Subject:NEW: Countdown (2/2)
Date: Tue, 06 Apr 1999
From: Dawn <sunrise83@comcast.net>

Countdown (10/16)
By Dawn

Hegal Place, Apt. 42
9 a.m.
40 hours remaining

"Damn it!"

Scully looked up from her laptop in time to see another ball of paper
fly toward the wastebasket, only to land on the floor. Mulder massaged
his right hand for a moment, flexing the fingers, before picking up his
pen and beginning to write. A cooling mug of tea and a piece of dry
toast with two bites missing sat on the desk at his left elbow. An open
e-mail from the Lone Gunmen filled the computer screen.

She observed him for several minutes. Crescent shaped shadows marred the
flesh beneath his eyes and fresh lines of pain etched his forehead. He'd
been chewing on his lower lip again, and it now bore a small raw spot.
The tremors in his hands had grown more pronounced and were contributing
to the lack of dexterity in his fingers. Hence the muttered curses and
crumpled paper as he attempted to jot down some notes. The simple fact
that he was taking notes at all held significance, since Mulder's
eidetic memory normally made writing things down superfluous. His level
of pain must have reached the point where it was affecting his
concentration.

Scully stood up and moved behind him so that she could read over his
shoulder. She held back only briefly before giving in to the impulse to
lay her small hands on his shoulders. Finding the muscles knotted with
tension, she dug her thumbs into them in what she hoped was a soothing
massage. To Scully's surprise, he paused in his writing and let his head
hang forward so that she had better access to his neck.

"Those hands are being wasted on corpses, Scully," he said, groaning a
little when she worked a particularly tight spot.

Scully smiled at his appreciation but chose not to comment. "What did
the boys find?"

"Plenty. They finally accessed the files on Cardow's work at BioGuard.
On the surface it looks legitimate. Cardow was supposed to create a
toxin able to completely wipe out some sort of infestation. There's a
project number listed -- SPEC 426."

"Probably refers to the protocol under which he was operating," Scully
guessed. She dropped her hands when Mulder turned his chair to face her.

"From what I can tell, the toxin had a very specific method of action.
One with which I'm becoming all too familiar."

"It mimicked black widow spider venom."

Mulder nodded grimly. "All the results of his initial experiments are
here - the way the effects increase exponentially, the symptoms I'm
experiencing right now, even the success rate. It was 100 percent lethal
in the initial trials. There's just one thing missing. There's no data
on the formula of the toxin."

Scully sighed and sank back down onto the couch. "You said it seemed
legitimate on the surface. What did you mean by that?"

Mulder frowned. "Something is odd about the rest of the data. Like I
said, the initial trials were all successful. Makes it look like
BioGuard should have been handing Cardow a medal. But then there's a
second set of data, and the results are completely opposite from the
first. Total failure." He handed Scully several sheets of numbers
printed out from the Gunmen's e-mail. "The project was scrapped two
weeks after that. Cardow evidently had trouble accepting the decision.
There are several memos from him protesting the closure of the project,
as well as responses from management insisting he terminate his
experiments and turn in all related materials."

Scully was studying the pages of data, brow creased in puzzlement. "I
don't understand this. They conducted the initial trials on rats, but no
subject is specified in the second set. Whatever it was must have had a
radically different physiology from the rats if the toxin had no
effect."

Mulder, who had been slouched in the chair, absently rubbing his
stomach, abruptly sat bolt upright. He stared straight through Scully
for a moment, attention far away, before finally focusing on her
intently. "What if it was more than just *different* in physiology,
Scully? What if it wasn't even terrestrial?"

Scully gave him "The Look," her eyebrows climbing so high they were
practically hidden by the sweep of her auburn hair. "Excuse me?"

"Just bear with me a minute. We know BioGuard is tied into Roush, which
is in turn connected to the Consortium. What if Cardow's project was an
early attempt at finding a weapon to stop alien colonization? What if
Spec 426 stands for species 426. What if it was the black oil?"

"Are you suggesting you think this might have been an early attempt at a
vaccine?"

"It makes sense, Scully. We know the consortium has been trying to
develop one for years. Cardow is assigned the task of synthesizing a
neurotoxin that will work on the alien colonists. He comes up with a
nifty little poison that looks very promising, until he gets to the
point where it's time to try it on a real, living EBE. It fails
miserably, and Cardow is ordered to move on, but he just can't let it
go. He's spent months, maybe years creating the toxin -- it's his baby
-- and he wants to keep working on it, perfecting it. Maybe he even
continues to do so on the sly, after hours when he won't be observed.
But someone sees him and rats him out to his boss. He's become a
liability now; someone who can't take orders and pursues his own agenda.
So a decision is made. Cardow has to be removed from the equation."

Mulder grimaced. "Enter a na´ve, arrogant agent ready to make a name for
himself, the perfect tool to assist them in insuring that Cardow will be
put somewhere he can't cause any more trouble. They even get rid of the
person who saw Cardow's unauthorized dabbling -- and who,
coincidentally, was his only alibi -- with a sudden promotion and
transfer out of the country. All loose ends are tied up. Case closed."

"Except something unforeseen happens," Scully mused. "A series of
coincidences that leads to an acquittal of Cardow, and his subsequent
release from prison."

"And boy is he pissed," Mulder finished wryly.

"Even if you're right, Mulder," Scully continued, "where does that leave
us?"

Mulder's faint smile faded. "It leaves us nowhere, Scully. Knowing the
possible reason Cardow was framed ten years ago unfortunately does
nothing to help me right now. The boys are going to keep looking, but I
really don't think they'll find Cardow's formula. My guess would be that
he took it with him when BioGuard cut him off."

Three sharp raps on Mulder's door brought Scully to her feet. "You
expecting one of the Gunmen?"

Mulder shook his head, closing the e-mail. When he started to rise, she
raised her hand.

"I'll get it. Save your strength."

Scully cracked the door, one hand poised over her weapon. When she saw
who it was, she relaxed and opened the door wide. Skinner stepped inside
and waited while she shut and locked the door behind him. He didn't say
the words, but his facial expression made the unspoken question obvious.

"It was a rough night," she said quietly. "The nausea and abdominal
cramping is severe, and kept him from sleeping longer than about an hour
at a time. He can't eat either. All he's been able to keep down is some
chamomile tea."

"Any luck with the investigation?"

"Nothing that's going to help Mulder," Scully said wearily.

Skinner actually smiled. "Then follow me. I have some good news."

Despite Scully's earlier admonition, Mulder stood when he saw Skinner.
Skinner waved him back to his chair and sat down on the couch.

"To what do I owe the honor, sir?" Mulder asked, the wry grin back on
his face.

"I think we may have the break you've been looking for, Mulder.
Forensics was able to recover a single bloody thumbprint on the
sweatshirt you were wearing the night you were attacked. We ran it
through the system and hit the jackpot."

"I'm listening."

"You said you had the impression you were attacked by two men, is that
correct?"

Mulder nodded. "I don't really remember anything concrete. It's just a
general sense of two shadows coming at me, then nothing."

"The print matched those of a man named Larry Reardon. Reardon is a
career criminal, he's been incarcerated for a variety of crimes
including burglary, fraud, and car theft. He was in the Cumberland
Correctional Facility up until about three weeks ago."

Scully perked up. "Cumberland?"

Skinner nodded. "I made some calls. He was Cameron Cardow's cellmate for
18 months, right up until the day Cardow was released."

"I don't suppose we have a current address..." Mulder trailed off,
expression carefully neutral.

Skinner grinned.

Scully blinked, feeling surreal. *Skinner just *grinned* she thought.
*Somebody alert the media.*

"He has an apartment in Arlington. Arlington PD issued a warrant and had
two officers waiting for him when he got home from work last night. They
even found a shirt stuffed in the bottom of his laundry basket that was
covered with blood. We're reasonably certain that analysis will show
it's yours. He's in custody as we speak."

"I want to talk to him."

Skinner nodded again. "I knew you would. I told the captain we'd be in
sometime before noon."

Mulder swallowed to rid himself of the sudden tightness in his throat,
touched by Skinner's willingness to become personally involved in a
matter that could have been left to subordinates.

"Sir, I don't know how to thank you."

Skinner's face was grave, but his brown eyes betrayed amusement. "That's
easy, Agent Mulder. You can let me drive."

Continued in part 11

------------------------------------------------------------------------

Countdown (11/16)
By Dawn

Arlington Police Department
10:45 a.m.
38 hours remaining

Scully sat at the wooden table, perched on the edge of the uncomfortable
chair. Even in this position, her feet barely reached the floor. She
hated when that happened. It made her feel like a little girl playing at
being a federal agent. Mulder, however, was going to appreciate the
construction of the overly large chairs.

She glanced at the empty chair to her right, trying not to worry. He'd
abruptly excused himself, as the three of them were about to enter the
interrogation room, muttering that he needed to use the restroom and
would be right back. That was five minutes ago, and the knot in the pit
of her stomach had transformed into an object roughly the size of a
large boulder.

"You want me to check on him?"

Skinner, who had been leaning against the wall behind her and perusing
the wanted posters, straightened and moved to stand beside her. Scully
hesitated, torn by her own worry for Mulder and her commitment to give
him the space he needed. If she could check on him personally, she
would, but that was hardly on option here.

