TITLE: Blood Ties 8: The Fragile Cord(1/3)
AUTHOR: Dawn
EMAIL: sunrise83@comcast.net
ARCHIVE: MTA, Xemplary, Gossamer – others are fine,
just let me know
SPOILERS: Up through Closure
RATING: PG-13
CLASSIFICATION: XA
KEYWORDS: MSR, AU
SUMMARY: Has Mulder’s somewhat tenuous tether to
sanity finally snapped?
DISCLAIMER: Mulder, Scully, and Skinner belong to
Chris Carter and 1013 Productions. Grey McKenzie is my
own little creation.
AUTHOR’S NOTES: Thank you to everyone out there
who has supported this series and stalked me until I wrote
another installment. <G> Your kind words have meant
more than I can say. Though this is an alternate universe for
obvious reasons, I do try to keep pace with the show.
Therefore, this story takes place soon after the events of
Closure. The exception, of course, is that I killed off Teena
a year before Chris did. <BEG> The story can be found in
its entirety on my Web site at
http://members.tripod.com/~dawnsunrise/index.html
More notes at the end.
FEEDBACK: Yes, please. It makes my day!


Blood Ties 8: The Fragile Cord (1 of 3)
By Dawn


Prologue

Raleigh Police Department
Thursday, March 30
10:34 a.m.

Grey McKenzie scrutinized the forensics report, mouth
twisted in a scowl, and tapped his pen impatiently on the
desk blotter. "This is the best they could come up with?" he
asked incredulously, eyeing his partner over the top of the
page.

Mark Preston shrugged. "I don't write 'em. I just read 'em."

Grey snorted. "From the looks of this, they aren't writing
'em either. I refuse to believe our guy could break in,
sexually assault this woman, and crawl back out the
window without leaving a shred of trace evidence. I'm not
releasing the crime scene until they take another look."

Preston shook his head but reached for the phone. "If you
say so. But you're going to be pretty unpopular."

"I'm sure I'll be sobbing into my pillow tonight," Grey
growled.

The phone trilled just as Preston's fingers made contact,
and he scooped up the receiver while sparing a grin for
Grey's sarcasm. "Detective Preston. Yeah, he's right here."
He passed the phone, lifting his shoulders in answer to
Grey's upraised eyebrows.

"This is Detective McKenzie. How can I help you?"

"Grey? It's Walter Skinner."

Grey dropped the report and leaned back in his chair, a
smile lighting up his face. "Hey, Walt! It's been a while.
How's things?"

The pregnant pause wiped the grin from his face and
brought him upright. "Walt?"

Skinner's voice was tense, clipped. "This isn't a social call,
Grey."

"What is it? Has something happened to Fox?" Grey's
fingers tightened around the phone in a white-knuckled grip
and he forced himself to wait for an answer. He turned his
back to his partner's concerned gaze.

"Grey..." Skinner trailed off and swore softly. "There's no
easy way to say this."

Grey ground his teeth. "Just do it."

"Scully is missing. No one has seen her for over twenty-
four hours."

Grey's eyes slipped shut and he massaged his forehead.
"Oh, God. Fox must be out of his mind with worry."

Skinner's voice was oddly neutral. "There's more, Grey.
We've recovered a weapon, a knife, with blood on it that
matches Scully's type. We're in the process of running a
DNA test to confirm that it belongs to her."

A chunk of ice settled in Grey's stomach and he swallowed
hard against the nausea that followed. "I'm packing a bag
and catching the next plane to DC. I'll call as soon as I
know my flight information and..."

"Grey..."

"You can give me the rest once I get there, Walt! Tell Fox
to hang on until..."

"GREY." Skinner's tone was harsh, commanding. "There's
something else you need to know before you come.
Something you won’t want to hear."

"I don't care what else you've found, Walt. I refuse to give
up until you show me a body and I'm sure Fox feels the
same," Grey snapped curtly.

"As do I, and that's not what I need to tell you." Skinner
sighed, and when he continued he sounded incredibly
weary. "They pulled two clear prints off the knife, Grey.
They were your brother's. Right now he's the number one
suspect."

Three Weeks Earlier
Hegal Place
Saturday, March 11
3:04 p.m.

*June 26 More tests today, including the really awful one
that feels like they're drilling a hole in my brain. I can't
even close my eyes because the drugs paralyze me so I
won't move and mess up their results. I don't think I could
stand it if I didn't have my safe place. I go to it whenever
I'm really scared or the pain gets too terrible. Sometimes I
walk barefoot on a sandy beach and look out at deep green
waves. I know it's the ocean because the water seems to go
on forever, and I taste salt on my lips. Other times there's a
tire swing hanging from a huge oak tree in a shady
backyard that I swing on till I'm dizzy. Always there's an
older boy with dark hair and gray eyes. He teases me, calls
me buttmunch, but I know he'll never let anything bad
happen to me. He'll protect me.

I wish he were here.*

Mulder closed the diary's yellowed pages and swiped at his
eyes with the back of one hand. Tossing it onto the coffee
table he gazed dully at stacks of books and files and the
empty boxes waiting to receive them. Closing his eyes, he
let his body slip sideways until he was lying prone on the
couch, one arm flung over them and one foot still resting on
the floor. Neither the rattle of keys outside the apartment
door, nor the click of the deadbolt roused him from his
position.

"Mulder?"

The door shut and footsteps padded cautiously toward the
couch. He could smell her -- a combination of soap,
shampoo, and vanilla body lotion -- and at any other time
the fragrance would have coaxed a smile to his lips. Instead
he remained motionless, desperately feigning sleep while
his spirit vacillated between wanting her to take him in her
arms and wishing she'd go and leave him to his solitude.

More footsteps, and he could feel her study him as if he
were a body awaiting her expertise.

"I know you're not asleep, Mulder. Your breathing is all
wrong."

He lifted his arm just enough to peer at her. "What would
you know about breathing? You specialize in dead people."

Scully's forehead creased and she started to perch on the
coffee table. Catching sight of the diary, she picked it up
before sitting. Cradling it carefully in her hands, she
smoothed her palm across the cover and sighed.

"You can't keep doing this to yourself."

Mulder tore the arm from his eyes and propped himself up
on his elbows, glaring at her. "What exactly am I doing to
myself?" he growled.

"I think you know the answer to that," Scully replied softly.
She lay her hand along his stubbled jaw, her thumb tracing
dried tear tracks. "Every time you read this diary you wind
up in a place so dark and deep I can barely reach you. You
don't eat, you don't sleep, you snap at my attempts to get
you to talk to me..."

He jerked back from her touch, blinking hard. "What do
you want from me, Scully? I can't just forget what they did
to her! Can you imagine what it must have been like, how
scared she must have been? They took my little sister and
turned her into a guinea pig. And even worse, they stole her
memories of the people who loved her!"

Scully met his eyes steadily, without flinching. "A lot of
terrible things happened to your sister, Mulder. But they
happened a long time ago, and obsessing over them now is
not going to help you heal."

Mulder evaded her gaze, jaw clenched. "I need to know
who took her, Scully, and why. I can’t heal until I have
those answers."

She replaced her hand on his chin, pressing gently until
hazel eyes returned to blue. "What happened to 'I'm free'?"
she asked gently.

This time Mulder leaned into the caress. "I'm freed from
my quest for Samantha, from the burden of finding her. But
now I have other obligations." He placed his hand over hers
and his mouth curved. "You of all people recognize I'm an
obsessive personality, Scully. You must have known
something would take its place."

Scully tipped her face closer until her forehead rested
against his. "I was kind of angling for that spot myself," she
murmured huskily.

As she'd hoped, Mulder chuckled warmly. He pressed his
lips against hers, little riffs of laughter still escaping at first
until she brazenly slid onto his lap and deepened the kiss.
When Scully pulled back the darkness had vanished from
his eyes and they were both breathless. Mulder tucked a
strand of hair behind her ear, letting his fingers linger on
the silky skin of her cheek.

"You will always be my number one obsession, babe."

Scully looked pointedly over her shoulder at the empty
boxes. "Really? I see a distinct lack of progress here,
Mulder. You're supposed to be out of here in two weeks.
You know -- you, me, an apartment made for two?"

"I know, I know. I'm getting organized, you just can't see
it," he said defensively, letting his fingers creep under her
shirt to rub her back, a sure distraction.

"You can say that again...oh, right there," Scully moaned
appreciatively as he went to work on a particularly tight
group of muscles. She let her head drop to his shoulder and
gave herself over to the skillful massage.

"You've got an awful lot of knots here, babe. I haven't been
that bad, have I?" Mulder asked, only half teasing.

"I took some boxes over to Goodwill today. Guess I
overdid it," she answered, sighing contentedly as his hands
gentled to long, soothing strokes.

"You should have called, I'd have hauled them over for
you."

"You've been a little...preoccupied this weekend. I thought
I should give you some space," Scully replied quietly, her
words muffled against his chest.

Mulder went still, then rested his cheek on the auburn
crown of her head. "I'm sorry," he whispered.

She sat up, regretting that unhappiness had returned to his
face. "It's okay, love. It's been a difficult year."

Mulder looked at her sharply. "I wasn't sure if you
remembered."

Scully pursed her lips, exasperated. "Of course I remember!
In fact, I was a little worried when I realized that our move
to the new apartment is going to take place exactly one year
to the day that your mother died. But you didn't mention it,
so neither did I. It's still not too late, Mulder. We could
always schedule the movers for another day."

Mulder shook his head vehemently. "No. I didn't say
anything because there's nothing to be said." He blew out a
long gust of air and tucked her head back under his chin.
"It's fitting, don't you think? My mother's death was the
catalyst that turned my world upside down. Seems
appropriate that the biggest change of all should occur on
the anniversary."

