Truth and Conflict 2

"Apologia"

Rated PG 13 for violence and language

XF/EFC crossover

Summary: Ron Sandoval is assigned to the X-files following Mulder's disappearance. However, his journey into the alien conspiracy has just started. The search of Mulder heats up, and the task force's leader, John Doggett, comes up with damning "proof" that Mulder staged his own disappearance. Scully, Sandoval, and Skinner know differently and set out to find Mulder on their own...but behind the truth is a deadly chess game - with a very fine line between players and pawns.

Disclaimer 1 - Ron Sandoval and DeDe Sandoval belong to Tribune. Incidental characters belong to me. Everyone else is property of Chris Carter, FOX, and 10-13. Fusing the universes was a warped idea I had while high as a kite on cleaning fluid.

Disclaimer 2 - Certain scenes and events are adapted from the X-Files 2-parter "Within/Without." A big thank-you goes to Carrie K and Tiny Dancer for their transcript of the episodes in question.

Dedicated to Andrew "Jamming Panda" Mayor. You know which character is based on you.

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Chapter 1

"You change partners, you change the rules."

-from the movie "Entrapment"

June, 2000

Ron Sandoval's hands shook as he read the letter. Emblazoned on the top was the official crest of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the words were both thrilling and frightening.

*In light of your exceptional investigation skills and exceptional bravery in the line of duty, the Bureau has approved your promotion to Special Agent. Furthermore, you are being transferred to the Washington DC office and reassigned to the Paranormal Division...*

His first thought was *A promotion! Two years out of Quantico! * The second was a bit more sobering. * How the hell is DeDe going to take the idea of moving across the country? *

It wasn't like he had done much. He wasn't even supposed to be on the case. He'd disobeyed orders to further investigate a group of anarchists he had been infiltrating, and didn't even get a conclusive result on just what killed them while he was spared. What he did find were two strange FBI agents. Not only did they believe him, they initiated him into their quest - something far bigger than he could have imagined.

Things went badly. One of the agents met the fate of those townspeople - vanished into thin air. Then, anarchists were all but written off when whatever passed for Bellefluer's sheriff uncovered the bodies of two missing teens near the site...no one else was found. Even if more searches weren't turning up much, Sandoval knew how much could vanish without a trace in the Oregon woods. He could be an old man before they found any other bones.

Various other things had set his teeth on edge about that case. It was as if he had suddenly dropped out of the real world and wandered into a David Lynch film. The cast included the town's ET-obsessed residents, an old man who seemed fixated on both the case and the awful-smelling Morleys he was always puffing on, an acid-blooded, shape-changing hunter, and the protagonists...

Well, he was grateful that Dana Scully was nothing like the air-headed bimbo in that God-awful Gary Shandling movie he watched on the flight here. Mulder, on the other hand, had been freakier than anything a movie producer could pull out of his imagination.

Sandoval folded the letter carefully and stuffed it back in his jacket. When he got off the plane in Dulles International, he was rubbing his eyes and adjusting to the three-hour time difference. It was raining in DC, unseasonably cold and sad looking. It was about 8pm Eastern time when the plane pulled into the terminal. Sandoval left the gate, mentally plotting the wait time for both a phone call and a taxi ride to the hotel.

He was surprised when he saw that some one was waiting for him. She was a little paler then he remembered her from Oregon, and she looked very tired. As soon as he got off the plane, he ran up to her.

"Agent Scully?"

She smiled wanly. "I heard the news. Welcome to 'FBI's most Unwanted, Agent Sandoval."

"Oh, please. Just call me Ron." He paused before asking. "Is it all right to call you by first name? I knew that you and he didn't..."

Sandoval stopped himself and winced, apparently embarrassed by the mention of Mulder. Maybe the events in Oregon hit him hard as well, Scully thought. Or, maybe it was just her own grief making her see things.

"Sure. I'm just not used to it," she said, more to let him off the hook.

"Look," he offered. "Can I give you a call after I get these dropped off at the hotel? Anything I can do to help."

"Do you have a ride?"

"Not yet. I was going to call for a taxi."

"My car is parked outside. Just tell me where you need to go."

They packed the car, and Scully fired up the engine. "Actually, Ron, I'll be over at Mulder's...tying up loose ends for the next few days. You're welcome to sleep over at my place."

He buckled the seat belt. "Thank you for the offer, but I would rather not. The Bureau is paying for the relocation, and I would rather not explain sleeping at my new partner's house to DeDe."

"Your wife?"

Sandoval smiled and pulled out his wallet while they were at a traffic light, showing her a picture. In it, round-faced woman grinned as she hugged Sandoval. "That's her. We'll be married a year come September." He put the wallet back in his jacket. "Actually, she took the news better than expected. One of her job offers was a law firm out here."

He actually felt relaxed around Scully. It wasn't a bad thing, especially since he was going to be her new partner.

*Replacement partner,* he reminded himself. *You couldn't save Mulder, and it's your fault he's God-knows-where. Why she hasn't killed you already is the first X-file you're going to have to solve, Agent Sandoval...*

"Start asking questions now, Ron. You won't get a chance later," Scully said, pulling the car into the thick traffic.

The younger agent sighed and leaned back, looking out the window. "I don't want to offend you."

"After being 'Mrs. Spooky' for seven years, I don't think I can be offended much."

The younger agent sat up. "First of all, what steps are being taken regarding Mulder's disappearance?"

Scully swung onto a side street.

"Skinner told me that an independent investigator will be assigned. It's going to be hardest on you," she admitted.

Sandoval nodded.

"Sure you wanted that promotion?"

"I'll manage," he said.

Scully swung in front of a motel on the outskirts of the city that Sandoval pointed out to her.

"And I promise that I will do everything I can to help you. I'm just not so certain about what this new division entails. I heard all the garbage from the rumor mill when I left - chasing ghosts and monsters for crying out loud!"

She smiled lopsidedly. "That's our job."

Sandoval pinched the bridge of his nose. "You're serious, aren't you?"

"We explained what it was we actually do back in Oregon. It's not ghosts, monsters, or necessarily aliens. What we hunt is the unknown. We find it, shine our respective theories on it, and sometimes we only get to see a small part of what it actually is. It's still more than either of us would see without each other." She looked up. "So much has happened during the past eight years...we've...Mulder and I... helped each other through it. If we didn't respect each other, he wouldn't be alive and neither would I."

"So you…respect him?"

She got a small, distant smile on her face. "No, it's not that. There isn't a word for it."

"You two reminded me of people who've been married for fifty years. You'll debate, negotiate, compromise, and then it suddenly doesn't seem to matter. If I didn't know better..." Realizing he was speaking to a senior agent and about to make his third failure at diplomacy in one night, Sandoval quit while he was ahead.

"Not quite," she answered, stopping the car in front of the office. "Go check in. I'll bring the car around."

Sandoval walked in the lobby and got the key to his room, heading over to the pay phone to call DeDe and check in. The phones were in a shadowy alcove with a cement floor.

Leaning against the next phone was an elderly man, lighting a cigarette. Taking a few puffs on his newly-lit cancer-stick, he pulled an envelope out of his jacket. "Congratulations on your transfer to the X-files, Agent Sandoval."

"You. I saw you in Oregon. What do you want?"

"Just to tell you the other side of the story, Agent Sandoval," The man smiled, and exhaled. "Now, is it Ronald, or should I call you Jason?"

Sandoval backed up and tried to hide his discomfort. "Excuse me?"

"It must have been hard. You weren't even old enough to know what was happening. All you probably remember is being pulled out of your home in the middle of the night, given an American passport with a new name, and sent to live with your aunt and uncle in the US."

All the warmth drained from him. "Is this meant as blackmail, Mister...?"

"My name is unimportant. I haven't had a good one in years." He took another drag off the cigarette. "And no - this is not blackmail. Your parents and I had some mutual friends. They were heroes - giving themselves up so the Project could continue in the Philippines."

"My parents died in a car accident. My aunt and uncle changed my name in an attempt to 'Americanize' me, and I'm from the Cayman Islands to boot. Do not expect me to believe your stories."

"Believe what you like for the moment," There was a pause and an almost friendly smile. "I've watched your career with interest. Who do you think recommended to the Bureau to recruit you before you took the bar exam?"

"Why?"

The elderly man flicked ashes on the cement, swirling the smoke around in his mouth before blowing it out. "Well, you can only hold off the Grim Reaper for so long. I'm searching for a protégée, a person to pass my legacy on to. Teach the things I know."

Sandoval walked into the phone booth and picked up the receiver, dialing his home number in Portland. "I'm calling my wife. Do you mind?"

"Sandoval," said the elderly man, putting out the Morley next to the "no smoking" sign in the booth. "I represent an organization in need of men like you. In need of ambitious men who can keep secrets and do what is necessary to keep those secrets. We offer knowledge...that is the true power when it all comes down to it. We offer you a chance to be the elite - the survivors. When our associates really do come in, then you will see the scope of our work and the need for preparation. While I'm sure Mulder and Scully have told you their side of the story, they don't have all the facts." He gestured to the envelope.

Sandoval picked up the envelope, and undid the clasp. The phone was starting to ring.

"How do you know I won't just run this by Dana in the morning?"

"You can understand how the general masses would react to hearing about what you saw, wouldn't you? If they succeed, there will be chaos, social dissolution. Scully cares about as much about the consequences of this as her partner did. Read what I have given you, consider it very carefully and see whether the benefits outweigh the price."

The phone picked up, DeDe's voice on the other end. "Hello?"

"Oh," added the man, "and do not tell DeDe anything about this - or much about your work at all. I would hate for you to lose her prematurely." The man turned around and headed for the exit. "I'll make my offer again in a few months, after you've settled in."

Late that night, Sandoval tossed and turned. The envelope sat on a table like Pandora's box, daring him to open it.

Should he tell Scully about that man? No, she had enough to deal with now. He could handle that chain-smoking jerk on his own, he was sure. Maybe he did have information. It wasn't like his birth name was common knowledge. Heck, considering the Marcos administration, Sandoval was surprised that there were any records at all. Government mismanagement at its finest, from what he could tell. A new life in America, and a new name...

*A name you never even admitted to DeDe...*

Sandoval got up and walked over to the envelope, undoing the glue that held it shut. What could be in that anyway?

He got the seal halfway undone when he remembered the man's not-so-veiled threat towards DeDe. Angrily, Sandoval opened his suitcase and shoved it in, zipping it up.


Chapter 2

He wasn't the only one with a sleepless night.

Scully could see a man, his features vague and blurred beneath the golden liquid. He was at the bottom of some kind of tank. As she came closer, the man started to struggle, swimming closer to the surface. He clutched his throat, the other hand ripping out a breathing tube...

A breathing tube like the one shoved down her own throat in Antarctica. It was not of plastic, but of a flesh-like organic substance. He was just underneath the surface, close enough to see, almost close enough to touch.

Mulder!

He recognized her, and reached out, hand breaking the surface, coming close. His hand turned, the center of his palm lit with a blinding light.

Scully bolted up in bed, coughing and gagging, practically feeling the illusionary tube down her own throat.

Washing her face and taking some deep breaths, she repeated the same words to herself like a mantra. *This is not real, you did not see him, and you don't know what is happening to him. What you just saw is all in your head...*

She looked up in the mirror. "Liar," she retorted to her reflection.

Even worse was that the last people to see Mulder couldn't tell her anything more. Skinner had only a few facts, and Sandoval couldn't do much else other than confirm what Skinner had said, and add the few facts he could remember after he woke up from a concussion. Scully almost felt sorry for the younger agent. She saw herself in him - a normal agent, used to normal cases, suddenly thrown into deep waters of alien conspiracy and mysteries that made little sense.

Later as she walked down the halls of the Bureau, she didn't have to turn around to see the stares, didn't have to listen to hear the whispers. "Spooky" went missing, was sucked up into a space ship, or went AWOL, or lost his mind - maybe even got killed. "Mrs. Spooky" had been abandoned to deal with it. Maybe she and the new guy from Oregon had killed him and covered it up. Maybe he went crazy and thought she was an enemy.  Maybe he found a new girlfriend and skipped town. Maybe he vanished because he had knocked her up...

Well, maybe one of those rumors was true - but not in the way they thought it was.

Scully walked up to the elevators, seeing a familiar face. He dangled a pocket watch from his fingers and leaned up against the wall. Seeing her, he looked up.

"Greetings Alice. I would have gown down the rabbit hole without you, but they have not assigned me a key to the office yet."

"Funny," she said, opening the elevator door. "You don't look like a white rabbit."

"Left the floppy ears in Portland," he said, following her in. "And I'm warning you right now. I went down there a little earlier. The Queen of Hearts may not be waiting, but someone wants to shorten us by a head. I couldn't get in the office to see who was in there."

Scully huffed. Whoever it was, he was going to get the riot act read to him.

Sandoval walked two steps behind Scully as her high heels clicked out an ominous march. If he had been hearing it from DeDe's shoes, he would be smart to run out for a while, returning with roses and a Hershey bar.

A pair of anonymous-looking men pushed past them, carting large boxes of files. Scully paid no attention.

Sandoval adjusted his tie and rubbed his thumb over the pocket watch. It was taking willpower not find somewhere to duck. He didn't belong here, not in DC, not in an office that patently belonged to someone who had a reputation suited for it. Still, if his place was to walk behind Agent Scully, so be it.

Striding into the office, she addressed another three of the nondescript men.

"Excuse me," she said. All three stopped when her voice cut the air. "Can somebody please tell me what's going on here?

One of them, looked up, a little sheepish. "We're collecting material."

"For?" She was trying not to yell, but he voice still skirted the edge.

"For anything that might be pertinent to the manhunt," he answered.

"What manhunt?" she asked.  "Manhunt for who?"

He smiled and dared to relax. "You're kidding, right?"

"Look, there's nothing.  If you're looking for Mulder, you're wasting your time, gentlemen. You won't find them here. I have work to do and a new agent to break in, so get the hell out."

They ignored her. Scully walked right up to one of them and shut the file drawer he had been snooping in earlier.

"Are you listening to me?" she asked.

"I'm not the man to talk to," the agent said with a shrug.

Scully put her hands on her hips, watching another box of files leave. "Well, then whose stupid idea is this?"

Skinner's blood pressure soared. He could have smashed that goddamn phone or throttled the messenger on the other end.

"Yeah, well, somebody might have had the courtesy to tell me," he finished, slamming the receiver down.

He saw Scully hovering in the doorway. Damn. He was hoping to tell her first. She must have found the jerks in the office.

"There are agents tearing apart Mulder's office who say they're part of an FBI manhunt," she said calmly.

Skinner pinched the bridge of his nose, shuffling his stack of paperwork. "I know. I heard.  Believe me, this is not my idea.  I just found out about it myself."

"They're not going to find Mulder this way.  You know that and I know that," she said.

"I told you. I will find him. I'm going to do that. Okay?" He dropped his voice to an almost whisper. "Now, I want you just to cool out.  I don't want you doing anything to upset your pregnancy."     

Scully was not going to back down. "Look, I don't understand.  You are the Assistant Director. Who is going over your head on this?"

"Our brand-new deputy director," he answered, frustration creeping into his voice thinking of the phone call.

His phone rang again.  The caller ID display indicated who it was - A. KERSH EXT 562.  Scully stared at Skinner in disbelief.

"Better get Agent Sandoval. Kersh wants to talk to him, too."

As the three of them entered Kersh's office, Skinner assessed his agents. Scully was staying glacial, but he knew she was fuming. She kept her hands to her sides and stood next to him.

