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3:21 PM

Mulder stood on the porch for a full minute before finally pressing the bell. He shuffled his feet, tightening his grip on the package tucked beneath his arm. The door opened and he straightened his posture, wincing when his shoulder twinged.

Tomie peered through the screen, her face lighting up. "Well now, you're a sight for sore eyes. I was beginning to think you'd fallen off the face of the earth." She smiled. "No pun intended."

"Sorry for dropping by unannounced. If this is a bad time..."

"Nothing bad about it. I was just sitting down to a cup of coffee. Come join me." She ushered him inside before he could answer.

Mulder followed the familiar path to the kitchen. He raised an eyebrow at the spotless countertops. "No Bread? Cookies?"

"Ah, well. We old ladies run out of steam now and then, don't we? But I can pull out the pie pans if it'll make you happy."

Mulder grinned. "The coffee will be fine, thanks. Oh, and this is for you. For when you do decide to pull out those pans." He placed the wrapped package into her hands. "Consider it an early Christmas present."

Frowning a little as she hefted it, Tomie tore off a bit of the paper and burst into hearty laughter.

"I figured I owed you one." Mulder watched as she removed the rest of the wrapping from the five-pound bag of flour. "More than one, actually."

"I'll see that you and Dana reap some of the benefits from this." Tomie set the flour on the counter. "So, how are you doing? It's been more than four weeks."

"Yeah. There was a...situation. I was injured and--"

"I know." She motioned for him to sit and picked up the coffeepot. "Dana called me right after you came home from the hospital. How's the shoulder?"

"She told you everything?"

"She gave me the bare bones." Tomie set a mug of coffee on the table in front of him and eyed him cautiously. "Are you angry?"

"No, I just..." Mulder frowned. "I'm not sure why she didn't tell me she talked to you."

"She didn't want to pressure you. She hoped if she gave you some space you'd make the decision to come back here on your own." Tomie collected her own mug and sat across from him. "Have you?"

Mulder rotated the cup between his palms. "I'm here, aren't I?"

"True. But then, we could just be two friends having a chat over a bag of flour, now, couldn't we?" When Mulder's lips twitched weakly, she continued, "I try not to make assumptions, Mulder. Every time I do they come back to bite me in the ass."

"I stopped taking the Paxil. And the sedative." Mulder looked squarely into her eyes.

Tomie just nodded. "Flashbacks?"

"Only one or two a week. And they're not as intense."


Mulder shrugged. "I've struggled with that most of my life. It's no worse now than it's ever been."

"Sounds like you're feeling better."

"I am."

"So why are you here?"

"You're not buying the two old friends bit?"

Tomie sighed. "Back to the mind games? I thought we were past that, kiddo."

Mulder pushed aside the mug and sat back in his chair. "I'm here because there are some things I can't talk about to anyone else." He looked away. "Not even Scully."

Tomie's voice gentled. "Fair enough." She sipped her coffee until he spoke.

"Scully's told you about the device? How They...called me?"

"She did." Tomie paused, then added, "I know I don't have to tell you that you're not responsible for anything you did while under its influence."

Mulder waved a hand. "I've dealt with that. I hate what I did to Scully, but even I recognize how powerless I was."


Mulder stood and walked over to the window, facing away from her. "I was out there, in the middle of nowhere. No one in sight. They could have taken me at any time."

"But Dana and Grey found you."

"Hours later."

"Soon enough to stop you from being abducted a second time. You were very lucky."

"That's what's bothering me."

Tomie shook her head. "You're going to have to spell it out, Mulder. I have no idea where you're going with this."

Mulder turned around. "The device worked; I was right where they wanted me to be. What were They waiting for?"

"You obviously have a theory."

Mulder rubbed at the headache building over his right eye. "They came as soon as I grabbed Scully."

Tomie leaned forward, frowning. "Meaning?"

"I think they intended to take us both."

Tomie blinked, fumbling for a response. "That's one hell of a leap, Mulder."

"Believe me, I've given this a lot of thought. I've gone over it from every angle. I want to be wrong."

"But you don't think you are."

"What was the point in sending me back only to take me again a few weeks later? Why not just keep me? And if they wanted me so damn bad, why not beam me up and get the hell out of Dodge when They had the chance?" Mulder sank back into his chair. "They let me go for a reason. I was bait, Tomie. They were using me to get Scully."

Tomie's brown eyes were warm, her voice gentle. "If that's true it puts a whole new spin on things. You haven't shared this with Dana?"

"No. And for now, I don't intend to."

"You don't think she has the right to know?" she asked sharply. "That's bullshit, Mulder."

"You don't understand."

"Enlighten me."

Mulder closed his eyes as he sucked in a calming breath. "Scully had cancer five years ago. It was a direct result of her abduction. She nearly died."

"I'm sorry. But I still don't see how that justifies your keeping this from her."

"The cancer could return at any time. Scully is one of the bravest people I know, and she's done a damn fine job of putting aside her fear. But that tiny seed of doubt is always there, Tomie. When she's exhausted, or has a headache, or a nosebleed. It's a burden she lives with day to day." Mulder clenched his jaw. "I will NOT add to that burden."

"I see." Tomie swirled the dregs of coffee in her cup. "I'll admit I don't know Dana well, but from what I've seen she's not the kind of woman who'd appreciate you playing the protector. You do realize this could all blow up in your face? It'll be bad enough if Dana finds out you've been less than honest with her. But if something should happen, if she's taken--"

"She won't be."

"You know you can't guarantee that."

"I'll find a way." Mulder spoke through clenched teeth. "I'm going to stop Them, Tomie. Maybe not tomorrow, or next week, or even next year. But I believe I will find a way to put an end to this, once and for all. If that makes me crazy, well..." He shrugged.

"Maybe I'm the crazy one. I believe you just might do it." Tomie patted his hand. "And what about you? How are you holding up under your burdens?"

"By taking each day as it comes, I guess." Mulder grimaced. "Right now ending the threat of alien invasion doesn't seem nearly as impossible as getting on an elevator without breaking into a cold sweat."

"Ah, now ya see, you're in luck. I can't help you with the first part, but I'm sure we can work on the second. Provided you're willing, of course."

"Well...I suppose there are those pies to make."

Tomie chuckled. "Before I'm through with you, you'll be baking Dana's birthday cake with your own two hands." She looked intently into his eyes. "You're going to be all right, Mulder."

Her words startled a smile onto his lips and a little of the weight lifted from his shoulders. "Yeah. I think I will be."

For the first time, he believed it.


Author's Notes
Wow! What a ride! Thank you to the readers braved a WIP and made this 8-month journey with me. Your kind words of encouragement have made it a wonderful experience. And major thanks to my wonderful team of betas: To Suzanne, for making sure the medical stuff was accurate. To Deb, not just for beta, but for the title suggestion and the incredible webpage design. To Vickie, for cheering me onward and keeping them all in character. And to TCS1121 for making me work hard for every chapter. (Grey's on his way over, hon. You earned it!)