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June 1999.

Scully was leaving him. It made perfect sense, the way she explained it.

The FBI was in transition, being absorbed into the Department of Homeland Security, under the authority of the Secretary of Defense. The Fringe division itself was being enlarged, given vast new resources, including money and personnel. Scully was being tapped for the forensics department. The rumor was she was being groomed to head it when Rodriguez was due to retire in a couple of years. No one had her qualifications: a board-certified forensic pathologist, with two years of teaching experience and six years as a field agent, to say nothing of her tenacity and insistence on solid evidence.

He was surprised she'd stayed as long as she had, really.

God, how he'd miss her.

~/~/~

January 9, 2000

Scully stopped just short of the entry to the Fringe Division's old office. Although she'd talked to Mulder on the phone, emailed him and even had him observing in her autopsy bay, this was her first trip to the basement since she'd started in her new position last year. Why was she feeling so nervous? Get a grip, Dana. Squaring her shoulders, she stepped across the threshold.

Mulder's new partner, Charlie Francis, was on the other side of the office seated in her old area. There was still only one real desk, she couldn't help but notice. Well. What did it matter. By the end of this year this office would be closed. It truly was the end of an era.

Already most employees were in transition, with entire FBI divisions moving to Liberty Island in New York City, or in some cases reorganized out of existence. After considering her options, she had elected to transfer to the Fringe Division's expanded forensics department. Skinner had agreed it was the best use of her skills set, but Mulder had taken some convincing. He didn't want to lose her as a partner, but she truly felt she could be of better service, to him and the rest of Fringe, if she resumed her work in pathology. She already had six years of field experience to draw on. A civilian career path made the most sense, and it would give her the flexibility she needed to pursue goals that had been deferred, like having a life. Working with Mulder had become all-consuming, especially with the increased frequency of Fringe events over the past decade. The reorganization would provide for a boost in personnel, plus more funding for technology and research.

Those were the official reasons she'd given for leaving and she was satisfied that she'd made the right choice. The other reason was harder to admit, even to herself, even six months after her departure. She had hoped that once she and Mulder were no longer partners that something more personal might develop between them. She was certain of mutual attraction, and had been convinced of mutual interest. But it hadn't worked out that way. Mulder was always out of town on a case. On his rare weekends home, he'd be headed up to Martha's Vineyard to visit with his parents and sister, or getting together with the Gunmen, when Scully had called to invite him over.

"I finished that autopsy report for you, Mulder." God. Was that the best she could do? He was sitting behind his desk, absorbed in whatever he was reading. At the sound of her voice, he looked up and assumed one of her favorite Mulder positions: leaning back in his chair, hands behind his head, with his shirtsleeves rolled up.

"Hey, Scully. Come on in. I was just reading your email." Mulder looked pleased to see her, which made her feel absurdly happy.

"Okay," she agreed, stepping over the threshold. She'd been wanting to meet the agent who was now Mulder's partner. She'd read his file. Charlie Francis, at the tender age of 23, had already earned a BA/JD degree from Rutgers, financed with a six year stint in the Marine Core reserves. He was smart and motivated, and a crack-shot—but still, twenty-three was awfully young to be given the responsibility of watching Mulder's back.

"Dr. Scully." Charlie extended his hand. "I'm Charlie Francis. It's a pleasure. I've heard a lot about you." He was sporting a buzz cut and there was a fresh scar on his face from a New Year's Eve encounter with the undead, if Mulder's report was to be believed. She'd been celebrating in San Diego with her family so another pathologist had caught the autopsies.

Scully smiled. "You can't believe everything Mulder says. And please, call me Dana."

Charlie glanced at Mulder. "Oh, I've already figured that much out. Dana."

Mulder looked like he was about to lodge a protest, but was interrupted by a ringing videophone. Instead of putting it on speaker, he picked up the receiver. "Mulder." His expression was neutral but he was sitting up and taping impatiently on his desktop. "I see. When did this...okay. Send the file. We'll be there as soon as we can."

She waited to see if he would say something about the call. It was hard not to ask. Technically she was in a different department now. Although Mulder had never hesitated to ask for her help without going through channels, her access to his files depended on his request for her help. It wasn't the same thing as being his partner and they both knew it. She still thought about him while he was away on a case, still worried about his safety. It was a hard habit to break.

"It sounds like you've picked up a case," she said, trying not to sound like she was fishing. But he didn't reply, just kept staring down at his pad, lost in thought. She looked at Charlie, who shrugged. This was pointless, she thought. He doesn't need you here, Dana. Go back to your office. "It's great to meet you, Charlie." She turned back to Mulder, reminding herself that this—separation—had been her choice. "Let me know if I can assist in any way. "

Mulder nodded. "It's good to see you, Scully. I'll call you when we get back into town, if not before."

