THE X-FILES: "Emergence"

by Abbie Anderson (
Begun in teleplay format 1/95; completed in story format 5/22/96; last revision 7/25/99

Summary: Skinner sends Scully and Mulder to a paranormal research convention, just as Mulder's nightmares take him to the breaking point. Another Relationship story; at the time I wrote this, I just couldn't seem to stop these two from kissing. I find that impulse a bit embarrassing now; but I still like the dream sequences in this one.

Disclaimer: The universe of The X-Files and the characters therein are the intellectual property of Chris Carter, Fox Television, and Ten-Thirteen Productions, and have been used without permission. No copyright infringement is intended; I'm just having a good time. If you like what I've done, feel free to share it, but of course do give me credit for it and provide the sharees with my e-mail address. If it provokes a reaction, positive or negative, please let me know. Constructive criticism especially welcome.

This one began as another teleplay; but I finally got it through my head that I didn't have to write that way, and might even have more fun if I didn't. Which I did (have more fun, that is).

Even in the dream Mulder felt the hairs on the back of his neck rising. The place was too dark, too quiet. The universe contracts into the present tense: now. He pushes open the door and steps into the shadowy room, a cold feeling settling in the bottom of his stomach. The floor seems to tilt, pushing him into the empty living room with its familiar furniture now seeming sinister in the moonlight filtering through the blinds. Voices, whispers, begin to build around him in the dimness:

"...she's not here..."

Clenching his jaw he moves into the bedroom, her bedroom. The window is standing open, the blind banging hollowly against the pane. He can almost feel the whispers on his skin now:

"...she's gone...they took never did nothing..."

A drop of something warm and sticky falls gently onto his forehead, just below the hairline. He reaches a hand up to touch the wetness, and brings his fingers before his eyes: blood. Suddenly the voices stop, and their abrupt absence leaves him almost dizzy. The knowledge that he is not the only intruder in this room is like a pressure on his spine; as the drips start to fall more rapidly he turns and sees his shadowy, unreliable "advisor" in the doorway. Moonlight picks out the older man's grizzled beard and makes the whites of his eyes glint in the dark room. The look on his face speaks more than ever of impatient disdain. He fixes his cold gaze on Mulder and spits out his words.

"You killed her yourself." He spins on his heel and is gone, slamming a door behind him--

--the sound of the door becomes that of a gunshot, and Mulder finds himself standing on a windswept hillside, bareheaded in a light rain. The gun in his hand now falling back against his side has just fired. Scully, bound and gagged, lies at his feet, sightless eyes staring as her life drains out through a bullet wound to the head.

Mulder awoke from the nightmare at home on his sofa, arms shaking and his throat raw. Whatever he needed to do or to know to get through the night in one piece, he hadn't found it yet. He sat up and rubbed at his eyes, trying to blot out the image of her face in the rain.

In the next REM cycle he finds himself in a forest, wearing hiking gear. Scully comes up beside him, also dressed for hiking, and peers ahead of them through the trees.

"Can you see it yet?" she asks.

"No. But I know it's out there."

She rolls her eyes at the slogan, and starts to push past him. "Come on."

They come out into a clearing facing a steep, rocky escarpment. Mulder approaches the rock face and starts to try to climb up, making painful progress.

"You'll never make it that way," she calls, "it's too sheer. You'll only get hurt."

As if to prove her point he falls heavily back to the ground, but gets up unhurt and goes back to the rocks.

"I have to keep trying," he tells her. "It's the only way up."

"No, it isn't: you just have to know where to look." She steps up to a signpost he hadn't seen before, pulls a notepad out of a pocket and starts taking notes, making calculations. The lettering on the sign is disjointed, exotic, entirely illegible.

"I can't read that."

Scully puts the pad away and shifts her backpack, preparing to move on. "I can," is her answer. "I'll need you to read the next one. Are you coming?"

"I've got to get up there. I'll try anything."

She smiles at him. "I thought so." She heads around the side of the escarpment, and Mulder follows.

The scene changes, and he and Scully are helping each other climb along a sloping ledge on a mountainside. Scully makes a misstep and starts to fall, but Mulder catches her and hauls her back in. They come to a dead end. Mulder boosts Scully up to a ledge above them, and she scrambles over. She leans over the edge to talk to him.

"We're almost there now. You can make it. There are handholds in the rock."

He scans the surface in front of him, but doesn't see anything hopeful. "I don't think so."

"You can't see them, but they're there. You have to trust me. You can't give up now."

He decides to take her word for it, and starts making his way up. Halfway there a foot slips, but Scully grabs him and helps him up the rest of the way. They have made it to the summit, as the sun is going down. They sit together a minute, resting from the struggle. Scully leans her head against his shoulder, and Mulder puts his arm around her, comfortable. The breeze toys with Scully's hair. Whispers begin to build on the wind, as they did in the earlier dream:

"...don't touch..."

The wind peels back a piece of Scully's forehead and blows it away like an old leaf, with nothing underneath it, as if she were hollow. Soon the rest of her face is gently fragmenting in the same way. Mulder watches this without alarm, the voices reaching a crescendo:

"...she's not for you...the price you have to have a mission...your faith is righteous..."

Scully's form collapses into a pile of dead leaves, swirling in the breeze and blowing away. Mulder's dream self calmly picks up one of the last remaining leaves and holds it up against the wind. Scully's voice sounds as if in still air: "You have to draw the line somewhere." Mulder releases the leaf and watches it spin away into infinity, then sits alone on the mountaintop, surveying an empty domain now graying in the twilight.

Mulder woke again, convinced he hadn't really slept. He looked at the phone and thought seriously about calling her, making sure she was OK, finding out if he was OK. No. She couldn't tell him that. It wasn't her job. Her job was to keep him in line. She already got enough of his insanity during work hours. And he got enough of her sanity. Or so he thought. He shoved off the couch and went to open a window.

Mulder is in bed. Someone gets in under the covers behind him; he doesn't know who it is. Whoever they are, they should be wearing socks. "Hey, your feet are cold," he protests. He turns over, but for some reason he's not surprised to see that it's Dana. Her face is touched by a soft smile, with warmth in the corners that makes up for the cold toes.

"Do you want me to leave?" she asks.

He feels a full-body smile answering hers. "No."

"Good," she says. He reaches a hand to her face and they lean close for a soft kiss that quickly becomes more imperative. Their bodies move together and she presses hard against him and the hands are going--

--No. Absolutely not. Mulder splashed the cold water on his face, hardly feeling it, then scrubbed hard with the towel. "No more," he said out loud into the towel, then looked up at himself in the mirror for emphasis. "This has got to stop." If sleep is this much work, I need a vacation.

Scully came into the office a little early on Monday morning, and was surprised to find Mulder already there. What had he done to himself? He hadn't bothered shaving before coming in, and wasn't too careful about his clothes, either. She braced herself: is it a case that's about to take us to hell and back, or is it just Mulder?

"Mulder? You look like you got hit by three trucks and a bus on your way here this morning."

He didn't even look at her, keeping his eyes on the messy papers spread over his desk. "I couldn't sleep, so I thought I'd come in and get some work done."

Right. She set her briefcase down. "Mulder, you can hardly keep your eyes open. How long has it been since you slept?"

Mulder sighed and rubbed at his face. "Yesterday, for a minute."

"No, I mean all night. If that's something you ever do." She hated playing Mommy with him, but sometimes there wasn't much choice.

Mulder thought for a second, almost falling asleep with his fingers over his eyes. "OK, Thursday."

This was serious. "You haven't slept all weekend?! Mulder, what's going on?"

He hesitated, and still wouldn't look at her. "I've been having some weird dreams."

"What do you mean, 'weird'?"

"Not all of them are bad. Some of them I like too much, that's why I can't have them." He paused. "I don't want to talk about it."

Scully knew better than to try to push him. "OK, Mulder, it's your party. But you know I'm right here."

She saw him wince as she said that, and wondered what nerve she could have hit. He wearily dropped his head to his hands, hiding from her again. "I know, Scully, I know."

Hearing the stress in his voice she stepped over to him and laid a concerned hand on his head, bringing the touch down to the back of his neck so he'd be sure to feel it. She never knew if she really got through to him. Trying to say "I want you to be OK" in a way that wouldn't be suspected of meaning something else was always tricky, but this was no time to stand across the room and wait for him to fall apart. He startled her by flinching under her fingers and then grabbing her hand, pressing it briefly against his cheek before finally looking up at her with a face full of desperation.

"Dana...I'm dreaming about you." He cut off any response she could have made with the beginning of an explanation: "It was two years ago that Duane Barry...." His voice broke and he looked away again, letting her hand go as the words continued to choke out. He was simply too worn out: he could neither say it properly nor stop it. "Your Mom took me to see the headstone...I couldn't accept that. Then you were lying there on that hospital bed, and nobody knew anything, and there was nothing--I couldn't--I couldn't even...." Scully put her arms around him and shushed him, and he leaned blindly against her. "I'm sorry...."

She felt about ready to cry herself. Mulder had never talked about what he went through during her disappearance and illness, and she had never asked. Her mother and sister and even A.D. Skinner had tried to hint at what they'd seen in him then, but she had refused to hear more than hints, resolutely respecting Mulder's privacy. The entire subject--or two subjects, rather: her disappearance, and her relationship with her partner--were ones she had difficulty approaching from any angle. Too many unanswered questions, and the available answers were either unsatisfactory or more threatening than the questions.

She had made up her mind after her return, and Mulder's silence, that with the kind of forces they were up against they couldn't afford to care about each other any more than they already did. She had assumed Mulder felt the same way, if he thought about it at all. His actions after his own disappearance and almost literal resurrection only confirmed that decision. She and Mulder rarely reached out to each other emotionally; their partnership was already so intense, and they had too much at stake as it was. This outburst now hit her with almost a physical shock.

Long habits of self-control met her feelings half way, and kept her voice more or less calm and low as she answered his distraught apology. "Sorry for what, believing in me? No one else thought I was going to make it that time. You're why I came out of that coma, Mulder, haven't I told you that?" He looked up at her uncomprehendingly, not able to take much in at that point. Scully made a decision. "Look, you're not going to get much done here. Let me take you home." For once he could let her be right.

Scully used her key to open Mulder's door and he followed her into his apartment, like a zombie and its keeper. "You have to promise me you'll sleep. Doctor's orders."

"I'll try." He looked vaguely around the room, obviously in need of a little assistance.

"Here, give me your coat." He slipped out of his coat, and she helped him out of his jacket as well, then took off his tie for him, in full Mommy mode now whether she liked it or not. "You go on and get ready for bed, OK? I'll be there in a few minutes to make sure you're all right."

"OK." He shuffled off, and she laid his things over a chairback at the dining table.

Mulder undid his belt as he entered his bedroom (more a dressing room than a place to sleep in, most of the time) and let his pants fall down around his ankles as he sat down on the bed, fumbling with the buttons on his shirt. He started to try to pull off his slacks, then realized he still had his shoes on, and leaned over to take them off. The momentum from pulling off a shoe sent him wearily onto his side on the bed and he stayed there with a sigh, his feet still on the floor.

Scully set her briefcase on Mulder's dining table and took off her coat, surprised to find herself a little nervous. Mulder's bedroom shouldn't be such a challenge, she told herself; it's not like he spends any time there.

After waiting a stretch that felt long enough, she cautiously moved through the living room and to the hallway. Peering in through the open bedroom door, she saw Mulder asleep on his side, and smiled. Coming around to his feet, she finished pulling off his pants and laid them neatly aside (this wasn't the first time she'd had to undress him), then lifted up his feet to bring him all the way on the bed. There was hardly any need to be careful with him: he was out hard and solid. She pulled the covers up over him from the other side of the bed, then sat down a moment to watch him. He began to stir in his sleep and mumble a little, dreaming. It began to get bad again in dreamland and he became more agitated, waking up once again and sitting up blindly, breathing hard.


The panic in his cry alarmed her, and she put a reassuring hand to his shoulder. "I'm right here, Mulder, it's OK."

He hung his head, trying to recover from the destruction of the dream. "It's no use, I can't shake it."

"You have to let yourself rest now. It's only going to get worse if you keep fighting what your body and mind need most." She could tell the words weren't penetrating: par for the course, her partner was mired too deep in his private conflicts for her to make any sense to him.

Mulder rested his head in his hands. It felt too big, and too hollow. Too battered. "I can't take much more of this."

"Sure you can. In the time I've know you, you've taken everything from a bullet to an extraterrestrial retrovirus to coming back from the dead, Mulder: you can take a few bad dreams." Joshing him probably wasn't going to help, either, but it was worth a try.

Mulder shook his head, his face still buried in his hands. "You haven't seen these dreams." He hesitated a moment, then finally looked up at her, bleary and desperate. "Scully--could you stay here a while?"

She couldn't say no to that pain. This wasn't just the usual Mulder angst, this was serious. At least for the moment. "Sure. I'll just be in the other room." She started to get up, but he put out a hand to stop her.

