Paradise Lost

THE FINE PRINT:

COPYRIGHT 1999 by Susan E. Middleton (feedback, comments, aspersions can be directed to me at: bardsmaid@juno.com. Let me know what you think--specifically what did and/or didn't work for you. Writers love this stuff!)

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: many, many thanks to Patty for her enthusiasm, to Littljoe for playing the worthy and necessary role of devil's advocate (without which this manuscript would have been much less bearable), and most especially to Listen, with whom I trust my literary life, and who provided me with much detailed feedback (the kind I thrive on) and encouragement.

THE OBLIGATORY DISCLAIMER: I don't claim to have made these guys up. The characters legally belong to Chris Carter and 1013 Productions, Fox, etc. etc. (though the true spirits of Mulder and Scully belong most appropriately to David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, who have brought them to such authentic, searing life.) I've just been tinkering here, looking at possibilities I felt could have profitably been explored in early Season 6 as an alternative to a trip down the Yellow Brick Road to Fantasyland. Anyway, I mean no disrespect or infringement; heaven knows I don't stand to make any monetary profit from the time I've put into this, though I did--wouldn't you know it--learn lots and lots about writing along the way, and that's a good thing. Please don't try to sue me; all I have to offer you is my third-born child (a "Ransom of Red Chief" kind of deal if there ever was one--be warned) and an old stucco house with termite problems. Not a very promising trade for the time and expense involved.

THIS STORY TAKES PLACE AFTER 'DRIVE', EARLY IN SEASON 6. IT'S NOT A PLUNGE INTO AN MSR FANTASY WORLD, BUT RATHER AN EYES-OPEN ATTEMPT TO EXPLORE WHAT THE LOSS OF THE X-FILES MIGHT HAVE DONE TO MULDER AND SCULLY.

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Paradise Lost

 

 

Fox Mulder strode into the review room and sat down. Skinner, he noticed, was conspicuously absent; the rest of the panel consisted of the usual faces. Kersh sat at the center, which meant he was chairing this. Mulder squirmed in his seat.

Where was Scully?

He looked at his watch and frowned. 10:40.

Did she even know about this? He hadn’t seen her this morning; there had been a note on his desk--if you could even call it a desk--a ‘workspace’ was all it was...if you wanted to consider what he was doing there ‘work’--when he’d arrived, saying she’d gone to Arlington to pick up...something about evidence for some case Kersh had thrown at her at the last minute.

The door opened behind him opened and Mulder turned. The corners of his mouth began to lift, but it wasn’t her after all; it was Kersh’s secretary, the chemical blonde with the fake smile, the one that said if I find anything on you--and I’d like to have something on you--his Loftiness will know in a heartbeat.

"Agent Mulder..."

Kersh’s voice boomed across the empty space.

Mulder turned and faced forward.

"We’ll make this brief. You were advised some weeks ago that any further contact with the X-files would result in your immediate dismissal. Apparently staying with the Bureau doesn't top your list of priorities, so we’ll make this easy for you."

His voice was all policy but there was a smile--just a hint of a smile--starting at one edge of Kersh's mouth.

"Sir. Excuse me. Sir?" Mulder straightened in his chair.

"You’ve been relieved of your position, Agent. You will be required to..."

"Sir?"

"...check your badge and weapon before you leave the building."

"Sir, on..." Mulder got to his feet; he could feel the blood pumping through him, churning. "...On what do you base this? I’ve just spent the last three weeks in California chasing down fertilizer violations with my partner. We discovered an illicit stash in a warehouse in the Oakland area, 500 pounds of ammonium nitrate. We stayed an extra day to verify removal. The report is on your desk, sir."

"I’ve seen it, Mr. Mulder."

"I...I believe there’s been a mistake here..."

"We have the phone records, Mr. Mulder. The conditions were ‘any contact’. Now, there will be..."

"Phone records?"

"Mr. Mulder, sit down."

Mulder sat down. He didn’t recall having stood up.

"Sir, what phone records?"

"Mr. Mulder, there will be an exit interview set up for next Tuesday..."

"Sir, I’m asking for clarification here..."

"...Any concerns you have can be addressed at that time. Until then you're on administrative leave."

Kersh’s lips continued to move, but Mulder heard nothing. He looked up and down the panel: bureaucratic puppet faces--generic faces--making the occasional perfunctory nod. He watched Kersh's mouth move, straining for a second to hear the words it formed, until recognition flashed like sudden incoming: Scully wasn’t included in this thing. They were doing this to him, booting him out, sweeping the trash out of the way.

He stood suddenly. Kersh was still droning on.

"Excuse me, are we through here?"

Kersh looked up from the paper in front of him. His eyebrows lifted.

"Are we done? Is this little charade over, because I’m late for an appointment."

Kersh just looked at him.

"Thank you, sir."

Mulder turned on his heel and walked out of the room.

 

Mulder felt the impact of his palm hard against the door; the hallway beyond it was a series of doorways passing by on either side, blurring as they went, punctuated by the occasional form of a person standing, or looking.

It made no sense; not after all this time. The only phone call they could have caught was the one--one--he had tried to make to Marita Covarrubias at the U.N., and even that could be chalked up to something legitimate. Anybody else he would have contacted--even the Gunmen--he would have called from somewhere else, from a pay phone, from a public place. They had always been watching, though before it had been from behind closed doors. Now they were out in the open. Or he was.

It had been a shrinking pool for months, though, the growing restrictions and the quality of the assignments. First the basement office gone, and with it his autonomy--their autonomy; this affected her, too. But it was in her to be able to play the game, to follow protocol and turn in the perfectly polished reports even though the work was sheer crap. She could smile and deal with it, and in the end he could not.

The first time--the first time they had shut down his project--his life--it had been wiretapping transcription, endless hours of boring low-lifes going on and on about their lives--empty lives, pointless lives. A hit here, a betrayal there, to jolt them out of the routine of their rooming-house existence, and then more nothing. The only thing that had kept him from going crazy, or from putting a gun to his head, was her. She would check up to see what he was doing, how it was going, whether or not he was surviving the routine; she had a gift for reading his emotional temperature, and beyond that she cared, though he wasn’t always sure why.

Then this time it had been worse: his life/project taken away and given to someone else, to that weasel Spender, and to Diana, who he'd always trusted...and yet didn't; something he could never quite pin down in the choreographed dance between mind and heart. And instead of wiretapping this time: domestic terrorism, a dramatic sweep through the country's heartland, sitting around in dozens of family living rooms with TVs going and dogs trotting through the house while wives in chambray and denim smiled nervously and offered you coffee as their husbands pawed through stacks of receipts for feed and fertilizer and oil and hardware to find proof that the fertilizer that had sent up a red flag back at the Bureau was actually being used to keep the family farm from going under.

The shrinking pond had become nothing more than a pathetic puddle and now, suddenly, even that was gone, dried up with a little help from...someone. Spender would be wound up in it some way. Spender and the cigarette smoking bastard who pulled his strings. But why now? Why this after all the times they’d dangled him at the end of their leash and then pulled him back in again?

"Agent Mulder..."

Mulder looked up. Ahead of him down the hallway he saw the steely silhouette of A.D. Skinner. Skinner started toward him.

Mulder fought the urge to turn around, to go down a side hallway or step into an elevator.

"Agent Mulder..."

Skinner was beside him, maybe a step too close.

"I had nothing to do with this," he said, his voice a half-whisper, his features characteristically tight and unreadable. "You were set up. I’ll be in touch."

"If you can find me," Mulder heard himself shoot back. He turned abruptly and headed for the front lobby.

It was deja-vu; it was rapid water rising inside him, the too-familiar panic of being caught, twisted, tumbled end-for-end, everything familiar in his life ripped away. The need to breathe, to do something. To fight back before he drowned. He passed unthinking by the metal detector and through the front door.

His retort to Skinner still echoed in his ears.

He stepped to the curb and raised his hand to hail a cab.

 

At 2 p.m. he changed into shorts and left his apartment with a basketball, hoping to run across someone looking for a pickup game at the local park. Not because he had time to kill, but because he needed to fill it with something besides the squirming, sloshing backwash that was blocking his head, muddying his mind, making him unable to see what move to make, what to do next. Clarity was the goal, the clarity that came from backing off, or from sweating away the confusion through the physical effort of the game. But the courts were empty. He shot baskets for half an hour and jogged home. In the elevator, his heart rate slowing gradually to normal, the nagging sense of jittery limbo took over again.

He worked the key in the lock of his apartment and opened the door. 'Set' was the only word he could fit to the scene in front of him--as in movie set. The bare essentials: chairs, stove, coffee table, sofa, TV. No real personal touches of a life going on here; his life was caught up in the boxes of files and papers stacked all over the bedroom, a room he only used for storage, and what did that say?--how loudly did that speak?

Not that the frills mattered; decorator furniture and strategically placed objets de arte or a different color of paint didn't matter. They weren't important. What was important was...

He threw the basketball hard against the front wall, narrowly missing the window he had used to post the masking tape 'X'. The ball ricocheted off an end table and knocked over the trash can beside his desk. That was the point, anyway, wasn't it? Like X, they were all dead.

 

Dana Scully rapped her knuckles below the '42' on the door for the third time. She called, "Mulder?" again, but this time her voice wasn't very loud, certainly not loud enough to be heard by anyone inside the apartment. She pulled her key ring from her purse and put Mulder's key into the lock and turned it.

It was dark inside, deep with shadows; the last faint light of evening glowed softly in the front window.

"Mulder, are you here?"

She let her breath out slowly.

She walked carefully in to where she could see the couch. No Mulder. She reached for the light switch and flipped it.

His basketball lay in the middle of the floor; otherwise nothing seemed out of place. She went to the desk under the window and sat down carefully. There could be something. She flipped the switch on the computer and watched it power up. Maybe he had left something, some hint or clue...

She scrolled through a list of file names. George Hale. She clicked on it. He had used that once before, when he had taken off for the SETI array in Arecibo. A password prompt popped up on the screen. Scully typed in "trustno1". She paused.

She tried 'Samantha'.

Then 'Chilmark' and 'Quonochotaug' and 'Verber' and 'virus'. The password prompt continued to stare at her.

Skinner had seemed distraught when he'd come up to her in the parking garage, as if he'd been waiting for her to arrive. As if it hadn't just been a coincidence that they'd crossed paths. "Agent Mulder has been dismissed," he had said, his voice taut. "Maybe you ought to..." He had shrugged his shoulders. She had never seen Skinner seem helpless before. She could still see the worry lines that imprinted his forehead.

Scully stared at her own pale reflection in the computer screen. There could be a simple explanation. He could have gone to the grocery store. He could be out jogging. She leaned forward and rested her head on her hand.

She didn't think so.

I still have my work, he had said when he'd come back from Arecibo and found his evidence gone yet again. I still have myself. But did he have himself now, after all this? What would he do--what would it do to him--if he didn't?

 

Mulder waited until she had gone--counted two minutes on his watch afterward--before he pushed the bedroom door open a crack farther and stepped out into the living room. He went to the door first and checked; she had locked it. Then he went to the window. Scully’s car was pulling away.

His hands curled up tightly; he forced himself to stretch them out again, then stepped back from the window. He should have gone this afternoon, while the rental agencies were still open and he had a chance at getting a car. But where would he have gone? There were too many possibilities then, careening around inside his head like a compass set wildly spinning by the proximity of a magnet.

This was why he had to go, though. It was her. She had lost her innocence; she had nearly lost her life--how many times had she been there, hanging by just a thread, because of something he had done, or because of someone who wanted to use her to get to him? And now with their reassignment off the files a few months ago, she had lost her credibility and some of her access as well.

Mulder went to the couch--the same couch he slept on--where he lived--and sat down. He covered his face with his hands.

He could see what would happen to her--could see it starting already. She would become what he had become, a walking Bureau joke, someone people in hallways snickered at after they passed.

He leaned back and let himself sink into the cushions.

She had too much talent for that, too much to give. She deserved a career--a legitimate career--and as long as he was here, she would be trying to help him; she would be worried about him. She would get sucked under with him.

Mulder closed his eyes. He had watched her there, through the slit in the door, sitting at the computer trying to crack his password. Then she had leaned forward, her head against her hand. She would never give up--and she accused him of being relentless. She wouldn't; he knew her too well.

He had to get away, out of here. Stop contaminating her. Maybe then he could think--really stop and think--of what do to next.

 

Mulder pulled up in front of the Quonochotaug house and sat looking at it. It seemed a little more tired, a little more weathered maybe, than he had remembered it. He cut the engine and leaned his head back against the headrest.

Was he running to something--he had wondered that all the way up here--or just running? His whole adult life had been wrapped up in the past, trying to find it, to piece it back together while the present...while the present went streaming past him unnoticed. As if he'd spent every minute since Samantha's abduction sitting in one of those rear-facing seats they'd had in old station wagons, never seeing anything until it had passed him by.

He should get out of the car. He sat forward in the seat.

Maybe it ran in the family, the not being able to let go of the past. His mother had never been able to bring herself to sell this place. Not after the divorce. Not even after she'd had the stroke--right here in this very house, after meeting him here.

Mulder slammed the steering wheel with the side of one fist and sank back against the seat and sighed. Then he pulled the door latch and got out.

He had come here because of Samantha, not to think about the Smoking Man and whatever the hell connection he had to his mother. He wouldn't go there, wouldn't invite Old Smoky to steal this time with his sister. He had come here looking for some connection, to understand something about her, about who she was and who she had become, or if she had become...

Though there was no certainty, nothing to be counted on, like a math problem you couldn't solve because all you were given were variables. His British informant had told him their father had taken Samantha to a cloning facility. But he'd also thought he had found her in the flesh, once, sitting right on his father's front porch. And for as much as he had wanted to believe--had wanted to believe it was her, really her--he had known, somewhere in the back of his mind, even before he found the other clones, that it had been too good to be true. He thought he had found her again when Cancer Man brought her to see him at that diner while Scully lay in the hospital, the life trickling inexorably out of her. But that could have been a scam just as easily; Old Smoky had been playing on his emotions, holding out carrots, offering him everything he had ever wanted, and to what purpose? Nothing came free, least of all long-lost sisters. And if that one had been the real Samantha--the one he had lost so many years ago--then she hadn't wanted to see him anyway. She had been scared, like a deer caught in headlights, wanting to spring away--make her escape--yet not knowing just how to do it. He had scared her, him with his overbearing intensity. 'Passion', Scully called it. He smiled suddenly, thinking of her. Then he saw her, head-in-hands, sitting silent in front of his computer in the dark. He swallowed and dug the garage key from his jeans pocket.