She allowed both gratitude and reservation to show on her face as she
looked up at Skinner. "Thank you. But sir..."

"Scully, I've known the man even longer than you have. I'll just check
-- no hovering."

In spite of her anxiety, Scully smiled ruefully. "I promised myself I
wouldn't fuss over him when things started getting bad. Mulder hates
that. I need to be his partner and friend right now. He already has a
doctor."

Skinner paused with his hand on the door. "Being a doctor is part of who
you are, Scully. If Mulder knows you half as well as I think he does,
he'll understand that."

Skinner got a detective to direct him to the bathrooms, steeling himself
before pushing the door open and stepping inside. Despite his words to
Scully, he knew she was right. Mulder hated to admit weakness or
vulnerability, and he could be insufferable in such situations.

At first glance, the room appeared empty and silent. Skinner briefly
wondered if there was more than one set of bathrooms in the building and
if he'd been directed to the wrong one. Then his ears caught the faint
sound of rapid breathing. He walked along the line of stalls until he
came to the last. The door was ajar, and he pushed it gently open.
Mulder was slumped on the tile in front of the toilet; his forehead
resting on the porcelain and his breath coming in short pants. The
toilet bowl was bright red with blood. At the sound of Skinner's sharp
intake of air, Mulder wearily raised his head. His lips were flecked
with blood, and his voice was a hoarse whisper.

"Don't tell Scully."

Skinner had faced more than his share of trauma, and his training kicked
in. The initial shock and panic that he'd felt when seeing the blood
disappeared and his cool, rational side took over. He silently bent to
grasp Mulder's left arm and sling it over his shoulder. Once he'd pulled
the agent to his feet, he lowered the toilet lid and helped him to sit
down. Skinner then went to a sink and wet a paper towel before returning
to hand it to Mulder, who accepted it gratefully.

He waited patiently while Mulder used the towel to bathe his face and
wipe the blood from his mouth. When he finally finished, Skinner braced
himself for the fallout from the words he felt compelled to speak.

"Mulder. You should be in a hospital."

Other people rarely surprised Skinner. He'd seen enough in his forty-odd
years to make him immune to the crazy things people did and said. Mulder
was different. One of the agent's qualities that Skinner found himself
both inspired and irritated by was his consistent ability to catch him
off balance. Now was no exception.

"You're just figuring that out now, sir?"

Skinner opened his mouth to reply, realized he was speechless, and
settled for glaring at Mulder instead. Mulder pretended not to notice.

"I know I belong in a hospital. You and Scully only have to watch while
my body falls apart, but I'm the one living it. I also know I can't
spend the short time I have left doing nothing but counting ceiling
tiles and wondering what new experience this toxin will inflict upon me.
I have to be *doing* something, sir. Don't take that away from me."

Skinner rebelled against the crushing sense of empathy Mulder's words
engendered. He was the man's boss; the one responsible not only for
Mulder's safety, but Scully's as well. He couldn't allow a feeling of
kinship with Mulder to influence what should be an objective decision.

"Mulder, you just vomited blood..."

"It's not as bad as it looks. A little blood looks like a lot, even
Scully will tell you that. And I didn't actually vomit blood. I probably
ruptured some blood vessels because of the dry heaves. The doctor warned
me it could happen."

Skinner glared at Mulder. Though he gave every appearance of stern
disapproval on the exterior, inside he felt deep admiration for the man
before him. Mulder's face was ghostly pale except for the dark circles
beneath his eyes. He wore the pinched look of someone enduring a high
level of pain, and his hands trembled when he forgot to clasp them
tightly together. But his gaze was clear, lucid, and determined, lacking
any fear or self-pity. How many men could have weathered any of Mulder's
past experiences, let alone the last ten minutes, and kept going? The
man's sheer courage under fire was remarkable.

"I should yank you out of here right now and deposit your butt into the
nearest hospital," Skinner growled, internally already admitting defeat.

"But you aren't going to," Mulder finished for him, the relief on his
face so intense Skinner felt he had to look away. "Thank you, sir. And I
meant what I said earlier. Please don't tell Scully about this. There's
nothing she can do, and it will only upset her."

"She's already upset, Mulder."

"You know what I mean."

Skinner thought it over before nodding reluctantly. "I won't volunteer
anything," he warned. "But I won't lie to her."

Mulder pushed himself slowly to his feet. "I can accept that."

Skinner watched without comment as Mulder splashed water on his face and
used his damp hands to finger-comb his hair. When he'd straightened his
tie and turned around, Skinner had to admit that the man looked
amazingly composed and well put together.

Skinner couldn't help feeling a flicker of amusement -- at both the
sharp look Scully gave Mulder when they reentered the interrogation room
and his agent's feigned ignorance. Before Scully could actually comment,
however, the opposite door opened and a uniformed officer escorted
Reardon into the room.

The man slouched insolently in the chair with his gaze fixed on the
table, ignoring the three pairs of eyes fastened on him. His long brown
hair was gathered into a ponytail, and his eyes were so dark they
appeared nearly black in color. He was tall in stature, with the
muscular build of someone who worked out regularly.

After the guard had left the room, Reardon looked up. His eyes skipped
quickly over Skinner, but Scully saw a brief flash of recognition when
they rested on Mulder before quickly skittering away. Mulder looked at
Scully from the corner of his eye and nodded almost imperceptibly.
Guessing that he wanted to be free to observe Reardon for the moment,
she initiated the first question.

"I'm Special Agent Dana Scully with the Federal Bureau of
Investigation," she said. "The man next to me is my partner, Special
Agent Fox Mulder. But you already knew that, didn't you Mr. Reardon."

It was a statement, not a question. Skinner had removed himself to the
background once again, and on a sudden impulse Scully decided not to
introduce him yet. Skinner might just prove to be a trump card later on.

"I don't know what you're talking about," Reardon said sullenly. "How
the hell would I know some Fibbie's name?"

Scully smiled, but it was the smile of a shark sensing its next meal.
Mulder suppressed a smirk. *Be afraid, Reardon. I'd turn back if I were
you.*

"I'm sorry, Larry. I just assumed that having someone's blood all over
your shirt indicated prior contact with him. Am I wrong?"

Reardon glared at her and looked about to refute her words, but
evidently decided it would be useless. Instead he leaned forward and
rested his folded arms on the table, a smug smile replacing the
hostility. "Guess there's no use denying it, sweetheart. You've got me
dead to rights. I'll just have to place myself at your mercy." He
.followed the words with an exaggerated wink.

Scully saw Mulder's knuckles turn white, but to his credit he remained
stone-faced. She knew what it cost him. Mulder hated it when a suspect
treated her disrespectfully, and Reardon was pushing that particular
button with eerie accuracy.

"There's only one thing I want from you, Mr. Reardon," Scully replied
coldly. "I want the location of Cameron Cardow. Now."

"I don't do anything unless there's something in it for me."

"You helped Cardow, and it landed you here," Mulder spoke up. "What did
you get out of that?"

"Cam was my buddy when we were inside," Reardon answered, shifting his
gaze from Scully to Mulder. "He helped me out of a couple tight spots
and I owed him. Besides, he offered me a couple hundred bucks just to
put you out of commission long enough for him to give you that shot." He
shrugged and grinned. "I needed the money."

"If he was such a pal, why didn't he just loan you the money?" Scully
muttered.

Mulder shot her a warning glance. "Why did he do it, Reardon? Did he
discuss it with you?"

Reardon rolled his eyes. "Did he *discuss* it with me? Man, you were all
he talked about the entire time we shared a cell! I was glad when they
finally released him. If I had to hear the gory details about what he
was going to do to you one more time, I think I'd have lost my mind."

If it was possible, Mulder paled. "Tell me."

"He *hated* you, man. Said you were responsible for putting him away,
knowing he was innocent. Real paranoid crap too, he kept talking about
*'Them.'* Said it just like that, with a capital "T." He said They put
you .up to the whole thing to stop him from completing his work on some
project. Said you worked for Them. That's why he wanted you to die. He
claimed you were real important to Them, and that by killing you he'd be
hurting Them at the same time. Two birds with one stone, so to speak."

Mulder leaned back in his chair and ran a trembling hand through his
hair. Seeing that he was visibly rattled by Reardon's words, Scully
jumped in.

"So you admit that Cardow's intention was to kill Agent Mulder."

Reardon snorted. "*Kill* him? Yeah, but that was just a side benefit.
What Cam really wanted was to make him suffer, and have a front row
seat. Like picking the legs off a bug, one at a time, he used to say.
You stretch it out, make it last. You don't actually squash the bug
until the very end."

Mulder closed his eyes a moment before lurching to his feet and heading
for the door. "I need some air," he muttered.

Scully forced her own mask of detachment to remain firmly in place,
though she badly wanted to wipe the look of amusement from Reardon's
face.

"I'm glad you find this entertaining, Mr. Reardon," she said coldly.
"Since you'll wind up doing some serious time for this one. What is the
standard sentence for first degree murder, sir?" She tossed the
question casually over her shoulder, proud of the fact that her voice
never wavered.

"We're talking a minimum of life in prison, Agent Scully. The fact that
Mulder is a federal agent adds to the seriousness of the crime. I'd say
the death penalty is certainly a possibility."