Scully nuzzled her nose against the soft, gray cotton of his
tee shirt. "Scared?"

A brief explosion of mirth rumbled through his chest.
"Terrified. But that doesn't mean I don't want this, Scully.
More than I've ever wanted anything in my whole life."

Her throat constricted painfully at the sweetly wistful note
to his voice, and she tightened her arms about his waist.
"Me too."

They remained that way, in contented silence, for some
time, Mulder's fingers weaving through her hair and
skimming up and down her back. As always, he marveled
at the size of her. That so much strength of both mind and
body could reside in such a diminutive package. Holding
her like this, feeling her soft curves pressed against him, it
was difficult to remember that she could deliver a serious
ass-kicking.

Mulder grinned to himself. And his had the heel marks to
prove it.

"What are you smirking about?" Scully asked drowsily
without lifting her head.

"How would you know if I'm smirking? You can't even see
my face," Mulder pointed out.

"Trade secret. If I told you, I'd have to kill you," she
replied, her own smile growing when Mulder chortled in
delight.

Mulder dropped his head onto the back of the couch and
stared up at the ceiling, his fingers tracing small circles on
Scully's thighs.

"Sometimes I have trouble reconciling the fact that this has
been both the best and worst year of my life," he mused.
"Losing Mom so suddenly, without the chance to fix what
had broken between us -- I'll always regret that our last
words were spoken in anger. And Sam..." his voice became
thick with emotion and Scully felt the breath hitch in his
chest. "I really wanted to save her, to bring her home."

"They may have tried to steal her memories of you,
Mulder, but they never truly succeeded." She ran her hands
down the bare flesh of his arms and tangled their fingers
together. "On some level you were always with her, giving
her comfort. She must have loved you very much."

Mulder didn't reply, but his hands tightened convulsively in
hers and she sensed him struggling to take slow, deep
breaths. When he did resume speaking, his voice was soft
but steady.

"But in the midst of all the sorrow, there have been
moments of the purest joy I've ever known. Finding my
brother, after all these years..." He chuffed a little. "And I
even *like* him."

Scully lifted her head and an eyebrow. "Count yourself
lucky -- half the time *I* can't make that claim."

Mulder grinned evilly. "Aw, come on, Scully. Bill did help
save my life. 'Course, I think Grey might have had a gun to
his head at the time."

She tried to muster a look of disapproval, but wound up
snickering with him instead. Their laughter tapered off, and
Mulder's expression turned abruptly serious. He cupped her
face between his palms, one corner of his mouth turned up
in a lopsided smile.

"And then there's this," he murmured. "I'd willingly endure
every terrible moment of the last year just to be here, like
this, with you. I still can't figure out what the hell you see
in me, Scully. But I'm not going to argue."

Butterfly kisses fluttered over her eyelids and cheeks before
his lips finally settled on her own. Scully concentrated on
the exquisite contact to keep her tears at bay. Mulder had
the power to annoy her more than any man she'd ever
known, but he could instantly banish the memory of every
irritation with one heartfelt confession. He'd once called
himself high maintenance, and truer words were never
spoken.

But, oh, the perks.

Breaking the kiss while she still had the willpower, Scully
resolutely slipped off his lap and stood, offering her hand.
Mulder licked his lips and pouted.

"What makes me think that taking your hand is not going to
mean a trip to the bedroom?"

Scully smirked and pulled him upright. "That's why they
pay you the big bucks, Mulder. Those investigative skills
are never wrong."

"Scuhleee!"

She reached down, hefted a stack of books, and placed
them in his hands. "First we fill a few of these poor empty
boxes," she said firmly. "Once we're done...who knows?"
She waggled her eyebrows in a parody of Mulder's patented
leer.

Mulder's eyes widened, then dilated. "Start packing, babe.
I'm feeling very motivated."

FBI Headquarters
Wednesday, March 15
9:27 a.m.

Scully entered the office to find Mulder swearing steadily
under his breath and ransacking the organized chaos of his
desktop. She’d ducked out for a few minutes to grab a
carton of yogurt from the cafeteria and check up on some
lab results from an autopsy. At that time he’d been
comfortably ensconced in his chair with feet propped up
and hand buried in a bag of sunflower seeds, sifting
through a pile of cases tagged as possible X-Files. He’d
been so absorbed he’d barely acknowledged her departure,
a preoccupied wave of his hand and the crack of a shell the
only indication he’d heard her.

She moved to her desk and set down the container of lowfat
blueberry swirl, frowning as he rifled through a stack of
folders and then dumped them to the floor with an
impatient flick of his wrist.

“Mulder!”

She circled his desk and scooped up the scattered files,
stuffing exposed papers back in their proper folders and
glaring at him. Mulder flopped into his chair and scrubbed
his face with both hands, then ran them through his hair
until he looked more like a punk rocker than a federal
agent.

“What in the world is wrong with you?” Scully demanded,
setting the straightened folders back on the corner of his
desk and crossing her arms.

“Skinner called. He wants to see us in his office in five
minutes and I can’t find the damn Henderson file!” Mulder
snapped, punctuating his reply with a sharp kick to the
trashcan that sent it toppling toward the floor.

“Mulder!”

Scully caught the can just in time and righted it. “Calm
down. I thought you were still writing your field report for
that case.”

“I was. I finished it last night,” he growled through
clenched teeth. “That’s why I was late getting home for
dinner. Skinner pulled me aside in the hallway yesterday
and read me the riot act, told me he expected it to be in his
hands no later than noon today.”

Scully stepped closer and began carefully sifting through
another stack of papers. “Did you check your briefcase?
Could you have brought it home last night? Maybe you left
it at my place.”

“I just told you that I stayed late to finish it so that I
wouldn’t *have* to bring it home,” Mulder snarled. “I
almost took it up before I left but I really didn’t want to get
into it with Skinner if he was still here.”

The barely repressed fury in his voice and his slightly
trembling hands disturbed Scully but she said nothing.
They continued to search the office in silence until the
phone rang. Mulder purposely ignored it, moving over to
thumb through some folders sitting on top of a filing
cabinet, so Scully snatched it up with an exasperated sigh.

“Scully. Hi, Kim. Yes, we do realize his time is valuable.
We were just on our way out the door.”

She hung up and turned back to Mulder, brushing a piece of
lint from her jacket and smoothing a hand over her hair.
“Forget it, Mulder. Skinner is less than pleased about being
kept waiting and Kim’s feeling the heat. We have to get up
there now, he’s got a ten o’clock meeting with the
Director.”

Mulder ground out an expletive that was graphic, even for
him, and just stood with shoulders hunched and fists
propped on his hips. Torn between concern and irritation
with his behavior, Scully pulled open the door and waited.
After a moment Mulder huffed and stalked through the
opening, muttering things under his breath that Scully made
no attempt to decipher.

Kim barely glanced at them when they entered, merely
waving them onward like a parking attendant indicating the
next available spot. That was more acknowledgement than
they received from the A.D., however, whose eyes never
broke from their perusal of a report. Mulder and Scully
seated themselves in their customary spots and waited
silently -- Scully with folded hands and relaxed posture,
Mulder gnawing savagely on his lip while his foot wriggled
and jittered.

Just as Scully was about to risk a furtive smack to her
partner’s arm, Skinner set aside the papers and cleared his
throat. “Agents. So nice of you to make time in your busy
schedule to see me.”

Scully remained stone-faced but Mulder flushed and his
eyes narrowed. “Sir, before you say anything more, I have
to tell you up front that I don’t…”

“I believe *I* was the one who called this meeting, Agent
Mulder,” Skinner cut him off, voice clipped. “I have
another in” – he consulted his watch – “less than twenty
minutes, so I’d appreciate it if you’d hold whatever
comment you were about to make until I’ve explained why
you’re here.”

When Mulder grudgingly nodded, he proceeded in a gentler
tone. “Mulder, SAC Carpenter from the VCS has been
petitioning for your assistance on a case involving a serial
rapist/murderer. He first approached me nearly two weeks
ago and I turned him down flat. I know profiling is a strain
even under normal circumstances, and on the heels of the
LaPierre case and the news of your sister’s death…”

Mulder’s demeanor turned from chafing to guarded. “I’m
fine, sir. As someone pointed out, my sister’s death
occurred a long time ago.”

Skinner watched Scully’s eyes dart to Mulder’s face and
hurt flicker across her own before the professional mask
dropped back into place. Mulder’s expression remained
studiously blank. Skinner picked up the folder that rested
near his left elbow, the action meant to cover his own
confusion. Something was definitely off between these two,
but he couldn’t put his finger on what it might be. With a
sigh he handed the file to Mulder and resumed speaking.

“When Carpenter approached me yet again as I was leaving
last night, I agreed to leave the decision up to you.”

Mulder took the folder but didn’t open it. “We’re between
cases, sir. There’s no reason I can’t take a look at this.”

Skinner leaned forward, elbows planted on the desktop.
“This is a consult, Mulder. Just take a look at the evidence
and the current profile. Scully can review the autopsy
results if you’d like. If they seem to be on target, give your
stamp of approval. If not, tactfully point out the necessary
modifications.” He tipped his head so that he was peering
at Mulder over the top of his glasses. “*Tactfully*,
Mulder.”

Scully caught the humor coloring the words and smothered
a smirk, but Mulder just looked annoyed. “Yes, sir. I
promise I’ll be a good boy.”

Skinner saw the slight smile slide off Scully’s face and his
feelings of disquiet deepened. Mulder’s sarcastic reply,
though expected, held none of the usual mischief.
Determined to end on a more positive note, if only for
Scully’s sake, he retrieved the report he’d been reading
when the two agents entered his office.

