayed, her eyes trained unseeing out the Hum-Vee's window. Please let this be nothing more than a scare.

Please don't let Mulder's feelings for me be what kills him.


And as the Hum-Vee rumbled to a stop just past the barricade barring entrance to Gateway, a man secreted on a hillside less than half a mile away peered through his binoculars. He lay on his belly, camouflaged in the snow. Waiting until the vehicle's occupants disembarked, the watcher reported to his superior.

"You were right, sir," he murmured into his radio. "The pair are leaving as they did yesterday, changing vehicles. Should I give the order to apprehend?"

"No," crackled a static-filled voice. "We know now where they're holed up. Maintain watch there. Make no move to intervene unless they attempt to leave the cabin itself."

"And should that occur?" the watcher queried as he regarded the couple in question making their way around the fourwheeler. He couldn't tell for certain, but it looked as if they were holding hands.

"Do what you need to do to keep it from happening."

The watcher nodded, not surprised by his orders, and although he knew such questions were not encouraged, inquired, "Sir, why aren't we just taking them out of the game?"

But rather than earning him a rebuke, his remark garnered only an indulgent chuckle. "When you play chess, you don't sacrifice your pawns without reason."

"But our orders were originally--"

"Your orders were originally given you by fools," the voice hissed. "Had I known of them, they would never have been issued."

"Yes, sir," murmured the watcher, chastened, wishing he had never raised the subject in the first place.

But after a moment's silence, his superior's former good mood was seemingly restored. "You and your men keep an eye on Agents Mulder and Scully. You may surprised how useful they can be."

Smiling to himself, the leader of Project Agent M took a long, slow drag on his Morley.

"I know I often am."


Chapter XV

October 29
Outside Gateway, Colorado

"Scully, will you just talk to me, goddammit?"

His partner had fumed silently all the way back to the cabin.

Stealing infrequent glances at her while he drove hadn't bolstered his confidence much; she looked as if she just might punch him if he opened his mouth.

And with their wrists still cuffed together, that would turn ugly fast. She was already shooting him dirty looks every time he had to shift gears - he had to admit, it was a little awkward with her left hand flopping alongside his right as he shifted.

So he let her stew during the drive, his own anger building steadily all the while. As if he could have considered leaving her even for a second. Right. Leave her, possibly dying from the virus, while he - what? Headed back to DC without her?

Sure. That was likely. His mouth pressed into an even tighter line.

By the time they shut the cabin door behind them, his anger and fear were making his movements jerky. He was fumbling for the key to the cuffs when Scully snapped, "This has gone on long enough. Give me the key, Mulder."

"No." He reached for his right pocket with his left hand. She guessed what he was doing and reached to intercept him.

Within seconds, they were grappling wildly, like children whose game had turned suddenly, inexplicably ugly. Somehow, Scully managed to elbow him in the eye and he yelped in pain.

"Ow! Jesus, Scully, just let me do it!"

Scowling, she subsided. He rubbed his eye and stared at her accusingly while he fished the key out of his pocket.

"I'm not unlocking the cuffs until you give me your word that you'll stay here with me," he said firmly, rubbing at the sore eye.

"Mulder, I want you to listen very carefully," she said, her voice tight. "I've said this before, and now I'm going to say it again.

There is every likelihood that I've been exposed to an extremely deadly virus. From what we've seen, the fatality rate is one hundred percent. Do you understand? If I have it, I'm going to die. The only question is if you're going to die too, or if you're going to take whatever chance you have left and get as far away from me as possible before you get infected." Her gaze was flinty. "Now, I want you to unlock these fucking handcuffs and let me go. I'll find a place to wait out the incubation period. I should know in a couple of days. At this point, you probably ought to stay here and notify the CDC to send out the cavalry.

You might -"

"No." He sounded calm but certain. "We both stay right here.

I'd rather die with you than live knowing I abandoned you.

There's still the possibility that neither of us is infected. And if we are -" his voice faltered slightly, "if we are, you have as good a chance of figuring out a way to treat the disease as any of the guys who got sent in here. You have Criddon's research -"

"Which didn't do him any damn good, did it?"

"You have a few days head start on him, Scully. You don't have to re-do all the work he did."

"Mulder, I'm a pathologist, not an epidemiologist. And there's no known cure for ANY of these filoviruses." She shook her head impatiently. "You're deluding yourself, as usual, and I'm not--"

"What do you mean, 'as usual'?"

"I mean," she exploded, "that your tendency to believe in the unbelievable just might get you killed this time, Mulder, and I don't want your blood on my hands!"

"And leaving you for dead means your blood would be on my hands. So we're even, Scully. Stalemate."

"It's not the same!"

"It is to me. So let's try this again. Are you going to give me your word that you won't leave me or are we going to be literally inseparable for the next few days?"

He was dangling the key above their heads with his free hand, just out of her reach, and if he'd cracked even the slightest smile, he knew with certainty she would knock his front teeth out.

But he remained deadly serious, and finally, she whispered, "Okay."

Satisfied for the time being, he didn't glance at her face as he unlocked the cuffs. She slipped hers off and watched him do the same. Finished, he raised his eyes to hers and said evenly, "Let me take a look at those scratches on your back."

Saying nothing, she nodded and, shrugging off the flannel shirt she had borrowed from Franklin, turned away. The area between her shoulder blades did sting a bit, although with the layers she was wearing she didn't imagine the injury was serious.

Keeping silent as well, Mulder slowly pulled up the T-shirt she still wore. Gently, the pads of his fingers stroked over her satiny skin, raising goosebumps.

"You do have some abrasions here," he murmured, his mouth near her ear. "But he didn't break the skin."

"I didn't think so," she muttered, wishing she weren't so damned effected by his nearness. It made it so much harder to remain angry at him.

"Still...do you want me to put something on them?" he asked, yet caressing her, trying to soothe her. She was sure of it.

She laughed humorlessly. "I think the bleach probably took care of any surface germs."

If only it could have killed the airborne ones.

"Oh. Yeah," he mumbled, lowering her blouse once more.

Shoving her arms back into her shirt, she turned again to face him.

He just looked at her for a moment, seemingly at a loss, before suggesting, "Why don't you take a look at what's on the laptop while I make us something to eat?"

She knew he was trying to make peace, but rather than immediately taking him up on the offer, she took a deep breath. "Mulder," she began in her most reasonable tone, trying one last time to reach him.

"No," he said instantly, his face closed. "And I don't want to talk about it anymore."

She stopped. They stared at each other for a long minute.

Finally, she looked away. Saying nothing, she reached down and flipped the laptop open, busying herself by booting up the computer and checking the battery supply.

He watched her for a minute or two more, then started rattling around in the kitchen.

If he'd seen the expression on her face, he might have guessed that the subject wasn't closed, not by a long shot.

While she typed in the filename, she was wondering how long it would be before he needed some rest.

Before he slept.

And about what she might need to take with her.


The inventory records didn't provide her with much insight into the plague that Teams One and Two had succumbed to.

Worse, they were incredibly boring, even more so than the field reports from the team members sent to examine victims and make observations about the environment in which they had sickened and ultimately died.

Scully's eyes were smarting after hours of poring over lists of supplies and catalogued orders and dull descriptions of the citizens of Gateway and their belongings. She had taken time out to eat a nearly silent meal with Mulder, who had put together a passable pasta dish with the limited contents of Franklin's kitchen. Every time she lifted her head, he was watching her grimly, with a mixture of determination and tenderness that made her want nothing more than to lean over the small table and kiss him soundly until the lines of tension around his mouth disappeared.

But if she was already incubating the virus...

Scully kept her head down for the rest of the meal, and headed back to the laptop as soon as the last bite was in her mouth.

Mulder took the dishes away from the table in silence, and soon she could hear him washing up.

Gazing down at the flickering screen, she tried to recall where she had left off. Ah, yes. The list of Gateway's former inhabitants.

Cataloged according to address, all pertinent information enumerated--dates of birth, height, weight, occupation, children, pets, effects of the virus, dates of death. How little space really, how few keystrokes it took to outline a life.

Pets.

She had tried, with little success, to push the memory of the poor dog's attack out of her mind. Ironically, the animal's name seemed to have been Lucky - he had belonged to Marge and Stan Chisholm, and was easily identified as the only pet Labrador in town, although she personally doubted the purity of his parentage.

Poor Lucky.

Pets.

Most of the people in Gateway had owned them; big dogs were popular, as were cats; in a rural community, cats were one way to keep the ever-present rodent population under control.

Rodents.

There was something there, but it was eluding her.

She sighed and changed windows so that she was looking at the field reports again instead of the inventory records.

Her tired eyes landed on a section of a report, dated October 20, that described the contents of a garage belonging to a Norm and Mary Orban. The list was longer than some of the inventory lists, but the field agent had noted at the bottom that two dead white rats were found in the garage.

White rats.

That was ringing a bell too, and Scully rubbed her stinging eyes, frustrated. If she were less tired...

...less worried about dying out here with Mulder and no one ever knowing...

"Any word from D.C.?" she asked suddenly, her voice slicing through the heavy silence like a well honed blade. Mulder looked up from where he sat round-shouldered in front of Franklin's PC. He had been studying his screen as intently as she was hers. Perhaps either Skinner or the Gunmen had replied to their earlier memo, she thought. For some odd reason, she found that possibility immensely soothing. It was starting to feel mighty lonely out there in the snow-covered woods. Especially while she was at odds with Mulder.

And with what she had planned, that sense of isolation was only going to worsen.

"Yeah," he replied shortly, running his hands through his already unruly hair. "Got letters from both the guys and Skinner. The Gunmen want an exclusive for their next issue complete with photos. Skinner wants us back in D.C. on the double."

"What did you tell him?"

"That it was dangerous for us to return to Washington until we knew what exactly it was we were dealing with. And for him and every other government agency to keep the hell out of Gateway until he hears from us."

She frowned. "Do you think Skinner will listen?"

He shrugged, then shook his head. "I don't know. I hope so.

I stressed the delicacy of the situation. How we have to be careful not to let any of this get into the wrong hands. Not until we've gathered up all the information we could."

Sighing, Mulder looked away, all at once fascinated by the chipped corner of the table. "Anyway, we've got the sample.

If that isn't proof, I don't know what is. I'm sending out another report detailing the information we've discussed; what you've been able to learn from Criddon's files."

She nodded. Even though his eyes were averted, he seemed to sense her silent reply.

"I'm not telling Skinner what happened today."

Part of her agreed. Another part wished that the A.D. would send in a battalion of haz-mat suited saviors. A team whose only goal would be saving the lives of her and her partner.

If indeed such rescue was necessary.

"If I told him you and I might be infected, he'd call in the troops, Scully," he continued softly, persuasively, his gaze fastened on hers once more. "We both know it. And if that were to happen, the bad guys would get rid of the evidence so fast it would be like Gateway had never existed at all."

She swallowed hard, her eyes never leaving his. "I know."

"As it is, we're lucky we were able to get away with what we did."

Lucky. They were lucky.

Lucky the dog.

And all those pets.

Shutting out all thoughts of Skinner, and Mulder, and lying cold and forgotten in an unmarked grave, she rubbed her eyes again and returned her attention to the laptop before her.

Tucking a bit of hair behind her ear, she scrolled down the document, wondering what it was that niggled at the edges of her consciousness urging her to recognize its importance.

Then she stopped again.

There it was, in a report from October 21, the next day - a white rat, deceased, found in the convenience store, which no longer had any customers, since all of Gateway's shoppers were busy dying at that point.

Strange that rats kept turning up. But why was it important?

Because they're white, a little voice in her head said quietly.

Maybe the Orbans had kept pet rats, but what was one doing in the convenience store?

Suddenly feeling far less tired, Scully rapidly scrolled down, scanning the records.

According to the reports, rodents had popped up seemingly everywhere.

There was another one, found in the Cutler's backyard.

Another, in the living room at the house of an unidentified single adult male, appearing to be in his late 50's. And another, found at the base of one of the gasoline pumps at the store.

White rats. She had stepped on a dead one herself.

They couldn't be wild ones because of their coloring, she reasoned. And how probable was it that in a tiny rural town where rodents were no doubt considered a nuisance at best, the citizens would harbor this many pet rats?

Lab rats. They had to be lab rats.

Someone had set a bunch of lab rats loose in Gateway. And immediately after the rats had made their way through town, a killer virus had made its unwelcome appearance.

