In the dream she was a little girl again, flying down the stairs in the thin light of early morning to check on the rabbit she'd been trying to protect the day before. Bill had threatened to kill it, though she could see now, being an adult, that it had been an empty threat, designed merely to provoke her in the way big brothers often do. At the time, however, his words had terrified her and she had tucked the tiny, squirming bunny, unthinking, into an old lunchbox in the basement and then had run upstairs.
The rabbit had been forgotten. When she'd thought of it next, shortly after waking up, she'd run down the old wooden stairs, heart thumping, to find the small white body stiff, the life gone from it.
She'd blamed herself, though she could see now that there could have been any number of causes for the little rabbit's death. It could be that he 'd simply passed through too many small, eager hands in the days preceding his incarceration in the metal box. Still, she'd shed many tears over the small, still form, experiencing a piercing emptiness she'd never known before. In the end, though, the lesson had served her well; it had made her more aware of the consequences of her strategies at protection.
It was Mulder she was watching over this time, officially her ex-partner and yet in reality still very much her partner, the man who had--once again--saved her in the process of her saving him.
Dana Scully rolled over and looked toward the window. Pale light was beginning to fill it. She needed to be up, in the shower, preparing for another day's work--or cover--as a teaching pathologist at the FBI Academy.
Fox Mulder loosened his tie as he emerged from the front door of the J. Edgar Hoover Building. He paused, looked around, and headed for a trash can near the curb. He aimed carefully, tossed... and the sheaf of paperwork in his hand slid cleanly through the hole in the center, like a polished lay-up shot. Two points--the final two of the game, as it turned out. He looked up and squinted grimly into the brightness. It was all over; he'd been cut loose. He concentrated on his breathing, on keeping it even, steady.
Albert Hosteen, the old Navajo, had once asked him if he was prepared to sacrifice himself to the truth. He'd believed he was, though the drop-off seemed deeper, and the chasm below it more treacherous, now that he found himself at the cliff's edge.
A few seconds later the traffic light at the intersection near him changed and Mulder moved into the crowd, letting it give him direction. Down a block he hesitated, looked both ways and then started slowly to the right, toward the Washington Monument. Reaching the Mall, he left the sidewalk and strode out into the grass. As he walked he pulled the tie from his neck and stuffed it into the inner pocket of his suit jacket. Then he took off the jacket and hung it over one shoulder. He concentrated on his stride, deliberate and even, left foot and then right, rhythm substituting for certainty, the green grass passing in a blur beneath him.
The exit interview had been a mockery, as he'd expected. The decision to cut him loose had already been made--or pressed upon them--their evidence of his contact with the X-files trumped up but conveniently designed to feed the preconceptions of the men who thought they were making the decision. Anything he could have offered in rebuttal--if he'd had anything--wouldn't have been given a second glance. He'd gone to the interview itself only to please Scully, to satisfy her that he'd followed protocol and that if they could indeed unearth some credible evidence of a conspiracy against him, he'd at least have shown himself to be responsible; he wouldn't have slammed the door completely.
And the options now were... what? His life felt like the slow-motion debris from an exploding grenade, bits flying in every possible direction with no center, nothing solid. His access was gone. The search that had fueled him for years--the search that had been his life, the search for his sister--had run into the roadblock, or maybe the brick wall, of credibility. Maybe Samantha wasn't who he'd always thought she was. Maybe she was the product of an unspeakable liaison between his mother and the Cigarette Smoking Man. And his mother: Just when he'd thought he'd finally broken through that shell she always carried herself in, she'd lied to him again. What was she hiding? Who was she trying to protect?
Mulder looked ahead and walked faster now, as if to leave his speculations behind. He'd let his thoughts overwhelm him three nights ago and he'd nearly put a gun to his head. Had put a gun to his head, momentarily at least, until he'd been stopped by fate's idea of a practical joke: Alex Krycek. The shock of realization had been like a cold shower--sudden, chilling recognition of how close to the edge, for all his rationalization, he really lived, and how easily motives and actions could be justified. He'd made himself believe Scully'd be okay on her own. She was strong, but for as much as she held him up, she was still human. She wouldn't have deserved to find him on the apartment floor with half his head blown off. Sometimes she stumbled, the way anyone did. And who would have been there to pick her up, to help her, or even to notice a woman struggling through life wearing the careful camouflage of 'I'm fine' to ward off all comers?