"No, I mean in here with me. Just...lie down with me. Maybe I'll be able to sleep if I know you're there. I swear that's all I'm asking."

She assessed him a moment, swallowing a wave of her own panic. There were things about Mulder she didn't want to get any closer to than she had to as his partner, no matter how strong their working bond or how deeply she cared about him, and lying down with him was one of the first items on the "Things Not to Do" list. But the plea was honest. She trusted him. And again, she couldn't say no to that pain. "OK."

He lay back down, exhausted, and somehow managed to get himself under the covers. Scully got up to take her suit jacket off, then took off her shoes and gingerly lay down on top of the covers with her back to him. She wasn't sure, but she thought she heard him say, "Thank you." In less than a minute his breathing settled into the slow rhythm of sleep.

Scully woke up almost two hours later, and uttered a mental curse: she'd done it, she'd slept with him. It's a good thing this happened when he was a wreck or he'd make those cute little comments of his for weeks, which she would have to ignore with her usual professional self-control. She was getting pretty tired of that particular routine. If it weren't for that, this moment might actually be kind of nice.... She had hardly moved on the bed, and had to turn to look at him: he was still sleeping, like a log (or a baby). She had to smile, watching him. At least he was resting now. She sat up, letting herself feel a little tender, and reached over to brush at the hair on his forehead.

"Sweet dreams, Mulder," she said softly. She surprised herself a little by leaning over and kissing him on the forehead, feeling like Glinda (he'll get to Oz, now); then the surreality of the moment and the relatively innocent opportunity got the better of her and she moved to give him a light kiss on the lips, more affectionate than anything else. Much to her surprise, still in his sleep he started to kiss her back. With the loose, sloppy intensity of the reflexive unconscious (perhaps tapping a dream?) he rolled her over onto her back, then nuzzled at her neck and settled back down, leaving his head on her shoulder as he sank deeper back to sleep. Scully lay in shock a moment, trying to decide what had just happened, trying to get her breath and bearings back, trying not to laugh for fear of waking him. She eased out from under him and got up; he stirred a little, but stayed asleep. After watching a moment to be sure he was all right (and to be sure this wasn't just a really bad joke), she made a decision, picked up her shoes and jacket and went out.

The next morning Scully got to work early again. She had woken up before her alarm went off, echoes of a half-remembered dream tugging at the edges of her attention, and had found herself too restless to catch the last half hour of sleep she was usually grateful to grant herself. She wasn't too surprised that Mulder hadn't made it in yet, and half-hoped that he'd give himself the day off (fat chance) and get some more of the sleep he so obviously needed. He'd probably come in and then avoid her, retreating into his usual guilt patterns with the assumption that she'd been offended or shocked by his breakdown.

In a way she was relieved to have seen it happen: with a job like theirs you couldn't just ignore the close calls. Take your own advice, she scolded herself: when was the last time you took a good hard look at your own losses? Missy would say.... Too many sentences started like that. It was easier to worry about Mulder. She didn't like worrying about him, but with this job it was an occupational hazard. Mulder had a way of getting in trouble.

She hoped that wasn't why Skinner had summoned them this morning. Things had been quiet recently, mostly paperwork and phone calls for the last couple days, and she thought that might be why Mulder's mind had picked this time to let his subconscious catch up with him in his dreams. Her own sleep had been troubled lately, too, but she could never remember the dreams when she woke up, retaining only the vague unease of having been in unsafe places.

If Skinner had something to say to them now, it probably wouldn't be about his dreams. She couldn't change her boss' predispositions any more than her partner's, and she had given up trying to second-guess either of them.

Mulder came in, properly dressed and shaved this time, and she gratefully noted that he did indeed look rested, if a little nervous. "Good morning. Feeling better?" She tried to keep her voice light.

"Yeah, thanks." Yup, he was embarrassed. "Listen, about yesterday...."

"Don't give it a second thought," she told him. "I'm just glad I could help. Besides, I know how you felt. I've been violently abducted four times now, once by an alleged interstellar assassin who looked just like you when he threw me face down through a glass coffee table. Believe me, I have nightmares sometimes, too."

It did the trick: he looked relieved. "Just let me know if I can ever return the favor."

She smiled at him, keeping to herself a response involving her bed and the unlikelihood of his getting in it. She put aside the files she'd been working with and got up. "Come on, partner, we're late. Skinner wants to see us in his office."

A.D. Skinner wondered how his "pet" agents were going to take this one. He'd tried to keep his distance with them and their work, but his boundaries kept getting revised. He didn't like it when they tried to thank him for things he knew he shouldn't be doing, and which weren't what they thought, anyway. It's not about you, kids, it's about me, and what I do and do not want to stand for.

Now they sat opposite him, Dana Scully's gaze cool and clear, Mulder looking as usual like his eyes were the top of the well that he was hiding in the bottom of, waiting with fireworks for any trespassers. Skinner looked between the two of them, trying to read anything that might help him key this meeting, but got nothing. The irritation he felt at his position sharpened what he had to say.

"Agent Mulder, you never submitted your application to attend the Paranormal and Unexplained Phenomena Association convention this year."

Mulder glanced at his partner. "PUPA? You always say no. I guess I just let it go."

"You're going this year--both of you. It's in Phoenix, starting the day after tomorrow with some pre-conference organizational meetings." He slid a folder across the desk toward them. Scully took it and opened it, finding inside it their plane tickets, two schedules for the conference, and official paperwork. She looked up at him.

"May we ask why, sir?" She handed the file to Mulder.

Skinner had his speech prepared. "In any endeavor it helps to have as wide a network of resources as possible. I want you to make contacts, find people you can rely on for their expertise, people you can trust. I won't want a specific report detailing those contacts. I can't always control who sees my paperwork after it leaves my desk." He paused a moment: yes, he definitely had their attention. "But be on your toes while you're there. Not everyone who expresses an interest in UFOs is a harmless crackpot."

That got Mulder. He was perking up already. "So now you tell me."

Skinner wasn't finished. "I know this assignment may come as a surprise to you. I'm not encouraging you to widen your interests: I'm requiring you to focus them. And to protect yourselves. Those who oppose your work would like to keep you isolated, working in the dark. In my role as Assistant Director there is only so much I am willing and able to do, as Agent Scully once thoughtfully pointed out to me. The more people who have a positive interest in your work, the more secure and effective your investigations can be."

He stopped. For once, they didn't have a comeback, a protest, an accusation. Scully spoke first. "Sir, I don't know what to say."

He gave her a tight smile. "Consider it a working vacation. Besides, you might learn something. Maybe we can all get together over a beer and talk about it when you get back." I.e., we won't be discussing this officially in any genuine capacity. Scully and Mulder looked at each other (is it the air in that office, Skinner wondered, or do they act like they're telepathically linked?), and rose to go.

Mulder spoke the dreaded words: "Thank you, sir."

"Don't mention it, Agent Mulder. Just try to keep your butt and mine out of the fire if at all possible. And do me a favor: listen to your partner once in a while."

Scully surprised both men by answering Skinner back. "He always listens, sir. He just doesn't always pay attention. I could be guilty of the same myself, sometimes." The pair went out.

In her sleep that night the dream came and Scully found herself outdoors in a dark and heavy summer night. She was kneeling on the ground, a kerosene lantern sputtering beside her, digging into the soft soil and scooping it out with her bare hands. She worked anxiously but methodically, grunting a little as she dug. Someone came up behind her. "You're not going to be able to get at it that way." Mulder.

She didn't stop digging. His statement annoyed her; it wasn't as if he were offering to help--he was just criticizing. The next thing he'd probably do was spout off some crazy theory involving psychokinesis or extraterrestrial experimentation. She wanted to snort. "How else am I supposed to find it?" she protested. "I know it's here somewhere, it happened right here."

Mulder squatted down next to her, still not helping. She knew he wanted her to look at him, to stop and listen, but she just kept working, not lifting her head. "It happened here, Scully," he said quietly, "but the truth is still inside you. You never got rid of it."

In the dream, she could get angry. In the dream, she could say it to him, and it didn't matter who it hurt. "How would you know? Are you the only one who knows anything about the truth, Fox Mulder? Are you the only one in the world who has something in his life he can't explain? Why does the truth always have to be on your terms and nobody else's?"

He put out a hand to catch hers, stopping her digging. Still angry, she resentfully gave him what he wanted and looked into his face--and the bitter words she had wanted to throw at him were quenched by the anguish she saw there. "Why won't you let me help you?" he said.

She jerked her hands away and started digging again. He got up and took a step back from her. "I don't want your help!" she told him, eyes on her work. "There are too many strings attached."

"I never said anything about strings." His voice was still quiet, reasonable.

"Correction: you have too many strings attached, partner." Then her hands slammed into something hard, and she cried out with pain and possible triumph. She lifted a small wooden casket out of the hole; it was wrapped in heavy, rusting chains, with a large, ancient-looking padlock attached. She worked impatiently with the lock and chains, but they wouldn't come free. She found a stone and bashed open the lock; the chains fell away and she eagerly lifted the lid of the casket, only to find ashes inside, ashes mixed with indecipherable chunks of metal. She ran the debris through her fingers.

Mulder's voice came quietly behind her again. "You burned it before you buried it, don't you remember?"

"I don't remember any of it," she told him dully, and the words in her mouth were like the ashes in her hands.

Mulder's hand came down gently on her shoulder. Still she would not look at him. "You know who you are, Dana. All you have to do is look in the mirror."

Then she woke in a dark room, got out of bed and stumbled to the bathroom. Still in the dark, she ran water in the sink and splashed it on her face. She turned on the light and looked up into the mirror: the reflection she met was not herself but a long gray alien face with dark, almond-shaped eyes, water dripping from cheeks and chin. Scully the Alien was unperturbed. She wiped her face and long fingers on a towel and went back into the bedroom. In the bed she saw her old human self, and that self was not alone: Mulder was with her under the covers. They both appeared to be naked, and were sound asleep in each other's arms. They looked as if this position were the most natural and suitable one they could take; they seemed to fit, comfortably and effortlessly. Scully the Alien walked past the bed and out the door, closing it behind her.

Scully woke up, bolt upright and trembling. This time, she remembered her dream, and she didn't like it. She pushed out of bed and went into the kitchen to fix some tea.

In Phoenix on Friday, the first full day of the conference, Scully was enjoying herself more than she had thought she would. She took notes in a darkened conference room while the presenter pointed out certain features from his slides of a chemical compound found on the clothing and skin of a professed abductee. The work was interesting, and well-presented; the man was thoughtful and thorough, not a fanatic. He didn't pretend to have answers for how the compound had gotten onto the subject's clothes or where it had come from. He simply performed the scientist's duty of observation and analysis to the best of his ability, and then put forth reasoned hypotheses that might explain the substance's composition and possible origin. He took the abductee's statements with a grain of salt, but considered them as part of the evidence in forming his theories. It was a good mix of empirical study and human understanding, Scully thought.

Mulder paid close attention to the familiar set-up of the ESP trial demonstration. The subject sat on one side of a partition, her tester on the other side. The tester held up the cards marked with the symbols: circle, triangle, wave, star, cross. The subject was either very good, or very lucky: out of 20 tries she got 16 hits. When they asked for a volunteer "control" from the audience, he gave it a shot, and was surprised at his own luck when he got picked. The luck left him at the partition, though: he was 9 for 20, your basic toss of the coin, give or take a few.

In between sessions the hallways and lobby were buzzing with people milling around, socializing before moving on to the next panel or roundtable. A lot of these people knew each other, or knew of each other's work. That was half the point of these conventions, to get everybody in one place and really let the juices flow.

Mulder spotted Scully and made his way to her. He was still feeling a little raw after his sleepless weekend now four days behind him, but was grateful for how easy it was to slip back into old routines with his partner. She acted as if what had happened to him was completely normal, as if what she had done for him was nothing out of the ordinary. He knew he couldn't say the same himself and be telling the truth.

As he got closer he saw somebody else had gotten to Scully first: a young woman, probably college-aged, and two young men with her. They were in the middle of a conversation. "This is wild," he heard the young woman say. "The government is paying for you to be here?"

Before Scully could answer, one of the woman's companions said, "It's such a trip that you're FBI agents. What are you doing working for Big Brother, anyway?"

Mulder stepped up beside Scully and gave her a reassuring touch on the arm: your backup has arrived. Normally she didn't like it when he did things like that, but this time her eyes didn't protest when he stepped in. "Big Brother's got all the loot," he told the kids. "I take it you're familiar with our work."

"Who isn't? Anyone who's paying attention knows about you two, you're into everything," the young woman answered. "I'm Jean, this is Marlon, and the strong, silent one here is Jules."

"Fox Mulder," he said unnecessarily, shaking hands. The strong, silent one just nodded, continuing to stand with his arms folded across his chest. "To answer your question, the X-Files belong to the FBI. Besides, the badge gives me access."

