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Generations 26: Naked Moment

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Three weeks after his and Fox Mulder's trip to the cape and William, Liam, Mulder Sr.'s death, Walter Skinner sat uncomfortably in a meeting with his direct superior, several individuals from Justice and a couple of others that he didn't know. More of the damn shadow government, he thought to himself. Cancerman, of course, was present.

He was in trouble and he knew it. Jones, aka Cancerman, had finally made his move. They were trying to remove the X-files from his direct supervision.

"Assistant Director Skinner, now that you are related to Fox Mulder by marriage we are concerned that you cannot objectively supervise his cases. His behavior has been most erratic in the last few years and perhaps someone not as..." here the man paused not for effect but to insinuate more, "Involved could better supervise him and the X-file investigations."

This guy is too slimy for words, Skinner thought. He knew the people from justice but the others hadn't been introduced. Half an hour with these men made Walter feel in need of a shower. This was worse than any meeting he'd had with congress. At least with them you knew what they were after. He rubbed the back of his neck trying to release some of the tension.

"Walter," his boss spoke. "It's just that appearances are important."

"Agent Mulder and myself are related only by marriage, there are several more closer relationships in the Bureau than ours. Bradford is ASAC of the department that both his son and daughter work in."

"His daughter is a secretary, not a field agent..."

"No but his son is a field agent."

"Their speciality dictates that arrangement..."

"Nevertheless, it exists and is much closer than Agent Mulder's relationship to me. We simply married two women in the same family."

Now it was Cancerman's turn to press the point. "Are you saying that there are no feelings between yourself and Agent Mulder?"

Skinner didn't like this. Jones obviously knew too much. Damn. "I respect Mulder and his work, and am concerned about him in the same way that I am concerned about any other agent under my supervision."

"Would you care to explain why you named your son after him then?"

Had to figure this would come up. He turned to Cancerman and replied. "My wife is very fond of her son-in-law and liked the name. Her mother, who died last year, was also fond of Agent Mulder and I believe she wanted to honor her, as well."

That wasn't quite a lie. Margaret loved Fox very much but after wrestling over a boy's name for several days he was the one who had suggested Fox as a middle name. The girl's name they had picked out had been easy, Mary Margaret, but Walter didn't want his son to be a junior. He remembered how much his brother had hated it, so he suggested Fox. He knew that Meg would go for it and although he didn't admit it to himself at the time, he'd wanted to make a statement to Mulder. Trouble was it made a statement to others as well.

Cancerman was subtle but ruthless, "So your wife decided to name the boy Walter Fox?"

"That's correct." He hated denying his feelings but the full truth in this instance would get the X-files removed from his supervision.

"And what did Agent Mulder name his son?"

Walter figured he had the SOB here because he had talked Mulder and Scully into not naming the baby Walter. Jones didn't have to know that his nickname was Wally Wolf. "His son was named Patrick Steven Wolf. After a great uncle, I believe."

"Isn't Steven your middle name?"

"Yes." His answer was short and sharp. How the hell did he know that?

"So he named his son after you. I'd say that indicates a rather close relationship, wouldn't you?"

"I have no idea why he named his son Steven, I doubt that it had anything to do with me however," Lying through your teeth, Walter. "Since I've used only my middle initial for the last twentyfive years, my middle name is not common knowledge.

"You don't think that's stretching coincidence a bit, Assistant Director."

Walter had had it. The SOB was not going to use innuendo to take the X-files away from him. Far too much was at stake. "Look, as far as I know Mulder named his kid Steven because his favorite film maker is Steven Spielberg. He never asked me my middle name nor has he ever said anything about having named Patrick after me. The only person he has ever mentioned naming his son after was his great uncle, who, for all I know, could have been named Steven as well. My relationship with Agent Mulder is professional and has always been professional." Hope to god that Cancerman didn't have any spies at the hospital, or the Vineyard, for that matter. Purely professional... yeah right. "If you want to accuse me of unprofessional conduct in relation to Mulder then I suggest that you produce the evidence or cite the incident. Otherwise shut the f**k up." Damn, control yourself, Walter.

Walter's boss thought it prudent to intervene. "No one is accusing you of anything, Walt. Calm down." He wasn't fond of Jones either but they had to listen to him, he had powerful allies. "We're just wondering about why you are so adamant about keeping direct control of the X-files. VC could handle it."

"The X-files never received the recognition or independence they deserved under VC. Also, if you'll check Mulder's record you'll find that there has been far less disciplinary problems since I took over direct supervision."

"That's only because you don't reign him in." Cancerman blew out smoke as he spoke.

"You mean I don't interfere with his investigations for political purposes. Don't you? Nor do I try to cover up covert operations within our own government. I only give Agent Mulder the respect due an agent of his experience and with his solve rate."

"You allow Mulder to pursue his own personal crusade into this ridiculous search for proof of EBE's."

"EBE's interesting term. Most people simply call them ETs or UFOs." Skinner was emphasizing the fact that Cancerman appeared to be more informed than most. "Mulder follows up leads. One such lead led to the termination of a project where teenagers in Wisconsin were being injected with unknown chemicals."

"That was never proven."

"No it seems that the doctor responsible died. It was, however, proven from blood tests that strange chemicals were found in the blood of these teenagers. What was never proven was who was behind it."

"The doctor..."

"The doctor had thousands in cash on him when his plane went down, he didn't pull that out of a hat, or alien spacecraft for that matter. Somebody, with extensive resources was funding him."

Cancerman didn't like the direction this was taking. He went again on the attack. "We're talking supposition here. The bottom line is that because of your relationship to Mulder he doesn't respect your authority. He does what he damned well pleases. The X-files should be supervised by VC. Your resistance to this merely serves to illustrate your unreasonableness in this area."

"My resistance to this stems from the fact that the X-files and Mulder are special and need special handling."

"So you admit that you treat him differently. My point gentlemen."

"You're damned right I treat him differently." Jones smiled thinking that he'd gotten the AD to lose his control and that as a result he'd won the battle.

Skinner pulled out his ace. "None other of my departments or agents has had a spy assigned as a partner to them. One, who I might add, has been tied to the deaths of several individuals, not to mention the man involved in my own shooting. None other of my agents has had backup mysteriously pulled, almost costing him and his partner their lives. So your damned right I treat the X-files differently. When it stops looking like someone in the government is out to kill one of my agents then I'll relax."

Skinner was up in the smoking man's face now, knowing that he'd just played his last card. He hoped it worked.

The men around the table recognized the implied threat. The Executive Branch was still furious about what had gone on in Arizona, and even more than that, at their inability to get any further information about the unknown forces at work in the government. If Skinner decided to press the issue in the executive branch it would stir the whole trouble up all over again.

The AD's boss thought it best to intervene. "We realize that the X-files have some rather special needs. It's just felt that Agent Mulder would be more inclined to obey someone else's orders."

Walter fought to maintain his control too much was riding on this. "Gentlemen if you care to give me an instance where you feel Mulder ignored my authority because we were related then by all means do so."

Mr. Slime, as Skinner had christened him, spoke. "Perhaps we should have a test case." Again a pause. The AD didn't like the direction this was headed but held his piece. "There is a possible X-file case at a university and government sponsored research center on the outskirts of Boston, The Binford Research Center in Applied Gravitational Physics. Several researchers have been behaving strangely. Almost like they were extremely drunk or drugged. Yet blood tests have all come back negative. Agent Mulder has been requested for his special expertise. I believe the file came across your desk this morning, Assistant Director." At Skinner's nod of yes he continued. "You refuse his request. Simple as that. It's not a serious case. No one's been seriously hurt and only minor property damage. The only reason the FBI was called in was because it involves a restricted government research facility. If he obeys your orders without protest and doesn't pursue the case on his own, then he passes the test, but if he ignores your orders in any way then the X-files are moved to VC."

"Mulder never takes orders he doesn't like without protest." Were the first words out of Skinner's mouth.

Before he could go any further he found support from an unexpected source. One of the men from Justice, Mark Rodgers was the name, if he remembered correctly, laughed and piped up. "He's got you there. Spooky Mulder drove Blevins crazy bitching at him when he got turned down about anything. Went behind his back a lot of times, too, or just didn't bother to ask."

Slime nodded and continued, "Alright, Agent Mulder may protest a normal amount but that's all. No secret investigations, no running off to pursue the case on his own or Bureau time. If he does then the X-files are transferred. And you, AD Skinner, are not to in any way, shape or form to let Agent Mulder know what is going on or why his request to be assigned to the case has been refused. You simply give him the orders. The question is how can we be assured that you won't clue him in. Maybe by telling your wife, who could tell her daughter..."

Skinner didn't like it... he didn't like it at all but he couldn't see any way out. "I'll give you my word that I will not inform him or anyone else about this test until it's over."

Slime wasn't satisfied. "Excuse me Mr. Skinner but do you really..."

This time it was Cancerman's turn to interrupt, shocking Walter Skinner totally. "If the AD gives you his word, that will suffice. He is a man of honor." The look of stunned shock on Skinner's face was worth every bit of it. The smoking man fought hard not to laugh. Of course he also realized that if Agent Mulder saw anyone else in the room when Skinner turned down his request that he would suspect a rat. No, it was much better if he didn't suspect who was behind the AD's refusal. Walter Skinner was a man of his word and would not break it once given. He'd gotten him backed into a corner. There was no way Fox Mulder would put up with an arbitrary refusal, especially if Skinner wouldn't give him any explanation. Comes with being too familiar with your agents... they no longer obey without question.

Driving back from the meeting Walter Skinner felt exhausted. He rubbed the back of his neck. He really hated this. He'd read over the case and had planned on giving Mulder the okay that afternoon. Profiling was beginning to put a strain on Mulder and this case looked harmless but with enough of a challenge to relieve some of the tension he was under. Scully still had a few weeks to go on maternity leave and the AD was reluctant to allow Mulder to investigate anything too dangerous. This case had been perfect. Not too serious plus the fact that the team of agents who had requested his help had worked with Mulder before and had helped to save his life. It was, therefore, doubtful that they had a hidden agenda or were part of a set up to get him killed. Mulder wouldn't have to worry about watching his back.

Now he had to turn him down cold and on top of that he'd have to keep Fox at a distance. They'd be watching him closely and his son-in-law would be pumping him as to why he turned down the case. Skinner knew that the more he refused the more likely that Mulder was to suspect that something was up and the more likely he was to start digging. He'd given his word not to clue Mulder in but it would be hard. He could keep his mouth shut, no problem, but Fox knew him too well. He'd be able to figure out some of it if they were together too much.

Shit... shit... shit. This was going to wreck havoc with his home life for a few weeks. Margaret would know there was a problem and though she'd try to be understanding she'd still feel left out. And she, Dana and Fox would know something was up when he started avoiding family gatherings. Going would just be too risky. Some of the men around that table wouldn't believe that he wouldn't tip Mulder off, especially if they were seen together outside of work too often. This test would have to be final and definitive. Walter sure as hell didn't want to have to go through one every few months.

The worst part of all this was that he was worried how Fox was going to take his sudden efforts to distance himself from him. He'd have to take it as rejection. Hell, that's exactly what it was. At the stop light Walter bent his head down and rubbed the back of his neck hard. God it was starting to ache. He slammed his fist against the steering wheel. He didn't want to hurt Fox. His son had already been through too much hurt and rejection by people he cared for and trusted. And now Walter was going to add to that. Just when they had finally started to accept the fact that they were family. Now Walter almost wished that he hadn't gone to New England with Fox when he went to face his grandfather. The boy had opened himself up, told him things he'd never shared with another living soul and as a result this was likely to hurt all the more, to seem like a more personal rejection of him, of the inner man he had revealed to Walter. Skinner felt a knot in his stomach, It's going to be a Malox week.

Yet Walter knew that he had to do it. Had to distance himself from Mulder until this test was over. Too much was riding on it if they failed the test. He only hoped their relationship was up to it. If the X-files were moved back to VC it was only a matter of time before they were closed down or Mulder was injured or killed. They'd tried it several times before and even with Skinner standing in the breech had almost succeeded on more than one occasion. Agent Schmidt and the Arizona case was just the most recent attempt. There had also been Davis who had sexually harassed him, trying to push him out and before that... Well there were just too many instances and Walter was convinced that without his direct supervision they'd at the very least drive Mulder out of the Bureau.

Maybe that would be better. Fox had inherited enough money to pursue his investigations on his own... But damn it the Bureau needed Fox Mulder. Even Bill Patterson during his slow decent into madness had known that the only man who could help stop him was Mulder. After the first copycat murder he had come quietly to Walter and requested Mulder's help. Skinner had been shocked. Patterson had adopted the young agent and mentored him through his first several years at the Bureau, but when Mulder found that he could no longer handle the daily decent into the minds of serial killers and had requested out, Patterson had been livid. He'd bad mouthed Mulder to everyone he could and his verbal attacks of the agent had been vicious. Lessor agents had transferred out of DC and even left the Bureau under such a barrage but Mulder had hung on and stuck with the X-files. Walter had been impressed. The kid had staying power, he would give him that.

