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A slightly overweight man stepped into the bright halo of light beneath the bank's overhanging roof. Reaching into the pocket of his jeans, he withdrew a worn leather wallet. He rifled through a thick packet of cards while the occasional car or truck rumbled along the street behind him. The correct plastic rectangle in hand, he thumbed it into the slot, his eyes following the display as the ATM dutifully asked for language and PIN. The machine flashed its display with a quick graphic of the bank's logo and then settled on a simple welcome: "Hello, Zachary Newton!"

Said customer was suitably unimpressed, allowing an escaping yawn to express his boredom. While waiting for the mechanism to dispense his cash, he took off his horn-rimmed glasses and cleaned them on the hem of his tie dyed tee shirt. Absently, he reached back to toy with the long, mousy brown braid that trailed down his back, its thick plait falling below a balding pate.

When the machine finally whirred to life, he collected the bills, but before he could tuck the money into his wallet, he convulsed, yelping in pain.

Newton whirled, clutching his shoulder. A long strip of twisted metal was embedded in his flesh, blood blossoming out from the wound. Newton yanked the crude knife free, muttering, "Shit!" as the blood flowed more freely. Newton's eyes darted around the dark perimeter of the porch, even glancing upward briefly. He frowned, unable to identify either a living assailant or any structural failure that could have launched – or dropped – the mangled steel into his upper back.

Something screamed behind him, a chilling distortion of a human voice. His peripheral vision caught just a glimpse of a horribly disfigured woman, her skin maligned by red and blistering burns, gray-white pustules, and dark scabs that marked deep wounds. Her lips were largely eaten away, exposing big segments of her teeth and gums, and her eyelids were missing. The macabre creature lunged at Newton, who backed away in horror.

He never stopped to look in the direction he stumbled. His eyes merely bugged when the awful, tragic figure opened her mouth, wailing, "Nooooo-o-o-o-o!!!" just before she winked out of existence.

But it was the trio of equally maimed companions who together besieged Newton, swarming around him, their makeshift weapons flashing anew with each deadly stroke. Leprous arms stabbed shards of metal and glass into their victim's torso. There was shimmer, and the two perversions of humanity became four, then seven. Two of the first group blinked away to be replaced by one, and the numbers continued to fluctuate, until the shifting mob was leaping and cackling with psychotic glee.

Finally the ghastly assailants melted away entirely, leaving the man to stare sightlessly up at the high stucco ceiling. The visciousness of the attack had splashed a gruesome pointillism over the pale finish, an abstract portrait of mindless violence. Newton's body was shredded from shoulders to hips, his tattered entrails strung over the sidewalk. The gory strings spelled, "We won't go to hell without taking hostages along for the ride!"

J E Hoover Building

1 p.m.

Scully sat staring at her banana and cup of yogurt, her thoughts occupied with the events of a week ago. The day she had felt the odd sensation of a man’s hand delving into her chest. Although she and Mulder had been covered in her blood, her body was left unmarked.

She shuddered and picked up her spoon. The Milagro charm had been found in the young writer’s apartment, and she had taken it, not really knowing why. Perhaps it served to remind her of a truth she had recalled that week.

That she was a woman, and there were a lot of men who saw her that way.

Mulder rushed into the office, breaking into her reverie like a wave crashing over her head, and she blinked, dipping her spoon into the yogurt and tasting it, the flavor never really registering as she watched Mulder greet her and flip open a case file. He had obviously found something that excited him. His passion for his work was a site to behold, thrilling her anew each and every time it surfaced.

"Listen to this, Scully! A man was attacked while using his ATM last night. Several witnesses saw him being cut repeatedly and bludgeoned to the ground."

Scully swallowed her yogurt. "And?" she asked, knowing that there had to be more.

Mulder smiled. "And, Agent Scully, they said they saw these monstrous apparitions, and they were visible and not visible, alternately."

Scully pushed her cup away and leaned back in her seat, casually peeling her banana. "What do you mean, Mulder? Alternately?"

"What they saw was this Zachary Newton being cut with an object and beaten to the ground by apparition-like beings that kept fading in and out."

Scully’s banana stuck in her throat, and she rose from the chair and walked to the water cooler, pouring a good amount of the refreshing liquid into her paper cup and drinking it before turning to her partner. He was loading the VCR.

"Watch this bank surveillance tape," he said, turning it on and stepping back, the remote in his hand.

Scully stood beside him, watching in fascination as a middle-aged, balding man with a long braid down his back turned from the ATM machine as he was hit with a jagged piece of metal. He began screaming and trying to protect himself as other gashes and cuts began miraculously appearing all over his body. He staggered to his knees, trying in vain to cover his head as blood splattered everywhere, including onto the camera lens. It was a horrifying thing to watch, but what held Scully riveted was the odd ghost-like beings that multiplied and alternately disappeared on the screen. When the scene was over, Mulder turned to Scully, hands casually resting on his hips.

"What do you think of that? Amazing, huh?"

Scully pursed her lips. "Definitely strange." She took the folder from him and looked it over, but found nothing from which she could draw a logical explanation. "Are we going to go look at the scene?"

"I thought we might," he replied, grabbing his jacket. Scully drank the rest of her water and picked up her blazer off the back of her chair, following Mulder out of the office.

On the car ride there, Scully tried unsuccessfully to explain away the strange beings they had seen on the video tape. Mulder countered her every argument, so she finally fell silent and soon felt her thoughts wandering again to Philip Padgett and the interest he had shown in her. Scully knew full well that the strong draw she had felt for him sprung fully from the way he had looked at her. She was wary of him after finding out he had been watching her for so long, yet his unwavering gaze had told her that she was the most interesting and beautiful woman he had ever seen. It had been so long since she had felt that way, and she had to admit that she missed it. In his presence she had been a sexual creature again, rather than a genderless agent and doctor, trying to keep her footing in a man’s world.

She tried to shake herself out of her reverie, but instead recalled her breakdown in Mulder’s apartment when she had regained consciousness after being violently attacked. She felt annoyed with herself for being so weak, although she knew that Mulder would never hold it against her. She had been feeling so vulnerable of late, and Mulder’s insistent loyalty to Agent Fowley hadn’t helped matters. Scully felt certain that the woman wasn’t to be trusted, and was incredibly chagrined that he refused to consider it. Mulder. The man who looked behind every bush and with whom no one was above suspicion.

A warm anger simmered deep within her, and Scully tried to force it away. She didn’t want to think like this. She didn’t want to care so much.

Mulder pulled the car into a space about ten feet from the area that was ribboned off with police tape and the two agents stepped out of the car and into the warm afternoon sun.

The uniformed man who met them wasn't a police officer, and for a moment, Scully had a hard time breathing. The tall, slender stranger could have walked straight from the pages of her dreams. He smiled, and she decided it was official; nobody on earth had the right to look that good. A dozen or so medals adorned his navy jacket, and even after years of living in a civilian world, Scully recognized the signs of his rank. "Lieutenant Commander – ?" Had her mouth formed that word, and achieved it without squeaking? It sounded like her voice.

"Domingo," he replied easily. "Paul Domingo, Naval Intelligence. And no matter what you've heard, the two expressions aren't oxymorons. You the Siamese twins sent by the FBI?" He gave Mulder a courteous nod, but his rich brown eyes lingered on Scully.

Mulder was in turn staring at the dark stain that still marred the pavement underfoot. Even with all of the industrial cleaners available to the bank, nothing could hide the fact that a man had died on this spot. For a moment, a chill settled over Scully as the reality set in. She'd seen dozens, maybe hundreds of cadavers, and yet knowing she stood precisely where a man had drawn his last breath...

"Miss? Miss, are you all right?"

Scully jumped when Domingo's hand touched her shoulder. If someone had handed her a live electrical wire, she didn't think it would have carried the current of that simple gesture. She stammered, "I – I'm fine. Thank you." She felt her face flush under his unhurried scrutiny. Her eyes flicked briefly to Mulder, a second's guilt evaporating when she realized he was absorbed in the ATM's camera. Her partner was calculating the angle of the camera in relation to the fallen man and the attackers.

"This is a pretty gruesome murder, even for someone who's used to dealing with murders," Domingo replied gently. "There's no shame in being shocked. A man died here, right where we're standing. That's a pretty powerful situation, no matter how you slice it."

She snapped to attention, his reassurance reminding her of who she was. "Thank you, Sir. Murders are never a pretty business, no matter how many you see. I'm Special Agent Dana Scully, and this is my partner, Fox Mulder." She gestured in the general direction of Mulder, who was still focused exclusively on the elements of the crime. Her male counterpart waved vaguely back. "Has the victim been autopsied?"

"Nope. Newton was working with the Navy, but only in a civilian capacity. Our boys requested the slice and dice orders, but the local PD wanted an outside opinion. I think they're scared. This is the third mysterious, violent killing in less than a month, in a town of a little over thirty-five hundred. Even as close as they are to DC, they hardly ever see murder in this little corner of paradise."

The wind picked up, tugging at the woman's rich titian mane, tossing it into her face. She brushed it back absently, blushing again when she realized that Domingo was watching the movements of her hand as though it were performing some grand ballet. Scully drew a breath, willing her heart to slow. (When, exactly, had it doubled its beat?)

"You said Mr. Newton was working with the Navy. Do you believe his death was an attempt to sabotage whatever project he was working on?" Mulder's even baritone was almost like a physical blow, bringing her quickly back down to earth.

Domingo tilted his head. "I suppose it's possible. Pretty damned unlikely, though, since the project had already been scrapped. It had been tested once, was a dismal failure, and Newton and the rest of the team was thrown back to square one. The details are classified, of course." The lieutenant commander's jaw worked, his tension coming through loud and clear. Guilt or anger, Scully wondered. One way or the other, this gorgeous Latino man was extremely unhappy.

"Classified. Of course," Mulder echoed drily.

Scully and Mulder moved through the usual routine, getting all of the facts and rechecking each one as much as they could. Domingo stayed with them for half of the three hours they were there, shaking Mulder’s hand when he left and squeezing Scully’s warmly when she offered her own. Had that been her imagination? The way his eyes locked with hers and he said softly, "Our paths will surely cross again before this is all over."

She composed herself as his car drove away, forcing herself back to the task at hand. One thing she knew for certain; she had not felt this way in a long time. Kind of like she was in college again and had met someone who had really sparked something within her. It had happened a couple of times during her four years studying for medical school, and she had reigned herself in each time, her sights set firmly on her ambitions. She had also felt a very real spark of it when she had met Fox Mulder, but as time went on, she had effectively squelched that, too, knowing that an effective partnership held no room for sexual relations of any sort. Their relationship had sprung forward emotionally, but the physical had remained safely contained for these six years.

Even if she had felt free to explore a relationship with Mulder, he had been far too wrapped up in his quest to pay attention to things like that, or to be interested in them. At one point she had even allowed herself to wonder if he was gay, but a few unintended close brushes with his person had proved otherwise. Scully had been satisfied to know that at least she had the power to turn him on. Not long into their partnership, she had been irrevocably enveloped in the sinister plot of the consortium herself, turning her thoughts from the possibilities of love to deep fear and anger-charged bitterness.

Never had she blamed Mulder for what had happened to her, but Scully had felt herself harden inside, becoming someone she didn’t even know. If her partner wondered what had happened to the girl he’d met so long ago in his office who still had the ability to smile without thinking about it, he had never mentioned it to her. He was a man possessed with a goal, and she had been gradually swallowed by it, much as a branch thrown to quicksand. She found herself wondering if she would dry up and die now that she’d been consumed.

Glancing at her partner as he finished making his notes, she felt a pang of affection and regret. She knew how strongly she felt for him, but she also realized that he couldn’t let go of the thing that drove him. Not enough to love her as she needed to be loved.

^^^

When Scully arrived home that evening, tired from the day’s work, she soaked in the bath and prepared herself a light supper. Sprawling on her sofa, she flipped through some television stations, finally turning the set off and settling for some music instead.

Soothing strains of Mozart sent her dozing until the sharp ring of the telephone jolted her out of her peace.

"Hello?" she answered, her voice a bit scratchy from sleep.

"Dana!" Her brother Bill’s voice boomed over the receiver.

"Bill! How are you? Are you calling from California?"

"No, Sis, I’m here at Mom’s. Tara and I got in yesterday afternoon, and I’ve been trying you ever since. Figured you were working without a minute off, as usual."

"Don’t start, Bill," Scully admonished, irritation scratching at her feelings.

"Sorry, Dana. I really just want to see you while I’m here. I’ve missed you." Bill sounded genuinely rueful.

Scully smiled. "Me, too."

"Tara and I are going to that little Italian place near Mom’s tomorrow night, and we want you to join us."

"Tomorrow?" Scully was thinking about the meeting she and Mulder were scheduled for with AD Skinner at 5 p.m.

"Maybe six?" Bill sounded so hopeful, that Scully couldn’t say no.

"Make it seven and I think I can make it," she said. "I’ll have to meet you there."

"Why don’t we make it seven-thirty so you’ll have time to go home and change. We don’t want you to rush, Dana. It’s supposed to be fun."

Scully smiled again and agreed. When she hung up, she pulled herself off the couch and went to bed, thinking that a night with Bill and Tara just might lighten her mood.

 

The engine purred to life in his government-issue sedan, and Lieutenant Commander Paul Domingo pulled into traffic. His mind wasn’t on his driving and he nearly connected with a dark green pickup that was rolling along in the far right lane. At the pickup driver’s loud honk, Domingo waved a sheepish apology, forcing himself to focus on the flow of vehicles along the secondary road.

Domingo decided it probably wasn’t a good idea to get himself killed just yet, not after meeting the stunning woman who had taken his breath away. Her blue eyes had mesmerized him, her scent intoxicated him, her voice hypnotized him. He’d never encountered anyone, male or female, who had landed such a well-placed psychological kick to his midsection, and he wasn’t complaining, not by a mile. His full lips curved up and his long fingers drummed rhythmically against the steering wheel, an unconscious reaction to the upbeat love song playing on his radio. It was the sort of sappy music that generally prompted him to turn the station, but suddenly he found it rather endearing.

Much like he’d found Dana Scully endearing and alluring.

Bill Scully had talked frequently and at length about his kid sister, bemoaning the fact that she was wasting her life at the FBI, that she was inextricably linked to a boorish partner, that she had become a social hermit. Over the year that they’d known each other, Paul Domingo had offered only casual replies to his friend’s complaints, the generic remarks of a man trying to take the high road.

Then when Scully had introduced herself outside of the bank, Domingo had been stunned. There couldn’t have been two Dana Scullys in the FBI. It had to be one and the same. He’d seen a couple of old snapshots, but they didn’t do justice to the dainty little redhead with the sultry, musical voice. Her severely tailored suit merely accentuated the fine lines of her face and figure, clinging to her delicate curves. She was as lovely and flawless looking as a china doll. Only this china doll carried fire in her azure eyes and warmth in her smile, and she drew him like a moth to the flame of her gaze.

He hoped he wasn’t deluding himself with the sense that the attraction was mutual. He certainly prayed it wasn’t.

The digital clock on his dash assured him that he was off duty. He pulled off his cap, tossing it to the unoccupied passenger seat. He loosened the knot of his tie, pulling it over his head and dropping it into the bowl of his hat. The top shirt button yielded next, then a second. He ruffled a hand through his regulation cut black hair, suddenly wondering if a particular woman would find its texture appealing. Funny how his perspective had undergone such a dramatic change after mere minutes in her presence. He found himself fantasizing about her, his mind playing out a pattern of dates, of lovemaking, even the whisper of a long-term future. It was as though she’d wakened a whole new facet of his personality, the part of him that he’d been denying for his whole life, the part his own family had despaired of ever seeing.

He was actually thinking of settling down, and the lovely Dana Scully fit his picture like the proverbial glove. It didn’t seem to matter that he hadn’t even asked for her phone number. Then again…

It wasn’t like he didn’t know how to find her. He knew where she worked.

Domingo mused at the timing of their encounter. Given that he’d recently transferred to the East Coast, he hadn’t seen Bill Scully in a while, but he was meeting Bill and Tara tomorrow night at La Noche’s for dinner. The Latino man was thinking maybe, just maybe, he’d ask some pertinent questions about Dana. The naval officer had observed the FBI partners for long enough to hope that maybe they weren’t as inseparable as Bill had implied.

And even if they were, he was thinking that he just might be up to the challenge of changing that little detail.

 

Scully found herself checking her watch as AD Skinner went over the details of a recently closed case for the fourth time. He was unhappy about the way things had wrapped up and wanted to make certain that the facts were straight before he turned the report in to his superior. She bit her lip and thought about how long it would take for her to get to her apartment, take a quick shower and change her clothes before driving to the restaurant to meet her brother and sister-in-law.

She suddenly realized that Mulder was looking at her and she flinched. She’d missed something.

"I’m sorry, what?"

Mulder smiled. He, too, had been bored out of his skull for the past hour and fifteen minutes. "I just wanted to know if you agreed, Scully."

She sat up straighter in her chair. "Yes, yes, of course I do."

Skinner narrowed his eyes and then nodded, placing the papers in an envelope. "In that case, the two of you are dismissed."

Scully stood thankfully, trying not to look too happy to be set free. She walked behind Mulder out of the office and accelerated her steps once they hit the hallway.

"In a hurry, Scully?" Mulder asked, stepping into the elevator and pressing the button for the basement.

"Yes, I’m supposed to meet Bill and Tara and time is of the essence." They stepped off the lift and started down the hall.

"Well, hope you have a good time," he replied, smiling. "You do realize, by the way, that you agreed with my theory on the supernatural aspects of the Jersey case in front of Skinner."

Before Scully could reply, Mulder had locked the office door and headed for the parking garage, whistling a tune. That’s what she got for letting her mind wander during a meeting, she thought unhappily. She was frankly surprised that Skinner bought it. Perhaps he had been as ready as they’d been for the meeting to come to an end.