Scully gave Mulder a look before adding her two cents, recovered now from her questioner's line of attack. Mulder knew what that look meant: Back off now, I'm fine, thanks. "The Bureau doesn't officially acknowledge that the X-Files exist," she said. "Personally, I think Mulder does it because he likes to feel persecuted."

He grinned at her. "That's why I keep you around."

"Plus my arguments make you look better when you're right. Which, strangely enough, is most of the time."

She sure was feeling generous today; Mulder had to restrain himself from checking her forehead for fever. Did she believe that? The three musketeers looked at each other, apparently as surprised as he was. "I thought you were the Skeptic," Jean told Scully.

"I was," she said. "I still am, compared to Mulder, anyway. I believe in scientific method and rational explanations. An extraterrestrial life form would still be a product of biochemical processes and environmental conditions, just like we are. If confronted with the existence of such a thing you should still be able to study and describe it in the same way. But you don't have to automatically assume something is of extraterrestrial origin just because you don't immediately understand it."

Marlon looked at Mulder. "She's good, isn't she?"

"The best." She'd better believe he meant it.

Jules unexpectedly came to life, bringing his arms down and addressing Scully. "Do you still think the government can't lie to us?"

Scully glanced at Mulder before answering. "I'm afraid that's not something we can address."

Jules looked her up and down. "Thought so." He turned and walked away, his friends trailing after him.

Mulder couldn't help laughing a little, and was glad Scully found the situation funny enough for a wry smile. "So what do you think so far?" he asked her.

Her face was thoughtful as she answered. "I don't know. Some of these people are tuned to a pretty high frequency, but there's some really solid work going on, too. Mostly, I'd have to say I'm impressed." She paused, her gaze following the direction Jean and Marlon and Jules had taken. "I'd also have to say I don't really like being a celebrity. Everybody here seems to know who we are, Mulder; some of them seem to know every case we've worked on."

"Freedom of Information, Scully. Our travel paperwork is a matter of public record. Besides, a lot of them are good hackers, too. You know the Lone Gunman guys; you shouldn't be so surprised. We should probably be glad they don't follow us around on cases."

"I'm beginning to think some of them do. You have groupies, Mulder, did you know that?"

He gave her a wicked smile and lowered his voice. "A woman approached me outside my room this morning asking questions about certain articles in my wardrobe that I don't normally consider a matter of public record."

"You should take advantage of this, Mulder. She'd probably love to help you sleep better."

"I don't think sleep is what she had in mind. You have admirers, too, you know. Just be glad I'm not giving out your phone number."

"With these people you probably don't have to. Oh, God--"

"What is it?" Scully was looking past Mulder to something in the crowd, her face pinched with distress. He turned and followed her focus: it was Frohike, coming towards them with one of his classic lizard grins.

"It's him again," she said grimly.


"Every time I turn around since we got here he's at my elbow. Do you think if I told him we were lovers he'd leave me alone?"

Now that was a shocking suggestion. Maybe he should check her forehead. "I don't know. I think he'd insist on some concrete proof." Scully edged closer to him and slipped her hand into the crook of his elbow as Frohike came up. Mulder looked down at her, trying to figure this out, but she was still watching Frohike's approach, composing her expression. Mulder decided he might as well play along. She couldn't be serious.

"Hey, Frohike," Mulder called. "Having a good time?"

"A great time," Frohike said, still grinning as he came up. "All the best people are here."

"Where are the rest of the guys?" Mulder asked, looking around for Beyers and Langly.

"It's just me this time. We could only spare one of us, so we drew straws." He leaned close to Scully to emphasize his next point. "Mine was the longest."

"I'm happy for you," she managed, her face showing the shadow of a smile that wasn't going to make a full appearance.

Thankfully, somebody picked that moment to come out of the crowd and take Frohike by the arm. "Come on, Frohike, they're waiting for you in the Mesquite Room." This was one of those hotels that gave its rooms names with "local flavor".

As Frohike reluctantly let himself be pulled away, Scully finally met Mulder's eyes. "What do I have to do to convince him I'm not his type?" she said drily, a little forlorn around the edges.

"Marry me." He still thought this whole thing was pretty funny. He wasn't sure if part of him might not mean it, though. That thought didn't bear too much examination.

Scully changed the subject, taking her hand away from his arm and stepping back a little. "What session are you going to next?"

"I thought I'd catch the clandestine government operations roundtable, see if I learn anything new."

"I'm going to the medical panel. There's going to be a paper on the implant phenomenon and another on abductee health histories."

Serious business. He was impressed that she was willing to get that close to her own experience. "You'll have to tell me about it later."

Scully nodded and fingered the back of her neck. "There are too many things I still don't know."

Had he heard her right? "The air around here must be starting to affect you, Scully. I thought you had closed the book on that one."

"I tried, but it won't stay shut. I told you, I have nightmares, too." She gave him a serious look, pushed past him and headed off toward her panel. Mulder watched her go, momentarily lost in thought. This was going to be an interesting conference, if he could only get Scully to slow down and talk to him.

When it came time for dinner Mulder couldn't find his partner for the life of him. Not in her room (not answering the door, anyway), not in the halls...he must have just been missing her everywhere he tried. Even Frohike didn't know where she was. Her absence brought a pang, and a touch of panic, that Mulder didn't want to explore. She was his partner, not his life's blood, right? He could get through a few hours without her, he was a big boy now. She was a big girl, too--she could take care of herself, she'd always made that perfectly clear. And he knew he'd never make a good candidate for Knight in Shining Armor. Knights don't doubt themselves, or bring pain and danger to people they care about. He thought he'd gotten over those dreams, but as he looked for Scully in the hotel the voices started to surge in remembered hearing: "she's not here... the price you have to pay... 'Do you want me to go?'" Cut it out, he told the voices mentally. I just want to see what she's been up to at the conference, that's all.

Mulder had been up to quite a bit. Meeting people usually wasn't easy for him, since he tended to find himself either with some chip or other on his shoulder, or an inordinate interest in the person's anatomy, depending on gender and situation. With Scully it had been both, he remembered wryly, and quickly tried to shove aside the memory from their first meeting of her piercing eyes and mind ("What I find fantastic is any notion that there are answers beyond the realm of science"). She had always nailed him, right from the start. But here there was very little explaining or defending to do. The subject matter was out in the open; and being a celebrity had its advantages in the gender department, too. He'd made friends today with a physicist, a psycho-therapist who specialized in "Experiencers", a folklorist, a NICAP administrator, and a group of college students who ran an Internet forum on aliens, UFOs, and the government. The only thing that made him "Spooky" here was the suit and the badge.

He decided to ditch the suit, and went to his room to change. As he was pulling on his jeans something came to him that might explain his uneasiness about Scully. The setting here. This wasn't work--it wasn't their usual tug-of-war about theory and procedure. It was just the issues, and a bunch of people who cared about their projects, most of whom were pretty careful about both theory and procedure. He and Scully weren't at odds here they way they so often were in the field. And Scully had been opening up about "the issues" in ways he hadn't expected.

That's what had him hooked. She was making him wonder. Maybe here, where it wasn't about whether or not he was going to run off and do something risky, where it was just reduced to principle, she could relax and approach the ideas purely scientifically. Now that was funny--Scully the scientist couldn't afford scientific objectivity about the value of paranormal theory with him, in the field, because she'd have to live with the consequences of what he'd do with it; but it was OK here, at this conference, where it was all academic. He'd have to run that idea past her later. If he ever found her.

The theory only went so far, though, and he knew it: he'd had those dreams when they were still in Washington. He was starting to get the feeling that part of him was trying to tell another part of him something he didn't want to know about the woman he worked with. He forcibly dismissed the thought and finished getting dressed.

His cell phone rang just as he was about to go out the door, and he had to rummage through his discarded suit jacket to find it. The uneasiness returned as he fumbled for the phone, along with an almost frantic desire to hear the familiar, "Mulder, it's me." He hadn't thought before about how intimate and comfortable that connection between them was, how much it made up for their disagreements. Suddenly it seemed like a fundamental imperative for his existence. He hit the connect button on the fourth ring. "Mulder."

"Mulder, it's me." Jackpot: he could practically hear the quarters spilling on the ground. "Frohike said you were looking for me. The last session I was at went overtime, and I've been discussing the papers with people since then. Is something up?"

No, I was just missing you, that's all. Yeah, right. "No, I just wanted to compare notes with you on the conference and thought this would be a good time."

"Oh. Well...."

Mulder heard clinking in the background, and people laughing. "Where are you, anyway?"

"Actually, I'm at a restaurant about five blocks from the hotel. It's called the Silver Buckle, I don't know who suggested it. There's a group of us having dinner, we just kind of floated here after the hotel staff shooed us out of the conference room. Frohike found me a few minutes ago; the man must have radar or something." There was a pause. "Have you eaten yet? You could join us...." She sounded embarrassed. Did she want him there? Did she feel bad for forgetting about him? Was she just being polite? "It's not hard to find, it's around the west corner and then south a few blocks."

This was getting too difficult. Save me a seat, darling, I'll be late to the theater. I don't think so. "No, that's OK, I'll just hook up with somebody here. That's easy enough to do."

"Skinner was right, this is the perfect place to make connections." She paused again. He caught himself relaxing into the silence--another thing that was comfortable between them. After a moment he could hear her sigh. "I should let you go, then, you must be starved by now."

His stomach growled, letting him know that he was already a couple steps past hungry. He hadn't been paying attention. "You're right. I'll see you later, then."

"OK." There was another pause before she broke the connection. He realized that he had just sat there waiting, listening to her breathe. And she had waited, too. You're imagining things, Mulder, he told himself sharply. Go get something to eat. And think about something else.

That night Scully sat holed up in her hotel room with her laptop in front of her, some files and photos spread out around her on the table. Mulder was gone by the time she had gotten back, and she had too much work to do to go looking for him, no matter how wistful their odd phone conversation had left her. She could feel the tension in her face and shoulders; she'd been doing this too long. She pulled back from the computer, pushing her glasses up to rub wearily at her eyes. Unbidden, her mind flashed to the moment in Mulder's bed, her partner rolling over on her, his mouth open on hers. Enough! she told her brain silently, then shook her head for added emphasis and stood up.

A knock came at the door, and Mulder's voice came through it. "Scully, it's me." She sighed, ran a tired hand through her hair and went to let him in. She wasn't getting any work done, anyway.

She unlocked the door without answering him, and he came in, looking buzzed, not noticing her mood yet. He'd changed clothes, too, out of the suit and into jeans and a shirt. Blending with the natives, she imagined; the tone at the conference was pretty casual. It made him look even more boyish than usual, and irrationally she felt old and clenched in spite of the fact that he had four years on her. "You wouldn't believe this guy I just met," he enthused. "He's got a satellite dish hooked up to his computer and some surveillance equipment, and he says he can monitor intelligence satellite feeds circling the globe. He can't always crack the codes, but he knows who's looking at what."

Scully sat wordlessly back down at her computer, picked up one of the papers on the table and started scanning it. Mulder, still standing, suddenly realized he was the only person in the room having a conversation. "Are you with me, Scully? Maybe I should go."

"No, that's OK." She gestured at the papers scattered on the table. "They found out at the last minute that one of the conferees won't be able to make it, so they asked me to take his place moderating a forensics panel tomorrow. It came up at dinner, after I called you. I came straight back to bone up on the papers, forgive the pun." She took her glasses off and tossed them on the table, giving up.

Concerned for how worn she looked, Mulder pulled up the other chair and sat down.

"I've been in sessions and dodging Frohike all day," Scully told him wearily. "I think my brain is starting to freeze up." She looked up at him. "You look like you're thriving on it."

Mulder smiled. "There are people here who make me look cautious and conservative. I actually had somebody tell me I should be more open to extreme possibilities."

"You're kidding."

"It makes me realize what a difference you've made for the X-Files, Scully. Most of these people, all they have to go on is their convictions and the power of extreme paranoia. I wouldn't--" he corrected himself: "we wouldn't have half the evidence we do if you didn't make me do things right."

She gave him another one of her wry smiles. "I'll remember that the next time you get that look that says you're not going to share your marbles with me any more because I Don't Want to Believe." She started to stretch and winced, rubbing painfully at her neck. "Ouch. I'm letting myself get too wound up about all this."

Mulder couldn't just watch her be so uncomfortable when she had done so much for him. And when he'd been wanting to be with her all day. He got up and came around behind her chair. "Here: let me do something for you for once."

He started to massage her neck, and Scully was too grateful for the relief to make him stop. She could accept it as a friendly gesture, like what she had done in taking him home on Monday. She had determined long ago that her partner might entertain himself by teasing her sometimes, like that "Marry me" quip that afternoon, but the only women who held his attention were two-dimensional and glossy, and she'd never met that standard. Short, ambitious scientists who spoke their minds didn't usually get very far up that scale of one to ten, in Scully's experience.

