Damaged Goods (3 of 3)
By Dawn

Georgetown Medical
8:08 a.m.

Mulder watched raindrops slide down the slick surface of
the window, feeling as gray within as the weather without.
The Mannitol had done its job, significantly reducing the
swelling in his brain, so he'd been relocated to a regular
room around 6:00 a.m. His new nurse, a tank of a woman
named Connie, had informed him sternly that he was not to
set foot out of bed until Palermo made his rounds later that
morning. Not even to pee. Mulder scowled at the urinal,
placed none too discreetly on the bedside table, and
wondered if he could hold it until then.

Stuck in bed, nothing to read, and a broken television to
boot. Part of him longed for Scully to breeze through the
door, smelling of rain and the real world. The other part
wanted to crawl into a hole and lick his wounds in private,
unencumbered by the need to reassure her that he was fine.

Because he wasn't fine. Not even close.

Last night he'd been numb with shock, staggered by the
implication of his brush with death. He'd feigned sleep so
that Scully would go home and let him think, but the drugs
in his system turned his fabrication into truth. Now, in the
enforced solitude of the silent room, he could do little but
think. Thoughts that wrapped a black shroud around his
heart and left a bitter taste on his tongue.

Disconnected -- from the case, from the X-Files, and
inevitably from the FBI. Ironic that the part of himself that
had kept him going during his darkest hours, sustained him
when everything he held dear crumbled to dust and slipped
between his fingers, should ultimately turn against him.
When his father's eyes laid blame more efficiently than
words. When his mother cleaned out Sam's room, weeping
over each item as she packed them into cardboard boxes.
When he couldn't decide which was worse, the painfully
polite silences at the dinner table or the mercilessly vicious
recriminations once he'd gone to bed. His mind took him
away from the misery of his day to day existence, reminded
him that in spite of his father's condemnation and his
mother's indifference Fox Mulder *was* special. He could
think rings around his classmates, could achieve any goal
he set his mind to.

One day, he'd promised himself, that mind would open a
door that would set him free and start him on a journey -- a
journey that held only one destination. His sister.

Twenty-six years into the journey, and some days he
wanted it to be over so badly that he ached, body and soul.
But not like this.

Never like this.

Mulder swiped angrily at his eyes with the back of his
hand, pointing the remote control at the defunct television
and punching the buttons fiercely with his thumb. Nothing,
not even a spark of life. Worthless, Connie had pronounced
disdainfully when she'd come by to check his vitals.
Broken beyond repair when an overzealous employee
sprayed it with cleaning solution and shorted out the picture
tube, destining it for the junk pile. Not that you could tell
by looking at it, mind you. From the outside it appeared to
be a perfectly functional piece of electronics -- state of the
art, even. But that illusion was stripped away, the truth
revealed, once you held the remote in your hand. No matter
how good that set looked, how good it might once have
been, now it was nothing more than damaged goods.


Mulder squeezed his eyes tightly shut and hurled the
remote at the wall. It impacted with a satisfying crack,
splintering the black plastic case and leaving a gouge in the

"Good morning to you too, Mulder."

He opened his eyes and straightened guiltily, watching as
Scully crossed the room and gathered up the pieces. She
walked slowly over to the trashcan and deposited the
evidence of his tantrum before coming over to perch on the
side of his bed. Uncomfortable under the heat of her
probing stare, he began fiddling with his I.D. bracelet,
picking at the edge where it irritated his wrist.

"Stop that," Scully said mildly. "You're just going to make
it worse."

She astonished him by slipping one of her small fingers
under the plastic and rubbing it soothingly over the abused
flesh. It felt wonderful, comforting. And at the same time it
burned. God, it burned.

"Thought you'd be at Quantico, examining the rest of the
victims," he said, jerking his arm away and diverting his
gaze to the rain-spattered window.

Even so, he could sense the hurt in Scully's voice. "I'm
headed there now. I wanted to stop by and see how you're

*Don't go there, Scully. You won't like what you'll find.*

"I'm good," Mulder said with false heartiness. "Palermo
should be stopping by soon to lift the restriction on getting
out of bed. If all goes well he'll release me tomorrow."

Scully smiled. "That's great." But her gaze lost none of its
intensity. "So why were you beating up on that poor,
innocent little remote?"

Mulder swallowed, then looked her squarely in the eye.
"Damn television doesn't work, and I'm bored. Guess I lost
my temper."

Scully nodded, pursing her lips. "Going cold turkey is
never pretty," she replied seriously, just the hint of a smirk
in her eyes. "I'll talk to the warden on the way out, see what
I can do."

He tried to give her what she expected -- an irreverent
remark about his nurse, a sarcastic observation about
hospitals in general, even a bit of medical innuendo.
Something to set her mind at ease, to convince her that he
was the same man he'd always been. To preserve the

"Don't let me hold you up, Scully," was what came out.
"Skinner is going to need hard evidence to convince
Jeffreys we were right.

Once again a flicker of pain crossed her face, but she stood
up and smoothed her slacks. "After yesterday, I don't think
he'd be convinced even if the victims sat up and presented
the evidence themselves," she replied sardonically.

Mulder snorted, amused in spite of himself. "To keep him
on a leash, then," he amended. He shook his head. "The
implants will be there, Scully, I'm certain of it. It explains
one of the most troubling aspects of this case, the complete
lack of a struggle on the victim's part." He rubbed absently
at his finger, oblivious to Scully's sudden tension. "Those
women didn't fight because they were programmed *not*
to. No one witnessed their abduction because they weren't
abducted. They were *called*, just like..."

"Mulder, STOP IT!"

Her reprimand was like a bucket of ice water, quenching
his fire and plunging him back into darkness. Scully raised
one trembling hand to tuck a lock of hair behind her ear,
then lay her finger beneath her nose.

"Let this go, Mulder. You cannot continue to tempt fate,"
she said, voice deceptively calm. "Yesterday could have
been so much worse. It could have cost you your life."

Something deep inside him, something that had been
swelling and festering, burst and the poison spilled out,
beyond his control.

"*Could* have cost me my life? What the hell do you think
I have left to lose? It's *over*, Scully -- the Files, our
partnership, any chance I had of finding my sister! I am no
longer capable of performing my job, I'm dead weight.
They did something to me in that operating room, broke
something inside of me, and if you're honest with us both
you'll admit it can't be fixed."

"I will *not* admit that, because I will *not* give up!"
Scully snapped, bracing her hands on the mattress and
leaning into his space. "And even if you can no longer
continue with the Bureau, even if you lose the Files, you
will *never* lose me and I will *never* stop helping you
look for your sister!"

Her voice softened. "Your life is not over, Mulder, because
this job is no longer your life. It hasn't been for some time
now. You have people who care about you, and other
talents you can develop."

Mulder's expression remained stony. "What would you
suggest I do with myself, Scully? Teach? Last time I
checked, that requires using your memory. Use that psych
degree, go into private practice? That takes reasoning, the
ability to analyze the problem and formulate a solution. Or
were you thinking I could employ my dazzling ability on
the basketball court to give the Bulls a shot in the arm now
that Jordan's gone?"

Scully shook her head stubbornly, refusing to be put off.
"We will figure something out, Mulder. I will help you."

"The novelty will wear off," Mulder sneered. "Think of the
stimulating conversations we *won't* have. Even an
overdeveloped sense of Catholic guilt isn't going to keep
you from growing tired of someone who's not quite all
there anymore."

Scully clenched her jaw. "So that's it? You're just going to
quit, take the coward's way out?" she asked coldly.

Mulder scooted down in the bed and turned to face the
wall. His voice, rather than combative, was very soft. "No
need to quit, Scully. Game's already over." When she didn't
move or speak, stunned by his words, he murmured, "You'd
better get going. Traffic's a bitch this time of day."

He nearly pulled it off, but after seven years she recognized
every subtle nuance to his voice. "Mulder..." she said

"Please, Scully. Just walk away."

Shell-shocked, her mind too numb to come up with an
alternative, she did. It wasn't until she was in her car,
pulling onto the highway, that it occurred to her he might
have meant permanently.

X-Files Office
3:25 p.m.

The knock on the door startled Scully, her head whipping
up from where she'd propped it on a fist, her hand jerking
involuntarily into the row of small objects lining the
desktop. One of the objects fell to its side with a small clink
and she caught it just before it rolled off the edge.

"It's open," she called, setting the errant piece of glass back
into place.

Six small vials, labeled and lined up like soldiers. Each
bearing the name of a victim. Each containing a tiny metal
chip closely resembling the one lodged under the skin of
her neck.

"Hey," Digger said, sounding subdued as he circled the
desk and dropped into a chair. "Thought I'd see how the
other half of the X-Files was doing. See if you found what
you were looking for."

Scully leaned back into the chair, indicating the vials with a
sweep of her hand. "Judge for yourself."

Digger frowned, reaching around a stack of books to lift
first one, and then another, until he'd cursorily examined all
six. "Microchips. Just like Traci Pritchard. Just as you

"Yes," Scully agreed.

He looked up, one tube still between his fingers. "What
does it mean?" he asked, a hint of wonder amidst the

How to answer *that* question? She suddenly felt ancient
compared to a man who was supposed to be her peer.

"It means we've been deceived," she replied bitterly. "That
these women were not the victims of a serial killer, as we
were led to believe, but a failed medical experiment to
which they were subjected without their knowledge or

Digger searched her face with growing disbelief. "Are you
saying this relates to their supposed abductions? That
*aliens* did this?"

Scully's hand crept unconsciously to the back of her neck,
fingers probing the tiny scar just beneath her hairline as
distorted images of a train car flashed through her mind.

"Not aliens, Digger. *Men* were responsible for abducting
those women, for performing the procedures that led to
their sterility as well as the ones that later allowed them to
conceive. And when the experiment didn't work, when it
looked as if their dirty little secret was in danger of
exposure, *men* killed them and disposed of the

Digger set down the vial. "So where do we go from here?"

Scully sat forward. "We get some people to keep an eye on
Dr. Sean Paxton while I get hold of a search warrant. Then
we see just what kind of practice he has been running." She
sighed. "I'm not sure how much to tell Mulder about this.
He'll want to know."

"Dana." Digger paused, looking uneasy. "That's another
reason I stopped by. I took a late lunch and went to the
hospital to see how Mulder was doing." He shook his head.
"I'm worried about him, Dana."

Scully tensed. "He was off the Mannitol this morning and
his doctor thought he'd be released tomorrow. Has he had a

"No, no, nothing like that," Digger said hastily. "Physically
he looked 100 percent better than yesterday. It was the way
he was acting that bothers me."

"You know Skinner didn't just pull him off the case,"
Scully replied quietly. "He's on indefinite medical leave.
Mulder's not taking it too well."

"I wouldn't expect him to. It's the *way* he's not taking it
that has me concerned. This is Fox Mulder we're talking
about, the original rebel without a cause. I've seen him
buck the system for reasons much less important to him
than this. He should be ranting and raving about how it's
his damn life and his place to determine what risks to take.
But he's not. He's turned over the keys and gotten out of the
car." He rubbed his chin. "I never thought I'd see the day
when Spooky Mulder would give up without a fight. Until

Scully shoved back her chair and stood, walking slowly
over to the poster on the wall. "I know. We argued about it
this morning. I don't know what to do about it." She traced
her finger over the word "believe." "We've been fighting
these men a long time, Digger. They know Mulder, both
what makes him strong and where he’s at his most
vulnerable. They adjust their aim accordingly."

"Are you saying that the men responsible for the deaths of
these women are the same men that did this to Mulder?" At
her nod he stood and joined her, placing a firm hand on her
shoulder. "All the more reason to find them and take them
down," he said harshly.

