Subject:NEW: Countdown (1/2)
Date: Wed, 07 Apr 1999

TITLE: Countdown
ARCHIVE: MTA, Xemplary, Gossamer - others are fine, just let me know
SPOILER WARNING: Various through season 6
KEYWORDS: MulderTorture, Mulder/Scully UST, M/S/Sk friendship
SUMMARY: When an unknown assailant injects Mulder with a deadly toxin,
he has 72 hours to find a cure.
DISCLAIMER: Mulder, Scully, and the gang do not belong to me. They
belong to Chris Carter, FOX, and 1013 Productions.
AUHTOR'S NOTES: Thanks to everyone who was kind enough to send feedback
after my first post. You showed me that the water was safe enough to
take another swim. <G> Major thanks to my beta readers Laurie and Donna.
You dotted all my i's, inspired me, and kept me on track. Who could ask
for more?

Countdown (1/16)
By Dawn

Hegal Place - Apt. 42
Alexandria VA
12:03 a. m.

Scully closed the laptop and sighed, removing her glasses to massage the
bridge of her nose. Finished. It had taken five hours, a pizza, four
cans of soda, and a bag of chips, but the backlog of paperwork that had
been cluttering the X-Files office was completed. Now Skinner could stop
riding them every moment they weren't in the field on a case. She
slipped the stack of files into her briefcase and rose, stretching her
arms above her head and groaning a little in satisfaction when her spine
cracked. She and Mulder had been seated on his couch, hunched over the
files for what seemed an eternity, and her muscles were protesting.

Speaking of which... Scully scanned the apartment for her missing partner.
He'd gotten up when she'd closed the last file, carried the pizza box
and empty soda cans into the kitchen, and promptly disappeared.

"Mulder?" she called. "I'm heading out now."

He emerged from his newly reclaimed bedroom a moment later clad in
sweats and running shoes, laces untied and straggling. "Hang on a
minute, I'll walk you down," he offered, propping his left foot on the
coffee table so that he could tie his shoe.

Scully suppressed a grin. Mulder was the epitome of a bachelor, from the
pile of dishes that seemed to perpetually reside in his sink to the
dirty clothes that presumably hit the floor wherever he shed them. She
watched with amusement as the right shoe received the same treatment.
Amazing there weren't tread marks on that table.

Her partner looked up in time to catch her ghost of a smile. "What?" he
said defensively.

"Nothing. You're going running now? Isn't it time for bed?"

It must have been fatigue - she knew the moment the words passed her
lips that she'd left herself wide open. Might as well paint a target on
her chest for this one.

Predictably, Mulder leered. "Oooo, Scully. Is that an offer?"

Scully arched an eyebrow, determined to regain the edge. "Mulder, when I
make the offer, you won't have to ask," she replied in a sultry tone.

His expression was priceless. Mulder was the perfect example of the old
saying "he can dish it out but he can't take it." Give him the smallest
opening for innuendo and he was right there, but turn it back in his
direction and he was quickly rendered speechless. Now was no exception.

" ready to go?" he asked, turning to scoop up his keys and flick
off the lamp.

Scully hid her smirk while she shrugged on her coat, figuring he'd
suffered enough. "Ready," was all she said.

Mulder had scooped up her briefcase before she could stop him and was
out the door. Though she could easily have handled both laptop and
briefcase, Scully stifled her feminist side and let it go. For Mulder,
such gestures were not chauvinism, but an outgrowth of good manners that
she could only assume were instilled by his mother. Trying to buck the
conditioning was just a waste of time.

She followed him into the elevator, discreetly watching him as they
descended to the main floor. Things had been rough lately -- who was she
kidding, things were always rough for them -- and she'd seen the
weariness on her own face when she looked in the mirror. Mulder, though
she had to admit he filled out a pair of sweats quite nicely, also
showed the strain. His eyes were shadowed, and while he leaned against
the wall in what appeared to be a relaxed posture, she knew him well
enough to see the underlying tension in the set of his shoulders and the
tapping of his foot.

The doors slid open, and soon they were both standing beside her car in
the chill night air. Scully unlocked the door and put first her laptop
and then the briefcase onto the empty passenger seat before sliding
behind the wheel. There was a slight pause as Mulder leaned in the open
door, and she regretted the current of tension that still hummed between
them -- tension that had run high during the ordeal with Cassandra
Spender, fueled by their polar opinions of Diana Fowley. The chasm that
had opened between them had begun to close, and their time spent
together tonight had gone a long way toward continuing the process.
Still, the occasional awkward moment crept up.

"Be careful going home," Mulder said, his hazel eyes looking almost
black in the dim lighting.

Warmed by his concern, Scully favored him with a smile. "I will. And
don't you run too long. You look tired, Mulder, get a decent night's
sleep for once."

"Yes, Mom," he said, rolling his eyes, but she knew deep down inside he
was pleased. One thing she'd learned about Mulder early on: he might
moan and groan if she fussed over him, but inside he secretly ate it up.
Scully suspected he'd received little enough of that kind of attention
while growing up.

He shut the car door and stepped back, arms folded across his chest, to
watch as she pulled away from the curb and drove down the deserted
street. As Scully looked up to catch his reflection in the rear-view
mirror, a sudden chill ran down her spine and her arms broke out in
gooseflesh. She brought the car to a stop and spun around to gaze over
her shoulder, but he had already turned and begun jogging in the
opposite direction.

Someone's just walked over my grave, her mother would say.

Scully hesitated a moment longer before gripping the steering wheel once
more and resuming the drive toward home. The icy sensation faded, and
she tried to chuckle at her foolishness.

"Mulder, you're starting to rub off on me," she said aloud, her voice
sounding strained in the silence. "This can't be good."

*Something is wrong.*

The little voice in her head was faint but insistent.

"I need some sleep, that's what's wrong," she muttered. And when the
little voice refused to be stilled, she turned on the radio and blotted
it out.

Continued in part 2


Countdown (2/16)
By Dawn

12:53 a.m.

Mulder turned toward home feeling tired but content. The evening was
crisp and clear, a full moon providing plenty of illumination for those
areas lacking sufficient streetlights as well as a peaceful atmosphere
for his thoughts. Thoughts that mainly consisted of Scully.

The name conjured up a clear picture of his auburn-haired, diminutive
partner, blue eyes snapping angrily when he did something that pissed
her off, or shining with warmth when he somehow managed to exceed her
expectations. There was no middle ground for them. Their partnership
either burned like the brightest star or froze like the arctic
wasteland. Lately, things had been decidedly frigid.

The power he and Scully had to bring out the very best or the very worst
in each other never ceased to amaze Mulder. These past few months had
certainly been the latter. Scully's failure to support him before the
OPR committee had cut him far more deeply than she would ever know; a
betrayal of all they'd endured during the incidents in Dallas and the
Antarctic. He'd literally gone to the ends of the Earth for her, yet she
refused to even meet him halfway in that room full of self-important
bureaucrats. The memory still stung.

And he had to admit he'd allowed the hurt and anger to fester, hiding
the bitterness below the surface until it welled up in his own form of
betrayal -- his refusal to acknowledge the validity of Scully's
suspicions about Diana. Now you know what you did to me, Scully, he'd
wanted to say. How does it feel?

Recalling her face shamed him even now. He should have realized that his
petty attempt to hurt Scully back would only backfire. The coolness that
had hovered between them turned downright frigid, resulting in too many
snappish retorts and sarcastic remarks.

Somehow, they'd begun to rebuild what had broken between them. Mulder
wasn't sure he remembered who had been first to hold out the olive
branch, and he really didn't care. It was enough that affection once
again replaced irritation, and forbearance substituted for impatience.
Tonight had been like old times; the easy banter mixed with business
that made working with Scully not just rewarding, but fun. He felt a
calmness of spirit that had been missing, and embraced it gratefully.

His thoughts thus occupied, he quickly completed the six-mile loop he
normally ran, and before he realized it he was in front of his apartment
building. He took a moment to catch his breath, hands on his knees,
breath escaping from his lips in small puffs of vapor, before
straightening up to climb the stairs. He'd just grasped the handle of
the door when a faint scuffling sound alerted him that he was not alone.
Mulder turned quickly, right hand reaching for a gun that wasn't there.
Two large shapes loomed up from behind him, faces hidden behind ski


It was all he had time to think before a sharp pain tore through his
head and the world exploded in a blinding white light, then enveloped
him in blackness.

Mulder awoke to the rough, pebbled texture of concrete beneath his
cheek. He was freezing. It felt as if the cold penetrated every bone in
his body. With a little effort he was able to pry his eyelids open to
take in his surroundings. It was with more than a little surprise that
he realized he was lying in front of his apartment building, not five
feet from the front door. His head felt as if someone had tried to
bisect it into two parts, and there was a warm stickiness on his cheek.
But worse than the physical pain was the blank hole in his short term
memory. He had absolutely no idea how he'd gotten here.

Steeling himself against the pain he knew would follow, Mulder pushed
with hands attached to rubber arms, easing his body into a sitting
position. As expected, the pounding in his head escalated, and the world
tilted crazily, as if he'd just played the child's game of spinning in a
circle until too dizzy to stand. His stomach tried to climb out of his
mouth, but contented itself with merely ejecting the pizza and sodas
he'd consumed for dinner.

When he was able to stop retching, Mulder closed his eyes against the
dizziness and crawled to the door, using the handle to haul him upright.
This time, with sheer determination, he was able to fend off the nausea
as he leaned weakly against the cool glass. His thought processes felt
as if someone had given his brain a good stir, but one concept swam into

Scully. Got to call Scully.

