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by fran58

Title: Twist (XF)
Author: fran58
Feedback to: or Category: Story, Angst
Rating: NC-17
Distribution: Wherever - just let me know. Spoilers: Lots, probably - goes off into its own universe sometime after Amor Fati Disclaimer: X-Files Characters owned by Chris Carter, Ten Thirteen Productions and 20th Century Fox. Summary: Scully/Other, Mulder/Other, Scully lunches with her mother, UST and a do-re-mi, Mulder gets to climb a tree. Or: Mulder and Scully are confused and angst ridden. The Gunmen make an appearance. Author's Note: My beta's are gods. Really. Thanks to addicted2fanfic for her friendship, support and hand holding and to the terrifying FabulousMonster for knowing more about the English language than anyone should. And thanks to Tesla for a kind word.


The knocking woke her - a siren's call in the form of a fist hitting wood. Automatically, she reached for her robe and stumbled out of the bedroom, following instinct and sound. Barely awake, she didn't even blink when she opened the door and Mulder stood in front of her. All those years of his late night visits kicked in and she stepped back to admit him. It wasn't until he was fully in her apartment that she woke up enough to realize she hadn't seen him in nearly two years.

"Well, to what do I owe the honor?" She said quietly, not really believing he could be standing in front of her.

Mulder shrugged. "Just thought I would stop in and say `hi'."

"At two in the morning? After two years?" She leaned in closer and made a show of sniffing the air surrounding him. "Have you been drinking?"

"I've been dreaming. Bad things. You were dead. There were vultures..." he paused. "For months, I've been dreaming."

She continued to stare. "You had bad dreams and decided you needed to check up on me? Now? Mulder..."

Mulder shrugged again, gave her a lopsided smile and lifted the paper bag she had just noticed he was carrying. "I brought coffee."

"Okay... I guess I'll offer you a seat then." Scully nodded at the couch and moved to the arm chair, pulling her robe tighter. "But I don't have a lot of time, Mulder."

And there they sat, unmoving. The silence of the night hung between them like translucent glass. Mulder finally stirred and set the bag on the coffee table, removed two cups and handed one to Scully. She reached for the beverage awkwardly.

"So, Scully, I like your hair." His voice sounded abnormally loud and strained quiet room. "It's longer, I like the way you're letting it curl some."

"You woke me up in the middle of the night, after two years, to tell me you like my hair?" She was having trouble believing Mulder was flesh and blood, and not a figment of her imagination. He looked much the same. His hair was a bit longer, too, and he had a tan. She thought that maybe she could see some gray starting to peek through the brown. A few more lines, but essentially the same face as she knew two years ago.

It felt odd to be in his presence once again, as if he had never left and as if an eon had passed at the same time. Trust Mulder to waltz back into her life like nothing had ever happened. Some deeply buried part of her wanted to rejoice, but was overshadowed by the part that remembered the pain and humiliation. Scully drew a breath, knowing that she really could not articulate her feelings, but should try. She was distracted by a glimpse of orange stealthily stalking Mulder's unsuspecting left foot. The animal edged closer, gathered himself together, and pounced, catching Mulder's ankle with his claws.

"Ow, dammit! What the hell was that?"

Score one for the home team, Scully thought, suppressing a smile. Aloud she said , "That's Captain Marvel."

"I thought you were a dog person."

"I like cats, too."

"Where'd you get him?" Mulder reached a hand down tentatively, and stroked the cat's back.

"Langly found him lurking around the alley behind their building. He thought I should have him, to cheer me up. Plus, he matches my hair." Scully shrugged. "Langly logic."

"To cheer you up?"

She fixed him with a look. "Langly found Marvel a year ago last November. A few months after you decided my existence on earth wasn't worth acknowledging." The words came out brittle and hard.

"I see." Mulder withdrew his hand from the cat and shifted in his seat.

Scully waited for more, but nothing seemed forthcoming. She leaned back against the chair trying to sort through the rush of emotions Mulder brought up.

Sighing, she said, "I don't know about you, Mulder, but I have a job I need to get to bright and early. The coffee was a nice gesture, but..." her voice trailed off. Mulder suddenly sat bolt upright, and was shushing her.

"Scully, there's someone in your apartment," he said, craning his head around. Scully could see now that his hair was long enough in the back to brush the soft, blue collar of his T-shirt.

"You mean besides me and you?"

He nodded, reaching around to his back and she heard the pop of a snap being released.

"Mulder, you don't need your gun. Why on earth do you have a weapon with you, anyhow? You're not with any law enforcement anymore."

"I don't need my gun?"

"No, it's all right, it just a - " her voice trailed off as the bedroom door opened and a dark haired figure stepped out, stretching, rubbing his eyes. "It's just a friend, Mulder. It's okay."

"A friend."

"Yes," her voice had gone soft. She felt a smile play around her lips as she watched Leo scrub his face and attempt to flatten his hair.

Mulder leaned back and slouched, entrenching himself in the sofa.

The other man gave Scully a sleepy smile combined with a questioning look. "Hey, I thought I heard voices." He caught sight of Mulder and extended his hand. "I'm Leandro Vega," he said approaching Mulder, who was forced to slide forward on the couch, and then stand in order to shake hands.

"Fox Mulder."

"No way. Dana's old partner?" A grin spread across Leo's face. His teeth were white and even against his skin "I never figured I'd get the chance to meet you."

"Mmm, well... I was just leaving."

Leo waved his hand. "No, no, don't bother. I'm on my way out. I have an early day tomorrow anyhow." He glanced at Scully. "Walk me to the door?"

Scully nodded and followed him. She could see Mulder shift and turn his head when she reached up to give the other man a peck on the cheek and murmur to him, low and sweet. Mulder shifted again and she felt a twinge of annoyance - he was the interloper here. She shouldn't have to monitor her actions.

When the door closed, Scully turned to face Mulder.

"So tell me, what's the real reason for this visit?"

Mulder shrugged, suddenly deflated. "Stopping by seemed like a good idea at the time."

"In the middle of the night? Why not just call me? It isn't as if you don't have my number."

"I wanted to make sure you would be here. I didn't want to give you the chance to hang up on me."

She nodded. "I might have."

"I know."

"Look, I tried to call, but it seemed too impersonal. I thought I should make nice in person. I just needed to see that you were all right."

"Your timing still needs work, Mulder."


"Well, it's late, I need to get back to sleep. You can let yourself out, right?" Without waiting for a reply, she turned and started toward her bedroom.

"Scully, wait... please," said Mulder, his voice unsteady.

"No, Mulder, I can't. I really can't stand here and pretend we're old friends catching up. If you really want to talk, come back another time. Call first. I can't stand to think that you might just be here to kill time, or whatever you think you're doing. I couldn't stand to have you walk out again." Her voice broke.

"You're the one who left me." Mulder's voice was tight. Out of the corner of her eye, Scully could see him ball his hands into fists.

"I went on vacation, Mulder, vacation. I went to see relatives in Ireland. That's it."

"You took a leave of absence - for three months. That's one hell of a vacation."

"Well, that's all it was."

"Well, look what the cat dragged in. And at such an early hour, too." Frohike closed the thick door against the lightening day and began to re-fasten the locks.

Mulder stopped a short way from the door and turned to Frohike. "Yeah, sorry about that. I didn't really think about the time."

Frohike shrugged and grunted. "We were up anyway."

Mulder took in the surroundings, blinking through the dim light. It had been a while. Well over a year, most probably, since he had stopped to see the Gunmen. Not much had changed. In fact, Mulder could have sworn Langly was hunched over that very same PC the last time he was here. And Frohike was wearing his frightfully familiar furry vest accessorized by black gloves, with the fingers cut out. The only missing piece was Byers.

"So where's Dapper Dan?" Mulder asked.

"Byers went out for some breakfast," Langly answered from his stations without taking his eyes from the monitor. "We've been up all night. I'm not too sure he's going to greet you with open arms, Mulder."

Mulder nodded. "Right. Well." He moved further into the room. "What are you working on?"

"Just a side project running down some anomalous DNA sequences your part..., uh, Agent Scully came across a while back. She thought it might interest Byers and I'm helping him out with it." At the mention of Scully's name, Langly pushed his thick black frames up with one finger in a nervous gesture.

"It's ok, Langly, we all know she isn't my partner anymore." "Boy do we ever." Mulder started slightly at the sound of Byers voice so close behind him.

"You know, Byers, I get that you're angry with me. You made that clear last year when I was here. But I can't figure out why, after all this time, you still carry a grudge. It just doesn't seem like you. What horrible thing have I done?"

"Besides the whole Scully business, you mean? Nothing, probably. That was enough." Turning his back on Mulder he said to Frohike, "I got all the fixings, eggs, milk, mix and blueberries. I'll put it in the kitchen."

Mulder watched Byers move away stiffly, aware that other man was practically seething.

Mulder turned to Frohike when Byers was out of earshot. "I meant what I said, I really don't get it. I understand why he was angry initially, but now? Why carry that anger with him for so long?"

Frohike moved to stand in front of Mulder. "He's angry on Scully's behalf. We all were, Mulder, but especially Byers. He and Scully have become... muy simpatico since you disappeared He feels like you turned your back on a friend."

"Yeah, you squished her like a bug," Langly said staring again at his monitor. "A little, red-headed bug. You didn't even invite her to your wedding. That sucked."

Mulder sighed and flapped his arms up and down in a useless motion. "I know, I know." He turned to Frohike. "What about you? How come you aren't running me off the family farm, too?"

"Eh, I'm too old for that crap." Frohike waved a gloved hand. "Besides, I figure you had your reasons." He scratched at his neck. "Byers is upset about the Susanne situation, too. There's been nada communicacin lately. He's stressing over that. Happened once before. It's always hard on him." Frohike paused, shifting on his feet. "So, how is the freelancing? Is that organization we hooked you up with working out for you?"

"They're working out. They put me onto some other groups that have been helpful. Things are moving along -- Karen's been supportive. That helps," Mulder answered, relieved to talk about something else. "Between them and a certain agent-who-will-remain-nameless filtering pertinent information through you three, I've been able to keep on top of things. I'm lucky to have a few contacts left in law enforcement that are willing to do the occasional favor."

There was a sudden snort from Langly. "So how come you never answered Scully's calls?" he persisted, still glued to the screen in front of him, not looking at Mulder. "The least you could do is thank her for only risking her job and passing along highly valuable information."

Mulder shrugged. He could hardly explain his reticence about contacting Scully to himself , much less anyone else. Guilt, he knew, was a major part, but he wasn't about to start a dialog on all the crap buried in the trenches of his psyche with Goldilocks. Not now, anyway.

Mulder felt a bubble of annoyance at the protective attitude the two were displaying, and at Byers's huffiness. He tamped down his feeling and asked in what he hoped was a reasonable voice: "I was hoping to get you guys to do a little digging for me."

Frohike nodded. "What, exactly did you have in mind?"

"A guy named Leandro Vega. I need..." his voice trailed off as Frohike held up a hand.

"Already done, my friend. Scully asked us to do it herself some time ago."

"Last year," put in Langly. He had finally pulled his attention away from the monitor, swivelled in his seat, and focused on Mulder. His hair was pulled back in a ponytail that swung as he moved. "He's an okay guy. Plays a mean game of Tetris. Came to our New Year's bash in January. Too bad you couldn't make it. Turned out to be a blast."

Mulder ignored the dig and turned to Frohike. "So what kind of information did Scully want?"

"The same thing I expect you want to know. Was he really what he appeared to be, was he affiliated with the Smoking Goon in any way. That sort of thing."

Mulder had some other specific pieces of information in mind, as well as what Frohike had outlined, but let it pass. "So what did you turn up?"

"Nothing of any consequence. The guy is what he appears to be. No apparent interest in conspiracies, secret governments or aliens."

"What else? You said nothing of any consequence. What are you leaving out?"

Langly turned back to his monitor, fingers tapping away. "He had an arrest record, but it was from a long time ago."


Langly shrugged. "And, it's of no consequence."

Mulder felt the bubble of frustration rising again. "Langly -"

"Mulder," Frohike broke in. "The arrest was when he was practically a kid. He was just eighteen and still in high school."

"Go on," said Mulder.

Frohike sighed softly. "He was arrested for statutory rape, but he beat the charge."

"Power to the people," said Langly.

"Rape? This is of no consequence?"

"Statutory rape. Not forced." Mulder snorted, but Frohike shrugged and went on. "He was getting too friendly with his sixteen-year old girlfriend. They were in high school. She was from a rather prominent family, and when daddy found out his little girl was screwing some no account kid from a poor family, he called in a few favors and had Leo arrested."

Langly picked up the thread and continued. "Fortunately for Leo, the judge threw the case out."

Mulder considered Langly. It wasn't like him to be so gung-ho about someone. "You a big fan of his, or what, Langly. Because he plays a good game of Tetris?"

Langly pushed away from the computer he was working on abruptly, lips drawn in a thin line as he turned to face Mulder. "You're something, you know? You walk away from Scully, walk away from us, barely keep in touch and expect us to kowtow when you decide to honor us with your mighty presence? Forget it, man. You're on your own."

Mulder watched as Langly stalked off in the direction Byers had taken minutes before. He turned to Frohike, frustration written on his face.

"I know, I know, both he and Byers have their jockstraps in a knot lately. Leo helped Langly's cousin out, the one he's really tight with - got her out of a sticky situation. Langly's been a devoted fan ever since."

"I guess I'm out numbered here, huh?"

Frohike waved a gloved hand. "Langly will cool off. He's probably feeling like you came in here gunning for Leo and over-reacted." He studied Mulder for a moment. "That isn't what you came for, is it?"

Mulder shrugged. "I don't really know exactly what I was hoping to find." He hesitated. "I stopped by Scully's apartment tonight - I wasn't expecting - anyone else to be there. It threw me." He paused again, willing himself to keep his voice level. "So tell me about this guy."

"Leandro Vega, born July twenty third, nineteen sixty eight in Chicago. Father emigrated from Guatemala, mother was born in Ohio. One arrest, which you know about. Good grades through high school, went on to obtain a Bachelor's degree in Social Welfare from Illinois State University. He currently runs a recreation center for Intervention Now - they're a foundation that supports different social programs designed to keep kids off the streets. Oh yeah, he was the Chicago middle weight youth boxing champion in nineteen, umm, eighty five? Can't remember the name of the league at the moment."

"Well, that accounts for his manly handshake," said Mulder dryly.

"Yeah, the guy's still in good shape. I oughta hire him as my personal trainer."

Mulder gave a short laugh. "Oh yeah, Frohike, now that's something to aspire to. I'm sure he'd jump at that"

"Hey, stranger things have happened," Frohike paused. "So are you going to tell me what you were doing at Scully's?"

Mulder sighed. "Trying to fix what's broken, I think."

"And your wife doesn't mind that you're out in the middle of the night calling on other women?"

"Woman, Frohike - just one. And no, Karen doesn't mind. I guess she's gotten used to my odd hours. Besides, she's out of town."

