Blood Ties 8: The Fragile Cord (3 of 3)
Friday, March 31
Grey paused in the doorway, eyes lingering on the figure draped
across the bed. Slumber had erased anxiety and sorrow from Fox's
features, leaving him rumpled and flushed in a loose tangle of
limbs and blankets. Grey's lips curved in affection, but his heart
twisted painfully. A temporary respite, and all too brief. Fox would
soon wake to the reality of Dana's absence and tortured doubts
regarding his role in it. Best to let him escape that fate for as long
He left the door open a crack and headed down the stairs. Soft,
conspiratorial murmuring captured his attention as he rounded the
corner. Four heads, as different from each other as night differs
from day, bent over a set of papers spread across the coffee table.
The marine, the rock star, the CPA, and the gnome, Grey thought,
snickering to himself. If only Fox were in a position to appreciate
the delicious irony of it all.
Skinner looked up, light from the windows glinting off his glasses.
"How is he?"
Three additional pairs of eyes locked onto him before he could
open his mouth. Rather than irritation, Grey felt gratitude at their
"He's still out like a light. Didn't move a muscle when I came in
the room. Shouldn't the Haldol have worn off by now?"
"According to his medical records they gave him a pretty heavy
dose last night, followed by a smaller one this morning," Byers
spoke up. "Added to the fact that he hadn't really slept the forty-
eight hours previously, I don't think his reaction is unreasonable."
Grey's eyebrows crawled up his forehead. "His medical records?
How in the heck did you get ahold of those?"
Byers looked sheepish, Langly incredulous, and Frohike wounded.
"Never mind," Grey sighed, taking a spot at Frohike's elbow.
"What have you got?"
"Further analysis of the drug found in Mulder's blood," Byers said,
gesturing to some kind of graph that meant nothing to Grey's
untrained eye. "We had a reliable colleague in the pharmaceutical
industry run some tests. This is a gas chromatograph of the
substance. Each peak is a separate compound, or component of the
drug. The result is a...a fingerprint, if you will."
Grey squinted at the page. Skinner shifted his feet restlessly and
cleared his throat.
"I take it there is some significance to this data that I'm missing?"
he asked irritably.
Langly produced a similar strip of paper. "This is the
chromatograph for cocaine."
Grey's eyes leap-frogged between the two charts and he frowned.
"They're very close, but they aren't the same, are they?"
"This peak is missing on Mulder's sample," Skinner agreed,
pointing to a spot on the graph. "It's been replaced by that one.
What is it?"
"Don't ask me, man," Langly replied, shaking his shaggy head.
doesn't match up with any known compound."
Skinner glared at him. "What do you mean, 'it doesn't match up?"
"Just what he said," Frohike chimed in. "It's unknown. In fact,
friend said he's never run across anything like it. It's synthetic --
Mother Nature's got nothing to do with it."
"Wait a minute, wait a minute! Are you telling me that this expert
of yours couldn't identify an ingredient in the drug that Fox was
given?" Grey demanded, feeling the pounding in his head rise
along with his blood pressure.
Byers regarded him gravely. "Not only the compound -- the drug
itself doesn't match up with any known narcotic. Our pharmacist
ran it through the database where he works. Twice."
Horror, fear, rage -- the emotions bubbled up from deep inside
Grey and he had to move. Shoving his hands into his pockets he
stalked over to the window and back, repeating the path over and
over as he muttered under his breath.
"I don't believe this. I just do not believe any of this."
Skinner pushed up his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose.
"I guess that settles any doubts about who's behind all this. Was
your expert able to tell what the long term affects on Mulder might
be? Is it addictive?"
"He couldn't really draw any conclusions," Frohike answered,
glancing uneasily at Grey. "He said that given Mulder's symptoms
he was probably ingesting it on a fairly regular basis. But it's a
wild card, there's no telling how Mulder will respond to
deprivation, and we aren't even sure how long he's been on it."
"So we're flying blind," Skinner said grimly. He looked over to
where Grey was still pacing and muttering. "You made the right
call, you know. Leaving him in the hands of our friend Samuels --
who doesn't have the faintest idea about any of this -- would be
disastrous for Mulder."
Grey paused in front of the doors to the balcony, his expression
still dark with anger. "Didn't feel like such a great decision when
Fox had a gun to his head, Walt."
Frohike, Langly, and Byers looked at each other but said nothing.
Skinner, unwilling to relive that particular scenario, plunged ahead.
"What about the blood on the knife?"
Frohike's worry transformed into an expression not unlike a rat
regarding a slab of cheese. "Now *that's* something we never
expected. That blood was on Mulder's knife?"
"On Mulder's knife, just lying in his refrigerator," Skinner
confirmed impatiently. "What's so unexpected? Is it Scully's blood
or isn't it?"
"A staff meeting and I wasn't invited? I'm hurt."
Mulder's voice startled them all, five heads snapping up in perfect
unison. His hair stuck out in wayward spikes, a crease from the
pillow marked his pale cheek, and one hand clutched the railing for
support. Yet his shadowed eyes regarded them with sharp clarity.
"Hey you," Grey greeted, unable to mask the wariness in his voice.
"How are you feeling?"
"How do I look?" his brother retorted.
"Like hell, dude," Langly spoke up with brutal honesty.
"I rest my case," Mulder growled. He waved his hand. "Don't let
me stop you. I want to hear this."
Frohike looked questioningly at Skinner, who shrugged. "He's got
just as much right to hear it as we do. More."
"Gee thanks," Mulder said sarcastically. "Spill it, Hickey. Did
blood belong to Scully?"
Frohike sucked in a deep breath of air before answering. "PCR
says yes. It's Scully's blood."
Mulder's eyes slid shut and he swallowed hard. His hand
involuntarily tightened in a white knuckled grip on the banister. "I
thought so," he murmured.
"Hold on, there's more," Frohike said quickly. "It's Scully's
all right, but it isn't recent."
Mulder scowled, but Grey beat him to the punchline. "Isn't
*recent*? What the hell is that supposed to mean? She's only been
missing for 72 hours!"
Mulder turned the railing loose and walked over to the table.
"What he said."
"Let me explain," Byers said diplomatically. "Thanks to some of
the toxic substances you and Scully have been exposed to during
your work on the X-Files -- the black oil, that giant mushroom --
you've acquired certain markers in your blood."
"Tell me about it! Every time one of us winds up in a hospital we
have to go through the whole song and dance with the doctor. They
don't make those medical alert bracelets for our particular
condition," Mulder replied dryly.
"Then you can understand our surprise when we looked at the data
from the blood sample and realized that although the tests
confirmed it was Scully's, none of those markers were present,"
Skinner leaned forward. "What?"
"We double and triple checked the results," Frohike confirmed, his
voice raising in excitement. "That blood sample was clean, no
indication that Scully was ever exposed to the black cancer. Don't
you see what that means? That blood was deliberately planted on
the knife and they used an old sample -- at least two years old, in
"Then Fox couldn't have been responsible for Dana's
disappearance," Grey said quickly, looking to his brother. "And it's
a good bet she's not dead, either."
To everyone's surprise, Mulder turned away. The hand that rose to
comb idly through his hair trembled.
"I want to believe that." His voice was husky with emotion. "But
don't know... I don't know what's real anymore."
Grey laid one hand on his brother's shoulder. "Then trust in me.
Because I believe in you, Fox. And I know you would never hurt
Mulder lifted his head, his face carefully shuttered. "I need proof. I
Skinner cleared his throat. "I think we should start looking harder
for witnesses. You've been under surveillance, and they've had
access to your apartment. Not to mention the fact that a woman --
and a trained FBI agent, at that -- doesn't just disappear without a
trace. Someone must have seen something."
Mulder frowned. "Detective Johnson..."
"Detective Johnson had you tried and convicted three minutes after
he stepped through your door," Skinner broke in tersely. "I'd rather
conduct a more open-minded investigation."
"Let us do a little digging," Frohike said as Byers shuffled papers
back into a semblance of order and stuffed them in a folder. "We
might be able to come up with something."
Skinner's mouth became a thin line of disapproval. "You'd better
be discreet. Johnson gets wind of you poking your noses into this
and there'll be hell to pay."
Once again Frohike looked hurt. "Please, Assistant Director
Skinner. You're looking at the picture of discretion."
Mulder snorted, shaking his head and walking over to the coat tree
near the front door when his friend glared at him. He passed each
of the gunmen their coats as Skinner released the deadbolt and
opened the door.
"I... Thanks, guys," he mumbled uncomfortably.
"De nada," Frohike said, lagging behind as the other two stepped
into the hallway. He scanned Mulder's face intently, looking less
than satisfied by what he saw.
Mulder averted his eyes, rummaging through the pockets of his
own coat as a convenient excuse to break the contact. Frohike's
eyes softened and he glanced over Mulder's shoulder at Grey, who
tipped his chin in a nearly imperceptible nod. Appeased, Frohike
hastened to join Byers and Langly, who were already arguing over
the car keys.
Skinner shut and locked the door, leaning against it with a gusty
sigh. "Why do I get the feeling I'll regret letting them loose on an
Grey grinned. "You really think you had a choice? Hate to
disappoint you, Walt, but those three do not see you as their
"Something I've grown used to," Skinner muttered darkly.
Grey's quiet laughter faded as his eyes sought and found his
brother, standing motionless before the sliding glass balcony door.
As he watched, Fox's attention remained fixed on the city while his
hand moved mechanically toward his mouth. Squinting, Grey
could just make out a tiny sunflower seed sandwiched between his
fingertips. Peripherally, he saw Skinner follow his gaze, stiffen,
and then dart forward.