Scully only wished she had Mulder's eidetic memory so that she could
savor the memory of Reardon's reaction over and over in the same
glorious detail. Every bit of color drained from the man's face and his
eyes nearly bugged out of his head.

"Wait a minute, wait a minute! Cam was the one who injected him with
that stuff! All I did was knock him over the head. I figure that's
assault, maybe, but not murder!"

"You participated in an act that may cause the death of a federal agent.
An act that was premeditated, I might add," Skinner said gravely.

"Oh, this is Assistant Director Skinner," Scully said, barely containing
the glee in her voice. "I guess I forgot to introduce him."

It was at that point that Reardon began to babble.

Mulder was leaning against the car when Scully and Skinner finally
exited the building. His eyes were closed, his face tilted up to absorb
the warm rays of the sun. Scully joined him, her arm brushing his
companionably.

"Jackpot," she said quietly.

Mulder opened his eyes and arched one eyebrow.

"He doesn't know where Cardow lives, but he knows where he works. He's
got a job at Georgetown University, as a custodian for the medical
school. The graveyard shift."

"Where there just happens to be plenty of empty labs stocked with
chemicals and equipment," Mulder mused. "How'd you get him to talk?"

Scully grinned at her boss. "Believe it or not, Skinner and I make a
pretty good team."

Mulder smirked. "Let me guess, sir. She was the 'bad cop,' am I right?"

"Mulder, I had no idea how ruthless your partner could be. I can only
say one thing -- be grateful she's on our side."

Mulder looked at his partner, her expression, for the moment, relaxed
and cheerful. He waited until he'd caught her eye before speaking. "I
am, sir. Every day."

Continued in part 12

------------------------------------------------------------------------

Countdown (12/16)
By Dawn

Georgetown University
The Research Building
12:00 a.m.
25 hours remaining

"Why is orange the only color that's also a flavor?"

Scully turned her head to take in her partner's profile, barely visible
in the darkness. "What?"

"You heard me. Why is orange the only color that's a flavor? I mean,
think about it, Scully. Red things are cherry, purple things are grape.
Why don't we call cherries reds? Or grapes purples?"

"Mulder, we are sitting here in the dark, waiting for a deeply disturbed
man who has injected you with a deadly toxin. What in God's name made
you think of that?"

Mulder shrugged. "Just the way my mind works, I guess."

In the stillness of the deserted building, the labored quality of
Mulder's breathing was unmistakable. When they'd returned from
Arlington, and Skinner had left to check on things at the Bureau, Mulder
had come to her for one of the painkillers prescribed by Dr. Wagner.
He'd refused to meet her eyes, simply swallowing the pill with some
chamomile tea and stretching out on his couch. As he'd predicted, the
medication knocked him out, and he'd slept a full five hours, barely
stirring.

The respiratory problem must have developed during that time, for she'd
noticed it immediately when he woke up. Scully tried not to think about
the fact that it was gradually becoming more pronounced. He was still
functioning well when sitting or lying down, but walking at more than a
snail's pace had him panting as if he'd run a marathon. They hadn't
spoken of it, since the implications were obvious. Skinner had shot
Scully a worried frown when he'd returned an hour ago, but had said
nothing.

They'd called the university to ascertain Cardow's schedule, learning
that he was due to work in the Research Building tonight. Now they
waited, with Scully and Mulder positioned just inside the back entrance
and Skinner covering the front.

"You let me know if you have any other deep thoughts, Mulder," Scully
said, feeling amused at his ruminations. Amused, yes, but so much more.

Fearful.

Heartbroken.

Because a little voice inside her head, the one that listened to the
relentlessly ticking clock, wouldn't stop whispering. *I'm going to miss
him terribly. How can I even contemplate doing this without him?
Baseball games on the radio. Discussing the gunmen's latest conspiracy
theories. Debating whether Batman or Spiderman would win in a fair
fight...*

*All the ways his incredible mind works.*

*I can't do this.*

"Well, since you asked, there *is* the problem with the expressions
people use. Have you ever really listened to them? None of them make a
bit of sense, but everyone repeats them anyway. Sick as a dog. What's
that supposed to mean? From what I can see, dogs rarely get sick."

"Mulder?"

"Yeah, Scully?"

"I changed my mind. Shut up."

She heard the slight chuffing sound of his laughter before he fell
silent. She listened to the sound of his breathing for several minutes
and wished with all her might that she were merely having an amazingly
vivid dream. She wanted to wake up. Now.

"Mulder?"

"Hmm?"

"I still wouldn't change anything."

As always, he was right there with her. "Just the flukeman thing, huh?"

She shook her head, feeling him fumble for her hand in the darkness.
"Not even that. Mulder, I need you to know..."

"*Don't*, Scully."

The sharpness of his tone shocked her to silence. But when he spoke
again his voice was warm and wistful.

"There's a lot that's remained unsaid, Scully. On both sides. And
someday we *will* say the words. But not here, and not now, like this. I
don't want to wonder if you've said things because I may not be around
tomorrow to hold you to them. And I don't want you to ever doubt my
motives."

Scully squeezed his hand, blinking back the tears that threatened. "I
know. You're right. Anyway, once we catch Cardow tonight, we'll have all
the time in the world for talking."

Silence descended between them once more, and Scully found herself
staring at the door, willing it to open. Mulder shifted restlessly
beside her.

"Hey, Scully?"

"Yeah, Mulder."

"Me too."

The sound of footsteps and the jingle of keys aborted the smile that had
begun to form on her lips. Scully scrambled to her feet and drew her
weapon, sensing Mulder mirroring her actions.

"Wait until he's all the way in the building," Mulder said sotto voice.
"We don't want to lose him."

The door opened, revealing a single figure silhouetted briefly by the
moonlight before stepping inside and closing the door. Even in the poor
lighting, Scully recognized the long hair and slight build from the
police photo. It was Cameron Cardow.

"Federal Agent! Don't move!" she warned, automatically lowering the
pitch of her voice for more authority.

The next ten seconds exploded in a kaleidoscope of fragmented images to
which she could only react, allowing her training to take over. Cardow
brought his hands up as if in surrender, but a sudden intense beam of
light flared. Momentarily blinded, Scully fought the reflex to close her
eyes against the piercing beam. She heard Mulder fire a warning shot,
shouting for Cardow not to move, but then the light was flying in her
direction. Something heavy narrowly missed hitting her in the head, and
she heard the sound of retreating footsteps.

Mulder was by her side in an instant, panting. "You all right?"

"I'm fine. What *was* that?"

Mulder stooped and picked up an object near her feet. It was a large,
halogen flashlight, rendered useless by its impact with the floor.

"He went into the stairwell. Call Skinner and let him know what's going
on. There should be another stairwell near the entrance. Have him meet
us on the second floor. With any luck, we can trap Cardow in between."

Mulder's terse instructions were broken by gasps for breath. Scully
could just make out a fine sheen of perspiration on his brow, and the
hand holding his weapon trembled slightly.

"Mulder..."

"We're wasting time here, Scully," he cut her off sharply, reaching for
the door to the stairwell. "Call Skinner."

He'd disappeared before she could respond, and she swore softly under
her breath while punching number four on the speed dial of her cell
phone.

"Skinner."

"It's Scully. We surprised Cardow at the back entrance, but he gave us
the slip. If you take the stairs to the second floor we may be able to
flush him in your direction."

She could feel Skinner hesitate, and knew his reservations only echoed
her own. But all he said was, "I'm on it."

Tucking the phone back into her pocket, Scully entered the dark
stairwell and climbed swiftly and silently to the second floor. She
paused just inside the hallway, trying desperately to get her bearings
in the darkness. A long corridor stretched before her with doors on
either side, spaced at intervals of about thirty feet.

"Take the right side." Mulder's voice was so soft it was nearly
inaudible. "He's here. I heard footsteps."

Scully nodded, though she was doubtful Mulder would be able to see it.
Raising her weapon, she cautiously pushed the first door open and
slipped inside. She could detect the interior of a lab, aided by the
light from a row of windows on the far wall. Several long lab benches
filled the central portion of the room, with large pieces of equipment
lining the walls. She moved catlike around the periphery, even checking
in the kneehole of the large oak desk. Satisfied it was empty, she moved
carefully out the door and down to the next.

In retrospect, she should have noticed that the shelving unit was not
flush with the wall. A chemical spill, she learned much later, had
necessitated moving the unit an additional foot away from where it
normally rested so that the floor could be cleaned. A man the size of
Mulder could never have fit into the small space, but Cardow was a good
thirty pounds lighter and small-boned. Scully hadn't traveled more than
three steps past the unit, when she was seized from behind. Cardow
pulled her close to his body, one hand clasped roughly over her lips and
the other pressing a razor sharp object to her throat.

"The tables have turned, Agent Scully," he whispered, pressing his mouth
close to her left ear. "Now it's *your* turn to freeze." His breath
smelled faintly of alcohol, and Scully couldn't repress a shudder at the
feel of it against her skin.

"You may as well turn yourself in, Cardow," she said with more assurance
than she felt. "You aren't going to make it out of this building."

Cardow chuckled, and she felt her skin crawl in response.

"I don't want to make it out of the building. I must admit, this isn't
exactly what I'd planned, but now that you're both here, I'm warming to
the idea. Let's find Agent Mulder, shall we?"

