Rongbuk by Ravenscion

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Rongbuk by Ravenscion

Rongbuk cover

Table of Contents

Book I — Asymptotes

Book II — The Operative

Book III — Rongbuk

Title: Rongbuk

Author: Ravenscion

E-mail:

Rating: R (language, violence, sex)

Category: XR

Keywords: Mulder/Scully romance, some angst

Spoilers: possible for seasons 1-5 and the movie.

Date of First Posting: 29 August 1998

Author’s website: http://www.geocities.com/Area51/Dunes/6767/

Archiving: Please archive at Gossamer. Others, please email for permission.

Summary: As Mulder and Scully enter a new phase in their relationship in the wake of the Blackwood virus case, a man who disappeared decades earlier returns from a remote region of Tibet. This event prompts a new investigation that has implications both for the X-Files and for Mulder and Scully personally.

Disclaimer: Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, and all of the other characters and situations related to the X-Files, belong to Chris Carter, 1013 Productions, and the FOX network. I am using them without permission but intend no copyright infringement.

Notes: Encouraged by the kind responses to my first attempts at fan fiction (both vignettes), I am now posting a somewhat longer story. Naturally, I am very interested in the opinions of readers, so please send feedback, positive or negative. I would greatly appreciate it.

I have included references to extant literature throughout this story, references which merit explanation, but due to their number, I think it would be inconvenient to attempt to list them here. Therefore, I am adding a short “endnotes” section to the last chapter of this story, where these references, along with certain points of Tibetan culture and geography, are discussed.

This story attempts to address certain issues that were brought up as early as the “Gethsemane-Redux II” story arc, along with aspects of season five and the X-Files movie. For timeline purposes, I have assumed that the events of the movie ended sometime around 7 September 1998 (despite the 1997 date-time stamp on the telegram in the film), and “Rongbuk”, from Mulder and Scully’s perspective, picks up shortly after the film ends. All times given are local to the time zone in which the action is taking place.

This is a “collectors edition” of this story — i.e. the complete novella presented in a single text.

I hope you enjoy it.

  *

Rongbuk — an X-Files Novella

by Ravenscion

Book I — Asymptotes

Rongbuk Monastery, Tsang Province, Tibet Friday, 31 July 1998, 3:23 a.m.

A distant crash startled Jamyang Dorje from a troubled sleep.

He sat up on his cot, listening, but the noise was not repeated. The only sounds were the wind moaning about the monastery’s eaves, and the quiet clank of the bronze chimes that hung beneath them. Within the monastery walls, the silence was undisturbed, a heavy blanket over the sleeping community of monks.

Jamyang Dorje remained upright, allowing full wakefulness to catch up with him. Most likely the sound had been nothing of consequence. Perhaps a rat had overturned an offering vase. He climbed out of his cot. Best to check anyway, he thought, lighting a butter lamp as he pulled his robes of heavy maroon cloth about himself. He slipped out of his room and made his way through the darkened halls. The flickering of the lamp, and the fresh, chill night-scent that had insinuated itself amid the ancient sandalwood atmosphere of the monastery, indicated that something had disturbed a window somewhere, breaking the careful seals that kept out the nighttime wind and cold.

No one else had risen. The sound that had disturbed him had apparently not interrupted the sleep of his fellow monks. Of course, night duty was his tonight, and thus he had slept in a designated room in the front part of the building, away from the main dormitory. He moved toward a window at the end of the corridor, finding broken glass and a small stone on the floor beneath it. He squinted a bit as he peered out into the night, searching for the source of the mischief.

Before him lay Rongbuk’s southern vista, an expansive grassy plain that abutted a distant range of high, jagged peaks, unseen now in the night. Bright moonlight spilled over the scene, reflecting off wavelets in the river that flowed past the monastery and illuminating the nearby village and fields of barley.

Moonlight?

Strange, he thought. The moon should have set hours ago.

He felt a sudden, peculiar chill climb his back. Moving more quickly, the stone-thrower temporarily forgotten, he retraced his steps a short distance and ascended a ladder to a door that opened onto the monastery’s flat roof, nearly slipping once on the slick, rounded rungs as he climbed. He left his lamp on a small table and raised the bar- lock, pushing the door open and stepping out onto the roof.

He did not feel the bite of wind; the sight that greeted him banished all such mundane thoughts from his mind.

To the north, an intense white light floated low in the sky, growing slowly larger as whatever it was approached. The light illuminated the land below in with an eldritch glow that licked the low hills at the valley’s edge, sending shadows writhing along the landscape. Jamyang Dorje stared long at this apparition, watching as it neared the monastery, one hand clutching his robes tightly about him, the other fingering the sacred mala-rosary that he had unconsciously drawn out. He recited a protective mantra under his breath.

He had an idea where the origin of this thing might be, a place he had heard about but never seen. The monks of Rongbuk and the people of the local villages and nomad camps alike spoke in hushed tones of a place in the wilderness north of the monastery, a place of the most profound inauspiciousness, — a place people did not go.

He hoped he was wrong.

Several interminable minutes later, the source of light drew near, drifting silently above the rooftop where Jamyang Dorje stood. The illumination was too bright, and the monk was forced to shield his eyes with his robes. He waited without moving for something to happen.

Without warning, the light disappeared, and for a few moments he could not see at all. When his vision at last adjusted for the return of moonless dark, he saw nothing above him but the jewel-stars of the Tibetan night sky.

The thing that had passed over the monastery had vanished.

“Hello, up there! Hey!” A voice broke the silence, and he lowered his gaze from the sky above, stepping over to the edge of the roof. Below him, a figure stood in the half-light, waving and shouting in accented Tibetan.

“Hey! Let me inside!” The figure gestured toward the monastery gate, waving his arm in animated jerks.

Jamyang Dorje called down to him. “Go to the gate. I will open it for you.” He watched the figure move south along the wall, then made his own way back through the rooftop doorway, pausing to cast one last troubled glance northward. He then descended past the sleeping level, pausing there to wake one of the novices, and stepped out into the monastery’s courtyard, hurrying to the massive wooden doors that opened onto the southward road to the village. The novice trailed him. As he approached the gate, he could already hear the stranger’s muffled pounding on the other side. He pulled open the doors to find a foreigner, a westerner, standing outside. “Be patient, friend. You are welcome here,” he said.

The man darted within, pushing the gate closed behind him. He spoke in rapid, clipped tones. “Thank you, Lama. Sorry about the window, but no one was answering. I am in desperate haste.”

Jamyang Dorje considered him. “There is trouble?”

The man nodded toward the northern sky. “Trouble? Yes, perhaps. Something astonishing. I have to get to Lhasa. I have to get word to the Regent.”

Jamyang Dorje said nothing for a moment. Regent, he thought. That is a strange word to use. He scrutinized the man before him, holding up the butter lamp, which he had retrieved on his way down. The foreigner appeared fairly young, and wore travel-stained khaki trousers, boots, and a jacket of heavy leather. He carried a rucksack, also of leather, which he had slid off his shoulders and lowered to the paving stones of the courtyard.

“I’ll need a horse,” the man said. “I have to get back to Lhasa as soon as possible.” He seemed calmer now, within Rongbuk’s protective walls, and his Tibetan had settled down as well, becoming more understandable.

Jamyang Dorje spoke carefully, not sure what to make of the stranger. “You must hasten to Lhasa, you say. To meet with the Governor? Do you work for the Chinese?”

The man looked startled. “No, no,” he said. “The Chinese? Of course not. I work for the Regent’s government. I’m John Leslie. I’m a surveyor.”

Jamyang Dorje frowned, said nothing.

“Les-lie.”

“My friend,” said the monk, “there is no Regent in Lhasa for you to meet with. The Chinese rule there now.”

Leslie blinked, uncomprehending. “How can this be?” His voice was quiet now, muffled by troubling implications. He started then, as if remembering something. “And where is my partner?” he asked. “I couldn’t find our campsite.”

Something was very wrong here, Jamyang Dorje thought. The monk searched the face of his interlocutor. He appeared tired, and confused, yet no gleam of madness burned in his eyes. Puzzled, the monk spoke again. “My friend, I do not know you. If you came from Lhasa, you would have come this way, and you would have stopped here.” He paused. “I do not know you,” he said again.

A strange look clouded Leslie’s features. “Lama,” he began. His words were cut off as he staggered suddenly, reaching out to brace himself against the wall, and then falling forward into the arms of a surprised Jamyang Dorje, who nearly dropped his lamp as he lowered Leslie to the pavings.

He knelt next to him, then turned to the bewildered novice.

“Get help. This man will need care.” The novice hurried for the inner door to Rongbuk’s main hall.

“And send word to the Rinpoche,” he called after him.

  *

Wilderness of Central Siberia Sunday, 6 September, 5:45 p.m.

Alex Krycek raised a hand, halting the men behind him, and listened. For a few long moments, he heard nothing but the natural sounds of the taiga evening and then, satisfied, he relaxed and drew out his canteen, indicating to his men that they could take a break from their trek through the forest.

Krycek signaled to one of them. “Radu,” he said, indicating the direction in which they had been heading, “keep watch forward.” Krycek gestured again and a man broke away from the other side of the group to act as their rear guard.

Radu Florescu, second in command of the Team in spite of his relatively recent enlistment, nodded without replying and slipped through the woods ahead, disappearing from sight. No sound betrayed his movements, and Krycek found himself impressed once again with the man’s skill.

Florescu was working out well, he thought. He had joined with the Organization only a year before, but his professional abilities, honed during his career with some of the more obscure departments of the Romanian government, had led to his rapid rise to Krycek’s right hand. He tended to drink a bit while off duty, but on the job his wits were inevitably razor-sharp. This suited Krycek just fine — he couldn’t care less what a man did on his own time, so long as he kept his head during an operation.

Krycek genuinely liked the somewhat taciturn Romanian, and it was unusual for him to like, or trust, anyone. His paranoia had kept him alive this long, and now, in his late 30’s, he was not inclined to start getting cozy with people. But Florescu’s temperament suited him. He made a good partner, Krycek decided.

He raised his canteen and took a long drink, replenishing the fluids he had sweated out in the warm afternoon and evening. He and his team had hiked through eight miles of swampy woodlands so far, plagued by bugs and weighed down by their packs and weapons, but they had nearly reached their destination now. Soon, the fireworks would begin.

Replacing the canteen, Krycek adjusted the weapon he carried in a special mount attached to his prosthetic left hand. Though the pack in which the tanks were mounted was heavy, the flame-thrower would be essential. He and his men carried pistols as well, of course, but the weapon of choice for the fight to come would be a jet of inflammable jelly, sprayed in the direction of their enemies.

Enemies upon whom a bullet would likely be wasted.

Krycek smiled grimly. For years, he and others like him had been obsessed with an icepick applied forcefully to the back of an enemy’s neck, an effective technique, but one that was both difficult and dangerous to attempt. Florescu had proven very skilled at it, but most of Krycek’s men could not match his quickness, and for them the icepick had been a problematic weapon.

Until one day, almost a year earlier in Kazakhstan, as he stood amid dozens of charred victims of alien malevolence, Krycek had had a grotesque epiphany.

Flame-throwers — it wouldn’t matter whether you hit the base of the neck if you didn’t leave anything behind that could get up again. And with luck, the cauterizing affects of the weapon would alleviate some of the chemical dangers associated with the enemies they faced.

At the first opportunity, he had tested his hypothesis, with results that were delightfully spectacular. One good dose of napalm and presto! ‘Visitor flambe.’

If tonight’s mission went according to plan, he would roast a few more of the motherfuckers within the hour.

He signaled to his team to prepare to march again, and as packs were being re-shouldered, he moved through the trees and up to the spot where Florescu had halted.

“Anything?”

“Nyet.” The Romanian’s Russian was fluent, if accented. He spoke English as well, but when operating in Russia, Krycek made a point of using the language of his parents, and so that was the language that he used with Florescu.

“Good,” said Krycek. “I’d like to surprise them.”

Florescu nodded. “This is, what, the fifth this year?”

“Yes. But there will be more.”

The team had assembled behind them, and Krycek led them forward once again. As they walked the final distance to their target, he felt the tension in him begin to crest, the spur of adrenaline in his legs and a dryness in his mouth. Time seemed to stretch out and then grind to a halt.

Twenty minute’s walk brought them to a large open area in the midst of the woods. In the center of the clearing, barely lit by the fading light, stood a low metallic structure. The building was nearly featureless, but one section, slightly different from the wall around it, Krycek knew to be a gate. He signaled with his good hand, and one of his men, carrying an RPG, moved up next to him.

“Clear,” ordered Krycek. His team scattered laterally, vacating the area behind the rocket launcher.

“Fire!” The rocket streaked toward the building, exploding with a deafening boom that echoed through the previously silent forest. And then Krycek and his men were running, running toward the breach in the gateway. They rushed into the passages within the structure, bursting through doorways and rounding corners, bathing the surprised and terrified occupants with a fiery gel that clung to their skins, slowly reducing them to smoking corpses.

The screams of the victims made no impression on their killers. The Visitors looked like men, they burned like men, but they were not.

  *

Much later, Krycek radioed for the helicopter that had dropped his team off earlier that afternoon. Now that the alien facility had been cleared, it could come in directly without worrying about alerting the occupants, a fact for which the exhausted team was profoundly grateful. Another hike through the woods after the stress of the assault, in the inky dark of the taiga night, would have been a bit much, even for an elite unit such as theirs.

The operation had gone fairly well; only one man had been wounded, and the Visitors had all been exterminated. On the down side, most of the equipment within the facility, as well as its records, had been destroyed, either by the heat of the flames or due to the last-minute efforts of the Visitors themselves. Though not unexpected, the destruction frustrated Krycek to no end.

He had long hoped to capture a facility intact, to plunder its secrets, but after five tries, he had still had no success.

Florescu joined him. “Not bad, but not good either,” he said, gesturing toward the ruined building nearby.

Krycek spat. “This site was unimportant anyway.” He waved his arm, indicating the vast wilderness around them. “There has to be a master facility somewhere. When we find that one, we will have to come up with a way to take it in one piece.”

Florescu indicated the southern horizon. “Some would say that we’re looking in the wrong place. You would, yourself, I think.”

Krycek stared south as well. “That’s a long way to go,” he said.

“Yes, it is.”

At that moment, Krycek heard the distant throb of the approaching helicopter’s rotors. He turned to his team.

“Prepare to mount up!” he ordered. One of the men activated a signal strobe.

His men readied their gear and assembled as the helicopter, a large black relic of the Soviet Spetznatz units, descended toward them, a dark insect barely visible against the evening sky. It slowed and hovered for a moment, then touched down in the field adjacent to the building. Krycek went aboard last, giving the area one last look, though he could see little in the advancing darkness.

He settled into the belly of the machine, relaxing as it lifted off and began its flight back to their base. The radio operator stepped out of the cockpit and made his way into the cargo area, stepping carefully over Krycek’s men until he stood next to him. He held a scrap of paper in his hand.

“Be ready to travel,” he yelled over the roar or the engines.

“Why?” Krycek yelled back at him.

“Orders. You are to return to St. Petersburg. Tonight.” He gave the paper to Krycek, who read it with growing annoyance.

He turned and handed it to Florescu as the radio operator returned to the cockpit. “Look at this,” he yelled.

Florescu glanced over the Cyrillic letters, handed the note back to Krycek. “What do you think it means?” he asked.

“Who the fuck knows? Better try and get some sleep, though.”

Disgusted, Krycek settled back, letting himself drift off. He would not be getting much sleep for the next couple of days, he surmised.

The helicopter sped over the vast forest, leaving the scene of the destruction far in its wake.

  *

FBI Headquarters, Washington, D.C. Monday, 14 September, 7:00 a.m.

Fox Mulder stood in the basement hallway and shook the rain from his trenchcoat, then entered the dark office that had been his lair for the past five years. Despite the length of time he had worked there, the place seemed strange now. The new furnishings and paint, necessitated by the fire that had destroyed most of the X-Files, made the room an unfamiliar place. He felt yet another surge of frustration. Much of the information in the X-Files had never been backed up, in any medium, and thus had been lost forever at the hands of an unknown arsonist.

An officially unknown arsonist — Mulder had a good idea who had been responsible for starting the blaze.

He slung his coat nonchalantly onto the rack by the door, set the coffee brewing, and slumped in his chair. He ran his fingers through his hair and felt water begin to trickle down the back of his neck. He flicked droplets from his hand in irritation.

The morning had blown in damp and warm, the long, sultry Washington summer, with its hazy, dead heat and red sunsets giving way to dark, heavy rainclouds and high winds, as a tropical gale made its way up America’s eastern seaboard. In the still-dim light of morning, flags whipped urgently in the wind, and commuters hugged their trenchcoats to themselves, warding off the stray bursts of rain but ensuring the clammy misery of too much clothing.

Amid the rain and bluster, a tired and preoccupied Mulder had made his way to his office earlier than usual. Though the start of the work week usually found him alert and full of energy, on this particular Monday he was in less than top form. He had slept poorly the night before, tossing about in a tangle of sheets, alternately too warm and too cold, and wholly unable to relax. Eventually, he had slipped out to his sofa, retreating to an old, abandoned habit in the hope that with the familiar would at last come relaxation, but he had given that up as well — nights on the couch had known demons of their own, and he found no comfort there.

Returning to his bed, he had finally lost the staring contest with the ceiling and dropped off, only to be woken moments later by the shriek of his alarm clock. He had given up, then, on getting any sleep and headed for the office, hoping to lose himself in his work instead. Now, however, he found himself utterly unable to focus, as unquiet shadows pursued each other through his mind. The cause of his unrest was no mystery; indeed, its intensity derived in part from its stark simplicity.

Dana Scully had an appointment with her oncologist that morning.

To the extent possible, given the randomness inherent in work on the X-Files project, Mulder’s life had evolved into a pattern centered on Scully’s periodic check-ups. Most of the time, he could allow her remarkable return to health to reassure him, coping with lingering specters by ignoring them. But her appointments, scheduled now at six- month intervals, inevitably brought his unease over her health back in full measure. Often blithe about his own safety, Mulder compensated with a surfeit of concern for the handful of people in his life who were truly important to him.

Especially Scully — he knew he sometimes drove her to distraction with his protectiveness, but he couldn’t stop himself. She meant too much to him.

Mulder told himself he shouldn’t worry. Scully’s cancer, artifact that it had been, remained safely barred from her body by the alien implant still ensconced in her neck. Intellectually, he was confident that this was so. But here, now, in an office left cold and lifeless by her absence, Mulder found that reasoning to be a cold comfort.

Alone, he contemplated the restoration of a condition he had been glad to leave behind.

He forced himself to log into his email account, seeking distraction from what promised to be an interminable morning. Glancing over a message — reports of crop circles and blisters on leaves — he snorted to himself — Gulf Breeze all over again. People never learn.

File that one in “Miscellaneous,” along with the rest of the foolishness that frequently found its way into his public email account.

Nonetheless, he was glad for the diversion.

He glanced at the clock — 7:15 — and sighed, removing his reading glasses for a moment and rubbing his eyes. Scully’s appointment had been scheduled for 8:00 a.m., which meant he could not reasonably expect her for at least another hour and a half. Another 90 minutes of tension before he would know the results of last week’s tests.

Although with luck it would be less than that. If the news were good, she would call. She would know that he would be concerned.

Mulder stared at the phone, willing it to ring.

She would be okay.

She had to be, because there was no way he could go back to being alone.

Early in his career, working in the VCS, Mulder had relished solitude, the inherent challenge of the psyche of the serial killer fascinating him, drawing him into a heady vortex of concentration and exhaustion and exhilaration. Amid that tumult, he had had no time for real companionship, and even then his relations with his colleagues had carried undertones of alienation, as his profiling gift inspired envy and even a vague, awed loathing in those around him.

‘Weave a circle round him thrice, and close your eyes with holy dread….’

For a young bachelor, submerged in his work, spending a few hours on the weekend unwinding and then filling his Sundays with televised sports and the minimal concessions to laundry and housekeeping, being alone had become a familiar sensation.

And later in his career, when he had begun work on the X-Files, Mulder’s personal stake in his investigations had only deepened his life of solitude. He had come to resent even the necessary down time of Sundays, and Saturday had simply dissolved into the rest of the work week. Cycle upon cycle, he had gone from lurking amid dusty and mildewed files in his dark office to remote field sites and then back again, losing touch with sometime not-quite friends and rivals alike. The odd evening with the boys at ‘The Lone Gunman,’ accounts of alien technology or shadowy assassinations washed down with a few beers in an office overflowing with high-tech clutter, became his only avenue for relaxation.

Relationships had foundered or were stillborn, and sex, once an occasional diversion with women who, like him, merely sought a few hours of diversion, had been translated into the solo dissipation of video tapes.

And then Dana Scully had walked into his office, his caseload, and his life.

Mulder shook his head, opened another email, and began to read something about a sighting in Alaska of a dire wolf, of all things. He gave it up in mid-message, though, his momentary enthusiasm at the prospect of such a species still roaming some far corner of the wild quickly eclipsed by the thought of his partner.

On a fundamental level, everything had changed when she had come to him, though his day-to-day existence had in outward respects remained much the same. Scarcely a year into their partnership — a calamitous year of initial distrust that became a wary harmony, and harmony that grew into deeper affection — he realized that he was lost completely. Mulder could not say precisely when he had fallen in love with Scully, when his sense of friendship and casual attraction had become something more profound, but with some uncertain, critical day or event, she had caught him in her embrace of spirit, and he had never even wanted to escape.

Mulder sat back from his computer, idly tapping a pencil eraser on his desk, his eyes beginning a three-stop tour of the room, cycling from the door to the clock, from the clock to the phone, and then back to the door again.

Door…clock…phone — her absence ate at him.

He could not say when he had fallen in love, but he remembered his moment of realization. Understanding had come as he stood in the wreckage of her motel room, shattered glass and her drying blood bearing witness to the violence that had been done there. And later her phone call had interrupted his anguished, ineffectual rage, provoking an initial upsurge of relief that was instantly replaced by a desperate need to rescue her, whatever the cost.

In the privacy of his heart, he had been ashamed at how willingly he had traded his sister for Dana Scully’s safety.

Of course, it hadn’t really been Samantha — an irony of fate had spared him that particular burden — but he had not known that at the time. As he stood on a lonely bridge in Maryland, staring at the shape- shifter’s relentless grip around Scully’s throat, he only knew that he had to save her.

Get her clear first, Mulder, then play it from there. Thus he had dictated his course to himself.

His guilt at the relief he had felt made his grief over Samantha that much harder to bear, until the next half-truth had been unveiled before him. That knowledge, however, had paled in comparison to the greater truth revealed to him that day, a truth he had then been forced to find a way to live with for the next few years.

In retrospect, he’d been surprised it had taken him so long to recognize it. Others had known his heart long before he did, and had even told him so, but he had been too absorbed in his quest, and too full of wrath, to listen. That had almost cost him more than he could ever have imagined at the time.

Mulder gave the dire wolves one last try and then sent that message after its predecessor, into the black hole of his miscellaneous email folder. He realized he was not going to get a lot done until his current concern was alleviated.

His eyes locked on the phone again. Ring, damn it.

The device sat inert on his desk, unmoved by his agitation.

Trying a new tactic, he began scanning a case file, yet another murder- with-occult-overtones that had been routed to his attention, and actually managed to concentrate for some time, looking over the crime scene photographs of grisly eviscerations and mysterious painted symbols, skimming through reports filed by horrified policemen. Eventually, though, he gave that up as well, his eyes abandoning the text in mid-paragraph, slipping into an unfocused stare as his thoughts returned to Scully once more.

She had caused Mulder’s isolation to undergo a profound transformation. He still endured long hours of solitude, but drank deep of every moment he spent with her, relentless in his investigations in part due to his desire for answers, in part due to his need for the balm of her company.

And thus had passed the years of their quasi-courtship, in which he and Scully had circled each other in a tentative dance, close, but not touching, neither daring to close the gap, neither willing to walk away. For Mulder, it had been a long, lonely love affair, with moments of intimacy — the stroke of his hand on her cheek, or in a madman’s house, where she had wept, soul bared, in his arms — often coming with a price.

He had not once found it within himself to act decisively, to break the familiar, incomplete pattern they had created. He had been tempted, at times, by brief intimate moments, but he had never taken the last, fateful step. He had valued what he had too much to risk its loss in an attempt to make it something more.

And despite the fears and regrets her cancer had raised in him, he had felt unable to burden her with his attentions during her illness. As much as he had wanted to comfort her, he feared that overt expressions of love would have been too sorrowful, too ironic an intrusion into her suffering. His own preoccupations, a mounting frustration with his efforts to unmask the conspiracy whose destruction he had claimed as his purpose in life, had come between them as well.

Mulder rubbed his forehead. Just as well he had kept silent then, he thought. She had hardly needed a suitor who, literally, had a hole in his skull. He remembered her brother’s contempt. You don’t know the half of it, Billy-boy.

Scully, for reasons of her own, had frozen him out of her ordeal, donning a mask of denial and brittle independence to insulate him from her pain, and herself from, perhaps, the regrets that he represented. Only at the moment of her final crisis had they at last been able to truly reach out to one another.

He couldn’t face that again, and now, after the still crueler ordeal of the death of a daughter she had never had a chance to know, from which she at last seemed to be recovering, he feared the return of the cancer would be a blow too heavy even for Scully to endure. That was a possibility that did not bear contemplating. The emptiness of his life without her would consume him utterly, he knew from bitter experience.

She’ll be fine, he told himself again. Any moment now, she’ll call and I’ll have wasted the morning fretting about nothing. Mulder was beginning to become annoyed with himself. It wasn’t as though they lacked real troubles to be concerned about. The X-Files had wrought ruin enough in both of their lives.

But at least they truly had each other now. Given just a modicum of good fortune, they could walk out of the ashes together.

In the middle of the recent nightmare of a case that had begun with a bombing in Dallas and ended in the hellish cold of Antarctica, Mulder had realized just how close he had come to losing Scully forever. Between the machinations of those who wanted them separated and her own sense of futility over the X-Files, Scully had been on the verge of walking out of his life for good. The fear and desperation that had welled up in him had caused him to cast aside his doubts and, standing in the corridor outside of his apartment, declare himself to her.

‘You make me a whole person,’ he had said. And that, more than anything he could have said about the importance of her science to his life’s quest, had been the essence of his heart’s message to her.

I need you.

I can’t go on without you.

Her response, the gentle touch of her lips on his forehead, had jolted every fiber of his being, bringing the nerves throughout his body to their highest sensitivity. He had embraced her, losing himself in the deep blue of her eyes, and suddenly realized that he was going to kiss her, to cross a line that he had never dared approach before. And he had realized, as her lips parted in anticipation, that she had been waiting for him all along.

He could almost enjoy the irony of it.

One some level, perhaps, he had known how it would be. Scully had proven her devotion to him time and again, and he had known that, in some way, she loved him. Even so, he had been relieved as well as delighted that, after their return from Antarctica, she had accepted him, that she had wanted him to be her lover.

The thought tightened in his chest, an upwelling of joy that outshone for a moment his present worry.

You are more fortunate than you deserve, Mulder.

The ringing of the telephone cut through his thoughts, spurring his arm into a violent reach that upset a coffee cup full of pencils and almost sent the phone itself tumbling off the desk. “Mulder,” he said, just managing to control the receiver. A couple of pencils rolled off the edge of his desk and clattered on the floor.

“Mulder, John Byers here.”

Mulder exhaled in disappointment. “Hey, man,” he said. “What is it?”

“Any chance you two could come by the ‘Gunman’ later today? I think I’ve got something for you.” Byers spoke as though holding himself down, an undercurrent of nervous excitement in his voice.

Mulder merely felt impatient. “Sure, later. Gotta run, I’m waiting for a call.”

“She can call your cell phone, Mulder. Listen, I think this could be important.” He paused, then continued rapidly: “Have you ever heard of Randolph Sales?”

“Rings a bell.” Mulder let his mind shift into free-flow, waiting for the name to connect with something. “An explorer, or something, right? Central Asia?”

“Close,” said Byers. “He worked as a surveyor in Tibet in the 1930s. He came back from a field survey in ‘34 without his partner and was sent home to upstate New York in mysterious circumstances. Spent the rest of his life in seclusion — some of it in mental hospitals.”

“Okay,” said Mulder, “what about him?”

“Well, you know that a lot of UFO activity has been reported in Tibet.”

Mulder made a non-committal sound. He had indeed read of such reports, but little serious work had been done in that particular area of UFO studies, mainly because most of the reports pre-dated Roswell and the upsurge of awareness that followed that event.

“I know, I know,” said Byers, “but you of all people should be open to the possibilities.”

Byers paused, evidently taking a breath, then plunged onward.

“Mulder, someone just brought me Sales’ original journals, some written after his breakdown.” He sounded progressively more excited. “It’s dynamite stuff, Mulder. If this is genuine, it might be the key to the location of an extraterrestrial facility in Central Asia.”

Byers paused, waiting for a reaction.

Conflicting emotions swirled in Mulder. He didn’t really want to think about the implications of what Byers was saying. Between the matter of the alien virus, which he and Scully had spent the last week or so attempting to come to terms with, and his current concern over Scully’s appointment, he just wasn’t ready to take this on.

Still, Byers was not one to get worked up over nothing, which meant that whatever he had gotten his hands on could be important….

“Alright, Byers, alright.” Mulder decided to cut the conversation short. “Look, I said we’d be there, but really, I can’t talk now…I’m sorry. After work, okay?”

“Very well, that’ll do.” Byers sounded resigned. “How soon can you get out here?”

“I’m not sure, probably late. How about eight o’clock?”

“Alright, eight it is. I’ll see you then.”

“We’ll be there.” Mulder hung up, resumed staring at the phone. Byers’ news teased at his brain for a while, but he thrust the matter aside and returned to the case file he had looked at earlier, seeking to distract himself from his vigil and from the issues that Byers had raised. He met with some success, managing to read the file through once in the five passes his eyes made across its contents, his concentration not aided by its utter irrelevance to recent developments in the X-Files.

Closing the folder for the last time, Mulder sat back and began staring at the clock, which had described just over one full circuit and now read 8:21. By the bottom of the hour, he was certain that the second hand had come to a complete stop.

The office door opened, then, and she was there. Mulder stared at her, struck anew by the classic elegance of her beauty. He waited, unable to ask.

Scully gave him a slight smile, uncomplicated joy for a moment lifting years from her visage. “Clear,” she said.

“Clear?” His voice caught a bit.

She nodded. “Everything’s fine. There’s no sign of the cancer.”

  *

Ned Kelley’s Last Stand, Hong Kong 14 September, 7:30 p.m.

Alex Krycek ordered another beer from an attractive young waitress and sat back, at last able to relax after what had been a hellish week.

After the raid in Siberia, he and Florescu had flown back to St. Petersburg the same night, arriving before dawn and reporting to the headquarters of the Organization at exactly 7:00 a.m. There, they had been received by one of the highest-ranking members and presented with a rather unexpected, but critical assignment.

Krycek had ended up boarding a plane for Hong Kong that same morning, having barely enough time to pack a bag before he had been due at the airport. He would have resented the orders, had he not been so intrigued by their implications.

Few would have been very excited by the news that one John Edward Leslie had returned from a surveying expedition in Tibet, but to those in the know, it had been news indeed. After all, Leslie had begun his journey in 1934.

And even the rumor of the man who disappeared at Rongbuk had been enough to banish thoughts of protest from Krycek’s mind and send him hurrying to Hong Kong, hoping to get to Lhasa in time to catch up with him.

That had been a week ago, though, and here he was, still stuck in Hong Kong, drinking in an Aussie pub in the evening and fighting the bureaucracy by day. Historically, Tibet had been a difficult place to enter, and in that regard at least, nothing had changed.

The waitress brought Krycek’s beer and he took a long swig, watching her ass with appreciation as she walked away from his table. She had been making eyes at him all evening, and he had begun to think she might be willing to do a lot more than that once her shift ended. Krycek smiled to himself, considering all of the creative ways he could debauch her.

He enjoyed the image for a moment and then returned his mind to the problem at hand. He had not been idle during his week in Hong Kong, and if most of his efforts had been thwarted, he nonetheless had managed to make progress. Unfortunately, with every day that passed, his initial goal had become more difficult to attain, and he knew that it was probably too late by now.

Krycek had managed to find the reporter, an employee of the South China Morning Post, who had filed a story on Leslie 10 days earlier while in Lhasa — the story that had alerted the Organization to the affair in the first place. From him he learned that Leslie had probably already left the Tibetan capital, though no one could be sure where he had been headed.

Krycek had a guess, though. Leslie was an American after all. Missing 64 years or not, he would likely head for home.

Which meant he would be almost impossible to find, without resources.

There had not been much that Krycek could do, so he had decided to roll the dice. His plan, hasty, improvised, and, some might say, desperate though it was, *could* work, with the right personnel to implement it, and a little luck.

He had the right personnel, and as for luck, well, he was due.

Krycek had contacted Florescu, who had remained in St. Petersburg, and emailed him detailed instructions. By now, the Romanian would be in Washington D.C., putting his part of the plan in motion.

And Krycek had already done his part. One small act, completed earlier that day, should have set events in motion. Now, all he could do was prepare to travel into Tibet and wait for Florescu’s report.

He raised his glass to his partner. We’ll soon know whether you are as good as you say you are, Radu.

Krycek looked around, finding the waitress in the smoky room. If he had to kill time, he might as well find an entertaining way to do it.

  *

FBI Headquarters, Washington, D.C. Monday, 14 September, 8:30 a.m.

Scully watched the tension pour out of her partner. His shoulders slumped momentarily as relief took its place, and then he was before her, reaching over her shoulder to shut the door and crushing her in an embrace that told of the unquiet hours he had passed since last seeing her.

“Mmmmm, Mulder,” she smiled into his chest. Scully tightened her arms around him, enjoying his presence and his scent, allowing herself a brief violation of the discipline they had set for themselves at the office. She had not seen him since early Sunday morning, after all, and no one was likely to intrude upon them at this early hour.

“I was worried about you,” he said into her hair.

She eased back in his embrace and looked up at him, seeing the doubts etched in his features. “I’m fine,” she said, “really.”

He held her gaze for a moment, then nodded. “Good,” he said, pulling her close again and kissing her lightly atop her head.

He released her after a few seconds, giving her space to remove her coat and hang it with his on the ancient coat tree by the door. As Mulder stepped back to his desk, she recovered her soft leather briefcase, dropped in the midst of their embrace, and set it by her chair, then stepped over to the coffee maker. She poured herself a cup, pleased that he had remembered to start it brewing, and unconsciously cleaned up the debris from a minor, Mulder-triggered explosion of non- dairy creamer. Behind her, she heard the staccato of his fingers on his keyboard.

Scully returned to her desk then, leaning against it and sipping from her cup, secretly enjoying the vaguely professorial look that Mulder’s glasses lent him. Fatigue showed around his eyes, and he had forgotten to shave, but her news seemed to have re-energized him. “So,” she offered, gesturing at the file in front of him, “what have you got there?”

Mulder lifted the file, shrugged, and passed it to her. “Nothing,” he said. “I’ve been through it half a dozen times already, and I even managed to pay attention once, but I don’t see anything significant. The case is closed — they just routed it to us FYI, because it had occult overtones, but I’m not sure why they bothered.”

Scully took the folder but did not open it. If the file had contained anything even remotely related to the X-Files, Mulder would have already switched on the slide projector by now. Most likely it had been sent by an over-zealous or overly careful clerk in the records division. She set the file down. “Any messages?”

“Not much so far. Byers called about something. I told him we’d come by this evening. Otherwise, I’ve just got an inbox full of routines and a few crank emails — say, want to go search for dire wolves in Alaska?” He turned back to his computer.

Alaska…that actually sounded kind of nice, Scully thought, though she honestly couldn’t imagine a trip with Mulder that wouldn’t end with them on a glacier somewhere, him enthusiastically chipping what might or might not be alien artifacts from the ice while her feet froze. After their recent misadventures in Antarctica, she could imagine that all too clearly. She sat down, not really disappointed that, for once, Monday did not signify the start of a new chase.

She relaxed for a moment, waiting for the coffee to take effect, indulging in a bit of Mulder-watching.

Despite the frustrating end to their investigation of the Blackwood virus, Mulder had settled into a sort of equilibrium, seeming to abandon dueling with himself over the fundamental validity of his quest, content for the time being to focus his energy on her and let the Truth take care of itself. Their love affair remained an unknown territory, for both of them, and she and Mulder together had begun to cautiously explore this new stage in their lives, spending most nights either at her place or his, while maintaining the outward appearance of separate residence.

Scully was not sure how long their charade could be maintained. She smiled inwardly, thinking that, if nothing else, the passion they shared must be written all over her. Some mornings found her positively giddy with the afterglow.

It was a welcome change from waking in an empty bed, in an empty apartment, with only a few family pictures on dressers and tables, and a faded snapshot of the daughter she had known so briefly tucked in the drawer of her bedside table. She slept soundly in Mulder’s comforting embrace, not having to keep watch on the ramparts of her emotions. The ghosts remained, but she had shelter from the worst of their haunting. For the first time in years of suffering and loss, interrupted only by a brief respite in the wake of her remission, she found her outlook guardedly optimistic.

And so she relished her new closeness with Mulder, reveling in their time together. The hours they had spent apart, since early on Sunday, seemed inordinately long.

She resisted the urge to touch him. “Dire wolves?” she asked instead.

He called up the message again. “Big, dumb, and presumably extinct, but not so, according to one…” his voice took on an incredulous tone “…Melrose Platz — and I thought I had a stupid name — of Fairbanks, who claims he saw a pair while on a camping trip.” He affected a serious look. “This is a job for…the Park Service!”

Scully gave him her best quizzical look.

He shrugged. “Still, you never know. Extinct species have turned up deep in the wilderness before.” He turned back to his computer, re- reading the message.

You’d love it if it were true, she thought, hiding a smile behind her coffee cup.

I missed you, yesterday.

They had been separate because Mulder had left Sunday and Sunday night to her, for Mass, for family, or just for solitude. He gave her that much space, unwilling to over-burden her with himself, sensitive to her need to maintain a small part of the life alone that she had lived before they had brought their lives together.

She loved him for that too, along with everything else that he was, though she was beginning to consider the Sunday night aspect overdoing it. His absence had affected her sleep, and from the look of him, Mulder had been similarly restless.

It had been years since Scully had enjoyed the wholly contented slumber that nights in Mulder’s arms brought her.

She sipped her coffee again, steam from the hot liquid bathing her face, relaxing and bringing her into focus simultaneously.

The peace that she and Mulder had would not last. Scully knew that beyond any doubt. In love with her or not, and she now knew how truly he was, he would eventually pour his energy into rebuilding the X-Files. The project remained his life’s work, and no matter how hopeless it became, he would never give it up. And she would not have wanted him to, not for anything. It had become her quest as well.

So it was only a matter of time until the wheel turned and a new and most likely difficult stage began. Scully had already prepared herself for it, as best she could, and she believed that she and Mulder would weather it together, but she certainly felt no urgency for it to begin.

All in its own time, she thought. I’ll enjoy what respite we have. Her cancer, and the unlikely and uncertain stay of execution under which she lived, had taught her to do that.

And to have faith.

She removed her gaze from her partner, turning to the clutter on her desk. “Well, Mulder, it’s not as though we aren’t faced with weeks of paper-work.” Scully reached for a stack of forms, contemplating the monumental task of putting their recent investigation into some sort of order, then looked back at her partner when he failed to respond.

“Mulder?”

“That’s odd,” he said.

She waited.

“Scully, does the name ‘John Leslie’ mean anything to you?”

Something in his voice warned her. Spoke too soon, she thought. “No, not really,” she said, keeping her voice neutral.

Mulder turned, beckoning her to him. “Look at this,” he said.

Scully rose, making her way to his desk, leaning over his shoulder to read his computer screen. The email displayed there, addressed to Mulder’s work account, was short and cryptic:

‘John Leslie has returned from Rongbuk. Thought you would want to know.’

There was no signature, but attached to the message was the scanned image of a newspaper article, detailing the mysterious arrival in Lhasa of a man rumored to be a missing explorer.

Scully placed one hand lightly on her partner’s shoulder. “There’s not really all that much there, Mulder. What does it mean?”

He looked up at her. “I’m not sure, but I think I’d better get back in touch with Byers.”

  *

North of Rongbuk Monastery, Tibet 14 September, 7:30 p.m.

The light had begun to fade, and though most nomads of the Tibetan plateau were settling down for an evening’s supper of stew and butter tea, or perhaps even a cup of beer, Kunga had no prospect of doing either for some time. He had a stray yak to round up, and in the vast emptiness of stone, sky, and ocher moss north of the monastery, that would likely take a while.

Kunga was not a happy man.

For one thing, there were a thousand things he would rather be doing than searching alone for a lost animal, but more important, there were a thousand places he would rather be doing it.

He had ranged far beyond the limit that most Tibetans would travel. The unknown place, the place of demons, lay somewhere beyond the low hills and escarpments on the northern horizon. He did not have more than the vaguest of notions as to its location, but like all his kindred, he knew and avoided the general area.

The place was creepy enough in the best of times, but lately, with the intermittent lightnings that were seen for miles around, lightnings that the people of his generation had never seen before, though they had oft heard their grandparents speak of them, it had become positively terrifying. If the yak had not been so valuable an animal, Kunga would never have ventured within miles of where he now stood.

He would have to find the yak soon, or it would have to wait for morning. Already, the afternoon sun had sunk beneath the mountain range to the southwest, and the shadows had deepened.

Something caught his eye.

He turned, looking to his right, down into a small gully in which a stream flowed back toward Rongbuk Monastery. Something was there, in the grey sand of the stream bed — tracks.

He scrambled down the slope, for a better look. Perhaps his yak had stopped here for a drink. Nearing the marks, he leaned down for a closer look, and then recoiled in horror at what he saw.

The tracks were large, vaguely man-like, but with heavy, clawed toes.

Yeti.

Kunga felt sick with fear. He glanced about, the yak forgotten, searching the nearby slopes for some sign of the monster. He had never actually seen one, but he had heard all of the stories, and his uncle and brother had both seen such tracks before, and heard the yeti’s eerie ululations as they sat huddled near their campfire.

And of course everyone had heard the stories of what happened to those who were unfortunate enough to actually get close enough to see a yeti. The torn and broken bodies of such people had been a mainstay of nomad storytelling for generations.

Kunga had no interest in that sort of notoriety.