"Uh-huh." Frohike sounded unconvinced.

"For a convention, Melvin. A convention. I'm a free man this week."

Frohike nodded. "I see. So, you get what you came for?"

"I guess. I just wanted to touch base with you guys. The information on Vega was incidental. I was going to stop by anyhow." Mulder paused and groped for the right words. Nothing was going the way he'd planned. He felt out of sorts, slightly jumpy and stiff, like the wooden puppet he owned as a child. He was suddenly tired and wanted to be home. Home was safe. No one would glare at him there and remind him of what a schmuck he had been. He dropped down into a nearby chair, suddenly weary.

"What can I do, Frohike? I want to put things right. With Scully, with Langly and Byers, with you. I just don't know how to put it right."

"You could start by apologizing," Frohike suggested, moving to a chair in the other man's vicinity and leaning toward him. "Scully was pretty broken up, you know," he said in a low voice, as if telling a secret.

Mulder nodded, matching his tone to Frohike's. "I know. I was a little broken up about that time myself."

"Your relapse and the hospital, I know. But Scully didn't know, did she? And when she got back you had already pulled up stakes. I don't think you understand how hard it hit her. She's always so collected, that to see her fall apart like that was... I can't even begin to explain the effect it had on those of us around her. It was like watching a tree die. Little by little the leaves dry up and fall off, leaving nothing but the naked limbs."

"Wow, that was almost poetic, Frohike. In a sick sort of way."

"Fine, make jokes. You weren't here to see her, to see what happened. She was like a sleepwalker with just a body, nothing inside. On top of that, during a case, she was exposed to a pathogen that made her sick. Skinner forced her to take medical leave. He threatened to have her hospitalized if she didn't. You can imagine how she felt about that."

Mulder shifted, the chair suddenly too hard beneath him. Christ, what a mess. Guilt and helplessness battled for prominence. He wanted to fix things, but had no idea where to start.

Special Agent Alan Pittman was having a bad day. It had started with a head cold that morning. The day was made worse by the fact that his girlfriend, Dora, was still angry and not talking to him. Now he was standing outside his supervisor's office for a nine a.m. appointment. His supervisor was late, which was odd in and of itself. She was almost frighteningly punctual, and her lateness only added to Pittman's anxiety at this meeting. Alan paced nervously outside her office and glanced at the maze of cubicles that filled the large, open office outside her office door. He felt uncharacteristic longing to be in his own little box, safe, at his desk. He swallowed and hoped his hands weren't sweating too much.

"Hey, Pittman," a smooth voice startled Alan. "Waiting for the big meeting? Relax a little. It can't be that bad." Richard Lawson smirked. "I can think of worse things than being swallowed whole by your boss woman."

Alan had a sudden image of his `boss woman' on her knees in front of him. He fought to control his blush. Just the image he needed, thought Pittman. As if he weren't discombobulated enough already. Lawson was from one of the other departments, a sub-department of Internet Fraud, housed in the same area as the X-Files. His office cube was kitty-corner from Alan's. In Alan's opinion, guys like Lawson were a pain. Richard's suits were never wrinkled. The dark blue one he was wearing today looked impeccably pressed and cleaned. Next to him, Pittman felt dowdy and rumpled. Even his name had a thrumming, all American cocksure quality. Alan would have liked to take the blond, blue-eyed, broad-shouldered son of a bitch and...

"Good morning, Agent Pittman, sorry to keep you waiting"

"Ah, good morning Agent Scully." Pittman scrambled to follow her into her office. He could feel Lawson still smirking at his back.

Agent Scully, too, looked impeccable. Every shiny hair in place, nice coal grey slacks and black blazer. The only thing out of sync were the smudgy circles under her eyes.

"Have a seat." Scully indicated the chair in front of her desk. She went around to the other side and set her briefcase down . Alan waited for her to sit down before taking a seat himself. Grandma would have been proud.

Scully opened her briefcase and began pulling files out of it and dumping them on the neat desk. Pittman took the opportunity to look around. He had not been an agent long, and had not been in his supervisor's office often. It was not large, but comfortable enough. There were no `look-at-me trophies', as Pittman was apt to call prominently hung awards and framed copies of photo-ops. Her medical certification hung discreetly in a corner, partially obscured by a large Swedish Ivy that hung near the one small window to the right of her desk. Well, her right, my left, he thought. He wondered what things had been like when the X-Files had been housed in the basement.

Still arranging files and papers on her desk, Scully looked up at him, light filtering in through the window and across the top of her the-wind-wouldn't-dare-disturb-my-coif head. "I wanted to talk to you about that report you were supposed to turn in to the VCS."

"Yes, ah, yes Ma'am. I walked that down to them two days ago."

Scully raised her eyebrows. "You did? I got a message from the AD that said the report had still not been turned in."

Pittman shook his head. "I turned it in myself. Like I said, I walked it down. After the first one got lost, I thought I would make sure this one got to the right place. I handed it to the receptionist myself."

Scully nodded. "Do you still have a copy of the report?"

"Well, actually, I do. At my girlfriend's. For some reason I can't find it on my hard drive here - I'm not sure what happened. I could have sworn I saved it." He rubbed his chin absently. "Couple of things have been missing lately. Can't figure it out."

Agent Scully looked at him sharply and bit back a yawn. Abruptly, she stood and walked to the door, motioning Pittman to follow. She walked past the reception and bullpen areas and out into the hall.

"Agent Pittman, do you think you could get a copy of the information in that report to me?" She walked slowly as she spoke.

"Yeah, sure."

"I'd like to pick it up somewhere outside the Bureau."

Pittman nodded. "That's - sure, ok." He shifted. "Why not just do it here?"

"This isn't the first time this has happened. I'm beginning to think that someone is `losing' your report on purpose."

"Why would someone do that?"

Scully shrugged vaguely. "Any number of reasons, Agent Pittman. I think we should take precautions, okay? You just told me that you had other information go missing. I just want to be careful."

Alan nodded, not really understanding, but unwilling to pursue the point.

The house looked cold and alone in the rain. The blinds were drawn, and a week's worth of newspapers lay piled against the front door. Mulder sat back in the car. The radio blared a commercial for a new fast food place, the windshield wipers slapped back and forth rhythmically, transfixing him. Slowly, he turned the car key, shutting off the ignition. It was suddenly too quiet.

Inside, the house wasn't much better. The air was damp and chilly, the rooms were dark. Mulder dropped his things with a `plop' in the master bedroom on the un-made sheets. He turned up the heat, hoping to drive away the dank feeling in the air and in his bones. He checked the answering machine. Nothing. Karen hadn't called - wasn't likely to, he guessed. He wasn't sure he could stand to stay in the house without her. Things were not right between them, but he still missed her presence, a small, incessant tugging at his heart.

He wandered into the kitchen. Normally, it was light and airy. Art Deco-style appliances blended with the rich wood of a by-gone era. Today, it was dark and empty, the rain slipping down the windows made them seem like they were covered in dirty plastic. Unwashed dishes hunkered down in the sink, entrenched for a long stay.

Mulder half-heartedly began gathering up the discarded pizza boxes strewn about the table and counters. All ambition had drained away, and he found himself wondering why he should bother. After all, he was just going to mess the place up again. Karen wouldn't be back for a couple of weeks. He had plenty of time to straighten up. Letting the boxes drop, he made his way back out to the front room. It was less disorganized than the kitchen, but not by much. On most occasions, being in this room comforted Mulder. He found its blues and greens peaceful, the sturdy furniture comfortable. He moved to the picture window that dominated the room and peered out onto the street, carefully avoiding the plant stand.

It was a pleasant street in a pleasant neighborhood. The kind of neighborhood where regular people lived. It was just tattered enough around the edges to not be pretentious. Across from his own house, Mulder could see that the Cavelli's daughter had left her bike out again. As he watched, it teetered for a moment in the increasing wind, then tipped into the bushes that lined the front of his neighbor's house. The bright red of the bike against the green of the leaves had an off-kilter festive look. A white plastic bag skittered by along the sidewalk, hovered for a moment in Mulder's front yard, then was swooped up by the wind into the branches of the sugar maple in the front yard. One more thing for Mulder to clean up.

His folks would have hated this neighborhood. Mulder liked it. Normally it gave him a sense of belonging, but not today. He wondered if he should try to call Scully - he wanted to call, but held back. He really had no particular reason to get in touch, and she had made it clear that she didn't appreciate his surprise visit. Mulder moved to the front door and pulled it open, blinking in the onslaught of rain. He hadn't bothered to bring the newspapers in for several days. They lay in front of him, a soggy heap. He bent down and scooped up them up, quickly closing the door. He wiped his face with an errant end of his shirt.

In the kitchen, he fished out the current paper and tossed the rest into the recycling bin in the back hall. He rummaged through the refrigerator and finally found a lone Leinenkugel's Red hiding behind the spoiled milk. Twisting off the cap, Mulder liked the feel of the cold liquid sliding down his throat, relishing the yeasty taste of the beer. He headed back to the front room, paper tucked under his arm. Dropping to the couch, he turned to the sports section, but stopped when a brightly colored flyer drifted down onto his chest. He picked it up.

Mulder smiled. Perfect. Just what he needed.

The answering machine light blinked incessantly. Scully studiously ignored it until she had divested herself of her work clothes and started dinner. On her way out of the kitchen back to the bedroom, she stopped by the phone and hit the `play' button.

"Hey, Scully." It was Mulder's voice. "I know it's late notice, but I thought if you weren't busy tomorrow I'd stop by and take you on a little excursion. Leave a message on my cell phone voice mail. If it's a go, I'll be at your place by 7:00 - yeah, in the morning. Don't dress up."

How like Mulder to be so cryptic. Why couldn't he just say what he had in mind?

Irritated, she stabbed at the `erase' button on the answering machine. Before she could take a step, however, the phone trilled at her. Scully frowned, glancing at the caller ID window. Seeing her mother's number come up, she reached for the handset.

"Hi, Mom, I just got in. What's up?" She trailed into the kitchen, wedging the telephone handset between her shoulder and ear as she checked the pasta she had started earlier. Captain Marvel leapt to the counter to look on as Scully poked at a tortellini, watching it bob up and down in the water. She reduced the burner's heat.

They talked of odd and ends; Bill and Tara's new car, the color of the mums blooming in her mother's front yard, plans to have lunch in the next couple weeks.

"I had an odd call recently." Maggie said. "It was Fox."

"What did he want?"

"I'm not really sure. He was... vague."

"Go figure," Scully mumbled.

"We had a quick chat," Maggie continued hesitantly. "Have you spoken with him?"

Scully sighed. "He stopped by here to... talk, I guess. And he left a message on the machine tonight asking if I was available for an `outing' tomorrow."

"What kind of an outing?" Her mother's voice held a note of wariness.

"I don't know, Mom. Just Mulder being mysterious. Par for the course."

"Are you going?"

"Probably not." Scully suddenly didn't want to discuss this. The emotions Mulder's visit had churned up were still skittering just under the surface, ready to fly out if any chink were detected.

"Might not hurt just to find out what he wants." Despite her words, Maggie sounded doubtful.

Scully fidgeted and bit her tongue.

"It isn't that easy, Mom."

A sigh traveled along the wire. "I know. I'm afraid I wasn't very accommodating myself."

Scully replaced the handset in its cradle, turning her mother's words and Mulder's invitation over in her mind. For all the resentment that still lingered, she was intrigued by Mulder's call. He still had it, she thought dourly, an irresistible pull that went straight to the marrow. She should tell him no, she should let it be. Mulder was married, and nothing was the same. Could ever be the same.

Mulder was early. Still in her robe, Scully opened the door to find him wearing his leather jacket and a smile. At least she thought it was a smile. It was difficult to tell behind the broad leaves of the large plant he held in his arms.

"You brought a plant? What kind of expedition is this, Mulder?"

"The plant is for you. It looked lonely. I thought it might like your company." Mulder moved through the apartment and set the plant on the kitchen table.

"That's very thoughtful, Mulder, but I don't know that I can have room to accommodate another plant." Scully closed the door and turned to look at Mulder.

"I'm trying to make nice, Scully. It's a peace lily, get it?"

"Ah, gotcha. There's coffee if you want some." She turned and disappeared into the bathroom.

Mulder set the over-sized plant on the kitchen table. A small noise from the kitchen made him turn. Half expecting to see Leandro Vega in his shorts, Mulder was surprised to find an even younger man, in jeans and blue pullover, rinsing out a porcelain mug. The man set it carefully next to the sink. He nodded to Mulder.

"I'm Alan Pittman. Nice to meet you Mr. Mulder."

Mulder raised his eyebrows. Mister? "Just Mulder's fine. And you know who I am because..."

"I work at the Bureau. I, umm, people still talk. About you, I mean."

"Great. Zippity doo dah."

"No, I didn't - I've always wanted to meet you. It's too bad you aren't at the Bureau anymore. I would have loved a chance to work with you."

"Yeah, you say that now..." Mulder let his voice trail off and wondered what the hell Scully was doing. As if on cue, she walked into the kitchen, still dressed in her robe. "Nice threads, Scully. Nice that you dressed for company."

She scowled at him. "Agent Pittman was early, too. Normally I would have changed but Agent Pittman was in a hurry"

Not in such a hurry that he couldn't have a cup of coffee, thought Mulder.

"I really do need to go." Pittman started for the door and Scully followed.

After she had closed the door behind him, she turned back to Mulder.

"They're getting younger and younger, Scully. Hope I don't end up bailing you out of the hoosegow for trolling the high schools."

Scully bit the tip of her tongue. No, she wouldn't take the bait. "Pittman's one of the agents working on the X-Files now, Mulder."

"Ah, I see. You're his boss to boot. It keeps getting better."

Scully breathed a long suffering sigh. "Nice, Mulder." She waved a manila folder at him. "He was just dropping of some information. His girlfriend lives a few blocks away." She frowned at Mulder. "I'll get you some coffee. At least if it doesn't put you in a better mood, your mouth will be occupied."

Scully moved to the kitchen and took a clean mug from the cupboard above the counter. As she reached up, the loose sleeve of her robe fell back, and Mulder noticed a triptych of bruises along the inside of her arm.

He took the mug from her outstretched hand and asked, "What happened to your arm?"

Confusion clouded Scully's face for a moment, then cleared. "Oh, that - hazards of the job, I guess."

She turned and headed for the bedroom, calling over her shoulder, "Help yourself. I'll be right back. I'm basically ready, I just need to get changed."

Mulder poured himself a cup of coffee and glanced around Scully's tidy kitchen, noting the bowl of cat food and water on the floor, tucked out of the way. He didn't see the orange monster around. That was good. He didn't need to be mauled again.

A few minutes later Scully emerged from the hall, pulling on a jacket. "So where are we off to?"

"The Apple Holler Fest."

"The what?"