Mulder had no idea how much time passed as he made his way back up to
his apartment. It felt like years. The dizziness was so severe, he
simply resorted to closing his eyes and feeling his way along the wall
once he reached his floor. He had a moment of panic when, after making
it so far, he seemed incapable of manipulating his key into the lock.
The key finally slid home, and he practically sobbed with relief as he
stumbled inside. His cell phone lay on his desk beside the computer, and
he sank into the desk chair even as he punched in number one.

The phone rang four times, causing his heart to stutter, before he heard
a click followed by her voice, heavy with sleep.


His own lips and tongue felt thick and uncooperative. "Scully," he
slurred, the sound of his own voice reverberating in his head until the
pounding threatened to rob him of all thought.

"Mulder?" She was instantly alert, her voice sharp with alarm. If he
hadn't been hurting so much, Mulder might have found it amusing that she
could undergo such a rapid transformation.

He tried to continue speaking, but it was becoming harder and not
easier. "Scully. Need help."

"Mulder, where are you? Are you at home?" Brisk, cool-headed Scully
taking over, any anxiety relegated to the back of her mind.

It comforted him immensely and he nodded, stupidly forgetting that she
couldn't see him. Nodding was a bad idea.

Black spots danced across his vision and a buzzing sound filled his
ears. All he could do was echo her words, and add one of his own.

"Home. Hurry."

He dropped the phone onto the desk and cradled his head on his folded
arms, struggling to remain conscious. He didn't need to hear her reply.

It was Scully. She'd come.

Continued in part 3

Countdown (3/16)
by Dawn

Emergency Room
George Washington Medical Center
3:49 a.m.

Scully paused outside curtain area two for a moment, just watching him.
Mulder's eyes were closed, but his face was far from peaceful. She knew
him well enough to recognize the pain lines around his eyes and mouth,
and his skin looked unnaturally pale and chalky under the unforgiving
fluorescent lights. He now sported a white bandage just below his
hairline on the right side of his head.

A grade three concussion, the doctor said. The CT scan looked good, but
he'd likely be irritable and dizzy for awhile yet. Could have been
worse, though. Much worse.

Scully shivered, shutting her eyes as a vivid image of how she'd found
him flashed through her mind. She'd reached his apartment in record time
after throwing on the first items of clothing she could grab (which
explained the one blue sock and one black sock) and driving like Al

His door hung ajar, the sight causing chills of fear to scamper up and
down her spine. Mulder was the most paranoid person she knew -- well,
other than the Gunmen, but they existed in a class by themselves. He
would never leave the door open unless...

Refusing to allow her imagination to replace reason, she'd pushed
through, eyes scanning the living room. His desk chair was overturned,
but everything else looked pretty much as it had when she'd left. But no

A small sound led her to the bathroom where she found him crumpled on
the tile with his head pressed against the cool porcelain of the toilet,
in which he'd very obviously been sick. Shivering, only semi-coherent,
and bleeding from a nasty gash on his forehead, he looked horrible.
Still, at that moment one thought eclipsed all others:

*He's alive!*

And on the heels of that:

*I can deal with the rest.*

The sheer, giddy sense of relief was overwhelming.

"See anything you like?"

Mulder's voice, raspy and weak, wrenched Scully from her reverie with
the force of a blow and her eyes snapped open. She blushed, feeling
guilty but unsure why. Mulder's eyes, she noticed now, were at half-mast
but still attempting a leer. Despite her mild embarrassment at being
caught studying him, her heart warmed at the return of the real Mulder.
He must be doing better.

"How do you feel?" she asked, walking over to the bed. Her physician's
eyes assessed his condition while waiting for a reply. His right pupil
was still dilated, but he focused on her easily and appeared lucid. The
nausea, too, had passed -- he hadn't vomited again since his apartment.

"My head hurts like hell, I still have a black hole in my memory, and
this hospital gown is too damn short," he groused, sticking his lower
lip out in the legendary Mulder pout. "When can I get out of here?"

Scully's brow furrowed with impatience. "Mulder, were you listening to
Dr. Wagner? You have a grade three concussion and we have no way of
knowing how long you were out! He thinks you should be admitted for

"Wagner is over-reacting."

"I happen to agree with him."

Dangerous tone, but then he liked living dangerously. "Then *you're*
over-reacting. Scully, I'm fine. My CT scan was normal, I'm no longer
disoriented, and my stomach has stopped trying to leave my body via my
mouth. I want to go home."

Scully took a deep breath and began counting to ten. She only made it to

"Mulder, a clean CT scan does not guarantee that there isn't a problem!
You have certainly had enough concussions to know that. You need to be
monitored, awakened every couple of hours..."


She hated the power he held over her with that coaxing, little boy
voice, but resistance was futile. He'd wormed his way into her heart
long ago, and she'd come to accept it the way she accepted that the sun
would rise each morning. And there was more. Scully strongly suspected
that Mulder's emotionally-distant parents had indulged him very rarely,
if ever, once Samantha disappeared. Though plenty of times she wanted
nothing more than to shake some sense into him, she also found herself
exercising tolerance whenever possible. What was it her mother used to
say? *You've got to pick your battles, Dana.* This wasn't one of them.

"Then you spend the night on my couch," she said, her blue eyes
narrowing in warning when he broke into a smile. "And you will put up
with me waking you every two hours, checking your pupil response, and
making sure you're coherent without so much as one whine or complaint.
I mean it, Mulder."

Mulder returned her glare with one of wide-eyed innocence. "Whine? Moi?"

Scully snorted and rolled her eyes. "Mulder, your infamous ability for
getting yourself injured is only exceeded by your propensity for
moaning, groaning, and making a general nuisance of yourself once you
start to feel better. Around this hospital, Mulder, you are a legend in
your own time."

Her partner feigned a hurt expression, hands clutching his heart.
"Scully, you wound me."

Before she could reply, he threw off the sheet and sat up, swinging his
long legs over the side of the bed. Scully watched him wince, eyes
squinted against the pain, as he paused to regain his equilibrium and
wait for the pounding in his head to ease. When he finally slipped off
the edge, he swayed slightly and she reached out to grasp his elbow to
steady him. After a moment he nodded to indicate she could let go, and
walked slowly over to the chair that held the sweats he'd been wearing.

He hadn't travelled more than four steps, feeling a bit like an old man,
when he heard the soft chuffing sound of Scully trying to suppress
laughter. He turned slowly back to face her, careful to avoid any sudden
movements. Her eyes were sparkling with amusement, and her hand was
pressed to her lips -- both to hold in the snickering and cover the
smirk, he assumed. She was currently doing a pretty poor job hiding
either one.

"What?" he demanded defensively.

"You forgot to mention one thing about that gown, Mulder. Not only is it
too short, it flaps in the back." At this she gave up all pretense of
disguising her mirth and openly waggled her eyebrows at him. Which was
totally unfair -- that was his territory.

Cursing under his breath he reached behind him to gather the gown
together and proceeded to retrieve his clothing. Scully watched as he
gathered up sweats, socks, boxers, and shoes, composing herself so that
she could offer him an eloquent, if insincere, apology. Then something
on the back of his left leg, just behind his knee, caught her eye, and
all thoughts of the free show he'd just given her flew from her head.

"Mulder, what's that behind your knee?" she asked, tone more sharp than
she'd intended.

"Huh?" Mulder turned, contorting his body into positions that would have
been funny if not for the fact that an icy cold fist suddenly clutched
her heart.

"Stand still, let me look," Scully said, the authority in her voice
leaving no room for refusal. She approached him slowly, almost
apprehensively, and crouched down. Silent, she studied the spot for what
seemed hours to Mulder, but in reality was only a minute, touching the
skin with gentle fingers that caused him to shiver in spite of their
warmth. Finally she rose silently to her feet, face troubled.


Hearing the uncertainty in Mulder's voice, she clamped down on the
maelstrom of emotions that in the blink of an eye left her gut churning.
Now was no time to panic, even though the inexplicable nature of the
attack against Mulder abruptly began to make a horrible kind of sense.

"It's a bruise, Mulder," she said quietly, forcing her eyes to meet his.
"From an injection site."

Mulder stared at her open mouthed, and she saw comprehension slowly seep
into his gaze. "Are you sure? Maybe..."

"I'm sure."

The silence that crashed down around them at her words existed on a
surface level only. Beneath it a thousand voices all clamored to be
heard: some shrieking in terror, some ranting in anger, some whimpering
in despair. Mulder closed his eyes and swallowed with an audible click,
fists clenching tightly before opening to hang limply at his sides. He
opened his mouth as if to speak only to shut it a moment later.

Scully longed to touch him; to lace her fingers with his, run her hand
over his stubbled cheek, even envelope him in her arms. But what she did
was to square her shoulders and wrap her doctor persona tightly about
her like a warm blanket on a cold night. One touch and she might
fragment into countless pieces. Mulder needed her whole.

"We have to run some bloodwork, Mulder," she said, pouring the comfort
of that unrealized touch into her voice instead. "You'd better sit down.
I'll go and get a nurse."

"Scully, wait!"

His words stopped her cold; stopped her before she could leave to search
for a nurse, stopped her before she could flee. Yet when she turned
back, Scully saw that he was rendered speechless once again. His eyes,
though -- those uniquely expressive hazel orbs that showed more by
subtle changes in shade and intensity than any words could articulate -
told her everything she needed to know.