 

Scully hurried to turn off the water. She wiped her hands dry quickly and fished the ringing phone from the pocket of her lab coat. Her breath caught involuntarily; she forced it out evenly and pushed the 'talk' button.

"Scully."

"Agent Scully, is there some place we might talk?" It was Skinner's voice. She paused, breathed out.

"Sir?"

"Off the record, Agent Scully. It's...important."

"How about Sweeney's, sir? I could meet you in, say, an hour?"

"Maybe some place more public...Can you meet me at The Wall?"

"The Vietnam Memorial?"

"Yes. By the directory."

"By the directory, sir. In one hour."

 

Mulder sat on a patio chair, the contents of the Quonochotaug garage spread around him. This was where all of her things were, the place where, if there was a place, he could find some closeness to her, some connection.

His mother had put everything in here when they sold the Chilmark house: her bed, her desk, her dresser with everything still in it, hoping, he supposed, against hope that one day she would be returned. The same way he had made a ritual of closing his eyes when he entered his room, hoping that when he opened them again she would be there, as always. A child's trick; a crossing of the fingers. A skipping over the cracks in the sidewalk, just in case it might be true, what they said in the rhymes.

And what had it done to his mother, living every day knowing what had happened to her?--if what his British informant had said were true. Trying to rationalize that it might be for her own good, her own protection. If only she could believe the fantastic scenario his dad had set out for her. If only she could believe in the righteousness of the motives of the men that gathered around his father.

Something pinched him; Mulder shifted in his chair.

She had hated his father for it, despised him. After his death the hatred was still there, just as fresh, hardened and sending off sparks when it was struck. It had not been her fault. Not her fault, though he had blamed her many times, berated her in his head, screamed inside until he had collapsed in tears and the pressure slowly seeped away. She'd had no chance against the power of the men who had made these decisions, no strength against the power of their will. They took what they wanted--who they wanted--in the same way they had taken his father, when he was finally ready--finally--to open up to his son.

Mulder stood and looked around him: Samantha's mattress up against the wall, behind the stacked pieces of bed frame, her bedspread in a large, dust-covered plastic bag; cardboard boxes marked 'books' and 'toys'. The contents of her closet in those moving boxes meant for wardrobes. Her dresser, with the desk behind it, covered with a moving pad and sheets of plastic over the top. Dust. Years of dust, the accumulation of passing time. Mulder wiped a finger through it; it was all there was to show, here, for all those years.

 

Scully sat on a bench at a distance from the memorial. She was far enough away not to be noticed by anyone who might be watching for them, close enough to see Skinner when he arrived. Vietnam had not been her war; she was young enough not to have been personally touched by the people who had lost their lives there, and her father, though military, had been elsewhere at the time, or so he had told them. Still, it was a lot of lives, a lot of sacrifice--or pointlessness--in a war that had been dubious and confusing at best.

She didn't come here very often; the last time, to tell the truth, she had been with Mulder, who was busy interrogating a lead that had taken them nowhere. That fact had been obvious to her at the time and she had finally drifted away from Mulder and his Russian contact, pulled to the names set in the black-polished granite. As if they represented something solid and real in a way her partner's ideas often did not.

But they weren't partners now.

She had slept only fitfully last night, waking to find her eyes open, her mind on where Mulder might have gone, assessing whether he had the strength to weather the loss of the job his life was built on. Everything he was--everything he did--hinged on the access he had through the Bureau.

And where did this leave her?

It wasn't like the time they had merely been reassigned, and she could fill in what should have been the meaningful, career-building work of teaching at the Academy with the occasional spurt of his passion for his search for his sister, or for alien life. Maybe they had been for her as well as for him, those meetings in parking garages and on park benches. Perhaps she had needed that spark as much as he did.

"Agent Scully..."

She nearly jumped at the touch of his hand on her shoulder.

"Sir?" She turned around.

"It's about Agent Mulder," Skinner said, sitting down beside her. "Do you know where he is?"

"No, sir." She shook her head. "He isn't answering his cell phone." She paused. "I went to his apartment last night but he wasn't there. I think he's gone..." She swallowed.

Skinner looked at her.

"I don't think he wanted to be followed, sir. He would have left some clue, some hint. There was nothing..." She looked down, at a tuft of tiny daisies sprouting from the grass near her shoe.

"I know this is no longer official Bureau business, Agent Scully, but I think Mulder's life is in danger."

Scully looked up.

"Look, Mulder was railroaded. I don't know by whom; I'm trying to find that out. He doesn't deserve this..." Skinner's lips twisted slightly. "And I hate to think of what's being covered up--what's being allowed to continue--by getting him out of the way."

He stopped and looked away, to where the V of the memorial sliced abruptly into the grass. "I spent two years in a war that was a bureaucratic nightmare as well as a tactical one. So many lives were lost for no reason--men I knew, men I was close to. Good men." He stopped. "...Agent Mulder is the squeak in the machinery, a squeak we need to keep the rest of us honest, to make us look at what we're doing, and whether it measures up. He's never afraid to speak his mind, no matter how he knows other people will react..."

"No. No he's not, sir," Scully said, smiling in spite of herself.

"I tried to speak with Senator Matheson yesterday," Skinner went on. "Do you know him?"

"No, sir. Mulder's mentioned him from time to time, but I've never actually met the man."

Skinner paused. "I went to his office yesterday. I wanted to see if he knew anything about what had happened. He seemed surprised that Mulder was out, but I don't trust the man." He shook his head. "He was holding something back. I got the feeling I shouldn't have gone there, as if I were exposing myself. When I left, he asked if I knew where Mulder was, so he could contact him."

"Why would he have assumed Mulder had gone somewhere--that he couldn't just call him?"

"My question exactly."

"I know he's always considered the Senator an ally, sir..."

"I know. But alliances can change."

She nodded.

"So if you have any idea of where he might be, any way to get in touch with him..."

"I'll try, sir. I'll do my best."

"I know you will...I just hate to see another good man go down."

"I understand completely, sir."

Skinner got to his feet.

"And, sir...Watch your back, sir. Protect your access."

Skinner nodded at her, then turned and walked off, away from the memorial.

 

Mulder lay staring at the ceiling in the dark. It was like a museum, this house. A museum chronicling the life of a family in the early seventies. Only without the people themselves. No life, no emotions, no spirit...

Just the trappings, like an archaeological dig.

He rolled over onto his side and sqeezed the braid of hair in his hand. He had found it in a box in the garage--her hair--something his mother had saved once, probably from the time Samantha had decided she wanted bangs. He remembered Samantha sitting outside--here, at the Quonochotaug house--with a towel around her shoulders and his mother combing the long, brown hair straight down in front of her face. He had teased her, told her she looked like Cousin It, and she had told him to cut it out--squealed it, actually--and his mother had chased him off.

Now he ran his fingers through the hair in the dark, feeling the hard knot where the rubber band held it together, then following slowly down the untied length of it, feeling the wave of the curls that were still there. As if it had been on her head just yesterday. It was the most shockingly tangible thing he could think of--her own hair--something so much a part of her. And yet there was nothing that came with it. He could feel nothing. Nothing about her--if she were alive still, if her spirit were still out there, somewhere. No little peek behind the curtain that held the two of them apart.

And why did he keep searching anyway--continue in this pastel-colored fantasy he'd made up? Samantha hadn't been an angel; he'd been no perfect brother, either. Samantha was screaming/hair flying/brightly-ribboned/"I'll tell on you, Fox". He was the kid who'd insisted on watching the Watergate hearings, and then "The Magician", who teased her about her bangs, who had held her--she'd come flying into his arms and it had left him open-mouthed--when she panicked, watching her father argue with him downstairs on that awful night.

Mulder rolled again, to the other side, and tucked the braid of hair beside his chin.

He listened to his breathing in the dark.

 

She had gone to his apartment again after work. She had checked the computer, the refrigerator, the sink, the bathroom. This time she had even opened the bedroom door, though it was just stacked with boxes--files mostly--and he never used it anyway. There was no sign that he had been there. He had always left something before, a flight number or longitude/latitude coordinates...something. But this time there was nothing--nothing she could find--and she could only conclude that it meant he didn't want her to know where he had gone.

He was an adult--well, for the most part he was--a survivor, who sheltered hope like a candle flame in the blackness; he had held it out to her when there seemed to be no hope left, nothing visible, nothing even remotely on the horizon.

He could take care of himself.

Scully rolled onto her side and pushed the pillow farther under her head. A patch of moonlight lay spilled across the bedspread. Her fingers went to her neck, searching out the small gold cross tucked inside the collar of her pajama shirt. She rubbed the polished surface softly with her thumb and looked at the sliver of moon pouring its quiet light through the window. Mulder had kept the cross for her during the months she was missing, when she was abducted--hadn't left it in the evidence bag with her badge and other belongings, but had kept it himself. He had pulled it from his pocket, when she had wakened in the hospital, and handed it to her still warm, as if it had never been abandoned anywhere to cool into a piece of mere metal.

Scully closed her eyes. Behind them she found words, a piece of cross stitch from her mother's kitchen wall. A Psalm. 'Thou knowest my thought afar off', the lettering said; she could see the reddish-brown stitches now, and the flowered border beyond them. 'Thou compassest my path and my lying down.' She let her breath out slowly.

He needed space.

She just wanted him to be safe.

 

Mulder's eyes opened in the dark. The sky was black outside, littered with stars. The house was silent and wasn't.

He blinked.

His cheeks were damp. He had been dreaming something...something...It was fading already, thinning, dissipating into nothing. There had been a great sadness--an overwhelming sadness--but Scully had been there, too, a comfort up against his cheek...

A floor board creaked across the room.

His breath caught; he held it.

The pressure of a footstep.

He was up on one elbow suddenly, adrenaline-jolted, his lungs short of air. He strained to clear the thickness in his head, to hear past the pounding of his own blood.

Breathe.

In the distance he heard a crackling sound. Cool air flowed past his cheeks; the door stood open. The presence in the room was silent, waiting. Mulder blinked and then blinked again, straining to see. He counted his own surging pulse and breathed in, breathed out.

Light flickered against the tree outside, dancing suddenly yellow, and then two more footsteps, tentative footsteps, and then nothing. His stomach tightened. The garage was on fire.

He wanted to lean, to bend. He could visualize his gun on the floor, and his arm reaching, stretching, his fingers going around the weapon. The bed would creak; he knew this mattress. Just hold. Breathe.

A step, then another and another, more casual now, as if whoever it was had satisfied himself that the place was empty. Mulder looked into the shadows and saw movement. The sound of liquid sloshed inside metal. Then it spilled, as if someone were peeing on the floor.

He bent silently, smoothly, his hand stretching. His fingers reached around the cold weapon. Slowly he slipped from the bed into a crouch. Blood pounded through him. The smell of gasoline filled the room.

Mulder circled behind the bed, around the dining table, careful to stay in the shadows. Then he dove--slow-motion, it seemed--at the figure in front of him.

The man went down--not a big man. Mulder punched, hoping for a face, contacting a cheekbone. His fist stung, and then his side as he was kneed. They rolled, Mulder pulling on his opponent, the other man scrambling to get away. The side of his face smashed into a table leg but he punched again, catching the man square in the nose. The man shrieked and Mulder dragged him quickly toward a patch of light. His heart jumped.

"Krycek, you bastard!"

But Krycek rolled, slipped free and staggered to his feet. "What are you doing here?" he gasped. "Get out of here, Mulder!"

Mulder heard gas spill again.

"Like hell I will."

He sprang again, catching Krycek at the knees and slamming him into a wall. Krycek went limp.

Mulder paused, gasped in a breath, then lurched toward the cell phone he had left on a chair next to the bed. When he came through the doorway, flames were breaking through the garage roof, beginning to lick at the shingles.

 

He sat on the grass near the curb at first, hands around his knees, watching them fight the fire. Like an old movie, the action was somehow distant, the color slightly off and not quite real. Bursts of yellow-gold sparks flew up against a black sky, carrying away his past converted into bits of papery ash. It was all going, following the old familiar pattern, disappearing like his sister, or like the evidence he was always seeking. Everything disappeared. It began as hope, as a faith in something unseen, and turned into vivid reality he could see, touch, sometimes even photograph or measure. And then it was always gone, disappeared or stolen or lost in some way he could never anticipate. And he was left--always--as nothing more than a prophet, proclaiming what others could neither see nor accept.

The house was burning now, too, the result of shifting air currents, or chance, or maybe just the force of the wind created by the force of the blaze. Mulder watched the old technicolored flashbacks overlay the scene in front of him--his then-young father angry and yelling, the Smoking Man glaring at him from a doorway, his words--"You're a little spy!"--echoing and re-echoing. He saw himself not so long ago, breaking lamps against the brick wall of the living room and picking a strange, cylindrical object from among the shattered pieces, the weapon Old Smoky had wanted.

Krycek would be working for him.

Faces came up to him: a sheriff who needed to file a report, a couple of EMTs who wanted to check him over, wash the blood--Krycek's blood--from his hand, fuss over the cut on his cheek, where he had smashed into the chair leg. He let them do their work; he watched the house--the doors, the widows. Krycek had escaped through a window after he'd shot his father; he had talked his way out of a cell in a Russian gulag, leaving Mulder to be subjected to the black oil; he had managed--somehow--to make his way out of a locked room in an abandoned missile silo. Maybe this time his luck had run out; maybe he had finally met his fate, a victim, in the end, of his own treachery. The firefighters had gone into the house early on, searching until the flames beat them back, but no Krycek had emerged, not under his own power, not over anyone's shoulder.

There was a quick, sharp pain near his temple as the EMT worked on it; Mulder gasped. His eyes watered and he noticed the sky suddenly--gray now--and the little group of spectators. He felt heavy-headed, as if he'd been awake for weeks. When the EMTs let him go, he wandered around to the back of the house, away from the gathering crowd. The press would follow soon enough; an arson fire would make the front page in a sleepy little place like this, and he had no need to broadcast his whereabouts by getting caught in a press photo. If Scully saw the pictures, she would know. She would worry about him.

