Title: Soap and Eggs
Author: EPurSeMouve
Written: December 1997
Category: S R A
Rating: PG-13 for implied sex, swearing, and boozin'. Nothing graphic - but not really meant for immature minds.
Spoilers/Timeline: Imagine "Demons." Then imagine everything after it crossed out with a big black felt marker. And there you have the alternate universe that this story dwells in. Deals with the Scully cancer dilemma, among other things - but the "Gethesmane"/"Redux" solution is not used here.
Keywords: Mulder/Scully romance (Turn back, anti-shippers!)
Disclaimer: This story contains characters and mythology spawned by The X-Files, a show copyrighted by CC and 1013 Productions. The other cultural icons mentioned belong to their respective creators, and credit is owed to Michael Critchton for the pseudomedication I borrowed from _The Andromeda Strain_. But the actual plot and text are mine. Video store clerks don't earn enough for decent legal defense, so please don't sue me over anything within.
Archiving: Please forward to A.T.X.C, if that's still done. Archive anywhere you like - but let me know (just because I like knowing where my stories are) and keep my name with it.

Summary: A possible future. A might-have-been. A what-if. Or a "There but for the grace of God...."

Author's Note: I've worked so long and so hard on this story that I can't really explain it any more, hence my incredibly descriptive summary and the difficulty of this note. What to do, what to do.... I'll just say that I wrote it thinking about how messed up the lives of Mulder and Scully have become during the course of the show. How that the only way that their suffering will be redeemed is by their pursuit of The Truth being successful.

But what if it isn't successful? What then?

Thanks, love, hugs, and wishes of eternal joy to Nicole Perry, Kat, and Angel (a.k.a. Whitney Cox) for beta-reading, encouraging, and nitpicking. And thanks to Windsinger as well for the second-to-last line of "All Hallow's Eve II", which inspired this story and is used in a different sense than probably intended.

And dedicated to the fanfic writers and readers, the website administrators, the archivists, the mailing-list owners, and all the other members of the X-Files Online Community. Knowing that there are those Out There who think and react like me is panacea for the soul, because being alone is No Fun.

PLEASE send me mail about this story . Send me anything - questions, nitpicks, analysis, problems, flames, congratulations - anything. I mean it. I measure the success of a story by the number of people who write me to say that they read it, so if no one e-mails me, I'll probably fall into a manic-depressive state, beat up my Marvin the Martian doll, and never write again.

That may be a good thing by your judgment, but I'd like you to tell me so anyways.

And please enjoy this story.


"The heart has no reason, whereof reason knows nothing." -Pascal

"Accuracy is not truth." -Matisse

"Faith is the sister of justice." -Unknown


It began the same way every year - with a well-disguised encounter in a upscale hotel bar. Normally a clean, well-lit lounge that neither of them would set foot in any other day of the year, and this year was no exception - except that, this time, it was the woman's turn to show up first.

She walked into the Watergate Hotel at 11:30 PM, parking the ancient VW Rabbit that she had driven to D.C. a few blocks away, and after a quick stop at the check-in counter of the hotel, she slipped into the bar and claimed a table near the back. Pulling her Knicks cap over her dark hair and hunching down over her Samuel Adams, the woman waited.

Not for long, though - a bearded figure walked in, just a few minutes later, his own Knicks hat pulled low over his eyes, and moved to the table directly in front of hers, sitting in a chair that was only a few feet away. That was the signal.

Feeling with her feet, the woman found the room key she had placed on the ground earlier - and a light kick sent it to impact lightly against the man's ankle. Then, after taking a few more lengthy drains from her bottle, she rose and walked out of the bar and into the lobby, on a direct course towards the elevators. The man, however, didn't even watch her leave - he just put his foot over the key protectively and ordered a Heinekein for himself, sipping slowly until all of it was gone. Then he reached down, scooped up his duffel and the key, and walked out of the bar, in the same direction as the woman.

The key opened up a room on the fifth floor of the hotel, but he spent maybe half a second inside - instead, he moved immediately towards the connecting doorway and opened the door....

To fling himself into Scully's waiting arms.

"Hey, Mulder," she murmured as he nearly lifted her off the floor for a huge bear hug - a hug that she returned just as fiercely, almost burrowing into his body as they used the physical contact to convince their skeptical sides that the other really was here. They clung to each other for a too-short eternity, savoring the closeness, and then broke away to smile at each other as they moved to sit on the bed.

The two of them were content and happy with the quiet of the room surrounding them, both looking for changes in the other from the last glimpses they had shared. Humor dwelt in Mulder's gaze at Scully's new dye job, while she grinned at the shaggy beard disguising his features. Their eyes spoke volumes, telling of the relief each felt at the other's presence being a reality, until the peaceful silence that had filled the room was broken by the inevitable question:

"Who were you this year?"

Scully smiled ruefully - he always managed to ask first. "Hope Mapple, a graduate student at Georgia State, doing my thesis on southern culture and tradition. Ma southurn accent's gettin' mightay passable nauw." She drawled out the last part with exaggerated force.

"Reallay?" he asked, trying out his own inflection.

She smiled, a rare thing. "Mulder, you need help."

"Undoubtedly. Hey, aren't you going to ask me who I've been this year?" He accompanied the question with pathetically overdone wounded eyes.

Scully sighed dramatically, the humor in her eyes defying the seriousness of her tone. "Mulder, who have you been this year?"

"Elijah Bildad, a freelance writer traveling from story to story. It explains the way we get funded pretty well, actually - cashier's checks are standard issue in the writing business."

She considered it for a second. "Freelance writer. That's a good one. Where have you been?"

"Mainly Idaho, but also a little bit of Montana and Wyoming. Just puttering around, really. But there's some beautiful country over there - I wish you could have see it."

"Me too," she replied sadly, glancing away. Mulder's fingers slipped under her chin to lift up her face.

"Hey - maybe next year we can stick together." She didn't look convinced, and so he added lamely, "Maybe next year it'll be safer."

"It's been four years and we still don't feel safe. What makes five so special?" The bitterness and sorrow in her words was almost tangible.

"Maybe five is the breaking point for Them. Maybe They'll give up soon."

She saw the light of hope in his eyes, more of the same hope that fueled him when nothing else would, and couldn't keep the argument going. Besides, they had so little time.... "Maybe," she replied softly, her eyes following the patterns of the bedspread.

The tension surrounding them now was potent, and to break it, Mulder reached for the duffel at his feet, pulling something from it. "I got you something for Christmas. Sorry it's early," he said, the familiar words falling off his tongue lightly as he handed her a medium-sized box wrapped in green and red paper.

Scully reached for her backpack as well, finding a flatter parcel with "Happy Birthday" wrappings decorating it. "I got you something for your birthday. Sorry it's late."

They unwrapped their presents at the same time, smiling slightly, without surprise, at what they found.

"Gee, Mulder, the heels on these must be at least four inches. But they're a nice color."

"Scully, is this silk? Feels like it."

"Polyester, Mulder - sorry. But it is one of those M.C. Esher ties - I figured you'd appreciate the black and white contrast more than one that was red and green."

He smiled in acceptance. "Thank you. It's nice. Tie it on for me, will you?"

Scully did so, a part of this tradition started two or three years ago when his eidetic memory had forgotten the Windsor knot and she had realized how special the close contact could be. And that she had also maybe seen "Pretty Woman" a few too many times.

"Want to see the shoes?" she asked the newly neck-tied Mulder, his touristy Boise sweatshirt contrasting in odd ways with the geometric patterns of the poly-blend. He nodded cheerfully, so, slipping off her sneakers, Scully modeled the four-inch beige pumps, walking back and forth along the carpeted floor with a lightness that she forced herself to exhibit, for the sake of their time left. But on her last pivot, she turned to face him, and they stared at each other for a few long minutes, wavering between laughing and crying as Mulder took in Scully's denim shirt, corduroy pants, darkly dyed hair, and high-heeled shoes, and Scully stared at Mulder's sweatshirt, jeans, beard, and outrageous necktie.

A few scraps of the past, clashed with the garb of the present, were an all-too-painful reminder of the days of partnership that had sewn them together so tightly that, now, nothing could tear them apart. Spiritually, at least.

And so Mulder got off the bed, Scully took a few steps forward, and they hugged again, trying to find a way of burying the hurt and anger into the other, making it go away. And that same need was spoken in their kiss, and what they did after.


They were curled against each other on the bed late into the night, the soft breathy words of lovers making up their entire world, and it felt more right than anything else in their current lives. But that made sense - for they were totally consumed with each other in those few moments, filling a need much ignored now, that everything else could be forgotten. Throughout that long night, they diligently suspended the few unpleasant nuances of who they were, trying to ignore small problems and difficulties, as they joined together in simple harmony. For the few seconds that they stole together as two simple souls, who found all they needed in each other, would fill their hearts with joy for the next year. And the peace they discovered in the quiet of that night would last them until they could meet again in this way. These stolen moments were more sacred than a thousand temples, a million blessed rosaries.

It had to end though - everything, good and bad, eventually does - and the end of their few hours of peace came with the first inklings of natural light, and the realization that the busy day ahead of them was waiting to be started. They rose out of the bed slowly, and dressed in silence. Words were for the outside. Here, there was only the predawn light, and the last vestiges of the peace that had been in every breath of the hours just past.

They checked out of the hotel one at a time, Scully going first, while Mulder waited by the sightseeing pamphlets until she was outside and it was his turn. By the time he was done, the Rabbit was pulled up to the curb, and the two drove off into the sunrise. Which was only appropriate - their day had just begun.


The first stop was an expansive grocery store on the outskirts of DC, one that Scully had often stopped at for the basics of nutritional survival after late nights of work . Their shopping list today was a bit more complex than hers usually had been, but thoroughly memorized, none the less.

They moved through the aisles slowly, consulting with each other on colors, brand names, quantities, varieties, taking advantage of the early-morning hush to whisper gently to the other, stand close, hold hands - all the silly romantic urgings they had been holding back for a very long time. It was immensely sappy, gooey, and newlywed-like, but they didn't care. They were together, and that was all that was important.

"Jelly, Kathy?" Mulder breathed softly as they walked down the condiments aisle.

"Sure, Bill," she replied just as quietly. "Grape or strawberry?"

"Grape. Strawberry seeds get stuck in my teeth."

Scully grabbed a small jar and put it in the basket, then, a small frown gracing her features, moved quickly back to an aisle they had previously passed. "Forgot to get a new toothbrush," she explained when she came back.

"Oh. Do we have everything else now?" he whispered, his nose smelling the hair just above her ear as he asked.

She tried to ignore his continued nuzzling as she ran through her mental list. "I think so - except flowers."

"We can just go to a florist, I suppose. Unless you don't think we'll have enough time?"

She smiled at his concern. "It might be safer if we do it here - and they had some pretty nice arrangements."

"Let's do it, then."

They both grinned like idiots at each other.


As they headed over to the check-out stand, they let their eyes travel over the various headlines of the tabloids, in tribute to inside jokes long forgotten. It was a lighthearted exercise, and there was nothing meant by it, except... Scully's eyes grew wide as she scanned the cover of "The Midnight Inquirer", and she squeezed Mulder's hand hard as she threw a meaningful glance at the newsprint. His eyes reflected her fear as he saw and understood what had alarmed her so.

*FBI AGENTS - ALIEN ABDUCTEES?* the badly printed text screamed out at them, surrounded by their old grainy file photos and some rough sketches of Reticulans. And suddenly they were reliving those first few months of their underground lives, hiding from everything and everyone, attempting to find a way to stay alive one more day, willing the future to be merciful, and finding that their will was not enough.

The flash of memory, the pain of the betrayal, flashed through their systems instantaneously, and filtered out almost as quickly. But their eyes, which had been so full of shallow joy earlier, were now darkened by deep pain, and they quietly paid for their purchases and carried them silently to the car.

And now that they remembered the truth behind who they were, and what kind of lives they now lived, their eyes followed every passer-by as they kept a sharp look-out for people staring too long or too much. Suspicion was, after all, what had kept them alive that long - it could probably keep them alive a while longer. The cruel reminder of the past kept them focused on one thing - what the present demanded of them.

It was only when they had begun sorting the various cartons and containers by when they would need them that Scully first spoke.

"Bill?"

He looked up, startled.

"Yes, Kathy?"

She smiled at him, trying to chase away the ghosts behind his gaze. "We've got a lot of reminiscing to do today - just try to remember the good memories as well as the bad."

He grinned back at her halfheartedly. "Kathy - I'm hurt. When have I ever been a pessimist?"

Rather than listing dates, she laughed and got into the car. He quickly followed.


As they made their way through the suburbs of D.C., headed towards Virginia, Mulder thought about how there were very few good memories he could remember - especially when it came to thinking about how he and Scully had ended up running from everything. He supposed that he could always concentrate on the lies rather than the truth. For there was listening to Skinner tell him that the cure had finally been purchased, him probing for details even as he mentally leaped for joy. Or there was watching Scully wake up, alive and healthy, after so long at death's door. Or even walking her out of the office of the OB-GYN who had said that she was as fertile as new soil.

He liked thinking about that one especially - he could distinctly remember how it had felt, sitting by Scully's side as she listened to the news, and being able, once again, to dream of her surrounded by UberScullys. Not necessarily his UberScullys. But being able to imagine her as a mother, happily caring for little ones who, in return, loved her without abandon, had given him more hope for the future than he could express.

It had all been quickly shattered, of course, but the pretenses had been blissful while they had lasted.

The blissful pretenses fled his mind, though, when they pulled into the parking lot of Arlington National Cemetery.

And they were completely replaced by the bitter truth when he and Scully stood at the foot of Walter Skinner's grave.


It was Skinner's death that had made the two of them aware of the danger all that time ago, and it was learning that his death wasn't accidental which had truly confirmed their danger, though they should have suspected something earlier. Skinner was indeed an unusual man, but not prone to leaving rambling answering machine messages cut off by the crunch of metal. His death was later explained as just another car accident caused by a careless man on a cellular, but the lack of a driver in the other car created too many questions.

What he had been able to say before having his message and his life ended had terrified Mulder and Scully, destroying everything that they had believed before. For Skinner had said that he had been contacted by an "unknown source" that night, who had told him that the unknown Them had decided to reenlist Special Agent Dana Scully for "testing", while arranging for Special Agent Fox Mulder to "mysteriously disappear" that same night, his body never to be found. Apparently, Skinner had said bluntly, their current investigations were too close to whatever was being hidden. Way too close. So close that their martyrhood was an acceptable risk.

In that fateful message, he had also mentioned something about doctors being easily purchased and the fragility of the female reproductive system, but nothing concrete - however, Scully had understood what Skinner was trying to say. And a little something in her died with that understanding. But she didn't talk about it, and neither did Mulder. It was just there. Hurting them both, but less painful than the discussion would have been.

As Mulder pondered all this for the umpteenth time, Scully's voice intruded, quietly sneaking up on his thoughts. "What are you thinking about?"

"Past prologues. Future tenses." His tone was solemn, but with a bit of a smile in it.

"The fugiting of tempus?" Scully added.

Mulder smiled for real this time. "Kathy, you should have been a poet."

She shrugged her shoulders. "Maybe I was once, in a past life. Maybe I will be again some time. We all probably have a poet within our souls somewhere, waiting for the right time to break through."

"Even him?" Mulder asked, gesturing at the spartan gravestone.

She smiled as well. "Him most definitely. He didn't seem like the type, but the best poets are the ones who aren't true to form. They're the ones who cut through the delusions that surround us all. It's through them that we are able to see what the reality of the world is."

"He was always good at cutting through delusions. He listened to me, after all."

"See? He could have been a great poet. Maybe he's been reborn as one. Who knows? In fifty years, he may have changed the way the world thinks. Maybe the planet will be a better place in the future because he died when he did and was reborn when he did and was able to go on to do great things."

Mulder's smile was now directed at Scully, mockingly. "And I thought that you didn't believe in reincarnation."

She answered his smile with a smirk. "I don't believe in it, Bill. Especially when the only proof comes from unproven hypnosis techniques. But I do believe in 'what ifs' and 'maybes'. I am a scientist, after all. And, as a scientist, I would never throw away a rational hypothesis."

"Then what do you call debunking all of my really good theories for all those years?" He couldn't say "X-Files" in public, but she knew what he meant.

She grinned at him. "Throwing away the irrational hypotheses."

The thought of the X-Files sobered her, as it usually did, and, swallowing her smile, she knelt down and placed the small bouquet of carnations next to the headstone. "Thank you, sir," she whispered. "Thank you for everything."

Then they walked to a grave five rows over and paid Agent Pendrell their respects.


The morning continued much like that - hopping from city to city, cemetery to cemetery, grave to grave, remembering those who had fallen in the pursuit of the truth. The most obvious martyrs were a must on this trip - Melissa Scully, Deep Throat, Bill Mulder - but some time was also taken for victims easily forgotten, people who had been important parts of their lives, or even people who had simply had a great impact upon them, negative or positive. Jerry Lamana. Jack Willis. Reggie Purdue. Kelly Ryan. Penny Northern. Besty Hagopian. Bill Patterson. The list went on, the flowers were deposited, and thousands of miles were added to the speedometer of the little Rabbit as it putted from D.C. to New England.

They even left a white rose on the grave of the owner of the 16th cloth heart from the Roche case, whose identity they had long ago discovered and never forgotten. And a cheerful daisy by William Scully's memorial stone, in memory of a little dog Dana was sure her father would have loved as much as she had. It was a sweet contrast to the rose bush they had planted by the headstone two years earlier.

The morning was spent mourning the fallen.

But the afternoon was spent mourning those still standing.


Margaret Scully, in the four years since Mulder and Scully had vanished, had moved from Baltimore to Boston to, on the surface, be closer to her son Charles. Being a strong Scully woman, she had dealt with Dana's disappearance remarkably well, turning to the family members she had left to comfort her. Charles and his family had even offered to let her move in with them. However, she continued to keep her own residence, living a fiercely independent lifestyle she was determined to maintain until old age stopped her.

She also continued to hold vigil for her long-absent daughter, firmly believing that one day she would return safe and sound. It was a hope that she whispered quietly to a vegetative Ruth Mulder, who was residing at a nearby nursing home, and was the real reason she had moved to Boston. Margaret visited her often, out of a sense of responsibility to a long-absent young man, but never got a response from the comatose woman. She never expected one, either.

Someone should have pulled the plug on Ruth Mulder a long time ago, Margaret believed, but the woman had never made out a living will, and the money left to her by her husband could keep her on machines for years to come. So she continued to breathe through a respirator and to eat through a gastrointestinal tube, and Margaret continued to visit once a week, because behind the machines was the only other woman who could possibly understand what she was going through. The fact that they could not console each other was not extremely important any more.

One other weekly activity that Margaret made a point of repeating was a trip to a nearby cemetery - a depressing trip, but a necessary one. A memorial stone for her Bill was there, as was the grave of another Bill, and it was her duty to make sure that both were amply arrayed with flowers. The rose bush that had mysteriously appeared one year helped her immensely with this task.

So on the Halloween of the fourth year since her daughter's disappearance, Margaret Scully only brought with her one bouquet of lilies, to be spread equally among the two men.

As was her fashion, she first deposited a few flowers on the mound covering William Mulder, noting carefully that there were another set of flowers resting beside hers. A fresh set, no older than a day. Then she walked to William Scully's memorial and laid the rest of the flowers down, looking carefully at the new daisy there as well. And then her eyes caught something else, for which she prayed to God every day.

Hope.

Hope in the form of a carefully folded, hidden scrap of paper, wedged into the slightly exposed roots of the cheerfully blooming rose bush.

Margaret knelt at the base of the bush, as if testing the soil for dampness, and used her brother-in-law's slight of hand to make the paper disappear.

And the paper did not reappear until she was at the bedside of Ruth Mulder, thirty minutes later. As she did every year, she opened it up carefully, quietly, reading the words written until her vision blurred from tears.

Then she silently held it up to the unblinking eyes of the comatose woman beside her, forcing herself to believe that Ruth could, in some way, comprehend what the seven words meant.

It was the same message as last year, and the year before, and it was simple enough. In Dana's careful script it read:

*We are fine. And I love you.*

It was all Margaret Scully needed to know, all she needed to see. She hoped that it brought Ruth some comfort as well.

When she took a lighter and turned the note into ashes, her only thought was that her baby girl was safe.


Kneeling close to the ground, Scully passed the binoculars to Mulder, reflecting upon her own fortune. At least she knew that her mother was there, still going through the motions of living, but all Mulder could do was stare through the windows of the nursing home suite at a sheet-covered lump. In this round of the cosmic game of luck, she had definitely come out ahead.

Mulder gave out a heavy sigh and passed the glasses back to her, a frown wrinkling his brow. "I wish we could get in closer," he muttered. "I'm never sure if who I'm looking at is really Mom."

Scully laid her hand on his shoulder. "You say that every year - but we both know that if we got any closer, my mom would be able to spot us. And all we're supposed to be doing here is making sure she got the note. Otherwise, we'd have to go back to the cemetery and take care of it ourselves."

"We shouldn't even be doing this. Leaving notes, letting her know that we're okay - it's too dumb a mistake for us to be able to get away with. If you weren't such a sap, Scully - there's no one around for a hundred yards, so I can call you Scully - we'd be twice as safe."

"And who was it who wrote the first note, Mulder - huh? As I recall, I was against it from the start."

"Of course you were, Scully - of course you were."

They smiled at each other for a few seconds, then sobered up as Scully announced the lighting of a flame. "Good ol' Mom. I bet she still reads five spy novels a week."

"Either that, or she knows how serious this is."

"Knowing my mom, probably both."

They watched the flame pick up brightness, then snuff out. "I still wonder how she gets away with an open flame in that room," Scully muttered. "With the respirator operating, there's got to be some sort of risk."

"Oh, I don't know - it probably sees its fair share of smokers."

The look they exchanged was a cautious one.

After a few more glances, both of them decided that the time was right to leave, and they crept through the bushes surrounding the Shannon Swensen Home for the Elderly as quietly as they could, checking the surrounding area to make sure it was clear before walking quickly and quietly to the car. But they each looked back at the woman in the bed and the woman sitting beside it, just for one last glimpse.


Lunch was done picnic-style in a secluded grove, curling deep into their coats for some shelter against the chilling gray breeze. Mulder constructed sandwiches with the bread, peanut butter, and jelly they had purchased that morning, while Scully pored over the maps, making little annoyed noises as she plotted possible routes.

"Bill, I think that we can get back to D.C. before 8:00 tonight - all we need is an act of God. Sometimes, I wish that we could just cut Boston out of this trip entirely - why on earth did my mother have to move all the way over here? Why?" She looked not to Mulder but to the heavens as she asked this, though he was the only one who answered.

"Because she wanted to be closer to my mother, and my mother's in Boston because she was living there when she had the aneurysm, living there to be closer to Dad's grave, which is in Boston because his will named the plot specifically. So, don't bother blaming it on anyone else - this can all be pinned on my father."

"I've heard that before," Scully muttered. Mulder looked over at her sharply, but said nothing.

After a few minutes of silence, he spoke up again. "I bet that we can make the trip back in six hours - but we'd have to use the interstate, which I know you don't like as much."

"But what about the New York stop?" Scully asked.

"I'm accounting for that," he replied.

"You say that every year, Bill, but we never spend less than two or three hours there. It's not an in-and-out stop, and you know it."

He smiled reluctantly. "We'll make it by 9:00 then. I promise."

"You promise every year," she grunted. "And we're never in D.C. before 11:00."

He smiled more widely. "Yes, but this year will be different."

"And why's that?"

"Because, this year, I mean it." He grinned at her and took a bite of sandwich. Scully rolled her eyes heavenward, then let them fall upon the grocery bags that lay scattered around them, their cheerful logos bringing up a memory somewhat forgotten. Her face paled a bit, her lips drawing together in pain.

"Next year, Bill, could we go to a different supermarket?" she asked quietly.

He looked at her with curiosity and concern in his eyes. "Sure, I guess - any particular reason?"

She kept staring at the bags. "Remember the Duane Barry case?"

He almost laughed at the absurdity of the thought, except that it wasn't what she wanted to hear right then. "Yeah, Kathy, I do."

"Remember the message I left on your machine about the metal implant found in Barry's abdomen?"

Again, another stream of bitter laughter repressed. "Yeah."

"Well, when I said that I passed it through the scanner at the store...."

Comprehension dawned in his eyes. "It was that store."

"Yeah."

He allowed himself a few seconds of self-absorbed grief and guilt, then focused back onto Scully. "It's no problem - but why didn't you mention it before?"

She shrugged, a feeling of defeat slumping her shoulders and bending her back. "I thought I could deal with it. I can deal with it. But I just don't want to dwell on the whole thing anymore. I'm sick of these memories. I'm sick of the pain."

Her words were alarming to a man who had already lost everything else, and he hated to ask the obvious question, but did so anyway. "Then why do you keep meeting me here? Why do you keep coming back every Halloween?"

She smiled slightly, straightening a bit. "Because I may be sick of the memories, but I can't get rid of them. And there are some that I never want to lose, either." She leaned over and ruffled his hair. "You don't think that I could ever leave you behind, do you?"

Her hand stayed in his hair as he smiled his thanks, leaning over and giving her a quick peck on the lips. "'Could' and 'should' are two different things," he reminded her, only half-joking.