The Monument was crowded, tour bus loads of people milling in clusters near its base. Mulder skirted the area and kept going. Off to the right of the Lincoln Memorial was a quiet pond and a spot that--hopefully--would offer some peace, or clarity.
Walter Skinner sat at his desk, absently nudging the corner of a file folder with a pencil eraser. It was done now; Mulder was officially out. The power of his access--of his position as Assistant Director--should have meant something to Mulder in the way of backup, and yet he'd exposed himself twice in the last week, like a sniper foolishly firing when everything around him was quiet, blatantly advertising his position. He'd gone to Senator Matheson to inquire about Mulder and then he'd given Scully a tip that had turned out to be a marked bill. The Cigarette Man had seemed unaware of his indiscretion, but that hadn't kept Alex Krycek from figuring it out almost immediately, and what did that mean in the end? How far would the information travel? He couldn't afford to stick his neck out, which left him like a grunt--an infantryman--suddenly reassigned to the kitchen, left to wipe off cafeteria trays while the war went on all around him.
Letting out a sigh, Skinner pushed back his chair and went to the window. Outside, the day was deceptively bright.
A knock came on the office door.
"Come in." Scully put her finger by her place in the technical journal and scanned rapidly to finish the paragraph she'd been reading.
The door squeaked as it swung open and a rush of cool air swept into the room.
Scully's breath caught. Her finger pressed down harder on the shiny surface of the page. Diana Fowley stood in the doorway.
"...Yes?" she said as smoothly as possible, though something inside her tensed.
"Do you have a copy of the lab workup you did on Gibson Praise?" Diana paused and smiled briefly, as if no bad blood had ever passed between them. "I realize you've just moved in here, but my copy seems to have disappeared from our office and--"
"Are you accusing someone?"
"No." Diana's expression revealed only surprise.
Scully looked away, toward the window. She could feel her pulse drumming, the flow of her blood.
"I don't need it today," Diana went on. "But if I can have a copy when you get organized, I'd appreciate it."
Scully forced herself to smile. "I'll make a note of it."
Scully took a slow breath. By the time she'd exhaled Diana had gone, pulling the door shut behind her. Scully forced herself to loosen her grip on the arms of the chair. She was a professional. Without a dispassionate, professional approach she would have no chance of figuring out the significance of this unsettling little visit.
She stood and walked slowly around the desk.
When he reached the stairway leading to the water, Mulder paused. It was a large pond--eight and a half acres according to the brochure the National Park Service put out--and yet it was off the beaten path. Tourists flocked to the Smithsonian, the Washington Monument, the memorials. There was no monument here; maybe that's what made the difference. The Canada geese liked it well enough, though. Mulder picked a step near the bottom and sat down in a patch of shade.
The air was hazy with humidity. Mulder squinted out across the muted green expanse of water and watched it ripple slowly with the vague movement of air. He picked up a large, dry leaf from the stair above him and crushed it absently, rubbing it, unthinking, between his hands so that only tiny fragments fell onto the step below.
Deep Throat had told him, once when he'd hovered on the threshold between this world and the next, not to give up, to return to the world of the living and not to look into the abyss. That there was truth to be had, but that no justice came with it. Well, maybe justice was a pipe-dream, but the things he'd seen--the hybrid corpses on the Navajo reservation, the women abducted and tested and made sterile, his partner's cancer--they were reason enough to keep searching for it. The men who'd done those things needed to be brought to justice. And beyond the pawns and the thugs and the sell-outs stood Cancer Man. The smug old bastard had to be the key, the peak of the pyramid. Smoky wasn't likely to be reporting to someone higher up on the food chain. Mulder's deductive reasoning told him this, but so did his profiler's hunch. The man's mannerisms and actions spoke directly to the controlling mastermind personality: the constant, meticulous planning; the tendency to view life as a chess game, to seek out strategies with high potential payoffs; even the ability to let others think they were running things, all the while pulling the strings himself from behind the curtain.
