And Then There Was One by Kronos

And Then There Was One cover

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And Then There Was One by Kronos

And Then There Was One cover

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Rating: R

Category: XA

Spoilers: Through Fifth Season to Travelers

Keywords: Mulder/Scully UST, Mulder/Scully/Skinner Friendship

Summary: Mulder and Scully race to uncover the mystery behind the deaths of eight FBI agents – all linked to three cases from the 1970’s in which Skinner was also involved – and now the only one left alive. The three must first determine which case is the link, and then attempt to identify who is behind the subtle yet deadly eliminations, all the while evading being targets themselves.

Disclaimer: The characters herein belong to 1013 Productions and Fox Broadcasting. Usage is made without authorization but with utmost respect.

Author Notes: This is my second story and exists due completely to the positive response from readers to my first — ‘The Abyss Looks Back’. Sincerest thanks to Heidi, Jan, Kristina, and Melanie for beta reading. Feedback is kindly appreciated.

Saturday, 7:01 a.m. Washington, DC, Fox Mulder Residence

There was a shrill ringing that wouldn’t stop. It would scream out for a piercing moment only to go away again, leaving blessed silence, lulling him into a false sense of security. And then the sound would return, demanding, insistent, way too close to his ear.

“Unnnggghhh. Wha…..?”

An eye cracked open and blearily took in the sun pouring through cracks in the blinds. He decided that maybe it wasn’t such an ungodly hour after all, regardless of the objections of his sleep-deprived body. He turned to his right side, the leather of his couch making noises of disapproval in consonance with his various body parts, and then reached his left arm across the open space to the coffee table where the offending item lay.

Mulder fumbled with the phone, finally managed to get it to his ear, and mumbled out a barely recognizable “Mulder.”

Silence reined for about five seconds, long enough for Mulder to write the call off as a wrong number, when he heard a voice that yanked him to a sitting position.

“Agent Mulder, I’m sorry to bother you on a Saturday, but I ….”

And then there was silence again and Mulder could swear that his boss was actually apprehensive about something.

“Sir?”

“Yes, I’m sorry.”

Damn, the man did it again. Skinner apologized to him twice in a span of thirty seconds. This must really be bad. He could think of only one thing that would cause his boss to hesitate in this way.

“Sir, is it Scully? Has something happened to her?”

Mulder was sitting on the edge of the couch now, tense, alert, barely able to await the older man’s response. His heart had gone from resting state to an adrenaline-induced pounding that threatened to send him into cardiac arrest in a span of about ten seconds.

“No, no, Mulder, it’s nothing like that. Scully’s fine. That is … I guess she is. I mean … I haven’t spoken to her but I assume …”

Mulder took a shaky breath, consciously tried to make his muscles relax, and realized his boss also seemed to be breathing somewhat unevenly. He couldn’t recall Skinner ever stuttering and stammering before. Mulder swallowed hastily, cleared his throat, and tried to focus on the situation. He still had no idea what was going on, but he knew that whatever it was, it was big.

“What is it, sir?”

“Mulder, I need your help with something. Both you and Scully. There’s …. a case.”

Mulder had moved quickly from confused to concerned. He added the word ‘cryptic’ to the mental list he’d been compiling to explain Skinner’s behavior. It came right after ‘nervous’, ‘anxious’, and ‘agitated’.

“What case, sir?”

“Not on the phone. Could you possibly meet me? Scully, too.”

“Well …” Mulder paused for a moment, unwilling to answer for a partner who had told him the previous day that she had plans for the weekend.

“I’ll call her, sir. It might help if I had something a little more concrete to tell her, though. I’m pretty sure she had plans for this weekend.”

Silence, again. Four seconds, five, six, and Mulder couldn’t take it any more.

“Sir, what the hell is going on?”

He heard the explosive breath at the other end of the line, signifying a frustration barely contained. Frustration at whom? At what?

“Sir, I’ll call her and tell her it’s important. We’ll meet you at your office in …”

Mulder was interrupted by a definitive, “No.”

“Excuse me, sir?”

“Not at the office, Agent Mulder. Let’s meet … where you told me that you and Agent Scully would sometimes meet when the X-Files were closed down.”

Mulder added the words ‘paranoid’ and ‘obscure’ to his mental list and replied, “Okay, sir. We’ll be there in an hour.”

This time the sigh at the other end sounded relieved but Mulder was more alarmed than ever. He slowly lowered the phone from his ear, turned it off and sat staring at it for several long seconds. Staring, but not really seeing.

Shaking his head slightly, Mulder decided he needed to get a move on in order to make the rendezvous in time. He raised the phone once again, turned it on, punched in the appropriate speed dial setting, and then took a deep breath. He wasn’t pleased about the conversation he was about to have.

Saturday, 7:54 a.m. Washington, DC, Reflecting Pool

He stood in shadows, leaning against a pillar of granite. It was cool against the bare skin on his arm, despite the already eighty-one degree sultry summer morning. It felt as if the man’s eyes were staring at his back, looking into him and through him, seeing everything he was.

Skinner turned and looked up at the image of the 16th President of the United States. Lincoln had not been good looking, was not particularly refined, would certainly never have been elected to even a much lesser position in the superficial climate that reined supreme in Washington today. But there was something about him. Something that radiated knowledge and quiet power, understanding and justice.

Skinner considered the word — justice. Considered whether true justice could ever be achieved in reality. The word had no meaning without it’s companion word — law. The one was the measure of the other. But who the hell really had the audacity to determine whether justice was ever served, could be served. Justice — the administering of punishment or reward according to the law. Man’s law. Man’s administration of the law. If justice depended on men’s interpretation and implementation of the law, then justice would never be attainable.

Skinner knew, intimately knew, that ‘the law’ was merely a set of conduct rules manufactured in a desperate attempt to ensure a civilized society. But when those who are supposed to enforce the law operate outside it, twist it to meet their own ends, ‘justice’ becomes an empty word, a word without meaning and without hope.

He looked again at the towering figure, who wore wisdom as if a coat, shedding it’s tendrils to those who would learn sagacity’s lessons well. But even as Skinner recognized the majesty, he knew also the human fallibility. Lincoln was only a man, even if a great one. And even the greatest of men have the capacity to lie to themselves, to rationalize. How could he, Skinner, such a lesser man, be any different?

Skinner turned away from the statue and looked down at the Reflecting Pool. They were there, sitting on a bench beside the pool. His agents had come for him. It was time to ask for their help.

Skinner observed his agents as he approached from the side. They could be a young married couple, out enjoying the beautiful Saturday morning. Perhaps visitors to the capitol wanting to get a jump on sight-seeing.

Skinner had chosen to dress casually for this meeting, not wanting to draw attention by wearing a suit that screamed ‘Federal Agent, look at me’. He wore jeans and a light cotton shirt tucked in at the waist. He was pleased to see that both his agents had chosen similar attire.

Mulder was a cross between yuppie and scruffy in well-worn jeans, loose pale green golf shirt with the collar raised slightly at the neck, and running shoes. He’d evidently passed on shaving that morning, leaving a fine stubble approaching Don Johnson proportions. Scully was slightly more coifed, but also casual in tan pants, white T-shirt tucked in and comfortable loafers. Both wore fashionable sun glasses against the glare of the day.

Mulder sat comfortably against the bench, left arm lying along the length of the back, right leg crossed with ankle resting loosely on the left knee. Scully sat next to him, about a foot away, leaning forward with elbows on splayed knees, hands hanging between them. Skinner realized that if she were to sit back she would find Mulder’s arm around her shoulders. He doubted she or Mulder realized it, at least consciously.

His foot hit a small rock when he was about twenty feet from them and it was enough to cause both heads to turn in his direction. They weren’t surprised. They’d known he was coming. Skinner nodded and gestured for them to stay where they were. He was slightly amused that neither of them moved or betrayed the curiosity they must be feeling. Skinner panned his sight to the right, over the Reflecting Pool, up, then down its length, reassured when he saw no one. He stopped in front of his agents, and casually turned his head in the direction from which he’d just come, again making sure they were unobserved. Finally satisfied, he took the couple steps necessary to bring him to the end of the bench and sank down onto it, next to Scully.

Skinner looked to his right to take in both his agents and was surprised to find both of them looking across the water, eyes focused on a jogger who had just come over the slight hill paralleling the pool. Evidently his agents had caught his own paranoia. He dismissed the jogger as just that at the same time his agents did. They turned towards him, simultaneously, expressions equal parts confused and concerned.

“Scully, Mulder, thank you for coming.”

Both heads nodded slightly, but his agents remained silent. He’d have to do this by himself. Skinner took a deep breath, decided just to spill it.

“There’s a case I’d like you both to work on with me. It’s unofficial, though, at least for now. The Director and I have determined that it has to stay that way for a while.”

Mulder was surprised. He’d already decided that this was something personal for Skinner, something that would perhaps cause embarrassment, but the fact that the Director was in on this subterfuge challenged his assumptions. He sat up a little straighter and turned sideways, eyes scanning behind them, as he asked the obvious, “What, sir? What’s the case?”

Mulder had been searching his memory, trying to come up with a recollection of anything that had been going on in the Bureau that might cause his boss to act so surreptitiously. A glance at Scully suggested she was doing the same. Her forehead was creased and she was squinting in concentration.

“It involves the murder of eight agents over the past four years.”

At that, both Mulder and Scully sat up straight, thoroughly surprised by the news. They hadn’t heard about such a case. How was it possible that they hadn’t heard?

“No one’s put it together, yet. Each death was written off as accidental, by natural causes or otherwise explainable. I know they weren’t.”

Scully spoke then, for the first time. “But, sir, how can you be so sure?”

A faint grimace crossed over Skinner’s features as he considered her question. How indeed? He’d asked himself the very same thing enough times lately.

“Scully, I know because I worked with all these agents, on three different cases, twenty some years ago, when I was just starting out. Since then, we’ve completely scattered. But, I knew these men well, a few of them I knew very well, and came in contact with them often until their deaths. I believe it statistically improbable, to say the least, that all of them could have died of natural causes or simple accidents. It’s outside any insurance bell curve, even for our profession.”

Mulder understood the implications immediately. A glance at his partner revealed that she’d made the same conclusions. “You think you’re next.”

It wasn’t really a question, but Skinner felt compelled to respond. He looked at both his agents, searchingly, praying he wasn’t making a mistake in involving them in this.

“Yes, I’m pretty sure I’m next.”

Scully understood the reasoning but not the approach he’d chosen to deal with the situation. “But, sir, why isn’t this investigation official? There should be a team assigned to it and you should have protection until it’s resolved.”

Skinner smiled kindly at his agent before replying.

“Under normal circumstances that’s exactly what we’d do, Scully. But ….”

And Mulder understood again, somehow, what was coming. “You think it’s someone with the Bureau? One of our own?”

Skinner nodded wearily, and looked around them once again for anyone that might not belong, anyone who might be watching.

Scully could understand the dilemma and a part of her was honored by the implicit trust her boss had demonstrated in calling them in on this, but she couldn’t help but wonder whether he was correct.

“Why, sir? What is it about the deaths or the case that leads you to that conclusion?”

Skinner was shaking his head again, in denial, in frustration, wishing he were wrong. “The killer has intelligence that would be … difficult to obtain for an outsider. The manner of a couple of the deaths required in-depth knowledge of victim habits that would be impossible to pick up or discover unless coming into contact with them in a work environment. And some of the victims had to have allowed their attacker to get close. They had to have trusted him for some reason. But, mostly, it’s a feeling. I just …. know it’s someone affiliated with the Bureau.”

Mulder had been listening carefully, all the while searching around them for anything amiss. He had developed a process. Lean forward, prop arms on knees and look to the right, up to the Lincoln Memorial, across the pool and down to the left, then sit back, turn slightly so he could look behind them, naturally, so as not to draw any attention. And this time someone was there.

Skinner and Scully both stiffened as they noticed the jerk of his leg. Trying to remain casual, despite the sudden alarm, Skinner looked towards Mulder and asked, “What? What is it?”

Mulder had his head propped on his left hand, which rested on the back of the bench. He’d turned his head at an angle to the bench in such a way as to allow him an almost full view to their rear. His eyes had narrowed dangerously and he now flicked them to Skinner, not moving his head, and spoke quietly behind his hand.

“Someone’s there. Seems to be watching us. Can’t have been there but for a couple minutes. He’s pulling something out of a backpack. Binoculars. Shit.”

Mulder sat a little straighter and moved as if stretching his back, turned his head forward so his mouth would not be obvious to the watcher. “So, what do you want to do?” He then went back to his angled position, watching the watcher peripherally.

Skinner leaned forward over his knees slightly, made sure no one would be able to view his words, and said, “Let’s get out of here. It’s too open, too visible. We need to discuss this in a secure location.”

Scully leaned back against the bench, feeling like a target and wanting nothing more than to leave then and there. But she understood the need to appear nonchalant. “Mulder, how about the Lone Gunmen?”

Mulder couldn’t help the smile that worked its way to his face. He even allowed a small chuckle to escape at the thought of using the Gunmen’s hideaway to plan a strategy for discovering a killer run amok in the halls of the FBI. Talk about your conspiracy theories.

Skinner had turned towards his agents slightly and now had eyebrows raised. He knew Mulder had numerous contacts outside the Bureau and knew that some of them were …. odd, to say the least. He’d met one of them once leaving a hospital room during one of Mulder’s many stays. His agent seemed to be seriously considering his partner’s suggestion.

“That would work. But we have to get there, first.”

Mulder was still watching the man with the binoculars. He couldn’t decide what the guy was up to, what his plan was.

“Let’s sit for a minute. Let me get a reading on this guy.”

And so they sat, quietly, tensely, not knowing what would happen but all praying that nothing would. After five minutes of the strained silence, both Scully and Skinner jumped at the abrupt laugh Mulder released. They looked at him as if he’d lost his senses when he stood and reached a hand out to Scully, offering her a hand up.

“False alarm, folks. Looks like our man’s a birdwatcher.”

Scully and Skinner both stood then and turned boldly now to see what Mulder was seeing. Two young women had evidently been lying on a blanket, originally hidden from the agent’s sight. One of them was up now and yelling at the man with the binoculars, who was looking appropriately chastised for his voyeurism.

Scully turned to her partner to see he was doing some ‘birdwatching’ himself, admiring the short shorts and bikini tops. He evidently realized she was looking at him and turned an interesting shade of pink. He opened his mouth to say something, anything, and then just snapped it shut again at his partner’s grin. He didn’t have to apologize to Scully. She’d forgive him just about anything even without asking.

The light mood was broken when Skinner reminded them once again what they were there for.

“I think we’re probably clear to leave together. Agents, let’s go.”

Saturday, 9:16 a.m. Washington, DC, Lone Gunmen Headquarters

Langley held the door open, gesturing for them to get in quickly. After Skinner entered, the man peered outside, searching from left to right one last time, then shut the door securely behind them.

Skinner was amused by the gesture while simultaneously recognizing the need in this circumstance. The man in front of him was far scruffier than Mulder, rumpled T-shirt looking slept in, jeans appearing ready to fall into their constituent threads at any moment.

Both Skinner and Mulder stood in the center of the room, holding boxes filled with pertinent case files. Skinner’s gaze panned the room, searching for a clear surface on which he could dump his valuable burden. He mused at the mess around them, wondering whether the scruffy man at the far end of the room really knew how to use the sophisticated equipment lining the tables and shelves. His musing was cut short when the man under consideration spoke out.

“All right, the place is clean. We checked before you got here. Mulder, I’m afraid you’re on your own this time. The guys and I are outta here. We decided we’d pass on getting involved in an internal Fed War.”

Mulder couldn’t really blame them. He’d come to them often enough in the past, and they’d always come through. But it had always been for Mulder or Scully personally or there had been something in it for them — a conspiracy to unearth for the greater good. Skinner was something else entirely. Mulder understood that to the Lone Gunmen, Skinner was still one of ‘Them’. This was a situation they wisely wanted nothing to do with.

Mulder nodded to his acquaintance, letting him know he understood, and watched as Langley headed to the back door.

Once there the man turned, and said, “Oh, hey, Mulder, don’t forget to lock up when you leave.” He had a set of keys that he held up in front of him, then tossed across the room when he saw he had Mulder’s attention.

Mulder awkwardly angled the box in his arms to catch the keys inside and shot a look of irritation at the grinning man. Langley waved quickly, turned, and then he was gone, leaving the three agents to themselves.

Mulder hauled the box he’d retrieved from Skinner’s car over to a table. His boss had a matching box in his own arms and both had to wait until Scully cleared a spot.

Skinner decided to give a broad overview of what the boxes contained before getting to the details.

“There are two different sets of case files here. In this box is everything I could get, quietly, pertaining to the deaths of the eight agents over the past four years. Over here are the files from three different cases the team worked back in 1976. I was fresh out of the academy and at the time it was typical to keep a group of agents together as a team that was then assigned to different cases. About seven months after that, the Bureau made a change in their teaming strategies and went to an approach similar to what’s done now, with teams being put together on a more ad hoc situational basis to reflect the various strengths of individual members.”

The AD saw that both his agents were with him. Mulder’s eyes were focused on the box sitting in front of Skinner. He was reaching towards it as he spoke.

“Sir, I suggest we begin with the present deaths. If we can develop a profile of the person committing those murders, this might enable us to identify which specific case of the three under question is pertinent.”

Both Scully and Skinner nodded and then turned to the table to clear the entire surface. They’d need the room to fully review the files.

Scully could feel it. Knew with certainty, to the depths of her caffeine-deprived toes. It was going to be a very long morning.

Saturday, 1:23 p.m. Washington, DC, Lone Gunmen Headquarters

Scully had felt it creeping up on her for hours now. Had felt the frustration of the lost weekend coupled with lack of caffeine coupled with the dim lighting of the closed in room, all of which combined to create one massive bubble of irritation that had to be released before the pressure became too great.

“I can’t take it anymore. I need a break. I need to eat. I need coffee.”

She looked over at her partner to find him smiling at her with that smug little grin he adopted whenever he thought she was being silly. Okay, maybe not really smug, but in her present state of mind it sure seemed that way. Luckily, their boss agreed with her.

“Why don’t we take a break? Let’s head out and get something to eat …” Skinner turned to Scully with a smile and added, “… and drink.”

Mulder released an exaggerated sigh of martyrdom, rolled his eyes as if to say ‘Why Lord must I have to deal with such weenies’, and tossed a file onto the table.

“All right, all right, I give. I want to take a couple files with us to discuss, though.”

Saturday, 2:41 p.m. Washington, DC, Diner

They’d chosen a corner booth by the back and side walls that was oriented in such a way that they’d have a clear view of the entire diner. Mulder sat in the V of the corner, turned slightly with his back against the walls, right arm stretched out along the length of the seat back, the other propped on the table in front of him. Scully sat next to him, leaning forward over the table, staring at a file on the latest victim. Skinner sat across from them and recognized the similarity of his agents’ positions to those of the morning.

Skinner couldn’t get the image out of his mind. The image of Mulder and Scully sitting on the bench by the Reflecting Pool, looking casual and comfortable, and even content, despite the worry they must have been experiencing on being called by their boss in such an odd way so early on a Saturday morning. They were so different, these two. Different in all the right ways. Skinner’s thoughts were thrown back to a quote he’d come across once by a Greek philosopher, written some 2300 years ago. “The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.” Mulder and Scully’s partnership was not just a sum of the parts. Truth was truth in any millennium.

He turned his sight from Scully, who was still totally absorbed in the case file, to his other maverick agent. Other. Hmmm. When had he started thinking of Scully in those terms? Mulder had his head back now, with eyes closed, and appeared to be taking the opportunity to gather his thoughts. The man opened his eyes and self-consciously sat straighter when he realized his boss was staring at him. Skinner couldn’t help smiling a bit as he dropped his eyes down to his coffee cup and then looked over at Scully once again.

“So, Agent Scully, what do you think?”

Scully glanced up at him, then turned her head slightly to include her partner in her gaze.

“You’re right. This wasn’t accidental.”

Both Skinner and Mulder jerked upright in their seats. Perhapses and Possibles they’d been ready for, but this was definitive. Mulder was the first to speak.

“Why do you say that? What have you found?”

Scully sat up straighter, stretched her back, then rotated her neck from left to right.

“According to the police report, Agent Hendricks was killed by a hit and run driver after he’d left work late one night. No witnesses. The injuries are consistent with a pedestrian vs. auto accident. Except, this car didn’t hit him just once.”

She had their attention. Both men were staring at her intently now, waiting for the rest of it. She realized suddenly that no one was watching the diner. Moving her head in a procedural sweep from left to right, Scully reassured herself that they were still unobserved and then continued. Mulder had evidently caught her concern and she saw was once again sitting back slightly, eyes sweeping the environs, acting as look-out.

“I can see why it was missed. It would have been natural to assume, based on the injuries, that this was simply the result of a hit-and-run accident. Unless I’d been warned before that it might not be accidental, I probably wouldn’t have caught it either.”

Scully felt the need to defend the pathologist who’d performed the autopsy, as if her entire profession were under fire.

Skinner realized that a small part of him had hoped, prayed, that his agent would determine there was nothing to his theory. He sighed deeply before speaking.

“Are you sure, Scully?”

Scully looked at him kindly, realizing that she’d just confirmed his worst fears.

“Absolutely, sir. It’s really very clear once you get past the superficial injuries. There are two clear impact sites. The first hit him from behind, causing massive contusions to his back and legs. I would guess, without seeing the body myself, that he was propelled over the hood and roof of the car to land in the road. Amazingly, nothing was broken at this point, except perhaps his left arm, although I believe several of the internal injuries could be attributed to this first impact. Then, he must have tried to get up, to stand.”

Scully stopped for a second, looked down at the autopsy photo again and shook her head at the tragedy.

“He had to have made it to a standing position based on the locations of the impact points of the second hit. I can’t tell whether the car turned around or just came at him in reverse, but he was facing the car for the second impact, which resulted in the injuries that eventually killed him.”

The silence that had fallen after Scully’s pronouncement was becoming uncomfortable for Mulder. He recognized that Anthony Hendricks had been a friend of Skinner’s and further that the verification of his murder quite likely meant that Skinner would be next on the killer’s list. Mulder cleared his throat and glanced at the two other agents before returning to his sweep of the diner.

“So now we’re sure. Nothing’s really changed. The question is — what’s the best approach from here?”

Mulder turned his head towards his boss then and said, “Sir, I think you should reconsider keeping this off the record. This is too big for just us to handle. There have to be others who we can involve — who can be trusted.”

Skinner was shaking his head emphatically before Mulder was even halfway through his argument.

“Sir, your life is in danger.”

“I know that, Mulder. But anyone who I choose to involve in this is also going to be in danger.”

Skinner looked at his two agents, one then the other, his forehead creased in concern.

“Your lives are at risk now, just from talking with me.”

Skinner turned away from them, glanced around the near empty diner and considered once again what he was doing here. Whether he had the right. He had asked and they’d come. But did he have the right to ask them to become involved when he was setting them up for target practice?

“Maybe this was a mistake. I shouldn’t have brought you into this.”

Scully had been getting more and more irritated with the turn of the conversation.

“Look, sir, your instincts were right about Hendricks’ death not being an accident. I believe that an in-depth examination of the others will further support the hypothesis that someone is killing off the team members. If that someone is with the Bureau, we have to find him as quickly as possible and the three of us will not be able to do that alone.”

Scully saw it happen and knew immediately what it meant. Her boss straightened in his seat, set his jaw, and crossed his arms on the table in front of him. Could he really be that stubborn?

“Sir, this is insane.”

Now she’d done it. She could tell by the flared nostrils that he wasn’t amused. Scully heard a snort from her partner. He’d just been sitting there, quietly, letting her make the much needed arguments, leaving her to take the heat. Wimp. Scully shot him a look dripping in venom before continuing.

“Okay, fine. If this is the way you want to play it, for whatever reason, then we’ll do it this way. But we’re going to need help along the way and you’re going to have to make sure the right people respond at the right time.”

Skinner had relaxed somewhat and was back to being slightly amused by this woman across the table. This woman who worked for him, supposedly, this woman who was telling him the way it was going to be.

“I’ll make sure — as long as I agree they can be trusted.”

Mulder decided it was safe to re-enter the conversation so started making ‘ready to get going’ motions.

“We need to start making some plans. We don’t have much time. We have to figure out how to pull this off without the entire Bureau knowing. Let’s head back.”

Saturday, 4:46 p.m. Washington, DC, Lone Gunmen Headquarters

“All right, it looks like he’s been taking them out at an average of two a year, with several months at the minimum between each. If he holds to that, we should have a few months lee-way. Unless he’s alerted to the fact we’re after him. I understand now why you want to keep this quiet.”

Skinner merely nodded at his agent. He’d made the date connections long ago. Mulder waved at the various files arranged on the table in front of them.

“We have Valentino George, the first victim, age 52 at time of death, 34 when he was on the team, died of apparent heart attack while running, four years ago. No witnesses. Scully, what do you think?”

Scully flipped the file open to the autopsy report, pointed to what appeared to be a small discoloration on the man’s inner left arm.

“Toxicology was clean, but this could be due to an injection. Perhaps something fast acting that isn’t on the normal screens. We can have them re-run for more esoteric drugs if they still have samples. There are several pharmaceutical agents that would induce heart failure, leaving signs of apparent heart attack. Few doctors would question it. He was at the right age for it, not in as good shape as he should have been.”

Mulder couldn’t help the slight smile that came to his face at his partner’s use of the term ‘pharmaceutical agents’. Only Scully could get away with having that tongue twister sound so natural.

“So, Scully, do you know anyone at the Seattle coroner’s office who could check into it, quietly?”

Skinner and Mulder waited patiently as she mentally sorted through her medical acquaintances. When she started shaking her head, both felt the disappointment.

“Okay, we’ll put that one on hold for now. Number two was Roger Sargeant, 61 years old, 42 when on the team, murdered during a robbery gone bad three and a half years ago in New York city. Half year from retirement. No one apprehended. No suspects. No witnesses. Scully?”

“I’m afraid I can’t add much, Mulder. Except … it was almost an execution style murder, practically point blank to the forehead then another to the chest. A bit overkill for a robber. I doubt I could really tell you any more on this one.”

Mulder merely nodded, having already come to the same conclusion. He gestured to the next set of files, then.

“Okay, number three, the leader of the team, Jake Price, age 66 at death, retired, 47 years old while on the team, drowned while sailing his boat off the harbor in San Diego, three years ago.”

Scully didn’t need the prompt, she already had the case file open to refresh her memory.

“This is an interesting one. He had a bump and a cut on the back of his head that bled profusely. The police had hypothesized that he’d moved forward in the boat for some reason and a change in wind caused the boom to rotate, hitting him on the head and forcing him into the water where he drowned while unconscious. It’s very unlikely. The man was an experienced sailor, knew the waters around the harbor, the day was calm with good wind. No experienced sailor would have allowed himself to get in that kind of situation. It’s quite likely he was hit from behind and thrown overboard.”

Mulder nodded at the assessment and moved on to the next.

“Richard Valez, age 65, second in command of the team, 45 years old back then, died two and a half years ago during a skiing accident in Denver. Broken neck while falling off a well-marked escarpment on a double black diamond run.”

“This is one that could go either way. It could have been a legitimate accident. I can’t find anything that would refute it. Of course, someone could have helped him with the broken neck or the fall off the cliff. Statistically, death resulting from ski accidents is quite rare. I think something like two or three times as many people die by lightning every year than they do by ski accidents.”

Mulder sighed heavily, feeling a creeping frustration at having to do with supposition and conjecture. He’d made a career out of it. He was used to accepting on faith alone. But hard evidence would be nice for a change. He looked back to the files.

“Next, Philip Holben, 57 years old, broke his neck from a fall off his house where he was supposedly repairing a hole in the roof, two years ago. Two broken necks in a row?”

“This one is different. There’s a very clear bruise next to his left carotid artery that suggests a possible hand print.”

“Possible?”

“Sorry, Mulder, nothing clear. Just a possible. Probably a likely, but I wouldn’t swear to it in court.”

“Number six, Matthew Dryer, age 52, 31 while on the team, shot to death during a chase of a suspect in Boston. There were several witnesses, including his partner. Suspect was apprehended, still awaiting trial. This one might be a legitimate death in the line of duty.”

He glanced at Scully, curious to see what she might have to say.

“If so, it’s awfully convenient, Mulder.”

She took in her partner’s and boss’ raised eyebrows.

“Perhaps our guy just took advantage of the situation. The case Dryer was working was a narcotics case. The guy they were chasing wasn’t found with a weapon and the witnesses never actually saw the man with a gun. Sure, they’re claiming now he just tossed it down a gutter or something while he was running from them, but no one saw it. Besides, from the retrieved slug, it’s clear that the weapon used was not the typical weapon of a drug runner.”

“You’re right, of course. Our killer must have been shadowing Dryer for a while before the right situation presented itself.”

Mulder glanced over at his boss, took in the pale face, the clenched jaw, and knew this dry recitation of facts concerning the deaths of these men he had known for twenty some years, had worked with and probably liked and admired, had to be getting to him. Mulder decided to wrap this up quickly if they could.

“Next was Leonard Ambrus, approximately seven months ago, age 54, died of a heart attack at home in Jacksonville, Florida. No witnesses.”

“I know someone in Jax. I’ll have them run a more intricate tox analysis. He’ll be quiet.”

“The last one we already discussed, Anthony Hendricks.”

Mulder stretched out tired muscles, strained from sitting in the same position for hours, and considered their next step.

“There’s no real MO here, except that this guy takes advantage of each victim’s situation in order to make the deaths appear to be from natural causes, accidents, or otherwise unsuspecting circumstances. I don’t know if anything here will help us identify which of the three cases that you all worked on together is the link.”

Evidently with the same thought in mind, all three turned to the other box, which had been waiting patiently for them all day. In it were the twenty-two year old case files that would hopefully hold the clue to the killer’s identity.

Scully decided to take advantage of the lull by saying, “I think this is a good time for a break. Also, I can’t help thinking we’re being overly paranoid here. In each of these deaths, there was a span of four to even eight months separating them. It’s only been a little more than a week since Hendricks died. AD Skinner, you haven’t done anything yet that would alert this man to the fact that you’re on to him, correct?”

She went on after the brief shake of his head.

“Then I suggest that we move this to my apartment. It’s secure, no one would think to look for you there, sir. It would be much more comfortable, and most of all, I have coffee.”

How could he resist such a well-thought out argument? Skinner smiled fondly at her when he replied.

“All right, Agent Scully. We’ll go to your apartment. But the coffee better be worth the risk.”

Saturday, 7:23 p.m. Washington, DC, Dana Scully Residence

Mulder lay flat on his back on Scully’s couch, shoeless feet propped against one couch arm, head propped by pillows at the other. His head was starting to pound and his stomach was urging him to seek sustenance. He dropped the file he’d been scanning to the floor beside him, sat up and swung his feet to the floor. After rubbing his eyes almost violently he launched himself up and headed for the kitchen, barely managing to avoid banging his shins on the coffee table.

Scully had hardly moved, even at his abrupt departure. She sat in her comfortably stuffed chair, with feet tucked under her to the side, reading a file in the last of the cases Skinner had been involved in with the team. She raised her eyes to track her partner. Watched as he moved to the kitchen. Hungry, probably. She flicked her eyes to the dining room table where her boss still sat, evidently unaware of the banging sounds emanating from the kitchen behind him. She decided to check on Mulder. No telling what he was doing to her kitchen.

After unfolding from the chair and getting to her feet, Scully headed after her partner. She found him rummaging around in her cabinets and was slightly irritated that he’d take the liberty while simultaneously pleased that he felt comfortable enough to do so. Make up your mind, Dana.

“Mulder, can I help you find something?”

“Hey. Sorry. I’m starving. Do you have anything? I’ll cook or I can call out.”

She immediately felt guilty at having been irked with him. Only Mulder could make her swing from one extreme to the other on her emotional scale so quickly.

“What do you feel like? I have a few things that wouldn’t be too hard to put together.”

Mulder had sensed his partner’s irritation at him when she entered the kitchen. He was pleased that her last question seemed sincere.

“Anything. Food.”

Mulder wiggled his eyebrows, leered suggestively and said, “You know what I like.” He had to dodge quickly to avoid the punch aimed at his arm.

Skinner was vaguely aware of the gentle laughter coming from the room behind him. It wasn’t enough, however, to fully pull him from his reverie. Before him lay fourteen files pertaining to the case that he was sure was the link they were looking for. He remembered the case as if it had been just yesterday. Remembered the months of strain, of sleepless nights, and endless work to find the bomber. Remembered the man when they caught him. Remembered him yelling out that they’d made a mistake. That he’d been framed. That he was innocent. Remembered his face when the jury read the verdict. Remembered the screams of the man’s wife. Remembered the sick feeling in the pit of his own stomach when he realized he wasn’t sure about the man’s guilt. Remembered discussing the concept of justice with his boss, Jake Price, over beers the night the man was sent to jail for seven consecutive life terms. He wondered again, as he had then, whether justice had actually been served all those years ago.

Saturday, 9:52 p.m. Washington, DC, Dana Scully Residence

Mulder closed the file, ran his fingers over the cover almost gently, then slapped his hand down lightly on the top of it. He looked across the table to his boss, eyes searching for some sign, some indication of what Skinner thought. The man’s face was entirely lacking in expression, nonjudgemental. Mulder sighed, then returned his gaze to the stacks of files.

“It has to be the bombing case. The others were too cut and dried.”

Scully was nodding in agreement, evidently having reached the same conclusion. Both agents looked to their boss, saw him nod slightly in confirmation.

“I agree.”

Mulder sensed that something was going on, that Skinner was holding back on them.

“Sir, is there anything else you know about this case? Anything that might not be in the files?”

Mulder and Scully waited patiently, watched as Skinner seemed to be fighting an internal battle. Finally the man slumped slightly and dropped the mask of impassivity, his forehead creased in distress.

“I always wondered if we’d caught the right man. I always wondered if …. if we’d allowed an innocent man to go to jail for the rest of his life. As the years went by and there were no more bombings that fit the MO, I became more and more certain that we had caught the right man. Now ….”

Skinner took off his glasses, rubbed the bridge of his nose with his free hand, then looked across the table to his two agents. Mulder completed the thought for him.

“Now you’re not sure again. You think the wrong man’s been in prison for twenty-two years.”

The look of guilt on Skinner’s face was enough confirmation.

“Sir, do you know whether he’s still in prison? Perhaps…”

“No, Agent Mulder, I checked. He’s still there. Still professing his innocence to anyone who’ll listen. He claims he was framed, that we manufactured evidence.”

Skinner said this last in a voice that was almost questioning, obviously struggling with how it could be possible for the man to be telling the truth. Skinner knew that he had done nothing wrong in the handling of the evidence of the case and he couldn’t see any of the other men doing so either. He waved his right hand in the air in front of him, and said, “I don’t see how it could have happened.”

Mulder exchanged a quick glance with his partner, realizing that Jose Alvarez’ innocence would quite possibly mean the wrong-doing of one of the team members.

“Sir, how well did you know these men? Was it possible that one of them …”

“I don’t know, Mulder. I’ve asked myself that question so many times over the years. But I’ve never managed to come up with a reasonable answer. I thought I knew them. I thought I knew them well. But now I just don’t know.”

The frustration in the room was palpable. It wasn’t doing much to help the headache Mulder’d been contending with all day. He stretched his neck, rested both elbows on the table, then propped his head on linked hands. He closed his eyes and concentrated on banishing the headache to the nether-regions so he could think uncluttered thoughts. After several more moments of tense silence, Mulder opened his eyes, ran hands through his hair, and rested his arms on the table once more.

“Sir, I’m not sure how important it is, at this point. If this case is the link to the team members’ deaths, which I concur is most likely, then either Jose Alvarez has somehow managed to reach out from behind prison walls after twenty years, or the real bomber is the killer. Whichever is the truth, we’re going to have to reinvestigate the original case. We’re going to have to go to Dallas. The last bombing occurred in Ft. Worth and Alvarez was tried there. And it’ll give Scully an opportunity to find out more about Hendricks’ death. Maybe it’s not a coincidence that these events all occurred in or near the same city.”

Skinner nodded agreement.

“I don’t want us traveling together, though. You and Scully go out separately. I’ll assign you to a case, something as a cover. We can make sure the paperwork’s in order. I know the SAC in Dallas. I trust him. I’ll give him a call and let him know he’s to help you in any way possible. I’ll take a different route and meet up with you there — unofficially. I’ll take vacation days. Say I’m going to Vegas or something. The Director will know the truth.”

Scully felt she should object but saved her breath. She knew it would do no good.

“Okay, sir, but … be careful.”

It sounded lame, even to Scully’s ears, but she couldn’t think of what else to say. How do you protect yourself from a ghost who could kill eight Federal Agents with no one the wiser? Almost no one.

“I will, Scully. I’ll head out tomorrow. When do you two think you can leave?”

Mulder and Scully exchanged glances and Skinner knew he was being allowed to see something few others could. They turned back to him after their silent communication and Mulder answered for both.

“We’ll leave tomorrow. Where should we meet up? And when?”

Skinner considered quickly. His agents would head straight to Dallas, would probably arrive early afternoon at the latest. He thought about his more circuitous route and did the math.

“Early evening perhaps. I won’t go to the Bureau office there.”

He didn’t have to finish the thought — that if the killer were with the Bureau he had to remain out of sight.

“Let me know what hotel you’ll be at and I’ll catch up with you there. In fact, I know Dallas pretty well. Why don’t you stay at the Marriot Courtyard right outside the city. It’s convenient to the city and the Bureau, as well as Ft. Worth, where the last bombing took place.”

Scully tried to mentally place it based on her one trip to Dallas and wasn’t successful. She saw that her partner was nodding, though, and decided not to pursue it further. They’d find the place.

“Sir, will you be able to call the SAC tonight to make arrangements? We’ll probably want to get started at the local Bureau office tomorrow afternoon.”

“I’ll do it tonight, Scully. His name’s Harry Delano. He’s a good man. You can trust him.”

Mulder couldn’t help the frown. He’d caught Skinner’s paranoia and didn’t like the idea of trusting anyone on this case. Didn’t like the idea at all.

Sunday, 8:24 a.m. Washington, DC, National Airport

Scully glanced at the board again, frustrated that the hour’s delay due to weather had already caused them to miss their connecting flight in Chicago. They’d definitely have to rebook now. She stood up and slapped her partner on the shoulder lightly to get his attention.

Mulder was stretched out across four seats, fast asleep, feet hanging off the end of the bank of chairs. He was, of course, totally unaware of the murderous looks sent his way on occasion by those being forced to stand around him. Scully had considered waking him, then decided against it. He got little enough sleep as it was. For the past hour she had pretended that she had no idea who the inconsiderate man was. Simply shrugged her shoulders helplessly whenever anyone had approached. A couple of those people were now including her in their angry stares and she had the good grace to flush red.

“Come on, Mulder. Get up and let’s get out of here before the horde attacks.”

Mulder was confused. Who was attacking who? Whom? What? He looked around, took in the crowded lobby, the disgusted look of the old woman standing against the wall and immediately understood he was in trouble. He swung his legs down and sat up, then turned to his partner, wondering what had possessed her to let him sleep through it all. Scully merely smiled slightly at him and gestured towards the ticket counter.

“Come on, we have to rebook our flight. There’s no way to make our connection at this point.”

Mulder nodded, grabbed his bags off the floor and sent an apologetic look around the room. He was going to get Scully for this.

Sunday, 5:23 p.m. Somewhere over Pennsylvania, USAirways Flight

Scully was not a happy camper.

“I can’t believe this. I could have stayed in bed for another four hours. At this rate, Skinner might get there before we do.”

Mulder didn’t look up from his files, merely nodded at his partner’s words, understanding the frustration. With all the time they spent waiting in airports for one thing or another, he would have thought Scully would be used to delays. Not the case. She still surprised him.

He turned to get a good look at her, then, and was somewhat alarmed by the weariness he saw. Concerned by it, frustrated that he could do nothing about it. Well, there was one thing.

“Scully, why don’t you try to sleep for awhile? There’s nothing here you can’t go over later. It might be your last chance to catch up.”

Scully was grateful for the suggestion. She turned to her partner and smiled in appreciation, then passed her stack of files over to him. She had volunteered to take the center seat to allow him the extra leg room the aisle seat afforded. Unfortunately , the man to the right of her at the window seat had no scruples about taking over the arm rest between them. Reading the case files had been awkward. The flight was filled to capacity due to the storms wreaking havoc up and down the Eastern seaboard, so she and Mulder had been unable to spread out. Scully put her glasses away, reclined her seat, and tried to think sleepy thoughts.

A half hour later, Mulder gestured to the flight attendant and requested a blanket. The woman kindly helped him open the package and drape it over his partner, since one of his arms was otherwise engaged as pillow.

Mulder looked down at the top of his partner’s head fondly, tilting his own head forward so he could see her face. He grinned at the small smile she wore in sleep and was pleased that she seemed to be having good dreams. God knew she deserved them after the last few months. So did he, come to think of it. Actually, best not to think about it.

Mulder turned his attention back to the case file, trying to understand enough about the bomber that he might be able to develop a profile that would help them now. It was fascinating, really. Something he hadn’t seen during his time with Behavioral Sciences and hadn’t ever heard of before or since. This bomber and the Unabomber had acted during the same time period, with practically the same MO. The targets were similar, the bombs were similar, the delivery agent similar. In fact, the first four bombings had originally been attributed to the Unabomber. It wasn’t until late 1975 that someone had figured it out. Had recognized that there were two distinct individuals operating simultaneously, but not in concert. It was certain that the two were not partners, were not competitors. In fact, each seemed oblivious of the other, a sign of the egocentric personality so typical in violent criminals.

Mulder shut the file and leaned his head back against the seat. He closed his eyes and tried to recall everything he knew about Ted Kaczynski and the case against him. Kaczynski himself was something of an enigma. Brilliant mathematician turned techno-abhorrer. A man who turned away from everything that defined civilization to the mass majority of humankind. A man who sequestered himself from anything smacking of the technological achievements of which Americans were so proud.

He’d attacked those who represented users and abusers of technology. And this other bomber, Skinner’s bomber from the ’70’s, this man also seemed to target the same people. Each of the eight bombings he was responsible for occurred on college campuses somewhere in the Engineering School. A materials laboratory at MIT, an aerospace structures lab at Stanford, an instrumentation lab at Cal Tech, an aerodynamics wind tunnel at Georgia Tech. This guy certainly didn’t mess around when it came to targets. He went for the best.

Mulder opened his eyes at the thought. He didn’t know a great deal about Engineering schools in the United States, but certainly those had to be somewhere at the very top of the list. He made a mental note to cross-list the targets and have a computer analyst friend of his at the Bureau try to find a common denominator.

For now, though, all he wanted to do was catch a couple hours sleep. Mulder closed the file and added it to the stack in his lap, then raised them all up high enough to avoid the tray he lowered from the seat back in front of him. Placing the stack on the tray, he slowly reclined his seat, making sure not to wake his partner as his shoulder moved back. Finally comfortable, Mulder dropped his head back, closed his eyes, and concentrated on sleep, blessed sleep.

When the flight attendants passed through the cabin offering beverages an hour later, one woman smiled at the sight of the nice couple curled together in peaceful sleep.

Sunday, 8:37 p.m. (Eastern Standard Time) Dallas-Ft. Worth International Airport, Dallas, Texas

Mulder and Scully fought their way through the crowds after arriving in the terminal. It never failed. They were as far from the exit as possible. It only seemed to happen when they were carrying their luggage. And this time, both agents had chosen to carry all the case files with them.

Scully fought her way over to the wall and dropped her shoulder bag to floor next to her more sensible wheeled bag. “Mulder, I think we need a cart. Do you see one?”

Being over six foot tall had advantages and Mulder quickly spied an abandoned cart across the terminal walkway. He dropped both bags at Scully’s feet and started dodging deplaning passengers. An elderly gentleman also seemed to be making his way towards it, albeit quite slowly, and Mulder picked up his pace. Grabbing the handle, he quickly turned the cart in the right direction and headed back to Scully. He had the grace to flush when he caught sight, peripherally, of the older man stop in his tracks. He silently promised he’d help an elderly couple across the street some day to make up for it and pushed his way back to where his partner stood.

She was staring at him, an odd look on her face, and suddenly he couldn’t go through with it. Dropping his head in defeat, Mulder silently turned back around, spied the old man and brought the cart over to him. Damn Scully anyway for making him feel so guilty. What ever happened to ‘first come, first serve’? He dredged up a smile for the old man and turned yet again, hopefully for the last time, towards his partner. This was making him dizzy.

She was grinning at him, trying not to, but being entirely unsuccessful.

“Yeah, well, don’t expect me to carry your bags for you, Scully. I’ve got my own problems.”

Mulder bent down and draped the handle of one bag over his right shoulder while gripping the other tightly in his left hand. He couldn’t help feeling lighthearted, even though weighed down by some fifty pounds of paper. He smiled at his partner to let her know he was okay with it and nodded down the very long walkway that stretched out in front of them, seemingly endlessly.

“Ladies, first, Scully. I’m being a gentleman this half hour.”

She laughed and Mulder decided that sacrificing the cart had been worth it — worth the aching back, the protesting muscles in his shoulder — worth all the discomfort to hear his partner’s carefree laugh. He watched as she struggled in front of him to balance her own paper-laden shoulder bag along with the pull bag. She didn’t complain, never asked for help, just kept going, despite the awkwardness. Mulder shook his head slightly, admiring once again her perseverance.

After five long minutes, Mulder called a rest outside a snack bar. They’d made quite a bit of progress towards the terminal, but he could tell the weight was bothering his partner. It wasn’t doing him any good either.

“Hey, Scully, I have a better idea. Why don’t you watch our bags and I’ll run out to the concourse and get a cart. It makes a bit more sense than both of us becoming debilitated by our luggage. I don’t really want to be the one to tell Skinner that I put my back out while picking up my suitcase.”

Scully nodded towards him in thanks and sank into a nearby chair, pulling the various bags closer to her feet.

“Okay, Mulder. Thank you. I’ll be here.”

She watched as her partner made his way quickly up the crowded walkway, noticed the two young women who turned to look at him, then lean in close to each other, giggling behind raised hands. Scully couldn’t help but smile. She’d seen the response often enough over the years and could certainly understand it herself. In the right suit, her partner could easily compete with any of the cover boys on GQ.

Scully sat straighter in the chair, stretched her neck from side to side. Gods, she was tired. She thought about her aborted weekend plans and realized she needed to call her mother. She’d do it when her partner got back. She let her mind wander, and her body relax. Some ten minutes later, she started getting worried at what seemed to be an excessive delay. Where was Mulder?

As Scully turned her gaze once more up the walkway, she realized that something was wrong. Something was odd. People were running. They seemed to be running towards the windows. And then she saw her partner and he was running as well — running towards her with some kid, some teenager in tow, struggling to keep up.

Scully jumped to her feet, wondering what was happening. She watched her partner slide to a stop and gesture towards the bags.

“Here. Arrange for them to be taken to the office. We’ll be there eventually.” He turned abruptly from the kid to face his partner, laid his hand on her shoulder, then leaned close by her ear, almost whispering.

“There’s a plane coming in that’s lost two engines from a bomb explosion in the passenger compartment. Several passengers were killed when the cabin lost air pressure at 15,000 feet.”

Mulder was pulling her along now, up the walkway, but was still speaking, urgently.

“The flight’s from Las Vegas. I haven’t confirmed yet that Skinner was on it. We need to get to the tower. I alerted them that we’re on our way and might have some insight as to who’s responsible.”

Scully nodded at him then and gestured for him to lead the way. Both agents jogged quickly towards the terminal and were met by a police officer who fell in line in front of them. Scully realized that Mulder had acted quickly to arrange so much in such little time. Her stomach was a knot of fear and anxiety. Would this bomber of theirs really take out an entire airplane filled with innocent people just to get to Skinner? Scully reminded herself that crazy people rarely acted rationally, by definition.

After a tense seven minute jog, stair climb, drive across tarmac, and elevator ride they were finally led to the tower. The cop gestured them to the side, out of the way of the frantic movement of those attempting to shut down the airport for an emergency landing. Planes had already been and were still being rerouted. Emergency equipment was being directed to the outermost runway.

Mulder could see the entire airport from the tower. It seemed almost dead, with no movement on the ground except near the terminal itself. The emergency equipment, fire engines and ambulances, sat waiting patiently towards the end of the runway where the damaged plane would attempt to land. Mulder heard the captain of the flight giving an update on their condition. Mulder was amazed at how calm the man sounded as he relayed the damage that had been inflicted upon his aircraft.

“Tower, I repeat. We have flutter in 4 and may take it off-line as well. We’ll hold on that for now.”

Mulder caught the jerks around the room and understood that this would not be a good thing.

“We have eyesight confirmation now of structural damage to the starboard spar at the root. It is unclear at this time whether the wing will hold during landing.”

Mulder heard the muted “Fuck” coming from the controller to the right. Still the Captain’s voice was calm and clear.

“We appear to still have hydraulics, at least for now. Flaps are responsive. I repeat, flaps are responsive.”

Nods and a sick smile or two.

“Both horizontal and vertical stabilizers are responsive.”

This time a muffled “Thank God”.

Mulder turned to his partner, raised his eyebrows slightly. She moved closer to him, took his hand in hers. He was thankful for it and squeezed her hand gently in acknowledgment. He needed the physical connection, himself. He turned again at the next words that came over the speaker.

“Tower, I’d like to request a fuel dump at twenty out. Repeat, request fuel dump at twenty out.”

Mulder tried to work out what it meant and finally decided the Captain was requesting that he be allowed to dump some or most of his fuel at twenty miles outside the airport. He saw the frowns on the men and women in the room. Gathered from the tense silence that this wasn’t a typical request. Of course, landing with two or three engines out and a hole in the side of the plane couldn’t have been all that typical either. He heard the controller say, “Hold on that a moment. Hold, Flight 72.”

To the side Mulder saw two men conferring. They seemed to be arguing and only occasional words could be made out. Finally, one of them yelled, “Fuck the environmentalists. There are 193 lives at stake here. We’ll apologize to them later.”

The man who’d evidently won the argument picked up a headset then and spoke into it calmly and quietly, as if he were having a conversation about the latest football game. “Flight 72, Flight 72. You are clear to dump twenty out at present heading. Do not diverge from present vector. Repeat, do not diverge from your vector.”

The Captain’s voice came over the speaker once again, sounding somewhat relieved. It was the first emotion Mulder had actually identified from the man.

“Tower, that is a 10-4. We will dump at present heading, twenty out. I make that five minutes. Confirm?”

“Flight 72, we do confirm.”

There was silence then and Mulder didn’t know how these people could take it. The pressure was going to kill him. He turned again to Scully, saw her lick her lips, then glance up at him when she realized he’d been staring. He saw her eyes fill with unshed tears and understood that they weren’t just for Skinner. They didn’t even know yet whether he was on this flight. Rather they were for the 193 people on board the flight who might not live beyond the next ten minutes. Mulder raised her hand to his chest, gripped his other hand around it tightly and leaned down close to her ear. “It’ll be okay, Scully. These people know what they’re doing. It’ll be all right.”

Scully knew he was trying to convince himself as much as her, but was grateful all the same. She leaned against her partner’s arm and closed her eyes, sending a silent prayer to God above to take care of those on the plane that was now plummeting towards the earth.

An agonizing several minutes later they heard the Captain’s voice again.

“Tower, we have dumped. Please inform appropriate agencies. I offer apologies in advance for all the bureaucratic shit you’ll have to deal with.”

There was chuckling from around the room.

“Flight 72 you are looking good. We see landing gear. Repeat, we do confirm landing gear.”

Mulder realized then that there had been a question as to whether the landing gear were still operational. There were two people at any time, standing at the windows with binoculars, and even he could see the lights in the night sky, signaling that the aircraft was close.

“We’ll need all the runway you’ve got Dallas. Reverse thrusters limited due to loss of engines 2 and 3. Engine 4 still holding.”

“You’re looking good Flight 72. Keep apprised.”

Another tense minute and then the plane was almost there, seemed to be gliding in smoothly for a textbook landing. But the Captain disabused them of such notions.

“Dallas, we have lost engine 4. I repeat, we have lost engine 4. Am attempting to compensate with cycling of remaining engine. We have yaw. I suggest you move the equipment off the runway.”

Suddenly there was a frantic yelling to the side and Mulder could see the fire engines and ambulances now racing across the tarmac, away from the far runway. It was obvious to him now, obvious that the plane was skewed and starting also to roll slightly. Still, the Captain’s voice was calm and Mulder had an all new appreciation for these men and women in the pilot’s seat whom he never even saw.

“Dallas we are landing. Can not make another approach. This’ll be as good as it gets. We will attempt to compensate for the weakened spar at landing.”

The plane was almost on the ground now and miraculously yawed back to centerline just before touching down. The plane had rolled to one side, though, causing the leeward wheel to hit first. It dawned on Mulder then that this was intentional. This was what the Captain had meant by compensating for the weakened wing. Because as soon as the other wheels hit, the starboard wing cracked at the root. The tip of the wing crashed towards the ground, the entire thing looking as if it were on a hinge.

Sparks flew and the wing caught fire, leaving a blazing trail of debris down the runway. Amazingly, the plane was still on its wheels and the Captain was continuing to drone on with his updates.

“We have reverse thruster of number one on full. We are at fifty-four and dropping….. Slowly. Very slowly.”

Mulder released one hand from the death-grip of Scully’s fingers and wiped the sweat from his forehead. Had it really only been ten minutes ago that this all started?

“Flight 72, aim right if you can. We have a nice stretch of flat ground in that direction.”

“Got that, Dallas. Will try our best.”

The plane still plummeted down the quickly disappearing runway and Mulder realized the controller had just given directions for what to do when the plane ran out of pavement. It was obviously slower now and still upright. But the dragging wing was also still engulfed in flames. Mulder knew these planes carried the bulk of their fuel reserve in the wings and shuddered to think what would have happened if the Captain had not dumped the extra fuel. He was sure they’d be seeing a ball of fire instead of a still relatively intact aircraft.

The plane ran out of runway and hit the dirt and grass. Suddenly the nose pitched forward and the abused starboard wing sheared away in a shower of red and yellow fireworks. The violence of the separation coupled with the rough ground was just too much for landing gear that hadn’t been designed with these types of dynamic loadings in mind.

The gear collapsed, almost in slow motion it seemed, sending the plane to its belly. It was a wounded animal now, in the final throws of its battle against fate. Incredibly, the plane still did not ignite. It slid another fifty feet and then came to a gentle stop, rolling leeward to lay propped on the remaining wing tip at a twenty degree or so angle. The Captain’s voice came over the speaker, loud and clear.

“Dallas, I think it’s safe to send the equipment out now.”

Mulder and Scully stood frozen for another half moment, along with everyone else, waiting for time to start again. Suddenly, everyone in the control room let out an incredible whoop. Mulder found his arms around Scully, realized she was hugging him back, and couldn’t find the energy to be self-conscious about it. This had to have been the most incredible thing he’d ever witnessed in his life. And that was saying an awful lot after five years of working on the X-Files.

They heard the controller in the background speaking loudly, practically yelling to be heard over the impromptu celebration that had erupted in the control room at the Captain’s words.

“Flight 72, welcome to Dallas.”

Sunday, 9:24 p.m. (EST) Dallas-Ft. Worth International Airport, Dallas, Texas

They’d forced the issue and now stood on the tarmac, just fifty feet from the still smoking aircraft. Passengers were being led away, carefully, gingerly. Those who were injured were brought to the waiting ambulances. And still Mulder and Scully waited for a familiar face. They had confirmed within minutes of the plane landing safely that Skinner had, indeed been on the flight. Had, in fact, been seated in the row where the bomb had supposedly been triggered. They hadn’t been able to confirm whether he was alive or not.

And then he was there. They saw him in the open doorway, helping a flight attendant down the slide. Of course. An Assistant Director of the FBI wouldn’t cut and run. He’d wait until everyone else was safe. And he had.

Mulder heaved a relieved sigh, glanced at his partner and knew by the smile that she’d seen him as well.

“Come on, Scully. Let’s go.”

They made their way to the base of the slide, using their badges to get close. A minute later, their boss stood next to them, clothes somewhat tattered, gripping his shoes tightly in his hands, obviously the worse for wear.

“Sir, are you all right?”

Scully immediately went into Doctor mode at the sight of the bruises and blood that dotted their boss’ forehead and shirt.

“I’m fine. But I need to get out of here. Now.”

Mulder nodded and gestured to the left.