"The Apple Holler Fest. It isn't too far from my house - although --it will probably take us about ninety minutes or so to get there from here. There's a fortune teller I want to check out. And they have an Elvis look-a-like contest. For produce. Let's move, Scully."

"Want to tell me why we need to get to the Apple Holler Fest so early? Was it really necessary to get me up at the crack of dawn on the weekend?"

Mulder pursed his lips. "I didn't wake you up, Scully, young Agent Pittman was here first."

Scully closed her eyes briefly, battling annoyance. "True, but I wouldn't have told Alan he could come over so early if I hadn't had to get up anyway for this little `outing'."

Mulder glanced at his watch. "Well, It's almost 7:30 now. We want to be on time for the opening ceremony at 9:30. That's when they unveil the lucky Elvis contest participants."

"For produce."


Scully blew out a huff of air. "Opening ceremony. Right." She moved past him into the kitchen and dutifully shut the coffee maker down then checked the cat's food and water. "Okay, fine, let's hit the road."

"Look, Mulder, you can go look at the squash that looks like Elvis if you want. I'm going to grab something to eat."

"Come on, Scully, I..." Mulder's voice trailed off as he gazed past Scully's shoulder. Without warning, he reached down and grabbed her hand and began moving across the festival grounds.

"Mulder! Stop!" Scully dug her heels into the ground, effectively slowing Mulder down. "What are you doing?"

"She's about to close down, Scully," he said, pointing at a white tent with rainbow stripes staked out next to the soft pretzel vendor.

Scully squinted in the direction Mulder had indicated. "Madam Zorina, Fortunes and Futures? You go ahead. I'll wait."

"No," he began tugging on her hand. "We both go."

"Fine, Mulder. Then we get something to eat."

Mulder nodded. "Agreed."

The woman, who Mulder thought must be Madam Zorina, was indeed getting ready to leave. She was about seventy, with silvery grey hair pulled back in a loose ponytail, jeans and sweatshirt visible under her just unzipped indigo robe. She looked up abruptly as they entered.

"I'm sorry, I was just heading for home."

Mulder nodded. "I know, but could I talk you into a couple of last minute fortunes? There's an extra ten in it for you."

Madam Zorina stepped forward, scrutinizing Mulder, her robes swaying with movement. Her eyes were an unusual shade - almost turquoise - and her face was covered with fine, soft lines. Madam Zorina reached out a hand and laid it on Mulder's arm, still gazing at him. She glanced sharply in Scully's direction before saying, "No charge. It's on the house."

Mulder grinned. "Cool, a free fortune."

Madam Zorina continued to stare at Mulder. "Give me your right hand."

Mulder dutifully presented his hand. The fortune teller took it in both of hers and just held it for a moment, then shook her head, mumbling, "It isn't you."

"What isn't me?"

Madam Zorina didn't answer. Instead, she was now staring at Scully with the same intense gaze she had fixed on Mulder. Blinking, she turned her attention back to the man standing in front of her. "You're a good man. A little too impulsive, but you mean well. Cut yourself some slack, things will get better." The woman suddenly smiled. "One more thing, animals can tell when you're afraid of them."

She straightened her back and turned to Scully. "You're turn. Give me your right hand." Reluctantly, Scully stretched out her right hand, the sleeve of her sweater pulling back to reveal the bruises Mulder noticed earlier.

Taking the outstretched hand, the fortune teller nodded to herself. "Violence, pain, control. Passion - compassion, too."

The woman's grip tightened. Mulder thought for a moment Scully might pull her hand away.

The woman went on. "He will find out. It's inevitable. Do not fear the consequences. It's useless to try to control them in this case, it will only make things more difficult. The flesh is easily satiated, but the spiritual pain you try to lessen with the physical cannot be eradicated in that way. You need to open yourself, you need to cut the bonds..."

She met Scully's eyes and held them for a moment. "There's more, but I don't think you really need to hear it. I think you already know."

Scully swiftly pulled her hand in and backed away from the woman, clearly unbalanced. She pushed the sleeve of her sweater back down and squared her shoulders.

"Let's go, Mulder," she said and turned to leave the tent abruptly.

Mulder thanked the woman and tried to pay her, but she waved him away, a wisp of white hair falling over her eyes. On his way out of the tent, he realized that the bruises he saw that morning had been on Scully's left arm, not her right. He glanced back at Madam Zorina, but she had disappeared out the back of the tent. An unwelcome thought insinuated its way into Mulder's brain.

Mid-morning on Friday, Mulder's wife stopped in to see Scully in her office. She had other business in the Hoover Building, she explained. Scully didn't ask what the other business was.

Karen was tall and dark haired. Scully wondered briefly if the whole world had been given growth hormones when she hadn't been paying attention. Other than the height, Karen Levy was not what Scully had expected. She was rounder, softer and less dangerous than the woman she had imagined. She was Mulder's age, maybe a few years older, and had a pleasant face and an equally pleasant disposition. So pleasant in fact, after a few minutes conversation, it was difficult for Scully not to like her.

"I'm sorry I can't be of more help, Ms. Levy." Scully's voice sounded canned to her own ears. "I saw him last Saturday - haven't heard from him since."

"Well, I'm sorry to take up your time. I just thought..." Her voice dropped off and she slid back in her chair. "It's just that I can't figure out where he'd go. If he's going to be gone a few days, he usually lets me know."

"You said you came back early from your trip, maybe he just didn't think it was necessary." Scully suggested.

Karen nodded, distracted. "Could be." She shrugged. "I was hoping to track him down, I guess. I tried his friend Frohike, and then thought of you. I know how close the two of you were."

"Until just recently, I hadn't seen or heard from him in almost two years."

Karen nodded again, picking at her slacks, then smoothing the same spot down. Not looking at Scully she asked. "If you do hear from him, tell him I was here?"

"Of course."

Karen rose and smiled softly at Scully. "Thanks for your time. I really appreciate it. I know how busy you must be."

"No problem. Really." Scully rose also, and walked Karen to the door.

Then the office was silent. The other woman's presence a mere intangible memory.

Shortly before quitting time, there was an "incident" as Scully liked to think of it. Agent Pittman had returned to the office to find his hard drive wiped. Now, in a rare display of temper, he was shouting at Agent Lawson about inappropriate behavior.

Agent Mike Davies, Pittman's partner, moved his stout body through the maze of cubicles toward Scully's office just as she came to the door. She gave him a questioning look and he shrugged.

Mike Davies was as seasoned as Pittman was green. Scully liked and respected him. He had, much to her amazement, requested his assignment on the X-Files shortly after Mulder's resignation. As he explained to a surprised Scully at the time, he was tired of `playing with the normal boys' and wanted a chance to finish his career doing something `interesting'. What he lacked in imagination he made up for in perseverance and dedication. Pittman, on the other hand, was nothing if not imaginative. He eerily reminded Scully of Mulder at certain times.

"Pittman's computer was wiped. Says it was fine when he went out and now it isn't."

"Who was up here? Did anyone see anything?"

Davies shook his head. "Alan went out before lunch. Place was deserted part of the afternoon. Anyone could have come up here. It isn't like it's a secured area or anything."

"No, it isn't." She jerked her head toward the cubicles. "Why is Pittman so upset with Agent Lawson?"

"Ah, that. Lawson's just giving it to Alan. Knows how to get his goat. Alan thought Lawson was too cavalier about the whole computer situation. Then Lawson began making what Alan says were `inappropriate comments.'

Before Davies could answer, Sheila Samski from Accounting caught sight of them from the hall. She veered over to the door and popped her head inside.

"I've got some questions for you and Agent Pittman about the last expense reports you turned in. Could you and your partner stop in and see me tomorrow around ten or so?"

"Yeah, sure, I'll send Alan down like I did last time. Will that work?" Mike asked.

Sheila's lips curled up in a satisfied smile. "That would be perfect. Thanks." She shifted her eyes to where Pittman and Lawson were arguing, then turned. The quick clip of her heels could be heard as she continued down the hall.

"God, I never know a woman so obsessed with minutiae. I swear, if Alan forgets to dot an `i' she has to check it out with him."

Scully smiled. "I know the type. Mulder and I used to run into the same thing." She shifted her position against the frame of her door trying to ease the crick in her upper back. "So what were Lawson's inappropriate comments about?"

"Mmm, that would be `who were his inappropriate comments about.'" Davies gave her a pointed look.

Scully sighed and pressed her fingers to the bridge of her nose. "I wish Alan wouldn't take these things to heart."

Mike Davies leaned in toward her. "He's a good kid - a nice boy. His grandmother probably told him that making those kinds of comments about ladies was highly improper. I know my wife would wash both our sons' mouths out if they came up with stuff like that. Want me to break it up for you? I wouldn't mind busting Lawson's butt a bit."

"Be my guest."

Mike winked at her. "You got it, boss."

Scully returned to her office and picked up the handset of her telephone to call IT about Pittman's computer. Halfway through dialing, she stopped, depressed the switch hook, and dialed a different number.

"Hey, Frohike, it's me. I have a favor - something for you guys to take a look at."

"Your better half called. Frohike talked with her. You really got a knack for pissing people off." The greeting was clipped and not what Mulder expected.

"Just say what you mean, Langly, don't hold back on me." Mulder entered the darkened interior of the Gunmen's building, stopping a moment inside the door to wait for his eyes to adjust to the dimness. "Did she say what she wanted?"

Langly snorted. "Yeah, oddly enough, you. Are you planning on ditching her, too?"

Mulder worked at keeping his tone even. "She was out of town and not due back until tomorrow. I didn't leave a message at home because I didn't think I needed to. Not that it's actually any of your business."

"Frohike's in there," Langly muttered and motioned vaguely with his left hand. Mulder watched as the back of Langly's T-shirt declaring `Microsoft Sucks' disappeared into the gloom and jumbled wires of the main room.

"Actually, Frohike isn't here."

Mulder started slightly and turned to face Byers. His voice and been soft, almost cordial.

"Actually, that's okay. I wanted to talk with you," Mulder replied.


"Frohike said you and Scully are `buds'," Mulder said. Byers nodded. "Is there somewhere to talk? I have some - questions and concerns," he continued trying his best to appear sincere and non-threatening.

"Yeah, sure, come into my parlor," Byers said with a hint of amusement in his voice as he turned and ambled back the way he had come. He led Mulder past the area where Langly was hunkered down, busily pounding a keyboard. Little blips of sound emanated from two tiny but, Mulder was sure, very expensive speakers wedged on either side of the monitor in front of Langly. They threaded their way around a table containing a partially disassembled phone switch, cables and circuitry mingling with a half eaten cheeseburger.

Byers stopped abruptly at a dark green door. The paint was coming off in long thin strips, leaving the brownish grey of the original wood peeking through.

"Welcome to my sanctuary," he said twisting the knob and pushing the door open.

Byer's room was spare. It contained a bed, a wardrobe, a rack of free standing shelves and a desk with a surprisingly intricate stained glass lamp.

Mulder moved to the desk and studied the lamp. Its geometric shapes were precisely done, almost delicate. He was sure the base was solid brass, and ran a finger along the bottom, noting the lack of dust. "Nice," he said.

"Thanks. Scully gave it to me. She said it looked like me."

Surprised and suddenly self-conscious, Mulder pulled his had back and stuffed it into his pants pocket. He grunted and said quickly, "So she thinks you're a bright boy?"

Byers ignored the lame attempt at humor, gestured to the desk chair and sat down on the edge of the bed. "What can I do for you, Mulder?"

Mulder pulled the desk chair out. "How close are you and Scully, exactly? How well have you gotten to know her?"

Byers shrugged. "Pretty well, I'd say."

"How well do you know Leo?"

"Not as well. Why?"

"Have you ever noticed any violent tendencies? Any overly aggressive behavior on his part?"

"Not really."

Mulder chewed on the inside of his cheek, pursing his lips as he got up and paced the length of the little room. "What about Scully? She ever seemed afraid of him?"

Byers let out a short surprised laugh. "No, she has never seemed afraid of him, Mulder. Why?"

"Because she has a line of bruises up the inside of each arm, that's why."

Byers frowned. "Bruises. She could have gotten them from almost anything."

"Not these bruises. They looked like marks from fingers, as if someone grabbed her." Mulder paused. "There were thumb marks, too."

"Maybe she just bruises easily."

"Not that easily."

"Have you asked Scully?"

Mulder snorted. "Yeah, in the car the Saturday before last. She was so angry with me I thought she was going to drive off the road. She basically told me to go fuck myself."

"Maybe you should take her advice and stay out of it."

Exasperation picked at Mulder. Something was off, and he couldn't quite put a name to what. Byers was still sitting on the edge of his neatly made bed looking unperturbed.

Mulder let his eyes roam around the room. They came to rest on a line of books. He walked over to the shelves and glanced at them. Nothing struck him as out of the ordinary; Newton's Telecomm Dictionary, The Guide to Fiber Optic Terms, various books relating to computer networks, a thesaurus and a few other reference books. He could feel Byers shift restlessly on the bed behind him. Time to try another tack.

Mulder turned toward Byers, studiously casual. "I can't stay out of it. I'm concerned about Scully. I know you and Langly and Frohike think Leo is a good guy, and I know you think I'm a shit. But you have to believe me when I say that I care about Scully's well-being and about what happens to her."

"Answer me this, Mulder. Why did you cut her off cold? I don't understand that. She doesn't understand that. The fact that she is even remotely polite to you is a testament to her character."

Mulder sighed. He didn't want to get into it, but the subject looked unavoidable. "When she left that summer, things between us were not the best. It was probably a wise decision on her part to put some space between us, but I didn't see it that way then." He began pacing the room, crossing it in four long strides. "It wasn't too long after she left that I suffered a set back resulting from my unplanned brain surgery earlier in the year. I was hospitalized - I missed Scully acutely. I..." Mulder glanced at Byers who nodded to him. He didn't like to remember that summer. It had been a painful, confusing time. Mulder took a breath, collecting himself. "I was without a reference point. Everything felt like it was under water. I don't know how much that had to do with what was happening to me physically, or emotionally. It was probably a combination of both.

That was when I met Karen. She and I have a friend in common, and at his urging she stopped in to see me. She was working as a counselor for a rehab center at the time. I guess he thought she might do me some good."

"And did she?" Byers asked.

Mulder smiled faintly. "Yeah, I guess she did. I began feeling less desperate. Her visits were unofficial, so we mostly talked about our interests, current events - stuff like that."

Mulder sighed. "I hadn't heard much from Scully - just a short letter and a couple postcards. I hadn't written back even though she had included a return address. Karen urged me to contact her, so I had this big idea that I would phone Scully and surprise her." Mulder self-consciously rattled the keys in his pocket. "That's when I found out she was - involved - with someone while she was in Ireland. What killed me was the injustice. I was laying in a hospital bed, and she was fucking around, unconcerned, on the other side of the ocean." His anger was palpable in the room. Byers shifted back a bit on the bed.

"In all fairness, Mulder, she couldn't have known you were in the hospital since you hadn't told her." Byers voice was mild, soothing.