Scully climbed into her car and drove out of the dark garage and into the setting sun, fumbling in her briefcase for her sunglasses.

She took a few back streets, hoping to avoid traffic, and made it to her apartment building in record time. She hurried to get ready, and it was only forty-five minutes from the moment she had looked at her watch in Skinner’s office that she found herself locking her apartment door and making her way back to her car.

She’d dressed comfortably in slacks and a light blue blouse, her hair casually tousled and her makeup carefully retouched. She hadn’t seen Bill and Tara in awhile, and she didn’t want to appear tired looking and worn out. Bill would pick up on that immediately.

Taking the exit that led to the quaint little town lined with various shops and restaurants, Scully mused that she would try to make this an early night. She and Mulder had a lot of work to do in the morning. Of course, she didn’t want to give that excuse to Bill. Anything she said about Mulder and her work was taken the wrong way by her big brother.

Scully was pleased when she made the trio of lights at the edge of town, and she smiled when she spotted a parking space not a block from the restaurant. This was evidently her lucky night.

She climbed out of her car, pressing the automatic locks, and hurried down the street. She was only five minutes late.

The restaurant was dark and a little crowded. Scully stood on her toes and looked about, trying to spy her brother in the throng. A hand was waving near the back, and Scully made her way through the crowd waiting for a table and maneuvered around the diners until she reached the table. She greeted Bill and Tara, hugging them warmly, and then took a seat beside her sister-in-law and across from her brother.

Bill cleared his throat. "Dana, I need to warn you that I’ve invited an old friend of mine to join us."

Scully looked up from her water glass. "Bill, tell me you didn’t…"

Bill held up his hand. "Now this isn’t a fix-up, Dana. Just some people getting together."

Scully rolled her eyes. She was beginning to get angry. I can’t believe he did this! she thought. Tara put a hand on hers and said, "He’s a great guy, Dana. Really."

Scully was opening her mouth to speak when she saw Bill’s gaze directed behind her. It was too late to get up and walk out.

Slowly, Scully turned around and took in the tall Latino man dressed casually in chinos and a collared shirt. Her mouth dropped open. Paul Domingo! The man she had met the day before outside the bank. A smile spread across his handsome face and it was obvious that he was as pleasantly surprised to see her as she was him.

Scully pushed her chair out and stood. "Uh, this is…this is a surprise!" she stammered, but couldn’t help the smile that followed.

"For me, also," Paul replied. "I realized that you were probably Bill’s sister, but didn’t know that you’d be meeting us here tonight." He took her hand in his large, warm one and squeezed it much as he’d done the day before. Scully felt Bill and Tara’s eyes upon her and the color rose to her cheeks.

Smoothly, Paul held her chair out for her and then seated himself.

 

The blush colored her milky skin, and Domingo was utterly bewitched. It seemed that in even this small detail, Dana Scully was fascinating to him.

He decided he was going to send Tara a thank you card for this invitation. If Dana had looked lovely in her dark suit, she looked like a feminine confection in the pale blue blouse that pooled over her slender curves. He silently likened her to cotton candy, then dismissed the thought. Softness was a relative term, and she was certainly not a fluff. One thing Bill kept repeating over and over again was that Dana was wasting her medical training. Anyone who made it through medical school and the FBI was a force to be reckoned with.

A thought toyed at the edge of his consciousness, and he wondered absently if that might be what was keeping her and her somber partner apart. Some men didn’t like strong women. Paul Domingo grinned at the thought of his mother, a tiny dynamo who ruled the roost with an iron hand. Domingo loved strong women, a fact ingrained in him from the day of his birth. Certainly his father had never complained.

Dinner tasted wonderful to him, the conversation was scintillating, and he discovered that whenever his unplanned companion laughed, the muscles in her throat flexed in the most appealing way. Bill finally expressed surprise, saying he didn’t remember hearing his sister laugh so much since before their father had died. Domingo turned to the little auburn-haired beauty. "Why not? You have a wonderful laugh!"

"It’s that damned partner of hers," grumbled Bill.

"Bill!" Dana’s voice was sharp.

Ouch, thought Domingo. It was clearly a long-standing bone of contention between the siblings. "I met Agent Mulder. He seems like a very competent investigator." Sometimes noncommittal diplomacy was the only way.

He was rewarded with a grateful smile from Dana and a mild scowl from Bill. Tara kept her gaze studiously averted. All in all, Domingo figured he got the better end of the deal. Now he just had to figure out exactly what kind of relationship Dana actually had with said partner. He didn’t think they were lovers, but there was a sense that the ties were deeper than mere professionalism.

"Mulder is very good at what he does," Dana defended quietly. "He’s saved my life more than once."

"He’s also nearly gotten you killed!" Bill Scully apparently wasn’t in the mood to be gracious when it came to the subject of Agent Fox Mulder.

The band started a slow, easy jazz piece and Domingo decided that the best move to diffuse the situation might also be the best move for his personal interests. He stood and turned to Dana. "Would you care to dance?" he asked, careful to keep his voice neutral. If he was going to achieve a cease-fire without making an enemy of either Dana or Bill, he was going to have to tread carefully.

Dana hesitated briefly, glancing at Bill as though seeking his approval for this, too. For all of her declarations of independence, family still mattered to her. Whatever she did or didn’t see in her brother’s sullen expression, she rose gracefully. "Thank you, Paul. I’d love to dance."

Moving them out onto the dance floor, Domingo settled one hand lightly on the small of Dana’s back and the other on her shoulder, a compromise between the close, reassuring embrace he’d have preferred and the polite distance their recent introduction suggested. He could see the tension in her face and feel it in the stiffness of her muscles. "I only bite when provoked," he teased softly. "Unlike your brother."

She relaxed a little at the gentle taunt. "Well, as long as you’ve had your shots," she retorted softly.

"One of the fringe benefits offered when I signed up for a tour in the navy. They promised I could see the world and be free from rabies."

That drew a giggle from her, and he risked drawing her a little closer, pulling both of her arms around his neck. "You’re such a silver-tongued devil," she chuckled. "Bill could take some lessons. I know he loves me and just wants what’s best for me, but he doesn’t understand. My job is important to me. Mulder’s important to me. It’s not like I’m married to the man. He’s my partner, my colleague. That’s all."

Yes! Domingo couldn’t keep the big grin from splitting his face. He admired the curve of soft, fiery hair that framed her sweet face, liking the understated application of cosmetics. Again he was brought to the analogy of a china doll. Her pastel coloring reminded him of a priceless work of art, a priceless treasure sculpted of living porcelain. "Well, I for one am glad that’s all he is. Of course, unlike your brother, I have ulterior motives. Dana, I know this is kind of late in the week, but would you consider having lunch with me on Saturday? I’d really like to see you again. Just you, this time. I’ll ditch Bill and Tara, scout’s honor!"

An odd expression crossed her face and she drew in a sudden breath. Something in his glib invitation had hit her in an unusual way. He just hoped it wasn’t an irreversible faux pas. "I understand if you’re busy," he offered smoothly, burying his disappointment. "If you can’t, though, I’d still like to see you when you can do something."

"I’d love to have lunch with you Saturday!" she answered, slicing through his doubts with a heart-stopping smile.

He was already planning the day, knowing exactly where they would go and what they would do.

At least, what he hoped they would do.

 

Scully. It was how she’d come to think of herself for so many years now she hardly thought to even answer when someone called her by her Christian name.

She skimmed through the case file, part of her analyzing the details of yet another bizarre murder case, while part of her reveled in the thought of seeing Paul Domingo again. She recalled the details; the warmth of his neck beneath her hands, the generous proportions of his lips, the angles of his chiseled features, the lithe way he moved…

He was as darkly beautiful as her partner was, but without the psychological baggage.

Shaking her head, she wondered where that had come from. Paul Domingo was nothing like Mulder. Domingo was an intelligent, sexy man in his own right. He didn’t deserve to be compared to anyone else. She smiled as her mind returned to the Lieutenant Commander’s eyes, as rich and smooth and tempting as chocolate. She could still feel him watching her, and for the first time in a long time, it felt wonderful to be regarded first as a woman. She’d spent so much time fighting for respect as an FBI agent, she had blocked out the need to be wanted for her femininity.

"The library in Montague opens at eight tomorrow morning, but I figured if we leave by then we should still have plenty of time to do our research before they close. I know, I know. It’s my turn to spring for lunch."

Scully blinked, staring blankly at her male counterpart, who was standing in the doorway. He leaned against the jamb, arms crossed and face locked on hers in some inexplicable expectation. He looked mildly bored, truth be told, and she had absolutely no idea what he was talking about.

"What about the library in Montague?" she asked warily, wondering what she’d missed.

Mulder rolled his eyes. "The case? You know, that little thing we do, generally involves ghosts, goblins, or government conspiracies?" Hastily he amended, "Or supposed ghosts, goblins, or government conspiracies. The latest one apparently involves intermittent ghosts who have a problem with guys working with the Navy. " He nodded at the manila file in her hands. "Newton was victim number four, Lutz makes five. It goes without saying that the military is involved, but the military isn’t talking. So I’m counting on background information from previous work performed by the victims. All five of them worked on a university grant and published a cooperative paper that’s on file at the college library in Montague."

"Tomorrow? I’m sorry, Mulder, but I have plans."

"Plans?" Mulder repeated, his voice incredulous.

"Yes, Mulder. Plans. A date, actually."

His jaw worked but no sound came out for a good minute. The he blinked and straightened, and for a moment she thought he was going to challenge her declaration. "Oh. Well. You deserve it. I hope you enjoy yourself, Scully. Anybody I know?" He smiled, apparently accepting her explanation.

"Actually, yes," she replied evenly. Why does it bother me that he seems genuinely glad for me? "I’m having lunch with Paul Domingo."

"He seems like a nice guy."

Once more, there was something disturbing about the fact that Mulder graciously accepted her declaration. Then again, she was reminded, they were partners, co-workers. Nothing more, nothing less. "He is," she replied, warming at the memory of the chocolate eyes that smiled at her. "A very nice guy."

 

"He seems like a nice guy," Mulder told her, trying to imagine how she had possibly hooked up with the Navy man after such a brief and innocuous encounter.

"He is," Scully replied with a tone to her voice he’d seldom heard before. It made him feel suddenly as if he didn’t know her at all. Not really. "A very nice guy."

Mulder watched her for a moment, but her eyes didn’t lift from her work, so he moved to his desk and sat down at his computer, pulling up a document that he’d been working on earlier. He had an uncomfortable feeling inside, and he couldn’t place its origin.

He cared a lot for his partner, and realized that, as far as he knew, she hadn’t had a date in years and that couldn’t be good for an attractive single woman. He realized that he monopolized her time with his cases, probably to the point that any thought of obtaining a normal life had flown out her window long ago.

She deserved this. He wouldn’t pry and he wouldn’t tease. He resolved to get to his work and put it all out of his mind.

So she had a date. What did that mean? A little entertainment, some conversation. They’d probably never go out again.

What did it matter to him, anyway? She was his friend, his partner. Nothing more.

*

Scully didn’t expect to hear from Paul before Saturday, but he called her that night as she was sitting on her couch with a glass of wine, the latest lab results from the case sprawled all around her.

"Hello?" she said into the phone, expecting to her Mulder’s familiar voice on the other end.

"Dana? Paul Domingo. Am I calling at a bad time?"

Butterflies fluttered in her stomach at the sound of his light accent and the rich timbre of his voice.

"No, no. Not at all. Just getting some work done."

"At home?" She could hear the smile in his voice.

Scully found herself grinning. "Yes, I guess I really do an awful lot of work here."

"All work and no play…" Paul quoted and Scully laughed.

"Yes, and Dana probably is a dull girl. Okay, I’ve set it aside. Are you calling to cancel lunch?" She fervently hoped not.

"No!" he was quick to assure her, and Scully smiled wider.

"I guess I just wanted to stay in touch, hoping that you wouldn’t change your mind."

"Why would I do that?" Scully asked, twirling a piece of hair around her finger. She realized what she was doing and abruptly stopped, feeling like a giddy schoolgirl hoping to be pinned by a popular guy.

Paul laughed, a rich, contagious sound. "I guess I’ve listened a little too much to your brother. He thinks you just agreed because you couldn’t think of a way out."

Scully scowled. "Bill has no right…"

"I know, I know. I promise not to discuss you with him, okay?"

Scully relaxed back into the cushions. "I’d appreciate it. Actually, I’m really looking forward to lunch on Saturday, Paul. Honestly. As a matter of fact, I turned down my partner on a work project because of it."

His voice sounded both relieved and pleased at the other end as he said, "I hope I didn’t cause any trouble for you."

"No, no trouble. Mulder really seems to think I need the time off."

This last bit of information came with a slight uncertainty in her voice, and Paul imagined she wasn’t used to having time off work for herself. Either that, or her partner’s reaction had surprised her. Or disappointed her. He pushed that thought out of his mind and they talked a few moments more. He told her he’d pick her up at eleven on Saturday, jotting down her address as she gave it to him.

When they hung up, it was several moments before Scully could focus her mind on her work again, and when she did, she was humming a happy tune.

 

Saturday morning dawned with the promise of perfect weather. Domingo had checked the forecast every hour on the radio, ever since daybreak. It had been a long, long time since he’d been unable to sleep because of a woman, and even longer since he’d been kept awake by the mere thought of a woman. Then again, Dana Scully wasn’t a typical woman.

He double-checked his list, reassuring himself again and again that he hadn’t forgotten anything. He was tempted to call and ask the lovely FBI agent if he could pick her up early. Of course, that would be pushing his luck, and he was already feeling like a man who had been handed a jackpot ticket in life’s lottery. He would wait.

His truck was ready to go, everything tucked beneath the camper shell. He’d been smart enough to tell his date to dress casually. His mother was very explicit in telling him never to leave a lady guessing in that respect, and the advice had always served him well. Not only were his dates more comfortable when they were with him, but their up-front responses to his recommendations told him when he’d chosen the wrong kind of outing for the wrong lady. Dana had been curious but receptive, and he felt confident that he’d made the right decision for the woman who was fast becoming a staple of his daydreams.

Shortly after ten thirty, he locked the door to his bungalow and stepped into the refurbished 1957 Chevy stepside. The classic vehicle was a gas hog, but it purred like a kitten and was more comfortable than anything on the current market. His only concessions to the day were the legally-required seat belts.

He’d brought along a CD boom box, since he’d opted not to fiddle with the truck’s original AM radio. Of course, the turquoise and white diamond dust paint job was new, as was the white leather that upholstered the seats and dash, and the similarly pale carpet under his feet. This wasn’t his work vehicle, after all. It was his baby, right down to the inscription splashed over the rear fender: "Wave of the Future". The words had been hand-lettered over original paint when he’d acquired the old truck five years earlier, and he’d liked the moniker enough to keep it.

His dark jeans flared slightly over the leather detailing of his cowboy boots. A soft chambray shirt was tucked into the indigo denim, sleeves rolled up to a point just below his elbows. His formal officer’s cap was set aside in favor of a black Stetson with an intricately beaded band, a gift from his mother shortly before she died. The hat held a place of honor in his heart and in his life. It was his acknowledgment to himself that Dana Scully wasn’t just another date. He glanced over at the expensive headgear, once more remembering the sacrifice it had to be for Anita Domingo to buy such an extravagant gift. She’d been so proud when he’d opened the custom-wrapped box, her dark eyes lit with happiness.

He’d been tempted to protest until he realized how much it meant to her to be able to give him such a grand present. It had truly been a joy, one of precious few in her difficult life. His father had died while he was still a teenager, and his mother had worked three jobs to keep them in food and clothing and a tiny house. She had literally worked herself to death for her children. Only in the two years before her death was she able to enjoy any of the money she earned, and even so, most of it was spent on her children and grandchildren.

That had been her only expressed disappointment in her eldest son. Paul had never given her grandchildren, never married, never grown up, not to her way of thinking.

Domingo knocked on Dana Scully’s door, delighted to find that she was ready for him when he arrived. A tiny gold cross was suspended from her throat, its delicate geometry and glittery color a pleasant contrast to the curves of her pink flesh. She wore a simple, fluid white peasant top over pale green chinos, a matching green band holding back the russet cascade from her face. Again, Domingo was struck by her understated approach to cosmetics. A faintly floral scent reached his nose, and he resisted the urge to bury his face in her neck. This was a woman for whom games were foreign, another point in her favor. "Are you ready?" he asked, more out of courtesy than any real inquiry.

I’m ready, Mama. I’m ready to grow up, to start a family. You’d like her, Mama. I wish you’d gotten to meet the woman I want to spend the rest of my life with.

 

Mulder pulled into the mostly-empty parking lot at the Montague college library. The campus of Shenandoah University was beautiful, its towering oaks and majestic cedar standing sentry over ivy-covered brick and crisp white clapboard walls. It was a little after one in the afternoon, with the warmth of the late spring sun to coax even the most reluctant students into the great outdoors.

Of course, most of the kids and faculty had scattered to nearby Shenandoah National Park or to the river itself, or gone into town to shop, eat something besides cafeteria food, or take in a movie. In short, they were living their lives like normal people. The thought depressed Fox Mulder, which in turn puzzled him. He was where he wanted to be, doing what he wanted to do, wasn’t he? He was working on an X-File, searching out a truth no one else wanted to acknowledge or seek, hunting down information on something supernatural or super-scientific, he wasn’t sure which just yet.

So why was it that he suddenly felt so dissatisfied?

Shrugging to no one in particular, he reached for a legal pad and headed for the school’s library, taking in the genteel lines of its Victorian architecture, the heavy woodwork and stained glass giving the sanctuary of learning a religious atmosphere. Inside, the sotto whispers of the acolytes, heads bowed over thick tomes of knowledge, merely added to the feel. It was an altar to which he could bend his own knee, he thought with a halfhearted smile. Truths called to him always, beckoning him like a siren’s song.