She pecked him back. "Only a difference of two letters - and they aren't even very important ones. The idea is still there."

He pecked her in return. "And what idea is that?"

Another peck. "That you're never getting rid of me, Bill."

Yet another. "Ditto, Kathy."

The pecks quickly got out of hand.


After a short delay, the two were back on the road, grinning at each other periodically as Scully navigated the rather bumpy ribbons of cement. Their conversation was lighthearted, almost forced in its cheerfulness, and mainly consisted of anecdotes from the past year. But every time Mulder laughed at an antiquated piece of southern tradition or Scully laughed at a caricature of the stereotypical Idaho potato farmer, they both thought the same thing:

*I wish I could have been there.*

It was the same every year, and by now, neither could remember what a relationship without constant pain really felt like. But they could remember what spending days, even weeks on end with the person they loved felt like, and that was what hurt.

Surrounded by memories of the past, the trip to New York City went quickly.


Scully attempted breathing again after being released from the one of the tightest hugs she had ever been given, smiling as she watched Byers give Mulder the same treatment. The Gunmen might have changed lairs and changed attitudes with years past, but they would always have the endearing spirit that grew on you with every visit. Like mold.

She received hugs from the other two Gunmen as well, with a feeble attempt at groping from Frohike, and then stood in the background as Mulder fended off questions about the past year, asked his own about back issues of The Magic Bullet, and in general reveled in the presence of his friends. Scully didn't mind not being involved - she knew "guy talk" when she saw it.

However, she didn't stay out of the celebration for long - after a few minutes, Mulder looped an arm around her waist and dragged her into the circle, whispering in her ear, "We go through the Inquisition together or not at all."

She sighed a martyr-like sigh, and then grinned up at him when an ashamed expression passed over his features.

"Exactly the way I want it, Mulder," she whispered back. Then she began answering questions as well.

At some point, one of the Gunmen - probably Frohike - pulled out some champagne, and the bottle was passed around the room, though Scully just asked for water. It got her some odd looks, which she shrugged off, explaining that she just didn't want the distraction.

But the Gunmen, and Mulder, recognized her refusal for what it was - the end of the celebration. And time to get to work.

With a gesture, Langly led Scully into the back room of the new hideout, while Frohike and Byers began heaping piles of evidence and data around Mulder, filling him in on the latest developments in the conspiracy world as they began to sift through the hard evidence. But as they worked, their eyes all traveled back towards the cramped room where Scully and Langly were talking. And all three of them knew exactly what they were talking about.


Langly went over the bottles that he had pulled out of the small safe, checking the labels carefully as he handed them over to Scully. "Okay, let's see - you've got the antacids, the anticoagulant, the aspirin substitute..."

"Don't forget the antinauseant," Scully reminded him. Langly dug through the vials he grasped until he found the one she mentioned, passing it to her.

"Got it. I think that's all you'll need for your basic problems. Any other side effects you noticed over the past year?"

"No - I think we've got all of them covered. These are all safe to use together?"

"Safe as a TEMPEST certified Unix box. Just remember about limiting alcohol and you'll be fine."

Then, with a certain amount of ceremony, he dug deeper into the safe, hitting a disguised latch that opened up a secret compartment impressed into the safe's bottom. He removed a large bottle that rattled, and then began speaking with a distinct intonation of remorse and concern. "Okay, here we go. 356 tablets of Kalocin, 500 milligrams each. One a day, every day. Miss a day and you're FUBARed. Lose one and you're FUBARed. This is the maximum I can get you this year, so there are no refills. They're big, so swallow them with lots of water. The other pills should work with the Kalocin and counter the side effects - but don't overdo it, because then you'll build up a tolerance. And you can't use the over-the-counter stuff and you can't come back here before next year, so if they stop working, you're FUBARed. Any questions?"

Scully took in the barrage of facts calmly. "No, but just remember - I'll need an extra one when the leap year hits."

"Right. Anything else?"

She asked the same question as she did every year. "Yeah - how on earth do you know so much about pharmaceuticals?"

He lifted the corners of his mouth in a small smile. "Practical experience. And I still have connections. Remember - Kalocin, once a day, every day."

"Right. I need to take today's, if you don't mind." She dug around in her knapsack and pulled out an empty bottle, identical to the Kalocin one. Handing it to Langly, she then picked up the new bottle and began to move towards the bathroom.

"No problem, Scully. Let me know if you need anything."

She tossed off a salute and opened the bathroom door. Langly sighed and went into the front room to let the others know.


The stomach cramps always faded away after a few minutes, but for the short amount of time that Scully was affected, the whole world faded away to nothing but a unclear haze of pain. She pressed her face into the cool tile, trying to find some comfort in the slight dampness, but was unable to really concentrate on anything but the twists and turns of her rebelling digestive system. Kalocin was effective, but it made you pay for that effectiveness.

She owed her life to Kalocin, though it was a life that would never be without its influence. For it was the miracle that Skinner had negotiated away from Them - the miracle that had brought her back from the grave - but it had come with a price.

When she had been administered with the first dose, Kalocin had quickly and efficiently killed the cancer - but it had also killed off every other foreign organism, down to the monocellular level, within her body. It had actually been hailed as a new panacea when it was discovered in the 60's, though the scientists behind it had forgotten a crucial fact of biology.

Not all the organisms within the human body cause harm. Some are benign, and then some aid the body's systems in their duties - systems like the digestive system, the circulatory system, and most especially, the immune system.

Every single participant in the human trials of Kalocin had been cured of his or her ills, and then died, only a few days after being taken off the drug, of an exotic, obscure, painful disease. Kalocin killed everything, including those bacteria which helped fight off various illnesses. A patient on Kalocin remained on Kalocin for the rest of his or her natural lifespan, which lasted as long as he or she was able to get daily doses of the drug. This was not normally an extremely long period of time, considering how its existence was consistently and completely denied by the doctors and pharmaceutical companies which recognized its dangers.

The long-term effects of Kalocin treatment had not been mentioned to Skinner when he made the deal. And They had attempted to keep Mulder and Scully from ever finding out by supplementing the medication that Scully was taking with enough Kalocin to keep infections from becoming a problem.

Scully's reabduction would have eliminated the need for this temporary solution. Once handed over to the doctors of the Project, her new dependency would not have been an issue. For one reason or another.

As Scully writhed on the floor of the Gunmen's bathroom, she thought nothing of this, though she was painfully aware of every fact. All her mind was able to process was one thought.

*Please God, make the pain stop.*

God took a while coming through on her plea.


The Gunmen and Mulder all pressed their ears to the bathroom door, listening as Scully's moans faded into silent sobs, and then into nothing. She would have seriously hurt every one of them had she known they were hovering, but it was all part of a tradition that the four men needed to maintain. Mulder especially. Sharing her anguish through the bathroom door was almost as good as actually comforting the moaning woman. And, in the case of the Gunmen, the closest they were ever going to get to drying her tears.

Mulder had dried Scully's tears upon quite a few occasions, though he didn't do it much any more. And those occasions were memories that he could, on the whole, live without.

When the water tap of the sink began running, the four men went back to their spots, and so when Scully left the bathroom, a pleasant expression upon her face, she didn't suspect anything. "What'd I miss?" she asked in a voice more perky than her usual monotone.

The routine was obviously forced, but no one mentioned it.

The men looked at each other, gauging the situation, then responded through Byers. "We were just discussing the recent increase in sightings over the past four years - we didn't have enough data before to be sure, but we're pretty positive that They're stepping up the pace on whatever They're doing."

Scully absorbed this. "Do you think that They're planning on doing anything large-scale? Because if They are, They might decide that having the evidence exposed is too risky - maybe even try to get them back."

Frohike looked surprised at what she said. "You guys still have it?" he asked.

Mulder and Scully looked at each other for a split second, then turned their backs on the Gunmen as objects were pulled from concealed sections of their bodies. They then spun around, each holding a DAT tape.

Mulder spoke for the two of them. "One each - just in case something goes wrong."

Frohike nodded.

What could go wrong was best not defined - they all generally thought of it as what would happen if covers were blown and Mulder and Scully's locations were discovered. This was not an unthinkable possibility, for the evidence they had taken from their last X-Files investigation - the one that had treaded on too many of Their toes to preserve their all too precarious status - was wanted by many people, faces hidden in the shadows.

When part of their research for a basic case had included possible connections between various health care programs, Mulder and Scully began noticing that several of them were being given fairly open reign by the government when it came to basic operations. And that they were all subdivisions of companies which had been in bed together for a long time.

Investigating this anomaly secretly, on their own time, they began finding places to poke holes in the code of silence surrounding those companies, and eventually were able to find a high-up researcher who had found a conscience recently and was willing to talk - though not all at once, and certainly not about everything. Over the course of weeks, Dr. Luisia Santiago fed the agents little pieces of information, snippets that only vaguely clued them into what was going on.

That is, until one late night, when the doctor showed up at Scully's apartment, convinced that her duplicity had been discovered and that she had little time left. Instead of saying goodbye, however, she made the final sacrifice, arriving loaded down with every document and every piece of incriminating evidence she could lift from her office - all of it backed up on two DAT tapes. Mulder was called, arriving in minutes, and they sat and listened to Santiago tell them everything she knew. Everything.

It was then that Mulder and Scully learned of the true nature of Kalocin, and of what it meant to Scully's future. And they also gained a better understanding of Their ability to manipulate almost anybody - doctors, pharmacists, politicians, celebrities, activists of all beliefs. The tests and experiments associated with the Japanese doctors were explained fully. They learned more about the visitors from beyond the stars, Santiago eloquently describing her few encounters with Jeremiah Smith and the other aliens walking among humans.

Most of the questions that the X-Files had brought up were answered that night, with the evidence to prove those answers left in their hands. But that night also had a greater significance.

For, while Mulder and Scully listened to Santiago's careful monologue in Scully's living room, a frightened, angry, and frustrated man called Mulder's home phone number, leaving a message at the beep, as he speeded towards Alexandria, Virginia and Mulder's apartment.

And when Mulder came home the next morning and played the one message on his answering machine, he had three basic thoughts.

One, that he should check more often to see if the battery of his cell phone was dead.

Two, that Skinner deserved better than the lot he had been given in life.

And three, that he needed to get to Scully.

So, throwing a few essentials and the answering machine tape into a duffel bag, Mulder ran out of his apartment building for the last time, racing to his car, and then speeding through the nonexistence predawn traffic to reach Scully's place in record time. She had listened to the tape once, then taken even less time to pack. The only things she had been sure to bring were her copy of _Moby Dick_ and the DAT tapes.

They had switched to Scully's car, hoping to confuse anyone tailing them, and then driven an untraceable route to a small motel in the DC suburbs, taking a room for cash and double locking the door.

Staring at the walls, they knew that everything that had come before was no longer important. All that mattered was staying alive.

That motel room was where they first admitted to each other that they had gone past simply loving each other a long time ago. It was where they first made love.

Agents Mulder and Scully walked into that room, but never came out again. Alter egos, who could not even lay claim to names, took their places.

It was those alter egos who came up with their plan of survival, and it was them who decided that they would be twice as safe without the other at their side. For, alone and properly disguised, it was fairly easy for Mulder and Scully to blend into the background and stay out of public view. Together, they were much more conspicuous.

They lived for one thing now - finding a way to bring the evidence on the DAT tapes out into the open, exposing Them and Their organization, emerging victoriously from the battle they fought.

But that concept was so staggering that currently, they simply looked towards finding a way to be together that wouldn't result in extreme danger to their lives. Even then, they were coming up blank.

The DAT tapes offered answers for all they had ever searched for - justice, truth, and understanding. Even information about Samantha was there. But they left that information alone, until it was safe for them to bring it forward.

The question was - would it ever be safe?


After the DAT tapes were hidden away again, a steady hum of conversation was slowly built up, until Scully and Mulder's eyes flashed with intense interest at the discourse. They poked, prodded, and sometimes outright laughed at some of what the Gunmen were saying ("Marilyn Monroe did NOT kill JFK in a fit of jealousy!"), both of them, Mulder especially, somewhat relaxed among like minds. This conversation with these dear friends was a balm to their lonely souls, and as they talked, Mulder and Scully both wished that the rest of time could be like this one moment. Maybe, Scully mused, it was what heaven was like. Surrounded by friends, laughter, and ideas, with the most important person in your life by your side, holding your hand.

If it was what heaven was like, Scully couldn't wait.


However, Scully eventually decided that their due portion of heaven was beginning to run out, as was their time, and so she fixed Mulder with a pointed stare until he succumbed and asked the Gunmen to move on to their last order of business.

Although the future wasn't much for them to look forward to, there were still provisions that needed to be made for it.


"Okay, Mulder - this year, you can either explore the lovely mountains of Colorado and Utah, or you can roam the Florida Everglades in all their swampy glory," Frohike said in his best travel agent voice.

"I recommend Colorado," Langly commented. "Florida's hell in the summer."

Mulder studied the maps on the wall, scrutinizing the geographical details the physical map of the US offered. "But I miss the DC humidity. Florida sounds good. Do you have drop-off spots for the checks planned out?"

Frohike and Langly looked at each other, then at Mulder. "Yeah," Frohike said, "But how much money there's gonna be is an issue. The numbered accounts you set up are starting to run a bit dry - I don't think you can afford more than 700 a month this year. And the year after's looking even more shaky. Living off your father's estate was great four years ago, but it can't support both you and Scully forever. You have to come up with some other options."

Mulder sighed in frustration. "Getting jobs is too risky, and I know that Scully won't go for ripping off Fort Knox. So, if you've got suggestions, I'm open to them." His voice grew louder as he spoke.

Langly answered this time. "Mulder, we're not saying that the answers are easy to find, but we are saying that you need to think about this. We're trying to help you as much as we can, but the profits from The Magic Bullet can't cover Scully's medication and your motel bills. You have at least a year to look over your options. Maybe by then, it'll be safe enough for you two to stay together. Get a cheap little apartment somewhere. Share living expenses. Work cash registers together at McDonald's."

Mulder's hazel eyes turned the slightest bit gold at that image, but were then swallowed in black as he concentrated on realities. "Let's work with worst-case scenarios. What if we sold my parents' house in Rhode Island? Could you guys work that out somehow?"

Frohike and Langly looked at each other again. "I guess so, Mulder," Langly replied. "But it doesn't solve the problem. Including Scully's meds, you guys are eating close to 20,000 dollars a year, and selling the house won't change any of that. It'll only put off the inevitable for a few more years."

Mulder looked at them desperately. "Maybe, in a few more years, I'll have some better answers. Right now, I don't."

His tone clearly said that he was cutting off the conversation, and the guys didn't argue. "You have a name for yourself this year?" Frohike asked, gesturing towards a computer across the room, where a false driver's license was displayed upon the screen, waiting to be printed out.

"Yeah. Justin Pequod."

Langly looked at him oddly. "How did you come up with that?" he queried.

"The Pequod was Captain Ahab's ship in _Moby Dick_."

This they had expected. "But what about Justin?" Frohike asked.

Mulder grinned without joy. "Review your Latin. It means 'the just, or upright.'"

"You still believe in justice, Mulder?" Langly said.

"Nope. It's a sentimental gesture."

Neither one doubted his words.


"So Scully, what'll it be? California or Ohio?" Byers asked. He didn't have the same travel-agent patter of Frohike.

She raised an eyebrow speculatively. "Ohio?" she asked with skepticism.

"It's not so bad. There are some cute little towns in the countryside, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is in Cleveland. You could even visit the Rubbermaid factory in Wooster."

Rather than laughing, she simply snorted a bit and gestured towards the western half of the United States map in front of her. "Maybe next time. At least California has beaches."

It was Byers' turn to raise an eyebrow. "I never pictured you as a beachgoer."

"I'm not - at least, I wasn't before the X-Files. I preferred being on the ocean to sitting by it. But nothing bad ever happened to Mulder and me on the beach. On the water, in the woods, in big cities, in little towns, yes, but never on the beach. They've taken on an aspect of safety that's really appealing."

Byers nodded. "California then. You have a new name for yourself?"

She thought a bit. "Lea. Lea Flask."

Byers looked at her askance. "Where does that come from?"

"Flask was Ahab's third mate in _Moby Dick_."

Exactly as predicted. "And Lea?"

Her voice grew softer as she spoke. "It's got two different meanings. In Latin, it's 'lioness'. But in Hebrew, it's 'the weary.'"

Byers' curiosity got the best of his common decency. "Which interpretation are you following, Scully?" he asked.

Her eyes were large and sad, the dark circles around them obscene against her white skin, as she looked up at him to answer. "Which do you think?" she answered, bitterness and sorrow dripping from the words.

This time, common decency won out. Byers did not reply.


When they were all done, the five of them regrouped, Frohike and Byers grilling Mulder and Scully on the last few details of the year ahead, while Langly finished the driver's licenses.

"Who's setting up next year's meeting, guys?" Frohike asked, looking up from a clipboard.

"I will," Mulder volunteered. "Scully did it this year, after all."

She smiled up at him. "I'm warning you, Mulder - it better not be one of your roach motels. I want the best that a Travel Lodge can supply."

He grinned back at her. "I'll try my best, but you, my dear, have expensive tastes. I still can't believe that you found the money for the Watergate this year."

"I lived frugally for a few months. I'm just lucky that the people at the reservation desk believed my story about losing my credit card and having a surplus of cash."

Byers cleared his throat, regaining their attention. "So, Mulder, you'll find some way to get us the instructions?"

"Yeah - I'll just hire a singing Elvis," he joked.

Byers looked at him, serious as ever. "Not funny, Mulder."

He shrugged his shoulders. "I tried. But don't worry - you'll get the plans before the October drop-off."

Frohike turned to Scully. "If Mulder comes through, then you'll get the directions with October's check. All this clear?"

Scully nodded, looking at her watch. "What else do we need to cover?" she asked, somewhat anxiously. "It's getting pretty late - Mulder and I ought to get going."

The two Gunmen looked at each other, saddened somewhat by this statement. "So soon?" Byers asked.

"We still have to drive to DC and... take care of a final piece of business," Mulder replied reluctantly. "I guess we should wrap up."

Frohike looked through the notes on the clipboard. "Well, you need the checks for transportation - who's getting the car?"

They looked at each other. "You should take it," Scully said. "I've had the Rabbit for the past two years - it's definitely your turn."

"Are you sure? I'd think you'd be used to having it by now," he replied.

"I am used to it - but I think that it'd be more interesting to be on my own. I always thought that the life of a wandering hobo was a really liberated existence. And you could always use a little more stability." Scully looked at him intently, convincing him more with her eyes than with her words, and he eventually nodded in consent.

Frohike noted it down on the clipboard.

Langly popped his head up from the computer, printed out two sheets of paper, and went to the laminator in the back room. They all watched him, then returned to their conversation.

Byers pulled two pieces of paper from a pile by his hand, giving one to Mulder and one to Scully. "Here are the schedules for the check drop-offs. Anything you need to let us know about, write down and leave behind when you pick up the money."

They studied the lists, carefully trying to avoid seeing anything on the other's paper. Four years ago, when this had all begun, they had been aware of each other's whereabouts, and it had not gone well.

For while driving on the interstate, Scully had constantly found herself drifting towards lanes that would take her from Arizona to Missouri.

And while strolling through downtown St. Louis or Jefferson, Mulder had constantly found himself looking at travel offices offering tours of the Southwest.

The tantalizing knowledge of where the other was, and the temptation of hopping a train or gassing up for a cross country trek, was too much for them, and the next year, they asked the Gunmen to keep the locations secret until the next Halloween.

So, this year, their eyes remained focused on their own schedules, and nothing else. When Langly came from the back with their warm, new driver's licenses, they did not look at what new name the other had come up with.

Their lives were in jeopardy enough from outside forces - they did not need to worry about messing up their chances through their own mistakes.


Inevitabilities can be avoided for quite some time if you know what you're doing, and Mulder and Scully had been practicing for years. But no amount of practice can keep time from passing too fast, and the weight of the clock eventually forced the two to say a last goodbye to their friends.

As Scully embraced Frohike, she whispered in his ear, "Keep an eye on my mom. Let me know if something happens to her." He nodded against her hair in acceptance.

When Mulder hugged Langly, he muttered the same thing he muttered every year: "Keep an eye out for Samantha." His priorities had changed significantly in the years since he had brazenly said that "nothing else matters" besides finding her, but he still wanted to know what had happened - if, for no other reason, then for some sense of closure.

Langly grunted in agreement.

With the last excuses for stalling exhausted and the demands of time nudging them to their destination, Mulder and Scully left the office building they had been in for roughly three hours. Three men stood in front of a hallway window upstairs and watched them leave.

They waved goodbye one more time, then slipped back into the comfort of the shadows.


With the darkness surrounding them, and with only one errand left, Mulder and Scully spent the last leg of their drive absorbed in the presence of the other. They didn't talk much, didn't even look at the other for endless moments, but rather just concentrated on remembering what it felt like to be together. It was not a sorrowful trip, like their morning graveyard trek had been, and it was not a forcefully lighthearted one, as their afternoon one had been. It was a time of acknowledgement and understanding. And it was what they needed right then.

It came to an end, though. Everything, good and bad, eventually does.

As Scully had predicted during lunch, they entered the DC city limits around 11:00. And they were at the J. Edgar Hoover F.B.I. Building by 11:30.

They took advantage of the deserted city streets surrounding their former office and parked illegally by the front entrance.

In the car, they quietly changed from their conservative slacks and sweaters into solid black, then got out and removed the necessary supplies from the trunk.

After only two minutes, they stood in front of the gilt letters spelling out the building's name, armed and ready.

And with a glance in the other's direction, they raised their hands and began letting loose with everything they had.

For the morning was spent mourning the fallen.

The afternoon was spent mourning those still standing.

But the night was spent mourning the justice denied them all.

The eggs Mulder and Scully threw shattered on impact, soiling the pale plaster of the walls, the shells sticking in the oozing goo. One after another hit the noble building, the cracking sound echoing through the streets.

They went through two dozen that way, then began alternating the eggs with toilet paper, tangling two-ply M&D into the nearby decorative trees. The white ribbons soaring through the darkness pushed the welling tears to slide down their cheeks.

After a few minutes, Scully grabbed one of their bars of soap and wetted it in a nearby puddle, viciously rubbing the white substance against the lower windows of the building. Mulder followed her example for a little bit, then went back to the eggs.

With every swipe of soap, with every roll of toilet paper, with every hurl of egg, they shouted silently to the night sky, working out a year's worth of frustration against the injustice that had been dealt them and theirs. They looked for justice in rallying against the forces which had taken away everything dear to them, all of it represented in the monolith of bureaucracy in front of them.

For Samantha, they cried within.

For Melissa.

For Skinner.

For Bill Mulder.

For Deep Throat.

And for Mulder and Scully.

For the future denied.

For the children forbidden.

For the peace they longed for.

For the present they loathed.

For who they had been.

For who they were now.

And for who they should have been instead.

The entire episode took five minutes, but the cries ran out in their souls for much longer. When they loaded back into the car and sped away before anyone saw their handiwork, their minds were immersed in the guilt, sorrow, and grief they both felt.

A mile away from the now-defaced J. Edgar Hoover Building, Scully pulled the car over and threw herself into Mulder's arms once more. They both cried out their pain, the sobs raking and huge, and when they were cried out, they did not move immediately. They remained wrapped up in each other until Mulder's watch beeped.

They looked at the clock on the dashboard.

It was 12:00 AM, November 1.

It was time to say goodbye.


At Union Station, Mulder parked, then helped Scully unload her belongings from the trunk into her backpack. As she fumbled with the closures, he looked at her, trying to burn her image upon his retinas one last time. "Don't go," he whispered.

She looked up at him sharply, eyes wide, processing the thought. "And do what?" she asked, a myriad of emotions echoing in her tone.

"Stay with me," he said, as softly as before. "Never leave. Hold my hand and speak to me and kiss me and tell me I'm crazy and keep doing it until time ends. Never go away."

She smiled sadly at him. "Do you have any idea how much I want to?"

He nodded. "As much as me."

She shook her head. "More."

His eyes turned black as coal as he abandoned false hopes and embraced reality. "But you can't."

Her smile, faint as it was, became even fainter. "Nope."

He stood straight as an arrow against the night, forcing himself to bear up under this. "In that case, I'll see you next year, Kathy." He extended his hand to her.

She shook it soundly. "See you next year, Bill."

They held each other's eyes for one last time, then turned their backs. Mulder got into the car and drove away, while Scully walked into the station and picked up a train schedule.

And their thoughts were only of the next Halloween.


Epilogue

If you want to imagine the future as it should be, imagine yourself a little house on a deserted beach, and imagine two people living there, completely content with the little they have. Imagine long, poignant silences, and imagine complete happiness. Imagine them fulfilled and successful in their quest.

But if you want to imagine the future as it will be, imagine yourself a battered Rabbit touring the nation. Imagine a hitchhiker walking the highways, hoping for a ride.

Imagine two people who always have one eye looking over their shoulder for the shadows which fill their nightmares. Imagine two people who always give the clerk or the taxi driver a suspicious glance.

Imagine hair that changes shape, length, and color by the month. Imagine eyes hidden by sunglasses and bodies disguised by neutral clothing.