"I know, I know. But at the time, it tore me apart. I was close to going over the edge anyhow, and this could have been the final push..."

"But?" Byers supplied.

"But Karen was there." Mulder shrugged. "My relationship with Scully had always been complicated, at best. The reason I didn't ask her to the wedding, the reason I couldn't let myself contact her was because I was on the edge: I was walking a fine line with Karen and my own stability. Karen was, is, steady, caring -- a comfort to have around. I may have been too hasty when I asked her to marry me, but at the time I think it saved me."

"When Scully couldn't save you," said Byers. "So what's your concern?"

"I think Leo may be abusing Scully."

"Oh, God, you've got to be joking." Byers swiveled his gaze in Mulder's direction. "You're not, are you?" Mulder shook his head. "I can assure you, Mulder, that nothing like that is going on."

"But those bruises, and the fortune teller intimated..."

"Fortune teller? A fortune teller told you Scully was being abused? Mulder." Byers shook his head.

"Not exactly. Just -- never mind about the fortune teller. Those bruises were put there by someone's hands." Mulder dropped back into the chair by the desk. One hand pinched the bridge of his nose, the other dangled loosely by his side.

Eyes closed, he could hear Byers move off the bed and stand, then sit again. When Byers spoke his voice was almost inaudible.

"Mulder - I don't know how to say this exactly, but you just have to believe me when I say that I don't think you need to be concerned. Scully isn't doing anything she doesn't want to. Trust me on this, okay? But if you can't, then I think you need to talk to her about it, since it's really none of my business."

"She won't talk to me about it. She made that clear." Mulder opened his eyes and looked at Byers. His voice held an almost pleading note. "Please tell me what you know. I'm not going to feel easy until I know for sure she isn't in danger."

"Mulder, I can't. I..." Byers sighed heavily. "Scully - if she wanted you to know, she would have told you. All I can say is that I'm pretty sure nothing is happening to her that she doesn't want to happen."

"Like what, Byers?"

Byers was on his feet, almost in pantomime of Mulder, pacing back and forth in the small room. "This is really, really, none of your business."

"But it's yours? Come on, Byers! What the hell could be so hard to say? What deep, dark secret do you know that I don't?"

"Mulder, there are personal things about Scully that most people don't know. You're no different than anyone else in that respect."

"But you are?"

"Yeah, actually, I am."

"Spill it, Byers." Mulder said tightly. He stood up quickly, his body stiff with anger.

"I've noticed that with Scully, things get a bit out of hand sometimes. When... well, people can get hurt. That's all I'm going to say." Abruptly, Byers turned and swung the door open, leaving Mulder behind in the neat little room, still wondering what the hell was going on and how Byers had come to have so much inside information.

The day had turned grey and fog cloaked the warehouses that lined the street. Mulder burst out of the Gunmen's lair, searching for Byers. In the distance, he could just make out a shadowy figure being quickly swallowed by the dense air. He jogged toward it.


The figure paused, then turned. "Mulder, go away. I don't have any more to say. I said more than I should have." Byers stuffed his hands into the pockets of his slacks. A slight wind stirred, blowing his suit coat back, giving him a mock heroic impression.

"How do you know so much?" Are you that close to her that she told you? Did you find out some other way?"

Byers shrugged him off and continued down the block. Mulder strode forward, reached out and caught the shorter man's shoulder. "No, no way. You don't get off so easily. I need answers, Byers."

"There's the Mulder we all know and love. Demanding answers, wanting The Truth without regard as to its cost." Byers voice cut through the fog. "I don't owe you any answers. I don't owe you a thing."

"But you owe Scully?"

"Yeah, I do. I owe Scully. We owe each other, okay?" Byers shrugged Mulder's hand off and pulled away.

The realization hit Mulder like a slap across the face. It couldn't be. Not Byers. It was ludicrous. Once more, he jogged to catch up with the retreating figure. The heavy air wetting his face, curling into his nostrils making it hard to breathe. His open leather jacket flapped around his hips.

"You were involved with her, weren't you." He raised his voice so Byers could hear. It was an accusation.

The figure stopped short. "I told you that it's none of your business." Byers' voice was tired. "Why can't you leave it alone?"

"You know why I can't leave it alone. Now more than ever."

"Mulder - just - it has nothing to do with you."

"How did it happen, Byers. Tell me."

Byers mouth was set in a thin line.

"Please, for my own sanity, I need to know what's going on." Mulder took a step closer to Byers. "Please."

"Not out here." Byers said, pulling his jacket around his torso.

Mulder nodded. "My car's just down the road."

The sedan was almost colorless in the dense fog. Mulder popped the door locks and slid inside. He was tempted to start the car, but by the time the engine warmed up, he and Byers would probably be done. The windshield was covered with a fine mist, rendering the outside world hazy and unclear.

Mulder pulled his eyes from the droplets of water condensing on the window and looked at Byers.

"So?" he asked softly.

"So... after you left, after you got married, Scully was pretty rattled." Byers cut his eyes in Mulder's direction. Mulder nodded, staring again out the wind sheild, not making eye contact. "She took some time off. Frohike was concerned. Well, we were all concerned, but he was the most upset by the whole thing. We all took turns going over to see her every few days. I think we drove her nuts." Mulder could hear the smile in Byers voice. "Little by little, Scully and I discovered that we had a fair bit in common. We enjoyed a lot of the same books and movies. Liked the same music." Byers shrugged. "Things like that. I really enjoyed her company - I like to think she enjoyed mine."

"So you seduced her?" Mulder queried tightly.

A surprised laugh escaped Byers. "Oh right. That's what happened. I'm such an expert when it comes to women, I just turned on the charm and she couldn't resist. Wait'll I tell Frohike and Langly that one. I've never been cast as a Lothario before." He seemed genuinely amused.

"What really happened is that we just got closer. We were both in a lonely place in our lives. The sporadic communications I usually received from Susanne had stopped - I was worried - didn't know what to think. And Scully was just torn up. It wasn't a great romance or anything. We both were emotionally invested in other people. It was just something that happened."

Swallowing his bile, Mulder, stirred his bones and forced himself to look at Byers. The other man was now staring out the passenger window. "So it ended when she met Vega?"

Byers shrugged. "More or less. It had pretty much run its natural course by then. We've remained good friends, clich as that sounds."

"How'd she meet Vega, anyway?"

"Someone she works with she had gotten friendly with. Rita, in Purchasing? Maybe Benefits. Anyways, she's known him for years. Rita, I mean. She and Leo are both from Chicago. Grew up together."

Mulder chewed on the inside of his cheek. "So what else aren't you telling me?"

Byers reached toward the handle of the car door. "I've got to go, Mulder. Anything else you need to know, you'll have to ask Scully herself."

It was a warm night for October. So warm that Mulder was sweating even though he had shed his leather jacket some time before. It now lay on the floor on the passenger side, along with the wrapper from a Mars bar. Mulder slouched down in the front seat of his car wishing he dared to get out and stretch his legs. Idly, he placed another sunflower seed on his tongue, carefully sucking off the salt before cracking the hull with his teeth.

He had been hoping they would have made an appearance by now, but the evening wore on, and there was still no sign of either Scully or Vega. Mulder fiddled with the radio, changing from classic rock to basketball to a talk show about gardening. Anything to occupy his mind for a bit.

A light flickered out on the second floor of the building he was watching. Vega's apartment. Mulder sunk down as low as possible without obscuring his line of sight to the door of the building. Moments later, Vega and Scully came out. Mulder was surprised to see Scully wearing a light, almost summery dress, a sweater thrown casually over her shoulders. Mulder twisted in his seat, straining his neck.

They walked down the street towards the business section of the neighborhood. After they had gone almost a block, he slid out of the car, closed the door softly and followed. He trotted after them, drawing close enough to note Vega's easy walk and straight carriage. While not a big man, he looked young and fit. His biceps filled out the sleeves of his t-shirt. There was no doubt in Mulder's mind that if Vega wanted to do some damage to another human being that he could do it relatively easily. Especially if that someone was three quarters his size.

Impatiently, Mulder watched them stroll across the sidewalk, occasionally stopping to peer into a storefront window, touching hands, bumping shoulders. A warm wind stirred, blowing Scully's dress back in a gauzy billow. They stopped at small caf. Leo pulled the door open and escorted Scully inside.

Mulder jogged across the street and scrutinized the restaurant. A green and white striped awning with black lettering proclaimed "The Venice". Squinting, he could just make out two figures moving away from the entry way and into the main seating area of the caf. If he left now, he would probably have forty five minutes, maybe an hour even if they were just having coffee or a drink. He turned back and trotted off in the direction of Vega's apartment.

Vega's corner apartment was a on the second floor, facing west, overlooking the street where Mulder was parked. He toyed with the idea of trying to gain access to the inside of the building, but he didn't have his lock picks and he wanted to avoid being seen.

There was a promising looking tree sandwiched between Vega's building and its neighbor to the north. It would do, Mulder thought. The neighboring building was dark. The basswood rose past the second floor windows and had still not dropped its leaves. That, and the fact that darkness was rapidly approaching should provide adequate cover. Mulder hoped Vega was not too security conscious.

He crossed the street quickly, glancing around. The block was deserted for the moment. Mulder went around to the side of the tree facing away from the street and grabbed the lowest branch. He hauled himself up, scrabbling for a foothold. The leaves made a swooshing sound as his efforts shook the branches. He steadied himself on the bottom most limb then reached for another. As he pulled his body up, he glanced toward Vega's apartment. There was an old iron fire escape perched outside of the window. Well, the gods of surveillance were with him tonight. He would have to remember to perform the ritual ceremony later. Until then, a small prayer of thanks would have to do. Mulder inched over to the fire escape and stretched out a tentative left foot. He pushed down, testing the structure's strength. It seemed sturdy enough and he slowly transferred his weight to his left foot, grasping the branch above his head more firmly. There was a slight creak, but nothing alarming. He slid his right foot over next to his left, then loosened his grip on the branch.

Vega had left a light on and Mulder had a good view of the main living area.. There were two windows, side by side, in front of him, both open slightly. Mulder reached into the pocket of his jeans and extracted a pocket knife. He flicked a long, slender blade open and began to work at the screen. After a few moments, he managed to loosen the lower portion and slid it up as far as he could, then pushed up on the sash.

Mulder landed with a soft thud on the hardwood floor. He paused a moment, listening. There was the muffled sound of a television and the ceiling creaked momentarily as someone walked across the floor in the apartment above.

He was at the far end of the L-shaped living area. Toward the other end of the front room and off to the left was the kitchen area, where the light came from. Really just an extension of the main room. Immediately to Mulder's left was the bedroom and bath.

Leo's apartment was spare. Mulder wandered around for a minute, taking in the sturdy wooden furnishings, not really sure what he was looking for. A dining table sat in the kitchen area, just to his left as he faced the door that Mulder assumed lead into the apartment building's hallway. To Mulder's right, near the windows that overlooked the street, two chairs and a couch were grouped around an area rug with an American Indian design. A bookcase rested against one wall. As he had in Byers' room, Mulder examined the books. Several generic books on psychology and art didn't give him much useful information. Either Leo didn't have much in the way of imagination, or the good stuff was somewhere else. He found the music CD's more interesting. The Clash was lined up next to Clannaad. Tom Petty next to Ravel.

He moved to the desk and carefully glanced through the papers stacked neatly under a painted rock. The paperweight was more interesting than the papers it held down. On the surface was a childish painting of a bright yellow sun, complete with a smily face. Flowers sprouted near the bottom in the green grass - reds, blues and purples. Mulder turned it over. "To Uncle Leandro, Love Sara" was spelled out in purple paint. She had made the "O" in love into a smiley face, also. Yep, everyone's happy, happy, happy, boy oh boy. Mulder replaced the rock gently and resolutely headed for the bedroom.

Like the rest of the apartment, the bedroom was neat and uncluttered. Seemed like Scully had a thing for men who could keep house. He should have guessed. Mulder squared his shoulders and moved into the room, glancing at his watch. He only had a few more minutes - so he would have to make it fast. He started with the books stacked neatly on the bureau. These were more interesting than the others in the front room. A book called `Bushcraft, a couple of Kurt Vonnegut's and one thick tome entitled "Forensic Medicine and Trauma" - that one had to be Scully's. The thought pained him.

He glanced again at his watch - he really needed to get out of the apartment. As much as he would have liked, he didn't have time to do a thorough search. He made a quick search through the closet, finding more evidence of Scully's presence, but nothing out of the ordinary, unless you counted the vintage leisure suit stuck way in the back. Mulder went through the bureau -- T-shirts, jeans, shorts, socks. He moved to the small chest of drawers that served as a night stand. Mulder pulled out the drawers one at a time. Odds and ends, extra keys, bandanas, a writing tablet, a couple pens. The top drawer was locked. Mulder gave it another tug, wishing he had more time. He certainly didn't want to leave evidence that he was here - breaking the lock was out of the question. He glanced at his watch again. Time to go. With a final tug on the drawer he reluctantly left the bedroom and stepped back out onto the fire escape.

He was pushing down the screen when he heard a familiar voice below him on the street. He stilled himself and glanced down in time to see Scully and Vega amble past the tree. Once they were out of sight, he quickly finished replacing the screen, and hunkered down on the fire escape. He might as well take advantage of the situation.

Through the window, Mulder watched the wooden door swing open, its polished surface catching warm light. Vega headed off to Mulder's left while Scully slipped off her shoes and set them to one side of the door. Mulder could hear muffled sounds coming from the kitchen area. Scully stood near the wall, tilting her head to the right, then the left, stretching her neck muscles in a gesture Mulder found painfully familiar. The light in the kitchen winked off and the apartment was in semi-darkness, the only light shining in from outside the windows. Vega reappeared and moved to Scully's side kissing her quickly on her exposed neck. She smiled briefly, dropped her hand on Vega's shoulder and pulled him closer. Vega moved in to kiss her in earnest and Mulder winced. He really shouldn't stay. He shouldn't be watching this.

Vega abruptly shoved Scully into the wall with a dull thud. He grasped her wrists and pulled her arms above her head trapping them there. Mulder could feel his body tense. There was something dark and scarf-like dangling from Vega's left hand Mulder hadn't noticed before. Apparently Scully hadn't noticed it either, because she gasped when Vega quickly wrapped the black cloth around her wrists. Mulder could feel his bile rise. His stomach was in knots. What the hell was going on?

At that moment, Scully chose to laugh.

It was not a sound that Mulder had ever heard from her. It wasn't apprehensive or nervous as he had expected - it was a sound full of exhilaration and arousal.

Scully's voice drifted through the open window. "You surprised me. Been practicing?"

"Only on you, novia," was the low answer.

Her back was pressed against the rough surface of the wall, her hands held together by the cloth binding. Leo kissed her hard, pushing in against her body and she responded, pushing back against him.

"You got bruises last time, we should be careful."

