Nexus: 3. Nemesis


Crystal City, VA.
January 20, 1999.


Skinner unlocked his front door, and threw his briefcase down wearily. It was past midnight, and he had only just returned from the office. Focusing on his work was the only thing that kept him from brooding on the nexus that was tearing him apart inside. He wasn’t sure how long he could continue to block Mulder and Scully’s thoughts and emotions without going completely insane. Night time was the worst – those moments just before sleep when his mind went into free-fall, and he would catch glimpses of Scully’s dreams, or see the crap that Mulder was watching on TV, hear the ceaseless whisperings of their minds, beckoning to him, urging him to join them. Skinner poured himself a glass of whisky – he found that drinking helped to numb the unique agony of his situation.


He raised the glass to his lips, downed it in one gulp, and then stiffened, smelling cigarette smoke. Skinner whirled around, reaching for his gun. His enemy, an old, old enemy, was seated on his couch.


“What the hell are you doing here?” Skinner growled. “How the hell did you get in?”


“I usually find that I can go wherever I please.” The smoking man smiled, and opened his pack of cigarettes.


“Don’t fucking smoke in my apartment.” Skinner felt his muscles clench in protest at this outrage.


“You’re in no position to give orders to me.” The other man lit the cigarette, and blew a mouthful of insolent smoke in Skinner’s direction. “You’ve been brought to my attention recently, Skinner.”


“I won’t play your games any more, you son of a bitch. I thought I’d made that clear,” Skinner hissed. “Besides, Mulder and Scully don’t work for me now – a situation that I’m sure is at least partly your doing. So, I’m of no interest to you.”


“Oh, but you are.” The other man smiled. “You’ve always been interesting to me, Skinner.” He tipped some ash onto the carpet, and watched as Skinner’s jaw clenched in silent anger. “You were interesting a long time ago, and now you’re interesting again.”


“What the hell does that mean?”


“It means that we know what you’re doing, no – maybe that’s the wrong phrasing. We know what you’ve done. You’ve done something very rash. You’ve formed another nexus.”


Skinner went white, and he staggered for a moment, as if he’d been physically hit, then he poured himself another glass of whisky, and downed it in one gulp.


“What do you know about that?” He asked,


“Everything.” The smoking man inclined his head. “We go back a long way, you and I – longer than you think. The Nexus Project was my brainchild, and you were its greatest creation.”


“You didn’t damn well create me.” Skinner disputed, taking another shot of whisky.


“Of course I did.” The smoking man leaned back, a faint smile playing around his lips, as he watched his protégé. “You were just a boy, and I made you into something special. I gave you an ability than many people would kill for.”


You were behind it? You created that obscene project?” Skinner closed his eyes, a memory of being strapped down assaulting him – the injections, the experiments, the operations. The pain, and confusion, and sheer terror of it all.


“Of course.” The smoking man smiled again. “I’m surprised that you never figured that out, Skinner.”


“I never wanted to look. I was just grateful that you left me alone…after…”


“Well, it wasn’t our intention that you survive, but seeing as you did, I thought I’d use it to my advantage.”


“What are you hell are you telling me?” Skinner’s face was as crumpled and distressed as that of a lost child. “Are you saying that you killed them? That the ambush wasn’t the Vietcong?” He remembered the minds of his friends flickering out, one by one, until he was alone, the link between them fatally wounded, pulsing with dying embers of energy until it was gone.


“No, I didn’t kill them, you did,” the other man replied. “You had their fates in your hands. We asked you to kill one of them, and you refused. If you’d done as we asked, killed one of your comrades with your mind, then you could have saved the rest. It was your choice.”


“I didn’t know,” Skinner whispered. “You bastard.”


“If you had known, could you have done it? Killed one to save the others?” The smoking man looked at him keenly. Skinner’s hands balled into fists, and he wanted to place them around the other man’s neck, and squeeze with all his might.


“I don’t know what I’d have done then,” Skinner replied, “but I sure as hell know what I’m going to do now.”


He was halfway across the room, the bloodlust rising inside him, his revenge for his lost friends the only thing on his mind, when the gun appeared in the smoking man’s hand.


“Don’t be so hasty. We have a lot to discuss. I’d prefer to do so in a civilised fashion, but I’ll happily continue our conversation with you nursing a gunshot wound.”


“We have nothing to discuss.” Skinner ground to a halt, still half tempted to risk the bullet, in his bid for revenge.


“Yes we do. I want to know who you’ve formed this new nexus with, and why.” The smoking man raised a cigarette to his lips with one hand, while his other held the gun rock steady.


“Go to hell.”


“You have no idea how many times people have told me to do that. I’m weary of responding with amusing ripostes,” the smoking man replied. “An associate of mine, Doctor Lubecker, called me a few days ago. Do you remember him? I see that you do.” His watchful eyes caught the tightening of Skinner’s jaw, and the distressed jerk of his head at mention of the name. “Lubecker informed me that a new nexus had been created. Did you think that we’d stop monitoring you? We’ve kept a careful eye on you for some years. You have an implant in the base of your skull – we always knew where you were, and what you were doing.”


Skinner reached up and fingered the back of his neck, but he couldn’t feel anything.


“I was amused at your rise to a position of power and success, and not a little dismayed at first,” the smoking man continued. “I had hoped that you’d just go back to that little town in the middle of nowhere that you came from. What’s it called – Lonesome Pine?” His tone was sneering, and he flicked more ash onto the carpet.


“Lone Oak.” Skinner snapped, knowing that he was being toyed with, hating it.


“I wonder why you didn’t go back there? Or maybe I don’t.” The other man smiled, knowingly. “We were happy to ignore you while the skills we gave you remained dormant. Now that you’ve chosen to rediscover them though… Well, we put considerable time and money into the nexus project, I’d be pleased to see it finally yield us a useful harvest.”


“I don’t have anything that will be of use to you.” Skinner growled. “The nexus doesn’t work properly. I shut it down.”


“No, you tried to shut it down, but you couldn’t. You know as well as I do that the only way to end it is either for you to die, or all the other links in the nexus to be…terminated.” Skinner flinched. “Do you care about them as much as you cared about the links in your last nexus?” The smoking man asked, casually.


“They aren’t links. They’re people,” Skinner said in a low, hard tone, “and yes, I care about them. If you’d ever understood the nature of what you created in me, then you’d know that it’s impossible not to care about them. In forming the nexus, they become part of me.”


“Sentiment was always your weakness,” the smoking man commented, stubbing out his cigarette on a hardback lying on Skinner’s coffee table. “No ashtrays?” He chuckled. “I hope that wasn’t an expensive book.”


“Why are you here?” Skinner asked wearily. “Just go.”


“Not until you tell me who you’re linked with. Or maybe I should just guess. It wouldn’t be very hard. Firstly, the nexus was created a couple of weeks ago. Further investigation shows that at that precise moment in time you were busy helping out our two young friends on a particularly interesting – if not officially authorized – case. It’s not often that you have to work in the field with Mulder and Scully is it?” The smoking man raised an eyebrow. “Did your desire to help and protect them finally spill over into something more tangible, to say nothing of irrevocable? How do they feel about being so closely involved with their former boss?” Skinner shifted uncomfortably. “Ah – so they don’t know yet. How interesting.”


“Just tell me what you want, and leave.” Skinner stalked over to the door, and held it open. The smoking man remained seated. “Why, I want you of course, and them. I want you to control them, the way you refused to control your brothers in arms last time. A Mulder and Scully under my direct personal control could be very useful. I want you to bring that gift to me.”


“And if I don’t?”


“Well, you know what happened to your last nexus.” The smoking man smiled. “It could happen again.”


“I don’t think so.” Skinner said. “You’ve had plenty of opportunities to kill Mulder and Scully before but you haven’t. I think you need them – and you need me. Fuck your offer – the answer’s no.”


“I thought you’d say that. So we’ll just have to find a way to bring you in line.”


The smoking man got up, and walked over to the door. He stopped in front of Skinner, and leaned close, too close, so that Skinner could smell the ash on his lips.


“I have an idea that I think will work. You’ll be hearing from me, Skinner,” he said in a smoothly sibilant undertone, and then he left. Skinner slammed the door shut behind him, and took another slug of whisky, rolling the cool glass over his forehead, and wishing that he knew a way out of this whole mess.




Hoover Building.

January 24, 1999. 10:18 PM.


Mulder threw a pencil aimlessly at the ceiling. He was so damn bored. He spent his days doing background checks, wasting time when there was so much to be done, so much that prick Spender wasn’t doing. Mulder briefly considered going home, then changed his mind. Home had always been here before, not his apartment in Alexandria, which he used as a place to sleep, and jerk off in.


Mulder wondered whether to commit himself to another session in front of the video this evening, and decided against it. His lonely masturbatory sessions with only the incoherent cries of people making love on celluloid for company, just served to make him feel even lonelier afterwards. Sometimes he eschewed the video altogether, and settled back on his couch, closing his eyes, and imagining that he was in a clinch with Scully, or Skinner, or both of them at the same time. He supposed that he should feel guilty about using real people to provide his jerk-off fantasies, but he didn’t. They didn’t know, and he didn’t feel any less respect for them even after giving them starring roles in what he laughingly called his ‘sex life’. Mulder always managed to exist happily on several different levels at the same time. His sexual needs and attractions, his work, his personal life, his search for his sister, his desire to know the truth; all were vividly intertwined, and yet he kept them completely separate in his mind.


Mulder threw another pencil, and sighed as it bounced back down again. This ceiling wasn’t as good as the one in the basement.


“But that’s not the only reason why I want to X Files back,” he joked to himself. He winced, feeling a flash of something like pain pass momentarily through his body. Weird. He threw another pencil at the ceiling, and a moment later, he noticed Skinner walk by outside. The man looked disheveled – a state of affairs that Mulder had never witnessed in his normally immaculate superior before. He thought about it for a moment, and then got to his feet and wandered impulsively along to Skinner’s office.


The man looked terrible, but worse than that, Mulder could sense that something was wrong with him – he could almost feel a nagging pain radiating from him. Skinner dismissed his concern with an air of irritation that Mulder somehow knew wasn’t real. He continued to express his anxiety until the other man grew annoyed.


“I’ll be fine.” Skinner snapped finally, struggling to his feet. Mulder moved forward, and caught him as the big man swayed slightly, and Skinner let out a low growl of pain. Mulder felt a stabbing pain in his own gut.


“What the hell…?” Mulder helped Skinner to sit down again, and then pulled up the man’s shirt, ignoring his grunt of protest. “Shit, that’s some bruise you’ve got here.” Mulder traced the outline of the dark bruise on Skinner’s flesh. Skinner winced, and Mulder reciprocated with a wince of his own. Shit, when did he start empathizing with this guy so much that he started feeling his pain? Mulder decided to cut back on using Skinner as a fantasy object for his jerk-off sessions if this was going to be the result.




Annapolis, Maryland.

January 24, 1999. 10:32 PM.


Scully read the page of the book she was halfway through, and then re-read it. She didn’t take in a word either time. Finally, feeling uneasy, she put the book to one side, and lay back on the couch, closing her eyes. A few moments later, she opened them again. Something was wrong – something was very wrong. She got up, pulled on her jacket, checked her cell phone was in the pocket, and ran out of the door. She was already on her way to the Hoover building when she got Mulder’s call.


“Where are you?” She demanded. “Are you okay?”


“I’m fine.” He sounded surprised.


“I thought…never mind. You’re sure you’re okay?”


“Yes, I’m fine,” Mulder reassured her, “but Skinner isn’t.”


Scully felt a cold sweat break out on her forehead. “I’ll be right there,” she said.




Washington DC.


January 25, 1999. 4:01 AM.


All the evidence convinced Mulder that his ex-lover, Richard Matheson, was involved in Skinner’s state of ill health – somewhere along the line at least. He didn’t even hesitate to drive out to the man’s house, but he did pause briefly before getting out of the car.


The things we do for love…The things we do for love…The words to the corny old song rose unbidden into his mind and he shook his head, wondering again why he felt so damn awful. Maybe Skinner wasn’t the only one who had been poisoned; maybe it was catching. Mulder pushed aside his shirt, and gazed at himself in the car mirror. There was nothing there – no sign of the mottled bruising he had seen on Skinner’s neck earlier this evening.


Hypochondriac, he mocked, smirking at himself. He steeled himself to see his old lover, reminding himself why he was doing this, but in truth nothing could prepare him for the sight of Richard Matheson in his dressing gown. Even twenty years on, the man still retained that aura of power and charisma that had so captivated the gauche teenage Mulder. His thick hair was morphing subtly from blonde to silver, but that just accentuated his tanned skin, and dazzling blue eyes.Hypochondriac, he mocked, smirking at himself. He steeled himself to see his old lover, reminding himself why he was doing this, but in truth nothing could prepare him for the sight of Richard Matheson in his dressing gown. Even twenty years on, the man still retained that aura of power and charisma that had so captivated the gauche teenage Mulder. His thick hair was morphing subtly from blonde to silver, but that just accentuated his tanned skin, and dazzling blue eyes.


Mulder was ushered into a downstairs room, and he gazed around the house, taking in the masculine décor, which somehow screamed ‘gay’ even though it was dark, conservative and traditional. Even the butler seemed gay, Mulder thought to himself. He noted that Richard was wearing his wedding ring, although he would have bet his life on the fact that whoever was sleeping upstairs in the man’s bed right now was almost certainly not his wife. She kept a separate condo over the other side of town, where gossip related that she entertained men young enough to be her sons. She and her husband did have something in common after all then, Mulder thought with a wry smile.


After leaving Oxford, Mulder had finally made his peace with Matheson. In truth, he couldn’t stay angry with his first love forever – there was too much between them for that. Mulder’s sex life had stopped more or less after Phoebe. A brief dalliance with Diana Fowley, and a fling with a male FBI agent he had met in a field office in 1992 had been his only brief forays into the world of romance. Mulder wasn’t entirely sure that he was any good at relationships. Richard and Phoebe had both hurt him so much that he wasn’t sure he could take another full blown love affair.


Then of course, he had been a damn idiot, and fallen in love again when he least expected it, first with Scully, and then with Skinner, or maybe with both at the same time. Now, he was content to live with the daily agony and ecstasy of looking but not touching. It was easier that way. Mulder didn’t have any illusions about himself. He knew that he was a difficult bastard to live with, consumed by his quest, and he doubted his own capacity to sustain a normal relationship. Scully and Skinner were the last people in the world that he would ever want to hurt. So he stayed silent, and that suited everyone best.


Matheson was useless. Mulder gazed at the man he had once loved, and implored him for help in saving his ‘friend.’ Matheson was clearly startled, and the look that passed between them made it clear that the senator knew just what kind of a friend Skinner was to Mulder – or thought he knew.


Mulder left the house feeling curiously liberated. He had loved the bastard, but he had been betrayed by him, not just once, but twice. The first time had hurt, but this time, tonight, he felt nothing. Finally, after all these years, he was free of Matheson’s ghost.


Mulder fought down a new fear as he got back into his car. He couldn’t lose Skinner. Not now. It was like losing Scully to the cancer, like losing part of himself, and he couldn’t bear it. His rolled his shoulders back, taking a deep breath. His body felt as if it were being consumed by a parasite, eaten up from the inside, and he checked in the mirror again to make sure there was no sign of disease. What the hell was going on? Why could he feel Skinner’s symptoms so vividly?




DC General Hospital.

January 25, 1999. 9:30 PM.


Scully glanced at her watch, and then looked up as she saw Mulder enter the room. He half-walked, half-ran over to see her.


“How is he?”


“He’s…not good.” Scully shrugged. “You don’t look so good yourself.” She stared at his disheveled appearance, and pale face.


“I’ve been doing a lot of running around.”


“Did you catch anyone?”


“No.” Mulder’s mouth twisted into a wry, angry expression of defeat. “Tell me more about Skinner.”


“He’s in the ICU. It’s touch and go, Mulder.”


At that moment Scully stiffened in astonishment, and her eyes met those of her partner. If she hadn’t been holding onto him she thought she might have fainted, and he clearly felt the same way. It was as if her guts had been wrenched out, as if someone had reached a hand into her body and torn out her heart, or her soul, or both.


“Mulder…?” She gasped.




<Oh shit, not again.> Skinner looked up into a pair of amused, old eyes.


<Yes, dear. We just can’t keep you away can we?> The old woman was seated in rocking chair, her white hair falling in coarse waves over her wizened shoulders.


<Dead again?> he joked.


<Yes, Jace. That’s twice now. It’s becoming a habit.>


<I was…poisoned.> Skinner remembered. <Mulder, Scully…?>


<They’re hurting pretty bad.> The old woman nodded. <I’m sure they’re very confused, which is your fault, Jace.>


<My fault?> He got up and walked around, noting, without surprise, that he was wearing his blood-stained old marine uniform again. He ran a hand through his cropped dark hair.


<Yes, Jace. I thought that you were going to tell them about the nexus. I’m astonished that you haven’t. No wonder they’re confused right now.>


<It’s better if they don’t know.> Skinner crouched down beside her chair, and leaned his shoulder against her leg.


<Why?> She asked.


<For god’s sake!> he exploded. <You’ve seen how paranoid Mulder is. What do you think I should say? “Oh, by the way, Mulder I know everything you’re thinking and feeling so stop having jerk-off fantasies about me.”>


<Does he? How amusing.> The old woman chuckled to herself. <Does Dana too?>


<No, or at least she keeps them quieter if she does. Mulder has no control over his thoughts and emotions – they just spew out all over the place the whole time. Scully’s much more contained. Anyway, she has some Rambo thing going.> He sent the Old Woman an image of himself dressed in combat clothes, and camouflage paint, rampaging through the jungle, clutching enough weaponry to wipe out an entire army.


<Well you’re very nice looking, dear, and they’re only human.> The Old Woman snorted. <I’d forgotten just how much fun the sexual side of being corporeal could be. So, I suspect, have you.> She prodded him with a gnarled forefinger.


<What do you want me to do? Leap into bed with them? Drive around to Mulder’s apartment next time he’s jerking off, and offer him the real thing?>


<I don’t see why not.> The Old Woman smiled. <They want you and you want them. You do want them, don’t you?>


Skinner was silent for a moment before replying with simple honesty. <Yes.>


<Well then, I don’t see the problem here.>


<You’re kidding me, right? I can see thousands of problems. Not least that we work together, and that relationships involving three people are highly unusual, and very probably unsustainable.>


<Yes, well, you always did over-analyze things, Jace.> The old woman snorted reprovingly. <When you’re dead it all seems so much more simple.> She grinned at him. <You must tell them about the nexus though. You’re tearing yourself apart keeping all this bottled up inside you.>


<Mulder will go crazy. He’s convinced that he’s been spied on for years anyway. If I tell him I’m in his head, and have the ability to know everything he’s thinking, he’ll assume it’s a conspiracy against him.>


<Nonetheless, you really do have to tell them.>


<I thought I was dead. Does this mean I’m going back again?> He asked, with a weary sigh.


<Well that’s up to you, Jace.>


<It is?> He glanced up at her in surprise. <Well then, I think I’d prefer not to.>


<Hmmm. Let me show you something.> She took his hand, and he felt himself melting into darkness.




DC General Hosptial.

January 25, 1999 9:33 PM


Mulder felt as if he couldn’t breathe. He fell back against the wall, his hands scrabbling at the collar of his shirt, trying to loosen it. Somewhere, nearby, he heard Scully falling down next to him.


“What the hell…?” He gasped. He closed his eyes, fighting off the feeling of utter desolation that was sweeping through him. The sense of loss was so acute that he wanted to vomit. He heard a keening cry escape from his own lips.


