Scattered Leaves : Fall by Abracadabra

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Scattered Leaves by Abracadabra

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Seasons Series 3: Fall

Title: Fall: Scattered Leaves

Author: abracadabra

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Rating: PG-13 overall, with R for implied and actual violence and NC-17 for some sexual situations.

Disclaimer: For those powers that be and a certain ‘journalistic’ friend… Most of these characters aren’t mine; I’m just borrowing them. They’re really Chris Carter’s, 1013 Productions and Fox Studio’s.

Spoilers: S7; Requiem, or anything after it for that matter,doesn’t exist.

Summary: This is the third in the Seasons Series. First story, Winter: Snowed Inn, a Casefile in Connecticut at a Bed & Breakfast. Second in the series is a sequel,titled Summer: Shadows on the Sun. This is the sequel to Shadows on the Sun. Mulder goes undercover, Scully goes to a conference. Some unanswered questions…

Keywords: Some Angst, UST, RST, MSR, S, Casefile

Archive: Yes, please, but let me know where and include all headers.

Author’s Notes: Some settings within actual locations are contrived, but are based on actual sites. Some reference to the use of uncontrolled substances and story-related violence. None of the references noted should be construed as the author’s endorsement of such practices. Musical instrumentation supplied by the very talented drummer and musician, Murray.

Thanks: I just happen to be lucky enough to have two of the greatest betas extraordinaire…Denise and Kim. I can’t thank them enough! Traci’s also been a helpful resource for the ‘what about this?’ questions….

Feedback: I would love it!

Websites: http://www.geocities.com/spookys_girl2000/index.html http://www.geocities.com/mesmerizememulder/

Email me:

~~~~~~

Scattered Leaves by abracacabra

Arlington
Early September
Late Evening

“What do you mean that’s all the information you can give me?”

He paced; running his hand through his hair so many times that it was now flattened against his head. During the last pass from the front door to his desk, he nearly tripped over his now completely untied shoelaces.

“Look, Mr. Mulder, I’ve got the reports right here. I also happen to know that you enlisted those hacker friends of yours. What did they turn up? I’m betting it’s nothing different than what I’m telling you.” The Detective laid the sheaf of paper reports and photos on the coffee table and started to rise.

“I just don’t get it. How can that be? Almost no one; other than the Anazasi, just drops off the face of the earth without a trace.”

Before the Detective could stand fully, Mulder’s heavy hand on his shoulder pushed him back down.

“What did your friends find?”

He stopped pacing; one hand on his hip, the other stalled in his hair. The Detective had seen this type of behavior before. It was often referred to as simply, ‘caught’. ‘Caught’ as in, ‘I don’t want to believe the facts because I know they’re true.’ He knew that Mulder was a profiler, but he’d picked up a few tricks of his trade in his thirty years in private practice.

With some hesitancy, Mulder told him the Gunmen had found nothing more. The Marblehead house address, a few of the belongings left behind, residual strands of hair at the Cat Island warehouse, a few credit card slips to local department stores. After the warehouse, the trail was colder than a witches’… He had stopped short of using the Gunmen’s phrase although he wasn’t quite sure why.

“Even dead people leave a trail, Detective.”

“They do indeed. I just can’t tell you what you want to know. Maybe you ought to locate that other guy, the one she was working with, Alex Krycek. From the information you gave me, I’m betting he’s your man.”

Mulder’s facial expression slid from amused to angered in the span of about ten seconds.

“Even if I were able to find him, he’d tell me nothing.”

He tossed down an envelope on the coffee table, thanking the Detective and indicating with a nod of his head that his services were no longer needed. If he were going to learn anything more, he’d have to do it on his own.

~~~~~~

Burlington, Vermont
The Metronome Club, Main Street
15 September
11:00PM

He walked into the lobby, bootheels clunking on the wooden flooring, his eyes adjusting to the inky black, the occasional strobe light flashing unearthly white beams across his leather jacket and catching him unawares. The beat pulsed and throbbed, a heady house mix with a decidedly Latino edge that caused his hips moved to its wild booming against the occasional banging of palms against the skin head of the bongos and the percussive sticks and maracas marking the beat. The lighting and the sounds burst in staccato fashion over the small groups of dancers. Their bodies gyrating, at once touched and touching, performing an age-old ritual of vertical, public foreplay fueled by cheap beer and drinks with fancy names.

He surveyed the room for the briefest of moments before making his way toward the bar on the other side of the large open area. Almost strutting, he elbowed and pushed his way into the now throngs on what passed for a dancefloor; really nothing more than a large expanse of wood planks, a worn patina from the years of shuffling, stomping and twisting shoes.

On his way, he glanced at the faces, some of them no more than masks of ennui or joy or bordering on lust for what might come when the music stopped and…in some cases…for what was coming as the music droned. A briefly fleeting memory of Scully feeling languid in his arms as he pressed her insistently to him while they swayed to the strains of ‘Woman’, John Lennon’s voice coating them in a sensual film washed through him. His arm around her waist as she arched back as his hips met hers, fusing their heat. He visibly shook his head, trying to remain in character.

The strobes, now playing against roving gel lights, also showed him harsh glimpses of the sometimes vacuous stares or overly excited looks, letting him know he was, indeed, in the right place.

As he continued to wend his way to the bar, the occasional dancer or those at the tables around the dance floor checked him out. He guessed it might have been his age, although looking around he noticed what appeared to be a handful of those his age or older. It could have been the image he made, dressed in black almost head to toe. Then again, that should have let him blend in with this crowd.

This was a very eclectic town just as he’d been told. As the bar came into view, someone tugged on his left arm. At first, he assumed he had merely walked into someone, pissing them off in a combination of drug and alcohol haze. He turned to apologize, starting to mutter under his breath when he felt a hand reach up to his neck, pulling his face downward as wet lips grazed his. Had the lights been brighter, the woman would have seen the surprise that registered there. Instead she was greeted with a polite send off and he wiped his lips with his leather jacket sleeve. Maybe he did look as good as Frohike had told him back in June.

He’d done his homework, talked to the right people, read the latest papers, become part of the background in the darker sections of town absorbing almost all of what he needed to know to get the job done and get it done right the first time. This was an unforgiving assignment where there was no room for practice, no second tries. Practice and second tries often meant an early and rather permanent retirement. He wasn’t ready to leave the land of the living quite yet.

He had supplemented his own knowledge about the drugs he was chasing through information he’d found on line, as well as, through assistance from the Gunmen. Club drugs, as they were often referred to because of their heavy use at ‘raves’ or ‘trances’, dance clubs and bars, were very popular among college students and other young adults. He’d read the literature on MDMA (Ecstasy), GHB, Rohypnol (also known as ‘Rho’, ‘roofies’, the date rape drug), ketamine (sometimes used by vets during animal surgery), methamphetamine, and LSD. From his perspective, the use of these potent amphetamines and hallucinogens was scary. And his assignment told him that there was a sudden upsurge and connection from the greater D.C. area to Vermont, with a possible crossover into Canada, directly to Montreal.

Burlington made a great backdrop for both the transport and use of the drugs as well as the border crossing, just about 76 miles to the north. A wonderful college town, home to ‘UVM’, the University of Vermont, the town was a wonderful mixture of the upscale, the old-moneyed, the bohemian and the youth, an ideal location for an up and thriving business. It’s proximity to the Canadian border by plane, car or boat cinched its suitability. Lake Champlain to the west worked well for leisure and obviously, sales.

He was supposed to stay on the periphery, learning just enough to let him move in and around seamlessly, gathering information for the Bureau, but not enough to make him a player. Skinner had stressed his ‘fringes’ role. Mulder had mused that his boss most likely knew that he would still do whatever he deemed necessary to put an end to the sales and whatever else was involved.

Having cautioned the younger Agent against sticking his nose in where it didn’t belong, the A.D. resigned himself to doubling the back up he anticipated might be needed should Mulder put his nose in where it didn’t belong…again.

Although it was still too early to do so and he didn’t want Scully initially aware of her partner’s assignment, Skinner knew that one possibility would involve extending her stay in Vermont if and when the time came. The problem would be determining the right time to alert her without blowing his cover and endangering her, as well.

Mulder’s trial runs back in June and again later in July had paid off. His list of potential contacts was filed away in his head and he’d already been contacted when he arrived in town just two days ago. He was supposed to meet him here for word on the first shipment and a possible sideline.

He had yet to piece together all that Frohike had provided before he left D.C. regarding Ben Stillman. A few days prior to his departure, Ben had contacted him, ostensibly to see what Scully had turned up in the autopsy. Again, it struck Mulder odd that Ben was only concerned well after the fact. The autopsy results had been available for some time. She had discovered faint traces of Rhohypnol from the earlier tox screens. ‘Rho’ did not remain in the blood for long periods of time and she was glad that the earlier inquest had been done by the book. Ben had treated the news with skepticism, although Mulder couldn’t figure out why. Something smelled very fishy at the 34th Precinct.

But, he’d had to leave town and asked Fro to keep an eye on Ben’s actions. As if he needed to ask. It was more likely that Mulder would have to divert the sometimes Three Stooges from their over-zealous behavior.

~~~~~~

From D.C. to Vermont
5 September

Clothing on the floor, on the bed, in the suitcase and then back out again. He had wondered, yet again, just what one wore as an undercover drug trafficker? Out had come the additional pair of dress trousers he’d just added. In went another pair of jeans.

He had still had no idea what he was supposedly going to be doing for a ‘real job’. While the Bureau would certainly cover ‘essential living expenses’, he needed to become part of the community and have a good ‘cover’.

As the articles of clothing had continued to ‘move about the room’, Mulder envisioned his role. Having thrown his black leather jacket on the bed next to the duffel, he’d made a mental checklist of what he’d already accomplished and what remained.

The boardinghouse had been only too happy to book an extended stay of undetermined length. Since they tended to operate on a shoestring, tenants who paid up front were prized. He’d also thought about personal transportation. While the town itself was relatively easy to get around, he hadn’t been sure where his ‘job’ might take him. The local Field Office had made arrangements for a rental vehicle. He’d smirked thinking about yet another Lariat vehicle in another color and only a slightly different style. But he’d been pleasantly surprised when they’d informed him he’d be driving a pick-up. ‘More in keeping with the indigents and your assigned socioeconomic status within the designated locale’ which had roughly translated into everyday speech that meant, ‘we want you to blend into the community and not appear ostentatious.’

His track pants, board shorts, Knicks paraphernalia, socks, a few more college tees had been rolled and stuffed into the side pockets of the denier nylon travel bag. It had seemed as if he was packing on automatic pilot as thoughts of what little he really knew about this assignment played through his mind. His keen insights and ability to sift through extraneous information to arrive at the possible facts helped, but there was still much more to learn.

He’d sorely wanted to contact Scully, to share his thinking and let her find the holes, pointing out the inconsistencies and make him work for the connections. While it wasn’t unusual for one of them to occasionally work a case alone, they were able to fall back on the other’s expertise and, much more importantly, their team approach. As he’d gone into the bathroom to pack his shaving kit, he’d mused at how it was really much more than ‘team work’ as he so often felt they were merely two parts of a strong whole. There were actually times when he felt at a disadvantage by her absence. At first, he’d railed against such a sentiment as it almost bespoke of an over-dependence when in actuality, he was quite capable of working on his own, had done so for longer than he’d care to admit. His early career in profiling had required his solitude and solitary existence, but while he’d excelled, he’d been missing something he’d never really had — a true partner.

In Scully, he’d found a togetherness that was not dependence, a companionship that was sometimes symbiotic and at others collaboration. He’d found what had been missing with his other pairings, the ability to work side-by-side but not be subsumed by the other, the offer of assistance given but demanding nothing in return and an unswerving sense of unspoken, yet nonetheless very obviously present trust.

Wedging his razor in between the can of shaving cream and his deodorant, his smile had stalled. ‘Trust’. Such a simple word. With such complex ramifications. So many possible misunderstandings. Could it ever be as simple as ‘giving someone your complete trust’? Did complete trust exist? He’d known in his heart that it did, that Scully was trust to him, that she had his complete trust from very early on in their working relationship.

But somewhere along the line he’d very nearly destroyed it all.

Shoving his bar of Zest soap, his toothbrush and toothpaste into the bag, he had zipped it closed, carrying it into the bedroom where he’d deposited it into the still open duffel.

He’d thought yet again of the June day, how it had been hotter than hell…in more ways than one. How he’d been so determined to see Diana, how he’d been so very sure that she was about to give him answers to questions he had believed were real. That he’d needed to protect himself and Scully.

And how he’d so easily and unwittingly pulled the rug right out from under the best goddamn relationship he’d ever been lucky enough to have in one fell swoop.

He’d replayed the look in her eyes. The look of abject astonishment followed blindingly fast by disbelief and extreme hurt and anger.

Those eyes. They’d always told him so much more than her words. And at that time, had he been ‘listening’ effectively, he’d have known that she had just been shattered. That he’d most likely lost her. But he hadn’t been able to see that, so intent he was on finding the truth du jour.

His heart had clenched as he zipped his bag and slipped his jacket between the woven handle straps. And he silently thanked the stars above that somehow she’d decided she was willing to give them another chance, to believe in him enough again.

His mind had been pulled completely from his assignment. In a strangely humorous way, he had realized that she always had a way of getting under his skin. And he had realized that that was exactly where he always wanted her to be.

~~~~~~

J.E. Hoover Building
August, One Month Earlier

Mulder sat on the edge of her desk. He still smiled thinking about how long it had taken to requisition the one piece of furniture that held such symbolism for her. He’d never minded sharing his desk, never really saw why having her own was so important to her. Well, actually, that wasn’t entirely true. He knew intellectually that it made them equal partners in her eyes, placed them as partners as opposed to her working for him, but, the truth of the matter was that he was the senior agent in their pairing. And, they didn’t really spend that much time in the office to require an additional work surface.

However, when she threatened to call central warehouse supplies, his ‘senior’ status wouldn’t allow her to do that. He had to do it himself. Only because he was responsible for ordering supplies. Not that he usually did it. Not that he didn’t know that she usually ended up doing so. Not because he felt he had to be the one to take care of it from some archaic male frame of mind. No, not for any of those reasons.

He’d joked that they should be placed flush against each other so they had to face one and other while they worked. She had glared and shown the movers where to place her desk. She had asked for a chair, too, claiming that the stool she usually perched on wasn’t ergonomically correct for the desk. Mulder had figured (incorrectly as it was pointedly pointed out to him…)that since neither of them spent much time at their desks, she could use the stool. The chair they rolled in looked less like a desk chair and more like a sports car version of a Barco-lounger updated for the new millennium.

She had tried to ignore his ‘test-drive’ as he’d plopped into the chair with great flourish and proceeded to lean back to put his feet on her desk. She had smiled when he realized that he could do so without risking life and limb as this chair had a controlling mechanism that worked to halt backward motion. The look on his face told her that against his better judgment, he did find it comfortable.

Not able to leave it at that, he had rolled around the office in the chair, his long legs ‘walking’ it and him from one end to the other. He had heard her mutter, not as under her breath as she thought, that he was like a child with a new toy that didn’t belong to him.

She’d finally put the breaks on his test-drive, placing herself directly in front of him, hands on her hips, head tilted to one side, imperious eyebrow arched.

Knowing the gig was up; he’d backed the roving chair to her desk and folded his hands in front of him in supplication, his eyes searching out hers from under a lock of errant chestnut hair.

She’d simply motioned for him to vacate her seat and find his own.

Instead, he had perched on the edge of her desk, his hand wandering idly over the smooth new surface, noting the blonder wood that was a cross somewhere between the darker mahogany of his and the ash of the table in the back room. He crossed one leg, leaning on it and looked in her direction.

All business, she’d told him she had stopped by to pick up some materials before she headed back to Quantico and then on to her conference. He wanted to know where she would be staying at the conference and she wanted to leave the office.

He’d realized that although this short time together was easier than the last, there was still a tightness, a distance between them that he didn’t know how to bridge. Not completely, anyway.

As she’d gotten up, he’d reached out, touching her hand lightly then letting his drop to his side. He’d asked her to at least keep her cellphone on in case of emergency. She had agreed, gently grasping his fingers, and then walked out the door.

~~~~~~

Metronome Club
Pine Street Burlington
15 September

They were sitting at the L-shaped end of the penny bar. The bartender beamed with pride when Kimberley inquired about the endless expanse of copper coins underneath the glass covered bar ledge. “I’ve been collecting them since I worked here with my Dad. Makes for a colorful counter, don’t you think?” The middle-aged man brought over four more glasses of Chablis, waving his hand and shaking his head to indicate that he wouldn’t accept any money; these were on the house.

“Had I known you liked compliments, I would have told you just how nice the,” she looked around, trying to find something else to ‘notice’, “dance floor is.”

He laughed and smiled at her. “Only one on the house per customer. At least in the same night. You all staying in town, are you?”

“Well, I just moved here from Toronto, Canada. I’ve been transferred for my job.” She told him she lived over on Church Street with her fiance, Bryan. He tipped his head at the light haired woman and her taller partner.

“And I’m here for the conference over at the Radisson; just visiting from D.C.” Scully shook his hand and smiled.

He was suitably impressed. This little thing was a pathologist?

“And, this big galoot,” Kimberley gestured towards Ian, “is my big brother. He’s just here…well, he’s just here.” Ian, at 6′ 2″ towered over both his sister and her fiance. His straight sandy colored hair was parted on the side and highlighted his dark brown eyes. He and Kimberley shared the same fair complexion although her hair was a bit lighter than her brother’s.

Quite the contrast to Bryan.

Bryan stood behind Kimberley’s barstool between her and Scully. His 5′10″ height made him seem short next to Ian, but Kimberley found him ‘just tall enough’ and made sure that Ian knew it every chance she got. It was a bit of insurance for those times Ian felt the need to tell his younger sister how she needed a big strapping man rather than the wuss she’d chosen. Usually, a friendly pushing and shoving contest ensued, almost as if they were establishing the odd male pecking order.

Scully could see why her sister’s friend found Bryan very handsome. He wasn’t exactly her type, although lately she wasn’t quite sure exactly what her type was. She smiled wistfully, thinking back to when she had first realized that Mulder was definitely her type.

She knew she’d liked him early on, had been attracted to him not much later on. It hadn’t been any one thing in particular, more a combination of who he was. It was how he looked, how he treated her, his ability to make her smile when she needed to snap out of a mood and know the difference between coming out of the mood and being allowed to remain inside it.

They had been on their way to their car at the airport when another Federal Agent had approached her. After shaking her hand and his, the Agent had started asking her some rather pointed questions regarding the evidence she had sent on ahead to Washington. She had tried to explain, at first calmly and quietly, that they shouldn’t be talking there and that he could simply contact the A.D. to confirm receipt of the materials. Mulder had been attempting to usher them past the Agent who was obviously stepping way out of bounds with her.

He’d kept his distance at first, allowing her to deal with the situation, doing nothing more than covering his partner’s back. When it had been clear that said Agent was not about to back down, Mulder had escorted them quickly away from the scene he was sure would follow. The Agent did not pursue them.

Once they reached the car and had stowed their luggage in the trunk, they had both collapsed. The airport confrontation had not been special in and of itself. They’d dealt with much worse. It had only been the frosting on the cake after a harrowing and emotionally exhausting case.

He had turned to her then, his hand on the key, already starting the car, and smiled. One of those toothy grins she realized she loved. “Well, partner, I guess we evaded the big bad Agent.”

His eyes rested on her for several moments, giving her ample time to read the depth of his smile, his concern for her safety, his respect for her as his partner and the intensity of what he felt for her. It wasn’t the first sign, but it was the first time she’d allowed herself to put all the pieces together, thinking that there just might be something much more than friendship between them.

She had returned the smile with all of herself, no walls, no barriers. She had told him to take them home.

~~~~~~

Bryan wore his tan well, not the typical; ‘I spend everyday on the beach tan’. Kimberley had told Scully that when she and Bryan had first started seeing each other that he liked to work outside. He ran his own highly successful landscaping business and often went on assignments with his staff and took great pride in getting to know his customers so he could design an outdoors sanctuary they’d cherish. His customers were important to him and he did his share of the digging and planting. His well-developed muscles were most likely the result of daily workouts and his last job carting quarry stones for his neighbor’s one-acre wall.

Where Ian’s eyes were round and velvety, Bryan’s were the most gorgeous shade of blue Scully had ever seen, seeming to draw immediate attention to him. He and Ian both had an affable and overtly friendly and engaging manner that was apparent in their smiles. Compared to Ian’s sandy and unkempt locks, Bryan sported a rather short cut to his blondish brown hair. Each time the strobe flashed the bar area, Scully caught the slight red highlights that only added to his striking and unique appearance. She was glad that Melissa’s friend had found someone to spend her life with. Watching how easily the two interacted made her eyes misty. She smiled at their little touches, nothing overt or showy, but gestures and glances that came from knowing each other well and an overpowering need to share and be together. She watched, silently wondering whether she and Mulder would ever return to that point in their relationship.

Ian watched Scully. He remembered her and Melissa from their younger days on the naval base. Dana had been the youngest Scully, the tomboy and almost always, the pest. The little redhead with the short curly pigtails who insisted on hanging out with Ian and Bill or Melissa and Kimberley. Well, she was still a ‘little redhead, he observed, but any other comparisons were off the mark. Ian really hoped that his wife, who worked at the local Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream plant and had a late night shift, would be able to join them while Dana was still in town.

“So, Dana, what’s the latest buzz from our nation’s capital?” Bryan stood behind Kimberley, his hands on her shoulders as she leaned back against him. Her dark brown velvet khakis and cream colored crop top really set off her petite figure. She, like Scully, seemed to favor the higher, chunky-heeled shoes and boots and tonight was no exception.

“The latest ‘buzz’ is absolutely nothing new. You’ve heard about it on the news.” Ian chimed in. “C’mon, Dana, give. We all know that you’re into some really weird shit down in that basement office of yours. Just when are they gonna let you come upstairs with the big boys? Crystal’s been saying you shouldn’t be stuck down there this long.” Scully playfully punched him in the arm making him chuckle, nearly spilling his Chablis down the front of her pale blue square-necked tee and black chinos.

The ever-watchful bartender appeared as if out of nowhere, offering a dishrag for possible spills. Scully waved it away, smiling and ordered them another round. “Did I tell you I love good customers? I’m hoping you folks are going to be visiting me more often.”

“Tell him, Sis.” Ian nudged his sister, a little harder than he’d intended, sending her back into Bryan.

“Hey, you big…” Recovering quickly and smartly, she snagged his hand.

“Do not call me that again or I might have to share with Dana and Bryan a little something you did in your more formative years.” He reached over and tweaked her cheek, instantly bringing color to her cheeks.

The laughter from the bartender reminded Kimberley that she had been about to comment. “Actually, I should be here for at least the rest of this year. I’m doing some consulting work with the local detectives. I’m actually on loan from the Ontario Provincial Police.”

His smile grew serious. “You’re a cop?”

Her smile met his with a twinkle in her eyes. “Well, not exactly. I worked in the special forces division of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police for a long time before doing some local work at the Provincial level. Your government called upon our services and I guess I’m it.”

He seemed to relax visibly, but she made a note to do a little background on the otherwise jovial server. Something in his reaction gave her pause. It seemed to be just a bit more than the usual reaction the general public seemed to have to the mention of ‘government’ or ‘law enforcement’. For now, though, she was content to enjoy the time with her brother, Bryan and Dana.

She hadn’t seen Dana since the previous year. At that time, she’d learned about her most recent relationship with her partner at the Bureau. She hadn’t recalled seeing her any happier. Although she appeared to be enjoying herself tonight, there was something just under the surface that Kimberley couldn’t quite place. She knew from their time together and more of her time with Missy, that Dana was much more guarded about her feelings. However, that certainly didn’t seem the case tonight. She wondered if her partner had joined her for the conference. If so, she was keeping him tucked away somewhere.

~~~~~~

The music picked up at that point, rendering further conversation almost impossible without yelling above the din. Ian made some witty remark that had been aimed at Scully. Although her hands were on her hips in her classic challenge position, her eyes were dancing and she was smiling, realizing she hadn’t had this much fun in a long time.

She reached over and touched Ian’s arm as if to push him away. Before she knew what had happened, he swung her, one arm around her neck, pulling her to him her back to his front. Bryan and Kimberley were already laughing.

Mulder stopped just short of his contact’s table. When the short, round man stood to indicate his whereabouts, Mulder walked past him with intent. It couldn’t be her. She was away at the Pathology Conference. Somewhere in New England. Where had she said it was? She hadn’t, but he had checked; it was easy enough.

It was here in Burlington. And that was Scully. Scully looking as if she was enjoying herself…a lot. Scully smiling and in the arms of another man.

He shrugged out of his leather jacket, setting it on the nearest chair.

Short round man sat back down, gazing up at his ‘appointment’. <This man is trouble> he thought as he sized up the tall, muscular, yet lanky man dressed completely in black except for the lone silver neck chain and the small diamond stud. He stopped trying to attract Mulder’s attention since it was clear it was now focused elsewhere.

“I — I’ll be right here when you want to talk, uh, Sir?” He was sure Mulder hadn’t heard him since he didn’t receive any acknowledgment. His round eyes watched as Mulder’s arm extended toward the table, never looking down, and picked up the open bottle of draught he was sure had been placed there for him. Only at that point did he nod absentmindedly in his contact’s general direction.

Holding the bottle by its long neck, Mulder brought it to his lips, never taking his eyes off Scully and the others that seemed to be with her.

He stalked a little closer, moving through the tables to the wooden pillars that framed the bar area. It was so easy to be invisible here. Contrary to how very visible his partner, his lover was. So much for ‘moving closer together over time’ as she had put it at her mother’s house before she left for the Conference…

~~~~~~

August

Almost two months had passed since that fateful day in early June. Two long, hot and relatively silent months. Although their paths crossed many times, it was almost as if they were strangers to one and other. They exchanged information needed for professional reasons and some perfunctory pleasantries. She had warmed to him occasionally, but then pulled back, the chill enough to make him wonder what the hell was going on.

Her mother had invited him to dinner one night, hoping to warm the chill. While he had seemed comfortable with Maggie and her grandchildren, his relationship with Scully had still been strained. Through no lack of trying on his part.

At times, it had almost seemed as if that July night in the park hadn’t happened, those words hadn’t been exchanged, the touches never felt. ‘Mercurial’ was certainly a word that described his partner, mercurial and sometimes unreadable. And enigmatic. He hadn’t been sure what was real. Then Maggie had invited them to a cookout for ‘no special reason/does there have to be a reason?’ Scully had actually seemed very happy to see him, some of the usual banter flowing between them more easily, little touches, bigger reminders of who they were together.

He had grabbed a plate piled Mulder-high and some lemonade and had headed for the chaise lounge, sitting with one long leg off the side, the other stretched out in front of him. His dark tan contrasted against the off-white of his long cargo shorts. He was the picture of end of summer; strands of hair glinting gold within the darker chestnut, hazel eyes mirthful, a lazy smile on his warm lips. His short-sleeved raspberry tee worn specially since Maggie had given it to him complimented his coloring well.

She had cut a large slice of watermelon. He had watched her looking around for a place to sit.

Or had she been looking for him?

He had held up his lemonade, looking in her direction. Her eyes had met his almost shyly, he remembered, but she had walked toward him, taking a bite out of the watermelon, spitting the seeds into the grass. He had found himself wishing he were the seeds passing between her soft, pouty, fruit juice stained lips.

She had stopped at the arm of the chair, smiling down at him, her face stained pink from the sticky juice. His other leg had slid off the side of the chaise and he had patted the spot between his legs. She had taken another bite and shaken her head, ‘uh-ah’, but hadn’t moved from her spot.

Without taking his eyes off her, he had set his plate and lemonade slowly on the lawn next to him. In one fluid movement, he had reached for her, pulling her down between his legs. She had landed with a soft thud and an audible, ‘oh!’ and had nestled back into him. As he had reached for his plate, she had twisted. As he had turned, her watermelon lips had nuzzled his.

~~~~~~

<What’s going on, Scully?> He finished off the bottle of beer and set it down on the nearest table, without taking his eyes off her and the unfolding scene. Leaning back against the pillar, he crossed his arms over his chest, the already tight fabric stretching over his well-muscled biceps.

He watched as Ian leaned down to say something to her, his lips directly over her ear. He knew the music was so loud that their voices wouldn’t carry unless they were closer. But still. He watched as she responded, laughing and half-heartedly trying to free herself from his neck hold on her. But she didn’t seem uncomfortable.

He continued to watch as Bryan and Kimberley walked hand in hand to the dance floor, their hands instantly holding each other’s hips once they left the bar area.

He didn’t want to watch anymore of Scully and the tall, geeky looking guy who insisted on touching her. Touching her in places that were supposed to be reserved for him. Mulder gave only cursory examination to the fact that he was thinking very possessively of her. He considered himself much more ‘enlightened’ because of his time with her, but damnit, he was fast becoming angered and territorial.

To hell with ‘enlightened’.

He almost turned away from watching as the man placed his hands low on her hips, bending over to keep his mouth by her ear. He watched her nod as he propelled her forward onto the dancefloor. Almost losing her balance, the same man reached out ahead, steadying her, but nearly grazing her breasts with his large hands.

The volume became even louder although it didn’t seem possible.

Mulder could feel the primal throbbing that reverberated through the overhead and floor speakers as an extended mix of Suavecito flowed from the previous selection. The percussive combination of Congas, timbales, and bongos coupled with the horns, guiros, claves and the cowbells was a heady mix that could be felt, as well as, heard.

Mulder wasn’t sure whether it was the percussive mix or his pounding blood that created the throbbing. He was only certain that he needed to…what? Talk to Scully? Drag her from the dancefloor by her hair? Deck geeky man with an uppercut to his jaw? The possibilities were endless.

Kimberley had settled fluidly into Bryan’s arms, their bodies melding as his hips punctuated the beat against hers. “Did I ever tell you what a fantastic dancer you are?”

She pulled herself from his chest to look into the deep blue of his eyes. “Oh, once or twice, but don’t hesitate to tell me again.”

“You’ve just got that certain rhythm, you know?”

“You mean this rhythm?” She not so subtly ground into him as her hands slid down to cup his ass.

“Uh, yeah, that’s the rhythm. The same one you use when we…”

Bryan failed to complete his sentence since her mouth suddenly absorbed the rest of his words.

“You know,” Ian scrunched down so Scully could read his lips and hear him as he pointed to Bryan and Kimberley, “those two are going to get arrested. Should we pull them apart?”

Scully was holding his forearms as she shook her head. “Shut up, Ian and dance with me.” She playfully put her palm over his mouth and then pulled it away. Ian grabbed her hands, twirling and spinning her in some wild parody of 70s disco.

As he pulled her back from the last swing out, she landed with her palms to his chest, laughing.

Ian watched the tall mainly dressed in black man approach them, the man’s eyes intently focused first on himself and then on Dana. Thinking he had probably just had a few too many, he ignored him.

Until he laid his hand on Scully’s shoulder, trying to pull her away, toward him.

Raising his voice to be heard, Ian tried to ask the man to back off. Mulder would not relinquish his hold on Scully, causing her to turn toward him.

As recognition dawned on her, Scully gasped, then briefly smiled, clearly puzzled by Mulder’s new look. She had to admit that he wore darkly dangerous well…very well.

But she didn’t like the look in his eyes as he tried to wrest her away from Ian. She’d seen him like this before, somewhat subdued and controlled in his not-yet-full-blown anger. Intent. Determined.

As she wriggled, attempting to pull away, Ian interceded, shoving Mulder hard. Scully knew that they were seconds away from coming to blows. With Mulder still holding her arm, she turned toward Ian, placing her other hand on his chest, keeping him back.

The storm clouds in Mulder’s eyes seemed to move away, clearing to nothingness as he dropped his hold on her arm and walked away. For a minute, Scully stood motionless and stunned.

All around them, other dancers paid them little attention as if this type of situation happened nightly. Either that or they were too out of it to have noticed.

Kimberley and Bryan had witnessed everything, but decided not to jump into the fray. Her training told her that sometimes the best policy was to simply observe and try to provide the people involved their own time to come to terms with their behavior.

“Who the hell is that?” Bryan yelled to his partner. She smiled, that special knowing smile he both loved and hated. It usually signaled something he’d catch onto on his own eventually, but she knew first. How she did it, he’d never know. She didn’t reply that she thought the man in black could very well be Dana’s partner.

Scully briefly explained the situation to Ian who had the good grace to merely ask if he could help in anyway. Scully thanked him, murmuring that she didn’t know if she’d be back, but would see them all tomorrow.

As she made her way across and away from the dancefloor, she watched Mulder locate his jacket and another bottle of beer as he headed for the door. She occasionally lost sight of him as she ducked and wove in and out of the dancers and then the people seated at the tables and chairs. He was moving with determination, the slow pace making it appear as if he didn’t care. As he neared the door, he set the empty bottle down on a table in his path and slung his jacket over one shoulder hooked with his thumb.

Scully quickened her pace, calling out to him, to no avail. She was relatively sure that he could hear her. And she caught a brief glimpse of him as he shoved the door open, exiting the Club.

Not two minutes later, she pushed her way through the same door, stopping just outside to get her bearings. The street’s dim lighting and the early fall fog that settled around her, made it difficult to see where Mulder had gone. The late night revelers hanging around outside only made it harder for her to try to find him.

“Mulder!”

He knew she had followed him, had half expected she would, but was in no mood to talk to her. He’d done something professionally jeopardizing and personally stupid. He silently cursed Skinner for not alerting him to the fact that she’d be here. Ok, so he’d done his own checking, but he’d done something he rarely did; especially where she was concerned; he’d forgotten. Therefore, he wished their boss had seen fit to remind him. And who the hell was he kidding, Skinner wasn’t his fucking babysitter, was he?

How the hell’d he expect him to keep his undercover status from her if they were in the same city? Perhaps his boss had assumed that even if they were in the same location, he’d stay in character. And how was he supposed to just ignore her without incurring her anger? These thoughts warred with the fact that she’d probably figure it out eventually — after she finished reaming him for his behavior inside.

Of course, that said nothing for the potential danger he’d already placed her in just by having contact. The circles he was now traveling in were notorious. Her association with him; real or perceived, would most assuredly place her in danger.

But, he was leaving out the best part. The part where he plunged into a situation about which he had no facts. He had allowed his gut instinct, his heart to take over, to act for him. Was he so insecure that he couldn’t just talk to her?

All he knew was that he’d seen red. <And now I’m a friggin’ comedian?> He’d never expected to see her here because his usually exhaustive memory had failed him; he’d forgotten where her conference was being held.

He continued to move with purpose northward toward the Pine Street Boardinghouse. The two modest rooms were actually an upgrade from The usual hotels they stayed in but nondescript enough to deflect any unwanted attention.

Barely glancing behind him, he could tell she was still in pursuit. <Damn it, Scully. Leave it alone> The thought still in process, he realized she’d do no such thing. He knew she was concerned, angry and curious from her tone of voice and the rate of pursuit alone.

At the intersection of Pine and Maple Streets, he changed direction knowing he couldn’t lead her to his residence.

Mulder caught her off guard. Just as she was about to give up, he doubled back, causing her to nearly run into him. The look in his eyes was inscrutable — almost as if he didn’t know her, as if he were looking through her. Jacket still slung over his shoulder, he brought one hand up as if to steady her. Her blue eyes blazed as her brow furrowed.

“Jesus, Mulder,” she swatted his hand away, “what the hell—” Her question was ended abruptly by his interruption. “Scully, back off.”

The tone was not threatening, yet she wondered why she felt as if she was being dismissed.

And she was not pleased, not at all.

“Like hell, Mulder! I’m not going anywhere until you tell me what’s going on, what this is about.” She felt her face flush with her renewed anger and frustration.

With a heavy sigh, his eyes met hers as he took her by the arm, dragging her into the cobble-stoned alley. “Look, I’m sorry, ok? But you need to go back to your friends; leave me alone.”

He had not yet released her arm and her hand came up, closing over his, attempting to remove it. Trying to calm herself, she again asked him what was going on.

The jacket slipped from his fingers, falling with a plop to the ground. His voice matching hers, he leaned in closer, each word punctuated by a puff of breath against her face. “You can’t be here with me. Go back to the geek.”

If he thought he could dismiss her that easily, he could think again. If anything, his comment had only served to re-ignite her anger.

“You don’t know what you saw Mulder. They’re friends from—”

“It doesn’t matter, Scully; don’t you hear what I’m telling you? You can not be here with me. It’s not good for your health.”

He started to walk away, but found himself effectively blocked in by 5′5″-in-heels Scully Fury.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with you, Mulder, but I do know something’s not right with this.” She waved her hand about, trying to indicate the all-encompassing situation.

“Ok — part of it is Ian dancing with me. Ian dancing with me because his wife had to work tonight. Ian, who’s Kimberley’s older brother. Did I tell you that Kimberley was a friend of Missy’s? That we’re old family friends?”

Her words came out with a controlled urgency as if she thought he’d run off before she’d finished.

“What’re you doing in Burlington? Did you follow me?” she continued. Grabbing her shoulders as if he were trying to slow her down, he asked her to stop. “I said I’m sorry. I didn’t expect to see you and when I did, well, you looked like you were enjoying yourself.”

“Maybe because I was, Mulder?” She replied as she shrugged his hands off her shoulders.

“Anyway,” he continued as if she hadn’t spoken, hadn’t moved, letting her know he needed to get it all out at once, “I was missing you, missing us, wishing you could be with me—”

Her words picked up where he had trailed off, creating a bittersweet reminder for them both of their recent rift and rejoining — tentative though it may be.

“And you saw me with who you assumed — assumed, Mulder — was a date?”

“Yeah, something like that.” His tone defeated, he nonetheless moved closer to her.

Seeking eye contact, she demanded, “What else?”

Reaching for her, his hands grabbed at empty space. She had stepped back, not quite ready for the contact.

Letting his hands drop to his sides he stated, “God, I’ve missed you, Scully.”

“Me, too, Mulder, me too.” Something in his eyes caused her to reevaluate her anger with his earlier behavior.

“But you can’t be here with me.”

“Then let’s go back to the Club or to my room.” She tentatively reached out to take his hand.

“No—, “he pulled away so he could look at her, his arms crossing in front of him, buffering, blocking. She reacted to his sudden defensive posture with confusion he could see clearly in her face.

“You need to walk away now.” Seeing the ‘why’ forming on her lips, he chastely brought a finger to them and withdrew it quickly. He shook his head, ‘no’ and stepped around her.

Leaving a speechless and questioning Scully standing alone in the alley.

~~~~~~

Kimberley knew something was up, something more than a little partnerly jealousy, although that had been blatantly obvious. Ian, for his part, took the whole situation rather good-naturedly telling Kimberley that if he’d been in Mulder’s shoes and it had been Crystal, he might’ve decked the guy and dragged Crystal out posthaste. Bryan suggested they all head home, but she insisted they find Scully.

“Look, she’s new to town, she’s a friend and she doesn’t have her car. We can’t just leave her here.”

“But we don’t even know where she went, Kimber.”

“Ian,” Kimberley’s tone warned her brother lovingly, “back off with the nickname. I’m not your ‘Kimber’.”

“And that’s all the more reason for us to go look for her.” Bryan stood behind his fiancee, a solid presence and support. “She’s right, Ian.”

“You’re just saying that because you won’t get any if you don’t agree with her.”

Kimberley shut them both up and headed for the door. “Your baby sister’s one determined woman.”

~~~~~~

Scully had finally turned around, making her way out of the alley, certain Mulder wouldn’t be waiting for her. Almost tripping, she looked down to see his jacket laying on the cobblestones. She bent over to pick it up, absentmindedly running her hands over the slightly cooled, well-worm leather. She brought it up, unfurling the long heavy sleeves and slipped it on. The fact that it hung almost to her knees and swallowed her went unnoticed as she wrapped the little she’d have of her partner tonight around her.

Mulder watched her from across the wide avenue from behind the cover of the two large maple tree trunks. The ground beneath his boots was mist-slick from the combination of the slight drizzle coating the fallen leaves rendered a monotone black in the late night. He smiled when she wrapped herself in his jacket, watching as she seemed to do so without conscious thought. If it weren’t for her fair complexion and russet hair, she’d be totally invisible, ensconced in black.

He waited to see where she would go, worried about her being out alone at this time of night. He hadn’t noticed if she had her weapon, but then again, he hadn’t been paying attention to anything other than his conflicted desires, knowing he couldn’t let her risk being seen with him and wanting to take her home with him.

Headlights cut a swath of illumination in front of the Bronco, heading straight for her. Caught like a deer, her eyes widened and she instinctively stepped back into the alleyway. From across the street, Mulder darted forward as the scene unfolded before him. The vehicle seemed to be heading straight for her and he realized she’d be backed into the alley with no exit.

Just as she turned to find an alternative exit, she heard the horn honk twice in quick succession. Swiveling back toward the street, her eyes squinting in the glare, she pulled one hand up to her forehead. Her other hand drew the leather jacket closer around her in part to ward off the cool, damp air and to keep it from falling from her shoulders; its weight more than enough to let it slide from her petite frame. A small smile played at the corners of her mouth.

Before his presence could register, Scully felt his body behind her, arms wrapping around her possessively and with their full might, whisking her into the darkness of a shop front. Her struggles to free herself were futile, his size and strength easily overcoming her, but in no way subduing her efforts. The blaze of light from the Bronco narrowly missed their hideaway, the horn blaring again, more insistent.

She cried out, her bootheels kicking into the man’s shin. She was clearly puzzled. If his intent was to harm her, he was taking an awfully long time to reach his decision. If he was abducting her, the local storefront with the rather large SUV parked directly in front of them was probably not the most efficient. She renewed her struggles, twisting and turning. She bit down hard on his forearm.

And that’s when she heard the familiar, husked whisper. “Scully, stop; it’s me.”

“Let go of me, Mulder.” She gritted out between clenched teeth, not knowing whether she was relieved that this wasn’t some stranger or angry at Mulder. She grabbed onto his forearms for leverage and jammed her heel into his instep, eliciting a sharp intake of breath from him followed by a string of expletives.

“Damn it, I’m trying to—”

“You’re trying to what, Mulder? Protect me? Is that it, again? Those are my friends from the Metronome. Now let go of me.” His arms had barely released her when she shoved away from him, dropping his jacket over his open arms.

He reached for her hand, spinning her back into the cover of the vestibular area. “How was I supposed to know they were your friends? How could you be so sure?”

Although she did not pull her hand away, her stance and the set of her face made it clear that she was seething. “Look, Mulder, you can’t have it both ways. You just got finished explaining, or, should I say, ‘not explaining’, that you couldn’t be around me. You told me to ‘stay away from you’. Even though you offered me no good reason, I did as you asked; yet you’re back. Tell me what’s going on or I’m turning back around and walking away.”

Kimberley and Bryan had dimmed the headlights, parking by the curb a few shops up from their location when Bryan recognized Scully’s partner and that she was in no danger. Kimberley’s senses were still on alert, something she couldn’t identify telling her to stay nearby, but to give them some space.

She had watched as Scully recognized the Bronco and approached. When she first saw him dart across the street, her hand was poised on the door handle, ready to jump out. Bryan had insisted he go instead, but deferred to his partner’s glare, reminding him that she was trained in law enforcement. He was simply trained to want to take care of her. Men; you couldn’t live with them and you couldn’t live with them. But she always appreciated his gesture… and the fact that he was willing to believe that she was quite capable of taking care of herself.

By the speed with which Scully’s partner made his way to her, she suspected that he was not quite so willing to believe. Although she admittedly didn’t know all there was to know about Dana’s adult life as a Bureau Agent, she did know that she’d at least had the training and completed her course with distinction. An Agent didn’t get where she was today without excellence in dispatching her duties.

As her partner dragged her, almost literally kicking and not quite screaming back into the darkness of the storefront, Bryan again suggested intervening. Kimberley pointed out the finer points of observation to him; noting that although she did not seem to know it was he at first, she and Bryan did. Besides, she didn’t appear to be in any danger.

“Scully, you’ve got to trust that I know what I’m doing; why I can’t tell you what’s going on.”

“And you don’t have to trust me? Since when did it become so hard to trust me Mulder?”

Their hands still connected, her voice softened as her eyes searched his. He returned her gaze, squeezing her fingers, telling her he understood. His refusal to tell her because of the undercover status of his case, his need to shield her from the fall-out, not as a woman partner but as a partner who could crumble under the side-effects of this case by mere association with him, hit way too close to home after Marblehead. He was sure she was replaying his words in connection with Diana and his supposed need to protect his partner back then.

<Awww, Scully, don’t you understand? I’d never do anything to intentionally hurt you. Use your training and read between the lines; please>

“This is not about ‘trust’. Damn it, do I have to spell it out for you?” She could hear the barely controlled rage in his voice.

Her decision made, she let his hand go and spun around, heading for the Bronco and her waiting friends. His decision made, he followed her. Once, his career had been his life, then she had slipped in, almost under his radar, supplanting his first quest with his second, his final and his most important. She was right; she was the only person he could trust without conditions.

He spoke softly once again, but it was enough to still her. Her back to him, she looked to one side, letting him know she was listening.

“Scully, I’ll say this once, but without further explanation. I owe you that much. Hell, I owe you a lot more, but this is all that I can do right now. Now come back here and let me try to make you understand.”

Her skepticism at war with her curiosity, she turned and approached him with her arms crossed and one arching eyebrow.

“Make it good, Mulder.”

He looked around, his eyes darting to either side of her, around her. She followed his gaze almost amusedly knowing there was no one there, knowing his non-verbals signaled his processing, trying to frame what he was about to tell her. He pulled her out of the storefront and moved with her further down the street. Under the cover of huge maple trees overhanging the roadway, he jogged into the crosswalk, pulling her across the street. Puzzled now by his speed and urgency, she charged to keep up with him.

“Where are they going, Kimber?” Bryan was clearly concerned although she did not seem to be worried. “Don’t worry, I’ve got my sights on them. Something strange is going on, I just feel it, but he won’t hurt her. That much I do know.”

Bryan once again shook his head, smiling at Kimberley’s uncanny knack to size up people and situations in relatively short order. He supposed some of it was her job, but he knew more of it was that slightly mysterious way she had about her, something more than intuition but less than clairvoyance. It had often allowed her to see ‘into’ a situation more deeply, helping guide those involved to resolution.

It had been just last week. She had taken time away from the local Police Department to join him for lunch at one of his client’s. She drove the red Bronco up the winding gravel driveway, parking in the turnaround circle near the main entry. Bryan had been out on the vast expanse of green with the two owners, Mr. and Mrs. Witherspoon. Laid out on the oak bench was Bryan’s design plan; a carefully and meticulously rendered drawing of their newly-landscaped lawn.

She got out of the truck, adjusting her skirt and corduroy jacket. As she approached, she heard Bryan talking about the placement of the spring bulbs; a few rows of tulips surrounded by crocuses and book-ended by daffodils.

Mr. Witherspoon had nodded approvingly, but his wife was far from happy.She questioned Bryan’s understanding of the symmetry of design, pointing out how the texture of the purple crocuses would simply crowd the more fragile tulips. The man of the house had tried to explain that he liked the plan and furthermore, they had hired Bryan specifically ‘to’ design for them. He told her to shut up. And she glowered. Bryan merely stood in the middle; half hoping a bit of magic would end the stalemate.

And that’s when Kimberley had shown up. Angry Witherspoons surrounded him as he tried to discern which camp would emerge victorious. The wife’s voice was raised, but not yet yelling. The husband was vehemently stating his point. Bryan was attempting to show both how he could develop a design intended for compromise.

Kimberley was amused.

“Might I be of some assistance?” She strolled into the almost-fray, a small smile lighting her face. <God, how I love that smile, Kimber>

Bryan took her hand, making her part of the group. She looked from Mr. to Mrs. as she was introduced to his clients. “How do you like his ideas?” Insinuating herself into the issue at hand, both Witherspoons looked at her openly, Mrs. W showing just the slightest bit of pique. “Too much color and texture so close together.” That she had managed to eek out that much of a response from his wife was remarkable in Mr. W’s mind. “Is not.”

Bryan watched Kimberley watch the W’s, her eyes scrunching in scrutiny, her lips forced into neutrality. “Mrs. Witherspoon—”

“It’s Edna, dear; call me Edna.”

Bryan attempted to sputter as to just how she had managed to get to a first name basis with this stodgy client, but wisely held his tongue.

“Edna it is. Edna, have you noticed how the eye is drawn to the varying heights…” Mrs. Edna Witherspoon had become damp potting soil in Kimberley’s hands and Still-Mr. Witherspoon was smiling for the first time that morning.

Although nothing quite miraculous, her quick read of the people and the situation had averted hours of haggling and kept both clients satisfied.

Leaving them to fold up the plans and decide on a start date for their project, Bryan tugged on her hand. He had someone else to satisfy.

~~~~~~

Scully raked a hand through her damp and curling hair as her partner pulled her across the sidewalk and under the cover of the towering, thick-trunked maples. He backed her into one of the trees, his hands on her shoulders. He smiled ruefully at the look of confusion on her face, knowing he owed her a quick, but thorough explanation.

Without preamble he told her, “I’ve been assigned a case here, Scully. I’d been researching it while you were assigned to Quantico back in July. I can’t involve you in this one.”

She released the breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding, searching his eyes. The reality of his situation finally dawned on her, slammed into her. He must be undercover. That was why her showing up and asking questions had angered him. But, it had been he who had initiated contact with that adolescent display of testosterone-fueled, territory marking. She suppressed her chuckle.

“Mulder, you’re the one who found me. You could have walked out of the Club without me ever having seen you and you know that.”

He almost hated the way she was able to zero in on the truth…any of his truths…with amazing clarity. He wanted nothing more than to erase what he’d done, but knew he couldn’t. He had jumped to conclusions.

The recentness and somewhat still tentative steps back to their earlier relationship were not always easy for him. While he intellectually understood her need to take things slow, to feel sure of him once again, his heart wanted to move full steam ahead. Seeing her enjoying herself with another had spiked a white hot anger he hadn’t realized was there. He had done a quick read of the situation based on nothing but what he saw. He knew better. Much better. Especially when it came to Scully. He hoped that when she was feeling more charitable about his earlier behavior, she’d look upon it as nothing more than a minor lapse of his sensibilities.

When he still hadn’t commented, she looked to him questioningly, wondering whether he would explain further or if this was to be their last contact. She knew he would not want her becoming entangled in whatever his case was; it could be risky for them both. However, she also knew without a shadow of a doubt, she planned to find out what he was working on; with or without his assistance.

It wasn’t that she didn’t understand or respect the nature of undercover work nor was it that she wanted to unnecessarily endanger either of them. It was that she knew her partner all too well and for all his blinding brilliance, the ability to gather all sorts of information and pull it together into theory after theory, there was usually just one small problem — he often got himself into trouble.

Dana Scully was often quite good at extricating Fox Mulder from trouble. And he tended to rely on her, even subconsciously, for that help. Yes, she was rationalizing her involvement quite well…

“You’re right, Scully. I knew you were here for your conference, but I had no intentions of trying to find you until my case was resolved or I was pulled out.”

He paused, seeing the look of mild disbelief on her face. Would he really have stayed away? She wasn’t sure if she was happy about that prospect; knowing he’d be in the same town and they wouldn’t ever connect.

He continued, trying to ignore her unspoken question. “It’s just that when I did see you, I hadn’t expected to, and you were dancing and he was touching you. Ah, hell, I don’t want to go through all this again. I’m sorry and I hope your friends will understand.”

“They will, they do. Now, tell me what you can about your assignment.” She shivered, the night chilling her to her bones. She nodded at him as he replaced his leather jacket around her, his hands lingering on her arms before moving back to his sides.

“That’s just it, Scully; I can’t tell you anything. You’ve got to try not to run into me and…don’t look for me. I can see it in your eyes.” He touched her chin with his thumb and index finger, tilting her face up toward his. “Promise me.”

Averting her eyes, she shook her head slightly and then looked back up at him. She crooked one finger at him, motioning him closer. Bending his knees just a bit, he took a step toward her, smiling. “What’re you up to?”

His question went unanswered verbally as she opened his jacket, drawing him into the warmth created by her body and his leather. He wrapped his arms around her and asked her once again to promise she would not look for him.

She took his face in her hands, turning his head so she could whisper in his ear. “I’m not promising you anything, G-Man.”

“Well, in that case…” His lips sought hers, trying to devour her mouth. She alternately tried to pull back and tried to perform a not-so-scientific examination of his teeth, his tongue and other warm, moist places. Her interest in exploration won out over her uncertain reasons for hesitating.

A silent battle raged within as her heart and her head warred, drew up lines and crossed them. So many starts and a few more stops in their relationship over the past several months. Her desire to find again what they had cherished prior to that fateful day in June, in Boston, threatened to overwhelm her at times. At other times, she was able to operate under, ‘in due time’, able to allow herself and him the space and time to slide back into the easiness they had. Although, she mused, ‘easiness’ would not aptly define what it was they had, would not truly describe them. Each in their own way, they ‘worked’ at it, often stumbling, tripping each other, obtaining a few bruises to their egos, to their hearts.

~~~~~~

August
Quantico

Two days had seemed like so many more. She was positive she had worked the forty-eight hours in their entirety. The very least she could say was that she had not been bored. She would have ‘killed’ to feel bored.

There had been one rather standard autopsy to negate or confirm the previous coroner’s report and then a follow up, again, on the Hapskah case. Something wasn’t sitting right. With her or with Mulder. Even after her original report, he had raised questions, presumably based on information provided by the Sargent over at the 34th Precinct. She gathered correctly, although she hadn’t know just how correctly at the time, that Mulder had suspicions about Ben Stillman. At any rate, she needed to show him one of the reports and what she believed had been evidential tampering.

Since she still had another on-going project that needed her ttention, the white paste, she suggested he come after the main labs had closed around eight o’clock.

In the meantime, she had busied herself with her on-going research on the white paste substance, now officially known as ‘conduction tincture 54’or CT54. Their joint research had proven that two of the yet-unidentified chemicals were indeed, somehow, responsible for transport. For ‘conducting’ the subject from one state of being to another. She had not wanted to believe, had not been able to believe this information. Except that she had seen proof with her own eyes. She still doubted what she saw because she had some of the same substance in her at the time.

They had also proven that one of the main ingredients was a component of a substance extracted by means of a solvent. In this case, turpentine. This made it a tincture; at least in part. She felt as if they were finally making some headway, although she was still frustrated that they had not learned more, much more.

She had gone to change to a new lab coat; her last white one so totally covered that it made her feel grimy. While she was used to this type of work, she often needed to feel as if she were starting each project ‘fresh’.

She returned in a dark teal jacket, long enough to cover her short skirt completely. She had pushed her hair off her face with a ‘lab hair hold’; the staff’s technical name for the unbecoming black fuzzy headband they used when the need arose. It had hung around her neck for most of the day, but having worn her head covering for most of it; it had not been used. After shaking her hair loose when the unflattering ‘hat’ was removed, she had pushed her hair back from her forehead and let the band rest behind her ears. Her hair fell just beyond her shoulders. She’d been meaning to have it cut earlier in the summer, but Mulder had told her how much he liked the longer length. One month turned to the next and, well…

She had moved to the workbench area at the back of the room and set the reports and pictures in front of her. The bench’s height made it very easy for her to stand and review the materials while in close proximity to any other information she should need. However, as soon as she had laid out the materials and begun to pore over them, her hair had fallen forward. She turned her head quickly to one side, trying to toss the long locks back over her shoulder.

And it worked the first two times she had to do so.

She was in the midst of comparing the black and white photograph of a test subject with the CT54 on his forehead when her hair fell forward over both shoulders at the same time. The tossing wasn’t working.

She had never even heard him come in. Hadn’t known who it was when she felt two warm hands reach over her shoulders and gently gather the red strands. When she heard him pronounce her name in one of the many ways only he could, she had shivered.

She had been bent over the work surface and he seemed to tower over her, his body close to hers. He let her hair fall to her back. His hand seemed to wander down the length of her tresses for a moment and she felt time stand still. Before she could call his attention to the familiarity, he had stepped back.

“What’re you working on?” His question was casual, belying the stir of emotions he was experiencing.

She turned to him, grateful that he had stepped back. She knew he’d notice the flush to her face, but explained that she had to show him the Hapskah body.

He had stopped her, his chin jutting out to indicate the workbench. “No, I mean that. What is it?”

She glanced back over her shoulder as if she needed to make sure it was still there. “It’s the white paste project.”

She tried to move them over to the autopsy table holding the Hapskah woman’s body, but he wasn’t moving.

“How’s this research going? What have you found?” She watched his eyes, those eyes that missed nothing, darting around her, trying to get a closer look at the reports and other information. She knew that given half a chance, he’d have reached for the materials.

“Nothing’s conclusive. We should really check out…”

And she should have known that he would not be so easily side-tracked. Mulder could be like the proverbial dog with a bone when his interest was piqued. She hadn’t been sure why she was so hesitant to show him the file. After all, he had been there, too. Had experienced the same thing she had. Had—

She couldn’t complete her thought because the images forming in her mind included her and her partner tied to side-by-side chairs with Diana Fowley standing between them. With Diana Fowley touching Mulder and watching for her reaction to those touches. She felt queasy at the recollection and knew that her eyelids had fluttered shut and then reopened.

His hands had been on her arms in an instant and he had bent down to look directly into her face, his eyes full of worry and concern.

Although unintentional, she had hoped that he would have been sufficiently distracted to allow them to move from the Marblehead file. But it was not to be.

As soon as he had ensured that she was indeed all right, he had moved to stand beside her at the bench, their arms and legs touching. She had turned toward the bench, wanting to watch him peruse the information. She felt the heat and the slight charges his body set off in her like long forgotten memories.

He had continued to read the findings while he spoke. Mulder was a proficient multi-tasker, she had thought.

“Scully, this is interesting information.” She had looked up at him once out of the corner of her eye as he read her preliminary findings on CT54, had listened to him tell her how he was always so impressed with her ability to tease out the smallest shred of evidence or information. Had felt his hand as it closed over her hand, his fingers curling downward through hers until they touched her palm.

She had looked up; somehow knowing he was no longer reading the file but gazing at her. His eyes had formed the question, but she had not been sure how to respond.

“Scully, we need to talk, and not about any of this.”

She knew exactly what he wanted to talk about as he pushed the pieces of the report aside and slid up to sit at the edge of the table, gently pulling her to stand between his legs. She had considered whether or not it was a good time. And then realized she didn’t know when a better time would come.

She had listened to his words, but had been more concerned with looking at his face, knowing it was there that she would find the sincerity of his apology and the sorrow about what he had done to nearly decimate their relationship.

She had desperately wanted and needed to feel completely comfortable with him once again. Had known she was almost there, that he had been there all along, somehow able to understand her anger, but continue their connection without hesitation.

She had explained that while she was willing to try to meet him halfway, she wasn’t so sure how much of their original relationship she would be able to resume, at least not then. And he seemed to be pleased with the commitment, drawing her to him, wrapping his arms around her.

Her hands had wound their way underneath his jacket and around his waist. She had felt him pull back just slightly, although his arms had not left her. The light touch of his lips upon hers almost blinded her with its simplicity.

She had felt him deepen the kiss, the two of them smiling against each other’s mouths at the awkwardness of trying to connect while still wrapped around one and other. Neither had attempted to move from their positions.

Something had been spoken in the lab that night. And while she hadn’t been sure of the depth of it, she had experienced the promise of it.

~~~~~~

Burlington
15 September

With neither of them holding onto the jacket, it soon slipped, unnoticed, to the ground. A slow heat burning inside him, Mulder drew her farther into the trees, his lips kissing any available skin on their way. In-between small butterfly and fleeting kisses, he murmured, “Promise me, Scully.”

In the other spaces filled with more soulful and deep lip locks, she hummed against him, “No can do, Mulder.”

They both loved a good challenge.

She attempted to slow their mounting passion, afraid it would consume this duel, leaving both without resolution. The problem, as she saw it, was that the feel of his fingers tangling in her hair, occasionally tugging at her damp and curling strands was that she wanted nothing more than to give in to his thought obliterating touch. And with his lips hungrily seeking hers, she was no longer so sure exactly what resolution she was trying to find.

Mulder felt Scully-starved, wanting to consume her until he was sated and then just a bit more until he was replete with her. He was treading on dangerous ground, risking his cover, risking her. And he didn’t give a damn at this moment. His hands traveled along her arms and to her back, skimming lightly and not quite lightly as she clung to him, her hands grabbing fistfuls of his black tee.

When one hand moved to her behind, the other softly glancing across the underside of her breast, she pulled out of the kiss, bereft at the break in the hot, wet connection. Her mind had not yet signaled the rest of her body as to her intentions. Therefore, when both of his hands found her ass, gently stroking and kneading, it was all she could do not to moan.

“Scully…”

Mulder reached for her again, not wanting to let her go and realizing that he had to. If he didn’t get a hold of his runaway feelings, he wouldn’t be able to walk her back to her friends.

He had kept an eye on them, noting that they stayed close <probably making sure I don’t behave like a Neanderthal again> but gave them some privacy. If they were friends of Scully’s he wanted to meet them. But knew that wasn’t possible until the case was finished. Just too many more people to possibly become entangled.

“You’re cold.” She moved back to him, her words seeming to assess the situation for them both, for their mutual desire not to end the contact. He pulled her to him, hugging her, his chin resting on her head.

“Warmer?” She smiled against his chest, her arms around his waist, her hands at his mid-back, holding him to her.

“I am, Mulder, much warmer.”

“You’ve got to go back with your friends and pretend you haven’t seen me. At least for a few weeks. All right?” He hadn’t moved unless the subtle shift of his hips against her counted.

She said nothing as her hands kneaded his back muscles.

It was like pulling teeth. And he knew if he were in her shoes, listening to her tell him that although she was in the same town, he couldn’t have any contact with her, he’d never agree to the promise to stay away. Yet he wanted her to tell him, to assure him she’d be out of harm’s way.

Sensing his need for some sort of acknowledgment, she drew back, taking his hand in hers. He took her other hand in his, as well. In the way that they’d always had, she told him. He nodded at her imperceptibly, knowing he hadn’t gotten what he wanted to hear, but had gotten what she was able to give.

Taking his hand in both of hers, she walked toward the street, pausing to retrieve his jacket. She turned to hand it to him, but he took more than his jacket, leaning in to kiss her once more, telling her there would be more later.

As he shrugged into the leather jacket, she had walked away toward the waiting Bronco.

Remaining under the dark cover of the tree-lined street, he watched her, a small smile forming. It had been a long time, too long, since he had held her. Really held her.

The Bronco pulled up across the street and he looked after her as she darted across the wide avenue. Just before she got in to the front seat, she glanced back in his direction and then jumped inside, pulling the door shut.

~~~~~~

15 September
2:00AM

“So?” Kimberley turned toward Scully as she lowered the volume on the radio. The voice of Carl Castle of NPR grew even softer. “What happened?”

Bryan’s ears perked up. He’d seen exactly how upset Dana’s partner had been with Ian, but also knew that she hadn’t been worried about leaving with him. And with Kimberley’s insistence that all was fine, they had given them space.

“I don’t even know where to start, but he’s in town on business. Our ‘meeting’ was purely accidental. He feels bad about Ian. Right now, I just want to get back to the hotel and crash. Sessions start at nine tomorrow.” Scully sank back in her seat as the Bronco headed for her hotel. The ride was blissfully quiet; not that she minded talking with either of them. However, she had too many things to think about and wasn’t sure where to begin.

Her lips were still tingling and felt swollen; that feeling she relished from kisses that threatened to consume her. It had been a long time; or at least what felt like a long time, since she had really kissed Mulder. Her body had responded in kind and consequently, she was just this side of unfulfilled.

It was a first time experience all over again; that tentative dancing around the need, the desire, trying to answer the ‘do we?’ question without words. They excelled at the silent communication in most things, but this was not the usual situation for them.

It had been too long since their intimacy was a natural part of their lives. Too much had happened and she had spent a lot of time thinking and analyzing and wondering and planning. Time and her love for Mulder had allowed her to forgive, but she sometimes had a hard time with forgetting. Unbidden, she’d replay the month of June, the scenes from Marblehead, and find that gnawing feeling in her gut, threatening to eat at her from the inside out. No matter how she rationalized it, she would feel profoundly sad and somewhat depressed at her inability to understand how he had done what he did.

It wasn’t that she didn’t understand now. They had talked things through and she knew he was sincere in his apologies. His sincerity and honesty were two things she loved and cherished most about him. When she could step outside herself enough to gain perspective, she realized that the Diana event had scared her, rocked her faith in their relationship.

And she worried that it could happen again.

And that she would die if it did.

She didn’t know how she could explain that to him or whether he’d really understand why she felt that way. Consequently, letting him back in…all the way…was sometimes easier said than done. Touching his hand had ignited her, sending warmth flooding through her, making her hungry for more. Loving Mulder was a total experience because he put everything he had to give into their relationship, his heart, his soul, his mind, his body.

That thought sent her mind reeling and she surreptitiously glanced over at her friend. She assumed Kimberley thought she was asleep or rightly figured that she needed some time to think.

Images and sensations flitted and floated behind her eyes touching her lightly and moving on. Little gossamer and gauzy remembrances of their first time, tentative at first but exploding into frenzied and frantic and rough. Other stolen kisses in the basement office even after promising each other that office protocol dictated otherwise. Mulder’s naked body, hot and firm and arousing; her strong desire to tactilely explore every possible inch of that body with her eyes, her hands, her mouth.

It was almost a good thing that they couldn’t be together in every sense of the word tonight. She was too open to possibilities she might not yet be ready for.

“All out for the Radisson Hotel.” Scully shook herself from her mental meanderings. Unbuckling her safety belt, she reached for the door handle and suddenly sunk back against the seat, her hand coming to her forehead. She absent-mindedly pressed her thumb against the spot between her brows.

“Scully?! What’s wrong?” Kimberley unfastened her own belt and leaned over to her. She felt her pulse, noting it was strong. Turning on the ceiling panel interior light, she saw Scully’s eyelids rapidly flutter and close. She heard her mutter something that sounded as if she was ‘fine’, but wasn’t taking any chances.

“I’m on it, Kimber.” Bryan had already dialed 9-1-1. Kimberley smiled wanly at her fiance’ and returned her attentions to Scully. She could count on him in all sorts of situations. His ability to remain calm and levelheaded was beneficial in situations like this.

Kimberley kept talking to Scully who faded in and out, although as the seconds ticked by, was more ‘out’ than ‘in’. “Scully, can you tell me what day it is?”

“Uh, mmmm…it’s after midnight.” Her voice was growing softer and her lips seemed to be having difficulty forming the words.

Bryan looked concerned and Kimberley knew her condition was worsening. “Hunt around in her bag, see if she has a cellphone.”

Before she could finish her instructions, the Ambulance pulled up. The EMTs talked with Kimberley and Bryan as they triaged Scully’s condition. Her pulse and breathing were both within normal ranges, but her pupils were equally dilated; more so than would be typical given the lighting conditions. Although she was able to speak to them, she provided only partial responses, often trailing off after a few words. One of the team noticed that her right hand kept moving to her forehead, her fingers almost massaging back and forth between her brows. She would then allow it to gently fall back to her lap. Questioning her as to the reason for her actions did not produce results. The EMTs noted her confused expression.

They radioed on ahead as the placed her on the stretcher. The Bronco followed Scully to the Fletcher Allen Health Care Center’s Emergency Entrance.

~~~~~~

Fletcher Allen Health Care Center
Colchester Avenue Burlington
16 September
3:00AM

Scully’s stretcher was rushed into Emergency Services as the EMTs called out her vitals, her condition when they arrived and the minute changes that had occurred during the short ride. She was whisked behind one of the empty curtained assessment areas, the nursing staff already loosening her clothing. An intravenous line was started and her vitals were checked again, all information noted on the clipboard chart hung on the foot board to her bed.

Kimberley and Bryan again gave what little information they had. It had come on suddenly, but she had not lost consciousness at any time that either of them could see. They were asked to wait in the Guest Reception area while the doctors ordered tests.

“Did you bring her—” Before Kimberley could finish her question, Bryan had Scully’s cellphone out. “Thanks, Bry. I’m betting she’d want her partner called. I’m also going to bet that since I don’t know his name nor where he’s staying that she’s got him on speed dial.”

As she flipped the phone open and brought it to her ear, she smiled at him. He grasped her hand, squeezing his love and his admiration through his touch. He mouthed, ‘it’ll be all right’ as she punched #1.

<Mulder>

“Um, Mulder, we haven’t met. I’m Kimberley Kresgee, a friend of Dana’s and—” She never got to finish her sentence. Mulder was instantly alert and concerned.

<What’s the matter with Scully? Where are you?> There was no mistaking the worry in his voice when he believed his partner might be hurt.

“We’re at the Fletcher Allen Health Care Center over on Colchester, in the ER. She’s stable Mr. Mulder, but they don’t know what’s wrong.”

<What the hell happened? Was there an accident?> She could recognize the frantic tone, the concern.

“No, no, we weren’t in any accident. Look, it might be better if you just got here. I’m sure she’d want to see you. My fiance and I will wait for you in Guest Reception.” She flipped the phone closed and put it in her backpack.

“Well, he’s on his way.” Bryan could hear the laughter in her voice and threw her a questioning look. “The man is intense and obviously really in love with her. If he could have jumped through the phone to get here, he would have. I don’t know where he’s staying, but I’m betting he’ll be here pretty quickly. I’m going to go check on Dana.”

She walked over to the vinyl two-seater he had perched on, bent down and kissed him lightly. “Thanks. Just thanks.” He smiled back at her as she turned to go find the doctor.

No sooner had she walked away than Mulder charged through the doors, skipping the Guest Reception area entirely. His boot heels were loud enough to wake any patients who might have finally started to relax or doze.

Locating the triage desk, Mulder introduced himself asking for Scully’s whereabouts. “Please, I need to find her right now.” When he didn’t get an instant response, he started walking by each curtained area, sweeping it back so her could check for himself. The Shift Supervisor Nurse caught up with him at the third patient area.

“Excuse me, Mr. Mulder? You can’t be back here; you’re disturbing our patients. Can I help you find someone?” The Nurse stepped in his path, but he effectively side stepped around her, continuing to plow his way down the hall. He was quick, but she had experience and her pace quickened considerably when he started calling his partner’s name. She mused wryly that this man had probably had a few bad experiences with hospitals and this woman, his partner.

Taking him by the arm, she gripped his biceps. The force with which he was already moving allowed her to use the momentum to propel him into a storage alcove. “I am going to ask you once more, Mr. Mulder, and then I am through asking. At that point, you will be persona non grata in here. Now, tell me the name of who you’re looking for and I’ll get the chart.”

Mulder actually stopped in his tracks, looking at her as if noticing she was there for the first time.

She’d seen this reaction before, but rarely to this degree. This was a man used to being in control and having the answers at his fingertips. It appeared he was surprised to hear that she intended to help him find Scully. She was also sure he was very worried about his loved one.

“It’s Dana Scully. I need to see her. She—”

She almost felt sorry for him. When stopped in the midst of his tirade, the wind had been knocked out of his sails, rendering him almost impotent. One hand was stuffed in his jeans pocket, the other finger-combed his hair. He looked like he was tired enough to curl up on the floor and nap.

“She’s in cubicle 12, around the corner, but— ” she reached out to stop him from heading over there, “she’s gone down for testing right now,” explaining almost uselessly.

That information brought forth the lines and creases in his forehead and around his eyes. ‘Testing’ was never good where Scully or he were concerned. Her cancer had been in remission for so long now. He didn’t want to even consider they’d ordered testing to check its spread.

“What testing? What do they suspect?” He moved past the Nurse, heading for Scully’s cubicle. Throwing back the institutional green curtain, he looked at the empty bed, searching the modestly furnished area, knowing there was nowhere she could be hiding. On a hunch, he checked the bedside locker for her clothing. It was empty. Trying not to allow himself to become overly concerned, he rationalized that they might have stored it elsewhere or that Kimberley and Bryan may have them. This line of thought was getting him nowhere fast.

He remembered the Nurse saying she’d gone for testing, so he reached for her chart at the foot of the bed. Noting the C.A.T. Scan notation, he strode purposefully into the hall, heading for the Nurse’s station once again. He noted absently that a few of the staff actually seemed to find other places to be when they saw him coming.

Attempting to keep his voice just below a bellow, he called out to whatever staff was present, asking where he could find the CAT Scan testing area. A candy striper who appeared quite mesmerized by the sight of a tall, good-looking man dressed entirely in black told him she could take him there. He stopped and faced her, smiling at the impressionable young staffer.

He managed to smile, the flush starting in her neck and moving up to her hairline making him smile a bit more. “Uh, Miss,” he glanced at her name badge, “Sarah, thank you. You can just point me in the right direction.”

She shook her head, waving off his offer as she led him to radiology. Reluctantly, she indicated the large double doors down the hall. Although she didn’t accompany him, she did manage to remain rooted to her spot, her mouth hanging open slightly. And that was how the Shift Supervisor found her.

Leaning in so she could whisper, her boss said, ‘He is pretty hot, isn’t he?” Sarah nearly jumped out of her uniform.

~~~~~~

Mulder shoved the double doors open, nearly sending the extra-wide panel into the wall behind. His eyes took in the various signage, ‘hazard do not enter’, ‘radioactive’, ‘radiology’, ‘telemetry’. He pushed open the door marked, ‘C.T. Imaging’. It was dark and somewhat cool inside. He could hear low voices, male and female, originating at the far end of the suite as he made his way toward them. His hoarse and tired words echoed in the otherwise dim and quiet environment as he called out to Scully.

Almost immediately, a radiologist’s assistant approached him, the look in his eyes warning Mulder that he didn’t belong there. “Excuse me, I’m looking for Dana Scully. Her chart says she’s having a CAT Scan done now. Is she all right?”

“Look, sir, I don’t know who you are and I don’t know who the woman is you’re asking about, but no unauthorized personnel are allowed in here. I’m going to have to ask you to leave.” He took Mulder’s elbow, attempting to guide him to the exit, but Mulder would have none of it.

“I’m not leaving here until I know how my partner is. Her chart—” His voice had risen in volume and the somewhat frantic look in his eyes softened the Assistant’s stance.

“Look, Mr.?”

“Mulder.”

“Ok, Mr. Mulder, let’s check the master schedule.” They walked a short distance to the administrative offices. Mulder’s expression turned glum when the man started shaking his head as he scanned the sign in sheets. “She’s not listed and her name doesn’t appear for the entire week. Are you sure you read the chart correctly? Sometimes the lay person—”

Mulder was already darting out of the office area, explaining to no one in particular that he was in no way a ‘lay person’ when it came to hospitals and tests.

~~~~~~

Kimberley and Bryan had checked with the Nurse’s station several times and there was no word on either Mulder or Scully’s whereabouts. Kimberley couldn’t figure out how a hospital could lose a patient. “Look, she was in the cubicle over there. She has red hair and blue eyes; you can’t miss her. Her partner was dressed all in black, tall, good looking guy.”

Bryan’s eyebrows arched upward, a smirk playing at his lips. He glanced down the hall and then back to Kimberley, trying to get her attention. When mere eye contact didn’t work, he touched her arm. She shrugged him away. He knew she was intent on getting an answer, but he needed to let her know that he had her answer.

Right behind her.

“Have either of you seen Scully?” No preamble, no greeting.

“You’re Mulder, right?” Bryan extended his hand, smiling as Mulder shook it although a bit distractedly.

“Nice to meet you…Kimberley? Scully mentioned you both. Sorry that I don’t have time for more pleasantries. I need to know where she is.” Mulder extracted his hand from Bryan’s and headed back for Scully’s cubicle. Noting that she was still absent from it.

“I want answers and I want them now.” The desk staff began to look concerned once again, wondering if they needed to call security. As one of the nurses put his hand on the phone, Mulder’s came down on top of it. “Look,” his voice dropped some of its intensity and volume, “all I want to do is find my partner. You seem to have lost her.”

The Nursing Supervisor came to the desk, one hand holding the stethoscope hanging from her neck, the other on her hip. “Mr. Mulder, we meet again. What can we do for you?”

“You can find my partner, Dana Scully.” He watched the medical personnel look him over, not sure what he might do next, not sure they wanted to know. The Supervisor, however, understood.

Someone handed her Scully’s chart and she pulled her reading glasses from her lab coat pocket, sitting them on the end of her nose. “She’s in for testing, a CAT Scan by the notes here. I’ll call—”

“Don’t bother. The staff there showed me the scheduling book. She hasn’t been there and isn’t listed for any testing. Now, if you can’t keep track of your patients, I’ll go look for her myself.” His voice had risen steadily with each sentence and now threatened to produce hospital security.

However, he had moved quickly from the Nurse’s Station on his way toward the exit. Bryan and Kimberley tried to stop him, then tried to join his search. In his agitated state, Mulder swung off Bryan’s grasp on his arm so forcefully that he sent Bryan reeling into the Guest Lounge, almost knocking Kimberley over in the process.

~~~~~~

All he knew was that Scully was somewhere out in the dark and he had no idea where and in what condition. Temporarily frozen by fear and longing, Mulder could not decide whether to procure the SUV thinking someone may have taken Scully or to just run the streets assuming she had fled on foot. Neither option made much sense to him, but when in their time together had anything made total sense or been easy to figure out?

He chose the ‘running the streets’ plan, heading up Colchester to its junction with North Prospect. Prospect appeared devoid of possible hiding spots, so he continued on as Colchester became Pearl Street. At the corner of Pearl and Loomis Streets, he stopped so suddenly he almost walked into a light pole. About fifty feet north on Loomis, he saw her.

Scully was sitting at a bus stop, the overhang of the lean-to-like structure providing little shelter from the lake effect winds. As he approached, he noticed that she was shivering and shaking, her eyes focused at some unseen point directly in front of her.

“Scully! Damnit, Scully, what the hell are you doing out here?”

The sound of his voice registered, causing her to turn in his direction. However, it was unclear from the confused look in her eyes whether she had turned because it was he or because someone had called to her. She took in his appearance, sensing that he was someone she knew, someone who would not harm her. But little else.

Wanting to spirit her away with him and keep her warm, but knowing he may frighten her, he approached slowly, his arms by his sides. He continued to say her name softly, telling her it was him, her partner. The sound of his name felt familiar to her and she attempted to stand.

He was at her side, easing her back to the bench, as her knees gave way.

The feel of his arms around her seemed to clear her mind and she clung to him. “Mulder, what am I doing here? Where am I?”

“You’re about two blocks from the hospital and I don’t know why you’re here. Kimberley called me to tell me the ambulance had brought you there.”

She could feel the vibrations of his words on the top of her head at the point where his chin rested. She snuggled more deeply against his chest as she vaguely recalled feeling very dizzy. Dizzy as she had a few months back. She wanted to sit up next to him where she could clearly tell him what had happened, but that would have required her to leave the sanctuary of his arms around her. Where she knew she was safe.

She was very uneasy about this whole situation, even though she was not really sure what ‘the whole situation’ was. “I’m not going back to the hospital, Mulder. I’ll call Kimberley and have her and Bryan take me to the hotel. That’s where we were headed anyway.” She reached for her cellphone, but he stopped her.

“I’ve never known you to back away from finding the truth, Scully. Why start now? Let them run the C.A.T. Scan and tell you it’s nothing. I’ll be there with you.” His words were soft, reassuring.

She did pull back then, her indignation piqued. Although her voice remained level and relatively calm, there was no denying the edge to her tone. “You’ll be there with me? A few hours ago, you couldn’t be seen with me. I—”

He knew that she was operating on her fear of what was happening to her and her loss of control, so her words were filtered through those lenses. But her response also surprised him. She had seemed to understand his explanations at the time.

“Look, Scully, I think you know why I tried to push you away earlier, last night. This is different and I don’t think I need to explain how or why, do I?”

She looked defeated and deflated as she shook her head. She knew why this was different, knew that she wanted him with her…and knew she didn’t want to return to the hospital for the test. Since the first time the wave had slid over her, she had suspected its cause, but had been reluctant to tell anyone about it. At the time, talking to Mulder, her partner, her confidant, her errant lover, was the last option open to her. She knew as she knew most things about him that he’d understand her theory; probably embrace it. She also knew he’d pursue it relentlessly and they weren’t back to a point then where she felt she could allow him to do so.

She needed time to call some of her Bureau and Quantico contacts, wanted to be on much firmer ground before she told him. Her insides were conducting an all-out emotional war. She knew that if he tried hiding this type of information from her, she’d be furious. She’d wonder about their relationship. She’d wonder, ultimately, about his trust in her. Yet she couldn’t bring herself to share her suspicions just yet.

Scully placed one hand on his shoulder, allowing some of her weight to be supported by him, as she stood. She felt more confident in her body’s ability to hold her upright and was not disappointed. “You’re right, Mulder, this is different. The fact still stands that I am not going back to the hospital. I’ve probably got a viral infection and it’s throwing off my equilibrium. The fluid in my Eustachian tubes is blocking my—”

He smiled, standing with her. Not knowing about the earlier episodes, taking her at her word. Yet still puzzled by her seeming irrational behavior…and the fact that he was sure she had not recognized him at first. The Scully he knew would not have liked being in the hospital, but would not have walked out on a test. He recalled many times when she’d analyzed her own blood or ‘guided’ the other doctors to the tests she believed she needed.

No, this was definitely not rational, clear thinking Scully. He vowed to keep closer tabs on her and notify Skinner.

“But you’re not going back to your hotel alone.”

She leaned into his side, his arm warm around her waist. She did feel amazingly strong with no residual lightheadedness. They both started as the SUV flashed its headlights as it pulled over to the curb.

Kimberley got out and headed straight for Dana, the concern in her eyes all too evident. She earned the same response Mulder had been given when she offered to drive them back to the Fletcher Allan Health Care Center. Although curious about the reasons, she acquiesced, agreeing to take her back to her hotel.

Bryan watched the interchange, noting the worry hidden just behind Mulder’s in-control look. He didn’t have to know the man to understand what he was experiencing. He then glanced at Dana, quickly sizing up her status. She did look better overall, but he didn’t feel quite right about her skipping out on her tests. Knowing she was a medical doctor herself only took away some of his uneasiness about the situation.

Mulder offered to stay with Scully, but she told him it wasn’t necessary. She’d call him if anything came up. Truth be told, and as much as she hated to admit it, she still wasn’t sure she was ready to have him that close again just yet. Even though she had suggested it earlier in the park.

Something was holding her back from completely returning their relationship to its former level.