He took a few moments to acquaint himself with the order and layout of the building. Opposite the main entry was a quiet reading area, where overstuffed plush chairs and sofas were worn from much use. To his right were a fairly extensive section of fiction and the first few divisions of the Dewey Decimal System, the biblical chapters and verses to which virtually all public libraries subscribed. To his left were the rest of the numbered non-fiction books, the periodical desk, and the reference section. In a small alcove ahead and tucked beneath a curved staircase were both an old-fashioned card catalogue and a small bank of computers.

He headed for the computers, pulling up a list of titles, scribbling down names and dates and the reference numbers, his fingers convincing the files to yield up their secrets. He also pulled up more than a few papers from the computers’ software, the theses and term papers no longer kept in hard copy format for reasons of space and timeliness.

Printing off several pages, he found the pattern he’d expected without actually knowing what he’d been looking for. All five of the murder victims were physics students in the late 1980’s, all working on a cooperative effort they named (apparently tongue-in-cheek) the Oreo Project. Six hours later, Fox Mulder had photocopied and emailed himself dozens of reports and essays, and he was beginning to put together some pieces to a very large puzzle.

The Oreo team was eleven strong at the beginning. One of the students dropped out early due to his mother’s death; one drowned on a fishing expedition midway through their second semester of work on the project; and one was left in a vegetable state after being stung by a bee. The resultant allergic reaction had caused a debilitating stroke from which she never recovered. That left eight members of the team, five of whom had now been murdered. It left three alive as either suspects or potential victims. The black and white mix of students had been evident in both their gleeful photos and the name they’d given themselves, but Mulder saw no reason to believe the deaths had any racial connotations. He flipped again to the fourth page of their post-graduate thesis, and he re-read the telltale paragraph.

"Applying the centrifugal principles and the aforementioned biochemical alterations, it should be possible to render both animate and inanimate objects invisible to the naked eye."

Mulder let out a low whistle, garnering a dirty look from a nearby coed. The kids, now adults, were playing with matches, and there was no doubt in his mind that the Navy had let them loose to play in a box full of dynamite. They had lit the fuses, and the whole thing had blown up in their collective faces.

 

When Paul pulled into the shaded parking area of Great Falls Park, he bypassed the recreational area and took the looping turn that led to the nature trails. He stilled the engine and turned to look at Scully. Her eyes were moving over the old oaks bending toward new spring grass, their branches heavy with new leaves. She smiled and looked at him, and then glanced at the basket in the back seat.

"Picnic?"

He nodded. "There’s a horse trail, but I didn’t know how you feel about horses, so I made sure there was a walking path to the water fall."

Scully’s eyes sparkled. "It’s been years, but I’d love to get on a horse again." She opened her door and stepped out, thrilling to the gentle breeze that tossed her hair and whispered through the sun-dappled leaves above them. "Spring is my favorite season. Everything is new and fresh," she said, a little surprised at her sentimental thoughts.

"I love it, too," Paul told her, lifting the basket out of the back seat and joining her at the edge of the graveled lot.

"The stables are over there," he pointed across the grass, past the small visitor’s building and they strolled toward it.

Paul broke the silence that had developed as they made their way past some picnic tables and skirted the natural garden. "I noticed you wear a cross around your neck, and, of course, I know from Bill that your family is Catholic like mine. Do you attend church?"

Scully glanced at him, a little surprised that he was Catholic, although she really had no reason to be. She just hadn’t really spoken to anyone about her faith in so long…except for Mulder, who respected it but didn’t believe himself.

"Well, there was a long space of time when I didn’t, but I have started going again. St. Paul’s in Bethesda is the one I usually attend."

Paul smiled. "I’ve been there. I go to St. Theresa in Arlington, near where I live, although the new priest is rather dull. He’s brought in a lot of the new ideas and I just can’t get used to them."

They chatted some more about their respective churches, although they didn’t delve too deeply into their personal beliefs. Scully liked this man very much, but she was too reserved by nature to divulge her private thoughts and feelings to someone she hardly new. She did, however, admire the way he could do it. He seemed relaxed and refreshingly open.

Scully chose a gentle mare to carry her over the hilly country that led to Great Falls, while Paul’s gelding was a bit friskier. He handled him well, though, and after Scully got used to her animal, they were able to continue their conversation, which had drifted to family. Scully told him all about her father, and how she had admired him and she even found herself telling him about how she felt she’d disappointed him by choosing the FBI over medicine.

"You’re easy to talk to," she told him honestly, glancing over his way. He had put out his hand to push off of a tree that his horse was edging too close to, and her eyes glanced over his strong, muscular thighs up his long, taunt body to the tan skin of his neck. She noticed that he wore a small diamond in his ear, and for some reason she found this incredibly sexy. She blushed furiously at the turn her thoughts were taking and nudged her horse to a trot. Around the next bend, she suddenly heard the falls and knew that they were getting close.

"Mmm, I smell lilacs," Scully commented, when she’d safely dismounted her horse and tied him to a tree.

"There’s loads of them a few yards away. They do smell wonderful." Paul spread out the quilt he had brought and opened the basket.

Scully looked down at the intricate pattern of the quilt and its beautiful colors. "This is too nice to sit on!" she breathed, and Paul laughed.

"My Abuelo Carmen made it. It depicts our family tree." He pointed out the symbols of his various relatives as his long, brown finger moved over the cloth and Scully found herself thoroughly absorbed. He seemed very proud of his family and it endeared him to her.

"I hope you like chicken salad, or roast beef, or ham…" he kept pulling sandwiches out of the basket until Scully was laughing so hard her eyes filled with tears.

"I just wanted to make certain we had something you liked," Paul grinned, looking sheepish.

"I like all of them, but I’ll take the chicken salad," Scully reached out and took the sandwich wrapped in plastic, her hand briefly touching his and a jolt of electricity rushed up her arm, sending her heart beating a mile a minute. She felt certain that her face was beet-red. She ducked her head and busied herself unwrapping the food, but when she looked up again, Paul’s eyes were still on her. The warmth she saw there both attracted her and scared her.

"You… have any diet coke in that cooler?" she finally asked, praying he wouldn’t make a move that she couldn’t handle at this point. All at once she felt more skittish than the filly they’d seen back at the stables.

Thankfully, he broke his gaze, handed her the diet coke, and began fishing around for his own sandwich. "I brought several kinds of chips, also," he told her, and began unloading them onto the quilt. Scully chose some Baked Lays and leaned back on her elbow, biting into the sandwich and enjoying the fresh breeze. A light spray from the waterfall blew their way and Scully raised her face to it, the sun warm and relaxing on her skin. It felt wonderful.

As they ate, Paul told her more about his mother, whom he had been very close to. Scully put down her food and rested her head on her hands, looking up into the swaying branches above them. His musical voice lulled her, and before she knew it, she’d fallen asleep.

She woke up a little later, aghast at her rudeness, to a glorious aroma. Piles of freshly picked lilacs were spread all around her, and Paul sat leaning against a tree, watching her.

"Did you have a nice nap?" he asked, his eyes affectionate.

Scully blushed and sat up. "I’m so sorry… I can’t believe I fell asleep like that. I guess I’ve been putting too many hours in."

Paul smiled, showing straight, white teeth. "I don’t mind in the least. I dozed a bit myself. It’s very relaxing here." He looked off toward the wide stream and the cascade of water flowing into it.

"You couldn’t have slept long… you picked all these wonderful lilacs." Scully put several to her nose and sniffed them appreciatively.

It was Paul’s turn to blush. "I’m glad you like them. You reminded me of Snow White, sleeping there amongst the blooms. That was my little sister’s favorite movie, and she used to watch it over and over again. Except, of course, your hair is red. And you’re much prettier than Snow White."

 

Mulder pulled up to the curb outside Scully’s apartment building, grabbing his notes, the photocopies and printouts, and bounded across the street. This was more like it, he thought to himself. He thought he’d made significant headway at the college and could hardly wait to get Scully’s input on the materials. The spring had returned to his step, and a whispered idea brushed by his mind. What if it’s not the X-File that makes you happy? The almost-thought was gone as soon as it had arrived, instantly squashed by his long-held mantra, the X-Files are my life!

The elevator was too slow. He took the stairs two at a time, juggling the stacks of papers to turn the doorknob at the third floor entry, and dropping several items in the process. Not that retrieval was any great challenge. Swooping over to capture the errant pages, he was the ambassador bowing before the king, his quest.

He was already composing his arguments, plotting his triumphant theory, imagining the doubt that would spread across Scully’s oval face. The challenge drove him to excel. He was on a two-member debate team, one in which he debated with his teammate, but they invariably united against any outsiders. They were yin and yang, two halves of one finely tuned instrument, their differences harmonizing beautifully.

He raised his hand to knock on Scully’s door when he heard something odd from behind it.

It took a moment for the truth to register. The unfamiliar sound was peals of laughter. A woman’s laughter.

Scully’s laughter.

Another voice joined hers, a rich, smooth baritone that formed a counterpoint to hers. It was a voice Mulder recognized, despite having heard it in the relative brevity of a single meeting. It belonged to Lieutenant Commander Paul Domingo. The innocuous moment of eavesdropping hit the male FBI agent like a sucker punch to his midsection, and it suddenly dawned on him just how rarely he had heard Scully really laugh. He wasn’t sure that he’d ever heard her laugh like he heard now, the easy, flirtatious giggles that turned him inside out.

Jealousy flashed through him with the power and heat of a lightning strike. The moment drained away when he blinked, opening his eyes and his mind to a truth he’d never sought: that maybe – just maybe – he was the one who had robbed her of her laughter. Biting his lip, he dropped the knuckles he’d raised, and he turned away without knocking. He was encountering a whole new side of his partner, and it forced him to look at a very old side of himself. It wasn’t like he didn’t know it existed. It had been the reason Diana had finally fled. It was her sense of self-preservation that drove her away. If she’d stayed…

Mulder straightened, drawing a deep breath as he moved back down the hall. Maybe it was time he revisited the old part of him, starting with an old relationship. Maybe the only way to exorcise the demons was to face them head-on. God knew he’d lived in hell after Diana Fowley left him all those years ago. It was only fitting he walk through her proverbial fire again. He straightened, looking and feeling like a man walking straight into a noose.

Forty-five minutes later, he stood outside another apartment door, this one in a more upscale neighborhood. Diana always did well for herself. There had been no spring in his step when he’d quietly made his way through the posh foyer, no bounding up the stairs when a sedate elevator would do. His thumb played the death knoll of her doorbell, and when she opened to him, he said simply, "I want to talk. About us."

 

Scully was warm and more than a little tipsy. It was a pleasant tipsy, a comfortable drunk. No, not drunk, she reminded herself primly, tipsy. "I – I don’t drink much. Often."

Sitting on the floor beside this beautiful man, she felt like a beautiful woman. He made her feel beautiful, desirable, in a way that was sweet and uplifting and positively intoxicating. It was a decadent feeling to be just Dana, just a woman. There was no need to prove herself to him, no need to defend her right to be here. He had chosen to spend this time with her, and she with him. After so many years in a constant state of defensiveness, she felt a little like she was on vacation from her own life.

"Dana, I can’t tell you how glad I am that we finally met. Bill told me about you, but to be honest, everything kind of went in one ear and out the other." He shot her a lopsided grin, and for a second her heart stopped. Mulder’s face flashed in front of her, the same boyish expression wheedling for her attentions. She blinked and the vision was gone, and she chided herself for letting her partner intrude on such a wonderful evening, even en absentia. Mulder’s job was his lover. She’d come to that conclusion long ago. There was no room for romance in the X-Files. Unless you were a vampire or alien, there was no room in his heart for love.

"Hmm?" she asked, blushing as she realized that her mind was wandering and Paul was looking at her expectantly. He’d obviously asked her something, and was waiting for an answer. "I’m sorry," she hedged. "I guess I don’t handle my liquor very well. I honestly missed the question."

Paul’s smile was brilliant and genuine, and as wide as a sailboat on the ocean. "All you have to do is say yes. Nothing complicated about that."

There was a definite sparkle of mischief in his eyes, and she arched a brow back at him. Funny how much you could express without ever saying a word. The right expression could be an invitation, a challenge, or a warning. "What, exactly, am I supposed to agree to?" She wasn’t afraid of a good challenge, but neither was she up for stumbling blindly ahead.

"Just say yes, Dana. It’s only two days, and I know you’ll love it."

Two days? What, exactly, was he proposing? "Paul…" she hedged, wondering if she had completely misread him. He was sexy as hell, but he didn’t impress her as a man who would try a fast move, not when slow and unhurried would be better. Her nervousness returned, and out of the blue she heard Phillip Padgett’s odd pronouncement. Agent Scully is already in love. The words twisted in her stomach, building into a guilt that had no basis in any reality she accepted. The strange author had taken her by surprise with his remark then, its implications leaving her uneasy and frightened. Now, the phrase rolled through her brain with the finesse of a steam engine at full speed. It would not go away and could not be ignored, no matter how hard she tried.

"It’s all right, you don’t have to go. I just thought you said you liked Stephanie Shoemaker, and would enjoy the seminar. She’s really quite the inspirational speaker. I’ve heard her before."

She buried her face in her hands. Stephanie Shoemaker. The seminar on women in male-dominated professions. Scully had specifically stated her desire to attend, but it had sold out weeks in advance. And Paul Domingo was tucking two tickets back into his wallet.

"I think I’d better be going, Dana. I understand if you can’t make the seminar. I’d still like to see you again soon." He kissed the top of her head, then stood, drawing her to her feet. His lips came down on hers before she had time to realize his intent, a worshipful kiss that ended much too soon. Her arms circled his neck, drawing him back to her, and her mind flitted back to the moment after Dallas, a near-kiss in the hallway outside Mulder’s apartment… And just for a moment, she wasn't kissing Paul Domingo.

She was kissing Fox Mulder.

 

Mulder's resolve began to wane as Diana invited him in and he took a seat on her immaculate, and rather uncomfortable, sofa. He had never wanted to address their past since the moment he first saw her again at the J. Edgar Hoover building, and so far had been successful in avoiding it. It was his wounded pride, he supposed.

Diana took a seat opposite him, handing him a glass of iced tea and smiling rather uncertainly.

"So you suddenly want to talk about 'us', Fox?" she asked, sipping her drink and staring at him over the rim of the glass.

Mulder took a deep breath and plunged ahead, and Diana seemed taken aback with his forthright manner. Where was the joking that so often accompanied this man's conversation, especially when he was uncomfortable? Diana sat

back and crossed her legs, listening intently as Mulder began.

"It's true I've avoided talking with you about our past, but I feel that it is something we need to address. There's something I need to know."

Her heart beat a little faster and she raised an eyebrow in question. There had been nothing she wanted more since returning to the states than to work once again beside Fox Mulder on the X-files. After all, she had created the division with him and knew it as well as he did. Even so, once she laid eyes on him again, she knew that there was something she wanted more than that. She wanted him back. Nothing had rankled her more than to find that he was inexplicably loyal to and fond of his current partner, Agent Dana Scully. Exactly what did he see in her?

It had been a relief when, upon inquiring, she'd found out that they were not romantically involved. Still, he seemed in no way eager to get rid of the stern redhead as a partner, even though she was annoyingly skeptical of his beliefs in the unknown.

"Diana, when you dropped me and our work and left for Europe, you hurt me very deeply." Mulder's eyes were focused on something outside the glass door separating them from the balcony. "It took me awhile to forgive you for

it."

"You have forgiven me?" Diana asked, her voice low. She watched him pace slowly about the room, her eyes admiring his form and her body remembering achingly what it had been like to be with him.

Mulder swung around suddenly and asked her, "What was it about me that made you leave?"

Diana's eyes softened. So he had been blaming himself all this time. She stood up and moved toward him, touching his arm with her hand. "Fox, why bring all this up now? It's been so long. I don't think of the bad things anymore, only the good." Her hand moved up past his shoulder and caressed his cheek. Mulder blinked. Reaching out, he grasped her other hand, his eyes dark and searching.

"I need to know. What is it about me that caused you to leave like you did? Were things so bad between us that you picked up and left our work and our relationship?"

Diana shifted her feet and, in doing so, moved a bit closer to him. She was wearing casual slacks and a silk blouse, and her floral perfume wafted up to his nose, sending memories flitting through his mind that hadn't visited in a very long time.

She sighed. "You were very driven. There was hardly any room for me. I loved our work Fox, yes, but not as much as I loved you. I got the feeling that it wasn't mutual. Everything came second to your work in your heart."

Mulder frowned. Was that it? He was too driven to love anyone? Was that true? He realized that for years all he wanted to do was to find his sister, but he didn't search relentlessly to the detriment of everyone he cared about. Did he?

He looked back down at Diana, her soft dark eyes staring up at him. "I'm so sorry," he said softly, and she moved her hand from his face to the back of his neck, pulling his head down and his lips to hers.

 

He’d gone too fast too soon. Maybe he shouldn’t have mentioned the seminar.

Paul had seen the scared look on Dana’s face and put the tickets back into his wallet. Leaning forward, he’d placed a chaste kiss on her head, then risen to his feet, helping her up with him. He’d intended to leave right then, but looking down on her, taking in her ivory skin, beautiful red hair, and inviting lips, he’d been unable to resist. He’d kissed her mouth.

And now, to his complete and utter amazement, Dana Scully was kissing him back.

He had planned to leave after the brief, soft pressure to her lips, but then she’d wrapped her arms around his neck and urged him back to her, and her lips had been so warm on his as she’d arched forward, her feminine curves fitting perfectly against his body, he’d lost his senses completely.

Now he stood with his arms wrapped around her, his tongue in her mouth caressing hers and he was mystified. Ecstatically happy.

Hopelessly in love.

When they’d parted, her blue eyes were clouded, and her mouth open and a little swollen. Their noses were practically touching.

"That was…. nice," he said. The understatement of the year.

She smiled. "Yeah." She noticed how fresh his breath smelled and the musky scent of his aftershave. It was familiar to her.