“Mulder? What’s happening to us?” Scully asked, her breathing shallow and distressed. He could feel her shoulder, and the warmth of her against him, but it wasn’t any comfort. He didn’t think anything could be a comfort.


“I don’t know,” he whispered, “but it damn well hurts.”




Skinner watched in dismay, then turned to the Old Woman.


<Help them! Somebody help them.> He implored.


<You’re the only one who can do that.> She shrugged. <They’re reacting to your death. You are dead at this precise moment in time. Do you remember what it felt like to lose your comrades when your last nexus was destroyed? That’s what they’re feeling now.>


<That’s emotional blackmail.> Skinner hunched himself up, closing his eyes so that he didn’t have to look down on the scene in the hospital, but he couldn’t stop himself remembering the agony of losing his comrades all those years ago.


<Yes – it is.> The Old Woman chuckled. <However, what I’m showing you is the truth. You don’t have to go back though. You have your own free will – you’ve always had that.>


The hospital suddenly disappeared, and they were bathed once more in soothing white light.


<Jace.> The Old Woman took hold of his head, and looked deeply into his eyes. <You have this choice because what you face if you return is…more than we can expect you to endure. You’ll find out things that hurt, things that you’ve tried to forget. I can’t promise you happiness, although that’s not to say that you won’t experience it at some point in the future. For now, though, it won’t be easy.>


<That’s supposed to persuade me to return?> Skinner asked incredulously. <Go back – it’ll be shit, you’ll have a really bad time, and it’ll hurt like hell?>


<No. That was just a warning about what to expect.> She stroked his cropped hair lovingly. <If you don’t go back then Mulder and Scully will be unprotected against what will happen next. Together, the three of you, with the bond of your nexus between you, are stronger than those two can ever be alone. You’re the key to it all, Jace. You always have been. It’s what you were born for.>


<Don’t throw all that destiny crap at me again,> he snapped.


<I’m not. It’s your choice, Jace. Really. I’ll leave you to decide.> She traced a loving finger along his cheek, and then disappeared.


Skinner sat there in silence. The whiteness seemed warm and comforting, and somewhere in the distance, he could hear the whispering of a myriad of souls, cleansing him as they had done before. He glanced down at his blood-stained hands, and knew what he would decide. The Old Woman knew him far too well. She could have chosen any inducement at all, but she chose leaving Mulder and Scully unprotected, knowing that he’d never do that. Skinner sighed, and stood up. He spread his arms wide, and said goodbye to the peace, and tranquillity once more.


When he opened his eyes again, he was in the hospital, waking up in his own body, and he felt like shit.




Hoover Building.

February 15, 1999.


“What the hell was that all about?” Mulder growled as they emerged from Skinner’s office. “When he’s dying he’s Rambo, threatening to put a gun to someone’s head to find a cure, and rampaging around town doing all that he-man stuff. Then, when he recovers, he just doesn’t care? He doesn’t even want to know who poisoned him?”


Scully trailed along behind her partner, her own mind working overtime. She jumped when Mulder mentioned Rambo, and gave a little smile. Maybe Skinner wasn’t the only one who could read her thoughts.


“I don’t know what it’s all about, Mulder, so don’t yell at me,” she told him calmly, getting into the elevator.


“I am not yelling at anybody. I’m just jumpy, Scully.” Mulder slammed his fist against the elevator control panel, and it screeched to an emergency stop, causing her to lurch forward and crash into him. “What the hell happened in the hospital? What was that…that…thing that brought us to our knees when he died?”


Scully shook her head, gazing at her shoes. “I don’t have any answers to this one, Mulder. I don’t know any more than you do,” she replied.


“Scully, please. Something weird is going on around here, and I don’t know what it is, or how to fight it. It’s not on the outside any more, it’s inside, and frankly – it’s scaring me.”


Scully looked up. He was biting on his lip, and his hazel eyes were more troubled than she’d ever seen them before. Not for the first time, she wanted to reach out to him, to give and receive comfort, but again, not for the first time, something inside stopped her. She had always been strong. She could cope, and he would have to find a way of coping too. Mulder was too big an issue for her to deal with alone. His brilliance was not confined to his investigative intuition, or his prodigious memory – even his problems were on a grand scale. She wanted to help him, but she didn’t know how, and at some point she had closed off the part of herself that even wanted to try.


“It was Skinner’s death wasn’t it?” Mulder whispered to her, like a frightened child struggling with a difficult truth. “The moment when he died, however brief that was. That was what set that thing off wasn’t it? And before then – I keep having this weird feeling, Scully. Like I’m not alone, even when I am.”


“We are not alone.” She quoted at him facetiously.


“I think whatever is happening to us is linked to Skinner in some way – in fact I’m sure of it.”


“The truth is in the Assistant Director?” She suggested, equally facetiously.


“Oh, Scully, don’t tell me that you’re not the tiniest bit curious.” He pulled a face. “I know you too well. Curiosity takes you places that your rational mind tells you to run a hundred miles from. Curiosity keeps you with me, and with the X Files, when you don’t even believe.”


“Believe? In what? Ghosts, and ghoulies, and things that go…” Scully trailed off, remembering a dark wood, and a man who told her to believe in order to save her life.


“What?” Mulder looked at her intently.


“I’m not sure. Something.” She shivered.


“I’m going to confront Skinner.” Mulder told her, taking her by the shoulders, and looking into her eyes. “I think he has the answers. Come with me.”


“Of course,” she replied. “Don’t I always?”


He nodded, and slammed his fist onto the elevator control panel again. The elevator resumed its journey, and Mulder got out.


“Mulder.” Scully took a deep breath, and followed him. “There’s something I haven’t told you,” she said, grabbing his arm. He looked down at her, his eyebrows raised inquiringly. “Something important,” she added. “I didn’t tell you before because…I couldn’t make sense of it. I still can’t, but it seems relevant to all this.”


“What is it?” Mulder sat down, and got out a handful of pencils, starting to throw them at the ceiling, like a caged bear sent crazy by its confinement. Scully put a hand on his to stop him.


“It’s about Skinner,” she said. “It’s about a kind of…talent he has. Something he did when we were trying to help you in Thurmont.”




Skinner returned to his apartment in a daze. He hadn’t really been surprised by Krycek’s visitation. Once he recovered, he figured that the nanocytes showing up in his blood just a few days after Cancerman promised to bring him in line was too much of a coincidence. If Cancerman thought that this made any difference though, he was sorely mistaken. Go ahead, let them kill him. From what he could remember, which was little enough, death wasn’t so bad an option. He’d die before he betrayed Mulder and Scully, or brought them under Cancerman’s direct control.


Skinner took a shower, then changed into a pair of gray sweatpants and a black tee shirt. He wandered back downstairs, barefoot, and poured himself an obligatory glass of whisky, wondering when he had become a half a bottle a night kind of guy, and whether a drinking problem was something he should add to his many worries. When there was a knock on his door, he was almost expecting the cigarette smoking man to be standing there, waiting to see what his answer was. The last thing he expected to see was his two agents. He had been so busy processing his own worries and concerns that he had barely taken any notice of their thoughts and feelings recently. He had developed a mechanism for such background ‘noise’ anyway, or every last inconsequential pondering over what to buy in the supermarket, or what color shirt to wear that morning would have intruded in his mind. If he listened to all of it, it would drive him crazy, so he viewed it like having the television on in the background. You could watch and listen if you wanted, or ignore it, and concentrate on something else.


“Sir. Can we come in?” Mulder pushed past him, making it clear that saying “no” wasn’t an option.


“Please, be my guest.” Skinner muttered ironically.


Scully gave him a faint half-smile, and sidled past him, but he detected her nervousness, and sense of anticipation. Mulder just felt angry – and scared. Fear? Skinner gazed at the other man in surprise. What did Mulder have to be frightened of here?


“How can I help you?” Skinner asked, sitting himself down, and placing his long legs on the coffee table, in an attempt at a nonchalance that he didn’t feel inside. He found being with the two of them at the same time difficult. It was hard to separate out who was feeling what, when he was jamming their emotions from seeping through the link. Scully glanced at his bare feet, and for a moment, they almost exchanged a smile. Skinner remembered teasing her about a foot fetish, and then they both recalled where that memory came from, and the smiles faded. Scully’s blue eyes clouded over in confusion, and he wished more than anything in the world that he could hold her, and make everything all right.


“I want to know what’s going on, sir. We both do. Scully told me about some kind of telepathy thing you two had going in Thurmont, and ever since we got back I’ve had a sensation of being watched. Then when you were ill – I could feel your symptoms. Scully says she could too. When you died…” Mulder paused, pacing around the room, struggling with the memory. “We both felt it,” he finished lamely, in what was clearly a huge understatement. “Now you refuse to investigate? And you expect us to just sit back and accept that?”


Skinner felt his world turn dark and cold. He hated situations like this. He didn’t mind fighting any dangers life threw at him, using his fists, or his mind, but confronting his emotions had him running scared, and explaining himself was anathema to him.


“You’re suggesting that there’s some mystery here, Agent Mulder?” He asked, his tone faintly sneering as he made a conscious decision to bluff it out. “What’s all this about? You’re suggesting that I’m some kind of telepath, using my powers to do what? Spy on you?” Skinner laughed out loud.


“Are you?” Mulder asked quietly.


There was silence for a moment, and Skinner got up, turning his back on them, pouring himself another glass of whisky.


“Are you working for them, is that what this is? Are they using you to keep us under surveillance? A completely unique form of surveillance, one that works from the inside out? So that you know what we’re thinking? So that you can report back on our every last trip to the bathroom?” Mulder demanded. Skinner stiffened, remembering the cigarette smoking man’s deal, knowing that was exactly what Mulder’s enemies wanted.


“If you think that anyone is interested in your trips to the bathroom, Mulder, then you really are paranoid,” he snapped, downing his whisky in one gulp and pouring another. He felt a rough hand on his shoulder, and swung around, knocking Mulder away.


“Don’t push me, Mulder,” he growled. Over Mulder’s shoulder, he saw Scully’s eyes widen in distress.


“Or what? You send out something that gives me one mother of a headache? Can you do that, Skinner? Is it a weapon?” Mulder pursued his line of inquiry relentlessly.


Skinner’s whole being revolted at Mulder’s suggestion. He recalled the evil acts the cigarette smoking man had asked of him; to kill one of his comrades, and to bring Mulder and Scully under his control, both of which he had refused to do. Yet Mulder didn’t know him well enough, or didn’t trust him enough to know that he would never use this ability to harm the people he cared about.


“It’d be a good weapon. One click of your fingers and we have to jump. If we don’t…”


<NO!> Skinner’s anger built to a crescendo, and that one word reverberated between them, carried along the link, and echoing with perfect clarity in all their minds. Mulder stood there – for once actually stunned to have his theory proven.


There was a long silence.


“At least that was honest.” Mulder said finally. “So, you’re what – some kind of relative of Gibson Praise?”


“No. I wasn’t born this way. I was made.” Skinner shook his head.


“By whom?” Mulder leaned forward intently.


“Guess.” Skinner shrugged. Realization dawned in Mulder’s eyes.


“I knew it. The consortium owns you. He owns you, and now you want to own us.” Mulder turned away, and Scully gazed between the two of them, torn.


“Nobody damn well owns me.” Skinner growled.


“How did it happen? Why did you do this to us? What have you done?” Mulder demanded. “What do you know about us? Every thought in our head? Every emotion?” He said it as if he didn’t believe it, but when Skinner would not meet his eye, he shook his head in amazement.


“Well that’s gotta by my worst nightmare come true,” Mulder commented ruefully. “I don’t know about you, Scully.”


Scully just shook her head, mutely.


“If that’s your worst nightmare then you don’t have a very vivid imagination.” Skinner snapped, remembering falling, a dozen gunshot wounds to his body, hearing his friends dying all around him, feeling them dying. He allowed the image to seep out into the link, no longer caring, and gulped down his whisky, ignoring the shocked looks the two agents gave him as they shared that snippet of memory.


“So you’re, what? Some kind of telepath?” Mulder questioned.


“No, I’m not any kind of telepath. I can only hear your thoughts because there’s a nexus – a kind of link between us, between all of us.” Skinner told them.


“A link? Created by whom?”


Skinner glanced down at his hands, as if he could still see the blood on them, and he no longer tried to contain his own guilt. Mulder rocked back on his heels, his eyes full of betrayal.


“I see,” he murmured.


“No, you don’t. You don’t see at all.” Skinner replied.


“Yeah – I do.” Mulder gave him a look of disgust, his feelings spiraling out of control, buffeting Skinner with their force as they flowed through the nexus. Skinner didn’t fight it. He laid the nexus bare, and he saw the change in Scully’s expression as she felt the full force of Mulder’s emotions. Skinner wasn’t sure he cared any more. It felt good – it felt so damn good not to have to fight it, not to have to remain vigilant, always on guard in case someone found out, damming everything up until he felt fit to burst. “You know…” Mulder walked up close to him, invading his personal space just as the cigarette smoking man had done a few days before. “I always thought they’d find a way of controlling me sooner or later. I just didn’t give them credit for the methods they’d use, or the people. I can’t stop them knowing everything I do now, can I? Short of killing you that is, and I remember what happened last time you ‘died’.”


“Mulder, listen to me – I’m not spying on you. I didn’t want this to happen.” Skinner said desperately. He could feel Mulder’s sense of being violated, and he didn’t blame him. He’d feel the same if it had happened to him.


“Too late, Skinner. Too damn late. I’ve heard all I damn well want to hear.” Mulder snapped, turning on his heel and striding towards the door. “Scully?” She still hadn’t said a word. She looked at Mulder, and then at Skinner, and both men felt her confusion and uncertainty. Finally she got up and followed Mulder to the door. He was half way down the corridor before she got there. She turned, and gave Skinner a puzzled ghost of a smile, and his heart ached at the distress he could feel emanating from her in palpable waves. Mulder’s emotions surged through him again, dominating the nexus with their intensity. The sense of fear, of anger and paranoia, of a trust betrayed… and more than that, a genuine fear of being known. Scully recoiled from the overwhelming buffeting.


“It’s all right. I’ll block them until he calms down,” Skinner told her. “I’m sorry – you’re not used to it. It’s confusing.”


She nodded, and left.


Skinner lay down on his couch, nursing one more glass of whisky, and wishing that he had thought to buy another bottle. He felt bone weary. The emotional exchange had exhausted him, and he wanted to reach out to Mulder, to speak to him again, to try and make him understand, but his mind was too tired, and Mulder’s emotions were still too intense for him to even try and make contact with the other man. When the phone rang, he answered it with a surly grunt.


“Mr. Skinner. I trust that you’re fully recovered now?” The voice on the other end of the line was smug, almost purring.


“No thanks to you.” Skinner spat, sitting up.


“On the contrary. I allowed you to live. I hope that you’ll see the power I have over you now, and agree to discuss our little deal.”


“We have no deal.” Skinner snapped.


“You’re being hasty again.” The smoking man chuckled. “You haven’t heard what I have to say yet.”


“You’ve infected me with these nanocytes, and you can pull the trigger on me whenever you want. So what? You could do that anyway. Just kill me if you want, but you won’t get Mulder and Scully if you do.” Skinner growled.


“We don’t want to kill you. In fact, we have no intention of killing you.” The smoking man’s voice was like silk over cold steel. “However…we could easily keep you in considerable pain. Imagine the ordeal of going through your recent experience every few days. Imagine never knowing when you wake up in the morning whether you’ll be well or diseased. I expect you’d lose your job – although I’m sure you’d get an disability pension. Imagine how distressing it would be though, to have to rely on others to nurse you through your many bouts of ill health. I’m sure that a proud man like you would find that hard to bear.”


Skinner closed his eyes, and ran a hand over his pounding temples. He stared his own worst nightmare in the face, and came to his decision.


“Do it then,” he said. “I still won’t help you.”


“We’ll see.” There was a click, and the phone went dead.


Skinner lay back on the couch, wondering if his old enemy would start the process this very night, wondering if his current headache was the beginning of it, or merely a reaction to the emotional overload he’d been subjected to this evening. He closed his eyes, longing for the blissful oblivion of sleep, if only for a few hours.




Scully got down to the parking garage to find that Mulder had ditched her. She wasn’t surprised. She stood there for a moment, trying to decide whether to return to Skinner’s apartment, but she wasn’t ready for that. The information she’d been given was too much, and she felt almost bruised from the intensity of the emotions both men had given free rein too upstairs. Scully hadn’t said a word throughout the meeting. She didn’t feel Mulder’s sense of violation, which surprised her in itself. Maybe I just have less imagination, she pondered, as she began to walk. She understood Mulder’s sense of outrage, she just didn’t feel it. While he saw this link, this… what had Skinner called it? A nexus? While Mulder saw it as a threat, and was deeply suspicious of Skinner, Scully just remembered how it had felt to have him in her mind when they broke into the armaments factory, and the truth was that she had liked it. There was something guileless about the non-verbal communication they had shared. She felt known, and accepted, in a way she had never felt before.


When she returned home, Scully made herself a mug of strong, sweet coffee, and sat down with a sigh. The turmoil in her head refused to go away, and she nursed the warming mug in her hands, still brooding. She found herself faced with a strange reversal. In the past, Mulder had always given Skinner the benefit of the doubt, whereas she had been more suspicious. When had that changed? Scully realized that she could pinpoint exactly when. She remembered the way Skinner had reacted to her danger back in the factory, the way she had held him, and seen something in his heart, or his mind, that was as endearing as it was mysterious. She was certain that Skinner meant them no harm, that this situation had spun out of his control, and he was as much at a loss with how to deal with it as they were.


Scully ran herself a bath, and began undressing. She looked at herself, naked, in the mirror and then flushed. Could he see her standing here like this? Could he see her reflected through the mirror of her own thoughts? Did he know all her secrets? The flush began on her neck, and seeped down over her white flesh, and she shivered. It was a curiously erotic thought, and yet so disturbing too.


Scully wondered what it would be like to make love, knowing that someone was inside her mind, watching – a permanent voyeur. Did he see her touch herself at night? Did he watch her bathe? Did he laugh at the stupid thoughts she amused herself with? The secret thoughts nobody knew about – like the time she sat behind him in a car, and imagined cracking open an egg, and frying it on his bald head. Scully squirmed. Would she have to censor herself the whole time now?


Did he know that she wasn’t as self assured as she liked to appear? Did he ever sense the doubts she shared with nobody, not even Mulder? Did he know that she loved him? Scully jerked her head in surprise. Where had that come from? The thought didn’t surprise her though. They were kindred spirits, she and Skinner. She looked at herself again, and knew that when she had seen into Skinner’s mind, she had recognized a soul not unlike herself. Both of them were so seemingly strong, and self-assured. Scully thought wearily of her long haul journey through the ranks of the FBI, encountering the almost daily sexism that came with working in a field where there were still so few female agents. She knew herself to be strong, but inside she had surprising vulnerabilities which she didn’t allow anybody to see. Skinner was like that too. As hard as steel on the surface but so much hidden, and so much of that surprisingly gentle. Scully couldn’t be angry with him, although a part of her wanted to be.


Scully didn’t get much sleep that night. When she woke the next morning, she felt different, as if something had changed, and there was a nagging ache in her stomach. Unable to pinpoint the problem, she got up, dressed in one of her usual sensible suits, and took herself off to work as if nothing had happened. She looked as immaculate as usual. Nobody would guess at the turmoil going on inside. Mulder wasn’t in the bullpen, and he still hadn’t turned up by 11 am. They had a meeting with Kersh at 12, so Scully called him on his cell phone.








“You’re not at work.”


“You’re one hell of an investigator, Scully. Did you figure that one out by yourself?”


