Happy Endings (part 1/2)

by Rose Campion

Disclaimer- Alas, the big, bald, beautiful one and all other X-files characters do not belong to me. No money made, yadda yadda, no harm, no foul, etc. Spoilers: Je Souhaite, as well as probably a bit of everything else. Warning: This starts out as more or less canon-based, but sort of gradually loses its head from there. You'll see. Mostly very much an AU. Multiple AUs actually. Summary: Sometimes the happy ending isn't the one you think it is.

How can I ask love to hold the mystery, When just look at me,
It's all push and pull collateral.
I don't want to be the one that gets the next surprise, I'll plan it out this time,
Though I used to think that things were meant to be.

Farewell to the old me,
Farewell to the old me,
My life is working better now,
It all was changing anyhow.

Farewell to the Old Me- Dar Williams

"So, really, how are things going?" asked the woman across the table from him. She looked up puckishly over her gigantic coffee at him.

They were sitting together in a small coffee shop that somehow had managed to weather the predations of the big chain corporate coffee shops. A chalkboard announced the drinks menu in loopy, multi-colored writing, probably done by the requisite teenager with the nose piercing who was standing behind the counter. The sizes of the drinks were small, medium and large, not some faux foreign language. Fittingly, the place was called "Capitol Brew" and the tables had old campaign buttons and stickers decorating them, embedded in a thick layer of resin. Whoever had made the tables was decidedly non-partisan- the rainbow colored buttons were a full cross section of Republican, Democratic, and small third party candidates, for all levels of elected office.

Mulder shrugged, then thought about his answer.

It had started accidentally enough at first, this meeting for coffee with the woman who had once been a jenniyah, who his wish had freed from her geis. He had run into her one morning when he'd stopped to get coffee. She'd been at one of the small tables, drinking some mocha drink piled high with whipped cream. She'd had a little mustache from the cream. She seemed content to watch the world go by. He'd been planning to just grab a cup of plain java and go, but it seemed natural to stop a while, sit with her. Ask her how she was enjoying her freedom. She was. Since then they'd met on an irregular basis- a couple of times a month. For coffee. To talk about life, the universe, everything. She might look like a young woman, but she had the advantage of centuries of experience. She also seemed to be able to tell just by looking at him when he was withholding, not that he would lie to her, the truth being his touchstone.

Today was a Sunday, the one day that Scully had gotten him to promise not to come into work. She insisted that he needed a break. He saw it as twenty-four hours of yawning emptiness that he couldn't fill with his usual business. And you could run only so far in a day. As fit as he was, he didn't think he could sustain a marathon every Sunday.

"It's lonely, you know," he said finally.

She looked at him, a demand that he expand. This genie had turned out to be surprisingly good as a friend, and like all good friends, she demanded and gave in turn, utter honesty. Sometimes she apologized for things she'd said, if she'd pushed too hard. She was out of practice at being anything other than a bound servant. He was her first friend in centuries.

"I love Scully. She loves me. She means the world to me. But sometimes I wonder if maybe it's possible to love someone that much, but not feel as if my heart would be ripped from chest if something were to happen to her. If I could love someone without always having to be the strong one, the one who protects."

He didn't say his every thought. That Scully had once been so strong, and that it was his fault that she'd been beaten down, turned fragile. She depended too much on him. She had given over a portion of her soul for him to watch over, and as time went on, he grew less and less certain of his ability to keep it safe. The recovery people, the self-help crowd had a name for this state that existed between them- co-dependence. He mused over this thought for a while- was there a book for it? "Meditations for Special Agents Who Love Too Much"?

"That's not all that's going with you," she said.

"Work. I've been warned that my department's going to be audited soon. They may be able to shut the X-files down if they don't like what they find," he said. He shook his head. That wasn't the worst of it. It seemed like every time he was on the verge of being able to present proof, to justify with hard facts the continued existence of his life's work, they were ripped from him. He was tired, just so damn tired and frustrated. And with this brain illness, his possible death looming on the horizon. Something had to give. And soon.

"Things will work out for you," she said. "I have a good feeling about this. I've got to get going. I have to be at work in a few."

The genie supposedly had a job, as a clerk in a large public library. She loved books, she'd decided. And she loved people, watching all the people that came in, everyone looking for something- the answers to some question or another.

"Okay, I'll see you again sometime," he said, raising his cup of plain coffee, just a little creamer in it. "Just one last thing, what is that thing you're drinking?"

"Toffee nut latte, extra shot, with whip and extra sprinkles," she said, gathering her cup and going.

Mulder sighed and leaned back in his chair, sipping his coffee slowly, wondering what exactly he would fill up the rest of the day with. He wasn't far from work. He could sneak in to the office, straighten a few files. That wouldn't be really work, would it?

He was pulled from his musings by the sound of the door opening up. He startled to recognize the latest inhabitant of the small coffee shop. Walter Skinner. His boss. Skinner looked like someone who knew how to enjoy a weekend. Or at least he made a good pretense of it. He was dressed in casual clothes. A nice, very nice yellow oxford cloth shirt and a pair of chinos. He took his place in line, ordered and paid for a cappuccino, all without seeming to notice Mulder, despite that the agent was less than fifteen feet from him. While Mulder was contemplating which plan would work better, quickly sneaking out while Skinner's back was still turned, or brazening it out, actually facing and talking to his boss like he was a human being. Assuming of course, he was noticed.

But Skinner turned suddenly, his eye's meeting Mulder's. And, mercy of mercies, wonder of wonders, the big man actually broke into a brief smile at the sight of his subordinate. "Agent Mulder," he said. "Mind if I join you?"

Without waiting for a response from his agent, Skinner collected his cappuccino and settled himself into the chair opposite.

"I hope you don't mind me joining you. I just saw you through the window and I just wanted to touch base with you. See how you're doing."

Skinner was a good man, Mulder thought, not for the first time. And he was a good boss. Mulder had believed in Skinner at times when not even Scully wanted to trust the man. And in return, Skinner had helped them in ways that he shouldn't have. Even now, Mulder's heart softened a little when he thought of how Skinner, with the best of intentions, had sold himself to the smoking man, for a cure for Scully's cancer.

"I'm surprised to see you out of the office," Skinner said. "I know you have that audit coming up. And you weren't in yesterday morning either."

"I had a doctor's appointment," Mulder said. That much was true, but he gave no clue what the appointment was for. Skinner would have been concerned, if he found out. Scully had told him how she'd found Skinner that time. The one where Mulder was in the hospital in a near psychotic state. Skinner was beside himself, Scully had said. Completely wrought. He cared, Mulder decided. He really cared.

Skinner then proceeded to surprise Mulder again. "If you like, I could help you prepare for the audit. I don't think anything we can do will make the man happy with your expenses, but at least I can make sure all your pennies add up and all your ts are crossed."

"I'd appreciate that," Mulder said, thinking of all the expense reports he'd wanted to go over before the pending audit. He, too, didn't think that there was really anything that could be done, and while he thought that his expenses were reasonable, especially considering the things he could have claimed, but didn't, the stuff he ended up paying for himself, he knew that the auditor wasn't likely to see it this way. But if he could avoid even the smallest math error, that might help his case.

"Yes, I'd truly appreciate that, sir," Mulder said, taking a final sip of his coffee.

"Walter," Skinner said. "It's the weekend. And so much has happened. I think we're beyond sir and agent, don't you, Mulder?"

"Fox," Mulder said, thinking of how once, long ago, Skinner had called him Fox and how then, he had all but cringed at it. But things had changed so much between them.

It was late when they finally called it a day. The mid-spring day had slipped by completely unnoticed while the pair of them had been going over accounts and paper work in the basement office. As they walked out into the world again, the evening was still mild and windy, fresh smelling, with something that promised freedom and sweetness to Mulder mockingly.

"Dinner?" Skinner asked. "Did you have plans?"

"No," Mulder said, cautiously. "No, I didn't."

All the same, he wasn't sure if it was safe to go to dinner with his boss. Because being around the big, bald, beautiful man all day had reawakened something that Mulder thought he had put to rest long ago. He had the urge, stronger than ever, to wrap his arms around those wide shoulders, feel that strong heartbeat as he pressed himself against that muscled chest. And yet, as dangerous as it was to want those things, as foolhardy as it was to even continue to talk to the man, it was just so easy for Mulder to say, "Yes, let's go out to dinner. If you're not busy."

Mulder recognized the place that Skinner took them too. He'd been there before. Not as a restaurant, but as a crime scene. Skinner had been shot here for refusing to drop the investigation into Melissa Scully's murder. After it was over, after Mulder had gotten out of the hospital, he'd gone to the scene, out of more than simple curiousity. No, Mulder had felt a burning need to find any bit of evidence, no matter how small, to know that there was nothing more he could have done. Cardinale, the man who had done it was dead by then. Not that Mulder found anything. It had been made to look like a simple hold up gone bad and the evidence technicians had been over the place already with fine toothed combs.

"This is the place," Mulder said, "Where you were shot. I'd have thought you would stay away because of the memories."

"I like the place," Skinner said. "They know me here. And I wasn't about to let them keep me away. They scare me away from my life, they win."

Skinner guided Mulder to their table with a hand placed in the small of his back. Mulder thought immediately of how he'd helped Skinner to stand that once, when he'd come back to work too soon. He thought about how warm and vital the man felt under his hand. He'd never dared touch Skinner again in that gentle, caring kind of way. He'd never again had the excuse. They'd touched since, but it had been Skinner restraining him from violence.

He wanted, Mulder decided, to be able to touch the man. He wanted those rippling muscles under his hands, that warmth stealing into his body. It was only in the middle of eating that Mulder realized that Skinner wanted the same thing. Their hands kept brushing each other's as they passed the salt and pepper. When Skinner spilled a little out of his water glass and Mulder lent him a spare napkin. When they both reached for the cream for their coffee at the same time.

"Come home with me," Mulder said when the bill finally came, shocking himself. This was, undoubtedly, him speaking, making the words, finally giving existence to a desire that had been unspoken for years, that he'd buried so deeply he hadn't quite known it existed. "Spend the night."

Skinner didn't answer for a moment, his normally expressive face a blank. His brown eyes were unreadable, bottomless pools. He wasn't, Mulder decided, shocked. Nor even surprised. There was suddenly the slight trace of a smile on his lips, not as big as the earlier one, but undeniably there.

"Should we go back to the Hoover and pick up my car?" Skinner asked finally. "Or should we just take a cab from here."

"A cab," Mulder said, not wanting to waste a minute, now that he had made his move, and, mercy of mercies, found that it been received well. He wasn't going to let Walter slip away on him.

And yet, even as all of this made sense, that it was so easy to reach out for Walter's hand while they sat in the cab, to know that he'd wanted this for years, that he desired the other man intensely, Mulder felt the strangest sense of, no, not quite deja vu. No, it was sense that he remembered a time where he hadn't felt this about Skinner at all. Where it had been Scully that he desired, physically as well as emotionally, but that he'd never dared make a move for her. It was a strangely distant, but still distinct set of memories. Yes, he could remember not being gay. And yet, at the same time, he knew he was gay, he always had been. Yes, he remembered the day he came out to Scully as clearly as anything, boyfriends, even a few lovers he'd lived with briefly. He'd been discreetly closeted his whole adult life. And yet, he still remembered the women.

The feeling haunted him during the cab ride back to his apartment, and during the elevator ride up to the fourth floor, even while he opened the door. He almost expected to see some of his porn, the ones with women, out where he'd left them last night. When he glanced over at the floor nearby the television, the couple that he'd left out were still there, but the covers weren't blazoned with silicone breasted blondes. Instead, the star of the one on top was Ramrod Stevens, that porn star that looked so much like Alex Krycek. Mulder remembered now jerking off to that one last night, even as he felt hotly guilty about who the star looked like.

Yes, it was the old familiar apartment, no. 42, Hegal Place. In both realities, the couch was just the same, so were the prints over it. Fish swam contentedly in both realities that Mulder was balanced between. The room was just cluttered enough to be comfortable, but still neat. There were a few minor differences that Mulder could see. By the desk, a small print that wasn't there in one reality- genuine Picasso, a gift from Richard. He'd left a glass on the coffee table last night, in one reality. It was still here now, but instead of being a plain, straight sided glass, it was a vintage glass, printed with blobs that vaguely resembled flying saucers. No, the only major differences were internal- who he remembered loving, what he remembered feeling. It all was jarring, nearly overwhelmed him. He wondered if he was going mad as he shut and locked the door behind them.

But as Skinner suddenly grabbed Mulder and started tugging up Mulder's sweatshirt, and resting his hot, heavy hands on the now bare skin at the small of Mulder's back before pressing his lips to Mulder's, reality folded back itself into one seamless continuity again. Mulder remembered only his desire for this man who was ravishing his mouth, now pressing his tongue against Mulder's lips, asking, not demanding entrance. It was so easy, just so easy to open his lips, let this man in. He had loved him so long already. There was no one else he trusted this much, not even Scully.

Eventually, Walter pushed him away to arms length and looked him up and down. "I've been waiting for you for so long. For some clear signal," he said, after drinking his fill of the sight of Mulder.

"I've been waiting for you too," Mulder said pulling Walter back into a tight embrace. Then, after that, all there was to do was to lead Walter into his bedroom. Now that he finally had him, after waiting so damn long, he was never going to let go of the man again. Damn the Bureau. Damn the conspiracy. Damn it all. Nothing else mattered except the sweet taste of Walter on his lips, on the soft comfort that their bodies could give each other, and reassuringly strength that infused ever fiber of the man.

Across the clearing, a small woman watched Mulder walk into the circle of light. Again. The inevitable would happen. She'd seen it before. No matter what she'd tweaked thus far, it had always ended like this- badly.

She'd paid close attention to the past several days of Mulder's life. She had, again and again. It would be close to the truth to say that she might know things about Mulder that he didn't even know about himself. Like where he got that simply atrocious waterbed. Actually, once she'd seen the model Morris Fletcher had originally had in mind, she'd intervened, no, not with a wish, but walking up to him in the store and suggesting that no man would get lucky with her in such a thing.

Her part-time position as a library clerk left her with plenty of time to be a busy body, and though she'd been recently freed from the obligation of the carpet, she'd lost none of her power. Mulder had wished only to set her free. He didn't wish for her to become a normal person with no power. She still had long life and great power, but was freed from the conditions of a Jinniyah's life. No more being at the beck and call of whoever opened that damn rug. No more three wishes. She could grant however many it took to get the job done.

She'd once thought that she forever had been cured of the desire to work her magic on people. In truth, it was a hard habit to break. One could not run away from one's own nature, people worried about what wasn't chronically. For all that she was a genie, she was still a person. And after all, one could only sit and watch the world go by so long before one died of boredom. And unlike the people who'd had the misfortune to open her carpet, she had enough experience to know what to wish for. She knew all the pitfalls, all the classic mistakes. And she knew about scale. Most people- they thought too big. They wished for a million dollars so they could quit their jobs. They never thought, not once, about wishing that Lorraine, in the next cubicle over, who made their work lives such hell, would get a job in another state. No, she didn't make those kind of mistakes.

It all played out the same: the audit, the call from Oregon, the illicit trip out to the coast. Then, Alex Krycek and his damnable information. And finally, Mulder and his boss making the last trip out to Oregon, to Mulder's apparently inevitable date with destiny.

Mon Dieu. There, again, Walter Skinner finally noticing that Mulder was gone from sight. Then, the sight of the alien craft pulling away. This time, the only difference was the pure, unadultered anguish in Walter's voice as he called out, "Fox!" Then, he collapsed to his knees, weeping.

No, no and no. There had to be some way. Some adjustment she could make that would alter the fabric of reality enough without warping the grain out of recognition. But no, nothing kept him away. She had tried five variations thus far and none kept this from happening. She had had Dana Scully invite Fox to her bed and the pair become lovers. Mulder was still taken. One time, the IVF attempt the pair of them had made had been successful. Mulder still ended up leaving his pregnant partner behind and traveling to Oregon with Walter, and meeting up with the aliens. She'd found reasons to send Scully, not Walter, and still, the end result was Mulder gone.

The woman watched over the weeping man from a distance for a while and thought. Satisfied that her choices would work this time, she made a few, small, quick wishes, little, minor changes in the fabric of reality. It had to work this time.

Jenn put her coffee cup down, ran a finger around the rim, smiled and him and asked, "How's Walter?"

They were at their usual place- the Capitol Brew, for their usual Sunday mid-morning coffee. He'd gone running first, up and down the Mall, and he was still slightly sweaty when he'd sat down across from her.

For a minute, the question didn't quite make sense. His mind didn't parse. Walter, the only Walter he knew, was Walter Skinner, his boss, long lusted for, but untouchable by virtue of his position. Then, slowly, like awakening from a long sleep, he remembered, forgetting another branching of reality entirely, the rift healing as if it had never been.

This morning. Waking with Walter in his bed. They'd spent last night together at Hegal Place, as they'd spent half of the nights that Mulder was in town, the other half spent in Crystal City. They hadn't made love last night. Mulder had been too tired, having crawled back into town on the zoo flight. But they had slept together, no pajamas, just for the feel of skin upon skin, and it had seemed the most natural thing in the world upon waking to drift into the act of love. Yes, he remembered how sweet it had been. Walter on his stomach, Mulder on top, feeling at home in Walter's body, deep inside it. Walter's muscles had been taut, like silken cords under his skin, as they moved together. Walter had hidden his face in his folded arms, as if his pleasure was so overwhelming he had to retreat. And though Mulder had been on top, he been enthralled to Walter's voice telling him what to do. Eyes closed, voice soft and rough, Walter had whispered, every now and then, instructions. "Harder now," he'd said. And, "Yes, good. Faster" and, "Please, now. Come for me now." What choice did Mulder have but obey the gentle commands, as sweet as they were? Tenderly, Walter had taken his breath away from him with the bliss of it all. When it was over and Mulder was lying on his back, Walter resting his bald head on Mulder's shoulder, Mulder wrestled hard with the joy, the sheer joy of it, threatening to loose his feet from this earth. He so loved that man, and their lovemaking had only gotten better and better the longer they had been together.

Yes, as he sipped his own coffee, Mulder could only smile and think about how they'd gotten together, last year. After he'd gone out seeking the Queen Anne and gotten nothing more than his lungs full of water. Later, at the hospital, Walter had brought him flowers. Though when the others were there, he'd talked tough and promised to kick Mulder's ass but good, later, Walter had come back alone. It had started out as a circumspect, cautious affair, but after months, they'd grown tired of waiting for the other shoe to drop. They'd reasoned that if the surveillance pictures were going to show up in the Director's office, they would have by then. That was when they started splitting their time between each other's places, not daring to take the final step of moving in together.

"You're grinning," Jenn had pronounced finally, when he didn't answer her. Of course, she had to know what that grin meant. They'd known each other for years, hadn't they? How long ago had they met? He couldn't remember, but they'd been friends for forever, like she'd always been there. He startled to remember that no, it hadn't been that long. Not years, just months since he'd unrolled a carpet to find her there.

"He's wonderful," Mulder said, noticing his smile for the first time. He must look quite the idiot, with such glee plastered on his face. "We've never been better. It's just that..."


"It's just that sometimes, I wish, that we didn't have to sneak around. That we didn't have to hide. That someone besides you and Scully could know," Mulder said. He'd been thinking this a long time, but especially this morning. What was the Bible quote, about hiding a lantern under a bushel basket. Yes, that was what it felt like. For so long, he had been warming himself at Walter's warm brilliant light, and then covering it up zealously at every turn. He could hardly stand it any more, the lies. It chafed, he realized, this restriction, this deception. The touchstone of his life, his faith, his north star, had always been, could only be the truth. And his life, with the way things were, with the endless rounds of doctors and worry and hiding his worry from Walter, needed that truth like he needed oxygen.

"You know, sometimes, just sometimes, I wish I had been a little bit more selfish with those wishes you gave me," Mulder said, rubbing his forehead a little. Like he had almost grown to expect, the pain was suddenly there, the shimmerings of voices that he shouldn't be able to hear starting to sound in the back corners of his mind. An anomalous brain condition his doctors had called it. They couldn't make heads nor tails out of his EEG, nor of any of the MRIs or other tests they had run. "Instead of wasting them on some misguided altruism, I could have stopped this thing going on in my head. Not that I regret spending my third wish on you. I'm thinking of the other two."

"Trust me. Some things are for the best," she said. Actually, there seemed to be nothing she could do for the condition. If she wished it away with one round of wishes, it appeared again in the next. Jenn was beginning to suspect it was somehow ineluctable, one of those rare wishes she just couldn't grant. An unchangeable condition of the universe. She had a sudden idea. Yet another way she might try and keep Mulder away from his seemingly destined abduction.

"Anyway, as far as wishes go, you didn't do too badly. At least you didn't end up dead from them, like some people," Jenn said.

"Has anyone ever not screwed them up?" Mulder asked, thinking of the endless streams of stupidity and venial greed that seemed to flow from humanity. Jenn had told him stories about some of the more egregious mistakes people had made with the wishes she'd granted them.

"A few people. There was a three-year-old girl once a couple of decades ago. She wished for a cookie, to find her lost dolly and a kitten. She got all three, and she was happy. The kitten grew up to be an ornery tomcat who bit anyone but her. She loved him though and he adored her."

"So, in order to be happy, you have to think small?"

"I'm afraid so."

"Sitting back, drinking coffee and watching the world go by?"

"Quite," Jenn said. "There was another man once who used his wishes wisely, so I thought. He wished for enough material possessions that he would be comfortable, but not so many that they would be a burden to him, for a wise but generous spirit, so that he could share his fortune, but not impoverish himself, and for his third wish, he wanted to forget that he had met me and made the wishes."

"So he lived happily ever after? A perfect life. No tragedy, no foolishness. Who was this paragon?"

"No one you'd know. He was a cheesemaker in eighteenth century Amsterdam. And his life wasn't perfect. Just happy. He lost his wife young and he never married again. His dairy burned down one time. But because he'd been so generous to others, his neighbors helped him rebuild. He was never rich, but there was always bread on his table. He didn't let ordinary tragedies break him. Look at the time. I have to go. I'll be late for work."

"I should go too. I'm meeting Walter for lunch," Mulder said, smiling to think of his handsome lover. Jenn flew away in a fluster of twittery energy. She was so different than when he'd first unrolled her from the rug. Her air of bored indifference was gone. She had immersed herself fully into life, Mulder decided.

Mulder walked the dozen or so city blocks to the place where he'd agreed to meet Walter. The spring sun felt good, warming his body even though the breeze still held hints of chill in it. Even though he'd gone running this morning, he still exulted in the stroll. This was what Jenn had meant by taking pleasure in the small things. Yes, he thought. If I knew then what I know now, I wouldn't have bothered with a foolish wish for world peace. I'd just wish for one walk every day that feels as good as this one. The advantage of being a runner was that he was able to put worry aside just by the simple act of movement. For this moment, it held true for the walk as it had for his mornings run.

He found the little pub Walter had specified. It had deep and high booths, the better to remain out of sight. Mulder was loathe to go into the small, dark, sometimes smoky establishment, leaving the sun and the fresh air behind. Only the prospect of finding the source of all good things- Walter, drove him inside.

Walter was in a booth towards the back already, waiting for him. The Sunday Post was spread neatly out on the table. Walter took one section at a time and studied it before putting it neatly on a read pile. Mulder had a tendency to plow through the paper, going from section to section, skimming, then delving deeply when something caught his attention. Walter was studying the sports scores. Time for baseball again, Mulder thought with a smile. If nothing else in his crazy life made sense, at least there was always the cyclical rhythm of the seasons- football, basketball and baseball.

"Hey, gorgeous," Mulder said, claiming the seat across from Walter. He claimed the front page section from the pile and added, "How's the home town team doing?"

Walter, as always, beamed at him, looking slightly bewildered, Mulder thought, as if Walter was never sure that this bluebird of happiness calling itself Mulder had truly alighted into his life.

"How'd coffee with Jenn go?" Walter asked. He knew the whole story. He'd dragged the explanation out of Mulder the evening of the day Mulder had appeared from out of nowhere in his office during a meeting. Genies. Leave it to Mulder to find a real life "I Dream of Jeanie."

"Sounds like she likes her new job. I'm sorry I took part of our morning to go meet her. I just didn't see any other time. I've got to get to the office this afternoon."

"Still worried about the audit?" Walter asked, even though he knew. Mulder had been fretting about this for a long time.

"They could shut us down again," Mulder said, thinking of the X-files office doors locked once again, for the third, and probably final time. It was his life, those files. No, it had been his life. Now, it was an important, vital part of his life. And he didn't think that loving Walter alone would be enough to sustain him should the X-files be taken away from him.

"The auditor can only make the recommendation," Walter said, patiently. "I know Chesty. He thinks he's a big man. He blusters. He'll try and cow you. You have to understand that the Bureau has been in a perpetual budget crisis for years. It's his job to find places to cut. But the decision is the Director's, not his. And I have something to say about it too."

"I know," Mulder said. He was suddenly nervous. It was more imperative these days more than ever that no one find out about them. With the X-files hanging on by such a slender thread, and that thread held with adamantine grip by Walter. But if they were discovered. Mulder didn't like to think about that. Walter seemed to understand the discomfort that Mulder was feeling, must have felt it too, the ghosts of wolves at the door. Walter changed the subject.

"Jenn have anything else interesting to say?"

"She told me about the only persons she knew who were completely happy with their wishes."


"A three year old whose most ambitious wish was for a cookie before dinner. And an 18th century cheesemaker who wished to forget that he'd made any wishes."

"So, I take it you don't count among those who were satisfied with their wishes."

"I'm glad of the third, but I can't help but think that I wasted the other two. Chalk it up to experience, which is always a good thing. But I could have done better. What would you have wished for?"

Walter made a small show of pretending to think for a while. Then he pronounced, in perfect, deadpan seriousness, "A cheeseburger, a Heineken and lunch with you."

Mulder tossed a ball of wadded up napkin at Walter's head. Say nothing else about the man's shiny pate, it made a good target. It was strange how the serious, intense man made him feel more playful than he ever had. "Walter!"

Walter's sly, unexpected smile made an appearance. "Yeah, but my wishes will come true," he said. Then suddenly, his cell phone rang. He muttered a curse under his breath, Mulder didn't quite catch it, and he ground his teeth just slightly. On the second ring he said, "Or maybe not." Then he answered it, barking, "Skinner!" into it. Mulder almost felt sorry for whoever at work had dared interrupt Walter on a Sunday. Walter listened seriously, with full attention, his eyes focused on a place a million miles away. Walter was now at work, not that he ever truly left it. Finally, Walter concluded, "I'm on my way."

"A situation, huh?" Mulder asked as Walter folded the phone and put it back into his jacket pocket.

"A total cock-up you mean. I'll try and be home as soon as damage control is in hand," Walter said, standing and reaching for his jacket. The man moved like, like. Mulder struggled for a comparison that was worthy of the controlled grace and power that Walter's body was capable of. Like some huge predator, perhaps a polar bear- dangerous, fast and with a fluid smoothness that seemed impossible for its ungainly bulk.

"I assume I'll hear about it on the news, or if they elect to call me in," Mulder said.

