Happy Endings (part 2/2)

by Rose Campion

Mulder went out into the nippy fall air to check his mail. Down the driveway and across the country road to the mailbox on the post. His house wasn't quite rural, but it was far enough outside of the small Virginia town he lived in to make him happy. It was a good hundred yards from his front door to the mailbox, just far enough to have made him stop for his jacket first before walking out the door. The wind was enough of a bully to rip orange and yellow leaves from the trees and toss evergreen boughs mercilessly. Rain soon, he thought, from the ache in an ankle he'd broken when he was young and foolish, playing 'football' when he'd been studying in England. Heavy rain, maybe storms.

He checked inside the big aluminum mailbox. A few bills. Another issue of "The Magic Bullet", the magazine published by his strange friends, the ones that called themselves the Lone Gunmen because of something supposedly said to them by a Black Ops agent when they were uncovering a supposed conspiracy to test Baltimore's asthmatics with a paranoia inducing drug. Great guys, and he liked them tremendously, but you could hardly believe a word they said sometimes. He'd met them at a conference on unusual phenomena that he'd gone to once. Still, he was glad to get another issue. It would provide an evening's entertainment. This issue's cover story was on Teletubby mind control. He chuckled at that. Not that he had anything better to do with his Friday evening anyway. He was theoretically close enough that he could dive into Washington DC for a show or an evening out at the clubs, but in practice, he rarely went. Sometimes, when he did, he satisfied a few of his baser urges in the backrooms at one of the clubs, but the enjoyment was always fleeting, leaving him feeling cheap in the clear light of morning back at home. It was always easier, mentally, physically to remain at home.

He shut the door to the mail box and walked across the street. He thought about skipping his run and heading into town and hitting the cafe owned by his friend Jenn before his afternoon of appointments. That might not be such a bad thing. His ankle was certainly voting for no run.

His was a solitary, but mostly not a lonely life. Except for his patients, he might never see another human in a given day, unless he forced himself. He'd talk on the phone and by convoluted emails to his Gunmen friends, but only rarely saw them in person. Jenn had tried to draw him out, introduce him to others in the small town and most of the time he found himself glad for the contact, but just as glad to get back to his little country house when it was done.

Yes, it was mostly a satisfying life, in his small comfortable house and his small practice that gave him enough to live on while only taking part of his time. He ran a lot and indulged his other hobbies. Yet, the times he sat still, he could feel the loneliness- like a big portion was missing from the very center of his self. He couldn't tell what that might be, but he could sort of feel around the edges of it from the strange compulsions he would get sometimes. The conventions on paranormal events were one. The reason he'd taken up target shooting as a hobby was from some sense that his hand belonged on a gun. He was good at it too, had a real talent for it. And then there were the men. He couldn't explain a certain softening and longing he felt whenever his glance fell on a certain type of man- strong, muscular, bald and wearing glasses. It was a rare combination, but it was a feeling that made him feel utterly lost when he came across one of these types. He couldn't explain it. It was like he was mourning the loss of a man he'd never even met. The most inexplicable were the times when he'd wake up from a dream calling out the name Lovey. He'd even asked his mother about it, whether he'd had a childhood friend by that name or anything. She said he hadn't.

Today, he thought, seemed like one of those days, where the edges around the crater in the middle of his heart started to recede from the comfortable mist that kept them obscured much of the time. If he stood too still, or even if he indulged in the quiet meditation of a good run, he might start to see the true size of it.

He went back inside, put the mail on the little wooden table in the hall. He traded jackets, grabbing a heavier one from the squiggly coat rack by the door and putting the one he'd been wearing back on. He paused to look at the Picasso print that hung over his mail table. It'd been a gift from Richard, a boyfriend of long ago. An important man who'd wanted him to come home from England before his degree at Oxford had been finished. And live more or less as his kept boy, Mulder thought bitterly, even still. He'd told Richard no and hadn't regretted not coming home early. Not once. Even when various people, including the FBI had made him job offers, some of them lucrative, to lure him to DC. He pushed the thought behind him. Richard had been years and years ago. He'd been a young fool. At least he hadn't compounded that foolishness by taking the FBI job, or any of the others.

Mulder turned away from the print and from his small, well built little house. He was about to reach for the door when the phone rang. He picked it up and said, "Hello?"

"Fox!" The person on the other end of the line was his sister Samantha, crying obviously. Uncharitably, he wondered what town's jail she was calling from this time. "You have to help me, Fox. I'm in the Fairfax county jail. They picked me up. They say I was drinking and driving but I wasn't, I swear it. And you have to come help me. Get me out of here. Please!"

Something had happened to Samantha when she was young. She'd been missing for a while, just taken one evening when the whole family was sitting around watching television. No one remembered what really happened. The lights went out. When they went back on again, Samantha was gone and they'd lost several minutes of time. A few months later, she was returned, just found walking down a road not far from their house. It was a miracle to have her returned. But she was never the same after that. She'd grown from a troubled girl to a troubled woman. She drank. All the time, as an obvious kind of self-medication. Yes, Mulder felt for her, even now as he prepared himself to tell her to go to hell, he ached and wished there was something he could do. But he'd learned that hauling her ass out of jail wasn't helping, and that until she decided she was going to make the effort to truly heal her life, the best thing he could do was not to enable her. Still, his instinct was to get in his car, cancel his day's appointments and go rescue her.

"Samantha," he prepared himself to be firm. Not uncaring, but unmoving. "I told you before, when you're in police custody, not to waste your phone call, calling me. I can't come bail you out. Furthermore, I won't bail you out ever again. I will call Mom for you, and she can call a lawyer or something."

"But Fox. I didn't do it. You can't leave me in here. It's not my fault."

"Until you admit accountability for your actions, Samantha, we have nothing to talk about. I'm sorry. Goodbye, sweetie. I know it doesn't seem like it to you right now, but I really do love you."

Tough love was all fine and well to talk about, but to actually do it was hell. He hung up the phone, resting it in its cradle gently when his actual impulse was to throw it against the wall. Then he composed himself and picked up the phone again. His fingers quickly punched in the numbers to his mother's house. Not the house he'd grown up in. That had been sold. After his father died, his mother had sold it. Not that they'd always been on the verge of divorce, but not all their years together had been happy, and his death, though she'd never once said it, seemed to come as a relief to her.

"Mom?" he asked, when the phone was picked up.


"Mom, I got another call from Sam. She's in Fairfax."

This kind of call had happened often enough that she didn't have to ask "Fairfax what?" Instead, she just was silent for a moment. "Oh, Fox. Can't you just take care of her? She moved there to be with you. She loves you so much and she just needs so much help. Her life has been so hard."

The disappointment was like a knife, the attempted guilt trip twisting it as his mother tried to pinion him with it. He had to be strong, he told himself. If she wanted to enable Sam's behavior, he couldn't control that, but he could stop her from controlling his. The puppet strings were only hers if he gave them to her.

"No, Mom. I told the both of you. No more. I meant it. I told her I would call you. And I did. That's all I'll do. Goodbye, Mom."

Then he hung up before she could haul out any more of her excuses. She was a woman. She just didn't feel comfortable going to bail someone out of jail, that was a man's job. She was so far away. Sam loved him so much, couldn't he see how much he was hurting her?

His life was his own. He liked it that way. He wouldn't let his remaining family sink their hooks into him that way. That was all there was to it. And for Sam's own sake, he had to set clear limits and boundaries.

He decided he had to get out of here before anyone else disturbed him with their crisis. He shut the door behind him and locked it. Probably in a town this small, he didn't need to bother, but better safe than sorry. His pickup was waiting in the driveway.

He arrived at the town square and found himself a parking spot in the diagonal slots around the courthouse. Jenn's place, "Happy Endings," was the one with the dark purple awning, and the big plate glass window. Maybe half a dozen little round tables clustered in the dark, yet inviting cafe. She'd decided on a faux Arabic look, with painted gold arches on the deep purple walls, cluttered with big glass jewels. More sort of an Aladdin and the Magic Lamp kind of look than anything. Oriental carpets were spread all over the dark pine floor and there was even a couple of the oil lamps that stereotypically held a genie, just waiting to be released. Now, that was a dangerous thing, he thought. This came out of the deep blue nowhere, and skittered across his mind like a rat, but was gone in an instant.

He stepped up to the counter and waited for a moment. The shop was almost empty, only a pair of nurses from the local hospital at the table furthest in the corner. Mulder knew them both and suspected they were having an affair. The close way they huddled over their cups of joe didn't do anything to disprove this.

He waited a little longer and finally Jenn emerged from the back. "Mulder!" she said, still wiping her hands on a dishtowel whose other end was tucked under her apron string. "I didn't hear you. I was just trying to get the dishes from the morning rush done."

She didn't bother to ask him what he wanted. It was always the same. In the summer, a big iced tea, no matter the time of day. In the cool parts of the year, plain coffee, black. She drew his cup of Mocha Java which was the regular house brew. As she handed it to him, she said, "Anything else? We've got new kinds of muffins. Frosted lemon poppyseed."

He shook his head and reached out for his coffee.

"You look like somebody kicked your puppy? What's wrong?"

"Sam's in the drunk tank again."

"You have your reasons for not going, Mulder. Stick to them."

"I know, but that doesn't make them easier."

"You know what you need? A date. Let me set you up."

"No, thanks," he said. The only times he'd tried to involve himself in relationships lately had been disasters. The last thing he needed was a blind date.

"Seriously. I think you need to get laid," she said.

Mulder thought it was unnecessary to tell her that he didn't need a date to get laid, if that's what he wanted. He just gave her a look. She continued oblivious, "So, what's your pleasure? Tall, dark and pretty with a wicked disposition? Tall, dark, broody and ruggedly handsome, maybe with an air of tragedy to make him interesting?"

"Give it a rest, Jenn," he said. For some reason, he didn't feel like he could tell her his true type- bald, sexy and muscular. With glasses. Mulder was not quite sure why the glasses were necessary, but they were definitely part of the package.

"I know lots of cute guys," she said.

He just shook his head and collected his coffee and a few sections of the newspaper that someone had abandoned and chose one of the tables near the window. He hadn't sat down for a few moments when the door to the cafe opened again, with a jingle of the camel bells that were tied to it with an elaborate cord.

Oddly, two of his friends walked in. Byers, the normal looking one of the trio, yet the strangest internally speaking. Byers wore suits. Everywhere. Today he was all buttoned up in one of his usual suits, his only concession to the fall was that the suit was a brownish color. And there was Langly, the one who'd perfected a kind of geek cool. He had big thick geek glasses, but they were an odd kind of stylish, almost edgy. His long blond hair was bound back in in a ponytail. He usually affected plain black clothing, giving in occasionally to a Ramones t-shirt.

"Mulder!" Langly said, walking up to Mulder's table without an invitation. "Byers here got a wild hair up his butt about seeing the fall leaves, so we took a drive. Then we realized we were within ten minutes of your place. I hope you don't mind us dropping in. We came looking for you here when you weren't at your house."

"No, no problem," Mulder said. Actually, he'd thought he would mind such an intrusion, but it was welcome instead. "Sit down. I just got the new issue. Haven't had a chance to read it yet. Teletubby mind control. Sounds very deep, very cutting. Where's Frohike?"

Before Langly or Byers could answer, the door to the cafe opened again. An odd couple walked in. He was, strangely, almost exactly one of the men Jenn had just described. Tall, dark, broody and ruggedly handsome. With a definite air of tragedy about him. He wore a nice suit and conservative tie. Still, something about him just reeked of the title "Fed." Beside him was a beautiful, petite woman, dressed in an expensive looking pantsuit. They scanned the cafe briefly and then approached him.

"Are you Dr. Fox Mulder?" the man asked. Mulder nodded and the man continued, "I'm Special Agent John Doggett of the FBI. This is my partner Special Agent Dana Scully. Can we have a few minutes of your time?"

Something inside of Mulder snapped. This pair seemed to him to be dangerous far beyond the normal suspicion anyone would feel when being confronted with the FBI. Yet, there was a strange longing, as if some piece of himself were calling out to him over the distance. It meant something to him, the FBI did. What, Mulder wasn't sure. It seemed to come from some deep place inside.

Mulder nodded, though he wanted more than anything to send the pair away without speaking to them. This was dangerous. It was a threat to the tranquil life he'd established here.

"Alone, if possible," Scully, the woman said. Scully? Why did that name sound familiar. No, not just the baseball announcer.

"No, my friends stay if you want me to talk," he said.

"Okay, but if anything we say ends up in that greasy rag of yours, Langly, we're never talking to you again," Doggett said.

"You know Langly?" Mulder asked.

A strange look passed between Langly and Doggett, actually the second one that the pair had exchanged. Surprise at finding each other here, but something else as well that Mulder couldn't quite read. "Yeah, I know Langly. And Byers, and their buddy Frohike," Doggett said. He pulled up a chair from another table. The little table Mulder had chosen had been hardly big enough for his coffee and the paper. Now it had five people clustered around it. "You probably know that they run a paper called 'The Magic Bullet'. They've tracked us down, tried to get us to talk to them for a couple of stories."

Byers spoke up, "Agent Doggett here and Agent Scully run a little known unit of the FBI called the X-files. They investigate unexplained, unsolved cases. Naturally, it would be within the purview of our paper to try and speak with them."

"Okay, that explains how you know them. But what do you want with me?"

"Just to ask you a few questions, Dr. Mulder," Doggett said. He got an old snapshot out of a file folder. It wasn't the clearest, but Mulder recognized at least one of the men in it immediately. Certain other men in the pictures seemed familiar but he couldn't quite place them.

"Do you recognize that man, there?" Doggett indicated the man with his index finger.

"Yes, that's my father. He died about five years ago. He was shot during a house robbery."

"Do you recognize anyone else in the picture?"

Mulder tried to dredge up names to connect with faces, the near eidetic memory that had served him so well in medical school failed him now. "No. They might have been people he worked with. But none of them are people he ever brought home."

"You mention your father's work," Scully said. "Can you tell us anything about it?"

"No, not really. He worked for the state department. He was gone a lot of the time, out of the country. I imagine a lot of his work was classified, because he never once talked about it at home."

"Nothing? No mention of any Project? Anything called Purity Control?"

"No, I told you, he never talked about work at home. And he's dead now. Is that all?" Mulder was afraid. He was telling the truth, his father never did talk about work, but there was always a kind of hushed secrecy about that, enough so that Mulder had to wonder if it was something his father was not proud of, a grim necessity. His fear made him irritable. He wanted to push these agents away and get on with his life.

Doggett seemed about to start up again, but Scully put a hand on the man's hand and she said, politely, "Thank you for your time. That's all for now."

"My card. Call me if you think of anything else. See ya around, Langly, Byers," Doggett said as he dropped a small, white card on the table near Mulder's coffee. Mulder didn't pick it up.

As soon the door had jangled closed, Mulder turned to his friends. "You know those guys?"

"Sure," Langly said. "We've written about them. Helped 'em out a few times. Frohike's fault really. He thinks Agent Scully is hot."

"And you?"

"Nah, she's not really my type," Langly said, and then was oddly silent. Mulder reviewed his mental movie of how Langly had behaved and where he'd been looking when the pair of agents had been there, and made some interesting conjectures about Langly's sexuality that had never occurred to him to make before.

Byers joined in where Langly left off, delivering his information in his usual monotone. The guy could have made a good living narrating science documentaries or something. "As I said, they run a little known investigative unit of the FBI known as the X-files. They look into the unsolved and unexplained cases that no one else at the Bureau will take on. Agent Doggett is especially interested in UFO and EBE phenomena."

"He doesn't really strike me as the type," Mulder said, thinking back on the stern, almost humorless man. He'd have pegged him as ex-military for sure. Not exactly someone you'd figure would be chasing after little green men.

"He wasn't. He was a model agent. Commendations up the ying-yang," Langly added. "Until 1993. He was off in Wyoming on the trail of some fugitive. His wife and son were at home in Virginia, but on their way to visit family in New York. Lonely, nearly deserted road at night. The car stops. There was a bright light. And then the wife and son were just gone."

"Despite that the road was nearly deserted, there were five eyewitnesses that reported an aircraft hovering nearby that matched typical descriptions of UFOs," Byers added.

"Three months later, Mrs. Doggett returns," Langly picked up the narrative again, "With a memory that's pretty patchy, remembering that she'd been subjected to what she called tests. Routine medical tests found several pieces of metal in her body, that were later determined to look like computer chips. They took them out and six months later, Mrs. Doggett was dead of a rare form of cancer. And Agent Doggett there had started off in search of answers."

"And his boy?"

"Never returned," Byers added. "Agent Doggett is still looking for him."

Mulder grimaced, remembering the tension and anger that had taken siege to his family when Sam had been missing. And she'd come back, damaged, but returned to them. He sympathized. The man must be devastated by what had happened to him. But that didn't give them the right to go digging in Mulder's personal life.

"Any idea why he might be interested in my father?"

"Mulder, you might not have recognized the other men in that photograph, but I do," Byers said. "One of them was Victor Klemper. An infamous Nazi brought over to this country under the auspices of something known as Project Paperclip. Werner Von Braun was the most famous of them, but not the only one. I suspect that Doggett suspects that your father may have been involved in bringing over war criminals even more infamous, something that may be classified."

"Wait!" Mulder said. He wasn't quite surprised. He knew that his father very probably had been involved in things he wouldn't have wanted the family to know. But this was surprising. "My father brought Nazi war criminals to this country? Why would he have done that? My mom. Her family. They're Jewish. She had family that died in Nazi camps."

Mulder was sick to his soul, a twisting, ache at the thought that his father might have done that.

"I don't know for sure Mulder. We only have pieces of the information," Byers said.

"Well, I want to find out," Mulder said. He fingered the little white card that Doggett had dropped. He wasn't sure what he was going to do yet. He doubted that Doggett would volunteer more information if he had it. Mulder would have to think of his next steps carefully.

Jenn watched from behind the counter as the melancholy Agent Doggett and Scully walked out of the coffee shop. She covered a big sigh by pulling a shot of espresso for the drink she was making. Try as she might, she could never prevent Mulder from coming into contact with certain people. They seemed to drift towards each other like iron filings to a magnet. If she kept him out of the FBI, then he'd run into Skinner at the grocery store and start up a conversation and before Jenn knew it, they were lovers. Mulder would come across Langly, Frohike and Byers at the most unlikely of circumstances. Other connections seemed to arise no matter how she separated the players in her dance. Connections, once made, did not break easily, it seemed. Doggett found Langly, even the times that Mulder's lover was Doggett, not Skinner, Doggett had had an unrequited, passionate something with Langly. Scully often found Krycek, though more often than not, theirs was a vicious, hateful relationship, full of fire and venom that neither of them could adequately explain.

And there seemed to be some law of the conservation of pain and suffering. This iteration, she had given him Sam back, and for all the troubles he had with her, he was still happy to have her around. Not as tortured as he had been. But despite, or perhaps because of this, Agent Doggett's child had taken Sam's place, in a way. Luke had become the touchstone to an obsession, just like Sam had been to Mulder. It was as if by taking Mulder out of his rightful place in the universe, there had been a vacuum created, one that had pulled Agent Doggett into it. The quest, that seemed to remain the same, only it was Doggett's now.

Mulder paused at the front door of his office briefly before daring the rain. He was protected by the same awning that covered Jenn's cafe. The cafe was still open for the night and he considered stopping in for a sandwich before heading home, but he decided against it. Dinner would be whatever he could throw together at home. He turned to make sure his door was locked. He rattled the handle and pushed against it to make sure he'd remembered to throw the deadbolt. Dr. Fox Mulder, specializing in psychiatry and post trauma counseling, the glass read, in gold letters. His office was upstairs from the coffee shop. It was just a few small rooms, a converted apartment really. He couldn't resist having a couch, a thick, tufted leather thing. His patients were always given the option of just sitting in one of the chairs, if that's what made them comfortable. "I'm not much of a Freudian," he'd always said.

As he tested his door, he thought again of Agent Doggett, wondered why the mere thought of him set such a resonance ringing through his whole body, leaving him feel as if he were quivering with excitement. As if they'd met before. But they hadn't. Mulder would have remembered that, wouldn't he? He thought about the tragedy the man had suffered, wife dead, son missing and gone, without any good, clear reason why. Such brutalized, broken souls were the people Mulder helped up in his offices, letting them talk their way through their dark nights of the soul, more often than not those dark nights brought on by others in this hard, often cruel world. Sometimes, when the words weren't enough he had his prescriptions. He could offer drugs to make the days and nights more tolerable. He also could use hypnotherapy, when the stories weren't complete, when it was the memories that weren't clear that caused the problems.

Deciding that the rain wasn't going to slack off any time soon, he pulled his jacket up over his head and decided to make a break for it through the heavily pelting cold rain. He managed to slide behind the wheel of the old pickup with only a few drops of rain finding their way down his collar. The road between town and his house was familiar. Long familiar. He could probably find his way home from town in his sleep. He concentrated on driving carefully through the thick rain, which was beginning to freeze. He hoped Langly and Byers made it back to DC safely. They'd left before his appointments, with promises to find out just what exactly Doggett and Scully were on about, what rocks they were turning over to poke at the unsavory, multi-legged creatures that lived underneath.

Thinking about the Gunmen and the road, he didn't notice the red Ford pull out of its parking space and follow close behind him. Not until he got to his turn off and was about to turn up his driveway. The little road he lived off of was a private road and almost no one who didn't live on the road ever went on it. Technically, the road was his property, so was the field on the other side of it, but practically, the other six houses on the short stretch all got an easement and were allowed passage. Not that he cared much one way or the other. Still, he noticed when strangers were in the area. He drove his truck up the steep grade of his driveway and parked it in front of the garage. He looked down the hill, through trees that were mostly bare already. Yes, there was that red Ford, pulling off to the side of the road, where they could keep his property in easy sight. From up top, it was hard to tell, but it looked like there was a man and a woman in the car.

Okay, this was just past the limit. It was one thing to track him down to his favorite cafe and ask him prying questions about a past he knew nothing about, but this was too much. Following him and staking him out. If he were in a more casually angry mood, he would have been satisfied to let them sit there in the cold, and watch him do nothing of importance. This evening's big plans had been dinner and porn. He had a new Ramrod Stevens vid that looked very promising. But because he was more immediately angry at the intrusion, he decided he was going to roust the Fibbies from his property first.

He contemplated grabbing a shotgun from the downstairs gun safe, for dramatic effect, like he might use when threatening just any trespasser, but he decided that it wouldn't look good to threaten Federal agents with gunfire, no matter if they were trespassing or not. He didn't bring any weapon with him. He did trade his corduroy and fleece jacket for a rainproof slicker and his sneakers for old, sturdy, waterproof work boots. He grabbed his biggest, brightest flashlight. Then he hiked through the woods that surrounded his house, going around the side ways, so he could surprise the occupants of the car. He was able to get within feet of their car before they noticed that the intended object of their stakeout was right there, watching them. Mulder knocked on the driver's side window.

"Do you have a warrant?" he yelled through the glass and metal, shining his flashlight right through the window, so that it shone right into the eyes of whoever was sitting in the driver's seat.

The window rolled down. "What?"

"I said, do you have a warrant?"

"No," Doggett admitted.

"Then get the hell off my property," Mulder yelled. He didn't care that he wasn't being nice.

"I'm parked on the street," Doggett said. "On the shoulder. Public property. I don't need a warrant."

"Wrong. You missed the posted signs, asshole. This is a private drive. I own this patch of gravel you've got your fucking Bucar parked on, so I suggest you present me with a warrant or get your ass off of it. Now. No, wait. I want your badge numbers and the name of your supervisor."

"I don't have to..." Doggett began.

"You do. And you will."