“And by the way, I wanted to commend you both for your
work on the Henderson case. The local PD was highly
complimentary about your handling of the victims and your
assistance in the arrest. And Mulder, your field report –
once received – was a concise and thorough summary of
the investigation.” He shook his head and allowed a ghost
of a smile to touch his lips. “Refreshingly free from brain-
eating mutants and snake-wielding religious fanatics.”

When he looked up to gauge Mulder’s reaction, Skinner
was thrown off balance by the naked anger and confusion.

“Since when has it become customary for the Assistant
Director to take a field report from his agents’ office rather
than wait until it’s turned in?” Mulder asked tersely.

Skinner’s brows plunged. “What are you talking about,
Mulder?”

Mulder wasn’t put off by the warning growl in Skinner’s
question. “You know exactly what I’m talking about! I
would have turned in the Henderson report first thing this
morning, there was no reason for you to come down and
get it. And the least you could have done was leave a note.
I nearly tore the office apart looking for the damn thing!”

Scully flinched at the insubordinate tone of Mulder’s voice.
She reached out to lay a hand on his forearm, sending
Skinner an appeasing look. Skinner took a deep breath and
forced his blood pressure to lower before replying.

“I would not take a report from your office without
informing you. And in this case, it wasn’t even necessary.
The file was right here on the blotter of my desk when I got
in this morning. *You* turned it in, Mulder.”

The indignation slowly drained out of Mulder’s face and he
gaped at Skinner. “I didn’t…that is, I don’t…”

The buzz of the intercom distracted Skinner from his
agent’s stammering. He stabbed at the button, eyes
skipping back to where Scully had leaned her head close to
her partner’s and was murmuring something.

“Yes, Kim, what is it?”

Kim’s voice, even through the tinny speaker, was contrite.
“Sir, you asked me to be sure you made it to the meeting on
time…”

He pinched the bridge of his nose. “I’m just finishing up,
Kim. Thank you.”

Mulder appeared to have regained his composure. He
clasped the VCS folder firmly in his hands and stood, but
his eyes evaded Skinner’s.

“If that’s all, sir, we’ll let you get to your meeting. I’ll take
a look at this profile right away and give SAC Carpenter
my thoughts.”

Skinner nodded, snagging his suit jacket from the back of
his chair and slipping it on. He watched them head for the
door, unable to shake off his concern. Mulder guided
Scully through with his hand pressed to her back, and was
about to follow.

“Mulder.”

Mulder froze at the sound of his name, his back stiff. He
propped one hand on the doorframe but didn’t turn.

“I’m fine, sir. And I’m sorry for the mix-up over the report.
I was out of line.”

Skinner opened his mouth to press the issue, but changed
his mind midstream. “Let me know if you have any
difficulty with the VCS or Carpenter,” he said instead.

Mulder’s back loosened noticeably. He threw an impudent
grin over his shoulder, the first normal expression Skinner
had seen all day.

“Piece of cake, sir. With my charming personality I’ll have
‘em eating out of my hand.”

Skinner snorted and rolled his eyes, though Mulder
couldn’t see it. He reached for his briefcase and
straightened his tie, feeling much better.

Scully followed Mulder down the hall, into the elevator,
and back to the office. His irritability had vanished,
replaced with a brooding silence that she found to be of
marginal improvement. He wandered over to his desk and
sat down, so she let him be and began checking her email.

When she glanced up several minutes later he was still
rocking idly in the chair, staring blankly at the closed VCS
folder.

“Mulder, let it go. Skinner has the report and he’s more
than satisfied with it.”

Mulder blinked and turned slowly to face her, as if
returning from some distant country. “Scully, I have no
memory of taking that folder up to Skinner’s office.”

His certainty bothered her, but she shrugged it off. “We all
have spells of absentmindedness. I really wouldn’t waste
time worrying about it.”

He shook his head, a mulish, intractable set to his features
that made her want to strangle him. “You don’t get it. I
don’t even have a fuzzy spot in my memory where I
might’ve done it. I can specifically recall everything I did
during the time I was here last night, from the moment I
finished typing the report to the instant I got in the car and
drove home. There’s no place to fit in a trip up to Skinner’s
office. None.”

Scully searched his face, read bewilderment beneath the
vehemence. “Mulder, you admitted that you considered
taking the paperwork upstairs. You were tired, and you’ve
been under a lot of stress these past few weeks. So you
acted on that impulse but can’t remember it. Is that really
so alarming?”

Mulder propped his elbows on his knees and steepled his
fingers under his chin. “Scully, I have an eidetic memory. I
don’t just forget things, not without a reason. Yes, I find
that alarming.”

Scully stood and moved over to crouch in front of his chair,
placing her hand on his leg. “Mulder, I understand about
your memory. But you’re human, and you’re going to
respond to pressure just like anyone else. We all lose track
of little things in the wake of the big ones – misplacing
keys, forgetting to turn off the iron, missing an important
appointment…”

Mulder dropped one hand to cover hers and his lips
quirked. “Oh really? I haven’t seen you do a single one of
the things you just mentioned. Scully, you have to be the
most organized person I know.”

Scully pursed her lips. “Watch and learn, partner. Watch
and learn.”

His expression turned decidedly lecherous, and she braced
herself for the inevitable innuendo, but the ringing of his
phone spared her.

“Mulder. Yeah but I haven’t had a chance to…” He
listened, rolling his eyes, then sighed. “Fine. I’ll be right
up.”

The phone hit the cradle with excess force and he gave
Scully’s hand a final squeeze before standing and pulling
her up beside him.

“That was SAC Carpenter. He wants to give me a quick
briefing on the case.”

Scully smiled as he scooped up the folder and tucked it
under his arm. “Remember, Mulder. You promised Skinner
you’d play nice with the VCS kids.”

Mulder put on his “who, me?” face. “I try, Scully. It’s just
that sometimes the need to mess with their heads…”

“Yeah, yeah. I’ve heard that one,” she said, her grin
camouflaged as she turned to her desk. “Try harder, ace.”

His soft chuckle warmed her and she watched him stride
out the door before letting her own smile fade. In spite of
her reassuring words, his behavior of late was causing her
more than a little concern. Subdued and depressed one
moment, wired and irritable the next – and now this
incident with the report. All signs that Mulder’s customary
resilience had developed some cracks. She could only hope
and pray that time and patience would heal them.

Headquarters for The Lone Gunmen
Friday, March 17
12:17 p.m.

"Who is it? What's the password?"

Mulder glared up at the hidden camera and raised his
middle finger. "It's Mulder and there's my password. Open
the damn door, Frohike."

Eight staccato snaps of metal and the door creaked open to
reveal Frohike's face. "Don't get your panties in a twist," he
said as Mulder shouldered past him.

"I told you on the phone I'd be here in five minutes. Who
did you think was at the door?" Mulder growled.

Langly, clad in a wrinkled Agent Orange tee shirt and
boxers and nibbling on a pop tart, looked up from his
computer. "Hey Mulder. Got up on the wrong side of the
bed, huh?"

Mulder's hands involuntarily clenched into fists, and he
forced himself to count to ten. When his irritation had
receded to a manageable level, he circled around the desk
to see the monitor screen.

"What have you boys got for me?"

"Where's Scully?"

Byers, in direct contrast to Langly's slovenly appearance,
looked ready for a meeting with the board of directions. His
three-piece suit was impeccably clean and pressed, his
white shirt crisp, and a conservative tie adorned his neck.

Mulder braced both arms on the desktop, casting Byers a
look of thinly concealed impatience. "She's at Quantico,
consulting on an autopsy. Sorry, guess you'll have to settle
for the floor model."

Frohike and Byers traded an uneasy glance as Langly's
fingers flew over the keys. "We started checking into the
house you found on April Air Force Base, managed to hack
into some old records. The house was occupied by a CGB
Spender and his family from 1974 through 1979. A wife
and two kids. We're trying to find out just what he was
doing on the base, but haven't been able to access the right
files."

"All we get is that he was involved with a top secret
project. Very hush-hush," Frohike chimed in, moving
closer.

Mulder snorted. "How about telling me something I don't
already know?"

"We're doing our best, man," Langly replied defensively.
"We can't just go stomping in through the front door."

"The files are double and triple password protected, and
they've laid some booby traps along the way to tip them off
to any snooping," Frohike said.

"We just need some more time," Byers added quietly. "We
aren't giving up."

Mulder dropped down into a chair and ran his fingers
through his hair. "Anything else?"

This time all three gunmen looked at each other.

"What? What is it?" Mulder demanded shortly.

"We turned up medical records on the daughter, Samantha
Spender," Byers finally said. "She was supposedly being
treated for a rare blood disorder." He hesitated, then
finished. "There were numerous instances of
hospitalization. Sometimes outpatient, sometimes more
extended stays."

Mulder closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose.
"My sister did NOT have a rare blood disorder. And those
were not treatments. I've read her diary, and I can only
imagine what those butchers were doing to her." His voice
started out strong, powered by anger, but turned thin and
broken before he'd finished.

Langly eyed him nervously before hunching further over
the keyboard. Byers licked his lips and turned to study a
spot on the wall. Frohike's hand crept forward, paused, and
then came to rest uncertainly on Mulder's shoulder.

"Are you sure about this? Is it worth it? A lot of those
responsible for what happened to your sister are probably
dead. Some truths are best left uncovered, G-man."

Mulder tensed, but made no attempt to displace Frohike's
palm. "Just keep digging. See if you can get me copies of
the alleged hospital records," he replied woodenly.

"I'll see what I can do," Langly promised. "Maybe Scully
can make sense of them."

"NO."

All three heads snapped up at the intensity of his response.
Mulder pulled his hand across the stubble of his jaw and
squinted up at each in turn as he spoke.