~~~~~~

Burlington, Vermont
16 September
5:00AM

“He wasn’t here long enough.”

<And who’s fault is that?>

“Look, I was waiting, as agreed. He found me. He left me. What the hell more d’ya want?”

<I want you to do the damn job you were hired to do; that’s what I want. And if you don’t think you can fulfill those responsibilities, I’ll find someone who can>

“The next connection will work. I’m going to contact him tonight.”

<See to it that it does. You’re already aware of the possibility for dire consequences should you fail this time>

The short round man hit the ‘end’ button, glancing around to see if he was being watched or followed. He pulled a rag that passed for a handkerchief from his back pocket and scrubbed at his sweat-drenched face. Sweat in early fall morning briskness. He needed a new career. And if he allowed his current track record to continue, a new one might be the least of his concerns.

Proteus slammed the handset back into the charging station, nearly knocking it from his cluttered desk. He wondered, not for the first time in the past week, how he managed to have some many weak links working for him. More to the point, who had hired the buffoons.

Yes, he had appointed the man who hired The Short Round Man and the assorted others that were supposed to ensure that his business ran smoothly. A lot hinged on things running smoothly…a lot. More concerned with the latest development, he opened the personnel files himself, hoping to discover someone who could not only follow orders without question, but exercise expert judgment when necessary.

He grabbed the phone, nearly disconnecting it and stabbed at the numerical buttons. He was about to bellow for his assistant, demanding that he program the speed dial for him, but the line was picked up.

<We’ve got a major shift in priorities>

“Yeah? So what else is new?”

<What is it today with smart asses? Look, I need you to get up here on the first flight and be discreet, damn it>

Before he could hear the response, Proteus slammed the phone down. He was nervous. His associate was good, better than most, but he lived life large and made a point of showing the world just how large he liked to live. In this business, discretion was the better part of staying alive and reaping big rewards.

Pushing away from his black lacquer, glass topped desk, he stood. He moved toward the plate glass window of his ‘office’, looking out over Lake Champlain. Absentmindedly, he tugged gently at the small gold ring in his left ear and swept back the deep silver hair that constantly threatened to fall in his face. Steel blue eyes gazed at the small white caps on the water, imagining the sounds as they broke over the shore. He crossed his arms, the charcoal Armani jacket straining across the firm muscles of his back.

He’d made a decision. If his associate couldn’t facilitate the proposition, he would step in himself. The corners of his otherwise thin-lipped, straight line lips turned up just slightly. He knew exactly what he’d do first.

~~~~~~

Radisson Conference Center Burlington,
16 September
9:30AM

She was surprised to wake up so easily after her ‘event’ last night. She wasn’t sure what to really call it– It wasn’t the first time she’d experienced those symptoms and deep inside, she was afraid it wasn’t the last, either.

As with the earlier occurrences, she had her suspicions and had done some preliminary work while still in D.C., but hadn’t had the time to discover anything, really. She needed more time.

The only bright spot, if she could really think of it in that way, was that the symptoms didn’t seem to be long-lived nor produce any lasting effects. Other than some fatigue and a bit more tiredness, she felt fine. ‘Fine’… She wasn’t so sure she knew the meaning of that word anymore; at least not in how it related to her current situation.

She showered and dressed quickly, looking forward to the upcoming sessions and reconnecting with her colleagues. She knew they’d have questions, but hoped they’d respect her wishes to not discuss it now. Maybe never.

~~~~~~

11:00AM

The last session had been intriguing and actually managed to hold her attention for the entire ninety minutes. As she was leaving the lecture hall, she was approached by one of the conferees.

“Excuse me, aren’t you Dana Scully?” She looked at the man, noting immediately the deep green eyes that seemed to catch the over-head lighting.

“Yes I am. Do I know you?”

“I don’t think so and I’m sorry to be so forward, it’s just that I’ve always wanted to meet you. I’m in the third year class at Quantico and your name is legendary there.”

Suppressing a smile, she merely nodded at his very obvious adoration. This was not the first time her reputation had preceded her, but it still surprised her.

“Legendary? Hardly.”

His fidgeting fingers drew her attention. “Is there something I can do for you, Mr.—?”

“Oh, it’s Joshua, Joshua Simmons. Well, I was wondering if we might be able to talk a little more about your dissertation? On the Twins Paradox? I’m fascinated and it would be helpful to my research. I’ve cited your paper and findings already.”

Scully blushed, angry that she allowed his comments to affect her professional demeanor. She was about to thank him when her cellphone chirped.

“Excuse me, Joshua. I need to take this.” Smiling at him, she flipped the phone open, one hand on her hip, the other at her ear. She walked toward the alcove.

“Scully.”

<It’s me>

She looked down at her feet as the highly polished toe of her aubergine pump pushing into the taupe carpeting. The heat in her face did not dissipate.

“Mulder?”

His voice floated into her via her ear, caressing as it traveled.

<What’re you wearing, Scully?>

She was sure he had heard her brief intake of breath before she responded with what she hoped was a stern tone. “Mulder!”

<You didn’t answer my question>

The man was not about to give up. And she was not about to give in.

“Try another question, Mulder. I’m busy right now.”

She paced the width of the alcove, glad most other people had moved to the Hospitality Suites for session breaks. She noted that Joshua was biding his time right where she’d left him.

<Busy? Do you really call talking to that wet-behind-the-ears pup, ‘busy’?>

Stopping in her tracks, she whirled around quickly while striving to appear collected. Her eyes took in the area directly adjacent to the alcove and the seating area where Joshua still stood.

Her voice grew quieter. “Where are you, Mulder?” And then it dropped even lower and softer. “I thought we weren’t supposed to be seen together.”

She never thought to look above to the mezzanine level. Never saw his elbows on the polished brass railing, the cream-colored cashmere Johnny-collar pullover setting off his darker hair. Didn’t notice the way his chocolate-brown worsted wool trouser clad hips swayed imperceptibly to some unheard tune.

<We’re not ‘together’, Scully. I’m up here and you’re down there with the youthful lad>

Her eyes darted above her moving past his location twice before settling on him. The cellphone still at hear ear, her lips slightly parted, she registered the fact that he had changed his ‘look’ again…completely. She hoped she never had to choose quickly between the all-black/all-leather look and the GQ cover look. The decision would take more years than she had to be rendered.

She regained her composure, noticing the smugly satisfied look on his grinning face. The way his eyes seemed to follow her curves in her aubergine pantsuit.

She snapped the phone closed, ending any further comment from him, swiveled on her heel and headed back toward the still waiting Joshua Simmons.

“I’m sorry to keep you waiting, Joshua, why don’t we…” The stunned look in the Quantico student’s eyes registered a split second before she felt the hand on her elbow.

“Do excuse us. Agent Scully and I have important Bureau matters to discuss.” Her mouth once again hung open as her partner quickly guided her to the alcove. Turning back, she noticed that the adoring Mr. Simmons had fled.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing, Mulder?” She tugged her arm free of his hand, crossing her arms in front of her chest. The imperious eyebrow framed her glaring look. “And this better be good, very good.”

How he managed to look so smooth even while she knew he was doing his level best to manufacture some response he hoped she’d buy, she’d never know. Didn’t think she ever wanted to know. What she did know was that he was downright pleased with himself. And it was probably because he had scared off her solo fan club member.

“Don’t be angry, Scully, I’m here for noble reasons.” She allowed herself to be led to a two-seater, turning toward him and crossing her legs at the knee.

“Care to share with the class, Mulder?” One of his favorite phrases thrown back at him with the patented Scully Neutral face.

“Cut me some slack; I just wanted to see how you were feeling after last night. I was worried about you.”

For the briefest of moments, her look softened. For all his bravado and playfulness, she knew he had been very concerned for her last night and would have stayed with her in a minute had she agreed to his offer.

Then, she realized they were together in a highly public place. She recalled his earlier admonitions and her anger flared. He couldn’t tell her what he was doing in Vermont, she couldn’t be seen with him, yet he casually dropped in on her, wasn’t concerned for even his own safety.

“Look, I know you’re worried about me, but as you can see, I really am fine. Besides, you could have found that out by calling me — from home; wherever that is. I just don’t get it. You can’t tell me anything, you shove me away and then here you are.”

Her remarks definitely had an effect. He stood slowly, his hands in his pockets, the indecision on his face clearly visible.

“Look, I know I took a risk coming here, Scully, but I had to see you. You’re right, we aren’t supposed to be seen together, but I don’t think anyone’s watching and—”

She couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Rationalization from the man who sees conspiracies in most things? The man who trusts no one? This was spooky and Halloween was still more than month away.

She reached for his forearm, glancing around quickly, and led him into a corner-recessed area sheltered by potted miniature palms. The feel of the lightweight cashmere against his arm was wonderfully warm. Her mind wandered, wondering, knowing just how wonderfully warm his ass would feel under her hands, under the fine wool so nicely draping him.

She wondered, not for the first time, exactly how she did that. How she could go from clinical detachment and critical observation straight to unchecked and unbridled lust.

The blush from earlier returned, much to her dismay, and it brought with it a slowly darkening stare from him.

The weight of his hands on her shoulders and then skimming down the sleeves of her jacket brought her out of her momentary haze.

“You, Mulder? You don’t think anyone’s watching? Did I hear you correctly?”

Her voice was an exasperated whisper as she continued. “Mulder, you have always thought people are watching us. You’re slipping. And it’s going to get you hurt.”

“Are you finished, Scully?”

He didn’t wait for her to answer. “Can I help it if I just wanted to—”

It was his turn for a phone call. “Mulder”

<Mulder, it’s Skinner. I haven’t heard from you since you arrived and I need to know what’s happening>

“Yes, ok, I’ll look into it and get back to you.”

Scully didn’t believe him for one moment.

<Who’s there with you, Mulder? Tell me it’s not Agent Scully. If you’ve jeopardized…>

She stood to one side of him, her hands on her hips, her foot barely tapping the carpet impatiently.

“No, that won’t work. But I’ll go right now and take care of it.” Mulder flipped the phone shut and shoved it back into his pocket and started moving toward the main lobby.

Seeing through his transparent charade with his unknown caller, Scully decided that following him would be fruitless.

Besides, he’d probably show up again later. Somewhere where she’d least expect him to be.

He slowed his pace just before rounding the corner toward the registration desk. He was still within her view as he turned back around, the hint of a smile lighting his eyes. Shaking her head, fighting the acknowledgment she knew was already in her eyes.

His look told her that he had not yet finished their impromptu conversation. That there would be more…

~~~~~~

Pine Street Boardinghouse
16 September
12:30PM

<Office of the Assistant Director>

“Kimberly, I need to speak to Skinner.”

<He’s waiting for your call, Mulder. Hold on, I’ll see if he’s ready for your call>

Mulder’s long legs covered the short distance around his ‘apartment’ while on hold. Looking up at the non-descript gray painted walls with the white framed doors and window, he nearly slipped on the few oval braided area rugs. He carried the handset, trailing the extra long cord around the room, the receiver tucked between his ear and his shoulder. He moved from the small entryway, which was nothing more than the only door to the apartment with a few wall pegs for jackets or coats, to the seating area. Set in the middle of the area was a 60s modern plywood and laminate coffee table with a plastic arrangement of yellow roses and orange mums, bracketed by a brown upholstered couch and chair with ottoman, the once visible fabric design now just so much fuzz. An end table and lamp were located to the right of the over-stuffed chair. It was not a place he’d be entertaining guests.

Kimberly came back on the line to tell him that the A.D. was trying to end his other call, but it was taking longer than expected. She suggested that Skinner would call him back when he concluded his business.

Mulder headed for his walk-up kitchen; a white porcelain enamel counter top filled in the space between a miniature stove top and oven, a half-size sink and a waist high refrigerator. He reached into the overhead cabinets to find a juice glass. Bending down, he grasped the horizontal chrome door handle pulling the refrigerator open. He realized he’d actually have to do some food shopping if he expected to stay here for a while. The sum contents included a carton of juice, a half-eaten block of cheddar cheese, a wrapped sandwich of dubious origins and a few bottles of beer. Even counting the few trays of ice in the small freezer compartment, no one would accuse him of gourmet tastes. He poured himself some juice and gulped it. It wouldn’t replace lunch, but right now, he had few other options. Besides, he’d always gotten by on less and knew he’d make up for it at dinner.

Toeing off his Bostonian Kiltie loafers, he walked stocking-footed to the ‘sleeping area’. He plopped down on the queen-sized bed, sliding into the center of the white, colonial design, chenille bedspread, crossing his legs in front of him. He reached into the single drawer of the nightstand and grabbed the material he had on his case. He had no sooner propped the pillows up against the white wrought iron headboard when the phone rang.

“Mulder”

<Mulder, what the hell are you doing? You had strict instructions to keep Agent Scully out of this one>

No preamble was needed. Mulder could tell that his boss wasn’t happy. He sunk down into the pillows a bit more, his long legs stretching out on the bed. He looked toward the ceiling; possibly hoping a clever, but not sarcastic, response was waiting for him there. When he didn’t find his answer, he decided that honesty could work in his favor.

“Sir, Agent Scully had been hospitalized last night. I was just making sure she was all right.” He let out a sigh, knowing the questions were sure to come.

<Hospitalized for what? Is she ok? Where is she now?>

Mulder tried to explain his partner’s theory about a viral infection. He could almost hear Skinner shaking his head, disagreeing with her assessment. Both men knew that she often claimed she was ‘fine’ when she was far from it.

“She’s back at the hotel, attending conference sessions. I plan on keeping an eye on her, Sir.”

<Something’s not right here and I’m not happy about it. I caught wind of her experiencing some dizziness before she left for Vermont. However, you can’t be the one to check on her, Mulder; you’ve got an important assignment and it demands your full attention. Either I’ll come up there myself or I’m going to send some back up>

As soon as the words left his mouth, Mulder could hear the indecision, the weak conviction in them. He knew that Skinner was worried about her; he was, too. But he also knew that there was no way his boss could justify either the time or expense of traveling to Vermont because he was worried about one of his Agents experiencing some dizziness. As for sending back up, the same might apply. Unless they were actually to assist either Scully or him on a case, it could not be finessed.

“With all due respect, Sir, I think I can handle the case and keeping an eye on her, although if she knows that’s what I’m doing…”

<She probably already knows, Mulder. Since when have you been able to pull one over on her? Besides…>

Mulder sat up, his legs hanging over the side of the bed. The besides that trailed off caught his attention. He knew it referred to the fact that their personal relationship had not exactly been ‘harmonious’ when he had left for the case and when Scully had left for her conference. He also knew that this was Skinner’s way of inquiring without actually doing so.

“Look, we’re working things out. And I didn’t have much luck this morning. She saw right through my showing up at the conference site. I’ll keep you informed. I’ve got to place a call to my contact. I sort of missed our first appointment.”

He wanted to hang up as soon as that sentence was out of his mouth, sure he was about to be admonished. He wasn’t even sure why he’d let it slip. Possibly the beginning of the headache that was threatening to take up residence behind his eyes was to blame. He padded into the cramped bathroom, opening his black leather shaving kit that was perched precariously on top of the sink. He listened to the warnings and scoldings as he carefully rummaged through the contents of the kit, trying to locate the aspirin.

He mumbled the requisite, ‘mmm,hmms’ and ‘uh huhs’ as he cupped one hand under the running faucet, trying to hold the phone to his ear and swallow the caplets.

<All right, Mulder. I want to hear from you frequently. I’m going to assess whether or not you need back up based on your meeting today. Don’t make me wait too long. And as for you and Agent Scully… work it out>

Mulder told him he would do his best and hung up. He found the scrap of paper with his contact’s phone number and placed the call.

<Yes?>

“It’s me; we need to set the meeting time and place.”

<Meet me at Redstone Park on South Cove Road. The Park is on the southern edge of Pine Street. Head west from there. You’ll find a set of benches facing the Lake. Come alone, Mr. Arsenault. Be prompt. And if you get any womanizing ideas on the way, you’re out of the deal. I don’t tolerate being put off twice>

The short round man hung up before Mulder could say anything more. He grabbed his corduroy jacket and headed to his meeting.

~~~~~~

Home of Kimberley and Bryan O’Connor
24 Church Street
16 September 1:00PM

Since Scully didn’t have any sessions of interest for the afternoon and she was reluctant to contact Mulder after their earlier meeting, she took Kimberley up on her offer for lunch at her house. Bryan was out ridding the great lawns of Burlington of their growing mounds of fallen and scattered leaves.

Kimberley had been meaning to contact Scully all day, but had been kept busy with some new information regarding the case she had been assigned. She had called the Radisson, but figured Scully was already out and about at conference programs.

The day was clear and September-warm, so Scully decided to walk the few blocks from the hotel to Kimberley’s. Twice she took her cellphone from her pocket and twice she replaced it. She couldn’t stop thinking about her partner’s impromptu and very Mulder-like visit to the Radisson. She mused over the way he could still surprise her after so many years. In some ways, he was very predictable, although she would never reveal that information to him. In others, the whimsical side of Fox William Mulder brought such sheer joy to her rather orderly life that she sometimes thought she’d explode with the intensity of it. While she’d known others who were either very intelligent or witty and clever, he was the only one she knew for whom the combination worked so well.

When he had called her, interrupting her conversation with the Academy’s newly-minted finest, she hadn’t really been surprised to hear from him. She had been hospitalized and he had been worried. Even before their more personal relationship had developed, they had always looked out for each other, had always been by the other’s side when some danger or the other threatened their safety.

But, as he somehow always managed to do, he had thrown her off by actually appearing without her knowledge. ‘You have an excessive desire for control, Scully.’ She could hear his voice in her head as she walked along, a rather large smile plastered to her face. As her pace quickened, she felt the warmth of the day and unbuttoned her deep purple jacket. She rolled her sleeves up a few turns and then tucked her long hair behind her ears.

‘…an excessive need for control…’ She was enjoying the memory of that day that seemed oh so long ago.

***

Winter Apartment of Dana Scully

She had invited him; no, actually he had invited himself, to her place on a snowy Saturday about a week after they returned from Connecticut. Her mother had a friend of the family’s drop off a rather large oak chest of drawers, but the friend hadn’t had time to stay and place it where she wanted it.

She was used to living alone and tended to do almost everything herself, including moving her furniture. Aside from the fact that she worked out regularly and was in fine physical health, she knew how to lift and move, using her legs and hips. Besides, she knew women had a lower center of gravity and were bio-mechanically much stronger in their lower bodies than men were.

She had thrown on a pair of fleecy pale blue leggings and one of Mulder’s almost threadbare long-sleeved tees, rolling the sleeves up above her elbows. A navy blue and white bandanna had been rolled and used as a headband to hold her hair back from her face. She had forgone the shoes for a pair of oversized workout socks.

The chest of drawers sat in her living room and needed to be moved to the bedroom. Squatting down with her back against the side of the three-quarter height bureau, she started using her legs to push backwards.

And that had been when she heard the knock on the door. Followed shortly by Mulder calling her name. She had grunted out a quick, ‘come in’, under the exertion of trying to get the large piece of furniture moving.

She was sure he was smiling at her scrunched closed eyes and clenched jaw, her elbows bent with her triceps pressed against the heavy wood. She had looked up to find she was right and had let out the breath she hadn’t realized she had been holding, the laughter threatening to burst from her.

His offer to help her had met with rather solid resistance as she had none too gently explained that she was quite capable of doing it by herself, thank you very much, Mulder. Why she hadn’t thought more clearly about the lack of friction between sock-covered feet and highly polished bare wood floors, she hadn’t known…

She had continued to try to gain purchase with her slipping feet while using her quads and glutes to push the furniture.

Meanwhile, she had glanced up once to see her partner, her lover and her friend standing in front of her, his arms crossed at this chest, a lock of hair in his eyes and a smirk so large it had made her want to leave her task and wipe it off his gorgeous face. However, she had ignored him, even more eager to show him what she was capable of.

Approximately five very long minutes later, her feet had quickly scampered out from under her, depositing her on her ass unceremoniously. The oak chest of drawers had moved more slowly… about half a foot from its original location in the process.

Looking up at the man in front of her, she had heard him laugh as he had stated that she had an excessive need for control. He had squatted down in front of her, grabbing her by her upper arms, sliding her toward him. Sitting down in front of her, he had kissed her red-with-furniture-mover’s-strain face. She had blushed an even deeper shade, although it hadn’t prevented her from attempting to suck the smirk from his face.

~~~~~~

As Scully rounded the corner of Church and Pine, she took in the ‘Leave it to Beaver’ look of the neighborhood. Although this was obviously an old section of town, there was an interesting mix of Dutch Colonials and semi-ornate Victorians. Homes from an old and much older time and lifestyle. The Dutch Colonials had a Donna Reed or June Cleaver air about them, most with whitewashed trellises climbing their sides as support for the winding rosebushes. The canti-levered and overhanging roofs sat in strange contrast to their taller and more ornate 19th century neighbors.

Tall and proud in their gingerbread-trimmed facades, the Victorians were clustered on one end of Church Street where it joined with Union. Most had wrap-around porches, the wicker rocking chairs set about casually for lazy summer and early fall days. The street itself was not overly wide, but there was a strip of well-manicured emerald green grass between the sidewalk and the road. Scully idly wondered whether Bryan and his crew were responsible for the impossibly perfect green carpets which surrounded the fine homes.

Almost as if by mutual agreement, each driveway was framed by fall-colorful, potted mums. The deep rusts, bright marigolds, blushing fuschias and lusty magentas created a cascade of autumn rainbows. The only difference was the actual arrangement of the flowers at each site.

Tall maples and grand oak trees created an over-grown and over-hanging canopy, shading the roadway as well as the lawns, allowing only dappled sunlight to filter through. Scully wondered if the picture perfect view matched the lifestyles of the inhabitants. The requisite tail-wagging dogs, scampering kittens and good-natured rag-tag children dotted the landscape. A runaway red wagon clanked down the driveway to her left; two blue sneakered toddler feet following. Stopping just before said wagon wheels rolled over her pumps, Scully squatted down halting the rumbling vehicle.

“Is this yours?” She smiled at the mop-haired tyke, watching his saucer brown eyes light up as he grinned at her.

“Me ‘gah-gon’, me ride. You go too?” He tugged at the long handle, pointing at Scully and lifting his foot up, evidently demonstrating how she should get into the wagon.

She chuckled at his obvious inability to see that she was not only much bigger than him, but also just a tad too big to fit inside the toy.

“I’m sorry, I can’t get in there and go for a ride with you.” She held his hand, loving the feel of his warm, plump little hand in hers. “What’s your name, little man?”

“This is Trevor.”

Scully looked up to see a woman with eyes exactly like her son’s and the blondest hair she thought she’d ever seen. The woman smiled and Scully noticed a good-sized butterscotch cat weaving in and out between her legs.

“He seems quite taken with you. Although he’s an easy-going kid,” she knelt down behind her son, holding him to her. “He doesn’t usually warm up quite this fast. I think it must have been your approach.”

Scully instantly stood, hating to admit she was embarrassed for some odd reason as well as worried that she’d somehow concerned Trevor’s mother. “I’m really sorry; I know how children are taught not to talk to strangers and here I come right up to him and—”

Trevor’s mother stood lifting her child up with her, her arm around his middle, his little feet happily kicking back against her thighs. “Oh, no, don’t worry about it! You’re right, we do teach that to him, but this is a friendly place to live. We’ve been untouched by a lot of what goes on out there,” she gestured around her with her chin, her arms securing the increasing tot-movements, seeming to indicate a larger place outside of Burlington proper. “And the children have learned to emulate that friendliness, that is, when they’re not trying to run visitors over with their wagons.”

Scully introduced herself, learning in the process that Trevor’s mom’s name was Sally. Sally invited her in for lemonade, which she politely declined.

“Actually, I’m on my way to meet a friend of mine.”

Sally nodded as she tried to hold onto the suddenly very heavy child who wanted ‘down’. “Trevor, I’m talking to the lady right now.” Her words were met with a renewed burst of energy, forcing her to relinquish her hold on him. The full force of his forty-pound body hit the ground literally running.

“He really is a cute child.” Scully looked after him as he walked toward the cat; his eyes alight with mischief. She mused that the real reason they referred to this age group as ‘toddler’ was because they walked as if they were always on tumultuous earthquake grounds.

“Thank you; we like him and think we’ll keep him. He’s our first.” She tilted her head to one side, looking more closely at Scully. “Are you sure you don’t want to come inside?”

<So, this is what a normal life feels like> she thought. Half wishing she could just drop out of her other life for a while; she almost accepted the kind invitation.

“I really do need to get going, but thanks for the invitation.”

At that moment, they both jumped. The cat’s screeching wail drew their attention. Their surprise turned to laughter as they watched Trevor attempt to drag the cat by his tail to the wagon. Although human outweighed animal, crafty animal won out over clumsy human.

Watching Trevor run toward his mother, reaching for her, Scully bid them farewell. She called out a special ‘good-bye’ to the boy as he clung to his mother’s leg.

Kimberley’s house was farther down the road and across the street. Although somewhat more modest than its more art-carved Victorian neighbor, it was nonetheless impressive.

Set back from the road on approximately one acre, the 2,500 square foot colonial was surrounded on three sides by oaks and maples. The front yard was predominantly open with the exception of two stands of young birches bracketing the slightly curved driveway, allowing the sun to bathe the shingled façade. The requisite potted mums circled the birches providing a very interesting and eye-catching counterpoint to the stark white-with-black-streaked slim trees.

As Scully turned into the driveway, she mused that Bryan’s business had surely done well in town. So well that he wasn’t able to tend to his own fine green carpet strewn with fallen leaves. No matter how many times she and Mulder had traveled to parts of the country where the changing seasons included the passage of autumn, it was too infrequent for her tastes. It always seemed, even to her science-grounded mind, that the hand of God was surely at work during this time of year. The infinite shades of brown; russet, sienna, chocolate, bronze and many more she was sure she’d find in a box of Crayolas, were beyond belief. While she knew intellectually that the precise color and the change from green to brown was due to the loss of chlorophyll, it filled her with wonder nonetheless. The way the sun touched the underside of the leaves that had landed upside down made the lawn appear like an artist’s canvass.

She noted Kimberley’s Bronco parked in front of one of the two garages and close behind was a silver, BMW Z8 Convertible. She assumed that wasn’t Bryan’s vehicle since Kimberley had told her that they’d only had enough money for one new car this year. Having a private fascination with sports cars of the decidedly expensive bent. She knew she’d never see the day she could afford a car that had to cost at least $100,000.00. Whoever the owner, she or he did quite well.

The voices caught her attention immediately and she stopped in her tracks. She recognized the woman’s voice as her friend’s, but the male voice was unfamiliar. And it was loud and growing angrier by the minute. She was not able to make out complete sentences, but the bits and pieces she did hear left her quite concerned.

Quickly slipping her hand underneath her jacket, she palmed her holstered service weapon and moved out of the direct line of vision to the front three-quarter length windows.

The sound of glass smashing, followed by a rather robust and bawdy expletive from the unidentified man, hastened Scully’s movements toward the sculpted greenery that bordered the front and left sides of the house. Crouching low in the shrubs, she caught the wonderfully crisp and clean scent of the evergreens.

Although whatever was going on was escalating, neither party seemed to be gaining the advantage. The words were much clearer from this vantage point.

“Damn it, Bishop, I’ve told you not to come here. You don’t think anyone’s going to recognize your car? You’re just lucky Bryan’s working right now.” Scully could hear the exasperation and slight anger in Kimberley’s tone.

“I’m getting the information one way or the other and you don’t seem to be holding up your end of this bargain.”

The articulation was flawless, regardless of the heat behind the words. Although frustration was clearly evident, threat did not seem to be present.

“Put up or shut up; I don’t particularly care, but you’re either in or you’re out.” Scully could hear his footfalls on what sounded like hardwood floors as he delivered his ultimatum.

Kimberley seemed to be holding her own even though it didn’t sound as if she were about to give him whatever it was he thought he was due.

“You’ll get it when I’ve got it. I’ve told you that the last two times. Besides, you’d have better luck getting it from him yourself. He’s smooth; he’ll get his hands on it. Now, get the hell out of my house and don’t you ever set foot in here again. Do I make myself clear enough for you, eh?”

There was no mistaking who was now in control of this conversation, although the sound of yet another glass object shattering also indicated that control or not, the man was leaving with reluctance. She heard the front door swing open, the doorknob loudly banging against the interior wall behind it. Fast, clacking shoes on the slate stone step and walkway caused Scully to duck even further into the bushes.

Entirely missing the fact that the blazing red of her hair did not escape the searching eyes of the short round man, Bishop.

Kimberley was on his heels, but stood on the step, her hand on the doorframe. From where she stood, Scully could see the mixture of relief and, although she wasn’t completely sure, anticipation, on the blonde woman’s face. Wrinkling her own brow, she wondered, not for the first time, what the heck was going on. What she had stumbled upon.

The purring sound of the 348 horsepower engine revved slightly as it backed down the driveway. Even with the black leather top down, once on the road, the silver speedster literally flew, every one of his dark hairs held firmly in place despite the wind the speed created. Scully tried to get a better glimpse, but he had moved too quickly for her as he got into the car and she would have risked discovery earlier had she strained to see him from the bushes.

Kimberley was about to close the door when Scully emerged from her hideout in the bushes, smoothing her jacket and brushing various bits of greenery from her pant legs. Quickly striding to the step, she called out to the woman. She noted the look of surprise on her face when she saw Scully.

“Sorry it took me so long to get here.” Without prior thought, Scully had decided to keep her impromptu surveillance to herself. omething about this situation wasn’t sitting right with her and she automatically dropped into her full investigative mode.

“I didn’t mean to interrupt, send your company away.” Scully tried to read her friend’s face. Not betraying any of the tone Scully had detected earlier, Kimberley smiled, dismissing the situation? Bishop? Scully’s knowledge that he had been there? She wasn’t sure which, but intended on finding out. A current of vague discomfort flirted just beneath the surface; she didn’t like the questions that this clandestine scene evoked in her. She attempted to push those thoughts away, chalking them up to Mulder’s cloak and dagger activities and her natural skepticism. She vowed to let things go for now and enjoy the visit. After all, a friend of Missy’s was a friend of hers.

And the doubts re-surfaced. It had been a long time since she had seen Kimberley. People changed. Then her common sense fought with the doubts. Wasn’t she basically the same person now as she was ten or even fifteen years ago? Of course she had grown and matured, but weren’t her core values intact? Besides, she reasoned, she knew Kimberley was in law enforcement. She knew very well that that often meant that the outside observer might not be privy to the inner machinations of her job by necessity and by untrained eye.

Tamping down her natural inquisitiveness enough to allow her to enjoy her visit, she followed Kimberley inside. She was immediately struck by the open, airy look and feel of the home.

Natural hardwood floors flowed from the entryway into the living room, dining room and down the small hallway. The same wood made its way up to the second level, disappearing from her view. The walls were painted a very pale eggshell, opening the space even more. Kimberley explained how she and Bryan had had the interior custom-designed to accommodate their mutual love of the homey quality of the colonial with the modernity of the newer design concepts.

Scully eyed the sweep and sleek lines of the mocha leather couch, ergonomic lounger and side chair, all framed in light teakwood. No coffee table marred the beauty of the pastel wool rug, the hazy flower border adding a delicate touch to the otherwise monochromatically neutral color scheme.

Kimberley asked her to follow her into the kitchen, the flooring an earthy buttery, soft-toned, tumbled marble that felt smooth underfoot, but provided a subtle texture. The light gold Jerusalem stone countertops ringed the entire space catching the light from the south window wall. Scully placed her hands on the rim of the stainless steel sinks and gazed outside. The yard stretched back into a heavily wooded area that was breath-taking in its expansiveness, the boughs of the trees seeming to bow inward creating a canopy.

“This place is beautiful, Kimberley. I don’t know how you ever leave it!” Turning around, Scully unbuttoned and shrugged off her jacket placing it over the high ladder back chair in the dining room.

“We like it… a lot. Here, let’s sit over here.” She motioned Scully to the small pantry area with the floral ceramic tile floor. Scully was sure she had just stepped into Architectural Design Magazine’s model home. She toed off her shoes and crossing one leg under her, sank into the chintz covered deep sofa. Kimberly sat across from her in the extra-wide club chair.

Not looking directly at the FBI Agent, she asked her what was on her mind. Scully continued to look through the windows, watching the squirrels and chipmunks scurry in fits and starts, knowing she was biding her time, unsure how to respond to Kimberley’s query. When an answer wasn’t forthcoming, Kimberley smiled and shrugged rising from the chair and moving to block Scully’s view. “You’re curious about the man you saw dashing away, aren’t you?”

Pulling both legs underneath her, Scully nodded, looking directly at the other woman. “Who is he, Kimberley?”

“His name is Bishop Stillman. He’s tied to the case I’m here to assist your government to solve. It’s as simple as that.”

Scully stood and walked toward the much taller woman, her hands on her hips. “It doesn’t sound simple to me at all. How is he tied to this case? What do you actually know about him?”

“I can’t tell you anymore than that and I’m sure you understand why.”

“The only thing I understand, Kimberley, is that something’s not quite right. I heard…” She stopped herself, realizing too late that she had divulged more than she had intended. Looking around, she noticed that there was no broken glass lying around. She was sure of what she had heard and didn’t think there had been time to clean it up.

“What are you looking for, Dana?”

“Uh, um, nothing. Maybe I should be going. I should be at sessions this afternoon.” Turning, she bent to right her shoes and then stepped in to them. As she walked past Kimberley toward the chair holding her jacket, the woman stopped her with a hand to her upper arm.

“Dana? Don’t push this. It wouldn’t be good for…any of us, ok?”

The mixed message wasn’t lost on Scully as she gently shook her arm free, gathered her jacket and headed to the front door. Opening it, she walked through the threshold, not looking back.

“Thanks for the visit, Kimberley, it was enlightening.”

Scully didn’t stop when the woman called after her. As she walked briskly back toward the hotel, something was niggling at her, something having to do with the man who she’d seen at Kimberley’s. Pushing aside her larger questions regarding her supposed friend, she focused again on what had been said about him. Almost everything had sounded suspicious, but that wasn’t what was bothering her.

No.

It was something else. Her face scrunched in concentration, she never even realized she had somehow managed to make it back to the hotel. She couldn’t even remember leaving Church Street.

But she had remembered what bothered her about the man. She had heard the name, Ben Stillman, back in D.C. Cooincidence?

As she entered the lobby and strode to the bank of elevators, it hit her. His name had been on one of the autopsy cases for the Hapskah woman.

~~~~~~

Redstone Park
Saturday, 16 September
1:30PM

Mulder was early, intentionally so. At the last minute, he had stripped out of his clothing, deciding that he could add a run to the scheduled meeting. Leaving his trousers and sweater strewn on the chenille bedspread, he pulled on his dark blue running shorts and his Knicks tee and cap. Socks, sneakers and shades completed his look. Tying his key into his laces, he set out the door.

His mind already focused on his meeting; he hardly noticed the bright, clear warmth that settled over him. He started out slow, giving his blood a chance to flow to the muscles, the oxygen to move through his lungs and his joints to be sufficiently lubricated. Working through a few kinks in his hips and knees, he hit an easy stride.

As he left the residential neighborhoods behind, the need to zig-zag around haphazardly-placed toys or the occasionally illegally parked kiddie coupe ended, allowing him to move with more speed. He needed to clear his mind of extraneous matters and move into his roll as Chris Arsenault.

He pushed himself harder, lifting up through his ribs, pulling his abs in, slamming his heels back and down each time his foot struck the pavement, giving his glutes a good workout. Knowing he was too early, he ran past the park, hugging the lake shoreline now, driving himself to a yet undetermined limit. Then, his breathing ragged, he began to sprint.

The path before him was blissfully clear of people and other obstacles, allowing him to change his pace yet again, running quickly but with much longer strides. His quads pumped furiously, his bent arms and fists hugging the sides of his body with increased speed. His breathing was coming in short panting whooshes, his hair dripping in his eyes. He absent-mindedly reached up to push the hair aside.

As he switched back to sprint mode, aiming to make this an interval training run, he felt the sweat running in rivulets down his back, the cotton of his tee plastered to his skin. His shorts legs no longer billowing, they, too were hugging his pistoning legs, defining his lower body. He reached the end of the Lake trail but was not ready to end his workout. Having slowed some, he felt the heat of the sun against his hair, further plastering it to his head. Overall, the intense sweat of his exertion was a good feeling; cathartic and mind-clearing. But he wasn’t finished, having only managed to free his mind, but not having worked out his strategy. He jogged in place, watching the sun rays glinting on the water, the sparkling effect dazzling and dancing against the lens of his Maui Jims. He turned then and followed an outcropping of rocks as they marched out over the water. Their broad, flat surfaces allowed him to continue running, albeit much more slowly. While the water looked inviting, he didn’t have time for a swim and he knew the water would most likely be exceedingly cold at this time of year.

At this point, he was close enough to make out the shoreline of the state of New York, although he could not see any distinct landmarks. He drew in a few breaths and then headed back.

By the time he reached the southern edge of Redstone Park, he was truly exhausted and feeling at the top of his game mentally. His senses were on alert; finely tuned to all that was around him, and his mind was running through the bits and pieces of information he had at his disposal thus far.

Although it wasn’t much, he had learned more about the D.C. to Vermont connection and was almost sure that Ben Stillman from the 34th Precinct was somehow involved. Aside from the vague references Frohike had been able to pull together, his network had drawn lines between Stillman and several well-placed prison guards throughout the mid-Atlantic states, on up to and including New England. His information had grown cold once it hit the Canadian border. He planned to warm it a bit at this meeting. From there, his mind somehow wandered…again…

~~~~~~

He had been disappointed that he’d missed the initial contact at the Metronome, but it couldn’t be helped. He smiled wistfully and ruefully. Once again, he had reacted on sheer gut instinct—and had been wrong. While his track record for relying on those instincts usually brought forth solid results professionally, in his personal life, those instincts sometimes proved his undoing. He had taken in the scene, but failed to assess it accurately. Hell, if he admitted it to himself, he had acted out of blind jealousy. He’d had no idea who the man with Scully had been, yet he’d assumed they were together. While just seeing them talking had unnerved him, seeing his hands on her had rattled him more than he cared to admit. He’d seen red.

His rational mind knew that while their relationship was still far from being on solid ground, they had been making slow but steady strides toward each other once again. He knew there was no way Scully would simply jump into another relationship. Even in those sometimes-insecure corners of his mind when self-doubts plagued him, he knew she still loved him deeply. That was something that wouldn’t change between them no matter what.

That understanding hadn’t helped and he had given up his appointment, possibly risking the case, and charged onto the dancefloor. The warning glare in her eyes had done nothing to slow him down.

He had grabbed her; no questions asked, no explanations sought. The feel of her arm under his hand had been warm and he had grasped her more tightly, ignoring the wariness in her eyes and the hard set of her lips. The man she was with had shoved him, hard. Mulder hadn’t known whether to get angry or feel humiliated. So he had dropped Scully’s arm and walked away. He had realized, again and belatedly, that he shouldn’t have had any contact with her in the first place. And he’d also had the feeling she’d follow him. He had been correct.

His feelings over seeing her again after several months had made him act rashly and he’d tried to pull away, walk away, but she was having none of it. In her own insistent manner, she had refused to leave him alone. And then, when he’d seemed to have gotten through to her and she’d agreed to leave, he hadn’t been able to let her go.

He was a good Agent; clearly knew the possible consequences to his actions, but he was also an expert at throwing away the rulebook when the rules cramped his style. And this was one of those situations. He’d known instinctively that she wouldn’t betray his whereabouts, that she’d understand why he couldn’t be with her, as long as he had the time to explain ‘just enough’.

He’d finally made her see without too many words that being around him was not a good idea. Then his need for her had kicked in, on overdrive. He’d needed to feel her intensely, feel her intensity, wrap her up in his arms, smother her face and every visible inch of skin with kisses and nips and tongue baths. He’d dragged her across the street to the park under the watchful eyes of her friends and he’d held onto her so tightly he had been afraid he’d bruise her delicate skin.

He’d managed to stop short of throwing her against a tree and pawing their clothes away just enough to imbed himself in her. Fast, hot, hard. She’d looked like she might be amenable. Strike that; she’d looked as if she wanted to do the same to him, but he couldn’t risk it. Too much was at stake.

She’d actually been the saner partner and pulled away. Just as he’d grabbed her perfect ass, kneading for all he was worth. The feel of her muscles beneath his hands had been doing nothing to tamp down his own raging fire. She’d pulled away, taking his hands in hers, her eyes telling him that she’d understood.

He hadn’t been sure if he did. He’d just known that he would have to find other ways to be with her — and still deal with his assignment to the best of his abilities.

~~~~~~

Having slowed to a fast walk, his breathing more under control, Mulder reached up to grasp the brim of his cap, pulling it off his drenched head. He slicked his hair back and put the cap back on with the brim now in front. He took a deep breath and then hinged forward from his hips; his hands tugging on the hems of his shorts as he rested them on his thighs. He felt the stretch in his hamstrings. Now rounding his back into a cat-like position, he felt a deep stretch in his lower and mid-back. He straightened up, shaking his feet one at a time and then his hands.

He located the bench area where he was to meet the still-unnamed man. There was no one there. It didn’t bother him; he hadn’t expected to find the man waiting for him. Chances were good that he was somewhere close by keeping an eye out to see what Mulder would do.

As soon as he approached the bench, he took a minute to glance out over the lake. Although he could see to the other side at this point, he knew that it traveled much farther both north and south. Lake Champlain was much larger than most bodies of water he’d been around since childhood other than the ocean. He caught sight of a few sailboats and the lone speedboat hauling a skier over the choppy wake created by the craft’s rotors.

Slouching back on the bench, his legs wide, large sneakers firmly planted on the tamped down earth, he draped his arms behind him over the bench back. He removed his shades, hooking the frames into the neck of his tee, causing him to squint.

“Don’t turn around, Mr. Arsenault.”

Muttered almost under his breath, Mulder snapped back, “God, I love cloak and dagger.”

“If you’d move your body so that I might join you, we can meet.”

Mulder drew up his various long limbs scooting over to give his contact more space. He said nothing, waiting for the next pearl of wisdom.

The man extended his hand to Mulder, a little surprised at the FBI Agent’s firm grasp. He’d tried to size him up at the Metronome, but had only had a few brief minutes before he’d charged off like a caveman. Although, when he’d noted who the woman was…well, he figured he’d probably have done the same thing.

“I’m Bishop Stillman, Mr. Arsenault.”

Had Scully been with him, she would have noticed the barely imperceptible shift in Mulder’s demeanor as he let his contact’s name register. The slightest shift in his hips on the bench, his chin tilting just so toward Bishop Stillman and the mere scrunching of his eyes as he puzzled with the new information. His first thought had to do with the length that some parents went to follow some bizarre naming scheme for their children; Ben and Bishop Stillman. How very…cliched. Twins they definitely were not.

“Call me Chris.” Mulder turned to Bishop, clearly and openly scrutinizing him now.

Although Bishop had now turned to face the lake, it was clear that his attention was on Mulder. The man missed little. He took in the clearly athletic build, the well-toned muscles just shy of body builder’s physique and the unkempt, disheveled look. He knew that Chris was not one of the privileged class. Sure, he had a few nice pieces of jewelry, but Bishop pegged him for a manual laborer who’d come by some money on the side; numbers maybe. He’d been told that Chris could be very helpful to the transport of their valuable merchandise. Well, he’d just see about that.

Mulder took in the expensive, finely tailored suit, the spotless shoes. He hadn’t missed the Beamer as it throttled, all those ponies under the hood carefully restrained, into the Park’s sandy lot. The other B. Stillman was doing quite well for himself and Mulder had an idea why.

“So, how do you like our fair city so far, Chris?”

“It’s fair enough.”

“I hear you’re relatively new here. Got any work lined up?”

Mulder could smell the not so well disguised fishing expedition and, if Bishop were any good at his game, he probably felt the way Mulder was dispersing information.

“Yeah, construction over on the Essex Junction Community Center. They hired me in right away.” Mulder shifted, starting to feel chilled now that he had totally come down and was still sitting in sweat soaked clothing.

“So, make some good money then, huh? You a foreman or something?”

The question sounded casual enough, but Mulder knew Bishop was trying to ascertain how well connected he was.

“Well, I’m working my way up, so to speak. Right now, they’ve got me on the high scaffolding working on the surfacing at the summit. The view’s great.” He delivered his lines with practiced aloofness, the frost in his voice telling his contact that getting in his way might prove harmful.

And Bishop noted the unspoken warning. This day was going from bad to butt ugly. First the supervisor called him on the carpet, then that Kimberley bitch had tried to take him down a peg and now Chris was playing it cool as a cucumber.

“Look, a few of us are meeting over at the Metronome on Tuesday after work. Why don’t you join us? In the meantime, I’ll drop by and check out the site. I love it when they add new buildings downtown. Makes us look so ‘citified’, you know?”

Mulder mentally planted his index finger in his open mouth miming the sign for gagging. Bishop Stillman dripped cliched hit man, drug trafficker, big boss. And he was Mulder’s ticket into the workings of this group.

Between the information from the guys and what he’d gleaned, he needed to get in on the ground floor of this operation and soon.

But first, he had to prepare for his first day on the job. He stood, thinking he’d walk home along the shore when Bishop spoke again.

“You check out any of the babes around here?”

The fishing expedition was still in full swing and Mulder sat back down for a moment, sure Bishop wanted to badly reel him in…hook, line and sinker.

“What? You’re also representing the local singles club? Or is it the Chamber of Commerce?”

“Just want to make sure you enjoy your stay. The longer you feel comfortable, the longer we do business.”

Mr. B. Stillman was sure the fiery haired woman figured into Chris’s life and could therefore prove very useful. No one joined this group without a little bit of an initiation, a fact-finding mission. Find those facts that could really bring out the truth in one’s character. Yes, ‘Red’ would probably be the truth for Chris.

~~~~~~

Office of Sargent Ben Stillman
34th Precinct Washington, D.C.
Saturday, 16 September

Life could be so good. And then it just sucked. One day he was planning a trip out of the country to someplace warm, sunny and free of uniforms. And the next day he was up to his goddamn eyeballs in a case that stunk to high heaven. His officers were being pulled out from under him and he was still responsible for handling the ever-increasing caseload.

The home front was faring no better. Ben and his partner had recently bought a home together. While their initial weeks sharing their space were somewhat bumpy, they rode it out well and had seemed to settle into their new way of life quite nicely. Then her ‘other lover’ had stopped by to check out her new digs. And Ben had nearly skewered the man with the fireplace poker, the very hot fireplace poker. She tried to explain that it was just a mix-up, but he wanted to hear none of it. He’d moved out the next morning. She’d offered to buy him out on his half of the house and he’d told her to ‘just keep the damn thing’.

His side business was doing well; he could afford some magnanimity. He moved himself into his old apartment above the garage at his parents’ home. Private entrance or not, he knew he’d have to leave here fast. While he certainly loved his parents, living back (almost) under their roof did nothing for his sense of independence. It also necessitated having his ‘guests’ visit him at rather late or early, depending on your outlook, hours.

And when the shit hit the fan, it hit big. Shortly after ensconcing himself in the small, but comfortable apartment, he’d received a phone call that sent shivers through him. Ben Stillman did not ‘shiver’, not even in the brutal winter cold, but this call had succeeded in producing that effect quite nicely. He’d recognized the voice immediately; the dark quality to the very demanding and exacting words, the clipped tone and the ever-present threatening undertow.

Proteus. Greek God. Idiot, manipulator and…the man pulling the strings and calling the shots. Just like the ancient sea-god and the herdsman of Poseidon’s seals, the real life Proteus also seemed to have the gift of prophecy and the ability to change his shape at will.

Ben had never formally met the man/god and he wasn’t all that sure he wanted to. There was sometimes safety in the mirage. He had learned that lesson well in his formative years in law enforcement. You couldn’t be asked to testify on what you didn’t know, couldn’t identify he who you’d never seen. Given the stakes in his sideline business, Ben was just fine with the fact that Proteus had never ‘requested Ben’s appearance’.

The only thing worse than the phone call would have been the command appearance. It had started out innocuously enough. A seemingly off-handed inquiry about his new address, a feigned compassionate word or two about the demise of his relationship and a not-so-casual casual question about how many new connections Ben had managed to recruit.

When Proteus didn’t get his answer quick enough, he’d reminded Ben about the nature of metamorphosis. Ben knew he should be worried; the boss didn’t throw out big words to impress. However, he needed more to go on to quell his raging fear. What exactly did ‘metamorphosis’ have to do with Proteus?

In a rare burst of knowledge thirst, Ben had done a bit of research on Proteus and learned that he was supposedly capable of changing his shape, metamorphasizing. Now, Ben wasn’t sure he believed any of it. Gods were mythical characters and no one he knew of could changes shapes. But, when he applied a little bit of ‘outside the box’ thinking, he conjectured that Proteus could take on any identity. And he, the lowly D.C. connection, might never know who he was dealing with.

Not good. Not good at all.

Ben’s day actually made a turn for the better when it appeared that the big boss wasn’t going to hold him accountable or chastise him for his lack of new recruits. Instead, Proteus explained that he and Bishop had someone new in town and the man held promise, if he passed his initiation phase.

A long breath he hadn’t realized he was holding was released in a loud whoosh. But he also knew he was not necessarily off the hook. He was told he had 48 hours to produce one more connection in the penal system.

Ben hung up, noticing he suddenly had a raging headache.

~~~~~~

Pine Street Boardinghouse
Sunday, 17 September
5:00AM

It was a truly rare and glorious feeling, sleeping in with nothing pressing awaiting him. Mulder tried to burrow deeper into pillow and blankets, but the distinct draft was making it impossible. It wouldn’t have been a problem had he slept on the couch as he was usually wont to do, but that wouldn’t work here. The smaller five-foot, two-seater would not adequately accommodate his six-foot frame for an entire night.

He realized with a start that the blanket and top sheet were intertwined between his legs, exposing the skin on his thighs and his boxer-briefed butt to the chill in the building. Without lifting his face from the cushion beneath it, he reached down and back, hoping to snag the blanket and sheet with minimal effort. To no avail.

His long slender feet did their best to sort out the bedding from the body, but were still as asleep as their owner and therefore, having no luck. Laying half on his right hip, his left leg now bent at the knee, he shoved one arm under the pillow. As comfortable as he was, the chill in the room stole the extra shut-eye he craved. A sigh of frustration escaping him, he pushed himself up and reached forward and down, untangling the cotton from around his ankles and calves. Satisfied, he pulled the covering up and over his shoulders as he plopped back down on his stomach, left leg bent once again.

His hips shifted beneath him, moving to the images forming in his early dawn sleep fogged mind.

He could feel the curtain of her hair on the side of his face, just teasing, lightly tickling, and tempting. His lashes sweeping his cheek, a small smile flitted across his lips. She was pealing the blankets back with excruciating slowness, one small warm hand applying pressure to his shoulder, indicating that he shouldn’t turn over.

He wanted to turn over. Needed to capture her to him. Wanted to sear her flesh with his.

Squirming and shifting, his hips lifting and settling back into the semi-softness of the mattress below him, the images reeled forward although this was not a movie he’d recently seen.

She readjusts her weight as her thighs frame his hips forcing him to lie prone, his legs together between and beneath her smaller limbs. He is aware that she isn’t wearing any clothing and can feel every molecule of her firmly on his backside.

His dream self swiftly reaches back, one hand grabbing her thigh as he twists and flips himself onto his back. She is now straddling him where he most wants her to be and he…

…is torn away from his soon-to-be connection with the woman he loved and had spent much too little time with of late.

The shrill sound of his cellphone roused him from what he thought was reality. The insistent chirping was enough to jolt his sleep and lust-filled reverie as he palmed his pillow followed by the nightstand — coming up empty.

Attempting to shake off some of his cotton filled head; he was all arms and legs, trying to unsuccessfully extricate himself from the blankets that seemed destined to remain entwined between his ankles and calves. Giving one last kick with his heel, he rolled onto his back, his arm out-stretched. It made contact wit the other nightstand — and his cellphone.

As he flipped it open, he slid himself up to a seated position, wincing at the cold wrought iron headboard against his bare-skinned back.

“Mulder” His voice would need some work if he was going to be required to actually carry on a conversation.

<Hey, Big Guy, how’s the Green Mountain State treating you?>

The scowl on Mulder’s face would have singed the rest of the little man’s remaining hair. “You wanna play tourist, get yourself—”

<Sorry, Mulder. I’ve been up all night with…>

At the rate the conversation was proceeding, it would take at least an hour for either of them to get a full sentence out. Mulder took the opportunity to get more comfortable. Although the sleep visions had been pure imagination, the physical sensations had been pure reality. Making a few minor adjustments, he settled his butt firmly up against the pillows, adding a third between his back and the spindles of the headboard.

“So you thought you’d get me up?”

Not missing a beat, Frohike continued, <I may have some information about your disappearing lady friend>

Running his hand down his face in a futile attempt to stifle some of his frustration, Mulder let out an exasperated sigh, willing the height-challenged Gunman to continue.

And he didn’t disappoint.

<I’ve recently come across some information that seems to indicate that their little portal didn’t work as well as they’d hoped. Now, I’m not talking about people being found dead as a result of the white paste> He stopped suddenly wondering if his friend was still listening or had questions. When no response was forthcoming, he plunged on.

<It appears that the designers created a ‘back door’, so to speak. A failsafe of sorts. The technology behind it is mind-blowing> Pausing again, he thought he detected snoring. <Mulder? You there? You awake?>

Sitting up wasn’t working. With no meetings scheduled, his job not beginning until tomorrow morning and no pressing plans, all Mulder wanted to do was become one with his bed and his ScullyVisions.

While he meant well, Frohike was only succeeding in interrupting a few moments of blissful content. Now, what would make the moments even more blissful would be Scully here in the flesh. Preferable her warm, supple, naked flesh. Laying beneath him, her small, exploring, adventurous fingers slipping beneath the waistband of his boxers or across the front of them or…

<Earth to Mulder…>

Snapped yet again into the present, Mulder’s patience was wearing extremely thin. But he knew that he’d been called as he’d requested. Still…

“You were saying? Something about a ‘back door’? Skip the technology talk and tell me if this means she’s alive.”

He was moving now; all thoughts of further musing pushed aside reluctantly. Undercover work by its nature was difficult due to the secrecy shrouding the operative’s activities, but at this point in time it was competing with his need to continue moving his relationship with his partner forward again. Work was definitely cramping his style.

<Well, Langly was able to do some fancy footwork with the schematics of the system they were using in that warehouse facility. It was apparent they’d already tried to wipe the hard drive, but we all know that nothing’s ever really gone for someone with our expertise>

“Fro?” One syllable that carried enough weight to move Melvin along.

<As I was saying, from what Langly was able to find, that is one highly advanced piece of electronic circuitry>

Mulder allowed a small smile to play across his lips at the man’s obvious enthusiasm.

“But what does it do exactly? And is she alive?”

<Well, what I’m telling you, but without solid evidence yet is that there’s a strong possibility that she made it through unscathed>

Mulder pushed the ‘on’ button for the small coffee maker and grabbed a large mug out of the overhead cabinet, setting it down on the porcelain countertop. Frohike was on a tangent about the ‘delectable Agent Scully’ as he bent over to open the half-size refrigerator. He sighed disgustedly as he realized the milk carton was empty. Realizing he had no one to blame for the lack of coffee lightener, he tossed the wax-covered container in the trash step can.

“You’re doing it again, little man. Can we make this marathon more of a sprint to the finish line?”

The coffee percolated and gurgled as Mulder eyed it impatiently. Starting to feel the chill in his small apartment, he reached for his Knicks tee and walked toward the street-side window, his one view on life outside the boardinghouse.

A few street lamps stood sentinel in the still blackness of very early morning.

Knowing somehow that the one-sided conversation would still be in progress, he didn’t bother to tell Frohike to hold on while he put the phone down to throw his shirt over his head. When he put the phone back to his ear, his assumption had been correct; the conversation had continued in his absence.

<You there?>

“Where else would I be?” Mulder had to laugh. As exasperating as his trio of unlikely friends could be, they meant well. Overzealous, yes, quirky, definitely, but also one hundred percent willing to uncover a conspiracy with him with just one word. So, he figured he should be able to deal with Frohike’s sometimes odd style of delivering information.

<Ok, big guy, here’s the finish line. We’re pretty sure Agent Fowley lives>

Mulder moved away from the window as the first dove gray light appeared in the sky. An overcast day seemed suited for his thoughts, he ruminated—he had the answer he’d been seeking, but did he want that answer?

It only unraveled more threads, threatening to fray the gossamer strands of the intricate pattern of his newly re-woven relationship. Once Scully knew… He really didn’t want to go down that road.

She already knew he was looking, but they’d never really discussed the issue since he had blurted it out so casually at the Deli. It had not gone well then and would probably be worse now. He had tried to convince her that he wanted to ensure that they would not be bothered by Diana again, but now what?

He honestly wasn’t sure whether he wished her dead or alive. While it wasn’t in his nature to truly think ill of anyone, he could think of a few people he’d occasionally wished were ‘elsewhere’. After all they’d been through because of this woman, he had truly considered just how much better life could be for them without the prospect of her in it.

Life had just become much more complicated.

~~~~~~

The Radisson Hotel
Battery Street
Burlington, Vermont
Sunday, 17 September
8:00AM

Her titian hair covered the cream-colored satin pillowcase in a swirl of muted flame, making any connection between the usually well-coifed Agent and the just awakening woman a mysterious enigma. Turning her face to one side, one eyelid opened slowly, taking in the muted light through the venetian blinds and heavy brocade window treatments. The comforter was tugged up a bit higher under her chin as she rolled onto her back and pushed her hair from her face. She stared at the ceiling, debating whether to get out of bed…or roll back over for another hour of uninterrupted slumber.

The shroud of the early morning silence was comforting and absolute. A faint pattering of rain against the double thick glass of the floor to ceiling windows provided the only sound other than the hum of the older style clock radio that sat on the small table to the right of the bed.

Stretching out her 5′2″ frame, she luxuriated in the vastness of the king-size bed. At least three other bodies would fit easily. But the one body she didn’t even realize her mind had already settled on was her partner’s. How long had it been since she’d known the feeling of his very hot early morning skin against hers, threatening to set off major fire alarms? Or the sound of his muffled and gravelly voice in her ear and the feel of his not quite yet firm lips against her ear as he muttered, ‘morning, sunshine’? Or the way his arm would come down over the blankets, only serving to draw them completely off her when he rolled away from her like a huge redwood log?

Although the room was cool at this hour, she felt a decided flush on her chest and neck as she recalled some of the other things about sleeping with Mulder that she’d been missing.

Still…

The ache was enough to drive her to distraction…

But not the cellular kind. Giving up her prized spot in the middle of her king-sized island, Scully rolled toward the phone, lying once again on her back. “Hello?”

Empty air space greeted her for what seemed like so long that she had already rolled back toward the table to replace the phone.

<Don’t hang up, Scully> That voice. Just a little bit too awake and alert for her earlier musings, but smile evoking nonetheless.

“Usually, Mulder, when you call someone and they answer with ‘hello’, you reply in a timely fashion. Weren’t you ever taught any phone manners?” She tried unsuccessfully to keep the slightly amused tone from her voice.

<Are you questioning my sense of decorum and proper telephone etiquette?>

“Merely giving you a refresher course in the basics, partner.” She snuggled down into the blankets a little more, letting the sound of his words settle into all her nooks and crannies.

<I think I need another refresher course, but it’s got nothing to do with my manners or the telephone. Is there a class starting soon?>

A full wattage smile was forming on her entire face; god she’d missed him so. “It’s Sunday, Mulder, school’s not in session. Unless you’re doing some remedial work?”

She enjoyed tossing the innuendo back at him, felt especially safe doing so with the physical distance between them because, in all honesty, she wasn’t quite sure exactly how far she’d let things progress face to face. Although, remembering back a mere two days ago, she knew that if either one of them had shown just a little less restraint, she would have found herself riding him on the late night/early morning dewy grass, the movements of her thighs against his sides driving his firm ass into the ground, covering him in green stains that would be very hard to explain.

A highly intensified and extremely warm flush covered her cheeks in response to the picture her mind created.

<Oooo, I like the idea of ‘remedial’, Scully. It implies having to do something over and over again to get it right, to correct previous problems, to do something as well as one is able. Would you be supervising my efforts?>

“You, Agent Mulder, would need rather lengthy schooling, so I’d probably have to recommend you to a long-term program. Unfortunately, I won’t be here much longer.”

She reached for the blanket and top sheet, attempting to toss them back as she moved toward the edge of the mattress. The slip and slide of her silk nightshirt against the satin of the sheets made rising from the warm cocoon just a little difficult and she was sure Mulder could hear her small grunts of exertion.

And she was right.

<What do you mean you won’t be here much longer? And what’re you doing? You sound like you’re — uh — Scully?>

She laughed as she finally managed to sit up, tugging the shirt down over her thighs. “Mulder, I was just getting out of bed. Now, as for me leaving, my conference is just about over. I have to go back to Quantico.”

She dragged the base set along with her as she padded over to the coffee maker, jabbing a finger at the ‘on’ button.

He still had not responded to her statement about heading back to D.C. and she found herself wishing that she would be able to stay and work on his case with him. Her thought only served to remind her that she had no idea what it was that he was working on and that he wouldn’t be able to share it with her. Maybe it would be better if she were back in D.C.; it would be much too hard to be in the same city and not be able to be with each other.

And she knew that wasn’t true, either. But she’d have no reason to remain here if she weren’t also assigned to his case.

<How much longer will you be here?> He hoped she didn’t hear the sadness in his voice, the wish that they could spend even a little more time together. How far they’d both come together and apart and back together…only to be split again. But, wasn’t that the story of their years together already? Why would now be any different?

~~~~~~

Mulder found himself longing for a few uncluttered days without undercover work, conferences, truth searches. A few days with nothing but him and the one woman he cared more for than his next breath. However, knowing that was not about to happen, he adapted. He was nothing if not clever and resourceful.

Before she could answer, he suggested they spend the day together out of town. The sound of running water from his bathroom sink nearly obliterated her gasp of surprise.

She tried to remind him that they couldn’t be seen together, that his cover was at stake and that besides all that, she had plans for the day.

Shutting off the taps and drying his hands clumsily as he tried to juggle the small cellphone, he was surprised. <I thought there were no programs scheduled for today>

“How would you know the itinerary for the conference, Mulder?” As soon as the words left her mouth, she stopped. When would she learn that along with being a highly trained Agent, her partner had a natural curiosity that knew no bounds. Once he set his mind on the quest for answers, there was little that would stop him. That both pleased and infuriated her.

“It is a free day, but I have other plans.”

She could hear the shower running and the sound of the plastic curtain being pushed aside, the metal rings over the curtain bar scraping loudly into the phone.

<I’ll come with you>

“No, Mulder you won’t.”

<Then I’ll meet you later>

Was he going to take the phone into the shower, she wondered.

“Mulder, I’m hanging up now so you can take your shower and I can take mine.”

<I could come over there and we could take our showers together>

“Good-bye, Mulder.” She smiled as she replaced the handset and deposited the phone onto the large desk.

~~~~~~

City of Burlington, Vermont
Sunday, 17 September

“Pick up the damn phone.” Proteus was not known for his patience choosing instead to win popularity awards in the area of ‘quick temper; long, slow burn’.

He was just about to slam the phone down, grab his car keys and head out when his call was connected.

<Speak>

“Look, you self-important toad, I’d have thought you’d have learned by now what happens to soldiers who mess up boot camp.” His wrath barely contained, he paused for all of about ten seconds, hoping that Bishop said the proper words. He really hated to lose his newest recruit, but he also had standards to uphold.

<Sir, yes Sir I await my next assignment> God, he hated the stupid fucking ritual, but knew that Proteus demanded it. Hell, he’d been in the service and understood the concept of group discipline and obedience to one master, but Proteus really pushed it sometimes. However, he’d discovered just how much this job meant to him and his lifestyle. He’d put up with a little ridiculous protocol from a man too big for his britches.

“Very good, Bishop. I’ve looked at your field notes from your meeting with Chris Arsenault; went well, I’d say. I need some of your men to pay a little visit to a friend of his today. This visit should be cordial, but not overly so, just show the friend some ‘attention’. And Bishop?”

The short round man detested it most when Proteus became didactic. Sure, he did have a lot to learn, but he wasn’t in fuckin’ grade school; hell, he had his high school diploma and was one of those renaissance men. He had street smarts; his buddies told him that. However, he knew he’d never get to the assignment until he followed the script.

<What is it that you require, Sir?>

“Much better, Bishop, much better. Just remember how well I treat those who perform well. Just remember to make sure that Mr. Arsenault is made aware of the ‘attention’ you show his friend.”

Usually at this point, Bishop knew that it was all right to simply disconnect the call. There was nothing more he needed to say. He was only too happy to end this conversation. He had plans to make.

He enjoyed his career immensely.

~~~~~~

“Okay, I’ll meet you in the lobby in an hour. Yes, I have an umbrella. Is it supposed to rain all day? I haven’t listened to the reports — ok, yeah, casual. Got it.”

Scully finished towel drying her hair and headed back into the bathroom. Catching her reflection in the floor-to-ceiling mirror, she smiled wistfully. She didn’t remember consciously choosing the powder blue satin bra and French-cut panties set when she had packed for the conference. She hadn’t been much in the mood to make those choices.

She had been throwing and tossing clothing, taking out her alternating anger at Mulder and self-disappointment on her trip preparations. She’d wanted to get as far away from him as she could, but her thoughts had been a hodge-podge, making her question exactly what she was ‘getting away from’.

By the time she’d been ready to leave, they’d already worked through some major obstacles; she’d put to rest some of her original fears. But she hadn’t truly been able to forget. Distance was supposed to provide clarity.

And her packing had provided very little in the way of beginning that…

Snapping out of her daydream, she ran her hands over what little there was of the high-cut panties and grabbed her blow dryer. She turned toward the mirror behind the sink and directed the warm air over her hair, scrunching her damp locks having decided to leave it unstyled. Setting the dryer down, once again her eyes were drawn to the powder blue. Remembering the look on his face when he’d arrived with her ‘surprise’.

Back in very early June, before Diana had dared to upset the delicate balance of their relationship when even after five or six months everything felt very new and everything was very comfortable; yet very charged. He’d shown up straight from the airport after being out of town for a family legal matter. She’d been unable to join him due to a forensics consult. Being apart for three days had left her needy and wanting and he hadn’t even called to say he’d landed. She’d wanted to meet his flight.

Instead he’d made her very nearly jump out of her skin when he showed up at her door. Although they’d already had each other’s keys, they still tended to knock on occasion, old habits dying hard. She’d rolled up the sleeves on one of his old oxford button downs that she’d also tied at the waist, baring her midriff just over her lightweight cotton sweats. She’d decided that a little cleaning might take care of her surge in adrenaline. She’d backhanded the hair from her face that had fallen from the comb clip as she opened the door. His lazy slow smile had lit up his face, producing the same effect on hers; she’d been able to feel it happening. She’d been able to tell right then and there that he’d missed her as much, maybe more, than she’d missed him. Oh, he’d told her each and every time he’d called her or she’d called him, but it was his eyes that really conveyed his message.

Her first impulse had been to wrap her arms, heck; herself, around him and kiss him until their lips were bruised. However, when she’d attempted to do so, he’d gently taken her arm and placed it by her side, kissing the top of her head almost reverently. It was apparent that holding back had cost him, too.

She’d tilted her head to one side, scrutinizing him, trying to figure out what was up his sleeve. And then she’d noticed his almost totally bare and very tanned arms in his olive drab short-sleeved polo and how it bunched a little at the waist of his Levis.

He’d motioned her over to her couch, the curiosity level in her sending the meter reading off the scale. She’d plopped down, trying to crowd him, succeeding only in eliciting a chuckle and admonishment to ‘be patient’ from him. She’d wanted to, no, had to, see what he seemed to holding out of her line of vision. Rising onto her knees and attempting to pull him forward, she’d reached behind him. Although she’d had the better leverage, he’d caught her off-guard, pushing her backwards onto her butt.

The small, pastel green bag with the silver handles and foiled lettering had been dangled in front of her, just out of her reach. She’d crossed her arms and given him her very best Scully glare until he had placed the parcel between her legs and asked her to open it.

One part of her had wanted to put him off for taunting her, but the other part wanted nothing more than to rip the sparkling tissue paper from the bag and find her present. The other part had won and she was holding the powder blue satin bra and French-cut panties set, her lips parted in the most perfect little ‘o’.

Mulder had taken her gently by the shoulders, drawing her close and planted a warm, slow kiss to the tip of her nose and then to her lips. He’d whispered that she should model the set for him.

And she’d only needed to be asked once.

He’d waited impatiently; it had been much too long as far as he’d been concerned. But the wait had been worth every minute.

She’d shaken out her hair and ditched the sandals. The high cut legs of the panties teasingly bared her to him and caressed her curves like a smooth second skin. The spaghetti straps of the low-cut bra insisted on falling from her shoulders… and she hadn’t bothered pushing them back into place.

He’d asked her to turn around and then had amended, ‘slowly; very slowly, please’. And she’d complied, but she’d only made a quarter turn before he’d come up behind her.

The pastel green silver handled bag and the powder blue French-cut panties and bra set had ended up on the couch. Mulder and she had ended up on the rug.

She realized she was still standing at the sink… and that she was suddenly feeling very warm. She turned on the tap and splashed some tepid water on her face. Turning around to reach for a towel, she ended up facing the mirrored wall once again, the wall that had started her daydream, and once again found her picturing Mulder as he’d been that June afternoon.

‘Daydream June Mulder’ is suddenly in the bathroom with her and her eyes flutter closed as she imagines his hands on her. His hands on her satin covered ass, rubbing and sliding up and down creating a sensuous friction against her skin, creating a warmth deep inside her.

His mouth seeking hers, tasting like something she wants to devour.

Her hands tugging his olive drab polo out of his Levis and snaking up under the shirt, having no time to remove it. Because that would mean she couldn’t touch him for a few moments. And that wouldn’t be acceptable.

The barely there straps on her bra falling from her shoulders as his hands somehow find their way underneath the elastic at the waist of her panties and push them down far enough until the fabric just falls to her ankles.

Stepping out of them, she reaches for him, but he turns her back to the reflecting glass wall. Her hands find their way to his neck and for mere seconds, his hands leave her to unbutton his fly and then his bare feet step out of his jeans and boxers.

She attempts to take him in her hand, but he pushes her hand away as he widens his stance, his feet framing hers. She barely registers that he is wide-stepping her backward into the wall until her bare ass is pressed into the mirror. She gasps and then she sighs even though she’s feeling anything but bored. She can see the firm flesh of his behind in the mirror over the sink; just the part that the tails of the polo do not cover as it lies on his hips.

She feels his arousal as he leans into her, one knee between her legs, parting them. Somehow, her hands are over her head, pinned to the mirror by his hand and his knee moves upward until she is moving her hips, making a very solid and rather wet connection with him.

He frees her hands because he needs to feel her touch as much as she wants to touch him. She smiles as they suddenly become all arms and legs and he grabs her by the waist, hard, lifting her, bringing her powder blue satin covered chest almost close enough to taste.

Of their own volition, her legs wrap around his hips and then climb up to his waist, her bare feet settling quite naturally against his backside. The view in the mirror behind him ratchets her arousal up yet another notch. As he nestles into her, his muscles clenching, she gasps, her fingers clutching at the neckline of his polo.

Her head falls back against the glass as his hardness slides home, driving her up and then settling back down for the briefest moment. Her heels continue to guide him to her each time he moves away and she is wiping the mirror with her sweat against her skin. And…

And then the room phone rudely dropped her back into a Mulderless bathroom with twenty minutes to get ready.

~~~~~~

Washington, D.C.
Sunday, 17 September Mid-afternoon

He didn’t want to place the call, but he’d rather call than have to make the trip. He was dreading it, but he’d gotten the ‘request’ and ‘request’ translated to ‘command performance’. So, he was off to Vermont for a meeting with Proteus and the other members.

In the meantime, Bishop needed some information. Bishop… his brother, his family, yeah, right. His brother had stopped being family when he’d become his boss. Ben chafed at the restraints of their new relationship, but had little choice if he wanted to continue his current career.

He’d been given a lengthy list of area contacts, fellow law enforcement and prison guards who were also entrenched in the mid-Atlantic and northeastern corridor. His instructions were simple; call everyone and coordinate the information flow and possible travel plans.

And he hated every blessed minute of it. It wasn’t so much that he was above doing grunt work. He’d done his share, though, and had finally made it to a position of some stature with the local P.D. However, in Proteus’ organization, he was literally at the lower rungs. Therefore, he drew the dregs of assignments.

The final call was to his northern New England connection. The ‘good-looking’ brother. Funny how that name was applied to one and not the other when their looks were identical. Identical twins at birth, no one would ever accuse them of a resemblance now. Bishop had told him he’d use his earnings to change his previously bleak existence. He had. He’d cosmetically changed his entire appearance with enhancements that defied belief.

Ben had been jealous of a few of the more esoteric augmentations. The most obvious being that which seemed to charm the undergarments off most women who got in his way. If older brother Ben (he had been born a full two minutes earlier) had his way, younger brother Bishop would never get to use that particular enhancement again.

~~~~~~

City of Burlington, Vermont
Sunday, 17 September

The potted palms and small, sparkling water fountain in the lobby held the three conference attendees’ attention for all of about ten minutes. Then the effects of extended waiting set in. Jordan Evans, Bio-technologist from the local university, untied his trench coat and re-tied it, his fidgeting starting to annoy the others. Belinda Perkins, an M.E. from Hanover, New Hampshire and Armand Le, a radiologist from Vail, Colorado, chatted to try to block Jordan’s distracting behavior.

This was meant to be a reunion of sorts after they’d all met last year in Reno at the same conference. While they’d all kept in touch it had been mostly by email and in a year’s time, each had changed in small ways.

As Scully exited the elevator, Jordan noticed her first, her coppery hair falling in waves around her shoulders drawing his eyes to her like a red hot magnet. It wasn’t just the hair, but he wasn’t sure exactly what else made her look so… calm and content. That was it, really, the peaceful smile that lit up her face.

Belinda’s smile matched Scully’s as she took in the new, more casual look. At last year’s conference, the usually staid Dana Scully, had joined them for a day on the town in her business suit. The jeans, soft, fluffy sweater and the three-quarter length microfiber jacket were a far cry better and really amazed Armand, as well.

Pleasantries were exchanged as they made their way to the revolving door. Armand pulled a city walking map from his jacket pocket and they huddled in the unusually warm misting rain. To their left, the wan sunlight was trying its best to make an appearance over Lake Champlain.

Noting that the City Market Place was only two and a half blocks behind the hotel, they agreed to start there. The short walk gave them a chance to catch up, turning and chatting animatedly. Armand kept his umbrella open although the rain seemed to be nothing more than an occasional sprinkling, but Belinda explained that he was rather fussy about his cashmere jacket. The others tried to avoid the spokes every time he turned to talk to someone. It became a game of ‘avoid the umbrella or have you eye poked out’. Although the weather wasn’t perfect, the Market Place was packed. The low brick decorative walls held back rows of bayberry and other evergreen shrubs. In some places the walls were also littered with wet leaves in shades of yellow, brown and gold.

For a short time, the shops and restaurants were all but invisible as the yearly friends brought each other up to speed on their professional and personal lives. Belinda was the first to zero in on Scully, asking her whether her partner had joined her.

The three colleagues came to a group halt, waiting for the response as Scully continued walking oblivious to the fact that they were no longer in tow. Approximately fifteen feet ahead, she suddenly stopped and turned, her attempt at a stern countenance failing miserably as she heard them chuckle, doing nothing to hide their enjoyment. In the humor of the moment, however, she succeeded in neatly side-stepping the question and they moved on.

The skies suddenly opened as the sky grayed sending a mini-deluge upon them, testing their umbrella-opening skills. The Market Place environs became a colorful sea of rain shields as visitors took shelter from the first of a few downpours.

As they made their way to a cluster of boutiques, Scully stopped and turned quickly, the hackles on the back of her neck standing on end. Jordan touched her elbow, asking what the matter was but she just shrugged him off. She’d been certain someone was watching her but when she whirled around, the crowd seemed intent on their own affairs.

Belinda and Armand had wandered into the small convenience store in search of a soda and Jordan busied himself at the newsstand. Scully wandered across the open courtyard to check out a pair of Amalfi pumps in the window of the ‘Heels and Deals’ shop.

She leaned slightly forward trying to peer through the glare of the overcast day into the sepia-tinted display window when the ‘watched’ feeling returned — much stronger this time. Trying not to alert the possible watcher, she remained in position, but her eyes sought out the faces behind her through the reflection of the window. Satisfied that once again her suspicions seemed unfounded, she straightened and prepared to head into the quaint boutique.

She took two steps when the creeping feeling reasserted itself, forcing her to stop in her tracks. She never had time to turn around, knowing they were there.

She was suddenly surrounded. Unfamiliar arms and hands attached to unknown and quite large bodies intruded on her day.

Casual passers-by later remarked about the popularity of the petite redhead in the black jacket with the compact plaid umbrella hanging in her hand. They noticed the look on her face as her alleged friends gathered her against them, one of the more suave looking of the group, ducking his head in to kiss her lips as she exclaimed with what appeared to be her surprise at seeing them. A few later commented on how intent they looked at convincing her to join them… wherever they were going as they whisked her away from the Market Place.

‘Effectively pinned’ was her first thought as two sets of weight-trained arms held her from in front and behind. The third captor interposed himself between her and the Amalfi pumps in the window as the fourth man clasped the shoulders of the men on either side of her, sealing her fate.

Initially her immediate and swift struggles almost knocked the burley blond man to his knees, but they were prepared, knew of her specialized training and keen instincts; knew she was not carrying her weapon. The darkly attired and even more darkly dangerous looking man was prepared to deliver the drug if need be, but preferred she be awake for the festivities. The Boss preferred the subject have the ‘full experience’.

Although they moved in unison and had managed to weave their way almost effortlessly through the crowds, Scully continued to resist. While she had no use of her hands, anyone attempting to silence her now bore the results of contact with her teeth and the power of her jaws. Somewhere in the recesses of her adrenaline-charged mind, she recited the fact that the jaws possessed the strongest muscles in the body, able to exert more pounds of force per square inch than any other muscle in the human body. Perhaps her mind sought some type of release from her present situation, from the fact that she was being quite efficiently removed from a highly public setting in broad, if gray, daylight and no one was making a move to assist her. Her mind screamed at the situation even as her captors silenced her vocalizations. Her eyes darted furtively, trying to locate Belinda, Armand and Jordan. She could see Jordan engrossed in some newspaper, but the others were still inside the convenience store. Although he was close enough to hear her shouts, she knew it was futile, the sounds of a Sunday fall afternoon and the now more steady downpour surely drowning her out.

“Ms. Scully.” It was the first words she’d heard from any of the brutes other than their earlier warnings. How ironic that they were being so formal as they absconded with her, she thought. Since she was in no position to respond, and probably wouldn’t have even if she were, she remained silent.

It was the dark haired man who spoke first. “This will all go a bit better if you cooperate, move with us as if you want to go with us.”

She wondered sarcastically whether he actually thought she’d play along. They obviously were rather skilled at what they were doing and had planned this carefully. Therefore, they had to know that she was trained and would not go willingly or easily. She squirmed and managed to dig her heel into the blond man’s instep for good measure. She hoped she’d effectively answered the question.

By now, they had left the Market Place and rounded the corner to the hotel. She looked around, trying to draw attention to herself, but once again, they drew closer. She took advantage of the fact that her mouth was uncovered, but as she attempted to scream once again, the man in front of her moved in closer, a smile on his face. But not in his words. Leaning very close to her, he explained that if she uttered a single sound, they would silence her here and now.

Producing the syringe had the intended effect and Scully remained mute. She was hustled and shoved into the back seat of a black stretch limousine, sandwiched between the dark man and the burly blond. The others sat facing them, their knees butting up against hers. Although the dark haired man seemed to prefer keeping some continuous contact, it was in the form of an arm draped around her shoulder, his hand laying much to close to her breast for Scully’s liking. Otherwise, she was left unrestrained.

She ceased all struggles and trained her eyes on a point between the two in front of her, her hands in her lap. She wracked her brain trying to figure out if she’d ever seen these men before and what their agenda could be. Knowing that trying to tie them into a case she and Mulder had worked on would be almost impossible, she tried to concentrate on the last few months. Nothing came to her, so she simply shut down.

Oftentimes, when she pushed too hard to discover a connection, the result was a complete block. Sometimes, allowing her mind to focus elsewhere distracted her enough, somehow producing connections she hadn’t previously seen.

Her captors, however, wanted to talk.

“I’m sure you’re wondering why you’re here, who we are.” Confidence, self-importance.

Only to run straight into the imperious arched Scully brow. Her glare took in each of them, but she said nothing.

Unperturbed and possibly even amused, the dark haired man continued. “We, you and us, seem to have a common friend. Someone new to town like yourself.”

She was puzzled, but schooled herself to hold her neutral stare.

“Not the talkative type, Ms. Scully? I’ve heard otherwise and am frankly surprised that you’ve chose to keep your opinions to yourself. But, no matter. Our common friend is Mr. Chris Arsenault. And therein lies our little problem.”

Genuine confusion shown on her face as she tried to digest the new information. She had no idea who this Chris Aresenault was and how he was supposedly connected to her.

