My Name Is Paul

Cover

Category: M/Sc/Sk friendship

Spoilers: none

Archive: IMTP for the first two weeks, then go for it!

Summary: Skinner is dead — or is he? Mulder and Scully’s

investigation into his death brings them up against still

unseen enemies, who conspire to control them all.

Disclaimer: Mulder, Scully and Skinner are owned by Chris

Carter, 1013 Productions, Fox Television Network, etc.

They are wonderfully brought to life by David Duchovny,

Gillian Anderson, and Mitch Pileggi. I will make no profit

from this, and neither will Fox if they sue me, for I am

poor and have nothing material they can profit from.

Author’s Notes: This was written for I Made This!

Productions as one of the episodes of Virtual Season 8.

IMTP can be found at http://www.i-made-this.com.

My Name is Paul

Prologue

Arlington Cemetery

August 26, 2001

11 a.m.

“And so, it is with great sadness and regret, we have

gathered here today to lay to rest the earthly remains of

Walter Skinner.”

Mulder stared at the young man. He was an anachronism at

this gathering of somber men and women who all wore the

prescribed dark suits despite the sweltering heat of

Washington August. The man looked like a refugee from the

sixties; ragged jeans, a threadbare knit shirt, and

unbelievably old, worn sandals on his feet. Mulder

shrugged within his own dark suit coat. At least the young

preacher had put shoes on; when Mulder had met with him,

the man had been barefoot.

He forced himself to listen again, and heard the preacher

say, “And so, those of us who knew and respected Walter,

are glad to have this opportunity to say goodbye to our

colleague, our co-worker, our helper and,” here the young

man stumbled over his words, “our friend.”

It was no surprise to Mulder that the man found it

difficult to call Skinner a friend. He and Scully couldn’t

use the term about Skinner either, though there had been

several times when he thought they’d broken through. When

Scully was missing. When that prostitute and then Skinner’s

wife had been killed. When Scully’s cancer had gotten so

bad. And most recently, when Skinner himself had been so

close to death, infected with some still unnamed, unknown

technological virus. But always, always, Skinner had

pulled back, put up the walls, refused to take a stand,

choose a side, make a friend. It was frustrating to no

end, but Mulder was convinced that beneath all the

deceptions and seeming betrayals, Skinner was fighting with

them. It was why he was here today.

Well, that and the fact that he and Scully had arranged

the funeral.

When the call had come in to the Hoover, that Skinner was

dead, the body identified, asking who was handling the

arrangements, it had landed in Kim’s lap. She’d pulled her

boss’s personnel folder, determined that his parents were

deceased, his wife was dead, he had no children, and the

only relative was a brother who lived in California. A

brother who had been less than interested in the fact that

Skinner was dead, and had refused to take responsibility

for the funeral, giving Kim a lawyer’s name and the old

“have his lawyer contact my lawyer if there’s anything left

to me.”

Scully had come into the office at that point, found Kim

near tears, heard the whole story and volunteered them to

take care of the arrangements. Which was how Mulder now

found himself knowing a whole lot more about his boss’s

private life than he was entirely comfortable with. It was

also why there was a storefront preacher, one who ran a

soup kitchen, presiding over the grave. It was one of two

things Skinner did outside work. He boxed at a hole in the

wall gym in the wrong part of DC, but had no close

acquaintances there. Mulder scanned the assemblage again.

No, there was no one here from the gym. And Skinner’s

second activity — surprise, surprise — was working at a

soup kitchen that was mainly frequented by down on their

luck vets. He was a regular, every Tuesday night for four

years. And even there he had been aloof, stand-offish. He

did his part, spoke pleasantly to everyone, but never

allowed any degree of intimacy to develop. Mulder shook

his head sadly. Skinner had been a very lonely man.

Mulder jerked alert again as the first volley of gunfire

echoed through the cemetery quiet. It was followed in

rapid succession by nine more and Mulder flinched with each

one. It made his skin crawl, as if each shot were a

hammer, pounding nails into a coffin that would remain

sealed for all eternity. Or perhaps each shot was a door

closing, another avenue toward the truth closing with no

hope of being opened again.

The planes were coming in, now, low and fast, and as Mulder

looked up, one peeled away, the sun glinting off the silver

underbelly, almost blinding him with its brightness. It

was hot, so hot, and the sweat on his brow had trickled

down and caused his eyes to water. The blinding sun, the

August heat, they were the only possible reason that his

cheeks were wet and his eyes stung from salty tears.

He chanced a glance at Scully, and saw that she was

looking up at him in concern. A barely noticeable nod

redirected his attention to the young Marine who stood by

the casket, a neatly folded flag held in his hands and no

one to whom he could present it.

Mulder swallowed hard, then stepped forward, arms extended

and the visibly relieved Marine placed into his hands the

United States’ last recognition of the strength, the

courage, the man who had been Walter Sergei Skinner.

***************************************

Act I

Mulder’s Office

August 26, 2001

2:15 p.m.

“I can’t believe he’s gone.” Scully handed Mulder a cup

of coffee as she sat down and sipped her own steaming cup.

“I can’t believe you can drink coffee after being out in

the heat this afternoon.” Mulder took a swallow, grimaced,

and put the cup down on a desk overflowing with papers,

files, and loose photos.

“How can you find anything in that mess?” Scully asked,

sighing out loud as she took another sip of her favored

beverage. “And don’t avoid – it’s not like you.” She

narrowed her eyes as she studied him over the rim of the

still steaming cup.

Mulder gave a sigh of his own, and shook his head. “I’m

not avoiding. I’m just not sure I can accept this yet.”

“What’s not to accept, Mulder? The man is dead. We just

came from his funeral, for God’s sake. What more do you

need?”

“A cause of death, a reason he was out there on that road.

Hell, a body would be nice,” Mulder muttered.

“We have a body. We have a cause of death.”

“We have a severely-charred bunch of bones that Kersh —

Kersh, for Christ’s sake — identified!” Mulder stood and

began to pace, one hand pushing back the lock of hair over

his brow as the other worried his lower lip.

“Severely-charred would seem to give us cause of death,”

Scully said quietly. “And as to why he was that far out of

the city, at that time of night — well, he was a big boy.

Even Skinner had a life.” She shrugged. “We didn’t know

him that well, Mulder. There’s no way to know what he did,

or why he did it.” She sipped her cooling coffee as she

studied her partner’s pacing form.

“That’s just it. I do know him now. I know him a hell of

a lot better than I ever thought I would. He didn’t have a

life. He worked, he slept, he worked some more. He boxed

when he couldn’t stand the office politics anymore…”

“Or maybe when he couldn’t stand you anymore,” Scully

interrupted with a smile.

“Maybe,” Mulder conceded. Scully’s deflection had worked,

and he stilled, the need to move defused. Mulder shook his

head, amazed again at how well she knew him. He threw the

slightest of grins her way, saying, “If I may continue?”

“You’re profiling him, now? Now that he’s dead?”

“I need to understand.” Mulder dropped into his desk

chair, leaning back and throwing his legs up onto the

papers and files. He tilted his head back, stared at the

ceiling, then closed his eyes. “He fought his survivor

guilt by feeding homeless vets. He worked, he slept. He

boxed to relieve tension. He ran occasionally. And he

lived with guilt. Guilt and regret.” Mulder’s chin

dropped, his eyes popped open. The long legs slid to the

floor and he sat erect, pinning her with eyes of swirling

green and gray. “That’s *all* the man did. He *didn’t*

have a life.”

“Well, for someone who didn’t have a life, he’s still

extremely dead, Mulder, and all the profiling in the world

isn’t going to change that.” Scully rose and walked to

stand beside him, one hand placed gently on his shoulder.

“He’s dead and we have to accept it.”

Mulder gave a soft sigh, looking up into her eyes. “Do we

have to accept it, Scully?” He lifted one hand, carefully

removed hers from his shoulder, then rose. “Is he really

dead?”

***************************************

Undisclosed Location

September 12, 2001

6:30 a.m.

“Paul! Breakfast’s ready!”

The man in the shower shook himself, enjoying the sensual

feel of the water rolling over his shoulders, sliding down

his back and legs. He ducked his head under the shower

head and shook again. You had to enjoy your pleasures

where you got them. Somehow, getting older had made him

more and more aware of that fact.

“Paul! Did you hear me?”

He grinned beneath the cascade, grabbed a loofah and began

to scrub. God, he loved showers! The moist heat, the feel

of the water as it caressed his skin, even the scent of

soaps and shampoos — it was a sensory feast.

“PAUL!” The door flew open and she was standing there,

small and trim, her curly hair still in disarray about a

round face, legs bare beneath his faded old T-shirt that

she often wore to sleep in. “Breakfast is ready and we’re

gong to be late if you don’t get moving. Didn’t you hear

me?”

She shook her head at him and he laughed, amazed at how

many things there were in life to be thankful for.

Showers and hot water, breakfast and work he enjoyed. And

a wife that still captivated him, even after all these

years. “What time is it?” he asked as he ran the soap over

an abdomen that, despite being almost 50 years old, was

still rock hard. He had a life he loved, he wasn’t going

to blow it by letting himself go to pot and then being

sickly and unable to enjoy it. And thinking of enjoyment…

He eyed Karen, standing there with a smile on her lips,

head tilted to the side, one hand on her hip. It was a pose

he knew all too well. She wanted him to get his butt

moving, and NOW. “It’s late,” she answered. “But if you,

dear sir, will move that very fetching ass, we can still

sit down to a civilized meal and not have to race into the

school like a couple of teenagers.”

“Maybe I feel like a teenager,” he teased as he reached

out and pulled her into the water with him. The shirt

soaked quickly and he liked what he saw. “A lovesick

teenager at that,” he amended.