The command, uttered in true drill sergeant fashion, coincided with
Skinner's hand arcing sharply to meet Mulder's arm. The crack of
flesh on flesh sounded like a gunshot in the abrupt stillness that
followed. Shock widened Mulder's eyes and he stumbled back two
paces, the chosen seed flying across the room while a small bag of
them tumbled to the carpet. Cursing under his breath, he rounded
on his boss.
"What did you do that for?"
Skinner stole a look at Grey's incredulous face before scrutinizing
Mulder. "Did you eat any of those? Any at all?"
"How could I? You just knocked them all over the floor!" Mulder
snapped sarcastically. "All you had to do was ask nicely, I'd have
Skinner ignored the jibe. "You've been drugged, Mulder, most
likely through something you've ingested. Something they knew
you'd be certain to consume but that Scully wouldn't touch. Now
you tell me -- what do you think that might be?"
Mulder's jaw went slack and his eyes dropped to the scattering of
seeds, dark splotches against the tan carpet. Skinner squatted and
carefully scooped them back into the plastic bag, then slipped them
into his pocket.
"I'll have the lab take a look at these," he said grimly. "Until
suggest you curb your habit."
Mulder blinked, still unnerved. "What made you... How did you
come up with that?"
Skinner shrugged, eyes distant. "Something about seeing you just
now, ready to put one in your mouth. I remembered there were
shells on your desk when I came down to talk to Scully, the day
she disappeared. And you were popping them like crazy in your
apartment, just before Johnson and Benton arrived. It all clicked
"Where do you buy them?" Grey asked quietly. "A grocery store?"
Mulder shook his head dazedly. "I almost always get them from
the same place. A magazine vendor I pass on the way to work."
"I'll need to know exactly which one," Skinner pressed. "If
test out the way I'm expecting..."
The strident buzz of the doorbell briefly startled him, but then he
rolled his eyes. "That's got to be your crazy friends, Mulder.
Probably forgot something." He jabbed the button without using
the intercom. "Maybe they can run a few of these seeds past their
Mulder wandered over to the couch and collapsed on it, flinging
one arm over his eyes. Grey made as if to join him but paused,
shoving his hands into his pockets and hunching his shoulders.
Skinner answered the tentative rap on the door by flinging it wide.
"All right, what did you..."
His stomach plunged. Maggie and Bill Scully stood in the opening.
Maggie's lips curved half-heartedly. "Hello, Walter. I hope you
don't mind this intrusion."
Skinner grappled with his surprise, pasting on a reassuring smile.
"Of course not. Please come in."
"I just had to come, I needed to hear from you what progress has
been made toward finding Dana," she continued apologetically as
he ushered them inside.
Bill shook his hand politely though his eyes narrowed when he saw
Grey standing in the middle of the room. It was when he spied the
figure behind Grey, however, that the veneer of civility vanished.
At the sound of Maggie's voice Mulder had bolted to his feet and
now stood rigidly beside the couch, distress twisting his features.
Bill glared at him, a flush creeping slowly above his collar and
reddening his face.
"And while we're at it," he snarled. "Id like to know what
of a bitch is doing in your living room."
Friday, March 31
"Bill!" Maggie warned, placing a restraining hand on his muscular
Bill shrugged it off, stalking across the room until only the coffee
table separated him from Mulder. "I thought he was supposed to be
in jail," he growled at Skinner. His hands molded into fists and he
leaned in until his nose nearly brushed Mulder's. "What did you do
to her, you little shit? Where's Dana?"
Mulder flinched and Grey lunged forward, certain his brother
would refuse to defend himself should Bill take a swing. Maggie
got there first.
"William Scully, you hold your tongue! I told you when you
insisted on coming that I wouldn't tolerate any of your foolishness.
Now either sit down and be quiet or go wait in the car."
Bill's incredulity quickly turned to sullen acquiescence. With a
parting sneer at Mulder he dropped into a chair and laced his arms
defiantly across his chest. Maggie's eyes shifted from her son to
the object of his wrath and her face softened.
"Hello, Fox. How are you, sweetheart?"
Mulder ducked his head, blinking rapidly. "I'm sorry, Maggie," he
replied hoarsely. "I'm so, so sorry."
Maggie's eyes traveled appraisingly over him before she turned
around. "Grey, Walter, why don't you take Bill out to the kitchen
for something to drink. I'd like to speak to Fox alone for a
Bill's eyes narrowed. "Now just a minute, Mom, there's no reason
Maggie regarded him with a dangerously raised eyebrow, silencing
his protest. Grey nearly choked on a laugh as Bill's mouth snapped
shut and he stomped after Skinner. No doubt as to where Dana had
acquired "The Look." His amusement evaporated at the sight of his
brother's anguished face, but Maggie's reassuring nod sent him
after the others.
Maggie waited until Grey had disappeared into the kitchen to skirt
the coffee table and stand before the man trying desperately to
avoid her gaze. Mulder's teeth worried his bottom lip and the
breath hitched suspiciously in his lungs with each inhalation.
"Fox," Maggie murmured. "Look at me."
She knew this man, knew that his intense love for her daughter was
equaled only by his capacity for self-recrimination. In fact, for the
first three months of their acquaintance, it was the only side of Fox
Mulder she'd been allowed to see. Maggie could still recall her
shock after finally meeting the man Dana had described as "the
most brilliant mind I've ever encountered." One look in his
expressive eyes had told her everything she needed to know. Fox
Mulder didn't act the part of an agent searching for his partner. Fox
Mulder was a man desperately seeking the woman he loved.
Pity it had taken Fox and Dana six years to come to their senses
and catch up with her.
Mulder gave a sharp jerk of his head and squeezed his eyes tightly
shut. "I can't. I can't look at you," he whispered.
"Why not?" The question was soft as a caress. When the silence
grew long and unwieldy, Maggie pressed, "Fox?"
"Because I can't bear to see the disappointment in your face. And it
will be there, once you understand what I've done."
Maggie's eyes glinted determinedly and she shifted so that he had
to either look at her or keep his eyes shut. "You can't honestly
think I'd blame you for this. I talked to Walter last night, Fox, he
told me you might have been drugged. Is that true?"
"Yes. But it doesn't make any difference."
For a moment she could only stare, aghast. "How can you say that?
If you were under the influence of some chemical, you can hardly
be held responsible."
"But I am! I am responsible."
Mulder's voice cracked and he walked over to gaze out the glass
doors. He focused on the street below, bright patches of color that
were automobiles and pedestrians blurring together as he struggled
to slow his breathing. Her presence at his back, so much like
Scully and yet not, threatened to sever his already tenuous hold on
"Fox, I don't understand. Please, talk to me."
But for the use of his name it could have been Scully's voice,
gently conspiring to break down his barriers. The line between
grief and ire blurred and he spun to face her.
"You got angry with Bill just now for accusing me of hurting
Sc...Dana. But he was closer to the truth than you realize. I AM
responsible for whatever has happened to her -- whether I held a
knife or not. I've been investigating things, poking my nose into
places that were certain to cause trouble. Dana begged me to stop,
to leave it alone, but I wouldn't listen to her. I told her it was
personal, that it didn't have anything to do with her, but it did..."
He swallowed hard, pressing the back of one hand to his trembling
lips. "It does. My life inevitably touches those closest to me and I
knew that." His voice sank to a whisper. "I knew that and I kept
Maggie had listened impassively to his speech, her expression
indiscernible. When his skittering eyes finally settled on her face,
"Fox, you cannot hold yourself accountable for the actions of evil
men. I don't know the nature of your investigation and frankly, I
don't care. Nothing you could have done justifies what they've
done to you and Dana."
Mulder shook his head violently. "No! You don't understand!
*My* actions are what can't be justified. This is exactly the reason
why she shouldnt be with me in the first place. My blind pursuit
of the truth is what got her taken the first time and I've done it
again!" His face crumbled, his mouth moving impotently as he
comprehended his own words. "Oh, God, I've done it again," he
Shock momentarily immobilized Maggie as she watched the rock
she'd leaned on during Dana's previous disappearance shatter into
tiny pieces. The slight quiver of Mulder's lip spread to full body
tremors as the tears he'd tried so hard to suppress spilled
relentlessly down his cheeks. Empty arms that ached for her
daughter reacted automatically and without hesitation.
"Oh, sweetheart," she murmured, taking a half step forward to
enfold him in her embrace, one hand guiding his head to the solace
of her shoulder.
As with so much in his life, he denied himself the comfort for long,
stiffening and pulling away to swipe at swollen eyes with his
sleeve. After many long lunches with Dana, Maggie understood far
more about the inner workings of Fox Mulder than he would ever
imagine -- which undoubtedly was a good thing. So she allowed
him the chance to distance himself before placing a firm hand on
"People always saw Missy as the strong-willed child, Fox, but I'm
sure you've discovered by now that Dana has her own core of steel.
She's with you because she loves you, and by your side is exactly
where she wants to be. And neither you, nor I, nor the monsters
who've taken her could possibly convince her otherwise. *You will
find her.* And Dana will hold on until you do."
Mulder searched her face like a starving man searches for a crumb
of bread. "How can you be so certain?"
The corners of Maggie's mouth turned up in a sad smile. "I have
the strength of my beliefs, Fox. In Dana, and in you."