Slowly, as though noise would summon the creature from nowhere, Kunga climbed back up the slope. Under his breath, he murmured “om mani peme hum” over and over, the mantra of the Bodhisattva of Compassion that Tibetans recited to keep the demons of their land at bay. His eyes flitted from one shadow to another, and every boulder suddenly seemed animate, when viewed at the edge of his vision. He cleared the edge of the slope and began a rapid walk southward, back the way he had come.

As he left the site of the tracks further in his wake, his pace quickened until his frightened, fast walk had become a trot. He felt a bit better, now that he had turned back in the direction of his family’s camp, but he was nonetheless very anxious to get home.

Around the warm campfire, the yeti would be scary but amusing. Out here, as the darkness grew and the chill wind rose, the terror was all too real.

  *

Arlington, Virginia 14 September, 5:22 p.m.

It was considerably earlier than 8:00 p.m when Mulder drove across the Roosevelt Bridge from the District of Columbia into Northern Virginia, heading for a run-down section of Arlington that was home to the offices of “The Lone Gunman.” Rain pelted the outside of the car, driven by a warm, gusting wind that had strengthened since the morning. From the passenger seat, Scully watched her partner drive, waiting for him to fill her in on just what it had been about the singularly uninformative, and unsigned, email he had received that struck him as significant.

Back in the office, shortly after he had received the unsigned message, he had told her about Byers’ excited phone call, and then hastily called the guys at ‘The Lone Gunman’ to arrange an earlier meeting time. But then he had fallen silent, brooding, his fingers steepled below his chin as he leaned back in his chair. Scully had let him be, returning to their paperwork while she waited for him to explain his mind to her.

She knew he would get around to it in his own time. In their more than five years of companionship, she had learned to be patient with Mulder’s idiosyncracies, of which his occasional tendency to be mysterious about leads was one of the least. She left him to his thoughts, knowing that his mind, insulated by quiet, would be flowing freely, without any fixed direction, allowing the fragments and indications within it to seek their own patterns and connections. In time, when the kaleidoscope array of ideas and images fell into some sort of order, he would turn to her to test the integrity of his thinking.

Then their ongoing intellectual dance would begin anew, his dark and fluid intuition paired with her clarity, each blending into the other, not without friction but flowing, with time, into a complex harmony.

Mulder had spent most of the day in silence, eventually taking on his share of the paperwork, but with an air of distraction. At last, just after 5:00, he had abruptly tucked away his glasses and turned off his computer, barely giving her time to get her own desk in order before he seized his trenchcoat and headed for the exit. She had not tried to keep up with his pace on the way to the car they were sharing, instead letting him walk ahead, burning off nervous energy with long strides. When she reached the garage, he had already started the car’s engine and air conditioner. Scully had been grateful to slip into the comfort of the vehicle’s cooling interior.

They had completed just over half of the trip when the Washington rush hour, made worse by the weather, brought them to a complete halt. Scully scanned the traffic ahead and concluded that they would have time to kill before reaching their destination. She reached out with her left hand, setting it delicately on Mulder’s thigh.

“Hey,” she said.

His right hand drifted from the steering wheel and took hers, giving it a brief squeeze. “Hmmm?” was his wordless response. He looked over at her, questioningly.

Scully loosened her seatbelt and settled against the car door, facing her partner. “Do you want to tell me about John Leslie?”

Mulder looked ahead, where a bit of space had formed, and inched the car forward. “Leslie was an American surveyor who disappeared in Tibet under mysterious circumstances. He and his partner, Randolph Sales — that’s the guy that Byers called about earlier — anyway, they had been sent out to investigate various UFO-like phenomena and…”

Here we go, Scully thought. “Wait a minute, Mulder, back up. Leslie and Sales were sent by whom?”

“The government of Tibet, I suppose. That’s who they worked for.” He shrugged.

“Why was the government of Tibet interested in UFOs?” If she failed to insist that he explain the matter systematically, she would be left behind from the outset. “And when did all this happen?”

“Sorry,” said Mulder, smiling. “I’m getting ahead of myself.” He paused a moment, then continued. “UFO sightings are commonly understood to have begun with the Roswell incident in 1947, right?”

Scully nodded, waited for him to go on.

“But in fact, there have been a lot of reports of UFO-like phenomena all around the world, for decades, even centuries before then. It’s just that people didn’t refer to these incidents as UFO encounters in those times.”

“And Tibet?” prompted Scully.

“Well, it would be an ideal place to conceal a — hold it…” Mulder broke off, spying an opportunity in the traffic ahead, and made a quick shift into a moving lane, gaining several car lengths in the process. Scully re-tightened her seatbelt.

“Almost there,” Mulder said. “Just have to get past that light and we’re rolling.”

Scully ignored the traffic and instead wondered at the sheer volume of paranormal lore that was stored in Mulder’s head. Even taking his eidetic memory into account, the amount of trivia he could keep track of never ceased to amaze her, despite the amount of time she had spent with him.

“Tibet, Mulder?”

“Oh, right. Over the years of foreign exploration into Tibet — the Tibetans kept the country sealed against outsiders for decades — explorers reported all sorts of strange happenings in their accounts of their travels. Nain Singh, Nikolai Prejevalski, William Rockhill, Sven Hedin — they all wrote about mysterious lights, strange noises, even the sort of disorientation that could be attributed to lost time.”

Or oxygen deprivation, Scully thought. But in light of what she had seen after Mulder had pulled her from the grotesque mausoleum in Wilkes Land, she was not inclined to fence with him over this point.

He continued, warming to the story.

“There evidently was one area in particular, in west-central Tibet, in which these phenomena seemed to occur more often than anywhere else, at least as far as can be told from the journals of the outsiders who witnessed them.” Mulder gave her a significant look: “Near Rongbuk Monastery.”

Ah ha, Scully thought. “Alright, that’s one connection. And Leslie?”

“Leslie. Well, as I said, he was an American surveyor who got a job with the Tibetan government in the 1930s….” Mulder paused, reading the skepticism in Scully’s countenance.

“Mulder…”

He anticipated her. “I know, I know, he’d be pretty old by now.”

“Very old, Mulder. In his eighties, at least.”

“Right. But hear me out, okay?”

Scully narrowed her eyes. “Mulder, this isn’t just an elaborate scheme to justify a trip in search of the Abominable Snowman, is it?”

That earned her a wry grin. “Don’t you want to see a yeti, Scully?”

She fished unsuccessfully for a clever rejoinder, but a shift in the traffic bailed her out. Mulder cleared the light, with a restrained ‘yes!’, and accelerated down one of Arlington’s less congested streets, entering a somewhat run-down section of the county. “Not much further,” he said.

“So, why was Leslie working for the Tibetans?” Back to business — Scully wanted to get as much of the story out of Mulder as possible before the foolishness that inevitably accompanied a visit to his paranoid buddies began.

Mulder shrugged. “I have no idea why he went to Tibet to get a job, if that’s what you mean. But at any rate, his survey work proceeded uneventfully until he and a partner were sent to…”

“Let me guess: Rongbuk,” Scully finished for him.

“Full marks, Red.” Mulder grinned at her. “It gets better.”

“How is it that you know all this, Mulder?” Scully changed course for a minute. She knew how he remembered it — he remembered almost everything — but Tibetan history seemed sufficiently obscure that even the Bureau’s basement-dwelling Master of Trivia had no obvious reason to have made a study of it.

“No special reason, really.” Mulder shrugged again. “When I started work on the X-Files, I read everything on UFO studies I could get my hands on. I hadn’t thought about this in years, though. There hasn’t been much serious research into the accounts of foreign explorers in Tibet, or the Leslie affair, but they’re in the literature.”

Scully was reminded of a day, long ago, when she had first learned of Mulder’s own notoriety in ‘the literature,’ when they had caught a genial, slightly scruffy intruder in Mulder’s motel room in Wisconsin. She felt a twinge of regret — Max Fennig had been one more innocent who had died for an agenda he had never even known, much less supported.

So many dead, now, she thought.

“So, what gets better?”

“Leslie never came back from Rongbuk.”

“That’s better?”

“More interesting,” Mulder corrected himself. “His partner — Sales — did come back, but he left his post shortly thereafter and returned to the United States.”

“What happened to him?”

“That’s what Byers is so eager to tell us,” said Mulder. “He returned to his hometown, and was later institutionalized. As far as I know, he never wrote about his experiences. His story died with him.”

Scully felt a chill creep up her spine. There had been far too many coincidences this day. “But Byers has found something,” she said.

“He says he has Sales’ journals, written after he left Tibet.”

“And?”

“And Byers thinks that they could be the key to locating an actual alien ground site in Tibet.”

“And you believe all this?”

Mulder frowned. “I want to know the truth of it.” He paused. “You don’t believe it?”

Scully could see that he was close to hooked. “Mulder, after what we’ve seen, we can’t discount the possibilities. But doesn’t all this seem a little too….”

“Convenient? Contrived?”

“Yes, and yes.”

“Yes.” He parked the car in front of the dilapidated building that housed the offices of ‘The Lone Gunman,’ unfastening his seatbelt and turning to face her.

“But consider this, Scully.” Mulder leaned in close, intensity etched on his features. “For years, all I knew was that extraterrestrials were real, and that the government had been hiding that fact for decades.”

Scully held his gaze, but did not speak.

“Then I found out that it had all been a hoax, and that I had been a tool of my enemies all along.” His voice caught, then he continued. “Everything I did, every move I made, had just served the purposes of the conspiracy I sought to expose. And brought suffering to the people I care the most about….”

Scully was silent. She knew the hurt behind that statement, and ached for him. Once, overwhelmed by despair and bitterness, she herself had laid the blame for her cancer at his feet, as if his own tendency toward self-loathing were not enough. She knew he had forgiven her that, if ever he had held it against her, but she had never forgiven herself.

‘They gave me this disease to make you believe.’ God, Dana, what were you thinking?

But she knew what she had been thinking. The cancer had metastasized, tainting her once-healthy body with deadly growth, killing her last hope of repairing the life of grief she had fallen into. And Mulder, fleeing into his crusade to shelter from his own guilt had, unwittingly, left her to shoulder the oppressive burden of his obsessions. She had worked on, despite the costs, saving him from himself, her life trickling away into bits of tissue paper and restroom sinks.

Finally, in exasperation and despair, she had lashed out at him. Give it up, Mulder. Give it up and find a real life somewhere. Leave me. Let me alone to swallow the last bitter drafts of love too long unrequited and then, when you don’t need me any more, I can die.

She had sunk low indeed.

Somehow, he had redeemed them both. As she had lain in the hospital, waiting for the darkness, the purity of the love he bled for her had given her something, some kernel of will and hope that brought her back from the edge, that returned to her the desire for life and gave her strength to ask God to let her live a while longer.

Mulder would scoff at the idea, but she believed now that he been the instrument of her redemption just as he had been an aspect of the trial. He had brought her back from the brink of a dark well, despite the wound she had dealt him. Though they had never discussed it, she knew intuitively that his phony suicide could easily have been real, that he himself had stood on the edge of the Abyss, contemplating the anaesthetic offered by the handgun.

Scully banished the scene from her mind, unwilling to taste again the rust of despair, the flavor of her own blood on her lips and in her mouth.

She started to speak. “Mulder…”

He took her hand, pressed it between his. “John Leslie went to Rongbuk to investigate something that no one could explain. I don’t know what that was, but there are, or were, at least two people who do.”

“Sales, and Leslie himself,” said Scully.

Mulder nodded. “I know this could be a hoax, a set-up. But if it’s not, and if there is any way to find out what it was that Leslie and Sales found in Tibet, it could provide a starting point…”

“Mulder,” Scully began again.

“Scully, Leslie’s journey to Rongbuk predates Roswell by 13 years.” His voice had become urgent. “Some of the accounts I mentioned are 19th century. They pre-date the conspiracy…”

“I understand,” she said, keeping her tone even, noncommittal. Scully understood his passion. Part of her, as always, longed to just drop her careful habits of thought and abandon herself to Mulder’s wild dance. But she also knew that, consciously or not, he relied on her not to do so. “I agree that it’s intriguing. I just think we should be careful.”

“We have to investigate this. If there really is something here, it could be that the conspiracy is not aware of it yet. They can’t cover up something they don’t know about.” His grip on her hand tightened. “I have to know,” he said, “and I think you do too.”

“Mulder, I’m as committed to this as you are. You know that.” Scully watched Mulder carefully, trying to read his expression, needing to know she was reaching him. “But you know we’ve been set up before. More than once.” Don’t get drawn in so easily, she did not say.

He returned her gaze a moment longer, then nodded. “Alright. Let’s go see what Byers has for us.”

Together, they climbed out of the car and hurried through the downpour, up the metal staircase to the overhang, where they pressed the buzzer at the door and stood dripping, wet despite the umbrella they had shared.

  *

Some distance away, from the third-floor window of an old apartment building noteworthy only for peeling paint and the fact that it stood within line of sight of the doorway at which Mulder and Scully waited, a figure trained a pair of binoculars on the scene. He watched as, after a delay, a tall man and his diminutive, red-headed companion were shown in by a youngish fellow with long, blonde hair and absurdly thick-framed glasses. The watcher stood well back from the window through which he looked, his caution not to expose himself instinctive, and when the doorway to the office closed, he set his lenses aside and remotely activated a device that would transmit the conversation within the closed room to a remote recorder.

The transmitter had been extraordinarily difficult to place. He had thought that once he had gained admittance to the inner sanctum of ‘The Lone Gunman,’ placing the bug would have been relatively easy. But despite their evident affability the night before, Byers, Langly, and — what was his name? Frohike — had proved watchful and alert. It had taken all of his skill, the most subtle sleight of hand, to place the device.

He would soon learn whether it had been detected since then.

Radu Florescu adjusted the speaker volume and noted with satisfaction that the instrument had begun recording.

Later, he would listen to the tapes carefully, taking detailed notes and replaying sections where necessary, before he made his report. For now, he simply relaxed and listened to the conversation, his skill in English not sufficient to catch everything, but good enough to get the overall thrust of the discussion.

He had doubts as to whether this ruse would work. Krycek had felt confident about it, but he wondered. Although the documents that he had given to Byers seemed genuine — if they were forgeries, they were well done — the story he had been instructed to give seemed fairly flimsy. What was more, he had been forced to throw the entire operation together far too quickly, having had mere days to get to the United States and set up a base of operations. It had been nothing more than good fortune that a suitable apartment had been available on short notice, and had the target been in a better section of town, he would likely have not even had a place from which to observe it.

Florescu did not care to operate by the seat of his pants, and he wasn’t entirely sure what Krycek ultimately hoped to gain from all of these machinations, though he had a few theories.

Still, he had his orders: pass the documents, place the bug, watch, and report. And that he would do. In time, he would be given further instructions. He could afford to be patient until then.

  *

As Langly opened the door, almost tripping himself in his haste to let them in out of the wet, Mulder placed his palm over the small of Scully’s back and guided her across the threshold, indulging in a long- standing intimacy, but one he never tired of. He watched with amusement as a range of emotion flitted briefly across her face in response to the sight of the room they had entered. The trio at ‘The Lone Gunman’ never failed to have some new high-tech device, often partially disassembled, prominently displayed in the midst of the office’s perennial clutter, and today was no exception. Something that appeared to be a cross between an oil derrick and an Erector Set loomed in the center of the room, gleaming metal bars tangled with wires and dangling circuit boards. A slight arch in Scully’s brows revealed surprise, quickly replaced by a mix of amusement and mild chagrin.

A Cheshire cat grin spread across Langly’s face. “Pretty cool, huh?” Then another thought struck him. “Say, Agent Scully, I hear you saw the inside of a UFO.”

Scully’s expression became serious. “More of it than I wanted to, to be honest.”

“Yeah, but still….” Langly could not wipe the enthusiasm off his face.

Scully glanced over at Mulder, indicated the tower in the center of the room. “Do you think we should even ask?”

He shook his head. “No need…” He would have said more, but Langly had already shifted gears again, plunging into an enthusiastic monologue about the merits of what would, in due course, become the definitive advancement in anti-surveillance technology. Listening to Langly’s slightly nasal accent, Mulder had a brief vision of him, clad in a bathing suit and his glasses, riding some sort of high-tech, laser- guided surf board toward a southern California beach. The image was both ludicrous and, somehow, utterly convincing.

Scully, better equipped than he to follow Langly’s oration, was asking a question.

Langly looked slightly uncomfortable. “Well, I actually haven’t worked that out yet,” he said.

“No?” The merest hint of teasing colored her tone.

“Well, not exactly.”

Scully kept a straight face. “So it’s not actually working yet?”

“Er, no.”

“It’s just sitting there, taking up space?”

Langly squirmed a bit, then recovered. “Yes, but we’ll have it going soon, for sure. I’d better get the guys.” He turned and escaped across the room, leaning through a doorway to summon his partners.

Mulder cast a wondering look at Scully. She returned just the ghost of a smile, raising one hand to prod a nearby tangle of wiring and other… hardware…that hung from Langly’s contraption. Weighted at one end, it swung, pendulum-like, in response to her touch.

Mulder stared at the device. Rising nearly to the ceiling, whatever else it may have been, it was hardly a triumph in miniaturization.

He chuckled. “Scully, did I ever tell you that I’m not related to these guys?”

She did not have a chance to respond, as Byers chose that moment to hurry into the room. “There you two are. Glad you could make it.” He led them to a desk in a corner. “Have a look at these.”

Mulder leaned forward, Scully close to him. On the desk, illuminated by an antique lamp that seemed strangely out of place amid the room’s electronic decor, lay three leather-bound journals, pages yellowed with age and stained from hard use. The text was in a neat, confident hand, obviously written with care, though in places smeared due to exposure to moisture.

Scully spoke first. “Well, they look old. Are they authentic?”

“You bet,” said Frohike, behind them. They turned to face him. Langly was there too.

“We’ve already run several tests on them,” he continued. “They’re real, all right.”

Mulder picked up one of the volumes, thumbed through it. The pages felt crisp and coarse under his fingers. The cover gave off an antique, musty odor. These books are real, he thought, no fakery here. He struggled to contain his excitement. If the books themselves were genuine…. “Okay,” he said, affecting a nonchalant air. “What about these has all your drawers in knots, anyway?”

Byers laughed at that. “Come sit down, and I’ll tell you all about it.”

Mulder set the book back on the desk and looked around the room, found chairs for himself and Scully. Byers and Frohike sat as well, while Langly perched, buzzard-like, atop a desk, his back to a large, reel-to- reel tape recorder.

Byers spoke again. “This all started on Saturday night. Frohike and I were here,” he indicated Langly, “he was out.”

“All-night gaming,” Langly interjected, pantomiming an axe-blow.

“I’m glad you’re getting out and around, these days,” said Mulder.

“Anyway,” said Byers, “we got a call from someone named ‘Radu Florescu.’ He said he was a subscriber to ‘The Gunman.’”

“Is he?” asked Scully.

“Yes,” said Frohike. “Our only subscriber in Romania, as it turns out. He lives in Bucharest.”

“He brought you the books?” Mulder broke in.

“Yes,” said Byers. He looked at Scully. “Has Mulder told you about Sales and Leslie?”

She nodded.

Byers went on. “Evidently, when Leslie and Sales went to Rongbuk, they were attempting to locate and investigate a particular area north of the monastery — a locus of UFO-like phenomena.”

“What sort of phenomena, precisely?” asked Scully.

“The usual,” said Byers. “Mysterious lights, lost time, abductions — things that the local people attributed to the activities of malevolent spirits.”

“It could be nothing more than that. I mean, it sounds like a story superstitious people would tell around campfires to scare children.”

Byers nodded. “It does, but the descriptions detail events that also fit the profile of UFO activity. Both Tibetan government records and the journals of explorers describe them.”

Frohike broke in: “But not as UFOs, of course. The acronym hadn’t even been invented at that time.”

“So, all that Leslie and Sales knew was that they had been sent to Rongbuk to investigate something unexplained,” said Mulder. “What happened next?”

“According to Sales’ journal,” said Byers, “their trip was uneventful until they actually reached the monastery. They spent some time there, observing various atmospheric phenomena visible to the north, and then they journeyed on in search of a source of those phenomena.”

Langly shifted on his desk. “Sales wrote about ‘orbs of light aloft in the northern sky.’ Pretty weird stuff.”

Mulder glanced at Scully, who clearly wanted to say something, but she held her peace and let Byers finish.

“At this point, Sales’ journal becomes confused. He mentions a cave through which he and Leslie penetrated a low cliff that blocked their route, but his account is sketchy on the geographic details.”

“So you don’t know where the cave is,” said Scully.

Byers shook his head. “Unfortunately, no, though it must be somewhere north of Rongbuk. Anyway, beyond the cave he writes about some sort of fortress — a metallic fortress — that produced ‘lightnings and divers strange sounds.’”

“He actually wrote that?” asked Mulder, somewhat astonished.

“A little over-the-top, eh?” Byers shrugged, continued. “According to the book, Leslie went into the structure and never came out. Sales, it seems, experienced hallucinations from which he never fully recovered.”

Scully gave Byers a look, the one that silently demanded further explanation. Mulder smiled inwardly, amused at Byers’ look of discomfort, despite a basic sympathy with the story he was telling.

“Well, his writing becomes rather confused at this point.”

Scully turned to Mulder, waiting for him to speak.

“Fair enough,” he said, looking back at Byers. “What do you guys have on your source, this Florescu fellow?”

Byers, Langly, and Frohike exchanged glances, mentally conferring, and then Langly spoke up. “The truth is, Mulder, we don’t know much about him at all. He’s been a subscriber since the Wall came down, but there isn’t much in the way of hackable databases in Eastern Europe.”

“Did he leave an address?”

“No, he said he would contact us again if he could,” said Frohike.

“A-mazing,” said Scully, looking more annoyed than amazed. “Here I am, sitting with what I thought were the four most paranoid men in the free world, and….”

“Wait a minute,” interrupted Langly. “We didn’t say we trusted this dude.”

“You have to understand,” added Byers, “in this business, most of our sources don’t want to be located. This guy may have taken some chances to get us this material.”

Scully was unimpressed. “He just walks in here and hands you a bunch of old-looking books, and you just jump at the contents.”

“We tested the books,” Frohike reminded her. “They’re the real deal.”

“This is obviously a set-up. Mulder, tell them about the email you got this morning.”

Mulder briefly related the contents of the message to his friends. What Scully was saying made sense, of course. The whole scenario stank of a deception scheme. But for some reason, Mulder didn’t think that it was, at least, not entirely. He seldom could explain how he knew to play a hunch, but he had one now, and he trusted his instincts. “She’s right,” he said to Byers, “there have been too many coincidences for this to be taken at face value, but that said, I think it’s more than just a set- up.”

Scully’s face shifted from brief, surprised satisfaction back to impatience. “Mulder…,” she began.

“Hear me out, Scully. Who would set us up in this way, and why?”

“I don’t know,” Scully said deliberately. Where do I begin? asked the look on her face.

Mulder made a placating gesture. “Alright, I guess that was a dumb question. Put it another way: if we’re being set up, there has to be a reason. Someone wants something from us.” He searched his partner’s expression.

She’s beautiful when she’s irked, an impish part of him mused.

“Most likely,” she said.

“So someone wants us to investigate this. Someone wants to use us to get to something that he cannot.”

“Or someone wants to discredit us once and for all,” she shot back.

“I think there’s more to it than that,” said Mulder. “I think we’re on to something important, and if it’s a deception, there may be a core of truth in the middle of it.”

Scully did not speak, just gave him her ‘you-have-no-evidence-to- warrant-that-conclusion’ look. He knew it well.

He held her gaze. Trust me Scully, I have a feeling about this one.

She accepted his silent communication, agreeing to a temporary truce. Thank you, Mulder thought. He turned back to Byers, knowing that he and Scully would revisit the discussion again, soon.

“How did Florescu come to be in possession of Sales’ journals?” he asked.

Byers sent a wary glance in Scully’s direction, but her expression remained neutral. “Sales traveled home from Tibet overland. In Kazakhstan, he was forced to leave some of his possessions in the hands of Soviet officials. But now, the Russians have opened up a whole lot of old archives. Sales’ journals are just one more thing that’s turned up.”

“So Florescu has been rummaging around archives in Moscow,” said Mulder.

“He said St. Petersburg,” Frohike put in.

Mulder turned to Scully again. “We know the Russians have been studying UFOs for some time. Remember the Tunguska business.” The thought chilled him. His time in the gulag had been short but extremely unpleasant.

“That may be true,” she said, “but the evidence in this affair is beyond tenuous. Look at what we have: a Romanian ‘Lone Gunman’ subscriber about whom almost nothing is known walks in unannounced and hands over Randolph Sales’ journals, which themselves were not known to exist until he did so.”

“Authentic journals,” repeated Frohike.

“Even so, on practically the same day, we receive email to the effect that Sales’ partner has returned after being missing for 64 years. And we know that Leslie and Sales were investigating *something,* but that something could easily have been some sort of natural atmospheric phenomenon. We don’t have any conclusive evidence that their mission had anything to do with extraterrestrials.”

Langly stood up from where he was seated. “Actually, guys, she has a point. This Florescu could be an agent provocateur.” That earned him a ‘where-did-you-learn-that-expression?’ look from Byers and Frohike, but he seemed unfazed.

“If that were true, why would he have brought Sales’ actual journals?” Byers frowned, doubtful, but unable to deny the validity of Scully’s argument. “Why not just forge something to catch our interest?”

“That’s why I think that something underlies all of this,” said Mulder. “The journals are a smoke-screen — they whet our appetites, but if Sales was too screwed up to leave a coherent account, his writings don’t really give us any hard information.”

“So you think Leslie is the key to this,” said Scully.

“Maybe. If he has returned from Rongbuk, where is he now?”

“Mulder, if he did go missing in Rongbuk, and if he did somehow spend 64 years living in the Tibetan countryside, why would he come back now?” Her eyes locked with his, at once persistent and distracting.

Not now, Mulder, he thought.

“I don’t know. I’d like to find out.”

A brief silence fell over the room, then Mulder spoke again. “Any chance we could borrow these journals?”

Frohike produced a folder stuffed with papers. “I thought you’d want to read over them, so I photocopied the interesting parts.”

“How about finding out where the email on Leslie came from?”

“Child’s play,” said Frohicke, handing over the folder. “We’ll get on it tonight.”

Mulder took the package from him, then turned to Scully. “Ready to go?”

She nodded.

He turned back to Byers. “Give us time to go over this, and I’ll get back to you.”

Byers led them to the door. “Thanks. Let’s discuss it soon.”

“By the way, Mulder,” Frohike called from behind them, “thanks for the…you know.”

From the corner of his eye, Mulder saw Scully’s eyebrow arch, as she realized what he was referring to, and then the merest hint of a smile. He nodded at Frohike. “You bet,” he said.

Outside, the sky had darkened into night, but the rain had slowed to a warm drizzle. Mulder and Scully accomplished the walk to the car in silence.

  *

Arlington, Virginia Tuesday, 15 September, 8:00 a.m.

Radu Florescu’s laptop chirped, indicating that a message had come down. He opened it, scanning its contents, and then began composing a response. He chose his words with care, keeping them as non-specific as possible. Even with a strong encryption program protecting their communications, Krycek prefered not to take any risks.

After a few minutes of typing, Florescu sat back and reread his message, checking for typos:

Subject: Current project

Have successfully set-up equipment and am monitoring the situation.

Secondary target group has contacted primary and passed on documents. primary1 has identified the traveler as critical element, but primary2 has expressed serious suspicions.

It is unclear whether primary will investigate. No information on location of traveler available at this time.

He sent the message. Krycek would likely not have further instructions for him right away, given that he had so little to report. But as long as the listening device went undetected, the operation still could succeed.

A reply came sooner than expected, less than an hour later:

Subject: Current project

Continue monitoring. Pay particular attention to primary2. Report any developments.

Florescu nodded to himself. He had expected these orders. He settled in for a long wait. It would probably be some time before he could report on the “traveler’s” whereabouts.

He sighed. He had never liked stakeouts.

  *

FBI Headquarters, Washington, D.C. Tuesday, 15 September, 9:00 a.m.

Dana Scully tapped Frohike’s bundle of copies on her desk and slid them neatly back into the folder they had come in, glancing around the refurbished office that she and Mulder shared. She noticed that he had replaced the small candid photo of the two of them that had been on his bulletin board before the fire, and she herself had gone out and found another “I Want To Believe” poster, which she had hung over her partner’s desk after they had been reassigned to the X-Files from the counter-terrorism unit to which they had been exiled. Though Mulder had not commented on the poster directly, Scully had seen the subtle look of pleasure that had crossed his features when he had seen it, and that had been all the reward she had needed.

She had spent the morning reading over the copied pages of Randolph Sales’ journal — difficult going, given the shaky hand in which the post-Rongbuk sections had been written — while Mulder had made phone call after phone call, attempting to turn up any indication that John Leslie had returned to the United States. So far, he had met with no success, and frankly, Scully did not foresee any likelihood of that situation changing, despite Mulder’s already fixed determination.

The previous night, after they had left the offices of ‘The Lone Gunman,’ she and Mulder had headed for her apartment, by silent, mutual consent. Upon arrival, Mulder had plunged into the papers provided by Frohike, seating himself at her kitchen table with the folder and a glass of ice water. He had remained there for hours, surfacing just long enough to share a light dinner with her, while she had gone through her after-work routine. She had eventually settled on her sofa with a book, reflecting on the fact that, although she had spent her evening in much the same way that she would have before entering this deeper relationship with Mulder, just his presence in her apartment had given her a sense of contentment, making every small moment somehow richer, more complete.

Just before midnight, she had coaxed him to bed, and he had come without argument, falling asleep moments after his head had hit the pillow. Lying next to him, she had remained wakeful a bit longer, listening to the steady rhythm of his breathing, and then dropped off herself, her last coherent thought a resolution to get to the bottom of this mysterious affair they were suddenly faced with.

Tomorrow, she had thought, settling deeper into the sheets. We’ll deal with it tomorrow.

The next day had dawned all to soon, and it had been with some reluctance that Scully had untangled herself from Mulder’s embrace and begun the process of preparing for work. Their relationship had not affected their work so far, she mused, but there was no denying that it had an affect on her willingness to start her morning routine.

Scully put aside this line of thinking and looked over at her partner, who, having at last abandoned his telephone campaign, had read through the morning message traffic and then settled into a posture of deep concentration. He had been that way for some time, stirring only once in a while as though to begin searching for an X-File, and then sitting back once more as he remembered that virtually all of his files were gone. Of course, some of the data had been backed up on microfiche or diskette, but much also had been lost forever, to Mulder’s endless frustration.

He sensed her gaze on him and returned it. “Well?” he asked, gesturing toward the file.

“There’s not much to go on, here,” Scully said. “Judging from the degradation in Sales’ handwriting subsequent to his explorations near Rongbuk, I’d guess he suffered a mild stroke, or something.”

Mulder nodded. “I’d wondered about that. We know his mental health was affected by that trip. Maybe there was a physical cause.” He paused for a moment. “What about his account? What do you think it means?”

“Well, it’s terse, even a little incoherent. It doesn’t provide much information at all about where and when certain critical events took place, but…” she trailed off.

“But what?”

“But the aerial phenomena he describes do seem to resemble some of what we’ve seen over the years.”

“So you think it’s worth investigating?” Mulder asked.

Scully chose her words carefully. “It’s worth looking into — with caution. I still think we can’t overlook the possibility that we’re being manipulated.”

“Agreed. But if we know a trap may be present, we have the key to avoiding it, right?”

“I suppose so,” she said doubtfully. “I’d like to know more about this Florescu person, though.”

“So would I,” said Mulder. “He’s probably legitimate, though. The ‘Gunmen’ have plenty of odd acquaintances, but most of them are harmless enough.”

“Mulder, I can’t understand why a man who wears a bullet-proof vest to bed….”

“Scully! How do you know what Frohike wears to bed?” Mulder affected an astonished look.

“How did you know I meant Frohike?” She smiled back at him.

“Hey, I’ve know those guys for seven years. I think I know most of their habits by now. You didn’t answer my question.”

“I took the tests I ran on the boy, Gibson, over to them.” Scully felt her mood become somber at the memory, despite the inherent humor in Frohike’s choice of night-wear. “It was late, and Frohike met me at the door dressed in PJ’s and body armor. Anyway, why do they accept this Florescu at face value?”

“I don’t think they do, necessarily. They tested the books, and Langly did mention that they tried to check up on Florescu as well. But remember, for all their caution, they’re in the publishing business. When they get a lead, they go with it.” He made a dismissive gesture. “Anyway, Leslie is the real key to this.”

Scully considered that, not replying. She was not sure that Florescu wouldn’t prove a factor.

Mulder studied her, reading her concerns. “Look, we won’t take any chances on this one.”

“Is that a promise?” she asked.

“Promise. Shall we go see Skinner?”

Scully cocked an eyebrow his way. “Have you filed paperwork for this already?”

“This morning. I sent him a preliminary write-up of what we know while you were going over Frohike’s papers.”

“Mulder, we hardly know anything. Do you think he’s going to accept that?”

“I just made 25 phone calls to see if I could informally turn up any information on Leslie, and since I didn’t get so much as a nibble, I think we have to put Bureau resources into this. As for Skinner?” His shoulders twitched. “Only one way to find out.”

  *

Walter Skinner raised his eyes from the paperwork on his desk and surveyed the two agents seated in front of him. Mulder slouched in his chair, somehow managing to look serious and insouciant all at once, a trick that only he could pull off, as far as Skinner had seen, at least.

Scully’s expression remained guarded, neutral, but was not the hard, bleak mask that had subdued her beauty for so long. Something had changed in her life, something that had returned a hint of softness to her features and smoothed away some of the worry writ on her face.

Skinner had an idea what that something might be. A long-awaited development had finally come to pass. He looked carefully at Mulder, searching for evidence to support his hypothesis, but Mulder’s demeanor betrayed nothing — well, perhaps just a hint could be detected, enough to satisfy Skinner that his conclusions were correct.

Good for the both of you, he thought, not letting his approval show. Just be discrete about it, and we can all look the other way indefinitely.

When he spoke, Skinner employed his most severe conversational tone, one that had served to intimidate underlings and colleagues alike since his service in the Marine Corps, but which had never had quite the desired effect on Mulder, his most difficult subordinate. Skinner for the most part liked Mulder, but he would have preferred that he toe the line just a bit more carefully than was his wont.

“Agent Mulder, I’ve reviewed your proposal for an investigation and I have to say I find it awfully thin.”

Mulder opened his mouth to respond, but Skinner cut him off. “I’m not finished. Not only do you lack hard evidence to warrant the opening of an investigation, but frankly, in my view this entire scenario shows every characteristic of a set-up.”

“Sir, I understand that,” said Mulder, “but if you’ll just consider the implications of the evidence that we do have, and for that matter the possibility of a set-up itself….”

Skinner silenced him with an abrupt gesture. “I read what you submitted, Agent Mulder.” He turned to Scully, who had not spoken. “Agent Scully, do you want to give me your view on this matter?”

She lowered her gaze, revealing her discomfort with the situation, then raised her eyes to meet his once more. When she spoke, her words were deliberate, carefully phrased. “Sir, I agree that the physical evidence is lacking, and that there exists the possibility of deliberate deception….” She trailed off, glancing at her partner, then resumed. “But Agent Mulder’s instincts have proven correct in the past, quite often, and while I have some reservations…given the facts of our recent investigation of the Blackwood….”

Skinner cut her off as well. “Understood, Agent Scully.” He could tell from the precision of her enunciation that she in fact had serious reservations, but loyalty to her partner, and faith in his intuition, led her to support him.

He had faith in Mulder’s intuition as well, but it was not without limits. “Agent Mulder, Agent Scully, I’m afraid I have serious doubts about the wisdom of opening a casefile.”

Mulder looked as though he would speak again, but Skinner did not let him begin. “Your report on the Blackwood case was not appreciated by the powers that be, in the Bureau, in the Justice Department, and in… other places. It may have forced the re-opening of the X-Files, for now….” Skinner leaned forward for emphasis: “But believe me, there are plenty of people who would take any excuse to force me to close you down again.” He indicated the file on his desk. “You’re going to need more to go on.”

This time it was Scully who began to speak. “Sir, with an investigation, we can acquire more evidence, and then we’ll be better positioned to….”

He cut her off once again. “I’m sorry, Agent Scully, but I am officially denying Agent Mulder’s request to open an investigation.” He spoke the word ‘officially’ with only the slightest trace of emphasis.

Anger and resentment flared on Mulder’s face, then vanished as Scully reached out and laid her hand lightly on his forearm. That was new, Skinner thought. Scully and Mulder had long shared the silent communication that often developed between partners, though theirs was more intimate than most, but Mulder was not usually so compliant. Yes, the signs were there, he thought.

Scully turned her attention back to Skinner. “Sir, we may need some time off in the near future.”

He nodded. “Not a problem, Agent Scully. You both have it coming.” He turned to Mulder, pinning him with a glare. “Give me something to stand on, and then we can discuss this.”

He dismissed the two of them with a curt nod.

  *

Outside of Skinner’s office, the door shut behind them, Scully turned to her partner. “Now what?”

Mulder looked annoyed. “Now we start digging again — informally.” He sighed. “We never get to do things the easy way, do we?”

Scully studied him. “Did you expect anything else?”

“Just once,” he said, “I’d like a case to go by the numbers. Really. It could happen.”

Scully did not answer. She placed a hand on his elbow and steered him toward the elevators, back to their basement refuge. She was certain of one thing: Mulder put off would be more determined than ever to pry this affair wide open. She hid a sigh of her own. It promised to be a long week.

  *

Near Rongbuk Monastery, Tibet Wednesday, 16 September, 10:00 a.m.

Nawang Tsering slouched in the back of an oxcart and watched as Rongbuk, his uncle’s monastery, dwindled in the distance. He stretched, relaxing in the hot sunlight and enjoying the slow sway of the vehicle, now and then answering the idle remarks of the drover with whom he had caught a ride. Around him, fields of barley and stony, moss-covered slopes rose gradually away from the road at the valley floor, extending to the distant mountain ranges that marched along the horizon, grey and black rock giving way in turn to permanent ice and snow at the highest elevations.

The hard, bright light of the Tibetan sun baked everything not in the shade, and cast sharp, dark shadows behind boulders or the squat, square houses in the valley’s scattered villages.

Nawang hoped to catch a bit of sleep, because the trip to Lhasa would take all of a week, with many stops and transfers once he made it to the first bus station, and he was dead tired, having made the journey three times already in the past couple of months. If anyone other than his uncle had asked him to do so much traveling, he would likely have found some excuse not to.

But Jamyang Dorje had been insistent, and Nawang, 25 years old and a dutiful nephew, had done as he had asked.

Nawang was eager to return to Lhasa, though the city did not feel much like home any more. It had become more Chinese than Tibetan, and like many Tibetans of the educated class living there, Nawang had a sort of love-hate relationship with his country’s foreign overlords. From them, he had his education, in Chinese and English, and a job with a private tour company, but like most Tibetans, he would have just as soon seen them leave and never come back.

He did not tend to waste time worrying about the matter, though. There was really nothing he could do. Besides, he had plenty of other matters that required his attention, these days. His life had taken a definite turn toward the bizarre.

First had been getting the foreigner, Leslie, back to Lhasa. The trip itself had been uneventful, but his traveling companion, whom the Rinpoche at Rongbuk had insisted be protected from the authorities, had been grim and silent, offering nothing though it had been clear that his Tibetan was excellent, if a little old-fashioned. When they had reached Shigatse, one of Tibet’s few modern cities, Leslie had finally shown emotion, clearly upset by something he would not explain.

The Rinpoche and his uncle had not explained it either. Nawang was not normally impatient, but after days on the road between Lhasa and Rongbuk, his nerves had become a bit frayed, in spite of himself.

Still, he had no inclination to defy the highest Lama of Rongbuk Monastery, or to disappoint his uncle, and so he had swallowed his complaints and finished the task given to him.

In Lhasa, Nawang had entrusted an increasingly disturbed Leslie to the care of one of his colleagues, who was leading a tour bus to Kathmandu, Nepal, the nearest city with an American embassy that one could get to without flying. Since Leslie had possessed no papers, it had seemed best to avoid the airport at Gonggar, where no one escaped Chinese official scrutiny. The Nepal border was also a concern, of course, but officials there were known for being infinitely corruptible.

Once he had seen Leslie off, Nawang had returned to Rongbuk, in accord with his uncle’s instructions. There he had been received by the Rinpoche, who explained the matter of John Leslie to him and, having had time to consider the affair, gave him further instructions. Nawang had been by turns astonished and dismayed at what the Rinpoche had told him.

He did not understand how a man could go missing in the wilderness in 1934 and return, still young, in 1998, but that was what had happened, the Rinpoche had assured him. And by the time Nawang had arrived with Leslie, Lhasa itself had heard the news, as the presence of the foreigner, not to mention the intermittent light-shows north of the monastery, had attracted the attention of the local villagers and nomads in the vicinity of Rongbuk. Tibet, for all its size, had ever proved a fluid conduit for news, and the rumors had spread from village to town and from town to city. Even Nawang’s name had come up in discussions in the capital, though not too often, fortunately.

He had to keep a reasonably low profile if he were to accomplish the latest task the Rinpoche had levied on him.

And of course there had been the matter of the nomad Kunga and his wild tales of the yeti, which Nawang was not entirely sure what to make of. He did not really give too much credence to that legend, and surely the nomad’s story had arisen from the general air of mystery and nervousness prevalent in the area of Rongbuk. Not that it mattered, though. The stories and rumors all melted together, until no one really knew the truth behind them, and the yeti story dovetailed nicely with the tales about Leslie in the mind of the average Tibetan.

On the other hand, Kunga had eventually found his yak, or what remained of it, not far from the where he had seen the tracks the night before. Whatever had attacked the animal, it had been vicious and strong. Of course, that did not make it a yeti — the odd snow leopard also roamed the remote fastness north of Rongbuk.

Nawang decided not to worry about the yeti. It could presumably take care of itself, if it existed. The Rinpoche’s instructions had not made any mention of it anyway.

Nawang was to return to Lhasa and wait. There would have to be a reaction to an event with the karmic magnitude of Leslie’s reappearance. The Rinpoche had been very clear about that. In Lhasa, Nawang would be able to deal with that reaction, whatever form it took, and later he would report what he had learned and done to Rongbuk. The Rinpoche and his uncle had both been confident that Nawang would know what to do when the time came.

Nawang sighed quietly to himself. Lamas were forever giving advice like that. Long on requirements, short on information. Never mind, though, he would do his best. He just hoped that whatever was going to happen would happen soon.