Eyes wide, she opened a new file and began sketching out a hypothesis.


"Yes, of course I've heard of the Black Death. Thirteenthcentury outbreak of the bubonic plague, killed about a quarter of the population of Europe, yadda-yadda-yadda. That Black Death?" Mulder inquired, gazing with a kind of amusement at his overly excited partner. Scully's eyes were red and she looked tired as hell, but she was so wound up it was making him antsy just to watch. She was currently pacing around the small kitchen. And she was talking to him.

The talking part was what had gotten him excited.

"Well, the poor Europeans didn't know what hit them. It was centuries before anyone figured out the role that fleas played in the disease. In an era where hardly anyone bathed with any regularity - I mean, once or twice a year at best - fleas were a constant problem. Many people lived side by side with farm animals and dogs, sleeping in filthy quarters. Fleas were probably the exception rather than the rule."

She stopped pacing and turned to face him. "Fleas, and rats.

And rats carried the plague. Now, fleas didn't exactly get the plague, but they did bite rats that carried it. Then, when they bit humans, they spread the disease to the human population.

Dirty people, proximity to rats, fleas - makes you want to take a bath, doesn't it?" she asked, brightly.

"Sounds good," he murmured, with a meaningful look at the alcove that held the tub. She got it, and flushed slightly before he relented, adding, "But I don't see where you're going with this yet."

"Remember when I stepped on that dead white rat on our first trip to Gateway? Well, that rat apparently had some friends.

Lots of them. The field reports mention at least four, and those were only the ones that were seen, if you follow me."

"Okay, there were lots of rats in town."

"White rats."

"So you think it's some form of the bubonic plague?"

"No. I think it's exactly what Criddon thought it was, a filovirus. There's an image of the virus on the laptop - it looks exactly like Marburg, and there's no other known virus with that ring shape. But I think the virus got into the human population through these rats. Somehow, the rats were used as carriers."

"Used?" He stared at her with dawning comprehension.

"Someone deliberately infected the rats and set them loose in Gateway?"

She nodded. "They can't be wild rats - they're all white. They'd never survive. They're lab rats, Mulder. I don't know exactly how the virus made the jump from the rats to the humans, but fleas are a possibility. Either that or one of the rats bit someone."

He stared straight ahead. "Jesus."

"But I'm pretty sure it was insects, that fleas on the rats acted as reservoir hosts for the virus. Or that it was some kind of chimeric virus."

"One hypothesis at a time, Doc. What's a reservoir host?"

"Where the virus was present in the insects but not actively replicating itself until it was transferred to human hosts. The insects could carry the disease and pass it along to humans.

There's no clear evidence that insects definitely carry Marburg, although some epidemiologists think they do. So I wondered if it might not be a filovirus/rhabdovirus chimera that they infected the rats with. The organization of the genomes in filoviruses is similar to rhabdoviruses -"

"To WHAT? Scully, bear with me here, you're going about ten times faster than I can follow you." He gaped at her comically until she had to bite down on her lower lip to hide a smile. This was the good part, she thought. The fun part. The part that made all the rest of the pain and disappointment worthwhile.

The part where they actually worked together. The melding of energy, of spirit, of will. The joint effort put forth to battle a common foe.

Was it any wonder why going it alone held so little appeal?

"Sorry. I was getting a little ahead of myself there," she murmured, trying to rein in her excitement. "Remember the supposed alien corpse that you went up to Canada for?"

Mulder nodded grimly, remembering how that wild goose chase had ended. "Well, we know that the people behind this are adept at manipulating different genomes - that they can create chimeras."

"With you so far, Doc."

"Stop calling me that, Mulder," she chided almost automatically.

"I think they made a chimera so they'd be sure that insects could carry this virus and get it into the human population.

Rhabdoviruses are another family of viruses, a small one there are only a few viruses in the family. You've heard of rabies?" He nodded. "Rabies is the most famous member of the rhabdovirus family. Well, one of the lovely features of a rhabdovirus is that it can infect humans and insects. What if they created a rhabdovirus/filovirus chimera that allowed the filovirus to infect insect cells?"

He thought about it for a minute. "Do you think that's what this thing is? A souped-up version of Marburg designed to be carried from insects to humans?"

She rubbed her eyes. "It's only a hypothesis."

He was staring blankly ahead. "What do you think they've got planned? This isn't a precision instrument, after all. If it gets loose, it's instant apocalypse."

Scully was fingering the keys of Criddon's computer. "I don't know, Mulder. I guess the only ray of hope is that with something so deadly, they'd probably have a cure or at least a treatment, just in case one of them accidentally came into contact with the virus."

"What kind of treatment?"

She shrugged helplessly. "I can't even begin to guess. Criddon and his team were completely overwhelmed. He makes mention near the end of hearing voices telling him help was on the way, but the poor man was probably so far gone at that point, he didn't know what was real and what was imagination. None of those we found dead in Gateway had the faintest idea how to treat this thing. I think the men who created this virus miscalculated in some way. It's almost impossible to predict exactly how a virus will behave outside of a lab. If I had to guess, I would say that maybe they didn't know it would go airborne, and by the time Criddon and his men figured it out, it was too late." She rubbed her eyes again and wondered, not for the first time, just when Mulder would grow tired enough to sleep.

Almost as if reading her mind, he rose. "Why don't we try to get some rest?" He didn't voice his next thought aloud, but she heard it just the same: if they had been exposed to the virus, their bodies would be less vulnerable if they weren't exhausted.

As if such a small thing could save them.

Scully feigned interest in the little laptop. "You go ahead. I want to jot a few more things down here before I turn in."

He hesitated for an instant, then nodded and headed for the sink.

Scully didn't know how long it usually took Mulder to get ready for bed, but on this particular evening his end-of-day routine seemed excruciatingly slow. He washed up, puttered around, mumbled something about his choices for bedtime attire, and sent at least two or three hopeful looks in her direction. She knew what he was thinking, and had to keep her eyes fixed on the screen lest her expression betray her thoughts.

Last night had been so different.

And there was a good chance that they'd never repeat it.

Scared, exhausted, and longing for comfort, she ached for nothing more than to simply shut down the computer, take off her clothes and join him in the cabin's lone bed. The urgency of her desire, not only to make love to Mulder, but simply to be with him, to curl her limbs between his and sleep in his arms, brought tears to her eyes.

But for his sake, it was a risk she simply couldn't afford to take.

It was a slim chance, but if he hadn't already been exposed to the virus...she simply had to proceed with her plan.

So she kept typing. And she waited. At last, Mulder's breathing turned even and steady. She stopped what she was doing and stared across the room at him for several minutes. He was sprawled on his back, his arms folded neatly across his middle, his legs hidden beneath the bedclothes. The side of his head was pressed against the pillow, so she was only able to see his face in profile. Kissed by the scant light emanating from the tableside lamp, his cheeks looked as downy as a child's. But, then, she had long ago noted how in sleep Mulder tended to look far less burdened by care and age. The lines in his face eased, his lips relaxed into a soft, tempting curve, his lashes hung heavy and thick, hiding his eyes from view.

He was so beautiful.

At that moment, he meant everything to her.

You can't die, she silently told the still figure on the bed. I won't let you die.

Not if I can do anything to prevent it.

For several more endless minutes, he didn't move. Finally she got up, cautiously, striving not to disturb him.

She had decided to snowshoe back to the line of HumVees and take her chances that the rest of them were stocked with provisions, the way the one they'd first taken had been. She would wait out the incubation period a safe distance from Mulder, and from Gateway.

Quietly, she slipped her boots back on and eased the heavy parka she had worn that morning over her head. She had left her snowshoes just outside the cabin door. Thankfully, a flashlight sat in plain sight on the kitchen shelves, and she only had to take two careful steps to scoop it up. She took a long, last look at her sleeping partner. . .

...lover...

...and reached for the latch on the door.

She had gotten it nearly halfway open before his hand closed around her wrist.

"Going somewhere?"

His eyes glittered with scarcely suppressed rage, and she had barely gotten her mouth open to stammer an excuse when he added curtly, "Save it for someone who'd believe it, Scully."


Chapter XVI

October 29
A Cabin Outside Gateway, Colorado

"I - "

"NO! " he roared, and now she was quite sure she'd never before seen him so angry. "You gave me your word, Scully!" He slammed shut the cabin door so hard the floor boards beneath her feet vibrated as if quaking in fear.

"Only because you gave me no choice!" she replied heatedly, refusing to be cowed.

"Oh, so now you're telling me what I want to hear?" he sneered, his hands closing around her upper arms, his countenance shoved belligerently near hers. "But then I guess that's easier than admitting to my face I can't trust you."

"Fuck you, Mulder!" she spat, body rigid in his grasp. "I'm trying to save your life, do you understand? I don't know why you think it's noble to die with me, but I don't want any part of it!"

"Always logical, Dr. Scully. But as far as I'm concerned, after that stunt you just pulled, what you want or don't want has become irrelevant." He clamped his hand around her wrist, his fingers biting painfully into her flesh. "Let's go. It's way past your bedtime." He dragged her, struggling, toward the berth they had shared the night before. "Allow me," he continued sarcastically. He got a firm grip on the waistband of her pants and began pulling the parka up over her head, one-handed.

Seething, she batted his hand away. "I'm not getting in that bed with you, Mulder!"

"Fine," he said, bitterly. "You can have it all to yourself." He took two quick strides towards the table, and picked up the handcuffs he had laid there earlier. "Get undressed and get in.

You either do it yourself or I'm cuffing you to the bed frame in that parka and you can sleep in your boots. Your choice."

She stared at him, eyes wide, enraged. "You wouldn't dare."

He stared right back, the same sort of violence mirrored in his gaze. "Try me."

Clearly, he meant every word.

Almost shaking with fury, she stripped down to her T-shirt and panties, taking perverse pleasure in the dull flush that warmed his cheeks; wayward enjoyment in the way he determinedly trained his gaze at her feet while she slid deftly out of her bra, removing the lacy bit of lingerie, but not the shirt covering it.

Stubbornly waiting until he lifted his eyes, she climbed onto the bed and deliberately stretched one wrist out over the edge of the mattress, making sure she arched her back provocatively, knowing that her nipples stood out clearly under the thin, cotton shirt.

Jaw set, he crossed to stand beside her and brusquely snapped one cuff closed around her wrist and the other around the bed frame. She noticed his face was still faintly reddened.

"You have a video about something like this, don't you, Mulder?"

The second the words were out of her mouth, she regretted them.

She had never teased him about his porn habit, and it was only her overwhelming anger that had tempted her into taunting him with it now.

"Yes," he answered, shamefaced but steady. "I was planning on throwing it out when we got home."

Her guilt doubled instantly. "Mulder..."

But he was already walking away. "Forget it, Scully."

She wanted to go after him, to wrap her arms around him in silent apology. But one move, and the clank of the handcuffs brought her back to reality. Suddenly, the words 'I'm sorry'

lodged like an oversized aspirin in her throat, choking her.

Mulder loaded up the stove with firewood and turned off the lights. Scully tried to get comfortable on her side; actually, it wasn't too bad lying that way. She closed her eyes and heard him sit down on one of the kitchen chairs.

"Mulder?"

"Go to sleep, Scully."

He sounded as lost and hurt as she felt.

It was a long time before she slept.


October 30

When Scully awoke, it was already late morning, and her arm and upper back were cramped from sleeping in the same position all night. Wincing, she slowly raised her head and saw Mulder was slumped over the kitchen table, sleeping with his cheek pillowed on his folded arms and his parka draped across his shoulders. He'll be just as stiff and sore as I am, she thought with grim satisfaction. Maybe more.

Good. Serves him right.

"Mulder," she called in a rough morning voice, "you might want to wake up."

He lifted his head immediately, and blinked sleepily at her, the hair on his brow standing up at attention, not unlike a cockscomb.

From the circles under his eyes, she guessed his night had been less restful than hers.

"Morning, *partner*," he rasped, with a slight, sarcastic emphasis on the second word.

Well. Someone had gotten up on the wrong side of the table.

"Why did you stay over there?" she asked evenly, hoping that if one of them kept their head they might be able to get past all this petty nonsense.

"You didn't want me in bed with you," he bit out, gingerly trying to stretch out the kinks without allowing his coat to slip to a heap on the floor. "Sleep well?"

