Part 6
Truth or Consequences

Mulder makes a pilgrimage to the mountain.

SPOILERS: Season 9
DISCLAIMER: Not mine; they belong to FOX, CC, etc., along with some dialogue I cribbed from "The Truth."

Notes: This story is the sixth part in a series that rewrites the end of season 9 and then branches off in its own direction.

Special thanks to Mims for the beta.

* * * * *
* * * * *

Using a hand to shield his eyes against the sun, Mulder squinted up into the sky and watched the bird gliding far above him. He wondered whether it might a hawk or some bird of prey, but it was too far away for him to get a good look and eventually soared out of sight.

Dropping his hand, Mulder settled more comfortably into the lawn chair and readjusted the sleeping bundle on his shoulder. He peeked under the blanket to glance at William, but the steady puffs of air against Mulder's neck were enough to tell him that his son was dead to the world. Mulder checked the angle of the sun and tucked the blanket back around the boy's face, then let his drifting thoughts carry his eyes to the ridge of hills in the distance.

Behind him, the trailer door squeaked open and slammed closed. Mulder didn't look back to see who it was; a moment later, Byers came into view by his side.

"Had enough of the mad scientists, huh?" Mulder asked.

Byers took a seat in the adjacent lawn chair. "Susanne swears that what they're doing is safe, but the whole place smells like a swimming pool."

She and Scully were determined to find an additive that would counteract the modified chloramine, with the intent of disseminating it in water supplies all over the country. How they were going to accomplish this, however, was still in question.

"Looks like we'll be cooking dinner outside again," Mulder said. "I really appreciate their enthusiasm, but we have to find them a lab before winter sets in, or I'll be freezing my ass off trying to cook in the fire pit while it's snowing."

Byers leaned closer, lowering his voice. "What if they do succeed? I'm a little worried about how they think they're going to sneak sufficient amounts into well-guarded water facilities."

"I know Scully will be pissed, but I'm not letting her go out there to do it, and I know you don't want Susanne going either. They may think I'm being chauvinistic, but we've got families to protect now." Mulder repositioned William on his shoulder and tugged the blanket up further.

Byers sank back into his chair. "I just hope Frohike and Langly manage to recruit some help."

"Speaking of, any word from them yet?"

"No, but I don't expect them back until tonight or even tomorrow. A road trip with Langly always takes twice as long; he's got a bladder the size of a pea--no pun intended."

Mulder smiled. "You sure they won't get tempted to stay in Montana? From what I hear, Fuhrman has quite a stash of electronics. You'd think Frohike was visiting Santa's workshop, he was so giddy about getting his hands on some new gadgets. They've been going through withdrawal without all their toys around."

"I certainly do hope they return--I want my truck back." Mulder shot him an amused look; Byers quickly added, "And them too. It's not the same here without them."

Mulder nodded. "So, is Fuhrman a tech-head, or just a collector of contraband?"

"I think Joe got some of that equipment in the purchase of the property, so I'm not sure he even knows the full inventory. The previous owner was quite a fanatic about Y2K. He prided himself on the self-sufficiency of his compound. All the amenities were cutting-edge when the place was built, all powered by generator or solar energy."

"Technology like that might come in handy if the sky was falling. Good thing you guys have friends in covert places."

Byers shrugged. "The challenge is usually tracking those friends down. They tend to stay under the radar. Most of the addresses on our mailing list were P.O. boxes."

Mulder didn't reply immediately. A familiar restlessness was creeping over him. Trying to suppress it, he shifted uncomfortably in the chair and let out a heavy sigh.

"What's wrong?" asked Byers.

Mulder kicked at the ground, painting scuff marks in the dirt. "At least you guys have the liberty to wander the country making connections. Scully and Susanne are inside trying to save the population from government experiments. And me..." He looked at the blanket on his shoulder gently moving with each tiny breath. "I'm just a baby Barcalounger, complete with drool rag."

"Look at me--I'm right here next to you. The time will come for action, but for now--"

Mulder grunted his dissatisfaction.

Byers watched him closely. "Mulder, I know that look in your eye. You're not thinking about doing anything...ill-considered, are you?"