Mulder went to a clump of trees where the lawn dropped away to the water's edge and sat down. They had played hide-and-seek here, he and Samantha, under these trees. He would hide behind the biggest trunk and she would go off in some other direction, searching and calling, until he'd step out, touch base, and call to her that he was safe. Her hands would fly to her hips, her nose would wrinkle and she would blurt out, "Not fair, Fox!"

Mulder looked out across the yard. A heavy thickness suffused the scene, an unreality. His eyes wanted to close. He leaned forward and rested his head on his arms.

Krycek had wanted him out. Why? He had said it almost without thinking, a gut reaction, and Krycek's gut reaction was never to save anyone. And why this house, here in Quonochotaug? No one lived here. Unless it was a move to get to his mother somehow, to pressure her for something.

"Agent Mulder?"

He squinted up to see a deputy. The sky was too bright behind her. The house was four blackened walls now, standing like the borders of an open courtyard. Smoke and steam drifted from the wreckage.

"They've gone back in and checked. There was no body inside the house."

"Are you sure?"

"They checked twice." She shook her head. "There's nobody in there."

He nodded and turned away. He felt the stubble on his face. The light hurt his eyes; he just wanted to close them.

He would have to tell his mother, and how would she react? Would she fall apart or would she be relieved to have this accumulation of the past gone at last, taken away so she didn't have to make the decision herself. And what about her after all? Was she safe? Or was she just a pawn in another attempt to get to him, the way they had used Scully?

Mulder got slowly to his feet. He had to go to her.

 

Scully gasped and sat bolt upright in the darkness. She gripped the edge of the pillow beside her and made herself breathe in, then out, slowly, willing her body to slow its sudden frantic pace. Slowly, the rhythm of her heart slowed.

She turned to the window, searching for moon or stars--anything to keep her eyes open, keep the pictures in her head at bay. The moon had gone from the window, leaving only a thin, angled shaft of light on the carpet. Scully eased herself off the bed and reached for her robe.

She wanted to go to the kitchen, toward the light and safe, reassuring things: the soft comfort of the sofa, the tea kettle, the vase with the deep yellow sunflower she'd placed on the table tonight, and yet she found herself at the window, looking up into the indigo sky.

Cassandra Spender had sat at a window in her wheelchair once, marking a pattern on the glass--an all too familiar pattern that had pulled on Scully in a way she couldn't put to words. She hadn't felt that call since Cassandra disappeared, but the memory of it, together with the nightmares that still came--the bright lights and the drill, spinning so rapidly it was only a blur, coming closer and closer to her face, and the terror--all these things were jolting, recurring reminders that normal life--life with its conventional assumptions of future and security and family--had forever passed beyond her grasp, like a plane she had failed to catch.

Scully wrapped the robe around her and went to the kitchen to put the kettle on to boil. In the cabinet she found a mug and tea bag and set them on the counter. She walked slowly to the couch, around the back of it, and back to the kitchen. Her fingers traced the woodgrain pattern in the countertop, waiting for the kettle to boil. When it did, she poured the steaming water into her mug and carried it to the couch.

Scully curled into the corner of the sofa. She took a sip from the mug, forced herself to concentrate on the flavor trickling hot down her throat, and willed the dream-images into the shadowed corners of her mind.

She had made a promise to Penny Northern that she would not give up. And she had made a promise to herself, after Penny died, that no matter what else she did with her life--on the surface of her life--she would work to solve the mystery of who had done this to her, not just for her own peace of mind, but for all the others who would continue to be taken if she did not, and especially for Penny and the rest of the women who had lost their lives from the afteraffects of the tests.

Scully held the mug under her chin and let its warmth drift up onto her face. She needed to keep that promise. But it was more than one person could do--to find these truths, to expose these men. And Mulder was gone.

How was she to do it now?

 

"Fox?"

Teena Mulder was staring at him, eyes filled with worry.

He looked down. There was blood across his T-shirt--Krycek's blood--and a cut on his cheek; he hadn't shaved in...he didn't remember how long, maybe two days.

"Sorry, Mom."

He wanted to squint against the brightness, to close his eyes. Just to sleep.

"Fox, whatever happened to you? Were you in an accident?"

"I...I'm okay, Mom." He stepped forward and into her tentative embrace. "I'm okay." He stayed there a moment, eyes closed, his cheek against her shoulder.

"Come in, Fox. Sit down. You look like you need to rest."

He followed her through the hallway and into the living room. He sat down in an armchair and leaned his head back. His eyes closed; he made them open. She was standing, waiting.

"Would you like some coffee?"

"No." He shook his head against the back of the chair. "I've been running on coffee all morning."

"Let me fix you something to eat, then," she said, turning toward the kitchen. She seemed eager to get away.

"Look, Mom..." Mulder pulled himself forward in his chair. "Sit down. I need to tell you something." He swallowed.

She stopped, then came to the end of the sofa nearest him and sat down on the edge of the cushion. He took a deep breath.

"It's the Quonochotaug house, Mom. It's gone--burned."

She said nothing, just looked at him, not comprehending.

"I was up there yesterday, Mom. I was looking through some things...in the garage..." He could hear his voice going gritty, the way it did when his emotional wiring was overloaded. He eased his breath out slowly. "I decided to stay over, and I woke up in the middle of the night, and...the garage was on fire."

"But how could that be?" The lines in her face seemed a little deeper, more defined than he remembered.

"It was arson, Mom. I kind of ran into the guy who was pouring the gasoline," he said, touching the side of his face. The pain made him wince.

"Did you catch him?"

"I thought I had." He shook his head. "But he got away."

She looked at the coffee table, and at nothing.

"But who would do..." She only started to say the words. Her face went taut.

"He's the one who killed Dad."

Teena Mulder sank slowly back into the cushions. There was pain in her eyes now, years of it. "It never stops, does it? It never leaves you...they never leave you." She stopped. He watched her breathing, the up and down of her dress. She was dry-eyed, beyond tears. "And the house?"

"Gone, too. The wind blew the sparks. I..."

He pulled something from his pocket, something dark.

"I, uh..." He took a breath, tried to smile. "I came away with this. I ran outside...I...I didn't even know I had it with me."

He handed her the braid of Samantha's hair and leaned forward, resting his head in his hands.

There was no sound, only breathing. Rhythm, in and out; blood flowing.

Finally a hand, soft on his shoulder.

"Fox, I am so very sorry..." Her voice was almost a whisper, not edgy the way it was when he'd ask her to remember something and she'd say she couldn't, that it was all too long ago, and her eyes were saying, "Why are you doing this to me, hurting me this way?"

"I'm sorry for this life, for the way it's been for you..." She sighed. "I just wish I had..."

Mulder looked up at her, into her. "No, Mom. It wasn't your fault. There was nothing you could have done. These men do whatever they want. They take whoever they want..."

His fingers found hers and held them. On the mantel the clock was ticking.

"I'm tired, Mom," he said at last. "I need some sleep."

 

Teena Mulder stood in the doorway to her spare room, watching sun stream through the eyelet curtains. From behind her came the soft chime of the mantel clock sounding three. She looked down at the white bedspread covering the length of her sleeping son. Her eyes traced the line of his cheek, the curve of his chin, the color in his lips. His forehead was creased with subtle lines. Stubble spread shadow-like across his cheeks. She watched until her vision went watery, and still she remained in the doorway.

 

"Sir?" Scully said, momentarily frozen.

Kersh beamed at her from across the expanse of desk.

"Congratulations, Agent."

Scully forced herself to smile, to cover the sudden feeling inside her, as if she'd had the wind knocked out of her and were trying to breathe again.

"You'll report to Quantico Monday morning."

"Yes, sir," she said, repeating the smile more fluidly this time. She stood automatically to shake the hand Kersh offered.

She walked carefully out of the office, remembering to say something polite to the secretary, careful not to walk into the path of passersby in the hallway outside. Inside, her thoughts swirled like dry leaves caught in a whirlwind.

It was a strategy.

It was the position that would make the laudable career, the one that would make her family proud, would have made even her dad beam to tell his friends, that his daughter was nested high in the teaching faculty of the FBI Academy. A good, solid, respectable career; something to show for herself and her life. Respect and respectability.

It was the subsequent step to dismissing Mulder. Disable him, move her out of range.

She paused by a window and looked out, unseeing.

Bill would be proud. Her mother would be encouraged, beaming. And what would Melissa say?--if she were here, if she could tell her this?

Missy would tell her to follow her heart, to listen to what her insides were telling her.

Scully ran her fingertips along the smooth wooden railing. Her fingers squeezed the wood, gripping against the tide of this.

 

Scully set the cardboard box down on the curb and raised her hand to hail a cab. She had spent the last of the afternoon cleaning out her desk, absently handling objects and pieces of paper while her mind remained trapped inside the news Kersh had given her.

"Agent Scully?" A pleasant male voice came from behind her shoulder.

She turned around and found herself looking into Byers' neatly trimmed beard.

"Agent Scully, do you need a ride? We have some information you may find interesting."

She paused, thought.

"Yes. Yes, I do. Thank you."

An old VW bus pulled up in front of the row of newer cars parked at the curb and stopped. The door slid open. Langley smiled at her from the passenger seat. Frohike was driving. They looked like two cartoon characters, a lion and a dwarf. Byers picked up her box and she hurried inside and slid across the seat.

"Agent Scully," Frohike said, turning around and bowing his head dramatically.

"What's going on?"

The van pulled away; Scully gripped the back of Frohike's seat for balance.

"That's what we'd like to know," Langley drawled. He turned around; the black rims of his glasses were stark against his wild blond hair.

"Wait, I thought you had information for me."

"We do," Byers said. "But where's Mulder? We haven't been able to get ahold of him."

"Mulder was 'dismissed' from his position two days ago," Scully began, unsure how much she should say. "Skinner thinks he was set up; I do know Kersh deliberately sent me off to pick up evidence so I wouldn't be there when it happened. I didn't even know about the review until I got back, and Mulder was already gone..." She took a slow breath. She was caught suddenly inside the moment she had found out. It had come like a sudden gunshot, an unexpected burst and then blackness.

Langley was saying something.

"...Net this morning..."

"Excuse me?"

"I was surfing the Net this morning, and I came across this." He turned and handed her a printout.

It was a police and fire report from somewhere in Rhode Island.

"There, on the third line," Langley said, pointing.

Scully looked.

"Mulder's family does have a place there, in Quonochotaug, don't they?" Byers asked.

"Yes..." Scully said.

"And you haven't had any contact with him since Tuesday?"

"No...no, I tried. I went to his apartment twice. He usually leaves something on his computer...something so I'll know where he is, but..." Cars and buildings passed by outside the window in a blur. "...there was nothing there."

She swallowed at something hard filling her throat. Silence filled the van. There was only the high-pitched rattle of the engine.

"We'll keep our eyes and ears open," Byers said finally, in an obvious attempt at comfort. "We'll let you know as soon as we hear anything."

"Thank you." Scully tried to smile. Then she turned again to watch the darkening blur beyond the window.

 

"Yes. Thank you for your help, sir."

Scully hung up the phone and sighed. It had taken every ounce of professionalism she could muster to suppress her instinctive desire to take someone on the other end by the throat and shake the information she wanted out of them.

She had contacted the sheriff's office in Quonochotaug; after some insistence she had managed to locate the deputy who had taken the report. Mulder had been there. He had given a report, and that was all the man was at liberty to tell her, other than that the fire had been a case of arson. It was very little information.

Mulder would have contacted his mother, either by phone or perhaps he had gone there, but if she were to call Mrs. Mulder, what would she say? That she was looking for her former partner just to know...to know what? If Teena Mulder hadn't seen him, her own call would only make his mother worry. If she had...well, if Mulder wanted to contact her, there was nothing stopping him. Unless he was hurt, in a hospital somewhere. Or worse.

She got up from the sofa, unable to simply sit any longer. She went to the bedroom and changed into sweats, then retrieved her running shoes from the closet. She sat down on the edge of the bed and began slowly to loosen the laces on one shoe. The doorbell chimed. She sighed, set the shoe down and padded to the door.

"Mom!"

Margaret Scully's smiling face filled the doorway.

"I met an old high school friend for dinner, and the restaurant was just a few blocks away." She stopped and looked at her daughter. "Are you going out?"

"No. Yes..." Scully sighed. "Come on in, Mom," she said, opening the door wider.

"Is something the matter, Dana?"

Scully returned her mother's hug. "Good news, actually," she said, trying to sound optimistic.

Her mother straightened up and held her back, looking at her.

"I've been reassigned, Mom," Scully said softly. "They want me to be on the permanent teaching faculty at Quantico."

Margaret beamed in the way Scully had known she would.

"Oh, Dana..."

Scully smiled; at least, she thought she had. She could see momentary concern in her mother's eyes, a sign that she'd picked up something in the way she'd smiled, or the tilt of her head, or something intangible in her voice.

"Would you like some tea, Mom?"

"I don't think I can hold another drop of anything, thanks. Tell me about your promotion."

Scully settled cross-legged into one end of the sofa and her mother sat down next to her.

"I don't know all the details yet," she said. "I just got the news today." She stopped, then looked up at her mother. "It's the job Dad always would have wanted for me."

"Yes," her mother nodded, her voice drying suddenly. "He would have been so proud."

Scully smiled at her, a closed-lipped smile.

Margaret's face clouded. "What about Fox? How is he..."

She looked down. "He was dismissed from the Bureau, Mom. Two days ago."

"But why?"

Scully shook her head. "Some kind of politics...Skinner thinks he was set up..."

"And is he..."

"I don't know anything, Mom." She focused suddenly on her breathing, to keep it even. "He's gone. I don't know where."

Her mother was quiet a moment. "He probably needs time to think, Dana, to sort things out. Men are like that, you know. They have to figure things out on their own." She paused. "It was such a big part of his life, wasn't it?"

Scully looked down again, at her hands. "It was his whole life."

Margaret looked away, at the kitchen cabinets beyond the dining table. Her mother was trying to think of something helpful to say, something positive.