"Wound up, nothing," Mulder said in surprise as he felt the muscles in her neck only grudgingly giving up their grip on his partner. "You're tight as a wire, Scully."

She started to relax under his touch, rolling her neck a little under his gently insistent fingers. She quickly recognized that she was enjoying this more than she ought to, and lifted a hand to one of his to make him stop. "That's OK, Mulder, thanks."

He stopped. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing, I--"

He came back around to sit at the table again, looking her in the eyes. "We had a deal, remember? No more holding out on each other. I don't ditch you, you don't clam up on me. If something's not right, I need to know."

Scully sized him up for a second, trying to decide how much honesty was safe. What the hell, he asked for it. "All right. I like it too much when you touch me. And as long as we're working together, I don't want to think of you that way." She paused, waiting for a response that didn't come. "How's that for not holding out?"

Mulder sat back in his chair. "That's pretty good." Now it was his turn to pause. "Maybe we should talk about this."

Scully immediately wished she hadn't said anything, certain that she had embarrassed Mulder and humiliated herself. "What is there to talk about?" She got up and turned away from him, starting to pace a little. "The partner relationship is intense by nature. We're together all the time, and we're ready to save each other's lives every day. It's probably to be expected that part of me would start to think you're the man in my life. But that's not reality. It can't be."

Mulder pondered this a second. Scully went and sat on the edge of the bed, farther away from him, and deliberately over a line he shouldn't cross. "Scully, you're my partner," he told her earnestly. "Your trust means more to me than I think I realize myself. I would never take advantage of that."

"Trust is not the issue, Mulder," she answered. "We're not talking about you, we're talking about me. I don't have a problem with you, most of the time. Some days are just harder than others, that's all, and right now it's my own feelings I can't rely on. It'll pass. It always does. It doesn't mean anything."

Mulder couldn't sit across the room with words like that in the air. Like hell it doesn't mean anything! He crossed Scully's line, and came to sit next to her, expecting her to immediately move away--but she stayed warily where she was. He was realizing that maybe, just maybe, something had just become possible; it felt like a knot coming undone in his chest. "Scully, I have feelings, too."

Scully knew him too well to think he didn't mean this, observing the tone of his voice and the cast of his face. But what feelings? For how long? How could they possibly....

"I don't think I've ever felt closer to anybody than I do to you," he went on. "It's not something I do well, but it's happened with you." He didn't know the words were true until he said them. Until today he hadn't let himself dwell consciously with any real seriousness on what Dana Scully meant to him, or how many things her presence had changed for him. His voice began to fail him. "If we both want this...."

Scully knew she couldn't let this conversation go any further in that direction. Want? Want what? A nice house in the suburbs and a good school district for the kids? A sweet moment of passion and the rest of their lives in ruins? There was nowhere to take this that didn't threaten to turn into a bad TV movie. She cut him off. "I don't want to lose you, Mulder."

"Lose me?! You'll have a hard time doing that."

Now she did get up and went to stand against the far wall, folding her arms over herself. "It stops at partners, and you know it. It has to. The Bureau doesn't allow that kind of thing, and with good reason. It doesn't matter what anybody wants. We can't afford to lose our judgment or to give our opposition any more leverage. We don't need to give the Bureau any more reasons to shut us down or split us up, either.

"We'd never make it, anyway--it would just ruin a great partnership. You might not feel so close to me any more when our professional disagreements got personal. It's not even worth contemplating."

Mulder got up and came close to her again, wanting to close the gap between them; but to Scully it felt like pressure, his intensity battering at her reserves of reason the way it did on every case.

"Don't be so sure about that," he said. "I don't exactly have a reputation for conventional behavior. You know that better than anybody." How could all her walls be up when she had just said those things? She was looking at him from behind those huge eyes, and he wanted in. "Is it wrong to want to kiss you?" he heard himself ask.

"You've already done it, Mulder." She was relieved to have a trump card after all.


The grip his eyes had on hers was broken, and she could move away into the middle of the room. "You were asleep: you missed it," she told him.

"When did this happen?!"

"The other day, when I took you home. I fell asleep--I didn't mean to. I woke up a couple hours later and you were still sleeping, so I started getting ready to go." Oops. If she was going to explain how he kissed her, she had to tell how it started.... She realized too late that she'd painted herself into a corner here, and not able to think up a plausible alternative she settled for braving out the truth. "I couldn't just leave, so...I leaned over to give you a little sisterly kiss goodbye, and--"

"Wait a second, you kissed me? Scully, you took advantage of me!"

"Well, you took it right back! The next thing I knew you were rolling over on me and treating my face like an ice cream cone. It scared me, Mulder. Waking up next to you...there was a sweetness there that I can't begin to think about. The really scary part was, I seriously considered getting undressed, putting on one of your T-shirts and getting back in bed with you."

Was that an offer? The husky tinge to her voice was doing things to him he wasn't sure he wanted to be too aware of. "I brought a spare T-shirt...."

Scully laughed and looked away. In your dreams, partner. "Like I said, it doesn't mean anything. You were asleep. I doubt you even knew it was me; you were probably thinking of five different women of proportions that do not exist in Nature."

She squared her shoulders, striving for the formality that usually served her well in official meetings: calm, cool, nothing but business. On the inside she didn't feel very successful, but from the look on Mulder's face she could see it still had an outward effect. Good: she needed him to accept what she was going to tell him now, before she embarrassed herself any further. "I shouldn't have told you it happened. In fact, the whole subject is a big mistake, and I apologize for bringing it up. It would be better if we just forgot about it.

"Go on, get out of here," she finished, gesturing his dismissal with a hand aimed at the door. "We're still on assignment, remember? I'll see you in the morning."

Mulder realized he wasn't ready to press the issue any further (especially not with her simultaneously laughing at him and sounding so bitter), and started to go. He couldn't really be sure that they'd actually had this conversation. "Sweet dreams, Scully."

She smiled ruefully, waiting for the door to close behind him before shaking her head. Not a chance.

It wasn't long before the walls of Scully's hotel room started closing in on her. She didn't want to think about the things she'd said to Mulder, much less what he'd said to her, and definitely didn't want to think of either of them anywhere near beds. She didn't know how she was going to get to sleep tonight. At least if she had to be awake she could get some work done; maybe just getting out of the room would clear her head and restore some order to her thoughts.

She packed up the papers for the next day's panel and took herself out to the hotel mezzanine, found a table in a corner, and settled down with some nice grisly cadaver photos. Now this was something she knew how to deal with, something she could analyze and define.

It was late enough that most activity had moved out of public areas; there weren't many people moving about. She sighed and looked at her watch: 11:21. She leaned back in her chair, closing her eyes and feeling leadenly just how tired she was. In Washington it would be, what, past 1 AM? Or 2? She could never keep track. No wonder she felt like pounded veal.

Someone cleared his throat, and she looked up: oh no: Frohike. He was carrying two clear plastic cups; the contents of one looked like a beer, the other like red wine. But this time he wasn't grinning. His face was softened with a warm concern. "What are you doing by yourself this late?" But not too concerned to forget self-interest: "Is this seat taken?"

Scully was too tired to think of a dodge. "I couldn't sleep. I have to moderate a panel tomorrow, a last-minute thing. I'm looking over the papers. What are you doing by yourself so late?"

Frohike sat down, taking the absence of a no for at least a temporary yes. "After hours is when the fun really starts at these things. I was just heading back to a discussion going on in one of the side rooms about whether Oliver Stone is being used by the government to revise history and keep us off the real evidence."

"Sounds fascinating."

"Where's Mulder? I thought you two were inseparable."

"O ye of little faith."

Her dry tone made Frohike remember his beverages. "Would you like something to drink? I only had a sip out of the beer."

"No, thanks. Look, Frohike, it's been a long day. I really don't think I have anything to offer you in the way of company."

"Don't be so hard on yourself. I would be content to sit quietly in your presence."

"Give me a break, Frohike. Isn't there somebody else whose presence you can soak in? I mean, why me?"

"You want to know the truth?"

"What else is there?"

"Your partner means a lot to me."

Scully stared at him in disbelief, then found herself starting to laugh helplessly and covered her face with a hand.

Frohike pressed on. "I admire his passion, his commitment. And we have a few things in common. Including our taste in women."

Scully could not believe what she was hearing. This was just too much. "What are you talking about?"

"My only hope has been his tendency not to know what's good for him. That has given me some time to ingratiate myself. Besides, I wanted to give him a fighting chance to prove himself worthy. Let the best man win, and all that."

"Frohike, you're not making any sense."

That look of concern came back. "Did you two have an argument tonight? Something's bothering you, I can tell. It's all right, you can tell me. If he's hurt you...."

Scully couldn't stand it any more. She roughly gathered up her papers. "That's it. I've had it. Good night, Frohike. Give my regards to Oliver Stone."

Frohike stood up, beer in hand, as she started to go. "At least let me escort you to your room...." Too late: she was gone. Frohike sighed. "A goddess. An inferno. And he hasn't even touched her, the heartless fool. Such a waste." Frohike consoled himself with his beer.

Scully entered her room, still rattled by the conversation with Frohike. She threw the papers she was carrying roughly down on the table, not caring how they landed, and whipped into the bathroom to start a tub going. She started taking off her shirt, then changed her mind and went back to turn off the tap. No. A run. That might do it: burn off this energy, generate some endorphins, get her mind into regular patterns. That was it. She was glad she had thought of bringing workout gear. Hotels like this usually had good facilities. But at this hour, it would have to be hallways. She changed quickly, stretched carefully, and went out.

Half an hour later, she realized it hadn't quite worked. She felt more focused, but still uneasy. She knew that what she really needed was some sleep--half of her agitation now probably just came from fatigue, and from the break in routine that this conference represented. Of course it wasn't just Mulder, she told herself. Everything would look different in the morning.

She decided to do some stair work, cool down with a loop through the underground parking garage, and then call it quits. When she got to the bottom of the stairwell she found the door to the garage propped open, and went through. In front of her lay the bottom level of parking; behind her and to her left was the ramp that led upwards to the next parking level. As she stepped out she heard voices above her, close to the ramp, and stopped to listen by FBI reflex.

She could smell cigarette smoke. There was a man's voice, and a woman's. The man's voice had an oily sound, oil over dagger blades. "This meeting is inadvisable at best," she heard Oil-and-Daggers say. "Your reasons for bringing me here had better be compelling." The woman's voice answered him: "It's not just the usual convention crowd this year, sir."

Something nagged at Scully: she knew that man's voice, and the particular tang of his cigarettes. It had to be: Mulder's Cancer Man. She moved out of the doorway and flattened against the wall, straining to hear and to piece together what was happening.

The man leaned in the shadows against a wall, pulling on his cigarette. The woman stood half in the light, facing him. "Those two FBI agents you're interested in, sir. They're here."

"What? Why was I not informed of their movements through my regular Bureau channels?"

"I don't know, sir. That's why I thought you would want to be here yourself."

The man threw down his cigarette. "That's exactly why I shouldn't be here. They know me, or at least he does, and she would certainly recognize me. He has twice come within a hair's breadth of blowing my head off. He couldn't go through with it, of course. He's not a Player, not yet, which is why he's dangerous. He doesn't go by the rules. He is easily manipulated and misled, but he is not predictable. And he has a formidable partner. I would prefer to keep them as uncertain of our actions as possible. Their paranoia works in our favor."

The woman still defended herself. "I thought you would want to handle the situation personally."

The oil wore thin in the man's voice, exposing the dagger blades. "No. My 'personal' involvement must be limited, as I have been daily instructed by my colleagues. I would hate to have to deal with yet another impetuous subordinate."

The woman's face hardened: she had no intention of becoming his latest sacrificial lamb.

Below them, Scully kept listening to the hushed voices. Cancer Man: "I'm leaving. You deal with this yourself. Bring me a full report of their activities here and of everyone they talk to. And I want to find out how and why our usual channels failed this time. But keep your distance. Do you understand?" The woman: "Yes, sir. Of course, sir." Scully carefully stepped back through the door and into the stairwell, her heart pounding. This was definitely not going to help her sleep.

Mulder lay awake on the bed in the dark, staring at the ceiling and trying not to think anything coherent. Suddenly someone started pounding at his door. He got up to investigate, grabbing for a T-shirt and pulling it on to go with his shorts. He was stunned to hear Scully's voice through the door. She sounded panicked...? "Mulder, it's me. Don't tell me you're asleep!"

He flipped on the light at the door and let her in, closing the door behind her. From what she was wearing and how she looked it was clear she'd been out running. Running? In the hotel? Surely not outside in downtown Phoenix at this hour. She was obviously upset about something, but after their conversation earlier he wasn't sure what to think or how to react. What had she been telling him tonight? Was that a declaration, a rejection, an ultimatum--all of the above...?

"Scully, it's nearly 1:00. What's wrong with you?"

She paced nervously in the middle of the room. "I couldn't sleep. So sue me. I decided to go for an indoor run to settle my nerves. I heard two people talking in the parking garage."