"The whole point of the exercise is to avoid this getting to the news. It's a hostage situation in Pennsylvania," Walter said. "Later."

It took less than an hour to get out to the scene in Pennsylvania, thanks to light, weekend traffic. Add another half hour to stop first at the Hoover and switch his casual jacket for the one with FBI blazoned on the back and be more fully briefed by his staff. By the time he got to the scene, the news vultures had gotten there all ready, but they were reporting it as just another hostage situation, albeit one that had closed down the expressway. It was true, in it's way. But the big concern wasn't who, but what the man had taken hostage.

The semi had been parked diagonally across the road, blocking all three lanes of traffic with its dull red container. Skinner thought they'd said the thing was full of sodium hydroxide. Skinner had thought it would be some kind of tanker truck. Traffic coming from the other direction had been diverted, routed onto a detour. No, the only cars on the interstate at the moment were state cop cruisers, bucars and other government vehicles. Walter pulled his car up to a likely looking clump of bucars, with a cluster of serious, urgent looking agents standing together nearby, discussing tactics, no doubt. As he parked, Walter picked out the obvious leader of the pack, the one the other agents were looking at as if he had the answers. That one was a tall, intense man with a roadmap of wrinkles in his forehead, his eyes slightly squinted against the bright sunshine. He wore a white dress shirt and red tie under his FBI jacket. He was talking urgently to his cohorts and they were listening intently.

Walter stepped out of the car and walked right up to that one. He had the distinct feeling that if the FBI's protocol were to include saluting, this agent would have given him a crisp, military precise salute. "Agent..." Walter struggled a moment to find and retrieve the man's name from memory. It was not forthcoming.

"Doggett, sir," the man said. "John Doggett."

"You're the agent in charge here?"


"Tell me what's going on. I've heard the briefings, but I want you to draw me a picture."

Doggett nodded. Walter wouldn't have thought it possible, but Doggett stood a little straighter and taller and started to talk, not put off at all by Walter's brusque demands. "Behind the wheel of that semi truck is one James Kennedy Walton. He's got the truck wired with twenty pounds of plastic explosive. We're still not sure where he got them. Inside the container is several thousand gallons of sodium hydroxide, in small totes about a meter by a meter each. They're reinforced with a wire cage, but he's got enough firepower there to have that not make a difference. It blows, we have to evacuate the whole county."

"And just how did he get a hold of a semi truck full of it? I mean, shouldn't something that dangerous be highly controlled and regulated."

"It is. But that's his truck. He makes his living shipping the stuff."

"And how did you get involved?"

"I've been chasing the guy for months. His hobby is bank robbery. He's made twenty hits in the past year. Banks scattered in every state from Louisiana to New Jersey. It took us a while to piece together that our suspect was a truck driver, but once we did it was simple police work to track him down. Should have been a simple bust."

"What does he want?" Walter asked.

"The usual. His fifteen minutes of fame. I don't think we should give it to him. I think he's a nutcase. He's been going on and on about aliens or some nonsense like that," Doggett said, grimacing.

Walter shuddered, the shade of Duane Barry suddenly seeming to walk over his grave. He thought about calling Mulder in, but decided against it for the moment. Mulder didn't need the exposure at the moment. Yes, it'd definitely be a good idea for his monster boy to keep a low profile for the time being. Not unless there proved to be an actual alien connection. "Any accomplices? Does he have anyone he's working with? During his crime spree?"

"I think he's got militia connections but I haven't been able to dig up a clear link. I think this one is worse than that unibomber freak."

"What, exactly, are his demands?"

"He wants national news coverage, to expose this supposed alien menace. He claims the money is to raise an army against them. Hold on," Doggett listened to his ear piece. "Looks like we're getting our break. Guy's not hiding in the back. Sharpshooter's suddenly got a clear shot."

Something wrenched inside of Walter's guts and he wanted to bark out the command, "No!" It wasn't right. It was a bad decision, he could feel it at every level. Doggett seemed to feel the same way. He opened his mouth as if he were going to give the order to hold fire. But before he could, the shot sounded, clear, distinctive. Even at this distance, Walter could see the sudden splash of crimson against the driver's side window of the cab. Then came the explosion. He dove for cover on the ground behind the car, along with the others. It didn't help though. It burned like nothing he'd ever felt before and he knew, with the strong certainty of someone who as already been dead that this was it. He was buying the farm. He found time to wonder if he'd remembered to tell Mulder that he loved him recently.

The shot rang out, like a crystal vase shattering on a concrete floor in a silent room. Crimson splashed onto the truck's window. They waited a minute, then Doggett was barking into his mike, "Team A, go, now!"

A squad of men in tactical armor rushed the truck and then it was all over. Even as Skinner watched them haul a single body from the cab, and the bomb squad started swarming over the truck, he shuddered.

Confused, he remembered quite clearly. the truck had gone up in one of the most magnificent fireballs Skinner could remember. Taking them with it. And yet, plain as daylight, there, the truck stood. Here he stood still, uninjured. He shook his head, wondering if he was going mad.

In a few minutes though, action was demanded of him, someone was wanting him to go up in front of the cameras and give a statement. And so he put on his best inscrutable face and did what needed to be done. In a little while, he was just wondering if maybe his imagination had been over active, that he'd just imagined the truck blowing.

Sometime in the middle of it, Doggett pulled him aside. "We're damn lucky," he said, the crags in between his eyebrows deepening for a minute. "The guy had the whole thing set on a deadman switch. Shoulda blown the instant he was shot. Goddamn lucky for us he's not as good at electronics as he was at bank robbery. It woulda blown, except one of the connections came lose. So say the folks from the bomb squad."

Walter felt suddenly very weak in the knees, though he put on his best iron face and didn't let it show. He thought again, about how earlier, he'd been sure that the bomb had blown. Deciding again that it really just was his imagination, he forced his mind back to the matter at hand. It could have been a fatal mistake. He'd escaped by the skin of his teeth again, like he had so often since taking on the supervision of the X-files. On the positive side, had there been that fatal mistake, neither he, nor Doggett, would still be around to face the negative repercussions on their respective careers. As it was, his career was no more in shards than it had been this morning, before he'd come out here. That was about the best he could ask for, most days. He got on with the business at hand.

Mulder watched Walter leave, cutting through the early afternoon weekend lunch crowd with purpose. When that man was on the move, no one, no, no one got in his way, Mulder thought. It was something about him, like lesser ships moving out of the way of an aircraft carrier. He sighed with a pleasure tinged strongly by regret at the sight of Walter's retreat.

As he was deciding whether to order lunch on his own, or just pay for the drinks they'd ordered and head home, or even to call Scully and ask if she wanted to join him, the lightheadedness came again. The shimmer of voices at the edge of his hearing became stronger. His decision made for him, he dug into his wallet, threw what he thought would be an adequate amount of money onto the table and stood up, meaning to head back to his place immediately. He could get through these bad spells if he could just take them lying down, maybe with the television playing for that veneer of reality to reassure himself that everything would be all right.

He didn't make three steps before big, black spots filled his vision. He couldn't keep his feet and he was falling, his body not his for the moment.

Somewhere, somehow, there was an end to it all. He could return home to DC, the situation defused as well as he could make it. He thought maybe even the Bureau looked good on this one, not just having failed to fuck up totally. In the car on the road back to DC, he finally had a spare minute to answer his cell phone. He'd set it on vibrate only mode before facing the press, and it had gone off several times during his long statement and question session. He'd gotten one voice mail and several text messages. He thumbed through his text messages first. The first one was Scully's cell number and the text, "Please call."

The messages got more urgent as the hours had worn on. He'd left DC at just past noon and it was now full night. From "Please Call," they escalated to "Please Call. Urgent," and then, "Please Call. Emergency." Wondering what the situation was that required such immediate attention, he speed dialed Scully, even as he sped up slightly. There was no answer from Scully and that worried Skinner even more. It occurred to him that one of the places where she wouldn't answer her phone was within the halls of a hospital. She'd know better than to use it near sensitive medical equipment. Getting her voicemail finally, he said, "Agent Scully. This is Walter Skinner. I've gotten your messages. Work took me to Pennsylvania, but I'm on my way home now. Call me as soon as you get this message. I should be home in an hour."

Not five minutes, anxious, extended minutes, later, his phone chirped at him again. He picked it up and had it to his ear before it had a chance to ring a second time. "Skinner!" he barked into it, half sick with worry.

"Sir. Walter," Scully's voice answered him. He recognized the tone. Worried as sick as he was, thinly strung and about ready to snap. She'd used that voice, among other times, when Mulder had gotten himself lost at sea in the Bermuda Triangle. That had been the day that Skinner had realized he loved Mulder. That he was willing to throw everything- his job, his pension, his position, away because he couldn't stomach the thought of a universe without a Mulder in it.

"Agent Scully, what's the emergency?"

"Agent Mulder, sir. He's in the hospital again. Northeast Georgetown. He was in a restaurant not far from the Hoover when he collapsed. He started going into convulsions. No treatment so far has been able to stop them. He came out of it just long enough to ask them to call me, but he slipped back into the convulsions almost immediately. The doctors have been unable to determine the cause, but it appears to be centered in the temporal lobe, but it's spread over his whole brain."

Walter thought immediately of the illness that had nearly claimed Mulder from him so shortly after they'd found each other. Over, done, cured, so the doctors had said. No more signs of irregular temporal lobe activity. Or at least, immediately after it happened. Walter wondered, sometimes, if there wasn't some residual effect. Mulder occasionally had what he claimed to be tension headaches, and he'd shut himself up alone in a room, with the lights off and the television on.

"I'm on my way, Agent Scully," Skinner said, wishing he could increase his speed yet again. He was far from the only one rushing back to DC on this dark, spring evening. Traffic was thickening and slowing as they got closer and closer to the city. To make things worse, though the day had been fine and clear earlier, a storm system was rolling in. One by one, the stars were covered by thick, impenetrable blackness. Then, big drops of rain started splashing onto his windshield. "Traffic's bad. It's starting to rain. That'll slow me down. But I'll be there as quickly as I can. Have they tried the phenytoin?"

"First thing. It didn't do anything more than slow them down slightly, even on increased dosages. They've got him sedated. Enough to take down a tiger, honestly. I don't know what to do, sir," she said. She was obviously on the verge of tears.

Mulder loved Walter, but Scully was still closer to Mulder than just a long term work partner. They were friends. Confidants. Walter remembered one time, not long after he and Mulder had started their affair, she had come up to him. She'd given him one long, hard look up and down. Then she'd said, "I love him like he was one of my brothers, sir. And I mean this with all due respect, but if you harm him in any way, I'll kick your ass."

"I'll be there soon, but I don't know if there's anything I can do either," Walter said. He said his goodbyes to Scully, with another promise to be there as quickly as he could. Then he set the phone down on the passenger seat without taking his eyes off the road. He drove as fast as traffic conditions would let him, with grimly efficient skill, his jaw set. He had to take his hands off the wheel every now and then and stretch them, one by one, for fear that his death grip on it would cause his hands to lock into place.

By the time Skinner finally got to the hospital hours later, having been delayed by a semi accident blocking the road, Scully was asleep in the chair by Mulder's bedside. She never seemed tinier, curled up in that vinyl padded chair. Awake, the woman was a dynamo, her short stature unnoticed by sheer dint of intensity. But asleep, without the full fury of her personality to animate that body, it was like a little doll, her face porcelain, the hint of a blush on her cheeks. She'd kicked off her heels and had been wearing a jacket earlier, which she now used as a makeshift blanket. Her red hair was mussed slightly, curled a bit around the ends. She might have run her fingers through it a few times, in frustration, as she'd waited for him.

Mulder himself was deadly still on the bed. He wasn't in restraints, like Walter had almost expected, like he'd been mentally preparing himself for. No, instead, the rails of the bed had been fully padded with foam rubber so that Mulder couldn't hurt himself as he convulsed. As before, he was attached to monitors. Yes, there was the EEG. As before, the line skittered and danced all over the graph, even as Mulder's body was completely still on the bed, doing a fair imitation of the deepest possible sleep. What was it that had been said about Mulder the last time that this had happened. No, he wasn't dying, Walter thought. No, if anything else, Mulder was more fully alive, more fully awake than he ever had been. Other than the leads for the monitors and the IV, Mulder might have just been sleeping. It was almost as if Walter might be able to just reach over, shake Mulder by the shoulder and say to him, "C'mon, buddy, wake up. I'm taking you home."

Walter reached out and touched Mulder on the cheek, gently, one swift caress sweeping from cheekbone to chin, before waking Scully. She would only do the inevitable, unenviable thing of having to tell him again the exact same thing she had told him in the car, that there seemed to be nothing that they could do, no lead that they could follow. At least the last time there had been leads to follow, things to do, Mulder asking for help. This time, there was no Kritschgau, no mysterious rubbings, no ship in Africa. No, there seemed to be very little reason for this illness to have started now, like it had. What could have triggered it?

Reaching out for Scully, Walter shook her awake and she started the long, arduous task of going through Mulder's chart with him. Most of it made very little sense to Walter. He listened though, carefully, for any little sliver of hope. Any positive prognosis she could offer. She couched it in very gentle, neutral terms, but the meaning was the same. Call it a rose if you like, but shit still stinks. And Mulder was still dying.

In the end, there was nothing to do but wait by Mulder's bedside and hope that the brainstorms would subside before his mind destroyed itself. Scully, of course, was unable to acquiesce to the same fatalism that came to Walter almost naturally, perhaps from some genetic memory from his Russian ancestors. Scully stormed around. Scully raged. Scully tracked down every lead, no matter how flimsy it might be. Walter sat at Mulder's bedside every minute he could spare and, when he thought no one was liable to come in, he held Mulder's hand.

They drugged him deeper and deeper, until only monitor that showed more than a bare minimum of activity was the EEG. That crackled with life, spiking and peaking in irregular bursts.

After three days of useless waiting, Scully came in, looking exhausted. She was followed by the Gunmen, all of whom looked just as tired, just as grim. Skinner had long ago resigned himself to the odd trio as a fixture in their lives, even more prominent in times when Mulder or Scully were in trouble. Like now.

"Anything?" he asked, more pro forma than out of any actual hope.

Scully sighed and then said, "No, we're packing it in for the night. You should go home too. There's nothing more to be done."

He couldn't fault her or the Gunmen for taking some rest. But he wasn't going to leave Mulder's bedside. "I'll sleep in the chair," he said. Just like he had the other three nights, waking just in time to get back to Crystal City and change for work.

She didn't protest. She knew it would do no good. She moved to stand at the other side of Mulder's bed. She brushed a hand over his forehead, touching him softly. Skinner was reminded of a mother touching a feverish child. "We'll find a cure, Mulder. I promise it," she said. She didn't sound convinced though, finally starting to doubt- in herself, in the powers of science...in everything.

Then she left. Only the sight of Mulder prevented Walter from following her, offering her some comfort. One by one, the Gunmen stopped at Mulder's bedside to offer their respects. "Hang in there, guy," Frohike said.

"You'd better get well soon," Langly said. "Talented as we are at these G-man activities, they're really cutting into my gaming time."

Byers, the shy one, didn't say anything, just squeezed Mulder's hand awkwardly, briefly, then turned on his heels and fled. Walter, for some reason, remembered another time he'd been in a hospital room with Mulder and the Gunmen. Mulder had asked for Byers clothes. Byers had started to strip down, no hesitation, at least once it became clear what Mulder wanted with the clothes.

Alone in the room with Mulder, who was both a substantial presence and an absence, Skinner started to settle himself in for another uncomfortable night in the chair. His jacket hung from the back of another chair. He found the blanket that the kind nurses had lent him. He set his PDA to ring an alarm at four thirty, plenty of time for the double commute out of and back into the city. He set that within reach, then waiting patiently for what sleep and what dreams would come.

Walter dreamed, one of the least comfortable dreams he'd had for a while. Not quite a nightmare at first, but it grew worse. He was flat on his back in a stall. A barn. A horse barn. A horse was standing on his chest. Light pressure at first, but it grew and grew, until it seemed that he couldn't breathe, that must be impossible that his heart was beating. The horse was a long-haired stallion with a long, black mane. The horse was laughing at him. Not big, honest laughter either, but derisive snickering. "Oh, Walter, you just don't get it, do you?" the horse said.

After that, the dream grew dark and confused and lasted for a long, long time.

When he finally woke, Walter was in a hospital bed himself, feeling like someone had moved into his chest cavity and started redecorating, beginning with ripping out a few load bearing walls and not shoring up the ceiling where they'd been. He opened his eyes and looked around cautiously. A flash of red caught his sight. Scully. He struggled to sit up at first, but laid back down once he realized that wasn't going to happen without more effort than he had in him at the moment.

When he stopped struggling to sit up, he found the energy to focus his eyes. Scully. Her pretty, pale skin was blotched and her blue eyes were rimmed with bright red. She'd been crying.

"Sir? Relax," she said, reaching out a cool hand to touch his forehead, just like she had Mulder's last night. It had been just last night, Skinner hoped. "You're lucky to be alive, sir. You suffered another attack of the nanos. You nearly died. You coded. Luckily, we were able to revive you."

Somehow, Skinner doubted it was luck at all.

"Mulder..." he said. His voice was so dry and raspy that he doubted it even belonged to him.

"He's..." At this,Scully hesitated, wiped a hand across her face. She was crying again. Then she pulled herself together. He could see definite signs of her having been raised by a military man. Tears would have failed to move her father, and so she would have learned to push them away, to make herself calm when others would break down. "He's missing, sir. When the night nurse came in to check on Mulder, she found him gone, and you were half dead on the floor. Oh, sir. He's gone!"

The words were worse than any pain that had gone before.

Only a dark, spritely woman had been standing unnoticed in the hospital corridor and noticed a man insinuate himself into Mulder's hospital room. Alex Krycek, she recognized immediately. She froze, unable to think or do anything but watch as the man pulled out a small, handheld computer from his jacket pocket. As he manipulated the computer, Walter, who had been sleeping peacefully in the chair moaned in his sleep. Big, angry black veins started appearing on Walter's skin, then, he fell out of the chair, onto the floor, seemingly lifeless. Then Krycek shoved Walter out of the way. Moving the limp body of the big man was a struggle for Krycek, even though he seemed, not quite athletic, but still strong, like he was used to hardscrabble fights and rough times.

Walter pushed away, Krycek leaned over Fox's still body. He drew a small case out of his jacket pocket, the breast pocket opposite the one he'd put the hand held computer back into. The case snapped open revealed a syringe and a couple of vials of some milky fluid. Jenn watched with fascination as Krycek, even hampered by his artificial arm, expertly plunged the hypodermic needle into one of the vials and drew the fluid into the syringe. Modern people didn't know what an age of miracles they lived it, Jenn thought. Had Krycek lost that arm during the years that she had been an ordinary human girl, he would have been lucky to have the village smith fashion him a hook that he would be able to get some use out of the shortened limb. No, the man probably only felt bitterness about how slow and clumsy the response of his artificial limb was, not wonder that it worked at all, that he could control it so precisely as to hold a tiny glass vial in it, without crushing it.

Once the syringe was full, and the bubbles tapped out, then Krycek used his artificial hand to turn Mulder's head and hold it in place. With the other, real hand, he plunged the syringe right into Mulder's temple and depressed the plunger. "C'mon, Mulder, wake up. I'm taking you away from all of this," Krycek said, ironically.

And slowly, amazingly, Mulder's eyes did open. And he was able to speak. His first word, obviously, was hissed. "Krycek!"

"Lucky for me you're still too drugged to beat the crap out of me. What is it with you? Is it some kind of repressed sexual thing? Sublimation?" Krycek said as he packed his equipment away again.

Mulder saved his breath this time and didn't respond.

"Mulder, there's an unprecedented opportunity awaiting you, if only you get out of that hospital bed and follow me."

Mulder caught sight of Walter's body. Jenn could see the agony that was writ plain on Mulder's face. And fury. "I'm not going anywhere with you. You killed him, Krycek."

"Well, just a little. Hold on," Krycek said. He pulled the hand held computer out again and fiddled with it. Walter gasped in a big breath, then started breathing more or less normally after that. "There. All better. Your boyfriend's in the land of the living again. And you don't have any choice. You're coming with me."

Mulder might have been able to talk, but his body was still more or less unresponsive. Krycek pulled casual clothes- jeans, a sweatshirt, tennis shoes out of the bag he'd set down earlier and dressed Mulder like he was a doll. Then he lowered the bedrail and levered Mulder up to a sitting position. "You'll be getting back more control over your body as time goes on, but for now, just do me a favor and don't fight me. And remember, I've got your boyfriend's life in the palm of my hand."

Slowly, Krycek got Mulder to his feet. Even though he was supporting Mulder by main strength, they made it through the door, down the hall and eventually, out of the building. Presumably, once outside, into a car and away from the hospital.

Jenn sighed. Had she, she wondered, seriously underestimated the strength of the Krycek factor? He'd always seemed such a bit player in the whole thing to her. He'd pop up in Mulder's life every now and then to wreck some small mayhem or disburse some tidbit of information, the whereabouts of the downed UFO the latest one, but mostly he was an enigma. How could she neutralize the Krycek factor with the smallest possible change? Something that would make that enmity between them disappear and at the same time, take Krycek out of the power game that was being played. She needed to think. Her brain felt thick, flabby, powerless. Coffee was needed. She would go find a diner, sit, drink coffee and think.

He was still in his hospital bed when they sent the agent to take his statement. It was the same day he'd woken up even. The agent they'd sent was Doggett, of the semi-truck incident. No, it probably wasn't a coincidence. The man had just finished up with his case. And he had plenty of experience with missing person cases, or so Skinner had heard. He was a bright star in the Bureau. On the fast track, so talk from above had it. From what Skinner had seen, the man was good at what he did.

John Doggett was all grim seriousness. Dressed this time in full suit and tie, his perpetual expression was still a near frown.

"Mind if I take a seat, AD Skinner?" he asked. Walter would have shrugged if he could. What good was it sending this agent, as excellent as an agent as he no doubt was, out to search for Mulder. Skinner knew who had Mulder- Alex Krycek. But God alone knew where Krycek had gotten by now. And no doubt he was under the protection of men who were themselves protected, men who could not be pursued. The same men who were always above and beyond the law. He could only hope that this time, as the last time, that whatever element it was among them that had looked out for Mulder would do it again, and deliver him home once their schemes had no more use for him.

When Scully continued to hover as Doggett took his seat, he said, "I was hoping to have a few words alone with the AD, Agent Scully."

Scully shot the agent a look of pure venom as she stalked to the door of the room. "I'll just be outside, sir. Call if you need anything."

Skinner wondered at what seemed like unnecessarily bad blood between the two agents, especially so quickly. Unless they'd had some previous run-in that he hadn't heard about. Scully didn't take too well to being called Mrs. Spooky and was not one to forget a slight easily. Doggett for his part, seemed one the boys, easily fitting in to the boys' club mentality that could dominate the middle levels of the Bureau sometimes.

"So, according to Agent Scully, you were in the hospital room at the same time Agent Mulder is believed to have disappeared," Agent Doggett said. "And that furthermore, you were the victim of some manner of attack yourself."

Ah, perhaps there was the cause of the antinomy. They had talked already. Doggett sounded doubtful that Skinner had been attacked. No doubt the hospital doctors were describing this as some kind of odd cardiac incident. Doggett would think that Scully's story would be the science-fiction it sounded like. Except for the fact that it had happened to him, in all its unbelievable agony, he would have classed it as such. Scully for her part was so vested in her faith of science that once she found proof that passed muster to her, she expected that everyone else would naturally have to believe.

"Yes, I was in the room at the time," Skinner said, cautiously. There was no way he could be a suspect, and yet the paranoia he'd learned over the years made him truly understand the fact that anything he said could and would be used against him. "I was not conscious. I didn't see anything or anyone. I fell asleep. I woke up in this hospital bed."

"Okay, well, what about this line that Agent Scully is trying to feed me about you being the victim of an attack by this Alex Krycek? I did a search on him by the way. Found nothing. No date of birth. No known residence. No convictions. No warrants. Nothing. I'm gonna go out on a limb here and say that the man doesn't exist."

Oh, he exists all right, Skinner thought. He's the stuff my nightmares are made of. He's had me on his puppet strings for longer than a man should have to bear. "That was the name he used at one point," Skinner said. "I doubt it's his real one. I don't even believe he's a citizen of this country."

Doggett's eyes opened slightly wider for a moment as he pondered the possibility that there was a foreign national out there that could just waltz right into a hospital, or apparently anywhere else, without a trace, without bleeping on the radar. "Russian? FSB?"

"Something far more dangerous than that. He speaks fluent Russian, but he may or not actually be Russian."

"Regardless, I'd like to know if you stand behind Agent Scully's assertion that he attacked you in some way."

"Who assigned you to this case, Agent Doggett?" Skinner asked.

Skinner grimaced when he heard Doggett's answer. "AD Kersh, sir."

Kersh. He'd never been able to prove it, of course not, but Skinner had thought for years that Kersh was one of theirs. That he'd been bought. Compromised.

"Why you? Why not Agent Scully?"

"She's a little too close to the case, Sir. Rumor has it, last time her partner went missing, she went looking for him in Africa."

"Let me draw you a picture, Agent Doggett. You don't want to go looking into this case. You don't want to get involved. The men who've taken Agent Mulder walk the halls of the Hoover with impunity."

"Well, how 'bout you put that picture in a frame for me, and tell me who this is then?" Doggett asked. He took a surveillance picture out of a file and passed it to Skinner. Though the picture was grainy and unfocused, there was no denying that it was Alex Krycek, mostly dragging a limp Fox Mulder along with him through what looked like the hospital parking garage.

"That's the man known sometimes as Alex Krycek, who, as you say, doesn't exist."

"Looks like Agent Mulder's going along with him pretty willingly, wouldn't you say? No struggle. No force."

"Did Agent Scully show you Agent Mulder's chart? He was having near constant seizures. The only way to slow them down was to dope him with enough phenobarbituates to take down a bear. I'd say that picture looks like he's being dragged to me."

Agent Doggett asked Skinner yet more useless questions, all the while sounding like he believed that Mulder was the fugitive, not the victim. Skinner answered them as best he could, trying to make it clear again and again that there was no way Mulder could have gotten out of that bed under his own power and that, yes, he was no doubt in the custody of a dangerous man or men. Finally, Doggett called it a day and left. Not a minute later, Scully came in.

"Sir," she said. She looked flustered even though her suit and hair were as neat as always. "I need to go to Oregon. Strange things have been happening in Bellefleur again. Abductions. I think it may be related somehow to what was happening to Mulder. But."

"AD Kersh is filling in for me while I'm in the hospital, and there's no way you could get an 302 signed," Walter said, knowing just exactly what Kersh would do. He could maneuver around Kersh though, even flat on his back. "Go to Kim. Tell her to get out one of the signed requests for personal leave that I have on file for you, and to date it and submit it as if it hit my desk the evening of the last day I was in the office. Then get on the next plane to Oregon."

He would have been on that plane himself, except he hardly felt like walking the few feet to the bathroom was feasible under his own power, much less the trip cross country. He'd go as soon as he was back on his feet though. "If you can't afford the ticket, I'll pay."

"Oh, no, sir. That's fine."