Imagine a woman who refuses to cry to Elvis songs. Imagine a man who refuses to cry in Catholic churches.

Imagine two lonely souls, always looking for a glimpse of auburn hair or hazel eyes. Imagine their silent weeping every time they think they have spotted their counterpart, only to be wrong.

Imagine two broken hearts continuing to dream of that which will not happen. Imagine those hearts forever longing for the one day of the year when comfort is theirs.

Imagine bodies denied, instincts ignored, and pride cast aside as two people concentrate on finding a way to survive the nightmares and the fear one Halloween to the next. Imagine two people living only for the one day when they are complete.

Imagine two remorseful spirits, moving both in crowds of people and in solitude, imagining for themselves the way things should be. Imagine them mourning for the past, the present, and the future.

Imagine two people who wander among us, moving from city to city as they dream of a life they'll never have, and a person they'll never spend it with.

And imagine them this way forever.

Alone.

The End


Comments to EPurSeMouve

Thank you for reading.

 

Title: Soap and Eggs II. An Ivory-White Christmas
Author: EPurSeMouve
Written: Marcj 1998
Category: S R A
Rating: PG
Spoilers/Timeline: This universe is current with the XF timeline up until "Demons." However, this story will not make sense without reading the original "Soap and Eggs", available from the Gossamer Archive or me.
Keywords: Mulder/Scully romance. Alternate Universe
Disclaimer: This story contains characters and mythology spawned by The X-Files, a show copyrighted by CC and 1013 Productions. The other cultural icons mentioned belong to their respective creators. But the actual plot and text are mine. Video store clerks don't earn enough for decent legal defense, so please don't sue me over anything within.
Archiving: Please forward to A.T.X.C. Archive anywhere you like, but let me know (just because I like knowing where my stories are) and keep my name with it.

Summary: A solitary Christmas in San Francisco, California.

Author's Note: You guys asked for it... Due to the overwhelming requests for a sequel to "Soap and Eggs" (okay - fifteen letters!), I forced myself to come up with this, though the idea had originally hit me, unsurprisingly, around Christmas. Sorry it's out of season - I think that, if this universe continues, it'll be a regular pattern. After all, "Soap and Eggs" was a Halloween story. A Halloween story released in late December. <g>

I'm not religious - I just do research. If I've messed up here on important details, I apologize.

Dedicated to the absolutely super-cool beta-readers: Nicole Perry the Grammatically Helpful, Whitney Cox (AKA Angel) the Enthusiastic, and Audrey Cooper the Eloquent. Read their fanfic!

Comments to EPurSeMouve - if only to tell me that I should never have written this. It's... different than the first story, and I'd like to know if it worked, as well as whether or not the Soap and Eggs saga should be continued. That address once more is EPurSeMouve@goplay.com - PLEASE write.

So here goes. Hold on tight!


"'Oh, Hester!... thou tellest of running a race to a man whose knees are tottering beneath him! I must die here! There is not the strength or courage left me to venture into the wide, strange world, alone!'"

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne


The petite, scruffily dressed blonde who got off the train at the San Francisco station attracted no real attention from anyone passing by, though it had very little to do with her practiced efforts to blend into the background. More likely it was a result of the holiday season - in larger cites, Christmas usually meant long lines and skipped lunches and crowded malls to average city dwellers, leaving them very little time to notice a mysterious woman in their midst. And this mysterious woman had no qualms about using that fact to her advantage.

It was one of those things that living underground had taught her, along with "Looking calm while your fake ID is being scrutinized" and "Driving across the country with only 15 dollars for gas."

She didn't have a car this year, so that wasn't a concern, but it was for...

She cut herself off there. That was one of those things she didn't let herself dwell on.

There was a pretty long list of things she didn't let herself dwell on, and the current lack of a car was fairly low in order of importance. But she still moved her train of thought onward, searching her memory for that which was so important now. A five-digit number. The one that she had quizzed herself brutally on until she could see it engraved upon her eyeballs.

Remembering it wasn't the problem, though. Finding the corresponding rent-a-locker was.

Fighting the urge to murmur under her breath, the woman ran her finger along the row of lockers, finding number 10243 after passing it twice. She grinned, quickly and bitterly, then used the key she had been left to open up the metal box.

The check was in there, along with a red envelope and a tiny sprig of mistletoe. She almost laughed at the sight, but caught herself. Instead, she moved the items from the locker to her battered backpack, and walked quickly out of the station.

She always wondered how far in advance the deliveries were made - whether the delivers dropped the money off days before she was scheduled to find it, or if they were there in the city, watching as she picked it up to make sure the delivery was complete. She preferred to imagine the latter - she knew that she couldn't make contact, but it was nice to imagine that there was somebody else out there, maybe even within eyesight, who knew her. Who knew she was a real person. Who was specifically looking for her. Who would be able to call her by a name that wasn't made up and joke with her and smile at old times...

She derailed that train of thought unmercifully. Thoughts like those were much higher up on the list of what she would not ponder.

Though, as she began looking for a place to stay, she did look to see if a small, gnomish toadman, a scraggly arrayed hard rocker, or a dignified gentleman with earnest eyes were anywhere within the vicinity.

She knew they were too good to be spotted, but she looked anyways.

Just because.


At the Dominion Hotel, the woman took a small single room for the cheapest rate possible, and once inside the cramped space, she dug through her backpack to digest what had been delivered.

The check was standard - made out to her assumed name, she could cash it with "her" driver's license at a nearby bank without arousing suspicion. No problems. She put it down without a second thought and reached for the envelope next to it - it was something she had been looking forward to for a while now. After all, it was the only personal contact that she had had with anyone for close to two months.

The envelope ripped open easily and she pulled out a glossy holiday greetings card, though not exactly a typical Hallmark statement. A red-and-green-bikini-clad bleached blonde adorned the front, clutching a pair of large beer mugs to her unnaturally generous chest. And a little speaking bubble was positioned next to her mouth, reading:

"Want some bonbons with your jugs?"

A face unaccustomed to laughing found itself in an unusual position as the woman chortled loudly, a little too loudly to be natural. The cards she received every year were growing more and more unseemly as the ritual began to degrade, but she laughed every time, no matter what.

At this point, she'd probably giggle madly if they left her a copy of "Hustler". Or "The Adult Video News"...

New train of thought, she reminded herself. That one's on the list, too.

She pushed her mind onward, opening the card and quietly tracing the words inscribed within.

*Merry Christmas, Lea.*

That, she barely paused at.

*He's okay*

But that simple phrase, she gazed at adoringly for ten minutes.

For as long as she got notes and cards with those precious words written on them, she could manage anything.

Even being alone.


She took a few things out of her backpack and set them up in the hotel room - her toothbrush in the bathroom, the one book she carried with her on the bedside table, a second pair of shoes in the closet. From a hidden pocket in her jacket she removed a small plastic case, which she shoved underneath the mattress.

With that attempt at settling in done, she took the flimsy chair and wedged it under the doorknob, checking the locks on the door and windows, and then, somewhat comforted, stretched out on the bed. She was asleep in seconds.

And was awake in three hours, due to her body's inability to relax for too long. But she felt strong and alert, which she knew was good for what lay ahead for her.

For she'd done some crazy stuff in her lifetime.

But shopping on Christmas Eve at 2:00 in the afternoon was probably the craziest.


Ignoring the elbows being jabbed into her sides, the woman fought her way to the bargain counter of Macy's, running her hands through the various scraps of cloth that probably two thousand people had pawed already. She always took a long time deciding on this one purchase - always purchased it on Christmas Eve - though she wasn't sure why.

After all, the receiver wouldn't receive it for months yet. It didn't matter if it was tasteful or tasteless - he would like it anyway. And even when he did receive this present, he would only wear it for a few minutes, and then put it away for God knows how long.

Maybe it was part of a deep desire to be part of the holiday season, she mused as she pondered various color combinations and shapes. To be able to buy a holiday gift for someone in her life, just like everyone else. One last effort to fit into society.

The idea almost made her laugh. Conformity was one of the last things she worried about nowadays.

Lifting up one pile of polyblends, her eyes alighted upon the perfect item near the bottom, and she snatched it up before the 200 pound plus grandmother next to her could. It got her a glare, but by then, she was moving on to the sales counter.

The line stretched across the store, just like every other year.

Sighing, the woman got in line and waited.


The necktie - a map of the United States on rayon - was purchased and packaged into a gift box, which the woman tucked carefully into her knapsack. Dodging more elbows, she walked out of the store and bundled her coat more tightly around her, shocked by the frigid outdoors in comparison to the sauna of Macy's.

Her next stop was, by necessity, the bank - this purchase had pretty much wiped her out and if she wanted to pay for her room and board for the next few nights, she had to do it before the banks closed. So she picked up her pace for the march to the nearest Wells Fargo.

On her way, though, she passed a Salvation Army Santa Claus manning a donation pot on one of the more busy street corners. Her first instinct was to simply pass by, as she normally did, but something stronger made her stop.

She knew that she shouldn't do what she was about to do, but it was only a tiny, small, insignificant risk - a tiny, small, insignificant risk that she needed to take. For the sake of her sanity, if for nothing else.

Reaching into her pocket, she pulled out three dollars and forty cents - the only money left from her November check - and walked over to Santa. Not daring to look into his eyes, she simply shoved the bills and coins into the pot, turning abruptly, but halted at the words the man in red shouted to her retreating back:

"Merry Christmas, ma'am!"

She turned around, startled. It was the first time in weeks that anyone had said anything more to her than "Cash or Charge?" And slowly, her lips turned up at the corners.

"Merry Christmas to you, too," she answered, too softly to be heard by the man. But her smile got the idea across.

She knew that the money she had just given wouldn't have much of an impact - that it would probably just go to buy paper clips or stamps. But it was an impact. An impact upon something of the Real World, not the limbo she dwelled in.

She got by on those small impacts nowadays, when memories of the larger impacts she had once made were unsatisfying or painful. The small ones kept her grounded, and she needed grounding, sometimes.

After all, in the old days, everyone had thought of her as the sane one. And she still had a desire to keep around some of who she had been. For sentimental reasons, if nothing else.

She just hoped that her sentimental reasons wouldn't end up getting her killed.


Everything at the bank went smoothly - the cashiers were as intense and focused as you'd expect cashiers to be on Christmas Eve, and barely glanced at her driver's license. Just another benefit of large cities during the holidays. She walked out of the bank with a fairly large amount of cash, the complimentary candy cane that "Nicky" had pushed upon her, and a low amount of stress.

But then she was thrown off-kilter completely as she saw a tall figure moving in her direction, his face obscured but his hair obviously a dark brown.

As she stared at the slowly approaching man, one part of her mind began trying to figure out if what her instincts said was right. Another part frantically ran through the procedure and protocols that they had set up, speculating about what might cause this kind of breach.

But the rest of her was consumed in a combination of pure hope and pure joy, as inevitable as sunrises or sunsets.

Although she had no idea what it would do to their plans, to their lives, she was so happy to see him - she was positive it was him - nobody else but him walked like that, or let their hair fall in their eyes like that man did - she couldn't be wrong this time...

However, Sherman Winters, divorcee and father of two, would probably have disagreed with her. He passed by without anything more than a casual glance to make sure that he wouldn't accidentally brush up against the sickly-pale waif.

Realizing her mistake, she quickly schooled her features into the expressionless mask she favored, and tried not to think about what had just happened.

*Can't attract attention. Can't start crying. Can't make a scene. Can't attract attention. Can't start crying. Can't make a scene...*

She began walking quickly and numbly, keeping up that litany, and didn't stop until she was back at the hotel. The tears flowed freely once she was safely in her room, but only for a few minutes.

For it was just one episode of a series of disappointments. And she had better things to do with her time.

And one demand upon it that she had yet to meet.

She sighed and reached for her knapsack, removing from it a very large bottle, from which she retrieved a very large pill.

She moved to the bathroom for a glass of water, shutting the door behind her.

The moans followed soon after that.


After finishing up in the bathroom, she laid down upon the bed and tried to sleep again, knowing that her body needed the rest. But it didn't happen, in part due to its being only 6:30 PM, and also due in part to the numerous trains of thought that were available for pondering. She kept on remembering the man she had seen - how closely he had resembled *him*. And when her restless mind grew sick of that torment, she could agonize about how much more painful the cramps had been that day - worry about what that could possibly mean. Then she could think about how it was Christmas Eve and she was completely alone...

She got up from the bed and started pacing around the hotel room restlessly. No doubt about it, she was getting cabin fever - she needed to get outside, among people. She tried to do that fairly often, these days, given how isolated she was. Even the slightest human contact helped keep her sane, but she knew what would happen if she went out that night.

Purely coincidentally, she would end up wandering by a church around 11:45 PM or so, and it would be brightly lit up and she would say to herself, "Let's just stop in and get warm." And then she'd decide to stay for Midnight Mass - and she couldn't let that happen. No matter how much she wanted it.

It wasn't that she believed in God any more, really. But sentiment was a powerful force in her life, and she fondly remembered past Midnight Masses on Christmas - the peace and the hope she had found from them. And she wanted to be able to find that peace and hope again.

But sentiment, she reminded herself, was what would eventually bring about her end. She had no more room in her life for sentimentality over the past. And a clean break from the past would ensure her safety - keep her from making mistakes. She took enough risks for sentiment's sake - and she knew that They knew of her background. If They suspected that she was in San Francisco on Christmas, They would keep an eye on the Catholic churches in the area on Christmas Eve. She knew that she would do the same, positions reversed.

There was probably some joke to make about the hunted becoming the hunter, but she wasn't in the mood.

She turned on the room's television set and found "It's A Wonderful Life" half-way in progress.

"Damn Mr. Potter," she muttered. "It was all his fault."

She settled in for what would be a long night.


Good intentions are odd things. As the saying goes, the road to Hell is paved with them - but the motives behind them are pure. And it seems, sometimes, that the intentions themselves should count for more than the actual actions.

Given that perception, it's truly too bad that actions are what really matter.

The woman's good intention was clear - to spend the night in her hotel room, watching old movies until she fell asleep, then wake up the next morning and take a train to her next destination. But at 11:00 P.M., she realized that she needed ice. So she went out to get some.

By 11:45, she was standing in front of the Grace Cathedral, waiting to be admitted inside. And she was livid with herself. This was exactly what she had wanted to avoid. Everything she had learned these long years said that she should not be there, in the open, exposed and vulnerable. The whole block was lit up, there were hundreds of people waiting to be admitted into the majestic cathedral - and one of them could so easily be a Them.

And one of Them would be all it would take to ruin everything, set the forces of darkness upon her. Only one rat to report to the other rats. One rat to tell his brothers where to find the long-chased cheese.

She could almost feel them descending upon her, tiny teeth biting into her, consuming her, leaving her mind for last as they sucked out everything important, the knowledge that she had gained, the knowledge she had traded everything for... Stealing all that she was...

A shove in the back recalled her to reality, and she caught up with the person in front of her quickly, her head lowered towards the ground. But she looked up from her shoes the second she was inside the church, awed by its beauty for a few short seconds. Then she began berating herself again, even as she genuflected at the entrance.

*you're going to get yourself killed you're going to lose everything everything you've worked for over a few prayers and hymns you're putting yourself exactly where They'd expect to find you you're going to get yourself killed you're going to get HIM kil-*

She cut that line of thought off the second it began touching upon sacred territory, and moved through the vestibule towards the pews, taking a seat near the back.

*It's a risk. But I'm taking it. It's my choice. And I'm already here - there's no point in leaving now.*

She opened up the Bible in front of her and flipped to the Book of Luke, trying to guess which passages would be featured that night.

And when the priest entered, she rose with the rest of the congregation.

But her eyes searched the crowd furtively as she listened to the blessing. Looking for someone who might be looking around as well. Someone looking for her.

Part of her was scoffing at the idea, the part that usually remained silent when her more suspicious side was ranting. This was a place of God, after all. They wouldn't pull anything here. She was just being paranoid.

An old line, used a thousand times before, popped into her head.

Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you.

The service held little meaning for her, consumed as she was by her suspicions. After all, what can messages of peace and harmony with one's neighbors really mean when one has no neighbors and can find no peace?

The entire occasion was an exercise in futility. And she left as soon as she could, heading for the anonymous safety of the streets.

The streets soon grew cold, though. And by then, it was close to 2:00 A.M.. And she was tired. And what was really lurking in that alley she had just passed...

A yellow blur passed by her left elbow, and she threw her arm up in an instantaneous reaction.

"Hey!" she shouted.

The taxi stopped.


The driver was grizzled, gray, and cliched in the extreme. He even said "Where to, ma'am?" like the stereotypical cabbie in bad movies was supposed to. Given how her evening had been going so far, she wasn't surprised by this plot twist.

Frowning at the "ma'am", she gave him a curt nod and a cool "Dominion Hotel," then settled back in her seat to watch the scenery flash by. It was too dark to really see anything, though.

Of course, she forgot the most important thing about stereotypical cabbies. They love to talk to their customers.

"You from around here, ma'am?" was the first question he threw back to her, looking over the seat to hear her answer.

She sighed forlornly. The "ma'am"s had to stop.

"It's Lea," she said, slightly pleased by how easily and naturally the name came off her lips. Almost like it was really hers. "And I'm not from around here."

"Just passing through, then?" he asked.

Even though she intellectually wanted nothing more than to be left alone, she kept the conversation going. She had a vague idea why. "Yeah. Just passing through."

"So it's your first time in San Fran?" he asked.

Memories flashed by her mind's eye - a drive from SFO Airport to Marin County and the house of an exsanguinated man. The herbal scent of tiny Chinatown groceries. "Not really. I've come through once or twice."

He looked over the seat again. "If you don't mind me askin', Lea - I get that right?"

She nodded.

"If you don't mind me askin', Lea, what's got you out here at this time of night? Christmas Eve, no less?"

Better to deflect questions than answer them. "It's Christmas Day by now. And I could ask the same of you."

"Well, Lea, I get double time for the night shift, and an added bonus for holidays. And by the time I'm home, Mrs. Taxi Driver will have gotten the little cabbies off to bed, and we can get the tree set up without worries about knee-high spies. It pays the bills and doesn't really inconvenience anyone. 'Cept my employer, because he has to pay me the extra that he wouldn't have to pay a Mohammed or Mordecai."

She smiled slightly at that, though she probably shouldn't have. It was just hard to avoid.

"You didn't answer my first question, Lea," he reminded her.

The smile faded as she tried to come up with a safe answer. "Wandering the desert," she said at last. "Searching for the land of milk and honey."

"For forty years?" he asked with a grin. A religious man.

"Not that long," she replied. "I hope."

Just then, they pulled up to the front of the hotel. "How much?" she asked.

"Seven fifty," the cabbie answered, and she passed it to him, then grabbing her backpack and exiting the car.

"You'll be okay, Lea?" he called out as she made her way to the hotel entrance. She nodded, and he pulled away.

By the time she was back in her room, she had realized that she had made more than enough mistakes that day to ruin everything. Giving the Salvation Army some of what little money she had. Going to Mass. Talking to the cabbie as if she was able to live a normal life. But nothing bad had happened - no shadows had lurched from the darkness to swallow her alive.

Must be a miracle, she thought ruefully.

Certainly the season for them.


The Christmas morning sunshine brought the woman from sleep around 7:00 A.M. - she had slept in.

And now, she was in a hurry, because she had a train to catch at 10:00. There was a nice little city a bit south of here called Los Altos - she remembered it from her second trip to San Francisco - and she figured that a day or so of absorbing the small-town atmosphere would do her some good.

So she quickly packed - loading the book, toothbrush, and second pair of shoes into her backpack - and paid her bill at the front desk. Since it was Christmas, she treated herself to a cranberry bagel and coffee at a nearby Starbucks, then hiked over to the train station.

She bought herself a copy of _The Chronicle_ and began skimming through it on a nearby bench, though her thoughts were elsewhere. It was Christmas Day, after all, and here she was, in a city of millions and completely alone. So her overactive mind was dragging up memories of past Christmases, reminding her of what she was missing.

Her favorite Christmas memory was rolling around in her mind - the one from the second Christmas with *him.* The only celebration they had done together had been dinner at her place and an exchange of small presents - but they had been so recently reunited, and they had been through so much, that each minute felt like perfection. And she had really loved the Marvin the Martian mug he had given her. That had been the most perfect thing of all.

A memory like that was on her forbidden list, but she ignored the subconscious urge to push it away. It was Christmas, after all - she deserved a treat.

Besides, on a day like this, she needed to remember why she was doing this. Why she was alone on Christmas Day.

For *him*, she thought with a smile.

For her, also.

And for their quest, as well.

But mostly for him.

And for what they had found together.

Remembering that *he* was out there, that one day, maybe, they wouldn't have to do this anymore, was what she needed to remember right then. That one day, they'd do everything she had done this Christmas - but they'd do it together.

She had that to live for. She had *him* to live for.

And with that determination rushing through her veins, she stood up and moved towards her train.

A chill breeze blew around ex-Special Agent Dana Katherine Scully as she boarded the economy car. Then it moved up and away to better places.

And, after the train had pulled away, there was almost nothing left of the woman in San Francisco, California.

For the sake of all that mattered, she was glad.

The End


"'Oh, Hester!... thou tellest of running a race to a man whose knees are tottering beneath him! I must die here! There is not the strength or courage left me to venture into the wide, strange world, alone!'

It was the last expression of the despondency of a broken spirit. He lacked energy to grasp the better fortune that seemed within his reach.

He repeated the word.

'Alone, Hester!'

'Thou shalt not go alone!' answered she, in a deep whisper.

Then, all was spoken!"

-The Scarlet Letter

 

Comments to EPurSeMouve

Thank you for reading

 

 

Title: Soap and Eggs III - A Grade-AA Valentine's Day
Author: EPurSeMouve
Written: March 1998
Category: S R A
Rating: PG-13 for some language and sexual innuendo.
Spoilers/Timeline: This story is part three of an alternate universe series, which splits off from the normal XF time stream right after "Demons." This means that NOTHING that happened in "Redux" (like a certain someone taking a bullet) has happened here. It will all be much clearer if you read "Soap and Eggs", the first story, and "Soap and Eggs II - An Ivory-White Christmas", the sequel. You can find them at the Gossamer Archive or ask me for them. There's a slight plagiarization from "Memento Mori". You'll know it when you see it.
Keywords: Mulder/Scully romance. Alternate universe.
Disclaimer: This story contains characters and mythology spawned by The X-Files, a show copyrighted by CC and 1013 Productions. The other cultural icons mentioned belong to their respective creators, but the actual plot and text are mine. Video store clerks don't earn enough for decent legal defense, so please don't sue me over anything within.
Archiving: Please forward to A.T.X.C. Archive anywhere you like - but let me know (just because I like knowing where my stories are) and keep my name with it.

Summary: The stage is set for the final conclusion.

Author's Note: There are two XF fanfics out there with the Title of "Smoking" - and they are both wonderful reads. Their authors are wonderful people as well - so thanks go to Whitney Cox (AKA Angel) for her "help" with this story and all my other endeavors, and to Alanna Baker and Michaela Iery for permission to use a small inside joke here.

Please send me e-mail. PLEASE. This story is a build-up to what will probably be the final part of the "Soap and Eggs" saga - but that part won't get written if I don't know that people want this series to continue. Or if they even care.

 


"Be aware that a halo has to fall only a few inches in order to become a noose."
-Dan McKinnon

"The knowledge that a secret exists is half of the secret."
-Joshua Meyrowitz

"Uh oh this means no fear cavalier renegade steer clear A tournament a tournament a tournament of lies Offer me solutions offer me alternatives and I decline."
-R.E.M., "It's The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)"


It has been unclear to me as to how the letter ended up on my desk.

Placed between my ashtray and the telephone sometime before I came in this morning, it was nearly invisible, given how my entire desk is always littered with papers. But yet it stood out, catching my eye almost immediately.

I have an eye for detail. It has come in handy over the years.

Certainly, it was not the work of some enigmatic informant, the sort that mysteriously appear and then disappear with sage advice, dire warnings, and classified documents. I say this mainly because I've made a career out of eliminating such men and women. And also because my activities are generally the ones being informed upon. A Long Esophagus or Ms. Z has little to offer me when it comes to information. Besides, I would have come across the letter eventually.

The best assumption I can make is that the letter was left by one of my associates, one of those unnamed men who knows how closely I'm following the Grisham Situation (so monikered by a rather young assistant who saw the similarities between the Agents and the heros of books like _The Pelican Brief_). And although I would like to assume that he or she left it for my own edification, I know all too well that my interest in the situation is spoken of in whispers when I am just out of earshot.

They are mocking me, I know. My position in the organization, after all, has never been very secure - if events had worked out differently, I might have ended up on the wrong end of a sniper rifle a long time ago.

But now they need me. The Agents were mine to control in the old days, and now I am the one who knows them best. I can understand their plans, predict their moves. My compatriots cannot afford to lose me at this stage in the game. Especially with so much at stake.

And it is clear now, from reading the letter, that we have much more to worry about. You'd never think that such a document could be the springer of such problems, given how grease-stained and wrinkled it is. The odor of potatoes and almost-beef suggests that it was pulled out of a fast food restaurant dumpster. In fact, it seems almost miraculous that these tattered sheets of paper made it all the way to my smoky New York office without giving up and decomposing. And they certainly don't seem important enough to be worth the amount of scrutiny that they'll receive in just a few short hours.