Scully reached up to give his fingers a grateful squeeze,
then returned to the desk and began shoving papers into her
briefcase. "I need to update Skinner and Jeffreys. Will you
be a part of the search team? I'd like to have you along, I'm
sure at least some of the records will be electronic."

"Couldn't keep me away," Digger replied, shoving hands
into his pockets and hunching his shoulders. "Speaking of
electronics, there's something I don't understand about all
this. What is the purpose of those microchips?"

"Tracking devices, perhaps?" Scully said absently, setting
aside a folder in favor of another and loading it into the
case. "Mulder is convinced that the chip calls the woman to
the murder site. That it creates a compulsion that she is
powerless to ignore."

Digger scratched his head. "Gentry was right. This is like
something straight out of an Isaac Asimov novel."

"I know how it sounds, Digger, and I'd feel the same if I
hadn't experienced it for myself. Trust me when I say that
tiny piece of metal can have extreme physiological

Digger turned in time to see her blanch and clutch at the
back of the chair. "Dana? Are you all right? Sit down a

It was as if he hadn't spoken. She stared sightlessly through
a spot on the wall, her mouth slightly agape in shock.

"Oh my God, could it really be that simple?" she
whispered, her voice barely audible.

"You're losing me here, Dana. What's with the divine
epiphany?" he prodded.

"Maybe nothing. Or maybe everything," she murmured.
Giving herself a visible shake, she slid the last folder into
her briefcase and snapped it shut. "Digger, I have to go to
the hospital. I need you to take this report" -- she thrust a
file into his hands -- "to Skinner. Have him set things in
motion for the warrant and organize a team."

"The hospital? Won't you be going in with the team?"

"I have to take care of this first. I'll contact Skinner as soon
as I can. Don't let him move without me." She swung the
strap onto her shoulder with a slight grunt and headed for
the door.

"Sure. I'll just order the AD to wait until he hears from
you," Digger called dryly. "Mind telling me just what
you're up to in case he asks?"

Scully paused with one hand on the doorknob and an air of
barely contained hope. "Tell him I just may know what's
causing Mulder's headaches," she said shortly. "And keep
your fingers crossed."

En route to Georgetown
4:36 p.m.

"What do you mean, he checked himself out?"

Scully signaled and took the next off ramp, pulling to the
side of the road. She threw the gearshift into park and
switched her cell phone to the opposite ear.

"I mean that he signed the AMA paperwork and left,"
Palermo replied in a voice that sounded as if he was
working hard to be patient. "He's an adult, Agent Scully,
and I can't hold him against his will. His condition was
stable and I would have released him tomorrow morning
anyway. He promised me he'd take it easy."

"Why didn't you call me? I asked you to notify me of any
change in his condition. I think this qualifies," Scully
snapped. Her rational self recognized that she was taking
out her frustration on an innocent bystander. Unfortunately,
her irrational self had stuffed the rational into a box and
was sitting on the lid.

"I tried, believe me. You weren't answering your cell phone
or the one at the office, and I did leave a message. I was
called into emergency surgery and I've been tied up all
afternoon. I just got out." Palermo took a deep breath. "I'm

Scully let her head thump against the headrest. "No, I'm
sorry. You must have called while I was performing an
autopsy. I haven't checked my voicemail."

"I released him about 1:30 or so. He said he didn't want to
bother you, that he'd take a cab," Palermo offered.

Scully sighed. "What he didn't say was that he knew I'd be
furious with him," she said shortly.

Palermo chuckled. "He didn't have to."

"I'm heading over to his place right now to pick him up,"
Scully continued, grinning a little. "I'll be bringing him
back in as soon as we can battle the rush hour traffic."

"Bringing him back?"

"I think I may have figured out the origin of his headaches.
I'm going to need some x-rays taken."

Palermo was silent for a moment. "O-O-kay. Mind telling
me what you think you'll find with an x-ray that a CAT
scan hasn't turned up?"

"A microchip. And I won't be looking at the skull. I'll need
films of his neck and the apex of his spine," Scully replied,
pointing the car back toward Alexandria and pulling back
onto the road.

When her only response was dead silence, she took pity on
him. "I know how this must sound. Just arrange for the x-
rays and I promise I'll explain everything when we get

Palermo chuffed softly. "I'll be waiting with bated breath,
Doctor Scully."

Scully pressed END and then dialed Mulder's number. The
phone rang five times before the answering machine kicked
on with its brief message: "This is Fox Mulder. Please
leave a message."

"Mulder, it's me. Pick up the phone."

She waited, but received only silence. Eventually the
machine disconnected and she redialed, swearing softly
under her breath. After waiting impatiently for the message
to play out, she tried again.

"Mulder, I know you're there and I know you checked out
against medical advice. I'm coming over and I'm using my
key so you damn well better be decent when I get there!"

She flipped the phone shut and stuffed it into her pocket,
trying to ignore the feeling of unease that crept up and
down her spine. Traffic was a nightmare, and she found
herself hunched over the wheel, alternately cursing and
biting her lip. The sight of Mulder's building, rather than
assuaging her discomfort, seemed to exacerbate it. She took
the stairs and nearly jogged down the hallway in her haste
to reach his door. A perfunctory rap of knuckles to wood
and she was slipping her key into the lock.

Near darkness blanketed the apartment, broken only by the
soft glow of the fish tank and the flickering blue of the
muted television. Scully's lips parted to call his name, but
an overwhelming sensation of foreboding washed over her
and she felt the hairs on her arms literally rise in response.
One hand brushing the weapon at the small of her back, she
moved quietly through the entryway and paused at the
threshold of the living room.

Mulder was seated on the couch and appeared oblivious to
her entrance. A near-empty bottle of scotch and a tumbler
still bearing the residue rested on the coffee table. Rather
than the television screen, Mulder's attention was captured
by something in his hands, something Scully couldn't
identify in the nearly non-existent light.

"Mulder," she said sotto voice. "Are you all right?"

He didn't react, didn't lift his eyes from their contemplation,
so she walked cautiously closer, curiosity warring with
apprehension. The illumination from the television abruptly
flared, bringing Mulder into sharp relief from his
surroundings. Scully caught her breath and jerked to a
standstill, her heart pounding wildly.

The object of Mulder's fascination was his service weapon.
The fingers of his right hand were wrapped around the grip
and curled loosely over the trigger. He stroked the palm of
his left hand slowly up and down the barrel as if hypnotized
by the sensation of the cool steel.

"Mulder." Scully allowed some sharpness to bleed into her
voice, desperate to steal his attention from the firearm but
afraid to startle him.

When his gaze wandered apathetically to her face, she saw
that his eyes were red and puffy, his face marked by dried
tears. She decided to approach him from left field, hoping
to throw him off balance.

"Have you been drinking, Mulder?"

The answer was plain in the sluggishness of his
movements, the excessive time he took to process the
question and formulate an answer.

"Yep. Jussa few. Hep yourseff, Scully."

She could see his focus slipping back to the gun; rushed to
head it off. "Mulder, you know you aren't supposed to drink
alcohol while you're on the Dilantin," she said sternly,
suppressing all but the faintest quaver. "Come into the
kitchen and let me take a look at you."

His head moved from side to side, slowly, dreamily, and
his eyes dropped back to the gun. "Doesn' matter, Scully. 'S
all over now so it won' make any diff'rence."

Ice rushed through Scully's body and she could feel
perspiration break out between her shoulder blades. With
superhuman effort she kept a chokehold on the panic that
bubbled up, insisting she should make a grab for the gun.
Mulder was not just depressed but three sheets to the wind,
a deadly combination.

"Mulder, give me the gun and we'll go in the kitchen. You
can make us some coffee and we'll talk."

A spark of anger drove some of the vacancy from his gaze.
"What'll we talk about, Scully? Th' case?" he sneered. "'S
nothing to say. Jus' go home."

Scully folded her arms. "I'm not going anywhere unless you
give me the gun."

Mulder lifted his shoulders in a dismissive shrug. "Never
figured you for th' type that likes to watch, but be my
guest," he said, making as if to press the gun to his temple.

The meaning of his words struck her like a physical blow,
tears of rage and grief flooding her eyes until he was
reduced to a gray silhouette.

"You bastard," she choked.

Mulder huffed a small laugh that never touched his eyes.

"You want to give up, take the coward's way out? Go
ahead. But don't expect me to make it easy for you. You
damn well better look me straight in the eye while you do
it, you selfish son of a bitch."

Mulder's carefully crafted façade splintered. Tremors ran
through his hand until the gun jittered as shell-shocked,
wide eyes locked onto her face. "I have to, Scully. 'S no
reason anymore, no purpose t' get outta bed in the
morning." He blinked hard and his voice broke. "I gotta
have a reason, Scully."

Scully took two quick steps forward until she loomed over
him, one hand braced on each of his knees. "You want
reasons? I'll give you reasons, Mulder. You've yet to go
skiing in Chile or take a safari in Africa. You're the only
remaining family of a woman who's suffered enough loss
for three lifetimes. You're a good friend and steadying
influence on three geeks whose paranoia might otherwise
run rampant. And what's more, I happen to love you, damn

Her rubbery legs gave out and Scully plopped down onto
the coffee table, shoving the bottle of scotch angrily to the
side. Mulder's head swung back and forth in denial, but the
gun dropped back to his lap.

"You loved who I was, Scully. *I* don' even know th' guy
in th' mirror now," he murmured, cupping her jaw and
brushing aside a tear with his thumb.

Scully caught his hand and laced their fingers, the warmth
of her skin leeching a bit of the clamminess from his. "I
*know* you. Yes, I appreciate your intellect, your
unorthodox way of solving a problem. But that's only
*one* layer, Mulder, and like...like an onion, you've got an
infinite number waiting just underneath. You can view this
as an end, throw it all away. Or you can peel away your old
life and begin to explore the gifts that it eclipsed."

Mulder brought the other hand up until Scully's was
sandwiched between his own, leaning forward to press his
forehead against them. "You make it sound so easy," he

Scully cautiously collected the forgotten weapon from his
lap and placed it behind her, then drew his head against her
shoulder. "Not easy, Mulder," she breathed, smoothing her
fingers over his hair. "Just worth the effort."

Mulder shuddered and she felt the warm wetness of tears at
her collarbone. She sensed him struggling to utter a single
word, muscles coiled tightly beneath her arm.


As always, she marveled that a name could contain such a
wealth of pain.

Pulling back, she cupped his face in her palms and looked
urgently into his eyes, blinking impatiently at the moisture
that clouded her own. He mirrored her action, large hands
cradling her jaw, and for a moment she was nearly
overpowered by the feeling of déjà vu.

"We will find a way," Scully said slowly. "I promise."

And just as she had in a previous moment of truth, she
sealed the promise with a touch of her lips to his brow, then
rested her forehead against his. They remained that way, in
contented silence, until Mulder straightened and tucked a
strand of hair behind her ear. Ducking his head he peered
into her eyes, lips curved in the smallest hint of a smile.

"An *onion*, Scully?"

She arched an eyebrow when all she really wanted was to
collapse in a quivering puddle of pure relief. "It's called an
analogy, Mulder." She frowned at his dilated pupils.
"Exactly how many drinks did you have, anyway?"

Mulder scrubbed his hands over his face. "'M not sure.
'Nough to dull th' pain, not enough to puke."

Scully wrinkled her nose. "Go brush your teeth and change
your shirt. We need to go back to the hospital."

The scowl was instantaneous. "I am fine, Scully," he said,
annunciating each word with exaggerated care. "I promise I
won' lapse into a coma. No more hospital."