"I don't care," she answered, rubbing the length of her torso against his. "Touch me, Leo."

"I guess it's lucky you have all these little buttons down the front of your dress." His hands moved deftly along the material, then parted the fabric. No bra, but she knew he had already figured that out. He wisped his hands over her skin.

Scully felt a whimper rise in the back of her throat, her breathing was fast and shallow. All at once the bonds on her wrists seemed too much, and she tugged at them, only causing them to tighten further.

"Stop struggling," Leo whispered against her breastbone. "You know it only makes it worse."

"Leo, please."

"Please what?" he asked, pushing her panties down over bare legs. He knelt down to allow her to step out of them, rubbed his lips on her stomach, kissing her there he reached up to stroke a nipple.

Scully shuddered, excitement moving through her body. She twitched as Leo slipped his hand over her inner thigh, biting her tongue to keep from crying out. It didn't take much these days, she thought. Not if they did things right.

"Please what," he said again, tickling her behind the knee.

"Please now."

"So impatient, Dana." Leo said with a light shake of his head. "You should be more like me."

"Oh yeah, you're a paragon of patience."

"I have my moments."

"That you do," she agreed, her voice coming out in breathy gasps as Leo rose suddenly and pinched the other nipple. He twisted it in his fingers, then buried his head in the crook of her neck and bit down hard. Little spurts of pain traveled along her nerves and this time Scully whimpered in earnest, closing her eyes, twisting against her bonds again. She felt her hips thrust forward of their own accord.

When she opened her eyes, she found that Leo had removed his shirt. His smooth brown skin glinting in the street light coming in through the front windows. Scully's tongue darted between her lips as he reached for his belt and slid his jeans and shorts down to the floor. Before straightening, he reached into the side pocket of his discarded pants and extracted a small object.

Keeping the object hidden in the palm of his hand, Leo stepped forward, roughly grabbing Scully by the hips. Now it's coming, she thought. She brought her arms, still bound at the wrist, down over his head, resting them on his shoulders. Leo pushed into her without preamble, without ceremony. Her breath came out in a whoosh and a small cry escaped her. He was in her now, thrusting hard, her body pinned against the wall. He paused momentarily, bringing his hand up to her left breast. He grasped the nipple and affixed a wooden clothespin. He did the same for the other breast.

"Thought we'd try a homemade toy," he mumbled into her warm skin, tugging on the right clothespin. Scully's breath hissed out as pain, sharp and insistent, coursed through her.

"Too much?" He asked.

"No, not too much," Scully answered, her voice gravelly. Liar, she thought to herself. It was always too much, too much, but not enough. "More."

"More?" He asked softly. He idly flicked a finger at the clothespin. It bobbed gently.

"Yes, more. Now, Leo, please now God dammit, now..." She was dangerously close to babbling, she thought. Leo obligingly pulled on the clothespin again, harder this time, twisting it harshly as he did so.

Scully cried out and her head went back against the rough plaster with a bang. She closed her eyes, giving herself over to animal sensation.

Mulder backed away from the open window. His hands felt unsteady, his stomach queasy and he made his way down the tree as quickly and quietly as possible. Down to the ground. Back to the safety of the car.

He slept in the car that night. If he waited long enough, she was bound to come home. His back was killing him - he was much too old for this kind of crap. He had toyed with the idea of crashing on Scully's couch - after all, she certainly wasn't using it and he still had a key. But in the end he decided to not risk irritating her with his potentially unwelcome presence in her apartment.

Mulder's stomach was still in knots. He had gone from shock to anger and back again, wearing himself and his emotions out. Tired and not thinking clearly, he had driven to Georgetown to wait for Scully to come home.

A sharp rap on the driver's window startled him. He pushed his body into a sitting position and rolled the window down.

"Yeah?" The fresh air and bright morning sun caused him to squint at the lined face that glared at him.

"I knew it was you! It's him, Gert!" The face shouted, splitting Mulder's eardrum. A fleck of spittle landed on Mulder's cheek. He could see it out of the corner of his eyes, jiggling slightly in the breeze.

Mulder wiped his cheek. Another face appeared. A female version of the first

"For God's sake, Carl, I'm not deaf!" She scrutinized Mulder through narrowed eyes. He felt like an unworthy specimen. Gert finally grunted. "So it is him. Big deal."

"Big deal? What? Are you senile? Every time this one shows up, it's trouble with a capital `T'. Gert shrugged. Annoyed, Carl continued. "Oh, I always knew you had a soft spot for him. `So good-looking,' `such a polite young man'," he mimicked her in falsetto as he waggled his head back and forth. Not a bad imitation, Mulder thought.

While Gert and Carl `discussed' things outside his car window, Mulder stretched and scratched at his beard. He had to pee, and he was hungry. He leaned over to the passenger side of the car and pulled the glove compartment open. Ah, just the ticket. Three breakfast bars tumbled out into his waiting hand. Mulder pushed the car door open and edged past Carl and Gert, heading up to Scully's apartment. He would use her bathroom, then wait for her outside.

Her apartment was dark and quiet. The cat was curled into a ball, asleep on the couch. He was tempted to open the blinds and let the morning light in. Looking around at the still familiar interior, Mulder had a hard time reconciling his Scully with this new incarnation - someone out of his reach. Someone he didn't know and couldn't fathom. She slipped around in his peripheral vision, an out of focus image he couldn't get a bead on.

Hopelessness and anger - with Scully, and the situation between them - pricked at him.

He used the toilet, flushed, and washed up at the sink. Blinking, he studied the face in the mirror. God, he looked like shit. Felt like shit, too. Maybe he was shit. Shit.

He dragged his feet out of the bathroom breathing in his surroundings. As he approached the door, the cat lifted his head and turned a yellow-eyed stare on him, blinked once, then returned to his previous position, ignoring Mulder's presence.

The mid-morning sun was warm and comforting on Scully's back. It was a feeling she relished. She felt loose and satisfied as she strolled along the sidewalk. She had asked the cab driver to drop her off several blocks from her apartment simply because she had suddenly wanted to walk. The day was fine, the sky blue, the air just tinged with the scent of autumn. She was looking forward to the Saturday morning paper and some time to herself.

Her good mood was snatched away by the sight of a disgruntled looking Mulder on her front step. Scully stopped, mid-stride. He hadn't seen her. She could turn around and come back later. She could use the back entrance. She knew she would do neither.

She studied him as she slowly walked to where he was seated. His clothes were crumpled, his hair awry, his face unshaven. She was willing to bet he didn't smell too great either. Still, her heart gave an odd flip as she drew near to him.

He squinted up at her through a lock of errant hair. "`Bout time," he mumbled. Unshaven and worse for the wear, Mulder still managed to exude a rumpled allure that made her breathing uneven.

"Well, good morning to you too, Mulder." Scully walked past him up to the door. "You're looking mighty fine today."

She went up to her apartment, Mulder trailing after her. She glanced at him once they were inside and offered him coffee. He shook his head and jammed his hands into the pockets of his grubby jeans, giving her a deep look she couldn't fathom.

He finally cleared his throat. "We need to talk."

Scully nodded slowly, not liking the meaning she read behind the words. "Well, I'm going to shower first and change clothes."

She took her time in the shower, letting the water slide down her skin for much longer than usual, trying hard not to think about who was standing just feet away. Really, a bit of wood, some air space, not much separated them at all. Physically, anyway. Scully mentally pulled her thoughts from the front room and back to the matter at hand and reached for the shampoo bottle. Whatever Mulder wanted wasn't going to be pleasant, she decided. She finally reached for the tap and turned the water off.

Stepping out of the tub, she shivered slightly. The weather was finally turning. Unhurried, she pulled on slacks and a loose sweater. Wiping the mirror clear, she carefully combed her hair and rubbed lotion onto her cheeks. She brushed her teeth. When there wasn't anything left to do, she stepped up to the door.

Time to face whatever music was rumbling around in Mulder's head.

He was leaning against her couch, arms folded across his chest, when she emerged. He looked angry, dangerous, and good enough to eat.

Scully headed for the refrigerator, pulled out a pitcher and poured a glass of orange juice and took a long swallow.

"All right, Mulder, give." She set the glass down on the kitchen table.

"I know what's going on."

"You want to clarify that a little?"

"You and Vega. I know what's happening."

Scully folded her arms over her chest. "And that would be what exactly?"

In three quick strides, Mulder was in front of her, in her space. She felt the kitchen table bumping at her backside.

"This - this is what's happening." His voice was flat and hard as he reached for her arm and pushed up the sleeve of her sweater.

"Mulder it's none of your business." She tried to tug her arm out of his grasp, but his fingers tightened. Scully tugged harder. "Let go, you're hurting me."

"I thought you liked that."

"Not here, not now, not you. Let go!"

Mulder dropped her arm and stepped back. "I don't understand why you would do this to yourself. Let him use you like that."

Scully sighed. "No one is using me, Mulder. If anything, I'm using him." Her demeanor was curt "But like I said, it isn't your business, it's mine."

Mulder approached her again, this time lifting her hand gently, his skin warm against her slightly chilled fingers. He pushed her sleeve back and turned her hand over to expose her wrist. It appeared a bit chafed. He pushed the sleeve further. The bruises were fading to a mottled yellow. Mulder placed his fingers on them softly. Scully shivered under his touch.

"He must be doing some kinda head job on you, Scully, that he can convince you to do this."

"Mulder," Her voice was almost mild. "This isn't something new for me. It isn't as if Leo has brainwashed me, or indoctrinated me into some bizarre ritual. If anything, it was the other way around."

Mulder had dropped his head, staring at the floor. "Mulder look at me," she said quietly. He raised his head slowly. "I'm not doing anything dangerous. The bruises were an accident, okay?"

"What about what the fortune teller said? About how you can't erase one kind of pain with another?"

"You expect me to take someone called Madam Zorina seriously?"

"Answer the question, Scully."

Scully crossed her arms and scowled. "Maybe she's wrong. Maybe you can replace one pain with another."

"I can't believe that this is you, Scully."

"Come on, Mulder, it can't be that big a surprise."

"How come I never noticed anything like this before? We were partners a long time, Scully."

"Maybe you weren't paying attention."

He raised his eyebrows. "Really. You think in all that time I wouldn't have noticed something like this?" He yanked her arm into the air.

"I... " Scully swallowed. "Things have been a bit - more intense than they used to be -- since your marriage."

Mulder flinched away from her, anger coming off him in waves. "It just doesn't seem like you. The Scully I knew didn't let people push her around, wouldn't have let this happen. She would have had too much pride."

"Things have changed, Mulder. I've changed. Besides, It doesn't have anything to do with pride or lack thereof."

"You want to explain it to me, then?"

"Not really."

"That's not good enough."

"Mulder, just go. Go home. This doesn't concern you."

"It does concern me, Scully. I think those dreams I was having were telling me... were warning me about this. I don't like to see you hurt."

"Well, that's very sweet, but about two years too late."

"I've been trying, Scully. Thinking of ways to make things right so that we could be friends again. I'm not too good at it, apparently."

"What does Karen think of all this?"

Mulder frowned. "Between her packing and travel arrangements, I haven't thought to ask."


Mulder nodded shortly. "She's going back to California for a bit. She has some `loose ends' to tie up."

"I see."


"Is everything all right?"

"I came here to talk about you, not me."

"Gotta give a little, Mulder, to get a little."

Suddenly deflated, he dropped to the couch. "It's been coming for a long time. Something just isn't clicking. The funny thing is, for the most part, we get along fine." Mulder shook his head, as if trying to rid it of something unpleasant. "It's probably better this way."

"I'm sorry, Mulder."

He shrugged. "Your turn. Why?"

Still feeling antagonistic, she leaned carefully against the table behind her. She spoke in cool, measureed tones. "It still isn't any of your business, but a deal's a deal. It's hard to explain. It all comes back to control. Needing to be in control, needing to give it away. I can immerse myself in a different world, a world where I can be and do what I want. Where there are no X-Files, no cancer or remission, no aliens, no conspiracies. There isn't anything in that world but me, my desires. I need that - escape. For most of my life, I've been bound up by rules and regulations. I... need to be pushed over the edge sometimes. I've needed that lately."

"And just plain sex doesn't do it for you, huh, Scully?"

"Exactly what is `plain sex', Mulder? Does it include fellatio? Cunnilingus? Only the missionary position?" His attitude had sparked her anger again and she fought to keep her voice level.

"You know what I mean." Mulder's voice was clipped.

Scully paused, not sure of what to say. A small sliver of thought had been pricking her. She supposed now was as good a time as any to bring it up.

"How about you? Don't you ever... play games, Mulder?"

"Games? That's what you think these are?" He pushed up from the couch and began to pace. "You've got lines of bruised up your arms from a game?"

"Essentially, yes."

"How can you say that?"

"Because it's true." Scully could feel the beginnings of a headache pressing behind her eyes. "Mulder, I find it hard to believe, you of all people, wouldn't understand at least some of this."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"It means what it means! You're a psychologist, for God's sake. You're supposed to understand things like this. And you yourself have a huge capacity for suffering." She pinched the bridge of her nose, hoping to ease the mushrooming pain in her head. "Don't you and Karen ever..."

"I've never left bruises." He snapped, his body rigid with agitation. "I *don't* understand, Scully."

"Actually, I think you might."

Mulder glared at her.

"I've seen that video collection of yours."

Mulder snorted and turned away.

"Mulder, it's just something that people do." She looked at his tense expression and amended her statement. "That some people do. Mulder..."

"Not you. I don't understand. Not when it comes to you."

She closed her eyes and sighed, leaning back into the table. "Then I can't help you, Mulder. Whatever you think, I'm the same person I was before. I don't know what to tell you."

She heard the soft click of a door closing. She didn't need to open her eyes to know that Mulder had left.

"Karen, what do you know about the psychology of bondage and sado-masicism?"

"Excuse me? BDSM?" Mulder had surprised her. She looked up from the laundry basket sitting on the bed in front of her. Her dark hair was pulled back into a loose ponytail.

"What do you know about it?"

"A bit, why? I'd think you'd know as much as I do. You're the one with the Oxford PhD. I'm just a regular state educated psychologist."

"Humor me, okay? I want to compare notes. Besides, you have that shrink friend who treats people that engage in BDSM, right?"

"I wouldn't say he treats people for that, but a good many of his clients do seem to have... experience in that area." Karen picked up one of Mulder's ubiquitous grey t-shirts and tossed it to him to fold.

"So tell me about them. What are they like?"

"Well, from what Glen's told me, most of his clients are men, interested in being dominated. They have, on the whole, responsible, if not important jobs. They are generally well educated and successful. Their lives tend toward the stressful." Karen stacked the towel she was folding atop its mate. "Why the sudden interest?"

Mulder shrugged. "I wanted to get some first hand experience, per se. Or second hand, as the case may be."

"Is this about you disappearing last week?"

"Karen, I didn't disappear. I was just in D.C. visiting some old friends."

"Uh huh."