But appearances, I have always believed, are deceiving.

Content is what counts.


February 14, 2002
Valentine's Day

You'll never read this, Scully. If I can help it.

Don't think that it's a lack of trust, or love. At the risk of sounding like Ridge, the escapee from a bodice-ripper paperback, they're both things that we share in abundance. It's just a lack of faith in myself. You see, some stuff happened today that I need to share with someone. If we were together now, that someone would be the real you. But since we aren't, I'm substituting the Scully who keeps me company on lonely nights and long drives. The Scully who dwells solely within my imagination.

So you won't read this, unless you somehow find it and I'm... not there. And I hope that won't happen.

I mean, I REALLY hope that won't happen.

But even though I won't imagine your ever seeing this, it's still soothing to write something directed towards my mental image of you. After all, you've been almost everything else to me for years now - confidant especially.

So I confide in you, dear Scully, about the irony of the date du jour. For I've thought about it some and it seems to be intentional. After all, Fate and I go way back, and Fate's always found a way to taunt me like this. It's almost predictable that I would have to make the choice I made today, when everyone else in the free world is obsessed with love and romance.

I chose what I did for love, Scully, you gotta believe me on that one. I said "No" because saying yes might have betrayed everything. Everything you and I believe in, everything that keeps us unified.

My "no", however, will keep us separated for a while longer yet. And that's where the irony comes in. On the holiday of romance, I ended up denying the one person who, by all counts, is my own personal definition of the L-word.

That's where it gets odd, though. Ours is such an unusual relationship - you know that. And there are times when it seems that what we feel has nothing to do with romance. Completely unconnected to hearts and flowers and valentines. Just us needing each other in every way that anyone could possibly imagine....

Well, now that I think about it - yeah. There is THAT.

But it's weird, Scully. Because I think of you all the time - believe me, Scully, ALL The TIME - but it's usually about other stuff. The really important stuff. How you smile. The way you look when you cuss me out. The way you'll toss everything I throw at you right back. How you'll outsmart me and everyone else around you without even a little effort. And how you're with me even when you're not.

But I don't often think about THAT.

Believe me, Scully, I have nothing against THAT - absolutely nothing against THAT. Never get that impression, for my sake.

But THAT's something that's connected to all THIS. It didn't start until THIS did, it probably wouldn't have started if THIS hadn't happened, and THAT's the whole reason why THIS is bearable. THIS and THAT are as connected as you and I are. And you know how close that is.

Sorry - got mushy for a second. And even my mental Scully has little tolerance for mush. I'll get back on subject.

I'm currently hanging around Southern Florida - nice place in February - and this morning, I ended up driving over to the Miami Bureau of Customs and Immigration. Wearing decent clothing, even. The M.C. Escher tie. Only slightly wrinkled khakis and button-down. You would have been proud.

It's never come up when we see each other, but I do that a lot - hang out around Customs and Immigration offices. Especially when I'm cruising around the US border. Did it in Idaho, did it in Texas, did it in Michigan. Didn't do it in Missouri - but there really wasn't a lot to do in Missouri in the first place.

You see, ever since we started this odyssey, I've been learning as much as I can about three things.

One, how much background a newspaper will need before it will bring forth extremely serious allegations of treachery against our government (not to mention contradicting that whole We-Are-God's-Only-Creations thing).

Two, which pharmaceutical companies could be coerced into manufacturing a lifetime's supply of Kalocin - a long, full lifetime's worth.

And three - if a late-thirties American female and a early-forties American male could cross the American border at some point and never be seen again.

Number one's been a joke. Number two isn't much better. But number three....

Had a breakthrough with number three today, Scully.

It's just that the means isn't that attractive, though the end result is something you and I both long for. And for all our differences, I know that you and I will always agree to "rage against the dying of the light." It's one of the numerous things I love about you.

It's a long list. But that one's up pretty high on it.

And it's because of that reason that today was so disappointing. Because I had to make a decision for both of us, a big one, and I can't be completely sure that I did the right thing. Especially when it comes to you. Before all this, I could have just looked into your eyes and gotten the answers.

But you and your eyes are far away now. And, I don't know how to say this, but when I look into your eyes on our Halloweens, the Scully I knew so long ago is harder to see. You've changed - changed into a woman I still need intensely, but don't know as well as I once did. I can't imagine what these years have been like for you - but I do know that they've stolen something from you, something that you may not be able to regain.

I will ALWAYS love you. And I realize that, in the end, you would agree with what I told Tessa Mannes. But the years of solitude have left me a little insecure about everything, Scully. Even you.

You've probably already guessed that I met Mannes at the Customs Bureau - another reason why I love you, always two steps ahead of me - and you'd be right. I had called the place ahead of time and hers was the first human voice I heard, telling me calmly that, yes, I could come by and meet with her about my early retirement plans whenever it was convenient.

That was just scary by itself - I know from experience that government employees aren't supposed to be that helpful - but I figured that I had just lucked upon the only friendly public servant in the country. And I let my guard drop.

Stupid mistake, I know. I've chewed my own ass out about it enough for both of us. But it's pointless to think about, because it won't change anything. The past is the past.

I'm losing the story, though. The point is, that I trusted Mannes. Trusted her enough to meet with her in person, to spin her my little fabrication about wanting to travel around the Bahamas on a boat with my wife, now that I was financially able to give up the rat race.

And she sat there, in her little cage of a cubicle, in the crowded and dank basement of the building, nodding intelligently, listening to every word. She had arresting eyes, Scully, I tell you that. Probably kicked ass in staring contests when she was younger.

And when she was done listening to my story, those eyes began skimming over documents, sorting through papers, trying to figure out what facts were important to my case and which weren't. Set in a small, round face, her eyes seemed like razor blades sticking through a lump of dough - sharpness and softness uneasily meshed together.

"Well, Mr. Pequod," she said at last, "There are a few problems with what you'd like to do - especially if you and your wife are unable to get passports before you leave."

I had told her that we needed to leave as soon as possible, because we had already found a buyer for our current home and the person willing to sell us the boat couldn't wait much longer. The lies were fun, I'll admit - being able to conjure up this whole other life for us was soothing. It was like the recognition of a fantasy life as reality.

Of course, the reality of it is that customs checks involve too much paperwork, too much of a paper trail that could lead from Justin Pequod and Lea Flask to Fox Mulder and Dana Scully. And the Gunmen can't reproduce passports these days - something about the new magnetic strips. They have theories...

Sorry to ramble - back to what Mannes was saying. It is pretty important.

"The main problem, I think, would be that you really wouldn't be able to reenter the country. Small islands aren't that difficult, but it'd be close to impossible for you to dock your boat in American waters and get on shore without submitting to passport and customs checks, which would be pretty close to impossible for you to do without a passport.

"You'd have to pretty much disappear."

Her exact words, Scully. I'm not making this up. But I hadn't caught onto what's probably obvious to you by this point, though, and didn't bat an eyelash. Just asked her if there was anything else I should be aware of.

"You might have some problems with the local governments, and you couldn't go to any American Embassy for help if you found yourself in some trouble, because the Embassy wouldn't be able to confirm your citizenship. And they would have some questions to ask about why you left the country in the first place. It would be difficult for you to receive any real help from the authorities. But I imagine that you've already accepted that?"

I nodded. And, in her eyes, her victory was blatant.

The razor blades were focused upon me, full-blast. "There's some other information you'll need, but I don't have it here. Will you be in town long?"

My plans were to move on to Key Largo tomorrow, so I had to tell her no.

"Then meet me here-" she took out a small Xerox of a tourist's Metro map and marked one street corner with an X "-at around eight o'clock. It's a small bar, The Kokomo - we'll get a drink and I'll tell you the rest of what you need to know."

You don't say no to eyes like that, Scully, even though I knew how extremely odd this was. Public servants do NOT do this sort of stuff - either she was asking me out, or there was something even stranger going on. Neither option was very attractive, and I should have said no and walked straight out of there.

But, with all the recklessness you've come to expect from me, I said yes and put the map in my pocket.

And even more recklessly, I waited on a bar stool at 8:03 PM.

She wasn't late, and I found that the contrast between her eyes and her face in the rest of her body - a soft, plump form concealed by a sharply angled blouse and crisp no-nonsense slacks. The creases seemed to levitate above her curves.

What had been hidden behind a desk before, but was obvious to me now, was that this was a hard woman trapped in a soft body. A nebulous form with a core of steel.

She had been right - it was a fairly small bar - but we were able to choose a table fairly out of the way. And she got right down to business.

"I'm not working with Them. I'm not one of Them. You have to understand that."

She said it so innocuously, so sincerely - never mind what it implied for us.

And I don't know how to describe my reaction, Scully. Shock's definitely involved, but there's also a mixture of self-loathing and fear to be accounted for, not to mention some wounded pride (never expected anyone to recognize me with dyed hair), panic (if the past could catch up with me, what about you?), not to mention a near loss of bladder control...

I'll keep it simple and say that the statement definitely caught me off-guard.

She kept going, confusing and unnerving me more with each word. "Of course, They think I'm with Them, but there's another Them out there, which is dedicated to fighting against the main Them - the lack of names gets kind of confusing, I know, but you get used to it - and that's who I'm with. The other Them."

Her eyes were focused on me, hard as flint, and their strength kept me dumbfounded. I still sat there, silent.

"And We need your help. And her help as well."

I'll give you one guess on who the "her" was, Scully. I sure didn't need any clarification.

"With the information you both have, We could eliminate Them, make sure that They did not succeed with what They're planning. And They MUST NOT SUCCEED."

She practically snarled the last out. She seemed to be quite vehement on the subject.

I managed to say something at this point, vaguely resembling "How?".

"How did We find you, you mean?"

A nod on my part - my conversation skills have never been the greatest.

"Stupid mistakes. Nobody's perfect, you know. You and her have slipped up from time to time, and We've managed to keep track of you because of them. But the other Them don't have all the information that We do - They have more pull with those above than They do with those on ground. That's why you're both still alive, really."

The only thing I could say came to my lips deceptively easily: "You know where she is."

"Yes, We do - and They have a vague idea. However, We weren't completely sure about your location, though you solved the problem for Us."

There was too much in what she was saying to decipher. And her eyes - I think they were gray, though you didn't really notice the color - weren't helping my powers of concentration.

I had, so far, gotten the impression that you weren't in any immediate danger, which comforted me a little. And it helped me focus a bit more intently. "What do you want?" When I said it, it didn't sound like my voice - a bit too hollow.

"To make a deal. The tapes for your freedom. We'll... deal with Them, and you two sail off into the sunset, free to roam the ocean and explore the thousand beaches of the Bahamas. No more lying, no more hiding. You'll be able to live your lives again. Live together again. How long have you been separated now?"

Four years, Scully. Four years, four months, and seventeen days. Longer than four decades.

"You have to give me an answer right now, and you have to hand over the tape - right now. I'll hide you somewhere, and We'll collect your partner, then send you both on your merry ways."

I couldn't respond. Stuff like this isn't supposed to happen so easily, after all. We've been wandering the country and watching our backs for four years now - and all of a sudden, this little lady was giving us exactly what we needed. It was surreal.

Sometimes going along with good fortune isn't such an awful idea. And I opened my mouth to say yes, that I'd do it, that I'd give up everything if I knew that you and I would be together again, safe and sound.

But I kept myself from doing so. Enough years on the run will teach a man restraint, after all. And I had recovered from my shock enough to switch back into paranoia mode. You'd have been proud of me.

"How am I supposed to trust you? You could be just be one of Them, hoping I'd believe you and hand over the tape."

"I could be."

"You could be an assassin hired to kill me, gaining my trust with your promises, then luring me somewhere private."

"It's possible."

"You could be some random nutcase who has *no* idea what she's talking about."

"Even that's plausible. I could be all of those things. And I can't change your opinions on the subject."

There was only one question to ask. "Then how can I trust that you are who you say you are? That the second you have the tape, I won't end up with a knife in my back."

"I have no assurances for you. But you pass up this opportunity, you never get it again. Your partner either. We can't wait around for you to change your minds - we have to stop Them before it's too late, and we need to plan around your lack of involvement."

It seemed too easy, her promises of a better life where someone else took up the struggle and left us alone at last.

We've suffered plenty, I know - but this is our fight. And I couldn't just give it up like that. Especially without your consent, and especially without the knowledge that what I was doing was the right thing.

There have been times when I've thought about ditching the car, getting a ride on a fishing boat, and heading out to the Florida Keys, then disappearing to San Salvador or Grand Bahama Island. Never to be seen again. But I can't abandon you. And I can't abandon the quest.

Tessa Mannes could have been one of Them, trying to make me give up our only bargaining chip, our only safeguard for survival. She could have been telling me a thousand different lies at once. She could have even been telling the truth - but how can we say that a conspiracy ruled by these new Them would be better than the old Them?

I've always thought that there might be some dissension among Them, and so Mannes' proclamation only confirmed that. It's not that surprising, to be honest. Devils have no good reason for loyalty, but many good reasons for betrayal.

I can't side with anyone I don't trust. And I trust only you, Scully.

I'm still not sure what you would have said, given the choice. You might have agreed with me, or you might have looked at me with those aching eyes of yours and begged me to end this. Like you did in that small diner in Maryland, when all you wanted to do was go home and see your sister before she was gone for good.

I continue to believe that you'd have agreed with me. But it's been shown in the past that not everything I believe in is one hundred percent accurate.

So I told her no. That it was too uncertain, that I couldn't take the risk. She nodded slowly, and then stood up.

With hard eyes, watching me - eyes that had always been watching me, on busy streets and through hidden cameras and in public and private whenever they could - and an ambiguous body, impossible to completely see, impossible to name, impossible to identify, disguised by ill-fitting covers and almost-masking sheaths.

"You're making the wrong decision. But it's your decision to make. One other thing?"

I nodded.

"I'm not one of Them, but They don't know that. And I have to file my reports in completion, just like everyone else, or They'll get suspicious."

She walked out of the bar then, leaving me stunned. But then I saw the little scrap of paper she had left behind on the table.

I picked it up and read it. It was the obvious thing to do. And boy, was she prepared. Typed onto nice, clean paper, all it said was:

*Run, Fox.*

I thought about it for two seconds, and then dashed for the Rabbit. I was out of Miami in an hour.

So, here I am, parked in a McDonald's parking lot somewhere in the suburbs, writing this before the details escape me. It's calming, in a way. Almost as calming as telling stories about Mr. and Mrs. Pequod, planning a retirement cruise. Almost as calming as searching your eyes for answers.

Almost as comforting as rocking my body against yours. Almost as soothing as cupping your small head, the vessel of your brilliant brain and the center of your dear soul. Almost as nurturing as the dream of opening my eyes every morning to see that small head on the pillow next to mine.

The dreaming has been enough for me for a long time - it kept me going before THIS and THAT, and keeps me going now. And the dream of joining up with you after a successful journey, completed on OUR terms, is a dream that can wait. It can wait until we've won.

And if we don't win... Then we'll piece something together. Hope can keep me going - it always has before.

I feel these words as if their meaning were weight being lifted from me. And though I no longer believe that the Truth will save us, I do believe that the Truth will avenge us. For once the Truth is set free from the lies, all of this will be validated. All of our pain. All of our loneliness.

We are the guardians of the Truth now, Scully. And we can't be too careful with what we do with it. It's all we have left, after all, besides each other.

I just flipped on the radio. R.E.M.'s "It's The End Of The World As We Know It" is playing on some old rock station.

Oh, honey. It's our song.


The letter ends there - the last page was probably lost to a homeless man who wanted a wrapper for his day-old Big Mac.

But Mr. Mulder never uttered truer words.

It's only going to get worse from here.

The End


Comments to EPurSeMouve

Thank you for reading.

 

 

Title: Soap and Eggs IV - Suds and Shells
Author: EPurSeMouve
Written: June 1998
Category: S R A
Rating: PG-13 - strong language warning.
Spoilers/Timeline: Spoilers for episodes up to "Demons." Having read "Soap and Eggs I - III" (available through the Gossamer archive or myself) is pretty essential to understanding the events herein Keywords: Mulder/Scully romance. Alternate universe.
Disclaimer: This story contains characters and mythology spawned by The X-Files, a show copyrighted by CC and 1013 Productions. The other cultural icons mentioned belong to their respective creators, but the actual plot and text are mine. Video store clerks don't earn enough for decent legal defense, so please don't sue me over anything within.
Archiving: Please forward to A.T.X.C. Archive anywhere you like - but let me know (just because I like knowing where my stories are) and keep my name with it.

Summary: Sometimes, it's hard to decide when to settle for life's leftovers. Dedication: To the Great Potato and the beta-readers: my father, Whitney Cox, Firelynx, Nicole Perry, Katherine Ross, and Ingrid Guillaume. This story wouldn't have been finished without you all, and wouldn't have been readable, either. I mean that.

Consider it a farewell letter to the Soap and Eggs series. Because after this, it really is up to your imaginations. Author's Note: Yes, you read that right. This is the last of the Soap and Eggs stores. I've enjoyed playing around in my little alternate universe, and I still don't feel like I've answered all the little questions that continue to plague me. But there are some stories that are best left untold. And only a few that really seem to be worth the telling.


Prologue

"Mommy," said the little girl, tucked away into bed. "Tell me a story."

The woman smiled kindly, stroking some errant hair away from the girl's face. "Okay, sweetheart. What kind of story would you like?"

The little girl's face squeezed together with thought. "A true story. But not a real true story. A story that could be true, in real life."

"A story that could really happen, then. What should it be about?"

"I dunno."

"Should it have adventure in it?"

"Yeah. I want an exciting story. With lots of stuff happening."

"Should it have people who are very bad and people who are very good?"

"Yeah. Good guys and bad guys. But the bad guys can't be too bad, and the good guys can't be too good. They should be real kinds of people."

"Do you want a prince and a princess?"

"No! Princes and princesses aren't real. But there should be a boy and a girl in it. They should be the good guys."

"And how should it end, sweetheart?"

A pause for thought. "I don't really think that I want a happy ending. Happy endings don't always happen. They don't always feel real. And I want a story with an ending that does."

"So, you want an exciting adventure story that could really happen, with people who are good, but not too good, people who are bad, but not too bad, and with a boy and a girl. And it should end in a real way. I think I know such a story."

"You do? Really?"

"Yes - do you want to hear it?"

"Does it have adventure? Do the boy and girl do interesting things?"

"Yes, they do."

"Do the bad guys lose?"

"Sort of."

"Huh?"

"Well, they don't win."

"Do the good guys lose?"

"No. But they don't win, either."

The girl looked proud. "That's a real ending. What about the boy and girl? Are they real people?"

"They're as real as possible. They're good, decent people. But not too good or decent. They have problems and flaws, just like everyone else."

"Do they like each other?"

"Very much so. In fact, they're in love."

"Oh. It's THAT kind of story." The child was not pleased. "I bet it has a dumb sappy ending."

"Oh, no! The boy and the girl love each other very much indeed. But it's not the most important thing."

"Then what is?"

"The Truth."

"The Truth?"

"Yes. The Truth about everything. Shadows and light, illusion and fact, wrong and right. About awful things people have done to other people. About lies people have told to cover up those awful things. About what goes on behind what we see every day. The Truth about everything bad and good that has ever happened."

"Oh. I like the Truth, then."

"So do the boy and the girl. That's what gets them into so much trouble."

"Okay, Mommy. I wanna hear it. Tell me the story."

"All right, but listen carefully, sweetheart. It's a long one."


Chapter One

"That which is not expressly forbidden is destined to occur."
-Lawrence Krauss


The dream is the same as always.

A dark room, walls (limits?) concealed with gray nothingness. The soft thuds of dress shoes (two pairs?), on the floor, moving closer (closer to what?). The absence of anything else. No touch, no sight, no...

Nothing.

Nothing except the shoes and the room of shadows.

The shoes begin to circle in, closer and closer, with two different click-clacks audible. The heavier thuds (supporting the weight of someone tall, supporting the weight of the world?) mesh with the sharp reports (elevating someone short, in a futile attempt to see more - reach more than was normally visible?) into a eerie, beautiful symphony. The theme music for the long walk.

The shoes are almost there, their circles growing tighter and tighter as they begin to realize where they need to go, where they aren't supposed to go. Where almost everything they desire lies in wait. And they're almost there, almost in sight of the brass ring, the real McCoy, all the marbles....

And then they are there.

And there is light.

Not the light that nurtures and soothes and restores. Instead, harsh, blinding light, a coarse beam coming from the top and hitting the bottom, enfolding the sound of the shoes.

It is not a pleasant embrace. But it's what they want, what they were moving towards all that time. All those long years of circling in the dark, waiting for the light, ignoring everything else until they could reach it -

(even ignoring each other)

- all of it was for the light. And there they are, and the light is as bright as they had imagined.

And then it consumes them, and the pain begins, stronger than it was all those years in the dark.

They are alone, in the light.

Their past in the dark beckons.

They reach, but are unable to step back. The light won't go away. And it has a death grip on them both, pulling the heavy thuds away from the sharp clacks.

The music of their footsteps is gone. They are separate.

And each is alone with the light.

Which offers no comfort.


There is a time difference of three hours. Almost four thousand miles of civilization. And many other physical boundaries.

But they are all absolutely meaningless.

Ex-Special Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully always dream their dream together, always wake up at the same time. Their breathing always heavy, their eyes always wide.

And their thoughts always with the other.


One of these dream-filled nights was the hot June night that marked the beginning of the end.

But the man who was registered in a Floridian fleabag motel as Justin Pequod didn't know it.

Weighing most heavily on his mind, instead, was the woman who was hopefully asleep in another hotel room, far away. He wondered about her, as he managed to do about forty times a day.

Was she happy?

Was she safe?

Was she watching her back?

Was she under attack by the hidden forces of Them?

Was she a brunette?

He pondered her, imagined her, profiled her, dissected her in a million and one ways. Took her apart and marveled at her perfections. It was how he usually comforted himself, after The Dream. And it was enough to combat his fear.

That is to say, it was normally enough. But there was a slight complication that night, distracting his normally intense focus and starting to tread on nerves already worn too thin.

He was glad that the couple next door was having a good time. He really was.

He just didn't want to HEAR it.

And he was losing any choice in the matter.

Thumping on the wall separating his bed and their bed hadn't worked. Putting a pillow over his head might send him off to Nod again, and a repeat of The Dream wasn't a welcome idea. There was no TV in the room, and the radio only picked up the world's most annoying frequency of static.

The worst part was that his imagination was connecting the dots between the groans, moans, and thumps, and it was starting to make him feel a little bit... intrigued. And it simply wasn't appropriate.

Sighing, he reached for his t-shirt and jeans, then tennis shoes with no socks. He wasn't planning on being gone all that long - just a quick walk next door to knock on the door and ask the happy honeymooners to stop being so... happy.

That's why he left the DAT tape in its hiding place, shoved into the base of a wicker lamp. Where he was sure it would be safe.


That same night, the woman registered in a Californian fleabag motel as Lea Flask was also awake.

The Dream had woken her up - it seemed to do so more often these days - and with the duo next door having a very active time and the TV on the fritz, she was miserable. Bored. And lonely.

Reaching beneath the bed, she pulled out her backpack and retrieved her copy of _Moby Dick_, flipping through it in an attempt to hit a favorite scene or two.

However, all she came across were Melville's dissertations on cetology and "Heaven have mercy on us all - Presbyterians and Pagans alike - for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending."

She grimaced and put the book down.

She was alone, and weary. The Dream had reminded her of what was, and the couple next door was reminding her of what might have been. The contrast was having unbearable effects, and there was only one real solution for that problem.

She sighed and broke an often-violated rule. She imagined HIM.

Imagined HIM in their old office, a devilish glint in his eyes as he handed her another goose-chase case file.

Imagined HIM asleep in the car seat next to her, a few locks of hair over his brow begging to be pushed back

Imagined HIS arms around her as she cried into HIS chest, hands running smoothly over her back, giving her the comfort she hated craving.

Imagined HIS hands moving slowly across her skin, memorizing beloved territory as they began to encroach upon...

She got off the bed and started pacing, hoping to burn off some of her new-found... energy. But it was difficult to concentrate on pacing when, next door, squeaky bedsteads and human groans were gaining in volume.

An especially loud moan broke the camel's back. She pulled on wrinkled khakis and a sweater, not bothering to tie her shoes as she slammed her feet into their worn canvas.

Her most important possession remained hidden in the overhead lighting fixture. She saw no need to retrieve it.

After all, she would only be gone for a few minutes.


Despite the boundaries, it has been said previously, Mulder and Scully were always together. This is not an inaccurate statement

For Mulder and Scully were unable to be truly separated in any other way. They saw each other in a thousand and one different strangers. They cherished small gifts that bore the memory of the other's touch. And their thoughts were always, consciously or unconsciously, concerned with the other's well-being.

At some level, they had never really parted. For, long ago, intangible, indescribable bits of their individual essences had been mixed together, and were now inseparable. Mulder might have said that their astral spirits had joined in a sort of nexus. Scully might have turned to her long-neglected spiritual beliefs and considered it a bonding of their souls.

However, they weren't consciously aware of the phenomenon, and were for the most part only clued into the fact that they missed each other an awful lot.