In the meantime, he had tourists to deal with. His job also awaited him back in Lhasa, and life went on.

  *

Kathmandu, Nepal 16 September, 5:30 p.m.

By late afternoon, most of the employees of Apogee Transport had gone home for the evening, but Jill Whittaker, nominally an office manager but in fact the local representative of a far more shadowy organization, made it her habit to work well into the evening. At 29 years of age, she had her share of ambitions, and the people she worked for, a group without so much as a formal name, so far as she knew, expected a lot of overtime. Jill wanted to get out of Kathmandu, one of the least important postings that existed within the Consortium’s operations, and get herself stationed somewhere important — someplace like London, or Washington, or Tunis.

She lit a cigarette and considered the man in front of her, who had just wandered into her office, having hopped off a truck that had driven in from the Tibetan border. He looked as though he had seen better days, but that was no surprise. A trip by road over the Himalayas, along the so-called ‘Friendship Highway’ and through the terrifyingly high and steep Bhote Kosi pass, remained an adventure, even at the end of the 20th century.

Jill dragged on the cigarette and blew smoke across her desk at the man seated there. John Leslie looked bad, but he sounded worse. His story made no sense whatsoever, and the way he told it suggested that he had come unglued somewhere before reaching her office in Kathmandu. However, his name was on The List, so that made him important, to somebody.

Leslie wanted help getting back to the United States. Jill thought she could arrange that, though perhaps not entirely to his satisfaction. She picked up her phone and waited while the Nepalese operators opened an international line. After a few minutes, a phone rang in a small apartment somewhere in Washington. The voice that answered sounded smooth, almost devoid of emotion. “Yes?”

Jill had only met the owner of the voice once, but she had no trouble imagining him on the other end of the line. He had made an impression on her, and she had worked hard to cultivate a connection with him, a connection that would ultimately lead to her own advancement, she hoped.

“This is Kathmandu. I have a situation here,” she said.

“Ms…Whittaker,” there was a pause, in which she imagined a cigarette being lit. “What sort of situation?”

“Someone calling himself ‘John Leslie’ is here in my office. He says he wants to come home.”

Another pause, then “wait there. I will have instructions for you within the hour.” The line clicked dead.

Jill looked across at Leslie. “Don’t go away. He’ll be right back.” She smiled mirthlessly, pushing a stray lock of raven hair from her brow. “We’ll just have to wait a bit.”

  *

Washington, D.C. 16 September, 9:05 a.m.

A man set down a telephone and drew deeply on his cigarette, pondering the call he had just received.

Leslie’s name he had not expected to hear, though he had sensed for some days that something was brewing in Asia. One of his agents in Hong Kong had reported Alex Krycek’s arrival there a few days earlier, and that he had attempted to arrange to travel into Tibet. The fool obviously thought he was on to something, as he had taken some pains to be discrete in his movements, but he would have been unpleasantly surprised to learn just how thoroughly the Consortium’s agents had reported on his activities.

Krycek fancied himself quite the freelancer, the man thought, but in fact the correct word was ‘amateur.’ He drew on his cigarette again, then exhaled smoke in a contemptuous puff.

The other element in this puzzle had turned up in Washington just a few days before as well. The Romanian, one of Alex’s associates, had actually contacted ‘The Lone Gunman,’ though what possible business he had with the paranoid triumvirate responsible for that absurd rag the smoking man could scarcely imagine.

He would find out, though. Ms. Whittaker’s call had certainly put a new spin on the matter.

He slipped into his suit jacket and headed for the door. He needed a secure telephone to arrange matters, as well as time to think. If Leslie had really turned up — and while the Consortium had considered that scenario, they had never thought it likely — that meant that some of the more outlandish conjectures about Rongbuk might be accurate after all. And that meant the Consortium would have to investigate the matter, with or without the approval of the Chinese.

It might be difficult, since Mao’s Communist Party had been a less cooperative player in the Project even than the Russians, but if it had to be done, he would find a way.

He always had before.

Well, most of the time. There had been occasions when treason within the Consortium itself had led to set-backs, most recently the Wilkes Land debacle brought on by his now-deceased colleague and Agent Mulder.

Mulder — the name triggered a surge of anger in him. Something would have to be done about the troublesome FBI agent.

He briefly considered simply ordering him killed, but discarded the idea almost at once. He gave no credence to his late colleague’s concern about ‘turning one man’s quest into a crusade.’ That was palpable nonsense. The only person on the planet who cared enough about Mulder to take up his quest was his partner, and she was no more bullet-proof than he was. However, taking out Mulder presented certain… disadvantages. For one thing, the FBI agent still had a few powerful friends who could make life difficult for the Consortium if he were to die under suspicious circumstances, and in any event, the smoking man had reached a level of frustration that had brought his conflict with Mulder to a unique level.

He knew that allowing personal concerns to influence his thinking was not a good idea, but he nonetheless wanted to see Mulder completely destroyed — humiliated, discredited, and broken — and alive to endure every minute of the agony that would bring.

He had considered having Scully killed as well, but decided that it wouldn’t be worth the risk. Mulder would never achieve his aims without her, to be sure, but if she were killed…well, Mulder had already demonstrated the lengths to which he would go to save her. To avenge her, he might at last become ruthless enough to accomplish something.

The smoking man cursed the ill luck that had turned his perfect little spy into Mulder’s best ally. He had seen Scully as an ambitious young woman in a man’s agency, one who would most likely leap at a chance to further her career by taking down one of the Bureau’s one-time ‘golden boys.’ Mulder had been set up perfectly; who would have guessed that Scully would have fallen in love with him, or made him twice as effective as he otherwise would have been?

Mulder would have to be eliminated, somehow, and subtly. But not now. The current situation was not conducive to success.

And anyway, Jeffery did not have what it would take to become a player, not yet. Until he did, Mulder could serve a purpose for the Consortium, in spite of himself. He could always be dealt with later.

At the moment, the smoking man’s pressing problem remained Leslie. If nothing else, he had to be evacuated from Asia, before Krycek managed to figure out that he had left Lhasa. After all, leaving Lhasa meant arriving in one of a small number of places, and the last thing anyone needed would be for Alex to track Leslie down and learn the location of the site he had been sent to.

Better to let Mulder find him instead.

The smoking man paused before exiting the room, a sudden inspiration lighting up in his mind. Let Mulder find him — that idea had real potential. It could solve a lot of problems all in one fell swoop. Mulder’s unerring instinct for self-destruction could be counted upon in a situation like this.

Of course, he would have to accelerate Jeffery’s education, but that did not represent a major difficultly, and he would have to put certain safeguards in place as well, just in case Mulder’s recent streak of good luck continued.

The corners of his mouth twitched as he left his apartment. In about 15 minutes, he would set the next round in motion. There was great potential, here, he decided.

  *

Kathmandu, Nepal 16 September, 5:59 p.m.

The phone in Jill Whittaker’s office rang. She raised the receiver expectantly.

“Whittaker.”

The same voice from the earlier call gave her her instructions in a smooth, modulated tone. “Ms. Whittaker, see that Mr. Leslie has a seat on tomorrow’s Royal Nepal flight to Dubay. He will be met there.”

“He doesn’t have any papers,” she protested.

“You will take care of that tonight, Ms. Whittaker.”

Jill squelched her annoyance. Getting papers for Leslie on such short notice would be a lot more difficult than her interlocutor seemed to realize, but she knew he had no interest in anything from her that wasn’t a solution. “Yes, sir,” she said. “Any other instructions?”

“Not at this time, but be available. And be ready to travel.” He paused significantly. “There may be an opportunity for you.”

The ambitious core of her heart responded to that. “Yes, sir. I’ll be ready.”

“Good.” The phone clicked off once more. Jill looked over at Leslie, still waiting in her office, and sighed. She had a lot of work to do tonight, but she had her instructions. Leslie would be on that plane, and that was that.

“Let’s go, John,” she said.

“Where?” It was the first thing he’d said in almost 45 minutes.

“Come on, you’ll see,” she said.

  *

Washington, D.C. 16 September, 9:38 a.m.

Thirty minutes after leaving his apartment, the smoking man lifted yet another telephone — a secure line, this time — and dialed a number that connected to an office within a US military installation at Diego Garcia, in the Indian Ocean.

“Yes?” The voice that answered was crisp and business-like, but came after an odd delay, induced by the half-second time-lag inherent in the satellite relay.

The smoking man recited an authentication code, then gave his orders. “I have a person who needs an…escort. He will be arriving via Royal Nepal Airlines in Dubay tomorrow afternoon. Have one of your teams in the Gulf at the airport to collect him.”

“Name?”

“Leslie. Jonathan Leslie. US passport.”

“Alright. What do you want us to do with him?”

“Put him on a transport to Andrews Air Force Base, as soon as possible. Better make it the same day.”

“That could present a problem,” said the officer at Diego Garcia.

“Then solve it.” The smoking man did not raise his voice, but anyone hearing it would have felt the steel in it at his core.

“Uh, roger that. Shall I call with the arrangements?”

“Of course.” The smoking man hung up.

One more item taken care of, he thought. He turned to an assistant. “When Diego Garcia calls, take down their arrangements and have the transport met at Andrews. Have Leslie admitted to…” he thought for a moment, then smiled slightly. “…Arkham. That should do nicely.”

Now, he thought, we have to make sure that Krycek is left in the dark about this, which means pulling Florescu’s fangs.

He lifted the receiver and began dialing once more. *

Inter-Asian Trade Center, Hong Kong Thursday, 17 September, 8:10 a.m.

Thursday morning found Alex Krycek in a vile mood.

A week and a half before, when he had first received word of the Rongbuk affair, he had been ecstatic. Long a student of UFO phenomena, Krycek had known of the stories surrounding Leslie and Sales, and unlike some, he had always taken them seriously. In fact, during his time with the Consortium, he had even proposed an expedition to the region, but the plan had never received any support. His employers in the Russian government had never taken his ideas seriously either, until now.

Krycek strode into the skyscraper in which Wu Tseng-Li, a relatively small-time gangster and narcotics trafficker whom Krycek had met during an earlier sojourn in Hong Kong, maintained his offices. He really did not want to meet with the man, but he saw no way to avoid doing so. Krycek’s efforts to gain entry to Tibet had thus far been thwarted, and now a little corruption seemed to be called for.

Besides, for a price, Wu might be able to supply a little strong-arm support as well. As competent as Krycek knew himself and Florescu to be, he also knew it never hurt to have back-up, especially in foreign territory.

It’s time to have a tete-a-tete with a few bad elements, Krycek thought.

He nodded to the burly security guard at the desk, a body-builder in a grey suit. The guard’s expression did not change; he just indicated the elevator that would carry Krycek to Wu’s private suite, 35 floors up.

Krycek pushed the button to summon a car and waited.

His operation had gone sour in a hurry, and he would have to be clever if he wanted to salvage it. Having lost Leslie, Krycek had attempted to manipulate Mulder into finding him for him — something of a desperate measure, but Krycek had no interest in entering the United States to look for him on his own. Though he had made his way back into the good graces of the Consortium — to an extent — Krycek knew he did not enjoy their trust. Without help, finding Leslie in America would be next to impossible.

Florescu had reported that Mulder had taken the bait, but that had been days ago, and since then, he had had no new information. So Leslie either had not gone to America, or Mulder’s investigative prowess had atrophied somewhat.

Krycek decided he would have to be patient. He despised Mulder for a spineless coward, but he had to admit, the man had a way of digging up hidden information. Too bad he didn’t have the balls to do anything with it, though in this case, that suited Krycek just fine.

Just find my guy, he thought. Then if Florescu is worth his pay, I’ll have what I need.

The door to the elevator opened, revealing two more well-dressed thugs. They beckoned Krycek into the car, patted him down, and then sent the elevator on its way upward. Krycek leaned casually against the wall, affecting a subtly disrespectful pose calculated to annoy the triad men in the car with him. If it had an effect, though, the thugs did not let it show.

Krycek’s thoughts went back to Washington. Florescu’s reports about Scully had been fairly terse as well, though Krycek had given him explicit instructions to pay attention to her. He was not entirely sure why he had done so. He knew he should not let himself think about Scully, let her distract him from his real aims, but he could not help himself. Ever since he had first laid eyes on her luxuriant red hair and give-me-head-‘til-I’m-dead mouth, he had wanted nothing more than to just push her down over a desk, thrust his cock into her, and fuck her until she begged for mercy.

He enjoyed imagining that. It was even more fun than screwing that bitch Marita, and that was pretty damn fun.

Krycek shook his head, trying to chase the rather appealing but also very distracting thought of Scully from his mind. He wondered if Mulder had ever worked up the guts to screw his partner. Probably not, he decided. The man was too much of a pussy to try anything that bold. Anyway, he sure as hell didn’t deserve the pleasure.

One never knew — if Mulder and Scully pursued the Rongbuk matter, he might cross paths with them once more, and who knows what could happen if he were able to acquire the upper hand….

Enough! he thought. The meeting with Wu would require all of his concentration.

The elevator doors opened then, and the triad men ushered him into the presence of their leader.

  *

FBI Headquarters, Washington, D.C. 17 September, 9:00 a.m.

“Mulder, we’re spinning our wheels.”

Dana Scully set down her telephone and looked over at her partner, who had almost disappeared amid the piles of books, papers, and files on his desk. Mulder had spent much of the last two days collecting every scrap of paper, every book ever published, and every archived file that had any reference to Leslie and Sales or Rongbuk Monastery. And when he had not been gathering and ploughing through his documents, he been on the phone with every law enforcement officer in eastern North America who might possibly owe him a favor, hoping to turn up some rumor, some hint of Leslie’s whereabouts.

Scully had done much the same, calling contacts in the medical and scientific professions. The results had been less that spectacular.

Mulder looked up, removing his reading glasses and rubbing his eyes, weariness etched in his features. His particularly handsome features, mused Scully’s less business-like side. She resisted the temptation to just stare at him and wonder how the whole of his visage could be so much more than the sum of its parts.

Instead, she said “looking for this guy is a search for a needle in the proverbial haystack.”

For once, Mulder had no ready quip. He just nodded and said “I know, but I don’t know what else to do. Leslie is the key to this affair. If only Skinner weren’t being so….” He did not finish. Scully knew full well that with an official investigation, they would have had access to crucial resources that they could not employ now.

“I know, but I’ve been thinking,” she said.

“About?”

“We could spend the rest of our lives making informal inquiries into Leslie’s whereabouts. It’s getting us nowhere.”

“Do you want to give up?” Mulder look surprised.

“No, of course not,” Scully said. “I just think we have to change our approach.”

“Florescu.” It was not a question.

Scully nodded. “Our involvement in this case has been entirely due to outside influences, right?”

“True.”

“And we don’t have any incontrovertible evidence that Leslie is even real.”

“Scully, he certainly is real,” Mulder protested. “He was a….”

“No, no,” she cut him off. “What I mean is, the only thing we have to go on where Leslie is concerned is an anonymous email and a news clipping.”

Mulder nodded, conceding the point.

“The ‘Gunmen’ — did they ever find out where that email came from?”

Mulder raised his eyebrows at her sudden digression. “Yeah, Frohike said it originated in Hong Kong, but at some sort of publicly available computer. Web-based email accessed through a cyber-cafe, or something. And he also said they identified the paper.”

“How?”

“I didn’t ask him to explain how, but it was the ‘South China Morning Post’ — a newspaper in Hong Kong.”

Scully mouthed a silent ‘oh,’ then refocused on her original point.

“But the email — you’re saying there’s no way of finding out who sent it.”

“Not really. Not any easy way, at least.”

“So Florescu is our only link to whoever wants us on this case.”

“Maybe so, but how would he know anything about where Leslie has gone?” Mulder frowned, clearly impatient with the idea of giving up the search for the missing surveyor.

Scully felt frustration rising in her. For all his intelligence, there were times when Mulder became fixated on something to the exclusion of everything else. He had long since put Florescu, the one person about whom they had solid, if limited, information, completely out of his mind.

Scully shot a glance at their office door, making sure it was closed. Satisfied, she turned her attention back to her partner.

She lowered her voice. “Mulder, I love you, but you can be just so… dense…sometimes.”

“Scully, you wound me.” He gave her a disarming grin.

She felt her exasperation ease a bit, but didn’t allow herself to be diverted. “Don’t you see it? Skinner wouldn’t let us open a case because we had nothing to go on, and here we are, two days of searching later, and what do we have?”

“Nothing,” Mulder admitted.

“So let’s get something. It doesn’t have to be about Leslie. If we can open a case….”

“We’ll have a better chance of finding him.” Mulder nodded. “You’re right, Scully, I’ve been too close to this. I got so wrapped up in finding Leslie that I’ve been ignoring the obvious.”

An imp took hold of Scully’s tongue. “Mulder, are you feeling well?”

He stood up, flashed her a grin, and headed for the door. “Never better,” he said over his shoulder.

“Wait a minute. Where are you going?”

“To the ‘Gunman.’ Where else?”

Scully arched an eyebrow at him.

Mulder paused in the doorway. “Think about it. ‘Florescu’ can’t be his real name, can it?”

She shook her head. “Probably not.”

“So it’s not like we can look this guy up in the phone book.”

“No, we can’t. What are you going to do?”

“I’m going to try and get a print.”

“Mulder, you can’t be serious.” Scully was truly astonished.

“Sure I can. It’s a long shot, but he was there….” He shrugged. “What else do we have to go on?”

“Mulder, we’ve been all over that place,” she said, meaning the offices of the ‘Gunman.’ You’ll never get a print of this guy.”

“Scully, finding the print is going to be the easy part.”

Scully was afraid to ask. She waited for him to go on, encouraging him with a look.

“The hard part will be getting the guys to let me take control prints from them.” He grabbed his jacket from the rack, winked, and disappeared into the hallway.

Scully shook her head. I’m in love with Don Quixote, she thought, not for the first time. She rose as well and headed for the FBI’s records center. Just in case Florescu had been using his real name, or an alias he had used before, she would have his name put into the central database. If she were lucky, she would have something before Mulder wasted the entire day.

Actually, that was not entirely fair. Mulder had demonstrated an uncanny ability to find prints in the past. It was just one more of his many talents that defied explanation.

Talents that included an aptitude in the bedroom that might not be expected from one who had lived the quasi-monastic life that had been his until recently. A progression of warm, delightful images eased through Scully’s mind as she made her way through the corridors, images of Mulder’s hands on her, gently stroking her….

Stop it, Dana — Scully brought herself up short — you have work to do.

With some effort, she focused her mind on the problem at hand. There would be plenty of time for…other things…later on.

  *

Kowloon District, Hong Kong Friday, 18 September, 8:00 p.m.

Alex Krycek sat in a room full of blue smoke and nursed a black mood. Yesterday, he had been annoyed. Now he was coldly furious.

He could feel the opportunity of a lifetime slipping away from him.

He sipped from a cup of tea and idly nudged a bit of Ch’ao-Chou roast goose, a specialty of the restaurant in Kowloon that he had settled into for the evening. His appetite had declined to join him, seemingly, and so he had nothing to do but chase his worries in circles through his mind.

He pushed the tea away. Fuck this, I need a beer, he thought.

Florescu had reported that Mulder had come to the ‘Lone Gunman’ looking for fingerprints, but that he had made no mention of finding John Leslie. And Radu had had nothing to report about Scully, either.

Meanwhile, Wu Tseng-Li had, in his ever-so-polite and inscrutable Asian way, lowered the boom on him. Krycek cursed himself for underestimating the triad leader. He had assumed that he could purchase his services and get the help he needed to get to Rongbuk. He hadn’t counted on Wu taking an interest in what might be up there.

But Wu had done just that, realizing that if Krycek wanted to get into Tibet, then there must be a profit in it somewhere. He had insisted on knowing the objective and reserving for himself a share of any potential acquisitions.

Wu had also noted that arranging the necessary ‘accommodations’ would most likely require at least a week’s time. Krycek would understand that, naturally.

Arrogant fucker — Krycek gestured angrily for a waitress, ordered the beer, and sat staring after her until she brought it to him. He did not give her time to pour it, snatching it from her and swigging from the bottle. He ignored her expression of distaste.

He had had two choices: get out of Hong Kong, or bring Wu Tseng-Li in on the deal. He hadn’t liked it, but he had chosen the latter. Of course, Krycek had not told Wu anything even approximating the truth. Instead, he had spun an impromptu yarn about lost gold.

Krycek had not been able to tell whether Wu had believed him.

Well, he hadn’t shot him, at least.

Once he got to Rongbuk, he would still have a chance to retake control of the operation. And if the expedition proved as profitable as he hoped, he would have control of information that would significantly enhance his status in the Organization — maybe high enough that he could begin satisfying a few long-standing urges.

The smoking bastard — he would be the first Krycek would take care of.

And then Mulder would be next. He had a few scores to settle with him, and he planned to take his time and enjoy the process.

And then there was Scully. Krycek sighed to himself, an array of dark, erotic images forming in his mind. He swigged his beer again, indulging himself in a long drink. At the moment, he had nothing to do but kill time. The operation could not go forward until Florescu came up with something, and he would not be reporting for a day or so. Krycek had time to kick back with a fantasy or two and then head down to Wanchai and hire a woman for the evening.

He pulled again on his beer, then began peeling away the corner of the label on the bottle. It’s always like this, he thought. Hurry up and wait.

Maybe he would hire two women. That was an idea.

  *

Kathmandu, Nepal 18 September, 11:30 p.m.

Jill Whittaker closed the last file and sighed to herself. It had been a long day.

That morning, when she had arrived at the office after the usual chaotic ride through Kathmandu’s insanely crowded streets, a stack of materials had been waiting on her desk. An innocuous label, just an address and authentication code, had alerted her to the identity of the sender, and she had known she would have to spend her day getting through the numerous files and papers.

It had not been her preferred way to begin her day. Usually, after driving to work, she liked to spend a few minutes on something simple, giving herself a chance to recover from the stress that resulted from Kathmandu’s traffic. That morning had been typical, and as she had driven, she had been forced to dodge the usual assortment of cars, trucks, motorcycles, and other vehicles, along with the dogs, ducks, chickens, pigs, goats, cows, macaques, and people that turned the city’s streets into raw mayhem, arriving at the office with her nerves stretched taut.

She had been hoping for a cup of coffee and a few minutes of quiet.

No such luck — the smoking man would expect her to master the files he had sent at once. He had that sort of reputation.

And so she had plunged in, familiarizing herself with everything that the Consortium knew about Rongbuk, Leslie, Sales, and also Fox Mulder and his partner, and, Jill had noted with interest, lover, Dana Scully.

Now, after finishing the last of the documents — a file on the re- opening and current status of the X-Files — Jill lit a cigarette and prepared to leave her office, pondering Mulder’s relationship with his partner. He had made himself something of a player, but he had acquired a dangerous weakness in the process.

And if she couldn’t exploit it, she wasn’t half the woman she thought she was.

Jill headed for home, knowing she needed to sleep before the next morning. She had been instructed to prepare to travel to Lhasa. That would mean some fancy paperwork and more than a few bribes, as the Chinese could be touchy about westerners traveling in Tibet.

She was not worried, though; the Consortium had resources.

She had to be ready to go to Lhasa, because Mulder would be going there. The smoking man had been clear about that.

September was shaping up to be an interesting month.

  *

Arlington, Virginia 18 September, 12:14 p.m.

Radu Florescu paused in the middle of his mid-day walk, the few minutes of outdoor exercise he had been allowing himself to keep his mind sharp, and then began striding again as though nothing were amiss.

He had noticed something, though, a vehicle that had not been in the neighborhood the previous week. The van seemed innocuous enough, but that was precisely what disturbed him about it. It seemed just a little too innocuous, and he did not care for new elements in any situation he wanted to control.

It might be nothing of course, but he knew better than to take chances. Until convinced otherwise, he would assume that he had come under surveillance.

Half-consciously, he touched the place where he had his pistol concealed. He did not know who would be watching him, but he sensed that it was not any legitimate law enforcement effort. He had done nothing to attract the attention of the local authorities, and though his targets had become suspicious of him and the books he had given them, as far as he knew, they were wholly unaware of his current proximity. It was fortunate that Byers and his cohorts were such recluses. Otherwise, Florescu would not have dared to leave his observation post just to take a stroll.

And if he had not been out and about, he would likely have not picked up on the surveillance.

His hand stroked his weapon once again. Chances were that he would need it. His walk was not interrupted, but it was with a renewed sense of caution that he mounted the stairs to return to his temporary quarters.

  *

FBI Headquarters, Washington, D.C. 1:00 p.m.

“Certainly, Agent Mulder. Anything you need, come to me and I’ll take care of you.” The data analyst in records division, a young and, Scully admitted to herself, very attractive blonde, gave Mulder what could only be described as a blatantly ‘come-hither’ look.

To his credit, Mulder gave her nothing back, nothing more than a polite smile, and of course Scully knew she had no reason to feel threatened. But a small part of her, the part that looked in the mirror each morning and, seeing the reflection of a woman well on her way to 40, layered on just a bit more make-up than she would have done five years earlier, the part of her that had at last accepted the fact that, no matter how far fertility treatments progressed, she would never bear a man’s — Mulder’s? — children, that part hurt, deep within the core of her being.

It was just as well that children did not seem to be one of Mulder’s priorities. The image of a nice house in the suburbs, with kids running around a well-manicured lawn, just didn’t fit into their lives. Even now, though they were not even officially investigating a case, the X-Files remained Mulder’s first concern, and by extension, hers as well. The small part within her resented that as well.

Scully shook her head slightly. She really wasn’t being fair; Mulder could not be faulted for his treatment of her. It was just that at times the perennial absence of…normalcy…became wearing.

Mulder had not returned to the office the day before, and she had not even heard from him until he had called, jubilant, at 11:45 that night, to tell her he had found a print.

Not hers, not his, and not Byers’, Langly’s, or Frohike’s — that did not make it Florescu’s of course, but it gave them a place to start, which was fortunate, as her name-search that afternoon had drawn a blank. If Radu Florescu had visited the United States before, he had not used that name.

To her disappointment, Mulder had decided not to drive in to her apartment after his long day at ‘The Gunman.’ He had told her not to wait up for him, that he would just crash in his own place and meet her at the office the next day.

That was it. She was just cranky from not having slept well.

And now she was leaning in a doorway, arms folded across her chest, while some bimbo who had managed to unbutton her blouse into a workplace variation on a decolletage made eyes at her partner, who thankfully had just concluded the business of registering the print and made his way to her side.

“Ready to get some lunch?” Mulder asked.

“Sure, I’m starving. Clyde’s?”

“You bet.”

Scully enjoyed the light touch of his fingers on her elbow as he guided her into the hallway.

  *

Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland 5:00 p.m.

The smoking man took a long pull on his cigarette as the C-141 Starlifter, one of the US military’s fleet of jet transport aircraft, taxied in from the runway where it had landed minutes before.

The plane had made a long flight, all the way from the Persian Gulf, with very little cargo, but the waste of fuel and man-hours did not concern the smoker. The passenger the plane brought was sufficiently important to warrant the expenditure.

He waited while the plane came to a halt and a team of heavily armed troopers, dressed in unadorned black battle-dress utilities, escorted a forlorn, tired looking figure in his direction. That figure was the reason he had decided to meet the transport plane personally.

The soldiers half-dragged the man close. “Mr. Leslie,” the smoking man said, “is it really you, after all these years?”

The man did not respond, just looked at him crazily.

“He’s been like this the whole way over, sir,” said one of the soldiers, the team leader, a square-jawed youth with peach-fuzz blonde hair. “Practically drooling.”

“Very well,” said the smoking man. “Did you get his gear?”

“Yes sir.”

“Good. Have all written materials copied, then send it on with him. Put him on the road for Arkham today, or tomorrow at the latest.”

The troopers nodded in unison.

“Dismissed.”

“Yes sir.” The team leader did not salute — the Consortium did not bother with such formalities — but simply nodded and hurried off, his men hustling Leslie along after him.

The smoking man watched them hurry away with satisfaction. Most of the pieces were in place now, with one to be removed. Tonight he would give Mulder a push, send him diving into the snare that awaited him.

He tossed the cigarette butt to the tarmac and lit another. He really should cut down a bit, but not today. He owed himself the pleasure.

  *

Annapolis, MD 10:30 p.m.

The pub was quiet and dimly lit, a forgotten below-street oasis of hardwood floors and old, smallish tables below a more frequented restaurant at the edge of the town’s historic district. Mulder settled into his chair, enjoying the atmosphere, and let his eyes drift across the elegant contours of Scully’s visage. In the half-light and smoke, she reminded him of a siren from an old black-and-white film, the dangerous beauty, met over whiskey and jazz piano, who snares you in a seductive web and then puts a bullet in your partner.

Just as well that *she* was his partner. He certainly would not have wanted someone so deadly with a pistol for an adversary.

His shoulder ached momentarily, the ghost of an old injury. He did not quite indulge in a rueful head shake. The ways we find to show our affection, Scully….

Since their encounter that afternoon with the blonde in the records division — Mulder had made a point of not learning her name — Scully had been acting territorial. Little touches that came more often than usual, that lasted just a bit longer than expected, intimated that she would later be staking her claim to him in a most fundamental, and welcome, of ways.

He grinned inwardly. In the years that he and Scully had been together, they had grown to know each other better than many a married couple. Nearly every aspect of their lives, from professional methods to restaurant preferences to the smallest of gestures, had become a shared habit. But Scully — Dana — as his lover was someone new, someone who, he had discovered to his surprised delight, revealed herself in intriguing stages, at times passionate, at times playful. Mulder had thoroughly enjoyed the process.

That afternoon, though, her mood had been subdued as well as possessive, and when evening had come, when another day’s futile investigation into the fate of John Leslie had wound down, she had called a halt to the work to allow an evening of normalcy. Mulder had been impatient, at first, preferring to work on into the evening, but Scully had insisted, and after a half-hearted protest, he had given in. Deep down, he had been glad for the interruption. The case had not progressed smoothly, to date.

So what else is new? he thought. He sipped at his beer, savoring the heavy, dark red brew, the unaccustomed intake of alcohol easing into his system, relaxing the week’s accumulated tension in his muscles.

Screw it, he thought. We’re off tonight.

They had left the office fairly late and thus were spared the worst of the capital’s evening traffic. An hours’ drive had seen them in Annapolis, where they had parked and walked along the old town’s tree- lined, brick-paved sidewalks, enjoying the architecture and the warm evening air. They spoke little, content to walk close together, with just the outer fingers of their adjacent hands woven together. Dinner had been in a small restaurant near the harbor, crab soup laced with sherry for her, a deep-fried, clam-laden monstrosity of a sandwich for him. Afterwards, they had walked again, their way lit with the light of street lamps, through the cooling night air, eventually settling into the pub’s tranquility.

They had passed the time there, fingertips touching across the table, speaking of ordinary things and enjoying the respite from their lives. Scully sipped a glass of wine, burgundy moistening lips already full and blood rose red, giving a silent promise of intimacy.

Mulder had known Scully to be a passionate woman beneath her controlled exterior, but he had still been pleasantly surprised at the torrid intensity of her lovemaking.

He took her hand fully into his, no longer giving a damn who might be watching, letting the contact replace their quieting conversation. He felt a sense of security in the connection, a reassurance that she would always be with him.

In the midst of the Blackwood case, he had come dangerously close to losing her, not once but twice. He had been shocked at the revelation, by the knowledge that Scully had seen herself as an impediment to his investigations, a hindrance to his quest.

And then she had been taken from him again. Unconsciously, his hand tightened on hers as he recalled the hellish flight to Antarctica, the long drive across the wastes of Wilkes Land, the gnawing fear that he would be too late, or that there would be nothing there when he reached the coordinates given to him.

When he had at last found her, injecting the vaccine and watching the alien release its grip on her, his heart had almost burst under the combined pressure of fear and hope. At the moment Scully had begun to breath, coughing phlegm and God-knows-what alien fluid into his face, he had known himself to be the happiest man alive.

He could not remember much before the flight back to North America. Exhausted by his efforts, he had collapsed on the rim of the crater left by the UFO. Somehow, Scully had found the strength to get him moving, back to the snow crawler where they could radio for help. He remembered the plane ride, though. They had huddled together for the duration of the flight, neither willing to let go of the other. They had spoken little. Though much between them remained to be discussed, somehow, there had been no need for speech.

And much later, after days of hearings and testimony, they had at last had time alone with each other. They dined together, and then mutual, unspoken agreement had led them to his apartment, where he had ridden the whirlwind of his emotions and considered his partner, his best friend. ‘I want to be more than that for you,’ he had told her. Will you have me, after all that has been?

Yes, her eyes had replied.

And she had kissed him again, an almost chaste, butterfly caress of mouth on mouth, yet a solar flare within him, that left pale and empty his memories of wild nights with the Phoebe Greens and other strangers in his life, shadows of ghosts.

He had slept, then, exhausted by days of stress, not waking until well after midnight. He had found Scully nearby, dozing in a chair from which she had watched over his sleep. Rubbing the fog from his eyes, Mulder had considered her then, her slumber having lifted the protective mask she normally wore.

He had been shocked at how fragile she looked.

Mulder had long viewed Scully as the stronger half of their partnership, but time and illness and loss had worn her down, leaving her once robust figure slim and delicate. Beneath her make-up, hints of lines at the corners of her eyes and around her mouth traced patterns of grief on a once flawless visage. She bore the years well, but they weighed heavily on her all the same. Her outer form reflected the wounded spirit within.

And her most recent ordeal had taken its toll as well.

Mulder had realized, then, that when he had declared himself to her, he had made certain promises as well.

I will be there for you, Scully. I will let you lean on me as I have leaned on you for so long.

I won’t see you die. I won’t let you be crucified on the truth I have sought.

I will love you as you deserve to be loved.

“You’ve gotten awfully quiet, Mulder.” Scully’s voice eased into his awareness, a delicate aural caress.

He smiled at her, shrugged. “Just thinking,” he said.

She gave him a familiar, questioning look.

“I’m thinking about us,” he admitted.

“About…?”

He shrugged again. “About how…what we have now changes things, what it means for our work.”

A hint of a frown crinkled her brow. “Mulder, do you think that our work…the way we work…has to change?”

“I hope not. I don’t want to lose what we’ve had.” But it will change, in some ways, he added silently. I have to adapt. “I guess I just sense that things are fundamentally different, somehow. I mean, we put this off for so long…we became accustomed….” He trailed off, not sure precisely what he wanted to say.

Scully looked thoughtful. “I think things have changed,” she said, “but not for the worse. Is something bothering you? Something specific?” Her look asked him, have I let you down in some way?

Do you think this was a mistake?

“No, Scully,” he said hastily. “Nothing like that.” He locked his eyes on hers, willing her to understand, not to doubt herself. “I meant everything I told you. No one means more to me. No one.”

Her expression eased as she recognized the sincerity of his words.

“Scully, I just mean that I have to make some adjustments. I have to learn to separate how I feel about you on the job and how I feel about you…in real life.” Scully laughed gently at that, and he joined her in it, enjoying the irony.

“Mulder, it’ll be okay,” she said. “I’m still me. I’m still the same partner you’ve had all along.”

You’re so much more than that, he thought. “I know,” he said. “I just have to get used to…us.”

She accepted that, not probing further, content merely with his companionship. How well she knows me, he thought. Other women, less certain of themselves, would have pushed at him, seeking reassurance, or just a certain sign of connection. Phoebe would have perceived a challenge, begun poking about in his brain with verbal icepicks until satisfied, unconcerned with the collateral damage she might have done. He shuddered inwardly, then discarded the thought of her.

Mulder turned his chair and leaned against the wall, pleased with the peaceful ambience of the pub, the absence of the frantic weekend mating rituals of the young. Well past the midpoint of his fourth decade, he had begun to feel his age creeping up on him, as the years mounted and doors closed, opportunities slipping away. Scully had changed that for him as well, making the world around him more vital, more tangible, somehow. Even so, maturity had brought to him a preference for a measure of tranquility. He closed his eyes, letting himself slip into reverie, his mind supplying the memory of their first night together in perfect detail.

She had stirred as he watched her sleep, sensing his gaze upon her, and as she came to full wakefulness, meeting his eyes, the commitment he had accepted had collapsed on him, as though gravity had been somehow turned up a few notches.

The feeling froze him for a moment, old, defensive habits too long established to yield their place all at once rising up in a last bid to maintain their hold on him. He had a vague urge to leave, to flee her presence, then realized the absurdity of running out of his own apartment, of running out on her once more.

Irresolute, he compromised and retreated toward the kitchen, beginning to offer her water, likely the only refreshment he had, in an old juice bottle in the refrigerator, but his words trailed off half-spoken. Don’t be an ass, urged a braver voice in his head.

“Mulder…” Scully’s mellifluent alto stopped him in his tracks.

He turned, the intense blue of her gaze arresting him. He felt his chest tighten, adrenalin coursing through his limbs as she crossed the room to stand before him, alabaster beauty in the half-light of the room. His breath caught as she set her left hand on his chest, then stood on tip-toe and gently placed her right hand on his cheek, sliding it slowly upward and behind his neck. Mulder let his gaze drift downward along the perfect contours of her face, settling on her lush, full lips, roses wet with dew. He found his voice at last.

“Scully?”

“Dana,” she corrected, raising her mouth to his. Mulder felt the tension in him crest, and then relaxed slightly, returning her kiss and sliding his hands around her waist, pressing into the softness of her breasts and abdomen. Holding her close, he leaned back against the wall, narrowing the difference in their heights and allowing her to settle down into a more comfortable posture. He felt her hands drift lightly to his shoulders, then down along his upper arms. At last, she broke the kiss and spoke again. “Call me Dana,” she breathed.

“Dana,” he said, tasting the name. He had almost forgotten how it sounded, so long had it been since he had last spoken it himself, when he had used it to explore the limits of their intimacy. It had a secret, exciting quality that enticed him.

She eased back from their embrace and took his hand, stepping away and drawing him after her. He surrendered to her will, letting her lead him to the bedroom, then stood apart, passive, as she shed her clothes. Enthralled, his eyes followed the graceful cascade of fabric.

Long moments later, nude, she settled backward on the bed, her eyes never leaving his. Mulder felt the quiescence rise from him like a curtain being raised and clawed his way out of his shirt and trousers, flinging aside his boxers without thought. Then, as his knee touched the edge of the mattress, he mastered himself again, settling slowly next to her and touching her gently, kissing her once more. His hands explored her body, tracing her curves and gliding to secret places. She returned his caresses, her breathing thick and heavy, small sounds of passion forming an intimate discourse. His heart pounded, as though it would burst from emotion long pent up and now demanding to be released.

Months before, as she had lain with death looming over her, he had rushed to her bedside, with no thought but that she might leave him before he could get there. ‘I’m only half dead,’ he had said, referring to her, but only now, his life welling in him in response to her desire, did he know the full truth of his words.

He luxuriated in vitality, content with the unhurried rhythm of their loving. For a time, she returned his caresses in a leisurely tempo.

“Mulder….” Her voice caressed his name.

Her hands moved on him with sudden urgency, impatiently guiding him into position between her legs, unwilling to delay the moment any longer. Their joining jolted through him, nearly overcame him. He held still, staring into the limpid wells of her eyes, then began to move again. She waited, then moved with him, hot and liquid, his match in this as in all things.

The tide lifted them together.

He felt her climax, joined her in it. He stared into her radiance, melting in it, as the passion coursed through them and then flowed away into stillness. He kissed her once more and tasted salt. Unbidden, half-forgotten words formed in his mind.

She sheds tears. She gives water to the dead.

And for the first time in years, Mulder felt whole and alive.

Later, he had stared at the ceiling, absently stroking Scully’s hair as she dozed, head pillowed on his chest. Though his body had relaxed into a rich languor, Mulder’s mind hummed with an intense awareness of his partner, the delicate touch of her hair on his chest, the slight dampness where their skin touched, the dew at her apex. Her breathing massaged him in a contented largo. Outside, a warm, moist breeze had risen, making sails of the bedroom drapes and bringing a gentle rain that hissed on the streets below the window.

He inhaled her scent, spice and smoke and something uniquely her, liberated by passion and the warm night air. He pondered the gift she had given him, her love and her trust in his. Self-reproach, an old comrade, nagged at him. She deserves better than you, Mulder, someone she can rely on for more than heartache.

He felt her stir against him, coming awake. “Hmmmm, Mulder,” she sighed, not raising her head.

“Dana,” he said, his voice ghost-like. The name was an unfamiliar, yet intimate flavor. My Dana, he thought, and desire coursed through him once more, briefly quieting his self-recrimination.

“I love you, Mulder,” there was a slight catch in her voice. “I have for so long.”

His heart leapt at that. “I love you too,” he said, tightening his arms around her. She settled into him, already drifting towards sleep once more. He realized, then, how completely she had let down her guard, the armor of emotional distance that had shielded her, at least in part, from so much pain.

For him, she had cast aside the last of her defenses.

Amid his happiness, he felt like a leper.

Mulder knew that, for her sake, he had to be more than he had once been. He had no idea whether he had it in him.

Scully’s touch on his palm brought him back into the present. “Get the bill,” she said. “I want to show you something.”

A few moments later, they left the bar and returned to their car. Mulder acquiesced to her demand to drive, and sat without questioning as she had followed the roads out of town and across the westernmost of the two bridges spanning the Severn River, turning east on the far side and heading back toward the town. Just prior to the turn-off for the other bridge, she spoke, something indefinable in her voice.

“Almost there. It’s just ahead.”

They traveled a bit further and then Scully turned the car into a small parking area between the lanes of the highway. A sign informed visitors that the memorial overlook, a short walk from where Scully had stopped their vehicle, had closed for the evening.

“Say, Scully,” he said, “you aren’t going to get us busted, are you?”

She ignored his teasing. “Close your eyes,” she instructed him.

He complied, following her lead toward the overlook. She giggled slightly as he stumbled over an irregularity in the pavement, falling into her. Soon, though, she stopped him and, quietly, said “okay, look.”

The sight before him surprised him with its loveliness. Before him, the bridge arched over the river, bathed in red-gold light from its lamps, light that danced and shimmered on the wavelets below, and beyond that stood the graceful domes and steeples of the town’s skyline. The wind from the bay, vaguely scented by the brackish marshes of the Eastern Shore, wafted in over the river’s mouth, teasing their hair.

“It’s lovely,” he said, easing her in front of him and slipping his arms about her waist.

“I come here, sometimes.” Scully leaned back against him. “My father taught at the Academy for a couple of years. We didn’t live here long, but it feels like home, somehow.”