Before she could respond, he was out of his seat, hand on her shoulder, escorting her out.

"Promises, promises," she said under her breath as she walked back toward the elevator. That was it. She was done. Sean Pendrell had asked her out four times since she'd moved back to Forensics. The next time he asked, she might just say yes.

~/~/~

"Mulder—" Charlie stopped when Mulder held up his hand.

Mulder waited a few beats, poked his head into the hallway, then shut the office door.

"I take it this new case involves something you didn't want to talk about in front of Dana."

"No shit, Sherlock." Mulder sat down at his desk, tapping quickly on his data pad. "There. Open your email. That file I attached will explain everything."

"Now I get to be Sherlock. I'd assumed I was playing Watson," Charlie said lightly.

Mulder snorted. "Scully is Watson. Skinner is Lestrade. I know. You could be Irene Adler."

"No, actually I couldn't." Charlie looked down at his data pad, frowning. "Where are we going and when are we leaving?"

"The federal penitentiary in Marion, Illinois." Mulder said. "I've got the train schedule up on my screen. There's a bullet train leaving in an hour for Chicago. We can pick up a rental at the station. Looks like we'll be there just in time for lunch. How do you feel about ribs?"

Lunchtime? Mid-afternoon was more likely. "I can take 'em or leave 'em." Charlie scrolled quickly through the file. "How did you get assigned to this case? There isn't anything supernatural or unexplained about Donnie Pfaster. He's just a freak who gets off by killing women...Oh Jesus." He grimaced. "A death fetishist."

"Yeah." Mulder put down his data pad and stood up, his face serious. "Scully and I helped put him away five years ago. But this morning at 6:06 a.m., Pfaster walked out of a maximum security prison right in front of a roomful of inmates and several well-armed prison guards. That's the inexplicable event we've been asked to investigate."

"That is freaky, and I also get that it was your case. But that doesn't explain why you didn't want Dana to know." He looked at Mulder expectantly.

"Keep reading. Scully was nearly his last victim."

That did not explain why Mulder was keeping her out of the loop. Dana Scully was a former FBI agent, risking your life was part of the job description. Besides, she didn't strike Charlie as someone who would appreciate being protected, especially not from hearing a little bad news. Heck, he'd bet his bottom dollar Dana had a concealed carry permit. "Donnie Pfaster's escape is bound to make the news feed, if it hasn't already. She's going to find out eventually. Is there something I'm missing, something that didn't make the official report?"

Mulder looked uncomfortable. "No. It's all there. Pfaster stalked her, and ran her rental car off the road. He kidnapped her. He threw her unconscious body into his trunk, and drove to his mother's place, where he tied her up, gagged her and threw her into a closet." Mulder got up from his chair and began pacing. "By the time we found her, she had managed to get loose, and retrieve her weapon, despite suffering a concussion. She fought him hard. She had the bastard face down on the floor when we arrived."

Mulder was getting pretty agitated. Maybe he needed a chance to vent, Charlie thought. "Then what happened?"

"She had to relive it when she gave her statement. She had to relive it again when we reported to Skinner. And again, when she testified at his trial," Mulder said, a look of disgust on his face.

Mulder had had to relive it, too, Charlie realized. It made him wonder just who was more psychologically traumatized by the kidnapping, the actual victim or her former partner.

Mulder stopped in front of one of the old-fashioned file cabinets that were scattered around the basement office. He turned to face Charlie, his face clouded with guilt. "I knew what Pfaster was before we got there. It wasn't a Fringe case at all. I had gotten tickets to a football game from a friend of my dad's in the State Department."

Messy and getting messier. "So it was supposed to have been a date?" Charlie asked. Rumor was Mulder had a thing for his former partner. Charlie hadn't witnessed anything interesting the few times he'd seen them together but those occasions had taken place in her autopsy bay, talking across a corpse.

Mulder looked askance. "No! I mean...shit. Maybe. Damn it, I just wanted something to get us out of town and away from our usual caseload. It hadn't been that long since the month-long quarantine..."

The rumor mill wasn't always wrong. "You're talking about the case of the brain-eating volcano monster?" Daniel Trepkos, another mad scientist. The old case files especially were rife with them.

Mulder almost smiled. "That's the one. Fascinating case with a horrible outcome." His expression turned serious. "I've never forgotten Trepkos's last words to me: 'I told her it would change her life.' He was holding his grad student's dead body—the woman who was also his lover—at the time."