"I don't want Scully involved in this. Any information you
come up with is for my ears only. This remains just
between the four of us."

He waited for a clear, if reluctant, nod of confirmation from
each of them, then consulted his watch and stood.

"I've got to get back. Keep me posted."

Frohike followed him to the door and turned each deadbolt
until only one remained. He paused with fingers wrapped
around the lock, then dropped his hand and leaned back
against the heavy oak without disengaging it.

Mulder shifted his feet restlessly, then reached over to open
it himself. "Come on, Hickey. I have to get back before
Scully."

Frohike moved his body to block the way, face grave. "If
you ask me, I think you're making a big mistake leaving
Scully out of the loop, Mulder."

Mulder stepped back and crossed his arms, jaw thrust
forward. "I don't seem to recall asking." When Frohike
refused to back down, he sighed and shook his head. "This
isn't about Scully or the X-Files. This is something I have
to do for myself. It's personal."

Frohike's face screwed up in disbelief. "For someone who's
supposed to be such a genius, you can be a thick-headed
jackass! You can't use 'personal' as an excuse any more,
Mulder. Those days ended the moment you admitted you
love her. You'd better come to terms with it, or you're going
to screw up the best thing that's ever happened to you."

Mulder clenched his teeth, but inclined his head. "I'll think
about it," he replied tersely.

Shaking his head, Frohike threw back the last bolt and
yanked open the door. He watched Mulder climb into his
car before shutting and locking the door, then let his
forehead thump against the wood.

Georgetown
Monday, March 20
3:41 a.m.

Scully opened her eyes, senses attuned and mind rapidly
untangling the cobwebs of sleep. Despite a deceptively
bright spill of moonlight through the blinds, the alarm
clock's glowing display proved that it was still the middle
of the night. Brushing tangled strands of hair from her eyes
she turned to the right and propped herself up on one
elbow, knowing from both instinct and experience what
had awakened her.

She could recall the first nightmare with crystal clarity,
undimmed by seven years of the same. Partnered for almost
six months, they'd just concluded a particularly nasty case -
- the purported alien abduction of a little girl that had
turned out to be murder at the hands of her mother's
boyfriend. Scully's first experience with the violent death of
a child had left her shaken and horrified, but Mulder had
been a rock, gentle and compassionate with the family,
calm and efficient with the local police. She'd marveled at
his composure, his apparent ability to detach himself. Until
that night, when she'd been wrenched from a deep sleep by
the sound of his screams through the thin, motel room
walls.

Not so detached after all.

She'd gone to him that night, ignoring the closed
connecting door and his embarrassment. Yet beneath his
discomfort with her witnessing such vulnerability had been
a wary gratitude.

And so it had become a habit, something she did without
conscious thought, like eating or breathing. Like a mother
sensitive to the cry of her child, she often found herself in
Mulder's room and soothing him before totally aware she'd
left her bed. It had been difficult for him to accept at first,
testimony to the fact that he'd been coping with the
nightmares alone for a very long time. Images of Mulder as
a young boy, left to fend for himself, made Scully ache
inside. Though they never spoke of her nocturnal visits in
the light of day, she'd relished the rare opportunity to hold
and comfort him.

And then their relationship had evolved and, amazingly, the
frequency of Mulder's nightmares had sharply declined.
And when they did occur, when the evils of their everyday
existence could no longer be held at bay by her mere
physical presence, Scully had only to roll over and take him
in her arms.

Carefully, of course. A bloody nose had taught her early on
that Mulder in the throes of a nightmare could throw a
mean right hook.

She watched him now, a troubled frown creasing her pale
brow and a queasy sensation in the pit of her stomach. Ever
since the discovery of his sister's diary and the revelation of
her death, Mulder's nightmares had undergone a profound
change.

He lay curled on his side, facing her, silently weeping. The
cool wash of moonlight illuminated a glistening path of
tears on his cheek and his breath hitched and stuttered in
his chest. Both arms were wrapped tightly around his body,
as if in his dreams he attempted to assuage his own sorrow.
Ironically, Scully found herself wishing for terrified
screams and flailing limbs. A bloody nose would be far less
painful.

She scooted closer and began threading her fingers through
his hair, keeping both her touch and her voice feather-light.

"Mulder. Wake up, love, you're dreaming. You need to
come back to me now."

She brushed the moisture from his cheeks with her
fingertips, following with her lips. After a moment he went
very still, and she maintained a steady stream of soft
reassurances and soothing touches, knowing that he'd be
confused and disoriented for a brief time.

"Scully? I...where..." His voice husky and trembling, he
blinked and reflexively reached for her.

Scully tugged him closer and he enveloped her small body
with his own, his head tucked just under her chin. Every
now and then fine tremors would run through him as he
struggled to complete the transition from sleeping to
waking.

"Shhh. We're at my place, remember? You were having a
bad dream, so I woke you."

She wove her fingers through his hair, occasionally
smoothing her palm up and down his spine, feeling his
body gradually relax and grow heavy against her own. She
waged an internal battle, part of her willing to let him slip
back into the sanctuary of sleep, if possible; part of her
determined to drag whatever was bothering him into the
light.

"Want to tell me what you were dreaming about?" she
asked, never breaking the movement of her hands.

Every muscle in his body went from soft and pliable to
rock hard in an instant and Scully could feel his breathing
quicken.

"I don't remember."

Hurt, then rage washed over her, stilling her hands as she
struggled against the urge to push him away. She found it
difficult to accept when he closed himself off from her, but
a blatant lie violated an unspoken vow between them
formed long before their romantic bond. Only the haunted
expression in his eyes tempered her anger.

"If you don't want to talk, Mulder, I'll respect that," she said
quietly. "Please don't betray my trust by lying."

It hit a nerve, as Scully intended. Mulder flinched as if
she'd delivered a physical blow and his fingers tightened
convulsively on her pajama top.

"I didn't mean to... I...I can't talk about it, Scully," he
rasped, the words sticking in his constricted throat. He
burrowed his face further into the silk and she felt the moist
heat of fresh tears. "I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry."

Something deep inside her broke and Scully found herself
on the verge of weeping. She cradled him closer in her
arms and pressed her lips to the top of his head. "Shh. It's
okay, love. I just want to help you."

Mulder was so distraught she wasn't sure her words reached
him. All Scully could do was to hold him, rocking gently
and repeating a familiar patter of calming words. Whatever
he'd dreamed, it had disturbed him on a most basic and
profound level. Scully let her eyes slide shut in resignation,
reasonably certain of the trigger.

"Sometimes I wish you'd never found that diary," she
muttered.

Slowly, gradually, she coaxed Mulder back towards sleep.
His weeping tapered off to an occasional catch of breath,
his head pressed more heavily to her chest, and his limbs
went slack. When his respiration became deep and even,
and she was certain he wouldn't awaken, Scully eased him
onto a pillow and drew the blankets up to his chin. He
murmured restlessly in his sleep, but subsided when she
brushed her lips across his brow and whispered her love in
his ear. After a long moment contemplating his face, her
emotions a confusing cocktail of fathomless love, nagging
worry, and aching sorrow, she wandered out to the kitchen
for a cup of hot chocolate.

An hour later the mug in her hands had gone cold and
Scully found herself staring blankly at a sticky spot on the
tile where Mulder must have spilled orange juice. Though
her body begged wearily for sleep, her mind refused to
cooperate, troubled thoughts of the man sleeping in the next
room a stimulant that even hot chocolate couldn't
overcome.

Fox Mulder, though a man possessed of deep feelings and
emotions, was not given to overtly displaying them. Yet
lately he'd become prone to extreme swings in mood and
temperament – periods of elation and excessive energy
followed by explosions of anger, sarcasm, and grief.
Whether you used the scientific approach, or Mulder's
brand of intuition, all signs pointed to the same destination
- Mulder was not coping nearly so well with his sister's
death as he wanted others to believe.

And she didn't know what to do about it.

Something was going on in Mulder's head, but he wasn't
willing to share it with her. And while that admission hurt
her deeply, she loved him enough to put her own feelings
aside. Mulder was in trouble. She wished to God she could
help him, but if not, she had to find someone who could.

And that admission was the catalyst that jolted her sleep
deprived brain into producing an answer so simple and so
apparent that a genuine smile crept onto her face. A heavy
weight lifted from her heart, and it felt as if she could
finally breathe again after an extended period of oxygen
deprivation.

For a very long time she'd been the only person to take care
of Mulder, the only one to love him. Maybe that's why
sometimes she forgot how drastically things had changed.

Scully got up and rinsed her mug, then padded back to the
bedroom. Mulder was lying just as she'd left him, though
one hand was now outstretched as if he sought her presence
in his sleep. She slipped under the covers and snuggled into
the comfort of his sleep-warmed skin. He sighed and
mumbled something incoherent, pulling her close so that he
was spooned around her. Wrapped in the security of his
embrace and her own decision, Scully slept.

Hegal Place
Wednesday, March 22
6:54 p.m.

He was only mildly annoyed until the jar of mayonnaise
slid off the ledge and landed on his bare foot. After his
initial yelp of agony he proceeded to curse the mayonnaise,
condiments in general, and the refrigerator whose faulty
shelf allowed the mishap in the first place -- all while
hopping about ridiculously and cradling his injured toes.

Scully stood serenely in the doorway and viewed the entire
spectacle with an upraised eyebrow and pursed lips. Mulder
glared at her, balancing on one leg like a stork.

"What?"

She shook her head, lips quivering suspiciously. "I don't
know, Mulder. They say a picture's worth a thousand
words, but I'd just be getting warmed up."

"Ha, ha. I broke my toes and you're making jokes," he
pouted, nearly falling on his backside as he attempted to
assess the damage.