“Very nice; your confusion almost appears sincere, but we know better. The two of you seem to be; how shall I say it, rather ‘chummy’? He seems to be quite enamored of you in the physical sense from what I have observed.” As if to demonstrate his definition of ‘chummy’, he leaned into her, brushing her hair away from her ear.

She wrenched her head away, but was held firmly in place as he nipped her earlobe.

“You seemed to like this the other night when he did this, too.”

He tongued her ear as she buried her head against the blond man’s jacket, trying to put as much distance between them as possible.

Then, things happened in a series of fast-forwarded slides. Unable to move, but still in possession of her strength, Scully grabbed the dark haired man where she could do the most damage, holding and twisting as hard as she could. He nearly bit his own tongue as he screamed and pulled away from her, trying to figure out how to remain doubled over and move at the same time.

The burly blond man reacted with lightening speed, producing the syringe and removing the plastic sheath from the tip as the third man held her ankles to keep her from kicking them or trying to stand. Dark haired man managed to slide off the seat and across the way, changing places with the fourth man.

Having her effectively locked in place, the neckline of her sweater was wrenched to one side and the drug sent home.

Scully recalled blackness.

Having reached its location along the northern banks of Lake Champlain, the limo drew to a stop under the maple trees, there leaves shiny with the afternoon rain. They opted to continue their ‘discussion’ near the running path overgrown with trailing vines and trampled underbrush. The driver silently opened the doors, his sentinel demeanor indicating this was just all in a day’s work.

Leaving the dark haired man to come back to his senses, the others pulled, then carried her from the vehicle. Expecting dead weight, they became concerned as they realized she was coming to and attempting to stand — with a vengeance.

In the long run, it didn’t matter. It would only serve to make the festivities more festive.

She writhed and twisted, attempting to draw her legs in and then ram her feet into the fourth man’s midsection. As she drew her legs toward her chest, he allowed his hands on her ankles to go with the flow. As soon as she released her energy in his direction, he let her go. Her feet hit the ground hard, but the third man held her, his arms underneath hers from behind. He wrenched on arm high behind her, tugging sharply as he leaned in toward her ear.

“Well, Ms. Scully, you are quite the feisty and determined woman. I guess that’s what Mr. Arsenault likes about you. He struck me as a little ‘subdued’.”

Although her mind was slightly fogged, the instant and sharp pain radiating through her shoulder and elbow jarred her. She bit her lip hard as she remembered the one-sided conversation in the limo earlier. The dark haired man had referred to some rather intimate behavior between her and ‘Mr. Arsenault’ the other night…

And it hit her like a ton of bricks. He was referring to Mulder. <Jesus Christ, Mulder>

The blond man walked around her, almost as if he were deciding whether to continue with the current game plan or institute his own agenda. He was joined by a somewhat rejuvenated dark haired man — who did not appear quite as composed nor pre-disposed toward mannered behavior as he had earlier. “Ms. Scully, we had only intended to give you a little message for your friend, but you’re making the delivery of that message a little complicated. You know, for someone so beautiful,” he stepped closer, his hands easily covering the front of her damp sweater underneath the opened jacket, “you really do like to live dangerously.” Grabbing her forcefully, pinching her, he elicited a stream of invective that made him smile. “Manners, manners.” His hands softened their approach, but left her only to find her bra.

“You and I could have a few moments of enjoyment before we give you that message, but you have to relax a bit.” Scully tried to back up as his hands traveled across her bare skin and over the exposed satin, but she had nowhere to go. “Does this turn you on?” He again pinched her already sensitized and sore breasts. “Or how about this?” His eyes never left hers as his fingers pushed up and under the satin, his thumbs flicking and teasing. She drew in a deep breath, only giving more of herself to him unwillingly. The hold on her arms tightened as the dark haired man’s ministrations became more brazen. She screamed as he lowered his mouth to her skin, totally catching her off-guard when his teeth made contact.

With a determination they could not have predicted, she shoved and kicked, attempting to break free. Managing no more than a few halting and graceless steps, his fist slammed into her jaw and she was quickly restrained and dragged to the small maintenance shed.

Her struggles began again in earnest as she tried not to slip in the slickened mud. She was thrown backwards into the small building, her eyes slamming shut as she attempted to bite back a cry of outrage and pain as her head thudded against the wall. Drawing a quick breath, she righted herself — only to be slapped again as her head was held steady to receive the blow.

“Are you going to listen to the message for Mr. Arsenault? You’re really the best person to deliver it.”

When she did not respond, the burly blond man pulled her forward by her shoulders and then assisted his colleague as he removed her jacket, tossing it to the ground. Rain drops completely matted the already damp fluff of her sweater as he throttled her hard until her head shook.

“I know you can hear me, Ms. Scully. It would be wise for you to tell Mr. Arsenault that we’re watching him very carefully. And that we’ve had the ‘pleasure’ of meeting you. A friend of his is a friend of ours. And I always return to take care of my friends. Especially the lookers with spunk.”

His words dripped with sarcasm as her hands came up to his face, her nails leaving bloody tracks in his skin. With renewed effort, she kicked at his shin. Remembering just how effectively she had taken the dark haired man out of commission, she brought he knee up firmly and decisively.

And the darkness returned as he yelped and flung her to the dirt, her head glancing off the shed as she collapsed in a heap. The third and fourth men who had been feeling decidedly left out of the action took their shots. One swift kick to her ribcage sent her further drifting into blackness.

<Muhhlderrrr…>

Sprawled as she was, the final man stooped to cop himself a feel of the interesting woman who had given the four of them more than they’d bargained for.

The sheeting rain diluted the angry red trickling from her scalp.

~~~~~~

Downtown Burlington
Sunday, 17 September

Jordan finally materialized from the international news section and approached the convenience store glancing around for Scully. He’d thought he’d seen her outside the shoe shop and had secretly hoped she’d wander over to check on him. When she hadn’t, he’d gone back to his reading, too cowardly to approach her himself.

How often did he get himself into these situations with women? ‘These situations’ — made it sound as if he’d admired many women and fallen head over heels for them on a routine basis. But that wasn’t the case, not at all. Dana Scully was different and he’d met up with her a grand total of three times if you counted today, but not the first conference a year ago.

Last year, he’d ‘noticed’ her; how did one not notice her? She was striking and brilliant and no nonsense; a combination he found extremely attractive, a turn on for both his mind and his body. And she’d been friendly enough in a professional way. But he’d felt the distance, had a feeling that there was probably someone else in the picture.

As all four had done, he and Dana had kept in touch via email and the occasional call. He’d tested the waters a bit when he had been sent to D.C. in May. Having emailed her first, he’d casually mentioned that he’d be in town and wondered if she wanted to have a drink with him. She’d surprised him by agreeing.

She’d suggested a nice bar close to the J.E. Hoover Building and met him there right on time. It was clear she’d just come from the office as she was dressed in a black pants suit, but the jade scoop neck stretchy shirt underneath really looked sensational on her and he found himself having to drag his eyes back to her face repeatedly.

Their conversation has been easy and comfortable, professional and the occasionally personal being shared, the wine flowing. He’d relaxed probably more than he should have and reached across the table to cover her hand with his. The easiness and comfortable flow had been interrupted as she’d looked up at him, suddenly sober, and gently extricated her hand from his. He’d try to mumble something akin to an apology, but she’d waved it off, telling him it was ok, but that all they could be was friends.

At that point, he’d met her partner. It was clear that she hadn’t invited him by the dagger eyes she’d shot in his direction and the resulting pseudo-apology written on his face. Jordan half suspected that Agent Mulder had not really been overly concerned with his impromptu visit, that he had in fact followed his partner. Jordan knew he’d have done the same thing…

And that had been the end of something that had never really begun. Although she had introduced him as ‘Agent Mulder’, her ‘field agent partner’, Jordan knew better. Heck, he nearly screamed his intentions as Jordan as he sat down next to Dana.

Once again, he looked over toward the convenience store and saw Belinda and Armand exiting, a clear plastic bag containing magazines and assorted junk food in Armand’s hand. He asked them if they’d seen Scully, only to find out that neither had.

The three then headed for the ‘Heels and Deals’ shop. Jordan came out shaking his head. It was time for the three to head back to the hotel where they hoped they’d find Scully in her room trying on her new pumps.

~~~~~~

Pine Street Boardinghouse

<C’mon, pick up, Scully>

Mulder hopped around as he tried to step into his running shorts and pull on his socks and Nikes. He wanted to see if he could find some out of the way diner and meet her for lunch. Oh, he knew he wasn’t supposed to be seen with her, but it was the weekend, it was raining on and off and…and the real reason was that he missed her terribly and had to be with her in some way.

Being in the same city barely a mile away from each other and not being able to see her was slowly driving him nuts. He had work to do, was starting a ‘new job’ tomorrow. He had plenty to keep him going, but he wanted and needed some closure on their relationship.

Hearing her voice earlier today, the easy innuendo and chat flowing between them only made him want to see her.

When she didn’t answer her cellphone, he tried her hotel room. He’d already left three messages for her in the last hour and he was sure the desk staff knew him very well…and didn’t want to hear from him again. Scully didn’t shut off her cellphone and she, unlike him, had never lost one nor allowed the battery to drain.

Therefore, something was wrong. He was sure of it, could feel it deep within himself in the way he always seemed to ‘feel’ her.

He speed dialed her number one last time and then tucked the phone into its microfiber case and clipped inside his waistband. He stopped to leave his room key at the office downstairs and headed out.

*** Radisson Hotel

Belinda approached the Desk first, inquiring if Dana had returned. It was a long shot, she knew, but on the chance that someone had noticed her, well, her hair color, she had to ask.

The Desk staff remembered seeing them all in the lobby before they’d left a couple hours ago, but did not recall seeing her return.

Armand used the house phone to call her room. No answer. He then headed for the elevator, telling them to wait in the lobby incase she came down as he headed up.

By the short turnaround of his trip, it was obvious. He didn’t even need to shake his head for them to know that she wasn’t in her room, either.

Belinda suddenly recalled another conference presenter she had seen Scully spending time with. It was Jordan however who remembered her name, Kimberely Kresge. Rushing to the Desk, he inquired as to her room number, but was told she was not a guest.

True concern took over and for a while, the small group was stymied. As if they shared the thought, they headed for the conference hospitality and message center knowing they might find attendee addresses posted.

~~~~~~

Out and About in Burlington

Since Mulder had already determined that Scully wasn’t at her hotel, he did some quick checking with the hotel desk staff and found out that the two men and one woman heading up the escalator were also asking about her. His long legs took him across the carpeted lobby in scant minutes and he walked up the escalator two deep steps at a time. Although he’d only caught the back of the trio, he was able to locate them at the ‘lodgings’ bulletin board.

“Excuse me, are you friends of Dana Scully’s?” Mulder had tapped Armand on the shoulder, but it was Jordan who turned around, recognizing Mulder although the last time he’d seen him, Mulder had been in a fancy suit.

“We are. You’re Agent Mul—” Jordan never got to finish his statement.

“Actually, I’m Chris Arsenault and I’m looking for Ms. Scully. Can you tell me where to find her?” Mulder had tried to convincingly move Jordan away from his identity and had so far succeeded although the younger man was clearly puzzled.

It was Belinda who finally moved them past the identify confusion. “Look, Mr. Arsenault—”

“Chris, call me Chris.”

“Ok, Chris. We were out with Dana and had separated to look in some of the shops. We left her at the shoe place and that’s the last we saw of her. We were hoping to contact her friend, Kimberley, to see if she might have gone to visit her. How do you know Dana?” Belinda’s suspicions didn’t deter Mulder.

A bit distracted and very much wanting to go find her, Mulder simply stated that they were friends. He explained that he was staying at the Pine Street Boardinghouse and asked that they leave him a message if she turned up.

As he turned to head for the escalator, Jordan called after him. “Don’t know if it means anything, but I just remembered something. Dana had mentioned wanting us to take a walk along the lake shore after we left the Market Place. Maybe we should all head there?”

“Thanks for the information, Jordan, but I can handle it from here.” Not wanting to give them anymore time for questions, Mulder strode to the escalator.

Removing his shades from the neckline of his tee, he slipped them on to stave off the glare of the gray light. The rain had let up a bit since he’d been inside, rendering it more of a mist.

Even with the new information about the lake shore, he decided to run through the Market Place one more time incase she had wandered off and then returned. Knowing deep inside that Scully was extremely focused, wasn’t one to ‘wander off’ of her own volition, he knew he was just doing good detective work, checking all possibilities, exhausting the most obvious answer first.

He slowed somewhat, the cobblestones slick with rain threatening to send him skidding. His jog changing to a fast walk, he headed into Heels and Deals, looking for the shop owner. One of the clerks pointed her out at the back of the store. Usually working the floor on Sundays, she did recall seeing Scully at the window, claiming the red hair was the give-away. Mulder thanked her and then asked if she had come into the shop.

The owner shook her head, telling him that she seemed to be looking at the Amalfi pumps, but some ‘friends’ came to talk to her. She went on to say she hadn’t recognized them, but they were all men and were all dressed in dark suits.

Nodding to her and trying to smile, he turned and sprinted from the shop. His intuition and instinct told him that the men in dark suits were definitely not friends of Scully’s and that he had to find her. Now.

~~~~~~

Somewhere Sunday afternoon

<Did you find what you were looking for?>

“We did, Sir. Mission accomplished.”

<Don’t forget your manners, Bishop. I’ll let you know when your mission’s been ‘accomplished. Where did you leave her?>

“At the agreed location, but in plain sight.”

<Hopefully Mr. Arsenault will understand the first part of the message. Look, I’m sending someone your way. She has some rather particular skills in this area and will enhance the overall operation. She’s staying at the guesthouse right now and will make contact soon>

Bishop groaned, a little too loudly, and rolled his eyes. Realizing that Proteus had most likely heard his response to the addition of yet another operative, he hastened to speak. “Uh, um, fine, Sir. How will I know this woman? And exactly what is it I’m to have her do?”

Clearing his throat none-too-softly, Proteus corrected Bishop’s misspeak. <*She* will be working with you, not for you. She will know you. Keep her out of sight; she’s somewhat of a fugitive, a renegade>

“As you wish, Sir.” Truth be told, Bishop wanted to run his own show and had little use for Proteus and especially for this new ‘partner’, whoever the hell she was. And that fact this his brother was most likely coming to town with more of the group was doing nothing to make his life better.

The only shining spot had been the work of his underlings this afternoon. They’d done a fine job with Chris’s friend, although he had to admit, she was quite the hot tamale. For all her conservative look, she’d fought like an enraged tigress from what he’d seen. He’d kept himself out of the picture this time, but thoroughly enjoyed watching her best some of his self-proclaimed tough guys. When she had grabbed Deke’s nuts, he’d nearly doubled over with laughter. Oh, he knew Deke had to be in extreme distress, but hell, she was quick! They had learned a bit from that point, but she’d managed a few good licks before they sent her down for the count.

Bishop only hoped that the visit to Chris tomorrow would be half as much fun, but he doubted it. Proteus had indicated nothing more than a ‘mild scare’.

Bishop always did have trouble distinguishing levels, however…

~~~~~~

The Shores of Lake Champlain
Still Sunday Afternoon

Mulder pulled his cellphone from his waistband once again and pressed ‘1’. And, just as he feared, ‘the cellular customer [he was] trying to reach is not available’.

<Damnit, Scully, where the hell are you?!>

He knew. Knew that the anger he was feeling served only to cover the fear building in his gut. That same dark feeling he got whenever he recalled her abduction, Antarctica or any of the other times she was in danger.

He puzzled, as he ran, how it was that two people could be so enmeshed, so inextricably linked. He knew he should just accept it as a given, but it often made him wonder. Identical twins couldn’t be anymore connected… And that connection set his nerves jangling.

Crossing back in front of the hotel, he headed across the dirt running path that paralleled the shoreline, bringing him to the water’s edge. He could make out a few sailboats and a cabin cruiser, but given the on and off again rain, there was very little other activity on the water or around the trail today. Now, at the end of the autumn afternoon, faint rays of sinking sunlight were trying to filter through the clouds in the western sky.

He glanced both south and then north, trying to determine which way she might have been taken. ‘Taken’. The word rolled far too easily in his mind. Too easily because he knew with a sickening certainty that it was true.

If she were with him now, he’d ask her ‘which way?’. Invariably, she’d choose one direction and he’d be sure to choose the exact opposite. Unless they were driving, in which case he swore he was infallible with directional decisions, they were pretty much 50-50. His brief smile turning to a brow furrowing frown, he took a deep breath, squinted behind his shades as he turned his head slowly, again, to the right and left and then…headed north. He took off at a slow jog, checking the ground and the surrounding area for clues. Stopping and wandering off the trail occasionally was producing nothing, nothing more than a heightened sense that she had not gone willingly with the black suited men and that she was hurt.

“Scuhhlee!” The few passers-by merely glanced in his direction and continued on their way. “Scully, where are you?” He sprinted ahead, but hadn’t gone far when he stopped abruptly, looking toward the small, unused parking lot to his right. Tire tracks. Fresh tire tracks. The rain had managed keep the sand and topsoil intact. Squatting down next to the closest set of tracks, he scrutinized the tread, exploring the depth and width noting that they appeared to be from standard size tires. However, noting the distance between the sets of tires, back to front, he guessed the vehicle making the tracks was a limousine.

Even with the growing sunlight, the rain began to fall once again, further plastering his Knicks cap to his head. He barely noticed the soggy weight of his running shorts and tee as he rose from his crouch.

His eyes followed the tracks to where they came to a stop behind a long-unused shed, with weather-battered shingles and dilapidated hinges on the door. Mulder called out to Scully again, slamming his open palm against the shingles. Again, he called to her, this time kicking the rusty-hinged door.

Taking a deep breath and willing himself to calm down enough to pay attention, he rounded the corner of the small structure, nearly tripping over a body…

~~~~~~

Radisson Hotel Hospitality Suite
Sunday afternoon 4:00PM

Kimberley had come to the hotel with Bryan, hoping to help the three conference attendees find her friend. The longer they went without word from Dana, the harder they knew it would be to find her. Armand had been the most clear-headed in his explanations and Kimberley had a fairly good idea and bad feeling that she had been abducted. Although she had no ideas for motivation, MO or perpetrator(s).

She called upon the local law enforcement to waive their rule of waiting the obligatory 48 hours prior to putting out an APB and send out a few squad cars and foot patrol officers. For that, she was eternally grateful.

~~~~~~

D.C. to Burlington
Sunday Afternoon

“You’ve got to call him.”

“I know; give me a little credit here. I’m just trying to figure out how to tell him. He’s got his hands full as it is.”

Frohike knew what he had to do and Byers’s patient, but nonetheless nagging reminders weren’t helping. Now all he needed was for Langly to chime in with his support. Good thing he was at a Ramones revival concert.

“Look, he’s not going to be angry with the messenger; heck, he put us on this search. Just get it over with.” Byers unnecessarily handed the phone to Frohike, stepping back to give the man some space.

Sending his fellow gunman a look that could wither a bonzai, Frohike called the boardinghouse. And listened to the phone ring and ring…and ring until the answering machine picked up. <You have reached room 409. No one is here to take your call. Please leave the resident a message> He waited impatiently for the electronic drone to end.

“Mulder, it’s me. Look buddy, call me. I have to give you a heads up. Don’t think you’re going to like this. A certain formerly dead individual is headed your way… again.”

He replaced the phone in its cradle, shaking his head from side to side ruefully. Having made another decision, he tried Mulder’s cellphone. It was busy. He couldn’t face leaving yet another message like the first.

Byers commiserated. He, too, knew that their friend wasn’t going to be happy that he now had a definitive answer to his question.

He also knew of someone who would be even less happy than Mulder…

~~~~~~

Shore of Lake Champlain
Sunday Afternoon

He stopped, taking in information even as he knew who he was seeing, his heart trying to tell his brain that it was in error. In the now sheeting rain, he dropped to his knees, idly grabbing her jacket from where it lay a few feet from her very still body. Unsure of what to cover first, he let it fall. Although the scan was performed in mere seconds, his first aid training kicking in automatically, time seemed stretched and slowed, threatening to pull him under.

God, how he hated to deal with her mortality. How he hated not being able to be with her every minute, to make sure she was safe, to move obstacles from her path.

He realized he was shivering from the combination of the breeze off the lake and the downpour. And that state finally moved him into action. He bent over her, calling her name. He was hesitant to move her until he could do a basic assessment, hoping to ensure she hadn’t injured her back.

He leaned in closer, gingerly and compassionately touching her face, moving her wet hair away from her closed eyes. “Scully…oh, please, Scully…” He wasn’t sure what he wanted to say as he implored her, how he could put into words the punch to the gut he felt whenever her life was jeopardized, how he could possibly will her to awaken and say his name with that small smile on her face. The smile she reserved for him.

Her face was bruised and she was lying on her side. Even semi-conscious, his first inclination was to shield her from the rain, from the pain that had been inflicted upon her, from — when the force of the emotions threatened to render him useless his anguish turned to anger.

Anger at the bastards who had brutally man-handled her, anger at himself. He had no doubts that this was a direct result of his activities in Burlington. No doubts that this was not a casual Sunday afternoon mugging.

His hand went to her throat looking for a pulse. It was steady, but much too fast.

“Talk to me, Scully. Open those baby blues so I can see you’re all right.” No response.

On impulse, he lifted her eyelid, his thumb gently pushing it up toward her brow. He vaguely remembered something about equal and reactive, but what exactly those words meant in this situation, he couldn’t say. He let her lid slip down again.

Crawling closer to her, his knees scraping on the muddy gravel, he leaned in to try and feel for her breathing. Having already felt rapid, but steady pulse and the barest of inhalations, he grabbed his cell. One hand speed dialed 9-1-1 as he sank into the mud, landing him close to her. He absently stroked her bruising face and tried to shield her from the rain with his body… “I have an FBI Agent down, pulse steady but rapid, very faint respiration. Yes, her face looks as if she’s been hit — hard. No. No. Can’t talk, clothing is intact, no, she’s not awake.” Some many questions, so necessary. He wanted them here. Now.

After providing their location, he looked around for something — anything — to keep her warm and dry. He spotted a compact unopened plaid umbrella across the trail. <Practical Scully — always planning for the rainy day, huh?> He wasn’t sure whether to smile ruefully or laugh nervously at the insane irony of it all.

Moving to sit against the shed, he leaned over, reaching for her. And then stopped, once again worried about further injuries. Although he’d admit to no more than the basic first aid and CPR required for his job, he’d learned over the years to carefully observe. To observe on his own and to observe his partner at work, doing what she did best.

Relatively sure she had not sustained spinal injuries, he eased her to him until her body rested in his lap. He laid her jacket against her legs, knowing it would provide on a modicum of cover. Holding the umbrella over as much of the rest of her, he wrapped his arm over her, pulling her gently against him, trying to share what little body heat he had to give her.

“Scully, I know you can probably hear me.” He spoke in a low, soothing voice that he hoped gave no hint at just how distraught he felt.

“You’re going to be fine, I’ll make sure of it and then we’re leaving here, we’re going home…together.”

He wasn’t sure whether he felt her stir or heard her struggling to speak first. “Scully?”

“Not… going home. I’m…”

The wail of the Ambulance sirens cut off as the vehicle lumbered around the corner, pulling up abreast of the shed. The whirring red lights cut glaring swaths in the overcast afternoon. The EMTs quickly scanned the scene as they asked Mulder some questions to update her status. They’d seen it before; the loved one who can’t let go so they can minister to the victim, the man so attached to his wife or his lover that he believes he can make things right even as he realizes she needs their help.

“Sir, we’re going to take her now.” The first EMT helped his partner wheel the stretcher over and then knelt down next to Mulder while his partner checked her vitals.

Mulder could vaguely make out some of the words about her condition being relayed to the dispatcher at the hospital, <strong…not comatose…cracked ribs…> He didn’t want to hear anymore knowing that what he’d heard so far wasn’t life threatening. But…he couldn’t seem to let go of her. He had dropped the umbrella, somehow, when the EMTs had approached, now using both his arms to hold her tightly to him, oblivious to the possible pain he might be causing her. All he knew was that he had to fix it, had to keep her safe. He hadn’t kept her safe. She was hurt. She was hurt because of him.

He hadn’t felt the hands on his shoulders shaking him, hadn’t heard the male voice as two sets of hands stood him up. He wondered where Scully was. She had been there just a minute ago — hadn’t she?

“Get him in the ambulance with her.”

“Ok, Sir, c’mon. We’re going to let you ride with her, but I need to get your vitals, too.”

When they determined that he was suffering only from the wet cold and his intense concern for her, they instructed him to remove his drenched tee and replaced it with one of their jackets and a thermal blanket. The shorts they’d worry about at the hospital.

~~~~~~

Office of the Assistant Director
Washington, D.C.
Sunday, 19 September
Early Evening

He wanted to go home. He’d been here most of the weekend and had finally caught up, but he wasn’t about to leave until the standard check-in call came from Burlington.

Mulder was late and while that wasn’t all that unusual where meetings were concerned, he was amazingly punctual when undercover. For a man and Agent who took almost everything into his own hands, he somehow also seemed to ‘get’ the need for regular updates when severed from standard connections. Heck, there had been a few times while Mulder, Scully and Ritter were in New Hampshire that he’d found himself wishing that he hadn’t called in so much. The man obviously had never heard Confuscious, ‘all things in moderation’.

But, still, there was something unsettling about this breach. Yes, they had talked yesterday, but the appointed time was five o’clock. Mulder was an hour late. Hell, he’d go home, try him from his cellphone on the way.

He was just about to hang up when the line was picked up.

<Mulder>

A very tired sounding Mulder.

“It’s Skinner. Where the hell are you? You’re late for your check-in.” He’d registered the sound of his Agent’s voice, but not enough in the single word to change the tone of his reply. But something sounded ‘off’. Mulder could be many things, stubborn, irritating, tunnel-visioned, but he did not intentionally slip in the course of duty.

A rather pregnant pause, then…

<Sorry, Sir. Agent Scully’s in the hospital and…>

Skinner refrained from the ‘again?’ comeback. Afterall, this was the second time in two days. Was she out to break their previous record? “Is she all right?”

<Uh, yes, yes she is, a cracked rib, a few bruised and her face is going to be colorful for a few days. She’s demanding to be released. I think she may hurt someone if they don’t sign her out. Besides, she’s about to earn frequent visitor points if she stays tonight>

Well, he thought, at least Mulder was sounding a bit more like himself, but the A.D. knew that somewhere in the mix was a very guilty feeling Agent, one who would now move heaven and earth to ensure his partner’s safety.

“What can I do, Agent?” He’d be ready to catch the next flight if he thought Mulder could use him, but he had a feeling he wouldn’t need the assistance.

<Nothing, Sir. I’m going to find who did this to her. I’ll take care of it>

“No. Mulder. Leave that to the local authorities. If I’m following your thinking, you’re making a connection to your assignment and that may very well be the case, but there are much larger issues at stake here and you can’t jeopardize blowing your cover. Stay out of it, Mulder, and that’s a direct order.”

Shaking his head and trying to keep the smirk from his lips, Skinner hoped against hope that maybe, just maybe this time, one of his Agents would listen.

<They’re calling me, I have to go. I think she’s threatening to walk out in her hospital gown. Let’s see how well I do convincing her to spend the night. Maybe if she knows the Bureau’s footing the bill?>

“Good-night, Mulder.”

Mulder flipped his cell closed and deposited it in the pocket of the drawstring scrubs the nurse had provided for him once he’d seen that Scully was settled. He knew he’d been somewhat reluctant to take their advice and allow them to check him out, but he’d really just needed to see her awake, to let her know he was there with her and that he wasn’t leaving.

Once they’d managed to take his vitals, they’d given him the light blue ER uniform along with a pair of the sorriest excuse for footwear — the paper slip-on. In all the time he’d been hospitalized, he’d insisted on wearing his own shoes when barefoot was no longer an option. Unfortunately, the staff felt that wearing wet socks and sneakers was probably not a good idea for his continued good health.

He was relatively comfortable now that he was dry, but there was the small problem of the lack of boxers… He felt decidedly naked underneath the low slung and rather loose scrub pants. He let the pullover help cover him by refusing to tuck it into the pants. He found his partner unwillingly ensconced in a private room on the second floor, her scowling face bringing a small, quick smile to his. He knew it wouldn’t be appreciated, but he couldn’t help it. She was reclining at a 45 degree angle, the ties at the shoulder of the hospital gown showing more shoulder than he’d seen in a while. <Get a grip, Mulder>

They’d pulled her hair into a ponytail and the side of her face was now a lovely shade of purple/blue. She held the blanket and top sheet to her firmly, her crossed arms anchoring it, as her eyes darted to him. “I’m not staying here, Mulder.” A statement of Scully Fact.

He avoided the statement altogether, knowing that unless he simply agreed with her, he’d be in for a full barrage of reasons and explanations. Instead, he drew a chair up next to her bed and sat down, trying to take her hand.

She eyed him suspiciously; most likely fully aware of his intentions to have her stay overnight. “Don’t even think it, Mulder. I’m fine.”

Unbidden and totally unable to be controlled, he burst out laughing. “Scully, you have one completely broken rib, two others are bruised, a possible slight concussion and a face only I could love. You’re not going anywhere until at least tomorrow.”

Her scowl turned dark and menacing, but her arms released their death hold on the blankets. She knew he was right. She’d never recommend release for him if he were the one in the bed. But damnit, this was her second hospitalization in so many days. Other than the litany of bodily insults Mulder had so graciously listed, she really was fine. The bout of dizziness from a few days ago had passed and her tests had shown nothing significant.

He noticed the far off look in her eyes and wondered what she was thinking. She had gone quiet as she often did when she was puzzling evidence or trying to digest the finer points of an autopsy report. He knew he often got that way, too. She’d told him so. But this look was different, more deeply personal as if she were remembering something, something that was bothering her.

“What is it, Scully? That look on your face tells me you think something’s up.”

“It’s nothing, I’m just thinking about getting back to the conference, back to my nice hotel room.” Her attempted smile did little to set his mind at ease. He knew her better than that. And she knew him well enough to know he didn’t buy a word she’d said about the conference or her hotel room.

He stood up, pushing the chair out of his way and lowered the small bar at the side of her bed. Being careful not to jostle her, he sat on the edge of the bed, his arms framing her small body. He hated how small she looked in the hospital. It reminded him too many other times when she’d been in much worse shape. Too many times.

Bringing his face directly in front of hers, he whispered, “Tell me, Scully.”

She could feel the warmth of him, his breath, his body, his eyes, and it put her a little on edge. She could allow herself to be so totally subsumed by him or she could retain control for herself. And once again, she found herself questioning why it had to be a matter of ‘either or’. Why after she had allowed herself to go with the ebb and flow of their relationship. She knew he didn’t want to overpower or to take control.

He’d asked a simple question borne of his concern for her, his love for her. But, for some reason, she still didn’t want him to know about the possible lingering effect of the paste, couldn’t bring herself to tell him. So, she did what she did best, she brushed him away with prevarication and distraction.

She kissed his slightly parted lips and then drew back with a smile. His smile grew as he leaned closer still, but before her lips could touch his, he diverted to her ear. “I will find out, Scully, but I’m patient, so I’ll wait.” As she drew in a breath at the feeling his breathy words caused, he finished. “But don’t make me wait too long, ok?” To punctuate his question, he slipped the tip of his tongue into her ear, following it with a quick kiss on her cheek.

“Now, Dr. Scully, it’s time for you to get some rest.”

Drawing the chair back to the side of the bed, he sat back in the semi-recliner, settling in for the night. “Sweet dreams, partner.”

Scully still had not closed her mouth even when the room light was switched off.

~~~~~~

En Route
16 September

The roof mounted jet black, Thule racks hold two pair of skis, freshly gleaming in their newness. The fire engine red Jetta takes the corners on Route 91 North as if the driver believes herself to be cruising the autobahn, heedless of the vehicles that nearly careen out of control to move from her path. It might have been the speed, but more likely, it was the almost ruthless, devil-may-care way in which she maneuvered the car.

Inside the vehicle, the driver’s eyes remained glued to the road, never wavering to check side or rearview mirrors, focusing solely on that which was directly in front of her. The Bose speakers surrounded her in the strains of Billy Idol’s White Wedding. She had programmed the CD player to put that selection on continual play, her voice belting the chorus, as well as, attempting to sing the guitar runs. The odd line, incorrectly sung as, ‘I’m gonna have a White Wedding…’ was the only break in the monochrome sound.

She had a plan, but at times it confused her. The plan involved her need to go north, possibly to northern New England, most likely somewhere in Vermont. She’d been there years ago, before she left for Europe. It had been nice, even somewhat cosmopolitan…for New England. She was extensively traveled and tended to consider the northeastern corner of the U.S. rather provincially staid. The Currier and Ives charm was lost on her more worldly ways.

She had business to attend to. Take care of? Yes, that sounded more like it. But, she was also ‘leaving’. ‘Leaving’. It had a much better ring to it than, ‘running’, or ‘hiding’, or worse yet, ‘running and hiding’.

As she crossed from Connecticut into Massachusetts, she managed to break from the leaving and running and hiding thoughts to reflect just how far she’d come in her forty odd years. A brief, wistful smile flirted at her lips and the light seemed to come on in her otherwise grim eyes. She raked a hand through her almost shoulder length dark hair as she thought about her career. How it had come to this pursuit, she wondered, not for the first time in the last several hours.

She’d had great potential. Her keen intelligence married with an inquiring mind opened many doors for her. And, once inside her most promising career door, she rose meteorically, her star rising above countless others. Of course, she had other talents that allowed her progress. Skills not listed in the job specs, not asked about on the copious applications she completed, but skills nonetheless. Honed razor edge sharp as she used her wits, no small amount of street smarts and her overly curious and downright nosy nature to make all the right moves. Often climbing onto or over others in her way.

She smiled a much fuller smile, the left side of her mouth quirking up just that much higher than the other. She mused about the one over whom she hadn’t really had to climb, although she did recall just how much fun it had been to ‘climb him’. He’d been the first with whom she’d decided she could relax, let down a bit of her guard. She’d allowed herself to fall for him, to fall hard. And that had been the start of her end.

She’d left him high and dry without so much as a farewell. She’d literally flown to Europe, thinking she’d never return. But the fates had been kind/cruel, depending on your outlook, and she’d come back. She’d found a way to insinuate herself into his life once again.

And there had been obstacles, mere contrivances to work her way around in her quest. At one time, they had shared that quest and she’d been sure they could do so again, rekindling their common goals and their relationship. But his new partner had gotten in the way — more times than she cared to think about.

But, being the self-proclaimed master at diverting attention and putting others in their rightful place beneath her, she’d also set in motion a string of doubts and serious questions that would occupy his worthless partner while she continued her pursuit.

All this thinking put her in a bad mood and she was temporarily pulled from her line of thinking. She had no need for road signs; she merely followed the macadam, occasionally glancing at either the center or sidelines to ensure her path. She idly wondered how much longer it would be until she reached Vermont, but wasn’t interested enough to stop and ask.

The dulling sameness of the endless miles stretching behind and in front of her threatened to lull her into a mindless sleep. She couldn’t really recall when she began this trip, but she knew she was driven in yet another quest. This quest would make others atone, make them pay — dearly — for their sins against her. She wasn’t always so sure which one should pay first and pay the most, but she knew they would have to suffer.

Sometimes, suffering was beneficial. It cleansed the soul, righted wrongs, hurt to the quick. She laughed, at first a joyous sound, smiling briefly at her reflection in the rearview mirror. It felt glorious and she grew ecstatic at the sounds of her mirth. As her foot slammed down on the gas pedal, her peals of laughter turned raucous, almost braying, as she pictured their faces.

She had known they would gloat. Although they were facing her back at the time, she could feel their eyes, especially feel her eyes, judging, smirking, mocking. The saddest part of the memory was knowing that he, too, was enjoying her near-demise. He who meant more to her than her very life. She’d have willingly walked straight into that portal if she knew he wanted her as much as she wanted him.

She’d tried to tell him, tried to make it clear just how much they were meant for each other, always had been meant for each other, but he’d heard none of it. Oh, he listened to her, she did give him minimal credit for that much, but it wasn’t nearly enough. He was still so blinded by the flame of his partner that he couldn’t or wouldn’t see what she had that his partner didn’t.

Swerving to barely miss the truck that dared to move at the speed limit, she chuckled, her laughter shifting as her eyes threw daggers. She’d have the pleasure of watching his partner spin in the wind like the last leave of autumn left to hang by a thread on its branch. She’d let him watch, too, knowing that when he saw how weak the red-haired bitch really was, he’d want her back all the more. He didn’t suffer weaklings and neither did she. Oh, yes, she would truly enjoy exacting her revenge on the petite woman who thought her partner loved her.

She knew all about their supposed closeness, the fact that they’d been sleeping together. It made her seriously question his judgment. How had he allowed himself to settle for less than what she had given him so long ago? He had been a voracious lover, driving fury, skilled flirt, brutally teasing and equally satisfying. And she’d shown him a thing or two, watching him rise to any occasion she could serve him. What that man could do with his mouth and hands…

Horns honked around her as the Jetta traveled randomly from lane to lane. She drove on, oblivious to that which lay beyond her metal cage.

Those hands and that mouth would be hers or she’d die in the effort and take him with her. No one left her.

~~~~~~

Fletcher Alan Health Care Facility
Monday, 17 September
11:00AM

“Rise and shine, beautiful, it’s check-out time.”

By the look he got for his over zealousness, he could tell this was going to be one of those days. He’d already had to call in to the Harris Construction Company to notify him that he couldn’t start the job until tomorrow. He’d told them he’d had trouble with his truck and was having it looked at today.

Mulder was already dressed in jeans, tee and jacket, having arisen much earlier and gotten a ride to the boardinghouse to pick up some clothing. Knowing that Scully couldn’t leave in her still damp and filthy clothing, he’d also managed to stop by the hotel to get some of her things. The hotel manager had been adamant about denying him access until he’d seen the badge. A quick phone call had confirmed Mulder’s identity. Although he knew he may have just breached his cover, Mulder knew that the chances of the hotel manager remembering him later were probably nil.

As he moved closer to her bedside to offer a hand, he noted that she still wasn’t smiling. “Scully? Are you feeling all right?” Cursing himself for providing the instant response to his question, he reframed it. “It’s just that you look like something’s bothering you. What’s wrong?”

“Just move out of my way, Mulder. I don’t need help getting out of bed.”

Her words came out more bitingly than she’d intended. She knew he was trying to be helpful, but all she wanted now was to be in her own clothing and as far away from this place as possible. Truth be told, she was feeling very out of sorts having been in the same hospital twice in so many days. And they really hadn’t talked yet about what had happened to her. Add to that the fact that she’d experienced more of the not-so-mysterious dizziness when Mulder had gone for their clothing and she was a regular mess.

At some point, she was going to have to tell him about the lightheadedness and what she suspected was the cause. And once again, she still wasn’t at all sure why she kept putting off telling him. It wasn’t as if she’d have to convince him that the paste could be having lingering effects.

He moved a few steps back, but she could tell he was poised to offer her his hand, his arm, should she require it. Somewhere deep inside, she felt bad. So far, her whole time in Vermont had been disappointing and downright frustrating. With the exception of her time with Kimberley, Bryan and Ian, which, she mentally amended, had ended rather abruptly by her jealous partner, followed by their rather tempestuously hot rendezvous among the dark trees and his unexpected appearance at the hotel, she hadn’t really been feeling at the top of her game.

This conference was supposed to be the final leg of her requested time away from him, putting distance between the Marblehead fiasco and hopefully perspective on their relationship. But there were too many reminders, the worst of which being the dizziness and lightheadedness. And the fact that he was here, so close but still so far away. She pulled the hospital robe around her and clutched it tightly as she swung her legs over the side of the bed. She ached… everywhere. Leaning toward the foot of the bed, she unhooked the clipboard chart. What she saw went a long way in explaining the dull throbbing in her head and her side. Multiple contusions and lacerations, a mild concussion, a broken rib and two others fractured. Medical jargon to say that she was beat up pretty badly. No wonder Mulder was hovering.

She didn’t want to look up from the words in front of her, knowing she’d look straight into the depth of his worry, his concern, his love for her. All that would only serve to let the tears flow; she was way too close to an emotional edge right now.

When she hadn’t yet spoken, Mulder moved over closer to the bed, deciding he’d risk her angered words, an eyebrow or, heaven help him, both eyebrows. When she didn’t even look up at him, he grew concerned and sat down next to her on the bed, his hands in his lap. Waiting.

She put the chart down next to her and looked away from him, but otherwise didn’t move. “Mulder, get me out of here, please.” Her voice was barely audible as she slid forward to stand — and nearly passed out.

“Whoa, Scully, you probably don’t have your sea legs back yet. Take it easy.” His comment brought a small smile to her otherwise emotionally churning face and her eyes sought his. She allowed him to place an arm around her and help her get to her feet. Solid. Strong. Reassuring. He said nothing else and used only as much of that strength as he sensed she needed, careful to allow her to move under her own steam.

“I’ll be fine.” He supported her holding onto her elbow, the other arm around her waist. “I think I can manage now, thank you.” Holding only his hand now, she drew in a tentative breath, not wanting to feel the pain in her ribs. When she winced, his arm went around her shoulders. She let him hold her for only a few seconds before she let go of his hand and took a few steps.

“Thanks, Mulder, I can manage. Can you just bring my clothing into the bathroom? I’m going to take a quick shower and get dressed. Much as I loved the room service, I think there’s a better show in town.” Her eyes twinkled at his laughter. It felt good to hear him laugh and to take some of the attention off her.

“Do you need any help with your shower, Scully?” Holding her jeans, sweatshirt, underwear and socks, he walked toward her.

“Yes, as a matter of fact, I do.” One hand on the door handle, the other on her hip, she turned to him and smiled.

He walked around her and deposited her clothing on the bench seat in the bathroom and then moved back outside. “Well, I could—”

“You could call the nurse, Mulder, and then wait for me at the desk.” She brushed past him and closed the door.

A rather defeated Mulder went in search of the nurse.

~~~~~~

Smart Suite Inn South Burlington, Vermont Monday, 17 September

Tossing his duffel and garment bags down in the bedroom area, he immediately went to the phone. Picking up the receiver, he brought it to his ear — and then immediately replaced it. He could wait. No one needed to know he was in town just yet. He’d specifically chosen this location to remain just outside the action for a short time, hoping to really get a feel for their operation.

Proteus would be summoning him soon enough, but for now, Ben Stillman wanted to just observe. And his brother was on the top of that list. No, he’d call Bishop when he was good and ready. In the meantime, he’d get settled in and then drive into town.

He took the stairs from his suite down to the vaulted-ceilinged lobby, hardly noticing the large hearth in the center of the cozy gathering place. He failed to notice the walls of blazingly colored trees framing the parking lot or the view of the lake to his right as he sought his rental car at the back of the lot.

He drove with a carefully concealed vengeance. He knew he had to find a way to channel his recent change in marital status as they referred to it at the Precinct offices — god, how he hated that phrase. He was fucking divorced for crying out loud. Had they never heard the word before? He took another deep breath. His physician had explained to him that his divorce wouldn’t kill him but the stress would. She’d handed him a tape he’d almost tossed out the window of the car on his way home thinking he didn’t need no damned relaxation guide. But, strangely enough, he’d played it; just once, to humor him. And he surprised himself with just how much he’d liked it. Well, he wasn’t a completely changed man, but he was working on it. He stopped at the local McDonald’s and drove into the city as he munched on his quarter-pounder and fries. It really was a rather nice day. He’d driven up early this morning, listening to the local forecasters talking about the rainy Sunday they’d experienced. Ben hated the rain since it reminded him of the day his ‘marital status had changed’. Fuck! He slammed his palm into the steering wheel, the fries he’d been holding smashed against the wheel and flying into the dash.

Maybe he should pull over and listen to the damn tape. Maybe he should get a grip on himself. It wasn’t raining, in fact, it was blazingly sunny, the trees were awash in color he rarely saw in D.C. and no one knew he was in town… yet.

He left his vehicle at the local park ‘n lock and set out along Church Street, heading toward Battery. He wandered aimlessly, taking in the workaday sights along the way. Telling himself he really didn’t get out much anymore, he found himself facing the main entry to the Radisson Hotel, the grand Adirondack Mountains looming, snow-capped behind him. Being in the nation’s capital for so long had made him forget the simpler pleasures in life. Like standing in the state of Vermont and gazing across Lake Champlain to New York state.

Hands on his hips, he cocked his head to one side and breathed in deeply. It really was a nice day, he noticed, the temperature in the mid-60s, the sun shining and people coming and going with the normal activities of life. As he wandered along the semi-circular driveway to the hotel lobby, he watched the F-150 pull up to the door. The cape-coated doorman approached, opening the passenger-side door, extending his hand and arm to the petite, red-haired woman. The driver emerged on his own, his tall, lanky frame gracefully exiting the vehicle as he handed the keys to the parking valet.

Ben moved closer, sure he knew the driver, but the man was turning toward the woman as they headed for the door. He was trying to put his arm around her and she was standing just outside his reach. They both stopped as the man turned in Ben’s direction and handed the doorman some tip money.

<Well, well, well, Agent Mulder visiting Vermont at the same time…>

~~~~~~

Radisson Hotel
Dana Scully’s Room

“Mulder, you don’t have to come upstairs, I can make it just fine on my own.”

“Are you telling me you don’t want me to come up? You could probably use some help. You’ve got to be sore.”

He’d almost forgotten to tip the doorman, but managed to press a five into the man’s palm just before they walked through the revolving doors. His hand on her shoulder, he moved in behind Scully in the same enclosure, making their process through the turning glass panels not a little difficult. “You know, Mulder, there were plenty of free spaces, you didn’t have to push into mine.”

“You know me, Scully, I like to crowd your space.” He really could be infuriating sometimes.

As she exited the door, he nearly tripped over her; instead he managed to only stumble against her before righting himself.

“Walk much, Mulder?” She muttered under breath as she headed for the elevators, hiding a grimace at the dull ache his jostling had caused. She had no desire to let him see the effect he’d had knowing full well that he’d want to somehow try to make it better, fuss over her. Right now, all she wanted to do was forget the whole situation had taken place.

He depressed the ‘6’ button and then leaned back against the wall between the elevator doors, arms crossed in front of him.

“It was the sheer excitement of being in your presence. You knock me off my feet sometimes.”

The smirk truly needed to be wiped from his face, but to do that; she’d have to touch him. And right now, she hadn’t even wanted him to come upstairs with her, let alone touch him. And she didn’t know why.

The ‘ping’ of the arriving car came from farthest to her left. With the outpouring of guests, Scully somehow managed to make it inside without realizing that Mulder had not made it behind her. When the doors slid closed and she was surrounded by others, she searched for him. Outside the now-rising elevator, Mulder cursed under his breath and then once again pressed the ‘up’ button.

Reaching her floor, Scully stepped out and headed down the hall, following the tapestry border of the carpet as it wound its way around the corner. She stopped abruptly when she saw Mulder leaning against her door waiting for her. His self-satisfied grin made her laugh as she shook her head.

“Pretty amazing, huh, Scully?”

“What, the fact that you took a car that didn’t stop at every floor on the way up?”

He leaned in close as she fumbled with the key card and whispered, “Where’s the fun loving Dana Scully I used to know?”

Pushing his face away from her, she swung the door open and shrugged out of her jacket, remembering to do so carefully. Without waiting to see where he landed, she lowered herself into the club chair by the window and kicked her shoes off, propping her feet up on the matching ottoman. She let her head fall back and stretched her arms out on the chair. The dull throbbing that was now taking up residence behind her eyes begged for sleep, a few blissful moments, but that was not to be. She looked up when she heard Mulder talking to room service. It was nearly one o’clock and she realized she was starving. The hospital’s scrambled eggs and toast wedges had not satisfied her hunger and had tasted just this side of cardboardish. She listened as he ordered her a chef’s salad, root beer and some plain yogurt with fresh cut fruit. Sometimes the man just knew the right thing to do.

And then he ordered himself a rare roastbeef sandwich, steak fries and an iced tea. Not bad for a Mulder Meal, she mused.

He dragged over a chair from the work area and turned it so the back faced her. His long limbs straddling the seat and back, he sat with his chin resting on his arms perched on the chair back. “Wanna tell me what happened yesterday?” His query was spoken in a soft tone, but was direct and told her he needed to know. She wasn’t so sure she wanted to talk about it.

She lifted her head from the cushion. For some reason, she was ashamed and embarrassed about the fact that she’d let herself be abducted from a rather public area in the middle of the day. And that seemed to be the root of why she hadn’t told him anything up to this point. Her rational mind knew that she’d been clearly outnumbered. Although she’d sensed rather quickly that their intent had not been to do lasting harm, it was also clear that at least one of them had been enjoying himself immensely. Her training and prior experiences told her that had she caused more difficulty for them, this man may have gotten carried away. She inwardly winced at what he’d done while behaving according to the plan she knew they’d had. An injury of another kind… one she willed from her mind.

“I guess you deserve to know, Mulder, but I don’t feel much like talking about it.” She sat up and looked out the window, letting her eyes focus on the water. It was a glorious day and she found herself wishing she could be out on the water doing absolutely nothing. She turned back toward him and explained how the men had come up to her, surrounding her. How no one, really, had paid them much attention. And then she stopped talking, turning once again to the window.

She never saw the look on his face as he noticed her sharp inhalation as she sat up. Worry lines creased his forehead, but he resisted the urge to assist her, knowing it would be met with irritation. And she never heard him get up, but most definitely noticed when he sat on the ottoman and placed her feet in his lap.

“Scully.” God how she loved the way he said her name. It commanded her attention in a way no one or nothing else really ever did. And he had the ability to convey a range of meaning and emotion in that one word.

His thumbs massaged the area under her toes with a pressure firm enough to ward off the giggles he knew threatened. She was ticklish and he’d stored that fact away for future use. But as much as he loved her laughter, this was about relaxation. She was wound tighter than a drum and was having a hard time talking about what had happened. He aimed to change that for her.

“You’re hurting, in pain, aren’t you?” His tone matched the massaging quality of his hands on her feet, but she could hear the concern.

Attempting to ignore his query, she sank a little lower in the cushions, a sigh escaping her lips. “You expect me to talk while you do that?”

“I expect you to relax and to answer my question.” His persistence made her squirm. It was warring with the pleasurable feeling of his warm hands on her tired feet. The points he was touching were doing rather wonderful things to her entire body. His questions were having the opposite effect.

“Mulder, you heard the doctor on call say I could be released. He wouldn’t have—” She knew her answer sounded lame, even without seeing the amused and somewhat frustrated look on her partner’s face.

The massaging motion at a standstill, he held her feet in one hand and leaned forward to rest the other on the seat cushion, causing her to bend her knees to accommodate his upper body.

“All I’m asking is if you’re in any pain, but if you’re not going to answer me, just promise you’ll tell me if you need any pain medication. I really don’t know what the problem is with admitting that your cracked ribs and bruised face might be sore. We humans, Scully, are allowed to experience pain that is the result of injury and to have some sympathy.”

She tried, but was unsuccessful in pulling her legs away from him. As he continued to speak and lean forward, he unintentionally pulled her feet closer to him… to his lap. She tried not to breathe, feeling each small movement of her feet as they began to massage him. If she wasn’t mistaken, his body was reacting to the pressure of her feet.

“Mulder, just let me go. I think Room Service is here, anyway.” He looked toward the door, but only called out, ‘come in’. Noticing the look in her eyes, he released her feet and watched as she quickly placed them on the floor.

He shook his head in resignation. Getting Scully to admit to being in pain probably wouldn’t happen unless she was delirious. Glancing at her, he got up and opened the door, ushering inside the delivery of their lunch.

They munched in silent comfort, both trying, but not succeeding in looking like they weren’t ravenous. Sitting across the table from each other, they were able to momentarily suspend reality and focus in on one almost ordinary moment. Having finished his sandwich and most of his fries, Mulder nabbed a strip of ham from Scully’s salad. She playfully swatted his hand away, reminding him that he wanted her to get her strength back. He smiled as he snagged the deli meat anyway. When both seemed to have eaten all they could manage, Mulder tried to steer the conversation back to her abduction.

“Scully, take your time and tell me what the men looked like.” His voice was soothing, wrapping around her like a downy quilt.

Sitting up straighter in the ladder-back chair, she described the four men and the one who seemed to be the group’s leader. Although she had been lulled by his voice, she immediately felt the change upon mentioning the group’s leader. Mulder gripped the edge of the table, turning his knuckles white.

He looked… intense and it frightened her. “Mulder? What did I say?”

“It’s probably nothing, it just sounded like someone I thought I recognized…” He sat back, releasing his death grip on the table. He was biting back what he wanted to say and she was going to make sure she found out what it was.

“Out with it, Mulder.”

What to do? He was more sure than ever that her abduction was intended to make him, well, make Chris Arsenault, sit up and take notice, know just how powerful the group was. The man she described was the man he was supposed to meet with at the Metronome Club several nights ago.

~~~~~~

Home of Kimberley Kresge
Monday, 17 September
Mid-Afternoon

“Ok, thank you, yes, I appreciate it.” Kimberley turned to Bryan perched on the edge of the oak stool at the breakfast bar and almost had to laugh at the expression on his face. Had she not been on the cordless phone, she was sure he would have been leaning against the phone trying to hear the other side of the conversation.

“She’s ok and has been released. Her partner took her back to the hotel. She did take quite a beating though from the sounds of it.” She sat on the stool across from him after setting the phone down on the counter behind her.

“How did you get all that out of the hospital? You’re not family—” Bryan stopped when he saw the tilt of her head and the funny, ‘think about it Bryan’ smile on her face. Of course, she was working with the local law enforcement now and Dana was a family friend.

“You know, the whole thing is a bit fishy and I’m wondering if it’s connected to whatever her partner’s working on. What really surprises me is just how effective they were in getting her out of the Market Place. Dana’s never been one to let others take control and it seems as if it was done in broad daylight in a very public location. This sounds very well-organized to me.” She was pacing now, having slid from the stool and Bryan watched her for a few moments, knowing this was how she did some of her best puzzling.

How organized?” He joined her, his hand on her arm. Ever since they’d been together, he’d grown more used to, although never comfortable with, her dealings with the seamier side of life.

“Well, from what my sources tell me, there’s a new ‘element’ in the city. But, you know that much, otherwise I wouldn’t have been asked in. What I don’t yet know is if this is simply an organized crime ring with a general focus or one of the newer groups I’d done some research on prior to leaving home. I intend to find out, especially if they’ve somehow involved Dana. I’d also like to talk to her partner, Mulder. And—” She stopped when she ran into Bryan’s lips. She had to admit, he had a way of reminding her that all work and no play made her day dull and his even duller.

~~~~~~

Radisson Hotel Burlington, Vermont Monday, 17 September 4:00PM

Barely slowing at Exit 14, the Jetta careened to the stop light at the end of the ramp. She quickly glanced at the directional signs, trying to decide where to go. She knew now without hesitation, that Burlington was where she belonged, knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that she would find him here. Hoped she’d also find her here, too. She couldn’t remember how she knew this information; oftentimes, now, she would feel perfectly lucid, going about her business as necessary, performing with exacting precision and well-thought out skill and cunning, but would have absolutely no way to retrace her steps to that point. No matter, she was enjoying life much more since the summer.

The green signs with the white outlines of the State of Vermont seal and state icon indicated the route. Next to it was the familiar blue signage indicated ‘food, fuel, lodging’ with the appropriate national symbols. A smaller sign with the red flourish design indicated the new Radisson Hotel on the shores of Lake Champlain. She turned right into the heavy rush-hour traffic. As Williston Road became Main and then Battery Streets, the merging vehicles slowed her progress toward the all-glass facade of the recently renovated facility. She could make out the brilliant reflection as the waning sun shone on the windowed walls of the six sprawling floors. The Lake views and the proximity to the upscale Church Street Marketplace drew her like a moth to a flame.

She rounded the semi-circular entryway, slowing by the valet stand. Smiling at her reflection in the overhead vanity mirror, she fluffed her hair and checked her make-up prior to grabbing her bag. The doorman extended a hand to her as she alighted, her short suede skirt giving him quite the view of her long shapely legs.

She walked to the trunk, tossing her shoulder length hair over her shoulders, her head held high. Looking around her, she breathed in deeply, feeling totally at home amidst the glitz and glamour, such as it was in New England, and smiled. Her Luis Vuitton luggage was carefully placed on the brass trolley and she tossed the valet captain her key ring with a flourish.

Yes, the universe was aligning just perfectly.

Tugging the matching suede cropped jacket into place over her silk tank, she approached the check-in desk and requested their finest suite. To say that she was nonplussed when the clerk quietly told her they were no room available was putting it mildly. The sound of her manicured nails tapping the marble counter was the initial sign of her frustration. And she implored the clerk to check the availability once again. The woman tried to explain that since there was a major conference in town and it was peak foliage season, rooms had been booked for months. The explanation only seemed to further anger the would-be guest.

She placed her leather clutch on the counter and leaned in closer to the clerk, her crimson stained lips forming a rather strained smile. Through the smiling lips, she spoke as one does to a small, recalcitrant child, demanding that the clerk carefully re-check and procure her accommodations. At that moment, the shift manager appeared from the back room, having been discreetly summoned via the button beneath the counter by the staff member.

After assessing the situation and calling upon his best customer service training skills, he allowed the clerk to find an open suite. The manager disappeared, leaving his reservationist to complete the transaction.

“Your suite faces the lake, Miss, and is on our top floor. It appears we just had a cancellation I was unaware of.”

Now in the mood to be more gracious, she smiled almost genuinely at the woman behind the counter and took the proffered pen to complete the registration materials.

“What conference is in town?” She never looked up nor paused with her writing as the woman told her it was the National Forensic Pathologists. But her eyes smiled at the possibilities.

After entering her credit card data, the clerk handed over the keycard and summoned the Bell Captain who in turn, directed one of his staff to accompany the guest to the 6th floor suites.

“Enjoy your stay, Ms. Fowley and welcome to Burlington.”

~~~~~~

Dana Scully’s Room
4:00PM

An impasse. One that she intended to move around. Now. Smiling inwardly, she mused how often he accused her of not being forthcoming with information and, more often, her feelings. Yet, here he was, mostly likely in possession of key information regarding her abductors and he was shutting her out. Thinking he had some responsibility no doubt.

She was used to it; they performed this dance rather well. This time, she was leading.

“Out with it, Mulder,” she repeated her earlier words. She moved over to the two-seater, her mid-section throbbing slightly from sitting upright during lunch. She knew he hadn’t missed her attempt to grit back the outward sign of her discomfort as he moved quickly to her side, offering her his hand. She took it, but more to ease his conscience than for need of assistance.

Resigned. He knew that all points were leading toward including her, although a silent war still raged in his head. Knowing she’d rail against his attempts to shield and protect her. It was her work, too, only circumstances dictating that he handle this case on his own. It was not unheard of for either of them, although it was rare. They were a powerful and highly effective team.

And it had nothing to do with his need to ‘follow orders’. He used that phrase only as it suited his purpose having learned long ago that sometimes he just knew better, best. The ‘suits’ weren’t in the field often enough to know what truly worked. While his partner was much more a ‘by the book’ person, at least at first, she had also found a style, a rhythm, that allowed her to accomplish that which needed doing without completely turning the higher-ups against her. As well as smoothing the way for him. He knew she’d placated and cajoled the powers that be, and disarmed not a few potentially explosive situations for him.

He owed her this much. Hell, he could use her assistance. But, even more so, now that she’d been assaulted by the very men he was investigating, it would prove much more dangerous to keep her in the dark. Besides, he was well aware that her dogged determination would allow her to put the pieces together on her own. But at what cost to her in the meantime? He had no doubt that she would tail him and conduct her own separate investigation if he dared to try and keep her in the dark.

They’d tried to leave her out before, a few years back. He’d been assigned to a deep cover case and although he’d argued to include her, Skinner had been adamant that she not be involved. Despite the orders, she’d insinuated herself when she’d jumped from the surveillance van to go after him in the park. From there, her suspicions of him in aiding and abetting a terrorist had grown, but, true to her trust in him, she’d been silent at the hearing; doubting, but not implicating him. Always true to their partnership. In the end, she’d been brought in, but it had seemed almost too late. No. He was going to take the chance knowing the benefits far outweighed the detractors.

When he attempted to pull her against him, she moved to the other armrest. She needed to hear what he had to say without distraction. And, as much as being wrapped in his arms was an attractive thought, especially since she was still feeling at odds with yesterday’s incident, she needed her wits about her. Thankfully, he seemed to understand and gave her her space.

Before he had a chance to begin, she turned to him and stated quietly, “These men; they’re part of your case. This is their way of sending you a message.” No question in her mind, but needing to hear the confirmation.

The corners of his lips turned up ever-so-slightly. “That’s what I suspect, yes.”

She was hungry for more, wanted to help out in anyway she could. She didn’t fool herself into believing that just because they hadn’t followed through on their threat that they were harmless, but she suspected, she knew that he could use her help. By the look in his eyes, she could also tell that he was well aware that she was involved already whether he’d wanted her to be or not.

“So, where do we begin?”

He was on his feet now, moving to the windows, then back toward the door. As he began with his work on the Stillman case and how the Gunmen had confirmed his aroused suspicions, she smiled, careful not to let him see it. He was in his element here; his mostly monotone recitation of the facts with the occasional inflection for his own observations and commentary, the slideshow playing out in his head vividly described so that even she could see the case unreel.

Her furrowed brow and arms folded across her chest told him that she was formulating questions, making her own connections. She remembered back to the Hapskah case for which she’d conducted the autopsy, been surprised at the findings or rather, the confusion in the reports.

He brought her up to his visit to the Metronome Club that night, not having to explain how he’d missed his first meeting with the short round man. How he now guessed that man had been one of the abductors. Hesitating, he stopped in front of her, biting on his lower lip, telling her silently what he had no need to voice — there was a piece of information that was much more recent, something else he was considering withholding.

She stood at that point and took one hand in hers. “What is it?” Her tone was soft, but far from subtle. If she was going to be of any assistance, she needed his full disclosure.

His other hand grasped hers over his and she felt the warmth radiate throughout her body. God, how she’d missed him, them, this. A simple touch that could say so much more than their words.

“I’m sure the contact at the club saw you follow me out, talked to his boss. I met someone named Bishop in the park by the lake the day before you were attacked. I think—”

Before he could finish, she indicated that they should sit. Holding any one position right now, other than lying flat on her back, got to be uncomfortable.

“Look, Mulder, I’m sure I don’t have to say this, but I will. You are not responsible for what happened to me by the lake. We risk our lives on our jobs daily and while we can sometimes watch each other’s backs, we can’t ensure each other’s safety all the time. You know that. I know that. Besides, partner, you’re already carrying around enough guilt for a lifetime for the two of us; you don’t need any more and it won’t change what happened.”

“No, no it won’t, but we have to stay ahead of this group. So, I need details. I need you to tell me exactly what happened. Don’t leave out any little bit of information, no matter how insignificant it may seem.” His look was earnest, although his tone was calm, level.

“You sound as if you’re interviewing the victim, Mulder.” Her look was weary once again as she played out the images from Sunday.

“Scully,” he paused, hoping she’d not need any further words, but when her expression hadn’t changed, he continued, “you are the victim.”

Looking down momentarily, her teeth worrying her lower lip in much the way Mulder did when nervous or deep in thought, she coughed, sending a wash of fresh pain through her ribcage. Before he could move to her, she waved him off with her standard utterance, although she was sure he knew she was not truly ‘fine’. The pain subsided and she began.

Telling him of the agreement to split up and check-out different shops, her interest in the shoes in the window. His flip comment that ended with him referring to her as ‘Imelda’ brought a brief smile to her lips. She explained how she’d been about to enter the shop to try them on when the men had formed a suited wall around her.

“Describe them, Scully.”

“I’ve done that for you once already.”

“Well, humor me and do it again. What did they sound like, look like, colognes?”

Tucking her hair behind her ears, she sat upright, a look of confusion changing to sudden insight crossing her face.

“What is it? What did you remember?”

“Well, it’s probably not much, but I’d swear they were all wearing the same scent, not an aftershave; this was much stronger, almost overpowering. It had a rather clean undertone to it, though, bracing, almost a slight eucalyptus. I remember trying to back away from them, and not just because I was sure their intentions weren’t, shall we say, noble?”

Her look registered surprise at her recollection. Damn! How did he do that? Manage to wrest things out of people they didn’t even realize they knew? She knew it had to be his ability to put others at ease, make them comfortable around him almost instantly.

“That’s how I knew! That’s it, Mulder!” She barely registered his wide-eyed look as she continued in a rush of words. “I’d been having a strange feeling moments before they were around me. I couldn’t explain it, but it got my hackles up.”

It was too priceless for him to let go. “Your hackles, Scully? Explain that scientifically, please.”

She nearly ignored him. Just ‘nearly’… “When the body perceives a threat, real or imagined, certain autonomic responses occur and—”

He waived her explanation away. “I was kidding, Scully, sheesh! Just continue.” They both laughed, although she had to hold her arms around her to do so.

“One of the men had a very gravelly voice, low, dark. When I, uh, started drawing too much attention to us, he kissed me. My guess was that he wanted to silence me. However, it did anything but.” She looked at her partner and watched as he unconsciously licked his lips. Hmmm.

He nodded for her to continue.

“The blond, more burly man had a syringe, although they didn’t use it at first. I guessed it would have merely sedated me had I put up more of a struggle. The man who seemed to be the group’s leader, dark haired, ignominious bastard… may have been slightly injured, but nowhere they’d find evidence.” She almost snickered, but the look receded as she recalled his hand touching her breast. Mulder merely watched, carefully keeping his hands from her, although he wanted to lend his physical presence.

“Did they talk about anything in particular, ask you any questions?”

“Actually, they seemed to think I knew a Mr. Chris Aresenault, that he was a friend of mine. They said we were ‘chummy’, they’d noticed at the Club. It’s you, isn’t it, Mulder?”

He glanced away and then back at her, not quite able to hold his guilt reserve from coloring his look. “It is.” That was all he could manage, now knowing for sure that he’d been sent a powerful message about the men he was dealing with.

It was she who reached out to him, knowing he needed to feel her reassurance. A simple gesture, her hand on his, a smile, his name spoken softly.

She needed to finish, to move on. “From there, I remember very little. Mercifully, they did drug me, so the worst of their blows were blunted, diffused. I remember being held and slammed in the jaw.”

He winced visibly and his fingers twined with hers squeezing almost impossibly hard.

“I saw one of the men draw back, but must have passed out before the blow to my ribs. Mulder, no more. Nothing else will help here.”

His eyes smiled sadly. Looking directly into the depths of hazel, she gazed at him. He patted the cushion next to him, silently asking her to join him, unsure of where to hold her without causing further pain. She slid over slowly and turned so that her back was positioned halfway against his chest. He ran his hand along her forehead, sweeping her hair from her face, and leaned down to kiss her there as she closed her eyes. “Sleep, Scully.”

“Just give me a few.”

The rays of sun slanted in across the carpeting, lighting a path across the room as he continued to stroke her hair and lightly finger massage her scalp.

~~~~~~

Across Town
Monday, 17 September
8:00PM

The room had been set up like a fall-out shelter, as if they would be ensconced there for a long time to come. The heavy brocade drapes were drawn tight against the night sky and the ceiling track lighting and smaller halogen table lamps were lit. Sixteen black leather chairs surrounded the mahogany inlaid oval table, each place sporting a leather blotter, portfolio and pen. Chilled silver pitchers of ice water were spaced sporadically, the cut crystal stemware standing guard in a bisecting line lengthwise down the table. On the sideboard, whole fruits, deli platters and desserts lay ready to fuel the group soon to be arriving.

The boss took care of those who took care of him. He demanded perfection and usually got it. Those that were either unwilling or unable to meet his expectations found themselves disowned, disenfranchised and just totally down on their luck for life.

Each of the men arrived, entering the room in carefully assigned pairs. Some said of Proteus that he was sexist in designing his group. Some were accurate in their assessment, but he saw it as a matter of choosing those who were willing to get the job done and get it done right the first and only time. There were no second chances, no three strikes. If one missed once, one was replaced forever.

Ben and Bishop were the first pair to enter and take their seats; the two brothers’ looks the only similarity between them. Ben’s fidgeting stood out against Bishop’s schooled ambivalence. Bishop’s haughty and imperious air subsumed Ben’s down home, working class, gritty style. They sat opposite each other, both reaching for a goblet and pitcher almost immediately.

The other 7 pairs filed in and Ben nodded curtly at some of the men he had brought to the group. They were acquaintances he’d never met, but knew well enough. Like himself, they came from law enforcement backgrounds, many from the penal system where they’d established a deep cover network that even now was connecting the northeast corridor through an elaborate human chain link fence.

While the Boss served as the director, orchestrating movement from the point of origin to the final destination, he relied upon his team to make it happen. Ben served as the overseer of the originating point, receiving the ‘call’ and starting the flow. He’d been promised that his position would not suffer and that he’d never be stained by his side business as long as he was able to hold up his end of the bargain. From Proteus’ vantage point, Ben was a good soldier, although occasionally cranky. He needed to be stroked and sometimes he needed a kick in the butt. His brother, Bishop, was definitely the more polished of the pair, but polish sometimes translated into headaches. Bishop often got too big for his britches and needed to be reminded just who was in charge. But, he did his job well, serving as the facilitator in the final link in the fence that was now ready to cross the border into Canada.

“Gentlemen, brothers, let us sit.” Proteus surveyed the faces, eight on each side of him, paired across the table by their working relationship, assigned to watch each other, hold each other in check. No chair existed at the head of the table. He was not their equal. He did not sit with them. Gestures spoke volumes and he spoke loudest.

All attention turned to the man in the navy suit with the matching navy silk shirt and tie. As he spoke, the glint of the gold cufflinks and tie tac reflected the light in small energetic sparks. “We have a singular opportunity here as we sit on the precipice. You have all played a part in constructing the bridge that will take us across and expand our territory. Our brothers in Montreal and Toronto are anxiously waiting to play their part. The rewards will be many, beyond measure even. But, I warn you that we must not let this moment of triumph render us sloppy. There are those even now who would seek to topple our efforts if we are not vigilant. I will accept nothing less than your complete dedication and commitment and I will handsomely reward you for it.”

He paced the circumference, pausing to look at the back of the head of the man in front of him and across to the face of his partner, letting them know that while he watched directly, he also observed covertly. They would be wise to never forget the latter while acknowledging the former.

To drive his point home, he stopped, back at the head of the table. “And as I may reward you, I may also punish misdeeds and transgressions. Admitting mistakes is not accepted anymore than making them. Do your jobs and do them perfectly.”

Bringing both arms up in front of him, he signaled to them to partake of the feast. He didn’t need to tell them twice. As in all matters, when Proteus spoke, his men obeyed.

~~~~~~

Stenhauser Construction Site
Essex Junction, Vermont
Tuesday, 19 September
6:30AM

The shift supervisor and crew boss arrived together, the supervisor jumping out of the F-150 to unlock the gated fence, motioning his driver inside. The steady line of waiting workers followed them in, parking their vehicles on the dirt lot and surrounding matted grass. The tree leaves surrounding the site cast ragged edged and moving shadows over the vehicles from the just-rising sun as it climbed its way up over the eastern horizon.

Nature’s early morning reverence was marred only by the diesel smoke of the machinery and the sounds of the workers trudging to their posts, hard hats pulled from truck cab hooks, tool belts dragged from truck beds and slung low on their hips.

An orderly line of caffeine-withdrawn workers grumbled and chatted about the day’s assignments as the Jake’s Good Eats truck pulled into the yard. As if led by some invisible force, the line moved directly toward the silver-sided vehicle as the owner propped up the awnings, ready for service.

The conversations became more animated, now fueled by a few cups of ‘joe’ and homemade doughnuts and pastries.

“Ok, men, we’ve got a job to do, so finish the java and get those asses moving! Those starting this morning, follow me to the trailer.” The crew boss’s work boots cast deep impressions in the thick mud as he headed for the red-paneled command post and he made his way up the wooden stairs. Rifling through the papers on his desk, he had to almost yell to be heard over the rising din of the machinery, the cranes and the frame elevators taking the high rise to the top of the metal structure.

“Arsenault, Christian, front and center.”

“Uh, that’s ‘Chris’, Sir.” Mulder made his way to the desk; his white hard hat in his hand as his other scrubbed across his stubbled face. The blast of the space heaters and fans took the edge off the chill of the crisp fall morning. A quick side-trip to the local Salvation Army store had provided the worn look to his button-down Levis, glen plaid flannel shirt that hung open and the well-washed, navy tee. A friend of a friend of somebody’s uncle who owed one to Frohike had provided the walnut leather tool belt that hung rakishly on his hips.

“All right then, Chris it is. I see that you have scaffolding and soldering experience? That’s good because we’re short at the top this week. I’m going to send you up lift #4. You may want to button or tuck the shirt, though. Being this close to the lake and that high up, you’re going to get some powerful updrafts.” Luckily, the boss didn’t notice the slight shift in Mulder’s otherwise outwardly calm countenance when the boss assigned him to the ‘top’.

When he finished the assignments, he sent them off telling them they got two, fifteen-minute breaks that would be whistle governed and an hour lunch. Quitting time was 4:00PM sharp. A firm hand on his shoulder and Mulder turned his head, looking at the man who towered over him by about three inches.

“The name’s Slug, but my friends call me ‘Slug’.” He snorted and smiled affably and shook Mulder’s hand, already aware that his name was ‘Chris’. Slug had a bit of trouble navigating back through the trailer’s door; solid from head to toe and built like a Mack truck.

Mulder knew that Slug also worked at the top, but would be using the jackhammer and riveter. They made their way to shaft #4 and waited for it to return to ground level.

“Better put that thing on your head over here, Chris.” Adjusting the inner band, Mulder set the polyurethane molded hardhat on his head, glancing over at Slug to ensure proper placement.

Others had gathered to wait for their ride to the top and Mulder took a few minutes to take in the layout of the site. The building they’d be working on was part of a larger complex of small shops and a much-needed community center for the towns of Essex and Essex Junction in their surge of urban growth. The rust colored frame was nothing more than a series of junctures forming a metal skeleton for the external skin and internal systems that would appear later. Here and there sheets of plywood flooring connected the girders, allowing the workers to move from one section to another. And, although it was now daybreak, each level was also outfitted with hanging utility lamps at regular intervals. Mulder leaned back, squinting in the wan sunlight and glare of the gray day to see the scaffolding on which he would be working along the outer edge of the frame. When the elevator arrived, six men crammed in as it lurched its ascent, stopping along the way to deposit the crew. Mulder and Slug were the last ones out at the top. Slug drew in a deep breath and released it as he looked around. Three hundred sixty degrees of nothing but tree tops and sky and, off to the east, Lake Champlain with diffuse rays of light filtering through the cloud cover.

Mulder followed his coworker’s gaze, noting just how beautiful the view was until he gazed in the direction of his work assignment. The platform was approximately four feet wide and ten feet long supported and braced by a network of steel cables and wires. A thin metal framework provided a railing and a few crossbars. His eyes traveled up one level to the large winch and motor that controlled the movement of the apparatus.

Interesting assignment, indeed. Right now, being chased by mutants or the undead seemed mighty attractive.

Adjusting his tool-belt, Mulder then heeded the Crew Boss’s warning, already noticing the turbulence at the top of the structure. Buttoning the bottom few buttons, he tucked the shirt into the waist of his jeans and headed toward the scaffold. Quickly scanning the area, he noticed that he was the only man assigned to the aerial platform and that Slug and the few others were all working around the corner and on the opposite side of the frame.

Responsible for soldering the larger end cap bolts to the frame uprights, he reached for protective headgear. After removing his hard hat, he pulled on the pseudo-helmet with the safety glass, tinted amber to keep out the glare, and followed the plywood walkway to the eastern-most side of the skeletal building. The plywood walkway sounded hollow beneath his feet as he put on the flame-retardant work gloves. He located the blowtorch in a small tool shed and pulled it free of its braces.

The wind picked up slightly and he noticed the sway of the hanging platform as he stepped out onto it. He knew better than to look down, but was drawn to do so anyway. And nearly lost the torch over the side. Not an auspicious start for the first day on the job.

After connecting himself to the safety cables that would tether him to the platform, he flipped the helmet’s visor down over his face and turned the small dial on the front of the torch, careful to keep the resulting flame away from his clothing. The feeling was much like being in one of those sensory deprivation tanks he had volunteered to try during college. Although their hey-day had come and gone, as a student of psychology, he’d had a few opportunities to participate in a few experiments. The only difference now was that the sound of the torch and the wind served as white noise, effectively blocking all else. That, combined with the weight of the helmet on his head and his narrow field of vision through the safety glass over his eyes made it eerily quiet.

Finding his rhythm and the exact distance the tethers would allow him to move without adjustment, he moved from one girder to the next, starting to sweat despite the chilly air. The sun had never managed to break through the increasing cloud cover, but the heat of the torch and his physical exertion were generating more than enough warmth. As he neared the end of the scaffolding, he lowered the flame and set the torch down, wanting to wipe the sweat from his brow. Straightening up, he lifted the glass visor and then removed the helmet, his hair now damply plastered to his forehead. He turned toward the lake as he dragged a bandana across his face.

And that was when he felt the vibrations on the platform and started to turn back toward the girders.

~~~~~~

“He’s over there.”

“I see him, you idiot. Keep your mouth shut and move.”

“You know I hate being up here, why the hell couldn’t you have used Jack or Bill? They’ve got more experience with the high-wire act.”

Bishop turned to the short round man and sighed. What the guy lacked in brain power and height, he made up for in brute strength and wit. He assumed Proteus kept him on because of his unswerving loyalty and years of service. Truth be told, Bishop actually liked the guy…when he wasn’t whining or complaining.

“You’re here because I asked for you and Proteus told me I had free reign; you know that, so shut up before he sees us.”

They waited until Mulder had connected the two safety cables and picked up the torch. That would be a problem. They had no doubts about the man’s potential strength and had no desire to be part of any fire play. Luckily, he worked for awhile and then took a quick break, setting the torch down and removing his helmet.

As soon as he turned toward the lake, they made their move.

~~~~~~

He had one brief thought before they were in his face. He knew them both. And they were stony-faced.

He moved toward the opposite end of the scaffold and immediately noticed that he had partially unrestricted movement. One of his tethers had been disconnected and his helmet performed a free fall over the rail.

Amazingly, the short round man had Mulder’s arm bent and twisted behind him as Bishop approached, one hand pressed into Mulder’s chest. Forcing his back against the waist high support.

“Nice to see you again, Mr. Arsenault. I see you’ve started your new job with my company?”

Trying to extricate himself without doing so by following his helmet to the ground below, Mulder spat at Bishop and dug the heel of his work boot into the other man’s shin.

Bishop merely glanced down and then back up, a knowing smile on his face. “May I call you Chris?” Obviously not caring whether or not he got an answer, he continued, “Then Chris it is. We need to have a little agreement here.”

His hand moved against Mulder a bit more forcefully, bending him backward over the rail. The force of the move sent Mulder’s feet about six inches off the flooring, his legs scissoring to regain his balance.

Not wishing to totally lose their captive audience of one, Bishop’s other hand applied pressure against his groin serving to further bend him over the rail, as well as, preventing him from toppling heels over head down to the waiting crowd.

His head twisting to one side, he saw the small group of crew far below, watching the scene unfold. Trying to suppress a groan as the metal rail dug into his lower back, he promptly jerked his eyes back toward the two men, gritting out, “What the hell do you want from me?”

The short round man used Mulder’s already twisted arm to yank him a bit further back, but said nothing. Mulder managed to stay silent as his eyes scrunched shut and his lips bared, pulling into a wide grimace. Sure his back would snap in two if he wasn’t let up soon he tried to move to one side to ease the pressure on his spine. To no avail.

“A very good question, Chris. We merely wanted to bring you greetings from the boss and let you know that he’ll be watching. Through us, of course. And if your behavior warrants, you’ll have a chance to meet with him.”

Mulder wasn’t so sure that would be an invitation he could refuse; nor one he’d want to accept.

“Gee…thanks…,” Mulder mustered with as much sarcasm as his position would allow.

Bishop did smile then — and pushed one last time against Mulder’s fly before yanking him upright by his tee. Making a grand gesture of brushing off non-existent lint or dust, he then stepped away from Mulder, motioning to the short round man to join him.

Knowing that following them would get him nowhere except for maybe blowing his cover, he gulped in several deep breaths instead. The morning had certainly flown; it was lunchtime, but Mulder felt like doing anything but eating. Disconnecting the other safety cable sent a searing jolt of pain through his middle and lower back. Unable to either bite back the scream, nor care enough to attempt to, he let it rip, reminding himself that bending or twisting, hell, breathing, was downright painful.

Trying to nudge his hard hat with the tip of his boot, he bent his knee in an effort to get it up to his hand. All he succeeded in doing was sending it rolling and wobbling until it was balanced precariously near the far edge of the platform and evoking another nauseating wave of fresh pain through his body.

Deciding to leave his lunch, he began the arduously slow trek to the lift. Luckily, Slug had turned at that moment and noticed the rookie making his way from the scaffolding. “Giving up so early, good buddy?” He ambled toward Mulder, his arm extended as if he were about to give him a clap on the back. On his very sore back.

“Slug, no.” Mulder brought his good arm up; biting his lower lip as he clumsily shuffled toward the big man. “I think I threw my back out, old injury. Can you give me a hand to the lift?”

“Sure, no problem, Chris.” True to his word, his newfound friend just about carried him single-handedly to the elevator shaft. “You know, I’m pretty good about cracking backs. I bet I could have you fixed up in no time, buddy.”

Mulder’s panic face came alive at the thought of Slug, or anyone, even touching his back right now. “Thanks, Slug, but I think I’ll be all right once I get into the hot shower. Think I’m going to just need some help getting into my truck.”