"Have you ever had a vision?"

After the apparent non sequitur, Byers took a moment to answer. "You mean, like a sense of purpose for the future?"

"No, an actual vision. An apparition, a dream. What Scully would refer to as 'seeing things.'"

"Um, I can't say that I have, but that doesn't mean I doubt such things are possible." Byers paused. "Have you...seen a vision?"

Mulder returned his gaze to the horizon. "I've had visits from Albert Hosteen. It started several months ago, back when it was just me and Gibson here. At first, Albert didn't really say much, just a few cryptic words now and then. But the visions increased. He started telling me about a man living in the hills over there, a man possessing a special knowledge of the Truth."

"Did he tell you anything about this man?"

"No, not really--Albert isn't all that forthcoming when I ask him questions, which is why I'm pretty sure it's not just all in my head," Mulder said with a tinge of sarcasm.

"Have you seen him recently?"

"I hadn't for a while. We've been so busy around here that I really hadn't given it much thought, until last night--I saw him again."

When Mulder didn't elaborate, Byers asked, "What did he say?"

"That it's time for me to pay that man a visit."

"You haven't told Scully about this, have you?" Byers chastised.

Mulder chuckled at the accurate assumption. "And have her tie me up in a straitjacket? I don't think so. You know, she's had visions of Albert herself, although she'd never admit to it."

Byers sat forward in his chair. "Whatever you're planning, Mulder, I don't think--"

Rising abruptly, Mulder cut him off. "You know, Byers, I think you need a little practice at fatherhood. Being the good friend that I am, I'm going to give you that opportunity."

Byers reached out to catch the sleeping toddler being forced on him. "Where are you going?"

Mulder pointed off in the distance, toward the hills he had been watching. "See that little cloud over there? It's from a plume of smoke. There's been a steady stream rising from that same spot all afternoon. I'm pretty sure it's coming from the cliff dwellings over there, just on the other side of that ridge. Word is, they're haunted by evil spirits. The locals won't go near them." Mulder grinned. "Sounds like the perfect place to do some exploring." He turned and headed for the back end of the trailer.

Byers called after him, "But, what do I tell Scully?"

Mulder walked back toward him, pushing a ten-speed by his side. "Just tell her that I went for a bike ride."

He straddled the cycle and shoved down on one pedal, propelling him quickly beyond Byers' stuttering attempts to summon him back. The breeze kissing his face gave him a sense of lightness he hadn't felt in a long time, inspiring him to pick up his speed. With every stroke of his foot, the looming hills grew closer.

* * *

Mulder wiped the moisture from his brow as he pedaled down the narrow canyon. The day wasn't that hot, although the sun was bright and the sky clear. It was a harsh reminder that he wasn't as young, or as fit, as he used to be; the latter, at least, he could work on before he fell into the cliche of the married man.

He looked up to ensure once more that he was on target. Obscured by the steep hillsides, the wispy pillar of smoke had been more difficult to follow as he drew closer, but the single cloud overhead remained his beacon. Once Mulder rounded the last bend, he saw that his suspicions had been correct: tufts of smoke puffed out of an upper window in the pueblos built into the cliff.

Leaving the bike at the base of the ruins, Mulder set off for the ladders leading to the uppermost level. Some of the dwellings were little more than rubble, while others appeared intact. He did wonder about the stability of the remaining structures, but the ladders were clearly more recent and instilled more confidence in his safety.

At the entrance to the occupied pueblo, Mulder peered in to seen an old Navajo woman tending a pot over the fire. When he stepped inside, meaning to approach her quietly, she startled and sprang from her seat.

He extended a hand to reassure her. "It's okay. My name's Mulder--Fox Mulder." When there was no sign of ease or recognition on the woman's face, he asked, "Can you understand me?"

The only response was her hasty departure through a doorway covered by a tattered blanket. Hesitating only a moment, Mulder pursued, certain there was more he was meant to find.