*I'm scared, Scully. I don't understand what's happening to me, and I'm
not sure I want to find out. I need you with me. Stay.*

And his unspoken need entwined with her love for him, quenching the
desire to distance herself as rapidly as it had sprung to life. And
though she never spoke a word, Mulder obtained what he needed from her
face. A look of peace stole over his features and he relaxed back onto
the mattress.

Continued in part 4

Countdown (4/16)
By Dawn

George Washington Medical Center
Room 457
6:42 a.m.

Mulder drifted in the blurry, soft-focus place he thought of as "in
between." Not asleep -- he could hear the quiet whisper of the nurses'
crepe-soled shoes when they passed his door, the murmur of voices close
enough to be audible but too far to be understood, the rattle of a piece
of equipment wheeled down the hall. Not awake -- for though he could
hear all these things they held no significance other than to provide a
background drone of white noise to soothe him, a surrogate for the
room's broken television. The in-between place contained no sharp edges
or bright colors; a muted, Monet state of being where one sensation ran
into the next and lost all clarity or distinction.

Thanks to some extra-strength Tylenol and a respite from being poked and
prodded, the headache had receded from blinding to merely annoying,
though the muscles in the leg bearing the injection site had begun to
ache. Scully was off...being Scully. Probably breathing down the
technicians' necks to be sure his lab tests were handled to her

Glad that for the moment he wasn't the one on the receiving end of her
temper, he'd taken her threats seriously and stayed in bed like a good
boy. Though he'd felt certain the apprehension over what had been done
to him would nullify any fatigue he might feel, the muted lights, quiet
atmosphere, and sleepless night combined to pull him into a deep sleep
for a time. Now, unable or perhaps just unwilling to surface completely,
he drifted.

An additional presence in the room brought him the rest of the way back,
sharpening his senses enough to detect another's soft breathing and a
shuffling of feet. Not Scully -- his radar could detect his partner on a
level far deeper than simple sight, sound, or smell. A calmness of
spirit would descend over him in her presence, a sense of completeness.
Wholeness. This presence emitted a business-like aura, deliberate and
purposeful. Probably another nurse for another test.

"Okay, which of my body parts would you like now?" he asked, his eyes
still reluctant to open.

"Frankly, Agent Mulder, I can't say I'm interested in any of them."

Mulder's eyes snapped open and he automatically bolted to attention,
desperately ignoring the spike of pain the movement provoked. "Sir! I
thought you were one of the nurses." Realizing that sounded bad on any
one of several levels, he stammered quickly, "I mean, not that you look
like the nurses, they're actually all quite attractive.... Uh, that's not
what I meant either, I..."

"Mulder stop babbling."

"Yes, sir."

He allowed himself to slump back into the pillows while eyeing Skinner
cautiously. The man was in full AD mode despite the hour; he was
obviously either on his way to work, or more likely had come to the
hospital from the Hoover building.

"Sir? What are you doing here?" Mulder asked, puzzled.

"I'm here investigating the attack of a federal agent, Mulder. Scully
called to let me know why you two wouldn't be in today and to fill me in
on the basics. I stopped by to see how you were doing and to hear your
version of events."

Mulder snorted, shifting his leg in an attempt to relieve a painful
muscle cramp. "What version? I can't even remember anything after Scully
and I left my apartment. There's nothing but a big void until I woke up
on the front step of my building and tried to puke my guts up. 'Fraid
you made a wasted trip."

Skinner ignored the insolence in Mulder's tone, studying him until he
could see through the attitude to the complex emotions hidden
underneath. Anger. Frustration. Fear. His voice when he replied was
mild, though spoken in the typical Skinner tight-jawed style.

"What do the doctors say? Do they think it will come back to you?"

"They did when they believed it was a side effect of the head injury.
Now..." Mulder clamped down on the flood of dangerous feelings that
wanted to break free. This was not only his boss, but also a man he
respected and admired. There had been very few people in his life about
which he could say the same. Too few. And his own father wasn't one of

Skinner must have sensed that his psyche was a little raw. He looked
away, the slight twitch of facial muscles signaling his frustration.
"Mulder, we *will* find out who is behind this and why. I've already
sent a couple agents to your apartment to check the scene, and..."

If Skinner said anything else Mulder didn't hear it. His eyes were
riveted on Scully, who had appeared in the doorway. She didn't have to
say a word, her face told him everything he needed to know. Scully's
expression as her eyes locked onto his was...shattered.

Skinner followed Mulder's gaze to Scully, stepping back so that she
could approach the bed. He watched silently as she slipped her tiny hand
into Mulder's large one, never breaking eye contact. He'd seen this
woman in just about every situation imaginable -- eyes sparking with
fury as she pointed a gun at him, full of compassion when he'd nearly
died from a gunshot wound, shadowed with weariness and pain when cancer
had nearly stolen her life. But he'd never seen this, and viewing it now
caused the muscles in his chest to constrict until he could hardly draw
a normal breath.

*My God. She's barely holding it together right now.*


It was a single word, just a name spoken, but rich with layer upon layer
of meaning. Scully's hand tightened around Mulder's, but though her eyes
glistened with tears not a single drop spilled down her cheek. Mulder's
face was momentarily unguarded, naked in its fear and vulnerability,
transparent with complete and undiminished trust. The intimacy shared in
that moment was stronger than if they'd been kissing, and Skinner
averted his gaze, feeling oddly voyeuristic.

"It's all right. You can tell me." Mulder's voice was steady, calm.

He'd brought the walls back up just a bit, more to ease Scully's
distress than his own.

"Dr. Wagner is coming as soon as he finishes his rounds..."

"Scully." Gently, just a name, but it stopped the flood of words as
abruptly as if he'd screamed it. When he saw her grasp for her
composure, and succeed, Mulder continued.

"I already know it's bad news. You're my doctor, Scully. The only one I
want. The only one I trust. Please. I need to hear this from you."

Again the connection opened between them, and after a brief hesitation,
Scully nodded. Mulder could see her square her shoulders, trying to find
some of the clinical detachment she'd learned in med school and
perfected during the last six years on the X-Files. He'd almost
forgotten about Skinner until their boss cleared his throat, looking
just a bit discomfited.

"I'll be outside," he said gruffly, but Mulder stopped him before he
could turn to leave.

"Sir, please stay. I think you'll need to hear this too."

Scully took a deep breath and blew it out, pursing her lips. "I'm not
sure how to say all this," she admitted, brow knotted in irritation at
her own lack of eloquence.

"Honestly. Don't hold back, Scully. I want it straight, no pulling
punches." Mulder kept his tone flat -- he'd developed a little
detachment of his own the past six years. The past twenty-six years.

"The preliminary analysis of your bloodwork shows a toxin, Mulder. A

"A poison?"

Scully nodded sharply, eyes narrowed. "But unlike any we've ever seen.
The closest comparison I could make would be the venom of a black widow
spider. Do you know anything about them?"

"Just that they can be fatal," Mulder replied, face pale and incredibly

"Okay, in a nutshell -- everyone has substances in the brain known as
neurotransmitters whose job is to carry chemical messages from one nerve
to another. One of the four main groups of neurotransmitters is
acetylcholine. To put it simply, a signal travels the length of a nerve
until it reaches the end, where it must make the jump to the next nerve
or muscle cell. Transmitters like acetylcholine act like a bridge for
the signal. The black widow spider toxin targets the junction between
nerve and muscle cells where the nerves control muscle contraction. It
causes a massive release of acetylcholine to the nerve terminals whether
or not the brain has told them to fire. Since there's only a finite
amount of acetylcholine, the supply is eventually used up."

Mulder licked dry lips. "And?"

"And the muscles can no longer contract." Scully's doctor fašade
flickered, and she bit savagely at her lip. "Ultimately - respiratory
paralysis, then death."

Mulder seemed to be struggling to digest this, so Skinner spoke the
question foremost on his mind. "You said that this toxin is 'like' black
widow venom. Can't you use the same antidote?"

That broke Mulder from his private musings and he looked at Scully
hopefully, only to withdraw again when she shook her head. "'Like' is
the operative word. The method of action is similar, but this toxin was
designed in a lab, not by Mother Nature. A spider bite generally begins
to intensify after about three hours, and if there are no complications
can run its course in about two days. This stuff seems to exert itself
exponentially. Its initial symptoms begin more slowly but will build
rapidly, like a ball rolling downhill. Producing an antidote first
requires that we know exactly what's in this stuff, and in what
proportions. We need a pure sample of the toxin, and we can't get that
second hand from Mulder's blood."

"You said ultimately paralysis," Mulder said quietly. "What comes first?
Straight, Scully."

Scully studied the floor tiles for a moment, the backs of two fingers
pressed to her lips. It didn't work. Mulder could still see them
quivering. A deep breath again, and only a slight tremor marred her
smooth alto. "Pain progressing from the injection site (Mulder's visible
flinch was perceived by both Skinner and his partner), severe abdominal
cramps, nausea, tremors, labored breathing and speech, convulsions..."

Mulder closed his eyes and swallowed thickly. "God."

"I've sent a blood sample to the bureau lab. They're in way over their
heads here," Scully continued, slipping her hand into his once more.
"With any luck they'll be able to come up with something more concrete."

Mulder shook his head. "Luck, Scully? When has that ever been a
commodity we could count on?" His sardonic smile faded. "How long?"

Scully blinked slowly, sighed. "My best guess would be 72 hours from the
time of exposure. Maximum."