For some reason, he felt both comfortable with the big coworker, something about his open and guileless demeanor set him at ease, but was also somewhat wary. And then the niggling thoughts crept in. From what Mulder could recall, there had been only one other worker at this level this morning. As they headed for the lift, he noticed it was just him and Slug. “Where’d that other guy go?” He hoped the question sounded casual, just a thought in passing.

“Geez, Chris, you throw out more than just your back this morning? It’s just you and me up here, buddy. No one else assigned.”

He decided not to push it, but was now more uneasy, wondering just what Slug had seen and allowed to occur. They made their way into the waiting, open car, and depressed the ‘ground’ button. The lurching of the descent did nothing for Mulder’s already aching body.

The small crowd seemed to have dispersed as Slug and Mulder made their way to the parking area. After opening the driver’s side door, Mulder turned, sitting himself down onto the seat very slowly, then bent his knees and slid both legs under the steering column. Smiling the best he could, he assured Slug he would be able to make it home just fine, hoping he didn’t hit too many traffic lights where he’d have to clutch and break.

His mind was awash with the images from his ‘greetings’. It seemed this group was only too anxious to welcome him to town and into their fold. Some sort of initiation, he was sure of it. And most likely, Scully’s assault had been a warning to him. Other than the fact that he knew they meant business, he now also knew that this was certainly no rookie organization. He was definitely playing with the big leagues.

Other than stiffness; no, make that ‘extreme stiffness’, sitting seemed to take the edge off the pain. But he had no illusions about what getting out of his truck was going to feel like.

Chirpchirpchirp… His cell was ringing. Which meant more painful movement. And that it could only be Scully. Trying to fish his cell from his jeans was a major project. The fact that the jeans, although well worn, fit him like a second skin was only making matters worse. However, he knew there was no rush. He’d de-activated voicemail and knew that if it was his partner, she’d let the phone ring either until he answered it or she drove him nuts with the incessant ringing.

“Mulder”

<I was wondering if you were ever going to pick up. Where are you?>

“In my truck, why?”

<What’s wrong, Mulder? You don’t sound so good>

“Gee, Scully, you got all that from one sentence? I’m just heading home. How are you doing today?”

If he had hoped she would let it go and allow him to shift the discussion over to her, he was sadly mistaken. And he should have figured as much. When his partner was on a quest, she could be as stubbornly focused as him. When that quest happened to be him, well, he had about as much chance at deflecting her as he did of discovering the meaning of extraterrestrial life. <Where are you, Mulder?> She tried to keep the edge out of her voice, but she was in no mood to play games. And now she was sure she heard a tinge of pain in his voice — something there, but not quite there. Her radar was operating at full capacity. And just as surely as she knew something was wrong, she also knew that he was not about to share it easily. ‘Could two people be more alike?’ she silently mused.

“I’m in my truck. Heading home. Just like I already told you.” He was working hard to bite back the pain that was resulting in the clipped responses.

This was not going the way she intended. <Look, I’m sorry for the questions, but I know you, Mulder, and I can hear how tight your words are. Let me help you. I can meet you at your place>

“That’s not a good idea. Urgh. Ahhhh.” Holding his phone with one hand, Mulder swung the steering wheel trying to round the corner carefully, but swung too wide. He succeeded in knocking himself into the driver’s side door, sending shards of flash point pain through his back and shoulder. There would be no pretension from this point.

<Mulder! Mulder! What happened? Tell me> Her fear was palpable. <I’m coming over there. What’s the address?>

Gritting out his words, he tried to tell her that the men who assaulted her would follow her, would be sure of their connection, would risk her safety, risk his case. And she carefully explained with scapel’s edge precision how she would talk with Kimberley right now and have her run a search with the name, Chris Arsenault.

He knew it to be true, that she meant every word of it and would be at his place, probably waiting for him.

“Meet me at the Pine Street Boardinghouse, apartment #4”

<Trying to get in good with auditing, Mulder? A boardinghouse?>

“Good-bye, Scully.”

She disconnected thinking that something had to be seriously wrong. He never ended their conversations with anything more than a dial tone.

~~~~~~

FBI Field Office Office of A.S.A.C Louie F. Allen
200 McCarty Avenue
Albany, New York

“I’ll connect you now, Sir.”

<Walter. Long time, no see, old man> The laughter in his voice was carefully curbed, knowing that the D.C. A.D.‘s sense of humor was usually filed away during the workday.

“Louie. To what do I owe this pleasure?” ASAC Allen noted that there was probably a smile in the question.

Cutting to the chase, knowing that he’d soon be asked to do so, he continued. “Look, I need some back up on a case. I know you’ve already got one Agent here. No, no, don’t ask me how. You know the drill… Anyway, we’ve already got one of the Canadian provincials here with us, but this is growing.”

“You’re talking about the case in Burlington? The one I’ve got Fox Mulder on?”

<That’s it. Looks like this ring is expanding faster than we’d extrapolated. Now, I’m going to commit two of mine for admin purposes, but we could use home office support. What do you say Walt?>

“I’ve got an Agent there already, finishing up a Pathologist’s conference, but she was also finishing up some lab work from their previous case.”

<We can set up a lab for her at the university. Their facilities are excellent>

“That should do it. I have a feeling she’d find a way to stay on anyway. Mulder’s her partner.”

<You’re talking about Agent Scully? Spooky and Scully, huh? Are they as tight a team as we’ve heard?>

Skinner’s face momentarily lit with what could have been mistaken for a smile. “They’re that tight. All right, Louie, I’m going to get this in the works. I’ll have her touch base with you.”

<Thanks, Walter. And do me a favor? Let what’s left of your hair down a little>

~~~~~~

Burlington Police Department
284 East Avenue
Tuesday, 19 September
3:00PM

Leaving Bryan at a job over on Church Street, Kimberley drove on past the University of Vermont to its eastern edge. She needed to touch base once again with the locals and do a check on the bartender from the Metronome. Although she’d intended to run the search a lot sooner, a few things had gotten in the way.

Namely, Dana’s mysterious illness, her partner’s arrival and then Dana’s assault. Kimberley wryly considered that what she’d heard from Missy had been true. Dana spent more than her fair share of time hospitalized. She guessed it might come with the territory, although she herself had been lucky and avoided visiting medical facilities.

She still had a lot to learn about exactly what Missy’s baby sister did and hoped they could get reacquainted. Dana had left Kimberley’s house the other day rather abruptly. She had assumed it might have had something to do with Bishop’s visit, but Kimberley was puzzled. From what she could tell, Dana had caught only bits and pieces of their conversation and hadn’t actually seen much more of him than his backside as he got into his BMW and drove off. Her friend’s sister had been distant and unwilling to talk about it. Kimberley couldn’t really tell Dana any details about the meeting, couldn’t divulge information about the fact that she suspected he was tied to the drug running case she was providing assistance for. She made a note to follow up the next time she saw redhead.

Surprisingly, the officers and staff lived up to their purported friendliness. She’d read quite a bit about the city before arriving, found it noted as an up and coming friendly place to live, safe — well, except for the alleged heavy drug traffic, that is — and clean. Well, two out of three wasn’t a bad start!

She was given access to a computer terminal and with the help of an Officer Shari who frequented the Club, was able to pull up the file on one Hayward Barnes. For the most part, he was just another Tom, Dick or Harry: 50 years old, separated from his wife of fifteen years, two grown sons who lived on their own, joint owner of the Metronome… and that’s where it got interesting. The co-owner was listed as a Brantwell ‘Bishop’ Stillman.

Printing out a few copies of the information, she thanked Officer Shari and the rest of the staff, heading for her car.

~~~~~~

Pine Street Boardinghouse
Noontime

As he steered the black F-150 into the small parking lot, he saw the fiery red hair of his partner, her back to him. She was perched on the steps to the building, looking very small, yet oddly at home. Head to toe beautiful and small and at home in her green leggings and a long navy and green velour top, she was idly playing with the ties to her brown bucks, a backpack by her feet. This was a side to Scully he didn’t often see…and wished to see more.

He’d almost managed to avoid grunting or wincing for those few seconds of distraction and he inwardly thanked her for the respite.

She heard the heavy vroom of the diesel engine and the following shut down and stood up, grabbing the woven handles of the bag and slinging it over her shoulder.

He sat for a moment, taking a deep breath as much an attempt to relax his tightly held body as to brace himself for Dr. Scully. It wasn’t so much that he minded her ministrations. Hell, she’d saved his ass, and the rest of his body, from everything from minor scrapes to bullet wounds to literally rising from the pseudo-dead. But, much like her, he really didn’t feel comfortable under the intense attention.

Shutting off the engine, he unfastened his seatbelt and opened the door. He watched her approaching the truck, her look vacillating between cautious smile and wary concern. He attempted to ward off the coming question, but ‘Hey, Scully’, was about all he could muster with a smile.

And she saw right through it. “Let me help you, Mulder. Then you can tell me what happened.” In a semi-squatting position, she gently grabbed onto his bent legs, swinging them sideways as he turned his body. The way he held himself told her trained eye that both his back and left arm were painful.

He waved her away as he stood, determined to move on his own, and she backed away to give him his space. But not so far that she wouldn’t be able to offer support.

He ambled and she walked, a companionable silence between them as they approached the back door to the building. She followed him to the elevator and pushed the button for his floor as he semi-slumped against the plastic paneled wall behind her. Glancing above her into the fish-eye safety mirror, she saw his somewhat distorted face drawn into a mask of what she was sure he believed to be a smile. It wasn’t working. As she turned to him, he seemed to relax a bit and her breath caught. How long had it been since she’d seen him in this combination; hurt, pained, trying to bear the brunt, keep it hidden from her…and looking so downright gorgeous? Certainly a man of constantly shifting moods. She took a deep breath, hoping her neck and face were not as flushed as she felt.

The ding announcing his floor and the grating swoosh open of the doors snapped her from her mental meanderings. He exited first and she followed him down the long hallway to the very end. He seemed to bend over to fumble with the key easily enough, but returning to upright elicited an audible groan.

“Mulder, please, let me help you out a little here. Let’s get you inside and I’ll see what I can do, make sure nothing’s broken.”

She followed him inside, pulling the door closed behind her, her eyes traveling around the plain, but very comfortable looking rooms. A smirk threatened when she realized she’d know he lived here even if he hadn’t told her. It wasn’t so much that the bedcovers were strewn haphazardly nor that the newspaper was scattered on the coffee table and couch. It was more the Hansel and Gretel type trail of clothing and the probably still damp towel that dotted the landscape between the bathroom and the bed that identified the current resident was her partner.

He sat down heavily onto the bed and leaned over to remove his boots. Feeling his back muscles protesting at the stretch, all at once trying to contract again in protest, he stopped, sucking in his breath. “Uh, Scully? I don’t think I can sit up…” His voice was low, the words halting. Untying her shoes, she climbed onto the bed behind him, her knees against his hips. “Pull in your abs, Mulder and then take a deep breath and hold it. When I count to three, release the breath and sit up. Ok?” He nodded and took a breath. He slowly released it as she said, ‘three’, and sat up, surprisingly almost free of pain.

Wordlessly, she scooted off the bed and worked his boots and socks free. Now standing to face him, her look demanded answers.

“I had a visit this morning.”

Her silence spoke volumes, implored him to continue.

“Nothing much to tell. They were set on showing me Burlington from a rather interesting angle, my head hanging over the rail.”

Her eyes said, ‘Oh, Mulder’, as she barely whispered for him to remove his shirts so she could get a better look at the bruises she was sure she’d find on his back. He tossed the flannel shirt onto the chair by the bed where it joined the damp towel. As he attempted to lift the navy tee over his head, his back spasmed, sending fresh ripples of agony through his body.

“Mulder, leave the tee for now. Can you lay face down on the bed for me? Maybe I can work out some of the kinks for you.” Her hands smoothed the fabric back down over his chest and abs as she stood between his parted legs.

“Oooh, Dr. Scully, do you proposition all your male patients like that?” For someone with the kind of pain she was sure he was experiencing, he was still quite capable of the flip and witty comment. She rewarded him by rolling her eyes, trying to suppress her urge to laugh with him. Give him an inch and he’d expect a mile…

With one hand on each of his shoulders, she leaned forward until she was just inches from his face. Her voice soft, she commanded, “Lay face down, now.”

Stepping out of the vee of his legs, she crossed her arms, her stance belying the frisson being that close to him had sent through her. Both eyebrows rose slightly, his lips quirking into the smallest, tell-tale and knowing smile as he complied.

“Whatta you doin’, Scully?” he muttered into the pillow. He was surprised at just how good it felt to let his muscles relax for the first time. His tee had ridden up slightly as he’d crawled, half on his knees, half on his belly along the bed. The weight of his body sunk into the mattress, his legs sprawled. This was one time his curiosity hadn’t gotten the better of him. Although he was dying to know where she’d gotten to, he had no desire to lift his head to find out. The rasping and sussurring sound of nylon and zippers told him she was probably fishing around in her doctor pack for things that sting… He burrowed a little farther into the bed linens.

She took the bottle of arnica oil and brought it over to the bed. “Relax. I was just getting some oil to massage into your muscles. It’s going to smell faintly outdoorsy, but it will help prevent the bruises from becoming any more colorful.” Reaching for the hem of his shirt, she carefully slid it up along his torso, noting that he was able to lift slightly to aid her.

Straddling his slender hips she settled onto his rear. She then poured a goodly amount of the slippery liquid into her hands and set the closed bottle down. Rubbing her hands together, she warmed them and the oil. “Tell me if the pressure is too much, Mulder. I’ll start with your upper back.” Her voice, now as warm as the oil and her skin, touched his ears as her hands touched his back. He responded with a short grunt and she bit back a similar sound at the feel of the smooth flesh under her palms. A heady sensation. She watched the gentle rise and fall of his breathing, the way it slowed as she applied a little more pressure. Careful to listen and observe his reactions, she slowly moved toward the center of his back knowing she would most likely encounter strained muscles. His skin was abraded and red and the first mottled purples and blues were making themselves known.

Sure enough, he bucked beneath her at the first sweep of her hands over his lower lats. “Breathe with the touch, Mulder. It’ll help.” Once again, she saw his shoulders sink into the bed and down away from his ears where they’d risen.

The light crisp woodsy scent and heat of the oil was also working, rendering him languid and almost able to forget the stresses to his body. Floating somewhere in the fringes of his consciousness, he was also suddenly very attuned to the weight of her lower body on his ass. Substantial in both a comforting and arousing way. He reveled in the former, in the memories tugging at his fading ability to think, and willed the latter to abate, unsure of whether she would feel the same. It had been too long, much too long, since they had shared anything more than a kiss. He smiled into the pillowcase thinking about their most recent meeting when he had been sure things were about to get very out of control.

“Mulder?” She had noticed the small lines at the corner of his left eye and the rise in his cheek. “Am I hurting you?”

And she had it all wrong. So wrong. “Uh, um, no. It feels good, very good.”

She stopped to add more oil, this time holding the bottle above his lower back, watching in fascination as the golden droplets made contact with his skin and expanded, changing shape, first elongating, then widening, as they meandered into the beautiful dip below the swell of his hips. Absentmindedly flipping the cap closed and letting the bottle fall to the comforter, she sighed and then rose up onto her knees. Somehow knowing that she needed to refocus her efforts, needed to remember that she was helping him… Helping him what? Ward off severe bruising and muscle stiffening, hold the pain at bay, yes, that’s what she was doing.

“Scuhhleee?” His voice floated up and around her as she strove to pull herself from the haze.

Quickly and efficiently replacing her hands, although she remained on her knees now, she pressed the heels of her palms on either side of his lower spine, working outwards with her fingertips. “I’m here, Mulder, just needed more oil.” <Just needed to pull myself back from thoughts of your body, thoughts of what it would feel like to touch you…>

He noticed the subtle change in her voice and the not-so-subtle change in her position, how she had risen above him, no longer feeling the heat of her center nestled against his ass. He, under what he hoped was the guise of just trying to get more comfortable, tried to reestablish that contact, lifting and shifting his hips just slightly, knowing that she wouldn’t have moved far. However, she was just as determined as he and his efforts got him nothing more than a just this side of rough shove back down into the mattress. He smiled. Couldn’t fault a guy for trying.

Her fingers now moving vertically, she worked the long muscles on either side of his spine, feeling the tension in them and then she fanned her hands outward, wrapping them around his waist, pushing just inside the waistband of his jeans. Sending shivers up her spine. Her face flushing at the contact. She guessed the sheer heat and electricity she felt as it traveled from her palms up her arms and in every direction from there was the result of his contact with the bed, with her above him, with the warmed oil. Whatever it was, it was intoxicating and she was finding it just a little difficult to breathe.

Her hands continued to move of their own accord, her fingers crawling and dancing and pressing along a horizontal line sometimes parallel to and sometimes underneath the waist of his jeans and boxers. Somewhere in the recesses of her losing-focus brain, she wondered how she’d managed to start massaging so far from the sources of his injuries… Another thought conceived and tossed aside.

Mulder wondered also, but allowed himself to wallow in the sheer ecstasy of her touch, gentle and firm, relaxing and arousing, purposeful and nonchalant. Had she changed her mind about them needing more time? Back muscles be damned, he was so hard now that he was thankful for the soft mattress beneath him. He desperately hoped she would continue the journey and let her fingers work loose the button on his jeans. The torture was exquisite. And he barely remembered why she had begun the massage.

Her thumbs applied pressure at the very base of his spine as her hands held him in place. She gazed up his body, the navy shirt bunched under his arms, the broad expanse of his shoulders and upper back, downward to the vee formed as his lats tapered inward toward his narrow waist and the rise of his hips. She’d always thought he had a magnificent body…beautiful, really. He moved with a sinewy grace, lithe, yet strong. Her mind thusly occupied, she barely registered the sudden movement.

Barely registered that she was now looking into his pillow-smooshed face, his hair brushed across his brow, eyes dream-like. His tee twisted and scrunched, revealing his abs, his taut midsection and… her hands, her palms, now pressed firmly against the hardness straining against the well-worn denim. The heat from his slow smile rivaled the scorching she felt through the fabric.

With a quick realization and a muttered ‘I’m sorry’, she scrambled off the bed, nearly falling, her shaking legs not expecting the quick change in position. She looked at her hands, held them in front of her momentarily, wondering when they’d taken on a life of their own. She stammered again, ‘I can’t do this’, and reached for her backpack.

Pulled brutally upward from his heightened state, Mulder’s expression shifted, moving from that lust/love combination to a deep worry/concern. As he pulled his shirt down and slid to the edge of the bed, he watched her back away from him. Away from them? Sitting with his hands on his thighs, head titled imperceptibly to one side, his eyes asked the question he knew she’d never verbally answer. His enigmatic partner…

She seemed to regain her composure as she slung her backpack up to her shoulder. She watched as his lips parted, sure he was about to say something and then changed his mind. Instead, his hand found the bottle of oil and held it out to her. Tucking her hair behind her ear, she told him it was okay to just hold onto it and she turned toward the door.

“Get some rest, Mulder, and I’ll check on you later.”

“Scully?”

She turned back toward him, her eyes silently telling him that it was okay, that they were okay.

~~~~~~

Interlude I:

“Pull over, there. Leave the engine running.”

Quick efficient movements as the door was opened. He got in, his black topcoat pulled tightly against him.

<It’s done>

Even in the waning natural light of a day too long for comfort, his expression was all too readable.

“What makes you so sure? You’ve seen him in action, know he found her as I’d predicted.”

He reached for the lighter, the tip of the cigar bitten off between uneven alabaster teeth, poised for the flame and ensuing inhalation.

<What makes me so sure as you put it, is that he’s smart, can read between the lines. He’s tied to her more than you know; won’t want to jeopardize or compromise her in any way>

His hand reached up slowly, snatching the pungent rolled tobacco from his associate’s hand and flipped it out the partially opened window.

“You better be right about this. And I don’t want to remind you again about those foul-smelling weeds.”

The door swung open and Bishop climbed out. Proteus pulled the door closed once again as the driver surged forward, a spray of gravel barely missing the other man’s pant legs.

~~~~~~

Interlude II:

“Scully”

She sat on a small stone bench on the south side of the Radisson’s entry gardens. She’d been sitting there ever since the cab dropped her off; wasn’t even sure what time it was. Although, if the sky was any indication, it was later in the afternoon. What little sunlight had made its way between the cloud cover was now starting to move lower in the western sky.

She supposed she was hungry, but hadn’t really thought much about eating since breakfast, since she returned from Mulder’s. And although the air had turned cooler, she never felt it through her velour top.

<Agent?>

His gruff baritone registered, immediately snapping her from her lethargy.

“Yes Sir, I’m here.”

She sounded preoccupied to his trained ears. To his ears that had heard the many inflections and tones and meanings in her voice over the many and long years. That same training also told him that there would be ‘nothing wrong’ and that she’d ‘be fine’ if he were to inquire. So he didn’t. Knowing as well that if she needed to share something with him, she would do so.

<I’m going to need you to stay on in Burlington indefinitely. Much as I had not wanted to do so, I need you as back-up to Mulder. I’m assuming you two have already found each other?> Not waiting for the affirmative response he knew would be coming, he plunged on. <I’m also going to go out on a short limb and assume that you know he’s undercover?>

She smiled. “Yes, Sir, I know he’s undercover, although I don’t know the details at this point.”

<I’ll be faxing you some new information I want you to share with Agent Mulder. I’ve also made arrangements over at the labs on the UVM campus so you can continue your work on the CT154 substance. Any questions?>

He was thorough, but she expected no less. “Where will I be staying?”

<Your current accommodations aren’t satisfactory?>

She thought she heard the small laugh he worked so hard to bury.

“I just wondered how you might explain it to the auditors, Sir.”

<Contact me if you need anything else, Scully. And do me a favor? Try to stay out of the hospital>

It must be part of Bureau training, she mused. No one ever finished a phone conversation by saying ‘good-bye’.

~~~~~~

Radisson Hotel, Penthouse Suite
Wednesday, 20 September
8:00AM

Awaking with a start, she sat up, her breathing ragged, sweat drenching her silk nightshirt. She ran a shaking hand through her hair, holding it in place as she focused on her surroundings. Although the blinds were closed and the heavy brocade drapes were still drawn, she could see the faint lines of sunlight framing the small spaces where the window treatments gaped from the wall, tiny dust particles caught and suspended.

Her eyes adjusted to the early morning light and she noted the wardrobe armoir, the tapestry settee and her robe at the foot of the bed. Inhaling deeply, she closed her eyes as she then exhaled and tossed back the comforter. A chill ran over her long legs as she swung them over the side. Sliding her feet into her satin and maribou wedge slippers, she stood, feeling the silk fall to her hips.

Fully awake and oriented, she strode to the large window wall and drew the drapes and blinds, allowing the warm light to bathe the dark furnishings. Heading for the phone on the desk, she rang the concierge to ask that her breakfast be delivered in precisely forty-five minutes; the time it would take her to shower and dress. Checking the digital clock, she noted that the hotel staff would arrive by nine. For every minute they were late, they would lose a significant portion of their tip. Smiling smugly, she headed for the marble bathroom.

Her slippers were kicked off outside and she padded barefoot into the spacious bathroom. Turning the shower to a very hot setting, the billows of steam immediately filled the glass enclosure, fogging the mirrored wall. Unbuttoning the few pearl fasteners, she let the nightshirt slip from her body, pooling at her feet. Arms raised high overhead she stretched once, cat-like, and then entered the stall.

Economical movements in brisk fashion and she was ready to dry off and do her hair. She carefully wrapped a peach colored bathsheet around her willowy and buxom figure and grabbed the blow dryer. As her dark waves fell neatly in precise face framing curves, she shared her plans for the day with her reflection in the steamed mirror.

“Where to begin? So many options. Either way, they’ll pay. She’ll pay.”

She put the finishing touches on her hair and let the large towel drop from her body. Heading out of the bathroom, she continued. “I’m not sure whose face I want to see register the surprise first.”

She grabbed her taupe satin panties and matching bra and hurriedly pulled them on. Breakfast would arrive soon. Or so she hoped. Next, she pulled the navy trouser socks from her carry-on bag and sat on the edge of the bed as she put them on. “His reaction will be priceless. It will be difficult, at first, for him to accept what he’s seeing, that it’s me, but then it will dawn on him, he’ll know I came back for him. As I’ve always promised I would.”

Making her way to the walk-in closet, she reached for the cedarwood suit hangar and removed the navy gabardine trousers and duster. Tossing the calf-length jacket onto the unmade bed, she stepped into the pants and fastened the side button.

“It’s her reaction I most want to see.” The devilish gleam in her eyes was the only indication that she was functioning just outside the realm of true reality.

“But I can’t decide how I want to see her reaction. Whether it will be better if we’re alone or if she sees me with him.” She paused, her head tipped to one side, considering. Biding her time, she stuck her head into the frosty pink angora sweater and smoothed it down to her waist.

“Maybe both. Maybe she sees me alone and she sees me with Fox.”

Moving more quickly she grabbed her quilted suede make-up kit and sat at the vanity. A sweep of blush on the swells of her cheeks, a few smudges of cocoa shadow, black mascara and a deep rose lip gloss and she was set. Just as the knock on the door announced her breakfast.

She handed the server a twenty, smiling crookedly at him when she told him to keep the change. Precision and punctuality. Yes, she loved them.

Moving to the small seating area by the window, she absently sipped her latte and picked up the croissant. It was still warm, another nice touch. Her morning was going better than expected. Holding the warm and fragrant pastry in her red lacquered fingers, she brought it to her mouth — and dropped it right back onto the porcelain china bread and butter plate.

Determination setting her eyes cold and hard, she wiped her hand on the linen napkin and picked up the phone. “Dana Scully’s room, please.”

She didn’t realize she was holding her breath until she released it in a whoosh.

“I’ll ring that for you now.”

“No, thank you. I’ve changed my mind.” She replaced the receiver and stood, gathering her jacket and Coach clutch.

The nearly silent hum of the elevator’s journey to the lobby had nothing on her tuneless voice playing out some melody known only to her. The only other occupant, one of the hotel staff, closed her yes and winced at the sound, averting her eyes. Mercifully, the ride was short.

As the doors parted, the staff member alighted first, anxious to get on with her daily business, leaving Diana to saunter, her held high, into the lobby. Her eyes surreptitiously darting and glancing, she moved to the leather banquette by the stand of ficas trees.

Smiling inwardly, thankful for her ‘connection’s’ assistance, she removed her cellphone from her handbag. She bit her bottom lip in anticipation as she started to push the small buttons and then stopped. Her luck had just changed — significantly.

She kept her head down as the woman strode past her with purpose, her mind elsewhere, never noticing who was sitting close by. <Bingo> Diana cautiously unfolded herself from the banquette and followed Dana Scully’s progress with her eyes.

For now.

As soon as she was sure that Dana would not see her, she called for her Jetta, watching as Scully waited for her rental.

Keeping a discreet distance, the screaming red Jetta followed the sedate forest green Sebring from the hotel entrance.

~~~~~~

University of Vermont
The Given Building
Department of Bio-Chemistry
Wednesday, 20 September
9:00AM

“Scully” She swung the newly-acquired rental car into the lot off of Beaumont Avenue, finding a spot close to the building in Visitor’s Parking.

“Hello? Is anyone there?” Eyebrows furrowing, she snapped the phone closed and was about to re-pocket the phone when it chirped again. This time, she did not respond when she put the phone to her ear.

<Scully? You there?>

She sighed into the receiver as she turned off the engine. “Did you just call me, Mulder?”

<Yes. Right now I’m calling you>

She shook off the strange feeling she’d had and focused on his words. “Funny, Mulder. What do you need?”

She grabbed her briefcase and stepped from the car.

<Where are you?>

“I’m at the university, about to head into the labs. Why?” She barely noticed the brilliant fall day around her as she made her way inside the building. However, she quickly started to lose the phone signal and had to move back outside again. Squinting in the glare from the asphalt and car metal, she checked her watch and sat down on the cement wall next to the science building.

When he finally spoke, his voice had lost the tinge of humor and mischief. <I just want to know if we’re okay. You left here so fast; you didn’t answer my call last night. I—>

Laying her briefcase next to her feet, she leaned back and then sat forward again, a small smile curling her lips as she looked down at her shoes. She sighed. Some things never seemed to change. His insecurity for one. If he’d called her last night, she’d never known. She’d realized this morning that she’d inadvertently shut off her cell.

“Mulder, we, we’re okay. I just…couldn’t…the time wasn’t right. And this isn’t the time or place for us to talk about it.” She wondered, not for the first time, when the fuzzy warm smile she knew was plastered on her face had crept up on her again. It seemed to be happening more and more and it wasn’t her. Well, it wasn’t the Dana Katherine Scully she’d known before. Before Mulder. She idly wondered whether he could hear it in her voice.

<You never did tell me what you’re working on>

This time she did laugh and he chuckled with her. “No, no I didn’t. We’ll talk later.”

<But—>

“‘But’ nothing. I’m hanging up now, Mulder.”

The phone was snapped shut and she reached for her satchel. As she stood and turned, she stopped, the sensation of frozen fingers walking up her spine rendering her immobile. Giving in to the ghost of a thought that she was being watched, she spun on her heel. And saw nothing more than a small sea of parked vehicles, the sun reflecting off the windshields. Shaking her head, she proceeded into the Given Building.

~~~~~~

Beaumont Street
University of Vermont
9:20AM

<C’mon, Dana Dear, get off the damn phone>

She was too visible sitting in her car for all this time and she didn’t want to lose the redhead once she went inside the god forsaken building. As soon as she saw her stand and head for the double glass doors, Diana got out of the Jetta. Her only goal today would be to gather as much information about Scully’s routine and her purpose in Vermont.

She had no illusions about the personal reason she was here. Although their relationship had been seriously strained this summer, her sources had told her that the two partners were on the mend. A brief flash of fire in the leggy brunette’s eyes was the only clue to her feelings on that particular subject. She tossed aside her momentary anger knowing that when she was done, it would no longer be a concern.

She watched from a distance as Scully checked the brass wall directory quickly locating her destination. Diana had glanced at enough wall plaques to know that she was in the Bio-Chemistry wing of the larger Pre-Med and biological sciences building. Ducking into an alcove to avoid detection, she watched as the red-haired woman rounded the corner.

She located Scully in the C-wing where the Medical Photography and Bio-Chemistry labs were located. <Doing a little research, are we Agent?> Peering in through the porthole-shaped windows in the door, she noticed a flurry of activity at her quarry’s arrival. A gray-haired man handed the FBI Agent a white lab coat, gloves and goggles. <And we’re not wasting any time, either. Very interesting>

Snippets of conversation made their way through the seams in the door, male and female voices excitedly conveying their delight to be working with a well-known and highly regarded pathologist. Diana thought she might be sick from the saccharine-coated platitudes.

‘CT-154’… ‘reaction time’… ‘accelerator’ effect on humans’… So many words that she let slip by. Why Dana found any of this remotely satisfying was beyond her. And then her ears drew in the next words like a healing balm for her tortured soul. ‘White paste’

From the looks of things, the work would continue for several hours and she knew she was not about to hear anything of substance from her current vantage point. Taking in the scene of the group of scientists hovering around Dear Dana as if she had the answers to the creation of the universe, she frowned and tossed her hair back over her shoulder.

She left the building as quickly as she could.

~~~~~~

Bio-Chem Lab
Given Building
9:45AM

It had been quite awhile since she had been able to spend uninterrupted time in a well-stocked lab. Quantico had the finest, to be sure, but it was a rare day that she was involved in straight research, research that wasn’t tied to an autopsy from a case or a mysterious piece of evidence that seemed to defy all explanation. Feeling more alive than she could recall, she removed the goggles, and moved to the electron microscope.

Skinner had been true to his word. Not only was the lab state-of-the-art, but her paste samples had been transported under strict protocols. She removed one specimen from the chilled, airtight canister and set it on the workbench. Resealing the container, she set it in the glass-doored cool storage. She removed the stainless steel outer shell and then opened the inner glass capsule.

She knew the effect of smell and the memories it could evoke, but the capsule was odorless. Yet it was conjuring up powerful images and even more powerful feelings and memories. Especially memories she had no desire to relive. Finding the strange substance at the crime scenes… having it rubbed into her forehead… while bound alongside her partner, helpless… that woman… smiling like a jackal and no less predatory in her nature… loss of control… Mulder… Diana…

Her hand moved of its own accord, her fingers absentmindedly touching and massaging that small space above and between her brows. She swayed, her eyes losing their focus momentarily and she grabbed for the counter, her gloved fingertips blanching white from the strength of her grasp. A few deep breaths helped the wave of dizziness lessen, but the strange warmth and tingling took much longer to dissipate. When she was finally able to release one hand from its death grip on the marble ledge, she felt the tremors. What had happened? Was it what she’d suspected for sometime now: the paste had triggered a lasting physical reaction? Why only her?

She needed some of her own blood although she wasn’t sure exactly what she would test for. Simply conducting a series of standards tests might help her weed out certain variables. Complete Blood Count/Blood Chemistry. Kidney function, liver function, blood minerals with differential, blood protein and cardiovascular risk panels. Her brain mentally ticked off the series, her hand holding the pen jotting down the need for one red top and one smaller purple topped tube of her blood. She’d run these panels and then decide whether or not she ought to do a check for infections and run blood cultures as well.

Step two would involve further chemical analysis of the white compound. She already knew of its catalyst characteristics and thermal reaction when in contact with the skin, but, given her alleged reaction and symptoms, she hypothesized that some other interaction was at work.

Dana Scully loved a good challenge. Preferably when she wasn’t the focus of the challenge. Nonetheless, she was more than motivated. Making a few in-house calls to find out which labs held the necessary equipment for proper assessment and evaluation, she developed a list of which tests she would perform when. She was able to enlist the help of three of the lab assistants who asked no questions other than where to begin. She asked the most seasoned researcher to work with her on the paste while the others drew her blood and began the screening.

Initially, as she held her arm bent at the elbow until the blood stopped flowing, she directed the set up of equipment for the gas analysis and liquids and solids analyses. She would look at both ultraviolet and infrared spectrometry if the first sets were non-productive.

In spite of her years of training and experience, the draw to do some ‘live subject testing’ was overwhelming her. She would be a willing subject. However, she knew the wisdom of waiting for the results of her blood work. And she filed away her slight trespass across the line between scientific method and personal involvement.

~~~~~~

Stenhauser Construction Site
Essex Junction, Vermont
Noontime

The morning had passed uneventfully, for the most part. There had been the time when one end of his scaffolding had dipped about twelve inches, but it had been righted almost immediately by the other worker. Then, the blow torch had refused to burn and subsequently flared, but it had been replaced for him. If he had been paranoid or worried about being watched, he might have attributed those two incidents to some nefarious cause or to the men who had visited him and Scully.

“Hey, buddy, time for a lunch break.” Slug’s beefy hand landed on Mulder’s shoulder with a good-natured clap. “Grab that silver bucket of yours and let’s chow down.”

“How about if I catch up with you, Slug; I’ve got a phone call to make first.” Grimacing only slightly, carefully hiding it behind a smile, Mulder felt the minute tremors that rattled through his torso, settling in his lower back. While the purples and deep blues on his back were in full bloom, the pain had subsided somewhat. Except when jostled.

Slug grinned, a gesture that seemed to light his entire face, and muttered something about whether the little lady had a name. He waved off Mulder’s questioning look and told him he’d be down in his truck waiting.

As soon as the elevator had begun its descent carrying the last topside worker, Mulder snapped open his cellphone and pressed #1 speed dial. The phone seemed to ring forever as his boots paced the wooden temporary flooring. <Where are you, Scully?>

<Scully>

As short as the word already was, her answer sounded tightly clipped. As if she had been interrupted. Not an auspicious way to begin his conversation with her.

“Didn’t mean to interrupt your work. Just thought you might be taking a break for lunch. How’s it going?”

Using the back of her gloved hand to push her goggles back up onto the bridge of her nose, Scully tried to wedge the phone between her ear and shoulder. Her other hand was needed to turn down the flame under the Bunsen burner. Letting out a sigh, she walked away from the bench and her colleagues.

<Lunch? What’s that and when is someone going to serve it to me?> She paced as she spoke, one hand now on her hip, the other holding the phone as she walked out into the hallway. She was actually thankful for the break, hadn’t realized that it was already noontime.

“Am I sensing some fatigue mixed with a healthy dose of exasperation, Scully?”

He reached up and removed his hard hat, setting it on the small equipment housing next to him. The cool breeze chilled him as it blew through his matted and damp hair. He snaked a hand through his locks feeling relieved to lose the weight of the hat, even temporarily. Her voice in his ear somehow made the day better, but he wished he really could go join her for lunch. Even with the hour break, by the time he got down to his truck and drove there, he’d had used half of it. Besides, they’d agreed they’d be discreet with their visibility — especially during the daylight hours.

~~~~~~

Given Building

“You could say that. I don’t know. Every time I think I’m making some headway, a new set of questions are posed. I’ve set everything up based on my last round of tests and the reports from the Hapskah case. I’ve begun some new testing, but I keep coming back around to the beginning. I should—”

She ended up outside in the parking lot, the blast of the noonday sun on the asphalt and vehicles slamming into her full force. It actually felt good after the semi-darkness and regulated chill of the lab.

And then a chill of a different kind settled in around her; the same feeling she’d had earlier when she arrived. She stopped mid-sentence, hearing Mulder calling her name over and over into the phone, but she couldn’t answer him. Leaving the connection open, she let the phone hang at her side as she brought one hand up to her brow to shield some of the sun’s glare and turned 360 degrees. Seeing nothing and feeling a bit foolish, she moved back toward the building, bringing the phone back to her ear, knowing her partner would be wondering what was happening.

<Scully? Answer me, please!> She knew by the intensity of his tone that he’d reached the point where he was probably half-way to his truck.

“I’m here, Mulder. It’s okay. I’m…”

<You’re ‘fine’, I know. What happened?>

“I’m not sure and it’s probably nothing, really. I just had a strange feeling.”

She could see him carefully preparing his comeback, could feel his amusement and she let it ride knowing there was no way to stop it. <Scully? Did I hear you correctly? Did you just say you had a ‘strange feeling’? Is there any scientific fact to support this ‘feeling’?> The playfulness and teasing in his voice was all too obvious and evident; he was enjoying the rare opportunity.

Try as she might, Scully couldn’t suppress her own smile and slight chuckle. It seemed to ease her earlier apprehension and, truth be told, somewhat niggling sense of déjà vu. Not one easily given over to whim or fancy, she had learned over time to trust her instincts no matter what their source. She also knew that her partner tended to rely on this type of ‘evidence’ more than most… and had been quite successful because of it. She guessed that the difference between operating solely on hunches or solely on hard fact was knowing when to use which. She would admit that a healthy dose of trusting his hunches had saved them many times and that trusting in her own gut feelings had also worked for her more times than not. But it would rain sleeping bags before she admitted it.

“Yes, Mulder, you heard me correctly. Look, I should probably get back into the lab, I’ve…” She was already heading back toward the double glass doors to the building when it hit her again. She whirled around quickly and saw the gleam and flash of sun bouncing off a moving mirror as the car sped away — a little too fast for the neighborhood. She was being watched; she was sure of it now.

<You’ve what?>

“I’ve got a lot of work to do, but why don’t we talk later.”

<Scully, what aren’t you telling me?> He quickly covered his other ear as the loud, shrill whistle signaling the end to the lunch period blared.

“We’ll talk later, Mulder. Pick me up, okay?” She snapped the phone shut not waiting for his response, knowing he’d do exactly as she’d asked. Counting on him. Her hand reached behind her automatically, confirming that her weapon was tucked into its holster at her waist.

~~~~~~

Stenhauser Construction Site

Flipping his hat back on his head, Mulder ended his connection, grabbing the blowtorch he’d set aside right before lunch. Lunch… He hadn’t had a chance to eat so much as a bite of his sandwich and he was actually very hungry. He wondered what union rules and regs said about eating while soldering. Heck, he could even make himself a grilled cheese. The lack of food must be affecting him more than the altitude; that was poor even by his standards.

As he approached the scaffolding on the other side of the frame, he nearly collided with Slug and another worker. The man was facing the opposite direction, so Mulder had no idea who he might be.

Slug helped him out by introducing them. “Chris, I’ve got someone who wants to talk to you, privately. Says it’s important. His name’s Roscoe.” Mulder gazed up at Tanner Roscoe who stood almost a foot taller than him and seemed to have cornered the market on muscle mass. The man was literally bursting from his denim shirt and jeans.

“Mistah Ahsenault? Yeah, Ahm Tannah and Ah’ve got some infohmation Ah think you’re gonna need. Why don’t we take us a walk.” Although a smile appeared on his lips, it never quite made it to his lackluster eyes. He took Mulder by the arm and led him to the elevator.

“Well, Mr. Roscoe, it looks like I’m taking a little after lunch break. I’ll be right back, Slug.” Mulder gently shrugged free of Tanner’s hold, but followed. His every instinct told him this man was probably some low-level flunky, but that he might have some valuable information. He was also concerned that failing to comply might further endanger Scully.

Tanner Roscoe drew back the mesh screen that passed for a door on the elevator and stepped inside. Mulder stopped at the threshold; not sure if joining the man was wise, but knowing he needed to hear what he had to say. “Where are we headed?”

“Nowhere. We’re staying right here, so get in.” The accent was gone, as was the affable smile. “The Boss hears that you want in on some action. Does he hear correctly, Mr. Arsenault?” Tanner watched blankly as Mulder entered the lift, arms crossed in front of him.

“Yeah, the Boss hears correctly. What kind of action do you have for me and how soon can I get started?” Mulder involuntarily took a step, his back against the side wall, Tanner directly in front of him. He could feel the large man’s breath wash across him hot and somewhat Jim Beam scented.

“You’ll find some information in your truck. Meet the contact as instructed. Follow your instructions to the letter. I’m sure I don’t need to remind you about extreme consequences for problems with following instructions.”

Before Mulder knew what had happened, Roscoe hit the ‘down’ button and shoved Mulder from the elevator as it left the top of the structure. Nearly tripping on the planking, he reached for his hard hat and pulled his tool belt back onto his hip.

His undercover assignment was about to get much more interesting. But for now, the blowtorch was calling to him.

~~~~~~

Essex Junction, Vermont
Fringes of Stenhauser Construction Site

“How do we know we can trust this new guy?” Jason Stenhauser’s pregnant question hung over the group and underneath the trees. His piercing stare roved over each and every man.

“We don’t really ever know anything about the newest recruits, but this guy seems to be well-connected. And, he’s ‘hungry’.” Bishop Stillman locked eyes with Jason and then glanced away.

“Hungry for what, exactly?” Jason looked directly at him once again.

“I think I can answer that one,” Ben’s voice rang above the rest as he walked into the center of the group, “he needs the money. I’ve done a background check on him and the man’s nearly broke. And, he seems to have a slightly tarnished rep he wants to ‘work off’.”

“So much the better. ‘Tarnished reps’ are the easiest to mold. And there’s his lady friend. Quite the looker, that one. A little too independent for my tastes, but that would change once she—” Bishop never got to finish his thought as he brother rudely cut him off, telling him he didn’t stand a chance with her, that she was so far out of his league he’d need a telescope to even see her.

Bishop was not pleased in the least, but Jason’s presence put the brothers at a stalemate for now. Jason knew better than to assume this discussion had ended. The ‘B. Stillmans’ were legendary, at least in their own minds, about their prowess with women. Especially Bishop. Jason knew that Ben’s marriage had ended and had seemed to be a pretty stable connection. But word also had it that both men had played their fair share of the opposite sex. With some larger than life results.

Jason headed over to Mulder’s truck and found it unlocked. No matter, a mere locking mechanism wouldn’t have kept him out. He took the gray envelope that held the next set of directions and placed it in the center console storage box.

“Let’s get out of here. We can come back at quitting time.”

The three men climbed into Stenhauser’s quadcab and tore out of the graveled lot.

~~~~~~

5:00PM

The blare of the claxon sounded signaling the end of another day. As much as he could think of other places he’d rather be right now, the work gave him a chance to organize his thoughts and plans for this case. The manual labor charged him up even as it tired him out and he’d even made a couple of decent acquaintances.

Slug was a good guy, although Mulder wondered about his connections to Tanner Roscoe. It could have been as simple as just bringing the man over to meet him, but Mulder also knew that appearances could be deceiving.

While he’d only thought about it on occasion, he realized just how much he enjoyed undercover work. There was something about getting inside the head of the person he had to become that fascinated and challenged him. It was almost like profiling, but not quite as draining since he didn’t have to delve too deeply into a troubled psyche.

Much to Scully’s chagrin, Mulder had actually enjoyed playing ‘Poopyhead’ in Arcadia Falls. His role had allowed him to create and to try to test the bounds of their relationship with her. Was he a real asshole for having had some fun at her expense? Probably, but he bore no lasting scars.

This case was different, much different, and he suspected he’d be heading into some uncharted territory. Not that he minded. He often worked best ‘on the fly’, developing his plan as he was implementing it. But he also knew the risks on this one, knew he was infiltrating a well-organized and quite possibly international group who would stop at nothing to protect their organization and their profits. Profits he knew to be high given the lucrative market they were dabbling in. Lucrative and insidious.

He opened the door to his truck and slid his lunch container across the seat. He was starving, but had lost all interest in his most likely stale sandwich. He hung his hard hat on the cab window hook and removed his tool belt, stowing it under the passenger seat. Glancing around for the instructions he was supposed to read, he climbed in and started the vehicle. Pulling down the windshield visors, he found nothing. The glove box, under the seats and dash also produced negative results.

Pausing to collect his thoughts, he laid his arm on the center console and then slowly turned to it. Leaning to the left, he lifted the armrest on its hinge and found the dingy envelope inside, his name printed on the outside. He nonchalantly looked around knowing that he probably wouldn’t even see the watchers if they were there and then tore open the envelope. The note was also handwritten on equally dingy paper, the cursive writing sprawling on a downward right slant. <Mr. Arsenault: You must meet Jemel at 6:35 tonight on the ferry. Leave your truck parked on Battery Street. From there, proceed to the departure dock and look for the Burlington-Port Kent, NY boat. Proceed to the seats at the bow on the second level. Await further instructions there.>

Mulder checked his watch; it was going to be tight, but they knew that. Test number one…

As he picked up Route 15W and headed back into Burlington, he remembered he’d told Scully he’d pick her up at the lab. Damn!

He grabbed his cell belatedly. Why was it so hard for him to think about calling instead of just tearing off? He had gotten much better in the last several years, but there were still times when his sense of adventure, his desire to follow the lead to its conclusion, hell, his sometimes single-minded focus just confounded his efforts. And made her burning angry. Not that he blamed her. They had a partnership and could only work as a team if both members of that team were in possession of the same information at the same time.

<Scully>

“Hey, it’s me.”

<Really? Where are you?> Scully continued pouring the contents of the solution into the beaker as she wedged the phone between her ear and her shoulder. She glanced up at the wall clock, noting that it was close to five. The afternoon had flown by and she’d managed to learn a new few characteristics of the paste. She was glad that Mulder would be there soon.

“I’m on my way to the Burlington Ferry. Change in plans or temporary delay, depending on how you want to interpret it.”

She frowned and then quickly chastised herself. She knew full well he was working on a case; the same one she’d just been assigned to. If nothing else, the fact that he’d actually called instead of leaving her stranded high and dry was a benefit.

But that didn’t mean she wasn’t going to probe further. <How should I interpret it?>

“Look, I’m almost there and—” The evasiveness in his tone was unmistakable.

<Mulder, I’m very much part of this case now, remember? I’ve met some of the players. Is that ringing a bell? Now, out with it. What’s going on?> She was sure he could hear her tightly controlled tone.

When seconds passed without an answer, she continued, <Is the term ‘partnership’ ringing any bells for you, Mulder?>

“Sorry, Scully, you know how hard it is for me to do more than one thing at a time—”

<That’s rather lame, even for you.> Seriousness tinged with barely veiled humor, she realized she was smiling.

“I’m on my way to meet a contact who’s supposed to give me a task. I believe they call this my ‘initiation’ or testing period.”

<I can cover you.>

“No can do, Scully. Trust me on this one.”

<The issue’s not trust. At least not mine for your abilities. I don’t trust this group.>

“I know, but when have we ever completely trusted anyone besides each other? I’ve gotta do this their way. I’m sorry, Scully, but I’ll make it up to you. I shouldn’t be that long. Can you stay there until 7:30?”

She looked around, sizing up what she still had left to accomplish with her tests, factoring in the final notes, and decided that she’d have plenty to keep her occupied until then. <Sure, no problem.> She paused then added, <Be careful, Mulder.>

He smiled as he headed into downtown. “Always.” And he ended the connection.

~~~~~~

Burlington-Port Kent Ferry Dock
6:15PM

He managed to find a street-side spot and parallel-parked quickly, maneuvering the truck deftly. He reached for his corduroy jacket and broke out into a run for the docks. Although the day had remained relatively warm, a decided breeze was blowing eastward from the Lake, ruffling the water into white caps.

He ran up to the ticket kiosk and purchased a roundtrip ticket, although he had no idea if they’d even leave the shore. From there, he climbed the stairs to the metal gangway that led to the main passageway. Although still in season, the ferry was populated mostly by those traveling home after a long day’s work. He figured that most of the tourism traffic would come on the weekends, probably foliage tours and such.

He made his way to the bow and ducked inside the bulkhead. Most seats were already occupied, row upon row of dark green vinyl sculpted chairs welded onto rows of white blocks. Heading for the back of the large area, he started looking for his contact. He had no idea who Jemel was, but assumed he or she would know him.

And he was correct. He heard his name before he located the source of the call. His eyes scanned the back row and settled on the 5′ 6″ ash blonde leaning against the viewing window in the corner. Her hair was board straight and bluntly cut to chin length and her piercing green eyes sized him up with no concern about the obvious way in which she did so.

Mulder watched with idle curiosity as her head titled to one side and a small, but dangerous smile, played across her pink stained lips as she recognized him from his picture. He approached her, holding the gray scrap of paper where it would be visible to her.

She tugged on her dark green bomber jacket, wrapping it about her and then walked toward him. She noted the way his eyes darted from her jean clad legs back up to her face.

“Jemel Cummings, Mr. Arsenault. Move to the outside walkway and wait for me by the gangway.”

Her voice reminded Mulder of the pre-recorded ‘on-star’ computerized system used now in many new model vehicles; carefully modulated with just the barest touch of warmth. He complied, making his way back toward the bulkhead and out to the deck that surrounded the cabin.

“Stop right there,” her tone much more commanding, yet breathy. “Move to the rail, both hands on it, facing the water.”

The boat had pulled free from its moorings and was chugging away from the dock, the horn blaring twice in departure signal. He placed his hands onto the painted iron railing and looked in her direction. He watched her approach, one hand now in her jacket pocket, until she was standing hip to hip with him, also looking out onto the choppy waves. He felt the pressure at his side as she grinned at him.

“There were other ways to tell me how happy you are to see me again,” he snapped at her, his grin matching hers. His comment earned him a decided jab in the ribs with what he assumed was the butt of her weapon.

“Mr. Arsenault, it might be wise to treat me kindly since we’ll be seeing much more of each other after tonight.” When he returned his gaze to the Lake, she removed the gun.

“I thought I was being quite hospitable. It’s not often someone ‘kindly’ presses their weapon into my side.” His words dripped with controlled sarcasm.

She hooked her arm around his at the elbow and leaned in a little closer. “Listen to me very carefully. When the boat returns from Port Kent, you’ll go back to your truck and go straight to your room. You’ll find a package waiting for you there. Deliver it, as is, to the address noted. Call me at this number,” she handed him another piece of gray paper, “within ten minutes of making the delivery. Do we have an understanding, Mr. Arsenault?”

“You make all your new friends run around the city like this? If I’d wanted the full tour, I would’ve booked one.”

“You have a mouth on you, you know that. I’ll cut you some slack this once, but it might be wise to mind your manners. Not everyone is as forgiving as I am.”

She turned and walked away, the clouded and darkening sky making it hard for him to follow her movements as she disappeared into the crowds.

~~~~~~

University of Vermont
Given Building
7:30PM

One by one, the other assistants bid Scully good night, hung their lab coats on the stainless steel pegs by the door and departed. She liked this group; they were friendly, easy to talk to and extremely knowledgeable and dedicated to helping her. One of the team had actually offered to stay and work with her a little longer; had lingered even after Scully had waived her away good naturedly. Scully realized that although universities often participated in major research projects, it probably wasn’t every day they worked with an Agent of the Bureau. They handled it well.

She made a few last notes in her journal and also recorded her observations on micro-tape, hoping to cross-reference both later. She then covered and re-stored the paste samples she had used for testing and wiped down the counter area. Hanging her safety goggles over the workbench area, she glanced up at the clock. She noted that it was already seven forty-five and she hadn’t seen or heard from Mulder yet.

She headed for the lab coat rack and shrugged out of hers and then released her hair from the scrunchie. She supposed she should freshen up a little before he showed up, but she was already wondering about his lateness. <Well>, she silently amended, <it’s not as if he’s always punctual and he was only fifteen minutes late>

She moved over to the basin sink with the mirror behind it and ran her hands through her hair, fluffing it just a bit. Reaching for her backpack, she removed a cleanser wipe and ran it over her face, feeling some of the long day work free. Next, she applied some light moisturizer and finally, some coral lip-gloss. She tugged her button down petite floral shirt, the squared off hem hitting her jeans mid-hip.

And then she started pacing. It was just after eight now and she hadn’t heard from him. First believing that his new associates might have gone to visit him again, she pulled her cellphone from her pack and speed-dialed. She walked another lap around the lab as she listened to the recorded voice telling her to leave a message in his voicemail. “Hi, it’s me. I’m here, where are you?” Trying to keep her tone light, she snapped the phone closed, but didn’t put it away.

Feeling the need to continue to move, she walked across the hall into another lab, now also empty, and shut the lights off. She was just about to call him again when her phone rang. Sure that it was probably him, she smiled, finding herself really wanting to hear his voice.

“Scully.” She waited a bit longer than usual, then said her name again, wondering if the signal inside the lab was weak. When she still got no response, she closed the phone, reaching for her backpack, deciding she would head back to the hotel.

The phone rang again. Snapping it open, she answered, “Mulder, if this is your idea of a joke—”, and stopped. She was sure it wasn’t Mulder, but could hear the faster than usual breathing on the other end.

“Hello? Who’s there?” No response.

Exasperated and uncharacteristically anxious with the unidentified caller, she held her breath and continued to listen. After sixty seconds of nothing but inhalations and exhalations, she disconnected.

Replaying in her mind, the call from this morning and the fact that she was sure someone had been watching her, her anxiety increased. Her anxiety and her anger. Her anger at Mulder who was now more than a half hour late and unreachable. And possibly in danger. When she put it all together, she realized that she was angry because she was also scared. There were too many possibilities.

Unable to control her wandering, yet still amazingly analytical, mind the possible scenarios played themselves out in the stop-start snapshot cadence. Mulder off on some wild goose chase meeting up with the wrong end of a gun. The men who ‘visited’ her visiting him, ambushing him. A trap at the Ferry. The scenarios spun on, endless permutations of the basic Mulder in Trouble theme.

Just beneath her worry for him was the new level of concern about being followed and, if the phone calls were part of the same event, possibly being stalked. It didn’t make sense. If this were tied to their case, for that was indeed what it now was, the players had already shown themselves, played their hand. What would be the need for covert activity? They’d found her once with relative ease. Why watch her?

The chill of being watched refused to leave her as she slung her backpack over her shoulder and grabbed her jacket. Turning out the lights as she pushed through the portaled double doors, she moved briskly down the hall. She could still make out the muted sounds in the labs around her where graduate assistant Post Docs burned the midnight oil. Professional development opportunity also known as ‘grunt work’ left to the lowest rungs of the scholarly ladder.

As she was about to reach for the push bar across the large swing doors at the exit, the sound of screeching tires and a blaring horn startled her and she froze in place. The sounds outside died away abruptly only to be replaced by the sound of heavy footfalls in the hall behind her. She whirled around quickly — and found no one there.

She had to get out of the building and to her car. She had to find Mulder.

Her eyes quickly adjusted to the halogen lit parking lot as she furtively glanced from side to side for any unusual activity. Her keys were already in her hand as she made her way to her rental car. Quickly opening the door, she tossed her backpack onto the passenger seat and started the engine. She took her cellphone out of the pack and opened it, speed dialing Mulder’s number once again, but waiting to depress ‘send’. Throwing the shifter into R, she slowly began to back up. And that’s when she noticed the hood and headlights of the very fancy red sports car. Continuing to clear her space, she kept her eyes on the rearview mirror, trying to ascertain if there was anyone inside the vehicle. In the time it took her to refocus on exiting, she heard an engine quietly come to life.

With her own headlights off, she cruised down the double-sided lane of cars as she drove toward the street. There in her rearview mirror was the red sports car, a Jetta, pacing her, but remaining a good distance between them.

Picking up speed, she took a left onto the one-way access road and then headed right toward the inner loop that would take her to Colchester Street and back into town. Neither vehicle’s lights shown, but Scully decided that if she’d already been spotted, road safety was more important and turned hers on. As she rounded the corner and drove between the Fletcher Allen Health Care Facility and its Parking Garage, she could make out the stop sign at the corner of Colchester.

Try as she might, now that the Jetta’s lights were also blazing, she could make out nothing more than a tallish dark figure behind the wheel. She could not tell whether it was male or female; not that it mattered, she didn’t know anyone who drove a Jetta. Not in Burlington, Vermont at any rate.

She made one last ditch effort to determine if she were truly being followed and detoured from Colchester, taking a sharp left onto University Place, a right onto South Prospect and than a quick left back onto Pearl, formerly Colchester. Checking the side view mirror, she noted the red car closing on her bumper.

The fact that it was a weekday night, now around 9, traffic was almost entirely non-existent in this residential area. Scully ignored stoplights and signs and picked up speed, carefully checking side streets as she crossed Route 7 and Center Street. She had done a quick check after Mulder called her earlier today and found out that the Ferry Docks were on Battery Street. She would junction with Battery just north of Main and south of Park Streets.

But she didn’t want her pursuer to join her. Crossing Center, she veered left onto Church Street, idly noticing Kimberley and Bryan’s home on her right and then swung the wheel right taking the turn onto College rather quickly. As she entered a rather open area, the Jetta picked up speed, trying to draw parallel to her on the passenger’s side. Scully pressed the gas pedal to the floor, but the other driver matched her. Considerably more concerned now, for she knew the possibility of other vehicular traffic or finding herself by the side of the road, she abruptly slammed the brakes. She came to a grinding and jerky stop, whipping first forward and then pressed back into her seat, her safety belt keeping her from either the steering wheel or windshield.

As she rammed the shifter into reverse, hoping to turn and throw her pursuer off course, she was butted hard from the front. Somehow, the Jetta’s driver had managed to turn around and head straight for Scully’s car. The force of the collision sent Scully’s car spinning across the road and into the field west of Pine Street.

The Jetta was nowhere to be seen.

~~~~~~

The note and small package were sitting on his coffee table when he barged into his apartment. It was now 8:15 and he’d told Scully he’d pick her up at 7:30. She was going to be angry. No, she was going to be very worried and very angry. He’d been so intent on following Jemel’s instructions to the letter, knowing that his failure to perform this step of the plan exactly could risk further inclusion in the group’s circle. He hoped that Scully would assume his meeting had taken much longer than he’d initially anticipated.

If he had stopped to think it through more clearly, he would also have known that she would have tried to find him when he hadn’t called her to explain his lateness. As he sat, the package and note in one hand, he grabbed his cell, noting that he had a voicemail message.

<Shit>

He knew it had to be from Scully. He’d turned the phone off once he’d arrived at the dock and hadn’t bothered to check his calls on the way home. Opening the envelope, he called her. And got her voicemail. Unlike him, Mulder knew that Scully did not usually turn her phone off. He thought it possible that she might be outside the calling area, but also knew that most of Burlington and the surrounding communities, at least as far as Essex Junction to the east, had been accessible.

Leaving her a message to call him, he then dialed the Radisson. Only to find out that she was not in her room. Nor was there any answer at the lab in the Given Building.

“Where are you, Scully?”

He didn’t even realize he’d spoken the question aloud. Doing so making his concern about her real…palpable. He decided that he would look for her on the way to wherever it was he would be going.

He quickly pulled the folded slip of paper from the envelope and smiled at the cloak and dagger style of the note:

<Hello, Mr. Arsenault. Your assignment, should you decide to accept it, will be to deliver this package, in tact, to the address listed below. The delivery must be made immediately following your reading of these instructions. You must contact Ms. Cuming within ten minutes of having read said instructions. Do not open the package. Should it arrive at its destination in anything other than its original condition, you will be compromised. In the extreme. This note must be completely destroyed as soon as you’ve read it. Take it to: 115 Cherry Street, Apartment 16. You must present it to Mr. Zale. Please destroy this note.>

Like hell was he going to destroy the evidence. As the clock ticked on his phone call to Jemel, he slid the note back into the envelope and ran into the bathroom. He stuffed the envelope inside his shaving kit, leaving it open on the sink vanity.

By his watch he had two minutes before he had to make the call. Picking up his keys and cell, he left his apartment, package in tow.

~~~~~~

It was dark. And cold. And she couldn’t move. Fuzzy images appeared as miniature movie scenes behind her eyes. Men with dark hair. Holding her. Asking her questions, telling her something. Pain. So much pain. Darkness.

The visions slipped away and she slept. Until she felt the cold again and the tightness across her shoulder, her chest and her abdomen. The cold was joined by pain as she willed her eyelids to open.

She heard chirping — crickets, and hissing. Insects? She vaguely remembered a field of sorts somewhere to one side of her car. She was in her car, the tightness mostly likely her safety belt.

Her eyes fell closed again, much easier than they had opened. It felt good to let them close. Besides, open, they’d only shown her darkness in her immediate view, twinkling lights in the distance.

She lifted her fingers from her lap, happy that there was something that didn’t ache. Next moving her wrist and bending her arm at her elbow, she brought her hand slowly to her face. Other than a brief twinge in her shoulder, she was able to move her arm freely. She gingerly touched her face, wincing as her fingers moved across her cheek and up to her cheekbone. Contusions, definitely bruised. Focusing on assessing her injuries, she began to remember in bits and pieces.

Another car. Red. Red Jetta. Flashes of headlights in her rearview mirror. The car next to her in the same lane. Moving fast, trying to move away from the other car. Turning. Being rammed. The ditch. A flood of jagged-edged memories. They hurt. She hurt.

Her hand came away from her scalp wet and sticky and she knew instantly it was blood. Also knew that the skin of the scalp is very thin, the blood vessels very close to the surface, thereby making it appear worse than it was. But still so much blood. Her fingers moved to the back of her neck as her head lolled to one side. No pain there, but dry, crusty blood. It was the jabbing and searing pain in her side that worried her. In her side with her barely healed ribs. She unfastened the safety belt and tried to right herself. She had to get out, had to find help. Twisting her body toward the driver’s door elicited a sound somewhere between a groan and a moan. Yes. Her ribs were most likely bruised, if not fractured. Dr. Scully’s assessment indicated the need for immediate attention. Agent Scully’s assessment indicated the need to get the hell out of the car and find Mulder.

Pawing at the small handle, she pulled and then pushed, to no avail. It made no sense to her since that the door would be stuck she’d been hit from the front, but, no matter. It was jammed and she’d have to try the passenger side. The angle at which the car now rested actually made her progress somewhat easier. She’d be moving ‘downhill’, so to speak.

Her vision began to clear, allowing her to focus more on her surroundings. The road was quiet. She didn’t recall seeing or hearing another vehicle since she’d been here. How convenient — being run off the road in a deserted area of town. Although the engine had stalled and shut down, her key had remained in the battery-on position. The dashboard clock read 10:13. She’d been here for a little over an hour, as far as she could tell.

She reached over to turn the keys and remove them from the ignition, noting that the motion sent a fresh wave of pain through her right shoulder. She mentally added to the list: left ribs, facial contusions, scalp abrasions, right shoulder strain? She was developing a fine list. Good to see her sense of wry humor was still intact. Although that told her she was thinking clearly. Focus. She had to fight the lethargy that was settling over her.

~~~~~~

115 Cherry Street

He could have walked to the address it was so close by, but he’d wanted to try to find Scully as soon as he made the drop. He’d called Jemel, as required, and she’d tersely told him to proceed, to follow the instructions to the letter and warned him again about ‘being creative’. ‘Don’t think Mr. Arsenault, just do,’ her final words before she disconnected. She was one cold chick.

He arrived at the apartment building, driving around back to the visitor parking. The building was older, but had been kept up well from what he could tell in the street lamp lit view. Approximately four stories high, he entered by a center door to a locked entryway. He moved to the wall at his left where the building directory was located alongside the silver mail slots. Noting that no name accompanied the buzzer for apartment 16, he depressed it anyway.

He was greeted by a curt, ‘Yes’. He assumed he was being invited upstairs and his assumption was proven correct when the buzzer rang, allowing him to enter the stairwell.

There were four apartments per floor and he climbed the stairs to the top. He was surprised by the bright and cheery hallway, so unlike his building. The walls were painted off-white along the top half and covered with tone-on-tone vertically striped pale yellow wallpaper on the bottom. Whitewashed wainscoting separated the paint and paper. It struck him as more than a little impractical for a public access way, but if he wasn’t footing the maintenance what did he care? The carpeting was a darker tan low pile that set off the whitewashed doors.

He used the brass doorknocker and struck the door three times, sure he was being observed through the small viewer. He resisted the urge to make a sarcastic, yet entertaining face. Mulder did not particularly like roles which required him to follow another’s rules quite so closely; preferring to interpret those rules to suit his style. While he silently mused, the door swung open, no one immediately in view as he peered inside. A quick visual sweep showed furnishings that seemed to match the hallway, bright and airy, monochromatic and neutral in coloration. A coffee table that looked more like a desk underneath all the files sat in the center of the room.

“Hello?” Mulder leaned forward, his head turning to his left as he took one step inside the doorjamb.

“Mr. Arsenault, I presume.” A quiet statement that proceeded the rough hand on his right arm, dragging him into the room before the door was slammed behind him. The small package was quickly diverted into the waiting hands of none other than Jemel, the note also ripped from his fingers.

“Well, it appears that the package is unopened and I see no signs of tampering. Very good, Mr. Arsenault, very good. At least for the first step.” Jemel set the box on the table, precariously balancing it among the topsy-turvy file folders and other assorted papers.

“Against the wall and spread ‘em.” Mulder presumed that must be Mr. Zale, but he figured he’d find out as they were about to be ‘introduced’.

He noted that Jemel stood to one side, her leather jacket tossed onto the arm chair. Her tight black tee did nothing to hide her sleek curves nor the sinewy muscles he was sure could effectively halt any attempts he made to free himself from the business-suited Mr. Zale.

He found himself nearly shoved face first to the wall, turning to one side to avoid smashing his nose, his palms preventing his momentum from making the impact painful. He spread his legs as demanded.

“His neck, head, hold them still.” Jemel moved in to comply with her superior’s commands, placing one hand against Mulder’s right ear as the left side of his face was pressed to the painted wall. She leaned the rest of her body against his torso while she opened her other hand against his neck.

Mulder grunted out, “You really are trying to show me the old Vermont hospitality, aren’t you Ms. Cuming?’ “If I were you, Mr. Arsenault, I’d keep my witticisms to myself. They won’t be appreciated or tolerated here.” The low vibrations of her words and breath had their effect and he quieted without further comment.

Mulder inhaled sharply as Mr. Zale performed a rather rough body search. He knew he was being checked for weapons and wires, but the man was thorough, a little too thorough. The large, thick hands ran from his shoulders to his armpits, along his sides and then yanked his tee from his jeans. The very warm, but soft skin and probing fingers made him jump as Mr. Zale continued his explorations over Mulder’s abdomen and chest before moving around to his back.

Satisfied that his upper body was clear, he efficiently undid the buckle on Mulder’s belt and had unzipped the fly before he even had a chance to register Zale’s actions. Luckily, he hadn’t had to endure full body searches more than a few times in his career with the Bureau, but that didn’t mean he enjoyed them. He just hoped that the suited man wasn’t going for the inner and outer track search this time…

“It seems, so far, that you have obeyed your orders, but we both know there are many more places to conceal below the belt, don’t we?” The obvious overzealous mirth in the man’s voice made Mulder grimace; an expression Jemel didn’t miss.

“Relax, Mr. Zale has a gentle touch.” Mulder noticed that she was also enjoying his rather compromising position as her thumb trailed idly along his neck and her eyes wandered to follow the path of her associate’s hands. Mr. Zale’s hands framed Mulder’s hips before his right hand shoved Mulder’s ass to flatten his groin to the wall. The feeling of both hands now moving between his legs, first all the way down his inner thighs to his calves and then back up nearly made him jump. The initial reaction was to the pressure and speed with which the hands moved. The next reaction was to the very strange feeling when Zale’s hands simultaneously did their weapon check in the V of his legs — front, center and back.

He briefly caught the heated flush to Jemel’s neck and face; sure that it matched his, although there for very different reasons. Seemingly finished with him, Jemel released her hold as Mr. Zale grabbed him by the neckline of his tee, spinning him to face forward.

“You passed the test, Mr. Arsenault. Get out of here and don’t come back.”

Mulder almost laughed. The suited man’s face was so straight, so deadpan that Mulder would have wondered if he were even breathing had he not just experienced such a ‘touching’ welcome.

Jemel, however, didn’t try to hide her smug satisfaction and possible enjoyment of his little test. She reached up to finger comb her blonde hair and there was no mistaking the glint in her blue eyes just before she winked at him.

<Hoh boy…>

Mulder didn’t need to be told to get out more than once to get the picture.

~~~~~~

She remembered thinking the Sebring was rather spacious when she’d first driven it. Her opinion changed as she tried to navigate the seemingly confining space to get to the passenger door. While her body took its time moving, her mind screamed at her to ‘hurry’. She knew all too well the possibilities of engine fire or gas tank rupture, also leading to fire.

Trying to maneuver her right arm without involving her shoulder, she nudged the center console up between the front seats. One step completed. She then held onto the steering wheel, using it for leverage to slide herself sideways. The simultaneous contraction of her abs and tension in her arms caused her to whimper, sucking in a deep breath. Which only served to aggravate the area around her ribs. She had no choice and moved as quickly as she could, trying to ignore the sparks of pain.

She made it across the space between the seats, having to lift each leg up and over the very functional, but very ‘in the way’ meridian containing cup and change holders and other unidentified spaces that served now as nothing but hindrances to her progress. Not really paying much attention to anything other than her goal, she failed to see her backpack until it was wedged between her right hip and the passenger door. Sliding back a bit to her left, she managed to extricate it and put it in her lap. She wasn’t going anywhere without it.

Her left foot encountered something on the floor. By the feel and size of it, it had to be her cellphone. She remembered having taken it out earlier, but never having the chance to use it once her attention had been diverted to the Jetta. She’d need it too, but had to get it off the floor mat first. And the only possible ways to do that involved bending over; now or when she exited the car. She chose the former hoping that being seated already would provide her the additional stability she might need.

Leaning forward, she placed her left hand on the dashboard, glad that both seats were adjusted so far forward. Slowing her breathing, she closed her eyes and bent from her waist. Tiny florescent stars prickled behind her eyelids as she remembered, belatedly, to lean toward her right side only. A few more deep breaths and she was able to extend her right arm to the floor and grab the phone from between her feet. Sitting back up proved much easier… Before depositing the phone into the small compartment on the front of the pack, Scully checked to make sure it was on and charged. Satisfied, she grabbed the handle and pushed the passenger door open. She sighed when it swung outward with no difficulty. Even though the very wide door caught on the rocks and hillocks of the field, she had enough space to swing her legs around in front of her. Knowing her right shoulder wouldn’t support the backpack; she opted to convert the straps, allowing her to wear it around her waist, the weight of the pack at her belly where she could access it and her cell.

Gathering her wits and direction before standing, she recalled having passed Mulder’s street right before the other vehicle had pulled up next to her. Therefore, she reasoned, his street must be directly behind her, bordering the field on the east side.

The field looked as vast as an ocean in her injured and now tired state and the uneven and rocky terrain would prove challenging. But she had no choice.

She felt the cold almost immediately. Nighttime, northern New England, lake shore breezes, autumn — a wonderful weather combination. Her light jacket did little to ward off the mixture of temperature and chills.

Hanging onto the door jamb to her right and the frame of the passenger door at her left, she took another deep breath and exhaled as she stood knowing that using her breathing effectively would help her move more easily.

Digging her heels into the ground, she pushed with her quads, pulling herself up with her left arm. <So this is what Mulder means when he sees stars> Her head swam as the dark spun around her momentarily. Once her breathing returned to normal, she found that it was possible to remain standing without holding onto the car. However, standing and moving were two different things and she had no illusions about her first steps. Sidling against the panel between the passenger front and back doors, she let the front door close under its own weight. <It’s now or never, Dana> Once her eyes had adjusted to the darkness of the open field, she tried to orient herself. The only lighting seemed to be from the street lamps on the road alongside the ditch and from the residential neighborhood to the northeast, providing only indirect illumination. She chose an east/northeast direction and set one foot in front of the other, instantly finding that holding her left side aided her breathing and the jostling movements of walking.

With each plodding step, walking grew easier, but it did nothing to ward off the cold. She would have been more concerned about the fact that her teeth were chattering if she wasn’t also worried about how much farther her legs would carry her. She began to desperately hope that the boardinghouse was on the end of the street closest to her current location.

She tried to take her mind off the energy she was expending to lift her feet and move forward and to keep her body warm. <Mulder, where are you?> She stopped to take her cellphone out and immediately wondered why she hadn’t thought to call him earlier.

The line was busy. Maybe he was calling her? She kept moving, her mind wandering, a little game of self-distraction to help pass the time, to forget about the cold. She started counting her steps, but they didn’t move quickly enough to hold her attention.

And her mind kept coming back to Mulder. The phone wasn’t in her hand anymore and she guessed that she must have put it away, but she wasn’t sure why. No matter, she could see the apartment building ahead of her although it was hard to judge just how far ahead.

He had said he was going to meet a contact at the Ferry. Did he actually go to Fort Kent? Had he only met the contact on the Ferry and was he back in town? She had no answers, but it was somehow comforting to picture his face.

His face… the look on his face when she’d left his room yesterday. Left after massaging him. On his bed. Straddling his hips.

She felt herself smiling at the memory, felt herself growing warmer. Yes, that was one way to keep warm…

~~~~~~

He did wonder what he’d transported for the amusement of Mr. Zale and Ms. Cummings, but he also needed to find Scully. He’d actually wished he could have called her sooner, somehow managed to pick her up from the lab before he traipsed off to the ferry dock, but he hadn’t had the time.

She’d understood despite her protests and questions to the contrary. She always understood — and he felt even more guilty for those times when he didn’t call or forgot to call. Felt guilt for the times that she’d found out only when she’d had to rescue him or cover for him or a myriad of other circumstances she’d had to invent and manipulate to save him and preserve their professional hides. For even when she had no part in his original ‘plans’, he knew that his actions would inextricably link her to him — especially when he messed up.

But those days were hopefully behind him, behind them. Well, behind them since this summer. As he dropped his cell phone onto the passenger seat beside him, he made a left turn onto College Street, wanting to head back to the Given Building. He didn’t really think she would still be there, but he also knew that she was as tenacious with her research as he was with his search for the truth. That in fact, her science was her version of his search for their truth.

And once again he found himself wistfully and not without some chagrin, thinking about how he’d allowed an unconfirmed piece of information, a request for his help, to nearly drive him from Scully for good. More than any side trip to Small Town, U.S.A. could do, his willingness to ride off into the sunset to supposedly help his former partner, had nearly destroyed his current partnership professionally and personally. The personal partnership that was just starting to feel as if it was returning to some semblance of normal.

He had to find her. Now. The intensity of it ran straight through his body, and he reacted, depressing the gas pedal even harder. He reached the Given Building in no time, but was disappointed to see no lights other than the external building sensors and halogen parking lot lamps. On the off-chance that she could still be inside, he left the truck running by the entryway and ran to the double doors. Locked. She couldn’t still be here. He whirled around, checking out the parking lot, but realized it wouldn’t help. He hadn’t yet seen her rental car.

Instead of wasting anymore time, he jumped back into the waiting truck and sped off. He tried the hotel one more time, but her room phone rang endlessly. No. she’d probably headed for the docks, hoping to catch him there. But that was so long ago now; he’d been there, back to his place and over to Cherry Street. No matter. The distance wasn’t that great, it was late on a weeknight and traffic was exceedingly light in the mainly residential and college town area.

With the exception of a strip of loosely hung decorative lights, the docks were dark and looming. Business at this wharf was relegated to pleasure craft and transport for commuters and tourists out and around the lake and across to New York. The last arrival was hours ago now. Mulder knew that if she had come here, she was long gone.

But why hadn’t he heard from her? It wasn’t like her to not try to locate him. Except when he purposefully turned his phone off, lost it or — forgot to turn it on. Given where he’d been headed since he’d notified her, any of those options were possible. With the exception of losing it. This time.

But why wouldn’t she be answering her phone? She was much more conscientious when it came to staying in touch and, therefore, always had her phone with her. Unless the signal wasn’t strong enough or it had been taken from her or she was injured. No. He couldn’t allow his thinking to flow in that direction. Heck, she’d already been in the hospital twice since they’d been here. That might even be a Mulder/Scully Hospital Visit record.

He turned left onto College Street, finally nearing his boardinghouse, hoping maybe she’d left word for him there. This stretch of the road was open on both sides, no homes or businesses. He hadn’t had much time to explore, but the layout was pretty easy to follow, the basic grid pattern of the streets making it simple to get from one place to another. As he glanced from side to side, something caught his eye out the driver’s side window. A car laying at an odd pitch in the field. From his location, and due to the fact that he was moving, although he had slowed some to get a better look, the vehicle looked unharmed. He briefly wondered why such a nice looking car would be abandoned in a field, but didn’t give it much thought. He was too close to home now and could call it in from there. Chances were that some of the local college kids had driven out here and were exploring the area for some long lost rites of passage.

Nonetheless, he grabbed his cell to report the possibly abandoned vehicle to the Burlington PD.

Taking another left, he turned onto Pine Street.

~~~~~~

She could see the boardinghouse now and it actually seemed close enough to touch. At least to her very cold and clouded thinking brain. It did motivate her to move faster. Moving faster would get her there that much sooner and hopefully warm her up. And get her to Mulder. She hadn’t lost her focus on him. It was worrisome and driving.

The fact that she hadn’t been able to reach him had her thinking almost the worst. The man had more lives than a cat, thankfully, but even within the limits of staying alive, he could come pretty close to disaster. And she was in no shape right now to help him out much. Hell, she couldn’t even find him. The man’s inability to keep track of his phone could be infuriating.

No matter. She was here now; he’d be here.

She crossed the line of border-setting shrubbery that separated the field from the residential street, pushing closely-knit boughs out of her way, the effort sending minor spasms through her achy body. She stopped, trying to get some much-needed oxygen to her lungs, and glanced at the surrounding homes. Windows lit by the flickering blue/gray of television screen and assorted yellow/white room lights. Families enjoying each other, getting ready for bed on a work or school night. Normal people activities. She couldn’t recall the last time she’d thought of her life in terms of ‘normal’.

Her brief respite had allowed her to catch her breath, but in slowing down had also brought on more of a chill. Rubbing her hands together and then gingerly hugging herself, she headed for the boardinghouse.

She was instantly upset when she walked into the lot. Mulder’s truck wasn’t there. Hoping that maybe he’d left it at the docks or the construction site, she headed for the outer doors. Locked. Since this was a main entry, she knew it was useless to try the other entrances and exits. He had to be home soon; she hoped.

In the meantime, she’d had about all the walking and standing she could take. She was exhausted and shivering again. Shivering hurt; her shoulder, her ribs. She wanted to sleep and even the very cold and hard concrete stoop seemed inviting. She sat down on the top step and leaned into the wrought iron railing. Even the widely spaced vertical posts didn’t seem uncomfortable as she huddled into herself.

Soon growing tired of that position, she found that drawing her heels close to the back of the step below her and scooting forward allowed her the support she needed to bend over and rest her upper body on her thighs. For some reason she wasn’t about to question, nor had the strength to care about, even her ribs didn’t protest.