"No," she said, her attempted good humor proving difficult to maintain when faced with Mulder's hostility, "and I need to use the outhouse. So unless you want to embarrass us both, you're going to have to get me out of these damned handcuffs."

He didn't answer, but rose, picked up the key, and shuffled over to the bed to unlock the cuffs.

Her leg felt fine this morning, but the stiffness in her upper body more than made up for the lack of pain in her lower extremities.

She eased to the edge of the mattress, rolling her shoulders and neck in an effort to release some of the ache. Standing, she stepped into her jeans and briskly zipped them; her boots were donned and laced soon after. All the while, Mulder waited nearby, watching her. When she crossed to retrieve her parka from the foot of the bed, his hand on hers stopped her.

"No."

"What?" she asked in amazement. "Mulder, I realize the sun is shining again today, but it's still freezing out there."

"Right," he muttered, his expression sullen. "You'll come back if you're only wearing the T-shirt. If I let you wear the parka, there's no telling where you'll end up, is there?"

"Mulder," she snarled warningly, her eyebrow arching like a bow. "You'd better be joking."

"Sorry, Scully, but the honor system went out the window when you tried to sneak out of here last night," he said, his hand still resting heavily upon her wrist. "Looks pretty chilly out there. I suggest you make it snappy."

She fumed all the way to the outhouse. The temperature had dipped again. It was obscenely cold, and she tripped once on the way back, walking right out of her left snowshoe. Cursing, she bent to re-fasten it, her anger at her partner growing steadily, her guilt over her cruel taunt the night before long forgotten.

By the time Scully stomped back into the cabin, she was shivering, her lips felt as if they had quite literally turned blue and she was ready to skewer Mulder.

Seemingly unaware he was in jeopardy, he watched her as she entered, his features schooled into a bland, emotionless mask, his hair now looking as if it might have been finger-combed in her absence. He was standing at the kitchen counter, pouring cereal into a bowl.

One bowl. A single glass of orange juice beside it.

Oh, so that's the way it's going to be. Eh, Mulder?

"Refreshing?" he queried.

"Brisk," she replied curtly. "You should try it."

"No need. I took a leak just outside the cabin door," he said, and ambled away from her to the table. "Guess it sucks being a girl."

Staring at him for a moment in mute disbelief, she at last strode past him to the stove. Deliberately turning her back to him, she stretched out her hands towards the inviting blaze, the chilled skin on her face and arms pricking with sensation as it thawed.

"So what do you plan on doing today?" he asked after several long minutes of weighty silence.

You mean aside from waiting to see if one of us falls ill?, she longed to bitterly retort.

"I need to finish incorporating the information Criddon left into the hypothesis I was working on last night," she said instead.

"Then, I want to get on the net, and see what I can find on filoviruses. We need to get as much information as possible to Skinner and the CDC before..."

Before the disease takes hold.

And we grow feverish, weak. Unable to think or speak. Not with any clarity.

Before disembodied voices are our only source of comfort.

Like they were for Criddon and his team.

"In case," she amended with a shrug.

She pivoted to face him, warming her backside now with the stove's mellow heat. Mulder sat at the table, staring at her, his breakfast forgotten, his expression stony. "Would have been tough to get that stuff to D.C. from wherever the hell it was you were planning on going."

She stiffened at his harsh tone. "You could have e-mailed them the files."

"Maybe. But I couldn't have answered their questions," he said, no forgiveness in his eyes. She had always believed she understood how dearly Mulder held the trust they shared.

Yet, judging by his reaction to the previous night's subterfuge, she had vastly underestimated its value in his eyes. "You know I don't understand half of what's on that laptop. I don't have the background for it, the expertise."

"I wasn't thinking about their questions," she said with complete honesty, her gaze unwavering. "That wasn't my concern."

He was the one who, at last, was forced to look away.

"Well, I hope you're thinking now," he said, pushing away from the table to wearily stand before her. "I hope to God we both are. Because at this moment, you and I are quite possibly the only things standing between mankind and the second Black Death."


Scully hadn't been searching for a way to get back at Mulder.

Yet, she had succeeded in finding one just the same.

She had stumbled upon it unwittingly. Setting up to begin the day's work, she had tucked Criddon's much abused laptop under her arm and taken half a dozen steps towards Franklin's PC when she realized Mulder was headed in the same direction. Stopping just short of a collision, she lifted her brow, wordlessly inquiring as to his intentions.

"I thought I'd check e-mail," he mumbled, his hands shoved deeply into his jeans pockets.

"I can do that," she said mildly. "I want to send out some of Criddon's files anyway. And as you said, if Skinner has any specific questions he needs answered, I'm probably the one best suited to reply."

He nodded a bit hesitantly, his forehead wrinkled, his lips pursed. "So, I should...?"

In retrospect, she would later admit--to herself, if not to himher retort was childish, unnecessarily combative, and in no way would aid in repairing the current rift in their relationship.

But at the time, given Mulder's own petulant behavior, it felt so damned good to get it off her chest.

"Why don't you just keep playing jailer?" she suggested with a sardonic little tilt of her head. "After all, you seem to have a certain knack for it."

For a split second, she thought she spied hurt in his tired hazel eyes. Then, his gaze shuttered, leaving her to ponder whether her impression had been accurate or merely a figment of her decidedly guilty conscience.

"I'll leave you to it, then," he muttered as he turned away and strolled a bit stiffly to Franklin's limited library. Selecting a book almost at random, he returned to his place at the kitchen table. Saying nothing more, he cracked it open and began to read, pointedly ignoring her. She watched him for a time, musing over what title he had chosen, and questioning whether Mulder was even seeing the words he so intently studied. But when it became apparent he would not soon raise his head, she gave up her scrutiny, sat down before the desktop computer and began doing what she could to stop the people responsible for Gateway's devastation.

Skinner had written. No surprises in the contents of his missive. Where are you? What are you doing? Return to Washington at once.

So, Mulder hadn't been particularly forthcoming regarding their current whereabouts. Would the Bureau be able to trace Franklin's appropriated internet connection? Probably. It might take awhile, but she knew, with the proper resources, the FBI's technicians would no doubt track down their hideaway.

Okay. Maybe she had better convince the A.D. to refrain from following that particular course of action. Not until they knew for certain what they were up against. Gnawing on her lower lip, Scully focused all her persuasive skills into composing an e-mail arguing just that point.

Sir--

Mulder and I have gathered information, certain files of which are attached to this message.

We are safe at present and are monitoring the situation earlier reported.

Please do not move on this knowledge until you hear from us.

If alerted, we fear the people responsible for what happened to Gateway will take measures to ensure details are kept from the authorities. In addition, there is serious danger - the contagion itself. At this time, we have no way of knowing how far or how fast it might spread. We hope and pray we are outside the danger zone. But until we have a way to combat the disease, it is foolish to risk the lives of other agents. We would advise, at most, a plainclothes perimeter patrol. Otherwise, please wait until Agent Mulder and I have collected all possible evidence before sending in backup.

It is imperative that you instead focus the energies of the Bureau on making sense of the data we are forwarding to you. Our only chance of stopping this virus is to make use of Criddon's research. I will send you further information as it becomes available.

Well, it certainly wasn't going to win the Pulitzer, but hopefully it would do the trick. Lips thinned, she sent off the letter.

And spent the next several hours shuttling back and forth between computers; studying Criddon's notes on the laptop, then surfing the net for any miniscule tidbit of knowledge that might shed light on his findings. Unfortunately, pickings were slim. She learned little she didn't already know.

By dusk, her back ached, her eyes burned, and she wished with everything she had they could phone out for pizza.

She hadn't eaten since breakfast, but was too tired to actually cook anything. Sighing, she pushed her fingers through her hair and wondered how much longer she could reasonably continue, how many hours she had left before her mind shut down completely.

Almost as if mimicking her, Mulder also let loose with a long, mournful exhale.

"Enjoying yourself?" she queried dryly, grateful for the distraction. Her partner hadn't spoken to her since she had usurped his place at the PC. Instead, he had stubbornly remained seated at the battered dining table, leaving his station only for trips to the privy, the stove, and the fridge, poring over the still anonymous book he had earlier begun.

"This kind of fun should be illegal," he muttered, his eyes at last lifting from the page.

Terrific. It appeared his mood hadn't improved anymore than had hers. "What are you reading?"

"A 'how-to' for curing venison. I figure 'When in Rome', you know?" he drawled, raising his hands over his head to lazily stretch. "After all, a guy should know how to take care of himself in the wild. There's no telling when he might end up all on his own."

Mulder's pity party was fraying her last nerve. "Mulder, if I had made it out of here last night, you would not be lacking for company today. You would be back in Washington with more people breathing down your neck than you knew what to do with."

"And that would be preferable to this?"

"Anything would be preferable to this."

Scully hadn't meant for those words to slip, harsh and unthinking, from her lips. But she was so exhausted, so frightened, and still so very angry with her partner. And besides, she didn't seem to be the only one spoiling for a fight.

Mulder certainly wasn't making any overtures at reconciliation.

Ever since they had gotten up that morning, she had been giving him openings, extending from time to time an ever so tentative olive branch. And what had he done? Repeatedly thrown her attempt at saving his life up in her face as if it were something for which she ought to be ashamed.

Screw that. Screw him, too.

Oblivious to her increasingly turbulent musings, Mulder dropped his arms once more so they landed with a thud upon the tabletop. "Sorry, Scully. Didn't realize my company was such a drag."

"I don't get you, Mulder," she said, closing down the laptop and setting it carefully beside the PC, her words quick and finely edged. "You apologize for giving me the silent treatment, but you don't say a word about chaining me up like an animal."

"I'm not sorry for what I did," he retorted flatly. "You would have left me if I hadn't. Ditched me without so much as a goodbye."

"Ditched you?" she echoed incredulously as she twisted in her seat. "You're mad at me for ditching you?

"My communication skills must be slipping," he said, sitting back in his chair and folding his arms tightly across his chest.

"I thought I'd made that fairly obvious."

"What is 'fairly obvious' to me and any other sane individual is that if anyone has a beef about being ditched, it's me!" she said, pushing away from the desktop and rising to face him fully.

"You?" Mulder questioned with disdain, leaning forward now, his elbows braced against the table. "You were the one heading out the door!"

"I'm not talking about last night, Mulder," she said swiftly, crossing to stand before him, her fingertips pressing lightly on the tabletop as if for balance. "I'm talking about the past five years. I'm talking about the countless times you've taken it into your head to go off on your own with absolutely no regard for me or our partnership!"

Brows lifted, he got to his feet, his lips twisted in a mocking imitation of a smile. "Oh for Christ's sake, Scully. Don't go dredging up ancient history."

Ancient history?

You son of a bitch.

"Mulder--"

"I wonder if Franklin has anything for dinner we wouldn't have to thaw."

Blind to her rage, Mulder calmly turned away from her and started towards the kitchen in search of food.

Dismissing Scully and her argument.

As he had done so many times before.

And something inside her snapped.

"Don't you walk away from me!"

Startled, Mulder peered over his shoulder. "What--?"

Only to see what must have appeared to him to be a small, red-headed locomotive roaring straight for him. Turning back, he met his very own private Midnight Special head-on.

"You heard me, Mulder" she muttered, low and fierce, as she skidded to a halt only inches from the object of her tirade.

"Don't you dare brush me off! Not about this!"

"I am not brushing you off--," he growled, his hands planted on his waist, his weight shifting restlessly from hip to hip.

"Of course, you are," she said, silencing him with a slash of her hand. "Just like you do every time I become inconvenient."

"Inconvenient?" He pulled away and shook his head. "You don't know what the hell you're talking about."

"Yes, I do!" she cried, grabbing hold of his arm to stop his retreat, her chin thrust skyward, her eyes glittering with a combination of outrage and unshed tears. "I know exactly what I'm talking about. Only, most of the time, you're too wrapped up in yourself to hear what I have to say."

"I'm wrapped up in myself?" he parroted, glaring down into her upturned face.

"Damn right you are," she said remorselessly. "Whenever you decide it's safer or maybe just simpler for you on your own, you go without hesitation--"

"That's different!"

"It's not!" she insisted. "You may be the senior agent here.

But I am sick and tired of you always being the one who calls the shots."

"I go with my gut, Scully," he said, towering over her, the force of his breath nearly parting her hair. "My instincts.

I do what I believe is right. I make my choice and then I act on it. Period."