She struggled at first, raining tiny fists against his

chest in mock resistance, then laughed and wriggled against

him. In one of the sexiest moves he’d ever seen, she swept

the T-shirt up and over her head and he felt himself unable

to breathe as he looked at her. “Maybe we should skip

breakfast after all,” she murmured, her voice gone soft and

low.

Paul nodded, pushing back dark strands of wavy hair, then

bending to whisper into her ear. “Do you know how much I

love you?”

She laughed as his breath tickled her, and glanced down at

him. “Oh, yeah,” she purred. “I’ve got a pretty good

idea.”

****************************************

September 12, 2001

7:50 a.m.

They were almost late again, running from the teacher’s

parking lot into the building. They got to his classroom

first, and stopped as he pulled the door open and handed

her her satchel. He leaned down and kissed her, quickly at

first, then a bit longer, a bit deeper, and he could feel

himself being pulled into her very soul. The sound of

laughter, then applause, caused him to pull away in

embarrassment. He looked down into her flushed face and

they both laughed as the kids surrounding them continued to

clap.

“Time to get to class,” she murmured.

He laughed and let her go. “See you tonight,” he called

to her retreating form before he turned and said, “All

right, you monsters, nothing else to see here.”

“Already got an eyeful, Mr. J,” someone cried, and the

group erupted in laughter again.

“Get to class, all of you,” he ordered, but his own

laughter made it hard to sound stern. It was hard to be

stern when he felt so full of joy. He turned and entered

his classroom and began to pull books and papers out of his

briefcase as the teens filed in and took their seats.

“How long you and Ms. J been married?” one of the kids

asked, and Paul looked up, grinning.

“Almost twenty-five years, and let that be a lesson to you

all. It’s worth waiting for the right person. You’ll be

glad you did.” He smiled at the class, his face softening

and his eyes warm behind his glasses. “Now, can we all

open our books to page 95?”

******************************************

Office of the Lone Gunmen

September 12, 2001

7 p.m.

“Mulder, this is crazy!” Scully said for the tenth time.

“You’re going to get us both fired!”

“I need to see the reports, Scully.” Mulder leaned over

Byers’ shoulder, staring at the monitor as the other man’s

fingers danced across the keyboard.

“You saw the reports, Mulder.”

“We saw what they wanted us to see.”

“I’m in,” Byers said, looking up quickly to see Scully

move across the room and stand over his other shoulder,

next to her partner.

“They, they, they, Mulder. It’s always ‘they.’ Why can’t

you accept that Skinner died in that car wreck? If you

keep this up, we’ll both be out of work, and you,” she

tapped Byers on the head, “you may be in jail.”

“Not Byers,” Langly said. “He’s too fast to get caught.”

“What do you think you’re going to find?” Scully stared

over at Mulder, then down at the monitor. It briefly

flashed the emblem of the Fauquier County Sheriff’s

Department, then a directory tree. Byers moved the mouse,

made a selection, and the screen changed again.

“I just want to see the original reports, not the ones

that Kersh gave us.”

Scully sighed. They’d been over this a hundred times in

the last few weeks. “Mulder, he was FBI. Fauquier called

the Bureau right away. There *are* no original reports!”

“What local office ever willingly calls the feds to take

over their case?” Mulder reached out a long finger and

tapped something on the screen, then nodded as Byers

clicked again.

“There was no case. There is no case. There was nothing

to take over.”

“Never mind why Skinner was out there at that time of

night, Scully. Never mind that there’s no record of

anything he was working on that could have had him in

Fauquier County. But it was a clear night, a straight

road, and Skinner’s not known for drinking and driving. So

what made him veer off the road, at over 90 miles an hour,

at the only point in three miles in either direction where

there was something to crash into?”

“You don’t know he hadn’t been drinking. He does, you

know.”

Mulder raised an eyebrow.

“Drink,” she went on stubbornly. “He does drink. He

could have been drinking. The accelerator could have

stuck. There could have been a bee in the car.”

“A bee in the car? Is that the best you can come up

with?” Mulder tapped the screen again, then turned to face

Scully. “If he’s dead, I want to know what happened. We

owe him that.”

“I agree, but I don’t see that there’s any reason to doubt

that he’s dead.” Scully folded her arms across her chest

and stared levelly up into Mulder’s eyes. “If nothing comes

of this, I want you to agree to drop it, Mulder. Accept it

and move on. We’ve got other things that need our

attention.”

Mulder took a deep breath and stared at the floor. “I

want to see Fauquier’s report, and I want you to check the

autopsy report. If there’s nothing in either of those,

I’ll let it go.” He looked up. “But that’s depending on

nothing else coming up that looks fishy.”

She smiled at him, her face softening. One hand came out,

took his arm and pulled gently, drawing him away from his

hacker friends and over to a wall where they could speak

quietly. “I’m worried about you, Mulder. Obsessions are

one of your favorite things. And we need to focus on other

things now. You’re wearing yourself out over this.”

“I know, I know.” He ran a hand through his hair, then

scrubbed at his face in exhaustion. “I just need to see

the reports for myself. The originals, not something

Kersh has doctored.”

“Fine. Then hack away and don’t get caught. And once

we’ve seen them, we move on, OK?” She smiled slightly to

soften her words.

“Agreed.” He rubbed his face again and turned to head

back to Byers and the monitor. “Unless something else

turns up.”

***************************************

September 12, 2001

3:45 a.m.

It was dark and he was carrying something. Something

heavy. He grunted as he shifted the weight on his shoulder

and tried to find a comfortable grip. But it wasn’t

comfortable. It was big, whatever it was, long and thin

and it bounced against his back with every step he took.

He shifted again and took a deep breath. The air smelled

funny, a sort of strange scent that he couldn’t place.

Saltwater and decay. He looked around and realized he was

on a pier, a pier with no ships tied up, but littered with

crates. From truck-sized to boxes small enough to carry,

the pier was stacked with crates. He didn’t know where he

was, or where he was going, carrying this long, thin

thing.

Everything was silent, like a movie with the sound off.

He should be able to hear something. Water lapping against

the pier, traffic from the streets nearby, at least the

sound of his own breathing.

He was confused, unsure of what was happening, and he

stopped, longing to put the thing he carried down, but

somehow knowing he shouldn’t. His gut was tight with fear

and his nerves jangled from the adrenaline that surged in

his veins with every move he made. Sweat rolled down his

brow, and he shifted his burden again, then raised a hand

to wipe his forehead. But his hand was wet already, wet

and sticky, and he squinted in the darkness as he stared at

the hand and tried to figure out why it was wet.

He wiped his mouth and tasted something metallic. Oddly

familiar, with a coppery tang. The adrenaline flowed again

as he first realized it was blood, and then, in shock,

wondered how he would know the taste of blood. He shook

his head in confusion, then bent again to readjust the load

he carried, and a bullet sliced the air where his head had

been a split second before. He dropped to his knees,

rolling to one side, ducking behind a shipping crate. He

realized he could hear again, even as he reached out and

grabbed the man he had been carrying (he’d been carrying

a man!) and pulled him into the temporary safety of the

crate.

It was like he was two people. There was the person

moving, ducking, rolling, pulling, the man who seemed to

know what was happening. And then there was him — the

high school teacher who didn’t even know where the hell he

was or how he’d gotten there.

Another shot rang out and the wooden crate splintered over

his head. He looked down and found a gun in his hand. How

the hell had that gotten there? He didn’t know anything

about guns. Or maybe he did. As he watched in disbelief,

his hands thumbed the safety off, pulled back on the barrel

and he began to fire. He looked down at the man beside him

— tall and lanky, his face pale from the blood he was

losing — and fired again at the unseen threat.

He could hear something else now, something besides

bullets. There was shouting. Someone was crying out,

“Kill them! Kill them!” And a barrage of gunfire

assailed the crate. He grabbed the injured man by the

collar and slithered further back, behind more crates. He

felt a sharp pain in his arm and looked down, saw that he’d

been hit and was bleeding now. He had to stop the

bleeding. He looked at the unconscious man beside him,

somehow knowing that he knew him and yet having no name for

this tall person with dark hair and the oh, so pale face.

Another shot whizzed by, pulling him back to the present.

He reached into a pocket, reloaded the gun, and began

firing again. His arm was bleeding freely, and he was out

of ammunition when a figure stepped around the crate, a gun

leveled at his head. He strained to see the face of the

man who was going to kill him, but it was shrouded in

darkness.

He thought again about the absurdity of it all. That he,

a high school math teacher would end up dying on a nameless

pier, killed by a nameless man, for no reason he could

comprehend. He didn’t know how he’d gotten here, or why he

was here, or how he knew how to handle this gun.

He looked down at his hands, watched as the gun dropped

from numb fingers and wished with all his heart he was back

safe in his bed with his wife. “Karen! “Karen!” The first

cry was hoarse and almost unintelligible. But the second

one rang out clear.

He stared at the man before him, his finger on the trigger

pulling back almost imperceptibly. He was going to die. He

closed his eyes, and screamed again, “Karen! Karen!”

waiting for the bullet to sound, for the pain he knew was

coming. Waiting…

“PAUL!”

His head rocked back from the force of her palm and his

eyes snapped open. His wife was straddling him, her

fingers digging into his shoulders.

“Paul! Are you awake?”

He stared at her for a long moment, then nodded, and let

himself fall forward into her embrace. She wrapped her

arms around him, holding him tightly and stroking his back

until his breathing slowed and he could manage to make his

tongue work.

“It’s getting worse,” he whispered thickly, feeling her

answering nod.