Scully fought back a wave of irritation. “Mulder, just get here. Now.”


“No can do. I’m sulking,” Mulder told her. “In fact, when I woke up this morning I thought I might take the first plane outta here. Then I got to thinking – who the hell are you fooling, Mulder? You can’t outrun this, because it’s in your head and it goes with you. I feel so damn trapped, Scully.”


“We need to talk.” Scully glanced around the bullpen. “Please come to work, Mulder.”




Scully slammed the phone down in exasperation as she realized that he’d hung up.


Well, if she couldn’t talk to Mulder, she could sure as hell talk to Skinner. Maybe he would be able to get through to her partner. Out of all of them, he had the best handle on this situation after all. Scully walked along to Skinner’s office; when she got there she was surprised to see his PA sitting in the Assistant Director’s chair, going through his desk drawers.


“What’s going on? Where’s Skinner?” She asked. The PA shrugged.


“He resigned.”


“He did what?” Scully strode into the room, slamming the door behind her. The PA, who Scully felt sure was a plant, and who she had never liked, blinked in surprise.


“I got here this morning and was told that he’d resigned,” the PA repeated. “He spoke to the Director privately last night apparently.”


“He can’t just resign. He has to give notice.” Scully snapped.


“There were special circumstances apparently. He’s already left. He didn’t come in to pick up his things, or even to say goodbye.” The PA looked saddened by that, and Scully wondered if she’d misjudged the woman. “I thought I’d go through his desk and send him any personal items he might have left, but there aren’t any. He didn’t really bring his personal life to work.”


Scully stared at the woman in disbelief, then turned on her heel and left. She grabbed her jacket, and got into her car, heading out towards Crystal City, her meeting with Kersh completely forgotten. Then she pulled out her cellphone and called Mulder again.


“I want you to get over to Skinner’s apartment,” she told him tersely.


“I don’t think so,” he replied. She could hear him slamming that stupid basketball around his apartment.


“He’s resigned.” Scully snapped.


“What?” There was silence.


“Exactly. He was pretty upset last night, Mulder. I think we should make sure he’s okay.”


“You can, Scully. I don’t want anything to do with the guy.”


“Mulder you’re the one who accused him of everything short of homicide last night. Now I’m asking you to get over to Crystal City.” There was another long silence. “Mulder,” she said at last. “How often do I ever ask you to do anything for me?”


She heard a faint sigh.


“I’m on my way,” he said.




Mulder pulled up in the parking garage a few minutes after Scully.


“He just resigned? What about serving out his notice?” Mulder asked as she set off towards the elevator.


“Apparently he doesn’t need to. Special dispensation from the Director.”


“What?” Mulder exclaimed, aghast.


“Exactly.” Scully replied.


They emerged onto the 17th floor, to find it full of people carrying boxes.


“What the hell’s going on here?” Mulder strode angrily along the corridor – the trail of people led directly to Skinner’s apartment.


“Excuse me – where do you think you’re going?” A woman stopped him at the door.


“Special Agent Fox Mulder, FBI.” He showed her his identification. “And you are?”


“Marianne Lopez, from Lopez Packing. Mr. Skinner hired us to clear out his apartment and arrange to put his belongings into storage.”


“He did what?” Scully pushed past the woman, and saw that the job was already half complete. The living room was bare, its contents packed into a few boxes which were waiting in the hallway.


“Where is Mr. Skinner now?” Mulder asked.


“I have no idea. He paid us in advance, he didn’t leave a forwarding address.”


“In cash?” Mulder questioned.


“What?” The woman glanced distractedly at Scully, who was opening one of the boxes.


“I asked if he paid you in cash.” Mulder repeated urgently.


“As a matter of fact he did, yes. He paid well.” The woman smiled. “He called us late last night. He was in a big hurry – his apartment is being sub-let this afternoon.”


Mulder shook his head and went over to where Scully was busy looking through the box she’d opened. She shot him a look of pure venom, and disappeared up the stairs. Mulder bit on his lip, and followed her. The master bedroom still hadn’t been touched. Scully walked through it, going to the en-suite bathroom, rifling through the cupboards.


“He must have been in a hurry. He didn’t even take his shaving kit.” Scully emerged back into the main bedroom. Mulder opened Skinner’s closet, and peered at the contents.


“It doesn’t look like he took much by way of clothing either,” he murmured. Scully joined him, and her attention was drawn to a pair of black combat pants, neatly folded on a hanger. She pulled them out.


“Scully?” Mulder’s face was wrinkled up into a bemused frown.


“He wore these when we went to the armaments factory.” Scully rummaged around in the pockets, and drew out a syringe. They exchanged glances.


“Skinner was a junkie? How many more secrets are we going to find out about the guy?” Mulder commented wryly.


“I’ll take this to the lab. Have it analyzed.” Scully said, putting it in an evidence bag, and placing it in her pocket.


“Why bother? The guy’s cleared out of here. Maybe that’s for the best.” Mulder shrugged.


“What the hell is it with you, Mulder?” Scully exploded.


“Scully?” Mulder followed her out of the bedroom. She looked so angry that he thought she might explode. “Scully!” He caught up with her, and pulled her around to face him.


“Did you ever think that I might want this? Did you ever stop to think that this was about more than just you?” She snapped at him.


“Scully.” He sounded like a scared child.


“Why does it upset you so much, Mulder? What is this anger all about?” She demanded.


“I just…aren’t you angry?” He looked at her searchingly.


“No. I’m confused, I want to know more, to try and understand, but I’m not angry. I don’t understand you, Mulder. You’ve spent your entire life investigating the paranormal, and the first time you get to really participate in something, to have first hand proof, evidence – you turn your back on it? Why?”


“This isn’t the paranormal. This is people’s brain chemistry being manipulated so that…”


“That’s crap, Mulder. My brain chemistry wasn’t changed, and neither was yours. He was the only one who was experimented on.”


Mulder took a deep breath. “He told you that?”


“No. He showed me. Unintentionally. He didn’t ask for this any more than you or I. Now why the hell does your famous open mind not extend to this particular circumstance?” She demanded, her blue eyes spitting fire.


Mulder stared at her. “I don’t like feeling…invaded,” he whispered at last. “I feel tied down, trapped, it’s almost like a kind of claustrophobia.”


“That’s just your perception. I’m sure that you don’t have any more secrets than the rest of us, Mulder. Why is it so much worse for you to be known? Because that’s what all this is about, isn’t it? Being known? Having him, of all people, knowyou.” She saw from the way he flushed that she was close to the truth, and wondered what dark secret he had that he wanted to keep concealed from Skinner. “All right – have it your way. Make him into the enemy, if you want, but just remember that he’s an enemy who risked his own life to save yours.”


“What the hell are you talking about?” Mulder demanded.


“This.” Scully strode along to the box of belongings in the hallway, pulled out a photograph, and handed it to her partner. “You figure it out, Mulder, I have a hunch to play.”


And so saying, she strode off.


Mulder sat down on the bottom stair, and looked at the photograph, wondering what the hell he was supposed to see. The photo showed a group of soldiers – marines judging by the uniforms. They were muddy, and looked weary, but they were smiling and goofing around for the camera. Mulder scanned each face. There was a blond kid, with a freckled face, a lieutenant – older, his dark hair prematurely graying, a grave, dark-eyed kid, a small, stocky man wearing a crucifix…Mulder’s eyes went back to the dark-eyed soldier, and examined him closely. He closed his eyes, and remembered a cell and a youth, holding out his hand to him. He remembered taking it. He saw a flood of images, and someone saying “I’ll carry you.” He remembered a blood-stained uniform that looked just like the uniforms these soldiers were wearing. Mulder ripped the photograph out of its frame with shaking fingers, and turned it over. There were hand written identifications on the back. “Casey, Logan, Me, J.A…”


Mulder turned the photograph back over, and traced the outline of Skinner with his finger.


“Jace?” he whispered.




Scully charged out of the elevator like a lioness going into battle. She located the doorman and flashed her badge at him.


“I need to look through your security tapes,” she told him. He looked surprised, but led her into a back room, where the tapes were stored, neatly labelled.


“We run them on a 2 month rotation. Anything older than 2 months has been wiped.”


“Do you know Walter Skinner?” She asked him.


He shrugged. “Sure. Nice guy. Big tip at Christmas. Works long hours, no family, no life.” The man grinned. “Always looks kind of grumpy, bald, expensive suits…”


“Yes, that’s him,” she interrupted. “Do you ever remember seeing him dressed casually…?”


“Plenty of times – jeans, gym clothes. He worked out a lot. We have a gym here in the apartment block, and a pool…”


“Yes.” Scully interrupted his sales pitch. “I’m thinking about some specific clothing. All black – combat style. Do you remember seeing him dressed like that?”


“Can’t say I do.” The man shrugged. “Hang on…yeah, I do remember – I remember because he looked like shit. You know, staggering around. I thought ‘This guy’s had one too many’. You know what I’m saying? I was so busy wondering if he was going to make it back to his apartment without throwing up in my elevator, that I hardly noticed what he was wearing, until you just mentioned it.”


“Thanks.” Scully nodded, and surveyed the tapes. It didn’t take her long to find what she was looking for.




“What’s this?” Mulder looked up as Scully threw the tape into his lap.


“Evidence,” she replied, cryptically. Mulder took the tape back upstairs and played it on the video in Skinner’s bedroom.


“Is he drunk?” Mulder freeze-framed the image.


“No. He’s drugged.”


Mulder raised a disbelieving eyebrow. “I was only joking when I accused him of being a junkie, Scully,” he told her.


“Look at the date of the tape, Mulder.” She handed him the box.


“January 9?” He frowned.


“Yes… the date we mysteriously came back to life. Do you think the two events are unrelated? Look at the time he returns.” She pointed. “I think we regained consciousness about half an hour before then. I’d say that the method he chose of reaching us was to take some kind of mind-altering substance. He saved our lives, and if the price for that is this…nexus thing, well I personally think it’s a price worth paying. Now I’m going to find him, and tell him so. Are you coming?”


“Scully.” He hung back. She turned, expecting a battle, but only found a look of anxiety in his eyes. “Didn’t you stop to think that we have a method of telling him all this without finding him? Or at least, we used to.”


“What do you mean?” Scully frowned.


“Did you feel different when you woke up this morning, Scully?” He asked.


“I…yes.” Scully looked at him, her eyes wide and astonished.


“I was so busy being angry, that it blocked out everything else. He hasn’t just gone from here, Scully. He’s gone altogether. He’s gone from inside my mind.”


“You don’t think he…?” Scully whispered.


“No. The last time he ‘died’ we sure as hell felt that. I don’t know what’s happened to him, Scully, but I have a bad feeling about this.”




“Ah – you’re awake.”


Skinner struggled to open his eyes, then blinked as the bright light assaulted him.


“Good afternoon, Walter.”


Skinner shook his head, trying to clear it. The room swam into focus, and he saw a short, stocky man standing in front of him. His blond hair was thinning at the back, and his eyes were a strangely pale shade of blue. Skinner squinted at him, unable to see clearly without his glasses.


“Who…” Skinner cleared his throat, then tried again. “Who are you?” He managed to rasp at last.


“I’m your nemesis, Walter,” the man stated seriously. Then he broke into a laugh, his body suffused with energy. “My name is Robert Noy – although I’m sure you’ll call me by many different names before our work here is complete. I’m used to that, and can assure you that I won’t take offense.”


“I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.” Skinner swallowed again. His throat was dry, and he was thirsty.


“You’d like a drink.” Noy remarked.


“Yes.” Skinner glanced down. He was still dressed in sweatpants and a tee shirt, but his wrists were handcuffed behind his back. He was sitting on a chair, in the middle of a room that was empty save for a desk. Noy was perched on the desk. He had an open, friendly, good-natured face.


“Well, maybe if you co-operate you can have a drink.” Noy smiled as if they were discussing the weather.


“If I co-operate?”


“Yes.” Noy went and sat down behind the desk. He gestured to a thick file. “Walter Skinner, this is your life.” He grinned again, chuckling at his little joke. “I’ve read this file from cover to cover, several times. Born June 3, 1952, in Lone Oak, Iowa. Son of Rebekah and William Skinner, one brother, Joseph. You enlisted in the marines on your 18th birthday in order to serve in Vietnam – how noble of you – distinguished in battle – several times – awarded the Navy Cross, Silver Star, Purple Heart…hmm, very impressive.” Noy paused, and glanced at his captive. Skinner raised an eyebrow. “Of course, you know all this.” Noy laughed. “Badly wounded, 3 month stay in a VA hospital…an undergraduate degree in political science, law degree – graduated first in your class, distinguished career in the FBI – hmmm, that word ‘distinguished’ again, Walter. My, my, you’re a perfectionist aren’t you?” Noy’s eyes didn’t leave Skinner’s face, but there was no reaction to that comment. “So, back to the facts – fast track to promotion, wife Sharon died in a car accident a few years ago,” Noy shook his head. “A-ha, Walter. I see a chink in that armor of perfection. Prior to your wife’s death you’d been separated for eight months. That must have been upsetting for you. A failed marriage? Failure – Walter Skinner, those words aren’t usually used in the same sentence are they?” Skinner’s jaw clenched, and Noy laughed again. “In short…” he gestured to the file, “all the facts and figures, everything we need to know about Walter Skinner.” He picked up the file and dumped it theatrically in the trash can. “And yet nothing at all. Nothing at all about the man.”


Noy got up, and came to stand directly in front of Skinner. He crouched down in front of his captive, and examined his face, thoughtfully. “Why do you keep yourself so fit, Walter? Hmm?” He asked, placing a hand around one of Skinner’s biceps. “Impressive, Walter. Very impressive.” Skinner tried to shrug him off, and Noy laughed again. He was, Skinner thought, like an excitable little flea. “So, you haven’t answered my question – what’s behind the colossus image, Walter? Why do you need to keep yourself so strong? What are you afraid of?”


Skinner jerked his head in annoyance. “What the hell kind of a game is this, Robert?” He growled.


“You don’t like me using your first name?” Noy asked innocently. “Hmmm. I’ll remember that.”


“Why am I here?” Skinner demanded.


“You know the answer to that, Walter,” Noy tapped him reprovingly on the head. “You were sent here, by an associate of mine. It seems that you refused a job opportunity he gave you, and he wasn’t very happy about that.”


“That son of a bitch is behind this?” Skinner snarled, yanking his hands fruitlessly, frustrated by the handcuffs that bound him.


“My associate trained me in my craft, and has kept me gainfully employed since. He sends me people who he think could benefit from my services.” Noy laid a hand on Skinner’s shoulder, as if to calm him.


“Your craft?” Skinner asked.


“I’m a psychologist.” Noy told him. “My specialty is breaking people down into tiny little pieces, then building them back up again.” He slapped Skinner’s shoulder cheerfully. “In the image of our choosing,” he added, as he went to sit back down. “It’s surprisingly easy once you know the tricks, Walter. I have a 100% success rate. It can be a little painful, but I’m sure that if you approach the process with a willing heart and a desire to be helpful, then any discomfort will be minimized.”


“You’re a professional torturer.” Skinner stated, with a wry, mocking smile.


“Such a crude word,” Noy smirked, “but yes, if you must insist on calling a spade a spade, Walter, then ‘torturer’ sums it up fairly well. I like to think I’m little more sophisticated than that though. You see, I’m fairly specialized. I can do extracting information, but really that’s simple stuff. What I prefer, what really excites me…” he leaned forward, his face glowing, “is what I’m going to do you, Walter. I’m going to pull you apart, and find out what makes you tick. When I put you back together again, you’ll be as good as new – better even, and so much more co-operative.”


“You can do what you want to me.” Skinner shook his head. “I doubt you can do anything that hasn’t been done before. I’ve experienced pain – I’m sure you’ve seen my medical notes from Vietnam, so you’ll know that pain alone doesn’t hold a great deal of fear for me. I’m sure you can hurt me, but you must already know that I’d rather die than let you, or anyone else, break me, as you so crudely put it.”


“You’re not the suicidal type.” Noy commented wryly. “Ah, Walter. You’re so certain. So confident.” He smiled. “As if pain was my only weapon. It isn’t. In fact, I prefer to use it sparingly. I find it makes more of an impact that way. I told you that this is a craft, and I’m a supreme artist. You are my blank canvas, Walter, and you know, I have a feeling that you might turn out to be my masterpiece.” He nodded to himself, those strangely icy eyes gleaming opaquely. “Now, you’ll forgive me for saying that you haven’t been very helpful, have you?” Noy put his head on one side and then shook it, in mock sadness. “So, I think that drink will have to wait. You’ve also been injected with a drug – its effects will wear off soon enough but you’ll find that it’s blocked your, uh, shall we say ‘special’ abilities. I’m sure that you’re dying to tell your young friends where you are, but of course you don’t know, and there’s no way that you’ll find out. When the drug wears off you’ll have to satisfy yourself instead with telling them how much danger you’re in. Or would that worry them too much? Hmm?” Noy’s pressed his face up close to Skinner, and Skinner turned his head away.


“I do hope they deserve your devotion, Walter.” Noy commented, rocking back on his heels. “You’ll need to have something to cling to for the next few days. Knowing that they’re worthy of your suffering will keep you going I expect.”


Skinner ground his teeth together, and shook his head. “You won’t succeed with me.” He stated firmly.


“Won’t I? I’m dying to find out what’s underneath the immaculate appearance, of Walter Sergei Skinner.” Noy plucked a photograph out of the dumped file. “Freshly laundered, crisp white shirts, everything in its place down to your polished shoes. What a perfect front you present to the world, Walter, not a hair out of place, if you’ll excuse the inappropriate metaphor.” He glanced at Skinner’s bald head with a laugh. “It’s going to be such fun discovering what’s beneath it all.” He clapped his hands together in exaggerated anticipation, then pressed a bell on his desk, and a few seconds later two men in dark uniforms entered the room.


“Farewell for now, Walter.” Noy smiled. “We’ll talk again soon,” he promised.


“I’m looking forward to it already.” Skinner replied sarcastically. Noy grinned in delight and waved him goodbye.


Skinner was taken along a corridor, and down some stairs, then ushered into a small, white room. The door was locked behind him. He looked around. There was nothing in the room. There was no window and no bed – just a bucket that he presumed represented the toilet facilities.


It took him all of two seconds to explore his new home, and then he sank wearily to the floor. He remembered falling asleep on his couch, then waking up briefly as something was put over his face. He had struggled for a few seconds, but after that he must have lost consciousness as he remembered nothing else until he had woken up here. Skinner saw that his watch was missing. He also noticed a bruise on his right arm, and further investigation revealed needle marks. He lay back against the cool, hard wall. His head was pounding, and he would have killed for some water to dampen his parched throat. He tried sending his mind along the nexus, but the drugs they’d injected him with had done their job, and he couldn’t even find the link, let alone communicate with Mulder or Scully. His brain felt groggy, and his whole body felt as if a two-ton trunk had hit it. All the energy had been knocked out of him.


He closed his eyes, thinking to relieve his discomfort by sleep, but the moment his eyelids touched, a siren sounded in the cell. Skinner got up, and paced around, and the siren stopped. He glanced up at the ceiling, and saw the cameras – too far up for him to reach, or dismantle in any way. There were cameras in all four corners of the ceiling – nowhere in the cell was out of their field of vision. Skinner rubbed his aching neck, and sat back down again, closing his eyes once more. The siren sounded again, making him jump. He ignored it, pulled his knees up to his chest, and placed his arms around them, resting his head. A few seconds later the cell door opened, and a guard stepped inside.


“You will remain awake,” the man told him.


“Or?” Skinner asked.