His stunned brain was still attempting to process her words as she
pressed a quick kiss to his cheek and liberated Bill from exile in
the kitchen. Mulder peripherally registered Maggie's hushed
discourse with Skinner and Grey followed by Bill's grumbling
While Skinner shut the door and hovered uncertainly, Grey walked
over to flop onto the couch. He watched the emotions sift across
his brother's face, then heaved an exaggerated sigh.
"Congratulate us, Fox. Walt and I just spent ten minutes alone with
Bill Scully and never laid a finger on him."
"Not for lack of motivation," Skinner muttered.
Their banter did the trick, penetrating the darkness that had
wrapped itself around his heart. Mulder made no move to join
them, but his mouth quirked.
"Good thing you behaved yourselves. Maggie wouldn't hesitate to
kick both your butts."
"No question where Dana gets her fire," Grey agreed, clasping his
fingers behind his neck and leaning back into the cushions. "You'd
have to be crazy to mess with that woman."
The hint of amusement blossomed into a full-blown smile. "She
raised four kids, essentially on her own since her husband was at
sea most of the time. And they weren't exactly little angels, either.
Scully always says..."
The smile winked out of existence, the subsequent silence a void
that no one quite knew how to fill. Skinner finally cleared his
throat and collected the file folder the Gunmen had left on the
"I should check in with the team and deliver this to the lab. We
need to confirm these results on the blood sample if we're going to
get Johnson off your back," he said, tapping the folder against his
leg. "I want to get some people to canvass the neighborhood, see if
we can turn up someone who might have seen something."
Mulder scowled, taking a step as if to follow. "*I* should be the
one out there, it's my neighborhood. I know all the hangouts, I
Skinner's hand came up, palm out, to cut off the flow of words.
"You are a suspect in Scully's disappearance. Johnson will be
watching you like a hawk, just waiting for you to slip up. He's not
going to objectively consider any evidence if you had a part in
Mulder paced several steps to the right, then back again, one hand
raking through his hair. "She's been missing 72 hours now, God
knows what they're doing to her. What do you expect, that I'll just
sit here and do nothing?"
"Yes. That's exactly what I expect."
Skinner's reply, clipped and dangerous, stilled his restless feet.
Mulder glared, body rigid and chest heaving.
"This isn't an X-File, Agent Mulder, and you aren't running this
investigation," Skinner grated. "Your badge means nothing now,
you have no authority and no rights in this arena."
Mulder's eyes went black and for a moment Grey was certain he
would launch himself at his boss. "This is *Scully* we're talking
about, Skinner. I have every right."
Skinner's demeanor softened and he inclined his head. "I know
that. And I know what staying out of this must be putting you
"You don't," Mulder spat, turning away. "You have no idea."
"But the fact remains that I can't allow you to assume an active
role," Skinner persisted. "It wouldn't be in Scully's best interest,
Mulder. Deep down inside you know that."
When his agent didn't respond, Skinner retrieved his coat from the
rack and slipped it on. He exchanged a long look with Grey before
opening the door.
"I'll be back in couple of hours. There are take out menus in the
kitchen. Whatever you decide, just order enough for me too."
When Mulder continued to show him his back he sighed, nodded
to Grey, then stepped out the door. Grey let his brother sulk for
several long minutes before standing with a small groan.
"I'm starving. How about we check out Walt's favorite pizza
"Whatever you want," Mulder muttered without turning around.
"You're the one who hasn't eaten," Grey pointed out. "What do
Mulder laughed, an unpleasant sound. "Doesn't seem to matter,
does it? Not to good ol' 'Walt' anyway."
"Good ol' Walt helped me pull your butt out of a padded cell,"
Grey snapped. "Maybe it's time you dropped the spoiled child
routine and showed a little gratitude."
"I'd be grateful if he'd drop the assistant director bullshit and let me
do what I need to do," his brother growled.
"What you need to do is just what Walt said, Fox. Stay put and let
the agents on Dana's case ask the questions. I'm sorry, I know you
don't want to hear this, but he's right. Your participation in this
case could jeopardize Dana's life."
Wide, wounded eyes locked onto his face. "I would never take
risks with Scully's life!"
The agony in the words defused Grey's anger. "Then let Walt
handle things. No one wants to find Dana more than he does."
Mulder shook his head and turned back to the window. "He doesn't
even come close," he murmured. "Go ahead. Pizza is fine."
Grey hesitated, then continued to the kitchen. Forehead pressed to
the cool glass, Mulder watched dusk fall and lights pop on in the
buildings and passing cars. Across the busy street, a lone woman
with bright copper hair strode briskly down the sidewalk, a
briefcase clutched in one hand. His heart lurched, then fluttered
wildly until she paused beneath a streetlight and lifted her hand to
flag a cab. The golden spill of light clearly illuminated her
features, so different from those his eager gaze sought. Mulder
blinked back a rush of tears as his lips silently formed her name.
Grey's voice drifted from the kitchen, low and comforting even in
the simple act of ordering dinner. Suddenly unwilling to be alone,
Mulder pushed himself away from the doors, intending to join his
brother. His distracted gaze brushed over an isolated figure
lounging in a doorway across the street and snapped back with
unwavering intensity. The man chose that moment to move,
shifting his weight and stretching as if to relieve muscles cramped
from too long in one position.
Rage, like an enormous beast, trampled all reason and logic.
Mulder cast about frantically for a weapon before realizing that
Skinner and Grey had locked away anything he might use to harm
himself. Cursing, he charged across the room and fumbled with the
deadbolt, his fingers less than cooperative.
"Fox?" Grey appeared in the kitchen doorway, bewildered and
alarmed by his frantic scrabbling and swearing. "Fox, what are you
The lock finally gave and the door rocked back on its hinges,
slamming into the wall with a bang. Barefoot, clad only in a pair of
sweats, Mulder darted down the hallway and disappeared into the
stairwell, oblivious to Grey's desperate appeals for him to stop.
Friday, March 31
"Enjoying the view?"
Mulder had knotted his fist in Krycek's leather jacket and slammed
him up against the brick before the assassin knew what hit him.
After dashing from Skinner's apartment he'd regained enough of a
cool head to exit the building through a back door and circle
around so as to confront Krycek from behind. Once he felt the man
wriggling in his grip, however, all self-control evaporated. He let
loose a stinging backhand that rocked the double agent's head into
the wall, followed by a punch to the gut.
Krycek, however, refused to give up. Though still doubled over
and gasping for air, he rammed full force into Mulder, tumbling
them both to the pavement where they rolled and grappled like
children in a schoolyard brawl. Krycek's palm shoved his face into
the cement, tiny stones gouging his cheek like needles, as Mulder
writhed and bucked in an attempt to dislodge him. Though Krycek
lacked an arm, Mulder's broken hand and the lingering effects of
the drug balanced the scales. He hooked an elbow into the
Russian's ribs and rolled, struggling to break the man's grip.
"Police officer, freeze!"
At the barked command Krycek went limp.
"Turn him loose, Krycek," Grey growled.
Mulder scrambled out from beneath Krycek's now unresisting
body, injured hand cradled against his chest, panting. He glared
down, face contorted, and delivered a parting kick to the fleshy
part of the assassin's thigh.
"Ow! Damn it, Mulder!" Krychek howled, following with a torrent
"Fox, knock it off," Grey admonished. He reached into his pocket
for his badge, flipping it open and displaying it to the group of
gaping onlookers. "I'm a police officer, folks, and there's nothing
left here to see. Move along."
When the small crowd had dispersed he scowled at Krycek and
jerked his head. "Get up." He kept the gun leveled on the Russian
while darting hasty looks at his brother. Now that the initial
adrenaline surge had worn off, Mulders teeth were chattering.
"Jeez, Fox! You don't even have shoes on! Are you trying to catch
Krycek hauled himself upright, leaning heavily against the wall.
He swiped at his bloody lip with the back of his hand and looked
warily from Grey to Mulder. "So what's it going to be, boys? You
turning me in, or are you going to hear what I have to say?"
"The only thing I want to hear is the sound of the lock on your cell,
you two-faced, lying sack of..." Krycek recoiled as Mulder lunged
for him, only to be pulled up short when Grey snagged the back of
"Damn it, Fox, I said to knock it off! Let's take this inside before
you freeze to death. He's not going anywhere."
Mulder shrugged off his brother's hand but kept silent as they
crossed the street and took the elevator back up to Skinner's
apartment. Once enveloped in warmth, he began to shiver in
earnest, reduced to hobbling on feet turned to blocks of ice. Grey
pushed open the door and motioned Krycek inside, sparing a quick,
assessing glance at his brother.
"Go take a shower, it'll warm you up," he suggested, brow creased
"F...forget it! I...I'm n...not t...taking m...my eyes off that
b...bastard," Mulder snapped, arms curled tightly around his torso
in a futile effort to warm them.
"Fox, I'm not a rookie. I can manage him with one hand tied
behind my back -- no offense intended," he drawled, flashing
Krycek a cheeky grin and indicating he take a seat on the couch.
"Besides, I get the feeling he's here for a reason."
"And they say all Southerners are half-wits," Krycek sneered.
Grey lowered himself into the chair opposite, unperturbed. "Watch
it, Ratboy. I might just let my little brother have another go at
Mulder hesitated a moment longer, but a fresh wave of tremors
sent him climbing the stairs. Krycek's eyes followed until he
disappeared, then fixed coolly on Grey's face. A silent battle of
wills ensued until the assassin crumbled, his eyes skittering away
to contemplate a gouge in the coffee table.
"I'm going to warn you up front," Grey said, his voice very soft.
"You start messing with his head and I will personally modify your
dental records. We half-witted Southerners have an extremely low
tolerance for bullshit."