She was asleep in no time.

~~~~~~

He swung the truck into the lot and pulled into the spot designated for his apartment. Having picked up the cellphone and opening it, about to call his partner again when he saw someone passed out or sleeping on the back steps.

He recognized the red hair even in the poorly lit darkness. Knew it was she. Breaking into a run, he tried to pocket both his keys and the phone. “Scully! Oh, god, Scully!”

He squatted down in front of the steps, one hand brushing her hair from her face, his other at her neck searching for a pulse. He sighed in partial relief as he found it pulsing strongly. Leaving her neck, his hands quickly and efficiently scanned the rest of her body as he continued to call her name, hoping to rouse her.

“Mmm… what? Huh?” Her hand came up to her face and then dropped to the cement below her.

“Scully, it’s me. Can you sit up? Are you hurt? What happened?”

Although her voice was barely audible, there was no mistaking the firm and reassuring tone when she told him, “Can you limit your questions to one at a time, Mulder?”

Laughing, he moved to sit beside her, carefully wrapping an arm around her and drawing her to him. Hearing her dryly witty question relieved him.

“You’re freezing. Let me get you inside.” It wasn’t until he was moving her against him that he heard her whimper and saw her eyes scrunched shut. A sure sign that she was hurting. “Forget inside, you need the hospital, and I’m calling 9-1-1.”

She reached up to close his cellphone. “You don’t need to do that, Mulder. I’m really fine, just sore. Make that very sore. Just get me home.” Before he could respond, telling her that the only place she was going was up to his room, he phone chirped. “Mulder”

<Mr. Mulder? This is Officer Mortis from the Burlington PD. We’ve got an I.D. on that abandoned vehicle and thought you’d want to know it was rented by one of your own, an Agent Dana Katherine Scully. We found her registered at the Radisson, but she doesn’t seem to be in. I’ve got some patrol officers on search>

“That’s all right, Officer, she’s here with me, but thank-you. Yes, please have it towed and repaired.” He snapped the phone closed, the look in his eyes dead serious and fraught with concern. ‘Fine’, my ass, Scully…

She knew that look. Knew that it was born of his love for her, but also out of his frustration that once again, she’d not told him everything right away. “They found my car.” She didn’t ask; she knew.

“Care to explain? Or is this some new hobby of yours, driving off the road and wandering around cold and injured?” If he noticed the sharp tone in his delivery, he didn’t care. Why hadn’t she called him? Why hadn’t she called 9-1-1? What the hell happened? She tried to pull away, to sit up straight, but he held her to him which struck her as a contradiction. She could understand his anger; he was always afraid when she was hurt. But it was almost as if there was an internal debate going on in his head; he couldn’t decide whether he wanted to be mad or very glad that she was alive and safe. She knew that he was a man of deep, albeit sometimes conflicting emotions. So, she relaxed back against him, giving in to just how good it felt.

She was safe.

“I was run off the road. I don’t know by whom, didn’t recognize the vehicle and couldn’t see the driver. May have been the same person I think is following me-” She trailed off, that much talking tiring her.

A fire seemed to flare in his eyes at her last words, but he said nothing. He didn’t need to; he knew she’d understand without the words. He helped her stand and, they headed inside. He walked with his arms around her awkward as it was, but it seemed to lessen her shivering to a dull shuddering.

When they reached his apartment, he guided her to the couch and eased her onto it. The brighter light revealed the extent of her bruising, but not the shoulder and ribs injuries. His hands gently held her arms as he knelt between her legs and asked what else hurt. Forestalling her usual rejoinder, his hands moved to her shoulders, his fingers gently probing over her lightweight jacket. “We need to take this off, Scully, so I can get you warm.”

For the briefest flash of a non-existent moment, their eyes locked at his words, his literal meaning and their implied meaning traveling between them.

She lowered her head first, the color and heat in her cheeks in no way due to the warmer temperature of his apartment. She knew he’d read her reaction, but was thankful that for now, he said or did nothing about it. She moved to allow him to help her remove the poplin jacket, only wincing once or twice.

“Slide forward and lean back a little so I can check your ribs.” His voice was so nearly like her second nature ‘Doc Scully’ tone that she had to smile. He was doing his best to make sure she would be comfortable. Didn’t he know how impossible that was? How being this physically close to him, even when she was hurting, was more than a little distracting?

His hands were almost hot against her skin as he unbuttoned the shirt from the hem to just below her bra. He unintentionally sucked in a deep breath at the new colors sprouting on her porcelain skin. “You’re a regular rainbow, Scully.”

“Is that your professional opinion, Doc?” She gritted her teeth as he tried to determine just how far the bruising stretched. “Your bedside manner could use some work, Mulder. Ow!”

Ignoring her sound effects, her re-buttoned the shirt and leaned forward, his hands on her hips. “I think you’ll live, but I’m gonna help make it better in the meantime.”

His lips lightly brushed her forehead, each eyelid and her nose. “Is it helping, Scully?” Not waiting for an answer, he kissed the cheek without any bruising and then, before she could answer or protest or both, he kissed her mouth. And felt her sigh as she relaxed under his hands. Her hands held onto his shoulders as the heat spread like warmed honey swirling through her body, starting to take her breath away. She must be tired and still somewhat delirious if this one kiss was having that effect. What was she thinking? Most of Mulder’s kisses had this effect on her. But she drew back; ending it before it grew into something much more than her aching body would allow.

“I should go home and rest, Mulder.” She started to get up, but he held her in place.

“No; you’re not going anywhere right now. Your body’s been shaken pretty badly, so you can take the bed and I’ll use the standby couch.” Hoping she wouldn’t notice, he looked at it askance.

But she had noticed as she glanced at him and then at the two-seater. “You can’t sleep on this, let me take it.”

“No can do, Scully. I’ll make-do for one night. You need solid rest.” He stood, one arm extended in a gesture to indicate she had the ‘bedroom’.

After an assist, she was standing and heading for the bathroom. Always the helpful partner, Mulder handed her one of his tee-shirts to sleep in.

“Scully?”

She turned toward him, her eyes nearly slits. “Yes, Doc? Did I miss some of the prescriptive orders?”

He couldn’t help the smile that lit his face. She had to be doing better than he’d thought if she could banter with him.

She noted the change from his boyish smile to his ‘I’m about to say something very serious look’ when he responded, “Only the one about us talking about you being watched. I’m not taking no for an answer. Tomorrow over breakfast—”

“You cook, too, Mulder?”

“—over breakfast before I go to work, you have some serious questions to answer.”

~~~~~~

Thursday, 21 September
5:00AM

For some reason, the last leg of his run was much more tiring than usual. He’d hit his stride about a quarter of the way into it and dug his heels in. He was hauling ass. Figuring he’d probably pushed from his cardio training zone and moved to the sprinting or anaerobic phase, he tried to slow himself down again.

Only ten miles this morning in relative darkness and almost total silence. Most of the town was either still sleeping or slowly awakening to the work or school day. It was peaceful, a time to think and reflect.

Mulder started to string together the various bits and pieces of his time in Burlington — all two weeks so far. It really felt like so much longer and he tended to divide it up into ‘before he saw Scully in the Club’ and ‘after he saw Scully in the Club’. For convenience, of course. He pictured her lying on her side in his bed, barely stirring as he got dressed. He hadn’t wanted to wake her; she needed her rest at this point.

No, he’d wanted to pull back the blankets and slide his boxer-clad body up against her tee-shirt covered form.

But, he quickly deep-sixed that train of thought. Running was painful enough when he was tired; he didn’t want to have to carry around a very solid reminder of his ‘roaming thoughts’.

Catching his breath, he lifted one leg until the heel of his shoe was on the top step and bent over the extended leg. His hamstrings were tight again. He just added the muscles to the growing list he hadn’t really been taking the time to stretch lately. Finishing with the other leg, he stood and grabbed one foot behind him, bending his knee. Surprisingly, his quads weren’t as tight.

As he completed his stretching circuit, his mind focused on the talk he and Scully were about to have. The talk where he was sure she would employ avoidance to throw him off what had really happened. Oh, she didn’t really want to keep anything from him, but it wasn’t in her nature to ask for help or express anything that might make it appear that she couldn’t handle the situation herself.

He knew that. But he also knew that any person dealing with this group needed back up. Skinner knew that and signed her on. Well, maybe what Skinner knew was that she would keep an eye on him.

He walked quickly to the elevator and made it upstairs in no time.

He found her sitting cross-legged on the bed, the newspaper spread out before her on the blankets. Her longer hair tucked behind her ears, glasses perched on her nose, she was deeply engrossed in something.

Realizing, but not really caring that the quite obvious once over he gave her could earn him ‘the look’, he trained his eyes on her face. And then they drifted again to that spot where her tee — make that his tee, didn’t quite cover her legs, allowing him enough of a glimpse of her panties to cause his breath to hitch and his sweaty shorts to feel a little restrictive. “Morning, Scully.”

She glanced up from the headlines and smiled. “Morning, Mulder. Good run?”

He nodded and then tipped his head slightly, his chin jutting forward toward the paper. “Whatcha reading?”

Folding it in quarters, she tossed it to him, telling him to check out the lower left-hand corner of page 15. One hand on his hip, he held the folded section in front of him. She could see the quirked eyebrow, questioning the same thing she had.

“Looks like my contact is a civic leader, huh? Wonder just how far his connections into the community go? All it says here is that he’s chairman of the Burlington home office of the Bank of Boston. Also sounds like he’s pretty well-respected.” Setting the article down on the back of the couch, he smiled at her. “You’re supposed to be resting.”

“How convenient that he’s connected to an institution that legally deals with cold hard cash, not to mention, reserves. And I am resting and I slept too late. I’ve got work to do,” she informed him as she slid off the bed. Turning her back to him, she bent to straighten the spread. Her inward smile was the only give-away to the fact that she could feel his eyes wander over her before he explained that the housekeepers would make the bed and tidy up.

“Housekeepers, Mulder? In a boardinghouse?” She laughed and then felt his hand on her elbow turning her toward him. Her breathing caught briefly as his presence washed over her like just so many memories. Memories of times when their relationship didn’t seem so complicated. When their relationship seemed less complicated. Theirs had never been truly easy. But, she supposed, nothing really good in life ever was.

His physical proximity was intoxicating in a warm and comfortable and hot and exciting way. No one she’d known before had ever been able to arouse her the way he could — to anger and to depths of love.

“We have to talk about how your car ended up in that field.” The creeping color in her cheeks didn’t escape him. “Let’s sit down.”

Taking the afghan from the foot of the bed, she turned back toward him. A simple gesture, really, she took his hand and led him to the couch. The soft throw was pulled up around her as she sat back into the corner cushions, wondering just how he’d slept on the sofa last night when they were nearly right next to each other seated.

He waited. Patiently. Watching her gathering her thoughts, processing information, the occasional furrowing of her brow the only indication that she was putting the pieces together. She was strong; exceedingly strong, he amended, especially when he considered all she’d been through since they’d known each other. He closed the door on that line of thinking, knowing he was prone to self-recriminations.

“The car was red; a late model Jetta, I think. I’m pretty sure I was followed from the lab.”

He thought about her there, waiting for him…

She continued, possibly devining his thoughts by the subtle change in his features. “Once we hit the open stretch, the driver pulled alongside me. You know the rest.”

“What else? Something else happened. Tell me.” Her hesitation and the way she pulled into herself had alerted him.

“I don’t have any proof, but I think I was watched all day; or at least since I got to the lab this morning.” She noted his silence in words, but his eyes were telling her that she should continue, that he would accept whatever she had to say. “I don’t know. I guess I’m just a bit on edge after the Marketplace on Sunday. It’s probably nothing more than my over-active imagination,” she finished with more conviction.

Watching him watching her, she was sure he was formulating some wry comeback and was just waiting for the right time to let it fly. But he surprised her by refraining, at least verbally. The tiny wrinkles at the corners of his eyes told her he was barely holding it back.

Looking down, she realized she’d never let his hand go. The warmth of the skin-skin contact was soothing and comforting and felt as good as the promise in his eyes.

“I’m keeping an eye on you, G-Woman. Something about this doesn’t feel right and I don’t like it. I would think the men in black have already given you and me their basic messages. They know we’re linked, they’ve acted. This just feels like something else entirely, but I’ll be damned if I know what.”

“Well, I’ll be careful as usual, but now I’ve really got to head back to the hotel and get dressed. I’m meeting up with Kimberley today.” Tossing off the afghan, she started to stand, pulling her hand away from him. And ended up sitting right back down with a plop. “Mulder…”

He brought her hand to his lips and lightly brushed her fingertips with his lips. Holding her gaze, he told her he was off to the shower and would phone her at lunchtime.

~~~~~~

Stenhauser Construction Site
Thursday, 21 September
8:00AM

Slug’s familiar face shown like a utility light as Mulder swung the F-150 into the chain link fenced yard. Grabbing his lunch pail and hard hat, he got out of the truck and headed to the office trailer. Setting the hat on his head, he climbed the wooden steps two at a time and was about to open the door when the owner’s son appeared.

Jason was holding Mulder’s timecard, waving it in front of him. “Looking for this, Chris?”

“Well, yes, thought I was supposed to punch in each morning. Has the routine changed since Friday?” He reached for the card that was held just out of his reach. And he was not up for game playing. Before he could speak further, he looked sideways at Jason’s arm on his shoulder.

“Mr. Arsenault, we no longer have any need for your skills. But, we like to take care of our own, so we’ve got another assignment for you.”

There was something in Jason’s tone that set Mulder’s teeth on edge, but he steeled himself to a more neutral demeanor. “Oh? Was there something the boss didn’t like about my work?”

Smiling solely with his lips, the younger Stenhauser shook his head ironically. “No, no, Mr. Arsenault, you’re not being reassigned due to poor performance. Quite the contrary. My father’s friends have much better, more lucrative work for you. The hours are better, too, as is the travel. Show up at this address tomorrow. Take today off with pay.”

Well, the day had certainly taken an interesting turn, but he was now be handed the opportunity to move further into the organization.

~~~~~~

Bank of Burlington Board Room
9:00AM

The Short Round Man, a.k.a. Bishop Stillman, was the last to sit, a steaming mug of coffee in his hands. He nearly doused his new suit jacket with it when he reached up to return an errant long strand of hair to its proper side of his head. Glancing at the brass wall clock, he nodded toward the security guard at the door.

When he was satisfied that the deadbolts had been activated, he cleared his throat and without further preamble, he began. “Gentlemen, Proteus could not attend our special meeting today, so he’s asked me to relay the instructions.”

The men exchanged curious glances and then turned, as one, back to the boss’s stand-in. When he felt he had their full attention, he laid out the information.

“Proteus has added a new apprentice member to our group. He shows much potential and has successfully passed both the initiation and test periods.”

The younger Stillman brother spoke first. “When do we meet this guy?”

“Some of you already have, I believe. It’s Chris Arsenault; the guy from the Metronome and the construction site?”

A few eyebrows raised, but head nodding was the major response.

Ben then asked his brother if he had any pictures of the recent addition, but none were available.

“I’m going to have him do some work with the Zale-team initially; most likely working with the couriers. He’ll work the docks area and, if all goes well, we’ll move him into the international trade.” As an afterthought, he added, “I’ll set up a Friday a fternoon group meeting at the usual and you can all meet Chris.”

~~~~~~

Around Town
9:30AM

The truck was buffeted by the cross-winds as they slammed into the flatbed and the rocker panels alternately, requiring Mulder constantly compensate, fighting the steering wheel to keep the vehicle within the confines of the road. And, as if that wasn’t enough, the sheeting rain nearly blinded him, making the trip from Essex Junction back to Burlington nothing short of a grueling event.

The prospect of his new ‘assignment-within-an-assignment’ was exciting; something to write home about, or at least call his boss about. He belatedly remembered that it was about time for a call and was rather surprised Skinner hadn’t already called him to chew his sorry ass. Actually, that usually wasn’t the A.D.‘s style. As the years flew or trudged by, depending on one’s perspective, Mulder had discovered that his supervisor really was much more than that. He’d often found a way to gather information he was not supposed to know about, let alone, have and had certainly saved them both; from other forces and from themselves. ‘Well,’ Mulder silently amended, ‘saved me from myself.’

So, delaying a report call would not be in his best interest. Pulling over by the side of the road, for the weather made using his cell while driving very precarious, he was quickly connected with Kimberley.

<Assistant Director Skinner’s Office. May I help you?>

“Kimberley, it’s Agent Mulder. Is he in?”

<Just a minute, Agent,” she replied efficiently and placed him on hold, “I’ll put you through right now>

<Agent>

“Sir.” Mulder’s voice held the slightest trace of a smile as he imagined the set of his superior’s jaw. “I wanted to fill you in on the Proteus Case.”

The terse reply told Mulder that his boss wasn’t having the best of days. <I wasn’t aware a new name had been given to Case File 1754-01>

Unconsciously sitting up even taller in the seat, Mulder watched the wiper blades track across the windshield, now barely able to keep pace with the downpour.

“Sorry, Sir; that’s my own reference.” Sensing that Skinner needed decisive brushstrokes with none of the usual conjecture, he filled him in on everything in reverse chronological order from his most recent new assignment back to the meeting with Tanner Roscoe, Jemel and Mr. Zale. The sharp intake of breath in his ear told him he had the A.D.‘s full attention.

The warning in his tone was as subtly obvious as it was in his words, carefully chosen, <I don’t think I need to remind you of what this group seems capable of, Mulder. Nor do I have to remind you to rely on my abilities to extract you only if it’s clear that you are operating within the boundaries of deep cover protocols. Do we have an understanding?>

He knew the parameters, knew how far he could stretch them, where his safety net was, but, most importantly, he knew that his maverick methods netted one of the highest resolution rates in the Bureau’s history. But, Skinner had just drawn the line in the sand, showing Mulder exactly how far over it his boss would allow himself to step.

“Yes, Sir; we do.”

<I want to hear from you again as soon as your new ‘apprenticeship’ is defined. How is Agent Scully’s work going?>

The change is the A.D.‘s tone was discreet, but he heard it nonetheless. “She seems pleased with her work in the lab and has recently made some discoveries as to the properties of the paste substance. I’m sure she’ll update you.”

<No further hospitalizations, I trust?>

“The answer is ‘no’.”

<I hear a ‘but’, Mulder>

“‘But’, she was run off the road last night. She’s doing much better than the rental. I thought it might be connected to the same group that hit her last Sunday, but it doesn’t feel right. It was too soon after the initial test.”

<Stay on top of it, but don’t crowd her>

Before Mulder could respond, his boss added, <I know you, Mulder, you’re hovering. Keep me posted>

He hung up before the Agent could comment. Or jibe.

~~~~~~

Before he could pull back out into traffic, his cell rang. “Mulder.”

<So, how’re the green mountains treating you, buddy? Where the heck are you? It sounds like Niagara Falls in a tin barrel. I could get you better service than the damn Fibbies give you>

Mulder had to laugh. Even in dark moments, the pint-sized LGM could bring out a smile.

“At least I’d be able to see over the top of the barrel, little man. What’s the latest conspiracy news today?”

He could hear Langly in the background muttering about some software program he was probably trying to develop.

<How’s Agent Scully?> The enthusiasm in his voice was about as subtle as a Mack truck.

“You didn’t call me to ask about Scully.” And if Mulder thought he could evade the question, he was sadly mistaken.

<You know how it goes, big guy; information for information, although I think I’m going to like what you tell me more than the other way around> Frohike’s voice lowered, grew serious.

As did Mulder’s, but with the added edge of warning, “Now,‘Hike.”

The sound of scuffling and murmuring intermingled with words of varying colorations preceded the switch from Frohike to Byers on the phone.

<Mulder, I believe what my colleague is trying to tell you is that we’ve got more information about both Ben Stillman and Diana. We have been able to track Ben’s whereabouts to your current locale. It appears he’s been summoned there by someone rather high placed in a multi-state cartel operation. From what—>

“Byers?”

<Give the phone back to me, Byers>

He felt as if he were at an old time Saturday matinee — rainy day, homemade popcorn, black and white comedy feature, The Three Stooges, maybe? Mulder knew better than to rush them, but the rain was starting to let up and he had places to go and people to see. “Byers? Hey! You’re supposed to be the sensible one in that fraternity. Can I get some answers here?” Mulder didn’t know whether to laugh or hang up. Fingers drumming impatiently on the dashboard, he started whistling.

<I’m here, Mulder> Blissful silence hung in the airspace between them. <Well, go you want the bad news or the really bad news first?>

The Agent actually groaned as his hand came to his forehead; fingers massaging a headache he was sure must be forming. “They got to you, too, Byers? Please tell me it isn’t so.”

Frohike had grabbed the phone back from the more conservative Gunman.

<Me again, big guy. Ben Stillman’s one of the players in the drug trafficking, although he’s only been involved for the last year or so. It’s his older brother, Bishop; you may know him as the Short Round Man, who’s connected more closely to the top. Now, as for the former Agent Fowley, our sources confirm she definitely left Massachusetts soon after the, uh, transporter malfunction. No one we’ve caught up with seems to know her current whereabouts now, though. Oh, and just a warning, man — escaping that portal may not have been the best experience she could have had. You’ve heard of ‘time warps’? Well, put a heavy emphasis on ‘warp’>

Mulder wasn’t even aware of the fact that he’d just slammed the steering wheel with the heel of his hand until it started to throb. How the hell did life always get so complicated?

~~~~~~

Radisson Hotel
10:00AM

It was strange and rather silly, really. She hadn’t heard from her sister’s friend in a few days — four to be exact. Ever since their ‘discussion’ about Kimberley’s interaction with the unidentified man in the fancy sportscar. So much had happened in the last four days, but she really thought she should make amends for whatever may have started to come between them.

Scully mentally pieced together what she’d seen and heard. At first glimpse, it pointed to her friend’s involvement in some elicit or at least, illegal, operation. However, when she stopped to consider the Canadian’s law enforcement connection, she realized it was entirely possible that the woman was investigating just as she and Mulder were.

Getting no answer at the Church Street home, her next call was to the Burlington Police Department. Asking directly for the Chief, she was connected to Alana Ennis’ office.

“Chief Ennis, here. May I help you, Agent Scully?” Her voice rang clear and bright — quite the counterpart to the raging winds and sheeting rain outside the large windowpanes in front of the FBI Agent.

<Actually, I’m hoping that you might be able to help me out. I’m about to come down to the station this morning> Not hearing any response, Scully continued, <I’m looking for a friend of mine who’s relatively new in town. I think there’s a possibility she may be working out of the station. Kimberley Kresge?>

“May I ask why you’re looking for her?” Scully could hear the slight change in tone, the professional guard rising.

<As you know, I’m with the Bureau. I’m in town with my partner on assignment. Ms. Kresge and I may be able to assist each other, Chief. I understand your need to keep things under wraps, but—>

“Say no more, Agent Scully, Officer Kresge is indeed here. Shall I put her on the line?”

<I’m on my way. If you don’t mind, please just let her know. Thanks again, Chief>

She was glad the drive was a short one. The sheeting rain seemed to be hitting the windshield perpendicularly. It seemed to rain here almost as much as it did in Seattle.

She had done her homework since finding Kimberley in town. The Ontario Provincial Police represented one of the largest deployed police forces in North America, and their expertise in areas such as forensic identification, behavioral sciences, criminal intelligence, e-crime and drug enforcement had earned the OPP recognition in providing sophisticated specialized criminal investigative services. Kimberley had risen through the ranks with meteoric speed and equally astounding success.

Beginning her career in Aurora in the Greater Toronto Region, she had started patrolling the City of Toronto’s Provincial Highways, some of the busiest in the area. However, she hit her stride with her investigative expertise and it wasn’t long before the higher-ups in the Investigation Bureau sought her.

Working in partnership with the OPP regions, bureaus, municipal police and other government agencies, she soon moved into solo case management with a staff assigned to her. Having seen more than her share of street crime, often brutal and more often linked to drug sales, she worked hand in hand with first the Provincial ViCLAS (Violent Crimes Linkage Analysis System) Program and, most recently, Drug Enforcement.

Scully was impressed. Their combined experience and training could prove indispensable. Now all she had to do was move the relationship back to where it had been prior to whatever it was she had witnessed from Kimberley’s shrubs…

~~~~~~

Mulder’s F-150
10:30AM

After what seemed like a brief mental paralysis, Mulder reined in his thoughts, once again registering the drumming and pinging of the rain hitting the roof of his truck. He had to get to Scully, had to talk to her.

He had to talk to her and he was seriously dreading this conversation. Dreading the crestfallen look he knew he’d see in her eyes. Knew that she wouldn’t have to say a word for him to know that she’d be angry and hurt and… disappointed? Oh, yeah, he was pretty sure of that one.

But, he’d vowed he wouldn’t keep things from her, that he’d do his best to share with her, talk things out. He’d always known that together they were everything, their skills, their expertise, their uncanny ability to communicate so much made them much larger than the sum of two separate but equal parts.

But, for some reason, not even he seemed to be able to fathom, he occasionally resorted to doing that which he deemed ‘best’ for her sensibilities. The fact that he was rarely correct in his predictions had often escaped him.

Until this summer. This summer when his poor judgment had earned him a number one spot on his partner’s blacklist. And he’d only moved up to the blacklist after she was willing to recognize his existence.

He had deserved it. He had learned from it that which deep down he had always been aware of — together meant discussing things together before acting on her behalf.

And who was he kidding? The real root to that problem was that he’d acted based upon what Special Agent Diana Fowley had told him. Of course, that had almost meant that he’d acted without considering Scully’s advice or concerns.

No more. He wouldn’t risk their partnership in all its various levels. He had to tell her about Diana.

How?

~~~~~~

Burlington Police Department
1 North Avenue

When she pulled into the parking lot, she saw the SUV parked in the Special Visitors area and she backed in next to it. Scully had managed to rent a late model Maxima while her Sebring was being repaired. That was fine with her; she wanted no reminders of the lack of defensive driving skills that had allowed her to be literally driven off the road.

She made her way to the main reception area noting the clean lines and spit and polish of the station. The Chief ran a tidy ship.

She barely made it to the counter when she saw Kimberley and Chief Alana Ennis approaching, chatting amiably. The older woman’s broad smile and sparkling blue-green eyes were capped by reddish brown chin length hair.

“Agent Scully, I presume?” The two law enforcement officers extended hands.

“Dana, good to see you.” Scully noted the genuine smile and returned it.

“Same here, Kimberley. I was hoping we might be able to talk about the case I’ve just been assigned. Is there someplace—?”

The Chief was already a step ahead, ushering them to the conference room down the hallway behind the reception area. “I’d like to put our contingent at your disposal, Agent Scully, Lieutenant Kresge. If there’s anything I can do, you be sure and let me know.”

She had turned to go, but Scully reached out for her, a hand on her shoulder. “Why don’t you join us? We could use your perspective on the city and some of the local ambiance.”

The three women settled around the end of the oval table, notebooks and portfolios open, pens poised. It was Burlington’s Chief who spoke first.

“Our department strategy and philosophy is community based, problem-oriented policing. It is a strategy that emphasizes partnerships, problem solving and prevention. ‘Problem-solving’ means looking beyond the incident in order to identify underlying problems which, if addressed, will eliminate or abate the condition. What are you telling me the underlying problem is here?”

Kimberley toyed with the sapphire ring on her right middle finger, spinning it around with her thumb. She reflected that new situations brought out this behavior. ‘Flick and Fidget’ was the term Bryan used. He’d coined the term since he’d been the first one to notice it.

She wasn’t easily thrown, but investigating drugs always had that effect on her. Her earliest experiences, especially along Highway 401 in Toronto, had prepared her. Although most of her work in that area involved road safety issues, she had also had the need to pull vehicles over for speeding. In the course of ticketing, she’d uncovered the occasional stash.

The reports she’d seen cross her Section Chief’s desk seemed to indicate an ever-increasing, if not rampant, problem in their region. It was at that point that she’d moved over to the Investigative Bureau.

Able to divide her attention and focus almost simultaneously on multiple facets, she was able to jump right back to the question posed by the Burlington Senior Officer.

“The underlying problem as I’ve heard it is your fair city’s use as a portal for out-of-state and possibly out-of-country traffic. We’ve suspected for the last six months that an underground group is sending out feelers in our community, as well as throughout the Niagara region. I’ve suspected that the Falls site has seen some border crossing activity.”

Scully’s lips were pursed, her brow furrowed with concentration as she jotted notes. Drawing together Kimberley’s information, she reached a decision about how the nature of their working relationship — the Canadian Investigator would compliment the Bureau’s team. Whatever she’d thought she’d seen and heard would have to wait. Although she knew without a doubt that it wouldn’t leave her mind until she’d figured out the connections. For now, working on face value was what this case needed.

~~~~~~

Mulder’s F-150
10:30AM

It was strange how the memories surfaced — especially on the heels of trying to figure out how to tell Scully about Diana… It had to be the rain…

Inside the cab, the temperature was comfortable, not at all like the rawness of the day beyond the metal and glass of the truck. The intermittent rain reminded him so much of another time as he navigated the mid-morning weekday traffic heading toward the docks.

Mixed and mingled images flashed behind his eyes, at first in the black and white of rain on pavement. Her hair nearly straightened and plastered to her head in the torrential downpour, his feet squishing in his shoes on the hot and puddled sidewalk, wet lips, one of the most off-key versions of Happy Birthday he’d ever heard.

She had left a message on his machine and even with the passage of time, he smiled at his vivid recollection of her words, “It’s me. Meet me one block south of Joe’s Pizza and Pasta on Lee Highway. Six o’clock sharp, Mulder. Don’t be late.”

The slight lilt in her voice, just a glint of humor — he’d almost been able to ‘see’ her small smile.

October 13, one year ago. It had been very warm, although the rain had fallen on and off all day. It had been coming down hard as he dressed in lightweight tan khakis and a chocolate brown Henley. He’d been intrigued and found he hadn’t been able to stop smiling himself as he slid his feet into his Docksiders.

His partner had been up to something. He’d been interested and intrigued. Had been sensing a slight shift in their relationship and had often found himself contemplating the possibilities.

Amazingly, he’d arrived before her. A good practice when one had no idea what was about to happen and one wished to take the surprise out of the…surprise, so to speak. In his haste, he’d left his windbreaker home, assuming the rain would let up, so he’d ducked under the eaves of a law office two doors down from the designated meeting place.

She had stepped out of the cab, pulling up the hood on her cropped rain jacket as she’d paid the driver. A very uncharacteristic Scully in a short jeans skirt and white blouse did little to hide her bare legs and red tennis shoes. For some reason, all he’d been able to think was that she looked ‘adorable’. Not a word he’d often associated with the prim, proper and sophisticated G-Woman.

The jacket’s hood had slipped from her head as she’d turned in his direction and she hadn’t bothered replacing it. She’d obviously underestimated the weather as he had.

‘Muhhlderrrr’, she’d called out to him when she’d spotted him in his hiding place. ‘You’re early’, her voice had given away her slight frustration. ‘How can I surprise you?’ She’d stomped toward him, her now wet shoes schlomping against the pavement, explaining that she was taking him ‘out’ for pizza for his birthday, telling him that she thought it might be fun to taste the pizza where it had actually been prepared for a change.

“You’re soaked, Scully,” he’d laughed and reached a hand out to her, attempting to pull her into the flimsy shelter of the overhang. He’d really laughed when she’d looked down at herself and back up at him, replying, ‘No shit, Mulder.’

For the briefest of seconds, they’d stood facing each other, her hand still in his, somewhat silly matching grins painting their faces. Still at that tentative place where both knew that something was about to happen, but not knowing who would make the first move or even what that first move might have been, he’d stepped fractionally closer. Close enough to join her in the rain, quickly becoming equally drenched.

“What a pair, huh partner?’ He’d asked her rhetorically as he’d taken her other hand.

Her eyes had searched his in response, the light he’d seen there giving him all the inspiration he’d needed. Before either of them had had the chance to analyze what had been about to happen, he’d leaned in and kissed her upturned nose.

He’d paused for just a second and when he’d noted that she hadn’t backed away nor lowered her eyes, his hands had reached for her shoulders as his lips sought hers. Initially, it had lasted scant seconds—more a touch than a kiss.

But it had appeared to him that she’d thought it not enough. Hair dripping in their faces, she’d reached up to touch his face and then his lips with her palm and then her finger. ‘Happy Birthday, partner,’ she’d whispered right before she’d pulled his head down just a little more and hungrily tasted his mouth.

Nearly a full fifteen minutes later, they’d hailed a cab, squooshing themselves into the backseat and heading home. She’d sung to him and he’d almost managed not to wince at the ‘special’ way she’d interpreted the melody.

He’d wondered what she’d thought. Unable to stop his recollections, he’d found himself thinking back to January, to that rather brief, but warm, kiss. She’d smiled knowingly and with a content he hadn’t recently seen.

This joining had been all that…and more.

They’d never had a chance to experience pizza where it had actually been prepared for a change.

~~~~~~

Burlington Police Department
One hour later

“I think we really need to talk with Mulder, too,” Scully came to the conclusion that they should pool their now vast resources. It was clear that the Chief was willing to cooperate and put her staff at their disposal. But she knew that Mulder was holding other pieces to this puzzle.

It wasn’t that she’d forgotten about the undercover aspect of the case, but, weighed against the assistance Kimberley and the other officers could provide, she hoped he’d see the necessity of broadening the circle.

“Do you really think Agent Mulder is going to want us involved, Dana?” Scully knew that Kimberley’s sole impressions of her partner were based on limited observations. On behavior that while was probably somewhat typical for him, was in no way the sum of who he was as either an Agent or a team player. Although, she mused, Mulder was usually a ‘team of one’. While the actual occasions of the patented ‘Mulder Ditch’ had grown far and few between, he definitely preferred to set his own agenda and methods. A highly skilled investigator, he often lost himself in the pursuit of the truth, making it hard on a partner.

The fact that she’d lasted so long as his partner was a tribute both to her tenacity and to his trust in her.

“I think we’ll just check with him.” Scully already had a pretty good idea what his response would be, but she also needed to check in with him.

<Mulder>

“Mulder, it’s me.”

<Hey, Scully. How’re you doing? Any aches and pains?> The smile in his voice was so obvious that she found herself blushing and grinning, making sure to turn away from her companions.

“I’m—”

<—Fine. I know you are. I just had to ask> He really could be infuriatingly complacent.

“Where are you, Mulder?”

<On my way to the docks>

“Can you come down to the Police Station? Chief Ennis and Kimberley are both here and I think they’ve got some information that could fill in a few pieces of the puzzle we’re working on.” <Guess that’s one way of referring to our case, but I can’t get there. I’m following up on something, something that will connect a few of the key players. Might also give me more information about the supposed cross over state and national borders. You’ll fill me in, Scully>

Mulder following a lead. This could only mean following the breadcrumb trail behavior. One after another leading to another and then another. His persistence was a major factor in their high case resolution and she knew this one would be no different. It was almost akin to the thrill of the hunt for him.

At least she knew where he was.

Kimberley didn’t need to hear the words to know that Mulder wasn’t joining them, but Scully told them anyway, “He’s got a lead on the docks.”

“Not the Fort Kent Ferry wharf?” Alana Ennis’ look of surprise was noted by the other two women.

“I think that’s the place, yes. Should I be concerned?” Scully really didn’t need to ask the question as it was evident from the look on her face that she was indeed ‘concerned’.

Kimberley perched on the edge of the conference table, sitting just behind the red-headed Agent, regarding the Chief as she replied. “Well, about one year ago, we had a rather, shall we say, strange occurrence on those very docks. The case went cold about two months ago. Ended up being responsible for quite the upturn in the local economy; upswing in the tourist trade.”

Scully had backed up to the table, joining Kimberley, and now two sets of very curious eyes were trained on the third woman.

“It was late August, can’t recall the exact date, but it was a weeknight, Tuesday I think. It was odd that although it was still the height of the summer tourist season, the docks were fairly empty. Maybe ten people waiting for friends and relatives to come over from New York State. Probably around nine — the boats run a bit later during high season.

“It was a glorious night, clear skies, end of summer warm, spirits high. The music from the bar up the wharf had drifted outside and the folks were moving to the heavy beat as the ferry blasted its arrival signal.

“At first no one seemed to notice, but then one of the teens pointed out that the ship’s running lights were off and there was an eerie luminous quality surrounding the hull. Again, most seemed oblivious, too high on the prospect of seeing their friends and family and enjoying the warm night.

“It wasn’t until the ferry docked and the casting ropes were thrown over the moorings, anchoring it, that the first of those waiting grew concerned. As my foot patrol officer told it, the usual hustle and bustle on the top deck as the boat drew nearer to shore was missing. The silence was deafening. “More people huddled closer, straining to catch sight of the arrivals. As the ferry groaned and creaked alongside the planking, the lights in the control house flickered, then went out completely. Although the gangway was lowered, no one stepped off.

“That’s when the officer ordered the crowd to move back as he approached the short walkway leading to the lower level of the ship.

“The long and short of it was that he found no one aboard except for the captain who didn’t seem to have any idea how he’d gotten back to Burlington nor where his passengers might be. He knew he’d taken on ten people in Fort Kent, but not a one was onboard then.”

Scully was on her feet even before Chief Ennis finished speaking, her arms crossed in front of her, head tilted, brow furrowed. “What evidence did your officer find?”

Kimberley wasn’t far behind her, their questions mirroring each other.

The Chief walked over to a locked cabinet and punched in the code. She squatted down to retrieve the two vials and brought them to the table. The three-inch clear glass containers contained a fine white powder, although one had much more in it than the other.

Scully picked up one of the vials, her eyes shifting back down to the one left on the table. “Are these substances the same?”

“No, Agent Scully. The one you’re holding has yet to be identified. The one on the table is cocaine. A rather wild variety laced with another substance we’ve yet to identify.”

~~~~~~

Radisson Hotel
Late Afternoon

She was having a hard time finding all the required items and it was pissing her off.

She’d managed to find the Hopback Summer Lightening brew through a foreign distributor in Exeter, Devon. Fox’s favorite from his Oxford days. Although she hadn’t been a part of those days, he’d shared his fondness for the strong bitter with her. The taste didn’t do a thing for her; tasted more like swill, but she knew he savored it.

The buttered popcorn would be easy. She’d ordered room service to prepare a special batch that would closely duplicate that found in the best movie houses. They staff had suggested she just go to the movies for it, but she’d made it quite clear that she’d make it worth their while to assist her.

It was the signed copy of the book she was waiting on and getting angrier about by the minute. They were supposed to have delivered it yesterday and twenty-four hours later, she still did not have it. She willed herself to calm down. She still had another day before putting her plan in motion.

Although he’d never mentioned it to her, she knew he appreciated the author’s works. Sure that he’d appreciate the way he tended to debunk the paranormal. Talking to friends of hers, she’d been guided to ‘The Demon-Haunted World’ by Carl Sagan.

After a cursory read, she’d stumbled upon a few reviews. The Witchita Eagle review from 1996 seemed to say it best,”…Sagan relates many enjoyable tales of scientific discovery that show how learning about the universe allows people to replace mistaken pseudoscience-based beliefs with the more surprising and wonderful truth. Many of today’s favorite pop-culture demons are debunked including the mysterious alien visitors who amuse themselves by eviscerating livestock or making crop circles in wheat fields.’ Fox would love it; would appreciate her wry sense of humor.

No matter, for now. She continued arranging the suite adding touches he’d find pleasing. Not too pleasing. After all, she was supposed to be the main feature of the evening. It was just too difficult, however, trying to decide which she would enjoy more. Having him again or knowing that Scully wouldn’t. Maybe one really could have too much of a good thing.

~~~~~~

Home of Kimberley Kresge and Bryan O’Connor
24 Church Street
Burlington, Vermont
6:00PM

“It smells wonderful, Bry. How much longer?” Kimberley balanced the stoneware bowls and plates, stopping to adjust the wheat colored linen tablecloth. As she set them in front of each of the four chairs, she smiled. Having a formal dinner was something they really enjoyed and hadn’t done recently.

“You’re just saying that so I’ll let you taste test it. Not going to work this time, Kimber. The Bouillabaisse is fine and you get to taste it with everyone else. Why don’t you check on the bread.”

Wiping his hands on the denim chef’s apron, Bryan adjusted the temperature under the French soup/stew. As he turned toward the other counter, he slapped Kimberley’s hand away from the large wooden spoon, mouthing ‘no’, with a smile.

He was rewarded with a quick kiss — and a lightening quick swipe of the spoon from behind his back. She had the cover lifted and the savory seafood concoction to her lips before he could even register what had happened. Wrestling the utensil from her hand, he flung it to the counter, wrapping his arms around her. “You never did understand the word ‘no’, did you?”

He was rewarded with an ear-to-ear grin before her lips locked over his.

It was only the light rapping on the metal frame that kept them from sliding to the kitchen floor.

“Hello? Kimberley?”

Scully’s hand on Mulder’s arm prevented him from pushing his face against the screen door. She leaned in to him asking if his mother had ever told him it wasn’t polite to look into someone’s home to which he countered that it was okay because they’d left the door open.

Scully smiled as he grabbed her hand and laced his fingers with hers.

“Relax, Scully.”

Much as she tried to remain impassive, she found it hard to keep from smiling at his slightly amused look. She did, however, release his hand just as Bryan approached the door, although she wasn’t sure why she’d done so. Knowing that both he and Kimberley had witnessed their rather ‘partnerly’ tangle in the park, a little hand-holding would probably not surprise her friends.

“Come in, dinner’s just about ready,” their host said ushering them into the living room. “Can I get you some wine?”

Kimberley joined them with the pastel colored wine goblets as Bryan went to the wine rack. Grabbing the corkscrew, he joined them.

“I hope you’re both hungry,” Bryan decanted the Cabernet Sauvignon as he told them about their dinner.

Mulder’s stomach started grumbling, luckily too quiet for anyone but his partner to hear. The smallest quirk of her lips confirmed that she knew about his eagerness to eat. He admitted it to himself; he was hungry and could probably eat at any hour of the day or night.

The four sat and chatted amiably allowing the alcohol to settle in producing a warm pre-meal buzz. Mulder’s questions to Bryan about his recent landscaping work drew a rather animated response about the latest job at the Witherspoon’s.

Scully watched the two men, happy that Mulder’s ability to draw others out was having a positive effect with her friend’s companion.

After pouring herself some more, Kimberley held the bottle over Scully’s glass, a question in her eyes. A brief nod from the redhead had the host filling her glass as well. “Shall we?” The two women moved into the kitchen, Scully settling onto one of the stools as Kimberley removed the bread from the oven. Setting it onto the counter to rest, she covered it with a dishtowel. Glancing back into the living room, Scully noted that Mulder had made himself at home, one arm draped across the back of the couch, his legs crossed as he slouched into the cushions. He appeared to be raptly engaged in Bryan’s recounting of some of his more interesting jobs.

Mulder has a knack, she thought, for showing genuine interest in even the most casual acquaintance. At times, she was envious of just how naturally he could fit in if given half a chance. Bryan’s outgoing and relaxed attitude worked well with her partner’s traits and abilities.

Just before she turned back to Kimberley, she caught the wink of his eye and she felt the color rise, once again, in her cheeks. How he could do that to her with nothing more than a look.

“Scully? Could you get the salad and bread while I put the stew in a serving bowl?” Before Kimberley could get the cover off the soup pot, Bryan was at her heels.

“Hey, this is my show. You two go sit down and let me handle it. Mulder will help me, won’t you?” Bryan’s hands on Kimberley’s hips, he guided her into the dining room. He then returned for Scully who had already set the salad on the ceramic countertop. “You, too. We’ll handle this,” he said indicating himself and Mulder, who had set his goblet on the counter and joined him.

Scully’s eyes wandered out to the backyard garden as she sipped her wine. Absentmindedly, she placed the cloth napkin in her lap, laying one hand on it. The sounds of the men’s voices turned into so much monotone as the scene relaxed her. Or was it the wine? Either way, she relished the peacefulness of it.

“Scully?” The peacefulness was broken by Mulder as he set the bread down in front of her, his face mere inches from hers. “What’re you looking at?” She watched with some amusement as he looked to the sliding glass doors behind Kimberley, trying to look for the specific item responsible for her stare.

“Nothing, Mulder. Just go finish helping Bryan.” Her smile netted a puzzled look from him, but he moved back into the kitchen, just in time to be handed the wooden salad bowl.

Serving the Bouillabaisse, Bryan handed each bowl to Kimberley and she passed them along. Mulder served the salad and Scully passed the breadbasket.

“This smells wonderful, Bryan.” Scully was truly impressed and much hungrier that she would have thought possible. “Do you cook like this every night?”

As he filled his own bowl and finally sat, he replied that he did so as often as Kimberley was around for dinner, noting that her job duties occasionally kept her occupied during the dinner hour.

For awhile, the only sounds were soup spoons clinking against earthenware or forks in salad bowls and the occasional request for more wine.

The ringing phone barely interrupted the meal and Bryan was quick to grab it. “It’s for me, I’ll take it in the den,” was his exit from the group.

“Probably another job or one of his crew,” Kimberely smiled, “He’s got a big job starting tomorrow in the next town over. Can I get either of you anymore; of anything?”

Mulder held up his bowl, the look on his face clearly indicating just how much he was enjoying the meal.

Kimberley noted that he was quite comfortable acknowledging that he hadn’t yet had his fill. No pretenses. She liked that. She also noted and liked the attention he’d been paying Dana on and off since they’d arrived. Nothing overtly ‘PDA’, but very much ‘relationship’. Gestures and looks that conveyed how in synch they were, what he thought of her and, if she were reading him correctly, just how much he wanted to take her home with him.

She glanced over at her red-haired friend and noticed her contentedness. And the fact that although she’d finished her seafood stew, Scully was only toying with her salad.

“So, how’d you two make out in at the Police Station today?” Mulder had caught the assessing gaze from his partner’s friend and met it with a slightly quirky smile. He was enjoying himself immensely, but knew when he was being watched — even benignly. His gaze then wandered across the table to Scully. Yes, she had enjoyed her dinner, too, but seemed listless, possibly tired. He knew that an opening gambit about their work today might rejuvenate her.

He was right. Pushing her plate away from her, she crossed her arms in front of her and leaned on the table.

“Actually, I’d say we made quite a bit of headway, wouldn’t you, Kimberley?”

“Dana’s correct. There seems to be a tie in with some evidence Chief Ennis’ staff had collected at the docks about a year ago. We were shown two vials. One definitely crack, the other a white powdery and yet-unidentified substance.” Her own face mirrored Mulder’s surprised look.

“And where have they had the analysis done? What have their tests yielded? Did-”

‘Yes, he sees the possible connections’, Scully thought, ‘just as I did.’

“Whoa, partner; I’m wondering the same things. The Chief has been kind enough to allow me further testing.”

However, Mulder had only been temporarily paused, not derailed when he continued, “Wondering if this powder is the base for the paste substance? If it has any connection to the drug running?”

She loved to watch his wheels turn, the sheer energy of his analysis and processing contagious and she found herself shrugging off some of the soporific effects of the Cabernet Sauvignon. However, before she could join him in making the connections, something else that spurred their uncanny abilities to tie up loose ends, Kimberley stopped them. “Paste? From the white, crack-like powder? You’re talking about the Toronto case? Where did you stumble on that information, if you don’t mind me asking?”

The two Agents looked from one and other to Kimberley and back, clearly surprised and definitely quite interested.

“What Toronto case?” Scully led the questioning.

“Six months back,” shocking both Mulder and Scully, she pounded her fist into the table, “I can’t believe it didn’t hit me when the Chief told us this afternoon! The similarities are so striking, I must have been blind not to have picked up on it sooner.”

Her vehemence didn’t surprise Bryan as much as it did the partners. As he walked back into the room, he caught the tail end of her tirade and pulled up a chair beside her. “I thought we’d already talked about how hard you are on yourself? What’s going on? What’s this about the Toronto case?” He knew from the way she said it exactly which case she was referring to. It had been a point of contention between her and her superior who felt she’d done all she could to identify the substance.

“But I almost had it and then got pulled into that other case. And Bishop, damn him, he was close to giving me more information. Missed opportunities.”

The other three merely listened, assuming that this was cathartic. Bryan had heard her self-recriminations over this particular case before, but knew that for some strange reason, each successive time seemed to lead to some previously allusive detail surfacing.

Scully all but tingled from the startling connection, for the second time today, with her semi-identifiable paste. If she were more awake, there would be nothing stopping her from finding her way into the lab tonight. The feeling of being on the verge of a discovery was almost more than she could contain. And she could tell by the look on her partner’s face that he understood.

As if she’d reached a silent decision, Kimberley started stacking the bowls as she stood. Directing her gaze toward Scully, she stated, “Tomorrow we piece this together. Much as I’d like to run down to the station now…”

“I know, Kimberely, I know.” Scully finished her thought and was happy to see her friend’s tension ease, a slow smile blooming.

“Now that was a breakthrough if I’ve ever seen one.” Bryan took the bowls from her and moved to the dishwasher. “Why don’t we move to the porch for coffee?”

The mood had shifted as the four made their way to the screened in porch. Mulder noticed Scully’s hand as it came up to cover an all-too obvious yawn, her eyes closing tightly. “Ready for bed, Scully?”

Catching herself mid-yawn, she elbowed him gently in the ribs. “I’m fine.”

He joined her on the upholstered wicker settee as Kimberley and Bryan sat opposite them on the matching furniture. “Dinner was wonderful, thanks.” Mulder nodded in his hosts’ direction, smiling.

Kimberley’s hand found her way to Bryan’s as it lay in his lap. “Thanks, Bryan’s a great cook and I love to entertain so we’re a good team. I’m guessing the two of you will probably be in town awhile longer? I mean even with our recent breakthrough, I’m guessing there are lots of angles to this case.”

Trying hard, but not quite succeeding, Scully turned away from Mulder, her drowsiness evident. Her hand covered her mouth as she leaned into the seat back.

“Uh, yes we will,” Mulder turned toward Kimberely, stifling a chuckle, “but I’m thinking that this evening is drawing to a close for us.”

Nodding, Bryan and his partner took the coffee back into the kitchen and continued with the clean up from dinner.

“Mulder, you didn’t have to make excuses for us, for me. It was just a yawn.” This time, she punched his arm, eliciting a mock ‘ow’.

“Just a yawn, Scully? I could see straight to your lungs on that one. Why don’t you just admit the wine got to you? You did have quite a few glasses.”

“You had just as much as I did.”

“And you’re half my size, Dr. Scully, and should know the effects of alcohol based on body weight and—”

“Point. Now zip it.” She stood only to be pulled carefully and gently into his lap. “Mulder, I—”

“You should take a look at the beautiful night sky, Scully.” Turning her just slightly, he wrapped his arms around her as she settled in his lap.

“I’m looking, but it looks like any other sky at night; dark, stars, the moon.” Her voice soft and low voice was barely a whisper.

“Then I don’t think you’re looking at it the right way.” Curling his spine he propped his chin on her shoulder, trying to draw her closer. Although she didn’t take the hint, his words ended up having the desired effect anyway.

“Mulder, there’s no ‘right way’ to look at the sky. What are you talking about?”

With a smooth assurance borne of confidence and longing, Mulder reached for her face as she commented, his fingers gently brushing over her cheeks, stopping at her jaw-line as he sealed his lips over hers. Her sweet sigh nearly melted him. But not as effectively as the subtle shifting of her hips against the hard ridge of his growing arousal.

His heart pounding, he broke the kiss to mutter in her ear, “Jesus, Scully,” as his hands slid to her waist, squeezing and massaging as his fingers trailed under her shirt.

Panting, one small hand palmed his chest, as she sought his moonlit eyes. Suddenly, her other hand flew to her mouth trying to cover the yawn she couldn’t seem to prevent.

It did little to staunch the rising swell of heat in him, but didn’t stop him from husking out, “You sure do know how to show a guy a good time, partner.”

Recovering rather quickly from her drowsy display, Scully murmured her apology in his right ear, followed by a series of tender kisses to his ear, nose and each eyelid. “Maybe we should go. I feel like a couple of horny college students making out between classes.”

“You’re horny, Scully?” She could clearly hear the mischief and barely restrained arousal in his tone.

“Mulder.” Her usual ability to distract him with one word wasn’t working.

“Come home with me, Scully.”

“That’s not a good idea.”

“I like the idea; a lot. And so does Mulder, Jr.” As if to emphasize his point, he took her hand and laid it against his fly. Her sharp intake of breath told him she felt the same way he did.

“Hey, you two, care for an aperitif?” Bryan stopped at the threshold of the porch, leaning in just far enough to be heard.

Scully quickly stood, her legs barely supporting her. “Uh, nothing for me, Bryan. As a matter of fact, I think we need to leave. It’s getting late and I think the wine and long hours today have taken their toll.” She hoped her voice didn’t sound quite as high and shaky as it felt to her.

“No problem, can we send you home with some Bouillabaisse?”

It was Mulder’s turn to test his vocal chords. “Sure, I’d love that.” He watched as Bryan headed back for the kitchen and then took Scully’s arm. “You’re not getting away that easily, you know that, don’t you?”

The husky edge to his tone sent a thrill coursing through her and she shivered in the unseasonably warm autumn night.

“I know I’ve got to get home and get some sleep. My body still hasn’t recovered entirely, Mulder.” Taking his hand in hers, she squeezed his fingers. “But I do know that I’m not getting away that easily.”

~~~~~~

Radisson Hotel
Friday, 22 September
3:15AM

Tossing and turning didn’t begin to describe how she’d spent the last several hours. Shrugging off the comforter and blanket, she sat up. Her camisole and running shorts were twisted and hiked, but she barely noticed. Letting out a huffing sigh, she got out of bed and padded, barefoot to the bathroom.

Filling a glass with water, she sipped it at first and then gulped the rest. When she found herself setting it back down on the marble counter with significant force, she realized it was time to assess her current state.

‘Current state’, she mused, what a euphemistic way to put what she was experiencing. Plain and simple, she was frustrated. And although the fault could be laid at her feet, she knew he understood.

She’d had her chance. Hell, she’d had plenty of chances, but some misplaced sense of who-knew-what had prevented her from letting herself go enough to admit it.

She wanted Mulder. She needed him. And they were in separate locations and even worse, in separate beds. ‘And who the hell do you have to thank for that, Dana?’

Oh, she’d had her rational and perfectly plausible reasons and, her inner voice added, excuses. She wanted to be very sure that what they had was truly lasting, a real commitment after this summer. How many more times and in how many more ways did he have to show her he was sorry? How much more genuinely accommodating did he have to be? Was she waiting for his offer on a silver platter? She knew he’d probably give her that, too, if she really wanted it.

What was worse was that he really seemed to be okay with all the stops and starts and the conditions. She didn’t want to know how long that would last. How long before he rightfully told her he would wait no longer. She didn’t think she’d last as long as he might wait.

Her look of consternation was nothing compared to the way her body felt. Tense. Coiled tighter than a spring. Thrumming. Hot.

She was more turned on than she had been recently — unless you counted about four hours ago at her friends’ home. Where she’d nearly let herself be swept away by her partner’s touch, his lips and fingers and very obvious hard length. And his words. His words always had that effect on her. Could totally undo her with nothing to accompany them.

<Damnit, Dana. This is getting you nowhere>

She reached for he remote, jabbing it in the general direction of the television, willing herself to become absorbed in whatever was on this time of night. Settling into the couch with her legs tucked up under her, she surfed. Click. CNN News. Click. MASH reruns. Click. Preview of Playboy Channel. Click, click, click. How did Mulder spend so much time in front of the TV?

Mulder. He’d probably be asleep on his couch, the droning of the airwaves in the background. Then again, given the length of his couch and his length. His height. Given his height, he wouldn’t be able to really get comfortable on that two-seater. She nudged her wandering mind back from the fleeting images created by the linkage of ‘Mulder’ and ‘his length’. No, he’d be in bed. Probably lying half-prone, one leg bent, one arm under the pillow. And her mind set off yet again.

Before she knew what she was doing, she had pulled her running shorts off, replacing them with her sweats and thrown her jacket over her camisole. Stepping into her canvas mules, she was halfway to the door when she stopped. And wasn’t at all sure when she’d made the decision to visit him. She knew that was exactly what she was going to do. Not giving herself a chance to change her mind, she pocketed the keys to her rental and pulled the door closed on her way out.

~~~~~~

Mulder’s Apartment
Pine Street Boardinghouse
4:15AM

Hands on the steering wheel, forehead resting on the textured vinyl, Scully took a few deep breaths, her internal debate in full swing. She had no doubts about being exactly where she wanted to be, but a small swarm of butterflies was forming in her stomach, the rapid fluttering of their wings managing to block all pathways to rational thoughts.

She couldn’t remember feeling this nervous around him in a long time. ‘Nervous’ had not been the feeling this summer. No, that had been much more extreme. Nervous was what she’d occasionally felt around him when she wasn’t sure if she was reading him right in their early days as partners. It was what she’d occasionally felt when he’d playfully bantered with her, the comments often skirting the fine line between sexual innuendo and innocent joking. It was definitely what she’d felt that New Year’s Eve when he’d looked into her eyes and she’d gazed back, both of them knowing what had been about to happen. And what had happened had made her feel giddy with happiness.

No, there was no reason she should feel nervous now except maybe that she was planning to walk in on him while he was asleep and join him in bed. And she hadn’t done that in a very long time. Was it possible to be out of practice? Was she having ‘first time jitters’ when it was far from her first time?

Halting the potentially endless stream of questions, she shut off the engine and got out of the car, slamming the door unintentionally.

Resolute in her purpose, she made her way to the backdoor. Opening and then closing it quietly, she made her way down the hall to the stairwell. Taking the stairs bought her a few more moments to shore up her nerve.

She was surprised to hear soft voices and televisions, but then she remembered it was a workday and in the real world, some people followed daily routines.

Reaching his door at the end of the corridor, she extracted his key from her pocket. They’d exchanged keys once they’d officially been assigned to work together and she was glad that was the case. Knocking on his door would be counterproductive to what she had planned. Although, she had to admit she did feel a little less than honest about entering without his permission when she knew full well that he was inside. If she’d had any doubts, the flickering white/gray light seeping under the door served as confirmation.

Pressing her ear to the door, she heard nothing. He’d obviously muted the sound at some point. Slipping the key into the lock, she turned the doorknob slowly and with some pressure to ensure it would not creak or rattle.

Stealth. She felt like a common criminal. One who would not dare enter knowing someone was at home, she mused.

Once inside, she set her keys on the runner covering the telephone stand and shrugged out of her jacket. Goosebumps quickly covered her suddenly chilled skin. Her cream colored satin camisole wasn’t designed for warmth, the spaghetti straps and loosely flowing cropped shape barely concealing her flesh. The drapey fabric slipped and slid over her already hard nipples. She toed off her shoes and stepped out of them, leaving them by the door with her jacket and keys. From her position, Mulder’s form under the blankets was outlined by the slivers of moonlight filtering in through the slatted blinds. Facing away from her and lying semi-prone on his right side, his left leg was bent at the knee, right arm bent and under the pillow, his left arm splayed across the edge of the mattress. The bunched top sheet at his waist marked a separation between his lower half and the visible skin of his abs and back; his white sleeveless tank having risen and twisted leaving an expanse of body uncovered.

Scully’s mouth went dry as he shifted slightly, his tousled hair and the pre-dawn shadows obscuring his face from her as she approached the foot of the bed. Wetting her lips, she pulled her sweats down over her panties, steadying herself with one hand on the foot-board as she stepped out of the cotton drawstring pants.

It was then that she noticed his one calf and slender foot peaking out from under the covers. She’d forgotten just how sexy his feet were, each toe perfectly formed and situated. A small fire along her nerve pathways crowded that part of her brain responsible for telling her legs to move and she stood rooted to the spot, images and sensations flowing over her like warm honey. Musing about kneeling where she was, her hand gently grasping his arch. The soft skin warm to her touch. Planting a small kiss on each toe in turn, her tongue tracing a path from the heel to the soft pad of flesh beneath his toes. Her lips closing over his big toe drawing it into her mouth…

And she had to get a grip on her raging and runaway hormones or she would remain at the end of the bed until daybreak.

Her destination lay by his side. At least initially.

Tiptoeing and knowing it was unnecessary, she made her way to the relatively empty side of the bed. She could just make out his steady breathing, imagining his lips slightly parted. Drawing the blanket and top sheet back, she knelt by his shoulders, her fingers lightly brushing the hair back from his forehead as she leaned in to plant a feathery kiss there. ‘So beautiful’, she thought.

Stroking his cheek with the backs of her fingers, she opened her hand to move a few errant bed-head locks from his temple, kissing him again before moving to his ear. Pursing her lips, she released a puff of air into his ear and then dragged her lips down the curve of it to his lobe. A barely-there nibble before moving to his neck had him mumbling, the sounds unintelligible.

“Are you feeling my touches, Mulder?” Her whisper was nearly inaudible, but her smile shone as she watched his lips forming the unknown words.

Moving onto her side, her mouth followed the curve of his neck as she alternately nuzzled with her nose and nipped with her lips. Although he continued to sleep, his occasional movements increased.

His body beneath the bedding was like a furnace, the thin cotton of his boxers and tank no barrier between them. The sudden feel of him against her top and panties was incendiary. Immediately spooning against him, she resisted the urge to swing her left leg up over his hip. She wanted him to awaken slowly, the arousal building in him as it had in her — all night. Holding him to her, she let her hand slide over the bared skin of his abs and chest, a shiver of delight running through her as his muscles twitched under her palm. Her index finger circled the shape of his navel as she tongued his the back of his arm sampling the dark and somewhat bitter taste of his skin.

Her hips pressed into his ass of their own volition as her toes massaged his calf.

She wanted more. She wanted him.

Slow was one thing; this was sheer torture of the most arousing type. Which begged the unasked question—who was torturing whom?

Dipping her finger into his navel once, she decided it was time for this sexy, sleeping partner of hers to take note of her presence. Now drawing her bent leg up, she let the weight of it rest on his hip.

The thin fabric of his boxers interested her. Mulder tended to wear the knit boxer briefs more often than not, so the more traditional, loose-fitting style he sported now was a little surprising. Not that it didn’t have its advantages…

“What have we got sleeping in here?” She let out a breathy sigh as her hand nudged its way under the low-slung elastic waistband, moving steadily downward to find his half-erect penis. Her lips curled in a predatory grin as he moaned what could have been her name.

Shifting yet again, but never losing contact with that which lay beneath his shorts, she sat on her knees against his ass and back, her other hand wandering over his chest, one thumb brushing his nipple.

As she gently stroked and coaxed him, she felt the languid motion of his hips as they rocked. She countered his movements with her own, tightening her grip on his now nearly erect shaft and then palming the length of him.

“Scuhhlee? S’that you?” Clearer now, although still slumber-induced speech, his words were pillow-muffled. But there was nothing drowsy about the intentional hip thrusting. No, not at all.

“It’s me, Mulder.” A slight variation from her standard.

Trying to turn to locate the sound of her voice, Mulder asked, “What’re you doing?” the quasi-smirk in his question obvious to her.

Her tone soft and low, and her thumb tracing the underside of the head, she answered his question with one of her own. “What does it feel like I’m doing, Mulder?”

To further emphasize her query, she moved her hand from his chest to his shoulder, guiding him onto his back. Meeting the still curious look in his eyes, she tugged playfully on the neckline of his tank, instructing him to lose it.

It was amazing just how efficiently he was able to comply as the white garment landed on the floor beside the bed.

“It feels like you’re seducing me, Scully,” he paused for no more than a beat and then continued, “Am I right?”

“Shhhh…no more talking.” Watching his pout as she withdrew her hand from his boxers, she swung her leg up and over his hips, teasing him as she hovered over Mulder, Jr. Before he could further contemplate her actions and location, she leaned forward, her mouth mere inches from his. Lowering herself, her hands on his chest, she touched her lips to him.

His hands reached for her ass, his legs propelling them until she was beneath him. ‘So much for having the upperhand,’ she fleetingly thought.

~~~~~~

Scully, his love, his life. He’d missed her, missed them more than he could possibly fathom. And here she was, closer than he’d been able to hold her in a long time.

He heard her ‘Shhh-ing’, but something didn’t make sense. Maybe he was still dreaming. He’d dropped her off at the hotel, kissing her not nearly long enough, but genuinely pleased and surprised that she’d seemed to encourage him. However, all too soon she’d been telling him goodnight and walking to the lobby of the Radisson.

He’d come home and showered the proverbial cold water wash. It had done nothing to quell the fires she’d managed to stoke tonight. Heck, what was he talking about ‘tonight’? It was just one of several ‘so close but so far away’ connections for them since they’d been in Vermont.

God, how he had wanted her. How he’d still wanted her when he got back to the Boardinghouse. Had considered driving himself right back to her hotel and telling her just how much he needed to be with her.

But he’d stopped knowing she’d had her reasons. Knowing he understood them. Knowing he’d play it on her timeline.

Realizing he’d yet to do any laundry, he’d rummaged through his duffel and suitcase until he’d found one of his sole remaining pair of boxers and tees. Not exactly his favorite, but he’d pulled them on, the loose waistband sitting low on his hips, their bagginess comfortable. After all, it wasn’t as if he’d had any place to go, anyone special to see.

He’d climbed into bed and started channel surfing, but must’ve fallen into a rare deep sleep. His sleep patterns had always been somewhat inconsistent except for the fact that he never seemed to require or get very much. But, since he and Scully had been together, he’d actually managed to get more than a few full nights of shut-eye.

He’d thought tonight might be different, but he’d had no problem. He’d never heard the door and had barely registered anything until she was in bed with him. He’d been sure he was dreaming, albeit a rather explicit and sensory rich dream, but fiction nonetheless. He had been able to smell the scent of her as the imaginary Scully leaned over him to brush his hair from his forehead. Then, he’d felt the very warm, sweet and soft touch of her lips on his eyelids and cheek. It had amazed him just how real her tongue felt along his ear followed by the nip of her lips on his neck.

All of it real enough to undo the effects of the cold shower. Not to mention the extremely arousing and realistic heat of her body melded with his, his ass settling back into her groin, a softly slippery top of some sort against his back and her toes pushing into his calf. She had such tiny feet.

And then she’d upped the ante. He’d felt her leg rest on his hip as one finger traced his navel and he’d sucked in a breath. She’d had to know he wasn’t still asleep, but that wasn’t stopping her. He could appreciate her single-minded focus — especially when it was devoted to him.

He’d felt her moving against him, the subtle press of her hips, her nipples rounded points on his back through the fabric that proved no obstacle to the heady sensations.

All had contributed to an increasing wake-up call, but he’d found he wasn’t quite ready to surface completely from this dream-like drama playing out on his bed. He’d reveled a bit, the essence of her surrounding him, at once comforting and stimulating. Those fingers had once again started moving, venturing just beneath the elastic laying low on his waist and he’d found himself unable to hold still once he’d felt her grasping him. Torture. Exquisite Scully Torture, teasing him fully erect, her hold on him relentless in more ways than one.

She’d run her thumb along the ridge of the very sensitive head and he’d nearly groaned at the sudden aching as he lengthened in her hand. She’d obviously come to him with a rather precise agenda. He’d expected nothing less from his partner.

And then she’d moved to further her agenda, her hand leaving him momentarily, although the effect hadn’t subsided in the least, she’d mounted him, straddling his legs. Her hand had been replaced by the ‘close but not close enough’ heat at the apex of her thighs as she’d held herself poised over him. Oh, he’d known exactly what he’d wanted to do at that moment, but then she’d placed her hands on his chest and leaned toward him. Her satiny camisole had trailed along his abs like a taunting breath and he could have sworn he’d felt the silk of her panties brush over the tip of his very full erection even though it was still inside his boxers. His tank had already disappeared when she’d commanded that he remove it and the feel of skin on skin had followed. He’d attempted to talk to her, knowing that his voice was often a turn on for her, but she’d ‘shhh-ed’ him. And then she’d kissed him, tenderly at first.

Mulder loved the way she kissed. Kisses that said so many different things, all things he wanted to hear. Over and over and over again. Sometimes, it was as if she were tasting fine wine, sipping and savoring him. Other times, it was as if she were slaking an unquenchable thirst, questing and seeking that which would soothe her need. This was one of those very kisses.

Any pretense at ‘tender’ disappeared as her teeth nipped at his lower lip. He’d attempted to slow her down, but soon realized that she’d meant business as she’d moved her hands to his face, tilting it just so for the best contact. Her lips had parted his and he’d willingly opened to her.

She’d been voracious in her pursuit, her tongue entering his mouth without invitation and he’d been just as voracious in his parry to her thrusts.

He was drowning in her mouth. And it was hot and wet and heaven.

But it was time for him to share in her agenda. Oh, he thought he knew her plan. Knew that she would want him to know just how ready she was for them to resume the last unresolved aspect of their former relationship since she she’d set the pace. He was nothing if not good at reading her signals. He’d read this one loud and clear.

And he’d grabbed her and flipped them over until she was underneath him.

~~~~~~

Scully somehow managed to move first, her hands finding and tugging at his boxers as he knelt between her legs. She smiled up at him, kissing the tip of his nose as he dropped to his elbows. She knew he was looking to complete their interrupted kiss. She assumed he understood that she wanted what was not so well hidden inside his underwear.

This time, it was his question that had her grinning. “Now who’s seducing whom?”

“The answer, Mulder, doesn’t lay with the person on top. You do know that, don’t you?” He rocked back on his knees, making it a little more difficult for her to slide his boxers off his hips, but not impossible for her to grasp his now throbbing erection with one hand as it sprung free.

He found himself wishing he could see her eyes more clearly knowing she sought his. Although they’d both presumably adjusted to the gray tones and the now faint stripes of dawn peeking through the blinds, she was still mostly shadow and silhouette. He yearned for the evidence of the desire for him he knew he would see in her azure depths.

She stroked him from root to tip, gently at first, as the fingernails of her other hand scraped along his hip. “I’m not sure I heard the answer to my question. Cat got your tongue?”

He wasn’t sure whether it was her words or her grip on him that motivated his response. Maybe it was just the taunting tone in her question that was responsible for the smirk before he told her, “No cat, Scully; only you.” And then he swooped down, capturing her mouth first, his tongue dueling with hers in a kiss that had them both panting for their next breath.

“Jesus, Mulder,” was all she managed as he repositioned himself, his thighs framing her hips. Her chest heaved as she gulped in much needed oxygen, but she knew he could hear the smile in her voice. And he hoped she could make out the smile on his face because he was quite pleased with what he saw. The brief exertion had rendered her hair tousled and wavy, curled tendrils and locks cascading on the pillow about her. Her warmth radiated from her, creating a charged airspace between them. He knew he would simply never get enough of her and poised above her like this gave him an awesome feeling. But he didn’t want to observe, he needed to participate. And that meant touching and closing the distance of that charged airspace between them.

She drew in a sudden breath as he placed his hands on her shoulders, just resting them there before moving down her arms until his fingers reached hers and they laced together. Leaving one on the mattress beside her, she watched intently as he brought the other to his lips and kissed each finger.

When he turned her hand over and tongued her palm, she gasped. But not quite a loudly as she did when his other hand moved to the satin over her breasts, gently tugging the fabric so that it slid back and forth across her already aching nipples. She arched her back, hoping that would end his taunting and turn it into something much more tactile—preferably skin against skin.

Mindful of her recent injuries, he hesitated to put any weight on her torso, but Mulder wasn’t anything if not inventive and careful.

And very turned on by his partner’s state of arousal.

It was his turn to bite his lower lip and groan when she managed to bend her knees just enough to come into contact with his tented shorts. His eyes closed as he dipped his hips toward the source of the delightful pressure she exerted. “Scully?”

She knew he didn’t require any response, so she just continued slowly sliding her heels on the sheet as he moved in counterpoint. If it were possible, and, knowing that he believed anything was possible, he was growing harder, the heat almost blazing against her skin.

“Mulder.” Her breath caught at the sight and feel of him; the flush of his skin and the slight shaking of his arms where her hands touched him, anchoring them.

He was humping her legs and his heart was starting to pound in his chest; a wild staccato he couldn’t control. Didn’t want to control. Only knew he wanted more and if he continued, the night would end prematurely.

Sure that his weight was balanced between his legs and arms, Scully separated her knees wanting and needing to feel more of him closer. Much closer. Her arousal fogged mind hadn’t, however, recalled the basic principle that said that ‘for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction’. Therefore, when his rather prominent erection no longer had the pressure of her against it, he sank rather unceremoniously into her.

Knocking the wind out of her and catching her off-guard.

But it was her wincing and slight groan that had Mulder acting quickly, rolling off her to one side, his hand on her face, turning her to him. “Scully?” His voice questioning.

Catching her breath, one hand covering his and the other going to her torso, she shook her head. “I’m fine, Mulder.”

“No, you’re not.”

The exchange they’d had countless times during the course of their partnership had her smiling. The truth was, she really wasn’t ‘hurt’, just sore. And he’d had no way of knowing that her bruising was still somewhat sensitive. Only with full pressure upon it.

One finger went to his mouth to silence his protestations mid-stream. “C’mere, G-Man.” The same finger disappeared momentarily between his lips, his tongue swirling around it. “Mulderrr…” She withdrew the digit, dabbing his nose and eliciting a goofy grin from him.

His rather undignified slump over her body had worried him and threatened to jolt him right out of his heightened state. However, as usual, she’d stopped the overly critical committee in his head. “Scullleeeee…” He parroted her, his grin sliding to perfect smirkiness.

“Nothing’s impossible. You just need to be careful how much pressure you apply to my body—”

“Hmmmm, that sounds interesting. Tell me more.”

“I was about to when you—”

“Better than telling is showing.” Man of many seasons, his expression became one of mischief. Mischief tinged with the nearly out of control lust that had returned with a vengeance.

Daybreak bathed the bed in a wan pink/gray haze around them as she wound her fingers in his hair, attempting to pull him back, to try to look into his eyes.

But he had other ideas. Exploration fueled by passion.

Heedless of her hold on him, he tipped his face toward her, kissing her mouth and then her cheek. Moving lower he murmured into her neck, the vibrations tingling against her warm skin. “Help me figure out how much pressure is enough.”

The man could be so thorough. Sometimes it was maddening, but this wasn’t one of those times. Her head turned away from him as she felt his fingers on her abs, moving agonizingly slowly under her camisole, staying away from her ribs, making their way in a line from her navel upward. “How about here?”

His feather light touch raised goose flesh along its path, bringing forth giggles. “No, that doesn’t hurt.”

“Scully, this isn’t supposed to make you laugh.”

His pout went largely unnoticed when her attention was diverted by the sweep of his knuckles on the underside of her breasts. Followed by his mouth on her nipple over the satin.

“I think that pressure is just right, Mulder.” Her words were barely audible as she arched to meet his lips and tongue as they wet the fabric.

Readjusting his position so that she released her hand from his hair, he cupped her breast, his lips nipping at her. But he needed much more direct contact and knew she did, too. Remembered just how much she loved him to suckle her, to graze her swollen nipples with his teeth when she was close. How his oral ministrations were often responsible for bringing her ‘close’.

Relinquishing his hold on her momentarily, he skimmed the satin up and over her breasts, but did not remove it. Before she could respond, he swung one leg over her hips and kissed her other breast.

Fingers. Lips. Tongue. Being worshipped by Mulder’s mouth and hands was just this side of a celestial experience. The ache and throbbing of her clit was exquisite torture ratcheted up by the feel of his still boxers-covered penis insistently pushing against her outer thigh. What he did to her. What she wanted him to do to her.

Sensing the depth of her desire and most assuredly recognizing his own, his supple fingers stroked and kneaded her flesh as he released her turgid nub. Squeezing her breasts together, he flicked the tip of his tongue between them, pausing only to French kiss each one in turn.

Scully wasn’t sure which way was up…nor did she care particularly so overwhelmed with sheer sensation was she. Her hips moved of their own accord against the weight of his leg, the pressure of his steel shaft rubbing her thigh her juices wetting her panties more and more. “Mulder, god, stop. Don’t stop.”

His hands never leaving her, he nudged the camisole up higher with his nose as he mumbled, ‘make up your mind, Scully’.

Time from that point seemed to double in speed, a whirlwind of heated groping.

~~~~~~

She would recall afterwards as they lay there in each other’s arms, how he’d somehow barely managed to pull her panties off before she had started writhing in earnest. Whether it had been from the feeling of free and abandoned movement or the fact that he’d held the very moist crotch to his face as if breathing life itself, she couldn’t say for certain.

Neither of them seemed to remember how his boxers ended up under the pillows.

He thought it might have been the way the firm globes of her ass felt as he’d roughly pawed at her to take her with him, positioning her over him once again. But it also could have been the way her hair fell in skewed waves around her face and the satin fabric danced along his abs and chest teasing his flat male nipples. Most likely, it was all of that along with the way she sat just below his navel, the heat from her sex molten against him.

She wasn’t sure which one of them had moved first, but it was a matter of hands everywhere, her partner’s velvet covered shaft nearly impaling her as his fingers separated her ass cheeks and her sudden need to stick her tongue down his throat as he tried to beat her at her own game.

He was unwilling to let go of her hips, so intent was he on lifting her off him, holding her poised just over his very sensitive tip and then pulling her back down as he thrust up into her. Again. And again and again.

When his thumb and forefinger reached between them to circle and tug on her clit, she sat upright, the weight of her head too much as it fell back on her neck. She remembered riding him hard as if she’d been waiting a lifetime to do so. Remembered the feel of his cock each time it slammed up inside her.

Probably the last thing he remembered with some sort of accuracy was how her thighs started shaking and then went rigid with her release. Mere minutes before he came inside her.

~~~~~~

Full daybreak and sudden inaction blanketed them in a slight chill. Although no longer conjoined, Scully lay draped over Mulder’s body, her breasts pressed against his side, her leg half-covering his hip. His arm wrapped possessively around her, cradling her head to his chest, his other hand drawing lazy circles on her arm.

“I’m cold, Mulder.” She muttered into his chest.

“Me, too.” His lips formed the words in her hair.

Both were cold. Neither moved.

“I got the blankets last time, Scully.”

“It doesn’t count, it was too long ago.” Her partially formed smile froze as she realized how long it had actually been since they were in a position to verbally joust about who would cover them after making love.

She slowly extricated herself from his embrace and he reluctantly let her go. Drawing the sheet and chenille bedspread up over them both, she re-snuggled against him, but he gently nudged her until she had turned away from him.

He caught the arch of her eyebrow and her smirk before she felt him curl around her from behind, enveloping her in his warmth and languid strength. “It has been a long time, hasn’t it?”

The sole of her foot massaged his shin, her hands holding his forearm to her.

“How did we make it to this point, Scully? I mean, after all this time.” The feel of the curve of her ear beneath his lips was at once familiar and new to him. His lips formed the tiniest of butterfly kisses as he caressed the shell and moved to her earlobe.

Trying to focus on the sound and feel of his words, she drew one large hand to her lips, kissing his knuckles and then tucking it under her chin. “It was time. Besides, I was growing tired of the swank hotel knowing that I could be here in your inexpensive, Bureau financed boardinghouse. And now I realize just how much I was missing. Why, the ambiance alone…” His hand over her mouth ended her teasingly playful explanation.

His palm still covering her mouth, he told her, “I love you, you know.”

Planting a kiss on his lifeline, she drew his hand away. “I do know and I love you back. Love and trust you, Mulder. With my heart, with my life.”

~~~~~~

Radisson Hotel
Friday, 22 September
9:00AM

She was unsure once again. The hunter green wool crepe slacks and sage, tailored silk blouse or the leopard print jacket and black short skirt? The former was a striking color for her, but the latter showed off her slim, curvy hips and shapely legs. In the end, comfort won out and she chose the green outfit, opting to pair it with her taupe suede pumps.

Her careful observations over the last few days told her that he liked his women to wear their hair back in those wide headbands. She’d never been a fan, but if that’s what currently turned on her foxy man, then a headband was it. Suede and taupe to match her shoes.

No doubts plagued her regarding her abilities to get him to come to her. The problem lay in getting him to her suite. To her suite where she’d carefully laid out his special edition Carl Sagan, chilled the Hopback Summer Lightening, placing a frosting mug in the small freezer compartment and already placed a jazz CD in the player.

He would fall; she knew that with a deep certainty. Once he’d seen what she did for him, remembered what they’d had in the past and realized that Dana Scully was so polar opposite that she threatened to freeze him out. She would help him see the error of his ways.

She had to place the call, set the wheels in motion.

~~~~~~

Pine Street Boardinghouse

Mulder hummed in the shower. He was alone—not by choice, but alone nonetheless. He’d tried to convince her to stay and join him, carefully explaining the long-term benefits to their expense reports. He tried to impress her with his reasoning, explaining that two could shower as cheaply as one.

Maybe she saw through his serious suggestion when his hand found its way between her legs, causing her to gasp with sweet surprise a nd clutch at his arms?

So, he found himself a party of one. A rather content party of one.

Life had finally returned to normal. Well, as normal as his life could be. But having Scully back in his life completely, in every way, certainly brought out the best in him. There was nothing he couldn’t accomplish with his partner by his side.

Using one of the small guest shampoo bottles, he lathered his hair, tilting it back to rinse and inadvertently backing himself into the diamond patterned plastic shower curtain. This shower stall wasn’t quite as spacious as he was sure Scully’s would be. The pale green curtain was damp and heavy as it clung to his ass. Hips swaying slightly, he felt it pull away wetly.

Brief mental images of her shower gel slicked skin under the running water made him pause. He realized he could feel his heart beating just a little bit harder and faster and was rather surprised to find himself growing more and more aroused.

~~~~~~

Radisson Hotel

Scully listened to the whoosh of the elevator door closing behind her and took a deep breath, leaning against the side wall. Just underneath her sudden realization that she wasn’t really tired at all, although she’d been awake now for almost 24 hours, was an exhilaration she hadn’t felt in a long time. Her body still thrummed as her mind replayed the night’s festivities and her skin tingled in places that hadn’t tingled in what felt like forever.

A flush crept over her chest, neck and face as she recalled the first sweet touch of his lips to hers and then fast-fowarded to the feeling of him buried deep inside her as she watched his eyes as he fought to hold on for one more second. Losing the fight, surging up inside her, grabbing her hips.

She arrived at her floor and made her way down the carpeted hallway on somewhat rubbery legs. Making a mental list of what she had to do today, she inserted the keycard in the slot. Tossing off her jacket on the upholstered bench in the entryway, she thought about calling Chief Ennis to see if she and Kimberley could meet with her to talk about the unidentified white powder.

But all she could see was her partner’s face, smiling at her, his lips mouthing ‘Love you, Scully’.