"And who the hell are you, Mulder?" she demanded, a fine current of tension crackling through her from head to toe, their row stirring the resentment simmering inside her, heating it to the boiling point. "Don't you get it? When you snapped those cuffs on me you treated me like I was a thing. An object that belongs to you. You made my choice. Not just yours. What in God's name gives you the right to think you can decide that for me?"

"I love you!" he shouted into her face.

And without thought, her hand whipped from nowhere to connect with his cheek. Slapping it. Hard. Snapping Mulder's head viciously to the side with the force of the blow.

The sound of skin meeting skin reminded her of a single shot discharging from a gun. The kind of a bullet usually sent on its way by a sharpshooter. Or an assassin. The sharp crack nearly deafened her.

Aghast, Scully looked up at him, breathing hard, transfixed by the sight of a small palm print painting Mulder's pale countenance. The tremors that had rocked her earlier, the ripples of temper and pure energy, had somehow

transformed with her assault. She now shook visibly, her knees weakened, her equilibrium nearly gone.

Mulder gaped back at her, apparently as dismayed as she.

His eyes were wide with hurt, his lips moved as if he thought to speak but had somehow forgotten the skill.

Scully was having similar difficulties. Shaking her head from side to side, she managed to mumble out, "Mulder..." Yet, seemingly, that was the only word she knew.

It was enough.

He reached for her.

But, embarrassed and ashamed, she ducked her head and, stumbling in her haste, shuffled a step away in an effort to evade his grasp, her hands raised as if in defense. "No..."

Instantly, his hands fell away.

Lifting her chin, she peeked at him through the curtain of her hair. What she saw shriveled her heart.

He stared at her, his expression bleak, devastation now swimming in his gaze. "Do you think I would hurt you?"

Hurt her? She had been the one to hit him.

"No," she whispered bewilderedly, shaking her head once more for emphasis.

"I could never..." he mumbled haltingly, his voice matching hers in volume and in tone, his hands twitching at his sides, and yet he made no renewed attempt to touch her.

"My God...you can't believe...even with...Scully, I swear..."

"No. I know," she assured him quietly, crossing to place her hand on the center of his chest, needing that connection as desperately as Mulder apparently needed her forgiveness.

"I'm not afraid. Not of you."

He regarded her warily, appearing not entirely convinced.

Stretching up on tiptoe, she pressed her lips to his reddened cheek. "I'm sorry."

Releasing a long, ragged breath, Mulder finally moved. His hands came up to cradle her face in his palms. "I'm the one who should be sorry."

Bending his head, he kissed her. Softly, lip to lip. Scully sighed with relief.

"For dragging you out here to begin with."

Again their mouths caressed, slid against each other, over each other, their very oxygen shared.

"For being unable to protect you from that poor, stupid mutt."

His fingertips tangled roughly in her hair, clenching in the silky strands, anchoring her in place so he could better feast on her lips. Groaning against him, she opened her mouth and let him inside.

"For bullying you," he muttered between kisses, nipping and licking; his need, urgent and raw. "For treating you as if you didn't have a mind of your own."

She clung to him, her fingers curled around his biceps, her mouth angling beneath his, lips parted, slanting this way and that. "It's okay. It's all right. I forgive you."

Without warning, Mulder pulled her into his arms, nuzzling his way down the slope of her throat, his hands roaming across her back and shoulders. "I love you," he murmured from just below her ear, his embrace almost smothering. "I love you so much, Scully."

Scully felt hot. Feverish. Shaky. All the anger and frustration that had been mounting since the previous day had altered into something else. She was positively quivering with adrenaline, Mulder's almost palpable arousal fueling her own.

But she couldn't simply succumb to his reckless seduction, couldn't just close her eyes and pretend that the thrill she got when Mulder pressed his body flush to hers, confessing his desire, made everything better. That just because her legs nearly gave out when he cupped her buttocks in his palms and squeezed, she could trust he had learned from this.

She had to tell him. Outright.

"You can't love me like that, Mulder," she murmured, her own hands ranging over his chest, down to his belt, his fly. Fingers freeing buttons and buckles; lowering zippers in search of flesh.

"I don't want that. I won't let you love me that way."

He was gnawing at her neck, his hair tickling her chin, her ear.

"What do you want, Scully?" he asked, his voice muted against her skin, his hands as busy with her garments as hers were with his. "Tell me. Teach me. Teach me how to love you."

He shoved to the floor the flannel shirt she had earlier drawn on over her T-shirt. She yanked his borrowed Henley over his head.

They stumbled blindly as they rid each other of their clothes.

Backing up, she felt the back of her thigh hit the dining table, halting their drunken weaving. Clumsily stripping her of her jeans and panties, Mulder lifted her atop it. Clinging to him, Scully helped where she could, toeing off her boots and leaning forward to wrestle his pants down past his hips.

At last, clad only in her wrinkled T-shirt and socks, she looked up at him from where she lay balanced on her elbows, her legs caging his erect penis between her thighs. Mulder held her gaze, the palm print now erased by the flush on his cheeks. His hair was wild, tousled across his brow, and his eyes shone dark and cloudy with passion. He paused for just an instant, his hands braced on the table, bracketing her hips.

"Do you love me, Scully?" he softly asked, his face near hers.

She frowned with surprise. "Of course I do."

His tongue slipped out to moisten his swollen lips. "You've never told me so."

Never? she thought. How could that be?

"I haven't?" she whispered with regret.

He sadly shook his head.

Stretching out her hand, she drew her fingertips tenderly along his jaw line.

"Come here."

Obligingly, he stepped closer until the front of his legs met the edge of the table. She sat up. Then, keeping him secure before her, her heels locked around the backs of his knees, she reached down and gently but firmly closed her hand around his erection.

"Scully," he moaned, his eyes slipping shut, his fingers tightening atop the table, his knuckles white with strain.

Smiling at his reaction to her touch, she scooted forward and guided him inside her, her breath hitching as he slowly slid deep within. His eyes remaining shut, Mulder again slicked his lips, and bowed his head so that it rested upon her shoulder.

But, beyond that, he didn't caress her or make any attempt to move. He let her lead.

In this, at least.

Adjusting once more so that she was as open and near to him as possible, Scully curled herself around Mulder, one arm encircling his shoulder; the other, his waist. Her cheek found its way to his chest, where it rubbed soothingly, directly over his heart.

"I love you, Mulder" she told him. "In spite of everything we put each other through, I love you more than I could ever tell you in words."

He murmured her name, the sound aching and low, and folded her closer to him. She responded by tilting her pelvis, by nudging her body against his. He shivered helplessly in her embrace.

"You want me to teach you, Mulder?" she murmured, pressing a kiss to the base of his throat, lapping teasingly at the small indentation there. "You want me to tell you how I want to be loved?"

"Yes," he mumbled, his hips now pulsing slowly, rhythmically, at the juncture of her thighs.

"Come with me," she entreated in a husky voice as she reclined atop the rough, wooden tabletop, her back arching, her nipples tenting her T-shirt.

Mulder followed her, captured her hands and drew them over her head, their fingers laced, so that he loomed over, his weight supported by his forearms. "Like this?"

"Yes," she said, languidly lifting her head to brush her lips against his. "Exactly like that. Now move with me, Mulder.

Move with me nice and slow."

Again, he complied. Withdrawing until only the tip of him remained secreted inside her folds, he then slid delicately forward. Filling her carefully, inch by thick, heated inch.

Scully groaned her pleasure, undulating beneath him, her arms pinned, her legs still wrapped around his narrow hips, trapping him to her.

"I want you," she admitted, gazing up at him through her lashes with soft, slumberous eyes. "Badly...so badly."

"What about our agreement?" Mulder gritted out, picking up the pace every so slightly, sweat beading on his brow.

"What agreement?" she queried breathlessly, matching his pace, the bottom half of her body moving in effortless counterpoint to his. Rising and falling. The table swaying beneath her, shifting and creaking with their coupling.

"Our rule," he muttered, his gaze dark and delicious, his fingers tightening almost painfully around hers. "The platonic thing."

She chuckled, her lids fluttering shut as the pleasure began to churn inside her, curling up from her groin. "We've never been good at rules, you and I."

"No. That's true," he roughly agreed, dipping his head to rub the bridge of his nose against her swollen nipple. She mewled, high and long, twisting her torso as if that alone would satisfy her need. "Rules have always made me feel like...misbehaving."

She smiled, her eyes opening once more to gaze warmly up at his. "You being bad, Mulder?"

"I'm trying, Scully," he muttered, pumping into her, stroking steadily, his thighs banging dully against the wood. "God knows I'm trying."

And succeeding, she blithely mused. Succeeding beautifully.

Her arousal flowed freely now; melting her muscles, her will.

"You're doing fine," she murmured, her lips moving no more than absolutely necessary. "Just fine..."

"With you as a teacher, how could I go wrong?" he queried hoarsely, plunging into her, his tempo quickening still.

With that, he nipped at her nipples through the thin cotton, nibbled and licked and pulled at each tender bud with his mouth, drawing on her, suckling her through the fabric.

Crying out, she thrashed under him. "Yeah. Faster. Oh God...

please...faster."

Releasing her hands, Mulder obliged. Slipping his arms beneath her back and shoulder, he lifted her slightly, angling his body so that he glanced more directly against her clitoris as he drove in and out of her. Scully's reaction was electric.

She bucked against him, clutching at his neck and hair.

Her blood was buzzing in her veins, her head tingling and hot as if she were being roasted in the sun. Sweat trickled down the back of her neck, her throat was parched. On and on he slammed into her, his mouth caressing whatever part of her he came in contact with; her ear, her brow, her breast.

At last, he stiffened and crushed her to him, calling out her name. Almost as if answering his cry, her orgasm blossomed inside her, spreading from her vagina throughout her body, petals opening one after another, rippling like leaves in the wind, tickling her insides until she wanted to laugh with the sheer joy of it.

By contrast, Mulder's climax had to it a darker, more desperate edge. Burying his face in her hair, he rutted between her legs like a madman, pistoning wildly, his body spilling hot and wet inside hers. Finally, he gasped her name once more, the sound very like a sob, and collapsed in her arms, weary and utterly spent.

For a time, they rested there in each other's embrace, bodies heavy and limp. Softly, Scully combed her fingers through her lover's hair, lazily dropping soothing little kisses along his hairline.

"You okay?" Mulder whispered hoarsely, nuzzling the curve of her ear.

"Yeah," she whispered back contentedly. "I'm fine. I'm good."

And at that moment, she believed it. They both did.

Their sense of wellbeing stayed with them that night, when they later climbed clumsily off the table and hand in hand found their way to Franklin's bed. It clung to them when they made love again, tenderly, reverently, before together falling deep into a well-deserved sleep.

That night, nestled in each other's arms, they were once again secure in their love, their purpose, their partnership.

Until the morning came.

And Scully began to cough.


Chapter XVII

October 31
Vaughn W. Franklin's Cabin

"I shouldn't have sent you outside yesterday in your T-shirt. God damn it, what was I thinking?" Mulder was banging around the small kitchen, trying to boil water for tea, but his self-castigation seemed to extend to his actions; he bumped into stationary objects, banged his head on the cabinet door, tripped clumsily over the edge of the stove.

"Mulder," Scully entreated patiently from her place on Franklin's bed. She sat propped against the headboard, buried beneath layers of bedding--quilts, blankets, extra sheets--Mulder had piled them atop her, insisting his ministrations were for her own good, until she feared she was in greater danger of death by suffocation than she was from any sort of illness. Yet, it seemed his efforts had in no way soothed his soul. His tirade had been repeated at least seven or eight times already that morning, with only slight variations. And her normally graceful partner had suddenly developed the ability to hurt himself while navigating a one-room cabin. Mulder had refined guilt into an art form, she reflected wryly.

"Mulder, please stop. Just come sit down here with me. I don't need any more tea."

He didn't answer.

She understood his silence.

The cough she had woken up to had been nothing like the phlegmy, rumbling cough that accompanied a cold - not that she'd even get a cold just from being outside in a T-shirt, she reminded herself.

This one was dry and deep and eerie. It seemed to come from somewhere beneath her lungs.

And her eyes were itching terribly. She hadn't dared look at her reflection, fearing that she would see that the whites of her eyes were no longer white, but mottled with shocking red.

This was no cold.

She had avoided stating the obvious out loud, as if that would make the horrible fact of her illness go away, but watching Mulder nearly cripple himself getting her a fourth cup of tea, she couldn't remain silent any longer.