She complied, her mind working frantically for some alternative. She
allowed herself to be shuffled out into the corridor, wincing once when
Cardow pressed a little too firmly on her neck. She felt a warm trickle
that signified he'd drawn blood.

"Agent Mullllderrrr!" Cardow called in a slightly sing-song voice. "Come
out, come out! It's time to renew our acquaintance."

Scully struggled not to let her feet tangle as Cardow turned in a slow
circle, searching for her partner. She could feel the man practically
thrumming with nervous excitement, and her fear for Mulder ratcheted up
another notch. The little she'd seen of Cardow so far had only served to
confirm their suspicions that he was extremely unstable.

"I'm right here. Let her go."

Mulder's voice was thin and raspy, a pale imitation of his normally
smooth tenor. Cardow spun quickly to face him and Scully stumbled,
gasping when the blade pierced her flesh a second time.

In the deep shadows it was difficult to get a good look at Mulder, but
what she saw alarmed her. He leaned heavily against the doorway from
which he'd appeared, and even from a distance she could hear how labored
his breathing had grown. All she could see of his face was the
occasional glitter of his eyes when the light struck them just so.

"Hey, Agent Mulder. How are you? You don't look so good."

Cardow's voice dripped honey in an obscene parody of concern.

"This is between you and me, Cardow. Agent Scully has nothing to do with
it. Let her go and we'll talk."

Cardow's face twisted into a sneer. "You're wrong. She is a part of
this, because you made her one. Now put down your gun and kick it toward
me."

"Mulder, don't!" Scully pleaded, only to be cut off by the blade at her
throat.

Mulder silently did as ordered. The gun skittered down the hallway
before coming to rest about six inches from Cardow's left foot.

"You're wrong about me, Cardow," Mulder said. "They used me just as much
as they did you. I was only doing my job. I believed you were guilty."

"Don't lie to me!" Cardow shrieked, spittle flying from his lips. "You
think I don't know whose son you are? You honestly expect me to believe
you weren't part of their agenda? I'm not a fool, Agent Mulder, despite
what you all may think! Ten years ago you helped them take away a
project that meant more to me than my own life. Now the fruits of that
project will bring about the end of yours. How does it feel?"

At the far end of the hallway, behind Cardow, Mulder saw a flicker of
movement. Despite the sudden flare of hope the sight ignited, he
deliberately kept his eyes on Cardow. Keep him talking. He can't figure
out Skinner is behind him or he'll hurt Scully.

"The project was to create a toxin to kill an alien life form, wasn't
it?"

"They told us we'd be responsible for saving the earth," Cardow spat.
"That we'd be revered by future generations, just like Einstein and
Pascal. Then they threw it all away! One bad test run with the black
stuff they found in that rock, and they gave up. They wouldn't even
listen when I told them I could fix it if given a chance. Five long
years of blood, sweat, and tears, and they were determined to throw it
all away after one bad trial!"

"But I wouldn't let them. I turned in all my notes except for the actual
formula for the toxin. I hid it on a disk and took it home so that I
could come back and work on it after hours, when no one was around."

"But someone saw you," Mulder said. Through the periphery of his vision
he could see Skinner was closer now.

"Yeah, and that's when they brought you in, isn't it? They killed
Carolyn -- or were you in on that too? Poor, sweet Carolyn, whose only
mistake was having cared about me. They killed her just to get rid of
me! And you made sure I took the fall for it."

Something in Cardow's demeanor changed, and Scully could feel it in the
sudden calm that replaced the tension in his body. The nearly hysterical
anger he'd been venting just a moment earlier abruptly evaporated, and
he actually laughed softly.

"I think I've just had an epiphany, Agent Mulder. I've so enjoyed the
past two days, watching as my little creation slowly takes you apart
piece by piece. Hard to conceive of it getting any better, but I just
thought of a way."

"You helped them take away the most important woman in my life, Agent
Mulder. What if I return the favor?" He slowly lifted his free hand to
caress Scully's hair, grinning when Mulder made an aborted lunge toward
him.

"She takes care of you, doesn't she? Making you tea when you're too sick
to eat. Rubbing your shoulders when the muscle cramps are so painful you
don't think you can bear it. But losing her would hurt far more than any
of those physical torments, wouldn't it, Agent Mulder? From what I've
seen, she's all you've got."

"Cardow..."

It was meant to sound threatening, but the name came out as a
breathless, terrified, moan. Mulder could feel himself begin to
hyperventilate, black spots dancing at the edges of his vision.

"They spilled Carolyn's blood, remember Agent Mulder? Slit her wrists
and left her there to slowly bleed to death, paralyzed and helpless.
Agent Scully's death will actually be much more merciful. It doesn't
take long to die once your jugular has been severed..."

"Freeze, Cardow!"

Skinner roared, startling Cardow into spinning around to face him. Yet
he retained the presence of mind to keep Scully as a shield.

"You'll have to shoot through her!" he warned, a high note of panic in
his voice.

Almost on autopilot, Mulder staggered to a crouch and removed the gun
from his ankle holster.

"I have my gun pointed at your head, Cardow," he gasped, blinking to
clear vision that wavered in and out of focus. "It's over. Let her go."

Cardow glanced over his shoulder and smiled. "You won't shoot me,
Mulder. I'm your only hope. There is an antidote -- did I forget to
mention that? Kill me, and any chance of a cure dies with me."

The hand holding the blade twitched closer, biting more deeply into the
pale skin of Scully's neck.

"Stop, Cardow!" Skinner bellowed.

"I'll shoot! Do you hear me?" Mulder screamed, the gun wavering as he
struggled to hold it steady.

"Mulder, don't!" Scully cried.

The shot rang out before she'd finished speaking the words. Scully felt
the body behind her convulse, and the pressure on her neck increased
slightly before abruptly ceasing. Cardow slid to the floor with a
muffled thump. She knew before turning around that he was dead.

Cardow lay crumpled on the tile, his eyes staring sightlessly at the
ceiling and a large part of the back of his head missing. Skinner was at
her side an instant later, a steadying hand on her elbow when she swayed
slightly.

"Easy, Scully. Deep breaths."

Which brought her as quickly back into focus as if he'd slapped her.
"Mulder?"

He'd slid down against the wall until he was seated on the floor. His
face was bathed in sweat, and his respirations were little more than
ineffectual gulps for air. Even in the darkened hallway she could see
that his lips were turning blue from lack of oxygen.

"Call 911," she told Skinner, removing Mulder's tie and unbuttoning the
top of his shirt with trembling fingers.

Mulder turned glazed eyes on her face. "You...okay?"

Scully bit her lip hard to stave off the tears. "Thanks to you."

Mulder lifted his hand to trace the cut at her neck with his index
finger. "Bastard."

The full impact of the last 30 minutes finally caught up with her, and
Scully could no longer rein in her emotions. Tears filled her eyes and
overflowed as she reached out to cup his cheek.

"Why'd you do it, Mulder? He was your only chance. You could have tried
for his leg, his shoulder..."

Mulder's expression was weary, but peaceful. "Too risky. Cardow...was
right. You...all I've got."

As Mulder's eyes slipped shut, Scully heard the wail of sirens in the
distance.

Continued in part 13

------------------------------------------------------------------------

Countdown (13/16)
By Dawn

Georgetown Medical Center
8:04 a.m.
17 hours remaining

He barely recognized her when he stepped into the small ICU waiting
room. If not for the bright curtain of auburn hair that effectively
concealed her facial features, Skinner would have thought he was looking
at a stranger. The Dana Scully he knew was strong, retaining her
composure in even the most horrendous situations. Some mistook this
strength for coldness, snidely whispering nicknames like "Ice Queen"
behind her back. Skinner knew they couldn't be more wrong. Dana Scully
had a warm and loving heart. And right now it was shattering, even as he
watched.

She sat on the hard plastic chair, slumped forward with her face buried
in her hands. He could just catch a glimpse of white at her throat,
indicating that someone at the hospital had been brave enough to
convince her that the throat wound should be treated. When the
paramedics had arrived at the scene, she'd become nearly hostile at the
suggestion that she allow one of them to look at her injury. For Scully,
Mulder's plight eclipsed all other concerns, rendering them
inconsequential.

When after several minutes she hadn't raised her head, Skinner cleared
his throat. "Scully?"

She showed him a face stained with despair and old tears. "Sir."

Skinner sat down beside her, feeling all the words he wanted to say dry
up and crumble to dust. What do you say to someone who is about to lose
half of herself?

"What's his condition?"

Scully's voice was as dull and colorless as the walls around them. "He
stopped breathing twice on the way here. They've got him on a
ventilator, but he's seized twice in the last several hours. One was
four minutes long. They'd be concerned about brain damage except at this
point it really doesn't matter."

Skinner closed his eyes and sighed deeply. Not for the first time, he
wished it were easier for him to express his feelings, to offer comfort.
His father had been a good man, but one who firmly believed that to be
strong meant to bury your feelings deeply. He supposed such training had
served him well in certain situations. This was not one of them.