The dim chamber yielded to a passageway leading into the cliff. Mulder followed her shadowy form, cast in silhouette by a light at the other end. He soon found himself in a cavern bathed in candlelight, which surrounded an apparition that he never expected, or wanted, to lay eyes on again.

Mulder stepped around the woman, who skittered out of his way and into the shadows. "No wonder the Navajo thought there were evil spirits here," he said with venom.

The old man seated in the pool of light pressed a cigarette to his tracheal hole and inhaled deeply. "You still think I'm the devil, Agent Mulder?" Swirls of smoke danced around his words.

"Well, I certainly feel like I'm in hell right now." Mulder advanced to get a better look at the weathered face, the long, stringy gray hair. Still, he looked pretty good for a dead man. "You've known where we are all along, haven't you? How long before they come for us?"

The Smoking Man took another drag. "You mean you're not here just to pay your old man a visit? Pull up a chair. It's been a long time since I've had a guest. We'll pass the peace pipe and reminisce about old times."

"I haven't got the time to waste on you. We're obviously not safe here anymore." Mulder pivoted to leave, eager to get back to his family.

"On the contrary, Fox, this is the only place where anyone can be safe." Mulder stepped back toward the Cancer Man, watching him warily, which gave him license to continue. "Do you know the importance of these ruins?"

"The Anasazi Indians lived here. They disappeared about 1000 years ago; nobody knows why."

"The Indian wise men knew something about these hills, their geology. That's why they hid here, at the cost of watching their own culture die."

"Hid from what?" Mulder asked, trying to mute his curiosity.

The Smoking Man smiled mockingly. "Come now, Fox, surely you must know the significance of this place. New Mexico? Roswell?"

The pieces were starting to come together. "The aliens," Mulder answered. "The Anasazi thought these hills would protect them. But why?"

The old man didn't respond. He took another perverse puff from the hole beneath his throat and watched with a ghost of a smile.

The answer hit Mulder. "'Their geology'...Magnetite!"

"The same thing that brought down the original UFO in 1947."

Mulder perused the weak figure before him, clouded in a haze of noxious fumes. "So now you're sitting here too, like a coward, waiting to wither and die like the Anasazi?"

"This is the last refuge from those who are insidiously taking power. You would be wise to follow my example."

"I was told I would find the Truth here, but all I've found is the master of lies," Mulder said contemptuously.

"Still blindly pursuing the Truth, are you, Fox? How far would you go to find it?"

Mulder held his tongue. He watched cautiously as the Smoking Man leaned his weight against an oxygen tank next to his chair and pushed himself to his feet. He wavered slightly, but Mulder felt no urge to steady him. Once he had his balance, the feeble figure shuffled over to a narrow table near the wall. When he turned back to Mulder, he held out a small manila envelope.

"Consider it a birthday present."

Mulder reluctantly accepted the "gift." He eyed the man as he tottered back to his seat, then opened the envelope carefully. A plastic key card slid into his palm. "What is it?"

"Access, Agent Mulder. A key to the answers. A key to the Truth."

After hesitating a beat, Mulder asked, "Where?"

"Mt. Weather; Bluemont, Virginia. Where the secret government will be hiding when it all comes down."

"How do I know you're not setting me up?"

The old man took another lingering puff before replying, "I guess you don't."

Mulder turned the key over in his hands. It was just a nondescript piece of plastic, so unremarkable for the supposed key to the universe. The key to the Truth.

The thrill of the hunt beckoned to him. His restless energy was beginning to coalesce, channeled into a sense of drive and purpose. With sudden clarity, he found his path.

"No." Mulder shoved the card back into the envelope and let it drop into the dust at his feet. He settled his hands on his hips. "I won't walk into the spider's web and leave my family unprotected."

The Cancer Man looked more amused than disappointed at Mulder's rejection. "Ah, your family. And how is my grandson? You should bring him to visit Grandpa. He can sit on my lap while I tell him a story. But it's a scary one, with no happy ending."

Tired of the cryptic speeches, Mulder said irritably, "Why don't you tell me instead?"