The other agent was a bit more of a puzzle. It didn't help that the decision to assign Sandoval was made above his head - maybe above Kersh's head. Skinner thought back to when Scully had gone missing, and Mulder got assigned Krycek for a partner. Skinner could hope that Sandoval wasn't traitorous scum like Krycek, but somehow doubted it. Sandoval almost lurked in the corner like a statue aside from the silver watch that dangled from his fingers. His dark eyes swept the room, and even when he was pretending to be absorbed in his own thoughts or the watch, Skinner could see that the man never took an eye off Kersh, and was watching he and Scully carefully for cues.

Skinner saw the instincts of a viper in the young man.

Kersh seemed oblivious. It didn't surprise Skinner one bit.  "A.D. Skinner, Agent Scully, Agent Sandoval.  Thanks for getting right over.  I don't want to lose any time.  We have one of our own missing and the only acceptable outcome is that we find him safe and alive.  I'm sure all of you agree."

Skinner stood straight. "That goes without saying, sir." Calling Kersh "sir" was easier than he thought. It still made him ill.

"Good.  This comes at a stressful time, with my new appointment.  But I'm thankful for your cooperation in the hunt for Mulder." Kersh ignored them, pretty much, throwing another set of books into a box.

Scully placed her hands behind her back. "Our cooperation?  With due respect, there aren't people better qualified to be directing this action, sir."

Kersh pushed up his glasses and looked at them. "Right now, you three are the primary witnesses to Mulder's disappearance.  I want your statement taken asap."

"As witnesses, sir? Or suspects?" Sandoval looked up.

Scully glanced sharply in his direction. Sandoval made a gesture of avoiding her gaze, keeping his face and body in a position of practiced neutrality. Kersh glowered at the two agents. Skinner watched and got more nervous. A newly minted Special Agent baiting a Deputy Director? This guy had balls.

 "What he means, sir," Scully said, "is what is our status in this investigation?"

Kersh sat down. "Just get your statements taken."

Skinner asked. "Taken by who?"

Kersh pushed papers into a pile. "My task force leader on this, Special Agent John Doggett.  He's waiting to hear from you now." His emphasis was on the last word. "The memo I sent has the room number."

The trio nodded and headed for the door. Kersh took off his glasses and addressed them.

"One more thing.  Anything leaves this building about aliens or alien abductions or any other nonsense that might cast the Bureau in a ridiculous light-- hey, you can forget about looking for Agent Mulder.  You'll be looking for new jobs." Replacing his glasses, he sat down behind the desk, returning to his papers. "That's all."

The door slammed behind the trio. Skinner walked over to the side.

"Agent Sandoval, just what did you think you were doing in there?"

Sandoval didn't blink. "Taking the heat off you and Agent Scully. I still have a reputation as an outsider. Plus, I will admit to baiting him, sir. I wanted to see what he does consider us. I would guess that he would not be above the possibility of framing us for Mulder's disappearance."

Scully rubbed her forehead like she had a headache coming on. "I don't believe this." 

"This isn't about finding Mulder," grumbled Skinner. "This is about Kersh covering the FBI's ass." 

They walked down the hall towards the room that Kersh had indicated.

"Why do I get the feeling they'd be happy if we never found him at all?" Scully said.

They stopped outside the door.

Skinner put his hand on Scully's shoulder. "Look... I saw what I saw.  I have to make a statement in there.  I'm not going to tell them it didn't happen."

"Well, you heard Kersh.  They don't want the truth," Scully was edgy.  "You give them the truth, and they'll hang you with it."

Skinner sighed. "They can hang me with a lie, too.  I'm not going to sell Mulder out."

"I think he may be right," Sandoval said. "And if he lies, then we'll all have to lie."

Scully ignored Sandoval. "What good are you to Mulder if you give them the power to ruin your career?" 

Skinner shook his head.

"We will find him," she said.

As they entered the Bullpen, Agent Crane, an all-business man assigned to Missing Persons approached them, gesturing to Skinner.

"Assistant Director, you can come on back with me.  Agent Scully, I'll ask you to please wait on the wall until we call you. Agent Sandoval, you're after her."

He led Skinner away.  Scully sat wearily in one of the red chairs lining the wall.  Another man was sitting two seats away.  He was about 40, and rugged-looking, his lanky frame relaxing in the hard plastic. Steel blue eyes looked into a file folder, then back up at the ceiling. He wore an FBI badge on his suit, but it was twisted on his lapel, covering his name and photo.  He looked at Scully as she sat down, then got up and crossed to a water cooler. Sandoval sighed.

"Well, I'm not going to be murdered before my first cup of coffee. Can I get you one?"

"No thanks, Ron."

"Anything else?" he offered. "Blindfold? Cigarette?"

"Just a cup of water."

Sandoval patted her shoulder and went around the corner.

Scully's mind was on other things. Unconsciously, she lay an arm across her stomach and gazed up at the ceiling. A moment later, she saw a paper cup out the corner of her eye.

"Water?"

"Thanks, Ron." As soon as it left her mouth, she bolted up. The person speaking had a different kind of accent - a cross of New York and Deep South. She turned to see the man that had been sitting there earlier.

"It could be a wait. I don't blame that guy who was with you for wanting to get a cup of coffee beforehand."

Scully smiled graciously. "Thank you."

She took the cup, and sipped some of the cool water as the man sank into the chair next to hers and began reading his file.

"Weren't you his partner?  Mulder?"

Scully pulled back, thrown off guard by the question. "Yes."

He shook his head, looking back into the file. "I guess nobody's beyond suspicion on this thing."

"Why are they talking to you?"

He crossed his legs and leaned back, speaking casually. "Me?  I knew Mulder back a bit. 

They're developing a working profile-- character background."

Her eyes narrowed. Who was this jackass? "I'd say they have all the character profile they need on him." 

He glanced at her in a "nudge and wink" manner. "Certainly his reputation.  I doubt we agents ever really truly know each other - even our partners.  Not at the end of the day.  Their real lives, their friends, girlfriends, deeply personal things, issues."

Scully snapped on her mask, inwardly boiling. "I think I know Mulder as much as anybody."

"Yeah, probably so.  I always took the rumors with a grain of salt."

"What rumors are those?" A sickening sweet edge came onto her voice.

"Well, you know," he said. 

Her eyes narrowed.

"Well, that, from the beginning he never felt a real trust with you, that you were ambitious."

"Where'd that come from?" Ok, this slime wanted to play hardball.

He laughed. "There are women here at the Bureau that he would confide in.  I don't know if you knew that or not."

"No.  When was this?"

"I don't know, it's just talk.  So, what do you think happened?  To Mulder?  What's your theory?"

*Asshole. Don't play cards you don't have.*

"What's my theory?"  Her voice was silk on razor blades. "My theory is you don't know Mulder at all.  You never did."

Reaching out, she flipped over his badge.

Her eyebrows went up. "John Doggett.  Kersh's task force leader.  You might have just introduced yourself."

"Well, I was getting around to it," he said, trying to make light of it.

She threw the contents of her drink in Doggett's face and stood up. "Nice to meet you, Agent Doggett," she said calmly.

She dropped the cup, and walked into the questioning room, closing the door behind her. 

Other agents in the bullpen who had been watching with interest, lowered their eyes and went back to work.

Doggett sat stone-faced as she left. Well, that went over less than graciously. 

A young Asian man walked around the corner with a cup of coffee in one hand and a cup of water in the other. He sat in the chair next to Doggett's, placing the water on the ground and quietly sipping his coffee. Doggett glanced at the badge.

Doggett nodded. "Agent Ron Sandoval. The last-minute replacement."

"Despite the circumstances of my assignment, Agent Doggett, I will still take my job seriously."

"Oh, really? Honestly, I looked over your file in Portland. You've got potential. Too much potential to piss your career away on being Spooky the Second."

Sandoval put down the coffee and picked up the water. "And you have better things to do than try and bait my partner."

"What you are you gonna do with that glass of water?"

Sandoval smiled sweetly and put it on the armrest of Doggett's chair. "Dana already beat me to it."


Chapter 3

Later that evening, the rain tapped out a drumbeat on Scully's window, interrupted by the percussion of thunder. She sat in front of her computer. Part of her wanted to relax and accept, but that was overridden by the desire to understand the two new men assigned to look into the X-Files.

Sandoval didn't have much - graduated law school with honors and recruited into the Bureau rather than take the bar exam. He was assigned to domestic terrorism in the Portland office, and was especially good at undercover work. Even with a little under two years in the field, he had three major busts to his credit. Married to Delores Deanna Brown in 1999, no children.

As for Doggett, he was 42, born in Atlanta, and currently assigned to Criminal Investigations.

Well, between that and the reaction Sandoval got out of Kersh, it definitely smelled like dead rats. Mulder's disappearance was going to be treated like a routine kidnapping - and covered up as much as possible.

She kept looking. Divorced in 1995, US Marine Corps, NYPD, and abruptly quit to sign on with the Bureau. There was a kidnapping case the file was cross-referenced with, but she would get to it later. She started to scroll down as her stomach lurched. Pulling off her reading glasses, she ran for the bathroom, just making it to the toilet.

After she was done inverting her stomach, she wet a washcloth and wiped her face, then tottered weakly to the kitchen. Time to put on the pot of ginger tea.

On the way back from the kitchen, she picked up the phone. After four rings, the answering machine picked up.

"Hi, this is Margaret Scully. Please leave a message.

(Beep.)

Scully's tongue suddenly knotted as she forgot what she was going to say. "Mom, it's Dana.  I, uh... I'm sorry I haven't called you in a while.  I've been busy with work and, um, with something...else that I should probably tell you about in person.  I mean, I don't even know if you're in town or if you're checking your messages." Her voice cracked, despite her best efforts. "But, um...but I really need to see you and talk to you.  There's a lot of stuff that's going on with me right now and, and I just really need to talk."

A click on the line like the sound of a telephone being picked up followed.

"Mom?"

No answer, save another click.  She hanged up the phone and ran to her window. A tall dark-haired man dressed in black stood on the sidewalk outside her building. 

Storming back to the telephone, she hit the last call return and who should answer but...

"John Doggett."

"You stay out of my business!"

"What?  Who is this?"

"You better have a court order!" she hissed. How could he play dumb? The least he could do was have the balls to admit spying on her.

He still sounded clueless. "For what?  Who is this?"

"How many phones are you tapping? How many agents are you doing surveillance on?"

There was a long pause. "Is this Agent Scully?"

"Thank you," she said curtly. "You just answered all my questions."

Restraining the urge to slam down the phone, she hung up. Outside the door of her apartment was a shadow outside in the hall, the floorboards creaking with their steps.

Snatching her gun off the table, she threw open the door.

The hallway was empty.

She ran down the stairs to the floor below. A man stood on the fire escape.

"Stop there!  Right there!  Now come on through the window nice and easy."

Her landlord, Mr. Coben, turned to see her, rain dripping from his shirt sleeves.

"Okay, I'm coming.  It's me, your landlord.  I started fixing the antennae on the roof, and..."

Scully felt like a fool, and breathed a sigh of relief. "I'm sorry, Mr. Coeben.  I'm sorry.  There was a man. There was someone in the building.  Did you see anyone?"

"Yeah, yeah, you know him, he works with you," he said. "Tall guy-- brown hair."

Scully was astonished. "Who?  You... You don't mean Mulder?"

"Yeah, Mulder."

Scully turned back to her apartment and ran off. A few weeks later, when Mr. Coben was asked about this, he responded that he'd been out of town to visit his cousin. The person that Scully saw rubbed a faintly glowing mark on his hands and climbed back down the fire escape.

"Mulder?  Are you in here?"

Scully looked through her apartment - the kitchen, bathroom and bedroom.  No one else was there.

She must be seeing things. So was the landlord.

Heading back to the desk, she took a step back. The computer was missing. Cords had been hastily unplugged, but no other trace remained of it. Picking up the end of a power cord in disbelief, she rubbed her fingers over it.

Something more than theft was going on here.

Sandoval finally succumbed to temptation, pulling out the envelope and ripping it open. If that rotten-smelling man had any information on Mulder, then it was going to get used.

The contents spilled out onto the table, and Sandoval started to read through it. Documents, pictures, disks, and charts - a goldmine of information lay in front of him.

Tapping his fingers on the table, he picked up the first chart. UFO sighting reports, and the pattern over the last year where they had been spotted. Another document was about the different types of UFOs that had been logged. A thick, bound printout got his attention. Opening it, a handwritten note fluttered out.

"Dear Ronald, the Synod would also extend its welcome, if it knew just yet." it began. Sandoval almost dropped it there, but then scowled and continued reading.

This was the kind of thing he would expect to encounter in a bad movie. Then again, his whole life became a bad movie when he saw what he did in Bellefleur.

"So far, the Taelon Synod and its forces have been able to keep the other two factions in check. The Jaridian Rebels that decimated our leadership two years ago have been eliminated, killed by their inability to withstand this planet for long and their unnaturally short lifespan. As for this new faction, the Synod has not granted us any information yet as to their capabilities or even their name. They merely assure us that this species will be wiped out before any of the pending plans for Earth are set into motion..."

Sandoval rubbed his eyes. Going to the window and stretching to relieve the knot in his back, he looked out the window. Was that Skinner's car he saw?

Sandoval threw on a trenchcoat and packed the contents of the envelope back inside. The note he was reading had a phone number hand-written on the back. Sandoval scowled and re-hid the envelope, packing that piece of paper in his pocket.

He went to the lobby and out to his rented car. Sure enough, it was Skinner, far off in the parking lot, using a payphone. Sandoval had a strange feeling about this. Getting into the rented wreck he had, he waited until Skinner got into his car and headed off. Firing up his own car, Sandoval followed at a discreet distance.

Using his cell phone, Sandoval called the number he had seen on the envelope. Four rings and an answering machine picked up.

"Hello, you have reached Alvin Kersh. Leave your name and number."

Sandoval hung up the phone and cursed.


Chapter 4

Sandoval got out and walked up to where he could see this. A battered-looking heap of a VW microbus parked near one of the dishes spilled out one of the oddest trios Sandoval had ever seen. He kept low, off to the side in the bushes. Was this new boss of his friend or foe? After today, he was certain that the people one could trust in this situation could be counted on a single hand, perhaps even less than that.

Skinner was addressing what was apparently their leader, a squat, balding, little man with stacks of printouts in his fingerless-gloved hands.

"What is it, Frohike?" asked Skinner. "Anything useful?"

"It took some serious voodoo," Frohike said, handing over the printouts.

"Major satellite hacking," added a wiry, long-haired blond man standing slightly behind the other.

The third, a prim-looking, mousy fellow in a suit picked up a fallen paper. "But we got your data."

Skinner scowled, looking over the stack. "What am I looking at?"

"You're seeing real-time images right off the JPL Topex Poseidon," Suit answered.

"We're wired right into the dish," said the first with a shrug.

"We're not able to find raw data with UFO activity on it," warned the third.

Frohike pointed to the blond. "But Langly was able to hack into the data storage here and pull up something just as tasty." He pointed over to the mousy-looking man. "Now Byers broke into air traffic control. We put it all together and it comes out as this."

Sandoval dared to move in a little closer. Computer terrorists that were spying for an Assistant Director of the FBI? Well, this was getting even better.

The mousy-looking man, Byers, pulled open a laptop. "You're looking at UFO activity in the Pacific Northwest just prior to Mulder's abduction." A map of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and British Columbia pulled up. It was speckled with yellow dots, but from here, Sandoval couldn't pinpoint exact "where" to any of them.

"All these markers correspond with reported alien abductions," said the man that had been identified as "Langly," "It's a regular shopping spree."

"So Mulder's abduction..." asked Skinner.