"Get going then," he said, brusquely, as if that could cover up the tears that were threatening at the thought of Mulder being gone. Missing. First the sudden, acute return of the brain malady, then Mulder gone, and God alone knew what was happening to him, if he was worsening without the drugs. If they would let him burn himself out. Mulder in the tender hands of Alex Krycek. Could things get worse?

Doggett returned the next day. "Just a few more brief questions," he promised as he sat down next to Skinner's bedside again. Skinner was almost up to getting out of bed again. He'd been able to sit up earlier. Even though he was getting older, he still seemed to have a vital constitution. Nothing kept him down for very long.

"You seem pretty close to Agent Mulder. I figure, if Agent Mulder has a lover, you'd probably know who, right?"

Skinner startled. That was pretty close to home. A very astute guess on Doggett's part, or the man had gone snooping. They were careful, he and Mulder, to keep knowledge of their relationship hidden to those who would keep close mouthed about it, like Scully, or the Gunmen. "Why do you say that?" he asked, cautiously.

"I figure, you were spending the night in his hospital room. You must be close to family, or something," Doggett said. The tone wasn't accusatory, surprisingly. Just open and guileless.

"Agent Mulder has no other family left," Skinner said. "He needed someone to watch out for him."

"Well, I was over at his place, to see if I could find anything. Any kind of clue. I figure he's got a lover. I thought maybe you might know who. Save me a lot of work digging up who those size eighteen neck shirts hanging in his closet belong to. Mulder's a sixteen and a half. There are other things too. Mulder has two different brands of toothpaste in his medicine cabinet. One squeezed from the bottom, one from the middle. Two different brands of shaving cream. Two razors."

Skinner was quiet a long time, trying to think over every angle. Doggett was definitely trying to get him to admit to being Mulder's lover. That fact was true, and Skinner wasn't exactly ashamed of it, but the fact also remained that it was dangerous for both Mulder and Skinner. If he lost his job at the Bureau, how was he going to go look for Mulder? What resources would he have? He spent a nervous moment regretting that they hadn't been more careful, more circumspect.

Doggett seemed uncomfortable finally at Skinner's silence. He shifted in his plastic hospital chair, trying to find a good position on the molded, orange plastic. "Look," he said. "Been common knowledge for a long time that Mulder's as queer as a three dollar bill. I don't care. Live and let live, I say. I'm just trying to find Mulder and I don't want to waste time tracking down a guy who wears size 18 neck, pinpoint oxford shirts. Not if the guy might be right under my nose. I'm thinking it's probably someone Mulder works with, but I also figure it ain't OPR's business who Mulder sleeps with either. So, you know who this guy is?"

He decided to trust the man. He seemed worthy of it. For so long, Skinner hadn't trusted anyone. But he wanted to trust that this agent truly was on the side of the good, and that furthermore, he'd be good to his word and that he wouldn't be turning Skinner in. He was afraid his instincts for who could be trusted were rusty from disuse, but he decided to do it anyway.

"I'm not admitting to anything," Skinner said, cautiously. "But, yes, I know who those shirts belong to."


"It is someone who works at the Bureau. Someone who has already given a statement and shared everything he knows about Mulder's disappearance."

"Good enough," Doggett said. "I have just one more question for you. I'm just wondering why, at a time like this, Agent Scully might take time off and seem to head off on vacation. Where's she headed?"

"Agent Doggett," Skinner tried, not quite for withering, because he knew he'd never make it, but for impersonally authoritative at least. It was difficult to maintain, flat on his back. Especially flat on his back, feeling like the effort to sit up just wouldn't be worth it at the moment. It was one thing to trust this agent. It was another thing all together to give him information that no doubt would have the whole Seattle field office swarming down on the lead Scully was following. Knowing what he knew, Skinner thought it was the better part of valor to let Scully and the three stooges take care of this one. "What Agent Scully chooses to do with her time is up to her. She did not disclose any of her plans to me and I wouldn't expect her to."

"You're covering for her. She's out following a lead. She might have some idea where this Krycek guy mighta taken Mulder. You know, considerin' all you told me about this guy, I'm thinking it's a pretty damn fool thing for her to do, taking off after him without backup."

Oh, thought Skinner. She has backup. Three surprisingly valiant, intelligent men who've risked their all for her and Mulder many times before.

"I don't know where Scully has gone," Skinner insisted again.

"Right," Doggett said, rising to his feet. "Well, sir, I'll do my best to find him for you, even if you're going treat me like a mushroom."

Skinner puzzled at that one for a bit, until he remembered the rest of the phrase. Keep me in the dark and feed me bullshit.

He felt regretful that he didn't extend the full measure of trust that he felt he might be capable of giving to Doggett. If only he could trust the man not to respond in a way that had SOP, FBI, stamped all over it. Ironically, it was the upright, play by the rules attitude that made Skinner trust the guy, but the same attitude made him refrain from passing on the information.

Mulder was balking again. He and Krycek were hiking through the damp Oregon woods. Krycek had gotten Mulder low top sneakers and as he sank ankle deep in cold mud again and again, he'd stop to curse Krycek roundly. Krycek, of course, the bastard, had a pair of black motorcycle boots on. Not the usual kind of hiking gear, but certainly he fared much better in the mud than Mulder did.

And despite that injection that Krycek had given him, and then repeated several times in the two days since he'd taken Mulder from the hospital, Mulder kept hearing the susurrus of mental noise. Only parts of it seemed immensely cold and alien to him, like listening to a swarm of insects, only more so. It made him shiver even more than mud down his shoes.

"C'mon, Mulder, we've got to get going. We're nearly there."

"Where the hell are we going? You know everytime we head off into one of these ventures of yours, I end up holding the bag, and you end up with the goods."

"Not all the time, Mulder," Krycek said, darkly. Mulder suddenly thought of Tunguska. Mulder hadn't exactly been in the cream after that, but Krycek had come out decidedly on the short end of the stick. "Just get a move on."

"Fuck you," Mulder said, planting his feet firmly as he could in the current patch of mud. He felt as if his legs were going to turn to the consistency of that mud any minute now.

"Press of a button, Mulder," Krycek said. "Your boyfriend's life. In my hands. Of course, if you don't care."

Krycek made as if he were rummaging in the pocket of his leather jacket for the handheld computer.

"You can't. Don't you have to be right there? Otherwise, why would you have come to the hospital?"

"Oh, sure. With the beta version," Krycek said, with a shark-like grin. He pulled out the palm computer. "It's amazing how fast wireless technology has advanced. If I'm in cell phone range, well, poor Walter is putty in my hands."

With an enraged howl, Mulder attempted to launch himself at Krycek. But as weak as Mulder was and tired, he must have telegraphed his every move. Krycek sidestepped with no effort and Mulder plunged face forward into the mud. It was cold. The cold, Mulder decided, was definitely worse than the humiliation. Krycek just tucked the palm computer into his jacket pocket again. Then he leaned over Mulder and pulled him up by the scruff of his neck.

"No more games, Mulder. I'm sick of putting up with your crap. We're almost there. I'm about to give you everything you've ever dreamed about. We'd better get a move on. It's getting dark."

They wandered around the woods for several more hours, as the eerie twilight darkened and deepened. Finally light disappeared all together, leaving them in near perfect darkness. "I'm beginning to think this is some kind of snipe hunt," Mulder complained. The buzzing in his head, the swarm, as he'd started to think of it, had grown stronger and stronger all the time and he felt like he was about to fall down on his face again. He plodded, one foot after the other, following Krycek at this point more because Krycek was something that wasn't woods than fear that Krycek would and could make good on his threat to set off the nanos from this distance.

Then Krycek disappeared. Everything did. He was caught in a column of pure light. The peace he felt was suddenly overwhelming. He walked over to join the others who were waiting. Yes, this was meant to happen.

Ore-fucking-gon. That's where Agent Scully had gone. It'd taken every single one of his built up favors with the secretarial crowd to get the information. Doggett had gone to them as soon as it was clear that Skinner wasn't about to spill the info. Everyone knew, if you really wanted to know what went on in an organization, ask the secretaries. Even the FBI was no exception. Skinner's personal assistant Kim was known to be a woman of much prepossession and discretion. But everyone talks to someone and apparently, she'd let slip where Scully was going to what could only be called an unnamed, but generally reliable source. The gossip vine had thoroughly stripped the source of the info, but it had wended its way right to him.

So, he'd gathered a small team, no more than three other agents, called ahead to the field office and took off for Oregon. He hated fucking Oregon all the other times he'd been there. This time was proving to be no exception. They'd landed in the rain. All the rental car company had available was a Neon, so he and the other agents all had to fold themselves into the compact car and drive off to Bellefluer in that. The roads were slick and they lost time, slowed down by an SUV who thought it could tangle with a logging truck and lost. Messily. There were delays both way, with logs having rolled across the median and onto all but one lane of traffic. The local PD seemed to have it in hand, but these kind of big accidents always took time to clear. Doggett winced when he saw the vehicles. The SUV had flipped and the passenger compartment was completely crushed. A bad omen, he thought, then wondered where the heck that thought came from. No such thing as omens.

At least once he cleared the accident and made it to Bellefleur, he had better luck. He spotted Scully right away.

When he'd found out where Scully was going, he'd first asked for permission to look at these so called X-files that Mr and Mrs Spooky investigated. They'd been to Bellefleur before. It was site for those supposed alien abductions. What a load of crap.

So, he spotted Scully right away, getting into her rental car, walking out of one of the local residences. Dollars to doughnuts the woman wasn't here on vacation or to visit old pals. He kept a low profile, but he followed her as she drove out of town, heading for the woods. When she stopped her car and got out, he parked his rental down the road just a bit. He directed his team to spread out through the woods, he himself would tail Scully. It had gotten dark by then. Not much moon on a night like this and the deeper they went into the trees, the thicker the darkness was. He wished he dared get out his flashlight, but he didn't want to be seen by Scully. She, at least, had hers out, casting a bright beam, that unfortunately seemed to emphasize how pitch black it was, rather than illuminate.

How the heck, he wondered as they tramped through the trees, did he end up with the short end of this stick? Stalking a fellow agent on her personal leave time? Chasing after someone so paranoid that she wouldn't even share her leads with investigation that was supposed to find her partner? And it was bad enough that Mr. and Mrs. Spooky were so paranoid, but he'd been really surprised to find it in AD Skinner. Who, Doggett thought wryly, should be the one called Mrs. Spooky. Keep that one close to my chest. I'd have expected it out of Mulder, but not the AD.

Before long, he heard not one, but two voices cry out simultaneously. "Mulder!" they both called. Then the whole sky lit up with a godawful bright light for a moment. Doggett looked up and saw what his mind could only describe as a UFO- a big, ominous metallic object hanging in the air in exactly the way that objects that big and solid shouldn't. What the hell? He froze, knowing what he was seeing. Knowing that there was no way it could be what his mind was telling him it was. Then the UFO rose precipitously, so amazingly fast. There was no way a craft using current technology could do that. Suddenly, it was gone, flying so fast it was out of sight before he could hardly register that it was moving. Then Scully called out again with such desperation and pain that he forgot himself. He ran to the sound of her voice, his natural instinct to help the damsel in distress taking over.

Jenn sat at her usual table at Capitol Brew. Not one of her usual sweet mocha drinks in front of her, but plain, black Italian roast- thick, strong, brain fuel. Seeming to sense important thinking going on, the usually friendly, chatty server kept a certain distance.

Krycek, it could be said, was a bad seed from the beginning. From the first time he met Mulder and Scully, he'd already been corrupted. No, not even that. He'd been recruited by certain men who thought they'd acquired a tame panther. Krycek had been in it from the very beginning for anything he could get out of it. To use a modern metaphor, he played for Team Krycek, and Team Krycek only. He was a bad boy.

And one thing Jenn had seen over and over again. Women never learned. You couldn't change a bad boy. You couldn't tame him. She'd seen woman after woman waste their wishes on some stupid man. No, you couldn't tame them.

But they could tame themselves. They could want to change. Bad boys could grow up and become good men.

But how?

For a genie, travelling back in time was no more difficult than anywhere else. Perhaps some day, Scully's science would find the reason and truth behind the magic. Something about how the genie influenced the quantum nature of the universe, bending uncertainty principles to the will. Quarks, mesons, all of that, dancing to the genie's wishes. In the meantime, all Jenn knew was all she had to do was wish for something and it was so.

She was back where Alex Krycek had first intersected with her favorite agent. The lonely halls of the Hoover. Lunch time. Most of the agents had gone out to lunch already. Those so dedicated as to skip lunch were tied to their desks, buried deep in whatever they were working on. Yes, at this time, Mulder wasn't on the X-files, Scully was separated from him. They didn't even talk hardly. Mulder said it was too dangerous to Scully, but that wasn't it entirely. He didn't have his basement office any more, but a cubicle up here with all the other agents. He wasn't at his desk at the moment, but someone else was.

Jenn watched as Scully wandered through the offices. She'd been here on official business and been on her way back to the elevators, which would take her down to the street and back on her way to Quantico where she'd been teaching at the moment. Jenn watched. You could almost see Scully wax nostalgic about the basement office as her finger hovered over the elevator call button. Oh, this would take just a little nudge in the right direction, Jenn decided.

Suddenly, Scully's hand moved away from the elevator as an impulse struck her. Not one to go with sudden flights of fancy usually, she decided to go with this one. It couldn't hurt to ask, could it? She made her way back through the maze of innocuous beige dividers and coworkers to where she knew Mulder had his office these days. Scully paused to gather herself against the impending coldness she expected from Mulder, who'd impassively tell her, no doubt, that even a lunch date between two former partners was far too dangerous. The man was paranoid, Scully thought. Even considering what they'd been through.

The person in the cubicle wasn't the one she was expecting. No, instead of her Mulder, she was confronted with that green agent that Mulder had been working with. What was his name? He was in a bad suit and his hair was slicked with some kind of gel that made it look greasy. Scully almost startled.

Oh, this will never do, Jenn thought. Scully was definitely getting the kind of impression that Jenn had wanted to avoid. A bit of working her will on the universe and things were much better. Just the small details. One wink and the suit, while no Brooks Brothers, nothing Agent Mulder would suffer to wear, had always been a better suit. So were all the other's in the man's closet. Say, a five hundred dollar suit, rather than the hundred dollar suit it had been. And that morning, due to Jenn's wishes, Agent Krycek had neglected to slick his hair back with gel. It sort of fell agreeably onto his forehead. Yes, much better. Another bit of wishing and the pair hadn't yet met. Scully had gotten sick, sick as a dog, from an unexpected stomach flu. She hadn't been able to do the autopsy and Mulder had reluctantly found someone else.

The universe smoothed over as if it had never been altered. It was like a big vat of water, in some ways. It flowed back into place, no matter how big the alteration, leaving nothing but a seamless, flawless surface, once the disturbance was over.

Scully startled. Then she got a better look at the agent. Kind of green, but definitely on the good looking side. "Oh, I'm sorry. I was looking for Agent Mulder. I must have stepped into the wrong cube or something."

Now, for the crucial part. Krycek. He was smooth, that one. You couldn't tell that underneath that poker face, he was making calculations again and again, playing and replaying for every advantage. He started to smile, though Jenn was reminded more of sharks, or politicians. She'd been owned by enough politicians over the years, Nixon and Mussolini only the most prominent of them. She hated politicians. Uh-uh, Alex. Time for you to start thinking like a red-blooded, healthy young man. You don't remember that she's Agent Mulder's partner. You don't remember the plans that the Consortium have been talking about for her. None of that. The only thing you know about Miss Dana Scully at this moment is that she's, how did the American's say it? Yes, that she's hot. And you like her. A lot. That you'd like to get to know her better.

Alex's smile seemed to melt into a more genuine one. Scully caught the green eyes drifting southward for a few seconds. She also caught him taking hold of himself and forcing his eyes upwards to meet hers. He had very bright green eyes, she thought. Very unusual. He was kind of handsome, wasn't he?

"Oh, no. This is Agent Mulder's office. I was just dropping this off for him. He's out. I'm not sure when he'll be back," the green agent said. He held out his hand and Scully shook it. The handshake was firm, but not crushing, and definitely he wasn't holding back because she was a woman. She appreciated that. "Alex Krycek. Can I help you with something?"

"No, I was just hoping to see him," she said. "Are you his new partner?"

Krycek snorted wryly, then said, "Hardly. We just worked a case together. He put up with me because I filed the 302 first. Even so, he kept ditching me like a bad date. He'd asked to see a copy of my report." Krycek indicated the sheathe of papers he'd put on Mulder's desk. "Are you his former partner? The infamous Agent Scully, right? Mulder's said a lot of things about you."

Jenn snapped her fingers, and suddenly, Scully's interest in the young man surged from tepid to hot. Cupid has nothing on me, Jenn decided. Scully raised an eyebrow and gave Krycek one more shrewd, discerning look. Definitely better than that last guy she dated. "All good, I hope," Scully said.

"The guy seems to worship the ground you walk on," Krycek said. It seemed to Scully suddenly from the looks this Krycek fellow was giving her, that given the chance, he'd like to be doing some worshipping of his own. She liked the thought of that. Sure, Mulder adored her, trusted her. He probably even loved her in a way. But she was also sure he was gay. Alex here seemed like a heterosexual, beyond a doubt. Go for it, she told herself. Go for him.

"I've changed my mind," Scully said, decisively. "You can help me."

"You name it," Krycek said.

"I came here hoping I could convince Agent Mulder to take me out to lunch."

"And you think I've got any pull with him? Not likely."

Scully smiled and her whole face lit up. Her red tresses bounced a little as she shook her head no. She was really pretty, Jenn thought. Her skin perfectly flawless, her bone structure fine and pointed intelligence danced in those blue eyes. Yes, Jenn thought, look at her Alex. This is the one. Fall for her. Fall hard.

"No, I was hoping you would take me to lunch instead," Scully said.

"I'd be honored," Krycek said.

As they gathered their things and left, neither of them noticed the dark haired woman watching them, following them, not quite able to contain a little bounce in her step. No one saw her unless she wanted to be seen.

He finally laid back against the pillow having spent himself. He was normally careful not to actually come inside of Dana, in addition to wearing a condom, and her being on the pill. Just to make it even less likely that something would happen. But this time, just as he was thinking of pulling out, she did some diabolical, rhythmic internal squeezing and he'd lost it right then. Dana kind of giggled. Who'd have thought, Miss Dana Scully, giggling. She rolled herself off top of him. He grabbed the bottom of the condom carefully so nothing would spill. Then he went to skin it off him.

"Oh, fuck!" he couldn't help but say as he got a good look at it.

Dana had buried herself in the blanket, luxuriating the feeling of being well-loved and well-fucked. "We just did," she said, her voice a near purr. Once one got underneath the cool, collected exterior, one discovered in Dana Scully a wild woman. She excited Alex in a way that no one ever had before. She ruled his every thought, waking, sleeping. He loved her, he thought. And that was a very scary thing indeed for a man in his position, knowing what he knew about what the forces that be wanted to do to her. He'd stop them. Somehow. Still, the responsibility weighed heavily in his stomach, even as the rest of him seemed to take flight around her.

"Dana, um," Krycek began, struck almost speechless for the first time. "The, uh, condom broke."

"That's okay, I'm on the pill," she said, nonchalantly. Some things about her were so much a breezily modern girl. And yet others were still so much like a Catholic school girl. "Oh. Fudge," she said after a minute.


"I'm on those antibiotics. That can affect the effectiveness of the pill," she said, the hint of panic creeping into her voice. She'd gotten a cut on her arm that, despite the precautions she took, had gotten infected. She was nearly through with her course of antibiotics and the cut was healing beautifully.

Then she composed herself. "The chances of conception, even given no protection at all, in an average month are still fairly low. I'm not going to panic. People try for months and months, even years to get pregnant. Our chances of something happening from just this once are very low."

Well, if the doctor said it, and she must know about these things, then he wasn't going to panic either. He disposed of what was left of the condom without comment, then settled back into Dana's bed. She rolled over onto her side and he snuggled into her, relishing how delicate and small she felt against his body. She was a little flower. A delicate little flower armed with a Glock. And not afraid to use it.

She jumped upright after a moment. "Of course!" she said. "I don't know why I didn't think of this sooner."

She hopped out of bed and went into her bathroom. The light went on and Alex could hear the sounds of rummaging. After a while, she came out bearing a couple of boxes that she dropped on the bed. "The last of my stash. I haven't needed them for a while, until you. But I'd say, you're definitely Spongeworthy."

He looked at the boxes and cocked an eyebrow at her, a habit of hers that had been distressingly easy to pick up.

"Just until my next cycle of pills," she said. "Just a little extra peace of mind."

Yes, a little extra peace of mind. Something they could all use. He was walking on an extremely thin line here with her and he knew it. The possible repercussions were the sort of things that made one freeze at one's core, wake up in the middle of the night, cold dark dread filling one's soul. Dread, Krycek had discovered for the first time, was cold and dark and dry, like the Tunisian desert at night in the winter. For the first time, he had something that would strike him to the core, should he lose it. It was a sobering thought. No, more than sobering. This feeling was to sober what being falling down, long past vomiting, piss your pants, on a weeklong bender drunk was to being merely a few over the limit.

If this is what falling in love is, Krycek thought as Scully's deliciously soft hair brushed up against his face while she snuggled deeper into his shoulder, then I'm never going to do it again.

He'd put off his report to Spender as long as he could get away with it. But, as could be expected, the day came where he had to pay the piper. He was summoned in the usual way. Spender just appeared in his car, waiting for him. Krycek was on his way home from the Bureau for the evening. He was going to meet Dana as soon as she through with some autopsy she was doing.

"Why, hello, Alex. So good to see you. At long last," Spender said. Normally Krycek hated the smooth and oily voice. Today, it caused shivers of revulsion to shimmy up and down his spine. If the cause was so good, if they truly were saving America and even the world, then why were the means so reprehensible and those who set those means into motion so repulsive? Why was it people like Spender and that snake Bill Mulder at the helm, and not people like Fox Mulder?

"You've been avoiding me, Alex," Spender said. "The committee isn't happy. It's time for your report."

"It's not ready. There are more factors involved here than you told me about. I need more time to analyze them before I can recommend a course of action."

"You report today. As soon as we get there. Drive."

Alex clenched his jaw, but he started the car. Spender lit another cigarette. Alex nearly choked, as usual, on the sudden, thick smoke that filled the car interior. It wasn't even good, clean, nice smelling smoke, like from a campfire. No, cigarette smoke was stale from the very first exhale. For the first time, he dared to reach over to the control panel and lower all the windows. Spender frown as the wind whipped around the compartment, blowing the smoke away and disturbing Spender's hair.

"I'm allergic," Krycek said, concentrating on driving and wondering idly if he'd be able to reach his gun before Spender reacted, and if they go through a stretch of country isolated enough for him to shoot the bastard and dump him. And how he'd escape his death warrant if he did just that.

No, that didn't happen. Spender directed him to a suburb on the far side of the city. Once there, they parked near an almost anonymous office tower of the type that littered suburbia. Ten stories, glass and concrete, no sign indicating a company, part of it for rent. It could have been anywhere. They went up together, into a generically luxurious office. Krycek was shepherded into a conference room with a big, plate glass window that looked out over miles and miles of office parks, strip malls, parking lots and expressways.

Three men were waiting for him and Spender. Krycek recognized them as Spender's major domos, men under him, not anyone above him or his equal.

"Perhaps you'd care to enlighten us, Alex, as to these further factors that need such careful analysis that you've put off your report for nearly a month."

"Well," Krycek began. He had a bundle of papers in his brief case that were meant to be the start of his report to these men. He'd foundered, struggled again and again, trying to come up with some justification, some reason for them to leave Scully alone. Some way he could convince them that she was toothless enough to be no threat.

"First of all, I'm struggling here because I fail to see that either Mulder or Scully are as dangerous or as much of a problem that you've led me to believe. Not only doesn't Dana Scully not have any idea of what the truth is, she doesn't want to see it. She doesn't want to look. She refuses to believe."

Part of this was true. Part of it was an outright lie.

"Keep her at Quantico. Keep her busy with conventional cases, simple murders, the like, and she will be happy enough to never nose into our business."

"That's your carefully considered opinion?" asked one of Spender's henchmen. This one was a big, dangerous looking black man that put Krycek in mind of nothing so much as a silverback gorilla.

"It is. I've had ample opportunity to observe her. She would be a formidable problem, if only, like Mulder, she wanted to believe."

"And what of Mulder?" asked Spender. "You say he's not as much of a problem as we've led you to believe. Perhaps you can explain your perception."

"He knows nothing. He has a few bits and pieces. Nothing of significance as far as I can tell from his files. He doesn't have enough to even begin to put them together. The problem here is not Mulder. The problem is that Mulder has a source again. There's a leak from our side. I need more time to find who this leak is. Find the leak, plug it, and Mulder is left wandering around in the dark again, a blind man in a dark room, looking for a black cat that isn't there."

"All right, then, Alex," Spender said, blowing out a cumulonimbus of smoke. "Go find your leak. And plug it. Let me know when you have a plumbing bill for me."

And then they all filed out, leaving him alone in the conference room. The big silverback stared at him as they left, but he was soon alone, left to show himself out apparently.

His phone chirped. He startled, so still on his adrenaline high from lying so bald facedly to such deadly men.

"Krycek," he answered, expecting it to be Mulder, who, now that they were more or less partners, expected Alex to be his bitch and run his little errands day and night.

"Alex, where are you?"

It was Scully. Alex might have been a new initiate into the mystery of things female, but he could tell this much, whatever was causing that catch in Scully's voice and that roughness, it wasn't good. Yes, she'd probably been crying already.

"I had an errand to run," he lied. "I'm on my way to meet you now. I'm in, uh, Tyson's Corner."

He had guessed. Wherever he actually was, that was close enough. It was the right direction.

"You have to come home now, Alex," she said, and he could tell that she was crying again.

"I can't talk now, sweetie, it's not a good time. But I'm on my way. I promise," he said. He'd already left the conference room and he was on his way back to the elevator.

"Look, I'm about to get into an elevator," he said. "The phone is probably going to cut off. But I'm on my way. Whatever's wrong, I'll be there soon. We'll make it okay. All right, sweetie?"

He didn't hear her answer. The elevator doors had shut, enclosing him into the steel capsule. He shut his phone down and hurried back to his car. All the way, he was picturing various emergencies. Fox Mulder dead. Fox Mulder in some trouble. Because for all that she seemed to love Alex, Fox Mulder was ever present on her mind.

Alex was not, therefore, prepared to pull up in front of Scully's Georgetown apartment and as soon as he got out of his car, to be confronted with a full-on furious Mulder, something he'd seen but never been on a collision course with before. He hadn't even gone two steps when he was grabbed by the collar and thrown against the hood of his car.

"You goddamn, lousy, son of a bitch," Mulder yelled, drawing back in preparation to take a good swing.

Enough was enough. Whatever he'd done to piss Mulder off so much, Alex wasn't going to take the abuse. He was much quicker than Mulder and he ducked. Mulder presented a perfect opening, his stomach unguarded and vulnerable. One quick punch to the gut and Mulder would be out on the pavement. Usually, he preferred not to fight, but when he did, Alex fought for keeps. Luckily for Mulder though, Scully was right there. She pulled Mulder away from him and started yelling.