Mulder heard a sigh from within the car. A half a moment later, a small sheet of paper was passed, by a delicate, feminine hand, across Doggett and into Mulder's hand. "Get going, Agent Doggett. The man's well within his rights."

Mulder stuffed the slip of paper into his pocket so it wouldn't get any wetter in the plastering rain, then watched as the Ford backed up and then was quickly gone. Mulder hiked back up the hill to his house. Once inside the cosy, warm hall, he retrieved the slip of paper. He looked at it closely. It was a lined paper with a rough edge, like it was torn out of a small notebook. On it were written two series of numbers and letters. Badge numbers. Then there was a phone number, and a name.

Assistant Director Walter Skinner. That was the name. Presumably the number belonged to him. Something devilish in Mulder decided to speak up and make itself known. It urged him to call that number, to give the man hell, even though it was nearly eight o'clock by now. He was suddenly sure this Walter Skinner was the kind of man who wouldn't fail to give his subordinates hell for not following all the proper procedures and forms. That might be worth it. Get these yahoos off his back for a while. He grabbed the hall phone, not stopping to take off his muddy boots or his dripping rain jacket. He dialed the number, hands nearly shaking angrily as he punched the digits in, one by one.

"Hello?" a warm, deep voice answered.

"Are you Assistant Director Walter Skinner?" Mulder demanded.

The response he got was more formal, tired sounding too, but like the man recognized immediately that business was going on and he'd better get to it. "I am. Who is this?"

Why did Mulder get the distinct impression that he'd reached the man at home. Mulder was flustered for a moment by his reaction to that strong, seductive voice. It penetrated through his whole body like stepping from an air-conditioned plane to a tropical climate, The sensation went right down to the soles of his feet, causing his stomach to liquefy, his hands to tremble. If he had felt some frisson of...familiarity with the pair of agents earlier, this was to that what a lighting bolt was to a lightning bug.

"Yes?" Skinner asked, impatiently.

Then Mulder shook himself, realizing he'd been silent for far too long. "I have a complaint about two of your agents," he said.

Skinner sighed. "This wouldn't happen to be Agents Doggett and Scully you're talking about here, would it?"

"How did..."

"I know? They're the only agents I supervise directly. And they informed me you might be calling. Or at least Agent Scully has the sense to know when she's pissed someone off, Dr. Mulder. But I can't imagine another agent besides Scully who would dare to give out my home phone number. What, exactly, did they do this time? From your point of view."

"Besides tailing me without provocation or probable cause, trespass onto my private property, without a warrant, not much. But that's quite enough. I'm a psychiatrist, Mr. Skinner. I can't afford to be tailed like this. Some of my patients, because of the nature of their traumas are highly suspicious people. If they think I'm being watched by the government they might go into hiding. I wouldn't be able to help some very sick people."

"Would you care to discuss this matter in person? I can have my assistant make time on my schedule for a meeting. Perhaps tomorrow at noon. I'll have had time to get a more accurate accounting of this trespass incident from my agents by then," Skinner said.

It suddenly occurred to Mulder that he would very much like to meet with this Walter Skinner, to see in person what the man who had that steel fist in a velvet glove voice looked liked. Yes, he had to meet this Skinner. Actually, now that he'd made the call, most of his ire had dissipated, like fog faced by the sun. But to meet the man in person, that would be worth the drive into the city. And if, as chances were, that the man was straight and that no spark happened between the pair of him, Mulder would take the opportunity to do a little shopping, maybe take in one of the Smithsonian museums, then get himself laid. He didn't have any appointments tomorrow. He'd been planning to use the day to work on the book he'd been working on perpetually for the last several years.

"Yes, I would appreciate that, Mr. Skinner," Mulder said. "Thank you for addressing this promptly."

"It's not much of a bother. And trust me, my agents will be the only ones feeling any bother from this incident."

They made arrangements for Skinner's personal assistant to contact Mulder on his cell phone once she had an exact appointment time.

He went to bed that night, not masturbating to the Ramrod Stevens video, but to his own personal fantasy of a strong, powerful, bald man. A fantasy who had suddenly a voice that was silk and steel, granite and honey.

In the morning, Mulder pulled up to Happy Endings in his second car, the sensible, new compact sedan he kept just for long drives into the city. He loved his truck, but he never quite trusted that it would get him to the city and back. People who had been born the year it was made were now graduating high school.

He walked in and actually had to wait in a small line before he got to the counter. Jenn had her part time help with her, making coffee drinks as fast as Jenn rang them up. The espresso machine was steaming constantly, almost roaring.

"You going somewhere exciting today, Mulder?" she asked when he got to the counter. She took in the suit, one of his best, something he rarely trotted out. She had to have seen him drive up in the Camry too.

"Into the city. I have an appointment. And I thought I'd hit a museum or two," he said. He wasn't going to say much more than that, even if she pressed him. On one hand, Jenn had always been a good friend to him, ever since he'd rented the offices just over her shop. Yet over time, he started feeling a certain suspicion towards her. A reluctance to share the things he held the dearest with her. A reluctance that had no bearing in facts. He had no reason to, but he mistrusted her these days.

"Okay, have a good time," she said as she handed him his drink, his usual coffee in a paper cup this time. She immediately got busy with the next stream of customers and didn't pay any more attention to him.

The drive into the city took longer than he expected, dumping him into the thick of traffic right in the middle of morning rush hour. More like rush hours. He remembered exactly why he didn't live in the city. He'd contemplated stopping by Sam's on the way, to see how she was doing, but by the time he would have been close enough, he just had barely enough to make his scheduled meeting with the Gunmen, who claimed they had more information.

Mulder parked his car, feeling damn lucky to have found a street parking spot so easily. He strolled into the park, looking for the usual park bench overlooking the reflecting pond where he had met the guys before, on the few times he'd met them in person. He knew that they had a place just outside of DC, but had never been there. The magazine's address, of course, was a post office box.

He had a few moments of slack to wait before the guys were scheduled to show up. Yesterday's storm had blown over, and though it was still cold enough to make him glad for both the wool suit and his dress trench coat, the sky was a brilliant blue, unmarred by any clouds. The air, even here in the middle of the city, was fresh, exhilarating. Full of false promises of new things, like fall winds so often were, promising new beginnings when the only thing they could really offer was change, and with winter coming, usually not change for the better. He knew that, first hand from his years at his practice. All change is not a good thing, and all endings are not necessarily new beginnings.

Still, the day was pleasant enough and he was glad for the sun on his face as he crunched sunflower seeds and looked up at the sky, waiting for the guys.

Soon, Frohike, all by himself, slipped onto the bench besides Mulder. He wore a much abused leather jacket and leather gloves, the kind without any fingers. Out of the three Gunmen, it was with Frohike that Mulder had the closest relationship. They exchanged the most and longest emails, the most phone calls. They'd even gone to a baseball game together once. Frohike had not just a lively and inventive mind, keeping Mulder's intellect engaged, but a warm and caring manner, one that always made Mulder feel like his company was welcome, that Frohike was the kind of old, best friend you could call in the middle of the night when the shit is really hitting the fan and he'd show up without complaint in a few minutes, shovel in hand.

"Where's Byers and..."

"Langly?" Frohike asked, shaking his head. Then he snorted and said, "Byers' wife had to work unexpectedly, which means that he had to stay home and baby-sit. And boy howdy did he catch it the one time he brought their girl to meet a contact. Langly spent the night at his boyfriend's and hasn't come back yet. Hence, yours truly, here in lone magnificence."

"Oh," Mulder said. The interesting conjectures about Langly were true, apparently.

"Shocked the hell out of me too," Frohike said. "I'm still reeling from it. Nevermind that I just found out that there is a mystery gentleman caller for the Lone Gunmen's favorite son, I just found out last night that Blondie plays for the other team, so to speak. To have been with us so long and never have even hinted at something so important. What happened yesterday, Mulder?"

"I'm not sure what you mean. Yes, the pair of them showed up, with no explanation for why you weren't there by the way, but we didn't talk about anything so... personal."

Mulder suddenly had the feeling that had the FBI agents not shown up, that they might have. That the excuse of going out to look at fall leaves and then being so close was just that, an excuse. That they'd actually gone looking for him. For advice, possibly in his professional capacity maybe, or just as a gay man. As someone Langly could talk to. Rather than pushing for the information he'd been hoping to get, Mulder let Frohike talk, sensing it was important to his friend. This must have been quite the shock.

"Well, they took off yesterday, with the only explanation that Langly wanted to tell Byers something important and personal. I didn't think much of that. Byers has always been the buffer between Langly and me. Hairboy and I argue a lot. They came back late in the afternoon and before Langly hardly gets in the room, the phone rings. He answers it and then he's gone. Leaving Byers to explain. I guess Langly came out to Byers during their drive, and also asked him to be the one to tell me."

Yes, Frohike was hurting over this one, and overall, it was leaving Mulder feeling like he'd stepped into the middle of some intense, almost familial situation. "He must have been afraid that you'd disapprove, Frohike. Do you?"

"Only that the punk didn't have the courage to tell me face to face and that he kept it secret so damn long. Mulder, I've worked with the two of them for years, lived with both of them until Byers got married. They're family. He should know better than that."

"He must value your good opinion tremendously, Frohike, and probably feels that your disapproval would be devastating to him," Mulder said. The little man looked dejected and he slumped on the bench beside Mulder, not even bothering to pull shut his leather jacket as the wind picked up.

"How do we even know if he can trust this guy he's taken up with? I don't know who it is. Even without the chance of sleeper agents and moles, it's dangerous out there. This guy could have aids, any other STD. I know. I lived through the 70s. I know what's out there."

"Then you'll just have to trust that Langly's a good judge of character and that he has the common sense to use condoms," Mulder said, thinking of some times where he hadn't taken his own advice. He wasn't about to mention that though. Frohike didn't appear much encouraged, not until Mulder punched him lightly on the arm and said, "You do trust him. I know you do, Fro."

"With my life."

"There you go then. So, I take it with all this hoo-hah, no one gathered any more information as to what Agents Doggett and Scully wanted from me."

"Nope, I poked around a little, and Byers promised me that Langly would be working on it, but I figure, he's a little distracted right about now."

Mulder had to agree with that, but wondered at this first sign he'd seen that any of the Gunmen had a life beyond the magazine. He hadn't known that Byers was married much less had a little daughter. "So, how about you, Fro?" he asked. "Langly's gay, Byers is married with child. Do you have any shocking domestic revelations?"

Frohike paused in leering at a passing jogger who was wearing far too little to cover her considerable... assets considering the weather. He shook his head. "No, like a knight of olden days, my heart remains true and pure."

"The lovely Agent Scully?" Mulder asked. Frohike sighed tragically. Mulder slipped an arm around Frohike's shoulder. "Okay, guy, I've got an hour before I have the meeting I came into the city for. Why don't we head that way and stop for a cup of joe or something? And you can tell me all about your admiration for Agent Scully. In the strictly chivalrous sense, of course."

Mulder just barely made it in time to the hunkering, massive pile of concrete that was the FBI's J. Edgar Hoover building. Instead of the guest pass he had been expecting, a pretty, pleasant woman with a familiar voice was there to greet him just on the other side of the metal detector.

"Hi, I'm Kim, AD Skinner's personal assistant," she said, holding out her hand for him. In her other hand, she had a guest pass. "AD Skinner wanted to make sure you arrived safely. He's in an unexpectedly long meeting with the Director, but he should be free soon. Let me take you upstairs."

And so Mulder was taken up to a huge office and asked to sit in the ante room. He sat on the leather sofa across from Kim. As she answered the phone and did the usual typing and office work, Mulder felt unaccountably nervous. It was as if part of him was expecting to be called on the carpet as soon as this Skinner character arrived. As if some part of him was expecting to be reamed out, and not in any good way. He played with the packet of sunflower seeds in his pocket nervously, but decided not to start cracking them. He wanted, no, needed, to make a good impression. The last thing he wanted was for Skinner to walk in as he was doing something like spitting out seed shells.

After an impossibly long time, Mulder was about to get up and tell Kim that he had to reschedule, that he couldn't wait any longer. Not because he had anything he had to get to today, but because he could no longer stand the churning anticipation. His stomach twisted at the thought of what the man he was waiting for would look like. Would be like.

Just as he was about to get up, to walk across the room to Kim, a pair of men walked in the room, talking in the way that was so soft Mulder couldn't quite hear, but so intense it skirted the boundaries between conversation and argument. One of the pair was strong, powerful looking, dark skinned with distinguished looking hair that was slowly turning white. This could be the AD. But he looked disagreeable, as if he'd just tasted something bad, and that didn't fit into Mulder's mental picture of the owner of that whiskey and honey voice from the phone last night.

No, it was the other man. It had to be. This man was muscular in a way his perfectly cut suit couldn't disguise. His steel gray hair, the fringe of it that was left, was trimmed close to his head. He wore glasses. And he was so beautiful. His face bore the lines and wrinkles and serious demeanor of someone who has seen much that he wished he hadn't, but was doing the best he could to stay afloat on that sea of sorrow. Not just afloat, but at his best, because his honor would permit him to do nothing less. Mulder felt like he knew this man, even though he had never met him. He could imagine the way he kissed, the softly powerful way his arms would enclose Mulder, the way his lips would be both demanding and receptive.

"Walter," Mulder whispered, not so much saying the word as breathing it out.

The man couldn't have heard him, not as softly as Mulder had spoken. Not as far away as he was. And yet, he turned and looked at Mulder. He narrowed his eyes just a moment, then his expression went blank, neutral, the habitual expression of a man used to hiding his feeling because of how dangerous they could be. Mulder could tell, though, that this was a man with hidden depths, with a wellspring of passion that once tapped, might very well flow forever.

The man turned to his companion and said, "You'll have to excuse me, Alvin, I've been keeping Dr. Mulder here waiting long enough. There's time enough to discuss this further on Monday. Dr. Mulder if you'll step this way..."

Mulder rose, unable to do anything but as he was bidden. Mulder found himself escorted into an impressive office, Skinner's hand a little overly familiar, resting on Mulder's back. Mulder couldn't help but wonder what would happen should that hand drift down to the small of his back, or even further down. As it was, it felt electric, a shockwave travelling down his spine and up it, completing some wild, reckless circuit. Only the veneer of civilized behavior, the prohibitions induced by manners, stopped Mulder from turning around and seeing just what would happen if he were to place his lips on those stern, beautiful lips.

Instead, Mulder focused on the office, the panelled walls, the flags, the portraits of the President and the Attorney General. Instead of leading Mulder to sit at one of the chairs in front of the desk, Skinner led Mulder to a set of chairs in front of a wall to ceiling window.

Mulder sat down at one and Skinner perched on the arm of another. "Dr. Mulder, I'm sorry that you had to make the trip all the way to the city, just to hear this apology."

"I'm not," Mulder said, not even realizing that he was speaking out loud until the words had escaped his lips. "I mean, I'm very pleased to meet you and if your agents leave me alone, that's all the apology I need."

"That's the problem, Dr. Mulder. My agents Doggett and Scully don't suspect you of any wrong doing, but they seem to believe your father's work has some bearing on a very serious investigation of theirs."

"I've told them everything I know about my father's work, which isn't much," Mulder said, very much afraid that this wasn't the end of it, but rather the beginning of something very complex indeed.

"I hate to be having this conversation here," Skinner said. He looked around the room, briefly, furtively. Perhaps he was even more paranoid than Mulder's Gunmen friends, believing himself to be surveilled. "Perhaps we could talk over lunch. There's a quiet place I know, not far from here."

"That'd be fine," Mulder said.

In the elevator on the way down, Skinner said to him, "I took a few minutes last night to look over your monograph on memory recovery with sensitivity to the issues of false memory syndrome. It was a fine piece of work with interesting implications as far as forensic psychology goes. Are you sure you've never studied forensics? I found no mention of it, but you seem to understand the issues implicitly."

"No, never formally," Mulder said. "When people come to me, usually they're at a point where they want to get beyond their trauma, not stir it up further by involving a police investigation. Sometimes it's a trauma that the police won't get involved in. Like abductee syndrome."

"So you're a believer?" Skinner asked.

"On the contrary," Mulder said. For all his informal investigations, his visits with those on the edge of the normal, his looks into the paranormal, he'd never seen one thing that sustained a belief in them. "I believe that those suffering from the syndrome have suffered some great trauma. That it's a dark night of the soul expressing itself as some kind of supernatural encounter, perhaps with the divine. But I find no evidence that these UFOs exist."

Skinner looked at him strangely, almost sadly. Then, just before the elevator door opened, he said, "I have seen things that I cannot explain. Frightening things, Dr. Mulder."

Skinner led the way through the lobby of the J. Edgar Hoover building. People parted around him like waves parted around a massive air craft carrier, partially in deference to his position, but it also seemed like it was part personal power. This man was a kind of force of nature. Mulder followed in his wake, closely. Then they were out on city streets that suddenly seemed gray and lonely, the pure blue of the sky suddenly clouded with a maritime storm that had rolled in from the east in the short time Mulder had been in the building. Mulder was thankful that he kept in shape running, and that his legs were long, because Skinner's fast, impatient strides would have been hard to keep up with otherwise. And Mulder got the impression that had he been in some way not up to Skinner's physical standard, either young or old, or shorter, that the man would have moderated his speed, but that being Skinner's physical equal nearly, there would be no sufferance from that quarter, that he expected Mulder to keep up.

Shortly, they were at a small coffee shop. It was a little too upscale to be merely a diner, not fancy enough to have hooked on to some fancy appellation like a bistro. Its dining room was sunny and pleasant and the furniture dark and inviting. The waitstaff seemed to know Skinner by name, and treated him with full deference.

"Two today, Mr. Skinner?" the waitress said. She seemed surprised to see him there with someone. Mulder got a sudden picture of a lonely man who ate most of his meals alone in restaurants, choosing one regular place because the familiarity was something like a home base. And he had brought Mulder here. This was decidedly more than a business lunch, more than the Assistant Director kissing butt to apologize for misbehaving subordinates. This was very personal.

"Two," Skinner affirmed. As they were led to a table by the window, a comfortable little booth, he asked, "How's the blue plate?"

"It's good today," the waitress promised.

"Then one of those, rare."

Mulder looked at the list of specials taped to the front of the menu, hand written and xeroxed. "Make that two. Medium rare for mine."

"And a carafe of your house red. Unless you don't drink red, Dr. Mulder."

"Please, it's Mulder to my friends. Or," Mulder suddenly felt very emboldened, something that almost never happened. "Or Fox. Please, call me Fox. And no, I don't drink at all very often," Mulder said. But he could down a glass now. It wouldn't do any harm. His heart was unruly, wild, making it's own demands, and one of those was that he not let this man down in any way no matter how slight. "But it's fine."

"I'm sorry," Skinner said after the waitress had gone. "I just felt the need to celebrate."

"Celebrate what?"

Skinner reached over and placed his big, heavy hand on top of Mulder's own. That hand was strong, Mulder could feel tendons like steel cables in it. Skinner's thumb stroked the soft, sensitive flesh on the top of Mulder's hand, between the thumb and forefinger. That touch was like fire.

"Meeting you," Skinner said, softly in that voice, with such restrained power that Mulder shivered.

The words echoed through Mulder's ears again and again. Skinner didn't let go of his hand for what seemed like long, terrifying minutes. It was like every dream of Mulder's was suddenly coming true. Like time had stopped for a petrifying moment. Like he had stepped off the edge of reality into some unknown and frighteningly wonderful place, where all dreams come true, where every wish is granted.

Put off by Mulder's hesitancy, Skinner turned away slightly and said, "I'm sorry. I make assumptions, I just..."

"Felt a connection that you could neither explain nor deny," Mulder said, putting his other hand on top of Skinner's to stop the big man from pulling it away. "Me too. I didn't come today because I wanted to complain about Agent Doggett. I came because of your voice."

"I wouldn't normally have asked someone to meet with me just to apologize for my agents. I would have sent them with their tails between their legs to make their own apologies," Skinner continued. Suddenly, all four of their hands were clasped together and Mulder was wishing he could get up, close the distance of the table between them and kiss the man. "Do you believe in destiny, Fox?"

"No," Mulder said. This was not like him. So very much not like him to let such a welling up of emotion show, but it seemed to overwhelm him unless he gave it some release. To not reach out and touch this man sitting opposite him seemed untenable. Because they were in a public place, their bodies could not express the truths they were feeling, mere words would have to suffice for the moment. "But I believe in fate. That the world hands us connections, curveballs of life that we can neither control nor refuse. And I feel that in some way, I have been looking for you my whole life."

Suddenly, the carafe of wine showed up along with two wine glasses. The waitress set them on the table swiftly then made her retreat just as quickly. She, like all good waitresses, seemed to understand when her presence was undesired.

"It's hardly a fine wine with a cork to smell and all," Skinner said, as he poured for them. "But it's decent and ordinary. And I'm not much of a wine man anyway."

"And it's too early for anything harder," Mulder said. His glass of wine was pushed at him.

Skinner lifted his own glass and said, "To good beginnings and happy endings. May we someday find our own."

Mulder lifted his glass and drank to that. "And may the universes great mysteries someday be revealed as a simple truth that we have only to look at from the right perspective to see."

If Mulder had been all but bouncing with energy before, he could hardly sit still after this exchange. It seemed uncouth to suggest that they skip lunch and get a room, but that's exactly what he wanted to suggest. He suppressed the want of his body to get to know this man in the Biblical sense. Instead, over a well grilled London broil, Mulder tried to get to know the actual man, to stuff his cranium with every bit of knowledge about the man was he could drag out of the questions he managed to wedge in between the questions that the other man asked him. It was awkward at first, more interrogation on both their parts than conversation, but they said one thing, then another and before they knew it, they were talking, easily, as if they had known each other for years. As if this was something that was meant to be.

Then suddenly realizing that lunch and the wine was long gone, Mulder chanced a look at his watch. Their lunch had started at two and it was nearing five already. Indeed, the silvery light of the cloudy day was already starting to dim to gray.

"Your work," Mulder started. "Shouldn't you have been due back long ago? I'm sorry. I know you must be a busy man."

"Not so damn busy that I can't take an afternoon off. But if you have to get going," Walter said. Funny, how in such a short time it had gone from Mr. Skinner to Walter.

"No, not at all. I'm completely free until Monday," Mulder said. What he didn't admit was that he never wanted to leave the side of this man again. He was bold enough to suggest the thing he'd been thinking about earlier. He wanted to see if the way Walter filled out his pristine white shirt was a promise that would be kept. Mulder was all but panting over the thought of getting his hands on those beautiful shoulders and that magnificent ass. "I was just wondering if you'd be interested in. I mean, I was thinking about staying overnight in the city. Getting a hotel room."

Damn it. That didn't come out nearly a tenth as well as he'd wanted it to. He wanted this man. Bad. So badly that he was sounding like a wallflower at the junior high dance.

Thankfully, Walter's hands found their way to Mulder's again. Their gentle strength was all the reassurance that Mulder needed. With eyes that were nearly completely black with arousal, Walter said, his voice even more throaty than usual, "Come home with me, Fox."

Somehow, the way he said it made it sound more like he was asking Mulder to come home again. And never leave.

"Yes," Mulder said. Could his answer be anything else?

They couldn't get out of the restaurant fast enough to suit Mulder. Then, it was torture to have to retrieve his car from where he'd left it and follow Walter home, out to suburbia to the expensive looking tower that he lived in.

At last he pulled into the guest parking space in the garage underneath Walter's building. Walter had gotten there just a few moments sooner than Mulder and he rushed up to Mulder's car as soon as it was parked. They hadn't yet kissed, but it seemed a foregone conclusion that they would make love, very likely the instant they had Walter's front door shut behind them.