Krycek's eyes narrowed and he compressed his lips to a thin line of
annoyance. "What is it with you Mulders, anyway? Either your
brother uses me for a punching bag or you threaten to rearrange my
teeth. I'm getting pretty tired of it, let me tell you."
"Guess we just can't keep our hands off you," Grey replied,
waggling his eyebrows.
Krycek huffed and muttered another string of Russian epithets
under his breath. The faint patter of water on tile drifted down the
stairs and Grey released a long breath of air, shifting to a more
comfortable position. Krycek's eyes roved around the living room
and his foot tapped a staccato beat on the leg of the coffee table.
"The seeds are drugged." The statement, flat and unapologetic,
He stared at Krycek and leaned forward with feigned calm. "We
know -- or had a pretty good idea. Skinner took some to the lab for
confirmation. Question is, how the hell did *you* know?"
Krycek grinned wolfishly. "Who do you think persuaded that street
vendor to stock our particular brand?"
Grey's face darkened and his finger, curled snugly around the
trigger, twitched. He caught himself, grimly shoving the anger to
the back of his mind, and shook his head ruefully. "I'm beginning
to understand this compulsion Fox has to beat the hell out of you,
"So nice you two have something in common." Krycek reclined
further into the cushions, his feet crossed casually at the ankles.
"What did you do, threaten him?"
Krycek's brow contracted as he puzzled over Grey's question, then
smoothed in understanding. "The street vendor?" He shook his
head. "Violence might be unavoidable, but it's never the ideal
solution," he replied. "Mr. Ivanovich had a little problem -- he
liked to bet on the ponies. Unfortunately, he wasn't very good at it.
The prospect of paying off his sizable debts more than
compensated for any twinges from his guilty conscience."
Grey grit his teeth. "And if I were to go looking for Mr. Ivanovich?
To ask him to testify that Fox was deliberately set up to be
Krycek's expression was bland. "Mr. Ivanovich was the victim of a
brutal attack this morning. He was robbed on the way to work, shot
twice in the chest. Died in the ambulance on the way to the
hospital. No witnesses to the crime."
Grey clamped his teeth onto his lower lip, the gun hot and slick in
his sweaty palm. He studied Krycek carefully, noted the rapid
fluttering of pulse at his neck and the fine sheen of perspiration on
his brow. For all his bluster and bravado, the man was evidently
not as sure of himself as he tried to appear.
"You know much about this drug?" he asked curtly.
Krycek shrugged. "I'm no chemist. But I do keep my eyes and ears
open. Twice the adrenaline rush of cocaine, but with a lot of nasty
side effects -- paranoia and mood swings top the list. It's odorless,
colorless, and nearly tasteless, especially when delivered on
something salty like sunflower seeds. The body builds up a quick
tolerance though, starts craving higher and higher doses. Mulder
been popping more seeds than usual?"
Grey thought for a moment, then recalled Skinner's remark about
his brother's behavior just prior to talking with Johnson and
Benton. "Yeah. I think he was. But how...?"
"Vicious cycle. The withdrawal pangs let up whenever he hits the
seeds, so he subconsciously starts craving them."
"What can we expect, now that he's stopped ingesting it?" Much as
he loathed seeking advice from the enemy, Grey wanted to prepare
himself for what lay ahead.
Krycek's eyes unwittingly skipped to the stairs, then slid over to
the window. "He's been off it what -- about 36 hours? The first
twelve to eighteen are the worst, he must have been bouncing off
"No, he just put his fist through one," Grey muttered, massaging
his forehead. "That's how he broke his hand."
Krycek actually grimaced. "Doesn't really surprise me. I'm amazed
he didn't do worse."
"He might have, except he spent the night in a psych ward, stoned
on..." He bit back the words, chagrined that he'd given Krycek such
The Russian didn't seem to notice. "At the risk of provoking an
armed man, I've got to say it was probably the best place for him.
Two of the test subjects committed suicide during withdrawal."
His blood turned to ice water, and Grey had to muster every ounce
of willpower to contain the shudder that broke out in gooseflesh.
He licked his lips and worked to keep his voice smooth.
"What about now?"
Another shrug. "He'll eventually burn himself out. Until then,
irritable, moody, unpredictable -- I'd keep a close eye on him."
"Thank you for the diagnosis, *Doctor* Krycek. I am feeling a
definite lack of impulse control right about now."
Krycek stiffened, his gregarious demeanor abruptly guarded.
Mulder descended the stairs and walked slowly over to the couch.
Clad in a fresh pair of sweats, hair damp from the shower, he
seated himself beside Krycek like a friend eager to catch up on old
times. An illusion shattered by the gun he pressed to the Russian's
"How about we stop talking about me and start discussing you," he
suggested in a tone smooth as butter. "Why you were hanging out
across the street, for instance."
"Fox, what are you doing?" Grey hissed. "Put that down! Where
did you...?" He broke off in a moan. "Shit!"
Mulder bared his teeth. "Note to self, Bubba. When retrieving your
weapon to chase your crazy, barefoot brother across a busy street,
don't forget to lock the drawer."
"Put it down, Fox."
"I don't think so. Not until this rat bastard gives me some answers."
Grey shifted his weapon, training it on his brother. "You can't
throw your life away on this scum. I won't let you."
Mulder's eyes cut to Grey and returned to Krycek. "We've been
here before, huh, Krycek? Déjà vu."
The assassin had regained his composure. "I'll give you answers,
Mulder. That's why I'm here."
Mulder's gaze attacked his face. "Scully?" he demanded, easing the
muzzle back from Krycek's skull.
"She's alive, and I know where she's being held. I can take you
"If you came to take us to Scully, why were you camped out across
the street?" Mulder persisted, suspicion coloring his voice.
"Waiting for Skinner to leave," Krycek replied. "I wasn't too
on spending another night cuffed to the balcony."
"And you thought I'd welcome you with open arms?" Mulder
Krycek's lip curled. "No, but I figured with the drugstore in your
bloodstream I'd be able to handle you. And I was counting on him"
-- he tilted his head toward Grey -- "to keep a cool head."
Grey chuckled coldly. "You should know better than that, Krycek.
We rednecks all have short fuses. Fox, put down the gun and let
him talk. If we don't like what he's got to say, I'll shoot him
Krycek's eyes turned to saucers. "Look, I said I'd tell you what you
want to know! They've got her at a private research facility in
Virginia, but she won't be there much longer."
"They? Are you insinuating that you weren't involved?" Mulder
asked, lowering the gun until it nuzzled Krycek's ribs instead.
"You can believe what you like, but I wasn't there. Your buddy
Smokey had me picking up the leftover packages of seeds from
Ivanovich. Tying up loose ends."
"How...how did they take her?"
Krycek snorted. "From what I hear, with surprisingly little
resistance. She was so distracted, worrying about *you*, that she
left her car unlocked. One of our boys just slipped into the back
seat and waited for her."
Mulder winced. "Did he hurt her? Is she all right?"
"A bump on the head, nothing serious. She's their prize lab rat,
Mulder. They don't want to damage the merchandise -- not yet
When the color drained from his brother's face, Grey lunged to his
feet. "You'd better start working harder to stay alive, Krycek, and
stop having so much fun," he warned between clenched teeth. "Get
to the point and tell us exactly where to find her."
Krycek held up his hand, eyes shifting nervously between the two.
"The lab is in the middle of nowhere, just off the Blue Ridge
Parkway. We'll have to hike the last several miles, too easy to spot
a car. Security will be tight, but I know a few tricks to get us
"What did you mean when you said she wouldn't be there long?"
"I don't know what they've done to her, but they intend to transfer
her to another facility for long term observation. After all, she's
dead, right? In order to pull off the charade Scully has to disappear
for good. How could Smokey pass up such a golden opportunity?"
An annoying buzz filled Mulder's ears and a gray fog enveloped
Krycek's face. He didn't feel the gun slip from his limp fingers,
didn't realize he'd begun to hyperventilate. Then a warm, steady
hand was guiding his head between his knees and Grey's soothing
voice broke through the white noise in his head.
"Easy, Fox, slow it down. That's it."
He clutched at the words and he struggled to follow them. To
empty his mind of everything but the anchor of that voice and the
task of breathing. Don't think of Samantha's diary, of the times
she'd welcomed even death as a release from her suffering. Don't
think of Scully, marked for the same torture -- the faces changed,
but the outcome...
A distant corner of his brain heard the apartment swing open,
followed by Skinner's outraged growl,
"What in the hell is going on here?"
Friday, March 31
"You've done a lot of talking, Krycek, but you still haven't
explained one thing," Skinner said, scrutinizing the assassin's face.
"Why are you helping us? Spender finds out and your life won't be
worth a nickel."
Two empty, grease speckled pizza boxes littered the coffee table,
and everyone but Mulder was nursing a second beer.
"Spender doesn't own me. I do what needs to be done." Krycek's
nose wrinkled. "Sometimes that puts me in his camp. But always
on *my* terms."
"Nice try, Krycek. But why don't you just answer the question?"
Mulder had finally begun to run out of steam, and his words
slurred with fatigue. "There's never been any love lost between the
two of us -- you were perfectly willing to help Cancerman drug
me. Why the sudden willingness to help me now?"
Krycek chuffed the ghost of a laugh and shook his head. "Help
you? I wouldn't waste my time. It's Scully I'm sticking my neck out
When three sets of eyebrows lifted in disbelief, Krycek sighed.
"Look, I was perfectly willing to sit it out while Smokey wrote
Mulder a one way ticket to the loony bin. And I kept my mouth
shut when I heard he was snatching Scully for more tests. But
keeping her locked up indefinitely, like some glorified lab rat..."
