City of Light by Bonetree

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 City of Light by Bonetree

TITLE: City of Light

AUTHOR: Bonetree

RATING: NC-17 for sexual situations, graphic violence, and adult language.

CATEGORY: Novel, Angst

SPOILERS: Everything through season five (this sort of takes off into its own world somewhere within season six and just keeps going…).

KEYWORDS: MSR, Angst.

SUMMARY: On the run through the American Southwest, Scully and Mulder flee the shadowy forces of Owen Curran and Padden’s government agents, who threaten their freedom and their lives. On the way, they must also struggle with their own demons, which threaten to tear them apart.

ARCHIVE: If you can fit it? Sure! Okay for Gossamer, but anyone else please ask first so I know where it’s going.

FEEDBACK: Welcomed at AO3

DISCLAIMER: The following is a work of fiction. The characters of Mulder, Scully, Skinner, Maggie Scully, Emily, The Lone Gunmen, Albert Hosteen and anyone else from the show who appears suddenly out of the ether) are the property of 1013 Productions, Chris Carter, and Fox. No copyright infringement is intended, and no profit is being made from the use of these characters. All other characters are my own creation and they, along with the story in this form, are the intellectual property of Bonetree.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This story is the sequel to “Secret World,” one of my earlier fanfictions. I’m afraid this story will make absolutely no sense if you haven’t read that one before diving into this. “City of Light” is the ending piece of a trilogy** that began with the story “Goshen.” While you don’t HAVE to read “Goshen” to understand this story, the events of that story will also be discussed in this one, so I would recommend you read it, as well, or you’re going to get thrown by some references to and discussion about an event that took place in the mountains of Virginia (specifically Afton Mountain) a little over a year ago in this story’s timeline. This is also an established MSR story, and “Goshen” details the beginnings of the relationship, which also might be helpful for you to know.

**Archivist’s Note: There are more instalments after this. 🙂

 “Goshen,” a novella, and “Secret World,” a novel, can be found on the Goshen Universe Series page.

TIMELINE NOTE: This story takes place a little over two years after “Emily.” For the purposes of this story, seasons seven and eight have never happened. Sorry, no Babyfic, Mulder abduction, or Doggett anywhere in sight. Also, Albert Hosteen hasn’t died (we’re pretty much AUing it here…). Oh, and everyone’s hair is still fabulous in this. ;o)

Other Author’s Notes will follow at the end of the story, though I’m going to go ahead and say a quick thanks here as we get started to my betas — Dani, Sheri and Shari. Here we go again, ladies!

+++

CITY OF LIGHT

“….My only advice is not to go away.

Or, go away.

Most Of my decisions have been wrong.

When I wake, I lift cold water

To my face. I close my eyes.

A body wishes to be held, & held, & what Can you do about that?

Because there are faces I will never see again,

There are two things I want to remember

About light, & what it does to us.

Her bright, blue eyes at an airport — how they widened

As if in disbelief;

And her opening the gate to a lit & silent City.”

— a variation on Larry Levis’ “In the City of Light”

+++

Part One

CHAPTER 1.

NEAR JOSHUA TREE, CALIFORNIA MOJAVE DESERT MARCH 18 5:47 p.m.

The headlights of the ancient Bronco raked the cracked pavement in front of it, piercing through the deep glow of the sunset over the desert, the sky fading as if a shroud were being pulled down across the wide white sun that hung cloudless on the horizon. The truck was moving fast, the engine thundering against the craggy tan of rocky outcroppings that crouched around the road, the sound seeming to echo through the open window on the driver’s side.

Whizzing past the window, the odd shapes of Joshua trees, gnarled and spiked and bent at strange angles against the darkening sky. They stood on the barren landscape like wizened figures frozen in place, the branches twisted and covered with their strange layers of harsh green.

Mulder watched them pass out of the corner of his eye, though his gaze was shifting back and forth between the road ahead and the rear view mirror. He reached up and scrubbed at his beard nervously, smoothing it down, a habit he’d picked up since it had grown out. Then his hand returned its iron grip on the steering wheel, guiding the truck around a wide curve in the road that angled around another small hill of rock and sand.

He glanced to the side, at the woman on the wide bench seat beside him. Scully was sitting with her back against the door, her arm thrown over the back of the seat, her gaze out the back window. Her face was grim, creased, as she stared behind them, her body tensed. He could see the muscles of her left arm shaking slightly as her hand gripped the seat back.

From the trembling, he knew how tired she was. The shaking always gave it away.

“Anything?” he asked finally into the silence between them.

Scully kept her eyes on the road, said nothing for a long moment. He let the silence linger, trusting her to speak when she was certain. Trusting her.

They hadn’t spoken since they’d left the highway 20 minutes ago, heading down the shabby road that wound its way through Joshua Tree National Park, one of the most desolate places Mulder had ever seen. Even with the weeks they’d spent in the desert, this place seemed the most remote to him. He felt as though they were the last two people on earth.

Right now, he hoped they were.

Finally, Scully turned in her seat, her arm coming down as she faced forward again.

“They didn’t follow us,” she said.

The “they” she referred to was two policemen in a state police car who had picked up their tail as they’d left Yucca Valley. Scully had seen them from the window of their tiny motel room there as two policemen drove up and entered the office, asking the manager questions as she watched them through the office’s window.

Mulder had been sleeping behind her when she suddenly sat down on the side of the bed, pulling on her shoes as she spoke to him with urgency.

“Mulder, we have to go. We have to get out of here,” she’d said, and he’d bolted upright immediately in the bed at the sound of her voice, its tone.

“What is it?” He wasn’t even bleary as he asked it. His nerves, like hers, were constantly on edge.

“Police. Asking questions.”

He’d glanced at the window. “Scully, it could be nothing,” he tried to soothe, putting a hand on her back. She’d tensed at the touch and risen, tossing a couple of things into her open suitcase on its holder.

“We can’t take the chance,” she said hurriedly, and her voice shook, but not with tears. Knowing there was no way to talk her out of her panic once it gripped her, he rose and began to dress quickly.

They were in the car and out of the motel, the key left on the bureau, before the police could leave the office. Everything had seemed fine for the long moments as they wove toward the highway.

Then the car had appeared, seeming to follow them. It tailed them onto the interstate, through the desert on the outskirts of a little outpost town called Joshua Tree.

It didn’t follow them closely, but it did stay behind them, a persistent presence in the rear view mirror.

Mulder had watched it the entire way, his eyes hidden behind sunglasses while the sun still shone brightly against the pale sand. For her part, Scully sat still in the seat beside him, her hair tucked back into a small knot, the white dress shirt of his that she wore accentuating the paleness of her skin. Her white-knuckled hand on the door handle was the only thing that belied her emotions.

“I’m getting off this road,” he announced as they left Joshua Tree and entered the national park. She nodded, reaching for the worn map between them. He’d pulled off onto a side road and sped out of sight around a sharp curve before the police car could catch up with them enough to notice the turn.

Now he pulled off his sunglasses, tossed them on the dash haphazardly, blowing out a breath at her announcement that they hadn’t been followed. He didn’t mean for it to sound as frustrated as it did. Scully’s reaction, he could see as he glanced at her, was immediate. She stared down, suddenly intent on the map, her hands.

“I’m sorry,” she said softly, barely audible over the truck’s huge engine.

He looked at her for a moment, then back at the road. The desert stretched out around them, the headlights seeming to brighten as the sky continued to darken, the sun dipping below the horizon now, a semicircle of white light.

“It’s okay,” he replied gently, reached over to grip her trembling forearm.

“No,” she said, shaking her head. “I shouldn’t have overreacted like that.” She looked out the window, away from him as she spoke. “They were probably just following us because we left in such a hurry.”

“You don’t know that,” he said, wishing she would look at him. “They could have been acting on a description of us. You could have been right.”

She shook her head again, looking down at where his hand touched her arm. Slowly she reached down and put her hand on top of his.

“I know how tired you were,” she murmured, her voice showing her own exhaustion now as the tension receded. “How much you needed to sleep.”

He didn’t disagree with that. They’d been driving for hours, up from El Centro near the Mexican border. They’d avoided crossing the border to stay away from Customs, who might have their descriptions. They had false identification thanks to the Gunmen, but there was no way to hide their faces. Though Mulder was trying with the beard.

“How far until the next town going this way?” he asked, moving his arm back to the steering wheel to let her adjust the map. She reached up and flicked on the interior light, studied the map for a long moment.

“There’s a place called Twentynine Palms coming up in about 50 miles,” she said.

“That’s too close,” he replied, shaking his head. “In case you were right about those cops, I’d like to put some distance from where we were.”

She nodded. “All right.” She returned her gaze to the map. “Well, if we’re really going to head back into Arizona, the next closest place is Parker. It’s on an Indian reservation — we’d be safer there. It’s about 180 miles, though. Can you make it that far?” Her eyes filled with concern as she looked at him.

He rubbed at his beard again, trying not to grimace. “Yeah, I can make it,” he said with an assurance he didn’t quite feel. He returned her gaze, forced a wane smile. “You should lie down and get some sleep, though. I know you’re running on fumes.”

Without meaning to, he glanced down at her hand, which was sending the map into shivers. She saw him looking at it and dropped her hand into the shadows in her lap, hiding it from his view.

He regretted his action immediately; she was very self-conscious about the nerve damage to her hand caused by her exposure to Owen Curran’s drug. The injury could end her career as a pathologist, perhaps as an FBI agent. It was something they tried not to discuss, one of the many unspoken subjects that travelled with them, between them.

He cleared his throat, hoping to clear the moment with it.

“I’ll stay up with you,” she said finally into the awkward silence, flicked off the overhead light and settled into her seat a bit more. The interior of the car was washed in darkness now, the blue-white lights of the dash giving their faces a ghostly glow.

He turned to glance at her. Her expression was a mask, unreadable.

“All right,” he replied softly, then returned his eyes to the road, the headlights the only lights for as far as he could see.

+++

MESQUITE MOTEL PARKER, ARIZONA COLORADO RIVER INDIAN RESERVATION 9:45 p.m.

Mulder made his way slowly across the parking lot of the dingy motel, the key to room 14 dangling from his limp fist. He ached all over, his back sore, his legs stiff in his worn jeans. The edge of his white t-shirt hung out one side of the waist band, dipping just below the bottom of the denim jacket he’d picked up a few weeks ago at a thrift shop in a town whose name he couldn’t remember anymore.

There were so many towns. He’d lost count of them, as well.

Almost two months on the road and his life had become a blur of sand and highway, diners, midnight stops at gas stations, worn mattresses and too-thin sheets. His skin was deeply tanned now, and he’d begun to notice the beginnings of creases around his eyes, the squinting against the persistent sun and the strain of the life they were living aging him, making him look care-worn.

Between that and the beard he now wore, he sometimes barely recognized himself in the gas station bathroom mirrors he passed. The face that stared back at him as he combed his lengthening hair in mirrors of a dozen motels seemed strange to him. Like he was turning into someone else.

He sighed with the thoughts, approaching the Bronco now. He pulled the creaking door open, startling Scully awake on the passenger side, her head bolting up from where it had slumped against the back of the seat.

“Mulder?” she asked quickly, breathless as her eyes scanned the car, wide and bright in the dim parking lot lights.

“Yeah, it’s all right,” he said softly, and climbed into the driver’s seat. It was a big vehicle, and he did literally have to climb into it, despite his height. He reached over and handed her the key and she took it.

“The Presidential Suite, I assume?” she quipped.

“Of course,” he replied, playing along, glad for her attempt at levity. “Jacuzzi. Waterbed. Full dining room and sitting area. Room service all night.”

He watched her small smile and it warmed something cool in him.

He put the car into reverse and backed it out slowly, struggling with the lack of power steering once again. He wound the wheel back around and pulled down to the end of the parking lot, stopping in front of the door marked 14 with crooked numbers, the paint chipped on its front as the headlights glared at it.

He turned the key and the engine grumbled into silence, hissing softly beneath the hood.

“I’ll get the bags,” he said. “You go on in.”

She hesitated, but then nodded, sliding out of the truck to her feet. He watched her go to the door, open it and go into the room. After a few seconds a light switched on and he could see her stretching at the foot of a bed, holding her lower back.

It only took him a few moments to hustle their bags into the room, close the door behind him and throw the lock and chain. Scully came forward, reaching for one of her bags. She’d already gotten out of her boots, a brown pair of what he referred to as “shitkickers” that they’d picked up along the way. They were so unlike her, like men’s construction boots, but they were practical for the kind of terrain they were in. Her usual array of pumps just wouldn’t do in the desert.

Her other bag, the one full of her more formal clothes from the undercover work, he set down by the door. He only brought it in to keep it from getting swiped from the car. He had a suitbag that he draped over a chair, also left forgotten, as he went to the bed with his other suitcase. He threw it down on the foot of it as he sat heavily on the edge, peeling out of his jacket. The t-shirt soon followed, tossed with the jacket toward the other chair around the chintzy table by the door.

He put his arms up and closed his eyes, stretched like a cat, yawning, listening to various things pop as he did so.

When he opened his eyes, he saw Scully at the suitcase stand by the dresser, holding a bottle of shampoo and conditioner, her toothbrush and toothpaste in her hands. But she was looking at him, a sad expression on her face.

“What is it?” he asked gently, rubbed at his bare chest with one hand as he braced the other on the mattress beside him.

She glanced away quickly, as though ashamed to have been caught looking at him. “Nothing,” she said softly. He saw color rise in her cheeks. “You just…you look…” She trailed off.

He looked at her, understanding. Seeing his body had triggered something in her. Some feeling. Something kin to desire.

And desire was like a phantom pain to her.

He smiled tenderly, taking her into his eyes. “You do, too,” he murmured, and meant it. He loved the way she looked wearing his shirt, tied just at the waist of her jeans, loved the creamy triangle of her chest it revealed, the cross shining against her skin.

Loved her.

His body ached for hers. Sometimes it was like a physical pain, the wanting. Feeling her body so close to his as they slept at night, but knowing he could do nothing but hold her, that he had to be content with that.

John Fagan had taken the rest of her — of them — away from him.

At least for just the time being.

Or so he hoped.

He rose slowly and closed the distance between them, stopping a small distance from her. She was staring at the surface of the dresser, avoiding his eyes as he approached.

“Hey,” he said softly, and reached up to brush an errant strand of her hair behind her ear. She didn’t flinch at the touch, which he took as a good sign. She looked into his eyes, and he didn’t see the overwhelming fear there he sometimes did.

“Can I kiss you?” he murmured, keeping his fingers against her hair at her temple.

She smiled, but it was a sad smile, then closed her eyes as she rubbed her cheek against his palm. After a beat, she nodded, once.

He took another step toward her and she turned to face him, setting the bottles and things down on the dresser. Reaching up with his other hand, he cradled her face between them, rubbing at her temples as he leaned in, brushed his lips against hers. As their lips touched, her eyes opened and he watched her face as he withdrew, his eyes questioning.

She met his gaze, nodded again. Her hand came up to brush across his cheek, stroking his short-cropped beard. With that, he leaned in again and kissed her in earnest, moving his lips against hers, feeling her mouth open beneath his. He waited for her tongue to enter his mouth first, met it with his own as their faces angled, first one way, then the other.

Her hand trailed from his cheek down to his shoulder, across his chest, her palm settling against his breastbone, in the soft hair there. Her fingers curled in it.

When they came up for air, he moved to her cheek, her ear. “I love you,” he whispered to her like a secret. He felt her small smile against his cheek. He kissed her below her ear and she shied away slightly, shivering.

“You okay?” he asked, freezing.

“Yes,” she replied, her voice low, the smile still on her face. “That beard just tickles.”

“I thought you liked it,” he said, his hands going down to her waist. They closed slowly on the curve of her hips.

“I do,” she murmured. “It’s just…different. It feels different to me sometimes.” Her expression darkened suddenly, like storm clouds coming in. “A lot of things feel different. Still…”

He leaned his forehead against hers as she averted her eyes again. “I know,” he said. “I know they do.” He squeezed her hips slightly. “It’s just going to take some more time. That’s all.”

She nodded, withdrew from him, her hand falling away from his chest as she shifted her body out of his grasp. She picked up the items from the dresser again and he stepped back reluctantly.

The times when he actually got to touch her like that were so seldom.

He hid the disappointment from his face, the feeling just below it. The now-familiar anger that bordered on rage. Not at her, of course, but at everything that happened. At Fagan. Curran. Padden. At this whole damn mess they were in.

If they could settle in somewhere for long enough she might have time to let it move through her, come to some sort of place in her where she could move forward with it.

But they had to keep moving. For both their sakes.

“I’m going to take a shower,” she said, and he nodded, swallowing it all down once again. It was beginning to have a sore place in his belly, his heart.

“Okay,” he said. “I’ll take one after you. Watch the news.”

She nodded, brushed past him and headed to the small bathroom at the back of the tiny room. She closed the door behind her, something sinking further in him with the sound of it closing.

Shutting him out once again.

He reached over and flicked the television on, scrolled through the channels until he got to MSNBC. Returning to the bed, he fished out his pajama bottoms, clean boxers, just washed in a laundromat in Tucson a few days before. With that, he tossed the suitcase, open, on the floor beside the bed and sat on the bed again, pulling off his boots. He fumbled with the straps on the ankle holster he wore and set the gun and holster on the night table, the straps hanging down. Then he lay down, propping the pillow up behind him.

They’d actually stayed in Tucson a couple of days, feeling anonymous in the larger city. It had been that feeling that had urged them into California, thinking that perhaps being less of a couple of “strangers in a strange land” would ease their minds.

They knew immediately, however, that it was a mistake once they’d crossed the border. Much more law enforcement — border patrol and highway patrol — motel and gas prices higher than their meager budget could afford, few Indian reservations where the Federal presence was all but nonexistent, places which they’d found had given them some small measure of comfort, though they stood out and could find few places to stay.

In California, the towns were getting more populated, which made them less conspicuous, but also exposed them to more people who might recognize them from the photos Mulder had seen at a post office in a town in Arizona called Red Rock. He’d been there to rent a post office box so the Gunmen could send them money without having to wire it, which seemed more risky. He and Scully were thinking they might actually stay for a couple of weeks in that place to rest up and slow down.

Seeing the photos, he’d torn the sheet off the binder hanging on the wall while the lone clerk was in the back, stuffed it in his pocket and left in a hurry.

They’d left the town that night, as well. Moving on.

He shifted on the pillow, throwing his arm behind his head to cushion it when the flat, bumpy pillow would not, chewing his lip as he thought about all this. He stared at the television screen, his eyes dry and tired. He scrubbed at them with his other hand.

The news was on, a prime-time news show. So far nothing about Curran, though they’d seen other reports about the manhunt for him on other nights. They’d yet to see something about themselves, for which Mulder was relieved.

“They’re keeping it quiet with the press, treating it as an internal matter,” Skinner had said the last time Mulder had spoken to him, from a payphone at a gas station on the road a few days before. “The task force that’s looking for you is pretty big, but they’re not making a lot of noise about it. Granger’s well again, working on it with them now.

“I don’t think there’s any press about you two because Padden’s trying to fly in under everyone’s radar about this, hoping to get to you before anything gets clear about his screw up with the embassy bombing. He’s trying to get to Curran, too. There is a lot of pressure in the press about him, as you’ve probably seen.”

“Yeah, we’ve been watching the news when we can,” Mulder had replied, standing beneath the lone light at the corner of the lot while Scully bought coffee at the convenience store. He remembered his frustration peaking.

“I can’t believe there’s nothing that can be done about these charges.” He had been holding the flyer with their photos on it at the time, read off it. “‘Wanted for conspiracy to commit terrorism, murder, attempted murder’? What the fuck is this? I can’t believe this would even stick.”

He stared at the pictures of he and Scully, Scully placed on the sheet as an identifier for him — “most likely travelling with…” — in his description. They’d used their official FBI photos, the photos they’d worn for years on their badges now looking like mugshots.

“I’ve gone to the Attorney General about it,” Skinner’d replied tensely. “He trusts Padden more than he trusts me, more than he trusts anyone. He wants you caught. Both of you. He doesn’t know what Padden’s up to with using Scully to get to Owen Curran. I tried to explain that to him and was told I was being ‘paranoid and irrational’.”

“Feels good, doesn’t it?” Mulder had replied darkly. Skinner did not reply.

Mulder relented, watching Scully walk slowly through the parking lot, two cups of coffee in her hands, glancing around nervously.

“So I take it you’re saying stay out again,” he said dejectedly.

“I think if you come in, especially before Curran’s caught, they’re going to string you up by your nuts, Mulder, and there’s nothing anyone will be able to do about it. Padden can make anything stick right now. He’s got his head so far up Ashcroft’s ass, for one thing, and for another, Ashcroft is new and will listen to just about anything at this point.

“And I don’t have any proof you weren’t involved. Your trip into the Grey Mouse that day is being used against you, incriminating you. The fingerprints in Mae Curran’s apartment. Fagan. All of it. I can’t protect you, so I want you to stay out of sight.”

A pause. “How’s Scully holding up?”

“She’s been better,” Mulder said evasively. Skinner didn’t know much of what had happened to her — only that she’d been exposed to the drug. Nothing about the attack by Fagan.

“Is she still having after-effects of the drug?”

“Yes,” Mulder replied softly. “I think some of that might be permanent. But she won’t talk about it.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Skinner had replied, matching Mulder’s tone.

They’d ended the call with a promise from Mulder to check back in a week or so, getting off the line right as his coins ran out to pay for the call.

On the bed, he sighed, rubbed at his eyes again. The news ended and he turned off the television, letting silence come over the room. The water went off in the shower, and a few moments later Scully emerged, wrapped in a towel, her hair dried to damp.

She crossed the room silently, went to her suitcase. Her back turned toward him, she rooted around in her suitcase for underwear, a t-shirt. Then she dropped the towel as she put them on.

He watched her from the bed. Her skin was pale where the sun had not touched it. Too pale. He could see the outline of her spine stark beneath the skin.

“You’ve got to eat more, Scully,” he said quietly, trying not to sound reproachful. He’d been watching her pick at her food for weeks now. “You can’t afford to lose any more weight.”

“I know,” she said, slipping the t-shirt over her head and then turning to face him. She could not meet his gaze, though. “I’m sorry. I just don’t feel like eating…I think it’s still a holdover from the drug…something…”

He nodded, but knew she was avoiding the real reason. Her sadness and grief. Over what had happened to her. Over what it appeared they were losing or had already lost.

He understood the feelings. Despite the kiss they’d shared before she went into the shower, sometimes he felt like she were simply drifting away from him along with the rest of his life.

“I’ll try to eat more,” she said, coming toward the bed now, going to the other side and pulling back the pilled, faded coverlet and sheets and slipped beneath them. She turned on her side, facing him. He was relieved when she touched his forearm, which was draped across his belly.

He reached for her hand, pulling his arm down from behind his head, lifted her hand to his mouth, kissed her knuckles gently, rubbed them against lips. She made a soft sound in response, though he could not tell if she intended it or not.

“I’m going to go shower real fast,” he said, curved his arm over her head, fingering the damp red strands of her hair. “You go ahead and go to sleep. Don’t wait for me.”

She nodded, her eyelids drooping already. “Mm…okay,” she mumbled softly. He leaned over and kissed her forehead, then rose, pulling his toiletries bag out of his suitcase and throwing his pajama pants and boxers over his shoulder. He padded in his socks toward the bathroom.

“Mulder?” she called from the bed, her voice edged with sleep.

He turned back to look at her. “Yeah?”

She didn’t move as she spoke. “I love you, too.”

He stood there for a few seconds, a faint smile coming to his face. Then he headed for the bathroom, left the door open.

+++

CHAPTER 2.

+++

FBI HEADQUARTERS WASHINGTON, D.C. MARCH 19 9:16 a.m.

The tour group wound its way through the corridors of the massive building, stopping here and there in front of glass display cases with various exhibits on the history of the agency. The tour guide was a woman in her mid-thirties dressed in a formal suit, which matched her tone and the general mood of the tour.

Among the smattering of young boys and their fathers, the tourist couples — some American, some not — a young African-American man stood hanging near the back, paying only passing attention to the exhibit presently being shown to the group, one of J. Edgar Hoover himself.

Sans tutu, the man thought wryly, enjoying his private joke, despite the tension coursing through him.

They were on the right floor now. It was just a matter of slipping away.

The group began to move on down the hallway, the woman referring to some of the more innocuous offices housed on the floor, promising they’d pass the fingerprinting labs on the floor above.

Drifting back even farther, Paul Granger took a step into an open doorway, an office presently unoccupied. He stood at the door as he heard the woman’s voice receding down the hallway, the softening footfalls of the group as they headed toward the elevator. He heard it ding as it arrived, then the woman’s voice disappeared completely behind the soft thud of the closing doors.

Relieved, he stepped out of the office, his hand going to pluck the “Tour” badge off the collar of his coat. He stuffed it in his pocket as he looked at where he was on the floor, orienting himself.

The office he wanted was down that way, he decided, looking to the right. He turned and walked in that direction, his eyes darting at the faces around him from behind his small silver spectacles.

He limped slightly as he went down the corridor, his newly healed leg still hampering him. It had come along more slowly than his arm had, the shoulder responding to the physical therapy much better since the injury he’d sustained there had been at a joint. The break in the leg was at the shin, held together with a plate, and the healing was slower, the pain still nipping at him as his weight rose and fell off it.

He got a few strange, vaguely suspicious looks as he went down the corridor, though he did his best to appear as though he belonged there. The casual clothes he’d worn to the building to blend in with the tour group were making him stick out now that he was among nothing but FBI agents.

He fingered the CIA badge in his coat pocket, secure that it was there should he need it. He just hoped he didn’t. No one was supposed to know he was there, and he didn’t feel like advertising it.

He reached the office he was looking for, went in, saw the secretary look up with surprise as he entered. She scanned him for a Visitor’s badge of some kind, and he spoke as her mouth opened to do the same.

“I’m here to see Assistant Director Skinner,” he said.

“Do you have an appointment, Mister…?” the woman, a redhead who reminded him vaguely of Scully, asked.

“Granger,” he replied. “Paul Granger. No, but he’ll know who I am.”

The woman looked at him doubtfully for a few more seconds, taking in his attire, his face, then she reached for the phone, pressed a button. He just hoped it wasn’t the hot button for Security.

“Sir, there’s a Mr. Granger to see you,” she said, her eyes not leaving Granger’s face. He could hear a voice in the receiver after a beat of silence.

“Yes, sir, I’ll send him in.” She hung up, looked toward the door.

“You can go on in, Mr. Granger,” she said.

Granger thanked her, went to the door and opened it. Skinner was behind his desk, a pen in his hand, his jacket off. He put the pen down and stood as Granger closed the door, came forward.

Skinner did not reach out his hand.

“What are you doing here, Agent Granger?” he asked by way of greeting, his jaw tight. He looked around as though there were someone in the office who might see them, then leveled his gaze on the younger man again.

Granger looked down, nodded. This was exactly the reaction he’d expected.

“No one knows I’m here,” he said, met Skinner’s eyes. “And no one ever will.”

“You signed in when you came in, didn’t you?” Skinner snapped.

“A Mr. Andreas signed in, with a tour group,” Granger replied, and Skinner looked at him a few seconds longer. Finally, he seemed to relax a little, though not much. He gestured to a chair in front of his desk.

“Have a seat,” he said, though there was nothing warm in the invitation. Skinner was on edge. Very on edge.

“I’m not going to ask you where they are,” Granger offered as he sat.

Skinner hesitated, then returned behind his desk and sat down himself, leaning on his elbows on the desk, as though he were poised to leap up at any second.

“That’s good, because I don’t know where they are,” Skinner bit out. “And frankly, if I did, I sure as hell wouldn’t be telling you.”

Granger nodded. “I understand that. I wouldn’t want you to. I don’t want them found either. Not yet.”

Skinner grunted. “How are you going to manage not to look for them when you’re the Chief Profiler on the case? You can’t play dumb and fuck around forever.”

“I don’t plan to play dumb or fuck around,” Granger replied evenly. He leaned back in his chair. “I’m going to be looking for them, but not for Padden. I want to find them myself. When a few things are in place. And the resources of the task force are the best way to do that.”

Skinner’s eyes narrowed behind his glasses. “I’d like to believe that, Agent Granger,” he said, folding his hands in front of him. “But frankly I’m having a hard time trusting you in all this.”

“I’m sure you’re having a hard time knowing who to trust at all at this point, yes,” Granger replied. “I am, as well. And I know I’m not exactly at the top of your list because I’ve accepted this assignment in the first place.”

He met Skinner’s eyes seriously. “But you are at the top of mine.”

Skinner looked to the side and shook his head. “How do I know you weren’t sent here by Padden to scope me out, see how I’d react, to see if I know anything? How can I trust that?”

“I can’t make you believe me, except to give you my word,” Granger said, looking at him hard, trying to meet Skinner glare for glare, something he couldn’t have done a few months ago.

These days, he felt much older than his 33 years, like he’d aged ten years in the past three months, in his body and his mind. The green agent who had scuttled after Mulder across Richmond, nearly scattering papers from folders in his wake, was all but gone now. He was much wiser, and not all the wisdom he’d gained was for the better.

Skinner was looking at him, as though trying to decide whether to believe him. He didn’t seem to come to any decision as he mirrored Granger’s action by leaning back in his chair.

“Then what is that you want from me?” He asked it quietly, his eyes still narrowed.

Granger drew in a deep breath, taking the plunge. This was, after all, what he’d risked coming here for in the first place.

“I wanted to tell you a theory about how it is they’re going to get caught.” Granger leveled his eyes again. “To reassure you as Assistant Director that your fugitive agents will be found if they keep doing what they’re doing.”

Skinner stared.

“All right,” he said carefully. “Tell me your theory.”

“If they didn’t want to get caught, they’d have to stop moving around at some point,” Granger said. “They think they’re doing the right thing, but they’re not. Not anymore. There have been a few reports from places out west of couples vaguely meeting their descriptions possibly passing through here and there. Their moving around constantly may keep them from Curran, but it’s going to make it easier for the task force to find them.”

Skinner picked up his pen, suddenly fascinated by it. His jaw muscles were pulsing. Granger pressed on.

“Agencies in those areas have been fully briefed and are looking for them, including the local police. They’re looking hard, circulating pictures to motels, restaurants, gas stations. Blanketing the area. The more mobile Mulder and Scully seem, the less settled they are, the more they’re going to arouse suspicion. And the greater the chance of them stopping at a motel where the manager has a flyer with their faces on it taped to the desk. Moving is exposing them to more people. Staying put somewhere will expose them to less.”

He lowered his voice to just above a whisper. “You might want to pass that along if you get the opportunity.”

Skinner looked away again, dropped the pen. “That’s an interesting theory you have about their activities, Agent Granger,” he said nonchalantly before glancing back. “But seeing as how I have no contact with them — that having contact with them and not revealing that information would cost me my career and probably my freedom for aiding and abetting a Federal fugitive — I don’t know how I would relay that information even if I were so inclined to do so.”

Granger nodded. “Of course, sir,” he replied.

He rose, reached his hand across the desk now.

“You know I didn’t say any of this,” he said softly.

Skinner reached out and shook his hand now. “I understand.”

Granger nodded again and headed slowly for the door.

“Agent Granger,” Skinner said to the younger man’s back. Granger turned to face Skinner again, his eyes questioning.

“Be careful.” Skinner’s tone was firm, his voice low. “You’re standing with one foot on the dock and the other on the boat. And you know how that always ends up.”

Granger quirked a smile. “Not always, sir. But thank you for the warning.”

+++

9:50 a.m.

In the car now, fighting the late flex-time shift on the Teddy Roosevelt Bridge, Granger drummed his fingers on the steering wheel, not even reacting as a car swerved around him in the fast lane, nearly cutting him off in its attempt to punish him for driving too slowly.

His mind just wasn’t on the road.

His heart was still thumping a little hard, the fear he’d had over the risks he was taking still working in him. He’d managed to hold the feeling down until he’d returned to his car and taken off through the city.

But then it had hit him, the reaction delayed by his need to seem completely in control of the situation in front of Skinner.

What the hell am I doing? he thought, shaking his head.

His hand went to his forehead, wiping at the sheen of sweat that had appeared there, despite the chill still in the air in the Washington early spring. He moved over into the right-hand lane as the sign for the George Washington Parkway appeared, took the exit.

He would be at CIA Headquarters by 10:15 at the latest. Late, but then he’d only been back at work for a few days since coming off medical leave. They were going easy on him so far, giving him light duty, not pressuring him too much, letting him leave early when he got too tired.

But then he’d yet to see Padden. And that was going to change this morning. That was why he’d chosen this particular morning to risk going to see Skinner — it was the last chance he’d have before he had the NSA Director breathing down his neck, no doubt watching his every move.

If he wasn’t already.

They’d spoken on the phone several times over the course of Granger’s recuperation from his injuries sustained in the bombing, mostly for Padden to ask him questions about his involvement with Mulder while they were working together in Richmond.

Padden was slowly, methodically, building his case against Mulder, doing everything he could to make every move Mulder had made in Richmond seem suspect.

“So what you’re saying, Agent Granger,” Padden said during one such phone call, “is that you actually have no idea where Mulder was during that period of time on January twelfth to the thirteenth.”

The day Mulder had gone to the mountains, needing “a day off,” he’d said.

Granger remembered sitting up quickly from where he was reclined on his bed, the Flyers playing on the television, as he realized what Padden was implying.

“I’ve told you where he was. He was in D.C. on a personal matter. Begging your pardon, sir, but how many times do you want me to tell you the same thing?”

That had been the cover story he’d used that day when he did not, in fact, know where Mulder had been.

“‘A personal matter’ could mean a lot of things, Agent Granger,” Padden replied. He’d sounded almost smug.

Granger sighed now, remembering the conversation, the car speeding along the parkway, a view of the Potomac off to his right, the river dark, surrounded by bare trees on the banks.

There had been nothing he could do for Mulder except, it seemed, dig him in deeper. When he held anything back, he could tell Padden knew it; when he told the truth, Padden skewed it, finding the holes in what Granger knew and filling them with his own agenda.

The truth of the matter was that Granger could prove nothing, had nothing beyond his own unwavering trust in Mulder and his word. So many things he actually didn’t know for certain. Whether Mulder had actually been at the airport that morning when John Fagan was killed. Whether he’d really been in the mountains those two days in January as he’d said. What he’d done the day he’d gone into the Grey Mouse after Fagan.

And though Granger had explained Mulder’s reasoning about the bombing, mapped out for Padden how Mulder had figured out that it would be the Irish Embassy that was going to attacked and not the British as Padden had insisted, Padden saw Mulder’s tip-off as a last- minute change of conscience of a man who had been in on the planning of it all along.

And the fact that Mulder was running didn’t help his case very much, though Granger knew he was running for Scully’s sake and not his own. He knew that Mulder would do anything to guarantee his partner’s safety.

His lover’s safety, he thought sadly.

Though Mulder had never spoken of it, or even hinted at it, Granger had spent enough time with him, and was interested enough in how he ticked, to know this fact to be true.

He had, of course, told no one.

He took the Chain Bridge exit, and the sign for the George Bush Center for Intelligence, the fairly new CIA headquarters where Padden’s multi-agency task force was based, came into view. His hand tightening on the steering wheel, he blew out another frustrated breath.

What he needed was evidence of where Mulder had been. Beyond what had been said. It was the only way to combat Padden and the frame he was putting Mulder in.

That’s what he’d meant when he’d told Skinner that he didn’t want Mulder and Scully found until “some things were in place.”

A lot of things.

He didn’t know what they were yet, these things he would need to find.

But find them he would.

+++

OATMAN, ARIZONA ROUTE 66 11:38 a.m.

When Scully was a child and on the road in the back seat of her parents’ station wagon, she didn’t watch the landscape, the trees that crowded the highways, but rather she watched the road itself.

She watched the intermittent white lines that bisected the road they drove on, speeding past, going in the opposite direction than the one she was travelling. In her child’s mind, she imagined them as cars on a train filled with passengers, all fleeing from where she was headed, as though fleeing her unforeseeable future.

Here, the pavement was cracked and the lines faded somewhat from sunlight and neglect. She continued to watch them, the lines fleeing beside her as Mulder aimed the truck down the highway from the fast lane. Her eyes hidden behind sunglasses, a black baseball cap that Mulder had bought her in a truck stop weeks ago hiding her still-red hair and blocking her face from the constant sun, she leaned against the door. Her gaze was fixed on the road, and she felt the same feeling of dread she’d felt as a child wash over her at what lay up ahead.

She’d had the same feeling for weeks, her life feeling like an endless highway now, the moments of it like the hundreds of towns they’d driven through in the past two months, each separate but beginning to run together in a colored blur of light, neon lights that beckoned to them from the road as they drove past late into the many nights.

Mulder was humming tunelessly to a song she didn’t know on the radio. One he clearly didn’t know either. His mind was obviously elsewhere, put there by the quiet that had stretched between them for 50 miles or so now.

She wasn’t much on talking these days, and the silence between them, which he seemed to have reluctantly grown to accept, pained her.

Many times she would have a thought — a memory of something they’d done together, a story from childhood, a case they’d worked on — and she would open her mouth to speak, and the sound would simply fade from her throat, her lips closing to the grim line they’d assumed since they’d left Tennessee.

There was so much she both did and did not want to tell him. The unspoken things, all of them, building a wall between them, brick by brick. She knew he felt it, too. She would feel him looking at her as they lay spooned in the bed together, or see him watching her sometimes from behind his sunglasses as they drove.

As he was doing now.

The familiar blue square of a roadsign signalling food and gas up ahead came into view, riddled with shotgun pellet holes. She couldn’t see over the next rise, but knew what she would find there. A lonely restaurant and a three-pump gas station that made you pay before you pumped.

“You hungry?” Mulder asked from beside her, his voice sounding out of place after so many miles of faint music and loud engine.

She glanced back at him, trying to ignore the concern that constantly tugged at his gaze. “Sure,” she replied, forced a smile.

“Okay, we’ll stop then,” he said, clearly pleased, and shifted in the seat as though his body were already anticipating leaving the truck.

She returned her eyes to the road, nodding.

She really wasn’t hungry. She rarely was anymore, as though that part of her connection to her body had gotten somehow crossed, the signals that her body needed something rarely making it to her.

Only the ghost of longing reached her sometimes, Mulder’s hand on her leg, his legs twining with hers as he slept, their bodies pressed together.

Sometimes even that was too much for her, and she would rise, sit on the side of the bed, or retreat to a table in the motel room, wait for him to roll over in his sleep, lose his contact with her completely, before she slipped back into the bed, curled on the edge like a comma as far away from him as she could get, hiding the tears behind her hands.

She felt her eyes burning with the thought, and she pushed it away hard, back down with the rest of the things she could not think about. Turning her head farther away from where Mulder might see the suspicious shine of her eyes, she looked out over the desert, squinting against the light reflecting off the sand.

Along the sides of the highway and stretching off into the distance, yellow and orange poppies at the feet of the cacti and sagebrush, purple stalks of lubine. It had rained a lot in the past month — a lot for the desert — and the hard husks of the seeds had been forced open by the moisture, the flowers’ tough heads coming up through the sand to wash the tan earth with their colors.

At least that’s what one of the motel managers had told her when she’d asked about the flowers. She had never thought of them being in the desert before, and had said so. The manager had beamed as he spoke of them, clearly pleased with the development himself.

She smiled now as she remembered that, smiled at the colors that stretched up onto the hillsides in patches. After so many weeks of the desolation, the tiny change thawed her a bit.

They reached the top of the rise and the restaurant and gas station appeared off to the right. The ubiquitous “Get Your Kicks On Route 66” sign was proudly displayed out front, the restaurant called the Circle J.

Mulder slowed and pulled off into the dirt lot, parked the truck in a space at the front of the ramshackle structure. There were only a few cars in the lot, a couple of hulks of RVs sitting parallel to the road, encrusted with dust.

No one looked up as they entered, the place filled mostly with tourists, it appeared, so they didn’t stand out very much. Scully took her sunglasses off as a woman behind the counter, hippy with a kind smile, gestured toward the wooden booths.

“Sit anywhere you like,” she said, her smile touching her voice. Scully smiled back, followed Mulder to a booth near the back, one he’d clearly chosen because it was secluded from the rest of the restaurant.

They slid in and Mulder removed his sunglasses, tossed them on the table near the salt and pepper shakers in their cage and the half- empty bottle of Heinz.

The same woman, “Sue,” her nametag read, came up and laid two huge menus in front of them both, still smiling kindly. She took their drink orders — coffee for both of them.

“Where you all headed? You look like you’ve been on the road for days.”

“Grand Canyon,” Mulder replied immediately.

Scully stifled a smirk at that. They’d been on their way to Grand Canyon for two months now. It was, to her, the most elusive place on earth.

“Oh, you’ll love it,” Sue said expansively, putting the order pad to her chest as she said it for effect. “Take the mules down, though. Don’t try to walk it.”

Scully smiled to her again, picturing she and Mulder on mules with cameras dangling from their wrists.

“We’ll remember that,” she said.

Sue drifted off, and Scully watched her go until Mulder opened up the menu in front of her. She did the same out of sheer habit.

“No salads, okay?” Mulder said gently, looking at her earnestly over the top of the menu.

She nodded, letting his nagging slide over her, if only because she knew he was right that that was what she’d order. It was what she usually ordered. They were easier to pick at for some reason, didn’t turn her stomach like most road fare did.

She would try. She needed to try.

Her own body felt strange to her, her clothes beginning to hang from the juts of her shoulders, her too-thin waist. She was in another one of Mulder’s shirts today, this one blue, a white tank top beneath it. Wearing his clothes, which would seem too big to her anyway, made her body feel not quite so changed.

It was also, she thought, like being close to him without actually having to touch him.

The thought made her flustered, her eyes darting from the window where’d she’d been staring back to the menu, as though she were afraid he might read the her mind. He was still watching her, something pained in his eyes, and for an instant she thought he really had.

Sue returned with two glasses of water filled with ice, two steaming cups of coffee. Dropping a handful of creamers in a little pile at the edge of the table, she reached for her pad.

“What can I get you?”

Mulder ordered a pizza burger, a side of fries. Scully looked down at the menu as he did so until Sue turned to her. The chicken burrito seemed appealing in a vague sort of way. She decided on that.

Sue took the menus away, leaving them with nothing but the coffee and creamers to tinker with. Scully fingered a creamer, rolling the cool plastic of it between her fingers. She looked down at it, the movement obscuring most of her face beneath the rim of the cap she still wore.

As always, her hand shook slightly, sending the pale liquid inside the container into ripples as she tore at the paper top with her good hand.

“You okay?” Mulder murmured.

She nodded, dumping the cream into the thin coffee. “I’m all right, Mulder,” she replied. “Really.” The last she said as she met his gaze tiredly.

He shook his head, pursing his lips. “I think we need to stop somewhere for a few days again,” he said. “I think we could both use a couple of days or so of not moving around.”

“I’m really okay,” she insisted quietly, picked up a spoon and stirred, staring into her coffee as the light swirled into the dark. “If you need to stop, it’s fine, but–“

“I think we both need to stop,” he replied, his voice just slightly firmer now. She looked back up at him as his tone shifted.

She set the spoon down.

“Look,” he said, leaning closer. “I know you’re trying to tough this out and pretend like what we’re doing isn’t affecting you, but I can tell it is. It has been for weeks now. You’re so pale and you seem so exhausted–“

Instinctively, she pushed her damaged hand beneath the table, anger coming over her at his insinuation, looked out the window, her jaw set hard.

“And this isn’t about your hand, either,” Mulder said instantly, clearly frustrated. “I’m talking about you, Scully.” His hand reached across the table, gripped her right arm at the wrist. “It’s like you’re getting further and further away from me every day that goes by.”

“I’m just tired,” she bit out, hating the defensiveness of her tone as she looked at him sharply. “You are, too. What else do you expect me to say?”

He didn’t take the bait of her tone, but shook his head instead.

“Scully, you have to talk to me.” His voice was a little desperate now, softer.

His hand went from her wrist to her hand, his fingers weaving into hers. She watched his fingers moving over hers, her hand looking and feeling like that of a figure made of wax.

“You have to talk to someone about what happened in Richmond,” he pressed into the quiet. “All of it. If we were home, there would be people you could talk to besides me, but I’m all you’ve got and I want to be here for you.”

She hesitated for a moment, her mouth opening and closing as it did in the truck. They were in dangerous territory now. An unexplored country.

She took in a breath, let it out slowly.

“There are some things I can’t talk about with you, Mulder,” she said, her voice flat, monotone.

“I can take hearing them,” he said, gave her hand a squeeze.

“But I can’t take telling them,” she replied immediately, implored him with her eyes. “And I’m not as sure as you are that you could take hearing them, either. Try to understand, please….”

“I’m trying to understand,” he replied, that same tone of quiet desperation in his voice. “I want to understand. But you won’t let me in, Scully. I can feel you shutting me out.”

He took a breath, seemed to hesitate for a beat, then spoke anyway.

“And it scares me.”

“I’m sorry.” It was all she could think of to say after a moment.

“You don’t have to be sorry,” he replied. “I just don’t want you any further away than you are already. I feel like I can still get to you sometimes…like last night. But…”

The memory of the night before entered her mind, his mouth moving over hers, her hands skimming across the flat, hard plane of his chest. For a moment she had felt like herself again. Remembering it cracked a door in her, something warm coming in.

“I’m not going anywhere, Mulder,” she said, and now she did squeeze his hand, met his gaze. “Okay?”

He looked at her doubtfully for a few seconds, then nodded. “Okay.”

She pulled her hand away to pick up her coffee, and he did the same. Despite what he’d said, she would not put her left hand back on the table.

“And we can stop, if you want to,” she added. “We both could use the rest. And besides, we’re getting low on money again. It’s time for another phone call.”

Sue returned, a plate in each hand, which she set down before them. Her arrival halted his reply.

“There you go,” Sue said, her cheerfulness now plucking Scully’s already taxed nerves as it contrasted too starkly against the conversation they’d been having. “Let me know if you need anything else.”

“We will, thank you,” Mulder replied, forced a wan smile at her. He was feeling the same way, she could tell.

When she was gone, Scully stared down at her plate, the smell of the burrito drifting up at her, thick and heavy. Her mouth went dry as she set down the mug, fingered her fork as if she wasn’t sure how to use it. The rest of her was still.

“Scully,” he said softly after a minute had passed. “Please.”

She looked up at him, at the worry in his face. She wanted to make that expression, the one that made him look so tired, so sad, go away any way she could.

She did her best to eat.

+++

CHAPTER 3.

+++

UNKNOWN LOCATION NEAR ALDER CREEK, COLORADO MARCH 20 6:13 a.m.

The sheet of blowing flakes outside the window and the quiet that accompanied it were nothing new to the man as he rose in the rickety bunk. The wood stove crackled and hissed in the center of the tiny cabin as a nearly spent log fell within it, sending out an answer of red flakes that the man saw through the cracks of its ancient door.

He stretched, the sleeves of his thermal top sliding up his arms as he reveled in the simple pleasure of the wave of heat coming from the stove. He could feel the cold wind pushing itself through the flimsy windowpane, the flakes gathering on the sill, the heavy snow and its wind pressing in around him.

It was something he’d grown used to, this endless view of white. There was something lonely in it that appealed to him, the blankness of it reminding him of nothing, the landscape like cold amnesia.

He was reminded of nothing by his surroundings, but this did not mean he was in the practice of forgetting. In fact, he forgot nothing. He never had.

Pushing his legs from beneath the blanket, he reached for his jeans, which were thrown across the foot of the bed. He pulled them on over the long-john bottoms he wore, thick white cotton covering his legs, the denim lined with flannel. Standing, he pulled the pants up to his trim waist, fumbled with the belt until it was fastened tight around him.

He noticed that he had grown leaner as he tugged on his two shirts, the clothes hanging on him despite the layers. It was the travelling he’d done, the time spent helping keep this place running, this small outpost tucked in the remote crags of the Rockies.

He’d worked hard while he’d been here, proving himself, becoming one of these people as best he could while he bided his time.

Waiting. Waiting for word.

He went to the window, looked out over the main area of the compound through the snow, the lazy smoke coming from the chimney of the mess hall, the largest building on the compound. Breakfast was already on, the cooks usually up by five to start the meal for the 46 inhabitants of this place.

He went to the military locker in the corner of the small room, fumbled through the few provisions he kept there for himself, his small collection of personal effects. On the top shelf, a tin of Twinings Breakfast Tea, which he pried open, stuffing two of the soft bags into his jeans pockets.

As he replaced the tin, his eyes fell on his wallet, which sat against the far edge of the shelf. There was no need for money where he was, so he rarely carried the wallet, rarely looked at it. Something made him want to this morning, some pang of feeling which he usually kept buried, deep as the ground around him was buried in snow.

The snap and crackle of the fire in the stove the only sound around him, he drew the wallet out, flipped it open.

The picture was right there. Tucked in its leather slot. The boy in the picture was laughing, his aunt, on whose lap he sat, having tickled him to prompt the wide-open laugh captured there.

The man smiled despite himself as he looked at the boy’s face, at the conspiratorial look the woman gave the camera.

Then, beneath the heat of a dull rage, the smile melted away.

He replaced the photo in its slot, fingered the one behind it by the corner, pulled it out halfway.

A woman. The most beautiful smile he’d ever seen in his life. Red hair ruffled by the wind, her blue eyes looking at something just to the side of the camera. Her small body was leaning against the doorway of a stone house, her dress a deep green, accentuating the pale of her arms.

Unlike the boy’s grin, this smile was prompted by nothing but him.

He was the person she’d been looking at when the picture was snapped the morning of their wedding all those years ago, the layer of green ivy curling up the side of the house and arching up around her over the doorway to his parents’ house.

He felt his eyes burning, which surprised him. He thought he’d gone beyond feeling anymore. The picture grew distorted before he blinked, distorted just enough to alter the face slightly in his vision and in his mind’s eye.

Another woman. Beautiful. Red hair and blue eyes. Her small body leaned across a table at a pub in Richmond, looking shyly into her glass of beer as he studied her from across the crowded bar. She had always been aware when he was looking at her, it seemed, her guard always up against him.

Now he knew why.

The rage in him swelled again. He rubbed hard at his eyes just in case any trace of sentiment still remained.

Tucking the picture back down and away, he put the wallet in the locker, closed the metal door with a hollow sound.

The woman in the bar’s was the face he carried with him now. Not his wife’s, though Elisa’s face had driven him for many years in the things he had done.

Now he had a new one to take her place. An FBI agent named Dana Scully. The woman his sister, Mae, had betrayed him for, helping Scully escape and stealing his son away.

And leaving his best friend, John Fagan, missing in the process. He’d waited for Fagan at the rendezvous point for over a day, a motel on the outskirts of a town in western Virginia where they’d decided to meet if they got separated. Fagan had never shown. And Fagan had always shown.

Curran could only assume he was dead.

He hoped to God it was Dana Scully who was responsible for that and not Mae. But knowing how careful John had been, how much he would have planned his approach on Scully, a part of him wondered if it was Mae who had caught him by surprise, the attack he wouldn’t have been expecting.

Just thinking about it made him tremble with rage.

Revenge had always driven him, but it had never been as urgent as it was now. Elisa had died, after all. Murdered by people he’d spent the last five years planning on punishing.

His boy, Sean, was still alive out there somewhere, just beyond his sight, his reach.

And without Sean, he felt completely lost.

Without Fagan, the feeling was made even worse.

And without punishing the people responsible for Sean and Fagan’s loss, he felt even more incomplete, like half the person he’d been before.

Half a man.

And he wanted to be whole again.

Turning, Owen Curran went to the stove, tossing in a few more small logs so that the cabin would still be warm when he reentered after his meal. Then, shouldering into his heavy army parka, he unlatched the door and entered the world of blinding white.

+++

WHISTLE STOP INN WILLIAMS, ARIZONA 8:34 a.m.

The bell on the door to the manager’s office jangled loudly as Mulder pushed his way through it with his shoulders, his arms full with groceries he’d just purchased from the small market across the main road. He had a smaller bag filled with danishes in his teeth, a cup of coffee in each hand, which he set down on the counter to free them. He put the bag of danishes in between them carefully, so as not to topple the bags in his arms.

As he placed the groceries on the floor in front of the desk, the manager — an older man with a wisp of hair combed over his bald spot, thick glasses, and a toothy, amiable smile — came out from the back office where’d he’d been stretched out in a green recliner, watching a small black and white television.

“Help you with something, Mr. Garrett?” he asked Mulder, putting his hands on the counter, framing the cups of coffee in his arms.

Mulder was fingering a rack of pamphlets on the counter, all advertising attractions in the Williams/Flagstaff area. He smiled faintly to the manager — Barry, John Barry, Mulder remembered now — as he did so.

“I’m just looking for some things to do around here,” Mulder replied. “Some things to see.”

“Oh, there’s plenty to see around here,” Barry said enthusiastically. “The biggest thing we’ve got here in Williams is the train that goes all the way up to The Canyon. Right to the South Rim. But if you want to go out a little further around Flagstaff, there’s some other things to see.”

That sounded a little too touristy for Mulder’s liking, a little too public, though he would have loved to have finally seen Grand Canyon after driving around it for so many weeks. He thought they needed a diversion, something to give he and Scully a sense of normalcy for even a few hours, but the thought of piling into the old-fashioned steam engine he saw on the front of the pamphlet with a dozen families from Kansas to go see one of the most heavily visited national parks in the country wasn’t his idea of a diversion.

Being around so many people would probably cause them both more stress — and expose them to more risk of being recognized — than it could ever do them any good.

“Are there any Indian ruins around here?” Mulder asked, his eyes still on the pamphlets. He remembered Scully always seemed to notice when there were ruins nearby as they’d driven around, though they’d had yet to stop at any. He thought she might like that.

“Lemme see…” Barry said, thinking for a beat. “Well, there’s Wupatki outside Flagstaff, on the way to the Navajo Reservation, going up Marble Canyon way. It’s not much to see, though I might be a little prejudiced about that myself. I don’t get into them ruins too much. Just a pile of rocks in the middle of nowhere is what I say.”

Despite what Barry has said, Mulder was intrigued. “Is it on the map?”

“Yeah, it’s on there all right. Hardly nobody goes there, though. It’s 20 or so miles off the main road, and besides, there’s snow called for up there today. Just saw it on the news a bit ago.” Barry glanced out into the parking lot. “Though I reckon in that truck of yours that wouldn’t be a problem.”

Mulder glanced up him, unnerved by the amount of interest Barry had shown in him on some level — remembering his name from the night before, noticing what they were driving. He forced the paranoia down, knowing that Barry was probably just bored enough here in the off-season to notice a lot about the people who did stop by.

He gave Barry a polite smile. “No, it won’t be a problem,” he replied, and began gathering up his things again, fitting the danishes under his arm this time. Barry hurried around the desk and opened the door for Mulder, the bell clapping against the glass-paned door again.

“Thank you, Mr. Barry,” Mulder said as he went out the door with his load.

“Not a problem, Mr. Garrett,” Barry replied. “Give my best to your missus.”

That got a wry smile out of Mulder as he turned and made his way down the front of the motel, a rambling one-story affair with blue shutters on the mostly blinded windows. He could smell bacon cooking as he passed by one door, a heavy smell that he had grown to associate with their time on the road. He could hear a television on in another as he continued toward the end, to the small efficiency where he and Scully had decided to spend the next few days to rest and recuperate as much as they could.

Reaching the last door, he listened for any sound inside, heard nothing but silence. He set the bags down on the sill, balancing them with his hip as he dug in his pocket for the key. He pushed the door open quietly, gathered the bags up and slipped into the room, his eyes immediately going to the bed.

Scully lay facing away from him, looking small beneath the covers, her lengthening, more curly hair sprayed out behind her on the pillow, her arms out in front of her across the other side of the bed. She gripped his pillow in one fist, the cotton case wrinkled around her fingers.

Moving carefully, he went to the kitchenette at the back of the room, set the coffee cups down, the bag of danishes. Then he slid the grocery bags onto the counter and began unpacking the contents, his eyes darting to the bed every now and again, watching her face for any sign that he was disturbing her. He wanted her to sleep for as long as she could.

He turned away and put the perishables in the tiny refrigerator, having to get creative with the space. When he stood again, he glanced back at Scully and saw that her eyes were open now, watching him.

“Good morning,” he murmured, smiling gently.

Much to his relief, she returned the smile — an easy smile — and rolled onto her back, the covers slipping to her hips, her t-shirt bunched around her ribs. She stretched languidly, her arms going over her head as she yawned.

“I’ve got some coffee,” he continued, trying not to stare as her t- shirt slid up, exposing all the way up to the bottom curve of one breast, the nipple peaking out for a second until she put her arms down again.

“Coffee sounds good,” she said, her eyes still closed, and her voice was as easy as her smile had been.

He found his pervasive tension releasing some. It was going to be one of her good days, he realized, when she was able to relax, her mind not as preoccupied as it often was. He was glad, because his was the same way.

There was something to be said for knowing you could stay in bed all day if you wanted to, he thought, his lips curling into a smile as she looked at him again, her eyes bright in the shuttered light coming through the half-opened blinds.

Then she did something she rarely did anymore, and certainly not when she wasn’t in tears, awake from the grip of nightmare that had shaken her in the dark.

She reached for him, then smoothed her hand across the mattress beside her, a clear invitation.

He didn’t have to be asked twice.

Pushing off his leather jacket, he came around the counter that divided the two rooms, laying the jacket across the chair at the table in the eat-in area of the kitchen. He sat on the edge of the bed, his back to her as he pulled his boots off. He felt her hand on his back already, her nails grazing him through his long-sleeved t- shirt.

He slid beneath the covers in his jeans, easing an arm beneath her neck as she rose and pillowed her head on his shoulder, her arm going around his chest, her bare leg bending over his thigh. He craned his neck and kissed her forehead, curled his arm up so that he could tunnel his fingers through her hair.

“You feel good today, don’t you?” he asked, pleased, rubbing his lips against her hairline slowly.

He felt her smile against his shoulder, a small one, but a smile nonetheless.

“Yeah, I do,” she replied. “I think I had a good dream.”

“Oh yeah? What about?”

She shook her head slightly. “I don’t remember,” she said, leaning in a bit so that her lips were against his throat. “I just have this feeling. A good feeling.”

He smiled at the ease in her voice, at the feeling of her warm breath against his skin. “I’m glad,” he murmured.

They lay in a companionable silence for a long moment, Scully tracing little patterns with her fingers on his chest. He closed his eyes, feeling contented, everything pushing away from him except her.

“You want me to cook something?” she said into the quiet.

He shook his head. “No, I don’t want you to move,” he said softly, and he meant it so much that he felt his eyes sting for a second.

She nuzzled into him, unaware of the emotions his confession had stirred in him.

“Okay,” she replied.

Another quiet few moments. The television in the room next door came on, a muffled voice reaching him. The heavy sounds of someone settling against the headboard just on the other side of the flimsy wall.

He pulled Scully closer to him, willing the sounds away. It was so hard to feel like he was ever truly alone with her, people always around them. He longed for the privacy of his apartment, or hers — any place where it could just be the two of them, no strangers just outside the door, no sounds of cars, of televisions, of voices carrying over from another room or table.

It was something he’d taken so much for granted before.

If they ever made it out of this — when they did, he corrected himself sternly — he would never take that for granted again. He would never take any part of her for granted, now that so much of her had been taken away from him.

Reluctantly, feeling a funk coming over him and not wanting it to continue, he broke the tenuous spell around them. “I had an idea.”

“What’s that?”

“There are some Indian ruins not too far from here, apparently. The other side of Flagstaff. I thought we could go see them today.”

She leaned up, looking at him now, her brow creased. “Mulder, don’t you think that would be a little risky?”

He shook his head. “I think we’re okay on this one. They’re pretty remote, from what the manager said. I don’t think they’ll be a big tourist spot.”

She chewed her lip, her expression clearly worried.

“Plus,” he added quickly, not liking the change in her quicksilver mood. “It’s supposed to snow today, so nobody will be out there. I thought we could just get out, pretend to be seeing something. It’ll be better than being cooped up here all day watching television.”

She looked at him, unconvinced still, he could tell.

“I know you’ve wanted to see a few of them,” he said gently, stroking her hair back from her face. “We’ve passed a hundred or more. Stopping at one won’t do any harm. It’s not like we’re going to the Canyon or something. We could use a day of doing something normal.”

He could see her expression softening as he brushed at her hair, his fingers tracing the curve of her ear as he did so. He leaned his head up and touched her lips with his for good measure, lingering there, reassuring her.

When he pulled his face away, her eyes were closed. When she opened them, she gave him a tiny smile, nodded. “Okay. I’ll get ready then.”

“Good,” he said softly, and leaned in to kiss her once more as she moved to slip out of the bed and away from him once again.

+++

UNKNOWN LOCATION NEAR ALDER CREEK, COLORADO 12:38 p.m.

It was intricate work.

A bundle of multicolored wires, their connectors all having to find their correct places before anything would work. Curran took the wire cutters in his hand, chose a wire out of the mass and separated it, carefully stripping away the vinyl covering, exposing the copper wire underneath. Then, twisting its end to a connector, he screwed the wire down onto the small panel, gently tightening the screw with a tiny screwdriver made just for this kind of close-quartered work.

The midday light shone through the window, brighter with the snow, which was still falling, though not as hard as before. The kerosene heater in his small workroom gave the place a thick, oily smell, but he’d grown used to it after so many weeks bent over the workbench, day in and day out. He wore a pair of glasses on the end of his nose which magnified the board he was working by several powers, making finding the correct placement easier.

Pushing the glasses up, he sniffed, rubbed his nose, checked the work. Beside him, cigarette smoke rose lazily into the cold air, a stream of grey gathering in the cup of the bright overhead desk lamp. He took a drag, blew out a stream of smoke easily, replaced the cigarette in the ashtray with care.

Four more wires to go and then he would be finished. The bomb was thin enough to be slipped into a padded mailer, the final wire taped on the flap and designed to break away when the article was opened.

It was crude work for him, actually — a thing he’d done since he was a boy — but it proved useful to the people around him, most of whom didn’t seem to have the technical skill necessary for such a task. Most of the people on the small compound busied themselves with the running of the ranch itself, tending to the cattle and sheep that roamed in the paddocks fenced in around the barns to the north side of the encampment. Others worked in the lumber mills in the town below, only to return in the evenings to be with their families, or to bunk up in the common bunkhouse like a bunch of ragged soldiers just in from a war.

None of them wanted to be here.

But this was the place where Larry Kingston, the head of the Sons of Liberty Militia, sent the people the law was most interested in, a sort of gulag high up in the mountains where people who had a need to be hidden stayed for their own protection.

Curran was himself such a person, secreted away by Kingston in this place while the militia’s various contacts searched out Mae and Sean and Dana Scully for him, the repayment of a favor that Curran had done Kingston years ago. Kingston had needed explosives, plastics, and Curran just happened to have a contact who could get him those. They’d struck an uneasy truce over that, Curran knowing that if he were going to survive in this country in the line of work he was in, he’d better do his best to ingratiate himself to the like-minded locals.

And American militias were the closest thing to the IRA and his group The Path that he was going to find in this Godforsaken country.

That instinct to ingratiate was paying off now, he thought, trimming the blue coating off another wire, his teeth catching his lip between them in concentration as he tried not to fray the wire itself. He’d been hidden for over six weeks now, since his face had really hit the news over the failed Embassy bombing in Washington, the manhunt for him intensifying as pressure to solve the act of terrorism pressed down on the U.S. government agencies like a giant hand.

But no one would find him here. At least no one he didn’t want to.

Once he’d stripped the tube off the wire, he reached up, rubbed the scar along the side of his mouth absently, picking up another connector with a pair of fine, long tweezers, settling it on the cork of the work area in front of him. He began twisting the wire carefully once again.

Behind him, a knock at the door, the door coming open immediately, an elderly woman peeking her head in. It was Sarah James, the defacto “mother” of the worn bunch of refugees of the camp. She made it her business to be into everyone else’s.

“Mr. Curran?” she said, her hands on her hips.

“Aye, Sarah,” he said, not looking up. “What is it?”

“There are two men here to see you in the mess hall, just up the side of the mountain. Must be important. They’ve got chains on their tires as thick as my arms to get up here in weather like this.”

He laid the tools down, stubbed out the cigarette calmly. Sarah stayed at the door, watching him, as he pulled the glasses off his face and set them down beside the tools.

“You shouldn’t be smokin’ in here with all these explosives and such laying around, and certainly not with that kerosene heater so close to you. You’re going to go up like a roman candle if you keep that up.” Her voice was mild, but the rebuke was not lost on him.

He stood and turned, showed her his teeth in a stiff grin. “I’m very careful, Sarah,” he said. “Always have been.”

She chuffed at that. “Bullshit,” she said. To Curran’s Irish ears it sounded like “Bowl sheet.”

“Begging your pardon?” he asked, not taking the bait but curious as to what had prompted her laughter.

She appraised him with her big wet eyes. They reminded him of those of the cows that wandered around the snowy troughs, looking for bits of grain. “If you’re so goddamn careful,” she said, looking him up and down. “what the hell are you doing up here?”

He smiled mildly. “Everyone has a run of bad luck, Sarah. You of all people should know that. Yours must be stretching into the decades at this point, eh?”

She harrumphed at that, turned and went out of the room, leaving the door open as she disappeared down the hallway and out the front door to the building.

He laughed quietly, satisfied, as he pulled on his parka. The people here barely tolerated his presence, him being one of the nasty foreigners the militia spent so much of its propaganda railing against. But he still could hold his own against them. He’d managed to hammer out a little bit of begrudging respect from most of them.

Even Sarah, though she’d rather die than admit it.

And at least their contained animosity — and Kingston’s good favor – – had bought him a private cabin.

He hit the ground outside at a trot, his hands jammed in his pockets, the snow up over the ankles of his boots now. People were milling out of the mess hall across the compound, lunch still being served. If he was lucky, he’d still get a tray of something hot.

He recognized the newcomers immediately, two men seated near the end of one of the long tables, heavy white cups of coffee in their hands. There was rarely such a thing as a stranger here, all the faces familiar. They were looking around expectantly, clearly waiting for him.

Going to the line, he picked up a tray, pure World War II surplus with grooved areas dividing the battered surface, and had it loaded down with what the cooks were offering today. Pressed turkey on bread with a floury gravy. Green beans. He stopped at the end of the line and drew a cup of coffee from the large container, gathered the dull silverware, then headed toward the two men.

They eyed him as he approached, both of them peering at him with narrow, dark eyes. One was taller than other, more strongly built, bulky in his blue parka, which he’d yet to remove, as though he didn’t intend on staying long.

The other man, smaller than Curran with jet black hair he’d combed straight back, had a vaguely blank and stupid look on his face, as though nature hadn’t quite finished with him before it had sent him into the world. He was sliding his coffee cup back and forth between his hands on the table, running it along the slick surface as though enjoying a private game.

“Mr. Curran?” the larger man asked as Curran sat at the head of the table between them, setting his tray down with care.

“Aye, I’m Curran,” he said, taking a sip from his coffee nonchalantly.

“My name is Tom Lantham. This is Rudy Gray. Larry Kingston sent us up here to speak with you.”

Curran nodded, digging into his meal. “You’ve got word of some sort then?” he asked, trying to keep his voice neutral, as though they were discussing the weather.

Lantham nodded, eyeing Curran as he ate. “We have a couple of possible sightings of the people you’re looking for, yes. We’ve been sent out here to investigate the leads.”

“You bounty hunters then?” Curran asked, glancing at the two of them. Gray continued pushing the cup of coffee back and forth. It was starting to grate on Curran’s nerves.

“In a manner of speaking,” Lantham replied stiffly. “We both worked as bail bondsmen. Developed a certain talent for finding people. For a price, of course.”

“More money to be had this way, I would imagine,” Curran said, chewing another mouthful of the mediocre meal.

“You could say that.” Lantham’s voice was guarded. He seemed eager to get off the topic. “Anyway, we’ll be going down to Nogales in Southern Arizona right away, see what we can find out. It’s not too far from Tucson, right on the Mexican border.”

Curran nodded. “I’ll tell you what it is I want you to do,” he said, put his fork down. “You find any of them that I’m looking for, and you give Kingston a call. He’ll get in touch with me and I’ll come down and meet you before you move in.”

Lantham glared. “I’d been told we’d be able to handle this our own way,” he said, his voice clipped. “Mr. Gray and I have a method for taking care of situations like this; we’re perfectly capable of bringing the people to you up here. From what I understand, it would be better if you stayed up here, anyway.”

Curran was shaking his head. “We do this my way,” he said simply. “I have my reasons for making the request.”

“Begging your pardon, Mr. Curran,” Lantham said softly, leaning in. “But you’re not the one paying for this. Kingston is. I don’t take orders from anyone but him.”

Curran looked up, met the challenge in Lantham’s eyes. The tension between them had at least gotten Gray to stop with the coffee cup. Curran could see Gray watching them from the corner of his eye, still now, his beady, oily looking eyes first on one man, then the other. Gray’d had yet to say a word.

“This is my show,” Curran said, his voice flattening as anger piqued in him. “Kingston’s paying you as part of a favor he owes ME. You don’t do as I ask and you don’t get paid a cent. I’ll see to that.”

He and Lantham stared at each other, neither willing to budge. Gray continued to watch them.

Finally, Lantham leaned back on the bench seat a little, put his hands up in a gesture of acquiescence.

“All right, Mr. Curran,” he said. “We find any of them and we’ll get word to you. Follow them until you get there before we move in.”

Curran picked up his coffee cup, took a sip. “Thank you, Mr. Lantham,” he said, his voice still a touch angry at being so openly challenged. It was not something he was accustomed to. “I knew you’d understand once it was made clear to you.”

Lantham made a small sound in his throat at that, a grunt of displeasure. “Well,” he said, standing. Gray stood with him, like a dog getting ready to follow its master. “We’ll be in touch.”

Curran gestured with his coffee cup, dismissing them both effectively. “Safe travels to you,” he said, then returned to his meal as though they were already gone.

He could have sworn he heard Lantham mumble something under his breath as he departed with Gray in tow. Curran thought he heard the word “fuck” in it and that made him smile with satisfaction.

Sighing, contented now that there was progress of some sort, he took a sip of the coffee — a thick, bitter liquid — and wished for his tea.

+++

CHAPTER 4.

+++

JOHN F. KENNEDY AIRPORT NEW YORK, NEW YORK 1:30 p.m.

The old man blended in with the gathered crowd, funneled from the baggage claim belts to the long lines of the U.S. Customs area, pushing a cart in front of him easily. On it sat three articles — two ancient suitcases, carefully packed so as not to be the slightest bit overburdened, and a long slender case made of hard plastic, latched tightly closed and clamped with a small lock.

The old man walked slowly, but not because of his age. He was simply not in the habit of hurrying.

All of the lines leading to the Customs stations were the same length, two or three large flights just in from Europe all descending on the area at once. Around him, people from every ethnicity, every age group, every walk of life. Families that were clearly refugees, carrying everything they owned in crates crudely tied with rope. The businessmen already on their cell phones as they waited, smart- looking matching luggage sets rolling behind them on silent plastic wheels. The American families in their separate line looking put- upon at this, their last stop before they re-entered their home, vacations finally coming to an end.

The old man was none of these. He was simply a traveler, dressed in comfortable clothes that hugged the contours of his still-vibrant body. He wore a touring cap on his head to hide his balding pate, his wide white moustache neatly trimmed over his full lips. His eyes were bright and held a certain keen intelligence to them, the irises the color of turquoise flecked with amber. He did not wear glasses, his eyesight still the same as it was when he was a boy.

