Release Valve

By Slippin' Mickeys

XxXxXxXxXxX

Chapter 1

XxXxXxXxXxX

It had been five months since Antarctica, and he could still feel the sharp cut of cold air in his nose, the crunch of snow under his cheek as Scully held him close, half his clothes gone, half himself protecting her. It was August in DC, the air hot and thick with car exhaust and pollen, the humidity at 100%, and there were still times he thought he might never be warm again.

He leaned back in his chair at his seemingly permanent temporary desk in the BCU bullpen and picked up his phone, bored. Muscle memory dialed the number for him and she picked up before the second ring.

"Mulder, I have a class starting in less than ten minutes," she said, without so much as a hello. "You know this."

He sighed into the receiver.

"I'm bored," he said.

"Yeah," she replied, the touch of frustration gone from her voice, replaced with a casual empathy. "Me too."

"Want to get lunch later?"

"I can't," she said, then added, "Skinner's assistant called me this morning. I have a meeting with him at 1:30."

"Today?" He asked, incredulity creeping in.

"Yes, Mulder. Today. Listen, I've got to go, I've got students coming in. I'll call you after class."

She hung up without saying goodbye.

He tipped his chair back as he hung up the receiver and looked up to a familiar hulk approaching his desk.

"Agent Mulder," Skinner said, giving him an assessing look.

"Sir?"

"I'd like you to come by my office at 1:30."

"Today?" Mulder said, once again. Boredom turned him peevish.

"You have somewhere else to be?"

"No, sir."

At that Skinner nodded and stalked off.

So. Both he and Scully had been called in. This was either really good, or really bad.

XxXxXxXxXxX

When he came into the anteroom outside Skinner's office, Scully was already there waiting and there was a maintenance worker in the process of removing Skinner's name tag from the door. He and Scully shared a look of raised eyebrows and he plopped down next to her on the couch with a touch of petulance, the wind coming out of his sails. Maybe this wasn't a good news meeting after all.

At that moment a young agent came walking in, nodding at Kimberly.

"I'm supposed to see him at 1:30?" He said to her.

He had a short, choppy haircut and thick preppy glasses. He pulled at his tie like he wasn't used to wearing it as Kimberly directed him to a chair opposite Mulder and Scully. He plopped down and gave the armrests a little drum, clearly not a kid who was used to sitting still.

Skinner popped his head out of his door then.

"Agents?" He said expectantly.

All three stood up and Skinner turned to the third man.

"Stone?"

"Yessir?"

"Give us a minute."

"Yessir." He plopped back down.

Mulder and Scully exchanged another look and followed Skinner into his office.

"I have some news," he said once they were all settled. "The OPR recommendation finally came down."

"Don't keep us hanging," Mulder said, trying to keep the glibness out of his voice.

"The X-Files are being reopened," he said.

"I'm sensing a 'but,'" Scully said, leaning forward.

"Less of a 'but,'" Skinner went on, "more of an 'and.'"

"And?" Said Mulder.

Skinner looked at them a moment without saying anything. Assessing or deciding, Mulder couldn't quite figure out.

"Your budget has increased," He finally said. "You'll have two more full-time agents assigned to the unit."

Scully's face fell, and Mulder leaned back.

"Not to sound ungrateful," Mulder said, holding up a hand, "but our recent experience working with other agents on cases associated with the X-Files has not gone all that great."

He remembers the five o'clock shadow scrape of Krycek kissing his cheek. Shoving Spender into a wall. The latent smell of cigarette smoke and a basement full of ash.

Skinner leaned back.

"I've been promoted," he said, looking at each of them in turn. "To Deputy Director. I've been given authority to shape and oversee the X-Files unit."

Skinner let that sink in a moment before going on, his tone indicating that this wasn't a negotiation.

"Agent Mulder will be the X-Files SAC. You'll be giving the orders to the agents under you and will have hiring and firing approval."

Mulder shot a look at Scully.

"What about Agent Scully, sir?"

"Quantico has requested she stay on there to teach."

Mulder opened his mouth to protest, but Skinner raised a calming hand.

"Technically, she would be an instructor in residence at Quantico, but assigned to the X-Files as official consult. Able to take leave from teaching whenever needed in the field or at the Hoover."

He gave Scully a pointed look.

"The decision is obviously hers. Quantico wants her, but so do I."

"So do I," said Mulder quietly.

Scully tucked her chin to her chest, her eyes to the floor. Neither of them had been quite expecting this.

Skinner leaned back and gave them a moment.

"I thought you'd be pleased," he finally said.

Scully looked at Mulder.

"I can't speak for Agent Mulder," she finally said.

"You can," Mulder said with confidence.

Off his look, she continued.

"But I'd like nothing more than to continue our work."

"Great," said Skinner, "It's done, then."

He rose. Mulder made to get up too, but Scully spoke.

"Sir," she said, "what about the X-Files? The actual files, sir. The ones destroyed in the fire?"

Skinner resumed his seat.

"Kimberly had begun digitizing them months ago," he said, off of Mulder's surprised look. "She was able to save most of them to a secure server. She said the only ones she hadn't gotten to were those from the last year or two."

Scully looked at Mulder.

"I should have those on my computer," she said to Mulder, "you should too. After the most recent Executive Order, we've been required to keep digital copies of all reports since almost that long ago."

"My laptop was in my office when it burned," Mulder said flatly. "If I'm not mistaken, yours was, too."

Scully gave a pinched look and Skinner once again stood.

"About that," he said, walking to his office door and gesturing outside.

The young agent who'd been outside waiting walked in and Skinner pointed him to an empty chair around his conference table.

"This is Agent Stone," he said, "He works in Computer Sciences and Crimes – he's been working to restore the destroyed computer units from your office."

Off a surprised look from the X-Files agents, Stone shrugged.

"Standard procedure. Evidence conservation and protection."

"Were you able to save any of our work?" Mulder asked.

Stone looked at him.

"I was able to save all of it," he said. "And I want in."

XxXxXxXxX

"I don't understand," Scully said at last.

Skinner nodded his head at the young agent.

"He's here for a job interview. He'd like to be one of your two new X-Files agents."

Stone sat up, animated.

"I've obviously read all the files on your computers," he said, "and when I was done with those, I read all the digitized files."

He looked at them both keenly.

"I've read every single X-File. It's fascinating work. I want to do it. I want in."

Scully raised an eyebrow.

"You've read every file on a secure server?"

"I, uh, may have hacked it," he said, momentarily sheepish. He nodded toward Skinner. "I came to the Assistant Director with my concerns on just how secure it is. I can help you with that. I can help with a lot. I know I'm pretty green, but I've read your files back to front and I know I can help you."

Skinner looked to Mulder.

"Your discretion," he said. "Your unit."

Mulder appraised the young agent for a moment and turned to Skinner.

"I'll want a full background check. If there's so much as a hint of Morley smoke anywhere in this kid's past, he's gone. He doesn't come near the X-Files OR our computers. If he passes that," he turned to look at Stone, "trial basis. As short or long as I see fit. This isn't a tenured position."

Stone sat up straight, smiling.

"Yes, right. Sweet. Awesome. Yes."

XxXxXxXxX

These men. These men who would do anything for a hairsbreadth of power. She'd been kidnapped, micro chipped, infected with a malignancy. They'd taken her ova and her career and the love of her life more than once. She couldn't watch the news without seeing their malevolent machinations in every third disaster. Don't even get her started on Colony Collapse. If she could kill every one of them and film it, she's convinced snuff would become her kink.

But maybe… Maybe they had a chance now. To bring down the Consortium. To bring down the Smoking Man. Cautious optimism was still a pretty generous name to put to it, but she finally felt if not a sense of hope, at least not the Sisyphean doom and gloom from months before.

She looked over her glass of wine at Mulder. He'd shown up, energized, practically bouncing up and down at her door, bearing pizza and Chianti.

"I'm surprised you didn't put up more of a fight on Stone," she said.

Mulder shrugged.

"Maybe it was the high of getting the X-Files back, but I also don't want to look a gift Skinner in the mouth, if you know what I mean."

"I know what you mean."

The terms of getting back the X-Files was best case scenario. It was probably too good to be true.

"He seems young," she added.

"He IS young," Mulder said, "I went over his file this afternoon. Graduated at 20 from MIT and recruited straight out of graduation. He's only been a full agent in the Bureau a little over two years."

"Any field experience?"

"None."

"Oh boy." Scully took another swig.

"What he lacks in experience, he makes up for in enthusiasm," Mulder said. "I'm hoping I can train him up my way."

"The suits are gonna just love that," she deadpanned, and Mulder smiled.

He leaned back on her couch and fished an errant piece of pineapple from his shirt collar.

"How you can eat that on pizza, I'll never understand," Scully said, standing and bussing their plates back to the kitchen.

Instead of taking the bait, Mulder blew out a sigh, his mind elsewhere.

"I don't even know where to start on finding someone for the other position," he said. "If we're not careful and don't do it our way, we're going to end up with another fucking Krycek."

Scully winced and made her way back to the couch, tucking her feet under her on the other end. She tried not to look at the space by her door where Melissa died.

"I may be able to help with that," she said.

"Oh yeah?" Mulder leaned forward.

"I have a student," she started.

"Not another baby agent, Scully," Mulder said, "we don't have the budget for a nanny."

"She's new to the Bureau, yes," Scully went on, "but was a beat cop and made detective extremely fast. Ten years with the LAPD before she went Fed. She's smart, Mulder. She asks all the right questions." She waited a beat. "She reminds me of you."

"Devastatingly handsome and hard to love?"

Scully tucked her chin to her chest, not meeting his eyes. She made a decision then, hard and fast.

"I've never found it hard to love you," she said quietly.

XxXxXxXxX

There it was.

They hadn't talked at all about what happened in Mulder's hallway before Antarctica. Mulder wasn't even sure she remembered it and it had been too awkward to ask.

"Scully," he said. She still hadn't looked up, so he reached out a finger and swept it gently down her leg.

She looked toward him and rested her cheek on her knee.

"You deserve to know," she said, "after everything we've been through."

Her voice was husky. His pulse started to race. His finger was still on her leg and he fought the urge to skim it higher.

"You know, if you're officially stationed at Quantico, it's not fraternization," he said. He wasn't sure if he came off glib or flirtatious. He wasn't sure of anything.

Scully reached for her wine and took a measured sip.

"Are you coming on to me?" She said. Flirtatious.

Jesus.

His throat bobbed.

"I'm coming over with wine more often, is what I'm doing," he said, reaching for his own glass to cover for his nerves.

"In vino veritas?" Scully said.

"The veritas has always been our problem, Scully. Maybe the vino is the solution."

XxXxXxXxX

"Mulder," she said, rising up on her knees. She reached up and ran a hand lightly over his cheek. She'd never just come right out and said how she felt about him. Before the bee thing in his hallway, a surveillance chat about root beer and iced tea was as close as they'd come. Enough, she thought. She wanted to kiss him, but the timing didn't seem right. This was too profound a moment for them. She knew if she kissed him, she'd be outside herself instantly and right now she didn't want to miss a thing.

He seemed to push into her hand slightly, leaning into her touch. His eyes never left hers. His cheek was sandpapery under her fingers and she remembered that fingertips have more nerve endings that most places on the body. Most.

"Let's get our unit put together," she said softly. "I'm not going anywhere."

Almost six years of ghost hunting, she thought, and flashed on the industrial smell of hospital sheets, the acrid tang of gunpowder. Mulder loping off on his knight's quest to find his sister, Scully the squire at his side. He was six feet of rumpled suits and taut muscles and she'd fallen in love with him years ago. Hopelessly, stupidly, embarrassingly in love with him. He cracked bad jokes on stakeouts and mumbled her name in his sleep – of course she wasn't going anywhere.

XxXxXxXxX

She leaned forward and gave him a lingering kiss on his cheek. He tried not to let his disappointment show.

"Yeah," he said, his voice husky, too. "Yeah."

He leaned back, banking the fire on the moment.

She grabbed the glass out of his hand, which he hadn't realized was empty, and took the rest of their meal detritus into the kitchen. He rose.

"Send me the file on your candidate, would you?" He said, making his way to her door. He took his time putting on his coat and lingered in the doorway.

She came over slowly and stood in front of him, close.

"Scully?" He said, his hand on the doorknob. He leaned forward so their foreheads were almost touching. He needed to say it before he lost his nerve. "I love you, too."

He practically ran outside then, his blood thrumming. It took everything he had not to crow triumphantly at the moon.

XxXxXxXxX

Jasmine Isaacs. 36 years old. African American. California native. Highly decorated detective with a great solve rate. Single, no children.

The kid thing grabbed Mulder by the collar first thing. It was good to have no kids. Just another thing to use against you.

He leaned back in his chair and blew out a sigh, his thoughts turning depressive. What a fucking way to think, he thought. That children - most people's high point-were just another tool in the arsenal of the Consortium.

The basement office felt different. The smell of paint fumes still permeated the space. It was a different shade of grey than the last one, off by just a touch, which grabbed Mulder's eye every time it strayed from the file in front of him. He'd gotten a new I Want To Believe poster from the same place on K Street where he'd gotten the first one, a throwback to a simpler time. They'd done a bit of work on the office in the refurbish – got rid of the wall leading to the annex and managed to squeeze three small desktops into the space. He thought Scully's should be bigger than the other two and considered clearing off a different area to make it more senior looking. She had her own office at Quantico and it was probably twice the size of the entire basement. Good, he thought. She deserved that.

He turned back to the candidate's file in front of him. She looked promising. Had a high solve rate. Nothing in her background suggested an ulterior motive, nor highlighted a weakness the Consortium could exploit. So far, so good. If Scully wanted her, so did he. Stone seemed into the paranormal shit. Isaacs could be the level-headed counterpart. He wanted to get them both into a room and see what happened. Isaacs graduated from Quantico next week.

Scully walked in then, the smell of the street still on her clothes. Hot dog vendors and fresh air, the amniotic petrichor of the Potomac. He could hear the elevator doors close as she sloughed off her coat.

"How goes it?" She said as a greeting.

He flipped the file closed and casually tossed it on his desk.

"What a time to be alive," he said.

XxXxXxXxXxX

Chapter 2 - "Fi Follet"

XxXxXxXxXxX

When the moon circles the Earth, it pulls with it the ocean.

She used to lie in bed and think about it. How the world can be your compass - moss growing on one side of a tree, the North Star, sunsets on the horizon. Even if you can't see it, you know the moon is above you when the tide is high.

She felt that with him. When he was near, her blood would sing, rising to meet him whenever he passed. Standing in the doorway of their office, she can feel him even now, her skin prickling and flushing on the high tide of love.

"You're here early," he said as he walked in. He loosened his tie and rolled up his sleeves, moving over to the cabinets behind his desk.

"We've got a case?" she asked, hoping he hadn't caught her mooning over him. She watched his movements with some trepidation. She hadn't seen him since Friday and the new agents started today.

He turned from the cabinets, unveiling his slide projector with fanfare. She made a show of rolling her eyes.

"The kids are going to love this," he said.

"Are they?"

"You did."

"Did I?"

Mulder gestured around the office.

"The X-Files Headquarters: Where Fun Goes To Die." He said. "If you're going to make fun of my slideshow, you can wait in the hallway."

"Sorry, Mulder," she said, grinning. "I'll try not to ruin it."

"Thank you," he said, earnestly.

On that, Stone and Isaacs walked in, chatting.

XxXxXxX

"Morning," Stone said, his excitement palpable. He had a doofy grin pasted on his face and a cup of coffee in his hand.

Isaacs was more subdued. She was tall, taller than Mulder remembered. He had met her last week on a long lunch with Scully where they'd talked about her past cases and what she might expect. There'd been a 15 minute stretch where she'd kept cutting her eyes to Scully, obviously expecting her to tell her they were kidding, an elaborate hazing for rookies at the top of their class. Even now she looked as though she expected people to jump out of the woodwork shouting "Gotcha!" Despite that, there was a quiet confidence about her. She looked at Mulder and nodded to the desk annex.

"Anywhere in particular?" she asked.

Mulder shook his head.

"Anywhere you like."

She put her things down on the desk in the middle and went about unpacking her few belongings.

Mulder looked to Stone.

"The computer you wanted," he said, "the requisition got approved. Should be here next week."

Stone pumped a fist in the air and dropped down at the further-most desk, the wheeled chair coasting a few inches before coming to a stop.

He looked at Mulder, suddenly pensive.

"Can you…" he started to say, then, with more confidence, "have Purchasing bring it down here as soon as it arrives. In the box, sealed. I'll do the set up myself."

Mulder leaned back against his desk and shot Stone an approving look.

"Look at him, Scully," he said, "not in the basement five minutes and already he's achieved a level of paranoia it took me 2 years to get to myself."

"You forget he's read all your files," she responded.

"Our files," Mulder said, giving her a meaningful look.

"Speaking of the files," Isaacs said from her desk, "I've read the Greatest Hits you sent me over the weekend. I wouldn't mind taking a look at the rest."

"You'll have some reading time," Mulder said, turning to the projector and hitting the lights, "you two are flying to Cajun Country this afternoon."

"We've got a case?" Stone asked, excitedly.

"We've got a case," Mulder said, punching in the first slide.