Scully pulled a chair from the table and guided him into it,
kneeling so she could pull his foot into her lap. "Sorry,
Mulder. The Scullys are notoriously unsympathetic in this
type of situation. I think it was Ahab's way of toughening
us up. That hurt?"

"OW! Only when you try to amputate it!" Mulder
grumbled, but let her continue the examination. "What do
you mean, unsympathetic?"

Scully looked up at him with a little grin. "Let's see. When
I was about nine, I took quite a fall down the stairs. I was
rushing to get outside so that I could force Melissa to let me
tag along to the store with her and her friend Suzanne.
Anyway, my foot hit the top step too close to the edge and
slid right out from under me. I tried to catch myself, but I
couldn't get a grip on the railing and I tumbled down the
entire flight on my butt with a little head-over-heels flip at
the end. Fortunately, I didn't do myself any major harm,
like breaking an arm or my neck, but I did get the wind
knocked out of me when I landed in a heap at the bottom. I
finally stopped rolling and just sort of sat there, trying to
catch my breath and figure out what exactly happened.
Ahab was sitting in his chair in the living room and got a
front row view of the entire thing. I looked up, expecting
worry, or at the very least pity, but he just cocked an
eyebrow and said, "What in the world did you do that for,
Starbuck?"

"You're kidding," Mulder said, a tiny smile tugging at the
corners of his mouth. "Aren't you?"

"Nope. So you see, I tend to favor the 'shake it off' method
of minor pain management. And before you say it, I don't
want to hear any smart remarks about why I'm a doctor for
dead people, Mulder." Scully set his foot back on the floor.
"No broken bones but you're going to have a lovely bruise
in a day or so."

Mulder stopped her from rising, leaning over to nibble on
the overly sensitive skin behind her right ear. "You know
you can play doctor any time with me, babe. In fact, how
about we work on your bedside manner right now? I'd be
happy to help."

The man elevated kissing to a higher art form, Scully
thought hazily as she tilted her head farther to the left to
give him easier access. Then her gaze landed on a packing
box sitting accusingly in the hallway and she sighed, laying
both hands on his shoulders and giving him a gentle push.
His lips, currently attached to her collarbone, separated
with an audible smack.

"Give it to me later, ace," she replied to his heartfelt moan.
"We're supposed to be packing -- remember? What were
you doing in the refrigerator, anyway?"

Wrong question. Mulder's brows drew together and his
playful demeanor vanished. "I wanted some sunflower
seeds. I know I have some because I just bought a new bag
yesterday, but it isn't in the door of the fridge where I put
it."

"Maybe you put them somewhere else, like a cupboard,"
Scully suggested, standing and walking over to open one of
the cabinets.

Mulder lunged to his feet and stomped back to the
refrigerator, jerking the door open and rummaging through
its contents. "I distinctly remember sticking them in here, in
the door where I always put them. I've been storing my
seeds in that spot for years, why would I change...?"

"Mulder."

He turned to see Scully with a quizzical expression on her
face and the unopened bag of seeds in her hand. "They
were right here, where you keep your rice and pasta."

Mulder's jaw dropped, then his face darkened. "I did NOT
put them there. Did you move them?"

Annoyance creased Scully's forehead. "Of course not. Why
would I do that? You must have put them here, Mulder.
Maybe you were distracted by something, not paying
attention."

Mulder's fingers curled into fists. "I did NOT put them in
that cupboard, Scully," he growled. "Someone else must
have moved them, because I clearly remember putting them
in the refrigerator."

Scully frowned. "Who else could have done it? I really
don't think some shadowy conspirator sneaked into your
apartment just to rearrange your sunflower seeds! Why
can't you just admit the possibility that you're wrong?"

Mulder's fist slamming into the side of the appliance caught
her by surprise, and she physically jumped. "Because I
happen to have a handle on what the hell I have and haven't
done! Or are you suggesting that I'm losing touch with
reality? Is that it, Scully?"

She stared at him in disbelief. "Mulder, don't be ridiculous!
I can't believe you're getting so upset, you're blowing this
all out of proportion!"

"So you do think I'm cracking up. Do you think I haven't
noticed the way you've been watching me, keeping an eye
on me as if you're afraid I might suddenly go postal?"
Mulder snapped. "Thanks for the vote of confidence, babe."

The words stung like a verbal slap and Scully blinked
furiously, determined not to break down. "I think that's my
line, Mulder," she said quietly and fled the room.

Of course, it was useless to hide in someone else's
apartment. She dodged through the haphazard scattering of
boxes, eventually winding up in the bedroom with eyes
trained sightlessly out the window. Mulder's footsteps were
not unexpected; her ambivalence toward his inevitable
apology was. She loved him deeply, but the rollercoaster
ride was beginning to wear her down.

The footsteps stopped before he reached her, and to
Scully's surprise he made no move to wrap his arms around
her, or even touch her. She listened to the jagged rasp of his
breathing, the whisper of his feet shuffling on the carpet.
She could see the little wrinkles of contrition around his
eyes, the guilty twist of his lips, without even bothering to
turn around. She longed to grant easy absolution -- even
more, to completely erase the whole scene. Mulder's voice
shook her from her reverie, and she stiffened involuntarily.

"Scully, I...I don't know why I said any of those things. I
didn't mean them. I just... I don't know... Shit."

She sensed him moving away and spun quickly, placing a
restraining hand on his arm. "DON'T. *Talk* to me,
Mulder. Please."

He backed up and sat on the edge of the bed, pulling her
down beside him. She watched silently as his long, elegant
fingers toyed with a corner of the comforter. Her small
hand stilled them, and forced his eyes toward her own.

"I love you. Talk to me."

His eyes filled and he clenched his teeth. "I love you too.
I'm just not sure what to say. I guess maybe I've been
feeling a little overwhelmed."

She nodded slowly. "That's understandable. A lot has
happened the past month."

"Maybe. But it's no excuse for treating you the way I just
did." He snorted softly. "I don't mean to be a bastard, but
sometimes I can't seem to help it."

Scully opened her mouth to reply but the trilling phone
stopped her. She waited for Mulder to pick it up, but he just
sat and stared out the window.

"Aren't you going to answer that?"

He shrugged apathetically. "Let the machine get it."

Having an idea who it might be, Scully nudged him. "Go
on, answer it. What if it's important?"

Sighing like a martyr, Mulder leaned over on one elbow
and snatched up the receiver, taking care to hide his
trembling hand from Scully.

"Mulder."

"Sorry to call you at home, Agent Mulder, but I have been
bothered by a giant slug in my plumbing and someone told
me you might be able to help."

"Very funny, Bubba. To what do I owe this honor -- or
were you just in the mood for making prank phone calls?
And for your information, it was a fluke, not a slug."

Scully watched the transformation with satisfaction.
Mulder's morose disposition vanished, a grin taking over
his face and his shoulders relaxing as he settled more
comfortably on the bed. He fished around in his pocket and
removed a handful of sunflower seeds, cracking one
between his teeth.

"Just calling to shoot the breeze with my little bro," Grey
answered amiably. "How's the packing going?"

"You've seen my bedroom. How do you think it's going?"
Mulder asked sarcastically. He mouthed the name Grey to
Scully, who squeezed his leg, pointed warningly at the
fledgling pile of shells on the comforter, and then
disappeared into the living room. "How's work?"

Grey groaned theatrically. "Don't ask! Is there a full moon
sometime soon?"

"Why? You got a werewolf on your hands?"

"What I have is three cases of homicide, all apparently
resulting from domestic violence in the last five days,"
Grey complained. "Do you know how much paperwork
generates?"

"I have an idea."

"Could you say that with a little more sympathy? You can
fake it, it doesn't have to be genuine."

Mulder chuckled, dropping all the way back onto the
mattress and staring at the ceiling, the phone propped
between shoulder and chin. "Sorry, Bubba."

"Would you knock if off? Remind me never to drink beer
with you, it's like painting a target on my chest and
suggesting you take pot shots," Grey grumbled. "I can't
believe I told you that story."

Mulder's chuckle turned into a full-fledged laugh. "I can't
either."

"All right, all right. I've told you my sad tale. How are you
doing?"

The laughter dried up instantly and he involuntarily tensed,
his chin depressing several buttons on the phone, which
gave a protesting squawk.

"Oh, you know. Same old, same old," he replied, keeping
his voice carefully neutral. "Things have been pretty quiet
at work, so I'm consulting on a profile for VCS."

Grey's tone took on the gentle, probing quality that Mulder
found both touching and irritating. "We haven't talked
much since the service for Samantha."

"Guess not."

"You still okay?"

Mulder jerked upright, frowning. "I'm fine. Why are you
asking?"

Grey snorted. "Why am I asking? We buried our sister,
Fox! Who, by the way, you spent over half your life
looking for. There might not have been a body, but we gave
her a grave. Why do you think I'm asking?"

Mulder gripped the phone tighter and stood, casting a sharp
look at the doorway. "And you saw how I was doing when
you came up for the ceremony. Why the sudden concern?"

"You're a psychologist! You know as well anyone that
relatives go through a period of numbness right after a
death. It's weeks later that things can get tough."

"Bullshit," Mulder replied angrily. "Scully called you,
didn't she? She asked you to talk to me."

Silence, then Grey sighed. "She's worried about you, Fox."

"I'm fine," he replied tightly. "I've told her that, and now
I'm telling you."

"Did you believe her all those times she was the one telling
you?"

The mild question deflated his swelling anger as quickly
and efficiently as a pin pricking a balloon. Mulder sagged
against the window, staring fixedly at the passing traffic.
He struggled to answer, but couldn't seem to form the
words.

"You still with me, little brother?"

"No."