The Smoking Man flicked away the smoldering stub and snuffed it with his foot, even while reaching to pull out a fresh stick. "Cigarette?" he offered, holding out the pack. Mulder shook his head no. "You sure? You might want one after you hear this." Without waiting for an answer, he tossed it across the gap between them.

Out of instinct more than interest, Mulder caught the half-full pack. Morleys were still the brand of choice, he noted. A matchbook hung precariously from the opening of the package, and Mulder shoved it back in with a finger before crumpling the pack in his left hand and returning both fists to his hips. He stared down his opponent, with no more patience for his games.

Smoke drifted up past the old man's face as he spoke. "It's a story I once told your sister, so she could understand her part in the cause. How old were you when she left--twelve, was it? The day the world as you knew it came to an end. How ironic that your son will be about the same age when his world ends too."

Mulder squeezed his fists tighter. "What the hell do you mean?"

"The date's been set, Fox. Arranged long before our time. The ancient Mayans were so afraid that their calendar stopped on the exact date that my story begins. The date of the final alien invasion."

But he smugly withheld the date, lifting the cigarette for another draft.

Finally, Mulder gave in, grinding out between clenched teeth: "When?"

The old man's eyes danced with a malicious glee as he took one more puff. "December 22, 2012." He smirked. "I guess your sister was the lucky one, wasn't she? She didn't live to see the day."

In the blink of an eye, Mulder had pulled his gun and aimed it steadily. "And neither will you."

The Smoking Man blanched only for a moment before regaining his cockiness. "Don't you want to hear the rest of my story?"

"Your story is over."

There was a noise behind Mulder; he spun around, pointing his gun at the source. The old woman, forgotten since she led him into the darkness, cowered at the end of the muzzle. When he recognized the lack of threat, he relaxed his arm and lowered the gun. But then he came to a decision.

Mulder raised his weapon again and pointed it into the woman's face.

"Leave here, now. Don't look back. And don't tell anyone about this place." Unsure how well she could understand English, he gestured toward the exit with the gun.

Shaking, she slowly retreated through the tunnel and scurried away. Mulder turned the gun back to the Smoking Man, who appeared a good deal paler and less confident, his hand trembling slightly as he raised it once more to the hole at his trachea.

But his voice remained arrogant. "Are you going to shoot me now? Seems like we've been here before. And I'm still alive to tell about it."

Mulder considered the shell of a man huddled before him. He relaxed his arm again, letting it lower but not drop. "A bullet would be too quick and painless for you."

In a moment of inspiration, or madness, Mulder looked down at the oxygen tank, then at the matches still clutched in his hand. He returned his determined gaze to his nemesis.

"You're going to die the same way you lived."

The cigarette slipped from the yellowed fingers, sending up one last waft of smoke to veil the petrified face.

* * *

The afternoon sun hung low over the hills, but the area cast in shadows emanated its own light. Mulder sat across the narrow valley a few feet up the opposing hillside, watching flames lick at the windows of the pueblo, black smoke billowing out. His hands absently played with a small, plastic card.

A car rounded the bend down the canyon and came plowing through the sandy gravel, leaving a cloud in its wake. Mulder recognized the vehicle at once and slid the card into the envelope, the envelope into his back pocket, just as the car pulled to a stop below him.

The force with which Scully closed the door was enough to communicate her mood.

Before she could say anything, Mulder called down, "I should've known better than to confide in Byers. He's a worse liar than you are."

Scully took a few steps up the hill, close enough to be heard clearly; she planted her feet in the gravel and her hands on her hips. "Byers saw the smoke and was worried you'd gotten into trouble. I don't know why he'd think that," she said sarcastically.

"I was practicing my smoke signals," he deadpanned, but she didn't crack a smile. Not that he expected her to.

After a brief stare-down, he patted the rock next to him. She remained still for a moment, then relented and climbed up to join him.

They sat in silence, watching the smoke rise, until she spoke first. "So, why are you out here burning down a national monument?"

"Don't worry, I didn't singe any tourists. This place isn't even on the map. Nothing here but snakes." He drew out the final sibilant, expressing his disdain for one reptile in particular.

"Mulder?" She was looking at him intently, expecting a straight answer.