"I’d better get going, I guess," he murmured, wanting so much to kiss her again, but afraid to so soon. He stepped back and smiled, and she followed him to the door, watching him as he left.

When she’d closed the door and turned around, Scully leaned against the wall and stared at the room in front of her with unseeing eyes. What had just happened?

She’d been kissed by a sweet, handsome and exciting man, that’s what.

And thought of her partner while doing it.

She pushed herself away from the wall and walked to the phone. She just felt guilty that she hadn’t gone to do research with Mulder today, that’s all.

She should call him and see how it went. Dialing his cell phone, she waited.

He had turned it off.

Scully hung up and stood uncertainly by the table. Licking her lips, she tasted the kiss she’d shared with Paul and felt again the warm feeling of being in his arms. It had been so long since she’d been kissed like that. Since Ed Jerse.

She pushed the memory of Ed out of her mind and focused on the fact that Mulder had been in her thoughts during the kiss with Paul.

Perhaps it was because she had never actually gotten to kiss Mulder. The attempt had been aborted, leaving her to naturally wonder what it had been like.

Suddenly Scully realized that the after shave that Paul had been wearing was the same that Mulder wore every day. No wonder she’d thought of him! The sense of smell worked powerfully on a person’s memory.

Smiling and a bit relieved at her conclusion, Scully went to the bathroom to draw her bath, the events of the day replaying happily in her mind.

 

 

Pulling out of Fowley’s parking garage, Mulder was cursing himself on a whole list of levels. He was already late for work, and he timed things just perfectly to connect with the fender of another vehicle, making him even later. He groaned inwardly, wondering how he’d ever begin to explain this mess to his partner. He’d gone to Diana’s apartment Saturday night with a question and an apology. He’d had no ulterior motives, no hidden agenda. So how did it get to be Monday morning?

It wasn’t that he didn’t remember the weekend. It was that he didn’t want to remember the weekend. From the jarring moment outside Scully’s door to the moment he woke up this morning, it had been more disconcerting and more bizarre than an X-File. Waking up alone in Diana Fowley’s bed threw him into another pique of depression, reminding him of her first unannounced departure all those years ago…

He pulled out his identification and flashed it in the general direction of the traffic cop, apologizing profusely to the other driver. The young mother was gracious, thank goodness. She accepted his apology and his insurance card, assuring him that as long as she and her little girl were all right, and the damage to their vehicles was nominal, they could be grateful. Mulder glanced briefly at her driver’s license, his photographic memory storing her name and address for future recall. Bonnie Lynne Tanner, he noted, his peripheral memory aware that Mrs. Tanner called her daughter Tammy. The little girl couldn’t have been more than five or six, but she accused with careful enunciation, "You weren’t looking where you were going."

"Tammy!" Mrs. Tanner exclaimed in embarrassment.

Mulder shrugged. "She’s right. My insurance agent will hate me for saying so, but my mind was a million miles away." He folded the traffic citation into his pocket, kneeling next to the child. "You don’t have to apologize for telling the truth, Tammy. Not ever. Not even to an adult, or a policeman, or in my case, an FBI agent." It was as much a pronouncement of his own determination as it was for her benefit. He’d spent years trying to uncover all of the hidden truths inside the government, all the while ignoring the personal truths in his life, and in the lives of those around him.

No more.

He stared up at the stony façade of Diana Fowley’s apartment building, and was hit by an epiphany of sorts. It fit her, this elegant, impersonal structure. It had taken him in, led him to what he hoped would be comfort. Instead, he was left outside in the cold, both figuratively and literally. And he was suddenly struck by the only real positive in the experience.

He was positive that he wasn’t in love with Diana Fowley.

How sad for them both that he’d come to that realization only now, after she’d taken him back into her bed and professed to have taken him back into her heart.

 

Scully was whistling as she bounced down the stairs to the basement office. She’d taken off a couple of hours this morning, taking the time to actually cook breakfast, then she’d made a quick trip to the department store. She lived in her suits so much that she hadn’t realized how little else she had to wear. Paul had invited her to dine with him – he’d actually put it that way, ‘dine’. Not, ‘can we have dinner?’, but ‘would you dine with me tomorrow night?’ He’d been kind enough to tell her that this time, it would be a bit more formal, and it was then that she realized how woefully inadequate her wardrobe had become.

The fluid green silk number had called her name from the instant she’d walked into Hessinger’s. The simple sheath was cut on the diagonal, its tissues ending in a flared, multi-layered hem that curved around her thighs like the leaves of a rose. The dress was much too short, much too low cut, and much too expensive, and she bought it as soon as she knew it fit. She’d just had time to hang the dress in her closet and get to work.

The image of Diana Fowley in Mulder’s chair was more than enough to shatter Scully’s good mood. Her smile fading instantly, Scully lifted her chin. "What are you doing here?" she demanded haughtily. If she didn’t know better, she’d say the brunette was glowing. Kind of like nuclear waste, her mind cut in cattily.

"I wanted to surprise Fox," Fowley replied smoothly. "I wanted to thank him for this weekend."

"What about this weekend?" Why on earth did you ask what you really don’t want to hear?

Fowley had the good grace to blush. "Scully, I… I don’t know if I should say anything. I wasn’t sure how to take it when he appeared at my door, wanting to talk about us. I didn’t have any idea he’d stay the weekend. He said you had a date this weekend, and it got him thinking about things. One thing led to another, and…"

Stunned, Scully actually took a step back, feeling the color drain from her face. She wanted to scream, wanted to call the tall brunette a consummate liar. Unfortunately, her instincts told her she was hearing the truth, no matter how badly she wanted to deny it.

Mulder picked that moment to arrive, his glum mood painted across his features. Fowley gave him a brilliant smile that faded as quickly as it arrived, Scully glared at him, and he muttered a marginally polite good morning just before announcing that they had work to do, and would Diana kindly leave?

Scully actually felt a little sorry for the other woman. Fowley’s brown eyes filled with tears as she beat a hasty retreat.

A sheath of papers slapped onto the shared desktop. "I have the dirt on our little clique of Einsteins. I think I was right, Scully. Or maybe Einsteins isn’t the right word. Einstein’s theories were just the jumping-off point for what this little team proposed. They set out to make people invisible, to make things invisible. Not just invisible to radar, like the Stealth project, but to make them actually step outside our visual perceptions. I think they succeeded, but in doing so, I also think they unleashed something they never expected. The participants in the original trials have literally disappeared off of the face of the earth. They didn’t just become invisible; they were actually transported somewhere else. The popular theory is that the fifteen original participants died, but I don’t think so. I think they’re still alive and they show up intermittently to take revenge."

 

Scully swallowed her shock at what Fowley had told her and forced herself to pay attention to what her partner was saying now. Invisible people? In another dimension?

Letting an impatient puff of air escape her lips, she moved away from Mulder and the clean smell of what could possibly be Diana Fowley's soap, and sat down at her desk. Looking up at him, she questioned, "Are you implying

that these people are in an alternate universe? Been watching a little too much Star Trek again, Mulder?"

He smiled at her, the first sign of any emotion since he'd walked into the room. "No, my skeptical partner. This is for real, and I think that once you've looked at all the evidence, you'll agree with me."

Scully pressed her lips together and looked away. An uninvited picture of Mulder and Diana amorously entwined in bed sent a sharp pain to her heart. Put it out of your mind, Dana. He's you partner. You don't own him. He's not gay, either. Scully acknowledged this, but couldn't help but feel slighted that he had never even seen her in that manner. On the other hand, Paul saw her that way. She felt a warm flush spread over her.

"Scully?" Mulder broke into her thoughts.

"What? Oh, I'm sorry, were you saying something?"

Mulder slid onto the corner of her desk and looked at her, the coloring of his skin accentuated beautifully with the gray suit and red tie he wore. "Your mind occupied with something else? How was your date Saturday?"

Scully had not expected him to ask that question, and blushed. She focused her eyes on the papers in front of her, and almost jumped when she felt Mulder's fingers push behind her ear the curtain of hair that had fallen forward to hide her face.

"I hope it went well, Scully," he said a little huskily. "You deserve someone who can make you happy."

Scully looked at him quickly and opened her mouth to say something when she heard a movement by the door and saw the rigid figure of Diana Fowley standing there, arms crossed resolutely over her breasts.

"Fox, I really need to talk to you," she said, and Scully noticed that her eyes were red.

Mulder sighed, as if resigned to it, and got up from the desk. "Look over these papers, Scully. I really got a hold of some interesting things."

Scully watched him go. She was rather surprised that he hadn't come by her place after doing his research on Saturday. He was usually so eager to share it with her. Instead he had gone to Diana's and stayed the weekend. Had he talked with her about their case? The thought made Scully's blood boil. She opened the folder a little roughly, ripping the corner, and began going over the notes that were scrawled in Mulder's unique handwriting, determined to concentrate on work and not her partner's social life.

 

At 2:30, Scully had her glasses perched on her nose and was surfing the Internet, checking out all the sites that even remotely pertained to invisibility. The yellow legal pad beside her was covered with her small, precise handwriting, but she didn't feel any closer to a break-through than she had at 10:30 a.m. when she'd started. Leaning back, she stretched her arms out and yawned.

Mulder had come back into the office about fifteen minutes after going into the hall to talk with Diana, his expression pained. Scully couldn't help but wonder what was had happened, but she didn't look up from her computer. She couldn't imagine why Mulder had treated Diana like that after staying with her all weekend. Maybe they had fought, or perhaps Diana had made the whole thing up. Somehow she knew that wasn't it, as much as she'd like it to be. Agent Fowley had looked genuinely hurt when Mulder had asked her to leave.

Whatever it was, Scully didn't trust herself to go there, so she'd ignored his distracted demeanor and had felt relieved when he'd announced he was leaving to check some things out. True to his nature, he didn't mention to her what those things were.

She stood up and thought about lunch. It was a little late, but still possible that he hadn't eaten yet. Picking up the phone, she dialed Paul's office number, a tinge of excitement stirring in her stomach.

When he answered, she suddenly felt her courage receding and she had to rush into the invitation before she lost her nerve entirely. "Paul, this is Dana,"

"Hello!" he sounded genuinely pleased, albeit a bit distracted.

"I hope I'm not bothering you, and I realize we are having dinner tonight, but…"

"Nonsense, you couldn't bother me if you tried," his slight accent put a smile on Scully's lips. She loved to hear him talk. She pictured him sitting at his desk, his sleeves rolled up to expose his copper-colored skin and his teeth flashing as he smiled.

"Well, that emboldens me a bit. I wanted to know if you'd like to meet me for a bite to eat right now. I know it's incredibly short notice, but I've just wrapped some things up and lost track of the time. I hate to eat alone, and decided to take the chance that you haven't had lunch."

He didn't ask her why her partner wasn't eating with her, she noticed, but instead made a disappointed sound in the back of his throat. "I'm glad you did, but I'm sorry to say I have eaten. I'm also rather tied up right at the moment. Rain check?"

"Of course, and I'll see you tonight."

"I can't wait," Paul replied, hanging up the phone. He wished he'd been able to meet Dana more than anything in the world, but he'd been truthful when he'd said that he'd already eaten.

And that he was tied up.

He gazed across the room at what was keeping him busy.

Agent Fox Mulder had paid him an unexpected visit.

 

Mulder stared at the dark stranger, trying to wrap his mind around the thought that Scully found this person attractive. The detail bit into Mulder’s psyche, distracting him from the interview he was supposed to be conducting.

Paul Domingo was darkly handsome, with boyish, angular features; intelligent brown eyes, an aquiline nose, an easy smile… The Lieutenant Commander was likewise well built, with a lean, muscular frame that was even more obvious without his formal jacket. If Mulder had been feeling generous, he’d have called Domingo a fairly decent-looking man. Only Mulder was feeling anything but generous at the moment.

Then again, the FBI agent thought silently, it sounded like old Paul Domingo already had another lady lined up for tonight. Mulder suppressed a momentary urge to smile. He had a pretty good idea that Dana Scully wouldn’t be the sharing type. She was strictly an all-or-nothing woman, unless he missed his guess. Mulder relaxed a little at the thought, allowing him to regain his focus. "You say that the project is classified, and I’ll accept that. I have a pretty good idea of the details, anyway. All five murder victims, including the two members of the military, were also colleagues in grad school. They were all involved in the same project. I think they continued that project after they got out of school."

Domingo’s discomfort came through like a neon sign.

Bingo, thought Mulder triumphantly. "Physics was never my strong suit," he continued smoothly. "I don’t pretend to understand all of their theories. All I know is that in addition to the five reported murders, another seventeen people suddenly went missing, all at once, about six months ago. Funny thing is, they were all participants in the same program. I think it was originally called the Oreo program." Waiting for that bit of trivia to sink in, Mulder counted silently to three. "Of course the military wouldn’t use such a bland name, would it? I overheard something at lunch yesterday, a whisper from one of the brass on a break. He mentioned a problem child, something called Royal Flush."

"You didn’t overhear that in casual conversation, Agent Mulder! I have optimum clearance, supposedly the highest the Navy has to offer, and I was advised that any references I made to the Royal Flush project carried a death penalty! Look, I don’t know who gave you your information, but they’re inviting a court marshal that ends in the electric chair. I suggest you forget you ever heard the name. I’ll try to forget I heard you say it."

Mulder leaned back against the leather sofa. "I don’t know. I figure we’re relatively close to half a dozen casinos. I doubt the words would raise anyone’s eyebrows. It’s a gambling term, after all, the one hand nobody can beat. The trouble with a royal flush is that you can never, never draw on an inside straight." He drummed fingers over his thigh. "And I think when your boys threw in their ante, that’s what they did. They gambled and they lost. Only their victims didn’t stay dead, did they? I had some interesting analyses done on a couple of security tapes. Comparing bone structure, basic height and weight and other characteristics, we discovered that the phantom killers just happened to match the descriptions of those missing souls."

Domingo’s jaw dropped. "You - ran - ?" He blinked, his dark eyes filling with unshed tears. "Holy Mary mother of God, are you serious? We were told that they were still inside the project. We knew something was up, but never suspected anything like this." The Hispanic man’s eyes closed and he shuddered. "My best friend was one of the volunteers. He was excited about it, even. I was the best man at his wedding. I’m his little girl’s godfather."

Mulder tried to chalk Domingo’s response up to a fine job of acting. It would have made things so much easier. But with every passing moment, Fox Mulder was acquiring new respect for the man sitting across from him.

 

"I can’t believe you’ve never had escargot before!" The dim lighting did nothing to diminish the brilliance of his smile. Paul’s expression was pure, warm sunshine pouring over her long-buried femininity.

Scully heard herself laugh, a sultry, giddy sound that garnered exactly the reaction she’d sought from him. "No, I never really thought about eating a garden slug," she teased, gesturing to the artfully-arranged meal on her plate. But I have to admit, they’re very good." Aching with an overload of unaccustomed laughter, she discovered that she was happier than she’d ever been in her life. This man, she thought, is the best thing that’s ever happened to me.

Candles flickered, their scented fragrance wafting from the tabletops. The patio was arranged for privacy and view, each table situated to take in a stunning panorama. The renovated mansion was poised along the beach in Annapolis, giving them a stunning picture of Chesapeake Bay. Soft jazz murmured from the live pianist in the coffee shop two doors down, a sensual melody that slipped into the psyche like cream into coffee, swirling a subtle flavor into the night.

Paul Domingo was a gorgeous creature, and he wanted her! It was an intoxicating thought. And yet, for all that he was interested in her as a woman, he didn’t demean her work. He flatly acknowledged the importance of her job, praising her for the courage to protect the men, women, and children who couldn’t protect themselves. Not praise that she’d had the courage to enter a man’s territory, thank god! It was as though the heavens had opened up and molded all of her most secret desires into the form of a man, and named him Paulo Enrique Domingo. She studied his face, taking in intimate details. His eyes were rich chocolate flecked with gold, his mouth generous. His nose was a little small…

Shaking herself, she corrected mentally, not small! Just right! She was comparing Paul to Mulder again, and it was comparing apples to oranges.

Then she decided, why not? It’s not like Domingo would be short-changed. She allowed her gaze to rake over him, her smile going wider with every sweep of her vision. His hair was black, darker than Mulder’s, though the cut was similar. His bronze skin was flawless; he might have been in his early twenties instead of thirties. His jaw line, she had to admit, was nearly identical to her partner’s. His mouth… again, far more alike than different. Both men were tall and lanky, their bodies designed to look remarkable in a suit or uniform. Paul’s slight accent was the product of living in a trilingual family, a plus. He was conversant in English, Spanish, and Italian, having lived in Italy for over two years at one point. If it weren’t for the accent, though, the timbre of his words might well have been her partner speaking to her.

Somewhere in the middle of her musings, both their cells rang. They giggled sheepishly and Paul brought her hand to his mouth for a kiss in the split second before both spoke into their phones. Dual smiles faded at the conversation emanating from said instruments.

The drive to the latest murder scene was a quiet one.

Mulder was waiting when they arrived, his limbs taut with dismay. Scully knew that her partner blamed himself each time there was a new death in a case they worked. He considered it his personal failure for not solving the mystery soon enough to prevent more bloodshed. Her heels clicked over the sidewalk and she curved a hand over his upper arm. "Same M.O.?" she asked without precursor.

He turned to her, his anguish becoming puzzlement. His eyes devoured her, taking in the sexy silk chemise, her creamy cleavage, and the near-illegal point at which the dress stopped to reveal her slender legs. Scully realized with a start that Mulder’s expression was a dead ringer for Paul’s – the same naked desire that had called to her from inside the crowded restaurant. She saw Mulder’s mind connect the dots, realizing that she had been out with Paul Domingo and that her mode of dress was for the other man’s benefit. And she saw something else in her partner’s eyes, something she had never expected to see there.

Mulder was seething with jealousy.