A picture of a small lake took up a wall of the office. It was slightly out of focus and a few degrees off being perfectly horizontal. It was close to either dawn or dusk, the water an inky grey, the trees in the background reaching up toward a new moon. In the far right of the picture a small green glow floated a few feet above the water, its twin reflecting off the lake below it.

"This picture was taken about three months ago in Vermilion Parish, Louisiana," Mulder started. "Anybody know what we're looking at here?"

"Will-o'-the-wisp?" Stone offered.

"Two points to the kid," Mulder said, then turned back to the slide, "Will-o'-the-wisp, also known as a hinkypunk, spook light or ignis fatuus in Latin, meaning 'foolish fire.' It's an atmospheric ghost light, which, according to English folklore is usually seen by travelers at night, especially over bogs, swamps or marshes. It resembles a flickering lamp and is said to recede if approached, drawing travelers from safe paths.

"This," Mulder went on, pointing to the picture, "was published in a local paper around the time it was taken and became quite the sensation. Locals, particularly teens, started going out to the swamp at night, trying to catch a glimpse. It was all fun and games until three weeks ago, when it took its first victim."

Mulder switched the slide and the picture of a teenage girl came up. She was all smiles, looking directly into the camera as if daring it to take the picture. She had sky-high bangs and dangly gold earrings.

"Vanessa Glassie, fifteen years old. Disappeared while out with friends on wisp hunt. They'd just seen the ghost light when she told friends she had to pee and that was the last they saw of her. Local authorities have yet to find a trace of her."

He clicked to the next slide. Another young girl, with dark pixie hair and a shy smile.

"Then last week, Marcie Vincent, a friend of Vanessa's, went missing as well, from the same area. Friends said she'd talked about going out and looking for her friend. She told her parents she was going to bed one night, and they found her room empty the next morning. The window open and shoeprints in Marcie's size heading away from the house. The will-o'-the-wisp was seen in the area the same night. The local PD asked the FBI to investigate."

Mulder cut back to the first picture of the ghost light.

"And they think what, the lights took her?" Scully said.

"Not exactly," he said, "there's a more geographically targeted legend about the lights in that area of the south, called—"

"Fi follet," Isaacs finished for him.

Mulder cut her an impressed look.

She shrugged.

"My mom was born and bred in Louisiana," she said. "But the fi follet is said to mostly play harmless pranks."

"And in some cases attacking people for vengeance and sucking the blood of children." From Mulder, who dramatically flipped to the slide of Vanessa Glassie.

The room was silent for a moment but for the hum of the projector. Then Mulder went for the lights.

"Your flight leaves in four hours," he said, dismissing them, "you should pack."

They both stood to leave.

"I want updates twice daily," he said, "even if there's nothing to report, you call me."

They nodded and left.

Scully leveled a look at him,

"Will-o'-the-wisp, Mulder?" she asked, incredulous.

"You heard Isaacs," Mulder countered, "it's called fi follet."

"It's swamp gas!"

"We've got two missing kids, Scully," he said, "and authorities asking for help. Isaacs could do this one in her sleep and Stone needs seasoning."

"So you're saying you don't think the lights took those girls," she asked, looking for clarity.

"No," he said, finally, "I think it's probably swamp gas."

"I wish I had that on tape," Scully said to no one in particular.

XxXxXxXxX

"You should take lead on this," Stone said, as the wheels touched down on their flight from DC.

"You've got seniority," Isaacs replied.

"I've also got fuck-all for field experience," he said, "you should take lead."

Isaacs nodded. Same shit, different town. She knew she wasn't going to get much different as a Fed, but the pay was better, the resources infinitely superior, and this paranormal stuff was the first work-related thing that had piqued her interest in years. You could have knocked her over with a feather when Agent Scully called her into her office her the last week of class and proposed the job.

"That's some crazy intense white people shit," her boyfriend had said to her when she told him about it.

She'd had a tendency to agree until she'd read the files. For the first time in her adult life, maybe she wouldn't be bored.

XxXxXxXxX

It was coming on evening when they followed the sheriff through the woods to the last place Vanessa Glassie had been seen. It was a tiny clearing in the swamp, the damp ground covered with brown pine needles and empty beer bottles. The air was thick with the scent of pitch and the dull whine of insects. The five of them, Stone, Isaacs, the sheriff and two of his deputies barely fit into the open area once they trampled in, and one of the deputies, McLaren, the tall one, nearly toppled into a tree. He kicked a beer bottle into the brush in frustration as he righted himself, his mood dark.

"Fucking kids," he muttered.

McLaren hadn't been very welcoming since their arrival. Whether he was pissed that the Feds had taken over the investigation or the fact that the lead Fed was black, Isaacs wasn't quite sure.

She smacked a mosquito as it landed on her neck and turned toward the sheriff. She really fucking hated the South.

The sheriff caught her eye and nodded toward the empty bottles and cans.

"The lights are just an excuse," he said, "the kids mostly just come out here to party."

"Who owns the land?" Isaacs asked.

"The State," he replied. "I don't really have the resources to stop these kids. They'd just find somewhere else."

He pointed to the brush off to their left.

"That's where she was last seen," he said.

Isaacs took a look, turning on a flashlight and running it over the area.

"We swept it good," the younger deputy, Miller, said, clearly trying to be helpful.

Isaacs gave him a small smile.

"There's probably not much to find. I'm sure you guys were thorough." She turned back to the Sheriff. "You had dogs out?"

He nodded.

"For both girls. They couldn't find anything here. The dogs at the Vincent girl's house lost her scent about a quarter of a mile from home. We've just come up empty."

"I'd like to talk to Vanessa Glassie's parents right away if you don't mind. Marcie's too."

"I'll take you over there in the morning, first thing."

She nodded. Stone spoke up then.

"And the lights?" He said, indicating toward the water on their right. "This is where they were seen?"

"This is where the picture that ran in the paper was taken," said the Sheriff in the affirmative. He narrowed his eyes at Stone. "You really think the lights had something to do with this?"

Stone shrugged.

"You never know."

McLaren huffed out an audible sigh.

"And the lights were reportedly seen the night the Vincent girl went missing last week?" Stone went on, ignoring him.

"We had a few people call in," the Sheriff said, pointing East. "Her family's house is about a mile and a half that way."

"There anything else around here?" Isaacs followed up, "other than the road and the Vincent residence? Any businesses or facilities?"

"None," he said, "this is all State land until it hits the Vincent property and they've got about 500 acres."

Isaacs nodded.

"Thanks for bringing us out."

XxXxXxXxX

The next morning came too soon for Isaacs. After checking in with Agent Mulder, she and Stone had stayed out in the swamp for hours waiting to see lights. They'd bagged out at about 2am, with nothing to show for it but bug bites and pine sap on their ass.

"This is my best suit," Stone said dejectedly as he took another swipe at his backside and unlocked the door to his motel room.

He came out of the same door at 7:00am with a pillow crease in his cheek, carrying a small cup of steaming coffee. They were dinky motel rooms, but at least each one had a coffee pot.

Isaacs slid into the driver's seat.

"You get any sleep?" she asked him.

"A little," he replied, on a yawn. "And I'll tell you, my enthusiasm for field work is rapidly waning."

Isaacs smiled at him.

They pulled up to the Glassie residence at the same time as the Sheriff and were quickly ushered inside.

Mrs. Glassie was short with frizzy black hair. She was pale and when she asked them to please sit, her smile was hollow. Her clothes hung off her loosely, like she'd lost a lot of weight.

Mr. Glassie was of medium height and build, and quiet – he wouldn't meet their eyes.

Isaacs decided to just jump right into the questions.

"Had Vanessa been acting strangely before she disappeared? Talking about any new friends or activities?"

"We've already told the Sheriff everything we can think of," Mrs. Glassie said.

"And tell them too, if you don't mind, Doris," the Sheriff said, "they're here to help."

"Nothing like that," Mrs. Glassie said to Isaacs. "She's a good girl."

"Did she have a job?"

"She wanted to, but I told her school was her job now, that she could get one next summer."

"How about a boyfriend?"

On that, Mr. and Mrs. Glassie shared a look.

"No," Mr. Glassie said, short.

Something about that was off, and Isaacs decided not to reply, to see if they filled in the silence themselves. It only took about ten seconds for Mrs. Glassie to jump in.

"She wasn't supposed to," she said, "she's only 15."

"But she did anyway?"

"No," again, from Mr. Glassie.

"Bill," from his wife.

"He's not good enough for her."

Ah. So there was a boyfriend.

"What's his name?" Isaacs asked quietly.

"Martin Dubois," said Mrs. Glassie.

"We talked to him," the Sheriff said then, "he didn't give us much, but he seems like a good kid."

"He's a goddamn dropout!" Mr. Glassie practically shouted.

Stone cut in then.

"Mr. Glassie, did Vanessa have a computer?"

The question seemed to shake him out of it.

"Yes," he said, with a touch of pride, "a good one."

"Mind if I take a look?"

"We didn't find anything on it," the Sheriff said.

"Just covering all our bases," Stone said with a smile.

Mr. Glassie led him upstairs.

Mrs. Glassie looked to Isaacs.

"The neighbors are all saying it was fi follet," she said, on a sniff, "isn't that silly?"

"Will you show me her room?" Isaacs said, not wanting to answer.

Mrs. Glassie led her up the staircase and into a bright green room. It was covered with posters. Boys, soccer, Dave Matthews Band. Stone was sitting at her computer, typing, Mr. Glassie hovering nearby. There was a phone on the bedside table, one of the clear ones that showed the working parts inside.

Isaacs pointed to the phone and looked at Mr. Glassie.

"Does she have her own line?"

"No," he said, "she kept asking for one though."

Isaacs looked to Stone, then addressed Mrs. Glassie.

"Do you mind giving us a few minutes?"

Mrs. Glassie turned to leave, then looked to her husband, who didn't budge.

"Bill?"

They both slowly shuffled out.

Isaacs came up behind Stone.

"Anything?" she asked, leaning over his shoulder.

"Not yet," he said, "Nothing on AIM or ICQ. No email or anything like that. But," he said, continuing to type as he spoke, "her history did get wiped the afternoon before she went missing."

"Think you can recover it?"

Stone looked at her.

"I'm not going to dignify that with a response," he said.

She snorted a short laugh.

About 90 seconds later, he leaned back and pointed to the screen.

"There we go," he said. "'DuBoy' to 'SoccerStar22' in an unlinked chat room. Check it out."

Isaacs leaned in.

"I'll be damned."

XxXxXxXxX

Chapter 3 - "Think That Was a Message?"

XxXxXxXxX

Mulder hung up the phone and turned to Scully.

"They found Vanessa Glassie," he said.

"Alive?" Scully asked.

"Alive, well, and living with her secret boyfriend," he replied.

"Please tell me the secret boyfriend isn't some 50 year old sex offender."

"He's a 17 year old kid emancipated from abusive parents. Holding down a job, working on his GED, and much more friendly and helpful to investigators than our missing 'victim.'"

"She doesn't want to go back?"

Mulder shrugged.

"She's in love."

"How'd they find her?"

"Agent Stone," Mulder went on, "Found a wiped chat room, apparently. They used the will-o'-the-wisp as a cover. When her friends were busy looking at the light, Vanessa slipped off into the bushes and away to her happily-ever-after."

"Did Vanessa and her boyfriend fabricate the ghost light?" Scully asked.

"If they did, they're not copping to it," Mulder said. "And Marcie Vincent is still missing. As of now the fi follet is still our number one suspect."

XxXxXxXxX

Vanessa Glassie sat back in the chair in the interrogation room with her arms crossed, shooting looks of pissy venom between Isaacs and Stone.

"You were friends with Marcie Vincent?" Isaacs asked her.

"I want to talk to Marty."

"That's not possible right now," from Stone.

Vanessa rolled her eyes with the bearing and precision only teenage girls seemed able to achieve.

"I'm not going back to my parents," she said then, flatly.

"The law says you have to," Stone said.

Isaacs shot him a look. Don't piss off the bear.

"Not if we're married," said Vanessa, smugly.

Isaacs knew the law in Louisiana required parental consent for marriages of those under 18, but she wasn't about to put a toe in that water.

"My job isn't to tell you how to live your life, Vanessa," she said, pointing at Stone. "We don't care what you do."

Vanessa seemed to stand down at that.

"What we do care about, and what our job is, is to find Marcie."

Vanessa visibly sobered.

"You guys were friends?"

"Yeah," Vanessa said. "She… She was supposed to bring me more of my stuff that night."

"What night," said Stone, "the night she disappeared?"

Vanessa nodded.

"We were supposed to meet in the swamp," she said, "she never showed. I thought she just got caught sneaking out and got grounded or something."

"Have you heard from her since then?" asked Isaacs.

"I've been kinda trying to lay low," said Vanessa, clearly starting to feel a sense of guilt.

"Do you have any idea what happened to her?"

Vanessa shook her head.

"Will you let us know if you think of anything or if you hear from her?" She said to the girl.

The girl nodded, drawing into herself.

"They..." she said, as they stood to collect their files, "they're saying it was the fi follet. With Marcie. Was it?"

Isaacs and Stone looked at each other.

"Did you see the fi follet?" Stone asked her, "the night you fled?"

"Only out of the corner of my eye. Once it came out, I told Kelly I had to pee and made a break for it."

They made to leave.

"But," Vanessa said, "I thought I saw it again later. On our way back to Marty's the night we were supposed to meet Marcie."

"What do you mean?" Isaacs asked.

"From the car. It was a ways off, but, it was a green light. It seemed to be moving around a lot."

"Was it over the swamp?" Stone asked.

"That's the thing," Vanessa went on, "it wasn't near the swamp at all. It was off the highway a ways. Toward Marcie's house."

XxXxXxXxX

Mulder let out a low whistle.

"This is getting good," he said into the receiver.

"What do you think, Agent Mulder?" Isaacs asked him. "Any insight?"

"She said the green light off toward Marcie's house was moving around a lot?"

"That's what she said."

"That doesn't sound like a will-o'-the-wisp."

"It doesn't sound like swamp gas, either," said Isaacs.

"You got me," said Mulder. "See what you find, and let me know."

"Yes, sir," said Isaacs.

"And Isaacs?"

"Sir?"

"Be careful."

Scully turned a glare at him as he hung up.

"Mulder, if you don't start putting those calls on speaker phone, I'm going to quit."

He gave her a cheeky grin and brought her up to speed on what Isaacs and Stone had found.

"What are you thinking?" Scully said when he'd finished.

"I don't know what to think, honestly. But I'm starting to think it's not swamp gas. And I'm also starting to think maybe we should go down there."

"Let's give them another day," Scully said, "see what happens."

Mulder nodded and made his way over to the graphing table. He pulled out a satellite map of Louisiana and brought the desk's magnifying glass down on a section of Vermilion Parish.

"This is about where the will-o'-the-wisp picture was taken," he said, pointing to the map. "And here's the highway that runs through it. Here's the Vincent property over here," he pointed again, adjacent to the swamp. "And this is the State land, I'm guessing this is roughly where Vanessa Glassie saw the lights."

"And what's that?" Said Scully, leaning down and trying to get a closer look.

She pushed the magnifying glass closer to a small grey smudge on the map where Mulder had just indicated, smack in the middle of the State land.

It didn't look like any other part of the map. It was grey where the rest of the area was green and had no strict borders.

"Is that…" Scully started to say, "it looks like it was smudged out, somehow."

Mulder flipped the paper over.

"It's not the printing," he said, "the paper is fine."

He walked to his desk and got on the phone.

"Hey Jerry, it's Mulder. Can you send me the digital file of the Louisiana sat map you printed for me a few days ago? Yeah, email's fine. Thanks."

His computer pinged a minute later and he and Scully both moved to his desk.

He pulled up the photo. It had the same small grey smudge.

"The date on this satellite picture is less than six months old," Scully said, pointing to the date stamp on the corner of the picture.

"Grab your coat, Scully," Mulder said, clicking a few things on his computer, then heading for the door and grabbing his own, "we gotta pick up some Kung Pao Chicken."

Scully didn't even bother asking. She followed him out the door.

XxXxXxXxX

"Somebody Photoshopped your sat map," Langly said, his mouth full, pointing at the monitor with a pair of chopsticks.

"You guys about to do something to piss off the Pentagon?" Frohike asked from the couch. He was sitting next to Scully who'd kicked off her shoes and had her feet up on the edge of the coffee table in front of her. Mulder couldn't help but take in the dichotomy of her bubble toes resting amongst the shambles of circuit board and wiring. The table was awash in computer parts and Chinese takeout cartons. His eyes met hers as she licked a drop of plum sauce from her lower lip. Mulder struggled to remember what he'd been about to say.

Scully said it for him.

"The Pentagon? Isn't it a USGS map?"

"It's a USGS labeled map," said Byers, setting down his own food on a nearby shelf, "but it's a military satellite that took the picture. The pixels are too dense for anything else."

"So what are they trying to hide?" Said Frohike.

"Think you can help us find out?" Asked Mulder.

Five hours later they were looking at the un-Photoshopped version of the satellite map of Vermilion Parish.

"That's kind of… anticlimactic," from Scully, who had fallen asleep on the Gunmen's sofa, her jacket tucked around her. She woke up to the celebratory brouhaha when the boys had gotten in and all three Gunmen plus Mulder shot her a look of disappointed contempt.