And if Old Smoky, for whatever logistical--and for whatever twisted personal--reasons, was waging this campaign against him, then the only way to get his life back, and the job that supported it, was to go after Smoky himself. What was it Krycek had said once? That the thing these men feared most was exposure? Expose him, you expose his crimes; you destroy the destroyer's ability to destroy.
Mulder pulled a sunflower seed from his shirt pocket, put it in his mouth and bit down too hard, forcing splinters of shell into the tender seed inside. He spit it onto the pavement and picked another seed from his pocket. But where to start? Where did he get a handhold, or a foothold? Trying to nail Old Smoky would be like attempting to capture the drifting smoke from the old man's ever-present Morleys.
Weary, Mulder leaned forward, head in hands. The sun beat a hot path across his shoulders and the back of his neck. He tried to focus on the warmth, to let his speculations go, but the lurking doubts were creeping back, seeping into him like the sunlight penetrating his shirt. Maybe he was he falling back into the same old pattern, instinctively rebuilding on the same shaky foundation as before simply because he didn't know any other way to live. Maybe his life had been nothing more than the manifestation of some deep-seated psychological need or deficiency.
Maybe he was what everyone else said he was.
But what could you do to Cancer Man? Anything overt would draw more fire than he could combat. Whatever he did would have to be something covert, untraceable. Otherwise Smoky's retaliation, as it had in the past, would most likely target his partner.
Mulder looked up suddenly, his jaw hard, and squinted out over the green water. There was the problem: It was impossible to make a move without affecting her. Smoky'd like that. Maybe he'd planned it that way. He might not have figured on Scully becoming the kind of partner to him that she had, but the fact was, their closeness had made her vulnerable. It still made him wince to hear her words when she repeated what Kritchgau had told her: "He said that the men behind this hoax... behind these lies... gave me this disease to make you believe." It would have to be different this time, but without Scully, how far would he get?
Mulder stood and stretched his legs. He picked up his jacket and shook it, then turned to leave. Several steps behind him sat a pale-looking girl with a backpack and tired clothes, eating something from a fast food bag. She smiled when their eyes met, as if she had no qualms about being caught staring.
"Nice afternoon," she said as he passed her on his way up the steps.
"Yeah, nice," he replied without feeling.
Diana Fowley pulled the green ottoman close to the window and sat down on it. So often this apartment seemed too large, too impersonal. She'd preferred the friendly clutter of the Paris flat with its welcoming old chair and the wrought-iron balcony where red geraniums bloomed. Life, deep and hearty and sometimes painful, seemed to infuse Europe with an intensity she'd never known here. It had almost been enough to make her forget--momentarily, at least--the bigger picture, the grim future she'd been preparing for all her life.
Europe had nearly been enough to heal the tender spot she'd inadvertently allowed Fox Mulder to burn into her heart. He'd been an assignment, a game piece to be strategically placed in order for the greater plan to continue. She'd intended only to do her job, to forward the plan, but he'd overwhelmed her with a living, pulsing humanity for which she'd had no ready defense. His hope, his passion, his trust--all were beyond the pale of the dark world she'd grown up in. And it was frustratingly attractive, in spite of Mulder's obvious impracticality, to touch that kind of hope, as if the world would go on, as if the future could hold a thousand positive possibilities. Difficult, too, to realize that for all the attractive brightness of that single candle flame, it was she who must control it, starve it, ensure that it would never illuminate the shadows.
It was obvious, now, that she'd been used to do it again, to manipulate Mulder's search in some way through his untrusting partner. Why had the Gibson Praise file disappeared? Neither Mulder nor Scully would have taken it since they already had the information; Scully herself had done the workup. No one else within the Bureau had any interest in the data, or even took it seriously for that matter. Jeffrey wouldn't have bothered to take the time to find the report and throw it out, no matter how much he disbelieved in the possibility of alien life. The material in the X-files, as well as the shape of the future, was completely beyond him. He was nothing more than a place holder in this assignment, meant to keep the Project from being exposed.
Mostly likely her father had slipped the file out himself, knowing that she'd go to Scully looking for a replacement. It would be yet another small opportunity to augment Scully's inherent distrust of her as the mysterious woman who'd once had a tie to her partner. Beyond the inevitable emotional jolt, Scully, ever the analyst, would deduce that she was being watched, that this was a further warning not to step out of line, that she wasn't free to press ahead in anonymity with any personal agenda originating in the X-files.