That awareness did something to the pit of her stomach, turning a key, opening a door she’d kept carefully locked forever. And as hard as she tried to collect her scattered wits, something told her all the king’s horses and all the king’s men would never be able to hide the truth again.

 

Scully felt shaky as Paul drove her home much later that night. He chalked up her obvious distraction to being preoccupied with the case as well as upset by another murder. He told her that he felt the same way.

"I’m sorry that our evening had to end up like this. It started out so wonderfully," he looked at her with real regret. "I hope you will agree to trying it again."

Scully stood at the door to her apartment looking up at him. She felt she should ask him in, but didn’t want it to be misconstrued as more of an invitation than it was. The look she had seen on Mulder’s face had completely thrown her off. Anger stirred in the pit of her stomach. Why did he have to complicate things? She had never seen him look at her in that manner before. If she had, she might have acted upon it in one way or another. On the other hand, maybe she wouldn’t have. But it would have made her think.

So now she had found a man that was truly attracted to her, and that she felt the same way about, and Mulder chooses this moment to show his interest? He practically ignores her as a woman for years and now he sees her for what she is? She felt her ire rising to the boiling point.

"Would you like to come in, Paul?" Scully asked suddenly, with feeling.

 

Mulder stood dunking baskets in his living room until the guy underneath him pounded the ceiling with a baseball bat. He sat down, his heart beating rapidly.

He had always thought that Scully was an attractive woman. Sometimes he had caught himself checking out her ass or looking down her blouse. Yet, he had never really seen her feminine side. Certainly not dressed like she had been tonight! Her stockinged legs were as provocative as he could possibly imagine, and the creaminess of her bare arms had sent his senses reeling. He had suddenly had very unpartner-like thoughts about slipping that dress off of her and covering her skin with his mouth. Everywhere.

Mulder jumped up off the couch and began to pace the room. This elicited another couple of thumps from his neighbor, so he grabbed his jacket and left his apartment.

He hadn’t planned on driving over there, but it was as if he didn’t have any control over his actions. He really didn’t want to know.

Now that he saw Paul Domingo’s car parked outside Scully’s building, he really wished he hadn’t come.

Sitting behind the wheel, he suddenly became aware that he was clenching it so hard that his knuckles were white. He made a conscious effort to relax, and leaned his head back on the vinyl of the seat.

He had resolved his long-ago feelings for Diana and had told her that he did not love her. It had been a terrible scene, ending with Diana slapping his soundly across the face. He really couldn’t blame her, seeing that he had just spent the weekend using her body with his mind on someone else.

Yes, he had thought of Scully sexually. He wasn’t gay, for pete’s sake! Still, in all his imaginings, he had had trouble actually visualizing what was beneath those conservative suits. Sure, he had seen her nude, sort of, but not in any kind of situation where he could actually pay attention and enjoy it.

Now he had waited too late, obviously, for Scully had found a nice man who was going to move in as any man would and take her to bed.

Mulder gritted his teeth hard, until his jaw ached. He couldn’t stand it. Coming to a decision, he exited the car and walked purposefully across the street and to the building. He had to do something to stop them, even if it meant making a fool of himself.

 

He still couldn’t believe she’d asked him in.

Despite the fact that she’d been wearing the knockout dress, upswept hair, and heels so high they almost qualified as stilts, Dana Scully the woman had turned into Special Agent Scully before his eyes at the crime scene. It didn’t stop every male in the vicinity from gaping openly at her. Of course, she had been oblivious to their more prurient attentions while she rattled off directions to the forensics team. She stared down the cop who dared to question her authority, brandishing her FBI credentials like a psychological whip. The officer had actually flinched!

Paul hadn’t minded the transformation, not really. He’d been disappointed at the interruption, but considered it a temporary distraction, albeit a very serious one. The latest victim was a woman and another member of the Royal Flush team. There were now only two of the original members still alive, and they were under protective military custody. No one and nothing could get to them.

He bit his lip at the memory of Agent Mulder’s bitter commentary on the matter. Mulder’s inquiry was perfectly legitimate, given his status as an investigator in the case. Unfortunately it was his attitude that could get him killed. Paul himself had let the harsh tones slough away like so much dead skin, but there were plenty of people involved who wouldn’t be so forgiving. Their jobs were more similar than they were different. Paul was at least equally concerned with solving the crimes, and he hadn’t been faking his reaction to Mulder’s revelations.

Neither was he as ignorant as he’d allowed the male FBI agent to believe. He only wished he were.

Shaking off the reverie, the Lieutenant Commander melted away, replaced by the man who was fortunate enough to be with a stunningly beautiful woman. His fingers rose to trace the stress that marred Dana’s lovely face, his fingers burnishing slow circles at her temples. The action provoked precisely the effect he’d hoped for. Her frown slipped away and her eyes closed, lips parting slightly, the tension flowing simultaneously from her shoulders.

His hands moved to the back of her neck, massaging, stroking, and she moaned softly, "God that feels wonderful!" With that encouragement, he drew her onto the sofa, facing away from him as he kneaded her shoulders and the knotted muscles in her upper back. His lips followed a path over the nape of her neck, then her shoulders, before he turned her to him and claimed her mouth. There was no hesitation this time. Her arms circled his neck and she eagerly returned the embrace. He drew her closer, pulling her slender curves flush against him. Was it her heart that was beating a mamba rhythm against his chest, or was it his own, or were they so attuned to each other that even in this they harmonized?

His kisses trailed over her throat and dipped lower, caressing the upper curves of her breasts with his mouth.

A knock at the door broke over them like a tsunami. "Don’t answer it," Paul murmured, desperately hoping to salvage the moment.

"Scully, it’s me!" Mulder’s voice was unmistakable.

To Paul’s chagrin, Dana practically bolted from his arms, guilt splashed over her face.

 

"Mulder, it’s not a good time!" Scully buried her face in her hands, fighting for control. She and Paul had spent a significant part of the day talking about their religious beliefs. She’d made tentative steps back toward a life for which she would owe no apologies. Was she going to throw it all away just to prove some untenable façade, a pretense that in bedding Paul Domingo she was proving something to herself and to her exasperating partner?

Granted, she wasn’t virginal. She’d knowingly entered into a relationship with a married man, the end result of which was a shattered marriage and the beginning of her own loss of faith. Alternatively, as a scientist she could write off the act as a natural response to the body’s instincts. Of course by that tenet, she and Mulder would have been all over each other long ago. No, there was more to it than that. Something held her back in this, something ingrained into her as a child, a simple truth taught by her gentle mother.

And suddenly she realized something crucial. Her relationship with Daniel had been an expression of defiance, her rebellious nature run amuck. Even then she’d known deep down that she wasn’t in love with the older man.

She didn’t want another relationship based on rebellion. Not with Daniel, not with Paul, not with anyone.

Her fingers curved over the doorknob and she opened the door. It didn’t even upset her when Mulder breezed by her without an invitation. She offered up a silent prayer to whatever patron saint had guided her partner here and lit a candle in her thoughts. "Come in," she said dryly, unwilling to completely overlook the rudeness of Mulder’s intrusion. "You have something that can’t wait ‘til morning?" she asked. "Something happen that I should know about?"

Long limbs unfolded gracefully as Paul rose from her sofa. She flushed when she noticed how much of her lipstick now stained his mouth.

"Scully, I need to talk to you." Mulder’s voice was low and urgent.

She cocked an eyebrow. "Yes?"

"Alone. Please."

Paul stepped in behind her, his large hand resting on her waist. The Hispanic man nodded. "Go on, Agent Mulder. I’m investigating this case, too."

Mulder’s hazel eyes shot daggers at the other man. "It’s not about the case." Flushing, he added, "Not – Not about this case."

"Did Skinner hand us a new assignment? Because as far as I know, this is our only case now, Mulder." Scully could see right through her partner’s lies, they were so transparent. It should have irritated the hell out of her. He was playing with her personal life. He was nosy. He was way out of line.

And she was loving every second of it.

 

Mulder looked at his partner, his eyes pleading with her to speak with him alone. After a moment, she relented and excused them from Paul’s presence. Leading Mulder into her bedroom, she closed the door and turned to him.

"What is it, Mulder?"

 

He opened his mouth to speak, his eyes resting on the way her chest was heaving. She was angry, he knew, but all he could think about was how that sexy dress had dropped at least an inch in the cleavage area. He felt a tightening of his stomach muscles when he realized that her lipstick, which had rubbed off on Domingo’s mouth during what must have been a make-out session, was also all over the tops of her breasts. Unless Scully was miraculously limber, not to mention fond of herself, he knew exactly how it had gotten there and it made him want to beat the man’s head in. His eyes finally rose to meet hers, and he saw that she was blushing furiously at his scrutiny.

"Scully, I…"he began. He shifted on his feet, his courage wavering. What the hell was he going to do, make up a case? He licked his lips. "It’s just I’m concerned about you."

Scully’s blue eyes shot fire. "What? Who are you, my keeper?"

Mulder was emboldened as he thought about the fast turn her new relationship had taken. He stepped toward her. "You meet this man on a case, and suddenly he’s in your apartment and all over you!"

Scully clenched her teeth, trying to regain control. Never mind that she had just decided for herself that it was too soon to get into a sexual relationship with Paul Domingo. Mulder had no right saying these things to her!

"I am a grown woman, and I don’t need your advice." She moved toward the door, and Mulder grabbed her arm roughly.

"Scully, is there something I should know about?" His hazel eyes were filled with concern.

She frowned impatiently and yanked her arm out of his grasp. "What do you mean?"

"The last time you acted like this… well, you were sick with the cancer."

Scully’s eyes grew wide and she took a step back. "Are you insinuating that the only time I get interested in a man is when I am sick?"

Mulder shook his head, "No, I mean that you acted rather… rashly then, and you are now."

Scully placed her hands on her hips and counted to ten before she opened her mouth, trying to remain calm. Steadily, she said, "Mulder, thank you for your concern. I am not sick. Also, I did not pick Paul up that day on the case. He happens to be an old friend of Bill’s and he and Tara fixed us up. It was a total coincidence that we’d met him the day before at the crime scene."

Mulder seemed surprised at this, but quickly switched to another tact.

"We really don’t know the extent of his involvement in these murders," he said evenly.

Scully grasped the doorknob. "Please leave now. I’ll talk to you at work tomorrow. My date is not over yet." She opened the door and stood aside for him to pass through.

After a moment’s hesitation, he did so, casting a less than friendly look at Paul. When he left the apartment, the slamming of the door rattled the windows.

"May I ask what that was all about?" Paul inquired as Dana took her seat beside him on the couch.

"Just business," she smiled half-heartedly.

Paul raised a dark brow. "Are you sure about that?" There had been no mistaking the jealousy on Agent Mulder’s face.

Scully shook her head. "Mulder just worries about me. We’ve been through a lot together."

Paul nodded, and thought a moment. "I was under the impression that you and your partner have always been just friends."

Scully looked at him. "We have! I guess maybe it is more like a brother and sister thing." She leaned back into the couch, not believing her own words. If Mulder was like her brother, she’d had some pretty incestuous thoughts in the past.

Paul reached out and took her hand, kissing the palm. "I’m glad, because I am awfully fond of you, Dana."

"I feel the same about you," she said, then added quickly, "However, maybe it was a good thing that Mulder came by when he did. We were getting a bit carried away, and we really hardly know one another."

Paul’s gaze was steady. "I agree. I’m sorry if I pushed you."

"You didn’t! Really, I was just as… eager. I just don’t want to … spoil things by going too fast, and I think it is better to get to know a person well before getting… intimate."

Paul smiled, and it struck Scully again just how handsome he was. He kissed her hand again and squeezed it. "Maybe I should go. If you are willing, there’s somewhere I’d like to take you this Saturday."

Another Saturday when she wouldn’t be available to Mulder’s every whim. Well, how many weekends had she given him all these years?

"That sounds wonderful," she said, smiling.

They stood up and she walked him to the door. Leaning down, he kissed her gently on the lips and she returned the kiss, holding his hand in hers. It lasted for several minutes, but their passion was tempered by caution this time. Parting, he smiled at her tenderly, and left.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Mulder normally wasn't given to speeding. Then again, there was nothing remotely normal about this insanity. He had nothing to prove that Paul Domingo was remotely involved in the murders. And for the first time, his gut instinct couldn't be trusted. As much as he'd like to kill Domingo right now, it had nothing whatsoever to do with the case.

At least, Mulder didn't think it did.

Taking the corner on two wheels, the FBI agent finally pulled off the

highway, pounding his head against the steering wheel. Anything, he told himself, anything to regain control.

This case needed his full attention. He was playing against the house and the deck was stacked. He'd even tried telling himself that Domingo's attentions were diversionary tactics, that the man's only interest in Scully was her relationship to the case. Unfortunately it wasn't that simple. Paul Domingo wasn't feigning anything and neither was Scully; it was written over both of their faces. And the fact was that Scully deserved a man who would cherish her, a man who wouldn't desert her for the first vampire or UFO, a man who could offer her stability and unfettered trust.

A man like Paul Domingo could do all of that and more. Mulder's eyes fluttered closed as his mind went back to the blush of lipstick over Scully's cleavage and rage flooded through him again. Maybe Domingo could offer her all that, but he also wouldn't be the first man who was looking for a quick roll in the hay. The thought of Scully being used in that way drove Mulder nearly insane, and he knew there wasn't a damned thing he could do about it if that were really Domingo's game.

Sunrise came early the next morning. Mulder was seated atop the hood of his car when the first sliver of light arced above the water. He'd spent the night in a living hell, his mind playing the images of Scully and Domingo intimately entwined.

He left a message on Skinner's Bureau answering machine, telling his boss that he wouldn't be in today, that he'd be working on leads out of town.

 

He shrugged off his exhaustion to drive back to the area surrounding the Naval base, where he collected still more notes and information about the mysterious project and its missing participants.

He halfway expected to be turned away when he asked to speak to the two surviving members of the research team, but for once, there was no resistance to his inquiries. Mulder's puzzlement gradually faded when the truth struck him. The Navy was inviting him in because the brass was scared shitless. They were desperate, in fact. For the first time, the military needed Fox Mulder. And that, thought Mulder with a humorless chuckle, was an X-File in and of itself.

He read and re-read the notes at least a dozen times, fighting his mind's determination to return to Scully and Domingo. It didn't help when Domingo greeted him that afternoon. The Lieutenant Commander had the bad grace to be cheerful in Mulder's presence, no less.

The facts and figures came out of the woodwork, as did assistants and aides and brass. It made no sense at all until Mulder finally laid bleary eyes on the two MPs who guarded the doors. Only then did he realize that he was being given free access to the project only because he wasn't going to be allowed to leave the base again, maybe not ever. He gulped as he read the last page of the last report.

The project hadn't been closed down at all.

They were just searching for another volunteer.

 

Scully's irritation with Fox Mulder rose higher by the second. He'd skipped out on her before, but this latest was so childish that it was absolutely inexcusable.

"Sir, have you heard from Agent Mulder?" She had just dialed Skinner's office not an hour earlier, but the answer still wasn't what she wanted to hear. As much as she hated to admit it, she was a little concerned about her errant partner, too. He wasn't in the best state of mind when he'd stormed out of her apartment the night before. And he did have a tendency to commit acts of abject stupidity when he was upset.

"No, Scully. I haven't. If you want to know where he is, don't you think it might be better if you called and asked Mulder instead of pestering me every hour on the hour?"

Cringing, and knowing the mini-lecture was deserved, she replaced the office phone into its cradle. She had tried calling Mulder. She'd tried repeatedly, in fact. Unfortunately, Mulder wasn't answering his phone and hadn't called her. Trouble was that she didn't know if it was because he was upset with her personally or because he was in trouble. And it was the latter possibility that gnawed at her psyche, worrying her soul like a dog with a bone.

She shuffled the same papers that she'd been trying ineffectually to file for more than an hour, then she flopped the loose leaves onto the desk top, slapping her palm down atop the stack. "Dammit, Mulder!" she yelled to the walls. "Why do you do this to me? How is it that even when you're not around you still haunt me like some damned ghost or spirit?"

 

She blinked, realizing what she'd just said, and she amended aloud, "See, you're corrupting my scientific reasoning. I know there's no such thing as ghosts. Do you hear me, you schmuck? There's NO - SUCH - THING!!"

 

Just for emphasis, she slammed a glass paperweight onto the stack and the object cracked from the impact.

"All right, I believe you."

Scully twirled in the desk chair, startled to see the AD standing in the doorway, arms folded over his muscular chest, amusement peeking from beyond his surly mask. She felt the heat rise into her face, unsure whether her embarrassment stemmed more from the display of temper or her diatribe to her absentee partner. "S- Sir. I was just - "

He replied evenly, "It's all right, Scully. You think I've never been pissed at Mulder? I only wish I'd stuck to molesting paperweights. They're cheaper to replace than the stuff I've been known to throw. I killed one of my golf clubs one day, and you don't want to know what I used it on."

Her mouth quirked up in a sheepish grin. "Does this mean you heard from the AWOL agent?"

Skinner's smile faded. "Not exactly. I heard from the three stooges. Larry, Moe, and Curly send their best, by the way. And from what they tell me, Mulder went on a hunting expedition into the Naval base at Port Jerome. He was supposed to check in with them after he got back this afternoon, only he still isn't back. If he hasn't checked in with any of us, I'd say it's time we get this search party on the road. You coming?"

The damaged paperweight was forgotten in her haste to leave. The initial impact was over, but the damaged crystal continued to crack from its own instability, until finally it popped apart, falling into three large and dozens of smaller pieces atop the random pages. Slowly, though, one of the glass shards moved, and a second later there was a soft 'plop' as a drop of blood stained the crisp white paper.

 

Scully pulled her cell phone out of her pocket as Skinner pulled onto I-95 heading North. She was glad she’d entered Paul’s office number into her speed dial, even though she’d felt funny doing it. After all, they’d only had a couple of dates. Still, something inside of her had told her he was not just a casual acquaintance.