Scully's next words, however, brought that particular wall crashing
down. "After everything we've seen, after everything we've been through,
it shouldn't end like this. He's spent his entire life trying to help
other people in one way or another. It's not fair that he's going to die
because of something he never even did. He deserves so much better."
Scully's voice caught, but she ruthlessly held back her tears. "I feel
as if I've let him down."

Skinner's arm slipped around her shoulders almost of its own accord,
surprising even him. "Scully. I've known Mulder for ten years. I've seen
what he was before you came into his life, and I've seen what he's
become since. He was floundering before you became partners, Scully.
You've focused him, grounded him. He's a better agent because of you. In
no sense of the word have you let that man down."

A single tear slipped down Scully's cheek and she brushed it impatiently
away. "Thank you, sir." After taking a deep breath she seemed to pull
herself together. "You wrapped up things at the university?"

Skinner nodded, relieved to be discussing facts rather than feelings.
"There'll be an inquiry into the shooting, of course. It's just routine.
Mulder had every justification for using deadly force."

He hesitated momentarily before continuing. "We searched Cardow and his
vehicle, Scully. There was no sign of the formula or an antidote, and no
indication where he's been living. I have men still going through the
building, but frankly I'm not hopeful."

Scully nodded. "I expected as much. Cardow was a lunatic, but he was a
brilliant lunatic."

Before Skinner could reply, the door to the room opened and a doctor
stepped inside. Skinner recognized the man from Mulder's previous stay
at George Washington Medical. Evidently the man had privileges at
Georgetown as well.

"Dr. Wagner."

Scully was on her feet and across the room before Skinner had finished
processing the man's identity. "How is he?"

Wagner nodded at Skinner as he joined them, before turning his attention
back to Scully. "He's stable, but very weak. We had to switch the
ventilator to 100 percent; he's incapable of sustaining any respiration
on his own. The seizures appear to be under control, for now, but I'm
sure you realize there's not much we can do at this point."

"Is he conscious?"

Wagner made a see saw motion with his hand. "He's in and out. We've got
him on some pretty heavy painkillers, but we can't eliminate the pain
entirely. All we can do is try to keep him as comfortable as possible."
He shifted uncomfortably. "I've seen Agent Mulder's living will. The
terms for termination of life support are quite specific. When the time
comes, I'll have to abide by them. You're aware of this?"

His words pierced Scully's fragile composure, and she pressed her hand
tightly to her mouth for several moments before she could speak.

"We filled out our living wills at the same time. I'm aware of what
Agent Mulder wants. Can we see him?"

Wagner nodded, his face radiating compassion. "I've instructed the ICU
nurses to suspend the usual rules regarding visits. As long as the other
patients aren't disturbed, he can have visitors at any time."

"Thank you." The words were little more than a whisper.

Wagner nodded again. He turned to leave, but paused. "I'm very sorry,
Dr. Scully. I wish I could do more."

Skinner held the door for Scully before following her down the long
hall. The hushed atmosphere and grave expressions attested all too
clearly to the dire circumstances of the patients on this floor.

"Have you called his mother?" he asked quietly.

Scully nodded. "She hasn't been well. She wants to be here, but wasn't
sure she could make the trip in time."

They'd reached Mulder's cubicle, and Scully went immediately to his
bedside. Skinner took in the plethora of machinery and his agent's limp,
nearly lifeless form. He swallowed thickly, unable to reconcile the form
in the bed with the vital, passionate man he knew.

Scully slipped her hand into Mulder's and stroked the back gently with
her thumb. "Hey, Partner. You gonna wake up for me?"

At first there was no response, just the beeping of the heart monitor
and the hissing of the respirator as it rhythmically filled and emptied
his lungs. Scully blinked rapidly, reaching her other hand to smooth his
hair.

"Come on, Mulder. Show me you're in there."

His eyelids twitched, causing hope to spring up within her.

"That's it. You can do it."

They finally slid open after several aborted attempts. As his gaze
locked onto her face, Scully saw he wasn't even attempting to fight the
ventilator. She realized, with an ache that was almost physical, how
truly weak he must be.

"Wagner says they've got you on the good stuff," Scully said, trying to
sound cheerful. She failed miserably, even to her own ears. "Do you need
anything?"

Mulder blinked once. It was an old system they'd devised during a time
he'd been on a ventilator previously. One blink meant no, two signified
yes.

"I called your mother, Mulder. She's trying to get here, but it's hard
with her health problems."

Mulder rolled his eyes, the motion exaggerated. No words were needed to
communicate that thought. His gaze softened, and in spite of his
weakness he managed to raise one hand enough indicate the bandage at her
throat.

"I'm fine, Mulder. It was just a scratch, didn't even require stitches.
Guess I won't be sporting the Frankenstein look this season."

One corner of his mouth curved slightly, but his eyes were already
slipping shut. Scully could see him struggling against the sleep that
wanted to pull him under.

"It's okay, Mulder," she said, unable to mask the tremor in her voice.
"You sleep now."

She let her fingers weave soothingly through his hair, watching as he
slid back into a drugged slumber. The tightness in her chest was
unbearable. She wanted to scream and curse and throw things. She wanted
to punish someone.

"I wish that son of a bitch were still alive," she growled, turning to
face Skinner. "I wish I could make him suffer every bit as much as
Mulder, and more. How dare he inflict this horror on another human being
and then watch..."

Skinner saw a look of shock descend over Scully's previously enraged
face. "Scully? What is it? Are you all right?"

"He watched us," she murmured, almost to herself.

"I know. He was deeply disturbed, Scully, there's no other explanation..."

Scully shook her head, impatience making her appear angry. "NO! You
aren't getting it! Cardow watched Mulder and I. Do you remember what he
said? She makes you tea when you can't eat. She rubs your neck... Sir,
those things happened inside Agent Mulder's apartment. How could he have
known?"

"Unless he could see into Mulder's place from wherever he was," Skinner
said, understanding.

"There's an apartment building right across the street from Mulder's,"
Scully said, excitement replacing shock.

"Then we're wasting time, aren't we?" Skinner said grimly.

Flashing him a look of gratitude, Scully turned back to Mulder. Ignoring
the fact that Skinner was just behind her, she leaned over to place a
soft kiss on Mulder's forehead.

"I'll be right back, Mulder," she whispered, stroking his pale cheek.
"Don't you dare leave me, or I'll never do a single one of your expense
reports."

Leaving him now was one of the hardest things she'd had to do; yet a
sudden, bright spark of hope balanced the ache in her heart.

Continued in part 14

------------------------------------------------------------------------

Countdown (14/16)
By Dawn

Wilshire Towers - Apt. 407
10:53 a.m.
14 hours remaining

Scully stood back to allow the manager to use her passkey. She tried
desperately not to fidget (a behavior unbecoming to a federal agent) but
realized she'd lost the battle when she found herself shifting her
weight back and forth between her two feet. Her one consolation was that
she'd noticed Skinner unconsciously drumming his fingers.

"I really find it hard to believe Mr. Connors could have done those
things you mentioned," clucked Mrs. Bruett, oblivious to the tension in
the two people behind her. "He really seemed like such a nice young man.
He never played loud music and he was always so polite."

Clenching her teeth to avoid screaming, Scully smiled thinly. "Well,
that's how it is with some criminals. They project a falsely positive
image to most of the people who know them. Only upon careful examination
is their true nature revealed."

Mercifully, the key finally slid home and the door swung open. "Can I be
of any more assistance to you folks?" Norma Bruett asked, craning her
neck a little to catch a glimpse of the apartment. Though partly
horrified to learn that a murderer had lived in her building, she was
also more than slightly intrigued. After all, she'd never been in the
apartment of a hardened criminal before.

Stepping between Norma and the inside, Skinner shook his head politely.
"We can handle it from here, Mrs. Bruett. It would be best if you just
go back downstairs and leave us to do our jobs."

"Very well then, Mr. Skinner," she said with a slight huff. "Never let
it be said that Norma Bruett obstructed justice."

In any other instance Scully would have felt amusement at the elderly
woman's nosiness. But all she could see was Mulder's white face, his
chest mechanically rising and falling with each forced breath. All she
could hear was the ticking of the clock as the minutes slipped by at
what seemed to be an ever-increasing rate.

She followed Skinner into the apartment, her eyes roaming to take in
every detail as they walked through the galley style kitchen and into a
dining area with a small table and two chairs. The rooms were Spartan in
their neatness and in the lack of furnishings. Evidently Cardow had not
been concerned with making this apartment a home. When they reached the
living room, however, one object commanded their complete attention.

The living room contained one big picture window that overlooked the
street and, ultimately, Mulder's apartment complex. Positioned directly
in front of the window was a large and undoubtedly expensive telescope.
Skinner watched as Scully silently crossed to the device and looked
through the eyepiece. What she observed caused her to pull back
suddenly, as if burned.

"It's lined up perfectly," she told Skinner, horror written on her face.
"You can see right through the window by Mulder's desk. Mulder likes to
keep those blinds closed, but whenever I'm over I make him open them..."

Seeing that Scully was understandably shaken, Skinner decided to give
her some space. "I'll check the bedroom."

Scully nodded and numbly set about searching the room for anything that
might lead her to the antidote. She was perusing several of the books on
the shelf when Skinner called her.

"Scully. I think you'd better see this."

Alarmed at what lay unspoken in his words, Scully immediately replaced
the book and followed the sound of his voice down a short hallway to the
single bedroom. She halted just inside the doorway, speechless.