"Scully, it's not nice to listen to other people's conversations."

"Mulder, I think they were talking about us. And it wasn't friendly. It sounded like a report, like some kind of intelligence operation."

Was it Mulder's imagination, or was she coming to him for comfort, for reassurance? He stepped a little closer and lowered his voice. "Who was it, could you see them?"

She stopped pacing and shook her head. "No. There was a man and a woman. I smelled cigarette smoke. The man wanted to know why he hadn't been told we'd be here. Mulder, he said we'd know him, he said you've tried to kill him before. I could swear it was that man, the one you call 'Cancer Man'. What is this all about?"

This was not something Mulder wanted to talk about, deal between the two of them or no deal. He turned away. No, this wasn't about the mysteries of relationship, whatever that meant: it was just the old struggle in his face again. It left a bad taste in his mouth. "I think you know what it's about, Scully. We probably shouldn't be surprised that they're watching us. You remember Skinner's warning. Like you said: we're on assignment."

"That's just it, Mulder, they didn't know we were here. They were the ones with the surprise."

"Maybe Skinner went to extra trouble to cover our tracks. I guess he knows a few things we don't." He paused a moment, seeing just how agitated she still was. What did she want him to do? "Why don't you go back to your room and get some rest? You look exhausted."

"Mulder...?" No, that was not his imagination, that was definitely a quaver in her voice. "Look, Mulder, in answer to your question, I don't know what's wrong with me. Maybe it's this conference, maybe it's Frohike, maybe it's the nightmares, maybe it's the phase of the moon. I give up. Something's got me spooked, if I may use that expression, and for the life of me I can't shake it."

"I give up, too, Scully. What are you saying to me?"

"I know this is going to sound nuts after what I said to you in my room, but I don't think I can be by myself tonight. Would it be asking too much if I stayed here with you? Just to sleep."

Mulder could not believe this. Scully didn't seem too sure about it, either, and the haunted look in her eyes made it clear how much the request was costing her. No, this couldn't be happening. "If you haven't noticed, Scully, there's only one bed in here."

"I'll sleep on the floor, I don't care. Come on, Mulder, it was only a few days ago that you asked the same thing of me, and nobody got hurt."

"To hear you tell it, it sounds like the experience was pretty traumatic."

"Not traumatic, Mulder, you just took me by surprise, that's all. Oh, please, don't pull a bruised male ego out on me now! I'm asking for your help. My Mom is a thousand miles away; there's no one else I would come to like this, no one else I could trust."

If her eyes got any bigger, he would have to scream. Did she realize that God had equipped her with lethal blue-green weapons in that face? "OK, you're right, I owe you one. But on one condition: you have to take a shower. Sweaty women turn me on, and as long as we're working together...."

Scully gave him a grateful smile.

Forty-five minutes later Scully was curled up on the floor beside Mulder's bed, with a pillow and some covers she'd brought from her room. This is ridiculous, Mulder thought, and rolled over to look at her. In the light that came through the curtains he could see she was still awake. He extended a hand down. "Come on up here, Scully. Don't sleep on the floor." Scully hesitated a second, then took his hand and pulled herself up into bed. "Just friends," he said, "OK? No mysteries."

Scully was already almost asleep, her voice heavy. "No mysteries." She turned on her side with her back to him and settled against the pillow with a sigh, finally and blessedly asleep within moments.

Mulder tried to get comfortable, moving a little away from the warmth of her body and the accidental touch her toes had given his shins. "And they call me 'Spooky'," he said under his breath.

In their sleep they had rolled toward each other, and Mulder woke to find Scully resting nestled against him. With this discovery he came abruptly, fully awake, recalling how they had gotten into this situation. He decided that, for the moment at least, he liked it. He brought his arm more closely around her and rested his head against hers, closing his eyes and hoping to have a second waking up later. But Scully stirred under his touch and drifted to consciousness as well, moving to look up at him while the fog slowly cleared out of her mind.

"Good morning," she said, not moving away from him.

"You were right," he told her, "it is sweet waking up with you."

Her face tilted toward his, close under his arm, Dana knew this proximity was not safe, especially as his eyes went to her mouth and back to her eyes again, his face soft and open. He hadn't moved, and she cursed her awareness not only of those lips of his (she couldn't stop the glance) but of the length of him encompassing her in the bed. She didn't want to move, either, didn't want to break that connection, but even half-awake she knew this shouldn't be happening.

She put a hand to his mouth meant to hold them both back, but unfortunately this was not such a good strategy since that touch was erotic, too; her fingers started to move over his lips and then moved out of the way. Mother Nature took over, aided and abetted by relaxed, sleepy bodies that happened to be fond of one another. Sweet and soft and easy....

Scully rolled over on her back, bringing Mulder with her, and his hand slid under her pajama top. When his fingers grazed the soft curve of her breast, and he felt Dana's response arc through him, he started to realize what they were doing and made himself pull back.

"If you want this to happen, Mulder, you'd better not give me time to think about it," she told him, eyes dark as she shifted under him.

Mulder knew this was not going to be easy. "I don't want to push you into anything," was his best response, and his voice seemed to have taken a cue from hers in the husky department. "I don't want to push either of us into anything."

Scully smiled a little. "The way I see it," she said, "we can either not do this, and I'll be thinking about it all day; or we can do this and I'll think about it all day and probably hate you by sundown;" here her voice started to break: "or we can do this and we can really start something." It was a challenge, and also a plea. She honestly didn't know which outcome was most likely, which she wanted most, or which represented the greatest threat.

He brought his hand to touch her cheek, drawing on every example of nobility he'd ever witnessed to try to do this. "No, it's not right if you're not sure." Hell, he didn't know if he was sure, either, and he acknowledged that the context--away from home and their normal lives, both of them stressed and vulnerable--made the moment unreliable, no matter what was singing on his skin. "I know how I feel right now," he told her finally, "but I don't know how either of us is going to feel by sundown. I can't make any decisions for you, and I'm not so sure I trust myself right now, either."

Scully thought about this for a moment, her eyes on his. "All right, my decision." She rolled him off of her. "Not now. It's better than 'No,' right? And it's better than hating you later." She shoved out of the bed, grabbed the discarded covers on the floor and got out fast before she could change her mind.

Showered and dressed now, Scully was finishing getting ready for the morning's sessions. She kept her mind a careful, disciplined blank. She was reorganizing her papers for the forensics panel when her hotel-room phone rang. She hesitated a moment, sighed, then went to pick up the receiver.


It was Mulder's voice. "Scully, don't hang up."

She smiled with dark humor, but that didn't eliminate the weight in her voice. "Why should I hang up? We can't get wild over the phone."

He wasn't going to touch that right now with a pole of any length. "Scully, you said you heard two people talking about us in the garage last night. We never got to the end of that."

Scully realized with a shock that she had completely forgotten. "There was a woman who was reporting to a man," she began, "telling him we were here. I didn't see either of them, I just heard their voices coming from the next parking level. The woman thought the man would want to do something about us, but he told her just to watch us and report back to him about who we talk to and what we do at the conference. He was angry that she had called him here; he said we would know him."

Mulder said nothing. It didn't seem necessary. This must not have been why he called her.

"In the light of day it doesn't seem as if we're in any immediate danger," Scully continued after a pause, ashamed of herself now for the panic of the night before. "His instructions were to keep her distance, and he himself was going to leave right away. We've known we were being watched before. We should probably just finish out the conference as if nothing has happened."

Mulder was silent a moment. Yeah, right, nothing has happened. Nothing at all happened last night. "Right."

They both sat on the phone for a heartbeat, 'til Scully decided that was her cue to Say Something. "I'm sorry, Mulder. I was out of line last night."

"I was out of line this morning."

"All right, then." She got ready to hang up.

"Just one thing, Dana: no regrets."

Scully smiled to herself: no promises, either. "See you later, partner," she said, and hung up, thankful to have gotten through that in one piece.

Mulder had just hung up with Scully, taken a big breath and gotten ready to leave, when his hotel phone rang. Scully...? He went to pick it up.


The voice that responded was coming through a distortion device; there was no way to discern gender or age. "Congratulations, Agent Mulder. Best wishes to the lucky girl."

"Excuse me?"

"You two get any closer, we'll have to come in there with a crowbar."

"Who is this?!"

"Sometimes watching you I think we shouldn't put in so much effort. We can just sit back and let you do all our work for us." Click.

"What do you want with us?!" Useless. He hung up and turned away, trying to assess the level of threat: most likely purely psychological.

Skinner entered his office that morning to find an unwelcome smell. Smoke curled up from behind the sofa: the man whose name he never knew, who Mulder called "Cancer Man". It would do just as well as anything else. The Assistant Director came around the sofa to confront the intruder. "What are you doing in my office?"

"You're here early, Walter. I didn't have to wait long." The man's face was his usual measured mask.

Skinner roughly grabbed the crystal ashtray from the end table and shoved it in Cancer Man's face. "Put it out." His opponent complied in leisurely fashion, the wraith of a smile on his stained lips. "Now answer my question."

"There seems to have been a breach of protocol, Assistant Director. It appears your X-Files agents have gone on assignment without properly filing their paperwork. I have an eyewitness. Have regulations been changed, or are all rules suspended when it comes to those two?"

Skinner smiled, his eyes steeled. "I took care of their paperwork for them. I can assure you that everything is in order."

"Or it will be by the time they get back, I'm sure. How did you pay for their plane tickets?"

"What I do with my frequent flyer miles is my own business. Now if you have nothing more substantial to discuss, I'm going to ask you to leave. Some of us have work to do."

"Exactly my point, Mr. Skinner." Cancer Man stood, took out his cigarettes and got one lit, then spoke around it, fixing Skinner with his empty gaze. "I'll let you get back to your 'work'." He blew more smoke into the room, turned and went out. Skinner watched him go with a mixture of tension and satisfaction. He'd better beef up his preventative measures if he was going to play this game. But at least he had the competition running.

Back in Phoenix, Scully made the concluding remarks for her panel. "In each of these papers we have seen the power of forensic science to make sense of even the most initially inscrutable evidence. This session has amply demonstrated that the methodical use of our tools, knowledge, skills, and informed intuition remains our best hope for shedding light on otherwise impenetrable cases. That, and an open mind: something else that remains true for all scientific work is that the answers often come out of the unexpected." She paused. "If there are no further questions, we can consider this panel adjourned."

The group started to break up, the panel members shaking hands with Scully and the room filling with talk as people engaged with each other and came forward to meet the speakers. Mulder had been sitting at the back of the room; luckily somebody was talking to Scully and she couldn't break away before he got there.

She'd been avoiding him all morning. Not literally running away, but not letting him in, either. He wasn't sure what he wanted from her, and didn't know what he'd say if they actually talked about it, whatever "it" was supposed to be. He just wanted to be with her and know it was OK, to hear and see the Scully he knew like a functional part of himself--except, of course, for those aspects of her which he knew absolutely nothing about. Aspects which seemed to have the upper hand at this conference.

"Thank you," she was telling the somebody as Mulder came up, "I enjoyed doing it."

Mulder decided to butt in; it was common convention etiquette, anyway. "That was a great speech, Scully. I especially liked the bit about an open mind."

Her eyes met his in an unreadable acknowledgement, but she didn't reply. She turned back to the somebody. "Excuse me," she said, and turned to go out, Mulder following.

Mulder walked alongside Scully in the hotel hallway. It wasn't that she didn't want to be with him, Scully reflected; rather the opposite. But she lived by her self-control and relied on it as a core characteristic, a measure to gauge herself by. That self-control had come close to completely abandoning her last night, and this morning. She felt awkward and self-conscious with Mulder now, inclined to find a reason to get mad at him and make him go away so she wouldn't have to think about how he made her feel. Part of her was still tempted by the ease of their intimacy that morning; part of her had a ridiculous desire to hang on his arm and stare adoringly into his face; a very small and defenseless part of her waited with baited breath to hear him say her name again....

"Seriously, Scully," Mulder told her, "you did a great job in there. You had nothing to worry about."

Well, at least that sounded genuinely supportive. Her conscience pricked her; Mulder deserved better than the brush-offs she'd been giving him today. She didn't know how to tell him how afraid she was of the feelings they'd stirred up, and didn't know if it would be a good idea to try. If she relented even a little in the re-gathering of her self-control, those feelings just might rush back in and take her God knew how far, with potentially disastrous consequences for both of them. She had to keep her guard up, for both their sakes. Mulder wouldn't understand that, and she couldn't explain.

"I guess my time at Quantico has stayed with me," she said. "The summation was the part of lecturing I always liked best: bringing things together, drawing conclusions, claiming the solid ground."

"Kind of like your reports. You have a gift for it." He was smiling now.

She looked at him, trying to figure him out. "Are you giving me a hard time, or trying to butter me up? Either way, I don't like it."