The instant Mulder opened his door and stepped out of his car, Walter was right there, acting as if he just might reach out and kiss Mulder right there in the parking lot. Their lips were mere inches apart, but someone pulled into the garage, and they reluctantly pulled away from each other as the car drove close.

"Let me get my bag," Mulder said. He hadn't planned on spending the night in the city, but it was just a habit of his, packing a travel bag, even for these short trips to the big city. He pretty much kept one packed in the trunk of this car all the time, to save time.

He grabbed it out of his trunk now, then followed Walter to the elevator. There'd be time to call the Gunmen later, to find out if they'd discovered anything, and perhaps satisfy his curiosity about Langly's mystery boyfriend. This moment was more important than any of that.

Walter opened the door and let him into an expansive apartment with white walls and dark furniture. It was impersonal, but luxurious in a way. Walter shut the door behind them, then suddenly Mulder found himself with an armful of eager man. He was pushed up against the door and the plundering started, mouth hard and wonderful on his, fingers surprisingly nimble for their size working to free Mulder's tie and other clothes. Once Mulder was free of his tie, and so far gone that he didn't even notice where it had ended up, he sagged against the door, a puddle of acquiescence. Anything that Walter wanted out of him at this moment, he could have had for the asking.

Walter took this as a reason for hesitation though. He backed off and, touching Mulder's face tenderly, said, "I don't want to rush you."

"For God's sake, rush me already, Walter," Mulder said, then pulled Walter close for a kiss. Then added between desperate kisses, "You could have me right here, right now. On the floor. You could have had me over the hood of my car in the parking garage."

Walter was just as needy, but he found the willpower to push Mulder away and say, "My bedroom. Upstairs. I'm too old for the floor to be very attractive any more. Condoms and lube are up there."

"Right here," Mulder said, reaching into his bag and pulling the objects in question out. Somehow, that led to more kissing, perhaps because Walter was so pleased with him. Then before long, both of their clothes were in disarray, pants down around ankles. Mulder kept his shirt on, but it was unbuttoned all the way down and open from when Walter had been sucking on his nipples. It seemed a natural progression, after all was said and done, to lean Walter against the front door, elbows supporting him. Then to nudge up to him. Mulder slowly eased himself into the tight but lubricated space there. They'd prepared Walter carefully, but still the man groaned a little as Mulder pushed into the place that seemed home to him, as if he had been missing for years and come back to just now.

"Are you okay?" Mulder asked.

"Better than okay," Walter said, and started to squirm, trying to back up against Mulder, wanting more of him. Okay, so maybe that groan had started as pain, but it wasn't pain the man was feeling now. "Or I will be as soon as you start getting busy back there."

Mulder did as he was told.

Eventually, they'd made it to Walter's bed and after another frenzied round of lovemaking, had grabbed a few hours of sleep. Then woken and made love again. And again.

Finally, they separated, so fully sated that for the moment, they had to emerge for breath, and for food. Mulder peeled himself off Walter and said, with a grin, "I think we need a shower."

Between the sweat and the other bodily fluids, that much was true, but Mulder also wanted a good reason to get out of bed. Hunger wasn't quite compelling enough yet.

Walter rolled out of bed. God, what a prime specimen, Mulder thought at the sight of the man's backside. He got out of bed and followed the man into his bathroom.

Later, they were sitting in Walter's kitchen, coffee brewing. Good coffee. It smelled heavenly. Mulder was wearing nothing more than a silk robe borrowed from Walter. It was dark green and made from a thick, sueded silk. Not exactly the sort of thing Mulder would have expected Walter to have around, given the overall feeling of spartan luxury that the man had surrounded himself. The robe was just a little too excessive, too luxurious. Walter had pulled on a pair of plaid pajama bottoms and nothing more. He caught Mulder's approving eye and said, "I hope you can forgive an old man's vanity. But I have to make use of every good point I've got."

"Vanity, hell. You're magnificent, Walter," Mulder said.

As the coffeepot was about to make its last burble, there was a knock on the door. "I'll be just a minute," Walter said as he got up to answer it.

Mulder hung back. It occurred to him that this might be work related, and that Walter probably had worked out some arrangement with the Bureau- they didn't bother him about his personal life if he was discreet about it. Walter didn't seem alarmed, nor had he asked Mulder to stay hidden, but Mulder decided it would be the better part of valor to stay in the little kitchen, with its cherry wood cabinets and immaculate countertops.

Mulder poked around quietly until he found a mug. He poured himself a cup of the fragrant coffee and sat down at the breakfast bar. He didn't try and listen, but he couldn't help hearing. Noise travelled well in the open plan apartment.

"I told you not to bother me at home," Walter said. He sounded angry. "Whatever power you have over me at the Bureau doesn't extend to personal time."

"Oh, come now, Mr. Skinner. You're an awfully important man to believe you can just leave the office at five and be done with your job," the voice was oily, uncutuous. This was obviously the voice of a man used to getting what he wanted. And Mulder fancied, a man used to unsavory dealings. Mulder could hear the strike of a lighter, then smell noxious smoke. "Or should I say, two in the afternoon. When there's so much important work to be done?"

"What is this? What do you want from me? I am not going to serve a federal search warrant on my own agent's house."

Suddenly, Mulder recognized the voice. It was one he'd only heard a few times in his life. The last was at his father's funeral. That man had come to it. Mulder hadn't paid close attention. He'd been pretty much distracted, between his own grief and the simple act of keeping Sam upright through the funeral, he hadn't been able to do much else. But he remembered looking over at his mother at one point after the graveside service, and a man was talking to her. The man had seemed overly familiar with his mother, touching her cheek at one point. It had made Mulder angry, but then Sam had started shaking so badly that it had been all he could do to get her to the car to sit her down. She'd been such a daddy's girl and their father's death had made her downward spiral all that much more precipitous. Mulder was certain, though, this was that man.

He risked getting up from his stool and peeking around the corner, to see if he could get a glimpse of this unpleasant stranger.

"I need you to get the damn tape," the man was saying. Mulder must have made some slight noise, or perhaps the man just knew he was there, because he spoke up, "Ah, it's Dr. Mulder, isn't it?"

Mulder didn't have any choice in the matter then but to walk around the corner, looking, he thought, obviously well-fucked, the both of them were, and wearing only a silk robe. Not exactly the armor he wanted to dressed in to face this old dragon. His sense of the menace emanating from the man was only part instinctual.

"Nice to see you again, Dr. Mulder," the man said. "The last time, the circumstances were so tragic."

"Who are you?" Mulder spat out.

"An, old, old friend of your father. His death was so needlessly tragic," he said, so patently insincere that Mulder could have spit at him. When the only response he got was Mulder's angry stare, the man said, "The tape, Mr. Skinner. I expect to see it in twenty-four hours. Good day."

The man excused himself and showed himself out the door. When it shut, Walter and Mulder were left to stare at each other.

"You know him?" Walter asked, breaking the long silence.

"He came to my father's funeral, other than that, no, I don't even know his name. God, I hate the smell of smoke," Mulder said. Actually, it was a cultivated hate. He'd only managed to quit smoking two years ago, and it was surprising how often the craving for just one more was still there. The remnant smell from the man made Mulder both disgusted and craving. The man even smoked the same brand Mulder had- Morley's. "Who is he?" Mulder asked, sure that Walter had to have some idea, after all, the man had quite casually just shown up and ordered Walter to jump.

"I don't know his name. All I know is I've been ordered to cooperate with him in anything he asks of me. Dammit," Walter said as he threw the piece of paper he'd been handed down on a handy end table. Then he picked up his phone and dialed a number apparently on the speed dial. He waited a while, then spoke, "Agent Scully? Where are you?"

Walter paused and asked, "New Mexico? Where's Agent Doggett? What do you mean?"

Walter listened carefully for some time. "Get home, Agent Scully. If it was the men you think it was, then there's nothing to be done where you are. Yes. I'm sorry, Agent Scully."

When he finally hung up, he turned to Mulder. His face was that closed, stone like expression that existed only to hide emotion. Troubled emotions. "I'm sorry, Fox. I'd hoped to spend the whole weekend with you," Walter said. He started walking to the stairs. "I'm needed at work. One of my agents is probably dead."

"Agent Doggett?" Mulder asked. The conclusion was undeniable considering the half of the conversation that Mulder had heard earlier. He felt a chill right in the center of himself. This was all linked, somehow. The man at his father's funeral, who'd just showed up at Walter's apartment, who knew him even though Mulder didn't know him. The picture of Bill Mulder with Nazi war criminals. And whatever investigation that Doggett and Scully had been conducting. And a tape that the mysterious smoker wanted. It was all linked. Just how much about his father had he been blissfully ignorant about? Quite a lot apparently.

"Yes," Walter said. He bent down and picked up the suit jacket that he'd discarded so hastily the night before. He grabbed a small white card from his pocket and then scrawled two numbers on it quickly by hand. He handed it to Mulder, "I can't say much more, you can understand why. I'm sorry. Here. The first handwritten number is my direct office line. The second is my cell. Either should get me without too much problem."

Mulder took his cue gracefully. It was obvious that Walter hated to do it, but he was being kicked out. Just temporarily. Mulder knew he'd be seeing a lot of this man in the future, but for now, his job was getting in the way. Mulder understood. If there'd been a patient emergency, he wouldn't have hesitated to leave.

Besides, he'd have his chance to check up on the Gunmen. And Sam. He owed her a visit. Mulder took the card and kissed it lightly. Then he started gathering his clothes off the floor. "Do you think you'll be clear of this by next weekend? I figure I can get back to the city by then."

"God, I hope it will be over by then."

Mulder got dressed quickly, then was out the door before the memory of Walter's touch had faded from his body. He slumped against the wall in the elevator. His hair stuck up at all kinds of odd angles, his lips felt as if they were swollen and he decidedly had razor burn. And a good fresh coat of stubble himself as he hadn't taken the time to shave in his hurry to clear out and let Walter get to his work. He never had found his tie either. Well, at least, if nothing else, he had a good excuse to see Walter again. He was much happier to be out of his suit anyway. He preferred the t-shirt and jeans he'd packed in his overnight bag.

His first step, once he'd pulled his car out of the parking garage, was to call the Gunmen. He reached Frohike.

"Any idea yet about what Agent Doggett was looking into?" he asked the little man.

"Not yet," Frohike said.

"Well, I think it may very well just have gotten him killed," Mulder said. Then he relayed an extremely edited version of the events of last night and this morning.

"Damn, Mulder. You always go hunting for the big game, don't you?" Frohike said. "I think you'd better get over here."

And so, for the first time, Mulder was given directions to the Lone Gunmen's hideout. He got there and though he wasn't sure what he'd been expecting, it wasn't what he found. The only sign that he hadn't stumbled across a completely abandoned warehouse was the small print on the door promising that this was the headquarters of the Lone Gunmen, publishers of the Magic Bullet. The door itself was heavily dented and badly painted metal, with more locks than the average bank. He knocked and the door was so secured into place with deadlocks that it hardly made a rattle. That didn't seem to make a difference, because soon Mulder could hear the clicks of locks being turned. Eventually, the door was opened just enough for Mulder to slip himself inside.

Byers stood on the other side, holding a little girl, just over a year old. Little could have been more incongruous than the child, dressed entirely in pink. Pink and lace. She was obviously a girl, and obviously happy, in the grimy, industrial building. The little girl waved her hands at Mulder and smiled, not shy in the slightest around strangers. Mulder felt a strange, melancholy ache at the sight of the child for some reason, as if she reminded him of something, but he couldn't quite place it.

"This is your daughter, Byers?" Mulder asked. The child's hair was the same dark color as her father's.

"The one and only. She wants to say hi. Holly, this is Mulder," Byers said. He held out the girl to Mulder. "She's outgoing, unlike her old dad here."

Mulder apparently wasn't being offered the option of refusing the child, so he took her in his arms. She grabbed at him, wrapping her arms around his neck and holding tightly. At least she didn't pull his hair or ears like he'd been fearing. Carrying the precious burden, Mulder followed Byers down a set a stairs, to a basement. On the other side of another metal door, there was a big room, filled with a multitude of computers, communications equipment, spools of wire, workbenchs filled with circuit boards. In the middle of it all, far away from any hazards, was a pink playpen, filled with toys. Frohike was in front of one of the computers, typing fast, nervously engrossed in it. Langly was doing the same.

Mulder turned to put the child in her playpen, but Holly started to fuss, as if she'd break out screaming if he put her down in there.

"Oh, she never goes in there. We only keep toys in there," Byers explained. "I'll take her if you don't want her."

"The only way Byers could get his wife to agree to let Holly come here was to have the playpen. To keep her safe supposedly," Langly said, looking up from his computer. He held out his arms. "I'll take her, Mulder."

Mulder had the feeling that the little lady's feet never touched the ground, not around this place.

"Byer's wife doesn't like Holly to be here. I don't know why," Frohike said. "Not many men have the chance to bring their daughters to work. Anyway, Mulder, you said that you believe that Agent Doggett was in possession of some kind of tape that may relate to that picture of your father with the Nazis."

"I get the feeling that there are people willing to kill for that tape," Mulder said, thinking back on the smoking man, and the shiver that his presence had sent up and down his spine.

"Langly, you have any idea what was on that tape of Doggett's?" Frohike asked.

Langly got up from his computer. He walked over to Frohike and put Holly onto Frohike's lap. Then he said, "I told you. I was just fucking him. He didn't tell me anything."

Then he walked away. He stopped for a jacket, but stormed up the stairs, and probably out of the building. So, Doggett was the mysterious "gentleman caller." Mulder thought he'd noticed a strange dynamic between the two of them at the coffee shop. And for all that Langly was saying it was just sex, his actions belied that. It definitely had been something more. Or at least Langly had wanted it to be something more.

Holly had held her arms out to Langly as he'd stomped away and started crying as he headed up the stairs. Frohike bounced her on his knees to distract her, but it didn't work. Byers sighed and held out his arms for his daughter. Frohike handed her over and Byers took her. He hugged her close to his chest, gently, doing all the right daddy things to comfort her. Mulder felt a lonely, empty kind of jealousy as he watched.

Frohike said, bringing them back to the tragedy at hand, "Ringo is taking this hard. I feel sorry for the kid."

"I don't think he's dead," Mulder said, not sure why he was saying that, but something in him just knew. Intuition? Some kind of extrasensory knowledge? "I don't think this one ends that way. I think Doggett will be okay."

"I wish I shared your optimism, Mulder," Byers said. "I do know that these people will not hesitate to kill to further their ends. Look."

Byers pushed a newspaper clipping at Mulder. He scanned it quickly, a brief news item, sadly brief, about a murder, from a newspaper from a city big enough that execution style murders got buried in the middle of the metro section. It told the story of one Kenneth Soona, dead in a landfill, a bullet in the back of his head.

"A week or so ago, our friend here, known as the Thinker, I think that's his real name, asked for our help contacting Agents Doggett and Scully. We arranged for a meeting. We don't know much beyond that. Our pal, Kenneth there, would only say that it would be of great interest to Doggett. Whatever he had, it was hot."

Mulder wanted to do more, do something besides just sit there and confabulate about what could possibly be on the tape. But he didn't see how he could. This was, despite his interest, not his story, not his place. He felt, though, like he'd been pushed out of his own life. This should be his story, his place. Today, more than ever, he felt like some stranger was living his life for him, and that he was a stranger in his own life.

"Do you think Langly's going to be okay?" Mulder asked. "Maybe someone should go after him."

"He'll be okay," Frohike said. "He just needs to blow off a little steam. I shouldn't have put my foot in it like that."

"There's nothing more we can do here, really," Byers said. "It's getting late. Did you need a place to spend the night, Mulder? My wife normally doesn't like it when I bring my friends by, but you're considerably more well-heeled than my usual companions."

"No, I'm going home," Mulder decided. "Call me the instant you have any new information. Call my cell. I'm going to go to my mother's house and see if she can tell me anything about my father's work. And I should see my sister while I'm in the area."

Mulder said his farewells. As the heavy metal door shut behind him and the locks started clicking into place, he shivered, a ghost of a memory. He couldn't help looking over his shoulder as he got into his car. You're getting as paranoid as them, he scolded himself, still remembering though something they'd said. No matter how paranoid you are, it's not paranoid enough.

Sam's place first. She lived in a modest place in a big apartment complex. About all she could afford just living off her trust fund. She couldn't hold a job down, not with the drinking that she did. It was a shame, in a way, that trust fund. It kept her from truly hitting bottom. She had enough to keep her pickled pretty much most of the time and still pay her rent.

Mulder had long suspected that someone, maybe one of his father's friends in politics, was looking out for Sam. She'd been hauled in for DUI more times than he could count, yet she never served any time. The charges were always, mysteriously, dropped. Or if they weren't dropped, they were reduced to something insignificant such as "driving too fast for conditions," or even a simple speeding ticket. Well, whoever was doing that wasn't doing her any real favors, Mulder thought. They should really take away her license before she killed someone.

He parked in front of the shingle sided building that her apartment was in. The building management hadn't raked the leaves yet and they cluttered the walk and choked the dying remnants of flowerbeds. Two steps up and he was at the door, pressing the intercom button labelled, "Mulder, S."

There was no answer for a long time, but after a few minutes, the door buzzed, indicating that it was unlocked. He sighed. She should know better. At this time of night, just letting anyone into the building. Still, he pulled the glass and metal door open and stepped into the hallway. Up one flight of shag carpet covered steps, down the hallway and he was at the door of her apartment. She'd left it propped open, thoughtfully, with a vodka bottle. Empty vodka bottle.

"Sam?" he called in through the open door. The apartment was dark beyond. "It's Fox. Sam?"

When he didn't get an immediate reply, he pushed the door open all the way and stepped cautiously into the hall. He reached for the light switch. There was a recycling bin right by the door. He tried not to look at all the empties that were overflowing it. Otherwise, the place was unexpectedly clean for someone of her level of functioning. He heard a minor sign of life, the television, and followed it into the living room. She was lying on the couch, covered up to her chin in a pile of blankets, as if she couldn't get warm. She was lit only by the blue glow of the television. Her eyes were wide open, staring at the screen, but she didn't appear to be watching it.

Mulder took the couch arm closest to her head. It was a sturdy, square arm. The sofa was well-worn leather, the one that had been in his father's study before their mother had sold the house they grew up in. She'd been given it, without question, even though he'd wanted it as well. What Sam wanted from their mother, she got. It was always as if their mother was trying to make up for whatever hideous things had happened to her when she was missing those months. He'd wondered in the insomniac, doubtful hours before dawn, sometimes, if their parents had known where Sam had gone, what had happened to her. And if that's why they tried to hard to soothe their little, wounded bird.

"I hate you," she whispered as he reached down to stroke her hair, though she didn't stop him. "You didn't come for me."

"I said I wouldn't, Sam," he said softly. He kept stroking her hair. The curly, long locks of it were tangled, like she hadn't combed it in some time. Actually, from what he knew of her, with those curls, it might only have been a day or two for it to get that tangled. He wanted to comb it out gently, sooth away the snarls for her. If he couldn't untangle the mess that her life had become, it seemed like he might be able to at least do that for her. "Someone, sometime in their life has to follow through with what they say, and be completely honest. You know that you can always count on the truth from me. Even if it feels like it hurts you, I think you need to know that there is someone who is completely truthful. Someone who won't pretend that you don't have a problem."

He'd told her this before. Maybe someday, she would hear it.

Sam had left the remote on the coffee table. He leaned over to grab it. He turned off the set, then reached behind him to turn on a table lamp that cast the room into warm chiarscuro. Sam stirred, turned onto her side and sighed.

"Sam, I need to ask you something," Mulder said. "Something important."

"What? What can I possibly tell you that's important?" she asked, voice bitter. "After all, I'm just your alcoholic little sister who apparently so dysfunctional that I can't manage my own life. So you always tell me."

"Sam, no, I never said that. Please, I need you to remember something for me," Mulder said. He reached down to touch her hair again. He loved her, but love was such a tangled, dangerous thing. "Sam, you were always closer to Dad than I was. Did he ever tell you about his work, what he did with the State Department?"

"I don't remember," she said, but with such terse finality that he immediately suspected that there was something that she wanted to forget but couldn't.

"Do you remember a man, a friend of Dad's, who always smoked Morley's? He was at the funeral. Do you remember? Do you know his name? He was a really good friend of Dad's."

"No, I don't know!" she said, pulling the blankets up over her ears. "Why are you asking me these things, Fox? I don't know. I don't know anything. You should know. You're older than me."

"But you were close to Dad," Mulder said, more convinced than ever that Samantha knew something. Then, a little demon in his head spoke up, something that demanded that he talk about the big family secret, the thing that no one talked about, the elephant in the middle of their living room that everyone failed to notice by common agreement. Secrets and lies, those were the foundation of a dysfunctional family, and his family had them in spades. "When you were missing, Sam, what happened to you. You remember, don't you?"

She was immediately agitated. She sat up on the sofa, blankets bunching at her waist. She wore a stained, grubby t-shirt. "I told you. I told the doctors. I told everyone. I don't remember. There was a bright light. Then it was a cold and I was walking down a road. And at the hospital, they told me it was October, not July."

"Are you sure, Sam?" he prompted gently. "I think you do remember something. There are people who can help you recover your memories."

At that, Sam put her hands over her ears, crunched her eyes closed tight and said, whispering it in a thready, harsh voice, "I don't remember. Fox, I told you I don't remember anything. I don't remember anything."

He'd pushed too hard. He should have known better. The trauma was just too strong. It was so hard to be objective, to know when and where to push when it was a hurt so close to oneself. He cursed his parents silently, especially his dead father, for putting them into the situation. He was convinced, suddenly, that this was the sins of his father, being visited upon them. The lies, secrets and sorrows travelled from one generation to the next like any other inheritance. To know that his father had brought Nazi war criminals to this country, or perhaps had done things even worse, you only had to look at Samantha, sitting up on her old battered sofa, rocking back and forth like an autistic child. He knelt on the floor by her and pulled her into his arms tightly, holding her against his chest. She didn't fight him, but collapsed against his chest, crying. "I'm sorry, Sam. I'm sorry. It's okay. You don't remember. That's okay."

But it wasn't okay. Hell, he wanted to do some rocking and crying himself. It wasn't that his picture of his father had been pure white innocence, now sullied with filth in one day. He'd always had doubts to his parents' characters, but they were confirmed now like they never had been before.

He held her until she cried herself out and slumped limp against him. While she did, he insinuated himself onto her sofa, more comfortable than kneeling on her floor. When she was cried out, he said, "Have you eaten today, Sam?"

And so it ended with her sitting at her cluttered kitchen table, while he stirred a can of vegetable soup as it heated up. She reached for a partially full bottle of vodka from among the rubble on the table, to add a slug to the orange juice he'd poured for her.

"Sam, no, not while I'm here at least," he told her. She shot him a vicious look, but she took her hand off the bottle and sipped at her juice plain.

Sometime after he'd gotten some of the soup into her, she just put her spoon down, as if in defeat, and said, "Sometimes I think it would have been better if I'd never come back from where they took me."

"No, Sam, don't ever say that," he said. And then, suddenly, for the first time this evening, he was crying. Weeping big, heaving sobs and water running down his cheeks. He couldn't account for the feeling of vertigo, as if he could feel, as if he knew exactly what it would have felt like if she had never come back. And that feeling was a cold, sobering, miserable one. "No, don't say that," he said as Sam took her turn holding him like he had her earlier.

He never did get up to see his mother. By the time he left Sam on Sunday, it was too late. He headed back to his comfortable little life in small town Virginia. True, he thought constantly of Walter, but otherwise, he life was uneventful. On Monday, he tried calling Walter and left a message. Tuesday passed by without a return call. On Wednesday morning, he got a call, but it wasn't the one he was hoping for or expecting.