So, after all of this, when Patterson had come and requested Mulder's help... the AD hadn't known what to do. He'd approved the request but had been worried about Fox the whole time. He was afraid that Patterson was trying to get some sort of revenge on the agent. When Mulder realized that Patterson was the one who had gone mad and had caught him, Walter came to understand that his request of Mulder had been a cry for help in the only way he knew how. Patterson had requested the one person who he viewed as a match for himself. It wasn't widely known around the Bureau but Mulder had conferred with the doctors about Patterson's treatment and significant progress had been made. He would never be able to return to work but he might someday be able to live close to a normal life. And if he did, it would be due in large part to Mulder. The FBI needed Fox Mulder's mind and his compassion.

Assistant Director Walter Skinner could only hope that the trust they had build up over the last couple of years would see them through this test. That for once in his life Fox Mulder would trust someone enough to follow orders blindly and without too many questions.

"I'm sorry, Agent Mulder, but I cannot approve your request to investigate this case. There is not sufficient evidence that an X-file is warranted." AD Skinner fought to maintain an impassive expression. They had been going at this for twenty minutes. He could tell that Mulder was puzzled and could sense his withdrawal but he knew he couldn't risk opening up even the least little bit.

Damn it what's gotten in to Skinner? Even that prick Blevins had better reasons than those. Fox Mulder was trying to find out what was wrong with his boss. The AD looked beat, wasn't being reasonable and was shutting him out totally. It hurt. He thought that they were far beyond this. I thought we trusted each other. He watched Walter reach up and rub the back of his neck. That was the forth, no fifth time since we started. He knew his father-in-law and he only reacted like that when he was under enormous stress. What is going on with him and why won't he let me help? He was about to ask what was wrong when he looked up into Skinner's face and saw his eyebrow twitch a look of sadness briefly cross his face.

Fox Mulder knew he had grown up a lot in the last year but he hadn't realized how much until that moment. He decided that his boss would have told him if he could and that he was just going to trust him and not argue anymore with his refusal. "Very well, Sir." At the way his boss' head snapped up in shock, Mulder smiled. Nice to know I can still surprise him. "I'll inform you of any new developments."

"Thank you, Agent Mulder. That will be all."

As Mulder left Walter hoped that he was going to follow orders and not try to go behind his back. He knew without a doubt, that if it had been Blevins Fox would be planning his strategy on how to circumvent the Section Chief. But the brief smile that flashed across Fox's face seemed to indicate that he was going to act on trust and obey orders. Walter Skinner hoped so.

Cancerman who had been listening to the exchange had observed the same actions on Mulder's part but arrived at different conclusions. He figured that Mulder would think that he could get away with going behind the AD's back and that that was exactly what he was planning. Skinner doesn't have the balls to smack Mulder down so you can bet that Mulder will take advantage of that fact. His plan was working very well. One way or another he'd force Mulder out of the Bureau. Hell, he'd be doing the kid a favor. Without Bureau resources behind him he would be much less of a threat and they'd probably be able to ignore him and leave him alone. He took a long draw on his cigarette feeling very pleased with himself.

The phone rang in the X-file office a few hours later. "Mulder."

"Hey, Mulder. What's up with you? You promised that you'd request to help out on this case. I've just been informed that our request for your assistance has been denied." Dwayne Bothrington's voice asked.

"Skinner turned down my request. I have no idea why."

"Can't you get him to change his mind? Hey, man, I thought you had some pull with him."

Mulder sighed to himself, So did I. "I tried, Both. We went round and round with this for half an hour this morning. He says there isn't enough evidence to warrant opening an X-file and assigning me."

"Damn it, we're way out of our depth here. Hell, even Smithson wants you. Shit you know how hard that was for him to admit."

"Yeah, well I don't know what's going on either but I've been turned down flat. Look I can't come up there but there isn't anything in the rules that says I can't give you help over the phone. Maybe if we get together enough evidence Skinner will change his mind."

"You going to tell him about this, Mulder?"

Fox was surprised by the question and by his answer to it. "Of course I'm going to tell him. Hell, I'll probably write up each of our conversations." He suddenly realized that two years ago he would have gone behind a supervisor's back without a second thought if he believed he was right but he found that he didn't even consider it an option with Skinner.

He'd worked with Bothrington on a child killer case at the Vineyard the year before and had been impressed with his abilities. Hopefully he would be able to provide enough detail that they could convince Skinner to assign him or the agents handling the case could solve it. He leaned back in his chair, propping his feet on the desk and said. "Okay, the file was a bit sketchy so start at the beginning and give me all the details you can remember. Don't try to filter anything out, I need it all. Let me judge later what's important."

Both began. "It started about a month ago. The researchers had begun a new phase of the project about a month before that."

"What is the project."

"Hell, Mulder, why did I know you were going to ask that."

"They won't tell you?"

"Oh, they'll tell you alright. In great and glorious detail. They've been making wonderful strides and are very proud of their work. Trouble is I can barely make heads or tails of what they are talking about." Mulder smiled to himself, he knew that feeling.

"So give me a snapshot of what you do understand."

"First and foremost there aren't any chemicals involved. Our first thought was that they were being contaminated by a leak of some kind. It's got something to do with electrons and protons and all that physics stuff. They are trying to do something with gravity-- create it or simulate it or... hell, Mulder, beats me. Anyway the idea is that they are trying to simulate what happens when a star collapses to form a nova. I got that much at least. The theoretical stuff they've been working on for about four or five years and now they are actually testing it. Apparently the tests are going real well and they've been able to simulate on a very small scale what they wanted to. So naturally they are ecstatic.

"Well everything was fine for the first month or so. Results were great and they were so happy that they began pushing up the schedule. Damn, from what I can tell they were all so excited by how well it was going that most of them practically moved into the facility. Then one of the researches went nuts. He'd been observing the results of a late night test and when they came in the next morning he had stripped off all of his clothes and was quoting Shakespeare at them. 'Bout gave himself pneumonia because the heat in the building overnight was down about sixty two degrees. Still he kept complaining for the next couple of days that he was hot and they couldn't get him to keep his clothes on. And the one time they did manage to get him to keep his clothes on they found he had disappeared. Fifteen minutes later he was found in one of the rooms on the psych floor taking an ice cold shower with his clothes on. He ended up with a bad case of bronchitis.

"Anyway after about forty eight hours he just woke up and was back to normal. Except of course for being really sick from exposure. He had to stay in the hospital for another week to get rid of the infection."

"Don't tell me... let me guess. He couldn't remember anything that happened."

"Nope, he remembered everything and was very embarrassed. Couldn't explain what had come over him. So they chalked it up to stress and gave him a months vacation. And thought that that was it.

"Except about a week later another couple of researchers did something similar. This occurred about three in the afternoon so that the others watched as it hit them slowly. Six of the staff were involved in conducting another test when two of their group started complaining that they were hot. They kept that up for fifteen or twenty minutes then they began to act a little weird. Couldn't seem to concentrate at first, then kept removing parts of their clothes. Their companions had a hard time stopping them. One of the guys..." Mulder heard a certain amount of amusement in Both's voice as he continued... "Took off running down the corridors when they tried to stop him from undressing. He's short and chubby and about fifty five, looks a bit like Santa Clause without the beard. Anyway, he stripped as he ran. Clothes flew everywhere and several secretaries were offended. Seems he decided to dart into their area after he had removed all of his attire except his socks. Started grabbing them and kissing them, both males and females. Took five men to finally get him secured. I won't repeat any of their comments because Dr. Paulsen, that's the scientist, kept kissing and grabbing certain private parts until they had him down. Actually that's why it took so many men. They'd start to get him pinned and then he'd grab one of them in the nuts and they'd back off. That gave Paulsen a chance to go after another set of balls, and of course that guy would back off and then he'd get loose and go after one of the women in the area. From the description I'd love to have a video tape, it sounded like something out of a Marx brother's movie. After they finally got him pinned he just kept making lewd comments. If you want I'll fax you a copy of the comments but I'm not about to repeat them on the phone." The amusement was no longer hidden. Both was laughing as he finished. "These scientists are all a bunch of prudes and according to them Paulsen was the most uptight one of the lot. Some of them were astonished that he even knew about some of the things he mentioned."

"In the mean time most of them had forgotten about the other guy that had been complaining. Well when they got back to the lab and noticed he hadn't followed, they looked for him. He was found curled up in a ball in a closet crying. Seems his wife had died a couple of months earlier and all he would mention when asked why he was crying was her. He cried off and on for the next couple of days. Paulsen spent the next couple of days propositioning anyone who came within earshot.

"Two days later they were back to normal. Dr. Paulsen resigned his position and left quickly. He was very upset by what he had done. The other guy is on extended leave."

"I assume they ran medical tests on these guys?" Mulder asked.

"Every test in the book and then some. Everything came back negative. No drugs or alcohol in their systems. Slightly elevated Adrenalin and insulin levels but nothing very out of the ordinary. After that incident they called us in. They were afraid that someone was trying to sabotage their project but so far if that's the case we can't figure out who's doing it and what is being used.

"Since then there have been two other incidences both similar in nature. The individual starts feeling hot and then starts behaving in a strange manner."

"Has it all been men and do they all work on the project?"

"No and no. There was one woman. She was the secretary for the projects director Dr. Tim Wilson and although she worked in the same building she never went into the lab where the research was being conducted. We've tested food, water and air in the building but nothing unusual has been found. So any ideas?"

"Fax me your notes and more detailed reports and I'll think about it tonight and get back to you in the morning. On second thought you'd better call me, around nine tomorrow."

Fox Mulder sat and thought about the case for a long time he then sat down and wrote out a report for Skinner on what he had learned during the conversation, why it was important for him to visit first hand and what his theory was of possible causes. He dropped it off at the AD's office as he headed home after work. Skinner was still in his office, but Fox left it with Angela to give to him. He didn't quite feel like facing Walter just then. Fox was still feeling the pain of his boss' rejection.

Chapter Text

Returning to his office after a late meeting Walter Skinner found Mulder's report. He raised his eyebrow. Well I should have known that Mulder wouldn't drop it. But if your supervisor turned you down for lack of evidence it was perfectly acceptable to get more and reapply. Mulder hadn't reapplied but he was keeping his boss updated. The AD read the report and laughed. Fox always managed to highlight the best parts with his wickedest driest wit. He'd included the fax of the propositions Paulsen had made as an attachment to the file. Skinner was laughing pretty hard by the end of them. For a conservative individual this man knew a great deal about leather, lace, whips and chains. A couple of references even Skinner hadn't been able to figure out. He thought to himself that he'd have to ask Fox if he knew what the guy was talking about. He stopped that train of thought and sighed.

Keeping Fox at a distance had been both easier and harder than he thought. Mulder had behaved in an exemplary fashion, much better than Walter had thought he would. He'd accepted the AD's decision with what was, for Mulder, minor protests, as far as he could tell he hadn't pursued the investigation behind his back and the report before him only detailed the request of Smithson and Bothrington for him to consult. For the first time he began to hope that they both might pass the test.

The hard part was what had been the surprise. He missed Fox. Plain and simple. Missed cracking a subtle joke that only he would get or getting together with him to play with their kids while their wives talked. He'd known that Fox would feel rejected but he hadn't realized how much this test was going to affect him as well. Real friends were few and far between in this job. Too much stress and too many with their own political agendas, Fox was a real friend and he missed being able to kick back, be honest and relax. He hoped to hell that this test would end soon and things could go back to normal. He headed home to his wife and son.

It had been a long day and he had a terrible headache, one of the sort that wouldn't quit. It started at the top of his head and worked it's way down the back of his neck, a combination of tension and stress combined with the fact that he hadn't eaten all day. Well, he would be home soon, and knowing Meg, there would be a delicious meal waiting for him. No matter how late he was, she always seemed to have something wonderful to warm up. With luck, he would be able to keep his career concerns to himself. Traffic was heavy and some fool trying to beat the light very nearly broadsided him causing the adrenaline to pump and his head to throb more than ever. By the time he got home, he was ready to lose it. When he walked in the door of their new home, things were scattered everywhere and Margaret was no place to be seen. He tossed his jacket aside and headed for the kitchen where he didn't smell anything cooking.

What he found was Meg sitting in the kitchen chair instead of being there to kiss him hello, with their son on her lap, and she was feeding him some sort of disgusting looking mush instead of nursing him or giving him a bottle.

"Hello, Walter," she smiled. He didn't smile back. "What's wrong, honey?" Normally he would have bent over to kiss her, but now he was standing there glaring at her.

"Where's dinner?" he asked.

"I thought we'd just have some sandwiches tonight. I tried to get some unpacking done, and the Squirt here was fussy all day."

"Great... you know I like dinner when I get home, Meg...." he sighed.

"Don't worry. You'll get fed," she assured him.

"Speaking of which, what the hell are you feeding him?" He pushed the puppies away with his feet as gently as he could. They seemed to want constant attention. Normally he would have given in and picked them up, in spite of the fact that he had wanted them about as much as a case of the bubonic plague, and Mulder's face when he saw them with him didn't bear thinking about. Walter was well aware that Fox found the dogs a hoot and his father in law's reaction to them even better. But he had other more important concerns at the moment than the little hairy rats.

"Applesauce and rice cereal," she replied. It seemed to Margaret that he was acting rather belligerently almost as though he were spoiling for a fight. "Have a bad day, dear?"

Condescending little... He stopped himself... no... she wasn't that. C-man was getting to him. "Day was just fine.... Listen, Meg, the pediatrician said no solid food for four months. Aren't you worried about doing that?"