"Was a UFO whistle stop on the way to the next pickup," Frohike said, shuffling the papers around.

"Where?" asked Skinner, "Where's the UFO activity after Mulder's abduction?"

Sandoval almost wanted to break cover to get a better look. All right, so these people - whoever they were - were allies. At least, they appeared to be allies.

"Like we said, we can't tell." Byers shrugged. "Not from the data we're pulling down."

"Look, if we can figure out where that ship was going, where it was gonna be, we've got a chance to find Mulder," said Skinner.

Sandoval started backing up, heading to his car. He had just opened his door when he felt something whack him in the back of the head. Losing consciousness, he slumped to the ground.

Scully walked into Mulder's apartment, the first time since he was gone. She felt surprisingly numb, like she was just dreaming. Like she would wake up - he still would be here, and she still would be barren.

She turned on the television, just to have a little noise in the background. It was on CNN. Funny that she had been expecting a sports network.

It didn't shock her that his computer was missing, too. All that remained was a round space in the dust, evidence that something once was here.

She felt drained and tired. Walking over to his bed, she collapsed on it. The sheets still had his scent. One of his blue dress shirts lay on the bed. Pulling it to her, she curled up. The last thing she heard before she fell asleep was CNN.

"The discoveries recently cannot be ignored. We have the DNA. We have the evidence. Even the most Doubting Thomas among us has to seriously ask himself 'Are we alone?'"

*Oh, yes, very alone,* thought Scully.

"SCULLY!!!"

It was more a thought than a shout, but horribly real. She could see him clearly. He was naked. His arms and legs were in shackles, and he was chained to something that looked like a chair designed by a sadist. Metal rods had been driven into his ankles, and his wrists were cuffed to the chair. A metal brace held his head fast. Metal probes dug into his cheeks - three in each - stretching his face out in a way that made her wince in sympathy just looking.

A bright light shown above him (them?), a watery lens covering the source. All around were shadowy figures, creatures that terrified her.

Was she feeling his fear?

*I'm here. I can see you. Where are you?*

Dark hazel eyes darted about the room. Did Mulder, wherever he was, hear her?

His voice was a weak rasp. "Scully?"

A high-pitched whirring sound began, and a mechanized double-pronged probe pushed towards his hand.

Digging into his palm, he cried out. The pain was horrible. An electric blue flash passed over his body.

She heard it inside her mind. *Scully, HELP!*

She dived for the chair, but there was so much pain. She collapsed uselessly...

She bolted up in Mulder's bed just to hear the rattle of a doorknob.

Skinner had just driven away when they heard a sharp cry around the bend. The three of them ran towards it.

They saw a young man on the ground, and another man with facial features they weren't quite able to make out rifle through the other man's jacket, taking a slip of paper from him and pocketing it.

The trio ducked behind a wall.

"Either one of them could have been tailing us, or Skinner," Byers said.

"I get the feeling that the second fellow's here to shut the first one up," said Frohike.

"Guys..." warned Langly.

The second man pulled back his jacket to draw a nasty-looking black pistol.

"Byers, head left. Langly, head right."

Nodding and breaking their opposite directions, Frohike set is scheme in motion Frohike scowled, then rummaged in his pocket, taking out his lighter and a small cylinder from his other pocket. He lit the cylinder and threw it towards the assassin.

BANG!

Startled, the would-be killer swung his gun around to the source. A short, stout man was holding a gun on him. It was too dark to make out the man's face, but the outline of the gun was clear enough.  In the bushes, he could make out two more men - he was surrounded.

"We take it from here," Frohike said.

"I have orders, old man," the would-be killer protested.

"Screw your orders. Now, you get out of here and we'll forget we saw you. Stay put, and you'll join your friend here in the morgue." A laser light coming from the right crossed the man's chest.

The man wasn't stupid. Backing up, gun still trained on Frohike, he got in his car and sped off.

"Jesus Christ, damn near pissed myself that time. Glad that firecracker wasn't a dud." Frohike damn near passed out, stuffing the flashlight in his jacket. "Nice touch with the laser pointer, hairboy."

"Next time you wanna play Rambo, old man, let us know!"

Frohike regained his wits and chuckled. "And give Byers time to panic?"

Byers was already kneeling by the man who would have been killed. "Both of you astound me sometimes…." Searching the man, Byers pulled out an FBI badge and a letter that was next to it.

"Frohike..."

Frohike took the badge. "Ronald Sandoval. And what's the letter?"

Byers unfolded it. "Agent Ronald Sandoval, for bravery above and beyond the call of duty...et cetera...you have been assigned to the Paranormal Division!" Byers was in disbelief over the last statement.

"As in X-Files? That Paranormal Division?"

"It's here," he said, showing the letter. "What should we do with him?"

Scully snatched her gun just as the door clicked open. Bolting out to the living room, she saw a man, half shadowed.

"What are you doing here? Turn around, slowly. I am armed."

Doggett put his hands up and turned around. "I could ask you the same," he said suggestively. "Mind putting that down?"

Scully lowered the gun. "I came by to feed Mulder's fish. Doesn't explain what you are doing here."

"And then you got tired and decided to take a nap." Doggett lowered his hands. "Came to find you. You weren't at your apartment. Guessed you were here."

"You've got a way about you, Agent Doggett," Scully said sharply. " That might have worked with the NYPD but you're talking to a fellow FBI agent now and I'd appreciate some respect."

Doggett was getting a little angry. "Respect like you showed me over the phone? Give a little, get a little, Agent Scully."

"Who ambushed me with the phony chitchat about Mulder and then put a wiretap on my phone?" Scully fired back.

"That's B.S!"

"And now you're following me," she said.

"I just came by to feed the fish," Doggett said. "And to tell you that your new partner's car was found at a bank of satellites outside of town."

Scully crossed over to the fish tank. "What Sandoval does is his business, and what do you want to get on me, Agent Doggett? What is it you hope to find?"

Doggett shook his head. "I'm just trying to find Mulder."

"You wouldn't know where to look," she said, putting down the gun and taking out the fish food. "And now Sandoval's missing?"

"Yeah."

Scully pinched her nose, mentally going over the rotten possibilities.

Doggett shook his head. "Now, as for 'What happened to Mulder?' I know what you're gonna say or not because you think I'm the big bad wolf. Do you really believe it?"

"You think by talking in circles, I'm just going to get dizzy and-and blurt it out-- this so-called answer?"

"That he was abducted by aliens?"

"You said it," she snapped. "I didn't."

"I guess I just find it hard to swallow that a scientist, a serious person, could buy that." Doggett came closer. Ever see an alien, Agent Scully?"

Scully threw up her hands. "You want me to go on record? I will go on record to say this: that I have seen things that I cannot explain. I have observed phenomena that I cannot deny. And that as a scientist and a serious person it is a badge of honor not to dismiss these things because someone thinks they're B.S."

Doggett frowned "So you think he was abducted?"

She looked away.

"I'm just trying to find him," Doggett said. "Same as you. Same as Sandoval."

Scully's cell phone rang. She walked away from Doggett and fished it out of her purse. "Scully."

Frohike's voice was on the other end, "Hey, Scully. We caught a stray dog last night. Wonder if he's yours."

"Describe the stray."

"Male, About 30, and Asian. About five-foot-seven and carries an FBI ID that says 'Ron Sandoval.'"

Scully pinched her nose. "I'm going to kick his ass."

"Someone tried to kill him last night. We..uh...chased off "the guy who tried to kill him."

"Thank you. Yes, he's my stray dog. Where is he?"

"It's Saturday, so we're letting him sleep it off. His attacker whacked him pretty hard. The three of us have been watching him for any sign of serious head injury. So far nothing."

"Good. I'll be by. Thank you."

Doggett shoved his hands in his pockets. "Lost your dog?"

Scully smiled. "Nope. Agent Sandoval's safe. Some concerned citizens stopped him from getting mugged last night."

She was headed for the door when Doggett stopped her, picking up a folder he had put on the table earlier.

"Uh, Agent Scully, I found these in his desk. Car rental receipts on Agent Mulder's Visa. Four consecutive weekends in May. Same mileage each trip -- 370 miles, 375 miles... where was he going?"

SculIy paused. "I don't know."

"Like I said, maybe you really didn't know your partner," Doggett admitted.

Scully bit her cheek. She knew where he was. They had decided to take the risk and see a fertility expert, and he was also getting a discreet check-up on his mystery illness. Damned if she'd tell either to Doggett.

"Get out, Agent Doggett."

Doggett and she left the apartment. Locking the door behind her, she started for the stairs. As soon as she left, Doggett's cell phone rang.

"John Doggett." It was Gary, one of his associates. Gary rattled off some long explanation, but when he mentioned a name, Doggett stood ramrod straight. "Agent Mulder? At the FBI?"

TAKOMA PARK, MD

Lone Gunmen offices

The Gunmen considered themselves shrewd judges of character. Nearly a dozen years of underground journalism and untold dozens of sources honed their instincts in discerning a good lead from bogus, and a breaking story from a literal dead-end.  And none of the triad knew what to make of the man sitting on their whorehouse-red sofa, reading issues of the paper and pausing only to fire off a half-dozen questions before nodding and going onto the next.

Langly had taken to calling him "Mr. Spock." Unlike a lot of smart-assed nicknames coming from the youngest of their ranks, this actually fit. Arrogant, precise, intellectual, and aloof - all he was missing was a set of pointed ears.

Frohike had a few conclusions. First was that Sandoval's vanity streak outshone Byers's. The suit Sandoval wore was quite expensive, even if it was in the range of government salary. He was, to his credit, very wary about giving out information, but neither was he very offended or shocked when he came to and realized they'd removed his weapons, and gone through his pockets and wallet. He wasn't happy, to be certain, but admitted that if their positions were reversed that he would do the same. After a bit of coaxing from Byers and a mention of Scully, Sandoval seemed to understand that he was in no immediate danger. "If you are indeed friends of Dana's, then I have no reason yet to distrust you," was the exact quote.

A sharp knock on the door interrupted Frohike's train of thought. "Check the camera."

Byers peered at the closed-captioned monitor. "It's Scully. I'll let her in."

Undoing the half-dozen locks, Byers ushered her in. She looked past them and right at Sandoval.

"Not how I planned on you meeting them, Ron."

"Oh? So you were going to introduce us eventually?"

Langly, still focused on his game of Doom, chortled. "Spock here's just lucky we could save his butt."

Frohike waddled to the kitchen door, a bag of flour in one arm, hot cast-iron pan in the other. "What's this about him being your partner?"

"He stumbled on our case in Bellefleur and offered his help. It's probably why he was, yes, assigned to the X-Files to work with me." She still was fixing Sandoval with "Scully pissed-off stare #3" - usually reserved for Mulder after he'd ditched her. "What I'd like to know was what you were doing out there."

Sandoval didn't flinch. Well, that was already a sign that, despite Sandoval being a weirdness department rookie, this was going to be an interesting match-up. "I saw Assistant Director Skinner on the road, driving like he was trying not to be followed. To be honest, I thought he was up to no good. Turns out that while he was headed to a clandestine meeting, these gentlemen are apparently on our side."

"Yes, they are, but someone almost killed you last night. I told you that this work is dangerous. If you're determined to get yourself killed, then you are of no use to me. Got that, agent?"

THAT actually got him to wither a bit. He rubbed the bruise on his head. "Yes, Dana."

Frohike laughed. "Yup, he is married. And his wife has him well-trained if that reflex is in place."

Langly leaned back so far Frohike half-wondered if blondie was going to get his long locks caught in the wheels of the office chair again. "What's with the first-name basis?"

Sandoval raised a Vulcan-like eyebrow at the hacker. "I do not feel I should address her the way Mulder did. It somehow seems...disrespectful."

Scully sighed. "Ron, get in the car."

Sandoval said nothing further, aside from putting a dollar on the table and taking one of the newspapers before heading out the door.

Byers crossed over to pick it up and stuff it in the strongbox they used for newspaper funds. "Well, at least he paid for the paper."

Frohike shook his head before dropping off the pan and the flour in the kitchen. "Scully, about this guy...I know he trusts you, but I wonder if you can trust him."

"What do you mean?"

Byers brought over a slip of paper, specked with blood. "We found this on him last night."

Scully took the note and unfolded it. Much of it was obscured by blood and by smeared ink, but bits were still readable.

"...Rebels that decimated our leadership two years ago have been eliminated...this new faction, the Synod has not granted us any information yet as to their capabilities...wiped out before any of the pending plans for Earth are set into motion..."

Frohike took off his glasses, polishing them on his apron. "I ran the handwriting, Scully. It's about a 55% chance that she same guy who wrote it..." he pulled open the middle drawer of an aging file cabinet and blew dust off. "Is the guy in this photo." Opening it up, Frohike put it on an open spot on the table.

Scully fingered the old photograph carefully. It had to have been thirty years old or more, but the cruel eyes and the cold smile hadn't changed a bit. A half-burnt note was next to it. Frohike set Sandoval's note next to them.

"I wouldn't be telling you this if I didn't have a bad feeling. We're whistleblowers, not alarmists, but better than even odds says that he's either dirty, or in over his head."

Agent John Doggett felt a vague sense of disgust approaching Kersh's office. Something didn't add up. He could be in the FBI for the rest of his life and he'd still consider himself a cop, and in his opinion a good cop trusted training and instincts. The NYPD could be notorious for its backroom politics, but nothing could top police politics of the federal level. It half-made him want to go back to New York...if there were still something for him there.

Kersh's door was wide open. Two movers shuffled around boxes as Doggett approached the doorway. Kersh was leaning back in his chair, glowing with satisfaction. To be blunt, it looked like he just got a good lay.

"Got a minute?" Doggett asked.

"Yeah, sure." Kersh answered, gesturing to the movers to leave, which they did silently. As soon as the door closed behind them, Kersh picked up an old framed picture. A young pilot, obviously Kersh when he was a young man, stood beside a Vietnam-era scout plane. "You fly, Agent Doggett?"

Doggett straightened. "Flying is for birds and baseballs. USMC, sir."

Kersh seemed to pay this no mind. "In Vietnam we used to fly night sorties ten feet above the treetops. Before night vision, before fly-by-wire. 600 miles an hour and all we had was an idiot gauge and our wits. Guys used to say they only knew their altitude by the smell of the V.C. rice pots."

Doggett answered neutrally. "You've come a long way, sir."

"Using all the same instincts," Kersh answered, putting the photo to the side. "What can I do for you, Agent?"

"This task force-- the search for Mulder, I'm running it, right?"

"You're the man in charge." Was that a smile or a smug look on Kersh's face? Frankly, the confrontation with Scully, Kersh's attitude, and lack of anything resembling logical answers was starting to make him think that her paranoia wasn't wholly unwarranted.

"No one else is involved? Someone out there acting under orders from another office?" Doggett queried.

"I think I'd know, Agent." Kersh drawled. "What prompts the question?"

Doggett looked directly at Kersh, matching the other man's stare. "My idiot gauge. My wits."

He turned to leave but Kersh called after him. "You got a chance to shine here, John. Stand in the spotlight. Show them all you're an ace."

*Or a joker,* thought Doggett as he walked out the door.

****

Scully slammed the car door, hitting the driver's side lock to trap Sandoval inside. "Spill it, Sandoval. Who gave you the note?"

"Note?"

"The note. The one that was in your pocket."

"The one with Kersh's number on the back?"

This stunned Scully quiet.

Sandoval knew better than to lie. "Anonymous source. A man approached me at the hotel -" he halted in mid-sentence. "Drive. Go to my hotel - all that he gave me is there."

"Describe the man."

"An old man, expensive attire," Sandoval said. "Chain-smokes."