He met her eyes squarely. "I ran into an old acquaintance of ours."

Concern furrowed her brow. "Who?"


"What?" she exclaimed. "I thought he was supposed to be dead!"

"He is now," he said casually.

She scrutinized him closely, clearly wanting to pursue that subject, but she shifted to another. "Did he follow us here?"

"No, I think he's been here for a while, probably even before I arrived. He came for the pueblos." Mulder waved a hand toward the conflagration across from them.

Scully followed his gesture, then looked back at him in confusion. "What did he want with a bunch of ancient ruins?"

"It wasn't the ruins; it was the hillside, and the caves they're built into. They're full of magnetite."

Understanding blossomed on her face. "He knew it was a defense against the Super Soldiers."

"More than that--a defense against the aliens. He claimed the magnetite could even bring down their ships. He said that's why the Anasazi Indians chose these cliffs to build their refuge."

"You mean the culture that disappeared from the face of the earth?" she asked, emphasizing the irony. "A lot of good it did them."

Mulder shrugged. "At least they were resourceful when they ran out of food."

Scully winced. "Thank you for reminding me why I will no longer eat fried chicken."

He snickered. "Maybe we shouldn't follow their example in everything, but I think they had the right idea. We need to consider establishing this as our hideout."

"Holing up in caves? We'd just be backing ourselves into a corner. We wouldn't be any better off than the Anasazi."

"Well, one way or another, we need to make use of this magnetite deposit. When the fire burns down, I want to go in and check out our options."

Scully gazed at the ruins thoughtfully, and he did likewise. He knew she wasn't done with the discussion but was grateful she had dropped it for now.

When she turned back to him, she asked, "So, what's in the envelope?"

Mulder didn't answer right away; he could feel her eyes burning into him. Eventually, he retrieved the envelope from his back pocket and handed it to her, his eyes still trained on the fire.

"It was my birthday present."

He knew she recognized what the object was when she inquired, "Where does it lead to?"

"Mt. Weather, Virginia."

The tension in her voice cranked up a notch. "That's a well-guarded military installation. You're not thinking of going there, are you? You can't just waltz in there without consequences." She continued to watch him, awaiting his answer.

Finally, Mulder met her gaze, but soon dropped his eyes to her hands. Without a word, he reached out for the card and the envelope, which she relinquished to him.

He looked down at the card for a moment before replacing it in the envelope. Turning to look at her again, he said, "We should at least hold on to it, just in case."

Mulder tucked the envelope back into his pocket as he stood. Scully made no move to get up, her worried eyes still following him, until he extended his hand. She placed her palm in his and let him pull her up. Mulder used the momentum to draw her to his side, then released her hand to drape his arm around her waist.

"It'll take a while for the fire to burn out," he said. "Let's go home and have dinner first."

He grinned wickedly. "I'm in the mood for barbeque."

* * *

The shadows had shifted, the sun standing high over the hill where the partners had sat the previous day. Black smoke had turned to white and was once again emerging from the high window in wisps and puffs.

"I don't see how we can extract magnetite from these hills without a major mining operation," Scully said. "I know you're eager to do something, Mulder, but I think that's a little beyond us."

Susanne turned to look at the ruins rising directly above them. "We should at least take some rock samples and analyze the composition. If the concentration is high enough, even a small amount might prove useful."

Mulder was participating in the conversation, but his eyes were focused on William, grasping Gibson's leg for stability while he tottered through the loose rocks. "Byers and I were talking about finding some place to set up a lab. If these rocks have what you need, maybe it would be best to set it up here."

William stumbled then, wobbling forward before collapsing back onto his padded bottom. Mulder moved to assist him, but Scully was a step ahead. "I already told you how I feel about using this place as a hideout," she said over her shoulder. "With only one way out, it would be suicide."

Before Mulder could answer, a truck turned the corner, rumbling slowly through the dust. Anxiety seized him for the split second before he recognized the vehicle.

The truck pulled to a stop alongside their car, and three familiar figures piled out. Byers headed straight for Susanne, while Frohike made his way toward Mulder, leaving Langly to climb out from the middle of the bench seat.