“We know, sir. We’ve already arranged it with all the right people. We’ll owe them some pretty hefty explanations tomorrow, but they’re willing to let you go tonight.”

Mulder leaned closer and spoke softly.

“Delano’s here with about five agents so far. He’s keeping them back until we’re clear.”

Mulder saw his boss nod in understanding. The younger agent gestured to a small cart where the same kid who’d handled their luggage sat.

“Not quite what you’re used to, I know, but the best I could do on short notice.”

Skinner couldn’t help but laugh. Jesus, Mulder was warped. Who the hell could think of joking at a time like this.

“Mulder, shut up and get me the hell out of here.”

Mulder turned serious again, not offended by his boss’ solemn demeanor. He understood. He watched as Skinner and Scully slid into the back seat, and made sure that neither needed his help. He then climbed in the front and waved at the kid to start driving.

Mulder turned in the seat so he could see the two agents behind him. He took in Skinner’s slightly shaking form, the blood, the scorch marks on the white tattered shirt, the abandoned shoes in his lap, and knew they needed to get to a hotel soon, if not a hospital. Mulder was well-acquainted with shock.

“We’ve arranged for transportation. We’re going to have to go through the terminal for about a hundred yards. There’s no way around it. I’ll go first and make sure the car’s ready out front. You two follow in about ten minutes.”

Mulder turned to look at his partner full on, then reached one hand out to touch her arm. “Scully, bring him straight through to the door by the Hertz counter. That’s where I’ll be.”

He saw his partner nod, then looked closely at the man beside her yet again. Mulder was concerned. Skinner had closed his eyes and sat with his head bobbing slightly at every bump. He looked as if he would fall out of the cart if it took a turn too quickly. Mulder looked back at his partner and saw a matching concern. She had their boss’ right arm gripped tightly in hers, her thoughts obviously paralleling Mulder’s own.

He spoke softly, his words intended for his partner’s ears only.

“Scully, he’s here. He has to be. Be careful.”

She didn’t need to hear the unsaid words. ‘Have your weapon ready.’ Scully nodded at her partner, silently relaying her understanding.

Mulder turned forward again and was pleased to see the terminal just ahead. He gave Scully one more forced smile and then was out of the cart and was running for the door, even before it had come to a full stop.

Scully spoke softly to the young man who had gotten them this far. “Could you please arrange for our bags to be delivered to the Marriot Courtyard outside of Dallas as soon as possible?”

She thanked him at his nod and turned to her boss, grateful that he seemed aware of where he was and what was happening.

“Sir, we’ll wait here for several minutes and then we’ll head out. It’ll take us a bit longer to make it to the front than it will Mulder.”

She smiled at Skinner before continuing.

“Mulder didn’t get a chance to run this morning and I think he’s just taking this opportunity to stretch his legs.”

Skinner forced a small smile, understanding his agent’s need for small talk. He opened his eyes and turned to look at her.

“I’m all right, Scully.”

Scully felt embarrassed suddenly. She hadn’t meant to be condescending or patronizing. Certainly not to Skinner. She opened her mouth to apologize and was stopped when he took her hand in his for a moment and said, “But thank you for worrying.”

Scully grinned at him.

“It’s what doctors do best, sir. Come on, I think we’re safe to follow Mulder now.”

Scully stood by the cart as her boss slipped his shoes on and dragged himself out to stand next to her. She positioned herself on Skinner’s right side so she would have her right hand free to draw her weapon if necessary. She prayed it wouldn’t be. Scully walked beside her boss, slowly, making sure to stay close by in case he needed any assistance. She was dreading the next five minutes.

Scully recalled her partner’s words — ‘He’s here. He has to be.’ Was the bomber inside the terminal now? Waiting for Skinner to appear so he could take him out? Or would that be too easy? Anticlimactic after the plane bombing. Was he already making back-up plans? Trying to come up with something even more flamboyant than a plane crash?

Scully reached down to adjust her weapon in the holster, making sure there would be no impediments if it came down to gun fire. She stopped in front of the door, turned to her boss and nodded. Grabbing the handle, she opened it wide and entered first, scanning left to right to ensure it was clear. She led the way, trying to appear as innocuous as possible, despite her obviously furtive actions. She felt eyes staring from all about them. But were they ‘his’ eyes?

They finally made it through the terminal and headed out front, through the door Mulder had specified. And he was there, waiting for them in the maroon midsize rental car, the inevitable Ford Taurus. He leaned across the front seats and had the back door open, then stretched to open the front, eyes searching beyond them continuously. Scully helped Skinner into the back seat, slammed the door, and almost threw herself into the front seat.

“Go. Go, Mulder.”

He didn’t need to be told again. He put his foot to the pedal, careful not to hit any pedestrians, but not particularly worrying about speed limits. He kept glancing into the rearview mirror, half expecting to see another car tearing out of the queue to follow them. They seemed to be in the clear. He looked over to his partner, and saw that she was staring in the side mirror. She glanced over and met his gaze.

“I think we’re okay.”

Mulder nodded to her, then looked in the rearview again. Still nothing behind them. He tilted the mirror to get a look at his boss and saw the man was stretched out as flat as was possible in the back seat, with legs bent and splayed awkwardly. It didn’t look at all comfortable.

Scully was also looking back at the man. She turned to Mulder and shrugged slightly.

“We need to get somewhere soon.”

He understood what she meant. Get us somewhere so I can check on how bad off he is. Mulder nodded again and started looking for the right road signs. They were only about twenty minutes out from the hotel. He’d get them there in fifteen or less.

Sunday, 10:13 p.m. (EST) Dallas, Marriot Courtyard

They had two connecting rooms and Mulder wasn’t happy. His partner’s logic had finally won out, but it didn’t really help in the grand scheme of things. He needed his privacy and sharing a room with your boss just didn’t cut it. He didn’t particularly care that some crazy person was hunting down Skinner (and possible Scully and him now). He didn’t really care that Skinner was possibly injured and needed someone to keep an eye on him. Mulder just didn’t care at this point. He only knew that he wanted a room to himself.

Scully walked in and stopped abruptly two strides into the room. Mulder had glared at her before. In fact, she had thought she’d seen all his best work. But this. This glare was the creme de la creme of all glares. The piece de resistance. She immediately felt guilty but, by God, was it her fault she was female? Did she ask the Bureau to require separate rooms for agents of differing gender?

Mulder was literally throwing files from his suitcase onto the bed closest to the door. He would occasionally look up at his partner, expression offering mute testimony to the anger with which he still struggled.

Skinner was in the bathroom, showering away the evidence of the violent aftermath of a bomb exploding within five feet of him. The bags had been delivered, including Skinner’s. Evidently Delano had pulled strings. Mulder had rummaged through his boss’ suitcase and pulled out sweats for the man to change into. He had passed them in five minutes before and was now waiting, not so patiently, for his turn at the shower. He wasn’t used to having to wait.

“Mulder, I’m sorry. What do you want me to do?”

Mulder paused in removing yet another stack of files from the open suitcase, head still hung low, not looking at his partner. He closed his eyes for a moment, then took a deep breath. It wasn’t Scully’s fault. She couldn’t help the circumstances. She’d merely been the one to point out that it made sense. But, dammit, he just wanted a little privacy. How could he get any sleep with his boss just seven or eight feet away?

Mulder dragged his eyes up to his partner’s and attempted to be civil.

“Look, Scully, I’m just tired. I just need to get some sleep. That’s all. I don’t expect you to do anything. There’s nothing to do anything about.”

Well, it made sense when he’d originally thought it. Scully would just have to make do with that logic. It was as much of an apology as he could muster. Right now, all he wanted was to take a shower and go to bed. He felt her at his side and looked up from the files once again. God, why’d she have to look at him like that? So worried about him. So concerned. She’d had just as stressful a weekend as he’d had, yet here she was, emanating concern. He didn’t deserve her.

Mulder stood straight and dropped the file to the bed. Raised his right hand to push a stubborn lock of hair out of her eyes, continued the gesture, lightly caressing her hair, then dropped his hand back to his side.

“It’s okay, Scully. I’ll be fine. You know me, just a little crazy about this whole sleeping thing.”

Scully smiled at him then. Smiled at the ‘sleeping thing’ comment. But behind the smile was the concern she couldn’t hide. She knew why he wanted privacy, understood that any nightmares were his own, that he wasn’t prepared yet to share them with their boss, even though Scully had been let in long ago. She put her hand to her partner’s arm and squeezed slightly.

“Listen. This is just for tonight. We’ll figure something out tomorrow, okay?”

He looked back down at the files covering his bed, then glanced at his now empty suitcase. He nodded back to her and said, “I know. It’s okay. Really.”

Their boss chose that moment to exit the bathroom. He stopped abruptly in the doorway as he sensed the tension in the room, unsure whether he was the cause of it or was just guilty of bad timing.

“Mulder, Scully. Thank you for getting us here so quickly.”

He’d seen Scully drop her hand from Mulder’s arm, then cross both arms, creating a wall of seclusion. Seen Mulder move a step forward to abut the bed, effectively putting distance between him and his partner. Skinner couldn’t help but wonder what was happening …. what had happened while he was in the shower.

“Everything all right here?”

Mulder jerked slightly at the question. He hadn’t been aware that he was so obvious.

“Yes, of course, sir. I think …” Mulder paused, glanced at his partner briefly. “Sir, I think Scully wants to check you over. If you don’t mind, I’ll hit the shower now.”

Skinner nodded and watched silently as Mulder opened his other suitcase and grabbed some clothes, seemingly at random, then made his way to the bathroom. The door shut with a decisive click, leaving Scully and Skinner alone.

Scully looked absolutely miserable. The woman stood staring after her partner at the now closed door. What the hell had Mulder done or said now?

“Scully?”

She jerked her eyes from the shut door towards her boss. Scully flushed red as she realized how all this might look to her boss. If he only knew what was really going on. Actually, he might end up finding out quite abruptly in just a few hours. She shook her head, trying to banish the thought and focused on the condition of the man standing across the room from her.

“Sir, I’d like to check you over. Make sure there’s no serious damage.”

Skinner still couldn’t move. Was, in fact, assaulted by the feeling that he’d just witnessed the aftermath of a lover’s spat. But that wasn’t possible. Was it? Was it possible he had so misjudged his agent’s intentions? No, it had to be something else. They were too professional. They wouldn’t let their feelings for one another interfere with their job — ever. And he was pretty damned sure their feelings didn’t run in that way. Love, yes. He knew they loved each other, would do absolutely anything to ensure the other was safe and happy. But not physical love. Not even romantic love. No way. Skinner hastily cleared his throat when he realized Scully was staring at him expectantly, had been, in fact, for many heartbeats during the uncomfortable silence.

“I’m fine, Scully. I wasn’t really that close. I think some flying debris hit me. That’s pretty much it.”

Scully gestured for him to sit on the bed and pulled a chair over to sit in front of him. This was new. She’d gone through this routine God knew how many times with her partner, but this man in front of her wearing a United States Marine Corps sweatshirt and FBI sweatpants, this man was her boss.

“I’d just like to make sure, sir.”

She proceeded to take his pulse, check out the scrapes and bruises, made sure there was no chance of concussion. Finally satisfied after her cursory review of his condition, she nodded, then pushed the chair back and stood.

He’d sat patiently, submitting to her exam, still watching his agent for signs of anything amiss. But she was completely consumed by her actions, totally unaware of his observation of her. Scully was becoming almost as much of an enigma as her obscure partner.

“Everything looks okay, sir. You need to take it easy for a few days.”

He still sat on the bed, silently, watching as she repacked the few items she’d withdrawn from her medical bag, merely nodding in acceptance. She didn’t seem particularly upset. Perhaps he’d completely misunderstood the earlier tension.

Scully stood straight then, doctor’s bag in hand, doctor’s professional mask in place.

“I think I’m going to turn in. Good night, sir. Sleep well.”

And then she was gone. She passed through the connecting door to her room, not even giving him the chance to say good night in return. He shook his head lightly, trying to comprehend Scully in particular and women in general. Damn, they could be so difficult to understand sometimes. He suddenly felt slightly sorry for Mulder.

Before he’d done more than stand and pull the covers down on the bed, the object of his consideration came out of the bathroom, hair still obviously wet, dressed in white boxers and a baggy gray T-shirt, proudly proclaiming him to be a member of Gold’s Gym. Skinner couldn’t help the smile that came to his face then and turned his head back down to the bed to avoid being seen. He seriously doubted that the man in front of him had ever done more than accompany a friend on a dare to such a place. Skinner knew that tracks and swimming pools were more his agent’s style, evidenced further by the man’s long and lanky frame.

Skinner dropped into bed, suddenly consumed by exhaustion, completely debilitated. He couldn’t summon the energy to even say good night, much less turn out any lights. He was vaguely aware, as he drifted off, of his agent’s mumbled “Good night, sir” and the darkening in the room that must have resulted from lights being turned off.

Mulder couldn’t sleep. He’d been tossing and turning for more than an hour now. Every time he was almost ready to drop off, to fall asleep, some part of his mind reminded him that he wasn’t alone, that there was a stranger in the room, that his boss was there. And he would jerk fully awake, heart racing, muscles tense. And then it would start all over again.

He couldn’t take it any more. This was making him even more tired. Mulder threw off the sheet and sat at the side of the bed, then leaned forward slightly with head hanging down almost to his chest. It was dark in the room but a few stray rays of light from the street lamp outside found their way through a crack in the curtain over the sliding glass door and lit a patch on the carpet to his left. Mulder allowed his eyes to adjust to the near darkness, then raised his head to look across the three foot span separating his bed from the other in the room.

His boss hadn’t moved in the past hour, as far as he could tell. The man still lay flat on his back, head tilted slightly towards Mulder, mouth open, emitting a gentle snore. Mulder looked at the clock, then shook his head at the thought of the long night stretching out in front of him. He couldn’t read because that would require turning a light on. Couldn’t watch television, since the noise might wake his boss. Couldn’t work, the light thing again. No one to talk to, nothing to do.

He couldn’t help the frustration at being so constrained in this way. The last time he’d shared a room as an adult — with another man, that is — was back when he was in the VCS. And then, at least, the other guy was as screwed up as he was. Well, almost. At least that man had understood. Understood when the mind couldn’t be turned off, when the nightmares came, when the demons awoke and ruled the night.

Mulder stood up suddenly, the softly muttered “Fuck this” escaping into the night. He made his way carefully to the connecting door. Maybe Scully was awake. They could discuss the case. He cracked the door open — an inch, then two, slowly and carefully, finally enough to stick his head in. She lay on her side, facing him, curled slightly with her hands folded on the pillow beside her head as if praying. Her hair fanned out around her, a fiery halo of innocence.

Mulder smiled and slowly pulled the door closed again, not even upset at the prospect of going back to the drawing board for entertainment ideas. Turning back to his room with a sigh, his gaze fell on the stack of files he’d thrown to the floor by his bed. His eyes flicked left to the bathroom and he considered the thought for another five seconds before making his move.

Mulder quickly gathered two handfuls of files, pads of paper, pencils, and portable computer, and headed to the bathroom, juggling carefully. Light behind a closed door would be okay. Actually, this would be better anyway. Someone had to make plans so they could start quickly tomorrow. The guy was out there somewhere. Mulder knew it. He realized that was how he was thinking of the bomber — ‘The Guy’. And right now, the guy probably knew Skinner was alive, probably knew he had company, probably knew who they were, probably knew where they were. The guy would go after Skinner again and he wouldn’t care if Mulder and Scully or any number of others were in the way. The guy would come. And Mulder had to plan for it.

Monday, 6:07 a.m. Dallas , Marriot Courtyard

Skinner was getting perturbed. Enough was enough already. He’d awoken a good half an hour ago needing to use the bathroom but Mulder was there. He was still there. Just what the hell was he doing in there for so long, anyway? Skinner sat up finally, slowly stretching protesting muscles. He hadn’t realized just how banged up he was until he’d tried to move. He forced himself to his feet, stretched right, then left, and then slowly started making his way to the bathroom. He stopped when he got there, and found himself actually trying to breathe more quietly so he could listen for any unusual sounds. Of course, this was Mulder. No telling what constituted unusual with him.

Skinner raised his hand to knock and then stopped. Thought again about whether he wanted to disturb the man, then realized he really didn’t have any choice. He needed in there …. now. He completed the gesture he’d started a moment ago and knocked lightly. Waited a heartbeat, then two, and realized there was no movement, no sound whatsoever and knocked again. Now he was feeling silly. Maybe Mulder wasn’t in there at all.

Skinner found his glance straying to the connecting room door and immediately banished the thought. No, he wouldn’t be there either. Skinner sighed deeply and then grabbed the knob, discovered it was unlocked, and turned slowly, pushing the door inward when he was able.

He saw Mulder in the mirror first, then took a careful step into the room far enough so he could see behind the door. His agent was in the empty bathtub, still wearing the clothes he’d changed into the night before, towel under his rear and behind his back, legs bent up with knees splayed awkwardly. Files were everywhere — on the floor, the rim of the tub, the lowered toilet seat, and beside and on top of Mulder. The laptop computer lay open on his lap, resting in the V between stomach and upraised legs. The younger man was fast asleep, his head tilted back and to the right at an angle that seemed impossible to Skinner.

Skinner felt a flush of embarrassment at the realization that Mulder had most likely spent the night working — working in what appeared to be incredibly uncomfortable circumstances — while he had slept undisturbed in the other room. But then he felt something else. He still needed to get in here and he’d really prefer if Mulder weren’t present, asleep or otherwise. He’d have to wake the man. Skinner leaned forward slightly, speaking softly. “Mulder.”

The younger man didn’t stir. Didn’t even twitch. What happened to those lightening fast responses and quick reactions?

“Mulder.”

This time he said it much more forcefully. Still nothing from the bathtub. Okay, now he was getting irritated. Skinner leaned over a bit more and grabbed his agent’s shoulder, shaking lightly. Finally, a response, but an unfortunate one for Mulder.

Mulder’s head flew back against the tiled wall as he jerked awake. He sensed something sliding on his lap and his hands reached instinctively to grab it. It was the computer and it was heading for the porcelain. He grabbed it in time but unfortunately slammed his right knee against the soapdish in the process. His left hand was now jammed between the tub side and the computer and throbbed with the impact. All in all, this really sucked as a way to wake up.

Mulder looked blearily up at the man standing over him. The image wavered, shimmered slightly, and Mulder realized he was looking at his boss through eyes that had watered of their own accord in response to the overwhelming numbers and painful degrees of stimuli that had assaulted various parts of his body in a span of about four seconds.

“Ow.”

It was all he could manage without cursing. Was, in fact, the only word that had come to mind that was not profane. And Skinner was laughing at him. Skinner did this to him and now the man stood there, after a comfortable nights sleep, laughing at him.

For his part, Skinner was horrified. Horrified that he’d been the trigger for such an event and, even more, that he had laughed. But he couldn’t help it. The sight of Mulder, looking like a little kid who’d just bumped his head, tears in his eyes, saying ‘Ow’ for Christ’s sake – it was just too much. But, he felt horrible even as he fought to wipe the grin from his face.

“Mulder, I’m sorry.”

Mulder looked murderous. He’d evidently gotten over the initial pain and now was just angry. It was clear from the squinted eyes, to the furrowed brow, to the flared nostrils, to the clenched grip on the computer. Skinner was finally able to control his initial response and decided to try again.

“Mulder, I knocked. Then I called your name – twice. I’m sorry.”

His agent had been waging his own internal battle for control and finally managed to look at him with some degree of civility.

“Look. I really need to get in here. Would you mind?”

Oh, sure, it wasn’t enough that the man had caused him injury, had then laughed at him, but now he was kicking Mulder out. The younger man fought yet again the impulse to curse. Instead he carefully picked up the computer, leaned over and placed it on the floor next to the bathtub. He then gathered the files from on and around his body, stacked them concisely, and laid them on top of the computer.

Mulder had to fight to stand, would have been unable to if it weren’t for the conveniently placed hand hold on the tiled wall to the right. Every muscle ached from a night spent sitting on bone-chilling porcelain in a cramped position. His left hand was throbbing from being jammed in his frantic attempt to save the computer, his right knee ached from being slammed against the corner of the soapdish, and his head – Jesus Christ, his head felt like it was going to explode. He could feel his eyes watering once again as he finally attained a vertical stance and refused to allow them to betray him. Mulder stepped gingerly from the tub, becoming aware that his left big toe was also protesting now. What the hell had happened to his toe? Or did it just feel left out and had decided to join in the cacophony of aches and pains now causing him such agony?

He nodded slightly to his boss, refusing to meet the man’s eyes, and said merely, “All yours.”

Mulder knew he needed to get away for a bit. He was still pissed, even though his boss had apologized. And in truth, Skinner hadn’t really done anything. Mulder was the one who slammed his head against the wall after all. He was the one who’d chosen to spend the night in the God damned bathtub. Mulder dragged his suitcase to the bed, rummaged until he found what he’d been looking for and finally pulled out his running shorts and running shoes. He just needed to get out of here for a few minutes and a little run would help to clear his head.

He was leaned over, tying his shoes when Skinner came out. He still refused to look at the man, realized he was being juvenile, but just couldn’t help it.

Skinner took in the closed expression, the weary features, the jerky movements, and suddenly was concerned for his agent. It was obvious the younger man planned on going for a run, but the killer was out there somewhere and Skinner wasn’t sure whether Mulder was in shape to handle anything unexpected or strenuous.

“Mulder, are you sure you’ll be all right by yourself? I don’t think this is a good idea.”

Skinner knew as soon as he said it that it had come out wrong. Now he had insulted his agent’s judgment, on top of laughing at him. He might as well have thrown down the gauntlet. Mulder froze for a span of several seconds, seemed to not even breathe in fact. Maybe it wasn’t too late to correct this.

“I mean, going out by yourself when this killer is on the loose.”

Mulder looked up at him then for the first time, even as his hands worked to complete tying his shoes. He appeared incredibly unhappy and angry under the frozen features.

“Sir, I’ll be fine. But I think it’s time to abandon this idea of not bringing in more people on this. I spent all night reviewing the files of the original bomber as well as the agents he’s taken out so far. The only real motivation for not bringing in the Bureau was that it might buy some time to track him down quietly. Well, I think it’s pretty clear that that doesn’t make sense any more.”

Mulder was still angry and could hear it leaking out in every word he said. But Jesus, this was his and Scully’s life now, too. Mulder finished with his shoes and stood, only a couple feet from his boss, straight and challenging. Challenging Skinner to disagree with him.

“The fact is that the three of us can not do an adequate job and you’re going to get Scully or me fucking killed if we don’t have help.”

He didn’t really mean for it to sound so harsh. He had meant to say ‘it’ will get us killed – not ‘you’. He hadn’t meant to make it personal, certainly hadn’t meant to curse at the man, but he was tired and hungry and his head pounded and his body ached and he couldn’t figure out what was happening with this case even after pouring over files for six hours straight.

Evidently he had made it too personal, though, because suddenly he felt his head explode again, coupled this time with an all new sensation – his jaw felt as if it had been ripped from it’s socket and the pain was almost unbearable. He was on the ground and had no recollection of how he’d gotten there. He was half lying on a chair, the arm sticking in his back, and he couldn’t figure out what had happened. But after a few moments, comprehension came. Skinner had punched him. The asshole had punched him in the jaw. Had hit him!

Mulder was still in shock but coming out of it fast. He was preparing to launch himself up off the floor when the connecting room door slammed open, causing him to arrest his movement. Scully stood in the doorway, gun extended into the room, swinging quickly from left to right, obviously searching for the bad guy.

Scully got a flash of impressions that made no sense. She had heard the crash, grabbed her weapon and come running, fully expecting to find the killer attacking her boss and partner. And instead she found…. Actually, she wasn’t sure.

“What happened? What’s going on?”

Scully took in the sights of the room and tried to absorb them. Mulder lay sprawled on the floor amidst turned over furniture, breathing in heaving spurts. Skinner was a few feet away, looking just as enraged, standing stiffly with arms to his side, one foot out ahead of the other as if ready to move. It looked like they were ready to attack each other. She turned to her partner, wanting answers — hoping he’d be able to give them to her.

“Mulder, what the hell is going on?”

Her partner was overtly furious, quite possibly more angry than she’d seen him in years. His left hand was up to his jaw, cupping it gingerly. His response, when it came, sent her reeling with bafflement.

He turned his head towards her and spit out, “He hit me.”

Scully couldn’t believe it. This was their boss Mulder was talking about. The man who oozed decorum and protocol, who’d saved their butts on any number of occasions, who’d been almost killed more than once because of them. She could only manage a single word of bewildered query, “What?”

“He hit me.”

And now it was a little kid sitting on the floor in front of her, mad at his playmate because he hadn’t gotten his turn to play with the Tonka truck, yet. And she struggled with it even more.

“What?”

But it wasn’t a little boy who yelled out, “He fucking hit me, Scully.” It was her partner who now, in addition to being angry, looked hurt that she didn’t seem to believe him. But Scully couldn’t really find it in her to care overly much just now. There was some madman out there, blowing up planes to kill their boss, not giving a damn who else got in the way. Whatever problems these two had, they’d sure as hell better work them out fast because they didn’t have time for this shit. Scully turned to take in both men, then in a small concession to her partner’s feeling of betrayal, looked mostly at their boss when she said, voice dripping in sarcasm, clearly betraying the irritation, the frustration she was feeling, “Are you five?”

Well, they could just deal with it because this was not what she wanted to wake up to on a day when they had a killer to catch. Scully glared at both men again, taking in now her boss’ look of complete and utter shock, her partner’s look of stubborn petulance. She shook her head quickly, then turned and left the room, slamming the door behind her definitively.

Skinner couldn’t remember the last time he’d been spoken to in such a manner. And by an underling, for God’s sake. He breathed deeply, tensed his muscles, almost took a step, fully prepared to charge after her and demand an apology, when it started to sink in. The reality began to sink in and Jesus, Christ — was he five? He’d just hit Mulder. Punched the man in the jaw and sent him flying to the floor. And now he was actually getting angry at the woman who had pointed out how ridiculous he was being. He was supposed to be a fucking Assistant Director of the Bureau and he’d just hit one of his agents for no real reason. Worse of all, an agent who’d been up all night working on Skinner’s behalf.

For his part, Mulder was cast adrift. His boss had punched him, his partner didn’t give a shit, and his head was going to explode. There was a man in his head with a sledgehammer and every once in awhile, for good measure, the guy would drive a pick right into the middle of his forehead.

Mulder finally dragged his eyes away from the connecting door, swept them around the room for no particular purpose other than it gave him something to do. He finally managed to pull his head up and to the right to look at the man who he blamed for this feeling of utter wretchedness. And Skinner was smiling. Looking down at him still sprawled on the floor, in pain, and was fucking smiling.

It had taken a minute for Skinner, but it had finally sunk in. He was out of line. Mulder probably had every right to have him arrested or, God forbid, could even sue him. For Christ’s sake, he had acted like a little kid. Now poor Mulder still lay sprawled on the floor looking for all the world like he wanted his mother. Skinner couldn’t help the smile that forced its way onto his face.

He took a step towards his agent, cringed internally when he saw Mulder jerk back away from him, then reached his hand down, his agent’s reaction effectively forcing the smile from his face.

“Mulder, are you all right? I apologize. I was way the hell out of line. Let me help you up.”

Skinner watched the younger man’s expression carefully. Watched him go from angry confusion to hurt indignation to resigned control. Mulder reached his right hand up finally, gripped Skinner’s wrist and allowed himself to be pulled vertical. Skinner still felt horrible, knew he’d screwed up big time.

“Look, Mulder, I don’t have any excuse. It’s just … this case has become way too personal for me.”

Mulder stood in front of him now, relaxed and easy, but wearing an expression of honest concern. It was too much for Skinner. He didn’t deserve the man’s understanding after he’d been such a prick. Skinner felt his shoulder’s droop, as the sensation of failure and helplessness overwhelmed him.

“It’s just …. It should have been me, Mulder. If I hadn’t switched seats…. It was a little girl and her father. She was only six or so. Her name was Kirsten. It was her first flight and she wanted to look out the window. I volunteered to move across the aisle so they could have the window and center seat.”

Mulder understood suddenly in a flash of enlightenment. Skinner was now playing the ‘If only’ game. ‘If only I hadn’t switched seats.’ ‘If only I had waited.’ ‘If only I hadn’t gotten on the plane.’ ‘If only …’ Mulder was well acquainted with the ‘If only’ game. Hell, he’d been playing it practically day in and day out since he was twelve. But he knew that it was useless. It accomplished nothing. It certainly didn’t make you feel any better. It just prolonged the guilt. Prolonged the helplessness.

Mulder arrested his initial impulse to say the ‘It’ll get better’ line. It wasn’t the truth and Skinner knew it. There was no time machine that would bring the man back to yesterday so he could do it all differently. There was no fairy godmother ready to wave her magic wand on his behalf. Sometimes, there just wasn’t any fairness, any justice. Sometimes, life just sucked and all you could do was deal with it the best way you could. So Mulder said nothing for a long fifteen seconds. Then he gripped his boss’ arm for a moment and said the one thing he knew would definitely help.

“We’ll find him. And we’ll make him pay.”

Mulder was relieved to see Skinner smile a bit, then nod in understanding and appreciation. His boss had regained his composure and had turned now, was moving towards the table between the two beds. Mulder felt the need to release pent-up energy even more, despite the agony of the headache, so turned to the sliding glass doors to let in some light and head out for his delayed jog. He took a step, grabbed the curtains and threw them wide. And there was something wrong. Something out of place. Something was there that didn’t belong. He processed it in a fraction of a second and turned abruptly, yelling, “Gun! Down!”

Time slowed, seconds suspended, and Skinner saw it in slow motion. Saw Mulder turn and yell. Saw his agent launch himself over the bed, slide across the top, aiming for the floor. Skinner had dropped as soon as Mulder had yelled. Had seen Mulder come flying over the bed. He heard it at almost the same time Mulder came crashing to the floor. Heard the shot. Heard the exploding glass. Heard Mulder’s grunt as he hit the floor hard. And then there were more bullets, more noises of gun shots, of breaking glass, of dull thuds in the wall behind them.

Mulder was lying on his back, his legs covering Skinner’s. He rolled to his side, pulling legs in closer to his body, and propped himself up a couple inches on his right arm. Skinner had also propped himself up slightly and turned his body so he could see the younger man more clearly.

“Do you have your weapon?”

Skinner saw his agent grimace and shake his head. God damn it! How could two Federal agents in a cramped hotel room let themselves get in a position where neither of them had access to their weapons? This was ridiculous!

Suddenly they heard new weapon fire and yelling from the direction of the next room. Scully had come to their rescue. She’d evidently summed up the situation, scoped out the bad guy, and gone after him. After another forty-five breathless, agonizing seconds, screeching tires could be heard in the parking lot at the same time the connecting door flew open. Scully was there, standing much as she had just five minutes or so before, weapon extended into the room. Her left hand held her cell phone and she was obviously giving instructions to those on the other end.

Scully put the phone down on the television stand by the door, looked to the right and out the shattered window to ensure they were clear, asked, “Are you okay?”, then stepped closer to the ends of the beds.

“Are either of you injured? Sir? Mulder?”

Skinner was moving, had already sat up and was now climbing slowly to his feet, peering cautiously out the shattered glass door. Mulder hadn’t really moved yet except to drop down to the floor, still on his side. Scully looked at him more closely, took in the pallor, the pinched features, the tightly closed eyes, the rapid breathing, and realized something was wrong.

She took the couple steps necessary to reach him and sank down by his side, laid her gun on the bed to free her hands, and said softly, “Mulder, what’s wrong?”

Her tone was enough to alert Skinner to the fact that something was awry with his still downed agent. Skinner turned back and knelt next to Mulder in the cramped space, Scully hovering on the other side of the younger man. Mulder rolled over to his back, an obviously forced movement. His eyes were focused on a spot on the ceiling now, but still he didn’t respond to Scully’s inquiry of his status.

Scully saw the blood when he rolled over, immediately classified it as gunshot, upper right arm. She needed to get a closer look at it, make sure it wasn’t life threatening. Scully turned to her boss and commanded, “Get me all the hand towels and washcloths you have.”

She turned back to her partner and felt an incredible flood of guilt. She should have been nicer to him earlier. She should have listened to him, sided with him, stood by him. Instead she called him a kid, for all intents and purposes. Implied he was a whiny kid and then walked out on him when he needed her. Now he was injured, she still didn’t know how badly, was unresponsive to external stimuli, and she hadn’t even been able to say she was sorry.

Skinner was back, thrusting towels in her face. She took one, quickly raised her partner’s arm and released the pressure she’d been applying with her bare hand. She pushed the T-shirt sleeve out of the way, then wiped blood away with two clean swipes. She sighed in relief when she discovered it was a flesh wound only. The bullet had cut a path no more than an eighth of an inch deep in his upper right arm, stretching for about a two and a half to three inch length. She quickly wrapped the arm with a makeshift compress. But Scully was even more worried now at his lack of response. He seemed unaware of her ministrations. Unaware that she’d been talking with him softly ever since kneeling down next to him. Unaware of their boss hovering by his side. Was there another injury she hadn’t seen?

“Mulder, please, can you say something? We’re getting a bit worried here.”

Scully saw his eyes close, blink actually, in a lazy gesture. Then he turned his head towards her, swallowed, licked his lips as if he were preparing to speak. But instead he turned his head to look up at their boss and said raggedly, “Sir, I think it’s pretty safe to assume he knows where you are. Do you think we can call in Delano’s people now?”

Mulder turned to his partner then and said, clear as could be, “I feel like shit, Scully. I think I’m gonna sleep for a bit. Tell me when it’s time to wake up.” And then he closed his eyes and was gone.

“Scully, is he all right? Is he going to be all right?”

Scully turned to their boss and tried to dredge up a smile to reassure the man. His concern was obvious and in a small part of her mind, Scully contrasted this with the anger of only minutes ago. “Yes, sir, he’s fine. He’ll be fine. It’s only a flesh wound. He might not even need stitches.”

“But …. then why is he unconscious?”

“Actually, sir, he isn’t. You heard him, he’s just sleeping.”

She didn’t seem to be joking. She was completely serious. And she didn’t seem the least bit worried. So Skinner decided to trust her and stood up, leaving them there — picked his way through the shattered glass door to the front of the hotel, where police cars and ambulances were now pulling to a stop. It was time to make this official. Mulder was right, it was time to call in Delano and his people.

Monday, 8:38 a.m. Dallas, Hospital

Scully was so tired of hospitals. Sick and tired of them. What irony. Sick of hospitals. The seat she’d been sitting in was hard and cold. One would think it would have warmed at least slightly in the forty minutes she’d been stuck in it. She was waiting patiently outside the emergency room, idly cataloging the injuries and hurts of those around her. The more she tried to think about something else, the more consumed she became with this game of ‘What’s the matter with that one?’

Scully shook her head at her own obsessive behavior and stood, deciding that pacing might help to warm her. Scully wasn’t too worried about Mulder, but every minute that passed now made her wonder if perhaps she hadn’t missed something about her partner’s condition. This seemed to be taking way too long.

She took a turn when she reached the end of the hall and then froze, seeing the doctor who’d been with Mulder standing at the other end. He was looking around the waiting room, obviously searching for her. Scully started towards him quickly and called to him when she was within ten feet. “Doctor Akers?”

He turned towards her at hearing her voice and Scully was relieved by the relaxed smile. Good, she hadn’t made a mistake with Mulder’s condition, after all.

“Where’s Mulder?”

Akers had an odd expression on his face, but still hadn’t lost the smile. In fact, it seemed to have gotten bigger.

“Well, Agent Scully, he’s fine. He’s still in the emergency room, actually. We’re …. well, to tell the truth, we’ve never seen anything like it. He seems to be asleep and he’s being quite stubborn about waking up. Never batted an eye when I stitched him up. He did need eight stitches for the wound in the upper arm. He had a bump on his head and I thought there might be a chance of concussion so we sent him for X-rays. No problem there. But he just … doesn’t seem to want to wake up. There’s really no reason to keep him here. He’s all yours if you can get him up and out on his own.”

Scully realized her eyebrows had climbed during the doctor’s explanation, and consciously forced herself to relax, closed her eyes for a moment to reflect. Leave it to Mulder. She smiled fondly then and turned her gaze back to Akers.

“I think I can wake him. Can I see him now?”

Akers nodded and gestured behind him, saying merely, “Of course,” then headed off into one of the other rooms. Scully walked in slowly, noted the smiling nurse off to the right, then saw her partner sprawled on an examining table to the left. His head was tossed back, mouth open, snores emanating softly. His right arm was wrapped in white bandages from elbow to shoulder and lay along his side. His left leg was bent, knee hanging slightly off the table. They’d removed his shoes and both sat neatly on a chair to the right of the table. He still wore his running shorts, socks, and T-shirt, although the last was a bit tattered now around the right shoulder and arm, with blood dotting it sporadically. Scully grinned again at the shirt. The gift had been meant as a joke a couple years ago, but her partner had obviously worn it extensively.

Scully walked to his left side and laid her left hand on his arm. She put her right hand up to his forehead, stroked it lightly, then pushed the hair away from his face. He looked tired and she felt guilty about waking him, but it was time. She leaned over the table to speak by his ear.

“Hey, Mulder, you told me to tell you when it was time to wake up. Well, it’s time. I need you now. We have to get to the Bureau. Skinner’s there waiting for us.”

His eyelashes fluttered and his head moved slightly in her direction. Scully moved her right hand down to his arm and gripped his left hand in hers.

“Come on, Mulder. You had a nice nap, but it’s time to wake up now. Wake up.”

His eyes opened and searched her out, gradually focused on her. Scully adopted a matching smile to the one on her partner’s face. His voice was a bit gravelly when he spoke, but he was clear.

“Hey. What time is it?”

She laughed then, as she responded. “What time is it? It’s time to thank your lucky stars.”

She moved back from the bed to give him some room as he maneuvered and tried to ignore the quick look of disgust he shot her.

“It is now 8:52 a.m. We’re at Dallas General Hospital. You’ve already been cleared to leave. Skinner’s at the local Bureau waiting for us. There’s an officer out in the hall who’s been assigned to drive us there.”

Mulder was sitting on the edge of the table now, legs hanging loosely off the side. He turned his head to examine his arm, then sat up straight and rolled his shoulders. Scully saw him wince and again felt a stab of guilt.

“Mulder, about this morning. I’m sorry. I’m sorry I yelled at you.”

Mulder still felt like crap but at least he wasn’t so exhausted as he had been. He appreciated his partner’s concern, but he’d made his peace with his boss before the shit hit the fan that morning and he wasn’t about to hold this over his partner’s head. No need to make her feel guilty. There were already too many people feeling guilty over things they shouldn’t. He dredged up a grin and reached out for her hand, squeezing for a moment before dropping it again.

“Hey, don’t worry about it. You were right — we were acting like a couple of brats.”

Mulder slipped off the table gingerly, surprised by the soreness of just wakened muscles. Then he recalled his night in the cramped bathtub followed by a spurt across the room and his launch over the bed that ended with a crash on the floor. Actually, he was in pretty good shape considering. He reached his left hand up to the back of his head to feel the bump he’d acquired early that morning and then brought it around to his jaw. Both still ached — were taking turns in fact, alternating from back to front.

“You got any aspirin?”

Scully looked at her partner closely again, recalling what Akers had said about a bump the head. He did look like he had a headache, come to think of it.

“Mulder, what did you do to your head? Dr. Akers said he was concerned about a concussion. Did you hit it when you fell to the floor?”

She couldn’t understand why her partner started laughing all of a sudden. What could be funny about a crack on the head, after all?

“No, actually, a bathtub attacked me. I’ll tell you what, though, you get me drunk some night and I just might tell you about it. In the meantime, how about we get out of here?”

Monday, 10:21 a.m. Dallas, Bureau Office

Mulder had grabbed a quick shower and managed to change into a suit in the gym’s locker room at the local Bureau. He felt a bit more human now. Glancing at himself in a mirror, he decided he looked it as well. He ran fingers through still damp hair, grabbed his bag and headed out in search of his partner and boss. The morning was practically gone and they’d accomplished nothing. Well, that wasn’t entirely true. They were still alive. That had to count for something.

Mulder retraced his steps from twenty minutes before and finally found the small conference room they’d taken over. Skinner and Scully looked up when he knocked lightly on the already open door. Another man was in the room, sitting next to Skinner. He looked to be about Skinner’s age, his height, his build, hell, the man even seemed to have Skinner’s dour demeanor. But this man was black and had a mustache. He stood as Mulder entered, and Skinner stood as well, then turned to introduce the man.

“Agent Fox Mulder, this is SAC Harry Delano. Harry, Mulder’s the other one who saved my ass this morning. He and Scully are two of my best agents.”

Skinner faced his agent and asked, “How are you feeling, Agent Mulder?”

“I’m fine, sir. Thank you.”

Mulder was still reeling slightly at the praise, unused to hearing such words from his boss. He’d known the man trusted him and appreciated his talents. But such overt commendation was indeed unusual. Mulder cleared his throat, shifted his feet awkwardly, then decided it was time to get moving. There was way too much to do to waste time on unnecessary conversation. He addressed his comments to Skinner when he spoke.

“Sir, after reviewing the files last night, I made some notes on possible approaches for today. The first thing we have to do is arrange for your safety. I think it’s obvious that this guy will stop at nothing to get at you. We have to find a secure location so that Scully and I will be free to coordinate the investigation.”

He looked hard at his boss, understanding the frustration this course of action — or inaction on his own part — would cause, but silently willing him to do the right thing. The man stood with hands on hips, weight primarily resting on his right foot. He had that look of stubbornness on his face that he had worn a couple days ago when this all started. Mulder sent a silent prayer to the heavens that his boss’ reputation for common sense thinking would prevail. And it did. Mulder could tell the moment it happened. Skinner dropped his hands, sighed deeply, then nodded in resignation.

“Okay, Mulder. You’re right.” He turned to his old friend then. “Harry, can you help us here? I need a safe house. Transportation. A couple agents who you’re absolutely sure about — who can be trusted.”

Delano was already nodding.

“Of course, Walt. I’ll start arranging it immediately. We can keep it quiet. I’ll put my best people on it. The couple I have in mind have been with the Bureau less than ten years, so I can’t see any possible connection to the original case. And they’re both trustworthy — I’ve used them on sensitive cases in the past and they know what the word discretion means.”

Mulder closed the door to the conference room, then moved to the table and sank into a chair gratefully. He saw that the others were getting comfortable as well. He turned to Delano before speaking.

“Sir, we …”

Mulder was interrupted by the Dallas SAC.

“Call me Delano. I’ve never really been comfortable with ‘sir’. I leave that title to guys like Walt here.”

He smiled as he said it, glanced fondly at his friend, then gestured for Mulder to continue.

Mulder realized then that this man really was almost nothing like Skinner, contrary to the initial impression. He was relaxed and friendly, a smile hardly leaving his face, despite the stressful circumstances.

“All right. We need to make sure that no one but the two agents assigned to the case, AD Skinner, yourself, Scully and me know about the AD’s location. I’d prefer if the two agents weren’t told anything until absolutely necessary. The safe house should be arranged circuitously — making sure there’s no connection to AD Skinner or to Scully and me. The transportation should …”

“Mulder, I’ve arranged such things before. I think I can handle it.”

Delano’s words were spoken softly, kindly even, but still Mulder colored in embarrassment. He hadn’t intended to be condescending. He was used to a stream of consciousness soliloquy in such a situation and hadn’t even considered its affect on those in the room. He should have thought about who he was talking to. He should have considered it.

“I apologize, sir. Of course you have.”

Mulder found his gaze wandering to his partner’s. Scully smiled at him slightly, raised one eyebrow. It was enough to get him going again. He turned to his boss.

“It would be best if we can get you to the safe house immediately, but I would guess the NTSB would like to speak with you first. Perhaps SAC Delano could arrange for the meeting to be held here.”

Mulder glanced back at Delano, saw him nodding.

“I’ve already been in contact with them. The NTSB Agent in Charge is Madeleine Strickland. I’ve worked with her before. I filled her in a bit last night and she was willing to postpone the interview until today. She’s anxious to speak with you, though, Walt. My impression was she’d be here as soon as we called. Are you ready?”

Skinner nodded and replied, “Of course. I want to get it over with. I doubt I’ll be able to tell her much, though.”

Scully joined the conversation for the first time.

“Sir, it’s possible that you saw or heard something that might be important but you just don’t know it. And anyway, Mulder and I need to speak to her about the investigation. It’s best if it happens sooner than later. That way, we can get you somewhere safe more quickly.”

Skinner merely nodded, still uneasy about all the talk about keeping him safe. Would it be at the expense of more innocent lives?

“Walt, I’m going to set some things in motion. Why don’t you three stay here for now and I’ll check back as soon as I’ve spoken with Madeleine and arranged for the safe house?”

Skinner stood as Delano did and grabbed the man’s shoulder in a friendly gesture. Delano was much more demonstrative and seemed unembarrassed when he pulled Skinner into a quick hug. He turned to the two younger agents and said, “Someday, I’ll tell you about when your boss here saved my ass in ‘Nam. He’s the best now, he was the best then.” He slapped Skinner one more time on the arm and left the room, closing the door again behind him.

Skinner looked uncomfortable, but turned to his agents and said, in explanation, “We served together in the Corps. I told you we could trust him. I’ve trusted him with my life before. I’ll trust him now.”

Both Mulder and Scully nodded in understanding and Scully replied, “Yes, sir.”

It was more clear to Mulder now, this unwavering trust that Skinner had put in this man. He himself had never served in the Armed Forces but was aware of the camaraderie that developed between those who served together — who depended on one another in dangerous and life-threatening situations. It had to be much the same as his and Scully’s partnership. Mulder sighed internally and finally accepted the fact that Delano could be trusted. That only left a few hundred or so other possibilities to eliminate.

Mulder relaxed once again and raised one hand to his head. He had to find some aspirin soon. Then his stomach growled, quite loudly, reminding him that food had been a rarity of late. He glanced over to his partner to see a smirk on her face. He sourly looked at his watch, hoping lunch time was around the corner. Only 11:02 a.m. Almost. In the meantime, they had to make some plans. Mulder turned to his boss, saw the man was lost in thought, and decided this was too important to put off any longer.

“Sir, perhaps we can discuss our options.”

Skinner sat up straighter, nodded slightly to indicate agreement.

“There are three completely different streams of the case we need to investigate, as I see it. First is the collection of original bombings that took place in the 70’s. I believe enough of a link has been established to clearly demonstrate that there is a relationship to the death of the agents and the attack on you. A reinvestigation of those cases must be implemented to either identify the actual bomber if a mistake was made, or to determine whether there might be relatives, friends, or acquaintances of the bomber who might now be acting on his behalf.”

Both Scully and Skinner nodded, apparently agreeing so far.

“Secondly, we need to investigate the deaths of the eight agents with whom you served on the original case. We need to determine if these murders could only have been accomplished by someone with inside information, and if so, start developing an appropriate profile that will help us track him down. We’ll also be able to start running some computer searches of our own databases to determine potential suspects. Lastly, sir, we have to investigate this latest plane bombing. It’s perhaps our best hope of catching this guy. He had to have left a trail on this one. He had to have gotten access to records, access to secure areas of the airport, perhaps even access through employees. He had to have left a trail and we have a good chance of finding it if we act quickly.”

Mulder realized he’d been droning on for awhile in a somewhat pedantic manner and stopped to gage the reactions of his partner and boss. Scully was looking down at a pad of paper where she’d been making notes, and was nodding her head. Skinner was staring at Mulder, a look of intense concentration on his face. Mulder couldn’t guess what the man was thinking.

“Mulder, it seems to make sense to me. But if it is one of our own people, he’d know how to get this information and even access to the plane without leaving a trail. It’s part of what we do, after all.”

“Yes, sir, I understand that the difficulty in tracking it down will be significantly increased, but the trail will still be there. Nothing can be made to disappear completely.”

Skinner was surprised at just how adamant his agent sounded. He felt reassured by it somehow. He trusted Mulder, trusted that the man would solve this. He just hoped his agent would manage it before other innocents were killed.

“Okay, Mulder. What do you need from me?”

“Sir, I think we can do a credible job with three teams of four to five each. I would request twelve to thirteen agents in addition to Scully and myself.”

Mulder stood and walked over to his briefcase. They were still homeless after the excitement of the morning and their luggage lay stacked in the corner of the room. He pulled out his laptop computer and turned it on, while walking back to the table.

“I made a list last night of ten agents I trust explicitly and whom we can immediately rule out as being involved because of age, and the fact that they were otherwise occupied during one or more of the murders. We can run a few more checks, but I believe these ten to be in the clear. Also, they’re more than competent. I’ve worked with each before on various assignments.”

Mulder had pulled up the list of names and now angled the screen so his boss could see them. Pushed the computer across the table a bit for easier viewing. Five of them were with the VCS, the other five were scattered across the country. It would require some juggling to get them assigned to this quickly. Mulder watched as the older man leaned forward to review the list of names, narrowed his eyes, then breathed deeply and sat back in his seat again.

“Okay, Mulder. I can arrange it. That leaves another two to three agents.”

“Yes, sir. I was hoping that Scully would be able to suggest at least two who would be skilled in forensics and crime scene analysis — two she trusts. The other could come from Delano’s people. It would be nice to have a local person who’s familiar with the area.”

Mulder had moved the computer over to Scully and she was looking the list over. Her finger made its way down the screen, stopped briefly on a name she recognized, then moved on. Stopped, moved on.

“I can recommend a couple people. Two come to mind immediately. I think we can clear them quickly using the criteria Mulder established for these ten.”

Skinner nodded to them both, pleased that he had such competent agents to turn to in time of need.

“All right, Scully. Add their names to the list. When Harry comes back, I’ll arrange for him to assign another agent to the team. If you feel it necessary to run these names through any other checks, do it now. I’ll need to get things going immediately if we want these agents here in the next day.”

Mulder sat for a moment, pulled the computer close, scanned the names for the fifth or sixth time, then shook his head.

“I’ll attest to these ten, sir. They’re clear.”

Mulder turned to his partner then and said, “Scully, let’s do a preliminary check on your two. As long as we can clear them on at least one of the murders, we can assume they’re acceptable, too.” Turning back to his boss, he added, “But you can move on these now, sir. I’d like them here today or tonight, if possible.”

Delano chose that moment to knock and enter the room. Two men followed closely behind him.

“This is Agent Tom Chadwick and Agent Barry Henderson. I’ve assigned them to you, Walt.”

Mulder stood as Skinner did and suddenly felt like a Lilliputian in a land of giants. It wasn’t that these men were so much taller than he, only a couple inches at most. But, boy were they big. Broad. These two, plus Delano and Skinner could just about be the front defensive line on any pro football team. Mulder glanced over at his partner and saw her staring at Henderson. The man was certainly good looking, would probably even look fashionable in sweats. Mulder felt a little spurt of jealousy, then had to laugh at himself at the reaction. Scully looked back to him then and he saw the blush that painted her face an interesting shade of red when she realized her partner had watched her watching Henderson. His boss’ voice interrupted him from his reverie and he pulled his gaze back to Skinner.

“Thank you, Harry. I’m going to be calling in twelve agents to assist Mulder and Scully in the investigation. We need one more agent and were hoping you could recommend someone. It would be helpful if the agent was extremely familiar with the area.”

Delano nodded to him, said, “No problem. I can appoint someone immediately. There are several good possibilities. Now, Walt, with you out of the picture, who’ll be running things?”

Skinner looked at his old friend, suddenly wondering if he’d be offended by having Mulder in charge. He discarded the notion quickly.

“I’d like Mulder to be ASAC on this, with Scully his second in command. Mulder’s familiar with the entire case, spent a few years with the VCS, and he knows me.”

Mulder felt odd being talked about in this way, while he was present. He understood what was going through Skinner’s thoughts, and had been initially curious how the Dallas SAC would respond. He again felt honored at Skinner’s faith in his abilities. Mulder turned his head then towards Delano to gage his reaction. The man merely smiled and nodded. No hard feelings. Delano gestured for Chadwick and Henderson to leave the room, saying, “Wait outside the door for us. Make sure no one gets in who isn’t cleared through Agents Mulder or Scully.”

Delano waited for the two men to leave the room and then sat at the table comfortably.

“I’ve already arranged for local cell phones for you all. Mulder, Scully, if this room is all right with you, this can be your command center. I can arrange for offices if that’s necessary. Just tell me what you’ll need. And Walt, there’s a phone in the corner over there. There’s also a fax and internet port. There’s a firewall set up, so you can get out from here, but won’t be able to access our internal LAN. I can show you to another office where you can get LAN access if you need it. That should be sufficient to get you started on arranging for any agents to be reassigned to the team. Also, I connected with Madeleine Strickland with the NTSB. She’ll be here in about an hour. In the meantime, how about if I arrange for some lunch to be brought up?”

Forty-five minutes later, the remains of subs, fries, and sodas lay scattered amidst paper bags and napkins, covering a substantial portion of the table. Mulder was feeling content for the first time in hours. Not only had he eaten, but Scully had even tracked down some Tylenol for him. Skinner was in the corner on the phone, making the necessary arrangements to get twelve men and women presently scattered across the country to Dallas within the next twenty-four hours.

Mulder and Scully had been drafting their coordination strategy, making initial plans for their investigation. Scully was reviewing the files on the deaths of the eight agents yet again, and was now jotting down questions and tasks for the eventual forensics team. Mulder had his portable computer on the table in front of him and was compiling his own to do list. The coordination of this case would be challenging to say the least, considering the three diverse streams of the investigation. Mulder glanced at his watch and decided he had just enough time to touch base with Delano before the NTSB agent arrived. Mulder pushed back his chair and stood, stretching slightly. He then leaned close to his partner, so as not to disturb Skinner.

“I’m going to find out what arrangements Delano’s made for AD Skinner’s safety. I’ll be back in ten or fifteen minutes.”

Scully glanced at him briefly and nodded, then went back to her list. She’d already filled five pages with her compact flowing script and was still only on the fourth murder. She thought of them all as murders now, despite the fact that this was as yet unsubstantiated. But there was no doubt in her mind now. Not after the plane. Not after the attack this morning. It would be her job, along with the forensic team, to actually prove the murders.

Mulder exited the room and stopped abruptly outside the door. He realized he had no idea where Delano’s office was. He’d need to track down a floor plan soon. In the meantime, he’d have to ask for directions.

“Agent Chadwick, could you direct me to SAC Delano’s office?”

A quick four minute trip later he stood outside the man’s door, waiting for the secretary to show him in. When he was finally given the signal to enter, Mulder opened the door and started towards a chair in front of the man’s desk, recognizing the layout to be amazingly similar to Skinner’s office, but on a smaller scale. Any similarities ended there, however. Where Skinner’s office was starkly professional with no personal belongings whatsoever, Delano’s office was strewn with such items. Souvenirs, knick knacks, art work, pictures. Lots of pictures.

A couple steps inside the room, Mulder caught sight of an 8 x 10 inch framed photo, displayed proudly on top of a bookcase. In the photo were five men, smiling despite being covered head to toe in dirt and slime, perhaps even blood, dressed in jungle fatigues, rifles slung loosely over shoulders. A grinning Skinner had his right arm draped companionably across Delano’s shoulders. They all looked so young, so innocent. Impossibly innocent considering they had to have been in the jungles of Vietnam, surrounded by the havoc wrought by an unwelcome war.

Mulder sank quietly into the chair across from the desk, waiting for Delano to get off the phone. The man was smiling, and laughed occasionally in response to whatever was being said on the other end of the line. Mulder tried not to listen in, felt uneasy that he’d been made privy to this man’s personal conversation. He felt awkward and wanted nothing more than to head back to the waiting area until the man was done.

Mulder was used to walls between himself and his boss. Walls of professionalism that were rarely broached. Oh, occasionally there would be a door that would open to allow brief entrance into his boss’ personal world. But the door also allowed for a rapid exit. It was a relationship that was well-defined, that Mulder inherently understood and appreciated. But this man, Delano, seemed to have no walls. Not even a damned fence. And it was making Mulder nervous.

The older man was smiling now, and gestured lazily with his right hand, making it clear that he was trying to wrap the conversation up. His words were scattered with ‘honeys’ and ‘sweethearts’ and Mulder understood then that this was his wife on the other end. He finally said his good-byes and hung up the phone with his left hand, then focused his attention on Mulder.

“Sorry about that Agent Mulder. My wife calls every day. You’d think she’d get enough of me at home. But you didn’t hunt me down to talk about my wife. What can I do for you?”

“Well, sir, I was hoping you could fill me in on what arrangements have been made to get AD Skinner to a safe house.”