"What?" Grey's voice was startled.

"No, I didn't believe her when she told me she was fine.
Look, I know she wants me to talk to her about this, Grey.
But I can't." Mulder said sotto voice. "Not right now,
anyway."

"Do you mind telling me why? You two are so close,
you've shared so much. What makes this different?" Grey
asked tentatively, feeling his way on thin ice.

"I can't explain to someone else what I don't understand
myself. Everything's happening too fast, I need time to
process it all, in my own way, and Scully can't help me do
that. She doesn't understand, she grew up surrounded by a
big family where everyone knew everyone else's
problems." He laughed bitterly. "After Samantha was taken
I don't think anyone would have noticed even if I'd
spontaneously combusted in the middle of dinner."

"Then you'd have wound up as one of your own X-Files,"
Grey mused. "Case number X-1013. The spontaneous
combustion of Fox William Mulder."

Mulder smiled, a little surprised he could. "Boggles the
mind, doesn't it?"

Grey chuffed a little laugh, then quieted. "I've gone through
my own life crisis, little brother. I can understand if you
need the space. Just remember to reach out when you're
ready. Dana and I are only an arm's length away."

Mulder slipped another seed into his mouth with steady
fingers. A sense of peace replaced his earlier agitation,
leaving him almost giddy with relief. "Thanks. I... I guess
sometimes I need to be reminded of that."

"No problem. Listen, I've got to run, Mark’s picking me up
in a few minutes to go shoot some hoops. I'll be up next
Friday to help y’all move, as planned."

"Sounds good. You know, if you’d have told me a year ago
that Scully and I would wind up living together, I'd have
said you were crazy. I guess I still find it hard to believe."
He couldn't help the note of incredulity that crept into his
voice.

Grey humphed. "You and Dana must have been the only
ones too blind to see it. To everyone else, you might as well
have been wearing a neon sign. Now relax, don't do
anything to piss her off, and I'll see ya in a week."

"See you, Bubba."

Mulder could hear Grey curse as he hung up the phone,
grinning. He'd started toward the doorway, intent on
finding Scully, when his eyes lit on the pile of shells
decorating the bedspread. Still grinning, he retraced his
steps, carefully scooped them up, and deposited them in the
trash can, Grey's word's echoing in his head.

"I'll try," he muttered. "But it's not going to be easy."

The X-Files Office
Friday, March 24
9:23 a.m.

"Mulder, would you please stop it! You've been prowling
around this office like a panther in a cage."

Scully made no attempt to hide her annoyance. Exhaustion
had lowered her tolerance and raised her temper. Mulder's
nightmares had become a nightly occurrence, and they
were both suffering from sleep deprivation. But while she
manifested the weariness by a tendency to nod off at the
computer, Mulder seemed to grow more and more restless
and edgy. She felt brittle and thin, stretched to the breaking
point, and Mulder's perpetual motion burned like salt in the
wound.

"All right, all right," Mulder replied, flopping into his chair.
She heard him mutter something about "time of the month"
under his breath and it took willpower to avoid reaching for
her gun.

He flipped open a file folder and began to read, but in
minutes his foot was tapping against the wastebasket with a
hollow thud. The words on the computer screen melded
into a confused jumble of meaningless letters and Scully
backed up and started over for the third time. She was
wracking her brain for a bogus errand that she could send
him on when his phone rang.

"Mulder."

"Hey man, we've got some news."

Mulder stiffened and casually swiveled his chair until his
back was toward Scully. "I thought I was clear about how
to handle this," he said, trying to keep his voice
conversational but unable to omit a hard edge.

"You never called last night like you said you were going
to. Did you want us to just sit on this?" Frohike asked,
offended.

Mulder sighed, feeling an itch between his shoulder blades
where he was certain his partner's eyes were focused.
"Something unexpected came up," he replied, unable to add
that Scully had walked into his bedroom just as he'd picked
up the phone. "Go ahead. Lay it on me."

"Langly was checking out the hospital where your sister
was last seen when a local news item caught his eye."
Frohike fell silent and his discomfort was palpable. "You
aren't going to like this."

"What is this, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? I'm not
going to guess, Hickey!" Mulder snapped, an intangible
sense of foreboding and his own impatience overriding
discretion.

"That nurse who tried to help your sister? Arbuttus Ray?
She's dead, Mulder. Local paper says she died of a heart
attack less than a week after you and Scully talked to her."
Frohike cleared his throat. "I'm sorry, man. I know you
were planning on pumping her for more information."
When Mulder didn't reply and the silence over the phone
line grew oppressive, he added, "Mulder? You there?"

Numbness penetrated every cell in his body, and Mulder's
lips felt heavy and uncooperative. "Yeah. Yeah, I heard
you. Thanks for the info." He hung up the phone, only
peripherally registering Frohike's voice still squawking on
the other end of the line.

Scully watched the ripple across his spine as he breathed,
the only indication that the phone call hadn't turned him to
stone. She waited for him to move, turn, crack a bad joke --
something to signify that this abrupt stillness shouldn't
alarm her.

"What did Frohike want, Mulder?" she finally pressed
when several minutes had passed without a change. "What
kind of information did he have for you?"

Mulder turned back to face her, but his features revealed
only evasiveness. "Nothing you need to worry about,
Scully. How's the email? Anything interesting?"

Scully deliberately shut her laptop and walked over to stand
beside him. "You have them hacking into the records for
April Air Force Base, don't you? You're still trying to find
out what was done to Samantha." Mulder had a lousy poker
face when it came to deceiving her, and she could
immediately read confirmation in his eyes. She hovered
between hurt and anger that shifted like quicksand beneath
her feet. "Why were you hiding it from me?"

Sometimes she could see Bill Mulder's imprint with crystal
clarity. At her accusing tone Mulder went immediately on
the offensive, his eyes narrowing and his mouth turning
down in a scowl.

"Just listen to yourself, and you'll know why! I was sure
you'd be against it, that you'd try to talk me out of it. You're
awfully predictable, Scully."

Well, since Mulder was exhibiting one of his father's less
desirable traits, why shouldn't she join in? Scully's Irish
temper ignited.

"I'M predictable? Mulder you have it down to an art! Why
must you always be chasing after something? Why can't
you ever, for just a moment, stand still and appreciate
where you are? I mean really, Mulder -- when is it ever
going to be enough?"

"It could just as easily have been me, Scully! It nearly
was!" Mulder snarled, lunging to his feet. She backed up
two steps, frightened by his fury. "My name was on that
file first! I was a subject of their dirty little experiments just
like Samantha!" His voice dropped in pitch but not
intensity. "That diary could have been mine."

Scully sagged against the desk, aching to offer comfort but
too weary to find the right words. Her head throbbed, her
eyes felt dry and gritty, her thoughts sluggish.

"You must realize that many of those responsible for what
happened to Samantha could be dead, killed along with
Cassandra Spender and the rest. The Consortium, if it still
exists, has been crippled. It's been nearly twenty years since
your sister's death, Mulder. Is it really worth stirring up a
hornet's nest just to chase down a few old men?"

Mulder's phone buzzed, the vibration so close to her hand
that Scully jumped. Keeping his eyes fixed on her face,
Mulder reached over to answer it.

"Mulder. Hi, Kim, I..." He broke off, the lines across his
brow deepening. "What? You mean, like, right now? Fine
we'll... Oh. I see. Thanks."

Scully pushed away from his desk and walked back to her
own. Her fingertips had just brushed her jacket when
Mulder lifted his hand.

"Don't bother, Scully. Kim says Skinner wants to see me
alone."

Not so unusual, for Skinner to meet with one of them alone.
So why did her pulse quicken, her stomach clench with
dread? Was it that an impromptu summons from Skinner
rarely boded well? Or was it that in his current emotional
state she felt loath to let him out of her sight?

"Did Kim say what it was about?"

A slight twitch of his shoulders. "Nope. But this is our
supreme leader we're talking about, Scully. He says jump
and our only question's supposed to be 'How high?'" He
tried for humor and indifference, but failed miserably.

Scully watched him pull on his jacket, sinking her teeth
into the corner of her lip to stifle a plethora of
admonishments. When his fingers curled around the
doorknob she could hold back no longer.

"Mulder."

He didn't turn back, simply stopped moving. "Yeah?"

"You've been pretty... Just... Whatever it is, don't lose your
temper."

She wanted sarcasm. For Mulder to press a hand to his
chest, thrust out his lip, and pout, "Who, moi?" But all she
got was a scarcely perceptible jerk of his head and the snick
of the door closing. She sucked in a long breath of air and
went back to her email.

Kim's grim face ratcheted Mulder's uneasiness up a notch.
She inclined her head towards the door, her perfectly
manicured nails pausing from their dance across the
keyboard.

"You can go right in, Agent Mulder," she said in a volume
sufficient to be heard by her boss as well. Her voice
dropped to a confidential level as she added, "SAC
Carpenter is with him."

Mulder gave her a tight smile and strode resolutely into the
office. Skinner sat behind his desk listening to Carpenter,
who stopped mid-rant to glare balefully at Mulder. Skinner
looked up, motioning Mulder forward with a curt wave of
his hand. The irritation in his dark eyes was obvious, but
Mulder couldn't tell whether he or Carpenter was the
recipient.

"Agent Mulder, please have a seat."

Mulder crossed warily and sat, feeling strangely disoriented
to be occupying Scully's usual chair. Carpenter, usurper of
his usual spot, turned expectantly to Skinner and continued
to glower. He was a short, squat man, with thinning gray
hair and bushy eyebrows, and though his rigid, by-the-book
style clashed with Mulder's maverick tendencies, they'd
always been able to put aside their personalities in
deference to the work. Mulder had no clue as to what could
possibly have the man so irate. He settled back into the
chair with arms crossed loosely, knowing that he was
communicating insolence but unable to stop.