"Nope... all six of my babies got cereal and fruit early on... no I take that back. Not Melissa. She was my picky eater. Five got it."

"But, the doctor said...." he had been noticing that Margaret had a distinct propensity for ignoring a lot of what the pediatrician said. He never said much, but it concerned him.

"Look, Walter, this baby has been wanting to be fed every hour all day long. If the doctor wants to come and do it, that's fine. I couldn't get anything done today." She shoved another spoon of the cereal into his mouth and putting him on to her shoulder got up. He promptly spit a little back up as he burped.

"He's throwing up, Meg..." It looked gross, not like when he spit up milk.

"He's not throwing up. He's spitting up. No big deal." She carried him to the nursery and took his diaper off.

'"Well, you just are a mess aren't you, Fox," she smiled wiping his bottom.

"He still has that rash...." observed Walter.

"I know, but it's clearing up," Margaret told him putting Desitin on it and re-diapering him.

"Well, did you call the doctor about it?"

"About a diaper rash?" she laughed.

"Don't you worry about anything Margaret?" he demanded. "Suppose he's crying because he is sick and giving him that food makes him worse and...."

"Look, Walter... damn it... I don't know what's got you in such a mood tonight, but he's my seventh child... seven... got it? At this point in time, I probably know more than the doctor, who by the way, has no children and is young enough to be my child. In fact, I do have a daughter who is a doctor, and who did, by the way look at his ears just to make sure they weren't hurting him"

"But Dana is a pathologist...."

"I know what she is, Walter," sighed Margaret, "And for that reason, since she wasn't certain about it, I spent the morning in the pediatrician's office, who says there is nothing wrong with his ears or anything else. He's just hungry." She was running out of patience. She was tired. She loved this baby dearly, but she wasn't as young as she used to be either, and it had been a tough day. Normally she would have handed him to his father to play with but instead she placed him in his crib.

"Come on. I'll get you something to eat and maybe you'll stop being so damn cranky."

"I am not cranky... I am the child's father and I have a right to worry... One of us has to, Margaret." Stop this. You're taking your frustrations out on her and it isn't fair.

"That does it! You're as big a mother hen as Fox. In all the years I was married to Bill, he never once questioned my judgement or the way I took care of the babies. I don't tell you what to do at the FBI, so don't you be telling me what to do at home." Her hand went on her hip and she glared at him with a look that was remarkably like his most stubborn female agent. Mistake... you shouldn't have brought up Bill...

"Well, maybe he didn't go to the pediatrician with you and maybe he was just too busy to question, Margaret. Annie would have been appalled if I hadn't questioned. In fact, Annie would have listened to the doctor." What the hell are you doing Walter... low blow...

"Well, I'm glad that you and Annie were both perfect. Bill and I were just human beings. We really screwed up. That's why our kids are so awful I guess." She picked up her son again and went into the bedroom and slammed the door. "You can get your own damn dinner and sleep in the guest room. I'm staying in here to abuse and neglect my seventh child in peace."

Walter looked after her. "I might as well sleep in the guest room for all the sex I've been getting from you lately...." he called after her hitting the door frame with his open palm. Damn, what the hell did I have to go and get married again for anyway... No that's not fair. Meg and I love each other... Shit!

Walter tossed and turned restlessly. He'd grabbed himself a sandwich leaving the mess for her to clean up, had taken a tylenol #3 left over from Meg's surgery, something rare for him, and had gone to bed. It had knocked him out, and when he had awakened the headache was gone. Jeez, those remarks about Annie had not been called for... Yeah, but the way she had talked about Bill as though he had been such a wonderful father... Well, he had been, but she had been really bitchy from the moment he walked in the door. Face it, Walter, you weren't very diplomatic in your questioning and you definitely weren't sweetness and light. Work really got to you. Meg looked really tired and you just ignored it. Maybe her day was as tough as yours in its own way... Margaret finally dozed off. There had been times when Bill had spent the night on the couch, but she had never liked those times. It wasn't good to go to bed angry, and she supposed she had been far too sensitive. Part of it was that she was feeling so bad, and part of it, she knew was feeling tied down again, tied down and constantly tired. She'd done so well after Uncle Squirt was born, and now it was all catching up. She truly loved her new addition... and giving Walter the son he had always wanted made her feel so special and the baby did make her feel young again, but it wasn't always easy and she had expected a bit more understanding from him. Maybe she wasn't being fair though. He was obviously under some kind of pressure at work and it probably concerned Fox. Everything else he seemed to take in stride but trouble for or with Fox...

Margaret sighed to herself. Yeah, that was probably it. If Walter perceived that Fox was in some kind of trouble then he would be upset. Her beloved son-in-law was her husband's Achilles heel. Fox Mulder could push all his buttons both good and bad. He could make her calm rational husband blow his stack faster than any man she knew and if he got in trouble then Walter dropped everything to come to his defense. And heaven help anyone who hurt Fox Mulder... Her husband was a formidable man to deal with and a threat to Fox was met with all due force. In fact Margaret could trace to the day when Walter had committed himself to Fox.

Dana had returned from New Mexico convinced that Mulder was dead, her heart broken and Margaret had comforted her and let her rest at home but Dana had insisted on returning to her apartment. Refusing to let her walk back she had given her daughter a lift and then on the spur of the moment decided to stop by and see how Walter was doing. She had always suspected that AD Skinner's feelings for her daughter and her partner were stronger than he let on. They had been dating several months and although still not committed were becoming very close. Margaret Scully wanted both to see how Walter was holding up and if he agreed with Dana that Fox must be dead. The thought of losing Fox was breaking her own heart and she really needed Walter's comfort.

She had known when he opened the door and invited her to come in that he thought Mulder was dead. They went back to sit on his couch and held each other. In the light Meg could see what he was trying to hide. His eyes were red and puffy and his nose was running. Walter had complained about hay fever but she knew it was still pretty early in the season and that the pollen count was not very bad right now. It was obvious he'd been crying and didn't want her to know about it. She'd been very attracted to him, maybe even loved him before that but the caring and compassion he obviously felt for Fox Mulder broke down her last reserve. She knew that night that if he ever asked her she would marry him.

When against all hope Fox had returned alive she had watched years lift off Walter's shoulders. The minute she heard his voice on the phone calling to tell her that Fox was alive he hadn't had to actually say the words. The joy underlying every word was enough. After that, although he might complain about Mulder he always supported the X-file pair and did his best to protect them. In spite of his gruff, hard exterior her husband was a very loving man. And if he treated their Little Squirt in the same way he dealt with Fox their son was going to be in for an interesting ride. One thing was for sure he'd never doubt that his father loved him.

Then of course there was her ready made family. It wasn't easy for Walter to deal with her family, and he did try. He had been alone for so long, and childless. He worked hard at walking the tightrope in his relationship with her children and grandchildren. She knew that. Maybe she should have been more understanding. And, he had had a headache. She had known that the moment she had seen him, but it had been such a difficult day with the puppies backsliding on the paper training and Little Fox fussing all day... She nursed the baby and changed him, and then headed for the guest room thinking she had better try to make up. They ran into each other in the dark.

"Meg... I'm..."

"Walt, I'm...

Their arms went around each other.

"Life is too short to fight," he whispered in her ear. "It's just too short, Meg...

"I know... I know that... Come on, Walt, let's go to bed. We are both tired and cranky today... yesterday..."

They began to kiss and caress each other passionately. Margaret found herself not enjoying it very much she was so very tired, but for her husband's sake was careful to hide it. Walter seemed to need her desperately at that moment, and just as things were about to reach the inevitable conclusion, for him anyway, the baby let out a shriek. They tried to ignore it, but suddenly all the fun was gone, and with a frustrated sigh Skinner slipped away from his wife, and Meg went to get their son. Obviously he hadn't eaten enough before.

'"Sweetheart," said Walter quietly determined to be patient, "tomorrow night, do you think you might give him his bowl of cereal a little closer to bedtime?"

Margaret threw back her head and laughed. "He's my seventh child Walter. I knew that. I should have known that. I had just forgotten. It's been a long time since I've had to share my time between a horny husband and a starving infant." He nodded slowly falling asleep leaving her to nurse their baby tiredly.

Dana sighed. She had been enjoying the novel she had purchased, but now Patrick was hungry again. Although she really needed to nurse someone, she had been hoping to hold him off a little longer. It was reaching the point where she felt like she was a milk bar. She got Brenda and lay her on the sofa, and then went back for Patrick. Sitting down, she undid her blouse and unsnapped her nursing bra. Her son latched on to her greedily. There was an instant of pain until her milk started to flow, and then she smiled for a moment. He was a greedy little bugger like his dad. She closed her eyes and thought about Fox, now at work. She was a little worried about him.

Something was going on at the office, and she didn't know what it was. He had told her that he didn't either, but that he suspected that Skinner was under a lot of pressure about something to do with the X-Files. Fox had been doing an excellent job in VC, better than he had since he'd first joined the FBI, and Dana feared Skinner might be under pressure to close them down again and send Fox back to Behavioral, but she kept that to herself. Fox was being on his best behavior for now, but he had the feeling that Dwayne Bothrington really needed his help up in Boston, and Skinner wouldn't let him go. Dana had sympathized with him, she knew just how difficult it was for him not to follow up an X-file. Especially since they owed Both for his help on a child murder case the year before. Her husband's answer had surprised her. "Yeah, I'm frustrated about not being able to help Both but I won't go behind Walter's back to do anything. I just can't do that to him anymore." He'd smiled at her and changed the subject. Even with everything Fox and Walter had been through together over the last year neither was comfortable discussing the affection they felt for each other. Fox had probably already thought of the possibility that they might close down his department again. Wally Wolf had stopped sucking for the moment, so she took the opportunity to put him against her shoulder and pat his back.

"God, but he was a beautiful baby...." She inhaled his baby scent and rubbed her face against his hair. It was thick and dark and so very soft and it didn't seem as though it was going to fall out. She hadn't known it was possible to love something quite so much. No, that wasn't true. She had, still did love their father that much, but it was a different sort of love. She had wanted this baby desperately, something a part of them both, so much so that she really hadn't considered the impact it would have on her, on their lives. Finally he burped and then nursed some more. Just as he fell asleep, Brenda began to stir, so Dana picked up her little girl to nurse her. She wasn't quite awake yet though.

'You're such a beautiful baby, Brenda," she whispered softly. "And you're going to be smart too... like your daddy... You're both lucky babies to have the daddy that you do." The tiny creature stirred in her arms and her little face puckered, but Dana stopped the upcoming wail by giving her daughter the breast.

"Just call me Elsie the Cow," she sighed thinking about the struggles in med school and her career, the one that had taken such and unexpected turn and that she loved so much, and how suddenly her life had changed. With just one baby she knew she could have coped with her career, but with two she was starting to worry. Even with help from Aunt Sophia, she seemed to be tired all the time and spent so much of her day nursing and doing laundry and changing diapers. She was gradually switching to bottles, but even those took a lot of time when you were doing double duty. What if she couldn't handle it? Aunt Sophia had assured her that her out of town trips would stop now that they had the data from her father who she called nothing but the old SOB. Even so.... sometimes she wished for some extra backup for Fox, someone who could be trusted when she couldn't be there... like when the babies got sick.... Brenda took a break and Dana turned her on her tummy to burp her rubbing her tiny back. Brenda tended to be difficult to burp although Fox seemed to have a lot less trouble.

She wished he were here. Absently she let her mind drift to her husband. It was he who had jokingly started to call her Elsie, Elsie the cow. They were lying in bed with the twins both asleep, and she had leaked through her nursing pad. He had reached his hand inside of her nursing gown and unfastened the bra. He had fumbled with it for awhile, and when he had finally gotten it open, he had said, "Jeez, Scully, that was more trouble than trying to cop a feel in high school."

"Oh, and did you cop a lot of feels in high school, Mulder?"

"I tried," he laughed. "Hey, you really are soaking wet.... a regular Elsie the Cow.... Guess I'll have to start calling you Elsie from now on." He tickled her as she laughed. "Wonder if Elsie had udders that big..."

The look she gave him shocked him. She stopped laughing and turned away to get a dry nursing pad....

"You need to change," he said quietly. "You really are all wet. I'll get you some dry things." He realized that he had hurt her. He hadn't meant to.

"What's the matter?" he asked gently not getting up.

"Nothing...." she replied.

"I hurt your feelings. I didn't mean to. Dana, you are more beautiful to me now than you have ever been." He stroked her hair. "Always I think I couldn't love you anymore, and then I live with you another day, and I realize I do."

Then, he had begun to nuzzle her neck and whispered in her ear.... "precious angel, joy of my life..."

Instead of reaching for a nursing pad, she had reached for a condom and put it in his hand. She hadn't wanted to use it, but they couldn't take a chance, even with her nursing, not with a newborn set of twins in the house which was already beginning to feel small. His lovemaking had been so sweet and tender that the thought still sent shivers through her. He had always been a wonderful lover from that first night, but some times were more special than others, and this had been one of those times when everything had been perfect. He whispered the most beautiful things to her... She knew she had been overly sensitive to his teasing. As much as she loved her children though, sometimes the responsibility weighed heavily, and she didn't feel pretty just now.

