DISCLAIMER: The X-files characters and universe of course belong to Chris Carter and 1013 Productions. I haven't been able to find out who holds the Man from U.N.C.L.E copyright these days, but I'm sure someone does. No infringement intended, I'm just playing.

COMMENT: I still don't really write X-files stories, so this is a crossover between the X-files and the Man from U.N.C.L.E - in case you hadn't guessed from the disclaimer. It takes place just after the first X-files movie and is, I'm afraid, a rather straight adventure, with a few dashes of UST. Sorry if the atmosphere somehow jars with Season 6, as I haven't seen any Season 6 eps yet - we won't get those till sometime this autumn (1999). This story was written October 1998 - February 1999.

RATING: Quite harmless.

FEEDBACK: Yes, please! :) You can reach me at the address given on my top page http://home.swipnet.se/evas_fanfic



Quiet Invasion

by

Eva A Enblom



Scully stood looking out of the window, into the patch of incongruous woodland coming straight up to the walls of the small building. Earlier in the year, she had seen both hares and deer out there, close enough that she wondered if they were not occasionally looking back at her, with as much interest as she was watching them. Now, the wild vegetation was out of all bounds, and except for an assortment of woodland birds, all the wildlife she could really see were squirrels chasing each other up and down and around the tall pine trunks.

She sighed. The office was just temporary, but at least they were not moving back to their old basement after a simple restauration. Skinner had promised them 'something better' this time. Apparently, that would take some lobbying. Meanwhile, she and Mulder were stuck out here in the suburbs, in a two-storey building appropriated by the FBI to house whatever offices could not be accommodated at HQ at present. On one side was civilisation still, if rather deserted in the daytime. Empty streets between empty villas and bungalows whose occupants had left early for work in the city. On the other side, the wilderness began. Scully had a feeling she would miss this place, if and when they were assigned their 'proper' office.

She turned around at the sound of the door, followed by the slap of a folder landing on a desktop.

"Check it out, Scully", was all Mulder said as he turned around to hang up his coat by the door.

Scully looked at the folder he had just turned his back on, then at him. She still had the occasional need to drink in the sight of him, against the - perhaps inevitable - day that he would no longer be around. Now that she knew how fragile life could be for the two of them, she was mildly amazed that she had never given it much thought in the past.

He turned around and met her gaze before she had the time to shield it. In an instant, he read all her feelings as if they had been outlined in neon, but somehow that did not bother her any more, not the way it would have, back in the days Before Antarctica. All the same, she quickly lowered her eyes and picked up the folder to study its contents.

As usual, she hardly had the time to open it before he started briefing her out of his eidetic memory.

"Wildlife researcher Dr Janet Z Cogan, more widely known as Dr Cougar because of her specialty, the big and ferocious felines, led a famed and photographically well-documented career until 5 May, 1986, when she suddenly emerged from the Guatemalan rainforest and went straight to her home in Irving, Texas, never to set foot outside the United States again. Apparently she just up and left in the middle of an expedition, went home and broke off her career overnight. Her academic sponsors were furious, but a refund was made within the next two months, and she was cleared of all obligations to them. The word was then that she had suffered a nervous breakdown and was now leaving the jungle for a sabbatical of two years' duration."

Scully's fine eyebrows climbed a little. "And what is the word now?"

"Pretty much the same", Mulder said innocently. "Except that she did not return to her old occupation in 1988, nor in any other of the ten years since then. She is still sitting in her old house in Irving, with only a housekeeper and a pet ocelot for company."

"A pet ocelot?"

"Apparently she brought it back with her the day she retired. Maybe it was orphaned or something."

"Mulder, why am I holding this report?"

He grinned. "Beats me. Maybe you're planning to read it?"

Her eyes gradually clouding from turquoise to storm-over-the-Irish-Sea, Scully said steadily, "Don't tell me. This woman had a traumatic experience in the middle of Nowhere, Guatemala, and you think she was abducted. So what is it you're not telling me? Granted that the rainforest could probably hold an entire fleet of alien space vessels and none the wiser, is there any real clue to say there might be an X-file in this?"

Mulder sighed, trying not to look too pleased at his partner's quick estimate. "Well, Dr Cogan was treated for radiation burns immediately on her return to the States. The treatment was paid for by an obscure organization called United Feline Observation A/S - their HQ is in Denmark, apparently. This organization also paid Dr Cogan's refund to her sponsors,interestingly enough."

Scully groaned. "The U F O! Mulder, if this is an April Fool's thing, your timing is way off. It's August."

He smiled a little. "It could be someone's idea of a joke", he acknowledged, "but it's not mine. I'd never even heard of this company till I read about it in that report you're holding. What's more, nobody associated with Dr Cogan in those days has heard of it either. Somebody thought to check. It's all in there. There's more though. It would seem that Dr Cogan always went on her expeditions alone, preferring to hire a team of assistant workers locally, rather than bring anyone with her. Except that this once, a Professor Walther K Baldwin accompanied her. However, he did not return to the United States with her. According to the Immigration Office in Flores, which keeps track of all comings and goings, he had died a week earlier of a little known but locally common disease."

Scully looked up sharply.

"Yes, I thought that might catch your interest", Mulder commented. His eyes were slowly beginning to shine. "The strange thing is that Baldwin was not a wildlife researcher at all, but a biologist, specializing in immunology. It's a mystery what he was doing on this expedition in the first place, but one would have thought he'd know how to protect himself against exotic diseases. And get this, Scully. The folklore version - that the authorities naturally did not pay any attention to - had it that the first symptom of whatever he died of was swimming black eyes."

Scully swallowed. "Oh my god."

Mulder nodded. "'My god' is right. Get your coat, Scully. I'll explain the rest on our way to Irving."

* * * *

"You're dyeing your hair, Napoleon."

Napoleon Solo flashed a grin at his old friend. "You make it sound like an accusation."

They regarded each other for a while. On the whole, time had been kind to them both. Napoleon's hair might be artificially black and his face more lined, but the delinquent grin was the same, as was the twinkle in his dark eyes. Ilya Kuryakin for his part wore his age with indifference. He had always appeared younger than his years - his short stature adding to the impression - and he still did. Granted, his once straw-blond hair had faded to a somewhat duskier shade with a touch of grey at the temples, and there was some looseness about his once firm, rounded chin - that feature an astrologer would have referred to as a 'Venus chin', though there was no way of knowing if Ilya was even close to being Libra. U.N.C.L.E records had a birthdate on him of course, but there was no telling if the information had ever been accurate.

"So", Napoleon broke the short silence, "how does it feel? Retirement coming up - next month, is it?"

Ilya glared at him. "I wouldn't know. How did you feel about yours last year?"

Napoleon grinned a little. "Touchy, are we? I can't say it's done me any harm. Or any good either", he added honestly.

Ilya shrugged. "I hate ceremonies. I think I'll just dodge the gold watch and slip out the back door."

The 'back door' to U.N.C.L.E's US headquarters in New York would be the little canal debouching into East River, but Ilya had made no mention of waterways. His noncommittal term could almost be construed as a desire to avoid mentioning U.N.C.L.E specifics. Almost as if he knew..

"But you didn't call me here to discuss my retirement", Ilya confirmed his friend's speculations.

"I didn't?" Napoleon feigned surprise - though his amusement was genuine.

"You haven't asked me to sit down, and you never got up to greet me", Ilya explained. "You may be retired, Napoleon, but as far as I know, you're not an invalid. If you feel you are confined to that chair, it's something other than infirmity confining you."

Napoleon cast a glance over his shoulder, towards the doorway to his bedroom. "Told you, didn't I?" he said lightly in that direction.

On his cue, someone emerged from the other room. A young man with dark hair and hard, disillusioned eyes. Materialist eyes. His right hand held a gun pointed at Napoleon; his left was hanging straight down and appeared to be made of wood. "Zdrazdt'e, Gospodin Kuryakin", he said evenly. "Vash oruzhye, pozhal'sto", he added with excessive politeness, nodding towards a small table to his left.

"I'm not armed", Ilya said, refusing to answer in his mother tongue out of courtesy to Napoleon. "I haven't been on active duty for years. If you had bothered to check the U.N.C.L.E records, you would have known that."

The young man sneered. "I think you're underestimating me, Mr Kuryakin. Come on, weapon on the table - I haven't got all day."

Ilya sighed and reached - very slowly - inside his jacket. Withdrawing his U.N.C.L.E Special from its shoulder holster, he walked the few steps over to the table and placed the weapon carefully on the polished surface.

"U.N.C.L.E records are confidential", Napoleon said to nobody in particular. "Or at least they were in my day.."

"Somehow I don't think that would stop our friend here", Ilya said with that little dry quirk of his mouth that Napoleon remembered so well.

"Krycek", the young man said, as if in objection to being called friend. "Aleksandr Krycek."

"What d'you know, the boy's got manners", Napoleon muttered.

Krycek put away his gun, but his cold, dark eyes never left Ilya. "I need your help", he said simply. "Whether you believe that or not."

"Well, I don't know.." Napoleon drawled. "What are your credentials?"

The relentless gaze fixed on him. "The fact that you're not already dead", Krycek said.

Ilya nodded. "He's a professional assassin, Napoleon. We haven't got that much on him as yet, but there is the beginning of a file."

Napoleon's eyebrow rose - whether in disbelief or appreciation was hard to tell. "A professional assassin with just one arm?"

"I'm good", Krycek stated matter-of-factly.

"As well as modest", Ilya said drily. "Very well, Gospodin Krycek - what do you want, and perhaps more to the point, why come to us for it? Why not bring your problem directly to HQ?"

"I never deal with organisations when I can get to individuals. I don't want U.N.C.L.E - I want you two."

"Why? As you can see, we're both long in the tooth. Napoleon is fully retired, I am due within a month. Why us?"

"The men I've worked for lately are no younger than you", Krycek said. "And I assure you they're quite deadly. You two are the only ones I could find who have so far managed to stop them - every time."

"Who's them?" Napoleon asked, although he strongly suspected he already knew.

"Drozd", said Krycek curtly.

Even Napoleon understood that particular word. He had heard it often enough.

"Thrush", Ilya translated, unnecessarily. "All right, Sasha. What have you got?"

If Krycek objected to the sudden familiarity, he made no sign. "Remember the Copenhagen affair? Some thirty years ago, I believe. Flying saucers?"

"Thrush prototypes for stratosphere craft", Ilya nodded. "Fighters of course. We put a stop to that operation. Or thought we did."