Skinner leaned forward, arms braced on the desktop.
"Agent Mulder, I called you up here in hopes that we can
resolve a problem that SAC Carpenter brought to my
attention. I understand you've completed the consult for
VCS?"

Mulder nodded coolly. "Yes sir."

"You took exception to several aspects of the existing
profile, and revised it?"

"Yes, sir."

Skinner's jaw clenched at his agent's sudden reticence.
"You turned that revised profile in to SAC Carpenter
yesterday?"

Mulder's hold on his temper slipped. "Last night, just
before I left. Would you please cut to the chase, sir, and
give me a hint as to what this pop quiz is all about?"

Skinner bristled at the insubordinate reply. "SAC Carpenter
is less than satisfied..."

"*Less than satisfied?* It's useless!" Carpenter spat, unable
to contain himself any longer. "My team has been on pins
and needles awaiting Mulder's profile, for the divine oracle
himself to speak! We've kept things on hold, hoping for
new insights, a new direction. What we got was a gigantic
waste of our time!"

Mulder's eyes narrowed. "I gave you my best take on the
UNSUB. I can't help the fact that it contradicts yours, or
that people don't enjoy being told they were wrong."

Carpenter's face turned beet red and he sputtered, nearly
pre-verbal with rage. Skinner sent him a quelling stare, then
looked back at Mulder.

"Agent Mulder, I've read the profile. SAC Carpenter isn't
the only one to be confused by the your conclusions."

Mulder's jaw dropped and he gaped blankly at his
supervisor, surprise short-circuiting his anger. "Sir, I... I'm
not sure what I could possibly say to that."

Skinner's gaze cut to Carpenter, then back to Mulder. "An
explanation would be nice," he replied. His tone carried no
malice and Mulder understood that it was Carpenter who
had provoked his boss's anger. Still, he could feel his
hackles rise in response to Skinner's doubt.

"I'd be glad to. I'll stand behind any part of that profile."

Carpenter made a derisive sound deep in his throat as
Skinner opened the file before him. Mulder recognized the
case number at the top of the page and the familiar scrawl
of his signature across the bottom. Skinner adjusted his
glasses and cleared his throat.

"The UNSUB is a single white male, between the ages of
25 and 40. He's a white collar professional with an
occupation that requires strict attention to detail, such as an
architect or an accountant. He lives alone in an upscale
condo or townhouse in a nice neighborhood, drives a
BMW. He's highly intelligent, but socially isolated from his
peers. They don't understand him and he makes no effort to
enlighten them."

"I know the profession and intelligence level varies
drastically from the original profile but I'm convinced this
guy isn't your garden variety rapist," Mulder broke in,
lunging forward.

Skinner held up his hand, palm out. "Let me continue."

Mulder grimaced, but sat back.

"His compulsion to rape and kill stems from an early
childhood trauma, the loss of a sister. She disappeared
while in his care and was never found. His father blamed
him for it, abusing him both verbally and physically. This
has left the UNSUB with an extreme sense of guilt coupled
with underlying rage and feelings of inadequacy. He's set
himself on an endless quest for the missing sister, seeking
but never finding her in the women that he rapes and then
brutally kills. He's convinced himself that his sister is still
alive somewhere, that she was abducted by aliens and..."

Mulder lurched to his feet, eyes blazing. "What kind of sick
joke is this?"

"Exactly my question, Agent Mulder," Carpenter grated.
"Why don't you tell us why you didn't just decline this
assignment rather than turning it into one of your petty
mind games!"

"That is NOT my profile!" Mulder snarled, stabbing a
finger at the paper for emphasis. "I don't know whose
bright idea it was to have some fun at Spooky's expense,
but it won't work!" His eyes jumped back and forth
between Skinner and Carpenter while his breath puffed in
short, rapid bursts. A drop of sweat trickled down between
his shoulder blades and his muscles thrummed.

"Mulder, sit."

Skinner's command was not lacking compassion, but
Mulder ignored it. A muscle in Skinner's cheek twitched in
agitation but he only stood and tilted the paper so that
Mulder could read it.

"Mulder, SAC Carpenter SAW you put this in his box last
night. And your signature is right there at the bottom."

Ears ringing and spots dancing across his line of vision,
Mulder snatched the profile from Skinner's fingers and
ripped it in half. "And I'm telling you I didn't write any of
that section about the UNSUB's sister! You'd have to be
blind and stupid not to see that it's a blatant description of
me! Do you think I'm crazy?"

"He wouldn't be the first," Carpenter sneered. "Or the last."

Mulder exploded. He spun on his heel, buried his fingers in
the lapels of Carpenter's jacket, and hauled the man to his
feet before Skinner could blink.

"You're the one who wrote it, aren't you, Carpenter? Big,
hotshot SAC of VCS -- you can't find your ass with both
hands, and you resent the hell out of the fact that my profile
showed you up! Did you really think I wouldn't figure it
out?" He punctuated each sentence with a teeth-rattling
shake until Carpenter's face turned pasty with fear.

Two large hands clamped onto Mulder's shoulders with a
bruising grip and Skinner's hot breath seared his ear.
"Agent Mulder you are out of line! Release him
immediately and SIT DOWN!"

It penetrated the red haze in his mind and Mulder's hands
immediately went limp. Skinner deposited him in the chair
with a none too gentle shove and ran his hand over the
beads of sweat on his brow.

"Are you all right?" he growled at Carpenter. When the
SAC managed a feeble nod, Skinner grasped him by the
elbow and guided him to the door. "I need to speak to
Agent Mulder. Alone. I'll handle things from here."

Carpenter fumbled a handkerchief from his pocket and
pressed it to his lips with shaking fingers. "I'm going to
OPR with this, Walt. That man has no place in the Bureau
and it's about time someone did something about it."

Skinner's face could have been carved from granite. "I said
I would handle this, Pete. Go cool off."

Carpenter jerked his arm from Skinner's grasp and stalked
out of the office. Skinner exchanged a meaningful glance
with Kim before firmly shutting the door.

Mulder was slumped, head cradled in his hands. Skinner
silently observed the nervous bouncing of the man's knee,
the periodic clench and release of the fingers wound in his
hair. He walked over to lean on the front of his desk, but
after a moment's consideration sat in the vacant chair.

"Mulder, what in the hell did you think you were doing just
now?"

Rather than furious, Skinner's voice was amazingly gentle.
Mulder cautiously dropped his hands and squinted up at
him.

"I didn't write that profile."

"You admitted that the first section was yours. Do you deny
that's your signature?"

"I would never have written that stuff. I think I know what I
have and haven't done, don't you?"

Skinner heard admission in the absence of denial. The
incident with the field report Mulder had accused him of
taking flashed through his mind. By the abrupt tightening
of Mulder's mouth, Skinner recognized that he remembered
too.

"Mulder, I want you to take some time."

Mulder's face went slack with disbelief, then dark with
anger. "You don't believe me, do you? You believe that son
of a bitch Carpenter, you think I did write that profile! Why
does everyone suddenly think I'm going off the deep end?"

"You've been under a lot of stress, Mulder. There's no
shame in taking a little time to regroup," Skinner replied,
filing away Mulder's comment for future consideration.
"Besides, it will buy me a chance to fix things with
Carpenter. The last thing you need is to be dragged in front
of a review board for..."

Mulder stood, his entire body trembling with rage. "Oh,
you're going to clean up my mess for me, huh Walt?
Because we're such buddies, right? Certainly not because
you have any respect for me or my work. Well, I have two
words for you, Skinner. KISS OFF."

He'd stormed across the room and out the door before
Skinner could wipe the look of shock from his face.

The X-Files Office
Friday, March 24
10:57 a.m.

By 11:00, Scully had passed curious and reached
concerned.
Impromptu meetings with Skinner rarely lasted longer than
fifteen or twenty minutes, and the fact that he'd called in
only Mulder contributed to her uneasiness. She read all her
email, typed up a final autopsy report, and made coffee.
Finally unable to stand the suspense, she picked up the
phone, intending to call Kim. A shadow falling across the
open doorway stilled the motion.

"It's about time, Mulder! What did... Sir?"

Skinner stepped into the office, his eyes skimming across
Mulder's vacant desk before coming to rest on Scully.

"Good morning, Agent Scully," he greeted gravely.

"Good morning, sir. I'm sorry, I thought you were Mulder."
Scully tucked a strand of hair nervously behind her ear. Her
neck protested the angle required to view her boss, so she
stood and folded her arms.

"Actually it's Agent Mulder I'm looking for. Do you expect
him back soon?" Skinner asked, walking over to stare at the
"I Want to Believe" poster.

Scully frowned and gave a small shake of her head. "I don't
understand, sir. He was supposed to be meeting with
*you*."

Skinner spun back around, forehead creased. "Scully, that
meeting ended almost an hour ago. Do you mean to tell me
that he didn't come back here?"

"I haven't seen or heard from him since he got Kim's phone
call and went upstairs," Scully replied sharply. "What
happened, sir? What exactly was that meeting about?"

Skinner hesitated, jaw tight, then motioned for Scully to sit
down. He pushed aside a stack of papers and a pile of
sunflower seed shells to perch on the corner of Mulder's
desk, evading Scully's questioning gaze as he gathered his
thoughts.

"Sir, if Agent Mulder is AWOL I'd like to see if I can track
him down," Scully said tersely. She'd taken a seat as
Skinner indicated, but remained rigidly poised on the edge.

"I understand your concern, Scully, but we need to talk,"
Skinner replied firmly. "I need for you to tell me what is
going on with Mulder, because frankly, I haven't a clue."