A child in front of him, a young Indian boy wearing a long white cotton shirt, held on to his father’s leg and looked back at the old man, who appraised the boy for a few seconds before offering a kindly, closed mouth smile. The boy smiled back shyly, then turned and looked away.

As the line moved slowly forward, he pushed the cart in front of him, finally reaching the blue line on the floor that signaled him as the next person to enter the countered area. His passport stuck out of the pocket of his shirt, its crisp green cover having already been scanned at Immigration.

He found himself whistling a soft tune as he waited.

Finally, the woman behind the counter, an African-American woman in an ill-fitted uniform and short-cropped hair, dismissed the person in front of him, signalled for the old man to come forward with his things. As he approached the counter, he removed his hat, smiled to the woman.

He was in the “Nothing to Declare” line, but he did not expect to be waved through. He was right.

“Sir, could I see your passport, please?” the woman asked, halting him. He continued to smile, tucked his touring cap under his arm as he withdrew the passport, handed it to her.

“Mister…Shea,” the woman said, reading his name off the inside flap.

“Aye,” he replied. “That’s me. Jimmy Shea.”

“You say you have nothing to declare?” She said it incredulously.

“I’ve got a bottle of whiskey in that bag right there, but just the one, just like I put on the little card they gave me on the plane.” He gestured to his top suitcase.

The woman glanced down at his things now, taking in the three bags. As he expected, her eyes stopped on the long case, her eyes flicking back to his. He smiled again.

“Could you open that one for me, Mr. Shea?” she asked, and her voice had hardened. She looked over at a security guard standing nearby, gestured him forward. The guard put his hand on his service weapon and came over, standing beside her and eyeing Shea warily.

Shea reached down, picked up the case and set it on the counter in front of them. Fumbling in his pocket, he pulled out the tiny key to the lock on its side, unlatched it. Then, undoing the catches on the case’s side, he flipped it open so that the two Customs officials could see the contents.

The woman looked at it, then back up into Shea’s face, her lip curling with a put-upon expression. Beside her, the guard removed his hand from his gun, relaxing.

Inside the case, a well kept fishing rod and reel, an assortment of flies and tackle. The reel gleamed silver in the fluorescent light.

“Are you always in the habit of carrying your fishing equipment in a rifle case, Mr. Shea?” the woman asked, perturbed.

“Aye, that I am,” he replied, the same amiable smile on his face. “It’s the only thing that it’ll all fit in, and it’s got the right amount of padding. I wouldn’t want anything happening to my rod on the way over, you know.”

The woman made a sound in her throat, a low “humph.” The guard drifted away.

“I assume this is a pleasure trip for you then, Mr. Shea?” she asked flatly.

“Oh yes,” he replied immediately, with enthusiasm. “I plan on doing a good bit of fishing. But there’s some business I’m here to attend to, as well.”

This last bit he added quietly, almost as an afterthought.

“Well, enjoy your visit, sir,” she said, her voice bored and rote now as she waved him through. “I hope it’s a productive one.”

He reached down, closed up the case and replaced it on the cart. “Oh, I’m sure it will be,” he said, then drifted off through the rest of the Customs station and out into the airport beyond.

+++

WUPATKI NATIONAL MONUMENT OUTSIDE FLAGSTAFF, ARIZONA 3:34 p.m.

The heavy snow clouds hung over Doney Mountain, a grey-white blanket moving across the peak led by small wisps and a cold wind that blew down across Deadman Wash and over the flat top of Woodhouse Mesa to the southeast. Between the mesa and the mountain, Scully picked her way along the pueblo ruin of Wupatki, bleak light bleeding through the crumbled remains of windows and doorways.

Her dark coat, trailing down around her ankles, whipped around her in the frozen wind, her black-gloved hands buried in her pockets for extra warmth. She walked the perimeter of the largest ruin in the area, which stood on a high rise like a sentinal above the smaller mounds of carefully carved bricks, the remnants of a hundred or more rooms that had once housed a town of simple Sinaguan farmers almost 900 years ago.

Going through a low doorway, she stood in the middle of one of the rooms, stared at the packed earth floor, the clouds moving high in the ceilingless expanse above her, wind sighing through the windows and the breaks in the walls. The sight of all this, the loneliness of it, made her slightly sad, more introspective than she had been that morning, and she longed for the easy feelings she’d had when she had first awoken.

After all, this had been Mulder’s idea of a way to distract them both from the troubles that followed them constantly along the endless ribbon of highway they traveled on.

And she didn’t want to become melancholy and disappoint him.

Disappoint him again.

The thought pained her, and she fled the room, returning to the straight force of the wind as she left the interior of the ruin for the wide lip of rock that jutted from one side. From here, she could look out over the smaller ruins stair-stepping down toward the desert plain, a desolate landscape shrouded in fog as the storm approached.

Below her, a handful of tourists milled about, bundled up in their coats, children darting in and out of the rooms and down the long trail that led to the remnants of what the pamphlets called a “ball court,” a round structure with high walls and a single entrance facing off to the south.

Mulder, ever the sports fan, had immediately gone down toward it to have a look. She’d chosen to remain on the upper levels, glad to have some time to herself, if even for a few moments.

It wasn’t that she didn’t want to be with him. She loved Mulder more than anything. There was no question about that. But they had been together 24 hours a day for over two months, and she found she was craving the solitude she’d often relished in her apartment back in Washington. More than anything, she needed to be alone. With Mulder around all the time, she found herself expending more energy hiding her feelings than actually feeling them.

And she couldn’t afford to become to any more numb than she’d become already.

The first flakes of snow began to fall as she sat carefully on the rocky outcropping, the intricate brickwork of the pueblo behind her and off to one side. The wind ruffled her hair, sending streams of red gently across her face and causing her eyes to tear from the cold. The flakes were large, heavy. Her legs dangled over the side of the ledge, and she hunkered into her coat, her eyes down in her lap.

She drew in a deep breath, and let herself think of him. Of Fagan and what had happened in Mae’s apartment in Richmond all those weeks ago.

Though the images came easily to her, she couldn’t access the feelings that went along with them. It was as though what she saw in her mind were happening to someone else.

She closed her eyes, waiting to feel…something. Anything.

Nothing would come.

As an investigator, she had seen this kind of reaction a dozen times before from victims of violent crime. It was all very studied to her.

She knew that until she could feel what she needed to feel, until she allowed herself to do that, she could not begin to come back from the bleak land where she now dwelled, a self-imposed, if not intentional, state of exile.

An image suddenly entered her mind, replacing those of Fagan in an instant. She and Mulder in her apartment, his hands bracketing her head beneath the pillow as he moved, his lips moving over hers, across her jaw, beneath her ear–

She choked on the sob, her gloved hand going to her mouth as the strangled sound was trapped in her throat. Her eyes welled.

The snow began to fall more heavily.

She closed her eyes, willing the sudden anguish away.

After a long moment, her eyes opened.

The mask was back in place.

She turned and looked down over the expanse of the ruins, saw Mulder coming up the path below her, returning from the court at the base of the hill. He was looking up at her, his hands in the pockets of his jeans, his strides long but unhurried. She could see his gentle smile even from this distance.

She tried to smile back, then looked away, across the plain toward the wide shape of the mesa. Snowflakes dotted her dark coat, light on black. She found herself mesmorized by them, staring at them as they gathered there.

She almost did not hear the footsteps as he came up behind her.

“Mind if I join you?” Mulder asked softly, his voice nearly lost in a gust of wind.

She looked up him, gave him a small smile. “Of course not,” she replied, and returned her gaze to her lap. She shivered, her shoulders trembling for an instant. Her teeth had begun to chatter.

He sat down behind her, scooted forward until his thighs framed hers, his legs dangling over the edge with hers. Sliding his arms under hers, he tugged her gently until her back was against his ches, and she closed her hands around his wrists.

He put his chin on her shoulder, turned to kiss her just in front of her ear, lingering there. She pressed her cheek into his lips, closed her eyes at the feeling of safety she had, embraced by his warm body, the snow falling on around them, steady, swirling now and again in the hollow-sounding wind.

He returned his chin to her shoulder, breathed out a puff of white into the air. He sounded content. Tired and content. She squeezed his hands tighter, running her thumb across the exposed skin on his wrist.

For a long moment they both looked out over the wide expanse in front of them, a desolate place they faced, the ruins behind them.

The tourists were beginning to withdraw to their cars, frightened off by the weather as the storm moved in. There were footsteps around the pueblo behind them as people picked their way through the bricks toward the parking lot.

Scully shut them out. Neither she nor Mulder moved.

Then, close by, the sound of a camera shutter firing off, several quick turns of a motor drive.

Now they both did turn quickly, saw a man standing there, camera equipment slung over his shoulders and around his neck. He was tall, weathered looking, wearing a heavy parka, jeans, hiking boots. He held a 35 millimeter camera in his hand and was smiling kindly at them.

“Sorry to intrude on you both like that,” the man said. “You’re a lovely couple, and you two just made such a nice shot with the mountain behind you, in this light, with the snow and all.”

Scully could feel Mulder tense up behind her. She had, as well.

“You shouldn’t take someone’s picture without asking,” Mulder said to him angrily. He let go of her, scrambled up so that he was standing behind her, facing the man now.

Mulder reached out his hand. “I’d like the roll of film, please.”

The man’s kind smile turned regretful. “I’m sorry, but I can’t do that,” he said, shaking his head. “I’m a professional photographer and I’ve got 20 shots of this place in various lightings I’ve been here all day trying to catch. I can’t give you the film without losing a whole day’s work. I’m very sorry if I’ve offended you, though.”

The man did look stricken, clearly realizing his misstep now. Scully could see Mulder getting ready to argue, shifting his weight to his other foot.

A dog trotted up the rise after the man, a black Lab with eyes like a doe. It stopped beside him, sat, its face turned up toward Mulder, its tail moving uncertainly on the rocky ground.

Looking at the photographer, at the dog, Scully cringed inwardly.

She realized how strung out she and Mulder were, how suspicious they’d become. Sometimes it was hard to remember the world was filled with ordinary people, doing ordinary things, living ordinary lives.

She also realized that forcing the man to turn over the film might draw more attention to them than the pictures he’d taken ever could.

Thinking this, she reached out, touched Mulder’s calf lightly, getting his attention. He looked down at her, and she could see his anger, borne of fear.

“It’s okay,” she murmured so that only he could hear. “I think it’s okay.”

Mulder looked from her to the man and back again. She nodded, and saw his shoulders fall slightly. He nodded, and she could tell it was reluctantly that he agreed with her.

“Look, if you give me your name and address, I’d love to send you a copy of the shots,” the man offered earnestly. “I think you’ll find they’re really nice. I do good work.”

Mulder shook his head, waving the man off, reached down as Scully began to rise and helped her into a standing position. She dusted off her coat, tried to smile at the stranger, who still looked stricken at Mulder’s reaction.

“That’s all right,” Scully said to him. “You just might consider asking next time.”

The man nodded. “I will. And I won’t use the shots for anything. Again, I’m sorry.”

And with one final look at Mulder, as though afraid Mulder might make some move toward him, he wandered away toward the lot down the hill from the rise, his dog following a few steps behind.

Mulder watched them go, his hands still balled to fists at his side, his jaw muscles still bunched with tension. Scully reached out and put her hand on his, worked his fingers apart until her gloved fingers were pressed against his palm.

“Come on,” she said softly, reaching up to brush at a large flake that had caught in his hair. “Let’s go back to the motel. I’ll make some dinner.”

He looked down at her, something in his gaze softening. Finally he nodded, gripped her hand.

Walking slowly, they made their way around the pueblo, walked back toward the battered truck as the light was muted by the clouds now over the mountain, the snow continuing to fall.

+++

ST. MATTHEW’S CATHEDRAL HIGHBRIDGE, THE BRONX NEW YORK, NEW YORK 5:35 p.m.

Jimmy Shea dipped his right middle finger in the small bowl of holy water, touched the cool water to his forehead as he took off his cap and stuffed it in his coat pocket. Then he made the sign of the cross quickly and went forward into the cavernous building, his footsteps echoing on the marble floor as he made his way slowly toward the altar.

This time of night, there was no light coming through the elaborate stained glass windows on either side of him, only faint dark outlines of surrounding saints. The light of a dozen random candles shone before statues of Christ and the Virgin in alcoves to his left and right, the candles sending up their bitter smoke prayers. Shea crossed himself again as he passed the statue of Mary, a habit since childhood.

The cathedral was nearly empty and completely silent except for his footsteps. The only other people, a knot of dark-clad figures in the front of the church, taking up the ends of two or three pews. They were leaned into each other, whispering, but Shea could not hear their voices.

Coming to the rows they were in, he genuflected, his eyes on the crucifix above the altar, then began walking sideways down the pew toward the group. They all turned as he did so, nodding. A man, tall and in his early forties, stood in the pew ahead. The man reached out his hand.

“Mr. Shea?” he asked as Shea took his hand, gave it a single shake.

“You must be Conail Rutherford,” the older man replied, smiling kindly. Around him, the others watched him intently, as though it were important for them to get a good look.

“Aye,” Rutherford said, smiled. “How was the trip over?” He gestured for Shea to sit.

Shea waved his hand, remained standing. “Ah, it was fine, fine. Got to see that film about the little bloke who does ballet.”

Rutherford’s smile widened. “That’s good then,” he said, then cleared his throat. He turned to the men around him. “This is Joey Sullivan…” he began, and introduced the entire group. Shea nodded to each of them, noting that he was the oldest of the group by at least 20 years.

“An honor to meet you, Mr. Shea,” Sullivan said when Rutherford was finished. “My father’s told stories of you as long as I can remember…what you did on Bloody Sunday, and up in Ballycastle–“

“No honor in doing what you can,” Shea said quickly, his hand raising again to stop the listing. He offset his words with a small smile. Sullivan nodded, the words seeming to please him more.

“Fair enough,” he said.

Shea turned to Rutherford. “I take it my packages were delivered without incident,” he said, eager to get to business.

“Aye, we’ve got them in a suitcase here,” Rutherford gestured to one of the other men, who pulled a black soft bag from beneath the pew he sat in and offered the heavy bundle to Shea.

“Fine, fine,” Shea said, hefting the weight. “Any idea of where I’m headed first off?”

Rutherford nodded, reached into the seat and brought up a Rand McNally atlas of the States. He flipped through the pages until he found the right one — a map of Kentucky.

“This was the last place he was seen,” he said, pointing to a small town near the center of the state. Shea leaned forward in the dim light to look at it. Tyner. Just a speck on the map, he thought. And a long way off.

“I see,” he said, setting the bag down on the pew. It made a thumping sound, things bumping against each other inside it. “I suppose that’s where I’ll head off to in the morning then. You’ve got a mobile telephone for me?”

“Aye, just as you requested,” Rutherford said, and handed Shea a small cell phone. “We’ll be calling you with any information we’re able to find out. Hopefully we won’t send you criss-crossing too much.”

“You’ll do what you can, I’m sure,” Shea said, tucking the phone in his coat pocket. He then took the map from the younger man. “It’s a big country, after all. Not like back home, that’s for sure.”

Rutherford shifted uncomfortably for a moment as Shea closed up the book, unzipped the suitcase and stuffed it inside. The silence that fell over the group was an awkward one. One of the men cleared his throat nervously.

“Are you sure we can’t persuade you to take someone with you?” Rutherford asked carefully. “Any of these men would be happy to go, even if it was just to share the driving. A bit of company on the road.”

The men around him nodded, clearly eager to do as Rutherford suggested. Shea was flattered by their enthusiasm, warmed by it. But he shook his head, smiling again.

“No, that won’t be necessary,” he said kindly. “I like to go about these things my own way. And I always work alone, as I’m sure you were told.”

“I was, aye.” Rutherford said. “It just might take some time. It’s a lot of time to be on your own in a strange place.”

“Oh, I’ll manage,” Shea replied quickly. “I’ve got plenty to keep me busy. I hear the fishing is good here. I bought one of those guidebooks to America so I could find some places to set a hook along the way. I’ll be right as rain. Not to worry.”

“All right,” Rutherford said, and reached into his pocket, brought out a key on a ring. “Here’s your ride then. It’s out front. The black pickup with the camper top.”

“That’ll do me just fine,” Shea said, and took the key. He was eager to go, to get back to his room and get some sleep. He reached his hand out to Rutherford again, who shook it.

“It really is an honor for us all to meet you, Mr. Shea,” Rutherford said softly. “We appreciate your help with this…situation…a great deal. It’s good to know it’ll be done right.”

Shea gave him a smaller smile. “It’ll get done right, aye,” he said, and there was something sad in his voice. He lifted the bag and slung the strap over his shoulder.

“I’ll be in touch with any news,” the younger man said, and Shea nodded and, with a raised hand, withdrew, going back up to the main aisle and out into the cold night.

He drove surely back to the house where he was being put up for the night, having watched the street names in the cab ride on the way over. Driving on the right side of the road came more easily than he imagined.

Once outside the small row house, he parked the truck carefully on the street, climbed wearily from the cab and walked up to the front door with his bundle. He rang the bell.

The person who owned the house, a woman about his age named Mary, answered immediately, wiping her hands on her apron.

“Oh, Mr. Shea, you didn’t need to knock,” she fussed, embarrassed. “I left the door unlocked for you, of course!”

He took off his cap as she made room for him to enter. “It’s quite all right,” he soothed, putting a hand on her arm. “I don’t walk into anyone’s home without knocking but my own. My Ruby would have my head if I showed she hadn’t trained me any better.”

Mary laughed at that, a high-pitched trill. “Well, I’ve got dinner for you when you’re ready for it.”

He nodded. “That’s good. I’m going to attend to a few things and then I’ll be right down.”

“All right,” Mary replied, and returned to the kitchen in the back of the house. The entire place smelled of bread and Shea inhaled the scent deeply, reminded of home.

He climbed the stairs and made his way to his room in the back, closing the door behind him. He went to the window and pulled the blinds slowly, closing out the New York City night.

Removing his coat, he laid it across the back of a chair in the corner, went to the full sized bed against the far wall, set the suitcase down on the quilt. Then he pulled the rifle case from beneath the bed, laid it out and opened it, exposing the pristine rod and reel.

He gently took it and the tackle out of the case, set it aside. Then he unzipped the suitcase, removed the map book, and then started pulling out the other contents.

A rifle butt, dark wood, shining with years of care.

The muzzle, long and straight.

He pulled out the pieces, five of them in all, including the high- powered scope that would fit on top once the rifle was assembled.

Opening his other suitcase on the bed, he drew out his tool kit and began to do just that, sliding the parts of the sniper’s rifle into place, oiling the moving parts as he did so, making sure everything was lined up just so. He worked carefully, slowly, but with an assuredness that came with having done this task hundreds of times before.

Finally, he screwed the scope on the top, set the bolt and raised the gun toward the window, peering down the sights through the crosshairs.

Everything seemed to be in order. He gave the gun one more wipe down with the cleaning cloth he kept in the tool kit, then carefully laid the rifle in the case, which he’d had custom-made to fit it decades ago.

Latching the case closed, he locked it with the tiny lock, then placed it beneath the bed once again. He replaced his tools, taking the same care with them he’d taken with the rifle itself.

Then, taking the rod and tackle and placing them carefully in the suitcase the rifle had been in, he zipped it closed and set it and his other suitcase back on the floor.

He stood back, surveying the room for a sign of anything looking amiss. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary or out of place.

He let himself relax for the first time in hours.

That’s when the image of the small boy came into his mind. The boy was hanging around his father’s legs at the stone wall near a pasture of pure green. He was laughing as Shea — a young man then — squatted down, smiling back, urging him to come forward.

He pushed the thought away with a heavy sigh, his shoulders slumping with it.

That kind of thinking wasn’t going to get him anywhere.

With that, he turned, went out the door, down the hallway to the small bath to wash up for his meal.

+++

CHAPTER 5.

+++

PUERTO PENASCO, MEXICO BAHIA DE ADAIR GULF OF CALIFORNIA MARCH 21 11:38 a.m.

The sea stretched out a cobalt blue, small breakers on the shoreline, the waves’ hair blown back white. The sea itself was beautiful, but the woman could not fool herself into thinking the beach was. The blowing trash along the high dunes ruined any such illusions, the sound of paper rustling lodged in the wind coming off the ocean.

Around her, tourists lay out like beached fish on their towels, their winter-white bodies soaking up the mid-day sun. American music competed with the sound of the waves, the tunes coming from a group of what she assumed were college students down from the States.

She’d been seeing a lot of them the past few weeks as they came down for Spring Break, venturing into Mexico for a cheap holiday on the coast. They were vibrant and carefree and laughed constantly on the beach and in the ramshackle town behind her, and the influx of them had made the woman more depressed than she was already.

It had been a long time since she had laughed — or felt — like that.

If she’d ever felt like that.

She watched the young women’s faces as they sat up in their bright bikinis, looking at the young men playing volleyball and frisbee on the sand. They whispered to each other, giggling, planning…

It was all one huge game to them, she thought, then looked the other way, squinting against the glaring sun. She sighed.

Though she, too, didn’t belong here, it was clear she was not on holiday. She was a solitary figure on the beach, a loose white cotton shirt hiding her sensitive skin from the sun, jeans covering her legs. Her sandals sat beside her. Her thick dark hair was pulled into a loose ponytail that trailed down to the center of her back, stray strands ruffled by the wind around her face. She wore dark sunglasses to hide her pale blue eyes.

Besides her attire, there was a set to her that showed she was not at ease. A certain tension. A wariness. And a tired, careworn expression on her face.

She sat silent, still, her knees drawn up, her arms crossed around them, her shirt cuffed to the elbows.

Her eyes followed a figure moving along the shoreline down by the rocky tidal pools at the edge of the water. She watched the small boy squat now and again, picking up things he found in the crevices of the dark mazed stone. The waves washed gently up in this area, carrying small crabs, fish, into the shallow pools.

Playing in them was one of the boy’s favorite pastimes here, and she tried to indulge him by coming to the beach every day to let him play. The rest of their lives were so quiet, sheltered even from most of the other people in the town. She had to allow him this one pleasure he’d found here.

After he’d lost so much.

After they both had lost so much.

Or was it that she had taken it all away?

That thought and a peal of laughter from the young women beside her sent her to her feet. She brushed at the sand on her clothes, reached down for her sandals, began walking toward the boy at the edge of the sea.

He was standing up now, facing the ocean, looking at something. She put her hand to her forehead to shield her eyes to try and see what he saw. He turned, caught sight of her approaching.

“Look!” the boy shouted. “Look! A seal!”

Then she saw the dark shape curving through the water. It stopped to look at them curiously.

“Do you see it?” the boy asked as she bent and put her sandals on so that she could traverse the rocky terrain.

“Aye, Sean, I see him,” she said, and walked until she stood beside him. He was clad in multicolored Guatemalan shorts she’d bought in town, a white undershirt, his feet also in thick sandals.

The seal stayed where it was, bobbing slightly in the waves.

“He’s looking at you, I think,” she said, smoothed down the boy’s unruly hair. He was badly in need of a cut.

“You think?” he asked, seeming to consider the idea seriously.

“I do,” she said, nodded as he turned his tanned face up toward hers, then back to the seal.

The three of them regarded each other silently for a long moment.

Then the seal turned once, dipped below the surface and was gone.

Mae Curran looked down at her nephew now, his small hands fisted in front of him.

“Let me see what you’ve found then,” she said, and squatted down so that her face was almost even with his. He opened his hands and showed her what he had.

Small round rocks, a tiny purple crab claw, small halves of white and black shells.

“That’s a good haul for one morning.” She smiled up at him. “Go ahead and put those in your pockets and we’ll set them on the sill with your other things.”

“Okay,” he said, and stuffed his hands in his pockets. She could hear the shells clinking softly against the stones.

“Let’s go get something to eat,” she said, and, taking his hand, she led him up the beach.

+++

GEORGE BUSH CENTER FOR INTELLIGENCE LANGLEY, VIRGINIA 12:32 p.m.

“Here’s another stack for you, Agent Granger.”

The voice and the body attached to it appeared so suddenly in front of Granger’s desk that he nearly jumped, his head jerking up in surprise. Instinctively, he pressed the file he was reading — one on Mae Curran — up against his chest, though he immediately reminded himself that the file was actually all right for him to be looking at.

He really didn’t have the nerve for this kind of subterfuge. He hoped to get used to it soon.

“Well, do you want them or not?”

Agent Stiles, also assigned to the task force to find both Curran and Mulder, gave Granger a put-out look as he shifted from one foot to the other and hefted the stack of reports. Though Stiles was technically Granger’s subordinate on the case, he was much older and seemed to be having a difficult time mustering the respect his superior deserved.

Granger, unaccustomed to the role himself, let it slide.

“Uh…sure. Go ahead and set them down there.” He gestured to the corner of the desk, the one spot not already covered with files and yellow legal pads scribbled with notes in Granger’s precise handwriting.

Stiles set them down unceremoniously, smirked. “Looks like a bunch of red herrings to me, though these were the most promising of the ones we’ve been through. I think people are seeing Curran and Mulder more than they’re seeing Elvis this year.”

Granger forced a smile. “Thank you. I’ll have a look through them.”

Stiles turned and moved toward the door. “Have fun looking for your needles,” he called over his shoulder, and disappeared into the busy hallway outside Granger’s quiet office.

Granger set the file he’d been looking at down, eyed the stack of police reports wearily. This would be the fifth stack he’d been through in two days, the reports filtered to him if they seemed to hold any hint of veracity. He’d gotten good at flipping through them, discarding the obvious still shots of johns and prostitutes from motel security cameras, an endless collection of dark haired men in sunglasses and garish, auburn haired women.

And Curran would be nearly impossible to pick out from the scratchy photos. It seemed any man who entered a motel with a facial scar was flagged for the police. It was his one identifying feature. Otherwise, Curran could be any man in his late thirties. He blended in that well.

He’d made a lifetime out of blending in.

Sighing, Granger pulled the reports toward him, flipped through the files. Tuba City, Arizona. Tombstone, Arizona. Topeka, Kansas. Oakland, California. Durango, Colorado. He looked at the photos attached to each file, staring at the faces in front of the counters of the motels and gas stations.

A dark haired man who looked like Mulder but who was not Mulder.

A nondescript man, too young to be Curran, probably paying for gas.

A woman, long red hair pulled back in a ponytail, buying a pack of cigarettes.

In other words, a whole bunch of nothing. He kept moving through the stack.

Then, on the folder marked “El Centro, California,” Granger froze, pulled the black and white picture from the folder and held it up to get it in better light. He squinted at it through his glasses, his head cocking to one side.

A youngish, very thin woman in a black baseball cap, sunglasses, passing cash across the counter of a convenience store. Behind her, a man in profile, looking out the doorway they’d come. Sunglasses. Dark hair and beard. Lean. Strong nose. His hand was on the woman’s shoulder as if to hasten her along in paying for the cups of coffee that sat on the counter.

It was them. It had to be, he thought.

He studied the picture for another long moment, frowning. Scully was so gaunt, her clothes swallowing her. And Mulder, even in the still photo, looked so on edge, looking behind him, his hand on her shoulder protective, but like a warning.

The time on the road was taking its toll. And he knew Scully had been hurt the last time he’d talked to Mulder all those weeks ago from his hospital bed. He wondered how badly she’d been hurt now, seeing her changed so much in the photo.

Granger shook his head sadly. He could only imagine what they were going through. He would have to work more quickly to do what he could to bring them home again.

Someone passed his office door and Granger’s eyes darted up instantly. Though the person didn’t even glance in, Granger stuffed the photo back into the folder, closed it, reaching down to jerk open a drawer in his desk, one with a lock. He pushed the folder into it, closed it quickly and reached into his pocket for his keys. Choosing the proper one, he locked the drawer with an audible “click.”

When his phone beeped a second or two later, before he’d even righted himself in his chair again, he nearly jumped out of his skin, feeling caught. Blowing out a breath, he pressed the button on the phone.

“Granger.”

“Agent Granger.”

Shit. Padden.

“Yes, Dr. Padden?” He tried to sound formal and at ease at the same time, only marginally succeeding.

“Would you mind joining me in my office for a few moments?” Padden replied, his voice strangely friendly. Light.

Granger frowned again. He had a sudden vision of he and Padden sitting across the desk from each other yukking it up over the Letterman show or something. His superior’s tone was that casual.

His eyes narrowed as he looked at the phone, his guard coming up.

“Of course, sir,” was what he said aloud. “I’ll be there momentarily.”

“Very good.” The light went off on the intercom button.

Five minutes later he was stiff in his dark suit jacket once again, his tie straightened and knotted down tightly, walking into the receiving area of Padden’s temporary office, the one assigned to him while the task force was based at the CIA.

The secretary smiled kindly to him. He smiled back, though it was hard.

“Go on in, Agent Granger,” the woman said.

Granger pushed the door open and entered the office. It was a huge space, the vertical blinds all but drawn on the windows, obscuring the view of the grounds. What little light filtered into the cavernous room was absorbed by the darkness of the office, all the furniture black. The bookshelves lining one whole wall. The low table beside the window covered with plants that Granger could tell were fake even from where he stood. Black leather chairs gathered at the far end of the room, just in front of the wide, neat desk.

Robert Padden, Director of the NSA, sat behind that desk, just beneath an oil portrait of someone Granger didn’t recognize but whose eyes seemed to follow him as he made his way across the forest green oriental rug toward the desk. The rug was expensive and so heavily padded that Granger’s footfalls didn’t make a sound as he came forward. It was as if the office consumed even that.

“Agent Granger,” Padden said as he stood, came around the desk, a smile on his face, creasing his cheeks against the bottoms of his reading glasses. “It’s a relief to see you up and around and back at work again after the seriousness of your injuries.”

Much to Granger’s surprise, the other man reached out his hand, which Granger shook uncertainly as he stood in front of one of the chairs. Gone was the man who had screamed at he and Skinner in his hospital room. Gone was the man who had firmly interrogated him on the phone at home. He didn’t know what to make of this person in front of him.

“Thank you, sir,” he replied cautiously. “I’m feeling fine now.”

“Just that limp to deal with?” Padden asked, and withdrew behind the desk again, taking a seat in the high back chair. “That’s not permanent, I hope.”

“No,” Granger said, feeling suddenly self-conscious about the limp. “It shouldn’t be permanent. It just needs a little more time.” He sat as Padden did, sitting in the stiff chair, which creaked beneath him, being made out of something’s hide.

“Good, good.” Padden leaned forward, folding his hands in front of him on the desk, his expression still easy, friendly. “I’m sorry I didn’t get to see you yesterday when I was in. Trying to run this level of a manhunt and keep the NSA running on its rails…you can imagine it requires a great deal of my attention.”

“Yes,” Granger replied, smiling faintly. “I imagine so.” He watched the other man carefully, sizing him up. If this was all an act, Granger thought — and he was almost certain it was — Padden was doing a hell of a job at it. His guard came up a notch more.

“So.” Padden took off the reading glasses, setting them carefully on the desk.

Here is comes, Granger thought.

“What are your initial thoughts on Owen Curran and Agent Mulder?” he asked. “I know you’ve only been back for a few days, but I wanted to know your impressions.”

“My impressions on what aspects of them, sir?” Granger wanted to know more about what specifically Padden was fishing for, lest he say something that he shouldn’t, something that could be slanted and later used in a way he didn’t intend.

Padden shrugged, leaned back in the chair. “What you think is motivating both of them at this juncture, what they might be up to. If they’re together, that sort of thing.”

Granger felt a flare of anger, like a match being struck in his head. He snuffed it out instantly.

“No, sir, they’re not together,” he replied slowly. “Agent Mulder has had no dealings with Owen Curran. He was not involved with any conspiracy to bomb the embassy, as I believe I’ve mentioned before.”

“Yes, so you’ve asserted,” Padden replied. “And though I do hope, of course, that you are right about this, I don’t share your certainty about that fact. Hence my question.”

Granger’s tie felt too tight. “The only connection between Agent Mulder and Owen Curran,” he said quietly, “would be Agent Scully. She is what is motivating both of them right now. But for different reasons, of course.”

“How do you mean?” Padden asked, his brows squinting down.

“Based on what I know of Owen Curran, I would say that Curran is concentrating his energy on finding Agent Scully.” He neglected to mention that everything he knew about Curran had come from Mulder’s profile in Richmond. He didn’t think Padden would appreciate that knowledge very much, and kept it to himself.

“For what purpose?” Padden asked incredulously. “Surely he knows that she would have relayed all of her information to us before her cover was exposed. It seems to me that killing her at this point would be a futile use of his energy.”

Again Padden smiled, this time almost apologetically.

“Because revenge is what motivates Owen Curran, sir,” Granger replied carefully. “He feels, at the least, that Agent Scully was responsible for his bombing being unsuccessful.”

Padden said nothing, so Granger pressed on.

“I also believe that Agent Scully resembling Curran’s wife so closely allowed him to develop a level of attachment to her that would make her betrayal of him even more of an insult. He would have trusted her, probably more than he does most people outside his family, and he will not take kindly to that trust being abused.”

“I see,” Padden said after a beat. “You sound quite certain of your theories, Agent Granger. That’s good to hear.”

Granger kept his face neutral, not rising to the compliment, knowing there was something behind it. Padden was doing everything he could to put him at ease, to seem reasonable.

And Granger didn’t like it one bit.

Padden leaned back a bit more in the posh leather chair, pushed at a pen on the desk top absently. “You said Agent Scully was motivating Agent Mulder at this point, as well. What do you mean by that?”

Granger shifted a bit in his seat, knowing he had to tread particularly carefully in this terrain. “Agent Mulder is protecting Agent Scully from Curran,” he said, his voice devoid or emotion or inflection.

“But why is that necessary?” Padden replied, and his voice now did betray some frustration. “Surely they both know that we could protect Agent Scully much better in a safe house than they could possibly be doing on their own.”

Granger looked at Padden now, and felt anger flare in him again. This time, he knew it made it to his face. “Because I believe that Agent Mulder doesn’t trust you, sir,” he said, his voice the same monotone. “I think he believes that you will do anything you can to capture Owen Curran, even if it means sacrificing Agent Scully’s life to do it.”

Padden chuckled bitterly. “The famous Fox Mulder paranoia,” he said dismissively. “Which he seems to have given to Agent Scully, as well.”

“Sir,” Granger said as Padden’s chuckle subsided. “You must admit that you did, in fact, suppress the information about Agent Scully’s resemblance to Elisa Curran, even though you must have realized that likeness would place her at more risk, given Curran’s attachment to his wife and the circumstances of her death.”

“That’s nonsense,” Padden replied, his voice peeved. “Yes, we’d noticed a slight resemblance but we didn’t ‘suppress’ that information. We just didn’t feel that it had any tactical importance. We still don’t. Agent Mulder overreacted to that information. Overreacted badly.”

Granger watched his face, the profiler in him watching the expressions that crossed it. They were subtle — Padden was clearly used to hiding his feelings well — but Granger saw them nonetheless.

Padden was, as Granger’s mother used to say, “lying like a rug.”

It was not, however, the time to call him on that. Granger had too much work to do and did not need to be in an openly antagonistic relationship with his superior at this juncture. There was too much at stake.

“This…protectiveness…Agent Mulder has of Agent Scully,” Padden began, his eyes on the desk, on the shining gold pen he’d been toying with before. “What do you make of that?”

Granger became very still. “I’m not sure what you mean, sir,” he said, and meant it. He didn’t like the turn of the conversation, the probing tone in Padden’s voice, the quietness of it.

“What do you make of their relationship?” Padden pressed. “Generally speaking.”

Choosing his words with care, Granger shifted in his seat and responded. “Agents Mulder and Scully are two of the best matched partners I’ve ever encountered. Consummate professionals in their work. Loyal to each other. Vigilant. Balanced in their seemingly contradictory views and methods. I think the fact that the work they’ve done on the X-Files for the past eight years has been under so much ridicule and suspicion both inside and outside the Bureau has given their partnership more importance to them both, since they seem to have no one to rely on for affirmation of their work but each other.”

“An “Us Against Them” mentality, in other words?” Padden asked.

“In a manner of speaking, yes,” Granger replied, though he didn’t like the implied negative connotation of Padden’s words.

Padden nodded, leaned forward, folding his hands in front of them. “What about their personal relationship?” he asked, looking at Granger over the flat-topped rims of his glasses.

Granger looked back, forcing his face to remain neutral. “I have very little information on that, sir. I did not get the opportunity to see them outside of their working relationship.”

“Surely you must have gotten a sense of Mulder’s feelings from spending so much time with him in Richmond,” Padden persisted. He’d had yet to move.

Now Granger did squirm a bit under the other man’s intense scrutiny. “He’s very loyal to Agent Scully,” he said noncommitedly, using the most innocuous yet accurate word he could come up with.

Padden nodded thoughtfully, his lips pursing as he looked down. Then he pinned Granger with his gaze once again. “Could there be more to it than that?”

Granger froze again, swallowed. “How do you mean, sir?”

Padden leaned back again now. “Frankly, I’m wondering if there’s something going on between them personally — and by that I mean sexually — that is causing this behavior. A level of attachment that would cause Agent Mulder to ruin his career by avoiding coming in and facing these charges against him, that would cause Agent Scully to sully her reputation by running, as well.” He shook his head. “This behavior is very irregular. You’d have to agree with me on that point, Agent Granger.”

“How would a romantic relationship of some kind contribute to that?” Granger replied cautiously. “I think their partnership — their level of commitment to that — is enough to cause what we’re seeing.”

“I don’t think so, Paul.”

Paul? Granger chafed.

Padden sighed. “I think, frankly, that they’ve compromised themselves, gotten too involved with one another so that they’ve lost their perspective. Many of us noted it while Agent Scully was undercover, Mulder’s overly emotional reactions to things, his protectiveness, his anger at being separated from her. I think it’s this overreaction based on their attachment that is causing all this. It’s not anything I’ve done, or that the task force has done. I think that Mulder has used his personal relationship with Agent Scully to fool her into sacrificing herself and her position to protect him, to run with him. I think she’s being brainwashed by him, to be honest. I think she’s believing his paranoia about me and the task force to avoid facing the truth of his involvement with Curran.”

Granger’s hands clenched down on the arms of the chair, the leather squeaking in protest.

“You’re wrong about all that, sir,” he said, tight lipped. “You’re wrong on so many levels. Agent Scully could not be ‘brainwashed’ by anyone, for starters. She’s the most professional, level-headed agent I’ve ever met. She sets a standard with her approach and conduct.”

“Not anymore.” Padden’s face had hardened now to the craggy mask that Granger had known in Richmond. He was almost glad to see its return, because it was, at least, familiar.

“Mulder would never do anything to compromise Agent Scully,” Granger continued, stoked now at the insinuations about Scully and Mulder’s manipulation of her. “Quite the opposite, in fact. He would do anything he could to protect her. And not because of any sort of romantic involvement. Because of their partnership.”

Padden picked up the pen, pushed at a file on the desktop with the blunt end of it, his eyes averted. “I wonder if your feelings on this matter are quite clear,” he said softly.

“I’m not sure I understand what you mean,” Granger replied stiffly.

“It was no secret here at the CIA, I’m told, that you are a great admirer of Mulder’s profiling work,” Padden said, glancing up and Granger and frowning. “There are some on the task force who are wondering how impartial you’re able to be in your work on this case. That concerns a great many people, to be quite honest.”

Granger recognized the ploy — the insinuation coming in punishment for Granger’s assertion that Padden was wrong.

“Who exactly is being profiled here, Dr. Padden?” Granger replied quietly. “Me or Agent Mulder and Owen Curran?”

“All three of you, to some extent, Paul,” Padden replied. “Your work is being closely watched on this. Some of your past actions have been somewhat… questionable… shall we say? At least as far as Agent Mulder is concerned. There are those who don’t think you’re up for the task of bring him in, that your heart isn’t in it.”

Granger stood then slowly, took the two steps toward the desk. He was fuming, but kept it simmering deep.

“I can promise you, Dr. Padden, that I will do everything in my power to locate Agents Mulder and Scully and Owen Curran,” he said formally.

Again, Padden’s face crimped with that strange, patronizing smile. “I’m sure you will,” he said.

There was a strange moment as the two of them regarded each other silently. Granger pulled himself up straighter.

“If there’s nothing else, sir, I have some files to attend to.”

“Of course,” Padden replied, standing. “I’ll expect a full progress report by the end of the week, and sooner if there are any major developments.”

Granger nodded, turned on his heel and left the room, closing the door quietly behind him, the sunlight of the outer office assaulting him.

Out in the bustle of the hallway, Granger made his way toward his office, his teeth clenched in rage. When he reached it, he closed the door perhaps a little too hard, went behind the desk and stood for a moment, facing the window. He reached up, took off his glasses, rubbed his eyes, exhaling slowly to calm his nerves.

After a moment, he replaced his glasses and glanced behind him, at the locked drawer of his desk, the memory of the photo coming back to him.

Mulder’s hand on Scully’s shoulder. The thinness of her face and arms.

He had to DO something. Find something that could help clear Mulder’s — and now Scully’s, it would seem — name.

He needed proof. Of something. Anything.

A picture of Mulder standing in the airport waiting for Scully to show for her plane entered his mind, an imagining of Mulder tensely watching the passengers board the plane bound for Boston.

Padden had stated on the phone weeks ago that he didn’t really believe that Mulder had ever been at the airport at all.

Surely someone would have seen Mulder there. Surely there was someone who could vouch for that.

It was a place to start, at least.

Turning, he picked up the phone, dialed the number for toll-free directory assistance.

“What listing?” the computerized voice prompted.

“Richmond International Airport,” Granger said, watching the shadows of people passing by beneath his office door.

+++

PUERTO PENASCO, MEXICO 12:35 p.m.

Mae and Sean drifted through the open-air market, past the stands selling fireworks and firewood for the tourists on the beach, past the stalls steaming with the heavy smell of heavy food, the garish storefronts peddling Mexican blankets and sombreros so huge and useless that only an American would buy them.

“It’s the Movie Star,” one of the storefront vendors called from his stool. “Seorita West, buenos d’as. You are looking beautiful today, as always.”

“Thank you, Enrico,” Mae replied, gave him a small smile. It was a near-daily ritual for her, the attention of the men in the center of town. It was impossible to be a woman — and a foreign one, particularly — and really blend in, so she did her best to accept the attention in stride, casually, so as not to draw suspicion.

Sean walked slowly just behind Mae, and she turned to make sure he was still there. He was looking down as he walked, appearing deep in thought.

“Sean?” she asked, and stopped to let him catch up, knelt down in front of him and took his hand. “Qu pasa, Seor West?”

She hoped to get a rise out of him, both with her Irish-accented Spanish — she was dreadful at the language — and with the use of their fake name, and did. He looked up at her and a smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. She was glad to see it. He’d become so serious over the weeks. Broody. Quiet. Much like his father that way, and for many of the same reasons.

Loss seemed to cling to her family like a cobweb. It always had. And all of them had worn it on their faces, in the way they carried themselves and moved through the world. Her mother. Her father before he disappeared into prison and never returned. Her brother James. Owen. And now Sean, as well.

He said nothing in response to her question about what was the matter, however. Just looked at her as though he had something to say and couldn’t say it. Mae felt sadness wash over her as she looked at him.

“What do you want to eat? Anything you want.” She stroked down his hair again.

“I want one of Seora Mart’nez’s burritos,” Sean replied softly.

Her smile widened. “And I bet you want to ride Seor Mart’nez’s burro while she makes it, as well, don’t you?”

Now Sean broke into a wider, shy smile as he looked down, clearly caught. Mae reached out and tickled his middle and he squirmed and a laugh chirped out of him.

“I know your game, little man,” she said, and tickled him again. “We’ll see if Seor Mart’nez will let you today then.”

She stood, still holding his hand, started toward the far end of town where the Mart’nez family lived, selling food straight from their own ramshackle kitchen.

The catcalls and greetings continued as she walked along, and she ignored those from people she didn’t know, said hello to the ones she did.

Then she passed a stall and saw a familiar face. The man — an American with sun bleached brown hair and brown eyes, lean with a surfer’s body and clad in jeans and a t-shirt that hugged his chest just a touch — turned as she approached, smiling kindly.

“Hello, Mr. Porter,” Sean said, and the man came forward, put a hand on Sean’s head.

“Hello, Sean. Katherine.”

Mae smiled back at him shyly. “How are you, Joe? A good day on the boat?”

Porter smiled back at her warmly, taking her in. “Yes, we got a good catch this morning.”

“That’s good then,” she replied. She hated that she had a hard time meeting his eyes. She wasn’t accustomed to being so shy. But meeting up with him always made her feel awkward.

“Seor West!” a voice boomed from across the street. “I have something for you!” It was Paco, the bone salesman, his storefront stacked with cow skulls and stinking of bleach, even from where Mae stood.

“Can I go?” Sean asked, looking up at Mae, his expression excited for once, and she nodded reluctantly. She hated the thought of the place.

“Go on, but hurry now.” She ushered him forward and he darted across the dirt road. Cars weren’t allowed in the tourist market area, so she let him go without a thought.

“You look tired,” Porter said quietly.

“I’m all right,” she said, brushing him off and looking down at his sandalled feet. Then she felt his finger on her chin, tilting her face up. His eyes probed hers for a long moment, though neither of them said anything while he did so.

Finally, Mae broke the silence. “Tonight,” she nearly whispered. “Ten.”

He dropped his hand, nodded, taking a step back as Sean returned, carrying a stuffed armadillo under his arm like a football.

“Ach, Sean!” Mae protested, her face screwing into a look of disgust.

“He said I could have it,” Sean insisted, holding it up so Mae could see. Its stunned glass eyes stared up at her, its obscenely long toes curled.

Joe laughed. “Those go for $60,” he said. “Paco must be feeling generous today.”

“Can I keep it?” Sean asked, and Mae could tell it meant something to him, so she relented immediately.

“All right,” she said, “But you’re washing your hands at the Mart’nez’s. And don’t get it near me.”

Sean smiled and replaced the animal beneath his arm, pleased to have grossed her out.

Joe laughed again as he watched them, put his hand back on Sean’s head, tussling his hair.

“See you, Sean,” he said, and nodded to Mae. “Katherine.” And he moved on through the crowd. Mae watched his back through the thin fabric of his shirt.

+++

11:30 p.m.

Mae’s nails dug into his back, her legs clenching his waist as his movements shortened, quickened. She gasped, turning her head into his throat, her mouth open against him, her breath fanning the hair over his shoulder.

“Oh God, Joe…” she whispered. “God yes…”

Her words seemed to urge him on, his thrusting into her deepening, and she pulled him to her tightly as she shuddered finally, stifling a cry by biting down on his shoulder. He was already trembling, as well, his face in her hair, a quiet groan escaping him as his hips slowed their movements and finally stopped.

They were both panting, drenched with sweat, as they rolled onto their sides, Joe’s lips finding hers as her legs relaxed and she straightened them, their knees touching. She let their lips touch for a brief moment, then withdrew her face, pulling his down beneath her chin. His lips roamed her chest as his breathing began to even out.

If he noticed the brush-off she’d just given him, he gave no indication of it.

Stretching her arms over her head, Mae rolled over, so that her back was to his front, pillowing her head on her forearm. He moved over until he was pressed against her, his arm draped across her waist and resting on her belly. He leaned up and kissed her temple.

“You always turn away from me after we make love,” he whispered. “Why is that?”

The question took her by surprise. It wasn’t that what he said wasn’t true — it was that after all these weeks she thought if it bothered him he would have mentioned it sooner.

“Don’t know,” she murmured, keeping her voice low. She didn’t want to wake Sean, asleep in the room across the hall on the other side of her bedroom’s locked door. She started to roll back over, but he stopped her.

“No, don’t. If it’s what you want, it’s all right.” He settled his head on the pillow behind hers, his hand coming up and smoothing down the curls in her long hair. They were silent for a long moment. Mae closed her eyes, breathing out a long sigh.

“It’s so strange to me,” he said softly into the quiet.

She opened her eyes. “What’s strange?”

His hand continued to stroke her hair gently. “That you’ll sleep with me, but you won’t tell me anything about yourself. Why you’re here.”

“I’ve told you why I’m here,” she replied softly. “We’re on holiday.”

He chuffed softly. “Katherine, people don’t come to this Godforsaken place for more than a day or two. If they’re going on vacation in Mexico, they go to Cancun or Acapulco. Not this place. Anybody who stays here for more than a few days has to be hiding from something.”

She looked down at the bend of his arm, the scars of needlemarks still pink-going-to white against his tan skin.

“Just because you came here to run from something doesn’t mean everyone does,” she said, her voice still pitched low.

He was quiet for a moment. “I know you’re not telling me the truth,” he said softly, but there was no anger, no accusation in his voice. Just a tired sadness. “I hope someday that you’ll trust me enough that you will.”

She said nothing to that. His arm reached around her protectively, pulling her against him more tightly as he settled down, going still behind her.

Mae lay there, thinking about what he’d said. It took her a long time to fall asleep.

+++

CHAPTER 6.

+++

JEFFERSON MEMORIAL THE BANKS OF THE POTOMAC WASHINGTON, D.C. MARCH 22 12:13 p.m.

Margaret Scully pushed her hands deeper into her pockets, uncrossed her legs to press her knees tightly together for warmth as the snow, blown in a stiff breeze, dotted the air around her, mixing with the soft pinks of cherry blossom petals caught unaware by the springtime’s winter squall.

The snow wasn’t sticking to the sidewalk in front of the bench she sat on — it had been too warm for that — but it was leaving a thin layer of white on the new grass that surrounded the domed monument in front of her. She knew the storm would blow over quickly and the snow would be gone in the sunlight, but for now she watched it gather on the slender blades, watched it bend their thin green backs.

She checked her watch as a group of tourists passed by in front of her. She was early, but she didn’t mind the wait. It helped her gather herself, allowed her to swallow down the emotions churning inside her. The worry. The sadness.

The rage.

None of them would serve her now. She would not allow herself to appear anything other than formal and collected on this day for a number of reasons. For one, she knew being overly emotional would get her nowhere, and might even hinder the task she had a hand.

And for another, Dana would want her to be this way.

So she blew out a calm, slow breath into the air, her large eyes scanning the scattering of tourists moving in and out of the monument and along the bank of the river behind her.

She tried to force herself to relax, to not appear to be shrouded in the tension and grief she wore around her body. She could feel the corners of her mouth, however, turn down. It was the expression her face had found in the past three months whenever she wasn’t forcing it into some other shape, which she was usually doing for someone else’s benefit. Bill’s. Charlie’s. Her friends’.

A snowflake caught on her long lashes and hung there until she blinked it away, like a light, cold tear.

She was still scanning the faces around the monument when she saw him, his coat pulled tightly around him, his mouth a tight line. He caught sight of her almost immediately and walked with purpose now toward her, cutting across a square of lawn in the interest of efficiency, leaving a faint dark line of prints behind him in the newborn snow. His eyes darted from side to side behind his glasses as he approached.

Stopping a foot or so in front of her, purposefully standing a little too close, Skinner looked down at her. She gazed up at him, saw somewhere in his expression a mirror of what she was feeling. And something else.

Tension verging on fear.

He blew out a warm breath into the cold air, looked away from her.

She swallowed down on a lump in her throat, but otherwise did not move. “Thank you for coming, Mr. Skinner,” she said softly, trying to pull his gaze to hers with the intensity of her eyes.

“Mrs. Scully, I’m sorry to be meeting you once again under such circumstances.” He managed to avoid her gaze, looking over her at the water. His mouth barely moved as he spoke, just enough to form the words and nothing more. “But as I told you over the telephone, there’s nothing I can tell you about the whereabouts of your daughter or the circumstances of her absence.”

“So you’ve said,” she replied, her voice dead flat calm. “I’ve asked you here to try to convince you to reconsider that.”

His voice dropped to just above a whisper as he stood still, his eyes still straight ahead. “I can’t do that,” he said. “We’re being watched. I’m certain of it.”

“Mr. Skinner,” she began, and now the bitterness did seep into her voice. “I’ve had NSA and CIA agents interviewing me for the past two months, at least once a week, checking to see if I’ve heard anything from my daughter, asking personal questions about everything from her eating habits to where we spent our family vacations. I am under the impression that my phone and perhaps my house are being wire-tapped, and that I am most likely being followed most places I go. Now you’ll have to pardon me if I don’t react strongly to the thought of being watched standing here with you.”

“Lower your voice, please,” he hissed, though he did not say it unkindly.

“What’s happened to my daughter, Mr. Skinner?” she asked, seeming to ignore him except for the fact that she did indeed speak softly as she said it.

Skinner pulled up a little straighter, and she could see his hands clench in his pockets. He seemed to consider for a moment, selecting and discarding words as he spoke slowly, carefully.

“She is under investigation by a joint task force for her involvement in a classified operation.”

It was the most she’d gotten out of any of them, and she nodded. The vagueness of it still irritated her. It reminded her of some of the nonsense she’d gotten during Vietnam when her husband was at sea. She supposed she should be used to it on some level, but she wasn’t. She’d never gotten used to not knowing.

Now he did look down at her. “That’s all I can tell you. To reveal any other information would be violating my security clearance and could cost me my job and possibly my freedom, Mrs. Scully. I ask for your understanding of my rather precarious position in all this.”

“It’s that Irish man, isn’t it?” she insisted. “The one that’s been all over the news since the embassy bombing. She has something to do with that, doesn’t she? And Fox. I know that he’s gone, too. I’ve tried to call him for weeks now and gotten nothing.”

Skinner gaped, looking at her still, then the expression was gone in a flash. “I can’t confirm or deny her involvement with the embassy bombing or anything else,” he bit out. “I’m sorry.”

She continued as though he hadn’t responded at all. “That’s when the first agents showed up at my door. Right after that happened.”

She watched him go quiet, still, in front of her. He was looking off to the side, at a small knot of what looked like businessmen coming toward them on the path beside the river. He watched them until they passed.

She softened some in his silence, the grief taking hold for a moment. She felt it breaking over her face, though the tears did not come.

“I don’t understand why she can’t get word to me that she’s all right,” she said, and there was something imploring in her voice, a crack in the shell she’d placed around herself. “I don’t understand why she would be hiding from the FBI, from the government. It makes no sense to me, any of it. This isn’t like her. This isn’t what she’s about.”

“I’m sure she has her reasons.” He said it with a gentle conviction that she found somehow comforting. He was trying to reassure her as best he could. She could tell that. But she found herself shaking her head, trying to make it all make sense. She could not.

The snow gathered on Skinner’s shoulders in tiny dots of white.

“I’m sure…” He hesitated for a beat, drew in a breath, let it out. “I’m sure she’s doing everything she can to come home.”

A memory came to her with the words, and a smile tugged at her lips, a small sound coming from her. He glanced down, clearly confused at the shift in her mood. But as the smile dawned, her eyes glistened. She squinted against the steady breeze, looked off toward the grey sky over the grey stone of the building before her. She began to speak.

“I was just remembering something,” she said quietly. “Something Dana did when she was a child.”

Skinner waited, saying nothing.

She pulled her hands from her pockets, folded them on her lap, studying them. “Dana was about five years old and my oldest son Bill was picking on her once again. I was in the kitchen, and I could hear them arguing over….something. I can’t recall what it was. He was forever teasing her about one thing or another.

“Anyway, I went to the doorway to Dana’s bedroom to watch them. They couldn’t see me standing there. Dana was packing one of her doll’s suitcases, saying that she was going to run away to get away from him. She put two pairs of her little pants in the suitcase and a crayon. Bill asked her what the crayon was for, and she said: ‘In case I want to color.'”

Skinner smiled at that, and Maggie returned it, though a tear made its way from the corner of her eye down her cheek.

“So she closed up the suitcase and picked it up and went out the front door to the house. I told Bill to keep an eye on Melissa and Charlie in the living room and I went outside. She had made it a couple of houses away, so I got in the car and backed down the driveway, then followed alongside her as she walked down the street. I didn’t do anything…I just drove alongside her very slowly.

“She was so determined. She kept her eyes forward. I knew she knew I was there, but she didn’t look at me. She just kept looking ahead of her, swinging the suitcase as she walked. I waited. I knew I couldn’t make her come to me. I knew she had to decide for herself.

“Finally she started to slow, and I could tell she was getting upset. It made me ache, watching her like that, knowing how conflicted she must have felt, even being as young as she was. Then she stopped walking and turned to me. She was crying as she looked at me, and I was, too, and I reached over and pushed the door open and she came over and got in the car. She crawled up on my lap and I drove around the block and we went back home. We never spoke about it again.”

Skinner looked down at her, swallowed, the stern mask gone.

The tears were flowing freely down her face now, and she reached up and brushed at them slowly, carefully.

“I’m ready for my daughter to get in the car, Mr. Skinner,” she said softly, and her voice broke. She looked down, struggling for control.

“I’m so sorry,” he said, and his voice was tender, low. “I wish there was something I could tell you, but there’s not. I promise you I’ll let you know as soon as I know something I can share.”

She met his gaze again, nodded quickly. “I understand,” she replied, and she’d regained some measure of composure now, though the sadness still gripped her like a fist. She wiped at her face again.

He reached his hand out, and she did as well, clasping his tightly.

A folded scrap of paper in his palm passed to hers, surprising her.

She did not let the feeling reach her face as she drew her hand back and put her hands back in her pockets.

“Thank you, Mr. Skinner, for seeing me.” She forced a smile.

“You’re welcome, Mrs. Scully,” he replied formally. He turned and walked away.

After a long moment, she rose from the bench, the snow continuing to fall, and blended in with the crowd as she made her way back to the parking area. Her heart was racing by the time she reached it, and she climbed in, fumbled for her keys in her pocket, started the car.

Only then did she reach for the tiny corner of paper. She unfolded it in her lap, out of sight of the windows, squinted down at the tiny writing.

“Somewhere in the southwest,” it said. “Hurt, but is doing better. With Mulder. Will have more as I know more.”

She studied it for a long moment, the tears starting once again. She reached up and covered her mouth with her hand until she’d brought them back under control.

Carefully she ripped up the piece of paper, put the remnants back in her pocket.

Then she put the car into gear and pulled out into the lunchtime traffic, turned the block and headed slowly for home.

+++

NOGALES, ARIZONA ON THE U.S./MEXICAN BORDER 1:35 p.m.

The falcon was blind.

Tom Lantham could tell that from the moment he looked at it, the places where its keen eyes should have been covered over with a thick patina of scar, the cups of lids blinking uselessly, instinctively, over the ragged holes. It made him ill as he looked at it, both at the sight of the eyes and at the thought of such a beautiful animal being crippled so badly and then put on display.

A sign, written in English and Spanish, beside it said: “Photo taken with bird on your arm, $5,” and sure enough Rudy Gray was getting out his wallet to pay the kid beside the falcon to have his picture taken with the thing.

Lantham cringed, shook his head — Gray could be such a kid sometimes — and turned his attention to the man who had exited the storefront behind the poor creature on its stand. He was wiping his hands on an apron, drying them as he looked at Lantham and Gray suspiciously. The store was a small cafe that served food to go.

It was hard for Lantham to draw his full attention to the man. The drive from Colorado, from Curran, had been a long one, and he was already tired. Still, he pulled himself up and focussed on the task at hand.

“Mr. Ruiz?” he said as the man approached him. Lantham squinted down at the much shorter man as he stopped before him.

“Yes, I’m Pablo Ruiz,” the man replied cautiously, his voice heavily accented. “You police or something? Cuz I got nothing going on here except selling food. You can search the place yourself and see.”

Lantham held up a hand. “No, no, Mr. Ruiz, we’re not police,” he said. “We got a tip that you reported having some information about a woman who passed through here. You called a number to report it? That you found on a flyer?”

Ruiz seemed to think for a moment, then nodded vigorously. “Oh, the flyer up at the pawn shop. I almost forgot. S’, I saw one of those women. Y el nio, too. They came into my shop, oh, I guess six weeks ago. Five. Something like that.”

“You sure it was them?” Lantham asked. He had to step back as, beside him, the bird’s wings opened instinctively to balance itself as it was placed onto Gray’s heavily gloved forearm. The bird make a high cry as it settled back down.

“S’, pretty sure,” Ruiz answered, his hands going to his hips now. “She had the same long dark hair as the photo. Hermosa, she was. Lovely to look at. Spoke ingls with a strange accent, her and the boy.”

Lantham nodded. The Polaroid camera clicked and whined as the kid snapped the picture. “Yeah, that sounds like them,” he said as Gray fumbled the bird back onto the stand. It nearly fell as it stumbled onto the perch, which Lantham found quite sad.

“Any idea where they were headed?” he asked, forcing his attention back on Ruiz. “Did she give anything away about that?”

Ruiz seemed to consider again. “She said something about them having a long drive ahead of them. She said it to el muchacho. That he’d better eat two of my chalupas because it might be awhile before they ate again. I asked where she was heading, you know, just to be friendly, and she said they were going down into Mexico to…how do you say?…see los lugares interesantes…” He snapped his fingers as the word came to him. “To sight-see.”

So Mae Curran had crossed the border, Lantham thought, pursed his lips. That complicated matters for him, for sure. For one, he didn’t speak Spanish beyond the very basics (and Gray barely spoke English, he mused bitterly), and it would be more difficult to get information when they crossed into Mexico. For another, it was a big country. Mae and Curran’s son could be anywhere at this point, with a five to six week head start.

“Where’s my hundred bucks?” Ruiz asked expectantly. “The flyer said a hundred bucks for informacin.”

Gray was waving his Polaroid in the air in front of him, as though the action would bring the picture up faster.

Lantham sighed and reached into his wallet, fat with bills. He plucked out a crisp $100 bill and handed it to Ruiz, who folded it over immediately and stuffed it into his apron pocket, as though he didn’t want anyone to see him getting it.

“Gracias, Mr. Ruiz,” Lantham said, smiled stiffly. “You’ve been a lot of help. If you happen to see her and the boy, or the other woman on the flyer, make sure you give another call to that number.”

“I will,” Ruiz promised. “Pleasure to do business with you,” and he went back into the store.

Lantham turned to Gray, who was staring proudly at his photo. The bird moved uneasily on its perch, its blind eyes blinking.

“You ready?” he asked, and Gray looked up at him.

“Yeah, we going to Mexico?”

Lantham nodded. “Yeah, we are. Make sure your gun’s out of sight when we go through the border crossing, just in case they stop us. I don’t think they will, though.”

Gray nodded, still mesmerized by his picture. He turned it around to show it to Lantham, who put a hand out, pushing the other man’s arm down.

“Come on, Rudy,” he said, put out. “We don’t have any time to waste.”

Gray followed him obediently through the crowded street, back toward the parking lot on the outskirts of town, only a few hundred feet from the Mexican border.

+++

BUCKHORN LAKE DANIEL BOONE FOREST OUTSIDE BUCKHORN, KENTUCKY 3:35 p.m.

The fish were biting, and for this, at least, Jimmy Shea was pleased.

Just off the side of the boat, a long yellow stringer trailed beside the idle, aging motor, swaying back and forth slightly with the small ripples of the lake and movement of the fish pinned to it through the gills.

He’d caught seven fish so far and had only been out for a few hours, just back from Tyner, a town north of Egypt, Kentucky. He’d found one person in town who seemed to recognize the photo he’d shown around, a manager at a motel on the main street of the town. But the man said that he’d seen someone looking like that — who also had an accent like Shea’s — weeks and weeks ago, but not any time recently.

Shea had shown the picture around the whole place after that, which didn’t take long. It was a small town. He’d come up with nothing else.

Curran may have been there, but he’d moved on. Of that Shea was certain. He’d called Rutherford and told him just that.

He got a tug on his line and jerked the rod back, felt the fish pull hard to the left beneath the water. As he began to reel in, there was another sharp jab on the line and then it went slack again.

Shea sighed, reeled the line in, not surprised to find his bait gone.

He reached for the styrofoam cup of night crawlers, bought at the shop where he’d rented the shabby boat and motor, and let the hook swing into the boat. He dug through the damp dirt, finally pulling out a frantic, fat black worm. He impaled it on the hook, twisting it around to catch it in several loops on the sharp end.

He did it all by rote, dispassionately, almost with a sigh. As he’d done most things in his life. Particularly in the last years.

He remembered a time when he had passion, ire for everything.

James Curran, Owen Curran’s father, had been a part of that time.

And for an instant, in the battered boat on the dark lake, he went back to it, the memories burned into him like a brand.

He was riding a motorcycle toward the outskirts of Ballycastle, up into the sheep pastures and the brilliant green of the hills around the sea.

Nineteen-seventy and the IRA was just beginning to organize, each town given its own command, its own store of weapons. Discipline of a sort. Training. And, since the polarizing events of 1969, purpose.

He was 31, still a young man, part of the Newry unit, in the time before its reputation was ruined with its members cracking under interrogation, before their damaging signed confessions.

He’d was riding to the home of one of the battalion leaders to see about killing a man. There was a UDR officer named Norton who had made the very human mistake of developing a routine, and the IRA was going to do something about that while they had the chance.

Shea had developed a reputation as being the best shot in the northern units. That’s why he’d been called for the task.

He remembered the house on the hillside, a lovely place, and showing a man who had some means. The owner was standing beside a low wall made of stone, shuffling bags of feed from the back of a small truck. A young boy stood beside him wearing high boots, a white fisherman’s sweater with simple pants. The man himself was dressed similarly, a cap on his head. They both turned as the motorcycle came up the long road to the house, even the boy seeming to watch his approach with care.

He pulled up beside them, removed his helmet as the man came forward. “Jimmy Shea?” the other man asked, brushing off his hands.

“Aye, I’m Shea. James Curran?”

The man nodded. The boy, who couldn’t be more than five, had taken up a place behind his father’s leg, looking at Shea with his wide blue eyes. His dark hair was cut close to his head, and spiked a bit on top.

“And who do we have here?” Shea said, putting his helmet on the seat of the cycle and turning again, crouching down with his hands on his knees. The child smiled shyly, looked away toward the bike.

“Ah, this is my youngest, Owen,” Curran said proudly, putting a hand on Owen’s head, palming his small skull. Shea smiled to him, but Owen kept looking at the bike, a finger in his mouth.

“You like the motorcycle, do you then?” Shea asked, still smiling widely. “You come over here to me I’ll put you up on the seat. How’s that?”

Owen curled around his father’s leg a bit more, smiling wider now.

“Come on,” Shea prodded, holding his arms out in a welcoming gesture. Curran watched Shea, amused.

“Go on, Owen. He won’t bite.”

Finally, the boy came forward, and Shea reached out to take him in his arms, lifting up and bracing him with one arm while he moved the helmet with the other. Then he sat Owen down on the seat, who leaned forward, reaching for the handlebars, clearly pleased.

“What do you think of that, eh?” Shea said. “She’s a nice one, isn’t she?”

The boy nodded. “But where do you keep your gun?” he asked, his voice high and light.

Shea was taken back a bit by the question. “My gun? What do you know about that?” He laughed a touch nervously.

James Curran crossed his arms over his chest, smiled even more proudly.

“Don’t you use your gun when you ride your motorcycle?” Owen asked, looking back at Shea. Shea looked back, silent for a beat.

“Aye, sometimes I do,” he said finally, his voice betraying his surprise.

He wondered about the boy then, about his father. It was common knowledge in the North that motorcycles and assassins went together, but he didn’t expect a boy of Owen’s age to know that.

Now Curran laughed heartily, came forward and plucked his son off the motorcycle, setting him on his feet. “Go on, Owen. Go find your mother. Mr. Shea and I have some business to discuss.”

“All right, Daddy,” the boy said softly, and looked up at Shea, smiling again. Then he scuttled off toward the house.

“Let’s take a walk, Jimmy,” Curran said, putting his arm around Shea’s shoulder and steering him toward the pasture.

Shea turned and went along with him, into the fields of green.

Now he looked out over the lake, at the trees lining the banks in the distance. He shook his head, his gaze frozen on that distance for a moment. Then, sighing, he swung the line out, cast it into the water, and waited for the fish to come.

+++

WHISTLE STOP INN WILLIAMS, ARIZONA 11:17 p.m.

The creature lumbered through the clearing, its arms swinging in long arcs beside its body, its strides long, unhurried. It was tall, covered with dark hair. From the distance, its features were difficult to make out, though as it turned slightly and looked back over its shoulder, as though aware it were being watched, a pair of dark eyes peered out from beneath heavy brows, its gait quickening as it headed for the safety of the treeline.

“Mulder.”

A man’s voice floated into the room. “Recently, a group of scientists led by Dr. Gene Robinson at the University of Oregon were involved in an experiment to confirm the existence of the creature. A mesh bag filled with fruit was placed in the low branches of a tree around the area where it had been sighted.

“As morning came the following day, Dr. Robinson was able to make plaster casts of both a set of footprints made as the creature approached the tree, and also a right buttock print in the ground at the base of the trunk where the creature had apparently sat down to consume the bait.”

“Mulder, don’t start.”

“Come on, Scully, listen to this.”

Gene Robinson, as the caption on the screen identified him, held up a plaster casting the size of a dinner plate, pointing to a series of marks on it. “This print can be authenticated on the basis of its hair patterns,” the man said. “As you can see, the hair follows an anatomically correct pattern of growth…”

Scully tuned it out now, though she could tell from how still Mulder was against her in the bed, how his hand was poised in midair with the remote, that he was enthralled. As usual.

“It really does follow the correct pattern,” Mulder said, and she knew that convicted tone all too well. “See how you can see the hair moving away from the center area –“

“Mulder, I’m not going to do this tonight,” she said, though she rubbed her cheek against the soft material of his shirt at the crook of his arm as she said it, nuzzling into him like a cat, her eyes closing.

“Do what?” he asked, seemingly genuinely perplexed.

She smiled, her eyes staying closed, her arm gripping around his chest a little tighter, her leg sliding a little higher on his thigh. When she spoke, her voice was soft, drawled with impending sleep.

“Oh, argue with you about the veracity of hair patterns on a buttprint of a man in a rented gorilla suit who has a taste for mangos so that you can then launch into a treatise about the number of Bigfoot sightings–“

He laughed, his chest vibrating beneath her arm.

“A ‘buttprint?'” he asked. “Is that the scientific term, Dr. Scully? Because if we’re going to be scientifically correct about this, I believe it’s called an ‘assprint.'”

A laugh bubbled up from her and she opened her eyes, leaned up a little to look in his eyes. They were soft, looking velvet in the shadows. The only light was from the lamp on the night table on his side of the bed, and it threw his face into chiaroscuro relief. Two pints of ice cream — Phish Food and Peanut Butter Cup — sat melting beneath the lamp, plastic spoons protruding from their edges.

He was smiling at her as he reached over and curved her hair around her ear.

Something seemed to hang in the air for a moment over them, something warm and tender and ultimately welcome. Scully breathed it in as she looked at him, feeling his fingers caress her lobe softly, the sensitive skin beneath it.

Yesterday at Wupatki, she had felt as desolate as the stones surrounding her. Trying to think of Fagan, trying to feel him, had tired her, made her weary and lost. Sitting with Mulder on the ledge overlooking the mesa and the grey sky, she’d found her way back again, let the desolation move through her, as the heavy clouds had moved over the dark ruins behind them.

She’d stroked his wrist and settled back into herself as best she could, something growing quiet in her, quiet as the snow.

They’d gone back to the motel and eaten a simple dinner. Baked chicken. Some apples. Some cheese. As she stood before the small stove, Mulder quartering the green apples behind her, she’d felt something in her unknot, the memory of them in her kitchen cooking together, the sound of heavy plates on the wooden table, coming back to her. The sound of empty wine glasses clinking in Mulder’s hand as they went to the couch afterward.

She’d slept soundly last night, the soundest sleep in weeks, spared from the dreaming.

The morning brought sleeping in, a late breakfast at a local diner. She’d spent the afternoon dozing, sometimes curled against him. Other times, he’d risen, reading the newspaper he’d bought from a machine at the diner or flipping channels from the foot of the bed as she slept.