Mulder nodded, his focus turning inward. "That leaves us roughly 66
hours for us to find whoever injected me and locate a sample of the
toxin," he said, more to himself than Scully or Skinner.

Scully began to sputter. "*US?* Are you out of your mind? *You're* not
going anywhere! The best thing you can do to fight this is rest and let
them try some of the conventional treatments -- calcium gluconate or the
black widow antiserum. Skinner and I..."

"No!" In a heartbeat fury replaced detachment. Mulder sat up rigidly,
ignoring the shooting pains in his leg in favor of the all-consuming
indignation that washed over him. "This is *my* life, Scully, and I'll
be damned if I'm going to spend what little time I may have left rotting
in this hospital room! I am sick to death of being manipulated by forces
beyond my control, of them messing with my body and messing with my
head! If you want me to fight this, don't expect me to do it lying on my
back. I will *not* be powerless anymore, Scully. I will *not* be a

Mulder sank back, panting a little from the exertion of his speech and
the discomfort in his leg. Scully looked helplessly at Skinner.

"You've been awfully quiet, sir," she said acidly, lips thin and pressed
tightly together.

That slight facial twitch again, and Skinner met her glare calmly. "I
was just trying to picture you in Mulder's place, Scully," he said
evenly. "I have yet to conjure up an image of you laying in that bed
while Mulder and I looked for a cure."

Mulder snorted, his face lighting up briefly in delight. Irritation
warred with amusement for control of Scully's face before she finally
allowed her mouth to curve just a little in a rueful smile.

"I never thought I'd see the day, Mulder. The tables have turned. Now
the AD is defending *you* to *me.*"

Mulder's answering grin was bittersweet. "Must be an X-File."

Skinner rolled his eyes at that, turning toward the door. "I'm going to
check in with the agents at your place, Mulder. I'll see you both at the
bureau once you are released. I'd say we need to concentrate on
developing a pool of suspects."

Mulder looked both grateful and tentative. "We, sir?"

"I told you already, Mulder. This was an attack on a federal agent.
You'll have the bureau's full resources at your disposal."

Mulder nodded, unspoken message received. *Even the assistant director.*

"Thank you, sir."

"I'll walk you out, sir," Scully said, giving Mulder's hand a squeeze
before releasing it. "I guess I'd better hunt down Wagner for that
release paperwork. He's not going to like it."

"Just shoot him," Mulder said with a hint of humor. "Worked on me."

She shot him "The Look," an eyebrow crawling up her forehead, before
following their boss out the door. Mulder's slight chuckle in response
warmed her only momentarily before the harsh reality of his situation
crashed into her like a fist to the gut. Skinner saw her begin to
crumple, and grasped her shoulders, turning her to face him. His grip
was warm, firm, and somehow comforting, something to anchor her in the
surrounding turbulence.

"You going to be all right? He needs you at his back now, Scully. More
than ever before."

She nodded, but her expression betrayed her doubts. "Are we doing the
right thing, sir? In the end, this could give him less time."

Skinner's voice was steel, but his eyes were kind. "It's not just the
right decision, it's the only one," he said. "Strip him of the chance to
determine his own fate, and you strip him of who he is. We have to give
him the power back, Scully. In the end, it could be all he has left."

Continued in part 5


Countdown (5/16)
By Dawn

Hoover Building
X-Files Office
9:02 a.m.
64 hours remaining

"Mulder, it just doesn't make sense. Why now? We just got the X-Files
back, and we haven't even had time to ruffle anyone's feathers. God
knows Spender and Diana certainly didn't! What would make the Consortium
suddenly decide to get rid of you now?"

Scully perched on the edge of Mulder's desk, arms crossed and a frown
creasing her forehead. Her partner reclined in the rickety desk chair at
a seemingly impossible angle, one leg propped up on the desktop. The
left leg, she realized. He had yet to complain about anything other than
a lingering headache from the concussion, but every so often she'd catch
him massaging the thigh muscles of his left leg and grimacing slightly.
The sight made her heart stutter with fear. For Mulder's sake, she
pretended not to notice.

"Maybe it's because we got the files back. You know Smokey did what he
could to prevent that, first by torching this office and then by
arranging for his son to take over our work," Mulder argued, eyes
narrowed and lip thrust out in that stubborn pout of his.

It was an expression that normally set Scully's teeth on edge. Right
now, though, she found it impossible to feel anger toward him. A clock
had taken up residence in her brain -- one that ran backwards. Its
ticking filled her entire being, penetrating every thought in her head
and every emotion from her heart. *Time's running out* it said. *This
moment may be all you have left.*

"Then why not just shoot you, Mulder? Explain that. Why the elaborate
method? The man who injected you could just as easily have put a bullet
in your head. It would have been simpler, with less danger of being

She kept her voice even and reasonable, willing herself not to comment
on the way he kept fingering his holster. Losing her temper with Mulder
only made him dig his heels in harder, a truth it had taken her several
years to uncover. Several years, and countless lost battles. She had no
intention of letting Mulder go out in a blaze of glory, though at the
moment he seemed determined to do just that.

"She's right, Mulder." The deep voice from the doorway startled them

Skinner moved into the office, and leaned against the wall. His hands
were stuffed into his pockets and his shoulders were tense.

"With all due respect, sir..." Mulder began.

"Mulder, think about it. You need to step back for a minute, you're
making this personal."

Skinner watched as Scully arched one eyebrow and scrutinized Mulder with
an expression of wry amusement. Mulder, in turn, looked like a little
boy who had been caught with his hand in the proverbial cookie jar.
Skinner had no idea what he could have said to cause such a reaction.

Mulder cleared his throat and looked up at him ruefully. "Sorry, sir.
But last time I checked this was personal."

Skinner shook his head impatiently. "That's not what I mean, and you
know it. I'm breaking more than one rule, not to mention ignoring logic,
by letting you work your own case. It isn't done, and it could land me
in some very hot water. If I'm going to put my ass on the line for you,
I need to know you can handle it. You've got to turn off your emotions
on this one, Mulder. You've got to profile this guy."

The argument Scully expected never came. To her surprise, Mulder was
silent a moment as if considering Skinner's words, then nodded. "Okay,
I'm listening."

"Scully is right when she says that this doesn't fit the Consortium's
M.O.," Skinner continued. "If they wanted you dead it would be a
professional hit, quick and clean. And we both know that, if necessary,
they have methods more exotic than this toxin."

Mulder looked at him sharply, his eidetic memory conjuring up a clear
picture of Skinner lying in the hospital, his skin strangely mottled and
his breathing labored. More exotic, indeed.

Mulder's gaze seemed to turn inward, and he pulled absent-mindedly at
his lower lip while rocking slightly in the chair. Skinner started to
speak again, but Scully caught his eye and shook her head. She was all
too familiar with Mulder in this mode. That brilliant mind would turn
inward, and when he finally surfaced it would be with some new angle or
spin on things. There was no sense in trying to speak to him during
these times -- you only succeeded in short-circuiting the process and
making Mulder irritable.

They waited silently, and after a moment Mulder's eyes swam back into
focus and he brought the chair sharply forward, dropping both feet to
the floor. The discomfort this maneuver cost him showed plainly to
Scully, though she wasn't sure Skinner could have detected it. Mulder
was a master at hiding pain, both physical and emotional, but she'd
learned the language. A subtle tightening of facial muscles, a slow
blink, a slight catch in his breathing...she'd learned to speak the
language all too fluently over their years together.

"You're right. He must have hit me harder than I thought for me not to
see this from a mile away. He wants me dead, but that's not really the
main objective."

Scully frowned a little. "Meaning?"

Mulder stood up and began to pace, seemingly oblivious to the fact that
he was limping slightly.
"Meaning that in this case, getting there is half the fun, Scully. It's
not enough for me to die. Like you said, a bullet, a knife, or even a
garrote would have accomplished that quickly. But he doesn't want quick.
He wants slow. He wants painful." Mulder stilled his frantic movement
and his eyes skittered away from hers, but not before she saw the
haunted quality in their depths. His final statement was quiet, but
powerful in the room's stillness. "He wants

Scully bit her lip, for the second time that day wanting nothing more
than to pull him into her arms for a comforting embrace. Wishing for
once they could just be two people who cared for each other, and that
all the rest would go away: the FBI, the Consortium, flukemen and serial
killers... A light went on.

"Someone you profiled," she said, seeing affirmation in his face.
"Someone your profile was responsible for catching. Someone with a

"Someone sick enough to dream up this scenario," Skinner added grimly.

Mulder laughed, but it was a laugh that was oddly devoid of humor.
"We'll have to narrow it down farther than that, sir. You just described
every killer I ever caught during my VICAP years. Sick is a

Scully stepped closer to lay her hand on his arm, gazing up at him.
"Maybe so. But this sick killer has some very extensive knowledge of

This time Mulder's chuckle was genuine. "You may just have something
there, Scully. Let's take a look at the database."

Mulder turned back toward his desk and had taken two quick steps when
his leg buckled, sending him to his hands and knees. Scully darted to
his side while Skinner helped him into a sitting position with his back
against the desk. Mulder's fingers were knotted in the flesh of his left
thigh and he was panting in pain, a thin sheen of perspiration on his
brow and his eyes squeezed tightly shut.

No longer caring what Skinner might think, Scully swept her fingertips
across his brow to brush back an errant lock of hair. Her hand then
settled onto his shoulder where it rubbed small, soothing circles into
the tense muscles.

"Talk to me, Mulder," she said quietly.