"Mulder," Frohike said. He sounded exhausted and shaken. "Langly's been shot. It's not looking good. If you want to say goodbye to him, I'd suggest you get up here now."

"What?" Mulder asked, in shock. Langly? Shot? He pictured the article again, hacker geek, dead in landfill, the story buried in the metro section. He thought about paranoia and secretive, nameless men who it seemed, could wreck havoc without consequence, order death the way another man would order a steak in a restaurant. He wondered, if Langly died, would it, too, fail to get more than a few paragraphs notice? "Langly? Shot? I'll be up there as soon as I can get there."

And so he left, not so much for Langly's sake, but for Frohike's. The man had called for a reason, because he'd wanted Mulder's support. Even though the three weren't related by blood, this had to be like any family member being hurt. He cancelled his appointments for not just this afternoon, but for the next couple of days, repacked the bag he habitually kept in his car, then took off, not even stopping to tell Jenn where he was going. He drove as fast as he could while balancing the concern of getting stopped by a cop. His hands gripped the wheel tighter and tighter as he drove, thinking of what could be happening to Langly, the long days and nights of his medical internship coming back to him. He wondered, if he asked Walter, would the FBI look into this crime? Would the big man even see the shooting of some paranoid geek as worthy of investigation? Would Walter throw his weight around like that?

He got to the hospital specified by Frohike just after one. He hurried past the front desk. A tough looking man, kind of scruffy and unshaven, wearing a leather jacket, brushed past Mulder on his way to the bank of elevators. The tough turned back to look at Mulder and as their paths crossed for a moment, their eyes met. The man's eyes were the most beautiful deep green Mulder had ever seen. Mulder shivered at the intense stare. Then the man turned away and walked out of the hospital, not in a hurry, and as if he owned the place. Upstairs, one jittery elevator ride later, he walked the halls until he found the right room.

It was empty.

Except for John Doggett, sitting in one of the vinyl chairs endemic to hospitals. The man cradled his head in his hands delicately, as if he were honestly afraid it might split open. His elbows rested on his knees. Mulder cleared his throat, wanting to attract his attention without startling the man. Mulder had a very good idea of what the empty room meant, though he wasn't going to leap to conclusions. Still, the man must be feeling like hell. Doggett looked up. His eyes were rimmed with red, though they were dry at this moment. The quiet clamor of the hospital surrounded them. One thing was for sure, death, in this place, was not peaceful nor easy.

"He's gone," Doggett said. "He coded an hour and a half ago. Worked on him for what seemed like hours. They couldn't do shit for him."

Whatever illusions Langly might have had about him and Doggett just fucking, they were just that- illusions. This was a devastated man. "I'm sorry," Mulder said. "So sorry. I tried to get up here sooner. What happened?"

Mulder put his hand on the man's shoulder, stifling an instinct to embrace him. Probably it would be badly received. Doggett didn't seem like the kind of man who would take kindly to being hugged by a stranger. Yet, Mulder felt for him, in a more intense, immediate way than he could explain. This was more than his usual empathic response to those suffering.

"I was coming home from New Mexico. We were going to meet to talk about this mess. I was supposed to go pick him up after I stopped at my place, but I guess he decided to surprise me. That bullet was meant for me."

Mulder must have failed to suppress his look of surprise, like he usually did, in his usual role of professional listener. Doggett lifted an eyebrow, a move he must have borrowed from his partner, and said, "You do what I do, you're not a real popular kind of guy. It ain't the first time someone's tried to kill me and it won't be the last."

Then he leaned his head down onto this hands again, rubbing his wrinkled forehead as if it hurt. The pain, Mulder knew, was emotional, not any headache.

"Is it worth it?" Mulder asked. "Your quest for the truth, is it worth it, when things like this happen?"

"I don't know," Doggett said. He looked up from the cradle of his hands again. "But I don't see as I can do anything different."

At that, there was a quiet sound from the doorway. They both looked. It had been Walter, clearing his throat slightly to get their attention. He seemed more than a little surprised to see Mulder there. Mulder surmised that Walter had come to find Agent Doggett. The moment over, Mulder walked out of the room, sidling past Walter.

"Later," Mulder said. "I'll wait in the lobby."

Walter nodded, then entered the room, saying, "Agent Doggett..."

Mulder didn't stay to hear any more. It wasn't his place, though he longed to hear Walter's voice again. Now his voice was stern compassion, Contained anger, but not anger at Doggett, anger for him. In a way, Mulder envied Doggett, working for Walter, though, he reflected as he walked down the hallway past the nurses station, he probably had the better part of the deal, having the man as lover.

Mulder settled himself in a vinyl seat in the lobby, turning his attention to an old, old friend- the television. It was some stupid gameshow, but it still captured his attention and before he knew it, Walter was settling down in the seat next to him. Mulder wanted to get up, throw his arms around his new lover and kiss him thoroughly, but he deferred to Walter's obvious sense of public decorum.

"He's not a suspect, is he?" Mulder asked.

Walter thought a moment, then spoke, "I probably shouldn't reveal anything about an on-going investigation, but no, he isn't. He might have been. He and his partner have been acting...erratically this past week. But at the time of the shooting, witnesses place him at the airport still, because of a flight delay. And the weapon was found at the scene with a set of prints that aren't his."

"He was a good friend," Mulder said. "Langly, that is. Will they find who did this?"

"I don't know, Fox," Walter said. He sounded exhausted in a way that had nothing to do with the lack of sleep he must have been facing. He'd been fighting these mysterious forces, the ones who shot Langly, the ones his father had been involved with, the ones who didn't seem to hesitate at anything to enforce their world order. Fighting them a long time, backing up Agents Doggett and Scully, even when it must have been extremely difficult for him, politically, to do so. And he was tired from the fight.

"Are you free for the evening, yet?" Mulder asked.

"I..." Walter began, and Mulder could tell that he was about to say, no, that he had any number of things he still had to get to, reports to read, any number of his normal tasks that must have gotten displaced by this thing, that he would have to make up. Mulder could almost see Walter mentally tick off the things waiting in his in box. Then he made a decision. "I probably should go back and do a few hours of catch-up, but most of those things, another twelve hours won't make a big difference."

"Then let me take you home, Walter," Mulder said.

Home, for Mulder, had become anywhere Walter was. But for right now, he needed to get the man someplace where he could strip that suit off of him and make fierce, tender love to him, give him strength for this fight and make up for the demands that Agent Doggett's quest had placed on the life of his lover.

"Home," Walter said. "I knew I'd get there some time this week."

Thursday morning found Jenn wrestling with a big delivery from the food service attempting to get all the perishables put away safely in the fridge or freezer, while trying to cope with the morning rush, and her usual morning help had called off. Still, one coped. As the years had gone by, she found she liked this place, this little coffee shop that, while a few well-placed wishes had brought into existence, was kept open day after day by the labor of her own hands. You couldn't just wink coffee into existence for people. No, you had to pull the shots from the espresso machine yourself. You had to smile at the people and make them happy so that they'd come back the next day and the next.

Mulder hadn't shown up yesterday, and if she'd been any less busy, she might have worried about that. But something about the combination of the weather and the time of year sent people into her shop in droves for hot drinks. She'd been kept busy all day. When Mulder came in, late Thursday morning, she wouldn't have paid him much mind, what with all the things she had to juggle already. But the grief in his eyes was all too obvious. She had to ask him what was wrong, so she did.

"Langly's dead," Mulder said, flatly. "Frohike and Byers are devastated, not to mention his new boyfriend, John Doggett."

Langly? Dead? She'd known the instant the FBI agents had come into her shop the other day that Doggett was sleeping with Langly again. She'd picked Langly for Doggett the first time because he'd been young, handsome enough once you ditched the glasses, and convenient. But the pair were surprisingly good for each other. They seemed to rub the raw edges off of each other. "No, that can't be," she found herself saying. "That's not how it's supposed to work out."

At that moment, Mulder's eyes flashed brightly. Some automatic computation at taken place at lightening speed in his mind. Connnections were made, conclusions drawn. He knew. He knew exactly what she was. He knew what she was doing. He might not have all of the memory pieces. He didn't remember who he had been before she had started with him, but he knew that it was her fault that he didn't know. "Exactly what do you mean," he said, coldly furious, "'That's not how it's supposed to work out?'"

Jenn swallowed, hard. This was not supposed to happen either. He was not supposed to know. How could he? Each time she had changed his life, she had gone back to the very beginning of a particular decision, a particular branching of his fate. His life had changed seamlessly from that point. Mulder truly never had joined the FBI. He had started a psychiatric practice in small town Virginia. That was his life. That was how it had happened. There was no way he could have remembered any of his previous existences, because they didn't happen, not in this life. Scully hated Krycek in this life, Jenn had seen. Just a few days ago, Jenn had seen how Doggett had been forced to shoot Scully in the shoulder to prevent her from shooting Krycek in a drug-addled haze. In this life, she'd never loved the man, never had a daughter with him that Mulder and his lover had adopted. That was reality. The reality that she had shaped.

And yet, he knew. Somehow, he knew.

"You are going to talk to me. And you are going to tell me exactly what you've done to me," he said, flatly. She was, for the first time, afraid of him. Not that he could hurt her, but that somehow he was not entirely subject to the shiftings and machinations that she worked her magic by. And she was suddenly afraid that she had made a very, very large mistake by even attempting to try. That she had failed to the very thing she had counselled people to do again and again- to not worry about what could be, but enjoy the thing that is.

"Yes, we will talk," she said. She looked at the line starting to back up behind him. People and all their little urges, compulsions and addictions were bothersome to her at this moment. Soon, they'd start grumbling, that they had to wait, that their fix of caffeine was even a minute late in coming. Jenn blinked her eyes and wished. The door to the shop opened, the camel bells chimming. "Sorry I'm late," Betsy, her part timer called. "I finally got my car started. Hell of a time for it to crap out on me. I'm sorry."

Then Betsy ducked behind the counter and started work as soon as she could grab an apron. Normally Jenn wouldn't have bothered shaping the will of the universe for such a petty thing, but she needed the help now.

"Bets," Jenn said. "Mulder and I have some important business to discuss. Can you hold down the fort?"

"Sure thing, boss," Betsy said, already hustling to take care of the line.

Mulder followed her through the curtain into the cramped kitchen. From there, she opened up another door, painted purple, glitzed up with glass gems. It would have been a simple matter of snapped fingers to have them be the real thing- emeralds as big as her thumbnail, rubies as big as hen's eggs, the door itself solid gold. But she wasn't stupid or greedy, even though the terms of her powers seemed to allow her endless wishes. She just wanted to see Mulder allowed a happy ending.

Normally, she would have just sat on a chair. She liked to pretend at least that she was just a normal person. But today, because it was time for the truth to be known, she sat herself on the air, floating in the stereotypical genie pose and waited for Mulder to reveal just how much he knew about what she had done to shape his life.

"You're a jenniyah," Mulder said. "In Arabic folklore, a powerful class of spirits, with the power to grant wishes. The terms of the arrangement is usually three wishes, isn't it? What the hell happened? Did I make some kind of fucked up wish, then wished to forget I made the wish? What happened to my life? What did you do to me? What happened to me? I want to remember? Who was I before you started in on me?"

"I really don't think you want to open that can of worms," she told him, wondering how his memory could possibly cope with the multiple branchings that his life time had taken on, the paths that she'd cut off. How could he handle knowing that he had simultaneously gone and not gone to medical school? That he had gone and not gone to the FBI academy? That his sister was and was not still missing? She added, "I really think that's a bad idea. If you want to walk out of here with your sanity intact."

"Then just answer this question. One question. Who is Lovey?" he demanded.

"She would have been your daughter, had I been able to allow the set of circumstances that led to her birth to continue. She was never born. She doesn't exist."

"You killed my daughter?" he asked, stunned. He blindly sought the nearest chair, the shabby leather upholstered one that was her office chair, and sat down heavily.

"No, I didn't kill her. I told you. She never existed. The circumstances such that she was conceived have failed to happen. Her would have been parents hate each other," Jenn explained, realizing that she sounded like she was justifying herself. That no matter how she explained it, he would believe that she had killed his daughter. That, in a way, she had.

He stared at her, eyes full of vicious hatred. He spoke, his tone low, dangerous and deceptively calm, like the eye at the center of the hurricane. "There may be no blood on your hands, but just the same, you killed her. Why? What have I done to you? God. Good God tell me I did not wish her away by mistake."

"No, it was all my doing," she said, shamed. Burning with shame. And sudden heartbreak too. She remembered holding the sweet little thing, how beautiful she'd been. She'd loved the child, been responsible for her creation every bit as much as Scully and Krycek had been.

"No," Jenn said, brushing away sudden tears. She was astounded at the scope of her own hubris. "You didn't wish for that. We had the standard arrangement. Three wishes. You wasted two of them. And the third, you did the thing I had never dared hoped for. You freed me. You gave me a happy ending. But you only freed me from the conditions of the rug. You didn't free me from my power. And you didn't free me from you. I only wanted to give you a happy ending too."

She couldn't quite explain how it had begun, nor how once she had started, it had been a compulsion. She had felt she'd had no choice but to keep changing things until that happy ending was within grasp. She was sure it would happen this time. He was so far removed from the quest that had been his that he would never see that UFO.

"A happy ending?" he asked. "So you take away my daughter? You presumably change my whole life. Was my life really that shitty? Was I so unhappy that you had no choice but to rearrange the universe around me?"

"You don't understand," she pleaded. "Those little green men Doggett chases, they're real. And they would have destroyed you. Every time, no matter what I did, you were abducted by them. And you died at their hands. Until now."

He stood up from his chair and he paced around the room like an animal in one of those small cages at the zoo, obviously thinking furiously, that brilliant mind of his linking up everything she had said with everything he'd already concluded. Finally he said, "Did it not occur to you that if it kept happening, that maybe it was meant to happen? Or that I would want my fate, regardless of what it was."

He was silent again for a long time. When he finally spoke again, he said, "I think maybe the true happy ending here isn't the one you think it is."

"What do you want me to do to make it up to you? What do you think the happy ending is?" she asked. She honestly had no clue.

"Three wishes," he said. "The usual arrangement. The third will be that you and I will be free of each other and that you will never again feel the compulsion to mess with my life. I want you to let my life take whatever messy, dangerous turns it has to take, because it's my life."

"And your first and second wishes?" she asked, her voice quavering.

"My first wish, I want my job back. I know, I can feel somehow that I was FBI. Maybe my job was the one John Doggett has now."

She nodded and said, "That's true. And your second?"

"I want my family back. My daughter Lovey. And Walter. He was my lover, wasn't he?"

"Yes," she said. "Granted. All three."

She reached for the matter of the Universe, that sense that she had, that she could never quite explain, but the one that allowed her to change things, influence casuality. Perhaps on a quantum level. But he interrupted her, with something so Mulder like, she almost had to laugh, "Just one more question, how do you do it?"

"No more questions, Mulder," she said. "Just go home. Go to bed. When you wake up, you won't remember a bit of this."

No time like the present, Mulder told himself. Still, he paused before knocking at the door which was down a dimly lit hallway in the basement of the J. Edgar Hoover building. He'd walked past metal shelves of document boxes to get here. The door read, "Agent John Doggett," his new partner, just assigned.

Anything might happen once he knocked on that door. John Doggett had quite the reputation. Relentless in his pursuit of the answers, and undoubtedly one of the most no bullshit kind of guys around, who nevertheless, ended up espousing what most people believed to be the most ridiculous of ideas. He also appeared not to give a damn what people thought of him and that he said exactly what he thought, never hesitating to call a spade a spade. Rumor had it that just before his wife and child had been abducted by person or persons unknown, he'd been given the big promotion to SAC of the Seattle office, and that he'd turned it down to stay in DC and search for them. And eventually ended up here in the basement, searching for his answers in the buried cases known as the X-files, the place where Mulder hoped to find his own answers.

He knocked on the door and was greeted with, "Nobody's here but the FBI's most unwanted."

The door appeared to be unlocked, so Mulder pushed it open. Across the room, looking at slides on a light table was a handsome man, though he seemed much too young for couple of wrinkles that marred his forehead, including the verticle one between his eyebrows. The frown that his mouth took seemed habitual more than particularly directed at Mulder.

The room seemed intensely functional, with little that might indicate a personal point of view. There was one bulletin board covered with a cluster of photographs, pinned up so closely that they resembled wallpaper, albeit wallpaper from the Martha Stewart Psychopath and Sociopath collection. The bulletin board next to it was covered in photos of UFOs, some clipped from magazines, some regular four-by-six snapshots. The one thing that pointed to the man's personal life, or any kind of hobby was a tire, the thick, smooth kind that were used on race cars, was propped against the desk. It was autographed, a big, sprawl of writing from a paint pen, but Mulder didn't recognize the name. Doggett was a car racing fan?

Before Mulder could hold out his hand and introduce himself, Doggett said, "Fox Mulder, right? So you finally pissed off Patterson so much he had your ass kicked out of the BSU and down here?"

"No, believe it or not, I asked for reassignment. I'm actually looking forward to working with you."

"Really?" Doggett said. Amazing how much sarcasm such a dour voice could convey. "I was under the impression they were sending you to spy on me."

"Section Chief Blevins asked me to make regular reports on the cases we work on together, evaluating them for scientific and forensic validity, but believe me, I'm my own man," Mulder said, bristling suddenly at the implication that he'd be anyone's errand boy.

"So the rumors say, Spooky," Doggett said. He dug through a pile of papers on the desk and pulled out a sheaf. "Undergraduate degree in psychology from Oxford, senior thesis, 'The Case for Hypnosis in Memory Recovery Therapy.'"

"Did you read it?" Mulder asked.

"Oh, sure. It wasn't as bad as I would have expected for undergraduate work," Doggett said. He'd been working, loading a carousel full of slides. He popped it onto the slide projector that was waiting, then asked, "Hit the lights?"

Mulder did and Doggett turned on the projector. The picture of a young woman's body appeared on the screen, stretched out on what appeared to be a forest floor. The next slide was a close up. "Well, Dr. Mulder, they make you headshrinkers take the full medical school course, right?"

"Yeah," Mulder said, defensively. People often assumed it was a PhD, not the M.D. he'd worked so hard for after his name. After he got his undergrad in England, he'd been approached by the FBI. They'd tried to recruit him, but he hadn't felt ready. He'd gone home to the states for medical school, hoping to find there the answers that he hadn't found in psychology. When he was through, when he felt ready, he'd approached the Bureau this time. They'd been even more eager to have him than they had been before.

"Well, Dr. Mulder, tell me if you can identify those marks," Doggett said, indicating two close marks on the back of the young woman.

Mulder walked closer to the screen for a better look, "I'm no pathologist, but it could be needle punctures. An animal bite, maybe? I've got a good friend who teaches pathology at Quantico. She could probably give you a better idea than me. "

"Not about this," Doggett said. He advanced the carousel another slide, then another, and other rapidly, "Same thing again, in Sturgis, North Dakota. And New Mexico. And Wyoming. Do you believe in extraterrestrials, Agent Mulder?"

Mulder startled a little, to be asked so directly, even though this was exactly the reason why he'd asked to be posted to the X-files in the first place, because he'd come to believe that the cause for his sister Samantha's disappearance so many years back could only be explained that way. Part of his education in psychology had included being analyzed extensively, and he'd worked intensively for a while with a hypnotherapist. He'd come to remember things. Things that couldn't be explained except by the notion that his sister had been abducted by aliens. He wasn't quite ready to admit that to this man.

"Do you?" Mulder asked.

"I think that's what you headshrinkers call deflection," Doggett said. He moved over to the wall switch and turned on the room lights again. He looked incredibly handsome, slouched slight as he leaned against the wall. "Answer the question, Agent Mulder."

The way he said the name was almost, but not quite grating- Mul-dah. Mulder decided he liked it, and that though he didn't quite trust the man yet, he liked him.

"I have my doubts," Mulder admitted, especially about the validity of hypnotherapy work and memory recovery, despite his college thesis. The things he had remembered under hypnotherapy were so fleeting, insubstantial. They teased him, taunted him as much as they reassured him. He was here, not because he had answers, but because he had questions. "But I don't believe we are alone in this Universe."

"Actually, far as I can tell, the neighborhood is kind of crowded, and our neighbors are real sons of bitches. You got an overnight bag in your car?" Doggett asked.

"Yeah, we going somewhere?" Mulder asked.

"Oregon," Doggett said. He picked up a small paper folder off the desk and handed it to Mulder. Mulder looked inside, reading his airline ticket. A flight for about three hours from the present. Even without stopping at home, they'd have to hustle to get to the airport in time to make their flight.

"You don't waste time, do you, Agent Doggett?" Mulder said.

Already Doggett had been gathering a small stack of files. He handed them to Mulder. "You'll want to read these on the way over. Familiarize yourself with the cases."

"Cases? More than one person died this way?" Mulder asked.

"Four so far," Doggett said. He finished putting some more files into a briefcase, then shut it. "Ready?"

They left the basement office behind and headed for the parking facility. Mulder headed right for his car, to get his bag. This time, he'd let Doggett do the driving without complaint, but he wondered, in the future, would they argue about which one of them drove? He was both apprehensive and excited about actually heading out into the field for a case. So much of his time in the BSU had kept him tied to a desk, analyzing cases, writing profiles. And, as a kindness and attempt to salvage him as an agent, once his relations with Patterson had gotten so strained that they were intolerable, not just for Mulder, but for anyone else they came into contact with, he'd been transferred, teaching at Quantico, where he'd met Scully, the beautiful, intelligent pathology instructor. If only he'd had the slightest stripe of heterosexuality in him, something special might have happened between the pair of them. Lost in his own thoughts, Mulder almost didn't notice when Doggett stopped and why.

"Sir," Doggett said, nodding. Mulder thought there was something about the way he'd said it that almost wanted to be able to salute, too. Mulder looked up to see the cause for the interruption of his thoughts.

And what a cause it was. They'd stopped in front of a big, juicy hunk of manhood. The man in question was about the same height as Mulder's lanky length, but bulked a good thirty, maybe forty pounds more. His shoulders were broad, and Mulder suspected that it was all man, not just a cleverly cut suit, thought admittedly, the suit was perfectly tailored to him. The suit was topped by a face that was stern and serious, but beautiful. Eyeglasses and hair limited to a fringe around the back and ears completed a picture that was as close to his ideal man that Mulder could imagine. Mulder had no idea who this man was, but he wanted to start weeping right at this instant, because Doggett's sir had indicated that whoever it was, he was over them in the chain of command, thus high in the FBI hierarchy, and therefore, totally off limits. Well, off limits if he was playing by the rules.

"Off to Oregon already, Agent Doggett? The ink on the 302 can't even be dry yet," the man asked. His voice was granite and honey, whiskey and velvet. The blues sung on a dark, moonless midnight in Memphis. Even the poor, echoing acoustics of the concrete parking structure couldn't diminish its full rumble. Mulder was in love.

"Soon as we can collect Agent Mulder's bag, sir," Doggett said. "Sir, this is my new partner, Fox Mulder. Agent Mulder, have you met AD Skinner before?"

Skinner? Mulder wondered. It sounded like Skinner had been the one to sign the paperwork for them to be going to Oregon. That meant that somehow, whether through favors called in or sheer exasperation on the part of the hierarchy, Doggett had it arranged so he reported directly to the AD. Mulder's vanity had been massaged recently to find out he'd be reporting directly to a section chief, but compared to an AD, a section chief was just a piker. Oh, hell, this beautiful, wonderful apparition of a man was not only off limits, he was way out of Mulder's league.

"Agent Mulder," the apparition said, and held out his hand.