He waited in silence.

“When I was ill, if there was time, I would drive out here and just think. Not many people come here, so I could be alone, and just be in the past, before…” her voice trailed off.

“Before…everything?” Mulder prompted.

She nodded slightly. “I was afraid of the future…I thought I had no future. It felt good to remember my life before I got sick, before Melissa….” She paused again, then continued, the hint of tears in her tone. “And after Emily died, I would come here then, too.”

Mulder felt a dark shadow of unease stir at the edge of his awareness. As difficult as Emily’s death had been, he knew she would get through it. What bothered him more was the thought that it could all happen again.

It probably already had, perhaps more than once.

He had never discussed that possibility with Scully, and in truth, he hoped he would never have to. He feared that it would prove the final burden, the one that could break her.

He told himself that some truths really were best left hidden.

Mulder held her, vexed by wrongs he could never right, no matter how much he loved her. She felt small and delicate in his arms. “Scully,” he began, “why…?” He did not complete the question.

She did not respond at first. He felt her inhale deeply, not allowing herself to weep, but neither did she raise the brittle walls behind which she once would have retreated. “This isn’t an unhappy place, Mulder. I found comfort here. I wanted you to see it, that’s all.”

There was a silence. “Thank you,” he said, after a moment.

She was quiet a while, then spoke once more. “You must have such a place….”

All of the empty houses that had never been home ghosted past him. “Not really,” he said. “I just sit with the fish.”

Her response was a melancholy laugh.

“No, really,” he said. “They’re great listeners.”

“I’m sure.” She placed her hands over his, pressing them into her abdomen. So soft — he could hardly believe she was barren.

My beautiful, broken love, he thought.

Mulder stood, bearing her weight, watching the languid movement of the water below. We know so much about each other, he thought, but it is these little things that we have left to discover, to reveal about ourselves. One more leftover gap had been closed — not many left now. An amalgam of love and remorse burned in him.

“I don’t deserve you,” he said.

She understood him at once. “No, Mulder, that’s not true.”

“I’ve cost you so much.” His words were rust in his mouth. Scully’s ghosts had joined his in tormenting him.

She turned in his arms, facing him, placing her palms on his chest. “I’ve walked after you of my own free will.” She shook her head. “What has happened to us hasn’t been your choice. You don’t own the blame for it.”

He stared down at her. Lost time, lost sister, lost child, and yet she did not accuse him. But he did not hesitate to blame himself, for these and for the bondage imposed by the implant, cybernetic chains made necessary by the specter of her cancer. The thought made him ill. “I used to feel sorry for myself,” he said.

“It was my choice too.” Scully passed a hand across his cheek. “Years ago, your informant — they killed him right in front of me. I knew the stakes.”

Deep Throat, Mulder thought — Scully had seldom been able to bring herself to use that sobriquet — he had been one of the first to die. “There’s a lot I would change.”

Scully hugged him tighter, laying her head against his chest. “Mulder, I once told you I wouldn’t change a day. And then, for a while, I wanted to change everything. I wanted to break loose and start over.” She was quiet a moment, then went on. “But I’ve realized that you can’t just choose the good and not the bad. Maybe I had to lose something to gain something else.”

Mulder shook his head. “No, Scully, no. It’s not like that.”

“I don’t know, Mulder. I think sometimes it has to be.”

He shook his head again, in wordless denial.

Her voice fell to a near whisper. “Mulder, I’m in this as deep as you are, now. I have to believe that it’s for the best…in the end.”

He did not answer, just held her as she clung to him. Renewed faith had indeed proven a source of strength for her, but he realized as he held her just how much she needed it, how little of her own reserves were left.

She needs you, Mulder, he told himself. She needs you in a way that she’s never let herself need anyone. You have to be there.

He was worried. He knew himself too well.

For a while, they remained locked in their embrace, not speaking, and then at last, chilled by the rising breeze, he led her to the car. The drive back to Mulder’s apartment in Alexandria was made in silence, the light touch of her small hand on his all the discourse they needed.

Their lovemaking that night was gentle and profound, the tranquil caress of souls expressed through the physical form, and afterwards they lay long awake, in a contented, healing embrace, a soft breeze cooling them as the city grew quiet in the deepening night.

  *

In a car on the street outside, the smoking man lit up once again and started his car. His push would have to wait. Agent Mulder would likely not be receptive to a knock on the door at this hour.

Never mind, it could wait a day.

As he drove homeward through Washington’s emptying streets, another thought struck him, an idea for a new angle, one more manipulation. He considered, decided it wouldn’t hurt to try it. He opened his cell phone and dialed. *

Book II — The Operative

Arlington, Virginia Saturday, 19 September, 12:14 a.m.

Within the confines of the surveillance van, two Consortium operatives sat in bored misery. Their target had taken a brief stroll around the neighborhood once a day, every day since they had been there, and that had been all they had seen of him for the duration of the stakeout. They were plenty tired of sitting in a cramped space, for twelve-hour shifts, listening to hours of silence broken only by the sound of Florescu’s toilet flushing or the occasional opening and closing of a door.

Consequently, the order to take out the target had come as a welcome diversion to the men, who had, somewhat unreasonably, come to blame the object of their surveillance for the tedium they had endured.

In fact, they counted themselves lucky to be the ones on duty when the order had come to kill him.

Jack Bowers checked his weapon, making sure that a round was chambered and the safety off, then turned to his partner, who was taking his turn on the earphones.

“Where is he?”

“Inside.”

“Alright, I’ll get him.”

“Want back-up?”

Bowers thought about it. He was sure he could handle the job himself, but their briefing on Florescu had painted him as an experienced operative. Two men on the hit might be better than one, in this case.

“Yeah, best be certain,” he said. “Come on.”

His partner got up, checking his own weapon, and together they made their way across the street, heading for the darkened apartment building.

Behind them, in the van, the surveillance gear dutifully recorded the sound of a door quietly opening and closing, though there was no one there to hear it.

  *

Florescu saw the pair leave the van and head for his apartment building, and by the furtive character of their movements, he knew that the game was up.

He hastily gathered a few tools and then slipped out into the hallway, heading down the corridor to the fire escape at the end window. The two coming for him appeared to be professionals, and if that were the case, they would clear his rooms quickly, and then would probably split up. One would follow him down the fire escape, while the other went back out the front, intending to cut off his escape route in the alley below. Florescu hoped that they were confident in their work. In fact, he was counting on it.

  *

“Shit!” Bowers cursed sotto voce, sweeping his eyes one last time around the empty apartment, then turned and hurried back into the hall. Somehow, the target had known they were coming and slipped out. He hadn’t gone far though — Bowers could sense it.

He signaled his partner, pointing to the front of the building and then motioning downward and around. Next, he indicated himself, and then pointed to the window that led to the fire escape. His partner nodded acknowledgment and moved toward the stairs at the front of the building.

Bowers slunk down to the end of the hall, noting with grim satisfaction that the window was part-way open. Fled down the chute, eh? he thought. He lifted the window and stepped out onto the fire escape, searching the alley below for some sign of his quarry.

He felt the platform shake under his feet as something heavy landed on it behind him. Before he could turn, a wire looped over his head and around his neck in one swift, fluid motion, and for an instant he felt its bite as it tightened around his windpipe. Then a knee was driven hard into his back and his neck snapped, his last conscious thought the fleeting realization that he had begun to wet himself.

  *

Florescu dropped the corpse and hurried down the fire escape, knowing that speed counted for more than stealth now. He had to reach the ground before the assassin’s partner came far enough into the alley to see what had happened, otherwise, gunfire would ensue, and that would turn a bad situation into a complete fiasco.

He rounded the last turn and slung himself down from the lowest level of the fire escape, bending his knees to absorb the shock of the fall. He sprang up at once, tearing down the alley and meeting the other assassin just as he rounded the corner. Florescu did not hesitate. He set his feet and drove his fist into the man’s throat with every ounce of strength in his frame, crushing his larynx and silencing the surprised squeak the man had been about to utter. His next blow, delivered with his four fingers spread in a vee, burst both of his victims eyeballs and would have provoked a scream if the man had had any way to force air through his ruined windpipe.

Florescu paused a split second and then delivered his last strike, a lethal chop to the back of the neck that dropped the man where he stood.

The encounter had lasted less than two seconds.

Florescu’s eyes darted back and forth, seeking any sign of danger, but the alley remained empty. He stepped back and relaxed a bit, keeping alert, then made his way cautiously around the building and back up to his room. He made quick work of dismantling his surveillance equipment and getting out of the place permanently.

His movements were calm and unhurried, but within, his anger burned like a magnesium fuse. He had not worked with Alex Krycek for very long, and though he had thought him a sound tactical commander, he had begun to think that this type of operation was not his specialty. Yes, Krycek had a few powerful friends in the Russian Government, and yes, he had access to surprising resources, but if he planned to continue throwing together operations haphazardly and on short notice, he might have to do it on his own.

Nothing irritated Florescu more than having to leave a trail or corpses behind him — one attracted far too much attention that way, and attention tended to call a halt to stake-outs of the sort he had been asked to execute.

Still, he took pride in his work. Although his listening post was no longer a safe base of operations, his transmitter in the offices of ‘The Lone Gunman’ continued to function undetected. If he could manage it, and it wouldn’t be easy, Florescu would find a new vantage point and continue his surveillance.

In the meantime, Krycek would have to wait for his next report.

  *

Alexandria, Virginia 9:30 a.m.

Dana Scully snuggled deeper into her pillow and did her best to ignore the sound that had intruded on her rest, but to no avail. The bright morning light pouring in through the open window conspired with the noise to drag her grudgingly from a deep, contented sleep. Coming awake, she realized that someone was knocking on the door to Mulder’s apartment.

Next to her, the man himself slept on, oblivious.

Scully smiled slightly and shook her head, gratified to see the original poster-boy for insomnia lost in slumber for a change. She briefly entertained the hope that their unexpected visitor would give up, allowing her to rejoin her partner in sleep.

The knocking continued unabated. Scully sighed and drowsily grabbed one of Mulder’s T-shirts, covering herself with it as she slipped out of the bedroom and crossed to the door of the apartment.

Only after she had actually begun to turn the doorknob did her she belatedly realize that, in her sleep-befuddled state, she had neglected to look through the peep-hole first.

The site that greeted her shocked her into instantaneous wakefulness. Standing outside of Mulder’s apartment was his erstwhile partner, Diana Fowley. Watching the array of emotions — shock, confusion, anger, and then reserve — that manifested in turn on Diana’s countenance, Scully had a few seconds to wonder which of them was the more surprised.

She decided that it was Diana. Scully concealed the mild sensation of guilty pleasure that arose in her, in spite of her better nature. Whatever her intentions toward Mulder had been when she had re-entered his life during the Gibson Praise case, Diana had done nothing to earn mockery. Still, Scully was only human, and could not help but enjoy her victory just a little bit.

She cocked an eyebrow at her would-be rival. “Can I help you?” Behind her, within the apartment, the phone rang once and then cut off.

To her credit, Fowley kept her emotions under a tight reign, but Scully could sense an undercurrent of antipathy in her tone. “I’m here to see Fox.”

“We were in bed.” Scully felt a little ashamed — she really was enjoying this more than she should.

“I need to talk to him,” Diana persisted.

Scully hesitated. “Alright, come in. I’ll get him up.” She made way for Fowley to enter. “Have a seat.”

Diana moved stiffly to a chair in the living room as Scully made her way back to the bedroom. She leaned through the door and found Mulder sitting on the edge of the bed, the phone in his hand.

“Are you serious?” he was saying. A paused followed.

“Jesus,” he said. “Okay, give me a few, we’ll get over there…”

Another pause.

“Alright…will do. Half an hour, okay? Bye.” He hung up, glanced up at Scully, a puzzled look on his face. “You’re not going to believe this…” he began.

“Diana is here,” Scully said, without preamble.

“What?” Mulder’s expression shifted from surprised to incredulous. “What in the hell is she doing here?”

“I think she’s wondering the same thing about me.” Scully slipped into the room and donned a light robe that she had stored in Mulder’s closet for the summer.

Mulder appeared amused by her remark. “I’ll bet,” he said. He affected a long-suffering expression. “Christ, all this before coffee?”

“Sorry, lover, but it’s time to face the music.” Scully gave him her sweetest smile.

Mulder rolled his eyes and reached for a pair of shorts, as Scully turned and walked back to the living room. She nodded to Diana and stepped into the kitchen to put a pot of coffee on.

A few moments later, Mulder joined them in the living room. He spoke to Diana, a bit brusquely. “Well, this is a surprise.”

Her voice was bitter. “I couldn’t have put it better myself, Fox. Always getting into the henhou—”

“Enough.” Mulder cut her off. “You must have some reason for being here. What is it?”

“I hear you’re planning a trip to Rongbuk.”

Her statement hung in the air for a long moment, a verbal ‘Le Chateau des Pyrenees.’ Finally, Mulder said “How did you find out about that?” In the kitchen, searching for a third coffee cup, Scully felt a touch of surprise herself. Her partner hadn’t said anything about actually traveling to Tibet.

“Word gets around, Fox. You know I take an interest in these things.”

Mulder said nothing for a while, then “What are you doing here, Diana?”

“I want to go with you…and Agent Scully…when you go.”

Mulder shook his head. “I don’t think that’s necessarily a good idea,” he began.

“No, Fox, that’s not fair.” Urgency raised Diana’s voice slightly. “I have a stake in your work. I was shot protecting that boy!” She paused, controlling herself. “What Rongbuk represents is important to me. I want to be part of the X-Files again.”

“And I want to know how you know what we’re investigating,” Mulder persisted.

“Oh, come on,” said Diana, snorting. “It’s not like it’s a big secret. You two have been turning over every rock within reach for days.” She shrugged. “Like I said, word gets around.”

“So who says we’re going to Rongbuk?” Mulder held his ground, but his voice had softened somewhat.

“No one, Fox. I know you, remember?”

Mulder seemed to accept that. He sat in thought for a moment. Fowley waited for him to speak.

Scully poured coffee and carried a cup to Mulder, then offered one to Fowley, who accepted it with a nod. Scully retrieved her own cup then and rejoined them in the living room, sitting next to Mulder on the couch.

“What do you know about Rongbuk, Agent Fowley?” she asked. She wanted to put a halt to Mulder’s fencing with Diana and get her talking instead.

Fowley studied Scully a moment, then said “I’m sure Fox has already told you all about it.”

“No,” said Scully, “that’s not what I meant. I want to know your opinion.”

Diana seemed surprised at Scully’s interest. “Rongbuk has always been…controversial,” she said. “A lot of people in the field consider the reports of extraterrestrial phenomena there to be unsubstantiated.” “But…”

“The stories always seemed too similar to accepted reports to be coincidental, in my opinion.”

Scully sipped her coffee. “What do you think about the disappearance of John Leslie?”

Diana made a non-committal gesture. “It could be an abduction case. There isn’t much data.” Her eyes narrowed. “So, why are you two investigating him now?”

Scully glanced at Mulder, who said “there have been reports that he may have returned. Or been returned.”

Diana raised her eyebrows. “I see.”

Scully spoke again. “Leslie had a partner, didn’t he?” She waited to see how Diana would react to that, but her expression betrayed nothing in particular.

“Yes, a man named Sellers, or something like that. Do you remember, Fox?”

“Sales,” said Mulder.

“His writings were lost, I think” said Fowley. “What about him?”

Scully shook her head. “Just asking,” she said. She was certainly not ready to confide in Agent Fowley about what Byers, Langly, and Frohike had come up with.

Something about Agent Fowley was bothering her, but Scully couldn’t quite figure out what it was. Diana had assisted her and Mulder in good faith when they had worked together months before, and had supported them in their attempts to keep the X-Files open, as much as she could while recovering from the gunshot wound she had suffered. Still, something imperceptible had given Scully pause. She couldn’t tell whether her reaction was merely personal.

Working with Diana now would be a challenge, under the best of circumstances.

The silence dragged out awkwardly. Finally, Diana said “so, what do you think?”

Scully let Mulder answer. “I want time to consider it.” Fowley began to say something more, but Mulder raised a hand, cutting her off. Her jaw snapped shut in irritation.

“I think I’d better go,” she said, setting down her half-finished cup of coffee.

Mulder showed her to the door. “We’ll be in touch,” he said. Diana left without further comment.

After she had gone, Scully stood and met Mulder in the center of the room. He kissed her on the cheek. “Thanks for the coffee,” he said.

A pleasant warmth suffused her. “Sure, ‘Fox’” she teased.

He shook his head. “I like the way you say ‘Mulder.’ It sounds… right. ‘Fox’ doesn’t sound good coming from anybody.”

“Mulder,” she said, smiling, tangling her fingers with his.

Scully turned then and gestured after Agent Fowley. “What do you make of all that?”

“I don’t know. She was telling the truth — I remember her mentioning Rongbuk back when she and I…worked together.” A brief moment of discomfort showed on his face.

Scully gave his hand a reassuring squeeze. “Are we going to Rongbuk?”

“Maybe.” He looked at her hopefully. Will you come with me?

“Should we take her with us?” Yes, of course.

“She could be of use. Whatever else you might think of her, she is skilled in our line of work.”

Scully knew what he meant. Diana Fowley had sailed back into Mulder’s life, and into hers as well, months before, when they had first learned about Gibson Praise. Her arrival, her certainty of her status with Mulder, had bothered Scully more than she had cared to admit. Looking back, her inquietude seemed baseless, foolish even. But it had been there, all the same.

Now, a new uneasiness had replaced it. “Mulder, why did she come here like that? Why wouldn’t she have called?”

He looked uncomfortable. “I wondered that myself.” He looked her in the eye. “Scully, I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t think she still had an…interest. Working with her could be awkward.”

Scully looked down, then raised her eyes to meet her partner’s gaze once more. “Mulder, I hope it’s not personal, but I don’t entirely trust her. I’m not sure why.”

His expression softened. “Maybe it’s just part of how you feel about this case in general?”

“Maybe. It’s a hunch, you know?”

He placed his hands on her arms. “You have nothing to worry about. You know that.”

“I know. It’s not that.” Scully found herself still unable to pin down what was troubling her. “After five years, I guess it’s no surprise that you’ve begun to rub off on me.”

He gave her a rueful grin. “I suppose I’m the one who should be suspicious. Like I said, we won’t take any chances in this case.” He paused. “But I think we can trust Diana.”

“Alright,” Scully said. A sudden thought tickled the back of her mind. “So, what was that phone call about?”

Mulder was thunderstruck. “Oh, shit!” he exclaimed. “Frohike!”

  *

Arlington, Virginia 10:48 a.m.

Radu Florescu parked the van he had rented that morning as far from the offices of ‘The Lone Gunman’ as he could without losing the signal from the remote transmitter he had placed there. He slipped into the back of the vehicle and began monitoring once more, but he knew that he would have to find a better arrangement and soon, or his entire effort would have been wasted. There was no way that he could continue surveillance from the van for any length of time — not alone, at any rate. And the rather substantial police presence in the area — no doubt the result of his handiwork from the small hours of that morning — would not make his position any more secure.

He would have to move after a couple of hours, and that meant he might miss a critical bit of information. Florescu clenched his fist in frustration and cursed his overeager employer once more.

He planned to reevaluate his relationship with Krycek once he had completed the operation. His employer needed to take a different approach to this sort of thing.

  *

11:15 a.m.

Mulder parked beneath the entrance to the offices of ‘The Lone Gunman’ and jumped out, hurrying toward the stairs that led to the third-story entrance. Scully followed after him. They had just set their feet on the first bare metal step when a familiar, unwelcome voice called from behind them.

“Agent Mulder. Agent Scully. I wonder if I might have a word.”

Mulder’s hand had actually begun a reach for his weapon before he mastered the instinctive fury that welled in him. He faced the smoking man, grateful for Scully’s supportive presence by his side.

When he found his voice, it came out like acid. “What in the hell are you doing here?” he snapped.

The smoking man savored a long drag on his cigarette and stepped toward them, exhaling. “Really, Agent Mulder,” he said evenly. “There’s no need for unpleasantness.” He moved one hand in an expansive gesture. “I should congratulate you. You’ve become…a player.”

Mulder felt himself sicken at the notion. His father had been a ‘player.’ He had no interest in being one himself.

“Don’t give me that crap,” he said. “What do you want?”

The smoking man ignored Mulder’s hostility. He turned to Scully. “Ms. Scully, I trust your recent misadventure has not caused you any permanent harm.” He gave her an odious smile.

Mulder felt Scully stiffen beside him, but she remained silent. After a moment, the smoking man addressed Mulder again.

“I have information for you,” he said. “About someone you’ve been looking for.”

“Whom?”

“Come now, Mr. Mulder. No need to be coy. Doesn’t the name ‘Leslie’ have any significance for you?”

Scully stiffened even more, if that were possible. “You’re behind all of this, aren’t you?” Her voice was a near whisper.

The smoking man indulged in another long drag. “On the contrary, Ms. Scully. I’m on the outside, just as you and Agent Mulder are.” He indicated the door above. “Perhaps we should go up?”

As if the ‘Gunmen’ would even let him past the threshold, Mulder thought. He indicated the run-down neighborhood around them, its ugliness thrown into sharp relief by the bright sunlight, and let derision color his tone. “I was just thinking how well the setting suited the conversation. Why spoil the moment?”

A police cruiser passed by then. The smoking man’s eyes tracked it. “You arrived late, Agent Mulder,” he said. “You missed all of the… intrigue.”

Scully spoke up again. “What happened here?” Mulder had related to her the gist of Frohike’s call regarding the dead bodies found in their neighborhood that morning, but he had not been able to provide many details.

“Two men died this morning — two good men.” The smoking man looked back at them. “The person who killed them, he’s another reason I came to speak to you.”

Mulder found that he couldn’t resist another gibe. “Oh, come on, let’s not get bogged down talking about who killed whom.” The quote wasn’t quite right, but it was close enough.

The smoking man either didn’t get the reference or refused to rise to the bait. “This is serious, Agent Mulder,” he said. “You and the lovely Agent Scully are in more danger than you realize. The men who died here this morning were well trained, well armed, and highly motivated. Their killer took them out as easily as if they’d been Boy Scouts.”

The smoking man gestured upward again. “He’s been watching your friends, here, for some time. My men were watching him. I suppose he objected to their…company.”

They tried to kill him, Mulder realized. And he surprised them.

“Florescu,” Scully said. It wasn’t a question. “Who is he working for?”

The smoking man nodded. “Very good, Agent Scully. Radu Florescu is something of a mercenary. We believe he once worked for the Romanian government, in a, shall we say, sensitive capacity. After the fall of Communism, he…went into business for himself.”

He paused, casting aside the butt of his cigarette and lighting another. He returned his gaze to Mulder. “Lately, he’s been keeping company with a mutual acquaintance of ours. You remember Alex, of course.”

Anger flared in Mulder again at the thought of Krycek, but he clamped down on himself, realizing he couldn’t afford to indulge in the emotion.

Just what in the hell did Krycek have to do with all of this, anyway?

A silence hung among them until Scully broke it. “Where is Krycek now?” she asked.

“I’m not certain,” said the smoking man. “St. Petersburg? London? Hong Kong?”

Oh, hell, thought Mulder, Scully had been right all along. They were being set up.

“You two have to get to Rongbuk,” said the smoking man. “Before Alex does.”

“Why?” If the smoking man wanted him to do it, Mulder thought he most likely would be better off staying home.

“Agent Mulder, Rongbuk represents a certain…problem…for me and my organization. No one really knows what is up there, though I don’t have to tell you what some of the theories are. We’ve never dealt with the problem because, to be honest, we haven’t had a way to do so. The Chinese are not very cooperative in such matters, and it’s always been easier just to ignore the whole affair.”

“So what happened?” asked Mulder.

“John Leslie happened, of course. He came back from Tibet.”

“You’re lying,” said Scully.

“I assure you, I am not. At this very moment, Leslie is resting in the Arkham Mental Health Center, in Massachusetts.”

Mulder shook his head. Next to him, Scully positively radiated disbelief. “After all you’ve done to us,” she said, “give us one reason we should take your word in this.”

The smoking man smiled unctuously at her. “It’s nothing personal, Agent Scully. There will be times when our purposes are in conflict, but right now, I can help you. And you can help me. My people cannot go to Rongbuk — not without complications — but you and Agent Mulder can. I need you to go before Alex Krycek and his associates do. I need you to prevent them from discovering whatever it is that is hidden near Rongbuk.”

And suddenly it all made sense. Mulder decided he probably wanted to go to Tibet after all. Of course, the smoking man hadn’t told them everything — he always had a hidden agenda — but Mulder sensed that at last they were close to the essence of the case that had frustrated them all week.

Once again, he felt the excitement of the chase welling up in him.

“Arkham,” he said. “Leslie is there, now?”

The smoking man nodded. “You’ll want to get to him as soon as possible. Tibet is a long way off, and Alex may already have a head start.” He tossed aside the remainder of his cigarette and began to walk away.

“Wait!” Scully called after him.

The smoking man turned, gave her a questioning stare.

“What happened to Florescu? After last night, I mean.”

The smoking man lit another cigarette, prompting Mulder to wonder idly whether he should buy stock in Morley’s parent company.

“I’d like to know that myself, but I’m afraid he’s long gone by now.” He flicked ashes onto the ground. “I’ll find him, though. Never doubt it.”

The smoking man gestured northward. “Arkham, Agent Scully. That’s your concern now.” He turned and strode away, turning up an alley and vanishing from sight.

Mulder turned to his partner. “Scully…” he began.

“Mulder, no,” she said.

Oh, damn, he thought. She’s not getting it. He looked upstairs. “Let’s go see how the guys are doing, shall we?”

“Mulder…”

He gave her hand a squeeze. “Come on,” he said. “We can talk about this later. After we’ve had time to think about it.”

Scully gave him a long look, then acquiesced and followed him up to the door of ‘The Lone Gunman.’

  *

12:20 p.m.

Radu Florescu put the rented van in gear and pulled out into traffic, following the quickest route that would put him on the Capital Beltway.

He had a long drive in front of him, but that didn’t trouble him. At last, after days of frustration and moments of near disaster, Krycek’s project had begun to come together.

While he might have missed many of the nuances in the conversation Agents Mulder and Scully had just had with their ‘Lone Gunman’ friends, he had understood enough to know what he had to do next. After all, Krycek’s principal focus ever since he had first heard the news of Leslie’s return from Rongbuk had been on finding the man and his surveys, because he was the only man living who had actually been to the rumored site north of the Tibetan monastery. Sales had died years before, and his journals, which the Organization had passed to Florescu at Krycek’s suggestion, shed little enough light on what the site near Rongbuk actually was, never mind how to get to it.

However, Florescu now knew where to find Leslie. Upon entering the rooms shared by his friends, Mulder had revealed that someone known as ‘the smoking man’ had said that Leslie was staying in a mental hospital in Arkham, Massachusetts. That meant several hours on the road for Florescu, but when he got there, he would have access to Leslie and, quite possibly, his personal journals as well.

And then Krycek would have his roadmap to Rongbuk.

Of course, it wouldn’t be quite that simple. When he got to Arkham, Florescu would have to take great care. This ‘smoking man,’ whoever he was, evidently had been the one who had sent the assassins to kill him early that morning, or so the woman, Scully, had mentioned. And that meant that the facility in Massachusetts would be watched, or guarded in some way.

But Florescu could handle that when he got there. They key would be to get there before Mulder did.

He grinned wolfishly to himself. Mulder’s partner seemed to be his ally in that regard. Based on what he had heard, Florescu was convinced that Mulder would have climbed on a plane for the northeast that very afternoon, but his partner had argued energetically that the ‘smoking man’ had lied, that he could not be trusted, and that Mulder would be a fool to walk into so obvious a trap.

That was all fine with Florescu. With Scully holding Mulder back, he would have the time he needed to get what he had come for and then join Krycek in Hong Kong, where even the long arm of the FBI would never reach him.

If he had time, he would even work in a report to Krycek in the midst of all of that. So doing would set his employer’s mind at ease, if nothing else.

Upon reaching the highway, Florescu relaxed at the wheel, set the van’s cruise control, and tuned in a country-western station, enjoying what he considered America’s only contribution to human civilization. Yes, things were definitely looking up. Perhaps he would not have to be too hard on Krycek after all.

One of his favorite American sayings came to him: nothing succeeds like success.

  *

Marriott Hotel, Hong Kong 19 September, 11:58 p.m.

Alex Krycek plugged his laptop into the courtesy phone line provided by the hotel and linked up to his email account, checking one last time for a report from Florescu before he turned in for the night. He felt a moment of satisfaction when, sure enough, he found a message waiting for him.

The contents of the message made him want to whoop with exhilaration.

Florescu had located Leslie.

Krycek congratulated himself on his cleverness. He had guessed that Leslie, an American lost in inner Asia, would most likely flee for home, and he had known too that it would take the FBI — Mulder, in fact — to actually pin down Leslie’s location once he got there. Mulder had come through, and, as Krycek had anticipated and even arranged, he had told his friends at ‘The Lone Gunman’ — as motley a bunch of fools as Krycek had ever heard of — all about it. Florescu’s listening device had thus transmitted the information he needed.

Now, all he had to do was wait for the directions to the site near Rongbuk to be delivered to him. Then, he could be the first there, ready to exploit whatever advantage priority might bring him.

For now, while he waited, Krycek could make secondary plans. He powered down his laptop and settled into bed, contemplating various attractive possibilities. He could, for example, have Florescu take out Mulder. Now that the FBI agent had served his purpose, Krycek did not see much reason to leave him alive.

On the other hand, it never paid to make an irreversible mistake, so he would have to carefully consider all of the possible ramifications of having Mulder killed. At times, he could be useful, even if his effectiveness was limited by his timidity. Krycek remembered the case when he had tried to clue Mulder in on the conflict among the Visitors, only to have him screw things up completely. Fundamentally, the man was incompetent.

Still he had come through this time. Maybe killing him wasn’t such a great idea, fun though it might be. Krycek decided to let it ride, for now. There were other decisions to make.

For example, if he left Mulder alive, did he want him to follow him to Rongbuk? That question had to be settled as well, and soon. Florescu could be told to just leave Mulder alone and let him figure out where to go, too late, of course, on his own. Or he could have Florescu create a…diversion that would keep Mulder and Scully busy while he claimed his prize and dealt with his Hong Kong gangster associates.

Krycek decided he would sleep on it. His practical side counseled against leaving open any avenue for interference in his plans, but his darker nature really wouldn’t mind seeing Scully again….

He relaxed against his pillow, thinking evil thoughts, and readied himself for the next day. He would contact Wu Tseng-Li and tell him just enough to get the gangster son-of-a-bitch motivated. Once Wu had arranged for the gates of Tibet to be opened, it would be showtime.

Krycek smiled to himself. Things were looking up.

  *

Arlington, Virginia 19 September, 2:00 p.m.

Scully watched with chagrin as Mulder stomped down the metal staircase that led from the front door of ‘The Lone Gunman’ down to the parking lot. He climbed into the car without looking back, closing the door with a bit too much force, and sat waiting for her. She could see his fingers drumming on the steering wheel.

She sighed. Her arguments had annoyed and frustrated Mulder, but he knew she was right that the smoking man could not be trusted. As usual, though, he had become attached to the case, hell-bent on chasing every lead to its source until he had solved the entire mystery of Rongbuk — a mystery, Scully noted with irony, that had not even existed until just a few days ago, when clues had begun pouring in out of the blue.

And now he was hooked, unable to just let it go and walk away.

Scully descended the staircase and climbed in beside her partner, waiting for him to speak. They seldom quarreled — what disagreements they had about cases they tended to discuss in a detached manner — but now and then one would hit a nerve with the other, provoking an emotional response. With Mulder, she had learned early on that it was best to just let him think about whatever caused their disagreement. Given time to distance himself from the problem, he would inevitably reconsider it. Such had been the case in one of their earliest investigations, when Mulder’s contact ‘Deep Throat’ had given them a doctored photograph, ostensibly of a UFO. Mulder had reacted angrily to her suggestion that the image had been faked, but after storming off, he had taken the photograph to be tested.

Later, he had come to her and admitted that he had been wrong. For Mulder, a man in whom years of collegial derision had formed a core of defensiveness beneath outward insouciance, that had been a profound apology.

And so Scully was confident that his current annoyance would pass. In the meantime, she stared out the front windshield, not allowing herself to become annoyed with him.

Mulder put the car into gear and began driving, letting the silence drag out between them. Finally, he spoke.

“Scully, let’s at least go to Arkham.”

She turned to him, willing to listen, but not answering.

“At least we can see if Leslie really is there. If the smoking man…”

Scully cut him off. “He’s lying to us. He’s trying to manipulate us into doing what he wants. I don’t think we should play his game.”

Mulder shook his head, as though the act itself could somehow repudiate her logic. “I don’t plan on playing anybody’s game,” he said, a note of exasperation in his voice.

“Mulder, after all he’s done to us, after what he did to me….” Scully trailed off. Her memories of her ordeal in the alien craft in Antarctica were mercifully few and vague, but those that she retained were unpleasant enough.

Her partner looked at her again, hurt and compassion contending for control of his expression. “Scully, I know. I don’t want to risk any harm coming to you.”

Frustration welled in her again. Mulder always looked to protect her, but never had sense enough to realize that he was the one in real danger. “That’s not the point,” she said. “It’s *you* that I’m worried about.”

That earned her a blink of surprise. Mulder divided his attention between her and the road, uncomprehending.

“Mulder, he’s the one who destroyed our office, and he’s the one who had the X-Files closed. Skinner warned us that there are elements that want us shut down again. The smoking man is just looking for a chance to embarrass you, to corral you.”

“You don’t believe any of it.” Mulder sounded weary, even depressed.

Scully shook her head. “I believe there might really be something at Rongbuk, but I don’t believe there is any more reason to investigate it now than there was a month ago.”

“What about the message from Hong Kong? The smoking man said Krycek has been staying there.”

“He implied that he’s there. And so what if he is? Anyone could have sent that message. You told me that yourself.”

“It was Krycek, Scully. I just know it.” Mulder exhaled sharply. “I know the smoking man is no friend of ours, but this time, I believe him, at least in part. Krycek has taken an interest in Rongbuk because of Leslie, and he wants us to find Leslie for him.”

“How can he expect us to do that? He has no way of knowing…oh no.” Scully felt herself go cold inside.

“What is it?” Mulder asked, alarmed.

“Mulder, didn’t the smoking man say that Florescu had been watching the ‘Gunmen’?”

Mulder’s mouth opened in a silent ‘oh’ as he realized what Scully was getting at. “He may have…,” he began.

Scully cut him off, urgency filling her voice. “Mulder, turn the car around.”

  *

Kathmandu, Nepal Sunday, 20 September, 9:45 a.m.

Jill Whittaker took a long sip from her cup of coffee and considered the second strange event that had occurred within the space of a week. She suppressed a shiver. The first had been merely unusual, but this new development had made the tiny hairs on the back of her neck stand up as a chill had crept up her spine.

Less than 72 hours after she had placed him on a Royal Nepal Airlines flight for the Persian Gulf, and less than 48 hours from when, according to the message she had received, he had landed safely at Andrews Air Force base in Maryland, John Leslie had walked into the U.S. embassy in Kathmandu asking for transport back to America. One of Jill’s contacts among the embassy’s consular officers, a young man who didn’t question her willingness to share his bed and who made a point of not sensing the connection between the favors she bestowed upon him and those she asked of him in turn, had called her at home early Sunday morning with the news. Having previously helped arrange for Leslie’s papers on short notice, under no small pressure from Jill to handle the affair expeditiously and discretely, he well remembered both the man’s name and face, and had been understandably surprised to see him in Kathmandu a few days later.

Jill, having known who was waiting for Leslie back in the States, had been even more surprised.

And now he sat across from her, in her office, just as he had a few days before, though he seemed to be in somewhat better shape than he had when she had last spoken to him.

She lit a cigarette to go with her coffee. “So tell me, John, how do come to be here in Kathmandu again so soon?” She cocked an eyebrow at him. “If I had been in your shoes, I’d could have thought of a long list of places to go before coming back to this shit-hole.”

A look of puzzlement invaded the features of the man seated across from her. “I’m not sure I follow you, Miss…?”

“Whittaker. Call me Jill, please.” She gave him her most engaging smile. The hell you don’t, she thought, but we can play games if you wish. “Smoke?”

Leslie brightened. “Ah, yes, please.” He took the cigarette she offered him, then patted his clothes in an unsuccessful search for a light. “Hmmm. I seem to have lost…”

Jill offered him her lighter, which he examined before using it to light the cigarette. “I’m very sorry,” he said, “but I don’t remember when I was last in Kathmandu. I think I may have been…injured…while I was in Tibet.”

“Injured?”

“I don’t remember how I got there — to the monastery, I mean. And I don’t remember anything before that at all.” He paused for a moment, then said “I’m not even sure I am who you say I am.”

“Are you saying you’re *not* John Leslie?” Jill was incredulous. Did he think she had been born yesterday?

“I don’t remember,” he said.

Jill gave him a hard look, but Leslie did not react. “Wait here,” she said. “I have to make a call.”

This was just too weird, she thought.

  *

Western Massachusetts 20 September, 1:07 a.m.

Dana Scully reached for her travel cup and sipped lukewarm coffee as she directed the car through the turns of a winding mountain road somewhere in what Mulder had referred to as ‘Lovecraft Country.’ In the passenger’s seat, her partner slept, leaning against the right-hand window, a rolled-up jacket serving as a pillow for his head. Though they had neared their destination, the small Appalachian village of Arkham, Scully not woken him. The earlier events of the day had left Mulder exhausted, and he needed every minute of rest he could get.

They had hurried back to the offices of “The Lone Gunman,” realizing as they did so they would be too late to prevent the harm from being done. Florescu had to have been spying on the ‘Gunmen,’ or Krycek’s plans, at least the smoking man’s version of those plans, made no sense. And sure enough, after a lengthy search of the cluttered office, a rather morose- looking Frohike had turned up the listening device, evidently hidden in the room by Florescu when he had first visited them.

Not since Mulder’s apparent death in New Mexico had Scully seen the ‘Gunmen’ look so lugubrious. On top of everything else, their pride in their work had been wounded.

The implications of the discovery were more serious than that, though. The presence of the bug meant that Florescu could have been privy to every conversation she and Mulder had held with their friends.

Every conversation — Scully shuddered at the thought, trying to remember the details of each discussion they had had at the ‘Gunman’ in the last couple of weeks, finally giving up the endeavor as both impossible and useless. There was no repairing the damage now.

She remembered too the look of dismay she had exchanged with Mulder when they had realized, simultaneously but belatedly, that the smoking man might have been wrong about Florescu, that he might still have had the ‘Gunman’ under audio surveillance. Earlier, they had told their friends what the smoking man had told them about Arkham, and by the time they had realized the implications of that, it had been close to 4:00 — Florescu had done a devilish job of concealing the listening device, prompting reluctant admiration even from the notoriously difficult-to- impress Ringo Langly — and though Mulder had insisted on starting for Arkham at once, they had both known that the effort would likely prove futile.

Florescu would have had a head start of several hours.

They had considered trying to catch a flight to the area, but quickly settled on a long drive. Though it would be tiring, travel by car would give them greater flexibility and would not take much more time, given the airline schedules and Arkham’s remote location.

And so Mulder had pointed their vehicle northward along I-95 and driven with single-minded determination, stopping only for the briefest of meals — Scully had contented herself with a soft pretzel and a cup of coffee purchased in a rest-and-refueling area — and to at last give up the wheel to her, after almost eight hours on the road. During the drive, they had talked through their earlier disagreement, Scully acquiescing to Mulder’s urge to visit Arkham to see for himself whether their — and Florescu’s — errand had hope of success.

Not that Mulder had given her much choice. His self-recrimination for the mistakes they had made had sent him into pursuit mode, the one that at times put him in terrible danger, forcing Scully to follow him and bail him out of trouble. That had been the case years before, when she had found him, barely alive under the assault of an alien retrovirus, in the hands of a bewildered medical staff at a base in Alaska.

Of course, that same uncompromising devotion had brought him to the Antarctic as well, to free her from her crystal coffin deep within an alien tomb, without regard to the danger to his own person.

Scully looked affectionately at her sleeping partner. Mulder was a haunted, imperfect knight, but his passion and devotion had won her love long before. She had carried that love in the most secret place in her heart, through all the difficult years, nourishing and treasuring it through dozens of long stake-outs and in a thousand bleak motel rooms. Scully turned her attention back to the road, resisting the urge to reach over and touch him, and returned her thoughts to the purpose of their journey.

In the passenger seat for most of the trip, Scully had examined a print- out of Florescu’s image, acquired at the last minute from one of the security tapes from ‘The Lone Gunman’ offices. The picture was a bit grainy, but clear enough that she would recognize the man if she were to see him. Florescu had long hair pulled back from a wide brow, over clear, intelligent eyes. His nose, strait and hooking slightly downward, gave him a somewhat predatory look, accented by a drooping mustache. He was not unhandsome, Scully decided, but had an intimidating and dangerous cast to his features.

His was the face of a killer, she thought, hard and cold beneath his good looks.

When Mulder had given over the wheel to her, she had passed the picture to him, urging him to study it. She had a feeling that they would both have need to recognize Florescu on sight.

The road crested a ridge and began to weave down into a mountain valley, the dense forest on either side giving way to the occasional farm as the elevation decreased. Scully slowed and, as the land flattened out and the road crossed a small bridge, spotted a sign informing travelers that they had entered the Town of Arkham, population 900. She reached out and touched Mulder’s shoulder, easing him awake.

His eyes opened and he shook his head, clearing away cobwebs. “What time is it?” he asked.

“After one. Sunday morning.” Scully stifled a yawn; she could have used a nap herself.

“Thanks for driving,” Mulder said. He noticed her weariness. “Are you okay?” he asked.

“I’m fine. Just a little tired.” They entered the village proper then, a few dark buildings looming in the night around them. Houses climbed the slopes beyond, vague shapes in the darkness. “Any idea where the hospital is?”

“Not really. On the edge of town, I’d guess. You didn’t see it on the way in…?”

“No,” Scully said.

They passed what was most likely the local post office, indistinct in the darkness, the complete lack of moonlight making it impossible to read any signs not directly in their headlights, and then a church steeple silhouetted itself against the stars ahead of them. Scully turned the car sharply to the left with the sudden curve in the road, following it over another bridge and into a stretch of woods. They had begun to climb again, leaving the village in the valley behind them.