"You were in California, my projects here were going nowhere. I just needed to make some contact." His voice was softer. "I had another dream about Scully."

Karen nodded almost imperceptibly. Her voice held in check "So you went to see her. I know. You couldn't have used the phone or e-mail?"


Karen sighed and tugged at her ponytail. "I went to see her too, at the Bureau, when I got worried about you. I can see why she's made such an impression on you."

"How do you mean?"

"I found her to be - impressive, in a sort of understated way."

"Hmm." An apt description, he thought, turning it over in his mind. "So getting back to this bondage thing..."

"Mulder, are you trying to tell me something?" Karen quirked a smile at him.

"I'm worried about Scully. That she's gotten herself into a situation that isn't good for her."

"Isn't good for her, or isn't good for you?"

Mulder scowled. "How could it be not good for me? I'm just trying to make sure she's okay."

"What does Scully say?"

Mulder shrugged. "Not much, except that I should basically mind my own business."

"From what little I saw of her when we met, and from what you've told me about her, I don't see her as a person who does things she doesn't want to do."

"That doesn't negate the fact that she still might want to do things that aren't good for her."

"No, I guess it wouldn't." Karen began moving a pile of folded jeans to the dresser behind her. "Mulder, I think that unless you have some really compelling reasons, you should leave it be."

"She had bruises."

"You think she is being abused?"

"No, not exactly."

"Not exactly?"

Mulder sighed. "No. Not in the way you're thinking."

"Ah, so that's why the questions on Greg's clientele." She handed Mulder a pile of his shorts. "Just because you think it's wrong or strange, doesn't mean everyone feels that way."

Mulder shook his head. "I don't necessarily think it is wrong for some people, just for Scully."

"Maybe you don't know her as well as you thought."

That had of course, occurred to Mulder, and it bothered him intensely. He moved to the window and stared out. Up until just recently, the weather had been warm enough for Karen's garden to keep its bloom. Black-eyed susans and daisies still colored the backyard.

Karen lifted the now empty basket from the bed and stowed it in the closet. "I need to talk to you about something." The tone of her voice had changed.

"Yeah?" He didn't move from the window.

"When I was in California, at the convention, I was offered a job. A good job, Mulder. In California." He heard her draw in a breath and he knew what was coming. "When I go back out there next week, I think I may stay... a while. I'm thinking that I'll take the job."

Well, when it rains, it pours, she thought considering the man sitting across from her. He wore a serious expression on his face, at odds with the soft light spilling gently into the room from the window behind her. So much for a relaxing Sunday breakfast.

" I want to know what you think, along those lines." Leo rubbed his hand up and down his forearm, clearly uneasy.

"About making this more permanent." Scully said carefully and Leo nodded to her. With a sinking feeling, she stilled in her chair. "I can't... we've talked about this." She looked down at the top of Leo's hardwood table and traced a finger around the top of her coffee cup.

"We talked about it nine months ago. Things have changed. I don't want to wait any longer."

"I know," her voice was hesitant. "Leo, I'm not prepared to make any sort of commitment right now. I know it isn't fair to you."

He sighed. "That's what I figured."

"I'm sorry," she offered.

Leo drew his mouth into a grim line. "Yeah, I know. But not sorry enough to change your mind."

"So now what happens?"

"Now I break my own heart and tell you I think we should stop seeing each other. I don't think I can stand it any other way. It's gotten to the all or nothing point for me."

"I'm sorry, Leo, I'm so sorry." Scully felt tears pricking at the back of her eyes.

"Me too."

The coffee shop was busy. Servers wound around the linen covered tables with precision - it seemed almost choreographed. Scully caught sight of her mother sitting at a corner table, already perusing the menu. As if on cue, she glanced up and spotted Scully, smiled and waved.

"Sorry I'm late, Mom." Scully bent down and dropped a kiss on her mother's cheek.

"Not too late. I just got here a bit ago myself." Maggie laid the menu down on the table and gestured toward the seat across from her. "I got you coffee."

Scully gave her a quick smile. "Thanks."

"How's work?"

Scully grimaced. "A hassle."

"And Leo?"

Scully reached for the coffee, punctured a container of cream and let it drip into her cup before answering. She kept her eyes trained on the beverage in front of her.

"Fine, I guess, he's fine." She glanced up quickly at her mother, then back down. "We're not seeing each other any longer."


"Yeah, `oh'."

"I'm sorry, sweetie, I'm just surprised. You seemed to get along so well."

Scully shifted. "Yes, mostly we did. It's just... I couldn't make the kind of commitment he wanted. Not right now."

"There isn't any perfect moment, Dana. If everyone waited until things were just right, no one would ever get married."

Scully frowned. "I wasn't necessarily talking about marriage, Mom."

"I know, it was just an example."

Scully glanced up as a server approached their table. His pressed black pants and white shirt looked immaculate. She wondered vaguely if his shift had just begun.

Maggie placed her order while Scully looked over the menu. She settled on a turkey club and handed her menu to the server.

"Honey, I'm sorry about Leo. I didn't mean to sound harsh. Your life is up to you. You know that."

"I know, Mom."

"I worry about you being alone sometimes."

"I'm not always alone. I have friends. And sometimes I prefer my own company."

Maggie smiled at this. "I know you do. You're like your father in that way. As hard as his being away was, I sometimes wonder if your father and I would have managed to stay married so long if he hadn't had his time at sea."

Surprised, Scully looked over the rim of her cup at her mother. "I don't think I've ever heard you say that before."

Maggie shrugged and picked up her own coffee. She sipped it carefully. "Well, marriage isn't always a bed of roses, you know."

"Actually, I don't." Scully smiled at her mother. "But I can hazard a guess"

Maggie smiled back. "We had a good marriage, Dana. Some bumps, a few hills, but that's to be expected." She set her cup down deliberately. "Speaking of friends and bumps, have you talked with Fox lately?"

"About a week ago."


"And not much," Scully said curtly. "Why?"

"It would be kind of you to not be so hard on him."

"Since when were you a member of the Fox Mulder fan club?" she eyed Maggie skeptically. A wary expression flitted across her mother's face. "He called you again, didn't he?" She asked, exasperated.

Maggie flushed guiltily. "He was just concerned. He wants so much to make things right."

Scully was suddenly alert. How much would Mulder have told her mother? Not much, she guessed. Her mother seemed much the same as usual, and Maggie Scully was not one for subterfuge.

In rare moments in introspection, Scully wondered whether any other members of her family had the same sexual leanings she did. Did the sting of a palm on skin arouse their ire, or arouse their passions? It wasn't as if she could discuss the subject with her brothers. Perhaps Missy, but Missy was gone. She didn't even want to speculate on what her parents intimate relations had been.

Now she stared at her mother, caution pricking her. "Concerned about what?"

"About you. About him. I think he feels the loss of your friendship even more keenly now that his wife has left."

"Karen's gone?"

"You didn't know?" Maggie was surprised.

Scully shook her head. "He hinted at something like that the last time I saw him, but I didn't think anything was - final." Scully leaned back in her chair. "So now that she's gone, he wants to make nice with me?"

"That's unfair. I think he's been wanting to `make nice' for some time. For your own sake, you have to forgive him, Dana. Talk to him, find out why he did what he did. There must have been a reason."

Scully dropped her eyes and studied the delicate raised floral pattern on the white cloth. She ran a forefinger along the stem of a tulip. "It isn't as easy as it sounds. I spent so long exorcising him from my life - it's difficult to just let him back in. How do I know that he isn't just going to decide that..."

That he might decide he didn't need her again. That she was an impediment in his life. She couldn't bring herself to finish the sentence. The raw pain she had felt two years ago rose unheeded to the surface. Scully felt her jaw clench as she forced it back down, back where it belonged, where it didn't hurt so much, buried under the layers of her everyday life. The life she had made without Mulder.

She looked up at her mother and back down again, flushed and embarrassed. It wasn't like her to break down so easily. Recent events were taking their toll. Mulder's re-appearance and Leo's decision to break things off were upsetting the status quo she had fought to establish. Her feelings were raw and she was finding it harder to keep them leashed.

Across the table, Maggie made a sympathetic murmur. She reached over and gave her daughter's hand a squeeze. "I know it's hard for you. Sometimes the things that are really worth doing are hard."

The server was at Scully's elbow with their order. Conversation lapsed into the mundane.

Just as the server was clearing away their empty plates, Maggie leaned forward. "Dana, isn't that that friend of yours? Over near the door?"

Scully turned around to see Byers hovering near the entrance, scanning the dining area. She lifted an arm and caught his attention. Byers hurried over.

"I'm sorry to interrupt lunch like this. But," he turned toward Scully his vioce low. "I need to talk to you. As soon as possible." There was an undercurrent of urgency in his voice.

Maggie pushed her chair back. "I was just leaving."

"No, Mrs. Scully, I didn't mean..."

"It's okay, really. We were just finishing. Dana, let me give you something for the check." Maggie scooped up her purse and began rummaging around in it.

"No, Mom, I've got it." Maggie hesitated, but Scully waved her off. "It's fine. Really."

"All right. Thank you, sweetie." Maggie bent down and drop kissed her daughters cool cheek. "I'll give you a call."

Byers slid into the vacated seat. Scully waited. She didn't bother to ask how Byers knew where she was. It was a given, she figured, that he would be able to find her almost anywhere she went.


Byers leaned forward and spoke quietly. "I need a favor."

Scully nodded. Waves of contained excitement poured off the man across the table. "I'll do my best."

Byers withdrew an envelope, glancing around at the other caf patrons. "I need to find out whose fingerprint this is. I was hoping you could check it out for me quietly."

Scully pursed her lips. "I'll try, Byers. Where did you get it?"

"It was sent to me by an associate. I suspect it may be Susanne's."

Scully tamped down her surprise. "Susanne? What does it mean?"

Byers shook his head. "I don't know. I keep vacillating. I can't decide if it's a good sign of a bad one."

"Where did your contact get the print?"

Byers let his eyes travel around the room again. "I've told you about as much as I can say at the moment."

Scully reached across the table and squeezed his arm gently. "I'll do what I can."

Scully hadn't gotten to the Latent Print Unit of the Bureau's labs until late Monday afternoon. By then, most of the lab techs had either gone home, or were preparing to do so.

Fortunately, Sofia Brooker was still in. She was hunched over a work station, furiously scribbling notes onto a yellow legal pad. Scully approached her slowly, giving the other woman time to finish writing.

"Well, Dana, hello. You haven't darkened our doorstep in quite a while. These days, we usually see one of your minions." The older woman smiled.

Scully winced. Minions, indeed. "Sofia, if you weren't so close to retirement, and if I didn't need a favor..."

Sofia snorted. "Favor? Figures. Let's see it," she said, nodding at the envelope in Scully's hand.

Scully extracted a black piece of thick paper. On it was a white fingerprint with clear tape over the top.

"Not the most professional job." Sofia held the paper under the work station's desk lamp. "But it'll do. What do you need"

"Everything. I need you to check both the criminal and civilian databases." She looked Sofia in the eye. "I need you to check any government databases you may have access to also."

"All right. Not a problem."

"And Sofia?" Scully's voice was low and she moved a step closer to the other woman. "This is important to me on a personal level. It can't be strictly classified as FBI business."

Sofia pursed her lips. "I gotcha. I was gonna stay late anyhow. Burn the midnight oil. I'll run this tonight. Just me and J. Edgar's ghost."

"Thank you. I owe you one."

"Actually," said Sofia tucking the black paper into a manila folder, "I think you owe me about three. But whose counting? Check with me tomorrow evening. Same bat time, same bat channel." She gave Scully a quirky smile and waved her off. "Now I've got stuff to do. Shoo!"

Scully shoo'd.

When she arrived back in her office, Agent Pittman was sitting in the chair across from her desk.

For the third time in as many weeks, Agent Pittman had found his hard drive sabotaged. More files were missing, folders has been renamed, and someone had left another cryptic message in his e-mail.

"I don't know what to make of it, Agent Scully. I thought using a password would help, but it hasn't seemed to have made any difference."

Scully nodded. "You have no idea who would want to do this sort of thing?"

Alan shook his head. "I did get some strange e-mail. I've printed them out." He put a manila folder on Scully's desk. "You can have these."

Scully opened the folder and picked up the first printed message. Pittman's voice broke in. "I put them in chronological order."

She nodded and began reading. `File me under "interested".' /`Pencil Me into your life! ;)' / `Every day and every way, I'm paying attention.' / `Let me report how I feel. xxoo' / `Re-route your love my way.' / `I'm watching. Scully came to the last one on the page: `Don't underestimate me.'

Scully raised her eyes to look at Pittman. "How long have you been receiving this kind of thing?"

"About two months, I think."

"You think?"

"When it started, I thought it was a joke. I didn't pay much attention. I've only started saving the messages recently. When they started to get... sorta freaky."

"Freaky's a good word for it." Scully murmured, eyeing the papers in front of her. "This is out of my area of expertise. We should get someone else involved."

"I was thinking, I wonder if they have anything to do with those missing reports of mine."

Scully lifted an eyebrow.

Pittman nodded and gestured at the reports. "It's the language. The references to reports and files. A kind of office theme... Maybe they're meant to warn me about something? Who would do that?"

"You've got a point. Maybe this is internal. It's hard for me to tell from this if it's a single person with a grudge or a concerted effort to make the X-Files look bad." Scully shook her head. "Like I said, it's really out of my area of expertise."

"I figured it would be," Pittman replied, then colored, realizing what he had said. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean... I just meant that..."

Scully glanced at him, amused. "It's all right, Alan. I know what you meant."

Alan leaned forward suddenly, his face earnest. "Do you think you could get Ag... umm, Mr. Mulder to look at these? He was a profiler, maybe he could give us some insight? If it's someone in the Bureau doing this to deliberately sabotage our work... You said it wasn't the first time strange things have happened."

"Yes, I did, didn't I?" Scully answered. Then reluctantly she said, "I suppose I could ask Mulder take a look at these."

"Thanks. It would make me feel better."

Scully gave Agent Pittman a tight smile. "I'll see what I can do."

When she had called and asked for a favor, he had wanted to turn her down. When she had said `Please' in a tone of voice that made his bones ache, he agreed.

She sat across from him now, absently stirring cream into her stale coffee while he went through Alan Pittman's e-mails. He risked at glance at Scully. She was staring out the window. The day was overcast and the flat grey light painted her eyes. He knew it had cost her to call him.

"So, how are the X-Files these days?" he asked, still sorting through the papers on the table in front of him.

Scully shrugged. "They're fine. Alan's a good agent. So is Mike Davies. It's nice to be up in the sunlight, but I don't get out in the field as much as I used to."

"Miss it?" he asked, still trying to gauge her mood.

She turned her slate grey gaze on him. A strange aching look flickered there for a moment before she turned back to the window. "All the time."

Mulder cleared his throat, suddenly uneasy. He reshuffled Alan Pittman's e-mails and tapped them with a forefinger.