"Every party has a pooper," said Mulder, leaning against a gunmetal shelf, his tie long-since discarded.

"It's a nondescript, rectangular building," Scully said, edging the guys away and leaning toward the monitor, "and not a very big one to boot."

"I admit it's not terribly revelatory," said Mulder, "but why try to hide it?"

Scully didn't have an answer to that.

"There's no road leading to it," said Byers, "and it's what… two, three miles from the highway?"

"Looks like that could be a footpath, not too far away," said Frohike, "but it's on the adjacent private property."

"That's still over a mile away," said Byers, "whatever this place is, it doesn't get a lot of traffic."

In the corner, Langly yawned, and Scully followed suit. Like a kid coming down from a sugar high, the excitement from a few moments before waned and a pall of exhaustion seemed to fall over the room.

Mulder threw his tie over his shoulder and offered Scully his elbow.

"Come on," he said.

"My car's at the office," she said, stifling another yawn.

"I'll take you home," he said quietly. Scully swayed into him, and he put his arm around her waist, his nose in her hair as he squeezed her, before remembering that they weren't alone.

He escorted her through the Gunmen's lair, the trio of outliers behind them silent as voyeurs, staring unabashedly at their retreat.

They were going to give him shit for this, he thought as he slammed home their security door. He found he didn't even care.

XxXxXxXxX

Isaacs was glad she'd remembered to pack a pair of sneakers as she and Stone bushwacked through the damp field, though they'd never quite be the same, she thought, sinking inches into muck with every step.

Stone squinted at the printout of the sat map Mulder had sent them this morning.

"Shouldn't be too much further," he said.

They'd upgraded their rental to an SUV and had driven as far as they could off the highway, making the rest of their way on foot.

"This is about where Vanessa said she saw those other lights, too," he added, and he and Isaacs exchanged a look.

Twenty minutes later they came to a chain-link fence with signs every twenty feet along it reading "US GOVERNMENT PROPERTY: NO TRESPASSING."

"The hell?" said Stone.

They stood at the fence regarding it a moment before Isaacs shrugged and walked up to it.

"We work for the US Government," she said, and scaled it easily, hopping down on the other side.

Stone hesitated before huffing out a sigh.

"I thought this was supposed to be Louisiana State land," he said, as he landed next to Isaacs with slightly less grace.

"There's also not supposed to be anything out here," she said, nodding to the sat map in his hand. "And yet…"

When they finally got to the building, it was as it looked from the sky above. Simple, nondescript, and not very big, about the size of a simple ranch house. It was painted a beige-y green, with a simple but sturdy corrugated roof, painted the same color.

"How do you get in?" Isaacs said, walking north along the perimeter.

"I'll go that way," Stone said, pointing to the other direction.

They met on the backside.

"What the hell," said Stone, confusion creeping into his voice. "There's no door."

"No windows either," said Isaacs, putting her hands on her hips.

"There are security cameras, though," said Stone, nodding toward the eaves where cameras were perched, blinking at them steadily.

A low rumble started then, lasting about 5 seconds.

"Thunder?" Stone looked toward Isaacs, then out at the cloudless sky.

"I think," she said, taking an involuntary step backwards, "I think it's coming from inside."

The rumble happened again, lasting longer this time. Isaacs started feeling a vibration from under her feet.

"I don't know about you," Stone started to say, but Isaacs interrupted him.

"Yeah, no, let's get out of here."

They moved quickly away from the building, Isaacs trying to calm her sudden nerves.

Once they were back on the other side of the fence, Stone pulled out his phone.

"I'm going to call Mulder," he said.

"You get reception out here?" Isaacs asked, looking at her own phone's display.

"No," Stone said shortly, snapping the flip phone closed and running his hands through his hair in frustration.

Another low rumble started then and they looked at each other.

"Isaacs," Stone started to say, a hint of fear creeping into his tone.

Isaacs held up a finger, silencing him. She turned and scanned the skyline.

"There," she said, pointing North.

It took a moment for Stone to see it, but then it came on them rapidly.

An unmarked black helicopter was heading right for them, flying low. Really low. They both threw themselves to the ground as it growled overhead. After it passed them, it gained altitude and then was gone, the Doppler effect of its sonance fading as quickly as it had come on.

They both rose slowly.

"Think that was a message?" Isaacs said, picking pieces of leaf and grass out of her tight braids. She tended toward sarcasm when she was unnerved.

"Sure as hell felt like one," said Stone as he angrily brushed off the front of his suit coat.

"Well," said Isaacs, trying to reorient herself, "if we make it back to civilization, I think I want some backup."

"I think I do too," said Stone.

They both kept looking back over their shoulder as they made their way to their rental, a pall of presage weighing heavy on them both.

XxXxXxXxX

Chapter 4 - "Serien Confessions"

XxXxXxXxX

It was drizzling when she and Mulder pulled into the motel parking lot, water pooling like ichor over a plugged-up storm drain in the middle. Scully had to jump over it as they raced to the motel office, fighting to stay dry.

"You must be the other FBI agents," the clerk said when they tumbled in, scattering water. She slid two keys across the counter toward them. "These are for your rooms," she said importantly. "The other agents wanted me to let y'all know they were waiting for you in the restaurant across the street."

"Thank you," Mulder said, pocketing both keys and squinting out the window.

The diner across the street shone like Vegas as the rain started coming down harder, neon shining invitingly, offering up pie and gumbo. Scully found she was hungry despite the hour.

The clerk offered them umbrellas which they gratefully accepted, and then ran across the street which was desolate and empty of traffic. Despite the cloche of fabric and their quick time, their shoes were soaked through by the time they got through the door.

Stone waved cheerfully from a back booth, and they trudged over, feet squeaking with every step.

"You made it," Isaacs said, scooching over in the oversized booth as they husked off their coats and squeezed in.

"More or less in one piece," said Mulder, grabbing a menu.

"Any new developments?" Scully asked.

"Before or after we were buzzed by an unmarked chopper in East Bumfuck?" Said Stone.

"He's still a little unnerved," explained Isaacs.

"Unnerved is one word for it," said Stone flatly.

"This whole thing is pretty fucking weird," said Isaacs.

"This is the X-Files," Mulder said, handing over the menu to Scully, "'Pretty Fucking Weird' is our mantle."

The waitress came then and everyone put in their order.

Stone stirred a sugar substitute into an iced tea.

"We talked to Marcie Vincent's parents," he said, tapping the straw on the side of the cup, "didn't get much that wasn't in the police report."

"Did you ask them about the building you found or the sound that came from it?" Asked Mulder.

Isaacs nodded.

"They think we're certifiable," she said.

Scully took a demure sip of her own drink.

"You'll get used to that," she said.

"They did tell us they'd heard a sound like the one we heard in the past, or at least something similar to it," offered Stone.

"And?" Said Mulder.

"And they're pretty sure it's just trucks on the highway," said Isaacs.

"Did you ask the Sheriff about the building?"

"He's starting to think we're certifiable, too."

Mulder leaned back as the waitress brought out their food.

"I think we should go back out there tomorrow," Mulder said. "Maybe let's take the Sheriff."

Stone paused with his sandwich halfway to his mouth, paling visibly.

Scully felt a pang of sympathy for the kid.

"Welcome to the X-Files," she said, not unkindly.

XxXxXxXxX

Isaacs and Stone hustled off to their own rooms when they returned to the motel; the rain seemed to be letting up.

Mulder paused outside Scully's door with her, fiddling around in his pocket for her room key.

He finally pulled it out, presenting it with a flourish.

"I'll go get your bag," he said, and trotted off to their rental before she could protest.

She was sitting on the bed pulling off her sodden shoes when he filled the doorway again, setting her small suitcase just inside the door. A swell of sound came with him, the rain changing its mind, a fresh deluge pounding down.

"I should go," he said, not moving an inch.

"Come in, Mulder," she said, despite the fact that she really wanted out of her wet clothes.

"I shouldn't," he said, his voice low.

Scully felt a thrum of something low in her belly.

"You're getting wet," she said.

"I'm already wet."

"Just come in," she said, and he relented. He stepped inside and closed the door on the rain, the room suddenly quiet.

Neither of them spoke and the room seemed to get smaller the longer he stood there, or he got bigger - he'd always loomed so large in her life, she wasn't surprised. She wasn't used to needing someone, or hadn't been six years ago, and now it seemed he was all she needed. When had the change occurred, she wondered? At some point she'd gone from being Dana to being Scully and she hadn't marked the moment, hadn't even noticed. She never saw her friends anymore, barely saw her family, and yet, she thought of Mulder as both. Dana would have been horrified. Scully didn't mind.

"I should get my bag," he finally said, gesturing vaguely to the parking lot.

"Wait here til the rain lets up," she said, shrugging out of her wet jacket.

"Could be a while," he said.

She raised a shoulder in a shrug.

"I don't want to get your room all wet," he said, gesturing to his clothes.

"Like I'd notice?" She replied, gesturing to herself.

He plopped in a chair then, craning his neck a bit to see out the window.

"If there was any physical evidence out there, it's gone, now," he said.

Scully considered him, his hair and shoulders sodden as he wiped rain out of his eyes. She flashed to their first case together, standing on an Oregon highway, the rain like Noah's flood—an orange 'X' on the highway, losing nine minutes, Mulder's triumphant howl.

She smiled to herself.

"What's that for?" He asked.

"You," she said, cutting her eyes to him. His gaze narrowed and he licked his lips. "I was thinking about that night in the rain in Bellefleur."

"Oregon?" He asked, a smile slowly spreading on his face. "You were so green, then…"

"God," she said, remembering. "So were you. I thought you were crazy."

"I thought you were cute."

"The things we didn't know…" she said, a feeling of nostalgia.

He sobered a bit, his face falling.

"Would you change it?" He asked, "if you could?"

She closed her eyes, remembering the cloistered fecund trunk of Duane Barry's car, spraying tile cleaner into Donnie Pfaster's face, the unblinking yellow gaze of Eugene Tooms. She remembered every millisecond of pulling the trigger and winging Mulder in the shoulder, his fevered, shocked accusation when he woke up. She remembered real whipped cream and chantilly lace, a sweet old man telling her she'd never die. Mulder helping her out of a dental chair, duct tape trailing from her wrists, the smell of Lake Michigan hitting her with the bright summer sun. The dark, irriguous interior of stakeout cars, the damp husks of sunflower seeds, his dusty apartment cloaked in shadows.

She stood and walked over to him, reached out a hand. He took it and rose, holding on tight.

She caught his gaze and held it, squeezing his hand.

"No," she said, simply. "I wouldn't change a thing."

"Scully," he said quietly, reverently.

And then his lips were on hers, softly.

He pulled back after a moment, looking into her eyes.

"Scully, I—"

Scully interrupted him, held him by the face.

"Don't," she said, knowing what he was about to say. She didn't want an apology, didn't need one.

She pulled him down to her once more, kissing him back, a benediction.

A hunger unfurled in her belly and she nipped at him, her need esurient and pure.

He responded in kind, pulling her closer so the entire length of her body was flush with his. His hands gravitated down until he was gripping her ass, and a thrill of the willful impropriety of this scenario washed through her and blazed from the top of her head straight to her womb.

She took a quick breath, trying to regain her equilibrium and Mulder leaned back, trying to get a look at her eyes.

"You okay?" He asked breathlessly.

"Yeah," she said, a smile fighting through. "Though… We probably shouldn't be doing this on a case," she went on, leaning away from him incrementally. She still had her hands on his waist, one finger tucked into in the waist of his pants. There was a small part of her still urging her to be the voice of reason. A voice getting quieter with every passing second.

"No," he said, "you're right."

He didn't move either, though, like he would follow her lead, like she was the one with the common sense. And while she normally was Suzy Rule Follower, what Mulder didn't seem to understand was that when it came to her libido, she liked breaking the rules, she liked dangerous men. A married professor, Jack Colton, Ed Jerse – it was Scully's Dirty Secret.

She leaned into him again, her hips bumping into his with purpose, and he gave a little groan and found her mouth again with his.

"Scully—" he said in a choked whisper.

She worked her hands under his shirt and explored the warm, hard planes of his chest. He started to pant and she swallowed them whole, their tongues clashing. Her blood roared in her ears and it took her a second to realize that someone was pounding at her door.

They leapt apart then, sobering instantly. Scully righted her hair, exchanging a look with Mulder while he hastily tucked his shirt back into his dress pants. His cock was at half-mast and he was still wearing his tie.

She held her hands up to him and he took a moment then nodded at her – she went to answer the door.

Stone was standing there, rain pouring in rivulets down his face, his preppy glasses fogging up.

"Stone," Scully said, and backed up into the doorway, "come in!"

He shook his head then, and hooked his thumb toward a car pulled up to the curb, running. Isaacs was waiting in the driver's seat.

"They found Marcie Vincent," he said, "we gotta go!"

XxXxXxXxX

Marcie Vincent had been left at the curb outside the local ER. No one had seen the car that brought her, and with the rain, even the security cameras couldn't pick up much. It had been a large dark sedan. That's as far as they got.

She was unconscious, having lost a large amount of blood, but they couldn't find any trauma on her body indicating how she'd lost it.

Her parents were by her bedside when they arrived and stopped, a coterie of Feds shuffling about the hallway, looking in her door.

Mr. Vincent came to the doorway when he noticed them, but he kept looking back at his daughter, as if afraid she'd suddenly go missing again.

"Agent Isaacs," he said by way of greeting.

"Mr. Vincent," Isaacs said, looking to Mulder and Scully, "this is Special Agent Scully, Special Agent Mulder – he's the agent in charge of the case."

Mulder shook his proffered hand as he mumbled a greeting, distracted.

"Has she said anything?" Mulder asked, sympathetically.

The man shook his head.

"She hasn't woken up."

"Mr. Vincent," Mulder said quietly, "Agent Scully is a medical doctor, would you mind if she took a look at Marcie's chart?"

He nodded and led Mulder and Scully into the room.

Mrs. Vincent looked up at them, small like her daughter, with a similar short haircut, her eyes rimmed in red.

"She's a doctor," Mr. Vincent explained to his wife, and pointed at Scully as she reached for the chart.

Scully went through it page by page, her brow furrowed.

She finally looked up and connected eyes with Mulder, nodding toward the door.

"Mulder, this is bizarre," Scully said, once out in the hallway. Isaacs and Stone came over then and pressed in to hear Scully's muted tones. She flicked her eyes to them a moment, still not used to anyone invading their little microcosm of two. She finally went on. "Everything here indicates Hypovolmic shock—a large amount of blood loss, but there's hardly a scratch on her." She fanned through a few pages. "They've ordered a bunch of tests, but they're at a loss… And frankly, so am I."

Mulder nodded as a nurse and an orderly came through them and on into Marcie's room.

"It's time for another test," the nurse said kindly, and they wheeled Marcie out and down the hall.

The doctor came then and introduced himself.

No, they weren't sure what happened, no they didn't have any guesses until more test results came back. Rape kit came back negative.

"So far, no sign of her organs shutting down," the doctor said to Scully, "but I've checked for nearly everything and cannot account for the hypolvolmic shock."

"Did you take X-Rays?"Scully asked

The doctor nodded and flipped a few up into the light box in Marcie's room.

Scully looked at them one by one, pausing at the head/neck X-ray.

"What's this?" she asked, pointing to a small white fleck on the back of the neck.

"Foreign body," the doctor said, "frankly, that was the one mark on her. I was going to remove it after her next test."

"No!" Scully said sharply, "don't touch it."

The doctor gave her a look and looked to Mulder as if for reassurance.

"Mulder," Scully said, and again walked out into the hall.

"What is it?" he said, Isaacs and Stone once again pressing in.

Scully rubbed the back of her neck unconsciously.

"It's a chip, Mulder," she said, "I think it's a chip."

XxXxXxXxX

Chapter 5 - "Gone"

XxXxXxXxX

Scully sat back in the waiting room chair with eyes closed, her head thunking on the wall behind her. Her clothes were now dry, but stiff from evaporated rain water. She was getting blisters on both heels. Exhaustion warred with adrenaline after-burn, her limbs felt heavy and jittery at the same time. She didn't want to look at her watch.

Explaining to Marcie Vincent's parents and doctor why they shouldn't remove the chip— if that's what it was—had gone about as well as could be expected, which is to say not well at all. They were in a wary truce, now, the chip staying where it was and all parties desperate for the girl to wake up and give them some answers.

Mulder lowered himself into the chair next to her with a popping of joints. She cracked an eye to see him holding out a cup of steaming coffee, which she gratefully accepted. They sat in companionable silence for a few moments.

"We're going to need to leave through the back when we go," he finally said, sounding as tired as she felt. "There's press starting to accumulate out front."

"And the hits just keep on coming," said Scully, her voice sounding gravelly to her own ears.

Isaacs approached them.

"Agents?" She said to them, "I just spoke with the Sheriff. He's going to leave a deputy stationed outside Marcie's room in case the kidnapper comes back."

"He's thinking this was a kidnapping?" Mulder asked.

"You're not?" Asked Isaacs. "The car that dropped her—"

Mulder held up a hand.

"Someone had her," he said, "we can all agree on that. But I don't see any evidence that suggests kidnapping."

"Yes, sir," said Isaacs.