Krycek actually smiled - a sudden flash like the sun glinting off a well-honed blade. "The saucers have been back and in use a long time, Mr Kuryakin. Improved models - harder to find, even for U.N.C.L.E."

"Dismissed as UFO sightings whenever they are spotted", Napoleon muttered. "We haven't been entirely unaware of the possibility. But we didn't really have anything to go on. Surely nothing that pointed to Thrush."

"You may have now", the young man said. "Does the name Baldwin mean anything to you?"

"Ward Baldwin used to be the leader of the San Francisco satrap", Ilya said. "We worked with him once, under some sort of - enforced truce, you might say."

"Highly unusual circumstances", Napoleon offered. "A mutual enemy. Thrush and U.N.C.L.E joining forces temporarily. He can't be still alive, he'd likely be over a hundred by now."

Krycek impatiently dismissed the older man's reminiscence. "I'm talking about his son, Walt Baldwin. Biologist, specialising in immunology research. Also working for Thrush, and unfortunately also dead. In Guatemala, under - as you say - highly unusual circumstances."

Napoleon's eyes sparkled at the whiff of adventure. "What circumstances, exactly?"

Krycek's lips quirked, almost like Ilya's. "Ever come across reports of a strange virus, known as the Black Oil?"

* * * *

Scully closed the folder and put it down on the seat beside her. Frowning slightly at the desolate road before her eyes, she mused, "Mulder, all this happened ten years ago. Twelve if you count Dr Cogan's convalescence, the time period everybody still thought she would return to work. Didn't anybody investigate? I mean, a wildlife researcher known from National Geographics publications and TV documentaries around the world, suddenly quits for good because of a nervous breakdown? And in all these years nobody asks her what actually happened? Her associate at the time dies of a mysterious but locally common disease - I tell you, Mulder, that 'common' bit worries me - wouldn't at least his family want to know the circumstances?"

Mulder turned off the AC temporarily. On the whole, he was grateful that the rental agency had included this feature in all its cars, but his throat felt dry to the point of soreness, and his face was chilled on one side. There was a distinct can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em factor about these gadgets.

"I doubt they had the time to investigate", he said. "You'll notice on page 114 that there was an unusually severe forest fire, starting on the morning of May 7th and taking three weeks to combat. Whatever remains there might have been of Dr Cogan's camp were lost, as was the nearest village, the one that provided the colourful plague stories. The fire was declared an accident, put down to somebody being careless with kerosene, which they seem to use for just about everything out there, from cooking to insect bite."

Scully gave her partner a searching look. "But you think the area was torched?"

He turned to her briefly, his eyes pained and haunted, as so often before. "In view of the swimming black eyes - don't you?" He flicked his gaze back to the road in time to avoid collision with a lonely King Cab pickup, the only other vehicle for miles. "As for Dr Cogan, I don't know. It says only that she had no comment. I guess we'll find out if she has any now."

* * * *

"Just keep at it, she's home alright!"

Mulder and Scully turned their backs on the door whose chime they had been assailing five times now, to look in some surprise at the old man in a checked shirt who stood leaning on a battered shovel behind his fence. "She ain't any too willin' ta talk to anyone though", he called again, chuckling as if he had just said something hilariously funny. Then he cast a quick, nervous look down the street, and his cheer died away as if it had never been. Quickly, he started busying himself with his garden work.

The two agents glanced in the direction the neighbour had, to see what had silenced him. A tall woman with a vague air of governess severity about her was just getting out of her car, precariously balancing a handle-less paper bag of groceries on one arm while she slammed the car door shut and locked it. Her dark hair was drawn into a prim bun at the back of her head, and there was a certain fastidiousness about the way she checked the handle to see that her car was really and truly locked. But as she turned, they both noted that she had quite a pleasant face. Officious, but not mean, Mulder thought, as a tentative first categorisation.

The woman pushed the gate open and entered, but not before she had shot a suspicious glance over the neighbouring fence. It was evident that she had some ongoing quarrel with the old man.

"Meddling old fool", she muttered under her breath, then, realising that this was not the most civilised of greetings, she managed to hold out a hand without upsetting her bag of groceries. "Sorry. Jette Mortensen, Dr Cogan's housekeeper. Have you been waiting long?" Her name had been spoken in uninhibited Danish, the rest of her words carried a vague Germanic flavour that might stem from the same part of the world.

They flashed their ID's, and Scully beat Mulder to making the introductions. "We'd like to ask Dr Cogan a few questions", she concluded.

The housekeeper gave her a surprised look, then shrugged. "Well, you can always try. Asking is free.." She awkwardly brought out her keys, apparently never expecting any offer of help with the groceries which she was balancing between the wall and the crook of her arm, making it difficult for anyone to assist her. She opened the door and entered, calling over her shoulder for the agents to follow her. This they did, exchanging puzzled glances behind her back.

Jette Mortensen went directly to the kitchen, to stow away her groceries. Following her lead, Mulder and Scully wound up in the same area. The kitchen was not empty. In the middle of the tiled floor sat a large cat, washing herself. She looked up as they came in, one hind paw in the air, then she resumed her toilette as though she had not been interrupted. Mortensen walked carefully around her so as not to step on her tail. Scully crouched down to say hello to the cat who merely glanced at her indifferently, without pausing in what she was doing.

"I thought you were allergic to cats, Scully", Mulder said.

His partner gave him a blank look. "Whatever gave you that idea? Besides, this is not your common house cat."

"That's Hermione", said Mortensen with a nod in the direction of the cat. "She's an ocelot, or something. Dr Cogan found her in Guatemala and brought her back with her, despite the rather fearsome quarantine fee. Two months of quarantine, I think. Compulsory, you know.." She thought for a moment. "Funny when you think of it. If she wanted an ocelot she could have got herself one right here in the state. I've always heard there's supposed to be a few of them still, somewhere farther south."

Scully had somehow obtained graceous permission to scratch a feline ear. "This is an ocelot? I thought the females weren't much bigger than the domestic cat."

"Oh, there are cats as big as this one", Mortensen said. "Not many, but there are. I remember one in Odense that would have reached your friend there to the waist, if he'd been on his hind legs. The cat, that is", she added unnecessarily. She tilted her head to one side, thinking. "Well, if he'd stretched a bit, he would. Sylvester by name. Magnificent animal. Common house cat, not like Hermione."

The ocelot had started to pull on a claw to get rid of a loose sheath. The claw seemed to go on forever, although it had been fully retracted a moment ago. Scully watched it with a slight frown on her face, until it suddenly occurred to her that perhaps it was impolite to stare. Besides, her legs were beginning to feel cramped. She gave the cat a final stroke along the head and back, and got to her feet.

"You're Danish?" Mulder asked the housekeeper.

"Born and bred", she answered proudly, closing the cupboard doors after putting the final items away. "Though I might not look much like your idea of a Dane", she added, brushing a black strand of hair out of her eyes and fixing it back into the knot it had escaped from.

Mulder flashed her one of his warmest smiles. "How do you know what my idea of a Dane is?"

"Well, blonde, blue eyes - long braids, I shouldn't wonder? Americans usually.." she broke off, and tilted her head again. "Though that might be just my idea of Americans", she soberly conceded.

"You don't like us?" Scully asked, trying to hide her amusement.

"Not much, to be honest", the housekeeper said. "Had some bad experiences when I was new in the country. Still, that's not your fault, so we won't dwell on that. Here's Dr Cogan now."

And there she was, in the doorway, having entered so quietly that they both wondered how long she had been standing there. Perhaps she had learnt stealth from her favourite subjects of study. She was a tall woman with a somewhat angular build and faded blond hair tied back in a loose pony tail at the nape of her neck. They knew her to be forty-six now, but her face had a good bone structure and she looked a few years younger. Pale, blue eyes behind weak glasses. No make-up. She wore a blue-checked shirt and jeans, probably no different from what she might have worn in the jungle. They couldn't really imagine her in fatigues.

Mulder and Scully flashed their ID's, and this time Mulder won the introduction race. Dr Cogan did not reciprocate, which surprised him to some extent, but then, there was no need, they had just been told who she was. Her eyes were calm and carefree behind the all but flat lenses, as she waited for them to state their errand.

"We'd like to ask you a few questions about your last expedition", Mulder began. He waited for a sign - any sign - of discomfort over the topic, but found none. Her eyes were as serene as a zen monk's, though perhaps less humorous. "First, why did you leave? Maybe you had better tell us all that happened - in your own words."

"She had a nervous breakdown, that's all", said the housekeeper unexpectedly behind him. "Couldn't get on with the job. Stressed out, being left with all the work after Dr Baldwin died."

"Thank you, Ms Mortensen", Scully said, "but we'd like for Dr Cogan to tell us herself."

The housekeeper's brown eyes widened. "Oh, I'm sorry! I thought you knew.. Dr Cogan can't speak, not once after she came back that day!"

* * * *

"So what do you think, Ilya?" Napoleon asked as they walked leisurely down the street, in the general direction of the subway. "How far can we trust your compatriot?"

Ilya pressed his lips together, the shadow of a smile playing at the corners of his mouth. "Well, for one thing he never said he was Russian."

Napoleon shot him a surprised look. "Isn't he?"

"He's Czech. Just as his name would indicate. I'd know that accent anywhere. But as I said, he never pretended otherwise. Like all assassins, he's probably a good liar when he has to be, but I had the impression he avoids complicity when he can. Simpler that way."

Napoleon nodded. "Not a man of great subtlety. That was my idea also. A pretty direct guy, capable of great violence."

"I think we can rely on that", Ilya said drily. "As for how far we can rely on him.. As I said, the U.N.C.L.E file doesn't have much on him, but I think that everything that's in any way obvious, would check out. Take the hand for instance. He obviously lost his arm in the East, just as the file claims, and he had to stay there for a while after it happened."

"You mean, he doesn't wear a modern, sophisticated prosthesis?"

"Exactly. Over-confident he may be, but I doubt that a professional assassin would opt for a makeshift replacement like that, unless forced to. Either there was no better to be had - or he couldn't afford it."

Napoleon's dark eyes glittered. "Ah! But if a highly valued assassin finds himself short of money.."

"..it's because he's no longer so highly valued", Ilya filled in. "Did you get the impression he is the kind of average asset Thrush would throw out just because it was damaged?"

Napoleon shook his head. "Nah, not him. They'd be sure to kill him first, to make sure they'd have no trouble with him in the future."