"Last night," Scully began, her quiet tone jangling the silence, "I had the dream again." She paused, breathed in. "And I...it just made me feel again like I have to do this, to solve this puzzle. To make that connection so that Penny Northern and all those other women won't have died in vain. I have to fight back and...this is the only way I know to do it. And now..." She shook her head and sighed. "Any other time I would have been ready to take this job, to go to Quantico and be a doctor." She almost smiled, remembering Mulder's words by the reflecting pool. "And it's not a choice, not an option. But..."

She looked bewildered; she could feel it showing. Margaret leaned closer and put an arm around her.

Scully leaned forward, onto her mother's shoulder. Margaret's sweater was soft against her cheek.

"And can you leave your partner behind so easily?" Her mother's voice was quiet.

"We're not partners anymore, Mom," she said into the closeness of the sweater.

"Aren't you?" Margaret Scully said.

 

"What are you going to do, Fox?"

Mulder looked up from the mug in front of him, across the table to his mother. His brow wrinkled. "I don't know, Mom. It had to be..." He stopped to breathe, determined not to do this the way he usually did, a preemtive foray into his mother's private territory that he knew from experience would only inflame him--and hurt her--in the end. She was looking at him, waiting.

"It has to be the Smoking..." He wet his tongue, to keep the words coming. "...the man who came to see you at Quonochotaug, when you had the stroke." He let his breath out slowly.

Teena Mulder winced, then settled into a look of quiet despair.

"I think he's behind everything..."

There were questions in her eyes, or pain.

"...My dismissal. Dad. My partner's abduction, her cancer..." He had a sudden, fleeting thought of Scully, a mental picture of her sitting alone on a windy rock at the beach, looking out to sea but not focusing. "He's always been there, in the shadows at the Bureau, right from the start." Before that, even when he was a kid, but he wasn't going to go there now, wave it in her face only to be rebuffed, pushed back.

"Fox," his mother began. Mulder looked up at her. "I never really...knew what your father's work was. It was classified, and in those days it was just something a wife accepted; whatever work her husband did was his business. If it was classified, it was for the good of the country and you just didn't ask questions--you didn't think to ask. You had other business; it wasn't your...realm. But men would come from time to time. They would talk and then leave. I would serve coffee or lemonade and go back to my own duties." She paused. "But Leland would come from time to time..."

"Leland? His name is Leland?" He could feel heat rising inside him.

"It's what your father always called him."

"Is that a first or last name?"

She shook her head. "I honestly don't know. It's the only one I ever knew." She paused. "One time he...he came unexpectedly, before your father had gotten home, and when Bill arrived a few minutes later he walked me to the kitchen--he had his hand on my arm--and he told me to keep my distance from him, that Leland saw life as a chess game, and that every move he made, no matter how small, was designed to take him one step closer to winning. It seemed an odd thing to say; your father seemed so intense at the time."

Mulder swallowed and pushed away the thoughts forming in his head.

"Mom, I want you to find someplace you can go--someplace you can stay for a few days, a week or so."

She looked at him, concerned.

"I can't be sure you're safe here, whether he might be trying to get to you with this--with the fire at Quonochotaug. Or if he thinks he can get to me by getting to you."

"But Fox, for what possible...?"

"I don't know." He leaned forward across the table, earnest. "I just know I need you to be safe. Dad was right; he'll use anything--he'll do anything--if it gets him something he wants."

"I suppose I could go to Trudy's. She's been asking me to visit." She glanced at the kitchen clock. "It's too late to call tonight..."

Mulder pushed his chair back from the table. "Get some sleep, Mom," he said softly. He came around and took her cup and carried it to the sink. "It's late. Get some sleep."

 

Scully rolled onto her side and opened her eyes. 1:43--exactly seven minutes later than the last time she had looked. The moon was just beginning to force a blade of light through the corner of the window. She tugged the corners of the pillow closer around her neck to prop her head higher.

It was a way of neutralizing them: get rid of Mulder, reassign her. Offer her a satisfying professional career--keep her fed and warm and drowsy--and she wouldn't make waves. But why bother? Why even go to the effort with Mulder out of the Bureau? How much of a threat was she on her own?

They were counting on her being no threat at all.

She reached for the phone on the night stand and dialed. She didn't think; she only waited. She was past wondering what to say, how to phrase it, where they stood, how it would come across.

"Mulder, I need your help," she said into the mouthpiece when the message machine had beeped, keeping her tone even, quiet. Then she hung up.

 

Mulder eased the back door shut and sat down on the cold brick steps. Orion's belt was tilting around the corner of the house, glowing in the inky blue-black of the sky. He looked up and thought of Scully.

He should sleep again--get back into a routine--but he was awake now. He hadn't gotten up until five or so, when his mother had come into the room with linens to put in the closet, and the squeaking of the door had wakened him. He had laid there, watching her work, watching the late afternoon light cure to pale yellow on the walls. A child alone in his mother's house, as he had been before Samantha was born. But altogether different, a strange juxtaposition of time and circumstances.

He took a sunflower seed from his shirt pocket and put it in his mouth, then nudged it into place with his tongue and bit down.

He wanted to move, to jog, to stretch his muscles--his skin, which seemed like a straitjacket--but he couldn't leave his mother, take a chance on coming back up the block to find the house in flames and his mother gone, like his father or his sister. And what was this all about, in the end? What did it mean, his dismissal and the Quonochotaug fire?

Maybe he'd missed something, or gotten too close--had stumbled across something without even knowing it had significance. Or there could be more to this, something even bigger, something he had yet to see. So many times it was a matter of vision, of being able to take the extreme viewpoint and use it to view a situation from an angle no one else had considered.

Mulder rubbed the arms of his sweatshirt for warmth and leaned back to look at Orion. Three points on a straight line. Nearly, but not exactly. It was the same thing. He had seen it in a documentary once, and it had taken a team of astronomers--not archaeologists with their entrenched theories--to realize it: that the pyramids were laid out not in a line, but in the exact pattern of Orion's belt, the third one offset slightly, and that what had been assumed to be an air passage above the burial chamber was actually a shaft that led directly, at the proper season, to the constellation Orion, the one the ancient Egyptians knew as Osiris, guide to the afterlife. The purpose of the passage was not to let air in, but to guide the soul up and out.

 

Mulder sat on the floor of the spare room. In front of him were pictures from a box he'd found on the closet shelf, pictures from when he and Samantha were kids. The one he held was of the two of them in Halloween costumes. He was probably six. He was wearing a cowboy outfit, with boots and a brown Western hat with a silver buckle on it. Samantha was dressed as a clown, one half of her costume green, the other half orange. There was a big ruffled collar around her neck and her cheeks and nose were pink with some kind of face paint, or makeup. He sat behind her in the picture, holding her and smiling, as if she were a prize.

He ran his fingertips over the picture, tracing her outline. He'd almost forgotten the little Samantha, the one he'd always tried to protect, the one he'd thrown his arms around when the neighbor's dog had burst into the yard one day, threatening. She had gotten lost in his memory behind the older Samantha, the one he argued with over TV shows and game strategies. Here was that first one, quieter, softer, more vulnerable.

He swallowed, laid the Halloween photograph aside and reached into the box for another handful of pictures. He was glad he'd showered finally--glad he'd run, even if it had been up and down his mother's own block, where he could keep the house in view. He had run until the tightness inside him loosened, until his body was weary--a good weariness, the kind you could sleep on. Then he had showered, washed his hair, and stood in front of the mirror trying to decide whether to shave, eyeing the stranger in front of him.

A noise, a kind of moan, came from somewhere down the hallway. Mulder set down the handful of pictures and listened, then stood when he heard it again. He went out into the hall.

"Mom..." he called softly.

There was no answer.

He flipped on the hall light and went down the hall to her room. She was tossing in her sleep. He went in and sat down carefully on the edge of the bed.

"Mom..."

There was no answer. She was lying on her side facing away from him; she appeared to be dreaming, caught up in something unpleasant.

He reached out and ran his hand over her shoulder, gentle pressure. She began to ease. There was a time, just after Samantha was born, when he had found her asleep on her bed with her eyes open. Until Samantha's abduction it was the most frightening memory he'd carried with him, the thought of her lying there seemingly dead, gone to where he could never reach her, never get through.

Mulder paused. His mother began to stir. He put his hand back on her shoulder and rubbed softly until she was finally at peace. The room smelled of her, of the powder she used and the perfume she wore. He thought of another night, in a hospital room, watching over his sleeping partner.

Mulder eased himself off the bed and went to the door. He glanced back once and then went to the living room and dialed his home number. It had been two days and he hadn't even thought to check; he hadn't been ready to check. He waited through the announcement.

Scully's voice came on the line. Her tone was calm and measured but the words made his heart stop, for they were the exact words she had shouted into the message machine as Duane Barry dragged her out into the night four years ago. The second message said only, "Be at your apartment tomorrow night."

It was Krycek's voice.

 

The sun was rising, projecting a shifting, pink-golden swathe of light onto the closet doors and warming the tones in the photographs spread on the floor. He would have slept again--maybe just for an hour or two. But then he had found the picture and now sleep was out of the question. It was a group shot, his mother in the backround and over to one side from a group of men seated at the old picnic table in the backyard. She had just come down the stairs with a tray of something. But she was pregnant in the picture--not huge and ready to deliver, but pregnant enough to be obvious. And he could see Samantha's rocking horse on the porch.

His eye had gone first to the rocking horse; he remembered Samantha tearing the wrappings off, what a huge box it had been--or at least, had seemed to him at six, when everything looked twice its real size. It was one of the few vivid memories he had of that age, a present for her second birthday. She had crawled righ up onto it as soon as it was out of the box, and eventually rocked it so wildly his mother had worried that she would throw herself head-first over the front of the horse and seriously hurt herself.

And his mother. Another pregnancy. Another child. He had pressed his memory, trying to nudge it. He remembered nothing about another pregnancy, though it wouldn't have been a six-year-old's focus.

"Fox?"

Mulder turned around. His mother's head appeared in the doorway. She was in her bathrobe.

"Have you been up long?"

"Actually, I...I never went to sleep. I got caught up in these pictures." He held up the photograph. "Mom, were you ever pregnant after Samantha?"

His mother's face clouded suddenly. She hesitated but then came closer and looked at the picture he held out.

"Yes, I was," she said, her voice quiet. She sat down on the edge of the bed, not looking at him. Not really looking at anything. "The baby was stillborn."

"What happened?"

She shook her head. "I don't know, Fox. It...they didn't...look into those things...the way they do now." Her eyes were far away.

"Was it...?" He paused. "Was it a boy or a girl?"

"I never knew," she said, her voice dry, her eyes still unfocused. "I didn't want to know."

Mulder reached up and put his hand over hers. The light was strong and penetrating now, flooding the room with brightness. Dust particles drifted in the shafts of light that poured through the curtains.

"It's strange to think about," he said finally into the silence, attempting a smile. "To go through your whole life and then realize...that there might have been three of you instead of two..."

He felt her hand move under his, felt the loose skin and the boniness.

"I'd better get packed for Trudy's," she said, and stood.

Mulder watched her walk toward the doorway.

"I'm sorry, Mom."

She paused and half turned around.

"Thank you, Fox," she said.

 

Mulder punched the buttons on the cell phone with his free hand. The driver's window was open, sending waves of air through the hair on the left side of his head; it made it hard to hear. He stuffed the phone between his chin and shoulder and reached for the window button. Abruptly he was sealed in quiet.

"...after the beep..."

"Hey, Scully, it's me," he said into the phone, grasping it for a better grip. "I'm coming back into D.C. this afternoon. I'll catch you when I get there."

He pushed the 'off' button and set the phone down beside him. He wondered what she needed help with. She rarely asked for help, if it wasn't something directly related to gathering evidence; she only accepted it when she needed it, usually when she was overwhelmed.

He wondered if they had done something to her, demoted her to electronic surveillance or something. They wouldn't get rid of her. She could play the game.

 

Holly's face materialized out of the almost surrealistic swirl of people inside Sweeney's.

"Was all this your idea?" Scully said, speaking loudly and leaning closer to hear Holly above the chatter of the people around her.

"Yes." Holly was beaming. "You really deserve it, Dana. We're all really happy for you."

"Well, thank you," Scully said, taking her hand and pressing it breifly between her own. "It's going to be...quite a change. Quite a challenge."

"Oh, I'm sure you'll do great," Holly said.

Scully smiled. She was conscious of her own veneer of reserve, as if it were something dry and stretched a little too tightly, like skin that had been washed with plain soap. She hoped it wasn't obvious.

It had been a swirl of images, this surprise party, like a dream with faces--people--coming suddenly into focus, smiling and pressing her hand, or shaking it and congratulating her on her promotion, and then whirling away to be replaced by other faces. *Dr.* Scully, not Agent Scully. The Academy professor.

Holly was pulling her now, leading her to a table in the center of the room with a sheet cake and a wrapped package. She could feel her face going red as all eyes turned to watch her.

 

Mulder knocked again on the door--a little more forcefully this time--and looked down at his watch. 3:45. She wouldn't be home yet. Even if it was a Friday. When was the last time Scully had taken off early?

He paused and slipped his hand into his jeans pocket, fishing for the key. He wasn't sure why he was going in; maybe it was like closing his eyes as a kid and hoping Samantha would be there when he opened them again. Things were often worth a try, just on the outside chance.

Mulder worked the key in the lock and turned the door handle.

"Scully?" he called into the quiet.

There was no answer. He stepped inside and closed the door behind him. It was obvious she wasn't here. The apartment was filled with a closed warmth from the day that made him suddenly realize how drowsy he was after all his driving. After not sleeping again last night. It had been--what?--nearly a day again? A day since he had slept last.

He stepped into the kitchen. Clean counters, table set with placemats. A single sunflower set in a vase in the center.

He went down the hallway toward the bedroom. He remembered passing through here--her practically carrying him through here--in a haze after his father died, when he had showed up on her doorstep near collapse, sick from whatever they'd been pumping into his apartment water, and from the weight of watching his father's dead body, from carrying it with him in his mind.

He paused at the doorway and leaned against the frame. Neat, quiet, light colors. Not like his own place, dark and scattered with stacks of books and papers.

He felt a yawn starting in his throat. Fatigue coated him suddenly, like a color. He turned and went back to the living room, to the stand where she kept the answering machine. He pulled a pad of paper from the drawer below it and wrote:

Catch you later.

-M

He would catch a few hours' sleep--he needed them suddenly, as if he were parched and thirsty for sleep--and then he would call her. Before he had Krycek to deal with.