"That son of a -" Scully floored the gas.


Chapter 5

Pulling into the hotel and marching up to Sandoval's room, Scully had a stare that threatened to rip her newly-minted partner's head off.

As soon as they got inside, Sandoval made a show of non-aggression, putting his weapon on the table and moving slowly to the hiding place of the envelope. Pulling it out, Scully nodded in satisfaction as they moved the table to an angle that wasn't directly in line with the window.

"Charts, graphs. Notes. All that he gave me is here."

"The old man gave you all this?"

Sandoval poured the contents on the table. "Yes. I didn't even know if it was valuable. For all I know, it's a red herring."

"And you didn't tell me?"

"The man did make a thinly-veiled threat against my wife. He also seemed to know too much about me for me to doubt that threat." Sandoval let out a noise of disgust. "Besides, I needed these analyzed - quietly. Something tells me the Bureau's labs wouldn't be the right place."

"Well, you thought right about that..." she said, sifting through the paper. "But what did he want?"

Sandoval looked down. Should he tell her about the indecent proposal? "He has an interest in me for some reason. I do not know why."

"Not surprising. That man has taken an active interest in Mulder, in Skinner, in me. He probably thinks he can get to you." She let out a curse. "And it figures that he's got his paws on Kersh."

Turning his interest to the papers. "We have this information. We need to have it verified. Could those odd men be of any use?"

She nodded and stuffed the files back in the envelope when her cell phone rang. Scully pulled it out and answered it. After a few pauses and affirming comments, she hung up and stuffed it back in her pocket.

"It was Skinner," she said. "Looks like Doggett has a break in the case."

Sandoval took the envelope. "Or what he thinks is one..."

Crane was waiting for them upon arrival. They made a brief foray north to drop off the envelope and its contents with the Gunmen before sweeping into the Hoover Building. 

They had just barely reached the bullpen before being pulled into the hub of the task force and sent downstairs. Skinner was putting up a good shouting match against Agent Crane, and Sandoval rolled his eyes, wondering idly if this was a normal occurrence.

"Assistant Director," insisted Crane. "Someone came into this office after hours and removed some material.  Files. We don't know exactly what just yet."

Oh, great. Kersh was there also, lording over the place, as was Doggett. Sandoval scowled, resisting the urge to stand between Scully and him. He wasn't going to be intimidated. Three on one was treatment for suspects, not fellow agents. Well, now the odds were evened up.

"Who?" asked Skinner. 

Crane explained. "The office here is secured by a pass-card lock and whoever came in last night used the pass-card belonging to Agent Mulder." 

"You think Agent Mulder took the files?"   

"We're wondering about Agent Mulder's state of mind.  In your statement," Crane flipped through papers as if bored.  "You said prior to his disappearance Agent Mulder had felt threatened by the FBI."

Skinner refused to take the bait. "No, no.  No, that's not what I said.  I said he felt the X-Files were threatened by budget cutting."

Crane continued to put cheese in the trap. "Is there anything you're not telling us about Agent Mulder or his attitude?"

Skinner was silent.

"Do you think he'd ever retaliate against the FBI?"

Exasperated with this line of questions, Skinner shook his head. "Agent Mulder was only after the truth."

"As are we, Assistant Director."

Sandoval was about to take a step forward and ask Kersh about his connection the to old smoker, but Scully stopped him.  

No one noticed them standing in the hallway shadows, it seemed. "Agent Scully tells us she was home last night.  We see from your phone log, you were here until at least after 10:00."  

Crane handed him the phone log, and Skinner could only glare at the agent's smug grin. "You think I came in here last night using Agent Mulder's pass-card?" 

"You and Agent Sandoval were the last people to see Mulder, along with Agent Scully. Scully was home, Sandoval wouldn't have the access. That leaves -"

The pair heard wheels behind them and walked into the office to make room for two technicians and a large cart loaded with a crate. One of the technicians approached Doggett and whispered in his ear before going to the crate and prying it open. Kersh and Crane left the room

"Skinner is telling the truth," she said, perhaps taking her chances that this man might listen more than Crane, a prospect that was likely dim.

To his credit, Doggett didn't react with the contempt Crane and Kersh displayed. "I believe him.  That still doesn't tell us who used Mulder's card to get in there."

"You think it was Mulder?" she asked.

"I showed you those car rental receipts before we were interrupted with the news of Agent Sandoval's safe return." Doggett folded his arms, thinking as he talked.  "Well, now I find Agent Mulder's Visa was used two days ago in Raleigh, North Carolina."

"Two days ago?  By who? For what?"

"Flowers," Doggett explained. "Automatic debit to a mortuary there. 

Scully relaxed. "Mulder's mother is buried in Raleigh.  That's the reason he was going every weekend."

"It's one reason." His eyes trailed down into the now-open crate, the technicians gone and only the four of them in the room.

A large tombstone - smooth gray stone that looked obscenely out of place here rested on the concrete floor. Their eyes caught the heading.

MULDER

William Mulder 1936-1995

Tena Mulder 1941-2000

Samantha Mulder 1964-1977

And a fresh-carved name at the bottom

"Fox Mulder, 1961-2000." 

Scully was too shocked to speak. Skinner seemed equally dumbfounded. Sandoval still had his tongue.

"What kind of sick joke is this?" Sandoval demanded.

"No joke," Doggett said.

As Sandoval and Doggett debated behind them, Skinner pulled Scully aside.         

"I don't know what to think," she admitted.

Skinner's voice was half whisper and half growl. "I don't believe it, Dana.  It just doesn't make any sense to me."

The two quarreling in the back reached a truce and crossed over to them.

"All right.  I got some light on this.  Maybe you can help me out here, Agent Scully." Doggett was being surprisingly civil compared to Crane and Kersh. "And explain some of the background here to Agent Sandoval and myself."

"What is it?" 

Doggett handed her a file.  "Agent Mulder's medical records-- recent stuff, over the last year.  Did you know about a medical condition? Either of you?"

"No," Skinner said.

"A year ago, Agent Mulder was hospitalized.  Ring a bell?  Something to do with his brain?"

"His temporal lobe," Scully said. She didn't want to be painted into this corner.  It brought back too much - the ship with the alien writing and the cryptic translations in Africa, Mulder pacing a padded cell in Vandewater Mental Hospital, and the unsettling pains he had. His head would ache or his hands would be sore. Small scars that reminded her of stigmata were forming in his palms. Top it off with the telepathic abilities he had that never really went away...

"An undiagnosable condition, it says." Doggett scowled as he kept reading the file. "Irregular brain activity.

Skinner held up his hand.  "All right, but he recovered.  There was a full recovery."

"Was there?" asked Doggett.

"You know Mulder; he would've told us if there was anything." Skinner was insistent, but Scully was trying not to show what she knew about it. Any whiff of the unexplained, the conspiracy, or the likely nature of Mulder's condition could get them all hung.

"Would he?  Would he tell you about this?" Doggett pressed the issue, handing Scully the folder. "About his headstone?"

She spoke up. "Mulder was dying."

This threw Skinner. "What?"

Sandoval scowled. "How much of this did you know about?" 

"How well did you really know him?  How far would Mulder go?" Doggett asked. 

"How far would he go for what?"

"The truth-- his truth.  Whatever it was he was trying to prove, how bad did he need to prove it?"

"It was his whole life," Scully admitted.

Skinner butted in. "What are you trying to say?" 

Doggett sighed, taking a step back to take in the view of the office and the headstone. "That Agent Mulder found himself in a place none of us want to go.  Life-threatened, work-threatened, and all for naught.  Nothing proven.  The effort in vain.  No mark left.  Unless he rolled the dice, took one big last chance to make it."

"You think that Mulder was here?" Scully was trying to accept the picture Doggett had painted. "That he broke in to steal those files?

"Broke into your apartment; stole your computer. Took his own computer.  Gathering it up."

"To what?" asked Skinner. "To prove it?"

Doggett shrugged, still visualizing the scenario. "Or cover it up.  Create doubt." He looked up. "I get Mulder, I get him.  I understand obsession, believe me.  But the question is: how far would he go?  I mean, so far as to stage his own disappearance?"

Sandoval, listening to this, had sat wearily behind Mulder's desk, holding his head and wracking his brain. He would have killed for a photographic memory at that point. All he could remember were the vague images.

"That's if, Agent Doggett, he vanished of his own volition. I am not certain he did."

"What makes you so sure?" 

Sandoval tried to make sense of what little he could remember. "I saw them. I was the last to see Mulder - he did not vanish alone." He remembered the odd-looking man with the white hair and glowing hands. "Unearthly. They were like nothing I had seen before."

Doggett quirked up an eyebrow, his East-of-the-Hudson-South-of-the-Mason-Dixon drawl holding more than a bit of condensation. "As I recall, Agent Sandoval, you were out with a concussion from the incident and couldn't give a clear report of the facts. Sure it wasn't a knock on the noggin talking?"

"I know I saw him, Agent Doggett. That much I can be certain of."

"I know what I saw," Skinner barked. "I not going to sit here and listen to this.  Agent Sandoval and I watched it happen." He stopped himself, suddenly realizing how far they were tipping their hands.

Scully rested her hand subtly on Skinner's jacket.  Leaning into Doggett, she pleaded. "Please don't report that."

Doggett shrugged. "Don't know what good it would do me.  Doesn't help me find Mulder."

As soon as Doggett left, the trio breathed an audible sign of relief.

"No," Skinner grumbled. "It's not good enough." 

"Sir," Scully said. "We may have a break."

"How so?"

"Agent Sandoval was approached by Smoking Man."

When Skinner turned to him, glowering with suspicion, Sandoval quickly explained. "He's...interested in me for reasons I do not know, possibly because of my position here. He gave me documents we are now having analyzed. Perhaps they will be of use, but I can't be sure."

"All right, but no further contact with that man," Skinner warned.

Sandoval thought a moment. "Do you think he knows what happened to Mulder?"

Scully's hand brushed against the tombstone. "Likely."

"If it is our best lead, why not let me pursue it?" Sandoval insisted. "Keep the door open, play a role and find out what he knows."

"Because the man deals in lies, Agent Sandoval." Skinner warned. "You could be running down a dead-end and get yourself killed in the process, got it?"

Sandoval nodded. "I understand, sir."

But, just because he understood the warning, didn't mean he was necessarily going to comply with it.


Chapter 6

Days turned into weeks without a concrete lead. It was almost a month and still nothing.

Still, she was grateful for the help. She had been spending a lot of time in the Gunmen's converted warehouse under the pretense of gathering data with them, but the real reason was that she needed to know she wasn't alone or going mad. Frohike had a few friends who never made it back from Vietnam. Langly lived on the streets briefly, friends vanishing and sometimes turning up dead - and no one interested in answers. Byers...well, she knew the whole sordid story about Susanne after prying it out of him in Vegas. They knew far too well the hell she was walking in, their own demons driving them as much as their friendship and loyalty to her and Mulder.

 

Skinner was running interference between her and Kersh, making inquiries and trying to pull strings to obtain records and assess possible leads.

Sandoval was, thankfully, scouting out apartments today. It was a little disturbing how much and how fast she trusted him, even after he admitted his encounter with the Smoker. Perhaps Mulder's absence was getting her to depend more on allies, and causing her to be a bit less discriminating. Yet, Sandoval seemed unafraid of the truth, and genuine about wanting answers.





When they were alone in the office, he would read file after file and gather research, driven to find any lead he could. It was if he had always been there and known her and Mulder. The other thing she found promising about Sandoval is that he treated her, Skinner, and even the Gunmen with great respect.

He had also been more than a little protective - with a disturbing hint of malice. A day ago, they were having lunch when two agents were gossiping about "Spooky." Scully ignored them as she usually did, but Sandoval had politely excused himself from their table and went to confront them. She didn't have to hear the words. She heard Sandoval's quiet, sharp accent, balancing on a knife-edge between polite and menacing. The gossips looked flustered and probably tried to explain themselves. After they were finished squirming, he politely excused himself and sat back down, resuming his conversation with her as if the incident never happened.

One thing she was sure of, at least for the moment, was that Sandoval was just as determined to help as anyone else who was fighting on her side. Therefore, he would be allowed to aid in the search for Mulder.

Scully awoke from a nap on the large red sofa stashed in what massed for the Gunmen's "living room." It hadn't been a peaceful sleep - she dreaded closing her eyes. Mulder was out there, too far for her to reach. Paradoxically, he was too close - she knew it wasn't a dream. Anyone else, and she could tell herself that. No one else knew the telepathy hadn't gone away. He begged her not to tell anyone - not even close allies.

They didn't have much time. Mulder was being killed by his captors, and with their connection, it might kill her and their child.

"Scully get in here," Skinner barked from the next room.

She rolled off the couch and trudged into the room. The place was the usual chaos - maps, spreadsheets, printouts...everything and nothing. Skinner was hunched over the table full of maps while the Gunmen sorted their printouts and monitored the satellite feeds.

"These are records of microburst activity," Skinner told her. "What we read is UFO activity since Mulder's abduction."

Glumly, she shook her head. It was too much damn effort to get her hopes up again. "I think this is a waste of time."

"No, it's not." Skinner was insistent. "Just look at them."

She shrugged. "I'm looking, and what I'm seeing is activity all over the southwestern states."

"That's right."

"Mulder disappeared in the Pacific Northwest." She was too tired to make the connection until Skinner laid down the card.

"And if Mulder is on that ship, this is where he is now."


"Here?" She pointed to the map, still not quite believing it. "In the Arizona desert?"

"This is what we have."

"Okay. Say this is true ...then how do we even begin to start finding him?"

Hope turned into disappointment. It truly was going to be like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack.

Langly came up with a suggestion. "Maybe with whoever it is they're looking to abduct next."

"Hey, we're only trying to help," said Frohike, shrugging.

Byers just shook his head. "We're only trying to find Mulder."

She took two steps away, ready to throw up her hands, but that's when it clicked - it all made sense. "That's it. It just came to me."

"What?" Skinner asked.

Why in hell hadn't she seen it before? It was obvious! "What you saw, why they took Mulder, why they're in Arizona now-- it all makes sense." She shook her head and walked right up to the men. "Why do people refuse to believe in aliens and UFOs after all these years of sightings and eyewitness accounts? Why is it that only now is the issue being treated with any seriousness?"

Frohike provided the answer. "Because there's no real proof. Not until you and Shady Sandy smuggled something out of there to get the word out."

She drummed her fingers on the table, staring at one of the specks on the map. "Maybe, if there are aliens they're simply going around and they're...and they're removing all of the evidence before it becomes proof. They've already had a leak in Bellefleur and probably can't afford more if they want their secrets kept. This isn't Mulder who's going around and collecting this stuff." She looked up "It's them."

"Then why Arizona?" Skinner asked,

"Because they are looking to find that which is not in my computer or Mulder's computer or in the files that were removed from the FBI. They are looking to find the whereabouts of good, hard proof." She pointed to a desolate-looking spot "That in this case exists in a person, in a boy named Gibson Praise."

GIBSON PRAISE

Kersh had sent the file down as top priority, and Doggett hadn't looked up from it since. Stretching the knot out of his shoulders, it registered that it was getting close to midnight. Well, it wasn't the first time he had turned a case into an all-nighter.

Maps, charts, and graphs, obviously copied from something else, had been stuffed in the file. It didn't seem to make any sense.  Yes, it was one of the files Mulder had grabbed.

Or had it actually been Mulder?