Now it sounded like Mulder was over-identifying with Trepkos, which didn't make much sense to Charlie. Dana was alive, for one thing, and not Mulder's subordinate, for another. This guy didn't just come with baggage, he was a goddamned luggage conveyor belt. "You and Dana were stuck in a month-long quarantine in a military facility." Was that when they got involved, if they were involved?

Mulder nodded. "They opened up a special isolation unit for us at the Bremerton Naval Hospital. Skinner sent word to our families but there was no communication, in or out, during that entire time. I guess if we'd been infected, the military was planning to bury that fact, along with everything else related to that case."

The man was an enigma. Charlie had spent the past four months working with Mulder and he'd never opened up to him. This case was different. It was personal. Mulder sounded disaffected, even bitter. Charlie supposed he couldn't blame him. According to gossip, Mulder had been at odds with the brass almost from the beginning of his career. Though more than one person had warned Charlie away from taking this assignment, he'd had no problems working with Mulder; in fact, he was an excellent investigator and a good mentor. But he wondered how Mulder was going to fare under the new regime, with Fringe Division transferring to the Department of Defense.

"Look, we need to get going if we're going to make that train." Mulder rolled his sleeves down and grabbed his jacket. "I'll fill you in on the way."

"I'm ready." But was Mulder?

~/~/~

"Is this your first visit to a federal prison?" Mulder asked.

Charlie looked around at the gray concrete walls, peeling paint and fluorescent lighting in the outer office where they'd been escorted from the front gate. "Yeah, it is. This place is pretty cushy compared to some of the military jails I've heard about. So, Mulder. You have a theory yet about how Pfaster got free?" He'd read Mulder's old case notes, both for the official assignments, and the ones Mulder and Dr. Scully had worked off the books. He wasn't always right, but Mulder always had a theory.

Mulder shrugged. "Not yet. But there were two other unexplained escapes from maximum security in the past six months, both from facilities close to this one. There's only one individual who had contact with all three prisoners before they went awol. The prison chaplain, a man named Orison."

"Glory amen?" Charlie said. "You think this guy might have helped them escape? Why? How?" Charlie knew Mulder had been working on a profile during the journey.

"I don't know yet. I asked for two rooms to speed up the interview process. They should have us set up already. We can reconvene here when we're done." Mulder stopped and looked around, fixing his gaze on a loudspeaker mounted high on one of the walls. "Do you hear that?"

Charlie could. "Just barely."

Don't look any further
Don't look any further
Someone to count on
In a world ever changing

"Huh. I haven't heard that song since I was in elementary school."

Before Mulder could reply, two armed military and two men in civilian clothes walked in. Charlie recognized Federal Marshal Dodson from the case file. He was the man who'd contacted Mulder about Pfaster. The other man Charlie presumed was a prison official. He was a middle-aged Hispanic male, wearing a brown suit, with a graying crew-cut and very erect posture. Ex-military, maybe. He reminded Charlie of one of his old Reserves commanders. Maybe he was the warden.

"I'm so sorry. We spoke with your supervisor. We tried to reach you but you'd already left." The man was sweating bullets. Jesus. What else had happened here? It had only been a matter of hours.

"And you are?" Mulder said.

"I'm Warden Flores. We tried several times but it kept going to voice mail..."

Mulder cut him off. "The train goes underground for long stretches and there's no reception in the tunnels. We're here now. Why don't you bring us up to speed? We'd like to get started interviewing the witnesses."

"That's not going to be possible now, not here. We've got a situation. Shortly after we spoke a vortex formed in the prison work area. We had to begin evacuating the facility." Okay, that went a long way toward explaining the warden's anxiety.

Mulder's voice was steady. "I see. You've already called for a containment team, I assume?"

"Yes. Of course, and they're on the way. But we've never seen anything like this anywhere in this region. They're bringing the Amber in from Atlanta."

The protocol was new to Charlie and relatively new to Fringe division. The containment teams' tech was cutting edge, developed in the wake of the disaster in New York City that had trapped 10,000 people at Madison Square Garden. Supposedly this new device could identify an imminent breech before it got to where half the city had to be encased in Amber.

Mulder nodded. "The alarm was already off when we arrived. You've completed the evacuation."

"Yes. The prisoners have all been moved. There are still a few office personnel and the local National Guard unit. The prison guards have gone with the prisoners. We're monitoring the area where the vortex was sighted with the security cameras. It's disappeared."

"The rupture must have been minor to have sealed itself without intervention," Mulder mused.

"Where have the prisoners been taken?" Charlie asked. Man, he had to hand it to Mulder. The guy kept his cool. All Charlie could think about was getting the hell out of Dodge before they got sucked down into the void.