The connection, though, was definitely there. And although it did not make itself known most of the time, it had the ability to show itself upon occasion, sending vibrations along an invisible thread like two cans connected by a string.

It hadn't ever been utilized fully, because there never been a need for a message to transcend physical boundaries. Only once, in fact, had hints been made of its presence.

*I've come back from the dead to continue with you...*

And that had been a long time ago.

But forces, both of the physical and the spiritual world, were stirring. And the connection, almost its own entity, could sense those forces, knowing something with the knowledge of eons.

It was possibly time to make itself known.

For its help would be needed.

That, it knew for sure.


On that late June night, known as the beginning of the end, things began happening simultaneously.

Two hands, large and small, knocked loudly upon two different hotel rooms. Annoyedly.

The doors to the hotel rooms opened up after a few seconds. Long enough for guards to drop infinitesimally.

Beefy fists, too large to be described as hands, reached out and grabbed the people who had knocked upon the doors.

They were thrown into the rooms, where guns were being drawn and cassette players were still emitting sounds of passion.

And, as thugs approached them with syringes extended, the two people hugging the floor had a simultaneous thought.

*Oh, shit.*


"Mommy, why did the bad people grab the boy and girl?"

"Because they wanted something back. Something the boy and girl had."

"But what was that?"

"Information. The closest thing to the Truth."

"What's the difference?"

"Well, information doesn't do much good to anyone if it's kept secret. And the boy and girl had no way to let people know what the Truth was. All they had was the information, which was all right. But not what they wanted."

"Yeah. They wanted the Truth."

"Right."

"But did the bad people want the Truth, too?"

"No. They just wanted to make sure that the information the boy and girl had didn't become the Truth."

"So that's why they took them?"

"Well, it really wasn't the only reason. In fact, there was a lot more to it."


Chapter Two

"The best proof of love is trust."
-Dr. Joyce Brothers


Ka-thump-ka-thump-ka-thump-KA-THUMPA........

Mulder, shaken out of sleep by the speed bump, struggled to consciousness slowly, rolling onto his back to take inventory of his surroundings.

He found himself looking at the roof of a van. Not a very fancy one, with unpadded dirty metal being the chief decorating scheme.

He also found himself looking at a group of blank-faced individuals, all leaning over his prostrate form.

"Where are we going?" he choked out.

Another syringe was his answer.

Ka-thump-ka-thump-ka-thump-ka-thump.......

Then nothing.


Daniel Dunn liked his job. It was interesting, and the work he did had an impact upon lots of people, which gave him a good feeling at the end of the day. There were parts that were unpleasant - there always are - but the messy bits were never that awful and someone always came by fairly promptly to clean up. He got along all right with his coworkers, and never found himself bored with the day-to-day procedure. After all, something new was always bound to show up.

Like this morning, when he had come into the office to find quite a name waiting for him - an almost legendary case. Smiling a little at what this showed about his current status in the organization, he calmly took the assignment form, reviewed the supplementary information, and made his own judgments on the intended goal. Even plotted out a few strategies.

Everything said that this would be a difficult one. But he knew what he was doing.

Still smiling that little smile, he unlocked the small room where the subject was waiting.

He stuck his head inside, then the rest of his body.

"Hi Miss Scully," he said cheerfully. "Rest well?"


Ka-thump-ka-thump-ka-thump-ka-thump......

The drive from Florida to Nevada is a long one, but can be made in about 48 hours if you keep your foot on the accelerator and your eyes on the horizon.

The battered van making its way across the country was well on its way to making the trip in 24.

Ka-thump-ka-thump-ka-thump-ka-thump......


"So you see, Miss Scully, my job here is fairly simple. I just sit here all day and I listen to people talk. I've always been a big listener, see, and it's nice to be able to use that talent. I'm very good at it, you see?"

The small woman did not appear to see - her eyes instead remained focused on the handcuffs that kept her wrist close to the chair's padded arm.

But Dunn kept going - as he had for a while now. "But it makes my job difficult when the person I'm working with won't talk." The frustration was starting to show, his sentences coming out harsher every minute. "Especially since I've made it clear to her that her not talking is a pretty bad idea. For me and her."

He had been throwing conversation openers at her for about an hour, with no reaction. And he wasn't worried - it had once taken him three days to establish contact with an especially important and taciturn young man. The information that had been provided in that coup had kept a war from starting.

Nobody knew about it, of course - no one ever did.

Sometimes, he considered that the best part of his job.

This opening of communication, though, could be the worst part - so many of his subjects were unwilling at first. Wrong in their reasons for keeping silent, but devoted to them, devoted to remaining loyal to some cause.

All there was to changing their minds was making them look at their reasons.

First, however, they had to talk back.


Ka-thump-ka-thump-ka-thump-KA-THUMP.

The van pulled into the complex.

Its cargo was unloaded.

And things began moving even more quickly.


"Miss Scully, we really don't have time for this. I've got some deadlines to meet, and I need your cooperation in order to at least come halfway. It's a simple question, really, and I know you can answer it."

No response.

"Come on, Miss Scully, work with me here. Tell me who besides yourself knows about the tape - knows anything about the information on it."

No response.

"Okay, Miss Scully - let's play a game. Confirm or Deny. I'll say something, and all you have to do is tell me if I'm wrong or not. Yes or no."

No response. At least, he mused, she was consistent.

"All right, Miss Scully - first statement. In college, your senior thesis was on the mise-en-scene implemented in Marx Brothers films. Confirm or deny?"

She said nothing.

"Second - you were never a real redhead. Confirm or deny?"

Ditto.

"Third - your mother knows what's on the tape."

At least this time, she blinked.

"Confirm or deny, Miss Scully? Huh?"

And her face grew even more stony.

"First two aren't that important, Miss Scully. But the third one is."

She was definitely reacting now, her fingers twitching almost violently.

"And have you ever heard the saying 'Silence is consent under the law?' Silence can only confirm statement number three. And I have a feeling that you respect the truth enough to confirm or deny what could be a bald-faced lie."

No reaction, except for the fingers. And the tapping of her feet, pounding out a nervous rhythm.

"You realize that if statement number three is true, Miss Scully, then your mother will have to be dealt with. Nothing personal, you understand - but she will be a loose end. A loose end that we'll have to take care of."

She looked right at him then, her blue eyes doing their best to pierce through his skull. And he knew what she was saying.

"Yes, Miss Scully, I would dare. It's the way things work - you know that. Leaky pipes have to be plugged. Otherwise, there'd be a big mess."

The anger in her eyes was - for a split second - overshadowed by fear. Then she lowered her head, letting light brown hair sweep over her face.

He threw some papers on the table next to Miss Scully's chair, then walked out into the hallway. He'd give her some time to look them over.

After all, to the untrained eye, a hit contract can be hard to decipher.

No doubt about it. He really liked his job.


Through the window of her small office, Esther Finn watched the unconscious body roll inside, sighing somewhat. She wished that They wouldn't drug her subjects up so much - it always meant a good wait before the poor souls were cognizant enough to provide any information.

And then They would go on and on about The Project and how this person's cooperation was absolutely ESSENTIAL to it and They needed the information right THEN and if They didn't get it heads would ROLL. But, no, They never thought about things like that when her subjects were en route.

Dumb thugs. Put needles in their hands and they'd turn a human being into broccoli. Then point guns at you when the results took too long, claiming that you would ruin everything.

Bullshit. She had been doing this job for a long time. And the world hadn't ended yet because some guy cracked at one A.M. instead of midnight.

Well, this gave her some time to review the notes on this guy - find the one pressure point she'd have to squeeze. And Daniel was working today. He might need someone to play bad cop with his current assignment. She'd keep busy - she always had before.

She started the coffee maker and reached for Mr. Mulder's file.


Daniel walked back into the dark room to find the young woman at attention and waiting for him.

And she spoke. Quietly, firmly.

"It won't work."

Not much, Daniel knew - but it was a start.

"What won't work?" he replied blandly.

"Threatening my mother."

Perfect. Just perfect. "Who says I was threatening her? I was just being honest with you, Miss Scully. If she knows anything, then she has to be dealt with. It's a simple fact."

Silence. She stared at the handcuffs again.

"Of course, Miss Scully, if she *doesn't* know anything, then there's nothing to worry about, is there? She'll be fine. No threat to her whatsoever.

"So, Miss Scully, if you were to tell me if she knows anything, I'd be able to call the people who were given the original of that contract-" he gestured to the papers on the table "-and tell them to lay off."

"How would you know I was telling the truth?" she muttered softly, not even really directed at him. Her eyes still on the handcuffs.

"Because I've heard of you before today. And I know what the Truth means to you."

She smiled at that. "So you'd trust me?"

He ignored her smirk. "Yes, I would. But you have to trust me als-"

Her hair falling in her face, Miss Scully's laughter filled the room. Thick with bitterness, it wasn't a pleasant sound.

"We find ourselves at an impasse," she deadpanned as she regained sobriety. "I can't trust anyone."

"Anyone?" Daniel questioned.

And, seeing the look on her face, knew he had simplified the problem.

"My mother doesn't know anything." It came out in a whisper, and he knew how difficult it was for her to say that. "She just knows that I'm not dead."

He smiled. "Good. Now, let's move on, shall we?"


Esther looked over Mr. Mulder's file, almost laughing at the emphasis being placed on him. The information They wanted was so simple, so unnecessary - and yet he had been rushed here at undoubtedly illegal speeds, pumped full of drugs, and placed on the top priority list.

It made no sense whatsoever. But she had never been one to shirk her responsibilities. It might turn out to be the most obnoxious waste of time in her career, but she'd do it - and do it well. Never let anyone say that Finn didn't finish up.

"Esther?" a passing orderly called out as he passed by.

"Yeah, Marc?" she replied amiably.

"He's ready. Room 2."

"Thanks," she said briefly, collecting her papers. "Hey, Marc?"

He stopped. "Yeah, Esther?"

"Who's in room 1?"

"Daniel and his buddy. You might consider teaming up with him at some point - he's got this guy's better half."

She gaped. "They gave *her* to *Daniel*? She'll tear him apart!"

"Well, he's done well enough, braving the lion's den."

She smirked at him. "Keep it in the churchyard, Marc. This is business."

As she walked out of her small office, she reached up and gave him a peck on the cheek - a ritual they'd started a few months ago, and had enjoyed since. "But after business hours..." she murmured suggestively.

He looked a little uncomfortable. "Esther, hold on a sec. I need to talk to you."

Esther gave him a half-serious, half-playful look. "About what?"

His face grew more pinched, an expression Esther recognized as worry, as he tried to find the words. "Watch yourself with this new guy."

She raised her eyebrows. "Any real reason?"

He shrugged. "I don't really know. The whole thing just doesn't give out good vibrations."

She picked up on his concern, but tried to be rational. "In what way? You're always a little paranoid about these things, but we do some pretty weird stuff on a day to day basis, and we're none the worse for wear."

"It's just that when I was watching Them wheel him in, it felt like the morning before a typhoon, when you know that there's going to be a rainy sunset. I can't really explain it - I just feel like something's going to happen. Something big. And we'll be the cause of it."

She grinned up at him, hopefully reassuringly. "Well, let's hope you're wrong."

He returned the smile, halfheartedly. "Yeah. Let's."

They met in a quick, chaste kiss, then broke off, Esther starting to move down the whitewashed corridor. "I'll see you later - gotta make sure Daniel's keeping unchewed," Esther said.

Marc called after her, "Yeah. But Esther?"

She stopped.

"Be careful," he said softly.

She smiled in agreement and moved out of sight.


The cliched one-way mirror idea had been renovated long ago by Them, and now subjects under observation could be viewed unawares, via the miracle of modern technology. The cameras were hidden, the signals transmitted to a locked room in another building - it was the perfect arrangement for the interrogator who needed to see behind the attitude copped while "under the light."

Daniel took advantage of said miracle whenever he could, often crouching in front of a monitor in between sessions to decipher his current subject's secrets.

Currently, he was nearly going cross-eyed as he focused intently upon Dana Scully eating dinner.

They hadn't fed her since she had been taken, almost twenty-four hours ago, but she only picked at the chicken and peas, sipped the tall glass of water. It baffled Daniel.

"Finicky, isn't she?" came a voice from behind him, the sound of a closing door accompanying it. A cool, confident, slightly coarse voice.

Daniel recognized it. Everyone who worked in this facility could recognize it.

It had been a few months, though - Daniel was surprised that this man hadn't arrived sooner. After all, everyone knew that these two were HIS.

His responsibilities. His pains-in-the-ass. His playthings. Whatever.

"Yeah," Daniel answered, not turning around. He'd always been a little terrified of the higher-ups among Them. Generally, that was a healthy attitude, but his fear at a rough voice and the faint scent of tobacco was overwhelming him in this instance. "She's barely touched it."

The voice floated back to him. "Correction. She hasn't touched it at all. Spits back the water, hides the food under her napkin. The classic tricks of the anorexic. Or the paranoid."

Daniel, shocked, watched her a little more carefully, and found that he was right. Nothing was actually staying in her mouth. "She thinks we poisoned it. Or added some sort of truth serum or hallucinogen."

The voice chuckled a bit. "Perhaps. She's probably only half-conscious she's doing it, though. Habits like the ones she's built up are hard to break."

At this, Daniel found the courage to turn around, and ask the one question that had been bothering him. "Sir, why are we holding them? Her and the other one, I mean."

The wrinkled eyes crinkled at the question. Daniel hoped that it was in amusement. "To ask them questions. You were told as much."

"But, sir, we're just supposed to ask about Them." Daniel knew that the man knew what he was referring to. "And we already got most of that information from that document we found and the interrogation of that woman... What was her name?

The man smiled. "Mannes. Her name is Mannes."

Is. Daniel would have to remember that. "So, sir, what's the point?" he finally asked, fairly boldly despite the octave his voice had jumped.

The man took it in stride, though. "Well, we..." He smiled. "*Talked* to Mannes in April. That was two months ago - and there may have been changes in the status quo. One of Them may have tried to contact them again. And we need to know if the tapes have gone into the open since then, as well."

Daniel nodded slowly. "But those are all little things. And definitely not worth the treatment we've been giving them." He looked sharply at the man, trying to keep his voice from squeaking. "What's REALLY going on?"

The man laughed. "Daniel, you are an exceptional young man."

Daniel hadn't known that the man knew his name.

The man's eyes stopped twinkling, and he began to speak softly. "Back at the beginning, when our two guests were only Agents Mulder and Scully, they were certainly a threat, but one we believed we had under control. We could pull strings and twist arms and keep them in line - keep them from finding out too much. And, because we had them under control, we felt secure in letting them have their little liberty."

His eyes grew harder, his voice picking up energy. "When we became too lax, they got too close. They got too close on several occasions, in fact. And we took appropriate actions to try and prevent too much damage from being done."

The man's attention suddenly switched to the monitor, Daniel following his lead. They watched silently as the woman examined the large bottle of pills that had been brought with her dinner, checking the seal, sniffing the contents. It frightened her. That was apparent. But eventually she dry-swallowed one tablet, shuddering as the medication she needed to live entered her bloodstream.

Daniel turned away from the screen, not relishing the idea of watching this woman writhe in agony. The man's eyes averted as well, and he began speaking again.

"But we didn't do enough. We let them get away with too much. Let them get too far in their search for the Truth. We thought that, no matter what, we'd always be able to keep them under control. And we were wrong."

He turned his eyes fiercely on Daniel now. "They got too much information. They got too much evidence to prove it. Not exactly the Truth - but more pieces of the puzzle than most of Us have, even. And when their boss-" He thought for a second, then restarted. "And when a close friend of theirs died under suspicious circumstances, they got scared. And we lost them.

"Mulder and Scully are dangerous. They have the information, and therefore they have the power. When they worked on the X-Files, we had some control. But we lost it all four years ago."

He smiled. "And now we have them back. You, Daniel, and your colleague - Esther, isn't it?"

Daniel nodded.

"You and Esther will be asked to determine as much information about Mannes and her little organization as possible. Then, you will need to find some way of .... convincing Mulder and Scully that continuing in their quest is pointless. That it is useless to fight against something that cannot be beaten. That what we do is for the best of everyone."

He smiled. "And then, they shall be taken care of. I don't assume you'll have a problem with any of that?"

Daniel could only nod.

"Then, I shall leave you to your observation. Good day."

The man nearly danced out of the room, but Daniel wasn't surprised.

After all, four years is an awfully long time.


The sound of a crashing chair greeted Esther as she opened up the door to Room 2, causing her to immediately shut it as her mental safety checks warned her that it would be unhealthy to enter.

She overrode them in no time, though, and walked in a second time.

"Hello, there, Mr. Mulder," she stated blandly. It was by luck that her voice didn't reflect exactly how she was feeling.

He was a mess - long hair falling in his eyes, clothes rumpled and disarrayed. The shaggy beard disguising his jaw line and nose was bushy and unkempt.

The best label was Cro-Magnon Mulder. Right down to the crouching form, hunched over the fragments of a table.

Geez. Sometimes she really hated her job.

"Would you care to sit down, Mr. Mulder?" she asked in the same tone of voice, nodding to the chair that was handcuffed to his wrist. "We have an awful lot to talk about, after all, and I wouldn't want you to be uncomfortable."

He stared at her for a few seconds, then, nodding in acknowledgement, pulled the chair into a reasonably upright position.

The hair fell from his eyes at this point, and she saw, through the anger and fear, a very civilized mind. She revised her previous impression.

He was no Cro-Magnon. He was just very, very upset.

Understandably so. Same circumstances, she'd be worse.

She took a chair from the corner and sat down across from him, crossing her legs and propping a file folder on top of them.

"You're curious about it, aren't you, Mr. Mulder?" she asked coolly, watching him eye the assorted papers that were stuffed inside. "Oh, don't worry, it's yours. Birth certificate, transcripts, personnel files, some of your old reports for the Bureau. A copy of the Werber regression therapy tapes, even - though that took some doing."

"Who are you?" he asked. His voice, which she knew must have been screaming inhuman anxieties an hour ago, was raspy, uncertain.

"One of Them. Hadn't you figured that out by now? Your intellect is famed, you know - but I'd hoped for better than this." She was doing this just right, projecting the calm and confidence that she'd always considered the epitome of the capable interrogator. She was on fire, and it felt great.

"Sorry - I'm still a little under," he murmured.

"Oh, yes, the sedatives. They were necessary, you understand - couldn't have you raising a fuss en route. But, hopefully, they're mostly out of your system."

He seemed to ponder this. "How long has it been?"

"Excuse me?"

"How long ago was I grabbed?" he said, a bit louder.

"Hard to say - they don't tell me everything, you know. A day or two." This was perfect. She loved this part - loved the control, the power.

"What do you want?" he asked.

"Information, Mr. Mulder. Nothing too important. Then, we'll be done."

"And then what?"

"That, Mr. Mulder, may depend on how much you help me here."

And she smiled.

Louise Fletcher, eat your heart out.


Daniel stepped back into Room 1, catching the subject staring, aimlessly, at the wall across from her. "Am I interrupting something?" he asked politely.

She started and focused upon him. "No," she said quietly, almost visibly clamming up.

He knew that she didn't know who was on the other side of the wall. As far as she was concerned, her ex-partner was elsewhere, safe and sound. And he'd gone to great lengths to encourage that idea, not even mentioning his name to her.

But still, he wondered. Wondered if she knew exactly who was on the other side of the wall.

"So, Miss Scully. We have plenty to talk about, and daylight's burning."

She looked at him sharply. "It's daylight?"

He shrugged. "It's just a saying. I have no idea, personally. I don't go outside much when I've got a -"

"A what? A prisoner? A convict?"

He smiled kindly. "A subject. Calm down, Miss Scully. You're in no danger here. We just need to ask you some questions, and then we'll be done."

"Questions about what? We haven't talked about anything! All you've done is threaten my mother and watch me eat!"

His eyebrows shot up. She *was* good. "I was waiting until we'd built up a relationship before we got started on the serious stuff. And now that we've gotten a rapport going, I can proceed."

She leaned back, frustrated as hell. Finally losing her cool. He'd wondered what it would take, how much he could put her through before she just gave up the pretense and practically begged for some action. Looks like all he needed to do was make her wait.

He had thought she'd be more patient - everything in her file suggested that she had a carefully maintained control over herself.

But years can change a person. He was seeing that right here.

"Miss Scully, do you know the name Tessa Mannes?"

She glared at him. "No."

"Have you ever been approached by anyone offering you safe travel to the US border in exchange for the tape?"

"No."

"Have you given out the information on the tape to anyone?"

"No."

"Do you have a copy of the tape hidden away somewhere?"

She turned an odd shade of pale. "No."

"Have you described the contents of the tape to anyone?"

"No." She looked at him oddly. "You can't tell me that you don't have the tape. Even your guys aren't that dumb."

He reached into a pocket and placed a small rectangle onto the table. "Your-"

"Kidnappers? Abductors?"

He smiled again. "Your *escorts* did make sure to check your room for all of your belongings before they brought you here."

"Where is here, anyway?"

He felt generous. "Here, Miss Scully, is Nevada. A small facility in the southern region, to be exact."

She was quiet for a second, then the room was filled with the harsh sound of her guffaws. "Oh, God. I'm in Area 51."

"Something like that. Our part of the complex certainly isn't the chief reason for its existence."

Her laughter slowed down a bit as she wiped a few tears from her eyes. "Sweet Jesus, that's hilarious. Can't imagine how he-"

"Who, Miss Scully?" Daniel asked immediately, jumping onto the bread crumb she'd dropped.

The merriment draining from her tired blue eyes, Dana looked at him - REALLY looked at him - for the first time. Acknowledged who he was, what he was trying to do, why he was doing it. He felt a chill go down his spine.

"No one. An old friend."

"Not that old, Miss Scully. We both know better."

She dipped her head in acknowledgement. "You're right." Then her eyes focused on him again. "Those questions you asked - I have no idea what you were talking about. And I haven't been able to give away any of the information on the tape - there simply wasn't time at first, and I-"

He looked at her.

"*We* knew that it was too dangerous to share anything until the timing was right. So no one knows anything, including me, really. The tape fills in a lot of blanks - but it doesn't paint the big picture."

"But what about him, Miss Scully?"

She just looked at him.

"What does he know? How much more or less? How much more of a threat is he?"

Her face turned paler than before. Her eyes grew more furtive. Her whole manner took on the form of a skittish colt.

And she wouldn't say a word.


Esther regarded her subject as calmly as before, though her insides were beginning to twist. With the curse of experience, she was recognizing all the signs that told her the end was in sight. That was the bad part of the whole thing. And for some reason, it felt even worse than usual. "You've been very cooperative, Mr. Mulder. We all appreciate that."

He looked at her funnily. "We? Who would that be?"

"Oh, you know." She motioned dismissively with her hand, keeping the tight feeling in her stomach carefully controlled, doing her best to ignore it. "Them. That's all I am, really - just one of Them. To overemphasize my role within the organization would be pointless. I'm just a nameless face."

"So, when you say 'we', you really mean just yourself?"

"No, I told you. We all appreciate it - I'm just the only one who's concerned with it."

He rubbed his face with his un-cuffed hand. "Oh, great. I'm being interrogated by a Borg drone."

She smiled, unruffled. "One of those Communist robots on Star Trek? I think not. Besides, you're the concern here, Mr. Mulder. It's your status that we're all worried about."

He looked like he was about to get out of the chair, but ended up just jerking at the handcuffs. "Well, I've answered all of your questions," he replied in frustration. I haven't been approached by Mannes or anyone else since February. The information on the tape hasn't been copied or dissipated."

"And believe me, your cooperation is appreciated. But there's more to all this than that." She glanced at her notes, scattered in between this man's insurance records and credit card bills.

"Why did you start all this?" she asked calmly. "Why did you open the X-Files, pursue leads so furiously, uncover so many secrets that should have been left alone?"

He shrugged. "Why not?"

"Well, as far as I can see, the why nots include things like looking for justice, moral responsibility, a duty to the American people - at least, they weren't the starting motivation for your little quest. I've always believed, personally, that you started it all in a search for your sister. She was eight when she was abducted, wasn't she?"

"Yeah," he murmured.

"Did you know, Mr. Mulder, that the experiments she was involved in only lasted for three years?"

His eyes grew darker, his face cooler. He hadn't expected that, but was covering it well. "Really?" he muttered, fairly calmly, given how he looked about two steps away from becoming Cro-Magnon Mulder again.

She pretended to read from the file, though it was all coming from memory. "They were actually planning to return her to your family when some political reorganization within the organization occurred. It suddenly became... inconvenient."

That same dark look, the hands shaking a little more. "You don't say," he replied, as carelessly as he was able.

Esther wasn't fooled. No one would have been.

She kept reading. "So, instead of rejoining your family, she became a ward of the state of South Carolina at the tender age of eleven. New name, new birth records, the whole nine yards." She spoke these facts as carefully as possible, measuring her timing, keeping her voice at a low hum. This only had one shot, and she couldn't botch it up. Not if she was going to do what she had to do.

Meanwhile, he was straining under the pressure, almost visibly. He knew she was going to tell him something awful - he just didn't know what, and that alone was killing him.

She certainly didn't like this part of the job - the actual breaking of the man - but she knew it was a part of the deal. And she had her duty, same as everyone else.