"Not for that -- though it was incredibly stupid," Scully
replied. "Palermo neglected to take a couple of x-rays
before you checked out. He knows we're coming, it will
only take a few minutes."

Mulder eyed her suspiciously. "X-rays? What for?"

*Think fast, Dana.*

"He needs to be sure the swelling didn't compress the spinal
cord. It'll just take a few films of your neck and upper back
to be sure."

"Wouldn't I be in pain, have some kinda symptoms?"
Mulder asked, but he did get rather unsteadily to his feet
and head for the bathroom.

"Probably, but not necessarily. It's just a precaution,
Mulder. I promise, we'll be in and out."

Scully could hear him muttering something like "that's
what you always say" as the door started to swing shut.
She'd picked up his gun and was about to slip it into her
pocket when she realized he was watching from the

"Scully," he said softly. "Did you mean it? Or is *that* why
you said it?"

She paused, taking in the disheveled hair, rumpled shirt,
and wistful expression, and a knot in her stomach began to
unravel. "Oh, I meant it, Mulder. Trust me."

He smiled, one of the rare, breathstealing ones she'd come
to prize. "Only you, Scully." He gripped the door, then
paused. "And Scully? Me too."

As soon as she heard the water running she pulled out her
cell phone and dialed the hospital, pacing nervously until
Palermo was located and put on the line.

"Dana, I've been waiting for you. Are you and Mulder
coming or not?" he asked with a touch of impatience.

"Yes, we should be there in about twenty minutes. Dr.
Palermo, I don't want Mulder to know why we're taking the
x-rays -- at least at this time. I told him they were just a
precaution, to be certain the swelling he experienced didn't
extend to the spinal chord."

Palermo snorted. "And he *bought* that?"

"His degree is in psychology, not medicine," she answered
tartly. She didn't mention that a bottle of scotch had left his
cognitive ability a bit substandard.

"Sorry, I realize that," Palermo said contritely. "I'm not sure
I can go along with your request, though. Bad enough that I
don't completely understand the purpose of these x-rays in
the first place. I won't knowingly deceive my patient."

The water shut off, and Scully moved around the corner
into the kitchen, lowering her voice still further. "Dr.
Palermo, if I'm right about this we will be able to put an
end to Mulder's headaches. But if I'm not... His emotional
state is very precarious right now. I'm not sure he could
handle being offered hope only to have it snatched away.
Please. Do this for me, for him."

Palermo was silent, and she could almost see him debating
with himself. Finally he heaved a long sigh. "I won't lie to
him. But I will let you field his questions."

The bathroom door opened and she heard Mulder pad into
his bedroom, then the sound of a drawer being opened. The
knot in Scully's stomach uncoiled a bit further.

"Thank you, Doctor. I owe you."

He chuckled. "Careful, Dr. Scully. You two are running up
quite a tab."

She'd just closed the phone when Mulder appeared in the
doorway, still bleary-eyed but looking a bit more
presentable. "Who were you talking to?"

"Palermo. Just checking to be sure he's expecting us."

Mulder snagged his leather jacket off the coat tree and
slipped it on. "Let's get this over with."

Scully nodded and followed him through the door.

*I hope so, Mulder. I hope so.*

Georgetown Memorial
7:03 p.m.

"I'm sorry, Dana. I know you thought you were on to

Scully stared at the films, the knuckle of her index finger
pressed to her lips, and tried to fight off a crushing wave of
disappointment. She scanned each of the four x-rays from
top to bottom, despite the fact that she'd already done so at
least three times. The results were the same.


"I was certain I'd find one," she murmured. "It would have
explained everything. She blew out a small puff of air and
shook her head. "Maybe the angle is wrong, maybe it's
there and we're just missing it."

"You know as well as I do that these are adequate. If
this...chip you're looking for were there, we'd see it." Dr.
Palermo reached up to flick off the light box. "I wish I had
more to offer, but I'm fresh out of ideas."

She mustered a half-hearted smile. "You've been more than
helpful. I'm just glad I didn't mention this to Mulder. He's
having a hard enough time coming to terms with

"So I gathered. Mixing alcohol and Dilantin is dangerous as
well as irresponsible." Palermo rolled his shoulders and
rubbed the back of his neck. "What are you planning on
doing with him?"

Scully glanced across the room, wry affection twisting her
lips. "Good question."

Mulder's lanky form draped inelegantly across the bed, one
arm suspended in midair and the other curled under his
chin. Lips slightly parted, he snored softly, eyes darting
back and forth beneath the lids.

"I'd *planned* on dropping him at his apartment before I
went into the office -- I have to work tonight," she
explained. "I didn't count on him passing out cold while we
were waiting for the films to develop."

Palermo pursed his lips and glanced at his watch. "I'm on
call so I'll probably just crash on a cot in the lounge. As
you probably noticed when you came in, there's not much
going on around here tonight. You can leave him for now
and pick him up in a few hours. I'll have the nurses keep an
eye on him. Between the chemicals in his system and the
behavior you described, I'd feel better if he wasn't left

Scully sagged a little in relief. "Another one on the tab,"
she said ruefully. "Now you know why Mulder is a legend
around here."

Palermo collected the x-rays, slipped them into a folder,
and handed it to her. "Trouble does seem to follow in his
wake," he concurred. "Have a nurse let me know when you
take him home. He should be a lot less groggy once he has
a few hours of sleep under his belt."

Scully caught his sleeve as he moved past her to the door.
"Thank you."

He gave her a mock salute. "My pleasure. You know, in
spite of the rumors regaling Mulder as the patient from hell,
I *like* him."

Scully's lips quirked. "Sounds like an X-File."

Palermo laughed. "Just hit the lights on your way out. He'll
probably never know you're gone."

Scully walked slowly over to the gurney and stared down
into Mulder's face, features softened by sleep. She fingered
a stray lock of hair, pleased to see it was growing out and
losing what she privately referred to as the "weed whacker"
look. When she'd bullied her way into Mulder's hospital
room upon returning from Africa, the drastic deterioration
of his condition had stolen the breath from her lungs. His
lean, runner's body wasted to the point of gauntness. His
expressive hazel eyes fixed and vacant. And the thick, dark
hair she longed to touch cropped close to his skull. The
only recourse, Skinner explained, because in the extremity
of his pain Mulder would literally tear it from his head.

When she'd gone home that evening Scully had wept for
the big things --Mulder's slide towards death, Skinner's
duplicity and the knowledge she was alone in her fight to
save him, and the crippling blow to her faith dealt by an
alien craft. But she'd wept for the little things as well --
eyes that revealed no pleasure at the sight of her face, limp
hands lying apathetically in restraints, and the loss of that
stubborn lock of wayward hair.

Scully trailed her fingers down the side of Mulder's face,
brushing the backs against the rough stubble of his jaw. She
could feel the weight of his gun in her pocket, a not so
subtle reminder that the tranquil expression was deceptive.
She'd arrived in time today, managed to tug Mulder away
from the edge of the abyss. She wasn't naïve enough,
however, to believe he wouldn't slide back. Mulder could
be excessively moody and introspective even at the best of
times. With life as he'd always known it crumbled to ruins,
what would emerge remained to be seen. There would be
dark days ahead, for them both.

"I once said you keep unfolding like a flower, Mulder," she
murmured. "Don't be afraid of what's underneath. I haven't
been disappointed so far."

Mulder's fingers twitched and he mumbled something
undecipherable before subsiding. Scully carefully tucked
the dangling arm through the bedrail and pulled the sheet
up to his shoulders. With a final caress to his cheek she
dimmed the lights and stepped into the hallway.

As if on cue her cell phone trilled insistently, drawing
disapproving looks from several nurses. Lifting a pacifying
hand, Scully flipped the phone open while walking briskly
toward the automatic doors.


"I have been stalling the Assistant Director for nearly three
hours, Dana. My wife will be very unhappy if I come home
a eunuch."

Laughter erupted from somewhere near her toes, and she
could only give in to it. When she finally regained her
composure, still snorting and wiping her eyes, it felt as if
her heart had been released from a vise.

"Thank you, Digger," she gasped. "You have no idea how
much I needed that."

Digger humphed, trying to sound irritated but too pleased
by her reaction to pull it off. "Glad to be of entertainment.
Where the hell have you been?" He caught himself.
"Mulder is all right, isn't he?"

"That's a loaded question, Digger. Let's just say I think he
will be. Did we get the warrant?"

Digger lowered his voice. "Of course we got the warrant --
why else would I have Skinner breathing down my neck?
Jeffreys is giving him some major grief about waiting for
you. Paxton left the office over an hour ago and Watkins
and Schneider have him staked out. The only thing keeping
us from searching that office is the pleasure of your

Scully slid behind the wheel and turned the ignition. "I've
said it before, but I'll say it again. You really know how to
sweet talk a girl, Digger. I've got the address of Paxton's
office. I'll meet you there."

"It's a date," he replied. "Just don't tell Spooky. We
wouldn't want to make him jealous."

Scully sighed and rolled her eyes. "He's my partner, it's not

She trailed off, feeling the heat in her cheeks. Which side
of that line were they on again?

Digger made a rude sound of disbelief. "Uh-huh. Save the
fairy tales for the kiddies, Dana. I'll see ya in fifteen."

He hung up while she was still desperately searching for a
clever retort.

Office of Dr. Sean Paxton
8:24 p.m.

"Okay, I'm in. What exactly are we looking for?" Digger
asked, fingers flying over the keys.

Scully leaned over his shoulder, hands braced on the back
of his chair. "I'm not sure. I'll know when I see it."

Digger's hands stilled long enough for him to shoot her a
venomous look. "That narrows things down."

She watched him open and close various folders,
occasionally tearing her eyes from the screen to observe
Skinner and Gentry as they searched a bank of filing
cabinets. Skinner felt her scrutiny and held up some

"Medical records on our victims. They seem pretty straight
forward but you'll want to take a look."

Digger's low whistle distracted her from replying. He'd
hunched further over the console, body posture
communicating excitement.

"What is it?" Scully asked.

"One heck of a large file. And it's password protected."

"What's it called?"

Digger snorted. "Just 'Omega.'"

*The End*

Scully shivered, pulling her jacket more tightly around her
shoulders. "That's it. I need to see that file, Digger."

"I'd love to oblige, but we have to get in first. I need a
password --you having any of those Dana Scully

Scully started to retort, then went very still. "Try 'Purity
Control,'" she said tersely.

Digger frowned, but typed in the words. When the
computer emitted the equivalent of a raspberry, he raised an

"Just 'Purity' then," Scully suggested, mentally crossing her

A staccato of clicks, silence, and then a soothing chime as
the file opened, displaying a subdirectory that contained a
list of about thirty names. Or rather, thirty variations of the
same name -- Mary -- with a string of six digits attached.

Digger double clicked on one of them and the screen
flooded with a jumble of characters that at first glance
looked to be nothing more than gibberish.

"Whatever the hell this is, he's got it encrypted out the
wazoo," Digger growled, sounding personally insulted.
"This is way beyond the capabilities of some fertility
specialist with a rinky-dink password like Purity."

Scully reached over and appropriated the mouse, scrolling
down. She closed the file and clicked on another name with
the same results.

"I think this is medical data," she murmured.

Skinner, noticing their intensity, walked over to peer at the

"Can you crack that?" he asked Digger, eyes roaming over
the collection of letters, numbers, and symbols.

Digger shrugged. "Won't know till I try."

Scully backed out of the file to the directory. She stared at
the screen, lip caught between her teeth. Skinner's eyes
darted back and forth between the display and her face.