Cardow had a shrine -- except you couldn't really call it that. A shrine
was meant to honor or revere, while the effect achieved here was the
exact opposite. A rolltop desk was the only piece of furniture aside
from the double bed. On the desk lay an expensive camera with a
telephoto lens. On the walls surrounding the desk Cardow had pasted the
products of the camera. Pictures of Mulder. Mulder with his eyes screwed
shut in pain. Mulder lying on the ground outside his building,
unconscious and bleeding from the blow to his head. Mulder on his hands
and knees, vomiting. Mulder sitting at his desk, weeping, never knowing
a camera was recording the rare display of tears.

Scully swallowed hard, resisting the brutal wave of nausea that crashed
into her at the sight. She sagged against the wall, grateful for its
support. "We thought he was unstable," she said, feeling as if the words
came from a great distance. "We had no idea what we were dealing with."

"There's more," Skinner said, grimly apologetic.

He handed her a thick scrapbook, and she felt her skin crawl at the feel
of the smooth leather. Irrational as it might be, she suddenly wanted
nothing to do with the book. Steeling herself, she flipped open the
cover. A newspaper clipping caught her attention. "FBI Profile Leads to
Arrest." She scanned the article quickly, already knowing what she would
find.

"It's the Monty Propps case. Mulder's case."

"They're all Mulder's cases, or articles dealing with Mulder. He's even
got copies of the articles Mulder wrote under that pen name. There three
of these volumes," Skinner said, gesturing to two more identical tomes.

Scully flipped through the pages, seeing Mulder's life over the past ten
years unfold before her eyes. "He must have been saving these the whole
time he was in prison," she said, both amazed and repulsed.

"To say he was obsessed is an understatement," Skinner observed dryly.
"My guess is that Cardow was always a few cards short of a full deck. It
was the loss of his work and his subsequent murder conviction that
pushed him 'round the bend."

Scully stared at a photo of the two of them, taken after a case from the
early days of their partnership. Mulder's hand was raised in the classic
"no comment" gesture, but he was looking down at her with a slight
smile. She traced his face with a trembling finger, thinking how young
they both looked back then. At the moment, standing before Cardow's sick
gallery, she felt as if she'd aged a hundred years rather than just six.

The sound of Skinner opening desk drawers snapped her back into focus.
Scully placed the book with the other three and scanned the room,
frowning.

"There's got to be a computer. Cardow said he had the formula on a
disk."

"Laptop, next to the bed on the other side," Skinner said.

She booted up the computer while Skinner continued to search. The files
on the hard drive were straightforward and completely useless.
Addresses. A resume. Nothing to indicate Cardow was continuing his nasty
little experiment on a human subject. Nothing to help Mulder.

A loud crash pulled her attention from the laptop to Skinner. He stood
with the contents of the desk strewn about his feet, cursing under his
breath. Feeling Scully's eyes on him, he looked suddenly embarrassed by
his outburst.

"Any luck?"

Scully shook her head, feeling the bright spark of hope she'd been
nursing begin to flicker and die. "Nothing."

"It has to be here," Skinner growled, glaring up at the wall of photos.
"I can just see him using these damn photos for inspiration while he
worked."

A strange expression crossed his features, and he strode closer to the
wall. Reaching out with both hands, he began to run them over the
surfaces of the pictures, face intent. A moment later he had ripped one
from the wall and was approaching Scully with a disk in his fingers.

She plugged it into the drive only to groan in frustration.

"It's password-protected!"

She immediately began typing in possibilities, fingers flying over the
keys. At each harsh beep of rejection, they shook a little more.

"What about the three stooges?" Skinner suggested, trying not to hang
over her shoulder but unable to help himself.

"That will take time, and Mulder's is running out."

Another beep of refusal and Scully barely restrained herself from
flinging the laptop across the room. Instead she scrubbed at her eyes,
wiping away tears of frustration.

"I've tried every word I can think of, every variation of Mulder's name,
anything that Cardow would relate to his obsession with Mulder. Nothing
is working!"

Skinner laid a calming hand on her shoulder. "Step back for a minute,
Scully. We're closer than we've ever been. Don't let this rattle you."

Scully sighed deeply and Skinner could see her physically forcing
herself to relax. She closed her eyes and tried to picture Cameron
Cardow. Unfortunately, the image that sprang immediately to mind was of
being tightly clutched against the man's body, a sharp blade pressed to
her throat. She could hear him vividly, ranting about Mulder's supposed
crimes against him and threatening to spill her blood just like...

"Could it be that simple?" she muttered.

Very carefully she typed each letter.

C A R O L Y N

With a shaking hand she hit return.

And with a soft chime Mulder's life was placed back into her eager
hands.

Concluded in part 15

------------------------------------------------------------------------

Countdown (15/16)
By Dawn

Georgetown Medical Center
3:00 p.m.
10 hours remaining

Death hovered at Mulder's side like a concerned friend, a nearly
tangible presence. Skinner caught the disapproving glare of a nurse and
forced himself to stop pacing, dropping into the chair at Mulder's left
hand. For the fifth time in as many minutes, he checked his watch.

*Hurry Scully. Hurry or it will be too late.*

He was unable to look at the man before him without feeling as if he'd
been sucker punched. Skinner was a little surprised by the intensity of
emotion. Surprised, and perhaps unwilling to accept just how far Mulder
had gotten under his skin. His normally very thick, very impenetrable
skin.

Skinner held no illusions about himself. He realized he tended to remain
emotionally isolated from those closest to him. It was the chief cause
for the slow breakdown of his marriage. Though his father's similar
detachment was certainly a contributor, Viet Nam had taught him a
powerful lesson about the consequences of opening up to others.

It was ironic that Fox Mulder, the bureau's problem child, had succeeded
where even Sharon had failed. Why, was an X-File in and of itself.

Skinner only knew that he couldn't reveal pieces of his soul to someone
he didn't respect, and the list of those he did was short. Mulder and
Scully had earned a place on that list.

Skinner looked at the still form, so unlike the Fox Mulder he'd come to
know. Many of the rumors he'd heard before becoming Mulder's supervisor
were true. Yes, the man was a maverick, not above breaking any rule he
thought foolish or unnecessary. Yes, he could be arrogant, abrasive, and
downright rude. And yes, he could spout a theory that sounded as if he'd
gone completely 'round the bend, looking you straight in the eye the
entire time. All those observations were true; and they were the reason
Mulder, universally acknowledged for his brilliance, occupied a basement
office about as far off the fast track as you could get.

Those who made such observations did so by barely bothering to scratch
the surface of the man before dismissing him. Skinner knew that with
Mulder, the carefully-crafted exterior was deceptive. You had only to
dig to find gold. Scully, fortunately for her partner, had rolled up her
sleeves and pulled out a shovel.

Mulder might break the rules, but his motives were usually pure. Skinner
was an ex-marine who believed deeply in rules and the importance of
following them. Mulder's lackadaisical treatment of procedure infuriated
him, but even he had to admit that often, Mulder's instincts were
correct.

Mulder's abrasiveness was simple for Skinner to understand. Where
Skinner used a rigid and stern demeanor to hold others at arm's length,
Mulder just tried to irritate the heck out of them. Underneath, however,
was a soul scarred by a myriad of abuses, yet still able to empathize
with the wounds of others. Mulder truly absorbed the pain of a victim,
sometimes until he bled inside.

As to Mulder's bottomless supply of outlandish theories, well, he had an
uncanny habit of being right. Skinner discovered with great amusement
that he'd been coming up with a few extreme possibilities himself.

Footsteps, and Dr. Wagner pulled aside the curtain to approach Mulder's
bed. He lifted Mulder's chart and then began to silently examine him,
waving for Skinner to remain seated. Skinner watched uneasily as Wagner
checked Mulder's pupil response and poked him several times with a
large, needle-like object. When he finally replaced the blanket and
turned to Skinner, his face was grave.

"Will Dr. Scully be joining you soon?"

"She's at the bureau labs, working with them on the antidote we found,"
Skinner answered, rising to his feet and placing himself between the
doctor and Mulder in an unconscious gesture of protection.

Wagner sighed, and glanced around the room as if searching for the right
words. "Mr. Skinner, I won't pull any punches. Mr. Mulder's condition
has continued to deteriorate. He's slipped more deeply into a comatose
state. Right now he's very close to achieving the conditions outlined in
his living will. We'll be required to make a decision soon, and as his
next of kin, Dr. Scully needs to be here."

Skinner's mouth went dry. "You can't give up on him yet. There *is* an
antidote to this toxin. Dr. Scully is overseeing its synthesis and
determining a treatment plan at this very moment."

Wagner had been nodding his head in commiseration, but when Skinner
finished he pursed his lips and frowned. "I can understand wanting to
believe in a magic cure, Mr. Skinner. But frankly, I can't conceive of
anything that could save Mr. Mulder at this point. His systems are
shutting down, sir. I think you need to accept the inevitable."

Though he knew the doctor meant well, anger flared in Skinner at the
man's words. "Listen to me, Dr. Wagner. That man has never given up on
anything in his whole life. I've seen him go literally to the ends of
the earth to save his partner, when anyone else wouldn't have been able
to get out of bed. I will *not* give up on him. And I won't let you,
either."