Removing her clothing, she grabbed her robe and headed for the shower, deciding the call could wait.

~~~~~~

Radisson Hotel

Perched on the window seat overlooking the city, she tapped at the keys with a pencil, dialing his number. The anticipation of hearing his voice once again was nearly unbearable. That low masculine monotone she loved so much. Well, she mentally amended; she loved it when it was used to seduce her, to share the latest test results, to confer. She abhorred that voice when it was whispered to someone else.

But, she wasn’t going to drift down that path right now when accomplishing her goal was so palpable. ‘Fox’. She would see him, talk to him… touch him again. She knew he would forgive her and want her back once she’d explained everything to him.

The final aspect of their rendezvous would be its effect on the soon to be partnerless Agent Scully. Knowing that even if Fox did not come willingly, the fact that his former lover would see them together would surely send her running, made Diana ecstatic.

He picked up on the fourth ring. He’d obviously been busy, showering maybe? Getting out of bed possibly? He’d never been one to really sleep in unless she counted the times they’d lingered between the sheets after a particularly frantic night of mutual needs and satisfaction. She felt herself grow warm at the thought.

“Mulder.”

She sighed. God, how she’d missed him.

“Hello? Is that you, Scully?”

Bitch. He mentioned the bitch and she hadn’t even spoken to him yet herself.

<Fox? It’s me> Controlling her need to set him straight about the redhead, she purred.

Silence met her.

Followed by either choking or coughing. Was he clearing his throat?

“I’m sorry, I think you have the wrong number.” She knew he was trying to pretend he didn’t recognize her voice. She smiled at his ineffectual attempt at subterfuge. He really was rather charming in that way.

<I have your number, Fox. I need to meet with you. We have so much to discuss>

“We have nothing to discuss, Diana, nothing to say to each other.”

Finality. So serious. But she knew he was just testing her resolve. She knew he wouldn’t have the temerity to dismiss her outright.

<Oh, but I think we do. Otherwise, why would you have been looking for me? Did you think I wouldn’t find out?>

She knew she had him there by his sharp inhalation and the movement on his end. She thought he was probably dressing and briefly, let herself picture him in his boxers and tee shirt, his shoeless feet…

His sharp tone brought her back to the here and now. “Spit it out, Diana.”

All right, she could play his game, match his style. She was nothing if not adaptable. Hell, she’d survived beyond anyone’s expectations — except her own.

<I have some information I think you’ll agree is invaluable regarding the portal technology, the paste. I’m betting that…> She trailed off, unwilling to voice her final thought which would have required her speaking the other Agent’s name to him.

~~~~~~

Massaging his jaw in hopes of clearing his head, Mulder paced, dragging the phone cord back and forth in front of his bed. He’d hastily wrapped a towel around his hips when he’d heard the phone, thinking and hoping it might be Scully.

Now he was chilled; beyond the damp towel formed to his wet skin, he was chilled to the bone. She really was alive, just as the Gunmen had told him. Although he hadn’t doubted the veracity of what they had to say; learning long ago that the trio dealt in truths, he’d been torn between wanting it to be so and hoping to God it wasn’t.

No doubts now…as her voice channeled its way into him, firing off synapses he wished would stop. No good could come of their further connection. He’d decided he could care less about the portal and Scully had already made significant headway on the properties of the paste.

Scully. What the hell was he going to tell her?

He admitted that some small part of him wanted to hear what Diana had to say, but not without telling his partner first. He wouldn’t venture down that road again without her by his side.

“You can tell me over the phone. I’m really very busy on a case right now.” He knew it sounded lame, even to his own ears, but he wasn’t prepared to deal with her right now. He’d still been on an emotional high, having reestablished some semblance of his former life during the late night and early morning. He didn’t think his heart was going to handle this sudden shift.

<It has to be in person, Fox, but you choose the place. We could meet at your place?>

She sounded so damn sure of herself and something else. A little off-center, even for her. Not able to put his finger on what it was he was sensing, he instead went on immediate alert. He knew all too well just how fast she could switch tactics, switch sides. He had always doubted that she’d do him serious harm, but there was something in her tone that told him that might no longer be the case.

There was no way she was coming to the boardinghouse. He flatly refused to bring her into his personal space. The place where he and Scully had so recently made love. “No.” His tone was as abrupt sounding as he’d intended.

But, he noted, she didn’t miss a beat and suggested they meet in the lobby of her hotel. The Radisson Hotel.

Shit. The very same Radisson Hotel where Scully was staying.

He flung the wet terrycloth from his hips, the cool morning air hitting him instantly, making him shiver. Rummaging, one-handed, in is duffel; he grabbed a pair of clean boxer briefs he hadn’t known he’d had. Trying to quickly pull them on, he tipped his head toward his shoulder to balance the phone there, but reaching for the briefs only succeeded in him dropping the handset onto the bed.

<Fox? Fox? Are you there?> He could hear her tinny voice calling out to him as he quickly stepped into and pulled up his undergarments, his still damp skin causing him to tug and twist to get them up over his hips. “I’m here, Diana. Is there some lounge we can meet at in about an hour?”

<That long? You were always a fast dresser. How about a half hour?>

He wasn’t going to be rushed. “An hour; take it or leave it.”

He heard her sigh followed by her directions to meet her in the Lobby Bar off the main entryway of the hotel.

Grabbing another towel, Mulder swiped it over his arms, his chest and back, then ruffed his hair. He tossed it toward the bathroom counter to join the other already there.

His mind already working on what to tell Scully, he took his jeans from the back of the bedside chair and worked them up over his legs, jumping a little to get them up to his waist. He left the fly unbuttoned as he opened the top drawer in the bureau and withdrew his olive Henley.

Leaving the hem untucked, he padded into the bathroom where he found the hair gel. Working a quarter-sized dollop into his hair, he reached for the dryer, waving it around a few times. After wiping his hands on the small towel on the ring holder, he stuffed his shirt into his jeans and buttoned up.

Sliding his bare feet into his brown Docksiders, he reached for the phone as he sat on the edge of the bed.

‘C’mon, Scully, pick up.’ He hung up after leaving her a message to call his cellphone as soon as she was able. There was no way he was leaving a message about Diana. He needed to talk to her about this situation personally. He tried her cell next. No answer.

He couldn’t figure out where she might have gone. He didn’t think she planned to head back to the Station since they’d talked about setting up a joint meeting. When they’d parted, it was with the understanding that they’d both get showered and dressed and then set up a meeting with the Chief and Kimberley.

He’d allowed her to leave with reluctance. Had wanted her to shower with him. No matter that she didn’t have any clean clothing with her. But he’d acquiesced knowing that there’d be plenty of future opportunities for partner showers now.

He wondered if she’d gone to the hotel gym and then laughed thinking she’d most certainly had her workout for today. Seeing her above him, riding him with an intensity that threatened to take him right over the cliff. And did just that. Whether it had been the sight of her breasts bouncing above him or her legs spread shamelessly right in front of him or a combination, he wasn’t sure anymore. All he knew was that he was feeling hot again and Mulder, Jr. was coming back to life.

He had to find her.

Speed dialing her cell once again, he decided he had to leave her a message. At least he knew she would be the only one able to access it. ‘Scully. Call me as soon as you get this message. I’m going to be in the Lobby Bar of your hotel meeting with someone who can give us some important information from Marblehead. I tried to call your room, too. Love you.’

Setting his own phone to ‘vibrate’, he clipped it to his jeans pocket, grabbed his tan leather jacket and headed out to his truck.

~~~~~~

Radisson Hotel
11:30AM

Opening a medium-sized handle shopping bag, she set it on the table by the window. He might have blown her plan to impress him with her carefully crafted in-suite seduction, but that wouldn’t derail her from presenting him with the two gifts. She knew he’d be touched by her thoughtful remembrance and be grateful to her. Carefully placing the book and the brew inside, she tied the handles with a curling red ribbon and set it by the door. One final toss of her hair and swipe of lipstick and she was ready.

She’d called the hotel health club, verifying that Scully had indeed been there and left. Calling the desk, she’d asked them to leave a message for Dana Scully to meet Kimberley in the lobby in a half-hour. Yes, things were going according to plan.

~~~~~~

Scully placed her workout clothing in the hotel laundry bag and hung it inside the closet. Quickly showering again, she donned her long, slim jeans skirt and brown leather boots. A chocolate brown silk cowl neck top completed her outfit. Although she had set up a meeting down at the Station, she knew the attire would be casual for her and Kimberley. Drying her hair into soft waves, she applied some loganberry gloss, a bit of blush and some mascara.

She was surprised she hadn’t heard from Mulder, but remembered she’d left her cell in the room when she went down to the gym. It was then that she noticed the red light blinking on the bedside stand. Two messages awaited her. The first from Mulder, telling her to call his cellphone. The second message was more cryptic, and, for some reason, sent the tiny hairs on the back of her neck into a tizzy. She was supposed to meet Kimberley in the lobby. She wondered why her friend hadn’t just come up to her room or told her what was up. The message just wasn’t Kimberley’s style. The combination of the two messages bothered Scully.

She immediately flipped open her cellphone noting that she ‘had one message waiting’. Her partner’s voice sounded more urgent in this message. He wanted to meet her in the lobby. Someone was meeting with him. About Marblehead. With information.

No, she didn’t like the sound of this at all. Figuring she’d just meet him and Kimberley in the lobby, she didn’t bother calling him back.

~~~~~~

Radisson Hotel Lobby
Friday, 22 September
Noontime

She arrived before him; gift bag set beside her in the booth. She had a view of the lobby, needing to see him before he saw her. Knowing he was rather punctual when he thought he was getting desperately desired information, she went ahead and ordered for them. Sipping the Green Tea Martini, she had the server set his draft across from her. She had little use for the fancy snack mix and basket of warm bread that had been set out for them.

She hoped that Scully didn’t become overzealous and arrive before Fox. That wouldn’t work at all.

And suddenly he was walking through the main doors. He took her breath away, even with the slight scowl of impatience on his beautiful face. Although she could see the subtle changes age had wrought, there was no getting away from the fact that this man was exquisite. Oh yes, she’d seen him last summer, but the situation had not shown him at his best.

Not like the vision now presented to her. Her eyes assessed him head to toe, pausing just a moment longer at his hips. How had she forgotten just how breathless he could render her? The man wore his sexuality well.

She didn’t waste time trying to appear demure; that wasn’t her style and they both knew that. But she did attempt to subdue her anxiousness; tried to appear more understated. She wasn’t sure it was working.

Especially when the voices threatened to ruin her plan. Reminding her that this was the man responsible for sending her through the damn portal, nearly killing her in the process. Using her tried and true method, she scrunched her eyes closed tightly and repeating, ‘shut up, get out’, over and over until the taunting faded.

All at once, he was standing in front of her, the only thing missing, his winning smile. His posture was anything but welcoming, but she chose to ignore it, knowing that he had always needed to have things proven to him. Although, she recalled, that hadn’t been the case between them early on. No matter.

“Fox, how good of you to come.” Sliding farther into the booth, she motioned him to sit down beside her.

“No thanks; I’ll stand. What do you have for me, Diana?”

His monotone was much more ‘mono’, she noted, sure she could do something to change that. “Fox, all work and no play; you know what they say.” Giving him her biggest widest grin.

It wasn’t working for some reason and she was becoming a bit upset.

For a fleeting moment, he thought he saw a crack in her facade, the slightest slip of her showy demeanor. Felt that something was different somehow.

“At least take off your jacket and stay awhile.” Her hand rested somewhat tensely on the gift bag. “I have something for you. Something aside from the information. Can’t we at least have drink? I did order for us.” Her tone bordered on whining and if he didn’t know better, that’s exactly what he’d swear he was hearing.

“Look, let me try Scully once more and then we can all talk.” He reached for his cell phone, but she stood, taking it from him.

~~~~~~

Scully had tried Kimberley twice and gotten her on the second call. Just as she’d thought, Kimberley had not planned to meet her in the lobby, but was awaiting the time to meet at the Station. Scully told her she’d call her later and snapped the phone closed, her frustration growing.

Depressing the ‘L’ button much harder than necessary, she leaned against the panel, daring the elevator to make any stops prior to hers. Thankfully, she’d managed to get the ‘express’ to the Lobby and stormed through the open doors.

Her unrestrained long hair bouncing on her shoulders, wisps floating out behind her as she moved with purpose, Diana spied Scully before Scully discovered her in the Lobby Bar.

Making only one stop at the Desk to inquire about the person who left the message, she was thwarted. The Desk staff remembered only that it was a woman caller who did not wish to bother her in the room.

She rounded the corner from the Desk, trying to find Mulder.

She ‘found’ him as she walked between the large ficus trees that framed the entry to the Bar. Found him with his hands on Diana Fowley’s shoulders, their faces mere inches apart.

Feeling as if she’d received a jab to the solar plexus, she came to a halt, willing herself to breathe. Slowly, deeply.

Diana’s smile was only exceeded by the length of her arms as they seemed to enfold Mulder. She could make out snippets, words uttered. She’d know that tone anywhere; he didn’t sound pleased.

But she couldn’t think past what she was seeing. Her analytical mind reminded her just how much she loved him, trusted him. Reminded her of all that had come since the fateful summer. Told her that he’d tried to reach her; probably to let her know about Diana. Her emotional side went into overdrive, duking it out with her analytical side, coming up the temporary victor.

Diana barely listened to Mulder’s protestations, hardly felt his attempts to push her away as she held on for dear life. As she watched with inner glee the look on Scully’s face as she observed from just outside the lounge. Oh so carefully, she maneuvered him so that they were facing in opposite directions now, her body pressed closely to his. Facing his partner.

Mulder saw her face first; the look of shock tinged with unbridled anger and disappointment. But he also read the question in her eyes and knew she saw the pleading in his as he broke out of Diana’s grasp, throwing her off balance. Dropping her into the booth with an audible plop.

Diana watched with indignation mixed with slight pique. She hadn’t been able to advance her plan to fruition, yet the effect seemed to be the same. If she knew Scully, she was about to walk off, leaving Mulder once again. She knew that although he would go after her, he wouldn’t put up with much more from the simpering, haughty woman. Fox was much too proud for that.

~~~~~~

Scully was moving before Mulder could clear the Bar and his repeated calls to her had no effect. Heading for the automatic sliding glass doors at the hotel entrance, she stopped several feet before, watching idly as they whooshed open and then slid closed once again.

Something didn’t ring true about Diana’s look, although, as far as Scully was concerned, there had always been something a little ‘off’ about the formerly twice dead Agent Fowley.

Only a true Phoenix rises from the ashes. This woman should be buried in those ashes. Deeply buried. This line of thinking brought a wry half smile to her face.

The real question was what her game plan would be this time. Why here? Why now? Well, she could probably answer those questions easily. Mulder was ‘here, now’.

She had no doubt that the strange woman wanted full possession of her former partner and lover. That had to be at least part of her grand scheme.

Scully just didn’t know the rest of the scheme. Yet.

The anger that had been simmering just below the surface now boiled, bursting through, but she rightfully identified to whom it was directed. And it wasn’t Mulder; at least not entirely. She knew in her heart of hearts that he had neither planned nor orchestrated the scene she had witnessed. But she did continue to wonder just how many times he would allow himself to listen to anything that woman had to say.

What kind of power did she wield?

For someone who appeared to have honed the ability to persuade, coax and cajole others, often entreating them to respond when no one else had succeeded, he could sometimes be completely and infuriatingly bamboozled by the most obvious set-up. She considered asking him to profile someone who fit his current behavioral patterns. Someone purely fictitious, of course.

What was more frustrating and what she hated to admit still hurt was seeing him with her; their bodies pressed close. She held no illusions about how Diana had contrived what she saw to make it appear as if he was a willing participant. Scully knew he wasn’t. Saw it in his posture, in the look in his eyes. Knew it in her very soul.

But that didn’t mean she couldn’t hurt.

Biting back the words she longed to spit in the brunette’s direction, she turned again, hands on her hips and purposefully walked back toward the Bar. The look on her face telling her partner that not only was she waiting for him, but that the trust was still there.

And that he had some explaining to do.

~~~~~~

Diana was royally pissed and not a little put off by both Agents. Fox refused to see just how much she had done coming back to him. Failed to even inquire as to what she’d been through since the Cat Island debacle. Probably didn’t know that she would have saved his life had she not been forced to go through the portal so completely unprepared. She had a lot she wanted to share with him.

In her more lucid moments, she saw how well they would work together to put the pieces of the white paste puzzle together efficiently and neatly. She’d done her own research, recruited and conferred with the top scientific minds in Germany and Switzerland and she’d found a few bits of information she was sure Scully would never acquire. Score one for the Fowley team.

But mostly, she desperately needed to snare the fox away from the redheaded vixen.

Slumping gracelessly in the booth, having landed partially on the bow-decorated gift bag, she was perplexed. Why had she not foreseen his reaction to his petite partner? What had she failed to consider?

She pulled herself upright, a new confidence dawning on her. It wasn’t her failing. It was the interference of the sniveling non-believer. Well, if what Dana Scully needed was proof, even after all these years at Fox’s side, Diana would be the one to give her what she needed.

She could begin with providing experiential knowledge of the full effects of the white paste.

Yes — that might make a believer out of her.

~~~~~~

He didn’t want to think too deeply about how it was that he’d managed to find himself in this situation. With Scully’s worst nightmare. A classic set-up that even first year academy students would spot from a mile away. With their eyes closed. And someone whispering in their ear what was about to take place.

It wasn’t that he was unaware that anything possibly associated with his former partner meant trouble. It wasn’t even that he couldn’t see through her. It was probably much more that he was constantly on the search for information that would help him discover exactly how that portal functioned and the true nature of the paste substance.

He suspected that Scully was experiencing the lingering effects of its application. He recalled that her dose was equal to his and, given her size compared to his, that had to be the root of the problem. If he could just get his hands on the solution. The fact that she’d been having what seemed like dizzy spells and that her memory also seemed temporarily impaired, greatly concerned him.

But what concerned him more now was the look on her face when the Agent with many apparent lives had set her scene. Expressly for Scully’s benefit. Although, he mused, ‘benefit’ implied the derivation of good. The outcome for Diana had proved far from beneficial.

Scully. He could only imagine how she must have been feeling when she saw Diana’s arms wrapped around him. On the day she’d finally readmitted him completely — body and soul.

So much larger than her small frame, her presence commanded his attention, the look in her eyes conveying all he needed to know. But still he approached with slight trepidation.

He’d taken at face value their reconciliation, seeing and experiencing her resolve. Their commitment. But he also knew full well what Diana symbolized to his current partner.

“Scully?” Tentative and questioning.

He saw her eyes soften just the slightest bit and approached with more confidence. Although her arms remained crossed almost defiantly in front of her, he smiled as she also took a step toward him, closing the distance between them.

Almost imperceptibly, her eyes focused briefly over his shoulder to the right. He knew instinctively she had Diana in view.

“Scully,” his tone now suffused with the need for understanding, but also quiet resolve and commitment, he grasped her shoulders and touched his lips to her forehead.

Never seeing the look of pure, unadulterated rage from the woman now standing a mere five feet off to the side, Mulder murmured Scully’s name, thankful for her understanding, her warmth washing over him even as she held herself somewhat guardedly in his grasp.

~~~~~~

Becoming further incensed, the angry woman moved back into the shelter of the lounge alcove, affording her a rather unpleasant view of the proceedings. Close enough to watch and listen—far enough away to be invisible, her preferred method of surveillance.

It had worked for her in her early years with the Bureau, ranking her among the finest investigators, and it had served her well in her interim positions. Allowing her to move from one to the other with an extremely high return on her boss’s investment in her.

She’d even set up her own ‘agency’ at one point, having found it very gratifying to mobilize her own people to suit her means and ends. But, that hadn’t lasted long. She did not suffer other’s weaknesses, had no desire to ‘develop’ her staff. They either cut it or they didn’t. Each time she’d had to ‘disengage’ someone from her organization, she knew she was teaching him or her a valuable lesson. Do it right or do it elsewhere.

Most fulfilling had been her on-going role as freelancer. Although she’d known the Bureau’s stance on such behavior, they’d trained her well. She knew how to fly below their radar, managing to handle the few meager cases they tossed her way and to build on her reputation in the private arena.

Plain and simple, she was a ‘gun for hire’, her reputation allowing her to garner the plum assignments, keeping her happily ensconced in the finer circles within which she so loved to travel and live. But while the varied work assignments were enticing and exhilarating, she found something lacking. Seriously.

She needed a partner back in her life. But not just any partner. He who was rightfully hers, he who belonged to her and to no other. Certainly not to the shell of a woman he was with now.

She’d experienced some of the most creative and inventive sex with some of the most beautiful and engaging men, but other than providing release and climax, they never did for her what Fox did. Never fulfilled her to the extent he could. She’d always marveled at how he seemed to know innately just what she needed, how to complete her. Sure, she’d allowed him to slip away. Well, when she was being honest with herself, she would acknowledge that she had been the one to push him. She guessed traipsing off to Europe with not so much as a decent word or two could have justifiably angered him. But that had been in her younger and more impetuous days. She’d experienced so much more since those dark years. Knew he would understand if she could just have some time alone with him.

That was looking harder and harder to come by. She had to shore up her resolve, marshal her resources. She could make it happen. She was known for her ability to make almost anything happen. Even if that ability had faltered somewhat in the past year.

Shit happens. Even to the best.

How she’d failed to see the pieces of the dastardly puzzle falling into place, she still couldn’t say. One minute she’d been working with them, leading them in their quest to bring down the two Agents. She’d loved that assignment and knew she’d be given leeway where Fox was concerned. Or so she’d thought.

Instead, bits and pieces started crumbling around her and the others who employed her weren’t feeling magnanimous enough to give her a chance to shore it up again. They didn’t understand. They didn’t give her a chance to explain.

And if they weren’t bad enough, the blue-eyed bitch tried her damnedest to upset her carefully laid out plans. Oh, she’d succeeded in part, knew that she’d played on Scully’s old jealousies enough to resurrect even older insecurities. Watching the frosty cold Agent squirm had almost compensated for the obstacles she’d thrown in her path.

But in the end, she had been duped by her bosses and made to look the fool in Fox’s eyes. In front of Scully.

And once again, he was with ‘her’, trying to soothe her pathetic sensibilities, touching his lips to her, failing to see her petty ways to draw him in. When had he become soft? When had he stopped craving the fire and heat of the moment?

Well, she’d allow them their simpering moment.

But just one.

~~~~~~

Scully was still baffled and not a little angry. Mulder did have a lot of explaining to do.

He was making the effort; she’d give him that. But that was about all she wanted to give him right now.

It didn’t really have anything to do with the trust; not this time; but it did have everything to do with his need to be involved. Involved with Diana Fowley or another Diana-conceived plan.

She knew Diana for the cheap imitation of a clever woman.

Manipulating, scheming, conniving, but certainly not ‘clever’. Not in the widely held definition of the word. But that was to be expected. The only thing Diana ever did that was expected was throw herself at Mulder.

Scully did expect more from him, however.

And while his touches now were sincere and comforting, she also wondered if they were placating as well. Maybe not intentionally so, but… Mulder’s need to make things right was strong. To right all wrongs if he could; especially where she was concerned. Diana ranked right up there with all the other wrongs he believed he’d brought her way.

And she might just be the one problem that he had quite a bit of control over. Oh, not in the conventional sense. Scully still believed very strongly that each person was ultimately responsible for her/his own actions. But that only reinforced the fact that each step along the way, he’d made choices regarding how he’d interacted with Diana. And, although this time was different, he’d still agreed to meet with her.

She had to know why.

But Scully refused to drop her guard and relinquish control to that woman. Nor would she give her the satisfaction of stalking out; which was exactly what she’d felt like doing. Diana would never know that it was more because of seeing her than the fact that Mulder was with her.

His hands were now on her shoulders, his lips in her hair…his very presence was at once reassuring, but stifling. Although she would smugly admit that knowing Fowley was most certainly witnessing their reunion was gratifying. Allowing herself only the briefest of contact, she stepped back, her hands now on her hips, the slightest nod of her head indicating that she wanted to continue this discussion privately.

Their eyes met briefly before they walked side by side to the elevators. Close but separate. Outward appearances not withstanding, Scully kept the space between them, her mind still in a quandary, focused on the man beside her. She could feel his gaze upon her and turned in his direction. Knew he saw the question in her eyes and her need for silence.

Raising one brow, she noted that he understood her need for space — only until the elevator doors closed, cutting them off completely from Diana’s prying eyes. She also noted that all bets were off once they were sequestered. Her hand came up to hold back the questions she knew were about to flow.

“Let’s just get upstairs, Mulder.” Her tone brooked no further discussion.

But that didn’t mean he wouldn’t try. “Scully, it’s not what it seemed.”

She knew that, but she needed to know more.

The ‘ding’ signaled her floor and she proceeded him through the parting double doors. “Then why don’t you tell me exactly what it was.”

His long strides allowed him to pace her much quicker, shorter steps, but she knew he was waiting to respond.

Slipping the keycard in the door, she entered and set it down on the desk. She knew his eyes were on her as she stalked to the other side of the room, plopping into the club chair.

She moved her feet out of the way as he pulled the ottoman away from the chair, he sat in front of her, his knees bent almost to his chest, framing her legs until she pulled them up under her. The image brought a ghost of a smile to her eyes, but she bit it back.

“I needed to know—”

“That’s a rerun, Mulder. And it’s SOP with you. You always ‘need to know’. What could she possibly have to tell you?” Her tone belied her calm repose, but her voice was barely above a whisper.

Quiet fury.

“I wanted you to be a part of this. Wanted, no, needed, you with me.”

But she wasn’t waiting. “If that were true, you would have rescheduled so I could have joined you.”

“You’re not being fair, Scully.” She changed positions when he reached toward her, his hand landing lightly on her leg.

“What’s fair about anything where Diana’s concerned?” The volume on her previously ‘quiet fury’ moved up a notch, the pain in her voice evident.

She watched intently as he dragged his hand across his chin and mouth and then raked it through his hair. She stood, pacing the width, then the length of the room and ended up seated on the bed.

“She has information I think can help you in identifying the properties of the paste,” he leaned forward, his forearms on his thighs, “and might be able to reverse the effects it still seems to be having on you.” His voice had taken on that gravely quality he reserved for his most serious or sincere moments and it drew her in.

She moved over to sit by his side, their arms and hips touching. Facing the windows, she spoke with equal quiet…and vehemence. “Look, Mulder, I know that your intent is always honorable, but I can’t understand just what the attraction is to this woman, why you always seem to trust in her intentions. This woman who’s proven time and time again that she’s not to be trusted, that she’s self-serving and—”

“Point, Scully. Lots of points.”

She turned toward him, one leg bent under her. “Just how is it that she shows up here now, with both of us in the city and claims to want to help? What’s her motivation? Are you really ready to be played so easily…again?”

“Ouch. That hurts Scully.” To his credit, she was glad he didn’t attempt the puppydog eyes and when she didn’t speak, he continued. “You really think I was played?”

Her pursed lips, furrowed brow and the set of her face was all the answer he needed, but she was prepared to provide a more definitive response. “What would you call it, Mulder? She used your penchant and passion for discovering the truth and your desire to keep me safe to draw you in. The last time, she did such a fine job that you doubted me. What’s the draw this time?”

She was on a roll and moved onto her knees, sitting back on her heels, hands on her thighs. Leaning toward him, her words flowed, heated and challenging. “She’s going to provide you with information about the paste? Why? Even you should know she has no desire to help me. Think about it; figure it out. Use that brilliant, investigative mind and wrap yourself around the real reasons she’s here.”

Scully remained perfectly still, her gaze trained on her now silent partner, watching the subtle shift in his expression as her questions and declarations rumbled around in his head. When it seemed as if he wasn’t about to respond, she climbed off the bed, muttering, ‘Fine, ok’, and headed to the bathroom sink to pour herself a glass of water.

Trying to fathom why they always seemed to reach an impasse where the Fowley woman was concerned, she admitted that they were at least much stronger in their relationship. Yet still, they had stalled.

She gulped the water and set the glass on the small plastic vanity tray harder than she intended. She whirled around, her re-surfacing anger bubbling just below the surface, and nearly collided with Mulder.

“Going somewhere, Scully?” She hoped her laser glare would indicate just how much she did not appreciate his attempt at humor.

“Get out of my way, Mulder.” Making only a half-hearted attempt to move past him, she sighed. Resigned and heavy and tired. So very tired of anything having to do with that…that woman.

His presence in the doorframe effectively blocked her exit, so she lowered the toilet seat and sat, her arms crossed. “Fine.”

Sensing she was not about to walk out on them, he perched on the counter, his hands on the edge, his feet crossed at the ankles. “Look, I’m sorry. Sorry for it all, Scully. For some reason I’m either unable to see or afraid to look at, Diana remains my blind spot. Someone I know will usually,” noting the not-so-subtle raise of her brow, he amended, “someone I know will always have an unknown agenda. That agenda will involve setting out alluring bait that she knows I’ll follow. And I do.”

Sighing and shifting on the counter top, he continued, “Oh, I’ve gotten better about seeing her for what and who she really is, but the truth is, she still wants me. Because she does, because she still believes I want her, too, she’s also willing to offer me tidbits; small tastes of information she knows I want, knows I need. The problems begin when just like the person opening Pandora’s Box, once I go to her, everything goes to hell in a hand basket.”

Her posture relaxing, Scully unfolded her arms, her hands falling into her lap. She licked her lips and nodded at him to go on, sensing he had more to say.

“But there has to be more here this time. I mean, I’m sure part of why she’s here has to do with me, but she’s angry now too; much angrier than she was…,” he stammered and then stopped, afraid to complete his sentence.

Scully completed it for him. “Much angrier than she was this summer? Is that what you wanted to say, Mulder? I’m not made of eggshells. Yes, it still hurts, but I’d like to think we’ve moved past that point, together.”

That brought a small smile to his face, tentative at first and then stronger in its display. “We have, Scully; we have. But she is angry and there’s more. She’s edgier than I’ve seen her before; something’s going on just below the surface. It’s just a hunch, but…”

“That never stopped you before,” she quipped, as she stood, moving to stand in front of him.

He chuckled and added, “But I don’t think she’s in her right mind. She mumbled something about being disappointed about not being able to give me my special gift, whatever that might’ve been.”

“What else did she say?” Scully stepped into the frame of his legs as he uncrossed his ankles, her hands on his thighs, glancing down as his hands moved to her hips, completing their natural connection once again.

He searched her face before replying, their eyes taking each other in, reacquainting, testing, settling into one another again. “She said she’s hired some of the best scientists in the world to research the paste and that she has valuable information.”

“Oh, really? And why would she do that? What reason would she have to know the properties? I can’t believe it’s solely to find out what happened in that sci-fi warehouse. Unless,…” She stepped back with such suddenness that she nearly lost her balance against the opaque bathing enclosure behind her.

Mulder reached out to steady her as he came to his feet. “‘Unless’ what?”

“Remember what Kimberley said last night about the Toronto case? Remember I told you about a connection we made with Chief Ennis earlier yesterday? How coincidental is it that Diana’s here talking about the damn paste, too?”

~~~~~~

The Vault
Outskirts of Burlington, Vermont
Friday, 22 September
9:15PM

Impatience governed his fidgety hands even as the hired help buffed his black patent leather shoes. He had a mere forty-five minutes to ensure that all was in place and even less time to find out why his new partner had missed their meeting earlier today.

He doubted that 45 minutes would change him from taciturn and sour to amiable. Well, hell, when had he done ‘amiable’ well anyway? Did he really care? He had the luxury of employing those that truly wanted to be there. And, if they didn’t, well, he’d gladly slice them right out of the picture, no questions asked.

He allowed himself a small wistful smile. He read people well, had learned at his father’s knee, or, more aptly, at his father’s feet. Where he’d landed when he failed to read his father’s every whim and desire accurately. Pressed into service early in his youth, he’d shadowed his father in his daily and nightly ventures. He’d known everyone in their Brooklyn neighborhood from a very young age; known who worked where, how many kids were in the families, schedules, traffic patterns. His mind took in the details and catalogued them for future reference.

By day, when he wasn’t attending Public School 55, he was with his father as he made his way to the open-air fruit and vegetable stands or the sawdust covered floor butcher’s shop. ‘The early bird catches the worm and then some.’ It was one of the first phrases he’d learned, although it had taken him some years to figure out that the bird and worm were merely symbolic references.

By night, he visited dark buildings with dark carpeting and even darker furnishings staffed by men and women in equally dark suits and dresses. They treated him well — catering to his needs, most of which at that tender time revolved around television and ice cream. There were no other children to play with. He didn’t ‘play’, he ‘visited’. The men and women entertained him, taught him, while his father was otherwise occupied.

He learned things without feeling like he was in school again. As he grew, he found he loved numbers and was quite adept at manipulating them. They ‘did’ things in his head; jumped around, moving, changing, growing larger. He loved the heady power of them.

When one of the women had allowed him to access the computer, he’d been totally hooked. She spent many a night tutoring him, encouraging his baseline skills and talents until he typed like a pro and demonstrated the beginnings of rudimentary hacking. It was an adventure that immersed him into another time and place. Moreover, it was a challenge.

He loved a good challenge.

His reverie was broken by the snap of the buffing cloth on his knee. It was a good thing Proteus liked this particular man or that little show of inappropriate levity would have been rewarded with a rather painful pink slip. His shoes gleaming, he stepped down from the raised seat and palmed two Andrew Jacksons into the man’s hand, rewarding him even more with a rare smile.

~~~~~~

The room had been arranged expertly once again, no doubt due to his superb hiring and subsequent training. The black lacquer table was polished to a mirror finish and each of the 18 place settings sparkled and shone in light of the dimmed overhead fixtures. The finest bone china from England, simple and elegant, sterling silver utensils from his family’s vast collection, Lalique crystal and fine Italian linen napkins.

His chefs had been flown in from his restaurant in Geneva, along with the freshest ingredients. Expense was not a consideration when wining and dining his top brass.

It was the same menu each time they began their operation and it served as a signal to the team. ‘I feed you well, you feed me well in return.’ An unbroken cycle, a never-ending production circle.

He walked along the windowed walls, the dark night sky broken only by the lights of the city off in the distance, and headed into the galley kitchen. They were ready for him, expected the final inspection, his tour of their work.

The kitchen’s stainless steel work surfaces with the occasional recessed cutting board were immaculate as he passed the Head Chef and the two Sous Chefs followed by the entire compliment of food handlers and preparers. Their starched white uniforms changed in anticipation of his visit.

“Henri, what is on the menu this fine evening?”

Flawlessly and without any hint that he knew his boss knew exactly what was on the menu since it never varied, Henri stood at attention and replied, “We begin with assorted hors d’oeuvres including French Bread toast points with fresh morels seasoned with sage and garlic, Escargots en Buerre Blanc, and Terrine of Vegetables Fraiches.”

Proteus nodded at the recitation, indicating his pleasure and that the Master Chef should continue.

“The first course will begin with warm Butternut Squash Soup garnished with a dollop of creme fraiche and a sprinkling of broad leaf parsley and continue with Duck Breasts with Cherries and Rose Sparkling Wine Reduction with Nutty Wild Rice and Haricots Verts. We will serve baskets of warmed sourdough with medallion unsalted butter pats.”

The Boss moved along the line of staff noting how proudly they stood as he passed.

Henri finished with the wine selections for each course and concluded with his benefactor’s favorite part of the menu. “And for dessert, I have prepared individual Peach Tartes Tatins.” He smiled broadly, proudly, and was rewarded with a firm handshake and a tight-lipped smile from Proteus.

~~~~~~

Smart Suite Inn
South Burlington, Vermont
9:00PM

His hotshot brother was running late, as usual, and that meant, by extension, Ben would be late, as well. He hated being late and when he had his way, was usually early. How the two of them could have been raised together was beyond him.

Night and day. Hell, opposite ends of the earth was more like it.

Tonight was crucial and he knew Proteus did not suffer late arrivals graciously. There wasn’t much Proteus did that was gracious unless you toed his line to the letter. That Ben could handle. Life as a law enforcement officer did not allow for mistakes or missteps and he’d learned from the very best.

But tonight was different. Even without his tardiness, he was worried. Something didn’t feel right to him, his years of playing his hunches and second guessing having instilled in him a finely honed sense of perception that often astounded his colleagues and subordinates.

He had a very strong sense that Proteus was about to throw them a curve ball necessitating that he remain on top of his game tonight. And damn it, but his brother was making that near impossible.

Well, he’d use the time wisely. Opening the door to the rather small closet, he squatted down and retrieved his small carry-on bag. Removing his digital camera, tripod and various notebooks, he laid them aside and reached inside the bag. Finding the front bottom seam, he located the zipper pull and opened the hidden compartment.

He’d been instructed to report in to his superior at the first sign of a major development. Ben snorted. The whole fucking case was a ‘major development’. What was she thinking? Pulling the coded and encrypted list of call numbers from the zipped space, he scanned the required two inches from the top and then flipped the slip of paper over, finding exactly what he needed. Why they didn’t just have their operatives memorize the numbers, he’d never know. But then again, his was not to question why. He didn’t complete the saying, not wishing to create a self-fulfilling prophecy.

~~~~~~

En Route
8:45PM

Heading west on Route 89, he depressed the gas pedal even more with his expensive loafered foot, driving the speedometer past 90. It was a fine night, except that he was running a little behind schedule. If it were only him, he probably wouldn’t give a damn, but his sniveling brother would be joining him on the way to their dinner engagement. Mr. Punctual would be extremely pissed. And that was putting it mildly.

While he wouldn’t speak a word if it in public, or within earshot of another living, breathing human being, Bishop was jealous of his sibling. They’d started out as equals, even possessing the same virile and dashing good looks. He smiled smugly; he’d retained that end of the bargain.

Somewhere along the line, they’d both headed into law enforcement, but Bishop had left. Well, since there was no one present to question him further, he admitted that he’d been asked to leave. But, if they hadn’t done the asking, he probably would have. His timing was just off.

Still, all things being equal…well, almost equal, he was the one with the leg up in this operation. It was he who served as the Big Man’s right hand, had his pulse on the new recruits, upcoming events. His brother was only an ‘as needed’ player.

He fumbled with the volume slider on the Bose in-dash CD player. Suddenly, strains of ‘Ole Blue Eyes filled the small space around Brantwell ‘Bishop’ Stillman. Sinatra. Stillman. The similarities were all too obvious.

‘I’ve lived a life that’s full. I’ve traveled each and ev’ry highway; But more, much more than this, I did it my way.’ Bishop’s just left of on-key baritone followed the voice floating from the speakers.

‘Regrets, I’ve had a few; But then again, too few to mention. I did what I had to do And saw it through without exemption. I planned each charted course; Each careful step along the byway, But more, much more than this, I did it my way.’

He felt good; no, make that great! Frankie was his idol. The man had connections and Bishop had connections. The man could croon and Bishop…well, he would be honest with himself, he could use some work. Frankie put him on top of his game. He needed to be in order to deal with his sullen brother. Why couldn’t the man just get with the program? This could be the deal that let him leave that snoring so-called job of his back in D.C. Not that Bishop really cared to have him around permanently, there was only room for one Stillman in Vermont, but he thought his brother could make some connections for himself through the Boss.

He slowed down as he approached the exit, swinging the low-slung roadster into the parking lot at just a few more miles per hour than warranted. Providing himself with an executive parking spot two feet from the lobby doors, he left the car running as he strode inside.

~~~~~~

The Vault

Checking his Rolex for the fifth time in so many minutes, he began to pace the length of the table, occasionally moving a piece of silverware or lifting the crystal by its stem and then laying it back in its original location.

It was the thrill of the new hunt. Time to reap the benefits from what his lieutenants had sown.

Hearing the elevator doors slide open, he stood at welcoming attention, noting with pride that Jemel and Mr. Zale arrived together. He had high hopes for this pairing that extended beyond their most interesting professional partnership.

Zale, like so many of his long-standing associates, exhibited the utmost discretion in his dealings while also demonstrating a keen ruthlessness in carrying out his assignments. In many ways, he was Proteus’ Number One. In many ways, but not all.

He was eternally grateful to the top-notch associate however, for he had facilitated the introduction of Jemel to the group. At one time, a street urchin with a penchant for things that did not belong to her and fingers that would make a hummingbird’s wings envious. She’d served as ‘executive gofer’ in her early years, but had skipped entire rungs of the corporate ladder landing alongside Zale.

Her official organizational title was a cross between supervisor of operations and operator without supervision. Proteus’ skills lay outside the realm of organizational labels.

Perception. Jemel’s insights; especially into how people think, were invaluable. The fact that her rapier-sharp intellect and simply devastating beauty brought the biggest asses to their knees made The Boss the envy of his international cohorts. For that, he was quite pleased.

They’d make a wonderful team.

Oh, he knew she would have myriad reasons why she should continue in her current post. Why she should turn down the promotion. But he and Zale had a plan. An offer she couldn’t and shouldn’t refuse.

But they all needed to feed their souls and their bellies first.

~~~~~~

Standing at his place at the head of the table, he watched the others file in, chatting amiably, their dark formal business attire lending a spit and polish smartness to the setting. Coifed and groomed to within an inch of their lives, they were one fine looking group of associates.

He waited patiently as they wound down from their daily assignments; some of them today leading their ‘cover lives’, some of them just back from ‘an errand’. He encouraged sharing — stories and information. Hoped they’d throw out some rumors and puzzle the truth from the chaff. This type of conversation not only sharpened their skills, but drew them together as a solid unit, helping to keep the highly normal competition among them at bay. Competition was healthy — to a point. When it reached dangerous levels, he was quick to nip it in the bud.

“People, it is time we partook of the feast. First we dine, then we do business. Sit, eat.” Waving his arm, the 2 carat square-cut pinky diamond glinting in the light of the crystal fixture, he beckoned them.

To his right, Zale held the chair for Jemel, moving then to take his seat at his boss’s left. The Stillman brothers sat next, facing each other. Tanner Roscoe deposited himself heavily across from Mike Corbin. And Jason Stenhauser and Slug completed the group of eight associates; Proteus’ hired muscle.

Clinking the tines of his fork against his water goblet, the standing CEO called his group to order. “Before we partake of this fine culinary repast, let us thank Henri and his staff for their arduous preparations.” He smiled as the robust, but humble Master Chef and his team flanked Proteus and tipped their heads. “Merci beaucoups mes amis et bon sante!”

With that pronouncement, hors d’oeuvres were served.

~~~~~~

As cloth napkins were either folded or crumpled and set on the table, chairs were pushed away from it amidst groans of satiety. Now moving rather sluggishly, the group wandered to the large sliding doors to the open-air balcony.

“Jemel, Zale, a moment please?” The remaining associates took that as their cue to take their cordials outside and pulled the doors closed.

The organization’s leader watched his two staff — especially the woman. She had not been present for their initial meeting due to a rather demanding assignment. He’d forgotten just how much she tended to brighten up the usual sea of dark-haired men.

“What is it, Boss?” Zale was the first to speak, although his question was perfunctory.

The blonde woman’s eyes darted from one side of her to the other. She could smell a set up from a mile away. This one was overkill. Unwilling to give an inch, she stretched to her full 5′6″ plus 3” heels. Her carefully measured gaze snared each man in turn, saying more than any question could.

She was obviously willing to wait them out, but her boss was not. “Come, sit. Zale and I would like to talk with you.”

An imperceptible shake of her head cleared her ashen blunt-cut hair back from her cheeks and her index finger neatly tucked the tossed locks behind her left ear, highlighting the rather large round diamond stud. “So talk.”

Zale held the chair for her as she moved to the small settee instead. A small shrug of his shoulders and the double arch of his brows in Proteus’ direction had him joining her on the tapestry-upholstered two-seater.

Seated across from his two associates, he leaned forward clasping his hands together, elbows on his knees. A rather affected casual pose.

That she saw through immediately although her outward appearance remained unchanged. Her hands were also clasped in her lap, mirroring her superior.

Small beads of sweat appeared on Zale’s brow.

“I’ll cut to the chase, Jemel. Your work with Zale here has been nothing but exemplary. You have demonstrated not only the ability to follow instructions to the letter, but to carry-out an assignment with aplomb and cunning. You have great potential as my new Number One.” Although a smile lifted the corners of his mouth, his eyes were hard as they locked onto hers. “What do you say?” Crossing her legs at the knee, her black gabardine skirt hugged her thighs, the slit providing him with a rather expansive view of the scenery. “Your Number One. Mmmm.” She turned to study Zale, her partner, wondering how she’d been chosen over him; knowing that in this business, pondering such issues was pointless. Decisions were made considering factors she could hardly speculate about, so she did the next best thing — she ignored them and moved on.

She moved one hand to his leg, watching the man beside her follow her hand’s path as her fingers slipped to his inner thigh. His sharp intake of breath barely masked the sounds of Proteus rising from his seat to perch on the arm of the settee at her other side.

“The full court press? I’m surprised.” The words slipped from her lips like frosted honey as her other hand found her superior’s quads.

“This would be a most advantageous move for you, Jemel. You’ll be poised at the brink of more power than you can possibly know what to do with.”

She would have had to be struck unable to hear to miss the innuendo and promise in his words…and in the husky growl that nearly singed her ear.

It appeared that her associate felt the need to help close the deal as his hand covered hers, drawing it farther up his trousered leg. Two — no, make it three — could play at this game. Allowing Zale to guide her, she squeezed Proteus’ thigh a little harder as she turned her face to him. Her tongue darted out to lap at his neck.

She idly wondered how long he’d wait for her answer, but the fact that he lowered his head toward her, trying to maneuver his lips to lock with hers indicated that he might be willing to give her more time. Or, read between the lines.

Zale seemed quite satisfied being on the receiving end of this deal as his head fell back against the cushions, his eyes snapping shut. He’d always told Proteus that she was ‘handy’.

Now squirming on the arm of the small sofa, the suave man was losing control over his proposal as her tongue now snaked into his mouth — in much the same way her hand was snaking around his crotch.

She had considered her options and decided that she was in a win-win position here and would most likely accept the offer. As soon as she was able to speak.

~~~~~~

Pine Street Boardinghouse
Saturday, 23 September
5:00AM

“Come back to bed, Scully.”

The cottony darkness was broken only by the small over-the-stove hood light in the kitchenette as she stood against the bathroom doorframe. “Not yet.”

For a moment, she wondered if he’d heard her. She knew he was still awake; knew he’d been awake since she’d left the bed to get a drink of water. As her eyes adjusted, she could make him out lying on his back, his arms bent, his hands behind his head. She imagined that early morning Mulder look she loved so much; at once alert and still half-asleep.

“What’re you waiting for; an engraved invitation?”

She shivered slightly from the chill the cool water created and from the warm honey smile of his words.

Taking two steps back into the bathroom, she set the glass on the counter and wrapped her arms around his gray tee, hugging it to her as she padded back to her side of the bed.

Scully watched as he rolled to his side to face her, his head propped on his arm, his other hand tossing back the blankets for her. His hand patting the bed had her smiling. She brought one knee up onto the bed, leaning her hands forward to climb in.

“I want my tee-shirt back, Scully.” Before she could reply, he’d grabbed her wrist, pulling her arm out from under her, landing her in a tangle against him as he tried to wrestle the shirt off her. Only managing to lift it above her chest.

The slight draft over her quickly goose-bumping skin was her first tip off that he’d almost succeeded. The second was the feel of his bare chest against her equally bare back. Hot touching cold. Heated skin warming her inside and out. “Covers, Mulder.” Drawing her bent arms toward her chest, she snuggled back into him, her ass shifting and pushing against his pj bottoms.

“I’ll cover you, partner.” He told her as he wrapped one pajama-clad leg over her hips, locking her to him.

The rather prominent evidence of his early morning arousal was inescapable, the feel of him against her panties causing her to shiver. “That wasn’t exactly what I had in mind. We’re sleeping in this morning, remember?”

“Sleeping is boring, Scully; not half as much fun as what I had in mind.”

Trying to dislodge his rather heavy, muscled leg wasn’t working. The harder she attempted to move it, the more his lower body wriggled, creating a growing pool of sensation between her legs. So much for sleep.

“Mulder, your mind needs a rest.” Giggling, she swatted ineffectually at his roaming hands.

“I keep trying to tell you I’m not tired.” Drawing closer, he pursed his lips blowing lightly across her ear. “By the looks of things, you’re not tired, either, Scully.”

His fingers teasing her already aching nipples only added fuel to the growing fire deep inside her. “Looks can be deeee..ceiving… Oh.”

“I don’t know, Scully. Hard evidence doesn’t lie.” He slid one arm under her shoulders to replace the hand that moved to her panties, cupping her.

Had she been able, she would have laughed. He could be like a dog with a bone, singly focusing, ignoring anything in his way. Like the fact that he had locked her legs together with his own. Had she completed that thought, the reality of him being a quick learner would have struck her…as he had already removed his leg and was spreading hers.

“Shut up, Mulder.”

~~~~~~

He almost didn’t hear it — the faint, but insistent trilling of his cellphone in his pants pocket. And when it finally hit him that the ringing wasn’t some result of the feel of his partner’s hips grinding into him, he decided to ignore it.

He could always check his voicemail later. Right now, his attention seemed to be otherwise occupied. A beautiful woman who refused to stop moving, touching all his hot spots. He didn’t know where to begin to note them all… His mind must have wandered, he mused, because somehow Scully had managed to work her way down his body. She was doing an admirable job of exploring the rather uneven terrain beneath his slightly tight pants. And he was working very hard at rising to the occasion for her.

When the phone made itself known yet again, she paused, poised on her knees between his bent legs. “Mulder?”

“Don’t stop, Scully.”

She heard the nearly breathless tone as he implored her, saw the flush on his chest and neck, felt the heat beneath her hand.

Not totally unaffected herself, she reluctantly sat back on her heels, massaging his thighs. “I’m going to get your phone, Mulder.”

His moan of frustration told her exactly what he thought of the idea, but her sense of duty overshadowed his objections as she crawled to the foot of the bed, tugging at her tee.

Watching her actions with amusement, he wondered why and when she decided to exhibit her modesty. His foot sought the blankets and he managed to bring them as far as his shins before quickly sitting up and pulling them over himself, but that was about as far as he was willing to move. He was holding fast to their agreement to ‘sleep in’. Even if he preferred a few other activities to sleeping.

She flipped the phone open and handed it to him, pulling the cover back to slip beneath it.

Holding the phone to his right ear, he wrapped his left arm around her as she nestled into him, her head on his chest and her left arm and leg draped over him.

As the weight of her thigh settled just below the drawstring waist of his pajama bottoms he gritted her name, his jaw clenching and his eyes closing. Mistaking his sharp inhalation for a grimace of pain instead of the exclamation of arousal, she attempted to roll back from him.

He muttered a terse, ‘hold on’, into the phone, setting it on his upper chest and turned to her. The corners of his lips curving upward, he grabbed her leg behind the knee and set it back over him, holding her in place as he lifted his hips against her weight.

Nudging at her nose with his, he mouthed, “Don’t move a muscle, Scully,” and picked the phone back up. The warmth of his fingers tracing circles on her arm was almost enough to lull her back to sleep, but the feel of his voice as it rumbled in his chest and the not-so-subtle twitching of his arousal beneath her thigh canceled out the effect of his fingers. The man was a study in contrasts she mused, and right now, his barely contained raw sexuality and sensuality were dueling for her attention. The former was winning.

“She’s right here with me.” Scully looked up, connecting with Mulder’s mischievous wink.

‘Who is it?’ She inched up his body to whisper in his ear.

He handed her the phone, watching for the smile of recognition, followed by the rolling eyes when Frohike greeted her. Leaning in close, he could just make out the tail end of what sounded like some variation of a patented ‘Hike quip.

Shaking her head, she handed the phone back to her partner, but stayed within earshot.

“What’ve you got for me?” Mulder could hear the distinct voices of the little man’s partners in all things conspiracy and technology in the background. And, by the tonal quality, a little friendly disagreement was afoot. Nothing new for this trio.

<I’ve been doing some electronic tapping for you good buddy, and it appears that the nefarious Ms. Fowley of More than Nine Lives has quite the interesting set of colleagues working either with or for her>

Mulder grabbed Scully’s wrist, detaching her fingers from his left nipple. His action earned him a decidedly wicked grin. A rather interesting variation on the Mona Lisa smile, but clearly more enigmatic…

“What’s she working on?” He asked, although he was fairly sure he already knew the answer as he replayed a snippet of their conversation in his mind.

<Looks like science in general and ‘catalyst agents’ in specific. Gotta tell you, Mulder, she’s doing some fancy hook-ups…and knowing her, I’m betting they’re hook-ups in the many senses of the term. But, these guys are no slouches in the fields of genetics, biology and molecular and cellular bio. The woman’s got some pretty high-placed connections>

Mulder drew in a sharp breath and then moaned deep in his throat, the low and slightly raw sound drawing the Gunman’s question.

<I knew you’d be surprised, but I don’t think I expected that reaction, man>

“What else did you find? Who’s she contacting?” He was past the point of caring what his partners in crime thought since they had long ago known of his relationship with Scully. However, he was planning just how to pay her back for the fun she seemed to be having at his expense. Although he would privately acknowledge he was enjoying himself.

Mulder shifted the phone to his other hand partly because it seemed as if Scully had lost interest in hearing the words directly from Melvin’s mouth. And partly because he needed his left hand free to try to disengage his suddenly very awake and very horny partner from certain parts of his anatomy.

She could drive him to distraction.

He liked that quality in her. Very much.

<There are two rather prominent men whose names may ring a bell with you or Scully and they’re…>

Frohike’s information was painting a rather alarming picture. Fowley had indeed made some inroads into the science behind the paste, but what she was planning on doing with her new-found details, Mulder didn’t want to contemplate too closely.

And he couldn’t, thanks to the red-haired temptress who almost literally had him by the…

He dropped the phone. “Scuhhleee…ahhhh”

Attempting to lift his head from the pillow to get a better look was futile and quite unnecessary. He didn’t need to see to know that the drawstring to his pajama bottoms was completely slack and that her wet and warm mouth was performing miracles on him.

But it was too much and not enough.

Considering that Frohike might receive an earful of X-rated sound effects — and enjoy it — he tossed a pillow down over the phone and then reached underneath the blankets, his fingers tangling in the length of her hair. Most likely mistaking his action as encouragement, she pushed the top sheet and lapped at him enthusiastically.

Mulder’s eyes rolled back into his head as he bit his lip. “Scully, get up here. Now,” he managed to husk out.

As dexterous as he was clever, he managed to relieve her of his tee as she slithered her way up his body.

“What’s the matter, partner, can’t take the heat?” Her words dripped with barely contained erotic humor.

“Shut up, Scully,” he told her just before curling his fingers around her upper arms and pulling her down on top of him. “I can’t kiss you when…”

She made sure he didn’t finish his sentence, her lips erasing his smug grin and smart-ass retort. As his tongue parted her lips and chased around her mouth, she marveled at how quickly he could shift his attention. And really zero that attention in on what mattered.

Clad only in her silk panties, she was fast being swept away by the feel of his hands that had moved inside the flimsy material and were kneading her behind, coaxing her — as if she needed any coaxing where he was concerned. His hard length lay against his belly…and along the groove of her heat. She moaned as her nipples pressed into his bare chest and his head turned and angled to find just the right position to sear her mouth with his.

Sensory overload. He was sure she was going to take him over the top the way she was moving on him like a sex-starved kitten. Her bent legs framed his hips, the heat of their skin electric. And while the sweet taste of her lips and the way her tongue flitted around inside his mouth ranked right up there on his Top Ten List of Things to do with Scully, it was the way she was gliding back and forth over him, the way they were humping like a pair of randy adolescents that threatened to push him to his limit.

~~~~~~

Office of Chief Alana Ennis
Burlington Police Department
1 North Avenue
Saturday, 23 September 10:00AM

Scully distractedly held the cup of vending machine coffee while she waited for Kimberley to arrive. No matter how hard she tried to wrap her mind around her reason for being here, she tended to veer off in one of two distinct directions: the fact that Diana Fowley was once again on her doorstep or waking up in Mulder’s bed this morning at the Boardinghouse. No real decision about which path she’d rather pursue…although her mind didn’t seem to be paying much attention at the moment.

She stood, the faint sound of the vinyl seat creaking, unnoticed. Tugging her cropped hunter green jacket into place over her matching slacks, she paced the 12 X 14 office. Having swallowed the last of the now-cold coffee, she deposited the cup in the small trashcan alongside the Chief’s desk.

Diana. Would that woman never give up? Never give either her or Mulder a moment’s respite? She chided herself for her questions. They came from a weakened point-of-view, from a hapless and helpless stance. Neither of which defined who Dana Katherine Scully was, who Fox William Mulder was. Who they were when they were together.

If she truly believed in her upbringing, in the tenets of her religious background, ‘what doesn’t kill you will only make you stronger’ would fit nicely here. Or maybe it was ‘God only gives us that which we can handle’. She sincerely hoped that He wasn’t thinking about her having to ‘handle’ any more from Diana Fowley. At least this time, she wouldn’t be working as a team of one. She knew without a doubt that Mulder would work with her this time. Together, the sum of them was stronger than each of them individually.

She’d only pieced together small bits of information so far about why the woman was in Vermont, but she was sure that most of it had to do with Mulder, no matter what she said to the contrary. In that way, the former Agent was completely transparent. Well, she mused; she and the dark-haired woman did have something in common — their love of Mulder. Had Scully been one to gloat now would have been a very opportune time. Instead, she allowed herself a rather self-satisfied smile as she adjusted the gold clip holding her hair back at the nape of her neck.

She checked her watch one more time, wondering what had become of the Police Chief and Kimberley. Heading to the outer office suite, she inquired, only to find out that Alana had been called out on an emergency. Asking to use the phone, she then called her friend. After being informed by Bryan that she was on the way, Scully went back inside and took a seat by the window.

Her mind returned once again to the tall brunette woman’s research escapades as shared by Frohike this morning. In order to stay a step ahead of her, they were going to have to figure out what she already knew…and then extrapolate a motive, a purpose behind her research. It couldn’t be as simple as Diana needing answers to what had happened to her. She’d been a failed attempt at some weird science.

And Scully seriously doubted that Fowley was merely curious. No. She had other plans. The use for the paste and the portal were only somewhat obvious to the petite redhead. Transportation. But to where? How? From what she’d learned in the lab so far, the previous experiments had met with failure — extreme and irreversible failure. The only thing she knew so far was that one of the major properties of the paste was its catalyst abilities and that it caused a thermo-reaction in the subject. She was missing something. Something key.

She was tempted to retrace Diana’s steps and made a mental note to contact Frohike herself for assistance. Suddenly, an image of the bespectacled man finding himself privy to the scene at the boardinghouse this morning came to mind. Much as he slung the innuendo, giving her partner some stiff competition, she was sure the Lone Gunman was probably somewhat embarrassed. She was also just as sure that he would have parlayed his experience into quite the embellished story for Byers’ and Langly’s benefit.

Shifting in her seat, Scully felt the color rise in her own cheeks as she pictured the object of her affection lying beneath her, the heat of his body igniting with hers, the feel of his…

“Dana? Hello, Dana? Whatever you’re thinking about must be rather agreeable given the look on your face.” Kimberley’s crisp words shook Scully from her very agreeable thoughts. And wrenched her right back to the present.

“Oh, good morning, Kimberley. Chief Ennis got called away, but they thought she might return soon.”

Her inability to totally school her expression didn’t go unnoticed by the taller woman, but she did not pursue it. “Well, what can we get started on?”

“I was hoping we could go back over the Burlington Ferry case and the possible tie-ins to my research and what you alluded to from across the border. Something tells me there’s a connection here.” Scully had already headed for the door, walking toward the conference room where the Chief had placed the files.

Kimberley’s longer strides drew her up alongside Scully as they moved through the main reception area and holding bay. “Do you and that suave partner of yours have plans for tonight Dana?”

The taller woman had stopped, her hand on the shorter woman’s arm. The clear blue eyes were the only give away to her surprise she felt at her friend’s question. “I’m not sure if Mulder has plans tonight, but I don’t. What did you have in mind?”

“Well, I was thinking that the four of us should go out for a light dinner, drinks and maybe a little dancing. You know, give us some time to get to know each other a little better since it looks like at least three of us will be working together for the foreseeable future. Might be nice to get out for a change. What do you say?”

Scully noted that while the tone was inviting, Kimberley’s look suggested that she’d really love it if the answer was ‘yes, I think it’s a fine idea’. “Let me call Mulder while we wait.” Flipping her phone open, she walked back toward the reception area.

The blonde could barely make out her words, but by the soft giggles and the sometimes ear-to-ear grin, she correctly assumed the four of them would be sharing a night on the town. “So?”

“So, tell me where, and we’ll meet you around seven?” Scully surprised herself with the obvious excitement in her tone. It wasn’t that she didn’t enjoy going out, it’s just that she could count the number of times Mulder and her ‘double-dated’ on one hand…and the hand didn’t even need all five fingers. The closest they’d come lately was their time with Joani and Mitch, the fellow Agents they’d met while working on the case in Connecticut. Then again, the closet they’d come to even getting out alone together had been rather non-existent since this summer. Well she’d change that, she was looking forward to some downtime. She found herself enjoying getting to know her sister’s friend and her partner. Mulder seemed comfortable with them too. Then again, Mulder seemed to warm to new acquaintances much easier than she did.

“Did I say something amusing Dana?” Kimberley’s head tilted to one side, her gray/blue eyes mirthful.

“What? Oh, no. No. I was just thinking about how much I’d like to join you and Bryan tonight.” Scully’s recovery was as polished as ever.

I? What about that wonderful partner of yours? Won’t he be joining us?”

“He, um, said he’d love to.” Her response elicited a warm flush to her neck and cheeks as she recalled what Mulder had actually said in response. “Let’s go check out the evidence the Chief’s left us.”

“All right. We’ll meet you two at seven at the Breakwater Café at the King Street Ferry Dock. Tonight they’re featuring a homegrown group. The cover a lot of Marvin Gaye and Barry White and their music really makes you want to move. Bryan’s a Marvin Gaye fan from way back. Their barbecue is also legendary in northern New England.”

The combination of the music and the food piqued the FBI Agent’s interest. Sensual music and Mulder…a nice combination.

“Ladies?” The Chief approached them, extending her hands to shake theirs. “I hope I haven’t kept you waiting too long?” She continued to walk past them as she spoke, leading them into the Conference Room. Professionally friendly, she smiled as she set the folders in front of Scully and Kimberley, indicating that they should sit.

“What’ve we got here?” Kimberley opened the folder, flipping through the various reports and a small stack of photos. She stopped when she saw the fifth 8 X 10 glossy.

“Kimberley?” Scully leaned over, quickly glancing from her friend’s face to the picture and back again. She noted the startled recognition in the blonde woman’s eyes, that mixture of shock and familiarity.

Sensing that a breather was called for, the Agent shifted her attention to the Burlington investigator. “What are these files, Chief?”

Alana had taken note of Kimberley’s reaction as well, but thought she knew the cause. “Well, these two folders include the other cases with a substance similar to what you’re researching and the evidence from Cat Island. Your friend is holding the Canadian case from five years back.” Turning her attention across the table, she addressed Ms. Kresge. “You were one of the reporting officers on that one, were you not?”

Now it was Scully’s turn to look surprised. She didn’t expect to know everything about Missy’s friend and her career, but her case focus just narrowed considerably — while widening similarly. While she wasn’t inexperienced enough to believe that this phenomenon could only be local, she wondered at the possibilities of its leap across the national border.

Someone was truly well-organized. To rather frightening proportions.

“I was. One of my first cases in my new position.” Still gripping the photo, she leaned back against the worn leather chair and spoke, her eyes never leaving the images before her. “I had a crackerjack partner and I was calling the shots on this one.”

Scully watched as she finally lay the folder back onto the polished wood surface, pushed the chair away from the table and stood.

The blonde woman’s words took on that quality reminiscent of one replaying a point in time, narrating as it unfurled in her mind’s eye once again.

“The Captain had received an anonymous tip. Oh, he hated those with a passion but knew better than to dismiss them out of hand. The caller muttered something about a weird ritual being performed on the 401 highway. Now, we, like most local law enforcement, get a lot of crank calls from those that enjoy making us look foolish, but there must have been something in the tone of that voice that lent credence to his story.

“My partner, Brenden, was already on point, his weapon unholstered. He assumed his position by the side of the car. I had just signaled to the back up teams. All eyes were focused on the slight clearing that preceded the deeply wooded area by the side of the road. They must have been only about 300 meters from us, but they didn’t seem to notice us. Or maybe it didn’t matter because they thought there was nothing we could do?”

She paused then, walking to the water cooler. As she bent to withdraw a paper cup from the clear plastic sleeve, she straightened, turning back toward the other two women.

“Dana, describe the properties of the substance you’ve been testing.”

Although her expression asked the question, her words merely answered it. “Nothing’s conclusive at this point, but what I do know is that it has an official name, ‘conduction tincture 54’or CT54. Two of the yet-unidentified chemicals appear to be responsible for transport. For ‘conducting’ the subject from one state of being to another.”

She smiled then noting the skeptical looks, not unlike her own, from both law enforcement officers. Holding her hand up to ward off the onslaught she continued. “It does sound just a bit like an episode of Star Trek, doesn’t it? However, further chemical analysis of the white compound revealed catalyst characteristics and thermal reactive properties when in contact with the skin. However, given my alleged reaction and symptoms, I believe that some other interaction is at work as well.” The Chief had remained quiet, watching and listening closely the interchange between the two other women. Silently, she pulled together the bits of information she was hearing, the puzzle pieces connecting, one corner forming. This was not a puzzle she wanted to finish. Unless the final picture could put a stop to what she considered a rather hideous foray into the technological age of international illicit drugs trafficking.

Kimberley had moved back to the table, perching on the edge, her arms crossed in front of her. Scully remained standing in front of her mirroring her pose. “What happened when you and your partner moved in?”

“Well, this will probably sound like a bad B-movie script. I’d radioed for more back-up. I’m still not sure why, there were only three possible perpetrators. Brenden and I fanned out, drew closer to the tree line and watched as the dark haired woman seemed to be swiping some substance on the forehead of the man with his wrists tied behind him. We had come up behind them, trying to flank them, announcing ourselves, but also trying to be sure we were seeing a possible crime in progress. They’d somehow erected an archway structure deeper into the wooded grove, although it looked more like a crude stage set than anything capable of what we were about to observe.”

Scully’s face flushed, her fingers trailing to the space between her eyebrows absentmindedly.

“Agent Scully?” Alana approached, her hand on Scully’s elbow. “Are you all right? You look a little flushed.”

“What? Oh no, I’m really ok.” She waved off the concern and turned then toward Kimberley, asking her to continue, knowing what she was about to hear.

“Strange doesn’t begin to describe what happened next. Our back up had arrived as we moved in, calling ahead, weapons trained. Although we had the three secured, they’d managed to shove the shackled man forward toward the arch. He seemed to disappear in the space between the frame. Vanished before our eyes. As incredulous as that sounds. As much as it sounds amazingly like what the suspect would try to claim in his or her own defense.” A wry chuckle escaped her lips.

Luckily, Alana and Kimberley were close by when the dizziness and disorientation hit her once again. Scully’s vision swam slightly, small gray and sharper white lights dotting the space in front of her and then returning to normal once again. Two sets of arms supported her, guiding her into a chair.

The alarm in Kimberley’s voice registered loud and clear and the redhead tried to suppress a rueful grin. In the short time she’d actually know the woman, Kimberley had already seen Scully in the hospital… Not a way to convince people that she was ‘fine’. “Dana? Maybe we should call an ambulance? Mulder? How about—?”

The Chief handed Scully a small paper cup of water and watched as she gulped it. Rising to fetch another, the Agent thanked her.

“No, I’m going to be ok, just felt a little lightheaded. I’m actually much better now. I only had time for coffee this morning; probably a combination of the caffeine and my empty stomach.”

The color had returned to her face quickly, but she could feel the slight racing of her heart. Nerves. That’s what it had to be.

The similarities in the Cat Island and Toronto cases and the possibility of more similarities in northern New England. This group got around… She had no doubts that it was most likely the same group, but how was it tied with the drug trafficking? Was it tied in? Well, evidence was beginning to strongly point in that direction.

A small smile quirked the corners of her lips.

“Dana?” Kimberley’s furrowed brow line and smile clearly expressed the same combination of amusement and question she was also feeling.

She hesitated to give voice to her thoughts. Her thoughts that had her wondering if whoever developed this paste had planned to use it to transport the drugs without the use of common, traceable transportation. Now there was a leap if ever she’d conceived of one.

Her partner would be proud.

Her smile grew. As did the questioning looks from the others.

~~~~~~

Pine Street Boardinghouse
Noontime

Dropping his keys on the coffee table, Mulder wiped the back of his hand across his forehead, whisking sweat droplets away. For early fall, the weather reminded him much more of the muggy heat of a D.C. summer. He’d run as far as the docks, but even there the air was dead, still and hung over him like a presence. At least his muscles were warm enough to give him a good workout.

Not that Scully hadn’t done that for him, but he needed to get all his muscles going and really needed a much more sustained workout. Especially because he had a lot on his mind and running seemed to help him sort through it all.

He switched on the AC as he toed off his running shoes and reached down to yank the damp, dank socks from his feet. His toes wriggled and flexed in the low nap of the throw rug as he padded to the kitchenette. Pulling the refrigerator door open, he guzzled straight from the juice carton, the orange both cooling and slightly stinging his parched throat. He never was one to carry water on his runs.

He peeled the wet tank from his chest and slung the armhole over the door handle, making his way into the bathroom. Reaching behind the curtain, he turned on the shower making sure the water was good and hot before pulling it closed again. Gripping the elastic waistband of his nylon shorts, he tugged the wet fabric down over his hips and legs, leaving them in a heap on the tile floor.

Clad only in his briefs, he reached for his toothbrush. Just as the phone rang. Hoping it was Scully, he set the toothpaste and brush on the sink and headed for the nightstand. “Hello?”

His hopes were dashed when a decidedly male voice replied. “Hello, Mr. Arsenault.” Not waiting for an acknowledgment, the deep baritone rumbled on. “We are in need of your services. My associates and I will be waiting for you at the nearby house. We’ll be looking for you at one.” Zale disconnected before Mulder could do much more than open his mouth; not sure whether he’d planned to ask a question or make a statement. Either way, it was now a moot point as he hung up.

Billows of steam had now filled the bathroom and mushroomed out into the bedroom area. Pulling the door closed, Mulder dug out his cellphone and speed dialed.

<Scully>

Not wasting any time, he skipped the preamble, “I’ve got a job. Not sure when I’ll be back, so go on with whatever you were planning on doing for the rest of today.”

She could tell that he was about to end the call, so she hastened, <What job? Talk to me>

Semi-evasion. Subtle, but there. She always knew. The case dictated some of it, considering his cover, but she expected a bit more since they were working together. Supposedly.

“I should be back in a few hours or maybe a little longer. I’ll call you.”

She didn’t hesitate to allow some of the irritation she was feeling make itself known. <Are you sure about that, Mulder? That you’ll call? Just tell me where you’re headed at least>

Putting his remaining time to good use, he tried to one-handedly remove the sweaty briefs from his clammy skin. It wasn’t working very well. He had to get moving. “Scully, look, I’m heading for a house on Cherry Street. Have to be there by one and I’m trying to jump in the shower. That’s all I know.” Almost as an afterthought, he added, “And yes, I’m sure that I’ll call you.”

Her tone softened slightly, although the edge honed by concern for his safety was still present. This case presently had too many unknowns and with her partner’s penchant for running straight into the face of trouble, she felt she had good reason to be wary. <If you don’t, Mulder, I’ll hunt you down. Now get that nice ass of yours into the shower>

His smile could’ve lit the city of Burlington. “I have a nice ass?”

She had disconnected.

~~~~~~

115 Cherry Street
Apartment 16
1:10PM

“You’re late, Mr. Arsenault. Not a very auspicious start.”

Zale dug his hands into his suit coat pockets conjuring the image of some dowdy librarian to Mulder, although he’d be hard pressed to say why. He refrained from offering his observation, however, and stood neutral under the polished man’s scrutiny. Even though his eyes were carefully schooled directly in front of him, he caught movement off to his right, a trained Agent’s reflexes always on alert.

He heard the voice moments before he caught sight of the platinum blonde hair that had been swept up casually, strands falling out of those hair clips that reminded him of chopsticks.

“You know the routine Mr. Arsenault. Against the wall, please.”

“You always this polite or is this special just for me?” Mulder moved toward the wall and assumed the spread-eagle pose, his palms on the wall, but his face remained turned toward her. “I thought we’d taken care of this the first time.”

The force of Zale’s hand on his ear neatly turning his head to face the wall suggested that he not turn again. “It would mean a lot if you could remember your manners, Mr. Arsenault. I’ve found things go so much easier when you do.”

The senior Associate had moved to one side to allow Jemel to move in behind the undercover Agent. As her hands began their search, Zale explained the purpose of the ‘meeting’.

“The Boss needs another delivery, but this time, you work as part of a team.” The man stood close enough to be heard if he were whispering. Instead, his voice boomed into Mulder’s ear, making him wince. He considered telling him this, but had a feeling that against the two of them, with no weapon, he was probably outnumbered.

Meanwhile, Jemel’s body search seemed to be a little more ‘thorough’ than he remembered it the first time. Particularly in those areas she should have known he’d be quite unable to conceal a weapon. He moved. Or rather, he jumped.

Her hands firmly on his hips and Zale’s forcing his neck to the wall got the message across pointedly. But, hell, if she didn’t stop practicing the fine art of erotic body search…

She actually purred. With all the subtlety of a lioness with a thorn in her paw. “I’m pretty sure you’re not packing anything… dangerous to my continued breathing. If you hold still, I can finish without further need for Mr. Zale’s assistance.”

Mulder released a rather large lungful of air he hadn’t realized he’d sucked in, but kept still and quiet.

Her body pressed rather close to his, she finished with the upper body search and then, seemingly satisfied that she found nothing, she walked around him, removing one of his hands from the wall. Causing him to nearly fall against it.

“You’re working with me and Zale and we leave at five.” One hip jutting to the side and her arms crossed over her chest, she focused her gaze on him.

Causing him to feel as if he were being pinned to the wall behind them. “Where are we going?” He risked interrupting, but also realized that this was probably as much about testing him as figuring out how he’d work with them as a team.

It was Zale who answered him, also telling Mulder that he was expected to participate. He supposed he’d find out if he overstepped his bounds. So, he repeated his question, surprised to find his new colleagues smiling at him. Even so, he put little stock in the meaning behind their upturned lips.

Jemel tucked a few strands of falling hair back into the twist in back and approached the new associate. “Well, Chris, we’re heading north of here, St. Albans Bay. We’ve got a few colleagues to talk to. We’ve planned a little party. Two of the northern contingent, Zale, me…and you.”

Mulder watched the gleam in her eye. A decidedly deadly gleam. This woman was powerful and he guessed she was pretty well connected in this organization. Hard as nails too. She was edgy strength with a taut intelligence. He’d have to stay sharp around her.

She left barely enough room between them for even a breath. “You do well on this trip and good things could come your way.” Nearly matching him in height in her chunky bootheels, he felt the heat of her words, but held his ground, neither backing up nor stepping forward. For what seemed like several extra long minutes, they both held their positions, their eyes locked, breathing tight.

“Well, much as I hate to break up this little stand-off, we’ve got some preparations to make. Be back here by five sharp, Chris, or we got without you.” Zale’s smile remained on the southern part of his freshly shaved face.

~~~~~~

Radisson Hotel
2:30PM

Scully stopped at the desk, checking to see if any messages had been left for her. More habit from other travels than actually expecting anything, she was not surprised to find that she had nothing waiting. She felt amazingly good — energetic and lively with none of the residual sluggishness of the previous bouts of dizziness and nausea. She hypothesized that whatever lingering side effects she previously experienced were waning.

Either that or a night of good sex with Mulder was the answer.

She felt the heat rise from her neck, warming her face right to her hairline as she approached the elevators. Her mind occupied, she barely registered the doors opening and closing or her finger depressing the button for her floor. The wood paneling behind her felt comfortingly warm against her back as she leaned into it.

She pulled her cellphone from her pocket as she stepped off the elevator and headed toward her room, the need to call him in the forefront.

<Mulder>

“Mulder, it’s me.”

<I know, Scully>

The man could be so smug. And so infuriatingly unpredictable.

And endearing, she thought, as she rounded the corner to see him sitting on the floor outside her room, cellphone to his ear. Looking impossibly, adorably carefree.

Simultaneously snapping their phones off and returning them to their pockets, the two Agents stared at each other; a test of wills.

It was Mulder who smirked first. Clasping her outstretched hand, he clambered to his feet asking, “So, how was your meeting?” Her hand still in his, he pulled her toward him, their bodies touching.

“What’re you doing here, Mulder?” Her words were whispered. Her hair fell back off her shoulders as she regarded him. What was it about this man that allowed a change in her plans—heck…a change in her life? Thinking she’d come home and relax for awhile before calling him, she’d been surprised, albeit pleasantly, to find him waiting for her. Seeing him sitting outside her door had caused a of thoughts and emotions. Minor irritation that her planned time alone was about to disappear. Amusement at his playfulness. Sudden contentment that they’d have some unexpected time together.

The change in plans was a good thing.

With a quick kiss to her forehead, he took her other hand. “I was waiting for you. Let’s go inside.” He took the keycard from her and slid it down through the slot, activating the green light, opening the door. Still holding her hand, he led Scully into her room.

Steadying herself as she gripped his shoulder, she bent to pull off her shoe and then toed off the other with her stockinged foot. Next came the jacket, unbuttoned, shrugged off as she walked farther into the room. Mulder trailing right behind her. When she set the jacket down on the bed, she turned back around, heading for the bathroom. “Mulder. Down boy.”

He couldn’t see her face, but he knew that she needed a little private time, so he plopped down into the club chair, propping his feet on the ottoman. Listening to the sound of running water in the background, he called out, “How was your day, Scully?”

She peered around the doorframe, her hair pulled into a ponytail at her nape and a few clips holding stray locks in place. She resisted the matching smile to her partner’s as he took in her soapy face and fingertips. “Busy. Informative.” Ducking back to the sink, she splashed some water on her skin and then, looking over her left shoulder, called back to him, “How about yours?”

Patting her face dry and freeing her hair, she walked back toward her partner. “Mulder?”

Chin on his chest, arms folded in front of him, feet crossed at the ankles. Special Agent Fox Mulder was sound asleep. On tiptoes, she approached him, leaning down to kiss the top of his head.

And found herself in his lap with his lips on hers.

“My day was so-so. Got a call to visit the new colleagues.” The kiss was quickly intense and all-too short-lived as he muttered into her neck. A sometimes signal that a bit of information withholding might be on his agenda.

Twisting out of his embrace, she idly pushed his hair out of his face and then tipped his face up so their eyes met. “And?”

And I’m in on a job. Tonight.” Her look was unreadable, but his trained eye told him this information was probably not winning him any points. “Where to? What did you find out?” Sliding off his lap, Scully reached down to take his feet off the ottoman. Sitting on it, she scooted forward, her hands on his knees. He had her undivided attention.

He was actually surprised that her first words hadn’t been to remind him that they’d said they would join Bryan and Kimberley for a night out. Shaking his head imperceptibly, he placed his hands atop hers and explained about his visit with Zale and Jemel. Told her about their trip north in a few short hours.

Reading her mind, knowing before she said it that she was going to back out of the date with her friends because he might not make it back. “I can meet you all there later tonight. Zale said we won’t be spending any time there. I think this is a drop off and pick up. Getting in and back out quickly will be important.”

“The town, Mulder?”

“Small town on the Lake Champlain shore, right up Interstate 89.”

“Mulder…” The man could be so obstinate sometimes.

“St. Albans Bay. I just happen to have a map…” Extracting the oddly re-folded document from his jacket pocked, he placed his hands on the ottoman on either side of her legs and pushed her back far enough to lay the map on the rug between them. Kneeling beside her, he located Burlington and finger-traced the path to his meeting place. “I’m not sure where I’ll be.”

“What about a wire?”

“Too early for that. This sounds like small stuff. It’s just a test run.” Refolding the map into something that somewhat resembled its earlier form, he set it on the chair. “So, what time are you meeting them?”

“I don’t think I’ll go. I’m kind of tired and should probably do some research from the information we gathered today. Maybe I could even check up on your new friends…After all, Skinner did assign me as your back-up.” She was up and moving around the room as she spoke, finally landing on the edge of the bed.

“You’re not tired, Scully, and the research can wait until tomorrow. You’re just backing out on a night of fun with friends.” Sitting down beside her, he snaked his arm around her waist.

“You look pretty hot, Agent.” Green was a good color on her, he noted. “How about a kiss before I go?” Without waiting for her reply, he fell backward, taking her with him until she was lying flat on her back, their lower legs hanging over the edge. “Tell me you’ll go.” He kissed the tip of her nose.

Smirking, she raised a skeptical eyebrow and told him she’d ‘think about it’.

“I see I’m going to have employ the Mulder Method of Persuasion.” Her giggle alone was worth his attempt at humor, he mused. “Where to start…hmm…” Rolling onto his side to face her, one long leg draping across hers, he stared into her eyes. “Is it working yet?”

“Is what working?” When did she start grinning like a Cheshire Cat? And why couldn’t she stop?

Turning her head away from him, he nuzzled her neck with his nose and lips. “You should go, Scully. When was the last time you went out? When was the last time you really had fun? When—”

Returning to face him, she shoved him, her hand square against his chest, and laughed as he dropped onto his back. “Were you planning on pausing to allow me to answer any one of those questions, Mulder? Just for your information, not that I have to answer, mind you, I seem to remember having ‘fun’ with you rather recently. I seem to recall us having fun together…”

Now it was his turn to laugh and she collapsed, half of her body covering him.

Running her fingers through the hair at his temples, she rolled his head to one side, her warm puffs of breath making the short hairs on his neck stand up and take notice. He idly wondered what her lips were doing there when they should be covering his…

And then he had his answer.

“I’ll go. As long as you promise to join us when you get back. I want to see that sexy body of yours on the dance floor.” With a quick kiss to his cheek, she sat up, patting him on his chest.

As she sauntered back toward the bathroom, untucking her sage silk tank, she told him, “Better hurry up, Mulder; don’t want to be late for your trip.”