"From what you've said, and from what I've read here, I'd say that this is a personal grudge. Have you had any particular problems with anything or anyone lately? In general, I mean."

"Outside the situation with Agent Pittman, no. Just the usual flack from above. That sort of thing. About the same as when you where with the Bureau." Her voice was matter of fact. If it weren't for the fact that she was worrying her spoon, he would have thought her completely disinterested.

"I assume you cautioned him, one way or the other?"

Scully nodded.

"What else can you tell me?"

A heavy sigh. "Not much. Frohike and Langly didn't find anything telling when they looked at Pittman's machine. Just that whoever fooled with it really didn't know too much about what he or she was doing. Langly recovered most of the hard drive's data without too much of a problem."

"Well, for what it's worth, I think you need to turn this over to Skinner."

Scully nodded, pressing her lips together in a semblance of a smile. "Thanks. Thanks for taking the time. Alan will appreciate it."

"Do you?"

"Do I what?"

"Appreciate it, Scully."

She bowed her head, hair falling in front of her face. "Of course I do, Mulder. Of course I do."

On impulse, he reached across the formica table and laid his hand over hers. "I miss you. Tell me what I have to do so that we can stop being like this. You're too far away - it hurts."

Scully's head jerked up in surprise, distress written across her features.

"It hurts? Now you think it hurts? I've been hurting since the moment I got back from Ireland and discovered you didn't want..." The words were choked off and she turned to face the window again. "I don't know what to do. I don't know that I can put my whole faith in you again. I can't risk it."

"I know it's hard, Scully. And I'm trying to forgive and forget. Can't you?"

"Forgive? What exactly did I do to you, Mulder? I went away for a couple well deserved months of relaxation. I don't feel bad about that."

Mulder struggled to keep his voice low and bit back the anger that threatened. "I ended up in the hospital when you were gone."

She nodded. "I was sorry, am sorry about that, but I don't see how what I didn't even know about can be held against me."

"I needed you there. I know it's unfair, but at the time I wasn't thinking clearly. I had Skinner, but no one else I thought I could trust. I was afraid - paranoid from the relapse probably - I thought the hospital or doctors were just making things worse. Skinner assured me that they were doing their best, that he was keeping tabs on things. But he wasn't you. And he didn't have your medical background."

Mulder took a wavering breath. "That's when I met Karen. She convinced me that I should contact you if it would ease my mind. By then, I was more rational. So I called. I had your cousin's phone number, and I called." He stopped there, unsure of how to go on.

"And?" Scully asked softly.

"And... and you weren't there. You hadn't been for days. The woman who answered the phone said you would likely be home after the weekend. That you had gone away with a friend. Colin. A friend you'd been spending a lot of time with. Apparently, it was your second trip with this guy." The words came out in a tangle of anger and despair. "I remember thinking, how could she? How could she be so cavalier? Sculy, I wanted to crawl into a dark hole, curl up and never come out."

Mortified, Scully stared at him. "I'm sorry, Mulder. I didn't know. I had no idea you called. At the time, I had no idea you were in the hospital again. And I had no idea that you..." She stopped, the words hung between them.

"Cared?" he supplied. "How could you not think I cared? After my mother died, I thought you understood how much you meant to me."

"I... Mulder, I knew you cared in some way, but I wasn't sure in what way. I just thought that things would go back to normal. To the way they had always been."

"Did `the way things had always been' include you screwing around?" His voice was full of bitterness and frustration.

"I think you know better than that." She had gone cold on him again. Distant. Her eyes and mouth were hard. "Besides, I wasn't under the impression that we had some sort of fidelity pact - you certainly didn't give me cause to think that. I know for a fact, Mulder, that you've done your share of `screwing around' while we were partnered."

"That was before. Before."

"Before? Before what? Before we spent the night together? One night? I was supposed to get all of this out of that one grief filled night when you found out your mother committed suicide? Mulder, you could barely even look me in the eye after that night." Her voice was a tightly controlled ball of fury. She was gripping her coffee cup like it would fly away if she let go. Her fingers had gone white where they pressed onto the mug's surface.

"I thought you understood."

"Understood what? What was there to understand? That we finally slept together and that you regretted it? I got that." she spat out.

Scully pushed back from the table, retreating into the booth as far as possible. "I thought then, that I could take it. That things would be fine as long as we could continue on as partners, as friends. When I came back from Ireland and found that you had left, resigned - I was lost. Angry, confused and hurt. It was as if I had stepped into someone else's shoes. Someone who was me, but wasn't me. `Here you go Agent Scully. Here's your new partner, your old one is gone. Just a huge gaping hole where Mulder used to be. Here's your new life'.

"It took me months, months, Mulder, to get some perspective back and get on with my life. Even then, it wasn't the same. I was functioning, but that was it. What hurt the most was knowing that you were an hour's drive away, and that you couldn't be bothered to see me, to return my calls or acknowledge my attempts to contact you. I felt like someone had cut out my insides."

Mulder fell back, slumping against the back of the booth. The old vinyl was hard against his spine. "I didn't regret anything, Scully. Not one thing about that night. I don't know what to say except that after my mother's death, and the whole business with discovering what happened with Samantha, that I was emotionally frazzled. Tapped out."

"Frazzled. Gotcha." Scully's voice was dull, tired. "And after that? Why cut me off completely? Were you so disgusted with me that you couldn't even answer an e-mail?"

"It wasn't that." His words felt heavy on his tongue. "After I got married - I really wanted to make it work, Scully. I tried so hard. I didn't want to risk anything. Allowing myself to contact you would have been disastrous. I felt overwhelmed, sometimes, just thinking about you. Wondering what you were doing. I couldn't contact you. Not without messing up everything I had with Karen."

Scully was silent, staring into her coffee again. One finger followed the arc of the mug's handle, the other twitched against its side.

"I'm sorry things didn't work out with Karen. I liked her."

"Yeah, me too," Mulder's mouth twitched.

They sat without speaking for several minutes. Mulder watched as the grey of the day turned darker and small, fine drops of rain peppered the window next to him.

"Mulder about Colin... it wasn't what you thought. He was just a friend. In fact, had you been there, he would have been more interested in sleeping with you." Her voice held no trace of the previous acrimony.

Mulder let his eyelids close and dropped his head back. "I'm sorry, I just assumed..."

"An easy assumption to make. It's okay. I would probably have thought the same thing myself." Scully gave him a small, tight smile.

Mulder exhaled. "Can we start over with this?"

"With what, Mulder?"

"Everything. With everything." His voice held a pleading quality, his eyes were hopeful. "Give it a shot. Please?"

She studied him for a moment, pain, anger and yearning mixing in her eyes. Mulder leaned over the table toward her. "Please?"

She was still for another moment, then, slowly, she offered him her right hand. "Hi, my name is Dana Scully and I've been assigned to work with you."

In the morning, there was a post-it stuck to Scully's office door. `Lowly lab tech requests the presence of Her Highness Doctor Dana in the Latent Print Unit at five. Bring cheese.'

Scully's mouth twitched upward and she peeled the note from the door.

At fifteen minutes after five Scully went down the to Latent Print Unit bearing cheese. Well, what passed for cheese in the cafeteria anyhow. Sofia was again bent over her work station intent on scribbling something on the paper in front of her.

Scully peered over Sofia's shoulder. "You're designing a crossword?" she asked, surprised.

"Hobby of mine. Gives me something to do in the wee hours of the night when I can't sleep." Sofia pushed back away from the work station. "I got your results, kiddo."


Sofia rifled through a stack of printouts at her right. "Prints belong to a Susanne Modeski. Don't ask me where I found her. You wouldn't believe it." She handed the printout to Scully.

"Are you sure? Susanne Modeski?" Scully couldn't keep the excitement out of her voice. It was better than she hoped.

Sofia scowled. "Yes, I'm sure. I'm not the new kid of the block, you know. Where's my cheese?"

Scully handed her the pilfered cheddar wrapped in tinfoil. "This is just a stand-in until I can get the good stuff. I promise."

"Humph," Sofia sniffed. "I better be getting some top notch gouda out of this."

"Anything you want. I really appreciate this. It means a lot to me." Scully slipped the printout into her jacket pocket.

"No problem, Dana." Sofia turned back to the crossword. "Anything for Your Holiness."

"This is unbelievable! I can't believe it!" Byers was still sputtering at her as he madly tapped on the keyboard in front of him. He squinted at the screen in the low light of the Gunmen's main room.

Langly sighed in Scully's ear. "He's been wacko ever since you gave him that printout. I know love is blind, but in Byer's case I guess it's had a lobotomy, too."

"How did you manage to find out where the fingerprint came from?" she asked.

"Friend of Byers, the one who sent the print."

Scully furrowed her brow. "Why didn't he just tell you in the fist place?"

Langly shrugged. "I dunno. He's some sort of high brow muckety muck with the FCC. Guess he wanted to know whose print it was first. Who knows how bureaucrats think?"

"Well, where did he get the print? Where is she?"

"He got the print in Belize. Don't know if she's still there yet. Signs look good though. The Muckety-Muck says he was given the print by another source."

"What's an FCC official doing in Belize?"

Langly shrugged again. "Dunno. Didn't ask."

Scully desperately tried to not roll her eyes. Frohike caught her reaction and grinned.

"So what happens now?" she asked him.

"We keep doing what we've been doing. Byers seems to trust his source - we're just trying to figure out exactly where Modeski is and how to contact her without drawing attention to us or to her. Byers thinks the print may be a sign for us to get in touch with her." Frohike stretched and cracked his knuckles. "I'm not so sure about the legitimacy of the second source, but Byers trusts his FCC guy and the FCC guy trusts whoever he got the print from..."

Scully nodded. "I see."

Frohike leaned in close. "He's trying hard not to over-react, but Byers is desperate to find her. I think he has finally come to the end of his rope." Frohike frowned, his voice tinged with concern. "I sure hope this is legit."

They stood for several moments in silence. Frohike finally spoke, shifting uncomfortably as he did so.

"Langly saw Leo the other day. They have that ongoing Tetris thing happening, you know."

"I know."

"Anyway, I wanted to... extend my condolences."

Scully's upper lip twitched. "Condolences, Frohike? He didn't die. He dumped me."

"Yeah, well. Anyhow, it's too bad. I liked him, the son-of-a-bitch."

Scully nodded shortly. "Yeah, I liked him, too."

Mulder paced. He had a lot of room to pace in. Karen was gone and along with her departure went a large portion of their furniture.

Thank God she had left the good television. He had been camping out on the couch, watching videos late into the night when he couldn't sleep. How quickly he had succumbed to old habits. Bad habits, probably, he thought.

Karen had phoned the day before. The conversation left Mulder feeling unsettled. A something-was-out-of-place feeling he couldn't shake. She had sounded good - energetic, excited. Getting on with her life. He wanted to be happy for her. Instead he felt hollow. He reminded himself that it was his choice to stay in Virginia, and not go to California. It didn't matter. He still felt hollow.

Coupled with the hollowness that Karen's departure had left was the other feeling Scully had excited - a coiled yearning that made him ache inside.

Despite the fact that they had agreed to start over, Scully was still distant from him. He could feel her shut down as soon as they started to connect. He wondered if the cause was plain fear or something else. He was trying to be patient, but it had been several weeks.

Mulder looked around for the stereo remote. Damn, he should just get a universal remote and be done with it, he thought. He finally spotted it balanced on the window sill. What the hell? He snatched it up and pushed the power button on. Van Morrison flooded the room. Good enough. He raised the volume. Loud, loud enough to keep from thinking. Thinking was his downfall. Stupid brain.

He flopped onto the couch, laid the remote on his chest and wished for a beer. He had forgotten to stop at the grocery store. He probably had little, if anything, palatable to eat in the house. More bad bachelor habits. Luckily for him, the phone was nearby and he knew the numbers for several good restaurants that delivered. All was not lost.

He again wondered about Vega, and about what Scully saw in him. Idiot, he answered his own unasked question. Why shouldn't she like him? He was, by all accounts, a nice guy. A nice guy wrapped up in a good-looking, well-toned package and ready to do what it took to keep Scully by his side. When he thought about it, he realized should be asking himself why Scully would abandon Vega for him - a decade older, cynical, not always so nice guy with no regular income.

Way to go, Mulder. Just the ticket to brighten up the evening.

He could see Vega's face suspended over Scully's, sweat beading on the man's forehead as he held himself over her. He knew how she would feel under Vega, her body moving with his, her back arching, the way her eyes closed, then flew open when she climaxed, the small sounds she made. There had only been that one night, but, grieving though he had been, Mulder hadn't forgotten. Vega always starred with Scully in these fantasies of late, but somehow, by the end, she always shuddered her release in Mulder's arms.

The dream began slowly.

Leo stood against the wall in her room. The night air was heavy with humidity. She sat up in bed, moving slowly, her movements made difficult by the heaviness in the air that surrounded her. Leo pushed towards her, almost ponderously, and dropped to the edge of her bed. It was then that she noticed he wore no clothes. The dim light that shone from the window glowed on his burnished skin.

"I know what you need." His words dripped with a meaning that she couldn't fathom. "Dana." He leaned into her, stripped her pajamas off and laid his body down on hers.

He began to kiss her eyes, nose and mouth. He pinned her hands above her head and prodded her knees apart. She made no move to help him, nor did she resist. He bit down on her shoulder as he entered her.

Surreal, she thought. This can't be happening.

Leo began to move, hips thrusting down, hips lifting up. Scully's body responded, as always, and she moved with him.

"I love you, Dana, I love you," he said.

No, she thought, no, not me.

Leo shuddered and collapsed onto his side. He curled his body around hers, enfolding her in a tightlye. Scully couldn't breathe, her arms and legs felt bound. Claustrophobia set in. "Dana," he murmured against her skin. She struggled to free herself.

"Scully," he said and ran his hand down her frame. There was a subtle shift in the atmosphere and the timbre of his voice.

"Leo?" She spoke for the first time.

"No," said the voice. She understood now. It was Mulder.

He trailed his fingers along her belly and down in between her legs. He stroked her there. Her muscles quivered, a shiver ran up her spine.

"Mulder, how.." She didn't have time to finish her question. Abruptly, she began to shake. Her hips jerked up and a gasp escaped her throat.

Scully sat bolt upright. Her skin was covered in a fine sweat. The sheets were twisted around her legs and there was the smell of her own sex in the room. She rubbed her temples, clearing her head. Third time this week. If it wasn't so pitiful, it would be comical. Maybe it was anyhow.

Had she believed in portents and omens, she would think that the dream was a sign. But she didn't believe in them. Or did she?

Wednesday, Agent Pittman stopped in to see Sheila Samski in Accounting. Again. For the third time in a week and a half. Alan was beginning to wonder what the hell the woman had against him. Sitting in the visitors chair, watching her meticulously pull discrepancies out of their expense report, he vowed to make Mike come the next time. Sheila claimed that Mike was not helpful, but Pittman was fed up.