The smile turned into a grin. "None of the above, although I do like the butter idea." He could rarely resist openings like that: Scully had a gift for setting herself up, just like the basketballs that begged Michael Jordan to put them to bed. He didn't want to go too far, though, and he didn't want to lose the point he was trying to make. "I'm just telling the truth."

"Ah, yes, the truth. That has a familiar ring to it." She chose not to acknowledge the other comment, hoping the flush she felt wasn't visible to anyone else. Melted butter, smooth and warm and golden.... She swallowed and looked around, trying to find something to change the subject to. "I wonder where Frohike is. He should have found me by now."

"What if we weren't working together?"


"Last night, you said as long as we're working together.... Just hypothetically: what if we weren't?"

He had her full attention now. "You're kidding, right?" He just looked at her, a playful smile toying once again with his face. He was definitely too happy about this for his own good. "Look," she told the smile, "if we weren't working together, there'd be no point. You can't leave the X Files, they're your whole life; and I'm not about to leave, either, and let somebody else have all the fun. I'd never get challenges like that anywhere else, even if the Bureau thinks I'm crazy. Besides, you still owe me a mutant." At least he could know she had no intention of leaving him.

"I'll keep that in mind." It was enough, for now. Neither of them said anything more as they walked together down the hall.

Late that afternoon, Scully decided to check out the book room. A large conference hall had been turned into an impromptu bazaar, full of booths displaying books, pamphlets, T-shirts and other merchandise, newsletters, resource lists, membership drives for various organizations, petitions, etc. Scully stopped in front of a booth decked with various T-shirts, posters and buttons sporting slogans such as, "Never Trust a Government You Can't Overthrow", "Big Brother, We're Watching You", "Dead Men Are Telling Tales," and "When You Can Read Minds, the Whole World is Your Library". She found herself smiling at one in particular that featured flying saucers on a star field with the caption, "These Are Aliens", then fried eggs on a star field with the caption, "These Are Aliens on Drugs: Any Questions?". [This very T-shirt at least used to be available in the real world from Northern Sun Merchandise: call 1-800-258-8579 and ask for item #509-1343.]

An African-American woman with dreadlocks sat at the sales table, eyeing the slender redhead in front of her. Scully picked up a book entitled, You Know They're Listening: How to Fight the Invisible Government. Back issues of The Lone Gunman were among the publications also displayed on the table.

"Did you know you're being watched?" the dreadlocked woman asked, startling Scully out of a private shopper's reverie.

"Aren't we all," she replied, wondering if the line weren't a sales pitch in a place like this.

"No, I mean here, right now. Somebody at the conference."

Scully moved to pick up something else at the display. "Do you know who it is?" she asked, keeping her voice neutral.

"I've seen her at these things before, but I don't know her name. I think she's with MUFON. I could find out for you, if you want."

"I'd appreciate that."

"Normally I wouldn't be doing a fed any favors, but I read some of your reports and I was impressed."

Scully looked up at her. "My reports? My Bureau reports?"

"As long as the will of the individual is allowed to run free, there ain't no such thing as computer security, babe." Scully had no comment. "Frohike was right about you," the woman went on. "You have a glow."

This woman had a knack for startling Scully. "You know Frohike?"

"You really ought to give him a chance, you know. Beneath that lounge lizard exterior beats the true heart of a teddy bear in shining armor. You don't know what you're missing."

"I'm willing to take my chances," Scully answered.

The woman just looked at her, smiling as if at a joke she'd heard from someone else but wasn't going to share. "So, you gonna buy something?"

Scully reached for her wallet, sharing a knowing smile with her dreadlocked informant.

A few minutes later she was walking down convention center hallways again, carrying a paper bag. Out of nowhere, Frohike was at her side. "May I carry your books?" he asked gallantly, with a slight bow.

She didn't stop walking, but he kept up with her. "It's not books, it's a T-shirt. You're slipping, Frohike, I haven't seen you all day today."

"I thought I should keep my distance--give you some time to recover from my attentions. I didn't even let myself go to your panel; I didn't want to distract you. How did it go?"

"Fine. The papers were very good."

"No, I mean you. Mulder told me you were dynamite."

"Oh? What else did he say?" Scully wondered uneasily what Mulder might have told Frohike about their hotel-room encounter, given the two men's shared taste for a certain genre of magazines and videos.

"Come on, Scully, you know he respects your work."

"Only until it becomes a roadblock to his theories. I wish I had a dollar for every time he looked like he wanted to throttle me."

Frohike stopped, laying a concerned hand on her arm. "Throttle you? It hasn't come to violence, has it?"

"Frohike, please. Of course not."

"After last night, I was a little worried. You know I'm here if you need me."

"How can I not know you're here?"

"I'm serious, Dana. Mulder is so single-minded, he doesn't always notice what he does to people. That's where we're different. I always care."

"I'll take your word for it."

Frohike cleared his throat. "Dr. Scully, do you have any plans for dinner this evening? I would be delighted to be your escort."

Scully wished she could believe this wasn't happening. "My escort. Is there a fee involved?"

"Only the pleasure of your company."

"What would we talk about? Conspiracy theories? I'm no fun in that department, Frohike, just ask Mulder."

"I can't imagine even an hour with you being less than the pinnacle of my existence thus far. There are plenty of things we can talk about: favorite movies, favorite books, favorite teachers, who our best friends were when we were twelve. I've been told I'm an involving conversationalist."

Scully gave up. This had got to be one of the weirder weeks of her life, man-wise; she might as well play it for all it was worth. "All right, all right, dinner. But just dinner, OK? And nothing fancy. And I'm paying."

Frohike lit up brighter than that famous Christmas tree. "I agree to your terms. You won't regret it, I promise you."

"We'll see about that." She regretted it already.

Frohike was all excited now. "We'll need some time to prepare. Shall I meet you at your room at--" he looked at his watch: "6:30?"

"No, not at my room. I'll meet you right here. And don't get any ideas, Frohike. This is strictly a one-shot."

"'Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen,'" he quoted. "That's in the Bible. You have made me a very happy man, Dana Scully." He took her hand and raised it gallantly to his lips, bowed, and floated away. Scully heaved a tired sigh, wondering what she'd gotten herself into.

Scully knocked on Mulder's hotel room door, not particularly expecting him to be there. She wasn't prepared when he actually opened the door. "Oh, Mulder--with all the interesting people around here, I didn't think you'd be in your room."

"Actually, I was just about to call you," he said, and she was grateful that he didn't invite her in. "There's a bunch of us going out tonight to a Thai restaurant down the street that's supposed to knock your socks off," he continued. "You want to come?"

"I'm afraid I can't." She didn't quite know how to say this. "I told Frohike I'd have dinner with him."

Mulder felt his jaw drop. "Are you feeling all right, Scully? What brought on this change of heart?"

"Well, he just won't let up, and I figured maybe an hour alone with me in a public place would be enough to demonstrate how deadly dull I am, and he'd finally figure out I'm not the woman of his dreams."

"Dull? You?"

"Come on, Mulder. All I know about is cadavers, toxicology tests and stomach contents. I'm not only boring, I'm downright repulsive. All I do is work, and what I work with is mutants and demons and psychopaths."

"Wait a second, Scully, you work with me."

"That's right: mutants, demons, psychopaths, and Fox Mulder." She remembered the bag she was carrying, the reason for her knock on Mulder's door. "Oh--here, Mulder, this is for you." She handed him the bag.

"What's the occasion?"

"A woman at a booth in the book room says she knows who's watching us at the convention, and can find out who she is. Probably the same one I heard in the garage last night. So I had to buy something."

He opened the bag and looked inside--then looked back up at his partner. "A T-shirt, Scully? Is this supposed to mean something?"

"Don't get your hopes up, Mulder. See if you like it, first."

He pulled out the T-shirt: the "Aliens on Drugs" shirt that made Scully smile. He looked at it a moment, then held it up to himself, then looked pointedly back at Dana Scully. "I think I'm in love."

"I'd better go get ready for my date." Dana, the queen of evasion, made her escape.

Mulder sat in the lobby, waiting. He had with him the manila envelope the woman had brought to his room when she found Scully's unoccupied. He wasn't sure Scully would like what was inside.

Scully's dinner with Frohike had taken well over an hour; it was getting close to three hours now. Mulder didn't want to think about it, feeling his jaw tighten as he pushed the thought away for the fifteenth time in the last fifteen minutes. Then finally he spotted them, coming in the double doors of the hotel entrance. Scully was laughing, her face a little flushed, and she had her arm through Frohike's as they walked. He had never seen Frohike looking happier. Or Scully more...beautiful. He could admit it, now. And seeing her that way with Frohike--Frohike!--made his insides twist even more than the sight of her face. Mulder stood up; Scully saw him and started to unthread herself from Frohike, controlling her laughter as they came up to him.

"Did you two have a nice evening?" Mulder asked, hoping that his urge to club Frohike over the head and carry Scully off over his shoulder didn't show on his face.

"Paradise, Agent Mulder," Frohike replied, "is hearing your partner's sense of humor come out to play. I consider myself a privileged individual."

Scully turned to her escort. "Good night, Frohike. Thank you for a lovely evening."

"No regrets, then?" he asked her.

Scully shook her head. "None. Or only a few. Your friend at the booth was right: you are a gentleman." Mulder guessed that was as much for his benefit as Frohike's.

Frohike grinned at her. "Scratch a funny-looking guy and you never know what you'll find."

"Absolutely," was Scully's answer, as she put out a hand. "We'll be leaving early tomorrow morning. I guess we'll see you back in D.C. some time."

Frohike took the offered hand. "Count on it." He kissed her hand in farewell (apparently unaware of how close he came to having his face rearranged as a consequence), then stepped back and addressed Mulder. "I deliver the lady into your hands, Mulder. Treat her well, or you'll be hearing from me."

Scully started to giggle a little as Frohike walked away. She sat down on the sofa Mulder had just gotten up from, wiping at her eyes. "I'm sorry, Mulder. This week just keeps getting more unreal." She paused a moment, assessing herself, as Mulder sat down next to her. "I think I had a little too much wine with dinner."

"Maybe I shouldn't show this to you now, then."

"What is it?"

"Something Frohike's friend from the book room brought by."

Sobering, Scully took the envelope out of Mulder's hand. "No, I want to see it." She opened the envelope and took out its contents: some computer print-out, with hand-written notes. It took her a moment to absorb the words. "My God, Mulder: the woman watching us, she was one of the women I met in Allentown. The ones who said they'd seen me during my disappearance." Mulder nodded. "Then the whole thing could have been a set-up. They certainly didn't tell me much, not much concrete, anyway."

Her bubbly mood had evaporated all too quickly, and Mulder regretted showing her the information. Frohike was right about Paradise.

"Hold on to what you know, Scully. This woman is probably just a plant in the MUFON circle. I doubt that she or her superiors fabricated the way the others recognized you. Remember, the most effective lies are the ones that come packaged with part of the truth."

Scully nodded, hanging her head a little. "You're right. I shouldn't let this bother me." She patted his knee, then pushed down on his leg as she stood up. "Would you mind walking me to my room, partner?"

Mulder got up, too. "Not at all. I happen to be going that way, myself." Mimicking Frohike, he extended an arm, bowing towards her a little. She smiled and took the offered arm, leaning her head against his shoulder a moment as they walked. Mulder wasn't too thrilled about the mixed signals she'd been sending him, but he was glad to see her smile again and not about to complain about her closeness.

They stopped outside her door. "You'd probably better go in before your coach turns into a pumpkin," Mulder said.

"I don't think I need to worry about it. No glass slippers on this princess."

Mulder watched her as she got out her room key. "Are you going to be able to sleep by yourself tonight?"

Scully didn't look at him as she answered, getting the key into the lock. "Are you?"

"I don't know yet."

Scully sighed and turned to face him. "I have to admit it's a tempting thought, Mulder, but I honestly don't think it's a good idea."

"Somehow I knew you were going to say that."

She smiled a little sadly. "We know each other too well, don't we?"

"I don't know if I'd put it that way. Too well for what?"

Scully didn't answer the question, putting out a hand for farewell. "Goodnight, Mulder. We have a long flight tomorrow." He took her hand, but held it more than shook it. She looked like she was about to giggle again, then reached up and took a small kiss from him. He took another one, not so small--and she pulled away, still close to laughter. "I feel like any minute now my parents are going to come out to see why I'm taking so long to come in."

Mulder wasn't laughing. "We're the only ones in charge of what we do, Scully. The only thing behind that door is an empty bed." The sudden unease in her eyes was enough to make him wish he hadn't said it. "I'm sorry. I should go." He turned awkwardly and started down the hall.

"No, Mulder, I'm sorry. This isn't fair to you. I know I'm not making much sense...."

He shrugged his keys out of a pocket. When he spoke his voice was tight. "Don't worry about it. Like you said, some days are harder than others. I'll see you tomorrow." He shoved his door open and went in.