Mulder leaned forward, a shrewd glint driving the sleep from his
eyes. "If I didn't know better, Krycek, I'd say that you were
carrying a torch for Scully."
Krycek's lips thinned. "Shut up, Mulder. You don't understand
anything about me."
Mulder stared at him for a moment before sinking into the
cushions, head tipped back to contemplate the ceiling. His reply
was wistful rather than taunting. "I've spent the last seven years
with her, Krycek. I understand more than you know."
"You never said how things went at the Bureau, Walt," Grey
"The analysis checked out. Our guys confirmed that the blood,
though Scully's, lacked any of the expected markers. In short -- an
"Probably five or six years," Krycek muttered. "They've still
blood and tissue samples from her original abduction."
"Not to mention ova," Mulder snarled.
"I stopped off and had a long talk with Johnson," Skinner
continued, breaking the uneasy silence.
Grey smirked. "A talk?"
Skinner gave him a predatory smile. "Well...I talked and he
Skinner sighed and massaged the tense muscles at the base of his
neck. "Mostly. I'm not saying he was happy about it, but the
evidence is hard to ignore. And there's the slight complication of a
"Lack of a corpse will screw up a murder investigation every
time," Grey agreed.
"Johnson should stay off our backs for now," Skinner said,
ignoring the sarcasm. "He's not convinced Mulder isn't responsible
for Scully's disappearance, at least in part, but he's agreed to
broaden his focus."
"Just another reason to get Dana back as quickly as possible. Not
that I expect Johnson would apologize."
"I assume we wait until tomorrow night." Skinner looked to
Krycek for confirmation, the sour expression on his face revealing
how he felt about deferring to the Russian.
"I hate to risk waiting, but the chance of being spotted during
daylight is too high," Krycek agreed. "We can get into position,
then start walking as soon as dusk falls."
"How many miles will we have to walk?"
"Two -- maybe three. But it's rough terrain. The road comes
straight down the valley. We'll have to come in from the side,
"You up for that, Fox?"
Grey's question went unanswered -- Mulder had succumbed to
sleep, his injured hand propped on a throw pillow and his face still
turned up toward the ceiling.
Krycek hunched forward and lowered his voice. "You do realize
we should leave him behind, don't you?"
The atmosphere in the room, which had taken on an almost
convivial quality over the course of dinner, became charged with
"If anyone ought to be left behind, Krycek, it's you," Grey replied,
his voice ice. "I trust my brother. It's you I wouldn't turn my back
"This isn't a matter of trust. He," Krycek jerked his thumb in
Skinner's direction, "knows exactly what I'm talking about. Don't
Grey turned accusing eyes on his friend, who ground his teeth and
glanced away. "Walt? You can't be serious!"
Skinner shook his head, eyebrows knit together. "I'm not foolish
enough to think he'd let us go after Scully without him. But if I
could figure out a way to keep him here, yes, I would."
"He has every right to be a part of this. He has a higher stake in
this rescue than anyone else in the room."
"He's also the highest liability," Skinner replied. "I'm sorry,
but you're thinking with your heart and not your head. He's
physically depleted and emotionally unstable. In any other
situation Mulder would be the first person I'd want at my back. But
not this time."
"What are you saying, Walt?"
"Nothing. Like I said, I know your brother. Short of locking him
up, nothing's going to keep him from going after Scully. I just hope
he can keep it together."
"He'd walk through fire for Dana, Walt. He'll keep it together."
Skinner and Krycek traded a troubled look, but remained silent.
Saturday, April 1
The half-imagined creak of a floorboard, an ephemeral shift in air
currents, and Grey came fully awake with his gun in hand. Without
conscious thought, as elemental as a magnet to steel, his eyes
sought out Krycek. The Russian, however, was still sleeping, his
spine pressed to the back of the couch and his arm curled
protectively around his middle. The slide of wood on ceramic
brought Grey to his feet, brushing aside the blanket and
abandoning the soft depths of the recliner.
The light above the stove bathed the kitchen in an amber glow.
Mulder sat at the table, staring bemusedly at the picture of a
lighthouse hanging on the wall to his left. Grey sat across from him
without speaking, careful to lift the chair so that the legs wouldn't
scrape across the tile.
"All the times I've sat across from him and listened to him ream me
for disregarding procedure or losing another cell phone," Mulder
murmured. "It never occurred to me that he'd have a picture like
that hanging in his kitchen, or a handmade afghan draped over the
back of his couch."
Grey's lips quirked in a poorly suppressed grin. "What were you
expecting -- grenades and combat boots?"
Mulder shrugged, but a tiny smile crept onto his face. "Would have
surprised me less."
"He was married for over fifteen years, Fox. Stands to reason
Sharon would have domesticated him at least a little bit."
He expected the grin to take root, but it slipped away as furtively
as it had come. Mulder spread his hands on the tabletop, then idly
traced the fourth finger on the left one.
"What was it like, being married to Kate?"
Grey had become accustomed to the sharp spark of pain that
accompanied Kate's name. Once nearly incapacitating, time had
eased it to a dull ache. His brother's question took him by surprise,
however, and he couldn't help flinching a little.
"Sorry," Mulder said quickly. "I didn't mean to..."
"No! No, it's all right. I don't mind answering."
Grey pondered a moment, a string of memories winding their way
through his thoughts like brightly colored beads. Kate on their
wedding day, simple yet radiant in the long white gown. Kate at
the amusement park, hands above her head and a mixture of
giggles and screams bursting from her lips as the rollercoaster
plunged down the first, long hill. Kate in front of the fireplace, the
warm weight of her head on his shoulder and the sweet smell of
her hair in his nostrils.
"It was home. It didn't matter what horrors I had to endure during
the day -- and you know there are too many to number in our line
of work. She was my sanctuary from that, a safe place where I
could leave it all behind and find peace. I knew I could keep going,
could get through just about anything, because she was waiting for
me. I thought as long as we were together, nothing bad could touch
us." He let out a long, slow breath of air. "Obviously, I was
His brother didn't respond, just dipped his head and continued to
study his hands. Grey desperately wanted to offer solace, to
reassure him that they would find Dana and bring her home, but
the words stuck in his throat.
"I was engaged once."
Grey felt his mouth drop open, his eyes bug out, but couldn't seem
to make his face do anything else. Mulder darted a fleeting look at
his stunned face and then lowered his eyes, mouth curving upward
in something too sad to be called a smile.
"You never cease to amaze me, little brother. I never saw that one
Mulder's laugh was no more than a puff of air. "Scully says I keep
unfolding like a flower."
"How come you never mentioned this before?"
Pursed lips and a slight lift to one shoulder. "Don't like to talk
about it, I guess. Just one more failed relationship in my extensive
Mulder chuckled bitterly. "She caught on to me, I guess."
"Don't give me that crap! I hate when you do that self-deprecating
shit," Grey growled. "What happened?"
"I was profiling at the time. I met Laurel in a bar one night when I
was trying to unwind after a bad case. She was an attorney, worked
for a law firm across town." He shook his head. "She was very
"Looking back, I can see that it was a mistake from the beginning.
I was at loose ends, miserable in my job and lonely in my personal
life. I wanted that home, that safety you speak of. Laurel was
bright, attractive, and she made me laugh. Being a lawyer, we even
shared the same frustrations with the legal system. I thought I'd
found everything I could ever want or need."
When Grey waited silently, he continued. "I think asking her to
marry me was the desperate act of a drowning man. I was starting
to come apart at the seams, but Patterson wouldn't let me transfer
out of the ISU. He blocked my every attempt, heaped guilt on me
for even thinking of wasting my "God-given talent." Those were
his words, not mine.
"I'm a bastard when I'm profiling, there's no other way to say it.
Short tempered and critical one moment, depressed and morose the
next. It got harder and harder to see the wins and not the losses.
After one particularly horrible case, a serial killer who raped and
then strangled little girls, I went on a crying jag that had Laurel
ready to call the men in the white coats. The guy was behind bars,
headed for the gas chamber, but I couldn't stop seeing the faces of
those dead little girls."
"That night was the beginning of the end, I think. As long as things
were neat and orderly, running on an even keel, Laurel was happy
and supportive. But she was never good at handling a mess. One
day about a week later I came home to find her ring and a note on
the kitchen counter. She'd taken a position with a firm in Chicago."
"Did you ever see her after that?" Grey asked quietly.
"She asked me to respect her decision and not contact her. I never
"I'm sorry. I know I don't have to tell you that Dana would never
do that to you."
Mulder smiled wistfully. "Scully is nothing like Laurel. Or Phoebe,
Diana, or any other woman I've known. It took me a while to
believe she was real. But knowing she is just makes the fear of
losing her more paralyzing."
He finally looked at Grey with the eyes of a drowning man. "She's
made me a better person, Grey. She fills all the holes and makes
me complete. She's my human credential. If Scully can love me,
then I can believe there's something of worth inside me
somewhere." His voice cracked and he blinked hard. "I have to
Grey stretched one hand across the table until it enveloped his
brother's. He didn't speak the words. He didn't need to.
Saturday, April 1
Grey plucked Skinner's elbow, speaking sotto voice. "Hold up a
Skinner jerked his head in acknowledgement, placing his hand on
Krycek's forearm. "Stop."
Krycek turned, eyes narrowing. Mulder stood about ten yards back,
hands braced on his knees and breathing heavily while Grey held
out a bottle of water. The Russian glared at Skinner.