"So you rented the car when you were in Tulsa without pre-approval was because..." Her near black eyes pierced Alan. She had a way of holding his gaze a fraction too long that unnerved him.

"Because the Bureau's car was totaled, through no fault of either Agent Davies or myself, and we needed transportation immediately. We called for approval, but went ahead and rented a vehicle assuming it would be covered under the provision for `Vehicle Leasing In Emergency Situations' in the handbook I got from Audit." Hah! He thought, take that! He had done his homework this time.

Samski was clearly taken aback. She blinked at him and colored. "Yes, all right then. I suppose that will be all, Agent." She dropped her eyes back to the file on her desk, dismissing him.

Alan took the long way home that night. Skinner had arranged for his apartment to be put under surveillance. In the last couple weeks, packages had been showing up on his doorstep. One contained a pair of gloves he had misplaced. Another a rare, out of print, book he had expressed interest in. He had been unable to catch the culprit, and the other building tenants hadn't been much help. The general consensus was one of amusement. Pittman hadn't told anyone in his building about the disturbing e-mails or the other problems he was having.

As he approached his building, he could see a dark colored sedan parked across the street. He deliberately kept his eyes in front of him. He didn't like the thought of two other agents keeping tabs on his apartment, but didn't have much choice. He wished there was another way to catch his package-deliverer run amok.

Once inside, Alan closed the blinds. Out of sight, out of mind. Maybe he would get lucky and his watchers would nab someone that night. Yeah, and pigs would grow wings and fly, he thought.

He turned in early. Dora was out of town, and he had been working long hours all week. The stalker situation wasn't exactly the most comfortable thing to live with. He tended to wake easily and his dreams were vivid and disturbing.

Sometime after midnight, the noises began. At first he thought it was the dog - she had gotten into the garbage again. Damn, that would be a mess. Then, as he groggily came to, Alan remembered that he was at home, not at Dora's. He sat up in bed carefully, listening. Everything was quiet now. There wasn't even any discernable noise from the street. He had almost given up and laid down again, ready to assign blame to a half remembered dream, when he heard it. Barely audible, but it was there, an oh-so-faint rustling coming from the front of the apartment. What the hell?

Alan let his eyes adjust to the dark, then pushed back the bedclothes and moved to the bedroom door, wishing he had his weapon. Foolishly, he had not brought it into his bedroom that night. His eyes scanned the bedroom and came to rest on his softball uniform tossed into a corner. His hat was perched on the bat he used in practice. Alan picked it up, the old wood smooth under his hand. Better than nothing. He moved to his bedroom door. The hallway stretching before him was dark. He could barely see the outline of the entrance to the bathroom on his right.

At the far end of the hall from his bedroom he paused. The front room was illuminated slightly by the light coming in from the street. The lamp light poking through the blinds gave the room an odd striated appearance. Alan could just make out a dark figure toward the middle of the room, bent over the coffee table his grandmother had given him. He breathed in and out slowly, and, he hoped, silently, to steady his nerves.

Alan reached for the light switch on the wall. The room was filled with a bright illumination. The figure froze. Alan squinted against it slightly, careful not to let the intruder out of his sight. What the light revealed made him gape. Sheila Samski stood in the middle of his living room, dressed in black. There was a canvas bag at her feet. On the coffee table a number of items were arranged in such a way that they reminded Alan of an altar.

He stared dumbly, confusion written on his face.

Sheila was staring back at him with a combination of fright and embarrassment.

"Alan!" she exclaimed, taking a tentative step toward him.

"What are you doing here?"

"I didn't mean to scare you. I just wanted to..." She gestured at the table. A jumble of objects littered its surface. His service weapon lay off to one side, easily within Sheila's reach. "I just wanted to show you. So you'd understand. The other things weren't working."

"What should I understand?"

"How I feel. How we're right for each other." Her voice was low and trembling. "How much I love you, Alan."

"Sheila," he said, trying the name out. "Sheila, I hardly even... I mean, we work together and all, but..."

"Shhh, I understand. It's confusing, isn't it? How we could be so right for each other without ever having really gotten to know one another?" Her voice was stronger now, and she took a step toward him.

Alan desperately tried to remember what his Bureau training has taught him about similar situations. He paused, trying to gauge her state of mind. He didn't think she was actually dangerous, but he couldn't take any chances. Dangerous or not, he knew he should be careful.

He cleared his throat. "How about if I make us some coffee?"

Sheila wrinkled her brow.

"So we could talk about this?"

She smiled then. "All right, Alan. I'll just wait here." She seated herself on his sofa, picked up the gun and began to rearrange the items on the coffee table. The gun glinted, dull metal as she tucked it into her waistband.

Alan could see that she had set up a collage of miscellaneous items positioned around a picture frame. In the center was a photograph of him at the Bureau - a work function he had attended. She had a photo of herself next to the one of him. A few hand scribbled notes were attached to either side of the frame. Notes in Alan's handwriting. Bits of office paraphernalia surrounded the ensemble. Paperclips, the silver pen from his grandmother he had thought he lost, post-its. Mentally, he shook himself and went into the kitchen. He leaned the bat softly against one wall.

While Sheila hummed off-key to herself on the couch, Alan reached for the phone and quietly dialed. The line rang once, twice, then he heard a click, not from the handset he held to his ear, but from somewhere behind him.

Alan turned slowly to find Sheila awkwardly holding his gun on him.

Mulder had seen the lights in Pittman's apartment come on. He sat up in the car seat a bit straighter and squinted at Pittman's windows. He definitely saw movement. A slight figure was shadowed against the blinds. It moved jerkily, then stopped. Another, larger figure appeared briefly, then disappeared.

Mulder sucked on the inside of one cheek and reached for the car door handle. He stepped outside and glanced at the Bureau car parked down the street. No movement there. He trotted across to the brick building and tugged on the front door. To his surprise, it was unlocked, and opened freely.

He took the uncarpeted stairs two at a time up to the second level. Pittman's apartment would be to his left, he thought, front of the building. He stopped at the first door on his left and pressed his ear against it, hearing movement within, a low murmur of voices. A man and a woman. Surreptitiously, he tried the knob. Locked. Well, now is when I either become a hero or an idiot, he thought.

Mulder put his shoulder to the door, hoping it wasn't dead bolted.

Alan insides felt as if they had been drawn together with a taut wire and the palms of his hands broke into a sweat. He slowly hung up the telephone, as instructed. It's just Sheila Samski, he told himself, Sheila from Accounting.

There was a splintering crash from the front room. Sheila swung around and Alan took the chance to tackle her from behind. By the time Mulder reached the two of them, he had wrenched the gun from Sheila's hands and was grappling on the floor with her. She was quick, and not as easy to subdue as Alan had hoped. With Mulder's help, he was able to get her arms behind her back and tie hold them there temporarily while Mulder went to inform the Agents on stakeout what has happened.

When they came to take Sheila away, it was anti-climatic. Alan had prepared himself for hysterics, not the confused, hurt look she had shot him, and not the despondent acceptance she had shown.

Thank God Mulder had shown up or he might still be standing in his kitchen trying to persuade Sheila Samski to be sensible and put down the gun -- something at which he had been failing miserably. She had held the gun clumsily -- it was almost humorous the way the muzzle had wavered around the room, an unblinking eye looking for a place to fix itself -- but the look on her face had been one of grim determination. He was certain he would have been a dead man.

Mulder showed up on her doorstep at 4:50 a.m., and she found, unexpectedly, that she wasn't as annoyed as she thought she'd be. Standing at the door, she experienced a sudden twitch in her chest, as if Mulder possessed a string that he had tied to her heart, and was now tugging on it. Tug, twist, tug. She held the doorknob tightly, resisting the physical pull she felt.

"They caught the stalker," he said breaking her reverie.

Scully blinked, for a moment unable to grasp what Mulder's meaning. Then it dawned on her. "Agent Pittman's stalker?"

"The one and only. I thought you would want to know."

"Who was it? How did you find out so fast?" She didn't even ask why he had not thought to wait a couple hours to tell her at a decent hour.

"Umm, some woman from the Bureau's Accounting Department - a Sheila Samski, and I was sorta there when it happened."

"Mulder," Scully tilted her head and felt the beginnings of a smile. "How can you sort of be somewhere? Either you were there, or you weren't."

Mulder flapped his arms and gave a half shrug. "Okay, I was there. Just checking things out." He smiled back at her. He looked warm, appealing, loose-limbed and relaxed in his Redskins sweatshirt and jeans. A single yellow leaf - birch, she thought - had caught on his sweatshirt and now hung on his left shoulder. Her hand twitched and she slowly reached up to pluck it off.

"Staking out Pittman's apartment in a tree? Tell me what happened." Her voice and hand were unsteady and she pulled her hand back and folded her arms, feeling foolish.

"How about some coffee, while I fill you in on the details?" He looked hopefully at the kitchen.

"I think I can manage that. I could make something to eat too." At the mention of coffee, her stomach had rumbled.

Mulder pursed his lips and looked doubtful.

Scully rolled her eyes. "Come on, Mulder, I can scramble an egg without messing it up too badly."

"Well..." Mulder began but was interrupted by a loud knocking on the door.

"Must be that time in the morning when all good whackos come to cal,." Scully mumbled and moved to open the door.

Byers was on the other side, looking frazzled.

"What's wrong?" He pushed past her into the apartment - a precise whirlwind. "Byers?"

"I'm leaving, Scully. We found Susanne and Langly came up with a way to fix things, so she'll be safe." Despite his evident fatigue, Byers smiled. A truly happy smile.

"What? How?" This was almost too much for such an early hour. How come they couldn't stagger the visits?

"He's declaring her deceased. I don't know the details yet. I'm on my way to Belize. She's expecting me." He paused. "I just wanted to say goodbye. I'm not sure when I'll - we'll be back." Byers' voice stumbled. He took a breath and slowed down. "I wanted to say that I'll miss you. And thanks, for everything."

Scully stared at him a moment before finding her voice.

"I'll miss you too, Byers." she said, her voice soft. "And your welcome. And thank you, too. For everything. For being a good friend." Scully shook her head. "I think I'm having trouble taking this all in."

Byers grinned. "Me too. But I feel good. Great."

"You do plan on coming back, don't you? Will it be safe?"

"I hope so, on both accounts. We're going to lay low for a while, then make our way back to the States at some point." He drew in a shaky breath. "I'm planning on this working out, somehow. It just has to."

Byers looked over Scully's shoulder, as if noticing that Mulder was hovering in the background for the first time.

Byers raised his voice slightly. "It's good you're here. I wanted to say goodbye to you too, Mulder."

Mulder drew closer and extended his hand. Byers took it and gave him an stiff handshake.

"If you need anything, let me know." Mulder said gruffly. "I'm - I hope things go well."

Scully gave Mulder a strained smile and turned back to Byers. "I'll walk you downstairs."

Outside the sun was beginning to come up making the sky turn into a rosy haze. Byers stopped on the walk outside Scully's building.

"So, are you two..." He glanced up at the windows. "I mean, it's six in the morning. Was he just leaving?" He let his voice trail off again.

Scully smiled softly, almost to herself. "No, Mulder had some information he thought I would want."

"This early?"

Scully laughed. "You know Mulder. His sense of timing leaves something to be desired."

"True. But he does have some good qualities."

"Yes, he does."

Byers moved fractionally closer to her. "Goodbye, Scully. I hope to see you again soon." His voice was quiet and filled with something that made her think of hope and pain. Byers hesitated, then wrapped his arms around her. She returned the embrace, closing her eyes and letting the once familiar scent of his clothes, skin and hair fill her senses. The scruff of his beard tickled her neck.

"Goodbye, Byers. Take care. I'm happy for you." Her voice choked off at the end, muffled by his shoulder.

Byers looked down and his mouth twitched upward. "I'm happy for you, too" He tilted his head towards her apartment windows. "Whatever happens, it's nice to see you both on civil terms again."

"Yeah, it is nice." Scully gave him a final squeeze and stepped back. A whisper of a smile matched the faraway look in her eyes. "You'd better get moving. Don't want to be late."

Byers caught and locked his eyes with hers. "It'll work out, Scully. One way or another."

She lifted her chin to him. "Right. One way or another."

Scully stood in the lightening morning air and watched Byers climb into a rented silver sedan. The door closed, with a final sounding thump, closing him in. He gave her a short wave and a quick smile and pulled away from the curb. She raised a hand in farewell.

A welcoming aroma greeted her return upstairs. Mulder had made coffee. He had also started to scramble the eggs. Well, she thought, this Mulder she could get used to. His sweatshirt had been discarded and was now draped over the back of one the kitchen chairs. Scully studied Mulder as he stirred the eggs and slid two slices of bread into the toaster. He was absorbed in his tasks and seemed unaware that she had come in through the door. Scully watched as he reached up to the top shelf of her cupboard.

A small pang pricked at the lining of her stomach - fear mixed with longing. Scully wanted to take this moment and cup her hands around it, place it gently into a bowl that she could keep next to her drainboard, off to the side, where it wouldn't be disturbed. She could have it there always, take it out and dip her finger into it when she felt empty. Like now.

She should talk to him. Tell him what was really in her heart. What, really, was there to be lost now?

She moved forward into the kitchen and came to stand behind Mulder who looked over his shoulder and gave her a crooked smile. Scully very carefully put her hand out to turn him around, as if he were made of cellophane that she might tear, and laid her head on his chest. She could feel his hesitation, his surprise.


"I don't know how to say it, Mulder. I'm just not sure how." The words were a sliver of glass, cutting her lips as they slipped out.

"Maybe you don't have to. Maybe it will be all right the way it is," he replied huskily.

"You think so?" Doubt crept in.

Mulder's arms came around her shoulders. "Maybe, Scully. I really don't know. In some ways I think, how could it be any worse?"

"At least we're talking now."

"Yeah, there is that." His voice rumbled in his chest, sounding deep and dark, vibrating against her ear.

They stood like that for several moments in silence. Then Mulder asked softly: "What happened with you and Vega?"

Scully quelled the sigh she felt rising up. "We just... I couldn't make the kind of commitment he was looking for. There was always something holding me back."

"What about now? With... us?" His voice was tentative.

"You mean do I feel like holding back? No, not anymore."

Mulder spoke again, his voice less tight. "If we... if we continue on... I don't know if I can do what Vega did for you."

Scully didn't answer immediately. When she did, her words were careful. "Maybe you won't have to, Mulder, maybe you won't."

She didn't say that she thought he could if he tried. There was time for that later. In her experience, inner pain faded slowly, like a deep bruise. What had taken years to unfold couldn't be changed easily. Nor was she certain she wanted to change. She knew, certainly, that there was a difference between erotic pain and her need to feel recklessly overwhelmed. She needed to start making the distinction. Maybe she had already begun.

And there was the possibility that she had spoken the truth. Perhaps he wouldn't need to.

Perhaps, given time, she wouldn't.

End Thanks for reading. Tell me what you thought. fran

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