 

Mulder eased his head against the back of the couch and stared at the ceiling. His body wanted to sleep, but after three days in the twilight zone, the familiar markers of reality--his apartment, his couch, his computer and the papers scattered on tables or stacked in boxes--reminded him only too loudly that he was suddenly unemployed. That he was out of the Bureau. He had lost his access and his connection to Scully.

The implications, the consequences, the possible responses were staggering, another onslaught of variables without knowns on which to anchor them. He felt the old familiar panic begin to seep from the dark corners of his mind; he pressed back against it with determined pressure, a bleeding wound he couldn't affort to ignore. He had sat here the very same way after hearing Michael Kritchgau's revelations, watching his whole life pour past him--out of him, it had seemed. It had nearly been the end of his world, the end of him.

His mother would be at her sister's now, unpacked and settled in...

His head hit the back of the couch cushion and he jumped. His eyes blinked open, then he pulled himself up, leaned forward and cradled his head in his hands. He felt thick inside. He opened his eyes and looked at the clock on the end table. 4:37.

He stood unsteadily and picked the clock off the end table. Two hours. Enough time to get some sleep and then get back to Scully, before he had Krycek to deal with. But not here. Not on the couch where he would be a sitting duck if Krycek decided to make his little house call early.

He went to the bedroom door and opened it carefully. Warm, stale air filled his nose. It was a store room, after all. He crossed the room to the window and opened it, then pulled down the shade. It was still afternoon outside the window, cars going by and the sun shining; somehow he was removed, not a part of it. He went to the bed, shoved the file folders to one side, and crawled under the covers.

He remembered nothing. Not lying there, not drifting off.

 

Alex Krycek held his gun at the sleeping figure. It was ironic that he should find him this way, defenseless like a child. Mulder the relentless, the tenacious dog who would not give up, driven by he didn't know quite what--by shadows and insinuations and the visions that had been planted in his head. By the conflicting evidence he'd find and then lose again.

Krycek rubbed his index finger against the trigger and barely smiled. He had entertained the thoughts so many times: Mulder the golden boy, the one with the Oxford education, the graduate of the FBI Academy, the one with the childhood summer house...Things he had no concept of, his own realities having been built upon the gray-and-dirty-white of gulag buildings, of always being "The American" regardless of the fact that he had grown up as Russian as the rest of them, of being always too cold, too hungry. Of never having enough.

Mulder grunted in his sleep and rolled farther onto his side.

Krycek's trigger finger tensed.

I can kill you any time I want.

The words rolled through his head, but it was the old man's voice he heard saying them--his very tone, almost whispered, infused with bitterness and a pathetic kind of triumph.

Krycek eased the gun into his belt. He nodded at the sleeping figure and slipped quietly from the room.

 

"Mulder..."

Scully paused.

"Mulder..."

Mulder stirred slightly and screwed up his face.

"Mulder." She nudged his shoulder.

His eyes popped open and he rolled suddenly, grabbing under the pillow.

"I have it," she said, pausing, holding up his gun. "You have an alarm clock set for three hours ago."

Mulder pulled himself up on his elbows and blinked back the sleep. He squinted at the shaft of light coming in from the living room. It was her. "What...? What time is it?"

"Time to thank your lucky stars, maybe." She held out a piece of paper. "This was next to your pillow."

He took it and held it in the shaft of light. "Sweet dreams" it said.

He let out a sigh and collapsed back onto the bed. "Oh, my God, Scully..."

"Mulder, what's going on? Are you...?"

He sat up this time and ran his hands back through his hair. His hands felt thick; his mind was running in slow motion. It had been how long--four hours--five? And Krycek...

His partner was staring at him. Not his partner.

"Thank you," he said. "Good thing you didn't have to try waking me from the dead." He gave her a smile and stood up. "'Scuse me."

He went off toward the bathroom. Krycek...five hours, and now...He looked at his watch. 9:38. What was that look she'd been looking at him with? Worry? The are-you-sane look? He winced at the sudden noise of the toilet flushing; it hurt his ears. Krycek. This was the second time--second time in as many days, almost...

He turned on the faucet and let water pour into his cupped palms. Sudden cold wetness splashed his face, but it was good; it would clear his head. He looked up, into the mirror, and stopped. Four days growth--that's what had made her stare. A smile started at the corners of his mouth.

When he came out of the bathroom she was watching him already. Worried.

"Mulder, are you okay?"

She did a good job of it, keeping her voice even, quiet, not giving herself away.

"Yeah, I uh...No, actually. A lot of things have happened...a lot of things..."

"Mulder, did you make some contact, or were you railroaded? Because Skinner thinks you were set up. He..."

"You know, Scully..." he started, cutting her off. She was working herself up; he could see it. "Let's get out of here. I could use some fresh air. Maybe we both could."

 

"The beach?"

She was eyeing him; it was the are-you-crazy look. Darkness and the occasional light sped past the car window.

"Yeah, Scully. I just had this flash of you in my head the other day, you sitting on a rock at the beach..." He raised an eyebrow in her direction. "So what did you need? Should I be passing the honorary Millstone of Humiliation on to you?"

There was a silence and he glanced over at her in the darkness. He couldn't see her really.

"You know, I've never seen you with a beard before, Mulder."

She sounded half-amused, the way she did when she found out something about him she'd never expected. But there was something else in her tone, too, a wistfulness, or a sadness, maybe.

"It's the new me," he said. "Hey, I'm trying out this whole new persona, you know?--Bearded, Unemployed Mulder. Like a new action figure or something."

An exit sign flashed past on the side of the road. Mulder slowed the car, watching for the entrance. He took it, when it came, and drove slowly over crunching gravel into the parking lot. The moon was a dull light in front of them, diffused behind furrows of plowed white clouds framed like a painting by the windshield.

"You want to walk, Scully?" he said when the silence began to build.

"Okay, Mulder," she said, reaching for the door handle. "Let's walk."

 

Krycek stood behind the old man's chair in the dark. It was worth a point or two in the game somehow to surprise him this way, to watch him seamlessly cover his own fear, his jolt of recognition, but to know it had been there after all. It was a test, the smallest probing; someday, if he'd played all his cards right, he could make his move, make that final move and be sure it would succeed. But not until all his ducks were lined up. The old man had taught him nothing if not that.

The cold glow from the TV threw shifting shadows against the walls. The old man leaned forward in his chair and dropped the butt of a cigarette into a half-empty bottle of beer. There was a momentary sizzle; a mixture of smoke and steam wafted from the mouth of the bottle and then went out. By the time Krycek looked up, the old man had already pulled another cigarette from the pack of Morleys and was lighting it. Krycek cleared his throat.

The old man skipped a beat, but only one. He turned around smoothly and smiled a slight, stiff smile.

"Have a seat, Alex," he said, gesturing broadly.

"Nah."

"Suit yourself." He looked away, back at the television, and took another drag on the cigarette. He exhaled slowly and watched the smoke spread, lifting, evaporating into the shadows above his head. "I see the job is done."

"House and garage both. The gas station guy's prints are on the gas can." Krycek paused and looked around him. It could be a motel room--just the bare necessities and nothing more. Props. The old man had nothing really to show for all the power he wielded: a chair, a coffee table, a TV and the weak light of a cheap lamp.

"Hey, what's the point anyway?" he said aloud. "Nobody even lived there."

"It had sentimental value," the old man said smugly, dragging in on the Morley. He glanced up at Krycek. "Often that's worth much more than money. You can twist people with their sentiments..." He exhaled, forcing another cloud of smoke into the space in front of him. "They hold on so tightly you can blow them anywhere you like, like flags in the wind. Mulder hangs on more tightly than anyone. It will be his downfall, eventually. Maybe soon."

The old man's lips formed a smile, and then the cigarette went back between them. His tone was always the same--smooth, even, devoid of attachment to anything but his own success, and even that he was careful not to grasp too tightly. Something within Krycek took hold of an invisible thing and crumpled it, squeezing until it was unrecognizable.

"I'll be in touch, Alex," the old man was saying with his fake cordiality, but he wasn't looking at Krycek; he was staring at the strobing images on the TV screen.

Krycek went to the door and let himself out.

 

"They're transferring me to Quantico," Scully said, looking up at the glowing mounds of clouds overhead. "Kersh called me in and told me yesterday."

There was no reply. Scully rubbed one heel against the log they were sitting on. Her fingers were cold. A breeze had come up, and she was wearing only a sweatshirt over the shell she'd worn to work; she hadn't expected to be coming here. Mulder had already switched places with her, to shelter her from the wind. And there was this tangible hollow, this jangling, gaping disconnect between them.

"I don't know what to do, Mulder," she said finally into the emptiness.

"Why?"

She looked over at him. He seemed miles away, his only real sign of presence the movement of his jaw working the shell off a sunflower seed. He was staring out into the water.

She stood suddenly.

"Look, Mulder, what the hell are we doing here?"

She stared out ahead of her, to where the moon cast a shining silver path in the black water. Her throat ached. The ache reached beyond her somehow, shapeless and strong, impossible to contain.

Her ears were cold. The surf seemed loud suddenly, a hissing that chased her. She shivered and hugged her arms to her body.

"Mulder..."

There was no answer. She turned and looked at him. He was looking past her--through her--at the sea and at nothing.

"I want to go, Mulder."

He made no reply. She turned away.

"Mulder, I needed...your help..."

She could feel her pulse quicken, hard and jarring with each beat. She stared at the surf, at the momentum of the advancing wave and then the way it dissipated into foam, as if it had never been anything more than illusion. It was spilling out around her borders, the ache inside her, escaping her control.

"Fall back."

Mulder's voice came from close behind her.

She stared harder at the black water in front of her.

"Fall back."

The old tired trust exercise.

"Stop it, Mulder."

The ache grew. She could feel inner walls begin to crack, dangerously beyond the point of shoring up.

"Scully, fall back."

It came quietly this time, an asking, not quite a pleading, that soft, insistent voice he used when he was dead earnest.

"Scully..."

She closed her eyes.

Her body was shaking.

"Scully, please..."

She tried to loosen. Her throat burned. She leaned back slightly.

Then she let herself fall.

 

Alex Krycek took another sip from the small glass in front of him and stopped suddenly, as if his heart had stopped. The music around him pounded, people danced to a rhythm in the half-light, smoke wafted above nearby tables, but he was caught in a momentary limbo, sucked away from the reality around him.

Mulder would have filed a police report; he had no reason to run. The old man would know he had been there--he checked everything, every detail himself, never trusting. He would know that Mulder had gotten away. One way or the other. Not that Mulder had been part of the assignment. But he would know. The old man would know.

He was caught now, caught in the trap of his own glaring silence.

He looked behind him, around at the people at the tables and the stragglers sitting at the bar. No one appeared to be watching him.

But he would find someplace new to spend the night.

 

Teena Mulder stared at the moon. She had gone to bed early, overwhelmed with sleep, or so she had thought. But then she had wakened again. She had been in the wing chair for over an hour, watching the moon slowly glide across the left pane of the window, reaching toward the right.

She thought about her son, about his intense, overwhelming earnestness, about his hunger for meaning and the crumbs she fed him in return.

 

"Scully, what would you do if I weren't here?"

He could feel her tense a little, move a little against him, but only slightly this time. Her arms had tensed, under his.

"What do you mean, Mulder?"

"I mean if I were gone. If...if Krycek had killed me while I was sleeping...back there, a few hours ago." It sounded narcissistic, the question, but he didn't mean it that way. She would know that now.

"I don't know. I..." She sighed.

He knew what it had taken her--was in awe of what it had taken her--to actually do it, to loosen enough--to trust enough--to let herself go, to fall. To fall, knowing she would be falling to him. He had half-expected her to walk away, to take the car and leave him here, stranded in the dark. And then she had fallen, a loosening that would have been like another woman just giving herself to him--everything--and he had reached out and caught her, sagging slightly with her weight to cushion the stop, and had eased her back here, onto the log with him. Onto his knee, his arms still around her.

He hadn't let go. She had squirmed at first, subtly, a controlled panic, but he'd slackened his hold slightly and then had held it, constant, gentle, and she had eased, gradually, until finally she had relaxed against him.

"I'd keep going, Mulder." She stirred again, and then settled. "I have to. I have to know what happened to me. And I...I can't just take this job and forget about all those people, all those women...Penny...Missy..." Her voice went dry. "I owe her more than this, Mulder."

"Then you have your decision." He paused. "I just needed to know it was yours."

"And what about Quantico?"

"It's access. Right now you're the only access we have." He half-smiled. "Besides, you've got to pay your rent. No use both of us living in a box in some back alley. I think there's a limit of one--just one partner living in a cardboard box. Looks like I beat you to it."

Somehow he could feel her smile. Or at least, he thought he did, momentarily.

"What about you, Mulder? What are you going to do?"

He was quiet. He felt the comfort of her warmth against him, her weight. He bit his lip. "I don't know yet, Scully. I think I'm still lost."

 

The Smoking Man reached for the remote and flicked it. It had been yet another World War II movie, 'Escape from Sobibor'. Never one of his favorites. Too upbeat--too rosily unrealistic in spite of everything. People didn't work in concert so smoothly. They had their own agendas, their own selfishnesses that foiled the greater plan. Human nature never failed to do its work.

He pulled the last Morley from the sagging package and lit it.

It was all a matter of discovering what a person couldn't live without--what their craving was. Once you uncovered it, the game was up. You had only to withhold it, or manipulate it, or destroy it and your enemy would do the rest and destroy himself.

Though the model hadn't worked so well with her. For all he had taken from her, she was still standing, still living. She hated him, to be sure. But she had not succumbed. She had not crumbled. She had not given out her secrets.

Perhaps it was what he admired so much about her, aside from the fact that she had been a strategic game piece he could use against her husband if the need arose. Perhaps it was why he had saved her that time, after she'd had the stroke.

It would have been so easy to let her slip away, to let her secrets go with her.

 

"...I'm not even sure what I've been searching for all these years, Scully. Maybe...maybe she's not even alive. Maybe that last time, at the diner...maybe that was really her, maybe it...

"...She said he was her father, Scully. That it had been a secret between him and my mother..."

"Mulder, that's just a story, a...a line he would have used to gain her trust. She was a little girl. She would have needed to hear something like that."