"That's what I thought. So if he's out of favour with his old employers, and yet still alive.."

"..that means he's on his own these days. He's broken with them before they knew it - and he really is very good, or they would have had him before now."

Ilya nodded. "Unless they still have use for him and haven't told him. Question is, can we think of a reason he would seek us out only to lie to us?"

Napoleon tipped his head back slightly, pondering. He was walking with his hands in his pockets the way he often had in the old days, and for a moment time seemed to blur and vanish before Ilya's eyes, depositing him back sometime in the sixties. Then Napoleon spoke, breaking the spell. "Well, he's an assassin. They don't act alone, they're always sent by someone. Maybe we should rephrase the question. Who sent him?"

Ilya stopped in his tracks, on the verge of the steps down to the subway station. "Napoleon, would you mind it very much if you have to take this trip alone?"

Napoleon gave him an amused look. "You'd let an old retiree out on his own?" He sobered, or at least pretended to. "It's only Denmark, Ilya. I've been there more often than you. I have friends there."

Ilya pursed his lips. "Yes, I know. Tell her I said hello.."

* * * *

"So what do you think, Scully?" Mulder navigated the car slowly through the streets of Dallas, trying desperately to get back on to the right track and out of the industrial area he had somehow got into on a wrong turn. If only he could get them back up on the highway, they'd at least stand a chance of finding a restaurant eventually..

"I think you probably shouldn't have asked her if she'd been abducted."

"Well, it did get a laugh out of her. A silent one.." He had located the ramp to the highway now. Problem was, nobody seemed prepared to let him switch lanes.

"If laugh it was. Frankly, I'm not sure she's capable of humour anymore."

That caught his attention. "How can you say that? Just because she can't speak or write.."

Scully pursed her lips slightly, determined to bring her partner out of his delusions. "Mulder, I saw no intelligence at all in that woman's eyes. She doesn't know what's going on. She didn't understand a word you were saying. She can't speak, she's forgotten how to write, and she's unable to learn sign language. She's little more than a walking vegetable, Mulder. That has to be the reason she never went back to continue her work. I don't know why that fact was missing from your file, but.."

"I think I do", Mulder said quietly.

"What?"

"I think Dr Cogan's condition was included, but someone took that information out. Someone who wanted me to form my own opinion."

"Mulder, where did you get that folder?"

"Since you're finally asking, someone shoved it under my door this morning."

"Any idea who?"

"Nope. I may have a new contact." He managed to swerve into the proper lane at the last moment, getting them back on track.

Scully groaned. "I bet this means you haven't even cleared it with Skinner."

"I e-mailed him", Mulder said lightly. "He'll understand. I managed to hint enough about the swimming black eyes without actually saying anything. He'll know this takes priority." He grinned at her. "Don't worry, Scully, we'll get all expenses paid."

* * * *

The restaurant was Italian, large enough to have a bandstand and a dance floor, yet the seating arrangements were cosy and intimate, mainly booths and small tables. All the same, the two FBI agents refrained from discussing their case over dinner, particularly since anyone overhearing them might very well be familiar with Dr Cogan and her sad fate. Having somehow silently agreed to avoid the topic, they spoke little.

Shoving the case far to the back of his mind, Mulder found himself wondering what had happened to Scully and him After Antarctica. It was as if their whole lives were made up of After Some Junction or other, he thought. And yet nothing ever really happened, if you looked at it deep down, on the psychological level. No matter how many Junctions, their relationship was still - in stasis, as it were. He took another sip of his wine, frowning, glaring at the bottle, pretending to ponder the label. So as not to show his thoughts.. Afraid, he suddenly realised. They were both afraid. But of what? Of each other? Maybe..

Afraid, Scully thought. Now he's acting suave again, hoping that I won't notice his feelings of insecurity. I really hate it when he does that, does he know? And at the same time he's so sweet when he does it.. What's the problem, really? Loss of face? No, nothing that simple. He's lost face with the rest of the Bureau more times than either of us can count. It's something else..

I don't deserve her. The thought came unbidden to Mulder's mind, none the less familiar for all that. I mustn't lead her on, mustn't let her believe she cares for me. I'm a walking menace, she shouldn't even be near me. My own sister was lying in her bed right next to me, and I couldn't protect her, could I? And Scully.. damn, but she surprised me. Threw herself right through my guard that night, on our first case together, just as everything was going smoothly, just as I had decided she was yet another enemy, and had started to treat her accordingly. I never dreamed that the formidable Dr Scully was so - soft, and so ready to admit it. I think that's what threw me, and it shouldn't have. Damn, I had all the facts, her age was on record, why didn't I expect that somewhere under all that sophistication and razor-blade science, she was really just - a very young girl?

Wonder what would have happened if that damn contaminated bee hadn't stung me? He would have kissed me of course, I almost had the taste of him, of those lips.. So incredibly soft.. And I would have kissed him back.. long.. and deep.. stop it, Dana, she told herself firmly. It's no use now. For a moment there might have been a chance, as I told him I was 'going dingo' just like him, that I had my own quest now, alongside his.. And nothing can change that, no matter what the Bureau might think, this goes further than anything they would dare as yet; I must find that cure, I must. That's why I was put here, to do my damnedest to save the human race! She poured herself more wine, to make her see things in their proper perspective. Then again, isn't that what all doctors think, deep down? Well, all I can do is try.. I may, after all, have a unique chance.

Then, even before I knew what she meant to me, she was abducted too. Naturally. I'm deadly. Being around me is certain death, disease, dishonour, or at the very least, sterilization. He clamped down on a moan at the thought of all that had been done to Scully. He didn't want to dwell on it, but he felt he didn't have the right to forget. Not that he could forget. The facts themselves might have paled, if it hadn't been for the images. The images that were as fresh in his mind now as if he had just been there. The - things in tanks of liquid. The movements of the young clone's lips as he said, They're our mothers. As they said, Barren now.. The visions were there, would always be there. And as long as they were, so were the conclusions, and ultimately, the facts. All his fault.. why hadn't he chosen a career as a hermit? He had, after all, been well on his way to it. When she came along..

I told him my place was with him now, and I thought he looked at me as if he were only a step away from resuming that kiss where we left off. But he didn't. Just turned away and started walking, holding my hand. Does he have a sister complex because of losing Samantha? Does he really see me as his sister? Damn, he's the one who could best answer that, but I can't very well ask him, can I? Because, if that's not it, I certainly won't be the one to give him the idea. Missy used to complain of boys being afraid of commitment. Well, I don't think that's Mulder's problem. On the contrary, he wants to take responsibility for the world, whether it's his to take or no. Quite annoying really.. That's right, Dana, keep that up. He's annoying, he's a nuisance, he's naïve, he's.. damn irresistible, that's what he is, and I bet he knows it too..

And just as I decide the hell with it - why not, and try to kiss her, she gets stung by a carrier bee and nearly dies, and is abducted as well, just to top it off. I can't win. I never will. Just my luck that that shot to my temple didn't put me out of my misery - and hers.. Then again, I did get her out of there, I guess it should account for something. Atonement, for instance. For being such a - calamity..

The Bureau frowns on relationships between.. yeah, and the horse you rode in on. The Bureau turns a deaf ear and a blind cheek - how much wine have I had really? Not that much, I'm sure.. - to anything that's not explicitly written on its nose. Scully frowned a little, trying to sort out her metaphors. Skinner would simply glare at us through his weak lenses - probably doesn't think he looks serious enough without them, poor dear - and order us to keep it discreet, that is, out of his sight and jurisdiction. She stifled a laugh, nearly choking on it. She dared not look at Mulder, of course he would have noticed, he always noticed. No matter how she was feeling, he always knew.. oh damn, she had been getting the slow-burning hots for him all evening, did he know that as well?

I don't deserve her, that's true. I'll only hurt her. Still, if she had only said, that time with her hand in mine, after telling me her place was with me now, if she had only said something like, Mulder, kiss me again - I would have. All her gods and saints help me, but I would have, and hang the consequences. But she didn't. And that's how it is. She would not go that far, and that's just as it should be..

And back when I first noticed those hots.. that is, when I first realized he'd gotten to me, and I had it bad. I tried to use his first name - you would think that would be innocent enough, between partners, but oh no, red alert. He slammed his shields up immediately, with some inane story about even his family calling him 'Mulder' - I knew it was a lie then, and it was all too easily disproven as soon as I actually met his mother. He couldn't have hoped to fool me. He made it plain that he didn't want me close. And I acted on that, having too much respect - hell, too much love - for him to force myself on him against his will. She thought for a minute. All right, maybe there was a sizeable amount of pride in it too. I didn't need to be spurned more than once, did I?

God, she's so beautiful. Flushed cheeks and all.. and I'm such a jerk. I'm more than a jerk, I'm a menace, mustn't forget that.. Do they have to play this tune? Right now?

And then, after all this noli-me-tangere act, he kisses me? On the lips? Or would have, but for the bee.. There's no figuring him out. Case in point, now he's inviting me to dance. I think. Great invitation. Looking the other way and holding out his hand as if he had no idea what it was doing. Shyness or arrogance? Arrogance to conceal shyness? Double message anyway. Did they teach him that at Oxford, and he's only testing me? Or do psychologists know everybody but themselves? If he doesn't want me close, doesn't want me to accept, why is he asking me? Maybe I should refuse to understand.. no, I can't. I won't. Any excuse to be in his arms tonight.. if just for the warmth.. and those eyes.. She rose after only a moment's hesitation, joining her partner in the dance as if it were the most natural thing in the world. She hoped her legs would not buckle in mid-step. Her heart was pounding so hard that she was quite certain he must feel it.

He looked at her for a long time, as they danced. Searching.. Finally, he averted his gaze. Of course she wouldn't ask him now. Not in public anyway.. probably not ever.

Scully felt herself melting as if she had been icecream and his gaze pure heat. What did he want from her? Or - did he? Maybe he was - just looking. Drinking in the sight of her.. stop it, Dana, this isn't helping. But for one insane moment there, she had almost said it.. Mulder.. kiss me again. Please..

But then, of course she didn't.

* * * *

The hotel was striving hard for an impression of old Southern splendour that it could not really afford. The interior was marble, presumably a bargain order, because it was all white, no other colours. A bit flashy by FBI standards, Mulder mused, but it was more convenient than staying in Dallas, and besides, even the smallest motel seemed to have delusions of grandeur in these parts. He wondered if it came with the spaceous surroundings.