Diana rubbed her hands to warm them and looked out over the expanse of Washington outside the window. She'd considered the fact before: that windows here never opened to the outside the way they did in Europe. Safety factors would be cited, but the fact remained that they were designed to keep life inside, rather than open you to the invigorating and often messy contact with the life and breath beating beyond the glass.
Scully tilted her head to one side and then the other, attempting a release of tension as she waited for the traffic light to change. If she'd met Diana Fowley under completely different circumstances, she wasn't sure her reaction would have been any different. There was something stiff and closed-off about the woman. Something she was hiding. Diana had set off her internal alarm that very first time, when she'd been just an unfamiliar face in a roomful of people gathered at Jeffrey Spender's briefing. A Russian chess player had been murdered... or so they'd thought until Mulder had pointed out that little Gibson Praise, not the Russian, had been the intended target. Diana had spoken up quickly in agreement and Mulder had said her name--"Diana"--with palpable surprise, but also with distinct welcome in his voice.
It wasn't any business of hers whether Mulder had a personal life, or who it included. Even Diana Fowley if that was his choice. It was the suddenness of it, and the fact that she'd thought she knew him, that had thrown her off--that combined with the fact that Mulder was easily led, that he believed so easily and so sincerely that any number of people could take advantage of him, and had. He didn't need someone who agreed with him so readily, who would only add fuel to his fire until it flared out of control and burned him. And there was that something--that unreadable Mona Lisa look of Diana's that hid volumes, none of it, she was sure, positive or straightforward.
Diana's appearance in her office today had been deliberate, a warning that though she was out of the J. Edgar Hoover Building, she was still being watched, that she couldn't operate with impunity. But how could she explain that to Mulder? Diana was the one thing that brought the flow of their partnership to a skidding halt. While her instinct refused to let her trust the woman, Mulder couldn't believe that Diana was anything but his supporter. If she said or even inferred anything at all about Diana's motives, they always found themselves in an abrupt, standoff silence. Mulder had laughed at her truths in the past, had even jabbed at them with his sarcasm on the way to admitting they were right, but nothing had left him sullen and silent like the suggestion that Diana had an agenda, and that it wasn't compatible with his.
She'd intended to drop by Mulder's after she got off work, to see how the exit interview had gone and how he was doing, whether he was holding up under the pressure of everything that had happened, but she dreaded the prospect now, the specter of ending up in another stony silence when she needed to know they were still both on the same team, partners in their fight against the Consortium and what it had done.
Scully shifted in her seat. She could call him. It was late and miles past her own place to get to his. She could get a feel for his mood over the phone and never have to mention Diana Fowley at all.
The light above the intersection turned green and the cars in front of her began to move. Scully eased her foot onto the gas pedal and looked ahead.
He'd paced himself. He'd refused to panic or to let himself get caught up in the apparent hopelessness of the situation. Instead, he'd looked ahead to the goal: to somehow expose Cancer Man, to gain some leverage over this pathetic excuse for a human being, a man with no humanity and no conscience. To take back control of his own destiny.
Mulder pushed aside the papers on his desk and rested his forehead in one hand. He could see his father again, the way he'd been when he graduated from the Academy, not proud but tightly congratulatory, almost reluctant. Somber. His advice? Not the usual--to investigate carefully, to leave no stone unturned, or to make a mark for himself--but to live economically, to put away whatever he could as a hedge against hard times, or uncertainty. At the time he couldn't have guessed what kind of uncertainty his father had in mind.
Mulder rubbed his temples with his fingertips and closed his eyes. He'd taken the advice about saving. There was money put away--a reasonable cushion. But it wouldn't last forever with the expenses he had. And no matter how he ran the figures--and he'd been sitting here for nearly an hour pushing a pencil--he would have to cut his expenses, and the item with the biggest target painted on it was his apartment.
He took off his glasses and laid them on top of the half-dozen sheets of paper full of calculations, then stood and stretched. The sky outside the window was hung in shades of purple and gray, the last of the sun's strength backlighting a spreading mass of dull clouds near the horizon. The street lights had gone on, spreading bluish light on parked cars and on a silhouette emerging from a gray sedan. Mulder looked more closely at the now-familiar motion of the figure and smiled. It was Scully.