Delano smiled again and stood, then moved to sit in the chair next to Mulder.

“I have a location outside of UT-Arlington that I believe will serve. I’ve already cleared it through Ft. Worth PD. No one in the Bureau knows about it except me. I’ve made arrangements with the chief of the FWPD to provide transportation. He’s got three undercover teams waiting to hear from me. Two teams will get Walt and my men to the safe house while the other team provides misdirection for anyone who might be watching. I’ve arranged for a secure land line for emergencies. I’m keeping this completely off the official books at this end. I don’t see anything that could possibly give us away. Can you see anything I’ve missed?”

Mulder considered every facet of the arrangements carefully, attempting to find a break in security. It seemed to be a good plan. As good as was possible, all things considered. It should keep Skinner safe.

“No, sir. It sounds good. I’d like to know where the safe house is, though, sir. And I’ll need the number to the secure line.”

Delano nodded and stood as his phone rang.

“Of course, Agent Mulder. Hang on a second, will you?”

He grabbed the phone with his left hand and barked “Delano.” For the first time, Mulder saw some of the tough, no nonsense attitude that he’d so often considered to be his boss’ forte. Perhaps these two were more alike than he’d originally thought. He saw Delano nod, heard him say, “We’ll be right there.” Watched as the man hung up the phone and turned back to him, smile once again in place.

“That was the security desk. Agent Strickland’s here. I’m having her brought to your command center. We’ll meet her there.”

Mulder nodded, rose from the chair, and then preceded Delano to the door at the man’s invitation. They arrived at the command center just as Madeleine Strickland did. Delano dismissed the agent who’d acted as her guide and warmly welcomed the woman, shaking her hand in both of his.

Strickland looked to be in her early fifties. She was short and slight, reminding Mulder of Scully, or perhaps even more so, of her mother. The shoulder length brown hair spotted lightly with gray further cemented that thought in his head. Mulder shook the woman’s hand when introduced, had to insist that no, really, ‘Mulder’ was just fine.

Delano pushed open the door to the conference room and waved Agent Strickland in first, then Mulder. He then closed the door soundly behind him, knowing that the upcoming conversation was one not to be shared by anyone outside this room.

“AD Walter Skinner, Agent Dana Scully, I’d like you to meet NTSB Agent in Charge Madeleine Strickland. Maddy’s the one to thank for getting you out of there so fast last night, Walt.”

Skinner had stood when the three entered the room and now walked around the table to shake the woman’s hand.

“Thank you, Ms. Strickland. It was appreciated.”

“Actually, Mr. Skinner, I was a bit hesitant to let you off the hook last night. I have to admit that it’s not often we have an Assistant Director of the Bureau involved in one of our investigations. Anyway, I’d like to ask you some questions if you don’t mind. We’ve made quite a bit of progress, but I have a feeling you’ll be able to fill in some motivation details we seem to be lacking at present.”

Skinner nodded and gestured to a chair, then walked around the table so he was across from her. Mulder realized that the table was clear of the mess left after lunch and he silently acknowledged that he owed his partner one for that favor. He sank into the chair next to her and shot her a quick smile of thanks. He turned to look at Agent Strickland again, wondering just how helpful she’d be. Decided to try to get the latest news on the bombing, if possible.

“Excuse, me, ma’am. Could you possibly give us an update on the investigation?”

She turned to Mulder then and nodded before starting her summary.

“As far as we’ve determined thus far, an incendiary device was placed under the floor of seat 18A. the device was triggered initially when the plane climbed above 15,000 feet. It actually blew when the plane began its’ descent and dropped below that elevation. Because of the fact that it wasn’t in the passenger cabin, but rather under the floor, it effectively took out half the support structure for the seats in that row, on that side of the aircraft. Also, due to its closeness to the fuselage, it ripped a hole approximately 3 foot by 5 foot in the side of the plane and sheared off four bolts connecting the primary starboard wing spar to the fuselage. When the passenger cabin lost pressure, the seat was easily ripped out of the floor and pulled out the opening in the side, killing both Kirsten and Howard Engleton. Miraculously, no one else was killed as a direct result of the explosion. There were several broken limbs due to the turbulence induced by the temporary loss of control, some contusions, one concussion. All-in-all we were amazingly lucky. There was one other death. An elderly woman had a heart attack. She couldn’t be revived.”

She completed her summary of events and looked closely at Skinner. It was obvious to her that he was shaken, even now. It was time to learn what he knew.

“If Harry is right, then this happened because someone was gunning for you. I’d like to know who or at least why. What did you do to make him willing to take out an entire planeful of people?”

Skinner laughed harshly, shook his head, then stared at her tiredly.

“I wish I had something to tell you. All I know is that this man is responsible for the deaths of eight agents, eight men with whom I worked more than twenty years ago. And now he’s after me. But I don’t even know why and I don’t know how to stop him.”

Scully heard the exhaustion dragging at his voice, sensed the frustration underlying it.

“Sir, we don’t know yet. But I guarantee we will. We will find this man. We’ll find him and make him pay for what he’s done.”

Monday, 4:27 p.m. Dallas Bureau, Command Center

He had been pacing in the cramped space for more than half an hour and it was driving Scully crazy. Along the length of the table, around the corner, then either a turn and back the way he’d come, or sometimes he’d complete the entire circuit. There seemed to be no particular reason for when he chose to do the complete circle, but every time he walked past her chair there was a swoosh of air that pulled at the papers in front of her, forcing her to rest her hands on top for a second until the effects of the whirlwind had passed.

“Mulder, please.”

He stopped in his tracks and turned, a questioning look on his face.

“What?”

Scully had to take a deep breath, count to three.

“Could you sit for a while? Or at least stand still?”

He was preparing to answer when the phone rang. Mulder took two economical steps and jerked the receiver up, brought it to his ear.

“Mulder.”

Scully watched his expression, his body language, and determined that all was well. She tried to confirm this from the cryptic words her partner spoke for his side of the conversation.

“Yes….” He heaved a relieved sigh. “Okay…… No, only Scully or me.” He looked over to her at this. “Every two hours, that’s right…… Yes.” And he hung up.

“Scully, that was Officer Handley, one of the four who dropped off AD Skinner. They’re all set. No one followed that they’re aware of. They’ve set up a check in procedure for every two hours through the FWPD’s office. Also are coordinating with Arlington PD to have regular drive-bys set up. I’ve confirmed that only you or I can change the procedure or authorize contact beyond emergency situations. FWPD will notify us at least once a day of how Skinner’s doing and relay any messages.”

Mulder couldn’t help but feel relieved. He’d been convinced that something would happen when he and Scully weren’t there. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust the agents and officers who’d been assigned to the case, it was just that he didn’t trust them like he did himself and his partner. At least now they could focus on other aspects of the case for awhile.

Mulder put one hand up to the back of his head, feeling again for the bump. He knew it was too early for it to have disappeared, but he kept hoping. Because if the bump would go away, maybe the headache would. He sighed again, feeling a little bit of tension seep out, then rolled his head, then his shoulders. God, he was tired. And it wasn’t even five, yet.

He looked back at his partner to find her staring at him. What had he done now?

“What?”

Scully merely smiled at him, said, “I have some more Tylenol. Looks like you could use it.”

Thank God for those idiots who gave him a partner like Scully. They thought they were being clever, so shrewd. That they would assign him a scientist who would debunk his work and theories, eventually giving them the ammunition they needed to shut him down. But what they’d given him instead was a lifeline. An anchor to reality.

“Yeah, that would be nice.”

She stood from the table and stretched slightly, realizing from the cramped muscles just how long it had been that she’d been working without moving. Suddenly all that pacing of her partner’s looked more inviting. She rummaged through her doctor’s bag and quickly came up with the right container.

“I know we were planning on having a meeting tonight with the agents who’ve been arriving, but maybe we should postpone it — wait until everyone’s arrived so we only have to go over things once.”

She wanted to give him an out, let him get some rest. He understood this and appreciated her all the more for it. Loved her for worrying about him in this way.

“No, Scully, we’ve wasted too much time as it is. Look, now that we know Skinner’s all right for a while, I’d really like to go look at the plane. Madeleine said she and her team would be there all day. It’s a few hours until we’re meeting back here for the briefing so there’s time. Would you like to come?”

Scully considered it and then looked back at the papers spread on the table in front of her. There was too much to do here to coordinate activities of the forensics team. She couldn’t manage it just now.

“No, I can’t. I need to complete this before the briefing tonight. I’ll stay. Make sure you have the local cell phone with you, though, and keep me updated.”

Mulder nodded, slightly disappointed but understanding that her task in this investigation would perhaps be the most difficult. It would be up to Scully and her team to seek out long hidden evidence to not only prove murder, but hopefully, provide some clue as to the killer’s identity.

“Okay, I’m outta here. Oh, Delano’s got a couple of his agents working with the Fort Worth PD on the shooting this morning. He’ll be calling with an update in a while.”

He grabbed up his overcoat, moved his right hand to feel for his weapon out of habit.

“Mulder.”

He stopped and turned towards his partner before leaving the room, eyebrows raised.

“Try to remember to eat something. And …. be careful.”

Scully didn’t want to sound like a nagging mother, but she was still worried. She kept thinking of the plane hitting the runway hard, the gaping hole in it’s side. Kept remembering the shattered glass from the door that morning. This guy might just shift his sights now that Skinner was safely out of the picture. She saw by her partner’s smile that he understood.

“I will, Scully. See you by eight.”

Monday, 5:21 p.m. Dallas-Ft. Worth International Airport

He’d taken the rental car and kept finding his eyes drawn to the back seat where small stains of black dotted the upholstery. Blood. It reminded him once again that the guy was still out there somewhere — hunting Skinner. Mulder turned his eyes to the road once more, but now swept them around him, searched the mirrors at the side, the rearview, making sure no one was following. He seemed to be in the clear.

He took the right turn off and pulled into the airport, choosing the short-term parking. He made his way quickly to the security office, recognizing a couple of the faces from the previous evening. Madeleine Strickland had already cleared the way for him. Had, in fact, left instructions for him to be brought out immediately when he arrived.

The sight of the plane, taking up most of the far hanger, was staggering. It threw him back immediately to thoughts of Max Fennig. If this pilot had been just slightly less experienced, slightly less lucky, there would have been rows and rows of covered bodies here, also.

The plane sat on props to keep it elevated and level, its shattered landing gear laying below it on the ground. Approximately halfway down its length, it had a hole ripped out of the side just below the midplane curve, with a larger sign of devastation below that corresponding to the torn off wing. The wing had been retrieved and lay below the propped up plane. Mulder once again was amazed that so much devastation could occur with such little loss of life.

He saw the NTSB agents clustered to the right around a table and made his way towards them.

“Madeleine, hello.”

She turned, initially surprised, then smiled warmly.

“Hello, Agent Mulder. My team and I were just reviewing parts of the retrieved device. It hasn’t been easy, as you might imagine. Luckily, most of the stray pieces from the explosion landed in an empty field.”

Mulder wondered briefly if she was including Kirsten and Howard Engleton as part of the stray pieces. Best not to ask.

“Will we be able to take control of them soon?”

It was standard procedure for the Bureau Labs to handle evidence from such accidents. Mulder knew they’d get the evidence eventually. He just wanted it now.

“Yes, I don’t see any problem with that. SAC Delano already authorized me to sign it over to you personally.”

Mulder was a bit surprised by this, but also relieved that he wouldn’t have to deal with red tape and bureaucratic hassles. He’d have to thank Delano for this piece of foresight.

“Do you think one of your agents could show me the plane? It would help to have the appropriate context.”

“Of course. I’ll do it myself.”

She turned to the man on her right and gave instructions to the team, then started walking towards the plane.

“I’ll take you inside. It’s stable. There was remarkably little damage structurally with the exception of the gear and the wing.”

They clambered over and around pieces of detached plane and eventually came to a set of rough aluminum portable stairs.

The inside of the plane was more shocking than the outside. Stray pieces of luggage and carry-on items had long since been removed. But the oxygen masks still hung from the ceiling of the cabin. Overhead compartment doors were open, with several hanging by one hinge alone. But what got him most was the smell — a smell associated with violent crime scenes for which he was quite familiar. But all magnified here. It wasn’t just one person’s fear, sweat, vomit, blood — it was close to two hundred’s. And it was overwhelming. He felt the sweat start at his forehead, then trickle down the side of his face, more down his back. There was no air circulation in the plane, nothing to chase away the smell of terror.

It took a moment for him to collect himself, then he followed after the NTSB AIC, shedding his overcoat along the way.

Long before he got to row 18 he saw the devastation. The destruction wrought by the bomb placed under the floor. The entire row of seats was missing. The seats of the row in front were angled. It was obvious that the bolts had given way at the end close to the wall, that the row of seats had been pulled diagonally as the sudden pressure differential caused a suction that grabbed hold at 15,000 feet. Mulder tried to imagine the terror of those sitting in the row, scrambling for handholds, footholds — anything to keep them from being pulled out into thin air. Failed. It was beyond imagination.

“Jesus.”

It was the only response he could manage.

“I know it looks bad. But like I said, compared to other in-air explosions, this was mild. In fact, one thing we’ve wondered is if the bomber only intended to take out AD Skinner, leaving the rest of the plane intact. It could be that the damage to the wing spar that impacted the engines was a fluke. He might not have meant to take down the plane at all.”

Mulder thought about it carefully, tried to review what he knew about the previous bombings as well as the murder of the eight agents. She could be right. The original bombings never resulted in more than two deaths at any time, usually only one, although the bombs were almost always placed in laboratory or high usage areas. Was it a fluke that more people weren’t killed then or was it intentional?

“Could you show me where the bomb was placed? From below?”

Mulder could see through the floor, see the compartment underneath. He needed to know what was down there — how the bomb was placed and why under the floor instead of directly by the seat.

“Sure, let’s go back the way we came. We can get access from the side of the aircraft.”

The underbody appeared to be somehow less affected, despite the destruction caused by the violently disengaged wing. Mulder’s psychologist brain told him this was due to the depersonalization possible when no reminders of the people impacted were present.

Madeleine gestured towards debris on the floor, saying, “We’re still cataloging. Haven’t gotten to the smaller pieces yet. Careful where you step.”

She brought him as close as was possible to the actual location where the bomb had been placed, then gestured up to the ceiling. The passenger cabin was clearly visible from this view.

“You can see that he knew exactly where your man would be sitting. There would have been no doubt that it would take out the entire row of seats. The bolts went immediately — weren’t designed with those types of loadings in mind. Like I told you before, though, he might not have planned on the loss of the engines or the wing. Although you can see from the other side that the location of the spar fastening to the body is obvious, it probably seemed to be far enough away from the directional blast that he thought he was in the clear. He didn’t take into account the transference of dynamic loading in that instance from the skin and latitudinal members to the spar. It acted like a sledge hammer pounding on the bolts — not from the top but the side. So several were sheared off then and there. As far as the engines are concerned, he ended up taking out several of the fuel lines, effectively cutting off power to the two inner engines on either side.”

She shook her head again as she looked around the inside of the underbody. “Why the whole thing didn’t blow then and there is a mystery. Boeing sure can build them right.”

Mulder wasn’t completely sure he’d caught all the explanation but did understand one thing — their bomber was either unaware of the engineering ramifications of the placement of his bomb, or he was completely aware and just didn’t care about taking out two hundred people in an effort to get just one.

He looked around the underbody, trying to identify all possible means of entry.

“Who has access to this part of the plane prior to flight?”

“Unfortunately, it’s a long roster. The mechanics, the luggage handlers, the food suppliers, …. the list goes on. Also, on this flight they were carrying some commercial packages, so the loaders would have also had access. It’s always difficult to narrow the field to a manageable number of suspects to investigate based on possible access alone. That’s why motivation is so important. It gives us some insight so we can narrow the possibilities.”

Mulder was frustrated. He’d hoped there would be some reasonable number of suspects at the Las Vegas end whom they could haul in for questioning immediately. It now sounded as if this would not be a practical approach. He turned to the woman and nodded, gesturing to the entryway.

“I think I’ll head back to the Bureau. Any evidence that can be released now, I’ll take with me.”

“Of course, I can arrange it.”

Mulder took a last look around, glanced once more up through the hole into the passenger compartment. He felt terrible for the little girl and her father, but couldn’t help the relief that flooded him once again at the fact that Skinner had survived.

His thoughts then turned to his partner and he realized he wanted to get back to the Bureau and bounce some ideas off her.

Monday, 7:46 p.m. Dallas Bureau, Command Center

Scully felt the swoosh of air at her back before she processed the click of the latch or heard the rustling signifying someone’s entrance into the room. She generally hated sitting with her back to the door, but she just hadn’t managed to find the energy to move since she’d spread out her files earlier in the day. She didn’t have to see behind her, though, to know that her partner had returned. She smiled when his voice confirmed her guess.

“Hey, Scully, what’s up?”

She turned in the chair then to face him, swiveled her body to the right, then leaned her head back to look up at him. He had a box in his arms that he set on the table carefully, sliding it towards the middle. She took in his appearance as well as mood and surmised that he had about had it for the day. She wished again that they’d decided to postpone the briefing scheduled for that night. She was long past exhausted herself and at least she had had a decent nights sleep and hadn’t been shot just the day before.

“Not much. Nothing from the hotel this morning. I don’t think we’ll learn much there. We’ve had nine agents check in so far. I sent them off to the hotel down the street to check in — where by the way, we also have rooms — and told them to be back here at eight. I expect the rest of them to arrive sometime later tonight. AD Skinner really moved mountains to get them here so fast.”

Her partner nodded, pulled out the chair next to her and flopped into it, head dropping to hang over the seat back awkwardly. It looked incredibly uncomfortable to Scully. It must have worked for him, though, because he closed his eyes and seemed to drift off.

“Mulder, we still have two team members to assign before the meeting. Do you have any thoughts on where we should put Liu or Khalak?”

Mulder stirred, opened his eyes and swiveled his head towards her.

“Yeah, after seeing the plane and talking with Madeleine some more, I definitely want an extra person on that team. Let’s put Khalak on it. He has the investigative background for it. How about if we put Liu on the original bombings? As I recall, she has a technical background that might help.”

Scully nodded, murmured, “Mechanical Engineering degree from University of Florida” and continued jotting notes on the pad in front of her. She turned her head towards her partner then and summarized.

“So by my count that makes four agents investigating the plane bombing, five on the original bombing case, and the other four on the agent’s murders, with our two forensics people being assigned to the murder case and the original bombing case.”

He had his eyes closed again, but she could tell he was paying attention, listening and absorbing her words.

“That’s right, but several of them will be working across teams. We’ll develop a matrix of dependencies. We need to make sure nothing slips through the cracks just because the right people aren’t talking to each other.”

She could hear the exhaustion dragging at his words. Hell, she wasn’t much better. Suddenly, the thought of coffee took root. Took root and blossomed into a full-fledged obsession.

“Mulder, we have seven or so minutes. Let’s go get some coffee.”

He laughed out loud, recognizing words spoken by an addicted caffeine junky. But it sounded pretty good to him, too. Mulder forced his eyes open and dragged himself out of the chair. Scully was already standing, hand on the door, ready to search out the black sludge they were passing off as coffee here.

“Come on, Mulder. I know you’re not really that old and tired.”

He grinned at her, cited a line from one of his favorite movies in an odd Bogartly fashion, “It ain’t the age, sweetheart, it’s the mileage.”

Her laughter filled the room and suddenly Mulder found that the night ahead didn’t seem quite so dark and foreboding.

Monday, 8:03 p.m. Dallas Bureau, Conference Room

The larger conference room down the hall from their command center held eleven of their thirteen agents, Mulder, Scully, and SAC Delano. The remaining two agents were due into the airport later that night. Mulder deferred to Delano, gesturing for the older man to begin the briefing. The various agents had formed smaller groups of two to four and stood scattered around the room, speaking to one another softly.

Delano walked to the head of the conference room where the AV equipment sat and turned to take in those in the room. His commanding presence was enough to let everyone know it was time to get started. A moment later, agents had located seats and quieted.

“I appreciate that you must be curious as to why you’ve been assigned here on such short notice. I recognize it is an unusual procedure, but the circumstances are also unusual and warranted fast action.”

The agents were riveted by Delano’s words, recognized that they were on the verge of being let in on something big. Most had already confirmed with others in the room their connection to either Mulder or Scully, so were now waiting to here what these two had gotten involved in that was so big as to require an AD of the Bureau to pull strings to have them reassigned on such short notice.

“My name is Harry Delano and I am the SAC here. However, I am not running this case. Agents Mulder and Scully are. I will leave them to explain the details and will say only that I am here to facilitate and expedite your requests. This case is important to me for personal reasons as well as professional. One of my men was murdered because of it and a good friend is presently at risk. If I can help in any way, I’ll do it.”

He stepped back then and gestured to Mulder and Scully to take over. Mulder walked to the same spot Delano had stood, put his coffee on the edge of a slide projector stand, and crossed arms in front of him. He took a moment to reflect and order his thoughts before starting.

“The situation is this. Assistant Director Skinner is presently the target of a killer who has already murdered eight agents over the past four years.”

Mulder paused a moment to allow the men and women seated in the room to absorb this new information.

“The men who were murdered, as well as AD Skinner, worked together on a bombing case in 1976. We are certain there is a connection to that case. Additionally, you might have heard about the little incident last night involving a plane from Las Vegas.”

Mulder could see the eyes darting back and forth across the room. Evidently several of the agents had already made that connection.

“AD Skinner was on that flight and was the intended target.”

The murmurings were louder at this news and Mulder again gave them a moment to take in the fact that one of their own was a target. And not just one of their own, but an AD.

“He was also attacked this morning in a hotel outside of Fort Worth. The AD is safe, for now. But it is our job to identify who this killer is and whether he was responsible for the original bombings in the 70’s. And, of course, catch him before he strikes again.”

His eyes swept the room. He was pleased at the obvious concern and attention showing on the faces in front of him.

“I’m ASAC on this and Agent Scully is my second in command. You’ve been chosen because either Agent Scully or myself know you personally.”

He remembered the agent Delano had appointed and quickly added, “….or SAC Delano does.”

“Security on this is maximal. No discussions with press, with family or friends, not even with colleagues. You are not to speak to anyone — anyone — off this team unless you are cleared by me or Scully.”

He paused and looked at each agent, attempting to enforce by will alone his intentions.

“We have two more people coming in later tonight, but in the meantime, Agent Scully and I will be giving you your assignments and briefing the teams. Agent Scully?”

Scully glanced again at the pad to refresh her memory of the assignments. She’d been staring at them for most of the afternoon, but still needed the reassurance. It was times like these that she envied her partner his eidetic memory.

“Team 1 will focus on the plane bombing from last night as well as the shooting this morning. Agents Dowd, Khalak, Mayne, and Wenner will be working this team. You will report and interface directly with Agent Mulder. Team 2 will work the original bombing case and is comprised of Agents Liu, Mander, McCulley, Rabideau, and Smith. Agent Mander will act as team leader. Team 3 will investigate the deaths of the eight men who served with AD Skinner on the original bombing case. Agents Knight, Lewis, Lin and Shalin will report directly to me. We’ve compiled initial summaries to get you started this evening. Agent Mander will meet with ASAC Mulder and myself tonight to lay out our strategy for each team. We will reconvene here tomorrow morning promptly at 7:30 a.m., at which time individual assignments will be made.”

Scully reviewed her notes once again to ensure she hadn’t left anything out, then turned to her partner to signal she was finished. He had been standing with his left arm wrapped around his chest, his right elbow propped on top. His right hand pulled at his chin, occasionally running past his left jaw. Scully could see the slight bruise from this morning and guessed that it was still painful.

He glanced up after the moment’s silence, realizing he was on once again. He dropped his arms, placed hands on hips, causing his suit jacket to flare out behind him, then faced the room once more.

“Read over the summaries before tomorrow, but get a good night’s sleep. It’ll probably be the last one you’re likely to get in the next few days.”

He nodded in dismissal and turned back to Scully. She looked tired and he regretted that they still had to meet with Jake Mander tonight. He wanted nothing more than to climb into bed himself.

He sensed movement to his left and turned to find Jake there. Mulder smiled and reached out his hand to the older man.

“Hi Jake. Sorry to take you away from Elizabeth.”

The two men shook and Mander responded, “That’s okay, Mulder. Sounds like you have your hands full on this one.”

Mulder turned to include his partner in the conversation.

“Agent Dana Scully, this is Agent Jake Mander. We go way back. Jake was in the VCS for quite a while. Left just before I did.”

Scully smiled at the man and shook the offered hand.

“Does this mean I can finally hear about your early days of fame from someone who actually knows the truth, Mulder?”

Mander laughed and slapped Mulder on the arm playfully, then responded, “Agent Scully, I have stories about this boy that would give you night terrors. Actually, I have enough blackmail material to keep me in new cars for the next twenty years.”

Mulder was saved from responding by the arrival of SAC Delano. He wiped the sarcastic smirk from his face, sent the snide remark to the nether regions, and turned serious in a heartbeat.

“Sir.”

“Mulder, Scully, be sure you let me know if I can help in any way. I’m heading back to my office for a while and I’ll be here early tomorrow. I’ll try to make myself as available as possible. Also, please do me a favor and keep me informed. Especially about how Walt’s doing.”

Scully responded for both of them.

“Yes, sir, we will. And thank you for all your help.”

Monday, 9:52 p.m. Dallas Bureau, Command Center

The headache was back with a vengeance and all of a sudden it was accompanied by a sharp pain in his stomach. Mulder recalled Scully’s words of wisdom earlier and wished he’d taken heed. He’d forgotten to eat and now it was heading towards 10 p.m. His headache was probably partly due to lack of food. He looked across the table to his partner and wondered if she had eaten tonight. What was he thinking? This was logical, eminently responsible and completely capable Scully. He wondered briefly if he should even bring it up, then decided what the hell.

“Hey, Scully.”

She glanced up from the files spread in front of her and Mander, distractedly, one eyebrow raised.

“Did you have any dinner?”

He tried to read the quick changes in expression that crossed her features and failed utterly. She seemed to be wrestling with something, whether irritation or some other emotion he wasn’t sure.

“Scully?”

She sighed heavily then and looked chagrined.

“Actually, I haven’t and I’m absolutely starved. After giving you a hard time earlier, I wasn’t about to bring it up.”

He laughed then and noticed Jake watching the interaction. The man entered the conversation then for the first time.

“Look, why don’t you two head out? There’s no need for you to be here. I’m playing catch up with these files. I’ll finish up and meet you here fifteen minutes early tomorrow so we can do some last minute coordination.”

It was too inviting an offer to pass up. Mulder looked to his partner to be sure she wasn’t objecting, then stood quickly.

“Great. Thanks, Jake. We’ll see you at 7:15 here tomorrow. Here’s the keys to the evidence cabinet and the room. Lock it all up when you’re done.”

Mulder had already put on his jacket, stuffed papers and computer in his briefcase, and was now reaching for his overcoat. Scully decided the man must really be hungry. She’d seen him grimace when he stood and decided to make sure she checked him out before he turned in. The arm could be giving him trouble, or it might still be the head. She turned to the man still sitting at the table and touched him lightly on the arm, saying, “Thanks. We’ll see you tomorrow.”

“No problem.”

Mulder had the door open for her, stood against it, in fact, waiting for her to exit the room before him. She smiled at him as she passed and asked, “This half hour, too?”

He looked confused for a moment, then smiled finally as he remembered the comment he’d made to her in the airport the day before about being a gentlemen for this half hour. Trust Scully to have just the right barb for the occasion.

“Nah, Scully. I’m just so tired I need the door to keep me standing upright.”

He received a dig in the ribs for the remark, but felt it well worth it. The lighthearted banter had been hard to come by over the past few months.

They decided to take the car since they weren’t really sure how far they’d have to drive to find someplace open so late. If all else failed, there was a McDonald’s down the road. Scully prayed all else wouldn’t fail.

Mulder had his left hand out to grab the driver’s door handle, and held the key loosely in his right. An inch from the handle he froze, called out to his partner, “Stay back, Scully!”

It sat boldly on the driver’s seat, with a note attached. He couldn’t read the note from his angle, but he didn’t really feel like hanging around long enough to try.

“Scully, run!”

He turned as quickly as he could and sprinted a good five to six car lengths away. He started angling to the right then to meet up with his partner. He saw clearly that the color had drained from her face as they came back together. She was breathing hard, chest heaving, mouth open slightly. He realized he was in the same condition. A drop of sweat made its way down the center of his back, sending a chill up his spine. They had to get farther away in case the bomb was on a timer or remote control.

“Come on, Scully, let’s head to the exit at least and call it in to Delano and to SWAT. They can get a bomb retrieval unit out.”

She nodded and preceded him to the doorway, watched as he took out the cellular and made the call. Both briefcases lay on the ground by their feet. Scully leaned against the wall, watching the car carefully, as if waiting for it to blow up in front of their eyes.

Mulder finished his call and joined her, leaned his head back to rest against the concrete block of the parking garage. His stomach growled then, loudly and for an extended period, reminding him once again and quite soundly that the needs of the body and the needs of the psyche were two very different things. His embarrassment was arrested suddenly when an almost matching growl, but somehow more dainty, joined in.

When they arrived, the SWAT team couldn’t understand why in the world the two FBI agents were grinning. They wrote it off as hysteria.

Thirty-eight minutes later, Captain Harold Sawner yelled over to them.

“Agents Mulder and Scully. You’re clear to come over now.”

In his hand he held a piece of paper loosely by the corner. As Mulder and Scully approached, he held it up so they could both read it. It looked handwritten at first glance, but it quickly became obvious that the writing was too symmetrical, too even. It had been printed out on a laser printer and was written in a script font. It was unsigned.

Hope you liked my little joke. Don’t worry, I don’t care about you. You know who I want. But don’t get in my way.

Mulder took a deep breath, tried to figure out what it meant, tried to discern the ramifications. He turned to the Chief, eyebrows raised, hoping the man could clarify at least the joke part.

“It wasn’t really a bomb. Looked damned convincing at first glance, though. Actually, at second glance, too. But it just had some nice flashing lights and a countdown pad. You probably didn’t even see that. It was connected to the door handle so that if the door were unlocked, a countdown clock would start at 1 minute. Not my idea of a joke…. but someone’s evidently.”

The man was looking at Mulder closely, waiting for a response, for clarification. It wasn’t forthcoming.

“We need the device logged in and released to us. If you have any doubt, you can run it through SAC Delano.”

The Chief paused and searched both their faces. He must have seen some quality he trusted because he said, “No, that’s all right. We’ll log and release. Get you to sign the forms. You’ll be responsible for chain of evidence. So long as we know where to come for it when we need it.”

The man dropped the letter back to the front seat of the car and gestured to one of his men. He gave instructions to bag and log, then release whatever was desired to Agent Mulder of the Bureau.

Monday, 11:17 p.m. Dallas Bureau, Command Center

The door slammed open, causing the man inside to jump to his feet, hand on weapon. Mulder laughed and said, “At ease, Jake. It’s just us.”

Mander looked thoroughly confused and Scully took pity on the man.

“We never got a chance to actually leave. Our bomber left us a little present in our car. Not an actual bomb, just enough of a facsimile to scare the shit out of us.”

Mulder was amused. Scully rarely cursed and he knew she had to be pretty upset right now to give in to the urge.

“All we want to do is stash this stuff in the evidence locker until tomorrow and head out. We still haven’t had dinner.”

Mulder knew it came out sounding surly but didn’t particularly care. If he was going to be worth anything tomorrow he had to get something in his stomach and get to bed. Period. And it had to happen soon.

Scully had already grabbed the set of keys from in front of Mander and was walking towards the makeshift locker they’d created. It was just an AV stand on wheels, but it had an actual lock on it. Normally they would have felt secure enough to leave the evidence locked in the room, but with the possibility of an insider, every bit of extra security was being taken.

Scully opened the cabinet and gestured to Mulder to slide the box in. She locked it up afterwards and slid the keys down the table to Jake Mander, once again.

“Come on, Mulder. I think we’re going to have to make do with McDonald’s tonight. And we better hurry before they close down, too.”

She grabbed his arm and pulled, not even saying good-bye to the agent at the table this time around. Mulder gave a brief wave and allowed himself to be dragged along. Actually, Mickey D’s sounded pretty darn good to him.

Twenty-five minutes later they sat in Scully’s hotel room, with bags, wrappers, drinks and food scattered across the table. Mulder had broken into the mini-bar and pulled out several beers, claiming it was the least they deserved after having to deal with a psycho bomber with a worse sense of humor than his own.

He’d thrown a couple of Tylenols into the mix and had a nice buzz going. Actually, he was feeling pretty good. Relaxed. Comfortable for the first time in days. He sat in one of the wing backs, slumped low, head leaning against the back in between sips of his beer. He had his legs stretched out in front of him, crossed at the ankles. He’d changed into sweats and a T-shirt and he tilted his feet down to dig his toes into the plush carpet. It felt good to be out of restraining clothes and comfortable.

He used to do this all the time. He used to relax, ages ago. It was a normal thing to do. He glanced over at his partner, and a slow smile surfaced at the sight of her still stuffing french fries into her mouth. She usually hated grease. Scully had changed clothes as well and was similarly attired. She had sweatpants and a baggy sweatshirt on, with the sleeves cut off. He’d never seen her in anything like it and wondered what had possessed her.

Mulder was feeling maudlin. It wasn’t an emotion he often experienced and certainly not in the middle of a tense case. But this seemed so familiar to him. He remembered times like this before. Mulder looked over at his best friend once again and made a decision.

“Scully, did I ever tell you about when I was married?”

Scully almost choked on her beer, managed to swallow, and then looked at her partner in amusement. He’d joked with her before about pretty much everything, but this was new ground for him. The smile slowly died on her face when she realized that he wasn’t smiling at all — was, in fact, looking at her with something akin to fear.

“You’re kidding?”

Scully didn’t know what to think, what to feel. She was flooded with so many emotions in such a short period that she had to struggle to make sense of them. Surprise, shock, fear, anger, hurt. She could only think, over and over, that he had kept this from her. That for five years, during life and death struggles, he hadn’t trusted her enough to tell her something so momentous. How could he not tell her? How could he keep it from her?

“You’ve got to be kidding?!”

She could see him close off, see him withdraw to protect himself, and she hated herself because she knew it was her fault. Knew that he had trusted her and she’d betrayed it. She’d let the surprise rule her reactions, allowed the part of her that was hurt feelings override the part that recognized her partner’s vulnerability. He leaned even farther back in his chair and turned away from her, body language making it clear that he had withdrawn from any further discussion. Scully wasn’t prepared yet to allow that to happen.

Right now, she felt as if her foundations had crumpled, disintegrated under her feet. She had stomped on her best friend’s heart, on his trust, and hurt him deeply. She had to make this right. She had to do it now.

Scully found her breath coming in ragged jerks, tried to control it. Her voice shook as she finally forced out the one and only word she could manage.

“Mulder.”

She was terrified she’d done irreparable harm to the thing that meant most to her in the world. Tears filled her eyes at the thought and she had to grip her hands tightly to keep them from shaking.

“Mulder, please.”

He turned towards her then, but his eyes were focused over her shoulder, his face set. Both his hands were gripped tightly on the beer can and in a remote corner of her mind, Scully wondered why it hadn’t crushed yet.

“Mulder.”

It was a pleading whisper, the most she could manage, but it got through to the man sitting in front of her. He focused on her finally, sat forward to lean across the table slightly, slowly reached out his left hand to her. Scully grabbed it in both of hers as if it were a lifeline. And it was.

“Mulder, I’m so sorry. I thought you were kidding. I thought … I’m so sorry.”

Mulder felt like a shit. He’d made Scully cry. He dropped a bomb — his own little bomb — and expected her to put up defenses with no warning. How could he be upset at her reaction when he gave her no time to adjust to the idea? But a part of him had wanted her to immediately understand and immediately say all the right things. It wasn’t fair, it wasn’t even reasonable. But it was human.

Mulder squeezed her hands in his and decided to make it up to her, somehow.

“No, Scully, you don’t need to apologize. I’m the one who should apologize. I shouldn’t have hit you with it like that, out of the blue. I just … I just wanted you to know.”

Scully held his hand tightly between her own, fingers gripped by his. She breathed deeply, realized that he had forgiven her, that she hadn’t lost his friendship. That this wouldn’t come between them as so much else had. She was able to think a little more clearly now, to start appreciating the implications. She knew how Phoebe had hurt him, and now wondered suddenly if she had been more than just a woman he’d known intimately once upon a time. Had it been Phoebe Greene or someone else? Who was this woman who had hurt her partner?

Scully realized what she’d done, then. Unconsciously she had subscribed all blame to the unknown woman, without even hearing the story. She wanted to hear it, wanted to know about this part of her friend’s life. Wanted to know how it had shaped him. She squeezed his hand again.

“Tell me about it … please.”

“What, you want to hear about the sad, pathetic story of my love life? Nah, Scully, it’s pretty boring really. You see, once upon a time, I thought I was a normal guy who was going to live this normal life, have a normal marriage and normal kids, in some normal suburb somewhere.”

Scully felt her eyebrows raise at the kids part. Were there little Mulders running around out there somewhere, living in a white house with a picket fence?

Mulder evidently caught her surprised look, smiled ironically before clarifying.

“But I never had the chance, Scully. We were married all of five months when I started in the VCS. It was doomed almost from the start. I don’t blame her, never have. The vows say in sickness and in health. They don’t say anything about serial killers, child molesters, and kidnappers.”

Despite his joking manner, Scully saw the pain the memory caused. She wished she could do something to ease it. But all she could do was be there for him, as he had been so many times for her. She hoped it would be enough.

Scully stood, removed her hands from his for a moment and pulled her chair around the table, sinking into it once again. She then put her arm around his shoulders, rested her head against his left arm.

“I’m sorry, Mulder.”

He knew she was. And it helped.

Tuesday, 7:09 a.m. Dallas Bureau, Command Center

Mulder leaned forward in the chair, head in hands, elbows propped on knees, and reflected on his miserable life. Actually, it was a pretty good life when he stayed way the hell away from anything alcoholic. He tried to remember just how many beers he’d had the previous night. Was it four, five? More? Why the hell hadn’t Scully stopped him? She knew better than that. Oh, grow up Mulder. It’s not your partner’s job to tell you when to stop drinking.

He thought his head hurt yesterday, but had a feeling yesterday’s pounding would fade into insignificance compared to today’s. It wasn’t that he’d really had that much to drink. It was that he’d had that much to drink on a still practically empty stomach, with a banged up head, stitched up arm, and hardly any sleep on top of it. Never a good combination.

He felt a hand on his shoulder and looked up through splayed fingers to see his partner sitting in front of him. He hadn’t even heard her.

“Hey there. You don’t look so good, partner.”

Mulder dropped his hands from in front of his face, made an attempt to sit a bit straighter. He noticed finally that Scully had something in her hands, was holding them out to him. He focused slowly, fighting off the cobwebs keeping him fuzzy. Aaaaahhhhhh. Aspirin in one hand, coffee in the other. Could there be a more divine vision?

“You are an angel from heaven above, Scully. I will never again doubt this fact.”

Mulder downed the aspirin in one swallow and choked a huge sip of coffee down after them. Closed his eyes briefly, then took another big sip. He looked his partner in the eye and said, with all the certitude he could muster, “Heaven, Scully.”

“Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard it all before.”

She leaned in closer and put one hand on his knee.

“Seriously, how do you feel?”

“I’m fine. Stupid, but fine.”

Scully smiled and stood, reassured that he’d survive for a while at least.

“We have a couple minutes before Jake’s due in. I’m going to make sure our other two agents arrived all right. I’ll be back soon.”

He watched her head out of the room and considered what he’d done last night. Not the drinking, but the talking. What the hell had possessed him? He wasn’t big on sharing, not even with friends. But then, this wasn’t just a friend. This was Scully. This was his best friend. And she’d let him drink himself into a stupor even though she knew how important this case was. And she’d poured him into bed after he’d done it. And she’d come into his room and woken him up a couple minutes before the alarm this morning so it wouldn’t surprise him. And she brought him aspirin and coffee. And she was truly concerned about him. He decided he didn’t regret telling her. Not a bit.

Mulder stood and took another big sip of the coffee she’d brought him, then stared down into the still swirling liquid. Coffee and Scully and a case to be solved. Life was certainly worth the effort sometimes.

Tuesday, 8:54 a.m. Dallas Bureau, Command Center

Mulder felt good about the teams. He’d quickly set his people to individual tasks, as had Jake and Scully. They’d taken over three other rooms in the building as headquarters for each team, but had decided to retain the conference room they were presently in as the primary command center. He glanced down at his watch, wondering when the call would come. Wondering where his reports were. A knock at the door caused him to swivel to the left, call out, “Come.”

A young agent came in, tentatively.

“Excuse me, sir. SAC Delano asked me to bring this to you.”

Mulder hardly noticed the sir. He reached out his left hand for the report, then nodded distractedly at the agent in dismissal. He scanned it quickly and grimaced at the news. The cell phone was already out, Scully’s new number being punched in with an angry finger. He didn’t wait for her to acknowledge. As soon as he heard the connection, the indrawn breath, Mulder said, “The video cam was off line for two hours, Scully. No record. Security called in the malfunction at 7:04 p.m. Wasn’t repaired until a little after 9.”

He heard her take a deep breath, let it out slowly.

“Well, Mulder, I think this just supports the idea that this guy is with the Bureau. He had to have access somehow. Has security figured out what caused the malfunction?”

“No, they just assumed it was a run-of-the-mill mechanical problem. I’ll have our labs check into it, but I doubt we’ll get any more.”

Frustrated silence reined for a good five seconds.

“Okay, Scully. I’ll talk to you later.”

He heard her soft good-bye, then turned off the phone, stuffed it into his pocket.

He glanced around the room and over to the corner, willing the phone there to ring. As he glanced at his watch once more, it finally responded to his wish. Mulder practically launched himself across the room to pick up the receiver.

“Mulder.”

“Agent Mulder, hello. How are you?”

He had expected a report from the safehouse, but certainly hadn’t expected his boss to call.

“Sir … I’m fine, thank you. How are things there?”

He was still trying to overcome the surprise at hearing Skinner’s voice and now felt foolish with the inane conversation.

“Boring.”

It was said abruptly, impatiently, and Mulder almost laughed at the thought of his boss stuck with nothing to do but watch daytime television. The next words wiped the grin off his face, though.

“I heard about the bomb scare last night. How are you and Agent Scully?”

Mulder was confused. How could Skinner have heard about it? There was supposed to be no contact between the safe house and anyone else except the few police officers who’d been cleared to checkin every two hours.

“She’s fine, sir, but how did you hear?”

Mulder realized it had come out demanding, strident. He heard Skinner’s frustration at the tone.

“Agent Mulder, give me some credit.”

Mulder felt appropriately chastised and knew that his face burned with embarrassment. Skinner certainly had the gift.

“Sorry, sir.”

“Look, Mulder. I think you and Scully need to be more careful. You should have a couple agents assigned to you for security.”

Mulder didn’t need to think about the suggestion for long.

“Sir, he’s not interested in us. He wants you. He made that pretty clear last night.”

“Agent Mulder, since when did you start trusting murderers?”

Damn, the man did it to him again. But this time, he was right.

“Mulder, don’t trust this man. Don’t trust anything about him. He’s killed at least eight…. make that eleven people that we know of. He might also be responsible for the fourteen deaths from the seventies. Don’t think he won’t come after you or Scully if it’s in his best interest to do so.”

The silence lasted for a heavy four seconds before Mulder responded.

“Yes, sir. You’re right. We’ll be careful.”

“Okay, Mulder. I’ll check in tomorrow. Remember.”

And then he was gone and Mulder heard only the dial tone, buzzing loudly in his ear. He hung up the receiver finally and considered his and Scully’s position. Was there anything they should be doing differently? Could they do more to protect themselves? He shook his head and looked back at the pile of files on the table. Time to touch base with his partner in person.

Tuesday, 9:43 a.m. Dallas Bureau, Command Center

Mulder, Scully, and Jake Mander stood in the room, surveying the wall space. Mulder and Jake had gone through the procedure of setting up command centers more times than either cared to remember. This case was unusual in that there were so many diverse streams of investigation to keep track of. The room was approximately 15 ft. x 25 ft, with a door one third the way along one of the 25 foot lengths.

Mulder took a step back and gestured to the long uninterrupted space of the side wall. “Jake, I think we can lay out the eight original bombing cases here. Let’s divide it up by case, not victim.”

He turned to the other long wall, with the door and looked at his partner. “You’ll have to make do with this, Scully. Wrap it around at that end if you need to.” He gestured off to the wall to the right.

“I’ll take this end. The plane bombing will require the least space. Let’s get it set up and then draw up our dependency matrix. We should be done in time for the initial reports at eleven.”

The two other agents merely nodded and started pulling out appropriate evidence, files, photos, and reports. Both Mander and Scully had maps to hang. Mander’s had pinpoints of all the original bombings from the seventies. Scully had locations of each agent’s home as well as location of murder. They conferred briefly and decided to cross-reference with different colored pins and placed a single map at the far end of the room.

It was interesting to see this way. There certainly seemed to be no correlation between locations of the recent murders and the previous bombings. The only exception was the last agent’s death in Dallas and a bombing at the University of Texas at Arlington late in 1976 — the last bombing. UT Arlington was right around the corner. Red, black, and green pins were scattered across the map except for this one location, where all three fought for dominance. Scully couldn’t help but wonder if this was more than coincidence.

Mulder had joined her and now stood with arms crossed, expression intent.

“I want to go there. UTA. This afternoon.”

Scully looked at her partner searchingly, wondering what he hoped to accomplish. She turned back to the map and felt a small shiver. She decided then that she wanted to go, too. Gaze never leaving the map, she said, “After lunch.” She sensed, rather than saw, her partner nod. Both turned back to their respective tasks without another word.

Tuesday, 11:02 a.m. Dallas Bureau, Command Center

Nine of the agents, plus Mulder and Scully were meeting around the conference table in the command center. Mulder had decided that they could squeeze everyone in since they were four agents short at this meeting. He knocked on the table lightly, quickly gaining everyone’s attention.

“You’ve had a couple hours at least to absorb the critical issues pertaining to your own investigation. Now I want to have reports from each team so that we can be sure to have proper coordination. Remember that it is quite likely that the same person is responsible for each of these crimes. If that is true, then it’s even more important that we all talk with each other. Let’s start with my team. I have Agents Mayne and Khalak in Las Vegas. They’re reviewing all security cam video from the airport and surrounding areas. Interviewing employees and others who had access to the plane at that end.”

Mulder glanced up and around the table, taking in the engaged expressions. Everyone was with him. Everyone paying attention. And there wasn’t one look of disdain. Of course. These people were hand picked by Scully and himself. He could trust them to give their all on this case, as on any other. It was reassuring. He took a deep breath and continued.

“Vegas was the source of that flight so we know the bomb had to have been planted there. They’ll be working with Agents Dowd and Wenner here at this end to eliminate suspects from our present list of 423 authorized individuals who conceivably had access. We anticipate that list will be brought to zero. We don’t believe our bomber is an employee, or even made use of an employee to gain access. We believe he obtained access some other way. Agents Dowd and Wenner are here pursuing these options. We’ve sent all pertinent evidence to our labs and should be getting initial reports this afternoon. My team is also keeping track of the investigation into yesterday’s shooting and the bomb scare last night.”

Grimaces were seen around the table. All had heard about the fake bomb placed in Mulder and Scully’s car in the Bureau’s own parking garage. Such a violation of their own turf rankled.

“We’ve already sent the evidence into the labs. The FWPD are handling the shooting and I’m going to leave it that way. I’ll be interfacing with them personally, but I don’t expect we’ll learn much. There were no witnesses, the vehicle was found abandoned five miles away. It had been stolen the previous day. No obvious evidence, no prints, it had been wiped clean. It was vacuumed — will be tested for DNA evidence, which obviously won’t help us find him. As far as the car bomb, the camera was off so there’s no video. Again, evidence has been collected that might help us convict when it comes to it, but won’t help us with identification.”

Mulder glanced up and around the table to take in expressions and responses. “Any questions or comments? Are we missing anything obvious?”

He saw a hand down the table and recognized Sarah Liu. “Yes, Agent Liu.”

“Sir, with regards to the plane bombing, if it isn’t an employee or someone who was on the authorized access list, then ….” Her voice faltered for a moment before continuing. “….are you proposing the bomber was someone who would have access through other legal means or are you proposing that he gained access illegally?”

Mulder knew Sarah from several cases over the years and appreciated her sharp wit and even sharper intellect. He knew she’d already put the pieces together and was merely asking out of formality. Asking to make sure everyone else appreciated what she’d already registered. He looked down the table towards her fondly, remembering the many times she’d come up with the missing piece of the puzzle in the past.

“We’re not ruling out either possibility ….. although legal access seems to be the more promising possibility.”

A few eyebrows raised around the table, but no one spoke. Good, now they understood why there was to be no discussion of this case outside this group.

“Anything else?”

Mulder paused for a few seconds, then decided to switch the order of the reports.

“Let’s hear from Team 3 now. Agent Scully, could you give us an update of the more recent murders?”

Scully wasn’t thrown for a second, despite the change. She stood and walked to the wall — her wall — and stopped at one end where the first agent’s death was on display. Photos, reports, and other pertinent evidence was taped and tacked to the wall. She began summarizing the mode of death for each of the eight agents, describing broadly the tasks her team were implementing to reinvestigate the previously identified accidents and otherwise ‘normal’ deaths.

“We’ve gotten clearance to exhume four of the bodies, including Hendricks, who was the last victim. One of my people, Agent Alex Knight, is a pathologist as well and is presently with the coroner’s office here in Dallas making these arrangements. Agent Knight and I will re-perform any autopsies that are possible. My people will be interviewing family members, colleagues, and appropriate law enforcement officers who handled the deaths over the next several days. We are trying to carry out many of these interviews by phone, but it’s clear that several of the sites will need to be visited in person.”

Mulder nodded as she finished and looked around the room. He saw confusion on several faces and wondered at it.

“Questions?”

There was a rustling to his left and he glanced that way, saw that Maureen McCulley, the local agent had her hand raised. She was clearly the youngest of the agents on the team — no more than twenty-seven or so at the most. She seemed uncomfortable, even a bit awed by being thrust onto a case of this magnitude.

“Yes.”

The woman directed her query to Scully.

“Agent Scully, you said that the first victim quite likely died due to administration of a drug that induced heart failure, the second and sixth from an execution style murder with a weapon generally associated with law enforcement rather than criminals, the fourth died from a broken neck, quite possibly administered prior to being thrown off a cliff, then another broken neck …”

She paused and shook her head, looking again as if she were confused.

“Agent Scully, it seems that these methods would require the murderer to have access to the victim. These victims were all trained agents. It’s as if they allowed the murderer to get close enough to kill them.”

Scully smiled slightly, kindly.

“That’s correct, Agent McCulley.”

“But …. that would mean ….”

She wandered to a stop, looked around the table and found only serious expressions, none of them cruel or unfeeling. She swallowed in understanding, finally putting the earlier words of Sarah Liu into place. These men and women all assumed it was an FBI agent. They all thought it. She could tell from their expressions. She looked back to ASAC Mulder and revised her own conclusions. Mulder didn’t think it — he knew it. He smiled to her, then turned to the rest of the table.

“Anything else for Team 3?” Silence.

“All right, Agent Mander, could you fill us in on Team 2 activities?”

Jake Mander stood as Scully had and approached the opposite wall. He gestured towards the left end.

“The first bombing took place in late 1974 at MIT in a Materials Laboratory. Actually, an Advanced Materials Lab. It was an undergraduate teaching lab, but a graduate student and a faculty member were killed. No one else was in the lab at the time. The device was set with a trigger attached to a composite lay-up vacuum chamber. Door opened and boom. Since it was in the vacuum chamber, though, the explosion was directed and localized, so there was no real damage beyond the chamber itself and the two victims.”

Jake paused and looked at the black and white photos on the wall, clearly showing the devastation those lives were subjected to in the fraction of a second before their deaths.

“This and the next three bombings were originally attributed to the Unabomber. It wasn’t until the fourth bombing that they figured out it was someone else.”

Jake then continued down the line, providing details on each of the bombings.

“The second occurred at Cal Tech in an instrumentation teaching laboratory. This time it was a graduate student who was killed. A teaching assistant for the lab class. He turned on a computer being used for data acquisition for an experiment that he’d been preparing and triggered the device.”

Jake paused and looked up from his notes, then glanced over at the photos on the wall.

“He lived for two days.”

No one needed to hear the details. They understood implicitly the quality of that life for those agonizing days.

“The third was an aerospace structures laboratory at Stanford. This one took out a professor and an undergraduate student immediately. The device was triggered when the teacher and student tried testing a wing box structure in a load testing device. Unfortunately, there were other students there at the time. Three others were seriously wounded, but did survive. One lost an arm.”

Jake continued down the wall, giving the gruesome details on each of the bombings and the victims created in their destructive path.

“This last one occurred at the University of Texas at Arlington. The state decided to invest heavily in its Engineering schools and had just poured a few million dollars into UTA’s program. The bomber hit a brand new computer lab. A CFD laboratory — Computational Fluid Dynamics.”

Jake paused and glanced at the agents around the room, seeing several shake their heads. He understood how they felt. Science and math had certainly never been his strong suit. Investigating these engineering related bombings was an eye-opener.

“Anyway, a faculty member was killed in this one when he turned on the teaching monitor up in front of the class. This blast was also directional and took out the teacher alone. But it happened in front of twenty-four undergraduate students.”

Mulder heard a muttered “Fucking psycho” off to his right. His thoughts exactly. He searched the expressions of those around the table, then looked back to Jake. Nodded for him to continue.

“As I mentioned before, it took awhile for the Bureau to realize these weren’t attributable to the Unabomber. You have to remember that the national databases and internet capabilities were more limited at that time, so it’s understandable. Once discovered, though, the Bureau assigned a team in early 1976. You know the men on the team. They’ve all been murdered with the exception of AD Skinner. The team investigated this case for eight months and arrested a thirty-two year old demolitions expert who worked for a construction company here in Dallas. He’d been in a Mechanical Engineering program in his twenties and failed a couple courses, was on probation, ended up failing out of school and being drafted for Vietnam. He was wounded there and sent back home. He fit the profile the team had developed, had motivation, had access to supplies, he certainly had the knowledge. But he claimed he was innocent throughout the trial. He still does.”

Jake cleared his throat and considered whether he wanted to finish the thought off. He glanced over at Mulder and Scully, saw them both nod.

“In fact, he claimed at the time that he’d been set up as a fall guy. That evidence was manufactured by the team.”

It had the affect he knew it would. He saw agents sit up in their seats just a little straighter. Saw eyes darting around the room, heard the rustlings of legs being uncrossed. He looked to Mulder again and saw his raised finger. He nodded almost in relief.

As Mulder spoke, all eyes were drawn to him immediately.

“AD Skinner has personally requested that we investigate the possibility that evidence was mishandled or manufactured in the original bombing case. It is part of our job to discover whether an innocent man has been in jail for twenty years. It is also part of our job to find the real bomber if there was a mistake made then.”

Mulder glanced at Scully, seeking confirmation that he’d gotten the right message across. That AD Skinner was in no way responsible for anything that might have gone wrong twenty-two years ago. That he wanted to find the bomber just as much or more so as those sitting in the room now. She nodded and smiled slightly at him.

“Agent Mander, will you tell us what approach your team is taking in reinvestigating these original bombings?”

Jake picked up the pad of paper on which he’d written his notes, and glanced over it quickly.

“My people will be speaking with Jose Alvarez as well as with those who testified in the trial. The DA at the time is now with a private law firm here in Dallas. The public defender moved to New York years ago, but we’ll be speaking to her by phone today. We’re tracking down faculty and administrators at the schools where these bombings took place. We’ve already started phone interviews. We’re also trying to locate witnesses who might not have actually testified. Most of these were just kids at the time. Undergraduate students. As you might imagine, they’re scattered across the country. We’re making progress. We’ve also determined that, with the exception of UTA, these schools were all on the 1975 top ten list for engineering schools according to something called the Gourman Report. We know it’s significant, but not why as yet. We’re developing possibilities.”

He turned to face the table, again searching out Mulder and Scully. Mulder pushed back from the table, signaling to Jake that he could sit. Mulder stood, walked to the head of the room, towards Jake and Scully’s map. His eyes were drawn again to the collection of three pins centered on the Dallas/Ft. Worth/Arlington. And Alvarez was from Dallas. It had to be significant.

He turned towards his agents, putting his hands in his pants pockets. He looked down one side of the table and up the other.