Extravagant foliage spilled over white stone in an attempt to alleviate the coldness, but somehow it only added to the impression of funeral parlour, at least in the foyer and cocktail bar. And for all the luxurious trappings, nature could not be kept entirely at bay. Mulder saw a cockroach skitting over the back steps into the yard and decided not to bring it to the prim reception clerk's attention. In this sterile environment, he almost felt for the cockroach.

The bathroom between their two single rooms was more marble. Even the wastepaper basket was patterned like marble, although it proved to be plastic in disguise, when lifted by a sceptic Scully.

"So what do you think of Ms Mortensen's statement?" Mulder said, flinging his jacket on his bed. "Did Dr Cogan quit because of a nervous breakdown?" He sat down on an uncomfortable wicker chair, stretching out across it, hands behind his neck.

"Some breakdown in that case", Scully said, taking the armchair and kicking her shoes off. "She must have had a severe traumatic experience if it left her the way we saw her."

"In emotional shock for ten years? Shouldn't she have come out of it by now?" Mulder's question was mild, but the competitive edge was there; after all, non-physiological trauma was his domain, not hers.

Scully silently acknowledged his point - and countered it. "Not if there was some physical damage to her brain as well."

"You saw the report from her stay at the hospital. There was no mention of any injuries other than the radiation burns."

"Maybe that was taken out too. So that you could form your own opinion." It wasn't that she doubted his theory that the file had been manipulated. She was just feeling edgy, having once more forced herself to quench her yearning for him. She missed his arms around her, and she was getting irritable and tired.

Mulder sighed. "We'll have to check that out. Did you see that about the type of radiation?"

Scully nodded. "Yes. UV rays, nothing else. No gamma or anything, just intense UV rays. I was wondering about that. Notably how they could be so sure."

Mulder snapped back into a more properly sitting position. "But it figures, doesn't it? She was exposed to intense light.."

"Mulder, if the light was intense enough to burn her, she would have been blinded. Even if she wasn't looking at it directly."

"Not if she was exposed over some time rather than all at once. Then it would be like a bad sunburn. She wouldn't notice until it was too late."

"I thought the idea was that it was all at once. Hadn't you decided she had a close encounter - of some kind?"

"Close yes, but not necessarily a short one." He hesitated briefly before adding, "You know the traditional representation of EBE's? Grey, with large, slanted eyes? Well, there's a theory that they can't see except by UV light, and that their spectrum of visibility lies mostly beyond ours at the shortwave end, with perhaps some slight overlapping. They're even supposed to have individual skin colour, although it's visible only to them. We would only see them as grey.." A look at his partner's face told Mulder this kind of reasoning would get him nowhere right now. They simply did not have enough facts. "What did you think of the cat?" he asked instead.

Scully finally smiled a little. "Well, I don't think she's an ocelot. I'm not a zoologist, but not only was she too big, she had the most unusual colour coat that I've ever seen in a wild animal. That deep russet, almost red - why, she had almost the same hair colour that I have. I may have to check this with someone who knows, but I'm pretty sure that's highly unusual for an ocelot."

"Red? You didn't comment on it at the time."

"Oh. Sorry, Mulder, I keep forgetting you're colour-blind." She looked at him wide-eyed, instantly apologetic, and he hated it. It wasn't a handicap, dammit. Or - was it?

"It's all right, I'll take your word for it", he said curtly. "You've just seen a red cat." He instantly regretted his snappy tone. He should be able to handle this by now. Having Scully so close yet forever out of reach. Dancing with her had been a mistake. A delightful one, but still a mistake. Now that she was no longer in his arms, he was having withdrawal symptoms. "Anything else about her?" he asked mildly, feigning an interest he did not really feel, in order to make amends for his recent irritability.

"Her claws were a bit unusual", Scully mused. "Very long, but not for lack of care, because the blood vessel went almost all the way out to the tip, indicating they were properly cut, just naturally long. Still, I don't know enough about ocelots to be able to say if that is uncommon. If you're interested, I could talk to a zoologist about it.." She was getting sleepy. In fact, she wasn't sure she was making sense any longer.

"Don't bother", Mulder said, sounding almost as sleepy as she felt. They sat quiet for a while, then, "You know, I don't think 'Dr Cougar' was traumatized at all", he ventured.

Scully raised a tired eyebrow.

"If she had suffered a purely emotional shock, she would have been out of it by now", Mulder reiterated. "They don't last ten years. Also, she can't write at all. It says in the report that they tried automatic writing. She should at least have been capable of that. Her unconscious mind should have been able to get a message out, even if consciously she could not. They put her in a trance, but she did not write one word."

"I haven't gotten to that part yet. Did they try any other forms of hypnotic therapy?"

Mulder shook his head. "She refused to be hypnotized after that. Seems she did not like the experience."

"Refused how?"

"I don't know. I guess she just didn't come to whatever appointments they'd set up for her." He sat thinking for a while, then mused idly, "Well, it seems like we have a genuine Silent Susan on our hands.."

Scully stifled a yawn. "Silent Susan? Isn't that usually slang for a woman who does not cry out at sexual climax?"

Mulder grinned at her. "Are you a Silent Susan, Scully?" he asked mischievously.

She stood, gathering her briefcase and picking up her shoes before answering. Checking carefully to see that she had left nothing behind, she made for her room. In the doorway to their shared bathroom she turned briefly and said, "That's for me to know, Mulder." Then she closed the door, leaving her baffled partner to stare at its blank, noncommittal surface.

* * * *

A chilly wind swept in from the Highland moors, rattling the single-pane windows of the little cabin. Outside, the heather was in full bloom. Inside, the hearth was cold, unused. The only fire in the room was intermittently glowing at the tip of a cigarette, smoked Bogart fashion by an elderly man at the window. He was looking intently at the heather, as if he honestly admired the view and was not simply trying to hide his amusement from his visitor.

"How did you find me?" he asked lightly, but with genuine interest.

Ilya's mouth quirked, unseen. "We have our methods."

The smoking man smiled to himself. "I never underestimated U.N.C.L.E."

"No", Ilya said. "You never underestimated anyone, that's what made you one of our most formidable enemies back in those days. Which in turn is why I thought of you."

"I am presumed dead", the smoking man said, mildly. "Or hadn't you heard?" His voice fell at the end of the question, as if ready to deplore the poor quality of U.N.C.L.E intelligence.

"Yes", Ilya said. "I heard you were dead. Like Snake Plissken."

The smoking man bowed his head quickly, lest his smile be seen in the glass. But his amusement was not entirely gone from his voice as he said, "I take it you did not come all this way to pay me compliments?" This time, his voice rose on the question mark, light and flexible as a conman's conscience.

Without conscious thought, Ilya kept his own intonation even flatter than usual. "I also heard something else. I heard that Thrush is finally breaking up. I came to learn if perhaps that one was true. Straight from the horse's mouth, as you say."

The smoking man dropped his cigarette to the floor, half-finished. He watched it go out, but did not step on it. "Thrush never breaks up", he said simply. He turned around to face his visitor. Grey, Ilya thought, not just the man's slate-coloured hair and his fifties business man's suit, even his heavily lined face was oddly grey. As if it had assumed a protective colour, hoping to be overlooked. This was after all a man who had always operated out of the shadows. But his eyes were keen, almost merry, and somehow a smile seemed always to be lurking in the vicinity of his lips. Delighting in the impatience of others, Ilya mused. Well, two could play at that game. Ilya had learnt long ago not to lose his temper, lest he lose his face.

He nodded, as if just having had his information confirmed. "Strughold still in place?"

"Very much so", the no longer smoking man said, concealing his surprise that U.N.C.L.E would actually know this name.

"He's getting on a bit, isn't he?" Ilya probed. "Have you assigned a replacement yet?"

"That's not my responsibility", the other said, lighting a new cigarette. "I wouldn't know."

"No, you wouldn't, would you? Especially now.." The silence grew, to evaporate with the wafts of smoke to the ceiling. Ilya knew the move was still his. "Now that you're finished with them", he added as if it were a known fact. "Look, I know you're on your own now", he bluffed. "It's no use pretending otherwise. Even if you still feel you have to flaunt your old loyalty in the face of the enemy. I really couldn't care less. What I came to find out - if we could only trust each other long enough to speak plainly - is whether or not you sent someone, a former assassin to Thrush, to seek out Mr Solo and myself. Did you? Or did Thrush?"

The astonishment on the other's face lasted only a fraction of a second - but it was there. Then his composure was back, as complete as ever, and his voice was light as he asked, "An assassin? Did he try to kill you?"

Ilya smiled, unmistakably, for all that his lips remained closed. "I never said it was a he."

"Wasn't it?" Merry eyes all innocence.

"As a matter of fact, yes. And I see that you know who. So - did you send him?"

"As a matter of fact, no. I had no idea he'd been to see you." He might as well have added, but thanks for the information, but didn't, of course. He was beginning to enjoy this. Krycek approaching U.N.C.L.E? Now what could the boy hope to gain by.. no, wait a minute, not U.N.C.L.E but these two specifically.. yes, that had to be it..

"It rather seems he's on your side, doesn't it?" Ilya remarked as if he had read the other's thoughts. "If indeed you have a side these days. Back when we knew you, you had several." He fell silent, wondering how to phrase his next question. He knew the rules, and so did the man before him. Nothing so crude as offering information for money or services. Whatever he was told would be true or untrue, and that was the price he had to pay. The risk of believing - or disbelieving - the wrong item. On the other hand, information was always there to be had.. it was only a matter of locating it, in whatever was said. It might not always be where you thought it was. "All right", he said finally. "Krycek came to warn us - and I believe, ask our help - against what he termed a possibly extraterrestrial virus. Only, he does not think it is extraterrestrial. He thinks it is being manufactured - and widely tested - by Thrush. Now, do you know anything about this? And, is there anything you can tell me about it?" He made it plain that those were two separate questions, and that he would not have it otherwise.

The smoking man made no sign that he had heard. He stood quietly considering the smoke rising from his cigarette, as if he were trying to determine the strength of the draft to find a leak in the roof. Ilya waited, with the patience of a Karelian monk. He had faced this man before, waited him out before. Whatever the man's Machiavellian talents, he was a Westerner. Ilya had Tartar genes. Several times removed and long buried, but he was drawing on them now. Waiting out his prey.