She tightened her grip on him, holding him as if she would

fight the world to keep him safe, then reluctantly let go

and slid off his legs, leaving him to hold himself upright.

“You go and shower,” she said softly. “You’re drenched and

the sheets are soaked. I’ll strip the bed and make

coffee.”

He nodded obediently, not able to think yet, and struggled

to his feet, padding softly toward the bathroom.

She cocked her head as she studied him. “We’ll talk when

you get done.”

*****************************************

Mulder’s Office

September 13, 2001

10 a.m.

“Are you satisfied now?” Scully dropped the folder on

Mulder’s desk. I’ve gone over the autopsy and I don’t see

anything other than what went into the report.”

“Nothing?” Mulder opened the file, staring down at a

Skinner-sized black lump on a stainless steel table.

“The body was badly burned, Mulder. Not just beyond

recognition, but to the point where the bones began to

break and fuse. Not even the teeth could be used for

identification.”

Mulder jerked alert, staring up at his partner. “No

dental I.D.? What did they use?” He shook his head and

added, “And don’t tell me his wallet.” A quick glance down

at the picture in the folder and then, “No way the wallet

survived.”

“No, Mulder. It wasn’t his wallet.” She tilted her head

as she looked at him. “I thought you knew.”

“I don’t *know* anything!” Mulder said in disgust. “That’s

why I’m trying to find something out.” He rose and began

to pace the small office. “I just think it’s too

convenient that once Skinner begins to be a little more

dependable when it comes to backing us up, he suddenly

turns up dead. Dead, in a weird, single car crash, on a

deserted road, in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of

the night.” He heeled around, facing her. “Nothing new, I

know, but he had no reason to be there, nothing anyone can

find that would explain why he was out there, or what

caused the crash.” He started pacing again, three strides

to the door, then a quick turn and back toward the desk.

“And now you tell me not only was he burned beyond

recognition, his teeth were destroyed too?” He halted at

her side, staring earnestly into her face. “How do we know

it’s him?”

“Oh, Mulder,” Scully sighed, one hand reaching up almost

hesitantly to push gently against his chest, forcing him to

sit. “I thought you knew.” When he was seated, she

propped herself on the desk in front of him. “It was him,

Mulder. He broke his leg when he was a child, a bad break.

I saw the X-rays. Right leg.”

Mulder’s head dropped as she spoke and she could see the

beginnings of acceptance slide across his features.

“The body was badly burned, the bones included. But you

could still see the healed fracture on the right leg.” She

stopped and took a deep breath. “It was him, Mulder. It

had to be him.”

Mulder shook his head as she spoke, still staring at his

lap. She could see as he closed his eyes tightly, fighting

unnamed emotions, and when he opened them and lifted his

head, she could see the exhaustion in the drooping, red-

rimmed lids. His whole face was etched in exhaustion and

she chided herself for not watching more closely, not

having confronted him sooner. Staring down at him, she

wondered just how much sleep he’d gotten in the week since

Skinner died.

He stared up at her and she was struck by the sudden

bereft look on Mulder’s features and she realized he had

truly not believed that Skinner was dead until this

moment.

“Mulder,” she said softly, “I miss him, too. But the fact

is, we didn’t know him that well, and we couldn’t really

depend on him. He never really took a stand.”

Mulder just shook his head. “I know he was on our side.

There were other things going on, things that made him seem

to sit on the fence, but he was on our side.”

“Mulder…” She reached out and touched his head,

surprised to find he was warm to her touch. “Mulder? Are

you all right?”

He shook his head, pushing her hand away. “No, I’m not

all right.” He looked up at her impatiently. “Don’t you

get it, Scully?” He shook his head again.

“We’re really on our own now. We’re alone,” he said, in

an almost stricken voice.

“We’re not alone,” she whispered. “We have each other.”

*****************************************

ACT II

September 13, 2001

10 p.m.

He was humming softly, something from the early seventies

that he knew but couldn’t remember the name of. He scanned

the shelves in front of him, searching for the brand she

liked, found it, and threw two packs of paper towels into

the cart without missing a beat. It amazed him how much he

enjoyed the every day things in life. Before they’d moved

here, he’d had friends who talked of feeling trapped in

their marriages, trapped in their lives. The every day

joys seemed to elude those men, but not him. He couldn’t

imagine anything more wonderful than this life he led. A

wife who loved him, a job he was happy at, one that gave

him pleasure. A chance to shape young lives, to contribute

to the future. A chance to make a difference in the world

through the children he taught.

He laughed as he picked up toilet paper, then tissues, and

stacked them on the almost full cart. Some people weren’t

content with the every day life, thinking life had to be

exciting and an adventure in order to be worthwhile. Or

they needed to do something on a grand scale to feel they

were making a contribution. But he knew better. It was the

little things, the every day things, that made life worth

living. He could think of nothing sadder than a life with

no family, no friends, no hobbies. A man who only worked

and slept and worked some more. He shuddered as he opened

the dairy case and pulled out a carton of eggs. He

carefully opened the lid, first checking to be sure none

were broken, then moving each egg in its cradle, as Karen

had taught him all those years ago, to make sure none were

cracked on the bottom.

This was what life was all about. Not — he shuddered

again — not the macho heroics of those horrid nightmares

he’d been having. It was about love and friendship. About

grocery shopping and grading tests at night with someone

you loved. Someone who loved you. It was about mowing the

grass and backyard barbecues with friends. It was about

baseball in a minor league park on a hot summer night and

fireworks under the stars. It was about helping a bright

young girl find a scholarship so she could go to college

and watching a kid add A + B for the first time and really

get an answer.

He moved on to the checkout, and idly noticed the long

coat the man in front of him was wearing. A glance at the

big thermometer that hung over the customer service counter

reminded him of what he already knew. It was September in

Georgia; that guy had to be dying in that thing. He

shrugged and went back to wondering how he got to be so

lucky. How he was the one who knew what made life

worthwhile, when millions of others wandered blindly along,

never satisfied, never content. As far as he was

concerned, the life of this high school math teacher was

all he needed, and he was going to thank God every day that

he had it.

A shrill cry jerked him from his reverie and he came

alert, looking around. The man in the long coat had pulled

a gun and had it aimed at the young cashier. She was the

one who had cried out. He looked at her more closely. It

was Cheryl Pierce. She was in his algebra class. He

seemed to remember she’d once told him she was junior class

VP. Made sense — she was active in school. He knew that.

Even had a school T-shirt on at work. A lot of the

teenagers wouldn’t show that kind of school pride. She was

a bright girl, cute and funny, but she hadn’t been

satisfied with the D she’d gotten in algebra and was

repeating it again this year. She said she just couldn’t

seem to get the hang of using letters for numbers last

year, but he was inclined to think it was more the

teacher’s fault than the girl’s, since she seemed to be

doing fine in his class.

He studied her closely. She wasn’t doing fine right now.

Her face was pale, almost transparent, and she was crying.

Not loud, sobbing cries, but crying nonetheless. Tears

streamed down her cheeks and she breathed in little gulping

sighs. Her nose was running and as he watched, she lifted

a shaking hand and swiped it, a little child’s action. The

man in the coat said something, but it was strange, almost

like his dream. He couldn’t seem to hear, he just suddenly

knew how to act. Part of him was appalled that anyone

would threaten a child this way, that anyone would dare to

infringe on her innocence and stain her with violence.

But another part of him was moving, shoving his full

shopping cart forward, watching as the man in the long coat

fell forward, the gun going off at the ceiling. Paul

shoved again, then leapt over the moving belt on the

counter, tackling Cheryl and pulling her to the ground with

him.

Sound was suddenly back and he could hear screaming all

around and he saw people scurrying away. The man with the

gun was up, because when Paul rolled again, he saw the

barrel of the gun come down over the counter and he felt

the bullet as it exploded into his arm. He somehow kept

rolling, Cheryl beneath him, then above, and soon they were

behind a refrigerated display case full of ice cold sodas.

He heard the glass on the front of the case shatter as

another bullet found its way home. He pushed away from

Cheryl, shoving her toward the door, screaming, “Run! Run!

Run!” even as he leapt to his feet and raced toward the

shooter.

This was insane. This was madness. He’d lost his mind.

He was Paul Johnson, math teacher, and he did not *ever*

charge down men who were holding a gun.

He stared at the barrel of the gun, watched as it rose and

pointed directly at his chest. He was still moving

forward, a final dance with death, the barrel of the gun

wavering only slightly. He could hear screaming, taste the

fear in his mouth, feel the blood on his sleeve. The man

holding the gun grinned, his lips pulled back to reveal

teeth locked in a death’s mask parody. He could see the

finger on the trigger, pulling, pulling, pulling, and he

could almost feel the jolt as the gun fired, the bullet

leaping from the barrel and as he went down, he thought,

“Karen is never going to forgive me for this.”

****************************************

September 14,

2001 5:15 a.m.

The hammer came down again. BANG! He pulled back and

looked down at his work. For someone as unhandy as he was,

it was turning out all right. He raised the hammer once

more — BANG — and then nodded in satisfaction. He was

done. He set the hammer on the bench, then turned for

sandpaper.

BANG! BANG! BANG!

He looked down in surprise, then glanced at the workbench

to make sure the hammer wasn’t acting on its own.

BANG! BANG! BANG!

Mulder jerked awake, the old blanket slipping to the floor

as he sat up on the battered couch. The TV was still

running, sound muted, the picture causing weird shadows to

dance across the walls.

Weird shadows, weird dreams. Something about building

something. And a hammer.

Mulder rolled his shoulders, then stretched, standing as

he lifted his arms over his head and arched his back. It

was September, in the nineties, but the A/C was blowing full

force and he shivered in his boxers.