"'S okay. Easing up now," he said, his teeth still clenched but his eyes
sliding slowly open. "One moment it went numb, the next I have the
father of all charley horses." His eyes met hers squarely, but the fear
was there. "Right on schedule, huh?"

Scully blinked back sudden moisture and nodded. "Yeah."

Skinner stood and extended his hand, which Mulder accepted gratefully.
Once on his feet, he carefully tested the leg before limping over to his
desk and settling himself behind his computer. Scully opened her mouth
to speak, but Skinner's firm grip on her arm silenced the words before
they could be spoken. His brown eyes were compassionate, but firm.
*Remember* they said clearly. Almost imperceptibly, she nodded in

Skinner gave her arm a gentle squeeze and headed for the door. "I'll
notify records that you'll be coming down for some files, Mulder," he
said gruffly. "You'll be given top priority."

Mulder paused in his typing and looked up at Skinner. "Thank you, sir."

Skinner reflected that he'd been around his agents too long. He'd
actually heard all that remained unspoken in those words. "Keep me

A parting glance at Scully, and he strode quickly out the door and down
the hallway to the elevator. Scully took a deep breath and made sure her
own composure was firmly in place before pulling a chair over to join
her partner at the computer.

Continued in part 6


Countdown (6/16)
By Dawn

The X-Files Office
3:11 p.m.
58 hours remaining

Scully flipped the file folder closed with a sigh, moved it to the stack
on her right, and reached for another from the pile on her left. She'd
had no idea, until she and Mulder began searching the database, how many
serial killers her partner had helped put away. Patterson had driven him
unmercifully, Mulder reluctantly admitted. It had not been unusual for
him to be writing several new profiles, following up and adjusting as
necessary the ones he'd already generated, and consulting for other
agents all at the same time. It didn't surprise Scully that Mulder had
been on the edge of a breakdown by the time he'd left VICAP. It
surprised her that he hadn't fallen over that edge.

She was shaken from her reverie by the sound of the elevator doors
opening and subsequent footfalls. That they belonged to Skinner was
apparent -- the man still walked like a marine on patrol duty. Scully
dropped the folder onto the desk and moved quickly to the door of the
office, intercepting him just before he could enter. She laid her finger
across her lips and motioned to Mulder's side of the room.

Mulder had succumbed to the combination of exhaustion, stress, and
lingering effects of the concussion about twenty minutes ago. She'd
noticed the way he kept removing his glasses to scrub at his eyes, which
drooped as he stubbornly perused his own allotment of files. Yet he'd
refused her attempts to convince him to take a break. He'd remained at
his desk, head propped on a fist, until he'd just sort of folded
forward. Now he slept, cheek pillowed on his arm and glasses barely held
within slack fingers.

Skinner took in the sight and motioned for her to join him in the
hallway. Scully obliged, pulling the office door quietly shut behind

"How is he doing?" Skinner asked, thinking that although his intent had
been to check on Mulder, the man's partner looked only marginally better

Scully's eyes bore crescent shaped shadows that testified to her own
sleepless night. But that was just the obvious, physical manifestation.
What troubled him much more deeply was his agent's demeanor. Gone was
the calm, levelheaded, rational Scully that some had cruelly christened
"The Ice Queen." What he saw before him was a woman whose world was
splintering into tiny pieces while she battled valiantly to hold them

"He's struggling," she replied, her gaze meeting his only briefly before
fixing on the wall just above his left shoulder. "Fighting to be normal,
to pursue this like any other case. But the symptoms are increasing,
sir, no matter how much Mulder may refuse to acknowledge them. He won't
tell me, but I'm sure the cramping has gotten worse and I think he's
been nauseous. We ordered in some lunch, but most of Mulder's sandwich
wound up in the garbage. I know he'll be furious that I let him sleep,
but I just didn't have the heart to wake him. We're expecting a new
batch of files in the next half hour, so it'll happen soon enough."

"Any luck so far?" Skinner thought he knew the answer, but needed to

Scully's brow creased and she blew out an explosive little puff of air.
"Nothing so far. The ones with the applicable knowledge and training are
all still safely tucked away in prisons or mental institutions. And the
ones that have been let out don't possess a fraction of the technical
expertise to concoct a poison like this."

Purely some kind of gut instinct caused the next words to pass from
Skinner's lips. They certainly weren't the ones he'd originally intended
to speak.

"Scully. I know when you're in there you feel you have to be strong for
him. But out here it's okay to admit you're hurting and scared."

He could have sworn he heard the crash as a dam crumbled. Scully's wide
blue eyes flooded with tears and this time they spilled over, streaming
down her pale cheeks. She pressed the knuckles of her right fist
savagely against her lips in a futile effort to hold back a sob that
sounded as if it had come from the bottom of her soul. Skinner hesitated
only a moment before drawing her awkwardly into an embrace. The fact
that she allowed him to do so without stiffening or pulling away shocked
him more deeply than her tears.

"I don't know if I can do this," she said between hitching breaths. "It
hurts so much to watch it happening, to see his pain, and be powerless
to stop it. Is this what Mulder felt during my cancer? My God, how could
I have been so hard on him!"

Skinner waited silently until the inevitable moment when Scully regained
control enough to become aware of his embrace on a conscious level and
pulled back, looking a little flustered. He handed her his handkerchief
so that she could swipe the streaks of mascara from the corners of her
eyes, still refraining from comment. When he saw that her shaking hands
had finally steadied, he chose his words carefully.

"You *can* do it, Scully." His voice was steel, but it was the steel of
a supporting girder. "And you are *not* powerless. Mulder is still very
much alive, and that's power in and of itself. Power to keep fighting,
to keep searching. You stand before me now, Scully, alive because the
man in that room refused to give up, even in the face of the most
daunting odds. It's all right to feel pain. It's all right to be scared.
But it isn't all right to despair."

Scully closed her eyes for a moment, lips pressed tightly together,
breathing deeply. When she opened them she met Skinner's gaze squarely,
and he was relieved to see the strong, self-assured Scully with which he
was familiar. If not for the wet spot on his shirt and the tear tracks
on her cheeks, he could almost have believed the past five minutes never
happened. Almost. For in the depths of those eyes, tucked away in a dark
corner where very few would see, was a deep and profound sadness.

"Sir, would you mind keeping an eye on Mulder for just a moment," Scully
asked, tucking the soiled handkerchief into her pocket and straightening
her jacket. "I need to freshen up a bit."

Skinner nodded without comment, understanding that before Scully
reentered the office any traces of her breakdown would be erased. During
the time Scully was missing he'd witnessed countless instances of Mulder
flirting with complete emotional meltdown only to stop and reassert
control with a nearly visible effort. Repeatedly, Mulder and Scully had
each managed to pull off the impossible if it was somehow in the best
interest of the other.

Scully walked briskly down the dim hallway to the ladies room. Once
inside, however, she allowed her shoulders to slump. She leaned heavily
on the cool, white porcelain of a sink and stared into the mirror,
seeing not her own face in the smooth glass, but Mulder's.

*Do you believe in the existence of extra-terrestrials?*

*A dream is the answer to a question we haven't learned how to ask.*

*The truth will save you, Scully.*

*You're my one in five billion.*

*You complete me.*

Ducking her head, Scully flicked on the cold water, cupped her hands to
catch the flow, and bathed her face. Once certain all traces of her
previous bout of weeping had been removed and the burning in her eyes
eased, she reached blindly for a paper towel. She practically jumped out
of her skin when one was placed into her questing fingers, her nose
abruptly registering the stench of cigarette smoke. Quickly regaining
her equilibrium, Scully calmly finished drying her face before looking
up to stare at him in the mirror.

"Are you reduced to hanging around women's washrooms now? Lo, how the
mighty have fallen," she said, infusing each word with as much derision
as she could muster.

Cancer Man simply looked at her tolerantly while tapping a cigarette
from his ever-present pack of Morleys and lighting up.

"Your sarcasm is a refreshing change, Agent Scully," he said in the
calm, slightly raspy voice she'd come to despise. "Your partner would
have pinned me to the wall with his gun at my head by now. I've been
dealing with the wrong person." A look of concern crossed CSM's face, so
blatantly contrived that Scully found her hands clenching the sink in an
effort to resist launching herself at him. "By the way, how is Agent

Scully spun around to face him, her features distorted by fury. "You
know exactly how he is, why else would you be here talking to me now?
The real question is, what do you know about it?"

CSM took a deep pull on the cigarette and blew the smoke out slowly.
Scully ground her teeth but remained silent, knowing he was engaging in
what Mulder would call "yanking her chain."

"My purpose here is two-fold, Agent Scully," he finally said, his tone
silky smooth. "First, to assure you that I had nothing to do with
Mulder's current...difficulties. And second, to warn you that the line of
reasoning you are presently pursuing is flawed."

The rage that had been slowly simmering in Scully's gut instantly came
to a full boil. "You're entire existence is a lie, you bastard! Give me
one good reason why I should believe a single word you say."

The look of amusement in his cold stare only served to fan the flames of
Scully's wrath, but his next words had the effect of a bucket of ice

"Because, Agent Scully, Mulder will die if you don't."

Seeing he'd captured her full attention, CSM flicked the ash from the
end of his cigarette and smiled. "Mulder was right about one thing. The
man who poisoned him is tied to his past -- but not his time with
Patterson writing profiles. He needs to go farther back, to his days
under Reggie Purdue."

CSM dropped the smoldering butt of his cigarette and crushed it into the
tile before turning as if to leave.