"What is it, Agent Scully?"

"I think our victims are in there somewhere," she said
thoughtfully. "This is a list of test subjects."

Skinner's brow furrowed. "What makes you say that? And
why are they all named Mary?"

"I can recognize some simple medical data amidst the
encryption," Scully replied, selecting MARY891026. "This
looks like it could be CBC results." She pointed to a group
of numbers. "And this is blood pressure readings. As for
the name..." She trailed off with a short, bitter laugh. "They
are so damn arrogant."

"What?" Digger demanded. "What does it mean?"

Scully rubbed at the dull ache that had settled just over her
eyes. "If these women are the unwitting test subjects that
Mulder and I believe them to be, they're an attempt to
produce a new breed of human being." She looked at
Skinner. "One resistant to the threat of the black oil and
therefore invulnerable to the attempts of alien

When she saw Skinner's incredulous expression, she
chuffed a small laugh and shook her head. "What can I say,
sir? My trip to Africa was...enlightening."

"Hold it, hold it, hold it!" Digger snapped, waving a hand
like a kid trying to grab his teacher's attention. "Time out.
What in God's name is black oil, and what does it have to
do with aliens taking over the planet?"

Scully glanced over to see Gentry frozen in the midst of a
drawer of files, his jaw literally hanging open. At her glare,
he swallowed hard and resumed his rummaging.

"The black oil is a virus of extraterrestrial origin," she said
to Digger, lowering her voice. "Mulder believes the spread
of the virus would lead to alien colonization of this planet."

"So you're saying that these women, and our victims, were
carrying babies genetically manipulated to be immune to
the virus?" Skinner said, jaw clenched.

Scully took and deep breath and let it out slowly,
wondering just how she'd gotten here. Dana Scully, chief
skeptic, saddled with the unenviable task of convincing
others of the possibility of alien colonization. *That* was
an X-File. Mulder would be so proud.

"Yes sir. That's exactly what I'm saying."

"So where does the name Mary come in?" Digger asked.

Scully folded her arms tightly across her chest, as if to
contain the rage that simmered inside of her. "Don't you
know your Bible gentlemen? Mary was the mother of Jesus
-- the savior of the world."

8:30 a.m.

Mulder rolled onto his stomach and inhaled deeply. Scully
always smelled so nice. Not artificial, drenched in
expensive perfume the way Phoebe used to smell; but fresh
and clean like the outdoors on a warm spring day. He'd
wondered about that smell for a long time before going
snooping in her apartment one night while she was out
picking up Chinese for dinner. With minimal invasion of
her privacy, he'd solved the mystery in her bathroom. Lined
up neatly along the tub were small bottles of various oils,
soaps, and lotions from someplace called "Bath and Body
Works." He'd opened one to take an exploratory sniff,
pleased to identify the familiar fragrance. Scully's key in
the lock had sent him scrambling guiltily for the sink,
where he'd covered his nosiness by washing his hands.

He sucked in another deep breath and snuggled his face a
little more deeply into the pillow. It would probably be the
end of his insomnia if he could find a way to make his
sheets smell like Scully's, instead of...

Wait a minute.

Scully's sheets? Mulder's eyes cranked cautiously open.
Yep. This was Scully's bed all right. He propped himself up
on his arms and gazed blearily around the empty bedroom
before flopping back down with a small groan. This made
two times in less than a week that he'd awakened stripped
to his underwear in Scully's bed with only a hazy
recollection of how he'd gotten there. That wouldn't be a
bad thing, except that he knew he'd done nothing more
exciting than sleep.


His eyes felt as if there were ground glass in the sockets,
and the taste in his mouth defied description. Mulder
shoved the blankets aside and sat up, running his tongue
over his teeth and grimacing. Every time he drank too
much he felt this way, and every time he felt this way he
swore off drinking too much. Pathetic.

He found his jeans on the chair and pulled them on, then
padded out of the bedroom, barefoot and barechested. The
apartment was still and quiet, no clink of dishes in the
kitchen, no tap of fingers on keys.


No answer, but when he ambled into the kitchen he
discovered three items awaiting him, displayed prominently
on the counter -- aspirin, a tall glass of water, and a folded
piece of paper labeled "Mulder." Downing the tablets
gratefully, he sipped the water and opened the note.


Went to work early today. The DC police brought in
Paxton last night, and I'm scheduled to talk to him later this
morning. I'll be back at noon with some lunch and to drive
you home. Until then, take it easy and DO NOT get
sunflower seeds in the couch cushions."

Unsigned, but that was oddly comforting. After all, they
didn't even say goodbye when they hung up the phone.
Mulder helped himself to Scully's wonderful, caffeine-
laden coffee and a piece of toast. Still munching, he
wandered into the living room, dropped onto the couch, and
flicked on the television.

Oprah, The Price Is Right, and Blue's Clues -- the rapidly
flashing screen images couldn't distract him from his own
dark musings. Mid-morning on a weekday, and here he was
in ratty jeans watching bad television. Welcome to your
new life, Fox Mulder.

Mulder closed his eyes, recalling Scully's face when she'd
found him half-crocked and contemplating the benefits of a
well-placed bullet. He was torn between embarrassment
that she had witnessed him flirting with suicide and
disappointment that she'd stopped him from carrying
through. Her arguments, so persuasive in the warm circle of
her arms, lacked conviction in the harsh light of day.

Scully could talk all she liked about layers and exploring
his other gifts, words that sounded good until you pulled
them apart to reach the heart of the matter. He'd always
valued the truth -- both in the telling and the receiving. So
how could he be any less than honest with himself, even if
the truth was particularly brutal?

Fox Mulder didn't *want* to "peel away the old life."

Crazy? Maybe. Who could possibly prefer a life of constant
danger? Where an average day included murder,
kidnapping, gunshots, snakebites and alien retroviruses?
Liver-eating mutants, tentacled sea monsters, and The
Great Mutato? Seedy motel rooms, cheap diners, and
endless hours either hunched over the wheel of a car or
crammed into an economy class airplane seat? What man in
his right mind would give a passing thought to trading in
that life for a new, and hopefully improved, version?

Fox Mulder.

Because for every abuse to his body there were Scully's
small, capable hands to soothe and heal. For every
impossible freak of nature, there was the roll of her blue
eyes and the arch of a perfect eyebrow. And for every hour
on the road there was the pleasure of her company --
whether the rare treasure of a shared tidbit from her
childhood or the grounding influence of her keen, logical
mind applied to their work.

In spite of the pain and disappointment that frequently
dogged his steps, he loved his job and he loved his life.
Peeling it away opened a wound so deep he feared it might
never heal.

Feeling the onset of another downward spiral, Mulder
scrabbled for something else to occupy his mind. The
thought of Scully interrogating Paxton without him only
increased the moroseness of his mood. He silenced Oprah
midway through a speech about the importance of
childproofing your home and lunged to his feet. Pacing the
circumference of Scully's apartment like a caged animal,
his gaze happened to land on her laptop and a stack of file
folders neatly piled on the corner of her desk. His good
conscience lasted for about ten seconds before knuckling
under to overpowering curiosity.

In a matter of minutes he was situated back on the couch,
Scully's laptop booted up and the files spread across her
coffee table. Dr. Paxton's medical records for each of the
victims, he noted, and then hit the jackpot. A dark green
floppy disk labeled "Paxton's computer files" in Scully's
precise hand.

She'd jotted a brief page of notes mentioning the password
and outlining her thoughts on the "Marys." Mulder's smile
widened to a grin as he read the words "hybridization" and

"That's my girl," he said, slipping the disk into the drive
and punching in the password.

He couldn't do much with the encrypted data -- that was
Digger's department. But the code-names for the women...
Mulder went back to Scully's desk and rummaged around
until he located a pad of paper and pencil. He reclined
comfortably on the couch with the computer propped on his
legs and began playing with the number strings attached to
the names.

MARY860512 provided the key that unlocked the puzzle.
Between the steadily building headache and the
capriciousness of his eidetic memory, Mulder might never
have made the connection. But it just so happened that
while reviewing the data Digger had compiled, he'd been
struck by the date on the missing person's report for Corrie
Jenkins. Struck, because it happened to be the exact same
day that he received his doctorate from Oxford, just weeks
before entering the FBI. May 12, 1986.

"Hello Corrie Jenkins," he muttered, scrubbing absently at
the ache in his temple with the heel of one hand.

Fifteen minutes later the pain had become blinding but
Mulder had managed to dredge the initial abduction dates
for Liz Brentwood, Eve Roberts, and Traci Pritchard from
his memory and match them to the corresponding Marys.
He decided to let Janet Garson and Nicole Eddings slide
until he could see their folders, returning instead to the
encrypted files armed with the identity of their subjects.

Ironically, he'd almost decided to quit when he stumbled
onto the realization that there was a subset of data on an
additional individual within Corrie Jenkins' file. He'd
already taken two breaks to splash cold water on his face
and allow the nausea to subside to a manageable level. The
symbols on the screen insisted on blurring together into a
continuous green line and his head hurt so badly he no
longer cared about anything but making it stop.

Until he saw the string of numbers and everything fell
neatly into place. For a moment he could do no more than
stare, confounded by the implications and disgusted with
himself for not seeing it sooner.

Corrie Jenkins was the fourth murder victim, killed on June
6. Listed near the end of her file was a cluster of data under
the code B990606. A boy. Delivered on June 6, 1999.

With trembling fingers Mulder shut the file and opened the
one for Liz Brentwood. There, at the bottom, a similar
string of numbers and a corresponding set of data. Liz was
murdered at the end of January. The code number read
G990127. A girl. Delivered on January 27, 1999.

Fingers tripping frantically over keys, eyes squinted
stubbornly against the pain, Mulder opened the files he'd
identified as belonging to Eve Roberts and Traci Pritchard.
Two more boys, birth dates simultaneous with their
mothers' deaths.

Mulder set the laptop carefully aside and buried his face in
his hands, shivering with revulsion. How could they have
been so blind? Those babies weren't failed experiments,
evidence to be eliminated and forgotten.

Those babies were *successful* experiments, harvested and
spirited away for further testing while their mothers, now
expendable, were left to die.

Somewhere, those babies were *alive*.

His stomach, already churning from pain and dizziness,
twisted painfully. Staggering into the bathroom, he barely
had time to drop to his knees before losing everything he'd
consumed since waking. The spasms were agony, but paled
in comparison to his anguish over those tiny, helpless souls
created to be nothing more than pawns in the Smoker's
cosmic game of chess. Emily's sweet, pale face swam
before his eyes and he retched again, helplessly.

He never heard the front door open or Scully's muttered
curse as she viewed the evidence of his imprudence.
Hunched over the toilet, throbbing head pressed to the
porcelain, he was too far gone to even jump when she
appeared in the doorway and let him have it with both

"What the HELL do you think you're doing? Are you just
stupid, or is this another attempt to kill yourself?"

Mulder lifted his head, wiping his mouth with the back of
his hand. "Figured it out," he croaked, blinking up at the
fuzzy circle of her face. "I know what's going on, Scully."

She disappeared, and he heard the door of the linen closet
slam open, then shut. She stormed back into the room and
wrenched on the cold water, wetting the washcloth in her
hand and thrusting it at him.

"Clean yourself up. I'll be waiting in the living room."

So that's how it was going to be. She was obviously well
past the point of being furious, rapidly approaching
homicidal. Mulder wiped his face and then pressed the
cloth to the back of his neck, gathering himself for the task
of rising. Somehow he was able to stand, flush the toilet,
and rinse his mouth. Moving with all the speed and agility
of a ninety-year-old, he navigated his way back to the
couch and sank down with a grunt.