"What do you mean, give up?"

Scully's voice, breathless and tinged with panic, caused both men to
startle. Skinner moved aside to make room for her. She seemed unable to
drag her eyes from Mulder, and when she did they were haunted.

"Is he..."

"Hanging in there for us," Skinner assured her. He noticed she was
clutching an insulated container, and his heart leaped in hope. "Is that
it?"

Scully nodded, hope and fear warring for control of her features. "It's
a risk, of course. We had no time to wait for the results on the lab
trials. But Cardow's notes were very specific and it feels right." She
blushed a little at the un-Scullylike nature of her words.

"Whoa, slow down, " Wagner said, holding up both hands. "I can't believe
what I'm hearing. You just concocted some...substance, based on the
notes of a man you yourselves have called crazy, and you intend to
*inject* Mr. Mulder with it? Have you lost your minds?"

*Uh-oh* thought Skinner. *Bad choice of words, buddy.*

Scully's lips thinned. "Not only do I *intend* to inject him, Dr.
Wagner. I *will* inject him. A minute ago you were talking about
removing him from life support. The way I see it, we have absolutely
nothing left to lose, and everything to gain. So I suggest you step
aside and let me proceed. I'd hate to have to use my gun."

It took an enormous amount of self-control for Skinner to hide his
smirk, and he congratulated himself on his success. Wagner looked
amazingly like a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming car. While
Scully moved over to the bed and began to remove a vial and syringe from
the pack, the doctor sidled closer to Skinner.

"She was just kidding...wasn't she?"

Skinner adopted his most grim assistant director look. "Well, she did
shoot her own partner once. It's wise not to upset her."

Wagner gulped. "I have to finish the rest of my rounds. I'll check back
in a little while."

Skinner watched him go before breaking into a grin. *Mulder, you would
have loved that.*

Scully had injected the contents of the syringe directly into Mulder's
IV, and now stood scanning his face anxiously, his hand clasped between
her own.

"We've done our part, Mulder," she murmured. "Now, you have to do
yours."

One hour crawled by, then two and three. By the end of the third hour,
the monitors began to show gradual improvement. At four hours, Mulder
moaned when Wagner stuck him with his torture device and his pupils
responded to light. At Scully's request, Wagner allowed her to draw a
blood sample that Skinner sent by courier to the bureau lab for
analysis. Six hours after the initial injection, they waited anxiously
for the results. When Scully's cell phone finally rang, the nurse sent
them a malevolent look and Skinner nearly jumped out of his skin.

He shamelessly attempted to eavesdrop, but Scully's responses were
either to obscure or too technical. Still, it was completely unnecessary
to ask the results when she closed the phone and met his questioning
gaze with a blinding smile.

"It's working!" she said, a look of wonder on her face. "Randy said it's
incredible. The antidote is binding with each individual molecule of the
toxin and rendering it inactive. The process is gradual, but the effects
of the toxin are gradually being turned off." Her eyes glistened with
unshed tears. "We did it, sir. He's going to make it."

Skinner looked at Mulder, shaking his head. "He deserves half the
credit, Scully. He managed to hang on, if only by a slender thread. I'm
beginning to think he has more lives than a cat."

Scully closed her eyes wearily, fatigue settling over her slumped form.
"Please sir, don't even say it. I'd rather not have the opportunity to
test that particular theory."

Skinner smiled wryly. "I'm going on a coffee run. If I have to drink any
more of the sludge around here I may just wind up hospitalized with him.
Can I bring you a cup?"

Scully looked as if he'd offered her a million dollars. "That's without
a doubt the best offer I've had all day."

Amused by her eager acceptance, Skinner stood up. "I won't be long."

Scully settled back into the chair, smothering a yawn. She needed sleep
desperately, but refused to give into the fatigue. Mulder's vital signs
showed a steady progression toward regaining consciousness, and she was
determined to be awake when he did.

"You did good, Mulder," she said softly, moving to perch on the bed. She
laced her fingers with his and used her other hand to stroke his cheek.
"Now, I just need you to come all the way back. Think of it as my reward
for finding Cardow's little secret."

To her delight, the feel of her knuckles on his cheek seemed to be
causing him to surface. His eyelids fluttered and the monitors beeped
accordingly. Scully continued the action, keeping up a steady flow of
encouragement. After several minutes he managed to raise his eyes to
half-mast. They stared through her uncomprehendingly for a moment before
sliding in to focus on her face. Then he did the most wonderful thing
Scully could imagine at that particular moment. He began to fight the
respirator.

Scully pressed the call button but a nurse had already arrived, alerted
by the change in the readouts. Wagner had agreed to attempt the removal
of the respirator once Mulder regained consciousness, so he was quickly
summoned and within five minutes he'd removed the tube and Mulder was
breathing on his own.

When at last Dr. Wagner had completed the required neuro checks he shook
his head in amazement. "I've never seen anything like it," he admitted a
bit sheepishly, avoiding Scully's pointed stare. "I've never seen such a
rapid reversal of symptoms in someone in your condition, Mr. Mulder."

Scully looked into her partner's tired but peaceful gaze. "I tried to
tell you, Dr. Wagner," she said, smiling. "You have to believe in
extreme possibilities."

Mulder actually grinned.

Once Dr. Wagner and the nurse actually left them in peace, Mulder looked
at Scully searchingly. "How?"

The single word was barely audible, and he grimaced at the effect on his
abused throat. Scully reached for the cup of ice chips and spooned a few
into his mouth. Mulder sighed in pleasure as they melted, sending cool
liquid to soothe the raw tissues.

"How did we find the antidote?" Scully asked, offering him more ice.

Mulder nodded, accepting another spoonful.

Scully shrugged. "It was actually Cardow who gave me the clue I needed.
Remember when he was ranting about me taking care of you, making you
tea? I realized he couldn't possibly have known those things unless he
was actually able to see us."

Understanding seeped into Mulder's face. "The building across the
street," he rasped.

Scully nodded, putting down the cup and slipping her hand into his. "He
had a telescope trained right on your window, Mulder. The entire time we
were at your place, he was enjoying the show."

She noted the way he closed his eyes, swallowing hard, and decided
Cardow's bedroom decorations could wait for another day. Mulder was
already tiring, and he looked as if a strong breeze could blow him away.

"It took a little creative thinking, but Skinner found the disk with the
formula and the rest, as they say, is history."

Mulder's eyes seemed to be developing a mind of their own, determined to
slip shut despite his struggles to prevent them. Scully ran her fingers
gently up and down his arm, amused when the action had a magnifying
affect on his inability to stay alert.

"Sleep now, Mulder. I promise I'll give you all the details later."

His lids remained shut and his breathing steadied and deepened. She was
certain he'd dropped off until his voice startled her.

"Didn't think I was gonna wake up, Scully," he mumbled, sounding only
marginally awake.

Scully's throat was suddenly painfully tight. "I'm not letting you go
that easily, Mulder. You're not sticking me with that stack of reports
you owe Skinner."

Mulder's eyes cracked open briefly, just long enough for her to see them
gleaming under his lashes.

"Thanks, Scully."

He'd slipped into a deep slumber almost before the words passed his
lips.

Scully gazed at him, drinking in each tiny detail like a glass of water
on a blistering summer day. The warmth of his long fingers twined with
hers. The soft, natural rise and fall of his chest under her small hand.
And the steady beep of the heart monitor, which to her grateful ears
seemed to be endlessly repeating one joyous word...

*A-live*

*A-live*

*A-live*

"Any time, Mulder," she whispered. "That's what partners are for."

------------------------------------------------------------------------

Countdown (16/16)
By Dawn

Georgetown Medical Center
Room 327
20 hours later

Skinner heard Scully laughing softly as he approached Mulder's room. He
paused a moment to savor the sound. It was a rare pleasure to
experience. Scully rationed her laughter, more often bestowing a slight
curve of her lips or even a smirk. Therefore when she did laugh, you
didn't take it for granted. Today, it spoke volumes about her joy and
relief over Mulder's steady recovery.

Skinner entered the room to find Scully perched on the edge of Mulder's
bed, reading from one of the trashy magazines found predominantly at
grocery store checkouts. She was dressed casually in jeans and a white
tee shirt with her hair pulled back in a small ponytail, a few stubborn
wisps falling forward to frame her face. Skinner couldn't help but think
how she seemed to have shed ten years in the last twenty-four hours. Her
blue eyes sparkled, the circles beneath them already fading.

Mulder, though much improved, still looked like hell. It had been close
this time, far too close. He had literally been on death's doorstep, and
it would take time for him to regain full health. Though he'd been able
to move off the respirator late last night, tests continued to show
reduced lung capacity. The I.V. in his arm still carried a hefty amount
of morphine for the muscle spasms, but thankfully he'd remained free of
seizures. What he needed the most now was rest so that his abused body
could recoup. Skinner found it slightly amusing that Mulder, the world's
worst insomniac, could only remain awake for about thirty minutes at a
time before crashing.

"Conducting research for your next 302, Mulder?" Skinner asked, folding
his arms and indicating the magazine with a tilt of his head.

"You never know, sir," Mulder said, voice still raspy from having a tube
down his throat. "Today's tabloid headline may just be tomorrow's
flukeman."