Brenda finally burped, but seemed disinclined to eat anymore. Suddenly Dana felt very sleepy. She stretched out on the couch with Brenda on her chest and Patrick on her stomach, a hand protectively on each of them as they lay on their stomachs against doctor's orders and dozed off, feeling a little guilty. She loved her babies so much, couldn't think of her life without them anymore, yet somehow today, they had managed to make her feel tied down. She should be making dinner... just a few minutes sleep...

Fox turned the key in the lock. It had been a frustrating day in VC. Tom Colton was going to drive him crazy, the guy was such a jealous idiot. He'd been bad enough when he was just 'Spooky' Mulder and the X-files had been a part of VC but now that Skinner had taken over direct supervision of them Colton had become impossible. Mulder was still waiting for Colton to start calling him teachers pet. Skinner's support and protection had made his life easier, the Spooky jokes had decreased and even if most didn't take his work seriously they knew that the AD did, so they kept the derogatory comments down to a minimum. No one wanted to get on the bad side of the Assistant Director.

The worst part of the day had been that he hadn't been of much help to Bothrington over the phone, yet somehow he knew that he couldn't go behind Skinner's back. Not this time, probably not ever again. The bond of trust that had developed between them over the last couple of years was something he just couldn't betray. Somehow he sensed that whatever was going on with Walter it was for his own good and the good of the X-Files. There had been something in Skinner's eyes when he had refused to give him the case... something he couldn't pin down, but he had known not to disobey on this occasion, that there had been more than his own career to think about here. Sometimes love and respect was a complicated thing. For him thinking of others first, trusting others had not always been easy in the past. It was not easy now.

He knew Aunt Sophia must be downstairs as he slung his jacket over the coat rack. No little creature started to bark at him and there was no squawking from the family room. He kind of missed it. The menagerie was with her. The house was so quiet he wondered if Dana had gone out, and then he stepped into the living room and saw her sound asleep on the sofa with the two babies. He knew they weren't supposed to be on their stomach, and started to get annoyed, but then thought to himself that Dana must be truly exhausted, and it melted away. Her face took on a relaxed peaceful look when she slept, all the cares and worries melting away. She looked so young.

He thought about their lovemaking the night before. It really hadn't been planned, but somehow there had suddenly been so much love between them, her forgiveness for his teasing instantaneous and complete. "Dana," he whispered softly. "I love you so much..." Brenda stirred a little. She looked so much like her mother. He reached out with his index finger and gently touched her tiny head. Her hair was not nearly as thick as Patrick's, but it was already red and it would be curly, for it was full of swirls, and then straight up the middle there was a narrow mohawk about 3/4" wide that Dana always combed straight up. "Hostages to fortune.." Cancerman had called them.

Suddenly he remembered something. He had heard that expression, read it actually in a series of books by Dell Shannon. The Chief Detective Luis Mendoza had been married to a redheaded woman and they had had a set of twins, a boy and a girl. With a pang, he remembered that the twins had been inadvertently abducted in one story but had escaped. He pushed that thought away quickly. It wouldn't happen to his children. He would keep them safe, and then he recalled something Gran had said when looking at one of her grand-babies. "Wolf, lad, when you look at your babies you always wonder where their little legs will carry them one day." It hoped would be someplace safe... someplace wonderful and filled with love. He couldn't let himself think any other way or he would slip into blackness.

"I love you, Brenda," he whispered. "And you too, Wally Wolf..." he continued touching his son. Patrick opened his eyes and tried to lift his head. Mulder smiled. He was already more physical and wiry than his sister. He was going to be a little handful when he became mobile. As it was, he was an eating machine, and Dana had promised herself that she was going to buy him a box of baby cereal the next time she went to the store as Margaret had suggested.

Dana opened her eyes sensing activity around her.

"Hello, Mommy," he whispered kissing her gently. "I'll put them in the bassinet." One at a time, he took his children and moved them to various containers, carefully placing them on their sides, then ever so gently he covered his wife with the afghan.

"I love you, Fox.." she murmured.

"You go back to sleep, sweetheart. I'll get them when they cry."

"I love you," she muttered again and fell back to sleep. Briefly he turned his attention to the old fashioned mantel and what it contained... their wedding portrait from Ireland hanging next to an enlargement of the photo of Gran and Wolfe hanging above it... the line of framed photos set on top, his mother and Ed, his twin sisters, their faces lit in mischievous smiles, going to have to watch them, he thought, Mom and Walter at their wedding, Aunt Sophia, Eileen in her new step dancing costume... nieces and nephews, and his babies... his very own children, and lastly Samantha... the one who was missing... He closed his eyes.... "Oh, Sam, when I find you Sam, you'll have the most wonderful family to come home to... You'll be lucky too..." Fox went upstairs to change before one of his hostages to fortune woke up.

Sunday Evening

Several Days Later

The door bell rang and Fox got up to answer it. "Hey, mom, come on in." He looked behind her and was disappointed when he didn't see Walter. "Let me take your coat. I thought Walt was coming with you?"

"So did I, Fox. But at the last minute he said he had to take care of something at work."

Damn. He thought to himself. Mulder had been counting on tonight to try to get Walter to open up and tell him what was wrong. He noticed that Margaret looked very tired and a bit put out, Fox wondered if things were going alright at home. Margaret wasn't the type to allow herself to be picked on for very long. Perhaps there had been a lack of domestic bliss of late. He had a feeling that Walter could be difficult to live with at times, he was sure difficult to work for on occasion, and although Fox knew he loved his wife and son very much, he had seemed under a great deal of stress lately. "Go put Little Squirt in the play pen. He and Wally Wolf can entertain each other by making faces. Dana's out in the kitchen making the salad, why don't you join her, I'll watch the kids." He gave her waist a brief hug and she smiled.

Fox sat down to think. It had been a long week. Both had called every day sometimes twice a day for Mulder's advice. Fox had carefully written up every conversation and turned in the reports to Angela, Skinner's assistant. She assured him that Skinner was getting the reports and reading them but whenever he'd tried to see him he was always busy. He tried not to feel rejected, like he had done something wrong, but it was hard. And Angela for once had been unable to tell him what was going on. The AD was under a lot of stress but as to why or who was behind it she had no idea.

Cancerman. It had to be Cancerman but how and why? I haven't been up to anything recently, nothing I'm working on now is remotely interesting. So why are they giving Dad a hard time. He got up and began to pace. Then began to think some more. Walter was avoiding him but why? And what can I do to help? Making a decision he called into the kitchen, "Mom, Dana I'm going to be gone for a couple of hours. Go ahead and eat without me." With that he put on his jacket and headed out the door. If Skinner wouldn't come to him, he'd go to Skinner.

Sighing as he signed off on the last report, Walter thought that he'd never been so caught up on his paper work. Hell he'd even finished the damn personnel evaluations and they weren't due for over a month yet. He hated doing them with an absolute passion and they were one bit of paper work that he put off till the last minute but this year he was so desperate for something to do that he'd tackled them early... way early.

For a week and a half now he'd been avoiding Fox and even home. It made him feel guilty, feeling like he had to make a choice between his family and his job. Meg knew something was bothering him and only wanted to help and what did he do but snap at her. He'd been a real bastard this last week and in defense had withdrawn in to work so as not to hurt her more. Course being gone all the time wasn't that much better, it put all of the burden of Little Fox's care and moving in onto her. Plus he missed his wife and son more than he ever would have thought possible. Just last night he'd pointed out to Meg that their son could lift his head a little. She'd smiled and told him that JF had been doing that for several days. God that had made him feel terrible, he was missing important parts of his son's life and he hated it. If only... Rubbing the back of his neck again he hoped and prayed that this case would be over soon. He wanted to tell Fox and Meg what had been going on but couldn't until the case was over. He'd given his word, and that meant something to him, he thought. He'd never let them make him promise to keep secrets from his family... not again.

Thank god for Fox. Mulder had been the surprise. He'd followed orders to the letter, filing detailed reports of his discussions with Agent Bothrington. The reports had helped to keep Skinner sane. Mulder let his dry wit out in full force. Each new day brought another detail of the strange behavior or the investigation. The AD figured that his agent could always make a living as a humorist if the FBI kicked him out. He presented the material to the most effect. Saving up the punch line to the very end sometimes to the point that Walter would laugh out loud. There had only been one more instance of one of the researchers losing control.

They'd learned to spot the signs so that when someone complained of being hot they were restrained and taken to the hospital. Agent Smithson was requesting that he and Bothrington be relieved since they had made no headway. Actually they had made some headway, thanks to Mulder, but Skinner knew that the insight Fox possessed didn't work as well long distance and the investigation had been at a stand still the last few days. No new cases, no new leads. If nothing changed by the middle of next week Walter would allow them to move on to a new case.

The head and neck ache were constant companions now. Walter Skinner simply wanted to go home and be with his family. To play with his son, make love to his wife, trade barbs with his son-in-law, and eat his step daughter's dinner. He looked at his watch, they would be sitting down together for dinner now. Backing out at the last minute had been tough but dinner would be harder. Knowing that Mulder was counting on pressing him for answers he had told Meg at the last minute that he had something to do at the office. Meg would have probably started in as well and Dana would join... He just hadn't been able to face the idea of a third degree. Especially since he so wanted to tell them what was going on. Well, it was the truth he did have something to do at the office... of course if this case continued for another week it wouldn't be true. There was only so far ahead that you could work, and he had heard the hurt in her voice as she had told him that it was okay... that she understood. It was the same hurt that he had heard in Annie's voice years before when he had been building his career. Back then he'd thought that it was just the price you had to pay. Now he knew that the cost was too high.

At the knock at his door he called come in, suspecting who it might be but not knowing how to avoid the coming confrontation. Fox Mulder opened the door but didn't come in, instead he leaned in the door frame. The penetrating look he cast at Walter made him want to squirm but he controlled himself. Fox cut right to the point. "Is there anything I can do to help?"

He didn't bother to pretend that nothing was wrong or that he didn't know what Mulder was talking about, "Just keep doing what you've been doing."

Mulder nodded thoughtfully. He hated to see Walt under so much stress. "Okay, for now but this can't go on indefinitely." Walter nodded his agreement. The agent before him had been remarkably restrained during the last week. Fox continued, "If I promise to talk about nothing but babies, dogs and parrots will you come to dinner and take a break."

The look of sheer exhaustion which crossed his father in law's face was painful for Mulder to see. It was followed by a look of desperate hope. He smiled, "Come on, Walter, little Fox misses his daddy."

Walter got up and nodded. "I'll meet you at your place."

"Good." Was his son's only comment as they walked out to their cars together. Mulder fought down the desire to hug his father-in-law, to remind him that he was there for him, as Walter had so often reminded him, but the Bureau was never totally empty and such an action, if word got out, would bring down a lot more talk than the teacher's pet gossip already taking place. He settled for briefly squeezing his shoulder as he headed off for his own car.

Meg and Dana had stalled dinner wondering where Fox had gone and hoping for his return. Her mom had told Dana how worried she was about Walter. Something was bothering him but he wouldn't or couldn't talk about it. He slept fitfully and spent most of his time at work. She decided not to mention the problems that she was having. She was the mother after all.

Dana had told her mom what Fox had said about Walter acting strangely at work as well. She mentioned in passing the case that the AD had turned down without a word of explanation. Her husband was still consulting on it in an unofficial capacity but he didn't know what was bothering his boss either. Dana avoided telling her mother that Fox was really concerned about Walter. Her mother didn't need the added worry. She looked tired and burdened.

They were just sitting down to dinner when they heard Mulder's mustang roar up. Dana laughed to herself. Her hubby loved driving that car 'hot'; the neighbors weren't so thrilled with it. They'd reached a compromise. Before nine at night Fox could drive hot. After nine he had to behave. It seemed to be working. She checked her watch and smiled, just under the wire, Mulder.

Meg and Dana were very surprised to hear two voices as Fox opened the back door. He shouted out, "I've brought company for dinner. Hope there's plenty, he's hungry."

The look of joyful welcome on Meg and Dana's face when they saw who was with Fox made Walter feel guilty. It also warmed his soul, he smiled at them in return. He decided he didn't give a damn what happened on this case but by the end of next week he was going to have it out with those interfering bastards and stop this test. As far as he was concerned if Fox made it three weeks that was more than long enough to prove he would follow orders. Only one more week to go, he sighed quietly.

He went over and gave his wife a hug and a long kiss. It had been a while. Too many nights at the office this week and too damn tired and stressed out at home. When he was done he looked up to see Dana and Fox smiling at him. Actually smiling wasn't the right word. Dana was grinning and Fox was smirking. Walter knew what Fox was thinking. Walt felt himself blush and watched Mulder's smirk get bigger. He knows me too damned well.

His son-in-law was true to his word. When Dana and Meg tried to press for some answers Fox had intervened. "No talking shop guys. For tonight it's babies and dogs. And speaking of which how is house breaking coming."

Meg allowed Fox to change the subject. She proceeded to tell how the new little ones were fairly well paper trained. There was only one problem... they weren't too discriminating on what paper they used. Walter had found that out last Sunday when he'd laid his New York Times on the floor while he was reading it. They had all laughed, even the AD.