“As you can see, this isn’t a trivial case. If we have to bring more agents in on it, we will. But Scully and I know you. We trust you. AD Skinner’s life is on the line here and it’s quite possible that this bomber will take out civilians and officers alike to get to him. I want to reinforce once more that you are to speak with no one….. absolutely no one who has not been cleared through either Agent Scully or myself.”

Mulder shifted, pulled hands out of pockets and rested them on his hips, suit jacket pushed back.

“We’ll be meeting again as a team this evening. Twice a day from now on at 11 a.m. and again at 6 p.m. Other meetings as appropriate. Any questions?”

Mulder dismissed them with a nod and slight wave, then walked back to where Scully was seated. He leaned against the table, both arms straight, hung his head between them momentarily. He tried to remember if he’d ever worked on or heard of a case this complicated before and couldn’t come up with any. Jesus, it spanned more than two decades, involved one or multiple suspects, who killed both subtly and blatantly, depending on the circumstances, who had managed to fool the entire justice system for more than twenty years. He wasn’t sure he was up to this.

Mulder felt a hand on his, opened his eyes and turned to his partner. He glanced around the room and saw they were alone. Thank God. He couldn’t face anyone just now. He needed the silence to think. Mulder turned the chair next to him around to face his partner, then sank into it wearily. Propped his elbows on his knees, put hands up to rub his face, allowing fingers to circle at his temples. Damn this headache. He opened his mouth to share his thoughts, but she beat him to it.

“Mulder, I know this seems overwhelming. I feel it, too. But I know you and I know me. I have faith that we can solve this.”

It was all she said. But it was enough. He dropped his hands from his face and reached out with his right to grab hers for a moment.

“Thanks, Scully.”

Tuesday, 1:09 p.m. Dallas Bureau, Command Center

“Mulder, I’m really getting sick of this crap. Can’t we go and get a salad somewhere? Or at least something that comes on a plate instead of in wrappers and bags.”

Mulder refused to rise to the bait. He was actually perfectly content with chicken sandwiches and fries. The iced tea wasn’t exactly up to his standards, but all-in-all, it wasn’t really that bad.

“Hurry up and finish, Scully. We gotta move if we’re going to UTA. We have to get there and back for the briefing by six tonight. It’s not like we can miss it, after all. I think people might notice.”

He could imagine the irritation flowing his way at being ignored, but knew she wouldn’t really mean it. She knew he heard her. Knew he was ignoring her just to get under her skin. It was all in jest and it felt good after so many months of tension. There was no one else in the world with whom he could interact in this way.

Mulder stood, grabbed an empty bag and pushed empty food wrappers and packages inside, still not looking at his partner. It dawned on him finally that she hadn’t moved or said a word in the past minute at least. Suddenly Mulder wasn’t so sure about his assumptions. He abruptly stopped what he was doing and turned towards her, half-filled bag still in hand.

She sat frozen, mouth parted slightly, staring at her half eaten sandwich as if it held the answers to life’s most difficult questions. Mulder became even more worried that he’d so misread their relationship — their ability to joke with one another. The fragile ease they’d so recently managed to achieve once again was suddenly at risk due to his stupidity, his thoughtlessness. He cleared his throat, threw the bag down on the table, and sank back in his chair.

“Scully?”

She jerked slightly and turned her head towards him. Her words, when they came, were completely unexpected.

“How the hell does he get around, Mulder?”

Mulder was confused, left behind. Whatever leaps his partner had made remained a mystery to him. He was still thanking his luck that she wasn’t pissed at his ignoring her. He hadn’t yet managed to figure out what she was talking about.

“What? What do you mean?”

“We know he killed the eight agents, we know he planted the bomb in the plane in Las Vegas, we know he was here to shoot the hell out of your hotel room and he was here to plant the bomb in the parking garage last night.”

“Yeah. So?”

“So, if he’s with the Bureau, how does he do it? I mean, Mulder, we can’t just take off and fly all over the country without forms and clearances. Well, that is, we’re not supposed to and we always get our butts chewed out when we do. There’s got to be a record, right? If not official documentation, then at least the guy had to take some leave days here and there. It would be in the Bureau personnel records. Right?”

Mulder felt stupid. He should have made this connection earlier. It would be easy enough to start a couple computer searches of the personnel database. They could have Stacy Alexander start running the crossmatches. She was one of the Bureau’s top computational people in the DC office. He and Scully had used her many times over the years and she was completely trustworthy. He knew Skinner could clear it for them.

“You’re absolutely right. Let’s get Stacy on it. I’ll get the clearances set up.”

Scully was hurriedly eating her lunch now, taking large bites of the sandwich and hardly even chewing in an effort to finish quickly. Mulder looked at her curiously.

“What made you think of it, Scully? You were staring at your chicken sandwich like you’d found the mysteries of the universe there.”

She turned and grinned then, obviously proud of stumping her partner. She took a sip of her soda before speaking.

“It was your comment about getting back before six to make the meeting. We all have our assignments and if we don’t make them, there’s a record of it. You should know that better than anyone, Mulder.”

A knock at the door prevented Mulder from responding. With what Scully could only describe as a good natured snarl, he yelled out, “Come in.”

Both agents were surprised to find SAC Delano at the door and scrambled to their feet quickly.

“Hello, sir.”

The man didn’t look pleased. In fact, he appeared quite frustrated, maybe even perturbed. Mulder stood even straighter, feeling now as if he were being inspected. This man and Skinner both had the ability to make you feel like you were a private in their own little army. He hastily cleared his throat and said, “Can we help you, sir?”

Delano stepped into the room and closed the door, waving both agents to sit.

“If you don’t mind, Agent Mulder, Agent Scully, I’d like an update on your progress.”

Suddenly Mulder felt like a little kid being called to task for not getting home in time for dinner. Mulder tried to suppress his initial reaction. He could tell from the SAC’s expression that the man wasn’t irritated with them, just irritated in general. But he was still irked. He didn’t have to report to this man. Delano wasn’t part of the chain of command in this case. Mulder reminded himself that Delano had bent over backwards to open whatever doors necessary so their investigative path would be that much more smooth. It was the least they could do to keep him informed. And he was Skinner’s friend, after all.

Mulder glanced at his partner, noted the creased forehead, the lightly squinting eyes. He wasn’t the only one irritated at Delano’s attitude.

“Of course. We’re continuing with the three primary teams assigned last night. Team 1, my team, is attempting to identify who had access to the plane in Las Vegas. We are also following the investigation into the car bomb last night and the shooting at the hotel. Nothing has come up as yet. We don’t really expect it to, either, quite frankly. Team 2 is attempting to determine whether the right man was convicted for the original bombings and, more importantly, whether our present murderer might have been responsible for those murders as well. The team members are presently focusing their efforts on those who testified at the trial and eventually on Alvarez himself . They’ll begin interviewing others who had information within the next couple days. As for Team 3, several of the bodies have been cleared for exhumation and Scully and one of the other pathologists will be performing autopsies as soon as they’re able. The other team members are tracking down any leads as to who might have been able to get close enough to these men to kill them with no one else knowing.”

Mulder fell silent after his discourse and stared at Delano, not sure whether the man would be content with such a broad overview. The SAC seemed chagrined now at his less than friendly attitude, at making demands on them.

“Look, I’m sorry. Let’s just say that being SAC means you can never escape the red tape. I’m not sure I’m cut out for the bureaucracy. It sounds as if you’re making quite a bit of headway on this. Please let me know how things are going and whether you need anything from me.”

He smiled then and Mulder immediately felt guilty at being brusque with the man. Oh well, such is life.

“No problem, sir. Actually, if you don’t mind, though, Scully and I need to head out. We’re going to UT Arlington to check out the site of the last bombing in 1976.”

Delano nodded and stepped back to the door, opening it quickly.

“No problem. I’ll catch up with you later, Agents. Oh, and if you speak with Walt, tell him I said hello.”

Tuesday, 2:24 p.m. UT Arlington Campus

“Okay, Mulder. We’re here. Now what?”

Scully stood next to their new rental car in the visitor’s parking lot by the Administration building. Mulder shut his door, carefully checking to be sure all locks were engaged. He didn’t want a repeat of the previous evening. He finally looked up and panned his gaze at the buildings around them. He had a packet of maps in his hands and he tried to place their present location on one of them to determine where they needed to head next.

Scully walked around the car to position herself so she could also look at the map. Pointing one finger, she quickly located the parking lot, then traced her finger along a street to their right.

“It looks like we can get to the Engineering complex if we follow this road. I think we want this building here — at least to start. Wasn’t that the one with the CFD lab?”

“Yeah, it was in 1976. Don’t know if things have changed since then. Let’s do it.”

They both turned and started walking in the direction Scully had pointed out. The day was warm and bright and Mulder could feel the sweat starting already. Fifteen feet into their trek, he began regretting not leaving his overcoat in the car. He glanced over at his partner and saw that she seemed completely comfortable. Not a glisten of sweat is sight.

The wind blew lightly, causing a rustling in the bushes to their right. The few cars permitted on the road drove by slowly to their left, careful of pedestrians. Kids with backpacks and bicycles were everywhere.

Mulder was lost in reverie, recalling vividly his own undergraduate days before heading off to Oxford. Days of solitary study in the library, endless lap swimming, running around the track. No running to — no running away. Just running in circles. He was still running in circles. Would he have played Frisbee, studied under trees, walked with friends – – would he have done all these things if Samantha hadn’t been taken from him? Or was there something about him that would have prevented his involvement in such things even if his home life hadn’t been so disrupted by his sister’s disappearance? He wondered idly if he had normality in him anywhere?

“Mulder? Hey, Mulder, are you with me?”

He focused on his partner and realized they’d stopped in front of a five story brick building. A sign out front proudly proclaimed it to be the home of the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. Mulder glanced over at his partner to find her brow creased, eyebrows scrunched, lips pursed — obviously wondering what was up with him. He sighed heavily before replying.

“Yeah, Scully. Just thinking about school. The good old days, you know?”

Scully nodded in understanding. She knew enough about his life after Samantha disappeared to appreciate that his thoughts probably weren’t particularly happy. Time to change the subject and get his focus back on the case.

“Well, I think it’s safe to assume that we’ll be able to track down some of the people we need here. The Departmental office is listed as being on the second floor. Why don’t we start there?”

Mulder nodded and followed as his partner started for the doors. Hopefully, some of the professors from the 70’s would still be at the university.

Mulder found the building quite curious. The walls were unpainted concrete block. The corridors were long with offices and labs on either side and no windows to let natural light in. Only every other overhead light was operational, giving the entire place a prison-like feel. They saw no sign directing them to a particular office, so decided to wander a bit before heading to the second floor.

During their meanderings, they’d chanced upon several labs filled with students. In one of these, they overheard a student say, “But it’s the bending stress that will incite the mode of failure, not the torsional mode.” The group of students then launched into what sounded like an argument, debating pros and cons of ignoring certain ‘degrees of freedom’ in their analysis.

Mulder looked over to his partner to see a huge smile on her face. He couldn’t resist laughing out loud. He was suddenly incredibly happy that he hadn’t been blessed (or perhaps it was cursed) with much in the way of math genes.

“So what do you think, Scully? Is it the bending or the torsion?”

She punched him in the arm lightly, hoping none of the earnest students had heard his remark. Then it dawned on her that this must have been what it was like during the original bombings. They’d all taken place in labs like this one — often when students were in the lab or preparing to enter. She didn’t want to imagine these students being inflicted with such a violent act.

They finally headed to the second floor and found the Department Chair’s office at the end of a long, dark hallway. About ten feet from the office, Mulder leaned towards his partner and whispered, “Is it my imagination, or is this place really depressing?”

Scully glanced around, leaned towards him and replied softly, “It’s not your imagination.”

They presented themselves then to the woman behind the first desk they found as they entered the suite of offices. Mulder already had his identification and badge out, ready to display. He saw that Scully was pulling hers out as well.

“Hello, ma’am. I’m Special Agent Fox Mulder. This is Special Agent Dana Scully. We’d like to speak to the Department Chair if that’s at all possible.”

The woman was completely flustered. She looked to be in her late fifties, perhaps even early sixties. Mulder saw her try to smile, fail, then try at least for impassivity. She failed again. He felt the need to reassure this woman that no one was in trouble.

“Ma’am, we’re investigating a bombing that took place here in the late 70’s and we’re hoping your Department Chair might be able to help us identify people we can talk with about it.”

Suddenly the woman managed her smile and in fact, sat straighter in her chair.

“Oh, the Alvarez case. I know all about that. I was here then. Well, not here. I wasn’t the Department Chair’s secretary, but I was a secretary in the Department, if you know what I mean.”

Mulder nodded, adopted a smile of encouragement.

“I was even here when Jose was a student. What a nice boy he was. Not one of our brightest, but he was always courteous. And he tried so hard.”

She was actually saying ‘Tsk, Tsk”, and Mulder had to fight not to laugh.

“Ma’am, I’m sorry. I didn’t catch your name.”

“Oh! I’m Lorraine Ward.”

“Thank you. May I call you Lorraine?”

The woman was now puffed with importance, obviously pleased. Evidently having an FBI agent refer to her by her first name was the most excitement she’d experienced in years. Mulder glanced at Scully and saw she had one hand in front of her mouth, trying to hide the smile.

“Lorraine, do you think we could sit down and talk with you for a few minutes? We might not even need to bother your Department Chair, after all. It seems that you probably know just about everything about this case.”

The secretary already had the phone to her ear and was arranging for someone else to fill in for her for a bit. She had one hand raised in the air, a finger extended, silently asking for a moment. Mulder and Scully nodded to her in understanding. And then she was standing and gesturing towards a conference room off to the left.

“We can go in there. There’s nothing scheduled for another hour at least. Would you like anything to drink? Coffee, tea?”

Five minutes later they were seated comfortably in the small conference room, coffee cups firmly in hand. Scully had chosen to sit away from her partner slightly, sensing the rapport he had already formed with the secretary. She decided to let the psychologist in him take the lead, without verbal or visual intrusion from her. Besides, it was always fascinating to see him work this way. She could almost picture him in private practice somewhere. Speaking with a soft voice, kindly, caring but not judging.

“Lorraine, could you tell me what you remember about Jose Alvarez?”

The woman was nodding. She sat back in her seat and tilted her head back slightly, as if this position would help to jog her memory.

“Jose was such a nice boy. At the time I worked partly for the Undergraduate Director — that was Dr. Cartwright then — so any time the undergraduate students had a problem with registration or financial aid or getting into a course — well, anything really, they’d come to me. Also, if they wanted to meet with Dr. Cartwright, they’d come to me to schedule it. Well, anyway, Jose was a transfer student, see. He did his first two years at a Junior College — they were called Junior Colleges then and now we call them Community Colleges but it’s all the same thing. So, where was I?”

Mulder had his mouth open to remind her when she barreled ahead, hardly pausing for a breath. He glanced quickly down the table to his partner and again noted her smile. She was obviously enjoying this more than he was.

“Oh, yes. So Jose transferred here as a Junior but he still had several classes from the first two years of the program he had to fill in so he was trying to take those and also take the required classes for the Fall semester Junior year and it was just too much. In fact, I think he might have also been working part time in the Machine Shop to help pay his way through. It was tragic really. He wasn’t one of our very best students, but he would have certainly made it if that first semester hadn’t been so overloaded for him. So after that he couldn’t really catch up. I seem to recall he failed a class, maybe even two. But he was good about it. He even told me that he probably should have tried a different approach, maybe worked full-time for a year so he wouldn’t have needed the part-time job here, but he said he was just so excited at being an engineer that he didn’t want to wait. When he left, he hugged me and thanked me for helping him so much while he was here and he said that he would try to come back when the time was right.”

She fell silent then and was obviously lost in a private introspection. Mulder decided to give her a minute to gather her thoughts and lay any ghosts to rest. But she continued on after a matter of seconds.

“They used me against him at the trial, you know. They used what he said. It wasn’t right. He didn’t mean it that way.”

Mulder understood what she meant. The DA had made Alvarez’ comment seem threatening when it hadn’t been intended that way. He nodded to her, letting her know he understood.

“He got sent to Vietnam, you know? And he lost a leg in an explosion. I didn’t know about that until the trial. Poor Jose.”

She turned to face Mulder full on then, sat up straight and said, “He didn’t do what they said he did. I never believed it then and I still don’t. Is that why you’re investigating? Did you finally find the real bomber?”

Mulder considered how much he could tell this woman and then decided she was owed something for keeping the faith all this time.

“We believe it’s a strong possibility that the wrong man was sent to jail and we’ve been investigating the original bombings. But, Lorraine, I think you can appreciate that this information is not for public consumption. It might hurt Jose’s case if you let anyone know prematurely.”

Mulder tried to sound sufficiently serious. The last thing they needed was for this to appear in the paper. For the general citizenry to know there might be a bomber running loose and even worse, one who might have ties to the Bureau.

The woman reached out and grabbed Mulder’s hand in hers, then said “You can count on me Agent Mulder. I won’t breathe a word of this to anyone.”

Mulder felt a chill down his spine at her words. He couldn’t resist the comparison of this woman to the stereotypical Mrs. Got to Know It All And Then Let Everyone Else Know About It. Not much he could do about it now.

“Thank you, Lorraine. Agent Scully and I — and particularly Jose Alvarez — are counting on your discretion.”

The woman nodded and then sat back contentedly in her chair, a big smile on her face. Mulder groaned internally, more certain than ever he’d just been taken. Oh, she’d try to keep it quiet. But then she’d drop a little clue to a friend or family member. She’d get them to ask all the right questions o that she could rationalize it away. If she only answered yes and no in response to their questions, then she wouldn’t really be telling anyone anything, right?

Mulder leaned back in his chair tiredly, and looked over at Scully. She had a funny expression on her face, one he could only interpret as meaning ‘Oh well, Mulder, you couldn’t have known.’ She shrugged her shoulders at him slightly and then started fiddling with the pad of paper in front of her. He turned back to the secretary, determined now to be strictly professional.

“Could you tell me where you were when the bomb went off in 1976?”

“Oh, yes, I was in my office on the third floor — that’s where Dr. Cartwright was, you see, and I was just down the hall from him. They’d just completed the computational lab and it was going to be used for the first time for a CFD course. It was one of the first of it’s kind and our Department got quite a bit of publicity for it. It was partly funded by General Dynamics. It’s Lockheed Martin now, of course. CFD was so new and no one else was teaching a class to undergrads. Unfortunately, the publicity for the bombing sort of killed any hopes for teaching it again for many years. We didn’t offer it again until just seven or eight years ago.”

Mulder shifted in his seat, partly out of frustration at this woman’s tangents and partly out of discomfort. The headache from the morning was back full force and it was time for some more Tylenol. The secretary looked up at him, realized he was getting impatient, that his attention was waning, and got back to her story.

“Anyway, I was on the third floor and the lab was on the fourth, practically right overhead. A student was in my office at the time and it sounded like thunder. Thunder overhead. But we were inside so I knew it wasn’t thunder. Then there was screaming. We could actually hear the screaming from the floor above. Well, someone hit the fire alarm so I left the building, just like everyone else. No one really knew what had happened until some of the students who had been in the lab came running out.”

She was tsking again and shaking her head.

“Those poor kids. It happened right in front of them, you know? They shouldn’t have had to see such a thing. And there was one kid. His name was Terry, I think. He came out of the building in a daze. I think he must have been in shock. He was covered with blood and …. other things. He had been standing behind the teacher and when the bomb blew. He was protected from the blast but not from the …. well, you know.”

Mulder nodded, imagining the brain matter, blood, bone, and bits of body parts that the kid must have been covered with. That kid had probably been in for some pretty hefty counseling over the years.

“Within five minutes, the campus police arrived and started moving everyone away from the building. They gathered all the students who’d been in the lab and took them off somewhere. An empty classroom I think. A few of them were taken to the hospital, in shock. At first, they thought Terry had actually been hurt and he was the first one taken. We learned within minutes what had happened. There were SWAT teams, fire engines, ambulances, police … even FBI, swarming around the building. Everyone was interviewed and then we didn’t really hear anything else for a long time. Things just seemed to pretty much go back to normal. Until Jose was arrested. Then it was all big news again.”

Mulder nodded, then asked, “Could you give me some names of other faculty members, staff, students – anyone, who might have also been around then?”

Suddenly Lorraine didn’t seem quite so helpful. She had liked the idea that she would be their sole source of information. Mulder had pretty much exhausted his niceness quotient. Now he wanted answers.

“Mrs. Ward, it is crucial that we have this information immediately.”

The woman jumped in her seat, suddenly reminded that this man in front of her was a Federal Agent who meant business, not a lost student in need of mothering.

“Yes, sir. Of course. Let’s see, the only other secretary in the Department who was there then is Kay Strel. She’s on the fourth floor, 412. One of our Tech support people was also here then. That’s Martin Landers. He’s in 107. Then there are a few faculty members. Dr. Patterson in 510. Dr. Chen — his office is in 307, but he’s usually in his research lab in 212. The only other one who was around then is Dr. Smith in 423. He was a graduate student here in ’76. He did his M.S. here and then went to General Dynamics. Then went back to school — Georgia Tech, I think — and then came back here as a faculty member about seven years or so ago. Yes, that would be right because he just got tenure.”

She was looking quite satisfied with herself once again and Mulder didn’t have it in him just then to probe any further. They’d gotten quite a bit. Much of it was information that Jake’s team had already uncovered, but quite a bit was new. He glanced over to Scully, silently offering her the opportunity to ask any questions she might have. She shook her head, indicating she had none.

Mulder stood and reached out his hand, saying, “Thank you, Lorraine. You’ve been a tremendous help.”

The woman stood up quickly and shook his hand, once again acting as if this were the high point of her year. She practically gushed when she said, “Agent Mulder it was my pleasure to help you on this case. Please come back if you have any questions.”

Scully spoke then for the first time since they’d been introduced. “Thank you, Mrs. Ward, we will.”

Mulder stood back and let his partner leave the room first, then followed close behind, one hand on the small of her back, as if to guide her safely through the doorframe. When they were far enough from the Chairman’s suite to avoid being heard, both stopped and conferred briefly.

“So, Scully what do you think?”

“I think we’re not likely to really discover much by talking with these people. We should probably leave it to Jake’s team. The information about Alvarez was interesting, though. I think we should probably get a little more involved in that end of the investigation. I also think our good secretary isn’t going to be able to keep quiet for long.”

Scully saw Mulder grimace and immediately felt guilty. She hadn’t really said it right.

“Mulder, there was nothing you could have done. It’s inevitable. Whether it was you or one of Jake’s men, the word would have been out within the day any way.”

She could see him thinking about it and he eventually nodded in acceptance.

“How about if we check out this lab, just to get a clear picture of it, then head back to the Bureau?”

Scully nodded and glanced at her watch.

“It’s a little after four now. We have about thirty minutes if we want to get back in time to coordinate before the six o’clock meeting.”

He nodded to her in acknowledgment, then gestured for her to lead the way.

Twenty-five minutes later, they left the building, curiosity satisfied. There had really been nothing to see. A room filled with computers, students scattered here and there, staring intently at the screens, fiddling with the keyboard or mouse. The bombing had taken place so long ago that there was no feel of it left. It was almost impossible for Mulder to put himself there, to imagine with any detail what it had been like. The headache hadn’t helped the situation, either.

As they left the building, Mulder again noted what a beautiful day it was. It had been hard to remember the sun and grass while stuck inside the prison-like engineering building. He shook his head at the thought of spending four or five years there. He saw that Scully had stopped a few steps ahead of him and now stood patiently waiting. Get with it, Mulder. He quickly caught up and fell into step beside her.

They didn’t talk. In fact, the silence was comforting, companionable. Mulder listened to the sounds around them as they walked. He noted the drop in activity from a couple hours before. There were still students about, but not so many now. No one paid any attention to them, which Mulder found odd. They were sort of out of place, after all. The students wore jeans or shorts for the most part. But there were several professors about, dressed a little more formally. Perhaps the students had put them in that category as well.

Just as Mulder had pretty much moved on to other thoughts, it happened. It hit him suddenly. He was sure of it. He could feel it. Someone was watching. Someone was following. Mulder resisted the urge to turn around to look. There had to be a way to do this without letting the guy know he’d been made. Mulder looked at the building they were walking past and noticed the door that led to a hallway running the length of the building. He could clearly see all the way through to the other side.

He stopped for a moment, kicking his shoe, as if there were a pebble in it. Scully stopped beside him, and looked at him curiously. He bent down to take off the shoe with one hand, placing the other on Scully’s shoulder to help provide balance. He had also effectively managed to block his face from view. No one could see his mouth move as he softly spoke the words, “Don’t move. Don’t turn. Someone’s behind us. I’m going through this building and I’ll circle around. Pretend you’re waiting for me. Look at your watch. Appear impatient.”

Mulder stood straight and shook out the shoe, right foot suspended in air. He slipped it back on and then bent down to tie it. He again kept his head down as he said, “After five minutes, turn around and try to locate him. I’ll be at the corner by then.”

Mulder stood and then gestured to the building. He didn’t try to keep his voice down as he said, “Hey, Scully. I’m going to make a pit stop.” He started towards the building, took about four steps and then turned back to her. “I won’t be long. Just wait for me. I promise I’ll be out in just a couple minutes.” He waved at her then in a somewhat pacifying gesture. He hoped the guy bought it. He hoped the guy would just stay where he was.

Mulder ducked into the building and then glanced back quickly. He saw Scully standing with her arms crossed, looking decidedly impatient. He took off then, running through the building, out the back doors, and towards the left so he could possibly circle around behind the guy.

He walked slowly now. Carefully. Back partially against the wall. Making sure not to make any sound. Searching for any sign out of the ordinary. He hugged the back wall of the building, preparing to turn the corner. Then he flashed suddenly on the last time he had done this. He’d almost killed Krycek then. And Scully had shot him, stopping him from his drug induced inclination to murder. It was a sobering memory.

And all at once it dawned on him what he’d just done. He had left Scully out front as a target. She was an easy target and had no backup. She couldn’t even reach for her weapon without giving herself away. The sweat was flowing now, coating his back, making the shirt stick. He banished the awareness of discomfort. He couldn’t afford it. Couldn’t afford wasting time on something so unimportant. He had to get in position fast.

Mulder reached down to his side and withdrew his weapon from its holster, brought it up to his face and checked to make sure it was ready for action. It wasn’t necessary, was just habit, but it made him feel better. With the gun in his right hand, he leaned back against the wall, took a deep breath, then stuck his head around the corner just far enough and just long enough to get an impression. An impression that no one was there. No one obvious, anyway.

He took another deep breath, silently reminded himself that his imposed five minute limit was quickly approaching, perhaps even exceeded. He stuck his head around the corner for a longer period then, searching out every location where his one might hide, where one might conceal themselves from view. He could see no one.

But then he heard it. Heard the shot ring out, quickly followed by two more. Heard them echo off the brick buildings of the courtyard. And heard the accompanying scream from his partner and from those nearby. He abandoned the notion of staying hidden and ran straight up the side of the building and back around the corner. He took in the situation in a heartbeat. Scully was climbing to her feet, steady but holding her left hand to her head. Her other hand held her weapon. She was okay.

“Scully, where is he?”

She turned at his voice and gestured towards the next building over, in the direction they’d just come, some twenty yards away.

“He went into that building. No description. It was too fast. Go, I’ll call it in.”

Mulder knew she was all right and didn’t question her instructions to go after the guy. He took off at full speed, one part of him aware of the sudden cessation of all sound unnatural. Cars had screeched to a stop and still sat, with drivers agape. Students were frozen in place, a few still lying on the ground where they’d thrown themselves after hearing gunfire erupt around them. A faculty member stood on the sidewalk, briefcase lying on the ground next to him. No one screamed now. No one spoke. And Mulder heard a bird off to his right, another not far from it. The wind rustled in the bushes. It seemed inappropriate somehow. Wrong, that nature was so oblivious to the struggles of it’s greater creatures.

As he practically slid to a stop near the entrance, the several young people there cowered back in fear, unsure whether he was a good guy or the bad guy. Mulder didn’t have time for his badge, just hoped they’d trust him. He yelled out, “Federal Agent. Which way did he go?” while simultaneously shedding his overcoat and jacket, letting them drop on the ground outside the steps.

One young woman pointed to the door and said, “He went into the stairwell. Just to the right of the door.”

Mulder nodded and ran up the stairs to the entrance of the building, stretching his legs to take them two and three at a time. He took a sharp right and paused outside the door marked ‘Stairway’. Listened for a heartbeat, heard nothing, then grabbed the knob in his left hand and threw it open, gun extended in front of him. In the fraction of a second that it took the door to fly open and slam against the wall, he’d assessed the emptiness inside and decided it was safe to move.

Keeping his back to the wall, he started up the stairs, pausing briefly on the first landing to lean in to the center, and look up towards the floors above. He saw movement several floors up and started running then, again taking the stairs two and three at a time. At the second floor he paused, threw the stairway door open and stuck his head out, looking into an almost empty hallway. He allowed his body to follow a moment later. There was a student in a lab coat, standing in shock at the abruptness of his entry as much as the fact that he was waving a gun around.

Mulder barked out, “Did a man come running through here?” As soon as he saw the shake of the head, he returned to the stairwell and his dash up the stairs. He repeated the process on the next two floors, until he was at the door to the roof.

He took a couple deep breaths and threw the door open, staying pressed back against the inner wall of the stairway. After a couple seconds of silence, he stuck his head around the corner, and quickly gauged that it was safe, at least for now.

Mulder moved onto the roof slowly, listening for anything unusual, any sounds that would indicate movement. His eyes panned across the roof, taking in the various structures that would offer natural hiding places. He moved forward carefully, trying to keep his own sounds to a minimum.

There was nothing but silence. Not even birds. And then he heard it to the right. A rolling pebble, a scuff. Something that wasn’t natural. He turned quickly and ran in that direction, and in a heartbeat recognized a man’s back disappearing around a corner. He heard the sounds moving away from him now and ran full out, holding his weapon out in front of him, ready to fire. Fully prepared to fire.

There was a brick structure, a room that could have served as storage, behind which Mulder was pretty sure the man had disappeared. He sensed that there was an exit in that direction and put on another burst of speed, unwilling to let the guy get away when he was this close to catching him. Mulder was breathing hard and his heart was pounding in his chest — from both the exertion as well as the rush of adrenaline. He took the corner at a full-out sprint, used his left arm to help swing him around and to shift his momentum. And suddenly there was no ground under his feet.

There was nothing but air and he was falling. He was falling and he couldn’t understand how it had happened but didn’t have time to think about it as he started accelerating at more than 32 feet per second squared. Gravity was working and there was no way to avoid it. And time slowed. It slowed so that every heartbeat took long minutes, every breath took hours. He knew with complete certainty that he would die and regretted only not telling Scully how much she meant to him. But then time sped up again and was moving too fast. There was no time to react. With no time to think and no time to assess possibilities, Mulder let go of the gun instinctively and spread his arms out to either side. He saw grillwork to the left and some part of his brain recognized it for what it was — a fire escape. Before even a second had passed, his left hand was out, reaching for it, and he managed to grab a rail.

Mulder wrapped his hand around the rail, willing his fingers to somehow support a force well beyond their ability. His hand was shred on uneven galvanized iron as it slid violently down the rail, sending signals of piercing pain to his brain. And then his arm jerked abruptly and his shoulder left it’s socket it one violent yank. Cartilage and muscle screamed, forcing the unconscious release of his one hope for survival. He was airborne once again and he managed somehow to fight off the blackness that spotted his vision from the pain now at his shoulder, his hand, his back. But he’d held on long enough for his momentum to shift, for his body to swing back towards the building instead of out into empty space.

Mulder had dropped another floor’s height, but his body had turned enough so that his right arm was close. Close enough to the fire escape that he might have a second chance. And he managed to hold on this time. His right hand grabbed on the rail, slid down to the bottom, and again the additional pain threatened to overwhelm him. But he was too stubborn to let go, to give up. And it paid off finally as his body swung in towards the building, allowing him to land on the fire escape platform between the second and third floor.

Mulder landed hard, felt his knees fold, rolled to the right and crashed against the brick wall. For at least four seconds, it didn’t matter that his hands were shredded and dripping blood down to the platform and ground below, that he’d felt the stitches in his right arm tear, that his left shoulder was separated, pulled violently from its socket, that his entire body felt bruised and battered. For at least four seconds, the only thing he could think about was the miracle of his existence. He was actually alive. He’d run off a building into empty space and had survived it. He was on top of the world. Fucking A. But then the four seconds were up. Reality set in. And he became aware of the agony. His miracle turned into hell on earth.

Scully was still below on the sidewalk. While not seriously injured, she knew better than to try to start racing up several flights of stairs with a quarter inch deep gash along the entire right side of her head. She had immediately called in for backup and had directed the various officers as they’d arrived to the exits of the building. She’d instructed them that a Federal Agent was in pursuit of the suspect, not wanting some green cop to accidentally shoot her partner.

She was conferring with the Captain when screams to her right caused them both to swing their heads in that direction. Everyone was looking up. And when she did as well, she saw her partner falling through the air, grab onto a fire escape, lose his grip, then manage to grab again and swing onto it. And before she knew it, she was running towards the fire escape access, yelling out “Call an ambulance”. She jumped high, pulled down the ladder and started climbing, oblivious of her own wound. She was beside her partner in less than two minutes.

He didn’t look very good. He was still gasping for breath, was lying mostly on his back with part of his left side propped against the wall awkwardly. He evidently hadn’t moved since coming to an abrupt stop against the wall. He was gripping his bent left arm with his right hand, holding it tight to his body. Every breath caused a matching grimace of pain. Blood flowed freely from both hands, as well as his right upper arm, where he’d been grazed just the day before. His face was white, gray really and Scully knew that despite the sweat that dripped from his nose, his chin, his hair, he would be cold from shock. And he was.

She pushed the hair back from his eyes and spoke softly, letting him know that help was on the way. An ambulance had been called and would be there any minute. Everything would be all right. She moved her eyes down to his body, trying to access whether there was any hidden damage. Broken ribs were a real possibility. She was loathe to move him until she could determine the extent of his injuries.

“Mulder, can you hear me? Can you tell me where you’re hurt?”

Scully was relieved to see her partner’s eyes open and focus on her. He cleared his throat, gasped for air, and then managed a haggard reply.

“Shoulder. Think I separated it.”

Scully immediately moved her hands to feel gently, let her eyes take in the awkward angle, the grimace of pain in response to her touch. Heard the sharp intake of breath and matching groan.

“Okay, Mulder. We can bind that into place before getting you down from here. It’ll help keep the jarring down to a minimum. Anything else?”

He understood she meant other than the obvious and merely shook his head slightly, forcing out, “I’m all right. Just the shoulder.”

He tried moving then, tried to sit, and froze when the blast of pain overwhelmed his senses, caused him to almost black out. The curse he released through teeth-clenched jaw sounded far away, even to his own ears.

He laid his head back hard against the ground, practically slammed it down, hoping to battle one kind of pain with another. It helped and he managed to fight off the blackness that hovered nearby. He became aware of Scully’s hand on his right arm, the other on his forehead. Her voice was so soothing. So calming. He knew she was hurt herself, had seen the blood flowing down her face, onto her neck, and appreciated that she was with him.

He decided to let go for a few minutes. Scully was here looking out for him. She’d make sure the suspect wouldn’t get away if it was at all possible. She’d make sure the police did what needed to be done. He closed his eyes and allowed himself to sink into the black pit of oblivion that welcomed him with open arms.

The last thing he heard was Scully’s voice saying, ” You’ll be okay, Mulder. The ambulance will be here in a minute.”

Tuesday, 6:07 p.m. Arlington Hospital

Scully was now even more tired of hospitals than she had been the day before. This hospital emergency room looked almost exactly the same as the one in the Dallas hospital. The same colors, the same furniture. The seats were just as hard and cold. This doctor facing her, though, was not quite so relaxed and easy going as Dr. Aker had been. Nor, she suspected, as competent.

Scully was feeling ever more impatient. Trying to get specific details out of the woman in front of her was like pulling teeth. This five minute conversation was already at least four minutes too long.

“So what you’re saying is that he doesn’t need to stay overnight. Is that correct?”

“I’m saying that he has no life threatening injuries and that, providing proper rest and care is ensured, I’d be willing to release him into the care of a professional.”

Scully’s irritation quotient was just about exceeded. This woman didn’t know how to answer anything in less than twenty words.

“Fine. Could you tell me where he is, please? I’d like to check on him.”

“He’s still in the examining room. His hands are being treated. The shoulder’s been set and is confined with a sling. We’ve restitched his shoulder wound.”

Okay, now Scully really wanted to scream. Wanted to grab this woman and shake her. They’d already been through his condition. She knew all this. Now she just wanted to see him. See him with her own eyes. She forced herself to breathe deeply and then just walked past the woman. Why bother even trying for anything useful from her? The sputtering from behind cheered her for some reason.

Scully walked into the room she’d seen them take her partner and quickly surveyed the six stations. Mulder was to the right, two tables down. He was sitting, in undershirt and pants, left arm in a blue sling that was wrapped around his entire chest, straps fastened tightly. His left hand, which hung out from the sling slightly, was wrapped in white bandages and the young man in front of Mulder was just completing treatment of the right hand. A matching bandage covered her partner’s right upper arm. If Scully didn’t have the vivid picture of her partner nearly falling to his death in front of her foremost in her mind, she would have found the sight of so much white cotton wrapping various of his body parts amusing.

She approached the table, stopping next to the nurse. She stood quietly and watched as the man used tweezers to pluck pieces of iron and paint out of her partner’s hand. It looked like it hurt. She looked up to her partner’s face, saw that his eyes were closed, his forehead creased in concentration. His slumped shoulders in no way indicated that he was relaxed. In fact, she could tell that his entire body was tense, every muscle straining to keep his body still. Why in the world didn’t they have him lying flat for this?

She saw his hand jerk just slightly in response to the nurse’s administrations and was prepared to stop this and have him lay flat when the nurse beat her to it.

“Sir, are you sure you wouldn’t prefer to lie down? It would be much more comfortable.”

Mulder opened his eyes then and focused on the man. Scully could see then that he saw her, as well.

“No, I’m fine. Just finish …. please.”

Scully held her tongue. Didn’t say what she was thinking. Damn the man and his pride. Or was it something else? Something beyond pride? Mulder was still so often a mystery to her.

She waited until the man was finished, had sprayed Mulder’s hand, then wrapped it and left them alone. She took a couple steps closer so that she stood in front of him, practically touching his knees.

“Hey, partner, how are you feeling?”

He didn’t respond. Just gave her a crooked grin. The message was clear. ‘Guess, Scully.’

“I called Jake. He’s running the meeting tonight. He’s going to get the team working on this latest venture of our guy’s. I also called Delano just a bit ago and filled him in.”

Scully shook her head at the thought of their suspect. This guy was really something. Her reverie was broken by her partner’s words.

“How are you, Scully?”

“I’m fine. Really. It just grazed me. I lost a little hair. Look.”

She pulled away a batch of hair to reveal the wound. The doctor who treated her had decided to forgo a bandage, at least at present, wanting to allow it to dry and start healing as soon as possible. It didn’t look serious to Mulder. He was reassured by the lack of stitches, the lack of white bandage. He turned his eyes back to hers, then.

“You have my weapon?”

She reached into her purse and pulled out his gun, handed it over to him. He reached his bandaged right hand out for it.

“Think you’ll be able to hold onto it?”

Mulder was not amused. It just wasn’t the right time for joking. With an exaggerated “Ha, ha, Scully”, Mulder slid off the table, even as Scully backed a step to give him room. A wave of dizziness caused him to close his eyes briefly. He took a deep breath and pushed away from the examining table to stand on his own. Scully was gripping his right arm tightly at the elbow. He gained his equilibrium and gave her a sick smile.

“Let’s blow this joint, Scully.”

Scully laughed, turned to look up at him with a quizzical expression.

“Blow this joint? What movies have you been watching lately?”

Again she got no response, but the expression said it all.

“Okay, you’re clear to go. But, Mulder …. I’ll drive.”

“You’re a riot, Scully.”

Tuesday, 9:19 p.m. Dallas Bureau, Command Center

Jake and Scully conferred quietly. Mulder had faded out about a half hour before and now sat with his head on his right forearm, which lay on the table in front of him. Scully knew he belonged in bed. Knew he needed real rest, but she also knew him. He wouldn’t go yet. Not until they’d made some headway in figuring out why they’d been followed, by whom, why the guy had shot at Scully, and where the heck he had disappeared to.

The three had been drawing up the various lists of tasks for the teams when Mulder had conked out. They’d been in the middle of a discussion on the worth of tracking down admission forms to the School of Engineering at UTA for the past twenty-five years when Mulder just folded over on the table. Neither Scully nor Jake had been particularly alarmed, both having seen the results of Mulder’s almost obsessive drive in the face of physical limitation before. But it had caused them to pause and watch while it happened.

Scully decided enough was enough, finally.

“Jake, I think that’s it for tonight. It’s been an awfully long couple of days and I think this is enough to get things moving for now. Mulder can review things tomorrow morning and make any additional suggestions.”

“Okay, Dana. What about him? How do you plan on getting him back to the hotel?”

Scully looked over at her partner and suddenly wished for a matter transfer device like they had on Star Trek. It sure would make things easier.

“I’m not sure. Let’s see whether we can get him to his feet.”

Scully stood and approached her partner. She leaned over the table, rested her hand on his right shoulder and called his name out softly. There was no response so she tried again, this time with a slight squeeze to his shoulder.

“Come on, Mulder. Time to wake up.” She saw him blink sleepily, then raise his head, surveying the surroundings as if he had no idea where he was. The creased forehead and confused expression cause her some concern. Thoughts of delayed trauma to the brain swirled through her mind. It evidently worried Jake as well because he asked, “Hey Mulder, are you all right?”

Her partner sat up straight then, evidently self-conscious because of Jake Mander’s presence. Scully still had her hand on his shoulder, unwilling to drop it just because of some male ego thing.

“Come on, Mulder. It’s time to head to the hotel. Jake and I finished up the task descriptions necessary to get people started tonight. Anything that we missed you can fill in tomorrow. Now, though, it’s time for bed.”

Mulder looked like he was prepared to argue, had his mouth open, in fact, when Scully’s cell phone rang. She pulled it out and turned it on quickly, relieved for once at being interrupted.

“Scully.”

She jerked to her full 5’2″ height at her boss’ voice.

“Agent Scully, I heard that both you and Agent Mulder were injured this afternoon during pursuit of a suspect. How are you? And where are you?”

Scully didn’t have time to consider where or how he had heard. She found that a little part of her was pleased that he was actually breaking security in order to check on his agents.

“I’m fine, sir. The bullet just grazed me. I’m at the command center right now. Mulder …..”

She stopped suddenly, realizing she wasn’t completely sure how to explain what had happened to her partner. Her gaze turned to him, almost unconsciously. He was struggling to stand, evidently having arrived at the conclusion that their boss was on the phone. Scully finally decided to ignore the how altogether and focus only on the what.

“Mulder got pretty banged up. He has a separated shoulder that’s painful right now, but should heal quickly with no problems. The stitches from the bullet wound yesterday were pulled. His hands were lacerated. Both are wrapped. He’s basically bruised and battered. He’ll live.”

She was looking at Mulder when she said it, making sure he knew that her smile was meant for him. She ignored the numerous facial expressions suggesting his irritation in her recitation of his condition.

“Agent Scully, what hospital is Mulder in?”

She could hear her boss’ hesitancy on the other end. Could appreciate his confusion. The injuries she’d outlined sounded critical enough to warrant an overnight stay at least. But in reality, there was nothing the hospital could do for him that she couldn’t do. There was no purpose to his being forced to stay. And her boss knew that if her partner were in the hospital, she’d be there with him. Hence the quandary.

“Mulder’s right here, sir.”

There was a moment of silence at the other end of the phone and then Skinner said, “Could I speak with him please, Scully?”

“Of course, sir. One moment.”

Scully walked over to her partner, gestured to the phone and held it up for him so Mulder wouldn’t have to hold it. Her partner leaned against the conference table, and bent slightly at the waist to allow Scully to reach a bit better.

He finally said, “Hello, sir.”

“Agent Mulder. I’d been led to believe that you were seriously injured this afternoon. Are you sure you shouldn’t be in a hospital? Or at least taking it easy? You won’t be any good to the investigation if you collapse from exhaustion or for injury-related reasons.”

Mulder smiled, turned to look at his partner and saw by her matching grin that she’d heard, too. Damn if Skinner wasn’t sounding paternal towards him.

“Sir, Scully and I were just leaving. It wasn’t really that bad. Really.”

There was silence again and now Mulder was getting slightly irritated.

“Sir, look, it’s not really wise for us to talk too much by phone. Everything’s okay here. You need to concentrate on keeping yourself safe.”

He heard the sigh from the other end and managed to convince himself that Skinner had used their injuries as a way to reach out to the world beyond his safehouse prison. Mulder could appreciate the boredom. Had spent enough time confined in hospitals and even his apartment to appreciate Skinner’s frustration.

“Okay, Mulder. I’ll check in with you tomorrow.”

“Yes, sir.”

And then the line was dead. Scully dropped her arm, switched the phone to the other hand and shook out her right arm. She smiled at her partner and said, “That does it. Now you went and told him we were leaving. So I guess we have to, now.”

Mulder couldn’t find it within himself to argue, even though some small part knew they were missing something important. Oh, well. It would still be there tomorrow.

He let his shoulders drop, slowly. Felt the tension contributing even more to the pain in the left one.

“All right, Scully, let’s go.”

Mulder turned to his friend and said, “Jake, we’ll see you tomorrow morning. Probably by eight but we’ll play it by ear.”

The man nodded and wished them a good night. Watched as Mulder semi-staggered from the room, watched as Scully grabbed his right arm to help steady him, watched as Mulder leaned his head down and spoke to her too softly for Jake to hear. Watched as they left the room together. He suddenly regretted that he worked alone. That he didn’t have a partnership like these two did.

Tuesday, 10:12 p.m. Dallas Century Hotel

The knock sounded loudly, surprising him. His partner stuck her head in the room and said, “You decent, Mulder? I want to check you over before you turn in.”

Despite the number of times Scully had seen him in his underwear, he still felt self-conscious. A few minutes earlier, he had practically collapsed on the bed, dressed only in his boxers and numerous bandages. At her entrance, almost without thought, he pulled the sheet up slightly and then arrested the movement when he realized what he was doing. This was Scully. This was his partner, for Christ’s sake.

“Hey, Scully.”

Scully felt her eyebrows raise at the tame response. After all, she’d intentionally given him quite an opening line to respond to. And he let it pass right by. He must be exhausted. She approached the bed and gestured for him to slide over, then sat down next to him.

Mulder closed his eyes briefly, calmed his breathing. Having a woman sit down next to you, in bed, when you were wearing next to nothing, was certainly going to result in a physical response. Scully was good at ignoring. She’d had plenty of practice over the years. He knew this. But it didn’t stop the flush that spread across his skin. He had to keep telling himself. This was Scully. This was his partner. His best friend. After regaining the proper perspective once again, he opened his eyes and turned his head towards her. She had asked him something and he wasn’t sure what it was. He decided to wing it.

“I feel fine.”

She paused a moment, then looked amused when she said, “I asked what you thought about the progress the teams made this afternoon.”

This time he couldn’t even find it in him to be embarrassed. He chuckled softly before answering.

“They’re good agents, all of them. After what happened today and what Jake told us about his team, I think we need to concentrate more heavily on the original bombing cases. I agree with Jake and with AD Skinner’s intuition. I think that Alvarez was set up. Maybe not by the team, but by someone. The real bomber probably. That’s where we have to focus our efforts.”

Scully had been checking his shoulder and bandaged hands while he’d been talking and now nodded to him in agreement. Mulder seemed unaware of her as he continued speaking.

“I just don’t get the motivation, though. It makes no sense whatsoever. If this guy is responsible for the original bombings, and set up Alvarez, then why would he go after the team twenty years later. It’s not like anyone’s been listening to Alvarez, right? Or maybe someone did start listening. Maybe he’d finally convinced someone. Maybe he’d convinced someone on the original team.”

Scully had her right hand wrapped around her partner’s left wrist. She was taking his pulse and noted it slowing even as his words slowed and he began to drift off. She could see him fighting it, trying to stay awake. His eyelashes fluttered and then came to rest finally as he let himself go.

The idea he’d just put forth was an interesting one. Perhaps one of the team had become suspicious of some aspect of the case after all that time and had started to reinvestigate. It would certainly explain why the real bomber was taking out the team members. Perhaps he knew only that one of the team members was suspicious, but not which one.

Scully sighed and reminded herself to add this to her list of things to begin investigating tomorrow. She placed her partner’s arm down by his side and pulled the sheet up to his chest. She made sure his left arm was immobilized. She pulled a couple other pillows over from the other bed, then placed them next to him in the hopes it would prevent him from rolling during the night.

Mulder actually looked like he was resting comfortably. Scully sighed, then slowly reached her hand up to feel her own head, to feel the just healing wound made by the bullet that had grazed her. They’d been incredibly lucky today. Both of them could have been killed if things had gone just slightly differently.

Scully stood slowly and turned out the light, then made her way to her own room. She smiled as she heard the soft snore behind her. At the connecting door, she turned for a moment and whispered, “Sweet dreams, Mulder” before closing it again behind her. She left it cracked a few inches, just in case her partner needed something during the night, then went about getting ready for bed. Jesus, it was just Tuesday. They’d only been here since Sunday. Scully wasn’t sure whether she could make it through another couple days like these had been.

She turned on the television and scanned the channels for CNN. She was out of touch and had no idea what had been happening in the world lately. It was something that often happened when she and Mulder were embroiled in a case. She’d lose four or even more days of world events, only to discover that a war had started or ended, a new vaccine had been discovered, the President of the United States was embroiled in yet another sex scandal. Sometimes it was better not to know.

She moved over to the bed and started pulling covers down and stopped suddenly when she heard her name mentioned. Was that possible? Was CNN reporting on some Scully relative somewhere?

She turned, grabbed for the remote’s volume control, then sat down heavily on the bed. It wasn’t a Scully relative and it wasn’t a Mulder relative. They were talking about her and her partner. Shit!

The reporter sat at a desk with a screen behind him, showing a scene from the airport a couple days before. It was a still photo of the airplane, lying tilted some twenty or thirty yards from the runway, surrounded by fire engines and ambulances. The frozen images had been caught forever on film by some enterprising journalist in the making. Scully wondered idly how much the photographer made on this picture alone.

The reporter was saying, “….confirmed reports that Agents Mulder and Scully from the Washington, DC Bureau had not been on the flight themselves but were in the airport. It is not known at this time what the extent of their involvement is in the case. However, informed sources have identified them as being present at the University at Texas Arlington campus this afternoon when gunfire erupted. While no one was reported as being seriously injured, Agent Mulder was taken by ambulance to the Arlington Hospital. The Hospital has confirmed his release.”

Scully discovered she’d been holding her breath and suddenly took in a huge lungful. She was reciting a mantra silently. Please God, don’t let them interview the secretary. Please, God, don’t let them interview the secretary.

She was relieved when the next group of faces to appear on the screen were students who had evidently been at the building during the excitement. They really had nothing substantive to contribute, although their description of events certainly sounded dramatic. Mulder would have enjoyed hearing himself described in what amounted to action movie terms.

One kid was now saying, “Yeah, he came flying out from the roof and grabbed onto the fire escape. He dropped almost three floors and I thought he was a goner for sure but then he swung onto the fire escape, just like Stallone, man. It was way cool.”

Scully smiled and glanced over at the door leading to her partner’s room. On second thought, it was probably best that he wasn’t seeing this. When she glanced back to the television, her heart skipped a beat at the sight of Lorraine Ward, up close and personal on national t.v. Oh, shit. Oh, fuck. This was not good. This was not good at all. Scully considered waking her partner and passed. The phone rang and she picked it up quickly, never taking her eyes off the unfolding drama.

“Scully.”

It was Jake Mander.

“You watching?”

“Yeah, hang on.”

She rested the phone on the bed and turned her full attention to the newscast once again, knowing that Jake Mander and millions of others were doing the same at that very moment. Watching fascinated at this story of plane bombings and Federal Agents and gunfire on a college campus.

Lorraine was saying, “…. I can’t really go into detail about what we talked about, of course. That wouldn’t be right. But we talked for a good thirty minutes and then they left. Then not ten minutes later there was all these gun shots that rang out across the campus. I’ll tell you, I was a bit worried that my life would be in danger after talking with them.”

Scully shook her head in amazement. No one would have even known they’d talked to the woman if she hadn’t blabbed it on national t.v. Actually, it was quite possible that she would be in danger now. Scully couldn’t help the ‘Idiot’ that escaped softly.

The report ended with substantially more questions raised than were answered. They’d gotten off lucky. Lorraine had kept quiet for now. But it was only a matter of time before the link to the Agents’ deaths, to the attacks on Skinner, and to Alvarez was discovered. They’d have to plan for it.

Scully picked up the phone again and turned the television off.

“Hey, Jake.”

“So what do you think? Nothing too damaging, yet, huh?”

“I agree. But it’s only a matter of time now. We better start making some contingency plans. I’m a bit more worried about AD Skinner’s safety. It’s one thing to have to watch for one crazy man. It’s quite another to have to guard against a horde of rabid reporters. We better coordinate with the various PD’s a little more openly so they know what’s at stake.”

She sighed heavily and put her free hand up to her forehead, rubbing in circles. Damn, publicity was the last thing they wanted or needed on this case. Mulder was going to be royally pissed tomorrow. Jake Mander’s thoughts must have been operating in parallel to her own.

“Did Mulder see it?”

“No, thank God. He’s asleep.”

“How is he?”

“Okay. Not great. Not too bad.”

“He should stay in bed for a few days.”

Scully snorted out loud at the thought, amused that Jake would even consider the suggestion.

“I know, I know, this is Mulder we’re talking about. Forget I even suggested it.”

“Forgotten.”

“Listen, I’ll see you guys tomorrow. Try to get Mulder to take it easy, huh?”

“Night, Jake.”

Wednesday, 3:21 a.m. Dallas Century Hotel

Scully came to a sitting position with a jerk, trying to understand why her heart was racing, her pulse pounding. It took a moment to orient herself, to realize where she was. She glanced at the clock, practically shuddered at the time, and prepared to lay back down. Then she noticed the light coming from the other room. Could Mulder actually be awake?

She decided to check on him, to make sure he was okay. She threw off the covers and swung her feet over the side of the bed. She grabbed a sweatshirt and pulled it over her lighter cotton night shirt as protection against the slight chill. She reached beside the bed and picked up her discarded socks and pulled them on her feet as well.

Scully headed towards the connecting door and heard noises as she got closer. The television. Figured. She stopped at the door, trying to decide whether to knock or not. She didn’t want to wake him if he was asleep, but she certainly didn’t want to surprise him if he was awake. She finally decided to knock very lightly and was surprised when she heard his voice call out, “It’s okay.”

He was sitting stiffly against the headboard, right arm holding onto the left, even though it was still in the sling. He didn’t look good.

“Hey, Mulder. What are you doing up?”

She saw his grimace and understood that he was in pain. The medication he was taking should have gotten him through the night. Then it dawned on her. He probably hadn’t taken it. And even if he’d wanted to, he probably couldn’t have removed the top to get at the pills, with both hands bandaged and left arm immobilized. Shit, what kind of doctor was she? What kind of friend was she?

Her partner was his typical ‘no tell’ self when he replied, “Just couldn’t sleep. That’s all.”

Scully came into the room and walked closer to the bed. She could see the light sheen of perspiration now. Could see the fine lines indicative of persistent pain. She cursed at herself once again, swallowed hard, but kept her face impassive, her expression neutral.

“You know, while I’m here I could get you your next dose of pain medication. Are they in the bathroom?”

She saw his face relax slightly and knew she’d guessed right.

“Yeah, they’re on the counter. Thanks.”

Scully turned to the right and entered the bathroom. She noted her partner’s shaving equipment and toiletries lines up like soldiers at attention. For a man who was notoriously sloppy at work, he certainly was neat whenever they traveled. She spied the little prescription bottle turned on its side, laying against the soap dish. It was the only item on the counter not put neatly in its place. She could practically see him trying to remove the top and finally just tossing them down in frustration.

She opened it efficiently and removed two of the pills, then set the open container on the counter. She left the lid lying next to it. Filling a glass with water, she made her way back into the bedroom.