"She had a chance for a new life, Mr. Mulder, a happy one - except for the fact that the foster home system in America is not the best run or maintained. Horror stories of children being abused - psychologically, physically, and sexually - float freely around our society. And Samantha wasn't an exception to the rule."

He nearly growled. "Get to the point, already."

She really didn't like this part.

"By 1982, around the age of nineteen, she was working in a bottomless bar in South Florida, unable to make the rent or the costs of a steadily growing substance abuse problem. And a 'movie' producer came by the bar one day, saw her, and presented her with a more attractive offer than taking off her panties in public."

Esther stood up, walked to the door of the room, and knocked three times. On that cue, Marc rolled a TV/VCR unit into the room, not making eye contact.

He had told her once, after a particularly memorable night, that he had fallen in love with everything about her - except her job. He knew she did the things she did because she felt obligated, because it was her responsibility. And he didn't disagree with her about her reasons.

He just hated this part as much as she did.

Marc plugged the unit into the wall and left quickly, while Esther turned the screen on and hit the play button.

She'd carefully chosen the scene to play, scanning through the hour-and-a-half tape twice to find the perfect way to accentuate the shape of the lead actress's nose, the curliness of her hair.

Groans and moans filled the room. Flesh moved against flesh in a syncopated rhythm.

As Mulder looked on, horrified, Esther pressed a small cardboard box into his hand. It was a videotape case.

The cover read "Once Upon a Secretary." There was an appropriately suggestive picture below it.

And it starred one Foxy Samantha.

She stood over him, watching for the telltale signs of mental collapse, and was amazed when he raised his head. Slowly, maybe, but still with strength.

And through the tears in his eyes, the anguish in his gaze, Esther was able to see exactly what had kept this man going through all the years.

"It won't work," he said, in the same manner as he had raised his head. "You can't get me through her."

She tried to stop the question, tried to keep the reaction down, but lost the struggle. "Why?" she asked, in a voice that destroyed every calculated question she'd asked him this whole time.

And he looked up at her, saw deep within the humanity Esther always bottled up during this part of the job, and whispered to her soul.

"Because I gave up on that battle a long time ago. I had to. I couldn't win it."

She left the room before the tears came.


"Tell me, Miss Scully, why do you keep on struggling?"

She finally looked at Daniel, breaking the silence that had been between them for the past ten minutes. Her quiet "What?" sounded deafening in its wake.

"What I mean is, why bother? It's a conundrum, you know. The sixty-four thousand dollar question. Why would you, an attractive young woman with her entire future ahead of her, throw away everything? Why did you keep on investigating the X-Files, even as they slowly took away everything that you valued? Why did you go underground for four years - FOUR YEARS - when you could have just returned the tape and resumed your life? Why be so difficult, even now, when it's obvious that your best solution is to just surrender?"

She gathered up what little sense of humor she seemed to have and looked him straight on. "Lots of questions. Damned if I have the answers." She even smirked a little.

His respect for this woman's endurance went up a notch.

"Just try," he coaxed.

She shrugged. "Hope, I guess. I just kept - keep - thinking that things had - have - to get better than they were. And it was - is - enough."

"But hope for what, Miss Scully?"

She didn't answer.

He had figured out a while ago that she clammed up when she wasn't sure of the answer. So he tried clarifying.

"Did you hope that the work you were doing would change the world? That you would make everything better?"

No answer.

"Did you hope for a normal life? One that could take place as soon as you had done the duty God had put before you?"

Nothing.

"Or did you just hope to get by? Just hope that you would survive to see the next stage of your life?"

Nada.

"Somehow, Miss Scully, I don't think it was hope. I think that all those questions can be answered by another noun. A name."

She looked at him sharply, and he noticed that her eyes were welling up. "Don't play games," she said harshly, her voice nearly breaking. "I know who you're talking about. I know what you're implying."

He cocked an eyebrow at her. "And?"

She sighed. "And it's partially true."

"But Miss Scully, even then, it's pointless. Because what does the future hold for you now? What do you have waiting for you?"

She looked at him painfully, and let the words spill out, just like the tears spilling down her cheeks. "Victory. Our grand triumph over that which eludes us."

"And then what?"

"A house. A small one. On the beach. No television, no phones, nothing. Just us."

"No children?" he asked.

Take an open wound, then place a small bandage on it and let the blood and mucus seep into the cotton until it scabs up. Let it dry. Then rip the bandage off, with no mercy.

Almost comparable to Dana Scully's reaction to Daniel Dunn's question.

"You asshole!" she screamed. "Your fucking file has the goddam answer to that one!"

Something in Daniel, a something he had to ignore when he went into these rooms with these orders, heard her more clearly than the rest of him.

And it was that something that pushed him out the door.


Suddenly alone, the two occupants of Rooms 1 and 2 found it within themselves to wipe away the tears and stand up, moving to the one wall that they both had been eying ever since they had been shoved inside.

They heard scraping sounds - but that was just his

(her)

chair, fastened as it was to her

(his)

wrist.

Right?

Almost without knowing it, he

(she)

raised

her

(his)

other hand, placing it on the wall.

And then, suddenly, he

(she)

knew.

"Mulder," she whispered.

"Scully," he whispered.

"I'm here."


In the corridor that Rooms 1 and 2 opened onto, Esther looked at Daniel.

Daniel looked at Esther.

And they both knew that it couldn't go on.


"Mommy, I'm confused. Why did Esther and Daniel not want to hurt the boy and girl any more? I thought they were the bad guys."

"Well, Kathleen, calling them the bad guys is a little harsh. Esther and Daniel were just decent people doing bad things."

"Huh?"

The woman tucked the coarse potato-sack blanket a little tighter around the little girl. "Sometimes, sweetheart, we end up doing a job that we don't want to do, but keep doing for various reasons. Sometimes the wrong ones. Esther and Daniel were stuck doing a job that did more bad than good at times, but doing it because they didn't know what else to do."

"But they should have done something, especially if they knew that they were doing lots of bad stuff."

"It takes a lot of strength to go against everything you've ever known, though. You have to stop caring about what will happen to your job or your family and take a stand. A lot of people can't do that." The woman sighed, the sound echoing off the rough stone walls. "They need a reason that makes the loss of everything else not important, and it has to be a big one."

"Mommy, are you okay?"

"I'm fine, Kathleen."

"Okay." The girl was not convinced, but moved on. "But at least the boy and girl know where they are. And they know that they're both okay."

"That's right."

"But Mommy?"

"Yes?"

"This is a really sad story."

"Yes, Kathleen - it is."

"Are you sure you're okay, Mommy?"

"Yes, I am. It's just a hard story to tell."

"Can you finish it?"

"I'll try, sweetheart. I'll really try."


Chapter Three

"Nothing deters a good man from doing what is honorable."
-Seneca


The plan got worked out surprisingly easily, given the top-notch security of the facility.

It was simply a matter of finding the root of the problem.

Or in the case of Esther and Daniel, what supplied it with power.

The arrangements were made in a day - supplies acquired, covers deduced. They did not return to Rooms 1 and 2 during that time, only going near the rooms to make sure the two were fed and, in Scully's case, given their medication. They wrote in their reports that they had hit a wall in communication.

There is a saying that those who live inside the system know best how to make it crumble.

Daniel and Esther had worked inside the system long enough to know how to circumvent it.


"Mr. Mulder," Esther stated calmly as she walked into the room that evening, setting down a file on his new table, "I'd like to thank you for your cooperation and your patience in waiting all this time. I trust you were fed?"

He nodded slowly, if at all. Esther recognized the signs of withdrawal in his eyes, and hoped he would be able to understand exactly what she would be saying next.

"Although I'm sure you are as anxious as I am to resume our talks, I'm afraid that they will have to wait until tomorrow - I just wanted to come in and tell you good night."

No response - she had hoped the previous session hadn't completely numbed him, but it was always a possibility.

She tried again. "I'm actually going home," she said with a touch of a smile. "There's a movie marathon that starts at 11:00, and even you wouldn't want to miss it."

Come on, she willed. Come on. Get a clue. Catch on...

He lifted his head a bit more, and she thought she saw a glimmer of consciousness in him. "What kind of movies?" he asked slowly.

She smiled fully this time, the Nurse Ratched act be damned. "A Steve McQueen film festival."

A slight tilt of her head indicated the folder on the table.

She spoke slowly, but carefully.

And this time, he really listened.

"They're starting with 'The Great Escape.'"

He looked at her carefully, gauging her. "That's a good movie," he said at last. "But I personally really don't trust people who promise things that seem too good." His stare grew more pointed. "Especially when every bit of reason says that they're the bad guys."

"Mr. Mulder, we sometimes find ourselves in situations where there is no alternative but trust."

"This isn't necessarily one of them. Especially given the circumstances."

"However, sometimes people make mistakes. And, if you gave them a chance, they might be able to redeem themselves." She stared deeper into his eyes. "You might be surprised what happens if you open your mind."

His tone grew more desperate. "Don't you understand? The obvious answer isn't always the right one. And I can't believe in what's just handed to me anymore."

Her face hardened. "Mr. Mulder, I understand it may not make you very comfortable, having to go out on a limb like this. But I'm afraid that you really don't have that luxury. This is a one-time opportunity. There won't be a second chance."

"I can't just do this," he muttered.

"But Mr. Mulder, you don't have a lot of other options. And I would really hate to see you miss this prospect."

He shrugged some. "There doesn't seem to be much point in it. There isn't a lot out there for me."

It was an act - they both knew it - and she nearly lost her temper, but regained control. "There might not be a lot out there, Mr. Mulder. But I imagine that there's something in here that might be worth the leap of faith."

Her eyes flickered to the wall - The wall - and he caught on.

"She's twice as stubborn as you. You're our best chance," Esther muttered quietly, harshly. "The circumstances aren't ideal, Mulder - but sometimes you just have to settle for the leftovers."

Then she left the room, schooling her features into a careful mask.

He was smart. She knew that. And she knew that he wouldn't touch the folder.

At least, until it was safe.

And he was smart enough to figure out when that would be.

If he gave it a shot at all.


Esther walked quickly to the video room, and found Daniel waiting inside.

"I've got the tape cued up," he said without preliminaries. "Should I do it?"

A brisk nod on her part, and he pushed the appropriate buttons, erasing the incriminating ten minutes of footage. He turned to her. "Good job in there. I think it worked."

She shrugged. "All I had to do was mention the secret word. He'll do it. It's astonishing how much they care for each other."

Daniel looked a little wistful. "It's truly amazing to me. If I could have half of that with someone someday, I could die happy."

The video editing program beeped appropriately, and his face grew darker. "You do realize, Esther, that when They find out about this, and They examine the video thoroughly, They're going to be able to trace the deleted parts to us. We'll either be dead or refugees."

Her eyes met his, and she spoke with the anger that she normally kept locked away. "I know that. And we knew it was dangerous when we started." Her voice seemed to fill the room with fierceness. "But I can't do this anymore. Not to them."

Daniel nodded at that. "I've been working this job for five years - and none of those people ever made me feel like this."

She nodded thoughtfully at that. "I just have this feeling about Mulder, like he's pure, that he doesn't deserve any of this. And it's never been like that with my previous subjects. I always knew that what I was doing was right. And I don't know if that's true now. They don't deserve this, and I'm not going to let anyone else do the job I can't do any more."

He looked nervous. "I agree with you. It's all just a little scarier than I would like it to be."

She placed a light brown hand on his darker one. "We'll be long gone before they start analyzing the tape."

His forehead crinkled. "But can we stay under?"

She patted his hand reassuringly. "Why not? They did, for longer than anyone ever anticipated. And they were much more of a threat than we'll ever be."

And to that, there was little to say.

They both looked at the clock on the wall. 10:30.

They reviewed plans, precautions.

And mentally started the countdown.


She had tried pacing the circumference of the room - a hard thing to do with the chair cuffed to her wrist.

Had tried tapping out the percussion portion of "Ride of the Valkyries" on the nearby table.

Had tried listing the Latin names of various muscle groups.

But she still couldn't ease the panic she was feeling.

It was legitimate panic. After all, They had her. The man who had been interrogating her had been gone for hours. There had been mentions of "moving on" - God knows what that meant.

And HE was there. On the other side of the wall. She was sure of it, though how she knew wasn't clear.

But if she just focused a little, she could almost see him - could almost imagine him trapped in a little room like hers with his hand cuffed to a chair, eyes searching the wall....

Her head slumped in disappointment. What was she doing? This was impossible, and she knew it. HE might be on the other side - but there was no way she could know about it.

At least, that was what her rational side was saying. The rest of her was disagreeing.

After all, it was HIM. She knew it was HIM - not all the science in the world could tell her that she hadn't been able to feel him there before. The past had often encouraged her to believe in the impossible where HE was concerned.

It was just so hard to actually believe that he was in her predicament as well. In fact, she would immediately toss away everything she had ever believed in if it meant that HE was free.

Skeptic warred with believer and scientist argued with spirit as she sat quietly in her chair, waiting.

For something was going to happen.

That, she knew for sure.

What would happen, though - that was what left her uncertain.


He tried to imagine what was inside the file folder he had been left.

He tried to imagine what magical event was to take place at 11:00. What exactly had planned.

And he looked at the wall and tried to imagine HER.

Was SHE sitting or standing? Cuffed in the same way as him? Hungry, sick, tired? It all seemed so trivial at first, yet it was HER. And that made it important.

Especially since the only confirmation he had of her presence was the innuendo of a woman he was having a hard time trusting, and his own ... intuition. And her presence would make a big difference when it came to making any sort of decision like this.

That was the important thing, because deep down he wasn't sure what to do. Wasn't sure whether to take the initiative, take the folder - or ignore the opportunity the interrogator

(his savior?)

had presented and take his chances with the status quo.

Do nothing and remain safe or do something but take a risk. A choice he wouldn't have had any difficulty with four years ago.

Except that this wasn't four years ago.

And he just didn't know if he could take the chance. If he still had the ability to make those kinds of decisions.

He wanted HER input on it. Wanted to know what she would think, wanted to know what SHE would suggest. And yet that was impossible.

Four years ago, he wouldn't have hesitated to make the decision for both of them.

But this wasn't four years ago.

Insecurities warred with each other as he sat quietly in his chair, waiting.

For something was going to happen.

That he knew for sure.

What he would do, though - that was what left him uncertain.


And in a dark office in the same building, another man sat, smoking calmly as he dug through paperwork.

He rarely smiled - only for effect, for the most part - but an uncommon grin was threatening the corners of his mouth, and his eyes were twinkling in an almost youthful manner.

He certainly wasn't young anymore, but he felt it. Felt alive and powerful and secure in his role among Them for the first time in years. It was a potent feeling, this sense of victory. And he relished it.


Marc slipped into the power room cautiously, though he was confident that he hadn't been spotted.

The breaker switches for the interrogation building were labeled clearly. His flashlight was by his side.

He checked his watch. 10:55.

Minutes left. Only minutes....


The flavor of whiskey mixed with the harsh taste of nicotine as the man indulged himself in a little nip.

It was time to celebrate, after all. The agents were back under his control. The information was contained. It was enough to make him want to do a little jig.

What was the expression? Oh, yes.

Ahab had found his whale.

The only damper on his little victory party, though, was that young man Daniel - there had been something in his eyes that had given him something to fear. It was hard to explain, for the most part - but it would seem that those who had brought Daniel among Them had made some serious lapses in judgment.

No doubt, Daniel was excellent at his work, and received no amount of satisfaction from it. But something about the man spoke of other people who had been unable to embrace The Project. Those individuals who had been unable to fit into their roles. Daniel's slight sense of horror at the woman's condition had betrayed him in that respect.

Now that he thought about it, there was something of Agent Fox Mulder about him - the naive and optimistic Agent Fox Mulder from that first year of the X-Files. Before the shutdown and Agent Scully's abduction, when he saw mysterious shadows but trusted in an often-deceiving light.

It was almost nostalgic, with a sort of twisted humor to it. After all, the man mused, which side Daniel was on now?

But he thought about it some more - remembered how much of a danger Mulder had become when the blindfold had been pulled away and he had seen conspiracies in everything except a petite red-haired woman.

If he held to form, Daniel might go the same way, especially given the proper encouragement.

The joy in the man's eyes died at that thought.

He stood up and dug through a filing cabinet, pulling out the personnel file of Esther Finn.

Skimming over phrases like "brilliant," "headstrong," "our best interrogator in years," "will do what she thinks is right," and "potentially dangerous - but too good to lose," he began to feel a sinking despair, deep in his stomach.

He decided to go downstairs, check the reports being regularly logged in regards to any progress being made. It was probably an overreaction on his part, but he did not like the idea of this suspicion coming back to haunt him later.

Checking his watch - 10:59 PM - he began to move to the door. But he stopped when he suddenly couldn't see the door any more.

Everything had gone black - a power outage or something, he imagined. Not a cause for concern, he told himself.

But the gears that had already been mulling over Daniel were starting to put everything into place.

And everything suddenly became clear.

The man stepped carefully to his desk, searching blindly for the flashlight he always kept nearby, but couldn't seem to locate now.

His mind held only one thought, undignified but eloquent.

*Oh, shit.*


Things started quickly enough. And once they began moving, they really picked up speed.

When the power went out, Daniel Dunn and Esther Finn were standing by Rooms 1 and 2, waiting and watching. Flashlights in hand, backpacks loaded with the essentials.

There was some discussion from the other people present. Some attempts to find lanterns or torches, or to try and activate the emergency lights. But Esther and Daniel had taken care of all that long before.

Everything was black, pitch black. Nothing was visible.

The perfect lighting for a jail break.

A gentle touch on her shoulder informed Esther that Marc had rejoined them. A silent brush of his cheek confirmed his presence.

Daniel reached out, gesturing in the direction of the rooms, but she stilled his hand.

If necessary, she would drag Mulder's ass out of there by force - but she didn't want to. And he'd probably cause such a fuss that it would ruin everything.

It would go much more simply if he just went along with the plan.

She gritted her teeth and shifted the weight of her backpack onto her hips.

In silence, the three of them watched the door of Room 2.

And waited.


In the dark, a hand moved.

Slowly at first, then, when the force behind it had made up its mind, with absolute certainty.

A palm sought out the flimsy cardboard of a manila folder. Found it quickly.

And shook out a small key.

Shaking, excited fingers examined the shape frantically. Determined it a match.

And slipped it into the keyhole of the handcuffs.


Hand free, Ex-Special Agent Fox Mulder's dark form stood up slowly, measuring his bearings, mentally calculating his position.

His fingers guided him to the door, keeping him from tripping over table and chair.

And surprisingly, the knob turned.

He took his first free steps tentatively, then readjusted his mental map. Deduced which way he was to go.

Which way he *had* to go.

His hands, one wrist strong and one wrist weak, found another door. And the knob turned easily.

Still grasping the handcuff key - he somehow knew he'd need it - he entered the other room.


The darkness had troubled her. The noise outside had frightened her. And when the door opened, the fear she normally tried to suppress rose up in great waves.

She was about two seconds away from picking up her chair and thrusting it blindly forward when she smelled *it*.

And, after a few seconds, she knew *it* was HIM.

Looks like the believer in her had been right after all.


Their hands connected first, grasping clothing, faces, shoulders, arms in a manner too needy to be considered gentle.

Then their fingers interlinked, and his hand reached out with the key. A few seconds of manipulation and she lifted her arm up from the chair for the first time in days.

Bodies pressed against bodies, hungrily seeking contact. Their hips rubbed against each other. Their noses brushed. Their lips made desperate sucking noises together, as if they wanted to inhale the other's soul.

They pulled apart at the same time, and he grasped her hand firmly, leading her to the door.

Not a word was spoken, but everything that needed to be said was communicated in those few seconds.

*I missed you.*

*I was worried about you.*

*Thank everything holy you're all right.*

*We're going to be okay. We have to be okay. We'll be okay. You're here.*

*Oh, God. You're here. Thank God you're here.*

Hands still firmly joined, they stepped outside.


Esther, Marc, and Daniel sighed with relief when they heard the faint noises of two sets of footsteps moving out of Room 1.

They listened carefully, trying to gauge what exactly to do.

And the hesitation of the heavier footsteps gave them their opportunity.

Moving quickly, they were able to sense the two people, small and tall, their hands clasped tightly.

Esther grasped one forearm - whose, she wasn't sure - and tugged gently in the direction of freedom.

After only a moment's hesitation, the arm let itself be pulled.

She began to lead the way, trusting her memory of the building to guide them through the dark.

Their steps were careful, and once more, no words were exchanged. But they still made good time.

By 11:30, the five refugees of the darkness were packed inside the small car Daniel had planted in the closest available parking spot of the tiny underground garage.

Marc drove quickly and recklessly, tires squealing as the sedan burned its way outside.

Mulder and Scully looked at each other for one long, heartfelt moment. They took in the changes, reveled in the similarities.

Scully lifted her lips to his, and they shared a kiss that spoke more than words ever could.

Then, she turned to the three individuals crammed into the front seat.

"Who the hell are you people?"


He hadn't been able to find his flashlight in time. That's what the man blamed the escape on.

Of course, the orchestraters of the escape had been remarkably careful and remarkably clever. And with the breakers powered down, power had taken thirty-two minutes to restore.

There were many places for fault. But the man put most of it on himself.

And as he took in the sight of unlocked handcuffs and open doors, he was struck by an immense feeling of loss.

Somehow, in all the years of searching, he had forgotten. He had forgotten how fond he had grown of the agents as they had pursued their goal with an endearing faith in its eventual success.

Granted, he had taken a great deal of pleasure in thwarting them. But it was the pleasure that came from the defeat of a worthy enemy.

Granted, his life would have been considerably easier had they never existed. But who asked for life to be easy?

Standing in the empty rooms, he suddenly felt very lonely. It wasn't an unfamiliar sensation, but new given the circumstances.

His affection for them was without question twisted into something abnormal. But it was still affection.

Besides, there were greater issues to worry about. In the space of an hour, two of The Project's greatest threats had disappeared, along with some very valuable employees. And he would admit without question that it was all his fault. He hadn't been able to find his flashlight soon enough. And that was why he had lost his two long-astray lambs.

Again.

A tear nearly escaped the far corner of his eye, but tightly woven control held it back.

"I'll find them," he vowed fiercely to the empty room. "They're mine. And I'll get them back."


Sometimes, it seems that everyone today is a little bit insane. Psychiatric disorders are common in society and generally are well-accepted. In fact, an unstable mental state can be found in almost anyone if you look at them in the right light.

So, when the cigarette-smoking man finally saw himself going over the edge of sanity, he was simply following a path laid out by many individuals over many years.

Everyone's a little bit insane. He just went a step past the norm.

Unfortunately, it was a big step.

Soon to be followed by others.


The Nevada desert surrounded the small car buzzing down the highway, and though it was pretty, in a desolate sort of way, Daniel didn't like it. He would have much preferred to be somewhere under cover. Out in the open like this, there was far too much danger for his taste.

It was still night, and they were making good time, but it still made Daniel nervous.

Shrugging the thoughts away, he returned his attention to the conversation.

At least, conversation was one word to describe it.

Fracas was another.

"I STILL don't see why we're supposed to trust you," his ex-subject was saying, with the kind of stubbornness that just made you want to slap her.

"Well, Miss Scully-" Esther started with much-tried patience, turning as far as she could in her seat.

"I'll say it again. Call me Scully. Or Dana. ANYTHING but Miss Scully." Apparently, that was an issue with her. She probably had been too numb to comment on it before.

"Look, *Ms.* Scully," Esther continued, an edge of sarcasm in her voice, "Right now is a funny time to start talking about trust. We just helped you escape from Them. We've put our lives in considerable danger, not to mention the welfare of any of our family and friends. We've put everything on the line to preserve your physical and mental health. Have you forgotten about any of this?"

An eyebrow raised. "How do we know that you're not just making all that up? You could just be leading us into another trap. Or transporting us to another one of your facilities."

Mulder spoke up. "It would certainly be an effective way of subduing us. Make us think that we had escaped, then deliver us into an even worse situation." His arm was wrapped securely around the woman next to him, and he squeezed her a little tighter with his words.

Esther was growing more frustrated. "But what would be the point? We had you under control before. You had nothing - no advantage. Daniel and I decided to break you guys out because we didn't agree with the goals of your interrogation any more. There's no underlying plot behind any of it. We just wanted to set you two free."

"And we appreciate that, really we do. But how long did you two take to decide that? Before or after you showed me that mov-" Mulder accused.

"Before or after you questioned everyth-" Scully charged at the same time.

They turned to each other with questions, but they took one look at the pain on the face of the other and decided to back off.

Daniel envied that communication.

He turned in his seat to look at Marc, who had been driving for several hours now without complaint. He certainly seemed the opposite of Esther - quiet, relaxed, peaceful. Maybe that was why they got along so well.

Esther, meanwhile, was rolling her eyes. As far as Daniel could recall, she had been interviewing subjects for ten years, had started work at the facility when she was only twenty-four (a prodigy, everyone had called her). But she sometimes seemed a little juvenile - arrested development, perhaps.

She was as sharp and quick as anyone, and twice as determined and dedicated. At times, she was mature beyond her years.

When she had composure, that is.

"I keep telling you that it was after that last session when we made our decision. Could we please move on?"

Scully's tongue nearly dripped with acid. "Fine, then. Where are you taking us?"