"I told you we never should have brought him. He's slowing us
down, and by the time we reach the lab he'll be useless."
Skinner didn't reply, just drew his gun and pinned Krycek with a
teeth-rattling stare. The assassin threw up his hand and spun on his
heel, lips moving in silent curses. A moment later Mulder and
Grey rejoined them -- one sweaty and panting, the other hiding
worry. Krycek flicked a venomous look over his shoulder and
started up the next hill at a brisk clip. Mulder grit his teeth and
"Walt, I need to talk to you." Grey matched strides with Skinner
about ten feet behind where Krycek and Mulder were toiling up the
"Krycek insists we split into two groups once inside the facility."
Skinner shifted the nylon pack on his shoulders and grunted
acknowledgment. Up ahead, Mulder stumbled, wavered
precariously for a moment, and then regained his balance.
"I want you to go with Fox."
>From his reaction, it wasn't the request Skinner had expected. His
smooth, even gait faltered for a moment and his eyebrows nearly
disappeared beneath the black knit cap on his head.
"I assumed you'd want to stick with your brother." Grey shook his
head. "Mind telling me why?"
Grey stole a quick glance at Krycek and Mulder, still out of
earshot. "Two reasons. First, I can't bring myself to let Ratboy out
of my sight. Not even if he's with you."
"I think you're the only one who can rein my brother in, should the
Skinner snorted softly, prompting Krycek to shoot him a warning
glare. "*Me*? Are you kidding? What makes you think he'd listen
to me any more than he'd listen to you?"
Grey shrugged. "I'm his brother, Walt. You're his boss. No matter
what difficulties you two may have had in the past, Fox is
accustomed to seeing you as an authority figure. I'm just the guy he
swaps dirty jokes with and skunks in basketball."
Skinner looked at him shrewdly before reluctantly nodding. "I'm
not sure I accept your logic. But I'm willing to trust your instincts."
"Would you two shut up! We're here."
Krycek's voice seemed to float out of the darkness, probably
because he'd dropped to his belly in the weeds at the top of the rise.
As one, Skinner and Grey ducked and crawled the rest of the way
until they could peer at the golden eyes of the building nestled
"The front door is not only hooked into the alarm system, there's
extensive video feed to the control room and guard station,"
Krycek murmured. "My card key will get us in the back door
where there will be fewer cameras. That's going to change as we
approach the research wing, though. They like to have front row
seats at all times."
Mulder's breath hitched and his eyes turned black. "How do you
have a key to this place, Krycek? This on your top ten list of fun
places to spend a Saturday night?"
Krycek showed his teeth in a faux smile. "This isn't Scully's first
visit, Mulder. Who do you think brought her here when you were
lying in a hospital bed, dying of the black cancer?"
Mulder's lunge for the Russian's throat was aborted by Grey's firm
grip on his shoulder. "I warned you about having too much fun,
Krycek," he said quietly. "How 'bout you stop yapping and get us
"Everybody better switch on their wires," Skinner suggested.
The Gunmen, after an extensive diatribe on trusting traitors, had
provided each of them with state of the art communication
equipment. Once the packs were flipped on and tested, Krycek
again took the lead for the trip across the valley.
"Keep single file, low to the ground," he said tersely.
"Can't believe I'm taking orders from Alex Krycek," Skinner
muttered under his breath.
Kyrcek's voice purred in his ear. "I heard that, *Walter*."
The trip down the steep incline turned out to be just as harrowing
as climbing it. Grey's calves ached from maintaining a slow and
steady pace, and more than once a loose stone or branch brought
him perilously close to tumbling down the slope. Mulder's face
was pinched with fatigue, his mouth held to a straight line of
concentration. When they finally reached the velvet shadows at the
rear of the building, Grey sighed.
"I need the three of you to keep back as I open the door," Krycek
instructed quietly. "The security guard will be alerted I'm entering
the building and he'll confirm my I.D. on the monitor. After a
minute, when he's gone back to watching the basketball game on
television, I'll motion you inside."
Skinner's jaw thrust forward. "So help me, Krycek, if this is a trap,
if you leave us hanging out here..."
Krycek's lip wrinkled. "If I wanted to take you I could have done it
last night, whether you left North Carolina to guard me or not. Just
keep quiet and wait for my cue."
They watched him run his card through the lock, the tiny crimson
light blinking for a moment before winking out. Krycek pulled the
door wide open and sauntered inside, making no attempt to conceal
his face. Grey saw him surreptitiously slip something between the
catch and the frame, so that when the door slid shut the little light
remained a cheery green.
For what seemed an eternity they huddled in the frigid darkness,
motionless, silent, and completely at Krycek's mercy. Just when
Mulder was certain they'd been betrayed, that Krycek would return
with armed men, the door eased open a crack and one by one they
Krycek stood directly beneath a dead surveillance camera. "These
things go out all the time, but someone will start checking
eventually," he murmured. "Someone needs to come with me to
put the guard station out of commission while the others go get
Grey didn't even glance at Skinner. "I'm with you, Krycek."
Mulder jerked in surprise but an inscrutable look from Skinner
quelled any protest he might have voiced.
"Remember where you're going?" Krycek asked tersely.
Satisfied by their nods, he led the way, occasionally stepping into
open doorways as a camera lens panned the corridor. When at last
they came to a junction of another hallway, Krycek paused and
placed the card key into Skinner's hand.
"Get into position and give us five minutes. We'll rendezvous at
the back door."
Grey kept to his heels as he took the left corridor while Skinner
and Mulder continued on the previous course, passing empty
offices that looked incredibly ordinary and unthreatening. Back at
Skinner's apartment, Krycek had likened the floor plan to the letter
H. He and Grey had just followed the crossbar to the security
station, located at the extreme northwest corner. Mulder and
Skinner, on the other hand, would find the research facilities at the
northeast end. Close in proximity, but inaccessible to each other,
each team was on their own should trouble arise.
At last Mulder and Skinner came to the double doors that separated
the in vivo labs from the rest of the complex. Here, theoretical met
actual -- via the use of live test subjects. Mulder's hand trembled as
he lay it against the cool glass.
"You okay?" Skinner asked, eyes roaming his agent's face.
Mulder's fingers caressed the smooth surface for a moment before
his hand dropped. "Not yet."
Three separate cameras scanned the area in front of the doors,
making it impossible to avoid detection. Mulder and Skinner
waited, nerves thrumming like overstretched rubber bands, while
time passed like molasses through a sieve. At any moment each
expected to hear a claxon sounding their intrusion, but the warning
"Guards have been neutralized. Go."
At Krycek's cue, Skinner passed the key through the slot and the
door clicked open.
This section of the building looked and smelled like a hospital, a
sharp tang of bleach and disinfectant in the air and the cold,
colorless gleam of sterile surfaces. What looked like operating
theatres, stocked with complicated equipment, lined each side of
the corridor. Mulder shuddered as he passed, each doorway a
gaping mouth set to devour. At the very end of the hallway four
doors surrounded a nurse's station. Too late, Skinner spied a thatch
of blonde hair peeking above the tall counter.
"Who are you? What are you doing here?"
The woman, dressed in nurse's whites with a stethoscope slung
around her neck, lunged to her feet while her index finger fumbled
for a black button on the counter. Skinner was at her side, gun
pressed just under her chin, as her finger hovered above the alarm.
"Take it easy. We aren't going to hurt you," he said, apparently not
realizing his statement was incongruous with his appearance.
Up close, bands of gray streaked her hair, and her demeanor
remained self-assured though indignant. "This is a private facility,
you can't just waltz in here and..."
"Where is Dana Scully?"
At Mulder's question, uttered in a low growl, her tirade broke off
midstream and her lips clamped tightly together.
"Mulder. Room 3."
Four numbered monitors lined the desktop beneath the counter but
only the third was turned on. Skinner gestured to the grainy, black
and white image of a figure huddled on a hospital bed.
Mulder bolted around the desk, snatching the card key from
Skinner as his eyes searched frantically for the correct room. When
he reached the door, time seemed to hitch and slide into slow
motion. He vaguely registered Skinner's gruff instructions to the
nurse, the hum of a heater kicking on, and the thumping of his own
heart as he slid the card through the reader and pushed the door
The red flame of her hair, spilled across the pillow, drew his eyes
and stole the moisture from his mouth. He swallowed, throat
clicking, and stumbled across the room on wooden legs. Scully's
cheek looked gaunt and as pale as the pillow beneath it, her mouth
twisted into a frown. One thin, blue-veined hand lay curled beneath
her chin, the other wrapped tightly around her cross. Mulder
sucked in a gulp of air like a sob. One trembling finger traced a
lock of hair as it fell across her brow, then stroked a gossamer
touch down the back of a hand.
"Scully? Scully, it's me, wake up."
When she didn't move, not even a catch in the steady rhythm of her
respiration, Mulder felt panic rise in the back of his throat.
"Scully? Scully, you've got to help me get you out of here! Wake
Vague images of being on the receiving end of such an exhortation
flickered through his brain. What did Scully do when she needed to
jolt him back to consciousness? Inspiration struck. He pinched her
soft earlobe ruthlessly between his fingers, grimacing.
Scully moaned and tried to retreat, one hand batting feebly at his
arm and her eyelids fluttering.
"Scully! Open your eyes, babe, you can do it." Mulder hated the
tears in his voice almost as much as his feeling of helplessness
when she merely mumbled unintelligibly and sank back into sleep.
"We need to get out of here."