Mulder had closed his eyes and appeared once again to be concentrating on banishing the pain. It irked her slightly that he hadn’t just asked for her help. He never wanted to appear weak in any way, regardless of how hurt he was. Then she recalled the year of her own ‘I’m fines’ and decided he wasn’t the only one who was guilty of trying to hide discomfort and pain. She’d done it, too. Hadn’t let him in, even as she was dying slowly from the cancer eating its way to her brain. What a pair they were.

“Here you go, Mulder.”

She sat down beside him, trying not to jostle the bed too badly. Still she saw by the intake of breath that the movement had hurt him. She held out the pills, watched as he slowly brought them to his mouth, and then reach out for the water. She held on to the glass long enough to make sure he had a good grip on it, then let go. The water sloshed slightly in response to the shaking of his hand, further evidence that he was not feeling at all well.

“Thanks, Scully.”

He handed the glass back to her and met her eyes straight on for the first time since she’d entered the room. He took a shaky breath and said again, “Thank you.”

Scully knew what he was really saying. Knew he was saying, ‘Thank you for taking care of me. Thank you for caring enough to come check on me in the middle of the night. Thank you for understanding what I need even when I don’t tell you.’

She put the glass on the table next to the bed and took his right hand in hers for just a moment, careful of the bandages. She wanted to be sure he knew just how much his friendship meant to her. How much he meant to her. Her voice was slightly unsteady when she replied finally.

“No problem, partner.”

Mulder gave her a small smile. Message received. Scully turned to look at the t.v., relieved to see ESPN instead of CNN. Time enough for that trauma tomorrow. She glanced at her partner once again.

“Do you think you’ll be able to sleep?”

She knew it was a stupid question as soon as she asked it, but couldn’t take it back. Mulder still stared at her, gaze unwavering, but the question had elicited a small smile.

“I’ll try soon. I promise. Why don’t you go back to bed?”

“Okay. I’ll see you in the morning.”

Scully stood and turned to the door, started walking towards it. She was consumed with a single thought, a single desire. That both she and Mulder could learn to ask for help, especially of each other. But perhaps it was a lesson they’d never learn. A couple feet away, Mulder’s voice stopped her.

“Hey, Scully?”

She turned, quizzical expression obvious.

“Yeah?”

He looked like he wanted to ask her something but was afraid to.

“What is it? Do you need something?”

Then she realized the phrasing that he might actually accept, might possibly respond to.

“Is there anything I can do for you, Mulder?”

She saw the internal struggle and knew he’d finally made a decision when he slumped back somewhat against the headboard.

“I have a huge favor to ask. You can say no.”

Now she was curious. What the heck could he need that would cause this level of embarrassment and angst?

“All right. Ask.”

“My neck is really killing me. It’s so tight I can hardly move it. Do you think you could give me a neck rub?”

Scully arrested the laughter that threatened to bubble out. The request was made in such a plaintive voice. He sounded so sincerely mournful. Never in five years had this Mulder surfaced. He was being honest with her, asking for her help. Maybe they could learn after all. She decided that such honesty was to be rewarded.

“Mulder, I am renowned in the Scully clan for my neck, shoulder, and back rubs.”

She approached the bed once more and waved at him to move.

“Come sit on the floor by the bed. You can lean against it so your shoulder doesn’t get jostled.”

Twenty minutes later, Scully was trying to figure out if she could somehow get him back into bed without waking him. Impossible.

“Hey, Mulder. Earth to Mulder. Wake up and get back in bed.”

He roused slightly, just aware enough to follow her instructions, allowing himself to be directed and led. After he was flat on his back and safely tucked in, Scully checked the clock alarm to make sure it wasn’t turned on, then returned to her room. She stretched her own neck from right to left, suddenly wishing Mulder could return the favor for her. Oh well, he’d just have to owe her. She was asleep within two minutes despite her stiff neck.

Wednesday, 10:02 a.m. Arlington, Safehouse

Skinner was glued to the television set in the living area. Had been since he’d awaken that morning a little after six. Had been last night until he went to bed around midnight. It had been a shock, hearing his agent’s names on CNN. He’d been relieved that his own had not yet been brought into the mix, but knew that it was inevitable now. The connection would probably be made today.

Neither Mulder nor Scully had been available that morning when he checked in with the Bureau office. He’d spoken briefly with Jake Mander, asked the man to relay his concerns to his agents, and that was it. Then he was back to the television, waiting for enlightenment.

He’d seen several reports since the breaking story last night, but they essentially just rehashed old news. They were reporting on the story again soon, supposedly in this half hour. Skinner found this waiting to be almost unbearable. There. There was a video clip of Mulder and Scully and it was new, hadn’t been shown before. He’d have to congratulate his agents. They’d made it to the big time. They were the lead story, top of the hour, on CNN.

They were shown getting out of their car in front of what he assumed was the Dallas Bureau. He noted Mulder struggling slightly as he exited from the passenger’s side, took in the bandaged hands, the sling encompassing the man’s left arm. He appeared way too pale and haggard, and Skinner hoped it was just a distortion of the television.

Both Agents held their heads high as they weaved in and out of the reporters blocking their path. He heard Scully say “No comment”, heard a matching statement from Mulder, and he was filled with pride in the professional picture they presented. He increased the sound even more and leaned forward, as if this would provide improved clarity.

“…has been confirmed that the Assistant Director was on board Flight 72 from Las Vegas last Sunday that was damaged from an in-air bomb explosion, in which three people were killed. AD Walter Skinner is known to have been on that flight and to have survived, but we have been unable to confirm his location since that time. It is speculated that the FBI AD was the target of the bombing.”

“Shit!”

Skinner couldn’t help it. He was furious at these idiots who played with people’s lives in this manner. This wasn’t in the public good. This was in no one’s good except that damned network. This type of sensationalistic reporting was going to get people killed.

“Everything all right in here, sir?”

Skinner waved to Henderson, saying, “Sorry. Everything’s fine.”

He was still listening carefully and was even more concerned than ever for his agents’ safety.

“… that Agents Mulder and Scully are investigating. What isn’t yet known is why they are here in Dallas and what the connection is to AD Skinner. We will keep you informed as more information becomes available in this still breaking story.”

Damn that woman anyway for looking so fucking smug. She’d quite possibly given Mulder and Scully a death sentence. Skinner stood abruptly, wanting nothing more than to pick the television up and throw it through the window. He resisted the urge and instead turned it off, violently. He headed into the next room, hoping that maybe Henderson or Chadwick would be in the mood to talk. This enforced solitude was really starting to get to him.

Wednesday, 10:24 a.m. Dallas Bureau, Command Center

Mulder was trying the idea out on Jake. He and Scully had discussed it for an hour and couldn’t arrive at any decision as to its veracity. They needed another opinion.

“But if one of them had begun investigating and contacted someone here in the Dallas Bureau, it might have been the trigger. The guy might have found out somehow. Found out that the team or at least one member was looking into it again. Then he started his campaign of elimination.”

“But, he killed them over a period of four years, Mulder. That’s kind of slow if he wanted to prevent the team member from talking to someone else. I mean, what was he doing during all that time?”

Mulder was frustrated. It was the same argument Scully had made and he knew that it did make sense. He understood that it made sense. But still, he knew he was close. He knew he was on the right track. They just weren’t seeing it yet. He wasn’t seeing it yet.

Mulder paced the room, sometimes in a circle, sometimes turning at one end to head back the way he’d come. He had to find an outlet for his frustration and restless energy. Running was pretty much out for the next month at least, as was swimming. Pacing would have to do. Careful pacing. Every once in a while he turned too quickly or stepped too heavily and was reminded of the torn ligaments in his shoulder. No. Careful, balanced, even pacing would have to do.

He raised his right wrist and glanced at his watch, noting they had about a half hour until the group meeting. It would certainly be nice to develop an actual profile on this guy. But Mulder was finding it impossible. Nothing made sense. Nothing the guy did made any sense. But that wasn’t really true and Mulder knew it. There was sense to it, somehow and somewhere. Mulder just wasn’t seeing it yet. He needed to see it. He needed to see it soon.

“Okay, so maybe no one was investigating. Or at least, none of the team members. Maybe it was someone else. Someone who was narrowing in on the truth.”

“But, if that were the case, why would this guy start killing off the team? It still doesn’t make sense.”

“It would if he wanted to eliminate any trace to the original case but wanted to keep it quiet so it wasn’t obvious. If he had to make each of the deaths look accidental, which he did quite well. AD Skinner wasn’t even curious about it until the last death and that was because he’d kept up with Hendricks. If he and Hendricks hadn’t remained friends, even AD Skinner wouldn’t have known what was happening.”

“That’s true, Mulder, but still, four years?”

“So our guy’s patient.”

Scully had remained silent as Jake and Mulder went back and forth, but she couldn’t any more.

“Patient?! He tried to kill Skinner by blowing up a plane only a little over a week after he killed Hendricks and when he missed, he tried shooting him in his hotel room the very next morning. That doesn’t sound very patient to me.”

Mulder heard the helplessness, the impatience in his own voice when he spoke again, but couldn’t dampen in it, couldn’t keep it at bay any longer.

“Well, I don’t know Scully. Maybe Skinner’s different. Maybe he was saved for last for a reason. I mean, we haven’t been able to identify any pattern to the order in which the agents were killed. Maybe there wasn’t any order except that Skinner was supposed to be last.”

Mulder had stopped pacing and turned towards them abruptly from sheer frustration. The resulting jarring to his shoulder caused a cloud of black to coat his vision. He put his right hand out, searching almost blindly for support and was relieved when he felt a hand in his a moment later. He heard Scully finally, telling him to sit. Felt her other hand on his right arm, guiding him. He let his knees bend and sank into the chair, concentrating on doing it smoothly.

He leaned against the chair back gingerly, closed his eyes and tried getting his breathing under control. Damn, he hated not being a hundred percent. Shit, he’d settle for sixty percent even. This crap was getting real old, real fast.

“Mulder, you okay?”

He sensed the concern underlying his partner’s seemingly nonchalant inquiry. Nodded and finally opened his eyes. He could see again. The black had pushed back, leaving Scully’s face behind. He could manage only a hoarse whisper.

“It’s okay. I’m okay.”

Mulder cleared his throat, licked his lips, decided to try again.

“Just stopped too fast. That’s all.”

He realized that Jake was standing to the left of him, a bottle of water in his hands, as if in offering.

“Hey, how ’bout something to drink?”

Jeez, get a little dizzy and everyone thinks you’re going to fall apart on them.

“No thanks, Jake. I’m fine.”

He was feeling stronger now but the throbbing reminded him that he should probably take a couple more pain pills. They had only ten minutes or so until the briefing with the team. He decided it was time to ask for help, after all.

“Actually, Jake I changed my mind. I could use some water. And Scully, could you get those pills out of my suit jacket pocket and get me two?”

Scully was thoroughly surprised, but smiled, reached into his right pocket and retrieved the bottle. She opened it quickly, opened the bottle of water, then shook out two pills into his extended right hand, careful of the bandages.

“Thanks.”

“No problem.”

Ten minutes later they were in the large conference room down the hall with all but two of the team members present. SAC Delano was also there. He’d checked in on Mulder and Scully earlier that morning to be sure both were all right and to see if they needed anything. Mulder had invited him to the briefing so as to avoid repeating the status of the investigation at a later time.

Mulder leaned against the front wall slightly, just enough to help keep him firmly in one position. Scully and Mander sat in the front row, ready to give their own reports.

“As you all probably know by now, Scully and I had a little excitement at the UTA campus yesterday.”

There were smirks and ironic chuckles throughout the room. Leave it to Spooky Mulder to understate his Superman stunt as a ‘little excitement’. Yes, they’d all heard. Every FBI agent across the country had heard, as had most of the rest of America.

“Both Agent Mander’s team and mine will be investigating that incident and will be working jointly with the Arlington police. Unfortunately, it’s already clear that no one got a good look at the guy. No one who was there can provide a description. And he disappeared on us so there’s no tracking him. It’s pretty safe to assume we’re not really going to get anywhere with the evidence. The only pieces of evidence that might be useful are the bullets that were retrieved. Preliminary reports link these slugs to those used in the hotel shooting a few days ago. What will possibly be more useful to us, however, is the motivation, if we can identify it. Why was he there? Why was he following Agent Scully and myself? Why did he shoot at Agent Scully when he hadn’t even been identified or threatened?”

Mulder pushed himself away from the wall slowly and took a couple steps forward, scanning the agents’ faces before him.

“If we can find the answers to those questions, we might just understand why this guy has been killing off the team members and why he’s going after AD Skinner now. It might also help to explain why he set off the original bombs back in the seventies. Because we are sure now that it’s the same man. We still need the evidence to tie him to them, and to set Alvarez free, but we are certain of it.”

There was a gentle murmuring through the room at this statement. They’d all speculated about this aspect from the very beginning, but this was the first time Mulder or anyone else had made it definite.

“All right, now I’d like to review each team’s report. I’ll start with my own. Regarding the plane bombing, it is certain now that no employee was responsible for setting the bomb at the Las Vegas Airport. Two luggage carriers believe they saw a man in maintenance coveralls in the underbelly of the plane at a time when no maintenance was logged as being performed. They’ve been unable to provide a description of this man. My team has the LVPD searching security cam tapes now specifically for a man dressed in maintenance coveralls. No prints were found in the underbelly other than those pertaining to cleared individuals, so we’re assuming he wore gloves. The device itself has been determined to be nothing particularly unusual. It was comprised of parts that could be purchased basically over the counter, or cut down in a home shop, so there’s no chance of tracing him that way. All-in-all, this guy’s done an admirable job so far at remaining a shadow.”

Mulder turned and headed back to the support of the wall, wanting nothing more now than to sink into a soft bed and close his eyes. He glanced at his watch and couldn’t help sighing when he realized it was only 11:13 a.m. It would be a while before he felt the coolness of crisp sheets on his skin. He looked back at the agents again.

“The shooting at the hotel is a dead end. Nothing retrievable or usable except the slugs. No prints, no description of the guy, nothing on the car theft. We’re leaving it to FWPD from here on out. As for the ‘bomb’ left in Agent Scully’s and my car the other night, again we have no way to trace parts, no prints, no hairs or fibers, nothing out of the ordinary. We’re tracing the origins of the paper the note was printed on. This will possibly provide something useful. It turns out that this type of bond is only sold in bulk commercially, so it’s a pretty safe bet it came from a company, rather than an individual’s home. That means the laser printer is also most likely from a business. We have the labs tracing the residue to determine what company provided the cartridge for the laser printer. We might then be able to crossmatch paper with cartridges to develop a list of potential businesses or companies where this guy might work.”

Mulder paused again, not saying what everyone in the room was already thinking. That they’d bet their next paycheck the Bureau would be on that list.

“I think that hits the high points of what we’ve been doing. Any questions?”

Mulder saw a hand go up to the right and nodded, saying, “Yes, Agent Lewis?”

“What about the font that was used? Was it unusual enough to require special software?”

Mulder smiled at the astute question.

“Unfortunately, no. It was a common script font available in pretty much every software package.”

This was the way it was, usually. A series of ideas followed by dashed hopes. But sometimes, an idea paid off. They were overdue on that score. It was time to hit a payoff.

“All right, if there are no other questions regarding the activities of Team 1, we’ll move on to Team 3. Agent Scully?”

Mulder moved slowly, relieved to sit finally. His entire body ached from the banging he’d received the previous day. Bruises dotted his right side where he’d crashed into the wall. He looked at his watch again and wondered just how long it was going to take for those pills to kick in. It had been almost half an hour. He looked up at his partner, deciding he needed to pay attention, even though he knew everything she was going to say anyway. Maybe concentrating on Scully’s words would keep his mind off the throbbing that just wouldn’t stop, wouldn’t let him relax.

“…and confirmed with these as well, so we have changed the reason for death officially on these. As you know, three of the remaining four had been cremated and the spouse of the last refused exhumation. We are tracking down various samples that might remain on these four, but aren’t really holding out a great deal of hope that this will lead to concrete evidence. My team is continuing to interview as many relatives and colleagues of these men as possible in the hopes of determining whether they might have been stalked or perhaps contacted by someone prior to their deaths. We’re making progress on that score. It is our belief that our killer was positioned in such a way that he could get close to these men somehow. That he gained their trust and by doing so was able to kill them quietly in ways that appeared natural or accidental. We do believe he’s with the Bureau and that he used his credentials to get to them.”

There. She’d finally said it out loud. Scully had been looking at her partner’s face when she said it, noted the raised eyebrow and sardonic expression. She quickly scanned the room and saw irritation on Delano’s face, fear on McCulley’s, resigned irritation on Liu’s. It was an interesting mix and she was suddenly conscious of the several seconds of silence that had passed. Scully cleared her throat hastily and looked down at her notes once again.

“My team is also coordinating with Team 2 on forensic aspects of the original bombing, particularly as they apply to Jose Alvarez’ involvement, as our own tasks with the agent’s murders are completed. Agent Mander will fill you in on these details. But first, are there any questions?”

There were none and Scully nodded to Jake Mander as she took her seat to Mulder’s left. She glanced over at him, took in the pale complexion that hadn’t really changed since his near blackout forty-five minutes ago, saw his clenched jaw, the fact that his right arm was gripping his left across his body, the fingers peeking out from the white bandage of his right hand almost touching her sleeve, and she knew he was in pain. Knew that the pain pills hadn’t even made a dent. She turned back to Jake’s overview, leaned back in her seat and crossed her arms on her chest, allowing her left hand to reach for his quickly, giving his fingers a squeeze. She smiled quickly at him as he turned her way, then released the fingers. At least he knew she was there with him and she’d help as soon as this was over.

“…so that means he was definitely set up. There is evidence here that had to have been planted by someone. We are presently assuming nothing about who might have been responsible for that. We have eliminated no one — no one — from the list of suspects.”

The uneasy stirring across the room was easily understood. Most of these agents had already crossed AD Skinner off the list of suspects, but here they were being told the man was still a possible.

“Having said that, no one really thinks AD Skinner had anything to do with it. In fact, we’re pretty damn sure it wasn’t any of the team members. But we’d be irresponsible to eliminate them out of hand.”

The tension in the room subsided somewhat as agents adjusted to this new concept.

“Now, we have essentially three streams of possibilities that we see: 1) it was a team member, 2) it was a Fed not on the team, 3) it wasn’t a Fed, but was someone who somehow had access to information and intelligence generally associated with Feds. Agent Scully’s team and mine are working these possibilities now. We’re hoping to clear the team members quickly, although I have to say it’s not a high priority. We’re more interested in possibilities 2 and 3, which seem the most feasible to us.”

Jake was pacing slowly in front of the room and it was forcing Mulder to swing his head back and forth as if he were in a tennis match. He suddenly understood why this pacing habit of his was so irritating to his partner. He gave up altogether and closed his eyes, concentrating on the man’s words, trying to see more clearly how it all fit together, whether there were gaps needing to be filled.

“In addition to investigating the access to evidence issue, we are jointly investigating the actual evidence used in the trial, as well as interviewing those who testified at the trial against Alvarez. It was partly for that reason that ASAC Mulder and Agent Scully were at UTA yesterday.”

Jake glanced at them as he said this and almost came to a complete halt. Mulder was white faced and sweating, and Scully was shooting nervous glances towards her partner. Jake decided it was time to wrap this up.

“We’ve gathered all evidence still in existence from the original bombings and our labs are going over it. We’ve been conducting interviews in the hopes of developing a profile. It’s been difficult tracking people down. We’re continuing with it. We anticipate a preliminary profile no later than tomorrow. Agent Scully and I will be meeting with ASAC Mulder this afternoon and into the evening to develop it. Questions?”

Jake was relieved to see no raised hands.

“All right. You all know what you need to do by this evening. Go to it.”

Jake took two slow steps forward, watching agents exit the room. He took another slow one to stop in front of Mulder and Scully. Everyone had left but Delano, who now was walking forward from the back of the room. He whispered down to them, “Heads, up. SAC coming.”

“Hello, SAC Delano. How are you, sir?”

Jake saw Mulder drop his right arm and sit up straight, open his eyes and focus on him. Good. He looked lucid at least.

Delano stopped next to Mulder and looked down at the man.

“You seem to be making quite a bit of progress. Anything you need from us?”

Mulder turned to the man, cleared his throat and considered standing, then abandoned the idea.

“No, sir. I think we’re good. Your people have been wonderful.”

Delano appeared pleased at the remark and nodded, then seemed to hesitate, eyes still on Mulder.

“Mulder, are you sure you’re all right? You don’t look all that good, son.”

Mulder forced a relaxed smile, shook his head in denial.

“Nah, I’m fine, sir. Nothing a few cups of that black sludge you call coffee here in Texas won’t cure. Maybe brought in by that cute little secretary down in the….”

Delano laughed, swung his hand as if to clip Mulder on the shoulder and hastily arrested the motion. He winked at Scully, not at all patronizing, nodded to Mander and then left them.

Mulder let himself go, then. Let his muscles relax, his shoulder drop, his head fall back slightly, eyes closed tightly. The strain of appearing strong and able in front of these people was too much, too soon. He needed to be flat somewhere, preferably the hotel. Maybe he could figure a way to suspend a file holder from the ceiling so he could read as he lay down. He felt Scully’s hands on the back of his neck and his leg. Heard her soft voice.

“Come on, Mulder, let’s go back to the hotel for a while. There’s nothing we can do here that we can’t do there. In fact, we can carry on our discussions about motive in your room and you can have a chance to lay down for a bit.”

Scully waited patiently for a response and was relieved to finally see him nod. He looked positively gray. She turned to Jake and gestured him to Mulder’s other side. They needed to get him vertical with the least jarring possible.

“Okay, Mulder, time to get going.”

He allowed them to lead him, not even paying attention to the agents in the hall who stopped in their tracks as they passed by. Not aware of SAC Delano’s eyes tracking them through the bull pen. Not really even aware as he was gently pushed into the back seat of the car, where Scully slid in next to him. He closed his eyes and leaned his head back, but felt the need to explain to his partner.

“It’s not like last night, Scully. The pills don’t seem to have worked. I can’t think about anything else. I can’t really concentrate. It hurts.”

The last came out as a hoarse whisper. He felt ashamed at how pathetic he sounded. Was he a baby? He couldn’t handle a little pain? Jesus Christ, his father was probably turning over in his grave. Good thing the man wasn’t alive to see what a wimp he’d raised.

“It’s all right, Mulder. There are other types of medication we can try. This is one you’ve never been on before and it probably just doesn’t work for you. It could be that last night you were just so tired you slept through the pain.”

She leaned forward in the seat slightly so Jake could hear her clearly.

“Is there a pharmacy nearby? Or a store where I could get a prescription filled?”

“No problem, Dana. There’s one close to the hotel. Do you want to stop now or later?”

“Now would be fine. It shouldn’t take long.”

Scully decided the sooner her partner got something that would actually help with the pain, the better. Whether he spent the minutes in the car, leaning in the corner of the back seat, or in the hotel room didn’t really matter, as long as they got the medication fast.

Wednesday, 12:34 p.m. Dallas Century Hotel

Scully and Jake sat at the table, quietly discussing Mulder’s earlier hypotheses over a lunch of subs and chips. Another bag sat off to the side, ready whenever Mulder was. He’d dropped off within minutes of taking the new pain medication and was now softly snoring. Scully glanced over and took in the sight of her partner, feet hanging off the end of the bed, right arm dangling awkwardly in space off the side. He’d moved down in the bed so that his head was just below the pillows. His face was turned away from her, and she hoped it wore an expression of peace. She guessed he was comfortable, even though he didn’t look it.

She turned back to her conversation with Jake, considering now the possibility that Mulder had raised earlier — that the killer discovered that someone was reinvestigating the original case and decided to take out the team in order to eliminate the chance of their participating in any way. The idea was starting to grow on her.

Mulder had taken the pills Scully had offered him and then laid down on the bed, relieved to have the soft mattress cushioning his shoulder and aching body. He’d felt Scully’s light hand on his forehead for a moment and was reassured by it. He hadn’t intended to sleep, but his body had other ideas. He’d heard Scully and Jake talking at the table, but their words made no sense to him. The voices were soothing though, and he slipped into sleep knowing they watched over him.

But his sleep was not dreamless. Rather, it was marred by the faceless monster who tracked them, the monster who hunted Skinner, who killed innocents without thought or regret.

In his dream, he was in the plane. Was in the row behind Kirsten and her father when the bomb blew. She’d been looking out the window, pointing down at the land so far below, looking over to her father, her face filled with wonderment. “Look, Daddy, you can see a lake. Do you see it, Daddy? Do you see?” Her father had leaned closer, laughed at the excitement generated by such a simple view. He’d just replied, “I see, I see it, baby,” when their world changed into a fiery ball of heat and flames, torn and shrieking metal, glass and flying plastic. And screams. For just a moment, they were alive and heard the screams of those around them, heard their own screams as their flesh was seared and torn, as their seat was pulled from the safety of the plane through a hole too small to accommodate it, as their heads were crushed from the impact of bone meeting metal. And they were alive long enough to feel it all.

And Mulder saw it happening. Saw Kirsten and her father pulled into the dark. Saw the row of seats in front of Kirsten’s jerk, lose it’s bolts at the end nearest the fuselage, get sucked towards the gaping hole. And Mulder was being pulled by the vacuum himself. He could feel wind pulling at the skin on his face, pulling at his clothes, pulling his limbs towards the opening. He cut his left hand as he braced himself against the torn fuselage and ceiling and felt the blood flow into the night. And he was surrounded by terror. Surrounded by cries and screams and helpless pleadings. Someone was saying a prayer and he could hear some of the words. ‘…. and lead us not into temptation ….’ He knew it was the Lord’s Prayer and suddenly began doubting his own lack of religious beliefs.

The plane was being thrown from side to side, up, then down, buffeted by the winds and fighting for control after the loss of two of its engines. And Mulder felt his seatbelt start to give. Felt it loosening. Felt himself move in the seat, one inch, then two. And the sweat broke out on his face despite the freezing temperatures, and he practically hyperventilated with the loss of the oxygen in the thin air around him, with the rapid breathing he couldn’t control.

And there was someone or something hovering over him. Breathing over his shoulder and laughing at the havoc he had wreaked. It was him. The bomber. Mulder tried to turn to catch sight of him, tried to move his right hand out to grab him. But his grip was tenuous, and his eyes not fast enough to see the slippery apparition. Mulder screamed out from the frustration, the helplessness, his own powerlessness.

And someone was shaking him and calling his name. Telling him to open his eyes. That it was okay. And he did. And Scully was there, wiping his forehead with a damp washcloth and telling him it was all just a bad dream.

“Scully?”

“Hey, partner, where were you?”

He glanced around the room, still getting his bearings. Discovered his right hand was gripping Scully’s without even knowing how that had happened. He tried to speak again and couldn’t get the words out. Was at a loss as to what the words should even be. His eyes had been searching the room for something and he wasn’t sure what. He realized suddenly that Jake was gone and a small part of his brain catalogued it, put it away for later consideration.

“Mulder? Are you okay?”

He focused on the face hovering over him and stared at her intently, finally managing the words “The plane. I was on the plane when the bomb blew.” He saw Scully’s face scrunch in confusion, trying to wrestle with this new information. Trying to decide whether her partner had lost it completely.

“I dreamed I was on the plane.”

He could see that she understood now. And she was looking at him with such kindness it almost hurt. He didn’t deserve it. She smoothed the cool washcloth over his forehead again, pushing the hair back and away from his face, then let it rest there.

“Mulder, it’s over. It’s all over. Can you sleep any more? Do you think you could try?”

“No!”

He hadn’t meant for it to sound so loud in the room, to be so explosive. But it was pulled from him involuntarily, almost as Kirsten and her father had been pulled from the plane. He didn’t want to sleep any more just now. He couldn’t face that again, so soon.

He started to sit, struggling with only one hand to help, and then Scully was there helping him. Supporting him, then propping pillows, so he could lean against the headboard.

“You slept through lunch. Jake and I saved you a sandwich, though.”

She saw his inquiring gaze and answered the unasked question.

“Jake headed back about an hour ago. It’s 3:15 or so now.”

Mulder groaned aloud at losing so much time. It was the thing they didn’t have enough of as it was and here, he’d just killed three hours in the middle of the day by sleeping.

He leaned his head back against the headboard and closed his eyes to think for a moment. They had almost 3 hours before the debriefing tonight. Would it be enough time? It would if he got off his butt right now and got moving. He pushed himself to a sitting position and swung his legs over the bed, then turned to his partner.

“Let’s go see Alvarez. Can we get clearance on such short notice?”

She didn’t seemed surprised by the request. In fact, smiled slightly as if giving herself credit for figuring something out a step ahead of her partner.

“We’re already cleared. I spoke with SAC Delano and told him we’d be wanting to meet with Alvarez soon, possibly even today. He’s already submitted all the necessary paperwork for us. All we have to do is give him a call with the specific time.”

Mulder laughed lightly and shook his head. Wondered if maybe Scully didn’t know him too well.

“Okay. How about if you call Delano to arrange it and I’ll be ready to leave in five?”

Ten minutes later they were on the highway, heading towards one of Texas’ maximum security prisons, where Jose Alvarez had been held for the past twenty two years. Mulder was awkwardly trying to eat the sub Scully and Jake had gotten for him and was losing half of its insides on his lap.

“Jesus, Scully, you couldn’t find something for a one armed man to eat? You trying to torture me or something here?”

Scully glanced in the rearview, then side mirrors to make sure no one was following and then turned her gaze to her right. She smiled at the sight of Mulder picking lettuce bits and tomato off his pants. It didn’t seem to bother him overmuch, though, because he was stuffing them right back into his mouth.

“Why didn’t you spread out a napkin?”

“That would just be giving into it, Scully. I prefer to fight bravely against my disability.”

Why did this sound so familiar? Scully could swear she’d heard those words before, or at least a similar conversation. And then she remembered. Remembered sitting on a wet and slimy boulder in the middle of a lake in the dark of nature’s night, after their boat sank from being attacked by a rock. Remembered her partner stating he’d always wanted a peg leg. She smiled finally at the memory. She supposed that completely losing function in one arm and shoulder was as close as he’d get to his peg leg dream. She saw he was staring at her, waiting to see if she’d gotten the reference.

“Mulder, you’re still megalomaniacal.”

She checked the mirrors again, although she’d pretty much assured herself that this was going to be a more boring outing than their last.

Mulder put his right hand to his chest dramatically as if he’d been shot and then turned towards her once again, an exaggerated look of hurt and betrayal on his features.

“Moi?”

And then he laughed and was happy to hear his partner’s laughter join his own.

“Actually, Scully. You didn’t call me megalomaniacal. You said my search was megalomaniacal. There’s a distinct difference.”

“There may be a difference, but the effect is still the same, the impact on those around you is still the same, regardless of whether its you or your search for the Truth.”

Suddenly, Scully was sorry they’d gone this route. The easy laughter and relaxed dispositions had given way now to tension and unease. Scully looked over to her partner and reached out her right hand to gently touch his left shoulder.

“Mulder, I’m sorry. You know I didn’t mean it. I didn’t mean for it to come out that way. I wasn’t thinking.”

He sighed heavily and tried consciously to regain some of the lighter humor they’d so easily lost.

“I know. I know. You women — always talking first, thinking later.”

She snorted then, decided not even to respond beyond a quick glance his way to let him know she appreciated his changing the subject. Appreciated him letting her off the hook.

“So Scully, how should we handle the interview? Do you want to talk to him or should I?”

They’d only been cleared for one person to speak with Alvarez at a time. Scully considered everything she knew about the case and the man. Said finally, “I think I should. I’ll be less threatening, even though you are presently …. disabled.”

He smiled, said simply, “I agree. If he is innocent, which I’m pretty much convinced of, he’ll be pretty angry at any FBI agent. At least a … woman won’t seem quite so overtly threatening.”

Scully caught the hesitation, wondered what in the heck he’d been about to say. Then decided not to pursue it. Her partner trusted her, depended on her for backup, never doubted her abilities. She could afford to allow any overtly sexist comments or jokes pass.

“Okay, so what approach should I take?”

He cleared his throat, took a sip of the iced tea he’d been nursing, and replied, “I think we shouldn’t get his hopes up. Don’t let him know we think he’s innocent. It is reasonable to say that we believe there’s a connection between the Flight 72 bombing and the bombings he was arrested for. But try not to bring in the agents’ deaths unless absolutely necessary.”

They continued to discuss strategy for the next ten minutes and halted their conversation when electrified fences and concrete walls encircled with barbed wire intruded in their path.

Wednesday, 3:57 p.m. Maximum Security Prison

Mulder watched from the observation room. Jose Alvarez was a slight man, only about 5’9″ or so in height. He was wiry, though, with muscles well honed. He had a slight limp, due to the prosthetic right leg that was Vietnam’s legacy. His dark hair was peppered with gray and he wore a neat mustache and beard. His accent was very slight, hardly noticeable. He seemed quite refined and gentlemanly. Mulder saw that the man had nodded to Scully and waited for her to sit before he did, chains rattling at wrists and ankles as he finally did. Mulder could easily picture this man in a suit, working for Lockheed-Martin or perhaps Ford. Mechanical Engineering degree in hand. Best not to consider the vagaries of life.

“Hello, Mr. Alvarez. My name is Dana Scully. I think they told you who I am. I’m a Special Agent with the FBI in Washington, DC.”

Mulder saw the man nod, unsurprised.

“My partner and I are investigating the bombing of Flight 72 on Sunday.”

Mulder saw the man’s eyes flash toward him, looking at what was only a mirror from inside the room, but surmising the truth. He seemed slightly confused, forehead creased, head tilted to the side.

“Did you hear about it, sir?”

The man snorted softly.

“It was all over the television for days. How could I not? You were on television too, with your partner.”

His eyes flicked once again to the mirror.

“But what does that have to do with me?”

Mulder could sense the slight anger, the irritation in the question. Understood that the man thought they might somehow try to pin yet another bombing on him.

“Sir, there are sufficient similarities of the bombing of Flight 72 to the bombings from 1974-1976 that we felt it prudent to speak with you.”

Mulder groaned internally, whispered to the glass, “Don’t antagonize him, Scully.”

“You think I had something to do with it?”

Scully knew she had to make him understand without giving the most important information away.

“No, sir. Not at all. We know you didn’t.”

Alvarez sat back in his chair slightly and looked at Scully searchingly. He was definitely not a stupid man and Mulder could almost see the pieces falling into place in the man’s mind.

“What can I do? What do you want from me?”

Mulder could see that the older man had figured it out already. Had figured out that they were indeed reinvestigating the original case. And Alvarez was excited by it. Mulder hoped they’d be able to do right by this man.

“Mr. Alvarez, has anyone ever contacted you about the case since the trial? Anyone … official?”

There were several seconds of silence as Alvarez tried to work through the question to find her real meaning. He’d been overwhelmed by publishers, agents, people cursing him, …. hell, even fans. But this isn’t what she wanted to know.

“I was contacted by a Liberal group once, who thought I’d been discriminated against, said my civil rights had been violated. They kept saying they’d bring my case to the Supreme Court and have the decision reversed. They dropped me when some more high-profile case came along.”

He smiled at her grimly, then continued searching his memory. He leaned forward, propping his elbows on knees, and rested his chin on intertwined hands.

“About five years or so ago there was a man who called me on the phone. He claimed he was a student in law and had come across my case. He said it was so obvious that I’d been set-up by the government. That the Feds …. uh, the FBI, just wanted a patsy and I was it. He wanted permission to talk with me occasionally and he promised he’d keep me filled in on his progress.”

Scully felt the chill down her back, felt her breath catch in her throat. This was it, she was sure.

“Sir, can you describe this man? Did you ever meet with him?”

Mulder had been holding his breath and let it out explosively at the response.

“No, we only spoke by phone. But he had to have permission somehow to make the call in the first place. He had to have had some sort of official clearance. Anyone can’t just call into a Maximum Security prison and ask to speak with a prisoner. I thought he was on the up and up.”

Scully nodded her head and tried to incorporate this into what they already knew. Tried to figure out what this man could have wanted and why.

“What did he call himself? What was this man’s name?”

“He said it was Tom Dixon. He said he was with Harvard Law School and couldn’t travel to meet me in person, but had been cleared to speak with me by phone.”

“Could you tell me what you spoke about? What kind of questions he asked you?”

“Well, it’s been a while now, of course, but I’ll try to remember. Most of the questions had to do with the investigation and the evidence they’d collected against me. He was trying to identify any weakness in the case that could be exploited on my behalf.”

He sat up in the chair and looked Scully straight in the eye then.

“At least, that’s what he said.”

Scully nodded to him in encouragement.

“Sir, could you tell me as much as you remember?”

“He wanted to know about all the interactions I’d had with the FBI team when I was arrested. There were nine agents involved. I’ll never forget their faces. Never forget when they came into my home and arrested me, in front of my wife and my children.”

It was Scully’s turn to glance at the mirror and Mulder felt as if she were looking straight at him. Straight into his eyes.

Scully turned back to Alvarez and cleared her throat, licked her lips lightly before continuing.

“Sir, could you perhaps tell me what you told him?”

She tried to convey to this man that she was not his enemy. That he could trust her. But she knew that was unfair of her. He’d been in jail for more than twenty years because the FBI had caught the wrong man. There was no justice in that. She couldn’t blame him for thinking there was no justice to be had at all. But he surprised her and nodded.

“I told him about the team coming into my home and arresting me. Then they took me to the local FBI office, not the police station. They held me there for almost a day before charging me. They asked me all sorts of questions, about my job, about what I did in ‘Nam, about when I was in school at UTA. I answered them. I was stupid, naive. I didn’t insist on a lawyer because I knew I was innocent. I figured that since I was innocent, all I had to do was tell them what they wanted and then they’d see they’d made a mistake. But that didn’t happen. They were nice to me during the questioning. Kept offering me coffee and food. Cigarettes. Whatever I wanted. But at the end, they arrested me for these bombings.”

His voice had grown somewhat shaky and Scully resisted the urge to ask him whether he wanted anything. The timing would have been a bit off for that.

“When they arrested me, I heard a few of them arguing. I don’t think the entire team believed I had done it. At least a couple of them had questions.”

Scully shot another look towards the mirror. Confirmation, of a sort.

“Did you know which ones had questions? Were you able to identify any of them?”

“Not really. There were a couple younger ones on the team who seemed to be the most vocal. They came to my trial. And the older one did, too, but not the others, except when they testified.”

So Skinner had sat in on the entire trial, along with Jake Price and perhaps Matthew Dryer or Anthony Hendricks — maybe even both of them.

“After they arrested me, I was assigned a lawyer. She was nice but she really didn’t know much. She was just out of law school and had never handled anything like my case before. Hell, I don’t know if she’d ever even handled a murder case before.”

He sighed and rubbed his forehead in a circling motion, seemingly unaware of the other hand that was forced by the handcuffs to come along for the ride.

“Anyway, she told me not to talk with anyone except her or other than when she was present, so I never spoke with the FBI alone again. Actually, even when I did speak with them, I didn’t really speak with them. She never let me say anything.”

The silence stretched for several seconds as he reminisced.

“Sir, what else did you talk about with this Tom Dixon?”

He sighed again, looking extremely tired all of a sudden. Weary.

“He wanted to know about what the FBI team asked me during my original questioning. Ma’am, they spoke with me for almost twenty-four hours. I really would prefer not going over that again right now.”

“Of course, Mr. Alvarez. However, sir, it is very important. Crucial, in fact. Could I possibly ask you to write down what you remember of all your conversations with this man? Anything at all that you can recall discussing with him, no matter how trivial it may seem to you.”

Mulder was again holding his breath, praying that Alvarez would say yes. That he’d agree. And he did.

“All right, young lady. I can do that. But you’ll have to make sure the prison warden knows what I’m doing and why. If you want it soon, I might need some extra supplies and time with lights on.”

Scully smiled at him and thanked him, then glanced over at the mirror, wondering if she’d covered everything.

“Sir, could you excuse me for one minute please?”

Scully stepped out of the room and approached her partner. He was leaning against the glass wall at an angle, right side supporting him. He turned his head towards her as she exited the room.

“So? Do I need to hit anything else while we’re here?”

“That was great, Scully. One more thing, though. Ask him if he remembers what this Dixon’s voice sounded like.”

Scully nodded and turned back to the room, perturbed at herself for missing something so obvious.

“Mr. Alvarez, one other question. Can you describe this Tom Dixon’s voice for me? Did he have an accent of any kind? Were there any phrases that maybe stuck out in your mind as being odd? Anything at all?”

Alvarez was concentrating hard, with eyes closed. Scully was disappointed to see him shake his head.

“I’m sorry, ma’am. I’ll think about it some more, but I can’t really recall anything unusual. It was just a voice. And at the time, I was more interested in what it was saying than in how, if you get my meaning.”

“Yes, sir. I think I understand. Thank you for your time.”

“Thank you, Agent Scully.”

Mulder glanced at his watch and sighed in frustration. Bureaucracy was the same everywhere. They’d been sitting outside the warden’s closed office door for a good fifteen minutes. At this rate, they’d have to really push it to make the six o’clock meeting on time. Scully was fidgeting beside him on the couch and every move she made sent a stab of pain through his shoulder.

“Scully, could you sit still? Please?”

She turned to him in surprise and he felt guilty at the tone he’d used. But, damn, he hurt enough as it was. He didn’t need his own partner exacerbating the situation. He saw her expression change to one of concern as she realized what had been happening. She moved off the couch slowly and then over to a chair next to her partner’s.

“Sorry about that. You know, it’s past time for the pain medication. How about if I track down a glass of water?”

He smiled at her and shook his head, then said, “I’ll wait until after we talk with this guy. Wouldn’t do to fall asleep in his office.”

The door to the warden’s office opened then, showing a stocky man in a business suit, broad smile in place. It wasn’t the image they’d been expecting and it took both Mulder and Scully a few moments to collect themselves.

Scully was the first to stand and she turned to make sure Mulder was managing all right on his own. They followed the warden into his office and settled into the guest chairs in front of his desk. Before they had a chance to say a word, the man started speaking in a twangy Texas drawl.

“Sorry to keep you out there so long. I was actually on the phone with a few people about your request. Just hung up with Harry Delano in fact. Good man. I’ve interacted with him often. So, he explained a bit about what’s going on. Asked me to pave the way for any requests you might have. Tell me what you want and I’ll do my best for you. Maybe you can fill me in on your investigation and how it has to do with our man Alvarez.”

Mulder jumped in quickly, deciding to head such requests off at the pass.

“Thank you, sir. Actually, we don’t have a great deal of time right now, since we have to be back at the Bureau for a meeting at six. What would be a tremendous help, though, is if you allow Mr. Alvarez any kind of writing supplies he might need, even access to a computer or word processor if possible, as well as sufficient time to write over the next day or so. I realize this is an unusual request, but he may have information that will help us identify the bomber of Flight 72.”

Mulder was stonefaced. He refused to give away details of their investigation to this man. He prayed they’d get cooperation without having to go to AD Skinner.

“All right, Agent … Mulder, I believe it was?”

Mulder nodded, knowing he’d been the topic of conversation between the warden and Delano.

“I can arrange for Alvarez to have both the supplies as well as the time he needs. Should I communicate with you when he’s done or with Harry Delano?”

The man’s eyes flicked to Scully, as if to question her role in this.

“You can contact me or Agent Scully. If neither of us are available, please contact Agent Jake Mander. You can leave a message with SAC Delano if the three of us are unreachable for some reason.”

Mulder had struggled to a standing position, dug around in his suit pocket and pulled out a card. He’d already scribbled the local cell phone numbers on the back. He handed it over to the warden and watched as the man slipped it into his own suit jacket without even looking at it. Mulder had no idea what that meant. He could only hope this man would truly be as cooperative as he was claiming he’d be.

Mulder reached his right hand out then, saying, “Thank you for your help on this.”

He got a nod and shake in return and watched as the gesture was repeated with his partner. He ushered her out of the room, anxious to get on the road back to the Bureau. As they walked down the corridor, away from the office, he leaned towards her and asked, “So what do you think?”

She looked at him curiously and said quietly, so no one but her partner could hear, “About what? The warden?”

He nodded quickly, eyes scanning from right to left.

“I don’t know, Mulder. He seemed genuinely helpful, if somewhat nosy. Why?”

She saw her partner’s face scrunch up and couldn’t interpret the expression.

“Why, Mulder?”

“I don’t know. He felt …. screwy somehow. Off kilter. I don’t know.”

He turned and smiled at her then.

“Just a spooky feeling, Scully.”

She adopted an equally joking manner when she replied, “Oh my God, Mulder. It’s an X-File.”

Their laughter followed them down the hall, and echoed off the concrete block.

They had a little more than a half hour to make it back in time. When they settled in the car, Mulder pulled out his cell phone and called Jake to let him know they might be late and to start without them. They conversed for a few minutes more and then Mulder pushed the antenna in and flipped the phone closed. Dropped it in his right suit pocket. Then rummaged around in the same pocket for his pain medication. Pulled it out and shook the bottle noisily.

“Hey, Scully. How about finding a place to get something to drink?”

“Actually, I’m pretty sure there was a gas station just a mile or so away. We’ll pull in there. I think we need to fill up anyway.”

Mulder nodded and closed his eyes, laying his head back against the headrest. He could wait that long.

Scully saw the station ahead and glanced in her mirrors out of habit. There was a car behind them in the distance, something gray and shiny, but it continued past without slowing as they pulled into the gas station. No one else was around. In fact, she wasn’t sure at first whether the station was actually operational.

Scully rolled the windows down, turned off the engine, and got out of the car, looking for an attendant. Saw the wave from inside and went to the rear of the car to start the pump. Then she leaned in the driver’s window so she could see her partner more clearly.

“Hey. I’m going inside to get something to drink. What do you want?”

He opened his eyes slowly and sighed. Rolled his head against the headrest just enough to see her and said, “Anything, Scully. Iced tea or water would be best.”

“Okay. Be right back.”

He dragged his head up again, feeling as if it weighed way too much for his neck to support adequately, and took in the surroundings. There were no cars at all except the one that just passed on the road heading to the prison. No others for miles in either direction.

It was hot in the car, even with the windows down and Mulder shoved his door open in the hopes of enabling a little better circulation. The sweat coating his back, dampening his armpits, his neck, the backs of his legs, proved it wasn’t sufficiently effective. God, he wished he could get his suit jacket off. But the sling wrapped around it and the only way to be free of the thing would be to remove the sling. No way would that happen until he was ready for bed.

Scully returned with two bottles of water, both already dripping with condensation from the heat. She knelt by down by her partner, put one of the bottles on the ground temporarily and opened the other.

“Here you go. How about if we trade?”

She held her other hand out for the pill bottle and efficiently opened it and shook two into her palm. She then returned it to her partner’s suit pocket, took the bottle of water from him once again, and placed the pills in his hand. He downed them quickly and reached yet again for the elusive bottle of water, finally able to take a big swig to wash the pills down.

“Thanks. This one armed stuff really stinks.”

“Hey, what are partners for?”

She retrieved her own bottle and stood up then, closing his door carefully so as not to shake the car. She topped off the tank and grabbed the receipt from the automatic pump, then slid into the car. The air conditioning was the first thing she adjusted. How in God’s name could anyone have survived in this place before air conditioning. Actually, it should have denoted the start of a new calendar — B.A.C. and A.A.C. Worked for her.

They were barely on the road again when Mulder started discussing their meeting with Alvarez.

“So what did you think of Jose Alvarez, Scully”

“I think …. I think he’s innocent and a part of him still believes that fact alone will be enough to get him released, eventually. I think he’s had his hopes raised too many times in the past. I think …. I wouldn’t want to be responsible for dashing his hopes again. I think he’s remained a nice man despite being locked away unfairly. I think he’ll spend the next several hours at least, if not days, trying to recall absolutely everything about his phone conversation with this Tom Dixon and about the original conversation with the FBI team.”

She came to a stop in her summary finally and tried to decide whether to add anything. It was sort of a meandering list of thoughts, but her partner had been vague with his question so she figured she had the right to be vague in her answer.

“I agree. But I don’t want to rely on the good will of the warden to let us know when Alvarez is done with his journal. Let’s make sure we check back tonight and tomorrow, and as long as is necessary.”

Scully nodded, agreeing with him, but still not understanding this feeling of suspicion he had towards the warden. She trusted his instinct, though, and would back him up on this.

“So, Mulder, who do you think this guy was? Any chance he could have been legitimate?”

“I suppose. It’ll be easy enough to track down. In fact — hang on.”

Mulder reached into his suit pocket again and pulled out the cell phone. He used his teeth to pull out the antenna and engaged the talk button with his thumb, then quickly dialed in Jake’s number.

“Hey. Listen, we need to track down a guy who phoned Jose Alvarez several times something like five years ago. His name was Tom Dixon and he claimed he was in law at Harvard. Whether he was a student or professor or what, I’m not really sure. Could you initiate a search on that name for that time period? Be generous with spellings and dates, go a couple years back and a couple years forward ……. Yeah…..”

Mulder propped the phone to his shoulder and glanced at his watch. It still felt strange looking at it on his right wrist. It was 5:43 and there was no way they were going to make it on time.

“No, I don’t think so. We’ll probably be fifteen minutes or so late……. Yeah, okay.”

Mulder went through the process of putting the phone away, then turned his head towards his partner.

“Jake says no problem on the search. They might have something confirmed by the time we get back. He said his team unearthed some interesting information today. He’ll save his team’s briefing to last so we’ll have a good chance hearing it first hand. He’s also going to start a few minutes late.”

Scully nodded and then decided to explore a thought she’d had.

“Why didn’t you ask the warden about the phone calls to Alvarez? Wouldn’t he have had to clear them? Or whoever was warden then?”

She turned to see Mulder smiling guiltily, as if caught with his hand in the proverbial cookie jar.

“I was wondering when you were going to nail me on that. I don’t know, Scully. There was just something about him. I don’t trust him. I can’t really put my finger on anything. It wasn’t anything specific.”

He leaned closer to her and then whispered, “Spooky, remember?”

“Yeah, yeah. You can’t pull that Spooky crap on me, Mulder, I know you better than that.”

Scully scanned the mirrors again, as she had been the entire trip and noted the car in the distance. It was another light color car, silver or gray. They were starting to near the city, though, so it was natural that traffic would be picking up. She tried to make out more specific details and couldn’t. It was too far away.

She turned to look at Mulder again and saw he had leaned his head to the side, against the glass. His eyes were closed and he could have been asleep. Leave it to Mulder to fall asleep within moments, when he was in pain, in a cramped and confined sitting position, but not be able to get through a few lousy consecutive hours sleep in a nice comfortable bed. She shook her head at the dichotomy and reminded herself not to even attempt to understand it. Enigmas could not be understood by definition.

She turned the radio on softly to keep her company and finally found something other than country western music. She took the turn off to bring them back on the interstate and again swept the mirrors. Her partner’s paranoia had long ago worn off on her. The silvery car was still back there and looked remarkable similar to the one she’d seen leaving the prison just after she and Mulder had. But it had passed on by and would be well in front of them now.

Mulder was fast asleep now and she hesitated waking him for something so silly. She decided to run a trial first before deciding whether to wake him. She looked to her left and saw a gap, pulled into it without putting her blinker on, then pulled into the far left lane. She sped up, passed two cars and checked in her mirror again. Damn, the car had pulled into the middle lane and was now moving into the left.

“Hey, partner, wake up. We might have company.”

Mulder jerked his head up and pulled himself straighter in the seat, grimacing at the pain the abrupt move initiated.

“Who? Where?”

“There’s a silver car about three back from us. Looks like it might be a Le Sabre, something in that class. It’s hard to tell from this angle. It was with us on the road from the prison and just crossed two lanes of traffic when I did. I’m going to move back into the right lane, gradually, see if he follows.”

Mulder had fiddled with the side view mirror switch on his side, adjusting it so he could see more clearly.

“That looks like the car that passed on the road heading towards the prison while you were inside the gas station.”

“That would explain it. Right out from the prison I saw a car but it passed on by when we stopped. When I saw this one, I figured it was a different car.”

Mulder took another long look in the mirror, watched as the car moved back to the right lane just after theirs did.

“I don’t get it, Scully. Who the hell is this guy and why would he be following us? It’s the same questions from yesterday. It just doesn’t make any sense.”

“Maybe we’re closer than we think. Maybe UTA and Alvarez are more important than we’ve realized. Maybe he’s afraid we’ll find something out that has remained hidden all this time.”

Mulder considered it, nodded finally.

“Okay. That makes sense. It also fits with the hypothesis on why he started eliminating the team. But I don’t see what he hopes to achieve by following us. We’re going back to the Bureau, for God’s sake. It’s not like we’ll be hard to find.”

“But maybe he doesn’t know that. Or maybe he wants to try to eliminate us because we’ve gotten too close.”

Mulder looked into the mirror again, trying to decide the best course of action.

“I’ll call Jake and see if he can get us a tail. He should still be in the command center.”

Mulder pulled out the phone quickly now and pushed the numbers, relieved when he heard Jake’s voice.

“Hey, me again. Look, Scully and I picked up a tail. We’re on Interstate 50 heading north. We just passed the Grant exit. The next one is …. Pineview in about four miles. See if you can arrange for a couple cars to check this guy out. He’s in a silver town car, possible a Buick Le Sabre. He’s in the right lane, three cars behind us. You have our info…… Okay, I’ll hang on.”

“He’s got DPD on line and is coordinating with them. He’s also scrambling some of our own people. They’ll be able to pick us up at the Bureau exit, so don’t get off.”

Scully nodded, glanced in the mirror again. He was still there. Just following. She glanced over at Mulder who was slouched slightly so he could see into the mirror more easily without turning his body. He didn’t look at all sleepy now. In fact, it was times like these, when he was on the hunt, that she thought his name appropriate. He turned and smiled at her with satisfaction as he took in Jake’s comments on the phone.

“Okay, we just passed Pineview. …. Yeah, I’ll hang on.”

He turned to his partner to fill her in.

“They’re set, Scully. DPD had a car on the highway already. It’s waiting at the Jackson entrance, just a couple miles up. We need to let them know when it’s in sight and they’ll pull on at the right time. Jake also has two cars that’ll join us at the highway entrance before the Bureau. So we do want to pull off at the Bureau exit after all. He has another two cars waiting at the exit. He’s coordinating with DPD, so they know what cars are where.”

Mulder looked back again, still unable to identify anything specific about the car. He saw the exit ahead and got back on the phone.

“Okay, Jake, it’s in sight.”

He kept his eyes on the car following them, was relieved when it didn’t get over into the exit lane. And then at the last possible moment it happened.

“Fuck!”

Scully almost jerked off the road at Mulder’s expletive, it surprised her so.

“What?!!?”

Scully and Jake were screaming at him in tandem.

“He got off. He made the trap somehow. He pulled off at the last moment and tore down the exit going seventy at least. Get the DPD on it. Tell them what happened.”

Mulder let the phone drop from his ear, let it fall into his lap, still on, and sat up straight in his seat once again. He rubbed his temples for a moment and then ran his right hand through his hair. His hand dropped against the dashboard, then pounded it in frustration, as he yelled again, “Fuck!”

He tried to collect himself, breathed deeply a few times, then put the phone back up to his ear. He heard Jake speaking on the other phone and understood that DPD had lost the guy. He pulled it away from his ear a few inches, waiting until Jake could come back to him. He turned to Scully again.

“How’d he know, Scully? How the hell did he know?”

Scully had been trying to figure it out herself and the answers she kept coming up with were disturbing.

“Number 1, it was broadcast on the DPD band and he heard it, number 2, someone on the team or the force specifically called and told him, number 3, he heard it in the line of duty from someone on the team or the force, or number 4, he picked it up off our cell phone.”

Mulder had come to the same conclusions himself, glanced at the phone in his hand with disgust.

“Jake, hey Jake, are you there?”

There was silence for several seconds and then Scully saw her partner tense.

“Okay, look Jake, don’t sweat it. But find something out for me. Find out how the DPD spread the word, whether it was an open frequency, police band, whatever. Also, tell me how you were communicating with our people. This guy found out somehow, Jake. He knew he would be picked up at the next exit and he got off in such a way that we couldn’t track him…… Yeah, I’ll wait.”

Scully was taking the right exit now. She saw two cars waiting to the side of the ramp towards the end. Saw one pull out in front of them and the other pull in behind. They had an escort home. She recognized Dowd and Mayne in the car in front, Smith and McCulley in the car behind. They all looked grim.

“Jake, we’re almost there. I’ll touch base with you in a few minutes. Let’s meet in the command center to discuss this before the debriefing with the team. We’ll push it back to six-thirty. Okay, bye.”

He closed the phone again and for the first time realized they had an escort.

“Makes you feel important, doesn’t it, Scully?”