Yet in the end, all he got was a sidewinder. "Yes", the smoking man said quietly, "I know. I know a lot, and I may have guessed the rest." He paused, to drop this cigarette also half-smoked to the floor and watch it go out. Then, "We've been around a long time, you and I, Mr Kuryakin. I knew of you even before I joined Thrush, before I went - international, you might say. You know I started out a nationalist? An idealist, even? Well, such is the fate of idealists.."

Ilya still waited. Refusing to be sidetracked by yet another old man's memories. An old man like himself, he thought with a wry smile. He let the smile show. It wouldn't hurt to let the other know his reminiscing was only taken as so much fluff. Addled-brained and sentimental? This man? Ilya had not turned his back on him once, after entering the cabin, and he would not do so even mentally.

The man lit another cigarette. Then, acknowledging that there was no more time to stall for, he said, "I can't tell you anything directly. I freely admit that it would go against my grain to tell an U.N.C.L.E agent anything at all, but this is bigger than us both, and I feel that yet another enforced truce might be called for, before we're through with it. But not yet. I have nothing to tell you."

Ilya nodded. "Fair enough. You understand I had to ask."

"Wait", the smoking man said. "I have nothing to tell you. Not the least because we've both grown old in this game, and you would second-guess anything I had to say. But there is someone. Someone I tell everything to, though he's remarkably dense when it comes to realizing it. You see, Mr Kuryakin", he smiled, his eyes practically dancing, "in order to be believed, you have to talk to a believer. Or someone who wants to believe; maybe that's the best we can do these days." He disguised his near-guffaw as a pull on the cigarette.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Ilya asked coolly.

"It means, even I have what they used to call a safety valve in the C.. in some of the organizations where I worked", he amended theatrically. Ilya was not fooled. Still, he did not know why this man would suddenly want to confirm the intelligence U.N.C.L.E had on him. What was it to anyone now, what national - or semi-national - organisations he had been part of? Still, better file it away for future reference. One never knew. In fact, what did one ever know in this business? "Someone I let slip all the leaks to", the smoking man continued unperturbed, "so as not to let them slip out of control. Control, as you know, is everything."

A song by Pink Floyd crept unbidden into Ilya's mind. Selling your soul / for complete control / Is that really what you need? He disregarded it, and it seemed to him suddenly as if he had made a career out of disregarding that particular song.

"How are U.N.C.L.E ties with the FBI these days?" the smoking man asked unexpectedly.

"We never had any", Ilya said. "The national organisations run their own races. We run ours. Not always along the same track.. We have some cooperation with Interpol - as I'm sure you know. But the national forces, no."

The smoking man smiled openly, as if delighted. "Ah, but you should. So much starts on a national level. So much has humble beginnings.."

Ilya waited.

The smoking man regarded his cigarette as if he had only now noticed it. "Seek out a special agent named Fox Mulder", he said disinterestedly. "I think you can rely on him. I have tried him by fire twice and not found him wanting. Keep close to him. He knows what I know. Though he may not know he knows.."

"Does he know all you know?"

The smoking man dropped his third cigarette on the floor. It died unwatched. "It's getting late, Mr Kuryakin."

Ilya sighed. "I know. Later than I think.." He waited till the other man had turned back to his window. Then he quietly made his way out of the cabin.

* * * *

Halfway to his rented car, he met someone. A big man, looking a little like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ilya thought. When he looked again, he was not so sure. A blink and a third look, and the man was a gentle old preacher type, the kind nobody in their right mind would buy a used car from. Then a thug, and this time Ilya actually saw the shift from one face to another.

"He told me to show you", the man said, indicating the cabin with his head. "And to tell you to trust your eyes. What did he tell you?"

"Something about extraterrestrials", Ilya improvised. "You know - like the Founders?"

The man reverted to his Schwarzenegger likeness. Probably his default mode. He did not smile. Either he did not watch Star Trek, or he had no sense of humour. "There are no extraterrestrials, Mr Kuryakin ", he said. "None that I have seen anyway. None walking about on Earth, that's for sure. Come on, I'll drive you down to Inverness. Then I'll have to leave you, but I'm sure you'll find your way from there." He politely disregarded the fact that Ilya had driven all the way to this remote place by himself. The Russian got the message. His leaving was to be monitored. The smoking man might have broken with Thrush, but he wasn't taking any chances. Come to think of it - had he ever told Thrush that he had broken with them?

* * * *

Zoologist Michael Barthold regarded his former schoolmate. Still as petite - if not more so. He suddenly felt as if he himself had grown uncontrollably since he last saw her. Her braces were gone of course, and she wore no glasses - not at the moment anyway. Contacts? He wasn't sure, but he could see no telltale rim around her turquoise irises. Freckles subdued. All in all, extremely pretty. Like a flame-haired elf suddenly materialised among the dust-covered bookcases of his study. Dust-covered.. it occurred to him that he should have cleaned the place up after she called, before she came over. He glanced at the toppling stacks of papers and magazines on his desk. Why didn't he ever think of these things? Lamely, he moved a stack of articles about the large spiders, freeing a chair in case she wanted to sit. He wished he had thought of it sooner.

He did not usually go for redheads, but right now he felt that he might reconsider his preferences. There was something both forbidding and enticing about her manner. The way she glared at him as if she had read his thoughts right off his face. Well, he hadn't exactly tried to hide them. "What's the sudden interest in ocelots, Dana?" he asked, pulling himself together. "You planning on getting one? Let me warn you, they don't make good pets - regardless of their popularity."

"It's to do with a case", Scully said. "It isn't vital, but it might throw some light on things. I thought I might as well try to find out a little more - and then I thought of you."

He bowed lightly. "I'm glad you did. It's good to see you again, Dana." He took in her frown with a quick glance and cleared his throat. "What did you want to know?"

Scully hid her smile. It was good to see him too, but she was not about to tell him so. She had not seen him since they were both around thirteen. They had gone to the same school while their fathers had both been stationed at the same naval base. For some reason the two youngsters had struck up a friendship of sorts though they were never classmates. Mostly, they had been defending each other against the older kids. That was how their friendship had started, Scully remembered. There had been a couple of mean bullies at that school. She had done a lot of fighting for Mike, and he for her. It lasted a year and a half, and then her family had moved again. Mike had grown since then, she estimated him at somewhere just short of Mulder's height, and he had let his dark hair grow too, it was down to his shoulders. Not that he had ever kept it very short, even in the old days. The beard was a surprise though, somehow she had not expected that. But it became him. Almost too well..

She dug in her briefcase and handed him a drawing. "I had one of the Bureau artists make this after my description. The measures are rough estimates, but I tried to keep them on the conservative side. I'm sure she was at least a meter long, not counting the tail. Purportedly, this is an ocelot. Do you agree?"

"Colour?" he asked immediately.

"Deep russet. Highlights almost bright red."

He shook his head slightly. "Ocelots are normally sort of tawny, somewhere between yellow and orange, but not deep red. Still, there might be individual variations of course. Are these her true markings?"

"As far as I remember. My partner has an eidetic memory; I asked him if that's what he saw too, and he claims it is."

"Odd. Stripes and dots are common, but this is almost classical tabby. Still, some jaguars have markings like that, I can't say it's completely out. Eyes? Ears?"

"Green eyes", Scully said, nearly adding, like yours. But when she looked, his eyes were a pale, clear grey, with perhaps just a touch of hazel. Funny how she had always remembered them as green.. "Ears rounded,with white spots on the back, like in a tiger."

He nodded. "That much is ocelot. Though I'd say yellow eyes would be the norm. Tail?"

"Long and - well, it seemed almost prehensile."

"Let's say, long and sinuous then. Anything else you remember about her?"

"Well, she washed like a cat."

He smiled. Endearingly, she thought. "So does the Arctic lynx. I'm afraid you haven't exactly given me anything conclusive. What makes you think this is not an ocelot?"

"Well, her size for one thing.."

"The male ocelot frequently grows to one meter in length. It's unusual for a female, but it's not exactly out of range for the species as such."

"She was allegedly found in the Guatemalan rain forest twelve years ago. Is that consistent?"

"Ocelots are indigenous to rainforests and exist from southern Texas to northern Argentina. And there were certainly more of them and of the rainforests themselves twelve years ago. Wild ocelots might not often reach the age of twelve, but if this one has been kept as a pet.."

Scully debated with herself whether or not to tell him. If she could have had some conclusive information without having to bring up something she was no longer quite sure she had actually seen.. She took a deep breath. All right then. At the risk of sounding like Mulder..

"I think the most unusual thing about her was her claws. Fully extended, I'd say they measured roughly seven inches, with the blood vessel running nearly all the way to the tip. Retracted, they could not be seen at all, and yet her paws were slender and flexible."

He looked at her for a long moment. "Pity you didn't bring me some photos.

"I didn't think to bring a camera. I mean, we were there to conduct an interview with a citizen in her home, it wasn't a crime scene or anything like that. I suppose I could go back and ask if I could have some pictures of this beautiful animal.."

His grey eyes regarded her almost solemnly. "Please do."

"You don't believe me", she stated, oddly disappointed for all that she was herself beginning to doubt some of her memories.

"I want to believe", he said, in an unknowing echo of Mulder's would-be credo, "but this I've got to see. Bring me the photos, Dana, I'll see what I can come up with." He smiled suddenly. "You know, we never discussed my fee. How about dinner sometime? Or at least lunch", he amended, perhaps misinterpreting her preoccupied frown.

"What? Oh, sorry - yes, whatever. I'll get those photos. I'm sorry, Mike, but I have to run, I just realized I'm late for an appointment."

"You have a date?" he asked, hoping she would not realise in time that it was really none of his business.

But she shook her head. "No, work. In fact, it's something else to do with this case.."

* * * *

Dr Irene Russell stepped into her office and shut the door behind her. She peered through her flat lenses at the tall, overly handsome man in front of her. She tried her best to make it seem as if she were looking down her nose at her him, but his height made this difficult; she suspected she only managed to look cross-eyed. The notion did not put her in a better mood.

Her visitor looked like the persistent sort. A bright kid who had advanced too fast for his own good. The worst kind. Dr Russell did not hold with youngsters who thought they knew the world, and yet kept asking questions about it. "And what can I do for you, Agent Mulder?" she asked stiffly.

Mulder tucked his ID away. "I'm sorry to intrude on your undoubtedly precious spare time, Dr Russell, but I need to ask you a few questions. I take it you treated a Dr Janet Z Cogan for radiation burns and some general effects of exposure, on May 5 - 8, 1986?"