Very weird dream. Wood and nails and hammers.

Hammers.

Pounding.

He froze in midstretch and shot a glance at the door.

“Nah,” he muttered, padding into the kitchen and turning

on the water. He pulled the basket from the coffeemaker,

dumped the old filter with a grimace. It was a solid lump,

gray and fuzzy, and he swore for the hundredth time to wash

the damn thing every time he used it. He stuck the basket

in the sink, letting the now hot water bathe it as he

rummaged in the cabinet for a new filter and the coffee.

Pounding. He been dreaming of pounding.

Or had he?

He shook his head again, forcing his thoughts back to the

coffee. The coffeemaker had been a gift from Scully’s

mother — and he actually used it. Not as often as he’d

thought he would. He always seemed to be running from one

emergency to another, and when it wasn’t an emergency, he

was just plain running late. But on nights like this, or

the occasional weekend, it was nice to be able to make a

cup of decent coffee — something drinkable that still

served its purpose to keep him awake and keep him going.

Pounding.

He glanced at the door again. Why couldn’t he shake the

dream? Oh, the dream itself was fading. He’d been making

something, something that involved pounding. It was the

pounding that kept coming back to him.

He filled the filter with coffee, then put it in the

basket, filled the pot with water and dumped it into the

reservoir. Put the pot on the burner, flick the switch, and

voila! In mere minutes he’d have coffee even Scully

couldn’t fuss about.

He scrounged for a cup, but couldn’t find a clean one, so

the hot water came back on and he put the least filthy one

right in the stream, letting the hot water soak his latest

science experiment.

Pounding.

That was it. He looked at the half-filled coffeepot, then

stared at the water overflowing the coffee cup. It was his

favorite. It had a picture of the space shuttle and the

words, “Space — the final frontier.” He liked it because

it was so normal. It was the kind of cup anyone could

have. It wasn’t really about aliens or UFOs or anything

else weird or strange. Just a typical cup that any old guy

might have sitting on his desk at work. It made him feel

almost normal.

Pounding.

He shook his head and gave up at last, walking quickly to

the door to the apartment. He yanked it open, looking

right and then left.

Nothing.

He looked down, not really surprised to see the bulky

manila envelope that lay there. He bent and picked it up,

checked the hall again, and shut and locked the door. Even

as he walked back to the kitchen, he could tell it was a

videotape.

“Scully would be proud of me,” he muttered as he finished

rinsing the cup and then filled it with coffee. Cup in one

hand, tape in the other, he moved back to the living room

and turned on the VCR.

The image was in black and white, shot from a distance,

and from a stationary position. It was the inside of a

supermarket. It took him only a moment to realize this was

a surveillance tape from the store’s security system.

As he watched, a man in a trench coat got into a young

girl’s line and moved forward. When he got in front of the

girl, he pulled a sawed-off shotgun from beneath the coat

and pointed it at her. He watched as the girl began to

cry, as one hand rose and wiped uselessly at her nose, the

shotgun never moving from in front of her. He was staring

at the girl’s hands, certain he could see them shake, even

on this grainy film, when the cart behind the gunman shot

forward, knocking the man to his knees, then down again as

the cart was shoved a second time. A big man appeared in

the camera’s view, leaping over the counter in a single

smooth movement, then the man and the girl disappeared and

the gunman rose, shoving the cart back and then leaning

over the counter and firing.

Mulder watched as the big man and the girl appeared again,

blood blossoming on the big guy’s arm. He ignored the

wound and rolled the girl away. Just before the man and

the girl disappeared from the camera’s view again, the man

lifted his head, searching for the shooter and unknowingly

stared into the camera’s eye.

Mulder choked, hot coffee spraying from his mouth as he

hit pause and struggled to regain his breath.

“Holy shit!” he muttered as he stared at the all too

familiar face on his TV screen. “I don’t believe this.”

His eyes never left the screen as he scrambled for the

cordless phone, hit the speed dial button and waited for

the familiar answer.

“Scully,” she said.

“Scully, it’s me.”

“Of course it’s you, Mulder,” she answered in a grumpy

tone. “No one else would call me now. Do you even know

what time it is?” He could hear the sleep in her voice,

knew her lips were pursed as she studied the clock on her

bedside table. Knew she was annoyed, but knew as well

she’d forgive him, and in about five seconds she’d be as

awake as he was.

“Scully — you aren’t going to believe what I just found.”

******************************************

Hospital Room

September 14, 2001

7:30 a.m.

He woke up, surprised to find that he could. The room was

bright and cheerful, and there were flowers covering every

surface he could see. There was a small hand in his own

larger one, and he tightened his grip slightly.

Karen gasped, then sat up, coming immediately awake.

“You’re awake,” she said, squeezing him back.

“Yep.” He nodded, not sure what else to say. He stared

into her worried eyes and finally asked, “What happened?”

“You decided to be an idiot and got yourself shot.”

Paul blinked. The store, the gunman, Cheryl. Cheryl. He

felt his heart rate pick up and a frown crept across his

face. “Cheryl? The girl from the store? Is she all

right?”

Karen smiled. “She’s fine. Telling the whole town how

her favorite teacher saved her life.”

“I didn’t, really. I just tried to get her out of the

way.” He glanced up at his wife. “What happened to the

man? I thought he was going to shoot me.”

“He did.” Karen nodded at his arm and he looked down at

the bandage then shook his head.

“No. Here.” He pointed at his chest. “I thought he was

going to shoot me here.”

Karen’s face sobered. “So did the cops. They got there

just in time to see the end.” She wrinkled her nose at him

as she asked, “You really don’t remember what happened?”

He shook his head again.

“According to the cops, as the guy started to pull the

trigger, you lunged at him, then did some sort of drop and

kicked his feet out from under him. Then you rolled on top

of him and took the gun away.” She narrowed her eyes at

him. “You hit him with the butt of the gun, almost knocked

him out. The cops said it looked professional, like

something you’d practiced a hundred times to get that

smooth.”

“They get him?”

She shook her head. “In the confusion, he managed to get

to his feet and get out the back.”

He blinked again, then looked around for his glasses. She

saw him searching, opened the drawer to the bedside table,

and pulled them out. “Looking for these, hero?”

He nodded, slipping them on his face, even as he said,

“I’m no hero. I was scared shitless.” He pushed the

wirerims up against the bridge of his nose, then settled

back into the pillows. “Then what happened?”

“Then, Mr. Hero-Man, you fainted.” She couldn’t suppress

the grin that stretched across her face.

“I fainted?” He laughed, then laughed even harder when

she joined him, nodding. “I really fainted?”

“Apparently. The cops said it was probably the adrenaline

coupled with the blood loss from the shot to your arm.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever fainted before,” he murmured when

they had both stopped laughing.

“I don’t think you’ve ever tackled a man with a gun

before, either,” she said, laughter still in her voice.

He chuckled as he looked at her, but somehow, this time,

he couldn’t agree.

****************************************

Scully’s Apartment

September 14, 2001 6:30 a.m.

The image frozen on the TV screen was the same one he had

stared at in disbelief for so many long minutes. Only now,

it was frozen on Scully’s TV and she was the one who stared

in disbelief.

“Oh, my God …” she whispered for the fourth time. Her

eyes finally slid off the screen and traveled up to meet

his. One small but strong hand half-covered her mouth.

“What have they done?”

Mulder shook his head grimly. “I still don’t know that,

but I know what they haven’t done.”

“What?” Her eyes had moved back to the image of Skinner,

arm bloody, face dirty, and eyes that seemed to stare

directly at them from the TV.

“They haven’t killed him.” Mulder stood and stepped to

the VCR. He pushed a button and the image disappeared.

Seconds later, the tape slipped halfway out of the machine

and he pulled it free, then pocketed it. “We need to find

him.”

“Can we get Bureau help, do you think? Is it safe?”

Mulder shook his head in frustration. “I don’t know. Not

everyone can be involved, but I don’t know who is and I

don’t know how far their reach extends.”

“Pretty damn far if they managed to ‘kill’ Skinner and

almost get away with it.” She rose from the sofa and moved

into the kitchen, turning to study him as he followed her.

“I’m making tea. My bet is you’ve already had at least a

pot of coffee.”

“We need to find him, Scully! If they want him gone this

badly, I sure as hell want him back!”

The kettle was filled and on the stovetop now, and she had

moved to the kitchen. Sandwich makings were appearing on

the small table as she pulled one thing out after another.

“I’m not hungry, Scully! We need to get started!”

“Hush,” she ordered, turning to look at him. “You’ve

gotten started. You’ve got the tape.”

“I didn’t *get* the tape. It came to me. I haven’t done

anything, yet.” He slumped into a chair in frustration.

“You didn’t let it go, Mulder. That’s your biggest

strength.” She patted him absently and began to make

sandwiches. “You also didn’t sleep or eat much since we

got the word.” She placed a paper plate with a ham and

cheese sandwich on it before him as the kettle began to

whistle. “Now… I know you. You’re not going to eat or

sleep much until we find him.” She was pouring hot water

into mugs as she spoke, then adding sugar. The milk was

already in a small pitcher on the table. “And God only

knows how long it’s going to take, considering all we have

to go on is the tape.” She turned and placed the hot mug

in front of him, pleased to see half the sandwich had

already been wolfed down. “You can’t let yourself get worn

down. He needs you.”

Mulder shook his head, mouth full. He chewed hard, then

swallowed and said, “He needs us both. I’ve looked at the

tape and I haven’t got a clue as to where it is. It could

be any grocery store in any town in America.” He took one

more huge bite and the sandwich was gone. “I don’t know

where to start.”