"Everywhere. They're being moved by bus to facilities all over the Midwest, some as far away as Denver."

"Efficiently handled." That made sense. Ever since Madison Square Garden, all government-run and most private organizations had begun holding bi-monthly Event drills. Still, Charlie was impressed.

"We're required to have an evacuation plan in case of an event like this, Agent. We just never expected to have to use it."

~/~/~

Charlie followed Mulder down the corridor. Even though there appeared to be no immediate threat, he'd feel better once the containment team arrived. "They'll have to relocate the prisoners permanently. Close this facility."

"Yeah. It's the only way to be certain." Mulder sighed. "Well, it's a Fringe event. Happy now?"

"What do we do next? Follow up on this or go after Pfaster?" Charlie knew where he'd go but Mulder was the senior agent.

"I think we have to pursue the case we were assigned. Let the containment team handle this one," Mulder said confidently.

"But the prisoners are going to be scattered to the four winds. We'll never finish interviewing them," Charlie objected.

"You're right. That's okay. The key to solving this case is Reverend Orison." Mulder stopped and held his hand up. He stared down the corridor.

Charlie followed his eyes. Not fifty feet way, a woman's image was flickering in and out of focus. "Mulder. What the hell is that?"

"You can see her, too." Mulder stood transfixed.

"Mulder, this case doesn't bother me," the woman said.

Even at this distance, her image was unmistakable. "That's Dr. Scully," Charlie blurted out. He looked again at the apparition or whatever it was. This one's hair was different somehow. Shorter, straighter? Maybe redder, too. "What the fuck is going on?"

Still staring the flickering image, Mulder began backing away. "I've no idea but there's another black hole starting here." He had his phone out and was dialing. "Pull the fire alarm. The remaining personnel need to get out. I'll try to contact the containment team, and then I need to call Skinner."

He pulled the fire alarm as instructed. The clanging noise from the box was deafening. "She's disappeared now, Mulder," Charlie shouted. "Look, I think we should get out of here."

Mulder cupped one hand over an ear, trying to screen out the noise. "Go on ahead!" he called out. Charlie complied, wondering why the hell Mulder wasn't coming too.

He stood outside, watching anxiously as the few remaining prison staff made their way out of the building. It had been all of ten minutes. Finally, Mulder came out.

"What took you so long?" One more minute and Charlie was going to be forced to go back for him.

Mulder looked surprised. "I wanted to see if she'd reappear. They've never had an event anywhere near here. Now there's been two in one day!"

Jesus. Did this guy have a death wish or what? "Where the hell did that woman come from?" She looked enough like Dana Scully to be her twin sister. "I've never heard of people appearing in a vortex."

Mulder smiled. "I know. But she was there. We both saw her. Whatever caused it, the rip seems to have sealed itself again. Good thing, too. I don't think there is another canister of Amber within 500 miles of here."

"How can you be certain it wasn't Dana?"

Mulder looked gleeful. "I think it was a woman who is very like our Dana Scully, but not exactly like ours."

"You're not making any sense."

"I think the Dana Scully we saw is from a parallel universe." A beeping alarm from Mulder's phone interrupted the discussion. He looked at the text message. "Doesn't matter now. Pfaster's been sighted. The federal marshals are five minutes from the diner where he was spotted. There's nothing more we can do here. If we step on it, we'll be in Harrisburg in a little over an hour."

"You're the boss." Last week it was zombies and the end of the world as we know it; this week alternate universes and disappearing doppelgangers. Even for Fringe, this shit was out there.

Mulder smiled. "I could get used to this level of deference."

Charlie snorted. "I wouldn't if I were you. And you are going to explain about this alternate universe crap, right?"

~/~/~

"This must be the place." Mulder surveyed the bus station parking lot. There was a wide swatch of crime scene tape blocking access to the adjacent street, and an array of marked and unmarked law enforcement vehicles scattered in the lot and the adjacent streets.

Quickly they walked into the diner. There was a motley crew of dazed looking law enforcement personnel, some sitting in the booths and others huddled at one end of the counter. "Well, was he here?" Mulder demanded.

None of the officers seemed anxious to answer, least of all Marshal Dodson, who was sitting in one of the booths. "We're still trying to determine that," he said slowly.

Charlie looked incredulous."Did you see him or not?"

"We thought we had but it turned out we were wrong," Dodson said, sounding embarrassed.

Charlie raised his hands to get the attention of the assembled officers, "Guys. What gives? We were notified of a sighting. We left a Fringe event still in progress in pursuit of this fugitive."

"A man got hit by a car," the waitress volunteered.