They’d spoken little, but the silence was not unwelcome. There was an ease to it, something companionable in it. As though, for a little while, words had become unnecessary.

At one point, lying against him, his breathing deep and steady, his eyes fluttering beneath his lids as he dreamed, she remembered lazy days in his bed, or hers, rousing to find his mouth, his hands, moving over her body. The warm weight of the afternoons of lovemaking had settled over her as she watched him, held him, while he slept.

“You’re only saying you don’t want to argue about this Bigfoot thing because you know I’ll end up being right,” he said finally, breaking her thoughts.

She rolled her eyes, slapped him lightly on the stomach, causing him to suck in, a startled “oh!” coming from him as his hand left her ear and went to his stomach as though she’d mortally wounded him.

He laughed, and so did she, the sound coming from her fast and light, like sparrows.

She looked deeply at him. There was something so familiar to all this. The banter over unlikely things. The closeness to him. The teasing, tender light in his eyes as he looked at her.

It was as though they had finally managed to leave it all behind.

She smiled at the thought, a low heat rushing through her.

Maybe things could be the same after all.

Thinking this, she rolled over on top of him, her hands on either side of his head as his hands went instinctively around her, resting on the small of her back.

He adjusted his head on the pillow so that their faces were almost touching. She could feel his slow, warm breath on her face as his fingers traced small shapes in the material of her white pajama top.

“I mean, come on. When have I not been right?” His voice was just above a whisper, and he smiled softly.

His words were meant to continue his tease, but the sentiment did not reach his tone. The mischief had gone from his eyes. She rubbed her thumbs over his bearded cheeks as she watched his mood shift. He was very still beneath her.

The playful feeling had gone from her, as well, the smile leaving her face. Keeping her eyes open, she closed the few inches between them and touched her lips to his, pulling away almost immediately, though she did not withdraw any further than she had been before.

His hands moved from her back to cradle her waist, his grip gentle and sure.

“What was that for?” he whispered.

She could do nothing but shake her head, her lips curling as she leaned in and kissed him again, longer this time. She opened her mouth and pulled his bottom lip in, tugging gently. His hands slid up her back and a small sound came from his throat.

Their lips moved over each other’s for a long moment. Then she broke the contact and pressed her lips to his throat, her hand pushing at his shirt.

“Take this off.” She breathed it against his skin, felt him shiver.

Then she placed her knees on either side of his hips and leaned up, resting on his thighs as he pulled the shirt up over his head, tossing it on the floor beside the bed, looking up at her with his smokey eyes. His hands came to rest on her thighs, holding still there.

She could sense his caution. Perhaps that was the beginning of it, the feeling that sprouted in her. Just the hint of it sent her into a fine tremor, her breath quivering as she let out a long exhale, trying to calm herself, soothe.

She pushed it all down, willing it away.

As if to prove she had vanquished it, she reached for the buttons of her top, pushing the top white button through its white hole. She saw him swallow, and then found herself looking down shyly, unable to meet his intense gaze. She watched her fingers work the buttons as though she’d never touched them before. She did not push the sides of the shirt apart.

As she undid the last button, her hands went to his belly, her thumbs moving over the faint line of hair at his navel. She still could not meet his eyes, and her faint trembling increased.

His hands went to her top, fingering the sides. With a slow motion, he pushed them apart, revealing her body. She arched her back as he smoothed the top off her shoulders, down to the center of her back. Her nipples hardened in the chill of the room and under the burn of his gaze. She slid her arms out of the sleeves, laying the shirt down beside them on the rumpled bed.

Now she draped herself down over him, her arms going around his neck as her breasts pressed against his body. She buried her face against his throat, beneath the coarse hair of his beard.

He was still, except for his hands, which were reading the bumps of her ribs on her back as though memorizing her. She felt his breath deepen, quicken. She felt him hard against her belly.

The fear came up her like a current at the feel of him.

She shook against him, her eyes stinging.

No…

Her mind whispered the word to her, but she did not listen.

His hands curved around her sides to her breasts, and she arched her back to allow him to cup them, his palms hot against her skin. His lips were on her hair, his cheek rubbing against her, urging her face up to his. His hands kneaded softly as she looked up, her eyes clenched closed against the sight of him.

His mouth closed over hers and she struggled to meet him, her hands gripping his hair in her fists.

No.

Her mind said it again, louder this time, with more finality.

(Hands on her back, rough. Pain. Pain piercing her with the shame of it.)

She felt herself flush all over, turned her face away from him, breaking her contact with his mouth.

“No…” She said it out loud this time, to herself, to the terror gripping her. To him. She felt him freeze beneath her, his hands stilling instantly.

“It’s all right,” he whispered. “We don’t have to do this.”

The first sob hitched her breath, nearly choking her. She pulled her arms from around his neck as his hands went around her back, her hands going to cover her mouth, her elbows jutting into his belly. Her shaking was uncontrollable now, a cry crawling up her throat. It sounded like an animal, or a terrified child.

She hated it.

Hated herself.

Fury ignited in her.

Fury and shame.

“Scully…”

She shook her head, pulled away from him quickly, gracelessly. Some dim part of her wondered if she might have hurt him as she pushed herself off of his body, ending up on her side beside him. Her hands scrambled to her top, clutching it to her, hiding her breasts, as she rolled again to the edge of the bed, facing away from him now, her legs curling up until her thighs touched her belly.

Another sob wracked her. She jerked as though struck.

She could feel him moving up behind her, shifting toward her. His hand brushed her shoulder.

“Scully, it’s all right,” he soothed, but there was something very afraid in his voice, almost desperate, as though he didn’t even believe himself.

She didn’t believe him, either.

As his fingers curled over the bone of her shoulder, she jerked away from him.

“Don’t,” she bit out between the wracking. She couldn’t breathe. “Don’t. Please.”

“Scully, don’t push me away. I want to help. Let me help you–” His hand brushed her bare back again.

“DON’T!” Her voice rose to near shouting. “Don’t touch me!”

His hand left her instantly, but she could feel it hovering over her. She could tell from his breathing, from the trembling of his voice as he’d spoken to her, that he was crying, as well.

Guilt ran through her now, as well. It was too much. The loathing. It was all too much.

“Scully,” he tried again. A plea.

Something in her hardened, froze over. She heaved in a deep breath, her eyes closing tight, all of her closing tight.

“Leave me alone,” she whispered, heard his breath catch at the venom — borne of shame — in her voice, felt the weight of his stunned silence.

He was still for a long moment.

“Please,” she said again, but there was nothing kind or imploring in the word this time.

Slowly he shifted, withdrawing across the bed. She heard him reach down and gather up his shirt, felt him shift as he sat on the edge of the bed, the sound of cloth over skin as he pulled the shirt over his head.

He sat there for a long while. She could hear his breath shaking in and out of him, muffled by his hands. She covered her face, tears streaming, though her face was stone.

Then, finally, the light flicked off. She heard him slipping beneath the covers, settling down far away from her.

They lay there in the dark, the television flickering, talking to no one, the night closing in, filling the space in the bed that stretched out between them.

+++

CHAPTER 7.

+++

FBI HEADQUARTERS WASHINGTON D.C. MARCH 23 9:14 a.m.

Two chairs sat in front of Skinner’s desk. They had been there for years, he knew, but for some reason, today he couldn’t take his eyes off of them.

As he moved around the room, drifted in and out to various offices and then returned to his desk, he found his eyes drawn to the chairs, struck by their emptiness and the quiet of the room.

Finally, finding himself looking at them again when he was supposed to be reviewing the expense report in front of him, he leaned back in the chair and dropped the pen. His glasses soon followed. He rubbed his eyes roughly, heaved out a frustrated sigh.

His meeting with Margaret Scully the day before had left him feeling hollow, his guilt about the woman’s worry and grief over her daughter’s absence filling him instead. Passing her the note had done little to alleviate that guilt, though he did at least feel better knowing that Mrs. Scully now knew something about her daughter’s whereabouts and condition.

He’d told her the truth. Somebody needed to do that.

He’d returned to the office yesterday morning deflated, lost in the immensity of the task at hand.

The weekly phone calls to Mulder made him feel worse. His gut ached every time he had to tell Mulder that he and Scully needed to stay out, keep running. He felt like the constant bringer of bad news and felt completely useless. Especially in the face of Mulder’s disappointed, weary tone when he told them to stay away, when he heard the cagey responses Mulder gave to his inquiries about Scully’s well-being.

He stewed in those feelings the entire afternoon, reviewing what he’d done so far.

He’d been trying to look at the big picture for weeks now, taking his case to whoever would listen to him, doing everything he could as the Assistant Director of the FBI.

Then, standing in front of the windows in his office, looking down on the maddeningly normal world bustling below him, he’d started to wonder if he was doing this all wrong. He stopped thinking like an Assistant Director. It was getting him nowhere, and was actually bringing more attention to him , attention he didn’t need if he was going to continue his covert contact with his agents.

Instead, standing there yesterday in the sunlight struggling to come through the clouds that had brought the unseasonable snow, he started thinking like an agent again, about what he’d been taught in the Academy all those years ago. The rules of investigating.

It was in the simple details, taken one at a time and examined carefully, patiently, that one solved a case. Not what he’d been doing — standing back with this huge scenario in front of him, a picture made up of puzzle pieces that seemed to go together but which revealed a picture that he knew to be wrong.

The picture Padden had made.

And everyone else was seeing that same picture as well. Ashcroft. The head of the FBI and CIA. Padden had made sure that every avenue was essentially cut off with the damaging case against Mulder, a case made of bits of evidence turned the way Padden liked them to be turned.

There was nowhere left to go.

So he returned to an agent’s thinking before he’d left that afternoon. He would start again on all this. He would take the pieces that Padden had used so deftly to frame Mulder and look at them for himself.

He started at the beginning, with the police report from the crime scene at Mae Curran’s apartment in Richmond. He’d had a police contact at the D.C. Metro Police order it for him from Richmond so that his name would not be attached to it, just in case Padden was monitoring his activities or the report itself.

He’d seen most of it already, of course. The initial reports right after the body had been discovered in the apartment, the forensic evidence on the bullet that had killed Fagan. The fingerprinting. The blood match on Scully and Fagan throughout the apartment, which still made him wince when he thought about it.

There had been so much blood. From both of them.

He knew that more evidence would have come through, things that would have taken more time but which would do nothing but add to the picture he knew had happened in that apartment.

He replaced his glasses, stood and went to the window again, watching the traffic, the cityscape, once again. Today he found it soothing, and breathed it all in, calming himself. He didn’t resent the normal course of other people’s lives. Instead, he found hope in it.

When the knock came at the door, he was prepared.

“Come,” he called, and Kimberly opened the door, a fat envelope from FedEx in her hand.

“There’s a package for you, sir,” she said as she approached. He reached out and took it from her. He thanked her and she withdrew, closing the door behind her.

He went to the desk, placed the package in front of him. Clearing his mind so that he could look at the contents with fresh eyes, he tore into the envelope, pulled out the stack of folders, removed their rubber bands.

There were pictures of blood smears going down the corridor of an apartment, a knife stained with it, a small pool near the edge of a worn rug. A man’s body, shot through the head, a wound to the face.

It had been a hell of a fight, he thought. He was simultaneously proud of Scully for surviving and pained for what she had endured.

He picked up the first folder, opened it, scanning the report. It was the most recent information on the case, the forensic evidence that had come in later, some of it only within the last month. He hadn’t seen a lot of this, and began reading intently.

Time crawled by as he lost himself in numbers, notes.

About halfway down the fifth page, tapping his pen absently as he took in the figures of hair samples, fiber samples, additional fingerprints, a word leapt out at him.

“Semen.”

Every muscle in his body went taut. His hand unconsciously went to his forehead, cupping it in his large palm.

“Location: Living room, 7 feet 3 inches from front door. Four-point- five inches from rug edge. Non-secretor. DNA matches victim, John Brian Fagan. Sample mixed with blood, type A+. Blood sample DNA match: Dana Katherine Scully. Probable location of sexual assault/rape.”

Skinner clenched his eyes closed. The hand on his forehead curled into a fist and dropped down onto the pile of reports. Hard.

“Oh Jesus.”

He shook his head as he said it. He leaned down and cradled his head in his hands, his eyes remaining closed. Pulling in a deep breath, he forced the anger and anguish down as best he could.

It sickened him to think what she’d gone through, what she was continuing to go through.

He took some comfort in the fact that Mulder was a psychologist, but he also knew that there was little chance of her discussing the situation in any depth, even with Mulder. He’d watched her hide any sign of emotional vulnerability for as long as he’d known her. He didn’t think this would be any different. In fact, she might guard her feelings surrounding any such attack even more closely because of the personal nature of it.

But Mulder did know about it. He was certain of that. It explained Mulder’s reticence about discussing Scully’s condition, answered Skinner’s nagging questions about what the other man was withholding about her. What he was protecting.

God, and Padden probably knew about this, too. For all he knew, the entire task force knew. He hated the thought of Scully’s private anguish, the horrible violation of her, possibly being so public.

Fuck….

Skinner sat rooted in place for a minute, looking down at the report, his mind running through his options. He had to get her in, and as fast as he could.

He would suggest to Mulder that they split up, that Scully come in. That was it. He’d do everything he could to protect her with his own resources at the FBI. He knew it was risky, but he had to get her in where she could get help. He needed to get her to counselors. Doctors. Her mother. Someone.

Even as he thought these things, he knew how doomed the idea was. It would be impossible to separate them. Neither of them would agree to that. Neither of them would leave the other without protection, no matter what personal circumstances were going on. He’d watched them work this way for years.

They had — and would always have — the other’s back.

The only way to get her in would be to clear Mulder’s name and catch Curran so she wouldn’t need to protect Mulder and she herself would no longer be in danger. He needed to accomplish those two tasks as quickly as possible.

Sighing, he came to the realization that there was no way to do that on his own. He didn’t have the resources, the contacts, the access.

He needed someone who did.

He needed Granger.

Though Skinner didn’t feel he could completely trust the young agent because of the position Granger was in with Padden, he had enough evidence of Granger being on Mulder’s side to think that he might be able to get his help in clearing Mulder’s name. Granger had alluded to that himself in his office just a few days before.

Plus, he’d lied to Padden in the hospital room all those months ago about not knowing where Mulder was when he’d just been talking to him on the phone. He’d helped Mulder with the case in Richmond, despite Padden’s warnings for him not to.

It was going to take a leap of faith, Skinner thought, his hands digging deep in his pockets. Time was ticking away. There was no more of it to waste.

He reached for his cell phone in the inside pocket of his jacket, which was draped across the back of his chair. He’d long since decided the office phone couldn’t be trusted. Holding it, he pressed the intercom button for Kimberly.

“Yes, sir?” she responded immediately.

“Kimberly, I need you to find a number for me. The cell phone number for Agent Paul Granger at the CIA.”

“I’ll get right on that, sir.”

He thanked her and the light went off.

The reports stared up at him from the desk, and he couldn’t face anymore of it. Not yet.

So he went to the window once again, watched a plane make its way across the sky, a trail of white motion stretching out behind it.

His body was poised to do something. He was taut with the need to move. Instead he stood rooted in place, perfectly still. He pulled in a deep breath, let it out, and did something he was not good at doing.

He waited.

+++

LIBERTY PAWN SHOP FLAGSTAFF, ARIZONA 2:33 p.m.

Beneath the classic three-balls-suspended-on-an-arch that symbolized a pawn shop was a neon outline of the Liberty Bell, complete with a neon crack that flickered slightly in the afternoon light. Beneath that, and what Mulder was really interested in, was the familiar yellow of a Western Union sign, along with a sign advertising that checks were cashed on the premises, “no ID required.”

Just the kind of place he needed, he mused bitterly. The underbelly of society that he and Scully had begun to inhabit was starting to rub off on him. He was actually happy when he found a place that advertised things like this. It meant that anonymity was the order of the day, their faces all but ignored as they went about their business.

Scully was looking in the window at a row of musical instruments, the remnants of what looked like a salsa band. A golden trumpet hanging from its curve. A wide Mexican guitar. Prices hung like toe tags from both of them.

She was staring intently. Quiet. Still. He would have given anything to have known what she was thinking, what she’d been thinking all day. Except for responding to basically “yes” and “no” questions, she hadn’t spoken to him at all, the time on the road oppressive and filling him with a tension that he’d yet to experience, even with all these weeks of running. He hadn’t thought a new level of it possible.

But something had changed between them since last night. A shift into a darker, more distant place. It was as if she had grown smaller and smaller within her body overnight and somehow disappeared completely, leaving behind this silent shell, a husk of the woman he knew.

It filled him with a nameless dread.

The sidewalk was fairly crowded with people, tourists on their stopovers either to or from the Canyon. He and Scully blended in well – Scully in her jeans and white t-shirt, the black baseball cap firmly in place to hide her hair, a ponytail protruding from the back, him in his battered jeans and black t-shirt and denim jacket. They looked like a couple of ecotourists camping their way across the state, like a dozen other people who passed them on the sidewalk. The anonymity of the street calmed him some, made him feel strangely normal for a moment.

He went to her at the window and stood behind her. He was careful not to touch her or stand too close. She’d kept her distance from him all day, dressing in the bathroom after her shower. When he’d touched her shoulder as they walked out the door of the motel, he’d felt her tense, and would not make the same mistake again.

“You wanna pick up a guitar for the road?” he asked lightly, teasing as best he could.

No reaction. She turned to him and her eyes were far away and dull. Tired beyond anything he’d seen from her. She shook her head, nodded toward the door.

“All right,” he replied to her unspoken request that they hurry this along, though how she could be looking forward to the silence of the truck again was beyond him.

The bell jingled on the door as they entered, Scully following a few feet behind Mulder. They walked past the glass counters filled with wedding bands, gold chains, past the lines of guitars dangling by their necks from the walls. At the back there was a counter with the Western Union sign on its front. They headed for it.

A tall, muscular man was standing there, his gut balanced on the low counter. His arms were splayed out to the sides and he leaned forward leisurely, eyeing the two of them as they approached. Mulder smiled amiably.

“Can I help you?” the man asked, in the exact bored tone that Mulder had expected from him.

“Yes,” he replied, stepping up the counter. Scully had stopped just behind him, eyeing the watches in one of the displays. “We’ve had some money wired to us, under the name Tim Garrett.”

The man went to the computer on the counter’s edge, tapped on a few keys and studied the display.

“Two thousand dollars?” he asked, still bored.

“Yes,” Mulder replied, hiding his surprise. The Gunmen must be hacking into someone’s account to get that kind of money this time. He was pleased, though. They were running dangerously short on funds.

Without being asked, Mulder pulled out his wallet and pushed his fake Tennessee driver’s license across the counter. The man took it, glanced at the picture, at Mulder’s face, then wrote a few things down on a form he pulled from a stack beside the computer. Then he pushed it back across.

“I’ve got to get the money out of the safe,” he said, and Mulder watched his eyes move over Scully. And he wasn’t looking at her face. She didn’t seem to be aware of it, but it pissed Mulder off. He cleared his throat to get the man’s attention, and when he had it, he bared his teeth in an overly friendly – and warning — smile, nodded toward the back.

“Be right back,” the man said flatly, looking Mulder up and down now, as though sizing him up for a fight. Then he withdrew.

Mulder turned to Scully then, at what had drawn her attention. There were a several dozen very nice watches beneath the glass, and Scully was looking alternately at them and at the Omega she wore on her wrist. Then, seeming to come decision, she reached down and took the watch off, laid it flat on the counter.

“Your mother gave you that,” he said softly. “You don’t need to-“

“It doesn’t matter,” she said, monotone, still staring down at the watches. “We need the money.”

“But the guys have sent us more this time, enough to last until-“

Now she did turn to him with those same dull, tired eyes. “Until when? We’re out of this? I don’t think so.”

He swallowed at her tone, taken aback. There was something angry and hopeless in it. As though she’d resigned herself to a life on the run with him for the rest of her life. He didn’t like her feeling that way.

Carefully, he lay his hand next to hers on the counter, still not touching her.

“We’re going to get out of this,” he said firmly. “Soon. This isn’t going to go on forever.”

He had to believe that. To think otherwise – as he sometimes did in his most pessimistic moments – would mean taking on his guilt at his part in putting her in this position in the first place. And that was more than he could handle along with everything else.

As if in answer to those thoughts, she returned her left hand to the counter as though bracing herself, the arm trembling slightly, her thumb shaking against the glass. He wondered for a moment if she’d raised the hand on purpose, to remind him that some of this very well might go on forever. That some of it couldn’t be run from at all.

“Don’t sell your watch, Scully,” he murmured, his voice pitched low enough that no one could hear him speak her real name. “I think you’ll regret it later.”

“I’ll get another one,” she responded, her voice miles away. She wasn’t looking at him again, which frustrated him.

“But why now?” he persisted.

She turned her face a fraction away, as if she were putting him out of her sight and out of her mind. For a few seconds, he thought she might ignore the question entirely.

“Why not.”

It was said with finality, bitterly. The tone surprised him again.

The man returned from the back and Mulder reluctantly turned his attention to the Western Union countertop, stepping away from Scully.

“There you go, Mr. Garrett,” he said, and laid a stack of bills on the counter. “Now if you’ll just fill out this information here on this form for me and sign it, we’ll have you all fixed up.”

Mulder did as he was told, filling in a dummy address, telephone number. He wrote down the name that Frohike was using to send the money this time: Kurt Affair. He almost cracked a smile at that. Then he signed his false name to the receipt and pocketed the money.

Meanwhile, the man was looking at Scully, at the watch on the counter.

“You selling something, miss?” he asked, and Scully looked up at him, nodded. He came around the counter to where she was standing, picked up the watch and studied it, fingering the fine, smooth links in the band.

“Omega,” he said approvingly. “Nice.”

She nodded, all but ignoring him. “How much?”

He seemed to consider for a moment, checking the crystal for scratches, turning the beautiful watch over in his hands. “I’ll give you $150 for it.”

Mulder balked. “What?” he began, standing next to Scully now. “That watch is worth-“

“That will be fine,” she replied firmly, cutting him off. Mulder pulled in a breath, shook his head, but remained silent. The man looked from one of them to the other, his eyes studying them both, as though curious as to whether he was going to get a bit of fun and get to watch a spat.

His eyes remained on Scully’s face for a few seconds too long, his face turning to the side as he looked at her.

Mulder leaned in again, close to her but not touching her. He didn’t like anyone looking at her like that, like she was this thing to be admired. The rape had made him more aware of men’s reactions to her, and he had to say that for the most part, he didn’t like those reactions one bit.

The man took the hint and broke his gaze, then went to the register and pulled out the money. He returned and laid the hundred- and fifty- dollar bills in front of her. She took them without a word and stuffed them in her pocket.

“Pleasure doing business with you,” the man said, putting the watch in the counter display.

Mulder met his eyes as he finished lining it up with the rest of them. The man smiled back, then, as though deciding Mulder wasn’t worth it, he returned to the rear of the shop, disappearing into the back room.

Scully had already headed for the door and Mulder had to hurry to catch up with her as she returned to the sidewalk, walking briskly toward where the truck was parked. He caught up with her quickly, his long strides matching her short ones as she stared ahead of her.

“Scully.”

“I don’t want to talk about it, Mulder,” she said softly. “Let’s just go.”

He bit back his reply, frustrated. He’d never seen her like this before, so remote. She’d never pulled away like this. Not to this extent. It was like being with a stranger.

They reached the truck, parked just up from the shop on the side of the street, and she stopped at the driver’s door, reached her hand out for the keys. “I’d like to drive for a while,” she said.

He nodded, dug in his pockets for them and handed them to her. “All right. Whatever you want.”

She didn’t look at him as she took them, unlocked the door and climbed into the truck, leaving him standing there on the sidewalk. She adjusted the seat to as far forward as it would go, then swung the heavy door closed, started up the huge engine with a cough and a rumble.

With the sound, he was struck out of his frozen place. He hurried around the car, some part of him actually afraid that she might just leave without him.

+++

Back in the Liberty Pawn, the man stood before the bulletin board above the fax machine. Over it, an eagle on a poster, its wings spread wide over a set of crossed rifles, an American flag behind it.

The secret seal for the Sons of Liberty, from which the man had coined the shop’s name.

On the bulletin board, a grainy fax printout. Two pictures. A dark- haired woman and a boy, and a single shot of another woman.

The woman who’d just been in the shop, selling her expensive watch for a price that showed a level of desperation he’d grown accustomed to from people on the run.

He went back into the shop, out onto the street. He stood there for a moment, looking up and down the sidewalk.

Then he saw her in a truck going slowly by, her head and shoulder peeking above the battered door, the man with her — Tim Garrett, he’d said his name was — in the passenger seat, his face turned away.

The man watched the old Ford Bronco nudge forward as the light at the end of the street turned green, stepped out between two parked cars to get a look at the license plate as the blue truck crept away.

Tennessee. RKL-319.

He went back into the shop quickly, went back into the back room to the phone beside the fax machine. He picked up the receiver and dialed.

+++

THE TRADING POST TUBA CITY, ARIZONA NAVAJO INDIAN RESERVATION 4:35 p.m.

Scully sat in the driver’s seat, her hands on the steering wheel, precisely where they’d been when she’d stopped the truck beside the gas pumps 10 minutes ago.

She stared forward, her eyes following an elderly Navajo man being helped into the store by two younger women. He walked slowly, placing his feet with care, and the women were speaking softly to him as they walked.

The man had to be in his 90s, Scully thought. The women were most likely his granddaughters, taking the man out to do his shopping at the only store she’d seen in a hundred miles.

She glanced in the side view mirror, saw Mulder leaned against the truck, one hand on the pump, the other his pocket. Though she could not see his eyes behind his sunglasses, she could tell he was looking down at the ground, his expression troubled.

She looked away, returning her gaze to the people milling in and out of the store, a mixture of tourists and Navajos, the parking lot crowded with cars and RVs. She couldn’t look at him for too long. She couldn’t take watching the distance she’d placed between them take its toll.

Lying in bed just before dawn, she’d made her decision that the distance was the lesser of the ways that she could hurt him. Trying to be close to him seemed to force her own troubles on him, and she no longer wanted to do that. It was better that they have the space, she’d decided. That way he wouldn’t feel what she was feeling. If she spared him that, she wouldn’t have to watch his pain at what had happened to her, what she’d become, any more than she had already.

Glancing back at him once again, at the grim set of his face, she wondered about her decision. But even as she doubted herself for an instant, the memory of last night stabbed at her, her face flushing with shame.

God, how she’d wanted to just be able to just be herself with him again. To meld into him, to become part of him.

But that wasn’t going to happen. Her face hardened a bit more as she resigned herself to that conclusion.

She would not make that mistake again.

And as far as being herself with him? she thought bitterly. The person she was before was gone. She didn’t know who she was any more.

And a part of her was ceasing to care if she ever found out again.

She took her sunglasses off, resolved to her silence, and placed them on the seat beside her, then opened the door to the truck and climbed down. Mulder forced a smile at her, but it was small and nervous.

“I’ll be right back,” she said, averting her eyes. “I’ll get us something to drink.” It was the longest sentence she’d spoken to him since they’d left Flagstaff.

“All right,” he replied quietly, still pumping the gas.

She went up the stairs to the store, her gait stiff. She entered, pausing at the door to take in the place. Groceries. Garish souvenirs and postcards. A post office window in the corner. A short-order restaurant fronted by a long counter with wooden stools. People sat talking over their greasy meals. A knot of tourists sat at one end, a child playing with a rubber tomahawk that dangled red and blue feathers.

The store was clearly the hub of the tiny town, intended to offer everything for both those who lived there and those passing through. People were everywhere. It made Scully nervous, and she hurried to the cashier, leaning in so that the woman could hear her over the din.

“Where are your restrooms?” she asked.

The woman looked at her, then reached down and pulled up a large key that was connected by a chain to a large brick. The thing must have weighed five pounds.

“People keep running off with it,” the woman said, seeing Scully eyeing the thing. “We figure they’ll notice if they walk off with that in their pocket.” She smiled and her own joke. “They’re around the side. Outside.”

Scully thanked her and hefted the brick, going back out the front, making her way to the detached smaller building with its signs for women and men. She noticed Mulder paying the attendant, talking to him, no doubt asking if there were any places to stay nearby. They hadn’t seen a motel since they’d entered the reservation.

Reaching the door, she held the brick in her shaking hand as the other slid the key in and opened the door. She closed the door behind her.

After, she splashed water onto her face, rubbing at her eyes. She pulled out a paper towel and began drying herself off, her gaze drawn to her reflection in the dim florescent light.

A woman’s gaunt face stared back her. Tired eyes, dark circles beneath them.

She held still as she looked at herself. She felt tears burn her eyes, and blinked them fiercely away.

Finally, she picked up the brick, clamping down her iron control once again, and opened the door, squinting her eyes against the light.

A hand clamped down on her upper arm, yanked her hard to the right.

She was just about to scream when the man caught her around the throat with his forearm and covered her mouth with his other hand, jerking her head back hard. She moaned in pain instead.

“Keep quiet now,” the man said, his voice low and threatening. “Don’t make me hurt you any more than I have to.”

There was a car parked nearby, a driver in it, another man coming forward fast and grabbing her legs, lifting her off the ground as they hustled her toward the car’s open door. She reached up with one hand and grabbed at the arm around her neck. He was crushing her throat with his grip and with her own weight as he carried her. She couldn’t breathe.

She felt the weight of the brick in her other hand, which she’d somehow managed to hold on to. Frantically, she swung up, dangerously close to her own face, and caught the man square in the temple just over her shoulder. His grip disappeared and he dropped like a sack of grain, dropping her at the same time.

She hit the ground hard, gasped in a breath, the brick flying to the side.

“Goddamnit!” the other man swore, keeping a strong hold on her legs as she kicked hard to get away. The driver had seen what had transpired and was coming now at a run.

Scully’s vision swam, blood rushing back into her head, her hand on her sore throat. She just barely saw the blur of motion that came in from the side.

The man who had her legs was struck from the side, crashing to the ground as he released her in his surprise.

Mulder was on top of the man now, pinning him to the ground on his back. His arm swung back and he punched the man in the face viciously several times in quick succession, knocking him out cold.

Then Mulder spun, his hand going to the ankle holster he wore at the same time. In one fluid motion he was up on one knee, his gun pointed at the driver, halting him.

“Back the fuck off,” Mulder snarled. The man put his hands up and did as he was told, walking backward toward the car again a slow step at a time.

“You okay?” Mulder called, though he kept his eyes on the man in front of him.

Scully sat up quickly, shaking her head clear. “Yeah…” she said, but her voice was hoarse.

“Oh my God! That man has a gun!”

The shout came from a woman who had rounded the corner to come to the restroom. Her companions screamed in terror.

“Come on!” Mulder said, grabbing Scully by the upper arm as she scrambled to her feet. They took off at a dead run for the truck, the women at the corner pressing themselves up against the building and screaming louder as they streaked past.

People were coming out of the store now to see what the commotion was about. Scully ran to the passenger door of the Bronco as Mulder went to the driver’s, both of them flying up into their seats. Within a second, the engine roared, overrevved, to life, Mulder throwing the truck into gear and blasting out of the parking lot, a cloud of dust kicking up behind them as he bumped back onto the road and sped away.

Scully turned in the seat, looking out the back window as they headed up the highway, the truck continuing to accelerate. She coughed, her hand on her throat again.

“You sure you’re okay?” he asked, panting.

She was heaving in breaths herself, her eyes still trained behind them.

“Yeah…yeah…” she said between breaths. Her voice sounded like it had sand in it. “Bruised…” She forced herself to swallow painfully. “But I’m okay.”

The truck roared as Mulder continued to accelerate, pushing the old engine up past 80 now, the desert streaming by.

A tense few minutes passed, the only sounds their labored breathing and the V8.

Finally Scully turned around in her seat, pulled her cap off with one hand, pushed back her hair from her face.

“They didn’t…they didn’t follow us,” she said, forcing herself to calm down. “Mulder, slow down…they’re not coming.”

Mulder seemed unconvinced as he pressed down on the accelerator harder, rocketing them out of the town and into the high desert, heading blindly for the red mountains and desolation in the distance.

+++

CHAPTER 8.

+++

13 DUNKIRK AVENUE VIENNA, VIRGINIA 9:38 p.m.

Skinner made his way up the walkway that led to the apartment building, the lit stone path shining with the evening’s rain. It was a brownstone building, not too large, not too nice, and it fit the image that Skinner had of Granger, seemed the kind of place the young agent would live. Granger wouldn’t splurge, Skinner thought, but he wouldn’t skimp, either. The building reminded him of Scully’s that way.

Even at this late hour, people were coming and going through the front doors, a Friday night party pulsing with music going on somewhere on the first floor. He could see the moving shadows of the party goers behind the curtains on one of the ground floor windows. He was glad for the party – it made him less conspicuous should anyone be watching the place.

He brushed past a couple coming out of the building, cigarettes already being lit up as they stepped into the misty rain. He went into the foyer beyond and more signs of taste greeted him. Hardwood floors, a large tasteful rug in the foyer just beneath the brass mailboxes.

He was looking for apartment 3E, and went to the elevator at the end of the foyer. The doors opened immediately and he stepped in, took his glasses off and cleaned them on the bottom of his black turtleneck as he rode up, replacing them once he’d cleared away the dots of rain.

The apartment was at the end of the hallway, an oriental runner leading the way toward the window and the door just beside it. He knocked. Waited. He looked up and down the deserted corridor as he did so.

Granger unlocked and opened the door after a brief moment, though to Skinner it felt like a long time. Granger wore jeans, a black sweater with the sleeves pushed up, no shoes. He wasn’t as nervous as Skinner expected he would be, or as formal.

“Sir,” the younger man said by way of greeting, and stood back immediately to allow Skinner to enter. Skinner did, and Granger closed the door behind him, turned the lock.

Skinner moved from the small entrance hallway into the apartment beyond, his eyes adjusting to the dimness of the room he entered. It was small living room, simply furnished but with pieces that looked carefully chosen and nicely made. An overstuffed dark green couch. A squat black leather chair and ottoman. Dark wood for the tables and the cabinet that held the television, which was on, the sound turned down low. Metal lamps with off-white shades, the one by the couch the only one on in the room. An oriental rug on the floor — real, looking worn and antique. Black and white photographs on the walls. A painting of bare trees on the far wall, a lone figure walking a path between them.

The kitchen was beside it, separated from the larger room by a long half-wall topped with a wooden counter. Pots hung from a rack suspended from the ceiling. A hallway led toward two darkened doorways in the back of the apartment, and the shades and curtains were drawn on the windows.

The place was warm and cave-like and smelled like tea.

“Please,” Granger said, coming up behind Skinner, who had stopped and was shouldering out of his jacket. “Have a seat.”

Skinner lay the coat across the back of the leather chair and sat. He glanced at the television — hockey was playing. Skinner looked from the television back to Granger, who was taking his place on the couch and reaching for the remote.

“I didn’t know the Flyers were playing tonight,” Skinner said.

Granger gave a small embarrassed smile as he flicked off the television. “Last year’s playoffs on tape,” he said. “I keep hoping if I watch them enough times they’ll end differently.”

Skinner grunted. “Good team,” he said, doing his best to be casual, though he was so keyed up it was difficult to pull off.

“Yeah,” Granger replied, replaced the remote on the coffee table.

There was an awkward moment of quiet.

“Did you call those people I asked you to?” Skinner said vaguely.

“Yes,” Granger replied. “The place is clean, from what they said.”

“Good,” Skinner replied quietly. “Thank you for doing that.”

Granger shook his head as if in disbelief. “I could make career out of two of those guys if I’d gone into private practice,” he replied. “They could only be friends of Mulder’s.”

Skinner nodded. “Yeah, they are. They’re good help.”

Granger put his elbows on his knees and regarded Skinner seriously.

“I must admit,” he began, seeming to choose his words with care, “that I was surprised when you called me. You made it seem like you didn’t want me near you at the FBI the other day. That I couldn’t be trusted.”

Skinner looked toward the windows, clenched his teeth, nodded. “Yes, I did make it seem that way,” he said, then turned his attention back to the other man. “But I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t really have anywhere else to turn except you.”

“Thanks. I think.” Granger said it dryly.

“Agent Granger, you have to understand that I would have some misgivings.”

“I understand that you would,” Granger replied. “But you also know that I believe Mulder is innocent of these charges. That given that belief I would be doing everything in my power to clear him. And I’ve given you information already to help he and Scully avoid capture by the task force that I’m supposed to be working on. I don’t know what else I can do to convince you of my intentions.”

Skinner nodded. “That’s why I’m here,” he said bluntly, but he looked away as he spoke, avoiding the other man’s intense gaze. “You’ve convinced me.”

Granger leaned back slightly, studied Skinner for a few seconds.

“I don’t think so,” Granger said, shaking his head. “You have changed your mind, but not because of me. Something’s happened to make you change your mind, to make you risk talking to me.”

Skinner felt color rise in his cheeks.

“I can tell something’s different,” Granger persisted.

Just my luck, Skinner thought wryly. I have to try and be evasive with the best profiler at the CI-fucking-A….

“Yes,” he said finally through gritted teeth. “Something’s happened.”

“Are they all right?” Granger asked instantly, leaning forward, his voice lowered but weighted with concern.

Skinner hesitated, still unable to look at Granger. He warred with his instincts, one that told him it was imperative to tell what he knew and one that warned him against it, the latter a knee-jerk, like an old habit he was having a hard time breaking.

Christ, he thought. Somewhere along the way he’d gotten as paranoid as he’d always accused Mulder of being. The thought amused him in a gallows-humor sort of way.

“If we’re going to get anything done on this, sir, we’re going to have to tell each other what we know.” Granger’s voice was still low, but frustrated now. Urgent.

Skinner heaved out a frustrated breath, nodded and finally spoke. “As far as I know, they’re all right,” he said. “As much as the circumstances allow, that is.”

“So you have been in contact with them.”

“Yes. Since Tennessee.” The words still came from him haltingly, quietly. “Though I never know their exact location. Mulder won’t risk revealing that.”

“Well, four days ago they were in El Centro, California,” Granger said, and leaned down, drawing up a briefcase from beside the coffee table.

Skinner froze. “The task force knows this?”

Granger shook his head, rummaging through the briefcase and pulling out a folder. He handed it to Skinner.

“No, they don’t,” Granger said. “Only I do.”

Skinner looked at him in confusion, still alarmed, and Granger nodded toward the folder. Skinner opened it, looked at the picture clipped to the inside.

His hand came up, a finger covering his mouth. Otherwise he was still.

The tension between Mulder and Scully radiated from the scratchy surveillance photo. And Scully…

God…

“What’s wrong with Scully?” Granger asked, concern in his voice. Skinner knew the younger man must have read the anguish in his reaction, despite his attempt at hiding it.

Skinner didn’t take his eyes from the photo as he spoke. “She was exposed to Owen Curran’s drug,” he said, his voice flat.

“Jesus…”

He hurried to continue. “She made it through the withdrawal and she’s okay, but there have been some residual effects.”

He nodded toward the photo.

“As you can see.” He shook his head, let out a deep, tired breath. “Mulder won’t go into any specifics about what they are, but seeing this…”

He could sense Granger studying him again in the beat of silence that followed.

“There’s something else then,” Granger urged. “Something you didn’t know before that’s made bringing them in more urgent.”

Again Skinner hesitated. “Yes,” he said at last, and now he did look at Granger. “Have you looked at the police report from Mae Curran’s apartment recently?”

Granger seemed confused by the turn in the conversation, but nodded. “Yes, I just looked at the task force’s copy yesterday in fact. To see if anything else had come in.”

Skinner locked eyes with the other man. “And? Had anything new come in?”

Granger seemed more confused, and shook his head. “No,” he said. “Not that I saw. Why?”

“Nothing in there…” He had to force himself to say it. “…about evidence of a rape.”

Granger’s mouth came open in shock, his eyes widening. Then his mouth closed, his expression sad. “God no,” he said quietly. “Nothing like that.”

“Well, there’s one good thing I can say about that son-of-a-bitch Padden,” Skinner said, bitter. “He’s keeping that quiet from the whole goddamn world.”

“Apparently so,” Granger said, his tone matching Skinner’s, though his expression remained stricken. “He seems to be pretty selective about information, so I’m not surprised. For once that instinct was right.”

Then Granger seemed to breathe the ire about Padden out, relenting, and his voice softened again. “God, I’m so sorry for her,” he said, shaking his head. “I won’t mention this to anyone. She’ll never know that I know.”

“I appreciate that, Agent Granger,” Skinner replied formally. “I had to tell you to find out what the task force knows or I wouldn’t be talking about it myself.”

“I understand,” Granger said. “I see now why you came to me. Her situation is more dire than you thought.”

“Yes.”

They sat in a heavy silence for another moment. Skinner noticed a clock ticking somewhere in the room.

“What do you want me to do?” Granger asked finally.

Skinner had never been so glad to hear that phrase in his life.

“I’ll be talking to them again in a couple of days,” he said, and the words came quickly now. This part he knew. “I’m going to tell them what you told me — that they need to find a place to hole up for a while. In fact, I’m in the process of making arrangements for that place right now. What I need from you is help diverting attention from where I’m going to send them.”

“I take it,” Granger gestured toward the folder still in Skinner’s hands. “that you’re not going to be sending them to the area around El Centro, California.”

Skinner smirked a bit at that. “No,” he replied. “Far from it.”

Granger nodded, leaned back against the back of the couch. “So you want me to wait until you speak to them, give them a day or so, and then suddenly come up with that picture for the task force to throw them on the wrong trail.”

Skinner looked at the man for a reaction, but Granger gave none. He knew he was asking Granger to do something that would ruin any chance the young agent could have at a career in law enforcement for the rest of his life.

“Can you do that without putting yourself at too much risk?” Skinner asked.

He was relieved when Granger considered for a few seconds and then nodded.

“Yes. I get stacks of possible sightings of them and Curran every day. I’ll just pretend it came in a current stack. No one will be able to tell when it got to me. We get so many.”

“All right,” Skinner said, pleased. That part was taken care of. Between the two of them, they could keep Padden away from Mulder and Scully until he could tuck them away.

He just hoped the place he planned on putting them would come through.

“I’ve been working on a couple of things,” Granger said, interrupting his thoughts. “Things about verifying where Mulder was during some of the times that Padden is trying to say he could have been meeting with the Path.”

“Yes, that’s what this is going to take,” Skinner said. “We’re not going to be able to take this out with one blow. We’re going to have to chip away at it, a little piece of information at a time.”

Granger nodded. “Yes, and I might have a small piece. I’m trying to find a woman named Nancy Rand who was working at the gate where Scully was supposed to board the plane to Boston, to see if she can ID Mulder from the gate area. She’s left the airline and I’m having a hard time tracking her down, but I’ll find her.”

“Good,” Skinner replied. “That’s good. Another big piece of this is those two days Mulder was gone in January. January 12-13. That was right before the bombing and is one of the more damaging pieces of Padden’s case against Mulder — that he would leave the task force in Richmond without telling anyone like that, and be so cagey about where he’d been, even to you. We need to find out where he was during that time, as well.”

“Yeah, Padden’s been all over that with me,” Granger said, his frustration clear in his tone. “I could never give him a good enough answer because I didn’t know anything myself.”

“I’ll see what I can do about that,” Skinner continued. “I’ll ask Mulder about it and see if there’s some way to support what he tells me. I haven’t been talking about any of this with him yet. I’ve been too worried about our contact being monitored to get into anything like that with him. But we’ll have to risk it.”

He looked down at the photograph again, at Scully’s thin face. He shook his head.

“We’ve got to do something. And soon.”

He handed the folder back to Granger. The younger man stared a hole in the photograph for a moment. Skinner watched and concern pricked him.

“You sure you’re up for this?” he asked.

Granger didn’t look up. “We could go to jail for this,” he said, his voice softer and touched with disbelief. “Everything both of us have worked for…just gone.”

Skinner’s jaw pulsed. “Yes.” He said it without apology.

After a few more seconds, he asked Granger the same question again.

“Yeah,” Granger replied, and closed the folder. “Yeah, I’m in.”

+++

OFF RESERVATION ROUTE 58 HOPI INDIAN RESERVATION 11:35 p.m.

One thing that Scully could never quite get used to was that the desert, so warm during the day, could be so cold at night, the ground so barren and the blank slate of black above it so unforgiving that the earth itself seemed unable to hold even the smallest bit of warmth.

She curled closer around herself in the back of the Bronco, tucking herself deeper into the sleeping bag, pressing her face closer into the small camp pillow they’d bought at an outdoor store weeks ago. Her hand rested near the butt of her Sig beside her.

She was on her side on the pushed down back of the rear seat, which they’d dropped down to allow them both to stretch out, Mulder lying beside her. There was a small space between them.

It wasn’t often they were forced to sleep in the truck, but they’d bought the supplies just in case the need arose. The few times they had done it, they had zipped the bags together, making one large sack that they both slept in, pressed against each other for warmth. But this night when she’d settled in after doing her ablutions as best she could and changing her clothes outside the truck, she’d simply unstuffed her bag from its sack and slipped inside, turning toward the marred side window without a word.

Mulder had said nothing and had done the same, but she knew the slight was not lost on him. She could feel it in his silence.

They were far out on a dirt road off the rural route they’d been driving on, a remote area on this, one of the poorest reservations. Mulder had driven for a good ten minutes off the paved road, following the twisting near-trail over a small rise and parking beside a small thatch of scraggly trees. It was too dark to see much outside, though the full moon had cast a pale golden glow through the trees as she’d stood beneath them, layered in bunting and sweats. She’d brushed her teeth with the help of an old Army surplus canteen full of metal-tasting water. Nearby, Mulder had done the same, finishing up and then pulling layers of clothes out of his suitcase for warmth.

They had said little for hours, but not because of what was between them, really. It was more that they were both completely exhausted, the adrenaline rush of the afternoon giving way sometime around dark to a fatigue so complete that she’d been forced to keep an eye on Mulder to make sure he didn’t fall asleep at the wheel.

They’d crisscrossed side roads off the main highway, trying to stay away from the few towns on the map. That was one of the problems with the area they were in. There were only so many places a person could actually stop to get what they needed, and putting people at all of them wouldn’t be that much of an expenditure of manpower. Though they’d stopped once without incident for gas at one small town, they hadn’t stopped again until now.

Behind her, Mulder shifted, his breathing slow, signalling his impending sleep. Usually she took great comfort in that sound. But not tonight.

She put a hand to her bruised throat, worrying it with her fingers. Her lids were heavy, her eyes slowly losing their focus on the view outside the window, the curve of stars across the dome above her.

Who were those men?

Certainly hired by Curran — she had to trust that even Padden wouldn’t attempt to bring her home with that kind of force. Plus, it seemed more likely that Padden’s men would take Mulder before they’d take her.

But who?

Were there only three of them — bounty hunters out for quick money – – or were there more? The men were American, or at least the two who’d spoken were, so it probably wasn’t Path. Some other group, someone Curran had had dealings with, perhaps…

Mae had told Mulder that Owen had “long arms,” even in the U.S. That she was fleeing the country to escape this fact, and had urged Mulder and her to do the same…

Too tired…

Her lids slipped shut, her fingers still moving absently across her throat for a moment. Then they grew still.

+++

And then she was swimming, deep, light filtering through the surface in streaming beams, reaching for the bottom, which she could not see in the blue beneath her. The surface was dozens of meters away, and she glided smooth through the water.

Her lungs drew in huge breaths of water, breathed them out, her arms pulled her along. On one pull through the water, her legs fluttering effortless behind her, she caught sight of a scrap of gold on her left ring finger, a band shot with what appeared to be tiny diamonds. They caught the light and held it as she swam, the world heavy and liquid and filled with faint echoes rippling through water.

A huge school of silver fish appeared below her, their tails twitching in near unison as they moved along. She watched them for a moment, then turned and swam deeper, joining them. They parted just enough to let her in amongst them, turning, angling away from her body. She could see strands of her hair float within her vision as she kept pace with them, their tin wide eyes following her, their mouths opening and closing as though they were all speaking at once in a silent language she couldn’t understand.

Slowly they turned and formed a circle, moving around her in a spiral stretching toward the bottom, like a slow tornado of silver bodies swirling around her. She stopped in the center, felt their small bodies, hundreds, brush against her fingertips as she reached out toward the wall of them surrounding her.

She drew in another deep breath, the sound in her ears, echoing, hollow sounds, as though she were breathing low rumbles of thunder underwater.

She hung, suspended, nothing but blue above her and below, the spiral of silver around her, all of it weightless, sunlight dancing on her skin from the surface far above her…

The harsh sun as she exited the bathroom. An arm across her throat, jerking her back against the hard shape of a body, warm harsh breath on her ear…

Fagan’s hands on her throat, squeezing, lifting her slightly against the sink, her hand groping for the cold handle of the knife as the other clawed at his wrist…

Breathe she couldn’t breathe she couldn’t breathe

Her head smashing against the hardwood floor, hands pushing at her robe. His body flat against her back, the long bone of his arm pinning her neck back…

The man lifting her, carrying her, a hand across her mouth and nose. She sucked in for air and got nothing but skin, the taste of salt…

Salt in her lungs. Sea water burning down her throat as she inhaled, choking now, bubbles of air appearing before her face and racing upward. She screamed, the sound muffled, otherworldly…

She shot for the surface, the fish scattering in alarm. She could see it above her. A bluish light she struggled toward, her arms clawing out in front of her, leaving trails of tiny bubbles like motion.

Her vision hazed from lack of oxygen. The brick in her hand, swinging back, blindly.

The knife swinging forward, the sound of metal on teeth. A scream of outrage. Pain.

The surface was just a few feet away. Her hand reached up to break the surface, her lungs burning…

Her hand hit hard on something cold. Bluish white. Flat and smooth against her palm.

Ice. The surface was ice.

Her head knocked up against it as she fought the instinct to pull in a breath. She skittered along the underside, arms flailing, searching for a break, a crack, a weak spot, anything.

Her face pressed against the thick surface, she opened her mouth and screamed.

+++

Mulder’s sleep was dead, his mind completely empty, his body perfectly still.

That didn’t stop him from shooting into a sit the instant the sound began, the hoarse scream tearing around the interior of the truck’s cabin.

His eyes were wide, his hand going for the gun beside him without him even thinking of it. He pulled in a panicked breath and his eyes shot toward Scully beside him.

She thrashed as though the sleeping bag were squeezing down on her, her left hand up on the window, her nails scratching across the glass as her arm shook violently, its tremble only slightly greater than that of the rest of her body. The hand turned into a fist and slammed against the glass.

“Scully!” He put the gun down, scooted over to her, put a hand out and grasped her wrist. His own arm shook with the force of her tremor.

“Calm down…calm down…”

She pulled in a harsh breath, gasping, hyperventilating from the sounds of it, screamed again, this time the word “no,” high and shrill and terrified. She jerked her arm away from his grasp, her hand fumbling out in front of her blindly, her eyes still clenched closed.

Her fingers grazed the butt of her Sig. She grasped it quickly, the other hand joining it as she hefted the thing, her finger on the trigger instantly, lifting–

“NO!” Mulder said, loud, and threw himself out of his sleeping bag, flattened his body on top of hers, his hand going for the gun. Her grip was iron, her strength adrenaline- and terror-fueled, and Mulder had to slam her hands down on the floor of the truck to keep her from raising the weapon.

“Scully, no!” He tried to keep his voice calm, but it was hard to muster under the circumstances. “Let go…just let it go…”

She didn’t listen, her breath wheezing, too fast. He did manage to get her shaking left hand off the gun, the finger off the trigger. Then he pulled that arm in against her body and held it there with one of his own. He grasped the Sig with the other, grappling with her. Finally he got it away from her, clicked over the safety with a finger and tossed it haphazardly toward the tailgate.

“Get off! Get them off me!” she shrieked, and he knew he must be crushing her, his chest flat against her upper arm and back, pinning her to the floor and holding her arms in against her body. She screamed it again, desperate, jerking violently in his hold.

Keeping her arms against her with one forearm as she struggled, he rolled until he was behind her now, pushed an arm beneath her body and pulled her back to his chest, his arms pressing her elbows to her sides. Her breathing was still shallow, stentorious. He put his cheek against her head, his lips close to her ear, stilling her thrashing head as best he could.

Her nails sunk into his forearms where his sleeves had pushed up, her fingers curled like claws, raking up skin, drawing blood. He winced, but held on.

“Okay…” He was panting now himself. He pressed a kiss to her ear, shushing her.

She kicked back at him with her legs and he got one knee over them to protect his shins and groin.

“I can’t breathe…” Her voice was high, reedy, filled with air as she gasped.

“You know what to do, Scully…we can do this together…listen to my voice now.” He tightened his hold as she thrashed again. “Twenty…nineteen…”

She was crying now. “God, I can’t…can’t breathe…”

“Eighteen…seventeen…sixteen…”

“He’s…he’s crushing my throat…” A sob. Her arm shook harder against his, her nails still digging in. She pulled in a desperate breath.

He kissed her lobe again, holding her tighter. “Fifteen…fourteen…come on, Scully…come with me…”

He kept counting, felt her back heave against his chest. Slowly her breathing grew deeper as her tears came freely.

“Eleven..”

Then finally, she answered: “Ten,” pulled in a deeper ragged breath.

“Nine…eight…come on…” He whispered it into her ear, felt her begin to relax, her body softening as she breathed more easily now, her hands relaxing some.

“Seven,” she choked out. “Six…”

“Five,” they said in unison, and their voices melded together through the last of it, Scully still breathing hard but calmer now. As they reached “one,” he loosened his grip on her until she simply lay in his arms, pulled his leg back until it rested behind hers.

“You’re okay,” he said softly. “Everything’s all right.”

They lay still for several minutes.

Then he could feel her coming back to herself. He could tell by the way her hands pulled away from his arms, how her legs came up and away from his. She pushed her head from beneath his, bending her head down and away, and he lay his own behind hers, feeling the distance set back in.

It was as if she’d placed him in a skiff and gave him a slow push off her shore.

She scrubbed at her eyes, her hand shaking as she pushed her hair off her face.

He sighed in the quiet that followed. She allowed him to hold her still, but he knew it was only to spare his feelings. Not because she wanted him to. The thought made him ache inside.

“Everything’s all right,” he said again, and this time he was trying to convince himself as much as her.

Then, as if in answer, footsteps outside the truck. A horse coming nearer.

He pulled away from her, rolled toward his gun, heard her sharp intake of breath at the sound. He picked up the pistol, turned carefully around so that he was facing the back of the truck now, the gun in front of him.

The horse stopped. Then the heavy sound of someone leaping down and landing on both feet. The sound of walking, then a dim shape outside the back window, a beam of a flashlight dancing through the foggy glass.

Neither he or Scully seemed to be breathing. They were frozen still.

A knock on the window.

“You in there,” a man’s voice said sharply. “Open up.”

Mulder kept still. A drop of sweat raced down his temple despite the chill.

“I heard you in there all the way from half a mile away. I know you’re in there. Now open up.”

Mulder lay the hand that held the gun down on the floor, edged closer to the door and turned the handle to the back window slowly, the gun aimed at the tailgate. He pushed the window open, the man standing back as it swung out and up.

Mulder looked out, squinting in the beam of the flashlight the man shone right in his face. Mulder put a hand up to shield his eyes. He could make out the man’s face dimly — Native American. Late fifties. Jacket. Plaid shirt. A shotgun in the hand that didn’t hold the flashlight.

“What the hell you doing out here?” the man asked.

“We…we were just stopping to sleep for the night,” Mulder replied. “There was no place to stay, so we–“

“You’re 100 feet from where my sheep are penned,” the man interrupted. “You’re not welcome to stop here.”

“We won’t be any trouble,” Mulder said, and there was a hint of pleading in his voice. He couldn’t face the road again so soon. “Just for tonight–“

“You’ve already been trouble,” the man grumbled in reply. “I had to come out here to see who the hell you are. This is my land. You’re not welcome here. Get back on the road and get on out of here.” He hefted the shotgun for effect.

“All right,” Mulder said. His hand held tight to the gun in case the man followed up his words. “We’ll be on our way.”

The man made a small affirmative sound in his throat, a grunt. “You want some place to stay get off the Hopi reservation. We don’t like people staying here.”

“All right,” Mulder said again, and the man turned, going toward the horse that stood a few feet from the truck, its grey back bathed in moonlight. The man swung himself up into the saddle, gave the horse a nudge with his heels, and turned and walked slowly away.

Mulder wiped his forehead with his hand, releasing a breath. He sat up straighter, pulled the window back down and closed it. Behind him, he could hear Scully starting to breathe again herself.

“I’ll drive,” she said, began to sit up. He put a hand out to stop her.

“No, I’ll do it,” he said softly, resigned. “You stay back here and try to get some sleep. I’ll find us somewhere to go.”

“But you’re exhausted, Mulder,” she said, looking at him with concern and a touch of exasperation. “You were falling asleep at the wheel before.”

“I’m all right,” he said, and shifted toward the front of the truck. He climbed over the seat, took his place behind the wheel.

“Mulder–“

“You can relieve me in a couple of hours if I can’t find a place by then, okay?” he offered peevishly, cutting her off. They were both in strung out shape. There was nothing to be gained by having a contest about who was worse off at this point, and he was too tired to argue.

“All right,” she said, and her voice sounded very far away. He hadn’t meant to silence her quite so harshly.

He shook his head, regretting it.

He placed the gun beside him on the seat. His bare feet reached for the cold pedals and he turned the ignition, the truck coming to life. He shook himself awake harder, squeezing the steering wheel tightly. Then he flicked on the headlights, threw the truck into gear, turned and crept down the dirt road, the headlights doing little to cut through the darkness around them.

+++

CHAPTER 9.

+++

THE ISABELLA BAHIA SAN JORGE MARCH 24 6:12 a.m.

The nets dragged deep. They strained against their braces as the ship rose and fell on the sea, a spray of foamy water coming up as the bow slapped down against the waves heading into the Point. The air was filled with the sounds of water and creaking wood, the ubiquitous sound of the seagulls that followed the boat, hoping for the leavings once the nets were pulled in.

Joe Porter stood at the bow, a plastic mug filled with chicory coffee in his hands. He turned his face away as the spray washed over him, over the yellow slicker he wore, the top gaping open to reveal the high loose matching pants that hung from their red suspenders, his battered white t-shirt. Pushing his wet hair out of his face, he returned his gaze to the shore, his eyes squinting against the sharp beams of light coming up from the sun as it dawned. The sky burned orange as though it were on fire.

Behind him, the Mexican fishermen were laughing over a game of cards. Even when they laughed, he mused, they laughed in Spanish. They were all waiting for the boat to finish this circuit, waiting for the nets to be pulled in. This was his favorite time. The waiting. The heavy smell of the sea and the shrimp already hauled in, the bitter coffee in his hands. His head was clearer out here. It gave him time to think, though sometimes the thoughts pained him.

This morning that was the case. He was thinking about California, the last terrible weeks he’d spent there. He thought about the sleepless nights he’d given over to the partying and the drug, the heroin sending a warm rush into his arm as he pushed the needle down in the bathroom stalls of a dozen clubs. The music pounding through the walls. The money exchanged, both into and out of his hands, with a dozen strangers every night. And then leaving alone to walk the warm streets, lost, feeling both the best and worst he ever had in his life. The drug made sure of that.

The morning he’d come home to find the police moving in and out of his apartment just before dawn, he’d known that life was finally at an end. Though he’d been terrified at the sight, a part of him was relieved, welcomed the end to the space his life had placed between him and the rest of the world, the way it had turned everyone around him into convenient acquaintances, the drug the only thing that passed for connection with anyone in his life.

Without stopping, he’d driven his Jeep right by his apartment and headed south, his wallet and pockets stuffed full with cash from the night’s dealings, his head still humming, the world gauzed from his lingering high. He had enough product to keep him going for awhile. Enough to wean himself off if he was careful. And lucky.

Then the long drive through the desert, down past San Diego and across the border by midday, through Tijuana and Mexicali, skirting the Arizona border to Sonoita and then west to the Point, perched right on the Gulf.

Then the nights of shivering in the dingy motel room as the drug ran out. The pain, the screaming need of his body, lying all night drenched with sweat, shaking, caught in fitful, fevered dreaming. He hadn’t gone out, even to eat, for days as the drug worked its way out of his system like a slow and painful burning.

When it was over he vowed to never go back. He’d gone out, still weak, into the town and gotten a job, a place to live on his dwindling money, and begun this new life. Quiet. Simple. Solitary.

Until now. He gave a small smile to the thought.

The sun coming in warm now, he pulled off the slicker and tossed it near the wheel house, took a sip of his coffee. On his tanned arms, the needle scars stood out like pink and white tattoos, like points on a map following the battered veins down toward his wrists. He would carry the scars of that life forever.

The physical, at least. Some other part of him was coming back to life. Healing over. All he had to do was think about her and he could feel that part of him, a tough bud, opening.

“Oye!” the captain called, coming out from the wheelhouse. The engine rumbled into idle and the boat slowed, buffeted harder by the waves as its forward motion waned. “Estn subiendo las redes!”

Time for the nets to come in.

Joe didn’t move right away, though the captain was already throwing the wench into motion, the rope that held the nets off the side of the boat like great wings grinding over the pulleys, wood and metal whining. Everyone on the deck sprang into motion, grabbing small wooden rakes, pulling on thick gloves that covered all the way to their forearms. Rubber boots squeaked on the deck.

“You, too, El Callado.” The captain, Esteban, slapped Joe on the shoulder as he passed him on the way to the bow, a good-natured smile on his face. Joe smiled back at the name he’d been given by the captain and crew — “Quiet One.” He really did do much to keep to himself.

He put his coffee down against the side, went for his gloves and rake, as well, joined the men on either side of the boat.

The sea foamed as the nets were brought up. They rose heavy and dark from the water, men with grappling hooks snagging them and pulling them over the wide stern. Then, with the pull of a handle, the ropes released, the catch slapping to the deck in a huge heap of shine and motion.

Joe moved in with the rest, first using his rake to push away the frantic crabs, reaching down and tossing them over the side back into the sea. The shrimp they sought lay in huge clumps, barely moving amongst the blankets of shocked silver fish. The men worked quickly, pulling the fish out and sending them over the side, as well, seagulls drawing neat parabolas in the air to catch them before they hit the safety of the surface.

A small shark lay in the middle of it all, thrashing, its mouth desperately drawing in useless air. Joe went to it immediately, grasped the thick tail with both hands and threw it over the side.

It was a good catch. Several hundred pounds of shrimp. The boat would earn out its trip between this load and the three previous. The men would get paid. Everyone was in good spirits as they worked because of this.

Someone started a song and the men picked it up. Joe smiled but did not join in, though he knew the song well. It was about a sailor coming in from the sea. The men’s voices rose and fell over the clatter of claws, rakes; the wet slap of fish hitting the water; the engine rumbling.

The sun continued to rise, a golden eye.

The catch secured, they headed back to port, the men smoking, singing, clustered at the stern, their legs dangling over the sides.

Joe stood apart from them as he always did, up near the bow again so he could watch the port edge closer. He thought of her again. Her beautiful face. The blue of her eyes. The tiny smile she gave him as she looked away when she caught him watching her.

It seemed to him she’d been wanting to be closer to him lately. They’d spent the night together again last night. He’d slipped from the bed hours before dawn, leaving her there, her soft, nude body bathed in moonlight. It had been all he could do to leave.

He was still troubled by her secrets. But there was a warmth to her now, a slow opening to him that hadn’t been there before.

He knew he was in love with her. And he thought she might be falling in love with him, as well. Thinking this, he, too, warmed inside. He felt less empty somehow. As though he were somehow emerging from the brittle shell of his past.

He watched the land approach, looming nearer now. Other boats were already back with their catches, men swarming the pier, trucks honking, a bustle of movement everywhere he looked.

Two men came forward and grabbed the ropes that would secure the Isabella to the dock once again. Joe stepped out of the way, scanning the dock

No, he corrected himself. There wasn’t movement everywhere.

Mae stood perfectly still in the center of a swirl of activity, a maelstrom of men carrying crates of shrimp, holding huge gutted fish by the tails. Her hair was pulled back, and her pale skin was luminous in the morning light. Sean was with her, standing against her leg, watching the activity around him with a child’s interest.

Joe looked at her and their eyes locked, their gazes hanging. She gave him that same shy smile, looked away, then back up at him again, something pleased and tentative in her eyes.

He gave her a tender smile in return, raised a hand to her as the boat touched gently in to shore.

+++

FRY CANYON, UTAH HIGHWAY 95 8:36 a.m.

Scully pulled herself back toward consciousness and the effort was like dragging her body out of sand, her sleep had been so complete. Her face was cold, the rest of her warm within the sleeping bag, and she pulled the flap of it up and over the side of her head, willing the chill away.

She opened her eyes then. Something was different. The lull of the tires rolling on pavement was gone now, the truck still. Sunlight was coming in through the dirty side windows of the Bronco, and she could make out the shape of a gas station canopy out the window, a loud sign advertising a two-liter bottle of Coke for 99 cents. Then the sound of liquid rushing into the truck somewhere at her feet, the hiss of gas entering the huge tank.

She sat upright quickly, orienting herself, and saw Mulder leaning with his back against the tailgate, his head bowed forward. He wasn’t moving, his shoulders sagging within his denim jacket, the hood of the sweatshirt he wore beneath it pressed against the dingy glass.

She wondered what time it was. Early, she gathered, from the way the sunlight glowed on the horizon in the distance out the front windshield.

The memory of the night before came back to her now, seeming a lifetime ago. She ran it over in her mind, the images suffocating her until she pushed them away. She remembered Mulder’s conversation with the man out the back of the truck, then him crawling over the seat, promising to wake her in two hours if he didn’t find a place to stay by then.

Thinking all this, she returned her gaze to Mulder, and ire started to rise in her. He hadn’t woken her up as they’d agreed. She’d bet anything he’d driven all night while she slept, not stopping or even looking for a place to stop.

She disentangled herself from the sleeping bag, the morning chill of the truck’s cabin hitting her full on. It was too early for the sun to have warmed anything yet, the desert still cold and still from the night. She edged closer to the tailgate and knocked on the window at Mulder’s back.

He jumped at the sound as though she’d startled him awake, then turned around and stepped back as she opened the back window.

“Good morning,” he said softly. He did not smile. His face didn’t seem up for it. His eyes were deeply rimmed in red, smudges beneath his eyes. He looked like he hadn’t slept in a week.

“Why didn’t you wake me up?” she asked by way of greeting, her voice still sleepy but with a sharp edge to it.

He shrugged. “I thought it would be good for you to sleep,” he said gently. “I could handle it. I was pretty awake.”

She shook her head, and now the exasperation did touch her voice. “You could have fallen asleep at the wheel, Mulder, especially without me there to keep you up. It was dangerous and it was stupid.”

He seemed taken back by her tone and her words. “I didn’t think it was a big deal,” he offered, shifting his weight from one foot to the other uncertainly. “I’m sorry, Scully.”

She reached over for her suitcase, unzipped it hard and pulled out her small toiletries bag. “You’re not sorry,” she grumbled. “I’m sick of you trying to shelter me, Mulder. We’re partners, before we’re anything else. I’m still an FBI agent, for God’s sake, and I expect to be treated like one. Not like a child who needs coddling.”

“Scully, I know you’re my partner. But you’ve been hurt badly and have been very sick,” Frustration leaked into his voice, as well. “I mean, Jesus, look at what you’ve been through –“

She glared at him, pinning him. There was a warning in her eyes and she could tell from the way he swallowed down the rest of what he was going to say that he saw it.

“What I’ve been through has nothing to do with this,” she said dismissively.

“It has everything to do with it,” he said instantly, and he was angry now. “You may be trying to pretend like it doesn’t, but I’ve been with you for weeks now and I’ve seen the toll this has taken on you. Hell, the toll it’s taken on both of us. If there’s anything I can do to try and alleviate that, I’m going to damn well do it. Especially if it’s something as simple as driving for a few extra hours so you can rest.”

His words stung her. She felt herself flush at what he’d said about the effect this was having on him. It was the first time he’d said anything like that aloud.

After a few seconds, she pulled herself together, anger simmering in her along with the blossoming guilt and shame.

“Then do these things to protect yourself and not to protect me if it’s taking such a toll on you,” she said, the feelings warring in her, and she pushed the tailgate down, scrambling down and grabbing her shoes. She pulled them on, then stood and faced him, looking up into his weary face.

She let the anger rise again.

“But part of protecting yourself is not playing the macho hero in all this and running yourself into the ground. You’re no use to either of us that way. Any more than I would be if I were doing the same thing.”

She saw him chafe at the “macho hero” comment as he jammed his hands deep in his pockets and looked down, his jaw pulsing with an unspoken response. He relented, blowing out a breath as the gas nozzle snapped, signaling that the tank was full.

“Yeah, well, I’m going to call Skinner,” he said, brushing the previous conversation away. “Tell him what happened yesterday. See if there’s any change.”

“I’ll call him this time.”

He looked at her in surprise. “What?”

She glared at him again. “I can give and receive information as well as you can, Mulder,” she said.

“Yes, but he’s used to dealing with me on this -“

“Well, I think it’s time for that to change, too,” she replied firmly. “It’s not like I don’t know the man. Give me his cell number.”

Mulder looked at her, his expression uncertain and worried.

She looked at him and her heart jumped. “What have you told him?” she asked. “Is there something you’ve said to him that you don’t want me to know about?”

His mouth gaped, then shut to a thin line for a few seconds.

“God, no, Scully, I would never tell him anything without asking you first. He knows about the drug, and that’s it. How can you even ask me such a thing?”

She sighed. “You just seemed to not want me to talk to him, that’s all. And I wondered why.”

He said nothing to that. He reached into his back pocket and drew out his wallet, pulling out the slip of paper with the phone number on it. Then he dug into his pocket and pulled out a handful of change, all quarters. He’d obviously already gotten the money for the call when he paid for the gas.

“There,” he said quietly, offering both to her.

She tossed her toiletries bag back into the truck – she would get cleaned up afterward – and took the number and the handful of change from him. Then she stalked off toward the phone booth at the far end of the lot. She could feel his eyes following her.

It had been a long time since she’d had this much feeling about anything, certainly any feeling other than the panic that so often gripped her in the wake of the dreams, the anguish she’d felt in the bed with him that night in the hotel, her shirt pressed to her chest.

This anger was something new. She didn’t know where it came from. But a part of her welcomed it, welcomed the power that surged through her with it.

She would not be a victim of any of this. And she would certainly not let Mulder – or anyone else – treat her as one.

She reached the phone, spread the coins out on the small ledge beneath it. She picked up the receiver, dialed the number, putting in the right amount of coinage for the first five minutes with her good hand. The phone began to ring.

“Hello?” Skinner called, picking up on the second ring. His voice was tight and alert, as though he’d been expecting the call.

“Assistant Director Skinner,” she replied. “It’s Agent Scully.”

There was a beat of silence, then: “Scully, has something happened to Mulder?”

“No, sir, he’s right here with me,” she said evenly. “I just thought it would be good for you and I to make contact this time.”

Another beat. “Okay.um, sure, Scully. That’s fine.”

There was something in his tone that she didn’t like. A hesitancy. An awkwardness that hadn’t been there in their interactions before. She pushed it aside. She was probably just being paranoid, she thought.

“What’s the status of things?” he asked.

She told him about what had happened at the gas station the day before, about their night of running. She said it all dispassionately, as though she were talking about someone else, or a case they were working on.

“But.you’re all right?” Skinner asked with care.

“Yes, sir, I’m fine,” she said formally.

“Have you shaken them?”

She glanced around the lot, down the deserted stretch of highway beyond them. It occurred to her that she had no idea where they were.

“It would appear so, yes,” she replied finally.