She snorted, replied, “Yippee.”

Wednesday, 6:23 p.m. Dallas Bureau, Command Center

Mulder slammed the door behind him and sank into one of the chairs, grateful for the padding. He barely looked at the surroundings, focusing all his attention on Jake Mander.

“So how’d he find out?”

Jake looked disgusted and shook his head. He stood leaning against one of the few clear spots on any of the walls, arms crossed in front of him.

“Beats me. Could have happened any number of ways. He could have listened in on your cell call, could have heard the DPD over their police band, could have listened in on our own cell calls. Or … someone could have told him.”

Mulder sat with his head back, right arm hugging his left, eyes closed.

“Scully what do you think is most likely?”

“I think he was listening in on our calls.”

Mulder’s eyes flew open as it dawned on him. Calls, not just call. He’d made other calls in the car earlier.

“Shit! So he probably knows about our search on Dixon. God damn it I’m an idiot.”

Scully was used to this. Used to the fact that this man seemed to blame himself for everything. It was partly arrogance, but mostly ingrained guilt. His family had certainly been good at the guilt part. She’d seen enough of their interactions to reach that conclusion pretty quickly.

“Mulder, there’s no way we could have known. It’s done now. We just need to make sure it doesn’t happen again. The Dixon information wasn’t that critical. It would have come out pretty soon anyway.”

Mulder nodded and collapsed back in the chair, eyes closed once again. It was obvious to Scully that he was still mentally berating himself. She took in the fact that he seemed to be running near empty and made a decision.

“Mulder, why don’t I run the meeting tonight? Jake and I can handle it. You can just sit and listen. Take it easy for a bit.”

She saw the forehead crease slightly, the lips purse, as if in distaste. Then Mulder rolled his head towards her and stared for a good five seconds. It made her nervous and she began to wonder if she had unintentionally offended him. Then he grinned and closed his eyes again.

“Okay, Scully. It’s all yours. I feel like shit. You know, if you really want to help me out, though, you’d hurry up and solve this thing so we can go home.”

Jake laughed and looked back and forth between the two agents. Yes indeed, he envied them their relationship, their friendship. But he was happy for Mulder. He had known this man for several years while they were in the VCS together. And Mulder had always been too much alone. It pleased him that the man had finally found someone to share himself with. He’d needed it in his life. And it seemed that Dana Scully needed it as well.

Thursday, 3:07 a.m. Dallas Century Hotel

The monster had come for him again. Mulder dreamed he was in the airplane after the bomb had blown. The plane was being tossed about as if it were a child’s toy in an untamed hand. The passengers screamed and Mulder heard a baby crying for its mother, over and over. Screaming “Mama, Mama, Mama” as if the woman held the gift of miracles in her hands. The man three rows up was praying, reaching across the aisle to a woman whose lips moved silently in counterpart with his.

They were all so clear to Mulder. He heard them all, saw them grab for each other, for anything that would hold them in place or provide comfort to them. And he sat alone, fighting against the pull of air, of the wind god who taunted him, and played with his existence.

And Mulder felt his seatbelt start to give. Felt himself move in the seat as the belt loosened, inch by inch. And his left hand pushed against the fuselage even harder, slipping with the blood that flowed. His right was wrapped around the arm rest, his feet were dug into the floor, trying to find the friction necessary to overcome the wind’s terrible pull. The sweat flew and his fear was tangible.

And the monster laughed at him. The monster responsible laughed from over his shoulder. Laughed at his futile fight against inevitability. The monster laughed as Mulder was pulled finally from his seat and through the jagged opening into the dark and lonely night.

He was falling and he was terrified. He was falling and still the laughter surrounded him and followed him. There was no escaping it. He was falling and there was nothing he could do. Not this time. He saw the plane above him and it didn’t look so seriously damaged from this angle. And then he was tossed in the air and saw the ground rushing up below him. Made out the fields, the houses. And he couldn’t scream, couldn’t find the breath to scream. But inside his head he was screaming at the injustice. And he saw the ground come closer now and he closed his eyes against the sight. He didn’t want to die this way.

And he didn’t. He should have been dead by now but he wasn’t. He wasn’t falling anymore, he was sitting. He opened his eyes and he found himself inside. He was in a classroom with computers. He was in the last row, in the corner, and he could see all the students in front of him, working on their computers, leaning towards each other to confer, raising their hands to ask the teacher questions. He didn’t know how he got there but he looked at the screen to try to understand it. There was a picture of an airplane wing, and it was broken up into hundreds of little pieces. And it made no sense to him. But then there was a noise that made him look up. There was the laughter again. And it was coming from the front of the room this time.

He stood and looked, moved forward to search it out, determined to find the monster who taunted him, the monster who destroyed lives. Mulder was standing by the teacher now, searching for the monster. He felt like a ghost, invisible to the class, because no one took notice of him. He stood next to the teacher and searched the room with his eyes, attempting to determine where the monster had gone, when the teacher leaned down and turned his computer on. And the world was once again filled with exploding death.

In front of his eyes, Mulder saw the teacher’s face ripped off, leaving nothing but a bloody, unrecognizable pulp in its place. Pieces of computer had acted like hundreds of shards of shrapnel and had ripped out the man’s eyes, his throat, his chest, leaving brain matter, bone, and blood in a tear drop shape on the wall behind him. And Mulder saw it happen as if in slow motion. And he was helpless to act, helpless to prevent it. And still the laughter of the monster surrounded him.

He turned to the door and saw a shape. Saw a man dressed all in black. And the laughter went with him. Mulder turned and ran, chased the monster through the halls and down the stairs. He was in the Mechanical Engineering building at UTA. He wouldn’t lose the monster this time. He was only two floors away and still, the monster was in sight. Mulder was out the door of the stairwell and turning the corner for the exit in less than a minute. And he caught sight of him. He saw the man dressed in black. And twenty yards away, he saw his partner, standing on the sidewalk, waiting for him. Scully was there and she didn’t see the monster bearing down on her.

Mulder tried to scream and again couldn’t find the breath for it. He had to protect her from the monster. He saw the apparition ahead of him raise his left hand and there was something in it. The sun glinted off it and he knew it for what it was. It was a gun and it was aimed at Scully’s head. And he found his breath finally and screamed “No!!!” But it was too late. Scully turned as the monster put three shots into her head and then disappeared. And Mulder screamed “No” again, but there was no one to hear him. Scully lay dead on the ground at his feet. There was no one left in the world to hear him scream. But he did anyway. He screamed at his own impotence, at the unfairness of life, at the injustice that robbed him of his lifeline.

And someone heard him. Someone had come to him and was saying his name, over and over. And the voice seemed familiar to him. And something in him responded and he forced himself away from the dark despair that threatened to overcome him. Forced himself to listen to the voice. The voice that was telling him to open his eyes. And he was as terrified at what he wouldn’t find as at what he would, but he opened them anyway. And she was there. Scully was there and he sobbed in relief that she hadn’t left him alone.

“Oh God, Scully.”

He was crying and he couldn’t stop. Scully was there, she was alive, but he couldn’t stop crying.

“It’s okay, shhh, it’s over, Mulder. Whatever it was, it’s over. Shhh.”

And still he couldn’t stop, partly because he knew it wasn’t over. It wouldn’t be over until they caught the bomber.

Mulder rolled to his right side and pulled his knees up, wrapped his right arm across his left. His head was buried against Scully’s leg and she didn’t seem to mind. He welcomed the physical touch, discovered he needed to feel that she was there with him and alive. She was telling him it was all right, that everything would be okay, and he wanted to believe her. Her hands were stroking his forehead, rubbing his back and he knew she was scared.

She’d seen him cry when his mother lay near death. She’d never seen him break down other than that one time. And it was scaring her, but he couldn’t help it. He couldn’t stop. He was powerless to stop.

“Mulder, it’s all right. I’m here. I’m here and I’ll help. Please, Mulder, let me help. Shhh. Please, tell me how I can help.”

Scully was practically in tears herself now and it was this realization that finally allowed Mulder to start collecting the tenuous strands of his almost shattered control.

He rolled away from her to lie on his back once again and pressed his right arm across his eyes. He concentrated on breathing, simply breathing. In, out. In, out. But he kept gasping and sobs of despair would creep up on him unawares. He finally stilled enough to trust his voice, to trust revealing himself to her. And he removed his arm from across his face, trying to wipe away the evidence of tears with it.

Mulder looked at his partner then and saw tears rolling down her cheeks, saw the wet spots on her shirt where they had fallen to her chest. He knew she cried for him, for his pain and hurt, even though she didn’t understand it. It didn’t matter to her. She only cared that something had caused him pain.

His voice was raspy as he said, “Oh, Scully. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

She was shaking her head at him and he knew she didn’t yet trust herself to speak. He saw her raise her hand to wipe her eyes, her nose, and it was such an innocent, childlike gesture that it touched his heart.

“Mulder, what happened? What was it? Please, tell me.”

Mulder closed his eyes tightly and drew in a deep shuddering breath, and put his hand to his eyes once again. He couldn’t do this yet.

“I can’t yet. Please. I’m sorry.”

She accepted it without argument and he could see her drawing up her own defenses again. Could see their well practiced masks falling into place. And he regretted it. He closed his eyes and turned his head away, concentrated on getting his heart rate down to something approaching normal.

“Mulder, you’re sopping wet. It looks like you just came out of the swimming pool. Let’s get you into the shower and then you can move into the other bed.”

He became aware of his body suddenly. Realized that he was in his boxers and the sling and nothing else but bandages. And he was freezing. He’d kicked off all the covers during the dream and the air conditioning in the room blowing across his sweat-drenched skin was seeping the body heat from him.

He nodded to her and allowed her to help him sit up. He had to stop for a moment, he was so weak. His head fell to his chest and he breathed heavily as if he’d just run a race. The dream had leeched the energy from his body and left him feeling almost frail.

“I’m so tired, Scully.”

“I know you are. But you can’t go to sleep like this. You’ll get sick. We need to warm you up and get you into a dry bed. Come on, I’ll help.”

Scully helped pull his legs over the side of the bed, and allowed him to rest once more before standing. He was shivering now, shaking so hard the entire bed vibrated in frequency with his shaking body. She pulled his right arm over her shoulder and dragged him up. He had to lean on her heavily, but she didn’t seem to mind.

She got him seated on the toilet, then reached out with one hand and turned on the water, getting the temperature right. She hoped it would fill fast.

“Mulder, your sling is wet, too. We’ll rinse it out so it’ll be good to go tomorrow. I can bind your shoulder now to keep it in place. Let’s also change these other bandages.”

She efficiently removed the bandages from both hands and his arm, then reached over to check on the water.

“Let’s get you into the tub. Come on. You can just leave your boxers on for now and I’ll get you some dry clothes in a minute.”

Mulder was freezing and could actually feel his teeth chattering. He could care less whether his boxers were on or off, as long as he got warm soon. He allowed himself to be led and lowered himself gratefully into the blessed water. The blessed hot water.

He was holding his left arm tightly against his chest, trying to avoid jarring the shoulder with any sudden movements. The water was like heaven and he leaned back and closed his eyes, relishing in the warmth surrounding him. His shivering was starting to taper off now.

Scully was saying something to him, but he was having difficulty focusing. He felt water on his head suddenly and realized she had a washcloth and was pulling it over his head and face, his shoulders and upper arms. Anything that wasn’t immersed. She had a hand behind his head and was propping if forward so she could run the washcloth over the back of his neck. When she lowered his head again, he discovered she’d put a towel there to cushion it. The shivering was almost completely stopped now and he felt some of his strength returning. He could hear again, hear and have it make sense. He heard Scully speaking to him.

“Mulder, I’m going to get you some clothes and I’m going to get some bandages and something to bind your shoulder. I’ll be back in just a minute, okay?”

He cracked his eyes open and nodded to her. Saw her smile at him. Then he closed his eyes again and prayed for this feeling of warm contentment to continue. He dozed off then and was roused a few minutes later by Scully’s voice.

“I’m going to wash out your hand and shoulder wounds. They’re healing nicely, but it might hurt a little.”

He felt her pick up his right hand and put something in the palm, spread it with her fingers and the washcloth, gently. She poured water over it to rinse it out, then let it drop back into the water. She repeated the process with the left hand, being careful not to move his arm. Then he felt her carefully dabbing the stitches on the upper arm, careful not to pull at them. She was always so careful not to hurt him.

“All right, Mulder, let’s get you out of here.”

He opened his eyes again and was confused. He was so warm. It was comfortable. Why couldn’t he stay?

“We have to get you dried off and into bed. The last thing you need is pneumonia.”

He agreed with that, although he didn’t fully see the connection. He was so tired. Every movement required serious forethought.

“Okay, here we go. I’m going to help you move forward so you’re sitting up, then I need you to hold onto my arm and push with your legs. I know you’re exhausted, Mulder, but we have to get you out of here. Okay? Are you ready?”

He forced a nod and a soft “uh huh” and helped as much as he could. He was standing on the bathmat all of a sudden and just as quickly, sitting again on a towel Scully had put on the toilet seat. She had one towel draped across his shoulders, and another on his head. She grabbed down the last dry one to drape over his legs.

“I don’t want you getting chilled now, Mulder.”

He felt almost incapacitated. He couldn’t summon the energy to help. And Scully didn’t seem to mind. He felt his eyes drag shut again and his body start to tilt to the side. Scully was there, and let him lean his head against her as she continued to dry him.

“Mulder I need you to stand up now. You have to take your shorts off. Come on, I have the towel up.”

Part of him was alert enough to be amused. Scully had seen him in various sorts of undress numerous times. But he just stumbled to his feet, grabbed his shorts with his right hand and pulled as far as he could, felt the towel wrapped around his waist, felt Scully helping to shed the poor soggy things the rest of the way down and off. He heard a squish that he assumed was the result of wet boxers meeting the porcelain of the tub. He still had his eyes closed and couldn’t seem to force them open for anything.

“Let’s get you into the other room. Come on, this way.”

He felt her pulling at him, pulling at his right arm. He still had his left arm gripped tightly across his body. He was gently pushed to a sitting position and he felt the bed beneath him give with his weight.

“You have some nice bruises there, Mulder. I don’t remember you telling me about those.”

He couldn’t help smiling at that. Trust his partner to get upset because he didn’t share all his aches and pains with her.

“I’m going to do the hands first. Then the shoulder. The stitches on your right arm are looking pretty good. I’m not going to wrap those right now. We’ll see how they are in the morning. Let me start with your left hand.”

He felt her hands taking his, felt her fingers running lightly over his palm, then felt the spray analgesic and the antibiotic ointment. Then came the gauze, feeling so light, so feathery against his skin. She repeated her ministrations with the right hand and then moved his left arm slightly to position it correctly.

He couldn’t stop the intake of breath or the tears that came involuntarily to his eyes.

“I’m sorry about that, but it has to be in the right position. It’s okay now. Just hold it there.”

She removed the towel from around his shoulders altogether then and started binding his arm to keep it in place. He breathed a sigh of relief when it was done.

“Okay, Mulder. I’ve got some sweats here for you. I need you to stand up, I’ll help you. All right, now I want you to step into them.”

Mulder felt like a wind up toy, or maybe a marionette. Tell him where to go and what to do and he responds.

He felt her take away the towels and again was amused at what he construed to be her sudden prudishness. It was something to give her a hard time about when he could string two words together. She was pulling at him again and now he just wanted to lie down and go to sleep. What the hell else did she have planned for him?

She pushed him down so he was sitting on the edge of the bed and then he felt a sweatshirt pulled over his head, felt his right arm pushed through the corresponding opening. She’d evidently decided there was no purpose in her talking anymore. He realized suddenly that he missed her soothing voice.

She pushed him back then, ever so gently, guiding him to the pillows, and he relished in the feel of the soft mattress cushioning him. He was practically asleep already. He hardly even noticed the socks being pulled onto his feet, his legs being carefully moved under the sheet and blanket. Didn’t notice at all when they were pulled up to his chin. But he was just aware enough to feel her hand smooth back his still damp hair and then brush across his forehead. Just aware enough to hear her soft, “Sleep well, Mulder.” And he did.

Scully was exhausted. They’d gone to bed at a reasonable hour, for a change, but she’d only gotten about four hours sleep when she’d been yanked out of bed by her partner’s screaming. Just the one word, over and over. “No! No!” But seeming to be ripped from the depths of his psyche.

She had been terrified by his tears. She was so used to his strength, even in the midst of pain and hurt. The almost inconsolable sobbing and tears had torn at her heart. She couldn’t imagine what he could have dreamed about that would have had such a devastating affect on him.

She was concerned about him, even now. Even after she’d gotten him changed and warmed and put to bed. It had been more than a half hour since she’d left him, taken her own shower, and she discovered she couldn’t sleep now without checking, just to be sure he was all right.

Scully slipped out of bed and opened the connecting door carefully. She poked her head inside and then allowed her body to follow. She went over to the side of the bed and knelt down, pulled the blanket up again, felt his forehead lightly to be sure there was no sign of fever, and then stood. She surveyed the dimly lit room and realized there were still a couple towels on the other bed. She picked them up and folded them once, then hung them over the shower bar in the bathroom.

She headed back to her room, pausing a final time at the threshold to glance at her partner. He looked like he was sleeping peacefully, for a change. She headed to her own bed, and prayed that they would both be blessed by dreamless sleep.

Thursday, 8:19 a.m. Dallas Century Hotel

Scully had reset the alarm for 8 a.m. and had already hit the sleeper button three times. She decided that was probably her limit and finally rolled to a sitting position. God, she was so tired. She reached her hand out and pushed the alarm switch to off. She sat on the edge of her bed for a moment, slumped over as if she were seventy. Scully stretched her back out then and reached her arms over her head, hearing the muscles and bones fighting for position, especially along her spine.

A sound from the next room spurred her into action. There was no way she would let Mulder be ready before her. But it was too late. She heard him shout through the connecting door to her.

“Hey, Scully. Get your rear outta bed. We need to get to the Bureau.”

She paused on her way to the bathroom, shooting daggers at the almost closed door. Sure, Mulder, you scare the living daylights out of me at 3 a.m., keep me awake for another hour an a half after that, and you’re telling me to get moving. She knew her thoughts weren’t generous so kept them to herself. She couldn’t quite help the fact that the bathroom door slammed just a little too hard behind her.

Ten minutes later she was ready for the day, and stood stuffing files into her briefcase. She arrested her movements and glanced up as Mulder knocked lightly at the connecting door.

“Hey, Scully, you decent?”

Gee, that sounded familiar.

“Come on in.”

He walked in boldly then, sporting a crooked smile. He held his tie out to her in his right hand, almost as a peace offering, and stopped a few steps away from her.

“Tie it for me?”

Scully dropped the briefcase back onto the table and turned towards him, took a couple steps forward and took the tie from his hand. This had become their mode of operations for the past couple days.

“Bend down a little.”

He had already put the sling on, over shirt and suit jacket so she had to fight with the shirt collar a little to get the tie around his neck.

“You could have waited on the jacket and sling you know.”

“You were moving too slow this morning.”

She finally got it under the collar and then moved the ends of the tie so they were in the right relation to one another.

“The fat end needs to be a little lower, Scully.”

She smiled at this, then made a minor adjustment, and said, “Who’s doing this?”

Two loops, up, down and through. Then she was adjusting the knot so it wouldn’t choke him. She moved both ends under the sling and jacket, smoothing them down one last time.

“The button?”

She reached for the cuff of his right shirt sleeve and pulled it away from the jacket far enough so she could get at the button. She buttoned it quickly, then shoved the cuff back inside the jacket. She took a step back to survey her work and nodded, ignoring Mulder’s chuckle.

“You do good work, Scully.”

“Yeah, and I don’t get paid nearly enough for it, either.”

“You ready to go?”

“Yeah, I just need to finish packing up.”

Scully walked back to the table and quickly stuffed the last of her papers inside. She hesitated before turning, not sure whether it was the right time to bring it up or not, and finally decided what the hell. When she turned towards her partner, she saw he was still standing where she’d left him, patiently waiting for her to gather her things. He had an odd expression on his face and although she tried to decipher it, she really had no idea what he was thinking.

“Mulder….”

He didn’t give her the chance to bring it up.

“Come on, Scully. We need to go.”

She decided to let him off the hook, at least for now. But not forever. There were going to talk about it if she had to tie him down and force him.

“Okay, I’m ready.”

Thursday, 8:54 a.m. Dallas Bureau, Command Center

Evidently, CNN was at it again. The network had been promising an update on the ‘drama’ surrounding the Flight 72 investigation at the top of the hour. They’d moved a television and VCR into the command center so they could be outraged in relative privacy. Jake, Mulder and Scully sat working out tasks for the teams while keeping at least one eye on the TV at all times. A few minutes before 9, the phone rang and Jake, being closest, picked it up.

“Mander.”

Mulder could tell by the quick glance at him and Scully that AD Skinner was on the line.

“Yes, sir, they’re both right here.”

Jake held the earpiece out towards Mulder, saying, “AD Skinner would like to speak with you.”

Mulder had already been moving in that direction and took it from Jake within moments.

“Hello, sir, how are you?”

“Fine. Do you have CNN on?”

“Yes, sir, we’re watching now.”

“All right, I’ll call back when they’re done.”

“Yes, sir.”

Mulder turned to the two other agents, both of whom wore surprised expressions at the short conversation.

“Wanted to be sure we were watching. He’ll call back after the report.”

As he sank back into his seat, he caught his own image, along with Scully’s on the television. It was a shot of them getting out of their car in front of the Bureau yesterday evening. Damn, they’d have to be sure to park in the garage at all times, regardless of the circumstances. Mulder hadn’t even seen any reporters yesterday.

“Looks like we’re on, folks.”

Jake reached over and started taping, then turned the sound up.

“Special Agent Fox Mulder, shown here at the Dallas FBI yesterday, was injured in a shoot-out on the University of Texas at Arlington campus two days ago. His partner, Special Agent Dana Scully, was also injured slightly. It has now been confirmed that the two Special Agents are investigating a tie-in of the bombing of Flight 72 to a series of bombings that occurred in the 1970’s, for which Jose Alvarez was arrested and found guilty. It has been confirmed that Agents Mulder and Scully visited Alvarez in the Dallas Maximum Security Prison yesterday. It has also been confirmed that the target of the bombing of Flight 72 was Walter S. Skinner, an Assistant Director of the FBI in Washington, DC.”

The reporter looked into the camera then and flashed a smile, as if he had just reported on a sighting of Santa Claus.

“We’ll keep you posted as more news develops on this exciting story evolving in Dallas, Texas.”

Jake turned the sound down and the VCR off, leaving the television on.

“Congratulations, guys. Twice in three days on CNN. That’s the big time.”

“Ha, ha, asshole.”

Mulder ‘s cell phone rang and without thinking he flipped it open, extended the antenna, and pushed talk.

“Mulder.”

He was fully expecting to hear Skinner’s voice, and was momentarily surprised at the husky voice that said, “This isn’t about you.”

He’d been sitting with his chair turned sideways, his legs bent, feet propped against the chair in front of him. As the words sunk in, his feet hit the floor hard and he jerked upwards sharply, consciously ignoring the shooting pain it evoked. He propped the phone against his shoulder and neck and waved towards Jake and Scully.

“Who is this? What do you want?”

“This isn’t about you. It’s not supposed to be about you.”

And then the connection was terminated.

“Damn it! It was him. The asshole fucking called me!”

Mulder was up and pacing, phone still clenched in his right hand. Jake put the phone in the corner down and turned to the two agents..

“I didn’t have enough time. It’s not traceable.”

Mulder was angry, felt like he had to hit something or go crazy. He discovered the cell phone still in his hand and threw it across the room, where it made an anti-climatic clatter and fell to the floor, still in one piece.

Scully had been sitting silently, but now looked over to her partner and said calmly, “Feel better?”

Jake and Scully were saved from his response by the ringing of the land phone in the corner. Jake once again answered it.

“Mander.”

There were several seconds of silence before Jake responded, “Yes sir, I was on it. I’ll let Mulder tell you about it.”

Mulder took several deep breaths and tried to control his raging emotions. This man was his boss. This was the guy’s target. He had to stay focused. His voice was remarkable calm when he finally picked up the phone.

“Mulder here.”

“Agent Mulder, what’s Mander talking about?”

“I received a call from the man I believe to be the bomber, right after the CNN report. Agent Mander was trying to trace it. Unfortunately, it was only a few seconds long — untraceable.”

There was silence as Skinner digested this news.

“Could you repeat the conversation for me?”

“Of course. I answered ‘Mulder’ and he said, ‘This isn’t about you.’ Then I said, ‘Who is this? What do you want?’ And he said again, ‘This isn’t about you. It’s not supposed to be about you.’ That was it. Then he hung up before I could say anything else.”

Mulder heard the sigh at the other end of the line.

“Do you think it was in response to the CNN report?”

“Yes, sir. I think he’s upset that I’m getting more press than he is. Hell, I’d love for it to be otherwise, but I don’t have a lot of control over that.”

Skinner heard the rising frustration and could imagine his agent’s reaction to the call.

“I know that, Mulder. Just try to keep a low profile. It’s still possible that he’s turned this into something about you. Remember — don’t trust anything he says.”

Mulder found the conversation calming, somehow. Was actually not nearly so ready to throw his remaining arm through a wall.

“Yes, sir. I’ll remember.”

“And, Agent Mulder….. be careful. Both you and Scully.”

“Yes, sir, we will.”

He was actually smiling by the time he placed the handset back in the receiver. He walked across the room without a word, knelt down to his cell phone and picked it up, turning it this way and that. He pulled out the antenna, flipped it open and hit talk, put it to his ear and heard a dial tone.

“Damn, these things are well made.”

He turned it off again and smiled slightly at his partner to let her know he’d sufficiently calmed down.

“Did you hear?”

Scully nodded, understanding somehow that her partner was asking whether she’d heard what the guy who’d called Mulder had said. Jake looked confused so she said, “The phone conversation.” She turned back to Mulder and asked, “So you think he’s mad about the press coverage?”

“What else could it be? He said it wasn’t about me. Then he said it wasn’t supposed to be about me. And it came right after the CNN story about me and you.”

“Yeah, I know all that, but still….. there might be another interpretation.”

“What?”

“I don’t know, Mulder, I just think we shouldn’t jump to any conclusions about it just yet.”

“All right, all right. Fine.”

Mulder shook his head and slumped into the chair, leaning his head back tiredly. And it was just a little after nine in the morning, for Christ’s sake. He closed his eyes briefly and considered what he believed to be the trigger for the phone call.

“So what about the CNN report?”

Jake jumped into the conversation for the first time.

“I don’t think it hurts us. The link to Alvarez was going to happen eventually anyway. They already had Skinner. There’s nothing there that’ll hurt the investigation.”

Scully nodded to him in agreement.

“In fact, they still don’t have the Alvarez connection to UTA. Lorraine must have managed to keep quiet, Mulder.”

Mulder chuckled and opened his eyes, pulling himself straighter in the chair.

“Yeah, we ought to send her a thank you card.”

Mulder pulled a pad with his scribbled notes in front of him and glanced over it, then said, “Let’s talk about these suspect lists we’ve been generating. I’ve started making progress on a profile and it’s time to begin crossmatching.”

Scully took a big sip of coffee and pulled out her own notes. It was going to be a long morning.

Thursday, 1:18 p.m. Dallas Bureau, Room 314

Mulder was leaning in the corner of the room, one of the few spaces with available wall space. His right arm was again wrapped around his left, giving the appearance of crossed arms. Four members of the team were crammed into the little office, in various states of agitation. They’d reorganized the teams and these lucky four had drawn the short straw called ‘Analysis’.

“Okay, the point is that we’ll be getting the list from our people in DC of all possible agents and associated personnel who would have had the opportunity ….” Mulder paused for a moment after the word ‘opportunity’ to be sure they understood he wasn’t suggesting motive. “…the opportunity either through regular assignments, requested duty, or personal or sick leave days, to have killed the eight agents.”

He pushed himself away from the corner and dropped his right hand into his suit pocket. He fingered the little bottle of pain pills and wished he could get this over with soon. His shoulder was killing him and he was already well past an hour overdue.

“We develop another list with anyone who could have had access to the plane in Vegas, the hotel where AD Skinner and I were attacked, the garage where the fake bomb was planted, the UTA campus the other day, and the prison yesterday. I don’t want to jump to conclusions, but it’s either an agent on leave from his posting, an agent on this case, or someone assigned to Dallas. But we won’t assume any of those outright, just yet.”

He dropped back against the wall, discovering he needed the support to keep himself upright.

“We compile a list of all the Bureau personnel who received a degree in Engineering or an Engineering-related field. This includes the Applied Sciences and, I would say, Computer Science.”

Mulder pulled out the remaining chair from against the wall and sank into it, rolling his right shoulder and neck in the hopes of staving off the headache threatening to overtake him.

“We also have the issue of who set up the phone meetings with Jose Alvarez five years ago. That’s not a trivial thing. There has to be paperwork somewhere, and in lieu of that, there has to be at least a list of those who could have arranged it. We need that list. Jake’s team will handle tracking down the paperwork.”

“But, sir, why can’t we just wait until his team does that? Why should we waste our time dickin’ around with a list that we probably won’t even use?”

“We leave nothing to chance, Khalak. Nothing. Even if the paperwork’s there, he won’t have been stupid enough to use his own name. We need the list.”

Mulder had compiled a list of all the lists he wanted for cross-referencing, but didn’t need to consult the piece of paper. It was ingrained in his memory, the words floating in front of his eyes to be recalled on demand.

“All right, we also need a search initiated on any Bureau car that might have sustained damage commensurate with a hit and run, but logged in as some sort of accident in the line of duty concurrent with the time of Hendrick’s death.”

Mulder took a deep breath and looked around at the four agents in the room. He pushed the chair back so it was tilted and leaning against the wall. He dropped his head back for a moment before continuing.

“Okay, we also need a list of anyone in the Bureau who might have a background in ammunitions and demolitions.”

There were snorts from everyone there at this and it made Mulder angry. These people weren’t stupid but they weren’t keeping open minds. They wanted to take short cuts, and Mulder knew that would mean the loss of the case for all of them.

“Look, I’m not talking about who had weapons certification here, I’m talking about serious knowledge of ammunitions and, particularly, bombs.”

“But ASAC Mulder, we’re only four people. How do you expect us to manage all this?”

Mulder glared at Colleen McCulley, and forced himself to count to ten. Tried to remember she was young and that this was her first big case. He tried not to think about why Delano had seen fit to saddle him with such a green kid on something so important.

“Look, Agent McCulley, I don’t expect you to draw up these lists. That’s what we have analysis people for back in DC. I expect you to coordinate the searches, stay on top of the DC people, wheedle, whine, cajole, inveigle, threaten … whatever approach you want to take, I don’t care, but you get these lists for me by tomorrow at the latest.”

His voice had climbed throughout his little speech and now Mulder noticed finally that the young woman had turned positively white. He felt like a complete and total shit. If anyone had ever told him he’d one day be chewing out a young agent in front of her peers, he would have laughed in their face. But here he was, doing what he never would have guessed. He took another deep breath and sighed, then looked at her as kindly as he could manage.

“Agent McCulley, I apologize. I realize you aren’t a mind reader and you couldn’t have known what I wanted from you.”

He panned his gaze around the room again, taking in the serious expressions. They’d been working their asses off on this case and deserved better from him.

“Look, I know it seems overwhelming, but I am positive the name is there. If we can get these lists, crossmatch them, then compare to a few others we’ve already ordered drawn up, like the one of all applicants to the schools that were bombed in the 70’s and all companies using the laser printer cartridges and bond paper from the fake bombing, I know we’ll nail this guy. And I have a sense that he’s starting to feel impatient, so I’d rather it be sooner than later.”

He knew by their faces that they’d do their best. For him, for AD Skinner, for the Bureau. But mostly, because it was the job and justice was at stake.

Thursday, 1:52 p.m. Dallas Bureau, Command Center

Scully had tracked Mulder down and forced him to come eat some lunch. Jake was meeting with his team to continue picking apart the evidence that had been used to nail Alvarez. They were trying to identify what types of individuals could have arranged for the set-up and had been making significant progress.

Scully was filling Mulder in on her morning, which consisted of drawing together the numerous strands of qualitative data and impressions from phone interviews conducted to ascertain whether the murdered agents had interacted with or met with anyone prior to their deaths. A few spouses or other family relatives thought they might remember such incidents. Agents with the various local Bureaus had been dispatched to do more in-depth personal interviews. Those reports would start arriving the next day.

Scully’s team had also been reviewing the forensics reports from the original bombings, but couldn’t really add anything to the present body of knowledge. Mulder had hoped she would learn something new about the devices used by reviewing the autopsy reports of the victims. No such luck.

Scully completed her overview and took a good look at her partner. He was slouched in the chair again, head back, legs stretched straight in front of him and crossed at the ankles, seemingly his favorite position. He had finished only half the sandwich, pushing the rest back a good five minutes ago. He’d nibbled on some pretzels, but hadn’t really made much of a dent.

He was pale, but that wasn’t really unusual considering the last few days. She’d helped him with the pill bottle, so knew the pain medication had to be kicking in by now. It certainly seemed to wipe him out. But she still wanted to talk with him about last night.

Scully pushed her files away, as if the extra room would somehow help her broach the subject they’d both been avoiding so carefully. She squirmed in her chair, then cleared her throat. But her partner spoke first.

“Go ahead and ask, Scully.”

She sighed then. Sighed at the resignation in his voice, the fatigue, and the obvious trepidation. But she had to ask, and he knew it.

“So?”

“Not a valid question, Scully.”

“By who’s rules? You always make up rules as you go along, Mulder. I think it’s valid.”

He smiled a little, for just a moment, before the serious expression settled once more to his face. He knew he couldn’t avoid it and there really was no purpose to further delay.

“I dreamt I was on the plane again. And the bomber was there, laughing at me. And then I got pulled out and I was falling to the ground and it felt just like when I fell off the building and it was like it was happening all over. I saw the ground rushing up at me and I was certain I was dead.”

Mulder paused and took a couple breaths, swallowed hard.

“I closed my eyes, Scully. In my dream I mean. I didn’t want to see it.”

Scully wasn’t sure why he thought it was important. She could guess though. He probably thought it made him look cowardly. Trust Mulder to think such thoughts.

“But I never hit. And when I opened my eyes I was sitting in the computer lab at UTA.”

Scully could tell he was fighting to keep his voice even, keep it unemotional. But the emotions were there, under the surface, trying to fight their way up, fighting internally for dominance. He cleared his throat softly. He still hadn’t opened his eyes or even moved.

“The laughter was still there and I went in search of it. I saw something up in the front of the room and went that way. The teacher was up there and he turned on his computer and….”

He swallowed again and licked his lips before continuing. She could see his chest heaving now, in tandem with the shaky breaths.

“The computer blew up and killed him. And out of the corner of my eye I saw a black shape leave the room so I followed.”

Scully knew he was sanitizing it. Knew her partner dreamed vividly, all senses contributing fully to the visions that plagued him almost nightly. She could imagine his terror and the feeling of helplessness as he was forced to watch this play unfold.

“I ran after him, down the stairwell and to the front of the building.”

She saw the sweat on his forehead now, noted the rapid breathing, the fight to remain in control. This pause was the longest yet and she knew the worst of it was coming. The part of the dream that had so distressed him. The part of the dream that had reduced him to sobs for more than ten minutes the night before.

“And you were there, Scully. I couldn’t warn you. I couldn’t speak or shout. He raised his hand and he had a gun and he shot you. Shot you in the head three times and then ran off. Disappeared. And you were lying in a puddle of blood, just like before, with Linda Bowman, and there was nothing I could do.”

His voice was tinged with hysteria and this last admission had caught her by surprise, the realization that the thing that had unnerved him so had to do with her. But then she knew she shouldn’t have been surprised. She was as much his weak spot as he was hers.

His eyes were still shut tightly, his forehead creased in unnatural lines. His right hand gripped the chair arm so tightly she was surprised he hadn’t dislodged it. Scully rose and walked to him quickly, then knelt beside the chair on his right side. She covered his right hand with hers, twining her fingers with his, and gripped his shoulder with her left hand. She wanted to take the visions away, remove the possibility of them ever appearing to him again. But she didn’t have that power.

Scully dropped her head forward until it rested lightly on his shoulder, next to her hand. Her words were soft when she spoke.

“Mulder, I’m so sorry. I’m sorry I wasn’t there to make it stop. I’m sorry you had to fight the monster alone. But I’m here now, alive and well. I’m your partner and I’m here. You don’t have to fight him alone.”

She knew the words weren’t really adequate, but it was all she had in her. She pressed her head tighter against his shoulder and squeezed his hand hard, feeling the knot in her stomach start to loosen when he squeezed back.

Thursday, 2:47 p.m. Dallas Bureau, Command Center

Mulder leaned against the wall, partly covering photos pertaining to the death of Agent Richard Valez. He felt the pins jabbing him here and there, but ignored them. He wanted a good look at the wall across the way, where photos, evidence, selected reports, and miscellaneous items were displayed pertaining to the eight bombings from the 1970’s. There was something about the photos that was important. Not really the photos, something else. And it had to do with his dream. He felt the tenuous connection out there, just beyond his reach, running from him every time he got close.

He’d been staring at the wall ever since Scully left, ever since Jake had come for her. Their teams were coordinating on evidence pertaining to Alvarez’ trial. And so he took the opportunity to view the wall. To try to perceive what he knew was there for those with eyes to see. He shook his head finally and decided he’d have to continue to think about it in the background. It would come to him when it was ready to.

He moved to the phone in the corner then and dialed the warden’s office at the Dallas Maximum Security Prison. He wanted to know how Alvarez was doing with his record of the phone conversations he’d had with Tom Dixon, nonexistent law student or faculty member, some five years before. After ten minutes of double talk and run around, Mulder made a decision. He glanced at his watch to be sure there was time and then tried to decide whether there was anything he needed to coordinate before leaving.

Scully walked in then and stopped in her tracks at the look he gave her.

“What?”

“Come on, get your stuff.”

“What?”

“The warden at the prison’s hiding something. I want to go there.”

“Now?”

“Yeah, Scully, now. Besides, I’d bet you anything Jose Alvarez is done with his little writing project.”

Scully considered whether she could afford the loss in time and finally nodded in resignation.

“All right. But let’s fill Jake in and get SAC Delano to smooth the way.”

“We can call them, Scully.”

“Mulder, do you remember what happened the last time you made important calls on your cell phone?”

He opened his mouth, closed it hard.

“All right, let’s find them. Fast, though.”

They were pulling out of the parking garage fifteen minutes later. They’d found Delano quickly and he was on the phone before they even left his office. Jake was a bit harder to track down and harder to convince. He hadn’t wanted them going alone. Mulder had held firm and finally made it an order.

They were two blocks away and in position to take the Highway on-ramp when Scully noticed Mulder fiddling with the side mirror. She glanced in the rearview and her own sideview, seeing nothing.

“Mulder?”

He glanced over to her quickly then waved his right hand in dismissal.

“There’s nothing there. Just getting ready in case.”

It dawned on Scully finally that he was partly expecting to be followed. At least some part of him even wanted it to happen. She was irritated that he would be so cavalier with their lives.

“Mulder, I have a bad feeling about this. Why don’t we arrange for an escort?”

He sat a little straighter in the seat then and considered his answer carefully.

“Scully, I still haven’t completely figured out what this guy’s about. I know that he’s pissed about us getting his press and getting in the way of Skinner. Skinner keeps insisting this guy’s going to come after us. Maybe that’s right. Maybe he will. But I don’t see the purpose beyond revenge.”

“But Mulder, what if all this is about revenge? Or eliminating obstacles? We’ve become a pretty hefty obstacle to him.”

“I know that. And I do believe that’s part of it. But this guy’s a shadow. He hides in the background, but I have a feeling he also hides in plain sight. We have to take some chances if we’re going to catch him.”

“It would have been nice if you’d discussed these chances with me, Mulder, instead of….”

“Wait! Hold on, he’s there. Four cars back, one lane over. Do you see him?”

Scully swallowed her anger and irritation, realizing she no longer had a say in the matter. Whatever was going to happen, was going to happen. The players were in motion, rushing towards a meeting whose ending would hopefully be dictated by them, rather than the one who followed.

“All right, what do you want to do?”

“I think it’s time for us to become the trackers, Scully. Let’s play the ‘brake and pass’ game.”

“No way, Mulder. Too many other cars. Someone’ll get hurt.”

Scully envisioned the twenty car pile up that would result if she slammed on her brakes to make the following car pass them. No way would she do it in this traffic. She heard Mulder release an explosive breath in frustration.

“Yeah, you’re right. Okay. Look, the Pineview exit’s coming. Take it at the last minute. It’s got that sharp turn to the right. Just beyond the turn, pull over. He’ll either have to fly on past or back up onto the highway again. If he does that, we’ll call it in.”

Scully nodded, realizing the plan was workable, even if not very elegant. Sometimes bold and obvious was the way to go.

They were approaching the exit fast and Scully was keeping track of the cars around her, making sure the hole would be there for her to slip through when she needed it. It was there. She took the opportunity and pulled hard to the right. Cut across two lanes and barreled around the turn so fast she almost lost paint against the barricade. Tires squealed and horns honked. Then she pulled over to the right shoulder, slammed on the brakes hard and waited, hardly able to breathe. To remember to breathe.

She glanced over at her partner and saw the grimace of pain he couldn’t hide. The sharp turn and abrupt stop had to have been painful. But he looked at her and smiled grimly. He had his gun in his hand and his cell phone in his lap. He was ready for either possibility. She looked back in the mirror again and saw the glint of sun off chrome and glass. The silver car was barreling around the corner much as Scully had. It seemed to pause for a second, as if time and space warped to allow him to move at a different pace, and then it sped up even more. And Scully saw a glint from inside the car this time.

“Gun! Down!”

They threw themselves down below the level of the window as best they could with the seat belts restraining them. A fraction of a second later, the inside of their car exploded with flying glass as the driver’s side window shattered from the bullet fired their way. They heard the car roar past, tires protesting and then both agents were upright in their seats once more. The car was already out of sight and Scully wasted no time in starting after it once more.

Mulder had to shout to be heard over the street noise from the open window, the complaints of the overtaxed engine, the glass still falling out of Scully’s window.

“You okay, Scully?”

“Yeah. You?”

“I’m really getting pissed at this guy, Scully.”

“I’d say it’s safe to call it in now.”

Mulder was already dialing, trying to catch street signs as they raced passed them in pursuit of the silver car. He could see it ahead of them again. It was only a block away. But it was a busy block, they were all busy blocks, with cars pulling into the street from store parking lots, people waiting to cross, completely unaware of the drama being played out in front of them.

Mulder had Jake on the phone now and was trying to give as many details of the car as possible. The license plate was obscured with mud. There were no distinguishing features. And it was still far enough away that they couldn’t see what kind it was or who was inside.

The driver was taking chances — big chances — weaving in and out of the cars around them, occasionally crossing into oncoming traffic to try to escape his followers. They’d been incredibly lucky with lights so far, but Mulder knew it was only a matter of time before the light would be red. The light would be red and Scully would either decide to go through it or stop. He took another deep breath and prayed she’d make the right decision.

Scully was intent on keeping the car in sight at all costs. Her hands were slick with sweat and she had to anchor them between the little struts running to the center of the wheel so they wouldn’t slip. She saw the silver car go through the tail end of a yellow light and knew it would be red by the time she got there. She prayed the cars in the intersecting street would be slow to start through the light and gunned the gas pedal, slipped into the oncoming traffic lane to clear the cars coming to a stop and raced for the other side of the intersection. She narrowly avoided being hit by a truck when she went through the red light, then almost crashed into a car parked on the street when she took a corner so fast their car slid across four lanes of traffic.

Mulder had put his gun in his right pocket, and braced his right arm against the ceiling to help keep him in place. He still gripped the phone, so that an observer would think he was reaching it towards the sky. Every turn, every bump, every time Scully put her foot on the brake or accelerated, forced him against the seat belt. Forced his left arm and shoulder to move. Pulled at it and pushed at it and sent sparks of pain through his entire body. They were on a straight stretch for awhile, so Mulder once again put the phone to his ear, yelling instructions to Jake.

“No, he’s still in sight, but we don’t have lights or siren. We’re in a fucking rental. We won’t be able to keep this up for long.”

Scully took another sharp turn, forcing Mulder to put his right hand up against the roof of the car again. He could hear Jake yelling in a small tinny voice, but had to wait it out. After a few seconds he put the phone to his ear to hear what Jake was saying.

“Jake, Jake, we just took a left on Alexander. Copy that?”

He heard muffled sounds at the other end and knew Jake had at least one other phone to his ear, coordinating with the police.

“Okay, Mulder, we’re set. Hang in for another few minutes if you can, but we’ve got several teams heading your way. We won’t lose him this time.”

The silver car took a sudden turn down an alley, leaving half its paint on the brown brick wall. The alley was a ten foot wide opening between two tall apartment buildings, nothing more. They had to have been seven or eight stories tall at least, effectively cutting off the sun to the narrow little street. Scully didn’t make the turn this time. Had to slam on brakes and compensate. By the time they made it into the alley, their suspect was out of sight.

“Where’d he go, Mulder?”

Scully felt the adrenaline coursing through her system. She was completely aware of every movement, every breath, every nerve ending in her body.

“I don’t know. We’ll find him again. Keep straight. When we come out, I’ll look right, you look left.”

They were blind in the alley. They had no idea where it led, what happened at the other end. They didn’t know whether it ended in a T, dumped out in a busy street, or even dead ended. But it was a safe assumption it went somewhere since the silver car had disappeared.

“Sunlight ahead! Take it down a notch, Scully.”

The alley ended abruptly, spilling them onto a six lane road with a divider. A semi truck was bearing down on them and Scully expertly maneuvered around it and the other cars barreling towards them at fifty miles an hour. She joined the traffic quickly, eyes scanning now to pick up the silver car. And they still had it in sight. It was just two cars ahead and one lane over.

Mulder had seen it at the same time and knew they had to catch this guy soon before he disappeared on them. Or before they got themselves or someone else killed.

“Floor it!”

“I got it.”

Scully was on top of it, already changing lanes. Mulder had the phone to his ear, giving their new location to Jake.

“He’s turning again! God damn it, this is pissing me off.”

Mulder had his hand against the ceiling again, trying to keep the belt from pushing at his shoulder. Every time Scully took a turn, the belt cut into it, sending a shooting pain up his arm, through his shoulder and neck. It was starting to wear very thin. In fact, he had just about convinced himself that this was a really bad idea and was preparing to tell Scully to drop back when she took another corner. This time it was a turn to the left and as soon as it happened, as soon as they’d made the turn and were slipping sideways across the road, Mulder knew they’d been had. They guy had set them up.

They were heading for a ramp that would take them God knew where and there was no way to maneuver and no way to stop in time. Mulder caught sight of the silver car to the left of them, already slowed and in complete control.

Scully was screaming, “Fuck! Fuck! Hold on, Mulder!”

And then the car was flying. It left the ground and was flying through the air, tilting towards the right. Mulder had long since dropped the phone and had his right hand up, trying to brace himself against the ceiling. His legs were straining against the floor and he had an eerie flashback of his dream, of sitting in the plane and fighting being pulled out the opening made by the exploding bomb. He was straining just as hard now. He had an irrational urge to throw his left hand out across Scully’s chest to help hold her in place, would have done it without even thinking if his arm hadn’t been restrained by the sling.

Scully still had both hands on the wheel, in the hope of possibly gaining control once again if they managed to hit the ground relatively upright. It was not to be. They were in a loading area, lined with rows of wooden crates and metal containers. The right back tire of their car hit the ground first followed by the right front. They were still tilting, still out of control, and Mulder knew they were going to crash. It was inevitable at this point.

He saw the crates coming fast and knew Scully would be unable to avoid them, wouldn’t have the time to avoid them. And she didn’t. They hit the stack of crates hard, at sixty miles an hour, producing an explosion of wood, packing materials, and glass. The passenger side hit first and Mulder’s window exploded as wood lances forced their way through the car, narrowly missing his head.

The car was miraculously on all fours now, but sliding sideways, barely slowed by its flight through three of the wooden crates. And then Scully saw the metal container, ten times bigger than the crates. And Mulder’s side of the car would make contact first.

She had just enough time to scream, “Mulder!” before they hit, the kinetic energy of their car plummeting at well over fifty miles an hour being converted in a heartbeat to an explosive impact energy that had no where to go, no way to be absorbed by the fragile metal skin surrounding them. And the car was practically crushed in the impact, the passenger’s side folded as if it were tin, buckling so that Mulder’s right arm and legs were pinned against the car’s metal side and dash.

And somehow the airbag on Mulder’s side was triggered, even though there had been no forward impact yet. The sheer violence of the crash caused a fortuitous damage to the sensors, so that when the second impact occurred head on into yet another metal container, he had some protection against it. But Scully was not so lucky. As the car hit head-on, finally coming to a screeching stop, Scully’s head cracked against the steering wheel, sending her into blessed unconsciousness.

Mulder became aware of the sounds first, or maybe the lack of sounds. For what had seemed an eternity, he had heard only the screech of metal against metal as the car was crushed in the impact, as the automobile became an unrecognizable mass of metal struts, skin, and glass. And now there was nothing. No sound at all. And he was actually alive somehow. But he couldn’t move. His right arm was pinned between what remained of the crushed door and his chest. The air bag had given him a bloody nose and he could feel it dripping down his face. He knew his legs were trapped under the metal, but he could feel them and believed them to be all right. He licked his lips, tasting his own blood, then spit it out. He managed to turn his head to take in the sight of his partner. The sun shown through what remained of her window, almost blinding him. He could manage only a hoarse whisper.

“Scully?”

He was alarmed at what he could see of her. He couldn’t tell whether she was breathing or not. She wasn’t moving. Her head was turned away from his, slumped forward over the seat belt to the left. Blood flowed down her face from a gash on her forehead and he could see it on the wheel, on her shirt, pooling in her lap. Her arms hung loose at her sides. His voice was leant strength by his panic.

“Scully? Scully. Can you hear me?”

Mulder knew that Jake would have teams out to them in minutes, but wasn’t sure if Scully had that long. He tried to move, tried to loosen an arm so he could get to her, but he was completely confined. And then he saw him. He saw the monster from his dreams, the man in black. Mulder could see the shape through Scully’s shattered window, and it was approaching the car. It was a shadow only, coming out of the sun.

A piece of glass some five or so inches long and about four inches wide still clung to the top of Scully’s window, but it was a network of cracks, spun by a crystalline spider. And the sun shone through it, sending reflected colors of rainbow through the car. Mulder was angry suddenly. Angry because it wasn’t right that the sun should so betray them to hide a monster.

Mulder blinked his eyes, trying to clear them of the glare, of the tears caused by it. And the monster was closer and had something in its upraised hand. It was a gun and he was aiming it at Scully’s head. The shape was still thirty or even forty yards away, but Mulder could see the sauntering approach. They had a minute, maybe two if they were lucky.

“Scully! Wake up!”

He was screaming as loud as he could now.

“Scully God damn you. Wake up!”

Mulder was helpless again. Helpless like in his dream. The monster was coming and there was no escape. Not this time.

“Scully, wake the fuck up! He will kill us if you don’t wake up!”

Mulder didn’t know what frightened him more. The fact that she didn’t even twitch at his screaming or the fact that the guy was now only twenty yards away. Mulder searched frantically, jerked to free his arm, and felt no movement. He had to do something to save them. There had to be something he could do.

Mulder forced his left arm to move. The sling had long since loosened with all the jerking from their car chase. He had one chance and he had to take it. His gun was still in his right pocket. He couldn’t reach it. But he could reach Scully’s. Maybe.

He pulled his arm out from the sling, ignoring the pain, and then relishing in it because it meant he was still alive and there was still a chance for them. For him and Scully both. He forced the arm to move then, concentrating with every ounce of his being, every neuron focused on sending the electrical impulses that would move his hand. Move it through the glass, through the pieces of wood, and shards of metal that lay scattered across the drink holders and emergency brake. His hand was at Scully’s waist finally and her gun was there. All he had to do was pull it out of the holster.

He felt the snap give, heard it — loud — reverberating through the car. Almost as loud as his gasping. He could still see the wavering shape approaching them, slowly, languidly, as if the monster had all the time in the world. And Mulder’s left hand was around the gun. His sight was shimmering as the sweat dripped into his eyes, and the tears he tried to ignore made themselves known.

And the gun was up finally, pointing past Scully’s face and towards the shattered window, at the monster coming towards them. And he was crying now, sobbing from the pain and the knowledge that he might be fighting only for his life alone. That it might already be too late for his partner. And he fired — once, twice, three times before his arm collapsed at the repeated jerk and the sheer weight of the gun, overtaxing a shoulder and arm not meant to be used yet.

And the monster was gone and there was a new sound. A sound other than his sobbing, his gasping breathing. Sirens. There were sirens and Mulder knew the monster had been staved off for a short time at least.

But Scully still hadn’t moved. Even with the gun firing less than a foot from her face she hadn’t moved. The gun dropped out of his fingers and down to Scully’s lap. His shoulder screamed in agony, but Mulder forced his arm to move, forced it up, to Scully’s shoulder. He reached his fingers out, brushed the copper hair away and felt at her neck for a pulse.

He’d been holding his breath, holding his breath in fear of what he’d find. In fear of what he wouldn’t find. But it was there. The pulse was strong and steady and he allowed himself to breathe finally, allowed himself to drop his arm once again and lay his head back against the headrest. Allowed himself now to cry out of relief, rather than fear and sorrow.

And his hand lay on Scully’s seat, turned upward as if in supplication, fingers lightly curled. He felt Scully’s fingers against his, still unmoving, and forced his arm to move one last time, to move the inch necessary to allow him to wrap his fingers around hers.

Mulder closed his eyes and listened to the sirens approach. Listened to them get closer and closer and suddenly someone was at his door, telling him he’d be all right. That the emergency vehicles were on the way. He realized he was still crying, that the tears fell from his eyes, mixing with the blood on his face, and he knew it was in relief. Relief that Scully was alive, relief that they had both survived, at least for now. And then there was a voice he recognized. There was a voice speaking to him, softly, gently and it was a voice he trusted. He trusted this voice. Trusted it enough to open his eyes.

Skinner was there by what remained of his window, was leaning in and had his left hand behind Mulder’s head, supporting his neck and his right hand on Mulder’s chest, as if holding him upright and in place. Someone had cut the airbag away and Mulder could see down to his legs. Could see them trapped under the crushed dash.

He was confused suddenly. He knew this was wrong, knew there was no way for Skinner to be there. Skinner was in the safehouse — was supposed to be. But now he was here. Mulder licked his lips, tried, but managed only to lick at the blood that was pooling there. The coppery taste made him gag and the smell turned his stomach.

He rolled his head towards Skinner slightly and managed to ask, “What?”

Skinner must have understood. Must have interpreted correctly because he answered, “I got a call. He told me I could find your remains here at the loading area. I got Henderson and Chadwick to drive me here and we arrived at the same time as Mander and the rescue teams.”

Skinner saw his agent’s look of confusion then and decided to take control of this. He had to get Mulder calmed, get the younger man’s mind off his boss’ safety.

“Mulder, you shouldn’t talk. And you shouldn’t move. You could have internal injuries. We’ll get you out of here soon, I promise. And don’t worry about me. Don’t even think about that right now. Chadwick and Henderson are looking out for me as is most of the rest of the team. The place is crawling with FBI and police. He won’t show his face here.”

Mulder tried to take it all in, tried to understand. But there was really only one thing he was interested in right now. His eyes felt leaden and he had a hard time opening them again after trying to blink.

“Scully?”

He could barely hear himself and was surprised that Skinner had understood him.

“She’s okay, Mulder. They already checked her out and will be moving her first. She’s easy to get to. Looks like a concussion, but they don’t think there’s serious damage.”

Mulder forced his head to turn, to look at his partner. Felt Skinner’s hand, trying to keep his head still, so that Mulder had to fight him to see. They had her door open, had a collar around her neck and were already pulling her out of the car, a backboard ready. Then Mulder heard voices to his right and once again forced his head that way.

Someone was speaking to Skinner and gesturing. Skinner leaned close again, moved his left hand to Mulder’s forehead, stroking it soothingly, as if he were a child with a temperature. And as Skinner spoke to him, someone else was leaning towards him from where Scully had sat, circling his own neck with a collar.

“Mulder, they have to cover you with something now so debris won’t hit you when they cut off the door. I’m going to move around to the other side. I’ll be there in a just a second. Okay? I’m not leaving you, Mulder.”