“I guess that was Arkham,” she said.

“Bright lights, tall buildings,” Mulder quipped. “Where’s the damn mental hospital?”

“Could we have missed it?”

Mulder didn’t have time to reply, as the woods opened around them again to reveal a long, low building, rather like a garden apartment, which unlike the town itself was well-lit, both within and without. In front of the main gate, several police cars stood, their lights flashing.

As Scully brought the car to a halt in the driveway of the Arkham Mental Health Center, Mulder said “dinner at the ‘Occidental’ says this isn’t the local farmer’s market.”

“No argument here,” said Scully.

Together, they got out of the car and made their way toward the front door.

  *

Several hundred yards below, back toward Arkham proper, Radu Florescu moved cautiously out of the cover of the woods and toward the van in which he had traveled to the western Massachusetts hills. The lack of moonlight pleased him. He had been able to move silently through the utter darkness of the forest, his night-vision goggles, part of the kit he had brought when he entered the United States, providing more than adequate vision. Florescu crept silently to the driver’s side door, pausing before sliding the key into the lock.

So far, his evening had gone as smoothly as he could have hoped. The drive from Washington had been tiring, but not so much that his skills had been impaired significantly. Arriving after dark, he had been able to elude the few guards — members of the same crew that had attacked him the night before, he surmised — that patrolled the woods around Arkham, making his way into the facility.

Once inside, he had gone directly to the front desk, rendering the surprised duty nurse unconscious with a quick choke-hold. It would have been simpler just to kill her, but Florescu always preferred not to kill women, even when that meant an extra effort. He had quickly found Leslie’s name in the hospital records and, moving with alacrity, had made his way through empty corridors to his room. The one orderly he had met was most likely still out cold in the closet into which Florescu had locked him, after dealing him a quick blow to the head.

Leslie himself had proved largely incoherent, and Florescu had wasted little time in conversation with him. Instead, he had located the locker where his valuables had been stored, using the orderly’s keys to open it, and removed the surveyor’s journals. Those were the truly important acquisition, the guides to Krycek’s ‘master site.’

His prizes in hand, Florescu had exited the hospital via a window and redonned his NVGs, slipping silently into the forest. It had been then that the operation had nearly gone awry. One of the guards had crossed paths with Florescu by pure chance — mischance for him, as it turned out. Judging from the relative lack of outcry, his cooling corpse remained undetected in the tree where Florescu had left it. Other guards had been nearby, and he had not had time to be delicate.

The nurse had recovered, it seemed, and immediately called the authorities. Florescu decided he should have taken the time to bind her as well as knocking her out. The first police cars had arrived as he had moved deeper into the woods, in the direction of his vehicle, which he had left in the village.

When he arrived at the spot where he had parked, just as he had prepared to step out from the forest’s edge, Florescu had been forced to pause to let another arriving car pass. He had not had a good look at the two within it, but something told him that his Washington targets, Mulder and Scully, had followed him north, arriving too late to do more than puzzle out what he had done.

Which was fine. All he had to do now was get to New York without incident. He already had a plane ticket, reserved under an alias, waiting for him. In a few hours, he would be bound for Hong Kong.

He entered the cab of the van and started the engine. Phase one in his employer’s operation was nearly complete.

  *

Scully had almost reached the doors of the hospital when she realized that Mulder was no longer following her. She turned, saw him standing with his head cocked, listening intently for something.

Scully spoke in a whisper. “Mulder, what is it?”

“Engine,” he muttered, his attention elsewhere. “Now who the hell….” He didn’t finish his thought, turning instead and racing back in the direction of their car, leaving Scully staring after him in flustered surprise.

A few seconds too late, her fatigued brain caught on to Mulder’s intent. “Mulder, wait!” she called after him, beginning to run herself, but her partner had already scrambled into their car, starting the engine and roaring out of the drive in a shower of gravel. “Damn it!” Scully exclaimed to no one in particular. Her eyes tracked Mulder’s path down the hill toward Arkham. Through the trees, she spied another set of lights, heading east into the darkness.

Florescu — it had to be him.

Cold tentacles of dread enveloped her as she realized that Mulder had sped off alone in pursuit of a professional killer.

She turned and sprinted back toward the building, seeking one of the drivers of the police cars.

  *

Radu Florescu had driven no more than a mile, from one end of Arkham to the other, when he caught sight of distant headlights in his rear-view mirror. Immediately, he pulled his van to the side of the road and jumped out, sliding neatly into the darkness at the edge of one of the buildings. Florescu had seen plenty of car chases in the movies, but he had absolutely no illusions about the ability of a driver to elude pursuit on a lonely road in the forest, in a society held together by the world’s most sophisticated communications network. He had to thwart, and silence, whoever had followed him if he were to have any chance for a clean getaway.

Florescu did not particularly enjoy killing, but he would do it without hesitation when the need arose. And now, with time of the essence and a lone car following him, a quick, clean kill was his best option, as it had been in the woods near the hospital.

He moved deeper into the shadows and watched as the car pulled up behind his van. One person — Mulder he realized — climbed out of it, and to his surprised relief, Florescu saw that he had left his partner behind.

This Mulder was evidently as impulsive as Krycek had suggested, he thought. Well, he had just made his last mistake. Florescu slipped silently along the wall in the direction of the vehicles, taking one quick glance uphill to make sure that no other cars were approaching. Mulder had moved toward the driver’s side of the van, his attention focused on determining whether anyone remained within the vehicle, his back to where Florescu stood.

Florescu drew a long-bladed knife and stepped out into the light cast by the headlights of Mulder’s car.

  *

Scully rushed into the confusion within the Arkham Mental Health Center, waving her FBI badge at the faces around her, looking for a police officer, or anyone who appeared to have authority.

“Special Agent Dana Scully, FBI,” she called out. “Who’s in charge here?”

Those in the room, nurses, orderlies, and others, exchanged glances, but no one spoke. Scully searched the confusion and finally spotted a police uniform. She rounded on the officer, a youthful, nervous looking man with dark curls and a boyish chin.

“Let’s go,” she snapped, flashing her ID at him. “I need your vehicle.”

The policeman opened his mouth, as if to protest, but wilted before the glare Scully cast at him. She realized his confusion was bringing on inertia, so she stepped forward and yanked his elbow, drawing him toward the doors. “Now!” she exclaimed. “Move it!”

He began to follow, and Scully turned and hurried for the cruisers parked outside.

“Into the car! Drive!” Scully realized she had come close to shouting, that the young officer must think her half out of her mind, but she couldn’t help herself. Somewhere down the road from the hospital, Mulder was in hot pursuit of someone who would kill him without a moment’s hesitation or remorse. An image of her partner, her lover, lying alone somewhere in a dark, slowly-spreading pool of his own blood, arose in her mind and resisted all her efforts to banish it.

Fear and love and anger contended for control of her psyche. Don’t do this to me, Mulder, she thought, controlling herself with an iron grip. Don’t get yourself killed in an mad rush for your ‘Truth.’

If she lost him, if he were killed because she hadn’t been there to protect him, she wouldn’t be able to bear it. Despite her self-control, Scully felt herself beginning to unravel, as the prospect of a final, unparalleled grief, tore at her.

She pulled on her seatbelt and turned to the policeman next to her. “Toward the village,” she said, willing her voice back to normal again. “Go.”

The officer turned on the car’s flashers and sped down the hillside toward Arkham.

  *

Mulder approached the van slowly, his pistol held before him in a ready position. The vehicle in front of him was silent; he saw no sign of its occupant.

Part of him was painfully aware of the lack of Scully’s reassuring presence, the knowledge that she wasn’t there to watch his back. But he silenced that concern. He had not wanted to leave her behind, but when he had heard the van’s engine, he had known that he had to react instantly or lose the chance to catch Florescu before he disappeared into the night. Scully would be annoyed at him, but she would see the need for his decision.

It had to be Florescu. If pressed, Mulder would not have been able to say how he knew that, but his intuition told him that Florescu and none other would have been hurrying out of Arkham at 1:30 in the morning.

Mulder took one step closer to the van. He did not hear the footsteps in the gravel behind him.

Something warned him, though. Some unnamed, atavistic sense made him turn, just as Florescu’s knife sliced forward toward his unprotected neck. Mulder flailed with his left hand, warding off the blade at the cost of a severe cut to his palm. Pained flared there, affecting his aim, as his gun went off in his right hand, and he missed Florescu at point blank range. And then the knife shot forward again, in a low, underhand thrust this time, an icy heat that tore into his abdomen. Mulder tried to bring his gun to bear, but Florescu knocked it away with an almost negligent flick of his hand, then stunned him with a hammer blow to his jaw. Mulder’s vision closed to a circle directly in front of him as his legs folded and he collapsed to the ground. Florescu stepped over him and climbed into the van. Pebbles skittered against Mulder’s side as the vehicle sped off into the darkness.

Just before he lost consciousness, Mulder became aware of his partner kneeling next to him, back-lit by frenetic, discotheque flashes of blue light. So beautiful, he thought distantly, so very beautiful.

“Mulder, it’s me,” he heard her say from across a great void. “I’m here. Can you hear me?” He was vaguely aware of her hands working on him in an effort to stop his bleeding. He wanted to answer her, but couldn’t find the energy to speak. He reached out feebly with his left hand, somehow catching hold of her sleeve. Her gaze locked with his. Precious lapis lazuli, he thought, and then everything faded to black.

  *

Washington, D.C. Monday, 21 September, 9:00 a.m.

The smoking man inhaled deeply and blew smoke in the direction of the woman seated across from him. Diana Fowley made a slight face but did not otherwise respond. She waited for him to speak, returning his gaze, evidently unintimidated. Her annoyance gave her additional fortitude, no doubt. The smoking man took another puff and spoke:

“What may I do for you, Ms. Fowley?”

Diana came right to the point. “You might have warned me,” she said.

About Scully, the smoking man thought, but he had no intention of letting on. This was all part of the game, after all. He affected an expression of benign puzzlement. “Warned you?”

“Don’t give me that,” snarled Diana. “You had to have known…about her.” Venom dripped from her words.

The smoking man noticed that she had not spoken Scully’s name. Excellent, he thought. Fowley had reacted almost exactly as he had hoped. Now that the knife had been whetted, the time had come to point it at someone.

However, he found that he was no longer certain who represented the best target. Old schemes were being rapidly overtaken by events, and new ones had to be devised to replace them. Though he had dealt with similar situations many times before, the smoking man did not enjoy the sense of chaos he felt when developments outsped plans. He returned his attention to the conversation.

“Ah, you must be referring to Agent Scully. Am I to infer that there has been a…development…in her relationship with Agent Mulder?”

Diana glared at him, aware that she was being mocked.

The smoking man pretended concern. “I’m sorry, I was not aware of that complication. But there’s nothing I can do about it, of course. You’ll have to work it out on your own. The mission remains paramount.”

“I don’t think they’ll let me go with them,” she said, trying to mask her anger.

“Agent Mulder knows your qualifications. He values them, no matter where he’s been taking his…pleasures.” A wounded look crossed Fowley’s features. The smoking man continued: “I think he will listen to reason, in time. He and his partner will need all the help they can get.” He paused for effect. “There has been an incident.”

“What incident?”

“Agent Mulder has been injured — somewhat seriously, I’m afraid.” The smoking man filled her in on what had happened in Massachusetts, events he had learned of just that morning, as his agents in Arkham at last got there reports in to him. He found that he had miscalculated. The Rongbuk affair had begun to spin out of control, and he would have to act quickly to regain mastery of it. In addition to Florescu’s coup in Massachusetts, there had been Jill Whittaker’s report of the second arrival of John Leslie, which told him something about Rongbuk but raised additional questions as well. He gave Fowley only a bare-bones account of Mulder and Scully’s recent misadventure. She need not know more than was necessary, he thought.

Diana looked ill. Her affection for Mulder was genuine enough, the smoking man observed. That could prove a volatile element, but one that he could exploit. But now, he had to decide what he wanted to do with it. Prior to the weekend, he had fully expected Mulder to stymie Krycek, with any luck compromising himself in the process. And had Mulder managed to thwart Alex’s designs without revealing himself to the Chinese authorities, who would hardly appreciate an FBI special agent operating in their Tibetan backyard, well, that was why he had brought the young and ambitious Ms. Whittaker into the equation.

He had not counted on the speed or effectiveness of Radu Florescu, however. How had Alex managed to acquire his services? The smoking man found that he very much wanted to know that.

The Romanian had somehow managed to reestablish his surveillance of Mulder’s absurd associates, and had done so with greater alacrity than one would have thought possible. And Mulder, who had more energy than sense, had blithely confided in his friends, telling Florescu everything he had needed to know.

No one in Arkham had actually seen Florescu, of course, but the smoking man, upon reading the reports that had come in, knew at once that the same man who had brushed aside one of the Consortium’s assassination teams in Arlington had been the one to slip through the cordon guarding John Leslie.

Only one man had been killed this time — assuming Mulder did not succumb to his injuries — but the smoking man did not really appreciate Florescu’s restraint. The man clearly represented a much greater problem than he had suspected, even as late as Saturday morning.

“How is Agent Mulder?” Diana wore an expression of genuine concern.

“I’m not certain — he was stabbed, it seems. Assistant Director Skinner was concerned enough to fly up to check on him.”

Diana stood. “I have to go to him,” she said.

“Very well. Encourage his swift recovery. He will have to hurry if he is to get to Rongbuk in time.”

Agent Fowley left the room without responding.

The smoking man lit another cigarette on the heels of the last one and sat back, considering the situation. He would have to take more decisive action, now. If Alex managed to discover something at Rongbuk, that would overshadow any other matter, including the smoking man’s own feud with Agent Mulder. Jill Whittaker and Diana Fowley would not be enough. He would have to send a team into Tibet.

The smoking man sighed and picked up the telephone. He did not much like the idea — the Chinese would react very negatively to any act of the Consortium within their territory. There would be serious repercussions if the People’s Republic discovered what was going on near Rongbuk.

It was a risk he’d have to take, however. Mulder had already stumbled, and though the smoking man’s cohorts in the Consortium loathed anything that drew attention to their enterprise, it would be worse — much worse — if Alex gave the Russians an additional advantage.

Yes, the time had come for active measures.

  *

Northampton General Hospital, Northampton, Massachusetts 10:00 a.m.

Fox Mulder awoke to a dull headache and assorted other pains, and the image of an unsmiling A.D. Skinner looming over him. He looked around for his partner, was disappointed not to see her anywhere about.

“How are you feeling, Agent Mulder?” Skinner’s voice thundered in the room.

Mulder tried to sit up, then desisted as his head rang like a gong and a sharp pain stabbed him in his left flank.

“What the hell happened?” he asked instead. “And where’s Scully?”

“She’s working,” said Skinner, “and has been ever since you were declared out of danger.” He grimaced in irritation. “I don’t have to tell you we couldn’t get her out of here while your prognosis was still in doubt.”

The events of the other night came back to him in a rush, and Mulder found that he well knew why Skinner was annoyed with him. He had taken a foolish risk and nearly been killed as a result. Remorse flooded him. Scully didn’t deserve his irresponsibility. “How is she?” he asked.

Skinners faced twisted slightly once more. “She’s been better. Between this case you’ve been unofficially investigating and your own recklessness, she’s close to exhaustion.” Skinner looked away, toward the hallway outside the room. “I told her to get some rest, but she wouldn’t hear of it.” He paused. “Frankly, I’m concerned.”

“Damn,” Mulder mumbled, mostly to himself. He attempted to sit up again, with results similar to his first effort.

Skinner turned back to him. “I suggest you stay where you are. You’re going to need to heal before you can continue your inquiries, which I’m making official, by the way.”

Mulder blinked in surprise, and Skinner said: “I’ve received instructions from certain…quarters. For some reasons, you’ve been given leeway, for this case at least. I wouldn’t mind an explanation, if you have one.”

Mulder thought of the smoking man, then shifted back to his immediate situation. “What happened to me?”

“Your near-fatal spasm of cranial-rectal inversion resulted in a mild concussion, a stab wound to the gut, and a badly cut left hand.”

Mulder laughed, then regretted it at once.

“You were lucky,” Skinner added.

“Shit,” said Mulder.

“So what’s going on?”

Mulder related the gist of the meeting with the smoking man to Skinner, as well as Diana Fowley’s surprise visit on Saturday morning.

Skinner’s normally bland expression betrayed a certain degree of incredulity. “And what’s your assessment of the matter?” he asked.

Mulder shrugged cautiously. “I think the smoking man is telling at least part of the truth. I think Krycek used me to find Leslie for him, and now he may have what he was looking for.”

“Which was?”

“Off hand, I’d say he wanted the surveys that Leslie made near Rongbuk. He already had the journals Sales had written, but those were useless to him.”

“And now that he has the surveys, he’ll head for the site.”

“I’d like to hear what Scully was able to find out at Arkham, but yeah, that’d be my guess.”

“You can’t go to Tibet, Agent Mulder. Not as Bureau, anyway.” Skinner had already guessed his mind.

“I’ve got some leave coming. We can go unofficially.”

“You and Agent Scully, huh?”

Mulder nodded. If she’ll consent to go with me, he thought. After this, he had his doubts. As eager as he was to see her, he also dreaded the moment when he would have to face her. He expected her to be furious with him, and he could hardly blame her if she were. She might want to opt out of the case once and for all; she’d never been enthusiastic about it.

Then another thought struck him, one that made his heart bind with dread. She might decide she wanted quit of him altogether. Mulder knew she loved him, needed him, but he also knew that he hardly represented a factor for stability in her life. After all she had been through in the last couple of years, it wouldn’t take much to drive her away from him permanently. It wasn’t that Scully was inconstant — far from it — but she already had every reason to give up on him and leave, and he had just given her another.

She might decide that the time had come for her to cut her losses and go.

Mulder squelched this line of thinking, deciding to simply hope Scully had it in her to forgive him one more time.

If she hadn’t, he didn’t know what he would do.

Skinner interrupted his introspection. “Agent Mulder, I’ll have you know, I’m not blind.”

“Sir?” Oh, hell, here it comes.

“You’ve put your partner through a lot over the last five years, but for some reason, you’re the most important person on earth to her.” He shook his head. “I’ll be damned if I know why.”

“Sir, I…”

Skinner held up a hand. “Agent Mulder, the next time you feel like running off after something, try to think about the people you’re leaving behind you.” He walked out of the room.

Mulder closed his eyes, dismayed that Skinner had divined his and Scully’s secret. Christ, he thought. All I need is for my boss to decide he’s my father-in-law as well.

He had to admit, though, that Skinner was right. Mulder found that his headache had worsened. He settled deeper into the bed, hoping to get some sleep before Scully returned.

  *

Kennedy Airport, New York City, N.Y. Monday, 21 September, 11:05 a.m.

Radu Florescu waited until he felt the wheels of the Korean Airlines jet loose contact with the runway and then settled into his seat, allowing himself to relax at last.

The past day or so, since he had almost killed Agent Mulder, had been extremely stressful. He had known they would be, ever since he had seen the approaching lights of the police car and fled the scene, leaving Mulder alive behind him.

That didn’t sit well with him. Florescu never liked to leave a job unfinished, and Mulder was a loose end that would have to be dealt with, eventually.

For now, though, he could take it easy. After driving out of Arkham, unpursued, he had traveled as far as he felt he could and then ditched the van, knowing that even if the cop at the scene behind him had stopped to help Mulder, he would surely have radioed in his plates. Thus, Florescu had to change vehicles or risk capture down the road.

That had meant leaving the van, and most of his equipment, by the roadside and legging it through the woods of western Massachusetts, an exhausting hike of several miles. At the first village he came to, he had stolen a car, and that had gotten him as far as a larger town, where he had taken time to alter his appearance slightly and assume a new identity.

After that, getting to New York had simply been a matter of bus and cab rides — slow and tiresome, but very doable.

The plane reached cruising altitude and an attractive stewardess brought Florescu a Bloody Mary, which he sipped with relish. All he need do now, he thought, was ride airplanes, think, and drink. He had a long flight ahead of him: New York to Anchorage, Anchorage to Seoul, and Seoul to Hong Kong.

That would give him close to 24 hours in which to review the errors he had made during the past couple of days. To do that, and…other things.

Mistake number one had been not killing the duty nurse in Arkham. If he had not indulged in chivalry, he might have had as much as an extra half-hour to escape before anyone alerted the authorities. Instead, he had played it cute, rendering her unconscious and simply leaving her to wake up later.

He had been overconfident.

Next, he had done something to alert Mulder to his presence, allowing the agent time to defend himself and thus cause a nearly unaffordable delay in his escape. Florescu had wracked his brain in an effort to determine what had warned Mulder, but he had come to no satisfactory conclusions.

He had made no sound.

He had been careful to approach from an angle that would not allow Mulder to see either him or his shadow cast in the light of the car’s headlamps.

He had done nothing — nothing — to betray himself.

Yet somehow Mulder had known. At the last second he possibly could, he had wheeled and raised a hand between himself and death. It was as though someone had warned him, but there had been no one there but Florescu and Mulder himself.

He sipped his Bloody Mary and shrugged inwardly. That happened, sometimes. On occasion, humans perceived things in ways that simply could not be explained. Perhaps this had been one of those times.

Florescu finished the rest of his drink in one long pull and ordered another one. It was always like this after an operation. Once the need for absolute concentration had passed, he found that his mind began to wander. Some of the places it went were unpleasant, and that meant that he had to drink.

The ghosts would come, Svetlana would come, but her image would be less distinct in a fog.

The next Bloody Mary arrived and Florescu downed most of it at one go, half of him already back in Moscow, with her.

With what was left of her.

He never remembered her as she had been before she died, when a young and beautiful telecommunications clerk had fallen for a dashing Romanian attached to his country’s embassy. The affair had been a professional windfall for Florescu, and it wasn’t until the Russians had killed Svetlana that he had become aware of the true extent of his feelings for her.

When he found her eviscerated corpse left in an alley near his apartment building, an alley he passed through each evening coming home from work. The warning had been unmistakable, but all that Florescu had been aware of had been the sick incongruity of Svetlana’s lovely face and blonde hair, all unmarred, and her disemboweled torso and abdomen.

And years later, her lover had sold his soul to her killers. He knew that his decision had been the correct one, that the Organization’s objectives were goals he would give his life for, but that did not make working for the Russians any less painful.

That Krycek was as much American as Russian made him a welcome companion in the Organization. It allowed Florescu to pursue the war with the Visitors at a minimal cost to his psyche. With the ghost of old love haunting him, he needed whatever buffers he could get.

He decided to switch to strait vodka. It looked to be a long flight to Hong Kong.

  *

Northampton General Hospital 5:07 p.m.

Mulder awoke after another long sleep and again found that Scully was not with him.

He was not alone, however. Diana Fowley was there, seated in a chair next to his bed.

“Fox,” she said, a concerned smile on her face.

“Diana,” he replied, looking around. The room was otherwise empty, and had the bland, cheerless air of every hospital room in which Mulder had awoken. His eyes returned to Agent Fowley. “What are you doing here?”

“I heard you had been injured…I wanted to see you.”

“Thanks.” Mulder felt decidedly uncomfortable, not wanting to revisit the emotional minefield they had tread on Saturday morning. He looked himself over, considering the extent of his injuries.

“How badly was I hurt?” He had not been awake long enough that day to talk to one of the nurses, so he directed his question at Diana, both for information and to change the focus of their conversation.

Diana smiled at him. “The doctor said it could have been a lot worse. You were stabbed, but the knife only cut through your skin and into your abdominal muscles. It will be a few weeks before you’re yourself, but you should be able to walk in a few days.”

“Your hand is a bit more serious.”

Mulder examined his left hand, which was almost entirely concealed by bandages. It had ached earlier, during his chat with Skinner, but now it had begun to fairly scream pain at him.

“Bad, eh?”

“It will heal, but you’ll probably need therapy to get the full use of it back.” Diana attempted to put the best face on it. “I know you’re due some time off. Looks like you’ll get a chance to take advantage of it.”

Mulder forced himself to sit up, despite the pain. “The hell with that,” he said. “We still have to go to Tibet.”

“Fox, you can’t be serious!”

He shook his head. “Nothing’s changed, Diana. Anyway, I thought you wanted to go.”

“I did, but I don’t want to see you get hurt — worse than you are already.” She reached out and took his right hand in hers, holding his gaze with her own. “I still care about you, no matter what has happened.”

Mulder gave her a long look, decided that the concern writ on her visage was genuine. Oddly, he felt almost no emotion in response, despite the fact that this woman had been his lover, once.

His memory, of visual images at least, was close to perfect. Yet he found that he could no longer remember how it felt to be in love with Diana. Scenes from their time together, moments both professional and intimate, he could recall clearly, but they came to him stripped of their emotional content. He could see them, himself and Diana, but through a haze of numbness.

Mulder pulled his hand back. The last thing he wanted was Scully walking in on this little moment. “I appreciate your concern, but I’m going to Rongbuk. If you want to help, then help. Don’t argue with me.”

She sat back, considering him. “Does that mean I can come with you?”

“Diana,” Mulder paused, wondering how to phrase his question, then decided to take the direct approach. “Why did you come back?”

From overseas, he meant, from her posting in Europe, thousands of miles from him and the X-Files. She had taken the job as their relationship had fallen apart. Though their work together had been rewarding, Mulder had found that, by the end, her affection had become stifling. Diana had clung to him, and he had pushed her away.

Stung, she had put as much distance between them as she could. And then suddenly, a few months before, she had returned without warning.

“Why now, after all this time?” Mulder asked her.

Diana shifted, then looked him in the eye. “I told you I had unfinished business.”

“What kind of business?”

“Professional,” she paused, “and personal. After we parted, I tried to forget you. I dated. I was looking for someone…to take my mind off you…off of what might have been.”

Mulder said nothing.

“It didn’t work. Every time a relationship broke up, I found myself checking with personnel. But there were never any openings close to you, until a few months ago.” Diana paused, then went on. “I meant what I said about the X-Files, too.”

“The professional loose end,” supplied Mulder.

Diana searched his visage. “I hoped we could resolve both…aspects.” She dropped her gaze. “I’ve found that things aren’t so simple as I had hoped.”

“It’s been six years.”

“Longer.”

“Longer,” Mulder echoed.

Diana looked up at him again. “Do you love her, Fox?”

Mulder’s mind reeled at the enormity of her question. Did he love her? Did he love Dana Scully?

He loved her more than life itself.

She was his life. She had given life back to him.

Mulder did not even attempt to express his thoughts. “I love her,” he said simply. “More than anything.”

Diana’s gaze lingered on him for several seconds, then something changed in her visage. “You do,” she said quietly, then shook her head. “Well, Fox,” she continued, her tone suddenly business-like, “that leaves only professional issues to be resolved. May I accompany you to Rongbuk?”

“I suppose so,” said Mulder. “I need to talk to Scully first, though.”

Almost imperceptibly, a muscle twitched in Diana’s cheek. “Okay. But let me know soon, will you?”

“As soon as I can.”

Neither spoke for a while. The silence hung between them, awkwardly, until Diana finally spoke again. “So, what happened in Arkham?”

“It’s a long story.” Mulder wasn’t yet sure how much he wanted to tell her.

Diana indicated the hospital room around them. “We’ve got time,” she observed.

There was no denying that. “Alright,” said Mulder, “but let me give you the short version, okay?”

Diana nodded.

“We received…information…that Leslie could be found in Rongbuk, but we also had reason to believe that one of Alex Krycek’s agents had become aware of his presence there.”

“Alex Krycek?” Diana looked blank.

“An old enemy. He has interests similar to our own, but he’s always been more…corruptible.”

“I see.”

“Anyway, Scully and I drove to the mental hospital in Arkham, but just as we arrived, Krycek’s agent took off. I went after him.” Mulder glanced down at himself, shook his head ruefully. “He won round one, I guess.”

“And your partner?” Where had she been, Diana meant.

“I’m right here,” said Scully from the doorway.

Diana whirled to face Scully, who glanced briefly at Mulder and then focused on Agent Fowley. Mulder sighed and closed his eyes. This could be interesting, he thought.

  *

Washington, D.C. 5:16 p.m.

The smoking man drummed his fingers on his desk, waiting for the phone to ring.

It would be late in Tunis, and Strughold would likely not be pleased at being contacted, but the smoking man judged the matter sufficiently urgent that he had no choice but to interrupt the man who stood as first among equals in the Consortium’s inner circle.

The smoking man sensed that Strughold would not be pleased with what he had to tell him, especially in the wake of the Wilkes Land debacle, but the Rongbuk affair had reached a critical juncture. Florescu had seized Leslie’s journals and, it had become evident, left the country. There was little doubt as to where he would resurface, and when he met Krycek in Hong Kong, they would almost certainly head straight for Tibet.

The smoking man wanted to get a team into the area as quickly as possible, but he would have to get Strughold’s approval, and hopefully his assistance as well, before he could do so. A Consortium effort to infiltrate Tibet would require official cooperation from a neighboring country — possibly India — and securing that on short notice would require the intervention of someone of Strughold’s influence.

The smoking man went over the arguments he would present to his superior while he waited for the return call. He knew his logic was sound, but there remained one glaring hole in his reasoning. That hole, in fact, was the premise upon which his reasoning was based.

He wished he knew Strughold’s personal views of Rongbuk, assuming he even had any. The smoking man had long been convinced that the reports of paranormal phenomena in Tibet were precisely what they seemed to be. But many of his colleagues did not share his concerns about what might someday surface on the world’s highest plateau. For that reason, he had had no trouble in squelching Alex Krycek’s efforts to lead a Consortium expedition to the region. Though he had privately agreed that such an expedition was necessary, he had not wanted someone as untested as Krycek leading it, and later, when young Alex had proved treacherous, he’d had cause to feel vindicated concerning his opinion.

That had been years earlier, and Rongbuk had lain quietly throughout the intervening time, but it would lie quietly no longer.

The phone rang, and the smoking man reached for the receiver. Decision time had arrived.

  *

Northampton General Hospital 5:17 p.m.

Mulder remained passive as Diana Fowley and Dana Scully exchanged a long look. He had no sense of what passed between them, but Diana quickly excused herself and, wishing Mulder a rapid recovery, left the room.

Scully sat down in the chair Diana had vacated, her expression guarded, but Mulder could see the stress, the exhaustion, etched on her countenance.

He realized at once that the time had come to air a few old, unresolved concerns.

“I’m sorry, Scully,” he said, reaching out to her.

Her lips thinned into a tight line, and she didn’t take his hand, instead folding her arms across her chest. “Mulder, don’t do this to me again,” she said, her voice subdued.

Mulder retrieved his extended hand and folded his hands over his stomach, unconsciously mimicking her posture. “I’m sorry. I mean it. But there was no time….”

She cut him off. “I don’t want to hear it, Mulder. You could have been killed. You very nearly were. If he had driven that knife much deeper….” She trailed off, shaking her head as if to deny the image that her words called into her mind.

Mulder kept silent. He found himself unable to come up with a response that would be helpful.

For several moments, Scully did not speak either. When she did, her voice was barely more than a whisper. “Mulder, I’ve been thinking.”

His heart sank. I’ve finally done it, he thought. I’ve finally driven her away. He realized he had never really believed it possible, even when she had been facing transfer to Utah. He had always assumed that she would find her way back to him, that if he could find a way to repair whatever was wrong, she would want to come back.

The irony was that he had resolved not to put her in this situation. Well, Mulder, he thought, good intentions and all that. He had to say something, though, to make an effort to repair the situation.

“Scully, I….”

She raised a hand, cutting him off again.

“I’ve realized that for most of my life, I’ve been afraid of intimacy.” Her hands joined in her lap then, beginning a nervous, washing motion. “I’ve always been afraid of being hurt, so I’ve kept my distance from people.” She paused. “That’s what drove Jack away.”

The admission shocked Mulder. Jack Willis’ was a name he had not thought about in years; he’d hardly expected Scully to bring him up now.

She went on, not looking at him. Her gaze remained locked on the edge of the mattress. “He wanted more than I could give him. We dated for a long time, but whenever he tried to get close, I pulled away.” She shook her head. “He finally couldn’t take it any more. He told me he couldn’t stay with a woman who didn’t know how to love. And then he just left.” Her hands stilled.

Scully looked up at him at last. Mulder met her eyes, waiting for more. “In a way, working with you was easy. We had a reason not to become to close.”

“We did, though,” he said. They had become close, so much so that their becoming lovers had almost been an afterthought, in a way.

Scully nodded, acknowledging the truth of his remark. “We did, but we never crossed the line, so it was safe.” She kept her gaze on his, her eyes moist. “I was…insulated…against loss.”

“I’m sorry,” Mulder said. “I shouldn’t have…started this. I never wanted to hurt you.”

He took a deep breath, not wanting to say what he knew he must, but there was no avoiding it.

“Scully…Dana…I know what I’m like. I try not to be, but it’s what I am. There’s always going to be a part of me that acts first and thinks about the consequences later.” Scully wore an expression that he could not read, and Mulder found that, for a long moment, he couldn’t get the next words out, but at last he just gave up and said them. “If you can’t live with that, I’ll understand.” He choked over the last word.

Scully blinked, causing jewel-like tears to spill from her eyes. She shook her head, denying his offer.

“Mulder, no,” she said. “Is that what you think this is about?”

“I think you’d be better off without me,” he said. Today’s a day for being honest, he thought grimly. He looked away from her, from the woman he loved. The pain in his side had disappeared, for some reason.

It was she who reached for him this time, bringing his gaze back to her. “Mulder, when have I ever given up on you?” Her left hand encircled his right.

“Never,” he said. She’d always come after him, no matter what straits he’d got himself into.

He could recall a dozen such moments. When he came awake after his disastrous expedition to the Arctic, her face had been the first thing he had seen. She’d been tired, her eyes shadowed by days of fear and sleeplessness, but she had watched over him until he’d regained consciousness, greeting him with a look of joy that had made his heart sing.

There had been other moments as well. Once, she’d even endured the humiliation of imprisonment for his sake. Upon his return, she’d had only welcome for him. No complaints, no accusations.

The guilt that had been weighing on him seemed to redouble itself. “I didn’t mean that,” he said. “I…” He didn’t know what to say.

Scully tightened her grip on his hand. “Mulder, I’ve never asked you for much, but I’m asking for this.” Her eyes locked on his, all azure intensity.

“Don’t leave me behind. Promise me.”

How like her to convey so much in the simplest of words. Mulder found himself reflexively searching for an avenue of escape.

“That wasn’t my intention,” he protested.

She did not relent. “Mulder, I’ve lost too much. I don’t want to lose you too. I can’t.”

The naked look of need on her face stunned him. He had known that the years had worn her down, but now he saw that even that realization had been inadequate. Throughout their time together, Scully had always given of herself for him, not asking anything in return. That she had finally let herself admit to need spoke volumes about the fatigue in her spirit.

He realized he should not be surprised. The long months of her cancer had taken a tremendous toll on her, and the trauma of her daughter’s death had followed close on its heels. The only question was how she had held it together this long.

Her faith, he thought, had sustained her, but she needed more than that.

It gave him pause. Need had been the cause of his flight from Diana, years before, but as he looked into Scully’s eyes, Mulder saw love there as well, love that would keep giving, at any cost, to her limits and beyond. He couldn’t turn his back on that love; he didn’t want to.

You’ve already made your promises, Mulder. Time to start keeping them.

“I promise,” he said. “The next assassin is all yours.” The joke was feeble, but Scully laughed through her tears. He drew her to him, then, and she joined him on the bed, setting herself carefully so as to avoid jostling him. Mulder wrapped his good arm around her, pulling her into an awkward embrace. “I won’t let you down again,” he said. I promise, he thought.

Scully molded herself into him. They remained thus, clasped together, for a long time. They had no need for discourse; in silent communion, they reconnected to each other.

Still, doubt tugged at Mulder’s mind. Scully had forgiven him once again, but nothing had really changed. They were caught in a cycle, he realized, the same one that had trapped them since they began working together years before. It had intensified, but its essential nature persisted. And it would continue to manifest itself at intervals until some fundamental change occurred.

Our quest is the last thing between us, he thought. What was hurting her was an integral aspect of his essential nature. Mulder found that he had no idea what to do about it.

But he feared he had already offered the only solution, the one Scully had rejected, and deep down, he also feared he would have to insist on it.

  *

6:26 p.m.

Diana Fowley could not have explained what brought her back to Mulder’s room. When Scully had arrived, she had known she had to leave; the serious mien Mulder’s partner had worn made it clear that the discussion to come would not include Diana. And Fox had already made it clear that he no longer had any interest in her.

She had gone, clutching her dignity about herself like a tattered blanket.

The smoking man would owe her, after this assignment. Working with Mulder and Scully now would be nothing but emotional torment. Of course, Diana knew that the smoking man would most likely not see it that way — he would have little sympathy for her inner turmoil. To his twisted mind, the chance at vengeance against the man who had spurned her affections, and by extension his lover as well, should be viewed as an opportunity.

But these matters were never so simple. Vengeance would always exact its own price.

Going on would be service above and beyond the call of duty — if she had not already been beholden, she would have opted out of the whole business, sparing herself.

And yet she had returned to Mulder’s room, only an hour after leaving it, though she knew his partner would likely still be there.

Diana found that she was not mistaken. Arriving at the door, she opened it a crack and stole a quick glance at the scene within. Fox and his partner lay on the bed together, both asleep, in an unguarded intimacy that the duty nurses had chosen to overlook, it would seem. Scully lay with her head pillowed on Mulder’s right shoulder, seeming small and delicate next to him. She wasn’t his type, Diana thought — Fox had always preferred his women tall and dark — but she must be something special. Diana had never seen Mulder look at a woman the way he looked at his partner, not even when he had been with her, years before.

Stare though she might, she could not divine what Fox saw in Scully, what quality she had that captivated him. It certainly was not her youth — Mulder’s partner was but a few years younger than he — yet something about Scully drew his eyes to her whenever she entered a room. When she was present, half of his awareness inevitably lingered on her.

Diana sighed and let the door fall closed, striding down the corridor toward the exit. The final death of her love affair with Mulder hurt, but she found herself embracing the pain, gripping it tightly to herself.

She knew she would need the strength that it gave her.

  *

7:30 p.m.

It was Skinner who finally roused Mulder and Scully from their slumber.

He had left Mulder at the hospital hours before, dealing with the local authorities for most of the afternoon, his intent to spare Scully as much as possible of the bureaucratic hassle that inevitably followed a event such as had happened in Arkham. He knew she needed rest, but she had insisted on pursuing Mulder’s inquiries at the mental hospital, and so Skinner had taken some of the load for her.

The day had stretched out endlessly, and by the time he returned to Northampton that evening, Skinner felt tired and irritable and more than a little in need of a shower. Instead, he just had time for a final interview with Mulder and Scully before he had to head out for the airport in Hartford, Connecticut.

He knocked on Mulder’s door, expecting to find both of them there, and after a moment was invited to enter. Scully sat in a chair next to Mulder’s bed, but from the foggy look the both of them wore and Mulder’s position on the bed, Skinner knew that they had been asleep when he had knocked.

Asleep together — his earlier conjecture had been correct, he realized.

He regretted disturbing them, but forbore from taking overt notice of the circumstances in which he had found the two agents. Instead, he drew another chair near to Scully’s, sat heavily, and brought up the case.

“Agent Scully, how went your inquiries in Arkham?” Mulder would want to know this too, if he and Scully had not already discussed it. Something told Skinner they had not.

Scully shook her head, perhaps clearing cobwebs as much as expressing futility. “Not well,” she said. “The person calling himself ‘Leslie’ who is currently in the custody of the mental institution is not old enough to be the man we’re looking for.”

That revelation disturbed Mulder, if the frown that creased his forehead were any indication. He carefully worked himself into a sitting position. “What do you mean, not old enough?” he asked.

“This ‘John Leslie’ can’t be more than 35. That isn’t—”

Mulder interrupted her. “It may not matter. Many abductees experience time distortion. If his absence were due to an abduction, who knows? Maybe he hasn’t aged at the same rate as the rest of us.” He shrugged gingerly.

Scully was shaking her head again. “Mulder, time can be distorted — theoretically — but the energy requirements would have to be of a scale…”

“…to allow travel between the stars?” Mulder finished. “Think about it: Leslie my have incurred time debt while in interstellar transit.”

Scully’s hand described a non-committal motion. “Yes,” she began, “that’s possible, but even if true, it raises several other questions.”

To Skinner’s mild surprise, Mulder held his peace, merely inclining his head, inviting her to continue.

“Well,” said Scully, “if…extraterrestrials…took someone from earth and then traveled at relativistic speeds out of the solar system, that person would experience time more slowly than we would. So if he was returned, he might not have aged as much as we would expect.”

Mulder’s eyes lit up. “Well, wouldn’t that explain—”

“No, Mulder.” Scully shook her head. “It wouldn’t make sense. If we assume that extraterrestrials can master the energy needed for inter- stellar travel, we also have to assume they’ve found some way to overcome the lightspeed barrier, some sort of ‘shortcut’ between points in space. Reaching even the nearest star would require years of travel if one could only accelerate up to the speed of light.”

Mulder chewed his lip, frowning again. He’d read enough science fiction over the years to have heard that argument before.

“Well,” he said, “if they’ve found a ‘shortcut,’ why couldn’t they distort time? I’ve measured such effects in the past.” He pinned his partner with his gaze. “You’ve seen that.”

Scully did not respond at first. Finally, she said “I suppose it’s possible — again, in theory. But I—”

Skinner broke in. “Alright, I’m sure this is all quite fascinating, but we need to approach this in a more mundane fashion or it won’t matter what the smoking man says — this investigation will be shut down.” He faced Scully. “What else did you learn?”

She gave him a questioning look. “About Leslie?” she asked.

“For starters.”

“Well, he does believe that he’s the person that Agent Mulder thinks he is. But he may be delusional. He’s clearly been under considerable stress. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he had been diagnosed with some sort of breakdown.”

“Which would make sense if he is the real Leslie,” Mulder put in.

Scully nodded. “True enough, if largely unprovable.”

“What is he doing in a mental hospital if he hasn’t been diagnosed?” asked Skinner.

“Better ask our smoking friend about that,” Mulder responded. “He’s the one who put us on the road to Arkham in the first place. I’m certain that he arranged for Leslie to be held there.”

“Okay, enough about him,” said Skinner. Speculation about the smoking man could last all evening and end with nothing accomplished, and Skinner inevitably felt greasy when discussing him. He changed the subject again. “What was…the guy who attacked Agent Mulder, what the hell was his name?”

“Florescu,” said Scully.

“Right. What was he doing in Arkham?”