The remark was tossed off lightly, but Skinner looked at Mulder sharply.
Something in the man's tone was wrong, a sharper edge of sarcasm that
didn't fit with the words. He studied his agent, taking in the lines of
pain and exhaustion around the hazel eyes, and chalked it up to a bad
case of fatigue.

"Literally," Scully said, wrinkling her nose as if she'd just detected a
particularly bad smell. "We never did find that thing, after all."

Mulder's eyes warmed with affection as he listened to Scully speak, and
Skinner decided he'd definitely imagined the melancholy he'd sensed
earlier.

"I just bumped into your doctor, Mulder," he said conversationally.
"He's pleased with your progress. Said if you keep this up you'll be
home in a few days and back to work in no time."

This time he knew he wasn't imagining the shadow that fell over Mulder's
face. "That's good to hear, sir. I wouldn't want things at the office to
fall apart during my absence."

Again, the comment was innocent, and yet Skinner sensed an undercurrent
of darkness. Mulder's eyes skittered away when he tried to pin them
down.

*He's trying too hard* Skinner thought. *Something's not right.*

"...were dehydrated, Mulder. You need to keep pushing fluids."

Skinner pulled himself out of his own thoughts in time to hear Scully
speaking to her partner in voice that was half coaxing, half doctor's
orders. He watched as Mulder put on what he thought of as the "abandoned
puppy" face, lip stuck out in an exaggerated pout and eyes soulful.

"They don't have anything but juice and lousy water from that crummy
little pitcher, Scully. Why can't I drink something I would enjoy, like
iced tea?"

Scully, obviously also aware of the purpose for that look, rolled her
eyes. "Caffeine, Mulder. No tea or soda yet, remember?" When he
continued to pout, she relented, her stern expression softening. "I've
got a couple of bottles of Evian in the car. Will that do?"

"Thanks, Scully. I owe you."

"I'm keeping track, Mulder," she teased, getting to her feet.

It was meant strictly as a joke, but Skinner caught the expression of
sadness in Mulder's eyes before his carefully constructed mask slipped
back into place.

Scully leaned over to plant a quick kiss on his forehead before moving
toward the door. Skinner waited until she'd left the room before
feigning that he'd suddenly remembered something.

"Hang on a minute, Mulder. I need Scully to bring me some paperwork from
her briefcase."

He caught her just before she reached the elevators, nearly knocking
over a nurse in his haste. Scully pulled her hand away from the buttons,
arching an eyebrow questioningly.

"Did you need something from me, sir?"

Skinner took hold of her elbow and drew her aside to a quieter corner of
the hallway. "I was hoping you could shed some light on whatever it is
that's bothering your partner," he said, trying to sound concerned and
not demanding.

Scully searched his face only a moment before sighing. "You noticed it
too."

Skinner nodded. "Not that he isn't doing his best to hide it," he
observed.

Scully pinched the bridge of her nose, squeezing her eyes shut. When she
opened them, Skinner saw a worry that mirrored his own.

"I don't know what to tell you, sir. I noticed after he woke up the
first time; at least, the first time he was over the initial shock and
really lucid. The man should be on the top of the world -- he's just
been given his life back. He tries to appear happy, but he's only
putting up a good front. Underneath I sense..."

"Depression," Skinner finished.

Scully nodded. "I've tried find out what's wrong, but he's not talking.
Not to me, anyway."

"He's been given a lot to absorb over the past few days, and sustained a
significant trauma in the process. It's easy to become overwhelmed. I've
seen it before."

Scully studied his face, not missing the oblique reference to Skinner's
combat experience. "Maybe he'd talk to you, sir."

Skinner looked comically stunned at the idea. "Me? Scully, you're the
closest friend he has. If he won't talk to you, what makes you think
he'd talk to me?"

Scully shrugged. "Maybe that's the problem. Maybe I'm too close.
Sometimes a little distance can be just what you need. I know that he
respects you, sir. It's certainly worth a try."

Silently asking what he'd just gotten himself into, Skinner reluctantly
acquiesced. "I'll make the offer, Scully. But I refuse to push him into
revealing anything if he's not ready."

Scully walked back to the elevators and hit the down button. She turned
back to face Skinner, an expression of amusement causing the corners of
her mouth to twitch slightly.

"Sir, not even an assistant director of the FBI could push Mulder into
saying anything against his will. Trust me on this one."

The truth in her words hit home, and Skinner found himself chuckling
softly the whole way back to Mulder's room. His good humor must have
been evident; for Mulder gazed at him curiously as he made his way to
the chair by the bed and sank into it.

"Something you'd like to share, sir?"

Skinner met his gaze, still smirking a little. "Just glad you're alive
to hunt liver-eating mutants another day, Mulder. That's worth smiling
about, isn't it?"

"Let's throw a party." A joke on the surface, but a deep sadness at the
foundation.

"Sounds more like a wake is in order," Skinner replied quietly. "How
about you, Mulder? Something you'd like to share?"

"Meaning?"

"Meaning for a man who just came out a winner, I keep getting the
distinct feeling you're conceding defeat."

Skinner was prepared for just about anything but the response he
received. White hot fury, so intense that Mulder's entire body thrummed
with the force of it.

"Came out a *winner*? Why, because I walked out of this with my life?
Forgive me if I don't see the correlation."

"What are you saying, Mulder? That your life doesn't matter?"

Mulder's clenched his fists around the blanket as if to keep himself
from using them. "I'm saying that it isn't *my* life! That it never has
been!" With a sudden shift of mood that was alarming, he slumped down on
the mattress, all traces of anger replaced by weary resignation. "I'm
finally beginning to realize it may never be."

Skinner shook his head, completely confused by his agent's words.
"You've lost me, Mulder. What are you saying?"

"I'm saying that I'm tired of being manipulated -- of being allowed the
illusion that my choices are my own, only to have that illusion
shattered repeatedly."

Understanding flooded Skinner. "You're upset because they used you to
falsely convict Cardow."

"Yes! No. I mean, it's so much more than that. I've lived my whole life
a slave to a name that I'm no longer sure is mine. When Cardow told me
he knew who my father was, all I could do was wonder if he meant Bill
Mulder or that cigarette smoking SOB. But as bad as it may be to
question if my name is my own, it's worse to wonder if my actions are."

Skinner was shocked to see something very close to tears in Mulder's
eyes as he continued.

"Scully's cancer. Dallas. And now Cardow. He told Reardon I was
important to them. Well, I refuse to be their tool. I'll give up the
X-Files first."

Skinner clenched his jaw, struggling for the words to penetrate Mulder's
darkness. The man had a knack for glossing over his many successes only
to focus on the failures.

"When I went to 'Nam, I was certain I was doing the right thing. I'd
heard all the horror stories about the evils of communism and
oppression, and I was determined to do my part to overcome them. To
uphold justice and ensure personal freedom." He chuckled bitterly. "The
only problem was, no one mentioned that some of those evil communists
would be women and children, and that I'd be required to blow the head
off a fifteen-year-old boy. Or that 'police action' was really just a
polite term for war and I'd watch all my buddies die before I made it
home again."

"I was manipulated, Mulder. I was only given the information that would
encourage me to enlist. And sometimes it still makes me angry. But I
have to tell myself that I operated as best I could under the
information I was given. I can only hold myself responsible for my own
actions. You see where I'm going with this, Mulder?"

Mulder had folded his arms defensively across his chest, and he refused
to meet Skinner's eyes. "It isn't the same."

"The situation is different, yes, but the principle is the same. You
were provided with information. You acted on that information in good
faith. What else could you have done, Mulder? Even knowing what you do
now, can you honestly say you did anything wrong? Did you make any
mistakes? Miss any vital pieces of evidence?"

Mulder lifted his eyes to search Skinner's face. "I want to believe what
you're saying. I need to."

"Then believe it. I don't care whose genetic material was responsible
for your conception; it doesn't change who you are. Mulder, I've worked
with you and I've seen you make those bastards sweat. None of that was
by their design. If you quit now, they win."

The soft smile that spread over the man's face was a total surprise, and
Skinner wondered exactly what he'd said to provoke it.

"Yeah," he acknowledged quietly. "I've heard that before."

Mulder must have achieved some sort of catharsis, since fatigue now hit
him abruptly and with great force. He sank into the mattress, eyes
struggling to remain focused. Skinner glanced at his watch. Forty-five
minutes. Mulder had just set a new record. He grinned to himself.

"Get some sleep, Mulder," he said aloud. "I'll have Scully save that
water for when you wake up."

"You'll tell her that when she gives you the papers, right sir?" Mulder
said, suppressing a yawn.

"Papers? What are you..."

Mulder's eyes gleamed under their heavy lids. "Busted."

Skinner scowled. "All right, so there were no papers. Satisfied?"

"Only with the fact that you're a lousy liar," Mulder mumbled. "Guess
that bodes well for our little discussion. I can live with the fact that
you and Scully were plotting against me."

This time Skinner actually allowed Mulder to see his grin. "Not against
you, Mulder. For you. Count on it."

Mulder didn't answer, having lost the struggle to remain awake. But he
didn't really need to. The ghost of a smile on his agent's lips told
Skinner all he needed to know.

The End

------------------------------------------------------------------------