"At least that explains the taped-off area and the police on the scene," Mulder said under his breath.

"Who's the hit-and-run victim?" Charlie demanded.

"The prison chaplain, a Reverend Orison. He was taken to the hospital by the paramedics," the marshal conceded.

"Okay, now we're getting somewhere. What hospital was the good Reverend taken to?" Charlie said.

Mulder stood back, observing and letting Charlie handle it. The kid had a knack for interrogation, no question about it. There was music playing softly in the background. The radio was on, broadcasting the same song that had been playing at the prison.

Someone to count on.

"He's in pretty bad shape," Marshal Dodson admitted.

In a world ever changing.
Here I am,

Was it a coincidence or something else? Mulder leaned over the counter. "Could you turn that up, please?" he asked the waitress.

What you need is a lover
Someone to take over
Oh, girl
Don't look any further.

The waitress looked puzzled. She put her ear to the speaker. "That's not our radio. I don't know where that's coming from."

"I think I do," Mulder said. He watched, amazed, as the image of Not-Scully flickered off and on like frames from a silent movie. This time he was ready. He pulled out his phone and turned on the video recorder.

When the waitress spotted the apparition, her eyes got wide. She let out a yelp and retreated to the back of the diner. "What the hell!"

Charlie was sounding more and more exasperated. "How about eyewitnesses to the accident? Did anyone run the plate? Get the plate?" He turned to Mulder. "This is going nowhere. I'm going outside to talk with the locals. See if any of them saw something useful." He stopped when he got a look at the waitress's terrified face. "Mulder. What's going on?"

"Come take a look for yourself." The flickering image of Scully-but-not-Scully was beginning to fade. She was so close he could almost reach out and touch her. But that wasn't a good idea. He took a couple of steps back and continued recording. Maybe these weren't black holes at all? Maybe this was something else. It was almost like a window in the other universe was being briefly opened.

Charlie groaned. "Oh no. Not again."

As abruptly as it had appeared, the vision vanished. Mulder shut off the recorder and turned to alert the rest of the law enforcement personnel, but Charlie beat him to it. "Officers, we need to evacuate the diner and rest of the terminal immediately. There may be another vortex opening up."

"A black hole," Mulder clarified. That got everyone out of their seats.

"We'll have to clear a several block radius as well," Charlie reminded the Marshals as they fled the diner.

As Mulder followed behind the group, he pressed the red button that gave him a direct line to his boss. "Sir, we're at the bus depot in Harrisburg where Pfaster was last spotted. The situation at the prison appears to have stabilized but there may be another event starting here."

Skinner cut him off at the word event. "Have you contacted the containment team coming in from Atlanta?"

Dammit, Mulder knew Fringe event protocol. "Not yet, Sir. That was next on the agenda."

"Don't bother. I'll contact the team leader myself. Were you at least able to apprehend Pfaster?"

"No, Sir. If Pfaster was here, he's gone now." And getting further away every minute I stand here talking with you, Mulder thought but did not say.

"Do you have a theory as to what's triggering these events?"

"No, Sir, I have no idea what's causing it. But I do think there's a connection to Pfaster." Mulder quickly described what he and Charlie had seen in the prison corridor, and brought Skinner up to speed on his suspect. "Sir, if you hold I can give you an update. Agent Francis is on my other line."

Without waiting for a reply, Mulder switched lines. "Go ahead, Charlie."

"Hey, Mulder. Okay, the perimeter of the diner is secured. The bus terminal and adjacent businesses are all being cleared. A second containment team's been dispatched from Atlanta and should be here within a few hours, the local police are going door to door, and they've designated the high school on the other end of town as the evacuation site."

Charlie was holding it together, Mulder was pleased to see. Being at the scene of a rip in the fabric of space-time was a whole different ballgame from reading about it in the FBI's Fringe Event Procedure Manual.

"Good. Skinner said he'd contact the team leader. I'll let him know you've already taken care of it. Hang on, I've still got Skinner on the line." Mulder switched back to his boss. "Sir, It's Mulder. Agent Francis reports the evacuation is proceeding uneventfully and that a second team is on the way from Atlanta. I'd like to continue to pursue Pfaster."

"Negative. I spoke with the team leader, Jessica Padilla. Her team already has the remote monitoring equipment set up at the prison. There's been no further signs of temporal degradation so I'm sending her team to Harrisburg. I want you and Agent Francis back in DC," Skinner said.

"Sir? With all due respect, I think we're finally catching a break in this investigation." Mulder stifled a sigh. He started walking quickly toward the rental car.