The door to the apartment opened just as she was about to knock on it, and Mulder's face greeted her. Scully composed herself and managed a self-conscious smile as he ushered her inside.
"Hard day at the office, Dr. Scully?"
"Not really. No harder than any other day." She set her coat on the back of a chair and followed Mulder to the couch. "It's just been long. I'd forgotten how much I dislike the commute."
She took his cue and sat down. He seemed unusually quiet.
"So what about you, Mulder? How did the interview go?"
"It was an excuse, an exercise." He shook his head. "Nothing I could have said would have made any difference, so I didn't." He looked up at her, the beginning of a smile at the corners of his mouth. "Not even anything I would have liked to say. You would've been proud, Scully."
She raised her eyebrows in return, but no words came. She was tired. She thought suddenly of three nights ago, sitting here in the dark, watching over Mulder's sleeping, exhausted form. Of driving to come here that night, her heart churning, knowing he was in trouble, afraid of what she would find. And of sitting hours earlier on a cot in a homeless shelter, filled with the thin emptiness of the dispossessed.
"We've got to find those people, Mulder," she said, watching the file folders on the coffee table go slowly out of focus. "The Consortium. Before they take more innocent lives." She stopped abruptly, picturing the little blonde-haired girl with her plastic toys, thinking of Glenna Marquez, who she'd never seen... and never would, now that she'd been killed for the crime of glimpsing--or at least claiming to have glimpsed--the missing Cassandra Spender.
His voice was soft. She refocused on the room, on him. "Just thinking," she said.
He leaned forward.
"Scully, do you remember the time we caught Krycek in that fertilizer bust? With the militia group?"
"You mean when he professed to love this country? At least for show."
"Yeah, then." Mulder shook his head. "He also said if you expose him--if you expose Cancer Man--then you take away his ability to destroy."
She frowned. Her mouth opened slightly but words--thought--didn't seem to come immediately. "So you're going to go after Cancer Man?"
"It... It's all I can think to do. He's the key. He's got to be."
"What do you have in mind?"
He shook his head. "I'm thinking about it. Something covert. Something he can't trace back to either of us, so he doesn't come back at you for it." He looked away suddenly. She saw him swallow.
"Mulder--" She sighed. The room was quiet. She leaned back against the back of the couch and looked at her partner's silhouette. The line his jaw made when he was confident about something was missing now. Muffled footsteps came from the hallway outside. The sounds of muted voices came closer, passed and then receded.
"Ever wish you could have five minutes with your dad, Scully?" his voice came finally, quiet. "You know, to ask him something?"
"My dad had a couple of minutes with me once," she said.
He turned to look at her. "What do you mean?"
"When I was in the hospital. After I was... returned. After my abduction."
His eyes urged her on.
"He came to me in a vision, or a dream--"
"What did he say?"
Scully looked down at her hands. "That he would give up everything he had, everything he'd earned, all his medals, his promotions... just to--" She looked away.
She could feel him looking at her, waiting. She'd had no intention of sharing this confidence between a daughter and her dead father; the urge to reveal it had crept up on her suddenly, without warning. She swallowed against the pressure in her throat and ventured a glance in Mulder's direction. A softness in his expression encouraged her.
"...just to have one more second with me, he said." Her voice was quiet, nearly dry. "It's very sobering, if you think about it."
He paused and nodded agreement.
"What about your father, Mulder? What would you ask him?"
"When I went to see him, the night he was shot," he began, not looking at her, "he said something to me about having your own politics, that once you threw in with the group their politics were yours and you could be held accountable. I... I've just been thinking about that, that maybe he wasn't in with the rest of them. Not in the same way, I mean." He leaned forward. "You know how fathers are sometimes, Scully--harsh because they want to make you tough enough to survive?"
She let her hand rest carefully on his shoulder. "Sometimes it's the only way they know to tell you they love you."
He stared ahead but nodded.
"You okay, Mulder?" she asked after a moment.
"Yeah," he said quietly, turning to face her. His eyes were clear. Something like hope filled them.
(end 1 of 14)
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