Skinner's voice at his shoulder nearly wrenched a scream from
Mulder's throat. Evidently the man hadn't lost the art of moving on
"Something's wrong, I can't get her to wake up. I think they
Skinner's thumb gently pried open one of Scully's eyelids. An
abnormally large pupil confirmed Mulder's diagnosis. Casting a
nervous glance at the camera over his shoulder, Skinner slipped an
arm beneath Scully's shoulders and hefted her upright.
"I'll carry her."
Scully's head flopped bonelessly and something twisted in
"NO! I can..."
"Mulder, you'll be lucky to make it back to the car without the
addition of over a hundred pounds dead weight," Skinner snapped.
At the sight of his agent's anguished face, he sighed. "It's not as if
she'll notice who's got her, Mulder. I'll take good care of her, I
Mulder watched him carefully hoist Scully over his shoulder in a
fireman's carry. "Krycek, Grey, we've got her. On our way out," he
"Already in position." Grey's voice calmed his jangling nerves.
"Better hurry." Krycek. "Failsafe's going to kick in any
"Understood." Mulder followed Skinner past the nurses' station
toward the glass doors. "What did you do with the nurse?"
"Cuffed, gagged, and locked in a utility closet," Skinner said
curtly. "Keep your eyes open and your gun..."
The shrill peal of an alarm bell cut short the rest. Skinner slipped
his own weapon from the small of his back and broke into a run,
Mulder puffing at his heels.
They slowed at the T-junction, eyes and ears sharply attuned for
trouble. Skinner started forward, only to slam back into Mulder as
a bullet whizzed past his shoulder and lodged in the cinderblock
"Step out with your hands up," a deep voice ordered. "Don't try
anything funny or I'll shoot."
Skinner cursed softly under his breath between gulps of air. He
looked longingly toward the exit at the end of the hall, then at
"On the count of three," Mulder said. "Don't worry about me,
keep going. I'll be right behind you."
Skinner hesitated. Tightening his grip around Scully's legs, he
nodded. Mulder pressed his back to the wall, gun lifted in front of
"One. Two. Three!"
As Mulder stepped into the open and dropped to a crouch, firing
rapidly, Skinner dashed across. He kept his body turned to shield
Scully from gunfire as much as possible, flinching as a bullet
whined past his ear. Halfway there the door swung wide and he
saw Krycek beckoning furiously for him to hurry.
The night air hit him like a slap in the face, drying the perspiration
that ran down his cheeks and dripped in his eyes. He spun around,
panting heavily, just as Grey yelled his brother's name and sprinted
back *into* the building.
"Go, go, go!" Krycek barked, pointing to the hills.
Skinner shifted Scully's limp form, cast a quick glance at the
doorway, and set off at a jog. Scaling the incline was a nightmare -
- Scully's weight threw him off balance and he couldn't watch his
footing. Twice he stumbled and nearly dropped her, gashing one
knee on a rock and giving his ankle a painful twist.
He tried to ignore the confusion that erupted from the receiver in
his ear -- Grey babbling reassurances, Krycek snapping orders, and
Mulder oddly silent. Once past the summit he found a dip in the
terrain and gently lowered Scully to the ground before collapsing,
lungs straining for air and muscles quivering with fatigue.
He was so preoccupied with ensuring Scully's comfort he nearly
missed the three figures that staggered over the rise about fifty
yards from his position.
"Over here, head east," he said, grateful for the ability to
communicate without shouting.
When they drew closer he could see that Mulder, though walking
on his own power, leaned heavily on his brother.
"What happened?" he demanded.
Mulder knelt beside Scully. His good hand, which had been
clutching his shoulder, brushed her forehead.
"Is she all right?"
"She's fine. What about you?" Skinner persisted, exasperation
creeping into his voice.
"I'm fine. Bullet just grazed my shoulder," Mulder replied absently.
Grey huffed. "You're bleeding like a stuck pig, Fox. We need to
get a bandage on it."
"Whatever you're going to do, make it fast," Krycek said. "If
get to our car before we do it's all over."
"Stop being such a softie, Krycek," Grey jibed. "Your concern is
getting me all choked up."
"Somebody's got to stay in touch with reality," Krycek growled,
but he pulled a bottle of water from his pack and offered it to
"He's right." Mulder's eyes never left Scully's face as Grey
wrapped gauze over the wound without bothering to cut away his
sweater. "We've come this far. I won't lose Scully now."
"We won't." Skinner watched Mulder finger an auburn curl, a
muscle along his jaw twitching. "That little operation has just been
shut down. Permanently."
Sunday, April 2
Scully allowed herself to drift toward consciousness, no longer
compelled by fear to rush the process. She knew she was safe,
though her memory was as blurred and confused as if she were
looking through frosted glass. Vague recollections of waking while
slung over someone's shoulder, blood pounding in her head as she
swayed dizzily back and forth. The steady hum of an engine and
the reassuring warmth of Mulder's arms. Bright lights, strange
voices, and the paralyzing fear she was back in the testing place.
Mulder's voice, the sound finally forming into meaningful words,
telling her she was safe.
The soft scrape of a chair leg and the rustle of clothing coaxed her
to work harder at opening heavy eyelids. The figure at her bedside
leaned forward -- dark hair, hazel eyes, and a wide grin. Scully
blinked and her answering smile faltered.
"Hey, darlin'. I know I'm not exactly what you were expecting, but
you could at least try to hide it."
"Sorry." She grimaced at the froggy croak and reached for the
pitcher on the tray table.
Grey beat her to it, filling a cup and steadying it in her shaky hand.
Scully drank slowly, studying him over the rim.
"Stitches," he volunteered before she could ask. "He's in
treatment room down the hall. Once the doctor convinced him you
were just sedated and not likely to go into cardiac arrest, he let a
nurse talk him into having his arm stitched up. Provided I plant my
butt in this chair and swear not to take my eyes off you, of course."
She couldn't help grinning at that. "Of course." Her eyes narrowed.
"Why stitches? Is he all right?"
"He's fine. There was a minor complication as we were getting you
out of that building. A bullet grazed his shoulder but it's nothing
"A minor complication? Nothing serious? You two certainly speak
the same language," Scully said dryly. "How is he -- really?"
Grey braced his elbows on his knees, fingers steepled under his
chin. "There's a lot you don't know, things that directly relate to
Fox's behavior before you were taken. He..."
"Was drugged." At Grey's dropped jaw she smiled grimly.
"Spender likes to expound on his role as the omnipotent
orchestrator of our fate. He took great delight in describing just
how he set Mulder up for my murder. I think he was trying to
break my spirit." She huffed a little. "He was doing a pretty good
"From this end too. Fox was starting to believe he'd fugued out and
stabbed you with one of his kitchen knives."
Scully closed her eyes and shook her head. "My God. I'd hoped
Spender was bluffing."
"Between the drug, the alleged gaps in his memory, and a bloody
knife planted in his refrigerator, Fox was pretty confused.
Fortunately, their little plan backfired when the police took him
into custody. His symptoms started looking a little too much like
narcotic withdrawal, and a blood test confirmed it."
"And you brought him with you on a dangerous rescue attempt?"
Scully's voice rose and her eyebrows plunged.
Grey held up his hands. "Now you sound just like Krycek. He was
completely against letting Fox..."
"*Alex Krycek?* You took Alex 'I'd sell my own mother if I
thought it would benefit me' Krycek with you?" she screeched.
"Are you crazy?"
"Well, actually we didn't take him with us. He led the way," Grey
Scully stared at him, then let her head thump down onto the pillow.
"I get abducted and everyone loses touch with reality," she
"Hey, you're here, aren't you?" Grey pointed out in an aggrieved
tone of voice. He placed his hand over hers. "How are *you*,
Now there was a question she really didn't care to answer. "I'm
fine, Grey. Just a little tired."
The curtain rattled and whooshed aside. "Okay, you're off the
hook. You can..."
Mulder's words trailed off as his eyes locked onto Scully's. Her lips
curved upward, his following suit just a heartbeat later. Grey
glanced back and forth between their faces and cleared his throat.
"I can't hear myself think over all this nonverbal communication.
I'll be down the hall at the pay phone, calling Kristen."
Scully held out her hand, her gaze sweeping over Mulder from
head to toe as she unconsciously took inventory. He dropped into
the chair Grey vacated, the left side of his body abnormally stiff,
and laced his fingers with hers.
"Hmm?" Mulder's dazed contemplation of her face turned into a
squint. "How many what?"
Scully indicated his arm with a tilt of her head. "What's the
"Very funny. Only six, and I probably could've gotten by with a
few butterfly bandages."
"Uh-huh. I'll bet. Mulder, it's completely beyond my understanding
how you could trust someone like Alex Krycek..."
"Wait a minute, wait a minute! First of all, who says I trusted
him?" Mulder objected. "I accepted the information he offered --
information that made it possible for us to be having this
conversation right now. I did not trust him, Scully. I *used* him."
Scully pursed her lips and arched an eyebrow. "Really? Where is
he right now?"
Mulder jerked his eyes from hers, his face flushing. "All right, so
he gave us the slip once we got here. Happy now?"
"No." Scully tightened her grip on his fingers but left the steel in
her voice. "It was a terrible risk, Mulder. If it had been a trap, if
Krycek was lying..."
"Scully, you're here!" Mulder caught himself before continuing,
gentling the anger from his tone. "You're alive -- a little
dehydrated, a few drugs swimming around in your veins, but
essentially intact. It was a risk I had to take and I..." He sighed. "I
really don't want to talk about Krycek. Okay?"
She sucked in a long, slow draught of air. Mulder's haggard face
and her own weariness conspired against her. "Okay. For now."