"Go home, Mulder!" she yelled. "I told you, this is between him and me. Didn't I tell you to go home?"

Krycek was almost sorry for Mulder. To be on the receiving end of Scully's fury was something that was always ferverishly to be avoided.

She continued. "Last time I checked, Mulder, I am an adult. And this is my conversation to be having with him. If you continue brawling in the street like this, I will call the police."

The pair of them sprang apart and Mulder lifted his hands and stared at them, as if surprised by the violence he'd been intending to commit.

"I'll call you in the morning," Mulder said, then he shook his head as if he still didn't understand something. "And you," he said, pointing to Krycek. "Will do right by her."

With that, Mulder stalked off.

It wasn't that far from Georgetown to a little bar that Mulder knew not too far from the Hoover. Even on foot, it was a fairly quick trip, fueled by righteous indignation and anger.

You know, Mulder, he told himself. If that whole Christian God we pay for our sins thing is true, you're going to have a pretty large balance in your wrath account that you're going to have to pony up in repentance.

Actually, that was the confusing thing. The sudden, unthinking anger he felt towards Krycek, almost as if it were displaced somehow. Scully was right. This was between her and Krycek. And he didn't have any claim on Scully. He couldn't. Not of that kind.

Ah. Yeah. The bar, he thought as he came to its door. It was about a block from the Hoover and blessedly, therefore, free of other fibbies. They all seemed to avoid it for some reason. His theory was that they didn't come because they didn't want to run into people from work. That meant it was all his.

It was the sort of generic yuppie sports bar you saw all over, the walls decorated with a mix of sports pennants and jerseys and antique junk. The bar was polished dark wood and as he settled onto a stool at it, he tried to decided between hard liquor or beer. A quicker drunk or a slower drunk? Both would leave him regretful and hungover in the morning. There was a reason he hardly ever drank, but this evening seemed to call for it.

The barmaid was perky and blond. She looked far too young to be legally serving alcohol. She was new here. "Howdy!" she said with a smile that actually caused dimples to appear in her cheeks. The perky extended not just to her breasts, but to her voice. Another young innocent, not yet beat down by the world. "What can I get for you?"

Suddenly it became a hard liquor kind of night immediately. "Snakebite," Mulder said.

"Okay. But you know what they say, 'One tequila, two tequila, three tequila, floor,'" she said as she began expertly setting up the shot, getting out the lime and salt. She indicated the four or so bottles of tequila on the top shelf. "Any preference on the tequila?"

He shook his head. That was part of the problem with yuppie bars. They actually expected you to enjoy the getting drunk process, to have an opinion about obscure tastes in something that was mostly a burn down the throat. The taste, as far as Mulder was concerned, was merely incidental to the getting drunk process. "Uh-uh. House brand. Your cheapest."

By his third one, she seemed inclined to ask for his car keys. "I didn't drive here," he promised. At least he hadn't started babbling about his work. He had a vague impression of himself drunk, in a similar bar, spouting off about chasing little green men with a badge and gun, but he couldn't remember whether that was a memory of something he'd done or whether it was just something he feared himself doing some day. His memory seemed muddled, confused. Nothing was quite as it should be.

He was about to call for his fourth, when a large body settled itself on the stool next to his. A large, familiar presence. Fuck. This was exactly the last person in the world Mulder wanted to be caught drunk and maudlin by. Because he knew that he would say something that they both would regret and that would no doubt cost him the job that he was hanging onto by the skin of his teeth anyway.

"Agent Mulder," Skinner said, nodding towards the perky bartender. She tore herself away from some conversation with a group of jerks in ties.

"Well, hello, big, bald and beautiful! What can I get for you?" she said, downright sparkling at the newcomer. Mulder expected Skinner to sit up and take notice, to straighten his spine and posture a little. It was the standard response of a man confronted with a pretty girl sending off interested signals, even if it was a situation like this, where the signals were sent only to encourage bigger tips. When she'd been pouring earlier, Mulder had noticed a dent in her ring finger. Her perkiness was married or at least engaged.

Skinner still remained slouched on his stool, the only time Mulder had seen the big man slouch. "Scotch," he said. "A double." When she seemed inclined to ask which of the single malts on the top shelf he wanted, he added, "J and P, if you have it. Anything else but that single malt crap if you don't."

Miss Perky served Skinner and then retreated to the group of suits, glad to be in the company of those who were happy to flirt. She'd set Mulder up with another shot while she'd been at it and that was good enough for him.

"As usual, I'm way ahead of you, sir," Mulder said after the burn from his tequila had gone away.

"And as usual, Mulder, you'll find it doesn't take me long to catch up," Skinner said, downing his own drink. "And that I'm not as far behind as you think."

They waited in silence until they could capture the attention of their barmaid again. When Mulder had another shot of tequila under his belt, about two more than he could handle gracefully, he said, unable to stop the little demon that seemed to own control of his mouth at the moment. "So, what sorrows are you attempting to drown?"

By way of a response, Skinner dug into the pocket of the suit jacket he'd draped over a nearby bar seat. He held a small something cupped in his hand. He dumped this onto the surface of the bar. A gold band, recognizably only one thing- a wedding ring. A man's wedding ring.

"I don't know how. I don't know why. But tonight I got the courage to do something I should have done years ago," Skinner said. "Something I never had the nerve to do."

Mulder indicated with a nod of his head that he was listening and Skinner continued. "I asked Sharon for a divorce. It was wrong of me to keep her like that. To have married her in the first place."

"I didn't know you were married, sir," Mulder said.

"Didn't know? You should have assumed. It's expected, Mulder. For the climb to the top. Single men don't get promoted. A pretty wife is a symbol of all the right things. The ultimate success accessory."

"So the fact I've never climbed to the top of the career ladder at the Bureau has everything to do with the fact I'm single and nothing to do with me chasing little green men and UFOs."

"You're the exception, Agent Mulder, always the exception," Skinner said, motioning to the barmaid that he wanted another. "There won't be pressure on me for a while, thankfully. I'm at an age where divorce is almost expected. Though I've only got a few more years before they realize I didn't get divorced to trade my wife in for a newer, prettier model. But at least I have some breathing room."

"So why did you ask for the divorce," Mulder said, the generous lashings of alcohol he'd laced himself with had removed most, if not all of his better judgment.

It seemed that Skinner had had a similar removal, because he said almost immediately, without hesitation. "Because I'm gay, Agent Mulder, and I'm sick of using such a lovely, beautiful, caring woman as nothing more than a disguise to hide behind. Because I decided tonight that I loved her and cared enough for her to let her go. She cried. I don't think I've ever seen a woman cry so much. But I think she was relieved, too. I hope."

He seemed inclined to go further, but Mulder's phone chirped. He shrugged apologetically, and Skinner nodded. He understood. Almost nothing in their lives was safe from that particular interruption.

Mulder dug his phone out of his pocket and pulled up the antenna. "Mulder," he said into it, as soberly as he could muster. If it was something important, he was screwed, he thought.

"Hey there, Agent Mulder," said the voice on the phone, that strange combination of New York laid heavily over Southern drawl. Ordinarily, Mulder would have been happy to hear that voice. "I just happened to be in town. I was wondering if maybe you'd want to get together. I'm free tonight."

"John," he said, cautiously. "It's not a good time. I'm sorry. Some other time? I'll probably be up to New York again before too much longer. Next weekend probably."

Alex Krycek's buddy in homicide, the one who'd given him the information on the Coles case, had turned out to be a most interesting...acquaintance for Mulder to have made.

"Oh," John said, sounding disappointed. He was a big boy though. He knew the score. He wasn't about to make a fuss. "All right. Some other time then. You got my number."

Mulder hung up, and turned to Skinner, who was trying very, very hard to look like he wasn't listening. That same demon who couldn't shut up earlier took charge of Mulder's mouth again. "Boyfriend of mine. Sort of. He's married. I'm the other woman."

Score one for me, Mulder thought grimly, wondering if he'd just cost himself his job, despite Skinner's earlier confession. He still had the ability to shock Skinner. The man was looking kind of poleaxed. Probably the liquor wasn't helping.

They had another couple more drinks together, mostly in silence before Skinner ventured. "You're not here drowning your sorrow over him, are you? The man on the phone?"

"No. That relationship is going fairly well, as such things go. I don't expect too much from him and he tends not to let me down," Mulder said, shaking his head, unable to do anything but say the truth by this point, in its full untarnished glory. "It's Scully, sir."

He had to clap a hand over his mouth to stop himself from announcing what had happened to her. She was right. It was her news, not his. Hers to share with the world or not. Hers to discuss with the only other person in the world who had a vote in what would happen next. And that person was not Fox Mulder.

"She's going through a life change. Something significant. And it's not something I can be at her side for. I'm not going through it with her."

Somehow, there was a strange juxtaposition of feeling. Part of him knew that it should be this way, her with a man who loved her as intensely as Krycek loved her. He'd been blind to it for a long time, but tonight, his eyes opened, Mulder had seen the fire that burned in Krycek's eyes when he looked at Scully. It was fitting that she should have someone who loved her like that, when Mulder himself couldn't. But part of Mulder felt otherwise. It was like something in him knew what it was like to love her. Like a straight man loves a woman. Like an echo of memory, he could almost feel what it would be to just look at her and have his cock stiffen. Part of him knew that, impossible as it was, he should be with her. That he appreciated her loveliness on a level more than merely intellectually and aesthetically. That in some way, they were soul mates. Then...then reality asserted itself. Fact was, he was gay. He couldn't get it up for her, much less impregnate her. He thought longingly at how Krycek had that mad passion for Scully. No one would ever look at him that way.

Well, he'd caught John in New York making a similar kind of look, sometimes. But John had also not made a single move to leave his wife and anytime Mulder caught him in a longing stare, John suddenly found an excuse to leave quickly. Mulder liked John immensely and had he not been so cautious, he could have let himself feel far more for the intense, masculine cop. In another life, another set of circumstances, they might have been very happy together.

"It's understandable, Agent Mulder," Skinner said. "You're not in love with her. But you do love her."

"With my life, sir. There's nothing I wouldn't do for her."

"Including letting her go gracefully? To this other man? I'm assuming she's found love with another man," Skinner said with exaggerated gentleness.

"I'm going to have to, aren't I?" Mulder said. "I don't see that life has given me any other choice."

Mulder glanced at his watch, suddenly aware that the hour was getting late and that furthermore, he'd settled into this evening's drinking bout with no ballast in his stomach. He was definitely getting to the point where remaining on the stool was doubtful.

Full of Dutch courage like he was, he reached out to his boss in a way he'd never thought he could. "Do you have a place to go for tonight?" he asked, touching Skinner on the forearm. He hoped he sounded solicitous, caring. More likely it was lubricous and slobbery. Skinner didn't seem to take offense.

"I was thinking of sleeping it off on the office couch," Skinner said, after downing what Mulder decided would be his last scotch for the evening.

"Uh-uh," Mulder said shaking his head. "You're coming home with me."

Then he remembered the flaw in his little plan to offer Skinner shelter and succor for the night. No guest room. Hell, no main bedroom. The apartment's sole bedroom was a storage room, not even a bed in there. He'd slept on the sofa ever since he'd moved in to the apartment, after the end of his disastrous relationship with Richard. He'd always meant to get around to getting a bed.

"I, uh, um. All I can offer you is the couch, but it's probably more comfortable than the couch in your office. And there's no early morning cleaning crew in my apartment."

Well, Mulder wasn't quite sure what he would do for himself, but he thought he might have a sleeping bag around somewhere. Or just a pile of blankets on the floor.

Skinner spent a moment tracing a condensation ring on the smooth, dark wood of the bar with his index finger. Then he looked into Mulder's eyes. He seemed a lot more sober than Mulder felt. Well, not only was Skinner a bigger guy, the way he drank, Mulder guessed that he was a much more frequent drinker than Mulder was. Yeah, he probably held his liquor a lot better than Mulder did. That was probably a good thing, because Mulder was thinking that perhaps the floor wasn't such a bad place to be at the moment. Perhaps he could use a bit of support from the big guy.

Skinner shrugged. "You get us a cab, I'll settle the tab."

Mulder tried to protest, tried to hand Skinner a handful of bills for his portion but they were refused. The big guy was nothing if not stubborn.

Outside, the night was surprisingly mild, and if Alexandria were a little closer or if he were a little bit more sober, he might have started walking that way. The breeze seemed almost playful as it rifled through his hair, reminding him of a lover's hands, of John's hands. No, better not think about that, about something that could only be stunted, hidden in the darkness. Better not to let himself care for John.

Meanwhile, Skinner's phone rang. Skinner barked into it, "Skinner here."

Definitely Skinner was less drunk than Mulder. He listened patiently to the other end of the line. "Sharon," he responded finally. "I'm fine. I'm staying with a friend tonight."

He paused. Mulder tried really hard to not be listening.

"Sharon. No. We'll talk about it tomorrow. We've already both said too much that we'll regret," he said, sounding infinitely patient. "I'm sorry. Beyond words. But it's for the better this way."

Skinner listened for a few moments more, then said. "Tomorrow. At five. Jane's office. Yes. I do love you. Goodnight, Sharon."

Skinner folded his phone shut and stuck it back in the pocket of his suit jacket. "She wants me to come home and spend the night. Says that there isn't any reason for me to move out right away."

"Better to make a clean break of it," Mulder said, then suddenly, their cab was there.

The news, for all its pounding, thudding, heart snatching finality, was nothing that Krycek didn't expect somehow.

And for all that it seemed to rip his heart right out of his chest with breathtaking, world-shaking, earthmoving rapidity, part of him was flying. Yes, the ground had suddenly turned to liquid under his feet, but part of him was more ecstatic than he'd ever been.

She was pregnant.

With his child.

And that was the most amazing, frightening, terrible thing he'd ever heard anyone say to him.

Because he could dream his little dreams of a cottage with white fence and roses, in the Ukrainian countryside where he'd spent some of his childhood. With the children playing in the yard and her waiting there for him to come home. He could dream that all he wanted, but he knew that it could never be for the likes of him. He was in so deep that he could only hope to stay afloat, never hope to get out of the morass.

Even if he could smooth talk his way out of his superiors abducting her, turning her over to their experiments, even if he could stop them from using him against her, even if they would allow him to marry her, Krycek knew that he couldn't stop them from taking the child. Or another one.

How? How could he do right by her? Yet, he knew, not just for the sake of their own souls that he would have to.

Mulder told him he had to. And there was a connection between the two of them that he could neither deny nor ignore, that was not of his choosing. Some common thread of fate bound them together. He could feel it in his very bones.

He was frozen. Unable to speak. Scully was calm, but in the way that seemed to indicate that it was an exquisite act of control, that any minute she might lose. Her lovely ivory face was ice at this moment. Ice that would melt at any moment into a river of tears.

And nothing he could do or say would stop it.

No, no, no, Jenn thought, looking in at the two of them. This was not going right at all. People could be so unpredictable at the worst of times.

She looked in the window at the pair of them. Scully curled up on the couch, looking drained. Jenn definitely recognized a woman who had cried all the tears she had. On the other side of the room, in a chair, slack jawed and thunderstruck, sat Alex Krycek. His mind was obviously spinning at hundreds of miles an hour, but, to use a modern way of putting it, the clutch refused to engage and in the end, he was just spinning his wheels. Soon, though, Jenn thought, the clutch would engage, the wheels would bite dirt and he would flee. No, that wasn't how it was supposed to go.

Right. He needed a little push in the right direction. A little encouragement. A little lubrication to the mouth. A simple snap of the fingers and it was so.

It's okay, Alex, Jenn found herself saying outloud. The truth doesn't hurt as much as you think it will. It won't. I promise. You'll have a happy storybook ending. I can give you that sort of thing.

Not knowing why he was doing it, but as a creature of instinct, he just went with it, he was on his feet and across the room. He knelt at Scully's feet, as if worshipping her like the queen that she was.

"That's the most wonderful thing anyone has ever said to me," he said, the first thing either of them had said in five minutes. She looked at him doubtfully. "But Dana. There's something I have to say to you. Something important. I want you to promise me that you will listen before you do anything. Can you do that?"

Scully nodded.

"I am not who I have said I am. I am not Alex Krycek, son of cold war refugees. My name is Valery Ivanovich Chernokov. I was born in Moscow. I was taken from my parents at five and raised in a variety of foster homes all across the country formerly known as the Soviet Union. I even spent a few years in this country, in various Baltic states and in England. I report not just to Mulder and to the FBI hierarchy, but also to a man you know as the smoking man. I know him as C. B. G. Spender, but I have no more reason to believe that is his real name than my name is Alex Krycek.

"I love you more than I can express with mere words, and I would make you my wife in an instant, stay with you. Raise our child. I'd stay home so that you could keep your job. But I'm also scared beyond words. Because there is a struggle going on that you and Mulder have only scratched the surface of. Because those little green men that you and Mulder have been chasing are real. And their agents walk among us. In the halls of the FBI. Everywhere. There is a conspiracy of power that stretches beyond anything that the most paranoid could confabulate."

He should have known. She came from military stock. She was tougher than he'd have ever imagined she would be. All she said at first was, "Do you have proof of this?"

"Solid, hard, incontrovertible evidence," he promised, knowing where and how he could get it.

The woman in her that came from generations of captain's wives, of women who had sent their men off to battle again and again spoke. "Then we will fight them. However we can. And yes."


"Yes. I will marry you. That was a proposal, wasn't it?"

Yes. Yes, it was. Instead of answering her, he just stood up. He scooped her into his arms, marveling at everything- at her compact, delicate strength, at the incredible loveliness of her, at how his fear had seemed to melt, bubble and change into passion. Suddenly, he just knew it would be all right. If he loved her enough, then he couldn't but help have his happy ending.

Once they were back at Mulder's apartment, Mulder showed Skinner to the couch with a flourish. "I'll just go get some more blankets," he said, stumbling towards his storage room. He opened the door up, and oddly, no boxes fell out at him, tumbling off their piles. He turned the lights on and did a double take. If Skinner hadn't been with him, he would have headed back out into the hall to check and make sure he'd gone into the right apartment. As it was, he looked subtly around. And yes, this was definitely his apartment.

Yes, there was the fish tank. The long familiar couch and its necessary corollary- the television. The small Picasso print that was one of the few things he'd taken when he'd left Richard. The coat rack. All familiar.

What he couldn't place though was where the bedroom set waiting for him in the bedroom had come from. No. No, he did remember.

He'd bought the set at a yard sale not long after he'd left Richard. Though Richard had furnished an apartment lavishly for him, part of their little arrangement, Mulder had left almost all of that behind, taking only what fit into a single suitcase. This apartment at Hegal place had seemed so empty. He'd come across the sale on a morning run, just as it was opening. The waterfall front deco style in walnut veneer had appealed to him for some reason and the price had been right. Even so, he'd rarely slept in the bed, preferring the couch and the television. The room was a bit cluttery. Things he had no immediate use or place for tended to get stacked on the floor around the bed, but there it was, ready for use. Made up. He remembered washing the sheets last week, on general principle. He'd had the sudden thought that they'd probably gotten dusty or something so he'd pulled them off and stuck them in his laundry basket with the rest.

As he was contemplating this so strange, yet so familiar bed, he was suddenly embraced from behind. Mulder jumped, startled. He'd almost forgotten Skinner was here. He nearly jumped again at the feel of lips brushing the back of his neck, moving softly towards his ear. Uh, oh. Because he was suddenly aware very much of just how attractive Skinner was, something he'd always very successfully pushed to the back of his brain.

It was hard to find the coordination to do it, but Mulder wriggled out of Skinner's arms. "Walter," he said, as gentle with the big man now as Walter had been with him earlier. "Tomorrow. When the both of us are sober, we will negotiate when and what. But for the moment, you're still married. I have a boyfriend. And both of us are over the legal limit."

Skinner, thankfully, even drunk, was a gentleman. He nodded. He didn't, thankfully, seem to be ashamed. "I didn't expect anything. Just wanted to let you know how I've felt about you for a long time."

Then he retreated to the couch, leaving Mulder to throw himself onto the strange bed, with the sheets that smelled heavily of his laundry detergent, just thankful that room wasn't spinning and he didn't seem likely to be tossing his cookies any time soon. No, indeed, he felt a curious, groundless elation that buoyed him even as he drifted to sleep.

Mulder woke to the unfamiliar feel of sheets tangled around his legs and a feeling something like a jackhammer going off right between his eyebrows. Oh, yeah. There was a reason he didn't drink. He remembered last night fairly clearly, all things considered, and was both relieved and disappointed to find he occupied the double bed by himself.

Outside the window, it was still dark and he checked the time- not quite six. Even though his body protested, it was close enough time to get going that he just dragged himself out of bed anyway.

Grabbing a t-shirt to put on, he listened at the closed door for any signs of Skinner. There were no unseemly noises, so he ventured forth.

There'd been no noise, but Skinner sat upright on the couch, looking at a wallet sized picture. Mulder didn't think the big guy was crying at the moment, but tracks indicated that at some point in the near past, he had been. Mulder was going to say something blandly soothing as he headed into the small kitchen for a glass of water.

But his phone rang. It took him a minute to scramble for his jacket pocket and pull it out.

"Mulder," he practically whimpered into the phone. No, oh, no, he was not graceful to start with in the morning, much less adding this self inflicted agony.

"Listen very carefully, Mulder," Scully said. She sounded manic with the elation of someone up all night. "I need you to do something for me. I don't have long to tell you what to do. I need you to buy plane tickets for me and Agent Krycek. Separate destinations, but I don't care where. For Krycek, I need you to get Skinner to help you file a false 302 for a bogus case at that destination. For me, I've just applied to use up some of that vacation time that I haven't been able to use since I started working with you."

Time ground to a halt for a short minute, then started running forward at triple, four times it's normal rate. He recognized the standard misdirections, something that sometimes worked confusing their tails.

"Scully?" he asked, hardly believing what was going on. "Are you okay? What's going on? Where are you actually going?"

"I can't tell you, Mulder. At least not my immediate destination. But if you want to see me get married, meet me in Vegas sometime next month. I'll get details to you later. Via your usual sources."

Scully? Married? To Krycek?

"You're marrying him?"

"Mulder, don't mess with me," Scully snapped. "Just tell me you'll do these things for me."

"Okay. I'll do it. Did I even hint I wasn't going to do it?" Mulder said. He worried though. It just wasn't like Scully to act impulsively and now she was going on the run with Alex Krycek. And pregnant no less. Just what did they intend to do about that? Being a fugitive wasn't a realistic plan with an infant on the way.

He'd seen that look in her eyes though, the one that mirrored Krycek's. She'd follow that man to the ends of the earth. He could only conclude that even if she wasn't in her right mind, she was still an adult and she at least thought she knew what she was doing.

"Okay, okay," he said. "I'll take care of it. And I'll see you in Vegas next month. Just promise me you'll get married by an Elvis impersonator. If you're doing the Vegas wedding, you may as well go all the way."

"I'll keep that in mind," Scully said. Then her voice turned soft suddenly, almost sad. He had the feeling that had she been standing next to him, she would have reached up and stroked his hair and then given him a brief, delicate kiss on his forehead. "Goodbye, Mulder. I love you."

Why did he suddenly feel as if it really was goodbye forever? That he wouldn't be seeing her in Vegas next month or ever again. "I love you too, Scully," he said. "You tell that man if he so much as breaks one of your nails, I'm going to kick his ass."

Then she was gone. Just gone.

After he put the phone away, Skinner looked up from his photo.

"Sir, I need a favor from you. Or rather, Agents Scully and Krycek need a favor. I need you to file a 302 sending him to Schenectady," Mulder said, then he started explaining. He wasn't sure that Scully had wanted him to let Skinner in on the whole plan, but Mulder needed to tell someone. Not just of the diversion they wanted, of Scully's pregnancy. Of the way his heart was suddenly bereft. And he had always had an unexplainable, unthinking trust of Skinner. It just seemed natural to open up to him.

Skinner listened thoughtfully as Mulder listed his fears, especially the one that Krycek had been in the conspiracy up to his ears. He had no fear that the man had drawn Scully into it, but rather, she'd drawn him out. Only there would be no safety for them, ever. They would constantly be on the run from men who infiltrated everything and everywhere. No place would be safe for them for long. There would be no haven.

"Well, Agent Mulder, we can only assume they know what they're doing, and offer them whatever help we can from a distance," Skinner concluded. "I know that's cold comfort but it's the best we can do."

Awkwardly, they started to get ready for another day at work, doing their best to stay out of each others way. It wasn't so much uncomfortable to have the big guy around, Mulder decided, as just unfamiliar. Skinner started dressing in the same clothes he'd been wearing last night.

Mulder kept offering different things. "Toothbrush?" He offered first, taking one from his stash underneath the vanity.

And then Mulder dug in his closet and when he found what he was looking for, he offered his prize to Skinner triumphantly. "Clean shirt?" he asked, presenting the object, still in dry cleaning bag. "Not up to your usual standard of shirt, but it should come close to fitting you."

Skinner took the offered shirt. It was just a Lands End oxford, but it was white and clean. And only a half size small. "I'm not going to ask why you have a shirt that's a size and a half too big for you in your closet," he said dryly as he started to put the shirt on.

Mulder shrugged. "It belonged to Dennis. He left it one morning and he dumped me before the afternoon was up. I thought for a while he might come back for it but he never did."

Mulder still didn't understand what he'd done to earn Dennis' sudden enmity, but that had been over a year ago and he'd put it behind him. He'd been real hopeful about Dennis sticking around, and Dennis had seemed to love Mulder as much as Mulder had loved him. His theory, at least the one of his more paranoid moments, was that Dennis had been gotten to by the conspiracy, that they'd scared him away some how. Maybe in retribution for the way Mulder had been sticking his nose into too many things they didn't want him to know.

Once Skinner had the shirt on, Mulder offered a handful of his own ties, the plainest ones he had. He figured that anything too distinctive would stand out in people's memories as belonging to him. A tie that was plain enough could belong to anyone.

Skinner inspected them doubtfully, but in the end took a simple foulard in navy that Mulder kept mainly for wearing to funerals.

"Off to work now, I suppose," Mulder said. With plenty of water and a few aspirin, most of his hangover symptoms had faded. He was almost feeling human again. The hot water from his shower and a fresh set of clothes also helped. Funny how just the motions of getting dressed, getting the momentum going could help one feel like they could face the day.

"Could I buy you breakfast?" Skinner asked. "It'd be a working breakfast. I'd like to get some of those details for that 302 hammered out before we go in."

"Fine," said Mulder as he grabbed his topcoat. "Look, if you need someplace to stay, you're welcome to my couch for as long as you need."

Actually, Skinner never moved out. He came back to the apartment that night, and the night after. It just seemed natural, almost, to have him around. He was a considerate houseguest, quiet, helpful. Decorative, too, Mulder couldn't help but think at times. Yes, it was definitely a sight for aesthetic appreciation to come home and see Skinner changed into a sweatshirt, standing at the sink, washing the few dishes they had dirtied.

On the third night, John called. He wanted to get together with Mulder, who was about to say that it still wasn't a good time.