Sitting back and taking another swig of double-brewed coffee, Doggett had the nagging feeling that something didn't make sense. The character profiles he had the task force draw up made it all seem cut-and-dried. Skinner and Scully had something to hide. Those two and Mulder were partners - and friends. You could keep a secret among three people. The theory was that they helped Mulder vanish, being caught up in his delusions and paranoia for years.

Mulder was quite the charismatic guy, that was for certain. The legend of "Spooky" Mulder's reign of exposing corruption, pulling strings and basically proving he was right and his superiors dead wrong was Bureau water-cooler stuff for years, as was the rumor that he and Scully had been sleeping together. Doggett could give a rat's ass about the sleeping part, even if discovering Scully curled up with one of Mulder's shirts certainly proved it in his mind.

Sandoval was the last one to see Mulder alive, and he had no apparent motive to want to help Mulder vanish. The young agent barely knew Mulder. Still, he was protective of Scully, but that could also be chalked up to the "last one to see Mulder alive" status. Screwing up tended to get people overreacting, and double that for junior agents. 

Was Mulder really behind his own disappearance? The evidence certainly looked like it. If Mulder wanted to gather up his proof and thought this Praise kid was walking proof, then it made sense that this would be the best lead.

Yet, Doggett had the bad feeling he was getting lead around, seeing what someone else wanted him to see. Once out in the desert, Doggett would have to have to find the answers for himself, even if they might not be the answers someone else wanted. 

Walking to his office to finish up some long-overdue paperwork the same night, Skinner found that there was a visitor waiting for him.

It wasn't the first time that chain-smoking bastard showed up in his office, but Skinner wasn't going to tolerate his presence for any longer than necessary.

"I know you are armed, Mr. Skinner," came the genteel drawl. "But I was hoping we could discuss business like gentlemen."

"What 'business?'"

"Mulder's gone missing, Scully has a new partner, and Kersh…I'm sure you know that he keeps me appraised of things."

Skinner's hand was already on the handle of his weapon. Like a thunderclap, his arm cramped up and he couldn't move it. Smoker was flicking ashes into a potted plant with one hand while the other cradled a small black box.

"Scully and Sandoval will be going to Arizona. You can stay here." He smiled coldly and tweaked another setting.

It was getting hard to breathe, and his chest felt like it was going to explode. Skinner took some shaky steps towards the smoker, attempting to fight off the pain, only to have his legs seize up and refuse to support him.

"Consider it a test. I'm sure we're both curious to see if this young man can be trusted."

Trying to struggle, trying to breathe, move, speak - all were impossible for Skinner now. Finishing his cigarette, the old man smiled, twisting a knob on the controller and stuffing it back into his pocket. Just as suddenly as it began, the pain started to fade, but it still left him breathless and exhausted on the floor.    

"As for you, Director Skinner, why don't you take some rest? It might do wonders for your health."

The old man nodded cordially and walked out the door as Skinner managed to pull himself into a chair, still attempting to regain his breath.

John Doggett couldn't believe what he was saying, in fact, he was almost thinking of checking himself into the loony bin, but a lead was a lead. And the clues were there - if Mulder wanted to grab his proof and vanish, this would be top of the list. Someone slipped the file under his door while he was going over the latest dead end lead. Well, it was going to either get them the big score or get him out of the Bureau. At this point, he didn't know which.

About a dozen of his task force was gathered. He handed out the copies of Gibson's photograph and tried to keep a straight face for this.

"This photograph's a few years old but take a good look because the objective in this case has been reframed.  Subject's name is Gibson Andrew Praise.  A child prodigy, pint-sized chess champion who Mulder and Scully first investigated in 1997 after a failed attempt on the boy's life. His files were the ones we now believe were stolen from this office."

OK, that went over well. Now time to tie on the blindfold.

"In his investigation Agent Mulder came to believe the boy was experiencing abnormal brain activity.  Unexplained activity.  In his field notes here he says Gibson Praise could, and I quote 'read people's thoughts.'"

The other agents chuckled. *It's the best damn lead we have, so let 'em laugh.*

"Agent Mulder went so far in one report to claim that the boy may have alien physiology," Doggett added, glad he could keep his face straight, even as his task force started snickering louder. Once word got to Kersh, he might as well count himself crazy. 

He cleared his throat. "Agent Mulder may be looking for the boy who was last seen in Arizona.  So maybe to find Mulder we first have to look for Gibson Praise."

Doggett pointed over to Crane, who rose and called the troops to action. As they filed out of the room, Crane came up to him

"How do you want this handled?"

Doggett looked at the boy's picture and back up to Crane. "I want you to put that on every TV station, post office, and fax machine in Arizona and the southwest.  I want to make that face famous."

"Uh, no," Crane said. "What about the other part? The 'reading thoughts and alien' parts?"

"Hey, those were the words of Fox Mulder, not me. Mulder thought the kid was alien - and it would make sense that if he wanted to make his life's work vanish with him, then we get to the kid first. Lay a trap and set the bait." He shook his head. "Can't say as I like it, but it is a plan."

"And if people start thinking you're going over the deep end?"

"Look, Crane. I got a case to solve. What those guys think of me isn't that important. I'm willing to do what it takes to find that guy, and if I have to get to the bottom of his crazy obsessions to do it, well...I'll take that gamble."

"Just hope that you win. Kersh ain't a betting man," Crane reminded him before stepping out.


Chapter 7

Mulder where are you? It was her voice, the whisper in the darkness. Another man would have counted it as a sign of going mad, easy to do on this level of hell. He didn't know why there was the connection between them, only that it existed.

The Hunters were silently going out their business, distant screams of those equally damned echoing and reminding him he was sadly, not alone. Sometimes, they would stop torturing one of them and just pass their hands over the victim, a glowing light in their palm hovering inches above the mangled flesh.

The only thing he had the strength to do was keep calling out for her, and hoping she found him. He knew her thoughts, knew he had more reason to hold on.

In an overhead window, he was the outline of a man, the light too bright to see his face. The wisp of smoke from a lit cigarette further obscured the light.

The whir of machines was getting closer now. He was next. What inventive form of pain were they going to inflict? How long could this connection sustain him? She was getting weaker, too.

The table he lay on jerked up, the light above him flashing on. He flinched against his bonds as he saw it come closer - a mechanical arm with a whirring saw blade. It inched towards his chest, shredding the flesh

  

He screamed...

"Dana? Dana, wake up!"

She shuddered, and tried to reorient herself to where she was, reflexively clutching at her chest and belly. Sandoval was brushing her hair out of her face and watching her with great concern.

Reality settled in. She had fallen asleep in the passenger seat while Sandoval drove. On all sides of them was nothing but desert.

"Are you all right?" Sandoval asked. When an answer wasn't forthcoming, he took a map and handed it to her. "I need some help navigating." 

She pulled the map from under the seat.  "How to start looking for a 12-year-old kid in the middle of the Arizona desert.  Well, there aren't a whole lot of choices." 

"We got a turnoff coming up in five miles.  Should I take it or keep going straight?"

"Gibson Praise was last seen here at a power plant about 60 miles outside of Phoenix.  But all the satellite data shows activity here about 100 miles to the north," Scully said. 

"What's out there?"

"Well, according to this map..." Scully said with a sigh. "A whole lot of nothing."

"Just the place to hide," Sandoval commented. "Especially something as large as a ship."  A shadow passed them. He craned his neck to look out the window. "Damn it!"

"What?"

"We have company, Dana."

Doggett uneasily looked out from the helicopter window, studying the SUV below. Was that from his task force or not? His cell phone rang before he could make a judgment call.  

"Yeah."

"This is Special Agent Crane calling for task force leader."

"Yeah, this is John Doggett."

"Just confirmed a location on this kid.  He's at a school for the deaf in a place called Flemingtown.  Little dot on the map about 90 miles from where I am now. I just talked to the school principal there.

"Is the kid in school now?"

" Yeah, he lives at the school."

"All right, have the principal take him out of class and put him someplace where he can keep an eye on him until we arrive."

"Got it. Gonna take me an hour, an hour and 15 to get there." 

"All right, well, I'm going to see if I can cut some time off that."

He indicated a new direction to his pilot, feeling very impatient.

They stopped to get gas at some place that might as well be called "Last chance." The gas prices, at least were somewhat reasonable. One look at the restroom, however, and Sandoval rolled his eyes and told them he'd be watering a cactus.

While Sandoval was communing with nature, Scully had time to think - a dangerous luxury now. That last nightmare...she could feel him close. Taking a deep breath, she cleared her head, imagining she could see him.

Her eyes focused on a distant cliff, the desert air rippling around it like a mirage. It seemed to be calling

Scully! Scully, I'm here! His voice called in her head. She was about to walk towards it when Sandoval emerged from around the corner, wiping his hands with a paper towel, shattering her concentration. 

"At least the sink worked," he said. He stopped, following her gaze. "What are you seeing that I don't?"

"Mulder's here," she said. "Somewhere."

"We know he is," Sandoval said.

"No I mean he's close, Ron. Like In Oregon - he's hidden in plain sight and we're practically standing next to him."

"How do you know?" A pause as his eyes followed hers, feeling a cold shudder as he saw the mirage. "More to the point - do I want to know how you know?" He leaned in and whispered to her. "I could breech their shield in Oregon. If we find out how, we could get in."

The sound of the choppers overhead brought them back to the present. They had to get answers before Doggett came in and was able to tell Kersh what he wanted to hear.

"It's a school twenty minutes from here," said Scully. "I can drive."

Sandoval handed her the keys, taking the passenger side.  As they pulled away, Scully couldn't seem to stop looking at the mirage near the cliff.

Flemington School for the Deaf

Flemington, Arizona

11:21 AM

Doggett flung open the door and jumped out just as the helicopter touched ground, marching into the school office. Seconds later, the SUV carrying Scully and Sandoval pulled up by the same door.

Doggett flashed his badge at the principal. "Where's the boy?" 

The principal held up his hand. "You're just going to have to slow down and explain a few things to us before we let you..."

Doggett hadn't time for this, pushing his way towards an open door. "Is he down there?"

"He's in my office," answered the principal. "Go down the hall."

Doggett lit down the hall just as Scully entered, Sandoval at her heels.

"Hi. Um ... we're looking for a boy named Gibson Praise." 

The principal scowled and folded his arms. "Now who are you?"

Before they had a chance to answer, Doggett came running back up the hall. "Kid went out the window."  He glowered at the trio that just arrived. "What are you doing here?" 

Scully returned fire. "What are you doing here?"

"Trying to find Mulder," Doggett answered.

"So are we," Scully answered.

The sound of more cars outside prompted them to go back outside. The task force was pulling up. Agents were piling out of their cars. Doggett shouted to them.

"Kid's on the move.  Spread out!" 

Crane relayed the order and the agents scattered.

"Time to bicker later," Doggett said sharply. "Now, let's go!"

He turned around and headed for the back of the building. Under the window where Gibson vanished, Doggett followed the boy-sized prints to the corner of the building. A man-sized set of prints met those of the boy. There was some evidence of a struggle - the pattern of prints and a drop of blood on the sand. Next to it was some scorching...like acid burned the sand.

The kid was in hot water.

Looking towards where the prints lead, Doggett touched his gun briefly before dashing off in the direction.

Just as he had run far enough away to question whether or not to call for backup, he saw them - a child struggling against a lanky man.

"Let me go!"

Doggett charged towards them. They stood at the edge of a cliff. The kid fit the description or Praise, but the man...

None other than "Spooky" Mulder himself, dressed in a gray shirt and jeans, looking ill-equipped for desert crossing. His face was blank, something that unnerved Doggett more than it probably should have. Pulling his weapon, he took a step towards them.

"Let the boy go!  Let him go, Mulder!"

"Stop it!  Please!" Gibson was still struggling. "Let me go! Stop it!  Let me go!  Let me go!"

Aside from keeping his grip on Gibson, "Mulder" didn't seem to move or react. Doggett approached them, gun still ready to fire..

"Let him go, or I will be compelled to use my weapon.  Now, I don't want to do that, Agent Mulder.  I don't want to shoot." 

He released Gibson, the child dashing away, but still didn't speak. He backed to the edge of the cliff.

"Now, are you armed?" Doggett asked.

No words, no movement.

"Come on, damn it.  This is just stupid, Agent Mulder.  Don't turn this into a movie.  Just tell me if you've got a gun.  It's too hot for this B.S."

Still nothing.

Doggett was getting tired of this. Maybe the SOB would talk after he got a lawyer. "All right, then, lie down.  Lie down on the ground.  Keep your hands out.  Lay down on your belly there." 

A glance at the ground, and back up at Doggett, the Mulder started walking back to the edge of the cliff.

"For crying out loud, what are you doing?  Agent Mulder, stay there!"

Lowering his gun, Doggett made a dash for Mulder Just as Doggett got within arms' length, Mulder casually stepped back, plunging off the cliff. 

Doggett peered over the edge. Mulder - or whoever it was - lay far below, unconscious or worse, his arm and several other bones obviously broken.

Doggett got up and turned to head down the cliff when Crane and the task force arrived.

"He went over!  Over the edge!" Doggett called to them, gesturing to the ground below.

"Who?" Crane asked.

Looking below, where he had seen the broken body only seconds earlier, there was nothing.

"Mulder," Doggett answered.


Chapter 8

Two hours and combing the scene later, there was still no answers. Doggett was starting to think he was going nuts, even if the physical evidence was in front of him.

"Right, I'll talk to Scully.  You guys head back to the school."

An SUV pulled up beside the other trucks. Flying out of the driver's seat, Scully strode up to Doggett.

"Where is he?  Where's Mulder?"

"I don't know." 

"You don't know?  I heard an agent say over the radio that you saw him." She was pissed. Doggett couldn't blame her - hell, he would be pissed off if he were in her place.

"Oh, yeah, I saw him.  I saw him back right off that cliff there and I saw him fall right over there."

"Then where is he?"

"He's gone."

"Gone?"

"Yeah, he can't be, but he is."

Scully walked over to the impact site, quietly having a look for herself. "That cliff there?  He fell from there?"

"Yeah. I can't believe it either." Doggett shook his head. "A cop sees things.  A man drops five stories, dusts his hat off and goes back to work.  An old lady gets shot point-blank in a Chinese restaurant, plucks the slug out of her egg fu young.  But even if Mulder survives this, what he does then is too much."

He walked over, pointing it out. "You got your point of impact there... clear and identifiable.  And a set of tracks here leading down to the wash.  Look at these tracks.  What do you see?" 

Scully looked at the tracks and stood up, walking a few paces parallel to the footprints.

"Mulder was running," Doggett said.

"It wasn't Mulder," she said with absolute certainty. 

"That's the one thing I'm sure of."  

"It may have looked like Mulder, but it wasn't Mulder," she said.

"I told you I knew Mulder," Doggett admitted. "Okay, maybe I didn't know him that well.  But I know who it was up there, and it was Fox Mulder." 

"I'm sure it did look like Mulder, and you have every reason to believe that it was him...  but it was not Mulder." She looked away for a moment before she continued. "I told you that I've seen things... things that I can't explain.  Well, I have seen what looks like a man ... transform into another man."

Doggett scowled, trying to make sense of her statement. "What looks like a man, but who's not a man?"

Scully groaned and made another check of the footprints. Doggett was getting tired of this - if she were so eager to find Mulder, then why weren't she being forthcoming with answers? Her, Sandoval, Skinner...he was on their side. If they told him what they knew, then maybe they could get some real answers. "So, what is he?"

Scully almost laughed and began walking away. "You don't want to know."

"He's not a man?  What the hell is he?  Hey, don't turn your back on me." 

Scully halted and turned back to Doggett.

"I'm asking you a legitimate question," Doggett said calmly.

Another sigh. "He's alien," she said. "A bounty hunter." 