It took a while, an embarrassing second while Mulder put it together that the man who had him so dumbstruck wanted to shake hands. It took another agonizing eternity to marshall enough control over himself to extend his hand and act like a normal man who hasn't just been thunderstruck. He took the AD's hand into his. It was like nothing he'd ever done before. The skin was a marvelous combination of textures, smooth in places, with calluses that indicated those hands saw plenty of work of some kind, other than pen pushing. Under the skin, muscles moved like cables pulling over hard bones, cushioned with plenty of muscle. The man's grip was plenty firm, yet delicate. One got the definite impression that it would be a simple matter for him to crush one's hand, should he chose not to control his strength.

It was then that Mulder looked directly into the AD's eyes. They were deep brown, hard to see that in the dim overhead lights of the parking structure. The lens of his glasses reflected the harsh florescent light. But the man was staring directly at Mulder so intensely that Mulder couldn't do anything but look away for a moment, over the man's shoulder at bare, gray concrete, until he could gather himself. He couldn't, not at this time, wonder what that stare meant. He could only tuck it away for further examination later.

"Agent Mulder," the AD said. "Good to meet you at last in person. Having heard so much about you."

"Sir?" Mulder asked. At another time, with another person, he might have joked, might have made a crack of some kind.

"We talked about you, even when you were just starting out at the academy," the AD said. "Well, good hunting in Oregon. I'll have to leave you. I'm running late."

And then he was gone, slipped away down the row of prime, executive parking spaces, and into a light blue Lexus.

"You coming, Mulder?" Doggett asked after Mulder stood there, staring after Skinner's tail lights.

Mulder shook himself. "Sure," he said, able to gather himself together, now that the source of distraction was gone. He hurried after Doggett, clutching his files to himself.

Two and a half hours later, they were sitting on a plane, a nearly empty flight to Portland. It looked like Mulder would have the whole row to himself. Doggett was not quite so lucky, but at least he had an empty seat between him and the next person. The plane was still boarding, so Doggett got out his phone from his suit coat pocket and placed a call.

Mulder listened surreptitiously as he pretended to scan a file. "Hi, Ree," Doggett said, in the clear, direct way people use when they're talking to an answering machine. "It's John. Look, I know I'd said I'd be free tonight and you could come over, but it looks like things are moving faster than I thought. I'm on a plane to Oregon. Not sure when I'll be coming back. I'll give you a call soon as I hit the airport on the way back. You think you could take care of my cat again? You've got the number to the pet sitter I use if you can't. Love ya. Gotta go."

Mulder surmised several things from this call. Doggett had a lover, even though talk around the Bureau said that the man had had a wife who'd died of cancer not so many years ago. Doggett's lover, whoever she was, didn't live with him. Their affair seemed to be on the casual side. They must have gotten together only when Doggett's schedule would allow. Doggett's tone hadn't been placating, leading Mulder to believe that she wasn't going to give the man a hard time about breaking their plans, or at least that Doggett didn't anticipate getting raked over the coals for this. They were close enough that Doggett didn't hesitate to ask her to take care of his cat, but not so close that he just expected she would. Must be an interesting woman. Mulder tried to figure out what Ree was short for. Rena? Riane? Marie? Mulder decided it would have to be Marie. He'd even built up a picture of the woman in his mind- sporty, independent, not quite an intellectual, but smart enough to hold her own against Doggett. The kind of woman who gets along best with men, not other woman.

Maybe he'd been caught staring over his papers at Doggett, maybe he wasn't hiding his curiosity as well as he thought he was, but Doggett looked at Mulder across the narrow aisle and said, "Mulder."

Then he got out of his seat and took one of the empty two in Mulder's row. "There's something I want to tell you, straight off the bat. Before this bird gets off the ground. Before you hear it from rumors and hearsay."

"Go ahead," Mulder said, giving up pretense that he was reading the files.

"I was calling my lover, Ree," he said. "Ree is short for Ringo."

Mulder controlled his startle really well. Doggett continued, "Yes, my lover is a man. And if that's a problem, I'd suggest you get right off this plane before it takes off. I could give a crap what you or anyone else thinks of me being a queer, but if you're going to conveniently not be there when you're supposed to be watching my back, that's a problem."

"No, not a problem," Mulder said. Despite this confidence shared, he wasn't quite ready to reveal why it wasn't a problem. Anyway, it was already too late for him to get off the plane if it was a problem. The stewardess announced that the forward was closed and that they were heading for the runway. He and Doggett shared an awkward, uneasy silence as the plane taxied down the runway and finally leaped into the air with the usual lurch of sudden, great force. Mulder was pressed back into his seat slightly as their plane reached for the skies.

When they'd achieved some altitude and the plane wasn't climbing so steeply, Doggett started up again. "It ain't exactly a secret," Doggett said. "But I don't exactly go around telling everyone either."

"'Don't ask, don't tell?'" Mulder said. that was more or less the unofficial Bureau policy, as far as he could tell.

"Something like that," Doggett said.

"Just out of curiousity, you had a wife..."

"Barbara," Doggett affirmed. "Beautiful woman. I'll always miss her. It surprised the hell out of me to find myself in the arms of one of my buddies after she passed, but I like to think she wouldn't want me to be lonely."

On the way to Bellefleur from the airport, Mulder noticed Doggett looking at his watch as he drove. Mulder looked at his own watch. Then the rental car started acting funny. The radio suddenly ran through all the stations rapidly, on its own. They lost power for a short while but before the car fully stopped, power was back on. Doggett stopped the car, then checked his watch again, muttering to himself. He didn't seem pleased. Mulder checked his own watch.

Somewhere in the Oregon woods, among the moss covered trees, in a space of time that couldn't have been more than thirty seconds, they'd lost nine minutes. Mulder started to laugh, feeling giddy at the sensation. It was exactly the thing he'd not expected to find, but it was classic. Many of the people who'd experienced a close encounter with a UFO experienced just this- lost time.

"Did what I think just happen just happen?" Mulder asked.

"Well, what's your watch read?" Doggett asked.

"Six-nineteen, local time," Mulder said. "But just before was lost power on the car, it was six-ten. You know I was under the impression that time was a constant."

"Not in this zip code, apparently," Doggett muttered to himself. He got out of the car and took a can of spray paint out of the trunk of the car and painted a big X in the road where their "encounter" had happened.

The corpse they'd dug up wasn't human, and yet, Mulder couldn't have said what it was, not by any stretch. He found himself wishing his pathology skills were a little more up to snuff. They'd gotten little to no cooperation from the local medical examiner.

Mulder snapped tons of pictures, but he told Doggett, "This is beyond my abilities. I think we should see if we could get it wrapped to go and have my pal Scully look at it. I'll want to fax some of these pictures to her and see what she says."

"Do what you can, and I'll try and go sweet talk the locals," Doggett said. "They're not exactly falling for my prince charming act."

Later that night, Mulder sat in his hotel room, looking at the X-rays that Scully had talked him through taking. Then looking at the small metal cylinder he'd removed from the corpse's nasal cavity.

"You know," he'd quipped to Scully on the phone as he'd been starting the autopsy, "Normally I prefer it if my patients are a little more lively. I'm not quite sure what to make of a patient that doesn't talk back to me in some kind of way, whether verbal or not."

"You've done dissection before, Mulder," Scully had said. "This is just like that."

"Nah," he said, cutting through dessicated and decomposing gray tissue to make the y-inscision. "In med school, I slept with my anatomy professor to get my A."

"You'll do fine, Mulder," she said, not taking his bait, not giving him much sympathy.

"Gosh, Scully, you sure know the way to a man's heart," he quipped.

"Of course. Right through the rib cage with a stryker saw. Mulder, I gotta go. Call me later," she said.

It was not so much the queasy factor that put him off, but the strangeness of this and the physicality. He preferred always to take a mental approach to problems, thinking them through. Having to be the one who confronted the physical evidence, who tried to piece together a story from that which had been left behind was an unfamiliar way of thinking to Mulder, who'd been used to his profiles and analysises for so long.

At last, he couldn't stand just sitting and looking at the X-rays any longer, trying to figure out what the implications of this whole thing were. He put them down, popped the cylinder into his pocket and grabbed his shoes. A run would clear his head.

He had to pass Doggett's hotel room on the way to the road, and out of curiosity and perhaps a bit of friendliness too, he stopped and knocked on the door. A moment later, Doggett answered, wearing only a pair of gray jersey boxer shorts that looked hastily pulled on, hair agreeably mussed, still holding a phone to his ear. He wasn't as heavily muscled as Skinner seemed to be, but what he had was well defined. His chest had a patch of hair, but he didn't have much other body hair. He smelled of the musky smell of sex and come. He'd been masturbating, Mulder was sure of it. Or, given the presence of the phone, maybe indulging in phone sex with his lover. Mulder might have envious of this Ri, only Mulder knew better than to allow oneself more than a mild attraction to one's partner.

"I was just too wired to sleep," Mulder said. "I was going to go for a run. Want to come?"

"Yeah," Doggett, said, surprisingly. "Give me a few minutes to pull on some clothes."

Mulder waited outside, doing a few stretches and eventually Doggett emerged in an old USMC t-shirt and sweats. It had started to rain, again, and Mulder suspected that the shorts he'd chosen might be a bad idea.

They took off at a comfortable pace, just to warm up. Mulder wondered if he should keep to a slower pace, in case Doggett couldn't keep up with him, but after a mile or so, Doggett picked up speed to around Mulder's usual pace.

"You know," Mulder said after a while. This seemed like the perfect moment to take the conversation personal, and find out a little bit more about the man behind the agent. "You took a big risk, dropping that little information bomb of yours like you did, with me not really having enough time to get off the plane."

"Nah," Doggett said. "I take my chances, but I don't take stupid ones. I got your number when we ran into Skinner. The big guy really melts your butter, doesn't he?"

You don't know the half of it, Mulder thought. Ever since their brief encounter in the parking garage, he'd found it hard to concentrate fully on anything else but big, bald and beautiful. His mind kept drifting back to the man. Even in the midst of some of the most exciting work he'd ever done, whether confronting suspicious, fearful local authorities or doing a real life alien autopsy, he thought about Skinner, even things about him as simple as wanting to hold that hand in his again and feel that play of muscle and bone glide over his own hand.

"Hah," Doggett said when Mulder didn't respond soon enough. "Now I know I've got your number."

"Guilty as charged, officer," Mulder admitted. "Though I don't think you get any points for observation. I was pretty obvious. I nearly had to ask for a drool bucket."

"Hate to break it to you, but I think he might be married," Doggett said. "He's got a ring. Wears it sometimes. Not others."

"All the good ones are always taken," Mulder said ruefully. Actually, his mind was still busy spinning plans to get his hands on the man. A wedding ring was convincing but not conclusive evidence of a wife, and Doggett here right next to him was evidence that a man might have a wife, then move on to a male lover. Besides, Mulder hated to admit it, but he was not too proud to sleep with a married man.

Still, wanting to move on to another topic of discussion, Mulder opened one up that might prove to be a little to close to tender spots. "What do you really think happened to your wife and son?"

Mulder almost expected Doggett to break stride, but he didn't. His voice was slightly strained as he said, "The facts sustained by physical evidence are that she was driving north to visit family in New York while I was gone across country on a case. She left Virginia in the evening. Five minutes after midnight in Pennsylvania, a flash of light was reported over the turnpike. Several people reported mechanical problems with their cars that resolved themselves just as fast as they'd happened. Barbara and Luke never made it to New York. At approximately three in the morning, a Pennsylvania state trooper pulled over to investigate an apparently abandoned vehicle on the side of the road. The occupants were gone. There was no sign of mechanical trouble or forced entry into the vehicle. Not finding any signs of foul play or signs of trouble, he ordered the car towed to the state impound because of the no parking regulation on that part of the turnpike. Barbara's mother hadn't been able to stay up until her daughter arrived. She didn't realize Barb was missing and hadn't arrived until she woke at six in the morning. By then the car had been towed and it wasn't until later in the day that the connection was made between the missing woman and child and the abandoned car. Car was dusted for fingerprints and combed over for other forensic evidence. Nothing was found but prints belonging to the car's owners. The state boys tried to make me into a suspect, but as I was across country at the time and had pretty much every Agent in Salt Lake City willing to swear to that, that didn't wash. Then they tried to brush it off, saying she must have met up with someone on the turnpike and run off. Seeing as things had been kind of rocky between us at the time, I might have been inclined to believe it. Except Barb showed up again about a month later, without Luke, with no memory past some truck stop just inside Pennsylvania. She was pretty roughed up and at the emergency room, they found a bit of metal in the back of her neck. They took it out, thinking it was a bit of buckshot or something. She never recovered and she never accepted that Luke was gone. She just faded away, and six months later, she was dead of a cancer so rare that our first oncologist hadn't even heard of it. Luke is still gone."

Mulder wanted to ask how the man had made the connections between his loss and the cases in the X-files, but before he could ask, Doggett continued, "Thankfully, the hospital gave me the bit of metal that they'd dug out of Barb's neck. It didn't look like buckshot to me. I was going to run it by ballistics, see what they said, but I took a look at it under a microscope. Thing was a computer chip of some kind. Someone or some agency put a computer chip in my wife's neck. I wanted to know why. I might have gone to Seattle, taken the big promotion, except for two things. First, it seemed like someone was goddamn eager for me to take it and get the hell out of town. They kept pushing me to accept it. To the point where it seemed suspicious to me."

"Be a good boy, shut up and you'll get a bone. Sounds like standard operating procedure around the Bureau these days," Mulder said. "What's the second thing?"

"Some one left three missing persons reports on my desk one day. The details were almost exactly like my wife's case," Doggett said. "And they were all pronounced unsolved and unsolvable. They were the first X-files I ever saw. What about you, Mulder? You said you want to be on the X-files. Why the hell would a normal, intelligent person want that? What's your story?"

Time for the truth. It was time for Mulder to share. Doggett's careful measured words had concealed a whole world of hurt. And Mulder felt like he had to honor that by offering the man a small glimpse into his soul. "My sister Samantha was taken from us when I was twelve. No sign of forced entry, she was just gone one night. I've worked extensively with hypnotherapists and I've remembered things. I've come to believe she might have been taken by..."

Mulder couldn't say the last word. For all his work, perhaps because of it, he still doubted his memories. Doggett finished the sentence for him, "Aliens. You know, I think we'll get along just fine, Mulder. Just fine."

By the next night though, they were standing in front of their hotel, watching it go up in flames. "So much for my laptop," Doggett said.

"The X-rays. The pictures," Mulder said, then started cursing under his breath.

Doggett kept quiet, but he looked like he'd be happy to have something to punch. Then half his mouth quirked up in a smile, "Hey, you think your Agent Scully would have put those pictures we sent her in a safe place?"

"I warned her to keep them close to her chest," Mulder said. Luckily, he'd kept his phone with him. He dialed her number. He'd expected to have to let it ring for a while. She should be asleep. It was three in the morning back home. She answered immediately, but sounded kind of spooked.

"Hey, Scully, it's Mulder. Did I wake you?"

"No," she said. "For once. I was actually debating whether to call you."


"I'm up waiting for the cops to get here. Sorry, I'm a little spooked. Someone broke into my house tonight. Only it's strange..."

This was starting to sound a little too convenient. Hell. "Let me guess," Mulder said. "They didn't take anything valuable. Except for a certain set of pictures I faxed you yesterday."

"Yeah, how did..."

"I know? I'm standing here in front of our hotel which would be a great place to roast some marshmallows, if I were in more of a festive mood. Oddly enough, that corpse I was dissecting yesterday is gone, along with all the tissue samples and everything. Look, be careful. I'm sure they got everything they came for already, but maybe you should go stay with your parents tonight."

"I'll be fine, Mulder," Scully said. "Sounds like you're the one who should watch out for yourself. I've got to go, the police are here."

Mulder hung up and turned to Doggett who just shrugged and said, "Welcome to the X-files, Agent Mulder. This sort of thing comes with the territory."

Mulder stopped by his former partner's assignment to bring him some dinner. They'd been split up ostensibly because of some supposed screw up in protocol they'd made. Mulder was sure it was because they'd gotten a little too close to the truth for the comfort of certain people, among them, that mostly silent, menacing man he thought of only as the Smoker.

Mulder had been sent back to Quantico, to teach his courses in forensic psychology. Doggett was tied to a desk by a headphones, doing wiretap. He looked profoundly bored, slouched in his chair, tapping a pencil as he listened. He still wore the regulation suit and tie, but both the jacket and tie were hanging from the back of the chair and the guy had rolled up his sleeves.

Technically, they weren't even supposed to have contact like this, about any kind of work issue. Mulder wasn't much for playing by the rules, especially not when they were such bullshit rules. Besides his working relationship with John Doggett, they'd also formed the beginnings of a great friendship, something that was lacking enough in Mulder's life that he wasn't going to give it up without a fight. And he trusted John. They'd gone to hell and back in the year they'd been together, faced down things Mulder didn't believe could exist- liver eating mutants, gnats that could eat a man alive, malevolent artificial intelligence. And come back to write the report, which of course no one believed anyway. Still, it meant a lot to Mulder. He wasn't about to never see Doggett again.

Mulder had corrupted the man. Doggett had picked up Mulder's sunflower seed habit, and he was busily cracking them as he listened to the wire tap. Only instead of littering the desk, Doggett had deposited all his husks into a used styrofoam coffee cup.

Mulder dropped a white paper bag on Doggett's desk. He set the fresh white, styrofoam cup on desk next to it. Black coffee, no cream, no sugar. Doggett wouldn't put up with fancy espresso drinks either. Mulder had indulged once and dragged Doggett into the corporate coffee place with him. Doggett had taken a glance at the prices on the menu board and had said, "Swear to God, my first truck cost less than some of those drinks."

"How's it going?" Mulder asked.

Doggett gave him a look that said, 'kill me now,' but he said, "I don't know how much longer I can take it. They've been talking about some stripper named Candy for an hour now. Still, could be worse."


"You know that screen at the start of video tapes."

"The FBI warning?" Mulder asked, seeing where Doggett was going with this.

Doggett gave him a wry grin, "Think about it. They've got some chumps out there enforcing that. You know, Mulder, I was just thinking about something."

"Yeah?" Mulder said, pulling up and chair and grabbing some of Doggett's sunflower seeds.

"You know, Skinner's not your direct supervisor any longer, is he?"


"So, what the hell are you doing, bugging me while I'm supposed to be busy at work, when you could be out going for the gusto?"

"What?" Mulder asked.

"Ask him out for a drink or something," Doggett said, cracking open the bag that Mulder had brought him, and poking around inside it. He pulled out a couple of french fries. "And if you just hang out with Frohike tonight, Ree's gonna tattle on you."

The Gunmen might have been Doggett's buddies first, met during his first frantic months that he'd been searching for answers, but they'd become Mulder's friends as well, Frohike especially. He and Mulder even borrowed tapes from each other, porn and otherwise. Frohike wasn't gay, just an "avid pervert," to use his own words.

"A drink?" Mulder said. "You mean, ask the man out for a date?"

"Just a drink, Mulder. I admit, it's pretty ballsy to ask that particular guy on a date, but dollars to doughnuts, he'll say yes. Guy's been making cow eyes at you for ages."

"Look, Johnboy, I can believe three impossible things before breakfast, but I think it's asking a bit much to think that AD Skinner is going to do anything but growl if I ask him out."

"Never thought you were a coward, Mulder," Doggett said. He had a half grin. He was definitely baiting Mulder and he knew it.

"Cowardice has nothing to do with it," Mulder said defensively.


"Bullshit," Mulder said. "I just don't want to get my ass kicked out of the Bureau. At least not for this."

"You know Skinner's not like that. Worse thing that could happen is he'd say no."

Actually, that was the worst thing that could happen. Mulder could have cared less about Skinner's official response. What would hurt was the mere chance that the man would say no, not any repercussions for overstepping.

"So, it's a bet then," Doggett said.

Which explained how Mulder found himself hesitating in the hallway just outside of Skinner's office at just past eight on a Thursday night. Skinner might well be gone, but Mulder didn't think so. The man's reputation for workaholism exceeded Mulder's own. He'd heard rumors that Skinner's door to door time was usually under eight hours, in at seven in the morning, not gone until past eleven.

While Mulder stood in the middle of the hallway, trying to talk himself out of just heading for the elevators and from there to home, there was the sound of a light switching off and a door closing.

Mulder turned and was faced with the sight of his former boss. The man was still perfectly turned out in suit, immaculate dress shirt and tie. Apparently he hadn't heard that long, hard days at work were supposed to leave you a little less than crisp, or that if you were at the office past seven, you were entitled to loosen the noose a little.

"Agent Mulder! How is the Academy treating you?" he said, sounding surprised. And he smiled. The man actually smiled. Mulder never would have thought he'd live to see that. The man always greeted their reports with such a poker face. Stoneface, he was sometimes called around the Bureau and for good reason. Now though, that stone face had softened and melted. It was like a whole new man was looking at him. Then the smile disappeared, turned into a worried frown, "You're not in any trouble are you? You know I can't help you..."

"No, not at all," Mulder said, forcing himself to sound natural and calm, even though he felt anything but. His stomach was churning like it never did when he was facing down armed criminals. If somebody would come by and hammer some nails to his feet, to keep them connected to the ground, that would be a definite improvement, because Mulder felt like he was about to rocket off into space. "I was just wondering. I mean, I've got the evening free. Have you had dinner yet?"

For a brief minute, Mulder felt like he would have ripped out of those nails anyway, as the man smiled even bigger, and perhaps stood a little straighter, definitely looking pleased. Mulder was certain he was going to say yes. Score one for me, he thought.

Then the world dropped out from under Mulder as the man frowned, "I'm sorry, not tonight, I have some place I have to be, in about fifteen minutes.

The other man took in what must have been a stricken look on Mulder's face, then frowned deeper. He nodded, probably realizing that Mulder had hopes beyond mere social ladder climbing socialization. He, of all people must have known that Mulder was probably the last person to curry favor in that way. As Skinner figured the situation out, Mulder's dashed hopes sank even further underneath the unforgiving waves.

And were washed up on the shore, coming to the surface again as Skinner said, "How about tomorrow night? I wish I could put this meeting with my attorney off but I've waited long enough to get this done."

"Tomorrow," Mulder said dumbly, unable to take this whiplash of expectations.

"Unless you have something planned," Skinner said.

Mulder shook himself, realizing suddenly just what had happened. He'd said yes. Walter Skinner had just agreed to a date. Not just any casual dinner out on a weeknight. An actual Friday night out. Mulder hadn't had one of those in years. "No, not at all. Tomorrow then."

"Did you have something planned?" Skinner asked.

Even though he didn't, Mulder nodded. He'd think of something perfect. Splendid enough to impress, simple enough to be passed off as merely social if he was misinterpreting Skinner's interest. Quiet enough to be either romantic or the sort of place businessmen went to discuss important work matters. He'd grill Scully about the perfect way to go about this date. She was bound to have more experience than he had at dating. "Can I pick you up at eight?" Mulder asked.

"How about we meet at seven, at the Capitol Lounge down the street? Have a drink and set out from there?"

Mulder agreed readily. He knew the place. It was a bar not far from the JEH, and because of that, it almost never had anyone from work there. It also had tall, deep booths. It'd be easy to meet someone discreetly. In fact, if he'd been given a few more minutes to think, he'd have suggested it himself.

He wanted to call John and crow about his date, but the man would be in the midst of wiretap still, and had sent him away earlier with a warning not to bug him again. Besides, Mulder knew that Doggett's plans, once he was free for the night, were to get his hands on Langly's bod and not let go of it until forced to do so by the need for sleep. Calling him could wait until at least, oh, two, three in the morning. Another reason Mulder wasn't going to give up his friendship with Doggett was that he'd just finally got the man trained up to take post midnight phone calls without complaint.