Scully sat rigidly in the chair, arms folded and expression
furious. Mulder waited for her to speak, to continue the
diatribe she'd begun in the bathroom, but she simply stared
a hole through the carpet and remained mute.

"I'm sorry I went behind your back."

Her eyes flicked to his face, then quickly away and she
chewed on the inside of her cheek. "No you aren't. You're
just sorry you got caught."

What could he possibly say to that? It was true.

"I'm sorry I disappointed you. Sorry that I can't seem to be
the person you think I can be." An edge crept into his
voice, the physical pain and the psychological horror taking
their toll. "This is who I *am*, Scully. You want me to give
that all up, become a stranger. I don't know how to do that.
I don't want to."

Scully leaned sharply forward her eyes blazing. "Then you
will *die*, Mulder."

For the first time in nearly two days he felt a sense of
peace. "That's right," he agreed gently. "I'll die Mulder. The
person I know, the only one I want to be. If you really love
me, Scully, you'll accept that."

She stood and walked to the window, and he could only
watch the shifting muscles in her back. Her voice was
tightly controlled, but soft. "What were you babbling about
the case? What did you figure out? Because Paxton isn't
talking. We don't have enough to hold the son of a bitch for
long, and he knows it."

"Come here."

She obliged reluctantly, sitting close enough to see the
screen but not touch him.

"The code number for each Mary corresponds to the initial
abduction date. This is Liz Brentwood." He pointed to one.
"And this is Traci Pritchard. I've got everyone but Janet
Garson and Nicole Eddings deciphered." He rubbed his
brow, quickly dropping his hand at her piercing look.

"Digger's working on the encryption," she said, watching as
he opened Liz Brentwood's file. "He's having trouble
making headway. I gave the boys a call and they promised
to take a look."

Mulder nodded absently, scrolling down to the second code
number. "Here. This is another set of data, Scully. Another
test subject. The number corresponds to Liz Brentwood's
date of death. And the letter..."

Scully pressed shaky fingers to her lips. "Girl," she

"Yeah," Mulder confirmed bleakly.

She tore her eyes from the screen to study his face. "Then
that means..."

"They're alive, Scully. All of them. We just don't know

Scully's eyes flooded with tears, then turned to stone. "But
I'll bet Paxton does," she said, standing.

Mulder set aside the computer and rose as well. "I'm
coming with you. Just take me by my place so I can get a

Scully's head was shaking vehemently, her grip on his arm
hard enough to bruise. "No way. Skinner has you on
medical leave, remember? I may not be able to stop you
from poking through my desk but he will definitely stop
you from seeing Paxton."

"I put this together and I want to be there," Mulder snapped
irately. "I have a right to be there!"

Scully rounded on him. "You have no rights after what you
did this morning! You betrayed my trust by going through
my desk and accessing files that were forbidden to you!
And for God's sakes, Mulder, stop picking at your finger!
You've been doing that all the time lately and it's making
me crazy!"

The complete switch of subjects totally derailed Mulder's
fury and he stared at her blankly. "Huh? What are you
talking about?"

His complete bafflement shamed her and Scully wished she
could take the words back. After all, it didn't have anything
to do with their argument and she'd promised herself she
wouldn't embarrass him by bringing it to his attention.

"Forget it, Mulder."

"No, you brought it up. What did you mean?"

"That!" Scully said, exasperated, gesturing to where his
thumb was rubbing the knuckle of his fourth finger. "Why
do you keep rubbing that finger? You never used to do

As she'd feared, he did look disconcerted and a little
defensive. "It tingles," he replied petulantly. "It has ever
since I was...sick. They had it taped up for a while -- guess
maybe I broke it."

For just a moment Scully forgot to breathe. Paxton, the
murdered women, and even the missing babies faded to the
background and all she could see was Mulder's left hand.
With abrupt clarity she recognized that each time she'd
observed Mulder's nervous habit he'd been engaged either
in deductive thinking or trying to remember something.
And the headaches inevitably followed.

"Let me see it," she said, grabbing hold of his hand before
he could offer it.

"Scully! This is no big deal, we need to talk to Paxton and
find out... What?"

Scully pointed to a small, hairline scar that ran along the
inside of his fourth finger.

"What is that?" he asked quietly.

"I'll need an x-ray to be sure," Scully replied, her voice
wired with a combination of excitement and anger. "But I
think we just found the cause of the tingling -- and your

Georgetown Memorial
1:34 p.m.

"*That* is the damnedest thing I've ever seen," Dr. Palermo
said, shaking his head. "It definitely makes up for being
dragged back here after a night on call."

The light box in front of him displayed two different views
of Mulder's left hand, the tiny chip clearly visible in each.

"I owe you an apology," Palermo went on, turning to look
at Scully, whose eyes were still fixed on the x-rays. "I'll
admit when you wanted to look for that thing in his neck, I
was only humoring you. It sounded so far fetched, I thought
you were just grasping at straws."

Scully smiled. "Apology accepted. What matters is that you
did humor me -- then and now."

Mulder put his hands on his hips and scowled. "Those other
x-rays -- you were looking for a microchip? You said you
were checking for compression of my spinal cord!"

Scully ducked her head guiltily. "Mulder, all I had was a
suspicion. I didn't want to raise your hopes one minute only
to dash them to pieces the next." She gazed up from under a
sweep of auburn hair. "You'd already been through so

The anger seeped out of his face, leaving only chagrin. "I'll
admit I wasn't exactly at my emotional best," he said wryly.
"Now, who's going to take that out of my finger?"

"I can do it right here, with a local anesthetic," Palermo
said agreeably. "Go sit down on the gurney and I'll get
things ready."

Mulder took a seat as indicated. The gurney was locked in
an upright position so that he was only slightly reclined,
and his eyes followed Palermo nervously as the surgeon
moved about the room.

"How's the headache?" Scully asked, sensing his uneasiness
and hoping to distract him.

Mulder appeared to think about it for a moment, then
shrugged. "Not bad. I hate to say it, but I think I've almost
become accustomed to a certain level of pain. As long as
I'm not ready to pass out or throw up, I know I'm doing all

Scully's lips thinned, her jaw tight with animosity. "Just
when I think I couldn't possibly hate that bastard any more
than I do, he proves me wrong."

Mulder reached out to take her hand, enveloping it in his.
"Hey," he said softly, drawing her back from the darkness.
"He didn't win this one. You did."

She smiled, turning her hand so short fingers could wriggle
between long. "No, *you* did." She hesitated. "You
understand, Mulder, we won't know anything for sure until
the chip is out and..."

"*I* know," Mulder said firmly. "I can feel it, Scully. It's
like the volume has been turned up, and what was just an
annoying buzz is now blaring at maximum amplification. I
just want to be rid of it."

“I understand that. But there’s something else I think you
should consider before you let Dr. Palermo take out that

He started shaking his head before she finished speaking. “I
know what you’re going to say, Scully. And frankly, it just
doesn’t matter to me.”

“Then maybe you’d better think a little harder,” Scully
replied a bit sharply. “We don’t know the possible side
effects to removing this chip. As someone who’s already
walked that path, I can assure you the view isn’t pleasant.”

Mulder stared at their entwined hands, then up at her face.
“I know. You might not have always known it, but I was
walking that path with you. I understand the risks, Scully.
But right now the only side effect I care about is that the
headaches will go away.” His voice lowered, turning
wistful. "I just want my life back."

"Okay, we're all set," Palermo said cheerfully, swinging a
table across the gurney and adjusting it until Mulder could
rest his arm comfortably on top.

Mulder eyed the stainless steel tray bearing instruments and
a hypodermic needle and licked his lips. "Then again..."

The doctor chuckled. "Relax. The worst part will be the
Lidocaine injections to numb the area. After that we're
home free and you won't feel a thing."

"Easy for you to say," Mulder muttered as he watched
Palermo swab the finger with disinfectant. "You're the one
holding the needle."

Palermo pulled up the paper mask that hung loosely around
his neck and secured it over his nose and mouth. "Mulder,
I've seen your file, remember? It makes War and Peace
look like a vignette. In the grander scheme of things this
will hardly be worth mentioning." He lifted the syringe.

Scully tightened her fingers. "Look at me, Mulder, not the

He actually managed a smile at that. "No contest, Scully."

Palermo was right -- compared to being clawed by
mothmen or chomped on by zombies, the removal of the
chip was quick and relatively painless. A minor
complication arose due to the fact that the chip had lodged
next to the bone, making extraction more difficult. Palermo
handled the unexpected with calm reassurances,
maneuvering the forceps carefully until he triumphantly
produced the tiny piece of electronics. Ten minutes later
Mulder was stitched, bandaged, and holding the offending
object in a specimen cup.

"Thank you," he told the doctor, accepting Scully's
steadying hand as he slipped off the bed. "For letting us
drag you in here on your day off, and for the impromptu

Palermo grinned. "No problem. As I told your partner, life
may have been easier before I met you, but it was also less

Mulder rolled his eyes. "Yeah, I get that a lot."

"You've had stitches before, the usual applies. Don't get
them wet for the first 48 hours, keep changing the bandage
and applying the antibiotic cream -- oh, and you'd better
take this."

He produced a prescription pad and quickly filled one out.
"Here's something for the pain. I had to do a little digging
around in there and you're going to feel it. You're all right
for now, but once the anesthetic wears off it'll be another

Mulder grimaced. "Great. Something to look forward to."

"I'll see you in a week for another neuro check up. With
any luck we'll put this whole experience to rest. How's that
for something to look forward to?"

Mulder stole a quick glance at Scully before replying.
"Works for me, Doc."

Her lips curved. "Me too."

DC Police Station
3:16 p.m.

Dr. Sean Paxton was of medium height, with a thin,
bookish face and wire-rimmed glasses. He compensated for
a receding hairline by growing the rest long and combing it
over the top of his head. Consequently, he had the habit of
smoothing locks back when they tried to tumble forward
into his eyes.

He sat carefully at the table and folded his hands, looking
politely from Mulder to Scully as if he were a candidate for
a job interview rather than a murder suspect undergoing

"Dr. Paxton, I'm Agent Mulder from the Federal Bureau of
Investigation. I believe you've already met Agent Scully.
We need to ask you a few more questions regarding the
deaths of your patients."

"I already told Agent Scully everything I know this
morning," Paxton said reasonably. "I can't imagine how I
could shed any more light on your investigation."

"It must be very disturbing for you -- six of your patients
murdered in cold blood, the lives of their unborn children
brought to such a brutal end," Mulder said, shaking his

"Of course it's disturbing! Not nearly as disturbing,
however, as finding out you are some kind of suspect,"
Paxton sniffed. "I'm in the profession of creating and
preserving life, Agent Mulder, not taking it."

Mulder leaned back comfortably in his chair, keeping his
bandaged hand folded across his chest and slightly
elevated. "You weren't always, though. I understand that
you were initially involved in research, rather than
medicine. Genetics, the recombination of DNA -- sounds

Paxton eyed him warily, as if confused by the change of
subject. "It was. We did some ground-breaking work in
locating a cure for several diseases."

Mulder looked puzzled. "So what made you decide to go
into practice? If the work was so fulfilling, I mean?"

Paxton shrugged. "I suppose it was the people connection,
Agent Mulder. Research is all well and good, but it can
become tiresome when you never see the people you're
trying to help."

Mulder nodded thoughtfully. "I see what you mean." He
paused. "I suppose the ultimate job, then, would allow you
to perform the research and yet be able to see the people it
was affecting at the same time. Kind of the best of both

Paxton stiffened, his demeanor cooling twenty degrees.
"That would be impossible, Agent Mulder, since with very
few exceptions the practice of experimenting on human
beings is ethically, not to mention legally, forbidden."