"It's about time you guys got back," Mulder said as he reached out a hand to greet Frohike. "Another twenty-four hours, and Byers was going to report his truck stolen."

Frohike gripped Mulder's hand and pulled him into a brief hug. "That's the beauty of living underground--your friends can't report you to the cops." He released Mulder's hand and slapped him on the shoulder. "We heard you found a rat."

"Well, the rat's been, uh--" Mulder shot a look toward Scully, holding William while she wiped down his hands--"cleared out, but we haven't been able to do much exploring. There's still quite a lot of smoke yet."

Byers came over to join them. "It's been over twelve hours. I'm surprised it's still smoldering like that."

Mulder looked up at the window. "Yeah, I am too, and I'm beginning to wonder if there's something else up there still fueling it. I thought I did a pretty good job of blocking up the exit last night so the fire would burn itself out, but I came back to find this."

Walking up behind Frohike, Langly said, "If it's smoldering, then technically, it's still burning. You can only have fire when you have all three elements of the triangle" (he enumerated them on his fingers) "--oxygen, heat, and fuel--so obviously, you've still got a source of air in there keeping things going."

Langly looked around to find everyone watching him, eyes wide or brows raised. Even William had gone still. "What?" Langly said defensively. "I wanted to be a fireman when I was kid."

Frohike started ribbing his buddy, but Mulder tuned out. He was trying to visualize the shadows along the walls of the cavern. He turned back and interrupted the squabbling that had broken out between the two men.

"You suppose there could be another opening?" Mulder asked. He studied the hillside looming over them. "If there is, I don't know where it would come out."

"Well, it's worth checking out, isn't it?" said Frohike. He looked around at his companions, then grabbed a large flashlight that Mulder had left sitting on the trunk of the car and headed for the ladder.

Langly and Byers were a step behind, but Mulder hung back. He looked over at Scully, who was now standing by the open car door, holding a clean diaper while William's legs kicked out from the back seat. She glanced over and answered his unspoken question. "You go ahead. I think someone's about ready for his nap."

Mulder saw Gibson lingering near the car, and thought toward him, *You want to join us?* Gibson appeared to consider it for a moment, then stepped off to follow. Before he turned toward the ladder, Mulder noticed Susanne leaning against the truck, her face buried in some papers. He wasn't sure if she was intent on her work or just avoiding his offer, but he understood her disinclination to be exposed to the smoke.

By the time Mulder got to the cavern, the three amigos were huddled around the back wall. "Hey, Mulder. Look at this," Frohike called when he spotted him.

Mulder approached to see their flashlight trained on a narrow crack in the wall, which widened into a large gap at the base. Kicking aside a charred vase that stood in front of the opening, Mulder pulled out his Maglight and scanned the floor.

He used his foot to scrape away a layer of soot and embers so he could kneel down without fear of being singed. The air got fresher as he lowered to the ground, and he soon realized it wasn't just because the smoke was rising. As Mulder's face came level with the opening, he could feel a gentle flow of air. He sized up the gap and quickly realized that he'd never fit through, even greased up like a liver-eating mutant.

Mulder looked back at Gibson, knowing the boy already understood what he was thinking. Gibson appeared reluctant, but he came forward. "You're not claustrophobic, are you?" Mulder asked, grinning. He got a close approximation of a Scully eyebrow in return.

Mulder handed over his Maglight. The men stood by and watched as Gibson lowered to his belly and squeezed through the hole. Once his feet disappeared, Mulder squatted by the opening, as did the other three, not merely to hear Gibson better but also to access cleaner air. During an earlier inspection, Mulder had moved what debris that he could into the outer room to clear this space, but small piles still smoldered and kept the air quite hazy.

At last, Gibson's voice echoed out from the other side of the opening. "It's larger inside. I can almost stand up."

"What do you see?" Mulder called through the hole.

Gibson's voice moved away as he spoke. "There's a passage. It leads..."

But he didn't finish the sentence, and it felt like a small eternity before they heard him scuffle back to the gap. Not yet emerging, he told them, "There's another cave, a small one, and water coming from the walls."