Doggett scowled. "Looking to collect a bounty on...?"

"On Gibson Praise... because he's part alien." Scully explained quietly. "He's a human anomaly."

He must have been out of his mind, because he was ready to listen. "So, this alien bounty hunter... he disguised himself as Mulder to come out here and grab the boy?" 

She avoided eye contact. "To take him back to his ship...where we believe Mulder is."

Well, that explained the silence out of them. He wasn't ready to dismiss it, but he couldn't believe it, either, especially with Kersh's standing orders about how to deal with any talk of little green men. "You know, Agent Scully... you're, uh, you're starting to remind me a lot of Agent Mulder yourself."

"Well then, you explain it to me," she said sharply. 

Doggett, lacking any answers, approached her, grabbing her shoulder. "You're not feeding me a line - you actually believe this?"

Scully was still the picture of defiance. Doggett tried another approach.

"Okay, then. If it's true or possible, what you're saying, this bounty hunter-- he could just become anyone? You, me, any damn one of us?"

"I think that it is true.  And possible." Scully said, looking up at the sky. "And wherever Mulder is right now... he better damn well be smiling."

****

Back at the Flemingtown School, all the teachers, faculty, and students stood outside, surrounded by the FBI agents. Sandoval was standing in the middle of this madhouse, rapidly running out of patience.

His cell phone rang. Probably Scully telling him if Mulder had actually been found or not. Breaking away from the crowd to a quiet area out of earshot, he answered it.

"Sandoval here."

The voice on the other end made him stiffen. "I see my information was useful. How's Arizona?"

"You..."

"I knew you'd look, and that you'd share the information. But I didn't give you all of it - just enough to prove my sincerity."

He bit back some of the more insulting things he was going to say. "Are you responsible for Mulder's disappearance?"

"Only indirectly."

"I'm...open to your offer," he said. "But it is between you and me - DeDe knows nothing, and I'm not involving Dana."

"A gentlemen's agreement. I like you already. Very well. You'll have your next test coming soon. Pass it, and we can negotiate a reward."

A beep, and the line went dead. Sandoval turned off the phone and stuffed it back in his pocket, going back to the patrols and trying to form a plan of action.

Just as he was in mid-plan, Scully's SUV rolled up. Sandoval turned around to see her park. He ran up to her.

"Dana, what's going on? I heard that Mulder was found -"

"It wasn't Mulder," she said.

Sandoval scowled.

"The Bounty Hunter we saw in Oregon," she explained. "He's here."

"Oh."

"He disguised himself as Mulder. He could be anyone."

In the abandoned science lab, a stone-faced doppelganger of Fox Mulder quietly slipped in. Checking his broken arm, he took his other hand and set it back into place, not flinching or changing his expression.

The presence of human law enforcement meant that he would have to be more discreet. But he would elude them - his kind always could. If that failed...

He opened his hands and actually cracked a smile as his palms lit like they were supposed to. At least that was working. He ceased energy flow to his palms and concentrated on his new form.

Doggett walked inside the science lab doing a building check and saw the school principal standing at a table.

"Sorry, I thought you were..." He paused. "I thought they cleared you out of here."

The principal nodded silently and filed past Doggett just as Crane came up from behind.

"Find something?"

"No," Doggett said, shaking off the feeling that something wasn't quite right. "Let's keep looking."

Doggett's radio crackled to life. "Task Force leader."

"Yeah, it's Doggett. Go ahead, Agent Conner."

"We went looking through the administration building. Sir, the principal is dead. We found him on the floor of his office. Looks like a heart attack."

Crane answered his radio. "Copy."

"Crane," asked Doggett. "If the principal is dead, then..."

Doggett shuddered. He knew the answer already.

"Crane, get Agent Scully. And get the paperwork for an autopsy."

Chapter 9

The body of was shipped to McLaren Medical Center some miles away. Since the task force could spare no one to assist her, Scully was going to handle this on her own. At least this small county hospital had a tiny, yet equipped, autopsy suite. Scully brought her "kit" that she frequently used on her case. Mulder never had made comments about it, but Sandoval watched her pack with morbid fascination. She explained the habit by making disparaging remarks about the tiny towns she and Mulder tended to find themselves in, where the only place one could examine a victim was an ill-suited funeral parlor.

She spoke into her tape recorder.  "Initial examination reveals no obvious cause of death, reported as a cardiac arrest. There is, however, a small mark like a bruise or mild burn to the chest area…"

Proceeding with the Y-incision, Scully examined the muscles. There was damage. From just the outside, it would appear to be a routine cardiac arrest. Looking inside, however…

"Muscle and tissue damage consistent with massive electrical shock. This would have to be a much more powerful power source than normal household current, more like a lightening strike. From the pattern of damage, it would have had to be administered directly to the chest area."

She cut the tape, picking up the bone saw and continuing her investigation. Indeed, it had been cardiac arrest, but not by the usual methods. Again, it made no sense. A current massive enough to cause these injuries, would leave singed clothing or his shirt would have had to be removed, but there was no evidence of either.

Scully dutifully took the samples and recorded her results, She knew how, but didn't know how or whom. The shock was no accident.

The agents around them were scouring the school. Doggett had just been relieved when he noticed Sandoval sitting at a table in the corner, a chessboard ready to play sat in front of him. Doggett approached and tapped the younger agent on the shoulder.

"Hey, Sandoval, you were relived twenty minutes ago."

Sandoval picked up a black pawn, twirling it between his thumb and forefinger. "I know, but I will be leaving soon to retrieve Agent Scully." He put the pawn back where it was and looked up. "Do you play chess, Agent Doggett?"

"Not really," he drawled. "Poker's my game, but if you're looking for an opponent..."

Sandoval nodded and gestured to the chair across from him. "White moves first."

Doggett shook his head and moved one of the white pawns. "A friendly game."

Sandoval tapped his fingers and slid a pawn to the next square. "Only if you disregard the metaphors of it. This game was designed as a metaphor for war. Some might say it is a metaphor for life."

"Really? How so?"

"The first is that the forces of light and darkness are in equal balance." Sandoval scowled, and then slid his rook to take Doggett's knight. "Secondly, most of the players on the board are pawns - mostly powerless and easily sacrificed. Yet, if a pawn is played well and survives, it can become the most powerful piece on the board."

 "Speaking of metaphors, Agent, you seem a little too willing to play the dark side."

Sandoval slid his bishop to block Doggett's pawn. "And you don't seem to pay much attention to how the board is laid out."

"Is that so?" asked Doggett, using his knight to capture the rook.

Sandoval smiled and made another move. "You approach this all too simply, Agent Doggett."

"Really? Then do you care to help me understand what's on the board?"

"What is it you wish to know? This is, as you say, a friendly game."

A long pause as Doggett studied the board, then looked up at his opponent. "Cut the crap, Sandoval."

 "Excuse me?"

Doggett also leaned forward, challenging Sandoval. "There are things you and Scully know that you aren't going to tell me. How am I supposed to find Mulder with you and Scully hiding what you know from me? I'm busting my ass trying to help here. "

"Are you really, Agent Doggett?"

"What's that supposed to mean?"

Sandoval leaned back, pretending to assess the board. "Here is the way I see it. You and your task force have been instructed to see Scully and I as suspects."

Doggett scowled. "Well, you and AD Skinner were the last to see him. Now, Skinner and Agent Scully might have reasons to protect him, but you?" He moved his knight. "You're the mystery, Agent Sandoval."

"Oh, I think there is very little about me that is a mystery."

"Well, how was it that you and Scully were able to beat me to the punch getting here? Any mystery in that?"

"Perhaps we just have the same sources. I know that the informant that gave Scully and I our leads also gives Kersh his." Sandoval slid his queen to take Doggett's knight. "You're a pawn on this board and don't even realize it."

"All right, you've painted me the picture, now put it in a frame."

Sandoval smiled and shook his head. "I've read your service record, Agent Doggett. Quite inspiring to a junior agent such as myself. There is even speculation that you will be Director someday."

"What of it?"

"In this case, you have an indefensible position. Tell Kersh what he wants to hear, and you will never find Mulder, though you will have ruined Skinner and Scully…you may even ruin me." He picked up a pawn and twirled it in his fingers. "Yet, if you do discover the reasons for Mulder's disappearance and tell Kersh the truth, you will be ruined. Put anything about the things you have seen in your report, and they will save you a spot on the gallows next to us."

"What do you think I've seen?"

"I know you saw him - the shape-changer. Dana told me how he disguised himself as Mulder."

Doggett looked around before dropping his voice. "So you do know about it?"

"Yes. I even saw it for myself in Oregon. Yet, the difference between us is that while you cannot wrap your mind around that which is not in the rule book, I choose to understand for myself."

"Maybe you don't know me that well, Agent Sandoval," Doggett drawled. "You're in check, by the way."

Sandoval slid his queen between the offending bishop and his king. Doggett slid over the bishop and snatched it.

"Checkmate," Sandoval said.

"You lose," said Doggett.

"No, you're the one who lost. Work on your game."

Sandoval got up and headed towards the door. Doggett looked down - moving his bishop left his king trapped between Sandoval's rook and knight.

She stitched up the body and started to clean the lab, releasing the corpse to the hospital's morgue until the next of kin could claim it and shoving it back in the cooler.

She looked up at the time. Sandoval would be relived soon, and said he would pick her up to pass these results along to Doggett before they did their own investigations.

Collapsing into a chair in the closet-sized office adjacent to the morgue, she replayed the autopsy over in her mind, trying to put together more of the puzzle. As soon as she had done so, however, another, terrible picture took hold…

**It was the ship again, a tiny chamber where he was alone. It was too dim to make out much of anything. Mulder's chest had been repaired, a fine red line crossing the place where he had been horribly mutilated before.

"Mulder, where are you?"

A thin thought whisper. "Leave me."

"I need to find you. Hold on…"

"I'm not going to survive this. Our link will kill you…"

"I can't control it, Mulder. What is happening to us?"

"You already know, Scully."

Emotions played over her, almost like music. Fear was like drums. Pain, the blare of horns. The flute and harp of sadness and love wove between and around them. His presence was as soothing as a caress, as close as a kiss. As horrible as it was seeing him like this, she didn't want to leave, willing herself to stay with him and give him what strength she could. He needed to survive, if only for the sake of the new life that was taking shape inside her.

Her world ran out of "impossibilities." 

They reached for each other, the fact that they were not physically together being of little consequence. As his hand turned, she could see the faint blue glow in his palm. She took his hand. It felt warm, solid. The faint glow became brighter as the boundaries between them crumbled away.

"I will find you…"**

 The blue-white flash overwhelmed her, and the world fell to blackness.

Sandoval hastened down the stairs to the hospital morgue where he was told that Scully still was. When he got there, the lights were still on and the door was ajar. It opened with a creek and he entered, looking around.

Her "kit" was on the floor, neatly packed up. The chemical smell and slightly slick floor indicated that the room was recently cleaned.

"Dana? Dana are you still here?"

He scanned the room. No sign of her in the autopsy room, no sign of her in the morgue. There was a small office for the pathologist, and a desk lamp was on. Sandoval opened the unlocked door and involuntarily jumped back.

Scully collapsed next to the desk, sprawled face down. Sandoval recovered his wits and dropped to her side, brushing hair out of her face. She was breathing, at least. After a terrifyingly long few seconds, she groaned and moved.

"Can you hear me? Dana, it's Ron, are you all right?"

"Mulder. I saw Mulder," she said, opening her eyes and reaching for the edge of the desk.

"Did you hit your head? What is going on?"

She shook her head and grabbed the desk, struggling to her feet. "I'm fine."

"Do you expect me to believe that?"

Scully sat down. "Ron, I can see him. I'm not entirely sure why or how, but I can see Mulder."

"Dana, it is a common thing to dream of lost friends or loved ones, surely you know this."

She fixed him with a glare. "Yes, but these don't appear to be dreams, at least not any normal kinds of dreams."

Sandoval scowled. "How often have you had these…visions?"

"They've become far more frequent since we came to Arizona."

"Dana, I have watched this search for Mulder drain you. I do not want to think I have been teamed with a madwoman -"

"Agent Sandoval!" she barked, silencing him mid-tirade. After a pause indicated that he would let her explain, she continued. "I wouldn't believe it any more than you would have believed in the Bounty Hunter, or the ship, or any number of things." She looked up. "But you and I have seen these things, and neither of us can deny them."

"So, these visions - that's what is telling you that he is close?"

"Among other things, yes." 

Sandoval tried to process this. He may not have believed everything, but he could believe enough. "Come on. Doggett wants the report in the morning. In the meantime, I am going to take both of us back to the hotel, and I insist that you rest."

"Ron, I'm fine."

"No, you are not. Now, I insist. Even if I have to keep an all-night vigil to make certain you do, you will rest. You are no good to Mulder like this."

Scully was too exhausted to argue. Shuffling her reports into a file folder to tuck under one arm while Sandoval took her kit, they shuffled back to the car and the hotel for a night's rest.

Mosley, a young agent fresh out of training, was working on communications for the most part. Doggett liked the kid - despite all the weirdness, he kept his cool. That's why it really disturbed him when Mosley handed him a cell phone, said it was Deputy Director Kersh, and looked a bit pale. Doggett took the phone from Mosley, letting the other agent slink back to the command post.

"Yeah, this is John Doggett."

"Agent Doggett, I'm getting reports from Arizona..." Kersh's bass voice rumbled through the phone.

"Yes, sir."

"That you found Agent Mulder."

Pinching the bridge of his nose, Doggett answered that. "I'm afraid somebody jumped the gun on that.  I saw him, sir, but I... "

Kersh's voice turned into a growl. "What do you mean, you saw him? What the hell is going on out there?"

"Well," Doggett explained. "We're 'round the clock here.  I've got local SAR, a rolling ground cordon and an eye in the sky.  We're on top of the situation."

"How does the FBI find a man and then lose him in the middle of the desert?  'Cause I'd like to know."

Doggett racked his brain for an answer. Even he didn't know.

"Agent Doggett, are you there?"

"Yeah. I heard the question."

"I put you in charge out there, Doggett.  Now do the damn job."

The line went dead. Doggett turned off the phone dejectedly.

Chapter 10

"Heart attack, caused by massive electrical shock."

Doggett leafed through the papers. "Household current?"

She made a small noise of negation. "Too severe for that. It's more consistent with a lightening strike, or high-voltage current."

"Method of delivery?"

"Directly to the chest, from what it appears," she said.

"Would you know how?"

She was about to answer "no" when she remembered something from her contacts with Mulder - there was a bright blue-white light in his hands, and the same light was in the hands of his captors. On the dead man's chest, there was a small, round burn…

Doggett shook his head. "Even if you knew you wouldn't tell me, Agent Scully. I don't expect an answer."

"Why is that?"

He put the papers down and got up from behind the desk, pacing the room. "I am pulling every trick I know how to pull on this - eyes in the sky, rolling cordons, character profiles…you name the trick in the book, and I'm using it. It's still getting me no closer to Mulder." He half-turned to her. "But I try to get answers from Skinner, you, or Agent Sandoval and you blow me off, even though you three seem to have the best idea about what's going on."

She glared at him. "And the instant I give you answers, you will not listen to them. No 'eyes in the sky' or rolling cordons are going to find Mulder."

He put his hands on the desk. "I'm starting to think you may be right on that, Agent Scully, but if you don't help me, how can I help you?" He shook his head. "You may not believe it, but I am listening."

"And reporting it back to Kersh."

Doggett shook his head. "Not that again. Honestly, I know I'm getting played here, but by Kersh or by you, I can't tell which. He put this case in my hands and called it cut and dried - Mulder vanished on his own volition, and you three are covering his ass. Now, there's evidence to support that if I want to go there." 