Just a little breathless and flushed, he sat up, running his hand through his hair. She sure liked to keep him on his toes.

~~~~~~

Radisson Hotel Penthouse Suite
4:00PM

She paid them handsomely, but they earned their keep. One or two had been discarded along the way; no hurt feelings. She just had no time for sniveling young men who believed they had the looks, the prowess and/or the intelligence to keep pace with her. Their first mistake was assuming that she would allow them to bed her. Their second mistake was usually their inability to fully comprehend the meaning of the word ‘no’.

Denzel and Jeremy were the first to go. They’d served their purpose, but they had limits. Ward and Jorge managed to last. Their current assignment was simple. Keep her apprised of the comings and goings of Fox Mulder and Dana Scully. They were very good at what they did.

Which was why she was currently dressed in black from head to toe. Flat shoes, Levis, Tommy Girl long-sleeved tee and, for later, black kidskin gloves and matching Wilson’s jacket. She’d removed her jewelry to allow her to blend in.

Her latest information indicated that although Fox was visiting Dana, he was headed out of town with some new associates. Her curiosity was piqued. Very much so. He was going without his partner. Very interesting.

Much as she wanted to know what that woman was up to, she knew she could rely on Jorge to watch her tonight. Her raven-haired, blue-eyed employee thought he’d fit in at the club Dana would be visiting with her friends. She’d eyed him skeptically, wondering just how he planned to appear inconspicuous since his usual dress consisted of a pair of the tightest jeans just this side of not being able to breathe and an assortment of navy tees. She hoped the man realized he was going for a night of fancy dancing…

As quickly as the thoughts had crossed her mind, they’d been shelved away. Sometimes the committee in her head got a little carried away, tending to pull her away from the matter at hand. She’d long ago abandoned the notion that Fox would seek her out and ask her to come back to their relationship. But that was all she’d abandoned. She knew that he was merely a bit confused right now, that his officious partner had clouded his ability to reason and to see his way clear to accept her back into his life.

Well, she’d take care of both his meddling red-haired partner and his inability to see just how much he didn’t need that excuse for a woman.

Diana had neither the time nor inclination to dissect the nature of the strange relationship between the two Agents. Why bother when her main goal was to sever their ties?

Snapping the end pieces of the straps to secure her fanny pack, she deposited her keys, some cash, a Maglite and mini-binoculars inside. She zipped it closed as she left the room, her crooked smile lighting the sparkle in her eyes.

Tonight could indeed be her night if she played her cards right.

~~~~~~

Raddisson Hotel
Dana Scully’s Room
5:30PM

Stepping out of the shower, her hair wrapped in a towel, she dried off and slipped into her robe. Waiting for the overhead exhaust fan to clear the condensation from the mirror, she removed the towel from her hair and patted the ends, removing the excess moisture. A small amount of gel worked through, she picked up the blow dryer and bent over from the waist. A few quick passes from the warm forced air and she was finished. As she returned to face the now-cleared mirror, she turned her head from side to side, liking the way the gentle waves and occasional curl fell around her face and shoulders.

She knew Mulder liked her hair this way; he said it was ‘sexy’ and ‘soft’. She felt the heat rise in her face remembering the first time he’d told her… his long fingers tangling in her hair…the way his lips touched her hair…then her forehead, each cheek and finally…her lips. As she’d parted her lips to mesh with his, he’d breathed the words into their kiss. She’d wanted to laugh, but when he’d bent down and picked up her very scantily-clad body and melded it with his already-naked one, she’d decided laughter was definitely not what she was feeling at that moment. He had a way with words…

She pulled on her taupe satin thong, adjusting the spaghetti thin fabric to rest on her hips. From the closet, she unclipped the mocha microfiber skirt from its hanger. Bending over, she stepped into the snug garment and shimmied it up and over her curves. The low-riding band sat just below her navel, hugging her hips and then clung to her, stopping just above the knee. She grabbed the hangar with her top from the mirrored closet and carried it over to the brass drawer handle of the highboy chest of drawers. The pale bronze gossamer fly-away shirt had three small buttons from the breastbone to just below the chest, leaving the deep neckline and her midriff open. She removed the velvety brown satin push up bra from her lingerie drawer and put it on. Eyeing the shirt once again, she was glad the weather had turned much warmer. Or she’d be freezing in this outfit. That is, unless a certain tall dark and handsome G-Man showed up in time to keep her warm.

She shrugged into the top, fastening the extra long French cuffs at her wrists and adjusting the collar wings to lay flat. The squared off shirttails with the deep side slits fell longer in the back and just above her hips in front. She hadn’t had much opportunity to wear this outfit before now and silently thanked Kimberley for inviting her and Mulder.

She padded back into the bathroom to set her robe on the hook behind the door and put on her make-up. Applying some chocolate kohl around her eyes, she smudged it into the creases and along the lid line. She topped that with some mocha powder, drawing it upward toward her brows. A sweep of mascara finished her eyes. She applied some light bronzing cream to her face and deep berry stain to her full lips. A pair of small gold hoops complimented the neck chain dangling her cross into the dip in her neckline.

Things had been going too smoothly, she mused, when she realized she couldn’t find her leather slides. Since there was a finite number of places they could be, she methodically searched the room, locating them finally in the closet where she’d last set them. The wide thick heels added two inches to her natural height and the wide brown leather strap hugged her instep allowing her burgundy painted toenails to show.

~~~~~~

Interstate Route 89 North to St. Albans Bay
5:00PM

The cab wasn’t exactly cozy; at least that wasn’t the way Mulder would have described the Jemel sandwich he and Zale formed. Why they were using the dilapidated and old Chevy pick-up, he didn’t know. Oh, it was a classic — the rounded hood and wheel panels, the low floorboards, the bottle green paint job. But it was also very crowded. These two could probably afford something a little more spacious and much more elegant.

They made quite the interesting trio dressed in black head to toe. Even Jemel’s golden locks had been tucked up under a midnight baseball cap.

“So what’s on our agenda for tonight?” His right shoulder had become one with the passenger door and his left arm was mashed into his side. If that weren’t comfortable enough, he mused, his knees were wedged into the glovebox. He hoped they’d tell him they’d changed their minds and either called off the trip or were on their way to a much roomier vehicle.

No such luck.

With his hands at the classic ‘ten o’clock’ position, Zale explained, “We have a delivery. Actually, you have the delivery Chris.” The sun was painting a glowing trail in the sky to their left, allowing the driver to turn his head to look past Jemel. To see the look of surprise on the newest recruit’s face. “Go ahead, reach into your pocket.” Almost as if he really had second thoughts, he shook his head saying, “Oh, wait; I’m sorry. You can’t move, can you? I’ll let Jemel locate it for you.”

Nodding imperceptibly at his partner in the middle, he smirked with amusement. So he was playing back up to the new Number One. At least she let him have some fun. And now it was her turn.

He squirmed and almost squeaked. Her small but strong hands found him, one resting on his left shoulder for support as she angled toward him while the other seemed to snake along his thigh. He wanted to tell her that if anything had been hidden there, he’d certainly have known it, but his voice didn’t seem to be working. Luckily, her movements were also economical and brutally efficient as she found the pocket of his leather jacket and slipped her hand inside. Since he’d decided to watch her little maneuver, their foreheads all but collided.

“I know it’s in here somewhere,” she purred with mock frustration that none of the three actually bought. And find it she did. In the far front corner of the pocket that happened to lay against the crease in his jeans where his thigh met his groin. Slowly sliding her hand back out of the pocket, she held up the small stoppered vial. “Behold.”

“When the hell did that find its way into my pocket?” Mulder’s voice sounded even louder in the close confines of the cab.

Her hand tapping his black denim clad thigh, her smiling croon told him, “Temper, temper Chris. You’ll learn so much if you pay attention and do the job right.”

Feigning impudent annoyance, ‘Chris’ shoved the animated hand from his leg and said, “I’ll do the job right, but only if I know what the heck it is.”

Just beyond the aquiline features of Jemel’s face, Mulder could see the glint in Zale’s dark eyes. “Patience, Mr. Arsenault, patience. All good things come to those who take a breath and relax, as they say.”

“Shut up, Zale.” The sting in her voice was softened by the smirk on her face. Turning as much as she could toward the passenger door, she sketched the parameters of their job for tonight. “It’s really very simple, Chris,” she explained, balancing the slender vial between her thumb and index finger. “Let me introduce you to ‘Pro-Tea’, a highly refined and distilled liquid. But it’s so much more than that.” Mulder could see and hear the admiration in her voice. She held the substance as if it were a priceless commodity and in essence, that’s probably what it was in certain markets. He suspected they were headed for one of those markets tonight. “So, bring me up to speed.”

He gathered that he’d said the right words as he smile widened considerably and she threw her head back emitting a throaty laugh. Quickly reestablishing her composure, she stroked his cheek. He would have described it as ‘reverently’ or ‘seductively’ had it not been for the sharp scratch of her nails as her eyes narrowed.

“In good time, Chris, all in good time. Tonight, you watch, you use those beautiful eyes to pay special attention and you keep these,” her bloody finger tip dragged across his lips, “closed unless spoken to. Are we clear?” A slight smile played across her mouth before she pocketed the vial in her jacket and turned around to face the interstate.

Mulder found himself muttering something close to ‘yes, we’re clear’, but he wasn’t sure if he’d merely thought it or vocalized his response. One hand came up to his left cheek, feeling the slight tingling from the path of her nails. He wondered how he was going to explain the scratches to Scully.

~~~~~~

Sometimes she wondered whether she was thinking clearly. She didn’t question herself often; there was no need. She was well-educated, well-trained and more than cunning, clever and creative. But every once in awhile, she was curiously puzzled to find that she wondered about her motives and her reasons for her actions.

This was one of those times, on two counts. The more pedestrian issue was why she was tailing him herself. He already knew she was in town and had walked out on her once. Did she think he wouldn’t do so again?

The second issue was more complex and it worried her. Worried her that she allowed the doubt at such a crucial point in her plan. Worried that it was going to fail. She didn’t want to ask the question, but it came to the surface of her mind like so many fast-driven air bubbles percolating relentlessly.

What if she couldn’t convince him to come with her? What if he truly believed he loved Dana Scully? She’d known about his single-mindedness, had seen it in action. Had loved it when it was focused on her or their search for answers.

That was most assuredly not the case now. Now when it was focused on that woman.

With a few deep, cleansing breaths, she regained a modicum of control. She refocused as her Jetta consumed the miles of highway bringing her closer to wherever he was going. She would make him understand where he belonged and why.

Her attention now riveted on the taillights of the truck in front of her; she tried to ascertain what was transpiring inside the cab. The small rounded window in the back only allowed her to make out three heads. She knew who they were from her earlier surveillance, but she didn’t particularly like the attention the blonde woman seemed to be paying Fox. When she saw her hand come up to his face, she seethed, inadvertently stepping on the gas pedal harder than she intended, causing the red car to surge forward. Nearly giving her away.

Visualize. Breathe. Focus. Her mind/body training kicked in because she forced it to. She was perilously close to having an anxiety attack. Fox. He was her focus, her goal.

She slowed as the pick-up headed for the left-hand exit onto Route 7. Dusk was settling in around the blacktop, the brilliant orange-reds of the autumn sunset sinking low over the water to her west.

She was forced to pull over to allow them to gain some distance as the traffic dispersed. The residential neighborhoods off to the right diminished the farther northwest she drove, giving way to a line of non-descript low structures, mostly likely warehouses. Once she noted their turn-off, she pulled into the abandoned lot south of their location. Hiding the Jetta up against the dilapidated adjoining building, she got out, pocketing her keys.

~~~~~

The Breakwater Café
King Street Ferry Dock
Burlington
7:00PM

She found them sitting outside on the Breakwater’s wrap-around porch as she rounded the building’s west-side. Bryan’s arm was slung across Kimberley’s shoulders, his fingers idly massaging her bare skin. Although the sun had nearly melted into the darkening waters of Lake Champlain, the evening air had retained some of the distant summer warmth. The thin cross-straps of her black linen sheath set off the woman’s blonde waves, carefully pinned up on one side. Her crimson ‘shrug’ lay in her lap. Her partner beamed at her, as if caught up in watching her, although she seemed fixated on some point off to the right of their porch swing.

He was the first to notice Scully, smiling and standing to greet her warmly. He self-consciously tugged on his navy and white checked short-sleeved button-down shirt and then swept his hands over his navy khakis. “Hi Dana. Glad you could join us.” He flashed her a wide grin as Kimberley rose beside him, obviously equally pleased to see that her friend had arrived.

“Where’s Mulder?” Kimberley noted the slight slip of Dana’s smile at the question.

Scully climbed the three wooden steps to meet them on the porch. “He ended up having to go out of town, but he should be able to join us later.” She stopped and turned quickly, ignoring her friend’s inquiry.

“Dana? What’s wrong?”

“It’s nothing; I thought I heard someone coming up behind me.” The shiver she felt unnerved her, but she hadn’t seen anyone when she’d turned. “Let’s go inside.”

As Bryan held the door for the two women, Scully caught the strains of the band as they set up and tested their equipment. As Bryan ushered his fiancee inside, Scully stopped once again, sure she’d caught movement in the low-slung greenery that flanked the porch railings and bordered the steps. Telling Bryan that she’d join them inside, she swept past him before he had a chance to assist her.

As Jorge observed the fiery redhead mount the three steps, his foot caught in the dense, dry briars causing him to hop-step and land his soft-soled shoe on top of a rather sizeable pile of brush. The resultant sound had him biting back a string of curses. It was too early in his night to have to end his surveillance. Not to mention what his boss would do if she found out. When he’d signed on, he’d heard stories about two things: how well she paid and how nasty she could become when provoked. Jorge had also heard that the list of what provoked her was long and rather detailed. He had no plans on discovering the items on that particular list.

Recovering quickly and without undue attention drawn, he slunk back behind the large junipers standing sentinel along the tall sweeping sides of the Club. Adjusting the amplifying mic in his ear, he was able to pick up their idle conversation as the blond haired man held the door for the women. He’d moved close to the Breakwater’s main entrance once again when his target stopped. Damn, but she was sensitive. He froze, but suddenly realized she meant to come search for him. Knowing he could not allow her to make him, he turned and jogged around the side of the building, hoping to duck into the cover of the dumpsters.

Scully silently opened the small leather handbag, her fingers wrapping around her weapon as she drew it out. She followed the foundation of the building closely, sure that she was already being observed. By whom, she wasn’t sure. Her first thoughts centered on Mulder’s new ‘associates’, remembering her first meeting with them in the Marketplace. Mentally wincing, she blinked and tried to refocus herself as she moved around the east side of the Club. She stopped, looking down to the damp grass beneath her feet and noticed the large depressions heading away from her. Toward the back of the building and the loading docks. Briefly considering going back inside to enlist Kimberley’s assistance, but discarding that idea knowing she’d lose valuable time.

The fact that she was following him made Jorge uneasy. Sucking in a noisy lungful of air, he threw his back against the bricks alongside the loading docks, quickly scanning the area for other hiding places. Diana had failed to tell him about his target’s curiosity. Actually, he reflected, his boss hadn’t said much other than to note everything and stay the hell out of sight. When he’d pressed for more information to help him adjust his surveillance methods, he’d been admonished to just ‘do his job’.

It was windy at this end of the building, owing to the fact that the nearly wide-open parking lot bordered the lakeshore. Scully’s hair whipped around her face and her diaphanous shirt billowed around her causing gooseflesh to cover her stomach and bare legs. As she approached the corner of the building, she could see the several large rust-colored dumpsters ringing the loading area. She flattened herself to the wall, her right arm bent at the elbow, weapon pointed skyward. She sidled along, holding her breath. And heard nothing.

He’d used his time wisely, moving away from the juncture of the grassy side lawn and the back lot. He had no desire to tip his hand, hoping that eventually she’d go back inside with her friends.

Rounding the corner, extending her arms weapon trained, she swept from side-to-side, seeing nothing unusual. The sudden clang followed by what sounded like shoes on gravel had her on full alert. She crouched low, using the cement steps to the receiving dock for concealment and then crab-walked toward the nearest dumpster.

She wasn’t sure who jumped first. Her or the calico cat that leapt from the dumpster, skidding to a stop and then fleeing with a high-pitched ‘meeeooowww’. Standing, she brushed herself off and sighed heavily. If there had been anyone out there, she or he was probably long gone…or more carefully hidden. Although she’d brushed off her clothing, she couldn’t brush off the feeling, yet she headed back inside.

Jorge allowed himself one brief moment to exhale. The woman had been too close for comfort. He’d held himself stock-still on the other side of the dumpster, unaware of the feline intruder. When she’d decided to leap from the metal confines, she’d nearly caused him to call out. He’d been promised excitement, but this wasn’t good for his young heart. He followed the Agent’s movements until he was sure she was safely back inside and planned to remain there for awhile. He had to report in and was glad he wouldn’t have to talk to the Fowley woman directly. For tonight, he worked under Ward and would share the information with him.

~~~~~~

34 1/2 Georgia Shore Road
St. Albans Bay, Vermont
6:00PM

“You know, much as I’m enjoying your company immensely, it’s starting to get cramped in here.” Mulder tilted his head from one side to the other and then dropped his chin to his chest, letting his head move back and forth. He wasn’t surprised that neither Zale nor Jemel responded. His back was talking to him — loudly — and his legs were cramping in the tight confines. For some reason his thoughts drifted to the countless and endless miles in a Bureau-issued sedan he and Scully had clocked over the years. How much he enjoyed spending the long hours with her; in silence and in heated debate. Hour upon hour of two-lane blacktop, cheap fast-food joints, colorful and not-so-colorful motels. And though it all, the two of them.

“Earth to Chris,” the flat of her palm shoved against his temple, Jemel smirked, “Anyone home?”

Somewhat disoriented, Mulder once again took in his surroundings, noticing they were in a sparsely populated residential area. Old homes reminiscent of many others he’d seen close to the water. Clapboard structures in white, dingy gray or muddy brown; most neatly tended and lovingly cared for. The haphazardly manicured lawns were dotted with brown leaves tossed by the now strong winds off the lake.

“Are we there yet?” His sarcastic grin and his grip on Jemel’s wrist drew the driver’s attention.

“Getting impatient, are we?” Zale’s eyes never left the road, but Mulder knew he was watching. Noticing the way Jemel’s fingers seemed to linger just a little longer than necessary whenever she came into contact with their newest recruit.

Chris/Mulder noticed it, too, and set her hand firmly on her own leg, his eyes warning her. Warning was met with edgy amusement. He noticed that she enjoyed exerting control and did not like being on the receiving end of his.

“The first assignment is always the most anxiety producing Mr. Arsenault, but let me bring you up to speed.” His tone was all business, but had softened, almost as if he were talking to a colleague. “We’re headed to one of the boss’s properties down by the water. It’s a simple transaction tonight — product for payment. You’re window-dressing on this ride. Jemel hands over the vial, I collect the briefcase. You get face time. Got it?”

Mulder looked out the window and then turned back toward the driver, “Yeah, I get it.”

But Jemel couldn’t leave it alone, her hand now over his, squeezing pressure just this side of painful, “I’m not sure if you do. I’ve seen the maverick in you. Maverick doesn’t play well in our organization. Maverick gets people dead. Do you think you can keep those lips sealed?”

Her face inches from his unsettled him for reasons he wasn’t sure he could explain, so he merely nodded his acknowledgment, extracting his hand from hers.

With a lurch, the truck swung into the gravel driveway, stopping in front of the whitewashed garage door as Zale shifted into neutral and set the parking break. “Remember her words Bud, and you’ll do just fine.”

~~~~~~

Diana could have sent Ward tonight, but subscribed to the old adage, ‘don’t let anyone else do what you can do better yourself’. Besides, this wasn’t just any old job. This was Fox. Soon to be ‘her’ Fox if she played her cards right.

She had followed at a discreet distance, wondering what he was doing in this semi-run-down neighborhood, but she shelved her thoughts to park her car on the side street. She slipped from behind the wheel, pulling her black baseball cap down over her eyes, her hair poking out through the hole in the back of the hat. Her soft-soled shoes moved soundlessly along the sidewalk as she approached the large Cape on the next street.

And there was that blonde woman again, wedged between the silver-haired man and Fox. Although they weren’t touching, Diana wasn’t quite sure about the nature of their relationship. Her curiosity was as piqued as her need to assure herself of her own place in his life.

She watched as they made their way to the side door, the other man holding the door for his two partners. Her homework and earlier surveillance led her to believe that the FBI Agent was on a case. Once she’d learned of the drugs connection, she was sure that there would be no way he was involved other than in his official capacity. Therefore, she had to take special care not to jeopardize his efforts. On the other hand, she pondered as she approached the large structure; he could get himself in over his head.

She knew him. Knew his penchant for delving deeply into his work and also knew that he sometimes needed a lifeline. Oh, she’d heard his hollow platitudes for his partner and how well she watched his back, but she knew those beliefs of his were false. She knew in her heart of hearts that it was her guidance and caring that would keep him safe and strong.

The hedgerow, closely bordering the driveway, gave her a modicum of cover and a chance to lay out her next move. She was now picking up voices, but she didn’t recognize Fox’s. Mostly greetings among acquaintances or colleagues and introductions. That’s when she stopped, squatting down behind the privets, but steering clear of the small pointy leaves and white flower clusters, one hand to her ear for better sound conduction. From what she could tell, there were seven people present and the blonde seemed to be the only woman. Diana desperately wanted to observe and knowing her subjects were otherwise occupied provided her an opportunity to move closer to the house. Staying low and close to the hedge wall, she made her way around the northern edge until she was standing across from the pick-up truck.

The conversation had stopped briefly, the sound of music and glassware supplanting the earlier voices. As she neared the two brick steps leading to the side door, she drew flush with the building to the left of what appeared to be the kitchen window. Several dark-clothed backs presented themselves, none of them her Fox. If they didn’t move out of her way, she’d never see anything.

When, after several long minutes it appeared that they’d formed a body curtain blocking her view, she ducked and cautiously made her way around toward the front of the house. As she moved, she heard the woman’s clipped intonations as her boots clunked on the hardwood floors. Diana froze under the railing of the front porch, the tense quality of the conversation holding her enthralled.

<What’s with the new guy Jemel?>

‘Proteus wants him in on this.’

<I don’t care what he wants, this is our gig and I call the shots. What’s with him, cat got his tongue?>

She held the ear piece closer as she made her way up the steps, ending up on her knees beside the window ledge.

‘Look, wise ass, Chris here stays. You got any problems with him, you take it up with the Boss. In the meantime, you want the stuff or not?’

Chancing a quick glance, she saw Fox, his hands stuffed in his jeans pockets, eyes downcast. Next to him, one hand gripping his leather-covered elbow, was the woman she now knew as Jemel. She had already decided that Jemel could be a problem but not one she couldn’t handle. Later.

<Lemme see the stuff first> Diana watched as the speaker moved closer to Jemel, his eyes never leaving Fox. Much as she wanted to, the former Agent knew better than to interfere. As a matter of fact, she also knew that now was probably the time to distance herself from this transaction. She could hear the proceedings well enough from her car. It was just that she had to see him; had to have as much time around him as possible.

As she moved away from the site, she heard his voice. Two things tipped her off; the low rumbling monotone and the fact that the man never did know when to keep that beautiful mouth of his closed. She could almost visualize the scene as it played out. The brute requesting the ‘stuff’ reaches out toward Jemel, believing she’ll just hand it over. Jemel holds back, wanting evidence of the pay-off cash. Fox deciding to help move the proceedings along, probably under his usual mistaken notion that everyone will be as amused by his wry sense of humor as she. He quips about how many of them it seems to take to do a little transaction. From her safe post inside the Jetta now, she hears the thwack of the back-handed slap across his cheek. She does not see the glowering side-glance Jemel throws his way although she utters not one word. Silence follows until she hears the sound of shoe heels as they approach the side door.

~~~~~~

“I warned you about that mouth of yours, Chris. You’re lucky all you got was his hand across your face.” Her left arm resting on the driver’s door slim window ledge, she lazily steered them back toward Route 7 with her right. She’d tossed her baseball cap onto the dash in front of Zale who now rode shotgun.

Mulder had the strong suspicion that Jemel wore the pants in this organization. Zale had been nearly mute since they’d entered the shoreline home, deferring to her lead. She had what it took to be a leader, he mused, noting how the breeze from the open windows whipped her straight, fine hair about her face. After ineffectually attempting to rein it in, she gave up.

He wasn’t sure whether or not her statement warranted a response, so he held his tongue. She quickly indicated she expected some type of response, her right leg nudging his left. He found his eyes wandering down to where their legs were touching, once again wondering why she felt the need for so much physical contact. Managing to rouse himself enough to pay attention again he replied, “Yeah, well, you know how it goes.”

He was not sure how his statement would be interpreted, but Zale merely shook his head. Eye rolling probably followed, but in the darkened cab, Mulder couldn’t tell.

Jemel, on the other hand, was much more responsive. “Zale, tell the Boss that this one gets full status.” The overhead street lamps briefly illuminated her smile as they sped forward to the outskirts of town.

“Got it, but I’m not making any promises about what he says.” Zale’s tone told Mulder that the man might not be quite as enthusiastic about having a new colleague as Jemel obviously was.

Mulder silently followed the exchange as if he were watching an odd ping-pong match. They seemed to be talking as if he wasn’t there and that was fine for him. A little less Jemel attention was very fine. The woman seemed to have taken a liking to him. Either that or this group had some strange initiation rites. “So, what do you say, Chris?” Jemel’s hand fell to his thigh once again, this time a little higher than before and Mulder found himself ineffectually trying to move away. In the close confines, wedged between the two associates, all he managed to do was nudge her leg with his, allowing her hand to slide higher still.

Looking down yet again, he muttered, “About what?” Suddenly, unbidden, he heard Scully’s voice telling him to take a little control and he reached down grasping the blonde’s fingers. And was rewarded with a smirk-turned-smile.

The smile slipped from her face when she realized he had placed her hand back on the steering wheel. “About the bar, Chris, the bar.” The edge in her voice suggested that he answer quickly, but Zale beat him to it.

“It’s right around the corner if I remember. What was it called? Uh, I think it was EMAC 225’s. Yeah, that’s it.”

Mulder/Chris located his wayward vocal chords and made them hum. “Uh, guys, no, I don’t think so. I’ve got another engagement back in Burlington.” It was still early enough. It had only taken them a half-hour to drive to the house and they’d been there another half-hour. The last thing he wanted to do was entertain the possibilities with a drunken Ms. . Loose canon was what he was dealing with. A loose canon with a good head on her shoulders and a direct connection to probably one of the biggest drug lords in recent history.

“Yeah?”

“He’s got ‘another engagement’.” Zale replied to Jemel’s query, his sarcasm as barely concealed as hers. “I guess we can let the man off the hook with his little woman.”

Mulder didn’t bother responding and hoped neither of his new colleagues saw his eyes roll or the smile that played across his lips as he thought about being able to keep his date with his ‘little woman’.

No one noticed the Jetta pacing them mile for mile.

~~~~~~

Breakwater Club
Burlington
8:00PM

“You still need me here? She ain’t doing anything but drinking and eating and chattin’”

<Nobody asked you to make decisions. You’re being paid—and quite handsomely I might add-to keep your ears and eyes open and report everything she does, everywhere she goes, who’s with her. ‘Sthat ringin’ any bells with you, Knucklehead?>

Ward shook his head, holding his ear piece tighter and gripping his cell phone with his other hand. Interruptions for anything less than crucial or vital information were not tolerated by her. They’d never know when she chose to monitor them while on the job, so following her rules with exacting protocol was a given. At least for Ward…

“I know what I’m supposed to be doing. And don’t call me that, Ward. How much longer’s the Boss want me here?”

<Till the redhead calls it a night. Then she wants to know where she lays her pretty little fiery head down for the night and who’s with her. You got that?>

“Yeah, I got it.” Jorge closed the connection, readjusted his listening device and made his way out from the bushes in front of the Club. He’d found a rather nice niche on the east side where he could see almost the entire inside area.

He wasn’t much into this type of Club scene himself, preferring the smoky darkness of the pool halls and beer pits, but watching his subject, it appeared that she fit in this environment rather nicely. The room consisted of a large open space with a polished wood dance floor. Several smaller and more intimate seating areas branched off the more expansive space, separated with short hallways he assumed went into the bar and kitchen areas.

The red-haired woman and her two friends were ensconced in an alcove with three leather booths and tables and two round tables with leather-upholstered wingback side chairs. The only lighting in these rooms were petite glass lanterns covering cream-colored candles. Given the setting, he assumed his subject was waiting on her man.

The music level had picked up as the Club filled nearly to capacity. He’d checked ahead of time and knew that the local band tonight tended to play a lot of Marvin Gaye, Barry White and assorted other jazzy/bluesy/Motowny-type songs. Another alcove housed the band’s horn, guitar and keyboard players with the drummer sitting on a riser behind them. Not bad for a night’s work — an assignment better than some she’d dished out to him. As he watched the tall man get up, presumably to get their drinks, he idly wondered why he was watching this petite, good looker. Based on the clipped tone and way her eyes turned hard, he’d guessed that this was a classic triangle situation, maybe having to do with the looker’s male friend and his boss. But he’d sensed something deeper at play. He hadn’t gotten where he was today without being observant of behavior and reading non-verbal communication. His boss had spoken volumes; especially with the words she didn’t say, the information she didn’t share.

As the band kicked into a set of Barry White, he found himself humming along. He’d never really taken a shine to the man’s lyrics, but for some reason, the chicks he’d dated then had tended to swoon on him when he played those tapes up on look-out point. Since the trio wasn’t going anywhere for awhile, he took the opportunity to go back to his car and get a warmer jacket. God how he hated outdoor assignments…

Back inside, Bryan reappeared with three bottles of Shiner Bock and set them down on the table. One of the waitstaff appeared a few moments later with an assortment of hors d’ouevres and three frosted mugs. He told Scully to put her money away since he and Kimberley were treating her and Mulder to a night out. Taking a long drink of the dark brew, Scully thanked them both, saying she’d want to return the favor another time. She watched as her friend’s partner made quite a show of pouring the unfiltered brew into the glassware, first decanting half the bottle and then swirling what remained in the bottle before topping off the mug. He set a wedge of lemon on the rim of each.

She found herself almost downing the beer in a few gulps and set the mug down with a satisfying ‘thunk’ on the heavy wood tabletop. She helped herself to some nachos and settled back against the high-backed booth. The sultry beat was lulling and energizing at the same time and she found herself wishing Mulder would show up. Images and sensations worked their way through her; images of his body moving with hers; the feeling of his hands on her.

“Must be something pretty good, Dana.” Kimberley’s amused grin startled her and she turned to her friends.

“Oh, I was just thinking…” Her reply trailed off as she wasn’t sure how she’d finish it. And somehow, her mug was full again.

Through the slight alcohol haze, she saw them smile at her and heard Bryan mumble something about dancing with his fiancee. The band continued its Barry White set, a song called, ‘Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe’. Scully recalled how Missy had briefly mentioned what she thought of this artist, but it had been Bill’s derisive comments that had her smiling wistfully. He’d thought that any singer who did nothing but compose music solely to get a woman to go to bed with him had a problem. Scully mused that it probably hadn’t stopped her older brother from testing his assumption.

Bent over at the waist outside in the hedges, Jorge was bored. The other man and woman, most definitely a couple, were on the dance floor, their lips locked, their bodies moving to Barry’s throaty declarations. And then there was ‘Red’. From where he sat, it looked like she’d had about two and a half beers and very little to eat. She had what he recognized as the ‘two sheets to the wind’ look on her face. She was feeling the effects of the alcohol, the buzz making her appear slightly loopy. He could go for a cold draught right about now, but that was strictly forbidden as per the Fishmouth. The Boss, he silently amended.

And then he saw him strut into the room. By the look on her face, it was clear to the hired-observer that this man was Sexy Red’s date.

Scully drank in the sight of him as she slid to the edge of the booth, one leg crossed over the other at the knee. Stereotypical undercover blend-in garb notwithstanding, he looked good enough to eat. From his black boots up to the black denim that seemed to hug his legs… She found herself wondering whether she’d said the words aloud, but then decided she hadn’t. Perhaps the little bit of booze had rendered her brain somewhat fuzzy? Anyway, she decided it wasn’t worth her effort when she still had the rest of Mulder’s outfit to describe to herself. And why was he still so far away? So out of her reach?

But his black tee was clinging to his abs and his chest and the black leather jacket was…leather. Yes, that was it. She liked leather. Her hand was resting on the leather seat. Probably holding her up. Just a little bit. Mulder looked wonderful in black. She’d always known that, but it was still true. Very true.

She smiled at him, at the sight of him maybe; the feeling just a bit heady.

His hair was falling across his forehead making him look rakish. Rakish like leading men in the movies. Her mother would say Clarke Gable. She would say George Clooney or Richard Gere. Or just Mulder. He looked rakish. But her mental wanderings came to an abrupt halt as he drew nearer…and she saw the scratches on his face. Three long scratches on his cheek. Faint, but visible. Her previous languidness flowed into questioning alertness as she grabbed hold of the tabletop.

“Whoa, Scully.” Mulder’s hands were on her biceps, the warmth of his fingers heavy through the voile of her sleeves. His eyes glittered at her as his chin inclined toward the table. “Shiner Bock? And you didn’t wait for me?”

‘Smug bastard,’ she thought, her smile saying she was mighty happy to see him — smug or otherwise. Her hand went to his cheek, barely touching the reddened skin. “What happened, Mulder?”

The knit of her brows told him he was dealing with full-tilt Doc Scully. Although he couldn’t ever remember seeing any doctor looking quite as hot as she did. As he’d walked toward her, all he’d really noticed was her legs…all that leg showing as her short skirt clung to her mid-thigh. Even in her current serious mood, there was no denying how beautiful she looked. Sexy and beautiful. The long sleeves of her blouse did little to hide the fact that fabric was transparent.

He realized he still hadn’t answered her — a sure way to allow the good doc to remain in residence a little too long. “It’s nothing, Scully. Just a few scratches.”

“I can see that, Mulder. Human?” She knew the marks hadn’t been there earlier this evening in her hotel room.

“Dance with me, Scully.” He planned on telling her, but also knew it would definitely get in the way of what he really wanted to do this evening. They could talk about the case and his trip tonight, but not now. Removing his jacket and tossing it into the booth behind her, he took her wrist, bringing her hand to his hip, holding it there as he leaned in to kiss her hair. His other hand sought her, coming to rest on her bare skin just above the waistband of her skirt and he pulled her toward him. “Dance with me,” he repeated, murmuring to her as he back-stepped them onto the dance floor.

Still eyeing him with concern and curiosity, she followed, drawn into the electricity of the moment with him. She’d get her answers, saw right through his avoidance behavior. Years together as professionals had honed her instincts telling her when ‘now’ wasn’t the appropriate time. Years together as friends and later, as lovers, had also honed her instincts, telling her when her partner was truly being evasive and when he simply wanted to put other things first. Well, she thought, I’d like to put other things first right now, too. Besides, she’d accurately assessed the condition and decided that the scratches weren’t life threatening…

And he’d asked her to dance with him… His hand against her skin, his fingers teasingly dipping just under the waist of her skirt as he maneuvered her toward him and into the small crowd of couples was helping her forget other concerns. By the time he’d found a spot, she felt the Mulder full court press. One hand had moved to her head, a gentle fistful of hair guiding her head back as his lips sought hers. His other hand possessively cupped her ass, melding her to him as his hips swayed with the sultry beat of the bass guitar.

Across the room, Kimberley had followed and tracked their movements, positioning Bryan so she could see what was going on. He’d attempted to bring her attention back front and center and he’d gotten a nip to the earlobe for his efforts. Not bad… She considered how little she really knew about the two Agents; the fact that their relationship was unlike any other she or Bryan had experienced. Intense was a good way to describe it, she thought, before she was interrupted from her pondering.

“Penny for your thoughts?” Bryan whispered into her ear following with a kiss to her neck.

“What? My thoughts aren’t worth any more than that?” Kimberley pulled back slightly, noting how his arms still managed to keep her close. Before he could develop a witty response, she continued. “I’m just watching Dana and Mulder. They’re…interesting as a couple, don’t you think?”

Pulling her back toward him, he rested his chin on her shoulder. “That’s just the thing; I don’t really think about it at all.” Knowing she was about to pull back yet again, he finished, “But for you…I guess they are interesting. She seems rather guarded. Nice, professional, sophisticated, but closed in many ways. Mulder’s somewhat of an open book. Yet, they are obviously very in tune with each other.”

Taking the lead, Kimberley swung him around and away from the other dancers. “As always, your assessments astound me.” She knew the sarcasm wouldn’t be lost on him, adding more seriously, “But that seems to be an astute assessment. It’s almost as if they charge each other, you know?”

“Ms. Kresge, is it possible to get you to be quiet long enough for me to kiss you?” Bryan didn’t bother to wait for her answer, now sure that watching Dana and Mulder was the last thing on her mind. He did, however, check to ensure that the two couples were about as far apart as they could be and still be in the same room.

Scully wasn’t aware of much other than the man pressed against her in all the strategic places. She barely heard the singer doing a very passable rendition of Marvin Gaye’s ‘Let’s Get It On’, but reveled in the depth of the feelings it was stirring in her. They’d taken a break from the kiss, most likely in order to resume breathing, and her head was turned to the side, her cheek resting near his shoulder. She hadn’t been able to decide whether she liked having her arms around his neck or his waist, so she’d split the difference for a while.

His arms hadn’t stopped moving, although like the music, they were sluggishly seductive as they moved up and down her back, over her hips, along her arms. She wasn’t clear-headed enough to wonder what anyone else was thinking as her tall dark partner all but made love to her on the dance floor.

~~~~~~

Diana had notified Ward when she’d returned to Burlington, asking him for a report on Jorge’s activities for the night. Pacing back and forth alongside her car, she kicked bits and pieces of gravel in front of her. Grudgingly acknowledging that Jorge had indeed done his job, she was still not pleased with his final report.

Fox had gone straight to see her when his colleagues had dropped him off, not even stopping at home first. Her hired help was still positioned outside the Club and, according to Ward, was complaining frequently about the weather conditions. Well, she thought, let him complain now and she’d make sure he got her next plumb assignment…some place farther north…during the dead of winter. Maybe when she moved on to the Canadian site, she’d take him with her. Grinning, she thanked Ward for the information and headed for the Breakwater.

~~~~~~

He had walked around the building twice now, ear piece still in place. Ward hadn’t been all that impressed with his pleas to sit in his car and listen to his subject. Of course, his boss had been correct, but that hadn’t helped his mood. Being near the lake didn’t help matters any since the wind coming in off the water had picked up. Yes, he had drawn from the bottom of the barrel tonight.

On top of his location, he wasn’t learning a damn thing. All Red seemed to want do to was cling like a vine to her date. She had class though and her partner had some sort of steel restraint. Well, he admitted with a leer, he was sure the man had ‘steel’, but it probably wasn’t restraint. At any rate, Jorge couldn’t for the life of him understand why they were still standing. The guy had his hands almost everywhere at once and she was quite happy about it if the look on her face was any indication.

Jorge was glad for the cover of the bushes. The tall man’s hands were kneading her perfectly round behind, intentionally or unintentionally — it didn’t really make a difference — sliding that scrap of fabric higher on her shapely thighs. And the way she pressed herself into him, subtly grinding her hips…Well… Jorge knew he wasn’t being paid to enjoy himself and he also knew that Fishmouth sometimes made surprise site visits.

~~~~~~

Diana wheeled into the parking lot, two of the tires spinning out on the loose stones over the asphalt. Yanking the keys from the ignition, she set out in search of her staff member. It was time Jorge called it a night.

She located him huddled in the shrubs, getting his attention by tapping on his shoulder. Extremely pleased when he started and jumped in response, she told him to pick up his check from Ward and head home for the night. Easily slipping into his spot, she adjusted her listening device, quickly turning it down as the sounds of ‘Ain’t That Peculiar’ blared in her ear. Damn things never worked right. She’d be placing a call to her suppliers in the morning. Someone would fix this.

Now satisfied that she was picking up conversations inside, she moved up to the window. They were easy to spot since they were removed from the main throng. She bristled, her fists clenched by her sides. Dana was behaving shamelessly, most likely in a drunken stupor, and from the looks of things, she’d convinced Fox to join her.

Not wanting to watch anymore, but drawn to gathering as much information as possible, she seethed. Like nothing more than a pair of randy teenagers, their hands groped and pawed each others’ hips, meshing their lower bodies together. Fox leaned down, attempting to kiss the slut, but she played coy, letting her head fall backward, probably trying to convince him to come closer, to tempt him with her charms.

What had happened to him anyway? He actually seemed to be falling under her spell. Diana was repulsed and galvanized into action. She would allow them their sordid game for tonight, but Fox was swimming too far downstream now and it was time to rein him in. First his blonde associate and now, always, his wanton partner.

In spite of herself, she found her eyes glued to the way his body moved, to the sexy curve of his lips as he drew closer to the short redhead, to the way he tried to wedge one leg between hers. If she blocked out all else, she could imagine it was her.

She smiled sardonically as she walked back to her Jetta to get her gloves.

~~~~~~

Breakwater Club

Bryan tapped Mulder on the shoulder again when the first time hadn’t seen to get the chestnut haired man’s attention. “Think you two would like to take a break and have something to eat or drink?” He smiled and nodded in the direction of the alcove as Mulder took Scully’s hand.

Kimberley had ordered a round of Bock’s and two sides of nachos—one with fajita chicken and one without meat. “So, your trip went well, Mulder?” Leaning in to take some nachos from the serving plate, she raised an eyebrow, her head tilting to one side, as she slid back to lean against her partner. She knew that the FBI Agent really wouldn’t be able to discuss much, so she expected the answer she got.

“Actually, I think it went rather well, yes.” Mulder took some of the hot, gooey cheese-covered chips and placed them between him and Scully. Glancing over at her, he offered her a bite of his nachos. The responding ‘mmmm’ as her mouth took the morsel from his fingers made him squirm. In a good way.

Mulder mused that this was turning into an interesting night out with Kimberley and Bryan. If the intention was to give them more time together to get to know each other, they were going at it in a roundabout way; neither couple having spoken more than a few friendly, but perfunctory words. However, he also appreciated their companionable silence. It gave him more time with Scully. A rather intoxicated Scully. Who also happened to look ravishing. He was starting to relax from the effervescence of the heady brew and realized he was actually enjoying himself. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d done that in public with anyone other than his partner.

Scully glanced over at the thoughtful man sitting beside her. He was contemplating…and grinning. A sweet enigma of a man. Turning to take a hold of her mug, she noticed that her friends were no longer in the booth, but couldn’t recall when they’d left or where they’d gone. Kimberley’s wrap was still lying across the back of the booth, so they were probably on the dance floor again. Which was exactly where she wanted to be. “Mulder?” She leaned into him, her lips at his ear.

“Mmm, Scully?” He set his beer on the table and turned to her, one hand resting on her knee, fingers idly sweeping toward her inner thigh.

Inhaling sharply she tried to decide whether the one more than a few beers or Mulder’s fingers on her bare skin was responsible for the warm flush radiating through her. If she were pressed to say, she might have to equivocate and claim ‘both’. No matter… “Dance floor, Mulder. Love this song…sexy.” She attempted to push him along the length of the booth, but his hand wouldn’t leave her leg.

“You are sexy, Scully,” he crooned, “C’mere.” He lifted her leg onto his noticing just how much more he exposed in the process. By the look in her eyes, he was pretty sure she wasn’t bothered too much by it. Leaning in closer still, he whispered, “Love this song too, partner.”

Dancing. She really wanted the feel of him moving against her again. She couldn’t remember how long it had been since she’d enjoyed nothing more than the pure primal feel of her body as it let loose to the music. When had she last gone dancing? She wondered if he could see the slight frown that creased her face, but figured that between the dim lighting and the fact that he’d positioned her outer thigh against the rather prominent bulge in his jeans, it might have gone unnoticed. Besides, she wasn’t sure why she was even bothering to try to remember the last time when she had this time. And this time, she had the man that she loved.

“Get up, Mulder.” Attempts at freeing her leg from his hold were initially unsuccessful.

“I am up, Scully, or hadn’t you noticed?” One hand was splayed on her inner thigh as he thrust against her outer.

“Mulder? I may have had a few, but I can recognize the anatomical changes in your lower body when aroused. Stimulus-response. It’s pure biology. The average male in your age bracket experiences an erection approximately…”

“My age bracket?” She wanted to laugh at his look of bemused indignation. At the way he zoned in on only one part of her pronunciation.

Ignoring his question, her left arm snaked around his neck and she drew his face to her. “Now, release my leg, Big Boy,” she dropped her hand between her thigh and his fly, emphasizing ‘Big’ as she pulled her leg away, “And take me onto the dance floor.”

Planting a wet kiss on his jaw-line, she took his hand as he stood. As the night wore on, the crowd had grown. Together yet separate. The music had a way of wrapping each pair of dancers in their own little worlds, rendering them all but invisible to others. Which suited Scully just fine. Not one usually into public displays of the groping nature, she wanted nothing more than to attach herself to her partner and kiss him until neither of them had any spare breath to share.

It seemed he had the same idea as he swept her into his arms again. He took her left hand in his right and brought it to his chest, holding it between them as his left arm circled her waist. Her senses reeled as he nibbled his way along the right side of her face to her ear and then her throat. The pulsing strains of the sax cleverly covered her sigh as it rode the tail edge of her deep-throated moan.

“I should take you dancing more often, G-Woman.”

“Yes you should G-Man.” Both her arms reached up so her fingers could trail through the short hairs at the nape of his neck.

And his right hand stayed between them, cupping her breast, the sheer top and second-skin bra doing nothing to mask the sensation of his warmth on her.

“Mulder?”

“Scully?”

“I’ll be right back…” She smiled impishly at the look on his face. “Ladies’ Room.”

Mulder was waiting in the smaller bar area as she approached. Beer in hand, his head was keeping time the beat of the current CD that replaced the band on break. He was leaning into the wall, one leg bent at the knee, his boot heel against the wood paneling. He looked good. No, she silently amended, he looked damn good. His tall athletically lanky frame, the tight fit of his jeans as they outlined his butt and long legs, the way the waistband rested on his taut abs. The sight of him made her wonder why she was still rooted in place several feet away from him.

He’d been waiting, had seen her with his peripheral vision as she stood there watching him. He was slightly amused and definitely turned on. They both loved to steal moments when they could to check each other out. Probably a throw back to the days when that was all they could do and they’d perfected it, making it an art form. He set the beer down on the bar counter and looked in her direction, motioning with his head that she should join him.

Now it was his turn to observe as she moved toward him. The skirt that highlighted the subtly sensuous curves of her hips and thighs, the bare whisper of a top and her hair… He really loved the length. It gave her a decidedly classy look. He loved to run his hands through it even more. Images of her overtaken by passion, tilting her head back, the warm flame tresses flowing behind her or teasing his body flashed in his mind.

And then she was beside him, standing shoulder to upper arm. Standing now with both feet on the floor, he placed her in front of him, her back to his chest, and wrapped his arms; one between her chest and shoulders, one under her top over her abs. As the band made their way back to their staging area, the lights dimmed once again and Club goers returned to tables or the made their way to the dance floor. The bass guitars and drums took up a steady rhythm overlaid with sax and keyboard. The music sounded like Scully felt as she leaned into her partner a little more, her weight shifting very slowly from one hip to the other. His warm breath as he bent over her added to the heavy and languid movements of his lower body as it moved forward and back in counterpoint to her side to side.

“How does this feel, Scully?” Low, dark and nearly a moan in her ear.

Her hands sought any part of him she could reach behind her, black denim thigh on one side, the crease where his quads met his gluteals on the other. “It feels like I want more.”

She barely heard the heel on wood scrape as his left boot lined up with her leather slide and nudged her legs apart, opening her to him. Her right hand clutched his arm around her middle tighter still as the fingers of her left groped his thigh.

“More?” His tongue thrust into her ear and then around the shell, teasing, promising.

Her hand followed his as his fingers crawled along her quivering abs, higher, just grazing the satiny underside of her bra.

“Mmm…more…” Was she begging? Did she care?

Arching toward the heat of his hand placed her sexy rear squarely against the solid length of him. It was almost too much sensation. Almost. But not quite.

He nipped at her lobe in surprised response before his left hand gripped her hip. He wasn’t about to let something that felt this good get away. “God, Scully.”

“Mulder?”

“Hmmm?” He wasn’t feeling very verbal at the moment, his hands now slung low around her hips, gently, but insistently guiding their synchronous movements.

The slower than slow creep of his hand along the front of her thigh sent a shiver up her spine. “Kiss me,” she whispered, unheard above the din of the bass, her hands reaching up and behind her to pull him to her. She noted how well he understood her as his lips seared hers. Hot. Wet. Hungry. His tongue mating with hers. His fingers pushing the fabric upward, dancing over her inner thigh.

Skirt over rounded hips met denim over solid heat as she swayed into and against him, trying to fuse them. As the kiss deepened, her knees buckled. One firm arm steadied her. “Let’s get out of here, Scully,” he growled, his lips brushing her ear.

Low lighting camouflaged the flush in his face as he asked the bartender to call them a cab. The man merely nodded as he took a break from drying stemware. The smaller service area bar hadn’t seen that type of action in months the server mused as he reached for the portable.

Meanwhile, Mulder downed the almost tepid beer and set off to find his partner who’d headed over to tell Kimberely and Bryan that they were leaving. He made his way to the main entry and turned to watch her slightly unsteady approach. Unsteady but…even from a distance he could make out the look in her eyes. Her eyes that always told him so much, spoke to him even when the words didn’t come. Well, right now, they were speaking to him loudly and quite clearly. The tilt of her head said ‘sultry’. The eyes alone said ‘primal’ and maybe ‘lethal’, but most definitely ‘aroused as hell’.

God he loved this woman. And was about as turned on by her as he could ever remember.

She was drawing nearer, but taking her time about it. <Playing, are we, Scully?> He knew she could make out his smirk, followed by the slightest shake of his head. It was fine by him. The entire time at the Breakwater was turning into one hot date. He bet that wasn’t exactly what Scully’s friends had in mind when they invited them but they didn’t seem to mind knowing they were leaving.

She stepped under the criss-crossing colored ceiling lights, a sharp flash of red cutting a diagonal swath across her gauzy top. The yellow beam that followed it stroked her chest, the two points beneath the gossamer fabric telling him his earlier assessment was accurate. He had one highly aroused partner on his hands.

Or he would as soon as she got her sweet ass over to him.

“What’re you looking at, Mulder?” Taking his hand in hers, she stood on tiptoes and gave him a chaste kiss. One that certainly belied the current she felt pass between them even before his fingers twined with hers. Well, she could ‘look’, too.

And what a fine sight he was. If she were to go into her more clinical mode, she would note the flush of his skin due to the increased blood flow which was in direct correlation to his rapidly increasing heart rate which was in direct correlation to his aroused state which was…she had enough ‘clinical noting’.

This was actually one of her favorite Mulder looks. The look that said, ‘Move now, Scully or pay the consequences.’ The way she was feeling, she’d gladly pay the consequences…with interest.

He was the one to finally get them moving, but only by sheer force of will. By promise of what ‘later’ might hold. His hands now on her hips, he spun her around, following close behind, nearly attached groin to hips. Shuffling out the door and onto the porch entryway, the wooden slats creaked and groaned under their weight—and Scully, in her rather inebriated and aroused state, coupled with Mulder’s unsteady gait, lost her footing, sending her stumbling out of her leather slide.

“Scully!” he barked out as he yanked her back toward him, the momentum seating them both heavily on the bench by the railing, her behind between his parted thighs.

“Mulder, if you’d watch where you’re going, I might—”, she groused.

Using their unplanned position to his advantage, he wrapped an arm around her chest and turned her face to meet his, taking what he was sure was mock indignation from her and finishing her sentence with, “—you might have missed this.”

Sweet heat. That’s all she could think as his lips slid back and forth across hers, tasting, teasing, tempting. As she sunk back into him, her lips parted as his explored, deepening the kiss one degree at a time.

“C’mon you two, the meter’s running.”

Mulder’s muffled laughter joined hers as they made their way to the waiting cab.

“Where to?”

The Agents looked at each other shrugging.

“You two had a bit much tonight? Good thing neither of you is driving.”

Scully spoke first. “The Radisson, please.”

His exasperated and somewhat amused sigh served as his acknowledgment and the Cabbie peeled out of the graveled lot.

Scully allowed herself to slide into Mulder as the car banked in its turn, not bothering to readjust her hiked skirt as female thigh met male thigh. Turning to gaze up at him, she traced the shell of his ear as she whispered, “What are you thinking, G-Man?” as her other hand punctuated the question by landing in the crease between upper thigh and zippered fly.

Shifting his weight and making a not-so-subtle adjustment in the rather confining denim, he covered her right hand with his, moving her much smaller palm directly over his hardness. “I’m thinking of exactly what I’m going to do when we get back to your room, partner,” he also whispered, knowing she would definitely hear the heat in his voice as well as she could feel the heat beneath their hands. She smirked when his left arm slipped over her shoulders, their eyes locked on one another, his grin bordering on feral. She was back in high school once again and her boyfriend was thinking about slyly groping her. <Grope away Agent Mulder>, she thought as he managed to do just that; his fingers curling under her breast.

When she realized that her head had fallen back against the seat and his mouth covered hers once again, she wondered whether the Cabbie could be paid to keep his eyes on the road.

He’d seen it all in his twenty years with the Vermont Cab Company, but his glances in the rearview mirror told him this couple needed a room — and fast. The taller dark-haired man had managed to somehow get her into his lap barely losing his lip lock on the redheaded looker. And by the sounds she was making, he guessed wherever the man’s hand was; she was enjoying it…a lot.

Checking his side view mirror next, he noticed that the same car had been with him like glue on paper since he’d pulled onto the main road. In the inky night, all he could tell was that it was some mid-sized sports car and the driver wasn’t worried about being noticed. As they moved onto the brightly lit main thoroughfare toward the hotel, the tailing vehicle slowed, putting distance between them, and then veered into the semi-circle. The Valet Parking attendant tipped his hat at the driver’s window.

At that point, the Cabbie turned his attention back to his fares. “Hey you, lovebirds, time to go find that room.” He tried to appear inconspicuous as the woman playfully slapped her partner’s hand away from her lap and broke the kiss with a rather wet ‘smack’. He bet the man would have to use her as a shield for what was probably a rather large boner, too. Well, no matter — they tipped him nicely, never even looking at him as the man handed him some bills and she called out, ‘thank you’. He sped away to his next fare, never noticing the tall buxom brunette swaggering toward the lobby with a glaring snarl.

As Diana approached the revolving lobby doors, she nodded her head at the Doorman, never making eye contact, her eyes instead focused on the two sets of entangled feet behind the potted plants by the bank of elevators. It was obvious Fox had pinned Dana against the wall, his left leg wedged between hers.

In full Jealous Woman mode, former Agent Fowley stood off to one side to regain her composure. She watched the obscene display as that woman tilted her head and parted her lips wider, probably to accept Fox’s tongue. Diana seethed as his hands found Dana’s waist, holding her in place as he thrust against the petite woman.

Well, she knew full well what was about to happen when the ‘ding’ announced the elevator’s arrival in the lobby. She waited until the doors had closed and then called the second car.

~~~~~~

Radisson Penthouse Suite
Later the same night

She was busy — and that was putting it mildly. However, it was highly fortuitous that she had planned ahead, considering any and all possibilities. “Strategize—contingencies count.” Her mentor — or at least he who dared to consider himself as such — was fond of those words. Maybe just a little too fond. But she had learned well occasionally at his side.

Reviewing the set up mentally, she smiled. The suite was small by any sane person’s standards, but it would suit her purpose. One room stripped of its oak paneling to reveal gray cinderblock walls. All light fixtures had been removed and replaced with specially designed, extra bright halogen lamps encased in temperature buffering triple-thick plexi-glass. The near-blinding lighting had been randomly placed and spaced floor to ceiling in six-inch square mountings flush with the cinderblocks. An inflated Aero-Bed was situated in the far north corner of the 8X10 foot room. The only other furnishing in the windowless temporary habitat was the padded pedestal chair with retractable restraints.

Her adjoining room was equipped to allow her, Ward and sometimes Bishop, moderate accommodations for one-week increments. Flat-screen TV, video monitors which viewed the cell and the building’s perimeter and enough computers to make Silicon Valley look bare — just a sampling of the highest technology money and connections could buy. She valued her connections and had spent years carefully wooing, cultivating and grooming them. The most recent acquisitions were the brilliant cadre of scientists, hand-chosen from a multitude of those vying to participate in the research — to have a name and a place in history for themselves.

She found her mind wandering, thinking back to her first encounter with the team…

~~~~~~

‘White Paste’ Such a mundane name for that which would prove to be her crowning glory. That which would undo the years of wrongs she’d had to endure. Her most coveted team leader, Aja Sonjah, smiled at Diana’s pet name for the substance. Ms. Sonjah described it in its full chemically correct content but suggested the lay person’s term, Catalytic Thermo Jump’. The team referred to it primarily as CTJ or ‘Jump’ for short.

Aja Sonjah, the willowy doe-eyed scientist was ecstatic at the sooner than expected chance to test the final and most up-to-date incarnation. Her cherry-stained ample lips curled and then pursed into a smug smirk at the previous supposed clinical trials. The failed trials.Absent-mindedly grabbing a hank of her thick, board-straight hair, she deftly twisted it into a spiral and clasped it neatly out of her way.

The Fowley woman — her immediate supervisor and the project’s benefactor — was cunning. The kind of cunning Aja had only been associated with in the upper-most echelons of the crossover community where scientist met mastermind to join in high stakes games outside the mainstream. Dr. Sonjah had been recruited when she returned from Seoul and brought her research skills to Sloan-Kettering Labs in the northeast.

The trail grew convoluted at that juncture, but she had joined Proteus’ team, safely ensconced at the top. Her connections told her to be wary of everyone associated with this project but most of all of the of the woman former FBI Agent. Word had it that her own exposure to Jump in her unprepared state coupled with an almost maniacal infatuation with another Agent had pushed her envelope just a little too far. Her intelligence wasn’t in question and Aja had a grudging appreciation for that aspect of her boss’s psyche but her social interaction skills were all over the scale and the scientist had learned early on to go with the flow.

Sitting at her computer terminal, the researcher called up the report on the newest test subject: medical doctor, forensic pathologist, Quantico faculty, FBI Special Agent assigned to the X-Files 1993-present, partnered with Fox William Mulder. <What the hell?> What was Supervisor Fowley doing using an Agent of the Bureau as a test subject? Talk about high profile.

Reading further, now studying Diana’s, Ward’s and Jorge’s surveillance reports, the picture began to gel. Noting the FBI’s original call on this case early in the summer when CTJ was still in its earliest stages, she noted that Diana had asked this Agent Mulder to assist her. <The connection?> Agent Dana Katherine Scully, 37 years of age, 5′2″, red hair, blue eyes, was most likely a little more ‘partnerly’ with said Agent Mulder. The very same Agent Mulder who was the object of Diana’s obsession. <Interesting>

Dr. Aja Sonjah knew who signed her paychecks and continued her studies.

~~~~~~

Radisson Hotel
Sunday, 24 September
9:00AM

He had a puppy. He’d always wanted one as a child, but there had been the arguments about who would care for the dog, how irresponsible he was, etc. He’d never gotten that puppy. But maybe that wasn’t true. This puppy liked to lick his face and was now also licking his ear. No — the puppy was darting its tongue into his ear then nipping at his earlobe. Somehow, said puppy also had rather long legs and hot little paws that were rubbing against his calves and —

<Jesus!>

Emerging from the hot cocoon of his dreams, he felt Scully’s foot trying to wedge its way between his legs, her very naked and very soft belly pressing against his ass. She’d relinquished her tongue and teeth assault on his ear and headed for his neck and shoulder instead. Their legs tangled in the comforter and top sheet as he tried to push back into her, his eyes still closed, but fluttering with the attention she was lavishing on him. Having succeeded in insinuating her leg between his, she made her next move. “God, Scully,” was all he could manage as her very hot little hand gripped him and stroked him.

“Morning, Mulder,” she purred before continuing her ministrations, pleased at how he thrust into her hand. “I want to kiss you.”

Trying to roll onto his back to fulfill her request got him nowhere. “Uh, Scully?” Opening his eyes in a lazy blink, a slow smile spread across his face.

Disengaging her leg from between his, she swung it over his hip, drawing him backward and into her. As she let her hand trail over his length and then rest on his hip, he made his move.

“C’mere Scully,” was all the warning she got as one arm reached for her, the sudden movement propelling her on top of him chest to chest. Her surprised ‘ooaf’ made him laugh but the feel of her heat straddling his hips took his breath away.

Gazing up at her with a smile that spoke of pure adoration and unadulterated lust, he replied low-voiced, “Morning, Scully.”

~~~~~~

Stenhauser Construction Site
Essex Junction
10:37AM

The picnic tables were arranged end-to-end and had been sanded, stripped and repainted just for the occasion. The requisite stainless steel water pitchers and goblets were set around the table, along with the navy leather pad folios. Seating for six plus the big boss.

Tanner Roscoe was part of the front team, he and Slug helping to coordinate the site set-up. “Big fuckin’ waste a money if ya ask me.” Tanner didn’t hide his disdain for his employer’s ways.

Slug, on the other hand, was more than willing to jump through any hoop the big guy held out to him. He’d been treated well and had to do relatively little to keep the paychecks rolling in. Heck, if Proteus wanted him to carpet the construction site for a one-hour meeting, he’d lay the stuff himself. “I don’t think we’re being asked for our opinion, Tanner.” The sarcasm in his voice was softened by the tinge of warm humor. He and Tanner had been hired together, coming from very different backgrounds, but had worked well enough together.

Roscoe played ‘thug’ to Slug’s ‘caretaker’ — roles that suited each of them to a ‘tee’. Slug was enjoying his job of looking out for Chris. What had started as a job was fast turning into a budding friendship. Having gone without any male companionship for too long, having been ostracized since childhood, the fact that Chris Arsenault seemed comfortable around him made this assignment easier than most. He occasionally wondered about Chris. Wondered why the tall, affable man with the looker of a girlfriend was in these parts. Oh, Solomon Darmug, a.k.a. ‘Slug’, knew that the new guy was going to be working for Proteus, but he sensed that there was more there, some other reason the big boss wanted him watched. Most newcomers had an initiation period and were observed closely, but sometimes Slug suspected more.

“You daydreamin’ again Bub?” Tanner clapped him on the back after the last of the writing utensils were set in place. “Time for us to take our places as the greeters.” His nasty sneer wasn’t lost on Slug.

The two large men ambled over to the main gate, swinging it open just as the first limousine pulled up. Proteus’ driver was the first to line up and from there, doors started opening as passengers were disgorged. Tanner recognized the occupants of the next two vehicles: Bishop and his brother Ben, Zale and Jemel. He nudged Slug as the door to the fourth car opened and two rather good-looking women disembarked. “You thinkin’ who I’m thinkin’?”

Slug nodded, then, realizing his associate wasn’t looking at him, he replied, “I’m thinking that’s the Fowley woman and her scientist lady. What’s her name? Some country, I think? Persia? No, that’s not it.”

Shaking his head and kicking dirt, Tanner supplied, “It’s Asia you idiot, but it ain’t spelled like the continent. It’s some funky spelling like ‘Aja’. They never got invited before. Not that I seen anyway.”

Their eyes followed the contingent as they headed for the picnic-turned-conference tables and seated themselves. The conversation and chatting died as soon as Proteus took his rightful place at the head of the table.

“So good of you all to come on this fine weekend morning. I’ll get right to it. We’ve got some developments. I’ll ask Ms. to bring us all up to speed on our newest recruit.” He tipped his head in the blonde woman’s direction and then crossed his arms, stepping back from the table, his gaze now toward the grass, turning over the group’s attention to her.

Jemel stood, her hands stuffed into the pockets of her jeans, the unsnapped cuffs of her jeans jacket flopping over her wrists. She scanned the group from one end to the other paying special attention to the two dark-haired women flanking the end of the table.

“Cutting to the chase, Chris Arsenault checks out. Both Zale and I recommend bringing him aboard in full capacity. The guy’s got an edge to him and a sarcastic way about him, but he’s sharp. He’s got an eye for detail and the ability to blend.”

She paused as Bishop and Ben grumbled and snorted quietly when Chris’s sarcasm was mentioned knowing he’d fit in just fine. Her piercing blue eyes locked onto Proteus before she nodded and retook her seat.

“All right, then; Chris is in. Bishop? You and Zale set him up with the next shipment. He goes alone, his first job as a full Associate. I want him picking up the formula for Ms. Fowley and Dr. Sonjah.” Proteus noticed some commotion at the end of the table and watched, bemused, as the former Agent stood. “You have something to add Diana?”

“I do, indeed. Who is this new Associate and why isn’t he here? I will not allow—” Her burst of commanding righteousness was cut short by the boss’s smirk.

You will not allow?” He gazed at those assembled as if he were collectively asking them a question. “Since when have I asked for anyone’s opinion on my decisions?” The smile faded dramatically as he approached her where she stood. One hand firmly planted on her shoulder, he indicated that she should sit.

The wind neatly snipped from her sails, she tried to regain her composure. “I was merely noting how important the formula is and to be entrusted to someone as green as—”

His hand never left her shoulder, the clamping fingers causing her eyes to scrunch. “I’ve said that we can trust Chris. You’ll have your drug. And,” letting her go, he moved back to the head of the table, “you’ll still have your place on the team if you’re wise enough to understand when you’ve been silenced.”

~~~~~~

Radisson Hotel
Noontime

“Mulder, I have to get dressed.”

“No you don’t, Scully.”

Scully grabbed her pullover out of his hands for the second time, the look in her eyes clearly telling him that this was the final time… The look in his said he was willing to try it again just to make sure.

“Yes,” shirt firmly in hand, she walked toward the mirrored closet door as she pulled it over her head, “I do. I told you I have to get to the lab this afternoon to work with the team. They’ve managed to pull in someone well-connected in the European research sector, originally from Seoul. This woman can only be here today and—” Her sharp inhalation was her response to Mulder’s large hands…large, warm hands…on her abs from behind.

“Okay,” he said resignedly, the petulant adolescent in him present and accounted for, “but tonight we get to play.”

Swatting his hands away half-heartedly, she mouthed, ‘Later’, as she made her way to the bathroom vanity. Applying a bit of mascara and some gloss, she turned from the mirror, bending over to shake her hair—

And finding a very solid length of Mulder behind her. Plastered to her. So much for waiting till tonight.

His lips in her hair, his hands busy, he murmured, “This important person and whatever you have growing in the lab can probably wait a few more minutes, can’t they?”

Resolute, she tried to bring her hands up from within the arc created by his arms. To no avail. Caught between mild annoyance and irresistible longing, she attempted to remind him of the time and her plans. “Mulder, as nice as this is,” the firm, moist touch of his mouth behind her ear bringing a hitching quality to her words, “I have people waiting for me.”

He didn’t miss a beat as his words vibrated against her skin, “I’m ‘people’ Scully.”

<Yes you are, Mulder; one of my favorite ‘people’ as a matter of fact>

When his fingers splayed across her hips, settling her firmly against his boxer briefs, she felt the heat of him through her jeans. Mulder seemed to worship at the altar of insatiability and she was quickly becoming a convert.

“Mulder…I really do have to go.” Her words in direct opposition to her hands which somehow managed to find their way to his boxer-clad ass, completing the connection between them. But when, scant minutes later, the hem of her pullover came untucked, she pulled free of his embrace. Sure that her labored breathing and flushed face matched his, she stepped back, leaning heavily against the countertop.

Her hand came up, almost begging his understanding, as her eyes swept over his minimally-clothed body. His very aroused minimally-clothed body.

“Scully? I think you better go before I…”

He didn’t have to say anymore. Smiling and then planting a rather chaste kiss on his parted lips, she left the bathroom and grabbed her jacket. As she passed him standing in the doorway, his arms on the doorjamb, she called out huskily, “Looks like you’ve got a little something to take care of, partner,” as her eyes caressed his lower body. Not quite finished with him, she murmured, “I haven’t forgotten about these, either,” as she traced her fingers lightly over the scratch marks on his cheek.

~~~~~~

University of Vermont
The Given Building
Department of Bio-Chemistry
1:45PM

She grabbed her lab coat off the peg by the door, hanging her jacket on the same peg and setting her backpack on the counter. As she moved to the workbench, she pulled her hair back in a covered-elastic and pulled the goggles over her head, letting them hang around her neck until needed.

She had a half-hour until the rest of the team and the esteemed doctor arrived, so she took the time to review her notes from her last visit. Depositing her files on the granite top, she then headed for the sub-zero refrigeration unit. Donning the insulated gloves, she removed the samples of CT 154. The control container looked unchanged, but she’d have to put it through its paces first to ensure lack of contamination. It was the test sample that caught her attention. Smiling ruefully, she thought she’d seen it ‘bubble’ or froth. Immediately suspect, she replaced the sample in the sealed container and pulled on a sterile mask. Incase the reaction harbored airborne particulates.

Setting the control sample onto the nearby stainless steel cart, she paused, momentarily losing her balance. Steadying herself, one hand on the ridge of the cart and the other on the counter, she took a deep breath. Willing herself to shake off the slight dizziness as she carried the test sample to the electron microscope in the sealed hood. Shaking her head, she puzzled over the rather sudden appearance of the vertigo. She hadn’t experienced it in what seemed like a long time. Since her last encounter with the paste. However, there was one noticeable, one rather large difference. She hadn’t also experienced the heat sensation. Sighing, she grabbed a few glass slides, a Petrie dish and a several small non-porous spatulas, and headed for the sterile hood.

She was so consumed by her work, she never saw the woman with the straight dark hair in the portaled door. The woman who observed her with an avid stare, a well-trained and scrutinizing eye. The woman who noted her efficient and economical movements, the almost-somber look in her eyes as she prepared the slide with the white paste test sample.

Scully leaned over the microscope, absently brushing back several strands of wayward hair that refused to stay in the elastic. Her lips parted as she slowly blinked and moved away from the eyepiece. Taking a breath, she brought her eyes back to the viewing stage and willed herself to ‘see’ with a fresh approach.

But the fresh approach didn’t change what she thought she was seeing. Ever the consummate professional, she knew she had to have someone else to corroborate her findings. In truth, what she really wanted was someone to tell her she was really seeing what was happening on the slide. She checked her watch, relieved to note that her colleagues should be on their way and the looked up as she heard the whoosh of the doors parting.

“Dr. Scully, you’re early.” The woman team member who had eagerly volunteered to stay and assist Scully last time smiled as she shrugged into her lab coat and approached the bench.

Scully returned the smile as she turned to greet the other members of the team. As they filed in, she saw someone she did not recognize from her first visit. Her eyebrow rose in question, but she remained where she was, assuming this was probably the researcher from Seoul.

Dr. Radikel, the seasoned scientist in the group, turned when she realized she had remained just outside the doorframe and gesturing with her arm and nodding her head, she drew the visitor into the lab. “Dr. Sonjah, I’d like you to meet the rest of our team being led by Dr. Dana Scully.”

A round of handshaking and verbal introductions ended shortly followed by a curious silence. Aja Sonjah was somewhat amused at the wall of white and teal lab coats. All standing with arms crossed in front of them. She idly wondered if they realized just how unwelcoming they appeared. Holding her head high, she walked toward Scully and tipped her head imperceptibly. “I’m very pleased to meet you, Dr. Scully.”

“Likewise.” Scully replied as she assessed the fellow scientist. ‘Sharp’ was the word that came to mind. She appeared to be in her mid-30s and carried herself with an almost imperious air. The FBI Agent realized that she was making somewhat of a leap given the minimal interaction and even less conversation and told herself that she’d give the woman more time. On the other hand…her years of experience had honed her ability to quickly and accurately read almost any situation. So, she allowed a midline; she’d work with this woman while developing a more informed opinion. Besides, anyone who could assist with the research was most welcome as part of the team.

That still left the somewhat nagging question for Scully: how had Dr. Sonjah come to be associated with her project? She wasn’t buying what one of the techs had told her. A friend of a friend overseas had learned of the work and wanted in on the discovery. Though the desire to be part of a new venture, to have one’s name and reputation attached to the latest research was well-known in the scientific community.

“So tell me, Doctor,” Scully walked with the brunette to the workbench, “What attracted you to our project? I don’t imagine we’ve gained enough noteworthiness in the Asian market at this point.”

“‘Your’ project, Dr. Scully? I hardly see how it qualifies as such, although I must admit I am impressed with the strides you have made almost single-handedly.” Aja placed the strings to her mask over her ears and made sure her nose and mouth were both covered. Her next words were slightly muffled, but her proximity to her new research partner allowed her to be heard quite clearly. “We have a mutual benefactor. Now, let’s see what you have in the sealed environment.”

Dr. Radikel watched with guarded humor as the few Techs standing by Scully’s side looked to one another quizzically, noting the redhead’s raised eyebrow. However, anxious as they were to be in on this momentous process, they took their places and awaited the doctors’ instructions.

The patented Scully questioning-look was mirrored by her new lab partner. For some reason, she found herself thinking about Mulder, his natural skepticism always in play. She mentally made a note to do a search on the good doctor’s file, maybe even calling on the Gunmen to assist her. How ironic that she’d find herself considering that option… Although, after all the years the trio had provided amazingly accurate and extremely beneficial information as well as being counted among the few people she and Mulder could actually call close friends.

Meanwhile, Diana Fowley’s hired researcher truly was impressed with the progress the petite woman had made on her own. Impressed and concerned. She could not be allowed to continue any further. She knew her boss well. Well enough to tell her that halting Dana Scully’s progress was her first job. She was glad that they only had a few more hours in the lab today. It was going to be tough to stall. From what Aja had already observed, the object of Diana’s interest was not only methodical, but one of the most meticulous practitioners she’d ever worked with. That meant possibly removing some of the evidence or tampering with it. Another monumental task since Dr. Sonjah herself needed the evidence.

~~~~~~

Given Building
7:15PM

Tired. Bone tired. Her feet ached, her eyes burned. If it were possible, she’d lay down on the marble counter and take a nap. Her stomach growled, reminding her that she’d turned down a lunch break and, other than her ever-present water bottle, she’d even waved away the offer of a few Dunkin’ Munchkins brought in by Dr. Radikel’s teenage son. She was paying for her neglect now.

Making her way to an open computer terminal, she checked once again to ensure that she was truly alone. Determining the area was secure, she logged into the Bureau’s database, typing in ‘Sonjah, Aja, MD’ and waited for results. She was only mildly surprised when all that scrolled into view was that which she already knew; name, age, DOB, physical characteristics, education and professional affiliations. Even the image matched. Well, she now knew one of two things. Either the good doctor actually existed and her credentials were verifiable. Or they had been planted in the computer by someone with access and a desire to legitimatize her….

And that’s why she wasn’t satisfied. She had not been able to determine Aja’s interest in her project beyond what she’d claimed. It was time for a call to the masters of unearthing conspiracies.

<The Lone Gunmen> It was Langly’s voice.

“Turn off the tape Langly. And don’t make me ask a second time.” She hoped he’d catch on the first time. When he spoke again, she was sure he had.

<Hey Scully>

She could hear him attempting to cover the mouthpiece and tell Byers and Frohike it was her.

<To what do we owe the pleasure?> Frohike had wrested the receiver from the blond man’s hand.

“I need your help.”

<Uh oh…trouble in love land paradise? You’ve come to the right—>

“Can it, Melvin,” in spite of her need to move the conversation along, she could not help but smile at his question, knowing full well he’d know it. “I need you to run a deep background check, get me anything you can on a Dr. Aja Sonjah. That’s spelled: A-J-A S-O-N-J-A-H I’ve confirmed her identity, but need to know her connection to my research. She pronounces it: ‘Asia Sone-yuh’. By the way; I need it yesterday.”

God he loved it when Scully went all business on him, he mused. She was one tough broad. Make that one tough, beautiful and very smitten broad. Too bad she wasn’t smitten with him. <You got it gorgeous. How’s our buddy?>

She figured she owed them more than this little bit of information and spent a few minutes bringing them up to speed, trying to be patient as the others joined Frohike on the extensions.

“Gotta run guys. You’re the best.” She ended the call before she had to listen to them debate about which of them she was talking.

She placed her goggles and facemask in one of the wooden cubbies and then re-hung her lab coat on the wooden peg. She’d set her own jacket over the chair back and pulled the covered elastic from her hair, shaking it free. With a deep sigh, she fished for her car keys and headed for the door. Stopping only when her cell phone chirped.

“Scully.”

<Hey gorgeous what’re you wearing?>

In spite of her intense fatigue, she smiled. Did he ever shut down? Well, she knew the answer to that question, but still…

“You know very well what I’m wearing, Mulder, since you saw me leave earlier,” she quipped dryly, the corners of her mouth resisting the urge to curl upward.

<How fast can you take it off?>

“I’m leaving the lab now. Where are you?” Flicking off the overhead lights, she palmed the door open, ignoring his dogged persistence. His unabashed persistence.

<Where do you want me to be, Scully?>

She idly wondered whether she was too tired to answer that question. Although a few replies did cross her foggy mind… “I want you to be somewhere where we don’t have to stay on the phone. I’m tired Mulder.”

<Your wish is my command. I’m right outside the building and the engine’s running>

“But I have my car.”

<Not anymore. All taken care of>

Snapping the phone closed and shaking her head, she headed for the exit. Noting that her partner was indeed parked right outside the doors, engine running. She noted his grin as she rounded the hood and got in. “Where’s my car?”

“Bryan drove it back to the hotel.” The smug smile played across his face in the diagonal slash of mercury vapor parking lot lights. Slowly turning, she reached to smooth his hair away from his face. And then tugged on his earlobe, getting his attention. “Find me food, Mulder.” She marveled at just how quickly he focused his attention on driving. But not without a parting comment and reminder.

“Was that ear thing a promise of things to come later? You did promise me more tonight.” He kept his eyes on the road as his right hand came up to cover hers and placed it on his thigh. Soothing, warming, comforting.

“I remember…I also hadn’t planned to spend so much time in the lab without eating. How about you take me to food first and we’ll discuss other possibilities after?” When he didn’t respond right away, she glanced in his direction, noting his now serious face; the nearly straight line of his lips, the barely furrowed brows. She turned her hand in his until their fingers twined and smiled. “Thanks Mulder.” That got his attention. “For what?” But at least the smile had returned and he squeezed her hand.

“Just thanks. And don’t push your luck. I’m hungry.”

The drive continued in companionable silence. Like so many other drives in the past and those to come. For ten more minutes… Scully began looking out her window at the sudden absence of retail establishments. This was not looking promising.

Mulder spoke seconds before her mouth opened, “We’re almost there Scully. Trust me.”

Sighing and rolling her eyes, she sat back, willing herself not to comment.

And as they turned onto Williston Street, she saw the sign for ‘Al’s French Frys’, smirking at the quaint spelling. Stimulus response; she was salivating at the thought of French fries, unable to prevent the slowly widening smile.

Mulder swung into the parking lot, noting his partner’s hand on the door latch before he’d turned the truck off. “Oh, right; you said you were hungry, didn’t you.” That earned him a quick glance, but no words, so he laughed.

Once inside, Mulder began to read from the menu: “Philly Cheese Steak (with peppers and onions), Sausage (with peppers and onions), Corn Dog, Cheese Dog, Chili Dog, Hot Dog…”

“I think I’m sensing a theme here, Mulder. Where are the famed fries?”

“Right down here; after the grilled chicken sandwich,” he indicated, holding the laminated list in front of her.

At that point, the wait staff appeared and Mulder ordered a Philly Cheese Steak with the works and a large plate of steak fries and iced tea for himself and a grilled chicken sandwich and small side of curly fries and iced tea for Scully.

Mulder leaned back against the wooden booth, stretching his long legs into the aisle, Nike-clad feet crossed at the ankles. He watched his partner checking out the local color, her chin propped on her knuckles as her eyes moved curiously. She was probably noticing the same thing he was; there were almost as many town residents here as tourists. Always a good sign if the locals thought the food was good enough to eat, he mused.

Leaning forward, he clasped his fingers around her wrist, drawing her hand away from her chin and into his. Resting them both on the brightly colored vinyl table-covering. “How’d your work in the lab go?”

“Hmm?” she queried absently, her mind clearly not focused.

“I asked if you’d made any progress at the lab today,” he repeated evenly.

Placing her other hand over his, she nodded and then told him about the new scientist. “I’m not sure what to make of her, though. She’s bright, credentialed and is familiar with this project…”

“I sense a ‘but’ coming.”

“But, there’s something about her that makes me uneasy. At first I thought it was her attitude, her demeanor. She seemed somewhat haughty at first, but maybe what I saw was a product of her working in a male-dominated profession, her success and possibly her pride in her work. I should be glad and honored to work with her.”

She smiled. “But you’re not?” No judgment rendered, Mulder merely asked to allow her to elaborate.

Their conversation paused as their drinks were set on the table. They had started sipping when the rest of the food arrived. The two plates of Al’s famous fries were barely set down in between the two Agents when Mulder poked at Scully’s curly fries. “These,” he hooked one spiral ring onto his index finger, “are not real fries Scully,” he declared definitively.

“Don’t play with my food, Mulder,” she warned as she removed it from his finger and bit into it.

“Have you ever had a real steak fry?” He reached for a rather large, roughly rectangular plank; the edges golden crisp, and brought it to his partner’s lips. He watched raptly as she parted her lips to accept the offering, her teeth neatly taking a dainty bite. “Now is that a real fry or is that a real fry,” he asked, pleased with himself for expanding her culinary horizons.

“Mmmm…”

“That’s all you can say?”

“Mulder, as good as that was, it tasted like a French fry,” she told him, a soft chuff at his somewhat crestfallen look.

Silently agreeing to finish their dinner before continuing their discussion, the waiter appeared periodically to refresh drinks and inquire how they were enjoying their meals. His questions were unnecessary as noted by the almost totally clean plates.

Mulder set some cash down on the table as the dishes were cleared away, his eyes never leaving the woman sitting opposite him. “So, you were saying about this new researcher?” He watched her processing, gathering her thoughts; the analytical mixing flawlessly with the emotional read before she replied. “As I was saying, she knows a lot about the substance, she’s clearly skilled, classically trained. I guess past that, I’m just going to have to wait and see. She’s willing to give the time to this project, says it fascinates her…,” her voice trailed off as she gazed at her partner, searching his face.

“But you can’t figure out the reason for her interest. Couldn’t it be that her network, her connections know of your work? Isn’t it like most research fields; word travels?” He tried to help her frame her reservations because that’s what he was getting from her, reservation. He knew that instinctually, she would operate on facts first and feelings second. That she would be comfortable expressing those feelings, but would occasionally need prompting. She seemed to welcome the prompting.