“Or we’ll make you.” The guard replied, flexing his arms in an unsubtle way. Skinner thought about it for a moment. He remembered something his mother had said to him, years before: “Choose your battles wisely, Walter.” This didn’t seem worth fighting over.


“I’ll stay awake then,” he agreed. The guard nodded, and stepped back outside the cell again. Skinner sat back down on the floor, kept his eyes wide open, and began to run through his options.




Georgetown, Washington DC.

February 16, 1999.


“So – where do we start?” Scully asked, as she opened the door to her apartment and let Mulder in.


“At the beginning?” He ventured, holding up the disks he had stolen from the Hoover Building.


“Which is where?” She looked over his shoulder as he inserted the disks into her waiting laptop computer.


“Lone Oak, Iowa.” Mulder pointed at the screen, bringing up a file on Skinner.


“He was awarded the Navy Cross?” Scully let out a low whistle.


“Yeah. He got that for something he did in Vietnam.”


“The Navy Cross is really big, Mulder.” Scully said in an awe-struck tone. “My father would have been seriously impressed.”


“The guy is a hero.” Mulder shrugged. “What about the syringe?” He glanced up at her, his fingers speeding over the keyboard. “What were the results on that?”


“Heroin – and Skinner’s DNA on the needle.”


“Scully…” Mulder bit on his lip, frowning. “I’m trying to make sense of this.”


“Really?” She raised an eyebrow. “Usually you’re two steps ahead.”


“Okay, maybe I’ve been in denial on this one.” Mulder gave a wry smile. “We didn’t talk much about our OBE did we?”


“No. To be honest, a lot of seems…blurry. Like a dream.” Scully admitted. “But I do know that someone called Jace saved my life, and I know that he looked a hell of a lot like that Vietnam photograph of Skinner.”


“Heroin’s a mind altering drug. Do you think that somehow it enabled him to have an OBE of his own?”


“It’s the only thing that makes any sense.” Scully shrugged.


“No, Scully, it doesn’t make sense. I mean why did he look like that? Why was he so young, and what was it with all the blood?” Mulder frowned.


“I don’t know. I suspect that the only one who does is Skinner.”


“And he’s missing.” Mulder looked into her blue eyes, his own hazel ones troubled. “You blame me for that, don’t you?”


“I…” Scully hesitated. “No. I do understand, Mulder, I even agree with you on some level. It’s just that I’d like to know the full story before I make any more judgments.”


“Fair enough.” He nodded. “If Skinner is this Jace person who saved our lives, then I figure we owe him one, and I’ll do everything I can to find him.’”


“Mulder – what about Kersh?”


Their eyes met.


“Fuck him.” Mulder grinned.




Skinner wasn’t sure how much time passed, but suddenly there was activity in the cell, a loud noise, someone slapping his face – hard. He sat up in confusion, and pushed the black-uniformed guard away.


“Please stay awake, Walter,” a voice said. He looked up groggily, into Noy’s pale blue eyes.


“It’s very important that you obey my instructions.” Noy crouched down in front of him. “I could send someone here to help you. Would you like that?” Noy asked.


“Help me?” Skinner repeated, confused.


“Yes.” Noy smiled. “Just to help you stay awake. I can be very generous like that.” He clicked his fingers, and two young people, a man and a woman, entered the cell. Neither of them could have been more than twenty-five. “This is Antonio.” Noy gestured to the man and he came forward. He was stunningly good looking, with thick dark hair, and a wide, sensuous mouth. “And this is Marla.” Noy gestured, and the woman stepped forward nervously. She was no slouch either – petite, with shiny blonde hair, and deep green eyes. “Marla, Antonio – this is Walter. I want you to treat him well. Marla – you take the first watch.” Noy instructed, and she nodded.


Skinner watched, bemused, as everyone but Marla left the cell. She sat down beside him, and took his hand in hers, gently stroking the fingers. He accepted the caress, numbly, trying to make sense of this development.


“We have to make sure that you stay awake because I don’t want them to hurt you.” Marla confided. “Maybe we can talk?”


“I won’t tell you anything.” Skinner told her, his dry mouth giving the words a rasping quality.


“I’m not here to interrogate you.” She looked surprised.


“No? Why are you here then?” Skinner asked.


“To make it easier for you to stay awake. To offer comfort,” she added shyly, her fingers caressing his hand. He pulled it away and noted that she looked almost hurt. “Please, Walter. I really don’t want them to hurt you again. Please, can we just talk? About anything – not about you if you don’t want.”


He looked into her green eyes, and noticed the way her hair fell across her face. He wished she was Scully. “Tell me about the music you listen to. Or the books you like to read.” She prompted, taking his hand again, and resting it in her lap. Skinner sighed, and banged his head back against the wall.


“I want some water,” he rasped, rolling his aching shoulders.


“They won’t let me.” She looked frightened. “I’m sorry. Does your neck hurt?”




“Here. I might be able to help.” She knelt beside him, and placed her hands on his neck. He stiffened under her touch, and she began to knead, firmly but gently. “Keep your eyes open or they’ll see,” she whispered. “There. Does that feel good?”


“Yeah, it does. Very good.” He nodded, wishing that he could sleep, or drink, but accepting the only comfort that was being offered to him in this whole nightmare.


“You’re so tired. I wish I could help more.” Her voice caressed his ear.


“Never mind. It’s not your fault.” He shrugged. Her fingers continued their gentle probing. “You’re good at this,” he rasped.


“Yes – I have a degree in personal massage.” She laughed, a tinkling sound, like a little bell. “Maybe they’ll let me bring in my aromatherapy oils. I’d like to massage you properly.”


Skinner thought how bizarre it was that he was locked up in a cell, being fawned over by a very attractive young woman, but he was too tired to give it much thought. His mind was working on remote right now, stuck in a numb space where it stayed awake, but wasn’t capable of much more.


He listened to her inconsequential chatter for what seemed like hours. She had two sisters, but she was the youngest, which didn’t mean that she was spoiled, she wanted him to know. It was tragic being the youngest – you always had to wear hand-me-downs and got teased the whole time. She had once had a boyfriend called Brad who hadn’t treated her very well, and her sisters had thrown paint all over his car in revenge. Skinner grunted in all the right places, closing his eyes, and opening them again as she dug her fingers into his back.


“Please,” she whispered. “They will hurt you. I know they will.”


He cleared his throat, and sat up straighter.




Lone Oak, Iowa.

Feburary 17, 1999.


“Lone Oak, Iowa.” Mulder stepped out of the car, and stretched his long body. “Nowheresville. Everytown.” He glanced around. “Just your average small town. A Carnegie Library, a water-tower, a drugstore, a coffee shop.”


“Yes, Mulder. I can see.” Scully got out of the car and stood beside him.


“I think…” Mulder did a 180-degree turn, and then pointed. “Coffee shop. Center of local gossip. Let’s find out more about the Skinners shall we?”


“Old William Skinner died, oh, about ten years ago now.” The whiskered old man unbuckled his prosthetic leg and rubbed the stump enthusiastically. Mulder exchanged a glance with Scully. “If you ask me, he never got over the accident, although Rebekah went before him. She died…let’s see, must have been 1972. The eldest boy was just back from ‘Nam. Shot up pretty bad. Will jnr, or Wayne…something like that.”


“Walter?” Mulder asked, ordering another plate of fries and a soda for the old man, who seemed to have the tastes of your average 10-year-old.


“That’s the boy’s name. He moved on straight after the wake. We never saw him again until his daddy’s funeral. I don’t know why folk can find the time to attend funerals when they can’t be bothered to visit. Young’uns are so busy with their lives and their fancy cars,” the old man spat on the wooden floor, “that they forget about the old folks back home. Would a visit have hurt him, huh?” He attacked his second plate of fries with gusto.


“So you haven’t seen him recently?” Mulder asked. “In the past couple of days, maybe?


“William? I just told you, son, he passed away years ago.” The old man looked at Mulder as if he were an idiot. Mulder nodded, and smiled.


“I meant Walter. The, uh, boy.” He grimaced at Scully. The thought of anyone calling Skinner a ‘boy’ seemed laughable.


“Eldest lad? Around these parts? No. I’d have remembered.” The old man chuckled. “The Skinners were well known. Someone would have talked if they’d clapped eyes on young Wade.”


“Walter.” Scully corrected absently.


“That’s the fella! Now, old William, he and I shared the same problem. I lost my leg back in WW2, but he had a limp that must have driven him half crazy with pain. I used to say to him – Will, just get the darn thing taken off, much less trouble that way, but he wouldn’t listen. Didn’t want nobody calling him a cripple. He was a good man – ask anyone around here. There’s a few families wouldn’t be here today if Will hadn’t given them extensions on their loans. Farming’s a tough business, and there were times we all struggled.”


“William Skinner used to work in the bank?” Mulder asked.


“That’s right. He used to be a farmer himself, but after the accident he struggled on for a couple of years and then he had to give in, take a desk job in town. His brother in law worked in the bank – he got Will the job. They stayed on living at the farm, but the other side of the family used to work it. Must have hit Will hard, relying on other folk, but he never said. He was a good man. Nice family.”


“Can you direct us to the farm?” Scully asked.


“Nobody’s lived there since Will died. None of his sons stayed around to work on the land.” The old spat on the ground again in disapproval. “You can go up there – I’ll draw you a little map, see.” Mulder gave him a pen, and the man drew on the back of a napkin. “Farmhouse might still be standing – it’s been a long time since I was up there.”


“Thank you, sir.” Scully smiled, and patted the man’s stump. He grinned at her, and slapped her bottom as she turned to leave. Mulder winced.


“So, what exactly is it about young’uns and their fancy cars?” Mulder grinned, as they walked outside and got into their shiny silver rental.


“Too busy polishing them to visit their folks.” Scully shook her head wryly, doing a fairly good imitation of the old man’s accent.


“I wonder why he didn’t visit though?” Mulder mused, as they got in the car, and he tried to follow the shakily drawn map. “I mean, doesn’t Skinner strike you as the sort of guy who’d view it as his duty to trek out here a couple of times a year to visit?”


“Maybe he did. Maybe that old man just didn’t know about it.” Scully shrugged.


“This is a small town, Scully.” Mulder shook his head. “If Skinner visited – everybody would have known. My guess is that there was some kind of rift with his father, and after his mother died there was nothing to come back for.”


“Maybe.” Scully nodded, her head jolting as the car turned off the road, and along a gravel track. “But none of this takes us any closer to finding Skinner.”


“Maybe. Maybe not.” Mulder drew the car to a halt. “And that’s another thing. His father’s name was William?”


“Yes. So what?” Scully got out of the car, and looked around.


“Like your dad, and mine?” Mulder raised an eyebrow, and whistled the Twilight Zone music. “Coincidence, Scully, or something more sinister?”


“Coincidence.” Scully told him firmly. “William is a common name, Mulder.”


They found an old farmhouse in a state of some dilapidation. Mulder peered through the window.


“Imagine living here, in the fifties. Must have been kind of like growing up in a sitcom.”


“I’m sure that’s not how it seemed to Skinner.” Scully glanced around. “Well, he’s not here.”


“You were expecting him to be?” Mulder got out his flashlight and shone it around the dark interior of the house.


“No. Not really.” Scully sighed. “I was hoping though.”


“Hoping that he’d come home, back to his roots, like salmon?”


“Salmon go home to mate, Mulder.” Scully pointed out.


“Hmmm. And Skinners don’t come home at all.” Mulder put his flashlight away. “He hasn’t been here, Scully.”


“How do you know?”


“I just know.”




Some time later, the cell door opened, and two guards entered the room. They gestured him to get up, and he staggered to his feet, his whole body protesting. He felt like an old man.


“Good luck, Walter,” Marla whispered, and he gave her the faintest hint of a smile, before he was ushered out of the cell and returned to Noy’s office.


“Walter – how are you feeling?” The interrogator asked him.


“Lousy,” he growled. “Sleep deprivation, lack of food and water. Isn’t lousy how I’m supposed to be feeling?”


“Yes it is.” Noy smiled. “However I’ve looked through your medical records and you’re in excellent health, so I’m sure that this little ordeal means nothing to a man of your strong disposition. Like the proverbial ox, aren’t we, Walter?”


“Are we?” Skinner rolled his eyes.


“Yes – amazing for a man who was so recently dead.” Noy informed him. “My associate told me about the nanocytes. He gave me this.” Noy held up a palm pilot. “Apparently, if I just press this button here…” His finger was poised over the device, and Skinner braced himself for imminent discomfort. “I’ll consider it.” Noy took his finger away, and Skinner felt himself relaxing. “But really, I’m suspicious of all this new-fangled technology. And this,” he gestured at the palm pilot, “seems to be to be an imprecise art. I’d hate to kill you accidentally. I pride myself on never having lost a client yet.”


“A client?” Skinner raised an eyebrow. “I wasn’t aware that I was paying for your services.”


“Well of course you are, Walter.” Noy told him. “You’ll pay – in sweat, and tears, and confessions. I always do my best by my clients. Now if you’d just take off your shirt.”




“Don’t question everything, Walter. I’m sure it’s in your nature, but it’d be easier if you didn’t. Take it off.” Skinner sighed, and finally pulled the tee shirt over his head, tossing it down on the chair. “Good. I think that deserves a reward – don’t you?” He handed Skinner a glass with a thimbleful of water in it. Skinner gulped it down in one go. “I know you’d like more. Co-operate and you can have more. Take a seat.” Noy gestured to the chair.


“Aren’t you going to handcuff me again?” Skinner asked, doing as he was told.


“Do I need to? I only want to chat.” Noy smiled. “Tell me about yourself.”


“My favorite color is blue, I hate cucumber, and the first cat I ever owned was called Lucky.” Skinner replied facetiously.


“Really? And was she?” Noy chuckled, pouring himself a coffee, and stirring it. Skinner felt his dry mouth almost spasm with need. “Lucky I mean?” Noy added.


“No. She got hit by a truck.” Skinner snapped.


“Ah. An early tragedy. How did you feel about that?” Noy asked. Skinner raised his eyes heavenward again.


“I was seven years old. How do you think I felt?”


“You loved her then? Was she a little stray you adopted?” Noy put some sugar in his coffee, then some cream, and resumed stirring it.


“Yes.” Skinner shrugged. “She was a farm cat. We lived on a farm. Her mother died when she was a few weeks old. Mom didn’t approve of cats living in the house so I smuggled her in. She slept in my bed.”


“Waifs and strays. How many of those have you collected in your life, Walter?”


“Are we talking cats here?” Skinner snapped.


“We’re talking anything.” Noy smiled, and raised his cup to his lips.


“Can I have some more water?” Skinner asked.


“No. Tell me something else about yourself, Walter. You have a brother. Is he still alive?”




“And your mother and father?”


“Both dead, but you must know that already,” Skinner replied, with an irritated snap of his head that he regretted instantly, as the world spun around him. “I need some more water,” he said.


“No you don’t. Not yet. You’d like some, yes, but you don’t need it yet. My art is a precise one, Walter, and I’m very good at it.”


“Fuck you.” Skinner growled.


“Hmmm. Sex.” Noy smiled. “Is that on your mind right now?”


“What? How likely is that?” Skinner hissed.


“I don’t know. You tell me.” Noy sat back in his chair, and took a sip of his coffee. Then he opened a packet of cookies, and took one out. He dipped it thoughtfully in the coffee, then devoured it in a series of dainty nibbles. “Have you ever slept with a man, Walter?”


“What the hell kind of question is that?” Skinner snapped.


“Just a question. Have you?”


“No.” Skinner shrugged, not wanting to explore this particular subject any further.


“Do you want to sleep with Mulder?”




“Do you want to sleep with Scully?”


“Scully’s a woman, you were asking about men.” Skinner’s voice dripped with as much disrespect as he could muster.


“And the answer to my question is?” Noy dunked another cookie in his coffee.




“Why not? She’s very pretty. Most straight men would want to sleep with her.” Noy smiled.


“I work with her. I respect her.” Skinner replied, evenly.


“And you don’t respect people that you sleep with?”


“That isn’t what I said!” Skinner protested.


“Hmmm. Why do you protect Mulder and Scully, Walter?” Noy questioned. “You don’t have any sexual interest in them, so there must be another reason.”


“You’re saying that it isn’t possible to act out of friendship?” Skinner raised an incredulous eyebrow.


“Would they call you a ‘friend’?” Noy asked. Skinner hesitated. “Well?”


“I don’t know.” Skinner shrugged.


“So, it’s a pretty one-sided friendship then.” Noy mused. “Where did you learn the art of protection, Walter? Of adopting waifs and strays, and forming one-sided little friendships? Does it bother you that they don’t reciprocate your emotions?”


“I haven’t asked them too.” Skinner snapped.


“Ah. I see.” Noy nodded sagely. “So, you’d give your life to protect them, but you don’t expect anything back from them – not even a crumb of friendship. That’s fairly selfless of you, Walter. Why haven’t asked them to give you anything back? Is it because you always have to be in control? Never needing anything from anyone else? Is it safer that way?”


“Oh spare me the psychobabble.” Skinner sighed wearily. “Just let me sleep, or give me some water.”


“You can have some more water if you answer my questions.” Noy poured a glass of water, and placed it in on the desk, just out of Skinner’s reach. Skinner thought about it for a moment. They were only questions. They didn’t mean anything.


“All right. What do you want to know?” he growled.


“Tell me more about the waifs and strays.” Noy smiled. “Tell me who was next, after the inappropriately named Lucky.”




“Mulder?” Scully ran up the hill after him, her long coat flapping around her ankles. She felt too warm, despite the freezing February wind. “Mulder!” she finally caught up with him and grabbed hold of his arm. “What are you doing? I thought you said he hasn’t been here.”


“He hasn’t.” Mulder glanced around from the vantage point of the hilltop. “Look at it, Scully. Imagine what it must have been like growing up here. Wheat ripening in the summer sun. Dogs running around, cattle maybe…”


“Idyllic.” Scully grunted.


“So idyllic that Skinner enlisted on his 18th birthday to get away. Maybe Vietnam seemed like a nicer place to be?” Mulder frowned and tugged on his bottom lip, deep in thought. “Look.” He pointed at something silver glittering through the trees. Scully turned around, and opened her mouth to say something, only to find that he’d set off again.


“Damn it, Mulder, I’m not wearing the right shoes for hiking,” she grumbled, chasing after him again.


“It’s a lake.” Mulder told her when she caught up with him.


“Clearly.” Scully replied, tight-lipped. “And you trekked out here to see it – why?” She asked pointedly.


“Just a hunch. I wonder if there’s anyone still living around here who remembers Skinner, or his family?”


“Out here? In the middle of nowhere? Why would there be?” Scully asked.


“Ah – bingo!” Mulder grinned his most infuriating grin, and pointed at a small cabin on the far side of the small lake.


“Mulder, tell me that you’re not…oh shit!” Scully looked down, one foot stuck in mud up to her ankle. When she looked up again she saw, with a groan of disbelief, that Mulder had already set off on his journey to the other side of the lake.




“Hello! Anyone at home?” Mulder knocked on the door of the cabin, and peered inside. It was small, and dimly lit, but cozy.


“Who’s that? Ah, I’ve been expecting you! Come in, come in.” A woman appeared at the door, making him jump.


“Sorry, I didn’t hear anyone.” He flushed.


“That’s okay. Come in.” She opened the door wide, and gestured him to sit down. He glanced around. There were no chairs, just some enormous cushions, and a low table.


“Minimalist.” She winked. “People spend too much money on a load of crap they don’t need in their houses, don’t you think?”


“Um, yeah.” He grinned, taking to her immediately. “Absolutely!” He thought of his own sparsely furnished apartment.