This time Mulder shrugged. "True. Still, I would imagine
there are ways to get around that -- especially if you're
convinced of the *purity* of your purpose. I mean, say you
knew the fruits of your research could eventually wind up
saving the human race from extinction. A few human test
subjects would be a small price to pay, right?"

Paxton licked his lips and swiped nervously at a strand of
hair. "I don't know what you're talking about. I help couples
conceive babies, Agent Mulder. While of great importance
to them, I'd hardly say it impacts the planet."

Mulder leaned forward and rested his hands on the table.
"But these aren't ordinary babies, are they?"

"What do you mean?"

Mulder scratched his head. "Dr. Paxton, could a baby
survive if taken from the womb at, say, eighteen to twenty
weeks gestation?"

Paxton pushed the hair back again with slightly trembling
fingers. "It's highly unlikely."

"Not anymore," Scully spoke up. Paxton's eyes jumped
apprehensively over to her, as if he'd forgotten her
presence. "With the advances in medicine and the
technology available now, babies have routinely survived
premature births at only twenty weeks."

"Agent Scully is also a medical doctor," Mulder said

Paxton squirmed.

"You've probably delivered more than your share of babies
over the years," Mulder mused. "Am I right?"

Paxton just nodded, obviously uncomfortable with Mulder's
hit and run style of questioning.

"You know, one of the things I couldn't figure out about
these murders was the complete lack of...I guess you'd call
it passion," Mulder continued, almost as if speaking to
himself. "I mean, you have what on the surface appears to
be a very brutal crime -- a pregnant mother, her child
ripped from the womb, left to die of shock and blood

He picked at the bandage on his finger, then raised piercing
eyes to Paxton's face. "But that's just superficial. There is
a...surgical precision to the wounds inflicted on the victims.
The knife strokes have a definite purpose, are not just
random slashes. The women were sedated to feel a
minimum amount of discomfort. Almost like a C-section to
deliver a baby. Except in the hospital they don't allow the
mother to bleed to death."

Paxton fidgeted, shifting in his chair and pushing his
glasses up the bridge of his nose. "What does any of that
have to do with me?"

Mulder leaned forward. "We know about the Marys and
about Purity Control, Dr. Paxton. We've pulled the files
from your computer at the office and we've matched our
victims to them. We know you experimented on those
women under the guise of fertility treatments. We know
you cut them open and took their babies. And we know
those babies are still alive. We're in the process of
decrypting the rest of the data right now."

Paxton turned white. "I don't know... You're crazy! Why
would I help those women become pregnant and then steal
their children? What would I possibly gain from that?"

"You worked for InterGen, a subsidiary of Roush
Laboratories. They trained you, let you conduct research in
the hybridization of two species within the lab and then
they set you up to give it a whirl in the real world," Mulder
said tightly. "Treating abductees, women already subjected
to involuntary medical procedures. You helped them get
pregnant, but those babies weren't human -- at least not 100
percent. Babies genetically altered with alien DNA in an
effort to create the perfect hybrid, able to withstand

Paxton glanced around the room agitatedly. "You can't
prove any of that. You'll never be able to decipher that data,
even I don't know how it's encoded."

Mulder chuckled, but it was a hard, humorless sound.
"Don't be so sure. Look how much we've been able to glean
after less than twenty-four hours." He smoothed his tie and
then added earnestly, "You might as well talk to us, Dr.
Paxton. How long do you think you're going to survive
once your employers realize we've pulled you in for
questioning, taken a look at your files? Do you really think
they'll leave a loose end like you hanging around to
implicate them? What will your cigarette smoking friend

Paxton stared at him, mouth agape, and perspiration broke
out on his brow. "They wouldn't... I'm crucial to this

"The project is over," Scully said. "Cooperate with us and
we'll protect you.”

“Otherwise, we'll cut you loose and you can go on home,"
Mulder added coolly.

Paxton buried his head in his hands with a little moan. "I'm
not a murderer. What I did, I did for the preservation of the
human race. That's all that matters!"

"Help us to understand then. You admit that you altered the
genetic material of those women? That the babies they
carried were hybrids?" Mulder pushed.

"Yes. I was notified in advance when a 'Mary' would be
coming to see me and provided with the necessary genetic

"There were at least 30 names on that list, yet we are aware
of only six deaths," Scully pointed out.

"Some of the women miscarried during the first month,"
Paxton replied. "And, of course, some are still gestating
and have yet to be delivered."

Scully pressed the back of one hand to her lips, unable to
mask a look of repugnance. Mulder, sensing her
discomfort, plunged ahead.

"Each of the women had received a positive AFP test and
an abnormal amniocentesis. They were going to abort. Is
that why you took the babies?"

Paxton looked regretful. "It's an unavoidable side effect to
the treatments we've been trying to correct. For some
reason the hybrid tests positive for Spina Bifida or Down's
Syndrome -- when in actuality they are perfectly healthy.
We couldn't allow the mothers to abort in a fit of misplaced

Scully's voice was frigid. "So you killed them."

Paxton looked at her with honest puzzlement. "We *saved*
the children. The mothers are incidental to end goal of the
project. Expendable."

Mulder watched Scully's grip on her pen go white
knuckled, feeling a bit ill himself. Paxton might have a
degree and letters tacked on after his name, but inside he
was built no different from any number of serial killers he
had known.

"There were no signs of struggle. How did you get them to
cooperate?" he asked.

"They were called, and they came," Paxton said
indifferently. "My associate, Mr. Crittendon took care of
that, as well as the disposal of the remains." He looked
back and forth between Mulder and Scully's disgusted
faces. "I took care of them! I treated them with the
reverence they deserved as the mothers of our salvation,
made sure they didn't suffer."

Mulder tried not to rub at his finger, which had begun to
throb. He was abruptly exhausted, sickened by Paxton and
his warped view of reality. He just wanted to finish up the
questioning and get as far from the man as possible. One
look at Scully told him she was experiencing similar

"Where are the babies?" he asked dully.

Paxton answered with a tilt of his shoulders. "I don't know.
I would meet the project leader at a designated location and
turn them over to him. I wasn't cleared for Phase 2."

"What about Mr. Crittendon and this project leader -- what
was his name? Can you tell us where to find them?"

Paxton looked horrified. "I was strictly forbidden to
approach either one. They always contacted me at the
appropriate time. I never knew the project leader's name,
and I was wise enough not to ask." He shoved back a string
of hair, eyes pleading. "You're going to protect me, you
said you'd protect me -- right?"

Mulder sighed and pushed himself to his feet. He opened
the door and motioned for a guard before turning back to
Paxton. "Don't worry, Dr. Paxton. We'll see you live to
serve every one of the prison terms you've got coming to

"You don't understand, that's all," Paxton said patiently as
the officer took him by the arm to lead him back to his cell.
"You can't see the big picture. Someday mankind will
remember me for my work, for my contribution to its
deliverance from annihilation. You'll see."

"You okay, Scully?" Mulder asked when the guard had
cleared Paxton from the room.

She gave a slight shake of her head. "We have to find those
babies, Mulder."

"The answer has to be in those files somewhere. I believe
Paxton when he says he doesn't know how they're
encrypted. I'll bet his associate, the mysterious Mr.
Crittendon, handled all the data entry. Paxton is just a

"Paxton is a cold blooded murderer with delusions of
grandeur," Scully replied, a slight tremor to the words.
"How's your head?"

Mulder's eyes widened. "I never stopped to think..." He
smiled. "I'm good, Scully. My finger is killing me, but my
head feels terrific."

Scully stood and collected her briefcase. "I'm glad to hear
it, Mulder. And I wouldn't worry about your finger. Once
Skinner finds out you participated in this interrogation
you'll be worrying about more important parts of your

Mulder gave her his best leer. "Ooo, Scully. It's nice to
know you appreciate their value."

Internally, she was delighted to see the old Mulder back.
Externally, she gave the appropriate response.

"Shut up, Mulder."

FBI Headquarters
5:51 p.m.

Someone was driving red-hot needles into his finger with
each heartbeat. Mulder cast a furtive look at Scully,
confirming that she was still absorbed in reading Paxton's
paper file on Traci Pritchard. Keeping his eyes on her, he
covertly reached over with his right hand and rubbed at the
offending digit.

"Stop that. You're just going to make it worse."

How did she do that? He would swear she'd never taken her
eyes from the folder.

"It hurts," he whined, sneaking in one more stroke before
desisting. "And how do you know I'm doing anything to it?
You're reading that file."

"It's called peripheral vision, Mulder. Mothers of small
children have been employing it for centuries," Scully said
dryly, still never lifting her gaze from the page. "Why don't
you just take one of the damn pills?"

"Are you crazy? And face Skinner stoned? I plan to have
all my wits about me, thanks anyway. I'll take one after this
meeting." Mulder tried to settle himself more comfortably
in his chair, ignoring the feeling that Janet Reno was
watching him disapprovingly.


The door opened and Skinner strode into the room and sat
down behind his desk. He shuffled a few papers out of the
way before looking up at them, something dark hidden
behind his businesslike demeanor.

"I'm sorry about the interruption. Please continue."

Mulder exchanged a long glance with his partner, then
inclined his head. She met Skinner's expectant gaze and
took a deep breath to collect her thoughts.

"That's about all we have for now, sir. Paxton insists that he
can tell us nothing about Mr. Crittendon, the project leader,
or the location of the infants. Agent Mulder and I are
hoping that the computer files will reveal something

"How is Agent Costanza handling the decryption?" Skinner
asked, jaw tight and a small muscle twitching in his cheek.

Mulder sat a little straighter and smoothed his tie, puzzled
by the underlying anger in his supervisor's voice. "It's slow
work, but he's making progress."

Skinner nodded curtly. "I haven't heard an explanation for
your participation in that interrogation, Agent Mulder. Or,
for that matter, your presence in my office right now. I'm
certain Agent Scully wouldn't have failed to inform you
that you are on medical leave."

"I understand that, sir," Mulder replied reasonably. "But
surely you can see that leave is unnecessary now that we've
eliminated the source of my headaches. As Agent Scully
can confirm, I handled Paxton's questioning with absolutely
no ill effects."

"He's right about that, sir," Scully confirmed, shooting
Mulder a sideways glance that said she wished he'd left her
out of the discussion. "Prior to the removal of the chip,
engaging in that type of activity would definitely have
triggered a headache, yet Agent Mulder suffered no
incidence of any pain or discomfort."

"I'm delighted to hear that, Agent Scully. The fact remains
that his leave has yet to be revoked and therefore he had no
business in the police station. I'd hoped that you, at least,
would show a bit more sense."

Scully flushed red and her eyes narrowed. "Excuse me for
pointing this out, sir, but Agent Mulder is an adult and..."

"The only one responsible for my presence in that interview
was me, sir," Mulder broke in calmly. "Agent Scully
advised me that I was on medical leave and should allow
her to handle it. I insisted."

Skinner sighed heavily and pinched the bridge of his nose.
"Bottom line, Agents. Where are we on this case?"

"Dr. Paxton is responsible for the deaths of our six
victims," Mulder said. "He wielded the scalpel that inflicted
the wounds, and he left them to die without providing life
sustaining treatment. It's clear, however, that Paxton is
merely a cog in a much larger machine -- and a rather
insignificant one, at that. The men who orchestrated these
experiments, who gave Paxton his directions, are just as
accountable for those murders, perhaps more."