He drummed his fingers on the desk and went back to looking at the autopsy. "But that disregards everything my gut's telling me about this case. This shape-changing guy for one. Now, there's a man dead from massive electrical shock when no power sources in the room could deliver current like that. Sandoval may be hiding things because he thinks I won't understand it. That's not what I get from you." He looked up. "You ain't telling me things because you're scared. You think that if I knew what you did that I'd stop you."  

"How well do you think you know us, Agent Doggett?"

"You, personally? Not that well." His eyes slipped shut and he shuddered, staring into a hell of his own. "But I do know what someone looks like when their loved one is missing. I understand the obsession, the guilt. I understand the distrust of any outsiders into the matter." There was a slight shaking in his voice as he opened his eyes to look at her. "I know because I've lived it."

"Kersh will be demanding a report," Scully said. "What are you going to tell him?"

Doggett pinched the bridge of his nose. "I don't know yet."

She paused, closing the distance between them. "What do you want to know?"

"My first question. Do you trust Agent Sandoval?"

"What do you mean?"

"How well do you know Sandoval, really?" Scully was silent. He continued. "Kersh assigned me to do that working profile of Mulder - and ones for you three. Thought it was to help me with the case, but I think I know why now. They want to frame you for it - they have what they need."

"And?"

"You read his file. Sandoval is an infiltration man - damn good. He finds the heart of a terrorist group or conspiracy then lands a knife in it. Now, considering what I know of the X-files, he could be just the man you need - or just the right man to nail your coffin shut.

"Now, my second question, Agent Scully. If this Bounty Hunter can take the form of anyone, how can you prove someone is who they say they are?"

****

Scully left the office and started to walk out in the hot desert midday, feeling the sun cook her skin. Gibson was out there, and he might be the last solid link to Mulder. Sandoval had been right about the visions. They were killing her. She could feel him weaken, and feel their combined strength fading. She hadn't slept well, and ate only as an afterthought or if her new partner/self-appointed protector obtained food for the both of them and pretended he wasn't watching her carefully to make sure she ate it all. She was too taxed to bitch him out and stop treating her as an invalid.

Could she trust him? Doggett's question was a valid one. Less than three months ago, Ron Sandoval was an undercover man in Bellefleur. He admitted to contact with the Cigarette Smoking Man, and didn't appear to have taken her and Skinner's warnings too seriously. Could his loyalty be a careful act? Undercover men were master actors, having to be convincing or else they could wind up dead. Yet, he had done nothing that would indicate his loyalty was a lie. She and Mulder had been betrayed by false friends before, and nothing told her that Sandoval was sharpening his knives.

She concluded that she could trust him - at least for now.

She was almost dragging her feet, as drained as she had during the dark days of her cancer.  *Wherever Gibson is, he's three steps ahead of us.*

She glimpsed the bike rack nearby. One of the students, appearing to try not to be noticed, climbed on a shabby-looking bike on the far end and started pedaling away from the only visible road.

Glancing behind her to see if anyone was watching, Scully followed.

About three miles later, she was going on willpower. Ignoring thirst and her own tired body, she pressed on. Stopping a moment to close her eyes, she unconsciously tried thinking of Mulder, trying to see if she could induce another clear connection.

It was quickly interrupted.

"You know, you should have packed some water."

She whipped around. Sandoval was right behind her. He must have been following her the entire way.

"Ron, how did you -"

"I admit to keeping an eye on you, especially after last night." He handed her a canteen. "Now, ditching one's partner may be something you picked up with Mulder, but please don't try it with me."

"Someone could have followed you."

"Not likely. Not unless there are Tuskan Raiders out here." Sandoval's sarcastic smile almost hid a genuine pride. "Honestly, I know how to cover my tracks."

Scully shook her head and accepted Sandoval's canteen. "I'm partnered with a Star Wars fan?"

Sandoval shrugged and took off his jacket, draping it over his shoulder. "We all have our vices."

She opened the flask and swallowed a mouthful of water.

"I also know," said Sandoval. "That whatever you were looking at back at the gas station is close. I may be of assistance there."

Her face darkened. "How do I know you're you?"

"All right," said Sandoval. "First, I gave you a letter to DeDe back in Oregon. I told you to mail it in case I met with a bad end. Secondly, perhaps this will help..."

He pulled a penknife out of his jacket and made a small cut across his thumb. A thin trickle of red welled up from it. He took Scully's hand and traced the back of it, leaving a small red streak.

He handed her the knife, dark eyes narrowed to slits. "Now, you."

Scully nodded, pressing the blade against her own thumb, streaking Sandoval's hand. Silent acknowledgement followed as they walked across the desert.

The desert sunset was glinting off metal - a girl's bike. Crossing over to it, she stopped suddenly, testing the ground beneath her. It was flexible, covered in sand-colored canvas.

Brushing aside some of the dust the recent winds blew onto it, she discovered a rope - this was a trap door. Pulling it open, she and Sandoval quickly climbed down, pulling it shut behind them.

Gibson was sitting on a makeshift cot, the girl they followed standing with him. "You shouldn't have come! You'll lead them right to me."

The shelter was a comfortably equipped hovel, reminding Sandoval of the tree house he had in his aunt's backyard. In addition to the apple-crate cot, covered in discarded quilts and old army blankets, there was a shabby-looking table, the short leg propped up with a large rock. A chessboard, ready to play, sat upon it. Another corner had a camping stove with a couple cans of sterno, sitting next to a box of canned foods. It was obvious that Gibson used this place frequently.

"We're here to protect you, Gibson." Scully said with a sigh as she came closer. "I know you know that's the truth.  I know you know my thoughts."

Gibson scowled. "I know they took the man you work with ... Mulder. And now, they've come to take me."

Her exhaustion came through to her voice. "The only reason they want to take you, Gibson ... is because you're a special boy.  They want to take you because of what you are." 

The girl's words were intelligible, but spoke with the accent of someone deaf since birth. She signed as she spoke. "I'm sorry.  I didn't know that someone was following me."

Gibson signed some words back to her, then explained to the agents. "My friend Thea knows.  She's the only one at school I've told.  She says the FBI is looking for me, too.  She's afraid for me."

"She has a right to be afraid.  We don't know who to trust now," Scully said.

Gibson winced and shifted. Thea helped him adjust the blanket covering his leg. Scully lifted the cloth - revealing a deep, nasty looking wound.

"I fell when I was running away," he explained

"I think you might have broken it, Gibson," Scully said.  

"If they find me, they'll take me.  I know it.  I've always known it."

"I'm going to make you a splint, Gibson, okay?  I can set your leg, but, uh... I'm going to need a car to get you out of here."

A discarded crate, ready to be refashioned lay in a corner, Scully snapped off a couple pieces and set to work on Gibson's leg.

"I'll stay with the boy," Sandoval said. "Hopefully, my presence will not be missed."

"Are you sure, Ronald?"

He nodded.

"All right," she said. "Remember this if the Hunter comes around. You'll need to get him in the back of the neck, third vertebrae. Gibson, this is Ron Sandoval. He works with me also. You can trust him, all right?"  She tied off the splint with a strip of cloth torn from one of the old blankets. "'I'm going to come back for you.  I promise.  I'm not going to let anything bad happen to you."

"You said that to me once before," Gibson reminded.

Guiltily, Scully looked away again. "Ron, guard him with your life."

"I will."

She turned around and climbed the rickety ladder back to the surface.

Gibson inspected the splint on his leg and the man who took his place by the chessboard. A cursory glance of his mind indicated that he was at least loyal to Scully, ferociously so. A thought of Mulder brought a flash of guilt. Past that, it was hard to tell. There were so many secrets there.

"You are reading my thoughts. Please stop."

A cold wall seemed to push back at Gibson. Sandoval could block him. Few humans could do that, but Scully's new partner must have had a natural talent.

"I am not your foe, Mister Praise," Sandoval said calmly. "I am a friend of Dana's, and I did promise her that I will watch for you." He looked up and gestured to the board. "From what I understand, you are quite the chess player. Care to pass the time with a game?"

Doggett called over to the knot of agents across the makeshift parking lot. "Is Agent Scully here?  Where's Agent Scully?" 

Mosley snapped into action and pulled out his radio. "I need someone who's with Agent Scully to put her on a radio.  Someone with Agent Scully. Anyone got a twenty on Agent Scully?  Is anyone out there with her?"

Agent Landau answered his radio. "I'm with Agent Scully."

"Then who's this?" Moseley asked.

Half-staggering into view, Scully was slowly making her way into the parking lot. She looked like a mess - hair tangled, dark circles under her eyes. Sandoval swore the search was killing her, and Doggett was starting to think the junior agent wasn't exaggerating.

"Go for Agent Scully," Mosley ordered.

She halted, staring at the knot of men looking at her. "What?" 

Doggett didn't take his eyes off her as he motioned to Mosley. "Give me the radio." Taking it, he asked Landau, "You're with Scully?"

"Right across the room from her." 

Scully was dumbfounded. "From who?  From me?  Where?" 

"What room?" asked Doggett. "Where are you?"

"Bunkhouse.  We're in the dorm."

Scully's face registered comprehension, mixed with more than a small bit of fear. "Tell him to hold her.  Tell them not to let her out of his sight!"

She dashed towards the dorm building, Doggett at her heels.

"Hold Scully," Doggett ordered.  "We're coming to you."

Landau switched off his radio in confusion. What was that all about? Maybe it was true, the rumor that she was hiding Mulder, or maybe that she had killed him. It was just the two of them in the room. Fellow agent or not, he felt he could handle her until the others got there. Slowly walking up to her, he touched her shoulder.

"Agent Scully-"

Spinning around with inhuman speed, "Scully" grabbed Landau's neck, squeezing so hard he couldn't breathe. Her hands were glowing with an intense white light. The hand that wasn't holding his neck was open, the center of her palm blazing. She touched Landau lightly on the chest, and a painful shock coursed through his body.

The bounty hunter dropped the prey. The shock was strong enough to be fatal. Opening to door to the common room, the hunter slipped out, prepared to run.

Scully and Doggett burst into the dorm. Doggett brushed off a couple questions from the agents while Scully scanned the room. Seeing a flash of red hair towards the rear of the room, she pointed and made a dash for it.

"Hey!"

Doggett pushes his way across in the opposite direction, a classic trap maneuver. The other agents were confused or wary. Scully wove between them, catching only glimpses of the Hunter disguised as her.

She pointed towards the sighting. "There she is.  Do you see her?" 

Almost clumsily, Crane and a few others started searching the room, Scully still blazing past them. All it would take is a moment for it to get out of sight, to shift forms and elude them all again.

A weaving door at the bathroom - an escape route. Pushing the door open, she emerged in darkness - the overhead light shattered and sparking uselessly. Scully reached for the pocket inside her jacket, her hand wrapping around the thin metal tube. Pressing the hidden panel, the long, thin blade snapped out, glinting off the dim light.

Come out you alien bastard, she thought. Careful study of the shadows could reveal little. She backed up and pushed one of the stalls open.

Nothing.

Inching forward, she looked into the shadows again.

Movement...behind her, someone about her height.

She leapt away.

It was only the bathroom mirror. A small window, almost unnoticed, was shattered open. Some acid-scarred shards of glass on the floor told Scully that the hunter was long gone.

The door opened behind her. Crane and a half-dozen others poured in.

"Where did she go?" she asked them. "Did you see her?"

Crane seemed dumbfounded. "No."

"She ran right back here!  I saw her!"

Doggett pushed his way to the front of the mess. She looked up at him. "You saw her!"

His astonishment quickly gave way to fury as he turned away. "Agent Landau. Anyone see Agent Landau?"

A crash of a door and a cry of "Agent down!" from Mosley.

Entering the dorm room, Scully fought her way through the tangle of agents. Even before she knelt by Landau, she knew it was too late.


Chapter 11

The other agents watched as Landau's body was hauled away in a coroner's van. Scully took advantage of the chaos to duck into the parking lot and the SUV.

"Agent Scully?  Where are you going?"

Doggett - or what looked like Doggett. She couldn't take the chance anymore. The Hunter was out there - so was Gibson, so was Sandoval.

So was Mulder.

She ignored him and got in, slamming the door shut, and locking it. He ran to the window.  

"Agent Scully?"

Searching frantically under the floor mat for the keys, she found nothing. She had hidden them there herself this afternoon! A jangle got her attention. He held up the keys for her to see.

"Get out of the car." 

Friend or foe - nothing was getting in her way. There wasn't the damn time for it. She slid out from the passenger side.

"Agent Scully!"

"Who are you?" she yelled.

"Who am I?"

It was impossible to tell who pulled their gun first. They faced each other down.

"Drop your weapon and turn around," Scully said coolly.

He held his ground. "I'm not turning around."

"Just do it!" she shouted. "I know how it works-- kill shot to the back of the neck."

"What?"

"How do I know you didn't kill Agent Landau?"

"You think I'm the Bounty Hunter?"

"How do I know you aren't?"

"Good question. You tell me."

"If you are Agent Doggett, then I've already told you."

"Okay, I'm playing along. How am I supposed to know you're Agent Scully?"

Silence. A stand-off. Suddenly, Doggett faked left and charged, managing to get behind Scully and force the gun from her hand.

"You cut them, and see if they bleed. Red means they're human, green means Hunter. You also ask them something only the other would know. Proof enough?"

Scully nodded and Doggett let her go, both of them holstering their weapons. "Jesus, Scully. This has gone too far."

"No.  That's what's wrong here.  It hasn't gone far enough," she said. "I need those car keys."

"And what do you think you're going to do?"

Close to tears, she slumped. "Look, we are being hampered here. Whatever it is, it is working... as long as we let it." 

He tried to be calm. "I told you that I'll do what it takes to get him back. You know that."

Her voice cracked with exhaustion and pain. "I-I can't take the chance that I'm never going to see him again".

"Mulder could just come walking out of the dark-- we don't know."

"Look... we've got one last chance here waiting for us out there in the desert-- Gibson Praise.  It may just be who gets to him first. Ron's with him, but..."

"Get in the car.  I'll drive."

A sharp knock on the canvas-colored wood making up the door to Gibson's shelter. Sandoval had finally convinced the boy to sleep. Gibson was not looking good - pale, and a fever that only intensified with the hours. He slept uneasily, and Sandoval watched to make sure he did not injure his leg further.

Sandoval couldn't fault Gibson's anxiety, his own encounter with the Bounty Hunter tormenting him. He spent the silence trying to remember Mulder's capture. The images jumbled together, but he couldn't understand it. Why did they let him go? Better, why did they let him live?

The sound of footsteps on canvas-covered wood snapped him out of his thoughts. That had better be Dana with the truck to get Gibson out of here.

The door opened and she shuffled down the dimly-lit staircase.

"Sandoval?"

"Here. Please, he is getting worse. Bad fever."

Scully nodded, walking past him to Gibson. "The truck is above ground. Doggett and company are onto us. We'll have to leave quickly. I'll take Gibson."

"You must get him treatment, Dana."

"There isn't time for that."

Sandoval and she picked up Gibson and shuffled him to the surface. A battered-looking truck waited. She piled Gibson into the passenger side.

"The keys," she said.

"Oh," said Sandoval. "You must have dropped them. Here."

She put out her hand for the keys. Sandoval made a show of fumbling in his pocket for them, and snapped his Sig out of his holster. "Hold it! You go no further."

She paused. "Sandoval, we don't have time for -"

"You are not Dana Scully."