"That's it?" Scully's voice shook with outrage. "You waltz in here and
tell me to switch the entire course of the investigation, and that's all
you'll give me? Why even bother?"

CSM stopped without turning back toward her. "Because, though there are
those who remain supremely indifferent to Agent Mulder's fate, others
like myself understand the importance of his role in the events that are
to come."

"Then give me more. Time is too short for your games."

CSM smiled smugly and reached for the pack of Morleys again. "Our
'games,' Agent Scully, may be all that extends the time we have."

He lit up again and continued walking, but paused with his hand on the
door. "Mulder's special talents caught Patterson's eye long before he
managed to acquire him as a profiler. Look for a case that distinguished
a green agent. Good luck, Agent Scully."

Scully stood numbly under the harsh fluorescent lights long after the
door had closed behind him, her mind scrambling to make sense of his
words, her heart pounding with dread.

Continued in part 7


Countdown (7/16)
By Dawn

X-Files Office
5:08 p.m.
56 hours remaining

"This is it, the Bishop case," Mulder said quietly, opening the folder
before him and lifting the first page.

Scully leaned over his shoulder and snagged the autopsy report, rapidly
scanning the results. "A suicide?"

"An *apparent* suicide. Carolyn Bishop was found dead in her apartment,
wrists slashed. At first glance it seemed routine. She'd just gone
through a messy breakup with her boyfriend of three years. Friends said
she'd been a little depressed. She even left a note to her mother,
apologizing for checking out the way she did. Case closed."

Scully studied her partner's expressionless face. "But not for you..."

Skinner made a small sound of amusement from across the room and Scully
looked up at him questioningly.

"One of the first times I heard the name Fox Mulder," Skinner offered,
grinning a little. "A young, inexperienced agent, fresh out of the
academy, making a big stink over what was an obvious suicide. Insisted
it was murder. Kid wouldn't let it go."

Mulder watched Skinner speak, then closed his eyes with a sigh. "I was
an obnoxious, arrogant, little jerk. Thought I had all the answers." He
sighed again. "Was it really only ten years ago? Feels like a lifetime."

"You may have been all that," Skinner said. "But you were also correct."

"What made you suspect murder?" Scully asked, lifting the page that
contained the police report.

Mulder shrugged, mouth twitching in a slight smile. "Would you believe a
hunch? I'm honestly not sure how it began. Something about the scene
just didn't feel right. The pieces didn't fit together. Sure, her
friends said she was a little depressed, but not despondent. And here's
a woman about to kill herself, yet the kitchen was stocked with enough
food to feed her for a month and the apartment had just been cleaned.
You could still see those tracks a vacuum leaves on the pile of her
carpet. Why would she vacuum only to slit her wrists and bleed all over
the rug? And then there was the note..."

"I thought you said she left a note to her mother," Scully reminded him.

"She did. Only problem was, she signed the note 'Carolyn.'"

"Which happened to be her name," Scully said, feeling the customary
prickle of irritation she always experienced when Mulder insisted on
feeding her the facts a tiny nibble at a time rather than in one large

"Yeah. But I spoke with her mother personally, hoping to put some of my
doubts to rest. After a few minutes I realized she kept referring to her
daughter as 'Callie,' and I asked her about it. Mrs. Bishop told me that
although the rest of the world might have known her as Carolyn, to her
she'd always been Callie."

Scully nodded pensively. "It's still pretty thin, Mulder. Police report
says there was no evidence of foul play. No forced entry. No sign of a
struggle. And the tox screen came back negative."

"It was enough to get them to take a second look at the body."

Skinner snorted.

Mulder looked up in irritation. "What?"

"It was enough because Reggie got sick and tired of you harping on it.
'The bulldog' he called you. Said once you got your teeth in something
you just wouldn't let go."

Mulder's frown eased and was replaced by a look of nostalgia. "Reggie
always listened, even when he didn't agree."

"So you got them to do a second autopsy?" Scully asked.

Mulder flipped through the folder and handed her another sheet.
"External only, and for something specific."

"An injection site."

Mulder nodded, impressed as always with his partner's intuitiveness.
"They found one hidden under her hairline at the nape of her neck. From
there we repeated the tox screen with a few more exotic possibilities in

"And found?"

"Curare. Diluted enough to cause paralysis but not death. From there it
was just a matter of checking suspects. Since none of the doors or
windows had been forced, we figured it must have been someone she knew.
Someone she trusted enough to let into her home, and to turn her back."

"The ex-boyfriend?"

Mulder pulled a second file folder from beneath the first. "Cameron
Cardow. A chemist for a pharmaceutical company. Brilliant, but unstable
according to his employer. When no one could substantiate his alibi that
he'd been working that evening, we obtained a search warrant. Found a
vial of the stuff in his medicine chest."

"So you were directly responsible for sending this man to prison,"
Scully mused, watching as Mulder jotted down some notes on a pad.

He made a small grunt of affirmation, continuing to write until his
fingers suddenly seemed to become entangled and he dropped the pencil.
Scully bit her lip and glanced away, but not before seeing the look of
pain coupled with frustration on Mulder's face. It was the fourth time
he'd dropped an object in the last hour.

"It was more than that," Skinner spoke up, moving closer. "Our cigarette
smoking friend was right when he suggested that this case launched
Mulder's career as the bureau's boy genius. Even the director heard
about this one."

"So Cardow would have every reason to hold a grudge against Mulder. Did
you have any contact with him?" Scully asked.

"I was in on the initial interview and the search of his apartment. I
even testified at the trial," Mulder admitted.

Scully lifted the mug shot of Cardow and scrutinized it. Thin and slight
of build with lank blond hair and wire-rimmed glasses. A definite lab
geek. But the eyes... The eyes regarded the camera with sharp
intelligence. Scully failed to suppress a shiver, dropping the picture
back into the open folder.

Mulder's face was still, his focus turned inward to a time long ago. "He
never copped a plea," he said quietly. "Kept insisting he was innocent,
right up until they took him away."

He didn't mention that his eidetic memory had suddenly recreated an
image of the look Cardow had cast his way, oozing venom. As a rookie,
he'd been understandably shaken.

"I've got Kim looking up the most current information on Cardow,"
Skinner said, all traces of his earlier humor gone. "He was serving a
thirty year sentence. By all rights he should still be safely inside a

Scully pursed her lips and stared at Cardow's picture with an uneasy
fascination. "He certainly fits the criteria, though."

"Not to mention Smokey pointed us in his direction," Mulder growled. He
started to say more but grimaced instead, face pale. Scully could see
that he was forcing himself to relax, attempting to take deep breaths.


"I'm fine, Scully."

Her own words, spoken in that same stiff tone of voice, came back to
haunt her. *I deserve this* she thought sadly. *So many times he wanted
to help, to comfort, and I slammed the door in his face. What goes
around, comes around.*

Before she could comment, the phone rang and Skinner quickly scooped it
up. "Skinner."

He listened silently for several moments, expression grave.

"When?" he demanded gruffly, a scowl darkening his features. "You're
certain? Do we have an address?"

As Kim continued to speak, Skinner snapped his fingers and mimed
writing. Scully handed him a pencil and pad of paper, observing as he
jotted down an address. She covertly glanced at her partner, stricken by
what she saw. Thinking he was momentarily unobserved, Mulder had wrapped
one arm around his stomach, eyes squeezed shut in pain. Noting that
Skinner was still tied up with Kim, she reached into her jacket pocket
for the bottle of painkillers that Dr. Wagner had given her when Mulder
checked out.

"The pain will become excruciating," he'd warned, sympathy coloring his
words. "These will help -- for a while, at least."

Silently she pried open Mulder's other hand, which lay clenched atop his
desk, and placed the bottle into it. Mulder's eyes popped open, but they
were glassy with pain and it took him a moment to process what she had
done. He looked at her gratefully for a moment before firmly shaking his
head and giving her back the pills.

"I have to be able to think, Scully. I can't if I'm half stoned on

Scully wanted to argue with him. She wanted to tell him that he needed
the pills, that he couldn't allow himself to continue to suffer this
kind of agony. But his eyes stopped her. They were full of pain, yes,
but also strength and determination. Suddenly Scully had to question
whether she wanted Mulder to take the pills for himself, or if it was
actually for her own wish not to watch him hurt. So instead of debating
his decision, she accepted the bottle without comment, allowing her
fingers to linger on his palm for a moment. Mulder's lips curved gently
in the ghost of a smile, leaving her certain her choice had been

Skinner replaced the phone in its cradle, bringing him back to the focus
of their attention. Mulder searched his face, taking in the clenched jaw
and the telltale shifting of his boss's eyes to the side before he began
to speak. The news was not good.

"Cameron Cardow was released from prison three months ago," he said.
Again, a glance to his right before he met Mulder's eyes straight on.
"He's been cleared of all murder charges."

"Cleared?" Scully's voice was incredulous.

"It seems that a witness came forward who could place Cardow at work on
the night of the murder, just as he'd claimed."

"Came forward? When? There was no such witness at the original trial,"
Mulder said in a level voice.

The muscle in Skinner's cheek twitched. "The man was working in the lab
that night and saw Cardow, even spoke with him. The next day he received
a promotion and was transferred to their branch in England, effective
immediately. By the time word of the murder and Cardow's involvement hit
the press, this guy and his family were gone."

"How did Cardow find him?" Scully asked.

"He didn't. Three years ago he secured another transfer back to the
States. A year later an old friend happened to bring up the subject of
Cardow, and the rest is history. Cardow's lawyer eventually got him a
new trial and he was cleared."