“Let’s go look again. This time, instead of watching the

action, we need to watch what doesn’t move.” She had

almost finished cleaning up her impromptu sandwich makings.

The mayonnaise went back into the fridge and she grabbed a

dishcloth and wiped the table.

“What do you mean?” Mulder was stirring milk into the

tea, staring up at her.

“The background.” She walked to the trash can, shook

bread crumbs from the cloth, then went to the sink. “There

must be something there to give us a clue as to where he

is.”

******************************************

Office of the Lone Gunmen

September 14, 2001

8:30 a.m.

“There!” Mulder pointed to a fuzzy image on the screen.

“We think that’s a newspaper. Can you enhance it?”

“C’n try.” Langly scratched his head. “None of the

images are real clear.” He rolled the tape back, stopping

at another frame, then squinting at the screen. “I still

think that’s just a clock.” He turned and looked at

Scully. “Why do you think it’s a thermometer?”

“A grocery store we went to when I was a child had one of

those. I always thought it was neat — a thermometer that

looked like a clock. It was when we were stationed at

Mayport and it would get so hot in the summer. I remember

wondering what would happen when it got over a hundred,

since 100 was as far as the thermometer went — the 12

o’clock spot.”

“We’ll see what we can do with the girl’s shirt, too.”

Frohike spoke from a seat in front of another monitor. “I

swear that looks like a school mascot.”

“She’s just a kid, Frohike. Make sure the mascot is all

you check out.” Mulder tossed out the warning without

thinking and Scully had to laugh.

Mulder glanced at her, smiled in acknowledgment, then

turned back to his friends. “We’re taking copies to the

FBI, get them working on it too.”

“Is that wise, Mulder?” Byers rose and tugged at his

vest. “Surely someone there was involved in this.”

“Probably,” Mulder nodded grimly. “But at high levels,

not down in the labs.”

“At least that’s what we’re hoping,” Scully added. “You

guys are good, and we appreciate what you’re doing, but we

need all the help we can get.”

*******************************************

September 14, 2001

5 p.m.

“How’s the arm?” Karen asked as she set a plate before

him.

He sniffed appreciatively. Barbecued chicken, mashed

potatoes, corn on the cob. So much for their resolution to

eat salads for dinner during the summer months. He grinned

up at his wife. “It hurts, but not too bad. And if

anything can make it feel better, a meal like this can!

Thanks, babe.”

She leaned down and kissed him. “You’re welcome. Just

promise me you’re done with heroic stunts like that,

please.” Her voice softened and she looked deep into his

eyes. “I couldn’t bear to lose you.”

He pushed the plate aside, scooted his chair back from the

table, and pulled her into his lap with his still good arm.

He kissed her hungrily, then buried his head against her

breasts. “I couldn’t go on without you either.”

They sat that way for a long moment, until she rose, ever

the practical one, and said, “Well, enough of that sap.

Just you mind your p’s and q’s, Mr. Johnson, and don’t make

me have to track you down in a hospital again.” She took a

deep breath, steadying herself, and put his plate back in

front of him. “Eat, before it gets cold. That detective

is coming over after dinner to talk to you again.”

They ate together, talking about the kids at school, the

new house, what a good decision it had been to leave the

city and move to this small town. And how sad it was, that

even in small town America, crime had to rear its ugly

head. They finished and she wouldn’t let him help with the

clean-up, so he sat and kept her company while she washed

and then dried their dishes. There was chicken left over —

it would make a wonderful lunch tomorrow. She had just

wiped the table down, making him lift his arms so she could

do the whole thing, when the doorbell rang.

A look of concern slid across her face, but she covered it

quickly and said, “I’ll let him in. You two can talk out

here. I’m going to go in the living room and read.”

“I *can* move, you know,” he said, reaching out to stop

her and pull her to himself. “It’s just my arm and it’s

going to be fine. I’ll only have a little scar.”

She took a deep, shuddery breath. “I know, I know. And I

know I’m fussing.” Her head came up and she met his eyes.

“Let me fuss. I was scared. I felt so damn helpless. I

couldn’t *do* anything when they told me you’d been shot.”

He stroked her hair as the doorbell rang again, murmuring,

“I’m sorry. It’s all right now.”

She kissed him then, a quick brush on the lips and pulled

away. “Of course it’s all right. You saved Cheryl’s

life.” She turned and walked to the doorway, then looked

back. “Just let me fuss a bit more.” Her eyes dropped and

she studied the floor. “It helps chase away the scared

feeling.”

******************************************

FBI Lab

September 14, 2001

5 p.m.

“I can’t believe it’s really him!” Danny looked up at

Mulder in astonishment. “And you just found this tape

outside your door?”

“Yeah, and nobody knows I’ve brought it to you and I want

to keep it that way.” Mulder brushed his hair back and

stared down at the younger man.

Danny lifted both hands in a surrender gesture. “No

sweat, Mulder. Your secret’s safe with me.” He dropped

his hands and fiddled with the controls on the monitor.

The image of Skinner doubled and then doubled again until

they could stare into the man’s eyes. “But why, man? I’d

think you’d want all the resources of the Bureau working on

this.”

“I’m not sure I can trust the Bureau. Someone went to a

lot of trouble to convince us all that Skinner is dead.

Until I know who that someone is, and why, I don’t want

anyone to know about this who doesn’t absolutely have to.”

“I hear ya.” Danny shifted the image on the screen and

the thermometer over the customer service desk leapt into

view. It was still fuzzy, but it was clear that it wasn’t

a clock. Scully had been right. “They won’t hear it from

me.” He played with the dials again, and the number

cleared. “Ninety-four degrees.”

“Ninety-four.” Mulder nodded, pleased. “That’ll help

narrow it down if we can get a date.”

“I’m working on it. I’m gonna try for the newspaper —

that’ll give us a date and a name, hopefully. If I can’t

get that, there may be a receipt showing in one of the

frames and I can pull a date off that.”

“Good man.” Mulder patted the other man’s shoulder. “Let

me know as soon as you get anything I can use.”

******************************************

September 14, 2001

6 p.m.

“White male, five-eleven, 18 to 25. Brown eyes and brown

hair past his earlobes. Blue jeans and a white T-shirt,

and of course, that damn coat.” Paul stopped and looked

over at the other man. “I’m amazed you didn’t get him.”

Detective Franco snorted. “So am I. And I still don’t

know how he slipped out.” He narrowed his eyes as he

studied Paul. “And you, you give a description like a cop

would. What’s up with that?”

Paul laughed uncomfortably and lifted one hand in a little

‘forget it’ gesture. “Didn’t know I’d done it.” He rose

and got the iced tea from the refrigerator, refilling both

glasses. “Must have watched too much NYPD Blue.”

“Yeah — uh, thanks.” The detective took another swallow

of the tea. “That must be it.” He lifted one hand and

tugged absently at a lock of hair.

Paul stared at him. The movement looked almost familiar,

but he couldn’t place it. He shook his head and put the

pitcher back in the refrigerator. Probably something one

of the kids did in class.

“So there’s nothing else you can tell me, Mr. Johnson?”

The detective set the tall glass of iced tea back down on

the table. “Nothing at all?”

Paul shrugged in frustration. “I don’t know what you want

from me. It all happened so fast.”

“Yeah, and you reacted like a pro. That roll over the

counter was one of the slickest moves I’ve ever seen.” He

shook his head. “And the way you avoided the man’s shots —

I was amazed. We all were.”

Paul pointed to his bandaged arm. “Didn’t avoid them all,

as you should recall. Just lucky on the rest.”

The detective was still shaking his head. “No, you don’t

understand. We’ve checked the trajectories of all the

shots. What you did went beyond luck. It was something

any one of us would have been proud to have pulled off. It

was like you knew where he would aim next, like you’d

studied criminal behavior and knew where and how to move to

stay ahead of the guy.”

Paul laughed now and took a deep drink from his tea.

“‘Fraid you’ve got the wrong guy. Me? I’m just a high

school math teacher. Always have been. No cops and

robbers stuff for me.”

“I guess.” The cop looked disappointed. “We checked your

background — you came up clean.”

Paul choked on the tea, coughing long and hard enough that

Karen came to the door to see what had happened. He caught

his breath at last and waved her away. “I’m fine — just

swallowed wrong.” He smiled up at her, sorry to have

worried her further. “Go read — we’ll be done shortly and

I’ll join you.”

When she had retreated to the living room, he turned and

looked at the cop. “You checked my background? What the

hell for?”

“You’re new in town. You interrupt a robbery despite your

mild-mannered high school teacher persona. You move like a

cop — or a professional bad guy — someone with a lot of

experience at staying out of a bullet’s way. I wanted to

know who you are.”

Paul stared at him. “And who am I?”

The cop shook his head. “I don’t know. Everything I

found says Paul Johnson, math teacher. Grew up in a small

town in Ohio, OSU for college. Met Karen Riley there,

married her upon graduation, and you’ve both been teachers

ever since. She grew up in foster care, your parents are

dead — it’s just the two of you.”

“What the hell does my life have to do with what happened

at the Shop-n-Save?”

“I don’t know, Mr. Johnson. And if I’ve invaded your

privacy for no reason, I can assure you I’ll apologize. But

from my point of view, it just looks pretty weird.”

Paul stared at the man in amazement. “Don’t you have

anything better to do than dig around in my past? Can’t

you see I’m one of the most boring people you’ll ever meet?

Don’t you have a life?”