“They’d have to be working for Curran,” Skinner thought aloud. “The question is who. I’ll get on my end and see if I can come up with any leads about people he might have had dealings with. Any intelligence on groups with ties to the area you’re in. I’ll see what I can find.”

“There’s no way to know, I suppose, if these might just be people he’s hired, or if they’re part of a larger group,” she rejoined. “It’s hard to tell how widespread they could be, hard to know where to run to get away from them.”

The phone beeped and she put more coins in the slot. Skinner waited until she was done before he began speaking again.

“Well, that’s not going to be an issue anymore,” Skinner said. “I’m working with Agent Granger now and he said that you’re going to get caught if you keep running. There have been sightings of you all over the place. I saw a picture of the two of you myself last night.”

“Where?” she asked, and was suddenly afraid.

“Southern California. I hope you’re away from there now?”

“Yes,” she said, relieved instantly. She knew not to tell him where they were, even if she did know.

“That’s good,” Skinner said. “Look, Granger says you’ve got to stop running or the task force is going to find you eventually.”

“But what about these men that were after us yesterday?” Scully asked. “Won’t staying put make it easier for them to find us?”

“Not where I’m going to send you,” Skinner replied. “I’ve made arrangements for a place for you to stay. Someplace safe. Out of the way.”

“I can’t imagine where that would be,” Scully replied, dubious.

“You remember a few years ago you two met up with a Code Talker out that way, a Navajo man named Albert Hosteen?”

“Of course,” she said. “He saved Mulder’s life. He protected us both.”

“Well, I’ve spoken to him and he’s prepared to protect the two of you again. I’ve explained the situation to him as best I can, told him Mulder was being wrongly accused by elements of the government and that you’re with him for your own protection. He remembered you both well. He didn’t even hesitate to say he would hide you on the reservation, even when I told him what the penalties could be for him.”

Scully leaned against the phone, feeling something in her unhitch. It would mean an end to the running, at least temporarily. And they would most likely be safe there, as Skinner had said. Out of sight.

“He’s a very good man to do that for us,” she said finally. She felt choked up at thought of someone risking this much for them, someone they barely knew. She pushed the emotion down as she cleared her throat. “Thank you for arranging that for us.”

“I’m glad to do it,” Skinner replied gently. “I know you two need to stop. You’ve been running for a long time. And I know it’s got to be hard on you both. Especially on you.”

Scully looked down, feeling exposed. It was hard for her to hear that tone from Skinner. It seemed familiar in a way that made her feel vulnerable and she wasn’t comfortable with it.

“Thank you, sir,” she replied, her voice formal and even again. “How do we find him?”

“He’s in Two Grey Hills, New Mexico,” Skinner said, all business again himself. “He told me to tell you to head for Farmington, then go to the reservation from there. There’s a gas station over the reservation line just as you cross in, an Exxon station with a market. His son owns it. He said for you to go there and his son would give you directions on how to find him. He’s expecting you any time. He said everything would be arranged by the time you got there.”

“All right,” Scully said. “I’m not sure where we are right now, but we’ll head that way immediately. Get there as fast as we can.”

“Good.”

Another beep, saying time was running out. Scully pushed more coins into the machine.

Then there was a strange, long pause from Skinner. Her brow creased as it stretched. She could almost see him starting to say something and yet remained silent.

“Is there something else, sir?” she asked finally. She looked across the parking lot, saw Mulder standing by the truck, watching her, his hands still in his pockets.

“Yes, there is, Scully,” Skinner said quietly. Another pause. She grew more nervous in the midst of this one.

“I’m actually glad you were the one who called this time, because there’s something I thought you might want to know,” he said at last. His voice was so quiet and hesitant it was almost difficult to hear him.

“What is it?” A feeling of unnamable dread came over her.

“I’ve gone over the reports from the crime scene at Mae Curran’s apartment. The autopsy report on John Fagan,” He stopped again, trailing off.

Her heart clenched like a fist at the mention of the name. “Yes?” she replied, forcing her voice into a normal pitch.

“I thought you might like to know.well, that he was clean,” Skinner said, something sad in his voice. “No sign of diseases at all. No HIV. Nothing.”

She sucked in a breath. Blood rushed to her neck and her face, making her feel suddenly boiling hot. Her stomach plummeted as her trembling hand went up to brace her against the booth’s glass.

He knows.

God, they probably all know.

She clenched her eyes closed as they stung. She felt stripped. Raw.

“Scully?” he called. “Are you there?”

She pulled in the breath, willing the shake in it away. She swiped her eyes. Her hand shook harder as she pinched the bridge of her nose.

“Yes, I’m here,” she said, and her tone did not quite reach its normal tenor. She had to get off the phone. “Thank you, sir. Thank you for the information.”

He was silent for another beat, as though he were sizing her up. “Are you all right?”

“Yes, I’m fine, sir. Just fine. Is there anything else?”

He cleared his throat, and his awkwardness was tangible in the air around her. As were her own emotions as they crashed into her. The anger she’d felt so recently, the power it had given her, was gone. The other feelings – the guilt and the shame – settled over her like a heavy black cloak.

“I need to talk to Mulder for a moment, if he’s available,” Skinner said finally, and she stood up a bit straighter, turned her attention to Mulder, who was still leaning against the truck, still watching her. She waved for him to come over and he started across the lot.

“He’s coming,” Scully said, and she still couldn’t force her voice down. She coughed to hide it.

“I’m glad to hear from you, Scully,” Skinner said quietly, warmly. “I’m glad you’re doing better.”

She nodded absently as Mulder made it to the side of the booth. It was showing on her. His face looked worried as he gazed at her.

“Thank you, sir, for all your help. Here’s he is.” And she handed the phone off as she brushed by Mulder and headed back to the truck.

+++

Mulder took the phone, turned and watched her retreating toward the truck, her gait hurried, her strides purposeful and long. Finally, he put the phone to his ear, still watching her.

“Yes, sir,” he mumbled into the phone.

“Mulder, I need some information from you,” Skinner said, and Mulder was relieved that he sounded all business. His normal tone made whatever had set Scully off seem less acute for some reason.

“Granger and I are working together now, working on a few things, trying to poke some holes in Padden’s story about your whereabouts right before the bombing.”

That sounded hopeful. “Okay,” he said, pleased.

Skinner heaved in a deep breath. “There were two days you were gone from Richmond in January. January 12-13. A night you didn’t come back to the hotel and a day you didn’t show up for work. You wouldn’t tell anyone where you were, not even Granger, and Padden’s been all over that, thinking that’s when you were meeting with Curran or making an explosives run or some such shit.”

Mulder froze. The day Danny Conner had died. When Scully had called him, demanding to see him and he’d gone to get her at the bus stop in the darkness, driven her all the way to Afton Mountain to hide with her there for the night.

They’d made love that night, and again that morning. It was the last time they’d been that close, that free. He closed his eyes against the pleasure and pain of the memory.

“Well?” Skinner asked, breaking him from his thoughts.

“Well what?” Mulder asked, his voice far away. He watched Scully get her toiletries bag and a pair of pants out of the back and head for the store. Her face was down, and she was still moving at that strange, hurried pace. It was as if she were afraid someone were watching her and she needed to get inside as fast as possible.

“What the hell do you mean, ‘well what’?” Skinner snapped. “I need to know where you were, Mulder, so we can get some confirmation on it and hopefully get rid of that piece of Padden’s theory.”

Mulder hesitated again. To tell where they’d been would risk Scully being reprimanded for leaving her undercover position to see him without authorization.

It meant possibly exposing their relationship. To Skinner. Padden. All of them. And after so long of managing to keep that a secret, he was resistant to giving that away. Especially now.

“Goddamnit, Mulder, answer me! The time for screwing around is long since over. Things couldn’t get a whole hell of a lot more serious, for Christ’s sake.”

Mulder ignored him, thinking. The phone chirped at him and he pushed the last of the coins into the battered machine.

Maybe they wouldn’t have to know she was there at all. Maybe the manager never saw her. He’d signed in alone, used his cover name, and paid for the room in cash. Maybe Skinner could get confirmation on his being there and clear those days up that way and they’d never have to know Scully’s part in it at all.

He would have to risk it.

“I was on Afton Mountain in Western Virginia,” he said finally. “A motel at the top of the mountain. I can’t remember the name of it. But you can see it from the highway as you go over the crest. It’s one of the few up there. I signed in as George Hale.”

“You picked a hell of a time to go on a little vacation, Mulder,” Skinner grumbled.

“I had my reasons,” he replied vaguely.

“Yeah, well let’s just hope Padden doesn’t think you were meeting Curran up there, that someone can vouch for the fact that you were alone that night. Or it could just compound your problems.”

Mulder winced. The only way to confirm that was for Scully to vouch for him, to expose herself that way. And she’d been exposed enough.

So he said nothing in response.

“Granger’s trying to find someone from the airline that can say you were at the airport gate while Fagan was being killed. We’re working on it.”

“I appreciate what you’re doing for me, sir,” Mulder said quietly. “I really do.”

Skinner grunted. “Well, anyway, Scully knows where you’re going. Call me from there in a week and I’ll give you any new information I’ve got.”

Mulder thanked him and said goodbye, hanging up the phone as he watched Scully coming back toward the car, her bunting top off now, just a long-sleeved t-shirt and jeans and boots on now. Her hair was pulled back beneath her baseball cap again, her sunglasses in place. She went to the driver’s side of the truck and climbed in, slamming the door behind her.

He peeled out of his jacket as he made his way back across the sandy lot. The sweatshirt followed, leaving him in a white t-shirt and his jeans. He scrubbed at his hair and beard as he went to the passenger side and climbed into the truck, tossing the extra clothes in the back on top of their makeshift pallets.

He looked over at her. Her fingers were white on the steering wheel, her eyes hidden behind her sunglasses. They were still for a moment, her gaze down in her lap as he watched her, his face creasing with concern.

Something was wrong. And he meant more than usual.

“What is it?” he asked gently.

“It’s nothing,” she said, and he’d never heard a voice so monotone and distant and cold. She didn’t move. “I’m fine.”

Though the anger she’d aimed at him earlier had not exactly been to his liking, he preferred it to this. She was a shell. He could tell by her voice, the way her shoulders drooped, her body slumped forward as though something had finally beaten the rest of her down. As though she’d somehow given up.

“What’s happened?” He whispered it. “Talk to me, Scully.”

She cleared her throat, and her face rose to look out the windshield. “We’re going to New Mexico,” she said quietly. “Help me find Farmington on the map and how to get there from where we are.”

He shook his head. “That’s not what I mean.”

“Help me find it on the map,” she continued in the same tone, as though he hadn’t spoken. “And then you’ll probably want to go ahead and get some sleep.” She reached down and started the engine, the truck shaking to life.

Her voice was so strange. As though she were talking, but not to anyone else.

He pursed his lips, shook his head again as he looked away.

This was going to stop, he decided. He’d had enough of all of it. It was starting to hurt too much to continue like this.

He reached for the map, unfolded it roughly, slapping it down on his lap.

All right, he thought. I’ll find Farmington.

And when we get there, some things are going to change.

He would make sure of that.

+++

CHAPTER 10.

+++

OUTSIDE MEXICAN WATER, ARIZONA HIGHWAY 191/160 2:37 p.m.

The silence had grown oppressive. It hung in the air of the truck’s cabin like a spring snow cloud, cold and dark and ultimately unwelcome.

Mulder had tried to doze through the quiet after it became apparent that she wasn’t going to speak to him. He’d leaned against the rickety door, his arms crossed over his chest, closed his eyes against the sight of the desert going by the window.

But his mind was busy – wondering what had crushed her so completely, hollowed her out. He thought about this, his mind turning it over.

Stewing. That’s what he was mostly doing now. And it was impossible to sleep when he was doing that.

He’d glanced over at her every once in awhile, hoping to see something cross her face. Anything. He would even have welcomed tears at this point. Just anything to show that the person he knew was still there beside him. But her face remained blank, her mouth tight, her eyes focused on the road ahead of them. He did not have to see behind the sunglasses to know that her eyes were dull. Empty.

It was as though she were sinking below the surface of a lake, disappearing into black water right in front of him. And it had to stop before he lost her completely to the darkness.

He didn’t care what he had to do, and he was prepared to do it. He didn’t feel that there was a choice anymore.

So when he saw the signs for Mexican Water, the familiar blue signs of forks and spoons, the outlines of beds, he sat up straighter in his seat and turned to her.

“I need to stop,” he said, his own voice sounding alien to him after so many hours of quiet.

She remained still for a few seconds, her eyes not moving from the road.

“I’ll find a gas station,” she replied, monotone.

He shook his head. “No, I mean for the night. I can’t sleep in here today. I need a motel.”

Now she did turn to glance at him, her expression perplexed. “But we could make it to Farmington by tonight. We could be there.”

“I know,” he replied. “But the night is catching up with me. We can get there tomorrow and it won’t make that much of a difference. I think we’ve doubled back and gotten lost enough that those people are long since gone. I think it’s okay to ease off a little bit.”

She turned her face to the road, clearly against the idea. Then she exhaled and nodded, put on the turn signal to take the next exit, which had the sign for a motel beneath its number.

“Thanks,” he said quietly, and now his nerves kicked up, a twinge of anxiety about their stopping. He shoved it down, hardening himself, getting prepared.

It’s just Scully, he said to himself. No matter what state she’s in, it’s still her. And he knew her better than he knew anyone, didn’t he? Even now?

He comforted himself with that thought, and it calmed him.

+++

The motel, called the Desert Rose, was a dingy-looking one-story sprawler, the kind of place that Mulder could tell by looking at it that it charged somewhere between $24-$30 per room and wouldn’t have been renovated since the gas crisis.

He went into the office, got a key to a room near the end of the building and returned to the truck. Scully had already parked it near the end of the lot.

As he walked toward the truck, he saw she hadn’t moved. She seemed to be staring at some point far away out the windshield, something hard and sad in her expression.

He moved into her line of sight and she looked at him. He could see her eyes dart to his face and then away behind the thick dark plastic of her glasses.

“You coming?” he asked.

She nodded. “Yes,” she replied, and pulled the keys out of the ignition, pushing the door open and dropping to the ground on both feet.

They hustled their suitcases into the room, the ritual dully familiar to him now. There were two double beds in this room, a room he’d chosen because of its location away from the rest of the few guests. The place looked like it had thin walls.

She tossed her suitcases onto the far bed, pulled her hat and glasses off, ran a hand through her hair. He knew what she would do now. He knew it all by rote after so many weeks. She would reach for her shampoo, head to the shower and stay in there for as long as she could.

But not this time.

He put his own suitcases down on the other bed as he watched her rummage through one of the bags. He watched her face in the large mirror over the bureau against the far wall, the blank set of it. No one was home.

She pulled out the shampoo, her bag of toiletries. Then he saw her pause, reach through the folds of things and draw something up. She stood with it in her hand, and he moved to the side to see what it was in the reflection.

The snowglobe he’d given her for Christmas. Somehow it had made it all this way with them. He swallowed. The sight of it saddened him for some reason.

She looked at it, deep in thought for a few seconds. He thought he saw her eyes shining, then it was gone. Then she dropped the toy back into the suitcase as though it burned her to touch it.

She turned for the doorway to the bathroom, toward the large vanity. The shower and toilet were a separate room off to the side. He walked around the bed as though he were going for the sink, got in between her and the bathroom just as she was heading there herself.

She tried to go around him, not looking at him. He took a step to the side and blocked her way again.

Now she did look up at him, clearly confused and a touch irritated.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“We’re going to have a talk before you shower,” he replied, looking down at her, forcing her to meet his eyes.

Her eyes were imploring for a fleeting second, then hardened again.

“No, we’re not,” she said flatly, and tried to push by him again. He took another step, his hands coming up and lightly gripping her upper arms. He felt her tense up in his grasp, though he was holding her as gently as he could.

She dropped the shampoo and the bag of toiletries, looking up at him in surprise. They thumped at his feet.

“Let me go.” She said it so softly that he barely heard her, but the tone was filled with warning. She was looking at the center of his chest, avoiding his eyes.

“Will you agree to talk to me?” he asked, leaning down to try to look into her eyes again. She averted them, looking to the side. Color had risen in her cheeks.

“Will you?”

She swallowed, nodded once. “Yes,” she said.

She stepped back and he let her go. She went to the small aisle between the beds and sat down on the corner of the one her suitcases were on, her arms across her chest, looking down.

“What is it.” It came out as a statement, the same dead tenor to her voice.

He went to her, stood a few feet away, his hands in his pockets, looking down at her. She looked like she were being punished by having to face him.

“How can you even ask me that?” he said, but there was no reprimand in his voice.

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“Scully. This has to stop.” He fought to keep the emotion welling in him out of his voice. This was no time for it, he reminded himself fiercely. “We can’t go on like this.”

She was still for a moment, her hands folding in her lap. The left trembled and she covered it with the other.

“Yes, you’re right,” she murmured. “We can’t.”

All right, he thought, pleased. They agreed on that. There was room for progress, for forward motion, if they could agree at least that there was a problem.

“Okay then,” he said, nodding. “We’ve got to figure out a way to get through this then. You’ve got to start telling me what you’re feeling–“

“No.”

The word stopped him cold, confusing him and throwing the relief he’d felt for a moment off kilter.

“‘No’ what?” he asked.

She drew in a breath, let it out shakily, her hands gripping each other as if for reassurance. “That’s not what I meant when I said we can’t go on like this.”

He grew very still.

“What did you mean then?” he asked.

She looked to the side, pulled in another breath. “I’ve been thinking about it…for a long time. A lot today while I was driving…”

A wave of cold came over him and his teeth grit down.

“Don’t say it, Scully.” His eyes burned.

She looked up, the blank expression firmly in place. “I want us to separate.”

He was struck dumb for a few seconds. His mouth opened and closed as he struggled for words.

“I hope you mean that you just want us to travel separately for awhile, though I think that would be a foolish–“

“You know what I mean,” she interrupted softly. She might as well have shouted it, the effect it had on him.

He shifted on his feet, as though he wanted to move toward her. He held his ground though.

“I won’t accept that.”

“I’m not giving you a choice, Mulder,” she said, returned her gaze to her hands.

He couldn’t believe how calm she sounded. It angered him. He felt the feeling rising in his throat like acid.

“May I ask why at least?” The emotion leaked into his voice, and he could tell by the way her head came up that she heard it.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about this…” she said haltingly. “I’ve been thinking…that it’s been over between us since…since this all happened. We just haven’t faced the truth. We’ve run from it, just like we’ve been running from everything else.” She pinned him with her gaze. “And I think it’s time we both stopped running from this, at least.”

He shook his head, looked toward the window. The tears were coming, anguish and anger and his own helplessness crushing into each other within him. “You’re wrong,” was all he could think to say.

“I’m not, Mulder.” Her voice was steady and sad.

“I love you.” The anger was rising now. He’d never said those words with as much of it behind them. He’d hoped he’d never have to.

She nodded. “And that’s part of the problem,” she said. “You love me too much. It’s blinded you to the truth of what we’ve become. You can’t see that there’s nothing left. And you’re so loyal that you would never leave me. So I’m going to do what’s right for both of us and leave you.”

“How can you say that?” he snapped, suddenly furious and loud. “How can you tell me that I love you too much? That I’m too loyal? How can you say those things like they’re faults instead of what they really are? And you love me, too. Or have you buried that along with every other goddamned feeling you have these days?”

Her head jerked up and her eyes glinted with resin light. “I love what we USED to be, Mulder. Not what we are now. And what we used to be is NEVER going to be again. Can’t you see that?” Her volume and tone were matching his now.

“That’s only because you’ve made the CHOICE for that to be true, Scully,” he replied hotly.

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” she said, her hands going out to the sides as though she meant to rise.

“You won’t talk to me! You’ve shut me out of your life! You’ve shut US out of your life!”

“You act like I’ve done all this on purpose,” she replied.

“Part of you has,” he snapped back, and she turned her face away. He could see her hands clench on the coverlet.

Good. She was getting angry, he thought. It was about fucking time.

He paced a couple of steps toward the window, ran a hand through his hair in frustration, spun on her.

There had to be a way to put this to right, he thought desperately. There had to be a way. Her emotions were close to the surface. Maybe he could drive them out of her, bring them up and out into the open…

Now if he could just get his own rage and hurt under control…

“What did Skinner say to you today?” he bit out.

She said nothing, and he could see her struggling with her control. She was breathing hard now, her cheeks blood red.

“What did he say?” He enunciated each word, loudly. When she hesitated again, he roared at her. “With what I’m about to lose here you owe me an explanation of what set this off at least! You OWE me!”

She didn’t look up. “He knows about the rape,” she said, her teeth clenched.

He stopped, his hands on his hips as he turned this new fact over quickly in his mind.

“It makes sense that he would find out,” he replied. “There had to be forensic evidence in the apartment–“

“Don’t you get it?” she shouted, bolting up from the bed and taking a step toward him. Her chest was heaving and there were tears in her eyes now. “Mulder, they ALL know. Padden. The task force. ALL of them.”

“Nobody will think any less of you, Scully,” he replied, matching her tone. “For God’s sake, the man was huge–“

“That doesn’t matter, does it?” she interrupted. “It doesn’t matter how big he was, or if he was armed, or if he fucking beat me half to death, Mulder. It still HAPPENED.”

“And what? You think you let it happen? You think it’s your fault?”

“YES!” she screamed.

He took a step toward her, frustration rearing in him. “Scully, for Christ’s sake–“

“That’s what they’ll all think, Mulder,” she said, panting. “That’s what every one of them will think. It’s over! My credibility is over! That whole life is over!”

“How can you fucking say that?” he said, anguished she would even think such a thing.

“Have you LOOKED at me lately, Mulder?” she said. She held her hand up, the tremor worse with her emotions. “Look at this! You think they’re going to let me near an autopsy bay with this? Or back out in the field?”

“You don’t know that the damage is permanent, Scully,” he began. Something in the back of his mind was growing concerned as her rage escalated. She looked wild now, her eyes wide.

“It’s been months,” she replied. “MONTHS. It’s not getting any better and neither is anything else, as you well know…”

He winced, but didn’t take the bait of that. His anger crested again, his frustration so long held in check.

“That’s because you keep everything so bottled up, Scully,” he shouted. “You don’t talk about any of this until you’re ready to give up on everything! Even on us!”

The look that came over her face now did frighten him. She didn’t even look like herself anymore, something primal coming down over the features like a mask.

“What do you want me to say, Mulder?” She waved her hand wildly at him. “WHAT?”

“I want to hear what you need to say,” he replied. “You’ve got to SAY it, Scully.”

“All right! Is this what you want to hear?”

And then it came, streaming from her in one long raging burst. He was stunned as the shouted words blasted images into his mind, searing him.

Her head slammed down on the floor, her vision swimming.

Hands on her, tearing at her robe, pushing it up her bare back, exposing her body to him as Fagan knelt behind her, hauling her to her knees.

A hand on the back of her neck, pinning her to the floor. The sound of a buckle. A zipper.

Knees holding her knees apart, his body crushing down onto hers, pushing into hers.

Her battered face pressed down, her shoulders straining as her hands were caught behind her back beneath him, blood from the wound in his cheek warm and wet on her shoulder where he rubbed his face, panting against her, rasping into her again and again.

Then dropping her in a heap, pushing her onto her side. Her body slamming hard into the floor.

Mulder cupped his forehead, cringing. Tears ran from his clenched eyes and her screaming continued. He took it all in, forcing himself into control. It was agony to him, the words. The knowledge.

Then, suddenly, something crashed against the wall.

His eyes snapped open and he saw the remnants of the cheap lamp that had sat on the bureau raining down on the pressed wood, the shade tumbling.

She was sobbing, covering her face with her hands, staggering towards the middle of the beds.

“Oh God…” she cried. “My God…why did you make me tell you that, you son of a BITCH…”

“Scully…” His voice broke and he went toward her. “Scully, I’m sorry. My God…”

What had he done?

“You son of a bitch…”

She reached down and swept the closed suitcase hard, sending it flying toward the bathroom. She reached down into her open bag, clothes flying.

Then her hand closed on the snowglobe. In an instant it was out of her hand, smashing into the mirror against the far wall, shattering the small globe and her image, and his as he made it next to her, into a hundred wet pieces. The sound was amazing.

He got hold of her then as she was going for the lamp on the night stand, grabbed her by the upper arms again, pulling her against his body.

“Okay, Scully, it’s okay…shhhh…”

“NO!” she screamed. “Let me go!”

He struggled with her as she reached for the lamp again, pulling him along with her as she lurched forward. He moved his hand to get an arm around her waist, and it gave her enough room to spin around in his grasp, her hand coming up.

The blow caught him on the cheekbone, turning his face sharply to the side as the pain shot through his face, his eye. His arms dropped from her in surprise, his expression shocked.

She looked at him in horror, covered her mouth. Then she was crying again, her body going limp as she covered her face with her hands.

“It’s over, Mulder,” she keened. “It’s over…just get out…get away from me…”

He took a step back instinctively, his face still hurting from where she’d struck him, the rest of him aching from her words. Tears ran freely down his face into his beard. His chest heaved as he swiped at them.

“Scully, don’t do this. Please.”

She shook her head.

“Go,” she said, and it was little more than whisper of air.

He didn’t know what else to do, what else to say. He backed away from her, going around the bed to where his suitcases lay still unopened. He lifted them both by the handles, turned to look at her. She did not look back.

“I’ll be here in the morning,” he said softly, and his voice shook. “We can separate on the reservation. You won’t have to see me once we get there.”

She jerked a nod, her breath hitching. She turned her back toward the door.

He turned and went out it.

+++

A few minutes later, inside his own room down a few from hers, Mulder dropped his suitcases on the double bed, staring around the empty room. The tears, which he’d managed to stop long enough to get the room, started again, and he crossed his arms over his chest as though he were holding himself.

He couldn’t believe how his intentions could go so horribly wrong. He couldn’t believe what he’d seen, a side of her he didn’t even know was there, a side so filled with fury and pain.

He backed up against the closed door, a sob catching in his throat.

He let it come, his back sliding down the door until he was seated against it, his hand over his mouth, his eyes wide and frightened and filled with disbelief.

+++

PART 2

CHAPTER 11

+++

UNKNOWN LOCATION NEAR ALDER CREEK, COLORADO MARCH 25 6:03 a.m.

The gun felt good in his hands. Owen Curran gripped it easily, the weight and presence of it familiar and comforting to him.

He adjusted himself carefully on the hard bench seat of the tree stand, pulled his camouflage jacket closer around him. His companion, a 13-year-old inhabitant of the Sons of Liberty compound named Thomas, sat with his own rifle cradled in the crook of his elbow as he blew into his hands, warming his fingers, which were uncovered by the fingerless hunting gloves.

Neither had spoken for some time, Curran enjoying the quiet, both of them watching the clearing just a few dozen feet away for any sign of deer.

Curran had never been hunting like this before, and Thomas had instructed him on what to do as they’d climbed into the stand, snow falling from the ashen branches of the tree as they went up the rungs nailed into the trunk. They would sit with their Browning rifles, downwind of the clearing, and wait for a buck to come.

They’d been up there for a little over an hour, with no sign. Just a low note of wind coming every now and then through the thick forest they sat in. A snowshoe hare that had scampered across the field, almost hidden against the background of white. No birds. Nothing.

Thomas reached down and pulled something out of his rucksack he’d been wearing as they’d hiked through the woods to the stand – a thermos full of something warm. Tomato soup, steaming a cloud from the mirror surface of the interior. The boy poured some into the thermos’ top, offered it to Curran.

“Aye, I’ll have a bit. Thank you, Thomas.” He took the cup, blew on the thick surface of the soup and took a sip, handed it back to the boy. Thomas did the same, and they settled in again.

Curran reached into his pocket and drew out a smoke and some matches. He put the cigarette in his mouth, struck the match, sending up a flare and the smell of sulfur. He took a long drag, blew it out.

Beside him, Thomas was looking at him, at the cigarette. Owen squinted a bit at him as he pulled in another breath of smoke.

“Can I have a drag?” Thomas asked, doing his best to sound tough. The boy’s sandy blonde hair ruffled slightly in another push of the cold wind.

Owen smiled around the cigarette, shook his head. “Not good for a boy your age,” he said, cupping the cigarette in his hand.

“You sound like my dad,” Thomas replied, returned his eyes to the clearing.

Curran stopped at that, looked away from Thomas. The boy’s words were like someone pushing on a bruise deep inside him. He couldn’t help but think of Sean.

He wondered once again where he was, how he was. He wondered if he would see him again.

He stared off into the clearing, his blue eyes ice.

And then, he wasn’t thinking of Sean any more. It was always the same when he thought of his son, of Fagan. And Mae. Especially Mae. The one person he had trusted completely in his life.

The image of Dana Scully entered his mind, fury coming soon after. He felt it flush through his system, a shot of heat. He took another drag on the cigarette, held it in until he could blow it out without it shaking from him.

His hatred was like a living thing inside him, clawing at him. The images he had of what he would do to her when he caught her flooded his mind.

Torture. He would kill her slowly. She would pay for everything that she had done to him with her body, a piece at a time.

And he would break her. He would control her before he killed her. He would find a way. She would beg him to kill her.

He let the breath out slow, smoke seeping from his lips as though he were on fire inside.

A rustle of movement caught his eye at the edge of the clearing, on the other side. He tossed the cigarette and raised the rifle quickly in one smooth motion, his eye looking through the scope. Beside him, Thomas did the same.

Curran looked at the creature. Soft tan sides. White chest. Large dark eyes glistening in the morning light as it cocked its head from one side to the other nervously. It took a tentative step further into the clearing, its hooves crunching in the snow.

Beside him, Thomas lowered his gun.

“It’s a doe,” he said, dejected.

But Curran did not lower his own weapon. He kept the scope trained on the doe’s forehead, above the wide eyes, the ears pricked forward, soft and dark.

“Mr. Curran.” Thomas said, perplexed and a little nervous. “You can’t shoot a doe.”

Curran ignored him, waited until the doe’s face was in the intersection of the sights.

Then he pulled the trigger.

The shot echoed, tearing through the woods and sending up a black cloud of crows from the tree tops. The rifle kicked back against Curran’s shoulder, the force nudging a smile from him.

Thomas gasped beside him.

In the clearing, the doe staggered, her head thrown back. Her front legs buckled until she knelt, struggling to stand. The snow around her was spattered with red.

“Mr. Curran!” Thomas cried. “You shoot for the heart! You didn’t have a clear shot!” He dropped his rifle on the wooden deck, shocked, nearly sending it over the edge, gaping at first Curran, then the doe. He reached over and touched the barrel of Curran’s rifle.

“Get your fucking hand off,” Curran snarled, jerking the rifle away. He bolted the rifle, then he sighted the doe again, fired.

This shot hit her in the chest, right at the triangle of white at the base of her throat. The doe’s head flopped forward, digging into the snow as she toppled to the side, sending the snow into bunched piles around her, brown on red on white.

He bolted and fired again. And again.

“Mr. Curran, stop!” Thomas implored. “Please stop!”

Something in the boy’s tone reached through the clamor inside him, the rage. Thomas’ voice was high. Sounded younger.

He turned and looked at Thomas, found him crying, his chest rising and falling, fast as a hare’s.

He lowered the gun, looked out at the clearing.

The doe lay in a twisted heap, blood seeping into the snow. She was still, the only movement her fur as the wind moved over it.

He put the butt of the rifle on the deck, pushed himself into a standing position. He bent over and retrieved Thomas’s rifle, shoved it into the boy’s hands.

“Get your things,” he said, slinging his own rifle over his shoulder by the strap. “Let’s go back.”

Thomas looked up at him, his eyes wider. “You’re not just going to leave her!”

“I fucking said we’re going back!” Curran spat. “Now mind me. Get your things.”

Thomas kept his eye on Curran as he closed up the thermos, zipped up the bag and shouldered into it, slung the rifle, then followed him down the makeshift ladder to the white below.

+++

TWO GREY HILLS, NEW MEXICO NAVAJO INDIAN RESERVATION 11:34 a.m.

Albert Hosteen sat on the concrete porch outside his double-wide trailer, rocking slowly in a rocking chair and nibbling on the end of his pipe. His eyes were on the long dirt road that connected his house to main road of the reservation, dark pools set into the pleasant crags of his face. His long white hair was pulled back, gathered behind his head with a rubber band, and it trailed down the back of his flannel shirt toward the low back of the chair.

The chair made a soft squeak as he moved, rocking himself slowly with one booted foot, deep in thought. He pulled on the pipe, most of the smoke leaving his mouth before he inhaled it. He really simply liked the taste of the tobacco, not the strength of the smoke.

They would be there today. He was sure of it.

He thought once again about the choice he had made.

When the man from the FBI had called him, asking him for a favor, there had only been a moment when he’d had trepidation at the prospect. There was a part of him that thought he had paid his dues to the U.S. Government, paid more than his dues for what he’d been given in return. His time as a Code Talker during the second World War had made him invaluable to them at the time, but then he’d been cast aside, paid a small pension for his efforts at creating a Navajo- based code that baffled the Germans and the Japanese and eventually helped the Allies win the war.

It all felt very distant to him now, that part of it. And they were not the memories that caused him the knee-jerk of fear when the man from the FBI had called him. It was the more recent ones — the boxcar filled with bodies buried in a canyon a few miles away. Men in his house, the beatings, the efforts to kill the other FBI man for uncovering their secrets.

It had all solidified something he knew from his time with the government before — that they were not to be trusted. That they would do anything they could to protect their lies and their plans for things he knew of but would rather not think of now. He was an old man. He would let it be.

He’d made one stand against them, though, before he’d returned to the reservation and the silence of all that he knew — he’d memorized the more damning of the lies, the machinations, and relayed them to others, passing the story along like a folk tale. He’d done this to protect two people whom he’d somehow grown to trust.

The FBI man whose life he had saved — this man Mulder — and his partner, Scully, a woman he knew less of but whom he probably understood better than he did the man.

He’d protected them then because they were worth protecting. They both had a pure human sense of what was right. The woman even more than the man in some respects, because her actions were not tinged with the rage of his. After all, she had shot Mulder in an effort to protect him from snaring himself in the trap those men had laid for him. She was willing to do anything for what she believed in.

And Mulder, despite his personal anger over what was happening, had proven the same.

They both sought nothing more or less than the truth, and the truth was like a faith to Hosteen, the basis for all he did and knew.

So when the man from the FBI had called, telling him of the accusations against Mulder, the danger that Scully was in, he knew the right thing to do.

The door to the trailer banged open and his grandson, Victor, came out, stood next to his grandfather. Victor looked older than his 28 years, age burned into him with days spent at the corral caring for the family’s small herd of horses and sheep. He had deep lines around his eyes, much like his grandfather’s, his hair — jet black in a short cut that had grown out, ruffling lightly in the wind coming in off the valley around them.

“What makes you think they’re coming today?” he asked, his eyes on the dirt road, as well.

Albert quirked a smile. “I feel it on the wind, in the trees, off the mountains….”

He said it hugely and dramatically, raising his arms for effect. Victor laughed.

“Yeah, right,” he said, still laughing. He jammed his hands in the pockets of his Levi’s. “Just one of your feelings, huh?”

“Hm,” Albert said thoughtfully. “Yes. But it makes sense that they would come as fast as they could. Been running for a long time.” He took another pull on his pipe, breathed out.

“I’m still not sure this is such a good idea, grandfather,” Victor said, though his tone was resigned. They’d been having this argument for days.

Albert nibbled on his pipe, grunted softly. “It’s necessary,” he said cryptically. He couldn’t explain that feeling, but he was sure of it somehow.

Victor, who was used to this kind of response from him, he knew, nodded and said nothing.

Movement caught Albert’s eye down the highway and he grew very still for a moment, watching the car come around the wide curve that led into town. He could make it out from where he sat — an SUV of some kind. Older model. He followed it as it approached.

When it reached the end of his road and took the turn, he stood, pulling himself up to his considerable height. He turned and tapped out the pipe, the glowing tobacco raining down onto the concrete and snuffing out. Then he lay it down carefully on the arm of the chair, faced forward again.

The truck came slowly, as though unsure of itself, bumping up the uneven road. Hosteen could make out two figures through the dirty windshield and recognized them as they pulled up next to Victor’s pickup. Mulder was driving. His partner, Scully, was looking out the side window. Albert came forward as the truck’s engine died into quiet.

Mulder exited first. He looked leaner than the last time Hosteen had seen him, bearded, his hair longer than he remembered. His eyes were guarded by sunglasses, which he removed as he came forward. Scully was just opening her door as Mulder closed the distance to him, his hand extended.

“Mr. Hosteen,” he said, and he sounded ragged. Albert looked into his face, saw his eyes rimmed with red, bloodshot. He hadn’t slept in awhile; Hosteen was sure of that.

And there was swelling at the corner of his left eye near his cheekbone, a bruise forming beneath his lower lid.

“Agent Mulder,” Hosteen replied, keeping his face neutral. He smiled kindly as he shook Mulder’s hand. “So you made it, eh?”

Mulder smiled weakly. “Yes, we made it,” he said softly. Scully came up, and Albert turned his attention to her as she stood a little off to the side behind her partner.

He swallowed, and his face fell as he looked at her.

So thin. Her face pale. Faint bruises around her neck. She, too, removed her glasses and Hosteen looked into her eyes, though her gaze darted from his as soon as she saw him studying her.

Something haunted in those eyes. Pain-filled.

Something terribly wrong.

He smiled to her, regaining his composure. “Agent Scully.” He closed the distance between them and reached out. She took his hand almost reluctantly. The smile she gave looked like it would crack her face.

“It’s good to see you again, Mr. Hosteen,” she said, distant. “Though I wish the circumstances were better.”

Hosteen chuffed softly. “They were not so good the last time we met.”

“That’s true,” Mulder said, and Hosteen turned to see him rubbing his shoulder absently, as though the gunshot wound Scully had given him suddenly hurt again. He smiled at Mulder faintly.

Then he stepped back so that he could face both of them again. Scully had made no move to stand next to her partner. Albert wondered at the distance, his head cocked as he looked at them both, gauging what he saw.

An awkward silence fell.

Hosteen was so distracted by the feelings rising off of both of them that he forgot Victor was even standing there until his grandson came forward himself, breaking the strange moment.

“I’m Victor Hosteen,” he said, shook hands with Mulder and nodded to Scully. She nodded back. “One of you is going to be staying next door to me. There’s an empty trailer there that we’ve put a few things in. It’s got two bedrooms, so you could both stay there if you’d like, but we have another place, too, if that’s not what you want.”

Mulder seemed to look uncertain, wary. He glanced at Scully, who did not glance back. “How safe are these places?” he asked. “I mean…are they secluded enough that people won’t see us there?”

Hosteen nodded. “Yes, both are secluded, Agent Mulder. No one comes out this way who doesn’t live here — all my family — and no one here will tell anyone of your whereabouts. They consider it my business, my concern, and they will not interfere with that.”

He studied the two of them again. Scully was looking away, as though the conversation didn’t involve her at all. Mulder was chewing his lip nervously. He considered for a few beats, finally nodded. “We want separate places then, if that’s not too much trouble,” he said, and Hosteen heard the sadness behind the remark, though Mulder had tried to sound nonchalant and business-like.

Hosteen slipped his hands into his pockets, nodded as he began to understand.

Two things wrong, he thought. Something wrong with Scully herself. And something between the two of them. He could almost see the wall that separated them, thick and wide and made of stone.

And newly built. The tension in them was too acute for it to have been there very long.

“The other place to stay is a smaller trailer here a ways out behind my house,” Hosteen said. “It’s not much, either. One room. This one on wheels, you know. You’ll have to shower at my house, but it’s got propane. You can cook.” He looked at Scully intently, his head tilting again. “Why don’t you stay in this one, Agent Scully? It would be more…private. So much coming and going at my grandson’s place with the livestock to care for.”

She avoided his gaze again, nodded. “That would be fine,” she said.

“It’s about a mile and a half to my place from here, down the road,” Victor chimed in, and Hosteen could tell the agents’ tension was making his grandson nervous. “I’m sorry it’s not closer. I see you’ve only got the one truck, but I’ll be happy to drive you back and forth if you want to leave the car here–“

“Agent Mulder can have the truck,” Scully interrupted, looking away. “I won’t be needing it.”

Her meaning was clear. She wouldn’t be going anywhere. Not even to see Mulder.

Victor was looking at Scully, then turned to the other two men. Mulder was looking down at the ground, scuffing a stone with his foot. Albert held Victor’s gaze for a few seconds, nodded, reassuring him.

“That’s fine,” Albert said gently, trying to diffuse the crackle in the air. “Why don’t I help you get your things and take you back there, Agent Scully? It won’t be hard with both of us carrying the load.”

Scully nodded and turned, going for the truck.

Now Hosteen chanced a look at Mulder. The younger man’s eyes had yet to return from the ground, but his jaw was working, his face hard, fiercely controlled.

Yes, Hosteen thought. Whatever was between them, whatever had dug this chasm, was new, indeed. Mulder’s pain was rising off him like smoke.

“Go on with Victor, Agent Mulder,” he said, his voice soft. “I’ll see to Agent Scully.”

Mulder met his eyes then, and their gazes hung. Then Albert smiled that same half smile, and walked past him to where Scully was pulling her suitcases out of the back of the truck.

She didn’t look at him as she slammed the back of the truck closed, replaced the spare tire on its hinge against the tailgate. He reached down and hefted the larger of the two suitcases, and Scully picked up the other and a sleeping bag.

“It’s not too far,” he said. “Come with me.”

Scully nodded. “All right,” she said, gestured ahead of them almost impatiently.

Albert’s lip curled, but he hid it as he started toward the house. Scully followed close behind.

Neither she nor Mulder looked at the other as they passed, Hosteen noted. Mulder simply turned and went toward his truck, Victor hurrying to his own to lead the way down the road.

+++

LAKE McCONAUGHY OUTSIDE OGALLALA, NEBRASKA 12:13 p.m.

Jimmy Shea hooked the minnow through the side, checked the sinker and the hook, then cast the small fish out into the water toward the shore of the black lake. There were submerged logs there, overhangs of branches, and he knew that there would be bass hovering just beneath the surface, dozing beneath the tree limbs and waiting for tap on the water, for food to come.

He’d read it all in the guidebook he’d bought in Belfast, The Best Fishing in All Fifty States, all this information about the bass and catfish that inhabited the lake. A quick stop at the tackle shop at the marina, $30 to rent the boat for the afternoon, and he was back out on the water, waiting for the fish.

He was just down from Ringgold, a tiny town northeast of the lake he now bobbed on, the place where Curran had last been sighted. He’d gotten the call from Rutherford two days ago, and had immediately packed up his things and headed west.

Shea had been all over the town, just as he’d been in Tyner, tracked down the lead that Rutherford had had leaked to him from someone on the NYPD who was following the case, an Irish cop with ties to the underground IRA in the boroughs. The lead was a motel on the outskirts of town where surveillance video had picked up someone matching Curran’s appearance, and on looking at the still photos Rutherford had decided that the resemblance was close enough to warrant notifying Shea about it.

Shea had gone to the motel, shown pictures of Curran to a clerk who apparently wasn’t aware of the manhunt and the manager’s report of the sighting to the CIA and FBI. The woman had looked at the photo, said “yes,” that Curran had indeed been there, but that it was weeks ago since he left. He’d stayed for a week, she said, and then, like everyone else who stopped in the tiny town, he’d moved on.

So Shea had checked the map in the pickup, called Rutherford on the cell phone and told him the news. Then he’d said he was going fishing until Rutherford called him again, that he’d be staying down in Ogallala in a cheap motel that had free cable and a restaurant. In other words, everything that Shea would need.

His back creaked as he leaned back on the small seat in the center of the boat, and he stretched. He was feeling his age on this trip. There had been times when he could hole up in a building for days, weeks if he had to, sleeping on floors or hunkered in corners. All those years of doing the work and then hiding out afterward, waiting for the heat to die down enough for him to vanish back into the woodwork.

All those assignments from James Curran. Those meetings at the lovely house near Ballycastle overlooking the sea. Curran’s children growing up before his eyes over suppers. The smaller James, always so quiet and serene and growing more so as the years went by. Mae, the only girl, lovely and so full of life, always getting into everything.

And then there was Owen. Always at his father’s side, listening in on the business at a chair at the table as he played with his toys. Some of what Shea and the elder Curran had discussed Shea felt uncomfortable talking about in front of the boy, but James didn’t seem to mind. He seemed to want Owen to hear. The younger James was too introspective, destined from a early age for the priesthood by his disposition and his faith. And Mae was just a girl, after all. Owen was where James had his hopes for the family continuing in the Cause, the boy fascinated by everything his father said and did, a slight shadow that followed James almost everywhere he went.

Shea reeled the hook in slowly, giving the line a slight jerk every few rotations or two of the silver reel. Nothing. He pulled the bait in all the way and checked it, the boat drifting down a bit further along the grassy bank. When he saw a good shady spot, he tossed the bait back out, landing it right against the shore and giving it a gentle pull down the slope and into the deeper water.

He thought of Ruby back home suddenly, a vision of her as she bustled about in the morning around him, picking flowers from the garden as he drank his tea, read the news. Her coming to him in the shed behind the house where he worked his wood, bending it, smoothing it. She would fuss at him to come for dinner most nights. He got that lost in his work.

The small boat he’d been building was nearly done when he’d gotten the call, and he longed to get back to it.

He missed Ruby. The thought made him smile sadly. After all those years of losing friends, he’d thought himself beyond missing anyone or anything. But Ruby was somehow, thankfully, different. She proved that something was still alive within him, something that they’d been unable to completely take with the years of loss and sacrifice.

He’d thought he’d just been left with his resignation about the work — how it was never done, how many of the sacrifices seemed worthless. Resignation tinged — and more often these days — with something like regret.

For a moment he let the line go slack, the sinker bumping on the bottom.

Car bombs going off outside the UDR police station in Derry, bodies staggering from the raging hulks, screaming, engulfed in flame.

A faked road block outside Belfast, two women, 18 and 19. Heads shaved and shot in the temples for snitching and fucking the Brits.

Dozens of men at the point of impact, their stunned faces.

The glassy, open eyes of the dead. Their ghastly faces becoming so familiar to him when he was younger that he had difficulty, at times, telling them from the living.

Glass shattering in a hundred store fronts, distant siren wails. Bombs of Sinn Fein hate and carpenter nails.

He closed his eyes against it, turned his face up toward the midday sun, shining on the surface of the lake. He took a deep breath, let it out slowly. Then he opened his eyes. It was like waking from a bloody dream.

The boat had drifted further down the bank, his line dragging across the bottom. Pulling himself together again, he reeled the line in, pulling up mud and clumps of reeds. He cleared the hook, tossing the debris back into the water, laid the pole down in the boat and reached for the motor.

Enough, he thought, tired.

Enough for one day.

+++

TWO GREY HILLS, NEW MEXICO NAVAJO RESERVATION 5:34 p.m.

The sun was sinking, sending the sky into a pale gold over the bare landscape of scrubby trees, the rises of the mesas and buttes in the distance. Scully watched it as it fell, sitting on the small bed built into the side of the Winnabago trailer, her back against a cupboard that acted as a headboard. Her knees were drawn up against her chest, her arms looped around them, pulling them in close. She wore her shoes still, the soles on the blanket.

She didn’t move as she looked out the window, as she felt the cold creeping in through the metal walls of the trailer, through the blue bunting top she wore, her jeans. She’d have to turn on the heater after all, she thought absently. There was nothing around her to hold any warmth. Just red stones, low dry bushes. And silence.

She did not think of Mulder. Or at least that was what she told herself. But trying so hard not to think of him was the same as thinking of him, she thought bitterly, and sank down further against the cupboard, sighing. She ran a hand up her forehead, pushing her hair out of her face where it had fallen, partially occluding her eyes and the view out the window.

She’d been alone the night before, but had been so numb that that fact had hardly seemed to matter. After Mulder had gone, she’d sank down between the two beds, her back against one of them, curled in on herself like a shell, and simply sat there. Occasionally, she had cried, tears silently streaking her face, but more often she’d just stared at the draped window, her mind spent and blank as snow.

She’d stayed like that until the light behind the thick curtain had faded from gold to gray to black, then she’s risen, stiff, and slipped beneath the covers in the darkness, still wearing her clothes and shoes. She’d fallen asleep almost instantly.

Now here she was, finally truly away from everyone. This was what she had wanted all these weeks, she thought. To be completely alone, to have time to process everything that had happened in the past months.

But now that she had it, she was still as paralyzed as she’d been the night before, struck into an impasse with her emotions. It was as though, since her outburst yesterday, she’d rescinded her permission to feel anything at all. What she’d done yesterday had frightened her, the way she’d given in that much to the anger and pain. She did not want to do that again.

She didn’t know who that person was, the one who had struck Mulder across the face with the hard blow, finally driving him away.

This was not to say that she thought what she had said to him before that had been a mistake. The things about their relationship being over. She truly felt that, and thought that it had needed to be said. She should be alone now, unattached. Perhaps permanently.

The old person she was could give herself that way. This new one could not.

The outburst about the rape, she was not so certain was the right thing to have done. But it was done now, and there was nothing she could do about it.

Weary, she rose and went the short distance to the tiny kitchen, the two burner stove. She opened the cupboards over the stove, found soup, crackers, rice. In the small refrigerator beside it she found a quart of milk, a few apples. Butter. A container of orange juice. A loaf of dark bread.

Hosteen had given her enough to feed her for the first couple of days, at least. She would not have to ask him for a ride to the market right away, and she was glad for that. She felt like a stranger to the outside world and did not relish the thought of joining it.

She closed her eyes.

Maybe if she stayed out here long enough, she thought, she might just disappear. Mulder could forget about her. They all would. Curran. Padden. Even Skinner. They would forget her and all that had happened to her.

And maybe she could, as well. She longed for forgetting more than she’d longed for anything in her life. For a kind of white amnesia. Maybe by forgetting, it would stop the hurting, the grief. Maybe the outburst yesterday to Mulder had been all the feeling she had left, and she could let it go, feel nothing.

Maybe that was who she was now, this new person she’d become defined by that.

And perhaps that wasn’t such a bad thing in the end, she decided, and closed the refrigerator, no longer hungry for anything.

Distantly, she heard a sound, the first in hours. Footsteps coming down the road. A horse, walking slowly, the easy cadence of hooves.

She went to the flimsy door, peered out its small window. Her gun was nearby, balanced on the edge of a built-in table. She eyed it as the figure drew nearer.

Then she relaxed some as the horse and rider drew nearer. It was Albert Hosteen, sitting tall on a beautiful dapple-gray horse. He wore a denim jacket, a plaid flannel shirt beneath it, worn jeans and cowboy boots. There was a plastic bag slung by the handles to the horn of the western saddle he sat on. It swung slightly as the horse shifted its weight from one side to the other as it walked.

The corners of her mouth drew down. She was not in a good state for visitors. In fact, she couldn’t foresee a time when she would be.

Still, she opened the door, stepped down onto the sand, walked toward him as he stopped a dozen feet from the trailer, looking down at her kindly.

“Hello,” Scully said, forcing her face into something she hoped was friendly.

“Agent Scully,” Hosteen replied, his face kind. “I came to see how you were getting on, and to bring you some dinner.”

Scully looked down. “I’m doing fine,” she replied. “And thank you, but I’m not hungry. And what you’ve left for me will be fine for a few days if I do want something to eat.”

Hosteen smiled, dismounted carefully so as not to disturb the bag. “My wife, Eda, before she died, was a wonderful cook, you know,” he began conversationally, reached up and lifted the bag off the saddle. “She could make fried chicken and fry bread like no one for miles.”

“Is that so?” Scully said, being polite.

“Hmm,” Albert said, turning to her. “She taught me how to make both of them before she died. Said I’d starve to death, me and the boys, if I didn’t learn to do for myself.”

He opened the bag, and warm, inviting smells came from it. Scully looked at the bag, then at him again uncertainly.

“Well, I made some this evening, some of both, and since my son Keel couldn’t come to eat, I thought I’d come out and eat with you.”

Scully tried to smile, but didn’t quite make it. “Really, Mr. Hosteen, I’m just going to go to bed really early. I’m very tired and–“

“Can’t let it go to waste,” he interrupted. “And you really should try them. They’re the best you’ve ever eaten, I promise.” He smiled again. “Eda knew how to make them best.”

He walked right past her now, and Scully stepped aside, watched him go to the cluster of wooden chairs outside the trailer, set just a few feet from a fire pit that had been dug into the ground beside the trailer. There was a pile of ragged branches and old lumber next to it, a collection of kindling. Hosteen eased himself down into one of the chairs, began looting through the bag.

Scully looked at him, not sure what to do. Finally she sighed. It was just a meal with him. And the sooner she ate it, the sooner he would most likely go, leaving her to the night of solitude she had envisioned.

So she went to the chair beside his, watched him pull out a plate encased in tin foil, which he handed to her. It was still warm. He took out another for himself, setting it on his lap. She did the same, removed the foil to reveal three pieces of chicken, the flat disc of a piece of fry bread, some beans cooked in heavy spice.

She had to admit — it smelled delicious. Her stomach rumbled as the smell drifted around her.

He handed her a spoon from the bag, and she slowly took a spoonful of the beans and ate. They were as good as they smelled.

Hosteen was digging into his own plate, eating the chicken with his fingers, using the fry bread to mop at the beans. Scully followed his lead, though with a bit less enthusiasm.

They ate in silence. Off somewhere, a coyote called, another answering from the distance. The sky turned a bruised blue, then faded to black, lit by a canopy of starlight. Scully looked up at it as she finished off the last of the bread. The number of stars one could see in the desert always astounded her. It was like the sky was more star than night.

The only light besides the stars, the bulb over the stove that she’d left on. It threw a small yellow square around them from the window above their heads. Scully couldn’t see Hosteen’s face, but he set the plate down on the ground in front of him when he finished eating. Then she saw the flare of a match illuminate his face and eyes, the burning circle of the interior of the end of a pipe. The smell of sweet tobacco came toward her, and she found it somehow comforting.

She set her own plate on the ground, looked down at it, surprised to have left nothing but bones on her plate. Maybe she was hungrier than she had thought.

The quiet stretched again, and she let it.

“You look different than the last time I saw you,” Hosteen said finally out of the darkness, the pipe’s end growing brighter as he inhaled.

She looked up into the sky. There was a small light moving far up, drawing a curve across the night. It was a satellite, she realized, after watching it a few moments. Mulder had said you could see them in the desert if you looked hard enough, but she had never believed him. The sight of it and the memory of his words made her smile sadly.

“I imagine I do,” she said at last. “It’s been a long time since we last met.” She paused. “It’s strange though — you look the same.”

“Not had the years you’ve had, I should think,” Hosteen replied.

She looked down. “Probably not,” she said vaguely.

“Hard years.” He inhaled again, the tobacco glowing like a dim bulb and then fading out.

She hesitated, unsure of the turn in the conversation. “Yes. Some of them,” she replied cautiously.

Another long moment of silence.

“You were so young when I saw you last. Young in many ways.” His voice was calming, serious but not probing. His words and the way he said them made a lump rise in her throat, and she swallowed it down hard.

“I’m not so young anymore,” she replied, some bitterness coming in. “In many ways.”

“Hmm,” Hosteen said again. “Losing so much will do that to you. Seeing too much will do it. Pain will do it.”

Something rose in her now at his words as she chafed.

“What do you know about what I’ve lost or seen?” she asked flatly. “Or about my pain?”

He shifted in the chair. “I know only what I see in front of me,” he said obliquely. “That’s all any of us can know.”

He was turned toward her now, though his face — and hers, she knew — were lost in shadows.

“What do you see in front of you, Agent Scully?” he asked softly. His voice had grown quieter still, now like a voice but like a phantom of a voice.

She looked away, as though his eyes were penetrating her through the darkness.

“I don’t know what you mean,” she said, and recalled saying the same words to Mulder the day before. She realized what a lie they were as she said them to Hosteen, a lie she’d hidden behind with Mulder and that she was using again to hide from this man, as well.

“I think you do,” Hosteen countered, his voice gentle. “I think you see a lot in front of you, but you don’t want to see it. And I think you want — and need — to see more, but you can’t right now. But part of that is because you don’t know where to look.”

She said nothing for a long moment, emotions rising. Sadness. Anger at the presumption of his words. A strange feeling of exposure and vulnerability at being so easily read.

She bent to get her plate, stood suddenly.

“Yes, well…” she said stiffly, turning toward him. “Thank you for dinner. You’re right. It was excellent. But I think I’m going to go off to bed now.”

She saw the small rain of embers as he tapped out the pipe. Then the creak of the chair as he stood with his own plate. His lean form threw a thin shadow through the box of yellow on the ground from the window. She could see his face now, his kind smile, but she could not hold his gaze.

“If I think of a place where you can look, I’ll let you know,” he said, not seeming to mind her brush off. “I’ll think on it.”

She looked away, a feeling of vulnerability coming over her. “All right,” she said, awkward. She didn’t know what else to say to that.

He nodded, reached for the bag on the ground and placed both their plates into it. “You are welcome, ” he replied. “Sleep well, Agent Scully.”

“You, too, Mr. Hosteen,” she said, and watched him disappear toward the dark shape of his horse, who had waited patiently in front of the trailer just outside the light the entire time. She’d almost forgotten the animal was there.

With a squeak of leather, he mounted, turned the horse around and disappeared into the dark.

Scully stood there for a long moment, staring up at the blanket of stars. Then, tired in more ways than she could name, she turned and went back into the trailer, closing the door for the night.

+++

CHAPTER 12.

+++

TWO GREY HILLS, NEW MEXICO NAVAJO RESERVATION MARCH 30 (FIVE DAYS LATER) 8:24 a.m.

The sounds of a truck engine starting up, of sheep bleating in the distance, the deep sound of horses, punctuated by an occasional high call from one of the stallions. All these sounds had grown strangely familiar to Mulder, his usual wake-up call here on Victor Hosteen’s land.

He lay beneath the open window, clad only in green boxers, his lean body lit by the gold morning light. Though they were a ways away from him, he could still hear the Hosteen boys calling back and forth, their rich laughter. They laughed a lot.

He rolled onto his side, his back to the window now, drawing his knees up in the twin bed. It was the only way he could lay without his feet dangling over the end, which made him feel like a man sleeping in a child’s bed. It didn’t bother him too much, though. After all, he’d spent the better part of the five days in this bed, alternately sleeping and staring at the wall or the window, listening to the men work in the distance in the pens and corrals.

When he wasn’t in the bed, he’d spent some time sitting on the battered sofa in the living room area off the kitchen, watching the lousy reception on the television, or, more often, out on the front patio in a white plastic chair. The patio faced Victor’s place, several hundred yards away, and beyond that, the stable, which he could always spot by the cloud of dust that seemed to linger over it and the smell that wafted his way if the wind was right. He didn’t mind the dust or the smell. He wasn’t up to minding much of anything.

He drew in a deep breath, eased it out, reached up and ran a hand over his chest. He was cold, the spring morning here in the desert bright but chilly. Rather than pull the covers over himself, he sat up instead, reached down onto the floor where his jeans were still hunkered, right where he’d stepped out of them the night before. He pulled them on as he stood, rubbing at his beard as he made his way down the narrow corridor toward the kitchen.

Water in the kettle, the squeak of the flimsy faucet as he turned it off. The popping of the stove as it lit, the blue flame bursting beneath the kettle’s shining surface. He stretched, shivering, his bare feet cold on the linoleum floor.

He supposed he should get a shirt, he mused absently, then discarded the thought. He stood before the stove until the kettle began its slow whistle, then poured the water into a mug for the Taster’s Choice he’d found in the cabinet. The date on the stuff was two years ago. He didn’t think, wincing at the bitter taste, that it being more fresh would make a difference.

He shuffled through the living room, breathing in the smell of dust. The place had been shut up for months before his arrival, the former home of one of Albert Hosteen’s brothers. The man had died of cancer, and the trailer seemed to carry the melancholy of a long illness with it.

Outside on the patio, Mulder took his seat in the flimsy chair, crossing his legs in front of him at the ankles, crossing his arm across his ribs as he sipped the coffee. He watched the shapes of horses, small at this distance, move around the corral, men milling back and forth.

He wondered how she was, what she was doing. If she was awake yet, what she was thinking as she started her day. He’d seen nothing of her or of Albert Hosteen since he’d left the house all those days ago, doing his level best not to look behind as he’d driven away.

He was still trying his best not to look behind. It hadn’t worked in the truck as he’d bumped after Victor down the road, and it wasn’t working now, either.

He reached up and rubbed his eyes roughly, the beginnings of a headache coming over him already. He was so tired and he felt useless and ancient.

He heard a soft noise off to his right and he jerked his head around, instantly alert. When he saw the source of the sound, he relaxed, however, simply stared.

The dog was back.

Mulder had first noticed it on the first morning he’d been there, a charcoal-colored hound of some kind that skulked around the perimeter of the property. It was so thin he could count its ribs even from a distance, see the sores on its sides. It walked tentatively, each step hesitant as it watched Mulder watching it. Its tail was firmly curled between its legs, its ears and head down. It would linger for a few minutes, and then scurry away, disappearing into the scrubby brush behind the house.

Mulder took another sip of the acrid coffee, watching the dog. It had stopped as he’d turned toward it and was watching him with its dark, frightened eyes. Mulder held still for a moment, then let his free hand slowly drop over the arm of the chair. He snapped his fingers.

“Come here,” Mulder said gently, and the dog took a step to one side, then the other, seeming to grow smaller with the sound of his voice, closer to the ground.

“I won’t hurt you,” he continued softly, snapped his fingers again, made a small whistling sound. The dog’s ears pricked for a second at the sound, as though it recognized something familiar in it. It took a hesitant step forward.

“That’s it,” Mulder said, inordinately pleased for some reason. “Come here.”

The dog licked its lips. A small chirp of a whine came from it.

Moving slowly, Mulder put the coffee cup down on the ground in front of him, rose and went into the trailer. He kept an eye on the dog, which had taken a few steps back as he’d risen but did not run away.

Inside, Mulder fished in the cabinets for a bowl, settling instead on a silver pot. He filled it with water at the sink, then carefully carried it back out the front door.

The dog was still cowering a few dozen feet away, eyeing him warily. Taking small, slow steps, Mulder moved toward it, the pot in front of him.

“Want some water?” he asked softly, taking another step, then another. The dog backed up a step. “I’ve got some water. I’m not going to hurt you. I just have some water….”

About 15 feet from the dog, Mulder squatted down and placed the pot on the ground. Then he stood and began to back up, moving just as slowly.

The dog eyed him and the pot alternately, its ears flat against its head in fear. It whined again faintly.

When he’d returned to his chair, Mulder picked up his coffee cup and crossed his arm over his chest again, shivering again. He took a sip, pretending to ignore the dog now, though he was watching it out of the corner of his eye.

It got even closer to the ground now, licking its dry lips again, and began to creep toward the pot, watching Mulder the whole time. About five feet away, it was on its belly, crawling now.

Mulder sipped his coffee, waiting, barely breathing.

Finally the dog reached the pot, sniffed, pressing its nose over the edge. Then, its eyes still on Mulder, it began to drink.

And, for the first time in days, Mulder smiled.

+++

Albert Hosteen watched all this with interest from the back of his horse, up on a rise beside the trailer, a small smile on his face, as well. He gave the dog a few moments to drink and then started down the rise toward the trailer, now visible to Mulder on the patio, though Mulder was watching the dog.

Suddenly, the animal stood upright, catching sight of Albert on his horse. Instantly it shot off, running behind the trailer and into the desert beyond. Mulder watched it go, then turned his head to see what could have startled it and saw Hosteen. Albert couldn’t miss the hopeful look on the younger man’s face as Mulder stood, walking to the edge of the patio nearest him, his free hand jammed in his pocket for warmth.

Hosteen maneuvered the horse up in front of him, stopped.

“Hello, Agent Mulder,” Hosteen said softly. “I see you have met Bo.”

“Bo?” Mulder replied, clearly confused. “Oh, you mean the dog?”

“Yes,” Albert said. “My brother’s dog. Nobody has been able to get near him since Larry died. He just hangs around the house as though he is waiting for Larry to return.”

“Ah,” Mulder said.

Albert dismounted now, stood before Mulder. “You look cold.”

“Yeah, I am a little, I guess,” Mulder replied, embarrassed. “I just woke up and was too lazy to find a shirt.”

“Huh,” Hosteen replied. “Yes, I hear you do not do much with yourself here. Victor said he rarely sees you and that you never go anywhere.”

Mulder looked down. Around the fringe of his beard, Hosteen could make out a faint glow as Mulder blushed. “I guess I don’t, no,” he mumbled. He looked around, a sad expression on his face. “Where would I go?” His voice sounded very far away as he said the last.

“Not good for you,” Albert replied. “You should get out. Busy yourself with something.” He gestured toward the corral and Victor’s house in the distance. “Victor can always use an extra hand with the livestock. You should let him put you to work up there.”

Mulder shifted from foot to foot. “I’m afraid the closest I’ve come to a sheep is a sweater,” he said, and Albert laughed. “And I’ve never ridden a horse.”

“Easy to learn. You will be good at it. I can feel it.” He looked down at the cup of coffee in Mulder’s hand. “You have more water on?”

Mulder seemed struck out of his somber mood. “Oh, yes, I’m sorry. I should have offered. Please, come in.”

Albert followed him into the house, the screen door banging shut behind them. Mulder put the kettle back on.

“I’m just going to go get a shirt,” Mulder said, awkward. “I’ll be right back.” And he disappeared down the hall.

Hosteen sat on the couch, looking around. He hadn’t been back in this place since just after his brother’s death. There just hadn’t been any need. He smiled looking at the beat-up recliner in front of the television, remembering nights here with his brother over the years. The place had always been filled with laughter, a warm place.

He hoped some of that still remained for the man living in it now.

The kettle was already whistling again when Mulder returned in a dark blue sweatshirt, his boots on. Albert watched him pour another mug of coffee and then come forward to the living room. Mulder handed it to him and sat down in Larry’s chair, perched on the edge, clearly nervous.

Hosteen sipped the coffee, made a face. “This is awful,” he said, bemused.

“Yeah,” Mulder said, a small embarrassed laugh coming from him. “Yeah, it is. Sorry about that.”

“Tastes like ashes,” Hosteen said, and took another sip. It wasn’t so terrible the second time around.

Mulder was looking into his own cup, then around the room, glancing at Hosteen every now and again.

“You want to know how Agent Scully is doing,” Albert said finally. “I can see it on your face.”

Color rose around Mulder’s beard again, but he tried to shrug, sound nonchalant. “Yeah, I had wondered how she was holding up,” he said, took a draw from his mug.

Hosteen smiled a bit at his attempt at lightness, when it was clear from his body language he was more than anxious for news.

“She is doing all right, I would say, considering,” he replied.

Mulder looked up at him now. “Considering what?” he asked, his voice edgy.

“Whatever it is she has been through,” Albert replied, echoing Mulder’s previous casual tone. “She will not speak to me about it, of course, but I know something must have happened.”

He did not say that he had already guessed what that something was, choosing to keep that bit of information to himself.

“How often do you see her?” Mulder asked, changing the subject — which only confirmed Hosteen’s suspicions further. Mulder was still trying to sound casual, as though they were discussing the sheep or the sagebrush or the weather.

“A couple of times a day,” he replied. “She comes in the morning to shower and I see her briefly. Then I come to her with dinner every night.”

Mulder looked surprised. “And she eats it?”

Hosteen smiled. “She is too polite to refuse, so yes. We sit and have a little talk while we eat. She tells me things sometimes. Sometimes she is quiet.”

Mulder gazed down at the floor, turning the mug in his palms. “I’m glad she’s talking to someone,” he said, his voice tinged with sadness. “Even if it’s just ‘sometimes.'”

“Hm,” Hosteen replied, taking another sip of the bitter coffee. “She will talk more, I think, as time goes by. I think there is something in her that wants to in a way. But her nature holds her back. She is warring against her nature right now.” He looked at the other man deeply. “I believe you both are.”

“What do you mean?” Mulder asked guardedly. “How am I warring against my nature?”

Hosteen smiled faintly. “You are used to doing. You are looking for something to do when this is not about doing. It is about letting things happen.” He cocked his head, watching as Mulder looked away as though caught.

“Do you know anything about geese, Agent Mulder?” he said after a beat of silence.

Mulder turned back to him, his expression puzzled. “Geese? Um…I think they mate for life. I remember hearing that somewhere. But that’s all I know.”

“You know how geese fly in formation? That ‘V’ across the sky?”

Mulder nodded. “Yes.”

“Well,” Albert said, leaning back a bit on the sofa. “When a goose becomes hurt in some way, sick or shot from the sky, it will fall out of the formation. And when it falls, the goose in front of it and the one behind break away from the group and follow the injured goose down to the ground. Then they both stand in vigil over the injured one, waiting for it to regain its strength or for it to die. Sometimes it takes a long time for one of those two things to happen, but the geese continue to wait, no matter now long it takes.”

“What do they do if it dies?” Mulder asked softly.

Albert sipped his coffee. “If the injured one dies, the two geese will take off again, finding another flock to fly with until they catch up to the group they came from.” He paused. “But if the goose lives, they help it take off again, putting it in the middle of them once again so that there is less wind for it to push through, making the flying easier, until they find their own flock once again and rejoin the formation.”

Mulder stared into his coffee cup, and Hosteen could see him turning it over in his head.

“We are waiting, you and I,” Albert said gently. “And healing takes time.”

The other man looked up at him and their eyes met. Hosteen nodded, smiled kindly. Mulder nodded in return.

“All right,” he murmured. “I’ll try. To be patient.”

Hosteen nodded. “I should go,” he said, and stood now, placing the mug on the table in front of him. Mulder stood, as well, and together they walked out the door, out onto the patio where the grey horse was waiting, its white tail swishing absently. Albert touched its soft nose gently as he walked around, mounted slowly.

“Hey,” Mulder said from the ground. “How do you know that stuff about the geese, anyway? There aren’t any geese here, are there?” He indicated the desert around them.

Albert smiled. “‘Animal Planet,'” he said, smiling wryly. “Eight o’clock on Wednesdays. Victor got me satellite TV a few months ago.”

Mulder barked a laugh at that.

“I will check back on you in a few days,” Hosteen said, turning the horse to the side. “In the meantime, go help Victor with the horses. Always good to be around animals. And people, too.” He winked and Mulder smiled back.

“Okay,” Mulder said. “They might not like having me, as useless as I’ll be, but I’ll give it a shot.”

Hosteen nodded. “Goodbye, Agent Mulder.”

“Goodbye, Mr. Hosteen.”

Then Albert nudged the horse in the side gently, turned and headed back home.

+++

PUERTO PE`ASCO, MEXICO 9:02 a.m.

Mae Curran awoke slowly from the dream, a dream where she was running through a field, Sean in front of her, laughing as he enjoyed his game. She’d been trying to get him to stop for hours, it seemed, watching him pull further and further away from her as he ran.

The dream was so real that when she finally opened her eyes, shielding them from the morning light coming through the open window, she wondered if he’d really gotten away from her, and had an irrational urge to rise and check on him in his small room just down the short hallway.

She looked at the other side of the bed, the pillow rumpled and the covers turned back, the only evidence that Joe had been there the night before. That and the fact that she was wearing his t-shirt, loose on her, covering her otherwise nude body.

And the faint musk smell of their lovemaking lingering. She breathed it in, sighed it out. A smile tugged at the corners of her mouth, an expression she was unaccustomed to but was finding came more naturally these days.

She was in love and was helpless against it.

God help me, she thought, and closed her eyes, letting the smile come now, felt it blooming over her.

She lay in the sunshine for a long time, letting it warm her skin, her arms thrown over her head languidly on the bed of her long thick hair on the pillow.