"He said something to me once...when my mother was in the hospital, when she had the stroke. He said...that...he had known her...that he had known her since...before I was born."

"Oh, Mulder..."

 

Mulder pulled the key from his front door and hurried to catch the ringing phone.

"Hey, Mulder..."

It was Langley's voice.

"What?" He yawned, stifled it and then yawned again.

"Frohike ran into that Krycek guy you like so well. We thought you'd want to know."

"What are you talking about?" He ran one hand back through his hair. The sky outside the window was a deep, rich blue.

"That guy Krycek."

"When?"

"A few hours ago. In the city jail."

"What?"

"Frohicke was out partying. He was trying to come on to this chick..."

"I asked her for a date," came Frohicke's miffed protest from somewhere in the background.

"She said he was harrassing her," Langley went on, undeterred. "The cops hauled him in. Temporarily, anyway."

"And Krycek was there? For what?"

"Vagrancy, they said. I guess they caught him sleeping in some abandoned building."

"Yeah? Well, they should have left him there to get eaten by the rest of the rats. The son of a bitch just burned down my parents' old summer house."

"Yeah, well, he won't be out torching anything for a day or two. They're holding him unless the jail fills up."

"Good. Then I can get some sleep and not worry about waking up dead." Mulder stretched his thumb toward the 'off' button. He shook his head.

"Hey, Mulder..."

"What?"

"He wanted you to get in touch. He said it's important."

Mulder laughed and hung up the phone. "Right, Krycek. I'm going to come running to save your sorry ass."

He sank into the couch and pushed the pillows around. Then he stopped, got up, and went into the bedroom.

It's what he wants you to do, she had said; he could hear Scully's voice as he lay staring up at the ceiling. He wants you to crumble, Mulder, and what better way to get to you than to tell you something like this. It's a strategy, Mulder, nothing more.

It was a strategy. Like John Lee Roche's. But what if it were true?

 

Scully paused in the doorway of the donut shop and then walked inside. She could see Skinner at a far table, seemingly engrossed in a newspaper. She stepped up to the counter, bought a coffee, then casually approached the table.

"Sir?"

"Have a seat, Agent Scully." Skinner gestured. "Sorry about the location; it's the closest place I could find. I'm not entirely certain I haven't been followed lately and I didn't want to chance coming to your place." He paused. "I tried calling you this morning but there was no answer."

"I...I must have been asleep, sir. I was up rather late last night, talking to Agent Mulder."

Skinner looked at her. "So how's he taking this?"

"I think he's confused, sir. He's tired of being bounced around...by the men we can never pin down, by his own changing evidence, by what he believes..." She looked down, at the newsprint covering the table.

"I think I may have found something," Skinner said. "Not something that will help get Mulder reinstated, but something I think you yourself may have an interest in." He looked out the window, across the parking lot, then back at her. "Something came in late yesterday, routed to Jeffrey Spender...Evidently someone claims to have seen Cassandra Spender, Agent Spender's mother. It's the only lead that's come in since she disappeared, the night you were with her."

"They saw her recently?" It played out in front of her again, unbidden: Cassandra, arms stretched upward, floating into the night air, higher and higher, toward the bright lights of the ship. And then the faceless men, bearing down on them from both ends of the bridge.

"Agent Scully...?"

"This...this happened recently?" Her stomach was suddenly tight, hard and uncomfortable. She refocused on Skinner, his glasses, the firm set of his face. "Where?"

"Near the Potomac Yards. In Virginia. The woman who claims to have seen her is a homeless person. I don't know how credible she is, or whether she might not just be claiming what she does in hopes of a reward. She was responding to a missing persons poster." Skinner pushed a folded piece of paper across the table to her.

A train yard. A train car.

Scully swallowed.

"I don't think so, sir."

"Excuse me?"

"She may be telling the truth."

Skinner looked at her. She stared back at him, her eyes clear and suddenly very hard. "Agent, don't even step into this if it's going to cause you to lose perspective. I debated whether or not to give you this information at all." He leaned toward her. "Remember, Agent Spender will have this information, too. If he finds out you know about this he'd going to realize exactly where the information came from, and I'm no good to you if I'm out the door like your partner."

Scully swallowed, then nodded. "I understand completely, sir. I won't let you down."

"I trust you won't."

He looked at her--looked into her--and then got up, nodded, and left.

Scully stared across the table, at Skinner's half-empty cup and the two unopened sugar packets beside it.

 

Krycek sat on the floor. He eased his back into the corner of the holding cell and tried to relax. There would be at least a few minutes of quiet and it would be foolish not to take advantage. Two of the drunks were caught up in a drowsy, half-stupefied conversation; the third was flat-out snoring. The john who had been caught in the vice squad sting was sitting at the far end of the bench, paralyzed by his own humiliation. Someone would find him out now--a wife or a girlfriend or a parent--but he was killing himself already before the fact.

If enough riffraff came in, they would let him go; vagrancy wasn't high on their list. Or he could sleep here; it was no different than what he'd grown up with, depending on the quirks of the individual players. Or Mulder might come. But not likely, and besides, if he came he would be a raging dog and he didn't have the energy to deal with the inevitable geyser of bitter self-righteousness, or being shoved around, or having a gun stuck in his face until the steam was gone. Righteous Mulder. The holy one.

Krycek closed his eyes.

Once, when he was nine or ten, the old man had showed up at the gulag orphanage while he was out working in the fields, his hands and knees half-frozen with icy mud. He had been pulling weeds, along with half a dozen other kids, when the old man's shoes had appeared next to his work. "What are you learning here, Alex?" the old man had said, leaning in closer to him, looking for signs, like a teacher. "That if you take all the weeds out," he had replied, looking up, "the soil will wash away."

The old man had seemed surprised, then pleased. Impressed, even. He had taken him from the fields early, and they had gone to eat somewhere in the town, a place with good food. He had eaten enough to make his stomach ache.

But the old man had not kept the lesson. He took out too many weeds, and no man could hold all the soil together himself.

 

"Mulder, pick up..."

Scully sighed and waited.

"Mulder..." She waited several seconds and switched the phone off.

She glanced at her watch--2:18--and checked her bag again: a pair of worn, faded sweats and a tired flannel shirt she had picked up at a thrift store near the donut shop, her oldest pair of running shoes, and a knitted watch cap. She zipped the bag and set it next to the front door.

She sat down at her computer and typed a note to Mulder, then labeled the file 'George Hale' and saved it. In the kitchen she found a 'to do' notepad her mother had given her and wrote 'note to George Hale' on it and left it on the phone table. They seemed almost silly, the precautions, and yet the ones who had managed to wedge Mulder out of the Bureau--who had given her cancer, who had killed her sister and 'promoted' her to keep her from learning something--something obviously important--were not joking. Six years ago she would have called him paranoid to have suggested the things she just did. And now? It wasn't the way you'd hoped to see life, as an ongoing process of disenchantment, of watching your realities fall apart, your certainties gradually stripped away.

Scully picked up the bag by the door. Whatever the truth was--no matter how strange or disconcerting--she needed to find it.

 

In the flashbacks--the ones induced by Dr. Goldstein's treatment--his mother had been in his arms--Old Smoky's. Just momentarily, but it had happened. His father had been furious. At his son, for watching, or seeing. At Smoky, the man he'd referred to as Leland. At his mother.

She had said she hadn't betrayed his father; it had come out sharply and with power, like a gunshot. Never, she had said. Never. And then she had slapped him across the face, denying every word that had just come out of her.

She had told him she didn't know anything about his father's work, or the men who came, and he wanted to believe her, the only shred of family he had left. But she had known about the stiletto hidden in the lamp; it was the one thing she'd communicated to him after her stroke.

Which made her the worst kind of liar.

And what about that other pregnancy, the one after Samantha? Was that Smoky's child, too?

 

Scully locked the door behind her. It was an older gas station; the restroom was tired but clean, with the graffitti on the stall doors painted over and the air hung with the pervading scent of a coconut-scented room freshener, the kind that had reminded her of cookies when she was younger.

She slipped off her own clothes and changed into the old thrift store outfit. The colors didn't match, which might actually add to the intended effect: stained light blue sweat pants, a tired gray sweatshirt, and a red, white and green flannel shirt. She looked in the mirror.

She looked shabby. Poor. Less than ordinary. Missy might say she looked relaxed, though; she'd see something positive in it. Missy would tell her it was the soul inside the clothes that was beautiful.

Scully turned abruptly from the mirror and began to stuff her own clothes into the bag.

Her father had been right after all--her father as he had appeared to her while she was unconscious, tethered to this life by just a thread, when she was returned from her abduction. He had told her--with emotion she had never seen him display in all his life--that he would willingly give up everything he'd held dear--all the medals, all the honors, the entire career that had been his life--for one more second with her. And for as much as she and Melissa had disagreed, for as much as she had resisted the caring Missy had attempted to pour over her, what would she give now just to be able to sit and talk with her sister for five short minutes?

Scully stared into the mirror again. She slid the watch cap on and pulled it down over her ears. She tucked some of her hair up inside the hat.

She took it off again, set it on the counter and turned on the faucet. The hot water ran only cold. Finally she put her fingers under the flow and splashed it on her face. Scrubbing warmed neither her face nor her hands. It didn't help the tension inside her. She was doing this to help Cassandra if she could, and to find another piece toward solving the puzzle of the abductees. Skinner's career was in her hands. And her partner, despite the strength he'd seemed to gain from helping to shore her up, seemed seriously adrift.

Scully shut off the water and patted her face dry with a paper towel, then looked up at the image in the mirror. A suitably forlorn woman stared back at her.

 

I have been, from the beginning, the victim of my own illusions. Starting with a picture that did not pattern the world around me, but rather that which I needed from it, I proceeded to move in a direction I believed would bring me closer to a truth that was in fact unattainable and false. Regardless of the shifting evidence I encountered in my quest for this so-called truth, my premises were false and therefore doomed to crumble, leaving nothing. The sister I have so long sought may well be a cherished illusion formulated to cover the glaring reality of an all-too-frail woman conjoined with a man utterly lacking any human dimension. I myself may be a product of this same union.

I have reached this crossroads, Scully, not because of a perception of failure to pursue the truth, but rather because I can no longer discover a single truth on which my life has been based. I regret pulling you into this grand illusion I have lived, as I regret the pain and loss it has caused you. The last time I arrived at this place, you were lying in a hospital bed with your life in question, and I dared not leave you to face an almost certain end alone. You are strong now, stronger than you have ever been. You will carry on, and your light will shine on me.

-M

 

Krycek set the paper carefully back on Mulder's desk and looked at the form sprawled on the floor.

He sighed and crouched down beside it. The last light of afternoon fell across Mulder's face, tinting it with sunset colors. Krycek watched the tones fade, the rosy pinks giving way to yellows. A clock ticked its rhythm into the silence. Krycek looked around. A couch, a chair, a desk, a lamp. Tables. Not so much more than the old man had, and yet altogether different.

He sat down beside the body. The rich yellow tones on Mulder's skin had turned thin and pale. There was dust on the coffee table; he could see it from where he sat, with the surface at eye level.

He had always believed it couldn't happen, that Mulder was somehow exempt from the laws of the universe. For better or worse. That he would never break, never wear down, that he was self-igniting, like a perpetual motion machine. Even though perpetual motion was an impossibility.

The color outside the window was gone now, and Mulder's face showed not in colors but in tones of grey. Krycek reached out and rested a hand on Mulder's shoulder. Then he got to his feet, gathered the body, lifted it, and carried it to the couch.

It was like seeing her, the one time he had been allowed the privilege. Watching, but unable to make contact. Like looking at the people in a police lineup, or watching a surveillance tape, the recognition all one-way.

Krycek settled into the leather chair on the opposite side of the room. Outside, street lights winked on, laying striped shadows across Mulder's body through the window blinds.

The old man had been right.

In the street, cars passed by. Footsteps could be heard periodically in the hallway outside the front door. Inside, time stood still.

Food smells wafted in the half-open window, other people's dinner preparations, the pulse of daily life pumping on quietly, inexorably.

 

Scully walked up to the shelter door and read the sign. The paint on the door had cracked into thin, vertical strips, though the sign in the middle was freshly painted. Half an hour till opening. She wondered what these women did with their time, to while away the hours between morning and night, every day just another long attempt at survival between the bed they had left in the morning and one they hoped would be there when the day was done.

Scully turned away from the door and made a place for herself on the still-warm sidewalk within earshot of a cluster of other women, waiting and hoping to hear something that would direct her to Glenna Marquez. The women eyed her from time to time. They sat close together in their mismatched clothes, some clutching plastic grocery bags filled with belongings, or loot scrounged from dumpsters. One woman had found an unopened box of crackers and was sharing her bounty with the others.

A woman in her early twenties appeared near Scully with a small, blonde child in tow, her hair long and uncombed. She settled strategically onto the curb so the creeping shadows wouldn't reach her for a few minutes. The girl, perhaps four years old, took some small plastic trinkets from her pocket and set them on the sidewalk. Then she gathered them up and walked boldly over to Scully and sat down.

"This is Pocahontas," the little girl said without looking up. "And this is Sparky." She set a red plastic figure on Scully's knee. "Rick gave him to me."

"That was nice of him," Scully said, smiling at the little girl. The girl's mother turned around and looked at them. She seemed wary but she made no move to call the girl back to her. Her face was worn, the whites of her eyes pinkish and glazy. Scully winced to herself.

"I found this. It's a giraffe. And this...is a fox." The girl put dirty yellow and blue plastic figurines in Scully's hand.

"I have a friend named Fox," Scully said.

"A boy?" The girl looked up, quizzical. Her eyes were deep blue.

"Yes," Scully hesitated, then smiled. "A boy. A man, actually."

"I'm Cassandra," the girl said, loudly, as if it were an announcement. Her mother turned around and glared at her.

"Cassandra?" Scully stopped mementarily, then breathed out. "That's a big name. It's an unusual name."

"It's my story name."

"What does that mean, your story name?"

"It's the story name Auntie Glenna gave me. She makes up stories for me, and I'm in the stories. I'm Cassandra."

"Are you a princess?"

"Sometimes."

"Do you have a castle?"

"A big one. Really, really big." She waved her arms. "I bring my horses inside sometimes."