"Look," John interrupted. From the sound of it, he was on a cell phone in a cab. Exotic skirling music that Mulder recognized as Turkish dance music filtered through the background, heard over the sounds of city traffic. John sounded rushed and stressed, almost angry. "I know you're really busy, but I'm going back to New York in the morning and I just wanted to tell you something personally before I go. It won't take too much of your time."

Mulder relented and half an hour later, he'd left Skinner alone in his apartment and was seating himself across a booth from John at the same yuppie bar that he'd met Skinner in a couple of nights before. The barmaid was still Miss Blonde and Perky. Thankfully, their waitress was a little bit more mousy brown and wallflowerish.

Whenever he was apart from John for a while, he forgot just how handsome the man was with those blue, intense eyes that could drill right into a man. John rarely smiled, but when he did, it just lit his whole face up. And despite a wardrobe that was extremely limited by the salary of a New York City detective who also had to support a family, the man looked good in his clothes. They were well chosen and fit him well, made his shoulders look broader than they were, not that Mulder had any complaint about those shoulders. In a way, it was a real shame that it was a relationship that just couldn't go anywhere.

"Thanks for coming," John said. He didn't reach out to touch Mulder, not even a brush of the hand. He was always ultra careful about anything that might be taken the wrong way by people. Talk about closeted, not that Mulder really had much room to talk. Once they were settled with drinks and the pleasantries were out of the way, John started, "I was just thinking. About things. It's been good, you and me. No doubt about that. More than good. It makes me want more. Makes me want to be able to spend the night with you. Wake up by your side in the morning."

Ah, he should have known from the intensity of the phone call. He was being dumped. It hurt far more than he expected, even considering he'd been contemplating doing exactly the same thing. And, no, this was not the 'I'm angry I didn't get to do it first' kind of hurt either.

"My wife is okay with me looking for a bit on the side, so long as I don't bring anything home. But this just isn't fair to her. Or to you. Or to me.

"I'm sorry. I'm just not ready to leave her. We've got a little boy. But I'd have to leave her to be with you the way I'd want to be. I did some serious thinking. I said 'til death do us part to my wife. I think maybe it's time I was a man and started living up to my promises. I'm sorry, Fox. It's nothing to do with you and everything to do with me. I hope we can. Shit, I know this is trite, but I really do hope we can be friends."

"It's okay. I've been expecting this for a while. No hard feelings on my side. And I could always use an friend in the NYPD," Mulder said, keeping his voice light, even as he was inwardly wincing at how much the words had scraped his soul raw. "Next lifetime, then."

"You really believe in that reincarnation crap?" John asked.

"I told you. I believe in all kinds of things you'd laugh at."

"Right," John said, sipping at his beer, sounding relieved and amused. "Little green men. Global conspiracies. Bugs in Gideon bibles."

"So, have you considered applying for the Bureau like I suggested?" Mulder asked. Regardless of any possible romantic entanglements they'd had, this man, currently one of New York's finest, would make an outstanding federal agent, he was sure. Maybe that was what was making it hard- how much he liked the man, how much he respected him.

"I was here for interviews," John said. "Just got my application in. The prospects look good, though Barb isn't too pleased at the thought of moving."

Mulder nearly winced for a moment, at the thought of the cosy domestic life this man must have had with his wife, the closeness that even arguing brought. No wonder he wouldn't give it up and Mulder wouldn't have asked him to. John was a good man and he deserved happiness, wherever it was he decided that was. It occurred to Mulder that there was currently no one who would give a damn if he moved to another state. No one who this move would impact beyond himself. That was a lonely feel. He was envious, for a moment, of the man and his wife and their little boy. And of Scully and Krycek and the child they'd conceived. He was so alone.

Mulder excused himself as soon as he could politely do so, wondering if he'd ever see John again.

Skinner had made himself at home, more or less, spreading out files on the sofa, working intensely on one of them, reading it closely, making notes on a legal pad as he went. He looked up inquiringly at Mulder's entrance. Skinner, Mulder noted, had actually taking to using the wiggly coat rack he'd bought mostly because it appealed to him sculpturally. He'd never wanted to cover up its form with coats. He liked seeing Skinner's there though. It was cosy. Domestic. Like the sight of the man spreading his paperwork out over the living room.

Mulder shrugged his greeting and headed to the kitchen for a soda or something. When Skinner raised an eyebrow, Mulder finally broke down and admitted, "I was just dumped. Easy come, easy go. He's a good man. He decided he wasn't going to cheat on his wife anymore. It's probably for the best."

Maybe Mulder was mistaken, but he thought he saw a fleeting look of satisfaction cross Skinner's face, which was just as rapidly replaced with bland concern. "I'm sorry, Mulder," he said. "Have you had dinner yet? I'm no cook, but calling for delivery is well within my skill set."

Mulder was relieved to be reminded that there was someone in the room who was probably hurting more than he was. Skinner was suffering the break up of a marriage that had lasted nearly two decades, compared with a fling that had lasted just over a month. Yeah, his pain was probably nothing compared to Skinner's. He should cowboy up and do a little caretaking. "You probably depended on your wife to do all the cooking," he said softly. "Time for you to learn then. I'm not much of a cook, but I can handle the basics."

As they worked in the kitchen, assembling sliced cheese and bread into grilled cheese, and heating up soup, Skinner said hesitantly. "I was just realizing earlier. There was so much of me that I never let Sharon know, that I kept hidden to myself. And I was just thinking that in turn, there was so much of her that I couldn't know. I was thinking, how much of what she defined herself by must have been taking care of me, being the perfect wife of a man set on getting to the top of the FBI. I have no idea who she is beyond that."

"To conceal oneself so that others don't see is to risk not seeing those others," Mulder said. "To refuse to open oneself for fear of being hurt, is to risk being alone forever. I know. I..."

He couldn't admit it, that he himself was so closed off that he had isolated himself effectively. Scully, and in a lesser fashion, John had just begun peering into secret windows and cracks in the wall around his heart. But now they were both gone.

As if he were a mind reader, Skinner said, "I know, Mulder. I know."

He abandoned the soup he'd been stirring and came around behind Mulder. He wrapped his arms around Mulder's shoulders. It was strange, to be in the arms of a man so strong, so much bigger than him again. None of his temporary boyfriends since Dennis had come close to that feeling. Even John was just about his same size. It was a good feeling, one he'd like to enjoy on a regular basis.

"Maybe it wouldn't be so bad for the two of us to be alone together," Skinner said.

No, not so bad at all, Mulder thought, settling back against Skinner's comfortable, firm chest. Skinner placed a quick, awkward kiss on his cheek.

A month came and went with no word from Scully about the wedding, but suddenly, one day, a file was shoved underneath his apartment door. At work, Mulder was still on wiretap detail, and only Skinner's constant encouragement kept him on it, kept him from resigning. Every morning before they went their separate ways, Skinner said, "Don't let the bastards grind you down. Prove to them you have more perseverance than that."

This was the first sign that he was still on the conspiracy's list of concerns. In the file was a copy of a newspaper article, from San Diego. The offices of a company named Roush Consulting had just burned down to the ground. Some signs of arson had been found by investigators. Twelve bodies were recovered.

Mulder stood at the door, reading the article. Walter came up and stood behind him. Walter kissed Mulder on the back of the head. They'd been living together for over a month now, though Walter still took the couch at nights. They were living together and sharing small, regular signs of affection, but not sleeping together. Mulder didn't want to start anything until Walter was truly free of his attachment to Sharon. He wasn't sure why it hadn't mattered to him that John was sleeping around on his wife, but it was important that Skinner be free. Perhaps because it was a sense he had that Skinner was playing for keeps. That Walter had a huge reserve of passion that he had never let out of its walls before but that once he did, the river would cover the whole flood plain in one huge wash of emotion, breaking through dams and rearranging the whole topography of their lives.

"Can you think of any reason why I might be interested in the arson of a San Diego consulting firm?"

"No, I can't," Walter said, taking the article that Mulder offered him. "Am I right in guessing that I'd better sign a 302 to send you to San Diego, because you're going anyway."

"I'd say you're right about that much," Mulder said. Well, say what you like about the big guy's long silences, he certainly had started to get to know Mulder well.

And so he'd gone to San Diego and poked around. Incendiaries, he'd been told by the fire department. The place had to have been fire bombed. There were signs of concentrations of heat that could have only been obtained using jet fuel as an accelerant. He'd tried to inquire as to what Roush's business was. He didn't get far. All the employees were gone, or missing without any clues. Defense work, someone in the police department had told him, unable or unwilling to say more. Frustrated, with no more leads, he returned home.

The very next night, another article was slipped under his door. An oil rig in the California desert, just outside of Barstow, had blown sky high. It was still on fire with specialized fire fighters from as far away as Saudi Arabia being called in to help fight it. Before Mulder even got his 302 together to head out to California again, there was another article, this one showing up taped to the top of a pizza box. The pizza was exactly what he and Skinner always ordered, one half everything, one half green peppers and sausage, but neither of them had called for the delivery. This article was about the destruction of what the article called a "small USDA research facility" in Texas.

"Once is coincidence, twice is happenstance," Mulder began.

"The third time is enemy action," Walter finished the quote. "But whose enemy? Do you think we dare eat the pizza? Whoever it is, they're moving fast."

They ended up throwing the pizza out, just to be on the safe side.

Well, this wasn't how I'd expected things would turn out, thought Jenn, as she watched the scene of destruction from the vantage point of on top of a freight car at a rail yard just outside of DC. Scully darted among flaming corpses and the faceless men with their seamed lips and eyes, carrying a cargo of files and computer disks. Alex Krycek watched her back and wielded another one of the fire wands, torching anyone who came near.

When she'd pushed Scully and Krycek together, the last thing she'd expected was that Scully would go on the lam with Krycek, rather than that he would remain in the Bureau with her. But, humans being the contrary lot that they were, Scully and Alex had gone on a spree of destruction. And Jenn knew that for Mulder's sake, Scully had damn well better remain safe. That meant that she had to stay lucky. That all of the chances they took had to work out, that all the risks they took didn't turn into real danger. So, they'd run into "by chance" the alien freedom fighters. And Jenn watched as they rooted the conspiracy out, member by member, facility by facility.

Mulder came back from Texas with a small vial of dead honeybees in his bag and not much else. By the time he'd gotten there, the site had been swept almost clean by faceless government agents with a badge that Mulder didn't recognize. They hadn't let him in even with his credentials, but that hadn't stopped him either. Under the cover of darkness, he'd infiltrated. He found burnt stalks from what looked like corn. The remains of an irrigation system. He'd wondered who in their right mind would be attempting to grow corn in the middle of tumbleweed country, Texas. At last he found something of interest. Bees. Little dead bee bodies scattered all over the place. Something told him that this was what he'd come looking for, so he scooped some up and got out before he attracted attention.

Back in D.C. late on a Tuesday, he went straight home, rather than his usual habit of stopping by the Hoover first to work on his report. The only person he cared to report his findings to was probably at home already. Or at least, he'd better be home by nine in the evening on a Tuesday.

When he opened his door, he heard the reassuring signs of life- the tv going for background noise, the sound of water running in the kitchen sink. The fish were swimming around happily in their tank, and if he wasn't mistaken, someone had just scrubbed the algae from the walls of the tank, maybe even done a water change for him. Walter came out of the kitchen at the sound, still wiping a pan off with a dishtowel. Walt still was a bit iffy in even basic cooking skills, but once started, he took to basic cleaning like a pro.

"Hey, big guy," Mulder said, happy to see the man. He realized that for the first time, he had someone who cared if he was home on time, or if he even came home at all.

"How was Texas?" Skinner asked, finishing up with the pan and draping the towel over his shoulder.

"Clean as a whistle, pretty much. Cleaning crew was just finishing up and I didn't really find a damn thing," Mulder said, dropping his bag. He pulled out the vial of bees. "Except for this. Honeybees. They were all over the place. I'm going to try and find an entomologist to take a look at them, see if there's anything strange about them. Anything else arrive for me while I was gone?"

"Just this box," Skinner said, indicating the box in question.

Mulder set the bees on the hall side table carefully and knelt to examine the package. Plain brown cardboard, about twenty four inches by eighteen by eighteen. The return address was from "Open Mind Enterprises," which was the sort of company name that Mulder recognized from his days of ordering pornography. But he didn't remember ordering anything recently, and anyway, the packages from those kinds of companies were usually much smaller. He opened it cautiously, using a penknife to cut along the tape. Inside, among copious amounts of packing peanuts, was a lamp. It could have been any lamp taken from any house decorated a handful of decades ago, but Mulder recognized it immediately.

"What the hell is somebody doing, sending me a lamp from my parent's summer house?" Mulder asked, standing up with the lamp. He was headed straight for the phone, to call his dad and ask if anyone had broken into the summer house that he knew about. Mulder wasn't normally a clumsy person, which made his tripping over what was apparently nothing all the more strange. He flew face forward onto the floor. The lamp flew out of his hands and crashed with great violence against the wall. It shattered into half a hundred pieces. Mulder crawled to his feet, dazed, wondering how the hell he'd managed to trip over his own feet. As Walter rushed back into the living room to see what had happened, Mulder started picking up the broken remains of the lamp. Amongst the ceramic shards was an unusual object. It was a silvery cylinder, just bigger than a pen. Mulder picked it up and examined it. He touched a spot on it and with a whoosh not quite like anything Mulder had ever heard before, a long, murderous looking point snapped out of the base.

"Whoa!" Mulder said, more than a little surprised. Walter had breathed heavily in surprise as well. Then Mulder rocked back on his heels to get the thing in a bit better light. It was a weapon. That much was obvious, but a weapon like nothing else he'd ever seen before. He thought rapidly. He was obviously meant to find this. Someone had gone to the trouble of breaking into his parent's summer house in Rhode Island to steal the lamp and send it to him. A weapon? Against them? Against the aliens?

"What is it?" Walter asked.

"No idea. A weapon of some kind," Mulder said.

Eventually, Walter drifted back to what he'd been doing in the kitchen. Mulder stared at it a long time, wondering, until his feet started to go numb from his kneeling position and he was forced to get up. Still wondering that the exact purpose of this thing, and why he'd been given it, he put it on the table and went to go keep Walter company in the kitchen. He had the sneaking suspicion that the man might have gone and started cooking dinner without him, and inviting indigestion like that was the last thing he needed on top of a long and puzzling day.

Not long after, Mulder was confronted outside his building by a sandy looking man whose only distinguishing features were his navy uniform and his peevish expression which seemed chronic if not downright terminal.

"Are you Fox Mulder?" the man asked, as if this itself was an accusation.

"Yes," Mulder said, cautiously. Very cautiously. He'd ticked off enough military people in his time. He didn't want to do it again, at least not unnecessarily.

"Then I was wondering if you could tell me what the hell happened to my sister."

Well, Mulder thought, I might be able to if I knew who your sister was. Then he caught a flash of the man's nametag. Scully. So, this was Scully's big brother, one she'd mentioned a few times, but that he'd never met.

"You mean Dana Scully, correct?"

"Yes. Dana Scully. Up until two months ago, she was working with you. Your partner. Then one day, she was just gone. My mother gets brief calls every now and then from her, but she won't say where she is, where she's going. What the hell she thinks she's doing."

"Then I'd have to say you've heard more from her than I have," Mulder said, feeling the sharp pain of separation again. "The way I understand it, she faxed in her resignation letter to the Bureau after a vacation in Hawaii. She didn't say goodbye to me."

Bill Scully didn't come out and say that he didn't believe Mulder, but the look in his eyes certainly said it. He glowered at Mulder. "The instant you hear anything, anything at all, you get in contact with my family."

What could Mulder say to that? That he didn't know for sure, but that he suspected that Scully had gone on a protracted rampage with a man who was probably a former double agent in a conspiracy so well mired in the US government that its very members walked the governments halls of power? That she'd turned into a terrorist? Because what is a terrorist after all but a member of an army of the few using whatever means they had to fight against an army of many.

"Of course," Mulder said. "The instant I hear anything."

He knew he could promise this because, he was sure he'd never hear from Dana Scully again.

He'd put the switchblade ice pick away in a locked drawer. Though he thought about asking his source about it, the mysterious dark man known to him only as X, he didn't ask. Only Walter knew, and Walter kept his counsel. Sometimes, Mulder got it out, looked at it, wondered about its origin, but as always just ended up putting it back in the drawer. He wondered, maybe should he hide it again? Put it back in a lamp? In a lamp, like a genie, the thought crossed his mind.

Suddenly, life was very interesting. The articles still arrived, of course. And when he tried to track them down, always he came up to another dead end. Another razed site. More dead, burned bodies. But always the tantalizing hint of more clues on the horizon.

Then suddenly, he was chasing after identical abortion doctors. They were being offed, in similar ways. Fires, as always, to hide the evidence. But not by militant right to lifers, Mulder was sure. He was in the middle of the trail, when he was called up to Skinner's office.

Strange, how at work, in his mind, it was always Skinner. But then at home, where they were still little more than roommates, it easily, effortlessly slipped back to Walter. Skinner called him up to the office. And by the lock on the man's face, Mulder knew instantly, it wasn't Skinner he was facing, but Walter.

"What's the matter, sir?" Mulder asked.

"You got a call from home. From your father. There's a family emergency. He wants you to call as soon as possible."

Walter sometimes checked their personal message machine from work, just in case there were any new meetings with his attorney, or his soon to be ex wife's attorney that he might have to make. The man was getting downright desparate to get his divorce done and over with.

Mulder hardly waited. He could do little more than nod knowingly at Walter and accept the soft look in the other man's eyes as a kind of comfort. Then he ran off as fast as he could, to go place the call, his imagination racing with thoughts of the worst possible news. His mother dead was his immediate suspicion, the mere thought of that sending his stomach to the top of his throat, leaving a big emptiness behind it.

The call was hurried pounding fingers punching the numbers, panic surging higher by the moment. "Dad?" Mulder asked before anyone could answer. "What's wrong? What happened? Is it mom?"

"No, Fox. But you need to come home. It's your sister."

He agreed to come immediately, once he understood the situation. How could he not? She was back, something that he had hoped for fervently. The miracle he had waited for everyday. And yet, something didn't seem quite right. Mulder looked around him, at the cubicle that he still occupied, the basement still denied to him. He was accountable to none of the agents in the immediate vicinity. Some deft political maneuvering on Walter's part had gotten Mulder not under his jurisdiction again, but under AD Sandra Jackson's control, and she was a good buddy of Walter's and pretty much gave Mulder free reign. And also allowed him a privilege accorded to few, if any field agents- working alone, no partner. Mulder looked up quickly at where he imagined Scully would be if she were there. She wasn't. He was alone in this as he had been alone in so many things for so long.

Mulder grabbed only what was necessary and took off. It'd be a quick drive to Massachusetts. He'd deal with the powers that be and let Walt know what was up from his phone in the car on the way up.

Finally, he was there. The woman who was supposed to be his sister was just that. A woman. Of course, he didn't know why he'd thought she'd still be a girl, but that was the image of her he always carried in his mind, her just as she had been before she was taken from him. Still, that shouldn't account for the churning anxiety he felt, rather than the grateful satisfaction he'd always thought he'd feel at this moment. She talked, and talked, and he was less and less convinced that she really was his sister, even though her cleft chin and strong jaw were so like his own. Something was not right.

And then in the early morning, when his father and mother had finally given in to exhaustion, he had his answer. She came to him as he sat out on the porch, in the cool morning air, watching the sun rise, unable to even contemplate sleep.

"I'm not your sister, Fox," she said.

Even though he was prepared, even though he had been anticipating this moment, it was still a punch in the gut, a walk out into the abyss to suddenly find that the edge of the cliff had crumbled underneath him.

Then the odd crumb of hope she held out to him, that he couldn't help devouring, no matter how parsimonious the portion of truth. "But it might be accurate to say that you are my uncle, in a manner. Your sister is our progenitor. Our..." and Mulder could tell that the next word came unfamiliar and perhaps unbidden to her. "Our mother. We need your help."

The explanation came rapidly, and again, as if it were unbidden. That she was telling him far more of the truth than she ever intended, some outside agency drawing it from her almost. And yet, it was the largest portion of truth he had ever been fed. And like he had known earlier that she was not the genuine object, now he knew this was the truth.

She pushed a stray curl off her forehead, and she finally said, "You have a weapon. Against these hunters that are killing us. There is a way to kill them. A stab to the back of the neck."

He suddenly remembered the odd weapon found in the lamp, tucked away carefully in the desk drawer still.

"You know I have that?" he asked.

"It was sent to you, by certain mutual acquaintances. They are of some help to us, but not at the moment. Not in this thing."

What happened next was so fast, he could hardly credit it's reality. Leaving from his parents with her, going to the clinic where the last of her...sisters could be the only word, were hiding.

During the early evening, he called home, to let Walter know what was up, to let him know that maybe he might want to guard the switchblade ice pick thing in the desk drawer a little more carefully.

As usual, Walter didn't pick up, but the let the machine get it, screening the calls he took at Mulder's place carefully. "Walter? Are you there? Pick up, Walter," Mulder said and was gratified to hear Walter's deep voice rumble, "Fox."

"Things are kind of crazy on this end, Walter," he said. "The woman who claimed to be me my sister. Oh, never mind. It's too complicated."

He heard a poorly concealed gasp from Walter on the other end of the line. "Walter? What is it?"

Then Walter spoke clearly, but not to Mulder. "Hello, Mulder. I didn't expect to see you home so early."

And Mulder said, quietly, but seriously. "That is not me. It is a being that is extremely dangerous and it will not hesitate to kill you. And it can. Walter, there is one defense against it. In the locked desk drawer, the ice pick. One blow with that to exactly the center of the neck. Do you understand me?"

"Clearly. I'll see you tomorrow then, Jane."

Then Walter hung up on him, leaving Mulder to hang, picturing the worst. He hung up his phone and turned to face the woman who might have been his sister, and the five others just like her, all dressed differently, but all the same woman. He had been paying close attention to how they all moved, as if of one mind. How they spoke as if there was one mind divided between them.

"Well, your troubles will either be over soon, or just beginning. He's in my apartment, the man that's killing you," Mulder said. With the man who he very much wanted to take as his lover, who he would regret forever that he never had, should he not get the chance.

"I'm going," Mulder said, not waiting for the opinion of the multiple Samanthas. The original followed him, but the rest remained behind in the cold, lifeless halls of the clinic they called home.

The drive back to DC was heart-rending, turning his mouth dry and sending his heart to beat a tarantella against his rib cage. Yes, he wasn't really alone, was he? This was a sudden, sharp revelation, one that cut him to his core. It mattered very much if Walter wasn't there, alive in his apartment, when he got back. More than any quest for his sister had ever meant.

Before he'd hit the end of Pennsylvania, his phone rang. It was Walter, sounding very shaky, rattled and relieved. Assuming it really was Walter. If this man, this thing, could assume the physical form of a person, then surely he could assume the voice well enough to fool someone for a brief phone call.

"Are you okay, Walter?" Mulder asked.

"Fine. But let's just say that you're going to need a new rug for in front of your sofa," he said. Mulder could imagine Walter shaking his head and clenching his jaw just so. It had to be Walter.

"Screw the rug!" Mulder said. He couldn't even remember it. Like too much of his things, it was just a place holder, something to fill the space, to keep his bare feet from the cold, wood floor, but he couldn't even remember the color. "Are you okay, Walter?"

"That...what happened. I can hardly credit my eyes. I've never seen anything like it in my life," Walter said. Then he gathered himself together, stern Marines discipline making up for what he was currently lacking in confidence. "You shouldn't be talking and driving like that. I'll see you soon. I'll wait up."

No, there was no use trying to talk Walter out of that. He hung up and still drove as fast as he could. Now, he was convinced as if it were bone deep truth that Walter had survived his encounter with the bounty hunter. And Mulder needed to hold the other man in his arms, to make some kind of confession. To admit the panic he had felt at the thought that Walter might not have survived the encounter. The Samantha doppelganger was not convinced.

"I need to see for myself," she said.

Once inside his long familiar building, Mulder started to race for his apartment. At the door, the Samantha clone put a cautionary hand on his. "You don't know for sure. We could be walking into a trap."

"We'll find out soon enough," Mulder said. He dug in his pockets for the keys and before he could get them out, the door opened. Walter was on the other side.

Before either of them could say anything, the Samantha clone reached out and clawed Walter's hand with her fingernails. She made a great big gash on Walter's hand, one deep enough to cause blood to well instantly from the gouge.

At that instant, Mulder was convinced of two things. That Walter was utterly human, and that the clone utterly was not.

Mulder couldn't tell the color of blood that dripped from Walter's hand. He damned his colorblindness for that. But it only dripped. He prepared for the blindness, the clawing pain like the one time he had been exposed to the virus in the aliens' blood. Nothing happened, except that Walter put his hand to his mouth, cursing muffled by it. And the Samantha clone slipped back into the hallway, down to the elevator, and out of his life as if she had never been.

"I'm sorry, Walter," Mulder said, gathering the big man into his arms and hustling him into the apartment proper, then shutting the door behind them. "I'm sorry."

"Who was that woman? Was that your sister? What did she do that for?"

"No, that was not my sister," Mulder said. He found it in him somewhere, perhaps just the strength he drew from being in Walter's very presence, to make a crack. "No, that was just a reasonable facsimile. It was a test. She had to make sure you were human."

What Mulder didn't say yet, but that he would need time to understand fully, was that the clone had been prepared to sacrifice him. That he would have died from the viral exposure most likely, had Walter not been human. Now that her ends had been met, that she was safe, she had no more use for him.

"That I wasn't...something else. Like that thing I killed?" Walter asked.

"Exactly like that," Mulder said. He looked around his place, trying to catalog the exact amount of damage. There wasn't as much as he thought, or Walt had cleaned it up already. The rug was a forgettable brown, and it looked burned, a huge hole in the middle of it. Something was missing. "My coffee table."

"Sorry, it was smashed. I cleared what was left away. I didn't do the rug yet. I thought you needed to see that, though there doesn't seem to be much of anything left on it," Walter said, poking at it with his toe.

Suddenly, Mulder didn't care about the coffee table, or the rug, or whatever other small thing might have been broken. There was one thing and one thing only in this apartment that mattered, something that couldn't be replace had it been harmed. He looked Walter up and down. The man seemed undamaged, other than the gouge from the Samantha clone's nails. He was holding a clean dishrag on that now. But he was wearing an unfamiliar pair of glasses, similar to the pair he usually wore, but not quite the same. It was then that Mulder noticed the bruise, mostly hidden by those glasses, high up on Walter's cheekbone. Mulder lifted his hand up to Walter's face gently and touched the skin near the bruise. "Walter? Were you hurt?"

"I'm fine, Mulder," he said, letting Mulder's hand remain where it was. "My glasses got broken. I had to let that thing get real close before I could..."

Then suddenly Walter was shaking, unable to speak any more. Without thinking much more about it, Mulder took the strange glasses off Walter's face and pressed his lips to Walter's. Walter stumbled backwards, as if burnt. But only for a minute. He took a deep breath, gathering courage, then stepped forward again. The dam burst.