Then the dream came back to her, the memory of the panic she felt running after Sean, pleading for him to stop as he pulled far out in front of her, laughing…

It bothered her on some visceral level she couldn’t quite put her finger on. It was enough to strike her out of her morning ease and she sat up, threw her legs over the side of the bed, and pulled on a pair of sweatpants from the shabby dresser in the corner of the small room.

She padded into the hallway, down a few feet to Sean’s room, its door closed. She knocked.

“Sean?” she called. She didn’t like the silence from within one bit. She pushed the door open without waiting for a response.

Sean looked up from the floor where he was sitting, a piece of paper on a wide book on his lap. Crayons and markers and pencils were spread out around him, and he looked up, his hand stopping its movement across the sheet where it had been leaving a trail of cobalt blue across the surface.

“What’s wrong, Aunt Mae?” he said softly, fear in his voice.

She relaxed, realizing that her tone when she’d said his name had been frightened, as well, and had triggered the response in him. “No, no,” she said hurriedly. “There’s nothing wrong. I was just worried when I didn’t hear anything from you in the house.”

“I was coloring my picture,” Sean replied, and his hand started moving again, the faint dry sound of the crayon filling the room.

She entered completely now, went to him, sitting beside him on the floor. “What are you drawing then?” she asked with interest. “Do you mind if I see?”

He shook his head, moved the book over a bit to allow her a better view. A red ship floating on a jagged blue ocean, dark vague shapes in the water. There were several stick-like figures on the boat, three at the bow, two tall and one short. One of the tall ones had bright yellow hair, one long black, and the smaller figure had hair done in a reddish brown. The burnt sienna crayon lay nearby next to the yellow. Sean was coloring the ocean now, cerulean blue.

“That looks like Joe’s boat, doesn’t it?” Mae said, scooting closer. “Red on the sides like that.”

Sean nodded, seeming pleased that she’d guessed what the drawing was. “Aye,” he said softly. “It is Joe’s boat.”

“Who are all these people then?” She pointed first to the ones at the back, all bunched together, their hair all dark.

“Those are the other fishermen.”

She put her finger on the figure with the long dark hair. “And that looks like me, eh?”

He smiled and nodded, his small finger going to the yellow-haired one. “That’s Joe,” he said, moved his finger to the smaller person. “And that’s me right there.”

“Mmmm, I like the thought of us all on the boat,” Mae said. “That would be fun. We should do that one day. Get up really early and go out with Joe. Would you like that?”

Sean smiled wider, but kept his eyes down. “Aye,” he said softly.

Mae moved behind him, smiling, reached over to tickle him, causing him to pull his arms down to his sides to protect his ribs as he laughed.

She curled her arms around him, pulling his back against her front, her legs bracketing his. He leaned his head back beneath her chin.

“What are these dark things in the water?” she asked, pointing at the vague shapes. “Maybe seals? Like the one we saw the other day?”

He shook his head solemnly. “No, they’re sharks,” he said softly. “Big sharks.”

Mae’s brow furrowed at the thought of that. “Well, that’s a scary thing, isn’t it?” she said, trying to stay light. The image bothered her, though. The fact that he would come up with that in an otherwise pleasant picture.

Sean only nodded, went back to coloring his ocean.

As he did so, Mae suddenly noticed the room seemed very hot and sweat broke out on her forehead, a cold prickle. Then, just as abruptly, her stomach lurched.

“I’ll be right back, Sean,” she said quickly, scrambling to her feet and going out the door, across the hall to the bathroom, barely making it to the toilet before her stomach heaved again and she vomited, the force of it sending her to her knees. It continued for a few moments.

“Jesus,” she breathed when she was finally finished, laying her forehead against the edge of the seat as the toilet flushed. She was holding her stomach. She felt like she’d pulled every muscle in her belly.

“Aunt Mae? You all right?” Sean said from the door to the bathroom. She turned her head to the side, her temple on the seat now, her breathing heavy.

“Aye, Sean, I’m all right,” she said, trying to sound reassuring. She pulled herself upright as she said it, going to the sink.

“But you’re sick,” the boy said, unconvinced.

“I’m okay,” she said again, turning on the faucet and running cool water into her cupped hands. She splashed water on her face, dabbed with a cloth, then reached for her toothbrush. She turned to Sean again, who was still watching her with worried eyes.

“Go on back in and finish your picture, then get ready and we’ll go to the beach, all right?”

“Okay,” Sean said quietly, and went back into his room.

Mae looked at herself in the mirror, color high on her cheeks. She put her hand on her stomach again. The nausea seemed to have passed, leaving her just feeling shaky and a bit overwarm.

Must be a little bug, she thought, brushing her teeth. With some of the things they ate around town, she was surprised this didn’t happen more often to both of them.

She closed the door now, stepped out of her sweatpants and stripped off Joe’s t-shirt, breathing in his scent. Then she turned on the shower and stepped into the steaming water, light pouring in through the window and settling on her as she washed herself clean.

+++

9:46 a.m.

Tom Lantham held the picture up again into the face of the bone dealer, his nose wrinkling at the smells of bleach and rot around him. He and Rudy Grey were standing next to a pile of cow skulls that extended over his head, a cloud of huge black flies hanging over it as the bone baked in the early morning sun. There were rattlesnakes coiled to strike on the shelves behind the bone dealer’s head. Armadillos. Roadrunners.

“You sure you haven’t seen this woman and this boy?” he asked again, this time more slowly. The man — Paco, short with a dark moustache that trailed down around his mouth — seemed to have a grasp of English, but he was so reticent Lantham was having a hard time figuring out if he didn’t understand him, or just didn’t want to respond.

“No, nobody like that, no,” Paco said stiffly.

He’s hiding something, Lantham thought. The man was too simple to be a good liar, and Lantham had a lot of experience with people like that in his line of work.

“Uh huh,” he said, putting the picture back in his shirt pocket. God, he wished he still smoked. These people were driving him crazy.

Grey was toeing the sharp nose of a skull on the bottom of the pile, threatening to send half the stack down on them, and Lantham grabbed his arm, pulling him away.

“Let’s go,” he said gruffly, then turned to Paco.

“Thank you, seor,” he said with false graciousness. “You’ve been a huge help.”

“Any time, gringo,” Paco returned, a shit-eating smile on his face. Lantham scowled and he and Grey walked away, into the crowd of the marketplace.

“What do we do now?” Grey asked, hurrying to keep up with Lantham. Grey was sweating in his sportsjacket, which he wore to hide the pistol at the small of his back. Lantham wore one, too, for the same reason. “Nobody has seen them here at all.”

Lantham quickened his pace. “No, Rudy, they’ve all seen them. Those two are here somewhere. I know it.” He gestured toward the end of the marketplace, where the view opened up onto the beach beyond.

“Let’s go to the beach and see if we see anyone. Maybe we can find someone there who’ll fess up.”

They wove their way through the marketplace, through the produce carts, the fish market area smelling of fresh catch, the stands selling firewood and fireworks for the beach.

They’d been driving for days, following sparse leads as they went. Down through Santa Ana and Bonacita, to the coast to Puerto de la Libertad and then north. There had been a definite sighting of them at a town called San Luisito, where an old man had told them that if foreigners passed through that town, they were most likely on their way to Puerto Peasco, which he called “El Escondite,” or “The Hiding Place.”

Lantham had shown the picture of Curran’s sister and the boy to half the town, it seemed, and everyone had the same quick negative response. Too quick.

They made their way to the end of the market and climbed the dunes that banked the shabby beach. There was trash blowing in the breeze off the ocean, the smell of a dead fish wafting in the wind. A few people had staked out spots on the sand, soaking up sun and listening to Mexican music on portable radios.

Lantham put his hands on his hips and surveyed the scene, his face dyspeptic. Grey was red-faced behind him, looking at the waves.

Lantham checked out each knot of people, wondering which to approach first. Then something caught his eye.

A young boy at the edge of the ocean, squatted down, picking through things on the sand. A woman stood next to him, long hair blowing in the steady breeze.

He reached back and slapped Rudy in the gut. “Come on,” he said, keeping his eyes on the pair on the beach as though they might disappear if he looked away.

Together, he and Grey made their way across the beach, heading for the waves. They were walking parallel to the two, not directly toward them. Lantham just wanted to get close enough to get a good look at their faces.

They stopped at the edge of the ocean, where the sand gave way to lava-like rocky tidal pools.

“Don’t look at them,” Lantham said below his breath as the woman turned and started down the beach toward them, the boy in tow. Seeing them, the woman headed off at an angle towards the center of the beach to give them a wide berth.

But she got close enough for Lantham to see her face. Hers and the boy’s, both.

“It’s them,” Lantham said quietly, reaching down to pick up a shell, which he skipped into the ocean, trying to appear as touristy and easy as he could given his attire. Rudy obediently kept his eyes forward, his hands in his pockets.

Lantham watched them as they went up the beach, up toward the dunes and the street beyond. It would arouse too much suspicion to follow them until they reached the street.

These things had to be handled delicately. Especially at this phase.

He looked down, biding his time as Mae and Sean Curran climbed the dunes, saw a tiny purple crab standing on the rocks, one small and one huge claw upraised in warning, its black eyes shining like beads. He toed at it absently until it scurried away into the nooks of the rock and disappeared.

+++

THE OVERLOOK MOTEL AFTON MOUNTAIN AFTON, VIRGINIA 1:46 p.m.

Paul Granger pulled into the parking lot of The Overlook, a two- story building perched on the edge of Afton Mountain, its windows gleaming in the afternoon light. The place was mostly windows, he noted, which didn’t surprise him when he turned and looked at the view the place afforded, a sprawling expanse of valley dotted with farms and dense woods.

It was a fairly warm day, even for the mountains, and he peeled out of the jacket he’d put on when he left the house that morning, tossing it into the back seat of his black Jetta and pushing up the sleeves of the light, dark sweater he wore. He was in his typical Saturday attire — jeans, running shoes — and it helped him feel a little less conspicuous on his errand. Though he’d technically come as a CIA agent, he didn’t feel like anyone could tell that by looking at him. Getting out of a suit did wonders for that.

This had to be the place, he thought as he made his way across the parking lot. His bad leg hampered him only slightly, the bone feeling better as winter finally gave way into what he knew would be a short spring. At this rate, he’d be back to light running in a matter of weeks.

He headed for the office, the bell tinkling as he opened the glass door and went inside. A woman came out from the back room — slight, blonde hair and holding out well in her mid-50s — and smiled to him kindly as he approached the desk.

“Can I help you?” she asked, her southern accent thick. She was from further south than Virginia, Granger knew instantly. He smiled in return, reached into his pocket and pulled out his badge.

“I hope you can,” he said, flipping the cover open and showing it to her. “I’m Paul Granger, with the CIA. I wondered if I might ask a few questions.”

The woman looked a little bewildered. The place didn’t exactly look like a hotbed of legal activity, so he wasn’t surprised. And “CIA” always sounded so damn serious, a fact which pleased him and made him want to roll his eyes at the same time.

“Well, sure, Mr. Granger,” the woman managed. “I’ll answer anything I can.”

He pulled out a small spiral pad from his other back pocket, reached for one of the pens behind the desk, looking to her for approval. She nodded, her eyes still wide.

“What’s your name, ma’am?” he asked gently in an attempt to put her at ease.

“Sue,” she said. “Scheiber. My husband Ed and I own the motel.”

“Are the two of you the only ones who run the office?” he asked, writing down her and her husband’s names.

“Yes, it’s just us,” she said, still nervous. “Has something happened here that we don’t know about?”

“In a way,” he replied, fingering a slot in his badge wallet. He pulled out a wallet-sized photo of Mulder, his official FBI photo, a copy of the one that had gone on his badge. He pushed it across the counter toward her.

“I’m wondering if you might recognize this man,” he said. “He stayed here on January 12-13, I’m told.”

The woman eyed the photo, holding it up to get a closer look at it. “That was a long time ago,” she said doubtfully.

“I know,” Granger replied, trying to keep the anxiety out of his voice. This needed to work. He needed someone to have seen Mulder here.

“Do you know around what time he would have checked in?” she asked, returning her gaze to Granger’s face.

Granger thought back to the last time he’d seen Mulder that day. They’d been with the task force through most of the day, and Mulder had returned to the Marriott sometime around four or five that afternoon, he recalled. Afton was about two hours from Richmond, so that gave him some idea of his window.

“I’m guessing early evening,” he said finally. “Or later.”

“Then it would be Ed you want to talk to. I do the early morning and afternoons here until around four. Ed takes the nights.” She looked at Mulder’s picture again. “And I think I’d remember a face like that one. What’d he do, anyway?”

Granger saw her eyes gleam with the intrigue of all this. It was clearly more excitement than the woman had had in some time. He would have smiled had the situation been less dire.

“I’m not at liberty to discuss that really,” he said. “Nothing illegal, though. I’m just trying to confirm he was here. Do you keep a ledger of who stays here? A guest book or anything like that?”

She nodded, placing the picture on the counter. “Yes, everyone signs in in this here book,” she said, and reached down for the thick ledger, a battered green cover that had the word “Guests” embossed on the front of it. “We thought we’d do that, you know, kind of like a fancy hotel does.” She blushed.

Now Granger did smile. “I see,” he said, and reached for the book. He laid it on the counter and opened it, flipping through the pages, checking dates until he’d found January 12. He ran his finger down the list of names: Long… Selby… Schulz… Reynolds… Brown… Kucinski… Jolly…

Nothing there. His heart sank.

Then he turned the page over to the thirteenth, and was rewarded immediately.

Hale. George Hale. The first entry of the day. And he recognized Mulder’s handwriting, as well, having seen so much of it scribbled on files and legal pads as they’d profiled Curran together in Richmond. He’d signed in at five in the morning on the thirteenth. Granger felt a little jolt of adrenaline at the sight of the name.

“You find his name?” Scheiber asked. She’d noticed his reaction immediately.

“Yes,” Granger replied. “I need for your husband to try to identify him in this picture, if he was the one on duty at five.”

“Yes, it would be Ed,” she said, excited herself over this little bit of cloak and dagger at the Overlook. “I don’t come on until six. I’ll go wake him up for you.”

Granger smiled again, both at her enthusiasm and her words. “I would really appreciate that, Mrs. Scheiber. Thank you.”

Scheiber went around the desk. “Anyone comes to check in, tell them I’ll be right back,” she said, and then she was out the door, the bell chiming behind her.

Granger stood there, his eyes on the name still, looking at the picture of Mulder. He was glad that he’d found some proof he was there (though it would have, of course, been even better if Mulder had signed in using his own name), but he was still puzzled as to why Mulder would be out this way at five in the morning, what he’d been trying to do.

Maybe he couldn’t sleep and just needed a drive? He knew Mulder didn’t sleep well — he’d caught him up too many late nights. But to drive all the way out here? It seemed very strange.

He was still turning that over in his head when Mrs. Scheiber returned, a haggard- looking man with his shirt untucked and his hair in disarray behind her. He was cleaning his glasses on his shirt tail as he entered, then put them on and regarded Granger with sleepy eyes.

“Sue said you needed me to try to identify someone?” the man asked, his voice gravelly.

“Yes, I’m sorry to wake you, Mr. Scheiber,” Granger said, and showed the other man his badge just to be thorough. “I was wondering if you remember seeing this man here in mid-January. The thirteenth, to be exact.”

Scheiber took the picture, held it in front of him, looking down at it through the bottom of his bifocals.

“Hm…no, I don’t think so…” he said almost to himself as he continued to look.

Granger’s face fell.

“No, wait,” the other man said, pointing at the picture with his other hand, touching Mulder’s face softly, tapping. “I remember him. He came in in the middle of the night, or close to dawn, I think? It was snowing that morning. Pretty hard. I remember that because I couldn’t get a damn bit of sleep that morning with keep the walk shoveled and the parking lot plowed. I actually checked him out while Suey was making lunch. Him and that woman he was with, though she didn’t come into the office. I saw her as I was shovelling, before he came in to give me back my key.”

Granger’s brow knitted. “A woman?” he asked. “He was with a woman?”

“Uh-yeah, pretty little thing,” Scheiber said, looking over the rims of his glasses. “Red head. Real pretty.”

Beside him, Sue Scheiber rolled her eyes. “Figures he would remember that,” and she slapped him lightly on the arm.

Granger groaned inwardly. Oh great, he thought. Now I’ve got Mulder leaving the task force without authorization, AND Scully leaving her cover.

This is looking better all the time, he thought sardonically.

He did, however, take heart in the fact that at least Mulder wasn’t here with Curran (not that he believed that for a moment), and that someone was with him to vouch for his whereabouts.

Though the two of them meeting like that….it didn’t look good on many levels. Scully’s credibility as a witness for Mulder’s whereabouts was a bit compromised, with her own breach of protocol.

And the likelihood that they met not as agents, but as lovers.

And even if it wasn’t true, everyone would see it that way.

He had to ask, make one final attempt and making it look cleaner. “One room or two? Do you remember?”

Scheiber thought about it. “Just the one,” he said, handed the picture back to Granger. “I figured she was his wife, but I didn’t ask no questions. I mind my business about things like that.”

Granger nodded, placed the picture back in his badge wallet, then reached back for the counter and picked up his small spiral pad.

“Could you write down everything you just told me?” he asked, proffering both the pad and a pen to him. “It would be a big help to me in my…investigation.” He smiled wanly.

“Sure thing,” Ed Scheiber said, taking the pen and the pad. He placed it on the counter and began to write.

Back in the car, Granger sat still for a long time, trying his best to figure out what to do. He would have to tell Skinner about Mulder and Scully being there together, and he dreaded even that. After all, Skinner was their superior, and what they’d done by coming up there together looked very bad, professionally speaking.

The information solved one problem, but created a new one — the exposure of Mulder and Scully’s relationship, which, though not forbidden, was heavily frowned upon.

And it was becoming clear that Mulder was going to really only have Scully to vouch for his actions, and for what really happened in Mae Curran’s apartment. That was a bad thing, as well, as Padden was already questioning her conduct since she’d gone on the run.

The revelation that the two of them were lovers would make her credibility even weaker — Padden would say she was lying for Mulder because they were together, that she would do and say anything to protect him.

He shook his head as he started the car. He’d start with Skinner first. See how he reacted. Maybe Skinner would know what to do with all this once he knew about the two of them, though Granger hated to be the one to give even a small part of that secret away if Skinner didn’t know already.

Sighing, he turned back onto the highway. He headed east, going back toward Interstate 95, knowing he’d found the answer to one part of this puzzle, but wishing he could feel better about what he’d found.

+++

GEORGE BUSH CENTER FOR INTELLIGENCE LANGLEY, VIRGINIA 4:17 p.m.

The agent’s heels echoed through the empty corridors leading to the closed door of Robert Padden’s office.

He looked around as he walked, at the vacant offices, the closed doors. It was Saturday, and there was no one in the building who didn’t have to be there, the usual skeleton crew of agents working the weekends.

And the task force he was himself a part of. The one that met every weekend — and only on the weekends — to share their gathered information and to make their plans for the following week’s activities. And to report to their superior everything they’d found.

He reached the door, Padden’s temporary office here at the CIA headquarters. It was closed, as usual. Padden liked his privacy, even when there was really no one around to disturb him. His office was like a cocoon — dark and insular and quiet. Not a sound came through the heavy wooden door.

Tucking the folder he carried under his arm, the agent paused outside the door, preparing himself to have the unenviable task of being the bearer of bad news.

Unenviable particularly because it was to this man, and about this subject.

Finally, standing up straighter, he cleared his throat, knocked.

“Come,” came the faint response from inside the room.

He opened the door and made his way across the dark carpet to the desk, where a single bulb glowed on the desk, the only light in the room besides what little managed to leak through the closed drapes and blinds.

Padden looked up from a file he was reading, dropped the pen he’d been holding and took off his reading glasses. The agent stopped, hesitated.

“Well?” Padden said expectantly, already sounding a bit miffed.

The agent cleared his throat again, gripped the folder in front of him. Finally, he handed it over the desk to Padden, who did not take his eyes off the other man as he took the folder.

“We lost them,” the agent said quietly.

Padden pursed his lips, still for a moment, the folder held just over the immaculate surface of the desk.

“How?” The word seemed to echo in the office.

“They got spooked in a town in Arizona,” the agent said, choosing his words with care. “Someone tried to grab her, and the two of them took off. Our people couldn’t keep up with them without looking too conspicuous, so they hung back a bit. A bit too far, apparently.” He added the last apologetically.

Padden shook his head, clearly frustrated, finally set the folder down and opened it.

It was filled with photographs.

“Those are the most recent ones we have,” the agent added, trying to sound helpful. “They’re from a week ago, and a little before.”

Padden fingered them, glancing over them one by one. Mulder and Scully leaving a motel. Going into a restaurant. At a gas station, Scully heading around the side of a building.

His hand stopped on one, which he lifted away from the others and studied, replacing his glasses as he did so. The agent stepped closer to see which one it was, though he could pretty much guess without seeing.

Mulder and Scully sitting on a ledge, snow falling. Mulder behind Scully and his arms around her, his head on her shoulder. The intimacy in the picture was impossible to ignore or misconstrue.

“Well.” Padden held the picture up a bit higher. “I guess there’s one thing we know for certain at this point, isn’t there.”

The agent nodded. “There is. And to think we thought they were just sharing all those motel rooms for safety’s sake.” He smirked, hoping the humor would lighten Padden’s ire.

“You’d think,” Padden said almost absently. “that she would have had enough of that after that business with Fagan.” His lips curled.

The agent forced a smile in return. “Yes, you would,” he said, though some dim part of him felt guilty for agreeing to that one.

“Doesn’t seem to be agreeing with her one bit,” Padden continued, setting the photo down and picking up the one of Scully going around the building. “Post-Traumatic Stress seems to have set in nicely.”

The agent’s smile faded. “Yes,” he said, trying his best to sound agreeable. “We’ve all noticed that, as well.”

“Makes for an easier target for Curran,” Padden continued. “And it’ll keep Mulder shaken up, too. That will all work to our advantage.”

“Yes.” The agent shifted from one foot to another.

Finally, Padden dropped the photo. “Who tried to take her?”

“We’re not sure,” the agent replied, glad for the change of subject. “The people at the station said three men. They all drove away after they’d shaken themselves off. They were a little worse for wear apparently.”

Padden heaved out a put-upon breath. “Were our people close enough to pursue if they’d gotten to her?”

The other man nodded. “Yes. They were right there. They didn’t want to take off after Mulder and Scully when they ran, though, since they were expecting to be followed and it would have blown our cover for sure. They tried to follow a bit later, since there are only a few roads out where they were and they thought it would be impossible to lose them.” He looked down at his feet, then back up again. “But they were wrong, apparently.”

Padden leaned back, his face reddening. “How do we know that Curran doesn’t already have her? How the hell are we going to catch the bear if we can’t even keep an eye on the bait?”

The agent looked down again. This was the dressing down he expected.

“We’ll find them. We’re blanketing all the towns from southern Utah to western New Mexico, all the way to Farmington. When they stop again, we’ll find them.”

Padden scowled. “You tell our people I want them found immediately. All this effort will have been for nothing if we’re not there when Curran gets to her. And I’m running out of things to feed Granger’s task force to keep them occupied. The fact that someone tried to get her means Curran knows where she is and is making his move. We’d sure as hell better be there when he does. If he takes her out while we’re not there, they’ll be no way to get a finger on him, nothing to follow to him.”

“Yes, sir,” the agent replied. “We’re doing everything we can.”

“Do more,” Padden growled, and tossed his glasses back on the desk.

“We still think this would be easier,” the man said cautiously, “if you let us take Mulder out of the equation. Bring him in.”

Padden shook his head. “No,” he said firmly. “Leave him be. Especially given this.” He pushed the photo of the two of them on the cliff toward the agent. “Curran’s got someone working for him; that’s for certain now. And there’s no better target than a man in love willing to throw himself in front of a bullet.”

The agent watched that same wry smirk pass over the other man’s face again. He swallowed.

“No, leave Mulder right where he is,” Padden continued. “Knowing his history, he has a way of taking care of himself. If there’s a way to get into trouble, he’ll find it, and then he won’t be our concern any more.”

The agent looked down, uncertain for a moment. Then he took in a deep breath. This was what he’d signed on to when he took this assignment. This was about catching a terrorist, he reminded himself. About two people operating outside the law. They knew the possible consequences of the path they’d chosen.

Sacrifices would have to be made, he reminded himself.

He comforted himself with that thought, and nodded to his superior.

“We’ll find them,” he said firmly.

“Good. I hope you’ll pass on my…confidence…to the other agents?” Padden sat still as he said it.

“I will,” the man said. “By next weekend. When we meet again.”

“I’m going to turn up the heat a bit,” Padden said. “Redo the posters and make them both wanted now. And I’ll put a reward on it this time, too.”

“That would probably help us, yes,” the agent admitted.

Padden nodded. “Very good,” he said, and now went back to his files, reaching for his glasses. “I’ll leave you to your work. That will be all.”

The agent nodded. “Yes, sir,” he said faintly.

Then he turned and headed back through the office, relieved to close the door tight behind him.

+++

CHAPTER 13.

+++

TWO GREY HILLS, NEW MEXICO NAVAJO RESERVATION 10:37 p.m.

“Another one!”

Scully pointed up towards the far right quadrant of the sky, her eyes wide as the streak of light shot a long trail across the dark canvas of stars above her, the trail fading almost instantly, as though the meteor she’d seen had never been there at all.

“I saw it, yes,” Albert Hosteen said from beside her. “A big one. Burned for a long time for a falling star.”

Another puff of his pipe smoke reached her, lingering with the smoke from the campfire they’d built in the firepit in front of the two chairs. She found herself looking over at him in the flickering firelight, his features thrown in black and gold relief, at his eyes turned up toward the sky. They were glowing dark pools in his craggy face as he scanned above. He looked content, and she borrowed some of that feeling from him.

At first, she’d thought it a silly thing to do, to watch a meteor shower. After all, she thought, it was nothing but a shower of space debris burning up on entry into the atmosphere. But Hosteen had said that it might be pretty, that she might enjoy it, and she’d relented, let him build the fire after they’d shared their nightly meal.

She smiled at the memory of him coming down off Ghost — his obedient, almost silent, horse — with the foil-covered pan.

“Have you ever had Navajo lasagna?” he’d asked, meeting her as she came down out of the trailer.

“No, I haven’t,” she’d replied, already amused at the notion.

“That’s good.” Albert was smiling as he said it. “Because there is no such thing. This is Stouffer’s.”

He had a knack for making her laugh like that. Easy laughter at easy things.

After she’d fetched the plastic plates, the flimsy silverware, from the trailer and they’d eaten the meal, he’d told her about the shower that night, suggested they watch it together.

She had to admit, when he first started coming around with food every night, there had been a part of her that had resented the intrusion on her space, her grief. But as the nights had gone by, she’d found herself welcoming his serene presence, a nightly respite from her solitude.

She spent the whole day thinking, turning events from her life over in her head like stones she was lifting up and examining one by one. She’d grown to realize it had been years since she’d truly had the time alone to really consider the things that had happened to her, to allow herself to feel the pain and anger she had over some of them.

Her abduction. Her cancer. Her infertility. The deaths in her family. Emily. Curran’s manipulation of her with the drug.

And then the rape.

But now, with the time alone in the trailer, the hours spent walking in the desert behind it, she had begun to feel these things. It was as if the attack by Fagan had finally driven her to a break. It had somehow simultaneously closed one door and opened another — closed the door on her openness to people and possibilities in the present, but opened the door to her feelings about her past. Opened old wounds she’d thought long since scarred over.

Apparently she’d been wrong about that. And she was seeping rage and anguish like blood.

But not when she was with Hosteen. He calmed her during his nightly visits, always ready with a good meal and his pipe and his stories and gentle questions.

Another meteor streaked across the sky, this one fast as a wink, but both of them saw it. Scully smiled, shifting back in her chair. So child-like, this pleasure. So simple.

As if reading her thoughts, Albert blew out a puff of smoke and said: “Used to do this with my son Keel when he was a little boy. Sit out here and watch the sky at night. He still loves to be out at night. He even has a telescope now and sometimes he shows me things through it.” He turned to her. “You ever think about having children, Agent Scully?”

Her face flushed and she looked down, into the fire.

“I am sorry if I pry too much,” Hosteen said, regret in his voice as he saw her reaction. “I was just wondering. You don’t have to answer if you do not want to.”

“No, it’s fine,” Scully said, her chin coming up. She wouldn’t allow herself to hide from the truth of that. To do so made her feel like a coward, and she wanted to appear strong, particularly to this man she respected. “I…I’m not able to have children.”

“Hm,” Hosteen said. “I am sorry.” He looked into the fire. “It is strange though. I see you with a child for some reason.”

Scully looked down again, this time at the ground. “I had a child once,” she said hesitantly. “I didn’t carry her, but she was mine.”

“The government project.” He said it as a fact. She looked up at him in surprise. She had forgotten that he knew about that, and wondered to what extent he was familiar with it. At the same time, she was relieved not to have to explain.

“Yes,” she said at last. “I was taken and left unable to conceive. But Emily…she happened some time after that. I’m not sure how. I only found out about her by accident. I was never meant to know.”

“But you did know. You found her.”

Scully studied her hands. “Yes. I took her away from them when I found her, but she was very sick because of what they’d done to her.” She hesitated. “She died a few days later.” Her voice had dropped to just above a whisper.

A log fell in the fire, sending up a rain of sparks that swirled in the air and then blinked out.

“You did the right thing to take her away from them,” he said, and for the first time she heard something hard in his voice, the simmering of anger. “To try to give her a life away from all that. From what those men do. It is evil.” He looked over at her, his eyes shining in the flames. “I hope you do not blame yourself for her death. What you did was right.”

Scully looked back at him, nodded, hesitated.

Should she tell him? She hadn’t spoken of it to anyone — not even to Mulder, though he’d been a part of all of it…

But something about the quietness of the night, the cocoon of warmth and light of the fire, and something about Hosteen himself, made it seem safe to speak.

“I forgave myself for it because…she told me to,” she said, now unable to meet his eyes.

Did she even believe it herself that it was more than a hallucination or dream? How could she expect him to believe it was?

“Before she died, she told you?” he asked, pulling on the pipe.

Scully looked down. Shook her head. “No.”

Hosteen nodded. “Hm. Tell me the story.”

She pulled in a deep breath. “It was two years to the day after her death. Mulder and I…we’d been in a terrible car accident and no one could find us for a long time. We were both injured very badly. Dying. That’s when she came to me. Right into the car, in fact.” She looked down, embarassed. “I know how it sounds…”

“No, never apologize for the truth,” he interrupted gently. “No matter how it might sound to people who do not understand it. You were close to death. It is a time when we can touch death, the world of it. It makes sense, I think.” He paused. “What did she say to you?”

Scully’s gaze returned to his face with his acceptance of what she had to say. It relieved her, made her believe herself. It opened her a bit more.

“She said that what happened wasn’t my fault. For me to forgive myself for her death.” She balked. “And she told me…I didn’t have to be lonely anymore.”

Hosteen nodded. “A kind child,” he said softly. “A good child, to care for you that way.” He pinned her with his eyes. “Though you don’t seem to have listened to what she had to say.”

“What do you mean?” she asked, confused. “I told you I’ve forgiven myself for what happened to her.”

“You didn’t listen to the last thing she said,” Hosteen replied. “You might have at first, but you are ignoring it now.”

Scully flushed, looked away. “Things are not the same as they were then,” she said quietly. A touch of defensiveness had crept in.

“Not the same in you, you mean,” he said. He took another drag off his pipe.

“No, I mean things are not the same,” she insisted, more defensive now.

“Hm,” he said softly, and she was irritated by the blitheness of his response to her.

“You don’t believe me?” she said.

He studied the end of his pipe. “I saw Agent Mulder this morning after you left the house from your shower,” he said. He put the pipe back in his mouth, spoke around it. “Things seem the same to him.”

Angered and feeling invaded, she stood now suddenly, gathering her dishes from the meal. “Mulder has nothing to do with this,” she said under her breath. “You have no idea what I’ve been through. But I will tell you Mulder’s not a part of it.”

“You have to forgive him, too,” Hosteen said as though she hadn’t spoken, and she shot him a look, grabbed up his plate from beside him with her other hand.

“What are you talking about?” she snapped. “There’s nothing to forgive him for. Mulder didn’t do anything.”

“And that is what you must forgive,” Hosteen replied, unaffected by her tone, the fire catching on his face, the even challenge of it.

Scully pulled in a breath, stilled by his words. She looked at him, her eyes wide with surprise.

“As you must forgive yourself for this thing that has happened to you,” he continued. A puff of pipe smoke, but his eyes did not leave hers. “Forgive yourself for not being able to keep it from happening.”

She was stunned now, feeling the now-familiar burn of shame. But it was more than that, this coming from him. It felt like something tearing loose in her. Her eyes filled and she swallowed hard.

“How…how do you know these things?” she said incredulously, hoarse around the lump in her throat. She was still frozen in place in front of him, a plate in each hand. The left shook so that the fork chattered on the plastic surface faintly.

“There was a woman here a long time ago,” Albert began, looking not at her but into the fire again. “Went into Farmington one day and a man took her, kept her for several days and then left her in a parking lot. Once she got better she came home, back to her family here. She could not go out. She would not eat. The man she was supposed to marry waited a long time for her to come back to herself, but she never did.” He gnawed on his pipe end, took a puff. “He gave up after some time, married another.”

Scully swallowed again, struggling to contain her emotions. “What…what happened to her?” she asked faintly.

He looked back at her, away from the fire. “She stayed with her family for the rest of her life, which was short. Something in her had died and the rest of her, it was not far behind.”

He paused as she looked down, then back up at him again, desperate, her eyes rimmed with tears.

“I hated to watch that,” he said into the quiet. “We all did. It was hard to lose someone like that.”

Scully looked away, and twin tears escaped as she clenched her eyes closed, fighting for her badly taxed control. She did not have a hand free to wipe them, so she let them fall, though they shamed her.

Albert leaned forward. “It was a terrible thing, what was done to your body,” he said softly. “But you are still alive. Your body is still alive. And what was done to you is not who you are or what you must become.”

She shook her head. It was too much.

“Please…” she whispered, bit her bottom lip, her face still turned away.

“You can be who you were again,” he said with conviction. “You will be her again. You just have to search out what you need to find her.”

She was shaking now, a fine tremor, his words crashing through her. Her brow knitted over her closed eyes, and she bit her lip so hard it hurt. But she held on, riding it out. She still could not look at him as she opened her eyes finally, heaved out a long, trembling breath.

Out of the corner of her eye, she watched him lean back in the chair, set his pipe on the arm of it. Then he reached out and took the plates from her hands, set them on the ground at his feet.

His voice was supremely gentle when he spoke. “Why don’t you sit down and watch the shower and I will put another log on the fire? We can sit quietly and watch together for a while.”

She didn’t know what else to do, every part of her feeling flayed. Like she had lost a layer of skin, a hard dead layer like a shell.

So she went back to her chair and sat, wiping her eyes quickly as Hosteen rose and put a piece of wood on the fire. Flaming ashes rose and winked out as he returned to the chair beside her. He refilled and relit his pipe.

For a long time she sat with him and watched the sky in a companionable silence, the night cold but the fire warming her, stars shooting across the sky’s dark face like tears made of light.

+++

PUERTO PE`ASCO, MEXICO APRIL 3 (THREE DAYS LATER) 6:37 a.m.

“Katherine, try to drink this.”

Joe Porter spoke softly, kneeling on the cracked tile floor of the bathroom. He proferred Mae a glass of water with one hand, stroked her back softly through the thin material of his own shirt she was wearing with the other hand. She was on her knees, as well, panting, her head over the toilet.

“No…” she said between breaths, and she retched. He set the glass down quickly and pulled back her long hair, holding it in a ponytail as she vomited again. He winced. It sounded like it hurt this time.

Sean appeared in the doorway, sleep still clinging to him, the imprint of the sheets on the side of his face. “Joe?” he asked, uncertain, his voice tinged with fear.

“It’s all right, buddy,” Joe replied, doing his best to sound calming. “She’s just sick again. I’ll tell you what I want you to do, though. Go ahead and get dressed and put a few of your coloring books and toys in your backpack, okay?”

“Are we going out?” Sean asked, rubbing at his eyes.

“Yes, Sean, we’re going to go to the doctor’s,” Joe replied, and saw Sean’s eyes widen. “But it’s okay,” he added hurriedly. “We’re just going to get your aunt checked out, that’s all. Now go ahead and get ready to go.”

“Okay, Joe,” Sean said softly, and disappeared from the doorway.

Mae’s hand shot out to the side of the bathtub for support as she leaned back slightly. He looked at her, worried at the paleness of her face, and let go of her hair, his hand trailing over her shoulder.

“I don’t need to go to the clinic,” she said hoarsely, not looking at him. “It’s just a bug. It’s nothing.”

“You’ve been sick like this for days,” Joe insisted gently, and she turned to him now, her eyes tired but surprised. “Yes, Sean told me last night,” he said. “Though I wish you would have told me yourself. Now you’re getting weak and dehydrated. It’s time to go in and get some antibiotics or something. This happens to a lot of tourists down here and it’s not serious as long as you get it treated. It won’t just go away.”

She sighed, leaned all the way back now, then swooned, her eyes lolling. Joe moved forward quickly to catch her before her head could knock against the wall behind her and held her gently, cradling her against his chest.

“Jesus, Katherine, you’re going to be lucky to stand,” he said, stroking her hair. “Now don’t argue with me for once, all right?”

“All right…” she said faintly, turned her face into his chest, her eyes closing. “I’ll go then.”

+++

LA CLNICA DE SANTA MARIA 8:48 a.m.

Joe sat in the hard plastic chair at the end of the long hallway that led to the examining rooms of the town’s small clinic, and realized suddenly that he was tapping his foot anxiously and he stopped abruptly.

He blew out a breath and checked his watch. Patience had never been his strong suit, especially when he had worry piled on top of it. He shifted in his seat, stretched his long legs out in front of him, trying to appear nonchalant now for Sean’s sake.

Sean sat next to him, his hair still awry from sleep, his brow knitted in concentration. He had drawn what Joe considered to be a pretty good picture of a crab, and was now coloring its claws and body a bright purple.

Joe looked at the boy, at the seriousness of his face, and knew that though Sean was quiet about it, he was worried, as well. In the time that Joe had known him, Sean had shown himself to be a very sweet, very sensitive child, often lost in introspection. Joe knew that something like this was bound to affect him deeply, though the child had inherited his aunt’s ability to be silent about his thoughts most of the time.

It was a trait that worried Joe about both of them.

He reached over and cupped the back of Sean’s head in his calloused hand, gave him a small shake. The corner of Sean’s lip came up in a tiny smile, then was gone.

“How you holding up, buddy?” Joe asked softly.

“I’m all right,” Sean replied, but didn’t look up from the picture, his hand continuing to scratch the crayon over the paper.

Joe rubbed absently at his hair, looking at the picture, as well. “She’s going to be all right, you know,” he said, trying a different tact in an attempt to get Sean to open up a bit more. “It’s just a little thing she picked up in town, I bet. They’ll give her some medicine and she’ll be good as new.”

Sean seemed pensive for a moment. “But Aunt Mae hardly ever gets sick,” he said, still not looking up. “I can only remember a couple times she’s been sick like this.”

Joe’s brow knitted in confusion and his hand stilled on the back of Sean’s head where he’d been stroking the boy’s hair down. “‘Mae’?” he asked, and as he said the word, Sean’s face shot toward his, flushing deep red, clearly afraid.

Tears were beginning in Sean’s eyes as he searched Joe’s face. “I wasn’t supposed to say that,” he said, and his voice quivered. “She’ll be mad at me for telling.”

Joe let out a tired breath, nodded. A dull ache had lodged in his chest.

“It’s okay, Sean,” he said tenderly, stroking Sean’s hair down again to soothe him. “It’s okay that you told me that.”

“No, I’m not supposed to.” The tears were falling now.

Joe reached down and cradled the side of Sean’s face in his hand, brushing at the tears with his thumb. “It’s okay. ” he said firmly. “You can trust me, Sean. I would never do anything to hurt you or your aunt. No matter what.”

Sean searched his face for a few seconds, his lip trembling.

“Come here,” Joe said gently, and he leaned over, put his arms around Sean and embraced him. Sean slowly brought his arms up, as well, curled them around Joe’s broad back, the purple crayon held tightly in his fist. The picture slipped to the floor, disappeared under the row of chairs.

They stayed like that for a long moment while Sean’s chest heaved, his breath fast as he cried. Joe rested his cheek against the top of Sean’s head and let him cry. He wondered at the weight the small body in his arms had been carrying all this time. He wanted to lift it all away.

A nurse appeared around the corner, coming from the hallway. She stopped, met Joe’s eyes and smiled kindly.

“Seor Porter?” she asked, her voice gentle.

“S’,” Joe replied, letting Sean lean away. The boy rubbed his face on the short sleeves of his shirt, struggling for his control.

“You can come back now,” the woman said in Spanish. “But she only wants to see you right now.” She looked at Sean. “I’ll sit with the boy while you go.”

Joe’s anxiety ratcheted up a few more notches and he struggled to keep it off his face as Sean looked at him.

“What did she say?” Sean asked, afraid.

Joe looked down at him. “She’s going to sit with you for a minute while I go back and see…Mae,” he said. “I’ll be out to get you in a minute, all right?”

“Okay,” Sean said, and Joe stood, pushed his sandy hair back from his face, nervous.

“Examination room three,” the nurse said, and bent down to retrieve the picture that Sean had been working on that was near her feet, then sat down next to him. Joe nodded and went down the corridor.

At room number three, he stopped, steeling himself, and knocked faintly. Mae’s shaky voice told him to come in.

She was sitting on the examining table in a gown, her long bare legs over the side of the table. She wiped at her eyes, which were rimmed red and wet with tears. She did not smile as she looked at him.

“Where’s Sean?” she asked without preamble.

“He’s with the nurse. The end of the hallway.” He looked at her, frightened by her state. “My God, what is it?” he asked, his heart beating hard now.

Mae rubbed her eyes once more, pushed her hair back, kept her hand on her forehead as she closed her eyes and blew out a breath.

“Joe, I’m pregnant,” she said, her eyes still closed as she spoke.

His heart, already running to catch up with his nerves, now nearly screeched to a halt. His mouth hung open. “You’re pregnant?” he repeated, incredulous.

She nodded, and now she did look at him, drew in another trembling breath, let it out.

“But I thought we–” he stammered.

“Not even a diaphragm is a sure thing,” she said, and her hand came up to cover her face. She shook her head. “Jesus Christ ….”

He swallowed down his shock as he saw how upset she was. He couldn’t stand to see her this upset over this, over anything.

So he came forward until he was standing almost against her knees. Not knowing what else to do, he did as he’d done with Sean — he folded her in his arms, tucked her face beneath his chin, her fast breath on his throat.

“It’s okay,” he said softly into her hair. “Mae, it’s okay. We’ll work with this. Work it out.”

She melted into him for a few seconds, then she stiffened, pulled away quickly, looking into his eyes, the same frightened expression on her face as Sean had worn at his mention of the name. Her tears began again.

“Yes,” he said gently. “I know your real name. Sean slipped it out. He didn’t mean to. He was just upset.” He cupped her face in his large hands. “And it’s all right,” he said with conviction. “It’s all all right.”

She choked on a sob, and her arms came up and around him, pulling him to her so tightly it almost hurt him. He returned the embrace gently, rubbing her back in small circles. He turned his face and kissed her cheek, lingering there.

“Joe, I’m so afraid,” she whispered against his shoulder. “You don’t understand. If you knew…God, I’ve done…terrible things–” She stopped on another sob.

“I know you’re afraid,” he said softly, holding her tighter. “But we’re going to work this out. I don’t care who you’re running from or what you’ve done. I know who you are now and I love you.” He pulled her face away, looked into her eyes. “And you can trust me. You have to believe that, all right?”

She looked at him, and he could tell from the way her eyes ran over his face that she wanted desperately to believe him, even if she couldn’t bring herself to do it yet. He knew it would probably take a long time for her to trust him like that, but he was prepared to wait. For as long as it took.

Finally she nodded, accepting the gesture in what he’d said. He did, as well, and leaned forward. Moving slowly, with a sort of reverence, he kissed her forehead, then her cheek, and finally her lips.

+++

UNKNOWN LOCATION NEAR ALDER CREEK, COLORADO 2:23 p.m.

Larry Kingston, fresh off the plane from Tyner, Kentucky and rattled by a five-hour drive from Pueblo, listened to the chains grate on the snow as the jeep he was riding in crawled its way up the mountain toward the town of Alder Creek.

He knew they were getting close now. As the Grand Marshall of the Sons of Liberty, he was familiar with this place, having chosen it for his most secret base of operations himself on a hunting trip ten years ago. So he knew the way like he knew the lines on his own hand.

First the bend around the big tree at the top of the mountain; then the slow downhill for a few hundred yards, and the turnoff into the base, marked only by an orange cone and a sign that warned everyone to keep out — private property.

The man driving the jeep, a resident of the compound who’d been called upon to pick him up from the tiny airport in Pueblo, followed the way just as he expected, and the snow was just beginning to fall as he went down the mile-long driveway into the compound, the faint cotton of smoke hanging in the trees the only sign that there was life up ahead of them at all.

The snow was coming down more now, heavy lazy flakes, as they pulled up outside the mess hall and the jeep stopped. There was a knot of people there to greet him.

He stepped out of the jeep, immediately greeted by Jeff Haskell, the leader of the compound. The two men shook hands, then embraced quickly in the stiff way of country men in parkas.

“How are you, Larry?” Haskell asked. “Good trip?”

“Long trip,” Kingston corrected. “But it was all right, I reckon. Could use a pipe and cup of coffee, though.”

Haskell smiled. “You’ve got the pipe, I’ve got the coffee,” he said. “Want to come into the mess hall? We might be able to scare up something from lunch, too.”

Kingston waved him off. “I will. I’ll meet you in there. I want to do my errand first.” He looked around. “Where’s he at?”

The smile faded from Haskell’s face. “He’s in his bunk, getting packed up. You’re lucky to have caught him at all. He’s leaving today.”

“Huh,” Kingston grunted. “We’ll see about that. Take me to him, if you would.”

They moved through the group of people, Kingston smiling and greeting them as they reached out and touched his arm, shook his hand. He’d forgotten that these people — most of them up here to hide out from some job that he himself had had them do — needed to see him to be reminded of what it was they were fighting for in the first place.

He needed to make more of an effort to get up more often, he told himself as they made their way across the compound. And not because that Irish sonofabitch was causing trouble. But because these people needed him to lead them, even here.

There might be another Bush in the White House who wore a cowboy hat now, but there was still a lot of work to be done.

The bunkhouse was a small shack in the corner of the property, smoke curling from the metal stovepipe chimney. Haskell took him to the door, and then Kingston put his hand on the other man’s shoulder.

“I’ll take it from here,” he said. “Let me talk to him by myself.”

“No problem,” Haskell replied. “We’ll be in the mess hall for when you’re done.” And Haskell walked through the faint curtain of snow back the way they’d come.

Kingston reached into his pocket and pulled out his pipe and tobacco pouch, filled the pipe with the sweet-smelling flakes. Then he lit it, puffing out a cloud of aromatic smoke, gathering himself. Then he knocked on the door.

“What is it?” came the suspicious voice inside, and Kingston didn’t wait to be asked before he opened the door and walked inside.

Owen Curran was at his locker, tossing a few things into an open suitcase on the small cot. His eyes narrowed at Kingston as he entered the space, clearly not liking the intrusion. Kingston put the pipe in the corner of his mouth and held it there.

“I hear you’re going away, Mr. Curran,” he said, pinning Curran with his eyes and daring him to speak.

Curran stood for a few seconds, the two men regarding each other silently. Then Curran went back to the locker, reached in for something else. “Aye,” he said. “That I am. How did you hear about that then, I wonder?”

His voice was drippingly nice and tinged with sarcasm. Kingston didn’t like it one bit.

“Mr. Curran, this may come as a shock to you, but those two men down there in Mexico work for me. So they called me when they found your sister and your boy down there. I’m just sorry they called you first.”

“We had a talk, Lantham and I, about that. We have an agreement that I’m to be there when he takes them.” He looked at Kingston with narrow eyes. “He did as he was told.”

Kingston pulled on the pipe, leaking smoke out the other corner of his mouth. “What I’m wondering, Mr. Curran, is who the hell you think you are that you can tell my people what to do like that.”

Curran stopped rummaging in the locker and squared off with Kingston now, silent and clearly accepting the gauntlet thrown down.

“Lantham said you threatened him with non-payment if he didn’t call you, as though those orders came from me, so that’s why he called you.” Kingston’s face iced over. “Who said you could do that?”

Curran pulled in a slow breath, put his hands in his pockets almost casually. “This is my show, Mr. Kingston,” he said softly, dangerously. “This is my family and my business. We do it my way. And my way is that I’m there to make sure your men don’t cock the thing up on their way to doing it.”

“You need to stay here, Mr. Curran,” Kingston said in a tone that didn’t want an argument. “You’re under my protection, in my hiding place, and I say you stay here and let those two men do their jobs and bring your kin up here to you like you said you wanted in the first place. I can’t have you down there with them if they happen to get caught. I don’t want to be tied to you in any way with the police should that happen. I don’t want nothing to do with you or what you’re standing for.”

He puffed out another cloud of smoke into the cool air as Curran looked at him.

“No offense intended, of course.” He added this last with a crooked smile.

“Of course,” Curran said, and returned the smile.

“Apparently nobody wants much to do with you these days,” Kingston continued. “Not even your own people I hear. Not after what you did in D.C.” He shook his head. “I think you should stay up here with us for a little while until we get these three in for you. Then I wash my hands of you.”

“You’ve only got the two for me so far,” Curran snapped, returning to packing. He tossed a pistol in its holster into the suitcase haphazardly. “The deal was for all three and the debt’s paid, remember?”

Kingston nodded. “Almost got the other one, that woman, in Arizona a few days back. Won’t be long until we find her, as well. Got a lot of people looking around for her now. We’ll find her right quick.”

Curran froze now. “How did that get fucked up?” His chest was heaving with emotions that Kingston couldn’t quite name. Excitement? Rage? He couldn’t tell which it was.

Kingston took the pipe out of his mouth, studied the end. “She’s got someone with her. A man who’s armed. He got in the way. But don’t worry. We’ll find her again and we’ll be ready this time.”

“I should fucking hope so,” Curran said angrily, then he turned and pointed at Kingston, something wild in his eyes. “In the meantime, I’m going to Mexico to get my sister and my boy. And you’re not stopping me. And if your men move before I get there, I’ll be making a call to the papers about this place and then you’ll have the trouble you’re asking for.”

Kingston put the pipe back in his mouth. He could feel blood behind his eyes as he looked at Curran but outwardly he stayed calm, puffed.

Somewhere along the line, Kingston thought, swallowing his rage into cold hate, this sonofabitch had gone completely crazy.

Nothing worse than a cause gone personal, he thought bitterly. It sickened him to see it.

“Just so we understand each other,” Kingston began softly. “You potato-eating sonofabitch. You breathe one word about this place after my good faith in you and my hiding your sorry ass and I’ll make sure all the right people know just where to find you . And I ain’t talking about the FBI and the CIA who will treat you pretty, either.”

“Call them,” Curran said. “I don’t give a good fuck what you do. I’ll have what’s mine soon enough and I’ll be out of your way and theirs. You won’t know where to point them, you country fuck.”

Kingston went to the stove now, opened the door and tapped his pipe into it. The flame hissed in return.

“All right, Mr. Curran,” he said evenly. “You go on there down to Mexico. You call me with where you end up after that. Keep Lantham and Grey with you until you’re done, and I’ll send the woman your way when we get her. Then you and me will be done with each other and we can just go our ways. How’s that sound to you?”

Curran nodded. “That sounds just fine, Mr. Kingston.” He turned toward his locker, dismissing him. Then he spoke, facing the locker.

“You’d better fucking keep your word to me. You owe me, after all.”

“Yes, I do owe you,” Kingston replied, and turned to go. “And I always pay my debts. Not to worry. Have a safe trip.” Then he was out the door and in the snow, moving across the compound.

Fury boiled in him. Nobody talked to him like that. And certainly not some crazy foreign bastard like the man he’d just left behind.

I need to do some phone calling, he thought to himself, calming down as he made his way to the mess hall.

And he knew just who — and when — to call.

+++

CHAPTER 14.

+++

TWO GREY HILLS, NEW MEXICO NAVAJO RESERVATION APRIL 4 5:38 a.m.

“Hey Mulder! GET UP!”

The heavy, fast thumping of a fist on plastic startled Mulder from his dead sleep and he bolted upright in bed, his hand immediately going for the gun he kept beside his pillow against the wall. His chest was heaving, his eyes wide as they shot toward the window, only to find Victor’s smiling face peering in at him between his open hands, which were pressed to the plexiglass.

Christ, Victor, don’t scare me like that!” Mulder exclaimed, laying the gun back down and cupping his forehead.

“Sorry,” Victor said, though his smile didn’t fade. “I knocked on the door, but you didn’t hear me, I guess.”

Mulder shook his head, clearing it, noted it was just getting light outside. “What time is it?”

Victor’s smile widened. “It’s a little after 5:30. You’re late.”

Mulder reached for his watch on the sill as though he didn’t believe the other man, shivering in the early morning cool, his bare legs having slipped out from under the covers. He looked at the watch — sure enough. The man was right.

“Late for what?” he asked, cranky.

“You said you wanted to help with the sheep and horses–” the young man began firmly.

“Yeah, but for God’s sake–“

“– and this is when we start with them for the day,” Victor finished, ignoring him. “We’ve all already eaten. Time for you to get at it.”

Mulder groaned, rubbed at his face and beard with both hands.

“Come on,” Victor cajoled. “You sleep too much as it is. Get moving, man.” He pattered on the window with his hands as though he were drumming, making an enormous hollow racket. Mulder put his hand up in defeat.

“All right, all right,” he said, throwing his legs over the side and reaching for his jeans on the floor. They’d started living there when they weren’t on his body.

“Hurry up and fix something to eat and come on,” Victor said. “Meet us at the corral. We’re going to break horses this morning.”

“Sounds messy,” Mulder quipped, putting one leg, then the other, in the worn denim. He stood, pulling the jeans up over plaid flannel boxers, then turned toward the window as he zipped up. “I’ll be there in a few. Let me burn some bacon and eggs.”

Victor grinned again. “Go for it,” he said, and then he disappeared.

Mulder reached for a t-shirt from his suitcase, which was tossed on the floor and overflowing with unfolded clothes, dirty mixed with clean. Scully would be horrified, he thought, at how his messy habits had returned so quickly. Her sense of order had worn off in a matter of days.

He pulled on his socks and boots, sitting on the edge of the bed. Thinking of her tugged at him, and he struggled to shove it off, only half succeeding. He sighed and headed to the kitchen, scrubbing at his mussed hair as he went.

True to his word, the kitchen was soon filled with a faint layer of whitish smoke, heavy with the smell of overdone bacon, dry eggs. He picked at them straight from the pans with a fork, not even bothering with pepper or salt.

After only a few mouthfuls, he gave up. One thing that Scully had managed to pass onto him now that the neatness was gone was her lack of appetite.

Tossing the eggs into the bacon’s skillet, he went out the front door, looked around the trailer for a long moment. He whistled faintly.

It took a minute or two, but Bo finally appeared from the side of the trailer, low to the ground, as usual. His ears pricked up for a second as he saw Mulder, his nose coming up to sniff the air.

“Want to eat, Bo?” Mulder called, walking slowly to the edge of the patio. About 15 feet away the silver pot sat, filled with fresh water from the night before. Mulder was able to walk to the pot without Bo spooking too much, the dog having become accustomed to getting water from him there. Then he placed the heavy skillet next to the pot, turned and headed back toward the patio.

About five feet away, he stopped, considering.

He’d been making progress with the dog slowly, baby steps every day. He no longer ran when Mulder was out on the patio, even if Mulder was moving about a good bit while out there. Bo only ran when other people came around now.

Trying to get Bo to trust him had become a sort of challenge to him, something he used to mark the days. The dog was Mulder’s only real companion here in the desert. Earning his trust had become, for some reason, important to Mulder.

So today he thought he’d try adding something, pushing it a little more.

With that thought in mind, he turned slowly, squatted down on the ground, his elbows on his knees, holding very still. Sure enough, Bo had already started coming for the skillet, but he stopped suddenly as Mulder added this bit of uncharacteristic behavior. The dog’s ears flattened more and he took a step backward.

“It’s okay,” Mulder said softly. “Come on.” He added a little whistle, which the dog had always seemed to like.

Bo took a step toward him again, two back. Then he began to come to Mulder slowly, belly scraping the ground. The smell of the bacon and eggs was quite an enticement for the emaciated dog, and Mulder watched the black dog’s black eyes dart back and forth from the skillet to him as it approached. The now-familiar whine started in the dog’s throat.

“Bo…” Mulder cooed. He reached his hand out, snapped his fingers lightly. The dog whined again, but began to come forward, taking the steps to the skillet in little jerks and stops until he was in front of it, his nose coming over the side, his eyes still on Mulder.

“That’s it,” Mulder murmured, his hand still out. He watched the dog scarf down the food in huge mouthfuls, barely chewing.

From here, Mulder got a good look at him — patches of hair missing on his sides, juts of vertebrae lining his back, large scabbed sores here and there. His ribs were like long fingers gripping him beneath his skin. But his head and face looked soft, long ears like black velvet flaps leaned over the pan.

Bo finished off every last morsel from the pan, looked up at Mulder, licking his chops.

“You still hungry?” Mulder asked, and a thought came to him. A can of Spam in the cabinet he remembered seeing on one of his forages through the ancient supplies Hosteen’s brother had left behind. Since he’d rather die than eat the stuff himself, he thought Bo might like it.

After all, the stuff was basically dog food anyway, wasn’t it? he mused.

He rose slowly and Bo continued to look at him, crouched and nervous, but did not run away. Then he returned to the trailer, fetching the can and opening it as he walked back outside. The dog was still waiting, sniffing the air again.

Mulder squatted down as before, held the can out as far toward the dog as he could. The can emitted the unmistakable odor of something meat-like into the air, and Bo turned his attention to it immediately. His ears came up again.

“Come on…”

It took several moments of the dog shifting from side to side, a few faint whines. Then, slowly, he came forward, putting one foot in the skillet as he walked over it toward Mulder, closing the space between them. Mulder held so still his legs began to cramp up, but he ignored them, unwilling to move.

Bo reached the can, stretched his neck out toward it, gave it a sniff, his eyes on Mulder’s face. His long tongue came out and he licked the flat surface of the meat, like someone testing his food for poison.

He must have found it all right, because once he’d finished off the glistening layer of fat on the top and sides, he tried to fit his mouth into the can. His teeth knocked against the sides, no matter which way he tried to turn his head.

“Here, hang on,” Mulder said in his most gentle voice. Moving slowly, he pulled the can toward his body, turned it upside down and gave it shake. It didn’t come out, and Mulder realized he probably needed a can opener for the other end, or a knife to work it out. He had neither handy.

Sighing, he dug into it with his other hand, pulling out a mottled pink chunk of meat. Then he reached his hand toward the dog. Bo’s ears went down again and he shied, and Mulder wondered immediately if he’d gone too far, if this was too much to ask of the animal, too soon to ask it.

He mentally chided himself at the image he must present — a nearly 40-year-old man squatting in front of a frightened dog, holding a handful of Spam. He chided himself for feeling the hopeful feeling he was, as if the dog eating from his hand meant something spectacular to the world.

He shook his head at himself, feeling foolish and pathetic.

But then Bo took another step forward, pushed his face toward Mulder’s hand, sniffing again. There was a small sliver of meat clinging to the end of one of Mulder’s fingers, and Bo’s tongue came out, picking it off carefully. Mulder flattened his hand out a bit more, offering the main hunk.

With one final look at Mulder’s face, the dog put his nose into Mulder’s hand, pulling the meat into his mouth. Mulder felt Bo’s soft muzzle rooting around on his palm as he ate and he found himself smiling. When Bo was done, Mulder reached in, pulled out another small handful, offered it again. Bo repeated his action, this time without hesitating at all.

This continued until Mulder was digging around in the rounded corners of the can with his fingers. Bo licked Mulder’s fingers in earnest, his ears no longer flat against his head. His belly was even off the ground a bit.

As Mulder offered the last of the Spam to the dog, he set the can down, moving slowly. Then he touched the top of Bo’s head with his fingers.

The dog slumped immediately but Mulder kept his hand where it was, since Bo did not run away. He cupped his palm around the dog’s crown, chanced a light stroke. The dog allowed it, though he whined again.

“That’s it,” Mulder said quietly. “That’s it…” He stroked his head, reached around and smoothed the dog’s ear back, his thumb on Bo’s cheek. “Good boy. That’s a good boy…”

Bo’s eyes darted away from Mulder’s face then back again, cowering a bit under the touch still, but not moving away. He opened his mouth and began to pant. Mulder scratched his neck, moving underneath the frayed nylon collar that the dog still wore like some remnant of a previous life.

Mulder was still smiling at the simpleness of the gesture, though his eyes stung for a few seconds. He had no idea why.

“Mulder!” Victor Hosteen yelled from behind his house. “Quit messing around with that dog and come on! We’re waiting for you!”

Bo turned quickly at the sound and saw Hosteen, every muscle going taut under Mulder’s hand. Then he bolted for the land behind the trailer once again.

Mulder’s hand was still poised in front of him for a few seconds, as if the dog were still beneath it, as he watched him go.

Then he stood from his crouch, raised his hand in defeat to Victor for the second time that day.

“All right,” he called. “I’ll be right there.” And he turned to go back into the trailer to get his denim jacket and clean himself up.

+++

8:36 a.m.

Scully made her way down the dirt road that connected the trailer where she was living to Albert Hosteen’s house, her toiletries bag tucked underneath her arm, a towel thrown over her shoulder. It was a fairly long walk, and she took it slowly, looking at the barren landscape around her as she went, soaking in the early morning sun, her face turning up toward it as it peeked back from where it had been hidden briefly behind a cloud.

She’d felt some calmer the past few mornings, since her talk with Hosteen the night of the meteor shower, four nights back. The conversation had initially upset her in many ways. But since then it had released something in her, like a clenched fist easing open.

Hosteen knew about what she’d been through, but hadn’t treated her any differently. He continued to come nightly with some concoction from his kitchen for them both, built fires, sat with her.

They’d talked less since that night, seemingly by some unspoken mutual understanding. It was as if he had said what he’d meant to say to her that night, and since then, he was letting it simmer, not pressing for any further information or offering any further advice. He’d simply told stories about his children, stories from when they were young or ones about what they were doing now. Sometimes he talked about Eda, his wife. She’d listened with genuine interest, though it was hard for her to engage with him much herself. Her mind was always occupied, her feelings churned.

Sometimes he seemed to sense this and would let the quiet stretch, appearing to be deep in thought himself. He’d been that way last night especially. She wondered about it as she walked, wondered what might be concerning him.

She made it to Albert’s double-wide trailer, came around the side and was immediately confronted by Ghost, who was standing, looking half asleep, next to the patio. He was fully saddled and bridled, several things secured to the saddle at the back. There was a tent, a sleeping bag. A large full bag was situated behind them, sitting high on the horse’s gray rump.

She put her hand on the horse’s nose as she passed, then rubbed the soft skin of his chin. The animal responded by nuzzling into her hand, rooting around for a treat. The thought made her smile, remembering holding sugar cubes flat on her palm up to the horses she spent time with from time to time when she was growing up.

She knocked, and was immediately told to come in from the kitchen. Entering, she was aware of the smell of things cooking. Many different things. She followed the smells to the kitchen, where Hosteen stood, stirring in a big pot.

“Good morning,” she said, and he turned and smiled to her. She smiled faintly back.

“Good morning,” he replied, returned his attention to the pot.

“What are you making so early in the morning?” she asked, gestured to the dirty bowls and pans laying around the room. There was a skillet on the stove filled with cooling oil from fry bread, which she’d grown to love the taste of.

“Indian chili,” he replied, reached over and picked up an empty packet of seasoning. It said “Old El Paso” on it, and she smiled wider, shook her head as he turned back and winked.

“You’re going somewhere on Ghost, I see,” she said, lifting a paper towel off a plate and revealing the pile of fry bread.

“No,” he said, finished stirring and tapped the wooden spoon on the side of the pot, set it down on a napkin on the counter.

Her brow creased in puzzlement. “But I saw him out front — he’s loaded down with camping equipment and things.”

Hosteen was nodding now. “Yes,” he said simply. “But I am not going anywhere on him.” He looked at her, a serious expression on his face. “You are.”

She was so surprised she actually laughed. “I am?” she repeated, and the smile came off her face as looked at his more closely. “You’re serious.”

He nodded, checked the oven, where heavy-topped blueberry muffins were baking. “Yes. Remember I told you that I would tell you if I thought of where you might look to find your answers?”

She looked at him, confusion coming over her. “Yes, but I thought you were speaking figuratively,” she replied, and let the napkin drop again on the fry bread.

He shook his head and went to the other side of the table. He picked up a map with a red line squiggled on its surface to a red “X,” handed it to her.

It was a topographical map, not a city. Nothing but land, elevations, small lines all over it, the blue of a river or wash. And then a red path that led from the only road visible on the map into the desert beyond it.

“That place,” he said, stepping closer to her and tapping on the “X.” “That is where you will find everything you need.”

Scully looked at the map, then up at him. “There’s nothing there,” she said.

“It’s not on the map, what’s there,” he replied. “You will see it.”

Her cheeks flushed, and her eyes dropped. “Mr. Hosteen, if it’s a hogan or a ceremonial place, I should tell you that I don’t share your faith, and I don’t think–“

“You can bring your own faith with you. It will be welcomed there.” His voice was gentle, but he was clearly not going to take much argument from her.

“Welcomed by whom?” she asked, getting baffled now.

He smiled a touch. “By who you find there.”

She looked at him for a few seconds, cocked her head, trying to figure him out. Her mouth opened and closed as she tried to find something to say. He was being so strange and cryptic. If she didn’t respect him so much, she might have gotten irritated by it.

Then she looked down at the map, glanced at the legend, then at the line again, which snaked along the thin river on the map.

“That’s got to be several days ride away,” she protested. “And I haven’t ridden since–“

“I know, since you were young,” he said quietly. “You don’t ride Ghost — you sit on him and he goes. Not to worry about that. It will all come back to you. And this place is only one day and half of another away from here, depending on how much you stop. You’ll find places where the boys and I have camped along the way. Fire pits, that sort of thing.”

“But with these people looking for me…it wouldn’t–“

“No one will find you out there,” he said with conviction. “Anyone looking for you will come in on the road to do it, not through the desert. You will be safe, I promise you.”

He reached down and touched the spot again. “It’s time for you to go to this place.”

She looked at the map, at his face. “Why is it time?”

He quirked that same tiny smile. “You are ready to go there. You were not when you first got here. But I think you are now.” He shrugged. “Plus that, what good does it do you to sit around that trailer all day? You might as well go out and see the land. And that trail along the wash is the best way to do that.”

When she hesitated again, shook her head, he continued. “It’s bound to be good for your spirit to get out some. And you will still be by yourself, as you’ve wanted to be.” He gestured to the kitchen. “I have made food for you to take with you. Everything is taken care of. “

She shook her head firmly this time, bristling at the cryptic quality of what he was saying, at him doing so much.

“No,” she said quietly. “I’m sorry. I won’t go.”

He looked at her for a moment as she lay the map on the table. She could feel his eyes on her, probing her. She felt her cheeks flush again under the intensity of his gaze.

“What?” she asked finally, unable to bear the scrutiny or the silence any longer. She was once again defensive with him.

“Hm,” he said, his face blank. “I was trying to understand what it is you are so afraid of.”

Her mouth hung open for a second before she snapped it closed again. “Afraid?” she repeated. “I’m not afraid.”

“I think you are,” he said gently, and picked up the map, looked at it and not at her now.

“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” she said, looking at the map, too. The thought of him thinking of her that way made her more indignant.

He smiled at her. “Then go,” he said, and handed her the map.

She blew out a frustrated breath, then she looked around the room for a long moment, at the bowls, the pans, the food all around her.

She had to admit that besides being annoyed, she was also touched by his efforts. This made her relent a bit, giving way to a new feeling to replace the ire.

It was fear. It coursed through her, low, like an undertow.

She pushed it down fiercely.

Then she looked at him, and nodded, folding the map as she did so.

“All right,” she said, composing herself. “I’ll go.”

He smiled, and returned to the stove, nodding, stirred the chili. Not knowing what else there was to say, she went down the hallway toward the bathroom to shower before she got on her way.

+++

11:33 a.m.

The black and white Paint horse let out a cry, high and shrill in the air, and its front legs came up as it reared suddenly, tossing its head from side to side in a clear display of anger and sending up a cloud of dust around it.

Mulder held onto the horn of the saddle as hard as he could, but in doing so he let go of the reins, leaving the horse’s head slack. It stomped down, then reared again, and this time there was no holding on. Mulder went tumbling off the back, over the horse’s pied rump and onto the sandy ground of the corral in an undignified heap.

The horse trotted off across the corral, still shaking its head against the slack reins, its tail swishing.

Mulder groaned as he rolled over, caking himself with dust, and he pushed himself up slowly from the ground into a sitting position. All around him, the sound of laughter and clapping.

He looked up at the corral fence where the other men were sitting, like a bunch of birds on a wire, watching this bit of sport. His face screwed up in pain. This was the fourth fall from the horse in the past hour, and the laughter was starting to piss him off.

He slapped hard at the sand on his knee, shaking his head. He could feel a flush rising on his cheeks as anger rose in him.

“Very funny,” he growled, standing, tenderly stepping down on one leg as his hip protested for a few steps. The laughter pealed again at his comment.

“Go get that horse, Mulder!” Victor called from his perch near the gate.

Mulder eyed him, then the horse at the other side of the corral. “Are you sure this horse is actually one of the ones you’ve already broken, Victor?”

Another cloud of laughter.

“Oh yeah, he’s the one everyone learns to ride on.”

Mulder looked at the horse, who was glaring back at him. “Does he have a name, this wonderful animal I’m learning on?”

“Yes,” Victor replied, and said an elegant word in Navajo.

“What does that mean in English?” Mulder asked, dusting off his sore ass.

Victor flashed his thousand-watt grin. “‘Killer.'”

The men roared again.

Mulder gaped. “You’re teaching me to ride on a horse named ‘Killer’?” he asked, indignant.

“Yes,” Victor replied. “He’s the one to learn on, like I said. Kind of like learning to drive stick-shift before you learn automatic. If you can ride him, you can ride anything. You’ve just got to learn to keep the right pressure on his mouth — not too tight, not too loose – – and not show any fear to him. Then you won’t get thrown.”

Mulder looked at the other horses saddled around the edge of the corral outside the fence, pointed to a white horse with longish hair that was standing with its eyes closed, gnawing absently on its bit.

“What about that one? That one looks like a good one to learn on. What’s his name?”

Victor said another word in Navajo. “It means something like…’Wimpy.'”

“That sounds better,” Mulder grumbled.

“Nope,” Hosteen replied. “Get that horse, Mulder. You know what they say about getting right back on. It’s true, you know. You’ll get it.”

Mulder sighed, pulling his dignity around himself as the men talked amongst themselves, chewing their tobacco, still laughing now and again to one another. He made his way across the corral to where the horse stood, eyeing him suspiciously.

“Show him who’s boss!” one of the other men called. There were general grunts of agreement from the others.

Mulder slowed as he approached, thinking that approaching the horse from the back might be better this time. Sort of sneaking up on him, he thought. Maybe he could seem less threatening if he didn’t approach him head on?