Scully narrowed her eyes at the young woman. At Quantico, Isaacs had always had an instinct for dissecting what was going on in a case, in all her classes – not just Scully's – every instructor Scully had talked to had said the same thing. It's what reminded her the most of Mulder and why she thought she'd be an asset to the X-Files. Their unit's cases were bizarre and solving them required both instinct and an ability to see things tangentially.

"What do you think is going on here, Agent Issacs?" She asked her.

Isaacs looked at her thoughtfully.

"I agree with Agent Mulder," she answered. "The lack of any ransom demand, the rape kit, the fact that there was no apparent evidence of an abduction, all point away from kidnapping. I think Marcie Vincent snuck out of her house to meet with Vanessa Glassie. But I'm bumping on the medical evidence. I'm bumping on the weird shit I've seen, and the fact that she was dumped by what was clearly a human being, and not some succubus Cajun wives tale," Mulder raised his eyebrows at that. "Something happened to her out there. Something weird. But something human."

Mulder grinned at the younger agent, then looked to Scully.

"She reminds me of you," he said.

"And I was going to say the same to you," Scully replied.

"Then I think we picked right, Scully," Mulder stood and clapped his hands together.

"Isaacs, ask the Sheriff to meet us out at the Vincent property tomorrow afternoon, and to have the hospital call us if there's a change in Marcie's condition. I think we all need to get a little shut-eye."

XxXxXxXxX

Mulder leaned in to look at the ground underneath Marcie Vincent's second floor bedroom window. There was a trellis running along the entire side of the house - it would have been easy for a nimble teenage kid to climb down it. The dirt outside was soft – it showed every impression. It was clear from the recent rain.

"This is where you found footprints in Marcie's size after she disappeared?" He asked the Sheriff.

The Sheriff had his thumbs tucked into his service belt, which creaked as he leaned back.

"Yep," he said, "headed straight for the woods. There's a path back there, but the dogs lost the scent not far into it."

"Where does the path lead?"

"All over. They got ATV's, some other recreational vehicles, they got paths all over the property."

Mulder turned to Stone.

"Stone, do you still have the printout of the sat map I sent you?"

Stone pulled it out of the inside of his jacket pocket.

Mulder shook out the map onto the hood of his rental car, and the Sheriff meandered over.

"The path where the dogs lost her scent," he said, "can you show me on here about where that would be?"

The Sheriff pointed to an area of the map toward where the ghost lights were photographed, where Vanessa Glassie had slipped away from her friends. It was also where Marcie Vincent was supposed to meet her the night she disappeared.

"As the crow flies, about how far is it from the Vincent property to where the Glassie girl slipped off?"

"A few miles at the most."

"Walkable?"

"Not something I'd want to do at night," said the Sheriff.

"What about if she had an ATV? That might be how the dogs lost her."

"Now that's something," said the Sheriff, blowing out a breath.

"Agents?" Mulder said, and Scully, Stone and Isaacs came over to take a look. He had a finger on the map at about where the dogs had lost Marcie's scent and finger on the area of the swamp where the kids had been out partying with the will-o'-the-wisp.

"Stone, you got a pen?" Mulder asked him. Stone nodded and pulled one out. "Connect the dots," Mulder said, and Stone drew a straight line between Mulder's two fingers.

Isaacs let out a low whistle.

"Oh shit," said Stone looking at each of the other agents in turn.

The line went directly through the building they'd found.

XxXxXxXxX

"It goes right through the building," Stone said, not able to keep the awe out of his voice.

"What is this building?" the Sheriff asked, confused.

"That one," Mulder said, tapping on the map, thunking loudly on the hood of the car under it.

The Sheriff squinted over the map.

"What the hell," he said, "there's not supposed to be anything out there."

"Sheriff," Mulder said, folding up the map, "did your team do an inventory with the Vincents to see if any of their ATVs or other vehicles are missing?"

The Sheriff shook his head.

"The shed where they keep them is on the clear other end of the property, we didn't even think to look."

"Will you get in touch with the Vincents and see if we can't check that?"

"Right away," the Sheriff said, already pulling the walkie-talkie off his shoulder and moving off toward his cruiser.

"We need to take a look at that building, see if we can get a warrant," Mulder said to the other agents.

Isaacs nodded and pulled out her phone, stepping away.

"Even if you do get a warrant, there's no way we can get into that building," Stone said, "it has no entrances."

"We'll cross that bridge when we get to it," Mulder said.

The Sheriff came back to the group then, his walkie still in his hand.

"Marcie Vincent is awake," he said.

XxXxXxXxX

They crowded around the teenager's bed, her parents on either side, each holding a hand. The girl was pale, her lips still blue.

"Her color's better," said Scully softly.

Mulder couldn't tell a difference.

Mrs. Vincent looked at Scully but didn't say anything. Scully's insistence on not removing the foreign body in the girl's neck had made her persona non grata.

"She's in and out," Mr. Vincent said, looking at Mulder.

"We'll wait in the hall," Mulder said.

Twenty minutes later two nurses and the girl's doctor came walking quickly down the hallway and entered her room. All of the FBI agents stood, Mulder held up a hand to them and leaned in the doorway.

The girl was moaning softly, the doctor shining a light into her eyes and talking to her.

"Marcie, do you know what day it is? Do you know where you are?"

Marcie mumbled something that Mulder couldn't hear.

The doctor came over after a few minutes.

"You can ask her some questions," he said, looking at them levelly, "but she's pretty out of it. You may not get much."

Mulder nodded and they all entered the room. Mulder went up to the girl's side and the other three held back, milling by the door.

"Marcie, my name is Fox Mulder, I'm an agent with the FBI. Can you hear me?"

She mumbled something that sounded like an affirmative noise, so he kept going.

"Do you know where you've been this last week?"

She shook her head infinitesimally. She still hadn't opened her eyes.

"Were you on your way to meet with Vanessa?" He asked.

She gave a small nod.

"What happened that night?" Mulder asked.

Her eyes shot open then, and her mother startled, jumping back from the bedside.

"The lights," she said, looking directly at Mulder, her eyes wide and bloodshot, "the lights!" She repeated herself with conviction.

Then she sunk back, her eyes slipping closed, once again out of consciousness.

XxXxXxXxX

Mulder flipped his phone closed, turning to the other agents. They were sitting around the same corner booth at the diner they'd eaten at the previous evening, though it seemed a lot longer ago than that.

"The Sheriff said the hired hand at the Vincent property checked the ATV pole barn, and one is missing."

"So you're thinking Marcie snuck one out and had it waiting for her in the woods the night she disappeared?" Scully asked him.

Mulder nodded.

"It's what I would have done," Isaacs said, taking a swig from the bottle in front of her. They'd all let the FBI spring for a beer, needing to disengage a bit.

"Did you sneak out a lot?" Stone asked Isaacs, his eyes bright, intrigued.

"Taking the Fifth," said Isaacs, trying to smother a smile.

Mulder leaned his shoulder into Scully, enjoying the camaraderie.

"I want to get back out to that building," Mulder said, "maybe tonight."

Stone looked at Mulder, holding up a finger in mock seriousness.

"I reject your suggestion," he said, turning to Isaacs, "and would like to hear more about Isaacs' misspent youth."

They were all chuckling at that, when a man approached their table, putting a quick damper on the mood.

"Agents," he said, "Trevor Tremblay, Vermilion News-Review. Is it true Marcie Vincent was returned with her body entirely drained of blood?"

Journalists. Mulder could have decked the guy.

Scully spoke up.

"If her body had been entirely drained of blood, she would be deceased. She is alive. That much has already been released to the media, sir."

"Was it the fi follet?" He asked, shoving a small recorder under Scully's nose, "Did she say?"

Now Mulder really did want to deck the guy. He put a hand out and moved the recorder about a foot away from Scully.

"We have no further comment at this time," he said.

"Sounds like a yes," said Tremblay.

"No comment."

Tremblay smirked, pocketing his recording device and walked away.

"Was that man bothering you?" The waitress asked as she came to the table to clear it.

Mulder shook his head, the felicity of minutes before drained and washed away.

"Can we get the check please?" He asked.

XxXxXxXxX

No warrant had come through – Isaacs having been told by the DA that they weren't even sure what to put on it – so they decided to wait until morning to head out to the government building Isaacs and Stone had found. The Sheriff and Deputy McLaren accompanied them.

"I need to see this with my own eyes," the Sheriff had said to them.

When they emerged from the tree line after having left their vehicles, a low haze hung over the horizon and the sky seemed darker.

After a few minutes, Scully touched Mulder's arm.

"Is that…" She said, "Do you smell smoke?"

Mulder grew alert and jogged up the small rise ahead.

"Shit," he said, as the other agents and officers climbed up behind him.

There was a plume of dark smoke coming from the direction they were headed. The building was on fire.

XxXxXxXxX

Mulder sprinted down the rise and through the field toward the blaze though he knew it was too late. Any evidence that had been there was long gone or burned. The people responsible one step ahead of them, as always.

"God damn it!"

Scully and the other agents and deputies jogged up behind him. The tall one, McLaren, was bending over with his hands on his knees, out of breath.

Mulder whirled on Isaacs and Stone.

"Tell me everything you saw here. Describe it in detail. Everything!"

The agents looked at him in alarm.

"Mulder," Scully said gently, putting a hand on his arm.

"No," Isaacs said confidently, "I get it."

She walked over to Mulder and started pointing, describing everything she could remember in meticulous detail.

"And the fence," Stone said, after she'd finished. He used his fingers for air quotes. "'US Government Property No Trespassing.' The fence is gone."

Mulder turned to Scully.

"We need to get back to the hospital. Now. If they're cleaning up evidence…"

He didn't need to finish the thought. He and Scully had seen this too many times before.

Scully turned to the Sheriff and asked him to check in with his deputy stationed outside Marcie Vincent's room.

The deputy reported back an all-clear.

The Sheriff and McLaren stayed back to manage the blaze while the agents trudged back toward civilization, a veil of foreboding clinging to them like smoke.

XxXxXxXxX

They were the worse for wear when they finally lumbered once again through the hospital hallway. Deputy Miller gave them a small wave from his chair outside the girl's room.

Her doctor came walking down the hallway toward them, his face set grimly.

"Agents," he said, "I appreciate that you're trying to do your job, but I'm having a hard time doing mine. Marcie is not going to get better without rest – if you're in here every few hours, that's just not going to happen."

"What do you mean 'every few hours?'" Mulder asked. "We haven't been in here since yesterday."

The doctor looked questioningly toward Miller.

"What about the agent that was in here this morning?"

"What agent?" Mulder asked.

Miller looked confused.

"The other agent," the deputy said, "the one you sent over this morning?"

"I haven't sent over any other agents," Mulder said, opening up the door to Marcie's room. It was empty.

"Where's Marcie?" He asked. "Deputy Miller, where's Marcie?"

Miller's confusion turned to fright. He popped up out of his chair so fast it tipped over.

"She's—she's having another test," he said, looking from Mulder to the doctor. "The nurse came and the other FBI agent escorted her…"

"I haven't ordered any other tests," the doctor said, paling.

Mulder took off at run toward the hospital entrance, Scully, Stone and Isaacs on his heels. Nothing. He grabbed the security guard posted at the door. He flashed a quick badge.

"Was there a patient transport out this door?"

"No, sir!"

"Take me to the security office. Now!"

They hustled down several hallways and one staircase. When they turned a corner there was another security guard yanking on the door handle. He turned to them, sheepish.

"Went to the john and got locked out," he said, weakly. "Daryl won't let me in."

The guard who'd been escorting Mulder, Scully and company pulled out a key ring from his belt and quickly unlocked the security office door. The door opened a crack and then wouldn't budge. It was being blocked.

The guard, Mulder and Stone all put a shoulder into it at once and it flew open. The door had been blocked by the body of Daryl – a clean gunshot through the center of his forehead. The security monitors were all turned off and the videotape decks were empty.

Gone. Everything. Gone.

XxXxXxXxX

Chapter 6

XxXxXxXxX

She knew he was miserable. Depression seemed to radiate off of him in waves, like strong cologne. One breath of it and you started feeling it, too.

They were forever getting doors slammed into their faces when it came to their work – evidence gone or stolen, the ship ascending into the clouds before anyone could take a picture, witnesses no longer willing to talk, memory wipes and bad intent. The werewolf turned back into the man.

But young girls, missing girls who seemed to slip from his grasp were the Achilles heel of Mulder's psyche.

He stood in their office with the Vermilion Parish file in front of him, holding a picture of Marcie Vincent. Scully knew he saw Samantha when he looked at it.

He considered it a minute and then pinned the picture to a bulletin board near his desk, then closed the file and deposited it in their shiny new file cabinets. The drawer seemed to shut with terminality.

She heard the elevator doors before Stone came in. His face was grim, the rhathymia of his bearing from a week ago gone. Isaacs came in a few minutes later, her countenance a mirror of his. This is not how Scully would have chosen to end their first case.

Stone did perk up a bit when he got to his desk to find the box with his new computer waiting for him, and the room was soon filled with the cheery crinkling of bubble wrap and packing tape, everyone's quiet misery from moments before lightening with the happy affirmation of consumerism.

"What's with the Monster Machine?" Isaacs asked when he finally had it on his desk, the sound of her voice jarring the room a bit – none of the four adults in it had said a word all morning.

"This," said Stone, inching out from under the desk where he'd been sorting and plumbing the rhumba of computer cords, "is the cyber security hub of the X-Files. The tech department if you will, and I, your humble technician."

"Great," said Isaacs, "maybe you can fix my printer when you're done."

"You get Solitaire on that thing?" Asked Mulder.

"Laugh it up," said Stone, not seeming to be bothered by the ribbing.

"Boys and their toys," Scully said, shaking her head. She stood to go. "I've got to get to Quantico."

She realized when she was halfway to Mulder's chair that she'd been about to caress his head in a show of sympathetic solidarity as she normally would in their office of two, and instead gave him an awkward pat on the shoulder.

"Dinner tonight?" She asked him, trying to cover for it.

Mulder looked a little surprised, but pleased.

"Yeah, that would be great," he said.

"I'll call you," she said, as she made her way out the door, throwing a little wave toward Stone and Isaacs who both returned the gesture.

This was going to take some getting used to.

XxXxXxXxX

"How are your classes going?" Mulder asked her. It had been three weeks since they'd been back from Louisiana, and Scully had been overly careful with him. They'd had dinner a couple of times, as they were now, but that was it. She'd been at Quantico every day and when they had seen each other, she'd shown no inclination for affection, and he didn't want to push her.

"Good," she said, without elaborating. She pushed the spring vegetables around on her plate.

"Let me know if you want me to come in and do a guest lecture," he said, "I'm putting together a spiel about the Loveland Frogmen."

"I don't know if I'll be able to find enough chairs," she said, joking without much enthusiasm.

"Would you prefer one on the Shunka Warakin?" He asked.

"Do I want to know?"

"Large predatory wolf-hybrid in Montana."

"Now you're talking."

"You're right. Who wants to go to Ohio, anyway?"

Mulder reached across the table and gave her hand a brief squeeze.

That seemed to snap her out of her reverie.

"Anything new from Vermilion Parish?" She asked him.

"More of the same," he answered. "The scorched ATV they recovered from the fire site matches the general description of the one missing from the Vincent residence, but the final report came back – no serial numbers to be found. All physical evidence remains inconclusive."

They'd chased leads with nothing panning out, and the latest ones had trickled in. The case was drying up.

"We'll find her, Mulder." She said, trying to get a look at his eyes.

He let her.

"I hope so."

"Do you ever wonder what would have happened," she said then, as if she'd been waiting to say it all night, "if I'd gone to Salt Lake City?"

Whatever lighthearted mood he'd tried to retain earlier in the evening left him then.

"I try not to," he said.

Scully considered him for a moment.

"I wonder sometimes if you'd have found someone else," she said, "if I would have."

Mulder felt his heart slow, like it was thinking of going dead.

"But I think," she went on, "that I would have sat around pining for you. Miserable and trying to pretend that I was okay."

And just like that, a lightness filled him. For as honest as a woman as Dana Scully was, she was not exactly forthright when it came to matters of the heart.

"There is no one else for me, Scully," he said, then. "Don't you understand? There is no me without you."

XxXxXxXxX

They walked down the sidewalk toward his apartment, holding hands. She hadn't meant for it happen, but he'd given her a hand getting up from their table after dinner and just hadn't let go.

A car rumbled by, the bass rattling the car's windows, dispersing a draft of sound, sending a low vibration though both of them.

It was busy in Old Town, fall coming on and people were out, happy to escape the oppressive confines of their air-conditioned world. A group of co-eds were coming at them, taking up most of the sidewalk, their heads together like a coven. Scully felt a momentary self-consciousness in their presence, a throwback to her adolescent id, and as if sensing it, Mulder pulled her into an alleyway.

"Shortcut," he whispered into her ear, though there was no one there to hear.

They entered his apartment building through the front, without discussion. Mulder would ask her to come up and she would say yes – they both knew it and so bypassed the moment.

The elevator ride should have been awkward, but wasn't. Mulder and Scully knew how to be quiet together – stakeout quiet, desktop sharing quiet, companionable silence that came from days and years together.