"Mulder, please come here."

"Hold on a minute, Scully. Water's almost hot enough. What the fuck was I thinking, not letting you put a parka on before you..."

"Mulder."

She put an ounce of the steel she reserved for interviewing recalcitrant witnesses into her voice, and it worked. He looked up at her.

"Mulder, the water will keep. Come sit with me for a minute."

He did as she asked, reluctantly settling on the edge of the bed.

"It's not a cold."

He stared stubbornly at his feet. "You don't know that. I made you go out there--"

"Mulder, enough," she said quietly yet firmly. "I can't let you beat yourself up over this cough anymore. I'm not sick because I went outside without my parka. You and I both know that.

I have the early symptoms of the virus."

"No." His voice wavered, and he couldn't look at her.

Silently, she tugged on his hands. "No," he repeated desperately, resisting. He pulled his hands out of hers and, leaning forward, his elbows balanced on his knees, his head cradled in his hands, he hid his expression from her.

But not his grief.

"I'm sorry," she whispered, her hand settling butterfly soft on his hair.

"Oh, Scully," he murmured brokenly. Then, turning back to her, he pulled her into his embrace, wrapping his arms around her so tightly she could hardly breathe.

"I'm sorry. I'm so sorry," he mumbled thickly into her hair, "Shh," she whispered soothingly, clinging to him just as fiercely, her arms aching with the strain. "It's all right."

But it wasn't. It never would be again.

They held each other until long after the water began to boil on the stove; until a thin metallic crackling announced that the bottom of the pot was starting to blister. Then Mulder got up and turned off the stove, moving like a man far older than his years. Watching him, Scully struggled mightily against the sudden urge to cough. But, in the end, she lost the battle and had to grab hold of the bed frame to brace herself. Damn, it hurt. Her body shook, her eyes watered. For one very scary instant, she feared she might choke on her own saliva.

Yet finally, she got herself under control, and sat shaking but silent on the bed.

From across the room, Mulder stared, terror stark in his eyes.

"You okay?"

Slicking her lips with her tongue, she nodded, afraid that if she spoke, she would begin hacking once more.

"Can you drink anything?" he asked, starting towards the kitchen.

Choosing to remain mute, Scully shook her head.

Mulder looked at her a trifle helplessly. "Why don't you lie down, then. Get some rest."

Rest. Yes. That, she could do.

Sniffling just a bit, she pressed the back of her hand to her mouth as if to hold back future coughs, and scooted a bit lower beneath the covers.

Mulder returned to her side to tuck her in. "It's okay, Scully," he said quietly, his fingertips threading through the hair fringing her face. "Just close your eyes. I'll be here."

His tender touch felt good against her fevered brow, cool and gentle. But rather than simply enjoy his caress, Scully felt her eyes burn with unwanted tears.

Oh, Mulder, she silently mourned. Who is going to be there for you?


She slept for a while; she wasn't certain how long. Then suddenly, in the late afternoon, she woke up feeling as though her stomach was collapsing in on itself. Clawing her way from beneath the bedclothes, she barely had time to make it out the front door of the cabin before her meager breakfast came up, spilling onto the pristine snow. Doubled over with cramps, she kept throwing up until long after her stomach should have been empty, her fear worsening her nausea. Close on her heels, Mulder followed her outside, offering her a rag and a plastic cup of water between bouts of vomiting.

She had believed the worst of it was over, had in fact stood and turned as if to reenter the cabin, when all at once, one final round of nausea swept over her. Stumbling away from her partner, she felt a great, tearing pain in her midsection. Blinded by tears, she fell to her knees, bitter bile pouring from her mouth once more. Dizzy in the aftermath, she panted for breath, and looking down before her saw that the mess in the snow was tarry black, flecked with bright bloody spots.

Black vomit - a classic symptom of this type of viral infection, she thought distantly, tears now rolling sluggishly down her pale cheeks. "I'm riddled with it," she said aloud, forgetting that Mulder was nearby until he moaned, low and rough, like a wounded animal.

"Oh, Jesus, I'm sorry," she said, staggering to her feet. She turned to look at him. He stood just outside the cabin door, clad in jeans and one of Franklin's borrowed flannel shirts, crying, just like her. Wiping her mouth shakily, she said again, "I'm so sorry."

Ignoring her apology, he helped her back into the cabin and settled her back into the bad. When she was comfortable, he moistened a rag and carefully used it to wipe out her mouth.

Exhausted, she smiled her thanks at him. He smoothed the hair off her forehead and said, "I want to take you to a hospital."

There were so many reasons why he shouldn't, couldn't do that, and he knew every one by heart. As did she. Trusting that he would understand, she shook her head.

"Yes, Scully. They might be able to help. I read some of the accounts of the known Marburg outbreaks - the patients that survived were kept hydrated and they have a much better shot at doing that in a hospital than I could..."

"Too tired to argue," she whispered, and he stopped, biting his lip. He brushed her hair back again, arranging it with finicky precision around her face, twisting each strand into place. She knew he was simply looking for an excuse to keep touching her, and her eyes filled with tears in spite of herself. At last, she again drifted off to sleep.

The next time she woke, it was dark outside. The nausea was gone, although she felt weak and lightheaded. Mulder was hunched over the computer; she heard the faint hum of the modem and wondered what he was doing.

He saw that she was awake and hurried to her bedside. "Hey,"

he said, tenderly cupping her cheek in his palm. "How are you doing?"

"Okay," she said softly, the word parched sounding, wrinkled and dry as old newsprint.

"Skinner sent a reply to your message. USAMRID and the CDC both want to send in specialists. I don't know what's going to happen at this point. I was just sending another message to Skinner, telling him about your condition."

Judging by his bleak expression, she guessed that relating her symptoms had probably hurt Mulder nearly as much as they were currently hurting her. Still, she couldn't give in. Wouldn't bow to the pain. Instead, she drew in a deep, ragged breath.

"What did--"

Mulder interrupted her by breaking into a dry, wrenching cough.

Her eyes widened as she watched him bend over, wincing.

When he looked at her again, there was no fear in his eyes, only a kind of resigned sadness.

"Mulder," she whispered, heartbroken, her eyes welling once more.

"Don't cry," he entreated, dragging his fingertip slowly, reverently along the curve of her cheek. "Please. It's okay.

We knew this would happen."

Biting her lips, she nodded, the motion slight. Yes, she had known that if she were sick, Mulder too would soon fall ill.

But, she hadn't considered the reality of it. What his death would look like, sound like. Unbidden, tears continued to trickle free from beneath her lashes.

"Scully..."

Slipping off his shoes, Mulder crawled beneath the covers and laid down next to her and embracing her again, gently this time.

"Let me hold you for a minute," he murmured into her hair.

"Just for a minute. Okay?"

"Okay," she agreed, her head tucked beneath his chin.

But a minute soon turned into quite a bit longer. Silence covered them like yet another blanket. Night's shadows lengthened. Wind rattled the cabin's small windows, driving them to shudder in their frames. It's Halloween, she all at once realized. All Hallow's Eve. The night when the wall between the spirit world and the actual world is at its most fragile.

Not much separating you and the kingdom of the dead tonight, whispered a dark and cruel voice inside her head. Is there, Dana?

Starting involuntarily, she shivered.

Pressing a kiss to her hair, Mulder tightened his embrace.

"There's so much we never got to do together, Scully."

She had thought he had fallen asleep. Never had she been so thankful to be proven wrong. "Like what?" she asked after clearing her throat.

He thought about it for a second, his fingertips stroking lightly across her shoulders. "We've never gone to the beach together."

"There was that case in Miami," she whispered.

He snorted. "Crime scenes don't count. I mean we never got to sit on a beach and kiss on a blanket."

"Sand in your shoes, sunburn. Beaches are overrated," she said, the words still not coming easily.

"I never got to whip your ass at Nintendo."

She smiled into his neck, knowing he was hoping for just such an outcome.

He felt the smile and continued, "I never got to cook dinner for you."

She murmured, "Just as well." He chuckled wryly, and she felt a little better until his laughter turned into another cough.

Dry. Deep. Just like hers.

And with that, they both stopped talking.

The list was too long, she reflected wearily. Too long by half.

Troubled, she fell into an uneasy half-sleep punctuated by dreams that were partly memory, partly whispers of a future that would never be; Mulder talking on the phone in their office, chewing the end of a pencil while he talked; the two of them sprawled across some nameless motel's bed, eating takeout food in rumpled suits; Mulder bathing a baby that played interestedly with its toes while he swiped a washcloth over the child's back.

The dream was better than the reality that greeted her when she wakened next. They had survived the night. Dawn's weak, rosy glow tinted the cabin floor. But Mulder was coughing again, sitting hunched before the computer terminal as if offering prayers before an altar. When he turned to look at her, she saw his eyes had turned a horrifying red, as though all the blood vessels in them had burst at once.

"Scully." He said her name. A wealth of meaning contained in its two whispered syllables.

She smiled, but did not speak.

He brought her a cup of water and hoarsely urged her to try to drink it. She sipped carefully, surprised at how easily it went down. She managed to drink half the cup before she handed it back to Mulder. He smiled at her, but he looked tired and sad.

"Could you eat something?"

She shook her head wordlessly, and he said, "I threw up earlier.

While you were asleep."

There was nothing to say to that. No comfort she could offer in words. So, rather, she held out her arms to him. And he came back to bed.

He got up once more, hours later, and staggered to the cabin door to vomit again. When he was finished, he was too weak to walk back to bed; instead, he ate a little snow and then crawled back inside to rejoin her in bed. The cabin door blew shut behind him, but the wood-burning stove had gone out midmorning, leaving the small dwelling dark and cold.


That was how the two men found them; a pair of unconscious figures, wrapped around each other in the narrow bed.

The younger man stiffened at the sight of them and immediately snapped, "See what you can do to get this place warmed up."

Without another word, he set the box of supplies that he had been carrying on the wooden table and pulled a pair of latex gloves out of a plastic bag.

The other, older man watched him put them on. He looked wary and slightly miffed, as if he wasn't used to taking orders.

But after a pause, he bent to the wood piled next to the cold stove and carefully picked up a large log.

While he re-started the fire, the young man went over to the still figures in the bed. He rolled them apart unceremoniously, then lifted each of their eyelids in turn, watching the pupils dilate.

Mulder stirred and moaned, but the man ignored him. Scully moved not at all. The younger man went back to the box of supplies and got out alcohol pads.

There was now a bright blaze kindled in the stove, and the older man watched the small flames lick up from the newspaper he had used, then on to the twigs and finally the smallest of the logs. He used a slim silver lighter on the cigarette dangling between his lips, and exhaled a long plume of smoke. "How are they?"

The other man was injecting something into Scully's upper arm. "Another couple of hours and we would have lost them."

"Will they make a full recovery?"

"With proper treatment, yes," he said, turning his attention to Mulder. "They're going to require hospitalization, of course."

"Of course," the smoking man murmured, and the young man shot him a wary look.

Having nothing now to do, the smoking man thoughtfully regarded the laptop sitting on the wooden table. He drew a small tool from his pocket and began removing the computer's plastic housing.

The doctor ignored him, busy with his patients. Both agents received multiple injections. Their rescuer ran fluids under their skin and checked their pulses. When he was done, he carefully re-covered both of them with the blankets.

Finished for the time being, the physician strode toward the stove, stripped off his gloves and threw them into the flames.

They gave off a foul-smelling smoke, but they burned. The smoking man watched him, holding several computer

components in one hand. The tabletop was now scattered with bits of plastic; if the doctor had looked toward the large desktop in the corner, he would have seen that it, too, had been disassembled.

"I'm done here," the younger man announced, missing the expression of dislike that briefly flickered across the smoking man's face. "You called for a medical evac team before we left Grand Junction, correct?"

"Help is on the way," the smoking man replied evenly, placing the bits of metal he held into his pocket. "I thought I heard an engine a moment ago."

"Let's see." The doctor stepped outside the cabin door, peering through the trees toward the road.

A single shot rang out and he fell face first into the snow, making a bloody angel.

The smoking man replaced the gun in his pocket. He did not look at the fallen man, but he went to the edge of the bed and stared down at the two sick agents for a long time.

Finally, he turned and scooped up the box of supplies. Letting his cigarette butt fall to the floor, he ground it carelessly under one heel. Stepping delicately over the body in the snow, he settled the box into the passenger seat of the HumVee that had brought him to the cabin.