The Hunter changed again, the tiny form of Scully growing taller, masculine. When the change was through, Sandoval was facing a brown-haired man a head taller than him.

Sandoval fired, a round hitting the hunter in the shoulder. The stench of acid filled the air. Drops fizzed as they hit the ground. Closing the gap, the Hunter grabbed Sandoval's hand, the acid blood on it burning on contact, and the gun clattering to the ground.

The Hunter's palm blazed bright white. Sandoval narrowly dodged it as he...it...slammed it towards his chest. Ignoring the pain in his other hand, he grabbed a rock, quickly rolling back over and smashing down on the hand. It howled, the split second allowing Sandoval another chance to get out from under the Hunter and grab for the gun.

Another shot - this one in the leg. It seemed to slow the beast down enough for him to scramble into the truck, pull the keys out of his pocket (while thanking an undercover job in a smuggling ring that taught him the art of picking pockets), and drive like hell.

He would call Dana as soon as he made it to the road. He wasn't sure this old heap would make it much further than that.

Passing the mesa, he felt a terrible shudder pass through him. The stifling desert air felt cold suddenly, his view wavering and shifting like a mirage.

The truck ground to a halt. Sandoval tried to restart it with no success.

Hopping out of the car, he tried to walk around the front, but right past the bumper, it felt like he hit a wall.

Nothing was there. Reaching out again, he saw his hand meet with resistance as it passed through. As he yanked it back, he remembered what it was...just like Bellefleur.

Shooting a look over to Gibson, he saw the boy's glazed eyes open and a single word escape him. "Mulder!"

Flashlights in hand, they got out of the truck and walked to the trapdoor. They opened it and shined the flashlights around the small underground bunker.

"Gibson! Ronald!"

"He's not down there." Doggett looked over to her. "You don't think Sandoval might have..." 

"I told him to stay here.  He was supposed to stay here."

"I don't think they left on their free will. Look."

His flashlight hit a patch of sand, charred black. A short distance away, a spent shell lay next to a larger spot of charred earth.

Scully searched with her light and pointed to tire tracks. Getting back into the car, they followed the tracks, both silently praying.

Chapter 12

Sandoval finally managed to hot-wire the truck and bring the engine back to life. Throwing the gearshift into reverse and gunning it as hard as he could, he hoped it would be enough. His best shot was the school, even if he was sure the Hunter or its backup would conclude the same thing.

Maybe he could reach Scully - the real Scully. He could get Gibson to safety and they both could take out that ship.

The truck shook like it was going to fall apart and probably was. He didn't know how many seconds ticked by and didn't really care as he started fleeing towards the road. A set of lights nearly blinded him as he swerved the truck, braking hard to a stop.

"Sandoval!"

It was Scully. The set of lights were from their SUV and they ran up to his truck

"I have the boy!" he shouted. "He's bad. Someone get him to a hospital!" Sandoval continued to shout. "Dana - the ship...I found him!" Seeing Doggett trot up behind her, Sandoval froze.

"He's on our side now...I think." Scully said by way of an explanation.

Doggett opened the door and hefted the groggy boy. "All right, we're taking you to the hospital, okay, buddy?" 

"You're so close now," Gibson said groggily.

Doggett opened the SUV's backseat and piled Gibson in as Sandoval hopped out of his truck.

"You found him?" Scully asked.

"The ship, yes. Over there," he pointed.

Doggett was in the driver's seat before he realized that Scully and Sandoval weren't following.

"Agent Scully -"

"You take him to the hospital," she said. 

"What about you?"

Scully didn't answer. Sandoval called back over. "I'll watch out for her. Go!"

Alone, she walked across the wasteland, her flashlight a lone beacon against the thick darkness. Above her, stars glittered in their eternal and elaborate patterns.

"Mulder!"  Her call was one of desperation.  She craved - needed - an answer, but knew that none would be forthcoming. She walked several more fruitless paces.

"Mulder!"

The sound of shuffling footsteps behind her. She turned to see Sandoval behind her. He was limping, his clothing in tatters and bleeding from several small cuts. His left hand was wrapped in a rag torn from his shirt

"I thought you were going with -"

He shook his head. "I know where it is - the ship."

"Then tell me."

"There is no way you are going to fight this alone." Sandoval grabbed his hand and hissed.

Scully could see now that he was wounded - burned - in many places, blisters pock-marking his skin. "Ron, you need to get to a hospital. You're wounded."

"And you're not? I see what this is doing. Whatever connection you and he have - it's killing you!" He shook his head.  "You said it yourself - this could be our last chance. He is somewhere out here. Now, I failed you in Oregon. I will not fail you here."

Hobbling over to the base of a nearby cliff, Sandoval pointed to the tire tracks. There's where the engine died. The forcefield was..."

He put his hand out. Nothing.

""It was here a moment ago. I swear it." Taking two more shaky steps away, Sandoval groaned, his legs giving out from under him as he dropped to his knees. Scully started checking his injuries, but was distracted by a flash.

In the distance and high above, a light rippled and danced.

"Oh, my God."

Well, if the only way to the truth was to dive in the loony bin, then he'd better start climbing up to the board.

It was 1:10 AM, and they signaled an ETA to the hospital of 10 minutes.

A flash of bright blue light filled the windows from something directly ahead of them. Doggett slammed the brakes and jolted back in his seat as the engine went dead.

Just as suddenly as it appeared, it vanished again.

"What in the -"

He checked his watch. It was blinking 12:00

He grabbed the CB. "McLaren, this is Doggett. Time check."

"It's 01:30," came the answer.

Doggett shook his head. "That's...MacLaren, are you certain?"

"Affirmative."

Shooting a glance over to Gibson, he saw the boy was barely breathing, skin clammy with sweat. Doggett cracked open the boy's eyes and shone his pocket light into them.

Unresponsive.

Doggett fired up the engine and started racing to the hospital. For as long as he lived, he never was able to come up with a suitable explanation for 15 missing minutes.

Inside the hospital, Doggett checked in Gibson, and made a round of phone calls and inquiries. Still no sign of Scully or Sandoval, though. He went to check on Gibson. Mosley and Crane were guarding the hall. Everything looked fine...

He needed a drink. That, and a long talk with his old friend Monica in Louisiana. She could be a little out there sometimes, but he could at least trust her to validate whether or not he was going crazy. 

"Where's the kid?" he asked Crane.

"Why don't you get yourself a visual in the exterior window?  The night nurse has been checking the boy every 20 minutes-- he's fine." Mosley assured him. 

"We have hospital personnel going about their business.  We're just laying back, waiting for Mulder." Crane added. "Nothing is getting past us."

Monica would call it ESP. He'd just call it "cop's instincts." Whichever one it was, something was telling him that things weren't what they seemed.

"Stay here, guys."

He knocked on the closed door. "This is John Doggett."

No answer.

He opened the door.  The room was empty.

Scully had loaded Sandoval in the truck and sped to the hospital. Leaving him with the emergency room staff as a "probable chemical burn," she went off to find Doggett. She didn't have to search long. A distinctive and pissed-off cross of New York accent and Southern drawl echoed down the corridor.

"What the hell is this?  What the hell is going on?"

She ran towards the chaos at the end of the hall. Several agents were standing around the police custody ward. She didn't have to ask what was going on. Spinning around, she started checking nearby rooms and stairwells - the Bounty Hunter likely hadn't traveled far.

She shouted to the confused personnel and patients in the ward. "I'm looking for a patient, a boy, 12 years old.  He may still be in this building." 

Doggett checked the window and turned to Mosely and Crane. "The window doesn't even open.  How's a grown man and a boy get out of the room except by that door?"

He looked up at the dropped ceiling. Playing yet another hunch, he stood on the bed and moved one of the false ceiling tiles.

Lying on the steel frames of the ceiling, Doggett saw the night nurse, his face and hands badly wounded.

"Someone get me a ladder. And find a doctor!"

Another allegedly empty room. Keeping one hand on her gun, Scully crept in. The bathroom door creaked open and Scully drew her gun.

Sandoval stood in the door, dressed in scrubs. "Agent Scully.  It's okay," he whispered. "I've got him.  Gibson."

"How did you get here?"

"When the doctors were away, I snuck out. Come, we don't have much time."

"Where is he?" 

"He's right here," he gestured to the larger part of the room. "They're going to find him."

She backed up, slowly crossing to where he indicated. In the reflection of the window, she could see Gibson on the bed, not moving. She took a step in the room and saw the tell-tale mark on the youth's chest - the same on the principal and Agent Landau.

Too late. 

There wasn't time for reaction, Palm glowing, "Sandoval" reached out and grabbed for her neck. A terrible electric shock coursed through her body, carrying with it an equally malicious thought.

*Neither of you can live...*

She tried to scream or fight back, but he flung her backwards towards a glass wall that shattered on impact.

Doggett, Mosley, and Crane were on a room-by room search and heard the sound of smashing glass. Drawing their guns, they ran to the small room at the end of the hall.

Cut all over, stunned and shaky and fighting against blacking out, Scully could barely move. Reaching out, she grabbed her gun. Willing herself to hold it steady, she raised it, aiming for the neck.

The Hunter was still coming, and she knew that he was going to finish her off. The commotion out in the hall distracted it for a split second.

Scully pulled the trigger. Once. Twice.

The second shot hit the crucial spot. Green blood surged up from the wound, the Hunter's body shaking and the acid stench overwhelming as its parody of flesh started turning into bubbling green acid.

Scully fell unconscious just as Doggett reached the door in enough time to see the death throes of the Hunter. All that was left was a pile of green acid in the seconds it took the other two to show up. Crane knelt by Gibson.

"The boy's dead, sir."

Ignoring the damage the alien chemical was doing to his shoes, Doggett crossed the room and pulled back a curtain. There was blood - red blood - all over and Scully lay unmoving amid the hundreds of glass shards.

"An agent needs help!"

Mosley and Crane made no move. Doggett yelled past them out the door. "I said an agent needs help!"

Blearing awake, Sandoval first noticed the swath of bandages covering his torso, hands and right arm, with the accompanying severe pain. He must have taken more of a beating then he thought. The second thing he noticed was the undignified attire of a hospital gown.

"Congratulations, Ronald."

Startled, he turned. The old man was sitting by his bed. His paternal smile didn't bother to mask the predatory and cruel glint of his blue eyes.

"Congratulations?"

"You're still alive, which means you passed my second test."

Even without actively smoking, the cigarette stench embedded in the man's attire was still enough to aggravate the headache. "Tell me, do all your tests have a live or death grading system?"

He seemed positively amused. "Not all - just most."

Sandoval rolled his eyes. "Oh, there's a great answer. What of the Hunter?"

"Scully took care of him, and was injured in the process." He got up, reaching in his jacket and twirling the little white stick in his fingers. "When you see her next, give her my deepest sympathies."

Sandoval scowled. "Why do I doubt those sympathies are sincere?"

"Oh, they are," he said. "I'll be in touch, Ronald."

The old man stood up and left, vanishing into the hospital corridor.

Kersh read the report, and Doggett knew he was going to get his ass handed to him - no further trace of Mulder, two agents in the hospital, and truth stranger than fiction.

Well, if he was going to get hung - he might as well be honest.

"The best I can say is it's lucky it all happened at a hospital," Kersh said, leafing through the pictures. 

"Very lucky, yes, Sir."

"I assume the hazardous materials or chemicals which caused this must have been medical."

Kersh was giving him a lie - a way out. Forget it. It was abundantly clear that Sandoval, Scully, and Skinner were right about the whole thing. He may not have had answers, but he certainly knew what wasn't true and he wasn't about to play Kersh's lying game.

"That has not yet been determined, Sir."

"So much here is undetermined...  as remain the whereabouts of Mulder.  But some of your ... facts... like "a man falls from the cliff and disappears..."  "An agent has his throat crushed by an assailant who vanishes into thin air."  This reads like a piece of pot-boiled science fiction."

"You mean it reads like an X-File," Doggett said. "But that's what you intended, wasn't it, Sir?  When you assigned me to the case." 

"I'll ask the questions, John.   You just give me some damn answers." Kersh handed him the file.   "Don't come back until you do."

Somewhere deep in space, the craft rested. The mission was almost a success - with the capture of so many who were also alien-within. The experiments would tell them of their adversaries' weaknesses, and how far along the plans were.

Yet, it was incomplete. The human child was dead, as was their crewmate, and they had not been able to destroy all of the work their enemies had set on the tiny planet. There was still enough for their foes to resume their work once they arrived on Earth, and the alien-within were indeed approaching the final stage of development.

There no longer were centuries or decades of planning - only a few, too-short years. The millennia of careful planning and quiet revenge would end soon. Their ability to take over the bodies of doomed humans or to reshape their form would no longer serve as perfect cover.

Their leader, Ha'Gel, was placed before the tribunal to answer for his failings. Giving no defense, he marched before the human prisoners and seated on one of the testing chairs. Energy sent through his shaquarava organs in his humanoid form's palms sent him into crystalline stasis - conscious living death. The others entombed his body in rock and sent it hurtling towards Earth and what they hoped would be permanent exile.

Their attention then turned to one of the prisoners. Among all the captured humans, he was the strongest, enduring what others died from. He was the furthest along in development, displaying all the traits of the one their enemies were looking for. They would look to their new leader, Sa'ma'sha, to decide his fate. Would he be more useful to them dead - or as a tool?

All Fox Mulder knew was that he was in great pain, Scully was too far to hear, and that he was surrounded by humanoid figures with cruel, expressionless faces whose palms glowed a brilliant white. He had just seen their old leader marched to the bed next to him and transform into something that looked like a statue covered in crushed class.

Their new leader scared him more than any procedure they had done to him - she looked just like his dead sister.

Sandoval finally arranged to get his bathrobe to throw on over the gown and permission to visit Scully by late afternoon. Hours passed - reports, statements, and several phone calls to DeDe explaining that he was all right while sparing her the grisly details. Skinner even called to say he was taking the first plane out. It was actually a pleasant distraction, because as soon as things quieted, he felt the guilt come back to haunt him.

Entering her room quietly, Sandoval limped to her side for a closer look. She looked so pale, so wan and lifeless. Only the low-level noise of the hospital equipment and her soft breathing told Sandoval his partner was still among the living. Secretly, he was angry that he hadn't been the one to empty his gun into the bounty hunter.

He was hobbling over to one of the two chairs in the room when he bumped her chart at the foot of the bed. Sandoval picked it up and stuffed it back in the folder, but froze when one piece of paper stuck out above the others - the code flashing like a neon light. He saw it and felt his stomach twist.

Miscarriage.

DeDe already had two - one before they were married, and another a month or so before the "Bellefleur incident." The doctors told her that she wouldn't be able to have children, and the young couple had taken the tragedy as best they could by waiting a few years to consult doctors and try again.

*"When you see her next, give her my deepest sympathies."*

That chain-smoking son-of a-bitch - he must have known.

Sandoval leaned against the wall, pinching the bridge of his nose. Some questions he was too polite to ask aloud were answered, and the weight of his failure to rescue Mulder went from burdensome to crushing.

"Agent Sandoval?"

Skinner stood in the doorway.

"Yes, sir."

The older man crept inside, taking the available chair. He sank down into it but didn't take his eyes off his fallen agent.

"You also knew about it, didn't you?" Sandoval said quietly. A long pause substituted for an answer. "She lost the child. I am sorry."

Another moment of silence, this time in sympathy and in grieving with the woman who didn't know it yet.

"This search will kill her," Sandoval whispered. "This must end." Agitated, Sandoval turned away and started for the door.

"What are you going to do?" asked Skinner.

Sandoval turned around, his dark eyes boring into Skinner's before bitterly turning away. "Anything necessary."

End