"Really? From where I'm sitting, you still have a fugitive unaccounted for, plus two Fringe events in 24 hours in an area where there's never been an occurrence. If your theory is correct, that the events are linked to Pfaster's escape, and that your Reverend Orison is responsible for the disappearance of all three prisoners, why wasn't there a Fringe event following the escape of the first two men?"

The next thing Skinner was going to say was that Mulder was theorizing ahead of the evidence. "I don't know, Sir. But if I'm not allowed to question Orison, we may never find out the truth."

"The truth?" Skinner growled. "Speaking of the truth, I briefed Dr. Scully this morning about Pfaster's escape since you didn't see fit to do so even though you had her standing right in your office when the report came in. Let the Marshals pursue Pfaster. When you're finished working the Fringe event in Harrisburg, you will return to DC, Agent Mulder. That's an order."

Fuck. "Yes, Sir. We'll get on the road soon as the second breach is contained." He wasn't going to think about what Skinner had told Scully or what she would say to him. He disconnected Skinner's line and switched to Charlie's.

"Mulder. Are you there?"

"I'm here. I'm moving the rental car away from the bus terminal. Just in case. Where are you?" Mulder had never lost a rental car to a black hole and he wasn't planning on starting now.

"I'm about two blocks south of the diner walking toward a Jenny's Restaurant. The Harrisburg police are setting up their temporary command center there. What the hell is going on here? What's triggering these events?" Now Charlie was starting to sound a little scared. Smart man.

Mulder was certain of what he was seeing. This was proof-positive of something he'd long suspected: the existence of multiple universes. He and Scully had argued about it, of course. She'd admitted it was theoretically possible. "Charlie, I don't know what's causing this to happen. For now, our job is to help get this neighborhood cleared. Whatever it was, it's stopped for the time being, but it's better to be safe than sorry."

"Okay. Marshal Dodson says they're sending a unit to Orison's apartment to see if that's where Pfaster might have gone to ground," Charlie reported.

That was a good call. Pfaster had stolen Orison's car, had his keys for certain, and probably his Show-Me. "Good. When we're done here, we'll head to the hospital where they've taken Reverend Orison. Maybe we can convince him to come clean on how he got Pfaster out."

~/~/~

It had taken longer than he'd expected to evacuate the neighborhood around the bus terminal. People didn't want to leave their homes. Business owners were afraid of looters. The residents had seen the Amber quarantines on TV but they'd never watched a black hole form out of nowhere and spread, sucking everything in its path into the void. The little tears—if that's what they were—that he'd seen here were nothing compared to what he'd witnessed firsthand, all up and down the Eastern Seaboard. But this was the heartland and if folks didn't want to believe it could happen here, Mulder couldn't blame them.

Even for Fringe events, these were unusual, and not only because the appearance of Not-Scully. Both events were small and so far they were self-limiting, just as they had been up in New England at the outset, back in the eighties. He'd read Walter Bishop's book, ZFT, and he understood the theory as well as any non-scientist. Bishop believed that the holes in the fabric of the universe that Fringe Division had taken on as its mission were a natural phenomenon, an environmental catastrophe. What if there were more to it than that? What if someone had found a way to create a vortex, intentionally or as a side-effect of using advanced technology for another purpose. If he were lucky, this time they'd find a direct cause and put a stop to it. The link to Donnie Pfaster's prison break was unequivocal as far as Mulder was concerned. And that trail led them right back to Orison, where unfortunately they hit a dead end. Well, not dead yet, but close.

Mulder stared down at Reverend Orison. He was lying in a hospital bed in Intensive Care, unconscious and on life-support. A machine to make him breathe, another to monitor his heart. Pumps for drugs and tubes for fluids—going in and coming out. Mulder winced. He'd been there, and more than once.

According to eyewitnesses, Pfaster had pushed Orison out of the vehicle and run him over not once but three times. Without Scully there to translate, they'd have to wait for one of the doctors to tell them how he was doing.

Scully. God. He'd missed her every damn minute of every day since she'd left him, but seeing her double had brought the emotions to the forefront. Whatever universe they'd been given a glimpse into, it was clear to him that that Scully was still at her Mulder's side, investigating cases. Lucky bastard. Charlie Francis was going make a hell of a Fringe agent and he was fortunate to have him watching his back, but he needed Scully.

"He's not going to make it, is he?" Charlie said, looking down at their suspect.

Mulder shook his head. "I'm no Doctor Scully, but my guess is he's circling the drain. Either way, he's not going to be in any shape to be interviewed for a long time."

Charlie cleared his throat. "Where to now, Mulder?"

Time to 'fess up. "Home. Skinner ordered us to return to DC when I spoke to him after the second event began in the diner."