Scully tossed for the fiftieth time that night, this time shifting from a protective curl on her side to lie flat on her back, confronting the ceiling as if hoping to find herself reflected there. No such luck: the ceiling offered no help in self-interpretation.

She heard her mother's voice in her mind's ear: Now what's all the fuss about? This was Margaret Scully's favorite line during her younger daughter's adolescence. It had been a stereotypically stormy time, as the tomboy of Dana's childhood grew awkwardly into a teenage science geek who was not much good with the mysteries of the opposite sex or of her own fledgling womanhood, not to mention the new and demanding sensations in her skin and blood that she didn't know what to do with by herself. That was exactly how she was feeling now, Dana realized. Getting close to Mulder, and having to acknowledge the desire he apparently had for her (not to mention her own for him), had first shattered the primary assumptions that had allowed her to work with him, and then had stripped back half her life.

This is silly, she thought. It's not like I haven't been with a man before. But it's not just that, is it? It's Mulder.

She couldn't think about that. We work together, she thought; that means a lot of things. We work well together; we're a good team, a good fit. And it's for something important: Mulder's Quest, Mulder's Truth. She had never known anyone so dedicated, so committed to something that wasn't abstract, like duty or country or career. With Mulder, life was a kind of mission, and the mission was personal. Even if the intensity of how personal it was could lead to a certain imbalance and to risk-taking she couldn't condone, Scully still admired the level of commitment.

It was that commitment that had drawn her to him in the first place. Nothing he felt for her could compare to that, and that was as it should be. Besides, it was her Truth, now, too--her commitment as well as his.

They had no right to jeopardize their work with these feelings. The immediate physical desire would pass, she knew. It had to. There would be more cases when they went back to Washington; they could do the job, they'd be OK. If Mulder would let it go, she'd be fine. He had to let it go. They both did.

If Melissa were there she would have given her kid sister a big lecture about the perils of stifling her emotions, but what choice did Dana have? These things were so unreliable, anyway. She didn't have an overt policy of remaining single, but she had to admit that it made life a lot simpler. The few times she had really connected with a man, it hadn't lasted. Her plans for herself got in the way, or his did, and it stopped being fun. Sure, it was different with Mulder now; they were colleagues first, and knew each other pretty thoroughly. But everything changes when you get physical....

Scully tried to examine the issue logically. The only man she now spent any significant time with was Mulder, and her work schedule and research interests didn't leave much room for meeting anybody else. The sad and perverse truth was that when it came down to it, no matter how frustrated she sometimes became with her situation or how unwilling she was to accept some of Mulder's more brazen theories, she wasn't really interested in being with anyone else. She liked working with him; they were used to each other. Considering the levels of respect, trust and intimacy that they had in their professional relationship, attempting to build something else with a relative stranger didn't have much appeal.

It wasn't like other men were breaking her door down, anyway. Well, other than Frohike. The best thing would be for things to stay the way they were. Or the way they had been before this. God, why had she said anything? She prayed that her partner's photographic memory would fail him for once and he'd be able to forget it.

Dana fell asleep with her mind wandering to the remembrances of Fox Mulder's skin.

In his dream Mulder was swimming in darkness, not in a pool but in a lake. He couldn't see where he was going but knew he had to get there, knew he would get there if he just kept pulling himself through the cool water. He didn't think he would ever get tired. He cut effortlessly through the surface with a sense of power and untroubled confidence he rarely experienced in real life. Yes, he'd get there. It was just a matter of time.

A voice called to him over the water. It was Dana. She wasn't hurt, she wasn't in danger, she was just calling his name. Her voice made the name sound beautiful, magic, echoing over the water. That was why it was so easy. She couldn't find him in the darkness, but he would get to her: her voice made it inevitable. The water around him began to hum with anticipation, and he skimmed through it, feeling the current carry him ever faster forward as the water slid joyfully over his skin. It was just a matter of time.

He wanted to laugh. The sun would come up the instant he reached the shore where Scully stood, singing his name.

Skinner waited restlessly near the gate, watching for Mulder and Scully to disembark. His hunch had been right: he hadn't been the only one concerned for their arrival. He had made himself conspicuous, including going to the desk and giving his name, ostensibly to find whether the flight was on time (it would be half an hour late) and to make sure his "friends" Fox Mulder and Dana Scully had made their connecting flight (they had). Two men also in the waiting area had left one after the other within fifteen minutes of Skinner's arrival, and didn't come back. I guess they didn't want to make this public, Skinner thought.

They came out from the ramp together; Scully saw Skinner first, put a hand on her partner's arm and pointed out their A.D. with a look. They approached him, and he answered the question on their faces. "I came to pick you up. I wanted to be sure you got home OK." Mulder and Scully looked at each other: maybe he did know something they didn't. "How was Phoenix?"

Mulder answered him. "It was a very interesting conference, sir."

"You can give me the details later. Let's get out of here--I hate airports."

Now Skinner had them in his car, and he wasn't sure what to do with them other than to be certain they got into their respective apartments safely. Scully was beside him in the passenger seat, Mulder in back.

"I'd take you for that beer now," he said, breaking the silence, "but you're probably too tired after your flight." This was almost a question: Mulder and Scully seemed distracted and subdued, and Skinner wanted to know why. He knew he wasn't likely to find out, at least not in so many words.

Scully was the one to respond this time. "You were right to warn us, sir. We were watched at the conference. Judging by a conversation I overheard in the parking garage, our presence there came as something of a surprise to people we'd normally like to avoid."

Skinner gave a wry smile. "Yes, I know. I'll have to tap dance on your paperwork a little harder next time. I would have gotten away with it if you hadn't been recognized by one of their operatives."

Now Mulder spoke up, leaning forward. "Sir?"

"Forget it. Let's just say your trip wasn't as official as it looked."

"You're just full of surprises, if I may say so, sir."

Skinner spared his eyes from the road to give Mulder a glance. "Am I now?" he said. "Don't take it to the bank. You're still not worth the trouble you're in the habit of causing me."

Scully answered him. "We'll keep that in mind, sir."

Skinner's comment had been directed more at Mulder than at Scully, and he smiled to himself once again at her solidarity with her wayward partner. "One of these days, Mulder, I'm going to have to find out how you inspire such loyalty. You certainly have pulled enough crap on your partner to turn most people away."

"I guess I have an exceptional partner."

Scully looked back at Mulder in response to this, and saw that he was completely serious, not ribbing her. She looked away at her hands in her lap, and concentrated on not blushing.

Skinner glanced at her, then at Mulder in the rear view mirror, shaking his head at the two of them. If these two had any more secrets, they'd have to sell movie rights.

Scully turned her head and gazed blankly out the widow. Mulder watched her, marveling not for the first time at how well she could construct impenetrable walls around herself when she wanted to, and settled back for the rest of the ride in silence.

Mulder beat Scully to the office the next morning and found himself with nothing to do (or nothing he could pay attention to, anyway). He fidgeted with some paperwork, waiting for Dana to come in. Finally the door opened and she entered, and he stood up to greet her. She closed the door behind her.

"Good morning, Mulder. You're here early, aren't you?"

"So are you. Coincidence?"

"You'd think if we were on Phoenix time we'd be sleeping in. No such luck, I guess."

"No such luck." He stepped closer to her, and lowered his voice. "Actually, I was hoping we'd have time to talk before we got down to work today."

Scully set her briefcase on a desk and stepped back from him, her face showing a flicker of uncertainty before closing down again. "You could have called me at home."

He shook his head. "No, this has to be in person. Scully, you hardly said a word to me the whole trip back. I think we need to talk about what happened in Phoenix."

Scully took a deep breath and turned away from him, opening her briefcase and taking papers out, not looking at him directly. "At the risk of repeating myself, Mulder, what is there to talk about? I let a weird mood get the better of me. I'm sorry. We both know that pursuing those feelings is not possible in this context."

He moved close to her again. "Do we? You have to try something to find out if it's possible or not: that's scientific method."

Now she looked up at him and the mask dropped, her face pained but resolute, ready to be angry. "But if we try it, and it doesn't work, I for one don't think I'd want to live with the consequences. Leaving you in that hotel room was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do. I don't want that feeling to become permanent."

"We can't just pretend it didn't happen."

"No, we can't. But we can recognize it for what it was: two adult people's hormones combining with emotional and physical stress to make both of us vulnerable to something we would never have chosen otherwise."


"Mulder, please! Don't make this an either-or! I can care about you and, yes, be attracted to you, without feeling compelled to throw away everything we've worked for. You've never expressed any serious interest before, and now suddenly it's all or nothing? We're not 16 years old, we know better than to think we'll explode if we don't act on those feelings."

"Speak for yourself." He paused. "There's more to it than that and you know it. What we did in that room was not just about hormones, at least not for me. And you're the only one saying anything about all or nothing.

"Look, all I want is to talk about this--I'm not making any demands or any final statements. I just want to understand what happened. Don't give me any more rationalizing crap about the nature of the partner relationship, either. You can't just shake it off like this, like being with me is a stain you have to get off your clothes!"

"I have to shake it off, Mulder, and so do you." The cold, dead seriousness of her attitude was starting to scare him. But the crisp veneer began to crumble as she went on. "You don't need me: you need your sister, you need to encounter aliens, you need the Truth. I can't compete with that passion, and I don't want to. Dammit, Mulder, it's who you are! I wouldn't get in the way of that even if I could. You don't have room in there for me!" She hit him in the chest and turned away, getting some distance between them in the small office. Her voice when she spoke again was dull and small; he couldn't see her face. "Think about it, Mulder. Your mission is the only reason we're together. We'd just both be hurt when you figured that out."

He came up behind her and took her shoulders in his hands. He hadn't expected this to be easy, but to be rejected because she cared about him was a little much. "Dana, that's not true. You're a part of my mission now, maybe the biggest part. I couldn't do this without you."

She turned to face him, angrily wiping a streak of wetness from her cheek. "Sure you could. And you might have to if we can't get past this. I never should have said anything, and I certainly shouldn't have asked to stay with you that night. I'm deeply sorry."

He wanted to wipe those tears away, didn't want to be their cause, and found himself with his hand on her face. Somehow she didn't move away again, didn't refuse the gesture, her serious eyes taking in his own. "Don't be sorry," he told her. "Dana, please--"

"I'm afraid, Mulder--"

"Trust me!"

"I do--"

Why those particular words opened the floodgates neither of them knew, but words ceased as their mouths found each other again, finally achieving first a desperate and then a more tender communication which seemed more effective than what words had been able to give them on this subject.

By the time they released, Dana was wondering why her clothes were still on. "Your desk or mine, Mulder? This is ridiculous."

"No, it's not. It's perfectly reasonable."

Something in her brain rearranged itself, and with a sudden clarity everything made sense. "Of course it is," came her answer. This really was the man in her life, and that was just fine. Scully took Mulder by surprise with a new-found certainty, starting to push him up against the desk behind him through a luxurious kiss.

A knock came at the door, and they barely had time to unpeel before the door was opening. It was Skinner, carrying some files. He stopped in the doorway and looked at them, taking in the vibes in the room. "I'm not interrupting anything, am I?"

Scully cleared her throat. "Of course not."

Skinner looked at Mulder, whose face was a studied blank and whose shirt was coming untucked, then back at Scully, the state of whose hair betrayed her cool posture. Uh-huh.

All right, he'd play it their way. "A divisional review came through while you were gone that affects the X-Files. I thought I should bring you these materials myself. I'll want to see you in my office in one hour: that ought to give you enough time." He gave his agents a pointed look, then reached between the two of them to lay his files down on the desk before going out without further discussion.

An hour and a quarter later, Scully and Mulder sat opposite Skinner at his desk, all smooth and professional now. Skinner had given them a fairly ordinary briefing on the review findings, and they both seemed happy to get through it with minimal responses required. The review had come down just as Skinner had been doing his final "tap-dance" on the PUPA convention; nothing had really changed, not on the surface, but the A.D. felt he had just received another warning from those who disapproved of--and those who opposed--the X-Files. The "opposition" had a way of manipulating Bureau internal affairs to its own ends, and Skinner wasn't willing to sit in the dark any more. Supporting Mulder and Scully was just one way to fight back.

He paused, examining his silent agents, and began his summation. "I want you to know that assignments like your most recent one are not going to become typical. Bureau procedures, regulations and requirements still stand, for you and for me."

"Of course, sir," Scully assented automatically.

"However, I understand that your work requires a certain flexibility, and it is my aim to accommodate that need. But you two have to know where to draw the line: getting yourselves killed or kicked out of the Bureau only helps your enemies. I hope it's not too much to ask for a little common sense."

Mulder was getting tired of the scolding; the impatience was written all over him. For such a subtle man, Skinner reflected, Mulder could be dangerously obvious. He never responded well to talking-tos: he had better things to do. "Is that all, sir?"