Dr Russell took a couple of steps toward an old filing cabinet, as if to say that she really could not keep all data on former patients in her head. Then she decided against it. There was no need for childish demonstrations. Some patients she did remember, and quite well at that.

"That is correct, yes", she grudgingly admitted. "Though I wouldn't call them radiation burns exactly. Well, technically speaking I suppose they were; she had been out in the sun too long, but personally I would count that as yet another aspect of the exposure she had suffered."

"Then who listed them as radiation burns in her journal, if it wasn't you?"

"I won't discuss her journal with you, but I'm sure nobody ever mentioned radiation injuries at the time."

Mulder dropped the subject, mentally filing it for future reference. He squinted thoughtfully against the sunlight spilling in through the slanted blinds of the single window. "So, in your opinion, all she suffered from was exposure. Was there any shock or trauma in connection with this?"

"None that I was aware of."

"She claimed later - or it was claimed on her behalf - that she had suffered a nervous breakdown. You saw no evidence of this?"

"You'd better ask her therapist about that. If she has one. I certainly found no trace of any emotional disturbance, but of course it might have developed later."

Mulder regarded the woman in silence. Her first resentment at seeing him seemed to have dissipated, but she was far from enthusiastic about cooperating. On the other hand, what she had told him so far rather confirmed his own, as yet only vaguely formed, theory.

"You've heard that she's unable to speak?" he asked.

"Of course", Dr Russell almost scoffed. "That's why I'm saying she might have developed some emotional disturbance later."

"Did she speak while she was in your care?"

Dr Russell shook her head. "She was unconscious the first two days. On the third she was awake, but she did not try to speak. I assume she could, and that she was merely exhausted, because she made no effort at all to talk, and she did not seem desperate."

"You let her go home on the first day she was awake?"

"It seemed safe enough. She was in a good condition, and she would be well taken care of."

"She would? I thought she lived alone."

"The company that paid for her stay here - I assume they were her employers - were very nice. I spoke to their representative several times, as he spent most of those three days here with her. A nice, elderly gentleman. Quite a heavy smoker, but always very considerate about it, never lighting up outside the smoking area. Are you all right, Mr Mulder?"

Mulder had closed his eyes briefly on the spark of hatred he felt she had no need to see. Wordlessly, he motioned for her to continue.

"He made it clear that they would take good care of her", Dr Russel went on with a shrug. "They had already hired a housekeeper to look after her. I met her too, and gave her instructions. A robust, no-nonsense woman. I rather liked her. By coincidence, she was a fully trained nurse, which was all for the better of course."

'Some coincidence', Mulder thought. "And yet Dr Cogan never recovered?" he challenged aloud.

"She was recovered when she left here. If a bit tired."

"In your opinion, did she have all her mental faculties?"

"As I said, she was a bit tired, but that's all."

Mulder sighed. It was the answer he had expected, though perhaps not the one he had hoped for. As if the the hints of swimming black eyes had not been enough to tip him off, he was now absolutely certain that the Smoking Man and his gang were involved in this. He would have to see Dr Cogan again. Somehow get out of her whatever he missed last time..

"Thank you, Dr Russell", he said wearily. "You've been most helpful."

She almost smiled at him.

* * * *

Scully caught her cellphone on the first beep. "Scully? It's me", it said in Mulder's voice. "Where are you?"

"I'm in Dallas. I've just been talking with Mike Barthold. You know, the zoologist? He's an old friend, we went to school together. I'm outside his apartment block now. You?"

"I'm on my way to Dr Cogan's. I think I'll have to pay another visit to her."

"Fine", Scully said, "Then you can meet me there, I have to see her too. Or rather, I have to see Hermione again. I'll get a taxi. Would you drop by the hotel and pick up that fancy camera of yours?"

"What, your zoologist wants some ocelot pinups for his bedroom wall?" Mulder asked, his voice deadpan.

Scully sighed. "Just bring the camera, Mulder", she told him and rang off.

A hard hand was clamped firmly across her mouth, smearing her lipstick. She tried to shin her attacker's leg with her heel, but the leg wasn't where she had expected it to be. Damn, a professional then. Not just your common mugger.

"Ssshh", a voice hissed in her ear. "I think you'll want to come with me, Dr Scully. I've got something to show you."

Though almost toneless, something in that voice sent pure ice down Scully's spine. Ice of fear - and of rage. Twisting forcefully in his onehanded grasp, she managed to see his face.

"Krycek!" she spat.

* * * *

"So, Napoleon, how was your trip?" Ilya poured tea in two glasses but decided to forgo the jam this time. He strongly suspected he was out of it; he had not been home for a few days, and he had forgotten to shop.

"Interesting", Napoleon said, accepting one of the glasses. Not that he cared that much for Ilya's Georgian tea, but it was too early in the day for anything stronger, and somehow he rather felt they were on duty. Despite the fact that he himself was retired, and that this particular mission had not been ordered - or even sanctioned - by U.N.C.L.E. "It wasn't too hard to verify that Thrush's saucer industry is thriving again, now that I knew a bit more about what to look for. But in addition, I also got a good lead on Walt Baldwin. It seems he was directly connected with the space craft operation in that.."

"Pardon me, Napoleon, but did you just say space craft?"

Napoleon smiled ruefully. "Time never stands still, does it? I know they were only strat craft in our day, but yes, they've moved on."

Ilya frowned thoughtfully. "It wouldn't be like Thrush to try and colonise anything before they've succeeded on Earth first. Besides, I doubt that even they have enough information to pull anything like that." He shook his head. "No, this is Star Wars all over again. They are building a threat that nobody can refuse."

"What about a base on the Moon?" Napoleon asked.

Ilya's face remained expressionless, but his eyes gleamed briefly with horror. "Have you any evidence of that?"

Napoleon shrugged. "Not as such. It just seemed a fair surmise, is all. I don't think we should discount the possibility."

They fell silent for a while, each pondering the idea. Yes, it was all too possible, given that Thrush throve on corruption in high places. The Hierarchy could work around anyone, get past anyone, remove key figures and replace them with its own. It was after all the way it operated, the way it had always operated.

"Anyway", Napoleon broke the uneasy silence, "Baldwin worked for a company called the Universal Franchise Organisation, A/S."

"Sounds like the company equivalent of the Panama flag for ships."

"It is. It covers just about anything and has several affiliated operations. Thrush-controlled of course. Baldwin's department dealt with medical research, notably immunology. Wanna bet their guinea pigs were not all voluntary?"

Ilya nodded. "Research on humans of course. Since that's the kind of information they were after. Thrush is nothing if not efficient. Why the past tense? Did they go out of business?"

"I doubt it, but the Copenhagen satrap is gone at the moment. They pulled up their stakes again. But they seem to have done so only recently. Wonder who tipped them off."

"Apparently the FBI are conducting an investigation that connects to Baldwin's activities", Ilya said. "That could be what scared Thrush off this time. In fact, we have been recommended to contact the Bureau to see what they have. Or someone working for them at any rate. A particular special agent. Something of a maverick, if I understood my informer correctly."

Napoleon smiled a little. "How is he these days?"

"Grey", Ilya said curtly. "But still going strong. Probably more deadly than ever. Naturally, he wouldn't confirm it, but I gathered that he works for himself now."

"He's gone dingo?"

"Nobody leaves Thrush, you know that, Napoleon. Except feet first, and he was very much alive. Yes, I think he's gone dingo as you put it, but so far he hasn't openly turned against them, and he's still too valuable to dump unless they're certain."

"But they suspect him?"

"That", Ilya said drily, "goes without saying, Napoleon."

* * * *

Mulder's phone beeped as soon as he had rung off. "Forget something?" he asked casually, expecting to hear Scully's calm voice again. Instead, he heard merely a soft whistle, as if someone at the other end was blowing out smoke.

"Mr Mulder?" said a melodious male voice that Mulder would have known anywhere and wished he didn't. "We need to talk."

"Believe me, you and I have absolutely nothing to talk about", Mulder said.

A light chuckle at the other end, the kind that always annoyed Mulder because it sounded as if the chuckler really appreciated opposition. As if there were no winning against this man. "Oh, but we do", said the voice. "Don't you want to know what's behind Dr Cogan's silence?"

"I think I already know who is behind it", Mulder shot back. "What did you do to her? Have her vocal chords severed?"

A pause, as if the other were calculating how much to tell him. Then, "Your medical knowledge is somewhat wanting, Mr Mulder. Your pretty colleague could probably tell you that vocal chords can't be severed as such. And even if they could, that would hardly explain Dr Cogan's inability to write or to learn sign language, now would it?"

"If you've got something to say, say it."

"I will, Mr Mulder, I will. Only not on the phone. Meet me outside the souvenir stores on the canal in fifteen minutes." The phone fell silent, and Mulder immediately punched Scully's number to tell her he'd be delayed. No answer, just the standard annoying message to say her number could not be reached at the moment. He frowned a little. Scully wouldn't shut her phone off while they were separated on a job, and it wasn't like her to let her battery run down. Maybe she was just too close to the mast.. He'd have to try again later. For now, he'd better find out what that black-lunged bastard wanted.

He found him staring into a trinket store with enough diversity that it would have indicated nothing at all about his interests, had anyone wanted to reflect on them. "Mr Mulder", he muttered around his cigarette, partly in greeting, partly to let Mulder know he had seen him in the glass of the store's display window.

"I'm here. What do you have for me?"

The smoking man turned around, regarding Mulder silently through the faint veils drifting up from his cigarette. "Walk with me", he said finally. "The canal is quite pleasant at this hour."

Mulder curbed his urge to punch the older man in the cigarette without apparent reason, and fell into step with him. "You were the one who removed Dr Cogan from the hospital", he challenged, daring the other to deny it. "You footed her bill, you arranged for her to have a fully trained nurse for a housekeeper. Why? And what else did you do?"

"I only did what was necessary. I was working on behalf of a Danish company at the time.."

"I know. United Feline Observation."

The smoking man gave him an innocent look. "Actually, no. The Universal Franchise Organisation. Or rather, one of their subsidiaries. A representative of the company you mention asked me to pick up Dr Cogan for them, and see to it that she was comfortable. I saw no reason to refuse." He pulled on his cigarette.

"You expect me to believe that? That that's all there was to it?"

"No. For a man who wants to believe, I've often found you singularly incredulous, Mr Mulder."

"You said you knew what's behind her silence."

"Not exactly, but then perhaps your eidetic memory is better with visual impressions than with the auditive kind. I asked if you didn't want to know."