With this thought in mind, he walked up to the horse from behind, running his hand over the horse’s flank as he did so.

“Mulder! Don’t!” Victor called.

Mulder heard the warning, but it was too late.

Killer kicked out hard with his back leg, catching Mulder in the gut and nearly knocking him to the ground again. Instead, Mulder staggered back a few steps, holding his stomach, gasping for breath from the blow to his solar plexus.

There was no laughter this time. Just winces and general sounds of sympathy from the fence. He could barely hear them over the rasping cough he let out and the roaring of blood in his ears.

Behind him, Mulder was vaguely aware of someone jumping down from the fence, of footsteps coming nearer. Victor came up beside him, leaned over with him so their faces were level, Victor’s hand going on Mulder’s hunched back.

Mulder coughed again, wheezed in another breath.

“You okay, man?” he asked, and Mulder turned to look at him. His face felt purple, his eyes suddenly too small for their sockets. He jerked a nod.

“Yeah,” he managed, and stood straight slowly, his hand still on his stomach.

“You never come at a horse from behind,” Victor chided. “Especially not a nasty sonofabitch like this one.”

“I see that now,” Mulder rasped. He looked down at his white t-shirt and saw the perfect brownish print of a horse’s hoof right beneath his rib cage.

Jesus…

He felt like an ass, and had a sudden wave of pity for himself. This past couple of weeks had not been his best, and it didn’t appear to be getting any better…

Victor went around him, up to the horse, and took the animal by the reins. “I think that’s enough for you for one day,” he said kindly. “You can watch us break a few, pick up some things that way.”

Mulder watched him take hold of the reins, give the horse a tug, and a part of him wanted nothing more to agree with Victor, to go sit it out and lick his wounds.

But something else in him balked at that, flaring in him.

He’d spent the past two months without control over anything in his life, treading carefully everywhere he stepped. Running. Walking on ice with Scully, waiting for a crack to appear beneath his feet. He’d lost his job, his credibility, his future as he’d envisioned it. He’d lost Scully to the ghosts that haunted her.

He was sick of losing things.

And the last thing he wanted to do now was lose himself, even in small ways. Through resignation. Self-pity. And the sadness and loneliness that clung to him now, coated him as finely as the dust.

So he drew himself up a little straighter, shook his head, reached his hand out toward Victor and the horse.

“No,” he said, regaining his voice a bit. “No, I want to try again. Just…” He blew out a still-painful breath. “Just keep telling me what I’m doing wrong. I want to get this right.”

Victor stepped closer, put his hand on Mulder’s arm. “Hey, I know we’re all laughing at you, but we don’t mean anything by it. Everyone gets laughed at when they’re learning like this. You got nothing to prove with us. Really.”

Mulder shook his head again, took the reins, pulled the horse toward him. It came reluctantly, its neck stuck far out as it tried to hold its ground.

“I’ll be fine,” he said, and, holding the reins a bit tighter around the horn, he put his foot in the stirrup and swung himself, weary, back up into the saddle.

+++

6:13 p.m.

For hours, nothing but the sound of Ghost’s footsteps on the hard trail, the creak of old saddle leather as her body rocked back and forth with each step, the faint clatter of her supplies in the nylon bag secured behind the saddle. The day waned into the blue and gold of dusk, darkness coming soon.

Scully had begun looking for a campsite a ways back, wanting to get settled in somewhere before it got too dark, and she finally found one, the obvious crater of a fire pit filled with black ash logs, a pile of ragged wood next to it, a flat expanse around it surrounded by sagebrush.

The thin river in the wash, which she’d stopped beside several times to give the horse drinks and to splash the heat and dust off herself, was behind her, just down from the rise where the campsite was situated. She could see it shining like glass in the fading light, hear its soft whisper in the quiet.

Satisfied with the spot, she dismounted, her legs and hips complaining bitterly at the day’s ride, and began to unpack the equipment from Ghost, who stood lightly tied to the branches of a small mesquite, looking as tired as she felt. When she’d taken all the things off his back, she removed the saddle, the sweaty shape of it still pressed to his gray sides.

There was no need to remove his bridle, since he wore a simple halter with reins attached, no bit in his mouth. Hosteen had been right about riding the horse. You sat on him and he went. It had been an easy day for her that way.

Hosteen had given her several small blocks of chemically treated pressed wood to start her fires, and it didn’t take but a few moments for her to have the dry wood flaming, sending up small bits of red ash into the falling night that burned for a few seconds and then went out.

Beside its light and heat, she set up the small tent, tossed the sleeping bag into it and then opened up the nylon bag. She pulled out a blackened tin camping pot, poured some chili into it and set the pot at the edge of the flames with a long stick through its thin handle.

While she waited for it to heat, she pulled out the feedbag for Ghost, filled it with the small sack of oats Hosteen had sent along on the back of the saddle. She put the feedbag on the horse and he began chewing idly, seeming too tired to be bothered with eating.

She understood the sentiment. She stretched, her back popping in protest.

Her hands on her hips, her jeans feeling thick with dust and the tanktop and denim shirt she wore doing little to chase off the coming chill of night, Scully stood beside the fire, staring into it. A small wind came, rustling the flames and sending a soft note into the air.

She closed her eyes, let out a long slow breath.

He was there, in the glow of the lamplight beside her bed, his chest gold in the light, rising and falling in the shadows as he slept. She was on her stomach beside him, nude, watching him sleep, her chin on her folded arms. Then she rolled onto her side, languid, her hand reaching out to touch the soft skin of his cheek, smoothing her thumb over his lips to awaken him. The warmth of the desire she felt and that came from him as he rolled over on top of her, her hips cradling his, his hands cupped beneath her head. No words as they covered themselves with the room’s velvet shadows, becoming nothing but heat and sweat and the rhythm of breath.

Her eyes stung with tears beneath her closed lids, her brow furrowing. Her hand came up to cover her mouth.

Her guard against the memories of him had been slowly weakening since the night with Hosteen. God, she missed him. Not just his body and what her body had with his. She missed all of him.

The small smile he gave her in the basement office as she looked up from her work and saw him watching her. Her smile in return…

His hand in hers on a park bench, a story he told her, eyes she’d seen darkened with sadness for years filled with laughter as he told it…

The tears fell now, slipping beneath her clenched lids. Her hand shook against her mouth and she pulled it away, folding it into a fist.

Then Hosteen’s words came back to her:

You can be who you were again.

You will be her again.

You just have to search out what you need to find her.

She opened her eyes and looked out over the desert, wondering what she was doing out here, wondering what it was she was searching for, what she hoped to find.

There’s nothing out here, she thought sadly. Nothing out here at all.

The wind picked up a bit, ruffling the strands of hair not pulled back from her face, pushing the flames back.

Around her, outside the halo of light the fire threw, night had completely fallen. She felt alone within it for a moment, the tears still rimming her eyes.

Then, way off in the distance, the lights of Farmington shone, a patch of brightness, dots of color clustered together like fallen stars still glowing on the earth. She looked at it and it comforted her somehow in a way she couldn’t name, even though it was dozens of miles away.

Around her, a silent world of darkness.

But across the desert, a city perched on the rim of the horizon as though waiting for her.

A city like an unspoken promise.

A city of light.

+++

CHAPTER 15.

+++

FBI HEADQUARTERS WASHINGTON , D.C. APRIL 5 9:14 a.m.

Walter Skinner sat, unmoving, at his desk, staring down at the piece of paper in his hand while he rubbed his forehead with the other, massaging hard enough to nearly leave a bruise across his brow.

He’d been staring at the piece of paper for several minutes, since Kimberly had crept in with it and lain it on the corner of his desk, putting it far away from him and not answering when he asked what it was. She’d waited for him to look at it first, given him time to scan it.

An official government “Wanted” flyer, this one from the NSA. Two pictures. Mulder and Scully. Both pictures now equally sized across the top. Beneath both the pictures, words in bold letters. “Conspiracy.” “Terrorism.” “Murder.”

Not just referring to Mulder now. Referring to them both.

“This was on the news last night at eleven, as well, sir,” Kimberly said softly, like an apology. “I saw it before I went to bed.”

He’d looked up at her in surprise, feeling like an ass that his own secretary had found out about this recent development before he had himself. And she knew it, too, judging from her reaction — the apologetic, worried expression on her face.

Padden, the master of keeping things quiet when he wanted to (the bastard, he thought bitterly) had done it again. Skinner had felt his face redden as he looked at Kimberly.

And now he was taking his little trick and going public with it on a large scale for the first time. Turning up the heat on all this.

It would get a huge reaction from the higher ups. More pressure for the FBI to step up its own investigation, which it had been wary of doing because of the task force, wary because it wanted this as quiet as it could get. The FBI had taken enough hits lately.

But that was all about to change. The FBI would have to act now if the media were involved.

He fingered the poster. “What are people saying.” It came out flat, a statement.

Kimberly shook her head. “No one knows what to think exactly, sir,” she said. “But from what I’ve overheard this morning, I think it’s harder for people to believe the charges about Agent Scully, and it’s casting doubt on the charges against Agent Mulder, as well.” She met his gaze. “I think it might be working against the task force to draw her into this. Just from what I’ve overheard so far.”

Skinner nodded, returned his gaze to the flyer. He was pleased to get this piece of news from the FBI gossip circle, in which Kimberly was an enthusiastic participant. He’d come to rely on her to keep her finger on the pulse of the Hoover Building.

“How many calls from the press so far?”

“Nine,” she replied. “I’m telling them all you’re unavailable for comment.”

He nodded again. “Keep doing that,” he said. “And refer them to the Public Relations Office, if you’re not already. I’m sure the Director has come up with something to say by now. I’ll let him do the talking until I come up with something.”

She’d nodded. “All right, sir.” She turned to go.

“And Kimberly?” he said softly.

She returned her gaze to him, and he met it solemnly.

“Thank you.”

She did not smile, the same concerned expression on her face. “You’re welcome.” And then she did go out the door, closing it behind her.

Skinner had kept his eye on the poster ever since, staring at the faces, the words that were underneath them that had no place there, beneath these faces he knew so well. Anger simmered in him, but not surprise.

He knew this was Padden’s doing. And all Padden’s doing. The clandestine meeting he’d had with Granger two days ago had told him that. There had been no mention of it in their brief conversation in the car ride from the Mall at 14th and Constitution where Skinner had picked Granger up, the young agent camouflaging himself with the tourists.

But other things had come up.

Complicated things.

He sighed as he remembered it, now swiveling his chair toward the window, the hand with the flyer in it falling into his lap as if it were too heavy to hold up any longer.

“I wish there were an easier way for us to meet during the week than this,” he’d said tightly to Granger, getting lost in the traffic going down Constitution. “This still feels risky.”

“Any way we meet, even on the weekends, is going to be risky,” Granger’d replied, pulling the camera off over his head and laying it on the seat between them. “And this was hard enough to manage, with Padden watching my every move at the CIA.”

Granger had reached into his leather jacket pocket and drawn out his spiral notebook, flipping the cover over.

“I’ve got the task force combing the El Centro area, just as we’d planned,” he said, adjusting his small silver glasses, a habit Skinner had come to associate with him. “They’re still concentrating their energy on Southern California, so they should be safe wherever you’ve got them as long as it’s not there.”

“It’s not there,” Skinner had replied.

Granger had nodded. “I went to the motel in Afton this past weekend,” he’d said, and Skinner could hear some strange tone in his voice that made him more nervous. Something was wrong there.

“What did you find out? Something bad, I can tell that.”

“Well, it’s bad and it’s good,” Granger had begun. “Mulder WAS there, under the name ‘George Hale,’ just like he said. I’ve got a positive ID from the motel owner who checked him in and out. That’s the good part.”

“Was he there by himself?” Skinner asked. He recalled snapping a little in his impatience.

Granger had hesitated. “No,” he said at last. “That’s the bad part.”

“Who was he with?” Again, he could remember the words coming out clipped.

Granger balked a bit, looking down at his notebook.

“He was with Agent Scully.”

Skinner remembered the sinking feeling, the inward groan.

He’d cleared his throat, glancing out the side window, trying to appear casual. “It’s strange that he would keep a meeting with her a secret,” he said as though he were discussing the mileage on the car.

Granger looked at him. “I think if we’re both honest with ourselves, sir, we know the answer to why he would do that.” He paused. “And that’s how everyone else is going to see it, even if it weren’t true.”

Well, no use trying to play dumb anymore, he remembered thinking when he’d looked back at Granger’s sympathetic expression. Not to himself, not to Granger. Not now that there was proof of it for God and all the world to see…

Skinner rose, going to the window, his habit when he had a problem to solve that didn’t readily present a solution. He sighed, crossing his arms, a finger coming up to cover his tightly closed lips.

Of course he had always suspected there might be something going on between the two of them. They were too dedicated to each other, too much so in some way he couldn’t quite name to just be partners. And the way they looked at each other…hell, he envied it sometimes. Envied Mulder especially (he had to admit) and envied them both for what they appeared to have together.

But if something had been going on, he thought they’d managed to keep it out of the work, out of the way.

Not anymore.

It was in the way now, for certain. No one but Scully to vouch for Mulder, and no way to do it without damning herself for unprofessional conduct for violating undercover protocols in the process.

He took his glasses off, rubbed his eyes as cars nosed around below him on the street, a mass of early-morning traffic weaving for positions.

What they were doing wasn’t forbidden. It wasn’t that. It looked like shit, he thought dejectedly, even in good times, though. Unprofessional, at best. And given these circumstances, it looked even worse. Their relationship could be used to bring them both down. The task force and OPR could discount their cover stories for each other, and blame their running on the basis of the relationship, two lovers who would do anything and say anything to keep the other out of trouble.

“Dammit…” He rubbed his eyes harder as he mumbled the curse to himself. He could vaguely hear Kimberly’s phone ringing again and it made his stomach ache.

He stood for a long time looking out the window, his arms crossed. He wondered how this could get any more fucked up for him.

The answer came with the door bursting open.

He spun at the sound, irritated at the intrusion, his mouth open to say so. Then his mouth snapped closed.

Margaret Scully.

Kimberly was behind her, holding her arm, which she jerked away hard enough that Skinner could hear the fabric whooshing from between Kimberly’s fingers.

And if looks could kill…

Oh, shit.

“Mrs. Scully, please,” Kimberly was saying, putting her hand out again. Skinner put his own out.

“No, Kimberly, it’s all right,” he said gently. “Thank you, though. Hold my calls, if you would.”

Kimberly looked at him with concern, then nodded and closed the door behind her again.

For her part, Margaret Scully had stopped about five feet from the desk, still as a statue. The only movement was the rising and falling of her chest — fast and shallow. He was almost afraid to speak again. He jammed his hands in his pockets, the gesture’s unconscious attempt to guard his nuts not lost on him. He looked down at the floor, then back up at her. She was still staring at him, accusation shooting across the room like poison arrows.

“Mrs. Scully,” he said. “Why don’t you sit down.”

She didn’t sit. But she did move. She reached down into the purse slung over her shoulder and pulled out a sloppily folded piece of paper, unfolded it and held it toward him.

“Mr. Skinner,” she said, low and dangerous. “Would you mind telling me what this is?”

He winced as he saw the flyer, the same one on his desk. “Where did you get that?” he asked gently.

“From a reporter from the ‘Washington Post,'” she snapped. “Who came to my house this morning at seven a.m. He was in front of three camera crews from the local television stations, by the way.”

He shook his head, looking away, his jaw clenching. “I’m so sorry,” he said, looking into her face now, his voice soft. “I’m so sorry for all of this.”

“How could you let this happen?” she asked, her voice rising in volume now as she shook the flyer at him. “You know this isn’t true. About either one of them. But especially about my daughter! How could you let this HAPPEN?!”

Tears flooded her eyes as she said the last loud enough to rattle the picture of Ashcroft over his shoulder.

He looked at her, guilt smashing into him like a right cross. He took a step toward her. “It’s not coming from the FBI,” he said, though the words sounded hollow to him even as he said them. “I don’t have any control over what’s being done. I can’t stop it yet.”

“Well, what the hell ARE you good for then?” she said, her voice a low, hard growl now, the tears racing down her cheeks. Her hand came up to cover her mouth. It was shaking. She choked on a sob, her eyes squeezing closed.

What the hell am I good for indeed, he thought, cringing. She’d said aloud a question he’d been asking himself for months.

“Please…” he said as tenderly as he could, his hands coming out of his pockets as he came toward her. He got close enough to put a hand on her shoulder, and gestured to the chairs in front of his desk with the other. “Please sit down.”

She let him guide her to the chair, and she sat stiffly, wiping at her face, her hand still trembling. He angled the one next to her toward her and sat himself.

“Can I get you something?” he asked. “Some water, coffee…”

“No,” she said, her voice hoarse, as though the yelling she’d just done had ruined her voice. “No, nothing.” She levelled her gaze at him again, the look more pleading than venomous now.

Her hand clenched around the flyer in her hand, crinkling it.

“Who is this coming from?” she asked, her eyes shining with tears. She was trying to pull her control back around her, straightening her sweater. It was like watching someone try to cover themselves with a dish towel.

Skinner leaned close when he answered. He’d never quite trusted his office, though he’d had it swept twice by the Gunmen and once by his own people. He couldn’t help his paranoia. Not with all the things that were going on.

“It’s coming from the NSA,” he said quietly. “A man named Padden who is in charge of a task force that is investigating Owen Curran, the man suspected of bombing the Irish Embassy a few months ago.”

“What does Dana have to do with that? Or Fox?” she asked sharply.

Skinner bit his lip. “I can’t tell you specifics, because it involves classified things, but there are…circumstances that this man Padden is using to try to implicate them both with Curran. He was only after Mulder at first, but now he’s going after your daughter, as well, apparently. I just found out about this about a half an hour ago myself.”

She sniffed. “It’s because she’s running, isn’t it? Running with Fox.”

Skinner nodded. “I think that has a lot to do with it, yes,” he replied.

She looked away as though deep in thought. A tender expression crossed her face, though it was still tinged with sadness.

“She won’t leave him,” she said softly, and gestured with the flyer. “Even with this. She won’t come in unless they come in together.”

“I know,” he said, nodding.

She cocked her head as she looked up at him, as though weighing his response, its implications.

“Yes,” he said. “I know.

Her gaze softened, as did his. She nodded, looked down, almost seeming… embarrassed?… to be speaking about this. He knew the feeling. It felt intensely personal.

He cleared his throat. “Look, I’m trying to do a few things,” he said, and she looked back up at him expectantly. “I’m trying to find some evidence for at least Mulder’s whereabouts during some key timeframes that are under suspicion. I’ve got information on one of them that might help clear both of them because they were together.”

Margaret nodded. “Good,” she said faintly. “That sounds good.”

Skinner continued. “I’m working on one other lead I have for Mulder. I’m going to see about that as soon as I can. Hopefully with those two things in place, I’ll be able to go to Padden and he’ll call this off and look where he should be looking. At Curran.”

Her eyes looked very young as she looked at him, though the rest of her looked like it had aged 10 years since he’d seen her at the Memorial. “You think that will convince him?” she asked.

Skinner pursed his lips. “I’m not sure,” he said. “I hope so. The evidence against Mulder and your daughter is very circumstantial. It shouldn’t be that hard to undermine with a few solid facts.”

I hope, he thought, but he didn’t say it out loud.

She looked at her hands as they held the poster, her eyes on it again. “What do I tell all these reporters?” she asked, sounding lost.

“Do what I assume you’re already doing,” he said firmly. “Deny that she’s involved. Call the charges false and tell them what she’s like, who she really is. And keep doing it. But don’t mention any of what I’ve told you today. It’s better if no one knows I’ve told you about this until I get things in place.”

She nodded. “All right,” she said. To his surprise, one of her hands came out and settled softly on his forearm. “I’m…I’m sorry about what I said before. This isn’t your fault. I just…”

“I understand,” he said, and covered her hand with his own. “There’s no need to apologize. I know you’re going through hell with this right now. Between her being gone for so long and now this.”

She managed a tiny smile. “Thank you for your forgiveness,” she murmured, and he nodded, mustered a gentle look in return.

With that, she stood, and he with her.

“I’ll be in touch with any information I can share,” he said.

She reached her hand out. “Thank you, Mr. Skinner. I know you’ll do your best. For both of them.”

“I will.” He said it with conviction as he took her hand, gave it a squeeze. “Try not to worry, if you can. They’ll be all right. They’ve always been lucky that way.”

She nodded. “Luck’s a funny thing, though, isn’t it?” she murmured sadly. “You never know when it’s going to run out.”

He said nothing to that. They both knew she was right.

He watched her go, watched the door close almost silently behind her, a calmer, but almost resigned, sound. It was a stark juxtaposition to the noise it had made when she came in.

+++

ALONG DEAD MAN’S WASH NAVAJO RESERVATION NEAR TWO GREY HILLS, NEW MEXICO 2:39 p.m.

Scully was high on the trail beside the wash, a light rain falling steadily, pattering the surface of the thin river that ran through it into a million ripples, the sand beneath the horse’s feet growing darker as the rain continued to fall.

Off in the distance she could see the heart of the storm approaching, miles off. A dark canopy of cloud that seemed to reach nearly to the ground, the occasional flare of lightning dancing off the tops of the mesas. Thunder echoed, catching on the crags of rock that climbed all around her.

She wore an army surplus rain poncho that seemed to grow heavier with the rain, draping down her sides to cover her legs, the musty smelling garment keeping her dry. She did not wear the hood, though, preferring to allow the rain to settle on her pulled-back hair, her face. Wet strands of hair framed her cheeks from the earlier downpour of the early edge of the storm. She pushed them back, curving them behind her ears.

Ghost sneezed, a ruffling sound, tossing his head down in the process. She had the reins so slack that his tug on them with that movement jolted her out of the introspection she’d been in for hours, the nervous anticipation that had gripped her despite all her efforts to hold it at bay.

She pulled out the map from beneath the poncho, checked the landmarks she could identify on the terrain around her, the sharp bend of the wash the map showed visible in the distance. The area marked by the “X” on the map was at that bend. She was getting close, and felt herself tensing up more at the thought.

What would she find there?

She’d been asking herself that question for hours, since she’d risen and awkwardly packed up the tent, the cooking supplies, rinsing the metal dishes in the wash before she’d placed them in the nylon bag. Since she’d mounted Ghost and gotten on her way, the sky already darkened with wool-colored clouds, the color of the horse’s soft back and ears.

She folded the map up, tucked it back under the poncho to protect it from the rain. She really didn’t need it at this point. The trail was well-trodden, easy to follow and the only path in sight. Scrubby plants squatted around it, the color of green ash.

There it was — the stinging in her eyes again. Her emotions were so close to the surface today, and she pushed at them. It was like pushing a spider web off herself.

She reached up and wiped her eyes roughly, blew out a breath. The emotion was without thought, nothing in her mind to anchor it to. The memory she’d had last night of making love with Mulder had been the only attachment to any feeling she could pinpoint. But these feelings welling in her today were different from the bittersweet sadness she felt over her thoughts of him. They were heavier, darker, and almost desperate in their intensity.

She needed to reach the clearing marked on that map. She needed to know whom she would meet there, the person or persons that Hosteen had referred to, what she would find at that place that would give her all her answers as he’d promised.

Unable to fully push the feelings down, she tapped Ghost with her heels lightly, and he obediently picked up his pace, coming as close to a trot as he could without breaking his gait. It made her feel somewhat better to be moving more quickly now, though the emotions still crackled in her.

Up a large rise, down the other side. Another rise, the bend of the river edging closer. She scanned the ground ahead of her, looking for any sign of life. She wondered about anyone who could live this far away from the knot of farms that made up the town of Two Grey Hills. She wondered what kind of person would be out here at all.

A rocky outcropping ahead, the trail curving around it. She followed it around, the ground rising again in elevation. She pulled the map out again, noted the rise in elevation on the USGS map at the “X.”

Then she found herself in a large clearing, a single mesquite tree in front of her. She was on a cliff overlooking the river, a view of a butte in the distance. And beyond that…

Nothing.

The trail ended here at this precipice, the tree guarding the edge, half its roots seeming to extend out into the air. A fire pit sat like a small crater in the middle of the clearing, a small stack of wood beside it.

Ghost stopped on his own, bobbed his head again toward the ground, sniffing.

The rain began to fall harder, the storm coming closer from the west.

Scully looked around, her chest beginning to rise and fall quickly. She slid off the horse, her feet hitting the wet ground, the rain setting off a patter on the slick material of the poncho. She made her way to the cliff edge, looking at the river below. Then she did a slow 360 turn, her hands going to her forehead to shield her eyes from the rain.

Ghost stood in the middle of the clearing, one of his back ankles turned up as he stood in repose. He cocked his ear at her as she looked at him, frustrated tears coming fast now as her chest heaved. She bit down on her bottom lip, turned back toward the river, which also just stared back, indifferent as the rain.

“Son of a bitch …” she said, gripping the stray strands of hair not caught in her pony tail with her fists and pulling, her face screwing into a sob. She felt sick to her stomach, the sob wrenching her.

To have come all this way. And for what?

For nothing, she thought, anguished.

She thought of Hosteen back in his home, pictured him smiling at his private joke at tricking her into getting out of the trailer.

Fury surged in her.

“You bastard,” she said bitterly, and coughed out another sob, covering her eyes as though afraid someone would see her tears.

She sank down, feeling beaten down by just the rain, until she sat near the edge of the cliff. She pulled her knees up against her chest and leaned forward, her forehead on them, her arms covering her head.

Her sobs broke over her, one after another, like harsh waves.

The lightning stayed off to the north, but the rain continued to fall on her even harder, unforgiving.

Gradually, the storm pushed eastward, darkening the sky in a palette of grays.

+++

TWO GREY HILLS, NEW MEXICO 4:50 p.m.

Despite the enormous pain in his side, like a stitch after running too hard for too long, Mulder scampered after the lamb that had broken away from the herd.

He and the other men were rounding the sheep up, moving them through an unfenced area to the pen where they spent the nights. All of them carried long sticks to bump them into one moving mass, and dogs darted in and out from the perimeters of the herd, nipping the stragglers into line.

This lamb didn’t seem to take the hint and had taken off for the house. Mulder caught him just as he was about to make the front yard. Mulder reached down and picked him up, an arm behind the lamb’s back legs and the other around his front, hefting the animal against his chest along with his stick. The lamb mewled in protest and fear.

“Good catch, Mulder!” one of the men called, tapping at the herd with his stick. The front of the group was entering the pen, bottlenecking through the gate. Mulder walked to the end of the clump of animals, keeping the line moving. Once the last of the sheep had entered the gate, he set the lamb down, gave its rump a pat as it rushed into the pen on its pink hooves.

Eric, Hosteen’s other grandson, was there to close the gate, and smiled up at Mulder.

“You did that really well. You’re a natural at this! The FBI is a waste for you!” And he laughed, slapping Mulder’s back.

Mulder smiled tiredly. “Thanks,” he said. “There have been people saying I was actually a waste to the FBI for years now. So I’ve never heard it put quite that way before.”

Eric smiled wider as Mulder brushed off his grey t-shirt, slapping at the dust on his jeans.

“Come on,” Eric said. “They’re almost done with the vet, and then it’s Miller Time.” He winked at Mulder, and Mulder smiled at the joke. None of the men drank. “Miller Time” would mean a strong cup of coffee with whipping cream in it, if yesterday was any indication.

“Sounds good to me,” Mulder said, and meant it.

They made their way across the yard toward the house, where a mobile vet was checking three of the pregnant mares. Victor was standing at the head of the horse currently being examined, looking for all the world like a nervous father. He nodded to Mulder as he and Eric approached.

“Good day at work,” he said simply, and Mulder nodded, acknowledging the compliment.

“Thanks,” he said, a little embarrassed.

Victor looked over his shoulder, nodded toward the area behind the house. “Looks like your friend has come to see what you’re up to,” he said, smiling.

Mulder turned toward the house, in the direction of his own house, and saw Bo sitting there, his mouth open on a pant, watching Mulder. Mulder found himself smiling a bit at the dog’s proximity to the other men and the house he’d seemed so afraid of.

“Must be hungry,” Mulder said, dismissing the significance of the dog’s appearance.

“First time he’s come over here since Larry died,” Victor replied. “Hungry or not.”

Mulder turned back to the dog, watching him.

“I’m all done here,” the vet announced, pulling off a rubber glove that extended all the way to his upper arm. “Everything looks fine,” he said to Victor, who nodded, clearly relieved now. The vet, John Oxford (Mulder had read his name on the side of his truck), turned and looked at the dog, as well.

“Ah, I haven’t seen Bo in a long time,” he said warmly. “I’m glad to see he’s coming back around a little bit.”

“Just since our friend Tim got here,” Victor said, slipping into Mulder’s cover name easily in the presence of this outsider.

Oxford looked at the dog closely. “Looks like he’s got mange or something from here.”

“Yeah,” Mulder said. “There’s something on his sides. Scabs or sores or something.”

Oxford looked at him. “You think you could get him and let me have a look? Since I’m out here anyway.”

Mulder looked at Bo, considering. It seemed like a good idea. The dog was clearly suffering with whatever he had. But he wondered if hauling him over here would just traumatize Bo more, make him more skittish and make him trust Mulder less.

Still, it seemed important if the dog was sick with something. And Victor was right — there was no one but him to do it. Bo didn’t trust anyone else.

“I’ll try,” Mulder said, and he started slowly across the yard toward the dog.

He got about ten feet away and Bo cowered, going belly-down on the ground.

But he did something else, as well. His tail began to beat the still- damp ground hesitantly behind him, his eyes darting from Mulder as he slowed his approach.

“Hey Bo,” he said gently, smiling and reaching his hand out. Bo stayed still as Mulder closed the distance until he stood before him. The dog’s tail continued its hesitant shake, and Mulder reached down and touched his head again, just as he’d been able to do for a second time the night before. He stroked gently.

“That’s it,” he murmured. Bo lifted his head into Mulder’s hand now, though he was still panting nervously.

Moving carefully, Mulder reached down and took hold of the dog’s collar, gave it a tug. Bo rose, though his tail stayed wedged between his legs. He didn’t even try to dart though. With that, Mulder leaned down and picked the dog up as he had done to the lamb, the scabs on the animal’s sides rough on his forearms.

Bo was a fairly large dog, but he weighed about the same as the lamb had, Mulder noted with chagrin.

The dog was tense in his grasp, but allowed himself to be carried over to the vet. Victor and Eric had led the mares over to the corral, leaving Oxford there by himself. Mulder was glad that the other two men had withdrawn, because the dog was nervous enough with just the vet there.

“Hey there, Bo,” Oxford said, and stroked his back. Mulder didn’t move to put him down, knowing he would run. He also felt strangely possessive and protective of the animal, which surprised him.

Oxford began checking the patches of scabs on the dog’s sides, the areas missing hair. “Yeah, he’s got mange,” he said. “Sarcoptic from the look of it. That’s what those scabs are. Him biting at himself to relieve the itch.”

Mulder nodded, not knowing what to say to that. He had never had a dog, and had no concept of the implications of what the vet was talking about.

Oxford went over and began rooting around in his truck. He drew out several vials of medication and a few syringes from the containers in the back of the pickup. He came forward again, drawing the medication into the syringes.

“I’m going to go ahead and give him his shots,” the vet said, and scruffed what little skin he could from the dog’s neck, jamming the needle home. Bo whimpered, and Mulder instinctively squeezed him tighter.

“This is an antibiotic for the infection, and a steroid called Ivermectin to kill the mites causing it. It’ll also keep the itching down.” The vet drew and injected two more shots into the dog. On the second shot, Bo began to struggle in Mulder’s arms, who held him fast.

“You might as well let him down,” Oxford said. “I’m done with him.”

Mulder leaned down and let Bo down on the ground, and the dog loped away toward Mulder’s own place. Mulder was relieved when he didn’t disappear into the desert beyond it, but rather stopped next to the porch and sat again.

“What do I owe you?” Mulder asked, returning his attention to Oxford. “I’ve got my wallet in the house and –“

“You don’t owe me anything,” the vet said kindly. “I’m just glad he’s coming around. He was a good dog for Larry. I’m glad to help him out.”

Mulder smiled, strangely pleased. “Thank you. I appreciate it.”

Oxford smiled, reached out and shook Mulder’s hand.

“Nice to meet you, Mr. Garrett,” he said. “I’ll be back in a couple of weeks to check the mares and I’ll check Bo again then, give him another dose.”

If I’m still here, Mulder thought, but outwardly he nodded. “All right,” he said, and said goodbye, heading toward Victor’s house now, where the men were all gathered on the porch.

He stood still for a moment, feeling something lighter in him now as he listened to the men talking back and forth.

He couldn’t help it. As always happened when his mind was calmer, his thoughts turned to Scully, an image of her smiling at him, curled in his bed on her side as he came forward carrying coffee. The comforter was pulled up to her chin, but the light caught on the creamy expanse of her bare back, almost seeming to make her glow in the morning sun through the window…

Around him, the light was beginning to enter the gloaming of early dusk, and he smiled at the memory. Then he went toward the men at the house, toward the sound of their loud voices and their persistent, welcome laughter.

+++

BESIDE DEAD MAN’S WASH 6:34 p.m.

Scully awoke to two sensations.

The first was a chill that seemed to go straight into her bones, most of her still damp from being caught in the rain. There was a slight wind on her, and it raised her skin to gooseflesh, sending her into a shiver.

The second was a gentle nudging against her belly.

She opened her eyes onto the sapphire of night falling, a thick blue darkness surrounding her. But she could still make out a set of pale hooves in front of her, and looked down slightly as Ghost nudged her belly once again with his long nose, nearly pushing her over onto her back from her side.

She was curled like a question mark on the packed ground in the center of the clearing, the sky and its dusting of the night’s newborn stars stretched out above her.

She reached down and touched the horse’s nose, cupping it gently. He rooted around, blew a breath into her palm as he sniffed for something to eat.

“You hungry?” she said softly, groggy, and then pushed herself into a sitting position, the heavy poncho still gathered around her. She reached down and pulled it off over her head, leaving it in a heap. The long-sleeved shirt she wore was nothing against the chilly wind, and it was enough to wake her completely and move her to her feet.

She’d been asleep for a long time, she realized.

She remembered lying down after some time of crying in the rain, feeling tiny there on the cliffside beneath the storm. She hadn’t even tried to cover her face as exhaustion had overtaken her — the exhaustion of the hours of riding and from the weight of the emotions that had crashed into her with her arrival at the clearing.

She brushed dirt off her face, her damp hair, her jeans. Then she turned her attention to Ghost, still standing and watching her expectantly. For a moment, she felt the fear over having left him untethered, realized she could have been left here with no supplies as the horse wandered off, probably back toward home.

But not this horse, she thought, and smiled faintly as she brushed at his neck, smoothing down his silver mane.

“Let’s get you something to eat,” she said, and she began to unload the things from his back — the nylon sack, the tent, the sleeping bag, both of which had been covered by the bag and were still fairly dry. Then she pulled down the sack of oats and fixed Ghost’s feedbag again, slipping it over his head.

She led him to the mesquite, tying the reins to a branch that extended far back from the edge. She removed the saddle and pad and dropped the heavy leather and blanket onto the ground beside the horse as he began to eat.

Then she looked around at the clearing, at the fire pit with its halo of damp wood.

A fire first, she thought. She would need the heat. The light.

When Scully was a child, a nun had told her that if she stared long enough into a fire she would see the Devil’s face looking back at her. The thought had terrified her at that age, and even at Christmas, her mother popping corn in the fireplace with her sister Melissa beside her, she had always averted her eyes from the flames, afraid of what might be looking back at her.

That had been when the Devil had seemed something not of this earth, an entity that lived solely in the fires in the ground beneath her, some realm that didn’t quite touch her. It was a place that the right amount of prayer and penitence could hold at bay, those two things keeping her as safe and as warm as she’d felt in her bed when she was young, her mother having tucked her and Melissa in for the night, her father home from the sea.

As she’d grown older, she had seen that this belief was false. That evil could be found anywhere, in any form. Medical school and her time in the morgues — with bodies ripped apart in rages of violence and misfortune — had taught her these things first, hard lessons for someone whose beliefs were as sheltered as hers has been. It was not that she had been naive exactly — she knew that evil existed around her. It was that she believed it could not touch her in that way, that there were no flames for her to stare into that would enable those red eyes to find her and stare back.

But her life since then had shown her otherwise. Her work with Mulder on the X-Files had taught her about fire, about what could look back. She’d seen more of the evil that existed in the world through her dealings with that than she ever thought imaginable, felt the loss and anguish it left in its wake when it punched a hole through that mythical place of her childhood and reached out with its hands of flame.

She was thinking this as she sat before the blazing fire in the clearing, the chemically treated pressed wood Hosteen had given her drying the wood enough to set it aflame. Once it had started, she’d put on branch after branch, making the fire climb higher into the night, leaving her in a circle of orange, flickering light.

She sat cross-legged, her spine straight, her hands resting on her knees, utterly still. And her eyes were on the fire, not wavering from it, not looking away, daring whatever lived inside it to come to her there in the quiet.

She’d resigned herself to her surroundings for the night, to Hosteen’s trick of leading her to this place more barren than the place she’d left, and as devoid of answers. She didn’t know what she’d expected to find here, if she was really honest with herself. There was nothing that could repair what had been done to her, no one to repair it. What had happened to her simply was.

Maybe that was what he had tried to show her by sending her here. That there was nothing to help her after all. That she would have to simply go on living with the charring and scars of what had happened to her, and it was time she resigned herself to that, as bleak as that was to contemplate.

She sighed, her brow creasing at the thought.

Surely Hosteen, who had been so gentle with her to this point, would not teach a lesson that harsh like this? Reinforcing her aloneness with the solitude of this place?

She turned the thought over in her mind, weighing it and discarding it, weighing it again. And as she did that, her eyes on the fire, her mind began its own journey, as long and as barren as the one she’d been on for the past days.

A drill coming toward her face, her body immobilized on a table, a world washed in white and smelling of bottled air. Faces above her wearing masks, Penny Northern’s dry hand in hers, soothing her as her abdomen bloated with a obscene imitation of new life that the experiment also ensured would never be possible for her again.

Then at her mother’s house, going through a box of Melissa’s things after her death. She was still aching from the hour she’d spent sitting by the empty hospital bed, too late to see her sister before her death from a bullet meant for her. Only Mulder joining her had softened the brittle grief that had threatened to shatter her there, his arms around her.

In the box, she’d found a braid of Melissa’s hair, cut off from a long strand when her sister had taken her hair from flowing down her back to her shoulders in high school. Her mother had saved the braid in a box, the yellow ribbon that secured it still in place, knotted at the end. She remembered putting it to her face and inhaling Melissa’s scent from it, faint, like perfume and dust.

But even then, the tears would not come.

The sound of machinary around her, the bob of a red light breaking a line, her heartbeat filling the room. Her skin like paper, and pain beneath her eye, the tumor growing, pushing against its confines, taking her.

She would lie awake in the hospital when her mother, when Mulder, had gone home, and watch the streetlights flood in the window, a puzzle of light and dark. Death with its leathery wings in the shadows, waiting. The disease given to her to strike at Mulder, her body — her life — a pawn in a game she’d never agreed to play.

Then the small body beside her, a furnace of fever. Emily’s still form, her hair pressed around her face with sweat, her body dying beneath Scully’s hands, and her helpless to stop it. The glint of the cross as she held it above the casket, dangling light on the chain. Her fist had closed around it. Mulder’s hand reaching out and closing over her fist, the other tipping the lid of the snow white coffin closed.

The rose dropping down into the car between she and Mulder, Mulder dying beside her, pink froth of blood on his face, Emily’s knowing smile as Scully looked up at her, terrified.

Snow falling in her room in Richmond, blue flakes like blue stars, her hands catching them as Owen’s drug took hold, sending her out into the night and into her nightmares…

Then she remembered the final vision she’d had as the drug had finally left her, in the cabin in Tennessee, Mulder holding her tightly in his arms. The fire coming in off the lake toward the island she stood on, the doe consumed by it, the wall approaching and faces living within it.

Fagan’s face.

The floor beneath her head. His face against her shoulder. Rasp of breath.

She remembered it now, the figure made of flame. She stared at it in her memory, looking into the fire in front of her…

The red eyes stared back, seering her, trying to turn her to ash.

The scream crawled up her throat as the tears burst from her eyes. The sound tore from her into the night, Ghost shying from it, tossing his head in distress at the far edge of the fire’s light.

Her hands clamped down on the sides of her head as the sound continued from her, mixed with unintelligible sounds like words, but not words.

There was no language in the country she had been brought to.

The sound spread out around her, echoing off the stones and darkness. Above her, the stars watched in their silences, their eyes wide and white and seeping light.

+++

CHAPTER 16.

+++

PUERTO PE`ASCO, MEXICO APRIL 6 3:35 a.m.

When Mae was a very little girl, she had felt safe in her father’s arms.

He would hold her on his lap at the old wooden table in the kitchen, holding her like a baby, even though she was five or six years old, the rich smells of her mother’s cooking surrounding them both, the clatter of pot lids, wooden spoons on the sides of heavy pots. And he would tell her stories while she gazed up into his face, her thick curly hair trailing over his arm.

If she concentrated very hard, she could remember the laughter the stories would bring from her, each part of the story that was intended to make her giggle punctuated with a tickle to her midsection. Then he would bury his face at her throat, hugging her almost too tightly as she laughed, and he would laugh right along with her.

She didn’t know why she was thinking about that now, lying naked in Joe’s arms, her face pressed beneath his chin, both of them still breathing heavy, his breath fanning her hair as his hands smoothed down her slick back.

Perhaps this was the first time she’d felt truly safe since those days. Before her father’s arrest and imprisonment. Before her life for the Cause began, a life with an enemy on every corner, possibly lurking behind every face.

She’d had lovers in the years since then, but none of them had ever felt this way, this protected. It was as if when she was in Joe’s arms, the rest of the world couldn’t touch her, the demons of her past swept away.

Joe leaned back and kissed her forehead, lingering there. His hands continued their slow stroke along her back.

“Was that all right?” he asked, just above a whisper.

She smiled against his skin, nodded. “More than all right,” she said.

“I didn’t…hurt you or anything?” He kissed her forehead again, just brushing her with his lips.

She shook her head. “I’m only pregnant, Joe,” she replied, her tone teasing but still quiet. “You’re not going to break me, you know.”

She felt him smile, a soft chuff coming from him. “I’m sorry,” he murmured. “It’s just…well, it’s new to me. I’m not sure what’s the same and what’s different, that’s all.”

She leaned back slightly, looked into his eyes, her hand coming up to push his hair from his forehead. “It’s all the same,” she said gently.

He looked at her for a beat, then nodded, kissed her softly on the mouth, then her cheek. She put her arms around his neck and pulled him closer, holding him tightly.

She hoped he could feel from her the words she couldn’t bring herself to say. Though she felt them. Completely.

On the bedside table, the small travel alarm began to chirp, and Mae released him reluctantly so he could roll away from her and turn it off. Her hand smoothed down the sweat on his flat stomach, the covers slipping to his hips.

He turned back to her, leaned up on one elbow, pushed her hair behind her ear, his eyes on her, his brow creased. She could see the look on his face that she’d seen every morning since the day in the hospital.

He hated leaving her now. Even to go to work.

“Go on then,” she said, the teasing back in her voice to break the intensity of his gaze. “Off with you, or the boat’ll go without you.”

He hesitated, despite her playfulness. “I hate thinking of you back here by yourself with Sean if you get so sick again,” he replied. “I could take the day off and stay with you.”

She shook her head. “No, I don’t want that,” she said, and reached up to take his hand and hold it in front of her, putting some distance between them that way. “I’ll be fine for the few hours you’re gone. Not to worry. I’ll probably sleep the whole time.”

He still looked uncertain, but he finally nodded. “All right,” he said, and brought her hand to his lips, kissed it. “I’m just going to take a quick shower. Go to sleep. I’ll try not to wake you while I’m getting dressed.”

She nodded, smiled at him. “Go on then,” she repeated, and he let go of her hand and rose. He slipped into his boxers beside the bed in case Sean should be up and about, then picked up his jeans and tossed them over his shoulder. He padded almost silently to the bedroom door and out into the hall.

The night air coming through the open window chilled the sweat on her skin almost instantly with his absence. Still on her side, she pulled the covers up to her chin and closed her eyes. She heard the shower come on, and began to drift in the hazy place between sleep and wakefulness.

Her hand moved down to her belly beneath the covers, touching just below her navel. As she did so often now, she thought of her baby. In her mind the baby was a little girl, dark hair like hers and with Joe’s kind, bright eyes. She pictured Joe with her on his lap in a warm kitchen, her child laughing in his arms, as well.

This baby’s life would end up differently, she vowed. It would not be touched by the things Mae herself had been, would not lead the life she had.

All of it would stop with her, like a disease she refused to allow to be passed down another generation. She had the same hope for Sean now that he was away from Owen’s life. Perhaps it wasn’t too late for him, either…

She hummed softly on an exhale, feeling sleep begin to take her, a pleasant weight on her body. Sounds were muffled around her. The shower going off. The door opening softly, footsteps in the room…

She pushed it all away, going toward the gentle darkness…

A hand clamped down over her mouth.

She was jolted into consciousness, a sound like a scream coming up from her throat as her eyes shot open.

The silencer that pressed into her temple stopped the scream instantly, leaving only the sound of her breathing, fast and panicked.

“Hello, Mae,” Owen Curran said from right beside her ear, his voice coming through clenched teeth. “I’m sorry I wasn’t here sooner, but I had to wait for you to finish.

He hissed the last word, jerking her head back sharply. She whimpered, closing her eyes, feeling tears stinging them.

“Some things never change I see,” he continued, his breath hot on her ear. “You still can’t keep your bloody legs closed, can you?”

She clenched her eyes closed more tightly and a tear slipped from them, over the bridge of her nose.

The baby was her first thought. Sean, she knew he wouldn’t hurt. But–

Oh God. Joe.

“Now I’m going to take my hand away from your mouth, all right?” Owen said as though he was speaking to a five year old. “And when I do, you’re not going to make a sound or I’m going to blow your fucking brains all over this bed.”

He leaned closer, whispered in her ear. “And don’t think I won’t do it. You understand me?”

She whimpered again, but managed to jerk a nod against the force of his hand. He paused for a moment, and she opened her eyes to see him leaning over her, looking into her face, his face awash in shadow. Then he slowly withdrew his hand and stood.

She didn’t move. Her body began to tremble all over.

“Sit up,” he snapped. “And for fuck’s sake keep yourself covered.”

She complied, easing her legs over the side of the bed, keeping the blanket up at her throat. She stared at the pistol in his hand, pointed at her forehead. Then she looked into his face.

His ice blue eyes stared back at her in the streetlight coming through the window. His face was thinner than it had been the last time she’d seen him, more chiseled. Fury rose off him like steam.

Their gazes hung as she pleaded with him with her eyes. He answered her with his silence and the stillness of the gun pointed at her head.

A commotion from the hallway brought her attention away from his face to the door, and she saw Joe come in, his jeans on, barefooted, his hands on top of his dripping head. A man was behind him, a tall solid man wearing a sports jacket and dress pants. He had a gun pointed at Joe’s back.

Owen turned and regarded Joe coldly, looking him up and down. Then he pulled back the hammer on the pistol, turned and pointed it at Joe, whose eyes were large as dinner plates, his bare chest rising and falling quickly.

“Please…please don’t hurt him,” Mae said, and her voice shook almost to the point of being unintelligible.

“Look, whatever you want,” Joe said, and Mae loved him for his composure, “you can have. I’ve got some money in my wallet and–“

“Shut the fuck up,” Owen snarled at him, then he spun on Mae. “And YOU, I told you not to make a sound, didn’t I?”

His hand shot out, his palm catching Mae across the jaw and jerking her face to the side.

“For Christ’s sake!” Joe said, anguished, the man behind him’s hand going out to his shoulder, halting his forward motion. “Don’t hit her! She’s pregnant!”

Oh God, Joe, Mae thought as blood trickled from her lip. Don’t have just told him that…

Suddenly Owen had a handful of her hair, his face in hers. “You’re what? You’re fucking WHAT?” Then he released her hair and hit her again.

This time Joe did come forward, cursing, his hands going off his head and reaching for Owen’s throat. Owen spun on him, the gun coming up and pressing against Joe’s forehead, stopping him. Then the man behind Joe pulled him back again, holding him still. Owen had yet to move the gun, though, following Joe back.

“Please don’t hit her any more,” Joe said softly, keeping his voice steady.

“So you’re the sonofabitch who knocked up my sister then,” Owen said, cocking his head at Joe, his eyes narrowing. He turned the gun sideways, as well, and Joe stiffened even more. “I’d be more worried about myself if I were you.”

Owen’s hand moved so fast it was like a blur of motion. He struck Joe across the face with the butt of the gun, and his knee came up into Joe’s groin, sending him crashing to his knees, a hoarse cough coming from him. One of Joe’s hands went to his belly, the other to his face.

Mae could see blood dripping from between his fingers. She began to cry in earnest now, frustrated tears of fear and helplessness.

More sounds from the hallway, and now Sean came in, another man behind him. The man didn’t have a gun out on Sean, and she was glad for that. He did have a hand firmly on Sean’s shoulder, though, as though to ensure he wouldn’t run.

Sean gazed at Owen for a few seconds, his expression very afraid. Then he looked at Mae and Joe. Mae swiped at the blood on her mouth so he wouldn’t see it, but it was too late. She could tell by how the boy’s eyes had widened even more and how his breathing had begun to come fast and shallow. Then Sean returned his eyes to Joe, who was still hunched over, blood seeping from his cheek.

“Joe?” Sean said in a high, frightened voice.

“I’m all right, Sean,” Joe managed, but it sounded like even words hurt him.

Mae’s eyes darted to Owen, whose face had twisted up in even more rage. “You can’t say hello to your own dad first, Sean?” he said, his teeth clenched again.

Sean looked up, backed a step into the odd-looking man behind him. “Hello, Daddy,” he said, his voice faint and terrified and his lip trembling. His eyes brimmed with tears.

Owen looked at him, and Mae could see the pain in his face from Sean’s reaction. Then Owen turned his attention back to Joe, pure hatred in his eyes, and he kicked out again, pushing Joe onto his side roughly. Joe lay there, still holding his abdomen. Mae saw the huge gash in his face as he moved his other hand down to his belly, as well.

“Owen, please…not in front of Sean, all right?” Mae said meekly.

Owen glared at her, his hand going up to rub roughly at the scar down his face, which he always did when he was agitated. Then he seemed to relent a bit, to regain some measure of composure, though Mae recognized it for the front it was.

“Rudy, take Sean to his room and get him to pack up his things,” he said calmly, and the strange-looking man nodded, angled Sean toward the door and guided him out. That done, Owen turned to Mae.

“Now get up and get dressed,” he said. “We’re going for a little ride, all of us.”

“Let Joe go,” she begged. “He doesn’t have any part of this. This is between you and me.”

Owen seemed to consider for a few seconds, looking down at Joe, who was watching him warily.

“No,” Owen said finally, almost conversationally. Mae found this tone more chilling than the rage he’d spoken with before. “No, I think Joe here will be coming with us, as well.”

Mae sucked in a breath. “But why?”

Owen stared at her again, a faint smile on his face. “Because you want me to let him go,” he said. “And plus, he’s family now, isn’t he? We should all stay together, don’t you think?”

He kicked Joe again, this time in the side. “Now get the fuck up and find a shirt and some shoes,” he snarled.

Joe struggled into a sitting position, stood slowly, Owen’s gun on him the whole time.

“All right,” he said quietly, putting his hands up in a placating gesture. “I’m not going to try anything.”

“That’s good,” Owen said. “Because the minute you try something, I shoot her. ” He jerked his head toward Mae. “And the minute you do, I shoot him.

Mae swallowed, gauging Owen, tears still running down her face.

He was serious, she thought. He would do it.

She nodded to him then and stood, bringing the covers with her. She wrapped herself in them as she went to the bureau, her back to the men in the room, and silently began to dress.

+++

NEAR DEAD MAN’S WASH NAVAJO RESERVATION 5:34 a.m.

The fire had long since gone to embers. Scully had sat in the darkness the fire left behind for more than an hour before the sun began to paint the horizon with a line of gold, high nimbus clouds lighting up amidst the persistent starlight.

She hadn’t slept the whole night, watching Orion spin slowly across the sky, her mind filled. She’d cried off and on, wrenched by her feelings for the first time in years, bringing them out and casting off their shadows in the light of the stars and fire.

Somewhere around the time the fire had died, a calmness had settled over her and the tears had ceased, leaving her still and silent, her knees pulled up against her chest, the bunting top she wore pulled out over them. She felt utterly spent, as though something in her that had been impossibly heavy and full was now empty.

Years of anguish she’d kept closed within her, anguish for herself, now finally open, like a black flower that had finally bloomed, showing her its terrible beauty and then withering away.

She watched the sun come up, a half an eye at the edge of the world. The sky turned pink, the red rocks glowing in it, a light wind rustling the brush around the edge of the clearing, ruffling the stiff dry leaves of the mesquite. Behind her, the thin river surged with light.

She glanced at Ghost, asleep, one hock turned up in the sand, and thought again of Hosteen, replaying his words in the kitchen, the room simmering with the smell of things cooking:

It’s time for you to go to this place, he’d said.

That is where you will find everything you need.

It’s not on the map, what’s there. But you will see it.

She looked around her, looking for it. The world was birthing this new day, slowly lighting the desert, chasing away the chill. There was a strength to it, a vastness. And it was as though, for the first time in months, she looked around and saw things not as they were but how they could be.

As new. Like a child. So full of possibilities.

A silver thread unwound in her. A faith she thought she had lost. Faith in herself. In the simple yet inexplicable ways of things.

Again her thoughts returned to Hosteen in his cluttered kitchen, stirring with his worn wooden spoon.

What was it he’d said about faith? He’d said her faith would be welcomed by whomever she found in this place.

But there was no one here, she thought.

Then a smile tugged at the corners of her lips.

She was here. And she did welcome it.

She was here. And she did have everything she needed to find her answers, and always had. Within herself.

She shook her head, the smile blooming as she wiped at her tired eyes. Her estimation of Hosteen, already very high, went up another few notches.

He couldn’t have told her any of this. He knew she had to find it out on her own, in her own time. It was a journey she had had to make alone to reach the end of it, to the place she now walked inside herself.

To this quiet land that offered her, at last, some sense of peace.

She stood, walked to the edge of the cliff, watching the river run slowly along its wide banks. Ghost awoke at the movement and turned his head to regard her with his plum eyes.

The thoughts of Mulder, which she’d tried for so long to keep buried, came to the surface in a warm rush. She wished he could be here to share this feeling with her. She wanted more than anything to share it with him, to feel his arms around her as she watched the sun climb, an eye of light wide open now, the stars retreating to pinpoints and then to nothing at all.

She would share this with him. She would give him this, offer it up to him to try to make right what she had — by necessity — torn apart between them. She wanted him to feel as whole as she did at that moment.

Whole except for one thing.

Him.

Her eyes stung again, but this time she was smiling as the warm feeling spread in her like water. The smile came easily, her eyes closing and a breath leaving her in a long, slow exhale.

Finally she opened her eyes, turned and went to the fire pit, kicking sand into the embers, covering them until they finally faded out. She hadn’t even bothered to set up the tent the night before, the sleeping bag still rolled up beside it.

She ate quickly, a muffin, a swallow of water from the canteen she carried with her.

Then she saddled Ghost, loaded up her supplies and mounted him, heading back down the rise on the trail that would lead her home.

+++

TWO GREY HILLS, NEW MEXICO NAVAJO RESERVATION 7:28 a.m.

Mulder pressed his heels into the horse’s sides, urging it a bit as they headed toward a small hill on the outskirts of Victor Hosteen’s property, the sun just beginning to glare on him, though he welcomed the way it warmed his skin.

The horse, an even-tempered black mare named Chaco, took the hill in stride, Mulder’s grip on the reins reasonably sure but his pressure on her mouth minimal, just as Victor (and Killer) had taught him.

At the top of the rise, he stopped her, but not to enjoy the view, though it was a nice one.

He stopped because Bo had fallen behind again, the dog picking his way along the trail, weaving in and out of bushes, panting, his head down as he followed Mulder out into the desert.

Once Bo had gotten to the top of the hill, as well, Mulder touched his heels to Chaco’s sides again and they went down the other side. He leaned back in the saddle, bracing his feet in the stirrups, just as he’d been taught, until they reached the bottom and continued on down the trail.

He’d been lost in his own thoughts all morning, his mind wandering as he’d helped Victor and Eric and the others with the sheep and horses. Finally, after Victor had caught him staring off into space once again when he was supposed to be doing something else, Victor had told him to take a horse and “get lost” for awhile until he could get his mind back on his work.

The friendly swat on the back he’d given Mulder as he urged him toward the corral had taken any hint of reprimand out of the comment, and Mulder had smiled to him as he went to saddle the horse.

His hips had gotten used to the easy roll of the horse’s long gait, and he’d learned to handle the horse halfway decently, though the activity still plagued him with nervousness, his side aching as a reminder of what could happen if he did the wrong thing again.

But he was at least beginning to understand why people enjoyed this, though a few days ago he couldn’t fathom feeling this way. He felt very authentic in his worn jeans and his boots, the grey t-shirt he wore not quite warm enough for the morning, but comfortable nonetheless.

He looked around at the landscape, finding solace in the simplicity of it, its clarity. Things were very cut and dried out here. There were no shades of gray to confuse him, no middle ground. He liked that a lot, and was beginning to align his feelings with the starkness of his surroundings, and with the barren terrain of his own heart.

Maybe being alone wasn’t such a bad thing, he thought, urging Chaco up another small incline, keeping a watchful eye on Bo.

But even as he said it, he knew he was lying to himself again, and the contradiction of that sentiment and the worry and hurt he felt over Scully made him feel lost again.

Maybe Scully had been right when she’d told him that he loved her too much, he thought sadly. That he was blinded by that love. Because somewhere along the way he seemed to have misplaced something important.

Himself.

And he was just now getting himself back, getting to know how he looked and felt without her again.

He didn’t know if it was a better or worse version of himself he was looking at or not. It was just different. Solitary, like his life had been before her. Familiar in that way and thus somehow comforting. And he had to admit, begrudgingly, he liked that only he could alter things about him now. He felt more in control than he had in a long time, less accountable.

He found an painful kind of peace in all of this, he realized, as Chaco went around a bend, Bo padding along beside him.

It was the feeling people settled on in grief, when they faced the hard realization that they were going to have to rise every morning and go about their lives without the person they’d lost, even though they might be dying inside themselves.

He’d come to this difficult conclusion. That his life would go on, even without her in it, if that was what she continued to choose for him. He couldn’t fight her in this, though there was still a part of him that wanted to. Badly. And in his pain he’d somehow become resigned to this new life, though his memory of the one he’d had with her, his love for her, still throbbed in him like the phantom of a limb taken away.

He would bear that pain and go on, he told himself harshly, his eyes flinty as he watched the trail ahead of him.

Even if it meant turning in on himself, pulling in like an animal going into its shell.

He could feel himself hardening inside even as he thought of it all, and the feeling dulled the pain.

Beside him, Bo whined and sat down on the trail, panting heavily. Mulder pulled up the horse, looked down at him. The dog was tiring, he could tell, though he hadn’t exactly invited Bo along for this ride in the first place.

“You ready to head back, Bo?” he called down, and the dog looked up at him, his long pink tongue wagging out of his mouth as his tail thumped the ground, still a bit uncertainly. Bo whined again softly.

“I’ll take that as a ‘yes,'” Mulder said, and smiled slightly, then turned the horse around awkwardly and headed back towards Victor’s house, barely visible in the distance.

+++

2679 RANDOLPH AVENUE CHANTILLY, VIRGINIA APRIL 7 9:14 a.m.

Nancy Rand looked carefully at the picture of Mulder Skinner had handed her, her other hand at her waist, toying with the black belt she wore knotted there around her karate uniform, or gi. She was shaking her head but had yet to speak, which Skinner was taking as a promising sign.

Around him, the karate class continued without her, another black belt having taken over when he arrived to question her. Around him, students went through drills, some off to the sides practicing forms, other sparring wearing helmets and pads on their feet and hands.

He’d come in casual clothes so as not to draw too much attention to himself, trying to blend in with the students of various ages peppered throughout the room. He could be a prospective student himself, just in the dojo to sign up for classes. That was exactly the way he’d wanted to look.

He noticed, though, that he was still getting some odd, territorial looks from the people around him. Clearly they weren’t used to new people coming in very often. It made him shift uncomfortably as he waited for Rand’s verdict.

She started to hand the picture back to him, then looked at it one more time. Skinner’s stomach tightened.

“He was waiting for a plane,” she said, and now she nodded. “Yes, I remember him now. My last week of work. We almost called Security on him — he was showing all the classic signs of someone up to something.” She looked at Skinner as he cocked an eyebrow in confusion. “You know…standing around the gate with big carry-ons and not boarding right away, watching everyone who got on the plane. He looked really anxious about something.”

“But you didn’t call Security?” Skinner asked. He almost hoped she had — more witnesses. But she shook her head.

“No, I went up to him right before we were about to close the doors and asked him if he was getting on, and he said he wasn’t. Picked up the bags and left. We were all really relieved when he left.”

She handed the picture back now, her hands going to her trim hips beneath the thick black fabric of the gi. She looked eager to get back to what she was doing, restless.

Skinner nodded, finally breathing normally again. It all jived. Mulder with his things packed up waiting for Scully to board the plane bound for Boston, for her to get clear of her cover. It was an escape route she never got to take.

Behind him, a woman was breaking boards held by other students, the cracking startling him back into the present.

He cleared his throat. “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your attention to this, Ms. Rand,” he said, tucking the picture back in his pocket. He pulled out a small notepad and a pen, proffering them to her. “I wonder if you might take the time to write down everything you just told me, for my records.”

Rand pushed her blonde hair back from her face where it had fallen a bit from a loose French braid in the back. “What’s he wanted for, anyway?” she asked, though she took the pen and pad. ” Should we have called Security?”

Skinner shook his head. “No, no. You did the right thing. I’m afraid I’m not at liberty to say what the investigation is about, though.” He looked at her, forced a small smile. “But you’ve been a huge help.”

She shrugged, smiling shyly. “No problem,” she said, and went to the counter at the front of the dojo to write down what she’d seen, Skinner following behind her.

Thirty minutes later, Skinner was back in traffic, his suit swinging on its hanger in the back seat as he wove his way through the mass of cars heading into the city.

He hated that it was too late now to call Granger without getting him at the CIA, which they’d decided was a bad idea.

But they had proof now. Facts that disproved the two most damning pieces of Padden’s circumstantial evidence against Mulder. Between that and Scully’s testimony about what really happened in Mae Curran’s apartment (which he could take down over the phone from her for now), they should be able to put enough doubt into these charges to put footprints on Padden’s head and go to Ashcroft. Then he and Granger would put this thing to rest and get Mulder and Scully in — and Scully into his OWN Protective Custody — as soon as he could.

Something in him unwound a bit as he drove back toward the city, as he felt some kind of control over this for the first time.

But he didn’t let it go all the way.

After all, this was Mulder, he reminded himself.

And that meant nothing was as easy as it might seem.

+++

LAKE OAHE NEAR FAITH, SOUTH DAKOTA 2:25 p.m.

Jimmy Shea remembered the pub, the dark corner made of dark wood, smoke from three or four pipes catching in the bowl of the light above the table like aromatic webs. The faces around the circle of light were grim, the pints in front of the men all, for the most part, untouched.

“What the bloody hell are we going to do about this then?” Pauly Connell said, tapping his tobacco out into the large tray at the table’s center. He immediately reached into his pocket and loaded the thing again, pressing it down with his thumb over and over, worrying over it.

“I don’t know what can be done,” Shea replied, his own pipe in his mouth. It made him feel older than his 36 years in the crowd of older men. “You all know James Curran as well as I do. He will keep this hunger strike up. He’ll starve himself to death without even thinking about it if it’ll draw attention to the work.”

“Aye, that’s so,” Seamus agreed, nodding sagely. Shea watched him carefully, looking to him for some sort of solution, since the man was a Brigade Leader and could do something if anyone could.

“And no chance of getting him out of there?” Paddy — young and stupid — asked, and everyone shook their heads.

“That would be daft,” Pauly said.

Seamus leaned forward, deep in thought. “We need to do something to show that we’re with him, though. We’ll make them pay for how he’s paying.” He turned to the other men. “I say a strike at the bastards in every county. At the police. The ones who brought him in in the first place.”

There were general nods of agreement around the table, though Shea was, himself, a bit shocked at the notion. An operation of that scale would take every man they had. And probably a few they didn’t.

“You sure that won’t just make things worse for him?” Shea offered, tapping out his own pipe. He said it casually, so as to appear to assent but just be curious.

“What more can the bastards do to him that he’s not already doing to himself?” Paddy asked, and the other men grunted their assent. “He can’t even lay down on his back anymore, I hear, because his bones cut into his skin. And he should see that we’re behind him, even if this comes out for the worst.” The men grunted again.

“All right,” Shea said, nodding now.

Seamus looked around the table. “I’ll get with the other Brigade Leaders and we’ll come up with a time for us to strike, ways in, then- -“

“How can I help then?” a small voice piped up from in front of the table. Everyone’s eyes turned toward the sound, including Shea’s. His eyes widened.

Owen Curran, all of ten years old but dressed like a man, stood at the head of the table, looking at the men solemnly. His eyes were cold blue, staring. His voice had been flat as the dead calm sea.

“Owen, you should be home with your mother,” Paddy said gently. “And what are you doing standing there listening to men’s talk, eh?”

“You’re talking about my dad,” the boy said. “What you’re going to do about my dad.”

“Go home, Owen,” Seamus said softly. “This is work for men now, not boys.”

Shea watched Owen chafe, his small chest rising and falling. “I know how to make things. I can listen and know things without being noticed because everyone thinks I’m just a boy. I can get into places none of you can get in. I can help you.”

The table just stared for a long few seconds. They’d used children before for small errands, but this… Shea wanted to shake his head but didn’t. After all, the boy was losing his father in this. There would be no saving James Curran now, not with the hunger strike on for this long and things having gone as far as they had.

Maybe it would make James’ death easier on the boy if he felt like he was doing something about what was happening…

Shea looked to Seamus, who was looking at Owen.

“All right, Owen,” Seamus said finally. “You come back around to my house tomorrow after you’re done with school and I’ll find something for you to do for me. How’s that then?”

Owen nodded, meeting the eyes of the men around the table, unafraid.

“Yes, sir,” he said softly, and he pulled on his small cap and turned and was gone.

Jimmy Shea was thinking all this as he watched the tiny trout spin in the sunlight from the almost invisible line, its tail curling a bit, its gills flooded and crisp with blood. It was still struggling now and again, though he had no idea how long he’d been looking at it, lost in his thoughts.

He’d hooked it through the eye, he realized, struck back into the present, and he carefully worked the hook out of the foil orb, being as careful as he could with the fish, which was too small to keep even if he’d been inclined to do so. He wasn’t catching to eat today, the motel he’d found without a kitchen. He was just catching to catch.

There was a crackling as the hook popped loose and he worked it out the gaping mouth, holding the fish by the lip. There was a trickle of blood on his thumb, and he tossed the fish back into the water, rinsed the blood quickly in the lake as though the blood had burned him.

From his pocket, his cell phone began to chirp, and he dried his hands on his pants quickly as he reached for it, hit the talk button.

“Aye,” he grunted into it.

“Mr. Shea?” came Conail Rutherford’s voice, crackling with static from a spotty signal in the middle of the vast lake.

“Aye,” Shea repeated. “What do you have for me then, Conail?”

“I’ve gotten a phone call,” Rutherford replied. “A strange phone call. Someone who’s been putting our friend up here and there. He told me where he might be going to next, if you want to catch up with him there.”

The ambiguity had become part of their conversations. Always talking about friends meeting up. It made Shea sad every time Rutherford said it, though he knew, of course, why he did.

“All right then, where is it?” he said, still rubbing his hand absently on his pants.

“Alder Creek, Colorado,” Rutherford replied. “Where are you now, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“I’m in South Dakota,” Shea replied, looking at the lovely blue- green fir trees lining the banks of the deep blue lake. “Not too far away. I’ll just finish up an hour of fishing here and then I’ll be on my way.”

“That’s fine,” the younger man replied. “Take your time. It looks like this man who called…he’s interested in the same thing we are, it seems. Said he’d keep in touch.”

Shea nodded. “That’s good then,” he said quietly, distracted. “Call me in a few days. I’ll be there. Sooner if you know anything else.”

“Aye, that I’ll do,” Rutherford said. “Travel safe, Mr. Shea.”

“Will do,” he replied, and hung up, tucking the phone back in his pocket.

He looked out over the lake, a sudden wind rippling the lake into waves that turned the boat with its small hands.

He should be happier with the news, he knew. But he couldn’t muster it. Only when he thought of Ruby, being back home with her, was he cheered, though just a bit.

Sighing, feeling all his sixty-plus years settling over him, he turned to the outboard, pulled on it roughly and it coughed to life, sputtering. Then he angled the boat against the wind, heading back up the lake.

+++

TWO GREY HILLS, NEW MEXICO NAVAJO RESERVATION 5:34 p.m.

The path to Albert Hosteen’s house was going a burnished bronze as the sun set over the desert, the clouds that had persisted all day gathering on the horizon and surrounding the last of the sunlight like hands.

Scully was half asleep on Ghost’s back, lulled by the horse’s slow gait as he made his way toward his home. Her head lolled forward and she snapped awake just as they reached the back of the house. She could see Hosteen looking at her through the back window, and raised her hand in greeting, coming more awake.

She came around the house, stopped Ghost at the front porch and dismounted, landing on both feet in the dust, stretching her stiff back.

She was pulling the reins over Ghost’s head to hitch him to the porch post when the screen door creaked open and Hosteen came out, his hands in the pockets of his worn jeans, a flannel shirt hanging on his thin frame. His long silver hair was in a ponytail at his neck, and there was a small, knowing smile on his face.

She finished tying the horse up and turned, regarding Hosteen and returning the smile.

“How was your trip, Agent Scully?” he asked, his voice quiet. She could hear the television mumbling to itself inside the screen door, and smelled fry bread cooking. It was a smell she knew she would forever associate with this time in her life, this man. It comforted her that much.

“It was good,” she replied, looking down shyly. “It was very good.”

“Hm,” he said, nodding. “Did you find what you were looking for, what you needed, while you were there?”

She hesitated, felt her eyes brimming with tears suddenly, fatigue and the emotions of the past three days welling in her suddenly. She looked away, her hands on her hips as she pulled in a calming breath. Her head bobbed once.

“Yes,” she said, keeping her voice steady. “Yes. I found what I needed.”

Now she did look at him, into his eyes, which caught the light from the porch and held it like starlight.

“All but one thing,” she added just above a whisper.

Hosteen walked to the edge of the porch, standing before her, looking down into her face. She didn’t flinch from his gaze, from the way he studied her, smiling as though he was pleased with what he found. She smiled back, reached out tentatively and touched his forearm.

“Hm,” he said again. “Well, then come in and have some dinner, have a shower.”

He paused, and his hand reached out to cover hers on his arm.

“Then go to him.”

She nodded, and now the tears did come. She closed her eyes.

“Thank you,” she breathed, her voice escaping her.

He only nodded in return, and, stepping back, he held the door for her and led her into the house.

+++

6:48 p.m.

Mulder sat on one side of the ancient brown couch, the fuzzy reception of “The Andy Griffith Show,” the only show that would come in, scattering the room with its flickering white. There was a lamp on beside him, throwing light on the 1953 National Geographic he was flipping through. He turned the pages slowly, looking at the pictures and breathing in the smell of old books and dust.