Scully took a deep breath. “I’m not sure. He choked a nurse until she was unconscious, but he didn’t kill her. Then he knocked out an orderly, and killed a third man of…uncertain affiliation.”

“What?” asked Mulder, leaning forward and wincing as his movement caused him to inadvertently tug at his wound.

“He evidently broke into the hospital shortly before we arrived in Arkham on Sunday morning. According to the staff, he didn’t harm anyone working there, apart from rendering them unconscious.”

“So what did he do there?” Mulder asked.

Scully hesitated. “Well, he apparently went to Leslie’s room, but the patient calling himself ‘Leslie’ doesn’t remember speaking with him. The staff did say that he took certain…documents from a locker.”

“What documents?” Skinner and Mulder asked simultaneously.

“The staff wasn’t sure. No one paid much attention. Someone said there was a book.”

“Oh, damn!” Mulder started to slap the bed in frustration but thought better of it. “Leslie’s journal.”

Skinner looked at him. “Are you certain of that?”

To his surprise, Scully answered. “That’s what whoever set this up really wanted. He evidently had access to Sales’ writings, but they did not include accurate surveys that would reveal the location of… whatever is near Rongbuk.”

Mulder was nodding. “But Leslie was carrying his books. Krycek knew that, or guessed it, and now he has what he wanted.”

Skinner felt anger, a blend of old disdain for Krycek and frustration with Florescu’s success in Arkham, rising in him. “So now what do we do?” he asked.

“If the smoking man arranged for Leslie to be sent to Arkham, he must have had him in custody at one point. Maybe he has copies of the documents.” Mulder slid his legs from beneath the covers and attempted to stand, prompting a gasp of concern from Scully, who stood and prevented him, forcing him to lie back on the bed.

“Mulder, don’t even think about it.”

Skinner noted that Mulder’s injuries prevented his usual willfulness. “Scully, we have to get moving. We’re in a race to Rongbuk, now.” Mulder protested, but he also returned to a prone position.

“We’ll need permits — we’ll need time to arrange them,” said Scully. “You might as well rest.”

“We need to contact the smoking man…” Mulder began.

“I’ll take care of that,” said Skinner, feeling unclean. “I’m returning to Washington tonight. I’ll get in touch with him.”

That seemed to satisfy Mulder, so Skinner decided to head out. “I have a plane to catch in about two hours, so I have to get started. Agent Scully, are you on board with this?” He waved a hand at Mulder and his notions.

“I don’t have a good alternative hypothesis,” Scully admitted.

Skinner nodded. “Alright. Keep me informed.”

With that, he left the agents in the hospital room. As he walked to the parking lot, he reflected on the unholy alliance he would have to cement once again.

  *

Book III — Rongbuk

On the Friendship Highway, Tsang Province, Tibet Friday, 2 October, 12:14 p.m.

Dana Scully stared out of the window of the Toyota Landcruiser at the hard, hot light of Tibet. Next to her in the rear seat, Mulder half- reclined, leaning against the window in an attempt to sleep, while in the front, their guide, Nawang Tsering, steered their vehicle along the dusty Friendship Highway. In the front passenger’s seat, Diana Fowley slept soundly, somehow managing to rest despite the jolts and bounces.

The countryside through which they traveled was grey and dry, stone and sagebrush, uninhabited. On the horizons, distant mountain ranges marched in jagged array, dark peaks capped with glittering ice. Scully raised her eyes from the mountains to the cloudless, lapis sky and then lowered them again, searching the land for…something. She found that she could not name what she sought, but its absence disturbed her in an inexplicable way. While Tibet might represent a mysterious Shangri-La to some, she found it a vaguely depressing place, a harsh and almost lifeless redoubt, cut off from the more inviting, lusher regions southward beyond the Himalayas. The thin, dry wind blew chill in October, but the sun’s rays baked the unprotected land.

The Landcruiser pounded through a particularly severe irregularity in the road, which was nothing more than a rough dirt trail, despite its name. Mulder groaned and sat up.

Scully scrutinized him, trying to assess how badly his injuries were hurting him. “How are you doing?” she asked.

Mulder winced. “You’d think someone would have bothered to pave this road, considering it’s the only one between the two largest cities in the region.” He paused, his wry expression fading into neutrality. “I’m okay.”

Scully left her gaze on him a moment longer, finally deciding that the healing of the injury in his left side had not regressed.

She leaned forward and spoke quietly to the driver. “Be careful, Nawang.” She had already asked him to keep the ride as smooth as possible, but the Tibetan did not seem to really understand the concept of using the steering wheel to avoid bumps.

Nawang turned back to her and grinned. “We leave the highway soon, ma’am. The road gets rougher ahead.” He pronounced the words with the exaggerated enunciation of one who had spoken most of his English in a classroom.

“Well, make sure you don’t miss any pot-holes,” said Mulder.

“Okay,” said Nawang, missing the sarcasm. He made a ‘thumbs-up’ sign.

Scully smiled inwardly, momentarily cheered by the Tibetan’s good- natured eccentricity. She found that she genuinely liked him, though something about him struck her as odd. She remembered the look of… almost recognition…that he had given her and Mulder when they met at his travel agency in Lhasa, asking him to secure permits and a vehicle so they could travel to Rongbuk Monastery.

She hadn’t yet had time to fully consider that.

The time in Lhasa had passed in a blur. Worried that Krycek would have too great a head start, Mulder had wanted to head west toward Rongbuk as soon as possible, and somehow Nawang had managed to arrange matters in only a day, an unusual development in Asia, she would have thought. Thus, she and Mulder had not had much time to see the city — she had spent an afternoon in the dark and mysterious recesses of the Jokhang Temple, but that was all — before their guide had contacted them with the news that all was ready.

Almost before Scully knew what was happening, she was giving the unvisited Potala Palace a last wistful look through the rear window of the Landcruiser as they rode west out of Lhasa. It was almost as though their guide had set up the trip in advance.

Something was up, she thought, but Nawang had evaded all of her attempts to elicit it from him. She had decided to let it ride for the time being. For some reason, almost against her better judgment she found herself inclined to trust their guide’s good nature.

Scully sobered again as she turned back to Mulder. Though the injury to his side had been dangerous, it had healed well and represented no long-term problem. Mulder could already walk fairly well, though his side still pained him.

His hand, however, was another matter.

Scully sighed to herself. She had urged Mulder to delay this trip and allow his injuries time to heal properly, but he would have none of it. As a result, he had no real use of his left hand and would probably require extensive therapy later to recover it. In the meantime, she had been keeping a close eye on him, changing his bandages frequently and watching for signs of infection. Fortunately, that particular problem had not manifested itself.

Other concerns continued to be an issue for them, though.

She looked out of the window again. They had begun to descend, she noticed, and in the distance ahead she could see a small town, situated on the floor of the wide valley they had entered. Scully looked forward to moving down into relatively thicker air; they had been above 15,000 feet for some time, and she had suffered from a mild headache for several hours. Between the thin air and her frustration over the case, she had found herself in a state of mild depression ever since they had reached Lhasa a few days earlier.

Seldom had Scully felt as useless as she had during this investigation. From the beginning, she and Mulder had been reacting to the manipulations of others — Alex Krycek, in Mulder’s view, the smoking man, in hers — rather than taking the initiative. And while she had doubts about Mulder’s hypotheses, doubts that Diana did not share, naturally, she had even more about the motivations of the smoking man, despite his insistence that their interests had aligned for this mission. On top of all that, she felt she had contributed nothing to their investigation, such as it was.

And Mulder had not been himself either, for the past couple of weeks. He had not been the partner that he had been for more than five years, and he had not been the lover he had recently become. Scully had been debating the reasons for this ever since their conversation in the hospital in Northampton, but she had come to no satisfactory conclusions.

She tried to convince herself that they were doing the right thing, that this mad dash across Tibet made sense because they had nothing else to go on. And the very real interest in Rongbuk of the smoking man and Radu Florescu, if not Alex Krycek, suggested that Mulder’s hunches were not entirely baseless.

Unless, of course, Florescu was working for the smoking man, and unless his interest was in Mulder himself, rather than the writings of a semi- legendary explorer.

Scully rubbed her forehead, as though that might slow the thoughts that spun in ever-tightening spirals in her mind. She found herself in a familiarly uncomfortable situation, following after her partner without a chance to catch her breath and think the matter through. As usual, Mulder had a dozen reasons why everything had to be done in a rush.

That was the root of the problem: no matter how close she and Mulder became, and no matter what assurances he gave her to the contrary, as long she was not in immediate danger, the quest still came first.

Scully found that, deep within herself, her selfish side’s resentment of that had grown.

She was afraid, she realized, afraid of losing Mulder, afraid that their work would demand she make one more sacrifice on top of all of the others. And she hated herself for that fear, for being weak.

So she had choked back her doubts and objections and lent her best efforts to Mulder’s endeavor, just as she always did. It had not seemed to help, though. Mulder sensed that her heart wasn’t in it.

Ever since Skinner had brought them copies of John Leslie’s writings, which the smoking man had provided, he had been both driven and distant. Together, they had arranged travel first to Kathmandu and then Lhasa, but she had felt a sense of separation from her partner during that time, as though the more she tried to bring him close, the further he slipped away.

It hadn’t helped to have Diana there, nodding in uncritical agreement to everything Mulder said. Scully had felt more like a harpy with every question she asked, every contrary statement she made.

Their lack of physical intimacy had undoubtedly also contributed to their sense of distance. Between Mulder’s injuries and, lately, her own lingering altitude sickness, they had not made love in more than two weeks. That was just one more frustration nagging at her, Scully decided.

“Mulder, hand me those papers again, will you?” She dug into one of her own bags for a topographical map of the area around Rongbuk as her partner produced the file containing Leslie’s surveys.

Mulder handed her the file. “Haven’t got them memorized, yet?”

She shook her head. “Something’s been bothering me about these documents. I need to figure out what it is.” Perhaps if she could gain some semblance of control over their investigation, other things would fall into place as well. Perhaps the sense of order she needed would return.

“Knock yourself out,” Mulder said, turning to contemplate the landscape outside.

Scully lowered her gaze from his profile and opened the file for what had to be the fifteenth time, pouring over its contents once again. Leslie’s maps of the area around Rongbuk for the most part matched the modern map she had, but there seemed to be certain inconsistencies as well. Scully concentrated on matching up the two documents’ salient landmarks.

There was the monastery itself, not far from a village that lay at the end of a remote roadway. To the north lay a broad valley that rose in elevation and stretched about 20 miles toward a range of hills. Through this valley ran a river that flowed from a second, higher range of hills located another 10 miles or so to the north and cut through the first range.

Leslie had evidently never added the alien facility — assuming that’s what his and Sales’ writings had actually described — to his maps, but according to the narrative, the site could be reached simply by following the river northward to the first range of hills and locating a cave mouth on the east side of the canyon through which the river flowed. Passing through the cave gave access to the facility itself.

He had also diagramed what appeared to be the facility’s main gate, along with several numerical sequences that Mulder had decided were access codes, though there was no way to be certain of that until they actually reached the site.

Leslie had sketched the river and cave mouth, as well as a crude map through the cave. Scully found herself returning to this sketch over and over again. Something about it seemed…strange. She glanced back at the topographical map, comparing the two. A sudden thought struck her.

She looked up. “Mulder, I—” She stopped, seeing that her partner was staring at her with a look of appalled concern on his face.

At that moment, Scully felt the liquid warmth on her upper lip and realized, with a shock, that her nose had begun to bleed.

  *

Near Rongbuk Monastery 12:30 p.m.

A Landcruiser roared to the top of a low hill, it’s engine laboring in the thin air, and stopped at the top. A second vehicle soon joined it there.

Alex Krycek, riding shotgun next to the Chinese driver of the first Landcruiser, hopped out and strode ahead to the top of the hill’s northern slope. He raised a pair of binoculars and scanned the vista before him, moving the lenses from the monastery to the lands beyond, tracing the river northward to the range of hills that was their goal. He felt his excitement mounting; the object of years of thought and planning, at times intense, at times speculative, now lay nearly within reach.

Nothing would stop him this time, and if Rongbuk proved to be what he suspected it might, well….

His partner, Radu Florescu, emerged from the second vehicle, accompanied by Sun Wei-kuo, one of the triad gangsters whom Wu Tseng-li had sent to accompany them. Krycek had not really wanted Sun or any of the other three gangsters to come on this expedition, but he had not had time to argue with Wu Tseng-li about the matter. Florescu had reported the smoking bastard’s interest in the affair, and that meant the time for unhindered action would certainly be limited. Krycek had accepted the four tag-alongs as the price of Wu’s help and resolved to deal with them as necessary when the time came.

In the meantime, it was just possible that they would prove useful.

Still peering through the binoculars, Krycek addressed Florescu. “We’ll be there within a few hours.” He spoke English. He’d slipped back into the habit in Hong Kong.

“This is dangerous,” said Florescu. “There are only six of us, and these men are not trained.” Krycek heard him spit and resisted the temptation to do the same. The damned Tibetan dust had left his mouth feeling gritty for days — wretched country. Florescu continued. “If there is resistance, it could be a problem.”

Krycek lowered the field glasses and looked at his partner. “We’ve been over this before,” he said. “We’ve got the gear we need. We have to go with what we’ve got.” Each Landcruiser carried a flame-thrower set, Chinese military ‘surplus’ that Wu had “liberated” from a garrison close to Hong Kong.

Krycek gave Sun a hard look. “Make sure your men are ready,” he said. “And when I give an order, it had best be obeyed at once.”

Sun nodded, showing no emotion. “Of course, Mr. Krycek. It will be as you wish.” His English was fluent and scarcely accented.

“Alright,” said Krycek, stowing his binoculars and stepping back to the vehicle in which he had been riding. “Let’s get moving.”

  *

On the Friendship Highway 12:40

Scully dabbed at her nose one last time and then folded her handkerchief. It had taken a while, but the flow of blood had at last stopped.

She gave Mulder what she hoped was a reassuring look. “I’m okay,” she said. “It’s not a sign of…a problem.”

An amalgam of concern and fear, and loneliness, emanated from Mulder’s eyes. “How can you be certain?”

“It’s too soon for the tumor to have returned, to have reached a size that would cause this…symptom.” I’m almost certain of that, she thought. “It’s just the dryness of the air; I’ll always be prone to nosebleeds.”

Mulder nodded, but his expression of disquiet did not fade.

Scully reached out and placed her hand gently on his. “I’ll see the oncologist when we get back, just to be safe. But it’s nothing. I’ll be okay.” She willed him to accept that; the one thing that could put her under more stress would be for Mulder to start obsessing over her health again.

“Alright. The *second* we get back.” He tried to appear reassured, for her sake, she realized.

He does care about me, she thought. In his own way, he does.

We have to find a way to love each other and continue to function.

“I promise,” she said.

Nawang Tsering, who had been pointedly keeping his attention focused on the road, now turned back to them. “Ready for lunch?” he asked.

At the thought of food, Scully’s stomach rumbled quietly. She realized they were approaching the town she had noticed earlier. “I’m starving,” she said. Perhaps food would distract Mulder from his worries as well.

Nawang grinned and shook Diana, rousing her from her nap. “Time to eat,” he said, beaming at her. Diana did not speak, rubbing the sleep from her eyes instead. This seemed to amuse Nawang even more.

“So, is there a McDonald’s in this town?” Mulder asked.

  *

Twenty minutes later, Scully finished the last of the noodle soup and yak butter tea that she and Mulder had identified as the restaurant’s safest offerings and opened up the file she’d consulted earlier. Diana rose from the table she had shared with Nawang and joined them, pulling her chair across and crowding in next to Mulder. Nawang drifted off to chat with some of the locals at the other tables, evidently uninterested in their discussion.

“This is what I meant to show you earlier,” Scully began. She pointed to the sketch of the cave entrance that Leslie had made, then indicated the same area on the topographical map.

“What is it?” asked Mulder.

“Look at the relief lines on the topo-map. I knew something was wrong about this, I just couldn’t figure it out. It finally hit me.”

Mulder shook his head. “I’m not seeing it.”

“Nor am I,” said Diana.

“Look at the line spacing on this map,” Scully said. “The relief lines along the river are tight, but not enough for this to be a true canyon, which is what Leslie sketched.”

Mulder picked up the map and then the photocopy of the sketch, scrutinizing each in turn. “Are you certain?” he asked.

“Absolutely.”

“She’s right, Fox,” said Diana. She looked at Scully. “So, what do you think it means?”

“Three possibilities,” Scully said. “One, Leslie’s sketch is not accurate.”

“I doubt that,” said Mulder. “He was a professional surveyor, after all.”

Scully nodded. “I agree, and his drawings appear accurate enough in other areas.” Assuming this is his work, she added to herself.

“So what are ‘two’ and ‘three’?” Diana asked.

“Two, these journals have been faked.” Mulder looked dismayed, and would have spoken, but Scully went on before he could do so. “That was my conclusion, until I noticed something about these photocopies that opens up the third possibility.”

She ran her fingernail along a set of very faint lines that traced the edges of two of the sheets.

“Son of a bitch!” Mulder exclaimed. “I’m impressed, Scully. I’d have never noticed it.” The lines Scully had spotted were extremely fine. Even someone holding the actual journal might not notice that pages had been removed.

“What?” asked Diana. “I don’t see it.”

“These lines,” said Mulder. “There were pages here. Someone cut them out, with a razor or something.” Scully thought he looked as pleased as he had in weeks, and for a moment she half-expected him to give her a kiss, but he settled for squeezing her hand instead. “This is great news.”

Light had finally dawned on Diana’s features. “Part of the narrative is missing — Krycek may be looking in the wrong place.”

“Exactly,” said Mulder. “I was afraid we’d be too late, but the odds have just shifted in our favor.”

Scully wasn’t entirely sure about that, but was grateful for Mulder’s happiness all the same. Fear of being too late had been one of the many concerns that had plagued him throughout the trip, and it would be good for him to alleviate some of the stress he was under. “Still, we’re going to have to figure out where the actual cave is,” she said.

“Any ideas?” asked Mulder.

Diana pointed to the map. “Perhaps the next range of hills,” she said, then shrugged. “It’s hard to know.”

Mulder nodded. “That seems likely, but it would be better to be sure.” He looked at Scully. “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”

Scully considered it. If Mulder were correct and Leslie had recently been returned to the site he had surveyed 64 years ago, it stood to reason that he would have passed by Rongbuk on his way out of Tibet.

Scully met her partner’s gaze. “The monastery?” she asked.

Mulder nodded in satisfaction. “I think we need to interview the good monks of Rongbuk,” he said. He stood up, calling across the room. “Nawang! I think we’re ready to go.”

Their guide detached himself from the group of Tibetan truck drivers whose conversation he had joined and hurried across the room, following Mulder, who had already exited the restaurant.

Scully gathered the map and the contents of the file, waiting for her sense of order to return, but it refused to do so. As she followed Mulder out of the restaurant and into the bright noonday sun, she sensed that their investigation continued to follow its own course, unmoved by their plans or desires to control it.

  *

Nepal-Tibet Border Sunday, 4 October, 6:00 a.m.

When the smoking man had informed her that the Consortium would be taking “active measures,” Jill Whittaker had been impressed. She knew enough about him to recognize that whatever measures he had in mind would be decisive.

Still, she had not expected the team that had arrived in Kathmandu on October 1st.

Jill had been busy during the second half of September. The smoking man had given no explanation for the return of John Leslie to Kathmandu, and simply ordered her to arrange his immediate transport to Dubay, just as she had the first time. Presumably, Leslie had found his way to Andrews Air Force Base once more.

The smoking man had also not explained his instruction that, should Leslie find his way into Kathmandu yet again, he was to be forwarded to Dubay with alacrity. Jill had decided that these things would make more sense once her status in the Consortium hierarchy had risen. In the meantime, she had a new mission to complete.

Travel to Lhasa to meet with Mulder had been deferred so that she could facilitate the transit of Colonel Calvin Henderson, a Consortium operative, along with the squad that he led. Their arrival in Kathmandu’s spacious and sleepy airport had been an eye-opener.

Colonel Henderson had quite a presence. Middle-aged, supremely self- confident, and clearly a long-time veteran of Special Forces Operations, he had taken control of the situation from the moment he arrived, relegating Jill almost to the role of an administrative assistant.

That did not exactly sit well with her, but Henderson was not the sort of man who would have been interested in her complaints, had she chosen to voice them.

He was the sort of man for whom action — decisive action — came as second nature, and thus it hardly struck Jill as surprising that, just a few days after the team’s arrival in Kathmandu, she was now walking away from the remote track that crossed the border between Nepal and Tibet, looking for a shielded spot among the rocks in which to practice the delicate art of relieving herself in the wilderness.

Jill sighed as she exposed herself to the chill air of the Himalayan autumn and attempted to balance herself in a squatting position; this was not her idea of rapid upward progress in the ranks of the Consortium. It was, however, Colonel Henderson’s idea of covering all of the bases. The team had no intention of dealing with the authorities in China — the border crossing they were attempting was both covert and highly illegal — but in the event of trouble, Jill represented the best local area knowledge readily available.

She patted herself down with a tissue and pulled up her trousers, then made her way through the rocks and pre-dawn dark back to where the team had stopped their Jeeps. They had left the lush, semi-tropical slopes of the Himalayan foothills behind them and crossed into that part of the Tibetan Plateau that lay, on a political map, within the Kingdom of Nepal. Another hour or so would put them within Tibet proper.

Getting past the border patrols would not be easy, but perhaps the Consortium had managed to arrange something. Jill hoped so. She did not relish the thought of a Chinese prison. She wasn’t too worried, however. Corruption might have been the Consortium’s greatest strength.

She returned to the team. The soldiers, heavily armed and all Special Operations types like their leader, had taken advantage of the break much as she had and were now ready to press on. Henderson snapped out a few orders and at once engines were starting and Jill found herself hustling to clamber back into one of the vehicles. Within moments, the little caravan had resumed its trek toward Rongbuk.

She contemplated her orders. Though the overall plan had been almost completely transformed, the matter of Agent Mulder remained open. She could still take action on that front if the opportunity should present itself.

Jill was ambitious. She sensed the smoking man’s antipathy toward Mulder and knew that he would be well pleased should she be able to effect the one aspect of his original instructions concerning him. And she had every intention of doing so.

  *

First range of hills, north of Rongbuk Monastery 10:16 a.m.

Alex Krycek rode atop the Toyota and watched the ravine walls on either side, shifting his gaze back and forth in search of any hint of a cave entrance. The Landcruiser splashed its way slowly through the river, which was nothing more than a broad, shallow stream here. It probably ran higher at other times of the year, but now it was low and placid, allowing them to simply use its bed for a roadway with no danger of drowning the engine.

The sides of the ravine sloped upward from on either side, and were largely free from vegetation. Unfortunately, they were also free from openings that might lead to John Leslie’s discovery. Krycek forced himself to be patient, but the search had begun to drag out. Since Friday, they had already driven the length of the ravine twice, with no result.

He consulted the copy of Leslie’s journal he’d had made in Hong Kong, staring at the sketch of the cave entrance. He looked up again and then kicked the roof of the Landcruiser. The driver brought it to a halt in response to his signal.

Radu Florescu clambered out. “What is it?” he asked.

Krycek pointed up and to the right. “Look there,” he said.

Florescu complied, then turned back to him. “I don’t see anything.”

“Look at that rock.”

After a moment, Florescu shook his head. “I don’t think so.”

“Bullshit. We need to get closer.” Krycek leapt off the roof of the Landcruiser and began climbing. Florescu followed, as did one of the triad men, responding to an order from Sun Wei-kuo.

Though not vertical, the slope was steep. Reaching the rock required a climb of a few minutes, and the effort in the oxygen-poor air left them sweating and panting, but when they reached the rock, Krycek scrambled on top of it and let out a muted exclamation of triumph.

Before him stood the cave, just as Leslie had described it. Thank you, Fox Mulder, you bewildered cock-sucker, he thought. I couldn’t have done it without you.

“I’ll be damned,” said Florescu, next to him. The entrance, large enough that a man could stoop and walk inside, could not be seen from below. But atop the ledge, there was no missing it.

Krycek signaled to Sun Wei-kuo. “Bring up lights, and the weapons.”

He watched as Sun turned and began barking orders in Chinese to the two other triad men who had remained with him below.

After a few more minutes of grunting and straining, the three had joined Krycek and Florescu at the cave entrance. Florescu and one of the Chinese donned the flame-throwers. Krycek settled for a 12-gauge shotgun with a flashlight mounted atop it. He faced the cave and stepped in, followed closely by his cohorts.

The inside of the cave proved dry, a dusty, lifeless chamber. Within the entrance, it widened suddenly, its ceiling rising as high as 12 feet overhead at its highest point. To either side, the walls spread until a 30-foot wide chamber was formed, but ahead, a narrower passage vanished into the darkness.

So far, so good, Krycek thought. He looked for signs of passage in the grit on the cave’s floor, but saw nothing. He worked the action of the shotgun, readying a shell for discharge, and moved deeper into the cave, the beam from his flashlight piercing the inky dark before him.

The passageway narrowed and began do descend, and the floor proved treacherous, with oddly-spaced irregularities threatening to trip the unwary. Eventually, the party was forced to walk in single file, with Krycek in the lead, followed closely by Florescu.

Suddenly, the passage widened again, opening into a roundish chamber. Krycek swung his light around and settled on a figure directly in front of him.

“Son of a bitch,” he heard himself say.

  *

Tsang Province, southwest of Rongbuk Monastery 11:00 a.m.

Jill Whittaker pressed herself into the ground and tried to make herself as small as possible. Overhead, the roar of rotor blades swelled to fill the world, as though the machine were directly overhead.

She knew this was not the case, but the Chinese military helicopter was nonetheless far too close for comfort.

The border crossing had been deceptively easy, as had the morning’s drive toward Rongbuk. Still, Colonel Henderson and his men had been cautious. One, a Mandarin-speaker, Jill had learned, had begun scanning radio frequencies in hopes of monitoring Chinese military transmissions. He had succeeded, and thus Henderson had been warned of the helicopter reconnaissance patrol that now threatened to discover them.

Jill did not want to be discovered. Far too much was riding on this mission, and she had no illusions about the lengths the Consortium would go to in order to recover her from Chinese custody, should she fall into it.

She risked a glance to one side, seeking one of her companions, but she found she could not see them. When the team had first heard the sound of the helicopter’s rotors, they had stopped their Jeeps and remained just long enough to through camouflage netting over them before they had scattered into cover. They had been lucky that they had been driving through a canyon when they had been forced to abandon their vehicles, as the rock-strewn and shadowed area provided some opportunity for concealment.

The roar of the helicopter’s engines grew to a crescendo and then began to fade, and Jill allowed herself to hope they had been overlooked. Still, she waited until long after the silence had returned before she ventured to stir from her hiding place, arising at last in response to Colonel Henderson’s call.

She stood up, feeling a bit sheepish, and walked toward the Jeeps, which Henderson’s men had already begun to uncover.

“Give you a turn, Ms. Whittaker?” asked the Colonel, a look of cynical amusement on his face.

“A little,” Jill allowed. She was too worn out from worry and travel to keep up any pretenses.

Henderson nodded. “Not to worry.” He jerked a thumb in the direction of the vanished aircraft. “Those guys, their hearts aren’t in it. They’re too busy not putting it into a cliffside to pay attention to their mission.” He flashed her a cocky grin. “If we’re on the ball, they won’t notice us.”

Jill glanced around. There seemed to be a lot of places from which a helicopter could appear without warning, but Henderson’s men seemed unperturbed at the prospect. They had already rolled up the netting and started the engines of the Jeeps.

“Let’s go,” said Henderson, turning toward their vehicles.

Jill followed him, hoping with all sincerity that his skills matched his self-confidence.

  *

Tsang Province, east of Rongbuk Monastery 1:00 p.m.

As their Landcruiser approached the checkpoint, Diana Fowley gave their guide an appraising look.

Nawang Tsering seemed unworried, despite the serious mien of the Chinese security official, who was evidently asking to see their travel permits. The Tibetan produced a sheaf of forms filled out in scribbled ideographs and stamped with numerous, important-looking red seals, which the guard accepted with ceremony. He scrutinized the documents, frowning and and clucking to himself, as though they held the key to his nation’s destiny. A few other guards stood by, their automatic rifles cradled nonchalantly as they leaned against the concrete blockhouse by the road.

Diana knew she could bring Fox’s operation to a complete halt with just a single suspicious word or deed. Even if the checkpoint guards did not speak English, it was clear from their demeanor that any irregularity would be greeted with the utmost suspicion.

Bored guards are dangerous guards, she mused.

At the moment, though, she could hardly expose Fox without exposing herself as well, and whatever her feelings toward her ex-lover, she had no interest in bringing herself down.

In any case, the smoking man’s instructions had allowed her an escape route. She would just have to wait until they were closer to Rongbuk, and then she could link up with the team that had been sent in.

And Krycek remained to be found and dealt with, before anything else was done. Diana was to make sure that Mulder made it to his objective prior to secondary plans being initiated, which meant another couple of days of awkward companionship, and not just between her and Fox, or her and Scully.

The tension between Fox and his partner had not been lost on Diana. The almost tangible connection between the pair had shown some signs of wear of late, and for all their evident closeness, they seemed uncertain how to cope with it. Scully had withdrawn within herself, raising protective walls, as though she feared hurt more than isolation, while Fox seemed torn between the quest and his love, and ended up giving neither the necessary attention.

He’d been flying blind ever since they had arrived in Tibet, and if it had not been for Scully, they would have learned nothing since their arrival.

No, Diana decided, it wasn’t that simple. Fox wasn’t just missing the obvious; he was actively pushing his partner away from him. Diana wasn’t sure why, but Fox had seemingly made a point of brushing off Scully’s attempts to re-connect with him, and as she grew increasingly wounded, those attempts grew less and less frequent.

As best he could, Diana realized, Fox was trying to end their relationship. That was something to ponder.

She stole a glance back at the woman who had ruined her last chance to restore her love affair with Fox. Scully wore a pensive mask, as she had for most of the trip, and her introspection prevented her from noting Diana’s scrutiny.

It also prevented her from perceiving her partner, who brooded in his own world next to her. Fox may have been keeping Scully at arm’s length, but Diana wasn’t fooled. His heart wasn’t in it. For all his distance, his affection was there to be seen. It was just that Scully, hurt by his efforts to drive her away, had stopped looking.

The situation had the potential to become downright unpleasant, Diana mused. She remembered her own break-up with Fox, years earlier.

Nawang was speaking to them, interrupting her train of thought. “We’ll have to get out for a while. They want to search the vehicle.”

Mulder and Scully exited the Landcruiser without comment. Fox slipped away from his partner and walked off, ostensibly to stretch his legs, leaving her standing with one hand raised where she had tried to touch him. Scully lowered her hand slowly and walked in a different direction, eyes downcast.

Diana remained with Nawang by the guard station. She was not perturbed by the search. Traveling as tourists, rather than FBI agents, their group had perforce not brought any weapons with them, and the most sensitive items they had carried into the country were the topographical map, which was on Scully’s person, and a Geiger counter, which the Chinese guards likely wouldn’t find if their search was not thorough.

And it wasn’t. A thorough search would have meant work, so the guards settled for a perfunctory inspection and then allowed them to drive on. Within minutes, Nawang had pointed the Landcruiser west toward Rongbuk once more.

Fox and Scully resumed their meditations in the back seat, each taking a profound interest on the landscape outside the vehicle.

Nawang took it upon himself to liven up the atmosphere.

“Have you ever heard of the yeti?” he asked.

That got Mulder’s attention, drew him out of his gloom for a bit. “Have you ever seen one?” he asked.

“No, I have not,” said Nawang, “but many people have. Or they have seen the tracks, or heard the sounds the creature makes.”

“What does one look like?” Diana did not really believe in yetis, but it seemed a good tale might be in the offing, which could be reward enough.

“My cousin saw one.” Nawang’s eyes shifted back and forth, from the road to his audience and back again. “He said it was very large, with a squarish head, and fur. It had long arms.” The Tibetan wiggled his eyebrows, enjoying his story. “Of course, my cousin is unreliable. I think perhaps he saw a bear.”

“A bear?” asked Diana.

“Yes, maybe a bear. Or maybe nothing. My cousin likes to tell stories about what he has seen, especially the yeti.”

“Who else has seen one?” asked Fox. “Anyone you believe in?”

Nawang twisted to give him a look, prompting Diana to warn him to watch the road. He looked forward again before responding to the question.

“My uncle, Jamyang Dorje, is a lama at Rongbuk Monastery. I believe in him. He saw something, years ago, but he did not say that it was a yeti. But it was something strange.”

Scully had been listening quietly, and chose this moment to speak. “What did your uncle say it was like?”

“Like a man, but not like a man. It was tall, and thin, but had no hair. It’s head and eyes were large. My uncle said it was not a yeti.” He shrugged. “I don’t know what it was. Maybe it was yeti, maybe not.”

“Where did your uncle see it?” Scully asked. Diana wondered what her interest was.

“It was a long time ago, when he was younger. He had traveled from the monastery to a meditation cave that the monks used to go to. It was from there that he saw it, walking along the side of a river. He said it frightened him.”

“Did it see him?” Scully had begun to lean forward. Fox was looking at her, his expression unreadable. She did not return his glance.

Nawang tossed another look over his shoulder. “My uncle says not. He waited very quietly, and it passed by without noticing him.”

“Where was this?” asked Mulder.

“North of the monastery, there is a range of hills. That is where the cave is. The monks do not go there any more, and have not, for many years. No one goes there.”

He slowed the vehicle to almost a stop and turned to look at Fox. “That is an evil place, now,” he said.

  *

Red Victory Guest House, Tsang Province, Tibet Monday, 5 October, 6:00 a.m.

Dana Scully awoke to a cold room and an empty bed. Moonlight spilled through the west-facing windows, bathing the floor and the foot of the bed in a ghostly light. Outside, the wind soughed around the corners and eaves of the hotel, a square, three-story blockhouse built of the dismal concrete favored by Tibet’s communist Chinese masters.

The room was chilly and soulless, and, Scully quickly realized, Mulder was not in it.

She sat up, letting herself come fully awake, and considered the situation. Mulder could not have gone far, of course. The guest house, built to serve God-knows-what clientele, stood alone on one of Tibet’s nameless plains, somewhere between Lhasa and Rongbuk Monastery. They had arrived there late the previous day, having just past the nearest town — no more than a village, really — about six miles to the east. So unless Mulder had taken off with their Landcruiser, there wasn’t anywhere for him to have gone.

Scully suspected she knew where he was; Mulder’s periodic bouts of insomnia invariably led him to a television set or, when none was available, a night sky. Most likely, her partner had made his way to the roof of the hotel and now stood staring into infinity.

Which raised the question of what to do about him.

Tossing back the bedclothes, Scully swung her feet out of bed and stepped into her slippers, her only protection against the icy concrete floor. She dressed quickly in the chill air and poured a cup of boiled water from the thermos provided with the room, sitting on a hard chair and sipping the still-hot water. In the quiet of the room, she considered her partner and lover.

Her erstwhile lover?

She wasn’t sure, and that hurt.

Apart from their lack of physical intimacy, which could at least be attributed to his injuries, little had overtly changed in her relationship with Mulder. But though his words and actions were much as they had always been, some essential part of him had pulled away. At his most basic level, he had begun to withdraw from her.

That afternoon had been a salient example.

One of the tires of their vehicle, worn thin by too many miles on the rough roads of Tibet, had finally given out, forcing Nawang to stop to attach the spare. Mulder had not said anything, but simply climbed from the car and strode off toward a nearby hill. Scully had decided to follow him. His taciturn mood had returned, despite their hope that Krycek did not have an insurmountable advantage, and he had pulled within himself, rebuffing her attempts to engage him in conversation. Scully hoped that the privacy offered by a walk away from the Landcruiser would get her partner to talk, at least.

She had been disappointed. Mulder had strode well ahead of her, his long legs easily outpacing her shorter stride. He finally stopped, but she was still a few minutes catching up with him on the hilltop.

He had not welcomed her presence. ‘Talk to me,’ she had said. ‘Just give me some space,’ he had snapped back at her, whipping his hand in a dismissive gesture.

Stung, Scully had retreated to the vehicle, where Nawang had managed to turn the changing of the tire into a 40-minute project. Mulder had at last returned, muttered a barely audible apology, and then slumped dispiritedly in the back seat of the Landcruiser, leaving Scully to brood over the tension between them for the remainder of the day.

It was not as though they had not had disagreements before, but this seemed different. Mulder might sulk for a few hours or even a whole day, but his current withdrawal had begun shortly after his sojourn in the hospital in Northampton, and had slowly intensifying ever since.

Scully realized that, for some unstated reason, Mulder was opting out of their relationship — their love affair, certainly, and perhaps their partnership as well.

Well, Dana, she thought, he’s not getting away without explaining himself. It’s time to stop suffering and do something.

With that resolve, she made her way out of the room, seeking the stairs that led to the guest house roof.

  *

A few minutes later, Scully found Mulder where she had expected he would be. He stood, a leather jacket his only protection from the night air, his back to the door from which she emerged. He faced the western sky, where the heavy, full moon had begun to set behind the mountains’ silhouette.

Though not strong, the wind had an icy bite. Scully pulled her coat more tightly around herself and approached her partner. Time to settle this, she thought. No more pretending to ignore the difficulties.

She broke the silence. “Penny for your thoughts, stranger.”

Mulder did not look back at her. When it came, his voice was barely audible. “I’m not a stranger, Scully. Not to you.” He paused. “You know that.”

Scully let some of her frustration into her tone. “Could have fooled me,” she said. “Ever since Massachusetts, you’ve acted as though you could hardly stand to be around me. It’s been ‘we have to get this permit’ and ‘what about that visa?’ and ‘I can’t talk right now, too busy, sorry’ and on the few occasions you’ve shared my bed, I still felt like I was alone.” She stopped herself, took a deep breath. She did not want to sound overwrought.

“What are you running from, Mulder? Why are you pulling away from me?”

Mulder did turn around then, but did not approach her. They stood, facing each other across a five-foot chasm.

“Scully, I’ve been thinking.”

She waited. Mulder remained silent for a moment, his expression unreadable in the shadows. At his back, the moon slipped silently behind a rocky hill that loomed from the plain west of the building, and as the shadow fell over them, the jewel-stars of the Tibetan night appeared in their millions, bright and unwinking overhead, diamonds on midnight velvet.

Mulder spread his hands, as if in a warding gesture. “Do you know the expression ‘the Midas touch’, Scully?”

She nodded, uncertain where this was heading.

“It’s one of the most commonly misused expressions in English,” Mulder went on. “People use it to describe someone who succeeds in everything. But that’s not what it means. Midas was cursed. Under his touch, his food turned to gold, his wine turned to gold, and so did his daughter. His ‘gift’ had implications he had not expected.”

Scully began to step closer to him, but Mulder raised his hands again.

“I’m beginning to think that Midas and I have something in common, except my gift is less ironic. Everything I touch turns to lead.”

“Mulder, that’s not true.”

“Yes it is.” He began to pace, his footsteps describing a short, oblong path in front of her. Scully remained where she was, her doctor’s mind noting that the wound in his side had healed enough that he could walk almost without limping. She let him work out the energy that burned in him. He would have to say his piece first; then she could try to counter his self-recrimination.

“For most of my life, I searched for my sister. And then I learned she didn’t want to be found.”

Scully looked down. Mulder had told her of his encounter with Samantha. The experience had wounded him, and he had not even known how to attempt to cope with it, a hurt that time would almost certainly not heal.

“But I’m still looking for her,” he went on. “Or I’m looking for what’s behind what happened to her, at least. And look where it’s gotten us. At every turn, I do their work for them, and I bring harm to those I love.”

Even amid her dismay, Scully felt a moment of warmth in response to his words. “Mulder,” she said, “I told you once that you don’t own the blame for what’s happened. I meant that.”

He stopped pacing and stood before her. “It doesn’t matter,” he said, his uninjured hand slashing the air in front of him. “It doesn’t matter whether you blame me or not. Cause and effect remain.” He took a deep breath. When he spoke again, his voice was quieter, but just as grim. “Look at me. Here I am, racing across Tibet to find something that I’m not even sure is here, dragging you with me into harm’s way. Against your will.”

“No, not against my will.” Scully shook her head. “Just because I’m not certain you’re right doesn’t mean I don’t want to know the truth as much as you do. I’ll admit I’m not entirely comfortable with this, but I’m here because I want to be here. Because this is where I belong.”

This time it was Mulder who shook his head. “You were wrong to join yourself with me, Scully. And if I had been stronger, I would have sent you away by now. I should have done so.”

“This is my quest too. I told you that.”

“No, it’s not,” said Mulder. Scully would have protested, but he went on before she could speak. “I’m not saying you don’t have the right to be involved, but it’s not your quest. Ever since I saw Samantha, I’ve given a lot of thought to why I do this. For every two steps forward, I take two back, or I find out I’ve been walking in a circle. I haven’t gotten anywhere.”

“So why do it?”

“Because of my dad. Because he was involved. The son must atone for the sins of the father, no? But you don’t owe the world that debt. Captain Scully never committed the wrongs that William Mulder did.”

Scully did step forward then, unshed tears of compassion stinging her eyes, and took his unhurt hand in both of hers. “No, that’s not true. You do not have to atone for what your father may have done.”

Her vision had adjusted fully to the darkness, and she could see his eyes clearly as he stared down at her. His countenance revealed his his feelings of guilt, his unquiet. “Then why do I do it?” he asked.

“You do it because it is what you were meant to do.”

“Meant to do?”

“Yes. And I do it because I was meant to be here with you.” Her voice dropped to a near-whisper. “And because I love you.”

She felt his hand tighten around hers. “Don’t love me, Scully. I’m standing under a dark star.” His voice had fallen as well.

“That’s not true.” Scully took a deep breath, then spoke again. “You stand in God’s love, as do all of us.” She found she was surprised by her own words.

Mulder looked stunned; they had never seriously discussed her faith, or his beliefs, neither before her cancer nor after her remission and return to the Church. “I don’t know your God, Scully,” he said.

She looked down at his hand, clasped in her own, ran her fingers lightly along his, traced idle loops around his knuckles. “It is said that everyone will encounter God in his lifetime. I believe that.” She hesitated. “But I think that some find God outside of the Church. I think maybe that’s how it’s meant to be for you.”

Mulder didn’t answer, at first. Scully looked up at his face, saw that he looked out over the star-lit plains to the east, out over Tibet, a land of monasteries and shrines and sacred places. “These people seem to have their own belief,” he observed.