“That’s it; I can’t figure out how she would know of my work.” Smiling as she noted his mouth opening to explain for her, she leaned forward and touched his wrist. “I’m well aware of the network in the scientific community, Mulder. But, if you’ll recall, my work was kept largely hidden and,” she was cut off.

“And,” he began softly, reluctant to bring up unpleasant memories, “You also remember that before your closely guarded research, others were in possession of the substance. Others who might have already networked…with the wrong people.” He laid his hand over hers, his eyes telling her they could end the discussion here.

With a knowing look, she nodded. “Guess I was blocking, huh?”

“You’re tired; we both are. Let’s head home.” Holding hands, they stood and headed for the truck.

Before he could shift into reverse, Scully slid closer to him and turned on the ceiling light. Her fingers trailed over his cheek, her other hand tipping his head to allow the wan illumination to show her the scratches.

“Hey Scully, nice bedside manner,” he quipped, ineffectually trying to swat her hand away.

“Hold still Mulder. You were going to tell me about these?” Satisfied that they’d healed, but curious about the rather uniform formation, she finally turned his face toward her. “You never did say how that happened.”

Taking the opportunity to turn off the light, he backed out of the parking space. “Someone scratched me. Guess I’m due for some worker’s comp. What do you think Skinner would say about it?” His attempt a flip humor hadn’t succeeded in distracting her. “Maybe I should inquire as to the special skills of your new associates Mulder?”

“I guess you could say that I probably spoke up when my opinion wasn’t being sought,” he proclaimed, the sarcasm in his voice evident.

Even in the darkness of the cab she could make out the slight upturn of his lips. She was relishing the moment. “You, Mulder? Commenting inappropriately? Who would believe that?”

The sound of her laughter brought an ear to ear grin to his face. “You’re enjoying this entirely too much, Scully. What happened to your medical concern? What if those scratches are infected?”

“How unlike you to play on my sympathies. So you still haven’t told me who did this to you.” Seriousness returned.

“Jemel , one of those closer to the top. She was part of my trip to St. Albans Bay.”

“Hmm…cat-like responses. What does this ‘Jemel’ look like?”

Allowing the slight tinge of smugness, he replied with a question of his own, “What do her looks have to do with it?”

“That information is nothing more than what would go in your report Agent,” she replied coolly.

“Speaking of reports, I think I’m overdue with Skinner.”

“You’re overdue with me Mulder. Tomorrow we layout each other’s findings to date and see where they dovetail. Then we both call in.” She paused and then added, “I’m actually surprised we haven’t heard from him already.”

“Uh, we might have.”

“We might have, Mulder?”

“He might have left me a message on my cell that I might have forgotten to return today.” He glanced over at her, noticing how the lack of lighting couldn’t hide the raised eyebrow or the slight shake of her head.

~~~~~~

Radisson Hotel
9:00PM

They had to be here. Her car was in its usual space, but she’d rung the room and gotten no answer. The ill-mannered desk staff couldn’t verify if Scully was in her room, let alone if there was anyone with her. Something about guest privacy rules.

Well, Diana would check on her own, but she knew she couldn’t do it directly. One of the reasons she had a few people working for her. Maylene was on staff at the hotel, Head of Guest Services. She would be dispatched to Agent Scully’s room to do the random service of quality assurance.

And Maylene had pulled it off without a hitch. Except for the fact that no one was home when the Guest Services Manager called.

Maylene was paid handsomely although Diana didn’t fail to express her disappointment with the woman’s results. The Head of Guest Services wisely thanked her boss and returned to business as usual. Diana then let herself into Scully’s room, hoping to find clues to her whereabouts. A cursory examination revealed nothing useful — no notes, no computer, no voicemail messages. Now that she was inside, however, she took the opportunity to conduct further research into the life of her nemesis.

First rifling through her bureau drawers, Diana pawed through the mix of rather utilitarian undergarments sprinkled with the small collection of silks and satins. When she reached the bottom of the lingerie drawer, she stopped, her hand hovering over and then snatching furiously at an open slip of paper. A slip of paper with Fox’s handwriting scrawled over it. It had been lying between a set of powder blue satin bra and French cut panties. A very tailored set. She wondered for a brief second whether that would be Dana’s taste, but with a twisting, sinking feeling, she knew it was his taste. Tossing the bra and panties across the room, she sat heavily on the upholstered bench at the foot of the bed.

Taking a few deep breaths to calm the rising anger, she read the note:

<Something cool, blue, soft and hot for the woman who has me body and soul. Love, M>

He still belonged to her ‘body and soul’; didn’t he know that? Well, the brunette would have to convince him. He’d really had only a few short years with his redheaded partner and their foundation as shaky, Diana could tell. If it weren’t, would he go off on her so often? Would he have come to Diana’s aid just this summer without her? No, she knew he still belonged to her and not the petite woman substitute.

But, she acknowledged that with Dana Scully so close at hand, he might need more convincing.

Crumpling the note and letting it fall from her hand; she continued her room inspection finding nothing more interesting until she reached the bathroom. Alongside Dana’s toiletries, she found a can of men’s shaving gel and a razor. Sweeping them carelessly onto the floor, she left the hotel suite and headed for the lobby. It was time to find out what Ward had learned about Fox’s residence in town. It was time for a visit.

~~~~~~

Pine Street Boardinghouse
9:45PM

He barely caught the phone before it stopped ringing. “Hello?”

<Mr. Arsenault, I’ve been trying to reach you for awhile> Bishop’s voice was clipped yet held no threat.

“I’m here now.” Mulder kept his words minimal as Scully raised a brow in question. He held a finger up to his mouth and sat down on the couch, motioning to her to join him.

<The Boss has decided you’re in. You’re going out of the country tomorrow at noon. Meet me at the previous night’s address for details> His tone brooked no questions.

“I’ll be there.” Mulder hung up without waiting for a response.

In the short time he had been on the phone, Scully had kicked off her shoes and curled up against his side, her head resting on his shoulder. “Another job?”

Settling in, making himself more comfortable, he curved an arm around her and ran his fingers lazily through her hair. “Yeah, tomorrow.”

“So…”

He knew her pregnant pause was meant for him to fill in the missing information and he guessed now was as good a time as any. “I’m heading first to St. Albans and then probably on to Canada. That’s all he told me.” He could feel her body tense in his arms and he instinctively held her tighter.

He could feel the vibrations of her words against him as she spoke. “Maybe now would be a good time to bring me up to speed on your progress?”

Lifting his chin from her hair, nudging her to sit up so he could look at her as he spoke. She had other ideas, he noted, as she turned in his arms, resting her head on his lap. He drew the afghan from the back of the couch and laid it over her bent legs. “Are you comfortable now,” he asked, the twinkle in his eyes telling her he was amused.

“Quite,” she reached up to cup his cheek in her hand, “so talk.”

“I haven’t been introduced to the man at the top yet, but I’ve met quite a few of his underlings and a few of those connected directly to him. The two I met after my trip to the docks and then on the trip north last night.”

“One of these wouldn’t happen to be the one with the very convincing fingernails would it?” She gazed up at him as he rolled his eyes and ‘shushed’ her. She wasn’t sure why he seemed to feel the need to divert from her concerns.

“Don’t interrupt me. Yes, Jemel is the owner of the sharp talons. Now, from what I’ve been able to learn, this group is rather well-connected all along the eastern corridor, but it moves west for their Canadian link. What I’m not sure about is how they’re mobilizing across the border.”

“You’d already found the prison guard connection from the pre-assignment information and…” His look stopped her momentarily. “What?”

“I don’t remember us discussing that information.”

She pushed herself to a seated position, still facing him. “We didn’t Mulder. But I was brought in as your back-up, right?” Not letting him jump in, she finished, “Skinner faxed me the information I needed telling me you’d keep me up to speed. Is there some problem?” She had to admit she was a little surprised by his reaction, not sure where it was coming from.

He seemed to relax somewhat at her explanation, attempting to ease her back to her original position. “No, there isn’t a problem, Scully. I guess I just don’t want you too close to this group. There’s an edge to them.”

Instead of getting comfortable once again, Scully moved to face her partner, leaning forward, one hand on his leg. “What’s different about this case from any of those we’ve worked on before? Help me understand why you’re feeling the need to shelter me from information I need to do my job.”

Her voice told him that he had just tread on old ground, lapsing back into their early days together when instead of treating her as his partner, he had tried to protect her. Acting before realizing that keeping information from her usually had the opposite effect; possibly putting her in the line of danger due to lack of knowledge of the facts.

His hands up, palms facing her in the sign of surrender, he blinked slowly and then told her, “Can I use the excuse of an old dog having a hard time learning new tricks?”

“It’s not going to work this time, Mulder. If we hadn’t had this talk now, would you ever have told me?” She wasn’t sure where the sharpness in her tone had come from, but chalked it up partly to her genuine frustration and even more to her extreme fatigue. Regardless, she let the question hang between them, wanting him to respond.

“That’s unfair, Scully.”

She hadn’t expected that response. “How so?”

“You know I wouldn’t intentionally leave you in the dark.”

“That’s what I would have thought, yes.” She took a deep breath and let it out in a sigh. She really was getting more upset over this than she thought necessary. “I’m sorry, Mulder. I guess I’m just overly tired. But if we’re not going to talk, maybe you should just take me home.” Swinging her legs over the couch cushion, she attempted to stand. But his hand on her shoulder kept her rooted in place.

“I really am sorry. I guess I wasn’t thinking it through, getting into my role, knowing you needed to get your research done. No excuses, Scully.” His voice was soft, his words imploring. He continued, “All right, the low down, but not until you agree to just stay here tonight. Especially since I have to go out of town tomorrow.” Allowing him to draw her back down and wrapped in his arms against his chest, she murmured, “Deal, but I have to sleep Mulder.”* Leaning into him, her back to his side, she drew her legs up, bending her knees. His lips in her hair lulled her even more. “I’m serious.” She knew he’d hear her half-smile.

Resting his chin on her head, he filled her in on the main players and his ‘errands’. He could almost feel the arched eyebrow at his description of the full body search the very first time he’d been summoned, but he also noted that she remained silent, allowing him to continue.

“And the Gunmen think the Stillman brothers are involved pretty deeply, but that Ben may not know the full extent of his connection, nor of his brother’s,” he added.

She perked up at this information. “Ben’s brother? That would be Bishop; the man I overheard at Kimberley’s?”

“That’s right. But, from what I’ve been able to gather, Kimberley’s clean in this; she’s the real McCoy in her efforts to help our government.” He was only too happy to impart this information as he knew his partner wanted to know that Melissa’s friend was on the up and up.

Scully sank back into him, but was no less attentive. “So how far into this organization have you penetrated Mulder? How close are you to finding the man or woman at the top?”

“Now that’s the 64 thousand dollar question, isn’t it Scully? Actually between what I’ve been able to sort through myself and what the boys have been able to dig up, I’ve found that our drug lord calls himself Proteus. We have yet to be able to ID him other than that and I don’t think I’ve ever actually met him since I’ve been here. Although I guess there’s something to be said for hiding in plain sight. I may never know. Hell, he could’ve been one of the men you met up with several weeks ago.” He paused, his hand stroking her arm, idly noting that her breathing was very relaxed. He wondered whether she’d started to fall asleep.

“You’re not off the hook yet Mulder; I may be tired, but I haven’t dozed yet.” Her voice was softer, but indicated she was still very much in the game. “What’re they doing with these drugs? This doesn’t strike me as your run-of-the-mill operation. Street drugs can be had almost anywhere. Why the elaborate game?” He smiled. She really was paying attention, although he wouldn’t expect otherwise. “Another good question. I can’t say, but something doesn’t ring right with their operation and the fact that Diana is also in town. I’m wondering about a connection, but haven’t the slightest idea what that might be.”

“What? Fox Mulder, Wonder Agent without a theory? Let me mark this day in—”

He knew she was enjoying herself, could tell by the laughter he could feel in her midsection. Playfully clamping a hand over her mouth, he silenced her. “Don’t go there Scully. You know whatever my theory is, it’ll prove correct in the end.”

With a quick lap of her tongue and then nip of her teeth, she got him to pull his hand away. Her laughter subsiding, she grew more serious and sat up, turning toward him. “I’d wondered what she was doing here, aside from her overriding obsession with you that is. But why the drugs? A business deal? Certainly she doesn’t need the money? And former Agent Fowley may have been a lot of things, but such a blatant connection to illicit activities. I don’t know Mulder, but something doesn’t feel right.”

“Agreed, but that’s about as far as I’ve gotten. And that’s as far as we’re going with this tonight. We can save the hypothesizing and theorizing for my return. We’ve both got to report in to Skinman.” He watched her smile return at his nickname for their boss.

“‘Skinman’? All right, we’ll finish this in a day or so. I think I’m remembering how tired I am…”

“I know you are and my offer was serious. You really can sleep here, Scully. I’ll be a gentleman.” The sincerity of his words were in direct opposition to the roving nature of his hands and lips.

“Mulder…”

“I just thought relaxing you might help you sleep better.” His lips at her temple and the warmth of his hand on her abdomen were doing anything but relaxing her.

Pulling herself out of the circle of his arms, she playfully slapped at his hands. “Maybe you should go look up the definition of ‘relaxing’ while I go get ready to sleep.”

~~~~~~

Monday, 25 September
7:45AM

Luckily, the Boss planned well, even if he and Jorge were left to do most of the work. Bet no one in the old neighborhood would believe what he did for a living. They loved his wheels, his threads and the fact that when he visited, he took them all out. Most of all, his woman loved the lavish gifts he bestowed upon her. The best thing was that even before the gifts, she worshipped the very ground he walked on. Now that was a relationship.

“Jorge, get in here and give me a hand, would ‘ya?” He shook his head. Jorge had come around a lot in the last month, but still hadn’t learned the fine art of asking ‘how high’ when Ward said ‘jump’. He’d whip him into shape.

“I’m here, Ward. Thought we were done?”

“We’re not finished until she tells us we’re finished. How many times do you need to hear that?” He cuffed the younger man on the ear, just hard enough to let him know he meant business, but not hard enough to hurt. He actually liked Jorge and wanted him to be able to bring his family some of the riches Ward had been able to do.

The two men moved the large bench out of the way and made sure the loungechair with the restraints was secured to the floor. Jorge wisely noted that one of the bolts had not been synched correctly and grabbed the power-driver to render it flush with the cement flooring.

“Who’s she bringing in here this time,” he queried.

Shaking his head yet again, Ward replied with a question of his own, “How many times do I have to tell you, we don’t always know everything?” “I know, I know, but it’s human to wonder. Don’t tell me you don’t. Besides, I think it’s the redhead we’ve been watching. Boss Lady’s screwed over her.”

Ward had to laugh, Jorge nailed his own thoughts on the head. He’d also noticed how incensed Ms. Fowley got whenever Dana Scully’s name was mentioned, but the sight of her sent his Boss into nothing less than a tizzy. The kind that sent her underlings scurrying to do other work.

“The difference is, I wonder silently. It’s not going to advance you if you wonder aloud. You know how she is.” Ward stopped in his tracks at the index finger slicing across Jorge’s throat and the way his partner’s eyes kept darting over Ward’s shoulders. <Uh oh>

“No, Ward, tell me. Just how am I?” Diana strolled into the room, her heels clomping on the painted cement. Her smile, more lopsided than usual, chilled the already air-conditioned space. She reached for his shoulder, her fingers grasping him and turning him to face her. “Would you like to explain what you were sharing with Jorge?” Her amused purr elicited the response she had hoped for.

“Uh, well, I, Jorge, we…,” he stammered.

“Nice walk through Ward, I think you’ve identified a few nouns and pronouns, but that’s where the fun ends. Unless you want to be helping my former employees dig ditches in the Arctic, now might be a good time to remember how many warnings you’ve used up.” All business now, she let go of him and strutted around the room, touching, smoothing, looking.

“In spite of your mouth, you two have done a fine job with the last minute details. You’re officially on standby for the next two weeks. Don’t leave town, don’t pass go, don’t collect the prize money.” She watched their faces as she spun around, cackling at her last witticism. She was both pleased and dismayed at their reaction. Neither did so much as raise an eyebrow. Perhaps she’d grown predictable? Better yet, perhaps she frightened them.

~~~~~~

Pine Street Boardinghouse
8:15AM

“Mmm…morning Sunshine,” he muttered, snuggling and nuzzling as he draped his leg over her hips from behind.

The worn navy tee she’d borrowed from him did nothing to insulate her from the heat he was radiating; the warmth and sinewy firmness wrapping itself over her like a human blanket. Drifting happily in that halfway state somewhere between slumber and wakefulness, Scully mumbled and settled back into him, her hand absently reaching to stroke his thigh where it lay across her body.

“You awake Scully?” He asked, his mouth in her hair, his hands working their way to the hem of her loaner tee.

She knew her smile would be a dead giveaway, but she couldn’t help it. He was like a randy adolescent whose hormones were in overdrive. Not that she minded. Snaking her fingers underneath the leg of his boxers, she hummed softly. The only answer he was going to get.

Gently nudging her with a thrust of his hips, he tightened his hold on her. His arousal evident.

“Don’t think I heard your answer Scully,” he whispered directly into her ear, the resulting shiver telling him what he wanted to know. So he did it again, gently blowing in her ear.

Oh, she was most definitely awake, imagining the pursing of his soft lips as he breathed into her ear. What those lips could do to her… His kisses alone could render her utterly languid and liquid and hotter than…

But she needed to get up. She’d planned on meeting Kimberley at the Lab later this morning and he had to get ready for his assignment across the border.

One of them needed to be strong. But it was becoming more difficult. Trying to pull his hand from where it was hovering just below her breast only succeeded in snaring her, their fingers entwined. And, for some reason, her other hand seemed quite content firmly gripping his thigh in response to the shivers his breathing created.

One of them needed to be strong. If she repeated it enough times, she might actually believe it.

“Mulder, I’m going to take my shower. Now.” Reluctantly withdrawing her hand from his suddenly very warm and rather possessive thigh, she tossed back the blanket and sat up. He, however, did not seem willing to release her other hand from him. She stood anyway, the rather large tee still twisted and slightly tucked in to her panties on the side looking elementally sexy in the oversized and bed-rumpled attire.

Looking ravishing if he said so himself.

Scully had many looks, all of which he loved for different reasons. But one of his favorites was a combination of semi-sleepy, partially naked and tousled. Her long hair fluffed and scattered about her shoulders and face caught glints of the morning sun peaking through the slatted blinds, accentuating the natural blush in her cheeks. He knew that if he continued categorizing what he saw, it would be his undoing and she would have no chance to make it to the shower.

Not that that was a bad idea. But the tugging on his hand told him she really wanted that shower. Maybe.

Lying on his side, his legs moving restlessly, the top sheet did very little to disguise his unmistakable interest in continuing. Her fingers were just about to slip from his when he called to her, the regret in his gravelly voice unmistakable. “Scully?”

She stopped then, turning, and replied with a breathy sigh, “Mulder?”

“We’re not finished…” From the look in her eyes, he could tell that she hadn’t missed the growl in his statement.

~~~~~~

Radisson Hotel
9:00AM

She’d brought Maylene back to Scully’s floor twice, but it was now clear that the redhead was not coming back tonight. When Diana had asked the Guest Services Manager the third time, she’d been sure the staffer was going to yell. She was shocked that anyone would have the impudence to attempt to stand up to her. And she made a mental note to add a slight bonus to the woman’s next paycheck. Diana Fowley liked assertiveness. Sometimes.

Right now, she was beyond angry — to the point of feeling like she wanted to spit nails. Directly at the supposed object of Fox’s affection.

Grabbing her leather jacket, she slung it over her arm as she made her way to the lobby. Waltzing over to the Valet stand, she snapped her name at the attendant, telling him that she’d wait no more than five minutes for her Jetta to arrive. He seemed to understand as he scurried away, tipping his cap.

She’d thought about calling Ward, but realized she didn’t want another report and surveillance tape or still photos. She wanted living proof. More proof of just how treacherous Dana Scully had been, how she’d managed to seduce Fox into thinking he belonged to her. Diana already had all the proof she needed to justify her wrath concerning the debacle on Cat Island. She knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that Alex never would have been convinced to let them shove her into that portal unprepared had it not been for Agent Scully’s interference.

She hadn’t figured it out right away, but that was to have been expected. After all, she barely knew who she was when they found her. But, as her memories started returning and she spoke with the counselor, she began to put the fractured shreds of those memories together, stringing them loosely until they showed her what she already knew. Fox’s partner had developed a carefully constructed plan to rid him of his former lover.

But it hadn’t worked. Diana was back and she would reclaim he who was rightfully hers and punish she who tried to make her suffer.

Jorge and Ward had managed to give her some oblique information about Mulder’s truck, but they were not able to obtain his street address for some strange reason. She’d nearly let them go in a fit of pique when they’d told her. How hard was it these days to track someone? She supposed that since they had much less experience, they might need some pointers. At any rate, she now knew the neighborhood he lived in.

As the car was brought up to the main entrance, she strolled over to the attendant, suddenly feeling magnanimous, and palmed him a five dollar bill. He really was rather cute in a young, pedestrian sort of way, she thought as she swung her long legs into the car and slammed the door.

Adjusting the volume, she began to sing and she wound her way outside the city limits. She slowed on the open road wondering why it looked familiar to her. The open field on one side and the residential tracts all around it. Yes, this was where she sent Dana careening off the road into a ditch. Could it be that Fox lived around here? The description of the location fit her employees’ description.

As she approached the stop sign, she swung left, just avoiding the row of trashcans set out for tomorrow’s pick up. Slowing, she checked the street sign. Pine. She wheeled down the street, checking out curbside and driveway-parked vehicles. While she saw a range of car and truck, she’d yet to see the black F-150 they’d told her about.

At the end of the street she noted a pair of bookend apartment buildings flanking the corners. To her right the Pinewood Village, to her left Pine Street Boardinghouse. She couldn’t understand why Fox would choose to stay anywhere near this neighborhood when he could certainly do much better.

That was when she began to truly puzzle over his reasons for being in Vermont. She supposed he could be working on a case, but if that were true, he’d be staying in a hotel. It made no sense to her that the bitch was allowed to stay at the pricey Radisson and he was relegated to these shabby hovels. Nonetheless, she turned into the Pinewood apartments. It took her no time to check the small lot and she was back out on the street crossing to the Boardinghouse.

Poor Fox. No evidence to the contrary, she assumed the shiny black truck was his parked at the far end of the lot under a stand of tall pines. Pulling in next to him, she got out of the Jetta and walked around the F-150. It was very sporty and nice. Well, as nice as a pick-up truck could be. Checking the cab in the wan moonlight revealed nothing, so she headed for the building.

~~~~~~

The Boardroom

The oval table and formal chairs stood silently in the dark as the quartet sat on the two facing couches. All lights had been left off in front of the floor to ceiling glass walls that looked out over the city. Occasionally, Proteus seemed to get into the cliched cloak and dagger. It really ticked Bishop off. Of course he’d never mention it.

“So, what’s on our agenda for tomorrow?” Zale draped his arm across the back of the sofa, taking care not to let it touch Jemel. He wasn’t sure exactly what had happened on their last trip, but he knew enough to steer clear.

Proteus allowed a small smile to play about his lips in response to his subordinate’s question. He knew the man was literally chomping at the bit; he always was when he smelled a big job. Especially a big job with a new recruit. The drug lord had also noticed the slight distance between Zale and the first in command. The blonde woman was certainly polite enough, but missing was her usual caustic wit directed at her colleague. Could it be that Chris had tread on Zale’s turf somehow?

No matter. They had much more important things to discuss.

“Our agenda,” he began, “includes a trip across the border. Our first full venture since the scouting missions.” Proteus paused, watching his two associates’ reactions. Noting the looks of anticipation and excitement although neither spoke. “I want you to keep a tight reign on Chris, with one exception. You,” the boss nodded at Jemel, “will accompany him to the Falls for the pick up while you,” nodding at her colleague, “will stay at homebase in Niagara proper.”

“Why aren’t we sending Chris in on his own? I thought we’d established his credibility and the first full trip is—” Jemel was cut short, but without admonishment.

“A good question, Number One, very good. That is standard protocol. However, this pick up will be unprecedented in size and you’ll be meeting with some of the Canadian contacts for the first time. I want to be doubly sure about his commitment to our cause.” He laughed then, a full, throaty baritone. “Put him to the test, Jemel, before you arrive at the Falls. Something quick and telling. If he fails, pull him out and call on Zale.”

Relieved that he had not been written out entirely, the male Associate sat back with a heavy sigh. Much to his boss’s amusement.

~~~~~~

Pine Street Boardinghouse

She might have partially won the first round, but he was a man on a mission, on the prowl, and he would succeed. Tossing the covers back, Mulder sat up, shifting and readjusting his now restricting boxers. She wanted a shower? That was fine with him. He could use one himself. His very vivid imagination provided images of a shower-for-two…

The steam was just starting to float out of the open bathroom door as he approached, shedding his boxers as he padded, bare foot, onto the tiled floor. He noticed his tee where she’d hung it on the hook on the back of the door and her panties set on the small wicker hamper in the corner.

The patter of the water drew him to the shower stall. Somewhere between the total utilitarian single person size and the more spacious bathtub/shower combination, he knew it would accommodate two — with a little room to spare. Not that that mattered much. In this case, the closer the better. Feeling the heat that thought elicited, he grabbed the green plastic curtain and drew it across the metal rod, stepping in behind a very naked and very wet Scully.

Her body deflected the spray behind her, allowing small droplets to hit random parts of his body. The heat of the water could not compare with the heat in his belly once he was skin-to-skin with Scully.

For her part, she sensed his entrance, the sound of the metal curtain holders sliding and the slight chill of the air outside the stall registering on her body. Tilting her head back, the water hit her open mouth as it made its way down her body as it was suddenly drawn back against the very solid and very wet form of her partner.

He slipped his arms around her waist, one hand clutching the small, worn bar of soap. Wordlessly, he palmed the soap over her, her hitching breath lifting her chest, arching her back.

Soapy hands criss-crossed her belly, her hips, her breasts with slippery slowness, leaving trails of heavy heat over tingling gooseflesh. She fell into him when his fingers teased and drew her already aching nipples to throbbing points. “God, Mulder,” she hissed, turning her head both to avoid the stream of water as much as to allow him more access to her neck. Where he seemed to have decided to feast with lips and tongue.

He heard her. But he also felt her. Felt her hands as she reached behind him, her hands stopping…not where he wanted them most, but on his hips. Her small, but strong fingers trying to gain purchase on his firm slick ass cheeks. Kneading and gripping him, the result, her hips sliding and squirming into what had turned into a rampant and pulsing hard-on. “I see you found my surprise, Scully,” he gritted out, his mouth leaving her neck just long enough to force the words.

Too many sensations. The fire radiated from her in dizzying waves and she wanted to devour his mouth. She felt his hand comb her wet hair from her face and then turn her head to meet his. Without his other hand banded around her waist, she was sure she would go the way of the cascading water when his lips parted over hers, followed by the lapping of his tongue on her upper lip and chased once again by his open mouth. She heard and felt their mutual moans and groans. She wasn’t alone in her appreciation for the team shower.

Gasping for breath and a slowing of her jack-hammering heart rate, she put some space between their lips, the wet smacking sound echoing in the confines of the enclosure. “Jeezus Mulder!” Her head sagged onto his chest, but she never lost her hold on him.

The bar of soap long ago discarded; Mulder cupped her breasts with one hand as the other traveled south. What began as light exploration quickly turned to impassioned and lusty fondling, one long finger sliding between her folds easily.

“Hold still Scully,” he husked, his lips close to hers as he held her firmly in place.

She wondered if she’d heard him correctly. How he could possibly expect her to stop rocking between his fingers creating wild ripples within her and the solid length of him wedged between them was beyond her. The man sometimes demanded the impossible. All she could manage in verbal reply was an incoherent moan, but her traitorous body answered for her.

Time seemed drawn out to Dana Scully yet she could not process the sensory-overload created by her sex-crazed and very motivated partner.

His left hand moving from her peaked nipple to her wrist, he brought her palm across her body where it met with the tip of his tongue as it traced a line from base to finger tip. Before she had a chance to do more than react with a shivery moan, he brought their hands back. Withdrawing his fingers from her, he gently, but firmly encircled her other wrist, bringing both hands up in front of her.

Regardless of his earlier dictum she couldn’t control the urge to wriggle, the feel of his erection nestling high against her ass nearly her undoing. She felt his thighs nudging her forward by inches as he bent over her.

“Place your hands on the tiles for me,” he growled, his hard body punctuating his request. His hands splayed over hers, he kissed her hair and bit her lobe. “Spread ‘em Scully.” If it weren’t for the sudden wetness between her legs, she was sure she would have laughed. Leave it to Mulder to make humor hot. Nonetheless, she did as told. With seeming practiced flair, one hand moved to her hip, the other guiding him to her entrance. She barely noticed the slight adjustments until they found just the right position to allow him to tease and then glide into her.

“Oh my God Scully,” the force of the water garbling his words, but having no effect on his slow and controlled initial thrust. He held her tightly, his fingers securing her hips to his groin, lifting her onto the balls of her feet in a steady up, down and back motion.

Scully’s head bowed forward, her drenched tresses allowing her to see nothing but the beige tiles onto which she tenaciously held. The smaller shower stall and their position had given them most of the leverage they needed, giving her one intense experience.

His knees bent slightly, his hips flexed and tightened as he pumped more erratically, her slick heat pulling at and drawing him in deeper and deeper. Using the back wall to partially support them, he eased his hold on her hip, unerringly touching that spot between her legs.

The small quick circles Mulder drew sent Scully soaring, her keening low and throaty. And her shudders and pulses ratcheted his arousal higher and higher until he was unable to do more than help keep them standing. He drove into her; the feel of her meeting him thrust for thrust finally taking him.

Wincing through her ecstasy, Scully wondered when the last time was she had found herself in this particular position. Mulder managed to bring out the best in her; even helped her locate muscles she hadn’t remembered she possessed. Slight aches not withstanding, she also couldn’t recall the last time she’d felt quite this…wonderful. Yes, that was the word.

“So Mulder, have I gotten my surprise yet,” she asked as he held their bodies close, allowing them to catch their breath.

Amidst mutual moans and groans, she straightened as he helped her up, turning her in his arms. Leaning into him, her arms wrapped around his waist as she planted kisses on his chest. “Well?”

Holding the back of her head, he tipped her face up to his. “You really are impatient and greedy, aren’t you?” His kisses landed on her forehead, her nose and her mouth.

“Mmm…,” she muttered into the kiss, pulling away by mere inches, “and you’re all wrinkled, Mulder.” She laughed only until his mouth met hers yet again.

The heel of her hand pushed against his chest when he cupped her ass. “Oh no you don’t. I’ve got to be at the Lab in forty-five minutes.”

Mulder decided to make good use of his partner’s dressing time, parading around in a white towel slung low on his hips as if he were already attired for his trip, cell phone to his ear.

<I’ll put you through right away, Agent. The AD has been hoping to hear from you>

Mulder held no illusions as to Kimberley’s real meaning. Roughly translated, she meant, ‘Skinner’s pissed he hasn’t heard sooner and will chew your ass given half a chance.’ He marveled at how she managed to convey so much by saying so little. Almost as well as he and Scully did. Thinking about her had him turning toward her, watching her step into her panties one beautiful leg at a time. His wandering eyes and libido were slam-dunked back to reality when he heard his boss’s booming voice.

<Agent Mulder? So good of you to check in with me>

Ahh…the Skinner humor, Mulder mused. “Sorry it’s taken me so long, Sir.” Not wanting to give the AD any more time to ruminate, he continued, “I’m about to head out of town and I think this is the big trip. We’re heading for St. Albans, but I have a feeling we’re making the border crossing this time.”

<Scully going with you? Serving as your back-up?>

“She’s busy Sir, but I’ll let her tell you about that on her own.” He knew protocol dictated that she should indeed provide some sort of back-up, but it was too dangerous to his case. Besides, he hadn’t asked and she hadn’t offered. Yet. He’d cross that bridge if he came to it.

<You know better Mulder. Scully’s a damn fine Agent in her own right and has pulled your ass out of the fire more times than either of us can count>

Mulder knew he was right. But decided to continue, without further comment about the required assistance. “I’ll probably be out of contact for several hours, but will try to make some time to bring you up to speed.” Mulder was sure he could hear the clenched jaw, see the tight line of the lips and the slow simmer in Skinner’s eyes. Heading for a clean pair of boxers, he dropped his towel, noting with no small amount of pride the way his partner gave him the once over. Leaning his phone ear to his shoulder, he pulled on the undergarment and headed into the bathroom.

<Look Mulder, I want Scully on stand-by and I’m calling the Albany Field Office. I want you to have Scully talk with Officer Kresge, as well, and alert the Customs and Border officials. Am I making myself clear?>

“Crystal, Sir.” Attempting to shimmy into his faded jeans, he caught Scully’s eyes and rolled his own. He was rewarded with a small smile and shrug of her shoulders as she mouthed, ‘want any help, Mulder?’ He hoped she caught his rather obvious leer as he promised the Assistant Director to keep him apprised.

“Skinner a little gruff Mulder?” Now fully clothed, Scully walked into the bathroom behind him, snagging his belt loop with her index finger and tugging. “You’ve got to go easier on him.”

“What? And break with tradition?” Laying the tube of hair gel back on the counter top, he reached behind him, snagging both her arms, wrapping them around his bare chest. “I calculate you still have a good twenty minutes before you have to leave, Scully.”

Kissing him chastely, her lips still touching him between the shoulder blades, she murmured, “Down boy,” and stepped back out of his reach. “I have to call Skinner now.”

“Oh, by the way, he wanted me to talk to you about seeing if Kimberley can get some of her own in on this as back-up,” he called to her over his shoulder before following her out into the living room area.

Tossing him his cream colored Henley, she asked, “Was there anything else he said I need to know about?” She stood, hands on hips, waiting for him to pull the shirt down, although she wished he never had to cover those abs.

“Well…”

“That’s not an auspicious start to a reply Mulder,” she mused, then suddenly turning more serious, approached him. “He wants me on back-up, doesn’t he?”

“Never could fool you Agent Scully.” He mirrored her pose, hands on his slim hips, but the look in his eyes said he was less than happy about her ability to read the situation.

“He’s right you know. You can’t go in completely alone Mulder.” Much as she wanted to take one of his hands in hers, she knew he needed his space.

“I’m not going in totally alone. He’s calling the Albany Field Office and you’re talking to Kimberley. I can handle myself.” His tone had turned almost petulant, his eyes bordering on defiant.

“Mulder, what’s this about? No one’s questioning your abilities and you know that.” Now she did grasp his biceps, looking him in the eye. “This assignment is no different than any other. Unless there’s something you’re not telling me?”

Shaking his head as if to clear it, he held her arms, connecting them once again. “I’m sorry Scully. It’s nothing and you’re both right and I know it.”

“Wait. Did I just hear you admit that I’m right?”

The lightness of their earlier discussion had returned. “Don’t push it G-Woman.”

Leaning in, she gave him a quick kiss on the lips and then grabbed her own cell phone. While they knew that their boss was very much aware of their relationship, they’d agreed not to be obvious; especially while on assignment.

“Hello, Sir.”

<Agent Scully, so good of you to call>

Not good, she thought. “Sorry for the slight delay Sir, but I do have some information for you. I need—”

<Agent, you need to…> He stopped himself, realizing that he was most likely responding to Scully with the frustration he usually reserved for her partner. And then realized that she probably did deserve at least some of that frustration. Although both were excellent Agents whose skills complimented one another, he had watched Scully occasionally exhibit some of what he privately thought of as ‘Mulder Traits’. This just happened to be one of Mulder’s more significant traits and thank god Scully had not totally mastered the fine art of delaying the report to her superior.

<Let me rephrase that, Scully. What do you have to report?> His fingers pinched the bridge of his nose, pushing his glasses up off his eyes for the briefest second. He drew in a deep breath and tried to slowly exhale.

Thankfully, Mulder had made himself busy at the small dinette table, but she didn’t miss the furtive glances he cast in her direction. She turned her back to him to keep the distractions to a minimum.

After bringing him up to speed on her research findings, she introduced the subject of the new scientist. “I’ve already run a background check, but something still doesn’t sit right with me. I need you to do some digging and see what you turn up. Her name is Aja Sonjah…” Scully continued with what she’d learned.

<I’ll have that information checked out, Scully. Is there anything else?>

“Did you know that Diana Fowley is here?” She heard Mulder wrench around in his chair and knew he was about to come to her. Having no desire to see the look on his face; unsure of whether he’d be supportive of her inquiry or not, she kept her back to him. She knew from her boss’s silent pause that he had not been aware.

<What’s going on up there, Agent?>

Mulder chose that time to approach her, walking in front of her, trying to make eye contact. When she lifted her eyes to him, he mouthed, “What?”, his raised brow clearly indicating his question.

“It’s nothing we can’t handle, Sir,” she asserted, ineffectually pushing her partner, “I was just wondering if you were aware of it.” She shot Mulder an apologetic look, but he merely smiled sheepishly and shrugged.

Handing him her phone, she whispered that their boss wanted to talk to him, adding, “Time to face the music, G-Man.”

For the first several seconds, Mulder held the phone inches from his ear, Scully hugged to his side, wincing at the strident tone wafting over the cellular airwaves. Then he spoke. “No Sir, I hadn’t left you out of the loop intentionally.”

Scully could hear and see the contrition in him and only hoped that Skinner would, once again, just let out a gusty sigh and move on. She listened as Mulder continued his explanation, her hand holding his where it lay on her hip.

“To be perfectly honest, I’d gotten so caught up with this case, my role, that Diana wasn’t the first person on my mind.” He winked at Scully and continued. “Other than our meeting in the hotel lobby, I haven’t seen hide nor hair of her.”

<Fine Agent, but make sure I’m in the loop from this point forward> Before his sometimes wayward subordinate could end the call, Skinner added, <And Mulder? Make sure you steer clear of the former Agent Fowley. I’m guessing you remember just how much trouble she can cause?>

Scully watched the color rise in his cheeks as he snapped the phone closed. She felt the heat of that color in his cheeks as he tossed the phone onto the couch and plopped down, taking her with him.

“Okay Agent Scully, what’s your schedule like? Where do I meet you so I can catch you before my trip?” His mischievous grin belied his hand trying to make its way underneath her shirt.

“Work Mulder; think work.” She pushed herself up off his lap and went to grab her jacket. “I’ll be at the lab all day; probably into the evening, too, but maybe you can stop by on your way out?” She headed for the door, but stopped with her hand on the doorknob. “And Mulder? Put a shirt on. I’m pretty picky about who gets to see you bare-chested.”

He didn’t even have enough time to formulate a witty response before she was out the door.

~~~~~~

Office of the Assistant Director
J.Edgar Hoover Building
Washington, DC

“Kimberly, get me the Burlington Resident Agency over in the Federal Building. I need to talk with their ASAC now. And then have Officer Kimberley Kresge from the OPP on the line for a conference call.” AD Skinner gathered the notes he had from his too brief reports from his star agents in the field. The small pull of his lips over perfectly even white teeth was one of the only indications of his impatience.

“Line one for ASAC Bonesse, Sir.”

“Terese I need some back up in your neck of the woods.” The formalities of socialization were put aside in lieu of quickly setting his plans in motion.

“Name it Walter. I must owe you at least one or two favors by now Old Man.” Her vivacious tone laced with her pseudo-Parisian accent was meant to soothe. She knew well just how tense he could be. She assumed it had something to do with one of his brilliant but wayward agents. The male with the animal name, she guessed. That one seemed to fuel many of her former colleague’s frustrations.

His sigh was audible. She was doing it again. Had he not known of her well-deserved rise through the ranks, he’d have pegged her for a smart-assed flirt. “I need a few of our top field agents to work that case we’ve all been hearing about. I’m going to pull someone else in on this call. Hold on.”

“Wait Walter. This one has you worried; more so than usual. Why?” She’d set the files she was holding when he’d called and was now listening with every fiber of her being.

“Look Terese, let me get Officer Kresge on the line with us. She’s the Canadian suit in this operation and has some valuable experience with what we think we’re dealing with. You can push me to share my emotions later, okay?” He allowed himself a fleeting smile as she sat back in his chair. Skinner listened as the two women made introductions and then cut in. “All right, I need to bring you both up to speed and then call in some support on both sides of the border.” He quickly outlined the facts as he knew them taken from his agents’ reports and other sources and then added his own thoughts.

It was ASAC Bonesse who spoke first. “Well, it sounds to me like we’re looking at a connection between what’s been discovered in Massachusetts, Vermont and on your turf Officer. That drug seems to cut a deep path heading due north.”

“My thoughts exactly ASAC.” That was Kimberley who continued on, highlighting more of what she believed Mulder was probably finding out. “He heads north tonight you said?” She addressed Skinner.

“How much back-up do you need, Skinner?” The ASAC was already reviewing a personnel roster to see who might be available.

“Same goes here, Sir. Just let me know what you need and I’ll be on the phone to my commander. He’s doing to have to deploy some of the force outside Niagara since they’re not considered a regular law enforcement unit. Not for what they may be called upon to do if they have to intercede.” Kimberley was itching to get moving now.

Skinner worked out the logistics, reasoning that he may need a few field agents to follow Mulder’s trail and cross the border with him. He would let Officer Kresge call the shots once they arrived on her home turf.

He sincerely hoped that whatever was put in motion was not needed, but he didn’t have a good feeling about this. Sending a solo agent in without back-up was certainly not a rare occurrence, but was thought to be highly risky. The odds seemed to be more heavily stacked when sending in someone who tended to consider himself outside the realm of protocol. He shook his head, silently brushing that thought aside. Mulder might have some methods that strayed from the straight and narrow, but there was no doubt that the man got things done.

~~~~~~

Given Building
University of Vermont
Monday, 25 September
Noontime

Scully swung the Maxima in a wide arc, taking the last parking slot in the over-crowded lot. Aside from vehicular congestion, the lot served as a crosswalk for the throngs of students moving as one; flooding from the building and onto either their next class or lunch break. Seemingly oblivious to the effects of their mass movements, they sauntered, backpacks overloaded, chatting with one another.

Scully gathered her belongings and exited her car, shaking her head, a fond memory of her college days drifting through her unexpectedly. She made her way against the tide of pedestrian traffic into the science building, a small smile playing on her lips.

Entering the lab itself quickly doused all reminiscing. Other members of her team were already busy setting up the equipment in order to perform advanced testing. Scanning their faces, some already in goggles, a few in face masks, she noted the absence of Dr. Sonjah. Checking her watch and then glancing to the large wall clock, she confirmed that it was indeed the stipulated meeting time.

“Dr. Radikel, may I have a word with you?” Scully indicated they move to the side of the room. “Will Dr. Sonjah be joining us today?”

A brief look of confusion passed over Kyla’s face. “I’m not sure why she’s not here yet. She is critical to some of today’s procedures as I’m sure you’re aware, Dr. Scully.”

Just as Scully was about to speak, the double doors swung open and Aja Sonjah whisked through, a scowl of impatience on her face. Still moving, she asked, “Are we all ready for today’s round of experiments? Everyone in place?”

Kyla Radikel hustled forward, anxious to quell any concerns from the guest scientist. “We’re all set to go, Aja. We were actually just waiting on you.”

Hoping to forestall the potential tempers flaring, Scully moved forward, standing between the two scientists. “I think we’d all agree we’ve got our work cut out for us?” Without waiting for a response, she pulled her goggles on and headed for the main lab bench.

Other than the various sounds of technicians moving past each other, murmuring questions or directions and the clinking and motorized sounds of equipment, they worked quietly for nearly an hour.

Until Aja broke the silence with an uncharacteristic exclamation and all activity stopped abruptly. Had she yelled ‘Eureka!’ the effect wouldn’t have been any stronger.

“This cannot be!” She set the beaker on the marble counter top with enough force to shatter it but since her latexed hand was partially underneath it, the container remained intact.

Scully rounded the edge of the work area, leaving her notes behind, and approached the researcher, one eyebrow raised. “What is it, Doctor?” A whisper of doubt colored her tone. It was not a good sign when a previously even-keeled or level-headed researcher displayed such an uncharacteristic outburst. It didn’t sound promising to Scully. Not at all.

“I want everyone front and center. Someone has most likely tampered with the samples and I’d like to know why.” Dr. Sonjah’s crossed arms and tapping foot showed classic impatience. Her up-tilted chin accompanying the downward angle of her eyes struck Scully as pure power-play.

“You know we all left here together and that no one has access to the storage area we’re using, Aja.” Scully stood her ground in facing her colleague, her head tilted to one side, her arms also crossed in front of her.

It was Kyla Radikel who stepped in to release the tension. “Dr. Sonjah, if you let us know exactly what you’ve found we can rectify it immediately, but I must stand with Dr. Scully about the security of this lab.”

“The sample is not how it was left.” Reaching for the beaker, the taller woman thrust it between them, noting how both Kyla and Dana’s eyes flicked to the container and then to each other. “I see you can confirm my finding?”

Scully’s face remained passive, belying just how taken aback by the sarcasm of the response she was. “What I see Dr. Sonjah is most definitely a changed state from our last work with this specimen. What I fail to extrapolate from the changed state is that one of us is responsible. Would you care to more clearly outline your supposition on that matter?”

Noting the somewhat wide-eyed looks on the Technicians’ faces, Kyla suggested that the three senior scientists move the discussion into the lab office.

Aja stopped him, her tone cooling down. “That won’t be necessary Dr. Radikel. I’ve been prematurely accusatory. Dr. Scully is correct; I have no proof of anything other than a need to further study the dynamism of our sample.” Before anyone could comment, she continued, placing the beaker back on the counter top and heading toward the door. “I’m going to do some further research back at my place and will contact Dr. Scully as soon as I find what I’m looking for. Please accept my apologies for becoming so outlandish in my conclusions.” A weak smile formed as she turned to leave.

Scully visually followed the woman as she strode through the double doors, the unsettling feeling refusing to budge.

~~~~~~

“Langly, stop the tape.”

<Done, Mulder>

Shaking his head at the familiar routine involved in gaining access to his favorite group of paranoid friends, Mulder laughed. “I need some information, guys. And preferably yesterday.”

<Go> Langly had retained possession of the phone, but Mulder had no doubt that the other two were listening via speaker.

“Two requests. One, did you find anything out yet about Dr. Aja Sonjah and next, I need a background check on a Jemel and a Mr. Zale. I’m not sure on the first name, but that probably won’t matter much. They’re first level flunkies for Proteus, head honcho.”

<This could take awhile, Mulder> Byers smooth tone replaced Langly’s laconic drawl..

“I haven’t got it, guys. I’m heading north in a few hours. I’m cashing in on a favor.” Mulder paced, sunflower seeds going from hand to mouth, his lips working the seed out of its shell.

<What favor? I could’ve sworn we were even>

“Fro? We’re never even. You ought to know that by now.” Mulder plopped down on the side of the bed, listening to the trio’s chatter as they worked the various keyboards.

<Hey, Mulder, didn’t Scully ask us for info on Dr. Aja already?> Langly’s question was quickly followed by Frohike’s verbal jibing and Byers telling them both to quiet down and get back to work.

“Yeah, she did ask already, but she’s at the lab and I thought I’d deliver it first hand.”

Byers cut in. <Okay, Mulder; everything Scully found out in her routine check is accurate, but the good Doc S has previously been known as Aja Asai and Aja Senai. Those aliases were all but hidden, but with Langly’s new program we—>

“Uh, guys…send me the text version later, all right?” Back to his pacing, Mulder made mental note of what he was hearing.

<At any rate, we found something interesting on her, but then the trail really does go cold. More than cold. It froze us out of the data site. She did a stint here in the states for awhile at MIT. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology hired her for a trial on a new drug sometime last January. She was there three months and then made a somewhat hasty retreat back to Seoul. That’s all there is> Byers summation ended in silence; his fellow Gunmen had nothing to add. For once. “All right, so we’ve got some mystery, but nothing nefarious. What name did she go by while at MIT?”

The clacking sound of keyboarding again and then Frohike replied, <She was Aja Sonjah there. It looks like her aliases existed in the Far East and…wait… possibly Europe>

Switching gears, Mulder then asked about Zale knowing they were already ferreting out the details.

The elder Gunman replied as he scrolled through the data appearing on his screen. <Well, look what we have here…>

Rolling his eyes, Mulder bit his tongue to keep from asking Frohike what he’d found. He knew he’d learn about the discovery soon enough. As soon as his partner in conspiracy was ready to share.

“Ok, Fro. 5-4-3-2—”

<I’m working, Mulder good buddy; okay, okay…here we go…got it!>

“You’re killing me here. Spit it out.” Exasperation was starting to get the better of Mulder, his patience wearing thin.

<All right. This guy, Ernesto Xavier Zale, has quite the pedigree. All he’s missing is a degree from the school of hard knocks. The man’s got a degree in Pharmacology from a prestigious New England school, holds a Ph.D. in Behavioral Genetics. Seems he did both in record time; a five year stint. You there, man?>

“I’m here, I’m here. Keep talking.”

<That Pharm program was usually a five year plan and the doctorate was supposed to be at least another two with his dissertation. He did the Evelyn Woods speed reading version. Oh, wait, guess you might be too young for that little analogy, big guy>

Mulder could hear the keyboard strokes again and he assumed that more information was being pulled forth. He was not disappointed, but it was Langly who picked up the reporting.

<Mulder. Bet you’re wondering how our scholastic wunderkind ended up on sweep up crew for the big Kahuna. Seems he got himself into a bit of trouble with unorthodox research methods while working on his terminal degree. Looks like the mysterious drug lord swooped in to save his sorry ass. Can we say major indebtedness?> Langly let out a whistle of amazement and then settled back in his chair.

“Thanks, guys. And here I thought I was just dealing with a sharp dressed man. Gotta run.” Mulder was about to end the connection when he heard Byers tell him to stay in touch. Always the perfect gentleman that man…

~~~~~~

Bio-Sciences Lab
4:00PM

She was serving as sweep batter for the home team…and wondering why she was thinking in baseball analogies once again. Ahh…the Mulder influence. She shook her head, smiling, and finished replacing the samples and taking the used glassware to the sterilizer.

She was looking forward to heading home to something hot for dinner and a good book. She was not looking forward to an evening without Mulder. Although she probably wouldn’t get to read that book if he were around, she mused. Although, she hadn’t done much pleasure reading since they’d started spending serious out of work time together. Heck, between ‘in work’ and ‘out of work’ time, there wasn’t much of it spent without him. And she had to admit she was pretty happy about that.

Unbuttoning her lab coat as she closed an equipment drawer with her hip, she shrugged it off, laying it over the back of the chair by the computer. It had been a strange day. Her mind went back over the scene with the renowned scientist and the startled expressions on the technician’s faces as Dr. Sonjah departed. Everything had appeared to have returned to normal, but Scully had not felt right. Something was definitely ‘off’.

Lost in her reverie, she did not hear Mulder enter, his hiking boots making the slightest footfall as he crept up on her. Nor did she feel the puff of air he breathed into her hair just before he wrapped his arms around her from behind. “Mulder!” Her exclamation slash high-pitched shriek turned to a laugh as he grabbed her in what he liked to call a ‘reverse hug’, holding her cheek to cheek. If she looked directly sideways, she could make out his face before her vision blurred.

In a hushed tone, she said, “I told you not to sneak up on me, Mulder. It could be dangerous to your health.”

She could feel the rumble of his laughter as he replied, “I’m shakin’ in my boots, Scully. Besides, I’ve got you pinned. You’re not going anywhere, let alone inflicting any ‘danger’ on me.” As if to prove his point, she felt his arms tighten around her as he nipped at her jaw line.

He was asking for it and before he could go any farther, she’d clasped her hands together in a tight grasp, shrugging her shoulders upward imperceptibly. Making sure to keep her contact with him, she shoved up and back, causing him to release her with a surprised ‘oh’. “Who’s shaking now, Mulder?”

Smiling, she turned toward him, one hand idly patting him where she’d pushed moments before. Soothing. After glancing behind them, she reached up for his face and drew him to her, their lips meeting.

And disengaging just as quickly. Holding on to his shirt, she asked, “Where are you taking me?”

The fact that he was cupping her bent elbows barely had time to register before she felt herself propelled upward and onto the counter top. She knew he was having a hard time concealing the sparkle of mischief in his eyes when he told her, “Who said anything about going anywhere?”

“Mulder, much as I’d like nothing better than—” She watched his fingers come up to shush her.

“I’ve always wanted to have a little scientific fun with Dr. Scully and it looks like the coast is clear and since I’m leaving in a few hours, I thought—” Now it was her turn to stop his seductive rambling. She knew that if she allowed him to continue, he’d easily talk her into whatever his creatively active mind had devised. “Mulder, I need to talk to you first.”

She watched the change in his demeanor, knowing he understood the seriousness behind her words. “Then talk to me, Scully.”

She smiled, leaning forward to chastely kiss him on his bottom lip. There were just times she absolutely treasured this man and those times seemed to occur in the oddest situations. “It’s Dr. Sonjah. I can’t get a read on her and I’m really wondering if there’s something there; something my quick background check didn’t uncover.”

“Funny you should mention her.” He stepped back and then hopped up onto the counter beside her. “I’ve been doing some of my own checking; with the assistance of our good friends.” His satisfied smile told her the Gunmen were the ‘good friends’ he referred to.

“And?”

“And,” he continued, patting her jeans for emphasis, “She seems to check out. She has a few aliases, but her research, degrees and experience are all the real thing.”

Wrinkling her brow in thoughtful silence, she paused. When she spoke again, she had his full attention. “Mulder, doesn’t that strike you as odd? Most people don’t have several aliases.”

“I never said it didn’t strike me as odd, Scully, only that her background checks out. I still think you’re wise to have your concerns. You know I trust your judgment.”

She searched his face, knowing he did indeed trust her; trust her judgment. Just as she did him, his. The man could be downright frustrating one minute and simply wonderful the next. An endless enigma. An enigma she hoped she never completely fathomed.

Leaning into him, she rested her hand on his thigh and sighed. “I do know that Mulder, and I’m just going to observe from this point on. I have to admit the woman’s made great strides in the research and I’m extremely curious to see what else she turns up.” Withdrawing from the warmth of his body, she slid off the counter. Glancing at her watch, she told him, “You better get going.”

His face registering mock surprise and feigned disappointment, he asked, “You’re trying to get rid of me?” He joined her on the floor, pulling her into a bear hug. “And I had such big plans for us, Scully. Do you wanna hear what I had in mind?”

Tempting as his offer was, she knew that her capacity to forestall his actions was ebbing the longer he hung around. She had work to do back at the hotel and he had to arrive on time. Hooking her fingers into his back belt loops, she drew him closer. “How about I take a rain check on whatever it is you had in mind? Just till you get back.”

Sliding one leg between hers, he allowed his hands to meander down her back until they reached her behind, the denim hugging her only slightly tighter than his hands did. “You drive a tough bargain Scully, but I guess I’m going to have to wait.”

Turning them so his back was to the double doors, she unhooked her finger from his waistband and moved her hand between them. “Be good, Mulder.”

She smiled when she heard him groan.

~~~~~~

Battery Street
Burlington-Port Kent, NY Ferry Docks
5:00PM

Mulder had marked off the 15 steps between the departure dock and the small bar immediately to its left four times already. Although he had absolutely no use for the information, he could anticipate each random crack in the sidewalk and how many times the flickering Amstel sign in the shop window would flash its orangey neon before he turned and walked back again. They were late. More likely, he mused, they were observing him from a safe distance somewhere nearby.

Laughter didn’t seem the appropriate action, but he needed something to keep from being completely overtaken by boredom. Trying not to glance at his watch yet again, he decided he’d give his colleagues another five minutes before leaving. They needed to know he’d only be pushed so far. Besides, he could think of better ways to while away the evening…

“Mr. Arsenault, so good of you to come on time,” Jemel smirked as she strutted toward him.

Mulder squelched his need to verbally reply, but couldn’t totally avoid the fragment of a thought about ‘coming’ that sprung to mind. The only outward display of his internal comment was a nod and a wry grin.

“Let’s get this show on the road.” Zale clapped Mulder on the back causing him to wonder when Proteus’ henchman had become so friendly. He moved toward the now-familiar truck and motioned to the taller man to get into the passenger side. Jemel would be driving this time.

Before she’d even had time to pull away from the curb, Zale was affably outlining the nature of their trip, his tone so light and casual that it caused Mulder to wonder if he were yet again being tested, maybe even trapped. How, he wasn’t sure, but he couldn’t shake the sense that he should remain on-guard with these two. At least he had the seat closest to the door, literally had an ‘out’ if he needed it.

Jemel, for her part, was quiet, guiding them onto the interstate, her fingers occasionally drumming on the dash to the local country station. She would occasionally glance toward the two men, but otherwise occupied herself with the navigation and driving. Leaving Mulder to Zale. “So, Chris, I bet you’re wondering about this job.” He didn’t wait for a response, continuing on with what sounded like a prepared speech. “And so you should. It’s not often that the Boss allows a new recruit in on such a big job so soon.” Although he hadn’t turned toward the speaker, Zale’s glance in his direction wasn’t lost on Mulder. In response, he merely nodded slightly, indicating that he’d heard.

“Bet you’d like to know more about the Boss, too.”

Mulder caught the sharp look Jemel gave her cohort at that statement. He was being taunted and the woman was probably concerned that the need to reveal all that he knew was making Zale more talkative than usual. “Zale, stop rambling and tell Chris what he needs to know.” Her rebuke settled over him visibly although Mulder knew the man tried to hide it.

“Yeah, so as I was saying, I hear you have some background with the substance we’re picking up tonight, Chris.” The statement hung between them for a beat and then Zale continued. “Well, it’s got some new properties we hadn’t known about before. Now the Boss wants it badly. That also means, however, that others want it, too, and it’s in short supply right now. Hence, the need to make tracks.”

Jemel’s eyes had returned to the road, now satisfied that her partner wasn’t about to give away the family farm — or any of Proteus’ secrets. Zale fidgeted, anticipating Mulder’s reply.

And Mulder wasn’t quite sure what to say. He had a lot of questions now; especially about this drug he ‘had some background with’. It had to be the paste. The information set his mind working, thinking about Scully’s research and the new scientist his partner had her suspicions about. If Proteus was involved… Mulder needed time to puzzle this all out. And that was exactly what he didn’t have right now.

He decided to stick to information gathering to show interest in the project, hopefully without tipping his hand. “Are we running against those groups tonight?”

“Good question, Chris,” Jemel commented, pleased, “Our sources seem to think we have a head start, but we’re not sure exactly who else is working against us.”

Well, he thought, he could probably help them out there, but down that road lay potential conflict of interest. Not to mention, Scully. “How long to our destination?” Mulder watched Zale turn to Jemel for the answer.

“I’d say an hour. We’re not sure if we’ll need to border-cross, but we have some of our own stationed there already just in case.”

~~~~~~

The Given Building
Sub-basement Level 2
7:24PM

Her soft-soled shoes squeaked slightly on the new cushioned linoleum flooring in the hallway outside the suite as she made her way to the entrance or the vault door as she liked to think of it. Her knapsack was filled with last minute items although she knew Jorge himself had seen to it that all other provisions were in place. He’d personally assured her that the larder had been stocked for a six-month stay if that’s what she required. For once, she had bestowed genuine praise upon a subordinate. He had gone above and beyond and would be rewarded handsomely for his efforts.

Of course, she wouldn’t be here that long. With any luck she, her associates and her ‘guests’ would most likely be here no longer than a few weeks; a month at the longest, but it never hurt to be prepared.

It had been a sheer stroke of luck finding and obtaining discreet access to the old tunnels connecting the biological sciences building to its counterpart structures in the vicinity. A few greased palms and carefully chosen promises of revenge exacted should tongues wag ensured complete seclusion. It had taken only two months for the preparations to be made; plans drawn out, work completed and a friendly building inspector who gave her the occupancy approval.

Diana smiled then, a full-blown, one-sided picture of mirth and excitement. The real beauty of her location was her ability to hide in plain sight. The constant rush and press of students, faculty and staff camouflaged her visits. Since she was already known on the campus, her comings and goings did not arouse suspicion — she was a known quantity. Or so everyone thought. Inserting the keycard, she stepped forward, her eye level with the sensor device. Ward and Bishop had seen to the retinal scanning device telling her that it topped the fingerprint swipes so often used in high security sectors. Whatever. Money was not much of an object for her, but high-tech security was. The airlock was unsealed with an accompanying heavy whooshing sound, the door irising open and then closed again as she stepped through.

She moved quickly into her area of the suite, depositing her knapsack on the workbench, actually Dr. Sonjah’s station, and proceeded to the smaller inner room. She followed the same procedures here, now waiting impatiently for the door to open. Once inside, she hastily scanned the area noting that everything was as she had left it just a few days earlier. Walking the perimeter, she glanced over at the concealed door. Her alternate route to safety should something go awry. Not that she was worried; she’d come too far for doubts. But, Diana Fowley was also a realist and had a healthy respect for back-up plans. Should all hell break loose, she would be gone before anyone had a chance to even notice that she’d been here.

Although still quite lop-sided, her smile broadened considerably when she thought about the room’s soon-to-be first occupant.

Dialing Aja Sonjah’s number, she turned on the speaker and paced, listening to the busy signal before stabbing at the ‘redial’ button. The second time was the charm. “Sonjah here.”

The crisp and succinct salutation made the Fowley woman smirk. The doc was damn good, but she was also full of herself. Making her the perfect, if unwitting, accomplice. “It’s time, Aja.” Three words were all she needed and she ended the call. She checked her watch, silently counting down the minutes until the doc would arrive. She was much too excited to contemplate the minutes until her plan came to fruition.

~~~~~~

Swanton, Vermont
7:30PM

They had exited Interstate 89 onto local Route 21, heading northwest toward East Alburg, just south of the Canadian border. The traffic had thinned considerably once they left the interstate and Mulder was hard-pressed to see much scenery other than farmland and the occasional residential area. As Jemel swung the truck to the right, he noted what looked like a narrow, meandering river. They crossed, now on a winding back road following small signs for ‘Duck Creek’. He was playing in the big leagues now, Mulder mused silently, knowing that his somewhat dry sense of humor might not be especially appreciated right now.

Nonetheless, he couldn’t resist asking, “Are we almost there?” In the darkening night around them, he couldn’t make out Zale’s or Jemel’s expressions, but the snort he heard told him his bit of humor hadn’t gone unnoticed. Silence reigned for all of about ten seconds and then he heard Jemel defer to her associate.

“Here or farther north?” She slowed the vehicle, but did not stop entirely.

“Hold on a sec, but keep driving.” Zale flipped open his cell phone and speed dialed. “Yeah, we’re in Duck Creek. Where to tonight?” After a few nods, he flipped the phone closed. “Take your next right and head for Brush Creek. Road’s going to be your typical back country two-lane. Follow it till you can’t go any farther. No border crossing tonight.”

“Who changed the plans? Proteus distinctly said we’d be crossing. What’re you not sharing, Zale?” She spat the words at him as if hoping to wound him.

“‘Proteus said’? C’mon, Jemel, that’s childish coming from you. You know plans are subject to change. We’re not dealing with an exact science here,” he snorted, laughing at his own feeble attempt at a joke and then continued, “Well, then again, it is a pretty exact science, but we’ve got to stay sharp. Now, just drive or I’ll take over for you.”

Mulder felt the tension like static electricity in the cab, but wisely kept silent. This was not his affair and could prove useful in terms of who was the stronger of the two. So far, it seemed to be a draw.

Forcing herself to remain neutral and curb her earlier outburst, Jemel replied, “I’ll drive.” Simple, to the point, and silence shrouded them once again.

Approximately twenty minutes later, she drove off the two lane blacktop and pulled into a sandy scrubby trail, pine trees framing them. Shutting off the engine and killing the headlights, she reached for the door handle. Zale’s hand on her arm stilled her. “Wait,” he intoned quietly.

Mulder didn’t realize he was holding his breath, his eyes darting from side to side and then out the windshield and at the side-view mirror until Zale spoke again.

“We’re supposed to sit tight till we get the signal. You’ll be getting out first, Chris. Head for that stand of trees and wait there until you see me or Jemel approach. Got it?” His words were clipped, but without the directive quality they’d had with him earlier; possibly a sign he was finally being accepted into this group.

“I’ve got it.” Mulder’s response was equally succinct.

Jemel, for her part, felt as if she were being left out of the loop, although that was pretty much standard operating procedure lately. What good did serving as the Boss’s Number One do when she seemed to be the one taking, rather than giving, the orders. That was about to change. “Look, Zale,” she whispered gruffly, “we’re not sending Chris out there first. Either we all go or I go and I don’t care who you just talked to unless it was the man himself.”

Chris had to face the window to keep himself from chuckling. These two were quite the pair. He wondered idly if he and Scully sounded like that to outsiders and then mentally shook his head. No, they couldn’t; they were much more in synch and there wasn’t the need for either of them to vie for power. They knew who signed their paychecks, knew what it meant to work as a team. Although, Mulder amended, Scully knew much more about the teamwork part of the relationship than he did, but at least they knew enough to keep their disagreements professional.

Zale finally sat perfectly still, nodding only once and then turned toward the woman driver. Mulder wished he’d just stop moving; he was getting tired of the man’s hips butting into him, nudging him against the hard door. And he found himself quite surprised when Zale apologized to Jemel.

“You’re right, Jemel; what would you suggest?” Mulder could swear he heard a patronizing smirk in his voice, but to his credit, he waited to hear what she had to say.

“We all get out now and make for the woods. I don’t want to be sitting ducks in the cab.” Her response was definitive, but Mulder was concerned that they’d be even worse off without the vehicle should they need it. However, he conceded that they knew their work better than he, knowing he’d be keeping the truck in plain sight.

~~~~~~

Radisson Hotel
7:30PM

She felt like her partner. Or rather, the bed and floor had that ‘on-a-case-Mulder look’—papers strewn on the bedspread, folders stacked on any available table surface. The only things missing were the empty and half-empty cups of coffee, wrappers from the latest in junk food and sunflower seed remnants.

Scully hadn’t realized she’d become so lost in her work until she’d turned to refill her water and knocked a few folders onto the carpet; meager pages drifting to the floor. Having visited the UVM library and been granted permission to pull some monographs and other printed materials for temporary use, she had spent the afternoon making notes and making some minor, but interesting discoveries.

And now she needed a break. Setting her glasses on the bedside stand, she rubbed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose. She headed for the bathroom, for another glass of water and added some ice from the bucket on the countertop. Making her way to the stuffed chair by the window, she set the tumbler down and picked up her cell. Although he’d only left a few hours earlier, she found herself missing her partner. That seemed to happen a lot lately, she thought. Something about that thought was faintly troubling, but she couldn’t put her finger on exactly why.

On a basic intellectual level, she knew that being parted from a loved one often made one sad, made one long for their return. But it was more than that. She took another gulp of the cold water, the melting ice cubes hitting against her teeth, and then held the glass in front of her watching the movement of the cubes in the clear liquid.

There were times when they were away from each other for short spans of time due to work where it actually hurt and she wondered about the depth and source of such a strong feeling. She who prided herself on being fiercely independent and keeping others at a relative and safe distance had not only let him in, but allowed him; no—wanted him—to be an integral part of her life in all things.

She knew that she retained her sense of self when she was with him, but sometimes the intensity of their connectedness gave her pause. Scared her. She faced the fact that although she was no stranger to intimacy, she couldn’t recall any previous relationships wherein she’d felt so at ease, so cherished, so loved and so valued for simply being the only person she knew how to be.

And that was why she needed to call Mulder now. She wanted to hear his voice, but also knew that he would probably have the phone turned off and would not be able to talk to her, so she planned on leaving him a message. How desperate was she when his recorded voice would suffice? Not desperate at all, she corrected herself, just a woman who missed a very important person in her life.

Finishing the last of the water, she set the glass down beside her and toed off her unlaced tennis shoes, placing her feet on the ottoman. Fingering #1, she slouched back with the phone at her ear, listening to it ring. After the fourth ring, the message played, ‘Mulder. Leave a message.’ Smiling to herself at the effect the four words had, she replied, ‘Mulder it’s me. I’m working on a little research and am taking a break. I—’ she found herself pausing, suddenly phone shy with her own partner. ‘Oh heck, I miss you. Love you.’ She hung up letting the phone rest in her lap. The smile lingering.

~~~~~~

Brush Creek, Vermont
Sometime Later…

He wandered off ahead of Jemel and Zale, hoping to call Scully and let her know where he was. But he had paced no more than about fifty steps when he felt Zale’s hand on his shoulder. Stuffing the phone back in his pocket aborted his attempt to retrieve his waiting message. Although he hadn’t had enough time to see the caller ID, he knew it had to be from Scully.

“Where do you think you’re going, Chris?” Zale’s question held no malice and he spoke in a gruff whisper. “Rule Number 2 — don’t go off on your own. In this profession, one really can be the loneliest number.”

Allowing himself to be redirected back toward the waiting Jemel, Mulder scanned the area. They really were out in the middle of nowhere and he idly wondered why this spot was chosen. The remoteness was certainly a factor, but other than the possibility of being closer to their contacts, he saw no rhyme or reason for the location. His mouth half open, the was partially formed when he noticed the lights off to the northwest. From the shape and height, he was relatively sure he was looking at rag top jeep and two larger SUVs traveling in single file over the rough terrain.

“Show time.” Jemel situated herself between the two men. “Zale, you know the drill. Chris, you’re flanking us; hang back and close to the truck. I hear you’ve got a good memory for detail. Make use of it here. Descriptions, intonation; whatever you can pick up.”

Mulder was confused. Thought this meeting was a mutually beneficial arrangement, but it was sounding like a set up. “I thought they were on our side,” he quipped, trying to keep it casual.

His attempt at humorous inquiry was lost in the sound of the vehicles screeching to a stop and in the shroud of dry soil kicked up from the tires on-a-dime stopping. Mulder watched with piqued curiosity as the lightweight plastic windowed doors of the first vehicle opened, disgorging three occupants; one man and two women. The two dark colored SUVs were driven by men.

If looks were to be believed, this group had probably been bikers in their younger years. Either that, he mused, or they owned stock in a biker clothing company. Dressed in head to toe black leather, the driver and two passengers of the first off-road vehicle approached Jemel. The two women appeared to be twins, cropped dark hair tucked behind their ears which boasted a cascading line of small hoop earrings. They seemed to be sizing up Jemel — almost as intensely as she was them. The driver approached Zale, ignoring his companions, and shook his hand, then clapped his shoulder.

Mulder’s attention was diverted to the two approaching men. Both were blocky; nearly as solidly wide as they were tall. Zale introduced them as Blake and Dennis. For some reason, he had failed to introduce the first man and Mulder had the idea that Zale had no plans to do so. Somehow, it had turned out that they were now standing around making what passed for small talk in gender specific groupings—three men and three women.

Jemel kept shooting looks in both Zale and Mulder’s direction, but Mulder was the one who read her signal — ‘Get over here now.’ Lightly elbowing Zale and nodding in her direction, they hastened over to the women.

Zale and Mulder were introduced to Star and Sarah. And that signaled the end of informal chit chat. Moving as a rag tag unit into the more wooded area, Mulder glanced once back toward the truck, his gaze surveying the area as they walked. Recalling Jemel’s instructions to scope and memorize the area and the proceedings, he then inspected the area more closely. The moon was in its second quarter lending a wan milky light through the clouds. Once they left the more open area, he noticed how the pines crowded the narrow path, their weight causing them to form an archway, drenching them in near-blackness.

After about fifteen minutes, Zale held up his hand, bringing the group to an abrupt halt. Sarah and Star unzipped jacket pockets, producing small penlights, setting them on the lowest beam. As if on cue, the unnamed driver opened the flap on his waist pack and drew out four small, stoppered vials.

~~~~~~

Office of AD Skinner
Still Monday, 25 September
8:12PM

He stood facing the drawn blinds behind his desk, small spots of bright light slipping between the horizontal slats, telling AD Skinner that it was far past quitting time. Now there was a concept, he thought sarcastically. He seemed to spend more and more hours at the Hoover Building, his ‘home away from home’. Another idle thought, this one leaning toward ironic…in a very sad sort of way. At one time, he’d wanted the Bureau to be his life; had been consumed by his sense of duty, his need to serve his country in a way that was hopefully far removed from his tour of duty in ‘Nam. But always playing the offense, always hopefully one step ahead of the real or imagined enemy.

Then he’d met someone who offered him more, offered him a concomitant and a complimentary way to live his life. She was brightness to his sometimes dour outlook, spontaneity to his oft-times rigid planning, softness to his occasional gruffness. Initially, he’d been pulled into her lifestyle, allowing her to draw on that which was already there, allowing it to surface as she’d known it would. Her unwitting demise as his life partner had been assuming that Walter S. Skinner was ready to let the rest of him fall away, to allow his cleverly-hidden warmth to show itself.

He never faulted Sharon; not really. She’d wanted the best for him, to make a life for them, but, in so doing, had all but denied his need to serve, to try to right all that he perceived was wrong in his corner of the world. ‘A losing battle’ she had told him so many times. ‘Try to relax and let us live’ she entreated. He’d tried and he had truly loved her; probably still did, but that hadn’t been enough.

So, he’d buried himself further into life behind his office walls, sometimes forgetting what lay outside.

Skinner really couldn’t say that he’d been bored, however. His two X-Files Agents saw to it that he had a never-ending stream of surprises and gaffes and just plain excitement. Not to sell Mulder and Scully short, they also continued to see to it that he had a very high case resolution rate. So, he’d put up with the rest. And, to be fair, he thought, they also kept him on his toes. In their own way, they had the same goals even if their objectives sometimes differed. One of their last cases had also been fateful for him in the private sector, as he was wont to refer to it. Through work connections, he’d met ASAC, now AD, Whirll from the Boston Field Office. Turning back to his desk, he gathered the five file folders he’d been juggling and tried to pull them into some sense of order.

And found himself smiling, albeit sparingly. Kristy was good for him. Very good. She understood the machinations of Bureau life and had the biting drive necessary to make changes even when they occurred one small step at a time.

He plopped down in his office chair, the weight of the memories washing over him. He hadn’t really talked to her since she’d moved to DC, her promotion instigated by him, but no less deserved. Oh, they’d had the occasional work conversation, but had also been so deeply buried into work that even with the new proximity, had not found enough time to connect. He’d have to rectify that. Soon.

Pulling his small calendar book from his pocket, he made a note to call her when he got home, knowing she kept the same crazy hours he did.

Crazy hours…he knew he’d stayed for a reason and his mind zeroed in on Mulder. He was waiting for an update on his trip north. Well, they both had their cell phones. God knew Mulder lived with that thing attached to his ear most times. When he wasn’t losing or destroying it, Walter amended silently, shaking his head.

Although he’d spoken to both Agents earlier, his gut was telling him he needed to know more about what was going on. His motivation wasn’t spurred by his concerns about their capabilities; he knew the extent of their skills, their ability to handle the unknown and their intuition. It had more to do with the fact that Skinner felt that as with so many others they’d investigated, there was more than one layer involved. The complexity always made him a bit on edge; especially when he couldn’t jump right in himself. The need to act growing, he stuffed the files into his briefcase and grabbed the phone, deciding that he would check in with Kimberley Kresge before trying to reach Scully. Dialing her cell, he reached her almost before the first full ring was heard. A good sign. Removing his glasses and setting them on the gleaming wooden desktop, he leaned forward, the elbows of his white dress shirt on the blotter. <Hello> Her voice was crisp, attentive.

“Officer Kresge, this is Walter Skinner. I’m sorry for the late hour—” He was about to get to the point, but she’d stopped his apology, telling him that law enforcement ‘types’ didn’t seem to have special hours. He hoped she could hear his small smile as he continued. “Agreed. I need an update on your field agents.”

Equally all-business, she paused, the sound of rustling paper making its way through their connection. <I’ve pulled in a few men who have worked on special assignment with me. They’re known for their ability to, shall we say, read between the lines and then keep their eyes and mouths shut? My last contact with them was at 0600 and they reported no activity close to the border>

He sighed heavily. Maybe this wouldn’t get as complicated as he’d feared. “Thank you, Officer—”

She’d cut him off once again. <It’s Kimberley. Work must be getting to that fine mind of yours. I thought I remembered us being on a first name basis, Walter>

He found himself actually laughing. He needed a colleague like her. Keen and sharp, quick on the uptake, but able to show her more human side. “I think this case probably is getting to me a little. Too many variables. But then again, what else was new? Mulder and Scully seem to be drawn to them. Thanks again, Off…Kimberley, and keep me posted. At whatever hour.”

He ended the conversation, dialing the Albany Field Office.

~~~~~~

Radisson Hotel
9:00PM

Lifting her fingers from the keyboard, Scully stretched, arms overhead, letting out a deep sigh. Having spent the better part of an hour typing in some supporting information gleaned from the various library journal articles, she was feeling sleepy and stiff. And it was much too early to be this tired. Pushing away from the hotel room’s work area, she saved her document and then dimmed the screen on her laptop.

Something was niggling at her, but she couldn’t quite put her finger on it. It hovered maddeningly just out of reach, her brows furrowed in mild consternation. Sometimes, walking away for awhile and otherwise occupying her mind, would bring clarity. Hands at her waist on her lower back, eyes lowered, she paced toward the suite’s door. In her mind, she saw the various article titles superimposed on her earlier reports on the CAT54 substance. She was missing a connection that was frustratingly close at hand. ‘Enough’, she told herself and shook her head in an attempt to clear it.

Her sleepiness of mere minutes ago had vanished and she was filled with an anticipatory energy. The same energy that always seemed to invade her when she was close to making an important discovery or connection. But she felt caged in her otherwise spacious accommodations.

Usually when she reached this precipice working on a case, she’d share her seemingly-scattered and random thoughts with Mulder. What felt ‘scattered’ to her would appear organized and prioritized to him. Most often, he’d merely listen to her, nodding, verbally using those minimal encouragers that miraculously seemed to help her move on; uttering nothing more than a few well-placed, ‘uh-huhs’ and ‘got its’ or ‘yeahs’. Occasionally, he’d pull out the well-formed question that would help her gather the stray bits of information together, helping her bring it into focus, those stray bits coalescing into a cogent answer.

She needed him here now.

Usually it could wait for a short time, but this case, these answers, were interwoven in an intricate pattern, tying together the discovery of a potentially dangerous weapon and…and their very lives. They had both been exposed to the substance although only she seemed to retain any lingering effects. She’d not experienced the dizziness or fainting associated with her earlier time in Burlington, but she wouldn’t delude herself into thinking that the substance was completely out of her system. The fact was she just didn’t know enough.

She needed him here to give voice to her newest concerns. Concerns that to her own ears sounded alien, foreign. Concerns that she was sure would elicit a raised eyebrow — or maybe two — from him. She found herself wondering about the substance’s ability to transport more than people. She’d made a possibly unfounded leap that it might be used to transport the very drugs her partner was trying to interrupt. In her partner’s absence, which she was feeling much more keenly than usual and was unable to tamp down, she decided that she’d get out of the room for awhile. Kicking off her shoes, she padded to the bureau and pulled out her workout leggings, bra and a tee shirt — one of Mulder’s favorites.

She had just started to change when the room phone rang.

~~~~~~

Brush Creek, Vermont

Mulder couldn’t stand still, but that was nothing unusual. He was rarely comfortable observing, although he was a skilled observer, able to note details and absorb the intricacies of a scene with the best. It was just that he preferred to be actively participating. If the others noticed his fidgeting and not-so-furtive glancing behind and around them, he couldn’t tell.

Zale had taken two of the four vials while Jemel had reached for the others. As her hand remained poised palm open and up, Sarah stepped in-between the driver and the blonde-haired woman. “Not so fast,” she stated, her words clipped. Although she stood her ground, Jemel’s hand retracted as if burned, coming to rest on her hip, her posture clearly defensive.

The challenging tone of her jabbing question to the woman in possession of the vials was all but lost under the sound of roaring engines. Wasting no time, Jemel barked commands, mobilizing Mulder and Zale neither of whom took the time to worry about the other merchandise.

Craning his head behind him as he ran pell-mell for the truck, Mulder noted the five scrambling as well, but they seemed to be taking their time about getting moving. Acting rather than thinking, he yelled over the looming vehicles he was sure were headed their way, “We’ve been set up.”

Jemel never even turned around to answer, yanking the driver’s side door open and gunning the engine just as her two male companions slid along the bench seat. She scanned the rear and side view mirrors, but could see very little given their distance from the small clearing and the stand of trees along the path.

Mulder noted at least three sets of headlights before they were doused. The fact that there was no hasty departure of vehicles only served to confirm his earlier assessment. Had they not moved so quickly…he didn’t want to go down that route. They’d have been clearly outnumbered.

Zale broke the tense silence first. “What did Proteus tell you about this group we were supposed to meet?” The edge in his tone rattled Mulder; especially since he was addressing not only his colleague, but the big Boss’s right hand associate.

Clearly sneering at him, Jemel replied coolly, “The same thing he usually does — absolutely nothing.” She paused for a beat and then asked, “And I suppose you think I was privy to other information?”

Mulder tried to gauge their interaction, but with only the occasional streetlight and the dim instrument panel white light, it was difficult. Obviously reconsidering his earlier sarcasm, Zale shook his head and took a deep breath.

“No, I don’t think that. It just seems strange. Especially since we were allowed to leave with two of the vials.” Turning now to him, Zale snorted, “So, Chris, what’s your take on all this?” Carefully choosing his words, Mulder replied, “Smells like a set up to me. I’d wonder how long the boss has used this particular group and what he knows about them.” He hastened to add, “But I guess that’s not my place to ask.” Clearly needing to gather more information, he also worked to keep his commentary in character.

He was therefore doubly surprised when Jemel spoke. “Actually, this group is our newest set of contacts. They were recommended to Proteus by one of his new female recruits who seemed to have quite the pedigree.”