They were through Mulder's door before she knew it and suddenly she was pressed up against it, the peephole above her head, his lips on her neck, his hands in her hair.

She felt lush, then. Concupiscent and feminine; as powerful as a goddess. She scraped her nails along his scalp and gave as good as she got.

He pulled her along, not moving his lips from hers and she sensed a slight change in the pressure of the air around them. She leaned back, their lips smacking as they parted and she glanced around the room they'd just entered.

"Mulder," she said, surprised. "You have a bed?"

XxXxXxXxX

He'd cleaned out his bedroom special, just for her. The inevitability of their coupling like a Viking ship on the horizon, he'd taken about thirteen trips to the dump and had considered buying an SUV. The bed had fresh sheets and the room still smelled like Pledge. He would probably associate the artificial lemony scent with sex for the rest of his life.

"Uh-huh," he said, nipping at her lips. He wasn't going to let her distract him.

He grabbed her by the hand and led her to the bed. There should have been that first-time maladroitness – bumping heads, not sure what to do with hands – but there wasn't. Scully didn't need to know what Mulder liked – he just liked her.

There was a moment right before flashpoint, before he lost himself completely in the cradle of her hips, her breath soft and hot against his cheek, when he flashed on the fact that he wasn't wearing a condom, and he thought 'what if?' But then the moment was gone, and so was he, and Scully pulled him down with her, both lost.

Some things you don't need to think about. Some things you just need to feel.

XxXxXxXxX

He lay back on his pillow, his breath slowing. Scully had pulled the sheet up over her chest and had her eyes closed, a Mona Lisa smile on her face.

"I think I should let you call me Fox now," he said, trying to gauge her mood. Scully could be repressed, could turn inward if he let her. He didn't want to let her.

She crinkled her nose at that.

"Mulder," she said, pulling out the 'r' at the end of his name, affectionately.

He stopped worrying.

"You don't think it's a little weird?" He said, rolling over on his side to look at her. "Me calling you Scully in the sack?"

She chuffed out a laugh and opened her eyes, rolling toward him as well.

"Call me Dana," she said. "Right now."

"Dana."

"How did it feel?"

"A little weird, actually."

"Then there you go," she said, her voice turning quieter.

He felt her leg move toward him on the bed, her toes coming to rest on his shin. She breathed out a contented sigh and then was asleep.

Mulder didn't sleep for a long time. The moon moved through the sky, scattering shadows panning around the room, and he lay there watching her, wondering at what love was.

XxXxXxXxX

Monday roared in like a Nor'easter, the X-Files picking up two cases concurrently – a first.

Skinner needed Scully to consult on a case in North Carolina and had long ago accepted that Mulder came along as a package deal. Mulder sent Isaacs and Stone to California to investigate what he thought might be a series of psychic killings.

While in North Carolina, Mulder and Scully came to an agreement that they would remain professional while out in the field – keep separate hotel rooms and use them – but that anything in DC was up for grabs, so to speak. They agreed to be discreet, but not secretive. After all, as Mulder had pointed out, since Scully was technically stationed at Quantico, it wasn't fraternization, and as Scully rather colorfully pointed out one night post-coital, everyone already assumed they were fucking.

Days turned to weeks and weeks to months.

Isaacs and Stone seemed to fall into an easy partnership, investigating cases on their own and concurrently with Mulder and Scully. Mulder, for the first time in his life, felt content. It was hard not to wait for the other shoe to drop.

The shoe came, in early June, in the form of a grainy photograph of a girl that bore a striking resemblance to Marcie Vincent, leaving a convenience store in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. With reports of a UFO sighting nearby the week before, the entire X-Files unit headed to the North Woods.

They were on their second connection of the day, Detroit to Marquette, the plane a small one. Isaacs wasn't totally convinced they wouldn't land on a dirt airstrip instead of a tarmac. Talk about East Bumfuck, she thought.

Stone reached across the aisle and handed her a printout of the picture from the convenience store camera. "I cleaned it up," he said, "and ran it through the Bureau's face recognition software. The markers are a match. I think this might be her."

Isaacs handed the photo to Mulder and Scully sitting in the row behind them.

"Who's she with?" Isaacs asked. There was a hand holding the door open for the girl, their foot walking out as well, but the face remained hidden.

"Can't tell. This is all we got."

"Who sent it?"

"Came in anonymously."

Isaacs made a face.

"I don't like that."

"Me neither," said Stone. Their time with the X-Files had made them appropriately paranoid.

"The kids are growing up," said Mulder to Scully, faking a misty eye.

When they deplaned, Mulder had Isaacs and Stone get a rental car, while he and Scully took another – those two cars representing half the fleet at the local rental company – and split up. Isaacs and Stone were to interview the UFO witness, Mulder and Scully headed to the convenience store.

The convenience store was located off of US-41 south of Marquette, on a desolate stretch of road lined with only trees and the occasional moose crossing sign. There were no other businesses nearby. It had two old fashioned gas pumps, restrooms around the back, and not much else. The bell above the door rang when they entered.

The clerk behind the counter, an older man in a faded flannel shirt and a Cabela's hat, looked as if the bell had just woken him up.

"You guys lost?" He said, taking in their business apparel. "I got a couple of maps."

Mulder flashed him his badge and the man's eyes almost bugged out of his head.

"We wanted to ask you about a person that was picked up on your security camera a few days ago," Mulder said, pocketing his badge.

"I got a security camera?" The man asked, confused.

"Don't you?" Asked Scully.

"Not as far as I know," he said, "I been running this place for the last fifteen years. It's not exactly a hotbed of crime, you know. Mostly I just sell gas and beer to hunters and fishermen. They're in and out."

Mulder pulled the picture of Marcie Vincent out and slid it across the countertop.

"Is this a picture of your store?"

The man considered it.

"Yeah, looks like mine."

All three of them went out the front and looked to where the camera should be. Sure enough, there was a small camera mounted on a utility pole.

"Huh," the clerk said, "the utility company was working out here last week. Must be theirs."

"Do you recognize the girl in the photo, sir?" Scully asked.

The man considered the picture again.

"Yeah, I do," he said, "she in some kind of trouble?"

"At this point we're just trying to verify her identity," Mulder said.

"Don't know her name," he went on, "she was with a guy. She was quiet, didn't say much. Kinda weird, actually."

"Weird how?" Mulder asked.

"She never blinked," the man said. "Damndest thing."

Mulder and Scully exchanged a look.

"And the man she was with?" Scully asked.

"Older guy," he said, "paid in cash."

"What did they buy?"

"Gas," he said. "Oh, and a pack of Morleys."

XxXxXxXxX

Chapter 7 – "Into the Woods"

XxXxXxXxX

Scully watched as Mulder flipped his phone closed.

"The utility company hasn't serviced this pole within the last year and they have no idea what I'm talking about in reference to a surveillance camera." His mood was dark.

"This whole thing feels like a set-up," he murmured.

She cringed as he climbed up the utility pole and, donning rubber gloves he pulled from his jacket, cut down the camera, pocketing it.

It did feel like a set-up. A nicotine-infused, cancerous set-up. But she was convinced now more than ever that the girl in the picture shown leaving this gas station was Marcie Vincent. She didn't like the sound of the girl's behavior while in the store – quiet compliance and unblinking eyes – Scully wondered if she was drugged.

They had originally planned to meet Isaacs and Stone after they met with the UFO witness, but Mulder called an audible and decided he wanted to meet with the witness himself.

They drove the wooded highway and back roads without passing another car. Mulder had taken her to the boondocks before, but this seemed to be on another level. A cold cut of wind swept down from Lake Superior and Scully was glad she'd packed for cool weather.

They passed the driveway of the witness once before realizing it was their turn and had to backtrack, finally rumbling down it slowly, the tires crunching and popping on the gravelly two-track. It seemed to go on for miles.

She was cheered by the sight of Isaac and Stone's rental parked at an angle in front of the house – a small modular with window boxes full of gardenias.

A small woman, probably in her mid-50's, wearing jeans, a flannel shirt and a puffy down vest came out the creaky screen door, squinting at them.

"Hello!" She said cheerfully as they clodded up the front steps. "You guys with the FBI, too?"

Mulder flashed her his badge and Scully did the same, as she stepped back and invited them inside.

"I'm not used to this many visitors," she said, "you'll have to get cozy on the love seat. Coffee?"

Scully declined and settled in on the small sofa, Mulder flush to her as he sat down as well.

If Isaacs and Stone were surprised to see them, they didn't show it, nodding to them from a small round dining table in the corner.

"Miss Keep, would you mind telling Agents Mulder and Scully what you reported last week?"

"I don't know that I'd call it reporting," she said, "I told Officer Parker – he's the local Conservation Officer - what I saw when I ran into him in town last week. He must have made it official. I never did give a statement or anything."

"What did you see?" Mulder asked, "Was it a UFO?"

"I wouldn't call it a UFO, either. I saw lights. Odd lights. Odd enough I mentioned it to Officer Parker."

"What did they look like?" Asked Mulder.

"Strange," she said, narrowing her eyes. "It was a glow, a green glow, but it moved around like a… like a… I don't even know what."

"Could it have been the Aurora Borealis?" Scully asked.

"Now I can see what you'd think that," Miss Keep said, "but no. You can see the Northern Lights up here all the time. This was not that."

"Do you think it could have been something else atmospheric?"

"No," she said, "this was… not natural. I used to see stuff similar to it, quite a bit, but I just chalked it up to them doing experimental stuff at the Air Force base."

"There's an Air Force Base nearby?" Mulder asked her.

She nodded.

"KI Sawyer Air Force Base," Scully said, she remembered flying over it on their descent. As a Navy brat, she could pick out military bases like a diviner. "Wasn't it decommissioned in '95?"

"Yep," Miss Keep said, "And I haven't seen anything like it since then. Until last week anyway."

"Where did you see it from?" Mulder asked.

She nodded toward the small kitchen.

"Window above the sink, then I went out on the front porch to get a better look."

Mulder stood.

"Can you show us?"

They filed outside, crowding the small porch. Scully walked down a couple of the steps to make room.

The Keep property seemed to be at the apex of a large rise. From the porch you could see a valley of trees below to the North. To the South the trees dipped to a small river valley before rising sharply, the rumble of green seeming to roll into infinity.

Miss Keep pointed to the tree line to the North East.

"That way," she said.

"Above the trees?" Stone asked.

"Almost in 'em," she said, "that's why it was so weird."

"Do you own that land?" Mulder asked.

"Some of it, then it's the Hiawatha National Forest and beyond that the National Park."

"Miss Keep," said Mulder, "have you ever seen a building in that area? Small, no windows or doors?"

Betty Keep gave Mulder a look.

"Uh, no." She said. "There's nothing out here but trees, rivers and wildlife. It's why I moved here."

"Have you ever heard a low rumble that you couldn't explain?"

"Like thunder?"

"Like thunder, but the sky was clear?"

"Can I see your badge again Agent Mulder?"

Mulder humored her.

"About what time of night did you see the light phenomenon?" He asked after she'd taken a second look.

"About 2am, I think."

"And you only saw it the once?"

"I'm not usually up at that time, that night I had trouble sleeping."

"Thanks for your time, Miss Keep," Mulder handed her his card. "If you see them again or anything else similar, please give me a call."

She nodded and they made their goodbyes.

They trudged down her steps and out to the cars, gathering in between them to conference.

"What do you think?" Mulder asked Isaacs and Stone.

"I think she's a pretty credible witness, to be honest," said Isaacs. Stone nodded beside her.

Mulder agreed.

"Let's see if we can substantiate her story. You two track down the Conservation Officer, Scully and I will go check out the old Air Force Base."

"Mulder," Scully said. Their track record of breaking onto military bases, decommissioned or otherwise, was not great.

"It'll be fine," he said, flashing her a cocky smile.

She smiled back, unconvinced.

XxXxXxXxX

Isaacs and Stone met with the Conservation Officer in a coffee shop back in downtown Marquette. He pulled up out front in a dark vehicle, a blue bubble light on top.

"Sorry if I kept you waiting," he said, doffing his hat and sliding into a chair at their table.

"Not a problem," said Isaacs. "We appreciate your meeting us."

"You said this is about the Keep report?"

Isaacs nodded.

"We're trying to confirm her story."

Parker looked pensive.

"She said she never filed an official report?" Asked Stone.

Parker leaned back.

"That's true. I know her pretty well – her family has had a hunting camp up here for more than 50 years. I ran into her here in town and she told me what she'd seen."

"How come you filed the report if she hadn't done it in an official capacity?"

Parker looked chagrined.

"The thing is," he said, lowering his voice, "I've seen it, too. More than once. But… In my line of work you can get a reputation – a reputation will stick with you up here – and I wanted it on the record… I just didn't want to be the one putting it there."

"Where have you seen it?" Stone asked.

"Same place as Betty," he said, "not far off her property, in the National Forest. I've checked it out, or tried to –I do feel like it's my job—" he sounded apologetic, "but every time I get close, it stops. I don't know what's causing it. I've never found a thing out there."

Isaacs nodded.

"Is there anything you left out of the report?" She asked.

He shook his head.

"I wish I had more to tell you."

Isaacs slid the picture of Marcie Vincent across the table toward him.

"Any chance you've seen this girl?"

He shook his head again.

"You want me to put out a local APB?"

Isaacs and Stone shared a look, and Stone shrugged.

"Can't hurt."

"Consider it done," he said, rising. He put his hat back on, tipped the rim at them and left.

"I think we've substantiated the lights," Stone said.

Isaacs huffed out a frustrated sigh.

"And that's about it," she said.

XxXxXxXxX

Mulder and Scully rolled up to the main base entrance expecting to see it chained up and derelict. Instead, it was crawling with construction equipment and workers. A sign near the road read "Future Home of Sawyer International Airport!"

"An International airport, Scully!" Mulder said, feigning excitement.

"Seems a bit ambitious," she said, not taking the bait.

"I guess if you've already got the runway," he said, drumming his thumbs on the steering wheel.

"I think it would be hard to hide an illicit UFO operation here with all this activity," said Scully, squinting at the work site.

"Say 'UFO Operation' again, Scully. It's turning me on."

"Mulder," she said, chiding him.

"Saying my name like that turns me on, too." He wiggled his eyebrows.

She tried not to smile and reached across the armrest, squeezing his hand.

Mulder shifted the car out of park and backed up.

"Let's drive around the base," he said. The whole thing can't be a construction site."

Scully pulled out a map and directed him to the back roads that surrounded the base.

"I miss you," he said suddenly, earnestly.

"Mulder we've only been out of DC a day."

"I know," he said, keeping his eyes on the road.

She reached out and took his hand again. This time he held on.

XxXxXxXxX

They met back up with Isaacs and Stone at the hotel. There were few lodgings outside of Marquette that weren't hunting or fishing lodges, so they ended up staying at a Hampton Inn in town.

There was a small sitting area in the back of the lobby, and they huddled there. Mulder kept looking over his shoulder. He still had the feeling that they were being set-up, but he was also sure that Marcie Vincent was here somewhere, and he wasn't about to lose her again.

"So we've got a local APB on Marcie Vincent, and corroboration on Betty Keep's 'lights' sighting," said Isaacs. "Have we got anything else?"

Mulder pulled the security camera he'd taken out of his pocket, holding it with a handkerchief, and tossed it on the coffee table in front of them.

"We can get it dusted for prints," he said, "but I doubt we'll find any."

"Someone went to a lot of trouble to get us up here," said Stone. "What'd you find at the Air Force Base?"

"Construction, mainly," said Scully.

"Parts of the base aren't being used or worked on. They could be hiding something there," Mulder said, "but it would be a needle in a haystack."

"I like a challenge," said Stone, smiling.

"So do I," said Mulder, "and I really want to get in there and have a look around."

"But?" said Isaacs, looking like she had a read on Mulder.

"But that's what scares me."

He leaned back, putting an arm around the back of couch where Scully was sitting.

"Let's get out into the woods tonight," he said, "all of us. See if we can't see those lights for ourselves."

XxXxXxXxX

Mulder pulled the car off the side of the highway, parking it in the ditch. Officer Parker had sent over a map with the lights location marked on it, it was not far from the old Air Force Base. This was about as close as they could get by car and would have to hike the rest of the way on foot.

It had been a warm day, but the night was cooling rapidly. Though it was June, the clerk at the Hampton Inn had told them there still ever-shrinking piles of ice on some parts of the Lake Superior shore, the local children playing around them in swim suits, immune to the cold.

Scully zipped her jacket the rest of the way and took a swig of hot coffee before placing the thermos in a small pack. She glanced at her watch – it was nearly midnight, but they were so far north, dusk was only just now turning to dark.

Mulder had the map and took lead, Isaacs following not far behind, her long legs eating up the distance quickly. Scully had long ago upped the pace of her own steps, as she was forever trotting along, keeping up with Mulder. It was normal for her now, another example of Out With the Dana, In With the Scully. Her mother had commented on it once, Christmas shopping at Pentagon City, and all she could do at the time was shrug.

It was an old forest, white pine and maple, beech and oak. Conifers throughout. There wasn't much scrub, so they made good time, flashlights bobbing through the woods, taking an occasional coffee break and commenting that they could see their breath.