"Some of the caves in this region used to have natural springs," Byers said. "This one apparently hasn't dried up yet."

"Is there another way out?" Mulder asked.

"There was air moving, but I don't know where it was coming from," Gibson replied.

Mulder smiled and jumped up, just as Gibson poked his head through to come out. Eager to tell his partner what they'd discovered, Mulder jogged back out into daylight.

As he descended the ladder, he shouted down, "Hey, Scully, guess what we found?"

"Considering what you found in there the last time, I'm not sure I want to know." She met him at the base of the ruins. William was squirming in her arms, so she let him down to the ground.

Unable to suppress his smile, Mulder announced, "There's an opening at the back of the cave, leading to a water source. We found our back door."

Descending the ladder behind him, Byers said, "I'd hardly call that an escape route, Mulder. It was barely large enough for Gibson to squeeze through, and that was only as far as the spring. It was too narrow for him to go any further."

Mulder countered, "Yeah, but there's fresh air flowing through there. It's got to come out somewhere, right? After we trace it, we just need to dig through and widen the passage."

Frohike came up beside them. "With what, a spoon? That's solid rock."

Now back in Scully's arms, William fussed irritably; Mulder felt the same emotion creeping over him at his friends' negativity.

"By the time we finish," Frohike continued, "*we'll* be the ones in diapers, and William here will have kids of his own."

At the innocent comment, Mulder went rigid. Suddenly the air of the cave seemed inviting compared to the oppressive weight that was smothering him. Would William even live to see adolescence?

The men were still talking, but Mulder looked over to see Gibson staring at him. The thought had not gone unnoticed, and Mulder was not ready to publicize it. He shook his head ever so slightly, telling the boy not to say a word of what he'd just heard.

Mulder took a deep breath, expelling the foul thoughts, and turned to look at his son. He found Scully's eyes fixed on Gibson. But her gaze quickly shot to Mulder; he hastily pivoted away and returned to the discussion. Scully may not be able to read his mind, but she was a master at interpreting his expressions.

"We'll need something heavier than that," Frohike was saying, as Mulder tried to catch up with the conversation. "And it'll take some major power."

"All we need is a generator," Langly said. "With a--"

But Scully interrupted, raising her voice over William's discontented squeals. "If you boys are done spelunking, do you think we could head back and finish this conversation over lunch?"

* * *

Scully offered Mulder the plate of hot dogs as it made another pass around the circle, but he shook his head, his mouth full; she set the plate aside.

"You should've seen this place, Mulder," Frohike said. "On the outside, it was just a dilapidated homestead, but inside, it looked like the Jetsons' Hilton." His excitement over Fuhrman's latest investment had only increased since their little field trip.

Mulder wiped his fingers on the drool rag draped over William, who was dozing in his lap. "Does he have specific plans for it, or is he just saving up for a rainy day?"

Frohike tossed his balled up napkin into the fire pit. "You remember your friend Absalom? Joe's still connected to some of his gang. He's helped them hide a number of the returned abductees at his ranch, so he's hoping this new property will be a little more secure."

"He's got his own colony going?" Mulder asked.

"Not quite. He just shelters them temporarily. The new bunker isn't much bigger than a large apartment, but he wants to expand."

Langly leaned forward to grab the last hot dog bun. "You should talk to him about helping us set something up here. We could build a compound twice that size in those ruins."

Mulder shook his head. "I was just thinking about using the caves. We can't get into a major building project without consulting the Navajo council. This is still their territory, even if they're not interested in the ruins. Either way, I should probably have a chat with Michael."

Scully turned to Frohike. "I'd like to hear more about Joe's power sources. You say the entire place is completely independent of local utilities?"

"Mostly run by generator, but he's got some solar and wind energy too. And get this--the fuel? It's biodiesel, made from his own corn crops."

"Talk about self-sufficient," Byers said with a hint of wonder.

Mulder looked at Scully and found her returning his expression of curious surprise. "Corn?" he asked.

"Nature's Best," she said thoughtfully.

"It worked for them, why not for us?" Mulder punctuated his comment with a shrug.