Then Meg told Dana that she had gotten a letter from Aunt Mary. Dana's second cousin Aislinn had just graduated from a school for "nannies" in Dublin and was hoping to find a berth in the United States, hopefully a nice warm place. Dana laughed and said it was either feast for famine. If they didn't have Aunt Sophia, there wouldn't have been a nanny available in the entire world, and said she was sorry they didn't have a place for Aislinn.

Walter spoke up here. "Why don't you tell her to come on over for a visit. We've got that spare apartment and I'll pull a few strings to get her a green card. With all the new babies in the family I imagine that we could keep her busy. You could sure use some help with little Fox."

"I'm not so sure, Walter, think of the expense."

"Don't worry about the expense, Mom, I'll cover the bill." Fox broke in.

Macho pride reared it's head and Walter answered, "There's no need to do that, Mulder, we've got quite enough..."

Fox smiled at him, a soft wistful smile. "I know you do, Walt, but paying a full time nanny plus benefits... and I think she should look at taking some college classes... don't you? All that adds up. Mom can arrange for her to come, you all can put her up in your rental unit and Dana and I'll pay her salary, social security, and insurance benefits. I'm sure that with the twins we'll need her help too. Aunt Sophia can't handle it all. Especially when they get mobile."

Skinner's jaw hardened. He was quite capable of paying his own way but before he could speak Fox reached over and squeezed his hand and said. "Walt, you told me to take the money and do some good with it. So let me do this, okay?"

Sighing he nodded his acquiescence. He found it hard to remember that his son-in-law had become a multimillionaire a few weeks ago. You'd never know it from the way he acted. Walter had slowly come to the conclusion that money just didn't matter to Fox, it was only a means to an end. In any case, it was just as well if Fox handled the paper work. If there were any complications, the press would make political hay about the FBI's Assistant Director trying to get a green card for a relative to come and act as a nanny. Politically, they couldn't do much to Mulder at this point.

As Meg and Walter were getting ready to leave Fox made a suggestion. "Little Squirt is down for the count. He's just been fed and we have some spare bottles. Why don't you leave him here for the night and you can pick him up in the morning, Mom."

As much as she loved her son and daughter Meg wasn't sure that she could bear to part with Little Fox for the whole night but her husband's squeeze of her waist and the look he gave her changed her mind. It would be nice to have an uninterrupted night's sleep, well an uninterrupted night anyway. So she had agreed.

As Meg fussed to her daughter about Little Fox's requirements Walter gave Fox a hug and said, "Thanks. Hang in there, son. It shouldn't be much longer."

Shooting the older man an intense look Fox had replied. "You can't live under this kind of pressure indefinitely. I won't stand idle forever."

Walter had nodded and left with Meg.

"Well, at last we're alone," smiled Meg when they got home to their new house. Slowly but surely she was managing to get the place put together and it no longer looked like a cyclone hit it... exactly...

"Right..." grinned her husband moving toward her to give her a hug... "Goddamn it," he declared suddenly stopping in his tracks and looking down. He had stepped in something soft and mushy all over the new carpet, in his expensive work shoes. The aroma that assailed his nostrils was far from pleasant.

Meg looked down and started to laugh but then stopped quickly.

"What the hell did we need those f**king dogs for anyway?" he bellowed. "I don't need this, Margaret. This carpet cost a fortune... jeez... I finally get a night alone with my wife, and the first thing that happens is I step in dog s**t..." He slipped out of his shoe and slunk away.

Margaret sighed and cleaned up the mess. Walter was meticulous. Bill had been too. It was the military background. She told herself she didn't mind. It had been her who had wanted the puppies after all, but they were for his son, and when you had kids and dogs, there were constant messes. She felt abandoned and a little resentful. Here she was again, always alone with a baby to take care of and a house to keep. She looked for the spot where they had managed to break jail and fixed it so that they couldn't get out of the kitchen again, then went to get ready for bed.

"Sorry I yelled at you, Meg...." he grunted as she laid down next to him.

"Do you want to get rid of the dogs, Walter? If you do, tell me now while they are still little and cute enough to find good homes...."

"No, it's okay. I overreacted. What I want is to make love to my wife..." He reached over and kissed her. They held each other and touched but neither seemed to be much in the mood. Both were too stressed out and tired. For Meg this wouldn't have been too much of a problem. She didn't have to rise to the occasion but for Walter it was too much. For the first time in a long time he found himself too tired and stressed to do anything. They finally fell quietly asleep in each others arms.

They both overslept the next morning and by the time they were awake, it was time for Meg to go to her charity breakfast and pick up the baby. He started to try to talk her into not going, but she merely glared at him, even after a full nights sleep she was still feeling bad, and told him she had belonged to the Ladies of Charity for eons, and that she had absolutely promised the women that she would attend the breakfast and bring the baby for them to see. She knew that some of them had purchased gifts, and she couldn't not show up. He was irritated. Finally they had some time to themselves and she insisted on going off to attend a fund raiser breakfast. She sure needed to get her priorities straight! He sighed, he knew he wasn't being fair but damn it he wanted to make love to his wife. The day was not starting out well at all. But after last night he knew that Fox seemed to be accepting the situation at work, at least for the time being. In the end, he gave her a kiss and told her to have a good time. It really wasn't fair to take his problems out on her. Besides, he knew she missed the baby. He did too.

Chapter Text

At four am Tuesday morning Fox Mulder received a wake up call.

Three and a half hours later he was sitting in the AD's outer office waiting for Skinner to arrive. Angela came in at seven thirty followed by Walter Skinner ten minutes later. He started to smile in welcome at his son-in-law but at the look on Mulder's face he stopped. Mulder was cold and angry. "May I have a word with you, Sir."

"Of course, Agent Mulder." He turned to Angela, "Please hold my calls."

He opened the door to his office and motioned for Mulder to proceed him in. Taking off his overcoat and putting down his briefcase he took time to examine his agent. Mulder was obviously furious and trying hard to control. He had circles under his eyes and a tautness to his body. After hanging up his coat the AD came to lean against the front edge of his desk. Tense and waiting, wondering if he was about to be bawled out. Theoretically of course a mere agent couldn't bawl out the AD but that had never stopped Fox before and he doubted that it would stop him now. He waited for the man before him to speak.

"I don't know what the hell kind of game has been going on over the last couple of weeks but the stakes just went up last night. The Binford Research facility now has one researcher dead and Agent Smithson is in the hospital in critical condition. Agent Bothrington called me at four this morning to inform me. It seems that Smithson and a researcher named Reading were tieing up some loose ends last night, there hadn't been anymore incidences in over a week and a half and they thought that whatever the problem was had passed. Both and Smithson were hoping to move on to another case today or tomorrow.

Both got worried when he hadn't heard from his partner by eight last night. He started looking for him and when he couldn't find him he set off the alarm. They started searching the facility and the area around it. Reading had played Russian roulette with Smithson's gun in his office. Course he apparently had it backwards, instead of one bullet and six empty chambers he had one empty chamber and five bullets. There was no sign of Agent Smithson in the building but his Bureau car was in the parking lot so they started combing the surrounding area. They found him near frozen to death in a snow bank an hour later. This freak early Spring snow storm nearly killed him. He's in critical now but they think he'll survive, they doubt that all of his toes will."

Fox Mulder's voice had remained cold and unemotional throughout the rendition of the facts. He'd paced back and forth in front of his boss not looking at him. Now he turned on him. "I don't know what kind of game you've been playing, Skinner, but this is it. It has to stop. I might have been able to do something to stop this, we'll never know now, but I want this case. It's an X-file and despite the fact that I'm on temporary reassignment I am the head of the X-file division. Do you want any more lives on your conscience?" He stopped directly in front of his boss and stood there facing him, glaring.

Skinner stood before Mulder trying to assimilate all that he'd been told. Finally meeting Mulder's eyes he nodded making a decision. "I have to meet with some individuals about this situation. Please make arrangements for two seats on an early afternoon flight to Logan."

"I don't want a GD partner." Mulder's voice was loud and tense.

"You're not going without backup, Mulder."

"And who do you propose to send that I can trust?"

"I'm going. I suppose you do think you can trust me?"

Mulder stopped dead in his tracks a smile briefly crossing his face for the first time that day. "I'd love to see their faces when you tell them that."

"Comedy ain't pretty," was Skinner's only comment.

Fox Mulder nodded and left. Thinking, That this case should prove interesting. Oh lord Scully's bad enough to run my wild theories by I can't wait to see Skinner's face.

Skinner watched him go thinking that his leaving town was not going to please his wife.

He was going to have to do something about the X-files, something to get more backup that could be trusted and that Mulder could live with for the future, because his own domestic experience was showing him that it wasn't going to be so easy for Scully to pick up and follow her partner to kingdom come at will and at Mulder's whim.

Walter Skinner barely made the plane. He'd had to run at the airport and they were just shutting the door when he arrived. The stewardess gave him a nasty look as she tried to find room for his carryon and hanging bag. Meg had been a life saver packing for him and bringing his bag to the office. He was sad that he hadn't gotten to see her but he'd been fighting in meetings most of the morning. He promised himself he would call her later and tell her how much he loved her. Sometimes, he now remembered, he had forgotten with Annie. Maybe send her some flowers. She hadn't been happy when he told her about the out of town trip but seemed to understand and share his fear for Fox's safety, so she didn't protest his decision. He knew she loved Fox as much as one of her own children.

The meeting that morning had gotten nasty, down right dirty and he'd almost punched Mr. Slime in the face but in the end he'd won. He owed Fox Mulder for that victory. If his behavior had been anything less than exemplary over the last two weeks they would have either insisted on another test or taken the X- files. But Mulder had followed the rules to the letter. Cancerman, he knew, had had Mulder watched closely and probably had had both their offices bugged but that was fine by him because that way they had proof that he had not in any way tipped the agent off. When Slime had insinuated that Skinner had, Walter had stood up ready to belt him. They stood nose to nose and Jones of all people had intervened pushing Slime down into his chair and telling him to be quiet.

The look Cancerman had then given him had been hard to read. His words were a surprise. "If Assistant Director Skinner says he didn't inform Agent Mulder of this test then he didn't." He nodded at Skinner. "It seems we have underestimated your ability to control Mulder."

Had he been able to read Cancerman's mind he would have been even more surprised. The smoking man was worried about the new and improved Fox Mulder. Loose canons have a certain reputation and can be counted on to act in a particular manor. Mulder had found a new respect for authority-- at least Walter Skinner's authority and that meant that he wouldn't be as easy to send off on wild goose chases anymore, and his reputation wouldn't be damaged by erratic behavior. This turn of events did not bode well at all.

Bill's son, on his own, had been bad enough but with Skinner guiding, backing and protecting him he had become a formidable opponent. The boy had gotten the old bastards smarts but not his meanness, that was a dangerous combination. The old SOB had used money and brains to inspire loyalty... those type of individuals always had a price. The type of loyalty inspired by Skinner and now Mulder couldn't be bought off. Much harder to deal with. And this damn bond between them appeared to be unassailable. Shit.

Walter had replied, "Good. The test is now over, I maintain direct supervision of the X- files and I'm assigning Mulder the case."

Slime hadn't given up yet. "Why end the test now? If you want to prove that Mulder will follow your orders then keep him here and send someone else. He's not so special that someone else couldn't do just as well."

For the second time that day Skinner wanted to hit the man. He tightened his fist up in a ball, moving right up into the man's face and replied, "That's bullshit and just shows your ignorance. I suggest the next time before you make such a patently uninformed statement that you research the history of the X-file cases. For your information Mulder is special. Before he assumed responsibility for the X-files these cases had a ten to fifteen percent solve rate. After he took them over the rate was well over fifty percent, and the addition of Agent Scully raised that rate to nearly seventy percent. All of that in itself is remarkable but merely by investigating a case even if they don't solve it the deaths involved stop over ninety percent of the time.

"Well this isn't a game. One man is dead and an agent is in critical condition, I do not want anymore deaths on my conscience." He turned to look at each of the men around the table, "Do you? Agent Mulder is the best agent for the job. And I'm giving him the case."

"Very well, Walter." His boss had conceded. "You've made your point. Unless the situation changes significantly you maintain the X-files under your direct supervision. Do you propose to send someone with Mulder?"

Skinner wasn't happy with the 'situation changes' caveat but he'd have to live with it knowing that it was the best he could do. This next part was going to be tricky. "I'm accompanying Agent Mulder to Boston."

"Is that really necessary? This case hardly merits the AD's attention."

"This stupid test has resulted in one man's death and another's probable permanent disability. Agent Smithson will most likely not be able to return to work as a field agent. My failure to allow Agent Mulder to investigate this case may be in part responsible. I intend to give it my personal attention."

They had argued with him over this for over half an hour but in the end he'd pointed out that he was well ahead on his paperwork and that it was his decision so they could just f**k themselves. He'd been a little more polite than that in the phrasing but not much.