“I’m Cressie. Short for Cressida. Don’t ask.” She sighed.


“I won’t. My own name’s Fox, and people who live in glass houses…”


“Exactly!” She roared with laughter. “Fox…oh dear god!”


“Yeah.” He settled his lanky frame down on one of her cushions, finding it surprisingly comfortable.


Cressie was a tall, raw-boned woman, with thick, coarse brown hair. She was wearing a pair of tight old jeans, and a sweater that showed off her ample bust. She was of indeterminate age, although Mulder put her in her early twenties. She wasn’t exactly a beauty, but she had a fire in her green eyes, that Mulder found curiously sensual. He decided that he liked her. At that moment, a muddy, scowling Scully appeared in the doorway.


“Hi.” Cressie smiled and beckoned her in. “Come on. Shit – is it muddy outside? Look at your nice suede boots!”


“I know.” Scully treated Mulder to one of her best icy stares.


“Sit down, hon. Have a rest for a bit. Fire’s on. Fancy a drink? Oh, I’m Cressie by the way. Cressida Mulvey.”


“Dana Scully.”


“Pleased to meet you, sweetheart.” Cressie gave her an appraising stare. “Really pleased.” She surprised Scully by putting her arms around the smaller woman, and giving her a quick bear hug. “Sit down, Dana. I have coffee ready to go.” She poured them both a mug of coffee, and brought it over.”


“You’re not joining us?” Mulder gestured to the mugs and she shook her head.


“I prefer something stronger, honey!” She gave a deep throated laugh, and pulled out a bottle, placing it to her lips and taking a swig.


“We’re here about Walter Skinner. We wondered if you knew him.” Scully asked. Cressida laughed out loud.


“Knew him! Walter and I grew up together!” She exclaimed.


“Walter Skinner? Are you sure?” Scully exchanged a look with Mulder. “I’m sorry – are we talking about the same person?”


“Sure.” Cressida took another swig of her drink.


“No offense, but you look too young.” Mulder said smoothly. Cressida roared with laughter again.


“Why would I take offense at that, sweetheart!” She reached out and patted his knee.” Mulder exchanged an amused glance with Scully. “I kind of keep the lighting low in here for a reason.” Cressida winked again. “Now, let’s get back to Walter. Are you friends of his?” She looked at them both keenly.


“Yes.” Mulder said firmly.


Scully nodded. “Yes, we are. In fact, we work with him, and we were wondering if you’d heard from him recently.”


“From Walter? No.” Cressida shook her head. “He moved on right after his mom died. Nothing to keep him here. Not even me.” She looked regretful.


Mulder leaned forward, his curiosity roused. “Are you saying that you and Skinner were…romantically involved?”


“Romantic!” Cressida laughed again. “I’m not a great one for romance, and to be honest, Walter wasn’t either. We were just lost souls. Me, Walter, and Nathan. We hung out together. He had to sneak out to be with us. It used to make me laugh – him with his neat clothes, and oh so perfect family, and us from the wrong side of the tracks. Nat was brought up by his grandma. She was a senile old coot. Once she mistook Nat for the family dog and locked him in the kennel all night.” She roared with laughter. Scully winced. “Well, it seemed funny at the time.” Cressida shrugged. “As for me, well my mom was the neighborhood tramp, and I was on a fast track to following in her footsteps. I don’t think Walter’s parents would have approved of us. I used to tease Walter about that,” Cressie confided. “Hanging out with trash like us. I accused him of playing in the gutter, making himself feel good by having folks like us to look down on. Of course it wasn’t that at all.” She shook her head sadly. “I always did have a habit of shooting my mouth off. We did make him feel good, but not in a superior way. That whole family was so damn serious, like they all had something up their respective asses, if you’ll excuse my French. I viewed it as my own special project to loosen that kid up.” She took another gulp of her drink, and winked at them again. “I think I succeeded in that. Big time.” Her laugh was positively bawdy after that statement. Scully raised both eyebrows, and Mulder suppressed a smile.


“They say you never forget your first, and Walter was kind of unforgettable. I seduced him out by the lake, with Nat watching from a nearby tree. It was kinda cute.”


“Um. Yeah.” Mulder shot Scully a glance of disbelief. “Nat watched?” He asked, curious.




“Did you both, uh, know he was watching?” Mulder pursued, with a morbid fascination.


“Sure. Yeah.” Cressida grinned. “Nat was like a puppy, or a squirrel, or something. He was always just there, hanging around, leaping out of trees and stuff. Poor kid. We just let him tag along. When Walter upped and left for ‘Nam it broke Nat’s heart.”


“What happened to him?” Scully asked.


“Oh hell, sister, what happens to all trash? He was washed out to sea like the rest of us. Just human flotsam and jetsam. He was never going anywhere anyhow. He couldn’t read or write, and mostly he didn’t bother with school.”


“But you stayed here.” Mulder glanced around the cabin. “Did Walter come back?”


“Yeah. Poor bastard. Shot full of holes, and really pissed with life. I told him he could stop damn well feeling sorry for himself around me, because as far as I could see it was his own fault. He should never have enlisted in the first place. I, uh, never was much of a sympathetic shoulder to cry on.” Cressida admitted with an apologetic shrug. “And hell, by then I was so drunk half the time I didn’t know what I was saying. Like mother, like daughter I guess.” She gave a rueful shrug. “Walter couldn’t do nothin’ for me. Nobody could. He cleared on out of here soon after his mom died. He took his brother to live in town with his aunt after his mom died, and then moved on.”


“Why did he do that? Take his brother away?” Mulder pressed.


“’Cause he didn’t want the kid left alone with his old man.”


“William Skinner? We heard that he was the salt of the earth, pillar of the local community.” Mulder frowned.


“Yeah, that’s what it looked like. Everyone in that family looked the part, but I’m telling you, there was something seriously fucked up about the lot of them. Walter didn’t talk about it. He doesn’t talk much about himself, but he was one stressed-out kid. We helped him unwind.”


“You haven’t seen him since?” Scully asked.


“Hell no. I haven’t seen anyone since. Until you folk, that is.” Cressida grinned, and knocked back another shot of whatever alcoholic substance was in the bottle. Scully exchanged a puzzled glance with Mulder who shrugged, looking equally perplexed.


“And do you have any idea where he might go if he was…uh, really upset about something?” Mulder asked.


“Walter loved the lake.” Cressie nodded her head at the open door. Outside, it was getting dark, the evening sun slanting across the lake, casting shadows on the surface.


“You can’t think of anywhere else he might have gone?” Scully pressed.


“No. I’m sorry.” Cressida shrugged.


“Well, thanks for your time.” Scully started to get up.


“He was different after ‘Nam you know.” Cressida stared dreamily at the lake through the open door. “We still used to make love, more out of a need for comfortin’ and having someone to hold than anything else, but sometimes I used to think he wasn’t there. You know, in his head.” She twisted her finger against her temple. “Hell, I don’t blame him for that. I was drunk on my ass most of the time anyhow. He used to wake up screaming some, for a long time after. He never did tell me what the nightmares were about, but he lost something over in ‘Nam and I don’t think he ever got it back, and I ain’t talking about ‘innocence’ or any shit like that. I’m talking about something real.”


“His whole unit was wiped out in an ambush. He lost all his friends.” Mulder said quietly. Scully looked at him in surprise.


“How do you know that?” She asked.


“He told me.” Mulder gave her an apologetic half-smile.


“Well it could have been that – but he told me about that. This was something different, something he wouldn’t talk about. He just used to keep yelling out stuff in his sleep, about some experiments or something, and a name.”


“A name?” Mulder leaned forward. “Do you remember what it was?”


“Sure, clear as yesterday. Lubecker. Doctor Lubecker.”




“So, Nathan, and the enchanting Cressida. The first in your little collection of worthy causes.” Noy commented, taking another cookie and breaking it into several pieces, leaving a trail of crumbs on his white notepad. Skinner groaned, and struggled to stay awake


“They were just friends,” he mumbled.


“Tell me, Walter – how did your parents feel about you having such undesirable playmates?”.


“They didn’t know.” Skinner shrugged.


“Ah, another one of your famous little secrets.” Noy clapped his hands together delightedly. “How many secrets do you have, Walter?”


“How many does anyone have?” Skinner replied, his eyes closing.


“Stay awake, Walter.” Noy said reprovingly. “I’m trying to have a conversation with you. So – what was the problem? You were scared that your folks wouldn’t approve? That having these less than perfect friends would ruin your family’s image? There’s that word again – perfect. Is that what you are, Walter? A perfectionist? Except that you know how many dark secrets you have, and how imperfect you really are underneath.”


“Can I have some more water, or some food? You told me I could if I co-operated.”


“Not yet.” Noy said with a wry shake of his head. He picked up the notepad, and swept the uneaten remains of the cookie into the trash can on the floor beside him. Skinner followed the movement with his eyes, licking his cracked, parched lips, and feeling them sting beneath his tongue. “You’ve lied to me several times, and anyway, you haven’t told me anything that really distresses you yet.” Noy informed him.


“You fucking crazy son of a bitch! You promised me I could have water.” Skinner threw himself forward in an angry frenzy but the door opened, and the guards reappeared within micro-seconds, grabbing hold of his shoulders and restraining him.


“Temper, temper.” Noy smirked. Skinner tensed, expecting some kind of retribution, but he was merely escorted him back to his cell and left there.


Marla reappeared a few minutes later.


“Walter.” She crouched down beside him. “Are you okay?” She took his face between her fingers, and he stared at her groggily.


“What? Yeah. I guess.” He rubbed his eyes, suddenly aware that he was half-naked, and feeling faintly embarrassed about that.


“Here. I got you these.” She opened her jacket, and pulled out a bottle of water, and a sandwich, handing them to him furtively.


“What about…?” He glanced at the cameras.


“One of the guards owes me a favor.” She grinned. “I told him to look the other way for a few minutes. Go on. Eat.”


Skinner didn’t need any further prompting. He downed the drink in one go, then devoured the sandwich. It didn’t do much to relieve the cramping in his stomach, but it was something. “Well that evidence didn’t take long to disappear.” Marla commented. “Did Noy hurt you?”


“No.” Skinner shrugged. “He just asked me a lot of idiot questions.”


“Poor Walter.” Marla took his hand, and gently massaged each finger. Skinner didn’t protest. It felt nice.




“So that was Skinner’s first girlfriend. Not the kind of girl you take home to meet the folks.” Mulder mused, striding ahead. Scully glanced down at the half frozen mud underfoot, and sighed.


“Once more into the breach…” she quoted, following on behind. “What now?” she asked, catching up with him.


“Doctor Lubecker?” Mulder suggested.


“You don’t seriously think that Skinner would have gone looking for the architect of his nightmares at a time like this, do you?”


“No, but I do think that he might have gone looking for someone who knows a way to undo what he’s created. Someone who was an expert on this whole nexus thing.”


“And you think that’s Lubecker?” Scully frowned, struggling, as always, to keep up with his long strides, a fact which Mulder never seemed to notice.


“Maybe.” Mulder shrugged.


“But? I sense a but?”


“There’s one thing that doesn’t fit the theory that Skinner went anywhere willingly.”


“Which is?” Scully stopped, her heart growing cold. She hadn’t considered this eventuality.


“Why did he pay the packing company in cash?”


Mulder stopped suddenly, and Scully bumped straight into him.


“What now?” She exclaimed, exasperated.


“Are you hungry, Scully?” He asked, running a hand over his stomach. “I am. In fact I’m starving.”


“You only ate a couple of hours ago,” she protested.


“And really, really thirsty.” Mulder stood still, and concentrated. “Skinner’s back,” he whispered.




Skinner wasn’t sure how long he had gone without sleep, but his head felt a bit clearer after the food and drink. Marla was a sweet kid, he thought to himself. She did blather on and on, but he supposed she was doing him a favor, trying to keep him awake. He was grateful for the food and drink, anyway, even if his mouth was now dry again and he would have killed for another bottle of water.


The guards returned and he was escorted back to Noy’s office. The man had changed his clothing, so Skinner wasn’t sure if more time had passed than he imagined.


“Walter. Sit down.” Noy pointed. Skinner hesitated. The plain chair had been replaced by one that looked as if it had come straight from an execution chamber.


“It’s electric, yes.” Noy smiled. “You see, I work to a time honored, old fashioned kind of system, Walter. It’s called the carrot…” He picked up a glass of water and placed it on the edge of the desk, “and the stick.”


One of the guards pushed Skinner down into the chair, and fastened metallic straps over his torso and arms.


“Don’t tell me. This is the stick.” Skinner grunted, wryly.


“No, no, no!” Noy laughed, nodding at one of his guards. A moment later something cut a burning swathe across Skinner’s shoulders. “That’s a stick, Walter.” Noy told him.




“Ow!” Mulder slammed his foot on the brake. “What the hell was that?”


“I don’t know.” Scully rolled her shoulders cautiously. “Mulder, get moving. If I don’t have something to eat soon I’m going to pass out.”


“You’re feeling hungry too?”


“Yes. It just kicked in a few moments ago.” Scully frowned.


“It isn’t really our hunger – and that wasn’t our pain. You can eat all you like but I don’t think it’ll make any difference. Skinner’s the one who needs food, not us.”


“Which makes it sound more and more as if he’s somewhere he doesn’t want to be.” Scully said slowly. “Mulder, I’m getting really worried now.”


“Me too.” Mulder replied grimly, swinging the car back onto the road.


“Do you think it’s a two way thing – do you think we could communicate back to him?” She asked. “He might be able to tell us where he is.”


“If he knows.” Mulder shrugged. “And as for the whole telepathy thing – I don’t know. You seem to have more experience of that from what you described of your visit to that armaments factory.”


“We could…try.” Scully suggested hesitantly.


“Okay. Why don’t you give it a shot?” Mulder glanced at her, and she sensed his reluctance to probe the nexus any further, and nodded, leaning back in her seat, and closing her eyes.




“Why did your marriage fail?” Noy asked, perching himself on the desk in front of Skinner.


“Why does any marriage fail?” Skinner glared. Noy touched his finger to a button, and Skinner gave a startled growl as his flesh was singed at every point where the metallic strips met his torso.


“There’s no easy way out of this, Walter.” Noy told him. “I want you to be honest – with yourself and with me. It’s really going to prove much less painful in the long run. Now, back to Sharon.”


“We just grew apart.” Skinner mumbled, his whole being suffused with rebellion for this prying into the most private areas of his life – areas he had never shared with anybody before.


“Why?” Noy pressed.


“You want a whole list of reasons?” Skinner spat. Noy pressed the button again, and Skinner clenched his fists against the burning pain.


“Yes. I do.” Noy smiled. “Were you unfaithful to her?”


“No.” Skinner protested angrily.


“Of course not. I was just teasing.” Noy shook his head. “So why?”


“She felt I was shutting her out. You know how women are – they want to know what’s going on in your head.”


“And you didn’t feel able to share that part of yourself with her? Or were you scared of creating another nexus? I’ve heard that lying is impossible in the non-verbal communication of the nexus – is that true?”


“Yes, in a way.” Skinner sighed. “Feelings, thought, they just…flow in the nexus. There isn’t any artifice.” He paused, then started again. “There were…uh, times when I could feel Sharon’s mind, and it scared me. I shut her out. I was protecting her. She didn’t need to be dragged into my past.”


“Were you afraid of that intimacy?”


“No.” Skinner spat, annoyed. Noy pressed the button, and Skinner’s whole body convulsed.


“Yes you were. You were afraid that if you created a nexus with her, and that if she died, you couldn’t face the loss, after the loss of your comrades.”


“That…might be true.” Skinner conceded, still panting from the pain.


“So, why Mulder and Scully? The most recent addition to your collection of underdogs. Why choose to link with them?”


“I didn’t create the nexus on purpose. It just happened, gradually. I was hardly aware of it at first. I’d never have finished it but…circumstances made it necessary.” Skinner hedged, tensing for the burning, which never came.


“Hmm. Tell me about your father.” Noy requested, in a change of subject that left Skinner floundering. He closed his eyes, shaking out the sweat that was falling into his face, and he saw a road, and a man. The man turned and looked at him, and he saw that it was Mulder.


“Any luck?” Mulder asked.




“What?” Scully sat up with a gasp.


“I asked if there was any luck?” Mulder’s face came into focus in front of her, and she put a shaky hand on his arm.


“Pull over, Mulder.”


He did as he was told, with a look of alarm.


“I saw a man’s face. It wasn’t Skinner…I think it was someone in the room with him. Someone interrogating him.” Scully said.


“What did this man look like?”


“Blond hair, very pale blue eyes – scary eyes. That’s all I got. Skinner…is afraid of him.”


“Has Skinner been hurt?” Mulder demanded. Scully closed her eyes, and then nodded.


“Yes,” she whispered.


“Then we need to hurry.” Mulder put the car into gear, and swung it back out onto the road.


“Are we still going to look for this Doctor Lubecker?”


“Yes. We’re also going to try and find out more about Skinner’s so-called resignation, and who arranged for his apartment to be sub-let.”


“Mulder – why did they kidnap Skinner? What do they want with him?” Scully asked, frowning.


“Us?” Mulder turned to look at her, his eyes bleak. “Try and talk to him, Scully.”


“I’ll try, but I think he’s blocking me.”


“Either that, or he’s very preoccupied with something else.” Mulder suggested.


Scully closed her eyes again, and concentrated once more




Skinner felt the warmth of the nexus pulsing and glowing in his mind.




<Yes, I’m here. Where are you?>


<I don’t know. They took me. Drugged. Scully, his name is Robert Noy, he says he works for our friend the cigarette smoking man…Shit!>


A wave of pain coursed through his body, and he opened his eyes.


“Concentrate, Walter. We were talking about your father.” Noy’s pale blue eyes glittered coldly.


“What do you want me to say about him? He was a good man. We had a good relationship.”


“When the demerol was working.” Noy added.


“What’s that supposed to mean?”


“It means that when his painkillers were working, he could be halfway nice to you and the rest of his family, but when they weren’t…well, he was something of a Jekyll and Hyde character wasn’t he, Walter?”




<I’m still here. I can’t keep the nexus blocked…I’m too tired…Sorry, Dana…>


Skinner’s head drooped wearily onto his chest. He was suddenly relieved to be able to let go, to float into the warmth of the link.


“Tell me about the accident that maimed your father, Walter.” Noy said, with a nod to the guard standing behind him. Another blow ripped a searing pain across his shoulders, throwing him forwards, making the cool metal straps around his torso bite into his burned flesh. Skinner screamed.




“Shit!” Mulder bit on his lip as a wave of sensations flooded through his mind and body. For the first time he felt the link, unfettered, flowing between them like a tangible entity, full of warmth, and light, and energy, but it carried with it the most terrible pain. He saw a room, and the man that Scully had described, and felt more tired and thirsty than he could ever remember being in his life.


<Mulder?> He recognised Skinner’s ‘voice’ although the sound was in his head.


<Yeah. I’m with Scully. We’re looking for you.>


<I’d be kind of grateful if you’d get a move on…> Skinner muttered faintly. Mulder could hear the wry tone in the mental voice, and it surprised him.


<We’re going as fast as we can. Perhaps you can help us…Shit! What was that?>


<I keep upsetting my captor.> Skinner murmured, in what Mulder could sense was an ironic understatement.


<Well don’t. Just keep him happy. Tell him what he wants to hear.> Mulder snapped.


<I would if I knew what that was. Unfortunately it isn’t clear…>


There was another sharp wave of pain, and then Skinner’s mental signature dissipated into a morass of pain, and confusion.


<Skinner!> Mulder yelled, but the link was full of images, and he couldn’t makes sense of them.