Mulder finally stopped at about 1:45am, taking off his own small pack and leaning it against a massive maple tree. It wasn't what Scully would call a clearing, but the trees were more spread out here and you could see up into the canopy and beyond, the stars shining brightly, the sky awash in them. It was so dark out here you could see the Milky Way splashing vertically through the sky like a message through an orbuculum. There was a river a stone's throw away with a small waterfall, the flowing water a steady babble and rush.

"I think this is about it," Mulder said, rubbing his hands together for warmth.

Scully dropped her own pack down next to an overturned log and sat on it. She pulled off a shoe and massaged her foot.

Mulder sat down next to her.

"Want me to do that?" He asked.

She cut her eyes to Isaacs and Stone and shook her head.

Isaacs leaned against a nearby tree.

"Anybody got a deck of cards?" She asked.

The forest was filled with a susurrus of night sounds; the chirping of frogs, the low call of an owl. A twig snapped somewhere off in the distance.

"They have bears here?" Stone asked, sounding worried.

"Bears, deer, moose," Mulder listed off.

"Cougar, too," from Isaacs, who was enjoying Stone's discomfort. "And wolves."

Stone made a face and unconsciously felt at his hip for his service weapon.

"Come on," Mulder said, standing, "let's fan out, have a look for a building. Nobody lose sight of each other, got it?"

The pulled a fairly large grid, but found nothing, eventually giving up after an hour and heading back to their packs.

Stone talked Isaacs into regaling them with stories from her days walking the beat, and they laughed at tales of idiot criminals, crazy neighborhood regulars, her old partner getting his pants caught in a fence while in pursuit.

Scully was about to suggest they call it a night when Mulder stood slowly beside her, and she stopped talking, tuned in to his sudden alertness.

Isaacs and Stone picked up on it, too, and they all turned to where Mulder was looking.

Scully didn't see anything at first, but soon a glow started to appear on the far edge of the rise nearest them, slowly rising and falling in and out of the canopy. Stone took out a camera and started taking snaps.

It was moving towards them, its up and down movements becoming quicker the closer it came. She was aware she wouldn't believe it if she wasn't seeing it with her own eyes.

It dawned on her then that it was quiet. Not just the glowing light – it made no sound – but the noises around, the constant murmur of the forest, had stopped. There was no sound at all. Her eyes cut to the river nearby, the small waterfall. Her gut dropped in her belly, adrenaline like quicksilver through her veins.

"Mulder," she whispered urgently.

He cut his eyes to hers quickly before flicking back up to the light.

"Mulder, the river stopped," she said, her voice sounding loud in the dead silence.

All four agents turned their heads to look at the river – it made no sound. The water had stopped flowing like someone had pressed pause on a video. Then there was a bright flash of white light from above, and nothing.

XxXxXxXxX

Mulder slowly came to, a dull ache in the back of his skull, his throat dry. He became aware that his face was pressed into the forest floor, the loamy smell of dirt and fallen leaves filling his nose. He rolled over onto his back and tried to sit up, his muscles slow to respond.

He heard a groan to his right and was finally able to crack his eyes open, saw Scully bring a hand to her temple, a grimace of pain on her face. He was filled with a relief then, not exactly sure what for.

To his left, another rustle of leaves and Isaacs pulled herself up to her knees, looking around as if unsure where she was.

"What the hell happened?" Isaacs said, her voice sounding raw and scratchy.

Mulder shook his head, trying to shake off the fog.

"Mulder," Scully said, rising unsteadily to her feet. Her hand shot out and braced against the nearest tree.

It was daylight. Sometime long after dawn judging by the quality of the light, and the forest was filled with birdsong and the dull whine of insects. Mulder tried to figure out why he was bumping on the noises.

"What…" Said Isaacs, slowly rising to her feet. She then looked around, her neck on a swivel as if she'd lost something. "Where's Stone?" She said, urgency creeping into her voice.

It hit Mulder like a flash then, the memory of last night surging back as adrenaline hit his bloodstream.

The glowing, pulsing green light, the lack of sound, the feeling that maybe time itself had stopped and then the flash of white. There was nothing after that.

He looked down; it appeared as though he'd awoken where he'd fallen, Scully and Isaacs rising to their feet exactly where they'd been last night as well. He cut his eyes to where Stone had been standing. He wasn't there.

He tried calling out Stone's name, but nothing came out. He grabbed his pack, still where he'd dropped it the night before and took a swig from the thermos, the first thing his hand touched. The coffee was cold.

He cleared his throat and tried again.

"Stone!" He called out, turning 360 degrees, eyes scanning everything.

"Stone!" Isaacs and Scully joined in, both sounding a bit frantic.

They trotted through the trees nearest them, Scully stopping on the bank of the river, looking in. She turned to him and shook her head.

Mulder pulled out his cell phone, the display blank. The battery was dead.

"You guys got a signal?" He asked them both, holding up his phone.

They both pulled out their cell phones from pockets.

"Battery's dead," said Scully.

"Mine too," said Isaacs, "STOOOOONNE!"

"Spread out," Mulder said, his order sounding much like the one from last night. "And again—don't lose sight of each other!"

They searched and searched, calling Stone's name until they were hoarse.

Finally, Mulder slumped against a tree.

"We need to get some help," he said.

"I'll stay here," Isaacs said, "in case he comes back."

"No!" Scully barked, "we stay together."

It seemed like the thing to do.

They made their way back toward the car doing double-time, the hike seemed three times as long on the return.

They broke out of the tree line about 50 yards from where they went in, Mulder had to look both ways before he saw their car. It hadn't moved, but there was something odd about it. He realized at the same time as Scully and Isaacs that there was a body slumped over next to it.

They all shouted his name simultaneously and sprinted toward him. Isaacs got there first, sliding into the dirt on her knees next to her partner. Mulder and Scully were right behind her, Scully going directly into doctor mode.

She felt for a pulse on his neck.

"He's alive," she said quietly. She started feeling around on his body, looking for injury.

At her touch, Stone started to stir. He made a low breathy sound and slowly sat up.

He turned his eyes to each of them in turn.

"I woke up here," he said, sounding befuddled.

He promptly threw up.

XxXxXxXxX

Stone remembered only what the rest of them did, the glowing lights, the flash of sound and then nothing. Timing-wise he'd woken up about the same as they had, though none of their watches were working any longer. He'd woken up next to their car on the side of the road, confused. He seemed more out of it than they were, though perhaps it was the bracing hike back to the car that had brought them out of their stupor. Scully could find nothing medically wrong with him, at least not there by the side of the road. She tried to insist they all get checked out at a hospital when they got back to civilization, but everyone just wanted a bed, and her arguments sounded weak, even to herself.

They drove back to the hotel in silence, Isaacs getting the passenger seat in deference to her height. Scully stole glances at Stone, at Mulder, wondering just what in hell had happened to them all.

XxXxXxXxX

Mulder had walked each of the other agents to their hotel room doors, not leaving until they were safely inside. Scully had allowed him a brief fierce hug before she'd kissed his cheek and closed herself into her own room. He trudged a few doors down to his own, his feet feeling heavier with every step.

The room was dark when he entered and he threw the security chain across the door as soon as it closed. He had kicked off one shoe when he heard the voice from across the room.

"Agent Scully's not joining you?" It was a cold voice, a callous voice and he knew it before the flare from a lighter lit up the face of Cancer Man.

Mulder had his gun out of his holster and trained on the shadow, sitting in one of the room's guest chairs. The shades had been drawn, the glow of his cigarette the only light in the room.

"How did you get in here?" Mulder asked, afraid, frustrated.

"Please," Cancer Man said dismissively.

"It was you," Mulder said, "you sent us the picture, you brought us here."

"Of course it was me," the Smoking Man said, disdainfully, "it was an invitation. I wanted you to come."

"Why?" Mulder spat.

"To give you a message."

"You could have called."

The man ignored the jibe.

"You're getting too close, Agent Mulder, you need to back off."

"Too close?" Mulder said. "Too close to what?"

Instead of answering, the man took a deep pull on his cigarette, regarding Mulder with narrowed eyes.

"How is Agent Scully's health? No lingering frostbite? No… no nosebleeds?"

Mulder would have pistol whipped him if he hadn't heard the threat underlying Cancer Man's words.

"Agent Scully is fine," Mulder said through gritted teeth.

"I'd say you know better than anyone," the man said, sniffing.

Mulder refused to engage. If they thought they had more leverage on him now that he and Scully were sleeping together, they were operating under a delusion. As if he didn't already love her to the moon and back.

"Where's Marcie Vincent?" Mulder demanded, his gun moving from the slight tremor in his hand, nerves and fury.

"She's safe," said the man.

"Safe from who?" Mulder asked, the question seemed rhetorical.

"Give her back to me," Mulder went on, "let me return her to her family."

"In good time," the man said calmly.

"Listen, you son of a bitch," Mulder said, before he was interrupted.

"No, you listen, Agent Mulder. Gather your team and take them home. You can investigate werewolves and frogmen and psychic killers to your heart's content. Spend all the taxpayer money you want, I don't give a damn. But back off of Marcie Vincent. She'll be returned to her family when we're ready for her to be."

"Why should I?" Mulder demanded.

"I'd hate for Agent Scully to take another trip to Ruskin Dam. Wouldn't you?"

Mulder's insides turned to liquid.

"What do you mean?" Mulder asked, lowering his gun fractionally.

"I can make Agent Scully do whatever I want, Agent Mulder. As I can with Marcie Vincent."

Cancer Man looked at him levelly.

The chip. That was how Scully had ended up at Ruskin Dam. The goddamn chip made her go.

The man rose from the chair casually.

"I see you're starting to understand," he said. "I'm in control, Agent Mulder, and if I tell you to back off, you'll do it."

"Why should I believe it?" Mulder asked. "Why should I believe if we back off you won't hurt Scully anyway?"

"I returned Agent Stone to you, didn't I?" The man said, taking a drag and walking to Mulder's door. "Call it a show of good faith."

With that he was gone. All that remained was the acrid scent of smoke and a pervasive sense of dread.

XxXxXxXxX

Chapter 8 - "Dominion"

XxXxXxXxX

He had to tell her. He'd kept things like this from her in the past, always thinking he was protecting her, and he always lived to regret it. He loved her enough, respected her enough, to tell her the whole truth.

He let her get some rest first, though he hadn't been able to sleep himself. The implications of what the Smoking Man had told him were awesome in the classic sense of the word. Awesome and terrifying.

He came to her room and she was so pleased to see him, he almost vomited right there at her hotel room door. The entire time he relayed his conversation with Cancer Man, he fought queasiness in the pit of his stomach.

She listened with an impassive face, though Mulder could see her jaw clench as he spoke. She did not react when he finished talking.

He got up and sat next to her on the bed.

"Don't," she said, when he reached for her hand. "Just… just give me a minute."

Mulder sat in silence, hoping his presence was as comforting as he always found hers.

"That," she finally said, breaking the silence, "that explains some things."

"Yeah," Mulder said quietly. She didn't need reminding of all that it explained.

"I think I'd like to be alone, now," she said, and Mulder hesitantly stood.

"I'll get the travel arranged," he said. "We'll leave tomorrow. All of us."

She nodded briefly without meeting his eyes.

"Dana, I'm right down the hall if you need me."

She looked up at him, tears filling her eyes. He left before he could see them fall. He didn't think he could take it.

XxXxXxXxX

She was stoic the next morning, quiet. Mulder was concerned that she was running on automatic until they got to the small airport and she pulled her badge on one of the security workers, confiscated one of their metal detecting wands and gave Stone a thorough and intensive screening, starting with the back of his neck.

She found nothing, returned the wand to the security guard, and then bent over, breathing heavily with her hands on her knees. Mulder was concerned she was about to have a panic attack.

She straightened after a moment, shot Mulder a look of sheer relief, and then hugged him fiercely, there in the middle of the airport.

Isaacs and Stone quietly gave them some space and went to wait for them at the gate.

"Are you okay?" Mulder whispered into her hair.

"I don't know," she said honestly.

They flew back to DC.

XxXxXxXxX

She arrived at his apartment three days after getting home, and he threw open the door to admit her, relieved beyond measure to see her. He hadn't been sure if he should give her space or smother her with attention and support, so he'd settled on something in between, calling her several times daily, but not pushing his presence on her.

Neither of them had been to the office. Isaacs had quietly checked in their first morning back and Mulder had told her they needed some time. They hadn't told the other agents anything that had happened but both were intelligent and sympathetic – they'd figured something was up, but didn't push on what. Mulder had given Skinner the barest bones of Cliffs Notes. To his credit, the new Deputy Director looked like he was about to put his fist through a wall.

"I don't know what to do," she finally said.

She was standing near the entrance of Mulder's apartment, her hands deep in her pockets. Her posture screamed 'stay back.'

"Come in," Mulder said, moving into the apartment, forcing her to follow if she wanted to talk to him. "Do you want something to drink?"

She shook her head, but followed, eventually settling into his desk chair while he sat on the couch, watching her intently.

"Mulder," she finally said. "Am I… Am I even me?"

"Scully," he said, but she rolled on.

"Are my choices my own? Mulder, I don't know! How can I?"

He stayed silent, waiting for her to continue.

"The way I see it," she went on, "I can live my life not in control of it, or I can take out this chip and die on my own terms."

Mulder didn't say anything. Felt tears burn the back of his eyes.

"What the hell kind of choice is that?" She said.

To hell with space, Mulder stood then and kneeled in front of her, taking both of her hands in his. He pulled lightly and stood, and she followed him, easing onto the couch next to him, her hands staying grasped in both of his.

"Mulder, I don't think I can do this," she said, her voice a whisper.

Mulder felt his stomach drop.

"This?" He said tentatively, pointing between the two of them, hands clasped together.

"Any of it!" She wailed desperately, standing. "Mulder, the reason I came back after the OPR review was to uncover the truth! To nail these bastards who think they can control the world. If we're not able to do that now, what is the point?!"

Mulder struggled to keep his voice calm.

"Scully, you told me once that our work was the most fulfilling of your life. That it was interesting and satisfying and that you couldn't imagine doing anything else."

She sniffed and once again sat down next to him, not meeting his eyes.

"Pillow talk," she said quietly, a half-smile on her lips.

"Nevertheless," he said softly, and reached out to her, gently clasping her above the knee. "If that's no longer true, if you no longer feel that you can continue this journey with me, I'll accept that. I will support you."

He cupped her cheek.

"The way I see it," he went on, speaking her own words back to her, "there's no choice between living and dying. You go be a doctor. You go live your life."

Scully hunched in on herself and started to cry.

"But Scully," he went on, gently, "I don't want to live mine without you in it. I don't even think I can."

"I don't want to either," she said, "but…"

He gave her a moment. Handed her a tissue.

"But what, Scully?" He finally asked.

"But what if they make me do something?" She said softly. "What if they make me hurt you?"

There it was. It hung there in the air.

"Oh baby, no," Mulder said, and pulled her to him, tucking her into his chest. "I won't let you."

She sniffed.

"But I'm a better shot than you," she said, half-laughing, half-crying, her voice muffled by his shirt.

He ran his hands through her hair and held on for dear life.

"Scully," he whispered. A statement. A mantra. A prayer.

XxXxXxXxX

He awoke slowly, from a warm, liquid dream.

When he opened his eyes, Scully was propped on her elbow at his side, his boxers pulled down, her hand around him, stroking gently.

"Sc—" he started to say, but she moved her other hand to cover his mouth, shushing him quietly. She rose then and moved above him, sinking down on him. She took a shuddery breath and began rocking languidly.

He moved his hands to her hips and let her lead him, let her do what she needed to.

Her climax came on slowly, quietly. An intake of breath and a shuddery exhale, he felt her quicken around him and then she sunk slowly down, still astride him, pressing her cheek to his neck.

She started to cry then, her shoulders tremulous under his hands and it was all he could do not to join her.

"It's going to be okay," he whispered to her. "It's going to be okay."

He could only hope that it would.

XxXxXxX

Stone was slumped in his desk chair, his head resting in his hand. Isaacs thought he had maybe fallen asleep when he spoke.

"I'm starting to get the pencil thing," he said.

"The what?"

Stone pointed toward the ceiling over Mulder's desk and she followed with her eyes. Oh. The pencil thing.

"This job is kind of a feast or famine situation. Either you're running yourself ragged chasing monsters, or…" He gestured again to the ceiling.

Mulder had already left for the afternoon, and they hadn't seen Scully in over two weeks.

"I've already reorganized my pens by color and have played maybe 81,712 games of Minesweeper," he went on. "What are you doing?"

Isaacs leaned back in her chair.

"Going over old leads on the Vincent case, trying to see if there's anything we missed."

Stone made a slightly guilty face.

"That's good," he said, "you're a good cop. Maybe I should do some Good Cop Things." He turned back to his computer and moved his mouse to wake up the screen saver.

He then sat straight up in his chair, which moved back, almost knocking into Isaacs as he did it.

"Stone?" She asked, "Is everything—"

He held up a finger, not taking his eyes off his computer.

"Just one second, please," he said, his words coming out fast and deliberate.

He typed a few things, and Isaacs noticed his leg start to bounce under his desk. It was his nervous tic.

After a minute or two, he turned to her, positively vibrating with restive energy. She waited for him to say something.

"So," he finally said, "I did something."

She gestured to him with her hands.

"Go on," she said.