"I need to speak with Lieutenant Commander Domingo, please."

Skinner glanced over at her.

"I need to speak with him now, it’s urgent. Tell him it is Agent Dana Scully on the line."

A few seconds later, Paul’s concerned voice crackled on the other end of the line.

Scully sighed with relief. "Paul, I’m sorry to get you to the phone like that, but have you seen my partner, Agent Mulder?"

"Why, yes, Dana, he was here earlier today. I spoke with him." Paul rubbed his chin. "Is there a problem?"

"Are you sure he left? Did you see him leave? It’s just that no one has spoken to him today at all. My superior and I are on our way there now."

"I just assumed he left the premises, but I suppose he could still be here. I’ll check it out and call you back."

"Thanks," Scully replied. She disconnected and dropped her phone in her lap, noticing for the first time that her finger was bleeding. "I must have cut it on that paper weight," she muttered, dabbing at it with a tissue.

"I have a friend at the base who spoke with Mulder earlier. He’s checking it out," she told Skinner. "Hopefully we’ll know something soon."

~~~~

Paul Domingo left his office and went to the elevator, pressing the button for the bottom floor. As he stood waiting during its descent, he recalled Dana’s worried tone on the telephone. Why was she so concerned about her partner? Surely he could be anywhere.

As he got off the elevator, he made a right and went to heavy door marked AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY. He slid his key card in and the green light flashed. Pushing open the door, he walked into a dim hallway that led to a double-glassed door. He pressed the buzzer and gave a password to a man inside. The doors swung open and he stepped through, making his way down the long corridor. The heels of his boots made a squeaking sound on the shining linoleum floor as he continued down another hallway where the research facility was located.

A pair of guards stood outside the heavy paneled door and saluted Paul as he approached.

"What are you men doing here?" He looked from one to the other of the armed men.

"We’re on orders to watch the door, Sir," one of them replied.

"What for? Is there someone inside?"

"Yessir. His name is Mulder, Sir, and we are not to let him out."

"Gentlemen, that is a Federal Agent you have locked up in there. Are you out of your minds?" Domingo could feel the veins standing out on his neck. Why in the hell was Agent Mulder being held prisoner in the research facility?

"We are under direct orders from General Peterson not to let him out, Sir," one of the MP’s looked at him sideways but kept his body rigid. "We are waiting for his arrival."

Paul clenched his teeth. General Peterson had been heading up the in-house investigation into the deaths up until the FBI had been called in. Domingo reported directly to him on all matters concerning the case. He was going to have to play it cool.

"I see. Well, are you under any orders not to let anyone in?"

One MP looked at the other and then said, "No, Sir."

"Step aside, then," Domingo ordered, and the men made way for him to pass.

 

Mulder stared up at the uniformed man. He wasn’t sure if he was more frightened or angry when he saw Domingo stride confidently through the heavy security door.

"So you couldn’t get Scully any other way, you decided to eliminate the competition?" The words leapt from Mulder’s mouth before he could stop them, but some part of his psyche was relieved that he’d finally voiced his mind.

Domingo blinked, and Mulder was taken aback at the unguarded surprise on the other man’s face. If the Lt. Commander was acting, it was an Oscar-caliber performance. Domingo seemed to shake off the affront before asking urgently, "Agent Mulder, do you know why you’re being held here?"

The quiet dignity behind Domingo’s query further squelched Mulder’s ire. "You really don’t know, do you?" the FBI agent asked. "They never meant to let me go. They’re looking for another volunteer for their project that doesn’t exist."

Domingo frowned. "That’s not possible. The project was suspended except for background research. There haven’t been any more live participants since the first group disappeared."

"I thought you didn’t know about the disappearances."

"You provided me with the information, Mr. Mulder. I’m an investigator, too, remember? It’s what I do. You gave me a lead, I followed up on it."

Mulder licked his lips nervously. For once, was he being too paranoid? "There have been at least three more people who have been identified as volunteers since then. Any bets on how voluntarily they participated?" Mulder gauged the other man’s reaction, and again the naval officer’s response seemed genuine. There was a sense that while Domingo knew more than he was saying, the Lt. Commander really didn’t know about the unofficial conscription of civilians for the project.

A coppery hand reached out and snatched the legal pad with Mulder’s notes. Domingo’s brown eyes skimmed over the page and Mulder’s broad scrawls, then he likewise collected the supporting military documents. The Latino man’s face turned ashen and he hissed, "Shit! I’ve got to get you out of here!" His mouth drew into a grim line and he ordered tersely, "Listen to me, I want you to do exactly what I say, nothing more and nothing less."

Moments later, after a carefully worded phone call to the guards outside, Mulder’s hands were cuffed behind his back and he was being marched down the hall to Domingo’s office. Once both men were inside and the door closed behind them, the cuffs were removed and Domingo gestured to a door in the corner of the room. "There’s a spare uniform. I think we’re about the same size. Hurry!"

Mulder raised troubled eyes to his benefactor. "You’re risking a court martial by helping me."

"Not if we play our cards right. Officially the records were wiped the second you arrived. You haven’t been here, ergo you can’t escape. Besides, right now a court martial is the least of our worries."

Reaching out to give the Lt. Commander a firm handshake, Mulder replied with a gulp, "That’s one hell of a gamble. I think I owe you an apology. Not to mention a thank you." For a moment, they stood motionless, each reassessing the other.

 

Domingo hadn’t been prepared for the venom in Mulder’s voice. It had been completely unexpected, in fact, given Dana’s assurances that she and her partner were merely friends. Obviously Mulder had a very different viewpoint on the matter, regardless of the fact that he virtually ignored her in public.

The matter of Dana Scully aside, Domingo was now concerned more with getting this man to safety. Whatever else Fox Mulder was, he didn’t deserve the fate outlined in the project documents. The fact that the FBI agent had been given access to the sensitive materials was more than enough to convince the Lt. Commander that Mulder was right, that the team intended to abduct him and use him as their latest guinea pig.

His hand itched, as it frequently did now. He didn’t bother looking any more, knowing full well what he would see. Or more accurately, what he wouldn’t see. He was one of the lucky ones, the fortunate few who had been exposed to the agent and come away more or less unscathed. He had a couple of fingers that disappeared for moments at a time, the occasional moment of dizziness or nausea, but all in all it was pretty tame stuff. Mulder was right in pinpointing the disappearances, but it was ludicrous to attribute the murders to the volunteers lost in the first official experiment. They were gone, vanished off the face of the earth, unquestionably dead. Only after the first big run did the designers recalculate using the one minor equation that they forgot in their first computer simulations.

The one that flung the participants into some spatial vortex god only knew where. It was a safe bet that any human being sent into the nether regions of nowhere wouldn’t be coming back alive.

This time, though, Domingo got to perform his own personal experiment. He’d suspected he could do it but he’d never had the opportunity to try it out until now, when it was literally a matter of life and death. While Mulder donned military attire, Paul Domingo was shedding his own uniform, quickly and efficiently, letting the wool blend suit drip to the floor. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply, his face masked in concentration. Slowly but surely, his fingers turned misty, then disappeared; and the phenomenon crept up from his feet, through arms and legs, and up his naked torso. He was marginally aware when Mulder stepped out of the small bathroom, sensed the man’s astonishment and alarm, but Domingo’s task was foremost in his mind.

He knew when the transformation was complete, and only then did he allow himself to speak. "We have to move quickly. There’s only one ID, and it requires my hand print to unlock the doors, too. Let’s hope this works. We have to stay close; if we get separated I can’t help you. Keep your head down, whatever you do. As long as nobody looks too close, you can pass for me. Now let’s move."

To his credit, the FBI agent didn’t waste time arguing the point. Domingo murmured directions to the other man, guiding him through the maze of nondescript corridors, steering them through the less traveled passageways and into the sunlight. It was a bizarre experience to walk naked into the open air and be completely anonymous, to feel the breeze on skin that had never been exposed to this degree before. For a second the Latino man stifled a chuckle, wondering if he could get sunburned in this state. Then they approached the guard’s gate and he was reminded of the gravity of the situation.

"Evening, Darden," he said casually, knowing the young man at the gate was hearing the voice from Mulder, even though it came from a few steps behind.

"Good evening, Commander. Out for a stroll?"

"Yep. My girl’s picking me up, the pretty redhead in the gray sedan."

The guard whistled appreciatively. "Damn! You’re a lucky man, Sir, if you don’t mind my saying so!"

"I’ll be back later tonight. Open up before she gets any madder at me, okay, son?"

"Of course, Sir. Just sign here."

Domingo caught Mulder’s hand and guided it in an approximation of his signature, but just after the young guard flipped the switch, he turned and his jaw dropped. "S- Sir? What the - ?"

"Dammit, run, man!"

The transformation had begun to reverse itself and his flesh was returning. Mulder dashed across the open road, but the guard had pulled his weapon and fired two rounds. On the second one, the FBI agent went down hard.

 

Scully was growing increasingly impatient and angry. Paul had called and ordered her to meet him a few yards from the base’s front gate.

Ordered her.

And she’d blindly obeyed his command, not even questioning until they’d parked on the soft earthen shoulder across from the facility and she’d had a few minutes to think about it. She wasn’t sure what galled her more: the fact that Paul thought he had the right to make demands, or that he’d insisted she wait outside the gate. Humiliation stained her cheeks as she recalled the fast intimacy they’d shared over the weekend. He claimed to be old fashioned. Did he consider her too tawdry, too cheap to meet his colleagues? As if that thought weren’t bad enough on its own, her boss was here to witness her embarrassment.

Spying the lone figure striding across the tarmac, she straightened in her seat. His long, loping stride was unhurried, yet there was a stilted quality to his movements. He’s nervous, she realized. She’d been irritated when he’d called her and promptly dismissed her inquiry about her missing partner. Now, suddenly, an uneasy chill settled over her as the truth sunk in. Paul hadn’t given her orders because he felt any freedom to do so. He’d ordered her here because he’d found out something about Mulder. Scully’s pulse hammered in her ears. God oh god, what had happened?

Skinner still sat next to her, his dispassionate expression unchanged when he hissed, "He knows something!"

It took every ounce of her willpower not to grab the wheel and crash through the guard’s gate, military post or not. Her knuckles were white and knotted into fists. Her Quantico training had leapt to the forefront and she was poised for any eventuality.

She watched nervously as Paul carried on a brief conversation with the guard, his hand gesturing vaguely in her direction. He never raised his eyes to look at her. He’d just finished signing his name to the ensign’s clipboard when the ghostly figure begin to materialize behind him, and then all hell broke loose.

Paul broke into a dead run, his long limbs racing toward her, and she realized with a start that it wasn’t Paul in the uniform, but Mulder. Scully caught a glimpse of her partner’s terrified visage just before two shots rang out. On the second round, Mulder went down, the smoky, flickering apparition at the gate landed a karate chop that felled the guard. Skinner jumped out, meeting the ghost halfway, both of them helping the injured agent into the car. Scully climbed into the driver’s seat, starting the vehicle. Moments later, the insubstantial face stared at her from her back seat, a ghostly shell of a man haunting her heart. Meanwhile, curled up where Skinner had been, her partner clutched his abdomen, his face ashen and slicked with sweat.

"Move it, Scully!" the AD yelled, slamming a hand over the seat for emphasis.

Dust rose thick as she revved the engine and tore back onto the pavement, speeding away as fast as her vehicle would allow.

By the time they pulled into the ER parking lot, she didn’t know if Paul had ever really been in her car or if she’d imagined the whole thing. And by that point, she was far more concerned with her partner, whose breathing had become increasingly more shallow as he lapsed into unconsciousness.

 

Paul stood in his apartment staring into the mirror, as his form slowly became visible again. He had wanted to stay with Dana, but there was always the chance that he would materialize fully nude in the middle of a crowd. He was lucky he had made it home. Although he now knew that he was actually able to make himself invisible at will, he evidently had no control over when it wore off, as the scene at the naval base had proved. How was he going to explain that away?

He sighed, moving into the bedroom, and took some clothes out of a drawer. He pulled on a pair of jeans and a red Polo shirt, then grabbed his keys and headed out the apartment.

Dana needed someone with her right now and he wanted to be that someone.

At the hospital, Scully stood conferring with a doctor while Skinner leaned his elbows on the nurses station desk talking on the phone, his fingers pinching the spot where his glasses touched his nose. When he hung up, he turned around to see her striding toward him, her face a mask of worry.

"How is he?" he asked with concern.

"Still in surgery," she replied, tears coming unbidden to her eyes. "The bullet lodged in his liver. They are trying to extract it."

She sighed and Skinner led her over to a row of chairs.

"What exactly happened at the base, Agent Scully? I’m a bit confused on what I saw out there."

"You and me, both," she told him. Skinner’s phone trilled from his coat pocket and he pulled it out, turning away from her. Scully leaned her head back and bit her lip, a tear making its way down her cheek.

"Dana," she heard his voice and sat up straight.

"Paul!"

He took a seat beside her. "I’m sorry, but I had to go home and change. I got here as soon as I could. How is Agent Mulder?"

"In surgery," she replied, staring at him as he lifted a hand and caught the tear that dangled from her jaw. "We’ll know more soon." She paused, taking in his fresh appearance and spicy smell. He looked so handsome and strong, and she suddenly felt boneless with anxiety and fear. She was both relieved and thankful when he pulled her to him in an embrace, his face burying in her hair. She clung to him as if for dear life, her worry for her partner gripping her insides and making her nauseous. More tears squeezed their way out of her eyes and she nestled her face into the opening of his shirt, the dark hair there tickling her nose. After a moment she got a hold of herself and raised her head to look at him.

Wiping her eyes with the tips of her fingers, she sniffled and said, "Thank you."

"For what?" he asked her, looking at her with an intensity that made her shiver.

"For being here. For helping Mulder. Paul, what happened?"

Paul pressed his lips together in thought, looking away from her. "I found out that Mulder was to be used in the experiments…"

"What?" Scully cried. "I thought they…"

"So did I, but evidently I am not being apprised of recent decisions. I gave Mulder my clothes and….I experimented with an ability I had previously only guessed at possessing."

Scully’s eyes grew wide. "But how?"

"I was involved in some of the first experiments. Now I know that I can become invisible at will, although I have no idea when and where I’ll manifest again when it happens." He looked at her for a moment, taking in her shocked statement. "Pretty weird, huh." He tried to laugh, but was actually worried sick that this would be the moment that he lost her.

As he thought about the absurdity of having a boyfriend who could turn invisible like some kind of super hero freak, she startled him by placing her hand over his and squeezing his fingers. He looked up into her blue eyes and saw empathy there.

"How terrible for you," she said, her voice a hoarse whisper.

He took a breath, but was unsure of what to say. Finally, he gave her a way out. "Dana, I totally understand if this is too odd for you. I really have no idea of what all of this implies. There are a few mild side effects from the chemicals and that’s all I know for now. That, and the fact that I can disappear at will." He smiled and his eyes crinkled up at the sides.

Scully gazed at him and marveled at his resilience. Leaning closer, she brought her lips softly to his, kissing him with a gentle thoroughness that set the young Lieutenant Commander’s pulse to thrumming loudly in his head. He reached out and gingerly pulled her closer to him, enjoying the feel of her soft hair in his hands and her hot, wet mouth on his own.

The sound of a throat clearing caused them to pull out of their embrace, and they looked up to see the Assistant Director standing over them looking unhappy.

 

The hospital sights, smells, and sounds had already put his senses on edge, but it was seeing Scully in an embrace with Domingo that really hit a sour note with the AD. For years now he’d suspected that Mulder and Scully were involved in more than a professional relationship. And while intimacy between FBI partners was officially frowned on, reality often superseded policy and the Bureau more or less looked the other way. These were flesh and blood human beings being thrown into the most extreme of circumstances, having to lean on each other, to be responsible for each other’s survival.

It shouldn’t have disturbed him to see Scully with someone else. Was it because Paul Domingo was apparently up to his ears in this? Was she consorting with the enemy? Or was it a sense that somehow she was betraying Mulder?

Years with the Bureau left Walter Skinner with an innate feel for people. He could invariably tell when someone was bad news, and he got no such negative vibes, for lack of a better term, from Paul Domingo. The Lt. Commander seemed to be a legitimately good guy. No, the problem wasn’t with Domingo, and it wasn’t that there was anything wrong with Scully. What was wrong was Scully and Domingo together. It was their private business, and yet…

Scully jumped when the AD approached, and Skinner realized that was the problem. Scully wasn’t technically doing anything wrong, but she clearly felt guilty. She believed, deep down, that she was doing something wrong. That didn’t suggest a healthy, normal relationship.

"What is it?" Scully asked shakily. "What have they found out?"

Skinner licked his lips. "It’s not good. He lost a lot of blood and the damage was more extensive than they first thought. The slug performed a damned ballet in his gut, clipped a couple of vertebra, and lodged in his

liver. They’re having trouble controlling the internal bleeding …" The AD’s voice trailed off.

They both knew what that meant. With Mulder’s rare blood type, the need for a transfusion was iffy enough. Internal bleeding could exhaust available supplies very, very quickly.

"What’s his blood type?" Domingo asked quietly. "There’s a whole naval base full of healthy seamen, and I’m not above pulling rank to save a man’s life."

"Isn’t that asking for trouble?" Skinner challenged. "Did I miss something, or wasn’t it an MP who shot Mulder to begin with? And what makes you so sure you’re safe to go back on base? You’re one of their specimens, one of their experiments. What if they decide to keep you there?"

"I won’t risk letting a man die just to save my own ass."

It wasn’t the answer Skinner expected. He really wanted to hate Domingo, or at least work up a healthy distaste. It was becoming pretty damned near impossible. "You won’t be any good to him if you get yourself killed or imprisoned."

"True, but a whole lot of people owe me favors, and I can call those in from here."

 