"But the curare found in his apartment..."

"Circumstantial. Cardow was a chemist, there were other strange
substances found at the same time. Cardow claimed it was all related to
projects at work."

Mulder gestured to the pad in Skinner's hand. "That a current address?"

Skinner's scowl returned. "So far as we know. Since Cardow was cleared,
not paroled, he's not required to stay in touch with the authorities."

"It's a start," Scully said quietly, scanning Mulder's face.

Mulder had leaned back in his chair and was pulling absently at his
lower lip. "It's him," he said firmly. "I can feel it."

Skinner ripped the piece of paper off the pad and stood up. "You two in
the mood for a trip to Virginia?"

Mulder looked up at his boss, a surge of gratitude leaving him
speechless for a moment. By the choice of his words Skinner had asked if
he was physically capable of continuing the investigation without making
him feel helpless. His admiration and respect for the man rose a notch,
and despite the ache in his gut he mustered a genuine smile.

"Sure we are, sir," he said, tossing Scully a conspiratorial wink.
"We'll even let you drive."

Continued in part 8


Countdown (8/16)
By Dawn

Headquarters of The Lone Gunmen
9:52 p.m.
50 hours remaining

"Who is it?"

The voice fairly oozed paranoia, and Scully rolled her eyes. When Mulder
remained mute, propped against the doorframe, she realized he was
waiting for her to answer. She recognized the cause of his silence,
having observed similar behavior from him multiple times over the past
several hours. He was economizing -- speaking and moving only when
necessary in an effort to conserve as much of his waning strength as

"It's Steven Spielberg. Now open up, Frohike," she called impatiently,
eliciting a smirk from her partner that warmed her heart.

She counted no less than eight locks being released before the door
opened to reveal the little man.

"Ah, the lovely Agent Scully," he said.

She noticed the leer in his eyes was brief and forced, their focus
quickly shifting to scan Mulder appraisingly. Mulder had explained the
situation to Byers on the phone during the drive over, so all three
gunmen must know by now.

Mulder evidently picked up on Frohike's scrutiny, for he pushed past him
impatiently, muttering, "Down Frohike. I'm not that kind of girl."

Scully followed him through the perpetually dim and cluttered maze of
electronics, hearing Frohike meticulously refasten each lock. Langly was
hunched over a keyboard and typing furiously, clad in a ratty Dead Can
Dance tee shirt with half the letters peeling off.

"Hey, Mulder," he said, his fingers halting and his eyes giving Mulder
an intense look much like Frohike's.

Mulder sank into the chair beside Langly, eyes sliding shut for a split
second before popping open.

"Whatcha got?" he asked, scanning the monitor.

"It's still downloading. We hacked into Cardow's old personnel file at
BioGuard, looking for information on the project he was involved with at
the time of the murder."

"For a small company that develops pesticides, BioGuard's security
measures seem a bit extreme," Byers commented, entering the room
nattily- dressed as always in a three-piece suit. He hesitated a moment,
studying Mulder before asking, "Can I get you two anything?"

"Yeah, the information. And you can all stop staring at me as if I'm
about to self combust," Mulder growled irritably, unconsciously curling
one arm around his middle.

"Here it comes now," Langly said eagerly, leaning closer to the screen.

Frohike, seeing that Mulder's attention was fixed on the computer, drew
Scully to the side. The sadness she read in his eyes took her back to an
evening years before, when Frohike had turned up on her doorstep
half-intoxicated and grieving over Mulder's presumed death.

"How is he doing?" he asked her gravely.

Scully shrugged, appreciating Frohike's concern but loathe to discuss
something Mulder was trying so desperately to conceal.

"I don't know what to say, Frohike," she said quietly. "He's in a lot of
pain, and it's getting worse. He doesn't want to acknowledge it, though,
so it would be best if you guys would just ignore the obvious. You saw
just now how he reacted to being treated with kid gloves."

"Like the arrogant SOB we all know and love," Frohike agreed ruefully.
The intense stare from earlier returned, this time trained on Scully.
"How are *you* holding up, Dana?"

The sudden lump that formed in her throat caught Scully by surprise. *I
must be in bad shape* she mused, *if a show of concern from Frohike is
reducing me to tears.*

She immediately felt remorse for her less than charitable thoughts.
Frohike certainly had his share of rough edges -- she had first-hand
experience with that fact. But he was also fiercely loyal to those he
counted as friends. She wondered how many women had casually dismissed
the little man, never realizing that a heart of gold lay beneath the
crude jokes and gnome-like exterior.

"I'm hanging in there, Frohike," she said, favoring him with one of her
rare smiles, "for as long as he needs me."

A low whistle from Langly brought them quickly over to where the other
three were bent over the computer, mesmerized by whatever data was on
the screen. Mulder lifted his gaze to Scully, and she saw that his
hazel eyes had gone nearly black in color.

"We always wind up back in the same nightmare, Scully," he said, face
blank with shock. "No matter how many times we think we've finally woken

Baffled, Scully tore her eyes from his haunted gaze to look at Byers.

"It's BioGuard," Byers explained, shooting Mulder a quick look of
sympathy before turning his full attention to Scully. "We've traced them
to a parent company called Gentronics. Gentronics is a subsidiary of

Scully's eyes flew back to Mulder almost of their own accord. A cold
sweat covered her partner's brow and his hands trembled slightly as he
gripped the countertop to balance himself, stumbling to his feet.


"I'm all right, Scully," he snapped, heading down the hall toward the
bathroom, one hand occasionally pressed against the wall for support.
"Been handling this by myself since I was two."

The door shut with something that was not quite a slam. Scully ran her
fingers through her hair, tucking errant strands behind her ear while
struggling to calm her pounding heart. The three gunmen exchanged
troubled glances. Frohike abruptly started down the hall but halted,
frozen by the authoritative sound of Scully's voice.

"Frohike, *don't*!"

He rounded on her, and Scully was shocked to see something akin to fury
on the man's face. "What do you mean, 'don't!' Someone should check on
him, he could be in trouble. How can the three of you, especially *you*
(he gestured accusingly at her) just sit there?"

Langly started to splutter but Scully stopped him with an upraised hand.
"I know what he's doing in there, Frohike." Her voice was cold with
anger, but trembled slightly with another emotion. "He started vomiting
while we were with Skinner in Virginia, checking out Cardow's last known
address. There's nothing left in his stomach now, so it's just dry
heaves. He'll wait until the attack has passed and he's pulled himself
together before he comes out."

"I *want* to be in there with him, Frohike. I want to hold his forehead,
to wipe his face with a cool cloth when he's done. But that isn't what
Mulder needs. Mulder needs his dignity. He needs to be the same strong,
self-sufficient man he was twenty-four hours ago. So it doesn't make a
damn bit of difference what you, or I, or anyone else wants. I'm going
to do whatever I can, for as long as I can, to give him that."

"Are we to assume that the address you checked was a dead end?" Byers
asked, breaking the uneasy silence that followed Scully's speech.

"Cardow cleared out two weeks ago. He didn't leave a forwarding
address." Scully's smile was bitter. "Big surprise. He also quit the job
he'd obtained as a lab tech for a pharmaceutical company. Left without
giving notice."

"We've just started digging into this," Langly said. "It could take all

"You two could crash here while you're waiting," Frohike offered.

Scully recognized the olive branch. "Thanks, but I'm going to take him
back to his place. I think he'll have a better chance at some sleep on
that ratty couch of his. You boys can help by convincing him there's
nothing more he can do right now."

The bathroom door opened and Mulder appeared several moments later, his
hair and the collar of his shirt slightly damp. Scully waited until he'd
settled himself beside Langly, pointedly refraining from asking him if
he was okay.

"So what does it mean, Mulder?" she asked instead. "I keep trying to
find a place for Roush in the puzzle, but it just won't fit."

"Maybe that's because Roush, and the consortium, have nothing to do with
what's happening to me right now."

Scully arched an eyebrow. "Excuse me? You can't mean to tell me that you
think it's just a coincidence that the man who is trying to kill you was
once employed by them!"

Mulder actually grinned a little at her outrage. "That's not what I
said. I said I don't think they have anything to do with Cardow
poisoning me. I think Cancer Man's little visit with you suggests Cardow
is a loose cannon, operating outside the Consortium's jurisdiction. The
question is why."

Scully studied his face. "And you have a theory."

"I always have a theory, Scully."

The normality of his banter in the midst of this insanity left her
aching inside. She buried the pain deeply and pursed her lips. "Go for
it, Mulder."

"I think ten years ago Cardow and I were unwitting pawns in a game that
you and I have only just begun to understand. I think Cardow was
condemned to take a fall, with me giving him the push. Maybe he thinks I
was a willing participant, or maybe he just hates that I fulfilled the
purpose they gave me. Whatever his motivation, Cardow has decided it's
time I was punished for those lost years."

"Why you? Why not the Consortium itself?"

"Accessibility, for one thing. I make a much easier target. But it's
more basic than that, I think. Through me, Cardow is able to put a face
to his pain. I sat in that witness chair and gave the testimony that
took away his freedom and changed his life forever. I couldn't have done
a better job if I had been on the Consortium's payroll."

"It wasn't your fault," Frohike spoke up. "You were doing your job. You
couldn't have known it was a set-up."

Mulder sighed. "I wish I could say that makes me feel better. But face
it, I was instrumental in sending an innocent man to prison for seven
years. How can I not own part of his pain?"

"You can't own another person's pain, Mulder," Scully said quietly. "We
each have more than enough of our own. Cardow may have been powerless
once, but now he's the one in the driver's seat."