Mulder couldn’t find the energy to respond. He felt the man’s hand leave his head and it tried to roll of its own accord over to the left, but moved only infinitesimally because of the brace — the collar surrounding it. A drape was being placed over him and it was covering his face. He felt like he was in a body bag and started to panic, feeling unable to breathe. But then Skinner was there again, sitting on the broken glass and metal bits left in Scully’s seat. He held the drape up so Mulder could see again and could breathe. Mulder dragged his eyes open and out of the corner of his eyes, saw them taking Scully away, beyond Skinner’s shoulder. And she was all alone. There was no one with her and Mulder knew that was wrong.

“Sc….Scully.”

Skinner was looking at him in confusion, not sure now what Mulder wanted or meant.

“Go with Scully. Alone.”

Mulder saw the flicker of emotions cross the man’s face as his boss thought through the implications of Mulder’s words. Skinner leaned down so he’d be on a level with his agent when he spoke.

“I’ll send some agents with her. They have to take you and Scully to different hospitals. There was a serious accident on the interstate and the trauma wards are a bit full up right now.”

Mulder was alarmed now. Alarmed at the thought that Scully would not be protected. It gave him strength where none was before.

“No! Please. Please, go with her.”

Skinner nodded to him, said “All right. It’s okay. I’ll go myself. I’ll get Mander over here to stay with you. Okay?”

He knew he was crying again, could barely see Skinner a foot away, but he was reassured by the knowledge that his boss would be there for his partner.

He heard the man yell over for the nearest agent. Heard the rapid-fire directions. Then Skinner was close to Mulder once again and shouting over the screeching of metal as it was being pulled away from the car on Mulder’s side. He felt Skinner’s hand on his own, then the other on his forehead again, gentle and reassuring. Mulder hadn’t even known he’d closed his eyes again until he discovered he couldn’t see his boss, that there was black only. So he forced them open.

“Mulder, I’m going now. Scully will be fine. I promise.”

He felt a light squeeze of his hand and then Skinner said, “Jake Mander’s here. He’ll be with you Mulder.”

Mulder felt his eyes close again, on their own, tried to nod but it was impossible. He felt Skinner’s hand leave his forehead, heard him get out of the car, and it was as if he’d lost a lifeline to reality. But then another familiar voice was there with him. And another hand was on his.

“Hey, guy. I guess you were shooting for another top of the hour story on CNN, huh? Hate to tell you this, buddy, but there are lots easier ways to get your face on TV.”

Mulder knew his lip curled slightly on its own. He felt himself slipping away. Felt the noises start to fade, as if a knob had turned slowly, to turn the sound down. Jake’s voice was still there in the background, but he couldn’t make out the words any more. Scully was going to be okay, Skinner was watching over her, protecting her, and Jake was looking over things for him here. So Mulder let go finally and stopped resisting. Stopped resisting the pull of oblivion that had been calling to him in an enchantress’ voice. And there was nothing but silence and blackness.

Thursday, 8:24 p.m. Dallas Hospital

Mulder had been aware of noises for the past minute or so. He hadn’t been able to identify them individually, but knew they fell under the broad heading of ‘sounds’. He thought hard, concentrated harder, and finally made a connection that one of the sounds was the beeping of a monitor. It oriented him immediately, he knew the word ‘hospital’, and he was flooded with a rush of memories — a rush of memories as to where he was and how he’d gotten there. He forced his eyes open and saw Jake, asleep, slumped in the place Scully would normally be.

Mulder decided to try out his voice, see if it worked.

“Jake?”

It sounded simultaneously rusty from disuse, and raspy from overwear. In fact, it sounded nothing like him. Jake jerked awake at the sound, his right foot slamming against the bed as a result of his sudden move to an upright sitting position.

“Hey, Mulder, my man. What up?”

Mulder smiled slightly, remembering the expression from younger days in the VCS. He tried to come up with a witty response and failed. But Mander wasn’t put off.

“How are you feeling?”

“Not bad.”

He paused and tried to swallow. He was so dry he had to force his tongue away from the roof of his mouth.

“How should I feel?”

“Actually, you’re not in bad shape. The rescue team said you’re one lucky bastard. Besides some new bruises and contusions on your legs, maybe a pulled muscle here and there, you’re in pretty much the same shape you were in before the accident.”

Mulder assessed his various body parts, tried to determine just where all these aches and pains were coming from that evidently weren’t supposed to be there. Actually, he hurt everywhere. Every muscle. Every tendon. Every ligament, every bone, every fucking cell. His God damned eyebrows hurt.

Jake must have understood what was going through his friend’s mind and interjected, “Actually, Mulder, they said you’d be feeling pretty sore for a few days. Pulled a few muscles is probably an understatement. I think you probably pulled about everything that could be pulled.”

Mulder closed his eyes for a moment and decided he could live with it. Hell, he was alive and that was a miracle in and of itself. He opened his eyes and turned to Jake again.

“Scully?”

“She’s fine. She has a concussion. Skinner’s arranged to have her shipped over here. He wants you in the same place. Says it’ll be easier to keep you both out of trouble.”

Mulder managed a snort at that.

“They’re going to keep her overnight, but she’ll probably be released tomorrow. You ….well, they’re not sure yet. Either tomorrow or the next day. Depends.”

Mulder didn’t have the energy to ask ‘on what’? He was exhausted and knew he wouldn’t be able to last much longer. He’d just thought of something and he had to tell Jake.

“I think I shot him.”

Jake understood immediately.

“Don’t worry, Mulder. We’re on it. I had a team scouring the site before I left. Liu and Knight are running it. We spotted blood and were cordoning off the scene before AD Skinner even left with Scully.”

Jake could see that the injured agent was starting to fade out. He reached out to him then and squeezed Mulder’s right arm.

“You did good, Mulder. You did real good.”

It was the last thing Mulder heard before he drifted off to sleep.

Friday, 2:53 a.m. Dallas Hospital

The next time Mulder opened his eyes, he was totally alert, fully awake, and thoroughly starving. In fact, his stomach was what woke him. The room was mostly dark except for a soft light in between his bed and the next. Mulder turned his head to the left and saw that Scully was the other occupant in the room. Skinner was asleep in a recliner chair on the other side of Scully’s bed. He wondered idly just how Skinner had managed getting the two of them in the same room. It wasn’t exactly typical hospital policy. But he figured intimidation and threats probably did the trick.

Mulder was feeling pretty strong and realized he had needs other than just food. In fact, he had to go to the bathroom. Like right now. He pulled himself to a sitting position and took stock before committing himself to his planned course of action. His left arm was once again cradled against his chest in a sling, much like the one he’d worn for the last few days. His hands were still bandaged. And there were no new bandages. That had to count for something.

Mulder moved over to the side of the bed and realized he had to contend with the IV. At least it was in his right arm, so he wouldn’t have to pull the damn thing all the way around the bed. He pushed himself away from the bed, right hand wrapped around the IV stand, and stood. Stood without moving for a good five seconds. He took a step finally, having gauged that only about five would be necessary to get him where he needed to go. And then a whispered voice interrupted him, off to his left side, but getting closer.

“Mulder, what do you think you’re doing? You’re not supposed to be out of bed.”

It was Skinner and he had a hand to Mulder’s shoulder and the other to his arm, gently so as not to jar it.

“I gotta pee, sir. Didn’t exactly feel like waiting.”

Skinner looked disgusted and amused, simultaneously and Mulder knew the man wouldn’t send him back to bed. After an assessing pause, his boss responded.

“Okay. Let me help you there at least.”

Skinner came around to his other side and gripped Mulder’s right arm more tightly, and took over maneuvering the IV stand. Skinner flipped the light switch and helped Mulder into the room, then left him, closing the door. Just before it closed totally, Mulder heard him say, “Call if you need help.”

Yeah, right. He sank onto the closed toilet seat and shook for a moment. This probably hadn’t been very smart in the grand scheme of things. Oh well, he was in it now, couldn’t back out. He’d manage somehow.

Five long minutes later, he returned pale and sweating and thankful for Skinner’s support. Support, hell. The man practically had to carry him back to bed.

“I hope it was worth it, Mulder.”

For a moment, Mulder froze, unsure to what Skinner referred. The trip to the bathroom or the aborted trip to the prison? And with the memory of the prison came a rush of guilt. Scully had been chewing him out when the chase began. Chewing him out for not talking to her about his suspicions. And they weren’t really suspicions, either. He had known. Somehow, deep down, he had just known. Known that the killer would be there, chasing after them. And Mulder had planned to turn the tables. But he hadn’t clued Scully in and now she lay in a hospital bed, damned lucky to be alive.

Skinner was now concerned and wondering if he should call the nurse. Mulder seemed to be in a trance, eyes wide, breath coming in sharp staccato beats. Skinner didn’t know what he’d said, but whatever it was, it had hit his agent hard.

” Mulder, are you all right? It was just a joke. I didn’t mean anything by it.”

Skinner could see the younger man fighting for control, taking shaky breaths now, one after another in such a way that he was certain his agent was counting. One breath, two breaths, three. Skinner waited him out, knowing that understanding would be provided soon. And it was.

Mulder opened his mouth to speak, closed it and swallowed, as if afraid of the admission he was about to make. He whispered a response finally.

“I knew.”

“Knew what?”

Skinner could swear Mulder had become even more pale in the last minute or so. His agent lay with eyes closed tightly. His skin was a pasty white and dark circles stained his eyes. His forehead was creased in either concentration or distress. Skinner wasn’t sure which. He put his left hand on Mulder’s shoulder, his right on his agent’s right hand, which was nervously plucking at the covers at the man’s chest.

“What did you know, Mulder?”

The younger man took another breath, then finally opened his eyes to look at his boss. The answer came in a harsh whisper, filled with self-loathing.

“I knew he’d follow.”

And then Skinner understood. Understood that Mulder had somehow known, from an intuition that had made him famous throughout the Bureau, that the bomber would follow them when they headed to the prison. He’d known but hadn’t clued Scully in on the fact. And now Scully was injured and his agent felt the guilt creeping up on him, overwhelming him.

Skinner shook his head, completely familiar with the self-inflicted guilt that could wreak havoc with your life. He’d gone through it enough himself over the years to understand it intimately.

“I hate to tell you this, Agent Mulder, but you are not perfect. And I have a sneaking suspicion that Agent Scully knows it. Maybe you kept something from your partner that you shouldn’t have. I don’t know. You’ll have to talk to Scully about it. But I do know that agonizing over it now serves no purpose. None whatsoever. It’s done and over and you have to move past it.”

Mulder was staring at him intently, full attention focused on his face, eyes flicking from Skinner’s eyes to his mouth as he spoke. It was as if lip reading would better enable the younger man to absorb his boss’ words. Skinner shook his head again, slowly this time, from side to side. He then looked directly at his agent when he replied.

“You’re a damn good agent. One of the best. And so is Scully. Together, you’re quite a formidable team. But neither of you is perfect. You make mistakes, then you learn from them and go on.”

Jesus, it sounded like a lecture from junior high school to his ears, but it somehow seemed to do something for his troubled agent. Mulder still stared at him, as if waiting for more of this wisdom from the AD. Skinner was at a loss. What was it really that Mulder needed to hear? And then it dawned on him.

“Scully’s all right. She’s going to be up and out of here well before you are. I’ve spoken to her several times already. And I think I know Scully well enough to recognize that she won’t hold this against you.”

Skinner saw Mulder relax slightly, letting muscles that had been held tensely for several long minutes slacken. The younger man closed his eyes then, and nodded, almost to himself. Now that he was sure Mulder was on the road to acceptance, he couldn’t resist a little dig, in jest.

“At least not for long.”

It brought a smile to Mulder’s lips, then a small chuckle.

“She’ll probably have me cleaning her gun for a month. Or doing all the paperwork.”

“Jesus, I hope not. That would be punishing me and I didn’t even do anything.”

Mulder felt a weight lift from his heart — a weight he hadn’t even realized had been there. He still needed to talk with his partner about it, about what he’d done, but he knew that Skinner was right. Scully would forgive him this, just as she’d forgiven him so much else. Just as he’d forgiven her. They were partners and they were friends. And forgiveness was a requirement for both.

Friday, 9:24 a.m. Dallas Hospital

Okay, now he was really hungry. Didn’t they feed patients in this hospital? He had awakened almost thirty minutes ago and his first thought was that he’d never gotten anything to eat when he woke in the middle of the night from hunger pains. And they were worse now. Much worse.

When he’d awoken this morning he’d found Scully still sleeping soundly, Skinner fast asleep in the far recliner, and Jake Mander fast asleep next to his own bed. It was a damned sleepfest in here and Mulder had just about had it. He was hungry, God damn it! For almost a half hour he had been left to his own devices and could think of nothing but French Toast, Scrambled Eggs, Bacon, Sausage, Blueberry Pancakes dripping with Butter, coated with Maple Syrup — Hell, he’d even take a bagel and cream cheese. He was Pavlov’s dog, for Christ’s sake. His salivary glands worked overtime at the visions of breakfast taunting him.

He couldn’t take it any more and groaned, in pure frustration from unrequited food lust. And boy, did that get a response. He hadn’t meant for his groan to be heard and in fact thought it was something echoing around in his head alone. But it had evidently been extremely loud in the quiet room and had caused the three other occupants to jerk to attention as if strings had been pulled in coordination.

Mulder blushed in self-consciousness as three sets of eyes searched him out, then stared at him, unflinching. He wiggled in the bed uncomfortably, looked from one to the other of them, and finally said, “Umm, sorry. I was just … that is, well …” He cleared his throat noisily and focused on his partner. She was staring at him with eyebrows raised, curious but evidently not angry at being so rudely awakened. It gave him a confidence to finish the sentence, with heartfelt simplicity. He stared directly at her when he said, “I’m hungry.”

Jake burst out laughing with Skinner joining in right behind him. Scully sank back to the bed, with a smile that lit her entire face. And then she backed him up in the best way possible.

“You know, partner, so am I.”

She turned to Jake then and said, “Don’t you think the guards at the door could at least let breakfast in? Poisoning isn’t really this guy’s thing. I think it’ll be safe. But if you have any doubts, you can try it out for us first.”

Mander and Skinner had both stood and were moving to the room’s door, smiles lingering. Skinner stopped by Mulder’s bed briefly, leaned in a little and said, sarcastically, “I’ll see what’s on the menu for this morning. Any special requests?”

Mulder was no longer quite so chagrined and the imminent arrival of breakfast leant him strength to participate in the mild bantering.

“Actually, sir, I was dreaming of French Toast and Eggs, with some bacon, a little twist of lemon to give the French Toast just the right taste. Thanks, sir.” He finished the sentence with a jaunty wink.

Skinner shot him a dirty look, still in jest, and nodded to Mander who knocked, then opened the door a crack. Mulder could hear a few whispered words and then the door opened a bit more, allowing Skinner to get closer. Skinner then spoke with whoever was outside and closed the door again firmly after a minute more discussion.

It was clear to Mulder that the hospital was crawling with Feds as well as police. He guessed that it was Henderson and Chadwick at the door. The safehouse had evidently been ported to the hospital. Mulder wasn’t so sure this was a good idea, but he knew Skinner was calling the shots now. And the man had a point, after all. Mulder remembered Skinner telling him that he’d received a call at the safehouse from the bomber, telling him where he could find his agents. There would be no possibilities of hiding anyone safely now.

Mulder closed his eyes and told himself to forget it, at least for now. Then another thought intruded and he turned his head quickly to the left. He hadn’t even asked Scully how she was feeling.

The drama at the door must have caught her attention as well, because she was still staring at Skinner and Jake, evidently trying to make out what was being said. When Mulder turned to look at her, she must have caught the movement. Her eyes flicked from the door to his face.

“Hey, Scully. How are you feeling?”

She smiled at him, not seeming to be the least bit angry. At least, not yet. And she looked pretty good.

“I’m fine. Really. Hardly even a headache.”

She sat back up in the bed, as if to show him how physically able she was, then grabbed a control by her side and pushed at something. Mulder could hear the mechanism that inclined the bed engage. She settled back again, looking pleased at the new elevation, and focused on him again.

“How are you, Mulder? Besides being hungry, that is.”

He couldn’t really find the energy just yet to sit up, but managed to turn his head to better see her. The blinds were defective here and there and several rays of sun bounced off her hair and face. The bandage at her forehead was only a couple inches long and not that wide. She did look good. God, she looked really good. She really did look like she was all right. The image of her sitting slumped over her belt in the car, motionless, blood dripping from her face, was finally banished.

Mulder realized he hadn’t answered her yet, had in fact been staring at her, open mouthed. He shut it quickly, took stock of his condition, and said, “Every cell hurts, Scully. I have hopes that the stomach ones will at least be satisfied soon.”

She actually grinned this time and Mulder realized he’d probably seen her smile more in the last ten minutes than he had in the last couple months. He felt an overwhelming need to finish this case. To finish it so they could move on, get back to DC, try to put their lives in order. They needed some time to just be partners and friends without the threat of death or destruction hanging over their heads.

“Actually, I’m good. Some aches and pains, but nothing too terrible. We were lucky, I think.”

Mander had left the room at some point without Scully or Mulder noticing. Skinner had moved in between their beds, waiting for the right time to speak with them. He took the opportunity when it was presented.

“You were both incredibly lucky. I hope you’ll never need that kind of luck again.”

Both agents turned towards their boss, then.

“Agent Mander received a report earlier this morning from the crime scene team. They recovered blood samples, casings, paint from the silver car, and tire tread markings. They’re trying to identify exactly what kind of car it was, then they’re going to run it through the DMV to try to get a match. They’ll hopefully have something for us this afternoon.”

Skinner stood with arms crossed, looking back and forth from one agent to the other.

“The DC analysis teams have been working around the clock on your lists, Mulder. We’re hoping for the last of them this afternoon, as well. The NTSB has wrapped up their investigation for the present. Nothing happening on that front until we catch our bomber. Same goes for the hotel shooting and fake bomb in your car. Jose Alvarez contacted the Bureau switchboard. Said he had what you wanted. Delano’s dispatched an agent to pick it up.”

Skinner knew he was jumping around in his summary but the entire case was so fractured it was difficult to avoid it. He had met with Jake Mander extensively since the accident the day before and was impressed with the man. Mulder had made a good call on him. Mander had filled Skinner in on the details of the investigation so far as well as what they had planned in the next day or two. Skinner approved completely. His agents had made tremendous headway in a remarkably short period of time.

Skinner shifted from one foot to the other, dropped his arms to his hips, then continued.

“Scully, your forensics team has been put in charge of the scene of the car crash. They’re still working it, along with Liu, even though we’re pretty sure we’ve exhausted any possibilities of getting anything useful. One thing we need from both of you, though, is a description of events. We’ve got the tapes of the calls and Mander has already reported what he remembers. But we obviously need you two to fill in the blanks.”

Both agents were nodding and Scully had her mouth open to speak when a knock sounded at the door. Mulder and Scully both jumped, but Skinner merely raised his hand in a pacifying gesture and walked to the door, gun pulled in readiness. They heard him say, “Yes?” and then could hear an answering rumble. The door opened a few seconds later to show Jake, followed by a young girl pushing a cart.

The girl couldn’t have been but early twenties, probably pretty new to the job. She had certainly never seen anyone in protective custody before. Her eyes were huge as she tried hard not to look at the gun in Skinner’s hand, tried not to look at either Mulder or Scully. She must have thought they were criminals.

Oatmeal and dry toast appeared before Mulder and his hopes were crushed. He stared back at the girl for several seconds, watching her every move, hoping, praying that something else would appear from a lower shelf of the cart. And it did, finally. A carton of milk and a glass of orange juice.

Skinner had been watching his agent’s reaction and laughed finally at the sneer that followed the look of crushing disappointment. He decided then and there, that if they all lived through this, he’d buy Mulder his eggs and French Toast.

A half hour later, Skinner was finally able to ask his agents what had happened during the chase. He pulled out a tape recorder and a note pad, then dragged a chair in between the two beds, fully prepared to act as evidence gatherer. It had been awhile, but it was still second nature.

Mulder did most of the talking with Scully occasionally clarifying a point or providing her own perspective. When it came to the actual crash, Scully fell completely silent and watched Mulder with fascination, hearing the story for the first time. He had been telling it unemotionally, with complete detachment, right up until the part where he saw the man approaching, gun aimed at Scully’s head, and was trapped, unable to move. His voice cracked then and Scully could see him fighting for a tenuous control.

Her own throat tightened as she imagined what it must have been like. And she remembered his dream, the dream that had so shaken him just the night before all this happened. She recalled his feelings of helplessness as he was forced to watch the ‘monster’ kill her while he was unable to prevent it. How he had managed to fight back in the car was beyond her. It was incredible. But he tossed it off, barely mentioning the fact that he had managed to remove his left arm from the confining sling, had pulled out her weapon and fired three times despite what must have been overwhelming pain, saving them both.

Skinner remained as detached as possible, striving for professional distance, but couldn’t help the feelings of admiration that stirred in him. The investigative team had pieced together the fact that Mulder had fired Scully’s weapon, but hadn’t known how that had happened. Hearing it now, after the description of the chase and crash, he was awed. He’d seen the shape Mulder was in after the accident, had seen with his own eyes the trauma of the crash. That his agent had managed to act under such circumstances was nothing short of amazing. His eyes flicked up from the pad of paper in front of him to the younger man, almost of their own accord.

Mulder lay with eyes closed now, having completed his summary of events. He was pale, but not nearly so deathly gray as he’d been last night. He even seemed strong, if tired. Skinner decided it was a good time to break. Any remaining questions could wait until both Mulder and Scully had rested. Scully was due to be released later this afternoon and if he knew Mulder, the man would be arguing to be let loose with her. Skinner shook his head, knowing he’d better start preparing a list of reasons now to be pulled out when needed. Mulder could be damned persuasive at times. Skinner cleared his throat before turning off the recorder and speaking.

“I think that’ll do it for now. We can talk more after you’ve both had a chance to rest.”

He glanced over at Scully as he stood and saw that she had not been able to remain as detached as she might have wanted. Her face was filled with a poignant sadness. Her eyes were still fixed on her partner, practically willing him to look at her, even though he seemed to have drifted off to sleep. Skinner decided to leave them alone for a bit and went into the bathroom. He stood at the sink, turned the water on and looked into the mirror.

What had he done, involving them in this? God, they had been through so much in the past couple years. They were still so young and had experienced and overcome so much adversity already in their lives. And he had added to it. Skinner looked into his own eyes, wondering as he had so often over the years what justice was and whether it could exist in the crazy world in which they operated.

Mulder and Scully had never received justice. Scully had lost a sister, a daughter she’d never known, months out of her life while abducted and then more months fighting a battle against the cancer that had almost claimed her, and still could. Mulder had lost a sister, his father, been tortured and experimented on, had been almost killed God knew how many times during his quest for the truth. And neither had received the justice they deserved for these misfortunes heaped upon them by others.

Skinner placed his hands under the faucet, palms cupped, and bent over the sink, throwing water on his face. He put his hands under a second time, filled them with water, and again let it splash against his face and his neck. He grabbed the handtowel and wiped at his face, standing tall once more. But when he took the towel away, the vision in the mirror had not changed. He stared into his own eyes and finally reached a decision.

His agents deserved better. They deserved a chance at happiness. If they lived through this, he’d do better than eggs and French Toast. Skinner would try to do right by them both. He put the towel back on the rack and glanced at his watch, then decided they’d had enough time. He could go back in now.

Scully watched the door to the bathroom close and then focused her attention once again on her partner. He wasn’t asleep, she could tell. Why wouldn’t he look at her? Why wouldn’t he talk with her?

“Mulder.”

He still hadn’t moved, hadn’t changed positions, hadn’t opened his eyes or acknowledged her in any way. But she knew he was listening. Her voice was soft and compassionate when she spoke.

“I’m sorry, Mulder. I’m sorry you had to face him alone.”

She couldn’t have been more surprised by his reaction.

“No! Scully, stop it. Don’t apologize to me, for God’s sake.”

His eyes were open now, and he had pushed himself up somewhat so that he was partly propped on his right arm. He looked angry and Scully didn’t understand why. What she had done. But then it became clear as her partner continued speaking.

“God, Scully, it was my fault. The whole thing was my fault and I almost got you killed.”

He dropped back to the bed and put his right arm over his face, hiding his suddenly wet eyes. He had accepted Skinner’s earlier words, had known that Scully would forgive him for getting them into such a predicament. But to have her apologize to him was just too much, causing the guilt to run rampant once more. The self-loathing was a roar in his ears, claiming his attention and focus. So he didn’t hear the rustle indicating his partner had left her bed. Didn’t hear the soft pad of her feet on the tile floor. But he felt her hands take his, felt her pull his arm from his eyes. And he looked into hers.

“Mulder, I promised you I’d be there to help fight the monster and I wasn’t. I’m sorry I wasn’t. I’m so sorry you had to face him alone. But just because I’m sorry about that doesn’t mean I’m not going to make you suffer for not talking with me first about the trip to the prison.”

She’d been speaking so sincerely that Mulder had been taken by complete surprise by the last sentence. But when it sank in finally, he laughed. Laughed and squeezed her hands, then replied, “I told Skinner you’d make me do the paperwork for the next month. He said it wouldn’t be fair to him.”

She joined him in the laughter, then moved her right hand to his forehead, pushing away the irritating stray locks.

“Maybe not paperwork, then. Maybe I can find something else that would take better advantage of your unique …. gifts. I’ll think about it.”

She released his hand then and pushed away from the bed, heading back to her own. Mulder didn’t like that pause. Not at all. He had the sneaking suspicion that she’d hold this over his head quite effectively for years to come. But he smiled at the sight of her holding the gown closed in the back, at the sight of her daintily jumping up on the bed and swinging her legs under the covers. He was so damned happy they were both alive that he didn’t care what she made him do in penance. He closed his eyes for real this time and was asleep in moments, the smile lingering.

Friday, 4:46 p.m. Dallas Bureau, Command Center

Somehow, they’d managed to keep Mulder down for one more day. It had taken the concerted efforts of Scully, Skinner and Mander, but they’d convinced him to remain in the hospital until the next morning. It hadn’t come without concessions, of course. In fact, Mander was collecting a box full of reports, updates, and pertinent evidence to take to him in the hospital. The deal was that Mulder would stay, but would still get a chance to work.

Mander decided he’d need some help so drafted Colleen McCulley to assist. He directed her to pack Mulder’s briefcase with a few more files, adding to the already hefty collection of paperwork and portable computer, and gestured her to follow him. He waved to Scully and Skinner, saying, “Be back soon. Hopefully.” He was rewarded with a grin from both. But neither volunteered to do the dirty work in his place. Ah well, the perks of power.

Scully and Skinner were reviewing copies of the lists upon lists that Mulder had ordered drawn up. The DC analysis group was in the process of running numerous cross-checks, but evidently had a system crash that would delay getting any results for a few hours at least. In the meantime, they thought hard copies of the lists might be helpful. Scully felt like she was drowning in paperwork. How the hell could an individual, or even an entire team, make any sense out of all these names. Hundreds and thousands of names on each damn list. And it seemed half the Bureau was on each. Impossible!

She traded frustrated expressions with Skinner and continued plowing through them, along with the seven other agents assigned to the task. Three of them had been working with the DC office over the past couple days to get these lists compiled, so were at least somewhat familiar with the groupings. It was going to be a very long night.

Friday, 5:31 p.m. Dallas Hospital

“Jake, look at this crap. Can’t you find me a pizza or something? Can you at least tell them I don’t have any intestinal problems demanding only mush? Jesus, this sucks.”

Jake had to admit the pureed food on Mulder’s plate looked anything but appetizing. Still, food was food when you’re hungry.

“Eat it, boy. It’s good for you.”

Mulder recognized the line, recalled going to see the movie ‘Aliens’ with Jake and his wife all those years ago, and couldn’t help the grin that came to his face.

“Well, if an alien explodes out of my stomach as a result of this shit they’re passing off as dinner, make sure Scully sues on behalf of my estate.”

“Don’t worry, Mulder, I’ll take care of it.”

Jake climbed onto the bed that had held Scully until earlier that day and peered assessingly at his old friend. Mulder was looking good. Way better than he had any right to after being mangled just twenty-four hours before in an accident that should have killed him. Mander wondered idly just how many lives the younger man had.

Mulder was plowing through the mashed potatoes, mashed meat, and mashed vegetables. He knew Jake was watching him, knew that in order to get out of the damned hospital and back to work, he’d have to convince the older man he was all right. And he was. He felt just as weak and just as hurt as he had been before the accident. He smiled internally at his little joke. Actually, if anything, he was even better off because he’d done nothing but sleep since he’d been committed to this place. He’d made his arguments, his plea to Jake in private hours earlier and now was curious what the agent would do.

Mulder turned to look at his old friend head on, assessing his mood, then pushed the tray away from the bed.

“What’d you bring me?”

“Everything. Copies of the lists, all of them. Copies of all the reports pertaining to the crash, including initial forensics reports. Copies of Alvarez’ journal.”

Mulder knew Jake hadn’t brought anything into the room with him and was wondering where all the files were.

“Where?”

Jake smiled at him, familiar with the man’s impatience. Mulder was on the scent and wouldn’t rest until he’d gone through everything, figured it all out.

“You owe me for this, Mulder. You owe me big.”

He took a last look at the man, wondering if he were doing the right thing. Hell with it.

“I arranged for a room down the hall. You get a table and everything. But I let you do this, you gotta promise you don’t tell Dana or the AD.”

Mulder grinned, swung his legs over the side of the bed and stood.

“Where’s my clothes?”

Jake stood and walked to the door, knocked, then reached out through the crack to return with a paper bag. He tossed it on Mulder’s bed without a word. He would be in seriously deep shit if Dana found out. Arranging for Mulder to work down the hall was a bit outside of what she and Skinner had agreed to. He knew they envisioned Mulder lying quietly in bed, reading a few files. But Jake had been in the VCS, handled the hard cases, and he’d worked with Mulder before. He knew that sometimes you just had to do the job, despite illness, despite injuries. The killers never gave time outs. Never gave sick days.

Mulder turned the bag upside down, breathing a sigh of quiet relief. He had been reasonably sure Jake would listen to him, but it had been a long time. A very long time since they’d worked together. He pulled his boxers on and then his jeans. The sling had to come off temporarily so he could take off the damned hospital gown.

“Help me with this?”

Jake loosened the fastenings, removed the straps, and helped Mulder pull it off. He quickly shed the gown and Jake clearly saw the evidence now of the pounding the other agent had received. He was consumed again by doubt about assisting Mulder in this deceit.

Mulder had pulled the black T-shirt over his head, was working his right arm into it, then started on the left, slowly. He couldn’t help wondering what his friend had been thinking to bring him a T-shirt. Oh well, beggars and all that. He was in it finally and pulling the sling on once more. He nodded to Jake, silently asking for help. He slipped his already tied tennis shoes on, not even bothering with the socks. He was ready to go. Ready to get started again on the job.

Jake went to the door and knocked, stuck his head out and conferred for a long minute. Mulder stood at his back impatiently. The door opened wide finally and Mulder followed Jake out into the hall and three doors down to a small conference room. The two agents at the door had split, with one leading the way and one at the rear of the procession. Mulder didn’t recognize the men but knew they’d have been hand-picked by Skinner and Jake. He was surprised to see Colleen McCulley in the conference room already. Jake waved him in and then instructed the guards as to the new procedure for watching the door.

“Okay, Mulder, this is your new home for a while. I’ll stay as long as you want. Colleen’s going to stay until you’re done and will be your legs. Any time you need to go back to your room, Colleen or I will arrange it with the guards at the door first and then they’ll tell you when it’s clear. Got it?”

Mulder nodded, knowing better than to argue with anything the man suggested since he’d gotten his way. He walked to the table quickly and grabbed the nearest box, pulled it close. Then he saw his briefcase and opened it, pulled out his computer and set it up. He’d already forgotten that anyone else was in the room and was almost surprised to hear Jake’s voice behind him.

“So, do you need anything else? “

Mulder turned, recalling all the agent had done for him.

“No, not just now. Thanks, Jake. But I’d like to talk with you about the case before you leave. Get the latest update. And run my profile past you.”

Jake nodded and sat at the table next to Mulder. He knew the other agent had been struggling to make sense out of the bomber’s motivation, preventing a reasonable profile development. And for Mulder to struggle with a profile meant serious problems.

“Where do you want to start?”

Mulder fingered the stack of paper in front of him, sat back in the chair and stretched his legs out.

“I’ve been working on a profile since the beginning of the case. The difficulty from the outset has been motivation. I have some ideas I want to try out on you.”

Jake got a little more comfortable, sensing this might take a while, then nodded for him to continue. Mulder seemed hesitant and Jake was curious about why. He caught the agent shooting a glance towards McCulley and finally understood.

“Colleen, could you do me a favor and step out for a few minutes?”

The younger agent flushed, then stood quickly and left the room without a word. Mulder watched her the entire way, silent, waiting for the door to close. He was slightly uneasy at his own paranoid behavior, but he didn’t know McCulley personally and neither did Scully. She was an outsider and the trust just wasn’t there. He sighed deeply when the door finally clicked shut and turned to his old friend.

Jake smiled slightly, recognizing that Mulder wasn’t quite ready to share his thoughts too widely. He saw that the agent was settling in, turning his thoughts towards the profile. His forehead was already creased in concentration and his right elbow was resting on the chair arm, his chin propped on his upraised fist. Jake wanted to clarify something before Mulder launched into his profile.

“Okay, Mulder, you’re on. But give it all to me. Including the explanations.”

He was used to the younger man’s tendency to insist on particular aspects of a profile without the justification necessary to convince others. He knew that in Mulder’s mind, this was a waste of time. After all, if he said the guy lived with his parents or that he liked the color blue, that should be enough. Jake saw the quirk of a smile and knew what was going through Mulder’s thoughts. But the other agent didn’t object. Didn’t argue. Just launched into it.

“All right. We have eight bombings over a two year period, ’74-’76. Seven of the eight aimed at top ten Engineering Schools. The last one wasn’t close to top ten then and still isn’t. It’s the tail end of the Vietnam War, and we have veterans returning to the States taking advantage of the GI Bill. Colleges and universities are flooded with applicants.”

Mulder closed his eyes and dropped his head back to lean against the chair. He moved his right arm across his chest, hugging his left arm. Then moved it up to his shoulder, touching it gently, as if to see if it were still painful.

“Engineering is still riding the wave of the Cold War and increased defense budgets. It’s a popular discipline and extremely competitive, difficult to get into. I believe the bombings in the seventies were a result of revenge, aimed at universities that denied his application to their programs. He started applying to the best and after seven rejections went with a school he knew and it rejected him as well. He was left in the cold and he was pissed. He didn’t think he’d been treated fairly and he wanted them to pay.”

He opened his eyes again and rolled his head sideways to stare at Jake.

“The specific targets are actually linked. I know they occurred in different Departments at these universities but they all had a link — a link having to do with Aerospace applications. The materials laboratory at MIT serviced the aerospace program, the aerospace structures lab at Stanford, the instrumentation lab at Cal Tech was used for the aero controls course, an aerodynamics wind tunnel at Georgia Tech, the CFD lab at UTA. All of them had to do with aerospace.”

Jake was with him, was nodding in understanding.

“Our guy was young then, between 18 and 24. He wanted to go into aerospace engineering and was rejected in all the programs he applied to. So he got his revenge and at some point, he decided to move on to something else, a different career — in law enforcement. But in the meantime, the FBI was closing in. The team was starting to get close so he had to find a fall guy to deflect the hunt. He either knew of Alvarez or found him somehow. Planted some evidence, let something drop to the right people and bang. He’s free and clear of eight bombings, that resulted in fourteen deaths.”

Jake again nodded in acknowledgment. This was along the lines of what they’d postulated.

“He moves on to his new career, which at some point involves the Bureau. Whether he’s with the Bureau when he actually sets off the bombs is unknown, but if not, he somehow has access to information about FBI procedures and, more importantly, to confidential information pertaining to the case.”

Mulder was thirsty. He hadn’t talked this at one time much in days. He looked around the room, finally spotting several bottles of spring water on a small table in the corner. He stood slowly, propelling himself up with his right hand, conscious of muscles throughout his body that had been strained beyond their abilities, then grabbed two of the bottles awkwardly in his single usable hand. He turned and offered one to Jake before sitting again. The water was warm, but soothed his throat.

“Time passes and his life continues along this alternate path, but he’s discontented. And his discontent grows with each passing year. He’s always felt robbed. Robbed of his real destiny. Of the life he should have had. And then something happens. I’m not sure what. But whatever it is, it’s enough to get him angry again and thinking about the path he was prevented from taking. His life is turning to shit and he thinks it’s because of his being denied the opportunity he deserved. And right about this time, he discovers that one of the original team members who investigated the case is talking about it to other agents.”

Jake’s forehead was creased in concentration. He had moved forward in the chair, arms propped on his knees, hands linked. He watched Mulder carefully. The man was in the zone. Was on a profiling roll.

“The guy hears about it, perhaps sideways. And he’s tired from life and he’s still angry. But he can’t afford to be exposed because there’s nothing better for him. So he starts to eliminate any possibility of being revealed. He contacts Alvarez, pretending to be a law student. Gains the man’s trust, then pumps him for information about the team in order to get a better idea of what he’s up against. He starts taking the team members out, quietly, in ways that won’t raise eyebrows, cause any suspicion. And someplace along the line it became a game. It’s just a game to him now. It’s the way he can prove he was smart enough then, if he’d been given the chance, and he’s still smart enough.”

Mulder had dropped into a monotone that Jake remembered well. His eyes were focused on the wall across the room, but not really seeing it. They looked right through it, at a past that was alive for Mulder.

“He’s playing the game and he’s been winning. The winner will be the one who figures it out first, and is still alive at the end. He was winning right up until Skinner. But Skinner figured it out. He knew the agents had been killed. And somehow, the guy finds out Skinner knew and rushes things. He has to move his timeline forward.”

Mulder’s voice had continued to drop so that now Jake had to strain to hear him. The injured agent was looking pale again — pale and so very tired. But he wasn’t stopping.

“So he decides to end the game in one fell swoop and plants the bomb in the airplane. Despite what AIC Strickland thinks, he knew what he was doing. The bomb was definitely supposed to do serious damage. If anything, it was supposed to take out the entire plane. He knew aero. He studied it on his own. He was furious when it landed safely. When Skinner escaped. So furious, that he sat waiting outside the hotel the next morning on the off chance that he’d get a shot. And I provided him the chance but he blew it again and now he’s really angry. Not just at Skinner this time, but also at me and Scully for preventing the shot.”

Jake noticed the change in tense. It wasn’t in the past for Mulder. It was happening again, before his eyes. Mulder was seeing it, feeling it, from the killer’s perspective.

“His anger is making him sloppy. He’s revealing more and more of himself to us now, but he’s arrogant. He’s convinced himself that he’s smarter than we are. That he’ll win. And deep down, he knows that even when he wins, he’ll lose.”

Jake was confused at the comment but decided to wait it out. He watched Mulder take another sip, close his eyes and slip even farther down in the chair. His head was once again leaning against the chair back, awkwardly. Mulder swallowed, then continued.

“He’ll lose because he knows he’ll be caught eventually. There’s no getting around it. We know too much. It’s only a question of whether we’ll catch him before he finishes up with his target — or targets. And I think the target’s changed. It had been Skinner, but not anymore. At least, not only Skinner. He keeps changing the rules as he goes. He does it because, in his mind, it’s his game, his rules. He’s the smart one, smarter than anyone else, so obviously he can make the game be about whatever he wants. And it’s up to us to try to figure out what the game’s about at any moment. It’s become a part of the game now.”

Jake could swear the man in front of him had paled before his very eyes. A sheen of sweat coated Mulder’s forehead now and Jake was getting worried. He shifted in his seat, nervously, wondering if he should cut Mulder off and force him to rest. Perhaps this had been too much for the injured agent, after all. Mulder must have sensed the movement, perhaps even what was behind it, because he opened his eyes, rolled his head towards Jake, then continued, staring directly into his eyes.

“He has nothing left to lose. This thing that happened to him a while back — it changed him, shaped him. He’s a loose cannon. And all he wants is to win big. Which means he has something big planned.”

Mulder licked his lips, swallowed again, and paused for a moment, almost afraid to put his thoughts to words, as if the saying alone would make it happen.

“He’s probably already got a target. It might already be set to blow. I think he realizes it won’t be long now before we get him. It’ll be something that’ll take out significant numbers of people, do a lot of damage. Worse than the airplane. He has to do better than that now. It has to be bigger and better. Because it’ll be the last act. The last thing he does before we catch him or kill him.”

Jake considered Mulder’s words carefully. It all made sense. He could see it as being reasonable. But this last was speculation. Conjecture only. And it was based purely on Mulder’s understanding of the bomber and his motivations. If Mulder didn’t actually understand the man the way he thought he did, then the bomber’s actions might be entirely different than what the other agent had just outlined.

Mulder waited patiently. He saw the expressions of doubt and uncertainty crossing Jake’s face. Knew the older agent was grappling with the projection of doom Mulder had just outlined. And he himself knew he had no evidence to back up his statements. But he was certain of it. As certain as he’d been about the guy following him and Scully to the prison. And he’d been right then. He was right now. He had to convince Jake. The other agent looked back at him, as if having arrived at some conclusion.

“Okay, Mulder. Let’s say you’re right. What does that do for us? Does this knowledge help us in some way? Can we use it?”

Mulder released a breath he hadn’t even realized he’d been holding. He thought he’d have to fight with Jake over the bomber’s motivations. It was a relief now to know the older man had accepted his profile. He dragged himself to a more upright sitting position and turned the chair so he could lean his right elbow on the table once again.

“It helps. It helps because we can try to identify potential targets, sweep them, possibly find the bombs before we end up finding nothing but bodies.”

“But, you’re talking about hundreds of possible targets. Maybe more. We don’t have the manpower for something like that.”

Jake’s words didn’t even get a rise out of Mulder. The man was obviously exhausted, fighting to stay in the conversation.

“Not hundreds. Tens maybe. The targets will be buildings with at least as many people as the airplane had. So two hundred or more. They’ll be public facilities, but something tied into his own warped idea of who’s to blame for his problems. Schools, law enforcement buildings … the Bureau would be a prime target. And whatever ties into the thing that happened to him, changed his life five or so years ago. It could be a health issue. Maybe hospitals, then.”

Mulder rambled to a stop, considering the words that just left his mouth. He hadn’t really thought about it beforehand. It just came to him as he was listing the possibilities. A hospital would definitely be a prime target if the bomber had a health crisis at some point. But he found he was too tired all of a sudden to consider the ramifications further.

A knock at the door caused both agents to jump. They exchanged confused expressions and then Jake rose and opened it a crack. After a moment, he opened the door wide, allowing entry to Mulder’s doctor. She was a tall woman, in her early forties. She carried herself with such assurance that Mulder had been totally stymied at putting up any defense or arguments for early release. He’d been extremely surprised that she’d agreed to the present arrangement. And now she stood in front of him, arms crossed, a wide smile on her face. Mulder knew it was deceptive. And her words proved it.

“Agent Mulder, it’s good to see you up and looking so well. By my count, you’ve been working for about forty-five minutes. I’ll give you another fifteen and then I expect you back in your room for at least an hour.”

Mulder had his mouth open to object when she cut him off.

“That was the deal, Agent Mulder. An hour on, an hour off. If you have a problem with that, we can renegotiate. Well?”

He sat with mouth still open, staring into the eyes of a woman at least as stubborn as his partner. His mouth slammed closed, teeth clicking loudly. There was no use. None whatsoever. He had no hope of winning this. He shook his head wearily and mustered a sick smile for her.

“No renegotiation necessary. I’ll go quietly.”

She raised one eyebrow, as if in doubt, and Mulder found he was insulted.

“I will.”

It almost sounded like a whine to his ears and he hated it. Hated that he was forced to defend his physical well being, hated that he was limited in this way, wasn’t able to work like he needed to. This guy was going to blow up a building filled with people. It would be another God damned Oklahoma City if they didn’t catch him first. But Mulder was being sent to take a nap. Like he was a fucking five year old. His eyes narrowed dangerously, lips pursed, right hand gripping the chair arm tightly.

The doctor noted the change, saw her patient shift from easygoing to dangerous in moments. She knew the case he was working and understood its importance. This was no recalcitrant or errant patient, intentionally pushing her buttons. This was the man who was expected to find a bomber and killer. Who’d already been injured several times during pursuit of said bomber. Who’s face had been plastered all over the news for the past several days. The helicopter scenes of the crash site had been great television drama.

She forced herself to relax, forced herself to drop her arms, forced a small smile. She wasn’t his enemy and would help as much as possible, as long as his health wasn’t in danger.

“All right, Agent Mulder. Please remember, your body has experienced substantial trauma in a very short period. A short rest on occasion will allow you to be in it for the long haul.”

Mulder found himself relaxing somewhat at her words. She was one of the good guys. He knew that. He nodded to her before responding.

“I understand. It’s okay. I’ll finish up with Agent Mander and head back to my room. Thank you, Dr. Shack.”

She returned his nod, smiled at Jake and headed out then.

Mulder looked back to the table, eyes roaming over the stacks of files and paper. He had about ten or fifteen minutes. He could at least do a quick overview of the lists from the DC analysis group. He turned to Jake and gestured to the stacks tiredly, seeing no purpose in trying to hide his exhaustion anymore.

“How about if we go through them quickly, set some things in motion. You and McCulley can work them while I’m gone.”

Jake nodded gamely, then said, “I’ll get Colleen.”

Mulder tuned everything out then. He pulled paper towards him, fingering through the stacks with his right hand, fanning the pages from bottom to top. It was a list of companies that used both the bond paper and laser printer cartridge that had been left in the car in the fake bomb incident the other night. There were thousands of names, in alphabetical order, along with addresses and other descriptive information. He idly cut to a sheet about a third of the way through and read an entry.

Maverick’s Horse Stables and Riding School 10178 Sagewood Road Dallas, Texas

Jesus, this was going to be fun. He pushed the stack back to the middle of the table and pulled over another. It was a smaller list, only twenty pages or so of names. All Bureau personnel who’d received degrees in technical fields. He smiled when he saw Scully’s name and Skinner’s not much farther behind hers.

Mulder realized that Jake and McCulley were also sitting at the table, pulling items out of the box and sorting them. He glanced over at Colleen McCulley and saw her intent on the pages in front of her. After looking through them a moment, she put the stack on the table, slid it in between two others that she’d put down. He noticed Jake making similar organizational arrangements. Mulder shook his head slightly. He knew that there was no particular order to these lists that would provide magical clarity or insight. It wouldn’t matter which he looked at first. But maybe it did matter to them. He sighed heavily and forced himself to sit straight.

“Jake, perhaps you and McCulley can spend some time going through the lists just for impressions. I doubt you’ll be able to do any serious correlation, but perhaps it’s possible with some of the smaller ones. You can at least do an orthogonal pairwise comparison, a vs. b, a vs. c, b vs. c, like that. Maybe you’ll see something. But it’s more important at this point just to get a feel for them. A feel for what kinds of people are on them.”

Mulder stood and discovered he was more tired than he’d thought. He wavered for a moment, had to brace himself on the table. He realized he’d closed his eyes and when he opened them, little white flashes spotted his vision. Yes indeed, he definitely needed to rest. He became aware of a hand on his arm, looked right and saw that McCulley had grabbed him when he started to sway. He nodded to her in silent thanks and turned towards the door as she dropped her hand.

Jake was already there, knocking. A moment later the door opened wide and Mulder saw the same two agents. They once again escorted him back to the room, along with Jake. A young nurse stopped what she was doing across the hall and watched the procession, then jerked and walked away as the gaze of one of the Bureau agents focused on her threateningly. Mulder walked with his right hand running lightly along the wall, not really for support but for reassurance, just in case. His steps were slow and forced, making the trip back to his room seem substantially greater than it had earlier.

Jake opened the door and entered. Mulder was amused when the guards gestured for him to wait until it was clear. Jake came out several seconds later and nodded, motioning for Mulder to enter. His bed had been made while he was gone and the dinner tray had been removed. He reached for the television remote control and turned it on, out of habit more than any interest in what might be on. Then he thought of something suddenly, out of the blue.

“Jake, what about the car? Were they able to establish what it was from tire tracks and paint? Did you get a list?”

Jake smiled, not even wondering any more how this man’s mind worked.

“It’s coming. We’ve got a hard copy coming of all possible automobiles in the state of Texas. A courier’s bringing it over sometime tonight. They’re trying to get an electronic version sent to the DC office.”

Mulder heard and absorbed the words but couldn’t find it in him to acknowledge it. He had one last thought he had to get out.

“And blood type? You can eliminate a third of the names from blood type.”

He headed straight for the bed and laid down on top of the covers, not even removing his shoes. He was gone before even hearing Jake’s whispered “See you later”.

Friday, 7:43 p.m. Dallas Bureau, Command Center

Skinner was incredibly frustrated. They’d spent the last several hours pouring over the numerous lists the DC analysis team had compiled, as well as all the lists from the various universities who’d been targets so many years ago. They’d tried to divide the team into smaller groups that would be more able to focus on certain crossmatches. Knowledge of blood type of the bomber would eventually help to cut down the size of the lists substantially. But first they had to get access to that information from the DC people.

Scully had just gotten off the phone with headquarters. The system was booted, the necessary software reinstalled. They hadn’t lost any of the data, thank God. But unfortunately, they only had hard copy for many of the lists. They’d been scanning the information and putting it all in the proper spreadsheet format, but evidently many of the characters were unrecognizable so actual humans had to do a visual comparison on each and every entry. She turned to Skinner angrily.

“I can’t believe that in this day and age when you can buy absolutely anything you could possibly want over the web, can send email across the world in a fraction of a second, can discuss the scientific accuracy of journal papers in near real-time with geographically distributed participants via chatrooms … you can do all these things, but you can’t get a lousy electronic version of a list generated in another government office in the same cursed city.”

Skinner smiled at his agent’s outrage and frustration. It wasn’t surprising to him. The only surprising thing was that they’d actually managed to get the damned thing in the first place since it had necessitated one of the DMV employees to work well past closing. Now, that was hard to believe.

He glanced up again and realized his agent was shooting daggers his way. He wiped the smile off his face and tried hard to glower. It was tough. He liked Scully. Liked her as a person. And enjoyed seeing this side of her. She was usually so damned reserved, so professional, never letting any emotion show in front of him. He felt that he’d come to know his two agents much better during this ordeal. He prayed they’d have the chance to survive to explore some of the tenuous strands of friendship that had begun.

“Agent Scully, when did they say they’d have them?”

She stood stiffly, arms crossed tightly against her chest, one foot in front of the other slightly. It was obvious to Skinner that she was still not pleased with him, but she did eventually answer.

“They expect to have the first computerized crossmatches run within the next hour or two at most. They’re set to run them in parallel. They’ve turned over all the machines to this case for the next several hours at least. They’ve set up a relationship matrix and have something like sixty or so analyses to run for each of the variables we identified as being important. They’ll call as soon as they start getting anything useful.”

Skinner nodded and looked back to the stacks of paper spread out on every available surface, searched out the faces of the agents working so hard to make sense of the lists. Should they just stop or continue with what they were doing? It was remotely possible they could actually discover something this way before the analysts back in DC. And it was also possible something would happen to the computers again. He didn’t want to put all his trust in them just yet. The agents could continue with their efforts. He turned back to Scully.

“Let’s go on with what we’re doing. It’s not like we have a better way to spend our time at this point.”

Scully nodded to him, understanding immediately the thought processes he’d implemented to arrive at such a decision. She agreed. But, God was she tired. And her head was pounding again. She sighed and stretched her back, rolled her neck from right to left.

“Maybe we can take a break, though. Coffee sure sounds good right about now.”

Skinner couldn’t help laughing out loud. The woman had coffee on the brain.

Friday, 8:21 p.m. Dallas Hospital

Mulder woke with a start. He was gasping for air, no idea initially of where he was or what was happening. And then it started to come to him, as did memories of the dream he’d just escaped. The monster was after him again, dressed in black from head to foot, laughing in his superiority and sure of his dominance. And Mulder was starting to worry that maybe the guy really was smarter, really would pull off the bombing before they could get to him.

He realized suddenly there was noise in the room. The TV was on, set to CNN. It had been droning on the entire time Mulder slept. He ignored it.

He couldn’t help thinking they were missing something. Couldn’t help the thought that he was missing something. It was floating around somewhere in his subconscious. He was sure of it. And these dreams were trying to tell him, but he couldn’t see it yet.

He shook his head in frustration at his own inadequacy and sat up. He felt much better, despite the dream that had so disturbed his sleep. He swung his legs over the side, still somewhat gingerly, and stood, stretching slightly. There was a glass of water on the tray by his bed with a little paper cup next to it. The cup held several pills that he recognized as pain and antibiotic medication. He spilled them out onto the table and picked up the antibiotics, threw them in his mouth and took a sip to wash them down. The others could wait. He felt the need for clear thinking.

He hadn’t taken more than two steps when he caught his own name being said out loud. He turned quickly and searched out the room, realizing finally that the voice came from the television suspended from the ceiling across from his bed. He moved back to the bed and sank onto it, picking up the remote simultaneously. He turned up the sound and was shocked to see his face in the upper right corner of the screen, which was filled with an overhead shot of the crash scene. It shook him, seeing it this way. There was a path of destruction some thirty or so yards long, with debris scattered everywhere. The car was an unrecognizable heap of metal, with the sun reflecting off the mangled pieces. Seen in this way, he was amazed that both he and Scully walked away essentially unscathed. The word lucky didn’t come close to adequately describing it.

A helicopter must have been overhead during the evacuation. On the screen, he saw the emergency team tearing his door off finally, saw Skinner exit the driver’s side and gesture for Mander, saw his boss run over to one of the waiting ambulances and jump in. A moment later, the emergency team was removing him from the wreckage. He had no recollection of it whatsoever. He must have blacked out at that point.

Mulder hadn’t really been paying attention to the sound, but recognized that nothing new was really being presented. It was just more of the ‘both agents were injured but are recuperating’ report.

The helicopter jerked sideways as a result of a wind gust and the camera swung around the entire loading area in response. Something niggled at the back of Mulder’s mind. There was something significant in the scene. It had to do with the cars — all the unmarked cars at the scene, scattered amidst the official vehicles. The thought was gone as fast as it had arrived, leaving only a vague unease in its place. He sighed and shook his head, grabbed the remote and then turned off the television.

He headed to the bathroom once again. He was cleaning up, preparing to head back to the conference room, when he caught sight of himself. He hadn’t really been paying attention to the reflection staring back at him. He’d seen his face enough times, after all. But he took a good look now.

He was frighteningly pale, having somehow lost in two days the tan he generally wore year round from running outside in all weather. His face was haggard, lines having appeared almost overnight. The dark circles under his eyes made him look a good five years older at least, maybe even more. He appeared as if he’d been on death’s doorstep for weeks.

He shook his head at himself and muttered, “You look like shit, Mulder”, then grinned at the ridiculousness of talking to himself out loud. He turned on the faucet and, when finally satisfied with the temperature, leaned down slightly, careful of his left arm and shoulder, and splashed water on his face. It was a little awkward with one hand but the water felt good. It even felt good to the palm of his right hand, which was finally free of the bandages that had encased it for so many days. The water on his face sharpened him, sharpened his senses, chased away the tiredness. He stood straight and opened his eyes, ran his hand across his face to wipe away the excess water.

And that’s when he saw it. That’s when he realized what he was seeing. The black shirt and the raised hand. His own reflection. It was his right hand up in front of his face, but it looked like his left. And like dominoes the pieces fell into place, one after another. And suddenly he knew who it was. He knew who the guy was and the realization shook him to his very core. His foundations were rocked and he had to drop his hand to the sink and hold on for support until the sudden dizziness passed.

He looked up again finally, searching out his own eyes, staring into them, as if he could instill in himself the courage and fortitude necessary to face the truth, this awful truth he’d discovered. He stepped back from the sink, ran his hand across his face once more, then through his hair. Not to smooth it into place, but rather to get rid of the remaining few drops that had clung so stubbornly to his hand.

He took a shaky breath, stared hard at himself. He could do this. He was ready for this. He had to be. It was time to end it, once and for all. Jake was in the conference room and it was time for a serious talk.

Mulder headed to the room’s door and knocked, waiting for the crack he knew would appear. When it did, he opened the door fully and stepped out into the corridor. He swept his eyes quickly up and down the hall, looking for any familiar faces. It was clear.

His paranoia and jerky movements must have set the two agents assigned to guard him on edge. They both straightened noticeably and searched the hallway themselves. Mulder looked at the one to the right and said, “Do you have an extra weapon?”