The cop rose, still shaking his head. “You’ve got the

life a lot of us cops wish we had. The wife, the house,

the job you love.” Franco lifted his glass, walked to the

sink, and dumped the ice. He set the empty tumbler on the

stainless steel carefully, then turned to face the man in

the chair. “Some cops can balance it all, but most of us

can’t. Failed marriages, too much liquor. We eat and

sleep and shit our jobs. It becomes the sum total of all

we are, and it’s pretty damn lonely, Mr. Johnson.” Franco

dug in his pocket, pulling out car keys. “I’ll give you

that apology now, sir. Maybe it was just envy that made me

want to dig around in your past.”

He walked over and extended a hand, shaking when Paul

extended his own. “Thanks for the help with our bad guy.

Sorry we let him get away after you worked so hard to save

the girl. We’ll let you know when we find him.”

*******************************************

ACT III

Mulder’s Apartment

September 14, 2001

11 p.m.

“I picked it all up from our friends, Scully. They’ve got

the name off the paper, and the date. We already had the

temperature. All that’s left is the symbol on the girl’s

shirt.” Mulder could barely contain his enthusiasm. “When

can you get here?”

She sighed sleepily. “On my way. Give me about an hour.

I’m clear across town from you and I’m half asleep. I don’t

want to have a wreck.” Mulder nodded as he heard her hang

up the phone, disconnecting them.

He glanced at the clock, then headed for the kitchen.

Scully always fed him when they worked at her place. After

an initially skeptical start, she’d thrown herself

wholeheartedly into the search for Skinner. She deserved

at least a sandwich or a cup of soup. He opened the

refrigerator. Mustard, mayonnaise, a carton of sour milk

and an onion were the only occupants. Damn! He’d

forgotten to shop again.

No sweat. There was always soup. He went to the cabinet

and opened the door. Bare shelves. Well, not completely

bare. There was an opened bag of noodles that he couldn’t

remember buying and a can of cranberry jelly, left from

Thanksgiving. That was it. He briefly pondered cranberry

jelly soup, then wrinkled his nose in disgust. He grabbed

the phone and hit speed dial 2 and the familiar voice of

the woman at the Chinese restaurant answered.

The food taken care of, he looked down at himself and

sniffed. Phew! Now he was really disgusted. When was the

last time he had showered? He’d been so obsessed with the

search for Skinner, he couldn’t remember the last time he

climbed into a shower. He glanced longingly at the

envelope with the papers and the disk from the Lone Gunmen,

then sniffed again.

No contest. He pulled the T-shirt over his head and

started unbuttoning his jeans as he headed for the shower.

He was just getting out, towel wrapped around his waist,

when the doorbell rang. “Coming,” he called as he scooped

up his wallet and headed for the door. He had the money in

one hand and the other hand on the door knob, when the door

frame shattered, and he was thrown backward into the wall.

His vision blurred and he shook his head, even as he tried

to get to his feet. The head shaking had been a mistake

and a wave of nausea held him pinned to the floor as he

struggled for breath. One man stood over him, a gun

sighted at his head. The other one was coming back from

the living room, the packet of material about Skinner in

his hands.

He surged upward, ignoring the gun and lunged at the man

with the envelope. The other man grabbed him and threw him

into the wall again, this time the gun was pressed against

his chest. Mulder stood still, panting heavily, still

eyeing the envelope.

“Don’t try it,” the man with the gun said. “I’m not

supposed to kill you, but that doesn’t mean I can’t shoot

you.” He slid the gun up Mulder’s chest and settled it

against the scar Scully’s bullet had left. “This seems to

be a popular spot.”

“What the hell’s going on?” Mulder grated out between

clenched teeth. “What do you want?”

“We want you to leave the A.D. alone. He’s happy, content.”

The gun moved pack and forth over the scar, almost as if

the man were scratching it. “Leave it alone, Mulder.”

Mulder stared at the two men. He’d lost his towel at some

point and standing here naked did not add to his

confidence, but he’d be damned if they were going to walk

out with all his hard-won information without a fight.

Mulder dropped his head, nodding slightly.

“Good boy,” the man said. The gun pulled back from his

shoulder fractionally, and Mulder moved. He dropped and

rolled, sweeping the gunman’s feet out from under him. The

man fell with a crash. Mulder was up in a split second and

lunging for the second man. The second man danced back

barely avoiding Mulder’s grasp. Mulder struggled with

balance for a second, then got ready to leap again.

The muscles in his legs were taut, his body was coiled

like a spring and he was going to get this guy. The

adrenaline was flowing and he was ready and the man was

just standing there, not running, not trying to get away.

Just waiting. Mulder was poised, ready to plunge, when

something heavy came crashing down on the back of his head

and everything went dark.

******************************************

September 14, 2001

11:45 p.m.

His gun was missing. He was searching for it but he

couldn’t find it. It was just gone. Someone was pounding

on the door, someone that didn’t wish him well, and he

couldn’t find the damn gun. He could hear the door as

whoever was out there threw himself against it. He raced

through the house, pulling open drawers, digging through

closets, his hand sliding between the mattress and box

springs in the bedroom.

Where the hell was the damn gun?

He heard the door crack again — knew it was just moments

before the man on the outside became the man on the inside.

He raced down the stairs and into the kitchen, settling for

a large butcher knife. If he couldn’t find his gun, he’d

be damned if he was going to face them unarmed.

He went to the fuse box and hit the circuit breaker,

turning off all the lights. It was hard to aim a gun when

you couldn’t see. A knife, on the other hand, had only to

make contact. Contact in some places was better than

others, but any kind of contact constituted a score.

“Paul!”

He looked around, startled, trying to see who was in the

room and who they were calling. Was Paul the one trying to

break his door down?

The door frame finally gave and he could hear feet tread

on the carpet as the man moved into the condo. The man was

moving slowly, carefully, and he could imagine the gun held

out in front as the head turned from side to side.

“Paul!”

He ignored it this time, focused on the man moving

silently toward him. The knife was clenched in his right

hand; he crouched behind an overstuffed chair and struggled

to control his breathing. He was almost there. It was

almost time. He waited, holding his breath now, not daring

to make a sound, because he might only get one chance at

this.

The man stepped around the chair and he sprung, leaping to

his feet and plunging the knife in as hard as he could. He

pulled it out and stabbed again. And again, and again and

again.

“AHHHHHHHHHHHH!”

The scream shocked him. It wasn’t the man in his arms.

That man was unmoving.

“AHHHHHHHHHHHH!”

He lifted his hand to stab again, but something happened,

something moved, and…

“Karen!” He sat up, drenched in sweat. She lay on the

floor where he’d thrown her? pushed her? and his heart

broke. He scrambled out of the bed and moved toward her

but she scuttled away and he froze.

“Karen?” he said softly. “Are you all right?”

“Paul?” She was crying and he strained to see if he’d

hurt her.

“I’m going to turn the light on, OK hon?” He stayed on

the floor, crawling to the table and flipping the switch.

As the room lit up and he could see, he stared at her,

still huddled by the foot of the bed. “Are you all right?”

“Paul?”

“Yeah, babe, it’s me.” He moved forward slightly, and

when she didn’t move back, he went to her. “Are you OK?”

“Yeah,” she nodded, the tears starting to stop at last.

He leaned back and grabbed the tissues from beside the

lamp, handing them to her. She wiped her eyes then blew

her nose noisily. When she was done, she tossed the tissue

aside, then smacked him on his good arm. “You threw me out

of the bed, you big oaf!”

“Aw, shit, Karen, I’m sorry.” He reached out and pulled

her into his arms, ignoring the pain in the injured one.

“I’m so damn sorry.” He kissed her hair, then shifted to

lean up against the bed and pull her into his lap. “I

don’t know what’s going on with me. God! I’m so sorry.”

“Shhhh. I know. You didn’t mean to. But Paul, this is

getting serious. You’re a big guy and you could’ve hurt

me.”

“I would never hurt you!”

“Not deliberately, I know that. But these dreams, Paul…

You have to do something.”

“I’ll find a shrink, see a hypnotist. I will, Karen. I

couldn’t stand it if I hurt you.”

“I know.” She laughed. “Somehow, sweets, I don’t think

I’d stand it too well either.” She stood and pulled him to

his feet, then let him engulf her in his arms again. “But

it’s getting out of control, Paul. You’ve got to get some

help.”

*************************************

Mulder’s Apartment

September 15, 2001

12:01 a.m.

“How many fingers, Mulder?” Scully asked again.

“Stop that,” he groused, “and at least get me my pants

before anyone else gets here.”

“What the hell were you doing answering the door in the

buff anyway?” she called from the bedroom.

“I’d just gotten out of the shower and I had a towel on.”

“You know better than to open the door like that.” She

threw a pair a dark boxers at him and waited while he

struggled into them before handing him the jeans.

“I ordered Chinese,” he admitted sheepishly. “I figured

it was the least I could do since you were driving over and

I knew we’d be working all night.”

“Delivery!” a voice called from the hall. “Mr. Mulder?”

Mulder groaned and started to get up, but Scully held him

down with one hand. “Just a sec,” she called. “Where’s

your wallet?”

He pointed to the wall by the door where he’d first fallen

and she strode over and picked it up.

“What happened this time?” the delivery boy asked as he

accepted the money and passed over the brown paper bag.

Scully shrugged. “Don’t know yet. I just got here.” She

narrowed her eyes at the boy. “You know someone who can

fix his door at this time of night?”

“My uncle. He’s fixed it before.”

Scully dug another twenty out of Mulder’s wallet and

handed it over. “Get him, please.”

The boy nodded and ducked out.

“His uncle’s gonna come do your door, Mulder.” She

dropped his wallet in his lap. “I gave him twenty.”

“Twenty? Scully, you’re breaking me here! I usually only

give him ten to get the uncle.”

“So sue me.” She studied him again, noting the slightly

dilated pupils and the knot on the back of his head. “How

bad does it hurt?”