The body received less careful treatment; grunting, the smoker struggled with the dead weight until he managed to heave it into the vehicle. His task complete, he stepped back into the cabin and gave the sleeping figures of Mulder and Scully a last look.

Then he added one more log to the fire and left.

The drive down the snowy, unplowed dirt road was rough, and the box and the body in the back shifted and rolled with every rut in the road. When he turned back onto the main highway, the smoking man found several other uniformed men waiting for him.

He got out and stared into the distance, toward the silent remains of Gateway, Colorado. The air was still and cold, but the sun shone brightly and the mountains looked postcard-perfect, capped with snow.

"Burn it," he said, handing over the keys to the HumVee he had driven down from the cabin.

A few minutes later, a covered truck rumbled toward Gateway, trailed by the HumVee. The men inside did not speak to one another; they looked straight ahead, down the road.

Exactly an hour later, an explosion shook the silence and a massive fireball rolled up into the clear western sky above the dead town. Despite the snow, it burned, all of it; houses, garages, furniture, the hastily erected medical tents, the bodies.

Everything burned.

And burned, and burned.


Two hours later, a Racal suited figure stumbled through the doorway of Vaughn Franklin's cabin. The man in the suit had obviously not expected the door to open as easily as it did; he stumbled, barely catching himself on the back of a chair.

The stove still burned merrily, and the cabin was warm. Several other men in field bio-containment suits came through the door, warily scanning the cabin's interior.

"There. In the bed."

One of the men made his way over to the bed and knelt down beside it, carefully avoiding the pointed edge of the nightstand.

He reached over and, grasping Scully's slender wrist, felt for a pulse.

"She's still alive." Heartened, he did the same to Mulder. "So is he. Let's get them out of here, people. Now."

They wheeled in gurneys and began the process of transporting the unconscious figures in the bed to safety.

"Sir? They're not going to be able to land the chopper here.

We're going to have to get them down to the highway, at least."

"Then do it." Skinner didn't even look over his shoulder.

Thoughtfully, he stared down at the lone bed. "Hang on, you two,"

he muttered. Turning to another man, he ordered, "Search this place. Agent Scully had a field journal - I want her notes, wherever they are. See if there are-" He broke off, staring at the bits of plastic on the table.

"Sir?"

"Someone's already been here," Skinner said. "Before us."

He went over to the table and picked up one of the pieces of plastic.

It had been part of the plastic housing of a laptop computer he could see where the modem would fit. But it was gone.

And so were the relevant parts of the computer.

Then he saw something else.

Squatting, Skinner picked up a cigarette butt and turned it over.

Morleys.

"Shit," he muttered. "That son of a bitch beat us here."


November 3

When Mulder woke up, he saw the telltale white walls and fluorescent lights and realized that he was in a hospital room.

Then he looked around again.

Scratch that, he thought hazily; it's a medical bio-containment facility. Kind of like the one they stuck us in after that case in Oregon with the glowing bugs.

His head was pounding and he felt like shit, but he was alive.

Scully.

In less than a second, he was clawing at the wires on his chest, shouting for someone, anyone, to help him get up. Dimly, he registered the fact that the monitor next to him was beeping wildly.

He sat up, drunkenly fighting the IV and assorted tubing attached to his person, when into his tilting field of vision "Scully," he said, out loud. She was in the next bed, tubed and wired just like he was. He managed to focus his eyes long enough to ascertain that, although unconscious, she was breathing, the rise and fall of her chest echoed by a steady beeping from her monitor.

A white-suited figure finally appeared, but by then he was calm, and lowering himself back to the bed.

"Mr. Mulder!" The figure in the bio-containment suit was scurrying toward his bed.

"We don't need no stinkin' badges," Mulder mumbled, and he was out like a light.


November 6

Bio-containment meant no separate hospital rooms; he'd learned that after their unfortunate encounter with the glowing bugs. No luxuries like separate rooms here; just army-style cots and lots of equipment to measure their heart rates, their breathing, their blood and their piss. It was also mind-bogglingly boring.

He was fully coherent a mere five days after their impromptu rescue from the cabin. Skinner had indeed called in the cavalry; the CDC had managed to win the jurisdictional brouhaha the discovery of the two sick agents had caused. Which meant that they were presently cooling their heels in Atlanta, in the finest accommodations that a Level 4 infectious agent could buy.

Scully's worst fear--that any rescuers would fall ill themselveshad not yet come to fruition. To date, the entire rescue team was healthy. She'd be relieved to hear that when she came out of it, Mulder thought, glancing at his too still partner.

Scully had been the sicker of the two of them, but the slew of officious specialists fighting for the credit for their recovery assured him that she would be fine in the long run. She had woken up once or twice as delirious as he had apparently been the first few times he had regained consciousness.

But she was going to be okay, and that was the only thing that really mattered.

In the meantime, they were stuck here for another three weeks of quarantine.

The airlock dinged, and Mulder looked up eagerly. Even an officious doctor was better than having no one to talk to at all.

But the figure blundering toward him, clumsy in the biocontainment suit, was more familiar.

"Sir?"

Skinner peered out at him through the bubble on the front of his helmet, and grunted.

"Nice to see you, sir."

"I wish I could say the same, Agent Mulder. If you had any idea how uncomfortable this damn suit is, you'd understand."

"I do, sir." He was perfectly sincere, remembering their trip to Gateway inside the claustrophobic suits, but the A.D. seemed more irritated by his response.

"I came to tell you what we found in the cabin."

"Did you recover the laptop?"

"No."

"What?" Mulder stared at his boss.

"The laptop, as well as Vaughn's computer, had been sabotaged. None of Criddon's field notes, nor Agent Scully's, were found."

"That's not possible. That would mean that someone--"

"Had been there before we arrived, yes. That's not in question.

Did Scully inject either one of you with anything in the days before we found you."

"No. We didn't bring any medical equipment with us when we left Gateway. Only the computer. Why?"

"Because I had you both examined for trace evidence. We found puncture marks on both of you that had to have been made by needles. Whoever was there gave you both some kind of injectionseveral injections, judging by the number of marks."

Mulder shook his head in wonder. "I don't-"

"There's more."

Mulder looked at him expectantly.

"I think I know who was there."

"How?"

"I found a Morley on the floor."

With that revelation, Mulder felt as if he had been struck dumb.

Skinner seemed to be faring no better. The two men stared at each other, seemingly not knowing what to say. Then, Scully sighed in her sleep and their mute communion was broken.

Their eyes found their way to her.

"What was he doing?" Mulder asked after a time, his gaze lingering on his partner.

Skinner shook his head. "I wish I knew."

Mulder tried to clear his head. "Have you sent a team to Gateway yet? Scully was more worried about that than anything else--we think she got infected when her suit was breached, but the epidemiologists who were there before us--"

Skinner's lips drew into a thin line. "Shortly before we got to the cabin, there was a massive explosion in Gateway. It seems that a truck carrying flammable materials ran off the road and overturned. The entire town burned to the ground. The exact nature of the chemicals spilled has still not been determined, so the site is still off-limits."

"Shit," Mulder said, bitterly. "They burned the evidence."

Skinner didn't reply.

"What about the driver of the truck, sir? Did he die in the explosion?"

"A body has been recovered that is presumed to be that of the driver. However, a search of dental records came up empty.

He's a John Doe."

This time it was Mulder who was left without anything to say.

At length, Skinner turned to leave. "I suggest you focus on getting well, Agent Mulder. There are more than a few epidemiologists out there who are quite literally out for your blood."

"Sir?"

Skinner turned toward him again.

"If he was smoking--Cancerman--when he was in the

cabin, he must not have been wearing one of these suits.

Or even a gas mask."

"I thought of that, too," his boss said, tersely.

"Which means he wasn't afraid of getting sick."

Through the long silence that followed, Mulder trailed that thought to its logical conclusions.

One possibility was that they were no longer contagious when Cancerman arrived. And that somehow he'd known that fact ahead of time.

Not too likely, considering how ill they'd both been, Mulder decided.

The other possibility was that the smoking man knew that he couldn't catch the virus from them.

Which meant that he'd either had it himself and recovered, providing him with the necessary antibodies, or...

...He'd received some kind of vaccine.

"Shit," Mulder whispered. "The bastard was in on it all along."

Skinner nodded inside the helmet. "That's not the part that surprised me, Mulder. What I want to know is why did he go to the damn cabin in the first place? And what did he inject you with?"

Mulder answered, tonelessly, "An antidote. That's the only thing it could have been. Otherwise, we'd be dead."

"That's not what these brilliant doctors of yours had to say about it, but I'm inclined to think you're right." Skinner sighed.

"Which raises a few other questions."

"Mulder?"

Scully was blinking her eyes and batting ineffectually at the wires monitoring her condition. "Mulder?"

"Hey, Scully." He murmured warmly and reached across the space between the two beds, just managing to graze her arm with his index finger, nearly toppling out of bed himself in the process. "I'm right here."

She shut her eyes again and calmed down. "That's good,"

she mumbled. "That's nice, Mulder."

He grinned at his partner, then turned to Skinner's steely stare. Suddenly, Mulder wondered what his boss had thought, finding them together in the cabin's one bed.

Skinner looked at him long enough for Mulder's palms to begin to sweat; finally he turned around and began making his way toward the airlock. "Get some rest, Agent Mulder."

"Yes, sir," Mulder said, and settled back on his pillows to do just that.


Chapter XVIII

November 20
Atlanta, GA

"What's an eleven letter word for 'in plain sight'?"

"Twenty-three across? 'Conspicuous'."

"Ooh. Score one for the redhead."

"It wasn't all that tough, Mulder. We had 'o-n-s' and twentythree down is obviously 'cranberries'."

"I thought they were a rock band."

"They are. But they're also a 'red, acidic fruit of the heath family'."

Mulder turned from where he lay prostrate upon one of the room's two high, narrow beds, a neatly folded rectangle of newsprint even with his chest. Garbed in navy blue sweats and a wrinkled gray T-shirt, he looked over his shoulder at his partner, who sat beside him cross-legged against the pillows. Dressed in powder blue scrubs, her glasses perched atop her lightly freckled nose, a pencil tapping thoughtfully against her cheek, Scully ignored his scrutiny, choosing instead to study the black and white brainteaser. He had to smile. With her lop-sided ponytail, and make-up free face, she looked more like a high-schooler attempting to plow her way through calculus than a government agent trying to conquer the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle.

Had he told her recently that he loved her?

Not since they had ended up here.

"You know how you turn me on when you talk botany," he murmured instead.

"Mulder, you're easier to turn on than a lamp with a wall switch," she retorted without looking up.

Ouch.

Then she softened the blow by peering over her glasses, mischief glinting in her eyes, and lifting the corners of her mouth. It wasn't her best smile. Yet it was still enough to turn his insides to pudding.

Maybe he was easy after all.

"Which is probably a good thing," she continued unawares as she tucked a wayward fall of hair behind her ear, her tiny smile lingering still. "Because given our current situation, it would be highly unlikely you would consider me much of a femme fatale."

Our current situation. Mulder chuckled to himself and looked around their antiseptic prison. In truth, it wasn't really all that bad. Kind of spare, of course. Not much in the way of luxury.

White painted walls, tiled floor. One door, topped with a window, leading to the outside; another, sans window, opening onto a small bathroom. A lone metal bar which served as their closet.

It wasn't as if they needed something more. Since their convalescence had begun, they had routinely dressed themselves in sweats and T's and scrubs. Not the most glamorous wardrobe imaginable, but it was comfortable.

A few of their personal belongings had been retrieved from their Colorado motel rooms and forwarded to Atlanta.

Scully's glasses and hairdryer. His glasses and shaving kit.

The furnishings were functional. Once they had been officially declared out of the woods, much of the bulky, high-tech medical equipment had been removed. Now, in its stead was a small table and chairs. A television. Two beds, divided by a curtain that was only ever pulled when one of them changed clothes.

And even that was merely to keep up appearances.

Mulder sighed. Wouldn't do to let their jailers know that all the details of his partner's naked form had been memorized by him weeks before, the images burned into his brain like cinders charring tissue paper.

"Are you saying you're trying to seduce me?" he asked, wondering if he sounded as pathetically hopeful as he felt.

"I don't know," she said with a little lift of her brows and purse of her lips. "Do you suppose it would work?"