He turned to look at Bo beside him on the couch, who was sprawled on the other cushion, his long legs crossed as they hung over the edge. He was lying on a battered towel Mulder had found at the bottom of the linen closet, his head resting on the arm of the couch’s arm. The dog’s eyes were half-closed, his breathing slow.

Mulder reached over and touched Bo’s flank, gave him a pat. Ever since the visit with the vet the other day, since the long walk in the desert with him yesterday, Bo had seemed to be under the weather, lethargic and not quite as interested in eating as he’d been before.

Mulder was worried about him all day, and thought there’d be no harm in letting him in the house since Bo had come to the door wanting in. Mulder had had to lift him up onto the cushion, though, when he put the towel down, afraid Bo’s sores would stain the fabric.

Not that it mattered, he thought ruefully. The couch was already covered with cigarette burns, and must have been older than he was, or close to it. But he was still mindful of being a guest in this house, dilapidated as it was.

It was beginning to feel homey in its disrepair and its relative silence.

He kept his hand on Bo’s rump as he turned the page with his other hand, put his ankle up on his knee as he sunk further into the cushion. He sighed and looked at the picture on the next page.

Ah, the naked Pygmies from his youth…

It almost teased a smile from him. Almost.

There was a knock at the door, faint. Had the sound on the television been up any higher, he probably wouldn’t have heard it at all.

He glanced at his watch, wondering what Victor could want at this time of night, the horses all in the corral for the evening, the sheep in their pen. Wind creaked against the plexiglass windows, signalling a storm coming up.

Maybe Victor wanted help putting the horses in the stable, in case the storm got too bad. The lightning out here was the fiercest he’d ever seen.

He rose, tossed the magazine onto the couch, retucking his white t- shirt into his jeans in the back as he headed for the door. Bo opened his eyes and followed Mulder with them, though he didn’t move beyond that, Mulder noted. Not even for the knock.

He must really be feeling badly, Mulder thought as he watched Bo, still going toward the door. The dog wasn’t even spooked at the prospect of someone outside coming in.

Mulder reached the door and flung it open, thinking to ask Victor about Bo’s state —

And was confronted by Scully standing there on the other side of the screen door in the yellow porchlight. The light gleamed on her still- wet hair, threw a gold glow on her long-sleeved shirt. She had her hands on her thin hips and was looking at him uncertainly, her eyes on his face.

His heart finally started beating again after a few seconds and he regained his composure from the gape he had frozen into on seeing her.

Now he found himself looking away. He could feel a flush rising beneath his beard.

“Hi.” She said the word softly, sounding almost a little afraid.

“Hi,” he replied, and it came out stiff. He was looking down at her booted feet, over her shoulder. Anywhere but her face and into those eyes.

There was an awkward moment of silence. A dog barked somewhere off in the distance. The screen door still separated them, and he made no move to open it.

He chanced a look at her face. She was still trying to get him to meet her eyes.

“Is there anything wrong?” he asked, unable to bear the silence any longer.

She shook her head. “No, no,” she said, her voice still quiet. “There’s nothing wrong.”

“That’s good,” he replied hurriedly, nodding. He glanced at her face again, this time for a few seconds longer. “You look tired.”

She smiled slightly. “I’ve been out…camping for a few days,” she said. “Not the most comfortable sleeping conditions.”

“Camping,” he repeated, nodding again, looking down. “Good. That’s good. Did you have fun?”

She shook her head. “No.”

The word stilled him and he did look up into her face now. Her eyes were sad and tender and pleading all at once, and he didn’t know what to do with any of it.

“Oh,” was all he could think to say. “I’m sorry.”

She shifted from one foot to the other, shaking her head. “No, don’t be sorry,” she said, and he could hear frustration seeping into her tone now. “I just…I was just wondering…”

She paused, and it was her turn to stare down. He watched her, something in him growing inexplicably afraid as she struggled for words.

“You were wondering what?” he asked, trying to sound casual. He failed.

“I was wondering if I could talk to you,” she said finally, and her eyes met his again. He wondered if his expression gave away his nervousness.

She took a step closer to the door, put her hand on the screen, her fingers brushing against it. He saw her swallow and realized she was as nervous as he was.

“Can I come in, Mulder?”

He hesitated, taking a step away from the door, from her hand on the screen.

He tried to remember what he’d felt yesterday out in the desert, his resolve at having himself back, at being all right with being alone and unaccountable. Emotions tinged with bitterness and anger and a strange sort of power.

The feelings reared in him, very real, but even as they did so, he recognized them as the defense that they were, thrown up to cover his nervousness and his fear.

Fear of her. Of being hurt by her.

He didn’t think he could bear it again.

It was an admission to himself that made his eyes burn with tears, which he blinked back. He hadn’t realized he was still this raw. He’d felt so numb for so long now, so closed.

But here she was, opening him with her small hands again.

He almost resented how easily she could do it.

“Mulder, please,” she murmured, and the pleading was in her voice and her eyes now. “Please let me just talk to you.”

He balked for another few seconds, waiting until the emotions were back under some semblance of control. Then he met her eyes, nearly getting lost in their familiar blue, and knew there was only one thing he could do.

He reached for the door handle, and she stepped back as he pushed it open and held it for her. He could not bring himself to speak, however, not trusting his words or his voice.

He could see the sadness come over her face at his silence. But she nodded, angled her head in thanks, and walked through the doorway and into the living room beyond.

He stood still for a moment, his eyes down. Then he finally let go of the door, turned, and closed the wooden one behind him.

+++

CHAPTER 17.

+++

6:58 p.m.

Scully stood in the space between the kitchen and the living room, her hands in the pockets of her jeans. Her heart was pounding and she drew in a deep breath, let it go, calming herself as best she could.

It’s still Mulder, she reminded herself. It’s just Mulder.

The thought didn’t comfort her much. She didn’t know anything about how he was, how he felt. She didn’t know what he thought of her, or how much anger he might have at the things she had done to drive him away.

She wondered just how far away he’d gone in the time since the fight in the motel, since she’d struck him, cursed at him.

The distance was definitely there. She could feel it. It was like they were looking at each other from two islands, each stranded on their separate shores.

“Can I get you something?” Mulder asked, coming up behind her and then going for the kitchen. “I have some coffee that’s still warm, fairly fresh…” He trailed off as he lifted the percolator from the stove, as if to prove he was telling the truth.

She didn’t want coffee, but she nodded nevertheless. “Sure. Coffee would be nice. Thank you.”

He nodded, his eyes still darting away from her as fast as frightened birds. It pained her to see that he could not look at her for more than a few seconds before he had to turn away.

She watched him for a moment as he went into the cabinet, pulling down a dingy looking mug, its bone-white surface battered. He poured the coffee, went to the fridge and took out the milk and a small bag of Domino sugar.

She took a small comfort in the fact that he remembered how she took her coffee. A ghost of their previous life.

She looked around the living room, the television’s picture barely visible through the static, Andy playing the guitar and humming on the porch through the hiss. There was only one light on, a lamp by the couch that faced the television. There was a stack of National Geographics on the coffee table, Mulder’s own coffee mug beside it, which didn’t match the one he was presently filling for her.

The place was warm and dark and cave-like. Neatly kept, which surprised her. He rarely kept his own apartment clean. She wondered why he did here.

She took a step toward the back of the couch and saw legs splayed out from one of the cushions. Leaning over the back, she found herself looking into the face of a terribly thin black dog. She winced as she looked at the sores on its visible side, the starkness of its ribs.

“Hey,” she murmured, and reached down to pet its head, finding it surprisingly soft considering the state of the rest of the dog’s body. The dog whined faintly as she did so, nervous eyes the color of oil blinking up at her.

“Where’d you get the dog?” she asked, continuing to stroke the animal’s head, smoothing back its ear.

“He sort of found me,” Mulder replied, and finished stirring her coffee. “His name’s Bo. This is his first night in the house. I don’t think he’s feeling very well.”

Scully walked around the couch now, moved the coffee table back a little so she could get to the dog more easily. She checked him over, feeling his head and ears more carefully. The dog pushed further into the couch, turning his head away from her.

“It’s okay,” she said softly, and the dog whined again.

Mulder came forward from the kitchen, around the couch. He kept his distance from her, though, she noticed.

She pulled on the dog’s neck, watched the skin slowly fall back into place.

“He’s a little dehydrated, for starters,” she said, then checked the sores. They seemed to be all right, most of them closed over and healing. “He needs a vet, though.”

“He’s seen one,” Mulder replied, his voice still nervous. “A couple of days ago. He got a bunch of shots.”

Scully glanced at him, then down at the dog. “That’s probably all it is, then, if the vet didn’t find anything serious,” she said. “Sometimes they can have a reaction to the medications. Especially if they’re already weak, and he clearly is.”

“That’s good to know, that it’s just the shots,” Mulder said as she stood, still regarding the dog, sprawled on his towel as though someone had dropped him there.

“He’s got a bowl of water in the kitchen,” he continued. “He’s been drinking some. Maybe he’ll be okay in the morning.”

Scully nodded. “I’ll check him tomorrow for you, if you’d like.”

Mulder looked uncomfortable, but nodded, as well. “Okay…thanks.”

Bo took one final look at her, still unmoving, then closed his eyes and exhaled a deep breath, falling asleep.

Mulder shifted from one foot to the other as she turned her attention from the dog to him. He offered her the coffee and she took it.

“Thanks,” she said quietly. Mulder picked up his own cup, and they regarded each other for an awkward beat.

“So…” Mulder said, gesturing to a chair beside the couch. She moved toward it and sat, and he took the empty side of the couch, sitting on the very edge. She did the same in the chair. “What did you want to talk to me about?”

She looked down into the milky surface of coffee, hesitated. Her bad hand trembled it into ripples. Then she glanced up at him, and he was looking at her solemnly. He took a sip of his coffee, half his face lit by the lamp on the end table.

She smiled, embarrassed, and shook her head. “I don’t know where to start,” she admitted faintly, looking down.

Silence hung between them again, wind pushing on the windows, creaking the trailer.

“Tell me…tell me how you are,” she said quietly, returning her gaze to his face. His expression was unreadable, as though he’d put on a mask.

“Me? I’m great for a guy that’s been thrown off half the horses in Victor Hosteen’s corral.” He turned the coffee mug around in his hands, took a sip. Then he looked up at her again. “How are you doing?” His voice sounded far away.

She cringed inwardly. He had shut himself off from her so much. It hurt her to feel it, even though she knew that she was the one who had caused him to do it. She hated knowing that.

“I’m doing much better,” she replied. “I’ve had a lot of time to think.”

He nodded. “I’m glad you’re doing better,” he said, and some warmth leaked into his voice. He cleared his throat. “I’ve been…worried about you. You know, wondering how you were.”

“I’ve been worried about you, too,” she replied earnestly, sensing a tiny space in his considerable armor.

“I’m fine,” he said flatly, sipping his coffee again. He said it with a note of finality, as though he didn’t want to talk about it anymore. It verged on defensive.

“Mulder, I’m…” Emotion rose in her and she struggled to stifle it. “I wanted to tell you how sorry I am. For what I did and said before. I was just–“

“You don’t need to apologize,” he interrupted. “I understand.”

Again, that firm tone. Almost dismissive.

“No, I do need to apologize,” she persisted, treading carefully. “I should never have treated you like that. Not given how much I–“

“It’s okay, Scully,” he interrupted again, and stood now, going into the kitchen.

She watched him go, feeling tears climbing behind her eyes. She pushed them down.

He poured some more coffee from the pot, draining it. He set it down a little too hard on the burner, making a loud clap of metal on metal. He stayed beside the kitchen sink, his eyes down.

“Mulder, please don’t walk away from me,” she murmured into the quiet.

He turned his face to her and stared. She withered a bit under it.

“I know…I know you’re angry with me,” she stammered. “You’d have to be.”

“I’m not angry with you, Scully,” he said, monotone. “You’ve been through a lot. How could I be angry at you knowing that?”

“What I’ve been through doesn’t give me the right to do what I did to you.” She said it softly, meeting his eyes.

She could see his jaw working from here, the tense line of his mouth. He put the coffee cup down carefully, leaned against the sink, facing her, his arms crossed.

“What do you want from me, Scully?” he asked, and the question took her off guard.

“I…” She looked down, unable to meet his hard gaze. “I guess that…even though I know why I did what I did to you, that it was necessary on some level, that I want you to forgive me for it.” She shrugged as she said it, her voice growing very faint at the last.

A flash of lightning popped at the window like a flashbulb going off.

“You’re forgiven,” he said, unmoving. Thunder rumbled in the distance.

She looked at him. “And I came here to ask you to give me another chance.”

“Another chance at what?” he snapped. It was there now. The anger was coming.

“To give us another chance,” she said softly.

“There is no us anymore, Scully,” he said. “There’s just me and there’s just you.”

“Please don’t say that.” She looked down at her hands, feeling the frustrated tears rim her eyes at last.

“You know, I’ve had a lot of time to think, too, Scully,” he continued, the words coming hard from him, his volume rising. “And I’ve realized something myself. You were right when you said I loved you too much, that I was blinded by it. I lost myself when I was with you. I forgot who I was. And I’ve finally gotten myself back and I’m not going to go back to that again. Not for ANYTHING.”

His anger was so roiling now, his face like stone, his jaw pulsing. He leaned away from the counter and had it not been his place, she might have been afraid he would leave.

“I said that to hurt you,” she said, trying to keep her voice steady in the face of his rage. “Mulder, you have to know that. I’m sorry I did it, but that’s why I did. And I didn’t believe that was true when I said it, and I don’t believe it now. If you’ll think about what we had before all this happened, you’ll know that it’s not true, too.”

She paused, looking at him intensely. “I would have said anything to drive you away because of the pain I was in. It was never really about you, Mulder. Please try to understand that. But I hurt you terribly, I know. I’m so sorry for that–“

“Stop saying you’re fucking sorry!” he roared, stunning her.

Another flash of lightning, and Mulder spun, picking up the coffee mug in a fist. Then it was out of his hand, flung at the wooden door where it crashed, sending a dark splash across the door’s white surface as the pieces tumbled to the floor.

The dog bolted upright, his ears down. Then he jumped off the couch and scurried, almost on his belly, behind the television, wedging himself against the wall. Thunder rolled again, and rain began to spatter the windows.

Scully looked at Mulder in surprise, covered her mouth with her trembling hand. He was standing in the middle of the kitchen now, the heels of his hands dug into his eyes. She could see his chest rising and falling as though he’d been trapped in a box with no air and had just now gotten out.

“Mulder…” She rose, set her cup down, and went to him, anguished. She bit her lip, tears coming fast now as she stood before him. She murmured his name again.

“Go away,” he whispered. “Please get away from me.”

“No,” she replied, and her voice shook. “I’m not going to go away. Not like this. I love you too much.”

“Don’t say that,” he pleaded, his hands still over his eyes. His chest lurched on a sob.

She reached up and gripped his wrists. He resisted her gentle tug, and she drew them down more firmly until she revealed his eyes, clenched closed, his long lashes wet with tears.

“Don’t…” he said, hoarse. “Leave me alone, Scully.”

She took a step closer, let go of one of his hands so she could hold the side of his face. Her hand trembled against him, her thumb brushing at the tears.

“I am sorry, Mulder,” she murmured, her voice tender but sure. “I was protecting myself. Protecting you, I thought. I was wrong. Let me help you now…”

She leaned forward, not knowing any other way to prove what she was saying to him. So she pulled his face down gently and brushed her lips to his cheek. When he didn’t pull away, she went to his throat, tracing his skin with her mouth. She pressed a kiss to his forehead, feeling a tremor beginning to course through his tensed body.

Finally, she moved to his lips, touching her open mouth to his.

She felt something give in him with that, as though he’d been carrying something impossibly heavy and had finally set it down.

He pulled his arm away from her, shook his head against the emotions she could feel storming from him, the last of his resistance falling away.

His arms opened and she was suddenly in them as he nearly crushed her against his chest.

Her arms went around his neck, pulling his face onto her shoulder. He wept openly now, his body shaking with it. She cried with him, her hands stroking his hair, her lips on the side of his throat.

“Just let it go…” she murmured to him.

She lost her sense of how long they stayed together like that, the only sounds their hitched breathing and quiet cries.

Then a crack of lightning, and this time the lamp and the television went off, the room awash in darkness. The trailer creaked again in the wind, rain clambering on the window beside them.

There in the darkness he pulled back slowly from her, loosening his grip, his hands going to either side of her head, sliding through her damp hair. He rubbed his coarse cheek against hers, his lips grazing her closed eyes and the tears there. She pulled in a breath as he kissed her forehead, the skin beneath her eye, then finally her lips.

The kiss was not careful or gentle. It had the pull of a drowning man in it. She leaned her head back as he pressed into her, his mouth opening and hers with it. She teased his tongue with hers, surprising herself with her need to touch him like that. He responded immediately, stroking the inside of her mouth. She made a soft sound in her throat like a faint moan.

Then she couldn’t breathe, a panicky feeling passing over her. She pulled back from his lips but held his face close to hers, their labored breathing mingling, tears still coming from both of them.

“You okay?” He held her face between his hands, his thumbs smoothing her tears over her skin.

She nodded. “We just need to slow down a little…we have to go slow.”

“We don’t have to do anything at all,” he murmured, his voice still shaking. He started to pull away.

“No,” she said, holding his forehead to hers. “I want to feel this. I want to feel everything.” She whispered the last word against his mouth before she kissed him again, soft, searching. “Even the things that make me afraid.”

He shook his head. “I don’t want you to be afraid of me.”

“I’m not afraid of you,” she said with conviction, and she released him, stepped back and took his hand.

“Show me the way,” she said, and he hesitated. She saw the doubt in him as a flash of lightning flickered, illuminating his face for a few seconds.

“Please,” she said, giving his hand a squeeze.

After a moment he squeezed back. She could hear him let out a slow breath, and knew he was gathering himself, calming.

Then he turned and led her down the hallway through the darkness.

His voice is my voice.

She thinks this in this dream-like world where they are twined, curled into each other.

Breathless words, half spoken in the language of sheets:

Here?

His voice in her ear, then his mouth on hers, searching. Careful.

Yes there…

Kiss after kiss, soft as rain.

His hands on her breasts, rough thumbs grazing her nipples. His tongue, warm and smooth, on them, his beard teasing the soft skin.

More…

Her voice stretches to a whisper with her need. His dark eyes answer from above her, saying yes.

Hands moving down her belly, between her legs. She opens herself to him as best she can, a hand gripping his arm.

Beautiful…

She smiles at the word. Time holds still.

Then his body on hers, the slow slope of his back her hands follow down, her leg pulled up to his waist.

Press of weight. Her fingers curling.

A gasp, her face turning away as he fills her, her body taut, resisting.

Shh…Relax…

His words like anchors, her, a small boat on a storm-tossed sea.

Please, Mulder…

Tell me…

No, don’t stop…

Then the pleasure is there, beginning, mingled with tears she can’t stop.

Shhh…it’s all right. You’re all right, Scully…

The quick rise and fall of his chest, her heart beating like a bird’s, a strand of hair catching in the corner of her mouth as she turns her head, her eyes on his.

His hands on either side of her, his body moving, rhythmic, growing faster. His lip caught between his teeth, brow creasing, an expression like pain.

A pressure building in her, flush of heat, spreading like water through her belly.

Mulder…coming…

Yes…

I can’t…

Yes, you can…

And a burst of light, her eyes closing against it, her mouth on his shoulder, teeth bearing down as wave after wave washes over her and she struggles to breath beneath them.

A moan wrenches from him.

He shudders in a rush of warmth. In a cry.

Then he is beside her, their foreheads pressing together. They relax into sweat. His fingers brush at her tears, gathering them.

Her hands in his hair, smoothing the wet hair at his temples.

His body, a harbor of light.

….love…

Love you…

The rain outside continues to fall, the storm raging, all of it feeling very far away.

Their pleasure ebbs between them like a tide, his lips on her damp hair, her face against his throat.

She finally drifts into sleep against him, her last thought that, despite everything…

We made this.

+++

APRIL 7 5:40 a.m.

Mulder lay awake on his side, propped on one elbow, the sky going from black to a brighter blue-grey and beginning to illuminate the room around him, the last of the night falling away.

Scully lay beside him, facing him, deep in sleep. Her right hand held the covers up close to her bare chest; the left reached across the scant space between them, her fingers curled against his belly, the hand and arm trembling faintly even in her sleep.

Her hair spread out behind her, red across the pillow, her eyes shifting beneath her closed lids as she journeyed in the midst of a dream.

He felt like a Christmas child looking at her in his bed again, a small smile on his face, his head turning to get a better look at her features.

He reached out and fingered a strand of hair that had fallen across her face, stroking it back, smoothing her hair down and brushing her temple with his fingers. He worried about her dreaming, memories of the nightmares overtaking her burned into his mind.

Since he’d awoke, she’d made one small sound, a troubled sighing, so he kept his vigil over her as the dawn spread out around them.

Then, a knocking at the door, loud and insistent.

Victor…

Mulder carefully climbed over her from his place against the wall, trying to disturb her as little as possible as he made his way to the floor. Scully moaned softly at the movement, but did not awaken.

Once he got his feet over the side, Mulder nearly tripped over Bo, who had taken up a place at the side of the bed in the night. Bo opened his eyes and watched Mulder loot through the strewn clothes for his grey boxers, the dog’s tail thumping lightly on the floor. Mulder smiled, stepped into his boxers and reached down to stroke Bo’s head gently, then headed for the hallway before Victor could knock again.

The screen door was opening as Victor prepared to bang another time, and Mulder opened the door quickly, shards of the shattered mug pushing with it on the floor. Victor was holding the screen door and his hand was in the air in front of Mulder’s chest in mid-knock.

“You’re late again !” he exclaimed, and Mulder cringed at his volume.

“Yeah, I’m sorry, Victor,” he said quickly, keeping his own voice quiet, hoping Victor would follow suit.

Victor stared at him, at his hair, which Mulder knew must look a sight after a night of alternately sweating and sleeping, and at his red-rimmed eyes. And he was standing there in his underwear, as well….

“What the hell happened to you, man?” Victor laughed, banging him on the arm. “You look like you just got laid or something!”

Mulder grimaced, and he blushed from his mid-chest up. He put a finger over his lips, smiled an embarrassed smile.

Victor stilled, glanced over Mulder’s shoulder, then back at his face. His smile melted away and he cringed.

“Oh,” he said, and the new look on his face matched Mulder’s. “Guess you get the day off, for sure,” he said, and his voice was quiet now.

“I’m sorry,” Mulder said again. “I know with the storm you must need some clean-up help, but I–“

“No, no,” Victor said. “It’s fine. It’s all good. You can help me later today if you get the chance.” He grinned, winked. “Or not.”

Mulder reached out and grabbed hold of the screen door, shaking his head, but he was smiling. “Am-scray,” he said softly, and Victor chuckled, put his hands up in a gesture of surrender, and backed away as Mulder closed both the doors.

He turned and went back down the hallway to the spare bedroom where Scully lay, the room with the full-sized bed Mulder had avoided all this time because he couldn’t stand to sleep in a bed with one side empty.

He turned the corner and stood in the doorway, stilled.

Scully was on her back now, her arms thrown over her face to cover her eyes, the sheet slipped down to her waist. A beam of light fell through the gap in the curtains from over the bed, splashing onto her breasts, the creamy white of her belly.

Mulder stared for several long seconds, captivated.

He smiled as he made his way to the bed, touching Bo’s head again, who was now sprawled in the pile of clothes. Then Mulder sat on the edge of the bed slowly, carefully, put an arm over her, his hip barely touching hers.

He wanted to press a kiss between her breasts, wake her that way, his mouth moving over her skin…

Then something caught his eye beside one of her breasts.

A faint patch of red there, a chafe. He looked her over further and noted another on her shoulder near her throat, a spot of red beneath her jaw.

He reached down and lifted the covers, saw more. A streak on her smooth belly. Another half visible on the inside of her thigh.

He cringed, shook his head ruefully.

Oops.

He covered her up, and she turned fitfully, going back onto her side, mumbling something. He touched her gently and stood, padding silently out of the bedroom to the bathroom at the end of the hall, throwing on the light.

His toiletries bag was there, gaping open like a mouth. A can of shaving cream was on the counter, and he turned on the water, splashed it onto his face, drenching his beard to the skin. Then, taking a handful of foam, he worked it into the hair, rinsed his hands and pulled out his razor and an entire pack of refill blades, snug in their plastic holder.

Wetting the blade, he lifted his chin and began to shave.

A long time later, he was wiping his face with a towel, dabbing at the dots of blood on his face. Around him on the sides of the sink, the refill blades scattered, clogged with dark hair, whiskers all over the porcelain surface.

He wiped his face again, cleaning stray lines of white foam from around his ears, his sideburns, the towel feeling almost too rough on his overly sensitive skin.

He looked at himself in the mirror.

A man he used to know stared back at him.

A man he hadn’t seen in a long long time.

Mulder smiled to him.

“Welcome back,” he murmured to himself. “Welcome back.”

+++

In the bedroom down the hallway, Scully dreamed.

She and Mulder at an airport, the gate crowded, choked with people, all carrying tickets made of light. Mulder held one in his hand, fumbling it as he pushed his black trench over his arm, lifting his suitcase with his free hand.

She looked at him, taking in his appearance as though she had never seen him before and never would again.

Black suit. Crisp white shirt. Black tie patterned with silk outlines of birds in flight. His hair was shorter than she remembered from the night before, no beard. The suit hung on him beautifully, elegantly.

A suit good enough to be buried in, some voice in her said darkly.

She pushed the voice away, stared up Mulder, the crush of people all around them.

“Seats fifteen and higher may board,” the attendant said, and Mulder looked down at his ticket.

“That’s me,” he said, and smiled at her. “Gotta move on, you know.”

She looked down at herself. She was dressed in jeans, a t-shirt. There was a gun on her hip and something warm in her hand. She looked down at it.

A child stood there. A little girl holding her hand. At first she thought it might be Emily, but this was not Emily. It was another child. Dark hair, long and curled down her back. Eyes as blue as her own, but deeper, almost navy, and shining. The girl smiled up at her.

This is not my child, she thought in the dream, the part of her that was trying to wake her from it reasoning with her, almost pleading.

She looked back up at Mulder, who was still looking at her expectantly.

“Don’t go,” she said. She said it as warning. “We need to stay here, Mulder. We need to go home.”

“I have to go,” he replied kindly. “You know that.” He reached up and touched her face with the hand that held the ticket. When he touched her, his hand was colder than ice. The light from the ticket all but blinded her.

She stepped back from him, terror coming over her, though at what she couldn’t say. As the ticket receded, her eyes widened, panicked and disbelieving.

“I’ll see you,” he said, and leaned in to kiss her quickly. He gestured to the child. “Take care of her, all right?”

She nodded mutely, frozen in place, and he took a step back, his trench swinging as he turned and joined in with the line.

Someone came forward and took his ticket, and he disappeared down the dark tunnel of the gate.

Her eyes shot open, her hand going out to the worn mattress beside her. Sunlight beat in the window over the bed, and she shielded her eyes, struggling to orient herself.

“Mulder?” she called, the fear from the dream in her voice.

She rolled over, sitting up, drawing the sheet up to cover her chest. She looked around the room, at the battered dresser, its drawers crooked as teeth, the cheap rug, the rumple of clothes on the floor, on which the black dog from the night before was lying, looking up at her warily.

She leaned down and touched his head as if for reassurance that something in the room was real.

“Mulder?” she called again, and now she heard footsteps coming down the hall toward her.

He appeared in the doorway, a towel around his neck, his brow creased. “I’m right here,” he said quickly, coming toward the bed.

She swallowed as he sat on the edge of it, looking into his face.

“You…you shaved your beard,” she murmured, her eyes still wide.

He smiled, reached up to cradle the side of her throat, his thumb rubbing on her cheek.

“Yes,” he said, his voice tender. “Some of us have sensitive skin.”

His hand dropped down, pushing the sheet down, a finger brushing over the red spot beside her breast. Looking at the beard rash made her smile, as well, though it was a nervous one.

“You okay?” he asked, and she returned her eyes to his face. There were a few dots of blood on his face, and she reached her hand out, touching them with her fingers.

She looked at her hand. At his blood on her hands.

“Yeah,” she said, trying her best to shake off the dream. “Yeah. Just a bad dream. Nothing new about that.”

He nodded. “You want to talk about it?” he asked.

Good enough to be buried in….

She shook her head, pulled in a deep breath. “No,” she said. “Could you…would you lie down with me again though?” She looked at him almost shyly as she said it, feeling like the words were a great concession.

He simply smiled back at her. “Sure,” he murmured, and tossed the towel onto the floor, scooted over as she drew up her knees to give him room. Then he slipped under the covers, lying back, pulling her into his arms, urging her to curve her body against his.

She put her cheek against his chest, an arm around his ribcage, holding him tightly. Almost too tightly.

He sensed it. “It’s okay, Scully,” he whispered gently. “It was a dream.”

She nodded against him, turned her face into his chest and kissed him there. He pressed his lips to the crown of her head, rubbing his face in her hair, inhaling deeply.

We need to go home…

Good enough to be buried in…

She thought about it, closing her eyes as she drew a calming breath.

“Mulder, I want to go home,” she said finally, and felt him go still. His breathing all but stopped for a long moment.

“You must have an overwhelming desire to see me in a day-glo orange jumpsuit behind three-inch glass,” he quipped, stroking her hair.

“No,” she murmured, not rising to the joke. “I’m terrified of that, in fact.”

He was quiet for a moment.

“Padden won’t protect you, Scully,” he said. “We’ve been over this. Even Skinner says he won’t. You’re safer out here. We both are, until Curran’s caught or Skinner tells us otherwise.”

She leaned up, her chin on her forearm across his chest so she could look into his face. “Mulder,” she began quietly. “Do you remember…when I had cancer…when I was in the hospital in Pennsylvania.”

His face darkened, despite the dawn sun streaming on it. “Yes.”

“Do you remember what you said to me in the hallway?” She didn’t wait for him to respond as he looked into her eyes. “You said: ‘The truth will save you. I think it will save both of us.'”

“I remember.” He swallowed.

She pulled in a breath, let it out, gathering herself.

“We’re running from a lie,” she said. “You and I know the truth. And the truth will clear these charges against you. It will bring the investigation out of Padden’s control and allow Skinner to protect me.”

She reached up, stroked his face, soft now, smooth. “It will save both of us. And it’s not out here where we are. It’s back at home. And that’s where we should be, too.”

She inched forward, kissed his lips softly, bracing herself on her hands on either side of his body. His hands went to her back, her sides, his fingers brushing the sides of her breasts.

“Just think about it,” she whispered as they parted, and his hands moved down her back, an urgency in his touch now that she recognized as his warm, familiar desire.

“I will,” he replied, and leaned up to kiss her again.

+++

PART 3

CHAPTER 18.

+++

2819 GRAYSIDE TERRACE ALEXANDRIA, VIRGINIA 7:46 a.m.

The man sat on the edge of his bed, rubbing his hand over his short- cropped hair as he leaned forward, his elbows on his knees. The covers were rumpled behind him, evidence of yet another sleepless night spent tossing while his mind ground like the gears on a clock.

He’d had many such nights in the past two months. And he was growing tired of it, in more ways than the obvious.

Reaching over to the night table in his sparsely furnished bedroom, he picked up his wallet, opened it and thumbed through the large flap. He looted through receipts, dollar bills, until he found what he was looking for: a small slip of paper with a phone number written on it.

The numbers stared up at him. He stared back, thinking.

He could remember her so clearly if he let himself.

The weight of her hand on the center of his back. He was leaning over the empty autopsy table beside the one where she had been working as she took his class from the CIA through a forensic pathology lecture.

His stomach had been heaving, his face bright red both from the wave of nausea that had come over him and from his shame for swooning in the first place.

“Agent, are you all right?” she’d said gently, her other hand holding the glove she’d stripped off in haste to be able to touch him.

“I’m fine…” he’d said, forcing himself to stand, then he turned to look at the ruined corpse as if to prove to her and everyone else in the room that he could handle it after all.

Bile rolled up into his throat again at the sight of the entrails, all the blood…

“Maybe you should step out for a few minutes,” she said gently, and he turned instead to her. So small beside him. Blue eyes looking at him with concern. “You can come back in a few minutes. This happens to a lot of people. Don’t worry about it.”

She’d said all that loud enough for the other ten agents to hear, putting his dignity back over him like a blanket laid over his shoulders.

He’d admired her by reputation for a long time. Now he admired her for her kindness to him, the respect with which she treated him.

It was a small thing she’d done for him, true.

But he never forgot a kindness like that. And he never forgot how much he respected her for her keen intelligence, her quiet strength, and for the difficult work that she did, and did so well.

He sighed, fingering the slip of paper. He’d been so idealistic then. He thought he’d join the CIA to do some good, to do something important that he could be proud of.

He was not proud now. And he was not doing good. Those were about the only two things of which he was certain.

The man stood now in his pajama bottoms, set down his wallet and picked up his keys from the night table. Then he went through the bedroom to his office across the hall, the phone number still in his hand.

Swiveling his leather chair so he could sit, he sifted through the keys on the ring, choosing a small silver one and separating it from the others in between his fingers. Then he leaned over to the file cabinet beside the desk, unlocked the top drawer, leaving the keys dangling, clattering metal on metal.

He shifted files, going to the bottom of the drawer to the accordion folder, easing it out from beneath his tax returns and appliance manuals, then set it in front of him, opening its flap and lifting the contents out.

Color copies of photographs. Copies he was not supposed to have, but had been secretly making over the past few weeks as his doubts about what he was doing had begun to fester, making him more and more ill with guilt.

Her at a gas station, so frail now, so thin, her clothes hanging on her.

She and Mulder coming out of a motel room.

And then the picture that he now regretted having shown Padden at all. The one of the two of them on the cliff, seated in what was clearly a lover’s embrace. Mulder’s arms around her as though he were sheltering her from the forces that were closing in on them.

Little did either of them know who some of those forces were, or how close. Standing right beside them at that moment, in fact. Watching.

And waiting.

Post-traumatic stress seems to be setting in nicely…

The words had made him wince when Padden had said them then, and they did the same to him now as he looked at the photographs.

She didn’t deserve this. To suffer like this. Neither of them deserved this. To be sacrificed like lambs at Padden’s personal slaughter.

He had to do something. He couldn’t live with himself if he didn’t. It might cost him everything, but he knew what the right thing to do was. He’d known for a long time. He’d just been too worried about his own hide to do it.

He laid the pictures down, set down the piece of paper with the phone number on it and reached for his phone there beside him on the desk.

+++

GEORGE BUSH CENTER FOR INTELLIGENCE LANGLEY, VIRGINIA 8:03 a.m.

Paul Granger sat with a new stack of photographs in front of him, flipping through them, studying the faces of a dozen strangers caught on videotape in a dozen different gas stations and convenience stores across Southern California.

He had his office door open, hoping he looked suitably busy to the rest of the task force milling in the hallway, though he was, of course, just killing time with this stack. Mulder and Scully were about as likely to be seen in Southern California as he was at this point.

What he was really waiting for was the stack of possible Curran sightings that was supposed to come through around noon. That was his only interest at this point. The stacks he’d been looking at for weeks now had yielded nothing.

Wherever Curran was hiding, he was hiding but good.

Granger considered this. He’d decided that Curran couldn’t have stayed this out of reach for this long unless he was staying somewhere, most likely being hidden by someone.

He wondered, for the hundredth time, by whom.

Word from MI6 was that the IRA wanted nothing to do with Curran anymore. That they might, in fact, have gone so far as to put a hit out on him. There’d been a lot of suspected IRA members moving in and out of U.S. Customs for the past couple of months. More than usual since the embassy bombing. It concerned the CIA and the other intelligence communities greatly, to have their presence becoming more entrenched on U.S. soil, so many of them fleeing Northern Ireland now that the uneasy peace had finally come.

Granger leaned back in his chair, took off his small silver glasses and cleaned them absently on his maroon tie, thinking.

Between the drug that Curran had used to kill the group in Richmond, all of them dying horrible deaths over the course of week, and then some clear hits on members in the Northeast corridor, the Path was all but decimated. So they couldn’t be the ones hiding Curran…

And who were those men who had tried to grab Scully in Arizona? Scully had said they were American, or at least a couple of them were.

Someone in the U.S. then, he decided. Perhaps some extreme group that would condone Curran’s obsessiveness and his methods. One of the militias, perhaps?

But hired by someone who was not American? The militias hated outsiders as a general rule, distrusting even the UN, thinking that the U.S.’s contact with other countries was tantamount to giving the country away to “the New World Order.”

Granger shook his head just thinking about that level of paranoia.

How would Curran get a militia to go to work for him?

Granger thought about this, replacing his glasses. Then he swiveled around to his computer, already logged in to the CIA’s databank. He tapped in “Militias — Southwestern United States,” and waited while the computer cycled through the database.

From inside his black suit jacket, his cell phone rang, and he reached to where the jacket was draped over his chair, pulled it out, answering it almost absently as his eyes stayed glued on the screen, a row of names coming up, a description beneath each of them.

“Granger,” he said, distracted.

“Agent Granger?” a man’s voice asked.

“Yes, this is he,” Granger replied, reading and listening at the same time.

A long pause.

“Hello?” Granger said finally, his attention pulling away from the screen now as his brow furrowed at the silence.

“Agent Granger, I have…some information for you about your current investigation. Into the case against Agents Mulder and Scully.” The voice was steady and hesitant at the same time.

Granger sat up straighter now, going still.

This person knew about him heading the task force, which was not exactly common knowledge outside the agencies involved.

He knew about the task force’s investigation being not just into Curran and the bombing.

And he knew Granger’s cell phone number, to boot.

In other words, he knew too much to be one of the dozens of cranks who called every day, claiming information on some aspect of the case, phone calls usually filtered to him through the main switchboard.

An agent. Someone from the FBI, National Security…

Or the CIA itself?

He pulled the phone from his ear and checked the number of his caller ID.

Blocked. No surprise there. He replaced the phone at his ear.

“What sort of information?” Granger said, not giving away any of these thoughts in the evenness of his voice.

Another beat of silence. “I’d rather not discuss this over the phone,” the man said. “I’d like to meet with you. I have something to give you that will clear a few things up for you, I think.”

Granger was completely perplexed at this point, red flags having begun to wave in his mind’s breeze. But he was intrigued as well. He glanced nervously at the door to his office, gaping open like an eye. He rose and went to it, closing it quickly, turned his back to it and stood in the center of the office, his free hand on his hip.

“All right,” he said. “Where would you like to meet?”

“There’s a parking deck on the Metro station in Silver Spring,” the man said. “Meet me on the lower level. I’ll be there at noon. In the furthest corner from the elevators.”

Granger felt a smile tugging at his lips. “I think you’ve seen ‘All the President’s Men’ too many times,” he quipped, “but all right.”

“I don’t want you to see my face,” the man replied. “It’s not safe for you to see my face, to know who I am. Not safe for me. I’m being watched off and on. You are. We all are. I think you know that.”

Definitely an agent, Granger decided, the words stilling him even more.

But why would an agent want to have a clandestine meeting like this? Why not just come into the office and talk to him?

Unless this was about something internal…

A chill settled over him. Something was wrong here, he thought. Very wrong indeed.

“I’ll be there at noon,” Granger said solemnly. “I’m about 5’10, black–“

“I know what you look like, Agent Granger,” the man interrupted calmly. “Thank you for doing this. And please…” A beat. “Come alone.”

“I will,” Granger replied, the hair on his arms standing on end. And then the line went dead.

+++

UNKNOWN LOCATION ALDER CREEK, COLORADO 8:08 a.m.

Jimmy Shea sat in the barren tree stand, his touring cap on, blowing on a cup of strong coffee he’d been given by one of the other two men who sat around him, their rifles across their laps and pipe and cigarette smoke curling around them. There was a young boy there, as well — Thomas, Shea recalled now — who was sitting very still, watching the clearing through the trees, glancing at Shea uncertainly.

Something about Shea himself made the boy nervous, almost afraid. He wondered what it was as he sipped the coffee, its rich-smelling steam rising to his nose and eyes.

Shea’s own rifle leaned against the tree, a lovely Browning loaned to him by the men who had invited him to go hunting with him that morning. He’d driven all night from South Dakota and arrived at the compound some time after midnight, barely finding the place. Only Rutherford’s careful directions, given to him by this man Kingston who he’d met at breakfast, had gotten him there in the darkness.

The people had treated him well since his arrival, even extending the generous invitation to come out on the morning’s hunt.

Shea wondered how much they knew of his errand. If they did know what it was, they seemed to welcome it. From a few comments made over the morning meal when the subject of “the last Irish feller” came up, he’d gotten the impression that Owen Curran had not been well-liked.

There was a slight chilly wind, and he pulled his camouflaged jacket closer around himself, happy for the fingerless gloves. Springtime seemed to be coming slowly this high in the mountains.

Shea yawned despite himself, and one of the men chuckled softly next to him. “Should have let you go back to bed, Mr. Shea,” the man, Freddy, said amiably.

“Nah, I’m fine,” Shea said, smiling back. “I’ll perk up any time now. Just a long drive last night is all. And I’m afraid I’m not as young as I used to be.”

“Ain’t none of us that are,” the other man said, spitting tobacco over the side of the deer stand. This man, Boyce, had an accent that was thicker than that of the others, Shea noted. He was from the mountains of West Virginia, he’d told Shea earlier, and had added he couldn’t wait to get back home again.

Shea knew the feeling well.

He’d called Ruby that morning before breakfast, spoken to her briefly. Her voice had been sad, though she’d been trying to hide the feeling from him, trying to sound strong and easy, telling stories about the neighbors. A good one about Glen O’Reilly’s boat that he’d built and put in the sea. It had taken on enough water within the hour that by the time he came home, just the top sides were showing above the water.

Shea had laughed, though he knew the story for the cover that it was. He knew her far too well after so many years.

“There’s one,” Freddy hissed, and Shea looked up, saw the bobbing of a set of antlers over the brush at the far edge of the clearing. He set his coffee cup down without a sound, picked up his rifle just as silently. The other men did the same. Thomas took the thermos of coffee from Boyce, the pipe from Freddy, his eyes wide as he watched the deer.

Slowly it emerged, tentative, its head stretched up, turned from side to side as it left the cover of the trees. It was huge, Shea noted, admiring it. Strong mature antlers with many points. He knew the more it had, the more desirable it was. A massive, muscled body and wide chest.

He sighted it through the rifle. A tree blocked his way. He lowered the rifle.

“No shot,” he whispered.

“Me neither,” Freddy said at the same volume. “Boyce?”

“Yeah,” Boyce said, his eye squinched closed as the other looked through the scope. “I got him…” His finger went to the trigger, the gun already bolted…

A clatter of noise as Thomas dropped the thermos, the plastic cup on top falling from the stand to the ground below.

Shea looked at him, then at the deer. It had taken off with the sound, running parallel to the treeline, streaking across the clearing at top speed.

“Aw, Thomas, for God’s sake…” Boyce said, lowering his rifle. Freddy did the same.

“I’m sorry!” Thomas said quickly. “I didn’t mean it, I swear!”

Shea ignored him, watching the deer as it continued to fly across the field. It wasn’t going back into the trees…

He raised the rifle, following the animal through the scope.

“Mr. Shea, it’s too late,” Freddy said. “He’s gone now.”

He tracked the deer, his body swiveling quickly, locking the animal in the cross-hairs. It was 200 feet or more away now and still moving fast.

It was all dully familiar to Shea. He didn’t even have to close his other eye to sight as he followed it.

He took in a breath, held it, and pulled the trigger.

The shot tore through the trees, the sound echoing around them like thunder. Freddy and Boyce were standing now, their guns loose in their hands and their mouths agape.

The deer stopped almost instantly, a ragged hole in its chest, shot straight through the heart. It fell, digging up dead grass with its antlers as it skid to a halt.

It didn’t move again.

Shea lowered the weapon, bolted out the cartridge. It pinged on the wooden deck of the stand and down onto the ground below, glinting gold.

“Jesus H. Christ,” Freddy breathed.

“I ain’t never seen a shot like that,” Boyce rejoined, shaking his head. “Not never in my whole life.”

Shea turned and looked at the three of them. They all looked back, a mixture of awe and fear on their faces.

Especially on Thomas’, Shea noted. The boy swallowed as he looked at him, his face blanched.

Shea smiled to them, not proud of their reaction. He shouldn’t have done what he just did, he told himself. He should have let the deer go. He didn’t even know why he’d done it at all.

“Got lucky, is all,” he tried, waving a hand. “Just blind luck.”

The men said nothing to that. They weren’t going for it.

Shea smiled again, cringing a bit with it, and took off his hat. He wiped his forehead, replaced the cap snugly.

There was a long beat of silence where none of them moved.

“Now how do we get it back then?” Shea asked finally, his voice a little firmer now.

With that the men were struck out of their staring and began to hurriedly gather their things.

+++

TWO GREY HILLS, NEW MEXICO NAVAJO RESERVATION 8:16 a.m.

The pleasure washed through her, throbbing him.

Her heavy breath was caught in the cup of his ear and he shivered with the moan that came from her, felt it vibrating up from somewhere deep in her chest. He could feel it rising through her, his hands on her shoulder blades, stroking her soft, slick skin with his rough palms.

She shuddered in his lap, his name coming from her in a shaking whisper.

He smiled with it, pressed a long kiss on her jaw.

She loosened her grip around his neck, reached for his wrists behind her and moved his hands, slow, down to her hips. She was still pulsing against him, pushing, urging him on as she offered her body to him.

He knew the tears would come.

The night had taught him that.

Her breath drew in sharply, trembled out, and he felt the first tears on his temple. She gasped.

“Oh God…” she said, and her voice broke. Her hands gripped his wrists hard. “I’m sorry…”

“No, you don’t have to be sorry…” he murmured against her, soothing her as she buried her face against the side of his throat. “It’s okay. Don’t hold it back…”

She shook her head. “No,” she whispered. Her hips surged against his again.

His breath caught and his fingers tightened their hold around her thin hips.

“Scully, we can stop…” he whispered as he released the breath. “We can stop right now…”

“No,” she said again, more firmly this time.

And then she moved, kissed his mouth, staying there, their breathing growing harsh and mingling, his open lips lightly touching hers.

He closed his eyes…

When he came, her lips were still against his, his whole body shaking as he moaned into her mouth.

He struggled for breath against her for a long moment, holding her in a firm embrace.

He breathed her name.

Then he kissed her lips gently, the taste of their lovemaking water and salt.

+++

11:33 a.m.

Scully stood at the sink washing the skillet, warm water and soap running over her hands. Her sleeves were pushed up to her elbows, her forearms drenched. She was enjoying the simple pleasure of the task, lingering over it, filling the skillet with water and emptying it, filling it again.

Mulder was taking a shower down the hallway, the water pressure in the sink struggling against the pull. She’d just taken one herself, her wet hair pushed behind her ears. Her hair was long enough now that it touched her shoulders, making her shirt slightly damp where it touched.

She hummed softly to herself, off-key as usual, but she smiled nonetheless.

She felt better than she had in months, a tenuous sense of peace settling over her.

The problems were all still there, of course. It was her attitude about it all that had changed. She saw ways out now, not the unscalable walls she’d been confronted with everywhere she turned before.

She and Mulder were together again. The pain between them would no doubt linger for some time, she knew, the ghosts of what had happened still lurking in the shadows. She didn’t fool herself into thinking otherwise.

The tears from a few hours ago and last night told her that.

But they had still come a long way in just the past night. Mulder had ridden through the storm with her, staying with her, patient and tender.

They would get through the rest of the journey together.

And it seemed there was something new between them now, something warm and honest and strong. She could feel it stretching between them like a golden thread, even at times like this, when he wasn’t really with her.

It made her smile as she emptied the skillet again.

A soft whine from beside her, and she looked down to see Bo sitting there, hunkered in on himself, his head down, but his eyes glancing up at her.

“What is it, Bo?” she asked softly. “You hungry?”

He stood and shifted from foot to foot, his ears coming up a little. She smiled. The dog knew that word well.

She put the pan in the drainer, reached for the plates then, the remnants of their eggs, Mulder’s bacon, crusts of bread. She scraped it all onto one plate and set it down on the floor. Bo looked at her doubtfully, then put his head down and began to eat.

She looked fondly at the dog as she rinsed the other plate. Another thing she learned in the past night and this morning: Mulder loved this dog. It was a strange thing to see from him, a man who had killed enough tropical fish to fill the National Aquarium in just the time she’d known him.

And a man who had treated her own dog getting eaten by an alligator with something akin to relief.

She shook her head, her lips curling up. That was a long time ago. He was so different now.

And she found the whole thing with Bo endearing. Like a new facet of him she hadn’t know was there.

The dog seemed to tolerate her fairly well, too, which she was happy about. Mulder had said he usually ran when others came around.

She heard the water cut off, the bathroom door open, flooding the hallway with steam and the smell of crisp deodorant soap. She continued with the dishes, washing her mug from the night before, the bent forks and battered knives, listening to him bumping around in what had been his bedroom.

A flash of the dream from the night before. The little girl looking up at her with such trust, smiling. And Mulder walking away, getting lost in the darkness…

Arms curled around her waist, startling her enough that she dropped the handful of silverware she was holding into the sink with a clatter. She didn’t realize she’d been staring out the window over the sink until then, until she felt him nuzzling the hair from her neck, felt his warm breath and lips against her there.

“I’m sorry,” he murmured against her skin. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”

“It’s okay,” she replied, her voice the same tone. She leaned back into him. “I was just thinking about something and forgot where I was for a second.”

“You’re right here,” he said against her ear, and she shivered. Then he added in a whisper. “With me…”

She made a soft sound of assent in her throat, reached for his forearms, gave them a squeeze. Then she turned her head so their lips could meet. It was a chaste, soft kiss, devoid of the urgency of before, the desperate need to touch and be touched. It was familiar. Somehow contented.

Their lips parted, and she released his arms and picked up the silverware again, rinsing them. He kept a loose hold on her waist as he stood up straighter, his chin almost on top of her head.

“What’s on tap for today?” he asked. “Anything you need to do?”

She nodded, putting the flatware in the dish drainer’s basket. “Yes, I need to take Ghost back up to Albert Hosteen’s place. And I was thinking I might go to my trailer and maybe move a few things down here, if that’s all right with you…”

She could feel his smile. “Hmm…I don’t know…” he said, nuzzling her hair. “How long do I get to think about it?”

She smiled, as well, jabbed him lightly. He sucked in a breath.

“Oh Mulder, I’m sorry,” she said, reached back and put her hand on his belly beneath his ribs. She’s forgotten the giant bruise for a moment, big as a dinner plate, that stretched from his side to just below his sternum.

“It’s okay,” he said, put his hand over hers. “It looks a lot worse than it feels at this point.”

“I certainly hope so,” she replied, looked down. “Could you hand me Bo’s plate?”

The dog was still standing there, looking up at them plaintively. He was the most worried looking thing she’d ever seen.

Mulder released her, bent down to retrieve the plate, giving the dog a stroke as he did so. He stayed bent as he handed the plate up to her, rubbing the dog’s back and sides gently. Bo leaned against Mulder’s knees, panting.

“Good boy,” Mulder said softly. “That’s a good boy.”

Scully smiled and washed the plate.

A few minutes later, they were out the door, walking the few hundred yards to Victor’s house and the corral beyond, Bo trotting along beside them. The sun was high overhead, hot today. Scully squinted against it, wishing for her sunglasses or her hat.

They passed Victor’s double-wide, the sprawling concrete front porch littered with coffee mugs from the men’s morning meal, which Victor made almost every day for his workers, most of them family.

In front of the corral, a large pickup truck with a camper top on it. Across the side, a huge American flag, and the words “American Blacksmithing.” Scully looked near the stable and saw the blacksmith at work.

On Ghost, in fact. Victor was holding the horse’s head as the blacksmith stood, Ghost’s front leg caught between his knees as he pounded a shoe onto the horse’s pale hoof.

“Hey! Come on over!” Victor called, waving them forward from where they’d both stopped at the sight of a stranger. They looked at each other, wary.

But Scully felt safe here, felt the Hosteen’s would protect them as best they could. So Victor’s trust meant a lot to her.

With that thought in mind, she started forward, Mulder following. Bo hung behind, sitting beside the truck.

They approached and Victor smiled at both of them.

“Tim. Lisa,” he said, tipping the brim of his hat to Scully.

“Hello, Victor,” Scully said, gave him a small smile in return. Mulder said the same.

“What are you two up to this afternoon? Besides shaving Tim’s rough- looking beard off?” Victor grinned. “Did you both come to work for me today?” He winked at Scully.

Scully smiled a bit wider. “Not exactly,” she said. “I was going to take Ghost back up to your grandfather’s, but I see–“

“I’m almost done with him,” the blacksmith panted without looking up. His voice was muffled a bit by the fat nails he had hanging out of the corner of his mouth, but he was clearly used to talking around them.

“It was good he was down here,” Victor said. “We usually have to go get him anyway when Jim comes.”

Now the blacksmith — Jim — did look up, waved a greeting to both of them with his hammer. He was a heavy-set man, blonde crewcut and stubble on his cheeks. He wore thick glasses to protect his eyes, and a black t-shirt underneath his leather apron, the words “Born to…” peeking up from above the bib. Scully wondered, bemused, what the man was, in fact, born to do.

“Hello,” she said, her voice a bit hedged but friendly.

Jim looked at Mulder, then at her. He froze as he looked at her, looking her up and down, then settling on her face for a long few seconds. A nail dropped out of his mouth.

She squirmed a little under his strange gaze. It was leering, but also not. She didn’t quite know what to make of it, but she didn’t like it. She knew that much.

Mulder didn’t, either. She felt rather than saw him chafe beside her. He took a step closer to her.

“Hi there, Jim,” Mulder said, drippingly friendly. “Tim Garrett. This is my wife, Lisa.” Scully could swear she heard a little extra emphasis drop on the word “wife.” It made her want to roll her eyes and laugh at the same time.

They’d settled on the cover as a married couple many many weeks ago to avoid flustering the dozens of motel managers they’d had contact with while on the road. But Mulder seemed to be taking the cover a bit more seriously all of a sudden.

He could be so protective sometimes, she thought, but loved him too much for the intention of it to be truly irritated.

It had the desired effect, however. Jim looked up at Mulder, his face flushing an even deeper red than it already was from the sun and the exertion of bending over his own sizable gut.

“Good to meet you,” he said hurriedly, then with one final glance at Scully — this time at her chest in the white shirt, as though he couldn’t quite help himself — he went back to work on Ghost’s hoof.

“You taking the Bronco up to Grandfather’s, or you want a horse?” Victor asked Mulder, breaking the moment with one of his wide, amused smiles.

“We’re…ah…going to be picking up a few things,” Mulder said. “So I think it would be easier if we took the Bronco. Let Lisa ride him up there and me drive beside.”

“That’s good,” Victor said. “Just go slow. He’s an old man.” He rubbed the horse’s nose affectionately.

“All done,” Jim said, and dropped the horse’s leg, tossed his hammer toward his tool chest as he stood. He reached behind him and pulled a dirty-looking bandanna out of his back pocket, mopped at his face.

“Come on,” Victor said to both her and Mulder. “Let’s go get him saddled.” He looked at Jim. “Go ahead and start on you-know-who.” He pointed.

Scully watched Mulder turn and look off to his right, where a black and white horse stood tied to a post. Scully could swear the horse scowled at him.

“That’s the one, isn’t it?” she said, and he turned back to her, rubbing his belly.

“You guessed it,” he replied, a chagrined smile on his face.

“Let me get my goddamn football helmet,” Jim grunted, and went toward the horse.

+++

METRO PARKING GARAGE LOWER LEVEL SILVER SPRING, MARYLAND 11:55 a.m.

The place was thick with shadows and the smell of oil, the musty smell of the dark. It met Granger’s expectations of a meeting place for this type of thing so well that he felt strangely comfortable with it, his nerves under some semblance of control as he walked to the farthest corner of the lot. His footsteps echoed in the cavern- like space.

The lot was full, not a space left from the crush of morning commuters, which he expected. There would be little traffic down here to spook whomever this person was who had called him. As it was, he didn’t see another soul moving around this far away from the elevators, hundreds of feet and cars away.

Granger began to weave in between the cars, going around vehicles and cement supports, headed toward the corner, which was bathed in near-darkness.

“Stop.”

The voice came out of nowhere, the echo of it bounding off the walls, a hollow sound. Granger froze instantly, trying to orient the direction the voice had come from.

Somewhere in front of him. Three supports that he couldn’t see behind, and which were already poorly lit.

The man must be behind one of them, he thought, though he couldn’t tell, with the acoustics, which one it was.

He shifted his weight, then held his ground, his hands going to the pockets of his black trench coat. He wanted to appear unruffled, and hoped that was what he was doing.

Silence stretched for a moment.

The man was having doubts. Second thoughts. Granger could sense it from here.

“You’re doing the right thing by talking to me,” he said quietly. “If you have any information that could help me, you’re doing the right thing.”

Again a beat of silence.

“You said you had something to show me. Please show it to me.” Granger held his breath, hoping him taking the lead on this, prodding the man like this, wouldn’t scare him away.

From the shadows in front of him, something slid along the floor with a hiss, stopped at his feet. It was a brown accordion folder, an elastic band holding down the flap. Granger looked into the darkness in front of him, then down at the folder.

“Open it,” the voice said.

Middle support, Granger decided. That’s where he was. Though he could see nothing.

Granger bent slowly, picked up the folder and unwrapped the band from it, reached in. He pulled out a thin stack of paper, tucked the folder under his arm. He turned slightly to get a look at the sheets in the dim electric light.

His eyes widened as he looked carefully at each picture, his heart picking up speed.

“Where did you get these?” he asked. “And how recent are they?”

“The last one is from about three weeks ago, I think. The one of them on the cliff. The others have been taken over the past months.”

“Where did you get them?” Granger repeated, urgent.

“I’m on a task force run by Padden, too, Agent Granger,” the voice said. There was no inflection in it at all. “We’ve been tailing Mulder and Scully for months now, since they disappeared. We caught up with them about two weeks after Mulder left Richmond.”

Granger’s head was spinning as it tried to catch up with what he was hearing. He looked down at the pictures, then toward the support.

“So Padden’s known where they are all along,” he said.

“Except for where they are now, yes,” the voice replied. “We’ve lost them in the past couple of weeks. Padden’s about to have heads rolling over it.”

Granger nodded, understanding — as bitter as it was — coming over him. “He’s watching them to wait until Curran gets to them. Gets to Agent Scully.”

Another beat. “Yes. And, he hopes, kills Agent Mulder while taking her.”

Granger felt heat rise on his face. “You can’t be serious,” he said incredulously. “Not even Padden would–“

“You don’t know Padden the way I do, Agent Granger,” the voice interrupted. “He’ll do anything to catch Curran at this point, to save face over what happened at the bombing. And he’ll do anything to get Mulder, because it’s Mulder who has tainted his reputation in the first place by figuring out where the bombing would take place. He wants Mulder out of the way. First disgraced so that Padden being at the British Embassy will seem the more correct course of action — the only one to take without supposed ‘inside knowledge.’ That’s where these charges are coming from.”

Granger shook his head in disgust. “So he also knows the charges are false.”

“Yes. And he has no real intention of letting Mulder live long enough to risk prosecuting him on them. He knows they won’t stick with what you know. What Walter Skinner knows. What Agent Scully knows. He knows Mulder didn’t shoot John Fagan. The ballistics don’t even match Mulder’s service weapon, though that’s being suppressed, as well. Along with everything else.”

The man paused. “He’s waiting for Curran to clean up the mess for him. And Curran’s gotten close already. It’s only a matter of time before Padden gets what he wants. Mulder will die to protect her. Everyone is sure of that. And whoever Curran’s got working for him won’t be as careless — or as shorthanded — the next time they come.”

Granger nodded again. His breathing had picked up as his mind raced with what to do with all this. “We can bring them in, given what you just told me. We could–“

“Mulder and Scully are expendable,” the voice snapped, sounding irritated. “As long as Padden is still operating in the dark, their lives are in danger. As soon as they’re no longer of use to catch Curran, Padden will find a way to get rid of them both. Here or out there. He’ll blame Curran for whatever happens to Scully. Mulder would just meet up with an unfortunate accident, after Padden finished ruining his reputation to save himself.”

Granger swallowed hard. “What do we do then?”

“The only hope you have to save them is for you to take those pictures and what I’ve told you and go to Ashcroft as quickly as you can. Get Skinner to do it. He’s got more connections, and still has come clout. And then hope Ashcroft will listen to him this time.”

“Okay,” Granger said. He felt sick in his stomach with all he was hearing, at the blackness of what was going on. It pained him to look at it, to even tangentially be a party to it.

“It’s going to be hard to convince Ashcroft,” the voice continued. “He trusts Padden implicitly. But the pictures will lend credibility to what Skinner says. He might listen with those in front of him, knowing that Padden’s been using your task force as a cover for what he’s really doing. Ashcroft doesn’t know about that and it will cast considerable doubt on Padden.”

“All right,” Granger said. “I’ll go to Skinner right away and tell him everything you’ve told me.”

“I’m assuming Skinner knows where Mulder and Scully are. Padden assumes he knows. That’s how they’ve stayed hidden for this long. Wherever they are, get to them. Warn them. And once Padden is exposed, get them some backup from the FBI. The FBI isn’t involved. It’s the only agency that’s got clean hands in this thing, that isn’t under Padden’s control in some way. Skinner’s presence has made sure of that.”

Granger nodded. “I’ll get to them as fast as I can.”

They fell into silence. Finally Granger broke it.

“Why are you doing this?” he asked. “Why would you tell me all this, knowing what it could mean for you?”

“I…” The first sign of hesitation, regret, in the voice now. “I didn’t join up to do this kind of work. I have no stomach for it. And I’ve been swallowing it for a long time now. I’m full. Plus…”

“Plus what?” Granger asked as the man hesitated.

The voice responded quietly, almost shyly. “Agent Scully treated me like a friend once. I’m just returning the favor.”

Granger nodded. “Thank you. What you’ve given me, what you’ve said…it will save her life. And Mulder’s.”

“If you get to them in time,” the voice said, hard and business-like again. “You’ve got to hurry. Curran’s close. We’re sure of that. No matter how well Skinner’s hidden them.”

Granger replaced the photos in the folder, closed it. “If you need protection…if you get in any danger…go to Skinner.”

“They’ll be no protecting me if I’m found out,” the voice said grimly. “But thank you anyway. Now go. Please.”

Granger nodded, turned, and did as he’d been told.

He did his best not to look back.

+++

KOKOPELI PAWN AND THRIFT FARMINGTON, NEW MEXICO 4:38 p.m.

The man watched Jim Rupert, owner of American Blacksmithing and a proud member of the New Mexico Militia, hold the flyer closer to the light overhead, looking carefully at the face beside the picture of the other woman and a young boy. Rupert switched his toothpick from one corner of his mouth to the other, nodding.

“Uh-yeah. That’s her all right,” Rupert said to him there behind at the desk, handed the picture back. “Same one on the flyer we got at the Militia meeting. She don’t quite look that good anymore, but she looks good enough.”

“You’re sure?” the man said, holding up the flyer in front of him again. Rupert nodded.

“Sure as shit,” he said. “Now what about that reward for information?”

The man sighed, reached over and began turning the combination lock on the safe, the sound of metal rolling in metal filling the small office.

“Victor Hosteen’s place, you say?” he asked as he turned the wheel, tumblers falling.

“Yeah,” Rupert said. “There’s a trailer out behind Victor’s place. Used to belong to old Albert’s brother Larry. They’re staying there.”

“Who’s ‘they’?” He pulled the safe open with a heavy creak.

Rupert shrugged. “She’s got her husband with her. That’s who he said he was. Some man named Tim Garrett. She’s going by Lisa Garrett, but that could all be a bunch of horseshit for all I know.”

The man reached into the safe and pulled out a stack of hundred dollar bills, pulled five crisp ones of the top and handed them over. “I know where to find you through Kevin at the Militia if you’re lying to me or you’re wrong, right? And you’ll be good enough to give that back if that’s the case.”

“I know you can find me,” Rupert said peevishly. “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t know I was right.”

The man nodded. “It’s good of you to come and tell me, Jim. The boss will be mighty happy to hear the news. And I’m glad we can all work together, despite our little differences here and there.”

Rupert nodded. “No problem,” he said, and waved the cash. “Much obliged. Good luck bringing her in for whatever is she done. And don’t go mentioning my name when you go to get her, all right? I been working at the Hosteen’s for years now. Don’t want to lose no business over this, you know.”

The man nodded. “Not a word,” he said, and turned back to his desk. Rupert took the hint and left.

He reached over to his Rolodex, flipped through it slowly until he got to the number he wanted.

L. Kingston. Kentucky.

He reached over and picked up the phone.

+++

TWO GREY HILLS, NEW MEXICO NAVAJO RESERVATION 6:39 p.m

Honey. Oil. Salt. Yeast. Flour.

Albert Hosteen watched Scully mix the ingredients together from beside the counter, smiling a bit despite himself. She kneaded the dough until it was firm and came clean off her hands.

He sat on a stool next to her, his pipe held in the corner of his mouth, the room smelling like the fat seeping bubbles in the deep skillet and the sweet smell of tobacco. Mulder was in the other room, watching “Animal Planet.”

“Okay, now what?” Scully asked, wiping her hands on a tattered kitchen towel on the counter.

Albert pushed a greased bowl toward her. “Put it in there and turn it over so the top gets some grease on it, as well. Then cover it until it doubles in size.”

Scully did as she was told, taking great care with the dough. Albert watched her hands as she worked, the left trembling as it held the heavy mound and turned it over.

She pulled the hand back, squeezed it into a fist for a second and the trembling subsided slightly. Then she reached back into the bowl and finished, covering it.

He was glad she wasn’t as self-conscious about the injury now. She seemed to have come to some kind of acceptance of it, some peace.

As she had about many things, he thought, and he smiled wider around the pipe as she wiped her hands again. She looked at him and returned it, looking down almost shyly.

“A natural,” he said. “You sure you are not part Navajo somewhere in all that Irish?” He winked at her, and it teased a chuckle from her.

“Pretty sure,” she said.

Mulder came in now, his hands in the back pockets of his jeans. He looked better than Hosteen had seen him look yet, though there was something bothering the younger man. He could see that.

“Something is on your mind, Agent Mulder,” he said, took a puff of smoke into his mouth and let it out. He watched Scully look into Mulder’s face, then down again.

Mulder stood beside her now, looking down at what she was doing. “Yes,” he said softly, and he and Scully exchanged glances again. “There’s is something on my mind.”

Hosteen nodded, gnawing on the pipe end. “You are wondering if you should go home or not,” he said matter-of-factly, and both agents looked up at him in surprise.

“Yes,” Mulder replied, snapping out of it.

“Hm,” Albert said. “Agent Scully wishes to go back, but you are not so certain.”

Scully shook her head, stifling a small smile as Mulder continued to look surprised. The poor man was not used to this kind of talk, Albert recalled. Scully had had so many nights of him, when he guessed things right it no longer phased her or made her feel exposed.

Mulder was blushing on his newly shaven face. “Yes,” he said again.

Albert took his pipe out of his mouth, studied it. “Would you like to hear my thoughts?” he said.

“I would,” Mulder said after a beat. He looked grimly serious. Scully glanced at him again.

“You were right to run all the time you did before you came here,” Hosteen said, choosing his words with care. “So much was unknown, both outside of you…and between you, if you do not mind me saying so.”

Mulder nodded, accepting what he said and urging him to continue.

“Many things, I think, are known now,” Hosteen continued, looking at Scully and then back into Mulder’s face. “What they could do to you with these charges against you cannot touch what is most important now. You have strength now that you did not have before. Anyone who looks at you will see that. That is how I see things.”

Mulder looked at him. “I don’t think that will be enough to stop these charges against me, Mr. Hosteen,” he said. “Or enough to protect Scully from this man who wants to kill her.”

“You can face these charges, Agent Mulder. They are lies. They will show themselves as lies in the face of who you are. Especially who you are now.” He looked at Scully. “And Agent Scully…she can protect herself. And with your help, she is doubly safe.”

Mulder shook his head, leaned against the countertop.

“Listen to him, Mulder,” Scully said softly, looking into his face.

“If you stay out here, they will find you eventually. Even here.” He gestured around him. “And this man Skinner at the FBI…he will do what he can. And you are safer with his people around you than you are with me or Victor or, if you leave here, no one at all.”

Mulder looked down at his feet, and Hosteen could feel him relenting.

“Check your dough,” he said to Scully, striking her from where she was watching Mulder’s face. She lifted the cover off the bowl, and Hosteen nodded.

“It is ready,” he said. “Now take it out and pull it half, then pull it into eight parts and make them into balls.”

Scully busied herself doing what he said, Mulder still quiet beside her, deep in thought.

“Now take one and flatten it out with your hands,” Albert instructed softly when she was done. “Then poke a hole in the middle of it or the center will not cook.”

Scully did as she was told, pulling the ball flat, poking a large hole in it. She turned to the pan of fat on the stove, and Hosteen nodded.

“About a minute on each side,” he said, and Scully carefully placed the dough down into the pan. It began to sizzle instantly. Scully stood over it as though she were standing guard.

Finally, Mulder looked at Hosteen, and Hosteen nodded to him. Mulder nodded back after a beat.

“All right,” he said, and Scully looked back over her shoulder at him. Hosteen watched the look they exchanged, the warmth and the worry in it. “We’ll both go home.”

“You have to be sure, Mulder,” Scully said softly.

He nodded. “I am sure.”

Scully smiled at him faintly. Hosteen noted the look in her eyes, at what passed between them.

“Turn it over,” he said softly, and Scully returned her attention to the pan, turned the dough over with a spatula. Fat crackled.

Mulder came forward and stood beside her at the stove but did not touch her.

They were in a place where they could touch without touching, he noted with something like pride. They’d come so far from the two people he’d seen get out of the truck that day. Very far indeed.

“Is it done?” Scully asked, looking at him. Hosteen stood and went to the pan now on her other side.

He noted the gold of the bread, the rich smell, the center a creamy white but cooked through.

“Perfect,” he said, smiled broadly, and Scully pulled the fry bread out and laid it on the paper towel on the plate he’d placed there on the stove, the paper darkening beneath it.

With that, Scully turned back to the counter, began pulling the next ball of dough flat with her palms.

Hosteen watched her, then Mulder as the younger man reached down to the disc of bread, carefully pulled off a hot edge and brought it to his mouth to taste.

+++

UNKNOWN LOCATION SHOW LOW, ARIZONA NEAR THE SALT RIVER APACHE RESERVATION 8:47 p.m.

The sound of dripping water seemed to echo around her, a drop at a time from the sink above her head. She lay on her stomach, her cheek against the cold tile floor, cooling the sweat on her pale face. Her arms were tied behind her back and her shoulders ached from the strain of it.

She tried to ignore the drops of water tapping at the sink, listening instead to the silence in between them, the house outside the closed door quiet.

Too quiet.

Her breath came fast as she thought about it, her eyes closing tight.

“No…” she whispered, her face clenching to tears again.

Someone was walking around outside the door, down the long wooden hallway that led to bedrooms and the large living room on the other side of them. The person stopped at the door, stood still to listen.

She didn’t make a sound, not even daring to breathe while whomever it was stood there.

Then the footsteps moved on.

Mae took a deep breath as they receded. She didn’t know if it had been Owen or not, but she doubted it was him. He’d thrown her into the bathroom, crushing her to her knees as a round of vomiting had struck her, pushing her head toward the toilet in disgust and then slamming the door behind him.

Now she lay still, the nausea passing from her, though her stomach was still clenched, but this time from her helplessness and fear.