Scully’s gaze followed her partner’s. “God speaks to them in a different language, I think. But deep down, we all hope for the same thing.”

“Life?” Mulder asked, looking at her face once more.

“And love,” she said. “Do you love me, Mulder?”

“I love you,” he said simply.

“Then that’s enough.”

“I can’t protect you. And I can’t promise you nothing will happen to me.”

And that was the heart of it, the disquiet that had haunted her for so long. She looked deep into Mulder’s eyes, black opals in the starlight. So much of his soul lay bare within them, open to anyone who made the effort to look for it. Scully could see the caring there, and in that moment understood at the deepest level of her being, in a way that she had never understood before, that the caring and the impulsiveness, the risk-taking, were parts of one whole.

She realized that uncertainty would always be the price of loving Mulder. She swallowed. “I don’t expect that. I just want you to let me be there for you. Don’t leave me behind.”

Mulder shook his head sadly. “You know how I am, Scully. I can’t even promise you that. Not honestly.”

She locked her gaze on his, holding his attention on her. “Then just promise me that you’ll try. I can settle for that.”

Mulder’s features grew grim. “That’s not fair to you,” he said. “It’s not right.”

“Mulder, I believe in you,” said Scully. “I believe in our love. You’ll be there for me.”

For a long moment he was silent. “I will,” he said at last. “I’ll do my best.”

“Then it’s right.” Scully released his hand and slid hers up along either side of his head, pulling him down to her and joining her mouth with his. She felt his good hand ease around her back, drawing her close to him.

Neither of them felt the wind that, rising, brushed at them with chill fingers, tossing their hair about and seeking gaps in their clothing. Together, they were warm in the cold of the night.

  *

Much later, Mulder lay on his back in their darkened room, with Scully lying at his right side, one arm and leg tossed over him in a possessive embrace. For the first time in weeks, they had made love, her straddling him carefully so as not to cause him pain. Their movements had been languid, but the passion between them had made up for their physical restraint.

And for the first time in weeks, Mulder felt that their was peace between them, a peace that would last, that would let them love each other.

Now all he had left was to find peace within himself. But he held out little hope for that.

  *

On the road, east of Rongbuk Monastery 9:00 a.m.

“Nawang, what are the chances of visiting the monastery itself?” Mulder asked.

They were driving along yet another stretch of dusty roadway under the empty lapis vault. He realized that he had not seen a cloud since they had left Kathmandu, a week earlier.

Their driver looked over his shoulder at them, his attention blithely removed from the road ahead, to answer. “We can go there. The monks will welcome you, should you choose to visit.” They had driven nearly 150 yards before his gaze returned to the road, yet Mulder found himself unconcerned. One can get used to just about anything, he realized.

“Today?”

Nawang nodded, pointed ahead down the road. In the distance, the land rose, and the road climbed a high range of hills in a series of what Mulder now knew from experience would be terrifying switchbacks. “It’s not far now. We have to cross that pass ahead, and then we’ll be there. Two hours, perhaps.”

Mulder nodded, sat back in his seat. To his right, Scully was catching up on the sleep they had lost the night before, while Diana rode up front. She had had little to say today. When he and Scully had joined her and Nawang for breakfast, she had given them a lingering stare, as though she perceived the new contentment between them, and her face had settled into a mask of reserve.

Her discomfort pained Mulder, especially considering how well she had gotten on with him and Scully to date; it seemed a shame that she should revert to unhappiness. But he reminded himself that she had insisted on joining them for this expedition. She was a grown woman, and her emotions were her own business.

Anyway, he was glad she had come, in some respects. Though they were hardly present in force, one more pair of eyes and hands might prove useful before this was over.

Mulder sat back, let his right hand drift over to where Scully’s lay on the Landcruiser’s rear seat. Unconsciously, her fingers twined with his.

He wondered where Alex Krycek was.

  *

Near Rongbuk Monastery 11:40 a.m.

From a hill overlooking the road to Rongbuk monastery, one of Sun Wei-kuo’s triad underlings kept watch.

It was not an interesting post. So far, nothing had passed beneath his scrutiny but a pair of Tibetan drovers and their animals, and a few of the local farmers on their way to some of their more remote fields.

And so the triad man had spent the last few hours in utter boredom, watching an empty road for the arrival of…anyone unusual. The foreigner leader’s instructions, relayed through Sun, had been to report any unexpected arrivals.

He raised his binoculars and scanned the deserted road once more. Bored though he was, he had no interest in leaving his post, and even less in failing in his duties. The foreigner’s temper had already proven most impressive.

  *

Alex Krycek, the foreigner in question, had managed to calm his temper and return to John Leslie’s journals for another round of serious study. The cave, which had at first seemed so promising, had proved to be nothing more extraordinary than a hermit’s meditation cave. The figure revealed by Krycek’s flashlight, an eight-foot-high image of what Sun Wei-kuo had identified as a Buddhist deity, had indicated that. No sign of the facility that John Leslie had visited could be found there, nor was there any passageway that might lead to it.

That disappointment had led to further searching of the ravine, but to no avail. Leslie’s cave proved beyond their ability to locate.

Which led Krycek to suspect the journal he had was not authentic, or had been altered in some way. After all, it was not as though Tibet had the most dynamic environment on earth. The place was one big, semi-desert, and was literally dotted with caves. Even after 64 years, Leslie’s cavern should have been easy enough to locate.

Krycek studied the pages in front of him, the journals that Florescu had brought to Hong Kong from America. They looked authentic; Leslie’s drawings and narrative seemed intact, and the location of the cave seemed unambiguous. But since they hadn’t found the cave, something had to be wrong.

At that moment, one of Sun’s triad men came sprinting into the camp, scattering stones where he stumbled and barking breathless Chinese to his fellows. Sun listened a moment, asked a few questions, and then calmly made his way to where Krycek remained seated.

“There are vehicles on the road — four-wheel drive — heading for Rongbuk.”

Krycek did not have to look for himself; there were only two serious possibilities concerning the identities of the newcomers.

He looked at Sun. “Weapons,” he said.

  *

Rongbuk Monastery 11:50 a.m.

Nawang brought the Landcruiser to a stop in front of Rongbuk Monastery, and after a moment, Scully climbed out to stand on the dirt road below the massive front gate, indulging in a long stretch.

Diana, was next out of the vehicle, followed by Nawang and then Mulder.

“Here we are,” said Nawang, unnecessarily.

Scully let her gaze drift along Rongbuk’s impressive facade. The building was fortress-like and two-toned, the upper half of its walls a deep maroon and the lower a brilliant white that shone almost painfully in the sun. Two grey-blue wedge-shaped windows, one of which seemed recently repaired, were spaced evenly along the front of the upper facade, and above everything, along the front of the monastery’s roof, gold-covered decorations — a wheel and two deer, and various unexplainable shapes — gleamed brightly.

Nawang was stepping toward the heavy wooden doors, which were painted a heavy crimson, and raised the massive knocker there. When he dropped it, the thud echoed in the late-morning quiet.

After a minute or so, a teenager in the maroon robes of a Tibetan monk opened the gate. His face registered his surprise at the group of foreigners at the gate, and he ran one hand along his peach-fuzz hair, finally turning to Nawang and speaking.

Nawang held a brief exchange with the boy and then turned to Mulder and Scully. “Please, follow me.”

He stepped within the gate, walking through a short passage and into the open courtyard beyond. Diana, Mulder, and Scully followed. Behind them, the young monk closed the gates and lowered the bar, locking them in. The boy then disappeared through a smaller doorway that led into the side-building of the monastery.

On either side of the courtyard, there were inward-facing doors and, above them, balconies decorated with potted flowers. Directly before them, at the far side of the court, a short, wide stair led up to an overhung porch. Another set of doors, standing wide open, revealed a dark room beyond. Nawang gestured for the group to follow and then led them across the court to the doorway, stepping into the shadows beyond.

As they strode across the pavings, Scully took a moment to glance around. The inner walls of the monastery were maroon and grey and largely undecorated, and in the corners or the courtyard, pomegranate trees, heavy with fruit, grew in large pots. A monk stepped out onto one of the balconies and gave their group a curious stare, then disappeared into the monastery once more.

They reached the doors. Nawang invited them to remove their shoes, and after doing so they entered a large room lit only by the faint flickering of butter lamps and the light that shone in through the open doorway. Large gold statues of Buddhas loomed in the dimness, and the walls were adorned with intricate paintings of various deities. The air was heavy with the scent of burning yak butter and sandalwood.

Nawang indicated an elderly monk who had entered the room at the same time they had, slipping in through a door on the far wall. Like the other monks they had seen, the aged Tibetan wore robes of maroon cloth. His head was mostly bald, adorned only with a barely-visible fringe of white hair trimmed close to his skull, and a thick white mustache covered his upper lip. His demeanor was serious, but beneficent. “This is my uncle,” Nawang said, “Lama Jamyang Dorje. He has been expecting you.”

  *

Near Rongbuk Monastery 11:55 a.m.

Alex Krycek stood atop the spy-hill and trained his binoculars on the monastery below. Next to him, Radu Florescu cradled a high-powered rifle equipped with a telescopic sight, a sniper’s weapon that he was more than qualified to use. Krycek was deciding what to do.

It was Mulder, he knew that now. When Sun had told him what the look- out had seen, he had scrambled up to the observation post himself, just in time to see his one-time partner, Scully, and a second woman at whom he had not gotten a good look enter the gates of Rongbuk. A single Landcruiser remained parked on the roadside in front of the monastery gate.

“They’ll have to come out sometime,” Krycek said. “What do you think, Radu?”

“It’s an easy shot — I could probably get two of them, maybe all three, before anyone knew what was happening.” The Romanian spat. “It’d be noisy, though.”

Krycek lowered the binoculars and nodded. “Messy, too. Might even be enough to wake up the local authorities. Anyway, I just had a thought.”

“Ya?” The Romanian’s accent, Krycek noted irrelevantly, seemed even more nasal in English than in Russian.

“Our friend Leslie may have left something behind there,” Krycek said, gesturing toward the monastery. “Maybe Mulder will show us the way once again.”

“It’s possible. Do we wait?”

Krycek nodded. “We wait.”

  *

Rongbuk Monastery 11:57 a.m.

Scully found that Nawang’s remark did not surprise her at all, for some reason.

Jamyang Dorje made his way to a low riser, where he seated himself, and then beckoned their group to sit in front of him. Nawang led them across the room and sat down on a low cushion. Diana, Mulder, and Scully followed his example.

Jamyang Dorje spoke in Tibetan; Nawang translated his remarks into English. “My uncle welcomes you to Rongbuk, and asks what has brought you here.” Nawang spoke for himself then. “My uncle realizes, as I do, that you are not tourists. Tourists do not ask to come to this place. When you expressed interest, I knew that you had some other purpose. And as I said, you were expected.”

That explained the look Nawang had given them when they had first met him in Lhasa, Scully thought.

Mulder spoke up. “How is it that we were ‘expected?’ Who could have known we were coming?”

Nawang relayed question and answer. “My uncle says that certain events of great…karmic magnitude have occurred recently. The Rinpoche — he is the highest lama here — predicted that there would be a reaction. That reaction has manifested in your arrival here. That is all.”

There was a pregnant pause. “John Leslie came here, didn’t he?” asked Mulder.

Jamyang Dorje nodded gravely. He spoke again to their guide, who said, “My uncle asks again, why are you here?”

Mulder looked the old monk straight in the eye. “We’re here to learn the truth,” he said. “We’re here to find the place from which John Leslie returned.”

“My uncle says that this ‘truth’ you seek is not a good truth. It is one that has remained hidden for a long time, and perhaps should remain so.” Nawang gave Mulder a hard look. “My uncle asks what your interest is.”

Scully glanced at Mulder, silently willing him to answer the monk’s question in the right way. Her partner had ever been a forthright man, but though his devotion to justice shone in him like a flare, it burned as often as it warmed. Mulder had a look in his eye, a rigidity in his jaw that warned that his uncompromising side was making a bid for ascendence.

Scully saw Mulder breath deeply and then visibly relax, the evident tension in him easing somewhat. When he spoke, his tone remained even. “It is a dangerous truth; that is certain.”

Jamyang Dorje stared at him, but did not speak.

“But it’s a truth that is going to come out, one way or another,” Mulder said. “We are here to learn, to discover and determine what must be done. But there are others whose motives are not so pure.”

Nawang translated this into Tibetan, then gave the monk’s reply. “My uncle asks, who else has an interest in this matter?”

Behind them, the doors leading out to the courtyard were closed, darkening the chamber even more. Scully turned where she sat to see a novice securing the doorway. Slowly, her eyes adjusted to the lower light. The statues gleamed an even richer gold in the gloom, and the heady scent of sandalwood incense grew stronger.

Mulder spoke quietly. “There are people, organizations that take an interest in matters such as this one. I know many of these people, and I know…I suspect that one is here. ‘Krycek’ is his name. His motives are his own, but I know the sort of man he is. He is a killer.”

Before Nawang could translate, Diana broke in. “He’s not the only one, I think.”

Scully, Mulder, and Nawang all turned quickly toward her, so unexpected was her comment. From the corner of her eye, Scully noticed that Jamyang Dorje had looked at her as well, though his movements remained deliberate, his expression placid.

“What do you mean?” asked Mulder.

Diana looked at him, her expression strange. “Fox, don’t be naive. Do you think the smoker would just send you out here on your own and not cover his bases?” She shook her head, looking grim. “My guess is that we have more company up here than we realize.”

Nawang turned to Jamyang Dorje and related this in a rapid stream of Tibetan. The elderly monk listened attentively, then spoke at some length to Nawang.

Nawang turned back to them. “My uncle asks me to inform you that it does not matter who has come to search for this place, because it will not be found.”

Scully waited for him to go on. Obviously, Jamyang Dorje had said far more than that, but Nawang did not offer anything else.

Scully fixed her gaze upon their guide. “Nawang,” she said, “we know about the journal. We know that the missing pages are here, or we can guess it, and if we know, then others can figure it out as well. When they come to Rongbuk, they will come in force. I know these men. They will not hesitate to do whatever they think is necessary to get the information they require.”

Nawang’s eyes narrowed, and Scully hastened to continue. “I’m not making threats, Nawang. But I’ve seen what these men will do. And if there is something nearby that is dangerous, it would be best if it did not fall into their hands.”

Nawang spoke to Jamyang Dorje again, then listened as the monk replied at length once again.

At last, Nawang turned his gaze to Scully once more. “My uncle says, you are welcome to stay here tonight. The monastery has a few outbuildings, one of which will serve as a guest house. He will discuss this matter with the Rinpoche, and they will decide what is best to do. Until then, we will have to wait.”

Scully glanced at Mulder, wondering how he would react, but he seemed undisturbed. He simply nodded and said “That will be fine.”

Nawang stood as Jamyang Dorje moved to get up. Diana, Mulder, and Scully followed his example. The monk smiled at them and then made his way to the door through which he had entered, disappearing through it.

“Come this way,” said Nawang. “We can eat in the village.”

  *

Near Rongbuk Monastery 10:00 p.m.

Full dark had at last come to the valley, but the full moon flooded the land with blue-white light. Florescu made his way slowly up the look- out hill to where Krycek had spent most of the afternoon. He found him at the summit, sitting among the rocks in a relaxed pose, his field glasses in his lap.

Florescu was bored, and Svetlana’s ghost had begun to probe the edges of his awareness. Since he had not brought any vodka into Tibet, he knew he had to find something to occupy his mind. He could not even communicate with three of their four Chinese companions, and Sun Wei-kuo had proved utterly laconic. Thus, Florescu had sought out his employer.

“Anything?” Florescu asked, settling himself next to Krycek.

“Nothin’,” muttered Krycek. “They’re not going anywhere tonight.”

“Where are they?”

His employer waved a hand. “I saw them walk out to one of the monastery outbuildings a few hours ago. Their vehicle is there too. They’re bedding down for the night.”

“So should we, no?”

“Soon,” said Krycek. “Mulder will move tomorrow, I think. We have to be ready.”

“Do you have a plan?” Florescu figured that Krycek did. The man was an inveterate plotter, that was certain.

“Yeah, I’ve been thinking about it. We have to assume they’re armed—”

“They’d be stupid not to be.”

Florescu saw Krycek’s head bob in the darkness. “Yeah. It doesn’t matter, though. We’ll role out before dawn and set up a roadblock north of the monastery. There are six of us, so they’ll cooperate.”

“Where do you want to set up?”

“Along the stream, over the second rise, about two miles from here.”

Florescu considered that. It was a sound plan, but it made certain assumptions. “You’re sure they’ll follow the stream.”

“Where else will they go?”

Good question, Florescu thought. “They don’t know we’re here; that’s clear from the way they just rolled in today. You’re right. They’ll follow the stream.”

He wandered away from where Krycek sat, until he reached the edge of the rock outcrop, gazing north across the moonlit valley floor. Somewhere in the distant darkness, the first range of hills cut the land from east to west, and somewhere in that vicinity lay their objective, the master facility. Florescu was confident that Rongbuk was what Krycek thought it was. If he had harbored any doubts before, the interest of both Mulder and the Consortium had dispelled them.

He felt a rising tension within him. This was the objective for which he had sold his soul. This was why he had served the Organization for so many years.

Part of the reason, anyway. After dealing with this faction, the real enemy would eventually have to be dealt with. But all in its proper order. Today, Rongbuk awaited.

Florescu strolled back to where Krycek sat. “Tell me more about Mulder. What is his weakness?”

Krycek spat. “He has no stomach for what it takes. When it gets rough, he’ll blink.”

“That all?”

“No.” Krycek was shaking his head again. “Scully. Threaten her, and he’ll forget everything else.”

“Are they lovers?”

“I don’t know, I doubt it. Mulder doesn’t have the balls. But that doesn’t seem to matter.”

“So we use her to control him, eh?”

Krycek didn’t answer for a moment. “Yeah, we’ll use her, all right,” he said at last.

Florescu did not speak after that. He sat with Krycek and listened to the small sounds of the deepening night, waiting for sleep to come.

  *

Rongbuk Monastery Tuesday, 6 October, 9:00 a.m.

Nawang, Diana, Mulder and Scully had gathered for breakfast, which consisted of an uninteresting barley gruel that Mulder nonetheless downed with enthusiasm. Food was food, after all.

Scully toyed with hers. Even after more than a week at altitude, she had shown lingering signs of discomfort, most prominently a severely suppressed appetite, even slight nausea, in the morning. Mulder hoped she would start eating more soon; even months after her remission, her frame remained slim and, though not frail, she was not as robust as she had once been.

Diana consumed her own gruel with dispatch if not enthusiasm, but only Nawang actually seemed pleased with the dish, approaching it with the same good humor that he applied to rough roads, flat tires, and high, dangerous mountain passes. He swallowed a hearty gulp of barley and gestured northward, out of the window of the outbuilding in which they had spent the night.

“One of the nomads said he saw yeti tracks near this place.”

That got Mulder’s attention. Learning something about the yeti would be an unforeseen side benefit of this trip, though their primary goal remained paramount. “That so?” he asked.

Nawang nodded. “Kunga is his name. His family is still in the area, but they are always nervous!” He laughed, mimicked a worried nomad, eyes wide, swinging his head from left to right, and looking over his shoulder.

“Is he a relative of yours?” asked Diana.

Nawang laughed again, louder. “No, no. I did not grow up in a tent.”

“Where were the tracks?” asked Scully. Mulder wondered at her question a moment, then realized that she suspected that Nawang’s conversational gambit was not entirely random.

“North of here, a few miles. In the stream bed. I don’t believe they were yeti tracks.”

“No?” asked Scully. There was the barest hint of movement in one of her brows.

“No,” said Nawang. “These nomads are always seeing things. Demons, yetis, whatever. He probably saw leopard tracks.”

“Oh.” A momentary look of unguarded wonder formed on Scully’s visage, and Mulder felt a surge of affection in response. He remembered finding a copy of Matthiesen’s famous book on one of her shelves; it clearly had made an impression on her.

Diana’s voice interrupted the moment. “So, what happens today?” she asked.

Nawang waved one hand in the air. “You may visit the monastery, or the village. My uncle is consulting with the Rinpoche. When he has made a decision, he will send for you.”

“We don’t have much time,” said Mulder.

Nawang fixed his gaze on him, becoming serious. “You must be patient,” he said.

Mulder acknowledged their guide’s remark with an tilt of his head and returned to his barley gruel. He thought he’d been pretty damn patient already, allowing Nawang to show them around the monastery and village without protesting, waiting for the lamas to decide whether to trust him. And he was prepared to be patient a while longer — there were readings to be taken here at the monastery, and he and Diana could certainly fill a few hours surveying the place — but he hoped that Jamyang Dorje and the Rinpoche made their decisions before too long, or everyone would wind up regretting it.

  *

North of Rongbuk Monastery 11:00 a.m.

The ambush was in place, and had been since before dawn. The location was ideal — a narrow gully that provided the most convenient access to the higher ground further north. The river flowed through the gully, but there was plenty of room for a four-wheel drive vehicle to pass.

Sooner or later, Mulder would have to come this way. So far though, there had been no sign of him. The only thing moving on the valley floor had been a few nomads and their yaks.

Radu Florescu glanced at Krycek, who had managed to control his impatience better than he often did. “Long wait, but they’ll come, I think.”

Krycek exhaled sharply. “Yeah, they’ll come. Wonder what’s keeping ‘em, though.”

Florescu looked around, making sure that neither Sun nor any of his men were within earshot. Satisfied, he whispered to Krycek “When do we take them out? Have you decided?”

“Not before we have Mulder, of course. And I’d like to at least have a look at the facility before we get rid of them.”

“And what do you want to do with Mulder when we have him? Kill him?” Florescu decided not to mention Scully. Krycek seemed to react… strangely to her.

“I haven’t decided.”

“I’ll do it, if you want. I should have finished him last time.”

“I’ll let you know when I decide,” said Krycek. “I owe him, that’s for sure.” He stood up, gestured for Sun, then pointed to a low rise a few hundred yards to the south. “Send one of your men to watch. I want as much warning as we can get.”

The triad man passed the order along to an underling, who took his rifle and jogged toward the distant hillock. Satisfied, Krycek returned to Florescu’s side. “Always hurry up and wait,” he said.

  *

Rongbuk Monastery 12:14 p.m.

Scully stood next to Nawang Tsering and tried to explain to him what Mulder and Diana had been doing for the past hour or so. The young Tibetan listened politely, clearly understanding nothing. Scully could hardly blame him. Mulder had been playing his game with stop-watches and Geiger counters for years, and though he managed to glean something from it now and then, Scully had never come up with a satisfactory explanation for the phenomena behind it.

Diana seemed familiar with the ritual, however. She had joined Mulder in placing metering devices at various locations around the monastery buildings, paying particular attention to its flat roof.

Rongbuk’s inhabitants, maroon-clad monks of all ages, had been puzzled but ultimately uninterested in the strange antics of their foreign guests. They had watched for a few moments and then gone through their daily routine of chores and ritual prayers and meditation. There had been no sign of Jamyang Dorje or the mysterious ‘Rinpoche’.

Scully shielded her eyes against the light and watched as Mulder took readings from the decorations at the top of the highest of the Rongbuk’s buildings. At that moment, Diana appeared from a nearby doorway and joined her and Nawang. Scully turned to face her. “Well?” she asked.

Diana looked up toward Mulder, who had finished his survey and begun walking toward a doorway that led back down into the monastery. “There are some signs of activity here, but they’re old. I’d guess something may have occurred nearby, perhaps two to three months ago. Or more recently, but further away.”

Scully noticed that Nawang had listened carefully to what Diana had said, though whether his interest arose from Diana’s arrival or something else, she could not have said.

“Fox is interested,” Diana went on. “He seems…satisfied with the readings.”

No surprise there, Scully thought. Mulder was always pleased, even jubilant, when he had measurable evidence in his hands, if only because it was the only thing that had a hope of convincing her. Not that he needed it as much as he once had — after Antarctica, Scully’s basic assumptions had shifted significantly.

Mulder joined them, emerging from the same door through which Fowley had come. “Something was here, Scully. I’m sure of it.”

His voice, something in his tone, took Scully back to their first year together, when she had been young and inexperienced and progressively more infatuated with her dynamic and attractive partner. She seldom remembered the innocence they had shared then. It seemed so long ago.

Mulder scrutinized their guide. “Any other stories you can tell us, Nawang?”

Nawang was let off the hook by the arrival of a young monk, a novice, who ran up in a flurry of maroon cloth and spilled a stream of excited Tibetan at him. Nawang listened for a moment, then translated for his guests. “My uncle wishes see you now.”

  *

A few minutes later, they were seated around Jamyang Dorje just as they had been the day before. The old monk gave them an appraising look, then spoke through Nawang.

“My uncle says that he has consulted at length with the Rinpoche, and they have decided to tell you what happened here not long ago.” Nawang paused as Jamyang Dorje spoke again, then continued. “My uncle was the one who opened the gate for the foreigner, the man from the past. He came in the night, the same night that something appeared in the sky over the monastery. My uncle saw that as well.”

Diana leaned forward. “What was it?”

“My uncle does not know. It was big, and gave out a great light. It hung in the sky but made no sound.”

Scully felt her skin crawl. The description echoed her own voice, heard on a tape months before, relating an encounter that she could not remember.

“How close did it come?” asked Diana.

The question was relayed to Jamyang Dorje, who gestured upward as he replied.

“My uncle says that he looked upon it as it hung over this place, not very high. It was too bright to look at directly, and it vanished without warning.”

Mulder had been nodding as Nawang confirmed what he had evidently suspected, and his eyes sought out Scully’s and held them, as though seeking her reaction, hoping she would remember something.

Scully found she had nothing to offer him, and that she regretted that. That memory had eluded her consciousness for months, almost a year, and she had not felt comfortable pursuing it. She could hardly call something up on a moment’s notice, in any case.

She decided to change the subject. “What about the man? Who was he?”

Jamyang Dorje related the story of Leslie’s arrival at Rongbuk. As Scully listened to Nawang’s translation, the eerie feeling she had felt a few moments before redoubled. The John Leslie described by the Tibetans sounded quite like the one she had met in Arkham — exactly like him, actually.

According to Nawang, Leslie had spent nearly a month at Rongbuk, during which time his mental health had steadily declined, until at last Nawang had escorted him to Lhasa. And then, for the monks of Rongbuk, the waiting had begun. The Rinpoche had predicted a ‘reaction,’ and now that the reaction had occurred, they had to decide how to respond to it.

Jamyang Dorje reached within his robes and removed a sheaf of papers, handing them to Mulder, whose eyes lit up at the sight of them.

“My uncle,” said Nawang, “entrusts you with these documents. When John Leslie was here, I examined his writings, and it was decided that these pages be removed, so that knowledge of the place from which he came would not leave Tibet. Your news, however, has raised certain concerns.”

“How so?” asked Mulder.

“Your assessment was accurate. There are others here in this valley.”

  *

Southwest of Rongbuk Monastery 12:24 p.m.

Jill Whittaker stared nervously down the barrel of the automatic rifle that she clasped in slick hands.

She and one other member of Colonel Henderson’s team had been assigned to ‘rear security,’ a uniquely military expression for covering the team’s collective ass, while the rest of the unit waited in ambush for a hapless Chinese army patrol that was currently making leisurely progress toward their position.

The team’s position was in the upper part of a narrow canyon that gave shelter but just as effectively prevented flight. And thus, despite the fact that they would have much preferred no contact with the local authorities at all, they now found themselves forced into a fight. The Chinese patrol, which they had spotted while stopped for lunch, could hardly miss them should they attempt to drive away.

Eliminating the patrol was the only choice. The action had to be brief, sudden, violent, and completely successful. If the Chinese were alerted to the team’s presence in Tibet, they would be hard pressed to get themselves out, never mind accomplish their mission.

Which was why Jill found she could not keep her attention from the view downhill toward main body of the team. Though she and the trooper whom she was with had climbed out of direct view of their companions and the Chinese patrol, she found her eyes irresistibly drawn in that direction.

The sound of automatic weapons fire came sooner than she expected, and, crazily, reminded her of a dozen popcorn poppers crackling at once. It lasted for just a few seconds, and then the canyon was quiet, the soft sounds of the wind slowing returning to Jill’s awareness.

She would have gone to see what had happened, but the trooper with her prevented her from moving until one of his comrades came within sight and signaled them. And then she did hustle down the slope, past their parked vehicles, and within sight of the killing zone. The place drew her, against her will, the unfamiliar proximity of death an inexplicable siren’s call.

What she saw there made her retch painfully in shock in horror. Henderson’s men had done their work effectively; the Chinese patrol lay scattered about the floor of the canyon, arranged in odd postures as though they had been cut down while in the midst of a grotesque dance. And everywhere, there was blood. Its bitter, coppery stench filled the air, mixing with the sharp tang of gun smoke.

Jill found herself staring into the face of one Chinese soldier, a man neither especially young or old, a man who looked as though he had left a wife and child somewhere, checking every day for a letter from home. His eyes were open, as was his abdomen. His intestines lay partially exposed, red and slimy and scattered about queerly. This was someone’s daddy, Jill thought.

As she looked into his lifeless face, one of Henderson’s men seized his ankles and pulled him out of her sight. The team tidied up the floor of the canyon as best it could, moving the obvious signs of the carnage out of plain view. The colonel had given sharp orders, demanding even more speed and efficiency than he had previously. Jill understood the reasons for his urgent tone — now that the team had been forced into taking out a local military patrol, it was only a matter of time before its presence was inferred by the local authorities.

They had little time to complete their mission, now.

All that Jill could think about was the soldier’s widow and orphaned child, who would never know why he had died.

  *

Rongbuk Monastery Tuesday, 6 October, 12:29 p.m.

Mulder was doing everything in his power to remain seated, but his instincts, the inner urges that had propelled him from one momentous juncture to another throughout his life, made him desperate to stand, to move, to do something. ‘Others’ were in the valley, the old monk had said. That meant Krycek, and Florescu. It had to. They were looking for the same thing he was, and if they were here, then they were close to their goal, and had to be anticipated.

The conversation lapsed for a moment after Nawang’s translation. Diana had begun to look nervously about, as if some threat known or unknown might at any moment emerge from the dark corners of the shrine room in which they sat, while only Scully seemed unmoved, serene, accepting the inevitability of what they had learned.

Mulder considered the situation. Krycek was here, and had presumably been searching for the facility that Leslie had been held in. The question was whether he had found it, or come close.

“Nawang,” he asked. “What have these ‘others’ been doing here? And where are they now?”

Their guide spoke for a few moments with Jamyang Dorje, then turned back to Mulder. “There are nomads here, and they were the ones who brought this news to Rongbuk. They reported that foreigners, Westerners and Chinese together, spent two days in the gully where the river flows through the hills to the north. That is the place of which I told you, where my uncle saw the strange creature years ago.”

“Did they find anything?”

“Not that we know of,” said Nawang. “But that is not where your Mr. Leslie came from. That place too is known to us; it is further away. The papers you have show the way to that place.”

Mulder turned his attention to the documents that Jamyang Dorje had given to him. They were old and yellowed, and seemed to be of the same heavy paper as the journals of Randolph Sales, which had been left in the care of the ‘Gunmen.’ He scanned the text, which related the author’s progress past the first range of hills north of Rongbuk and to the second, where the mysterious cave was to be found.

Jamyang Dorje’s voice drew Mulder’s eyes from the page in his hand, and he attended to the strange, low cadence of the lama’s speech, though it conveyed nothing immediately understandable to his mind.

Nawang spoke again. “Mr. Mulder, my uncle has something to teach you. Will you listen?”

Mulder felt Scully’s gaze on him, and he noticed Diana had directed a quizzical stare at their guide. Nawang’s question struck him as odd, but in it he sensed a moment of truth, a critical juncture upon which the outcome of the entire investigation hinged. He looked directly at Jamyang Dorje and answered. “I will listen.”

Nawang translated his reply, and Jamyang Dorje spoke again, at length.

“My uncle says, it is no accident that you have come to Rongbuk. Your karma has brought you here, and in some way, the three of you are linked to Mr. Leslie and this matter. Whether you are here for good or ill is not known to us, but my uncle and the Rinpoche have decided that it is necessary to entrust you with this affair. We do not forget the harm the Chinese have done to Tibet. We know the wrong that men with guns can do.”

The guide cleared his throat and then continued. “My uncle wishes for me to tell you that he perceives you to be a man dedicated to Truth, and that is good. That is in part why he has given you the keys to the place you seek. But he cautions you that it is wrong to cling to the Truth you pursue. If you grasp at it, if you try to hold it tight to yourself and not let go, it will slip away and you will never find it. Your motivations will be stained, and harm will come of your efforts. You must be of pure heart, your motives must be unselfish, or your actions will be negative.”

“I like to think my motives are pure,” said Mulder, uncertain how to respond to the old monk’s lesson.

There was a brief exchange in Tibetan, then Nawang spoke. “My uncle says, you must be certain. You must keep compassion and loving-kindness foremost in your mind. This is the most important thing.”

Mulder looked over at Scully. She wore an introspective expression, but her eyes met his. No coherent thought formed in his mind, but he felt her love wash over him in an almost tangible wave, giving him strength and confidence. He turned back to Jamyang Dorje.

“I’m ready,” he said.

“Then there is something more you must know,” said Nawang. “John Leslie came to Rongbuk twice.”

“What?!” asked Scully and Diana simultaneously. The two women glanced at each other, a bit sheepishly, Mulder thought.

Nawang nodded gravely, then recounted how shortly after he had escorted the first John Leslie to Lhasa, a man of identical appearance arrived at Rongbuk, seeking shelter and transportation.

The news set Mulder’s mind racing. ‘Little grey men,’ alien shape- changers, human-alien hybrids, sentient black oil — he had seen them all over the course of his tenure on the X-Files, and through the years, the various alien factions and alignments had become ever more convoluted. In Wilkes Land, he had seen what was unquestionably an alien space ship, a craft that anyone, believer or skeptic, would recognize as a UFO. And within it, he had glimpsed yet another variation, that he had mentally dubbed ‘big grey men,’ shrieking, violent creatures, all sinew and claws.

Mulder wished he had been able to learn more than he had, naturally, but at the time, he had been too concerned with getting Scully to safety to worry about anything else.

Hearing Nawang’s tales of yetis and tracks, he had thought that in Tibet they would find something similar to what he had seen in Antarctica. If approached with caution, Rongbuk might prove a second chance to discover the secrets he had left behind in Wilkes Land. Now, though, Mulder was less certain. It was difficult to know what the news of a second John Leslie meant.

But there would be time to think about it later. “We have to get to the site. Can you take us there?”

Nawang nodded, indicated the papers Mulder held. “I have not been there, but the place is known to us. I will guide you.”

  *

North of Rongbuk Monastery 12:50 p.m.

“They’re on the move,” said Sun Wei-kuo.

The triad man had joined Krycek and Florescu shortly after sending one of his underlings forward to act as a lookout. That man had signaled to his fellows, and after Sun had sent one of them to relieve him, hurried back to report. Sun ordered him into place in the ambush and then translated the gist of his news to Krycek.

Krycek felt energy flare behind his knees in response to Sun’s words. “When, and where?” he asked.

“Your quarry is heading north, along the river, just as you expected. They just came into clear view, so it will be a few minutes yet.” If Sun had any emotions concerning the matter, his voice did not betray them.

“Alright,” Krycek said. “Remind your men: no one gets trigger-happy. I want Mulder alive.”

“If they resist, my men will shoot,” said Sun.

“They won’t resist.” Krycek turned to Florescu. “We’ve got them, Radu,” he said.

  *

12:55 p.m.

The Landcruiser lurched on the uneven ground, but the vehicle’s four- wheel drive managed the terrain without difficulty. North of Rongbuk, the valley rose from the wide fields of barley and entered a zone of a rich, rust-colored moss, interrupted by scattered stones and the occasional boulder. The river ran through this, and its flat banks provided a useful roadway for travel to the north. Mulder rode in the front this time, his attention glued to the land ahead. In the distance, he could see a low hillock, a sentinel over the river’s course through the valley.

A more immediately significant obstacle lay directly in front of them, however. A group of Tibetan nomads had brought their yaks to the river to drink, and the herd formed a roadblock that the sturdiest vehicle would have to respect.

“Look, it is Kunga!” Nawang gave Mulder a grin and pointed at one of the drovers by the water.

“Who’s Kunga?”

“Kunga is the one who saw the yeti! Remember?” Nawang repeated his pantomime of a nervous nomad jumping at shadows.

Before Mulder could reply, the nomad himself noticed Nawang and strode toward the Landcruiser, waving excitedly and gesturing northward. As Kunga spoke, Nawang’s face changed from amused to grave.

At last, he turned to Mulder, indicating the low hill ahead. “Kunga says that men with guns wait beyond the hill.”

In the back seat, Diana spoke up in alarm. “What? Who?” There was a note of panic in her voice that triggered something in Mulder’s mind. He worried at it for a moment, but no connection was made, so he let it go. They had a situation to deal with.

Nawang was translating again, shifting his gaze from Mulder to Diana and back again. “Kunga says that it is the men we spoke of, the Westerners and Chinese together.” He focused in on Mulder. “Is this the ‘Krycek’ of whom you spoke?”

“Maybe,” said Mulder. “It doesn’t really matter. We can’t go that way, and we can’t stay here. Is there another way to the site?”

“Of course,” said Nawang, moving a hand in a wide sweep. “The valley is wide; we can go wherever we please.” He paused. “It will take longer, though.”

“Doesn’t matter,” said Mulder. “We have to get out of here.” Somewhere in the lizard part of his brain, Mulder could sense the cross hairs of a rifle’s scope trained on his skull. Urgency mounted in him. “Drive south, now” he said.

  *

1:10 p.m.

The second triad lookout had hurried back from the forward hillock and given a breathless report to Sun Wei-kuo. Now, the Chinese had turned to Krycek, a hint of dismay on his face as he translated the report.

“Mulder has turned aside. It would seem that the nomads warned him of our presence.”

Frustration and fury blazed in Krycek, but he bit a lip and controlled himself. He knew he could only blame himself for this development; the nomads, and their affiliation with the monks of Rongbuk, had been an extra factor that he had simply not taken into consideration. He had been aware of the risk of his movements being observed, but there hadn’t been any way for him to alleviate it, so he’d let it go.

He took a deep breath. “Okay,” he said, turning to Florescu, “it doesn’t matter. We still have the advantage of numbers.”

“But not surprise,” Florescu observed.

Krycek nodded. There was no denying that. “I know,” he said, “but it can’t be helped.”

“So, what now?” asked Sun, surprising Krycek. The triad man had not made many such inquiries.

“If we can’t take them on the way in, then we follow. We let them lead us to the site, and then we take over.” Krycek shouldered his rifle.” “Radu! Mount up! Sun, get your men together. We have to track them.”

  *

1:15 p.m.

Colonel Henderson lowered his binoculars and turned to Jill Whittaker, who stood next to him as he gazed eastward across the valley. “Well, that’s quite a little convoy, wouldn’t you say?”

Jill raised an eyebrow at him, but did not answer. Without the advantage afforded by the binoculars, she could make out little of the distant vehicles Henderson had spied. Even so, she realized that few cars would be traveling in such a remote region, and they had most likely found one or both of the parties they sought.

Henderson was unperturbed by her silence. He turned to his men and called out. “Let’s go, gentlemen. Phase two of the operation begins now.”

A few ‘yes, sir’s’ drifted back to him as his troops scrambled back into their Jeeps and fired up the engines.

Though their goal was near, Jill’s mood was subdued. She swayed with the vehicle as it trundled down the slope, but in her mind’s eye, she still saw the bloody remnants of their earlier ambush. And there would likely be more killing soon, she realized.

  *

Second range of hills, north of Rongbuk Monastery 5:00 p.m.

“Well, here we are,” said Mulder. Nawang had brought the Landcruiser to a stop in the middle of the canyon, next to the narrow, shallow stream that flowed through its length. Above them, a short, easy climb from the canyon floor, loomed the entrance of the cave that had been discovered, 64 years previously, by John Leslie and Randolph Sales.

There was nothing remarkable about the cave. It looked like any of a half-dozen others they had seen during the hours of driving that had brought them to the canyon. Nothing could be heard but natural sounds, the flow of water in the stream and the low whistling of the wind among the stones.

Mulder climbed out of the Landcruiser and stretched, looking up at the canyon wall. He felt Scully’s presence close to him as she also exited the vehicle. Nawang and Diana, on its far side, clambered out and stared up at the cave as well.

“Seems almost anti-climactic,” Diana observed.

Her voice interrupted the quiet that had settled around them. Mulder scanned the area, getting a feel for the terrain. Northward, the canyon bent to the east, while to the south, the direction from which they had come, it lay nearly straight for most of the way back to the valley.

“Let’s unload, and then get this vehicle out of sight,” said Mulder. He opened the back of the Landcruiser and hauled out the two packs that contained his ‘UFO kit,’ as Scully called it, being careful not to strain his injured hand. Then he turned to Nawang, who continued to stare at the cave, a nervous look on his face.

“Nawang,” said Mulder. He gestured northward. “How about taking the Landcruiser around that bend, get it out of view?” Their guide looked at him hopefully, and Mulder added: “Tell ya what. We have lights and the sketch of the cave. Why don’t you stay with the vehicle and we’ll meet you there when we’re done?”

“How long will you be?” asked Nawang, brightening.

Mulder shrugged. “There’s no telling, really. Be prepared to wait a while.”

Their guide nodded and climbed back into the vehicle, starting up the engine and driving slowly away.

Mulder felt Scully’s touch on his elbow. He turned to her.

“What about Krycek?” she asked.

“I’m hoping we can check this place out before he figures out where we’ve gone.”

Scully looked doubtful, but did not protest.

Diana spoke up. “What are we going to do, now that we’re here?”

“I’m not sure,” Mulder admitted. “But we might as well get started.”

He opened one of the packs and drew out a heavy-duty flashlight, along with an icepick, which he hefted once and then slipped into a pocket. He had donned boots and BDU-style trousers for this occasion, along with a sweater with reinforced shoulders and elbows. In the canyon’s shadows and the late afternoon’s cooling air, he was grateful for the warmth of his outfit.

Scully was similarly dressed, though Mulder could not help observing that she filled out a pair of military pants and a ‘commando’ sweater a lot better than most who made a habit of wearing them. He let his gaze linger appreciatively on her butt as she bent to pull out her own flashlight, along with the Geiger counter, which she handed to Diana.