Daniel tried jumping in, replying as diplomatically as possible. "Las Vegas. The nearest and best place to disappear."

Both women glared at him, and he looked front again, watching the road disappear beneath the car's wheels.

"Look, it seems like trusting you three is a conceivable option right now," Mulder said rationally. "I'm not inclined to, but we don't have much choice."

Esther snorted. "Thank you for that ringing endorsement."

Scully continued for him, her tongue not quite so bitter. "If you're being sincere, we do appreciate it. It's just that these days, it's a little hard to believe other people when they say that they're being honest."

Marc spoke for the first time since they had left the facility. "You guys just remember that They're looking for us by now. And *all* our lives are in danger. We're all equally screwed, and we should be able to trust each other solely based on that."

A sort of silent agreement filled the car, and there really being nothing else to say, the five of them settled into a comfortable silence. Marc drove, Esther napped against Marc's shoulder, Scully and Mulder cuddled quietly, and Daniel daydreamed.

For the first time, Daniel realized how much of a fifth wheel he was on this trip. But he didn't really mind.

He might have envied the communication and communion a relationship offered. But he didn't envy the extra trouble that always seemed to spring forth.

Love seemed to cause as many problems as it solved sometimes. He'd seen too much pain and tears during his thirty years to think otherwise.

He wondered if the two couples on this trip thought the same.

Probably not.

But as he drifted off into sleep, a few lines from _Romeo and Juliet_ echoed through his mind.

Nothing memorable - just that bit about "misadventured piteous overthrows."

For Romeo and Juliet died at the end.....


As snores echoed in duo from the front seat, Mulder rested his chin on the crown of Scully's head. Scully buried her nose in his chest.

"I missed you," he murmured.

She turned his face up to him. "I missed you, too," she replied back, grinning.

The situation was grim. They would be fortunate to get out of it safely. There was little hope.

But he grinned right back at her.

"So, we're headed to Vegas, hmmm?" he said suggestively.

Four years ago, she would have lifted an eyebrow, holding back any trace of a smile. She smiled slyly now. "Your point being?"

"Nothing - wonderful city. Casinos, chips, cocktails, castles-"

"Chapels," she filled in for him.

His grin grew even wider. "You wouldn't be propositioning me, would you, Agent Scully?"

She laughed quietly, smothering the chuckles in his shirt. God, he had missed her.

"I thought you were propositioning me, Agent Mulder," she replied after she had regained a little composure.

He nodded thoughtfully, considering the thought in as goofy a manner as possible. He'd do a lot more for another taste of her laughter. "I suppose I might have been. The question is, would you want to take my name, or would you want to sign the marriage license Lea Flask?"

She froze against his body.

"How did you know that had been my name?" she asked in a very small voice.

He tried to answer as casually as possible. "It was an accident. Last Halloween. I caught a glimpse of your license on the computer before it was printed out. I tried to forget it, but couldn't."

She didn't speak for a few minutes, considering this. Then, just when he was about to get worried, her voice came back to him, a little stronger than before.

"I'd come up with something different. Can't imagine myself trying to go through life as Mrs. Justin Pequod." He made a little noise of confusion and shock, and she grinned halfheartedly.

"When we drove to Union Station last Halloween, your wallet fell out of your jacket and in between our seats. And it opened when it landed, face up. I tried to avoid noticing it, but couldn't."

The situation was grim. They would be fortunate to get out of it safely. There was little hope.

But he laughed and held her tighter.

Just because.


The fugitives had a head start. Their path of travel was unknown.

But the cigarette-smoking man had been hopeful that they could be found before daybreak. Everything depended on them being found as soon as possible. And he knew that by daybreak, individuals higher up than him would start asking questions.

And that wasn't a good thing.

So after hours of searching, he watched with despair as the sun came up. Things were more complicated now - more people would become involved.

But Mulder and Scully would be found. He would see to that one thing.

Everything that mattered to him depended on it.


Except for a few undiscussed projects that were shrouded in mystery, those involved with Them were human. And the love of gossip and rumors is a distinctly human characteristic.

Through casual e-mail, phone calls, and quiet conversations, it had become well-known in the organization that the two ex-agents had finally been captured. And before the cigarette-smoking man's cursed sunrise had occurred, the fact that they had escaped, with the help of their interrogators, was a hot topic of conversation.

What little was known was discussed eagerly at all four corners of the country. And some of that information, slight though it may have been, hit the right - or wrong - ears.

Soon, there were two forces scouring the Nevada desert. One even more covertly than the other.

And it was only a matter of time before one was successful.


It had been a long night. They were all under huge amounts of stress. Even the two in the backseat had let their guards drop enough to sleep.

Marc was starting to really feel the effects of an entire night of driving.

After his eyes closed for the third time in a mile, he pulled the car over to the side of the road a few hours after dawn, shaking Esther awake. She looked up blearily at him.

"I can't go on any more. You gotta drive," he said wearily.

She rubbed her eyes a little, then nodded.

He got out of the car, taking the opportunity to twist some of the kinks out of his back as she worked on disentangling herself from the seat belt.

But as his head looked in the direction they had come from, the rest of his body froze.

"Esther?" he said in an unusually even tone of voice, his eyes still focused behind them.

"Yeah?" she tossed out coarsely, busy cursing the confining straps of nylon.

"Don't worry about driving. I'm awake now."

She looked up at him curiously. "What?"

He turned to her, and she saw the fear in his eyes. "We have to go now," he choked out.

She looked out through the back windshield.

And saw the black car heading their way.

"Get in, Marc," Esther replied, her voice cracked and raw. "Get in now. And burn some rubber."

Marc threw himself back inside, pulling back onto the road in seconds.

With a squeal, the car began to move twice as fast as before.


If they had kept at an even speed, as if they were just tourists on an early-morning joyride, there might have been a chance of escape.

But Esther and Marc knew what happened to turncoats and runaways. Fear had overtaken reason.

At the screech of the car's tires, the three sleeping passengers had woken up, and now they, as well as Esther, were watching the approach of the far-faster black jeep behind them.

It was Mulder and Scully who should have recognized the technique.

But it was Marc who saw the car ahead of them.

Both black vehicles hit their brakes and twisted to the side at the same time, trapping the five of them.

Marc slammed on their brakes instinctively, snapping them all forward.

They watched as figures got out of the two cars and began moving towards them.

Mulder looked at Scully.

Scully looked at Mulder.

Searching his face, Scully asked quietly, "Have we ever actually said it, Mulder?"

He knew exactly what she meant. "No, Scully, we haven't."

"Oh. Right, then." Her face, full of determination, softened a little. "I love you, Mulder."

"I love you, Scully."

It was then that the car doors opened. And not by the hands of the five inside.


"Mommy?"

"Yes, Kathleen?"

"Is everything going to be okay at the end?"

The woman smiled a little. "You want to know what the ending is?"

"Well...." The little girl trailed off into thought. "Sorta, I guess. I just want to know if everything's going to be okay."

"I thought you didn't want the story to have a happy ending."

"Well, I didn't want it to be all sappy. That isn't very real, and I wanted the story to be something that could really happen." She hesitated, yawning a little. "But maybe a kinda happy ending wouldn't be so bad."

The woman, being fairly observant, didn't miss the yawn. "Maybe we should finish the story later, Katie dear. We've got a lot of walking to do tomorrow, and -"

"No!" the child cried. "You gotta finish it tonight! I need to know what happens!"

"You're awfully tired, Kathleen. And tomorrow will be a long day."

"Oh, Mommy. All we're going to do is walk. And we did that today, and I was fine. Finish the story, please?"

The woman couldn't say no to the girl's pleads. "All right. Do you still want to know how it ends?"

The little girl nodded. "I don't want to know the ending. But I do want to know *about* it."

The woman sighed a little, for no real reason. "It doesn't have a sappy ending, Kathleen. The ending is most definitely not a sappy one."

The little girl nodded. "All right, I guess. Please keep telling the story, Mommy."

"All right, sweetie."

 


Chapter Four

"Before you can accuse me of hopeless parochialism, consider the one great truth.... Things Can Always Get Worse. In fact, they often do. Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to rejoice now, because these will probably turn out to be The Good Old Days."
-Molly Ivins


"Sir?"

Taking another deep, desperate drag of his cigarette (forbidden within public areas of the facility normally, but this was an emergency), the man looked towards the speaker expectantly. Eagerly.

"They've found them?" he asked with hope in his voice.

The tall woman operating the complex radio system of the main headquarters shook her head. "No - but Hernandez's unit hasn't reported in for a few hours. They might have run into something."

His eyes hardened. "Or they might have gone outside of our communications circle and are unable to get through to us. Or their radio might not be working. Or they might have been swallowed up by Godzilla." The man glared menacingly at the operator. "Your assignment, Parker, is to manage the teams and keep them focused upon the goal. You might want to remain focused yourself."

She swallowed nervously, but still continued. "I know that, sir, but there's more to it. "

The man noted her determination, quashed as it was by her respectful manner, and gave her more attention than he would have normally.

He let his eyes truly rest on her for a few seconds, and she hesitantly continued on. "Well, sir, I only bring this up because it's an odd coincidence. There's probably nothing to it. It's just that there have always been rumors about Hernandez - in fact, rumors about his whole team."

The man recalled Lemuel Hernandez as being fairly quiet, competent, and in whole a decent covert ops man, despite his lack of military training. The group he presided over was much the same - men and women who had disappeared into the void of Them, becoming Their main protectors.

The facility had four such teams, made up of people who did not exist, who assumed identities and then tossed them away often and quickly. They were the facility's muscle, doing what had to be done efficiently and effectively.

The members of these units were considered Their most loyal constituents, and now Parker was suggesting....

"Ever since the letter was found and Mannes was exposed, people have been constantly talking about who else could be involved. And, well, nothing was ever nailed down, but some people mentioned Hernandez as being a possible risk. He apparently hasn't always agreed with policy, always been pretty self-assured, and sometimes, he and his team go out for extended periods of time for extra training..."

The man nodded once.

A theory presented itself, and, though his first instinct was to push it away and be optimistic, he eventually accepted it.

"Thank you for bringing this to my attention, Parker. A commendable piece of logic and reasoning," he stated as evenly as possible.

Alarmed as she was by the praise, Parker was only able to make a few unintelligible noises.

"Tell the other three units to continue concentrating their search on finding the agents and their accomplices, but to also try and locate Hernandez and his team."

She looked a little alarmed at what he was saying, and he added in clarification, "Just to make sure there isn't a problem. Finding them is not high-priority, but we can't just abandon our own. Not at a time like this."

She nodded, and started repeating his instructions into her headset.

"....do not go out of your way to look for Hernandez and his unit, remember that finding the others is imperative..."

Good in theory. But the man's thoughts were dwelling upon only one idea.

Find one and you'll find the other.


Esther was scared - not an easy thing for her to admit, but true nonetheless. Her fear was more based in uncertainty, though, for she was not so much concerned with her future well-being as she was with the future in general.

The car they were in was standard issue - one of several the facility was supplied with. The people driving were well-trimmed, uniformly dressed, and in general exactly what she had expected.

But it was all wrong.

The people were confident enough, but not in the usual "we're part of something all-powerful and there isn't anything you can do to us" manner that Esther remembered all unit members having.

Their eyes were a little too furtive.

Plus, the duty of initial reporting to home base was always reserved for the unit leader. Lemuel Hernandez, a man she recognized on sight and knew of professionally, was riding shotgun.

And he hadn't even touched the radio.

She wished there was some way to communicate this with her seatmates - but Daniel seemed numb, his hands clenched firmly, and since Marc had been the most resistant to their abductors, he wasn't in the best of shape.

A few minutes ago, he had finally let the pain of the head blow he'd received take over. He breathed heavily against her shoulder now.

Mulder and Scully were in the other car, all right despite the few knocks they'd taken. They probably would have been worse off if they'd been separated - either physically or psychologically.

Esther decided on the direct approach for dealing with this problem. She tried to make eye contact with Hernandez through the rearview mirror. It only took a few minutes before they locked gazes, and she gathered up a little extra nerve.

"Hernandez, what's going on?" she asked quietly.

He shrugged casually, letting his words slip into the comfortable slang he was legendary for outside of "business matters." "Well, Miz Finn, we're just takin' you in. S'all there is to it. Doin' our jobs, same as yew do with your little mind games."

She drew on her precious composure and responded accordingly. "You haven't reported in. You should have done it the second you had us. You're not doing your job. At least, not doing it for Them."

He raised his eyebrows, a gesture she caught in the mirror. "Not bad, Miz Finn. Not bad at all."

"But am I right?"

His face became blank, and the modicum of camaraderie she had detected before was gone. "Ms. Finn, I really can't discuss it at this time. Questions will be answered eventually - you shall just have to be patient."

The switch in dialects did more to worry Esther than anything else that had come up so far. "Hernandez, where are we going?" she asked impatiently.

He would not reply.


Mulder and Scully sat in the backseat of the jeep, holding each other's hands tightly as they watched the scenery roll by.

"You know, Scully," Mulder said quietly, wary of the two people sitting up front, "this has to stop. The deja vu's just too much for me."

If the circumstances had been different, she might have cracked a smile. Instead, she scooted even closer to him.

The car continued on in silence, the desert rolling by calmly, like the waves of an ocean. Until the vehicle made a sharp turn to the right.

And ended up on a dusty trail that seemed to sink into the ground, lower and lower....

They both realized at the same time that this was exactly what was happening.

The road eventually disappeared completely underground, faint artificial lighting being the only thing that Mulder and Scully could see by. But they could clearly see the steel walls rising up and over them.

Locking them down. Caging them in.

And, as far as they could tell, they were right back where they had started.

"We almost made it, Mulder," Scully said quietly.

"Yup. Almost," he replied.

There was no sadness in their voices, only resignation.

They weren't cynical. Just realistic.

For somehow they had known it was too good to be true.


Esther looked around, not recognizing a thing. Marc and Daniel, both a little more conscious now, seemed to be puzzled as well.

"This doesn't look like the facility..." Daniel murmured.

"That's because it isn't," Hernandez replied from the front. "And unless things go really wrong, you'll never see that place again. Not after it's done."

Esther felt a little surge of joy at that. Just a small one. Then she caught herself.

What did he mean, it?


The car stopped, and Mulder looked out the window, not recognizing a thing.

But he was pretty sure that they hadn't gone back to wherever they had been running from originally.

For one thing, they were in a fairly small garage, but it was much larger than he had guessed the first garage to have been, based on the echoes of their shoes.

There were too many cars, also. Way too many.

And it felt... different. There were people moving around, getting into or out of cars, carrying boxes back and forth, but they were moving quickly, with anticipation. Not happiness, but excitement.

The other place had seemed very down-to-earth, given what Mulder was sure was happening elsewhere. The people had all seemed a little bored with the routine.

But the people here knew that something was going to happen. And they were excited by that. Mulder was positive.

Looking down at Scully, he could tell that she felt it as well.

Something else was also communicated. And maybe it was her eyes that said it. Or a twitch of her body language. Or the mental Scully his mind had created for company long ago. Or something else, frightening and exhilarating. But he heard a question in his mind.

*We're not back there, are we?*

He let the knowledge sink in, and felt himself smile in reaction. An answer - *No, I don't think so* - shot through his thoughts.

And maybe she got the gist of it from a tilt of his head, or a change in the color of his eyes, or maybe her response was completely meaningless - just a nervous reaction to the situation.

But her head jerked in acknowledgment.

Mulder wanted to analyze it some more, ask her if she had felt the exchange too, but their doors opened.

Mulder braced himself for a vicious pull, for being thrown onto the ground outside-

And felt nothing.

"We're here, Mr. Mulder," the woman who had been driving said politely. "Follow us, please."

He looked back at Scully. She shrugged.

Keeping their hands joined, they scrambled out of the car, moving out through the same door.

To his right, Mulder could see the three who had arranged the escape being cordially escorted out of the other car and towards a door in the garage wall.

Their escorts gestured in that direction, and Mulder and Scully followed.


Through the door was a large control room, equal in dimensions to that of a medium-sized ballroom, hastily assembled and very helter-skelter.

There were gadgets and gauges and loads of other complex technical things, made from a thousand different pieces and not matching in the slightest. Not one piece seemed to have been made for the purpose it was trying to serve. Computer screens lined entire walls, with keyboards left on the floor, wires exposed for anyone to trip over. And the machines were only one part of the mess - wherever there was empty space someone had perched a soda can, a messy stack of papers, a laptop, a pizza box, or a pair of weary feet.

The room was also filled with people and noise, which amplified the mayhem. Men and women argued in loud voices about time tables and deadlines, while others murmured to themselves as they typed various strings of data into programs. An old dot-matrix printer was spewing forth pages of complex symbols, which people would come look at for a few seconds, then run back to their workstations, screaming obscenities at anyone who would listen. Every once in a while, someone would holler for everyone to shut up, which only added to the din.

At least, until the new arrivals walked in.

Conversations died. The gentle tapping of typists faded into nothing. Someone even turned off the printer.

Silence filled the room as the occupants stared in shock at the newcomers, especially Fox Mulder and Dana Scully.

Until applause succeeded it.

Lots of applause. Lots and lots of applause.

Hernandez turned to the group, his face calm and content. "We wouldn't 've gone so rough on y'all, 'cept we knew you wouldn't 've gone with us any other way. But welcome. Welcome to Clean Slate Center."

All they could do was stare. Stare at Hernandez and the room of clutter and clapping people. It was overwhelming.

"What have we done to deserve this?" Mulder called over the cheers.

"Well, doncha see, Mr. Mulder? You're heroes, you 'n Miz Scully. And thanks t'y'all, we're gonna be able to stop it all."

"Stop what?" Scully yelled.

But Hernandez just smiled.


In his tiny office, the smoking man hunched over the map of southern Nevada as if it contained the secrets of the universe, mumbling to himself as he made notations with a ruler and a blunt pencil.

"Four units, four directions... Hernandez went north... If they only traveled 80 miles per hour, the farthest they could have gotten in six hours is here... But there's nothing in that area..."

His suit blazer was on the floor next to him. His tie lay nearby. His hair was mussed, and the cigarette in his hand was nearly burned down to his fingers. But he was finally able to make sense of things.

"Parker?" he called. The woman from before heard him and poked her head inside.

"Yes?"

"Can you get me a copy of the last thermodynamics readings Satellite 4-28 took for this area?"

"Sure," she replied obediently, moving quickly to dig through the computer files in the other room and print out the requested information. He took the opportunity to retrieve a fresh cigarette.

Soon, he was comparing the hot zones of southern Nevada 14 hours ago with the road map.

And, suddenly, everything made sense.

Something in him wanted to cackle madly. But he settled for pulling out the bag of useful devices he kept around for emergencies and dashing to the garage.

He had never been a very good driver, but had gotten better over the years, and certainly had learned to enjoy the thrill of high speeds. So he figured that he'd be able to make it to the one spot on the thermo map that was giving off absolutely no heat in at least ten hours.

Hopefully, that would be enough time.


As the cheers died down, Hernandez led the five of them into a windowless room at the side of the hall, which contained two worn couches, a card table, three folding chairs, and a refrigerator. It felt cramped.

"There's another room through there," Hernandez said with his usual calm, gesturing to a door in the left wall. "'Bout the size of a broom closet, but has a bed in it. Y'all are probably all tuckered out, so we'll just come by in about six hours, see if y'all are more rested. G'night."

Hernandez left the room, and the five of them stared at each other.

"Who wants the bed?" Daniel asked, in the tone of voice that indicated where he'd sleep if no one moved first.

The others all eyed the couches warily, without any great enthusiasm. And as Esther opened her mouth to stake her claim, Marc touched her shoulder.

"You two take it," he said quietly, nodding at Mulder and Scully. "We'll be fine out here."

They both seemed a little surprised, but nodded in understanding, moving quickly into the other room.

Esther glared at him as the door closed. "Who said they should take it? I could use a good sleep too."

Marc grinned halfheartedly. "I didn't do it so they could sleep."

She found the energy to smile back. "You incurable romantic," she murmured.

He grinned down at her. "It's why I'm here. Couldn't let you two have all the fun."

Daniel laid down on the less threadbare of the couches, noting how his feet hung off the end.

He sighed.


Maybe if Mulder and Scully had known that this was to be The Last Time, at least for a while, they would have done some things differently.

They were both wearing the sweats they had been dressed in directly after their taking, and maybe they would have spent less time being thankful that those particular garments slipped off easily. Maybe they would have, instead, taken a few extra seconds to appreciate the flesh uncovered, spend just a little more time memorizing form and texture.

Maybe they would have moved slower, not been so anxious for the final goal. Maybe their coupling would have been a little more tender and loving, a little more cognizant of what was actually happening.

Maybe they wouldn't have fallen asleep almost immediately afterwards. Maybe they would have spent more time immersed in each other's presence.

Maybe they would have forgone sleep entirely and repeated the act. Maybe they would have said "I love you" one more time.

But "maybes" are for those with regrets. And Mulder and Scully had learned a long time ago that regrets were best avoided. Better to look to the future than dwell on the past.

Asking "What if?" was pointless. "Maybes" were a waste of time.

At least, that's what they would tell themselves later.


When six hours later rolled around, Hernandez knocked on the door loudly, rousing all of the room's occupants. But when they all stumbled to the door, he revealed that he only needed Mulder and Scully.

"T' be frank, we really dunno what we're gonna do with you three," he said in response to their silent questions. "It's a big decision, y'know, and it's really up to someone else."

So he only escorted the two ex-agents out of the room. Daniel, Esther, and Marc were left inside.

They probably would have been more okay with the situation had the door not been locked after Hernandez had left.


As Hernandez went to find out where Mulder and Scully were wanted, the two of them stood at the side of the large room. And almost immediately, a group formed in awe, people moving from their workstations to surround Mulder and Scully with questions.

"So, where exactly did you locate the alien embryo?"

"How did you get onto that base in Idaho?"

"How much lower does the body temperature have to become before the retrovirus is dormant?"

"With *what* do you puncture their necks?"

"Where's the MJ file now?"

"What was in the boxcar?"

"Did they ever identify what was in the Mars rock?"

"They really gave you Kalocin? Didn't they know...."

The voices all blended together, querying, asking, demanding, until a tiny round man pushed his way through the crowd. His thin, reedy voice threw Mulder and Scully a lifeline. "You all have work to do, don't you? Countdown's at five hours, isn't it? Come on, then, you all have places to go, right?"

The crowd dispersed, and he looked up at Scully - looked UP at Scully - intensely. "Would you two come with me?" he asked demurely.

Mulder looked at Scully. He was intrigued.

Scully looked at Mulder. She was curious.

They followed.


"Miss Scully - or do you prefer Dana?" one of the technicians working in the tiny lab asked calmly, fiddling with vials and syringes.

"Just Scully," she replied uneasily, watching the woman work from her perch on the one stool in the room. Mulder, standing by, held her hand tightly.

"All right. Scully, we've got some good news for you. We just need some information first."

"What?" she asked, a little alarmed.

"Oh, don't worry about it," the woman called dismissively. "We just need to know if the informant who gave you the DAT tapes - what was her name?"

"Santiago. Luisia Santiago," Mulder answered.

"Right. We just need to know if she gave you two the locations of any of Their bases overseas. It's the one piece of information we can't access."

"And then what?" Scully asked a little anxiously.

The technician passed her a stack of papers. "Then, there's Shenphic."

Looking down at the data, Scully found herself momentarily confused. Then everything started making sense.

Shenphic, according to the documents, was a medication resulting from gene therapy that would increase immune responses astronomically. A one-shot drug that remained in the system long enough to gradually allow other bacteria to reintegrate into the ecosystem of the human body.

It didn't make a lot of sense to Mulder, reading over her shoulder. "What's it mean?" he whispered in her ear, seeing her shock.

Silence for a few seconds. Then she looked up at him, tears in her eyes.

"No more Kalocin," she whispered. "No more. They have a cure. And just for a few city names."

Her words hit him all at once, and through tears of his own, he grinned without abandon. "No more Kalocin," he repeated. "Just for a few city names."

They hugged each other tightly, which provided them with a little privacy as well as comfort. "Do you trust it?" she whispered in his ear.

"No. Do you?" he breathed back.

"No." She paused. "But I really want to."

"Me too."

"And we have to give it a try."

"Why?"

"Because I don't think we were able to bring the Kalocin with us."

They turned their faces towards each other, letting the fear show in their eyes.

Damned if they did, maybe. But damned if they didn't, for sure.

They continued to hold each other as the technician called in her boss.

And prepared an injection.


Marc was the first allowed out of the room, Hernandez escorting him to use the bathroom and to have his head injury checked. He returned back quickly.

"Is everything okay?" Esther asked quietly.

"Not that bad - I don't have a concussion. I only passed out in the car because of exhaustion."

She nodded thoughtfully at this. "Were you able to see anything? Figure out what's going on here?" she murmured softly.

"I was able to observe a few things," he replied as quietly as she. "They've got some massive hook-ups here - satellite, modem, radio even. And it's a patchwork effort, but the technology involved is amazing. There are some *brains* behind this."

"What does it seem they're trying to do?"

He looked serious for a moment. "Cryptography, programming, design - I think that I even saw a soldering bench in the back. They're making both hardware and software, but with all the emphasis on their communications stuff, it seems like they're more concerned with transmitting whatever they're creating."