Charlie looked startled. "What? Why?"

Why indeed. Donnie Pfaster was still out there and he'd kill again, no doubt about it, if they didn't catch him first. But he'd get caught. There were alerts placed now on every piece of I.D. in Reverend Orison's wallet. The Show-Me, the debit card. The second that Pfaster tried to swipe them to buy food, gas, or use public transportation, the local cops would be tracking the bastard. Catching fugitives from justice was not a job for Fringe agents, according to the bureaucrats. "Let the Marshals do their job so that you can do yours," was Skinner's position.

Mulder felt exhausted. His job was hard and it was only going to get harder. He thought back to the massive event in Madison Square Garden. As luck would have it, he'd been there, up in the nosebleed seats, watching the Knicks play the Sixers when the Amber alarm had sounded. The Garden was jam-packed with tourists and out-of-towners. It had been chaos. He'd organized his own section, gotten them out the back way and gone back into the arena to try to evacuate more people to safety before the containment people arrived. It was Manhatan Fringe Division, so he hadn't had much time. Those guys didn't mess around, and given what they saw every day, Mulder conceded their approach saved lives. One of their Fringe agents had recognized him and pulled him to safety before they released the gas that sealed the breach and trapped those unfortunates who didn't make it out in time.

That would have been the last of it but the agent-in-charge had filed a report, which while commending Mulder for getting hundreds of people to safety, had also hinted strongly that he had attempted to interfere with the initiation of the Amber protocol.

Skinner had been pissed. He'd questioned Mulder's judgment, his professionalism and his commitment to duty. He'd threatened to pull Mulder off Fringe and stick him in a desk job. In the end, there was a reprimand from Skinner in his official file and a letter of commendation from the mayor of New York in his trash folder. He'd put his basketball away up in his closet as soon he walked into his apartment.

There had been no more vortexes or Scully-sightings reported in Marion, Harrisburg, or anywhere in the vicinity since Pfaster had gone on the run. The last non-stop back to DC left O'Hare Union Station at midnight. It was a little after seven, long past dinnertime and getting colder by the minute now that the sun was gone. If they left now, they might make it in time. He'd miss out on some sleep in exchange for spending part of the night in his own bed. Maybe in the morning, he'd call Scully, like he'd promised her he would. "Let's head back, Charlie. I'll tell you about it on the way."

~/~/~

They'd made the last bullet train, though just barely. He'd dozed during most of the journey back to DC, transferred to the Metro in time to miss the earliest commuters, then walked the rest of way home rather than try to catch a cab during morning rush hour. He left a message for Skinner, and after calling and hanging up twice, left one for Scully at her office. He promised himself he'd call her at home when he woke up. He didn't want to sleep all day; if he did, he would never get to sleep that night, so he set an alarm for noon.

He slept restlessly, dreaming about the Amber victims, dreams triggered no doubt by the previous day's events. He knew what he suffered from. It was a form of survivor's guilt, though knowing made little difference. He woke before the alarm went off and wandered sleepily into the bathroom to take a piss and brush his teeth. He was one minute into his two minute sonic brushing regimen when he heard his old-fashioned clock radio go off in the bedroom. He kept brushing while he went to shut it off.

Someone to count on in a world ever changing.
Here I am, stop where you standing.
What you need is a lover, a man to take over.
Oh girl don't look any further.

That was a strange coincidence, if it was a coincidence. Mulder held the toothbrush in one hand and picked up the clock radio. The song was coming from the speaker. Relieved, he shut off the alarm and returned to the bathroom. In less than ten seconds, the radio had switched back on and was playing the song, without skipping a verse.

Strange when you think of the chances
That we've both been in a state of mind.

He shut the radio off again, resolved to buy an iPod dock like a normal person—also an iPod— and returned to brushing his teeth. When the radio turned on again, he spit and rinsed, and put the toothbrush away. Enough was enough. He was pulling the plug on that fucker.

Instead of the correct time, the digital readout was blinking. 666. 666. 666. 666. 666.

Too cool to be careless. Looking for the right thing.
Oh baby don't look any further.

It was the third time around for the Big Eighties hit in the past 24 hours. He'd heard it playing in two different universes. Either his clock radio was possessed or someone was trying to tell him something. He'd seen the other Scully twice and both times that song was playing Over There. Now it was playing Over Here. And wasn't 666 the area code for the Hellmouth?