Skinner eyed him. "For now." The A.D. turned his gaze to the paperwork on his desk, and the two agents got up to leave. Then Skinner looked up, the phantom of a smile on his lips. "Oh, and kids: if you're feeling passionate, do me a favor and go home or something. Next time you get caught it might not be someone who's wondering what took you so long to figure out what's good for you."

Scully froze; Mulder looked almost ready to laugh, and was the only one with a verbal response. "Sir?!"

"You heard me," Skinner said, trying to remain gruff when he wanted to laugh, too. "We couldn't separate the two of you if we tried. Fat lot of good it did us last time. We'd have to post you to separate continents to keep you from working together, and even then you'd probably find a way around it." He paused, watching his words sink in. A grin started to grow on Mulder's face as he absorbed this paternal blessing. Scully realized her mouth was open, shut it, and shifted her weight, eyeing the door. Skinner mercifully released them: "Dismissed."

Scully, not sure what to think, let Mulder escort her out of the office. They walked down the hallway, Scully still somewhat in a daze. Mulder, by contrast, looked about ready to do handstands. "Uncle Walter seems to be happy for us," he said.

She gave him a warning look. Any certainty she had felt in their office seemed a lot less trustworthy now that they'd been caught. She felt exposed, and threatened. She wasn't used to feeling this uncertain--or this inconsistent. She definitely did not appreciate being ambushed by different sides of her own psyche at the same time.

"I'm not sure if I'm happy for us," she told Mulder, with as much weight as she could manage. This was a lot more serious for her than for Mulder. This kind of thing would only improve his reputation, but it was a different story for her. It was something she had worked against for her entire career.

He just grinned at her. "So do you want to go home or something?"

Of course he didn't get it. "I thought you said you didn't want to push."

He stopped. "I don't. But I don't think we're likely to get much work done in the office at this point."

"You're probably right." She ran a hand through her hair, biting her lip. "I'm sorry, Mulder. I know I'm not acting like my usual rational self. I'm not feeling like my usual rational self. Could we call a time out for a couple days? I don't trust my judgment right now, and I don't want to rush into something we'll both regret. I--I just don't know."

She could trust the serious look on his face now. Regardless of everything else, she knew she could trust him. "You do what you need to do, Dana," he said gently. "But don't think you're getting rid of me this easily."

"I don't want to get rid of you; I just don't want to make a big mistake."

"I know. It's not like I'm not scared, too. Maybe you're right: maybe this is someplace we shouldn't go. I have to admit this is one paranormal encounter I never expected."

Despite his words, he didn't look like he was feeling any particular turmoil. Maybe it was a guy thing. Maybe it was a Mulder thing. This wouldn't be the first time their moods and their thought processes had moved in different directions.

He turned and started to go.

"Where are you going?" She hated hearing herself say that; the words sometimes seemed to be the hallmark of their partnership (another reason why this might not be such a great idea).

"Home: for a cold shower. There are limits, even for me." He gave her that big grin again, and kept going down the hall.

At home in her apartment Dana tried to keep herself busy with chores. When her mind wandered for the third time while scrubbing the tub she gave up, fixed herself a quick dinner, and picked up the phone to punch an autodial button. After a moment, someone picked up at the other end. Scully's voice trembled a little as she spoke.

"Hi, Mom, it's Dana. Do you have time to talk right now?" She hesitated. "It's about Mulder."

Margaret Scully sat in her living room, listening carefully to her daughter. As the words poured forth, and between the two of them they got the story more or less worked out, Margaret felt a smile warming her face. "Oh, honey, that's wonderful," she told her baby girl. "Honestly, I don't think you have anything to be afraid of. I'm so happy for you!"

"I told you, Mom, it's not that simple," Dana protested wearily.

"It will be, Dana. It will be. Don't forget, I know Fox. He was more than a help while you were missing, and sick. Your partnership has already been tested in so many ways. I think you know each other too well to have any false expectations."

"It seems like that now, Mom, but this would change so many things. We don't realy know each other, not this way.... His friendship means a lot to me. I don't want to throw it away."

"I don't think you will. You're both too smart for that. Besides, I'll be watching you."

"A lot of people might be watching us, Mom. It's just so risky."

"But there's something else you're risking if you turn him away."

"I'm not afraid of being alone."

"No. That's not what I meant. You should be afraid of closing down your own heart." There was a long, quiet pause. Finally, Margaret heard her daughter sigh: an acknowledgement, not a denial. "Do you know what I think you should do, Dana?"


"I think you should get off the phone with me, call Fox and tell him that your mother said it would be OK."

Another pause. "I'll think about it, Mom. I mean, what if it's just hormones? That'll wear off, and then where will we be?"

"I think you know better than that, Dana. You know yourself better than that. And you know Fox better than that."

Margaret waited patiently through another extended, gentle pause. She knew her daughter, and wished with all her heart that she could make this easier for her. But she had learned long ago that Dana had to figure things out for herself.

"All right, Mom," came Dana's voice finally, and Margaret was grateful for the peace she heard in it. "Thanks for listening."

"It's my job, honey. Just let me know what you decide, all right?"

She could hear her daughter give a small laugh. "Count on it, Mom. I think I'm going to let myself sleep on this one."

They said their goodnights, and hung up. A little later the phone rang again, and Margaret answered. "Hello?"

"Um, Mrs. Scully? This is Fox Mulder."

Now this was an interesting wrinkle. "Yes, Fox. I just got off the phone with Dana. Is anything wrong?"

"I don't think so. Did Dana call you, or...?"

"She called me. She just wanted to talk." Margaret knew she shouldn't torture the poor man, but she also knew she shouldn't betray a confidence--at least not until she had a sense of where Fox stood.

"Did she say anything--oh, forget it. I'm sorry to bother you, Mrs. Scully, I shouldn't have called."

"Oh, no, Fox, that's all right. Is something wrong?"

He hesitated before answering the question. "There was something that came up during our trip to Phoenix."

"I see. Don't worry, Fox, I think she'll come through this right side up. I told her she should call you: you might want to get off the line."

"You told her...?"

"I told her I thought she should call you and tell you I said it was OK." Margaret was smiling. She couldn't help it; she liked Fox.

"What did she say?"

"She said she'd sleep on it."

There was a pause. "Thank you, Mrs. Scully."

"You can call me Margaret, you know. Don't worry, Fox. She trusts you."

"There's more to this than me, though. She's right about that. I don't know what she told you...."

"She told me enough. I hope she'll have some good news for me in the next few days."

Mulder swallowed hard. He wasn't sure what "Margaret" would consider "good news". He hoped she wasn't hearing wedding bells--he wasn't anywhere near ready for that. At least, he didn't think so. A lot of things had changed pretty rapidly in the last week.

Margaret listened to a Fox Mulder pause, which seemed very different from a Dana Scully pause: full of things not being said, not simply full of private thoughts. "I'd better go," he said finally, the softness in his voice reminding her oddly enough of her youngest son Charles as a boy, when he would entrust her with a very important secret.

"Good night, Fox. Try to get some sleep."

Mulder hung up the phone and ran a hand through his hair, wondering if Margaret's wish for him could possibly come true.

That night Dana sank into sleep like a stone cast into a tree-shaded pond. In her dream she was falling feet-first through deep, heavy water that grasped at her limbs, her arms outstretched above her head, but somehow she could breathe. The water was a deep blue, almost purple, and long thin plant fronds caressed her bare skin as she slid through the warm element. She was not afraid, but felt instead an anticipation, a calm awareness that she was approaching an unknown but welcome point of completion. It was like her first Communion, she thought, as she opened her mouth to sing. Her throat vibrated with the full resonance of the notes, in a language she didn't recognize but somehow comprehended: "I am coming." The song seemed to fill her entire body, and her feeling of quiet contentment swelled into an exaltation, a jubilation. "I am coming," she sang in the foreign words, and the fronds danced holy attendance upon her skin.

Just as the last of the song poured forth, the water brightened and she felt her feet and then the rest of her thrust down into a soft, wet, white sand that slid over her skin like liquid silk. Still there was no fear, even as she was briefly blinded by the bright sand. As her outstretched fingers were engulfed by the sand, her feet emerged into unexpected air, and she was received by unseen hands into a bed of perfect peace. Those gentle, insistent hands ran along her arms and legs now leaden from her journey, stripping away fatigue and stirring a warm glow in her belly. The hands of a friend. She felt as if part of her were still falling, pouring into the space where her body now lay, and she knew with a soft assurance that once the rest of her arrived she would be free to return the greeting of the friend in her bed.

Scully woke feeling more rested than she had in weeks, maybe months. The faint touch of a dream that must have been a good one made her stretch and give a contented sigh. Then she saw the time--how could she have slept right through the alarm? She had been so preoccupied the night before, she might not have even remembered to set it. That's OK, she thought, I didn't want to go to work today, anyway. Why waste a good mood on the unknown? This would be a good day to drive out into the country and take a long walk. Even if her Mom said it was OK, she wasn't ready to see him yet. The rest of her still hadn't gotten there.

The first day Mulder was not all that surprised when Scully never showed up at the office, but the day after that was harder to take. His jaw was clenching with the effort it took not to call her, although he did let himself check his answering machine. Nothing. Nothing from her. He heard that she had been in the building, checking on some evidence in Agent Pendrell's lab, and he could practically feel himself turning gray. He knew how Pendrell felt about Scully, it was written all over the poor guy's face whenever she walked in the room; there was no way Scully hadn't noticed. What if a nice, uncomplicated, adoring technical consultant was a better deal than a brooding, self-destructive partner...? Margaret assured him that this was just Dana's way, she needed to sort things out, but he was beginning to suspect that Dana's way was going to kill him. He hadn't realized how much he liked simply being in the same room with her, the same car, the same crime scene. Until he saw her again he wouldn't know what he really wanted beyond wanting to see her so badly, even if all they did was argue. He had a dream of lying beside her so real that when he woke up and she wasn't there, hadn't been there, the shock almost took his breath away.

Finally on the third day he gave up and went home early for an afternoon run, hoping that would help. It didn't. Worse, it was Friday: he didn't know if he could face an entire weekend of this. But when he got back to the apartment there was something at his door: a bouquet of flowers that looked like they had come out of somebody's garden. He found the card and opened it, and his heart jumped at the familiar handwriting: "All right, partner, let's see what happens. Call me!" Had she been here, and he'd missed her? He didn't care. He picked up the flowers, opened the door and went to the phone.

Her answering machine. Not home yet? He listened to her voice on the tape like a thirsty man hearing a waterfall in the distance, then got to the beep: "Hey, Scully, I got the flowers! Listen, I'd better hear from you, or I'm going to show up under your window with a brass band...."

Scully snatched up the receiver. "Here I am. Sorry about the machine, I was too nervous to talk to anyone but you." All she could hear at his end was him laughing. "Mulder?"

"I'm listening."

"How soon can you be here?"

"Three days ago. I just got back from a run, though, I'm a mess."

"I could tell you that sweaty men turn me on...."

He laughed again. "There are a lot of things I don't know about you, Dana Scully."

"Damn straight. And neither of us is going to find out about it over the phone."

There was a pause. "I'm coming," he said, and hung up.

She didn't say a word when she opened the door, just closed it behind him, took the flowers from him and set them down, and put her arms around him in a silent hug. He never knew that just standing with someone could give him so much pleasure. As partners they had never allowed themselves this, or only in moments of extreme grief or shock. What had they been so afraid of?

The thought became so clear he had to say it. "I could do this for another three days," he told her. "What do you think?"

"I think we have a lot to get used to," she said. "I hope it takes more than three days; I don't want to miss anything."

He wanted to see her face now, and gently pulled back to look at her. She lifted her head and gave him a small, warm smile just like the one from his dream nearly two weeks ago. It got the same response in real life that it had in the dream, and her smile took his in a soft, sweet kiss. "You taste good," he told her, and the smile got bigger.

"So do you."

"What happens next?"

"My Mom would say that this is the part where we live happily ever after."

"I like your Mom; she's a smart lady."

"She thinks very highly of you, too."

He watched her face a moment, wanting to be certain that the peace he saw there was real. "Are you sure about this?"

She gave him a brilliant grin. "Do you believe in the existence of extraterrestrials?" Then she was serious, to give him the answer he needed. "Yes, I'm sure. As sure as I can be before we start."

"Do we know what we're doing?"

"No. But you were the one who said we can't find out unless we try. You could say that our entire professional relationship has been based on taking risks. This won't be so different."

Mulder took a deep breath. "All right, then. But there's something I have to tell you."

Somehow from his face Scully knew this wouldn't be something she didn't want to hear--not another dark and horrible secret. Still, every time she thought he couldn't surprise her any more.... "Oh?" She had to prompt him: he seemed to have gotten lost inside his thoughts. He kissed her again before speaking, against which she had absolutely no objection.

Now he had to say it. "I love you, Dana Katherine Scully."

She laughed--a happy sound, not mocking. "I love you right back, Fox William Mulder."

Slow and sweet and easy, fast and furious and fun. Happily ever after would take care of itself.


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