True to his word, Domingo had a dozen donors lined up inside of an hour.

Scully prayed that it wasn’t too late. She stood next to the bed where her impossibly pale partner barely clung to life. A long, thin tube flowed dark red, emptying the precious, life-sustaining fluid into Mulder’s arm. Her lips moved in silent supplication to any saints who would listen, begging for one more miracle for the lanky man lying so still against the pillow.

"Dana, sweetheart, you need to go home. You need some rest."

Paul’s voice was gentle and low, coaxing her back from the depths of despair that threatened to swallow her up. His hand caught her elbow, steadying her. She hadn’t even realized she’d been swaying on her feet until his strength buoyed her up. "It’s been twenty-seven hours, honey. I know you’re worried about your friend, but I’m worried about you."

Stress and time without sleep left her fuzzy and unfocused, yet the soft entreaty reached her somehow. She didn’t even have the energy to take exception to sweetheart and honey. Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. She allowed herself to be led away, leaning heavily on Paul, some part of her dimly aware that he’d remained at her side throughout. He reassured her that he wouldn’t leave her, that he’d stay with her forever if that’s what it took. It was a promise that sliced through her, wakening an ache she’d never acknowledged before. Not like Mulder. Mulder wants me to follow him. He’d never follow me.

It was a childish thought and she was instantly ashamed. It was also, she realized, patently untrue. Mulder had followed her, time and time again, saving her life, her mind, her soul.

She looked up at the flecks of bronze in Paul’s brown eyes, and with a clarity beyond human capacity she saw his own soul. He was a good man, a devoted man, a man who would cherish her and offer her the home life that she had denied herself for so long. His freakish exposure to the biochemical and his proclivity for literally disappearing suddenly didn’t matter one whit. This is the man I should love, she told herself.

It never occurred to her to question why she told her self should instead of did.

Paul half-carried her to her apartment. She was exhausted beyond words, to the point that her body was on the verge of a complete shut down. Once her door was unlocked, the Latino man ignored propriety in favor of scooping her up, his heel shutting the door behind them. He carried her to her bed and stretched her out, pulling off her shoes before he turned to leave.

"Don’t go… Please."

For a moment she thought he might keep walking, but he turned slowly toward her. "Dana…"

"Please," she repeated with more feeling. "I need you."

 

Battling with his conscience, Paul Domingo stood frozen for a moment before he turned back to her. He knew from the instant that he did, he was lost. He had been so determined to do things the right way with this beautiful woman, to treat her like the incredible treasure she was. He knew that to stay with her now, in her present state of mind, would be taking advantage of her, no matter how much she might disagree at the moment.

Sometimes, though, being a gentleman took back seat to being a man.

A man in love, he reminded himself, letting his expression soften. He’d always believed that love at first sight was a myth purveyed by cheap paperback novels and too much alcohol. That conviction had flown out the window the instant he’d seen Dana Scully. He stood for a moment, just drinking in the delicate curve of her jaw, the soft fullness of her lips, the vibrant colors of her hair and eyes, and he thought that she must have been what God intended when He created woman.

"Dana…" One last gasp of chivalry, though he knew instinctively it would collapse the instant either of them took a breath.

"Please – I need you."

That tore it. His heart was aching for her. His body was aching for her. He loved her and wanted to spend the rest of his life with her. Was it so wrong to want to make love to her and to begin cherishing her right here, right now?

Closing the gap between them in two strides, he scooted next to her and drew her into his arms, his mouth seeking hers. Conscience reminded him that her ardor was borne of grief. He refused to listen. He held her gently, his lips pressed to hers as his fingers splayed over her back. The tension knotted in her muscles drove him onward. He unbuttoned the pale green silk blouse, pushing the thin fabric away. "Turn over on your stomach," he whispered. His large hands kneaded at the stress beneath her flesh, massaging at her pain, taking aim at her sorrow, his heart pouring out in the motions of his fingers and palms.

Her bra clasp went next and his ministrations were augmented by the scented lotion from her nightstand. His movements were slow and deliberate, at first designed to relax, gradually becoming sensual.

Her skirt and pantyhose dropped to the floor, then he turned her over and pulled her bra free, tossing it with the rest of her discarded clothing. Only a thin scrap of lace wrapped her hips, and that, too was soon gone.

Paul Domingo had had sex before, but for this night, for the first time, he made love to a woman.

And his broken heart tried very, very hard to convince him that her tears after were tears of happiness.

 

Scully had fallen into a deep, restless sleep. Dreams whispered in and out of her subconscious, the ghostly answers to questions she didn’t want to ask, had avoided asking for years.

Her hand itched where she’d cut it on the paperweight, and a procession of playing cards sprouted arms and legs, parading in front of her a la Alice in Wonderland. The face cards took on familiar likenesses; Kersh was the jack of clubs, Skinner the jack of hearts; Diana was the queen of spades, Marita the queen of diamonds. Accompanying Marita, Krycek marched as the jack of diamonds. Scully looked down to see her own flowing red gown and a heart scepter in her hand. And finally, two crimson-clad men stood before her, two kings of hearts, Mulder and Paul. There can only be one king of your heart, they whispered in an echo, and you’ve made your choice.

Turning, Paul picked up the suddenly two-dimensional Mulder and ripped him in half, tossing the male FBI agent aside. The halves of the card fluttered to the ground, falling at the feet of the king of diamonds – Smoking Man – who leaned down and, with the glowing embers of a cigarette butt, lit the cardboard Mulder on fire.

Scully threw her scepter at the villain and launched a frantic search for anything to douse the flames. Krycek, Diana, Marita, and the Smoking Man all laughed, taunting her. You killed him, Scully. Your dream, your choice. You chose Paul. You love Paul.

"I choose Mulder!" she screamed, sobbing wildly. "I love Mulder!" The itch in her hand increased, becoming unbearable, and she attacked it viciously, digging in with her nails while the face cards continued their chant. Suddenly her eyes popped open and she realized that she was back in her own bedroom, and the small bedside lamp cast its pale gold glow over her, her bed…

…And Paul.

The lieutenant commander was perched stiffly at the edge of the mattress, tears brimming in his eyes. "You were talking in your sleep," he explained softly, a catch in his voice.

She didn’t have to ask what she had been saying.

Her nails dug into her hand again and she pulled it into the light, wondering if she’d gotten a mosquito bite. What she saw was far more drastic; her thumb and three fingers were gone – missing from her vision altogether, though she could still feel them.

Paul gasped, tears finally cascading down his bronze jaw. "Madre de Dios, what have I done?"

 

Scully stood by Mulder’s bed, regretting slightly the way that she had made Paul leave her apartment an hour earlier. Their shared intimacy had been her idea entirely, but in the reality of stark morning, she had felt unable to cope with what they had done. She had dreamed crazy dreams all night long, her hand itching terribly all the while, and upon waking, she been horrified to look down and find a large part of it missing! A blink of her eyes later and it had been whole again, but not before Paul had seen it, too.

Dana Scully was not one to turn to people when she felt scared and confused, but if Paul had expected her to fall apart, he didn’t show it. He had remained sitting quietly on the bed until she had firmly suggested that he leave, knowing all the while that she was avoiding the things that they needed to discuss. She suddenly felt very vulnerable, and that was something she had trouble dealing with. She stood up and went into the bathroom, effectively dismissing him. She had known that she wasn’t ready to take her relationship with Paul to the next step, but she had done it anyway, and now she had hurt him.

She felt like an all-around louse.

After she’d had a quick shower, Scully had gotten dressed and rushed to the hospital. Remnants of her dream of the night before, strange and ridiculous as it had seemed, kept haunting her, causing her to irrationally fear that Mulder had taken a turn for the worse. Now she stood looking down at his sleeping form and reached out to take his hand in her own, feeling its warmth and taking comfort from it. Perhaps her exhaustion, fear, and guilt had all worked to give her the nightmare about losing him. Although he was in stable condition, she felt guilty for having left his side, and even worse for what she’d done after.

Scully sighed. She really didn’t know what it was she wanted. She didn’t want to examine what she had felt as she and Paul Domingo were making love, or why she had had that crazy dream. She cringed when she considered what it might have been that she had said aloud just before she woke. Whatever it was, it had been enough to thoroughly upset Paul. She knew that she owed him a heart-felt conversation, and that she needed to ask him more about what had happened to her hand, but she just couldn’t face him at this moment.

Her palm began to itch again, this time accompanied by a dull burn, and she looked down, amazed to see that once again her fingers had partially disappeared. Gasping, she jerked her arm back, allowing Mulder’s to fall to the bed.

How in the hell had this happened to her?

 

Mulder could see them on the bed, the Latino man unbuttoning her shirt and sprinkling kisses over her delicate skin. Her hands were entangled in Domingo’s dark hair. He wanted to cry out to stop them, but he couldn’t. Scully’s eyes were half-closed, her mouth hanging open in want. He couldn’t tear his gaze from the two of them, although it hurt to watch.

She rose halfway to meet Domingo, her lips parting to admit the sweep of his tongue. Domingo was doing all of the things that he secretly longed to do to her, and once again, Mulder tried to cry out. The man was taking something that didn’t belong to him, because Scully was his. His partner, in every sense of the word. That was how it was supposed to be. Only something within Mulder told him that it was too late. He couldn’t speak now to stop them because he had never spoke before. And he had had plenty of chances.

His eyes drew away, unable to watch any longer, and fixed upon their undulating shadows on the wall. The sounds in the room seemed to intensify and Mulder could not escape them. He didn’t want to hear, didn’t want to know.

On the last dying echoes of their passion, Mulder found his way up and broke the surface, breathing hard in a pool of sweat in his hospital bed.

It had only been a dream, yet the dream had been so real that he could still see the two of them entwined in each other’s arms.

 

Scully stood outside Skinner’s door, trying to get up the nerve to knock. She knew now that he could be trusted, although she’d had reservations about him in the past. Besides, there was no one else.

Taking a breath, she knocked and waited, her eyes roaming about the dimly lit hallway. When the door opened, Skinner appeared more than a little surprised to see her.

"Come in, Dana," he said, opening the door wider. "I thought you’d be at the hospital. How is Agent Mulder?"

"Stable," she said. "I’m going back there shortly. Sir, I have a problem and…" she was horrified to hear her voice break. She cleared her throat, "I need your help."

Skinner settled down into a large leather chair and motioned her toward the sofa. "What is it?"

Scully studied him a moment. He still wore his suit pants, but he had removed his jacket and tie. His white button-down shirt was open to his sternum. Her eyes were fixed there when he made a sound in his throat and she realized that she’d been staring, her mind tumbling in a thousand directions.

"This case," she began, looking him in the eye, "it has to do with… invisibility."

Skinner nodded. "Correct. Does this have to do with what we both saw yesterday?"

Scully raised her brows. "Maybe you can tell me exactly what it was that you saw, Sir."

Skinner looked uncomfortable. "I saw whom I thought to be Lieutenant Commander Domingo signing out and leaving the base, but then I saw," he hesitated and Scully nodded, urging him to continue. "I saw a man that was only…half there."

Scully let out the breath she’d been holding. "Right. That man was Paul Domingo. He’d found out that Mulder was to be used in the experiments, so he’d given him his clothes to wear. Evidently, Paul had been exposed during an early experiment and now finds himself able to disappear at will." She kept her features neutral as she stated these amazing facts. "My problem, Sir, is that…that…I seem to have been exposed, also."

"What are you saying, Agent Scully?" Skinner sat up straighter in his chair and looked at her with concern.

"My hand…it’s been itching, and then part of it just…goes away…"

As if she had commanded it, the familiar feeling returned and three of her fingers disintegrated before their eyes.

A full two minutes passed before Skinner realized he’d been holding his breath. Reaching out, hardly thinking, he asked, "May I?"

Scully extended her shaking hand and as he touched her, the flesh seemed to re-form in his own large palm, her digits materializing slowly to return to what seemed more or less normal. "God, Scully, what the hell is going on? First this military Cassanova, then you, Mulder’s in the ICU. Why would invisibility prompt a shooting at a federal officer?"

"I’m not sure," she admitted nervously. She withdrew her hand, clutching it to her, trying to ignore the burning sensation that still clung to her skin. If anything, it had become worse since the second incident. "Mulder brought me the information, and I read through it, but what he provided went so far outside the bounds of accepted physical law that I honestly thought it might be someone’s idea of a joke."

"I’m not laughing," Skinner said archly. "Where’s the information Mulder gathered on this?"

"I assume the file is still at the office, probably on the desk." She paused, then swore. "At least I hope it is. He might have taken it with him."

"In which case it’s probably done a hell of a lot better at disappearing than your boyfriend did."

Scully sucked in her breath, counting to three in an attempt to check her anger. "Sir, my boyfriend put his own life and career at risk to rescue Mulder, remember?"

"I’m aware of that, Scully. I’m also wondering what kind of hold he’s got on you. You have been in thick with Mulder for years, and all of a sudden here comes Mr. Wonderful and you’re smooching in the hospital while your partner is dying. I don’t want or intend to butt into your personal life, except when I think it’s interfering with your professional judgment. But in this case, I have to tell you, I think your judgment took a dive off a cliff and never came up for air! I want to know exactly what that man knows and why it may have cost the life of one of my best agents!" The AD’s veins stood out in his neck and every word was clipped and harsh. "You and I are going downstairs to the X-Files and we’re going to bring your friend in to explain anything we don’t know."

There was no room for argument in his tone.

Scully nodded miserably and dialed Paul’s number, hating herself all the more because she knew that her boss was right on all counts. She’d done everything wrong. She knew there was little chance that Paul would be willing to help any more, not after her betrayal. She certainly couldn’t blame him. And if she lost Mulder now, a big part of her would be buried along with the man she now knew she really loved.

"Paul?" she spoke into her cell phone, her voice shaking. "I know I have no right, but I need your help."

 

Everything hurt.

A tube in his throat prevented him from any kind of real speech. The plastic burned the dry membranes of his mouth and throat, telling him he’d been unconscious and in surgery, though his memory was still foggy on the details. His abdomen was aflame and knotted in cramps. He tried and was unable to move to alleviate the agony.

"Scully!"

The word never made it past an incoherent grunt, and no one replied to his anguished plea. Where was she? Scully was always at his side when he woke in the hospital. She was the one constant in his life. Even in his feverish state, he knew something was wrong. His body still refused his commands, nothing past blinking. Swallowing, or a pathetic attempt thereto, was a horrible ordeal. His fingers curled slightly but he couldn’t raise his hands more than an inch off the sterile sheets.

"Good morning, Mr. Mulder."

Mulder’s eyes fought to focus on the face hovering over him. There was something familiar about the face. Not the familiarity of family or close friend, just a dim awareness that it was someone he’d seen before. The male nurse was large and muscular with a short ruff of red-blond hair and a square jaw. He might have been a bodybuilder.

The IV supplies – blood and a clear liquid in separate collapsible plastic bags – were transferred from the wheeled pole to an attendant’s hand, and Mulder’s body was lifted by four pair of strong arms and deposited on a waiting gurney.

Only then did the FBI agent realize where he’d seen the male nurse.

The man was one of the Naval officers who had delivered reams of paper to Mulder at the base.

Mulder panicked, realizing he was being kidnapped, but no one paid any attention as he was wheeled down the hall. He fought to capture the attention of the nurses, a doctor, anyone who might help him. Finally, in the elevator, the officer calmly withdrew a syringe from his pocket and emptied its contents into a joint in the IV.

Within seconds, darkness descended on Fox Mulder.

 

The J Edgar Hoover Building was a maze of corridors and security. Paul Domingo found the facility as intimidating and unimaginative as the base where he worked. Dana walked silently at his side, her face drawn and pale.

God help him, he still loved her, even knowing she was in love with her partner.

She’d explained precious little to him on the phone; not surprising, all things considered. He was already at risk and they both knew it. He might well have never made it to the FBI headquarters. During the entire drive, his eyes skimmed the vehicles around him, watching for a tail that either never materialized or presumed to capture him after he met with the woman who had broken his heart.

She’d honestly believed he would refuse to help her, and he supposed that would have been true for some men. Most men, if he were honest. Dana didn’t know that he was held to a higher standard, a standard embedded in him from birth, a honor that he would not deny even in the face of such personal grief. He walked beside her with his head held high. Beneath his clothing, the first blisters were rising. Another foray into invisibility had given him a new insight.

Agent Mulder was right; the murders were committed by the first wave of volunteers. Full invisibility, when it lasted for more than a moment, had thrown him into a hellish nether world where the air was aflame and the water was capable of shearing off a limb. Half an hour had left him scarred physically and emotionally. For the other victims, insanity had long since set in.

Domingo’s eyes glittered with unshed tears. Possibly the worst part was that the Navy knew how to reverse the process while it was still in its early stages. He’d just been offered the cure, if he would bring Dana in, too. His colleagues – for lack of a better word – now knew she’d been infected.

"You remember Assistant Director Skinner?" Dana’s voice was still as sweet to Domingo’s ears as it had ever been.

"Mr. Skinner."

The AD closed and locked the door to the basement office. "Commander," Skinner acknowledged. "I think we can skip the preliminaries. We all know why we’re here."

Scully’s phone rang and she held up a finger as she drew the compact cell against her cheek. "Scully," she said carefully. Her face went white. "What?? Well find him, dammit!" She quickly explained to her audience, "Mulder’s not in his room!"

Domingo fell heavily into a chair. "They won’t find him, Dana. He’s already out of the hospital by now. I should have known." He steepled fingers over his eyes. "Nobody can help him now."

Scully dropped the phone and surged toward him, her face white with rage."What do you mean? Where is he?"

Domingo shrunk back slightly in his chair. "They’ve come to get him. They aren’t about to lose him as a test subject," he said quietly.