"And where does Auntie Glenna tell you these stories? Does she come here?"

"Uh huh. At night. Only she's not here now."

"Will she come tonight?'

"Uh huh," Cassandra said. She took the toys from Scully's hand and arranged them on the sidewalk.

 

Scully stared out through the dusty barred window of the shelter. There was a little light left; the sun had just set, throwing deep shards of golden yellow against the tired walls behind her cot. She would need to stay here, to blend in, in order not to arouse suspicions. She watched Cassandra, hoping the little girl would lead her to Glenna Marquez when she came.

She had not considered, when Skinner initially gave her the information, just how much he was putting himself on the line for her, or conversely, how much he was trusting her with the safety of his own position. Any casual mention of her to a Bureau investigator--most likely Spender himself--any inkling at all that she had been there--and Skinner's leak would be glaringly apparent. So many times in the past she had questioned his loyalties, but he was solid, steady, a covert operative behind company lines. Unlike Kersh, he genuinely cared about their work, and about justice.

The shelter cots were close together--claustrophobically close, it seemed. The one to Scully's left had several plastic bags piled on it; on the right lay a gray-haired woman who had come in and fallen asleep almost immediately. Scully sat on the edge of the cot and ran her fingers over the blanket they had given her; it seemed thin, and worn, as if it had a history of sad, tired people attached to it, as if their souls still claimed it and she had to share it with all of them, never to be allowed complete privacy, or peace.

She should call Mulder. To let him know where she was, to see whether sleep had restored him at all. Her car, and the privacy of her cell phone, were only a couple of blocks away and there was still some light.

 

The ringing of the phone made Krycek start; he opened his eyes and leaned forward to chase his drowsiness. The form on the couch was motionless. Krycek got up and approached the phone. Mulder's voice was telling the caller to leave a message.

"Mulder, it's me..." a voice came from the speaker.

He waited.

"Mulder, it's 7:13 p.m. and I just wanted to touch base. I'm..."

Krycek picked up the receiver. "Agent Scully?"

"...Mulder?"

Krycek bit his lip.

"Who is this?"

He let out a slow breath. "This is Alex Krycek."

"What?"

He waited.

"Where's Mulder, Krycek?" Her voice was sharp, a weapon.

"He's here..." He paused. "He's not in any shape to talk on the phone." He drew in a breath. "Scully, I think you'd better come here."

"What are you talking about, Krycek? What have you done to him?"

"Well, for starters I kept him from shooting himself. Don't thank me now. Just come." He hung up the phone.

Right now she was the only light, only hope--the only thing Mulder had.

 

It had been a mere story before, a lie floated to coax truth to the surface, and yet she had had to make it real to herself, to face it in her mind--to see the blood, and his body, cold and vacant like the cadavers she examined, and the wound, and the gaping fact of his absence. It had become real enough to her to make her nearly break down in front of the review panel, actually saying the words, though they were a lie: "Agent Mulder died early this morning from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head." But it was nothing like this.

Krycek could be lying to her. It could be a setup, an ambush. Reason pressed her to believe the conventional explanation, but somehow its arguments rang hollow.

Headlights rushed toward her and poured past in the dark like strands of lighted pearls. Their glare assaulted her, like voices too loud; their brightness made her squint.

Scully counted the exits, waiting for his.

 

"What happened here, Krycek?" she said quietly, looking up at him. She had one hand on Mulder's forehead.

She had nearly pushed him aside, at the door, and had gone straight for Mulder like iron to a magnet.

"He'd been drinking when I got here; he was plastered, in fact. He had a gun, and he pointed it at me first...and then he turned it..." Krycek reached for the paper on the desk and handed it to her.

He watched her read the words, watched her eyes widen and the corners of her mouth shift, trying to maintain stability. She looked up at him.

"What were you doing here, Krycek?"

"I came to warn him about something, something that concerns both of you and about five billion other people."

"You burned down his family's house, you bastard."

"Keeping up appearances. You have no idea, Scully." He shook his head.

"Make me understand."

He shook his head. "But I can tell you this: leave Cassandra Spender alone."

"We don't know where she is. We know nothing about her."

"Don't go looking. Cassandra is the key to everything. The cutting edge. If she's exposed..." He sighed. "It could all go to hell."

"All what?"

"Our defense. Against those...those creatures you almost became a nutrient medium for. In the pods. In Antarctica." He shrugged. "And then it's all over. Goodbye planet."

"...The vaccine...?"

"It's the only hope we've got."

"But what's Cassandra have to do with the vaccine?"

Krycek shook his head. "Somebody claims to have seen Cassandra; you may get that information through the Bureau. Don't touch it. They'll find whoever it is and eliminate them. If they find so much as your scent in this, they'll kill you, too."

"Why are you telling me this, Krycek?"

He just looked at her.

Scully swallowed. "It's a lie."

"No." He leaned in close to her and gripped her shoulder. "I've never...been so serious about anything."

She looked shaken, by his hand as much as what he had said. He let go of her and moved back a few steps. Scully glanced at Mulder, her focus shifting from one worry to another.

"How long has he been like this?"

"Two, three hours."

"What was he drinking?"

Krycek pointed to a near-empty bottle on the desk.

"Anything else, any pills?"

Krycek shook his head. "Nothing I could find."

Scully sighed.

"I hit him--caught him on the temple--but I guess that's better than the alternative. Gun's in the desk drawer," he said, nodding toward it.

"Why did you do this, Krycek," she said, looking up--into--him. "Who are you?"

"You aren't ready for who I am," he said. He turned to go, and reached for his jacket on the leather chair. He was at the doorway when he turned around again. "Take care of him," he said. "Oh, and Scully..."

She turned to look at him.

"You can't structure your life on blood relations. Family is what you make it. Tell him that."

She paused, nodded slightly, then turned back to Mulder.

Krycek walked to the darkened door and let himself out.

Now he could only hope.

 

Scully watched the door close; silence took over the apartment. She passed a hand over Mulder's forehead and back through his hair. He was warm, maybe too warm. He gave off the cloying sweet smell of alcohol.

She got up and walked to the desk. The letter was open in front of her and she sat down and read it again. If the Smoking Man had targeted Mulder with this knowledge, or with merely the insinuation that it were true, then he had succeeded all too well; it had cut straight to Mulder's soul. She smiled bitterly at the reference to her own strength. Strength was often the last thing she felt, the thing she always tried to keep hidden away--that lack of strength, and the fear that someone besides herself would somehow discover it. He was human, in the end; he saw things in her that she did not. Though sometimes he was able to make her see them, too. Sometimes his sheer faith in her made her rise to what he saw her to be.

She took Mulder's gun from the drawer and placed it in her bag. The figure on the couch remained unmoving. She wondered what he would be like when he wakened from this. Would he be sobered, renewed in some small way? Or would he wish he'd finished the job?

She returned to the coffee table, sat down on it and rested a hand on her partner's shoulder. Once, after they had spent time chasing down the victims of John Lee Roche, after Mulder had killed Roche--and with him the hope of finding the identity of his final victim, possibly Samantha--she had told Mulder that she knew him. She knew his strength and his boundless passion and his relentlessness in pursuit of the truth. She had not thought there was anything that could stop it, in much the same way that as a child she had not believed that anything could stop the movement of a snake. Until she had shot one and its blood had stained her hands.

Mulder groaned and turned and then went silent again. Scully pulled the coffee table away from the couch and set the desk chair there. She sat down beside him, where she could feel the warmth coming from him, and closed her eyes.

 

Glenna Marquez' life was in danger--if what Krycek had said was true. A defenseless, homeless woman, most likely with all her earthly wealth packed into plastic grocery bags or a shopping cart, she could be killed for the mere decision to weave a picture from a missing persons poster into a story, the way she had for the little blonde girl. The little girl herself, whatever her real name and the tragic circumstances of her life, could be in danger, too, from someone who would shoot whoever was convenient in an attempt to eliminate an enemy mark, the way Luis Cardenal had shot her sister walking through her own front door.

But how likely was it that Krycek's story could be trusted?

He was with Cardenal; Cardenal had admitted as much. It could have been Krycek who pulled the trigger, though she didn't think so from the look on Cardenal's face--the face of a man who had suddenly been yanked up in front of God for judgement. Krycek had shot Mulder's father, had infiltrated the FBI and played partner to Mulder in order to...perhaps in order to facilitate her abduction itself; he had been with Mulder there, on Skyland Mountain, had not responded to Mulder's calls from the tram. And then the tram operator had mysteriously disappeared. As had Krycek. He had burned down the Quonochotaug house.

But he had told Mulder to get out. Why? He had come here, and he had stopped Mulder from...He must have an agenda; Krycek always had an agenda. But he had saved Mulder; the letter alone--the soul-heavy, weary letter--spoke to that. And it was Mulder's hand, Mulder's pain.

Scully glanced at the couch. Mulder was curled up, away from her. She pressed her fingers against his neck and felt his pulse. Her fingers warmed against him. She felt his pain--she always felt his pain--yet it wore her down. And she didn't have the strength to carry them both.

 

"Ohh..."

The couch creaked.

Scully stirred; Mulder's shadow was restless in the dark.

"Ahh...oh, God..."

"Mulder, it's me. I'm here." She reached out, searching, and caught his hand. He rolled toward her.

"Scully? Oh, God, I feel like...like shit...Scully."

"I'm right here, Mulder."

"Oh..." He sat up suddenly. "Gotta go..."

She moved her chair out of the way quickly and watched him move unsteadily toward the bathroom. She winced at the sounds that came through the wall, and went to the kitchen to pour him a glass of water. She dampened a paper towel and squeezed it out and carried it with the water back to the coffee table.

Mulder reappeared from the bathroom. He made his way across the room and dropped down onto the couch, easing his head back against the cushions.

"Mulder, do you want some water?"

He sighed. "Yeah, thanks." He sounded sheepish, or just sick.

She handed him the glass and made sure it was steady. He sipped several times, then leaned forward and set the glass down.

She laid a hand against his forehead. "Mulder, you're covered in sweat. Lay down. Come on, lay down."

He did as he was told. She wiped his forehead with the paper towel, past his temples and down to his neck. He shivered.

"I'm going to find you a blanket."

"Don't go, Scully."

"I'm not going anywhere, Mulder. I'll be right back."

"She lied to me, Scully," his voice came from behind her.

"Who? Who lied to you?"

"My mother. When I was at her house. Just before I came back to D.C."

She returned to the couch and spread the blanket over him. He rolled onto his side facing her and pushed himself against the back of the couch. Scully sat in the space he had left.

"What happened, Mulder?"

"She said she never knew what my father's work was, that she was just playing wife and mother. But she knew about that weapon, the one in the lamp at Quonochotaug. She told me about it, in the hospital; you were there. He wanted it, Scully."

"I know..."

"She had another child."

"Who?"

"My mother. She was pregnant when Samantha was two years old. I found a picture when I was at her house."

"And what happened?"

"I think it was his, Scully. What if it was his?"

"Cancer Man's?"

"What if we were all his?"

"Mulder..." She stopped. His voice had gone gritty and his hand was against her leg. She covered it with her own, wishing she could as easily shelter his soul.

"Mulder, you're still who you are," she said softly, "no matter what...You're unique, you're who you've made yourself. Even Samantha...even if she were his--if he were her father--she'd still be the same little girl you knew. She wouldn't be anybody different just because her DNA wasn't what you thought..."

His fingers worked their way between hers.

"Mulder, Krycek said something, when he left here..."

Mulder groaned.

"...he said family is what you make it." She paused, breathed. From somewhere--she couldn't tell where--she could hear the soft ticking of a clock. "I think he's right."

Mulder curled around her, a band of warmth around her back. A palpable quiet filled the room. His breathing eased gradually, slowly into an even rhythm.

"What happened to the baby?" she said softly.

"It was stillborn," he said after a pause.

"But what happened?"

"She doesn't know." Another pause; he sounded distant. "She said she didn't know."

"But, Mulder..." She stopped. He sighed twice. His hand slackened in hers.

"Get some sleep, Mulder," she whispered.

She smoothed a hand back through his hair and eased herself off the couch. A star sparkled between two window blinds, beckoning. Scully went to the window, tilted the blinds and looked up. She thought of little blonde Cassandra, asleep on a cot surrounded by a sea of other cots in the homeless shelter with the barred windows.

She thought of Emily.

 

"Alex, you weren't home last night."

The voice came from inside the room, somewhere in the dark.

Krycek closed his door and slipped the key into his jeans pocket. He tried to make his movements smooth, fluid.

"I was out late."

"So I see."

There was a pause. Then the sound of a match came, and a small reddish round spot glowed, barely lighting the area where the chair should be.

"They haven't found the woman yet, Alex."

"She could be at any of the shelters."

"I want you to take care of it. Today..." There was the sound of exhalation; then the round red spot glowed brighter for a second. "...when it's light. It's Sunday now. I want her taken care of before my son Jeffrey sees the memo tomorrow and comes looking."

"Consider it done."

"I'm glad I can count on you, Alex," the old man said pleasantly, taking another drag on his cigarette.

The easy cordiality of his tone jangled in Krycek's mind.

 

Mulder eased himself carefully onto the edge of the bed.

"Hey," he said softly.

Scully didn't stir. She lay on her side, facing him, covered by the bedspread.

He hadn't seen her when he woke--hadn't seen or thought anything. He had laid there, gradually becoming conscious that his eyes were open. And then he had moved, and he was wrenched suddenly by the pounding in his head and by the nausea.

He had made it to the bathroom in time, had made it back to the couch and found the glass of water there, the one she had gotten for him, and drank what was left in it. Then he had looked--knowing she wouldn't leave him alone here--not now--to his own devices--and had noticed the bedroom door standing partially open.

He reached out and brushed a few stray hairs from her forehead. Scully stirred, then opened her eyes halfway.

"Hey..."

Her eyes went suddenly wide with recognition and she rolled back to look at him.

"How are you feeling?" she managed.

"Like shit still..." He looked away. "Like a fool. All of the above."

"Mulder..."

Sun poured through a hole in the window shade, a pinprick shaft spreading as it reached the floor, with dust particles doing a slow dance inside it.

"I thought I could deal with it, Scully..."

He watched the dust particles spiral and gradually, slowly drift downward. He bit his bottom lip.