He shrugged a bit offhandedly. "That depends."

"On what?"

"On whether you manage to work words like 'pistil' and 'stamen' into the conversation."

Chuckling soundlessly at his quip, she stretched forward to record their latest word, drawing her face right alongside his.

He watched her neatly fill in the squares, her gaze averted from his. Cocking his head, he considered her. Something wasn't right. Hadn't been all morning. While she was saying all the proper things, Scully seemed gripped by a gentle yet inescapable melancholy. He didn't know what had brought it on, but he wasn't planning on letting it go by uncommented upon.

After all they had gone through, this was no time to fall back on bad habits.

"Something on your mind, Scully?"

She focused even more intently on the puzzle. "Why do you say that?"

He shrugged again. "I don't know. You seem...distracted."

She stole a sideways glance at him. "Maybe I'm simply concentrating."

"Maybe you're avoiding the question," he countered pointedly.

She sighed. "Maybe."

Aha! Gotcha.

He rolled over to face her more fully, his arms folding behind his neck to pillow his head. "Don't do that. Okay? Don't pretend with me."

She looked at him, seemingly weighing whether to give in to his directive.

"Please," he entreated softly.

Her lips twisted. Then, she slipped off her glasses and rubbed the back of her hand over her lowered lids. "It's stupid, Mulder.

Nothing to get yourself upset about."

"Why don't you let me be the judge of that?"

Tossing her wire rims onto the bedside table, she met his gaze.

"Fine. Suit yourself."

He waited.

"I want to go home."

He frowned, not certain he had heard her correctly. "You what?"

"Home. I want to go home."

Her words struck him unexpectedly hard, their impact bruising, almost as if they had been spoken specifically to wound him.

"Are you saying you've had enough of me?" he queried hesitantly.

"You?" she echoed in surprise. "No. This room, this casethat's another story."

Mulder pushed himself into a sitting position, his long legs sprawled out before him. "We're only talking about another week or two."

"Thanksgiving is less than a week away."

Oh yeah. Thanksgiving. The official start of the holiday season. The meal where cranberries were oftentimes on the menu.

The fruit, not the band.

Real life.

The sort of thing normal people look forward to.

"And I'm going to miss it," Scully said quietly, her eyes latching on to the pencil in her hands rather than on him.

"Miss being with my family."

He didn't know what to say to that. While their time together in quarantine had been tedious at times, he hadn't really felt the need to complain. After all, despite all the pain and fear they had suffered, for nearly a month now he'd had Scully all to himself. A captive audience, as it were. He used to daydream about such an eventuality before...before Gateway.

Christ. He wondered sometimes if he was capable of being any more selfish. At moments like this, such a possibility seemed decidedly doubtful.

"I know I should be grateful," Scully continued. "That I should be happy we're around to see the holidays at all. But considering that for the past month the only communication I've had with my mother has been a handful of letters, I can't say I wouldn't like something more."

He reached out and took her hand, squeezing it carefully in his grasp. "Sorry, Scully."

She shrugged, but still didn't look at him. "It's okay. It's not your fault."

Oh, but it was. Every last bit of it.

She looked at him then, her expression sad and resigned.

"And what's worst is that ultimately all of this was for nothing."

Her observation came to Mulder as something of a surprise.

Except for a few rudimentary facts--the reason they were alive, the fate of poor Gateway--they hadn't really talked about all they had been through during the course of their assignment.

At first, simply because Scully hadn't been up for lengthy discourse. As she had begun incubating the virus earlier than had he, the disease had been able to progress further into her system. Consequently, it had taken longer for her to recover, the damage done to her immune system in the wake of her abduction, not helping matters. Then afterwards, once weeks had passed and they had both clawed their way back to health, the events in Colorado had seemed so removed from their safe, sterile environment that the urge to talk about what they had suffered had just never arisen.

Until now.

Besides, what was there to say? Scully was right. The bad guys had won.

And yet, even as he acknowledged the validity of her words, Mulder shook his head, hating to even consider that all this woman had been through had been meaningless. "It wasn't for nothing," he argued. "Whomever was responsible didn't get away without us realizing what they'd done. We may not have caught them this time, but next time we'll be ready for them. The information the doctors here were able to extract from their tests on us, from the antibodies in our blood, should go a long way towards them developing a vaccine of their own."

"That may be true, but it doesn't change the fact that this time they did get away," she said softly, her eyes a troubled, turbulent blue. "Every last one of them."

Gnawing on the corner of his mouth, Mulder slowly nodded in agreement.

"And for the life of me, Mulder. I still can't figure out why anyone would want to do such a thing."

He hesitated, choosing his words carefully, wanting to comfort his partner yet knowing this was more about Scully blowing off steam than it was about her mourning for the dead. "Well, ...we had talked about the likelihood of Gateway being a testing ground of sorts--"

"Yes, you and I had agreed that those people were undoubtedly killed by someone trying to develop a biological weapon," she said, her words clipped, her tone brusque. "But that's not what I mean."

He lifted his brows in confusion. "Sorry, Scully. I'm having trouble following you here."

"Mulder, haven't you wondered why you're alive?"

He attempted to inject a little humor into the situation. "I don't suppose I could fend you off by quoting Descartes?"

Lips thinned, she set the pencil beside her glasses, pushed herself from the bed and crossed away, her back to him.

Mulder was after her in an instant, and came to stand behind her, his hands on her shoulders. "Scully..."

She bowed her head, her arms at her side, and sighed. "It's just that...you and I are standing here, healthy, while dozens of innocent people were murdered."

He ran his palms lightly along her arms, rested his chin against the silky crown of her head.

"The Cigarette Smoking Man had us right where he wanted us,"

she continued quietly, her arms now wrapped tightly across her middle. "By all rights, we should be dead. But instead, he chose to save us."

Scully turned then and looked up at him, questions swirling like storm clouds in her eyes. "And for some reason, his sparing our lives almost bothers me more than the fact that he tried to take them in the first place."

Saying nothing at first, Mulder pulled her to him, enfolding her in his arms. His hands smoothing over the gentle slopes of her back, he pressed a kiss to her hair, surreptitiously enjoying the way it felt, cool and soft, beneath his lips.

"I don't know if this helps any, Scully, but I'm not convinced our Morley-puffing friend was acting altruistically."

"Why do you say that?" she queried, her voice muffled by his shirt.

His mouth hovered inches from her ear, so he didn't feel the need to project. Rather, he spoke in a hushed, intimate tone; comical given the conversation's subject matter.

Only he would murmur sweet nothings to his lady love revolving around conspiracy, murder, and mayhem.

"They were watching us, Scully. I'm positive of it," he said, his fingertips trailing soothingly through the hair at her temples. "They were there all along. We just didn't see them."

"So? What has got to do with why we were spared while Gateway was not?"

"They knew where we were. They could have stopped us, or killed us, like those goons tried to when we first got there.

But they didn't choose to do anything until after we both fell ill."

At that, Scully drew away from his chest to look him in the eye.

Mulder could literally see her forming the same conclusion he had come to not so very long ago, slotting the pieces one by one until the whole took shape.

"We were their guinea pigs," she stated flatly.

He nodded. "Their new test subjects."

Scully shook her head. "But that would suggest they had had the antidote all along. You can't just whip up a batch of that stuff overnight. Why didn't they try and cure the people in Gateway? They didn't even attempt to save their own scientists."

"You were the one who said the virus had probably mutated,"

Mulder reminded her. "Was behaving in ways that surprised Criddon and his men. Maybe ol' Black Lung did try the vaccine on Gateway. But maybe the dosage was wrong or the formula was too weak. Whatever the hell that thing was, it got out of hand. They didn't know how to stop it once it got started."

Scully strode away from him, her brow furrowed in thought.

"That would explain why they pulled out the way they did, leaving Gateway more or less unguarded."

Mulder nodded again. "No point in staying. Not just then.

They needed to regroup. Head back to the lab to figure out what went wrong."

She turned back to face him. "But once they had made the adjustments to the antidote, they couldn't very well stage another experiment with the size and scope of Gateway. It would require too much planning and draw too much attention to them. They could vaccinate themselves, take steps to insure that healthy people wouldn't come down with the disease. But they had no one who had already contracted it to test the drug's effectiveness on. All of those who were sick had died."

He eyed her grimly. "Except us."

She stared at him. "God."

He dipped his head in acknowledgement. "It makes a kind of sick sense. The way I figure it, the Smoker oversaw the development of this virus. After having success in the lab, they needed to test it in the field, figure out the best way to introduce it to a population."

He began to pace, slowly, with measured steps, engrossed in his tale.

"Rather than chance an international incident, they chose to target a domestic testing ground. Someplace small and remote."

Scully slicked her lips with her tongue. "Gateway."

"Gateway," he confirmed. "The idea was to see how well the rats performed as a vehicle to spread the disease. They let the little guys go and stood back with their antidote, ready to step in and cure the very community they had infected."

"While at the same time, they measured how quickly the disease made its way through the sample grouping and which of its members succumbed first," she mumbled, her mind clicking along in tandem with his.

"Valuable information," Mulder agreed, pausing just a moment as he strode across the black and white checkerboard floor to shoot her a glance. "Not the sort of thing you can easily acquire in a lab."

She lifted her brows in wordless accord.

"The only thing was, when they went into administer the vaccine, it didn't work."

"How can you be sure, though?" she asked, taking a step towards him, her features wrinkled with confusion and doubt. "Criddon never mentioned anything like that in his notes."

"I can't be certain," he admitted almost sheepishly. "I'd bet any documentation that once existed has either been destroyed or stored someplace you and I will never find it."

Scully nodded wearily, as tired as he was of evidence literally disappearing from under their noses.

"But, I have to agree with you, Scully," he continued, stepping even closer to his partner. "The bad guys couldn't have come up with the antidote to that thing overnight. They must have begun their research before the outbreak in Gateway."

She just looked at him, a fine, narrow crease dividing her brows.

"Besides, it would be smarter for them to cure their test subjects. Do it that way, and a tiny, isolated community suffers a really nasty outbreak of the flu."

"Do it any other, and you have a devastating chemical fire and lots of unwanted attention," Scully murmured, finishing his train of thought.

"Exactly."

She reluctantly nodded.

"I don't think Criddon and his team were probably even in on what was going on," Mulder said with a shrug. "Why let out that information unnecessarily? They were probably told that some sort of biological emergency existed, but were kept in the dark as to the details."

"If that's true, then those men and the troops we found dead were sacrificial lambs," Scully said hoarsely. "They were sent in unprepared and, in the end, unsupported. They had no way of knowing how serious it all was until it was too late."

Contemplating this, she turned away from him, her head bowed in thought, and headed towards the bed. Seemingly without conscious thought, she pivoted slightly and perched on the bunk, her hands in her lap, her shoulders bowed.

"You know what I think makes me maddest of all?" she asked softly, her eyes trained on the linoleum.

"What?" he inquired from a half a dozen steps away.

"Against our wills, you and I helped them achieve their goal.

Our recovery proved to them that their antidote worked. Their experiment was successful."

"'Against our wills' is the operative phrase here, Scully," he reminded her dryly.

"It doesn't matter," she retorted, her gaze now lifted. "It doesn't matter that they took this from us. That they stole it just like they stole all those people's lives. Even though it was technically without our knowledge, their actions still make us their accomplices."

They were both silent a moment, looking at each other, neither touching. "You may be right," Mulder confessed with after a time, his hands on his hips. "I suppose unwittingly you and I helped the cause. But I gotta tell you, Scully--I sure as hell prefer that to the alternative."

Sighing, she tugged her hair free from its restraint and ruffled the short auburn strands with her fingertips. "I know. I'm no martyr; I don't mean to imply that I wished they had simply let us die."

Playing with the ponytail tie, she hid her gaze from his, her voice hushed. "I'm just so tired of being treated like a thing.

Of my body betraying me. Of being used for God only knows what and then discarded when I'm no longer necessary."

He crossed to her and sank down beside her on the bed.

Stilling the fidgety motion of her hands, he leaned in close and pressed a gentle kiss to her cheek. "I'm sorry, Scully."

Her eyes slid sideways, stealing a peek at him through her hair. "There's nothing to be sorry for, Mulder. You aren't the one responsible for this."

"Correct me if I'm wrong," he murmured wryly, his fingers wrapped tightly around hers, "but it seems to me that our trip to Gateway was entirely my idea."