Mulder nodded, but his expression was one of resignation. "Maybe you're
right, Scully. But it was a lot easier when I could look at Cardow and
see a monster. Now I just see another victim."

Continued in part 9


Countdown (9/16)
By Dawn

Hegal Place - Apt. 42
1:27 a.m.
48 hours remaining

With a deep sigh, Scully flipped onto her back, causing the waterbed to
undulate gently beneath her. She stared up at her reflection; indistinct
in a room illuminated only by moonlight. Her weariness was so deep it
penetrated even her bones, but she couldn't sleep. Her hypersensitive
ears were tuned to catch even the slightest sound from the other room,
from the low drone of the television to the rustling sound of Mulder
shifting restlessly on the couch. Evidently she wasn't the only one
still awake.

She'd managed to pry Mulder away from the Gunmen sometime before
midnight, driving him home over only mild protests. She'd stopped at her
own apartment briefly along the way so that she could collect a change
of clothes and a box of chamomile tea. During her cancer, there had been
days when a cup of the steaming liquid was all she could tolerate.

She'd brewed them each a cup while Mulder showered, and they'd consumed
it in a kind of numb haze around his coffee table. So far, he'd managed
to keep it down. They'd retired -- he to the sofa and she to his
rarely-used bed. Now she lay here, hair still damp from her own shower,
staring at the woman in the mirror and wondering how she could face the
possibility of losing him.

When she closed her eyes, it was only to be bombarded with images of the
past six years with Mulder. What had begun as an uneasy alliance between
strangers, blossomed into the most significant relationship she'd ever
known. He challenged her. Frustrated her. Inspired her. Aggravated her.
Completed her.

Footsteps padded softly into the bathroom and Scully tensed, waiting for
the sounds of retching to begin. To her intense relief, they never came.

When she heard Mulder resume his tossing and turning, Scully climbed out
of bed and wrapped her robe around her to ward off the chill. She opened
the bedroom door and slipped silently into the living room.

Mulder was seated on the sofa, his legs clasped to his chest and his
head resting on his knees. Scully watched him for several minutes,
emotions warring inside. She firmly believed the speech she'd made to
the gunmen earlier that evening. What Mulder was experiencing was
certainly not alien to her. She remembered the anger at her own body's
betrayal, and the humiliation of the gradual loss of self-sufficiency.
Scully wanted to permit Mulder his independence for as long as possible.

But another part of her ached to give him more. Just once, for him to
let down his walls and surrender some of the control to her. To allow
her to comfort him. To allow her to hold him.

The slight trembling of Mulder's shoulders made her decision for her.
She moved over to stand before him, laying a feather-soft hand on the
top of his head. He went momentarily rigid at her touch, but gradually
relaxed under her gentle stroking.

"Say the word, Mulder," Scully said, keeping her voice as soft as her
hand, "and I'll walk back into that bedroom. I'll understand if that's
what you want."

The silence seemed to stretch for an eternity. The single word of reply,
when it came, was little more than a whisper.


She sank to the couch and pulled him to her, tucking his head under her
chin while she continued to run soothing fingers through the silky
strands of hair. She felt the hitching of his breath taper off. He
eventually pulled back to sit up, scrubbing at his eyes with the palms
of his hands.

"Were you ever ready, Scully? At the end, when you were in the hospital,
were you ready to accept your own death?"

The question came out of left field, and Scully scrambled to catch up.
Mulder rarely approached serious matters head on. He deflected with
humor, turning the conversation to Betty Rubble's bustline. That he'd
ask such a question outright told her much about his state of mind.

"I'm not sure how to answer that, Mulder," she said honestly, trying to
verbalize a range of conflicting emotions. "I was angry at the cancer,
and at the men who gave it to me. And it hurt to face leaving the people
I love." She reached out to lace her fingers with his.

"But I guess there was a part of me that had made my peace with the
idea. The part that was hurting and tired. The part that wanted to
believe that something better was waiting."

Mulder nodded slightly, appearing to absorb her words. He opened his
mouth as if to speak, but abruptly shut it. His lip quivered, and he
savagely caught it between his teeth as a lone tear slipped down his
cheek. Scully tightened her grasp on his hand but remained mute. It was
one of the most difficult things she'd ever done.

When he finally did speak, his voice was husky with emotion. "I keep
trying to, Scully. To make my peace, the way you said. But I don't think
I can. All I can see is failure. I haven't found my sister.
Professionally, my crusade for the Truth has made me a joke to my peers,
while the only thing I've uncovered has been an elaborate web of lies.
As for my personal life -- frankly, very few people will give a damn
when I'm gone."

Scully fought the urge to tell him he wasn't going to die yet. Instead,
she turned sideways, forcing him to look into her eyes.
"Do you want to know what I see when I look at you, Mulder?" she asked,
searching his face. "I see a man who from an early age was given every
reason to stop believing -- in other people, in knowing the truth, in
life. Instead, I see a man who burns with a passion for all three,
sometimes so brightly it hurts. I see a man with whom I can completely
disagree, and yet just as completely respect. Best of all, I see a
friend who has never given up on me, and never will. Even if it means
literally going to the ends of the earth."

"I see all those things, Mulder. But a failure? Not in any sense of the

He didn't speak, and the tears that pooled in his eyes at her words
never fell, but Mulder pulled her into a fierce hug. Mimicking her
earlier movements, he tucked her head under his chin after placing a
kiss on the top. Scully just let him hold her, admitting it was as much
for her own comfort as for his.

After a little while he released his hold on her, shifting in obvious
discomfort. "You'd better go get some sleep, Scully," he suggested,
voice still husky but steady. "You've been up for almost forty-eight
hours now."

"So have you," she pointed out, reluctant to break their closeness.

"Yeah, but at least I've had a few catnaps. Go on, I'll be fine out

Scully looked at him appraisingly then stood up. But instead of heading
for the bedroom, she perched on the coffee table. "Lay down on your
stomach, Mulder."


"I know a sure fire way to help you get to sleep."

In spite of his considerable pain, Mulder waggled his eyebrows at her.
"Oooo, Scully. You don't know how long I've waited to hear you suggest

Cheered by the normality of his innuendo, Scully played her part and
arched an eyebrow. "A backrub, Mulder. And if you're really good I'll
tell you a story, like I do for my godson. Works every time."

Mulder stretched out obediently, head pillowed on his folded arms. When
he'd settled himself as comfortably as he could, she slipped her hand up
under his tee shirt and began gently rubbing in small circles. She
braced herself for another suggestive remark, but received only a deep
sigh of contentment.

"That feels really good, Scully. Now how about that story."

Scully smiled, thinking to herself that at the moment Mulder reminded
her of a little boy. "How about the story of the first case I ever

Mulder's eyes gleamed with interest. "At the bureau?"

She shook her head. "Nope. It was during the summer before my senior
year in college. I was doing an internship at a pharmaceutical company
that made parenterals. That's intravenous solutions like antibiotics and

"What did you do there?"

"The drugs had to be manufactured under completely sterile conditions.
That meant that the facilities had to be monitored to be sure those
conditions were met. So I'd test the air and surfaces for bacteria and
other contaminants. The tests results had to be negative, or we faced
the possibility of having to throw out any drugs that were produced."

"Sounds expensive," Mulder said, suppressing a yawn.

Scully smiled to herself and continued to rub his back. "It could be
extremely expensive, depending on the drug. But it didn't matter,
because we never had any problems. At the end of every day the fill
rooms would be washed down with bleach solution from floor to ceiling,
and no bacteria stood a chance at survival. From what I heard, none ever
had. Until that summer, after I'd been on the job for about a month."

"What happened?"

"The surface tests started failing. And we're not talking by a little.
Bacteria were popping up in the test tubes and agar plates like we were
*trying* to grow them. Management was tearing their hair out, trying
everything they could think of to get rid of the problem, but nothing
worked. They cleaned more often, increased the strength of bleach,
checked the sterile gowning of all the employees -- nothing made a bit
of difference. Even after completely sanitizing the area the night
before, a sample taken first thing the next morning would be crawling
with germs."

"But the intrepid Dana Scully figured it out," Mulder mumbled. His eyes
were at half-mast now, occasionally slipping shut for several seconds
before popping open.

"Purely by accident, I must admit. I was in the lab late one night to
finish up some paperwork. On my way out the door I happened to glance
through the window into one of the sterile fill rooms. What I saw almost
made me fall over. There, in the middle of the room, was one of the men
hired to clean the offices and other lab areas. No sterile gown. No
gloves. Mopping the floor with one of those disgusting rag mops that
have all those little strings on them, and eating a sandwich."

Mulder smiled, though he let his eyes remain closed. "Guess you were
quite the hero."

"My boss *was* suitably appreciative," Scully admitted, laughing softly.
"It really wasn't the poor man's fault. He'd been hired to clean, after
all, and no one considered the fact that he was Polish and couldn't read
any of the signs that said 'Sterile Area. Authorized Personnel Only.'
Once we realized what had been happening, warnings were added in

When Mulder was silent she leaned a little closer, noting that his
breathing had become deep and even. His lips were still curved in a
slight smile.

"Works every time," she said, easing her hand from his back. She tugged
the afghan from the back of the couch and tucked it securely around him,
brushing away the stubborn lock of hair that, since his short haircut,
existed only in her mind.

"Sweet dreams, Mulder," she whispered. "I think tonight we both deserve
a few."

Continued in part 10 in Countdown(2/2)