"Yet we have no way of finding these men," Skinner said
tersely. "No way to connect them to the deaths, or the
missing babies."

"There's still the possibility that the computer files will give
us a clue," Mulder reminded him. "And I was thinking that
perhaps if we had Paxton sit down with a sketch artist we
could get a picture of the Mr. Crittendon and the elusive
project leader. It might be enough to..."

"Paxton will be of no help in finding those men, Mulder,"
Skinner interrupted through clenched teeth.

Mulder shook his head, baffled by the man's certainty. "I
know he's scared, but with a little pressure..."

"Paxton is dead, Mulder."

Mulder saw Scully's head swivel sharply toward Skinner;
could only stare dumfounded.

"Sir?" she demanded.

"That's the call that Kim pulled me out of our meeting to
take. The DC cops said it was confidential and she wasn't
sure if you and Mulder had clearance." Skinner's hands
clenched the chair's armrests. "Shortly after you and
Mulder left, Paxton had a visit from his lawyer. They met
briefly and Paxton returned to his cell. Fifteen minutes later
a guard found him collapsed on the floor. He was already

"Preliminary cause of death?" Scully asked numbly.

"Looks like some kind of poison, though I'll be damned as
to how it was administered. I'm having them ship the body
to Quantico. I'd like you to perform the autopsy."

She nodded.

"There's more," Skinner continued. "I asked for a
description of this 'lawyer.' Early thirties, dark hair and
beard, green eyes. Cop said something must have been
wrong with his left arm, since he didn't move it much."

"Krycek. Damn it!" Mulder added several more expletives
that had both Skinner and Scully's brows arched in surprise,
though he didn't seem to notice. "I should have foreseen
this, should have locked Paxton down somewhere safer!"

"He was in a cell in the police station, Mulder," Scully
pointed out cynically. "One would think he was safe -- at
least for the time being."

"Bullshit! We know these men, Scully. We should have
known better."

"Hindsight, Agent Mulder," Skinner said wearily. "I
suggest you both go home and get some rest. Until
Costanza makes some more headway with those files
there's not much more we can do. Oh, and Agent Mulder?"
he added as they headed for the door.

Mulder turned back, his expression still marred by anger.

"I'll initiate the paperwork to revoke your leave. But until I
have a signed release from your physician in my hands you
are still barred from this building. Is that clear?"

"Crystal, sir."

Mulder stalked from the office, barely restraining himself
from slamming the door on his way out.

9:38 p.m.

"Mulder, go to bed."

Green eyes slit open and he offered her a goofy grin.
"Scully, I thought you'd never ask."

She rolled her eyes, nudging his head from her shoulder.
"That pill must have been stronger than I thought. You're

Mulder rubbed his eyes and squinted at the television
screen. "You can't go yet, Scully. Marion's still in the
Nazi's clutches."

Scully stood and stretched, shaking out pins and needles in
the arm that had served as his pillow. "Mulder you have
been sawing wood for the last half hour. I need to go home
and you need to get some real sleep."

Mulder's protest was cut short by the ringing of his phone.
Clicking off the television with one hand, he scooped up
the receiver with the other.


"Hang on to your shorts, Spooky, cuz I've got news for

"Lay it on me," he replied, mouthing "Digger" for Scully's

"I've been working on the files all day with those three
geeky friends of yours -- you sure know how to pick 'em,

"I was just thinking the same thing," Mulder replied dryly.

"Ha, ha. Anyway, you were right, they do know their stuff.
A few hours ago we managed to decode something that
rang a bell and I've been pursuing it ever since."

"Don't make me beg, Digger."

He chuckled. "Okay, I found an allusion to something
called Hollington Home. It's a singe reference but it occurs
in each of the sets of data on the infants. It was the
Hollington part that stuck with me. I was certain I'd heard
that name before, and recently too. So I went back over the
data I've downloaded on this case, and sure enough there it

"It was when I was checking into Paxton's background and
poking into InterGen Labs. Along with the stuff about how
they were owned by Roush, there was this little news clip
about them acquiring a parcel of land in Virginia, only
about fifty miles from here. It was supposed to be
designated as forest preserve, but somehow InterGen got
their mitts on it and some conservationists weren't pleased.
They'd been going to build another research facility there,
but scrapped the plans after all the bad publicity. The land
was called Hollington Woods."

Mulder could feel his pulse speed up. Something must have
shown on his face because Scully had ceased donning her
coat and reseated herself beside him on the couch.

"How much land are we talking about?" he asked,
struggling to keep his voice level.

"Nothing huge, just about 40 or 50 acres. But get this --
ninety percent of it is heavily wooded. There's just one
stretch of about 10 acres near the northwest corner that's
relatively clear. That's where InterGen had planned to build
the new facility."

"Digger, I take back every snide remark and degrading
name I've ever called you."

"Yeah, yeah. Until next time, you mean," Digger replied

"Where is this place?" Mulder asked, miming writing so
that Scully would bring him pencil and paper.

Digger read off the directions, then paused. When he
resumed speaking his voice was sharp with concern. "What
exactly are you planning, Spooky? You aren't going to do
anything stupid, are you? Like running off half-cocked
without your partner?"

"Digger, you wound me! When have I ever exercised less
than an adequate amount of caution?" Mulder said

Digger snorted. "Just tell me one thing, G-man. Is Dana
there with you?"

Mulder cast a sidelong glance at Scully, who was drilling
holes into his head with her eyes. "She's right next to me,
Dad. Does that make you feel better?"

"More than you can ever imagine," Digger replied, not
bothering to disguise the relief in his voice. "One thing is
for certain, Spooky. That God you don't believe in was
looking out for your sorry ass the day Dana Scully was
assigned to be your partner."

"You never spoke a truer word, Digger. Thanks for the

"You two watch yourselves. I've made my requisite
hospital visit for the year," Digger replied.

"I hear you."

Mulder hung up the phone and turned to regard his partner,
practically foaming at the mouth with curiosity.

"What is it, Mulder? Where do those directions lead?"

"Maybe nowhere, Scully. Or maybe to those missing

He stood, stripping off his white tee shirt and heading for
the bedroom. When he returned a moment later he'd
replaced it with a black turtleneck and was carrying his
hiking boots.

Scully looked up from the directions, frowning. "Mulder,
what do you think you're doing? You heard Skinner! We
need to run this by him, get a team out there..."

"Paxton is already dead, Scully. How long do you think
they're going to wait before making the rest of the evidence
disappear?" he asked impatiently. "There's no time for a
committee, we've got to go right now, tonight."

She ran a hand over her face in frustration. "Mulder, you
know I want to find those babies just as much as you." She
shook her head. "Maybe more," she added softly. "But you
promised Skinner."

"Actually, I promised Skinner that I wouldn't set foot in the
Hoover," Mulder replied smugly. "And I won't be breaking
that promise."

"Damn it, Mulder, you knew what he meant!" she snapped.

He tied off his boot and turned, taking her by the shoulders.
"Look, Scully. You and I both know I'm fine. This may be
our one opportunity to save those kids from spending their
lives as guinea pigs. Now, are you with me or not?"

She looked into the intensity of his eyes and felt her
resolution evaporate. Even wrong, he was right. They owed
those little ones a chance.

"Good thing I've been wearing a lot of black," she
muttered, indicating her jeans and buttoning her black
sweater over the white shirt beneath. "My hiking boots are
in the trunk. Let's go."

Hollington Woods
11:44 p.m.

Mulder lowered the binoculars and passed them to Scully.
"It's some kind of single story facility. Can't see too much
in the darkness, but there are lights on inside."

She peered through the lenses for a moment. "I don't see
any activity. Of course, it is the middle of the night. It
could be empty or there could be only a skeleton crew."

Mulder grinned and rose to a crouch. "Well, why don't we
just go take a look, Agent Scully?"

They circled the periphery of the clearing, keeping to the
shadows of the trees until they reached the rear of the
building. The night was crisp and clear, the sky awash with
stars. A short sprint across open ground and they flattened
themselves against the rough brick. Mulder inched his way
over to a window and carefully peered inside.

"I can't see anyone," he said sotto voice. "I'm going to
check down there." He gestured to another set of windows
about 100 yards away. "Scully, check the other end and
we'll meet back here."

A terse nod was his reply and they split up.

This set of windows revealed a large kitchen, steeped in
shadow but for a light on the range hood. By cupping his
hands on either side of his face to reduce glare, Mulder
could just make out several high chairs standing along the
far wall. A lone baby bottle sat forlornly next to the sink, a
tiny bit of milk still coating the bottom. He ducked back
down and returned to where Scully was already waiting.

"The windows at that end were covered," she murmured.
"But through a crack in the blinds I could see a bed and a
chest of drawers. It seemed unoccupied."

Mulder tilted his head toward the door and pulled the little
black lock pick case from his pocket. He was about to
insert the small device in the keyhole when Scully's hand
clamped onto his arm.

"What if there's an alarm?" she hissed.

Mulder considered, then shrugged. "I don't see what choice
we have, Scully. We haven't even seen anyone so far.
Unless you want to wait until morning and ring the
doorbell, this seems the logical choice."

Scully hesitated, then released him, though she still looked
unhappy. Mulder deftly probed the lock with the delicate
tool, fumbling just a bit with his injured hand, and a
moment later they slipped inside.

The short entryway intersected with a hallway that
appeared to run the width of the building -- long, dark, and
dimly lit. Scully let Mulder take the lead, following close
on his heels with her weapon in hand. They passed a
laundry room with two washers and dryers, redolent with
the scent of detergent and fabric softener. She panned her
flashlight around until it rested on a pastel colored pile on
the end of a long low table. Mulder hovered in the
doorway, keeping an eye on the corridor, while she walked
slowly over and lifted a scrap of clothing.

A blue terrycloth sleeper with a tiny rocking horse
emblazoned on the breast.

She silently returned it to the pile and they continued down
the hall, shoes occasionally emitting a soft squeak on the
immaculately waxed floor. Eventually they reached the
huge kitchen that Mulder had viewed from the window.
Three high chairs lined one wall, six more under the
window. Mulder opened the extra large refrigerator,
revealing nearly a dozen prepared bottles, multiple cans of
formula, and several cases of baby food, not to mention a
standard assortment of adult fare.

"Certainly seems we've come to the right place," he said

More hallways, more doors. Several standard bedrooms
with adjoining baths, all vacant. An enormous playroom
with three baby swings, four playpens, and an assortment
of infant and toddler toys. Scully fingered a set of wooden
building blocks, her face pinched. The total absence of life
signs, coupled with silent rooms, added up to only one
conclusion. Yet they pressed on, both unwilling to voice in
their heads that which their hearts were screaming.

Until they found the large nursery with eight cribs and five
toddler beds. Everything tidily in place except for the
small, warm bodies. Scully wandered over to a crib and
lifted a woolly lamb with a wind up key. She turned it a
few times and the soft chiming of Brahms' Lullaby
shattered the stillness as violently as a scream.

"They're gone, Mulder," she said woodenly, eyes glistening
in the semi-darkness.

Mulder leaned his forehead against the doorjamb, stomach
twisting both at the sight of the empty beds and his
partner's face. He abruptly straightened, eyes flinty. "They
probably cleared out of here in a hurry. They might have
missed something," he growled. "There must have been
records here somewhere."

After trying several more doors he found a suite of rooms
that resembled a doctor's office. Two contained exam
tables, scales, and standard medical instruments such as
thermometers and otoscopes, and smelled faintly of alcohol
and disinfectants. One was a standard office with a large
oak desk, the top devoid of personal effects. Mulder
rummaged quickly through the drawers, finding only
pencils, rubberbands, and a pair of broken sunglasses.