That was the only way to explain it. Suddenly Mulder had arms full of strong, muscular man and demanding lips on his. There was, for the moment, nothing else in his world, other than the overwhelming passion of Walter Skinner. The man's kisses were hard. But lovely. Mulder thought he would remember this moment forever. The moment that the chaste affection they'd been sharing had turned to intense, soul deep lust, in an apartment that had just seen a life and death struggle. The smell, not quite describable, of acrid, burned rug and alien whatever, would etch itself into his memory. So would the feeling as the aching, churning anxiety of the ride here, transformed into desire just as churning. That moan, low and needy, was his own, wasn't it? He was still, stupidly, holding on to Walter's glasses. He set them onto the nearest stable horizontal surface, scrabbling blindly, hoping they'd be safe. They sank to the floor, on their knees, then just as quickly, Walter on top of him, crushing him deliciously to the floor.

Their first orgasm together was a quick, fumbly affair, their pants just barely pushed out of the way, coming just from the friction of dick rubbing against dick. That wasn't as important as the way that Walter held him afterwards, crushed to that broad chest, pushing him away every now and then to look into his eyes. And Mulder knew from the possessiveness he saw in those warm, chocolate brown eyes that no longer were they alone together. That Walter would keep him close forever, never let him go, never let him slip away. After this night, everything would be different and Mulder knew, in ways that shook him to the bottom of his soles, that Walter would follow him to the ends of the earth. Anytime Mulder's eyes were not looking directly at Walter, he could still feel Walter's eyes on him, like fire. Like a brand. After they'd caught their breath, Walter sat up and said, "Bedroom. Now. Do you have..."

"Condoms? Lube? All of that," Mulder said, taking Skinner by the hand and leading him into the bedroom, an action that he had been contemplating for months, wishing for for far longer. They did what Mulder devoutly wished for, hoped for- they made love again and again.

Mulder was, for the first time he could remember, happy. Deliriously, devoutly, astonishingly happy. Aside from Scully's continued absence and some...professional frustrations, everything in his life was going so well it was almost eerie. Walter had turned into a sweet lover who somehow managed to balance attentiveness with being non-possessive. Work somehow never seemed to intersect with their personal life. Nobody at work ever got around to asking why Walter was living with Mulder, if they even knew. Or cared. True, Walter wasn't Mulder's direct supervisor, but it still might have been bad for both their careers, should questions be asked. Mulder learned to just accept gratefully that they weren't. All in all, everything was running as smooth as silk.

Until one night, nine months to the day that Scully ran away with Alex Krycek, he got a call from Frohike.

"Mulder, you'd better get over here now," Frohike said.

Mulder was disinclined to do so. It was early on a late Spring evening, the air warm, sweet smelling even in the city. It was Friday. He'd just gotten back from a field assignment. Walter was going to be home soon. Mulder's plans were along the lines of making a simple dinner, eating it with the windows thrown open for air, a nice romantic walk afterwards. Then sex. No, whatever information the Gunmen had for him, it just couldn't compete with his plans.

"Can it wait 'til tomorrow?" Mulder asked, throwing open the window.

"No. Your ass. Over here, ASAP," Frohike said. Mulder heard in the background something that sounded disturbingly like a baby crying, then the incongruous sounds of the other two Gunmen attempting to make soothing noises. They sounded like clowns, but it sort of worked. The baby's cries reduced in pitch and fury, but they didn't end completely.

"What's with the baby, Frohike?"

"That's what we were hoping you could tell us," Frohike said. He paused, as if for dramatic effect. "According to the documentation we found in her car seat, she's yours."

Okay. Talk about an X-file, but that was just plain ridiculous. "You know, I thought you'd be a little old for me to have to give you the talk on how the birds and bees work. She can't be mine. I've never once had sex with a woman."

"Not once?" Frohike asked, as if Mulder had said that he had just grown a second head.

"Not once," Mulder said. C'mon, it wasn't that unusual. Not everyone felt that they had to experiement with the real thing in order to figure out their orientation. Nope, Mulder had known plenty well, just from looking, that he was gay.

"Never?" Frohike asked.

"Never," Mulder affirmed. The closest he'd come was the night Phoebe Green had nearly gotten her clutches into him. He'd been rescued by Quentin, a friend of Phoebe who'd been nearly, but not quite as cruel and heartless as Phoebe turned out to be.

"You don't know what you're missing, my man," Frohike said. "Anyway, you're not purported to be the natural father of this red headed babe, just that you apparently adopted her, a few days back in North Dakota."

"North Dakota?" Mulder asked, knowing he'd never even been to North Dakota. "What's in North Dakota?"

"Besides missle silos and apparently cheap judges, not much."

"I'm on my way over. Wait, did you say red hair?" Mulder had a sudden suspicion. He'd never seen it himself, of course, but people went on and on about Scully's red hair.

"Frohike..." he said warningly. It couldn't be. And yet, where else could the baby have come from? But if it was true, what kind of drugs had Scully been on to think that the safest choice of places for her and Krycek's baby would be with him?

"We've got surveillance pictures of the person who dropped this sweet little bundle on our doorstop. You'll have to see them for yourself. Mulder, I suggest you get here quickly, before Langly decides he's not giving her up."

"Look who's talking, Doohickey!" Mulder heard someone snap from the background.

"Okay, I'm on my way," he said.

"Good. Oh, and Mulder, stop at the store and get the girl some huggies. Smallest size I think. She's tiny."

He hurriedly scrambled to shut the window and call Walter's cell phone. Walt wasn't picking up, so Mulder left a voicemail message. "Look, Walter, I'm sorry. I'm not going to make it to dinner tonight. I've got to head over to the Casa del Stooges. There appears to be a big new wrinkle in the Krycek disappearance case. I'll tell you more as soon as I know more."

Scully had officially resigned from the Bureau, but Krycek, officially speaking, had just disappeared while on his last case in Schenectady. He was listed as a missing person, and there'd been some effort at first to look for him, but the trail had been cold, mostly because Krycek had never been to Schenectady. Theoretically, should the pair of them emerge someday, both Scully and Krycek could be eligible for reinstatement in the Bureau.

Mulder hurried to Maryland, stopping at the first grocery store he saw to buy diapers. He stared dazedly at the choices before him, the dozens of combinations of size, ones for boys or girls. Anti-leak sides. Reusable tabs. Finally, a kind looking woman picking out her own bundle of diapers took pity on him.

"You a first time daddy?" she asked.

"No, not at all. A friends just asked me if I would stop for some. I didn't realize it would be an ordeal."

"How big is the child?" she asked, kindly. Her own children, three in evidence, were hanging from the side of the cart, and there was a tiny one in a car seat on her cart.

"Newborn. Girl," Mulder said. "Less than a week old, I think."

"There," she said, grabbing a pack off the shelves and handing it to him. "That wasn't so bad, was it?"

"Guess not," Mulder said, grabbing his package and all but running for the checkout. He liked kids. He always had. He'd wondered briefly now and then if there was some way he could manage to have some. Of course, his life and lifestyle hardly seemed to make that a possibility. An FBI agent with a partner who worked equally long hours was hardly the candidate for being a family man. Yet, it seemed, that choice might have been made for him. Because if this baby truly was Scully's, what choice did he have but to honor her choice of him.

Then it occurred to him, for the first time, because he wasn't used yet, to thinking of Walter and himself as a true pair- this would affect Walter as well. It wasn't truly his choice alone, yet what else could he do? Still, the instant he realized this, he was on the phone again, even before he pulled out of the store parking lot.

He dialed the numbers quickly. This time, Walter picked up. "Fox? What's happened?" he asked.

"I just have a quick question for you, Walter. How do you feel about children?"

"In what context?"

"As in, having one of our own."

"If this is where you tell me that due to alien technology, I've somehow managed to knock you up, I'm hanging up on you now, Fox," Walter said, clearly not amused. Mulder suspected it was a tough day at work that was the culprit, rather than anything he'd said thus far.

"No, nothing like that. Do you remember how to get to the Gunmen's place?"


"Then I want you to meet me there. As soon as you can get there."

"Mulder..." Walter said warningly. Mulder was used only when Mulder was about to go over the edge, otherwise it was Agent Mulder at work, or Fox at home. Mulder could picture Walter, settled down on the sofa that was used only for sitting these days, TV on probably, small glass of whiskey maybe, settled in for the night. He should have known better with my message, Mulder thought.

"Walter, trust me. I can't make the decision that I'm going to have to make next without you there. So, anyway, you never did tell me how you feel about children."

Actually, Mulder had an idea of how the man felt. Or at least a working theory. Walter never forgot a birthday of one of his multiple nieces and nephews, always sending at least a card, usually a well picked gift. The fact that a man as busy as Walter took the time to do this himself, rather than asking his personal assistant to take care of it, spoke of affection more than a sense of duty.

"Mulder, in this one thing, do not tease me or yank my chain," Walter said.

"Why do you think I would do that? I asked a serious question."

"Fox, one of the reasons I married Sharon was a hope for children. We didn't conceive....and she refused to go through with fertility treatments. I resigned myself to the inevitable, but I'm warning you, do not dangle this hope in front of my nose then snatch it away," Walter said. Mulder had never before, not even in the fevered hours after their first coupling when they desperately proclaimed their love for each other, heard such low, intense passion from Walter. This was a hunger greater any that he'd let be known before.

"Then you'll want to get over to the Gunmen, as soon as you can," Mulder said.

"I'm already on my way," Walter said, and that was true. As they'd talked, Mulder had heard the background noises of Walter leaving the apartment, heading to the street. Now he heard the slam of a car door. "I'll see you soon."

So, Mulder drove, cautiously and not by the most direct route, wanting the time to muse over his thoughts. When he finally pulled into the industrial area where the Gunmen kept their headquarters. Walter pulled in just afterwards.

Mulder got out of his car and went to Walter, offering his arms and an explanation. "Early this evening, a foundling was delivered to the Gunmen's door. A newborn. There are papers with the newborn claiming that I adopted her last week in North Dakota."

"Agent Scully and Krycek's baby," Walter concluded.

"Possibly. I think their life must be frighteningly dangerous if they think that I would provide a more stable environment for their child, but I feel like its hardly my place to argue with her choice, even if I do think that one of her siblings, Melissa or Bill, would have been a saner choice."


"Yes, Walter."

"Shut up," Walter said as they stepped up to the Gunmen's door. After the requisite amount of pounding, they started to hear the series of locks start to open, deadbolts sliding back with a final sounding click. Frohike let them in. With him in the lead, they walked into the main workshop of the paper. Byers was holding the baby, walking around the room with her, jiggling her lightly to comfort her. He seemed an experienced hand at this. Langly was answering the phone. After putting on the distorter, he said, "Lone Gunmen."

Langly listened, screwing up his face, then holding the receiver away from his ear. "Byers," he said, after a moment. "It's your wife. I think she's mad. She managed to call me an asshole four times in less than thirty seconds."

"Tell her I'm on my way home now," Byers said, holding out the baby to Mulder. As Mulder took the baby as cautiously as he would a bomb, Byers added, "Congratulations, Dad."

Then Byers scurried, grabbing his coat even before Langly finished absorbing the latest round of abuse from this putative wife. Byers had a wife? Mulder had been by the warehouse all hours of the day and night and had never not seen the three of them together, working hard on the paper. That any of them should have a personal life beyond the work seemed unlikely at best. Langly held the phone out to Byers who sighed and took it, wandering to the furthest corner of the room that the cord would allow.

"When did Byers get married?" Mulder asked, mystified, even as he was getting used to the small bundle that had been placed in his arms. She felt like china, like crystal. Like something infinitely fragile. And he decided the best tack to take would be to try and ignore the burden, letting his body do what came naturally. Walter seemed torn between hovering and showing his usual natural reserve around the three stooges.

"Three years ago, Mulder," Frohike said. "You were sent an invitation. You didn't go because you were off in Oregon, chasing a serial killer. Don't you remember?"

For a minute, Mulder felt a strange sense of deja vu. No, that wasn't right. He'd never gotten an invitation. The sensation was a curious kind of vertigo, as if he'd stepped onto hard rock, only to discover a moment later that there was nothing underneath him but the void. Then, in another whiplash sensation, the ground was back under his feet and he remembered the invitation. The bride's name. The gift he'd sent them, a crystal vase that had been on their registry. And he remembered that the reason Byers was such an experienced baby wrangler was that he had a daughter at home, a two year old. No wonder Jeanette was mad.

His world gelling around him again, Mulder took a look at his putative adoptive daughter. He pulled back the receiving blanket. Her hair, such as it was, could probably be described as red, though it seemed mostly a muddy brown to him. Maybe auburn? He'd ask Walter for a better description. Whatever the color, it curled slightly at the ends and flew up every which way. She was drifting into sleep, placid and sweet seeming, slightly fussing, and rubbing her cheeks a little with her tiny fists. He put one of his much larger fingers into one of her hands and her tiny fingers clamped down on it and held it. "Do you want to hold her, Walter?"

Walter's eyes shot a warning to Mulder, who knew that unless he intended that Walter never, truly put the child down again, that he shouldn't offer her to him in the first place. That shouldn't be an issue. Didn't Walter see that it was no longer possible that she be anything but theirs? "Meet your daughter, Walter. What's her name, Frohike?"

"Olivia Margaret Mulder, according to these," Frohike had pulled a sheaf of papers off the table next to a bucket style car seat and handed them to Mulder after Mulder had transferred their girl to Walter.

"I remember Scully mentioning an aunt named Olivia once," Mulder said. "It's kind of an old fashioned name, isn't it? She's probably going to hate it."

"I had a great-aunt named Olivia," Frohike said, the first hint that Mulder ever had that Frohike hadn't sprouted full-sized from the forest floor like a gnome among the mushrooms. "We all called her Lovey."

"Lovey. I like that," Mulder decided. He looked to Walter for approval, but Walter was lost, staring at the little bundle of blanket and baby as if it were a miracle. He was almost jealous, except he knew the feeling.

Then Frohike was shoving some pictures at him. "That's the person who dropped your little bundle off at our doorstep."

The person was covered in black clothes, complete with black stocking cap. It'd been dark and the resolution of the photo was poor. But one view had captured a slice of fair face looking straight up at the camera. There could be no doubt who the slender, small figure was. "Scully," Mulder pronounced, his overall glow diminished by the gnawing disappointment that she'd been this close but elected not to see him, rather to make her choice known in this way. He'd wished she'd put the baby into his hands with her own hands. That she had told him with her soft, confident voice that she truly wished this. That she would have trusted him enough to not have refused this, that he didn't have to have his hand forced like she had, abandoning the child.

Mulder spent a little while perusing the paper work she'd been left with. He was no lawyer, but he knew his way around legal speak. "Okay," he pronounced finally. "As far as I can tell, unless Scully decides to fight for custody with genetic evidence, these papers are solid enough. No one can take her from me. So, boss, how do we go about putting Lovey here on my insurance."

At that, Walter woke up slightly from his spell, not questioning that there was no question about them taking the little bundle home. Mulder thought the only problem in that regard would be getting her away from the Gunmen. They'd become attached to the little lady in the short time she'd been there. That was good. They'd be as good as uncles to her. Byers seemed to have hung up and slipped out to go back to his own family, but Langly was sitting in front of one of the computers, concentrating in a way that could only be hiding his feelings. Frohike looked with open longing. Sometimes Mulder wondered about the history of the threesome. There were so many things he didn't know about them, and yet he depended on them so much, he realized. Had Frohike ever been married? Did he have children. Mulder didn't know and made up his mind to change that.

"No problem. Just inform personnel. And you'll qualify for a month of family leave too, for the adoption."

Luckily for them, Byers hadn't gone yet. Otherwise, they would have been lost when it came to getting the car seat buckled into the back seat of Mulder's car. Byers expertly wrapped the seatbelt around the thing for them, with his usual quiet competence, then left to go to his own car. As the man walked away, Mulder had to stifle a laugh.

"What?" Walter asked, touching their new daughter again, on the pretext of checking to see if the car seat was holding her firmly.

"I just wondered if he had any buddies with kids. I was picturing a children of paranoiacs playgroup or something. You know, there's going to have to be some big changes," Mulder said. Their apartment for one thing. It was just about bursting at the seams with the two of them. Add a baby and the whole place would explode from the pressure. "We should probably look into buying a house."

"And we'll need to hire a nanny."

"You know, we need to get some things tonight. The kid doesn't have anything besides a box of diapers, the clothes on her back and a car seat."

The shopping trip they made on the way home was just the first of the big expenses. The other big shock was the pricetag on a full time nanny. Mulder was going over some more brochures from various agencies. He wanted not just someone who could be trusted, but someone who understood that there might be dangers to Lovey just because she was his daughter and who could react to them. He was thinking of the kind of nanny that a diplomat or a Congressperson's family might hire, not just any nanny. He hadn't liked any of the candidates that had been sent over for him to approve so far. Most of them seemed either entirely too serious and stuffy or alternatively, too flighty. Mulder rocked Lovey's baby bucket with his toe as he read. His family leave time was nearly up and he needed someone to start soon. He was hopeful though. He had a couple of candidates coming around this afternoon to meet with them.

"It's lucky that this job is far from my only income source," Mulder groused to Walter. "Otherwise it'd make more sense for me to stay home full time. Some of these nannies make as much as I do."

The job was important though. He couldn't leave it. Hell, he'd pay to stay with it. One lucky thing about Lovey, him now having a child meant he had more control over his inheritance according to the terms of his grandfather's trust. So he could afford the expensive nanny, and the house, but it was the first time in a while he'd seriously had to dip into family money. He hated to do it. He wasn't quite sure the family money was entirely clean.

The doorbell rang. "That must be one of women from the agency," Walter said, and got up from his paperwork. He tucked most of it away, but he left some of the less sensitive papers out on his desk as a kind of test, to see if the candidate would be able to control her curiosity. Then he went to buzz her into the building.

Finally, Walter opened the door and let a small, sprite like young woman into the baby thing strewn apartment. She had a black pageboy cut and a slight, enigmatic smile, sort of Mona Lisaesque, cheerful yet not overly perky to the point of maniac like some of the candidates had been. She dressed in black pants and a paisley print blouse that seemed the practical thing you'd wear to take care of children yet spoke of a bright and lively imagination. She carried a Starbucks cup with her. "Hi- I'm Mary Poppins," she said. "No, really. My name is Jenn. I understand you need a nanny."

"So, you're not practically perfect in everyway?" Mulder couldn't help asking. He liked this one. She was everything that the rest hadn't been.

"No, but I try harder," she said.

It was kismet. Walter, of course, would have more questions. He seemed brimming with them. That didn't matter though. Mulder knew that this was the one. Mulder reached down to Lovey and picked her up out of the baby bucket. Luckily, once asleep, she slept the sleep of the just. Supporting her little melon head carefully, he held her so that Jenn could take a close look. "Jenn, why don't you meet Olivia. Lovey, we call her."

It was Jenn's night off. They were alone in the Georgetown townhouse they'd settled on. Walter was woken at about two by the sounds of Lovey's cries. She was sleeping in the portable crib in their room tonight, because the narrow townhouse had the master suite on a different floor than the other two bedrooms, and they didn't want to put Lovey in the nursery if Jenn wasn't going to be there to hear her. Walter pulled himself to wakefulness, then tried to nudge Fox, to inform him it was his turn. Except there was no Fox in bed.

Walter was worried already. Fox had been even more obsessed than usual about his current case, a serial killer he'd been called in by Patterson to consult on. AD Sandra Jackson, Fox's superior, hadn't wanted to lend him, and she'd even called Walter to ask him if she should, and he'd concurred that she should find some excuse not to send him. But the pressure from Patterson had been high and the golden boy of the BSU got what he wanted.

Sighing, Walter pulled himself out of bed, despite the gravity that it mysteriously gathered during the middle of the night. He gathered Lovey out of her little crib and started the usual evaluation. She didn't quiet simply because he picked her up, therefore, something wasn't quite right in her world. Diaper, dry, non-stinky. Check. No sign of fever or other discomfort. Check. She avidly sucked at the finger he offered her, for a while at least, then spat it out. Ah, in need of a refill then.

The previous owner of the house had combined most of the second story into a luxurious master suite, including a bathroom that was sybaritic and big beyond the point of excess, including a tub that could have comfortably fit four grown men. Fox liked it, though it seemed excessive to Walter. It even had its own little fridge and microwave set up. They used this to keep some bottles for Lovey up here, so Walter headed into the bathroom, to make her up a bottle of formula. As he did, he talked to her, "Now, where do you suppose your Daddy Fox has gotten himself too? I'm hoping it's just his study. You have no idea of the capacity for trouble your daddy has, not that most of it's his fault. There, just a shake and we're all done."

For a minute, Walter felt envious of women. Feeding a baby for them could be just as simple as lifting a shirt. Still, he was happy to lean against the marble tiled wall of the bathroom and offer Lovey her midnight snack finally. The marble was cold, kind of like his stomach at the thought of what Fox might be getting up to.

After she'd settled into sucking, he carried her with him downstairs to the study that Fox used. Walter had refused one. "I'm there long enough that the last thing I want to do anymore is look at more work once I finally get home. Not when I have you and this sweet babe to come home to."

The master suite not withstanding, the rest of the house was small, homey and comfy, even if the decor was a little outdated. The living room walls were covered in aqua grasscloth that they meant to do something about someday, but for now, they'd just moved Fox's furniture in, from the leather couch and the dining room table down to the Royal typewriter poster and the squiggly coat rack. The place was accessorized with baby gear, especially the toys seemed to over run their box and the nursery. Fox had a real weak spot for buying toys for Lovey, never mind that the mite was still young enough that her idea of a really great time was to stick her fist in her mouth and chew on it. But this sometimes messy little place they shared truly was home to Walter in a way that the huge house exquisitely decorated by his ex-wife never had been. But what if it were to disappear? Vanish on him? Because Fox just might be out doing something stupidly dangerous, like stalking a serial killer on his own.

Walter hesitated at the door to Fox's study. He knocked softly, hoping to get an answer from the man. Instead, the door hadn't been latched and it swung open at Walter's touch. Inside, the walls were covered. With drawings. Photographs. Every available surface. The gargoyles that the killer had drawn. More of them. Photocopies from books. Pictures from the crime scene. Walter drew in a sharp breath at the sheer obsessive coverage. No sign that Fox was in evidence.

He'd been withdrawn lately, worked hours on the case, had come home late tonight, just barely ate, refused Walter's touch and hadn't wanted to come to bed. But Walter had no idea of the extent of his identification with the case. This had gone right over the border to pathological. Had he not been burdened with a feeding baby, Walter would have run to get his phone. As it was, he hurried as quick as he could. He tried Fox first, but as he almost expected, got no answer. Immediately, he dialed the number to his friend, AD Sandra Jackson, not caring that it was two in the morning. That was one of the responsibilities of being an AD, being there when the shit hit the fan, no matter the time. And the shit was truly about to hit the fan.

"Jackson," she said into her phone, sleepily and not pleased. "What is it, Walter?"

"It's Mulder. You have to get him a partner. Now. Not next week. Not three, four days from now. Find someone, someone good. Someone who can watch his back and reel him in. Because I think he's about to go over the edge in this case."

"Where is he? What's he doing?" Jackson asked. She knew that he and Fox lived together, that they were lovers.

"I don't know. And that worries me."

"I'll have someone by eight in the morning," she said. Maybe she had someone in mind already. She was always grumbling on and off about assigning Fox a partner. She liked Fox, thought he was a charming man in addition to being an outstanding agent. "Assuming you see him before then, tell him to meet with me then."

The phone call came less than an hour later, just in time to wake Lovey from the sleep she'd been about to fall into. Walter grabbed it and checked the caller id.

"Walter? I guess I didn't wake you. I'm sorry. It suddenly occurred to me that you might wake up and worry."

"Where the hell are you, Fox? Worry? Like hell. I've been frantic," Walter said, thinking of the last hour.

"I'm at the office now," he said. Now. That meant he'd been someplace else earlier. He sounded kind of unsteady and weak. Was he hurt? "I'm sorry, Walt. I'm just not fit for human company at the moment."

"Are you hurt?"

"No," Fox said. Then he reconsidered, given the angry glower that Walt was doing his best to transmit right over the phone line. "Not much. It's a scratch. The paramedics treated and released me. I had a run-in with our unsub. I'm sorry, Walter. I couldn't sleep. I keep seeing the bodies. The young men. I...to do this, to face these monsters, I need to stare into the abyss. And sometimes, that abyss stares right back."

"Come home, Fox. Your daughter needs you. I need your human company. You need to sleep."

"I can't. It won't be much longer. I can feel it. I'll catch this monster, then I'll be your Fox again."

There was such guarded yet passionate need in his voice that Walter felt a moment of perfect, balanced antinomy. He understood, for a moment, the true depths of evil and monstrousness that Mulder was facing, the numbing horror of it. Someone had to fight that evil, and Walter understood at this moment that he was one of the generals in this battle, that he sent his troops out to the line to face it, like in war, and that other men lived or did not live because of the decisions that he and his kind made, and that he could send them without ever leaving his office, removed, distanced from the unspeakable. It was grim necessity, tempered with the knowledge that the agents he commanded weren't just volunteers, but had vied competitively for their places.

At the same moment, Walter was just a man. A man whose lover was probably hurt more badly than he was saying. He was a man with a wakeful, cranky baby and an empty bed. He feared the thing that Mulder had to do to catch this monster. He wanted more than anything to demand that Mulder resign immediately, ask to be taken off this case, anything to get him away. He understood, in vivid detail, what the spouses of every one of his agents must feel all the time. Professionally, you might say he'd overstepped a little by calling Mulder's AD at two in the morning. Personally, he'd do it again in a New York second.

"Please, Walter. I need you to be strong for me," Fox pleaded.

What could he do but answer in the affirmative. He could do this. He could cope. For now. "Be careful, Fox. I can be strong for you, but I need you to come home to me."

"I will. Soon."

"Fox," Walter added when it seemed that Fox was on the verge of saying goodbye and hanging up. "I was talking with Sandra. You have a meeting with her at eight in the morning.'

"You've been tattling on me, dammit," Mulder said.

"Damn straight," Walter said. "And I'd do it again. You're in deep on this one, Mulder. You can't see how deep because you're in the middle of it."

Mulder hung up on him. Walter nearly threw the phone against the wall, but controlled himself. He did the only thing he could- got down to the business of putting their daughter to sleep. She was such an innocent, too small and new to have any idea about the scary monsters that lurked in their very midst. He wasn't sure he envied that about her.

Next morning at eight, Mulder ascended to the top floor of the Hoover, feeling a little worst for the wear of having spent the night in his cubicle. He'd changed into a fresh shirt from his travel kit, but the suit was the one he'd worn yesterday. And his shave was just a dry shave with the electric razor, not the closer shave he'd have gotten from a razor and foam. Yup, all the reasons in the world he looked and felt his best. Only an actual hangover could have improved things in that regard. It was the best, probably the only proper way to be when getting called on the carpet like this. He wondered, after last night, would he get pulled from the case?

AD Jackson's assistant told him to go right in. The AD was a solid, no-nonsense woman, both big and tall, with dark brown hair she always wore pulled back in a perfect French twist. Her rise from Agent to AD had been nothing less than astonishing, so rumor went, but there was no doubt whatsoever that she'd earned her place. She played an especially tough game of hardball, on a playing field renowned for not just not playing fair, but for backstabbing one's team members.