"It was a legitimate case," she argued with surprising fervor.

"I might have had my doubts in the beginning. But everything we discovered proves you were right. There was definitely a crime committed, a reason for us to have been there."

"When my being right means I have to watch you vomit up your insides for hours on end, I'd just as soon be wrong," he retorted gruffly, no small degree of horror woven through his words.

Scully just looked at him for a second or two, an unexpected twinkle of amusement in her eyes before she pulled her hand out from under his and laid her palm against his cheek. "That may be one of the sweetest things you've ever said to me."

Mulder chuckled a bit shakily. "It's that romantic streak in me. It pops up at the oddest times."

She smiled.

"We should probably talk...about romance," she then suggested softly, her hand still resting warmly on his face.

His nerve endings beginning to hum with anxiety, Mulder slowly nodded. "All right. What would you like me to say?"

Scully's hand dropped away from him, her gaze lowering as well. "I don't think it's up to me to give you the words, Mulder.

You have to decide what you want to say, how you want to answer certain questions."

He licked his lips; they had all of a sudden gone dry, as had the inside of his mouth. Unfortunately, all that missing moisture had apparently relocated to his palms. He removed them from her lap. "Why don't you ask me then?"

She bobbed her head. "Okay. I'll start."

She shifted on the bed to better face him. "Where do you see this going after we get out of here?"

"'This' meaning you and I?"

"Yes."

Grimacing, he rubbed his hand along his chin, enjoying the feel of his whiskers scrubbing his fingertips. This was hard for him. Talking about how he felt was always so much more difficult than simply acting upon those feelings. "I want it to continue."

"Continue *how* exactly?"

Christ, Scully. Cut me some slack, will ya?

"I like what happened at the cabin," he said, the statement unadorned and true, his focus entirely on her.

She nodded once more, but didn't say anything.

Her reticence made him apprehensive. "The bath thing," he amended with a quirk of his lips. "And the table thing. The bed thing, too, of course. Not the rest of it."

Her lips turned up as well, though her eyes gave away nothing. "I figured as much."

Silence again. Jesus. The room was so quiet Mulder could actually distinguish between the hum of the overhead fluorescents and the whoosh of air being pumped in through the vents.

Say something, he longed to shout.

"It will be different when we get back," Scully said, answering his plea at last. "It won't just be you and me alone in the woods.

In many ways we'll be back to 'the norm'. Back to a world where the two of us are used to behaving in ways other than how we've been for the past month or so."

She was approaching the damned thing so clinically that he could feel the faint beginnings of anger churning in his gut.

"Do you think I can't tell the difference, Scully? Do you honestly believe we've been so conditioned by the Bureau that the minute you and I step inside the Hoover Building, I'm going to forget all about that's happened between us?"

"No," she said swiftly. "I'm not saying that. All I'm saying is that in a very strange way our lives were simpler at Franklin's cabin."

He practically snorted with derision. "Yeah. We played a game of Keep-Away with the bad guys using our lives as the ball."

"Exactly," she retorted. "It was you and me against the world.

No one to answer to, no appearances to maintain."

"Oh, come on, Scully," he said, getting to his feet to pace once more before her. "You've got to know that I am the last person to be worried about appearances."

"Oh really?" she queried, clearly not impressed by his restless show of energy. "Then how do you explain what's happened since we've been cooped up in here?"

"What do you mean 'what's happened'?" he asked, whirling on her with a scowl of confusion. "You and I woke up cured of the virus. We've spent time getting our strength back. End of story."

She smiled sadly. "Mulder, you haven't touched me since I regained consciousness."

"Touched you?" he echoed, totally befuddled.

She shook her head. "Don't get me wrong--you've been attentive, kind...you've teased me, bantered a bit."

He shrugged, hands outspread, as if to say, 'And?'.

"In other words, without us even discussing it, you've reverted back to the way things were."

"The way things were?" he questioned, wondering just when he had somehow transformed into parrot.

"Yes," she succinctly said, her expression a cipher for all the information it was imparting. "The way things were before we slept together."

He took a step towards her. "You're saying that you think my behavior indicates I'm no longer interested in you?"

She shrugged. "I'm not convinced it's a conscious decision on your part. I don't think you mean to distance yourself or treat me any differently. I'm sure you intended it as a kind of respect. You probably didn't want to take it upon yourself to disclose to the people here what had happened between us."

Okay. That, at least, was in the ballpark. He nodded his agreement.

"And that's great, Mulder," she said in a tone which suggested she didn't actually find his behavior particularly laudable. "It's nice and thoughtful...and utterly unlike you."

"I can be nice!" he shouted in frustration, the very harshness of his tone undercutting his avowal, his arms flailing.

"Mulder, I'm not saying you can't be," she quickly said, her hand stretched towards him beseechingly. "I'm just saying you're the one who tells me he couldn't care less what people think."

He nodded.

"So your ability to so easily return to the status quo worries me."

"Why?" he demanded, looming over her.

She gazed up at him, her cheeks flushed, her blue eyes enormous. When she spoke, her voice came out smoky and rough-edged, ragged as if she found it difficult to actually say the words. "Because I love you. And I want what we started at that cabin to grow."

Swallowing hard against a swell of emotion, Mulder nodded and, standing over her, cradled the side of her face in his palm.

"But I won't take a backseat to the X-Files. Not even for you."

He pulled back just a touch. "What? What are you talking about?"

She smiled thinly, her expression slightly chagrined. "Mulder, in all the time I've known you, you've made it perfectly clear where your priorities lie."

He just looked at her.

"With the X-Files," she said, filling in the blank. "You told me that right from the start. When we were on our first case together in Bellefleur."

"Scully--" His hand slid from her cheek to her shoulder, landing there heavily.

"I respect that," she said, cutting him off. "And as your partner, I've set out to prove to you I could match your commitment, that I was as dedicated to our work as you yourself."

She looked away at last. "It's a double-edged sword, you know?

Our work is what brought us together. But it's also what stands between us."

"That's not true," he whispered, a nettlesome vine of fear taking root in the pit of his stomach, crawling up from there to twine and scratch at his insides.

"I think it might be," she said with regret. "I can't see you letting go of the files, Mulder. Even if we do somehow manage to convince Skinner to keep us together as a team, your work will always be the focus of your life."

"*A* focus, yes," he said tightly. "But not the *only* focus."

"It's difficult for a person to drastically change their behavior,"

she said softly, seemingly not at all convinced. "Ask any smoker or dieter. You've lived your life the way you have for a long time, both with me in it and not. You're used to taking off when you want to, to acting alone, to telling me only what you think I need to know."

He kept shaking his head, waiting for an opening so he could refute her charges.

But Scully kept talking.

"And although it's never made me happy, I can cope with that sort of behavior from a work partner," she said, with a pensive smile. "But not from a man I'm involved with romantically."

She turned atop the bed and deposited her ponytail elastic with the rest of her personal paraphernalia, the action hiding her expression from him. "I need to be as important to you as you are to me. I can't live with you turning on and off the way you do sometimes."

"I turn on and off?" Mulder queried, chewing on the inside of his cheek, his hands once more on his hips.

Looking up at him, she nodded almost apologetically.

"Like a lamp with a wall switch?"

She winced. "Sorry about that."

Shaking his head, he sighed and ran his hand through his hair. "That's okay. The truth hurts."

"It can," she glumly agreed.

Neither moved for a time. Scully remained seated on the bed; Mulder stood arm's length away. Each was mute.

Finally, scuffing his toe on the linoleum, Mulder spoke. "But it's also supposed to set you free."

Scully looked at him curiously. "The truth?"

He nodded. "Yeah. It ranks right up there platitude-wise with 'Knowledge is Power' and 'It's Always Darkest Just Before the Dawn'."

She smiled wanly.

"What do you say we aim for freedom rather than for pain?"

he asked softly, taking a step towards her.

She looked up at him, her gaze searching. "What do you mean?"

"I mean you may be right, Scully," he said, his words rumbling low. "I may stink at this relationship thing. I may screw up my priorities and fall back into all my bad habits."

She nodded, her tongue creeping out to moisten her lips.

"But you have to let me try," he whispered, his voice cracking just a touch. "You have to trust that I will do everything in my power to make it...us . . right."

She blinked, but said nothing.

"Because I will try. I promise you that. Don't believe we're going to fail just because logic says we should," he entreated, his fingers stealing forth to skim along her hair.

"I don't want to believe," she murmured roughly, her eyes shimmering, her mouth curved with the smallest suggestion of a smile.

Surprised by her turn of phrase, Mulder chuckled fondly and, standing before her, cradled her face in his palms. "Oh, Scully ...you always know just what to say."

Now smiling outright, she tilted her face up to his. Bending over her seated form, Mulder met her more than halfway, and settled his lips over hers for a long, leisurely kiss.

"So you think we can do this, huh?" she queried after their mouths had parted.

"Sure," he said blithely, pressing a string of kisses to her hairline. "After flukes and voodoo and killer viruses, real life should be a breeze."

"Maybe. But I have a feeling it'll take some getting used to," she warned, her hands running lightly along his sides and up and down his back.

Enjoying her caress, Mulder stood silently for a moment. Then, all at once, he pulled his partner up to stand beside him. "You know--I think you're right, Scully."

"What are you talking about?" she asked, clearly befuddled.

But Mulder only smiled, and backing away from the bed, tugged her along after him.

"Our new life," he said, walking slowly but steadily towards one of the room's two doors. "Refusing to fall back into established patterns of behavior. Being willing to make time for each other. To be together even though conditions are less than ideal."

He paused outside their bathroom door. "This room isn't much for privacy, not with doctors traipsing in and out all the time unannounced."

"Mulder..." Scully drawled, a reluctant smile pulling on her lips.

"Put up or shut up, Scully," he said pleasantly, his eyes dancing with merriment. "You were the one complaining I hadn't touched you."

She looked at him, amused in spite of herself.

He leaned in close, his breath fluttering her hair. "But I'd like to.

I'd like very much to touch you...if you'd let me."

She drew back slightly to gaze up at him. "In here?"

"Think of it as a kind of 'Mile High' club thing," he suggested with a playful lift of his shoulders. "Only a lot closer to the ground. C'mon, how many couples can say they've done it in Level 4 quarantine?"

Chuckling, she said with a shake of her head, "You're crazy."

"You love me," he countered, sure now, despite their long and troubling discussion.

"I do," she confirmed with a gentle smile.

He grinned back at her, happier than he'd been in a long time.

"Then why don't you let me prove to you the feeling is mutual?"

She considered for half a heartbeat before slipping past him into the other room. "All right. There's just one thing, Mulder."

"What?" he asked a trifle warily.

"Be careful," she warned, her fingertips tracing the sink's rim.

"You know how ...*slippery* things can get. There are lot of hard surfaces in here."

"And more than a few soft ones," he murmured, stepping behind her to meet her gaze in the mirror, his hand sliding possessively along her curves.

She leaned into him, pressing her bottom to the meeting of his thighs. Mulder could only groan. She chuckled at the sound.

"Does that door have a lock?"

Hardening more by the moment, he closed his fingers round her arms, and slowly ran his mouth down the nape of her neck, nuzzling gently beneath her hair. "I think so."

"Use it," she directed, her eyes fluttering shut, her hands clenching on the porcelain.

"Yes, ma'am."

Smiling, Mulder did as he was bid.

Once secure, he turned and resumed his place behind her.

The woman reflected back at him in the vanity mirror was flushed and already breathing shallow and quick. He took advantage of her still-closed eyes to simply drink her in, to bask in her beauty.

God. How had he managed to keep his hands off of her--not only for the last few weeks of their quarantine, but for the years that their partnership had kept her at his side?

Scully made a small, impatient sound, and in response, he slipped both hands beneath her top and arched forward, coming to rest with his groin pressed firmly into her backside, his hands cupping her breasts. Lifting. Squeezing. Her next little noise was lower, more satisfied. He smiled, and closing his eyes, wished with all his might that he could hear that sound every day for the rest of his life.

While wondering at the same time just how long he could truly hold the rest of the world at bay.

THE END! :-)


Author's note: Anyone else endowed with a strange fetish about epidemic disease? If so, I suggest you visit www.outbreak.org. This is an excellent site with information in fairly plain English about various diseases and epidemics - the account of what may have been a case of Marburg virus in a Swedish hospital should ring some bells, if nothing else does.

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