William interrupted them, shifting in Mulder's lap and letting loose a sleepy grunt. Scully set down her plate. "I should take him inside and put him to bed."

"No, I've got it," Mulder said. He lifted the toddler to his shoulder and rose to head into the trailer. As he passed through the door, the conversation behind him shifted to electronics and high-tech gadgets.

Across the living room, Mulder stopped by the portable crib and readjusted William into his arms, ready to lay him down. But he paused. Cradling his son, Mulder admired the strawberry-blond lashes and the creaseless eyelids that betrayed no tension or anxiety. So peaceful. So ignorant of the dangers around him, the things yet to come. Mulder leaned down and kissed William on his smooth brow. A shaky breath escaped him as he lay his son down in the crib.

When Mulder stood up, he noticed the light clanking of dishes in the sink and realized that he hadn't heard the screen door slam shut after he came through. He looked over and saw Scully drying her hands on a towel. This was the first time they'd been alone together since that little episode back at the ruins.

He quickly stepped toward the door, but she called out before he could reach it: "What aren't you telling me?"

Mulder stood facing the exit, his back to her. "What makes you think I'm not telling you something?"

Scully came around to stand in front of him. She lowered her tone and said gently, "I thought this relationship was built on honesty. It always has been. You can't start hiding things from me now."

He didn't answer right away, but he knew she could read his uncertainty. It wasn't that he was trying to hide the truth from her; he was trying to hide it from himself. He feared that if he spoke the words, it would all become real.

She stepped closer and glanced down to take his hand in hers, then looked intently into his eyes. "You're not in this alone, you know. We've all thrown in together now, and that means sharing the burdens. Whatever it is, you can tell me. I can handle the truth."

In her resolve, Mulder found the strength he needed. With a single nod, he turned and led her to the door. Only once he opened it did he let go of her hand, allowing her to exit before him. Scully descended the metal stairs and stopped at the bottom to look up at him expectantly.

Mulder remained on the top step and looked out over their new extended family. The three Gunmen animatedly bantered away, their jibes and camaraderie as familiar as ever. The only changes were the bright sunlight that replaced the windowless gloom, and Byers' hand constantly attached to his napping bride beside him. Each one of them had risked their lives, all for the sake of this cause. They had abandoned the life and luxuries they once knew to call this barren piece of land and this small community their home.

Seated apart from the group, Gibson was the first to look up at Mulder. He removed his headphones and waited. The laughter of the men faded into silence, and Mulder scanned their circle to see each of them now watching him. Even Susanne had opened her eyes and sat up straighter.

"There's something else I need to tell you." Mulder cleared his throat, hoping his next words would come out stronger. "We're working against a deadline."

They waited for Mulder to continue. He forced himself to stop thinking about it, to just say it. "The date's already been set. The aliens are coming whether we're ready for them or not." But he still couldn't voice those final words.

"When?" Scully asked softly.

He dropped his gaze to the worn patch of dirt at the bottom of the steps. "December 22, 2012."

Mulder couldn't look up to face the silence.

Then, Frohike said robustly, "I always did work better under a deadline."

After a beat, Langly added: "I've seen 'Independence Day' twenty times. I know how to take them."

Mulder chuckled, chasing away the tears welling in his eyes. He forced himself to look over at Scully, and found her watching him with warmth and sympathy. She reached out her hand to him.

The guys were starting to tease each other again, albeit it quieter than before, but Mulder wasn't paying attention to what they said. He kept his eyes locked on Scully's as he took her hand and descended the steps.

When he reached the bottom, she said, "A lot can happen in ten years." He stroked his palm over her cheek, thinking back to a freckled, fresh-faced agent who strode confidently into his office all those years ago. He smiled and nodded.

She smiled back, then sobered. "None of us know how long we have. All we can do is make the most of the time we're given."

He glanced back over his circle of friends, admiring their heart and determination. But, as always, he returned to the pair of bright, blue eyes that both grounded and inspired him. That's where he found his hope.

Mulder squeezed her hand and said, "Then, let's get to work."


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Part 7