Mulder had been planning to call Scully from home, but exultant and too full of energy to sit at home, he pointed his car in the direction of Georgetown instead of Alexandria. He parked and walked the short distance to her pleasant little brick building. It was a warm spring night, but he doubted that she was doing anything more riveting than cleaning her gun, or maybe just doing her nails.

He knocked on her door. She really ought to get a place in a building with at least an intercom system, he often thought. Her association with him and his involvement with X-files had made her vulnerable at times. She'd learned not to keep sensitive materials in her apartment and that helped cut down the break ins. Still, she could be just as stubborn as he was, and though he'd tried to talk her into it, she'd refused to move.

She let him in. She was still dressed in her teaching clothes, the immaculate pant suit he'd seen her in earlier in the day, but she'd washed the make-up off her face already, leaving herself looking pale. With red rimmed eyes. She'd been trying to remedy that, Mulder saw, looking over at her coffee table. Twin tea bags sat on a washcloth.

"You okay, sweets?" he asked solicitously. He'd always felt protective of her, like she was a kind of little sister. Their friendship lacked the deep trust he felt with his partner, but it was no less important to him. "No lying. No telling me you're fine when you mean you feel like hell."

She sighed and sat down on her sofa, indicating he should take a seat. She wrapped her arms around her stomach, making Mulder wonder suddenly if she was sick. "I've just done something very stupid," she said. "I really should have known better."

"How stupid are we talking here? Lock your keys in the car stupid?"

"Lose my job and any hopes for future credibility if this gets out stupid," she said. She bit her lower lip until it turned from pale rosebud to bright strawberry.

"That sounds pretty bad. Are you really sure it's that bad?" he asked. He found it hard to imagine the innocent and sweet looking Miss Dana Scully capable of anything like that. "What did you do?"

"I slept with one of my students," she said. She flushed brightly and hid her face in her hands.

From the look in her eyes though, what she was hiding was a smile. Whoever this student was, he must have been good. Really good. That was definitely a memory of a heart stopping orgasm she was remembering there. He found it hard to imagine her doing something like that though. He wasn't a natural at the teaching thing, was only doing it as placeholder until he could get back to his real work, but even he knew that sleeping with your students was way high up on the list of things not to do. "No, you didn't. Tell me you didn't."

"I did," she said. She sighed. "You're giving me that look."

"What look?"

"The one that people give me all the time. The one that lets me know that they don't see me as anything but sweet, Catholic school girl grown up. You don't really see that I have just as much capacity to get into trouble as you and your buddy Agent Dogboy."


"But nothing Mulder. I've always had this side of me that thrills to doing things just because I'm not supposed to. I used to sneak my mother's cigarettes late at night. You know how you joke sometimes about sleeping with your med school professors? Well, I did. Not for the grades. Just because I wasn't supposed to."

Mulder mulled this over for a minute and decided that this side of her did exist, just he'd never noticed it before. She hadn't given him much cause to. "Okay," he said. "So you slept with a student. What kind of repercussions are we talking here? Is he threatening to go to OPR with sexual harassment charges?"

"No, worse than that."


"Much worse," Scully said. "No matter what OPR does to me, I can start my life over. Get another job somewhere else. But this will stay with me for the rest of my life."


"I'm pregnant," she said. The near smirk she'd had earlier, remembering how good the sex had been had gradually been fading. Now it was gone completely. And tears were sliding down her face.

"Hey, hey," he said, gathering her into his arms, suppressing any urges he might have had to make cracks about how he was sure they'd taught her about birth control in medical school. She didn't need that right now, and well, failure rates did happen. "We'll figure out something. It'll be okay. Have you told him yet?"

"Yesterday. And he just vanished. Didn't show up to his classes this morning. His room at the Academy was empty. His stuff was gone. He just vanished. Alex is gone."

"Somehow, I have a feeling we're avoiding a whole world of trouble that way," Mulder said, not sure why he felt that. "We will figure out a plan."

"I can't do this, Mulder," she said. "I can't have an abortion. It goes against my every belief."

"So you have the baby."

"I don't want a baby. I want Alex back," she said, setting off another freshet of tears.

"We'll figure something out," he promised, all thoughts of his upcoming date with Skinner vanished.

Later that night, he called Frohike for a favor. "Hey, Frohike," he said. "Turn off the recorder. It's me, Mulder."

"Oh, hi, Mulder," the voice on the other end of the line sounded like Frohike's again, not like it'd been sent through some distorter. "Hold on a minute."

Mulder waited patiently until Frohike picked up the line again and said, "JD just wanted to know if you asked big, bald and beautiful the big question or if you're still dicking around."

"Oh, sure," Mulder said. "We're going out Friday night. That's not why I'm calling. I've got a favor I'm hoping you can do for me."

"Well, I do owe you still for lending me Derrick Drills Dallas. What do you need Mulder?"

"Anything you can get me on a man named Alex Krycek. Any info at all. For various reasons, I don't want to go through standard channels to get it, but I need to find the man. You think you can do that?" Mulder asked.

"Walk in the park," Frohike boasted. "We'll start with the DMV. Probably have it for you by morning."

That taken care of, Mulder lulled himself to sleep on his familiar, comfortable leather sofa with a combination of his old friend television and bringing himself to orgasm assisted by his usual fantasies of Walter. Maybe, just maybe, come tomorrow night at this time, it wouldn't be a mere fantasy anymore.

In the morning just before he was about to take off for Quantico, there was a knock on his door. He looked cautiously through the peephole. It was Doggett uneasily juggling a bag of Krispy Kreme and two coffees.

"Hey, Mulder," he said, presenting Mulder with one of the coffees.

Mulder took it and said, "Hey, I thought we agreed on cash."

But Doggett had already set the bag and his own coffee down on the table by the door, the one that held Mulder's mail usually and he was digging in his pocket for his wallet. "Oh, Ree and the guys say they're still digging but they can't find jack about this Alex Krycek you're looking for. No DMV, no utility bills. Nothing."

Wheels started spinning in Mulder's head, the little sign that said 'tilt' lit up and started getting that itchy feeling, like he always did when they were on the edge of something big. "That's very interesting, don't you think?" Mulder asked. "Especially considering that as of Wednesday at least he was enrolled in the FBI Academy, just about ready to graduate and become Special Agent Alex Krycek."

Doggett got a comprehending look. He wasn't as fast to make the connections as Mulder was, but he got there quick enough.

"So, just out of curiosity, what made you decide to look into this Krycek?" Doggett asked.

Mulder pondered how to answer this question, decided that if he was going to lay bare Scully's private life to anyone, that Doggett was the logical choice. Admittedly, they'd never been the best of friends, but he respected her, Mulder thought she respected Doggett too. And Mulder wouldn't hesitate to strip his own soul bare before Doggett. He thought about how to put it tactfully and in the end, ditched tact like a bad date and chose the most direct words, though he didn't tell the full story. "Scully was fucking him."


"He split. Took off. Can you think of any way we can Bureau records on him without our looking raising questions? He was never in any of my classes, so I don't have even a flimsy excuse."

"Maybe your new boyfriend Skinner might help out?" Doggett asked.

"One, he's hardly my new boyfriend," Mulder said. "Two, you know he's been warned off helping us professionally in any way."

"Just a thought. I gotta go," Doggett said, ruefully. "There's a long, hard day, slaving over a hot wiretap waiting for me."

"So, your guys move on from that stripper yet?" Mulder asked as they walked out into his hallway. As always, he contemplated just not locking the door. It might as well not have been any use, for all of the bugs that he'd pulled from his place. He locked it anyway.

"Yeah," Doggett said. He sipped from his coffee, then said, "Last I heard they were talking about this phone sex kitten named Chantelle."

"Breeders! Nothing but sex on the brain. Sometimes, you know," Mulder said. "Stuff like that makes me glad I'm a big cocksucking fairy."

"I think Skinner'll be glad for that too," Doggett said as they reached the elevator. Doggett's mood got, not quite serious, but he definitely wasn't joking either. "Good hunting tonight. I'll be rooting for you."

"Nah, you just hope that if I start getting laid regularly, I'll stop calling you at three in the morning."

Mulder poked around the high boothes of the Capital Lounge, taking in the sports memorabilia and antique junk that decorated the wood paneled walls. Finally he spotted a familiar face, and slipped into the booth Walter had chosen.

Walter must have come straight from work, but then so did Mulder. They both wore their suits though Mulder had allowed himself to unbutton slightly, both the jacket and the top button of the shirt. It'd been a nerve straining day, the tension of anticipation jamming any of his attempts at serenity. In his time, he'd faced down serial killers, unbelievable monsters and he'd never been this nervous.

"Relax, Mulder. I'm here for a drink and dinner. I don't bite," Skinner said, obviously catching Mulder's nervousness. Probably the fact that Mulder had immediately started fidgeting with the cutlery was a big giveaway. Skinner smiled again, with perhaps a bit of a smirk, then added, "Not unless you ask pretty please."

Oh, dear God, the man was actually flirting with him. Had he been made of lesser stuff, he might have fainted. Instead, he decided he was going to stop acting like a chickenshit. Time to cowboy up. The man was obviously putting himself in range, but if Mulder didn't start acting like himself instead of this pansy coward he was being right now, his target would slip away.

Mulder found a grin somewhere. He forced himself to push the cutlery away. He looked Skinner directly in the eye and asked, "Pretty please?"

It was Skinner's turn to be bashful and flustered, but luckily for him, the waitress came along, wanting their drink orders. Skinner was a whiskey on the rocks. Mulder sipped at his beer slowly, wanting to remain sober. They talked about the Redskin's prospects in the upcoming season and other similarly neutral topics for a while, until Skinner stopped clinking his remaining ice cubes around in his glass and asked, "So, what's dinner looking like, Mulder?"

Before he could think better of it, Mulder said, "I'm thinking you look like a pretty good main course to me. Dessert too."

Did I just say that? Mulder wondered. I just said that, he concluded when he saw that Skinner looked vaguely like a deer caught in headlights for a few minutes, as he was processing what Mulder had just said. Mulder was sure he'd moved too fast, that Skinner had been expecting a slower, more gradual build up than this. Then Skinner recovered.

"Well, I suggest we move on then, to your place or mine first," he said. "As I'd like to come back here again."

By mutual consent, they moved on to Mulder's place, because it was closer. Skinner had left his car in the JEH building's garage and he rode with Mulder out to Alexandria. As Mulder drove, Skinner's hand kept snaking over, grazing Mulder's thigh, brushing Mulder's groin, making Mulder's dick twitch with each touch, no matter how slight. "I'm trying to concentrate here," he said once, but that only spurred Skinner on further.

By the time they reached the elevator, Mulder was ready to throw himself at Skinner, to tackle him against the wall of the elevator and cover him with devouring kisses. Mulder restrained himself. The elevator here at Hegal Place was busy enough that it was bound to stop before they reached the fourth floor, and someone would walk in on them. Because once Mulder started kissing Skinner, he knew he wouldn't stop.

The instant they were inside of Mulder's apartment, Skinner's phone rang. He sighed, but took it out of his pocket. He must have had caller id, because he checked it, silenced the phone and stuck it back into his pocket. "My very soon to be ex-wife," he explained. "It's hard for her to adjust to the fact that we're not going to be married any more."

This cast a serious note on what had been a flirty, teasing good time. Not that it ruined the mood completely, but it caused Mulder to take a closer look at what they were about to do and think twice about it. "You still love her," Mulder said, flatly. You could hear that much in the man's voice.

"I have always loved Sharon. She's like a sister. My best friend. And it's because I love her that I had to set her free."

"How long have you been using her for cover?" Mulder said, understanding Skinner's story without even hearing it.

"Over fifteen years now," Skinner said. "She's always known about me, but she had her own reasons to stay with me.

"Recently, she had an affair with someone at work. And that made me realize for the first time just how unfair this was to her. She thinks I'm divorcing her because of the affair. I suppose I am, but not for the reasons she thinks. I realized that she needs to be free to find someone who can give her the whole package. I'm sorry, I hope I haven't ruined the mood."

"No, not at all," Mulder said. If anything, Skinner's confession had made Mulder feel more tenderness for the big man.

"And it made me realize that I need the whole package too. I've never been unfaithful to Sharon, but fifty is looming close on the horizon and I need more than my own right hand."

"You found it," Mulder said, choosing now finally to launch himself at Skinner, so happy for some ineluctable reason that he couldn't help laughing. It was more than the fact that he was finally making a move on the man he'd admired from afar for so long. It was more than the feeling that love had not just waltzed into his life but had slouched down on his sofa and propped its feet up on the coffee table. It was a certain sense of rightness, as if everything were falling into place where it belonged. The cards had been shuffled and dealt and Mulder discovering that life had handed him a royal flush.

Mulder had once asked Doggett on a long road trip away from DC, after Doggett had gotten off the phone with Langly, what he saw in the man. Doggett had gotten a bashful grin and asked, "You mean besides the fact that the man gives incredible head?"

"Besides," Mulder had said. "Great sex is a good reason to get with someone, but not good enough to stay with someone, not after all you've been through."

"I can't really say," Doggett had said. "I'm just supposed to be with him. You'd think we'd be too different for it to work, but it's like two poles of a magnet. We were meant to be."

And he and Skinner were meant to be. It was more like he and the other man were jigsaw puzzle pieces. He'd turned himself a little and all of a sudden it had been obvious that his curves and grooves matched exactly the curves and grooves of the other man. Right now at this moment, they were sliding into place, snapping one into the other.

The other man was so solid in his arms, his body feeling just like his hands had, a wonderful play of muscles against bone, all sliding around each other. He smelled wonderful too, like whiskey and a little like the smoke from the bar where they'd met, but not much. And crisp, like linen, and sweet like honey. Their lips touched and it was all over. Mulder knew he would never be the same again. He held his eyes open during their kiss and watched as Skinner's stone face mask was dropped entirely for the first time. The person beneath was all sweet, fierce passion and it left Mulder breathless.

"Mine," Mulder couldn't stop himself from whispering against Skinner's lips.

"Yours," Skinner agreed, readily, eagerly, then opened his mouth to accept Mulder's kiss more deeply.

Mulder woke automatically to the sound of his phone, even though it was muffled, being a room away and still swathed in the pocket of his suit jacket which hadn't even made it onto the back of a chair. Mulder carefully slipped out from the heavy arm draped across his chest and scurried into the living room to collect his phone. Considering that it was still full dark out, it was probably Doggett calling. Though the man was less given to insomnia than Mulder ever was, he certainly considered that turnabout was fair play and never hesitated to call at any time, day or night.

Mulder answered, not prepared for who it was. "Mulder, it's me," a soft, feminine voice said. She was whispering almost.

"Scully?" he asked, suddenly worried. He'd left her the other night with bland reassurances that he would do anything within his power to help her, even once in a fit of madness, offering to pose as the father of her child anything up to but not including marrying her. She'd sent him home after that, saying that she needed to think.

"Are you okay, Scully?"

"No," she said, starting to laugh and choke as if she were sobbing, all at once. Then she quieted herself. "I have to be quiet. I don't want to wake Alex. He's had a rough couple of days."

Alex? "Scully? What are you doing? Alex Krycek is one of them, I'm sure of it. Scully? Where are you? I'm coming for you now. Stay put."

"I can't. I'm driving. I can't tell you where I'm going. I know about Alex. He told me everything," she said.

"Scully, listen to me," he said, but without much hope. This, too, seemed inevitable. As his hold on Walter tightened, so his hold on Scully was slipping away. Her voice was full of hard swallows and goodbyes. She was leaving as sure as a ship that disappeared over the horizon, further and further out of reach with each minute.

"No, Mulder. I'm going to disappear for a while, maybe forever. I need you not to worry about me. I need you not to come looking for me. Because I'm afraid you and your partner would actually find me."

"Damn straight we would," he said, even though he knew it was no use.

"Please, don't. Alex and I are going to be doing our best to make the world safe for our baby. I don't want a baby. Not now. But we created it and we owe a responsibility to it. Please, don't try and stop us."

Then she was gone. She'd hit the disconnect button and the line was dead. He sat for a long time in the dark on the floor, wearing nothing more than he'd gone to bed in last night, which was to say nothing at all. He cradled the phone in his hand tenderly, as if it were a substitute for her.

When the sky visible through the windows started turning from black velvet to luminous dark blue, then, slowly to dawn, Walter came out of the bedroom. Seeing Mulder sitting on the floor, he asked, grabbing one of the blankets off the sofa, "What are you doing there in the dark?"

As Skinner settled the blanket around his shoulders, Mulder said, "Thinking about the inevitable twists and curveballs of life. As our day here slowly dawns, somewhere else in the world, the sun is setting. One thing ends, another starts. That the world may seem like it's falling apart, but that it's the chaotic nature of existence, ever destroying to make anew."

Skinner sat down on the floor next to Mulder and asked cautiously, as if afraid he might not like the answer he would get, "Any particular reason for this bout of philosophy?"

"No," Mulder said, turning towards Walter, opening his blanket to admit him under the wooly warmth. "No reason at all. C'mere, you."

Then Mulder flowed with what the tides of time had brought him, taking full advantage of emotion's liquid pull.

Mulder sighed. It'd been a long day. He'd kept up his full teaching load in addition to cleaning up the last dredges of the Duane Barry mess. He'd been planning to go over to Walter's tonight, but by the time he'd been through at Quantico and gotten home, it was late. He'd called, given his excuses to Walter, who understood even if he wasn't happy. Then he'd gone home.

He played through the messages waiting for him on the machine. The first one was from Doggett. "Oh, hey, I took those chips they took out of Duane Barry over to the guys to take a look at. You know I really miss having Agent Scully at our beck and call. Anyway, looks like one of them has a scanner code on it of some kind. Dunno why, but the guys had a scanner gun, so we ran it through their set up and something really strange happened..."

There was an unidentifiable noise, then Doggett said, "Hold on, somethings..."

Then there was even more noise- a struggle, muffled cursing. Mulder didn't even stay to listen to the rest of the message. His tiredness completely forgotten, he rushed out the door, heading for John's place in such haste he nearly forgot to lock the door behind him.

He drove out to Falls Church in near panic that only intensified when he was greeted by the sight of ambulances and police cars. The first ambulance he passed on the way to the house was empty, waiting for EMTs and the patient to return. At the second, Mulder could breathe a sigh of relief. Doggett was sitting on the tailgate, getting treated by the EMT. But he was there. And breathing. And mostly unhurt it seemed. The EMT was disinfecting and examining a wound on John's scalp.

"You really should reconsider letting us take you in," the EMT was saying to Doggett. "He got a good one in."

"I'm not going in," John said, stubborn as usual. He caught sight of Mulder and said, "Hey, Fox! Sorry to worry you with that phone call."

"What happened?"

Doggett grimaced as the EMT prodded at his scalp a little more. "You know, that Duane Barry character was still one tough SOB, even with a chest wound."

"Are you his partner?" the EMT's partner asked, pulling Mulder slightly aside. Mulder nodded and the other EMT continued, "Do you think you could talk your partner there into at least going to the emergency room? He's refusing to go. I think we'd all be happier if he got that gash stitched up."

On one hand, the trained doctor in Mulder wanted Doggett to get looked at, on the other hand, Mulder understood exactly the other man's dislike of hospitals and being under the medical establishments thumb. He had the same dislike of it himself.

"It's okay," Mulder said. "I'm a medical doctor. I'll look after him."

An hour and a half later, when the cops were finally through with them and gone, blood was still seeping through the bandages.

"I hate to say the EMTs were probably right, but they were," Mulder said to John as they started to clear away the ruins from John's living room. "You probably should have gone in and gotten stitches."

"I'll be okay. I don't have a concussion. It wasn't a hard blow to the head, just a cut from the window glass. Scalp wounds always bleed like a sonuvabitch," John said, putting a sofa cushion back in place. The man should at least be sitting down instead of cleaning house, but if anything he was even more stubborn than Mulder. Mulder knew for himself how badly he'd take it if someone told him to sit down.

"All the more reason to get it stitched," Mulder said.

"You do it then. You're a doctor," Doggett said. "I just don't want to spend the rest of my night in some waiting room next to some woman's kids that are sick with the flu, while watching guys with gunshot wounds roll in. Not my idea of a restful way to spend the rest of the night."

"I'm a head shrinker, not a head sewer," Mulder protested. It'd been many long years since he'd had a very brief stint in the emergency room. It was never one of his more developed skill sets. "I wish Scully were here. This is really more up her alley."

"Well, she ain't here and, anyway, I'm not sure I'd want her to do it. She's used to patients who can't exactly complain about her techniques or bedside manner," Doggett complained. He hadn't gotten along with Scully anymore than she had with him. There'd been definite jealousy between the pair of them. And yet it was Doggett who'd been appalled when Mulder had refused to go looking for Scully. It'd taken Mulder a lot of convincing until Doggett was willing to let it rest, convinced that maybe it might not be such a good thing to be chasing after Scully and Krycek, for Scully if not for them.

Still, they'd ended up at the Gunmen's place for the reason that the paranoid men had a more fully stocked medical kit than Mulder. Mulder didn't ask why they had sutures, or where they'd gotten the local anesthetic. With Frohike to lend an occasional hand, Mulder was giving John stitches. Mulder had expected Langly to hover nervously over his boyfriend, but instead, the blond played it cool, saying a few soft, whispered words to Doggett, ended with a brief kiss on the cheek, when they'd first arrived, but then retreating to the isolation of his computer while they were fixing up Doggett's scalp. Neither Langly nor Doggett were given to displays of public affection, even in the relative privacy of the Gunmen's headquarters.

"I can't believe I let you talk me into this," Mulder said. At least John's hair should do an okay job covering the scar that would no doubt result from the terrible suture job Mulder was sure he was doing. He pulled the suture through John's scalp again. John winced. Probably from the sensation of the pulling more than any pain. Mulder had used plently of the prescription pain numbing medication.

"I wouldn't have it any other way, Mulder," Doggett said.

Mulder knotted the suture thread one last time and said, "All done. But next time the alien abductee of the month gives your head a good crack, I don't care what you say, Johnboy, I'm going to take you in to the emergency room."

As Mulder bandaged the wound, Doggett said, "You know, I can't help but feel that we really lucked out here. Duane Barry's intentions, whatever the hell they were, weren't good. Lucky for me I hadn't taken my holster off for the day. But how the hell do you suppose he tracked me down?"

With that, Langly spoke up, looking away from his computer screen for the first time since Mulder had started stitching. "You work for the government, Johnboy. Your personnel record is an open book to them," he said. Langly got up from his computer and walked over to Doggett. He stood behind the other man and put his hands delicately on Doggett's shoulders. "What say I get you to bed, JD?"

"I think I could get behind that," Doggett said, tiredly. He rested a hand on Langly's right. "Thanks, Mulder."

Driving home afterwards, Mulder knew that sleep would be far off, if attainable at all tonight. He couldn't shake the feeling that a very large, unnecessary tragedy had just been avoided tonight by John's simple choice not to immediately disarm himself the instant he hit the door like he usually did. Duane Barry's words kept echoing in his mind, that they weren't going to get him this time, that they weren't going to take Duane Barry. Mulder replayed the hostage scene in his head again. No doubt, the man believed he was going to be abducted again, and he'd come to get John tonight to be his substitute. It didn't happen, but Mulder couldn't help but feel a certain fear and heartache, as if he knew what it must be like to lose one's partner like that.

Once he decided that sleep was unlikely at best, he turned off his path home and drove aimlessly for a while, wishing he could call John to talk about the incident. Knowing John though, he'd have already put it behind him, not wanting to rehash it. Besides, even he had better sense than to disturb the man after the night he'd had.