Daniel jumped in at that point. "What are we doing here, anyways? I thought that they would try to keep us out of all this. We just came from Them, after all - wouldn't we be a security risk?"

Esther's face screwed up intensely, the way it always did when she was trying to put the pieces together. "Yeah - but our ties to Them are pretty cut off, I'd say. These guys are probably just assuming that, after our break, we wouldn't be interested in going back."

Marc spoke. "That's a pretty big assumption."

She blew air out her mouth in annoyance. "I know. That's why it doesn't feel right."

"I guess all there is to do is wait for something to happen, then," Daniel said, keeping most of the fear in his voice from showing on his face.

Esther and Marc couldn't disagree with him.


"Havana, Cuba."

"Toulouse, France."

"Bangkok, Thailand."

"Melbourne, Australia."

"Capetown, South Africa."

"Rio de Janero, Brazil."

"Lima, Peru."

The short man from before wrote each one down carefully. "That all?"

"Yeah, I think so," Mulder replied for the both of them, a little cautiously. "Why did you want them?"

The man grinned, a little maniacally. "Mine is not to reason why. Mine is but to do and die."

Not exactly the answer they were looking for.

"Is that the real quote?" Scully asked tentatively.

"Close enough," was his only reply, cheerful though it was. He left the room in a doddering little rush, leaving Mulder and Scully alone with the technician.

"You guys ready?" she asked calmly, reaching for the fresh syringe.

"What kind of side effects can I expect?" Scully asked, a little nervously.

"It'll knock you out for a while, and you might feel a little achy for a few days. But it's nothing in comparison to the Kalocin's effects."

Scully tightened her jaw, clenching her teeth. "Okay. Let's do it."

As the needle sank slowly into Scully's arm, Mulder tried rubbing her back, though it remained as stiff as a piece of wood until the drug began to take effect.

He had to catch her as she slid off the stool she was perched on. The fall landed them both on the floor, her cradled in his arms. "Nuh mur kalzin..." she muttered up at him numbly. "Nuh mur... Muller, 's gonna be okay...." Her voice trailed to nothing as she slipped into oblivion.

Mulder was transfixed by the changes of her face - tense to relaxed, fierce to sleepy. They reminded him of those long ago stake-outs when he would get the chance to watch Special Agent Scully melt away into someone else.

Seeing that long-missed change and reliving the memories, the nostalgia of the moment was enough to take his breath away.

The lab technician counted on that as she approached him from behind with another syringe.


Esther was daydreaming, Daniel was almost napping, and Marc was trying to figure out what grade cable to use for a PC interlink when, through the walls, they heard the people outside suddenly break into applause again, even more exuberantly than they had when Mulder and Scully had entered.

The three of them crouched around the door, looking through a crack in between the frame and door to see in the garage doorway two figures, a woman and a man.

She used a cane to keep her rather substantial weight off her leg. He held his left arm stiffly.

>From somewhere in the back, Hernandez walked up to the pair, grinning broadly. "Brought 'er back, didja?" he exclaimed jovially over the cheers, slapping the stiff-armed man on the back.

"Couldn't let her miss the party, could I?" he replied with a smile that didn't quite reach his eyes.

The conversation grew lower in tone, as the applause died away. But Esther, Marc, and Daniel were still able to eavesdrop, thanks to the crack in the door and the paper-thin walls.

Hernandez turned to the woman at his side, scooping her up in a gentle hug, then releasing her cautiously. "How ya been?" he asked with more concern.

She gestured to the brace on her leg. "Better. I wouldn't have minded them going a little easier on me, to be honest."

"It was bad?" he said as sympathetically as possible.

A shudder shook her for an instant, then she regained her composure. "Bad. I won't regain full use of the leg." she murmured quietly.

Suddenly, Hernandez was all business, jerking his head towards her companion. "Was the body count high, or were you able to get her out without great difficulty?"

The dark-haired man shrugged, his left arm jerking at a slightly different angle at the motion. "Body count was pretty bad, but it won't be an issue. They don't check on the Death Valley site more than once a week, and even then, it'll take a while to figure out why no one's reporting back."

Esther leaned over to Marc. "He looks familiar, doesn't he?" she whispered.

He nodded slowly. "I think I worked with him once, back when I was at the New York location. Can't recall the name, though."

"And what about her?" Daniel breathed. "I know that face, I'm sure."

"You probably ran into her when you went to Florida on that consult last year," Esther answered him. "I've seen her before too, and I think it was somewhere in that part of the country."

"This is weird," Daniel said after a short pause. "I heard the rumors. But I had no idea that there were actually people putting together something like this set-up. And I never expected that anyone I knew would be involved.... Oh shit!"

Marc and Esther stared at him.

He looked back, frightened. "I remember where I really saw the woman before. There's a picture of her in the Mulder/Scully file."

It was Esther's turn to breath an obscenity. "Shit. It's Mannes, isn't it?"

"Yeah," Marc said quietly. "And I remember the guy's name now. Alex Krycek."

"I thought I heard something about him going rogue again a long time ago," Daniel murmured. "Probably right after Mulder and Scully vanished."

The three of them stared at the other three, finally realizing how serious the situation was.

For they were surrounded by some incredibly complicated technology in a secret lair constructed by renegade members of an international syndicate. There was a countdown to something going on, something which was as unknown as it was frightening. And in had walked two of Their greatest worries, two traitors to The Plan and all it represented.

And there they were, surrounded by people who had already betrayed one loyalty, who probably wouldn't really want them around any longer.

They suddenly realized that the dialogue Hernandez had been sharing with the new arrivals had quieted from casual conversation to indistinguishable whispers, and then into silence as the three rogues moved towards their little room.

They scrambled to different corners, arriving in position just seconds before Hernandez opened the door. "If you would please follow us," he said formally, gesturing towards the door to the garage.

Esther began to sweat.


The little man stared at the two unconscious people on the linoleum floor.

"You did make sure to give her the Shenphic, right?" he asked of the lab technician.

She nodded. "Yeah. They did come through, after all. She'll be out of it for a hour or two, and I think I got the dosage of the sedative so that he will too, probably. Is that enough time?"

He shrugged. "Enough. Countdown's at three hours now, and most of the work itself is done. We're just waiting for the timing to be right."

"I wish that I hadn't had to drug him. It feels wrong somehow," she said in response.

Her companion looked at her with compassion. "Better this than them figuring out what's going on before they can understand everything."

The woman acknowledged this with a tilt of her head, and then her face grew introspective. "It seems so strange. I've been involved with this for years and now it's down to hours."

"Any regrets?" he asked soberly.

It was the first personal question he had ever asked her, though they had worked together since the beginning.

Her face grew thoughtful. "I wish that all my friends from before were on Our side. Then, I wouldn't feel so bad about this." She hesitated. "What about you?"

"My only regret is that it had to happen this way," he said with no small amount of sadness.

"Yeah. There is that."

Absorbed in each other's companionship, they stood there for a few seconds more before they got back to work.


Hernandez and the woman they were sure was Tessa Mannes accompanied them to the garage, then split off immediately, walking out of sight. As if they knew what was going to happen.

Esther, Daniel, and Marc were then left alone with one Alex Krycek, who was regarding them calmly.

"You all probably know who I am," he said at last, "and while I don't know you," he gestured at Daniel, "I have seen you before," a hand movement at Marc, "and I've definitely hea of you, Ms. Finn. Weren't you the one who broke that IRA terrorist who stole the report of the Fallen Angel Interpol cover-up?"

She nodded modestly. "Liam Beard. He's in a Swiss facility for the mentally unbalanced right now, I think."

He shook his head at that, smiling the joyless smile from before. "Amazing piece of work. I was out of the loop around that time, but even I heard about it."

"Thank you."

"You had quite the future ahead of you - that's what everyone was saying around then, as I remember. If you had played your cards right, you could have easily become a player in the grand scheme of things. They're always looking for a new recruit with nerves of steel."

Esther looked at him curiously. "Do you consider yourself a player?" she asked him tentatively.

That soulless grin again. "A player is someone who's following the rules of the game. And I've invented my own game here. Just like you, to a degree."

"No. I just chose to stop playing."

His face grew more sober. "Why?"

"What?" she asked, surprised.

"Why stop playing? You were on your way. You had respect, your own little circle of power. In a few years, you could have been in control of the way the entire globe sees the smallest things. But you chose not to pursue that path. And you ended up enabling two of Their, and by extension your, greatest enemies to escape."

She shrugged in response. "You do your job, day in and day out, but sometimes you just don't let yourself realize exactly what you're doing. And my blinders got taken off all of a sudden, and I just couldn't do it any more."

Daniel chimed in. "It had something to do with them, also. I just found myself unable to hurt her any more. Caring's the most dangerous part of the job, and you get good at avoiding it. But she just got past all my defenses."

Krycek nodded. "I can understand all that."

It was then that Esther noticed something very interesting. Krycek's left side, just below his armpit, was distorted by a lump. A large gun-shape lump.

A large, gun-shaped, uncomfortable-looking lump. One he probably would have removed if he wasn't planning on needing it.

He caught her looking, and she said the only thing that came to mind. "Oh."

His mouth quirked upward in apology. "If there was any way around it, this wouldn't be happening. But you three are a risk, and we can't afford any risks. This goes far beyond any of us. You understand."

He pulled out the gun, checking the clip carefully. Esther considered running for a split second, but turned around to see that Hernandez and Mannes were right behind her, armed as well.

Oh, well. She wasn't afraid. Working with Them had a way of preparing you for this sort of thing.

Next to her, Daniel started breathing heavily, though he held his ground. She was proud of him.

Marc edged closer to her other side, slipping his hand into hers. She squeezed it hard.

And met the *CRACK* of the gun with her head held high.


The smoking man drove. Faster, faster, faster.

He should have let someone know where he was going. He should have taken one of the jeeps with a radio instead of the small four-door sedan.

At least, that was what an almost-lost part of himself was saying. The rest was caught up in the glorious knowledge that, in no time at all, everything was going to be okay.

Just one more hour. He was pretty sure he could reach the X on his map in an hour.

And then he would have found Mulder and Scully.

This time, for sure.


Trying to blink away the fuzz in his mind, Mulder sat up gingerly, rubbing the shoulder he had landed on-

He suddenly was on full alert, looking around anxiously for Scully and the damned lab technician. The former rested by his side, stirring a little in her sleep. The latter wasn't there, however.

Instead, one Alex Krycek stared him in the face, crouching on the floor only a floor or two away.

"What the fu-"

"Nice to see you, too, Mulder. Been a long time," Krycek said blithely.

Mulder lunged for the man's throat. Krycek shoved him to the side and onto the ground effortlessly.

"Mulder, please. Give us both a little credit."

"What do you want?" Mulder growled, getting up and moving back in between Scully and Krycek.

Krycek smiled. Mulder noticed that it didn't quite reach his eyes. "Nothing, Mulder. I really want nothing of you. I just want to know if you're interested in being a part of it all."

Anger was replaced partially by both drug-induced and natural confusion. "What?"

"Well, remember when all you wanted was the Truth, Mulder?"

He nodded.

"Remember when you started wanting vengeance against Them as well?"

He nodded again.

"The Truth, as I am sure you've discovered by now, doesn't really exist. It's an illusion made of facts that barely manage to add up. You were given the facts a long time ago, but they weren't the Truth. Without absolute certainty behind the facts and absolute acceptance by the mainstream public, nothing can be considered the Truth. And your vengeance? Revenge is a hard thing to hunt for in a fog, when the perpetrators of the original acts are dead or unknown."

Krycek leaned in closer. "But imagine, Mulder, if you could make it all stop. Imagine if you could wipe the slate clean, make all the bad stuff go away. Imagine if you could simply get rid of Them. Get rid of Them and all they stand for.

"And imagine that it's going to happen in a matter of minutes."

"What do you want from us?" Mulder asked, repeating his earlier question.

"I want you two to be part of it. This would never have happened without you -certainly without those overseas locations. That information is usually impossible to access."

Mulder looked confused. "I thought we traded that information for Scully's new drug."

Krycek shrugged, the stiff left arm jerking oddly. "Yeah, but there's also more to it than that. You two got this started -you inspired people, made them question the validity of what they were doing. Made them want nothing more than to bring Them down, at all costs. It's the completion of your dream, and it wouldn't be right if you weren't there.

"That's why we started the countdown the second you were captured. In fact, we would have gotten you out of there if you hadn't escaped so soon."

Something clicked in Mulder's brain. "Mannes. I thought Mannes said we wouldn't have a second chance."

"She said that you wouldn't have a second chance for the all-expenses-paid escape. Only fair, considering how we had to come up with a completely different strategy."

"You really couldn't get the locations by yourself?" Mulder asked incredulously. "Hard to believe, given what you have achieved."

"You didn't know? Santiago was extremely high-level, and she did a lot of overseas coordination. She was probably the only one among Them with that information, and you two were the only ones she ever gave it to."

"So what do you want from us?" Mulder asked again.

"To be here. You inspired all of this. Even I'm here because of your legend. And your presence would mean a lot to these people. They've already given up so much. And they're going to need to give up a lot more."

Krycek left the room at that point, locking the door behind him. Leaving Mulder on the floor, confused and frustrated.

But one thing stuck in his mind.

*Imagine it all happening in a matter of minutes....*

He cradled Scully's limp form in his arms, stroking her cheeks as he tried to wake her up.

"Come on -up and at 'em, Scully."

Her eyes opened after a few seconds, and they gazed up at his blearily.

"Wuzzit?" she mumbled.

"I think we're running out of time."


The great machines warmed up.

Of course, they did so extremely slowly, being operated by people who did not trust the stability of the jumbled connections. But steadily, they began to prepare for their assigned tasks, interlinking and analyzing and processing.

However, those listening to the growing hums did not cheer, or smile, or do any of the things that normally come with the realized success of such a massive project.

They believed in what they were doing, but the actual act was difficult to perform. It is easy to want to get rid of a great evil, but actually getting rid of it, and then having to imagine your life without that focus, is a little more difficult.

So the worker bees of the great technology hive performed their tasks efficiently and competently.

And waited for the final result with bittersweet anticipation.


The smoking man loved it when he was right. And he was so very right.

The abandoned underground Air Force base was located directly where the X on his map was. And as he navigated the steel corridor down, he couldn't help but grin, as unnatural an expression for him as it was.

*Foundthemfoundthemfoundthemfoundthem... MINE.*

As he stopped the car, grabbed his bag, and stepped out into the crowded garage, two things hit his senses.

Sound. A low humming, building in volume, coming from another room.

And smell. A thick penetrating aroma he knew from many years of experience with Them.

It took him only a minute to find the bodies, which had been dragged into a distant corner, and less time than that to make sure that his two were not among them. He saw the body of Daniel, that young man from before, and felt a brief pain of mourning.

That is, until he remembered his purpose and looked for the portal to the slightly-muffled sound. That's where he'd figured they'd be.

For he didn't really recall Mulder and Scully being very quiet.


It took three good kicks to the door before it burst open and Mulder and Scully came running out into the main hall.

But all they were able to do was watch.

On every one of the large computer screens mounted onto the wall, a world map could be seen. And each map was slowly filling up with red Xs, covering various little dots.

Havana, Cuba.

Toulouse, France.

Bangkok, Thailand.

Melbourne, Australia.

Capetown, South Africa.

Rio de Janero, Brazil.

Lima, Peru.

And others -Washington D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago.

"What's going on?" Mulder asked at last, moving past the shock.

A young woman, watching transfixed, answered first. "We're sending computer viruses to all of Their different bases, disabling various systems, messing up basic processing."

Another voice piped up. "But then we're redirecting the transmissions so that it looks like they came from a different location."

"So They'll start retaliating against each other, instead of us, with missiles or computer viruses or life control malfunctions, and before you know it They're all gone," continued another.

"If we don't do this now, other things will happen later. Bad things. They were planning something big, something that would be the end of everything, and none of us here were willing to see that happen."

"Something with the aliens?" Mulder asked the speaker, semi-hopefully.

He nodded. "Something with the aliens."

"But what about the people?" Scully demanded quietly.

"Them?" Krycek answered. "Most of Them won't be around any longer."

Mulder kept it going. "And the people living nearby?"

"They'll be fine. Minimal casualties. We have no intention of letting it spread that far. It's just Them we want to take care of -nothing apocalyptical."

The idea of it -the elimination of Them -hit Mulder and Scully a little hard, making them almost stagger with the weight of it. But full recognition did not come to them then.

For it was at that moment that the smoking man stumbled into the room.


He looked around, stunned. There were more people, more confused stares, than he had thought would be there -lots more.

But he was still able to spot HIS two. He could find them anywhere.

It struck him, then, how much everything had changed.

It seemed only days, weeks ago that these two had been healthy and besuited and ignorant. He had been clean-shaven and alert, conflicted at times but confident in what he did. She had been as determined and redheaded as any Celtic warrior, strong and insightful.

And, through the dim haze that clouded everything, the man saw that the shaggy-haired skeleton and the waif-like ghost of a brunette he saw now were not his Mulder and Scully. Not really.

But he had changed, too. He was no longer their black-lunged son of a bitch. He had transformed from the ultimate representation of all evil into a lonely old man who coughed up dried blood every morning.

It made him sad. He had never really liked change.

His eyes locked with the not-Mulder for a second, then his gaze rested on the not-Scully's form. And it all made sense. It all made so much sense.

He could wish all he liked for the past to come back. He could wish that things hadn't happened the way they had. But they were all dreams, fantasies.

And sometimes in life, you have to settle for what's leftover from those dreams.

The smoking man reached into the duffel he carried with him and pulled out a small box.

"It's a transmitting device," he said quietly, only to Mulder and Scully. "It'll relay my position to a far away computer, a computer controlling guns and missiles and other such things. And that computer will lock those things onto this position and fire."

"Why?" Not-Scully asked quietly. There was almost some compassion in her voice -something he had never imagined to hear from her.

"Because..." he murmured. "Because I don't want things to get any worse. I don't want anything more to change."

And before they could stop him, he pushed the large button on the box's front.

The effects were felt almost immediately.


To the smoking man and Mulder and Scully, the large hall had shrunken to include only them. But the hundred people or so inside were definitely there. And they started to panic, especially when the first BOOM! shook the floor.

The dash to the garage door became a stampede, pushing and pulling and kicking, nearly destroying the great machines and trampling those who weren't moving fast enough.

Mulder and Scully clasped hands tightly in order not to be separated, but the push of the mob still moved them up against Krycek, slamming them into him roughly. "Where are they?" Mulder called out to him above the frightened shouts, the increasing number of explosions.

"Where are who?" Krycek answered.

"The three who came with us. They have to be around here somewhere."

"Mulder, they're not with us any more, period," Krycek yelled in response. "They're dead. They were a possible danger to us, and we had to eliminate them."

It was Scully who reacted first, socking Krycek in the jaw as she screamed into his face, "They helped us escape, you asshole!"

He stumbled backwards, almost falling into the path of a piece of falling debris, but the surge of the crowd pushed him back towards them. "Did you even know their names? Did you even know who they were or why they decided to break you out?" he bellowed. "We couldn't trust them. And we didn't."

"You had no reason to trust us, but you did!" Scully shouted.

"And look who you two led here! Now we're all as good as dead!"

"Your plan worked, though," Mulder yelled. "If those marks are accurate, you've managed to make it all stop."

"But there's too much going on! This place was supposed to remain intact, to handle the transition, keep everything going afterwards. Now who knows what will happen? We can't do any of it without the technology here. It's all going to go to hell."

Krycek cried out as the flood of people swept him away. Mulder and Scully almost followed, until an iron grip, just outside the span of the mob, dragged them out of the current.

They breathed the nicotine staleness of the Cancerman's smell, restraining the urge to vomit.

"Don't leave me here," he said quietly, almost too quietly to be heard. "I don't want to be alone for this. You two are all I have."

They saw the lunacy in his eyes, the childish gleam of incontinence that frightened them to the core.

And they let themselves fall back into the stream.

"Don't let go of my hand, Scully," Mulder murmured into her ear as they struggled to keep up with the others.

"Don't you let go of mine," she replied nervously, squeezing even tighter.

"We'll grab one of those cars, just something small. And we'll get out of here. We'll go somewhere far away."

It hadn't clicked at first somehow, but Scully suddenly realized what it all meant. There was no more Them. She and Mulder had, to a degree, done it. They had helped make everything better.

No more Them. No more Kalocin. No more pain. No more hiding. No more loneliness.

Just for a few city names.

There were the deaths of their three companions, too -another penalty, in a way. But still, somehow, she had always thought it would cost more.

"We'll go someplace far away," she said in reply. "Somewhere with a beach."

"And I'll call you Scully in public and we'll sit in the sun-"

"Together. I'll call you Mulder in public and we'll sit in the sun together. And everything will be okay."

"Everything won't be okay. Everything will be perfect."

Surrounded by a mob of frightened people, dodging bits of falling building as they were forced out of the disintegrating main hall into the garage, they were struck by a most inappropriate happiness.

It lasted until a mammoth impact split through the garage ceiling, the force of it splitting apart everything in its path.

Including Mulder and Scully, blowing them in opposite directions like leaves in the wind.

It shoved Scully up against a wall of a man, who immediately scooped her up and tossed her into a minivan being loaded for evacuation, despite her immediate resistance.

It threw Mulder into the bed of a pickup truck crowded with others. A pick-up truck that began moving the second he made contact.

"Scully!" he screamed.

"Mulder!" she screamed back.

Mulder almost jumped out of the truck, but the impact had jarred his body, and he couldn't get around the others who had jumped in the back with him. And other people were loading into the van, shoving Scully back in further.

Their eyes locked helplessly across the distance, and a million words of empathy and sorrow crossed the barriers between them.

Though time stood still for the moment, the truck Mulder was in did not.

"I will find you!" he shouted a few seconds before the truck began speeding up the ramp to the outside.

"I won't stop looking!" she yelled before the minivan door slammed shut.

She tried keeping her eyes on the car Mulder was in, yelled up at the driver to follow that red truck.

"Hey, right now I'm just trying to get us out of here alive," he yelled back at her, the tires screeching as he made a rough turn onto the road outside.

The woman next to her said softly, in an attempt to calm her, "We'll all try to meet up at the same place later." But when Scully looked at her, she could see the lie in her eyes.

Like dandelion seeds in the wind, the caravan of cars, trucks, and other motor vehicles scattered in search of refuge from the onslaught.

Of course, it wasn't necessary. Just getting outside the underground complex would have been escape enough. But there were panicked people behind the wheels, people who were positive that it was the wrath of God or the wrath of Them that had been thrown down. And all they could think about was getting the hell out of Dodge.


"But what about after that? What happens then, Mommy?"

"Well, Kathleen," the woman said a little roughly, "it actually becomes a little unclear. It's sort of like those books we found in that old burned-out library, where you could choose what happens next."

The little girl nodded. "Okay. But what are my choices?"

"Well, it could be that, after the bad people went away, everything fell apart because the bad people were the ones who kept everything running."

"Or what else?"

"Or maybe the bad people weren't completely gone, but they got their revenge against everyone else by destroying almost everything and everyone. Or maybe even worse people from someplace far away decided to take advantage of the situation and make everything bad for the people on Earth."

The little girl's face grew thoughtful. "It doesn't really matter, though. Does it Mommy?"

"No, Kathleen. It really doesn't."

Suddenly, the girl remembered what had been troubling her. "But what about the boy and the girl?"

"What about them?"

"What happens to them? Are they okay? Did they get back together?"

"Well, after everything was blown up, things were even more confusing. Especially when other people got scared and started leaving their homes to run someplace where they might be safer. No one really knew what was going on, and so that just helped everything fall apart."

"You didn't answer me, Mommy. Were they able to find each other?"

The woman stared down into the small face, framed with brown hair, that she had first seen, abandoned, at the side of a muddy road almost eight years ago. She looked deep into the clear hazel eyes that had, when at only a matter of months old, locked onto her heart and reminded her of what could have been.

"They were separated, Kathleen. The cars they were in went completely opposite directions, and from there the people scattered even further. Some were asked to help out -help keep people from dying by finding them food and giving them medicine. This happened to the girl, though she didn't do it willingly, because some people blamed her for what happened, and they made her do something to help. It was some time before she was able to escape them and try to find the boy."

"But did she find him?" The little girl's voice, despite her agitation, was growing weary, those hazel eyes starting to slip closed. She had reached her limit

"She never stopped looking for him. And she always knew that he was out there looking for her."

"How does she know? Maybe he went away like those bad people did, or like Esther and Daniel did."

"No." The woman said this very firmly. "She would know if he went away. She would just know."

"So she finds him? Please say she finds him." the little girl asked sleepily.

"Wouldn't that be a sappy ending?" the woman replied, only partially teasing.

"Yes, but I don't want this story to be real any more. I want everything to be okay."

"Well, don't worry, Kathleen. The girl and the boy have never been willing to settle for what's left over. They'll never stop looking for each other. Not until they are found."

A huge yawn split the girl's face, and she began making the final descent into slumber. "So they live happily ever after?" she asked softly.

The woman smiled, a little tearily. "Yeah. They live happily ever after."

The little girl closed her eyes, and was soon in dreamland.

The woman wiped some tears away, and murmured two words before taking up watch over her little charge.

"I hope."

The End


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