She was talking to a man sitting in one of the chairs in front of her desk. Her office looked incredibly like Walter's, with the prominent picture of the attorney general, the nice office furniture, the spacious appointments. The only difference was that where Walter had an oriental rug, she had a floral Aubusson rug, her only concession to femininity at all. Because the back of the man she was talking to was towards him, and mostly hidden in a chair at that, Mulder didn't immediately recognize him.

"Agent Mulder," Jackson said. She rose from the desk to gesture to him to sit down. "I see you're looking well, considering your little adventure last night."

Mulder nodded, waiting for the real reaming to begin. Mulder walked to the other chair. He still kept his eye on her, not catching yet who the other person in the office was.

"I'd like you to meet someone. I'm assigning a partner to you," she said. Then she gestured to the other occupant. Mulder followed her gesture to look at the other person.

It was then that the bottom dropped out of his world again. This was utterly incomprehensible, unless Doggett himself had asked for the assignment, which didn't seem likely, given his stated aversion to believing in "any of that crap."

"John!" Mulder said, unable to stop the blurt. Hell. This was a real kicker. Just how he was going to explain to Walter that his new partner was someone he'd slept with, he didn't know. Hell, someone that he'd still like to be sleeping with, if it weren't for his life with Walter. Because none of John's attractiveness had diminished, no. If anything, it had increased somehow. John seemed to wear a mantle of melancholy, as if he'd faced and was still facing some trajedy. It made him...beautiful. It emphasized the lines that had already appeared in his face the last time Fox had seen him and gave him a solemnity that only increased his handsomeness.

"Hey, Fox," Doggett said.

"You two know each other, I presume," Jackson said. She appeared relieved.

"It was the Augustus Coles case I worked with Agent Krycek," Mulder explained. "Back when John was still with the NYPD. He was in homicide. He helped Agent Krycek and myself out with the case."

"Good, it's settled. Later, agents," Jackson said, obviously dismissing them.

The wheels of Mulder's brain spun as fast as he could make them, trying to think of an excuse to get out of this. It was an eventuality that was always a danger, the threat of being assigned a partner. It had been a possibility he'd been heavily contemplating ever since Walter had informed him of this meeting. "This is no offense against Agent Doggett. He was good to work with on the Coles case, and I'm sure he's even better now but we have an understanding. I work alone."

"Not any more you don't, Agent Mulder. You're out on the edge on this case. Don't make me have to resort to more extreme measures. That will be all, Agents."

Then there was nothing else for it but to leave the AD's office with John. He stalked ahead wishing for a stray trashcan to destroy or something. John was right at his heels.

"Mulder," he said. "You're stuck with me. Nothing you can do about it. Sulking ain't going to do you any good."

The universe must be laughing at him. An ex-boyfriend as a partner? An ex-boyfriend he was very much attracted to and very much didn't want to be attracted to.

Doggett kept talking. "AD Jackson briefed me on the case. Mulder, like it or not, you need someone at your back for this one. The way I understand it, you're damn lucky you didn't end up bled to death and covered in clay at that warehouse."

Mulder stopped in his tracks at that. That statement cut a little too close to the bone for his comfort. It was very possibly true and that thought made his whole body cold. They were nearly to the elevator. He nearly turned and bolted for the stairs instead. As if reading his mind, Doggett said, "You ditch me like some kind of bad date, I'll kick your ass."

"No," Mulder said, looking at the pair of them in the reflection from the elevator door. The polished stainless steel reflected them back in such fuzzy lack of detail that they looked almost identical. Two tall, dark haired men, in dark suits. He'd known the other man intimately once, had been inside him even. Could he trust him the way he'd once trusted Scully? Like he trusted Walter? Would he allow John to look in at the windows in the wall around his secret heart that Walter had made, breaking them open with his overwhelming flood of love? Did he dare it?

"No, John. I wasn't lucky. He let me go. He couldn't do it."

The elevator door opened up finally. The instant it did, something in Mulder twitched, some sense leaping to awareness. Scent maybe, the least understood, deepest sense. Whatever it was, it was spooked. The hair on the back of his neck stood up.

Then Bill Patterson stepped out of the elevator.

"I was looking for you, Mulder," he said, in his irritating, nasal voice. "I want to know what the hell you were doing at the crime scene at one in the morning. And I want to know how you think these antics are going to catch this lunatic."

"I was working. Get off my back, Patterson. I'm trying to be working now," he said, trying to step around Patterson to get into the elevator. He acted to distract and disarm the man. "Bill, this is my new partner, just assigned to me. Special Agent John Doggett. Agent Doggett, this is Bill Patterson. The man who made BSU what it is today."

"An honor, sir," Doggett said. As Doggett turned to shake the hand that Patterson should have but didn't offer, Mulder found his opening. He slipped around the ugly gargoyle of a man and his new, apparently unavoidable partner.

"You're new, aren't you?" Mulder heard Patterson say. "Well, let me tell you this much, all those procedures, protocols and rules you learned in the Academy aren't worth a damn thing out there on the street, tracking monsters like this. You're his partner. You think you're going to protect him, but you don't know Mulder. You need to let him dance out there on his edge, doing what he does best."

Mulder heard Doggett say, "Excuse me," but once he slipped into the elevator just as the doors were starting to close, he also heard the agent mutter under his breath, "I've seen monsters like you wouldn't believe, bastard."

That almost cheered Mulder. "So, I take it that was not a good first impression," he said. "You don't like Patterson."

"I'd have thought you two were buddy buddy. Weren't you the wunderkind of the BSU at one point?"

"Patterson has hated me ever since the day I decided to stop bending over to take it like a man," Mulder said. He caught the look on John's face. "At a figurative level. We never..."

John grimaced again. Apparently, his aversion to Patterson was strong. Mulder had to admit that the thought of Patterson as a lover was not an appetizing one.

"Let's get going," John said. "I think our first stop is taking you home to change and shower."

"Am I that obvious?" Mulder asked. He knew he didn't look his fastidious best, but he thought he was at least passable.

Doggett shrugged. "You've looked a lot better, Mulder. And you've got a spot of blood on the back of your collar."

Mulder had thought he'd inspected the jacket fully before putting it back on, but he must have missed that. He touched the bandage on his cheek, where the killer had touched him once lightly with the razor, so lightly it had almost felt like a kiss, until he'd felt the sheet of blood flowing down his face. "Okay, I'll change. Then back to work."

John ended up driving. Mulder wasn't sure why he was so acquiescent about that. Usually, even when he was dead on his feet tired and hadn't slept in days, he insisted on driving. But John got behind the wheel and it just seemed natural to slide into the passenger seat.

"I heard about what happened to Agent Krycek," John said. "I hadn't heard from him in a while. I didn't realize he was missing. I'm sorry about that. Must have been quite a blow to lose two partners in a row like that. One of them vanishing without a trace."

"I still look for both of them when I can," Mulder said. And that was the truth. Every time he followed the lead on some story or another that was slipped to him, he expected to come across either Scully or Krycek at its source. It became even more important when Lovey had come into his life, for as much as he feared them trying to take her back, he also felt that someday, she should have a chance to know them. "There's something rotten at the heart of the Bureau, John. Something that doesn't want Agent Krycek to be found. They want to bury him as if he'd never existed."

As they pulled out of the garage of the JEH and into DC city traffic, Mulder said, because he realized that John was taking them to Alexandria. "I've moved," he said. "Georgetown."

"I thought you've always lived at Hegal Place," Doggett said. "I remember you once saying you'd never leave."

"I had to," Mulder said. "The apartment was too small for all of us."


"My lover Walter, and our daughter. And our nanny, Jenn," Mulder said. The confusion and...sadness? The expression on John's face was so blatant that he had to explain just a little. "She's adopted. It's a story too long to be told right now. I'm sorry, John. You left me. I moved on."

"I can't say I blame you," John said. "I made my decision. I'll probably regret it for the rest of my life. But I'm sticking with it. You don't need to worry about our...past coming between us. You have my word on that."

"I love him," Mulder said, not sure how to approach this. The words he was usually so facile with failed him for this important moment of time. He remembered that bar, that night where John had dumped him, then promised to be his friend. The standard line, almost never truly meant. John's honest straightforwardness wouldn't permit him to say such a thing without meaning it though. He was, if one could use such an old-fashioned word, an honorable man. Mulder knew that much about him. "I believe you, partner."

"Don't say that unless you mean it, Fox."

"I mean it, John," Mulder said, then decided this was getting a little too close, a little too meaningful. He tried to steer the topic to something that was bound to be lighter and easier. "How's your wife and little boy?"

Doggett's hands clenched on the steering wheel, a warning that this was a dangerous topic. Had she decided that it wasn't okay for him to be bonking men on the side and divorced him, taking his boy away?

Despite the warning, John said, "Luke passed. He was murdered. Not long after I was accepted for the Academy."

"Oh. God. I'm sorry, John," Mulder said. There wasn't much more that could be said beyond that, not without resorting to platitudes so trite that they ceased to be true. But Mulder thought he understood the true horror of what had happened. He thought sometimes, of the black chasm that he would face, should something happen to Olivia, whether she be taken from him by the aliens or just the simple accidents of life. "Oh, God. Did they get a conviction?"

That last was simple, yet not entirely unsympathetic curiosity. It escaped his lips before he even realized he'd said the words out loud. Not that a conviction would truly provide the sense of closure that one needed for peace. Mulder had expected that closure and hadn't found it when the serial killer who'd taken his sister Samantha finally died in the gas chamber.

"Not even a suspect," Doggett said.

"You and your wife must be devastated," Mulder said.

"I don't know about her these days. She hasn't talked to me except what the lawyer can't say for her. The divorce will be final next month probably."

Mulder felt like he should say something more, but before he could think of it, Doggett said, his face set it grim determination, "Let's get going. Everyone of those young men is somebody's son."

During the course of a frustrating afternoon, Mulder grabbed his phone and said, "You're coming to dinner tonight. I'll be lousy company and I doubt Olivia will be much better. I think she's cutting a tooth. But this isn't about pleasantries. I want you to meet Walter right away. I want this all out on the table. I think that I have a partner at all is his fault, but I don't think he could have a clue that we'd have slept together."

"Wait, his fault?"

"He's good buddies with AD Jackson."

"Ah, shit, Fox. Walter. Walter Skinner? AD Walter Skinner?"

"None other," Mulder found it in him a moment to smirk in satisfaction. Out of everything that had happened to him in the last year, setting up housekeeping with Walter had been the best. That his ex-boyfriend seemed a bit discomfited was all to the best. The best step to reduce the chances of temptation would be to make it clear to John right from the start that he wasn't available. If they continued as partners, there'd be other cases that would take them far a field, put them in situations together where there would be strong temptation. Long lonely nights in hotels together, or even in more intimate situations.

Finally, he reached Walter, "Hey, big guy, just thought you should know that you're going to be feeding my new partner tonight. Seeing as how you thought my having a partner was such a great idea in the first place. I'm thinking takeout."

Jenn, for all that she was a sweet girl and excellent with Lovey, was a disaster in the kitchen. So much so that Mulder was sure it was willful. No one could be that bad except by purpose. And she seemed to think that it just wasn't a meal unless there were turnips. Her first meal she'd cooked was turnips and a kind of dried pea soup. It'd been awful. She'd just smiled and said, "You know the bit in the mother goose rhyme, about pease porridge in the pot nine days old. That wasn't made up. That was reality for some people." Walter was competent at little more than heating up soup and making grilled cheese. Mulder didn't want to spare the time beyond the bare minimum of eating.

When Mulder and John finally arrived at the townhouse later that evening, Walter was waiting for them in the kitchen, an assortment of takeout menus in front of him. Lovey was in his arms, enjoying her evening meal. She sucked the bottle with great gusto, living her life lustily, with great relish, like she seemed to take to everything. She was the happiest baby Mulder had ever met, so long as everything was going her way. She cried the hardest and longest when things were not to her liking. She'd probably grow up to be a great actress or something.

Walter looked up when they walked in the room. "Hi Walter," Mulder said. He walked over and claimed a quick kiss, nothing that he thought would make John uncomfortable, but enough to state without a doubt the fervor of his feelings for Walter. Mulder stood up straight again, then turned to John. "John, the lovely little lady is our daughter, Olivia Margaret Mulder. Lovey, meet my friend and partner, John Doggett. Okay, Walter, time for some straight talk. There's something I want right out on the table from the beginning."

Walter sat up straighter and looked puzzled at Mulder, then at John. He caught John's eyes. John nodded and said, "Evening, sir."

"Good evening, Agent Doggett," Walter said, mildly.

"I'm going to make this introduction, and you will listen to me all the way through," Mulder said. "Promise me that much."


"Walter, promise me," Mulder said.

Walter nodded.

"Good. Walter, this is Special Agent John Doggett, the partner that was assigned to me this morning by AD Jackson. I would like you to keep in mind that I neither chose him as a partner, nor asked to have a partner assigned to me. I think you also need to know that this is John Doggett, formerly of the NYPD homicide unit, who also happens to be a man I met before you and I were lovers. We were lovers for nearly two months."

Walter clenched his jaw until the little muscles in his cheeks popped out in relief. He would have to have made the connection, that this was the man Mulder was dating just before they'd gotten together. Walter lowered his eyes, but looked like he was in control of whatever emotions were obviously surging through him at the moment. He seemed to sense that Mulder was not done talking and he kept his peace. He couldn't be happy though, not by a long shot. In some ways, a partner could become every bit as important emotionally as a spouse. There would be a certain type intimacy and togetherness that Walter and Mulder could never share, but that would develop between John and Mulder as they worked together. Walter had to know that, he'd worked his way up through the ranks, he'd had his share of partners. AD Jackson had been one of them, once.

"We parted amicably and remained friends. We will remain that way. If I ever feel that my working relationship with him has taken a turn that is anything more than friendly, I will ask to be assigned another partner and I feel I can trust that John would make the same request."

"Is that all?" Walter asked.

"I'm sorry, Walter, but I don't want there to be any secrets between us."

John chose that moment to speak up. He said, in that gently frank way he had, "I'm no homewrecker, sir."

Then Walter made up his mind. He shifted Lovey in his arms so that he could hold out a hand to John. "I think when you're having dinner at my table, my name would be Walter," he said.

After John was gone, Mulder retreated into his study, to go over the interrogation transcripts of the suspect that Patterson had arrested, the man who'd done the previous murders. He couldn't settle into them though. He felt...itchy. No, not that exactly. An itch could be gotten to. This was something more elusive, making him unsettled, feeling like the answer was just within grasp. If only. He stared at the pictures of the gargoyles again and again.

At last, he stopped pacing across the small room that he'd claimed for his own and walked out into the living room. He was going to head to the studio again. He needed to be there, needed to let this thing...be born. Jenn was in the living room, feeding Lovey a bottle. He couldn't help go over to her side and hold his hands out for the babe.

Prettiest baby there was, and no, that just wasn't because he was biased. Her auburn hair had started to grow in thick and curly. Her cheeks were round and pink, and her legs had a chubbiness, including several folds that he irrationally delighted in. She still smelled sweet to him. As he was cuddling his daughter, Jenn asked him, "Where you going, Mulder?"

"Work. I can't sleep," he said. But then, perhaps because of guilt, he dug out his cell phone. "Don't disturb Walter. He needs his sleep."

Then, on his way out the door, he called Doggett. The man had obviously been sleeping and the irritation in his voice indicated he was not best pleased at having been woken. Too bad, he'd have to get used to the patented late night Mulder phone call. It was part of the territory that came with being Mulder's partner. He'd finally gotten Scully trained up to not complain about them just before she'd left him.

"John, this is Mulder. I'm going back to the crime scene. Meet me there."

"Quick as I can," John said. He paused. "I've got company I'll have to get rid of."


"No one you know. Come to think of it, no one I know really either. Except in the biblical sense," Doggett said. Mulder wondered at that. John had gone and picked up a stranger. And was making sure to let him know that. A kind of jealousy? To prove that he was no longer interested in Mulder? But to Mulder or to himself?

"Just get there," Mulder said. If he had been inclined to Sherlockian metaphors like his old boyfriend Quentin had been, he would have said something like "The games afoot!" That's what it felt like. This was the night.

Despite this, he was unprepared when it actually happened. There was a new gargoyle waiting, one of the sculpted clay ones, the clay still wet, not even started to dry yet. He tore at it to reveal the dead, slashed body of Patterson's assistant. Then suddenly, Patterson himself was there, and Mulder knew. He pulled his gun on the man just as Doggett stormed into the building. He caught sight of what Mulder was doing.

"Mulder! What the hell are you doing?" he asked, as if he believed what everyone had said about Mulder possibly going into the deep end on this one. Patterson used the distraction to shove Mulder and scramble away.

"John, it's him!" Mulder shouted as he jumped to his feet and started running after Patterson, Doggett in close pursuit. They ran through the warren of the warehouse, up to the roof. They trapped him up there, and as Patterson drew his gun, there was a shot. Patterson jerked and fell onto his face. Dark stains immediately covered the pale roofing pebbles, welling into pools and pools of it. He felt ill, the pit of his stomach swirling. For all of his hatred of Patterson, this man had been his first and best teacher in the inexact science of profiling. Mulder reached down, felt for Patterson's pulse. "He's not dead," he pronounced. He was going to tell Doggett to call 911, but the man was already talking to them, telling them about the agent down, then kneeling to turn Patterson over. Doggett took off his own jacket to form an impromptu bandage to the chest wound he'd created.

It was over. It was over. Mulder sank to his knees, to offer whatever assistance he could until the EMTs would get here.

"You were able to shoot a man, just on your trust of me?" he found himself asking as Patterson was wheeled away to the waiting ambulance.

"He pulled a gun on you. I figure it's my job to watch your back, no matter what," he said. "I'm glad you called me. That you didn't face this one on your own."

Mulder finally arrived home early in the morning, just before dawn was about to stripe light across the sky in its normal cyclical pattern. He'd been debriefed, had given his statement, and now, as he pulled into the garage, it felt like he was waking from the nightmare, and back into his normal life.

Once inside the house, his calm little haven of peace again, he wanted to go to his study, to take down the pictures of gargoyles, to begin cleansing the evil from his soul, to start the purging process. Instead, he was met at the door by Walter. Walter wearing nothing but a bathrobe. Immediately, Walter took Mulder into his arms.

Walter hurried Mulder up to their suite, while running his hands up and down Mulder's back, grabbing and holding his ass. Once inside and the door shut, Walter pushed Mulder down on the bed and threw himself on top. After that, he took Mulder. Not forcefully, but with a quiet intensity that was meant to claim, to reinforce his ownership of Mulder's heart. He didn't mark Mulder, not except in the indelible, unseeable depths of Mulder's soul. With each thrust, each pounding into Mulder's willing softness, Walter might as well have been whispering, "mine, mine, mine," again and again. And with each thrust, with the mounting ecstasy, Mulder could feel Patterson's hold on his soul slip away. The monster was being purged, cleansed. Mulder was purified by the tsunami of Walter's love and he understood, he thought, for the first time, how anyone survives the horrific. It was just this. Just love. It was a truth that left him filled, satisfied to the deepest levels, whereas every time before he'd faced the monster, when he came back, he'd felt empty, scoured. He wanted to whisper to Walter, "I'm yours, all yours," but somehow the solemnity of the moment seemed too extreme for mere words. He would have to depend on his body to speak the truth to Walter's body.

Afterwards, they laid together in an exhausted puddle of bliss, soaked with sweat and come. The moment passed silent yet Mulder, for once, didn't feel the need for words. Indeed, when the words came back, they were an interruption.

Walter had dared a glance at the clock, and said, "Damn. I have to get up and start getting ready for work."

"Stay," Mulder said, sleepily. He tried to pull Walter back to bed, back to his arms.

"I can't."

Mulder didn't pout. Instead, he couldn't help drifting to quiet, deep oblivion, the exhaustion of the past several days catching up to him all at once. Besides the fantastic orgasm, Mulder decided that he had good cause to be grateful to Walter for cave-manning him up to bed. If he hadn't, Mulder would probably still be up, too exhausted to fall asleep, still strung high on nervous energy. He'd sleep most of the morning, he thought, then he'd go in to the office and help John prepare for the usual hearing anytime a shooting took place.

John dropped him off at the end of a long night of travel. Mulder stood in the driveway and watched John pull away. Georgetown wasn't exactly on the way home from the airport for John, who'd ended up buying a house out in Falls Church, but he'd insisted on driving Mulder home. No reason for Mulder to take a cab home, nor the metro. They'd had a long two weeks away from home, and had caught the red eye out of Sea-Tac that night.

Walter was gone to work already by the time he got back, but Jenn was in the kitchen with Lovey when he walked in. First thing, he dropped his suit bag where he stood and held his arms out for her. Jenn put Lovey in his arms and he pulled the sweet little thing into his arms and squeezed her. She suffered this for a few minutes, but started to squirm after a bit.

"Put her down," Jenn suggested. "You should see what she started doing while you were gone."

He did, put her down on the brown ceramic tiles of the outdated kitchen. She crawled over to the nearest cabinet and used the handle to pull herself upright. She took a few experimental steps using the cabinet to steady herself. Then she took off. Walking. His little lady was walking. He felt both proud and sad. Proud for the obvious reason, but melancholy that he'd missed another one of her landmarks because he'd been gone. Only Jenn had probably seen her first steps. "Whoa, hold on, Speedo," Jenn said, starting to run after Lovey, who was currently making a very plausible attempt on the basement door.

Jenn caught her up and tickled her belly, distracting her from the door. Then she swept the pair of them into the living room and set them up with some toys, blocks. Paper and crayons. Creative stuff. Lovely wasn't really drawing yet, but she managed to grasp crayons in her little hands and delighted in scrawling them across the paper, and that in itself was advanced for her tender age of not quite a year. She seemed to like color. Mulder took his luggage upstairs and unpacked. He came down to see Lovely scrawling and Jenn watching her.

"How was the trip?" Mulder shrugged in response. He couldn't tell her, not that she'd believe anyway. Mulder had failed to save the life he'd gone to protect. The killer had murdered three more before they'd tracked him down. Not willing to be stymied by Mulder's non response, Jenn asked, "How's Agent Doggett? You should have asked him in. I'd have made the pair of you coffee or something."

Mulder thought carefully. He tried to cope with his continuing feelings for Doggett by avoiding him socially as much as possible, interacting with him only as much as was necessary for the work. "It's just as well, Jenn. I really saw enough of him the last two weeks."

"You wish he were less of a temptation, don't you?" she asked. As always, Jenn was perceptive way beyond what he thought she should be. He thought he did a pretty good job of convincing all concerned that 'just work partners' was how he felt about Doggett.

It wasn't that he was unhappy with Walter in any way, quite the opposite. Perhaps it was the nagging sense that something with John was not finished. Or that in some way, some alternative dimension if one used Star Trek terminology, in some alternate dimension, that he and John had something that was so good, that if circumstances had allowed, they could have a life together that would be just as rich and fulfilling as this one he had with Walter.

Mulder shrugged at Jenn. He didn't really want to talk about it. He wanted to immerse himself in his life here. He wanted to play with his little spot of brightness, make her laugh by bouncing her on his knee and dive elbows deep into indulging his domestic side. He seriously thought about telling Jenn to take the rest of the day off and just staying home instead of going in later to work on his report.

"I should set him up. I can think of the perfect guy for him," Jenn said.

"Not a good idea, Jenn," Mulder said. John bristled at even the slightest hint of being set up for a blind date. Mulder had made that mistake and been at the receiving end of this bad temper once. He'd learned better than to do it again. She just grinned slightly, her usual, enigmatic grin.

Mulder did, in the end, indulge his domestic side. Sort of. Before he could take off for the JEH again, the doorbell rang. He looked out the peephole. Four familiar figures. Byers had his daughter Holly in tow. Holly adored Lovey, and the feeling was mutual, generally speaking. Mulder opened the door and the troops filed in. Presumably, because they'd brought along Byers' daughter, the visit was purely social, not business.

"We heard you were back from Washington, Mulder," Langly said. Then he bent down to see the true recipient of this visit. He held out his arms to Lovey and said, "Come to Uncle, sweetheart!"

Lovey cooed, Langly being her favorite of her multiple "uncles," then pulled herself upright using Langly's offered hands. He lifted her up and then tossed her lightly to the ceiling, just a few inches out his hands then back down again. She laughed and smiled. Then, when Langly brought her in close, for a little hug, she grabbed at his glasses. She laughed as she took the temple piece and pulled. Hard. Before Mulder could move in to intervene, the temple snapped. And the nose bridge too for some reason.

Langly, Mulder knew, was about as blind as a bat, helpless without his glasses. So was Frohike, and Lovey had pulled on his glasses before. But apparently Frohike knew of the wisdom of spring hinge glasses and had never had his broken before. Langly's glasses looked like he hadn't replaced them since about 1954, which was absurd considering the man hadn't even been a gleam in his father's eyes yet.

"I'm sorry, Langly," Mulder said, retrieving Lovey as Langly held the busted pieces of his late glasses. "I'll take you over to the one hour place in the mall and we'll get them fixed."

So, instead of going to work, Mulder went to the mall, not exactly what he had in mind for the day, but it was nice out and he was with friends and family. And anyway, it wasn't like he hadn't worked 'round the clock practically for the past two weeks. Times like this were necessary, he decided, to balance his workaholic tendencies. He feared, sometimes, that he'd wake up someday, about twenty years from now, to find his daughter had grown up feeling just as abandoned by him as he felt by his parents, because he'd spent his whole life chasing after little green men, and left her to be raised by paid help.

The nice lady at the one hour place tried really hard to find a new frame similar enough to the old pair that she could slip the lenses right into place, but she failed. "I'm sorry, sir. I guess it's just not possible," she said after her futile search.

Langly looked lost without the usual black frames. "I'm sorry, Langly. I'll pay for a whole new pair. Why don't you pick out some frames," Mulder said.

Langly sulked when he discovered that the frames now available weren't anything like his usual pair. He squinted at himself as he tried on pair after pair. Mostly the shop had variations on the round wire rim style, similar to what Walter wore. "I can't see myself for crap, but I look like John Lennon, don't I?"

"No, you don't, Langly," Frohike said. "Quit your bitching. You're getting a free pair. You had to know that temporary fix at the bridge wouldn't hold for long."

Byers had quietly watched the proceedings and strolled up and down the rows of frames, looking at them quietly. At this, he plucked a pair off the rack and handed them to Langly. "These," he said. Langly made a face, but put them on. Byers had picked the tiniest pair of frames in the place, little ovals in pewter colored metal. Langly's face was transformed by them. Instead of hiding the planes of his face like the groucho marx pair he was lamenting would have, this pair emphasized them, making Mulder realize for the first time that Langly was actually quite handsome in an unusual kind of way, with a strong jaw and high cheekbones. For the first time, Mulder could see that Langly had a lively pair of blue eyes.

"What?!" Langly asked as they all stared at him.

"Byers is right," Mulder said. "That's the pair."

"They're too small," Langly protested.

"They're perfect," the counter woman said.