Around the time that the black sky started to lighten to gray, his phone rang.

Mulder took it out of his pocket and answered it, even as he contemplated not answering. "Yeah?"

"Mulder," a soft, feminine voice said. It didn't sound either familiar or not familiar. It was as if someone he knew well had started speaking, even thinking in a different way. Scully, but not a Scully he had ever known. She said, "Meet me at the FDR memorial, as soon as you can."

Then the call ended, with a sudden, decisive click. He was certain, morally certain that it had been Scully on the phone. Without bothering to call anyone to tell them he was meeting with a possible total stranger on the basis of a ten second call, he turned his vehicle back towards the city.

In the dawn's pink light, he wandered through the carved statues and rough rock lined waterfalls, wondering where this mysterious contact would be. In the early morning, the place was deserted, himself the only one there. The place reminded him of a maze, each different turn, each statue a different aspect of the great man who'd been the President longest and had guided the country from its darkest hours to its greatest.

Mulder turned a corner around some shrubbery and wondered where Scully would be, if indeed, she were the contact. There, he thought, coming across the statue of Eleanor Roosevelt. Yes, that was where Scully would wait for him.

Mulder found a relatively flat and smooth rock and settled down, hands in his leather jacket pocket to ward off the morning chill. He thought about what he'd say to her, how, if at all possible, he could persuade her to come back, to pick up her life again where she had left it. She'd been missing six months now, but it wasn't too late. He was sure she could be reinstated in good standing. A few minutes a large dark figure slipped out from a corner and approached him. It was a man, about Mulder's size, perhaps a little more heavily built. In the poor lighting, it was hard to tell what he looked like, but his hair was dark.

It obviously wasn't Scully.

"Agent Mulder," the man said. "I have a message for you."

"From who?" Mulder demanded, suddenly sick of these informants, these people who claimed to know the whole story, who bobbed to the surface just long enough to disperse their crumb of wisdom then sank down into the obscure depths again, until it suited their purposes to reemerge again. Like Deep Throat and the mysterious Mr. X, this one would give him just enough to think that he knew the whole picture, when in fact he had only fragments himself. Mulder added, "And who are you? Why should I listen to you?"

As the man approached closer, Mulder could see that he was fine featured, almost too pretty for a man. And Mulder could recognize him from the file that Walter had routed to him by circuitous mean. Alexander Krycek, a few, short weeks from being Special Agent Krycek. Instead of the gelled back style his personnel photo had shown him wearing, Krycek's hair was a good bit longer, bangs trailing onto his forehead. Mulder could definitely see what Scully had seen in him, especially if one believed what she said, about doing things she wasn't supposed to. This one looked dangerous, like if he moved the wrong way, he'd clank from the arsenal he carried under that black leather jacket.

"Krycek!" Mulder hissed. "Where is Scully? Where is she?"

"She's safe, for now. She's in hiding. Until her child is born. But she can't stay hidden forever. She wanted me to deliver a message to you."


"She says that if you were serious in your earlier promises to her, that you have two months to prepare."

Mulder swallowed hard. He remembered the promises he'd made to Scully that night. What kind of fear did they live in that they thought having Mulder as her father would be better for this child than anything they could provide?

Krycek seemed to know what Mulder was thinking and said, "Any child of yours would be safe, Mulder. Protected. Did you ever think to wonder why you're still alive?"

Mulder had found out a number of things since he'd started with the X-files, not the least of which was that somehow his father had been involved in this conspiracy up to his eyeballs before he'd been killed in what, at the time, had been described as a house robbery. Mulder now had his doubts about that. He thought that his father, Bill Mulder, had been about to talk. But for the meantime, his father's connection had also seemed to offer Mulder some kind of protection. Perhaps he was a better choice than Scully and Krycek, if one was merely considering that factor.

And promises made, even if in the heat of desperation, had to be kept. He'd told Scully he'd be a father to her child, so he was every bit as bound to this child as the two of them, only by choice, rather than accident. He wondered briefly how Walter would take this sudden development, but decided that the big man would have to cope, and probably could. He wondered how John would cope. The loss of his son was still a big, unhealed wound. Not knowing for sure if the child was dead had never allowed Doggett any sense of closure. There might be some issues, to say the least, should Mulder suddenly have a child. Still, a promise was a promise and there was something about this man's manner. He was afraid. As dangerous as a man as he obviously was, he was afraid. And he seemed to truly believe that this would be child would be going to Mulder for protection. A tiny life hung in the balance here, waiting for him to make the decision to completely rearrange his life.

"Tell Scully that I stand by my word," Mulder said. "I'll be waiting. Things will be ready."

"Mulder," Krycek said, his voice low and threatening, "I want you to know what you're taking on here. No one, and I mean no one, can know the baby is my child, not yours. I'd kill my child with my bare hands before I let it get into these people's hands. The only protection it will have is if people think it has your genes."

As they'd spoke, the dawn had arrived in its refulgent glory. Krycek stepped close to Mulder as he said these final words. He looked Mulder deep in the eye. Mulder could see that the man's eyes were deep, true green. Krycek seemed satisfied with what he found in Mulder's eyes, so he slipped away, melting into the scenery. Mulder was alone again, wondering if what had just happened had really happened. What he was going to tell people, to explain this baby that he'd just been offered, he didn't know. John, John would definitely have to know the whole truth, Walter as well. As for the rest, his mother, the Gunmen, other select people knew that Mulder had never so much as looked at a female with interest. How were they supposed to believe that he'd now knocked one up? Single parenthood, if nothing else, looked like it was going to be very interesting.

Mulder got out his phone and placed a call. No doubt Walter would be up and probably on his way to work by now.

"Fox?" Walter answered. He sounded tired, like he hadn't rested well. If Walter constantly worried about Mulder and the trouble he got himself into, then Mulder worried just as much about Walter and the pressures he took on himself. And the way those pressures affected Walter. Mulder was an occasional insomnia, but Walter was the one with the diagnosed sleep disorder- nightmares that haunted him, relentlessly sometimes. Mulder feared that it might have been another bad night for Walter and he said so.

"No, not particularly," Walter said grumpily. "Except for the fact that a certain someone wasn't there."

"I'm sorry about that. It was an eventful night. I'm not disturbing you, am I?" Mulder asked. "Are you on your way in to the city yet?"

"I just left," Walter said. "What is it, Fox? You sound worried."

"Can we meet for breakfast? I need to talk with you as soon as possible."

Mulder almost heard Walter calculating, shifting his schedule around in his head, making the adjustments. Though Walter no longer spent anywhere near the amount of time at the office as he used to, his days were still long and packed. No doubt he'd been counting on the early morning hours to get a handle on the day, before the stream of meetings started. "Okay, I can be at our usual place in about twenty minutes."

"Good enough," Mulder said. Walter and he had kept their relationship circumspect, discreet. They didn't meet or even talk during work hours. After hours, mostly they stayed in, admittedly they spent a lot of their time boffing like bunnies. Mulder smiled when he thought about that. The few times they'd gone out as a couple, they'd chosen a small, quiet place that Walter knew. Not quite fancy enough to call it anything like a bistro, more upscale than a diner, too quiet to call it a family place. The menu was simple, the food good and the staff differential. Mulder always thought of it as "Walter's place," rather than their usual place.

"I'll see you soon," Walter said.

They didn't usually exchange endearments on the phone, but this time, Mulder whispered, "Love you, Walter," but Walter had hung up too soon to have heard it.

Mulder retraced his steps to the parking lot of the monument. He took an inventory of himself. Still wearing the clothes he'd worn yesterday, not having slept since the day before. He was so tired he wasn't sure he trusted himself to stay awake on the long drive out to Quantico, much less be able to teach his classes. Not that he would have time to get out to Alexandria to shower and change then get to Quantico on time, not and still meet with Walter. Besides, if this really was going to happen, there were things to do, arrangements to be made, people to call. Mulder didn't put away his phone yet. Instead, he started dialing, to make the call he almost never made. Usually, by the time he had to call off sick from work, he was in such a state that someone else had to make the call for him.

That taken care of, he headed to the restaurant, to wait for Walter.

Mulder was always surprised when the waitress recognized him. But she said a soft hello and guided him to a corner booth, with not one, but two menus, without asking Mulder first.

Walter arrived shortly. As he settled himself across from Mulder in the generously sized circle booth, he said, "You look like hell, Fox."

"It was a long night," Mulder explained. "I don't know if you heard yet, but Duane Barry made an encore appearance at Doggett's house."

Walter sort of winced, clenching his jaw slightly. Yeah, he'd heard. Of course he would have. One of his agents had shot a man dead last night, admittedly in self defense. "Was John hurt too badly? All the preliminary report says is that he was treated by paramedics at the scene and released."

"Stubborn bastard relied on my rusty embroidery skills rather than going in to the emergency room, and I'm sure he's nursing a pretty bad headache this morning, but other than that, I think he's okay. But that's not why I wanted to talk with you."

"Okay, so what's the burning topic of the day?" Walter asked, with an almost fatal resignation. He was expecting some trouble or another, because despite any thing he'd ever said about not being able to help Mulder or Doggett, he'd consistantly gone out of his way to do so, as covertly as he could.

For all that this was putatively good news, it could be received very badly, making Mulder feel something like a Christian Scientist with appendicitis about making this announcement. He'd been so happy with Walter, like he couldn't have imagined he'd ever be. And yet, a promise was a promise, and besides, in the brief hour since Krycek had slinked away to whatever hidey-hole he'd emerged from, Mulder had discovered that he very much wanted to be a father. He'd give up Walter for that if he had to.

Feeling so nervous, he just blurted out, "How do you feel about children, Walter. As in, I'm about to become a father and would you like to be a part of that?"

Had Walter been taking a drink at that moment, he would have taken a bite out of his water glass. As it was, his jaw snapped shut tight and he scowled.

Oh, hell, Mulder thought, certain that this was the beginning of the end.

Then Walter spoke, not quite putting Mulder's fears to rest, but letting him know that there seemed to be room for discussion, "When and how did this happen? And so help me God, Fox, this had better not be your idea of a stupid joke."

I'd better talk, and make this sound good, Mulder told himself. Make him understand. "About six months ago my friend Dana Scully took up with a very unsuitable young man. She disappeared primarily from a condition she contracted from him."

"The nine month flu I presume," Walter supplied. He'd put his water glass down as he'd listened and now took a sip of his coffee instead.

"Precisely. The day before she disappeared, I made some rash promises to her, and in any case, I gather she is in no position to be raising a child at the moment. For reasons I'm not even sure I understand, much less could explain, my name will be on the birth certificate and it is imperative that everyone believe that I am that young man who infected her with the nine-month flu. Once I left Doggett, I was contacted by Scully and her young man. I agreed to hold myself to my promises. So, it looks like my life is about to take a big tumble down a new and strange rabbit hole. The only question is, are you willing to be along for the ride?"

Walter put his coffee down on the table and reached across. He enclosed both of Mulder's hands in his own. It wasn't that Walter's hands were that much bigger than Mulder's, but it always felt like they were. They were blunt, powerful where Mulder's hands were long and graceful. "What makes you think that I'd want to be anywhere else?" he asked.

That was when Mulder knew it would be okay, that Walter hadn't been angry, or even anything but confused.

"I was thinking about getting a house. My apartment is going to be way too small. I thought maybe we might look together."

Mulder knew Walter had been thinking about buying property for a while. Since his divorce, he'd rented. Something had held Walter back from doing any serious looking at this point and suddenly it became clear to Mulder that Walter had been waiting for him. That he wanted Mulder to live with him and had put off purchasing property until that became a given.

"I think that would be advisable," Walter said. "Did you have any thoughts about where?"

"I was thinking Falls Church is nice, relatively reasonably priced..."

"Close to your partner," Walter added.

Mulder shrugged. "Why not? If he wants, I'd like John to be able to be close to the baby too. I thought maybe it might help..."

Mulder watched Walter struggle nearly visibly with jealousy for a while. He'd spent some time coming to terms with the fact that Doggett and Mulder would forever share a kind of intimacy that he was excluded from, and been consoled only by the fact that he shared a kind of intimacy with Mulder that Doggett never would. Now, like he had before, Walter pushed the jealousy aside and said, "Of course. The more caring..."

Walter seemed to be thinking, but didn't say, "armed.

"...Adults around, the better, right?"

"Right," Mulder said. Then the waitress politely intruded, wanting to take their order. It would be okay, Mulder thought to himself, exultant. It would be okay.

A month and a half had found them settled into a comfortable house, not in Falls Church, as Mulder had first thought, but in Scully's old neighborhood of Georgetown. They'd gotten a deal on a huge townhouse so good that seemed almost like a wish come true. The decor was outdated, but everything was in good shape. The living room was papered with aqua grass cloth, which went really badly with his old leather sofa, but there was an upstairs suite with attached bathroom that definitely made up for that.

Two months crept by with no further sign of Scully or the baby, nor word from Krycek. Mulder consoled himself with the fact that due dates were never as accurate as all that. The baby might well still be in utero.

When Mulder had explained the situation to Doggett, weeks ago, about the impending child in his life, Doggett had gotten very silent and clenched his jaw hard. Then he'd left without a goodbye and not spoken with Mulder for a week. He'd spent part of that week cloistered with Langly, Mulder had heard from reports from Frohike. As to what exactly they'd done behind Langly's closed doors, not even Frohike could say and neither Doggett nor Langly were telling. After a week though, Doggett had dropped by, quiet and kind of haggard as if he'd been doing a lot of crying and not much sleeping, though seeming to have achieved some kind of peace. He'd come with a paper bag that he'd thrust into Mulder's arms and he'd said, "These are some of Luke's baby things. I figure J. Edgar junior might have a use for them."

"Thanks, John," Mulder had said, meaning for far more than the old clothes.

"Life goes on," John had said, looking like he wished he knew something more profound he could say, something that might encapsulate whatever realizations he'd had during his days apart from Mulder. In the end he settled for, "Not like he'd need these any more even if he showed up tomorrow."

Life had gone on with perturbing normality for a week, then another. Mulder taught. Doggett was still hung up on wire tap, despite that messy but interesting side diversion of the case that sent them into the New Jersey sewers.

Mulder had been dropping by Doggett's desk, bringing him lunch. On his way out, a female voice called out, "Agent Mulder, a word with you?"

Mulder stopped and turned towards the source of the voice. The woman was handsome rather than pretty, dressed in an immaculate gray suit, her medium brown hair swept back in a severe twist. Jewelry gold, including a plain wedding band, no matching diamond to go with it though. She wasn't close enough for Mulder to see her badge, but every bit of her said "Agent" rather than PA or other support personnel. A woman used to sending people scurrying, rather than scurrying. She carried a small stack of file folders in one hand.

She extended her hand to him and said, "Jackson. Sandra Jackson."

Sandra Jackson. The most recently promoted AD. Near legendary in how well she negotiated the boys' club that was the FBI, even putting AD Jana Cassidy to shame it was said. AD Alvin Kersh had died in a tragic car accident a couple of months back and in his place, she'd made the jump from section chief to AD.

"AD Jackson," Mulder said, taking her hand. Her grip was pleasantly firm, neither the delicate touch of some women, nor the crush of some women who seemed intent of proving they could play ball just as hard as any man. "What can I do for you?"

"I understand you and your partner John Doggett are experts at solving cases not normally considered to be solvable," she said.

"So they say," Mulder said, not sure what, if anything, he wanted to say to this new factor in the FBI hierarchy. With John working wiretap in organized crime, she was in John's direct line of command. She could choose to make life difficult for the both of them if she wanted.

"I've just requested that the Academy release you from your teaching duties," she said. She held out the stack of files at him. "I was going to run these up to Agent Doggett, but since I saw you, I thought you might like to do that. Nothing very exciting like some of your previous cases. But it's a start."

Mulder couldn't stop himself from thumbing through the files right there. They were all related to a veritable epidemic of suicides and homicides of police officers, all of who were from the same precinct in New York. He guessed that the local PD had asked for Bureau help when they couldn't solve the cases, or perhaps even because they weren't entirely sure it wasn't one of their own.

"The X-files aren't reopened yet," Jackson said. "But watch yourselves and you'll be pleasantly surprised at just what might happen."

John had come to dinner one night, and the three of them lingered over the table, slowly pulling down beers, slow enough to never get really drunk. Their dining room looked oddly out of scale, with Mulder's small table and four chairs in it, when it had been clearly built to contain a huge dining room table with seating for at least eight or ten, if not twelve. It too was covered in aqua grasscloth, little more than an archway separating it from the living room.

As the midnight oil burned on, Walter finally gave up and went up to bed, leaving Doggett and Mulder awake and talking about a recent case, technically solved, report long ago submitted but without a good clear answer as far as either of them were concerned.

Mulder was contemplating kicking John out and calling it a night when he caught the unmistakable sounds of someone in the back yard. John caught it too, head snapping around to look out the window at the rustle of some branches. Both of their hands automatically went to their hips, but neither of them was still armed. Without a word, John stood up and went to the hallway, where he'd left his jacket and firearm. Mulder had already put his away for the night in a locked drawer in his desk.

Armed, John with his Smith and Wesson, Mulder with the phone, they went into the outdated, brown kitchen, in the dark of night near funereal in its gloom. There was a scratching noise from the back door, then the deadbolt turned, seemingly on its own. Then the door handle. Mulder and John waited, John to the left of the door where he could get a good shot in at whoever it was, as soon as they were in, Mulder out of sight in the corner.

Where he was, Mulder's view was obscured when the door finally pushed open. There was the sounds of a minor scuffle, then John roaring, "Lord God, Scully! You nearly got yourself killed. Ever hear of knocking?"

The phone dropped out of Mulder's hand in shock. He rushed from his corner. Yes, there she was, dressed in all black, definitely cat prowler style clothes, hair tied back and dyed a much darker color than normal. He wanted to pull her into a tight embrace, and yet, because of her time gone, God knows where, doing God knows what, and because of what she'd done by running with Krycek, he didn't quite trust her anymore either. Confused, he held back, standing behind Doggett.

"Can we come in?" she asked plaintively. She looked tired, and still looked like she might be pregnant under those tight black clothes.

"We?" Doggett asked. And suddenly the last several months didn't matter at all to him, not entirely forgotten, but not of importance. Doggett stepped out of the way, to let her in and to let Mulder at her. Not that Mulder could have been stopped, even by 190 pounds of ex-Marine.

"Yeah," said another voice, familiar even though Mulder had only heard it the one time. As Mulder dragged Scully more fully into the kitchen, hugging her madly all the while, Alex Krycek stepped into the kitchen, bearing one of those baby bucket contraptions. "We. We would have just knocked, but we figured even with your insomniac tendencies, you'd be asleep Mulder. We were going to be in and out in a minute, drop off the bundle and be gone. We can't stay."

Alex Krycek, five feet, eleven inches of menace in black leather, looking so different from his bright faced FBI file photo that he might have been another man entirely, set the baby bucket down on the kitchen counter. He pulled aside the white blanket that covered it, revealing a tiny child strapped in. He unsnapped the straps and tenderly, gently lifted the baby inside out. He held the child carefully, supporting his or her head with one hand. Krycek rested the child on his chest for a moment, holding him or her to black leather. He nuzzled baby scalp, sniffing, then placing a light kiss on the child's head. The child wore nothing more than diapers and a little white t-shirt.

Mulder pulled away from Scully, riveted by the sight. So, it was true. They were going to give the child to him. Not quite daring to believe in what they'd asked of him, he'd hardly made any preparations besides buying the house. The only baby clothes in the house were the ones John had given him a while back.

"Dana?" Krycek asked. Scully pulled herself out of Mulder's hug. The kind of silent, almost mental communication that is possible sometimes between lovers passed between them. What they were saying to each other, Mulder couldn't even begin to guess. She walked over to Krycek and took the baby. As they transfer happened, she looked him deeply in the eyes. Mulder could read that one. It was a thought that said, "We can do this. We have to." Krycek sighed. Once the baby was handed over, he pulled a small packet of papers from his jacket and handed them to the closest person- John. Then Krycek slipped out the door, shutting it behind him. It seemed harder on him to abandon their baby than it was on Scully. John seemed to want to go after him, but Mulder shook his head. John opened his mouth then shut it again, willing to let Mulder determine how this one was played.

Scully turned to Mulder. "She's only a week old," she said, holding the baby out to him. He didn't take the child just yet. "You have to take her, Mulder. I have to be able to fight them."

With that, Mulder let Scully place the tiny burden in his arms. She was so small and fragile he was afraid she might break in his large hands. He had to know what she knew though, had to understand. "This is colonization we're talking about here, isn't it?"

"That and more," Scully said. "We have to resist or serve, Mulder. Take care of her."

With that, Scully reached up on tippy-toes and kissed his cheek, sweetly and like a sister. "Where are you going?" Mulder asked, hopelessly as she slipped away. "When will I hear from you?"

"Dos Vadanya, Mulder," she whispered at the door.

While Scully had been making her goodbye, John had been going through the papers that Krycek had put in his hands. "Birth certificate," he pronounced, holding up a piece of paper. "Olivia Margaret Mulder. Born June 9 in Cook County, Illinois, Cicero to be exact, if we believe this. Father, Fox William Mulder, mother, Danielle Maria Chernowicki."

Mulder hardly heard him, between the burning memory of Scully's lips on his cheek and the all too present feeling of baby in his arms. Olivia started fussing and he held her closer, against his chest, and he started walking her around the room, not even sure where to start, what to do next.

Ever practical, John was digging through a diaper bag that seemed to have appeared from nowhere. Probably either Scully or Krycek had brought it in then immediately dropped it. "Okay, you've got about five diapers, a few shirts, clean receiving blanket, not much else. No bottles, no formula," John said, inventorying. He dug something else out, a long, silvery something. "And this, whatever the hell it is."

At that, he must have touched something on the cylinder, because a vicious looking tip snapped out of the top with a sound not quite like anything else Mulder had ever heard before. John examined it, found a way to make the blade retract, then said, "Heck of a place to leave a weapon. What do you think it's for?"

"No clue," Mulder said, numbly. "What am I going to do, Johnboy?"

"You're going to go upstairs and wake up that little girl's other daddy. I'm going to find an all night Wal-Mart. You're going to need diapers and formula before too long," John said.

"And then?" Mulder asked, never feeling more unsure of himself. Not that he usually deferred to John, or asked him for orders, but Mulder was so far out of his depth that he was glad he had the other man for a friend. All the mental preparation in the world hadn't made a damn bit of difference at this moment.

Not that John was cruel or anything, but there was a bit of smug satisfaction in his voice when he said, "It's a good thing you're a natural insomniac, Mulder. Because you ain't going to be getting much sleep for a while. Can't say as this age is the part of parenting that I miss. And I had a wife that did most of it."

"Bastard," Mulder said, but without any kind of venom. John put the diaper bag and papers up on the counter carefully and went off in search of his jacket.

"That's sonuvabitch to you," John teased as he headed out to the night.

Mulder waited until the door was locked behind Doggett, then went upstairs. The stairs themselves had thick carved spindles, painted thick, chipped black, and a smooth banister on top. Mulder pictured a little girl, a little tomboy like Scully was supposed to have been, someday sliding down that banister. He climbed the stairs, already worrying about things like that and other things, much more malevolent than that and things more banal, like how they were going to manage when the master suite was on a different floor than the rest of the house's bedrooms.

Despite the earlier scuffle, Walter was fast asleep. Once asleep, the man's ability to stay asleep was near legendary, even through bad nightmares. Awkwardly because he was unused to the small burden in his arms, Mulder reached out and turned on the bedside lamp. He sat down beside Walter's still body. Mulder changed little Oliva's position, putting her so she was head at his shoulder, supported on the back by one hand. With his now free hand, Mulder shook Walter's shoulder.