The man raised his eyebrows and a moment later, never saying a word, reached around to his back and drew out a small .22 caliber, then offered it in his palm. Mulder nodded and took it, checked it over visually, then slipped it in the waist of his jeans at the back in such a way he could get at it easily with his right hand. He turned to the other agent then and said, “And you?”

The agent looked taken aback for a moment, flicked his eyes to his partner, and then scanned the hallway again. He then bent down and started to remove a small gun from an ankle holster strapped to his left leg. Mulder put his hand on the man’s shoulder, stopping him. The man looked up at him, still in his bent position. “Let me have the holster too.”

The agent jerked slightly, glanced again at his partner, but complied finally. He took it off, stood and handed it over to Mulder. Now that he had it, he wasn’t completely sure what to do with it one handed. The agent seemed to realize the dilemma and took it back, bent down and reached for Mulder’s left leg.

Mulder felt the embarrassment hot on his face. He was a damned child who had to have his dad tie his shoes. Jesus, he wasn’t sure whether he was up to this. The man finished finally and stood.

Neither of the agents had spoken a single word. They’d been given careful instructions by the AD. This man in front of them was in charge in all circumstances unless demanding something that would physically endanger him or be in contradiction to the Doctor’s orders.

Mulder brushed off the feelings of inadequacy and stood straight. He had to get to the conference room. Jake was there waiting for him.

Friday, 8:32 p.m. Dallas Bureau, Command Center

The phone in the corner rang and Scully jerked at the sound. She had drifted off somehow, amidst the noise of shuffling paper, soothing voices and squeaking chairs. She was slightly embarrassed but decided to give herself a break. She’d only been out of the hospital for seven or so hours, after all. She focused her attention on the agent who’d picked up the phone. Liu was speaking softly into the handset, then hung up and turned to the agents in the room.

“They’re faxing initial results from crossmatches between agents with technical degrees, those who might have had opportunity to kill the eight team members, and agents with a demolitions background. She said they ran pairwise comparisons as well as all at once. There are about ten to twelve pages coming through. The other runs will be completed in the next ten minutes or so, including the DMV data.”

Skinner nodded, then glanced over to Scully to gage her reaction. She was wide awake again and looking eagerly towards the fax machine. It rang twice, then started making the clicking noises indicating imminent receipt. Every agent in the room was motionless, staring at the machine that would hopefully provide them with the answer they’d been so desperate for.

Skinner took two quick strides to the machine and pulled off the pages one by one as they came out. He was already scanning the first page and realized quickly it was the pairwise crossmatch of agents who had both opportunity to kill his team members as well as a technical background. He came across several names he recognized, one of which sent shivers down his spine.

He passed the three pages pertaining to that comparison to Scully and then started looking at the second list. It was again a pairwise analysis of agents with a technical background versus those with some sort of demolitions or ammunitions background. He felt sick as he read through it. Could feel the sweat start on his back, under his arms, on his forehead.

He passed this list to her as well and picked up the next, already knowing what he’d find. And he did. The name was there. He didn’t even look at the others anymore, just went straight to that letter of the alphabet.

The pages were loose in his hands and he almost dropped them as he looked over at his agent. Her eyes were wide, her mouth slightly open in shock. He asked simply, “Where?” He’d known the answer, of course, had been afraid of it. She answered, voice cracking, practically a whisper, “With Mulder”. The bomber was with Mulder and they had no way to let him know without alerting the killer.

The pages had been passed around the room and all eyes were now focused on Skinner, in the hopes that the AD would somehow make it all better, tell them the right thing to do. They’d resolved themselves early on to the idea that it was once of their own, someone with the Bureau. But this was different. This was one of their own colleagues, with whom they’d worked on the case.

Skinner wiped the sweat from his forehead with the back of his left hand, threw the remaining pages on the table in front of him, then took a deep, cleansing breath. It was time to move.

“Okay, people. Let’s get organized. We don’t have a lot of time. Get vests and jackets.” Skinner turned to Scully with a gesture. “Get assignments on position from Agent Scully.” He looked her in the eye then and asked, “Who’s our contact on the DPD?”

Ten minutes later they were on their way to the hospital, fully prepared to end this, once and for all.

Friday, 8:44 p.m. Dallas Hospital

The door slammed open and the first of his body guards ran into the room, gun raised, swinging from side to side. Mulder was right behind him and dropped to a knee, surveying the scene. He felt the second agent behind him, saw peripherally the raised gun.

Jake had jerked to a standing position, had hands out to his side, held away from his body. His face was awash in confusion and alarm. He searched out Mulder’s eyes with his own.

“What? What’s happening?”

Mulder relaxed and stood, nodded to the two other agents and told them to come in and close the door. He turned back to Jake then.

“Where’s McCulley?”

Jake was still confused, but answered quickly. He understood that something had either happened or that Mulder had made a discovery related to the case.

“She went down to the lobby to meet a courier from the Bureau – to get the DMV info. Why?”

Mulder took a breath, trying to decide how to best handle the situation. He looked down and realized he still held the small weapon. He slipped it into the sling, between body and arm. Before he could speak, the door flew open, slamming against the wall. Everyone in the room swung in that direction, hands reaching for weapons just returned to holsters.

Mulder took it all in a heartbeat. McCulley was there, a large manila envelope in her right hand, propped under her arm. She was pale, scared — terrified even. And the bomber stood behind her, with a gun in his left hand, pointing directly at her head.

Thursday, 8:49 p.m. Dallas Hospital

Everyone stood frozen, weapons remaining holstered, hands halted before completing the gestures to retrieve them. It seemed that no one breathed, no one moved. But the air itself hung with imminent disaster, a recognition of impending violent action that would precipitate an unwelcome ending to this play. The tableau was broken finally by Mulder. He raised his right hand, palm up in a pacifying gesture.

“Everyone’s good. Everyone’s cool here. We’re all good.”

He sensed the tension, the desire on the part of the bodyguards to act. Recognized how inflammatory any action would be. McCulley would die. He knew that. There was no question that would be the outcome. Mulder knew he had to keep the agents in the room from acting prematurely. It would be the worst possible thing that could happen.

“No one’s going to draw a weapon. No one’s going to move.”

He stared from left to right, barely moving his head, making sure they understood that was an order. Then he turned back to the man standing with his service weapon to the young woman’s temple. A grin lit the man’s face, as if he’d just been reunited with a lost love. It was a maniacal grin, obviously detached from any connection to reality. Mulder knew he had to keep the older man calm, keep him from overreacting.

“It’s your game. It’s your play. You tell us what to do now. You tell us what you want.”

Mulder wasn’t a negotiator. Had never been, except for Duane Barry. And he hadn’t particularly excelled in that situation. But he knew the rules. Knew what to avoid, knew what to focus on, knew that you never, never identified with the guy. Never made him think you were on his side. There were rules to negotiation, but as with Duane Barry, this man in front of him knew the rules as well as he did. Knew them better than Mulder, probably.

“Tell me what you want now.”

The man was looking at Mulder curiously, head tilted contemplatively to one side.

“You knew. How? They haven’t compiled their lists yet.”

Mulder understood what he was being asked.

“You fit the profile I’d developed. You were the right age, had the right background, had the access to the information, had access to Skinner during the original investigation .”

The man was nodding, but still didn’t look convinced.

“That couldn’t have been it, though. A third of the Bureau probably fit your profile. What else? What was it?”

He seemed sincerely curious.

“I kept dreaming of the bomber. His face was always in shadows, unrecognizable, but he was dressed in black, from head to foot. And I realized finally that he held his weapon in his left hand. I’d seen you, at the hotel and again at UTA, but I didn’t realize it consciously, not until a little bit ago. Then there was the car we were following before the crash. It had a CB antenna and Texas plates. I’d forgotten until I saw the scene on CNN. It had to belong to a local agent. One who had access somehow to what we were doing. That’s why you assigned McCulley to the team. She wouldn’t have known not to speak with her boss about the case he assigned her to.”

McCulley’s eyes grew even wider and Mulder felt like a complete shit, laying this on her. He’d been running the damn case. He should have known something was wrong from the beginning. She’d been too inexperienced to have been assigned without some ulterior motive. He told himself once again that he’d get her out of this somehow.

Delano nodded, a smile on his face now. Mulder was good. As good as Walt had said he was. This was going to be fun. It would be a challenge, but he was up to it.

Mulder stared at Skinner’s old friend, at the man holding all the cards. He had to get the gun away from McCulley’s head. If he had a second, maybe two, he could get the weapon from his sling. He gestured slightly with his right hand, getting the attention of the older black agent who was responsible for so much misery.

“Tell me what you want now.”

“Agent Mulder, surely you know. Why don’t you tell me? Let’s see if you’re as smart as everyone thinks you are.”

Mulder swallowed, unsure of where to go with this. He decided to trust his instincts and answer honestly, at least for now.

“You want to be recognized. You want the world to know who you are and how smart you’ve been.”

The man shot a look of complete and utter irritation at Mulder.

“That’s it? That’s all you’ve come up with? I’m disappointed in you. What do you think I want to have happen next?”

Mulder licked his lips, flicked his eyes to the left where Jake still stood, hands held away from his body, unthreatening. Jake couldn’t help him. He saw the agent grimace at him, slightly. Mulder looked back to Delano and considered the question. To lie or not to lie, that was the question.

“I think you want to …. go out with a bang.”

Delano started laughing, loudly, almost violently.

“God, Mulder, you are too funny. And you’re right! Of course.”

The man stared at Jake, then turned his gaze to the two other agents in the room besides Mulder and McCulley.

“Get out. All of you. Mulder, McCulley and I are just fine here. You can leave.”

The man dragged Colleen to the left, steering clear of Mulder’s body guard who still stood to the left of the door. He turned as he passed by Mulder, so that his back was never exposed to any of the agents in the room. McCulley looked like she was on the verge of passing out. Delano was dragging her by her right arm, his own body stationed fully behind her to avoid exposure. Mulder could imagine the fingers digging into her arm, into her biceps, causing yet another level of pain and distress. Delano was back against a wall finally, McCulley still in front of him.

Mulder could see a small trickle of blood coming from the young agent’s temple, from where the gun had been moved violently enough to break skin and blood vessels. He tried to catch her eyes in the hopes of offering some reassurance. But they flitted around the room, never resting on anyone or anything. She was breathing so quickly and shallowly that Mulder was surprised she hadn’t hyperventilated.

Mulder looked around the room again and made a decision.

“All right, you heard the man. Out. Slowly.”

He heard the shuffle to his left and looked in that direction. Jake was shaking his head, refusing to go quietly. Refusing to go without a fight.

“Jake, do it. Out.”

His old friend was fighting internally, trying to decide whether to leave Mulder and McCulley to this madman or not. His shoulders slumped finally, in resignation, and he nodded. Nodded to Mulder and then to the two other agents.

“All right, Mulder. It’s your call.”

He started moving to the door, slowly, and gestured that the two other agents should precede him. He looked back at Mulder one last time before leaving the room, expression filled with sadness and regret.

Mulder felt himself slump a little when Jake left. The man had been with him almost continuously for the past two days and for much of the preceding four or so. They’d renewed their old friendship and it had felt good. And now that support was leaving. But there was no other way they could do it. There was nothing else Jake or Mulder could do. At least this way, the man would be safe and would be able to talk with Skinner and Scully. He’d make sure they knew about the possibility of a bomb or bombs in the building. And he’d make sure it was evacuated quickly and efficiently. At least they’d accomplished that much. Now he just had to keep this man talking long enough to give them time for the evacuation.

The door closed with a resounding click, too much a signal of finality for Mulder’s peace of mind. He forced another deep breath and returned his gaze to Delano and McCulley.

“All right. It’s still your game. Still your call. How do you want to run it?”

Mulder had moved his right hand to the top of his left, over the sling. He’d tried to make the move appear as if he were tired, too tired to continue holding it out to the side. The thumb of his right hand was hooked inside the sling. All he needed was a second. A second would be enough to grab the weapon resting so close now to his hand.

Delano still had his weapon to McCulley’s temple, but hadn’t looked at her once since he’d entered the room. Her eyes had finally found Mulder’s. Were focused on his, filled with a mixture of insecurity and courage. Mulder was proud of her. He smiled at her slightly, willed that she would hang on through this and manage to do the right thing when it was time.

Delano spoke suddenly, drawing Mulder’s attention immediately.

“Agent Mulder, move your right hand away from your body.”

Mulder felt a chill at the words, but complied without hesitation. He kept his face still, forced a nonchalance in the movement that would hopefully give nothing away.

“I’m not stupid, Mulder. You should know that by now.”

Mulder fought the flush that threatened to expose him. Forced an expression of confusion, of virtuous blankness. Forced his forehead to crinkle just so. Forced his eyebrows to scrunch slightly. All in the hopes of providing an innocent front that said, ‘I don’t understand what you are implying’.

“Mulder, here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to get a little more comfortable. We might be here a while, after all. But in order to do that, I’m going to need that weapon you have hidden away in your sling.”

Mulder couldn’t help the surge of disappointment that caused his shoulders to slump, caused his breath to be expelled in a puff. And his right hand dropped totally away from the sling, dropped down to his side in surrender. As if on its own giving up the fight it had been waging against gravity.

Delano smiled even more broadly and Mulder felt the hate grow that much stronger. It was a festering bubble now. And some part of him was aware that the only salvation to be had from this malignancy was incision. Mulder prayed he’d be the one to wield the knife. The man just grinned, the proverbial Cheshire cat run amok. Mulder was more certain than ever that this creature before him was sick. Mentally ill. But he could care less. He still wanted to be the one to take him out.

Delano was approaching him now, pushing McCulley along in front of him.

“Here’s what we’re going to do. Colleen here is going to … slowly …. reach into your sling and remove your little surprise. You’re going to keep your right hand back and lifted. If it moves, Colleen will be dogmeat and I’ll still get the second shot at you before you can reach for your gun.”

Delano and McCulley were about five feet away and holding. Mulder was sweating freely, could feel it down his back, under his arms, tickling at his ears. He was trying to slow his breathing, trying to will his body to be strong for the next few minutes. Praying that it wouldn’t betray him with a weakness that would precipitate McCulley’s death. The salt of his sweat stung his chapped lips, but he refused to move enough even to lick them.

“You with me, Mulder?”

Delano waited for the nod before continuing.

“Good, good. Then you’re going to take a couple steps back and Colleen is going to raise the gun up to her shoulder, pointing towards you, where I’ll relieve her of it. Do you understand, Mulder? Colleen?”

Both nodded. Mulder could see the tears welling in the young woman’s eyes. He’d been in enough similar situations to know this wasn’t the end. No matter what the Bureau said about never giving up your weapon, it wasn’t the end for them. McCulley didn’t know this. He smiled at her again, hoping that she’d remain calm, just do what Delano said. He felt the need to reassure her verbally.

“It’ll be okay, Colleen. Just do exactly what SAC Delano told you.”

There were no hidden messages in the words. No secret code. But Mulder could see that both McCulley and Delano were working through what he’d said, trying to find the ulterior directive. Her eyes were back on his, searching. This had to be totally clear. He raised his arm out to the side slowly, moving it back slightly so there’d be no easy way for him to make a grab at Delano. He spoke softly, as reassuring as possible.

“Get the gun, Colleen. Reach in, take it, keep it pointed at me, put it up to your shoulder so SAC Delano can take it.”

She nodded and a single tear spilled as Delano forced her forward one jerky step, then two. They were right in front of Mulder finally. Close enough for Mulder to see the pulse beating in her neck, see the individual beads of sweat over her lip and on her forehead, dropping down to mix with the lone tear on her cheek. He nodded to her again, not daring any other movement or words.

He felt her hand, moved his left arm as best he could to make the retrieval easier on her. Then it was gone and in Delano’s right hand within moments. Before he could even blink. And he sighed as he took two steps backwards, removing him again from the possibility of physical contact with Delano or McCulley.

The SAC put the small weapon in his pocket and again gripped the young agent’s arm.

“You both did good. Very good. I think we can all sit now. Mulder, you over there. We’ll sit here, if you don’t mind.”

Mulder pulled out the chair at the far end of the conference table and sank into it, grateful that he no longer had to trust his legs to keeping him upright. He knew he wasn’t up to anything physically demanding. If this came to a one on one with Delano, he wouldn’t win. He couldn’t win. It had to be avoided at all costs.

Delano forced McCulley to sit, three chairs away from Mulder and on the same side of the table, then sat down behind her, pulling the chair to the right of hers slightly. He no longer had a need to stay shielded behind her, after all.

They had just settled in when the phone rang, causing all to jerk. McCulley cried out as the gun dug into her temple. Delano pulled it back slightly, waited for the phone to ring a second time, then gestured at Mulder.

“Why don’t you get it, Mulder? You’re closer after all.”

Mulder sagged a bit before gathering his strength. He pulled himself out of the chair and walked to the corner, then picked up the phone. Before a word was spoken, Delano interjected, “On the speaker, please.”

Mulder hit the necessary key, then replaced the handset. Sat down in the chair next to the phone, facing it.

“Mulder here. You’re on speaker.”

There was a brief pause, just long enough for Mulder to envision both Scully and Skinner sagging in relief that he was alive and at least well enough to speak. Skinner broke the silence.

“Agent Mulder. It’s good to hear your voice.”

“Thanks, sir. Although I can imagine better circumstances.”

“I appreciate that.”

Mulder heard the sigh at the other end.

“How is Agent McCulley?”

Mulder flicked his eyes to McCulley and saw that she was again in control of herself, eyes dry and resolute. If anything, it looked like she was finally starting to get a bit angry.

“She’s fine, sir. We’re both fine.”

“Agent Mulder, would SAC Delano like to speak with anyone?”

Mulder could hear the slight shake in his boss’ voice. Could appreciate how difficult this must be for him. Not only did he discover that one of his oldest and most trusted friends was to blame for this two decade path of death and destruction, but also that he himself was quite possibly the leak some twenty years ago that allowed it to happen.

Mulder turned to face Delano head on, raised an eyebrow in silent query. At the shake of the head, he swung to the speaker phone once more.

“No, sir. He wouldn’t.”

There was silence for a few moments as Skinner evidently conferred with someone. Mulder had the time to wonder if it were Scully. To wonder if she were there, listening in on this conversation. He imagined her there, standing next to Skinner, worried but competent, prepared to do whatever necessary to free her partner from this madman. Then Skinner came back finally.

“Agent Mulder, perhaps you can explain to us what SAC Delano wants.”

Mulder stared at the phone, then turned again to Delano. How the hell was he supposed to answer this? Delano just smiled, expression unwavering. Mulder could sense that he was being tested. This was still the game to Delano. Still part of proving he was smarter than everyone else. Mulder licked his lips then, feeling the loose skin at the small cracks, wishing he were anywhere right now but here.

“I wouldn’t presume to speak for SAC Delano, sir. Perhaps it would be best to wait until he’s ready to talk with someone.”

Thursday, 9:08 p.m. Dallas Hospital Parking Lot, Command Center Truck

The phone clicked abruptly, signaling termination and everyone jumped at the unexpectedness of the disconnection. Skinner was the first to voice his thoughts.

“What happened? What the fuck happened?!”

Jake and Skinner both took a step closer to the phone, as if somehow this would enable them to better discover answers to their questions. The van was crowded enough without their hovering so near. The negotiation leader stood frozen, expression alarmed. Scully hadn’t moved and had eyes focused intently on the open rear door of the van. She was pretty sure she understood what had just happened. She swiveled in the seat so she could better see the three agents in the command truck with her.

“It’s okay. Mulder did it. He did it on purpose.”

She had their attention.

“I think he’s just put the ball back in Delano’s court. He’s letting him know that he has some power. And …”

Scully wasn’t quite so sure about what she was about to suggest. She again considered her partner, his temperament, his typical reactions when backed against the wall.

“I think he’s also trying to shake Delano up. Throw him off base. It’s a different kind of power, but also effective.”

Skinner nodded, in understanding and agreement. It was something Mulder would do. He raised a headset from the table in front of him and spoke into it.

“How’s the evacuation coming? How much more time?”

Thursday, 9:08 p.m. Dallas Hospital

Mulder reached out and hit the speaker disconnect quickly, before he had the chance to rethink it. The muttered curse from behind him incited a wave of nausea that threatened to overtake him. He turned slowly back to face Delano, making sure his expression remained neutral.

Delano was obviously furious but fighting it. Trying to remain in control, even though he’d been upstaged in that department so effectively by Mulder. He leaned forward and gripped McCulley’s arm tightly, causing her to grimace in silent pain.

“Agent Mulder, if you ever do anything like that again, little Colleen here is dead. Do you understand?”

Mulder saw the crack in the man’s demeanor. Recognized the fact that he’d scored. Now to follow through with a winner. He sat a bit straighter, moved his right arm to rest on the chair’s arm, crossed his legs at the ankle. He stared straight into Delano’s eyes, unflinching — made sure to keep his voice even but deliberate.

“Fuck you, Delano. Either tell me what you want me to tell them or talk to them yourself. I’m not a mindreader.”

Silence reined for a good thirty seconds as a battle of wills was waged. Mulder knew his own power was limited. Ultimately, he would do what Delano demanded to ensure McCulley’s safety, as well as his own. But Delano was also limited. He could use the threat only so often and for only the most serious of offenses. Eliminating McCulley would mean one less hostage. He couldn’t afford to kill her unless he would gain more by the killing than he’d lose.

Delano broke the silence, allowing Mulder the win. A chess match could be won by a single pawn, after all. The SAC released McCulley, sat back in his chair, adopting an appearance of complete apathy.

“You don’t have to talk with them if you don’t want to, Mulder. That’s all right. Maybe little Colleen would like the honor.”

McCulley was breathing quickly, sweating more obviously now, dark circles appearing under her arms. At the release of her shoulder, she’d leaned to the left in her chair, trying to put as much distance between herself and Delano as possible. Her eyes had not left Mulder during the entire exchange. There was no way to reassure her without giving himself away to Delano. She’d just have to stay strong on her own.

“Whether it’s Agent McCulley or me doesn’t really matter. There’s no sense in either of us talking with them unless there’s something worth talking about. You’re going to have to make a decision soon. You’ll have to tell them what you want.”

“What I want? What I want?! No one can give me what I want, Agent Mulder. No one. It’s too late for that.”

Mulder felt the chill down his spine, felt his blood run cold. He had thought he understood what Delano wanted. Maybe not why, maybe not why now, but at least he thought he understood the what. But he was wrong. He knew that now. Knew with a certainty born of intuition’s bounty, this man sitting across the room from him still held the cards. Still expected to make the headlines he’d anticipated. Delano had to know they’d evacuated the hospital and still he was self-assured and confident of whatever outcome he intended.

Mulder tried to work it out, tried to understand where he’d gone wrong in his prior hypothesis. Delano had set his bombs somewhere. Mulder was still sure of that. But now he knew the location was wrong. It couldn’t have been the hospital. It wasn’t this hospital. God damn it! Pull back a layer and there were more fucking layers. What the hell was this guy up to? Where had he planted the bombs?

Delano started laughing out loud. He’d seen the younger man’s expression change, oh so minimally. But it was enough. Mulder hadn’t been as fast on the uptake as Delano had expected, but still, he hadn’t done too badly, all things considered.

Mulder sank back in the chair, suddenly weak, no longer able to continue the charade of strength and control. His body was protesting this treatment. Protesting the cyclic rush of adrenaline that brought it to alert, only to allow it to crash minutes later, followed by yet another high. Nature’s drug held him in her exquisite sway.

“Why?”

Mulder realized it sounded pathetic, pleading. But for that brief moment, that few seconds needed to ask the question, he was flooded with the belief that he’d already lost this game. Delano had made all the right moves and Mulder was lagging too far behind to ever catch up. But it was for a moment only — one breath, two rapid heartbeats, a sluggish blink of his eyes. And then his fortitude surfaced yet again, causing him to sit just a bit straighter — to concentrate that much more on Delano’s words.

“Agent Mulder, I’ll assume you’re just not yourself right now. That wasn’t worthy of you.”

Mulder felt the heat rush to his face and he welcomed it. Delano’s arrogance, his condescension, his fucking superiority — it made him angry and he needed that anger. He needed it, wanted it, reveled in it. It reinforced the desire to win this contemptible game.

Mulder’s head was pounding with the pressure, the tension, and most of all the responsibility that had fallen on him to end this without bloodshed and further destruction. Scully and Skinner couldn’t know yet about the hospital not being the target. They wouldn’t have had time yet to set up a listening device. Delano’s knowledge of Bureau and hostage negotiation tactics would prevent them from taking the advantages they so desperately needed.

Mulder raised a lightly shaking right hand to his forehead, his head tilting sideways and forward of its own accord to meet it. He closed his eyes briefly, became aware of the rough texture of his thumb at his temple, the light brushing of hair against his fingers. Every sound in the room was magnified, every movement recognized for what it was, as his consciousness expanded momentarily to bring him an all encompassing awareness of his surroundings.

He found his thoughts turning to butterflies and rain forests, chaos and complexity theory intertwined, and wondered almost idly what the sequence of events had been that had shaped this man’s life. That turned a man who Skinner had considered a friend and a man of honor into this monster before him. Mulder opened his eyes, wearily, arm propped once again on the chair’s arm, and stared at Delano, taking in his appearance for the first time.

The older agent wore a dark gray suit and white shirt, a fashionable tie at his neck. But the clothes hung on him loosely, as if he’d lost weight suddenly. The suit was crumpled, possibly having been slept in. His hair was a bit long for Bureau standards, his sideburns untrimmed. Mulder was suddenly amazed at his own lack of awareness over the past several days. Why had no one noticed the downward spiral that had to have accompanied Delano’s more recent descent into madness?

He tried to recall all he knew of this man, from Skinner’s comments as well as his own interactions, in the hopes of identifying some indication of the trigger. He flashed on a recollection of the man’s phone conversation the first time Mulder was in his office. And something started niggling at the back of Mulder’s mind, trying to break through to the foreground. He dropped his hand and turned fully towards Delano. He knew the right question now, but had to make sure it came out the right way. Not threatening, not antagonistic. Merely curious, sincere.

“How’s your wife, sir?”

Delano jerked, obviously not expecting this leap, this question from left field that cut into him so surely. Mulder fought to keep his expression neutral, even as Delano’s turned anguished. The man’s voice shook with suppressed fury and distress.

“She’s not a part of this. Leave her the hell out of it.”

Mulder considered carefully. His next words could set this man off, or could lead him down the path of surrender.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to bring up a painful subject. I just thought she might be worried about you. About where you are and if you’re all right.”

He waited breathless, watching the play of expressions across Delano’s strong face. His release came finally when the man answered, eyes tearing, voice shaking, practically a whisper.

“She’s dying. She slipped into a coma last night.”

Mulder saw McCulley’s eyes widen, saw her shift in her seat, as if to turn, and he willed her to stay quiet and still. He shook his head minutely and sighed internally in relief when she acknowledged with a slow blink. He focused on the SAC once more.

“I’m very sorry. I hope she hasn’t suffered.”

Delano’s demeanor once again shifted, anger and anguish mixing equally.

“She was in pain for five years. Five fucking year’s worth of it.”

Delano turned to Mulder, eyes beseeching.

“Do you have any idea what it’s like to lose someone you love with every ounce of your being? To watch them waste away in front of your eyes, seeing doctor after doctor, having test after test? And there’s nothing you can do. Do you have any idea of what that’s like?”

Mulder practically lost the ability to breathe as his eyes were filled with visions of Scully in the hospital, bone thin, eyes black with circles of exhaustion, arms bruised by needle marks. Visions of his partner, his best friend whom he would kill for, had killed for, dying a simultaneously slow and terrifyingly fast death from the cancer eating its way towards her brain.

“I know.”

Delano paused at the reply. Mulder was white, shaking, wiping at his eyes to clear away a vision too painful to relive.

“You do. You really do.”

Mulder looked up again at the SAC’s words, which had been spoken with a tinge of wonder and perhaps even respect. As if having such an understanding somehow made him more worthy in this man’s eyes.

“Yes, I believe I do understand.”

Mulder fought to maintain a professional distance. He could indeed understand the anguish of the last several years, the agony of losing the man’s wife. But Delano had killed fourteen people out of spite and revenge well before the ill health of his wife had befallen them. He had to answer for his actions. He was still a monster. And worse, he was a monster who now had absolutely nothing to lose.

Thursday, 9:21 p.m. Dallas Hospital Parking Lot, Command Center Truck

Scully glanced down at the digital clock set into the panel for at least the twentieth time since they’d been disconnected a little more than ten minutes ago. She looked to the right where Skinner sat, arms folded across his chest, expression set in a glower. Then turned left towards the hostage negotiator.

“So how long should we give them?”

The man turned towards her, forehead creased in thought. Then shot a glance to Skinner and Mander in silent query, one eyebrow raised. Jake merely shrugged at him. Skinner sighed and stared at the phone before speaking.

“I say we let Mulder call the shots.”

There was a quick knock at the open door of the truck and all heads turned to the rear.

Agent Knight stood in the doorway, a package held outright towards Mander, who was closest.

“Sirs, Ma’am, this just came in from the Dallas Bureau. They’ve got SAC Delano’s history for the past several years.”

Jake reached down and grabbed the package, nodding quickly. He turned and offered it to Skinner, without even opening it. It took only a quick glance at the pages for Skinner to understand they were in deep shit. Delano had no family except his wife, and her declining health had hit the man hard. She was in the hospital right now, in a coma. Wasn’t expected to regain consciousness again before dying. Delano now had nothing at all to restrain him, nothing to lose, nothing worth living for. Skinner swallowed and passed the pages to Scully, then took his glasses off, rubbed the bridge of his nose with his right hand. Damn, how could he have so lost touch with this man.

Skinner realized that he really didn’t know Delano. Knew nothing about him. About his family, about his wife. All he knew was that they had been friends some twenty-five or more years ago, at a time when you trusted your companions with your life, trusted them to watch your back and pull you out when you couldn’t make it on your own. When your world was filled with air so muggy you had to fight to breathe. When you never knew if the dirt beneath your feet covered a tunnel mined to blow on the unsuspecting. When the rain fell in huge sheets of pounding misery for weeks at a time. When the next rice field could hold a fucking battalion of North Vietnamese, just waiting to ambush your unit. When you were far from home and anything resembling security, so made a new family of the men fighting with you.

Skinner rubbed his hand over his face once more, wishing fervently to wipe away this reality facing him, wanting more than anything to open his eyes and discover it was someone else, anyone else, other than this man who had saved his life so many times all those years ago. He put his glasses back on and turned to face Scully.

She was still reading the last page of the report, the others having been handed off to Mander. She was hoping to glean some critical piece of information that would provide them a so critical insight. She looked up at him, forehead creased in concentration and concern.

“Sir, his wife, Agnes … she’s at this hospital.”

Skinner immediately knew the comment was significant. He could see Jake Mander off to the side, jerking to attention. He knew what she was suggesting but wasn’t sure just what it meant.

“Yes, she is. But she’s dying, not expected to last the day out.”

Jake sorted through the pages in his hand once more, reached out and took the one sitting in front of Scully, then scanned it quickly.

“Dana’s right. It wouldn’t matter. He wouldn’t blow the hospital where his wife was. No way.”

There was a long silence as they absorbed this new information, tried to make it fit with what was known about Delano and what the man wanted. Scully broke the silence.

“Where is his wife now? They’ve been evacuating. Wouldn’t she have been taken with the others?”

Jake was shaking his head.

“No, those in the critical care unit are the last to be moved and some of them won’t be at all. The move itself would kill them.”

Skinner was looking confused.

“Then he’s just waiting it out. Waiting until all the patients are moved, including his wife.”

Scully was now emphatic in her denial.

“I don’t think so, sir. Something is wrong here. His wife can’t be moved with the degree of life support presently required. He had to have known that.”

They sat again, each trying to understand it. Skinner heard Scully take a loud, shaky breath and turned more fully to look at her.

“What, Scully? What is it?”

She had paled considerably, obviously due to more than the remnants of the concussion.

“Where are they taking the evacuated patients? Are they all going to the same place or are they being distributed to multiple hospitals?”

Skinner blinked at the question, turned to Mander, eyebrow raised.

“I’ll find out.”

Jake was out the door and running in seconds. Skinner could hear his voice yelling in the background.

“Scully, you’re suggesting he might have wired the other hospitals?”

She was nodding, slowly then quicker. She didn’t look at all well. Skinner experienced an irrational surge of irritation. She should be in bed, resting quietly with someone bringing her juice and books, changing the television station for her. Instead, here she sat, just out of the hospital herself, pale and shaky, but outfitted in vest and jacket, fully prepared to charge in there to rescue her partner.

“Yes, sir. It would be a statement in and of itself in a way.”

“How does that make sense? What would he gain? I mean, the schools from the seventies and the agents on the team, that at least makes some sort of sense because it was about revenge. Why would he blow up these hospitals, killing hundreds of innocent people? I just don’t see it, Scully.”

“But what is he most angry about now? He killed the agents not out of revenge but to prevent anyone from finding out what he’d done twenty years ago. That was part of it at least, or the initial reason. He didn’t want his life disrupted. And along the way, he turned it into a chance to show everyone how smart he was. But even as he was being so smart and eliminating these agents one by one in such a way that no one even noticed, even as he was doing that, his wife was going from one hospital in this city to another for treatment for her cancer. Maybe he was trying to establish control over this one aspect of his life since he’d lost it in the other. And now his wife is dying and he wants to make all those doctors and hospitals that were responsible pay.”

Skinner exchanged glances with the hostage negotiator, licked his lips, sighed heavily. God damn it, it seemed like it made sense. Could Delano have actually done it? Could he have cold-heartedly wired several hospitals to blow? Fuck! Skinner shook his head and turned to the truck’s back doors without a word. He needed to speak with Mander — now.

Thursday, 10:41 p.m. Dallas Hospital, Conference Room

Mulder was tired. He needed to be in bed, flat on his back. He knew it, his body knew it. His shoulder throbbed in concert with his head. His legs were actually shaking in exhaustion, his right arm so weak it lay limply in his lap. For the past hour or more, he’d engaged in seemingly benign conversation with the crazy man across the room. McCulley hadn’t moved, seemed to be in a daze in fact. Probably completely confused by the topics in which he and Delano had meandered, not understanding that talking about absolutely nothing at least prevented the man from acting out his irrational fantasies.

Mulder was completely slumped in the chair, rear end practically hanging off the end of the seat, head tilted back, but eyes still focused on Delano. He knew he wouldn’t be able to last until morning. He had to control this somehow.

“Sir, I’ve been wondering about your wife. How she is. Wouldn’t you like to get an update on her condition?”

Mulder forced himself to sit up more in the chair, leaned forward somewhat to prop his right arm on the table. He watched Delano carefully and was reassured that the man hadn’t reacted violently to his question.

“I … I guess I would, actually.”

The man said the words almost as if he were surprised at some previously unrecognized revelation.

“Make the call, Mulder.”

Mulder nodded, leaned right and picked up the phone quickly, then paused. Who the hell was he calling? He decided and punched in the right number, sighed finally when the familiar voice answered.

“It’s me, Scully.”

He heard the rapid whisper on the other end, letting those with her know who was on the phone, then said, “SAC Delano would like an update on his wife, if possible. Could you call back with the information for us?”

“Can he hear? Only respond if the answer is yes.”

He stayed silent.

“We think he’s wired several other hospitals where his wife received treatment. We’re pretty sure this one’s clear.”

“Okay, Scully, we’ll wait for your call here.”

Mulder moved to disconnect the phone then, recognizing that Delano was getting anxious. He heard Scully’s faint “Be careful” even as he set the receiver down. He was perversely pleased that they’d managed a communication about which Delano was unaware. The sound of his partner’s voice at the other end of the line made him feel alone. He began to realize just how much he depended on her, how much he missed her now. Missed her calm voice, her soothing presence. He prayed he’d experience both again soon.

Thursday, 10:46 p.m. Dallas Hospital Parking Lot, Command Center Truck

Skinner couldn’t sit down. He’d been alternating between pacing outside and hovering over Scully’s shoulder. Every time she got fed up with the shadowy presence at her shoulder, she would shoot him a look that clearly said, ‘Back off unless you want me to kick you in the shins.’ Now though they were trying to decide what they should tell Delano. The news wasn’t good. The truth could send the man completely over the edge. He looked down at Scully, then over to Fletcher, the hostage negotiator.

“So, do we tell him his wife died?”

Fletcher and Scully were both shaking their heads, confirming his own instinct.

“Then what do we tell him? And is there any message we should try to get to Mulder?”

Scully turned and looked up at him.

“Delano knows she was worsening. We should tell him that. We tell him she’s critical, that she’s grown weaker. That she hasn’t been moved from the hospital because of her condition, but that we’ve evacuated almost everyone else. That he still has a chance to see her. That there’s a skeleton medical crew so it’s difficult to communicate. Maybe we can get him out of the conference room. Get him away from Mulder.”

Skinner didn’t comment for several seconds. Decided not even to mention the fact that Mulder wasn’t the only one being held. He knew Scully was drained, still not recovered from the car accident, and more than anything, concerned for her partner. She was looking up at him, eyes wide, the exhaustion clearly dragging at her words.

“We need to let Mulder know somehow. Get him to encourage Delano to check on his wife.”

“And how do you propose we do that? We have about thirty seconds. We have to respond now.”

“I know, sir. Let me call.”

Thursday, 10:48 p.m. Dallas Hospital, Conference Room

Delano had the gun back up to McCulley’s temple and was shouting, obviously losing it.

“It’s taking too fucking long. What the hell are they doing?”

Mulder’s body had again forgotten it’s exhaustion. His muscles strained with his own desire that the phone ring. He was knew they were deciding on a course of action at the other end. Understood that it took some time. But goddamn it, Delano was flipping out here. He took his eyes away from the man and glanced yet again at the phone, willing it to ring. And it did. He let loose a breath he hadn’t known he was holding and punched the speaker button quickly. He cleared his throat noisily and looked back at Delano as he answered.

“Mulder here. You’re on speaker.”

“Sorry it took so long. We’ve evacuated the hospital and we had a hard time getting hold of the single remaining staff person in the Critical Care Unit. There are still a few patients left in the hospital who just couldn’t be moved. SAC Delano’s wife is among them.”

Scully paused then and Mulder found his eyes returning to the phone, wondering where they were headed on the other end with such apparent honesty.

“Okay, Scully. Do you have an update on her condition?”

Scully’s voice was strong and sure, no evidence of duplicity leaking through.

“Yes, we were able to reach the doctor there. She’s weakened. She hasn’t regained consciousness. Mulder, the doctor thinks she might have a few more hours, at most.”

Mulder knew she was trying to tell him something but wasn’t sure what. He didn’t answer immediately, tried to work through options. Delano was not very vulnerable right now. The SWAT and Bureau hostage retrieval teams wouldn’t be able to get him easily while he was holed up in this conference room. He needed to get the man out in the hall. And Scully had provided him with the excuse.

Only a couple seconds had passed but Mulder felt the pressure to respond.

“Okay, Scully. I understand. Thank you for the update. Hold on please while I speak with SAC Delano.”

He reached down and hit the phone hard with his finger, just to the right of the hold button. He prayed they’d be quiet on the other end, prayed that Delano wouldn’t question his move, wouldn’t question whether they were really still on speaker or not.

“Sir, is there anything you’d like me to tell them? Perhaps you’d like to see her … one last time. I imagine we could arrange it somehow. They wouldn’t even have to know, since they’ve evacuated. The halls should be clear between here and there.”

Mulder knew this was complete nonsense. Knew there were agents outside the door in the hall, in the rooms on either side, hell probably even in the ductwork overhead. But he’d watched Delano deteriorate even further over the past several hours. Had watched the man start to collapse in on himself, become ever more disassociate. Perhaps he was tired and crazy enough to not think this through.

Mulder flicked his eyes to McCulley, pleased to see she was alert, still following everything. She understood what he was trying to do. He looked back at the man once more and saw the indecision warring with a longing born of almost twenty years of marriage to the woman he loved more than life itself, more than anything. Mulder kept his voice soft, compassionate even as he spoke to the SAC.

“Sir, what should I tell them?”

Delano had moved away from McCulley once more, the gun dropping down to point towards her back instead of her head. He’d slouched in the chair somewhat, leaning heavily against the back. His eyes now roamed around the room, every once in a while coming to rest on Mulder’s own. He focused finally, seeming to have reached a decision.

“Tell them we’ll call them back later then hang up.”

“All right, sir.”

Mulder started to turn towards the phone again, had his hand reached to hit his fake button once more, when he realized he needed to get a little more information to those listening. He paused and turned back to Delano.

“Sir, we can probably get in to see her and get back here within a half hour. Should I tell them not to call us at all?”

“Yes, yes. Tell them we’ll initiate any contact.”

Mulder reached back once more and this time completed the stab with his finger.

“Scully, can you hear me?”

“Yes, we’re here.”

“SAC Delano wants to thank you for the update. We’ll call back in a while. Wait for us to call, don’t call here.”

Scully’s voice continued to remain steady but he sensed her own exhaustion and frustration. Sensed her parallel desire for this to all be over. But something would happen now. Someplace between the conference room and the critical care unit one floor down, something would happen to end this, one way or the other.

“Do you understand, Scully?”

“Yes, we understand.”

There was a slight pause before she said anything further.

“Mulder, be careful.”

It was hard to breathe, hard to force the words out through the sudden overwhelming surge of desire that flooded him. Desire for peace and quiet, desire for a slow evening, lounging on the couch, watching a video with Scully and eating pizza. Desire for some boring case that would take them to some boring town with some boring claim of UFO’s or mutants or government plots. It all suddenly seemed enticingly boring and excruciatingly unreachable — but exquisitely desirable. His voice was cracked as he forced the words finally.

“I will, Scully. You too.”

Less than ten minutes later, they were ready. Mulder had suggested that having all three of them walking around the halls was a bit unwieldy. He’d managed to convince Delano that he was hostage enough, at least for the next few minutes. Delano had secured McCulley to a stationary cabinet with handcuffs and now had his gun turned to Mulder’s back. He stood close and Mulder could feel the man’s breath puffing in quick spurts at his neck. They stood at the conference room door and Mulder sent a silent prayer that the hallways would be clear.

Mulder held his right hand out, away from his body. He wanted to do nothing that would set this man off. They still had no idea how he’d rigged his bombs. Delano could easily have a trigger on his body, or a remote control. Mulder had won two small battles in getting the SAC away from the conference room and in getting him to leave McCulley behind. A few more wins like that and this could actually end well.

“Okay, Mulder. Open it slowly. Then keep your arm out to the side.”

Mulder nodded and complied, eyes immediately scanning to right and left as it opened. Good, they’d pulled back. He tried to figure out where they’d be. Maybe the stairwell. Maybe outside the elevator. Maybe in the critical care unit. He just wasn’t sure. In the meantime, Mulder tried to keep loose. Tried to concentrate on the gun at his left ankle. He’d made sure, with every move of his legs over the last several hours, that the bulge would not be obvious. It would require some innovation on his part to contrive the right situation to get to it without alerting Delano to its existence. Perhaps a stumble, a little fall to the ground that would bring his legs forward, near his right hand.

His own breath was fast and heavy, even while his body slow and awkward. His normal self-confident gait had been replaced by a dull shuffle, feet hardly leaving the ground with each step. He had automatically moved to the left, towards the end of the hall where the stairwell was. Delano followed, gun pushing hard in his lower back to spur him on.

Just as they reached the door to the stairs, the SAC grabbed him from behind by the left shoulder, causing a surge of pain that he’d almost managed to forget about. His eyesight darkened momentarily and the sweat flowed slick on his palms. He felt his knees start to give out, even as Delano shifted his hand away. Mulder fought the blackness and forced his eyes to remain open, his knees to lock. He hung his head for a moment, gripped the door trim with his right hand and just breathed. He heard Delano mutter, “Sorry” behind him, and almost laughed at the absurdity. Then the man spoke.

“Listen close, Mulder. I’m going to let go of your left shoulder. In my left hand I’ll be holding a switch that will set off my little pyrotechnic display. In my right will be my gun, trained at your back. Don’t try to run, don’t try to escape. And if we see anyone, you better send them on their way, or I’ll blow my targets. Got it?”

Mulder tried to steady his breathing. He prayed Scully and Skinner had heard the man. He was sure there was surveillance somewhere around, even though he couldn’t detect it himself. He managed a nod and then moved to open the door.

As they entered the stairwell, Mulder glanced again up and down, seeing no one. Hearing nothing. They seemed to be alone. But he caught sight of the standard surveillance video cam up in the corner and knew they’d be watched. His mind worked frantically, trying to find a way to get the trigger away from Delano. The intense pain of a moment ago reminded him yet again that his left arm was next to useless. He tried to move it and was pleased that it responded. It was painful, but he could use it if necessary. He started moving his arm slightly, trying to disengage from the sling, so it would be ready to yank out in one move.

They’d started down the stairs now and their footsteps echoed hollowly in the deserted space. Mulder intentionally moved to the right to grab the hand rail, and risked a glance backwards. He felt rewarded when he caught sight of the device in Delano’s left hand. It was a small black box, with four switches running in a vertical line. It appeared as if it had been strapped to Delano’s palm, so Mulder discarded immediately any notion of knocking it away. At least the man was holding his gun in his right hand, so Mulder would have a slight advantage there.

They were only a third the way down the first flight of stairs when Mulder stumbled. He kept hold of the rail, trying to keep upright as he allowed his knees to fold under him just so. It was contrived, staged so that he might have a chance at gaining some advantage. But it looked and sounded real enough that Delano wasn’t particularly alarmed. Mulder cried out “Shit” as he bumped into the wall, then gasped with pain as he curled protectively about his middle. The gasp was not entirely manufactured.

He was folded forward over his curled legs, back still to Delano. He grabbed the gun and shifted it to his left hand quickly, pulled his left arm into the sling so it wouldn’t be immediately obvious. He was pretty sure they’d be able to see what he’d done on the surveillance cam. Then he started to straighten, being sure to groan and curse realistically.

“God damn it, I don’t need this shit.”

Delano barely moved as Mulder fought to right himself. He was standing straight again, leaning against the right wall as if he needed the support. He turned to Delano, adopting an expression of pained innocence.

“I’m getting a bit tired, sir. Don’t know how much more walking I can take.”

He moved his right arm to grip his left slightly, silently reminding Delano that he’d been injured and in the hospital himself. He hoped he appeared as pathetic and nonthreatening as he felt. Delano gestured down the stairs with his gun.

“Quit stalling, Mulder. Let’s go.”

Mulder turned his back to the man again, flicked his eyes up to the camera, being sure not to move his head. He wondered who might be watching. Was Skinner there? Was Scully? Or were they in the building somewhere, waiting for the right time to make their entrance?

He continued down the stairs slowly and realized the straight-away separating the flights offered an opportunity. An opportunity for him to turn his body before Delano would turn his own. An opportunity to be one step lower as Delano was making the turn himself. An opportunity to possibly knock the gun out of the man’s hand and grab the other to prevent triggering the bombs. But a possibility wasn’t be enough. He had to be sure. And he had to decide in the next two seconds or the opportunity would be lost.

Thursday, 11:23 p.m. Dallas Hospital Parking Lot, Command Center Truck

Scully had both hands gripped tightly in front of her as she watched her partner play the few cards he had available. She’d lost the argument about being in on the assault teams and knew Skinner had been right. She wasn’t up to it physically. At least from this station, she knew exactly what was happening and could provide them with sufficient intelligence to minimize Mulder’s risk. She was in constant communication with Jake’s team on the CCU floor and Skinner’s team on the floor above. She knew Skinner stood at the stairwell door, ready to enter at her word. It reassured her somewhat.

She saw Mulder glance up towards the camera as he struggled to stand after his tumble and felt as if he were looking straight at her. When he’d fallen she’d stopped breathing for several seconds, had evidently made some sort of strangling sound to gauge by Skinner and Jake’s reactions. But she’d quickly recognized what was happening and had relayed the information to them. She’d also seen the switch box in Delano’s hand and had warned them to move slowly, give Mulder the chance to control events.

She’d seen the gun her partner slipped into his left hand, had wondered if he still had it. The agents who’d been assigned to him at the hospital had told them he’d been armed when they left the conference room so many hours earlier. It would perhaps give him some small edge.

Scully couldn’t help but be frightened for Mulder. She knew his physical condition had to have deteriorated rapidly over the last several hours. He should have been fast asleep hours ago, drugged into a serene slumber that would see him safely through the night. But instead, he’d been subjected to hours of tension-filled captivity, with no pain medication, nothing to help sustain him.

Over the headset she relayed to the teams that Mulder had reached the platform separating the two flights of stairs. On the screen she saw him make the turn, and then what happened next was almost too fast to follow, to comprehend. So fast, it was half over before she could yell at Skinner and Jake to move.

Thursday, 11:23 p.m. Dallas Hospital, Stairwell

Mulder made the turn and prepared to step down, gripped the gun tightly in his left hand and then made his move. He continued the turn to the left, moving quickly, and swung his left arm around to make contact with the weapon in Delano’s right hand. Mulder’s gun effectively added weight and therefore a much needed additional force that served to loose Delano’s grip from his weapon, sending it clattering noisily down the stairs. Mulder ignored the pain in his arm, his left shoulder, allowed it to fall practically useless at his side. He poured all his energy into maintaining hold of the larger man’s left hand, the hand with the triggers.

Mulder had his own right hand wrapped tightly around Delano’s left, his fingers forcing the man’s thumb away from the row of switches. And then suddenly they were off balance, the suddenness of his turn and the shift in momentum causing them to both start tipping backwards. Even as they were falling, Mulder heard the slamming of doors from below and above. Heard the shouts of directions as agents swarmed the stairwell. But Mulder couldn’t think about that now. All he could think about was the row of switches, the switches that could signal an explosive, fire-filled death to hundreds of innocents. Could think only about keeping Delano’s thumb from making contact with them.

Mulder dug his feet into the stairs and the railing and forced Delano to fall past him to the left. He maintained his grip on the SAC’s left hand through the fall, debated in a heartbeat whether to let loose of the gun in his own left hand and decided against it. He still might need to end this with a bullet. The arm was useless for anything else at this point.

His own body was being pulled around and down now and he saw the concrete stairs rushing towards him. But then the slow, intertwined dance he and Delano had started several seconds ago continued and he found himself cushioned briefly against the SAC’s body as they started their tumble down the stairs. But the roll and slide continued and he was on his back then, head hanging over a step so that he caught a view of Delano upside down.

Mulder’s right arm was stretched taut now, was being pulled by the still sliding body of the larger, heavier man. And the floor shook with pounding feet as the two teams converged upon them, from below and above. But they were still too far away and Mulder felt his hand slipping off Delano’s. In a frantic last move, he forced the man’s thumb backwards in a single violent jerk, the snap of the bone loud even amongst the noise of the assault teams and the scream that was wrenched from the older agent in response to the sudden pain.

And then Mulder lost contact. And saw Delano raising and turning his hand, obviously intending to use the wall as leverage to flip the row of switches. And Mulder’s gun was up, in his left hand, pointing in the vicinity of the SAC’s chest. And even as he moved his right hand to stabilize the shaking left that held the gun, he took his shot. And there was another shot that rang out a fraction of a second before his own.

Twin geysers of red flowed from Delano’s forehead and chest. The man’s body was falling back again and his left hand, trigger box attached, started it’s two foot drop towards the floor, palm down, in thrall to gravity’s inescapable pull.

Mulder, still on his back and pointed head first down the steps, pushed himself down another stair with his feet, and grabbed at the man’s rapidly falling hand with his own right hand. It couldn’t end this way. Couldn’t end with such a travesty of justice. He caught the man’s hand barely in time, just inches from the floor. He grabbed the lifeless hand with his own to protect the bank of switches from being thrown, thereby robbing Delano of the revenge the man had planned for so long. The revenge he had almost managed to take, even in death.

Mulder couldn’t breathe, couldn’t move, couldn’t stop the shaking that took control of his body, or the tears that flowed silently down his face. He was gripping Delano’s dead hand so tightly that Jake had to pry his fingers off, one by one. He finally managed to raise his head enough to look up the stairs, past his splayed legs and feet, up at the agents who’d gathered behind Skinner — behind the man who had shot Delano in the forehead.

Despite his own shock, his own terror that he still fought to control, a part of Mulder’s mind took in the fact that Skinner had shot the man he’d considered a lifelong friend. The man he’d thrown his arm around in a companionable moment some twenty-five years ago in a jungle halfway around the world as another recorded the event for posterity. The man he’d trusted to guard his back, to bring him home safely. The man he thought of as a brother.

But Mulder didn’t have the energy to consider it any more just now. He dropped his head back, moved his now free right arm to try to brace against a step. He had to get up somehow. He had to get the hell out of this stairwell. He wanted out. He wanted to be free of this nightmare now. But he couldn’t move, couldn’t control his body enough to make it react the right way. Couldn’t even stop the tears, or the quiet sobs that fought with the ragged breaths.

And then there was someone next to him, sinking down on a step beside him, gripping his right shoulder and arm, stilling his movements. And for the first time, he became aware that words floated in the air around him. That the noises he’d been hearing for the past minute qualified as speech. That Jake had been speaking quietly, reassuringly. And that Skinner now spoke to him, softly, as if he were a child frightened of the dark.

“It’s okay, Mulder. It’s over. It’s all over now. Take it easy. It’s over.”

Mulder realized it was Skinner who’d sat next to him and was preparing to help him up. And then Jake was there too, on the other side. He turned his head towards his boss, lacking the strength even to feel embarrassed over his tears. The tears that even now he couldn’t stop. But Skinner was looking at him with kindness and concern, tinged with an obvious regret. There was no condemnation, no censure, no reproach.

Skinner moved his left hand to his agent’s forehead briefly, in a gesture of reassurance and solace. His voice was filled with such compassion that Mulder ‘s tears flowed even more at the unexpected kindness. He closed his eyes tightly, fighting the weakness that was so betraying him, wishing for just a moment that the hand had lingered longer.

“You did good, Mulder. You did great.”

And when he opened his eyes again, Skinner was still there, still with him. His boss nodded to him, and gripped his arm tightly once more.

Skinner glanced over to Mander, making sure they pulled Mulder up in unison. But his agent’s words to him made him freeze, before he could complete the gesture. The words were spoken shakily, whispered in a voice almost unrecognizable.

“You did too, sir.”

Skinner’s gaze focused on Mulder’s once more. It was difficult to swallow all of a sudden and his eyes misted despite his internal decision to avoid such emotional displays. He realized suddenly that he had needed these words. Had needed to know that he’d made the right choice, done the right thing. That there had been no other way. And his agent had given him this gift, easing his mind, easing his spirit, even though the younger man was exhausted and injured, drained beyond his limitations.

He saw Mulder close his eyes once more and then go limp, slipping into a blessed unconsciousness long overdue. At the top of the stairs there was a disturbance that drew their attention. Scully was there, forcing her way down the stairs to her partner on shaky legs. Her face was frozen in an external picture of professionalism, but Skinner could see the fright, the worry that hovered beneath the surface. He smiled at her slightly in reassurance and said, “He’s okay, Scully. He’s okay.” He watched her sink down on a step, and close her eyes. Her lips moved as if in silent prayer. And he knew both his agents would be all right. He’d make sure they would be all right.

Skinner took Mulder’s arm and shoulder gently and nodded to Jake Mander. It was time to put his agents to bed.

Wednesday, 6:27 p.m. Washington, DC, Reflecting Pool

He stood in shadows, leaning against a pillar of granite. He faced the man head on this time, faced the image of the 16th President of the United States — the image of Lincoln, that had always seemed to him to portray the epitome of wisdom and justice.

Skinner considered the word again as he had only twelve days ago. Only days in reality but a lifetime in perception. He considered the word — justice. Thought about the events of the last week and a half and decided finally that justice could sometimes be achieved. Could sometimes be served. Because there were still men and women in the world who believed in honor and truth. Who would sacrifice themselves to uphold the law, and to protect the innocent. Men and women with the integrity and sense of duty to recognize that it is the intent of man’s laws that must be preserved in order for justice to be achieved in reality.

He turned then from the towering figure, at ease finally with his own human fallibility, relishing for the first time the challenges such fallibility created. The turbulence of his inner doubts were calmed. He was aware then of a hope that swelled in him slowly, filling the void that had dictated his beliefs for so very long. And the hope was a seed that took root in his soul.

Skinner looked down towards the Reflecting Pool. They were there, sitting on a bench beside the pool. His agents had come for him. It was time to thank them for their help. It was time to thank them for showing him the way, for showing him that the pursuit of justice was still worth fighting for.

The End

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