Owen had sent Sean out with the taller of the two men, out into the forests around the lodge-like house they’d come to. The house was dark cedar, hidden in the dense woods up on the hillside, far off the main road.

She was glad he’d sent Sean out, but feared what it meant. What Owen was trying to shelter his son from hearing or seeing.

Mae had tried to reassure Sean as he’d stood in the doorway, the tall man’s hand on his small shoulder. The other man — the one who didn’t look quite human to her — was sitting in the corner of the room like a guard dog waiting to be called.

“It’s all right, Sean,” she’d said, trying to keep the shake out of her voice. “We’ll be right here when you get back.”

She’d looked at Owen then, who stared back at her with his pale face, still as wax.

She’d looked at Joe, seated on the bed in the large room. Neither of them were bound at that point, Owen’s gun tucked away for the moment.

The blood had long-since dried on Joe’s face.

“We’ll be right here,” Joe had said to Sean, as well, and Owen glared at him, took a step closer to him but did nothing in Sean’s presence.

His restraint didn’t make much difference. The boy had the back of his hand in his mouth and was sucking on it hard as the man led him away.

That’s when the other man had moved and the ropes had come out. The silver tape.

The order for silence, the gun removed from the back of Owen’s pants once again.

Neither of them had resisted, complying for the safety of the other.

Just as Owen had wanted.

That’s when the nausea hit her, sweat beading her forehead. She’d swooned with it, making a sound in her throat unintentionally.

“I told you to shut the fuck up!” Owen had roared, and his hand was across her face again. She barely felt the sting of it, her head jerking to the side.

“She’s going to throw up,” Joe had exclaimed. “For Christ’s sake, she can’t help it!”

“Not in here you’re not,” Owen had snapped, and hauled her to her feet, hustling her out.

Now she lay there, listening. Waiting.

Water dripped into the silence, a drop at a time.

Then the screaming began.

+++

CHAPTER 19.

+++

APRIL 9 5:47 a.m.

Mae was dreaming troubling dreams — Sean running out in front of her, laughing, across a field of flowers.

“Sean!” she called. There was fear in her voice, and she was gasping for air, as though she’d been running for miles. She stopped and leaned over, her hands on her knees as she struggled to breathe. Something in her belly ached, sweat beading her forehead.

Sean didn’t listen, but she could hear the sounds of his laughter echoing towards her, too loud for how far away he was. She looked up and saw him going up a steep rise, the flowers up to his waist, his hands out to his sides as he brushed the flowers’ red and yellow heads.

She stood and took off at a run after him again, staggering now and again on the uneven ground. She kept her eye on him, almost a dot in the distance, seemingly growing further away instead of closer as she ran.

She called to him again, but her voice came out a whisper. She tried to scream his name next, but her voice was gone. Panic overcame her as she felt her body finally give in to the exhaustion and the stabbing pain in her belly.

Labor. I’m in labor, she thought, and as she fell onto her side, her hands reached down and gripped the swollen mound of her abdomen, felt it tighten beneath her fingers.

The flowers closed in around her, leaning over, their single black- eyed centers staring down at her, obscuring all of the sky except for one small circle. Pain lurched through her again and she cried out with it, again no sound coming from her throat.

The flowers leaned in closer, nearly touching her body now. She pushed at them with her hands, willing them away.

Someone was stroking her hair, pushing it back behind her ear. A voice spoke her name.

Owen’s voice. Something sing-songy in it as he said her name again. Mocking her.

Sean’s laughter. Echoing.

Then turning to shrill screaming, the unmistakable terror of a child–

Her eyes snapped open, her breath heaving in. She was on her side, facing the toilet, almost pressed up against the foot of it and the front of the vanity. Her hands were no longer bound behind her.

And someone was behind her, stroking her hair.

“Maaaaaaae,” Owen sang again.

Her hand went to her belly, felt the flatness of it. No pain. Her baby was all right. All right…

Owen’s hand pulled on her shoulder, urging her onto her back. She went slowly, looked into his face. He was squatted down behind her, wearing a long-sleeved grey t-shirt and faded jeans, heavy boots next to her face. There were spatters of what looked like dried blood on his shirt.

He smiled at her, too wide, his teeth showing. He smoothed her hair down from her forehead.

“Joe?” she whispered, tears starting. “Please tell me you didn’t kill him, Owen…”

Owen shook his head. “No, no…Joe and I just had a little…talk. We had to clear a few things up. About him talking to Sean. I think I got my point across good enough that it won’t be a problem again. He was stubborn at first, but he saw it my way in the end.”

Mae swallowed, looking at him as his hand kept petting her hair. The pressure of his hand increased.

“You feeling sick again?” he said, and had she not known him better, she would have thought he was genuinely concerned.

She shook her head. “No,” she said, her voice shaking. “I’m…I’m all right now, I think…”

“Good. Good.” His hand stopped. “Time for us to have a little talk now.”

Mae looked at him, at the spatters of blood, the memory of the screaming from the night before still fresh.

“Here,” Owen said, and his eyes glinted, his smile vanishing as his jaw clenched. “Let me help you up then.”

And he gripped a fistful of her hair and started dragging her up by it.

She cried out, scrambling with her hands and knees to get herself up and avoid the pull. He kept his fist tight in it and he pushed her through the open door and into the dim hallway. She whimpered as he guided her down the hallway by her head, but dared not reach up to touch his hand.

They entered the bedroom, and Mae pulled up short as she saw Joe, tied to a chair, his chin on his chest, unconscious. She couldn’t see his face, but there was blood on his shirt. The shirt was wet, as was his hair, and the floor beneath him.

On the floor beside him, a car battery, two metal paddles on cords attached to it. A bucket of water with a sponge in it.

“Joe?” she called, and got no response.

Owen jerked her to the side, toward the bed, and forced her down onto it. She sat still, her hands out to her sides. She looked up at Owen, who was blocking her view of Joe now.

She stared up at him. He stared back, his arms crossed at his chest. No one else was in the room, the odd-looking man now gone.

“Why don’t you tell me what happened in your flat that morning, Mae?” Owen asked softly. “I’ve been curious about it for some time now, you know.”

She swallowed, said nothing.

“Oh come on now, Mae,” Owen chided softly, began to pace in front of the bed slowly. She saw the gun jammed into the back of his pants.

“I know you waited until I was gone to meet up with the boys at the truck, and then you packed up Sean’s things, took the gun…” He turned to look at her, his eyebrow raised, questioning.

“Yes,” she said, looking down.

Owen turned and paced back toward her a few steps. “I’d sent John there on an errand. And you met him there, right?”

She hesitated, but nodded. There was no hiding from this now. And lying would get her nowhere, she knew. She could tell by the way he was talking that he’d already guessed what had happened and was merely doing this to intimidate her.

It was working.

He stopped in front of her, took a step closer so that he towered over her. He took her chin in his hand and turned her face up toward him.

“When exactly did you decide to kill John?”

She swallowed again. “I…” She trailed off.

His grip on her chin turned bruising now, and he jerked her hard, his face twisting in rage at her hesitancy.

She hurried to speak now. “I shot him because…because he was hurting Katherine.”

Owen leaned forward, his face inches from hers. “Let’s get it right now…her name’s Dana. Dana Scully.”

She nodded in his crushing grip. Tears started in her eyes, ran down her temples.

“He was…he was hurting Dana,” she said obediently.

Owen jerked her again. “Of course he was hurting her, Mae. I sent him there to kill the bitch because she was a fucking FBI agent spying on us. Like I told you at my flat right before this bloody mess at your place happened.”

She looked into his eyes. “I…couldn’t let him rape her again.”

Owen’s eyebrows squinted down. “‘Again’?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said faintly.

She watched emotions cross his face. He seemed genuinely puzzled for a second, at a loss for words, then deeply angry. His face flushed red.

“It doesn’t matter,” he snapped, and released her chin, turning his back on her, his hands on his hips.

She could tell it mattered, though. It mattered quite a bit to him.

She’d always suspected that John had done what he had to Dana to get back at Owen in some way. That John had intended his violation of her to not only satisfy his own frustrated attraction and his desire to control her, but also to punish Owen for allowing his feelings for her to put a rift between he and Owen. It was the first time the two had fought over anything with one another in their lives.

And he did it to punish Dana for causing that. Though she’d had nothing to do with it at all.

Owen’s reaction to this knowledge proved that John’s treatment of Dana had indeed punished him, hurt him. Killing her was one thing. This was something else.

Finally, Owen turned around again, stared her down. “So you shot him,” he said flatly, brushing the previous subject away.

“Yes,” Mae said softly, staring at her feet again.

“Then you took her and Sean and ran.”

She nodded.

A pause.

“Where is she, Mae?” he asked, his voice dangerous and low.

She glanced up at him. “I don’t know,” she said. “We split up in Tennessee and I have had no contact with her since.”

Owen seemed to consider. “She had to be ill from the drug,” he said finally.

Mae said nothing, kept her face down.

“Who was she with, Mae?” he asked. “I know it’s a man she’s with. Who is he?”

She hesitated, not wanting to give anything away about Dana or her partner. They were safer if she kept quiet–

Then something cold against her forehead, the sound of a gun being cocked. She raised her head slowly, hardly daring to breathe.

“Who is he?” he hissed. “And don’t make me fucking ask you again.”

She looked into Owen’s eyes, pleading with them again. “He’s…he’s her partner. In the FBI.”

“What’s his name?” He pressed the muzzle of the pistol harder against her head.

She swallowed, her throat suddenly dry as a desert. “Mulder,” she whispered. “His name is Mulder. I don’t know his first name.”

Owen seemed to consider for a beat. “Running with her like that…he’s just her partner, you say? Nothing more?”

Mae said nothing, clenched her eyes closed as though preparing for the shot. Tears came down her face from beneath her lids.

A phone rang from another room.

Owen looked toward the door for a second, then back at her. On the third ring, the phone was picked up.

She opened her eyes and looked at him, her lip trembling.

“Never mind,” he said, removing the gun from her forehead. She still felt the coldness of it against her there. “You just answered my question.”

+++

Owen went to the door, the gun still in his hand, waiting for word about who was on the phone this early in the morning. It had to be Kingston.

He glanced over his shoulder at Mae, who was looking at Joe, every muscle in her body poised to move toward the poor bastard. It made him sick, the way she mooned over the man, and he turned his back on her, waiting by the doorway and staring down the hallway instead.

He pictured Mae running with Sean, running with Dana Scully. Running away from him. He closed his eyes as the rage seared into him, and he clenched his jaw hard enough to grind his teeth to powder.

Mae was a child. She always had been a child. It was this Scully who was at fault for this. She’d turned Mae against him, ingratiated herself with his sister to gain protection for herself should anything go wrong with her cover. That was it. She’d brainwashed Mae into thinking they were friends, into thinking that Dana cared about her in some way. And she’d talked Mae into taking Sean away from him because of the things he was doing that Scully knew about. The drug. The bombing.

Yes, that had to be it. Mae would never do this on her own. But it was too late to forgive her for it. He couldn’t trust her any longer. Her loyalties were no longer a sure thing, and when that happened…with anyone…there was only one way to deal with it.

He would have to kill her. Pregnant or not.

He rubbed at the scar on his face, thinking.

What if this Scully did care for Mae? What if they had developed some sort of friendship?

He thought about this, waiting.

Scully might have taken Mae away from him. She might have won that round. But now, Owen had Mae…

He’d known for some time that killing Scully wouldn’t be enough. He wanted to control her. He wanted to break her before he killed her.

His mind turned over the possibilities.

Finally, footsteps from the living room, and Lantham appeared, carrying a cordless phone.

“It’s Kingston,” he said, and handed the phone to Owen. Owen took it with a nod. Rudy Grey wandered in from the living room now, stood at the far end of the hallway.

“I hope you’ve got good news for me, Mr. Kingston,” Curran said by way of greeting.

“I do,” came Kingston’s rough voice from the other end. “We’ve found this woman, Scully. She’s staying on the Navajo Reservation outside Farmington, New Mexico. Not running, so she should be easy for you to pick up. She’s with some man claiming to be her husband, but it should be easy to get her alone or to get him out of the way long enough to get her.”

Curran smiled faintly, pleased.

Then a thought hatched in his mind.

“You there, Mr. Curran?” Kingston said into the silence.

“Aye, I’m here,” he replied. “But there’s been a change of plans. I’m not going to go pick her up. I’m going to stay here with Mr. Lantham and my family here. I’m sending your man Grey down there instead. I guess you’ll have a few of your locals there, as well?”

“Yes,” Kingston replied, and Curran could hear from his voice that he was wary. “I’ve got six or seven men standing by. We won’t lose her this time.”

“All right then,” Curran said, signalling Grey forward. He came obediently, Lantham staring at Curran suspiciously. “Mr. Kingston, here’s what I want you to do…”

+++

GEORGE BUSH CENTER FOR INTELLIGENCE LANGLEY, VIRGINIA 11:02 a.m.

Paul Granger walked down the center of the hallway of the CIA Headquarters, heading straight from the elevator down the long corridor. His heels tapped on the marble floor, slightly out of rhythm as his still-ailing leg faltered him slightly. But his head was held up, his shoulders, in their black suit jacket, squared, a grim expression on his face.

People stared at him as he went by them. He didn’t spare them a glance.

There was a door at the end of the corridor he was heading for.

The secretary looked up at him in surprise as he made it clear that he wasn’t stopping at her desk.

“Agent Granger, you can’t go in there right now–“

He held a hand up to silence her, the hand not holding the folder. The woman looked at his hand, flustered as a guinea hen as she scrambled to rise and block his way.

Too late. He was at the door and had it opened, the woman clucking after him into the dim office.

Padden sat at the end of the immense space, a man standing next to him behind the desk, going over something in front of them both. Both men looked up in surprise as Granger came in, calmly ignoring the woman behind him who had gotten a hand on his sleeve. He pulled his arm away and kept going until he stood before the desk.

He turned to the young agent leaned over the desk, Padden trying to wither Granger from behind his reading glasses all the while.

“I’d like you to leave, please,” Granger said politely but firmly.

The agent looked from Granger to Padden and then back again.

Padden put up a hand, clearly urging the agent to stay.

“You’re interrupting, Agent Granger,” Padden said quietly. “I suggest you’re the one who should be leaving this office.”

Granger held the folder up in front of him. Padden looked at it.

“Sir,” Granger said, dripping faux politeness onto the word. “I have something to discuss with you. Now it’s your choice. We can either discuss it in front of these two people here,” He glanced back at the secretary. “Or we can do it alone. It’s your choice.”

Padden looked at Granger’s face and Granger stared back hard, not even blinking, the folder still held up in front of him.

Finally Padden took his glasses off and closed the file on his desk.

“Leave us,” Padden said softly, and the agent came around the desk, and he and the secretary made their way to the door, closing it behind them.

Granger slowly lowered the folder, stood still in front of Padden, who was likewise still.

“Well?” Padden asked, finally sitting back in the chair and tossing his glasses onto the desk. “What is it that you find so important that you had to come huffing in here, Agent Granger?”

Granger looked at him, spoke quietly. “I think you know, Dr. Padden,” he said.

“No, I don’t know,” Padden asserted, sounding put out now. “Why don’t you enlighten me?”

Granger’s lip curled up and he took a step toward the desk, opening the folder. He started to lay the color copies of the photographs of Mulder and Scully out in front of Padden like tarot cards.

Padden looked at the first one, then up into Granger’s face. Their gazes hung again as Granger continued to lay them out.

“You’ve found them then,” Padden tried, and Granger shook his head.

“No, sir, YOU found them. Quite some time ago, I hear.”

Padden’s face was like concrete, the wrinkles like cracks. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Agent Granger,” he said softly.

“Oh, but you do, sir,” Granger said, emboldened. “You found them two weeks after Agent Mulder left Richmond, from what I understand, and have been following them ever since. Using a covert task force, I’m told, to monitor them until Owen Curran makes his move on Agent Scully so you could catch him then.”

Now Padden laughed. “I don’t know what you’ve been listening to, Agent Granger, but I assure you–“

“Don’t,” Granger interrupted, his face grim. He put a hand up.

Padden stilled, the smiling melting off his face.

“Where did you get these photos?” Padden said into the quiet that followed.

“You’re not the only one who has secret task forces, Dr. Padden,” he said. “And fortunately, not all of us can turn our consciences off while you try to kill both Mulder and Scully to cover yourself for your mishandling of the bombing.”

“A secret task force?” Padden scoffed. “That’s ridiculous.” But his face had begun to redden.

“Is it?” Granger said calmly. “It’s the only thing that makes sense, really. With the combined forces you’ve got at your disposal, it doesn’t make sense Mulder and Scully could have stayed hidden this long, unless you wanted them to stay hidden. Unless you were feeding my task force bones every now and again to keep us going, make us feel like we were getting somewhere, when in fact we were chasing our tails the entire time. Looking for Curran, certainly, but…not Mulder and Scully.”

Padden leaned further back in his chair. “All right, Agent Granger, I will admit…” He spoke slowly, carefully. “…that there are some aspects of this operation that you have not been privy to. This is a matter of national security, and some aspects have been ‘eyes only.’ And not your eyes.”

Granger stood there, waiting.

Padden’s face was red as a tomato now, despite his exterior calm. “What I’m doing isn’t illegal or unethical. And if you would like to be part of these operations, I’m sure there’s a way that can be arranged.”

Granger just looked at him. “You want me to join your task force? The real one?”

Padden nodded. “You’d be an asset. I didn’t think of it before, but I see now you’re a man with a knack for finding things out. You could be of use to me that way. It would be wonderful for your career, I assure you. Quite an opportunity for advancement for a junior agent like yourself.”

Padden smiled, and the expression looked strange on him. Like it didn’t belong there and never had. Granger felt a chill as he looked at it.

“No, thank you, sir.” Granger smiled as he said it.

Padden leaned forward. “Maybe I didn’t make myself clear, Agent Granger,” he said quietly. “Maybe I made that sound too much like an request. It’s more like…an order.”

“An order?” Granger repeated, his expression dead flat.

Padden picked up a pencil and started to push at a paper clip with it. “Yes. You know too much to be on the outside of this still.”

“I am on the outside of this,” Granger said softly. “Still.”

Padden shook his head. “Let me spell it out for you,” he said. “You have two choices. Either you join my task force, or I use what you’ve just given me to ruin your career. I can make this look any way I want.”

Now Granger smiled.

“No, sir, you can’t,” he said. “For two reasons.”

He reached into the inside pocket of his jacket and drew out his badge in its leather holder. He tossed it across the desk, nearly hitting Padden in the chest.

“One? I quit. So you going after my career is a moot point.”

Padden looked from the badge to him.

Granger shook his head. “I don’t want any part of this agency anymore, where things like this can go on. It makes me sick.”

Padden continued to stare.

“And two…” Granger gestured to the photos on the desk. “When I showed these to Ashcroft with Assistant Director Skinner this morning, he didn’t seem to think what you were doing was ‘legal’ or ‘ethical.'”

Padden locked eyes with him. “You’re bluffing,” he said softly.

Granger just shook his head.

Behind him, the door opened, and Walter Skinner walked in, dressed in his best suit, the secretary following him, as well, to no avail.

He came forward until he stood beside Granger, glaring at Padden. Padden shooed the secretary off with his eyes and she went.

“Walter,” Padden tried as the door closed again. “You and I have known of each other’s work for a long time. You know the kind of man I am.”

Granger looked at Skinner, who was still boring a hole into Padden with his eyes.

“Yes, Bob, I do know what kind of man you are,” Skinner growled. “Now I do, at least.” “How fucking dare you play with my agents’ lives like this. And just to cover your own sorry ass.”

His voice rose as he spoke, and he ground the words out between clenched teeth. Granger could see the veins standing up on Skinner’s neck.

“Now wait just a minute,” Padden said, and bolted to his feet. “You can’t talk to me like that. Not to me ! And you can’t prove any of this, either! I’ll make sure you can’t prove it!”

Granger looked at him solemnly. “I’m wired,” he said simply.

Padden looked wild-eyed now, his breath huffing slightly as he was stunned to silence. Granger looked back at him impassively.

“It’s over, Bob,” Skinner said. “All of it. Ashcroft has dropped the charges against Mulder and Scully. He’s got someone new to look into now.”

It was then that the phone began to ring.

Padden looked down at it as though it would bite him.

Ashcroft.

Padden knew it, too. He looked back and forth from the two men in front of him to the phone.

All three of them held still.

Finally, on the sixth ring, Skinner spoke, his voice low, bitter.

“Get your phone, you son-of-a-bitch.”

+++

They made short work of the hallway, both of them walking as fast as Granger’s slight limp would allow, so fast that everyone stopped and stared at them as they passed.

“Did you really quit?” Skinner asked, glancing at him.

“Yes, sir, I did,” he replied.

“You didn’t have to do that, Granger,” Skinner said. “This would have all blown over and it probably would have made your career.”

They entered the elevator, Skinner waving two men off who tried to enter with them. The doors tapped closed and they started down.

“Like I told Padden just now,” Granger said. “I don’t want any part of this agency anymore. There are other ways to do the work that I’ve been trained to do. If this can happen once, it can happen again.”

“Yes, Granger, but it can happen anywhere, ” the other man responded firmly. “It’s happened at the FBI. Ask Mulder and Scully.”

“I’ll find a place for myself, sir,” Granger replied. “Don’t worry about me. I’m doing what I feel is right. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.”

Skinner pursed his lips, blew out a breath. “Well, your place for right now, at least, is as a civilian consultant with the FBI. You packed your personal weapon?”

The elevator doors whooshed open, depositing them on the ground floor. They shot out into the hallway.

Granger watched the floor as he crossed over the CIA seal. He remembered how proud he’d been the first day he’d come into this building as an agent. He never thought he would leave like this, and so soon.

“Granger?”

He snapped out of the thoughts. “Yes,” he replied. “I’ve packed the ammunition in one suitcase, the unloaded 9mm in the other, just like the airline specified. I’ve got my permit to carry it in my wallet.”

“Good,” Skinner said as they breezed out the glass doors. “Your temporary status with the FBI should keep you out of any trouble with that. If they give you any shit at the airport, have them call me.”

“Have you figured out your plan yet?” Granger asked.

Skinner nodded. “Yes, I’ll be at Justice until this thing gets rolling, then I’m coming your way to head up the agents in Albuquerque as soon as things start being dismantled here. I need to stay for now to make sure this doesn’t get buried. Ashcroft is looking for a head on a platter, but this isn’t going to be popular once it gets going. I don’t want him chickenshitting or Padden finding a way to slither out of this.”

“What about my backup?”

“I’ve just gotten authorization to begin mobilizing agents from Albuquerque and Phoenix. You should have them by morning at the latest. I tried calling Albert Hosteen, but there’s no answer and he doesn’t have a machine. I’ll keep trying.”

Granger nodded. “Since Padden doesn’t know where they are, we should be all right until the agents get there.”

Skinner checked his watch as they hit the parking lot.

“Come on,” he said, quickening the pace even more. “We’ve got to get that wire off you and hurry if you’re going to make these flights.”

+++

TWO GREY HILLS, NEW MEXICO NAVAJO RESERVATION 5:45 p.m.

Mulder stood stirring the spaghetti sauce, the sun starting to go down out the window beside him. Scully was busy in the trailer’s small laundry room, folding a load of wash as he cooked.

They were really going to do this, he thought, and something seized in his chest. They were going to go home and face this thing down.

He knew it was the right thing to do, that running was becoming too dangerous. But the thought of trying to defend himself against the charges from Padden…frankly, it scared him. He knew what could happen.

He looked out the window, deep in thought about it.

The truth will save you…I think it will save both of us…

He thought of his own words that Scully had given back to him, turning them over. He wanted to believe them.

He would believe them.

Scully entered from the hallway, dressed in a green t-shirt and faded jeans. Her hair was soft and lovely, pushed behind her ears. She looked at ease, and he was grateful for that.

They exchanged smiles as she came to stand beside him, on the side that Bo was not on. Scully touched the dog’s head as she passed him.

“Spaghetti a la Mulder again?” she asked, and he nudged her with an elbow.

“You know it’s really the only thing I can make that comes out halfway decent,” he replied, and she leaned into him, stood on her toes to give him a kiss on the cheek.

“It’s very good,” she said. “You know I’m just teasing you.”

“You’d better be or you’re cooking from now on,” he said, and turned to kiss her on the lips.

There was a knock at the door, and Bo sat up from where he was lying next to Mulder, his ears up and alert. Scully broke the kiss and they both looked toward the door.

“Mulder?” It was Victor.

Scully went to the door and opened it, let Victor in. He said hello to Scully, forcing a little smile. The young man looked harried or pissed off, Mulder noted.

“Victor, what’s wrong?” Mulder asked, setting the wooden spoon down and wiping his hands on a towel.

Victor heaved out a breath. “Somebody left the goddamn gate open and all the sheep are out,” he said, angry. “I know it’s late, but I can’t get hold of Keel or Henry to come help me round them up. I left messages, but those sheep could be on Hopi land by the time they get here.”

“I’ll help you get them in,” Mulder said, looked at Scully, who nodded.

“I’ll keep dinner warm while you do that,” she said.

Mulder nodded, came forward and grabbed up his denim jacket, pulled it on over his white t-shirt. Then he sat, pulling on his boots.

“Thanks, man,” Victor said. “I’ve got two horses saddled already. We can get them in before it gets dark with both of us doing it.”

“No problem,” Mulder replied, and Victor went out the front door, tipping his hat to Scully and smiling again as he left.

Mulder finished tying his boots, stood. Scully had withdrawn to the kitchen, taken up the spoon and started stirring the sauce again. Bo had come forward to Mulder, ready to follow him out the door.

Mulder stood and went to the door, his hand on it. Then he looked back at Scully for a few seconds, the way her skin looked so soft in the light from the window, her profile as she looked down into the simmering pot.

“Scully, I love you,” he said, surprised by the words. He didn’t know he was going to say them until he did.

“I love you, too,” she said, still looking down as she licked her finger where sauce had clung.

Something tugged at him and he took a step toward her, his hand still on the door.

“No, I mean…I really love you.” He said it solemnly, and she looked up at the seriousness of his tenor. Her eyes shone in the waning light.

“I love you, too,” she said again, this time matching his tone, and she smiled.

He smiled back and went out the door, Bo following behind.

+++

6:55 p.m.

On Chaco’s back, way up on the dirt road that led out behind Victor’s house, Mulder walked a group of straggling sheep back toward the house, their heavy white bodies bumping along as they mewed softly, the sun going down and leaving the world in a hazy bluish light.

Victor was behind him somewhere far off over a small hill. Mulder couldn’t even hear him calling to his dogs anymore, or their yapping.

He yawned, angled the horse over to the side of the small herd to tap a lamb back into the group.

Bo panted beside him, trotting along. Mulder smiled down at him faintly.

He looked ahead and saw a vehicle turn up the dirt road, its headlights on. It looked like a large truck or a van from this distance, but he couldn’t be sure.

Keel and Henry must have gotten the messages after all, he thought, tapping another animal into the fold.

The van came closer, coming neither fast or slow. Mulder paid it little attention as it approached.

Finally it pulled up alongside him. Two men, both smiling amiably. Mulder tensed up as he realized he’d never seen either of them before.

“Hey there,” the driver said easily. “Where’s Victor? We heard his sheep were out and came to help him out.”

Mulder nodded back, relaxing some with that. “Yeah, he’s up over the rise there chasing after a bunch of them. I think we’ve about got them in, though. Thanks for coming out anyway.”

The man nodded. “All right then,” he said, then he pointed to Mulder, snapped his fingers. “You’re…Tim? Tim Garrett? I met you once before here. Staying in Larry’s old trailer, right?”

Mulder nodded. “Yeah, that’s right.” He was perplexed a little by the man’s statement that he’d met him before, however. Mulder never forgot a face. “Though I don’t think we’ve met before, Mister…?”

“Aw, my name’s not important,” the man said, and his friend in the passenger seat laughed.

Alarm bells blared in Mulder’s head.

His heels jerked into Chaco’s side and he took off, going back up the road toward where he’d last heard Victor and leading the men away from the house, away from Scully.

If they didn’t have her already in the back of that van, he thought grimly, staving off panic.

Chaco was running at full speed, but he urged her on with his heels and his voice.

He could hear the van coming after him, the roar of a V8. Coming fast, gaining.

Jerking her head to the side, Mulder pulled Chaco off the road and onto the open desert, hoping to slow the van down with the scrubby trees and brush and stones. He heard the axle protest as the vehicle left the road, bouncing after him, skidding around obstacles, still closing.

Mulder hunched down in the saddle a bit more as the horse, spooked now, darted around bushes, the sounds of her hooves going fast rising around him. He glanced back over his shoulder.

The van was there, the passenger hanging out the side window, a strange looking gun pointed at him.

He fired.

Mulder jerked Chaco to the side again, but too late. He saw the dart lodge in the horse’s rump like a blue and white flag.

Fuck…

He leaned back as far as he could without falling and grasped at it, pulling it out and letting it drop. The van got closer.

“Come on! Come on!” Mulder chanted to the horse, digging his heels in again. The engine sound roared around him.

Then a stumble, the horse’s head going down. Mulder was nearly thrown off as she staggered again, slowing, her gait unsteady.

“No!” he shouted, and the horse ground to a halt, falling forward onto her front knees and then tumbling onto her side, sending Mulder flying from the saddle.

He ducked and rolled, hitting the ground hard, scrambling.

The van was circling now as he shook his head clear, got to his feet and started running.

He’d never run like he ran then. His chest was thrown out in front of him, his legs and arms pumping fast enough to blur. Air burned in and out of his lungs. His feet seemed to barely touch the ground as he streaked along, leaping over and around things, running serpentine.

His eyes scanned the dim landscape ahead of him, desperately searching for somewhere to hide. Anywhere.

Goddamn the desert, he thought, the van coming closer now. He looked over his shoulder and saw the man out the window again, aiming…

He heard the shot, a hollow popping sound. Then the sharp pain of the dart striking him the back, in the soft place between his hip and his shoulder blade.

Reaching back, he pulled it out, yanking hard to get the long needle out. He dropped it and kept going.

There was a sharp rise up ahead, one that the van couldn’t get up. He could make it…

His mouth went dry, his tongue feeling swollen in his mouth suddenly. A wave of nausea and dizziness struck him and he tripped, fell hard.

No…Can’t…

He pushed hard with his hands, struggling to stand, and got to his feet. The world swam in colors and blurs around him, but he staggered forward, kept going, though he couldn’t feel his feet hitting the ground anymore. His lids felt impossibly heavy….

The van had stopped and he heard footsteps behind him now. A lot of them.

Two more steps and he fell again on his chest, his hands not even coming up to break his fall. He couldn’t control his limbs, couldn’t control…

He saw boots around him, a circle of them.

He lurched forward, crawling now.

“No!” he shouted, but the word sounded strange to his ears, more like a groan than a word. His tongue wouldn’t work right either.

Laughter around him as he crawled a few more feet, the men following him patiently. Then he collapsed, scratching up sand in his hands, clenching it.

A boot reached out and turned him onto his back roughly. He looked up into the circle of strange faces. Their mouths, their teeth showing as they laughed…all of it too big, swimming out of shape like the men were in funhouse mirrors.

He tried to reach up, his head turned at an uncomfortable angle, his ear almost on his shoulder. His eyes lolled and a stream of something warm came out of his mouth as he tried to speak again, ran down the side of his face.

“Christ, Sam, how much did you give him?” one of the voice said. “The poor bastard’s drooling!” The man’s voice seemed to echo, sounding hollow and far away.

“Shit, I don’t know, Tom — the same as I gave the goddamn horse! He didn’t get much of it pulling it out so quick, but goddamned! Look at him!” There was a roar of laughter that sounded like a tape of laughter playing way too loud…

“Come on now, Mr. Garrett,” another voice said, and then there were rough hands on him, pulling him up. His head swiveled on his neck as he struggled to look up, a man under each of his arms.

The front of his feet on the ground as they dragged him, his chin against his chest. He couldn’t hear anything now but the faraway sounds of rough voices and laughter, snippets of it.

“…sonofabitch….”

“…too easy…”

“….kidding?…ran like a fucking rabbit…”

He got his head up as they reached the back of the van, the back doors open. Two men climbed up in front of him, swimming in his vision, grabbed him from the others and hauled him up. He was vaguely aware of his knees knocking hard against the bumper as they lifted him into the dark interior of the van.

“Scu…” he tried, his heartbeat fast and roaring in his ears.

Then the world went to black.

+++

CHAPTER 20.

+++

7:56 p.m.

There was a small wind coming in off the desert as night fell heavy and silent. Scully stood on the porch, her hands on her hips, her brow knitted as she looked toward Victor Hosteen’s place, watching for any sign of activity. She saw none, and wondered for the dozenth time how Mulder and Victor could still be looking for sheep with it being as dark as it was.

Something was prickling at the back of her mind, a nagging sense of concern that she tried to push down, chalking it up to paranoia.

They were safe here. They had been for weeks now. There was no reason to think that anything would have changed about their situation here.

She sighed, calming herself as she thought of this, rationalizing the fear away.

He’d be back any minute now, ready for the dinner she’d already made and left warming on the stove. He’d been hungry before he left, he’d said. He would be starving now.

Finally, from behind the trailer, in the dark of the desert behind her, she heard the bleating of sheep, the sounds of bells as the animals drew closer.

There he is, she thought, and went to the side of the trailer, where a light on a post lit up the backyard. She saw the sheep coming into the circle of light, waited for the sound of horse’s hooves amongst them.

She heard none.

She stood, looking down in confusion as the sheep brushed past her on their way back toward Victor’s place and the food there. She stood in a mass of them as they milled about, bumping against her as she held still.

“Mulder?” she called into the darkness beyond the light. No answer.

“Victor?” she tried again, and got no answer once again.

The sheep were on their own, she realized as the last of them made their way past the front of the trailer, nosing into everything they passed. They left her standing there, quiet in the buzz of the gold electric light.

Then another padding of footsteps and she returned her attention to the edge of the light.

Her heart dropped into her belly at what she saw, her eyes widening.

Bo, coming fast toward the trailer, panting as though he’d been running a long way. He caught sight of her and stopped, shifting from one foot to the other, rocking from side to side. He let out a long high whine as he looked at her.

“Bo?” she said faintly. It was hard to breathe suddenly.

The dog whined again, still moving from foot to foot uncertainly.

Oh God.

She went into the house quickly, found the keys to the Bronco on the night table in Mulder’s bedroom. Then she was back outside and heading toward the vehicle parked on the far side of the trailer. She moved first at a fast walk, then broke into a run as the panic began to overtake her.

Her breath heaved in and out, too fast and shallow as she opened the door and threw herself up into the driver’s seat, the engine roaring to life with the turning key. She slapped on the headlights and took off down the dirt road toward Victor’s, made a right, and headed out into the desert on the narrow access road, bumping along, the headlights sending bobbing cones of light out in front of her.

She looked from side to side, searching for anything.

“Come on, come on…” she breathed. “Be here. Be out here…”

Off in the distance, off the road a good ways, she saw a pinpoint of light bobbing around near the ground.

A flashlight.

Without even thinking, she swerved off the road and took off across the desert toward it.

After a few moments, the headlights were bathing Victor and his horse in their white light. Victor was kneeling next to a dark shape on the ground and stood quickly as Scully bolted out of the truck, leaving it running.

“What is it?” she said in between her too-quick breaths. “Where is he?”

“I don’t know,” Victor said, his tone heavy with concern. “But I found Chaco, the horse he was on. She can’t get up.”

Scully went toward the horse now, Victor following behind her with the dancing beam of light.

“Here, give me your flashlight,” she said quickly, and he handed it off. She knelt down next to the animal’s head, noted the horse’s slow breathing, the half-closed lids, the line of saliva coming from her mouth. She shone the flashlight in the black mare’s eye, saw the pupil dilated impossibly large.

“She’s been drugged,” Scully said, again pushing down the panic. “Did you see anyone out here?”

Victor shook his head beside her, removed his cowboy hat. “No, no one. I thought I might have heard a car at some point, but I figured it was Keel coming to help out. I didn’t pay it any mind.”

“Oh God,” Scully breathed, pushing her hair back from her forehead. “Someone’s got him. Someone’s taken him.”

Victor put a hand on her shoulder, gave it a squeeze. “You don’t know that for sure now,” he said calmly. “Let’s go back to the house and make sure he’s not there, all right?”

“He’s not there, Victor — Bo came back to the trailer without him. Bo would never leave him if he was still here.”

Victor was silent to that, and she could see his expression grow grim in the headlights.

“Let’s just make sure,” he tried again, and this time Scully nodded.

The realization of what had happened sunk into her heavy as stone. She blinked back tears, then rose and went back to the truck, climbed in and turned the car around, heading back across the desert to the road.

Who had him? She thought. Padden and his agents? Curran’s men?

Surely not the latter, she thought, dismissing it. Why would Curran want to take Mulder and leave her behind, when she could have been taken so easily, alone in the trailer while the two men were out looking for the sheep?

Her mind spun with the possibilities as she bumped back onto the road, took off toward the house. Victor was behind her, galloping on his horse, keeping fairly good pace with the truck, his sheep and the downed mare left behind in the desert.

She rounded the corner at the house, slowed as she saw a dark car parked in front of Victor’s house. She was about to come to a full stop, fear at another intruder coming over her, when Albert Hosteen came out the front door, one hand in his pocket. He was gesturing for her to come forward with the other, and she edged the Bronco in behind the car — a rental, she noted — and cut the engine.

“Is Mulder in the house?” she asked hurriedly as she hopped down from the truck. Hosteen looked confused.

“No, I have not seen him,” he replied, his brow knitting. “Is he missing?”

Scully nodded. “We found his horse, drugged, in the desert.”

Hosteen looked stricken. “I heard a vehicle on the road between my house and here, a truck by the sound of it. Something big. But I assumed it was Keel or Eric.”

“When was this?” Scully asked.

Hosteen considered. “About thirty minutes ago, give or take.”

Scully cursed under her breath, pushing at her hair again. “Who’s in the house?” she snapped.

“A friend of yours, he says. I had him call your man Skinner before I would tell him where you were, let me talk to him to make sure. He is waiting inside.”

Victor pulled his horse up, dismounted quickly. “Is he here?” he asked quickly.

Scully shook her head and led the two men into the house.

And was immediately confronted by Paul Granger, who stood from the couch as she entered. He was dressed in jeans and a black t-shirt and a light leather jacket, his silver glasses gleaming in the overhead light in the living room.

“Agent Granger?” she asked, pulled up short. “What are you doing here? Do you know where Mulder is?”

He was taking in her appearance, forcing his face to remain neutral. She knew, though, that he was surprised by her thinness. She knew she looked very different than the last time she’d seen him.

“No, I don’t know where Mulder is,” he said, shaking his head. “He’s not with you?”

“Padden must have taken him,” she said, her breathing picking up again. Victor and Albert looked at her, then at Granger. Granger looked stricken.

“No, no,” he said. “Padden doesn’t know where you are, and plus, Ashcroft is on his ass now — we’ve got him on the run. I don’t think he’d risk taking Mulder now, not with everyone knowing what he’s been doing.”

“What he’s been doing?” Scully repeated. “What the hell are you talking about?”

“He’s been framing you and Mulder both, following you. He’s been following you since you left Tennessee, basically. But that’s all over now. The charges against you both have been dropped and an inquiry is underway.”

“You mean we could have gone home already?” Scully asked, her voice rising. She watched Granger cringe a bit at it.

“This all only happened this morning,” he said, his voice showing his regret. “I got here as fast as I could. I’ve been travelling all day to come help protect you until the agents from Albuquerque and Phoenix could get here.” Granger looked down. “I’m sorry, Agent Scully. I really am.”

Scully looked at Victor and Albert, Albert holding up a hand, urging her to calm. Her chest was rising and falling as though she’d been running, fear and rage and worry colliding in her.

“How would Curran even know about Mulder to take him?” she implored. “And why would he take him?”

“Perhaps he heard about Mulder from the time those men tried to take you before,” Albert offered. “Perhaps they wanted to make it easier to get to you by taking him first?”

“No, they could have had me,” she replied, coming to some semblance of control as she listened to Albert. “I was alone in the trailer when they came. They had to have known that. They wanted Mulder, not me.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Granger said. “Unless–“

He was interrupted by the phone ringing. Victor hurried to the kitchen to answer it, said hello into the receiver of the cordless phone.

“Unless what?” Scully asked, urging Granger to continue.

“Agent Scully,” Victor said grimly from the kitchen. All eyes turned to him. He held the phone toward her. “It’s for you.”

Scully’s blood turned to ice, and she could feel it leaving her face.

She got it now. It all made sense.

In the silence that followed Victor’s statement, she made her way slowly to the kitchen, took the phone from Victor and placed it against her ear.

“Owen,” she said by way of greeting.

“Dana,” Curran replied, his voice smug. “I’m glad I caught you there. How are you then? Having a rough night now I imagine.”

“Where is my partner, Owen?” she asked, forcing calm into her voice.

“On his way to me, as you’ve clearly guessed,” Owen said. “He’s alive.” There was a pause. “For now.”

Scully closed her eyes, pulled in a calming breath. “It’s me you want, Owen. Not him.”

“That’s right, Dana,” Owen replied, anger creeping in now. “It is you that I want. And I want you to come to me now. To give yourself up to me. I’m tired of chasing you halfway around this bloody country.”

“I come to you and you’ll let him go.” She opened her eyes and put her hand up, halting the forward progress of Albert and Granger. Granger had his mouth open to protest and she shook her head, put a finger over her mouth.

“Yes, and not just him,” Owen replied, clearly pleased. “I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. I’ll trade you four lives for your one. How’s that for a deal for you, eh?”

“Four lives?” Scully replied. “What do you mean?”

“I’ve got Mae, too,” Curran said softly. “And her boyfriend, some pathetic fuck she picked up in Mexico where I found her. I know you don’t care much about him personally, but Mae does. And I know how much you and Mae care for one another.”

His voice dropped to a growl. “I know you wouldn’t want her to grieve something like that. And I know you don’t want me killing her either, given all she’s done for you, after all.”

Scully breathed out, trying not to let the shaking of it be heard over the phone. “No,” she said softly. “I wouldn’t want that. Any of that.” She paused. “But you said four lives for my one. Who’s the fourth?” She knew it wasn’t Sean.

A heavy beat of silence. “Mae’s pregnant,” Owen said finally.

Scully clenched her eyes closed again, frustrated tears coming now.

Mulder and Mae…and a baby now, as well. And probably the baby’s father…

She was vaguely aware of Granger coming forward until he stood beside her. She opened her eyes, met his charcoal gaze. There was sympathy and strength in the look he gave her, and she drank it in, nodded to him, thanking him with her eyes in return.

“Tell me what you want me to do, Owen,” she said, her voice calm, sure now. “I’ll do whatever you ask. Just don’t hurt them.”

“That’s what I wanted to hear, Dana,” Owen replied, pleased. “That you’d do whatever I ask. It’s about fucking time I heard that from you.”

“Tell me,” she said again, not wanting to hear him gloat.

“All right. This is what I want. There’s a little town in Arizona called Show Low. You’ll find it on the map. It’s not too far from where you are now. Six hours. There’s a motel in town called the Deuce of Clubs near the hospital, right on the edge of town. I want you to check in there tomorrow afternoon. Check in under Katherine Black. I’ll call you there at four o’clock and tell you where I want you to meet me to make the exchange.”

“All right,” Scully replied. “I’ll do that. I’ll leave first thing in the morning.”

“And Dana…” Owen’s voice was soft and dangerous now. “If I see one fucking agent, one ANYTHING, check into that motel with you, I start killing, starting with your man Mulder. I’ve got people watching the motel. They’ll be waiting for you to get there. If you’re not alone, it’s over. You understand?”

She swallowed. “I understand,” she said quietly.

“Good. Have a safe journey tomorrow. Goodnight, Dana.”

Then a click as Owen hung up.

+++

UNKNOWN LOCATION ALDER CREEK, COLORADO 10:30 p.m.

Larry Kingston made his way across the compound, the first hardy crickets of the spring singing in the woods around him. There was a thin blanket of clouds obscuring the moon and the stars, though their light made the sheet of vapor glow blue in the night.

The light was still on in the cabin he was approaching, and he was glad for that. He didn’t want to wake this man Shea up if he didn’t have to, but he didn’t want to sit on what he had to say, either.

He climbed the two stairs to the door, reached out and knocked on the door lightly. He heard a shifting from inside, and then the door opened, Shea’s face lit by the bluish glow in the sky and the small bulb on the outside of the one-room cabin.

“Mr. Kingston,” Shea said, nodding amiably, a small smile on his face.

“Good evening, Mr. Shea,” Kingston said, and reached in his pocket for his pipe and pouch of tobacco. “I’ve got some news for you, if you’re interested in hearing it. I’m sorry for the late hour and all.”

“No, that’s fine,” Shea replied, and opened the door a bit wider, letting Kingston in. Once inside, Kingston stood in the center of the small room, stuffed his pipe full and, looking to Shea for approval, he lit the pipe up, blowing out a cloud of sweet smelling smoke.

“What have you got for me then, Mr. Kingston?” Shea asked, his hands in the pockets of his corduroys. The man still had his shoes on, as well, Kingston noted, and his light jacket over his sweatshirt. He always looked like he was on his way out no matter when you saw him. Always ready.

“I’ve got your Mr. Curran settled down in a cabin that belongs to one of my people. Down in Arizona. A little town called Show Low. He’ll be staying put there for some time, it’s looking like.”

“Ah, I see,” Shea said, nodding. “That’s good then.”

“And I’m done with my business with him, my debt to him paid as of tonight. So I thought I’d let you know all that.”

Shea nodded again. “Business with finding these people, like you were saying earlier?”

Kingston nodded, gnawed on his pipe. “Yep. I got him the last one he wanted just a few hours ago. He’s got his sister and his boy back. Now he’s got this man he was after. God only knows what he’s doing with them, but that was the deal I had with him. To find these folks, and I’m done it now. I reckon it’s time to let you all handle him from here on out.”

Shea nodded. “I appreciate what you’ve done, Mr. Kingston. Letting us know all this.”

Kingston blew out a puff of smoke. “I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to come clean with it all, but I wouldn’t have felt right if I hadn’t done what I promised the sorry sonofabitch. I know that probably don’t make no sense to you people, but…”

“No, it makes perfect sense,” Shea said quietly. “We’re in the habit of keeping our word with the people we work with, as well. Most of us, that is.”

Kingston nodded. “I see that now,” he said. He reached into his pocket, drew out a sheet with writing on it. “Anyhow, here’s the directions to where you can find him. I guess you’ll be leaving in the morning?”

“Aye,” Shea said, taking the sheet. He folded it carefully and put it in his pocket. “Most likely before breakfast. So I won’t see you again, I suppose.”

Kingston reached his hand out then, and Shea took it, shook it once.

“Good luck to you then, Mr. Shea. I hope you find your way back home soon enough.”

Shea smiled. “I will do,” he said. “Soon enough.”

Kingston gave him a small smile in return. “Goodnight.”

“Goodbye, Mr. Kingston. Many thanks again.”

And Shea opened the door for him and Larry Kingston went back out into the night, trailing a light stream of smoke behind him in the dark.

+++

UNKNOWN LOCATION SHOW LOW, ARIZONA APRIL 10 4:34 a.m.

Mulder…

The word seemed to echo around him, sounding like the half-whispered voice that persisted after dreaming, though he had not been dreaming. His mind was too confused for even that, lost in a darkness so complete he wasn’t aware of his mind or his body.

Something tugged at his chest. A breath going in, burning. He let it out, the sound too loud, a rasp. Another tug and release.

“Mulder, wake up.”

His mind latched onto the voice, somehow familiar, and he hauled himself up from the darkness, anchoring himself to it, forcing his eyes to open.

A dimly lit room, him on his back on a cold hard floor. He tried to reach up to touch his forehead where a pain stabbed at him, but he couldn’t. His hands were bound in front of him with electrical tape, secured with rope to his legs, which were similarly restrained. He tugged on the rope. A good knot.

His vision blurred in and out, and he had to force his eyes to stay open. There was a face above him, a hand on his shoulder.

Long hair pulled back, face lost in shadows.

“Mulder? How do you feel? Can you speak to me?”

He opened his mouth to do just that, his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth.

“Water…” he breathed, looking up into the face.

“I’ll try,” the woman said. “I’ll be right back.”

He closed his eyes as she rose, heard her go away, heard her speak softly to someone.

He drifted. Something in his back hurt like hell.

Then she was back, a hand going beneath his head and tilting it up. He opened his eyes as a glass was placed against his lips and he drank, draining the glass. He was breathing harder as she lowered his head back down with the utmost care.

Awareness dawned on him as he caught the woman’s face in profile when she turned to put the glass behind her.

“Mae?” he croaked, his voice back but in disrepair.

She nodded, looking down at him. “Yes,” she said softly.

“Where’s Scully?” he said, looking around frantically.

“She’s not here,” Mae soothed. “Just stay calm. You’ve been through a lot already.” She paused. “How do you feel?”

He took a quick inventory as the relief flooded him that Scully wasn’t there.

“Druggy,” he pronounced finally. He turned his head, saw a chair there, a heavy looking recliner. “Can you help me…help me sit up?”

Mae nodded and put her arms around his shoulders and together they lifted him until his back was against the front of the chair. He took in the room now. A large bedroom, fireplace in one wall. A large bed against another. There was a man tied to a chair just off to his right who was looking at him, his face battered, lip swollen and one eye swelled closed.

“Joe,” the man said. “Joe Porter.” He puffed out the “P” around his lip.

Mulder nodded to him, confused by everything he was seeing. His thinking was like walking on sand, each thought slipping some beneath him.

“Somebody…somebody chased me…I was running.” The memory swam into focus. Running. Yes, he’d been running…the shot in his back. Crawling. The halo of boots on the sand.

“Aye,” Mae said with sympathy. “Owen got some men to fetch you. You’re in Arizona now. I’m not sure where. You’ve been here for about three hours.”

Mulder nodded to Joe. “Who’s he?” His eyes lolled and he clenched them, then opened them wider.

“He’s…” Mae hesitated. “He’s with me.”

Mulder chuffed. “You sure know how to pick ’em, Joe.”

“You do, too, apparently,” Joe replied blithely, and Mulder chuckled at that.

“Touch.”

He struggled to make sense of it. Owen had taken him, but not Scully? He could have had her so easily, her there by herself…

Then it dawned on him. He looked at Mae again now.

“Owen’s luring Scully,” he said, his mind catching up now and becoming more lucid. “He wants her to come to him. To give herself up to him.”

“Yes,” Mae replied. “He’s trading our lives for hers.”

Fury bloomed in him. Scully would come, he knew. She would come without thinking about it. Owen knew that, too. He must have surmised he and Scully’s relationship somehow. Maybe Mae told him. Maybe she’d had to.

He looked at her with regret. He didn’t exactly like being in his position right now, but he would hate like hell to be in hers.

Mae looked down as she sensed his feelings, her voice dropping to just above a whisper. “He might let you go, Joe go. But he’s not going to let me go.”

Mulder nodded, spoke quietly. “You’re right. He’s not. He wants you and he wants Scully. But he might use Joe and me to punish you both. To hurt what you care about. None of us are guaranteed a way out of here, no matter what Scully does.”

“So he’s awake,” a stern voice came from the doorway, and Mulder and Mae both turned to see Owen standing there, leaning against the frame.

Mae scrambled up to her feet and withdrew to the bed, where she sat quickly, still now, not meeting Owen’s gaze as he followed her with his eyes.

Mulder could feel the terror coming off her and wondered what she’d been through already with her brother.

Owen approached him, stood in front of him with his arms crossed over his chest. He smirked as Mulder looked up at him with a gaze cold and unafraid.

“Mr. Mulder,” Owen said. “Good to see they didn’t kill you with that tranquilizer they gave you. You weren’t breathing too well when they brought you in, so I’m relieved you’re all right.”

“I’m sure,” Mulder replied, his voice cracking. “I bet you were beside yourself.”

“No, no,” Owen said, his smile widening at Mulder’s tone. “I’m being sincere, Mr. Mulder. I’ve got no quarrel with you. You’re just a means to an end. I don’t want to hurt anyone unnecessarily, you know.”

Mulder glanced over at Joe. “I can see that,” he said.

“Ah, that’s a bit different. Joe got me pissed.” He cocked his head as he looked at Mulder. “I’m sure you won’t be doing that, will you?”

Mulder said nothing, simply stared up at Curran, who paced a few steps, then came back.

“Your girlfriend is coming for you,” he said, clearly pleased. “She’ll be in town tomorrow afternoon. So not to worry. You’ll be free soon enough. You just need to hold tight until she gets here.”

Mulder seethed, hated Curran for talking about Scully, hated knowing that Curran’s using him as a lure had worked so easily.

What Scully must be going through, knowing Owen had him. And Mae. He knew Scully would be concerned for her, as well.

It all burned in him, and, despite his better judgement, his temper flared.

“You won’t be rid of me that easily,” he rumbled, his gaze turning to ice.

“What do you mean then?” Curran asked lightly. He seemed amused.

“I mean that you even touch her and I’ll kill you.” Mulder’s eyes didn’t waver.

Now Curran’s smile melted away, his expression flattening.

“Threats from someone in your position don’t hold much weight, Mr. Mulder,” Curran said quietly. He leaned closer to Mulder’s face. “And if I were you, I’d shut the fuck up with them, as well, before you end up like Joe here.” He jerked his head toward Porter.

“Fuck you.” It was out of his mouth before he could stop it.

The boot that caught him across the mouth was no surprise.

“You don’t know me very well, you stupid fuck!” Curran shouted. “You wouldn’t talk to me like that if you knew me.”

“I know all about you,” Mulder said, and spit blood toward Curran’s feet. “I know about your father, how he starved himself to death and left you with nothing but your Cause. I know about your wife, about the IRA killing her. I know everything about you.”

Curran’s eyes turned wild and dangerous. “Where do you get off talking about my family like that, eh?” He reached down and grabbed Mulder’s t-shirt collar, bunched it up, shoving his face into Mulder’s. “Eh? Where the fuck do you get off? You don’t know shit about me.”

“Mulder, stop,” Mae called from the bed. “Please stop! Don’t–“

“You’re so fucking predictable it’s sad,” Mulder said into Curran’s face, the words tumbling from him as his voice rose. “Revenge is all you know. It’s the only thing that makes you feel anything anymore, isn’t it? The British took your father and the IRA took Elisa and now you’re after Scully because she turned out to NOT be Elisa. And you’re after Mae for feeling anything at all, aren’t you? For not being as dead inside as you are.”

Curran’s hand shot up and clenched around Mulder’s face, squeezing hard. “What are you, Sigmund Fucking Freud?” he spit, enraged now as he pushed Mulder’s face to the side hard. “Don’t you say my wife’s name again, you hear me? I don’t want to hear it come out of your mouth again. And what’s between my sister and me is none of your fucking business!”

He bolted up and his foot was out again, this time catching Mulder in the belly before Mulder could react at all. He hunched, coughing, unable to breath for a few seconds.

Next his face, the side of his head, across his mouth again. A flurry of strikes as Curran’s rage boiled out of control.

Finally Curran stepped back, his breath heaving.

Mulder shook his head clear, his face throbbing. When he got his voice back, he rasped at Curran, looking hard at him.

“You leave Scully alone, or I swear to God–“

“That’s it!” Curran said, and went to the night table where a roll of electrical tape sat. He ripped out a length, tore it off with his teeth and was squatted in front of Mulder again. His hands shot out and pressed the tape across Mulder’s bloodied mouth hard, pushing his head back in the process.

Mulder snapped his head back up, glared at Curran, made a loud sound and kicked out with his legs. Curran stood and stepped easily out of the way.

“I think…” Curran said, still breathing hard. He took a few more breaths and struggled for calm, pushing his hair off his forehead. “I think we’ve all heard enough from you, Mr. Mulder.” His voice was even now, strangely quiet.

He turned, going toward the door, where an odd-looking man had been standing all this time, watching the proceedings without interest.

“You keep watching them,” Curran said to the man. “I’m going to lie down for a little while.”

“All right, Mr. Curran,” the man said dumbly.

Curran turned to Mae. “You take that tape off and I’ll put it on you,” he said, pointing at her. Mae nodded mutely, looked away.

Curran turned back toward Mulder, hatred clearly burning in his eyes.

Mulder gave him the look right back until Curran turned and left the room.

+++

TWO GREY HILLS, NEW MEXICO NAVAJO RESERVATION 5:20 a.m.

Scully pulled the last load of laundry from the dryer, bunching the jumble of she and Mulder’s clothes into a basket, then hefted it and quietly took it into the bedroom. Their suitcases were open on the bed, which was still made. She hadn’t been in it all night.

She dumped the clothes and started folding them, putting them in their respective suitcases with care.

She didn’t know why she was doing this. She shook her head at the sight she must present, but couldn’t keep her hands from moving.

Perhaps it was simply the need to do something productive to make up for the sleepless night. Perhaps it was to prepare to leave this place, in preparation for the actual leaving she would be doing soon.

And there was something else, as well, some small way it made her feel like she was doing something for Mulder, gathering his things so they would be ready for him when he was with her again.

His t-shirts, jeans, boxers. All folded neatly and placed just so. She did it as though her care would somehow make a difference. In something.

She finished with his suitcase, went into the other room to the closet, pulled out shoes, then his thick garment bag and carried both into the other room, tossing them on the bed. The shoes she placed in a zippered side of the suitcase, then closed the bag, his toiletries bag tucked in beside the clothes.

Then her eyes went to the garment bag, which clearly hadn’t been opened since their arrival here. In fact, it had only been opened a few times since they’d left Tennessee, and then only for Scully to draw out his dress shirts to wear over her tank tops as the desert got warmer and she got thinner, needing something to hide within.

She reached down and unzipped the bag’s long front, found his white shirt there on top. She pulled it off its hanger and put it on over her white t-shirt without another thought, rolling the sleeves and tying the tails in a knot at her waist. Then she reached in further, pushing the shirts to the side until she revealed one his dark suits, the jacket cradling a collection of multicolored ties.

She fingered a black silk one that was covered with tiny olives. She remembered a day in the basement office, on their way to a chewing out by Skinner, when she’d reached up and tightened the knot where he’d loosened it, smoothed it down. She’d given him a tiny smile as she tucked the report under her arm and squeezed his hand just before they’d opened the door and set out the face the music together.

The memory made her smile, but it also brought the threat of tears.

Her eyes went back to the dark suit, the dream coming back to her. Him at the airport, the suit hanging on him perfectly…

She pushed the dread away, rearranged the shirts and zipped the bag closed once again.

Around her, the house was silent, though it was full. Albert Hosteen and Granger had sacked out in the living room in on the couch and chair, just in case the men returned for her. Victor, she knew, had stayed up most of the night, coming in every now and again for coffee, carrying his shotgun. He’d prowled the property like a guard dog.

Albert had gone to bed around one, falling asleep in the recliner. He’d been mostly silent, watching her move around the house and argue with Granger. Granger had wanted her to stay and wait for the agents, tangled in red tape, who would be arriving in the morning as Skinner had assured him before he left D.C.

“Granger, I told you what Curran said,” she’d insisted, losing her patience. “I have to go alone. Any sign of something suspicious and I’m endangering Mulder’s lives and the lives of the others. Don’t you understand that?”

“Does that mean you’re not even going to let me go with you?” Granger had persisted, following her into the kitchen where she’d rinsed the plates from their late dinner — she and Mulder’s dinner — that she’d fed to the men.

She’d turned on the water hard, plates clattering. “Yes.”

“Agent Scully, for God’s sake, you can’t–“

“I’m not risking their lives. Bring the agents to Snowflake or Shumway and wait for word from Mulder or me there.”

“That’s insane!” Granger had blustered, gesturing toward her in frustration. “You can’t risk your life like this. I won’t let–“

“I don’t want to talk about it any more,” she’d snapped then, and Granger had bitten off what he was going to say, turned and huffed into the living room, sitting down on the couch and pretending to watch the fuzzy rerun of M*A*S*H on the television.

Scully had turned to gather more dishes from the counter behind her and saw Albert Hosteen watching her, his pipe in the corner of his mouth, his expression serious. When he saw her looking at him, he waited a beat, his eyes meeting hers, then returned his attention to the television. He hadn’t said another word for the rest of the night.

Scully reached down onto the bed now, lifted her Sig. She checked the clip, slapped it home, then put it beneath her shirt in the holster there. Next she picked up Mulder’s gun, identical to her own, and slipped into the front waistband of her jeans, the dress shirt obscuring both weapons.

Then she turned to Mulder’s ankle holster, the pistol snug in it. She put a foot up on the bed, pulled up her jeans and tried to put the holster on. Even in its last holes, it hung on her, and she cursed beneath her breath.

There had been some electrical tape on the shelf in the laundry room. She went to fetch it.

And met Granger in the hallway, still in his black t-shirt and jeans from the night before, his eyes red.

“Agent Scully,” he began.

“I’m not going to argue with you anymore, Granger,” she said tiredly, brushed past him to the laundry room. He held his ground as she got the tape and went back into the bedroom. Then she heard him in the doorway behind her.

“Can I just ask one question?” His voice was quiet. Even. No longer exasperated as it had been the night before.

“Sure,” she said, resigned, as she put her foot up on the bed again, tore off a length of the silver tape, biting it to tear it. Then she started winding the length of it around the hard form of the holster, securing it to her calf, the gun on the inside of her left leg where her right hand could reach it easily.

“Why are you going to do this?” Granger asked softly.

She turned and looked at him like he’d grown another head.

“Why the hell do you think I’m going, Granger? I’m going to get Mulder. And the other people involved in this thing.”

“I know that,” he said, not taking the bait of her tone. “I mean…are you going to try and fight Curran or are you going to give yourself up to him?”

She turned back to her leg, pressing down the tape. She tore off another piece and repeated the action. “I’m going to do whatever it takes to free him. To free all of them.”

“So you are going to turn yourself over,” Granger said. “Well, that clears a lot up right there.”

“I don’t know what you mean,” Scully replied, not looking back at him.

“I was just trying to figure out why you don’t want me to come with you,” he said, his tone as though he were thinking aloud. “Why you won’t even allow that. It’s because you’re going to sacrifice yourself. You don’t want to fight him.”

“Thank you for the profile, Granger,” Scully said under her breath, getting ticked now. “But I do want to fight him. I don’t usually go around putting industrial tape on my legs if I’m planning on walking into the slaughter.”

“You can’t beat him on your own,” he replied, and she pushed her jeans leg down and turned to him now. He didn’t flinch from the look she gave him. “You know you can’t. You can’t negotiate with him — he’s too crazy and filled with hatred for that — and you can’t take him out while he’s got three hostages and God only knows how many people helping him with this.”

“I’ll cross that one when I come to it,” she said, dismissing him. She started toward the door and he wouldn’t budge. She looked up at him, angry now.

“You can’t cross it,” he said quickly. “He’ll kill you. He’ll probably kill all of you. I doubt he intends to let Mae go, for starters. He’s bluffing you, using these people to draw you in, to make you helpless. And if you go alone you’re letting him win already.”

She looked down, said nothing for a long moment. Then she met his gaze again, her frustration and sadness rimming her eyes with tears. She held them back. “I won’t risk his life unnecessarily,” she said, almost keeping the tremor out of her voice.

“Curran doesn’t have to know I’m there,” Granger said firmly. “We can take two cars. I’ll come later in the day, after I scramble the agents to one of those towns you mentioned last night. I’ll check into the motel and no one will know we’re together. You can call me and I’ll follow you to the exchange place. He won’t know about me, and that will give us an edge.”

She shook her head, looked to the side, thinking.

Some part of her knew he was right. She was willing to sacrifice herself, to walk into Curran’s grasp, in necessary, to free Mulder and the others. She owed Mae her life, after all. And with the baby, the stakes were doubly high.

She knew she couldn’t really fight him. At the bottom of all her bravado, she knew that was true.

Now she returned her gaze to Granger’s earnest face.

“You need me on this,” he said quietly. “I understand you not wanting the agents swarming all over a town that size, but you need someone. And I’m all you’ve got.”

That teased a smile from her, which faded the instant it curled her lips. “You’re a lot,” she said softly.

She paused for a long moment, warring with herself. Then she nodded.

“All right,” she said. “But you can’t tell Skinner where we’re going. He would insist on a full-scale extraction on this, and we can’t have that. It’s better that he not know where we are or he might try it anyway.”

Granger cringed. “He’ll have both our asses for that,” he said, and Scully nodded.

“I know,” she said. “I’ll find a way to make him understand. When this is over and Mulder’s back safe.”

Granger nodded, though she could tell he had some doubts. About all of this. She did, as well. So much was unknown, like a game they were playing where they didn’t know all the rules. But the rules they did know they would have to follow.

She went back to the bed, hefted two of the suitcases and came forward again. This time, Granger stepped back to allow her to enter the hallway, and they both turned to see Albert Hosteen standing there, Bo sitting beside him as though they’d been there for some time.

“You are going together then,” Hosteen said, and Scully nodded. It didn’t surprise her he’d heard everything they’d said.

“Yes,” she said quietly. Beside her, Granger nodded, reached down to take one of the suitcases out of her hand. She allowed it.

“That’s good,” Albert said. “I was afraid you would be so stubborn you would go alone. You are as stubborn as Agent Mulder that way. As stubborn as me.” He winked, lightening the mood. Scully smiled, looked down.

“Yes, I am, I suppose.” She gestured to Bo. “I see you’ve got a new friend.”

Albert shook his head, made no move to touch the dog. “No,” he said. “He has been outside since I woke up, looking for Agent Mulder. He is Agent Mulder’s dog now.”

The thought made the tears come again, and she blinked them back, finally reached up and rubbed at her eyes.

“When you find Agent Mulder,” Hosteen said gently. “When he is free again, you call me and I will bring Bo and give him back to him.”

Scully nodded, and a tear did fall now. She wiped it away, and felt the warm weight of Granger’s hand on her shoulder.

“All right,” she said, nodded, moved away from the two men and headed toward the front door.

She stood for a long moment on the front porch, gathering herself, looking out over the horizon.

The tears receded and something harder settled over her, something cold and determined and welcome.

Then she went to the Bronco, waiting by the side of the house, as the sun began to rise.

+++

CHAPTER 21.

+++

HIGHWAY 77 NORTH OF SNOWFLAKE, ARIZONA 11:35 a.m.

There wasn’t a break in her expression until she saw the signs for Snowflake, five hours into her drive from Two Grey Hills. She’d held the emotions at bay for all that time as she’d angled the Bronco down the narrow two-lanes in New Mexico, through western Arizona, then south, weaving her way through the rising mountain roads, the tan desert giving way to Ponderosa pines and green.

But when Scully saw the signs for Snowflake, her eyes filled with tears.

This was where they had stopped after the first month of running, Mulder insisting on the break because of her lingering illness from the drug and the holdover of her headaches and weakness from the concussion she’d suffered at Fagan’s hands.

She’s been so weak that month, at first unable to even walk without his help.

She could still remember rubbing her cheek against his belly in the lodge where they’d stayed in Snowflake. His torso was bare from where she’d pushed his shirt up, his hands on the sides of her head, gentle, his eyes on her face. If she thought about it hard enough, she could remember the feel of the sparse line of hair on his abdomen against her mouth, the smell of his warm skin.

She remembered how helpless she’d felt then, how dependent.

It was in stark contrast to how she felt now. Three guns hidden in her clothes, her mouth a thin line, her eyes guarded by sunglasses as they met the road in front her.

She pushed her fingers beneath her glasses, wiped the tears roughly away.

She was a little more than an hour from her destination, the little town of Show Low on the edge of the Salt River Apache Reservation. She could feel herself growing more still inside as she approached it, seeing the first signs for the town beginning to appear on the road sides.

She would be there so soon. And she was ready to be there.

But ready for what?

One of two things was going to happen this day, she knew.

The first was that she would somehow find a way to free Mulder and the others and get away herself, as well, hopefully taking Owen out — killing him, if necessary — in the process.

The other was that she would sacrifice herself for the lives of the others. For Mulder’s life, which she would do without even thinking twice about it.

But also for Mae’s life. The life of her lover and her unborn child.

Vague recollections gathered in her mind. Mae in the back of the pickup, some truckstop somewhere on the road, them running from Owen after Mae had killed Fagan. A cup of soup in Mae’s hand, which she tilted to Scully’s lips, making her eat something, despite the drug, despite her injuries.

Come on, help me now, Mae had said gently.

Then another memory. Mae dressing her in pajamas in the cabin in Tennessee, the drug-fever raging as Mae tucked her beneath the covers, Mae’s hand lingering, protective, on her forehead.

A cloth on her forehead in a bathtub of frigid water, Mae’s voice as she spoke softly to Mulder….

Her eyes hardened at the memories.

She owed Mae her life. Despite how strangely and under what false circumstances the friendship with Mae had begun, it was a strong friendship nonetheless. Scully felt connected to her in some way she couldn’t quite name.

She heaved out a breath as she thought all this, as she entered Snowflake. She remembered the sleepy looking lodges well, the small stores in the tiny town.

Her thoughts returned to Mulder. Worry filled her, concern at how Owen would treat him. She just hoped Mulder would keep quiet. Owen had no tolerance for disrespect, and Mulder could be most disrespectful. She didn’t like the thought of the two of them together, especially with Owen knowing something of she and Mulder’s affiliation, and being as vengeful as he was right now.

She pushed the worry down as best she could, considering her options carefully.

Owen had weaknesses, some of which centered around her, his attraction to her and his association of her with his wife, Elisa. There had to be ways to exploit those feelings, to undo him in some way, throw him off and give her the chance to take him out or at least get away once the others were freed.

Either that or the association of her with Elisa would make him somehow worse — less rational, more manipulative and with more of a desire to control her. It was going to be one or the other.

She sighed, shaking her head at the thought.

She would do anything that could be done. Especially to protect the lives of the hostages. And she was ready to pay the consequences for what she might have to do.

Even if it meant her death.

A feeling of calm came over her with that thought. A determination that fought the aloneness she felt as she drove the truck filled with suitcases.

Nothing but the sound of the tired engine as she drove out of Snowflake on toward Show Low, the sound of worn tires pounding the road.

+++

INTERSTATE 40 WEST OF HOLBROOK, ARIZONA 11:35 a.m.

Paul Granger looked at the map, fumbling the unfolded thing in front of him as he followed the line of Interstate 40 to Holbrook. He was steering with his knees, looking for the number of the highway he was supposed to take to get to Show Low. The rental car purred along on the highway, the brand-new engine barely making a sound as the exits for Holbrook began to appear.

Finally he found it — Highway 77, south toward Snowflake and Taylor. He watched for the exit and saw it coming in the distance. He switched lanes to take it, stuffing the map in the passenger seat.

He’d driven in silence since he’d left Albert Hosteen’s house, an hour behind Scully on the road. He was tense, his tension beginning as he’d watched Scully say goodbye to Hosteen and his grandson Victor, Scully and the elder Hosteen’s hands hanging in a long grip as they’d looked at each other, saying nothing but “goodbye” and the other’s name before she’d climbed in the truck and gotten on her way.

The scene had made him uptight because there seemed to be such finality to it, Hosteen and Scully looking at each other as though they might not ever see one another again.

And that was exactly what he was afraid of.

He took the exit, going down the more narrow highway, circling the outskirts of the town of Holbrook and then heading out into the nothing beyond, the road rising onto hills in front of him.

His hand gripped the steering wheel harder as he thought of the conversation he’d had with Albert Hosteen before he had left himself. The one about what to do with the agents Skinner had sent to Two Grey Hills who Granger was supposed to be coordinating so that Mulder and Scully could be protected from any unlikely last minute strike by Padden an