Mulder was almost happy to be paying for the other man's pair of glasses. At least until he'd gotten total. Byers would have to pick the single most expensive pair in the entire place. They were unlikely to break at least, having spring hinges and being made out of titanium. Mulder paid and they got out of there, and decided to go out to lunch.

It was three weeks later when Mulder next saw Langly. He and John were headed over to the Gunmen with some mysterious computer chips that had been slipped under the door of their office.

After the whole assortment of locks were turned and the substantial metal door of the Gunmen's headquarters was opened, by Langly.

The man had gotten a haircut. Not just a haircut. A major shearing. He had some bangs left that fell agreeably over his forehead, then the rest was cut sleekly short. He looked like a completely different man. Actually, between the new glasses and the new cut, Langly had turned from the odd, ugly duckling to...not quite a swan, but an unusual, uniquely handsome man.

John spoke first, "Langly, what the hell happened to you? What's with the hair?"

"I had to get it cut. Our stove blew up in my face. I was lucky not to lose my eyebrows. My hair was a total loss. It was scorched all over. And then the stupid woman at the hair place cut way too much off."

"It looks good," John said. Actually, he'd given Langly a whole, long appraising look as they'd stepped into the headquarters, as if seeing him for the first time today, for all that they'd met a couple of years ago. He seemed to like what he saw. And Mulder could kind of see his point. Langly's jeans and t-shirt were tight fitting, revealing a lean body. The t-shirt today was solid black, not from some heavy metal band or the Ramones. "You should keep it like that."

A few years later found Mulder and Doggett on top of a roof in Dallas, in weather that was just starting to hint at blistering. The official FBI jacket Mulder was wearing was really too damn hot, considering it was navy in the bright sun. He longed to strip it off. He thought zealously about getting the hell off this roof, maybe into a nice air-conditioned plane that would take him home. Away from this hellhole they called Texas and this shithold assignment. One slight misstep on his part, and they'd had all the ammunition they'd needed to pull Mulder and Doggett off the X-files that they'd worked so hard at getting reopened. Instead, John and he had been dropkicked into domestic terrorism. They were still under AD Jackson, but she didn't have much room to maneuver. Most of the time they were on shit patrol, as John called it, checking up on people who bought large amounts of fertilizer, usually farmers. Today's little exercise was a bomb threat that no doubt would prove to be a false alarm.

John was walking towards him, talking on his phone. "Hey, you were right, Ree. Yeah. He's up here. Yeah. Soon as we get back to town. Yeah, I miss you too, lover."

Then John hung up and pocketed his phone. Who'd have thought it, a couple years back. John Doggett and Ringo Langly. A couple. As far as Mulder had known, Langly had been an asexual virgin. Apparently not. It was nothing as serious as what Mulder and Skinner had. Langly still lived at headquarters with Frohike, and John by himself in Falls Church. But however the hell it had happened, John seemed to love Ringo. And Ringo never had grown his hair long again, which as far as Mulder could tell, was nothing less than a major declaration of love. There were times when Mulder felt a pure streak of green running right through him, one that was only partially obliterated by little reminders to himself that he was happy with Walter, and that he shouldn't be jealous of something Langly could give John that he couldn't.

Mulder, for his part, had been talking on the phone as well. "Love you, Lovey-dovey. Let me talk to Jenn again, sweetie," he said to his darling as John approached him. She was getting bigger all the time. He hated to miss anything. It was bad enough to be gone from home for the real work, but he was missing her first hair cut, her auburn locks getting their first clip this afternoon, all for shit patrol. That was just about intolerable.

"Jenn, Jenn," Lovey called out, right into the phone. Then she must have set it down again and managed to disconnect it. Mulder sighed and shut his phone and pocketed it.

"Mind if I ask you what you're doing up on this roof?" Doggett asked, as he stopped a few feet away from Mulder. He didn't look any more comfortable in his FBI jacket than Mulder was.

"Looking for a bomb," Mulder said. He kicked a few of the roofing pebbles.

"You know, they phoned in the threat for that building," John said. He pointed with his thumb over his shoulder at the federal building's twin across the street. "They're going to miss us, soon, Fox. We oughta get back before the SAIC notices we're gone. Our ass is in a sling enough already."

"It's not there, John," Mulder said. "They're swarming all over the building. They'd have found it by if it were."

"And you think it's here? Mind if I ask why?"

Mulder shrugged. Doggett's standards of proof, in some ways, were even more demanding than Scully's had been. But in other ways, he was a bit more open minded. He always was able to accept something that was "cop instincts" or "A gut feeling." At least accepted it enough to investigate into it and get the physical proof he demanded before belief. He still didn't believe the aliens, but there were times Mulder had his doubts as well. Doggett had had more than his fair share of proof the American government was up to its armpits in a conspiracy against its own people and that was good enough for him to keep it up when various attempts had been made to reel him and Mulder in. That and sheer stubbornness.

"A hunch?" Doggett asked. "Okay. So. Let's take a looksee. God, it's hot enough out here to boil a monkey's ass."

"Coke's on me," Mulder said, heading for the door to the elevator.

"You big spender," Doggett said, heading towards a clump of equipment that looked like it might be air-conditioning stuff.

Mulder made his way downstairs, looking for a vending machine. He was informed that the only one was on the ground floor. They were all together in a separate room. A repair guy passed him on the way out of the room. Something seemed odd about that, but Mulder shrugged it off and went to look at the row of vending machines. Only one of them was a soda machine. Damn, not a coke to be had among them. He pulled out his phone and dialed. "Hey, John," he said when he got an answer. "I'm going to have to get you an RC. That's all they have."

"Living the big life, huh?" John said. "Whatever. Hurry up, it's an oven up here."

Meanwhile, Mulder took a closer look at the machine. He didn't put his quarter in it. It wasn't on, first of all. He looked around. Unplugged. The hairs on the back of his neck stood up, a dozen little clues clicking into place to make one very ugly picture in his mind. He backed away from the machine, headed straight for the door. Locked. No, on a closer look. Not locked. The lock filled and utterly jammed. He was stuck in the room with the goddamn bomb. Just to make sure he wasn't jumping to bad conclusions, he opened up the front of the vending machine. There it was. Wires. Explosive. Detonator. Timer. Oh, hell.

"Mulder! Mulder!" John had been calling him several times. "What's going on down there."

"John, I need you to get off that roof and get everyone out of the building. Evacuate it. Now."


"The bomb. I found it."

"Where are you?"

"First floor vending room. I'm locked in with it."

John didn't bother to say anything else. He just hung up and, if he were being true to his usual nature, got going. Mulder was almost relieved it was John on the outside of the door, having to be the one getting people moving. He was a natural leader. He got up in front of a crowd of people and said jump, they jumped. People took him seriously naturally. He didn't have to prove himself the way Mulder so often did. A few minutes later, the sound of people moving rapidly through the corridor outside the door assured Mulder that John had gotten the evacuation started. It was a long ten minutes later that the door was finally cut open. John was on the other side, directing the cutting crew. They got out of there. The SAIC remained in the room. They tried to talk him out of it and Mulder knew it was a mistake. They got out just in time. Even as they were fleeing the scene, the force of the explosion threw their car into another car.

John was shaking and white as they got out of the car, even more so when he turned around to look at the scene of mass destruction behind them. He was still visibly upset hours later. And on the plane trip back to DC. At the airport, John was met by Langly at the baggage carousel. Without a word, Langly took John into his arms. They didn't kiss, not in public. John wasn't demonstrative, even in relative privacy, but he didn't protest Langly's lanky body wrapped around him. He even rested his head on Langly's shoulder for a minute. Mulder was almost shocked to see either of the two men act so tenderly, especially Langly. "You gonna take me straight home, Ree?" he asked.

"Yeah, G-man, sounds like you had it rough."

"It was like..."

"You don't have to say," Langly said, letting John go to pick up his bag. "I know."

Mulder got his and left to go home, to find his own comfort in the arms of his lover and the peace of his family. And it was precious little peace that he got. A few days later and the witch hunt had begun. People had died in the explosion, only a tiny fraction of the people that would have, had Mulder not found the bomb. But the SAIC and four more people beside were dead and the FBI's upper echelon was headhunting. It was starting to look like Doggett and Mulder were on the menu. They were questioning Doggett now, wanting to know what he and Mulder were doing in the other building, if they had known something, why hadn't they said anything sooner, why hadn't they gotten the SAIC out, all of that. Mulder was waiting in the hall, crunching sunflower seeds nervously.

At last, they were done grilling Doggett and the man walked out looking defeated. He dropped himself on the bench beside Mulder and loosened his tie. "I'm thinking it's looking like Salt Lake City for me. The only I can't figure out is why nobody seems to care that it's five dead, not five hundred and five," he said. He looked at Mulder, scooped a couple of Mulder's sunflower seeds right out of his hands and said, "C'mon. I'm also thinking this is one of those kinds of days that can only get better by diving headfirst into a bottle of whiskey."

"Tequila," Mulder said.

"You got a death wish or something?"

A couple of hours later found them both sitting in the same bar where Mulder had first taken Skinner home from. It seemed like it was decades ago, that night. The barmaid, oddly, was still Miss Blond and Perky, only she was considerably less perky these days. She took at look at the pair of them and the little forest of glasses that had accumulated in front of them. "Well, boys, looks like that's about your recommended daily allowance."

"I ain't done yet," John said, a little nastily. Mulder found himself glad that drinking wasn't something John did very often.

Mulder left John to argue with the barmaid. He had more pressing business to discuss with his bladder. The men's room was out of order. The women's room seemed to be doing a bustling business, so there was no way he could sneak quickly in there. So, there was nothing for it but to head out to the alley. He found an abandoned spot on the brick wall of the dark alley. He worried about being caught, but not enough to stop from pulling his dick out of his pants and marking his territory on the brick. Besides, when it was done, it felt so much better. The problem with alcohol, Mulder thought, was that one didn't so much buy it as get a short-term lease on it. He didn't feel much better for very long though. He heard footsteps behind him. He'd been followed. He hurriedly tucked himself back into his pants and prepared to meet whoever had followed him.

It was Alex Krycek. Time stopped for Mulder. He felt conflicting urges. To grab the man and slam him against the brick wall and interrogate him about where Scully was and where the hell they'd been for the past several year. Or to hug him. Or something. He settled for a compromise. "Where the hell have you been, Krycek, and what the fuck did you do with Scully?"

"Scully's in Europe. Quite safe, I assure you. Talk is, Mulder, it's your ass that's in the fire this time. Neither your current or your ex-boyfriend's influence can protect you. That you're days from being out on the street, you and Dogboy. And that you're just going to let them ride you out of town on a rail. All when you're about on the verge of the biggest breakthrough in your career. Ever wonder what three firemen and a little boy were doing in the FEMA office in that building?"

And so Mulder listened while Krycek talked. Once he'd spewed forth the tantalizing, brief details, just enough to make Mulder wonder if he was going to be heading off on a wild goose chase, with John in tow, Krycek turned away to leave. But not before he asked, a look of soft, needy longing on his face, "You're taking good care of her, aren't you?"

"Walter and I are," Mulder told him. "The best of everything."

"Good," Krycek said, then skittered away, like a rat back into the woodpile.

Mulder went back into the bar to collect John. Another couple of glasses had been added to the gathering of them that they'd already put together on the bar. Impressive that he'd managed to talk the barmaid into serving him more. At the moment though, he was doing a good job convincing her that it had been a mistake.

"...So of course no one believes us. I work with the most beautiful pain in the ass I've ever met. They call him Spooky. They call me Mrs. Spooky. I'm an annoyance to my superiors about to get shipped out to the ass end of nowhere for it. We spend our days chasing little green men with a badge and gun, and the thing is, I don't even believe in them," he was saying.

The bartender looked up at Mulder and said, "Hey, Spooky, I think it's about time you take your wife here home."

"We're work partners," Mulder said, sharply. Still, he gathered John, supporting him out the door, even though it was a hard won effort to remain on his own feet. He had the impulse to flag down a taxi and get John home, or take him to Georgetown and put John to sleep on the sofa. But there were things to do. Once they were out on the street, he walked them until he found an all night coffee and donut place. He ordered for them. When John tried to push the coffee away, Mulder said, "Coffee, John. Time to sober up. There's work to do. First we have to go see a body, then I'm thinking we're off to Texas."

"We just got back from Texas," John complained, but he drank his coffee anyway. Black, no sugar.

"There's some little green men that need chasing down."

John made a face at that, but despite that, he just drank his coffee.

In the end, it was just more frustration. More things that they couldn't prove. They chased tanker trucks across great swaths of nothing in Texas, found another field of corn, just like the USDA research facility that had been destroyed. They were chased by helicopters. And they made it back to DC just in time for John's disciplinary hearing. They argued the whole way back.

"I'm not going to let you take the fall for me," Mulder said.

"They've already decided it's me, Fox. Today's just about deciding whether it's Butte, Montana or St. Louis. I'm out of DC," Doggett said.

In the end, he was right. None of the AD's listened, not even when they presented hard evidence. Both Jackson and Skinner looked pained, but in the end, two ADs could only go so far to balance the rest of them, the ones who were looking for someone to lynch and had found it in John Doggett. Mulder felt pained to be witnessing the final derailment in a career that had been a train wreck ever since the fateful day that Doggett had been assigned to work with him.

They'd gone right to the hearing the minute they'd gotten home from Texas. They hadn't had time to go home, much less change. Doggett had wiped dirt from the cornfield off his shoes with toilet paper from the plane's restroom and straightened his suit as much as he could. But by the time they were through with the ADs and the dark, impersonal conference room, they both looked, and felt like they'd been through the wringer.

"I'll drive you home, John," Mulder said.

John settled into the front seat of Mulder's car with little argument. Between being up for most of the last twenty-four hours, with a quickly grabbed nap on the plane, he didn't have it in him to do much more than shake his head and say, "Fucking Salt Lake City," a few times.

They stood in the driveway at John's house, just staring at each other. "Langly here to meet you?" Mulder asked.

"Nah," Doggett said. "That rag of theirs goes to press tomorrow. He'll be pulling an all-nighter probably. I can't expect him to pull up roots and stop doing what he does, just for me."

Doggett was talking more than Langly just taking a single day off to spend time caring for his exhausted, disheartened lover. He was wondering at the possibilities that Langly would come with him to Salt Lake, and no doubt he was finding that they weren't good. "We'll manage to get you back here somehow, soon," Mulder promised, a promise he didn't even have a clue if he could keep. "I need you to do the work. I need you by my side, Johnboy."

The next moment was electric. Unforgettable. All thoughts of stability, and Walter and his life as it was as the moment were forgotten. John leaned forward. They were going to kiss. Yes, there was the brush of lips against his, so soft and tentative. Yes, he was going to do this, do something he'd regret, probably for the rest of his life, but that he needed to do now. He needed to finish this chapter with John.

Except before their lips could do more than brush, John slapped a hand at the back of his own neck, with a startled, "Ow! Shit! What was that?"

He brought his hand down from his neck. He'd captured a small, squirming insect. A bee. "It must have caught in the back of your collar," Mulder said. He took one of the familiar little baggies that he carried practically everywhere with him and opened it up for John. John seemed okay for the moment, but then the change was sudden. He'd barely gotten the bee dropped into the evidence bag when his face turned white and alarmed.

"Hard to breathe," he choked out. "Feel strange."

"Are you allergic to bee stings? I think you're going into anaphylactic shock. Hold on."

John collapsed right onto the driveway with a heavy thud and bump, the bigger they are, the harder they fall. Even as Mulder was getting down on his knees to check on John, he was dialing 911 on his phone, making a call that John had made for him before, that he'd made for John. "This is Agent Fox Mulder with the FBI. I have an agent down..."

The next minutes passed in a flurry and panic, waiting for the ambulance. He called the Gunmen's headquarters first and got only their machine. He left a frantic message to Langly. As he did, the ambulance pulled up and Mulder was so busy telling the story to them that he forgot to turn off his phone. The EMTs loaded John onto a stretcher as Mulder tried to explain about the virus that the bee carried. They lifted the stretcher up into the vehicle and Mulder tried to climb in as well. "I'm riding with. That's my partner," he said. The only response he got was the EMT pulling a handgun out from nowhere and firing it.

Mulder woke up to less pain than he thought he would, in a hospital bed. He focused woozily on the trio of blurry faces looking at him from the foot of the bed. "Cowardly Lion, Scarecrow and Toto."

It was Byers, Langly and Frohike standing there. They all seemed distraught, especially Langly, who was fidgeting as he stood. Of course, they would have found out by now that Mulder had failed, that by dragging John to Texas, he'd exposed the man to a dangerous virus, then failed to stop him from being abducted right in front of him. Oh, God, he thought. Langly must hate me. Mulder couldn't face them right now. He turned away, and instead, had to face Skinner, who was standing right there with a gigantic arrangement of flowers. It was pretty, but not the usual sort of loose bouquet of wildflowers that was Skinner's thing.

"For me?" he asked.

"Apparently so," Skinner said, putting them down on a convenient tray table. "Some long haired punk shoved them at me on my way into the hospital. But there's a card with your name on it, so I brought it up."

"Let me see," Mulder demanded. The envelope was put into his hands and he opened it. On the card inside were seemingly random numbers. He scrutinized them for a minute.

Langly ripped the card right out of his hand impatiently and said, "These are co-ordinates. This a place. And someone went to a bunch of trouble to get it to you."

Something clicked in Mulder, a hunch, John would have called it, "Give me the damn bouquet."

Despite the pain, as soon as it was handed to him, Mulder started digging through the arrangement, tossing handfuls of expensive irises, orchids and roses right onto the hospital room floor in a riot of fragile color. He found it, a small glass vial with a green fluid in it, taped with green florists tape, to a small stick. "This is it," he all but crowed. "This is the cure to the virus. I'm sure of it. All we have to do is get it to this place."

There was a momentary argument over who was going to go, how and when. In the end, Byers settled it by taking off his suit jacket, then his tie and tossing them at Mulder. When people stared at him while he started to unbutton his shirt, Byers said, "Mulder and Ringo are the obvious choices for the journey. It's the obvious way to sneak Mulder out of here."

The suit was too small, but it got him out of there, past the beefy looking man who just happened to pacing the hallways outside of his hospital room. Luckily, it'd been a very minor wound, more or less a grazing shot. It'd leave yet another scar, but otherwise he'd be unharmed at the end of this. But he didn't have very long to get to John if his partner was going to survive this. Once out of the linoleum corridors of the hospital, it was a long, desperate trip. And it cost a lot of money to get to Antarctica with no notice. At one point, Langly quipped, "Round trip to Antarctica, $5,000. State of the GPS, $500. Sno-Cat rental, $300, per day. Snatching your lover from the edge of death, priceless."

The frozen landscape was, despite them coming at a time when it was supposedly spring, utterly frigid. The daylight was brighter than anything Mulder had seen, coming from a flawlessly blue sky and reflected from a landscape that was nothing but white snow as far as the eye could see. Langly had, at Mulder's insistence, remained at base as backup. He'd gone out on the ice in a sno-cat, looking for the co-ordinates. Before he'd gone out, Langly had grabbed his shoulders and looking at him dead on in the eyes, had said, "Bring him back for me, Mulder."

It worked. By all that was sacred, the vaccine worked. Mulder had found John in the huge hold of a ship, frozen with thousands of other people. He only had the vaccine for one though. But once he'd injected it into John, it seemed to infect the whole system, triggering a klaxon that sounded like hell's own bells. He'd nearly lost John a couple of times as he dragged him from the ship that was buried under the ice, had to give him CPR once. Thankfully, he'd started breathing again. Only sheer panic gave him the strength to drag John's limp body through the tunnels to the surface. Once he came back to himself, he'd be incredibly sore and tired. They made it to the surface finally.

And overhead, as the ice shelf mere feet from them crumbled and avalanched itself into a chasm, the ship rose. Larger than any flying vessel that Mulder had ever seen, it rose into the air with a steady speed that vessels that size shouldn't have. There it was. Proof. All he'd ever looked for. That was no military experimental aircraft, no way. The surface of the ship was incredibly complex, with designs and patterns that appeared to be more functional than anything. John was lying on his back, staring in wide eyed shock at the vessel. "Do you see it, John?" Mulder asked.

"I see it," he said. Then he passed out again. In short order, the vehicle was gone from sight. And Mulder really had no choice but to drag John after him the impossibly long distance to where the sno-cat was waiting. He was out of gas, but he could contact base from there. Maybe it might be warmer out of the wind, plus he had extra clothes in there. Only when he crested the hill of ice and snow and caught sight of the sno-cat did he admit to himself that maybe, just maybe they might survive this. No, wait. That was two sno-cats. One started to move through the snow, its treads kicking up a fine spray of ice flakes. There was nowhere to hide on the open field of snow and ice. Fuck.

And then he realized it was Langly, coming out looking for them sooner than the agreed upon time. And he was more grateful than he could say. First thing Langly did was to take John from him, drag him into the warm cabin of the sno-cat. John revived a little from the warmth, as they both worked on settling him in the cabin. "Ree?" he muttered. "You came for me?"

"You bet, G-man," Langly said. "Wouldn't miss it for the world. I got some great pictures too. Just relax. We're getting you out of here."

Langly closed the door on John and turned to Mulder. "I've got extra fuel, do you need any?"

"Yes," Mulder said. There wasn't anything to do but take the gas can from Langly, then watch Langly crawl back into his sno-cat with John, pausing to kiss him gently on the cheek before starting the vehicle again. Mulder pushed aside the memory of the ill-considered kiss that had nearly happened between him and John. The pair of them were truly good for each other. If nothing else, Mulder had seen Langly become truly more confident, rather than full of the arrogance that hid internal insecurity. John, in turn, seemed gentler and less melancholy, like he was beginning to forget some of his sorrow.

Besides, he had his own reason for living to get back to, he thought with a grin. Two reasons to live. He could hardly wait to leave this frigid landscape. He filled his tank and headed back home. Walter was waiting. So was Lovey.

No matter what she changed, the end was inevitable, even more tragic in this iteration because of the changes she'd made. She was in the midst of the family still to see as Mulder's mind was changed, responded to that bit of alien ship. She saw how frantic little Lovey, now four, when she wasn't allowed to see her Daddy. Walter's agony was clear, plain as day. Doggett himself was not a man to be messed with, Jenn thought, as he raced to Africa in pursuit of an alien ship buried on the coast. He was so desperate for any cure for Mulder, that he'd do anything. In the end, Mulder was returned home, but the brain malady remained with him, momentarily quiescent, but not for long.

The agony repeated itself a year later. Mulder and Doggett joked their way around the Oregon woods, but in the end, Mulder still stepped into the aliens' field. And then he was gone, and it was John Doggett who watched open mouthed as the giant craft hovered for a moment, then sped away in a move that seemed to flaunt every law of physics and reality. It was John who cried as he reported to Walter, "I'm sorry, sir. I lost him. I lost him."

It was Lovey's agonized, confused tears, only five and without her beloved father, that strengthened Jenn's resolve to do it again, right this time, to work this out. She remembered how tightly Fox had hugged Lovey to him as he left for Oregon, like he could never bear to lose her. But now, with her father gone, the pain to the child was so great that Jenn wondered, for the first time, at the wisdom of having arranged circumstances such that she arrived in the world.

Perhaps, Jenn thought, having seen how much Mulder had suffered, the solution was to take him out of the FBI before it beat him down, before he grew jaded by it.

Mulder poked around the warehouse, looking for the perp. Carefully. He'd been warned by Luther Lee Boggs. Not that he believed for one instant that the warning had been a psychic one. No, this was a trap, but one that could be sprung on the would-be captor, should they trip it just right. Mulder turned the corner, and there. That was the white cross he'd been warned about, but before he could react, the shot rang out. He heard it, then felt it as a massive, all encompassing pain. There wasn't anything else at all, until the blackness took him.

Mulder woke in a cool room, feeling like hell warmed over. He almost panicked at the unfamiliar feel of the tube down his throat, but he was able to get himself together at the sudden feel of a warm hand on his. Scully. The small but strong hand was unmistakable. There was a small medical fluster, but he paid attention only to her support, her touch. And eventually, he drifted to sleep again.

Each time he woke after that, he was stronger. Eventually, he was no longer intubated. And then was when he spoke about the thing had worried him. Scully was sitting next to him, looking lovely, for all that she was drawn and pale. Her skin was near perfect alabaster, but more like a statue's than a living woman's.

"Luther Lee Boggs went to the gas chamber yesterday," she said, her voice even, but he could hear the repressed emotion behind it.

Damn Luther Lee Boggs. Who the hell cared about him?

"Scully," he said. His voice sounded unbelievably rough, like it was some miracle that he was talking at all. "Where was I hit, Scully? Where?"

She didn't want to tell him. When she did, it was in the measured clinical tones she would use for an autopsy. Her way of getting her emotions under control over herself was always to depersonalize, to retreat under the guise of logic and science.

"The bullet entered your body approximately one inch to the left and one inch below your navel. It ricocheted against your pelvic bone then finally lodged into your spine, between the second and third lumbar vertebrae, partially shattering both of them and spreading bone fragments throughout your lower back area. There was no involvement of the vena cava, but there was significant damage to your whole lower abdomen."

In other words, it was a miracle he was alive. But he was hardly thinking of that. His spine. Oh. God. No. "My spine!" he whispered. The mere thought was as agonizing as the pain was when the meds wore down. "I'm paraplegic. Aren't I? I can't feel anything from my navel down."

Scully didn't say anything, just lowered her anguished eyes.

"Scully, damn it. Tell me the truth."

She finally risked a look. She breathed hard. "Yes. In all likelihood, you will not regain feeling or function in your lower legs. The spinal cord was more or less completely severed. They didn't want me to tell you that. They don't want to take away your hope for recovery. But I...I can't tell you anything but the truth, Mulder."

He wanted to die. It didn't happen. When it didn't happen, he eventually got out of the hospital, bound to his chair, but more bound by the despair that infected every pore of his being.

That had definitely been a mistake, Jenn thought from a distance, as she watched Mulder push away all help. Any care from Scully. Any care from anyone that was not professionally paid and cooly impersonal. Jenn tried to help. She sent Walter. Mulder remained impervious to any overtures from big, bald and beautiful. Not just Mulder's body but his spirit had been broken by her decision to change his life. This had to be fixed.

In the end, she approached Mulder. He was sitting in the little park outside of the convalescent home he was living in at the moment. The impersonal care of their staff was the only help he would accept. Today, they'd wheeled him outside to enjoy the warm spring day, but he'd hunched in his chair, focused on his internal blackness.

She sat on the park bench nearest to him, sipping at a paper cup of coffee. After a while, she looked to him. "Do you ever think about wishes?" she asked.

"No, not really," he said, bitterly.

"If you could have anything, anything at all in the world, what would that be?" she asked. She was surprised at his answer, which she thought would be to fall asleep and wake up to find that it had all been a big nightmare.

"That my partner had found that boy before he was killed, not after. That all of this would have meant something. She was so distracted by my nearly dying that she wasn't fast enough to save his life."

It's okay, Jenn thought. I can hear the other wish, the unspoken one. Go to sleep, Mulder. You'll wake to good health and spirits. He did just that. Drifted to sleep in his chair as the cherry blossoms drifted down onto his beautiful, pain-twisted face, like snow falling on the innocent.

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