"Mulder, in here."

He followed her urgent voice into a small adjoining room,
pausing in surprise. Five large file cabinets took up every
inch of available space, standing like mute sentries across
the back wall. Scully tugged impotently on one of the
drawers, then another.

"Look out, Scully."

She stepped aside as he selected a pick and went to work on
the first cabinet. After several minutes sweat trickled freely
down his back and he cursed steadily under his breath.
Finally something shifted with a soft snick, and the button
popped outward.

The top drawer contained only a handful of files. Leaving
Scully to sift through the contents, Mulder moved to the
next cabinet and repeated the procedure. For a time only
the soft rustling of paper filled the room as each worked
through the drawers of the cabinets.

"This is nothing but garbage!" Mulder growled, slamming a
drawer shut and wrenching open the next with a metallic
screech. "Facility maintenance and old equipment log

"Not much here either," Scully admitted. She paused and
cocked an ear. "What *is* that sound?"

Mulder tossed a few papers angrily over his shoulder and
pulled out a few more. "Huh?" he asked distractedly.

"That clicking. Mulder, stop a minute."

He complied, turning to gaze at her impatiently. "Scully,
what the..."


Mulder humphed, folding his arms across his chest and
scowling. After a moment his brow smoothed and he tilted
his head. "What is it?"

The soft clicking, obvious now in the silence, kept a regular
beat, neither speeding up nor slowing down. Mulder
searched for a clock or some other timepiece, but came up
empty. Scully licked her lips, backing up a step.

"Mulder, I'm getting a very bad feeling about this. We have
to get out of here."

"We will, Scully, just as soon as we check the other
cabinets," he replied, looking at her quizzically. "It'll just
take a few more minutes. We can send a forensics team
back in the morning and..."

Scully shook her head vehemently. "No, Mulder. Now. I
think they've got this place wired. That ticking sounds like
a bomb."

He gaped at her, then frowned. "I thought *I* was
supposed to be the impulsive one! That sound could be
related to any of the systems in this building, there's
nothing to indicate..."

"How many wild ideas have you backed up by saying you
just 'had a feeling', Mulder? Well now it's my turn. Call it
intuition, premonition -- I don't care. Let's just leave

Mulder's lips curved but there was a small line between his
eyebrows. "Scully, you have no idea what talking like that
does to me."

Ignoring him, she pressed her ear to the third file cabinet,
then the fourth. When she reached the last she lurched

"Whatever it is, it's in there."

Dropping the half-hearted leer, Mulder stepped over and
began working the lock. When it snapped open Scully
immediately grasped the bottom handle with shaking
fingers. It slid about a quarter of an inch before stalling.

"Something heavy is in here," she said tersely.

He added his muscle and the drawer lurched open,
revealing its contents like a warped Jack-in-the-box.

An electronic device riddled with multi-colored wires
entwined around several large chunks of something that
looked like gray modeling clay. An LED displayed a
steadily diminishing number, currently 65.

Click. 64.

Click. 63.

"I think I'm having my own premonition," Mulder rasped,
grabbing her elbow and propelling her toward the doorway.
"Let's get out of here right now."

Boots pounding on tile, they fled down hallways that
suddenly all looked identical. Like rats in a maze, they
pressed onward toward the back of the building and the
door they knew awaited them. At one point Mulder made a
left turn and they plunged headlong into the boiler room,
the huge furnace's deafening vibrations scraping already
raw nerves. Scully seized the tail of his leather jacket and
hauled him back the way they'd come, taking the opposite
corridor. She nearly sobbed with relief when they passed
the kitchen and she could make out the entryway just

She reached the door first, the smooth metal cool against
her sweaty palm. She tugged hard, horrified when her hand
lost its purchase and the door never budged. Wrapping her
fingers around the knob she pulled frantically twice more
before regaining enough composure to push instead.

The door flew wide, clanging hard as it impacted the brick
wall. Frigid air hit flushed faces like a slap, instantly drying
sweat as they tumbled into the darkness. Ten running steps,
a roar, and Scully felt her eardrums pop as a giant hand
lifted her off her feet and pitched her through the air.
Before she could orient herself to the topsy-turvy view she
was slammed indiscriminately to the ground with a teeth-
jarring impact and everything narrowed to a small pinpoint
of sensation.

The cold brought her back, penetrating abused bones and
muscles until they shrieked in protest. A soft moan to her
right provided the impetus to drag herself upright, blinking
as the trees spun wildly, then stilled. As soon as she lost
contact with the icy ground she could feel the superheated
air, hear the hissing of flames. Rotating her head gingerly,
she found Hollington Home transformed to an inferno, the
cheerful crackling occasionally interrupted by a distant
crash and shower of sparks as more of the building gave
way under the onslaught.

Another moan and she found Mulder sprawled face down
on the grass, his arms curled protectively over his head.
One eye cracked open at the feel of her fingers on his neck.

"Scully. You okay?"

"I'm alive, Mulder. Beyond that I'm reserving judgement,"
she replied, smoothing a streak of dirt from his cheek.

He groaned and rolled onto his back, staring up at the stars.
"My damn head hurts."

She laughed silently. "'S all right, partner. Mine does too."

She helped him struggle to a sitting position and they both
gazed glumly into the flames.

"I guess that's it then," he said quietly.

"Not necessarily," she replied, trying to fight her own sense
of despair.

Mulder laughed bitterly, the heel of his hand pressed to his
head. "We've been here enough times, Scully. I should
certainly be able to recognize it by now."

"We still have the disk and the microchips," she persisted.
She tipped her chin up stubbornly. "I won't give up on
those babies, Mulder. Not while I still draw breath. I refuse
to just file them away as regrettable but unavoidable

Mulder reached over to slip his arm around her shoulders.
"Neither will I." He gave her a small squeeze. "I don't give
up on the things that are important to me, Scully. No matter
how long it takes."

Scully pondered the meaning behind that statement; found
it when she looked into his eyes. He leaned over and
pressed a kiss to her brow, bringing his free hand to cup her
cheek, then tuck a strand of hair behind her ear. Struggling
to his feet, he reached down.

"Come on, partner. We'd better get someone out here for
this fire. And I hate to say it, but we need to call Skinner."
He grimaced. "We got a lotta es'plainin' to do, Lucy."

She smiled, grasping his hand and let him pull her up. "Uh-
uh. This one's all yours, G-man. And if I were you? This
time I'd take the pill first."

X-Files Office
8:03 a.m.

Mulder opened the door to the office, blinking in surprise at
the sight of Scully and Digger leaning against his desk,
identical "cat that ate the canary" grins on their faces.

"What's this?" he asked, taking off his coat and hanging it
on the hook.

"Congratulations!" they cried in unison, moving apart to
reveal an enormous piece of Scully's famous apple cream
cheese coffeecake and a large cup of Starbuck's coffee.

"Welcome back to field agent status, partner," Scully
added, pleased when his eyes lit up with delight.

"Look out world, they're turning him loose," Digger

Mulder sat down in his chair and took a bite of the
coffeecake, sighing in bliss. "Scully, your mother should be
granted sainthood just for teaching you how to make this."

"I'll pass that along, Mulder," she replied dryly.

"Caffeine!" he crowed after a sip of the coffee. "I haven't
had a decent cup of coffee since the stuff you brought me
last week, Digger."

Scully's eyebrows climbed up her forehead and she turned
slowly to regard the agent with baleful eyes. "Excuse me?"

"How was I supposed to know he couldn't have caffeine?"
Digger whined, extending his hands, palm out, in
supplication. "Once I found out, Spooky wouldn't give it

"As if," Mulder smirked. "Come on, Scully. Be nice and
give the man a piece of cake."

"Thanks, but I gotta run," Digger replied with a wave of his
hand. "Jeffreys just handed me a new case and I need to
start a background check on the suspect. And I'm sure you
two must have a pancreas-eating mutant or two to catch."

Mulder snorted. "*Liver*, Costanza. Liver-eating mutant."

Digger looked at him blankly. "There's a big difference?"

"There is when it's yours he's after," Scully said.

Digger chuckled and stuck out his hand. "It's been good
working with you, Dana. You ever need any help keeping
this guy in line, just give me a call."

"Like suddenly you're poster boy for the Bureau," Mulder
said sarcastically.

Scully surprised them both by grasping Digger's hand and
pulling him close enough to plant a kiss on his cheek.
"Thanks for everything, Digger. You'll keep us posted on
those files?"

He sobered. "Count on it." Turning to Mulder he touched
two fingers to his brow in a mock salute. "Take care,
Spooky. Don't be a stranger, okay?"

"You too, Digger. Keep in touch."

When he'd left, Scully crossed the room to sit at her desk.
She booted up her computer and sorted through the mail,
glancing up after several minutes to find Mulder still
reclined in his chair with a bemused expression on his face.

"Mulder?" she said quietly. "You all right?"

He moved forward to rest his elbows on the desk, rolling
the coffee cup between his palms. "There were days I
couldn't remember why I still did this, Scully. Why I
bothered getting out of bed in the morning when everything
seemed to be slipping between my fingers." He chuffed a
little laugh. "There's nothing like almost losing everything
to make you realize just how much you've got." He looked
up at her. "I'm good, Scully. I'm really, really good."

She swallowed hard against the lump in her throat. "Then
let's get to work, G-man. Skinner just handed us a doozy of
a case in California that I think is going to be right up your

Location Unknown
10:34 a.m.

He watched a tow-headed toddler squeal in delight as a
worker tossed her a large rubber ball. Nearby a small boy
with dark curly hair and another with chubby freckled
cheeks pushed toy cars around a plastic mat. Two workers
were lulling infants to sleep in large wooden rocking chairs
while several more babies explored colorful rattles and
teething rings in a large playpen.

"How did they make the transition?"

The man beside him fingered his lab coat nervously.
"Remarkably well. It was difficult the first night, of course,
especially for the older ones. Like all children, they are
extremely adaptable, however, and quickly adjusted to the
unfamiliar surroundings. As you can see, they're right at
home now."

He exhaled a long plume of smoke, never taking his eyes
from the activity on the other side of the glass. "The lack of
preparation was regrettable, but we were left with little
choice." He crushed the spent cigarette beneath his heel,
simultaneously tapping a replacement from the pack in his
breast pocket. "Are accommodations prepared for the new

"Ready and waiting. This facility is actually much better
suited to handle an increase in subjects," the doctor replied

The flick of a lighter and another long puff of smoke
through pursed lips. Gray eyes left the window to regard
the physician coldly. "Children, doctor. Extremely
important children. I suggest you keep that in mind.
Someday you may owe them your life."

"Yes, sir. I will, sir."

A commotion arose as the child who had been playing ball
tripped over a toy and fell, skinning her knee. One of the
workers calmly took the wailing girl onto her lap,
attempting to soothe her while scraped flesh oozed bright
green fluid. After a moment the child's tears abruptly
ceased and she began wriggling against the worker's gentle
grasp, the skin of her knee now whole and unblemished.
The worker released the toddler with an indulgent chuckle,
and she scampered off.

Behind the glass, the smoking man smiled.

The End.

ADDITIONAL NOTES: You made it! Sometimes I wasn’t
sure *I* would! This started out to be a fairly simple
Mulder profiling story that took on a life of its own.
Suddenly I was writing mytharc – something I swore I’d
never tackle again! I owe many thanks to Kronos, whose
insights got me thinking in a new direction and changed the
entire course of this story. And, of course, my wonderful
team of betas – Donna, Laurie, Vickie, and Nikki. I count
on each of you guys for your own special brand of
“tweaking.” Thanks for getting me through this one!