“Ready?” Mulder asked, as Scully shouldered the other pack.

She nodded.

“Ready,” added Diana.

A brief climb, up a series of boulders that formed a crude natural stair, brought them to the mouth of the cave, a gaping maw in the canyon wall. Mulder flipped on his flashlight and pointed it inward; the beam, though bright, seemed thin and feeble in the chthonian dark beyond the entrance.

For a moment, Mulder considered voicing a stray thought concerning the potential benefits of spelunking in remote locales with not one but two attractive women, but then decided that, under the circumstances, his usual badinage would likely not have the desired results. He settled for a more ordinary remark.

“Watch your heads,” he said, and stepped into the cave. Scully and Diana followed him closely.

The interior was dry and cold. Within the entrance, the walls opened into a spacious chamber, from which a narrow passageway extended forward, sloping slightly downward as well. The passage had smooth walls, surprisingly regular, as though it had been cut or melted through the rock.

They advanced carefully through the cave; the air grew progressively cooler, and there was no sound but the quiet shuffle of their own footfalls. Soon, the route began a series of zig-zags, then straightened again. Another minute’s walk brought them at last to the tunnel’s end, where they found a large, oval door, made of a strange, metallic substance, deep cobalt blue in color. On either side, passages disappeared into darkness, and next to the door was set an array of oval buttons, three rows of eight, each inscribed with a glyph of obscure significance.

Mulder examined the glyphs; each row repeated the same sequence of eight symbols.

“Access keys,” said Mulder. “What’s the combination?”

He heard Scully examining the pages that the smoking man had provided to Skinner.

“Those are numbers?” asked Diana. “Are you sure?”

“Don’t see what else they could be. Scully?”

“Hold on…here they are…91-43-12.”

“Which end is the zero?” asked Diana.

“Well, we’ll try the left, for starters. Wait a minute….” He trailed off. “How do you key ‘91’ on this panel?”

Scully moved forward, squeezing into the space between Mulder and the wall, training her own flashlight on the door. Mulder found that he was very aware of her proximity, despite their circumstances.

“See?” he asked. “There are only eight keys in a row. It doesn’t make sense.”

Scully was silent for a long moment, slowly running her flashlight beam along the three rows of buttons. “That’s the ‘zero’,” she said at last, shining her light on one of the three right-most keys.

“How do you know?” asked Diana.

Mulder answered. “She’s right. That one doesn’t match the shapes of the others. Our ‘zero’ is the same way; it outlines an area, whereas all other digits do not.”

“Well, ‘six’, ‘eight’, and ‘nine’ sort of do,” said Scully. “But you’re right. ‘Zero’ is unique. I imagine the same principle applies here.”

“That still doesn’t tell us how to key in ‘91’ on an eight-key array, though.” Mulder rubbed his chin. He had to be missing something.

After another silence, Scully spoke up. “Mulder, when we were in the ship in Antarctica….” She paused.

“Hmmm?”

“Did you happen to notice how many fingers the aliens had?”

“What?” Mulder and Diana asked the question simultaneously.

“I’m serious — was it four digits on each hand?”

“Scully, I have no idea,” said Mulder. “I was kind of busy with other concerns at the time. What difference does it make?”

“Let’s suppose it was, just for the sake of argument. Have you ever wondered why we count to ten?”

Light dawned. “Oh my God,” said Mulder. “You’re right. It’s base- eight numbering.”

“What do you mean?” Diana asked.

Scully answered. “We have ten fingers, and when we count, we have a new character for each number, until we reach ten, whereupon we write a ‘one’ and a ‘zero’. But that’s entirely arbitrary. Mathematics work just as well in any numbering system, whatever its base number is. Base-eight isn’t any different, except you write ‘one’-‘zero’ when you reach eight, instead of ten. If we’d evolved with eight fingers, we’d most likely count that way and obsess over turning 32 instead of 40.”

“So how do you write ‘91’ in base eight?” asked Diana.

“Well,” said Scully, “‘100’ would be our ‘64’, ‘130’ would be ‘88’, and…” she paused. “Our ‘91’ would be ‘133’…I think.”

“Top to bottom?” asked Mulder.

“Give it a try,” said Scully.

Mulder keyed in the sequence, was rewarded with an audible click.

“Next?” he asked.

“Ah, ‘43’ would be…‘53’,” Scully supplied.

Mulder paused. “Do I key the ‘zero’? Oh, what the hell.” He tapped the equivalent of 053 and another click could be heard.

“Why didn’t Leslie just write the numbers as they are keyed?” Diana asked suddenly.

Mulder shrugged. “No idea. Maybe he didn’t want to make it too easy for anyone else. As long as he knew the code….” He shrugged again.

“Type ‘014’,” said Scully.

Mulder complied, and with the third click, the door swung slowly inward, revealing a long corridor illuminated by a low, blue-green light. An air of putrefaction wafted out at them. Mulder gagged once, then controlled his urge to vomit, swallowing hard against it.

“I guess the maid didn’t come this week,” he said.

Diana coughed. “Good Lord,” she said. “What a stench.”

“There’s nothing for it,” said Mulder. “Let’s go.” He shut off his light, letting his eyes adjust to the low illumination.

He started inward, Diana and Scully on his heels. As he stepped through the doorway, his foot rang on the metallic flooring, giving him pause, but then he continued forward, stepping more lightly. On his left, Diana pressed ahead.

A sudden clanging spun them both around in their tracks; Mulder turned to see Scully, her flashlight fallen from limp hands, standing in an enervated posture, her lips parted and her eyes open but empty.

“Scully?” Mulder said, his heart in his mouth.

She made no response.

  *

Nawang Tsering slouched in the Landcruiser and worried.

He considered himself a decent and helpful fellow, and he had devoted most of his energies for the past few weeks to his uncle’s cause — a cause he respected even if he did not wholly understand it — but there were limits. He had taken one look at the cave Mulder had resolved to explore and decided he wanted no part of it.

For all he knew, the same fate that had befallen Leslie now awaited Mulder and those who accompanied him. Nawang had no interest in seeing Tibet 64 years in the future. He had been happy to stay behind.

Which meant that he now had to figure out how long to wait before giving his peculiar guests up for lost and returning to report to his uncle. He was also worried about the armed men that Kunga had seen in the valley. Mulder had been concerned at first, but once they had driven clear, he had seemed too focused on their objective to give serious consideration to the possibility of pursuit.

Nawang just hoped Mulder’s confidence was not misplaced.

A sudden tap on the window of the Landcruiser jarred him out of his reverie and any illusions he might have had about the validity of Mulder’s expectations. Nawang looked up to find himself staring into the barrel of a pistol, leveled at his head by an unfriendly looking Chinese.

“Get out,” the man said.

Nawang toyed momentarily with the idea of pretending he did not speak Chinese, then discarded the idea. The man holding the gun looked as though he would not hesitate to use it, and Nawang didn’t see any point in playing the hero.

He got out of the Landcruiser.

  *

Mulder took hold of Scully’s arms, above the elbows, resisted the urge to shake her. “Scully,” he said. “Can you hear me?”

She did not respond. Though her eyes were open and she remained standing, she did not seem completely conscious. Mulder brought his face close to hers. “Dana,” he whispered. He felt cold dread tighten around his heart.

“There’s a strong electro-magnetic field here,” Diana observed. She pointed to the needle of a compass she had taken out. It danced wildly in its case.

“Her implant,” Mulder said, understanding coming to him in a rush. “Get her light.” Carefully, he lifted Scully in his arms and carried her out of the doorway, back into the rock tunnel. He knelt and laid her gently on the stone floor, pillowing her head in his lap.

Diana followed, carrying Scully’s flashlight. “No reading out here,” she observed unnecessarily.

Scully’s eyelids fluttered and awareness returned to her gaze. “What happened?” Her tone revealed her confusion.

“You blanked out on us in there,” Mulder said, beginning to relax. “I think your implant was somehow activated when you stepped inside.”

Scully attempted to sit up, giving up on the effort mid-way. “I’m still dizzy,” she said, settling back into Mulder’s lap.

He ran his hands lightly along her temples. “Stay where you are a minute. When you feel better, we’ll get you out of here.”

“What?”

“Just rest, until you’re ready to go.”

Scully did sit up then, grimacing slightly with the effort. “You can’t be serious, Mulder,” she said. “You have to go on.”

He shook his head. “You can’t go in there, and I’m not leaving you alone.”

Scully placed two hands carefully on the floor and pushed herself to her feet, accepting Mulder’s help to rise but standing on her own. She placed a palm on his chest. “Mulder, you have to keep going. This is why we came here.”

He opened his mouth to protest further, but Scully silenced him with her fingertips. She shook her head. “You have to go,” she said. Her expression made it clear that she would brook no refusal.

Mulder felt himself acquiesce. “Be careful,” he said after a moment.

Scully nodded. “I’ll be okay.”

“Come on, Fox,” said Diana. Mulder turned to follow her, but stopped as he felt the pressure of Scully’s hand on his arm. He turned back to her and she pressed her mouth to his in a brief but intense kiss.

After a moment, she pulled back, releasing him. “Watch yourself,” she said.

Mulder inclined his head and then turned and followed Diana. He couldn’t think of anything else to say.

  *

The triad man brought Nawang back to the cave mouth, where one of his fellows awaited him. They didn’t ask him any questions. He glanced upward but could see nothing there within the cave. The Westerners had already gone underground, it appeared.

Nawang did not resist as the Chinese pulled his hands behind his back and placed handcuffs on his wrists.

“Sit down,” the triad man snapped.

Awkwardly, Nawang complied, managing to lean his back against one of the wheels of another Landcruiser, one of two that had brought their pursuers to the canyon.

“Now what?” he asked, when his curiosity got the better of his fear.

“Now you keep your mouth shut and wait,” said one of the men, gesturing meaningfully with his pistol.

Nawang decided to keep his mouth shut.

  *

Mulder and Diana strode deeper into the facility, their footsteps echoing quietly, metallically, in the blue-green gloom. Before long, the cause of the stench became evident. In some of the facility’s rooms, half-rotted corpses floated in tanks of filthy water, and here and there, other remains, some scatterings of charred flakes, some no more than grey-green powder, lay on the floor. Everywhere, equipment and devices of unknown design lay in wreckage, as though some implacable force had swept through, bringing destruction to everything in its path.

Consoles adorned with the peculiar glyphs they had seen on the door sat inert, their lights and displays broken and inanimate. Apart from the low, omni-directional lighting, only the system that had activated Scully’s implant seemed to be in order.

“What happened here?” Diana whispered. Her face was set in a troubled expression.

“I don’t know,” said Mulder. “A war, maybe.”

“A war?”

Mulder didn’t bother to elaborate. Diana tried another tack. “What was being done here?” She pointed to one of the floating corpses.

“Cloning, hybridization,” said Mulder. “I’ve seen something like that before. I guess this is what happens when they cut the power to life- support.”

“Who was doing all this?”

“That’s the odd thing. Nawang’s story about his uncle’s encounter with the ‘yeti’ made me think of the ‘grey men’ variations, but this set up reminds me of colonization projects I’ve come across in America. Colonization through hybridization, rather than infection.”

He paused, then continued. “This place may have changed hands a few times. Scully and I have found evidence that there is more than one alien faction, and that the factions are in conflict.”

“Well, somebody sure was unhappy about what was going on here,” said Diana. She indicated a charred corpse. “All this over a little cloning?”

“There has to be something more,” said Mulder. “Let’s keep going.”

  *

Scully leaned against a wall of the cave and massaged her temples. She hadn’t mentioned it to Mulder, but the activation of her implant had left her with a pounding headache, and she hadn’t been able to muster the energy to move far from the door to the facility. Where she leaned, she could readily make out the faint blue-green glow that emanated from the open portal.

She hoped Mulder wouldn’t be too long, or that he would somehow figure out what had activated her implant and disable it, allowing her to join him. Waiting alone in the darkness was less than pleasant.

A particularly severe wave of pain throbbed in her head, and Scully placed both hands over her eyes and leaned forward. A quiet moan escaped from her before she could stifle it.

Bright light blazed suddenly from the direction of the doorway. She lowered her hands and looked up, but she could see nothing beyond the intense beams from two flashlights pointed at her.

“Agent Scully,” a voice said, “this is a most delightful surprise.”

Krycek. Oh, hell, she thought. And I don’t even have a weapon.

“Please don’t make any sudden moves, Agent Scully,” said a second voice. “I would hate to have to put a bullet in you, but I would do it, all the same.”

She started to speak, then decided against it. What was there to be said?

“Bind her,” Krycek commanded, and two figures, both Chinese, Scully noticed, moved from behind the lights and seized her arms, tying her wrists roughly behind her. One of them patted her down, searching for her gun.

“She’s not armed,” he said.

The lights were lowered then, and when the spots faded, Scully recognized Radu Florescu as the owner of the second voice. He wore a large pack, but carried a pistol in his right hand. One of the Chinese also wore a pack, while Krycek and the other carried 12 gauge, pump- action shot guns.

Scully’s heart sank. All Mulder had to defend himself was an icepick that he had literally borrowed from her kitchen.

Krycek addressed his companions. “Radu, stay here with her. Sun, take the flame-thrower and come with me.”

“Are you sure?” Florescu asked.

“Mulder won’t resist, now that we have her,” Krycek said. “Just don’t let her try anything.” He addressed Sun again. “Come on, get moving.”

The two Chinese exchanged weapons, and then Krycek and Sun entered the open door of the facility. Florescu and the other man remained behind, in a relaxed but ready posture.

Scully felt her nose start to bleed again.

  *

Mulder stopped and ran his gaze up and down a featureless panel, stark black in the low light. No lever or button marred its surface, or that of the walls to either side of it. The panel itself looked…strange, dead, as though light simply fell into it and vanished, without any reflection.

He turned on his flashlight and examined it again, but the panel appeared no different under the brighter light. Mulder clicked it off and turned to Diana. “What do you think?”

She took a reading with the Geiger counter. “Radiation levels are slightly elevated…not dangerous, though.”

“So how are we supposed to open it?”

“Perhaps it opens by remote control,” Diana said. She indicated the room they were in, which did not seem to have been damaged the was the rest of the facility had. “One of these consoles?”

Mulder moved to where Diana had pointed. The machinery in the room seemed to be in working order — a low hum was audible as background noise — but none of the screens displayed any information.

There were a few keys on the console, but he could make nothing of the glyphs inscribed on them.

A faint sound intruded on his awareness. Mulder turned to Diana again. “Did you hear that?” he whispered.

Diana nodded, a strange look on her face. “Footsteps,” she said.

Mulder felt an eerie chill crawl up his spine. “Come on.” He gestured toward a passage that led away from the noise.

Diana was shaking her head. “I’m sorry, Fox.”

“What.”

“I’m sorry, but it’s time to stop pretending.”

“What are you talking about?” The sound was repeated. “We’ve got to get out of here.”

“It’s too late, Fox. They’re on to you. That’s either Krycek or your smoking friend’s people. There’s no point. The game’s over.”

“Diana….” She was backing away from him, toward the sound. Mulder began to say more and then realized it was too late. He turned and fled into the corridor behind him.

Behind him, he barely heard Diana’s final words: “Run, Fox.”

  *

Nawang Tsering was making the best of a bad situation.

He wasn’t comfortable, far from it, but considering who his captors were, he could be thankful that he was merely bound and a bit cold. He well knew the cruelty the Chinese could direct toward their Tibetan subjects. On balance, he was happy to be overlooked.

The triad men had for the most part ignored him once he had taken his place by the wheel of the Landcruiser, spending their time smoking and taking periodic glances at the cave above. Their conversation had been crude and uninteresting.

There was a sharp crack, and one of them, in the midst of a debasing anecdote about a Thai prostitute in Hong Kong, stopped speaking in mid- sentence and keeled over. He fell like a sack of barley flung off the back of an oxcart. His companion barely had time to squawk in surprise when a second crack sounded and he too collapsed where he stood.

Nawang was stunned by the amount of blood that flowed out from under them, dark and oily pools in the fading light.

  *

It was Krycek, no doubt about it.

Mulder paused in a dark alcove, forcing himself to control his breathing. He had not seen his enemy, but he had heard his voice. There was no mistaking it.

What the hell was Diana’s connection with Krycek?

Mulder thought about that for all of a few seconds before another, more chilling thought arose in his mind.

Scully. Krycek had followed them into the facility, which meant that she was probably in his hands. Mulder cursed himself; he should never have left her alone.

He listened hard, trying to detect sounds of pursuit. He wanted to be pursued; he needed a weapon.

The moments dragged by in silence, and then he heard it — a soft, metallic footfall, barely audible, but just loud enough to betray the one who caused it.

Mulder willed himself to utter silence, relaxing his muscles to allow him to remain still. He breathed slowly and shallowly through parted lips, hoping to hear more, to learn whether his pursuer was alone.

There was only silence, and Mulder decided he would have to just take his chances.

Although he expected it, was exceptionally ready for it, Krycek’s appearance still took him by surprise, and his body was in motion almost before he was aware of it. Krycek only had time for a single, surprised grunt before Mulder had tackled him, jarring the shotgun from his one- handed grasp and driving a knee up under his diaphragm. Krycek’s eyes went wide and he breath shot out in a satisfying whoosh, and then Mulder hit him hard across the jaw, once, twice, three times.

Krycek slumped beneath him, unconscious.

Mulder scrambled up, seizing the shotgun and looking for enemies, but saw no one. The corridor was empty.

He checked the weapon — a shell was chambered — then started back toward the room where he had left Diana. He moved as quickly as he could without making noise, carrying the shotgun in a ready position. He felt a vague throbbing in his left hand.

Mulder paused at the entrance to the room in which he had left Diana; within, there was no sign of her or anyone else. Either Krycek had come alone and ignored her, or, more likely, whoever had been with him had removed Diana. Mulder suddenly realized that she had actually assisted him, forcing him to flee alone and effectively separating Krycek from his companions.

He didn’t have time to wonder about that now, though.

The black panel teased at his awareness, and he was briefly tempted to experiment with the console, but the thought of Scully in danger quickly banished that notion. He turned and hurried back toward the entrance of the facility.

  *

It had been one surprise after another, Nawang mused.

He was back in his Landcruiser, hunkered down out of sight. Just after his captors had been shot, several soldiers, Westerners, had rushed to where he sat bound. One quickly freed him and ordered him to get the hell out of there.

Nawang hadn’t argued. He’d done the only thing he could think to do, which was run full out for the Landcruiser. The men who had freed him were well-armed and obviously deadly competent, and though he had briefly wished he could warn Mulder somehow, there hadn’t been anything he could have done.

As he had fled from the scene, Nawang had been momentarily surprised to see another Westerner, a woman, there as well. He had no idea what that meant, but he knew better than to try to satisfy his curiosity.

Whatever was going on, Nawang could ask Mulder about it later — if his guest survived, that was.

  *

Blood flowed over Scully’s upper lip in a steady stream. Periodically, the Chinese guarding her would wipe her nose and mouth for her, but it hadn’t helped. The bleeding hadn’t stopped.

The pain inside her hadn’t stopped either. Krycek had entered the facility in pursuit of Mulder, who had no way to defend himself.

She had to do something, anything, to warn him.

Scully looked over at Florescu. “Ask him to tie my wrists in front of me, so I can wipe my own face.”

The Romanian blinked at her. “What?”

“Look at me. He can tie my hands in front, so I can try to stop the bleeding.”

Florescu shook his head. “He doesn’t speak English.”

“Will you do it, then?” Scully tried to sound as piteous as possible.

Florescu gave her a lingering look, even began to do as she asked, then thought better of it. “I will not,” he said. “But I’ll try to get him to do it.” He gestured at the Chinese, communicating Scully’s request with an impromptu sign language. The man seemed confused at first, but quickly figured out what Florescu wanted him to do. He took hold of one of Scully’s wrists, began working at her bindings.

At that moment, the Chinese who had followed Krycek returned, dragging a subdued-looking Diana Fowley with him.

Scully felt her wrists come free and seized the hand of the man behind her. She took one quick step and spun, twisting his arm with all the force she could muster. The man cried out as white-hot agony shot up his arm and his legs collapsed under him as his involuntary responses intervened to save the joints in his arm. Scully thrust her knee into his face, breaking his nose, and then pushed him aside, looking up to see the barrel of Florescu’s pistol aimed directly at her.

  *

Mulder raced down the hallway toward the backs of Diana and her captor; the injury in his left side screamed at him but he ignored the pain, forcing his legs to keep working by sheer force of will. Just a bit further, now.

And then he was charging into the room, knocking Diana’s captor off balance and turning to see Radu Florescu aiming a gun at Scully’s head. Mulder’s mind raced, everything around him slowing to a crawl. With preternatural awareness, he could see Florescu’s gun arm stabilize, settling into its aim. He could see Scully’s eyes widen with the shocked realization that her life was over, and then the shotgun rose as though of its own accord, roared in his hands. Florescu’s skull collapsed under the impact of a 12-gauge slug, and his body was flung away like a broken rag doll. Mulder worked the action of the gun clumsily, his injured hand nearly causing him to lose his grip on it, and then spun toward Diana’s captor.

To his shock, Mulder saw that he lay on the floor of the cave, bleeding from several gunshot wounds in his torso.

“Drop the gun, Agent Mulder,” a voice said.

  *

Second range of hills, north of Rongbuk Monastery Tuesday, 6 October, 6:20 p.m.

Scully, her ears ringing in the aftermath of the gunfire, stared at the men who trained their weapons on her, Mulder, and the Chinese who knelt in front of her. The last made a sudden movement, and was met with one more gunshot. He slumped before her, bleeding from the head. The sharp smell of smoke obscured the stench of rot in the cavern.

Scully kept very still; she felt the warm, sticky flow of blood on her face ease a bit, though it did not stop completely. Mulder set the shotgun on the cave floor in front of him, moving slowly, then raised his hands and turned slowly toward the leader of the newcomers.

The leader, tall and middle-aged, stepped forward. From a corner, Diana spoke quietly to him. He nodded acknowledgment and she took a light and disappeared in the direction of the surface.

Scully focused her attention on the iron-haired man whom Diana had addressed. There was something familiar about him, something that she couldn’t quiet place.

Mulder supplied the answer for her. “Colonel Henderson,” he said. “I don’t believe it.”

Of course, Scully thought. Five years ago, this man had been running a clean-up operation in Wisconsin, when she and Mulder had met Max Fennig.

“Believe it, Agent Mulder.” Henderson smirked. “Why am I not surprised that you’re mixed up in all this?”

Scully waited nervously for Mulder to do something foolish — he had harbored a measure of disdain for Henderson for years, ever since their first encounter — but he restrained himself, and the tension in the cave at last eased enough for Scully to ask for a handkerchief.

Mulder stepped over to her and gave her one. His hand trembled slightly with unspent adrenaline. “You okay?” he asked. Scully nodded and took the cloth, pressing it to her nose and tilting her head back. From the corner of her eye, she surveyed their situation.

Henderson was accompanied by several troopers, outfitted in desert camouflage BDUs and heavily armed. There was also a woman with them; a raven-haired beauty, Scully noticed. She had a vaguely sick look about her, though, a general aspect of disquiet.

Mulder stayed close to Scully; Henderson didn’t seem overly concerned. He waved a hand at the dead men on the floor. “This it?” he asked.

“Alex Krycek is here, somewhere,” said Mulder.

Henderson grunted. “So what is ‘here’?” he asked.

Mulder indicated the doorway. “See for yourself. We just arrived, actually.”

Scully kept her eyes on the woman, who had begun to eye the passageway that led into the alien installation, drifting toward the rear of Henderson’s group. The soldiers, who had spread out to cover the area, ignored her. She took a quick look at Henderson, making sure his attention was on Mulder, and slipped into the passage, vanishing from sight.

Henderson’s eyes narrowed. “Very well, Agent Mulder, we’ll do as you suggest.” He turned to his men. “Earl! Jim!”

“Sir,” two men said.

“Get these two out of here. Vince, Mike — you go with ‘em and bring back the plastique. All of it.”

“What?” Mulder went rigid.

“My orders are to make sure that I leave nothing here that anyone can exploit,” Henderson said. “And I intend to carry them out. This isn’t an archaeological survey.”

“That’s outrageous,” Mulder began, then stopped, realizing the futility of arguing. One of the soldiers gestured toward the passage that led to the surface, addressed Mulder. “Let’s go,” he said.

“Ms. Whittaker?” Henderson looked about, but there was no answer from the woman. “Where the hell did she go?”

“Inside,” Scully said. “I saw her go into the facility.”

“What is going on?” Henderson growled. He turned to Mulder. “What’s in there? What’s she interested in?”

“I didn’t get a good look at it,” Mulder said. “But I know where it is.”

Henderson hesitated a moment, then made his decision. He indicated Scully. “Earl, take her outside. Keep an eye on her. Mulder, take us to it.” He paused ominously. “And don’t try anything cute.”

  *

A few minutes later, Mulder limped into the room with the black panel, escorted by Henderson and several of his men. In their progress through the dimly lit corridors, they had seen no sign of Jill Whittaker or Krycek, nor had they detected any other signs of living inhabitants. When they reached their goal, however, Mulder noticed that something had changed.

The black panel was gone.

Behind the place it had been was a small alcove, dark and empty. The air, thick with the smell of decomposition, carried the tang of ozone as well.

“What is it?” Henderson asked. His men looked about nervously, positioning themselves to guard the entrances to the room.

“I don’t know,” said Mulder. “But it wasn’t open the last time I was here. There was a panel in front of it.”

“Someone’s used it, then.”

“Maybe.”

“Colonel! Sir!” One of the soldiers called from a corridor.

“What is it?”

“I found her, sir. She’s down here.” Mulder could hear footsteps approaching. The dark-haired woman he had seen briefly in the cave was hustled into the room, her upper arm in the grasp of the soldier.

The colonel wheeled on her. “What in the hell did you think you were doing?”

“I have my own responsibilities. This isn’t just your expedition.” She glared defiance at Henderson.

He wasn’t impressed. “Bullshit,” he said. “I’m in charge here. You’re here to make yourself useful. If your little adventures start putting my men in danger, I’ll leave your pretty little ass for the chinks.” He snorted once, gestured at the alcove. “So what happened? Did you see?”

Mulder watched the woman’s defiance slowly fade as she realized the extent of Henderson’s contempt. Whatever she had imagined her role in this, she had just learned the reality of the situation.

She swallowed once, then spoke. “I came this way, just to see what this place was. I couldn’t believe it….” She paused, then shook her head and went on. “There was someone here, a man —”

“Dark hair, one arm?” interrupted Mulder.

Jill nodded. “He wore a prosthesis.” She pointed at one of the consoles. “He did something to that, and that thing opened up. There was a lot of light. He stepped into it and disappeared. I don’t think he saw me.”

“That’s it?” asked Henderson.

Jill nodded again.

The colonel turned to his men. “Set the charges.” He looked at Mulder. “And get him out of here.”

Mulder would have protested — he desperately wanted to know more — but he had no chance. Two of Henderson’s men grabbed hold of him and hauled him out of the room, through the stygian passageways and finally to the surface.

Scully was waiting for him by the river. He joined her there, and they stood together in the fading light.

  *

Washington D.C. Friday, 9 October, 9:00 p.m.

The smoking man read the last paragraph of the last report, then settled back in his chair, lighting up for the fifth time that evening.

Not everything had gone according to plan, but that didn’t overly concern him. The essentials had been dealt with.

Rongbuk had been sealed. Krycek might have escaped, but that didn’t really matter. After Henderson’s demolition job, no one could hope to explore the facility without heavy equipment, and there was no way a major dig could be effected without the Chinese becoming aware of it.

The major concern was thus alleviated.

That left a few minor issues, but they were more perplexing than worrying. Agent Fowley, for instance, had not behaved as he had expected, and that puzzled him. The woman had actually persuaded Henderson to just let Mulder and Scully go, and, surprisingly, he had agreed. Of course, the colonel had been in a hurry to get out of Tibet, and had not really had time to deal with the two FBI agents. And Henderson, hard though he was, would not have been inclined to simply shoot Mulder and Scully and leave their bodies for the vultures.

The smoking man hadn’t given the order to kill Mulder anyway — that could always be done later, if need be, and keeping Krycek out of Rongbuk had been more important.

Still, he had to wonder about Diana. He had thought her thirst for vengeance would have outweighed her affection for her former lover. That it had not was not incomprehensible to him, but it left him wondering. He had misjudged his tool, in this case.

Perhaps it was for the best, though. Better to let Mulder walk away than to risk the Chinese authorities learning about the activities of Henderson’s team. Yes, dealing with Mulder could wait for a more… auspicious moment.

Ms. Whittaker had proved even more disappointing. The smoking man had thought her ambitious and clever, but she had proven ambitious and foolish, instead. In the Consortium, incompetence was a greater crime than disloyalty, and was dealt with accordingly. The treacherous could always be retrained. The stupid were simply too dangerous to be allowed to live.

The smoking man took a deep, satisfying drag on his cigarette. For the first time in weeks, he could go home on a weekend and relax, leaving off riding the tiger for a few short hours.

Perhaps he would do a bit of writing.

He closed up the files, picked up his briefcase, and walked out the door of his office. The war would go on, but the next battle could wait, for a little while.

  *

Washington, D.C. Thursday, 15 October, 1:30 p.m.

The restaurant was small but cozy, a gold-lit refuge from the cold rain outside. Scully sat across from her partner and nibbled what was left of her lunch, savoring a glass of white wine. Normally, she would not have had wine with lunch, but she and Mulder had the rest of the week off. Even after their recent travel, they both had considerable leave remaining.

Mulder sipped at his beer. He had finished his meal and now was enjoying a second pint, an unusual indulgence for him. But they were in a celebratory mood. Scully’s oncologist had pronounced her healthy that morning, confirming that her recent series of nosebleeds had simply been a reaction to the thin, dry air of Tibet.

Tibet — their trip to Rongbuk seemed like a dream, now. The infinite, cloudless skies and impossibly high mountains had been obscured by the grey reality of Washington’s autumn rains. Scully found she did not mind, though. Autumn meant brisk, invigorating air and evenings spent in front of the fire, snug and comfortable within a quilted blanket.

Home and hearth — there had been too little of those in her life for the past few years, but now she had both. With Mulder there, her apartment really did feel like home.

They had come a long way from the Roof of the World.

Two weeks earlier, Henderson had sent them on their way, and they had gone. There had been nothing else to do; the investigation had been taken out of their hands.

A pair of soldiers had brought Mulder and Jill Whittaker out of the cave and then vanished within it once more. And half an hour later, Henderson’s entire group had emerged, just prior to a few low rumblings that indicated the charges they had set had detonated, destroying the last few working machines within the alien installation. Rongbuk’s secrets would remain secret after all, it seemed.

After that, somewhat to their surprise, Henderson had released her and Mulder, and Nawang as well. He and his men, accompanied by Jill Whittaker and, to Mulder’s chagrin, Diana Fowley, had driven for the Nepal border. Diana had not had much to say, having spent most of the time prior to her departure talking to the colonel. Just before she climbed into one of the Jeeps and left for good, she had approached Scully. Looking at Mulder, she had simply said ‘Love him well; he deserves nothing less.’ And that had been it. She had not spoken to Mulder at all.

They had found themselves alone with the cave once again.

Mulder had gone back underground in an effort to ascertain what, if anything, Henderson’s men had left intact, but one of their blasts had collapsed the entrance to the facility. It had been no use. There had been nothing for them to do but turn their backs on Rongbuk and return, at the last, to Washington.

Scully had expected Mulder to be upset, but he had displayed remarkable equanimity, letting her tend to his injuries and relaxing and enjoying the scenery during the ride back to Lhasa. They had spoken of the case only a little. Mulder had told her what he had seen within the alien facility, and they had discussed possible explanations. He suspected that the device into which Krycek had disappeared had been some sort of time-travel apparatus, but there had been no way to confirm that, or even investigate it. At any rate, Krycek had been nowhere to be found, and his fate remained a mystery.

Other matters remained mysterious as well. For starters, Scully wanted to know how John Leslie had learned the combination that opened the door in the cavern. In the excitement of opening the portal the first time, she and Mulder had not asked that question, but in retrospect, it seemed obvious that he could not have simply guessed the correct sequence of numbers.

Someone must have shown him which keys to press, or perhaps there was some other explanation. Scully had broached the subject on the ride back to Lhasa, but Mulder had just shaken his head, admitting that while he too would like to know the answer, it would have to wait for a new development, something that would give them a new angle from which to investigate the Rongbuk matter.

Like so many of their cases, this one had begun to fold in on itself. Upon their return to Washington, Mulder had attempted to locate Diana, but she had disappeared. A.D. Skinner had had no information on her new assignment. And their attempts to trace Jill Whittaker had failed as well. Inquiries had led them as far as a shipping company called Apogee Transport, but company managers listed Ms. Whittaker as a former employee. No, they didn’t have any information about her current whereabouts. Yes, they would certainly let Agents Mulder and Scully know if they heard anything.

And Leslie was no longer at Arkham, naturally.

Scully had not been surprised to learn that he was missing, but his disappearance frustrated her more than any other aspect of the case. If Mulder was correct about the apparatus behind the black panel, then it was possible that the John Leslie she had met in Arkham was in fact the very man who had disappeared in Tibet 64 years ago, and that he had been translated forward to the present time.

The implications of that were stunning, but with Leslie gone, they might never learn the truth.

Only the documents remained, and even they were incomplete. The last thing Mulder had done before leaving Rongbuk had been to hand the crucial pages from Leslie’s journal back to Jamyang Dorje. The old monk had not commented, just nodded sagely, as though Mulder had passed a test of some kind.

Scully found it frustrating, but ultimately, she could live with it. There would be other cases, more secrets to uncover, new mysteries to solve. What she couldn’t figure out was why Mulder was taking it so well.

She gave her partner a long look. “Penny for your thoughts, love.”

Mulder looked up from his study of the bubbles in his beer, gave her a slight smile. “Just thinking,” he said.

“About?”

“About what that monk told us, before we went to the cave.”

Scully didn’t say anything, just waited for him to continue.

Mulder took a drink, shifted slightly in his seat, letting his gaze wander around the room, taking in the antique photographs and news clippings that made up the restaurant’s decor. “What he said about grasping at truth. Do you remember?”

Scully nodded. “I think so.”

Mulder returned his eyes to her. “I’ve been thinking about that. For years, I’ve been grasping at truth, trying to compel it to reveal itself to me. And I’ve paid a price for that.” He looked at his injured hand — it would heal, in time, but would probably never be the same as it had before Florescu had cut him. “I think I have to find another approach.”

“Don’t give up on the truth, Mulder. It’s out there. And if we keep looking, we’ll find it.”

He shook his head. “Don’t get me wrong. I’m not going to quit searching. I’m not ever going to give up. But I am going to try to accept whatever happens and move on. I have to stop fighting with myself; we have enough opponents already.”

She gave him another searching stare; he did not shy from it. The fire was still there, she decided at last. It was burning just as hot, but under control. And that was a good thing. She reached across the table, taking his right hand in hers.

“I’ve been thinking about what you said as well,” said Mulder.

“Me?”

“On the rooftop, at the guesthouse. I asked you what it was that we all wanted.”

Scully thought for a moment. “I said ‘love’.”

Mulder nodded. “Not truth, but love. And you’re right. It’s taken me a long time to learn this, but ultimately, truth isn’t our greatest aspiration.”

Scully looked into the rich hazel eyes of the man she loved and felt her heart swell. She tightened her grip on his hand, unable to express her feelings with words.

His eyes conveyed his understanding. He nodded again, slowly.

“Love makes us immortal, Scully,” he said.

They said no more after that. Mulder tossed a few bills on the table and stood, offering her her coat. Scully slipped into it and linked her hand with his once more. Together, the passed through the restaurant’s heavy doors and into the enfolding rain.

  *

Second range of hills, north of Rongbuk Monastery High noon

Alex Krycek pushed aside the last of the stones and walked the final distance through the passageway to the surface. The sun blazed brightly into the cave mouth, causing him to blink painfully against the glare.

He must have slept. By his reckoning, he had entered the cave for the first time just an hour or two before, and the sun had been setting then. After Mulder had blind-sided him, he had been unconscious, but not for very long, he was certain. And shortly after he had awoken, the sound of gunfire — a lot of it — had come from the entrance of the facility, and he had realized that a new player had arrived on the scene and it was time to take cover. He hadn’t been able to resist trying the console by the black panel, though, and when it had opened with a blaze of light, he had decided to step into it and see what happened.

The light had gone out, but that had been about it. However, when he turned and stepped out of the alcove, he found the room that he had just left in ruins.

Something was very wrong with that, but he couldn’t quite get his head around it. Besides, he was tired and thirsty, and it could wait for later.

He had made his way through the rooms full of dusty wreckage and past the collapsed part of the entranceway — clearing room so that he could squeeze through had been a labor of some hours — at last coming to the doorway that led out of the installation. He had ignored the scattered bones lying on the cave floor and made his way upward. Now, he scrambled down the rocks to the bottom of the canyon and knelt by the river, slaking his thirst with several handfuls of water.

The sun beat down on him, and he took off his jacket. It was hot, surprisingly hot, for October.

At last he stood and surveyed his surroundings. No Landcruisers were to be seen, so he turned south and began the long walk back to the valley. He stopped several times on the way to drink more of the river’s cool water.

The sun slowly fell from zenith as he walked, and by the time he reached the place where the canyon opened on the wider valley that lay north of Rongbuk, it had crept halfway to the western horizon. In the distance, Krycek saw a few Tibetans herding yaks. Despite his fatigue, he began jogging in their direction. They watched him coming, nonplussed.

As he neared them, Krycek slowed to a walk. He spoke to the closest nomad.

“What is the date?” he asked, in English.

The man just stared at him, uncomprehending.

Krycek tried Russian. “What is the date?”

No response.

Krycek sighed and gave up speech, settled for pointing, first at himself and then in the direction of the monastery, which lay past the hills to the south. At this, the nomad nodded and turned to one of his fellows, saying something in his own language. After a moment, he turned back to Krycek, motioning for him to follow.

Krycek went after him with an air of resignation. It would be a long walk to Rongbuk, and he was very, very tired.

*** The End ***

  *

Author’s notes:

Well, if you have made it this far, then please allow me to express my very deep thanks to you for sticking with me. I hope that you enjoyed this story, and naturally I would love to hear what you thought of it. This is my first attempt at a work of this length, and I would like to know the extent to which I succeeded, if at all. If you care to, please send feedback to my email address (at the top of this file).

In the notes at the very beginning, I mentioned that I would take this opportunity to explain the various references and allusions that I make in the novella, and I will do so. First, however, I would like to discuss some of the inspirations for this story, as well as a few general points of Tibetan culture and geography.

One of the main inspirations for “Rongbuk” was the book “A Journey in Ladakh,” by Andrew Harvey, and yes, the character Nawang Tsering is named after the Nawang Tsering in that book. In addition, I would like to mention “East of Lo Manthang,” by Peter Matthiessen and Thomas Laird, and “My Tibet,” by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Galen Rowell, both of which helped me to picture Tibet in my mind’s eye and describe it on the page.

As for Rongbuk itself, there is in fact a real Rongbuk Monastery in Tibet. It stands near Mount Everest at an elevation of about 18,000 feet. My “Rongbuk,” however, is purely fictional and lies somewhere on the Tibetan Plateau between Lhasa and Kathmandu, Nepal. Yes, I have played fast and loose with Tibet’s geography, but I hope I can be forgiven. I just liked the name “Rongbuk,” and so I used it.

I really do not know too much about what life in a Tibetan monastery is like, so I had to wing it and remain vague when necessary. Hopefully, my writing conveys a believable atmosphere, even if some of the details are incorrect.

And as for travel in Tibet, and dealing with the Chinese authorities who police it, suffice it to say that this is fiction, and in all likelihood, one could never hope to get away with some of what I depict in this story. Don’t try this at home! <g>

With regard to the specific references:

Chapter One:

“Weave a circle round him thrice….” This is a line from the poem “Kubla Khan,” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Since the poem describes the unique, “touched” nature of the poet, who is (at times) shunned by more ordinary people who cannot share his vision, this seemed an appropriate way to express Mulder’s sense of alienation from his peers.

Chapter Two:

Nain Singh, et al — The four explorers that Mulder mentions to Scully were all real people, and they all had extraordinary adventures in Tibet. (I think it’s fair to assume, however, that none of them had any sort of UFO encounter.) For those who would like to learn more about them, I will recommend a book called “Trespassers on the Roof of the World,” by Peter Hopkirk. It’s a fascinating account of some very obscure history. Another good source on this topic is “A Mountain in Tibet,” by Charles Allen.

Chapter Three:

Arkham is of course named after H.P. Lovecraft’s fictional town of that name. I greatly admire Lovecraft’s work, and just thought it singularly appropriate that Mulder and Scully visit the place in which so many of his stories occurred. Of course, Lovecraft’s Arkham was a much larger town than the village in my story.

Chapter Four:

“She sheds tears. She gives water to the dead.” This line alludes to a funeral scene in Frank Herbert’s novel “Dune.” The native culture in that story is a desert society that values water above all things — so much so that even the body’s water (perspiration and tears) is recycled for drinking. At a funeral, a character weeps openly, “giving” tears to the dead and provoking awed wonder from those around him.

In my mind, without Scully’s love, Mulder’s life is death in life, and her tears, as an expression of her love, give his life back to him. Does this make sense? If you’ve read “Dune,” as Mulder probably has, I think it must. If you haven’t read “Dune,” please do so. It’s a masterpiece.

Chapter Five:

“Le Chateau des Pyrenees” is a painting by Renee Magritte. Basically, it depicts a castle on a huge boulder, which is hanging in the air above an ocean.

“…who killed whom…” is an allusion to Monty Python’s movie “Holy Grail,” and I think one has to have seen it, so I won’t explain any further. I strongly believe that Mulder is a fan of Monty Python — he studied at Oxford, after all.

Chapter Eight:

The description of yetis as having “squarish heads” was inspired by the account in the book “The Long Walk,” by Slavomir Rawicz, who claimed to have seen a yeti in the Himalayas. His book is an incredible tale — so incredible, in fact, that some have questioned its veracity — but whether one believes it or not, it’s a great read. I recommend it.

Chapter Nine:

“Matthiessen’s famous book” is, of course, “The Snow Leopard.” It too is a wonderful read, and I highly recommend it.

And that’s it, I think. Thanks again for reading, and please write if you have any questions or comments. I’ll reply as soon as I can.

All the best,

Ravenscion.

  *

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