"Where do I start," he said, seemingly to himself. "Okay, do you remember when we first got back from Louisiana and you asked why I'd gotten this computer?"

"Yeah, you said you were the 'tech department of the X-Files unit.'"

"Right, well, that was true. I use it for security purposes and—"

Isaacs held up a hand.

"I'm going to stop you right there," she said, "you've seen me type. There's a reason you input all the reports. Computers and I aren't friends. You need to tell me the tech stuff like I'm an idiot."

Stone smiled at her.

"Okay, I needed this unit because I needed a machine capable of running a program I wrote."

"I'm with you. What's the program?"

He paused for a moment.

"All right, so you know how worried Mulder is about the security of our files and evidence, because he's—"

"A conspiracy theorist."

Stone smiled again.

"I was going to say, 'correctly paranoid about cyber threats.'"

"If you say so."

"I do say so. And so this program I wrote… If anyone tries to hack us, or break in to our computers – the X-Files unit computers specifically – my program essentially diverts and then hacks them back, without them knowing. I'm in and out. I did it so I can track down who's doing the hacking. I assigned specific keywords for the computer to ping on so I can tell if it's a random hack or a major security threat."

"And we just got hacked?" Isaacs sat up straighter.

Stone waved his hand in front of his face, like he was brushing away a fly.

"We get hacked all the time, or at least they try," he said nonchalantly. "It's usually kids in their parent's basement. Sometimes the Chinese or the Russians."

"Jesus," Isaacs said. She hadn't realized that. She pointed at his leg, still bouncing double time under his desk. "So what's this all about?"

"It's about who just tried to hack us and the keywords that got pinged."

"Don't leave me hanging…"

"We were hacked by the Department of Defense, Jasmine," Stone said grimly. "And you need to take a look at the keywords I picked up on their computer."

Isaacs stood and leaned over his shoulder looking at the screen where he indicated.

"Holy shit, Stone."

"Yeah," he said, "holy shit."

XxXxXxXxX

Chapter 9 - "Warehouse 11"

XxXxXxXxX

Vincent, Marcie Lynn#

Scully, Dana Katherine#

MUFON

Hagopian, Elizabeth Marie#

Spender, Cassandra O'Neal#

Spender, (?)(***)#

Northern, Penny#

Kevin Scanlon, MD

Isaacs leaned back from Stone's computer. She didn't know what to say.

"And these are just the keywords I used," he said, "I picked a random sampling of names and terms from the X-Files. And then only a handful."

Stone bit his lip and looked at Isaacs levelly.

"There could be a lot more in there," he said.

"Could the DOD have copies of our files? Maybe that's why it pinged on so many?"

Stone shook his head.

"The DOD and DOJ are on completely different operating systems. And in any event, I don't see any reason for the DOD to retain DOJ files. It makes no sense."

"We need to call Mulder," Isaacs said, reaching for her phone.

"Are you kidding?" Stone said, eyebrows raised. He tapped on Scully's name on the screen. "You know how he is with her. If he sees her name on this, he's going to flip."

Isaacs dropped her hand. He wasn't wrong.

"I think we need to check it out ourselves," Stone said. "See what we can find and substantiate. Once we get more, we take it to Mulder. To Skinner."

"What, you think they're just going to let us march up to the front door of the Pentagon? 'Hi, we need to take a look at the computer that hacked us!'"

"That's the thing," Stone said, turning back to his computer and typing a few more things. He leaned back. "It's a DOD computer, using a DOD system and server, but it's not located at the Pentagon. It's an off-site location."

"What location?" Isaacs asked.

Stone typed a few more things, then rolled his chair over to the graphing table and pulled out a map.

"Would you believe a warehouse by the Springfield Mixing Bowl?"

"You're kidding," Isaacs said.

"I would never."

XxXxXxXxX

Stone and Isaacs pulled up to the warehouse complex and parked a half block down. They'd cruised around it once, getting a feel for what they were dealing with. The building was three stories, and only the third floor had windows. It had one front door and a boarded up loading dock in the back. It was run-down and derelict looking. There was not a soul in sight.

"If this is a DOD building, I want to know where my tax dollars are going," Stone said, putting the car in park and cutting the engine.

"Your paycheck for one," Isaacs said, assessing the building through the windshield.

"Complaint withdrawn," Stone said.

After a moment, Isaacs reached into the back seat and pulled out a dark hooded sweatshirt. She pulled it over her head and raised the hood, pulling it down so it almost covered her eyes.

"I'm going to go take a closer look," she said, and was out the door before Stone could argue.

Stone was almost ready to panic when she opened the passenger door and dropped inside, coming from the opposite direction.

"Went around the whole thing," she said, "it's closed up pretty tight."

Stone could smell the outside air hanging on her sweatshirt. He scraped a hand through the stubble on his chin. He'd forgotten to shave this morning.

"Could you tell what kind of security they've got?" He asked.

"Front door has a fancy key pad," she said, "and other than the loading dock, which is plugged up pretty tight, the only other way in is through the windows up there." She pointed to the third story windows. "No guards and I didn't see any other cars. I don't think there's anyone actually here."

"This key pad," he said, "is it a numerical pad or a magnetic strip swipe, or both?"

"You mean the thingie where you swipe your thingie?" Isaacs asked, miming swiping a credit card.

"Yeah," said Stone, speaking fluent Isaacs.

"Both," she said.

"All right," said Stone, turning the ignition on the car. "We're going to take a field trip."

XxXxXxXxX

The speakeasy panel slid open, revealing a beady pair of bespectacled eyes.

"Who are you?" The voice was muffled.

"You know who we are," Stone said, impatiently. Isaacs was hanging back, not entirely sold on this plan. Mulder had mentioned the Gunmen to them, but had never made an introduction.

A more muffled voice came from further inside.

"Jesus Christ, Frohike, just let them in!"

The panel slid closed, and after the noise of a lot of locks being thrown, the metal door creaked open.

"Come on, make it quick."

Stone hustled in, but Isaacs took a more measured pace.

A bearded man wearing a suit came up to Stone when the door had been slammed shut.

"Byers," he said by way of introduction, and held out his hand for a shake. "Are Mulder and Scully okay?"

Stone shook it.

"They're fine," he said, "but we need your help."

Another man with long blond hair, also wearing glasses stood leaning against a wall with his arms crossed.

"We might be able to help you," he said in a nasally voice, "depending."

Stone turned to him.

"Langly, right?" Stone said, "I've seen some of your work. Impressive."

Langly shrugged.

"I've seen some of yours too, I can't believe you went federal. The Rainbow Line hack was inspired."

It was Stone's turn to shrug.

"I was a kid," he said.

Isaacs finally spoke up.

"I'm sure it's great and all, everybody meeting their heroes, but we've got a bit of a time sensitive situation, here."

All four men in the room turned to her.

"She's got legs to her neck," Frohike said appreciatively.

"You must be Frohike," said Stone, "don't be gross."

"No," said Isaacs, grinning, "he can go on."

XxXxXxXxX

Stone laid it all out to the Gunmen. They were equally intrigued and appalled and agreed to help get them the equipment they'd need to get into the DOD warehouse.

Byers handed Stone the small parcel. It was a jumble of wires coming out of a hard plastic case. A credit card sized key card was hanging off of it by a wire.

"You may have to reset it every time you come to a different key pad," Byers said seriously, "it could take a minute."

Stone nodded.

"We appreciate your help," he said.

"If you get anything good," Langly said, stepping forward, "we want the exclusive."

Frohike grabbed Isaacs' hand and kissed the back of it.

"My lady," he said, bowing.

"Kind sir," she said, returning the gesture.

She and Stone made for the door.

Once they were out into the night, Stone cut his eyes to her.

"You didn't have to do that, you know," he said.

"Do what?"

"Humor that dirty old bird."

"Hey," said Isaacs defensively, "it's not everyday a girl gets a compliment."

XxXxXxXxX

Isaacs had insisted they both go home to change into dark, loose clothing. Stone jumped into her car when she came by to pick him up and she shot him a look.

"What?" He said, "it's all I had."

He was wearing dark jeans and a baggy black hoodie with "311" across the front in big white numbers.

"I said 'subtle,'" Isaacs said.

"You said 'dark,'" he said, defensively.

Isaacs shook her head and drove on. She exited near the Mixing Bowl and parked where they had earlier in the day.

At night, it looked no different. There were no lights on anywhere in the building, which was a relief.

"Let's walk around the building once," Isaacs said, slipping off her seat belt and opening the door, "make sure there aren't any surprises."

They made one lap and found it exactly as they had earlier in the day.

"I still don't see any cameras," Isaacs said. "You ready to do this?"

Stone nodded, adjusted the small backpack he'd brought and pulled out the device the Gunmen had given them.

"Is that thing gonna work?" Isaacs said softly as they approached the door.

"Guess we'll find out," said Stone. He ran the card through the reader and waited for a moment. Three beeps and the lights on the key pad turned green – the door buzzed open and then they were inside.

Isaacs took a minute when they were in the door. She took out her flashlight and weapon and slowly panned them across the room. It looked like a standard reception area. One tall desk with a phone and sign-in sheet and five or six uncomfortable looking chairs lined up against one wall. There was no signage or paperwork on the desk.

Stone pulled out his own flashlight, the door decoding device in his other hand.

"You have your weapon, right?" Isaacs asked quietly, even so her voice sounded loud in the room.

"In my holster," Stone whispered, moving to the next door. It also had a key pad entry.

"Byers said we might have to reset it?" Isaacs asked.

"Let's see," said Stone, and he swiped. Once again, after a moment three beeps and the key pad light turned green.

"Look for motion detectors and trip wires, would you?" Stone said, with a hand on the door handle.

Isaacs nodded. They went through.

The next room was large, something you'd expect to find in a warehouse, with large glass tanks scattered throughout. The tanks were empty, each lined with a dusty black film. The room smelled like a dental office.

Isaacs shone her light through one of the tanks.

"Nasty," she said, crinkling her nose in distaste.

At the far end of the room, there was another door. Stone's scanning device got them through that one too without issue.

It led to a long hallway, with 4 sets of doors along each wall. Each one had a key pad outside of it, and a window in the door.

Isaacs scanned the corners of the hallway for motion sensors, and seeing none, moved to the first door, shining her flashlight through the window.

The room was narrow but deep, neatly lined with metal gurneys, a small IV stand and medical portal next to each one.

Isaacs turned to Stone with a look.

"What the fuck kind of place is this?" She asked.

"Look for computers," Stone said, shining his light in the room across hers. "Bigger units and work stations or a server room."

The quickly scanned the other doors in the hallway.

"The third floor maybe?" Isaacs said, holstering her gun.

Stone nodded.

"We need to find some stairs."

A few doorways later they found the staircase, simple and industrial, and climbed their way up.

The door to the third floor had another key pad unit.

Stone tried it. This time, the pad gave one long beep and the numbers flashed red.

"Shit," Stone said, "Going to have to reset it."

He tinkered with the unit in his hands. A small light on its side blinked blue and Stone tried the key pad again. Three beeps, the numbers turned green, and they were in.

Isaacs pulled her weapon back out and they took a step inside.

This is what Isaacs had expected of a Department of Defense building. There were four large work stations with sophisticated looking computers and equipment at each one. Off in the corner looked to be a smaller PC connected to a large bank of servers that took up one wall. Unlike the other parts of the warehouse, there were dim lights on here, though not overhead, each desktop had a small desktop lamp that gave the room a low green glow.

"Gotcha," Stone said, pocketing his flashlight and heading for the PC at the bank of servers.

He dropped his small pack next to the desk chair and sat, working the keyboard quickly.

"I'm going to look around," Isaacs told him, and at his nod, she did a sweep around the room. There were no file cabinets of any kind, and nothing left out on the desktops to snoop, though they were clean, clear of dust, and had been in use recently.

At the far end of the room were two more doors. One had no window, but there appeared to have been an old Exit sign above it, removed. The room with the window was tiny, but looked like a small lab. It had one table in the center with a small black cube on top, with one cord leading to what looked to Isaacs like a small, sleek next-gen laptop. Both doors had key pads.

Isaacs was just turning back towards Stone, when he made a noise, low in his throat.

"What is it?" Isaacs said, trotting over.

Stone was rapidly reading the computer monitor in front of him.

"JeeeeeSUS," he said, then turned to Isaacs. His face looked ashen even in the dim green light of the room.

"Did you see any kind of lab in here?" He asked her.

She hooked a thumb toward the two doors.

"Over there," she said.

"What's in it?"

"A little computer. That's about it."

Stone nodded and his throat bobbed.

"Here," he said, handing her the key pad decoding device. "Take this over there, and when I tell you, try it on the door."

Isaacs held it a little uncertainly.

"What if it needs to be reset?" She asked.

Stone quickly pointed to three black buttons along the side.

"Just press here, here, then here. When the blue light flashes, it should be good to go."

Isaacs walked warily over to the small lab.

"You'll tell me when?" she called over to him.

"Yes," he said, bending over his pack and pulling out a small device. He plugged it into the PC and pushed a button on the keyboard.

"Come on, come on, come on," he said quietly, rocking back and forth on his feet.

Something popped up on the screen in front of him and he bent down quickly to look at it.

"We're going to have to move fast, Isaacs!" He called over to her, "they know we're here!"

Isaacs thought she heard movement below them. She ran to the door where they'd entered and put her ear to it – there was clanging on the metal staircase, there were people coming up.

"Stone, help me with this!" She called, and knocked everything off of the desk closest to the door, shoving it with all her might.

Stone saw what she was trying to do and ran over – they pushed the desk in front of the door.

Stone nodded to the key pad decoder.

"Go try that other door, see where it goes!"

Isaacs ran over. The key pad beeped once and turned red. She tried to remember what order to push the buttons to reset it. It took an agonizingly long time for the light to turn blue. She tried it again. Three beeps and the door opened. It had a staircase that went up – it led to the roof.

"We got an exit!" She called over to Stone who was still staring the PC monitor, waiting.

"One more minute!" He called over.

The men were at the door, shoving at it, the desk blocking their way scraping loudly on the floor as it budged inch by inch.

"We don't have a minute!" Isaacs yelled back.

"I got it!" Stone said then, and pulled the device out of the PC, throwing it in his pack and racing over to where Isaacs stood by their exit.

"Try the lab door!" He shouted to her as he ran.

She tried the key pad. One long beep, red buttons.

The desk blocking the door shoved back another inch with a metal-on-metal groan.

"We've got to go, Stone!" Isaacs said, "it's not worth it!"

Stone made it to her and grabbed the decoder from her, resetting it.

"Yes," he said to her, looking her right in the eye, "it is."

The desk blocking the door finally gave and three men in black tactical gear pushed through, weapons in hand.

"Cover me!" Stone shouted while he tried the lab door with his device.

Isaacs flipped over the desk nearest them and took cover, training her weapon on the men, hoping they'd shoot first. She'd never fired her service weapon before in the field.

The first man through turned toward her and fired, she shot back. She vaguely heard the three beeps of the lab door, she looked back for a second and Stone was in the lab — moments later he dove beside her, shoving something into his pack.

"The exit," she said, nodding toward the rooftop stairway door, "go!"

Stone dove for the doorway and she stood, spraying the room with fire. The men fired back. She was right behind Stone on the second step when Stone grunted and sagged against the wall. He'd been hit.

She shoved a shoulder under his arm and let adrenaline help him up the last few steps to the rooftop.

They got on the roof and she slammed the door closed behind them. She scanned the roof quickly and spotted a rickety, rusty fire escape. Stone was holding his side, a grimace on his face, but he was still on his feet.

"Can you make it to the fire escape?" She asked him.

He nodded. She heard movement on the stairway behind them, and the sound of a helicopter approaching.

"Give me your weapon," she said, "go!"

Stone handed her his weapon, moving toward the fire escape and she turned, looking for some place with cover. She saw a ventilation shaft twenty feet away when the door opened right next to her. Reflex taking over, she'd shot the man point-blank in the face before she realized what was happening. The man fell backwards into whoever was behind him and she made all-out for the ventilation shaft, flinging herself behind it as bullets strafed where she'd just been.

She cut her eyes to Stone, who was straddling the side of the building, slowly making his way onto the top of the fire escape. The two other men had pushed their comrade out onto the roof and were both firing, one at Isaacs, the other at Stone.

Isaacs dove out from her cover and came up firing. She emptied her clip into the man firing at her and raised Stone's weapon, taking careful aim.

The man fell just as Stone dropped onto the top of the fire escape.

XxXxXxXxX

Chapter 10 - "TechGnosis"

XxXxXxXxX

Scully awoke suddenly to the sound of pounding at her door. Mulder came awake next to her a second later with a sharp intake of breath.

Mulder reached for his service weapon on the bedside table, paranoia running deep.

"Want me to get it?" He asked.

Scully shook her head, and quickly donned her robe.

When she got to the door, she checked for Mulder behind her- he was clad in only jeans with the button and belt still undone. He had his weapon in his hand, though lowered to his thigh. He nodded at her.

She opened the door.

Isaacs stood there with Stone hanging limply off her shoulder, his face pale and sweating. Isaacs didn't look much better. She'd obviously struggled getting him to Scully's door, and looked on the edge of exhaustion. She had a small black backpack hanging off her other elbow.

"Jesus!" Scully said, and swung the door wide, "bring him in!"