He was not in a good mood when he'd gotten out of the meeting and it had gotten even worse when he found that Meg and little Fox had already come and gone. She hadn't been able to wait because of a lunch date with Melissa. Things in that camp apparently weren't in the best of shape but Meg hadn't told him what was wrong with her older daughter. That was something that could definitely wait till later. He and Melissa were functioning in a truce state but any interference on his part into her private life would definitely open up the war again. She was Meg's daughter and he really wanted to like her but she was just so self centered and self absorbed that he could barely stand her. It amazed him how Dana could be so warm, open and caring in her own way, and Melissa be the opposite. Funny on first meeting them one would get the exact opposite impression. Dana came across as cold, rational and unfeeling, 'ice queen'; while Melissa appeared to be warm, open and caring. It was only upon closer acquaintance that the truth would be revealed. He knew from observation and some comments that Melissa had at one time been very interested in Fox Mulder. He also believed that the fact that Mulder wouldn't give her the time of day still rankled her ego. Fox had made a wise choice in the woman he had married, Dana loved and accepted him for who he was, Melissa would have tried to make him into what she wanted. He sighed... it really wasn't fair getting irritated at Melissa because he hadn't gotten to see Meg.

Slipping into the aisle seat beside Fox Mulder he fastened his seat belt and sat back wishing that the government could spring for first class seats every now and then. Fortunately the shuttle up to Boston wasn't too long a flight. Staring straight ahead he said to Mulder, "Going to leave without me?"

"You had my cellular number if you wanted me to wait you could have called. I kept it on until I boarded the plane ten minutes ago." From Mulder's tone of voice and attitude Walter could tell that he was still angry, most likely at him. Trouble was he really couldn't blame him.

"So any ideas?" Walter asked trying to make peace. "A few." Mulder went back to reading the sheets of paper in front of him.

Walter sighed stretching out his long legs into the aisle. Fox would come round in his own time. He must not be too mad, he let me have the aisle seat. Once the plane was airborne he leaned his seat back and tried to relax. Maybe even catch up on some of his lost sleep. He thought about telling Mulder what was going on but decided to wait until this case was over. His son-in-law was bound to blow a gasket about the test and he didn't want his anger distracting him from solving this case. They didn't need anymore deaths on their hands. Surprisingly, Walter Skinner drifted off into sleep.

A few minutes later as the stewardesses made their rounds Fox turned and realized that Walter was asleep. He relaxed a little and smiled at his boss. The poor guy was dead on his feet. Fox didn't know what had been going on but sensed that the worst must be over. Walter was able to sleep, he was accompanying him on a case, and if gossip was to be believed he had been shouting in the conference room this morning. Skinner might be tired but his whole attitude indicated that he'd won whatever battle he'd faced. Fox ordered an iced tea and went back to making notes.

This case had him puzzled. Other than all the victims having been in the same building at the time of their temporary 'insanity' they had nothing in common. If someone was drugging them the pattern seemed to be random, if it was something in the air, why hadn't it effected more people, same was true for the food and water at the sight. Also the entire building had been checked out now twice for any sign of environmental toxins. Maybe there's more to the experiment they're conducting than they are letting on, or perhaps some kind of psychic 'pusher' that was able to make people go crazy for a while. Fox took a deep breath and wrote down every wacky theory he could think of. Maybe one would lead him on the right track.

As the plane was coming in for a landing Fox leaned over and shook his boss. "Come on, Dad, time to put your seat up."

Walter came slowly awake, for once wishing that the flight was longer, he could have used the extra sleep. Still he felt better than he had for quite awhile, especially since Fox had apparently gotten over his anger. He sat up and turned smiling towards Mulder. "Sorry. Didn't mean to be such boring company. We should have been going over the case, I haven't had time to review it."

"That's alright, you needed the rest. At this time of day the drive out to the Institute will probably take an hour and a half to two hours. I'll drive and you can either catch some more sleep or review the case. Agent Bothrington was supposed to have arranged for someone to meet us at the gate and give us a Bureau car. We're to head straight out to the Institute, by the time we get there he should be done with the initial interviews. As you can imagine the death last night has really shaken them up so he didn't expect to make much head way this morning. Also since I called and told him that I and my temporary partner would be coming the field office decided not to assign him any help." At Skinner's raised eyebrow, this was not normal procedure, Mulder shrugged and continued. "Hey that's just what he told me, it wasn't my idea."

No one met them at the gate and no messages had been left. Mulder called Bothrington who said that he'd requested the car and someone to drop it off from the local office. The arrival times he had were right so that wasn't the problem. Both gave him the number and name of who to contact in the local office.

Mulder had called the local office and sat on hold as he watched the Assistant Director getting angrier by the minute. Fox smiled to himself thinking that Walter had been out of the field too long. When he finally got a live person he held the phone so that Walter could hear the conversation as well. What he heard didn't make him too happy.

"Mulder, yeah. Sorry 'bout that but no one was available to bring a car out. Guess you'll just have to come by the office and pick one up."

"Someone might have called to inform us of that fact."

"Yeah, sorry. I'm sure someone meant to but you know how it is..."

"The trip down into town will add over an hour on to the commute, we'll just rent a car here."

"No way will the ASAC authorize that. Those pencil dicks in DC are always screaming cost overruns at us. You'll just have to add the hour."

Mulder was about to tell the jerk on the other end of the phone what he could do with budget overruns when Walter grasped his wrist and shook his head no. Quietly he said, "We'll take a cab to the office."

Fox looked at him puzzled but decided not to argue. He told the guy that they would be there in forty five minutes and that they better have the car ready. After he hung up he turned to Skinner to ask why but before he could form the question Walter replied.

"I'd like to get a look at this office. I'm not too sure I like how they operate."

Mulder nodded and said nothing. The AD was used to royal treatment when he went anywhere if the standard of performance maintained this level there were some butts that were going to be kicked soon. He grinned at the thought, as long as the action wasn't directed at him Skinner was fun to watch.

They arrived at Government Center about fifty minutes later, flashing their badges in order to enter the building with their guns. Fox noticed that the AD kept his hand over his name and title and wondered what he was up to. He soon found out. The ASAC was out of town so they went to introduce themselves to his assistant. Walter motioned for him to take the lead.

"Agent Cross, I'm Fox Mulder and this is..."

Skinner interrupted before Fox could continue. "I'm Agent Walter."

Mulder's head turned swiftly towards his boss, a question in his eyes, his mouth falling open. Skinner's sharp look told him to hold his tongue and be careful. After the introduction was over Walter again let him take the lead.

Deciding to protest their treatment thus far Mulder started the conversation. "We expected to be met at the airport. This will delay our arrival at the institute till after working hours today."

"We didn't have anyone available to bring the car out and I like to at least meet any Special Agent who is going to work out of this office. You know develop an understanding. Staying within budget is very important here I wanted to reinforce that fact. A slight delay shouldn't hurt your investigation."

"The serious nature of this case..." Mulder was interrupted before he could continue.

"Hardly serious."

"There's one man dead and an agent in the hospital..."

"A suicide, while tragic, hardly constitutes a Federal case, and Smithson was a burnout who finally just broke."

Walter interrupted for the first time. "If Smithson was a burn out why wasn't he either reassigned to office duty or off on medical leave?"

Cross shrugged, "You know how it is. If you want to come in at budget you've got to have everybody working. He'd only got another six months to get his thirty in and we wanted to use him till then. Heck, the guy didn't want to retire. Refused last year's buyout offer. We figured he'd make it, guess we figured wrong." Skinner looked grim but said no more.

Phil Cross didn't care what the two men in front of him thought. One was Spooky Mulder and the other older man must be biding time till his retirement to be assigned to help Mulder on this made up case. Well, he'd had 'em in, laid down the law and shown them who was boss, time to get rid of them. "I'm sure your car will be ready now." He stood up his message clear.

Before Mulder could ask the AD what he was up to Skinner shook his head no to indicate for him to wait til they were alone.

The sight that met them at the car pool was not a pretty one. At least ten years old, the car they were shown ran rough, it stalled every couple of minutes. Mulder wasn't happy and was about to protest when Skinner, who had reached his limit, interrupted.

"That's it, Mulder. We're going to go rent a car."

The man in charge of the auto pool spoke, "The ASAC won't approve that expense."

Walter's comment was pithy and to the point, "Screw the ASAC. Come on, Mulder."

When they were out of earshot Fox asked, "When?"

"As soon as this case is over. Is this the kind of treatment you normally get?" Walter asked as he hailed a cab.

Mulder shrugged, "Sometimes. It's normally not quiet this bad though. And I've never been issued a car in that shape."

"I don't think they were singling us out. Did you get a look at the cars in that lot. None of them looked to be in any better shape."

A cab pulled up and they stuffed their luggage into the trunk. Getting in Fox asked the question that was bugging him. "What was up back there, Walter?"

Telling the cabby to take them to the nearest rental car lot Skinner leaned back and explained. "I really didn't want to bring attention to the fact that the AD has gone out in the field to work on a case. Plus after the treatment we received at the airport I was interested to see how the local office was run. I doubt I'd get a true picture if they knew who I was. This office has come in under budget every year for the last three years and while most offices have had at least a ten percent increase in annual expenditures this one has remained constant but since that time agent turnover has gone up by fifty percent and agent complaints have almost doubled. Their solve rate has also dropped slightly. The ASAC is pushing for a promotion to DC and I have the final decision. Needless to say I'm curious as to how the office is run."

Mulder looked at Skinner and raised his eyebrow. Judging by the AD's expression that promotion was dead in the water and if things continued in the direction they were going he might not have his job when he got back. Mulder was glad that it wasn't him in hot water this time. Skinner looked like he could chew the guy's ass out until his belly button caved in from lack of support. Thinking about it Skinner hadn't even been this mad at him when he ran off to Puerto Rico. When the natural fertilizer hit the fan at the end of this case it was sure going to fly. Heaven help the ASAC if anything else goes wrong.

"Sorry we're late. The acting ASAC wanted to warn us to keep expenditures down." Mulder shook Dwayne Bothrington's hand. "This is my partner for this case Agent Walter."

"Pleasure to meet you, Agent Bothrington." Walter Skinner said. Thinking that if Fox didn't quit making those faces every time he introduced him he was going to give the game away.

"Just call me Both. Nice to meet you Agent Walter. I guess I should have warned you about Cost Cutting Thomas and his sidekick Cheap Cross."

"How long has this been going on?" Skinner asked.

"Since Thomas took over as ASAC over three years ago. He's on the fast track to Washington and since he can't make it on case solving ability or agent supervision he's determined to make it by budget cutting the office back to the fifties."

"He mentioned that Agent Smithson was a burn out case but they still kept him working because they didn't want to lose his productivity."

"Well I wouldn't go so far as to call Smithson a burnout. More like he can't really adapt well to all the changes in the Bureau. He's a good ole boy, pure and simple and Blacks and women make him uncomfortable. Actually I feel kinda sorry for him the whole worlds changed and left him behind. He doesn't fit anymore and that's a hell of a place to be. He is however a damned good investigator and what happened here has nothing to do with his stress... there is some weird stuff going down out here Mulder and I'm sure as hell glad that your hard assed boss finally assigned you this case."

Mulder grinned and shot Walter a smirk. "Yeah he eventually came round... just took awhile to get through that hard head of his."

The AD shot Mulder one of his watch it glances but it had little effect. He realized that Mulder was determined to make the most of the situation.

"Have you eaten?" Both asked.

"No, we came straight here after renting a car."

"Shit, man, you didn't?"

"We wanted to get here ASAP..."

"No, Mulder, not that... I mean rent a car. The ASAC is going to blow a gasket over that."

"Well he can take it up with my boss 'cause the piece of junk that they tried to assign us didn't look like it would make it here."

"You sure do know how to win friends and influence people, Mulder. Well I hope your boss will absorb the cost because Thomas sure isn't about to."

"Don't worry, Agent Bothrington, I'm sure the cost of a rental car will be paid by the appropriate division." Walter commented.

Mulder thought to himself that he was sure it would too or it would come out of the ASAC's salary knowing Skinner.

"Well let's get some dinner and I'll brief you on the case and what I found out since I talked to you this morning. We can go over all the interviews and then start at the institute tomorrow. Dr. Wilson, the director of the Institute, wants to talk to you first thing tomorrow. We're scheduled o talk with him at ten thirty in the morning."

"Sounds good to me. After that I'd like to interview all the people who have been affected first and then work out from there."

"I've got most of their numbers. I'll call and set up interview times for tomorrow. How much time should I give for each interview?"

"At least an hour."

"That'll take the whole day to do then. Smithson is still suffering from the effects. I'll let you two interview him tonight or in the morning, alone. Then you can see what he's like tomorrow night, he should have returned to normal by then and you can ask him for details about what happened."

"You're not coming?" Walter was curious.

"I'm tired of being called nigger. He's pissed off all the African American Nurses and one woman doctor. He's very descriptive of a woman's place and what she should do for him."

Mulder was curious. "So do you think this has changed his personality?"

"No I think it's just removed the restraints that he normally had on his tongue and now he says what he thinks. He's a good investigator and I've learned alot from him but he is one nasty male chauvinist bigot."

Mulder saw the look on Both face. "What?"

"I shouldn't admit this, Mulder, but god he's funny. He tells some of the best racial jokes I've ever heard. None of the stupid stuff like how many does it take to put in a light bulb but really funny stuff that you don't want to admit that you laughed at. You'll see in the morning. I think the guy's a closet standup comedian. Being black I've had to listen to alot of crap but his stuff makes me laugh. He's got a sense of humor about himself too. Three or four of the best redneck jokes I've ever heard... I wrote them down so I could tell 'em to my family next get together and don't start him on New Yorkers or his family for that matter or you'll never get out without laughing. Course if he keeps on going the way he's been going I'm going to have to post guards to keep half the staff at the hospital from killing him. Actually make that all the staff 'cause he doesn't spare anyone. And he's got quite a repertoire on doctors and nurses. On the other hand, the guards might kill him too."