He winced. “Bad enough. Aspirin?”

She nodded and went into the kitchen. “You want to eat?”

“Still too nauseated. Just water. And the damn aspirins,

please.” He was gently touching the knot when she came

back, two white pills in one hand, a cup of water in the

other.

He took both.

“What did they want?”

“They took the stuff from the guys, which makes no sense

whatsoever. They’ve gotta have known I’d have already

looked at it.” He tapped the side of his head, then moaned.

“Smart, Mulder.” She reached out and touched his head

gently and her touch took the sting from her words. He

could see she was really worried.

“I’m OK, Scully, really.” He reached up and caught her

hand, holding it for a moment as his eyes met hers.

She stared at him for a minute, then sighed. “Of course

you are. A little bump on the head isn’t going to stop you

when you’re on the hunt.” She headed back to the kitchen.

“Will the smell bother you if I eat?”

He started to shake his head but stopped in time and said,

“No, go ahead.” When she came back in with a plate and

curled up in the chair, he said, “I’d already looked at the

stuff.”

“And?” The word was more of a grunt as her mouth was full.

“And the paper was dated three days ago.”

“Name?” She was still eating.

“You were hungry,” he observed.

She swallowed. “Yep. Good thinking, ordering the food.”

She cocked her head as she looked at him. “Sorry it got you

knocked out.” She rose and walked over to him again,

putting her plate on the coffee table. One hand came out

and gently touched the back of his head again, then came

around to cradle his cheek for a moment as she met his

eyes. “You do seem to have a knack for attracting

trouble.” The words were spoken softly and her eyes

sparkled as she said them.

He lifted a hand to meet hers. “Not deliberately.”

“I know.”

They stayed that way for a moment, frozen in time and then

she pulled her hand away and grabbed her plate. This time

she sat on the other end of the sofa from him. “So, what do

you know?”

“The paper is the Bayville Herald. There are 26 Bayvilles

in the country and four of them have a paper called the

Herald. Washington state, Maine, Virginia, and Georgia.”

“So where do we go?” She opened her mouth and took a bite

of an egg roll.

“Washington’s having rain — cold front passing through.”

Mulder sipped his water.

“Maine doesn’t get into the nineties too often either,”

she mused.

“Right.”

“So it was 94 degrees where?”

“Georgia and Virginia.”

“Anything else to narrow it down?” She took a last bite

and wiped her mouth as she plopped the plate on the coffee

table again.

“Better?” he asked with a raised eyebrow.

“You bet.” She sighed contentedly. “Anything from the

girl’s shirt?”

“We decided it was something big — bear or bull or wolf

or something like that. Some kind of animal.”

She rose and headed for the kitchen. “Spill it, Mulder. I

know you know where to go. What is it?”

“Bayville, Virginia’s mascot is a scorpion.” He leaned

his head back and closed his eyes. It didn’t help the

pounding at all so he sat back up and looked at her.

“Georgia?”

“Bayville Bruins — big ugly grizzly looking thing.”

“So we’re off to Georgia.”

“Yep. It’s a small town. Three grocery stores. Two are

chains and the employees wear uniforms of sorts. One

insists on white shirts and black pants, the other white

shirts and khakis.”

She eyed him. He did so love to drag things out at times.

“And the third one?”

“The third one is an independent. Cashiers wear what they

want — including school T-shirts.”

She nodded. “When do we leave?”

***************************************

Bayville, Georgia

September 16, 2001

3 pm

The yard was full of teenagers. There were five or six

adults as well, parents who’d come along to help chaperone

and to meet the “hero,” but it was mostly a day for the

kids. Cheryl Pierce was helping Karen shuck corn, and he

could see them talking quietly. As he watched, the girl

dropped the ear of corn she was holding and hugged Karen,

who hugged back, corn and all.

Somehow, he didn’t want to know what they were saying. He

looked around the yard, the kids sitting by the speakers,

talking. Though how they could talk over the volume he had

no idea. Another group had brought a volleyball and there

was a full court game going on, minus net and court, but

the kids were squealing with enjoyment. A group of boys

stood by the grill, turning hot dogs and hamburgers, and

huddled together, almost in self-defense, the adults were

off in a corner, watching it all in content bemusement.

One of the fathers came over to him. “I don’t know how

you’ve done it, Mr. Johnson…”

“Paul,” he interrupted. “My name is Paul.”

“Well, Paul. This is a small town, good kids. But they

don’t usually want to party at the teacher’s house with

their parents present. This is no small accomplishment.”

“Glad to have them.” He looked at the man and smiled.

“Karen and I never had kids of our own — it just never

happened. We feel blessed that folks like you will share

yours with us.”

“Share? Hell, you can *have* that rascal of mine. Did he

tell you what he’s done now? He was moving my car out of

the driveway so he and his buddies could play basketball

and he hits the mailbox on his way down. Then he tries to

correct his course and he manages to wing my wife’s car as

well. Got a nice little crinkle in her bumper now, and two

matching dents in my car!”

Paul laughed. “Did he confess on his own?”

The man laughed as well, shaking his head. “Yeah. Yeah,

he did. Can’t complain on that count. Even offered to pay

for the damages.”

“What’d you say?”

“I told him he’d be better off spending his money on

driving lessons!”

Both men roared with laughter and then Paul said, “He’s a

good kid, you know.”

“Yeah, I know.” The man looked up and met Paul’s eyes.

“He was in the store that day, waiting for Cheryl to get

off.” The man’s face fell and he reached out, gripping

Paul’s good arm. “He could have been shot, killed even.

We’ll never forget what you did.”

Paul nodded, uncomfortable now. He tried to laugh but it

didn’t quite come out right. “I’m glad everything turned

out all right.”

The man nodded again and squeezed Paul’s arm once more, an

awkward thank you. “Well, I better get over there and

check on the dogs. God only knows what the kids are doing

to them.”

Paul nodded and watched the grateful father walk away. He

watched his wife shuck corn with a gaggle of giggling

girls, watched the boys cook burgers and dogs, watched the

parents as they watched their kids play volleyball. One of

the moms lifted a beer in a sort of salute to him, and he

raised his own back at her.

God! He loved his life! He was the happiest, luckiest

SOB on the planet! He had it all!

So why did he feel like everything was slipping away?

******************************************

Bayville, Georgia

September 16, 2001

3 p.m.

“Well, that’s either him or he’s got a twin we know

nothing about.” Mulder sighed and dropped the binoculars.

“So what the hell is he doing out here in the middle of

small town America?” He reached up and rubbed his

temples.

“Head still hurt?” Scully asked as she lifted the glasses

and took a turn watching their boss as he supervised a

backyard barbecue.

“A little. Now I can’t decide if it’s the bump on the

noggin or the tension from finding him and not knowing what

to do.”

“I know what to do.” She lowered the glasses and looked

at him. “We go over there and ask him what the hell is

going on!”

“Scully, we can’t just storm in and demand answers. We

don’t know enough yet. The cop we talked to, the one that

gave us the address. She said that the detective on the

grocery robbery had done some investigating into Mr.

Johnson’s background.” Mulder looked at his partner and

turned the ignition key. “Let’s go talk to him.”

*******************************************

Bayville Police Department

September 16, 2001

4 p.m.

“The man’s clean as a whistle.” Franco nodded at the file

that lay on his desk. They’d paged the man and not been

surprised when he’d agreed to come meet them at the station

to discuss Paul Johnson.

“Of course, he’s clean. He’s just not Paul Johnson.”

Mulder lifted the folder, scanning quickly. He read the

whole file, then whistled softly. “Damn, Scully, they

really did a good job on this.” He looked up and met her

eyes. “Everything’s covered.”

“But why, Mulder? Why not just kill him?”

“I don’t know. Why is he such a threat at this time?

Enough that they would go to such elaborate lengths to get

him out of the picture, but still not kill him?” He turned

and looked at the detective. “This man is not Paul

Johnson.”

“What? You’re kidding me, right?” Franco’s cigarette

swung at half mast from parted lips.

“No. He’s an assistant director with the FBI. He’s our

supervisor. And he was killed in a car wreck a few weeks

ago.”

“You’re shittin’ me!” Franco rose and began to pace. “I

knew something wasn’t right with this guy. He moved too

smooth.” The detective stopped and faced Mulder and

Scully. “Even the move to town was a little too smooth. I

mean, we suddenly have two teachers die, there’s openings

just when school is ready to open, and these two show up.

It was just weird.”

“Two people died?” Scully looked at Mulder in concern.

“We hadn’t figured that they’d killed people this time.”

Mulder shrugged. “I’m sorry, but I can’t say that I’m

surprised.”

“Whoa! Hold your horses there. I may be suspicious of

our Mr. Johnson, but nobody killed anybody. Mark and

Jeannette were rock climbing. They both liked to climb and

had been doing it for years. It was just an accident.”

Mulder looked at the man. “And Mr. and Mrs. Johnson had

just happened to have moved to town, shiny bright teaching

certificates at the ready.”

“They’d signed up as subs for the year. We were lucky

they’d already moved and were willing to step in at the

last minute like that.” The detective scratched his head,

then snuffed out the cigarette in an overflowing ashtray.

“I gotta stop smoking. It’s gonna kill me.”

Mulder and Scully exchanged an amused glance.

Franco took a deep breath then spoke. “I’m willing to

believe Mr. J isn’t who he says he is. But what are you

trying to say? That someone kidnapped him and killed Mark

and Jeannette so that he and Karen could have full-time

jobs? That’s insane.”

Scully smiled wryly as she looked at Mulder. “Told you so.”