Walter stood in the farmhouse. He was five years old. Outside his father lay trapped beneath the tractor, screaming his head off. Inside, his baby brother lay in his crib, crying at the top of his voice. Walter hesitated, torn. His mother had told him to stay here, but he felt so useless. Surely he should do something? But what? He pulled a chair across the room, and climbed up onto it, peering into his brother’s crib. His mom had said he mustn’t touch Joe unless she or his dad were in the room. Did that mean now too? Joe was blue in the face from crying. Walter prodded the baby with his finger.


“Shut up, Joey.” He demanded. “Daddy’s been hurt. You have to keep quiet.”


The baby stared at him with uncomprehending blue eyes, his face screwed up, and tears running down his cheeks. Walter stroked the baby’s head, and Joe began to calm down. Finally, he was quiet, but that meant that Walter could hear the screaming outside again. Joe could hear it too, and he started to cry again. Walter got down from the chair, and walked over to the door. He opened it a fraction, and peered out. His mom had told him to stay inside, she’d ushered him in here, and hidden his eyes with her coat so he wouldn’t see what had happened. Walter shivered. Something bad had happened.


He opened the door a little bit more, fearing what he would see. The screaming was louder now, and he couldn’t bear it. It was like the sound that a trapped hog made before it was butchered, and it ripped through the air, silencing the birds, and making the dogs in the yard bark loudly in distress. The baby had started wailing again. Walter opened the door all the way, and stepped outside. He could see the tractor in the field, a little way off, but he couldn’t see his father. The tractor was on its side, and he knew that his father was underneath it, but he couldn’t see him. Walter walked slowly across the yard towards the screaming tractor, scared of what he would see, shivering with dread. Closer, closer…he saw a hand, then an arm, and his father’s dark hair.


“Daddy?” He whispered. The fingers on the hand moved. They were covered in blood. Walter edged forwards again, and rounded the side of the tractor, then stopped, his mouth open in a wordless scream.


His father’s leg was crushed like a piece of soft fruit, pieces of bone sticking up through skin, blood pouring into the ground, and he was trapped. He couldn’t move.


“Walter?” His father panted.


“Daddy.” Walter walked resolutely past the bleeding, broken limb, and went to kneel beside his father’s head.


“Help me!” His father wept. “Hurts…shit, hurts…” His voice faded into a series of low moans.


“I don’t know how to help you…” Walter whispered. He got up and tried to push the tractor away, but it was huge, and he was too small to make any impression on it at all. Giving up, he went and sat back down by his father’s head, tears of despair rolling down his face. An idea occurred to him. Joe had stopped screaming when he stroked his hair. He put out a small hand, and stroked his father’s hair. He wasn’t sure it helped, but his father stopped screaming a few minutes later, and went still, his eyes closed. Walter continued stroking, scared that if he stopped his father would start crying again. He’d never seen his daddy cry before.


“Did that upset you?” Noy asked.


“Well what do hell do you think? I was five years old.” Skinner snapped.


“What upset you more – the fact that he was hurt, or the fact that you couldn’t help him?”


“Both. I felt so useless…and small.” Skinner said.


“Ah. Being small. Is that fear of being weak and useless, and unable to protect the people you love, the reason why you keep yourself so…bulked up?” Noy asked, trailing a finger across Skinner’s biceps.


“I just like to keep fit.” Skinner rasped. The pain tore through his body like a tornado, leaving him panting and writhing in his bonds.


“Lie.” Noy smiled. “I know you too well, Walter. I can tell when you’re not being honest with me. Your father recovered?”


“Yes. He wasn’t well enough to work the farm though.”


“That must have been a blow to his pride. He was a proud man, wasn’t he?”


“Yes.” Skinner blinked through the sweat that was blinding him.


“And isn’t it true that if he had allowed the doctors to amputate his leg he’d have been in less pain?”


“I suppose so, but he wanted to keep it.”


“Of course he did. He preferred to live with the pain than have people perceive him as crippled. The illusion of perfection – that was all important to him, wasn’t it? He demanded nothing less, from himself, and from his sons.” Noy said softly. “Outward perfection, hiding secrets within. I’m sensing a theme here, Walter.”


“I’m tired. I don’t know what you want from me with all this psycho crap.” Skinner shook his head. “If you want me to say “yes” then I will. It’s not important. It’s not true.”


“Isn’t it?” Noy’s face swam into his field of vision, those pale eyes searing into his soul. “Are you sure?”




Georgetown, Washington DC.

February 18, 1999.


“Mulder?” Scully glanced at him, worried. He hadn’t said a word during their entire journey back to DC. Both of them had been assaulted by a series of images, and emotions, but Mulder was deathly pale, and his body was tense. She sensed through the link, that somehow he experienced these sensations more acutely than she did, although she had no idea how, or why.


“Yeah,” he replied, faintly.


“Are you okay?”


“No. Are you?”


“No.” Scully opened the door to her apartment, and waved Mulder inside. He sat down on her couch, wearily, then jumped back up again.


“We have to find him, Scully,” he told her, pacing. “I’ve read studies about the sort of technique Noy’s using on Skinner. The sleep deprivation, lack of food and water, use of pain. He’s making Skinner rely on him for the basics for survival, and then he’s subjecting him to this…travesty of psychology. By the time he’s finished Skinner won’t know what’s true and what isn’t – Noy will have fucked with his brain so much he’ll have him believing that black is white and vice versa.”


“And you’re worried that whoever controls Skinner will be able to control us?”


Mulder made a face. “That’s inevitable, but it’s not my main concern right now.” He sat down on the floor, and leaned back on the couch. “I’m more worried about Skinner,” he admitted. “I’m not saying that I’m not still angry with him about this, but shit, Scully, I can’t stand by and just listen to what he’s going through, to feel it like this.”


“I feel the same way.” Scully nodded. She dragged herself to her feet, feeling utterly weary and unsure whether that was her own exhaustion or Skinner’s that she was experiencing. As time passed, she felt the weight of his emotions more and more, and guessed that this was a sign of how her former boss’s endurance was being tested and how great the pressure on him was.


“The link is weird. This whole nexus thing,” Mulder mused. “It’s kind of like watching TV only with the added dimension of feeling. I can see what Skinner’s seeing if I close my eyes, although I can’t see Skinner himself, and I can hear what’s going on, and of course I can feel what he feels. It’s curious though – I know it isn’t my pain, and they’re not my thoughts. It should be confusing but it isn’t. I can turn it on and off. I can ignore it if I want…except when…” he trailed off.


“When he’s hurting.” Scully nodded, wondering if Mulder was coming to accept the link now that he had experienced it more. 


“Yeah.” Mulder’s face was troubled. “Let’s get moving again,” he said. “You trace Doctor Lubecker, while I see what I can find out any more information about the people who abducted Skinner, and where they might have taken him. I’ll look into our friend Noy too while I’m at it.”




Skinner wasn’t able to walk when they unbuckled him from the chair. His legs felt numb, and he could see the raw, red burns across his chest and stomach. He staggered, and Noy reached out a helpful hand to keep him upright, nodding at the guards who stepped forward, and half dragged, half carried him back to his cell. He landed on the cool white floor with a thud, and lay there for a moment. When he closed his eyes, the inevitable siren rang out, assaulting his aching head with its blaring noise. He opened them again, and gazed blearily at the ceiling.


A face came into his line of vision. Dark hair, wide, sensuous mouth.


“Mulder?” He whispered.


“No. Antonio. My friends call me Tonio. Walter, what have they done to you?” The man pulled him up, and settled Skinner’s face into his lap, gently caressing his jaw. If Skinner could have moved, he would have done so, uncomfortable with the intimacy, yet in a curious way it felt good to be comforted, after so much pain.


“Tonio…are you Italian?” Skinner mumbled.


“My mother was.” Tonio smiled down, revealing a set of straight white teeth. He had the face of an angel, as beautiful as any man Skinner had ever known, save one, maybe. “You’re hurting.” Antonio’s fingers gently found the burns on Skinner’s body, and the cuts on his shoulders. “I’m so sorry. If you can sit up – I have something for you. Something Marla gave me.” Tonio whispered, arching one eyebrow meaningfully, and glancing at the cameras.


“Water?” Skinner rasped.


Tonio nodded. “But quickly, we don’t have long.” He sat Skinner up, and knelt in front of him, hastily handing him a sandwich, and another bottle of water.


“Can’t you bring more next time?” Skinner asked, downing the contents of the bottle in one gulp.


“I’ll try. It’s hard.” Tonio shrugged. “Do you feel better now?”


“Yeah. I suppose.” Skinner shrugged, handing the empty bottle back.


“Good. I wish I had something for these.” Tonio gestured at the burns. “Next time I’ll see if there’s anything I can bring.”


“Why are you helping me?” Skinner mumbled, rubbing his eyes wearily, and longing for sleep.


“Marla. She’s…well I like her.” Tonio looked sheepish. “Also, I feel sorry for you.”


“Me too.” Skinner managed a faint smile. “Thanks, Tonio.”


“That’s okay.” The other man returned his smile. “You can’t sleep, but I can help your headache. You do have a headache, yes?”


“Hell, everything aches,” Skinner replied. He allowed Tonio to pull him down so that his head was in the other man’s lap again, then Tonio began to massage his naked scalp with long, sensuous fingers. Skinner stared at the ceiling, and imagined it was Mulder.




Mulder batted away the insistent, invisible fingers rubbing his temples.


“Fuck you, Tonio,” he growled, fighting back a wave of gnawing jealousy. He could see Antonio’s flawless skin, and straight teeth in his mind’s eye, just as Skinner could see them in reality.


<Skinner? Can you hear me?>


<Mulder?> Skinner’s voice seemed to come for a great distance, and was hazy.


<The people who took you – do you have any idea who they were? How far away you are from here?> There was a long silence. <Skinner?> Mulder repeated insistently.


<I’m sorry. I’m finding it hard to keep…I’m so tired. I’m glad you’re here. It…helps…> Mulder was surprised by this admission. He couldn’t imagine Skinner ever talking like this to his face, and he guessed that the link added an intimacy, and lack of artifice to their communication. You couldn’t dissemble in the link, or hide behind a persona. You were justyou, in the rawest, most naked sense.


<Do you have any idea how far away you are?> Mulder repeated.


<No. Drugged.> Skinner replied.


<Listen – when Noy interrogates you, just go along with him. Don’t believe him though. Don’t listen to what he says – just agree with it. It doesn’t matter. None of it matters.> Mulder instructed.


<Try.> Skinner’s ‘voice’ went out of focus, then returned again. <Harder. I’ll try harder.> Mulder guessed that the other man was so tired he was finding it hard to concentrate on anything.


<Skinner – does the name Lubecker mean anything to you?> Mulder asked. The emotion that flooded back through the link made it clear that it did, although Mulder had no idea what exactly the name meant to Skinner as a wild tumult of images swept through his mind. Being tied down, screaming, an injection, leaving him helpless, opening his eyes, seeing his unit also being injected, a sharp pain in the base of his skull, and then nothing, until all the tests started again.


<Okay, calm down. This was the guy who experimented on you?>


<Yes. We were Marine Recon – a kind of special forces. We volunteered for the experiments. Can you believe it? Volunteered.> There was an ironic laugh. <Of course we didn’t know what we were volunteering for, in the best tradition of the military.>


<Is he still alive? Lubecker?>


<I have no idea.> Skinner’s voice faded, then came back again. Mulder felt a wave of anxiety in the pit of his stomach.


<Shit, they’re coming back. No! I’m too tired…> Mulder felt the tension uncurling like a fist inside him.


<Listen, we’re here. Scully and I. We’re with you. You’re not alone. We’ve been feeling everything that…>


<NO! You’re…? Shit, Mulder – I don’t want you two feeling this.> Skinner snapped abruptly out of focus, much to Mulder’s surprise, and for the first time in hours, his head cleared, and the other man’s discomfort disappeared from his consciousness.


<Dammit! You don’t have to do this alone!> Mulder roared, feeling both relieved and bereft at the same time. Suddenly he understood why Scully had liked the sensation of the link the first time she had experienced it. He had never seen Skinner like this before – never seen into any man’s soul like this. Skinner’s mental signature was completely different to what he would have expected. Warm, curiously uncertain, with a hint of inner steel and resilience. Mulder was intrigued.




Skinner came to a quick decision the moment that the door was opened. It was bad enough he had to suffer this indignity, but for Mulder and Scully to endure it with him, to see him this helpless, was more than he could bear.


When the guards came to escort him back, he feigned weakness, so that they had to lift him to his feet. In that split second, he used the last atom of his fading strength, and hit out. He grabbed a gun from one of the guards, and held it against the man’s head, and then pulled his captive out into the corridor, screaming at the other guard to drop his weapon or he’d shoot. The guard refused to comply, and they stood there, glaring at each other in a standoff situation. Finally, Skinner shoved his captive away, and turned and ran up the corridor.


He knew that he was being pursued, and his legs felt as heavy as tree trunks, his vision going in and out of focus. He lurched into a door, then another, looking inside, trying to remember the way to Noy’s office, to get hold of that bastard, and shove this gun to his head. His head swam and he swayed, staggering again. A noise behind caught him unawares, and he turned, falling awkwardly against the wall. As he did so, he heard someone running up behind him, and then there was a sharp crack across the back of his head. When his vision cleared, he found himself looking down the barrel of a gun.


“Oh dear.” Noy sighed theatrically. “That was just plain stupid, Walter.” Skinner had been dragged to Noy’s office, and held between two guards while his ‘crime’ was outlined to his tormentor.


“Worth a try though.” Skinner growled.


“Yes, and I’m sure it bolstered your flagging self esteem, even if you were unsuccessful.” Noy smiled. “However, in order to discourage future escape attempts, I’m afraid I’ll have to punish you.”


“Somehow I thought you’d say that.” Skinner shrugged. Noy motioned with his head, and Skinner watched as a bench was brought into the room. He was strapped to it, face up.


“You see, Walter, you’re worth a good deal to me – but only your mind.” Noy crouched down beside him. “Your body is irrelevant. We could break your arms and legs – cripple you for life if we wanted. It wouldn’t matter – so long as we have your mind. As it is, I’m inclined to be merciful, and anyway, I’m a great believer in the punishment fitting the crime. Are you a student of history, Walter?”


“Yeah, but I bet it isn’t the kind you study.” Skinner shook his head, wondering where this was going, and expecting that he wouldn’t like it, wherever it was.


“I bet you’re right.” Noy grinned. “Let me explain: the military used to have an unusual punishment for dealing with deserters and runaways. The feet were whipped until they bled. Some men never walked again. I’ve already explained that it doesn’t matter to me whether you can walk or not. So, I’m going to kill two birds with one stone: punish you, and render any future escape attempts impossible.”


Skinner struggled fruitlessly with his bonds as the guard took up position by his feet, but it was a token resistance. He held onto his dignity in the face of overwhelming pain for several long minutes, and then a dam broke somewhere deep inside and he opened his mouth, and screamed. He could feel the blood trickling down the soles of his feet, felt each vicious blow melt into one long agonizing blur. The lacerations were more painful than he could bear. He lost consciousness at some point, and was revived almost immediately with a bucket of cold water thrown over his face.


“I didn’t want you to miss anything.” Noy told him, with a self-satisfied smile.


“Fuck you.” Skinner managed to hiss, but finally he lost all sensation of self, and became nothing but his own pain.




Scully held on to the side of the car as Mulder drove like a lunatic. She had uncovered an address for Doctor Lubecker. It was an unusual name, and she was sure from his record of serving with the military during Vietnam that he was the man they were looking for. It hadn’t been easy to find him though. There had been no record of Noy at all, despite her extensive search.


“Mulder, slow down,” she said through gritted teeth. “We won’t be able to help Skinner if the car ends up in a ditch.”


“Can’t.” Mulder replied tersely. “Fucking, fucking…” he didn’t finish the sentence, and his fingers whitened as they gripped the steering wheel even more tightly. He made a conscious effort to switch off from the scene that Skinner’s tortured mind was sending them, but it was almost impossible to ignore the other man’s excruciating pain. “I’ll kill Noy,” Mulder whispered. “When I get my hands on him, I’m going to kill him.”


“Not if I get there first.” Scully replied. One look into her blue eyes convinced him that she was more deadly serious than he’d ever seen her before.


“Deja Vu.” Mulder groused to her. “Deja fucking vu. I feel like I spend my whole damn life looking for the people I love when they’ve been abducted. Samantha, you, and now Skinner. It must be some kind of karmic shit. Maybe I used to kidnap people in a former life, and this is my penance. If I ever had any previous lives,” he murmured to himself as an afterthought. Scully placed a hand on his arm, and he looked up in surprise to find a silent recognition of his devotion in searching for her when she had been abducted glowing in her eyes.


“We’ll find him,” she said. “You got me back, remember? We’ll get Skinner back, and maybe one day you’ll find Samantha as well.”


He nodded, comforted by her words. They drew up outside a house, and got out. It was a big house, in a good neighborhood.


“This guy earned some money somewhere along the line,” Mulder muttered grimly. When they knocked on the door, a gray-haired man opened it.


“Dr Lubecker?”


“Yes.” The man glanced at them, his face puzzled.


“Agents Scully and Mulder, FBI.” Scully supplied.


The man frowned. “Hold on.” He closed the door again.


Mulder exchanged a look with Scully, and she raised an eyebrow and drew her gun, edging her way around to the back of the house. Mulder drew his, and knocked on the door again. When there was no reply, he shot the lock off, then kicked his way inside.


“There was no need…!” Lubecker rushed up the corridor towards him, waving his hands frantically. “I was just…”


“Hiding the evidence.” Scully emerged behind him, scooping up a set of keys that had fallen from his pocket.




The pain in his feet didn’t fade when the beating stopped. If anything it got worse. When they untied him, Skinner just rolled onto the floor and lay there, no longer caring if they kicked him to death.


“Remove the rest of your clothing, Walter.” Noy instructed.


“What?” Skinner lay there, uncomprehending.


“It’s time to uncover some more layers. I want to see what’s inside, what makes you tick, Walter.”


“And I have to be naked for that?” Skinner asked. “You sick fucking bastard. Why?”


“I like to think that the outward appearance echoes what is going on inside, and encourages soul-searching honesty. It’s time to be revealed.” Noy said. “Now, can you do it yourself, or do you want some help?”


Skinner knew in some distant recess of his brain, that he was being out-maneuvered in an increasingly complex game of psychological chess that his beleaguered mind could no longer keep up with. Stripping him of his clothing was just another in a long line of tiny calculated moves that Noy had made in order to strip him of both his dignity, and his sense of control. What was it Mulder had said? Just go along with it? It didn’t matter?


<You’re wrong, Mulder.> He whispered soundlessly in his mind, as he rolled his long legs out of his sweatpants and shorts, wincing as the fabric touched his raw, bleeding flesh, not wanting to examine his feet too closely to see the damage. <It does matter.>


They strapped him naked back into the hated chair. He wanted desperately to find some place in his head to hide from the questions, to hide from the pain and the weariness, the hunger and the thirst, and the shame but Noy was relentless.


“So tell me more about your father. You say that you had a good relationship with him?”


“Fairly good.” Skinner felt beyond resistance, or half-truths.


“And your mother?”


“I adored my mother.”


“Enough to protect her from your father’s temper?”


“My father never laid a finger on any of us.” Skinner snapped, irritably.


“I’m sure he didn’t. It was a silent kind of terrorism wasn’t it? Everyone tiptoeing around his moods, constantly worrying about upsetting him. The whole household revolved around him.”


“He was in constant pain,” Skinner said. “He wasn’t like that before the accident. We all understood. Sometimes he just needed things to be quiet.”