Both sighed shaking his head. "Let's go get some food. We'll take your car the heater's broken in my Bureau issue. Might as well enjoy having one that's not ready to break down."

They spent most of the evening going over the case with Bothrington, and planning their strategy for tomorrow. When they got to the hotel they found a message from the ASAC's assistant, Phil Cross, to call him at home when they got back.

"That'll be about the rental car. He'll make you turn it in and ride with me." Both explained.

"How 'bout it, Walter? You want to call him or should I?" At the smirk on Mulder's face Walter raised his eyebrow. "I can see that you want to call." Skinner had replied.

"I'm just not sure that I can trust you to be subservient enough. You tend to lose your cool in situations like this."

"Very funny, Mulder. Try not to piss him off too much."

"I'll be a model of politeness and decorum." He made the three fingered Boy Scout sign at his boss.

"And if I buy that, you've got bridge real cheap." Skinner replied.

Bothrington thought that it must be nice not to have to count pennies. He also wondered about Mulder's relationship with Walter. After having worked with Mulder, Both had done a little investigating. The sum of what he had found out was that the man was brilliant but with the exception of Dana Scully, nee Mulder, the phrase 'doesn't work and play well with others' fit him to a 't'. That's why the relationship he had with this new partner puzzled him, they seemed to be pretty close and on friendly terms. Ah well... maybe being married and having kids has mellowed him.

They entered Agent Walter's room and Mulder went straight to the phone. As he dialed the acting ASAC's number he asked Walter. "Do you want to listen in?"

Skinner pursed his lips for a minute in thought but then shook his head no.

"Cross's residence," a woman's voice answered.

"May I speak to Agent Cross please?"

"Hold on I'll get him. May I ask who's calling?"

"Agent Mulder returning his call."

Mulder waited a few minutes and heard Cross come to the phone. Fox thought he heard him make a nasty comment to the women, who Mulder assumed was his wife, to the effect that he had told her to take care of something. Apparently from the tone of his voice whatever she had done wasn't to his satisfaction. Makes me love him even more. Mulder thought sarcastically to himself.

Before he could say anything Cross laid into him. It was loud enough for both men in the room to hear both sides of the conversation.

"What the hell do you think your doing renting a car? I'm not about to approve such an extravagant expenditure."

"The car the agency provided stalled out every time it stopped... hell it would barely start. We needed a reliable vehicle for this investigation."

"Well you can just turn it in and use Bothrington's."

"There are three of us we will need more than one car. And his isn't in the best of running condition either."

"I told you that I won't approve the expenditure. I don't know where you Washington boys come off..."

Before he could continue Mulder interrupted. "Look we're keeping the car. If you don't like it you can take it up with AD Skinner."

"I called his office already to complain about your disregard for procedures. He's currently out of town on business, as I'm sure you well know, but don't you think you're going to get away with this. I talked to my ASAC and he's going to complain to your boss as soon as he returns about this. We don't have money to burn in this office. AD Skinner and Thomas are in accord about cost containment. Besides, Agent Mulder, your reputation precedes you, and in this district we aren't about to put up with any of your spooky crap."

At these latter statements Mulder looked up at Walter and grinned, raising his eyebrows. "Well then I'm sure you'll both be satisfied with the results of the conversation but until I hear from my boss directly Agent Walter and I are keeping the rental and the spookiness."

With that Mulder hung up before Cross could start another tirade.

Dwayne watched the interaction between the two agents in front of him. It was obvious they found the situation amusing. Hell, he was having all he could do to keep a straight face at Mulder's antics. Mulder was weird and spooky too, but there was something about him that was admirable... a longing for justice and truth and a total lack of concern about his ethnic origin. Also, there was something about this Agent Walter... an authority... He wondered..?

"Did you catch all that, Walter?" At his boss' nod of yes he continued. "Seems the Assistant Director is out of town on business." Mulder's grin just kept getting bigger. "Imagine that... and I thought AD Skinner was a desk jockey."

The look his boss shot him was pure Skinner at his most amusedly irritated and his voice as he replied was so dry as to be arid. "Contrary to popular belief most AD's work their way up through the ranks and do know how to function in the field."

"You think so? Don't think that all that time behind a desk makes them soft?" Fox teased. If there was one thing he knew about his boss it was that he was definitely not soft.

Skinner glanced at Bothrington before glaring at Mulder. Mulder is having the time of his life with this situation. "No I don't think sitting behind a desk makes an Agent soft. You've spent most of the last few months behind a desk and I don't see it affecting you. You've certainly lost none of your ability to piss ASAC's off."

"We'll see.... besides it wasn't me who told the guy in charge of the auto pool to screw the ASAC."

Now it was Skinner's turn to grin before replying. "True. Let's get back to the case, I'd like to get a full night's sleep for a change."

"Wish I'd be able to but I miss Dana way too much when I'm away to sleep well." The grin he shot Walter told his father-in-law that Mulder didn't believe for a moment that either of them would sleep well without their wives tonight. Skinner sighed as he rubbed the back of his neck. Fox was probably right. Damn it's been too long. He looked up to see Mulder laughing silently at him a look of understanding in his eyes. Walter shrugged and then they both started chuckling. Mulder realized he had been pretty darn lucky. His babies were on their way to sleeping through the night, and although they didn't make love as frequently, they hadn't been really adversely affected so far. He had a feeling based on a single night's experience with their baby brother that Walt hadn't been quite so lucky, and thought that it kind of served the AD right for naming the poor kid Fox.

Both watched wondering how long these two had been working together? The smoothness of their interactions and their apparent silent communication would indicate several years but he knew that up until a few months ago Dana Scully had been Mulder's only recent partner, and according to scuttlebutt the only one that the eccentric "Spooky" would tolerate. Not to mention that Walter was older than Mulder which should make him the senior partner but Mulder seemed to be the one leading the investigation. In Bothrington's experience older agents tended to resent the hot young up and comers, yet Agent Walter seemed to like Mulder and not resent him at all. He wished Smithson treated him with half the respect that Walter treated Mulder, although it had gotten better since the Martha's Vineyard case and at least he could feel confident that Smithson would watch his partner's back, no matter what, between ethnic jokes. Well he decided he wasn't going to knock it, it would be nice for a change to work with agents who liked and respected each other and treated him as a respected colleague as well. He sat down by the phone to set interview times for tomorrow with the individuals who had been affected.

Chapter Text

Wednesday Morning

Sophia looked in the mirror... and found herself looking just as she wanted to. She chuckled. This was, apparently, a rare thing for a woman. Yes, the bright pink shirt with the long orange skirt was a perfect "mismatch" and the large purple beads set it off well. It all clashed magnificently with her blue tinted recently cut and perked afro circa 1970 something... The fake eyelashes and the orange lipstick did wonders. She skipped her large rings. She never wore them when she was around her babies. The clothing and beads were loud enough so that everyone would think that she was who she wanted them to think she was.

"Thing, Mrs. T... you be good and don't kill each other... Pup Pup... in the kitchen with you." Dana and Fox had been appalled when she had wanted to keep the last puppy, but where you had two dogs you could have three, and she would just tape the paper up against the wall when he started lifting his leg. "Krycek, you watch that mouth while I'm gone."

"Open your legs, Scully... peed on my shoe... peed on my shoe... goddamed dog..."

"Now, what did I just tell you...." she laughed feeding him an orange slice. With that, she left the menagerie alone and went to collect her babies. It was a beautiful day. She was going to put them in their stroller and go and collect Margaret. The two of them could go for a walk to the park and gossip.

"Hi, Dana... I'm here to collect my angels...." she called out entering the Mulder household.

"Okay...." smiled Dana. As usual, Sophia was a sight. In the house, Dana knew, she usually wore soft jeans or khaki's and a nice conservative shirt... a different woman entirely as she sat in front of her whirring and clacking computers doing heavens knew what. They put Brenda and Patrick into the double stroller along with everything that a baby might require on a long outing on a pretty spring day. Patrick stared intently at his aunt. Brenda was a lot more conservative and preferred to check out the scenery. Sometimes it gave Dana a pang the way the babies loved their eccentric aunt so much, but she repressed it. They were lucky to have such a fine caregiver even if she was a bit "spooky" at times. Well, at least she knew where Fox had gotten it from.

Sophia cheerfully waved to the neighbors, some of whom came out to admire the babies, others of whom just glared at her. There were two schools of thought among the Mulder's neighbors, those that were delighted when the young couple with their growing family had moved in and those that hated the fast mustang, the dogs and the kids, not to mention the loud and eccentric aunt with the New York accent. Then, making a note that they would soon have to plant some annuals, Sophia headed up the street toward Margaret's house.

Of late, Sophia was happy with her life. Her decision to step into her nephew's life again had been a good one for many reasons although she had always kept track of him with a sense of pride. They needed someone to watch the twins, someone who could be trusted absolutely. She had grown tired of living alone, and it was nice to have the babies and the dogs and even that stupid bird which was, let's face it, a pain, although she adored it. She had known that Fox had always wanted a parrot. What had surprised her was that he had waited so long to get one. It was also nice to have other people to love besides Fox. She had never told him of course, but he was the only person in the world she had ever truly loved and trusted except for her mother, at least until now, until he had married Dana and had the babies and she had grown to love them too. There had been little Billy, but he had grown up like their dad, and the love had died. And then there was the other one. The cold, distant, sad, lonely one who had wanted nothing more than to please the old SOB. She shook her head in sadness. The old bastard had a lot to answer for. I certainly hope there's a heaven 'cause that will mean there is a hell as well.

Like Fox, she had devoted her life to finding out the truth behind her family and what they had done, but unlike him, she had not been fortunate enough to meet a partner who would join her in the quest. Now, she could still seek the truth and finally love and be loved as well. Another bonus was Dana's extended family. They accepted her and seemed to enjoy her company and eccentricities. Well, for today, the weather was beautiful and it would be nice to sit in the park. Margaret wouldn't want to stay out really late as Walter was sure to call, but they would have an enjoyable morning anyway. She knocked on the door of her friend's new house.

The moment she entered, Sophia knew that something was wrong. Margaret looked just awful. She knew there had been some stress in the marriage recently due to all the changes with the new baby and everything, but this had gone beyond that. The woman looked pale and exhausted with dark circles under her eyes, and Sophia knew from the way she was standing with her hand at the small of her back that she was in pain. The baby cried in the background."

"Margaret Mary Skinner," she announced, "Why didn't you call me and tell me you were sick?"

"I'm okay, Sophia...." said Margaret, "Just tired..."

"Like hell! You sit yourself down on that couch. I'll go get the baby."

Sophia went and got Little Fox and made a stop in the bathroom along with way rummaging until she found a thermometer. If this was rude, she never gave it a thought.

"Open wide..." she ordered Margaret returning to the living room.

"I'm fine, Sophia, honestly..."

"Right... now open your mouth..." She shoved the thermometer into Margaret's mouth and glared. "I know you don't like a fuss made over you, but when I lived in Africa a number of years ago, my limited medical training was what passed for a doctor in some of the villages. I know sick when I see sick." In fact, Sophia actually had a medical degree from days of yore, a fact she didn't care to advertise but which had frequently served her well. Not even Dana knew. The thermometer beeped. "There now... you are running a low grade fever... the kind that creeps up on you and leaves you exhausted. I am calling Amy right now..."

"It isn't necessary, Aunt Sophia... and I have to nurse the baby..."

"Does he cry like this all the time?"

"A lot..." she conceded.

"Well, heavens woman, at your age and all you've been through, especially with this new illness, you probably aren't producing enough milk for him. I'll go warm him a bottle while I'm calling Amy. This isn't the third world, Margaret. Switch him to formula and be done with it. You'll sleep better."


"I'm not going to stand by and watch my best friend... the only woman friend I've ever really had... get sicker and sicker... now hush and do what you are told."

Meg lapsed into silence as the woman headed for the kitchen. Was it possible that her milk was drying up and she hadn't seen it? She had always had the opposite problem in the past, but she was older now and her hormones were different. Hmm...?

It took a bit of doing, but within moments Aunt Sophia had a doctor's appointment for Margaret and Dana was on the way over. She filled a nine ounce bottle with formula and popped it in the microwave for 40 seconds checking it carefully to make sure her little Fox didn't get burned. Had to watch it with microwaves and warming bottles. Too many parents got careless and burned their infants. Margaret placed the nipple near his mouth. He grabbed it and began to suck greedily.

Sophia patted her friend's shoulder gently.

"It's okay, Margaret. Dana is on the way, and we'll get you treated. The world will seem a brighter place soon."

"Sophia, I've had seven children. Why didn't I realize that my milk was drying up?

"Now don't go and get the guilts on me, my friend. I think you have a lot on your mind just now. Being a new mother isn't easy at any age as you well know."

"You know, I didn't think it would be like this... I mean... it seems that Walter works all the time, and here I am tied down with a baby again... and then he comes home tired and cranky and... I know something is bothering him at work but he won't talk about it. It's bound to have to do with Fox, you know, because he only gets this upset when something threatens him." She paused for a moment and sighed, "Honestly, he's so attached to that boy."