“Our boss, A.D. Skinner, disappeared almost a month ago. It

was made to look like a car wreck, but the body was burned

beyond recognition. I think he was taken somewhere, given

new memories, and then planted here with a new identity, a

wife, a job, a cozy little life.”

“New memories? New identity? A wife? What the hell are

you talking about?”

Now it was Mulder’s turn to pace. “I just don’t know why

they didn’t go ahead and kill him.”

“The nanoprobes,” Scully murmured. “Maybe it’s the

nanoprobes.”

Mulder stopped and looked down at her. “What? What did

you say?”

“I said maybe it’s the nanoprobes. Maybe they don’t want

to risk killing their prime subject while they can still

study the nanoprobes.”

“What the hell is a nanoprobe?” Franco thundered.

Mulder shrugged him away, shaking his head. “Not now,

Franco.” He looked at Scully. “Maybe. It’s thin, but I

can’t think of anything better at the moment.” He took a

deep breath. “Anyway, we have a bigger problem.”

“What’s that?”

“How do we convince Paul Johnson he’s Walter Skinner?”

*********************************************

Paul and Karen Johnson’s House

September 16, 2001 6 p.m.

“Federal Bureau of Investigation?” Karen sat on the

couch, tight up against Paul and she clutched his hand.

“Why would the FBI be interested in us?”

“Well, not you really, Mrs. Johnson, but your husband.”

“Agent… Mulder, is it?” Paul stroked the back of

Karen’s hand as he spoke. “I don’t understand any of this.

Why would my foolhardy action in a grocery store have the

local police investigating my background and the FBI down

here in Georgia checking me out? How the hell did the FBI

even find out about that little stunt?”

“I’m not at liberty to discuss that, sir. But I can tell

you that it’s not your actions that concern us. It’s your

identity.”

“My identity? What the hell are you talking about?” Paul

stood and strode to the window, staring out across the

street. Two boys played basketball in the driveway across

the way, and a little girl rode her bike up and down the

sidewalk. His neighbor, the retired Tom Davis, was out

mowing the grass and he knew if he opened the door he’d

smell that intoxicating scent of fresh cut grass on a hot

summer day.

It was perfect, damn it! Perfect! So why did he feel

like it wasn’t his?

“Sir, we need to confirm your identities. I’m sure this

is uncomfortable, and I assure you it is as awkward for us

as it is for you. But a man is missing…” Scully

trailed off as the man named Johnson stared at her.

“Are you accusing me of something?”

“No, sir.” The answer was automatic, and for a moment it

was like it really was Skinner before them, questioning,

probing, demanding. She shook off the sense of deja vu and

went on. “Actually, we think you are the missing man.”

“Ridiculous!” Paul dismissed the thought with a snort.

Karen joined him at the window and he put his arm around

her.

“Sir, where did you live before you moved here?” Mulder

asked.

“Atlanta, but I’m sure you’ve got that in your

investigative

reports.” He could feel Karen trembling and he pulled her

closer to his side. “And we both taught at Eastside High.”

“Yes, sir. We do have that in the reports. Would it

surprise you to know that no one at the school has any

recollection of you, no one knows who you are?”

“What are you talking about? We were there for thirteen

years. We taught, I coached the track team, worked at a

local gym teaching disadvantaged youths to box. Karen

chaired the yearbook committee. She volunteered at a

battered women’s shelter. We were both active in our

church, St. Thomas the Apostle. How can you say no one

knows us?”

“Because no one does, sir. We’ve had agents out for two

days knocking on doors. They’ve talked to other teachers,

students, people at the church.” Mulder rose and looked

the other man in the eye. “No one has heard of you.”

“This is insane.” He turned to look at Scully. She was

pulling a fingerprint kit from a small case.

“If you will, sir? This could let us begin to straighten

this whole mess out.”

Paul walked over to the table, not speaking, and let her

take his fingerprints. When she was done, she motioned to

Karen. “You, too, Mrs. Johnson.”

“Paul?” Karen pulled close to him. “Paul, are we going

to let them do this to us?”

“Why Karen? Why do you need Karen’s prints if I’m the one

you think is someone else?” he asked Scully.

“Well, sir, if we can prove that you are the A.D., then we

need to find out who she is as well. Her memories seem as

real as yours.”

“Paul, I don’t want to do this.” There was panic in her

voice and he held her close for a moment. “Karen,” he said

softly, whispering in her ear. “Remember the dreams? What

if something *is* wrong?”

“Not this, Paul. Not what they’re saying. I know who I

am. I know who you are. We’ve been married twenty-five

years and I’m not going to lose you to something as absurd

as this.”

“Please, Karen. Just do it. It’ll get them out of the

house.” He grinned down at her. “After all, what do we

have to be afraid of?”

She hesitated a moment longer, then sat on the couch and

let Scully print her. He moved to the window again,

watching the children play, the old man next door push his

lawnmower, a little spoiled terrier following in his wake.

It was too perfect, wasn’t it?

Paul turned and walked back to the couch, pulling Karen up

to stand beside him.

“I don’t know what you think you’re doing, or who you

think we are. But you’ve gotten your fingerprints and

we’ve answered your questions. Please go.”

The two agents nodded and rose. When they got to the

door, Mulder looked back and said, “I’m sorry, sir,” and

then they were gone.

“Paul, when will we know?” Karen’s face was buried in his

chest.

“We know right now. You’re Karen Johnson and I’m Paul

Johnson. My name is Paul.” He said it stubbornly, as if

voicing it would make it true.

“Catch them, Paul. Find out how long we have to wait.”

He nodded and moved to the door. The two agents were

climbing into a rental car in the driveway. He had gotten

halfway down the sidewalk toward the car. The man,

Mulder, had gotten out and was coming to meet him. There

was a curious expression on his face and then there was a

look of panic.

It was like one of his dreams, the bad ones. The sound

seemed to have disappeared. He was flying through the air,

slamming into the man and they both went down. He felt a

rush of wind, a tongue of heat, and he rolled over, looking

back as his house, his wife, his life exploded and went up

in flames.

“Sir, sir, are you all right?” It was Scully, hovering

over him and touching a gash on his forehead. His glasses

were broken and everything was blurry but he wasn’t sure if

that was from the lack of glasses or the tears that ran

down his face.

Scully was pulling Mulder to his knees, checking the back

of his head and then they were both pulling him down, away

from the burning house.

“No, no, no,” he sobbed. “This can’t be happening.”

“Sir, are you all right? Can you answer me?” Scully

looked at Mulder who nodded. “Paul, can you talk to me?”

Skinner looked at her, tears in his eyes. It was all

there, his whole life. The life of a lonely man. A

soldier, a cop. A man with a failed marriage, a wife who

was dead because of him. A man whose whole existence was

work, work, and more work. A man without friends, without

activities, without much of anything. Oh, yes, he had his

life back, but now he knew, he had no life.

“No, Scully,” he whispered. “Not Paul. My name is Walter.”

****************************************

Hospital

September 18, 2001

10 a.m.

“Who was she?” Skinner asked. He had a small bag open on

the bed and was packing the few bits of personal items he’d

accumulated in his brief hospital stay. Toiletries,

underwear and T-shirts, socks, a plain gray sweatsuit. He

was amazed it didn’t bother him more to know Scully had

been shopping for underwear and deodorant for him.

“Theresa Wimbley, a schoolteacher from Ohio. She didn’t

have any family and her coworkers all thought she’d been

killed in a car wreck.” Scully paused and looked at him.

“Familiar, eh?”

Skinner shrugged. “I don’t remember that part. I just

remember waking up with Karen and a whole lifetime to look

back at and a future to look forward to.”

“Do you remember it?”

He dropped his head. “Yeah, I do. I remember all of it.”

He tapped his head. “I remember Walter Skinner very

clearly. Everything from my time in Vietnam to my life

with Sharon to all those years with the Bureau.” He paused,

staring down at the bed, then walked to stand by the

window.

“But I remember Paul Johnson, too. He was an ordinary

man, living the life I never had.” He turned and looked at

her. “I envy him that.”

“It wasn’t real, sir. You know that.”

He nodded. “Yeah, I know that. But I miss it just the

same.”

*****************************************

EPILOGUE

Mulder’s Office

September 21, 2001

8 a.m.

“Morning, Mulder.” Scully set the drink carrier on the

desk, two paper cups still steaming. She looked up and saw

Skinner. “Sorry, sir. I didn’t know you would be here.

“It’s all right, Scully. I came in to work today, but

they won’t let me.” He sighed in disgust. “Apparently,

I’m still officially dead and I can’t do anything until

that is sorted out.” He looked around the small basement.

“So I came down here.” He shrugged, embarrassed. “It’s

the only place I feel halfway comfortable.”

“You’re always welcome, sir,” Mulder murmured.

“Thanks.” Skinner shook his head at Scully’s offer of one

of the coffee cups. “Don’t have too many places I feel

welcome.” He turned and looked at them. “One of the

things I intend to do now.”

“Do, sir? What’s that?”

“I intend to find some places I feel welcome. I didn’t

ask for what happened, didn’t want to be pulled out of the

game at this point in time.” He slammed a fist down on the

table. “But, damn it! I can learn from my experiences. I

don’t want to die a lonely man.”

“None of us want to die lonely.” Mulder was speaking, but

his eyes were on the floor.

“Well,” Skinner said softly, “I just wanted to tell you

both thanks. Let you know I appreciate that you didn’t

just let them kill me off.”

“Do you really, sir?” Mulder looked at him. “Were you

happier there?”

Skinner shrugged. “It wasn’t real, Mulder. It felt real,

but it wasn’t.” He walked to the door then turned. “For

now, this is where I belong.”

End

———————–

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