It might be a stupid hunch but Mulder didn't care. He pulled on his jeans, and put on his holster and weapon. It was heading into the low sixties according to the Weather Channel, so he grabbed his windbreaker. It was the middle of the day which meant Scully was at work. He still had a key to her place, the one she'd given him after the Tooms case. He'd broken the door in that time. She'd never asked for it back and he'd never offered. If this was nothing more than the universe playing a practical joke, no harm done. Before he headed out, he remembered his cell phone. Walking to the Metro, he dialed Charlie's number and left a message. Just in case, he'd do the smart thing for once and get back-up.

After a 30 minute subway ride, Mulder was starting to feel like he might be over-reacting, also like some tea might not be a bad thing. Like all college towns, Georgetown had a Dunkin' Donuts on every corner. He'd grab a cup on the way to Scully's apartment. It was a good plan, but that damned song was playing on the doughnut shop's radio. At least he hoped it was their radio. He didn't bother to check it out. Mulder left the shop and broke into a run.

Her apartment was in an older building on the ground level, with the entrance facing the street. At first glance, nothing looked disturbed but as soon as he reached the door, he could tell the lock had been forced. Quietly, he drew his weapon, turned the knob and pushed the door open. The words, "Federal Agent, put down your weapon," were poised on his lips but he couldn't remember if he'd actually spoken them.

What he did remember was her. Watching her walk out of her bedroom door, disheveled and bleeding, the cloth Pfaster must have used to gag her mouth still knotted around her neck. She looked dazed and in shock. She didn't see him but she was staring at Pfaster—the one in her universe—and had her weapon raised. Someone, not him, was yelling her name, the last syllable drawn out with desperation and fear. Mulder remembered the sound of the gun going off, and glass breaking, the smell of gunpowder—except he'd never fired his weapon. He remembered the look of horror on her face as the temporal curtain rang down and she was erased from view.

His training must have kicked in because his Donnie Pfaster was down on the floor and in handcuffs when Charlie arrived trailing a contingent of DC's finest, backup for the backup. Pfaster had already been taken into custody and was cooling his jets in a DC jail cell waiting for the Marshal service by the time Scully arrived home, with Skinner as her backup. Thank God, Skinner had briefed her about Pfaster being on the loose. Mulder was still going to have to explain what he was doing lurking in his former partner's apartment.

Skinner cleared his throat. "I don't know how you knew this is where he was headed, but thank God you did. Good work, Agent."

Mulder didn't know either, really. The signs were there, and he'd followed them. "Thank you, Sir." He took the glass of cold water that Scully handed him and drained it.

"I'll drive him home, Sir. I know you need to get back to the Bureau." Scully put a cool hand on Mulder's forehead, and frowned.

Skinner nodded. "Fine. Agent Mulder, take tomorrow off. But I want the full report in my inbox asap. I'll see you and Agent Francis in my office first thing Monday morning."

She took the glass, walked into the kitchen and filled it from the tap. "Mulder, you're dehydrated. How far did you run?" She handed him the second glass of water. "Drink this one slowly," she ordered.

The device Orison must have used to break Pfaster out of prison, and used again to escape from under the noses of a dozen law enforcement personnel in the diner, looked innocuous enough. It was a small black box with three green lights and a red light aligned in a row on the top. He didn't get much of a chance to examine it before two goons from Homeland Security barged in and confiscated it, citing some statute that gave them jurisdiction.

He didn't care. He had the proof he needed on his phone, proof undeniable about the existence of alternate universes. Best of all, his Scully was safe and unharmed, and that bastard Donnie Pfaster was headed back to prison. He tried not to worry about what lay in store for the other Scully. He hoped her Mulder would stand by her. He knew what he would do if he was in his place.

In a universe that was disintegrating, on a lonely planet whose once great forests lay blighted, and fatal diseases once erased from human history had returned, it was hard to believe in second chances. But Fox Mulder wanted to believe, now more than ever. Somewhere in a universe not so far away, another version of Fox Mulder and Dana Scully were still partners at the FBI.

But now the FBI was going out of business. Change was coming to Fringe Division and his hand was being forced. One thing Mulder knew for certain: he couldn't be one of those guys who sealed up people into Amber prisons in order to save the planet. It was an important job, and someone had to do it, but it wasn't going to be him. He'd find something else to do, some other way of making a difference in this broken world.

He also knew what he did want: his Dana Scully by his side for the rest of his days. Since working with her was no longer going to be an option, maybe he'd try asking her out on a date. He thought he remembered how that worked. For its own reasons, the universe had granted Mulder a second chance at happiness. It was one he probably didn't deserve, but he'd take it, and gladly.

Scully sat him down next to her on her sofa. "Mulder, before I take you home, I'm afraid you need to explain how you came to be in my apartment in the middle of the day."

Mulder just grinned. She already had that look on her face. "Scully, you won't believe what I've seen."

The End.