The big guy stirred, but did not wake. Walter draped an arm over his eyes, making unpleased noises. It was always a difficult proposition, waking the man up. Because of his sleep disorder, there were times where he appeared to be awake, lucid, rational and would remember nothing of what happened the following morning. Mulder had slowly learned to tell when Walter wasn't really woken. A real waking was gradual, uncomfortable for the man. A faux wakefulness came easily. One minute he was asleep, the next he would seem to be awake.

"Walter. Wake up," Mulder said. Walter stirred more, but did not open his eyes yet. Then Olivia started to fuss suddenly, letting loose with a good cry. Walter's eyes snapped open. They were unfocused at first, and Mulder was worried that Walter had slipped into his wakeful sleeping state. But no, in a moment, they focused and took in the source of his disturbance. That look was a question in itself.

To answer, Mulder shifted the child around in his arms and held her out to Skinner. "Meet Olivia Margaret Mulder. Our daughter."

With that Skinner sat up in bed. He took the crying baby from Mulder. She'd been getting angry, mad, unbelievably loud for one so young and small, her back arched in fury. But once she was in Walter's arms, she calmed immediately. He held her close to him, resting her against his bare chest. She seemed impossibly tiny next to all his muscles, yet she seemed as if she belonged nowhere else.

"Our daughter, Walter," Mulder said. He might as well have been talking to the moon. The man was gone, lost in the unfocused blue eyes of the child in his arms. And that was when Mulder was sure it would be all right, that everything would work out fine. Because Walter loved her, and he loved Walter and he loved her. And she would grow up to love them both. And anything else beyond that didn't matter.

Despite her promise to Mulder, Jenn couldn't quite resist checking up on him every now and then, especially at times when she knew important, dangerous things would be happening to him. Like now.

For one night, she'd left behind her coffee shop in small town Virginia and wished herself out to the Oregon woods. She watched Mulder and his partner search.

They were setting up a network of red laser beams. "This thing better be out here like Scully said," Mulder was complaining. "We are so going to get our asses kicked otherwise."

"We're going to get our asses kicked anyway," Doggett said, adjusting one of the beams. "You heard Jackson. They don't like us. We could bring home ET asking to shake Clinton's hand and they still wouldn't believe us. So, how's it look?"

"Bugetarily, I'd say we're looking pretty good," Mulder said, but he sounded doubtful.

It was easy enough for Jenn to just look and see, this morning, Mulder had left his child, five year old Olivia in the care of her other father, Walter, now retired from the FBI. Olivia had cried, then thrown a tantrum trying to get Mulder to stay. She'd been screaming more like a year and a half year old than the nearly five years that she was. Eventually, Walter had put her to bed and Mulder had guiltily slipped out the door.

Doggett had gone back to adjusting the ruby light beams, turning his back on his partner for just a minute, which was all that was needed. By the time he looked up, Mulder was nowhere to be seen. Jenn looked away. She didn't need to see the rest of it. She knew how the story went.

Months later, they'd retrieved Mulder's body, cast off by his captors, like so much trash. Now they were burying him today, Jenn watching from a distance.

The little group around the grave on this windy, wintery day clustered together as if for warmth. The day was every bit as bitter as the one's gathered felt. Frohike stood in the middle between Langly and Byers, the three of them together, as always. Nothing, not even two of them pairing off, could split the three. On one side of Langly, Doggett stood, hunched, grieving, his hard face even harder, eyes the kind of empty that can come only from such loss. They didn't embrace, but every now and then, Langly's hand would drift to John's back, touching tentatively, as if he wasn't sure he'd be welcome, and yet John drifted only closer to him. On one side of Byers was his wife, a lively and intelligent, but not sweet natured woman that Jenn had picked for him when she'd seen how desolate he was over a completely untrustworthy snake called Suzanne Modeski. Further off, out of sight in the trees, another pair watched the proceedings, one dark and tall, the other red headed and short. They grieved, both the man and their own foolishness. The dark one's grief was silent and hard edged, the other's grief wet, stuttering and full of self blame. A handful of others attended the graveside ceremony- the woman who had been Mulder's AD, a neighbor or three, surprisingly, a waitress from Mulder and Walter's favorite restaurant.

Only the big, bald man stood alone. Earlier, at the service at the funeral home, he'd had Lovey, his and Mulder's daughter with him, carrying her in his arms, sitting her on his lap, even though she normally would have protested that she was too big for that. It was determined that the burial itself was too much for one so young and she'd been left with another neighbor. Walter stood in black, not quite broken by the death of his lover, not weeping, but stunned. It was like he'd been struck by lightening, about to keel over, but that he hadn't fully understood what had happened to him yet.

Everything Jenn had struggled to stop from happening was unfolding, again, before her eyes. This time, for the last time. There would be no more interventions, no more changing the flow of time. Mulder's wish had constrained her. She could meddle no longer.

"It's not over, you know," said a voice beside her. Startled, she looked. Mulder, looking nothing like the shell they'd discovered. This was Mulder looking cheerful, whole. Peaceful, one might even say serene. And yet unsubstantial.

"I'm not really here," he supplied.

"You're not really dead?" she asked, wondering then what they were burying.

"Oh, I'm dead all right. It's a really interesting perspective from here. I should have tried this years ago," he said.

"A ghost?"

"Sort of. It's just temporary. You'll see. I can see how the story ends, and really, it's not as bad as you think it is."

"And you're going to have a happy ending somehow? Despite that?" she indicated the coffin. They were lowering Mulder's body into the ground.

"Because of that," Mulder said, enigmatically. "I can see a lot of things from where I am now. Including who I was, all the different whos I was at your behest, who I could have been if I'd never opened that rug."

"And?" she said, waiting for his judgement.

"You meant well," he said. "And you gave me things I'd never dreamed of having. Or even knew I needed. And I think having the things I need will let me do the things I'll need to do when I come back. Thank you."

Then he was gone, just gone. This didn't seem like any kind of happy ending she could conceive of and yet the ghost of Mulder seemed satisfied with the progression of events. She sighed and turned away from the small crowd of mourners. There was nothing more she could do.

Late at night, John Doggett stirred, sleeping uncomfortably, dreaming of a son that had been taken from him, that he'd met again and again, in various ways- always nearly, yet never truly his son. He dreamed of little boys with huge pustules on their necks that burst spreading deadly alien viruses to hospital workers, and silent, soul-less boys with the face of Luke, but manufactured for work among fields of shrubs and beehives. He twitched in his sleep, trying in his dreams to save the children he couldn't save in reality. All this activity didn't disturb the other occupant of the bed, the lanky blond who'd been his usual, but casual companion for almost as many years now as he'd been married to his late wife.

The phone did disturb his companion, at least enough to make him reach over to the bedside table for it, only to immediately hand it over to Doggett. It would have to be for Doggett. The Gunmen wouldn't have called Doggett's home number in the middle of the night and no one else knew, or cared, that Langly was sleeping there tonight.

Pushed abruptly out of his dreams like that made the images of his son/not son stand out in Doggett's mind all the stronger as he marshalled awareness, reaching for the right words. "Hello?" he was able to ask, eventually finding the right end of the phone to talk into.

"You need to exhume him," a female voice demanded.

"What?" he asked, knowing without a doubt that the him in question was Mulder, now buried three months. The female voice was clearly Scully. He sat up in bed, heart pounding in his chest to beat the band, now more fully awake than he'd felt in months.

"Mulder. You need to exhume him now," she said. "Don't ask any questions. Just do it. Lives hang in the balance."

He didn't call her by her name. He figured she might well be calling from someplace where that might be a grave risk. "What you're talking about is madness. Walt's just getting to the point where he can function again."

"Get it done, Doggett," Scully said, voice high, intense and menacing. "Now. Talk to the coroner in Wilmington, North Carolina. You'll understand why."

She hung up the phone with a decisive click. Doggett stared at it for a moment, then pulled himself up to a standing position. Langly sleepily reached out for him, to pull him back into the spoon that they'd woken from.

"Time to get up, Ree," Doggett said, pulling the covers off Langly's naked body. The sight was inspiring him to get back into bed, and if anything it was more inspiring now than when they'd first met up. Not that Doggett made Langly work out, per se, but neutrally worded invitations to join him, combined with both verbal compliments and non-verbal positive reinforcement of the best kind had worked wonders. Langly never would be built, but what he had had firmed up nicely over the years, giving him a body you'd never expect to find on such dyed in the wool computer geek.

"Stay," Langly murmured sleepily again, one hand and legs scrabbling for the covers.

"I gotta talk to a coroner's office," Doggett said. Taking mercy on his companion, he threw the plaid blanket back over Langly. "Okay, you sleep some more, but when I get done talking to the coroner's, you're getting up and you're gonna help me figure out how I'm going to explain to Skinner that we're digging Mulder up."

At that Langly sat bolt upright in bed. "What?"

"Never mind. Go back to bed," Doggett said, knowing that he wouldn't. Doggett grabbed some clothes for himself, sweats and a t-shirt. He pulled them on as he headed downstairs, Langly at his heels. First, he started coffee, certain that this was the start of a long day. It was still pitch dark outside, no hint of light. That darkest hour before the dawn. When he turned on the light in his kitchen, the outside looked even darker.

"You want coffee too?" Doggett asked as started scooping grounds.

"What's going on?" Langly asked, settling himself on a chair, straddling it backwards.

"I'll know more once I talk to the coroner's," Doggett said. He pushed the full basket into its place in the coffee machine then grabbed the phone. A few preliminary calls, and he was talking to the coroner in question. He explained who he was, then added, "I heard something interesting might have happened down in your neck of the woods recently."

The coroner seemed reluctant to talk, but eventually he said, "Yesterday, about forty miles off shore, a fishing boat pulled a body out of the ocean, which has since been identified as a Billy Miles, who has been missing for several months from his home in Oregon."

Billy Miles? That was interesting in and of itself, but Doggett could hear from the other man's voice that wasn't the end of the story. More was coming, the actual interesting part. He wasn't disappointed.

"It appeared that the young man was dead at first. In fact, in an advanced stage of decomposition. But as we prepared him for the autopsy, we noticed that he was, in fact, alive."

Doggett hardly heard the rest of the detail. Only the one word kept echoing in his ears again and again. Alive.


Doggett remained on the phone only long enough to get the details, then he started another call, one to get the ball rolling. There was a hell of a lot to get done and quickly. He poured himself coffee between calls, then suddenly, Langly was in his face.

"What you doing, JD?" Langly asked. "This is crazy. You're not really going to dig up Mulder."

"What if he's alive, Ree?" Doggett asked, putting his coffee down on the counter and running his fingers through his hair, making it even more disheleved than it already was, bedhead making one side stand up and the other side crushed flat to his head. He paced and reached for the phone again. "Can I live with the doubt, knowing that he might be down there, buried alive? We need to take this chance."

"Don't tell Skinner," Ree said. He put his arms around Doggett, a sign of his acceptance of this. "Not until it pans out."

"No, this is more than a grave we're going to be opening here," Doggett said. "I'll play it close to my chest for a while yet."

Walter Skinner paused before attempting to beard the dragon in her lair. It hardly seemed worth the effort to wake her most mornings, but life, by necessity, had to go on. He knew he'd be doing his, no, their daughter a disservice if he allowed anything different.

He pushed the door open. Even though morning light pour in through the windows, illuminating pink carpet and the canopy bed, Lovey didn't stir. This might appear to be the chamber of the fair princess, but Walter was not fooled.

Alerted to her impending doom by the sound of his footsteps, Lovely scrunched up her fine-boned face, then pulled the blanket over her head.

"Princess," he said, starting softly at first, as he always did. "Time to get up for school."

She responded by burying her head deeper in the pillow until her auburn hair was completely covered by bedclothes. He reached out for the clump of blanket that most resembled her small shoulder and shook it gently.

Meanwhile, he was running his mind through the mental schedule he had for the day. Dropping her off at school in less than an hour. After that, a meeting with a client for the security consulting contract he'd taken on to make ends meet, now that Mulder was gone and he'd been retired from the Bureau since not long after Lovey appeared in their lives. A visit to the client site. Then time to pick Lovey up. Violin lesson. A weekly shopping trip. Dinner. Bed for the child, then more work. Life went on, even without Mulder.

He shook her shoulder again with no more promising results. The third time provoked the response of "Stop it!"

The fourth shoulder shake produced thrashing under the covers and a snarled "Stop it!"

He wasn't quick enough and one little foot caught him on the thigh with a solid, meaty whack. It didn't hurt much. He grabbed a foot from the flailing limbs that were attempting to make good an escape to the other side of the bed.

Then his phone rang. Not the house phone. His personal phone which only the select few had the number to. He pulled the phone out of his suit jacket pocket and checked it. John.

"John, what is it?" he asked, talking even as he started reclaiming blankets and folding them at the foot of the bed, out of reach of the little dragon. She started to screech as she was exposed. So much for any dreams he'd ever had of gently awaking a child who'd smile at him sweetly, eager to face the day. She wasn't like this all the time. Once she was fully awake, she'd be almost pleasant. And it'd gotten a lot worse since Mulder was gone, this acting out a kind of grieving response.

"Walter," he said. "I need you to get to Bethesda as soon as you can."

"You what?" Skinner asked, grabbing the last blanket, putting it out of reach of Lovey, then walking out into the hallway. He leaned against the grasscloth covered wall and waited for John's explanation.

"I need you to come to the Naval Hospital in Bethesda. Mulder's here. Don't bring Lovey. Mulder's alive, but he's in pretty bad shape."

All Skinner heard was, "He's alive!" The words resonated in his head like the sound of a gong.

He must have been struck dumb for some time, because he realized that John had been asking him, not twice, but three times, "Did you hear what I said? Walter? Are you with me here?"

Skinner shook his head as if that might clear it. "I'm not going to ask if you just said what I think you said, because I know you just said it. But what the hell is going on, John?"

"Billy Miles was fished out of the Atlantic. Dead for months, they'd said. But he had a heartbeat, Walt. And so does Mulder. Just get here. He's got a chance. Somehow, we buried him alive."

There was such a wild, reckless hope in John's voice that Skinner couldn't help but believe him. He could picture the man, pacing the hallways of Bethesda, restless and relentless in the protection of his partner.

"I have to get Lovey to school," Walter said. "After that, I'll be right there."

He disconnected, but even as he walked back into the bedroom, John's voice was saying to him, "He's alive."

Lovey was curled up into a tight mass of pink pajamas and auburn curls, face hidden, on the bed, no covers on her. He grabbed her and lifted her out of bed. She squirmed. She lashed out with feet. He sat her down on the floor, feet first, so that she had no choice but to stand.

"I hate you!" she said.

"Too bad, you're stuck with me," he said, blandly as he started pulling clothes out of her closet for her, thankful that her school required a uniform and the clothes were the same little blue plaid skirt and blue sweater she wore every morning. She didn't mean the snarl personally. She said it every morning.

"I hate school! I don't want to go," she said as he herded her down the hallway to the bathroom, to brush her teeth and hair.

"You say that every morning, sweetheart," he told her as he gestured at the bathroom sink. "And by the end of the day, I can hardly get you to agree to come home. Teeth, hair, face and get dressed. You've got five minutes."

In the car, on busy morning streets, when he didn't need the distraction, he'd hear the words again. He's alive. As he watched Lovey drag herself up the brick walk to the big, carved wooden doors of her school, the words were spinning in his head.

And even as he turned the car onto the beltway, heading in the unfamiliar direction towards Bethesda, he heard the words again and again in his head. Alive. Mulder was alive. His phone rang again and he startled, almost sure that it would be John, telling him not to bother, that it'd been some kind of freak occurrence, and that Mulder was already dead again.

He answered the phone anyway.

"John Byers here," the crisp voice on the other end of the line said. "I thought I would offer to pick up Olivia at school this afternoon. Holly would love to play."

Walter breathed out a sigh, not even having realized he was tense from this worry. "Of course, John. Thank you. I'll call the school and let them know you'll be coming."

Byers had done more than his fair share of watching Olivia, under the guise of her playing with Holly. The school knew him. But they were also not supposed to release Olivia into the care of anyone else but Skinner, unless previously notified. The school had been chosen because of this. Besides the normal security guards roaming the halls, you'd even occasionally see Secret Service men, or private bodyguards. The Chinese ambassador's daughter was in Olivia's class.

He drove. He took care of the calls he needed to make, rescheduling his meeting, letting the school know the change of plans. But over and over, in his head, the words, "He's alive," careened from one corner of his mind to another, like a looney tunes character on speed, threatening to pull his carousel of thought off its moorings and send it whirling out of control. On the outside though, he appeared as calm as a mortician at a funeral. He drove steadily at just four miles over the limit. His face was passive and still. He pulled into the first parking space he found in the visitors lot at Bethesda. He walked up to the front door.

He expected to have to ask at the front desk for Mulder's room. He expected maybe even to be turned away because of military politics, that Mulder's recovery from death would have been made into some kind of classified secret, which he would no longer be privy too. Sometimes he missed the privilege that came with being an AD of the FBI.

Instead, he was met by a short, familiar figure. Frohike. "C'mon, let's go up and see Lazarus," Frohike said, indicating the way with a slight tilt of the head.

They travelled the long hallways of the hospital in silence, Frohike honoring Skinner's worry by ignoring it, by not talking at all. At last, they came to the ICU. John Doggett was standing just outside the door that Frohike indicated. Doggett might have been in full Bureau drag, suit and tie immaculate, but the deeper than usual wrinkles in his brow and around his eyes gave away the fact of his tiredness to anyone who knew him. It was only eight now, but this man had been up for hours already, maybe even a full work day behind him. Doggett was spinning a small glass vial around in his fingers.

"What happened?" Skinner asked.

"I got a call at about two in the morning, from Dana Scully, telling me to dig him up. Then, I heard about Billy Miles and I knew I had to," John said. "I'm sorry I didn't take the time to consult with you. But I had to act."

Easier to beg forgiveness than ask permission, Skinner thought, but he silently listened to John continue.

"Just after I talked to you, I was talking to the doctors. None of them knew what to make of this, or what they could do for him. And while I was doing that, Scully and Alex Krycek went right into Mulder's room. They administered something to him. Whatever was in this vial. They got out before I could question them. I tried though."

Tried as hard as a man could by the look of it. On Doggett's face, now that he'd stepped closer, Skinner could see the faint beginnings of bruises. A struggle of some kind had happened and John had not necessarily been on the long end of it.

"You'd better go on in," Doggett said. "He's been asking for you."

John stepped out of the doorway quickly, as if afraid that Walter Skinner was like a force of nature, unable to be stopped by mere mortals. Perhaps he was right.

Skinner pushed through the door. There on the bed was his fondest hope, his wildest wish. The dream that hadn't even made itself known. Mulder was still stuck with nearly every kind of medical tubing known to man, but he was breathing. His eyes were open.

Walter reached out for Mulder's hand, careful of the IV line. Mulder breathed out a line of speech that should have been garbled and unintelligible, but Walter heard it and was able to interpret it.

"My wish came true," Mulder said.

"Damn straight it did," Skinner said, trying to reach behind him for a chair while not letting go of Mulder's hand. Finding one, he sat down and squeezed his lover's hand gently, thinking that Mulder wasn't the only one whose wish had come true.

"Look! There it is." Mulder pointed a long, low brick building on the quiet, tree-lined street. "Your new school."

"I hate school," the girl at his side said. She frowned then pushed reddish brown curls off her forehead. She was about the right age for hormones to be sloshing around inside her, making her like a cactus- all prickly on the inside, sloppy and wet on the inside. Expecting her to be nice would be like expecting a cat to be friendly to the mice.

"You always say that," said Skinner, walking on the other side of her. "And by the end of the first day, you love it and you never want to leave school again."

"I don't see why I couldn't just stay home and read," Lovey said. She kicked a pebble from the sidewalk to the street. "It's stupidly hot out."

"Cowboy up, princess. We're nearly there," Mulder said.

The day was hot, almost unbearably so, but the walk from their new house to the downtown had been so short that they couldn't possibly use the car. Only one more block and they'd be at the town square. It was August and a kind of day where the blue sky turned almost gray with the heat. Another handful of days and Lovey would be starting at the school.

For all that she'd be starting sixth grade, she was still no taller than waist high on either of them, truly taking after her natural mother. Her face had that same delicate set of features that made her mother into an astonishing beauty. Only green eyes and darker hair set Olivia Mulder apart from early pictures of Dana Scully. You might say that those were things inherited from her putative father, Mulder, but if you ever saw her next to her father's friend, Alex Krycek, you'd see that there was a certain snub quality about her nose that was like Alex's but certainly wasn't like her father's more generous nose.

Because of the heat of the day, they were checking out a coffee shop that Mulder had seen earlier, but hadn't ventured into yet. Happy Endings, it was called. They were hoping for iced drinks and an air conditioned retreat for a while. They'd moved in yesterday night and still hadn't gotten the air conditioning up and running yet. The window fans they'd scrounged did little more than push the heavy, hot air around, making the house into a convection oven.

"We should call John," Walter said. "Invite him down tomorrow."

"It's the anniversary tomorrow, isn't it?" Mulder asked. Langly and the rest of the Gunmen had died, along with a lot of other good people, in the struggle against the conspiracies of greedy, power hungry men. John faced this tragedy just like he had any other in his life- bravely, and refusing to take no for an answer. Once the struggle was over, Mulder had gotten out. John was still working, still in the Bureau, still looking for the answers.

Mulder reached the door first and pushed in. The coffee shop looked like it was trying to outdo Ali Baba and the forty thieves, with gold paint and glass gems. At midday, it was quiet and nearly empty. Mulder stepped up to the glass refrigerator counter. A young woman stood behind it, espresso machine nearby at ready. Her straight black hair looked like it might have been in a bob once, but now was brushing her shoulders, even tied back. She smiled at their approach, and said, with an accent that wasn't anything familiar and certainly not the local soft Southern drawl, "Hi! What can I get for you? Are you new to town or just visiting?"

"New to town," Walter said. "Three iced teas."

"Nice to meet you," the woman said, filling three plastic glasses with ice. "Are you the people that bought the old Abrams place on Main?"

"Yeah, that's us," Mulder said. "I'm Fox. That's Walter. And over there is our daughter Lovey."

He indicated the table where Lovey had taken up residence, settled back into the thick paperback she'd brought along.

"So, what brings you to this sleepy, little town? Work?" she asked as she poured tea.

"We're both retired," Mulder said quickly, not wanting to think any more, or talk any more about the difficulties of the last couple of years. That was behind them now. They'd survived it and now he had more than he could have ever dreamed of wanting, something better than any fairytale happy ending, even if his daughter was currently scowling and pretending she didn't know them and the dream house was seeming like it might be a money pit nightmare. "And we wanted a small, quiet place to raise our daughter."

"You've come to the right place then," she said, handing them the three iced teas. She waived away the money that Mulder pushed at her. "New comers drink on the house."

Then she turned away from them, ready to serve the next customer. Mulder handed Walter his tea and then carried his own and Lovey's over to a table by the window. They sat down, both of them looking doubtfully at their daughter as she stalked away to the table furthest away from them. Adolescence so far had been rough and was looking to get rougher. Mulder said, "I guess happy endings with heroes riding away in the sunset are something that happen only in books."

"You wouldn't like that anyway, Fox," Walter said. "The trail's dusty, and besides, wouldn't you much rather be settled in a nice camp somewhere once dark hits, rather than still on the road?"

"You've got a point there, Walter," Mulder said. He looked around the place which was obviously someone's idea of a Happy Ending. He wondered about the woman behind the counter, if this was some place she'd planned to come to, if this small town was her happy ending. And he figured small town life after having survived the shitstorm of the century was good enough for his own.

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