“Ah, Walter. Always defending what you love. How touching. The truth is that he made your lives a misery. All of you. You enlisted at 18 to get away from home. You couldn’t wait to leave.”


“I…” Skinner closed his eyes. “Yes,” he whispered.


He was 12 years old, sitting at the dinner table, watching two tears streak silently down his brother’s face.


“Pass the salt please, Walter.” His father glanced at Walter who glanced at Joe, who was nearest the salt. Walter reached over and handed his father the salt. His father smiled at him.


“Thank you, Walter.” Joe’s sobbing reached a crescendo. Skinner looked at his brother, and then at his mother, who shook her head, with a worried frown. The tension around the table was palpable.


“Does anybody want bread?” His father picked up the bread knife, and started to cut. Walter nodded.


“Yes please.” Joe whispered. His father ignored him.


“Joe wants bread, dad.” Walter said, taking his own slice.


“Joe has more than made himself heard today.” His father said calmly, buttering his bread. “I was taking a nap in the living room, and he woke me up, crashing into the room.”


“I didn’t know you were asleep. The door was closed. How could I know you were asleep in there?” Joe begged. His father ignored him.


“Dad, Joe’s 7 years old…” Walter began.


“Then it’s time he knew how to be quiet.” His father snapped. There was silence again. Walter glanced at his mother who shook her head again, and then at his brother. There would be two weeks or more of this. The silences, the tension, until all their nerves were on edge. His brother would be alternately mocked and ignored. Then it would be over, and everything would be fine again. It was exhausting. His father could make a mountain out of the proverbial molehill, and nobody could point out the absurdity of it without risking that wrath being turned on them. Walter knew that from bitter experience. They were minute events in the tapestry of life that made their house into a cage, where nobody could breathe freely.


“There were good times too,” Skinner whispered. “Before the accident, my father was a different person. We were close. Sometimes afterwards he would be that way again. Sometimes for months…”


“But he couldn’t keep it up, could he? The uncertainty of his moods must have been very unsettling for you, Walter. Never knowing if he was going to Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde, and always trying to protect your brother and your mother from his less benign persona. You weren’t big enough, or strong enough to protect them though were you? Just as you weren’t big enough or strong enough to help your father after his accident. You failed, Walter.” Noy said, taking out a nail file and smoothing his nails, thoughtfully.


“Yes.” Skinner nodded, too tired and in too much pain to argue the point.


“What happened to your brother, Walter?” Noy asked, opening a bottle of water and pouring the contents into one of the two glasses on his desk.


“He’s fine. He lives in England now.” Skinner looked longingly at the glass. Noy transferred the contents of the full glass idly into the empty one. It made a glugging sound, and Skinner thought that he would go crazy just listening to it.


“How did your father feel about you taking him away to live with your aunt?” Noy transferred the contents of the glass back again.


“After Mom died, Dad just got…worse.” Skinner shrugged. “I wasn’t going to leave Joe there.”


“How did your father react to you taking him away?” Noy pressed again.


“Badly. We had an argument about it.” Skinner’s dry mouth was begging for the water that Noy was so idly wasting in front of him.


“You never saw your father again after that?”


“No.” Skinner snapped. “He didn’t want to see me. He wouldn’t take my calls.”


“Ah. Another failed relationship.” Noy picked up the full glass, and downed the contents in one go. Skinner followed his movements with greedy eyes. “Your mother and Joe. Cressida and Nathan.  Mulder and Scully. All your lost causes. People you thought needed your protection. You like to be needed, don’t you, Walter?”


“I don’t know.” Skinner shrugged. The pain seared its way into his flesh as the electric current burnt into his skin at the contact points with the metallic strips.


“Yes you do.” Noy smiled.




“What are the keys for?” Mulder demanded. Lubecker licked his lips nervously, darting a glance at Scully whose gun was pressed firmly into his back.


“Nowhere.” Lubecker bluffed feebly. Mulder guessed that he wasn’t one of nature’s heroes.


“Let’s see shall we?” Mulder grabbed the man by the shoulder, and pushed him down some steps and into a big study. “I’m guessing that we’re looking for some kind of concealed door.” Mulder swung the man forward, expectantly.


“Show us.” Scully dug her gun into his back. “A friend of ours is in trouble so we’re feeling really impatient.”


Lubecker glanced from Mulder’s pale, uncompromising face, back to Scully’s grim features, and came to a decision.


“It’s over here.” He pushed aside a bookcase to reveal a door.


“Which key?” Mulder held them up, and Lubecker took them, and unlocked the door. He led them down into a corridor.


“Shit. It’s like a rabbit warren.” Mulder observed, as they passed several locked doors. “Did you do your experiments here?” He asked. “Back in the seventies – before those marines were sent back out to ‘Nam? Was it here that you experimented on them?”


“Yes.” Lubecker shrugged. “All my research notes are here. I was asked to destroy the notes initially but…” He made an apologetic little face. “It’s my life’s work,” he whispered.


“Did you have anything to do with the Nexus Project?” Mulder asked.


“Yes.” Lubecker opened a door with one of the keys and showed them into a room. Mulder stopped short with a gasp.


“I know this place,” he said. Scully nodded.


“Me too.”


“It’s the room from his nightmare. The one about being strapped down, injected…”


“Yes.” Scully glanced around at the empty beds. “No lab rats at the moment, Doctor?” she inquired with a raised eyebrow.


“I’m kind of retired. They only use me for special projects these days,” the doctor admitted. “I was never very mainstream anyway – I was always more on the fringe of things.” He opened a filing cabinet, and pulled out a handful of files. “Is the Nexus Project the one you’re interested in?”


“Yes.” Mulder nodded.


“Here. This is all my research on it.”


Mulder handcuffed Lubecker to his own filing cabinet while Scully started to flick through the files.


“Tell me about the Nexus Project.” Mulder demanded.


“Well, it was a long time ago.” Lubecker stated nervously. “I’ve done a lot of things since then…but I do remember some details,” he added quickly, as Mulder’s expression darkened. “You know that we only use a small proportion of our brains? We don’t utilize their full potential?”


“Yes.” Scully nodded, still flicking. “That’s well documented.”


“Well, the Nexus Project tried to unlock that potential.”


“Why was the project closed down?” Mulder asked.


“We had only one real success, and he wasn’t very co-operative.” Lubecker shrugged.


“Walter Skinner?” Scully found a photograph in the file of a young marine, with serious dark eyes. She held it up for Lubecker. He nodded.


“Yes. He was very talented. His nexus was the only one that really worked.”


“In what way was he ‘unco-operative’?” Mulder asked.


“The brain has great power. He could have used the link to do all sorts of things…” Lubecker trailed off.


“Such as?” Mulder prompted.


“Killing people – killing one of the other members of the link. Exerting more control over the link generally. We envisaged more of an army of worker ants under one leader, than an autonomous unit of individuals who just happened to be linked.” Lubecker shrugged. “You could say that our vision differed from his.”


“You terminated the project because he wouldn’t kill someone?” Scully asked incredulously.


“It wasn’t my decision.” Lubecker protested. “I didn’t terminate it.”


“So Skinner didn’t control the people in the nexus in any way?” Mulder asked sharply.


“Not really. He seemed to enjoy being linked, but not because it gave him control over people. He got some other kick from it.”


“You’re not kidding.” Scully held up the notes. “Subject 1 stated that his experience of the nexus was almost erotic?” She raised an eyebrow.


“He was 18, Scully.” Mulder grinned. “Everything is about sex at that age. I found clothes pins erotic at 18.”


“And did you grow out of that?” Scully inquired.


“Come around to my place on laundry day and I’ll show you,” he leered. “Is there any way to undo a link?” Mulder asked the scientist. “Once a nexus has been created – can it be reversed?”


“Only by death.” Lubecker shrugged.


“I see.” Mulder sighed. “So tell me – why wasn’t Skinner terminated along with the rest?”


“He was. Only he wouldn’t stay dead so it was decided he’d be more use to us alive. I was asked to monitor him.” Lubecker’s eyes flicked towards some equipment in the corner of the room. “I’d almost forgotten about him, when the screens flickered back into life a few weeks ago.”


“And you informed your boss?” Mulder asked.


“Yes.” Lubecker shrugged. “Of course. I wasn’t sure he’d be interested. We have some new techniques these days – we’ve been able to, uh, breed some children who are pretty useful to us.”


“Breed? Like dogs?” Scully questioned.


Lubecker flushed. “It’s just a turn of phrase. They’re were carefully chosen, and well looked after.”


“When did you start that phase of the project?” Mulder asked. “The children, I mean?”


Scully looked at him, wondering what he was getting at.




“I see.” Mulder nodded.


“Mulder.” Scully drew him to one side. “Not everything is about Samantha,” she whispered.


“I know that, although it does seem to be too big to be a co-incidence. I was actually thinking about Marla and Antonio.”


“You think that they’re part of this project?” Scully asked.


“I don’t know, but they look about, what? 23, 24?”


Scully nodded.


“Well, they could be the result of the next wave of experimentation.”


“Maybe. We won’t know until we find Noy.” Scully said. “Talking of which, standing here isn’t helping Skinner.”


“No.” Mulder looked around thoughtfully then glanced at the equipment in the corner. “Does that give you any clue as to where the subject is?” He asked Lubecker.


“Like a homing beacon? No.” Lubecker shook his head, his face flushed.


“But you do have him chipped don’t you?” Mulder pressed. “You’d have wanted to keep an eye on him so I bet that you do.”


Lubecker nodded.


“Where is it?”


Lubecker pointed at his desk drawer, and Mulder found a small device, which bleeped at regular intervals.


“It’s not very accurate.” Lubecker shrugged. “It’ll take you within a one to five mile radius, that’s all.”


“That’s something.” Scully took the device, and slipped it into her pocket. Mulder turned and walked over to the monitoring equipment at the end of the room. He took out his gun, and fired several shots into it, watching with some satisfaction as it shattered into several pieces. Then, on an impulse, he swept the broken machinery onto the floor and stamped on it, just to be sure.


“Wait! What the hell are you doing?” Lubecker protested, tugging at his handcuff. Mulder stalked back, and stood too close to the cowering doctor, staring him in the eye.


“His days as a lab rat are over.” Mulder stated in a flat monotone that nonetheless conveyed a barely suppressed anger. He glanced around the room, and shivered, seeing a unit of young men, innocently volunteering for what they thought was a special mission, and then shipped here, to this nightmare, to be experimented upon. Scully put a hand on his arm, and for a moment, they both saw it. A flash of memory, a struggle, looming shapes in white coats, somebody screaming, a sharp pain at the base of the skull, and then it was gone, over.


“Come on. Let’s go.” Scully said to her partner, casting a contemptuous glance at Lubecker. Mulder picked up the files on the Nexus Project, and they walked towards the door.


“Wait! You can’t leave me here!” Lubecker protested. “I live alone! Nobody even comes by to visit.”


“You’re mistaking us for people who give a damn.” Scully smiled sweetly, and closed the door behind them as they left, locking it with Lubecker’s own key.


They got back into the car, and Mulder laid his head on the steering wheel for a few moments, gathering his strength. “Those poor damn marines. Not much more than kids,” he muttered. Scully nodded, remembering a shadowy image of being experimented upon herself. She shuddered.


“Skinner,” she murmured.


Mulder nodded, and put the key in the ignition. “Let’s find him. Where to, Scully?”


She pored over the homing device, trying to figure out how it worked, and then placed it on the road map.


“West. I think.” She shrugged. “We can try west.”


“Women and maps.” Mulder sighed.


“Don’t go there, Mulder,” she warned. “You’ll only get hurt.”


They were silent for a while, as Mulder drove. Scully didn’t like the silence. If she closed her eyes she could feel Skinner’s pain, could see Noy’s face, and hear what he was saying, and she knew that Mulder could hear it too. She drifted off along the link. Somebody was speaking her name. She homed in on the sound, and found herself somewhere else.




“Mulder and Scully. Scully and Mulder.” Noy repeated with an irritating sing-song inflection. “It must have been almost a reflex action for you to start protecting them when they fell foul of the powers that be. Hmm, Walter? Do stay awake!” Another blow across his shoulders failed to open Skinner’s eyes, but a second blow had an effect. He tried to sit up straighter.


“And you failed them too.” Noy stated implacably.


“Yes.” Skinner nodded, wearily. “I did.”


“You’re never good enough, are you, Walter?”




“You try, but you always fail. Your marriage, your friends, even your career these days. All failures.”


“Yes.” Skinner whispered.


“When Scully had cancer, you tried to save her. You betrayed everything you believe in, sacrificed your dearest principles to save her, and it didn’t work. Another of your secret deeds for a one-sided friendship, and you failed her. She could have died because you didn’t succeed.”


“Yes.” Skinner’s head drooped down on his chest. He hurt so much, and he was too tired to think straight. Besides, Noy was only speaking the truth. He hadn’t been able to save Scully. He had never done enough for either of his agents. He had told Scully that in the hospital before he had died the second time.


“And Melissa Scully. You got yourself shot bumbling around trying to find out who killed her, and did you bring the killer to justice? Of course not. He was killed before he could stand trial. Another failure.”


“Yes.” Skinner rasped through dry lips.


“And Mulder, what about him? You try to help him, in your ineffectual, bureaucratic way, but as with Scully, it’s just not good enough is it? You’re not good enough, Walter.”


“I know.” Skinner nodded, remembering his father telling him so on a hundred different occasions before. He had always tried to be the cleverest, and the strongest, to get the best grades, to be perfect, to win his father’s praise, to help soothe the bitterness of his father’s injury by giving him something to be proud of, but it was never enough.


“Useless.” Noy placed a hand on Skinner shoulder, and pulled his head up to look at him. “Poor, useless Walter. What on earth are we going to do with you?”




“Mulder?” Scully snapped out of the link, still reeling with shock, as Mulder slammed his foot on the brake, pulled the car over, and got out, not even bothering to close the door behind him. She watched as he disappeared down the side of the road. Scully sat there for a moment, then got out of the car and followed him. He was sitting on a bank of grass, his knees clutched close to his chest. She was surprised to see that he was crying. She sat down beside him, and rested her head on his shoulder.


“I’m sorry. I just needed a few…” Mulder brushed the tears away angrily.


“It’s not an easy thing to witness.” Scully murmured.


“No. I just never…maybe we never gave him credit for all the times he helped us. He risked his life for us on several occasions, and he thinks that it doesn’t count? That he failed us?”


“Mulder, you said it yourself – Noy’s manipulating him.”


“What was that stuff Skinner said to you at the hospital? I only got a glimpse of that but it seemed like he didn’t think much of himself there.”


“I didn’t think of it like that. I think he just regrets never having come down on our side, publicly and unequivocally.”


“He’s more use to us where he is, walking a middle path for us, keeping himself in a position of power to help us fight our corner.” Mulder protested.


“I know. I agree.” Scully put an arm around Mulder, and kissed his hair gently. He was strong, but his strength was different to hers – or Skinner’s. Nobody could take what Mulder had in his life and continue to function even remotely sanely if they didn’t have a fierce inner strength, and sense of purpose. “What did he do for me when I had cancer, Mulder? Do you know?” She asked him quietly. He looked at her, and bit on his lip, then he nodded.




“You didn’t tell me.”


“Not my secret to tell.” Mulder shrugged.


“I see.” Scully thought about it for a moment, then got up to return to the car.


“Besides…he did it because he’s in love with you.” Mulder said. Scully froze.


“What makes you say that?” She asked quietly, her back to him.


“It’s obvious. Christ, the guy even has you down as his next of kin on his personnel file! Do you love him?” The question hung between them for a long moment, and then Scully nodded.


“Yes,” she replied simply. Then she turned. “How about you?” She asked.


“Am I in love with you? Hell, yes.” He grinned. “You don’t need any damn nexus to tell you that.”


“No, I knew that already.” She gave him a wry smile. “I wondered if you were in love with Skinner.”


Mulder’s head snapped up, and there was a flush on his face but now wasn’t a time for pretense. There could be only honesty between them in this place, at this moment in time. Mulder cleared his throat.


“Yeah.” He shrugged, not looking at her.


“That was the secret? The one you didn’t want him to know?” She pressed, her blue eyes thoughtful, and understanding.


“Hell, Scully, did you ever see anybody straighter than Skinner? I wanted to stay alive.” Mulder grinned. “Besides, it’s kind of unusual to be in love with two people at the same time.” He glanced up at her again, almost afraid of what he’d see on her face, but she gave him the faintest ghost of a smile.


“Is it?” She raised an enigmatic eyebrow.


Mulder watched her walk back to the car, struggling with his feelings. Damn it, this is why I hate relationships, he grumbled to himself. Too damn confusing.  He knew that he didn’t stand a chance with Skinner, but he could see that Scully would be happy with the other man, if they could only find him, and bring him safely home. Mulder loved them both so he knew exactly what they saw in each other. He bit down his feeling of exclusion, and the raw sensation of jealousy and rejection. He was happy for them. Really.




“It wasn’t all your fault, Walter,” Noy told his captive. “Mulder and Scully weren’t really worthy of your protection. You should have chosen more wisely.” He gave a regretful sigh. “They don’t care about you, you do know that don’t you?” Noy asked. Skinner shrugged.


“I haven’t asked them to care.”


“No, but you’d like it if they did. They don’t. Scully is quick to think you’ve betrayed them, and as for Mulder, well, his paranoia is well known. He trusts no-one.”


“I don’t blame him for that, with the life he’s led.” Skinner shrugged again.


“Always defending the people you love, even when they aren’t worthy.” Noy shook his head. “You’re an idiot, Walter.”


“Probably.” Skinner rasped.


“Here, have a drink. A tiny reward for being so co-operative.” Noy held the cup to Skinner’s lips, and he drained it greedily.


“You know, you’ve really held up far better than I would have expected.” Noy mused. “Hmmm…I do hope that nobody has been feeding you, or giving you any water when my back was turned. If they have, I’ll be annoyed. Has anyone helped you while you’ve been here, Walter?”


Skinner gazed blearily at Noy trying to make sense of his words, and then he shook his head, slowly.


“No.” He rasped.


“Tell me the truth, Walter.” Noy placed a hand on the device that activated the chair. Skinner ran a tongue over his lips, gazing anxiously at Noy’s hand. “I won’t be angry with you, just with whoever helped you. Tell me, Walter.” Noy encouraged. “Has anybody but me given you food or drink while you’ve been here?”


Skinner thought about it, and then finally he shook his head, tensing wearily for the expected burn. Noy laughed out loud, a delighted laugh, and moved his hand away. He snapped his fingers, and Skinner was released from the chair, and hauled back to his cell. He didn’t see the smile fade from Noy’s face as quickly as it had come, to be replaced by a look of intense satisfaction.




“Shit. I know what he’s doing.” Mulder pressed his foot down hard on the accelerator. Scully snapped out of the scene in Noy’s office, and turned to look at him.


“What?” She asked.


“Marla and Antonio. Oh shit, Scully. We have to get there soon. Really soon. Skinner’s too out of it to see what’s happening. Damn.” He banged a hand against the steering wheel. “How far are we, Scully?”


“About 20 miles. I think.” She frowned, shaking the homing device.


“You think?” Mulder raised a dangerous eyebrow.


“Mulder, this thing is ancient, added to which, I have no idea how it works, but I’m fairly certain that this is the way.”


“Let’s hope so.” Mulder said grimly. “Hold on, big guy. The cavalry’s coming.”




Skinner lay unmoving when he was thrown back into his cell. He was dimly aware of Tonio scrambling over to kneel down next to him.