"You mean, you don't know either? Then why call me here?"

The smoking man drew a final puff and dropped his cigarette, watching it roll slowly towards the gutter. "I had hoped you could tell me."

Mulder gaped at him. "Why the hell would I do that?"

In answer, the grey man began to pour out information. "All of the UFO companies are a front for an extremely powerful organization, but I suppose you've already suspected as much. When Dr Cogan decided to take her expedition into areas of interest to this organization, it was discussed whether to stop her, or to support her and see what she could find out. The latter route was chosen. Dr Baldwin, then an employee of the UFO A/S conglomerate, was sent with her - over her objections, I might add."

He fell silent for a moment, lighting a new cigarette as if to gather his thoughts. "Dr Baldwin's reports confirmed what had already come to the company's attention, that an outbreak had occurred, of the black virus that you yourself are now quite familiar with, Mr Mulder. However, after killing nearly an entire village, the virus seemed to have gone dormant. Dr Baldwin had no reason to believe he would contract it. In fact, he was the only victim, after the first outbreak was over. Dr Cogan apparently never contracted it at all. It has been surmised that Dr Baldwin may have annoyed someone, possibly the native population." He puffed for a moment before adding, "Possibly Dr Cogan."

"I take it she never told you what really happened", Mulder said caustically.

"Correct, Mr Mulder. And we would very much like to find out."

"Who are we?"

The smoking man's eyes glinted. "Did I say we? I would very much like to find out." Another pull on his cigarette, then, "I know there was an outbreak. I don't know why it happened, but I have my suspicions."

"An alien ship?" Mulder challenged, derisively. "Or a prototype that went rogue? Don't bother to tell me any more lies - I've heard them all by now."

The smoking man almost smiled. "It has been said that the virus was here long before man", he said. "But there's no real evidence of that. Is there, Mr Mulder? In fact, the first documented encounter with this virus was this very outbreak, among the inhabitants of a small village in Guatemala, February 2nd through 17th, 1986."

"Well, if it's been hiding in the earth for millions of years.."

"Or was it planted?" The question was thrown out almost disinterestedly, like a lazy angler's fishing line.

"You mean it's not of extraterrestrial origin?"

"I never said planted by whom, Mr Mulder."

Mulder shook his head in frustration. "As usual, you're telling me nothing at all, absolutely and precisely nothing."

The smoking man dropped his cigarette, watched that also roll away. "Well, what do you want to hear?"

"The truth." Simply, and defiantly.

The grey man looked at him, eyes no longer glittering. "Ah", he said, "but whose truth do you want, Mr Mulder? I take it my British - associate - told you the full truth? His truth. But how can you be sure there's not more? Facts that would turn it all upside down once again?" He paused briefly, then added, "I have known many truths, and I still do. The truths of the organizations I've worked for. The truths I found out for myself, and the truths I spread. Maybe even Dr Cogan's truth. And the truth of the man who was sent to torch the area where she may have found it." He glanced at Mulder, briefly but searchingly. "I see you already knew that - or suspected."

"And I see that you know who it was", Mulder said. Well, it figured.

The grey man brought out yet another cigarette, lit it, smiled thinly around it. "It's interesting that you should mention the United Feline Observation, Mr Mulder. Perhaps you ought to follow that lead. You might find it rewarding. Just be careful that in your quest for the Truth.. you don't overlook the facts."

"What the hell is that supposed to mean?"

The smoking man smiled, and the dancing light was back in his eyes. "That's for me to know. Good night, Mr Mulder."

He turned, and started walking along the canal, in the deepening dusk. Mulder did not follow him. There was no point.

* * * *

"Kidnapping is a federal offense", Scully pointed out, gingerly feeling her bruised chin. She had knocked against the neck support of her chair as she was brutally shoved into the car. "But then, who would know that better than a former agent of the Bureau?"

"I'm not kidnapping you", Krycek said. "Nothing personal", he added, flashing a grin in her direction, "I think I'd quite like kidnapping you."

Her glare told him he'd better not try to intimidate her.

"You'll be free to go as soon as you've seen what I've got to show you", he said soberly. "And as I said, I think you'll want to see it."

"Just let me contact Mulder and tell him I'll be delayed, but that I'm ok."

He shook his head. "Sorry, Agent Scully. I can't take the risk."

She sighed. She hadn't really expected him to agree. He was prone to occasional mistakes, but he was no fool. Probably imagined that Mulder would respond to some hidden code word and come barging in with the cavalry. Her fond little smile hastily became a knowing one, as she saw that Krycek had noticed it. Couldn't hurt to keep him on edge..

He drove for hours, in a roughly north-by-north-easterly direction, as far as she could tell by the sunset, but the journey went on for so long that she had to sleep, and when she woke up it was pitch dark, and she had no real idea where they were any longer. Krycek must be weary too, but he seemed used to it. Possibly, he was being pushed and prodded by the same kind of passion that so often drove Mulder. The thought surprised her a little, she had not considered this similarity before, and had no wish to dwell on it now.

The car entered an area of woodland, and Scully thought that they must definitely be out of Texas. Krycek turned into a narrow path not meant as a driveway, where shrubbery brushed against the car before he stopped, and turned off the engine. The world went black around them, as the headlights blinked out.

'So this is where he either rapes me or kills me or both', Scully thought, but somehow she felt no immediate fear, and after a moment she realised that she did not actually believe that Krycek, a highly professional assassin, had dragged her all this way for what he could easily have done anywhere at any time.

"We'll walk the rest of the way", Krycek said. "I have infrared lights and goggles." He paused briefly. "I have to get our gear out of the trunk. Please don't try to run, Agent Scully. It might defeat my purpose to shoot you, but I wouldn't hesitate, I trust you know that."

She nodded in the dark. "Always the gentleman. Don't worry, Krycek, I won't run. For one thing, I'm developing a certain curiosity here, as to just what it is you want me to see. And for another, I doubt that my shoes would get me very far in this terrain." She sensed rather than saw his momentary tension. Monkey wrench in your plans, huh, Mr Krycek? she thought. Her shoes were flat, because she didn't wear heels on jobs where she might have to walk a lot or drive - not after Mulder's wild hunts had landed them in mid-wilderness a couple of times, and she had had to drive back almost barefoot, with only thin nylon between her sole and the accelerator. Nevertheless, she wasn't wearing marching boots at the moment, and she rather suspected that might be what was called for here.

Krycek's hesitation lasted only a moment. He got out of the car and started rummaging in the trunk. Then he came over to her side, opened the door, and handed her a pair of rubber boots. "Put these on. They probably won't fit, but it's the best I can do."

She did as she was told. The boots were big enough that she knew they would chafe her feet raw before long. He handed her a bundle of something that felt like rubber, and a headlamp. Vaguely, she saw him shouldering something heavy. She got out of the car, put on the lamp and goggles, and turned the lamp on. Her night vision was vastly improved, but it was far from perfect. After a few seconds of adjustment, she identified the objects on Krycek's back as aqualungs. She looked down at the bundle she was holding. It could well be a wetsuit.

"I hope you've had some underwater training", Krycek said in confirmation.

"Just a few hours to try it out", she said. "That's all."

"It'll do. That suit will be too big for you anyway, but we won't stay down long."

Scully groaned inwardly. The first thing she had been taught during those few diving lessons had been that the equipment must fit perfectly. Still, what was her job but emergencies and makeshifts..

They trudged through the woods for about twenty minutes. Scully estimated the time by way of occasional glances at her watch. Then Krycek stopped at the edge of a lake - or perhaps only a deep, waterfilled quarry; there was no immediate way to tell. Or a tarn, Scully thought, wondering if this was what such a thing was supposed to look like. For the longest time, she had only ever associated them with fairytales.

Krycek helped her into her suit. As he has warned her, it wasn't a good fit. He attached the aqualung - only now did she realise that he had only brought one tube each.

"As I said, we won't be down long", he reminded her, as if he had sensed her question.

He gave her a few instructions, most of which she recognised from her basic diving lessons, and they went in. They had left their IR equipment on the shore, but the suits came with strong, white headlamps.

It was lying quite close to the shore, as if someone had tried to hide it under the outcrop formed by the underwater rock - or as if it had been unceremoniously dumped in and then drifted till it was wedged under the land. At first Scully thought it might be part of a submarine, but the shape wasn't right. It was part of something though, a large hull, and it had some markings on it that she found hard to describe, because they were no pure geometric form but oddly irregular. Like the super-ellipse, she thought, only there's nothing elliptic about them. If there were such a thing as a super-pentagon, maybe.. or the twodimensional representation of a super-cube? She realised of course what this was supposed to be. What she was intended to believe it to be. Mulder should have seen this, she thought, but amended the notion immediately. No, he shouldn't. He least of all. It would only get his hopes up again.. They'll show us anything, she mused. Anything at all, and then they take it away before we have a chance to scrutinize it. Another hoax, and then another. Don't they ever tire?

Krycek had been busying himself with some tools while Scully was looking over the big shard of hull, trying her best to see as much as possible and to remember it without the benefit of Mulder's eidetic memory. She saw Krycek working loose a piece of the hull. Apparently it took effort and sharp tools to break it off. He came over to her and handed her the piece, motioned for her to tuck it away in her utility belt. Only then did he put his tools away in his own. She understood that he had wanted her to see him actually take the piece from the whole, and to know that the piece he gave her was the same one he had broken off. Why the drama, she thought to herself. What's he up to now? Does he really believe I would accept this for the remains of an alien vessel?

Back on land again, they got out of their suits, packed everything together and made their way back to the car. They said little on the way, and Scully had the feeling Krycek did not want to discuss their find in the open. He waited for her to take the piece of metal out of the belt of her suit before he stashed their gear back in the trunk. She took the opportunity to change back into her shoes as well, and he tossed the wellingtons in after the rest.

"I'll drive if you like", she offered as he settled behind the wheel. Less out of consideration for him than because she did not particularly look forward to riding with a driver who was likely to fall asleep at any moment. But he shook his head.

"No need, Agent Scully. I can go without sleep a long time. When I have to."

She gathered that he had often had to. Well, his motley career was nobody's fault but his own.