"Mulder, someone once told me that sometimes people see strengths in us that we don't see ourselves--that they're actually there, but we just haven't recognized them yet...You've...been strength when I didn't have any strength. You've held me up when I'd given up on myself..."

He squeezed his eyes shut and breathed slowly. "Thank you...for saving me..."

"No, I think it was Krycek who saved you, Mulder..." She sighed.

"What did he say to you?"

"That he had come here to tell you something. Someone claims to have seen Cassandra Spender. He said not to look for her, that she's the key to everything, to defending us from...them. That they'll kill whoever's seen her and anyone they find looking for her."

He waited; she wasn't finished.

"She's a homeless woman, Mulder. A lady who makes up stories for little kids at a shelter."

He turned to face her. His head swam. He winced.

"Skinner gave me the information yesterday; he'd intercepted it on its way to Spender. This woman was responding to a missing persons poster. It could have been anything, Mulder. She makes up stories--she tells stories to kids there..."

Scully sat up cross-legged on the bed.

Mulder raised one eyebrow. "Nice threads."

"You should see me with a watch cap."

There was a brief smile, like sun between dark clouds, and then she went serious again.

"I was very surprised that Skinner gave me this; if anyone were to find out..."

"...he'd be out of the Bureau on his ass."

"Yes." She swallowed.

Mulder shifted uncomfortably on the bed, anticipating.

"Mulder, I have to find that woman. Whatever role she has in this--whether she's actually seen Cassandra or whether she just took the name off a poster and...and wove it into a story--whatever it is, she's innocent. She doesn't deserve to die for stumbling into this."

Mulder let out a slow breath and looked up, too quickly.

"Scully..." He paused and squeezed his eyes shut, then opened them slowly and looked at her again. He kept his voice low, quiet. "Scully, I don't know what whose game Krycek is playing..."

"He's playing his own game, Mulder."

"Whatever it is...I...I don't know where he's going with this, but it seems to me that he wouldn't do all this..." He swallowed. "...come over here..." He paused and looked up, at the ceiling, waiting for his eyes to clear, for the pressure in his throat to subside. "...do what he did, just to set us up for something, to scare you off of something you should be following. For whatever reason, we must hold some value for him. And...and if he's trying to keep you alive, then I think...maybe you'd better take what he said seriously."

He looked back at her. The blue in her eyes was hard and bright.

"Who is keeping this woman safe, Mulder--this poor woman with no home and no life?"

He could only shrug.

"Look at the background, Scully. You know these people. They killed my father, they would have killed you. They kill anyone who gets in the way; they killed your sister. They killed Deep Throat and our British informant, the one who gave me the vaccine...to save you..."

"And what am I supposed to do? Just sit here and give up? Let her die? What if...what if you'd given up all those times, Mulder?"

He could feel her eyes boring into him, though her voice was soft.

"Scully, I...I just think you're thinking with your heart here and not your head."

"Mulder, what do you think brought me here last night?"

She crawled off the bed.

He sat unmoving, staring at the carpet.

 

Mulder eased himself onto the couch and leaned back. Another wave of sickness rolled through him. He leaned forward and rested his head in his hands. If he could will away the pain and the nausea--if it were possible--he would be out there following her, doing something to keep her from throwing her life away by darting out in front of the Consortium with a red flag tied to her. But he would be lucky to make it to the elevator as it was.

She was out chasing justice, justice in gold letters and finely polished, when justice was an illusion, just as family was. Just as a truth you could find--Truth with a capital 'T'--was. Darlene Morris had said it and he'd been too blinded by the green passion of his search to see the reality in her words--that the truth had never brought her anything but heartache.

And Scully was thinking with her heart. If she'd been thinking with her head she would have given up on him long ago.

Mulder stood, braced himself against the pain behind his eyes, and started toward the closet. They would be out there, waiting to pick her off just like the homeless woman, and she would end up as just another darkening blood stain in an alley somewhere, or on a dirty sidewalk, a stain poor vagrants would walk past--or over--and the fading spot would have no meaning for them--that she had died there, had spent her last few minutes or seconds there. That she had given her life for someone nobody would ever remember, a homeless storyteller Scully had seen the shining value of.

He opened the closet door and reached for his jacket. The car keys were still in his pocket; he could feel them in a knot against his leg. His weapon...was gone, probably; she would have taken it. Mulder turned and walked to the desk. He opened the top right drawer and pushed the papers around. Nothing. He straightened and turned around, careful to do it slowly, to ease himself. Alex Krycek stood in the doorway.

"Don't you ever knock?"

"I thought maybe you were asleep." Krycek looked around. "Where's Scully?"

"She went home."

"Not likely."

"She went home."

"It's all over, Mulder. The woman's gone."

Mulder felt for the chair back and gripped it without thinking.

"I can't protect her if she's out there...if she makes herself a target. This is no small-stakes game."

Mulder breathed out, let go of the chair and moved toward the couch.

"Yeah, save your own ass, Krycek."

"Grow up, Mulder. It's bigger than that. It's bigger than any of us. And until you step outside yourself, you won't be able to see to do anything about it."

Mulder lowered himself onto the couch.

"And there's something to be done?"

"Maybe I'm just like you, Mulder." He glanced out the window and back again. "Maybe I'm just a fool for trying."

Mulder stared at him.

Krycek turned to go.

"Don't hurt her, Krycek."

Krycek said nothing. He continued to the door.

 

Skinner watched the light on the elevator control panel pass from the '3' to the '2' to the '1' and finally to the 'B'. The movement stopped. There was a momentary hovering sensation, and then the door slid open. A faint smell of cigarette smoke wafted inside.

Skinner's mouth twitched. He stepped outside and walked toward the source of the smell; he knew already where it was coming from. He slowed his pace as he approached the basement office. He paused momentarily, set his jaw, and stepped through the doorway.

"Assistant Director Skinner..."

Skinner nodded at the Smoking Man, who stood behind the desk.

"Surprising to find you here at this hour on a Sunday."

"Crime never stops," Skinner said, and shrugged.

The Smoking Man took a drag on his cigarette, exhaled and let the smoke slowly drift and rise.

"No, I don't suppose it does, does it?" He smiled at Skinner, a hard, contained smile. "Tell me, Director Skinner, is Agent Spender working out in this assignment?"

Skinner hesitated. "Yes, I guess so."

"Good. And is he making any progress on these...X-files?" Another cloud of smoke billowed toward the ceiling.

"He owes me a report tomorrow."

The Smoking Man reached out and picked up a paper from the desktop, the same one Skinner had placed there not half an hour earlier. He creased the paper deliberately, folding it in half and then in quarters. Then he slipped it into his pocket.

"The information on this report is out of date," he said coolly. "This...informant...was discovered dead this morning in a vacant lot near the Potomac Yards." He paused. "It's unfortunate."

Skinner said nothing, showed nothing.

"We wouldn't want to unduly upset our young agent. False hope can kill a man, in the end, when it's found out." He brought the Morley back to his lips.

Skinner excused himself and walked unseeing through the hallway to the elevator. He pushed the button and waited. In his mind he was surrounded by jungle. He lay there tense, waiting, straining with every inner fiber to filter the sound of a silent enemy from the noises of life errupting all around him.

A chime sounded and the elevator door slid open. Skinner stepped inside and waited. When it had closed again he stepped back and sagged against the wall.

 

"Scully?"

He hadn't heard her come in.

She stood in the doorway, looking pale and distant, as if she were in shock. Not the way she had looked in the hospital after Penny Northern died, worn but overflowing with emotion. She seemed hollow now.

"Scully, I'm sorry...about the woman..."

She looked at him, questioning, pain suddenly flooding her expression.

"There was nothing you could have done...to save her..."

Scully swallowed. She came closer, though he knew it was not what she wanted. She wanted to run, to get away--escape to where no one could see her pain--but she only came closer, until she was standing in front of the couch. The corners of her mouth began to quiver almost imperceptibly.

There was no blood on her, on her clothes--nothing to indicate what had happened. Her voice, when it came, was barely audible.

"Mulder, I...I didn't go."

The corners of her mouth twisted suddenly. She swallowed quickly and took a ragged breath, then struggled to hold it and looked away, toward the front window. The bubbler in the fish tank worked away, its usually calming sound suddenly harsh. When she looked back, her eyes were shiny.

"I couldn't throw away Skinner's career...I couldn't...exchange it...for that woman's..."

Her fingers flexed and then grasped for something invisible.

Mulder reached up. She offered no resistance but curled down against him, facing away, and pressed her head against his shoulder. His arms went around her. There was no sound; she only shook.

Mulder eased his head against the back of the couch and closed his eyes against the wash of pain. He felt her grip on his arm, her breath warm and ragged in a circle against his shoulder. He smoothed her hair back from her face and then did it again. The clock ticked softly, steadily into the silence.

"Krycek was here," he said quietly when her shaking had stopped, when there was only a warm patch of contact between them. "I think he killed her himself."

Scully said nothing. Her breathing rose and fell against him, in rhythm with his own. He sighed and rested his cheek against her head.

The phone rang and the message machine came on.

"Mulder, this is Assistant Director Skinner. I'm looking for Agent Scully. It's extremely..."

Mulder stretched to reach his cell phone on the end table. Scully made no move to pull away but eased with him, as if she were his sweater.

He wrapped his fingers around the phone and pressed the 'on' button.

"I'm here."

"Mulder, I haven't been able to reach Agent Scully. Do you..."

He breathed in slowly. "She's here, sir."

He could feel her head shaking 'no' against him.

"She...can't come to the phone at the moment...I think she went down to get something out of her car."

"Please tell her not to follow up on the lead she has. It's extremely important."

"I know, sir. I was paid a visit a little while ago by our friendly local assassin."

"What?"

"Krycek. I think Krycek did it."

"Do you know what's going on here, Mulder?"

"Not yet, sir. But I'm working on it."

Skinner said goodbye. Mulder pressed the 'off' button and set the phone down beside him.

Quiet filled the room.

"Thank you," Scully's voice came from near his shoulder. She sighed and then stirred and then stopped abruptly, settling back against him. Mulder closed his eyes and let his cheek rest against her head again. Sunlight was reaching into the room, stretching, touching the couch beside them.

"It was almost as if I heard my own father's voice, Mulder...telling me that no matter how much that woman meant--no matter how much I wanted to save her...that I had to make the choice that was for the greater good."

She moved now, sat up and turned and put her feet on the floor. She leaned forward and rested her elbows on her knees.

"I thought about Emily, Mulder...It would have been the same with this woman. They wouldn't have left her alone. They would have found her in another alley, or a shelter, or a hospital room when I wasn't there..." Her voice went dry.

Mulder leaned forward.

"It's what we never want to see, Scully...that we can't save them all. It's the hope...that hope...that keeps us going..."

He rested his hand on her shoulder. She turned and smiled briefly and then looked ahead again.

"It doesn't make it any easier, Mulder."

"I know."

 

Krycek sat propped against a tree, looking out over the vast expanse of manicured green and past it into the pale gray Potomac. His fingers played in the grass beside him, lifting out the occasional tuft of grass carefully, roots and all.

She had been nobody, a woman with no possessions, no house, no real life. He had done it cleanly; she had gone down immediately, had simply dropped and died.

She had had gray hair, at the temples and spreading to frame her face. His mother, too, would have gray hair. It was a thought that brought him up short from time to time, the intruding idea that he could do one of these jobs and shoot his own mother and neither he nor she would ever be the wiser.

 

Mulder rolled onto his back and opened his eyes. It was dark inside the apartment. The streetlight laid stripes of dull light across him and down onto the floor through the blinds. The nausea was gone, and most of the headache. He felt chastened, like a torture victim suddenly set free, weak and fragile but grateful for the sudden blissful absence of torment.

He sat up. It was Saturday--no, Sunday. Late Sunday at that; Scully would be starting at the Academy in the morning. He would be...he would have to make a plan. He would figure it out.

It was time to get up, time to shave for the first time in too long. Time to start clean.

Mulder went to the bathroom and ran himself a shower. She had thanked him, when he had called to make sure she was okay. For being there to catch her, she said. He smiled to himself and shook his head. She had thanked him. He stripped down and threw his clothes into the corner.

Steam filled the room. He opened the shower door and stepped into the warm/hot spray. Water streamed across his face, into his mouth, down his throat. He crossed his arms up against the wall and rested his head on them. For a long time he stood there, letting the needles of water bombard muscles and skin and hair and then stream away. Then he let himself lean in against the wall.

 

Spidery cracks punctuated the ceiling, radiating at random from the old paint. Krycek lay staring at them, watching the rising sun color the room in pinks and then yellows and finally in strong light.

The old man was slipping.

He had seemed pleased when he had called--maybe even smug--that Skinner had not taken the bait, had not tried to pass the Cassandra Spender information along to Scully, or Mulder.

Krycek had made no reply; the old man could be probing him, testing. But he had a chance now, an opportunity he had to take while it presented itself. Skinner was a free agent, unpredictable. His loyalties needed to be assured.

There was always weeding to be done, but enough weeds needed to be kept long enough, spread broadly enough, that the soil was not in danger of washing away.

Until the time was right.

 

Scully took another spoonful from the cup of yogurt on her desk and set it back down. Her fingers curled around the computer mouse; she clicked it and scrolled down the page on the screen in front of her, searching. Not far enough. If she wanted Chilmark birth records from before 1980, she would have to go there, or submit an official request. Even then, there was no guarantee that the information would be on record. Most likely it wouldn't be, if her suspicions were correct. There would be a death certificate, but she would check it nonetheless.

The hair she had meticulously scoured the leather chair for had already been sent down to the forensics lab, along with another that she knew was Mulder's, to verify that the first was not his. She could exchange favors with someone in the lab and have the results in a few days instead of a week, but that would only rush the inevitable dilemma of what to do with the awful truth she now suspected.

Once, when she had found Emily and was trying to gain custody of her, Mulder had revealed to the court, under the pressure of circumstances, that she was sterile, that the option to have children had been completely and irrevocably taken from her--information he had known for some time--since Penny Northern--but had kept from her. Or sheltered her from. I thought I was protecting you, he had said with the most solemn sincerity, though at the time she hadn't understood.

Now she did.

What would she do here, now, if her search turned up the evidence she suspected? Would she tell him? Was he strong enough to deal with it? Or would she protect him with her silence?

 

The End

 

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