Taking pity on him, she added, "So when are you going to spring
The lines in his face magically smoothed. "Soon as the I.V. runs
out. They couldn't find anything really wrong with you. You're a
little dehydrated and that was a pretty powerful sedative you'd
"Easier to drug me insensible than put up with my constant
attempts to escape or drive them crazy trying," Scully said, pulling
her eyes from his face and staring out the window.
"Don't ask me now, Mulder. Please."
In her peripheral vision she saw him stiffen, heard the breath rasp
more harshly in his chest. *He's angry* part of her brain observed
regretfully, while the other part snapped, *I have to deal with this
in my own way, not his.*
"Scully, I know I don't understand what the past few days have
been like for you. And I know after the way I've acted the last few
weeks that I have no right to ask you this. But let me help you.
Don't shut me out."
She let her eyes slip shut and tried to calm a volatile mixture of
emotions. When she could finally bring herself to look at Mulder's
face his frustration was veiled by worry.
"Mulder, I know I need to talk about this. I just need a chance to
gain a little distance. When I do, I'll need to be someplace where I
feel safe, not surrounded by reminders of what they did. And I'll
need to feel your arms around me." She mustered a weak smile.
"Think you can handle that?"
"Yeah." The tenderness in his voice chipped at her fragile control.
"I can handle that."
"So, once the doctor is convinced I'm re-hydrated and coherent
he'll release me?" Scully plunged on.
"Yes. And speaking of someone who'd like to seriously impact
*my* level of coherency, I called your brother and your mom.
They'll stop by your place later this morning."
"Thanks. It'll be good to be home."
"Yeah." His fingers fidgeted with hers, stroking the back of her
hand one moment, brushing the palm the next. "Of course, it's
technically still a crime scene but I think Skinner's working on
that. Still, it'll probably be a mess considering the fact that both the
police and the Bureau searched it for evidence of your
"Fortunately, you were never officially dead, so at least you won't
be saddled with all *that* red tape. It's no picnic, let me tell you.
I've been through it twice and I can honestly say..."
"Mulder!" She sat up, mindful of the I.V., and laid her hand on his
cheek. "You're acting like a kid on his first date. What's going on?"
He gave her a deer in the headlights look, gnawing on his lip, then
placed his hand over hers. "Scully, I..." His eyes panned around the
room and outside to the lone occupant of the nurses' station. "I
have something to say to you, but it isn't easy for me."
She nodded, her brow furrowed, and dropped her hand. "All right."
Mulder stood and paced to the far wall before abruptly returning to
perch on the bed. "I've done some thinking over the last few days.
Some of it may have been a little incoherent," he said with a
grimace, "but most of it occurred while I was straight. And I've
come to a decision."
Butterflies materialized in her stomach. Between his previous
display of nerves and the way he was studiously avoiding her eyes,
Scully was certain she didn't want to hear this decision. Who knew
what crazy ideas he'd talked himself into after the last few weeks?
"I know you're going to think this is an overreaction to what we've
just been through," Mulder continued as if reading her thoughts.
"And on some level I suppose it is. But I don't think that
invalidates the essential truth behind my decision and I hope... I
hope when you really consider it, you'll agree with me."
"Scully, I don't think we should just move in together."
*So this is what it means to be blindsided,* Scully thought,
She'd expected cold feet. She'd foreseen guilt and the inevitable
push as he tried to distance himself "for her own good" -- that was
part of the reason she dreaded telling him about her ordeal. She'd
been prepared to argue, cajole, reason, and kick butt.
What she'd never expected was the finality to his tone, the
determination in the set of his shoulders, or the steel in his eyes
when they finally returned to her face.
Or the pain that settled in her chest like a jagged stone.
"I told you I would never push you into something you aren't ready
for, Mulder. I meant it." Scully managed to keep her expression
neutral but cursed the slight tremor in her voice.
Mulder's lips parted and his forehead creased. When the epiphany
struck, his eyes widened and his fingers scrambled to reconnect
"Scully, no! That's not what I meant! Shit!" He chuckled, the
sound nervous and horrified. "I was trying to say I don't want to
*just* be roommates. That might have been enough for me once,
but it isn't anymore. I want you to be my wife, Scully. I want you
to marry me."
Her heart swelled, dislodging the stone, and the sudden rush of
relief was dizzying. "What?"
"I know we'll never have what most people would consider a
normal life. And I'm not foolish enough to believe we can really
stop the car. But maybe we can slow it down a bit, Scully. Maybe
we can at least enjoy the view."
Scully blinked against the annoying tears that insisted on obscuring
his face. At least her voice cooperated. "Are you sure this is what
Mulder's smile, beautiful and unrestrained, would have been
answer enough. "When we were in Key West, Rosa said that I was
allowing the fear of losing you to keep me from being with you. I
don't think I truly understood what she was trying to tell me until
now. When I had to accept the possibility of your death, I
realized..." The words caught in his throat and he pressed her hand
to his lips as he struggled against his own tears. "Scully, I realized
that I was more afraid of a life filled with regrets than the pain of
letting you all the way in and then losing you. This is what I want.
Please, say yes."
"Yes, Mulder. I'll marry you."
The smile turned into a goofy grin. "Yeah?"
Scully nodded, gasping when he hooked his hand behind her neck
and pulled her lips to his in a bruising kiss. When Mulder started to
break away, however, she dug her fingers into his sweater and
tugged, coaxing him into a more leisurely celebration. She'd
forgotten her I.V. and the nurse across the hall, and was well on the
way to even overlooking that they were in a hospital when a soft
beep helped Scully regain her senses.
Mulder's lips chased hers for a moment before he gave up with a
soft groan of frustration.
"I.V.'s run out, love," she said, pointing over her shoulder.
about you find the doctor so we can go home?"
"Yeah. Home sounds good."
Scully chuckled at the befuddled expression that came over his
face whenever his brain was short-circuited by certain southern
portions of his anatomy. Knowing the nurse would be less than
pleased, she peeled away the tape anchoring the I.V. needle and
removed it, using a tissue to staunch the flow of blood. She shifted
her legs off the side of the bed, mindful of the hospital gown, and
let them dangle for a moment before standing cautiously. The
initial dizziness passed quickly and she reached for the pile of her
clothing on a nearby chair and tugged the curtain shut for privacy.
She was fumbling with the gown's stubborn tie when her fingers
brushed the tiny scar at the base of her neck. The strings dropped
from frozen fingers and her heart pounded wildly. The pads of her
fingers probed the puckered skin once, then again and again as her
whole body broke out in gooseflesh.
She was still frantically examining the patch of skin when
"Doc's tied up with another patient, he'll be here as soon as he's
done. Scully?" Wide, terrified blue eyes, and his stomach did a
slow roll. "What's wrong?"
"The chip, Mulder. It isn't there."
He stepped close, his large hand gently moving her smaller one
aside. Scully pressed her trembling lips tightly together and
dropped her head. His fingers carefully traced the skin before he
silently pulled her shivering body into a fierce embrace.
Scully buried her face in his shoulder. "Why, Mulder? Why did
they take it out? Do they mean for me to die? Or did they replace it
with something I can't even begin to envision?"
Mulder pressed a kiss to her brow and stroked his fingers through
her hair. "I don't know, Scully. Krycek said something about them
keeping you for long term observation. Maybe that smoking
bastard wasn't lying when he told you he had the Holy Grail.
Maybe he's given you his miracle cure."
Scully knotted her fists into the back of sweater. "I want to believe,
He rested his chin on the crown of her head, voice thick. "Me too,
babe. Me too."
Sunday, April 2
On the other side of the glass, twenty stories down, people went
about their tedious, every day lives in blessed ignorance. What to
cook for dinner, whether Johnny was going to pass trigonometry,
and could Bob really be fooling around with his pretty young
secretary -- petty, irrelevant concerns of a populace unwittingly
poised on the cusp of an apocalypse. Oblivious to those who'd
dedicated their lives to preserve the illusion.
He held the cigarette between wrinkled, yellowed fingers and
flicked the lighter, frowning at the tremors that plagued his hands.
He sucked in a long, satisfying hit of nicotine, mentally lifting his
middle finger to the doctors who insisted this indulgence was
shortening his life. His death, as his life, would be on his own
A perfunctory knock on the door and he didn't bother turning to
greet the newcomer.
"Everything taken care of?"
"All records, equipment, and personnel were cleared from the
facility well in advance of the Feds arrival."
He detected the insolence coloring the reply but chose to ignore it.
"And our favorite agents?"
"She was checked out at the hospital and released early this
morning. Mulder took her home."
He didn't respond, just took a long, slow puff on the cigarette in his
hand and watched the colored traffic lights blinking on the street
below. The shuffle of feet and deepening in respiration signaled
the other's irritation and he let his lips curl just a bit in amusement.
This one's temper would inevitably be his undoing.
"Was there anything else?"
Tired of the game and his opponent, he turned around.
"Not now. You did well, Alex. I'll be in touch."
Krycek pulled open the door. "You know, one of your security
goons actually hit Mulder. A few inches to the right and your
precious prime directive would've been violated."
Another slow puff. "Fox Mulder only values that which he must
suffer to obtain. Everything is proceeding according to plan, Alex.
When Krycek was safely out the door he smiled.
END NOTES: Well, if you made it this far, I hope you enjoyed the
ride! As you can see, more will eventually follow. Many, many
thanks go to my wonderful and talented team of betas: Donna,
Vickie, Sally, Laurie, and Nikki. Thanks for hanging in there, gals.
Its been fun!