As if he'd waved a magic wand, Scully's face went blank.
Her expressive blue eyes cut away to the laptop on the
corner of her desk, and she ran one finger over the keys.
"Sir, I don't know what you mean. Is Agent Mulder in some
kind of trouble?"

Skinner let out an explosive burst of air and shook his head.
"You are a terrible liar, Scully. Always have been." When
she scowled and opened her mouth to retort he cut her off.
"He practically assaulted SAC Carpenter in my office this
morning. It's going to take every ounce of my rather
questionable diplomatic skills and some smooth talking to
convince Carpenter not to take it to OPR. We're talking a
major headache, Scully. I think I deserve to know just what
precipitated the need to pull his butt out of the fire this
time."

Scully licked her lips. "He attacked Carpenter? Mulder's
always been able to work with him just fine. They aren't
exactly buddies, but..."

"I won't say Carpenter didn't do his part in provoking him,"
Skinner admitted. "But Mulder's reaction was way out of
line, Scully. Even for Mulder."

Scully absorbed Skinner's words, chewing on her lip. She
studied his face for a long moment, then sighed. "Sir, could
you please explain exactly what went on before Mulder
attacked Carpenter? Why did you call the meeting in the
first place?"

Skinner leaned forward. "Carpenter came to me this
morning with Mulder's profile, breathing fire. There were
some things in it that didn't make sense." Skinner stopped,
and scrubbed his face with both hands. "That's a gross
understatement. Scully, there were things in that profile that
had absolutely no bearing on the case."

"Sir, we both know that Agent Mulder's theories, while
initially appearing impossible or even bizarre, frequently
prove to be..."

"Scully, he was profiling himself," Skinner interrupted
sharply.

Scully stared at him, her lips parting in shock and the color
leaving her cheeks. "What?"

His voice gentled. "The profile started out normally, even
added some insights that the team had missed. Then the
description of the UNSUB degenerated into a narration of
Mulder's own childhood. Sister disappearing while in his
care, blame and abuse from the parents -- Mulder even said
the UNSUB thought his sister had been abducted by aliens!
Carpenter was furious, he’s convinced that Mulder was
playing some kind of joke."

Scully shivered, suddenly chilled. "How did Mulder
respond?"

Skinner snorted. "He went ballistic! Said he never wrote
that part and accused the VCS agents of trying to make him
look bad out of petty resentment over his being called in to
consult. He and Carpenter exchanged some hard words and
the next thing I knew he had the man by the lapels and was
trying to shake the teeth from his head!"

Scully pressed a fist to her lips, blinking hard. Her fear and
anxiety over Mulder's behavior, till now rationalized and
kept in check, surged forward. Her throat constricted, her
stomach ached, and she was painfully aware of Skinner's
piercing gaze.

"Scully," he said kindly. "You must know by now that I
count both you and Mulder as friends. Talk to me. Is he
having difficulty coping with his sister's death?"

Scully met his probing gaze without flinching. "I didn't
think so, at first. He seemed so relieved to finally know the
truth. To have closure after so many years of searching and
wondering. He said he was free." Scully's voice caught.

Skinner proceeded cautiously, afraid she might shut him
out. "You said at first. What about now?"

A flicker of anguish crossed her face and her eyes dropped.
"I... You should ask Mulder about this, Sir. I don't feel right
discussing it behind his back."

"And you and I both know he's not going to talk to me,"
Skinner replied. "This goes beyond watching your partner's
back, Scully. If Mulder isn't fit for duty..."

"He's not really talking to me, either!" Scully said shortly.
She slumped back into the chair. "I don't know what to tell
you. He's irritable, restless, moody, and he's not sleeping
due to some pretty intense nightmares. But it's more than
that. I've seen Mulder emotionally wrung out -- after a
particularly bad case or when he's profiling. This..." She
trailed off, with a slight jerk of her head.

Skinner studied her for a moment. "Mulder said something
in my office that stuck with me. He asked why everyone
seemed to think he was going off the deep end."

Scully closed her eyes.

"The misunderstanding with the file," Skinner continued
quietly. "When he accused me of taking it from his desk?
Have there been similar incidents, Scully?"

Scully didn't speak, just dipped her head.

Skinner sighed heavily and pushed upright. He ran a hand
across his jaw and considered the bowed, auburn head. "I
told him to take some time, Scully. Strictly informal, I
didn't even mention the Employee Assistance Program. But
I'll be honest with you -- he needs to see someone. And I
won't hesitate to offer that as a bargaining chip if it will get
Carpenter off Mulder's back."

Scully raised her head, her features composed. "I
understand, sir."

Skinner lay his hand on her shoulder very briefly before
moving to the door. "Feel free to take the rest of the day.
And Scully? When you find Mulder, could you try to
convince him I'm on his side?"

Scully listened to Skinner's footfalls march down the
hallway before releasing her tears. "First I have to convince
him I am."

The Bench
Friday
1:33 p.m.

She recognized the outline of his body long before she
could see his face and nearly wept with relief. Slowing the
frantic stuttering of her steps, she sucked in a deliberate
draught of air, brushed her fingers over her cheeks, and
tamed a wayward lock of hair. Moving at a more leisurely
pace, she approached the bench.

"Is this seat taken?"

"No. But I'll warn you -- the guy you're sitting next to is
rumored to be more than a few bricks short of the load."

Not a trace of humor in the words. Mulder continued to
stare at the water, a bitter twist to his lips. Scully eased
herself down and wriggled her fingers between his.

"Then I'm glad I'm here. He once told me I had the ones he
was missing."

It was possibly the single correct response. The resentment
melted from Mulder's face and he gave her a wry smile.
"Ah, Scully. Why in the hell do you stick around?"

The corners of Scully's mouth turned up. "Symbiosis,
Mulder. Guess you've got a few of my bricks, as well." She
leaned her head against the cushion of his shoulder. "I was
worried."

Mulder shifted, his arm coming around to pull her more
snugly into his side. "I'm sorry."

"I checked your place and mine. I even went back to the
Bureau in hopes of finding you in the office." She struggled
to keep her tone neutral.

"I had some thinking to do. I didn't realize I'd been gone
that long." Mulder's fingers combed through her hair,
tickling her scalp.

"Skinner came looking for you."

The pliable flesh beneath her cheek hardened and Mulder's
hand dropped. "What did he tell you?"

Scully pulled back so that she could see his eyes. The
wariness and suspicion broke her heart. "That he asked you
to take some time off. And that he's on your side."

Mulder removed his arm from her shoulders leaving her to
shiver from the sudden absence of warmth. "Skinner didn't
believe me. Do you?"

*Oh God, Mulder, please don't ask me that.*

"I believe that you would never intentionally put something
like that in a profile," Scully hedged.

It didn't work. Mulder jerked backward and crossed his
arms defensively in front of him, a physical barrier to her
closeness.

"Don't patronize me, Scully! Do you believe I'm
responsible for putting that stuff in the profile?"

Scully stared at him, silently pleading for a reprieve that
never came. Finally she ducked her head. "I think you're
having trouble dealing with Samantha's death, Mulder.
Something's been wrong for weeks now -- the nightmares,
the mood swings, your inability to account for certain
actions. I think deep down inside, you know it too."

Mulder glared at her but she met his eyes and refused to
back down. The outrage slowly seeped from his face and he
curled forward and braced his elbows on his knees. Scully
watched him dry wash trembling hands as his toe scuffed
the dirt beneath the bench. When at last he spoke, his voice
was bewildered and barely broke a whisper.

"It can't be true, Scully. I don't remember doing any of
those things."

She moved to kneel between his knees, stilling his hands
with her own. "Mulder, you've raced through a life-
changing experience at eighty miles an hour, never once
hitting the brakes. I think your brain may be trying to tell
you it's time for a pit stop."

"What are you saying, Scully?" he asked softly.

"Don't fight Skinner on this. Use the time he's given you to
take a breath, to regroup. And I know you don't want to
hear this, love, but you need to talk to someone."

Mulder's fingers clamped over her own, only loosening
when Scully winced involuntarily. "You want me to see a
shrink? God, you do think I'm in bad shape!" He tried to
chuckle but the sound was jagged like shards of glass.

Scully untangled one hand to lay it on his cheek, her thumb
stroking across soft skin. "Mulder, you're a psychologist.
You of all people should know there's no shame in
admitting you need a little help sorting things out in your
head."

Mulder pressed his hand over hers, nuzzling her palm.
"Babe, it's *because* I'm a psychologist that I know what a
bunch of pretentious quacks most headshrinkers are."

The combination of his lips brushing her palm and the dry
humor in his reply lifted the dark cloud that had dogged her
steps since the conversation with Skinner.

"Hmm. Point taken," Scully said, smiling up at him.
Sobering, she added, "You could make an appointment
with Karen, Mulder. She's very good." Scully laughed
under her breath. "I certainly have thrown some doozies her
way."

Mulder gazed into her eyes for a long moment. After
casting a quick look around the nearly deserted area, he
tugged gently on her hands. "C'mere."

Never one for public displays of affection, Scully
reluctantly allowed herself to be drawn into his lap.
"Mulderrrr."

"Shh. Consider this physical therapy," Mulder murmured,
tucking her head beneath his chin.

As they sat in comfortable silence, her body gradually
relaxed against his. Scully frowned a little at the rapid
flutter of his heart, though the hand running up and down
her back was steady. Firmly telling Dr. Scully to take a
hike, she sighed contentedly. The rumble of Mulder's voice
was unexpected, the meaning behind his words even more
so.

"I'm scared, Scully."

She tightened her arms around his waist; pressed a kiss to
the hollow of his throat.

"Me too. But it's going to be all right, love. I promise."

But a little corner of her mind wondered.

Continued in part 2