"And Fox is blossoming under his and Dana's love. Skinner is the first male authority figure that Fox has really respected. He wasn't rebellious, mind you, just sort of disdainful, then as he got older he got distrustful. But he trusts and admires your husband more than I've ever seen him care for any man before. He's really grown a lot in the last year. Of course it worries me some. His new maturity is going to make him very dangerous to certain individuals. Well, we'll cross that bridge when we come to it." They sat and chatted waiting for Dana to come over.

"Well, Aunt Margaret, you have a urinary tract infection, the low grade insidious kind. I want you on these heavy duty antibiotics for 4 days just to make certain we knock it out. By this time you know the drill..." She laughed. "You know what you can't do until the medicine is finished."


"No buts Aunt Margaret. Honestly, if this spreads into your kidneys you really won't be a happy camper, and I have to tell you I am inclined to agree with Sophia. I'm not a pediatrician, but I would say that your milk is drying up, this infection has just been too stressful on your system, and I would switch to formula. Talk to Dr. Peterson, of course, but you can't feed him what you don't have."

"Thank you, Amy," sighed Margaret. "You're probably right."

"You'll be fine Aunt Margaret..." Amy gave her friend's mom a hug. "Come back when you are finished with the meds and let me check you out. We might want to consider putting you back on estrogen replacement therapy after we get the infection taken care of. Tell you're husband not to worry it's very unlikely that you'd have another ovulation at this late stage. And, don't forget your 8- 10 glasses of water a day." Amy thought to herself that she sure hoped not anyway. Aunt Margaret might survive another pregnancy but she doubted that her husband would. The poor man had been a wreck the whole time.

Margaret made a face a great deal like Dana's and Amy laughed aloud and shooed her out of the office. Meg didn't like to admit it, but she felt better already knowing there was a reason for her constant tiredness, and that soon she would be her old self. Now if only she didn't have to explain to her husband that they were on restriction... it had been far too long and he was going to be a nightmare to live with... or so she assumed. Well maybe he would be away long enough for me to get over the infection. I can hope. She paid her co-pay at the front desk and she and Sophia headed to the pharmacy.

Over lunch that day the three agents sat down to compare notes. "What did you think of Director Wilson?" Mulder asked Walter.

"He seemed fairly open and straight forward, if a trifle paranoid." Skinner replied.

"Can't say I really blame him. They've spent years on this project. Now they're at the testing phase, everything's going perfectly and then suddenly all hell breaks loose for no discernable reason. They started out with a dozen scientists on the team and have lost two permanently and another three are on temporary leave. And on top of that there are absolutely no leads on what is causing the strange behavior, so no way to stop it. I'd be getting pretty paranoid myself."

Walter chuckled and answered Mulder back. "Mulder, you're paranoid if a black cat crosses your path."

Bothrington figured that Mulder would be insulted and so was surprised by his response to Agent Walter.

"Hey, it wasn't me who suspected that a postpartum poodle was a plot by Cancerman to keep me from my dinner."

Walter grinned at the comment and replied. "Okay so we'll concede that Director Wilson, as project head, is justifiably paranoid. The question still remains, is he covering up anything about the project that might be causing these breakdowns? How much of his explanation about the project did you follow."

"Not near enough. No offense but this is one time I really wish I had Scully along. She's the one with the undergraduate degree in physics. Most of his explanations were way beyond my reading and training. Even after I spent an hour last night on the phone with Scully discussing the project summary that I was reading, I still couldn't follow a lot of what he was talking about."

"Oh is that what you were talking on the phone about for half the night?" Skinner grinned at Mulder before continuing. "Funny, physics discussions don't normally necessitate cold showers in the middle of the night for me."

Both's mouth dropped open, obviously the two agents kept the connecting door between their rooms opened slightly, as he watched Fox Mulder blush, he had to bite back a laugh at Mulder's reply to Agent Walter.

"It wasn't me who said that abstinence makes the heart grow fonder. I heard your shower running for a quite awhile this morning."

Skinner grinned and shrugged in reply choosing to make no comment. He missed Meg and hoped that she was feeling better by the time he got home. She had been really run down of late. Maybe he should suggest that she see a doctor when he got home.

Both thought it time to change the subject. "So how was Smithson?"

"Full of Spooky Mulder jokes." Walter replied.

Mulder added, "Don't forget all the ones about the brass in D.C. Going to have to make note of a few of those myself."

"Mulder." Was Walter's warning comment. While extremely funny the jokes Smithson told were definitely not PC. Meg was going to love them.

Back to business, Mulder thought. I want to get home. "So, Both, any luck in contacting Dr. Paulsen?"

"Nope. I think he's not answering his phone or returning calls. We may have to break down and go by where he's staying if we want another interview. He was pretty upset by his conduct."

"Must have hated letting the wild child out like that." Mulder agreed. "We'll we start the interviews at one and should finish up by mid-morning tomorrow. Then depending on how things go here you or Walter can try and chase Paulsen down. In the meantime there are a few areas I want to concentrate on. Both, since you've already interviewed these people I'm going to send you off following up some ideas I have." As Both nodded Mulder went on to explain.

"I want you to start asking around see if there are any new people working on the project or at the Institute. Also, snoop around, do some gossiping and see if you can find if there are any competing organizations that might want to either steal research or slow the Institute's progress."

Walter interrupted, "So you think it's sabotage?"

"I'm not sure but it's an area we need to examine closely. So far all of the people who have been affected have worked at the Institute or been in the building. I had Both put out a regional alert at hospitals and police stations asking for anyone with similar symptoms to be reported. So far nothing. It all comes back to the project. The vast majority of the people affected are project scientists so that Smithson and the secretary, Crenick, could just be accidents."

"Then you think it's some kind of undetectable drug?" Both queried.

"That would be my guess. Maybe the blood samples we sent back to DC for special analysis will turn up something. But until then lets see if we can find either a motive or a person with opportunity to have drugged the victims."

Walter responded, "You're eliminating some kind of environmental toxin then?"

"Not necessarily but if it is some kind of environmental toxin then it has to be related to the project and the experiments that are going on now. There haven't been any similar incidents described anywhere in the area or the country, for that matter, as far as I can determine. I've had the list of chemicals that Both sent me last week analyzed by some special people and as far as they can tell there isn't anything unusual in them... absolutely nothing suspicious."

"Are you sure these people would spot suspicious?" Walter asked.

Mulder snorted, laughing, trying to catch his breath. Sometimes he forgot that Walter hadn't met certain of his friends. Finally catching his breath he answered. "Remind me that I have some people I want you to meet when we get back, Walter. And trust me on this, if anything on this list of chemicals found at the institute were the least suspicious these people would know."

Skinner found himself wondering about Fox's sources. He knew that he had some rather bazaar ones but from his reaction to Walter's comments these must be something out of the ordinary. And out of the ordinary for Mulder meant really far out there. Fox is going to introduce me... I don't know if I should be honored or scared.

"So what am I going to be doing, Mulder?"

Fox felt like popping back with, 'Whatever you want, Sir.' But he held his tongue. He found it a bit strange supervising his boss... sortta like the five hundred pound gorilla. Skinner was however doing his best to let him lead the investigation and for that he was grateful. It would have been very distracting to have to constantly be getting Walter's okay before making plans.

"I think you'll be most helpful backing me up in the interviews. You might catch something that I miss or you can take the lead if I need to sit back and watch. Hopefully we can coordinate our interrogation styles."

Both was puzzled by Mulder's comments and asked, "You mean you two haven't worked interviews together before?" At their nod of no he continued, "How long have you been partnered?"

Mulder glanced at Skinner and took the lead again, Walter was letting him do that alot on this case. "This is our first case together in the field. We normally consult at the Bureau. Agent Walter," here he grinned over at his boss, "Normally serves in a support and advisory function."

Both turned to Agent Walter startled asking , "You mean you don't have any field experience?"

"I have extensive field experience, just not recently. I've been confined to a desk in DC for several years."

"So why send you out in the field again?"

Mulder replied for Walter, "My boss needed someone he could trust to back me up. I've had some bad luck with replacement partners for Scully. So Agent Walter came along to make sure that I stay out of trouble."

It was Skinner's turn to snort. "That would be an impossibility, Mulder. I'm just along to make sure you get back to Scully in one piece."

As Both started to ask more questions Fox interrupted. "Time to get back to the institute our next appointment is in fifteen minutes." He found that he didn't want to lie to Agent Bothrington but respected Skinner's desire to observe the inner workings of the Boston office without everyone being on their best behavior. So it was best to stop the questioning before it got any further. The next question had to be 'What do you do in DC?' And the answer to that would either give Walter away or be a lie. He steered the conversation back to the case and their plans for the rest of the day on the drive back.

It was four pm that afternoon and they were starting on their last Institute interview of the day. They still had to visit Smithson that night once the effects wore off. Walter was impressed by Mulder's skills. Being so much older he'd never gotten to work closely with his son-in-law before and had only heard reports about his abilities. First hand his skill was 'Spooky'.

Walter, for the most part merely observed the interviews only throwing in a question occasionally. Being primarily an observer he was impressed by the way Mulder molded his whole being to each individual he was interviewing. His body language changed, the amount of eye contact, the words he used, even the speed and accent of his speech seemed to alter with each new person. He was the same man yet different in each interview... sometimes seeming to ramble and gossip, others straight to the point.

With the secretary he was flirtatious, while with Dr. Bradshaw, the scientist who had just lost his wife a couple of months earlier, he was quiet, reserved, respectful and compassionate. In fact, the only interview he had allowed to run over it's allotted fortyfive minutes had been with Bradshaw. Fox really seemed to care and Walter felt like he had observed a grief counseling session once it was over. He was also startled by the fact that Mulder had the names and numbers of both private counselors that specialized in grief and a group therapy session that dealt with bereavement. Mulder had encouraged the scientist to talk to someone and it looked like he had succeeded in getting the man to agree when everyone else had failed.

Skinner had seen Bradshaw to the door and turned to find Mulder slumped in his seat, head on his folded arms. "You alright, Fox?"

"Yeah. Just drained. Could you write up the notes on this one, Walter?" He reached over to his briefcase and handed his boss the notes he'd done on the previous two interviews. "Here's what I've done with the other two and what I need you to make specific note of. Feel free to put down anything else of importance that occurs to you. I'm going to stretch my legs and probably call Dana."

"This one really drained you?"

"I just keep praying that I never have to go through what he has because you can bet I'd be in much worse shape than him."

Walter walked up behind his son's chair and massaged his shoulder's briefly. "Take it easy, Fox, don't go borrowing trouble."

Mulder smiled as he stood up rotating his stiff neck and shoulders. "Thanks. I'll try not to but I could use a Scully fix."

"Go talk to your wife. I'll hold down the fort here." Walter smiled as Mulder left. Fox never seemed quite whole without Scully nearby.

Mulder checked his watch as he headed back to the office they were using to interview the victims. A brief chat with Dana had sure improved his mood. Bradshaw and his loss had really gotten to him, and he hoped that he had convinced the man to get help. Knowing that if he ever faced the same situation, he'd probably eat his gun, the interview had unnerved him. But then again he had his kids to think about, and there was Walter, maybe he'd make it through... he shook himself to stop from going down that depressive road again.

Walter had been a bit of a surprise. Fox guessed that he shouldn't have been really... but still... He had been an excellent support and his questions always relevant and to the point. Walter Skinner was a very secure man. Mulder wondered if he'd ever be that secure himself. He hoped so. Skinner had no need to prove himself, was happy to take a back seat and let someone else lead but confident enough in himself and his abilities that he would speak out when the need arose. He was not always trying to prove himself and seemed to actually enjoy watching when someone else could do the job better than him.

Mulder knew that he was a top notch interviewer, one of the best, his ability to adapt instinctively to the environment and subject gave him quite an edge over most other agents. Scully appreciated that and she complimented his style but many had resented his skills, especially some of his previous bosses. Skinner had watched him carefully at first and then sat back and relaxed, ready to enjoy the show. The agent laughed at himself... he had given Walter quite a show. Hadn't even realized that he was doing it until a few minutes ago but he'd wanted to impress his boss so he'd gone all out on the interviews. Used a lot more skill than was really necessary for the situation, after all most of these witnesses weren't hostile and he didn't think they were trying to hide anything but it had been fun to stretch, he could use the practice and, just admit it, Mulder, you wanted to show off for Walt. And he could tell by Walter's expression on a few occasions that he had been impressed.

Fox had been impressed with Walter as well. For so powerful and authoritative a man to remain quietly in the background took a lot of work and control. He'd also given Mulder an idea, through some of the few questions that he did ask, as to what was happening to these individuals... not what was causing it but what was happening. He didn't think Skinner had seen it himself yet... which, in a way, was a bit startling... it seemed that the AD was very instinctive and insightful as well. Able to ask questions based on gut feelings even if he didn't know the reasons why. It was a shame, Fox thought to himself, I wouldn't mind having Walter as a partner until Scully comes back, or even after she came back he'd make a good addition to the X-files. He laughed at the way his thoughts were running, with the kids the X-files could use a back up partner but he doubted the AD of the FBI would be allowed to serve that function. Pity. Next to Scully he is shaping up to be the best partner I've ever had. I certainly won't be leaving him in the dust.