"But he’s ill! He shouldn’t be moved!"

"I don’t think they’re worried about his well-being."

"Did you know about this?" Scully pointed a shaking finger at him, her entire world tipping precariously. "Did you? Were you trying to keep me away from him so they could take him? So help me God…"

Domingo looked stricken. "No, Dana, I swear I didn’t know! But they’ve contacted me…just this morning. They didn’t tell me about Mulder, but they want you. They offered me a deal."

Scully became completely still. Skinner drew in a breath. "What is it?" he asked. For a moment, Scully and Domingo had forgotten he was even in the room.

Domingo blinked, tearing his eyes away from Dana. "They found out she’d been infected. They want her for the testing, and they offered me the cure if I bring her in."

Scully’s mind scrambled through what he was saying, then jumped back to the fact that her ailing and weak partner had been taken from his hospital room. She clenched her fists. She had to get to him.

She knew suddenly and completely that she could not lose Mulder. And she knew why.

A thought came to her like a spark in the dark. "Paul," she murmured, and he jerked his head toward her, surprised at the control in her voice.

"Do you think that I can control this invisibility?" She watched his face closely. "I can, can’t I?"

"Maybe."

"Dana…" Skinner said, beginning to understand where this was going. "That may not be such a good idea."

She looked at him, her eyes bright with determination. "Why not?"

"For one thing," Paul interrupted, "You won’t know when you could pop up visible again. You’re life would be in serious danger."

"I don’t care," she said firmly, and Paul knew then that he had lost her completely, if, in fact, he had ever had her at all.

 

 

Mulder was lost in a sea of darkness, floating on pain and fear. He could feel himself being handled by rough hands, and his wound hurt so much that he had to struggle to remain conscious. Whatever they had given him had almost completely worn off, and he moaned feebly. Where was Scully? Why hadn’t she been at the hospital? His mind struggled to put the pieces together, and then, all at once, he remembered that Scully had Paul Domingo now. Why would she spend all night at a hospital when she could go home and rest in her lover’s arms? The pain of losing her was more debilitating than his physical anguish.

It made him want to give up.

 

 

Paul sat miserably on Dana’s sofa, where he had been for the good part of three hours. Scully paced the floor, infuriated with herself and everyone else.

"Why can’t I do it?" she yelled for the tenth time.

"I don’t know, Dana, I don’t know. I wasn’t aware that I could do it until that day in the office." Was that yesterday? It seemed like a lifetime ago. He had spent the night loving this woman, and now the cold stark reality of her love and devotion for another man was staring him in the face like a lion ready to devour him.

Scully threw herself down on the sofa, her hands covering her face. "How am I going to get him out of there?" she took her hands away and looked at him almost savagely. "Pretty soon it’s going to be too late! It may be already!"

Paul looked at her tear-streaked face, her trembling hands and her wild eyes. He sensed that this was not usual for Agent Dana Scully. She was a woman in control all of the time, and proud of it.

"I’m sorry," he finally said weakly. She jumped up, walking away from him. "I’m just going in there as is," she finally said. She was exhausted from the events the day before and lack of sleep, and she felt rigid with fear, but sitting in this apartment was driving her mad. "I don’t care. I can’t just sit here and do nothing! Maybe, once I’m in there, I’ll be able to find him."

Paul leaned forward, his face full of concern. "They’ll take you immediately, Dana. There is no way you can help him!"

Scully clenched her teeth, determination coursing through her. How dare he tell her she couldn’t do something!

"I’m going to go and I’m going to get him out of there," she said steadily, picking her car keys up from the table. "You can’t stop me, Paul."

Paul stood, his legs shaky. "No, but I can go with you. We’ll find a way together, Dana," he told her, knowing it would be the last thing they’d do together, one way or another.

 

The base was familiar to the Lieutenant Commander. It was his home, for all intents and purposes. The off-base apartment was merely a place to sleep, little more than a motel room.

As they wound their way through the maze of buildings, a sense of calm settled over the Lt. Commander. When the admiral had called him, had offered him the deal, it was so simple. He refused, and that was that. Then when they’d collected Mulder from the hospital, effectively upping the ante, it was a whole new game.

Glancing at the woman in the passenger seat, Domingo sent up a silent prayer. He knew she would never be his, and he had accepted it, however bitter the truth was to him. But neither was he willing to sacrifice her to the regime inside the naval base. The admiral’s flippant suggestion, the poker game, was further indication of just how callow the brass had become about the human lives entrusted to their judgment. Men and women were no more than poker stakes, the cheap currency in a gamble of life and death.

Paul sighed as he pulled into his reserved parking place. "Dana, I can’t and won’t apologize for loving you. I still wish you’d let me drive you out of here."

"We both know that’s not going to happen," she replied softly.

"I suppose not," he acknowledged reluctantly. "I want to tell you something else, though. I didn’t know about the Navy’s continuation with live volunteers. I know you have every reason to doubt me – "

"I don’t doubt you, Paul."

He nodded, the conviction in her voice convincing him. "This whole damned thing is a game to them, to the admiralty, to the powers that be. They’re gambling with lives and laughing when they lose hand after hand. You’re gambling against a stacked deck."

The nondescript bunker looked like crew quarters, not the site of a life-or-death transaction. Scully’s expression was pure determination as she stared at the gray walls. "I intend to win, just the same," she said firmly. "We have to. Too much is at stake."

"You know they don’t really want Agent Mulder at this point, don’t you." Paul’s heart was breaking. As long as Dana was infected, she would never be safe. If the Navy didn’t get her, the biochemical breakdown would. One way or another, she was doomed. "They want you, and they took him for leverage to get you."

She turned to him, her eyes frank. "I know that. And they’re going to get me, just like we planned. Only they’re getting a hell of a lot more than they bargained for."

 

"I’ll see your ten and raise you twenty."

Scully kept her expression carefully neutral as she alternately studied the cards in her hand and the heavy-set man across the way from her. Admiral Fordyce was a powerful man, both in terms of physical build and in terms of position. The question was, was he a smart man, as well?

So far the game had been fairly even in its outcome. Scully was, as Paul had suggested, ‘flying below the radar’. She wasn’t going to tip her hand just yet. They both knew that regardless of the outcome of this game, she and Mulder and Paul weren’t going to just drive off the base with a gift basket. They would have to escape. Everything hinged on making the right moves at the right time. It was all about bluffing.

She was an expert poker player, having been taught by two older brothers who learned after a bit that she was no pushover. She’d cleaned them out more than once and she was quite capable of cleaning up at Vegas, if she chose.

The bright lights of the military base were a far cry from the penny-ante games with her brothers. The unilaterally gray surroundings offered no inspiration, no reprieve. There was no laughter in this game, no pity losses, no sibling banter.

Calculating, she dropped two chips into the center of the table. "Call," she replied evenly. To her left, Paul folded.

"Read ‘em and weep," crowed the middle-aged admiral, his salt-and-pepper mustache curling upward over his smile. "Three aces, m’dear, queens." He reached for the chips.

"Ah-ah," Scully argued evenly, fanning out her cards. "Full house, Admiral. Threes and twos. Still beats your hand."

The admiral’s eyes narrowed and she permitted herself a moment of enjoyment. He’d never expected her to hold up even to this degree. He’d discounted her instantly on the basis of her femininity, and he definitely didn’t like being proven wrong. "Well, Miss Scully, you’ve certainly proven yourself tonight. I think we should consider raising the stakes, don’t you think? You do know the stakes, don’t you?"

Better than you do, she thought as she smiled, replying through clenched teeth, "I know them, Sir. Shall we dispense with the pleasantries and go straight to the real deal?" She’d already seen him tuck cards into his sleeve. It was time.

The admiral’s eyes glittered with anticipation. "Then let’s play for keeps. Your participation against Agent Mulder’s life. You or Commander Domingo win, Agent Mulder goes free. You or the Commander lose, you agree to become our test subject. One hand, five card draw, nothing wild. Agreed?"

"Agreed." Scully’s voice didn’t betray her fears.

"Agreed." Paul was equally convincing.

The ranking officer dealt the cards, and each player sorted his or her options. Scully stared at the cards in her hand, discarded two, and accepted two in replacement. She didn’t bother sticking to normal rules. In this game, the rules made no difference.

"Well?" Paul demanded quietly. "I’ve got two pair, tens over fours."

Tension hovered around them. Scully slapped her cards on the table. "Beats me. I’ve got a pair of jacks."

The admiral leaned back, smiling broadly, as he turned his hand for them to see. "I believe this seals the transaction. Royal flush."

 

Footsteps echoed in the hall beyond her door. There was no time for mistakes. Desperation drove her as Scully peeled away her clothing, ignoring modesty. If I do this right, she reminded herself repeatedly, no one will see me. It will work. It has to.

Military training worked in her favor. Individualism and intuition were effectively drummed out of recruits from the day they joined. Soldiers, sailors, paratroopers, the mentality was all the same; follow orders, don’t think for yourself. That lack of visceral process would work in her favor, she hoped. Shaking hands unbuttoned her blouse and shed her trousers. She tucked the clothing out of sight beneath the narrow cot. Now, she knew, it was up to Paul to free her so they could get Mulder and get out.

The door to her holding cell swung open with only a soft squeak. Only then did she look down at her nude body. She saw nothing at all. Shivering, she wondered if she really should be glad about her success.

"Dana?" Paul’s low voice barely registered. A whisper stood out as clearly as a shout, but both knew the low side of a normal speaking range would be unintelligible to both human and mechanical listeners.

"I’m here," she replied, fighting for control. She stepped forward and bumped smack into a wall of flesh that existed beyond human sight. "Sorry," she apologized sheepishly. "I didn’t see you."

A soft chuckle warmed her. She knew Paul, knew she’d hurt him horribly, and yet he was here, helping her. It would have been just as easy for him to dismiss her fears, to turn jealousy on Mulder, to be anything but the decent, gentle man he was. "Touchè," he replied.

The only way to insure they wouldn’t be separated was to walk hand in hand through the corridors. Paul’s control increased with each instance he chose invisibility. So, too, did the severity of the burns he brought when he returned to his visible state. He would be in agony after this excursion, and he had already apprised Dana of the horrible side effect, hoping to dissuade her. He knew before he asked that she’d never give up, no matter what the personal cost.

They crept through the hallways, fully aware that their vulnerability increased exponentially with each step. Paul knew where Mulder was being kept. No one told him; no one had to. There was only one place where they’d keep a man injured as severely as Mulder. Only one place, that is, where they’d keep an injured volunteer.


Paul drew Dana around the various detectors and booby traps, doing his best to protect her.

Their timing was impeccable. The personnel contingent in the high-security infirmary was so involved with a hockey game that no one noticed the half-shadows who slipped in behind a doctor. Mulder’s gurney seemingly moved of its own volition, but the sports channel kept the MP’s occupied.

Paul steered the front of the gurney while Scully brought up the rear. By the time the alarm sounded, they were in the military ambulance and beyond the gate, and Paul Domingo had collected a single precious dose of the cure for the invisibility serum.

Scully sat in the hospital corridor sipping her coffee. She looked up as Paul came and sat down in the chair beside her. "Is he going to be okay?" he asked, his dark eyes searching hers.

She smiled. "Yes." She looked down at the Styrofoam cup in her hands. "Thank you for all you’ve done, Paul."

Paul’s hand covered hers. "You should tell him, Dana. Tell him how you feel."

She looked up at him, fear mingling with regret in her eyes. "I’m sorry I hurt you, Paul. I want you to know that I wasn’t trying to lead you on. I really do like you…so much! It’s just that I can’t…deny what I feel for Mulder. Not anymore."

 

Paul smiled gently, his eyes crinkling at the corners. "Which is what?" he prompted her.

She met his gaze unflinchingly. "I love him. I’m in love with him." She sighed as a weight was lifted from her.

Paul squeezed her hand. "Tell him," he said again, standing up to leave. "Oh, and here." He handed her a vial. "Drink this and your little problem should…disappear." He grinned, then walked away without looking back.

Scully looked down at the liquid and slowly turned the cap until it came off. She lifted the vial to her lips and drank the bitter liquid, chasing it with the rest of her coffee. Tossing these into the trash can, she stood up and went to the door of Mulder’s room.

Pushing it open, she walked over the bed, scanning the various tubes and machines that were connected to him with an expert eye. After she was satisfied that all was as it should be, she bent over and kissed him gently on the lips.

His eyes fluttered open a moment, blurry from heavy sedation. His mouth moved almost imperceptibly. "Scully…"

"Shhhh, Mulder….it’s okay…we’ll talk later. Get some rest." She patted his arm and sat down in a nearby chair, watching as his lids lost their struggle to remain open.

4 days later

Mulder was sitting in his hospital bed, the tray of what the hospital dared to call "food" pushed away from him. What he wouldn’t give for a Big Mac with fries…Super sized.

As had happened over and over since he’d awakened that morning feeling strong enough to sit up, his eyes roamed to the door. Scully had been in and out over the last few days, always accompanied by Skinner or one of the gunmen. He’d wondered many times if he’d dreamed up that kiss. He vaguely recalled trying to talk to her and then falling asleep again. Had Scully really kissed him on the lips?

He sighed as he reminded himself once again that Scully was involved with Paul Domingo. A man he couldn’t even hate anymore since he had proven to be so damn trustworthy.

Mulder shifted painfully in the bed, then looked up with hopeful eyes as the door opened. A nurse bustled in and fitted his arm with a blood pressure cuff. Mulder couldn’t hide the disappointment that he felt at her appearance.

After a moment she released the pressure and looked at him. "Feeling better?" she asked hopefully.

"Much," he replied. "Could you possibly ask the cafeteria for something without that greenish gravy on it?"

The nurse smiled ruefully. "I’ll try, but I’m not promising anything." She got up and started for the door. "Oh, you have a visitor. Shall I send her in? It’s that pretty redhead…"

Mulder couldn’t stop the grin that quickly spread across his face.

"I’ll take that as a yes," the nurse said, holding the door open for Scully.

"Hi there," his partner said as she took a seat beside his bed. "You’re sitting up, I see!" she leaned over and pushed the hair from his eyes, and he caught a whiff of her perfume. He breathed it in hungrily.

"You smell really good, Scully," he told her, looking at her a bit foolishly. When would he be off of those stupid painkillers?

"Thank you," she replied a bit shyly. Leaning over, she pushed the button on the side of the bed that eased it down. "You need to rest a bit, or you’re going to wear yourself out."

Mulder didn’t argue, just lay staring at her like a young calf looking at its mother. He felt incredibly inept and stupid suddenly.

Scully started to talk of trivial things, but then Mulder insisted upon hearing about the case. Reluctantly, she filled him in on their narrow escape and the ongoing investigation into the participation of the naval base in the tests on invisibility.

Mulder chuckled. "You played poker, Scully?"

She pretended to be miffed. "Does that surprise you for some reason?" she plucked some imaginary lint off of his arm and continued with her story. When she relayed the part about her invisibility, Mulder looked troubled. She eyed him warily as she finished the details of all that had happened.

"Are you all right, Scully?" he tried to sit up, but she pressed him down. "Why didn’t you tell me about this earlier?"

"When you were unconscious? I’m fine, Mulder. I’ve taken the cure and it hasn’t happened again. All of the side effects are gone."

"What side effects?" Mulder wanted to know.

Scully waved him away. "Forget about it. I’m fine."

"What about Domingo?" Mulder asked, not really wanting to know.

Scully looked away. "I haven’t talked to him. I can only hope that he was able to take the cure himself and everything is okay. Actually, I tried to call him and didn’t get an answer. He hasn’t responded to my message."

Mulder stared at her a full minute before he got up the courage to ask what was eating at his mind. "Did something happen between the two of you?"

Scully looked back at him. "We…decided to stop seeing one another, Mulder." She stood up and fluffed the pillows behind his head a little too roughly, jostling his torso.

"Ow! Scully," Mulder took her hand. "Stop that and look at me. What happened between you and Domingo? I thought you two were …tight," Mulder said, lacking a better word. There was no way in hell he was going to say "lovers".

Scully frowned, staring down into the hazel depths of her partner’s eyes. "I broke it off with him."

"Why?" the question came out on an in-drawn breath, and Mulder held it, afraid to move.

Scully considered him a moment, and then slowly leaned down, her lips barely brushing his. Hovering there a few more seconds, she met his gaze and then brought her lips to his once more, only this time with a gentle pressure that forced him to let go of the breath he was holding and move his mouth beneath hers.

As they parted, they regarded one another again. "That’s why," she finally said, straightening up. She reached down and took his hand in hers, being careful not to dislodge the IV that was connected to the top of it.

"I can’t continue seeing Paul when I’m in love with another man," she said simply, causing Mulder’s mouth to drop open.

A small smile flirted with Scully’s lips. "Close your mouth, Mulder, before a bug flies in."

Mulder clamped it shut. Licking his lips, he ventured to ask, "W-what did you just say?"

"I said that I could not in all good conscience date Paul Domingo when I am in love with you, Fox Mulder," Scully enunciated very clearly and Mulder’s eyes became saucers.

Scully laughed out loud. "Wow. You’re speechless. Amazing!"

Mulder reached for her hand and pulled her against him, grunting a little as she narrowly missed his injury with her elbow. His lips locked onto hers and he kissed her for all he was worth. When they parted, Scully felt weak and more than a little dizzy.

"Well," she said, standing up and straightening her suit jacket. "Well." She blinked and then continued. "Um, I guess you need your rest, so I’ll come by again later." She turned and walked into the bathroom, then sheepishly came back out and used the proper door, backing her way out of it with a silly grin on her face.

Mulder smiled and settled down to sleep. He needed to get out of this hospital bed so he could get some more of what he’d just tasted.

He couldn’t imagine what had come over his partner, but whatever it was, he had to send a silent thank you to Lieutenant Commander Paul Domingo for being the catalyst. With his help, both he and Scully had realized the true definition of their feelings for one another.

He hoped that the handsome Latino would find that sort of relationship for himself one day.

Somewhere in the depths between air and space, night and day, animate and inanimate, another figure joined the tormented group that languished on the precipice of what is actual and what is indiscernible. In a world that no longer contained definition, his only light came from a dim memory of what might have been.

THE END