“Oh shit. Oh, god, what the hell did they do to you? Oh, Walter.” Skinner saw himself reflected in Tonio’s eyes. It wasn’t a pretty sight.


<Here.> Tonio’s voice soothed him, like a balm. His gentle fingers stroked Skinner’s face, and his mind seemed to pour healing thoughts into Skinner’s aching body. <Give up, Walter. Just allow yourself to float…> Tonio instructed. A few moments later, Marla entered the cell.


“Walter, I managed to sneak in when nobody was looking,” she whispered, sitting opposite Tonio and gently touching Skinner’s arm. Skinner tried to say something, but she put a finger over his lips. “Hush, dearest,” she murmured. <Let us take care of you.>


Her mind was like a bright, spangled tunnel, Skinner thought to himself. So easy just to slip inside it, to allow her thoughts to wash over him, to caress, and comfort him…




“What’s happening? What are they trying to do?” Scully asked Mulder frantically.


“Noy planted them there for a purpose. He’s disorientated Skinner, weakened him, and made sure that those two the only ones who’ve shown him any kindness.”


“They’re working on Noy’s orders?” Scully frowned.


“Of course.” Mulder nodded.


“The food and drink?”


“Well, Noy had to keep Skinner alive, but by making it look as if the food was being smuggled in, Skinner thinks those two bimbos are helping him. Noy’s got him believing that to the extent that Skinner protected them at his own cost when Noy asked him to betray them. He’s even got them keeping Skinner awake under the guise of not wanting him to be hurt.” Mulder’s whole body radiated a kind of fury that Scully had never seen in him before.


“What are they there for?” Scully asked.


“Isn’t it obvious? You heard what Lubecker said. The only way out of the nexus is if someone dies. However, as far as I can see, there are no limits to how many people are in a nexus. If Marla and Antonio are part of Lubecker’s follow-up project they probably have some kind of basic telepathic skills, which they’re using to get into Skinner’s head right now. If he links with them, then you and I are effectively outnumbered and outgunned in this nexus, and, worse than that, we’re lumbered with those two for the rest of our lives. Till death us do part.”


The two of them exchanged a look of sheer horror.


“Can we do anything to stop it?” Scully asked, in desperation.


“I don’t know.” Mulder pulled the car over.


“What the hell are you doing!” Scully protested. “We need to get there – now!”


“Hang on. How about we approach this from a different angle? How do you feel about those pretty kids who are fawning all over our Skinner?”


Our Skinner?” Scully raised an eyebrow.


“Scully – we’re the ones he chose to link to, and we’re the ones in this nexus. He chose us, not them. That makes us a unit. He belongs to us, and we to him. I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling kind of territorial here.” Mulder sounded almost proud of this fact, his resistance to the nexus fading rapidly as he witnessed Skinner’s continuing defiance of his captor.


“Oh yeah.” Scully said with a grim smile. “Me too.”


“So why don’t we tell him?”


“Mulder I’ve tried talking to him for hours, and so have you. He’s so far gone he isn’t replying.”


“That doesn’t mean that he can’t hear us. I think we need to do some positive reinforcement here, Scully, or we might find that our positions have been usurped. Now, we’ve tried contacting him alone, but I think that’s the wrong approach. How about we try, um, linking with each other, and then contacting him together?”


“A united front?” Scully mused thoughtfully. “It’s worth a try.”


Mulder held out his hand, and Scully looked at it for a moment, and then took it. They both closed their eyes. Almost immediately, Scully felt the warmth of the nexus flood in, bringing with it Skinner’s pain, which was effectively dominating the link, making her flinch from the force of it. Scully felt Mulder’s mind like a cluster of bright, swirling silver clouds enveloping her own pulsing orange hues, and merging with them, creating something beautiful, like a Christmas star, shot through with light. They surged together down the nexus, and found Skinner’s mind – a blends of pale blues and grays, tinged with the black of pain.


<Walter?> Scully merged with him, sending the full force of her soul along the link, trying to shore up his fading energy. <We’re here. You’re not alone.> There was no reply. <Walter?> Scully called again.


<Jace?> Scully heard Mulder’s voice echoing through the link. It was, she thought, worth a try.


<Jace?> She joined her voice to Mulder’s, and a few seconds later she felt Skinner’s unmistakable presence.


<Yeah…here…> The voice was faint and weak. Scully traced it to its source, and gathered Skinner up in her mental embrace. Then she sensed Mulder settle around them, like a protective cloak or shield. It felt good. She poured every ounce of healing she could into the link, muttering meaningless platitudes, like a mother comforting a sick child.


<We’re very close to you.> Mulder’s voice echoed in the link. <You’ll be rescued soon. You just need to hold on for a bit longer.>


<Can’t…> Skinner’s voice was weak and distant.


<You have to.> Mulder insisted. <Listen to me – you can’t trust Marla and Tonio. Don’t allow them into your mind.>


There was a muffled, confused response that neither of them could understand.


<It’s true.> Scully insisted. <They’re trying to trick you. Please be strong until we get there. We’re here. You don’t need them.> She gave him a mental hug, trying to radiate a sense of comfort into the link. It made her heart ache to see him brought this low, stripped of his dignity, and subjected to this ordeal. Something inside her broke and she let go of any conscious sense of self, and became Mulder and Skinner and Scully simultaneously. Mulder took his cue from her, and did the same.


<Our nexus is complete.> Scully wasn’t sure if she said it, or Mulder. She wasn’t sure if she could tell the difference between them any more, or even if her thoughts were her own or his. All she knew was that the part of her that was Skinner let down its barriers, and she felt a sense of overwhelming happiness and a renewed sense of hope as their love flowed freely into the link. For the first time in her life, she was whole.




The presence of their two minds in his, loving and comforting him, shored up Skinner’s fading strength. He rolled over and batted Tonio’s fingers away from his temples.


“Get the fuck away from me,” he growled. “Both of you.”


“Walter!” Marla reached out to him, and he looked her straight in the eye.


“Get out of here,” he hissed. “I don’t want you anywhere near me. I know he sent you.”


They exchanged glances and then Marla nodded at Antonio and they knocked on the cell door to be released. Within minutes Skinner found himself being dragged back to Noy’s office. He noticed that the electric chair was gone, but he couldn’t stand on his broken feet. He was dumped on the plain wooden chair that he had sat in on his first visit to this room.


For the first time since he had been brought here, Skinner saw a genuine emotion on Noy’s face: anger. His pale blue eyes were opaque with rage, and his body language, which had previously been nervous and excitable, was now dangerously still. Skinner guessed that this was the real Noy.


“I think Mulder and Scully have been talking to you.” Noy snapped. “I didn’t think they’d prove dangerous, which was a miscalculation on my part. Now, I’m going to give you, and them, a little message of warning, and then I’m going to prevent you from having any contact with them at all for the next few days.”


He motioned with his head and Skinner didn’t even see the first blow as it swung across his back. Someone caught hold of his face and he felt a fist crunch into his jaw. At some point he toppled over onto the floor, but the blows continued to rain down on him. When finally the onslaught stopped, he was on the verge of losing consciousness. He was aware of someone plunging a needle into his arm, and then it felt as if a blanket had fallen over his mind. He howled, not from pain, but from the loss of the link with Mulder and Scully, which had been the only thing keeping him going. At that point, mercifully, everything went black.


The guards dragged him back to his cell, and slung his battered body back inside, locking the door.




“This is as far as the device goes.” Scully’s face was pinched and white. The loss of the link when they had been so closely entwined hurt her more than the pain that had preceded it. They had both felt every last blow that Skinner had endured – as Noy had intended them to. Mulder had been forced to stop the car when it was at its worst, and they had both sat there, holding hands, sending every last piece of their energy to Skinner to help him get through it. When the drug took effect, separating them from Skinner’s mind, they both reeled from the shock of it. Mulder was surprised at how quickly he had become accustomed to this flowing of energy and warmth between them. It physically hurt him when it was no longer there. They were both worried now about what was being done to Skinner in his drugged state. The unknown was more terrible than the pain had been.


“One mile. One mile…” Mulder drove around, looking out of the window. “Damn. He could be anywhere. Give me the map, Scully. Let’s see if there are any clues.” He glanced down, tracing his finger along the road they were traveling on. “There’s a row of private houses up here. The rest is an industrial complex.” He looked at her and shrugged. “So – toss up. Is he in a house, or some kind of warehouse?”


They looked at each other for a moment.


“I don’t remember him seeing any windows,” Scully said uncertainly, “and those long corridors didn’t look like they were in a house.”


“There were no windows at Lubecker’s little underground lab either, and that was beneath a private house. There were also some long corridors there.” Mulder mused.


“Could be either.” They stared at each other glumly. Mulder started the car again, and turned it towards the industrial complex. They were halfway down the road, when Scully put a hand on his arm.


“Turn around,” she whispered. He glanced at her. “It’s just a feeling. Turn around,” she repeated. He nodded, swung the car around, and headed back towards the houses.


“Remember this moment,” Mulder told her, “because I’m about to say something I don’t say very often: I think it’s time to call for some back up.”


Scully gave a faint smile and reached for her cellphone.


They drove slowly along the road, peering at the houses. They were opulent, and set well back from the streets, with their own private gates. They finished one pass of the street and turned back, re-tracing their steps.


“Maybe I was wrong…maybe we should have gone to the industrial…Mulder, stop!” Scully pointed at a couple of men, standing by a car on the driveway of one of the houses. They were smoking, and laughing about something. “Do they look familiar to you?” Scully asked.


“Yeah.” Mulder stopped the car, and peered over. “The dark one looks like one of the guards.”


Scully opened her cell phone again, and gave directions to the back up team.


“They’ll be here soon. Do we wait for them?” She asked.


“Hell, no. Someone’s stolen something that belongs to us – something priceless. I want it back.” Mulder said determinedly. “I want him back.”


Scully smiled and drew her gun. “For once, I agree with you, Mulder. Don’t let it go to your head.”


The two men on the driveway were taken by surprise. Both men were clearly too scared of Noy to give any aid to the two agents, and mutely refused to co-operate even when Mulder placed his gun to their heads, so they handcuffed them to the car and went into the house. Scully was relieved to hear the sound of a number of vehicles screeching up outside as she walked through the door.


The door to the underground complex wasn’t concealed and they found it easily enough, tiptoeing down a flight of stairs, and along a familiar white corridor. A few seconds later, the backup team joined them. Scully was glad that she had them behind her, as they swarmed over that rabbit warren beneath the house, searching for Skinner.


There were dozens of rooms, and endless long corridors. At the end of one, they burst into some kind of recreation room, taking its occupants by surprise. One of them, a pretty girl with bobbed blonde hair, was busy playing pool with one of the guards. She looked around, startled, as Scully crashed into the room, waving her gun.


“Federal Agent. Drop your weapons!” Scully called. The backup team flooded in behind her, and began making arrests. Scully went over to the girl, and looked her up and down.


“Are you Marla?” she asked. The girl nodded, looking confused. She looked even more confused a few seconds later when Scully’s fist crashed into her jaw, knocking her to the floor.


“I thought so.” Scully smiled and walked away. The back-up team glanced at each other in alarm and Mulder grinned.


“And you must be Tonio,” he murmured to a handsome, dark-haired man. Tonio took a wary step back. “Oh, I’m sorry, my knee slipped.” Mulder said a few seconds later, as he stepped over Tonio’s wailing form.


None of the guards would tell them either where Noy was, or Skinner. Scully could only assume that Noy must be one frightening SOB to inspire such silence.


“Let’s split up.” Mulder said, when faced with the myriad of corridors, going in four different directions. Scully nodded, and set off.


Mulder ran down the corridor, slamming open each door, to find them all empty. The fourth one along was locked. Mulder shot a bullet into the lock, then kicked the door open and practically threw himself inside. He came to a sudden halt.


“Oh shit,” he whispered.


Skinner was lying on the floor, curled up on his side in a fetal position in a pool of his own blood. He was naked, and semi-conscious. His arms and torso were covered with burns, lacerations and welts and his face was bruised. He looked smaller than Mulder could ever remember seeing him. His feet were torn into shreds, so mangled that Mulder winced at the sight of them. Mulder went and crouched down next to him. He took off his coat, and placed it over Skinner, cradling the other man’s head gently in his hands, muttering soothing platitudes. Skinner’s eyes opened, and came into focus.


“Mulder…?” he rasped.


“Yeah. Don’t worry. You’re safe. We’ve got you now.” Mulder couldn’t stop himself stroking a gentle finger along the side of Skinner’s face. He thought that Skinner looked like a lion he had seen on a wildlife program once. The creature had been shot, and was lying with its paws tied together – just a carcass. What had once been strong and vital, proud and vividly alive, had been reduced to nothing but mere mortal flesh, the spirit gone.


“Mulder!” Mulder heard Scully’s voice in the corridor and Skinner’s forehead creased into a worried frown.


“Scully…I don’t want…”


Mulder nodded, understanding the unspoken plea and he got up quickly, leaving the room and pulling the door shut behind him. Scully came flying down the corridor, her red hair framing her anxious pale face.


“Mulder. I heard a gun shot. Have you found him?” She asked.




“Thank god. Let me…” Scully tried to push past him but he wouldn’t let her.


“He’s in a bad way, Scully,” he said.


“I’m a doctor, Mulder,” she snapped impatiently.


“I know, but there are paramedics on their way. They can treat him.”


“I want to see him,” she told him angrily.


“Yeah, I know. You can’t.” Mulder held his ground, blocking her way, placing both his hands on her shoulders to hold her back. “He doesn’t want you to see him like this, Scully. Trust me. I’m doing this for him, not for you.”


She glared at him for a moment, and then her expression softened.


“Okay, but I’m following him to the hospital in the car.”


“Fine.” Mulder nodded. “Noy?” He asked.


“We got him,” she muttered grimly.


“Good. Let’s see how he likes being on the receiving end of an interrogation. Go and get the paramedics, Scully, and bring them along to this room.” He motioned with his head.


“Is he going to be okay?” Scully asked, turning back.


“I think so. Physically anyway.” Mulder shrugged. “Mentally – who the hell knows after that sick head-fuck played with his mind?”


“We’ll have to help him then.” Scully told him firmly.


“Yeah. We will.” Mulder nodded. “I promise you that we will.”


He returned to the room, and sat down beside Skinner, gathering up the other man in his arms, and holding him while he waited for the paramedics. Skinner felt cold and clammy to the touch, and Mulder held him close, warming him with his own body heat. He no longer cared about revealing his feelings – he suspected that Skinner already know them anyway. He just wanted to be as solid and reassuring a presence as he could for the other man right now. Skinner couldn’t feel them through the link because of the drug, and Mulder wanted to reassure him that he wasn’t alone any more. He held Skinner tight, and rocked him like a child.




The first thing that Skinner was aware of when he woke up in the hospital was that somebody was holding his hand.


“Scully?” He turned his head, and saw a blurred image in red and white.


“Sir?” He felt her hand squeeze his. “How are you?”  His vision came into focus and he looked into her concerned blue eyes.


“You tell me,” he whispered wryly.


“Well, nothing was broken. You’re badly dehydrated, and you’ve dropped a few pounds in weight. You have multiple contusions, lacerations and burns but you’ll heal.” She smiled, and he managed a slight smile back and tried to sit up, then groaned as his head felt as if it had been split in two.


“Not yet.” She pushed him back down. “Take it slowly. Your glasses are on the nightstand if you need them.”


“Yo! He’s awake.” Mulder bounced into the room bearing two cups of coffee and a bag of Krispy Kreme doughnuts, nudging the door shut behind him with his foot. “No coffee for you I’m afraid -I think the caffeine would just about kill you in your condition.” Mulder grinned, handing a coffee to Scully. “Would a doughnut do him any harm, Scully?”


“I don’t think so.” She smiled, her hand still not leaving Skinner’s.


“How are my feet?” Skinner managed to ask, as Mulder placed another pillow under his head, to raise him up a fraction.


“Well…not good.” Scully admitted. “They were badly torn.”


“You’ll have some impressive scarring but you should be able to walk again.” Mulder told him, handing him a doughnut. Skinner felt a wave of relief at that news. He tried to open up his mind, cautiously, and felt a small stirring deep inside and a muted response from the two other people in the room.


“The drug’s still in your system, and anyway you’re too tired for that.” Scully told him reprovingly.


“But we’re looking forward to learning all about this stuff when you’re better. I, for one, have a lot of questions and some exploring I want to do with this whole nexus thing.” Mulder leaned forward his face animated. Skinner glanced at him in surprise and Mulder grinned back and devoured a  doughnut, licking the sugar off his full lips with a swipe of his tongue.


“How much of it did you…’hear’?” Skinner muttered.


“Most of it. Pretty much all of it.” Mulder replied, sitting down on the chair beside the bed.


“Oh.” Skinner closed his eyes.


“Does that bother you?” Scully asked.


Skinner opened his eyes again. “Yeah,” he replied.


“I thought it would.” Mulder nodded. Scully’s fingers stroked Skinner’s, softly.


“It doesn’t matter,” she told him. He was too weak to care, but he thought he might later. He closed his eyes and remembered them calling him Jace, which made him flush. They even knew that. He supposed it was only fair – he had rummaged through their memories, and knew things they hadn’t told him, and wouldn’t want him to know. He probably deserved the same to have happened to him. It had a kind of natural justice to it.


Skinner managed a bite of the doughnut and nearly passed out again from the sheer sensory pleasure of eating something that tasted so damn good. He blissed out on the soft yeasty dough for a few moments. “Thanks. I really needed that,” he murmured to Mulder when he’d finished. 


“I thought you’d appreciate it!” Mulder grinned, then bit on his lip. “I owe you an apology,” he said.


“An apology?” Skinner frowned.


“Yeah. I should have given you a chance to explain things. I’ve done some reading…and I understand things better now. I’d still like to hear your story though – when you’re better.”


“You don’t need to apologize. What I did was wrong.” Skinner shook his head, feeling weary to his very bones.


“You went through all you did at Noy’s hands because you wouldn’t give us to Cancerman, which is what I accused you of. I am sorry.” Mulder said softly. Skinner managed a wan smile. “We have a lot of things we need to discuss.” Mulder told him, his hazel eyes holding a meaningful look.


Skinner sighed, and nodded. “How did you find me?” He asked.


“We took a trip to Lone Oak.” Mulder took a bite of his second doughnut. “In fact we had a stroke of luck there. We met up with Cressie – Cressida Mulvey – you know, your old girlfriend.” He grinned at Skinner’s confused frown. “She was the one who told us about Doctor Lubecker. That was our biggest lead.”


“Cressie?” Skinner repeated, still looking confused. “You had a conversation with Cressie?”


“Yeah.” Mulder nodded. “Brown hair, green eyes, kind of sexy.” He winked at Scully who rolled her eyes.


“I don’t know who you met out there, Mulder, but it wasn’t Cressida Mulvey.” Skinner told him. “Cressie drowned in 1972, a few months after I got back from ‘Nam. People said she fell into the lake one night after a drunken binge but I don’t think she did. I think she took one look into her future and decided that she didn’t want it,” Skinner said softly.


Mulder and Scully exchanged glances.


“Ghosts,” Mulder whispered.


“Too many of them.” Skinner closed his eyes again. “For a while back then, I wanted to join her but as Noy so accurately pointed out, I’m not the suicidal type.”


“He wasn’t accurate about everything,” Mulder told him seriously, touching Skinner’s arm gently. “He said what he did in order to break you.”


“He did a good job,” Skinner murmured wearily.


“He didn’t succeed,” Scully said firmly, squeezing his hand.


Skinner gave a faint, mocking smile, his dark eyes completely bleak.


“Didn’t he?”


End of part three.


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