They stumbled in, and Mulder was at their side in an instant, grabbing Stone around his other shoulder.

"Into the bed!" Scully ordered.

Scully stripped the duvet off the top and they deposited Stone in the bed. He gave a weak groan.

Scully immediately went to the bedside, and pried his hand away from his side.

"He's been shot!" She said, turning an accusing eye toward Isaacs, who was bent over, hands on her knees, breathing heavily.

Isaacs nodded at her.

"We need to call an ambulance," Scully said.

"No!" Isaacs said quickly, "We can't! Can you treat him?"

Scully cut her eyes to Mulder, who gave her an imperceptible nod.

"After I do, I want to know exactly what the hell you guys have been up to," Scully said, not amused.

Scully's bedside manner with Stone was much more gentle, though she began quietly barking orders to Mulder and Isaacs, who hopped-to. Mulder retrieved her doctor's bag from her closet.

After a thorough triage, it looked like the bullet that hit Stone went through cleanly, and the bleeding had slowed. Scully got some liquids into him and sewed him up, wishing she'd had some anesthetic.

She got him resting comfortably and headed for her living room, closing the door halfway so she could still hear if something went wrong. She found Mulder, now fully dressed, and Isaacs sitting on her couch, deep in discussion.

She interrupted them. She was fuming.

"Agent Stone lost a lot of blood," she said, "he should be in a hospital."

"Scully," Mulder started to say.

"Don't," she said, swinging her eyes to Isaacs. "What happened tonight?"

"We were following a lead," Isaacs said, "at a Department of Defense offsite location."

"Of course," Scully said bitterly, looking at Mulder, "I guess you did train them up your way."

He had the good sense to look contrite.

"Agent Scully, are you aware of some of the cyber security countermeasures Stone has enacted on behalf of the X-Files unit?" Isaacs asked her.

It was Scully's turn to look abashed. She'd not invested much time following up on how the newer agents were settling in to the unit or what they were up to. She'd relied on Mulder doing that, having been taken up with her own concerns, having been taken up with him.

She shook her head.

"Agent Stone wrote a program," Isaacs went on, "when he first started with the unit. I can't claim to understand exactly how it all works, but in essence, it monitored our computers for interference."

"He found someone interfering?" Scully asked.

"Today," Isaacs nodded.

"The Department of Defense?" Scully asked. She'd been around the basement office long enough to not sound too skeptical.

"It was an offsite location," Isaacs said, "I'm not sure how 'official' it is."

Scully nodded, all of this sounding familiar.

"Stone convinced me we should check it out before we brought it you and Agent Mulder."

"Why?" Asked Scully.

"Because of what we found," came Stone's voice from behind her.

Stone stood weakly in the bedroom doorway, his hand on the door handle.

"Let me explain," he said, as Scully rushed to his side.

"You need to be resting," she said gently but insistently, and helped him back into bed.

Mulder and Isaacs came to stand in the doorway.

"Come in, please," Stone said, his voice quiet.

Scully started to protest, but he held up a hand.

"I need to tell you," he said, "in case something happens."

Once again Scully tried to object.

"This can't wait," he said. He cut his eyes to Isaacs. "Jasmine, will you grab my backpack?"

She brought it to his side.

He looked up at her gratefully.

"The program Isaacs is talking about is kind of a 'hack-back' program. A computer at the DOD site tried to hack us today, and I backdoored into their system."

He took a breath, and Scully nodded, giving him a moment.

"I designed it to be quick, in-and-out so I could remain undetected, but I set it up to search the invading system for keywords related to the X-Files. I picked a few names and references scattered throughout the files, old and new. Threat assessment. Trying to figure out what they were after."

He reached into the small pack and pulled out a sheet of paper, crumpled from being in the bag. He handed it to Scully.

It read:

Vincent, Marcie Lynn#

Scully, Dana Katherine#

MUFON

Hagopian, Elizabeth Marie#

Spender, Cassandra Ann#

Spender, (?)(***)#

Northern, Penny#

Kevin Scanlon, MD

Scully felt her stomach drop. She sat on the bed and handed the sheet to Mulder.

He stared at it.

"After we got in," Stone said, adjusting himself on the bed with a grimace and then pointing to the paper in Mulder's hand, "I got a look at everything. I know what it means."

XxXxXxXxX

Mulder couldn't take his eyes off the paper. The implications of all the names on it were legion.

Finally he looked up, connected eyes with Scully and then turned to Stone.

"What does it mean?" He asked.

"Of the pinged keywords that my computer picked up," he said, "The names with the pound sign have a chip implanted in the back of their neck."

Scully looked like she was going to be sick.

"The DOD, or whoever is running the off-site we went to," he went on, "has a computer and a program that controls the chips."

He pulled a small black cube and a sleek looking computer out of the pack and held them up.

"I'm calling it the God Module," he said.

Mulder felt suddenly galvanized.

"That's it?" Mulder said, taking a step toward the bed, "That's the computer that controls the chips?"

"The one and only," Stone said in all seriousness. "And that's not all I found."

He pulled a smaller device out of his backpack.

It was Isaacs turn to take step closer to him.

"Is that what you pulled off the PC?" She asked him.

He nodded.

"What is it?"

"It's the Master List," he said. "It's the names of everyone with a chip, and what current program each chip is running."

Mulder connected eyes with Scully, electric.

XxXxXxXxX

The excitement of relaying the information he'd found had only momentarily energized Stone. He lost steam and was now fitfully asleep. Isaacs was passed out on Scully's couch, an afghan thrown over her.

Mulder and Scully were in Scully's kitchen, heads bent together, talking quietly. They would not be sleeping that night.

"We can't keep them here," Scully said, "they're going to figure out who broke into the DOD building, and it's not going to take a lot of algebra to figure out were they went next."

Mulder nodded, agreeing.

"If that God Module really is what Stone thinks it is," Mulder said, "we might have some leverage."

"If that God Module really is what Stone thinks it is…" Scully said, not needing to finish the thought.

Mulder pulled her to him in a tight embrace.

They stood like that for a while, breathing each other in.

"The agents in this unit have a really terrible habit of breaking the law," Scully said, her voice muffled in his shirt.

Mulder chuffed out a breathy chuckle.

Laws, he thought, were easy to break. For her he would have broken laws of physics, of time. For her he would create matter, destroy it, push an immovable object through an impenetrable force.

"Comes with the territory," was all he said, his nose in her hair, his heart in his throat.

XxXxXxXxX

It was before dawn, and Mulder had gingerly loaded Stone into the back of his car. Scully got into the back as well, keeping an eye on her patient.

Stone reached for the seatbelt with a grimace and Scully stopped him.

"Skip it," she said, and Stone looked relieved. He slowly sunk down until he was lying across the seat, his head on Scully's leg.

"We're both going to pretend this isn't awkward, okay?" He said.

Isaacs jumped in front and they drove to Crystal City. Light traffic at a dark hour, Mulder was pretty sure they hadn't been followed.

Mulder pulled up to the curb in front of a high rise and made a quick call. Ten minutes later, Deputy Director Skinner came out of the front of the building in a tee shirt and jeans and leaned down to the open passenger window.

"Sir?" Mulder said, bending down to look over, "I'm afraid we're going to need some help."

Skinner took a look around the inside of the car, stood, and pinching the bridge of his nose, begrudgingly nodded.

XxXxXxXxX

The safe house was off Fort Hunt Road in a suburb near Mount Vernon, a small ranch house tucked into the woods with a long driveway, the prying eyes of neighbors kept at bay.

Stone was set up in a small bedroom, hooked up to an IV drip, pouring over the computer in front of him. Mulder was perched on his bedside, intently looking at the screen. They'd been in deep quiet discussion for the better part of the day when Scully leaned in the doorway.

"Everything okay in here?" She asked. She'd taken to one of the other bedrooms when they arrived and managed to get a couple of hours of sleep. Mulder had been too jacked on adrenaline.

Stone and Mulder looked up simultaneously, with eager expressions on their faces, then Mulder looked to Stone, who nodded.

Mulder rose and came to the door.

"I think we've got this figured out," Mulder said to her quietly, and closed the door halfway, leading Scully through the small living room.

Isaacs was in the corner talking on the phone with her boyfriend in hushed tones. There was an agent on guard duty leaning on the kitchen counter with a cup of coffee. He nodded to them as they made their way through and out onto the small deck in the back.

The day was sunny, and the woods surrounding the property were a sparkling jade. Birdsong filled the air.

"So," said Scully, leaning against the short railing of the deck, "what says the computer? Do I get to take this thing out?" She vaguely gestured to the back of her neck.

Mulder turned so his backside was resting on the railing next to her, their bodies facing different directions.

"Maybe," he said.

Mulder looked out at the blazing green woods and was reminded of the Emerald City. Once more into the breach of the great and powerful Oz.

He already had courage, he thought, looking at Scully. He already had heart.

XxXxXxXxX

They were all gathered in the living room when Skinner came in the front door, the front door agent with him. He nodded at Mulder.

"Murphy, Taylor, can you wait for us outside for a bit?" Skinner said.

The agents on guard duty mumbled affirmatives and trooped out the door.

Once they were out, Skinner looked to Mulder.

"I've got the place," Skinner said.

Mulder nodded.

"What place?" Scully asked him, confused.

"A location for a meeting with the Smoking Man," Mulder said.

Scully felt her stomach turn.

"Mulder," she said.

"No," he replied before she could go on. "This time it's on our fucking terms." He turned to Stone. "Let's show them," he said.

Stone flipped his laptop around on the coffee table and they all huddled in to see the small screen.

"The Master List," Stone said, pushing a few buttons. "It seems to be categorized by, let's just call them 'patients,'" he said, giving a deferential look to Scully. "This is the group of patients Agent Scully is a part of," he brought up a subset of names.

Scully leaned further in. Amongst the names in her group were Cassandra Spender, Betsy Hagopian, Penny Northern.

"Penny…" Scully said, feeling a pang of emotion.

"Agent Scully and the other patients on this list have their chip set to program 'A.'"

"Abductee?" Isaacs asked quietly.

"Maybe," said Stone, "we know from our files that many of the people on this list were abducted for a period of time. All returned. Many are now deceased."

"The ones who removed the chip," Scully said with certainty.

"It appears that way," Stone said.

He went on.

"There's another group of patients set to program 'C'," he said, pointing to the screen.

"There are some names here, and some code names. Those I haven't been able to decipher."

Marcie Vincent. Names of other people. Other kids, thought Scully.

"We don't yet know the function of program 'C'," Stone went on. The information I downloaded only refers to these patients within the context of a 'Project Ramet.'"

"Are they…" Scully took a second, "are the Program C kids' chips controlled by the God Module?"

"Yes," said Stone. "I'm almost certain."

"This group," he said then, looking to Skinner, "have chips set to program 'H'."

Mulder looked at the list, running his finger down the screen through the names. He stopped on one.

"CGB Spender," Mulder said, looking at Skinner, then at Scully.

"From what I can glean," said Stone, nodding, "the chips for the members of this group are set to a program functioning in accordance with the immune system."

"With what objective?" Isaacs asked.

"To fight bacteria," Stone said, "to fight viruses."

"So much for vaccines," Mulder said.

"That's not possible," Scully said, "the science… This kind of technology is decades away, if it's even possible."

Stone looked meaningfully at Mulder.

Mulder cut his eyes to Scully and she began to wonder if there was something they weren't telling her.

"Here's the thing," Mulder said, "with Stone's God Module, we can take all program 'A' patients and deprogram the chip. Or change it to run program 'H.'"

"And vice versa," Isaacs said, starting to understand what Mulder was saying. "You can turn the tables on this Smoking Man, or CGB Spender, or whatever his name is, and then we're in charge of his chip."

"If he removes it, he gets cancer," Scully added quietly.

Mulder nodded.

"And I suspect some of the other names on this list are other men we know. Men we know to be working with the Smoking Man."

"The Syndicate," Skinner said.

"Wouldn't it be nice to have a little leverage?" Mulder asked, leaning back.

"There's leverage," said Stone, "and then there's leverage."

XxXxXxXxX

"So," Stone began. He had the God Module up and 'running,' had played with it for a while, getting a feel for the technology. "What's the location for the meeting with CGB Spender?"

Skinner told him.

"I think I need to convert that to coordinates," he said. "Latitude and longitude."

While Isaacs, Stone and Skinner were trying to figure that out, Scully put a hand on Mulder's arm.

"You're going to program his chip to send him to this location?" She asked him, her voice low.

Mulder squeezed her hand.

"Let's see how he likes it this time," he said.

"I'm coming with you," she said.

"Scully—" He started.

"No," she said, "I want to see the look on his face."

Mulder gave her a small smile.

"Atta girl," he said, quietly.

XxXxXxXxX

The location Skinner had picked had been an old quarry in Maryland. There were two FBI snipers on either side of the cliffs, and several teams handpicked by Skinner located at the entrance. There was no other exit.

Mulder and Scully waited in a car in the middle of the open quarry, Isaacs and Skinner in another about 50 yards away. Stone was still at the safe house with the God Module, in constant contact with Isaacs. If the Cancer Man showed up as he was 'programmed' to do, they would know the device was working and Stone would immediately reprogram all of the patients. Scully wondered if she would feel anything.

At the hour appointed by the God Module, a large dark sedan pulled into the quarry, tires crunching as it slowly pulled up to the car Mulder and Scully were waiting in. When the car's ignition was cut, Mulder and Scully got out.

CGB Spender got out of the car slowly and came to stand in front of them. He said nothing, his eyes were unblinking. Mulder and Scully exchanged a look.

With a sniff of awareness, he came to himself, blinked and looked around. Scully took in the flash of surprise on his face with some satisfaction.

"Wondering how you got here?" Scully asked. "I can relate."

The man took a moment before responding.

"You have it, then?" He asked.

"We have it," said Mulder.

"Then you'd better keep it safe," he said.

"You're not calling the shots anymore," Mulder said. Scully could see the muscles flex in his jaw.

"I never was," the man said.

Scully saw a flash of something in the man's face, but couldn't put a name to it.

"We want Marcie Vincent returned to her family," Mulder said.

The man nodded. He didn't even attempt to put up a fight.

"And I want to know about Project Ramet," Mulder said.

For the first time the smug smile returned to the man's face.

"I'll just bet you do," he said, reaching into his pocket to pull out a pack of Morleys.

Mulder pulled a small knife out of his pocket and took a step forward.

"Your chip is running program A now," Mulder said, "and there's nothing I'd like more than to cut that thing out of your neck right here, right now."

"Killing me won't stop Project Ramet, Agent Mulder," the man said, "and there are some things even I don't know."

He pulled a lighter out of his pocket and lit his cigarette.

"You've ensured Agent Scully's enduring health, you hold the technology to exercise great power, and you have me and other members of my cabal over a barrel, as it were." The man went on, "You're closer now than you ever were to finding what you seek."

XxXxXxXxX

"We should have arrested him," Scully said.

She and Mulder were in their car, on their way back to the safe house. They needed to figure out where to keep the God Module, how to keep it safe. There would be a never ending line of parlous adversaries out to get it.

"We need him to release Marcie Vincent," Mulder said, pulling into a scenic overlook off the Parkway. "And we'll probably need him in the future. You could say he works for us, now."

Scully nodded. He was right.

"What are we doing?" Scully asked.

Mulder didn't answer, just walked over to the passenger seat and opened it up for her, gave her a hand out.

It was another beautiful day, the sky a piercing blue. The overlook was perched over the Potomac, and there were few people pulled in. A young couple was sitting on top of the small neat stone wall, sharing a sandwich. Their dog, a yellow lab, was sitting at their feet hoping for a dropped morsel.

Mulder grabbed Scully's hand and walked with her toward a wooded picnic area. The dog rose as they passed, his tail wagging gently. He gave one short woof once they were past.

"Everyone's a critic," said Mulder.

They sat down at a picnic table, turned toward the river.

"So it's done," Scully said, knowing that the minute the Smoking Man showed up to the quarry Stone had reset her chip.

"It's done," Mulder said.

XxXxXxXxX

He hadn't realized that the ever-looming threat of her illness coming back had weighed so heavily on him. A world without Scully was not a world he wanted to live in. It was like a release valve had been flipped open, the pressure on his heart hissing out into the ether.

He took one deep breath and let it flow out of him, feeling lighter, feeling free.

They sat for a moment in comfortable silence.

"How soon do you think I can takethis thing the hell out of my neck?" She asked, leaning companionably into his shoulder.

He took a breath.

"There's one thing Stone and I discovered while we were in the safe house that he didn't share," Mulder said. "Something you need to know."

Mulder saw Scully tense, and he reached out and took her hand.

"If you leave the chip in," Mulder said, his voice steady, his gaze locked on hers, "the God Module can restore your fertility."

Scully's eyes slid closed, and with a slight upturn of her lips, she canted her face to the sun.

"I get it now," she finally said.

"Get what?" Mulder asked gently.

"You," she said, simply.

He cocked his head to the side, a question.

"Mulder, I want to believe," she said.

He knew then what love was.

It was the gunmetal slide of a pistol, a snow cat prowling at 40 below. The whorls of her fingerprints pressed into his skin. It was purpose and frustration, illumination and regret. It was her smile in profile, composed against the sky.

The End