He said no more until they were out of the woods and back on the highway again. Then, "That's a piece of the ship in Guatemala. It was taken from the area that Dr Cogan went to, by the man who was sent to torch the place and remove all evidence. He carried out his orders to the letter, removing this piece also, but he saved it for himself, against a rainy day, you might say. In case he would ever have to prove something, or need a hold on his employers. I don't know where he kept it the first ten years, but two years ago he had me bring it here in an unmarked truck and dump it in the water. There were five unexplained attempts on my life that year. I've always assumed he was behind them. Finally, he must have realised I wasn't talking, and the attacks ceased."

"Who was he?" Scully asked.

"I think you know."

She nodded. "Why did you give me this fragment?"

"So that you can have it analysed of course. Me, I believe it's genuine."

"Why me? Why not Mulder?"

"Couldn't get hold of him. You came along first. I figured either one of you two would do. You will tell him, won't you?"

Scully frowned. "My first thought was to keep it to myself. He doesn't need this - doesn't need another wild goose chase. But, I suppose I owe him the chance to make up his own mind."

Krycek seemed content with that, and drove on in silence. Scully fell asleep again, and when she woke up, the land was once more flat around them, and the rays of dawn were in her eyes, courtesy of the rearview mirror. She shook herself, feeling chilled to the bone, and Krycek leant over wordlessly, to adjust the car heater. The gesture surprised her, though she did not really know why it should.

An hour later, they were back in Irving. Krycek pulled up the car two blocks from the hotel where she and Mulder were staying, and she got out.

"Agent Scully?" he said, just as she was about to close the door. He spoke hesitantly as if he had been debating with himself whether to say anything at all. "The vaccine that cured you in Antactica.. I know where it came from. Mulder got it from someone who had been trying to come up with it himself, only his didn't work, so they got it from me."

Scully's left eyebrow rose a little. "And where did you get it?"

"I was subjected to the virus in Russia", Krycek said. "And so was Mulder. We were both inoculated and presumably cured, but - well, I would have been anyway. I'm resistent to it. You see, that wasn't the first time I had contracted the virus. The first time, it left me of its own accord, leaving antibodies behind. I won't deny that I had medical help to put the vaccine together, but essentially, I made it. I used my own blood."

Scully waited. Neither walking away nor encouraging him.

"The effect is not as strong as it was at first", he continued. "I seem to be regenerating or something, and though I'm still resistent - and please don't ask me how I know - the antibody count is lower now. I'm not sure I can still make that vaccine. If it works, it ought to be pretty weak. But for what it's worth.. I understand that you're looking for a cure. It could be a beginning."

"Aren't you forgetting something, Krycek? I've no reason at all to trust you. Why would you offer me your blood? What do you hope to gain?"

There was a subdued flash in his eyes as he answered, "Let's say I'm scared. Scared to death by this virus and the men that in all likelihood came up with it. And I'd rather you had a chance at that vaccine, before they catch on."

"Serum", she said automatically.

"What?"

"It cured me after I had been infected. A vaccine prevents, a serum cures. It was a serum you had, and a serum you - and apparently the others - have been looking for all along. But what about prevention? Maybe your blood is still potent enough for that. Maybe it could still work as a base for a genuine vaccine."

He looked at her solemnly for a moment. Then, out of the corner of his never relaxing eye, he saw the headlights of a car approaching. "Talk to you later, Agent Scully", he said and hurriedly closed the door.

He was out of there before she could say goodbye.

* * * *

Mulder arrived first at Dr Cogan's house. A new attempt to reach Scully brought no result, and he hesitated for a moment. Still, chances were she would show up within the next 20 minutes or so, and there was no point waiting outside until she did. He climbed the few steps quickly, and rang the bell.

To his surprise, Dr Cogan answered the door herself. Apparently, the housekeeper was not on duty at this hour. The mute woman stepped aside as if to invite him in, although she made no further sign of invitation.

'Leaving the choice up to me', Mulder thought. Well, at least she had not turned him away. He entered.

She walked before him into the living-room. Quiet as the feline she was, Hermione joined them from the kitchen. Mulder couldn't quite shake the feeling that the large cat was watching him. He'd better behave, he thought wryly.

Dr Cogan sat down, without offering her guest either a seat or refreshment. The cat circled around her chair, keeping close to her side.

Mulder brought out his camera. "She's beautiful", he said politely, "Can I take some pictures of her?" But the cat seemed agitated by the camera, and started to hiss and spit until Dr Cogan managed to calm her, and Mulder was granted one picture of them both, Dr Cogan's arm around the neck of the animal.

"I spoke with a man earlier this evening", Mulder began, "a man I think you know. He smokes a lot." He watched her closely for a reaction, but her face was kept blank, as if she had not understood. However, the hand stroking Hermione seemed to grow more restless in its movements. "He seems to be of the opinion that your muteness is by choice", he said, but the restlessness did not increase. "That you don't speak because there is something you don't want to tell anyone." Was her face a little bit more blank than just a moment ago? "On the other hand", he added in his most reassuring voice, "my partner is a medical doctor, and she is convinced you don't understand a word I'm saying." Where the hell was Scully? He could have used her help here.

He sat back, giving her time - and space - to feel provoked in any way she preferred. The only one he seemed to have provoked was Hermione. Her green eyes glared straight at him, and he could hear a low growl in her throat. He tried not to think about her claws, as described by Scully. Or of what it would quite likely do to Dr Cogan, should he be forced to shoot her pet.

Dr Cogan went on stroking the ocelot's head, and eventually the growl stopped. The animal looked more relaxed, but this was getting Mulder absolutely nowhere. The silence was almost complete, except that now and then a strain from an old musical drifted in from another room. Apparently, Dr Cogan kept her TV set in the bedroom.

After a while, Dr Cogan got up from her chair and walked out from the room, ignoring her visitor. But Hermione stayed, fixating Mulder with her green, steady gaze, as if daring him to try anything. He heard what was probably the toilet door, and after a while, footsteps heading for the kitchen. Having nothing better to do, he remained where he was, waiting. For Scully, or for his hostess to come back. Waiting, and listening to the TV in the other room.

Suddenly he had an idea. A wild one, but so far nothing else had worked, so why not try it? As Dr Cogan came back into the living-room, he stood, holding out his hand to her, and asked her, "Susan, dance for me. Tell me what really happened in that jungle."

For only a moment, he believed in what he was doing. Then, he believed that nothing would come of it, but he remained standing, inviting her. And perhaps nothing would have, except that she glanced swiftly towards the open window, and they both saw the elderly neighbour staring in as if mesmerised. Dr Cogan smiled, took a few tentative, but remarkably fluid steps, and began to dance.

She was not a professional mime, but her story was clear enough for Mulder to understand, at the same time as he knew that this would never be admissible evidence of anything. His only consolation was that the neighbour was still standing spellbound by the window, also watching, also seeing what Mulder saw.

He saw her walk out into the jungle, and come across a radiant vessel of some sort. He saw her meet someone there - Hermione was used for this - and to come to some sort of agreement with this someone. The Third Kind? Could it be? Or was she making fun of him because he had asked if she had been abducted? He couldn't be sure.

She never went to Fourth Kind - there was no sign of an abduction. And while she did dance what must have been the death of Baldwin, swimming black eyes and all, it seemed unrelated to what Mulder interpreted as her jungle experience. There were a million questions he wanted to ask her, but he did not want to interrupt her dance. Also, he rather suspected that this was her only means of communicating. He wondered why nobody else had asked her to dance her memories - or had they, and she had not responded until now? Her dance was aesthetically pleasing too, beautiful in the way that tribal dances were, every lithe movement fraught with meaning. Even Hermione looked impressed.

He had heard the sirens for some time, he realised, when they suddenly rose to a crescendo as the fire engines turned into the street outside. Then the world exploded around him, and everything went black.

* * * *

Scully knocked lightly on Mulder's door to their shared bathroom. No answer. Well, it was still very early, he was probably sleeping. Not that he ever seemed to need much sleep, which, given his general mentality, he should have. She could only assume that his sleeping habits had been broken once and for all by his sister's abduction, never to fall into place again. Knowing how little he slept, she was loath to wake him. Also, she had not slept much herself this night, except fitfully, riding all over the countryside in Krycek's car. She'd catch a couple of hours, by then Mulder was sure to be up.

The news reached her just after breakfast. She had knocked on Mulder's door again as she made ready to go down to the hotel restaurant, then taken a peak inside. He wasn't there, and she assumed he had gone for one of his early morning runs. She had her breakfast, then went back up to her room to try and contact him. Her cellphone rang before she had the time to punch in his number. "Scully", she said, smiling to herself in anticipation of his apologies.

It wasn't Mulder. It was a voice she did not recognise at all. "Dr Scully?" it said, "we need to talk."

She frowned a little. "Who is this?"

"Oh, I'm sorry, I should have introduced myself. My name is Napoleon Solo, and I work - or used to work for an organization that's occasionally been of some assistance to the Bureau in the past."

Napoleon Solo. Had to be a cover name. Scully sighed. Well, it wasn't any less believable than Fox Mulder. "What organization is that?" she asked.

"I'll tell you all about it when we meet, Dr Scully. It's imperative that we do meet - the sooner the better. In view of your partner's accident, I don't think this can wait."

Scully's legs suddenly refused to hold her upright, and she flopped down on the nearest chair. "What accident?" she all but whispered.

"'m'sorry?" said the voice on the phone.

Scully cleared her throat. Get a grip, Dana. He's been in accidents before. She tried again. "What accident?" This time her tone was clear and demanding.

She heard a sound at the other end, a sound that could best be described as a concerned gulp. "My sincere apologies, Dr Scully, I was sure you must know! Haven't you seen the papers yet?"

This wasn't getting any easier. She felt like screaming in his ear, but after a deep breath she at least managed to sound civilised. "I'm afraid I slept in this morning. Why don't you tell me about it?"

A pause, then, "Look, I'm really sorry to have to put you through this, but I think I'd better tell you in person. Is there anywhere we can talk?"

She did not feel in the least like talking to him, but she knew she had to follow up this lead - if such it was. Besides, that had sounded like genuine concern in his voice. "Meet me outside Albertson's grocery store in an hour", she said. "And let's take it from there."

Another voice was heard briefly in the background. Then the first one came back. "There'll be two of us. My partner is coming too. How will we know you?"

This was beginning to sound too much like a setup for Scully's taste. "You find out", she said, and switched off her phone. Her ear was feeling cooked anyway.

She would have to go to the meeting-place she realised, just in case this was on the level. But she was not about to draw attention to herself if things looked suspicious. She would be there, and that would be it. Nor would she wait to hear about this purported accident from some stranger who was in all likelihood lying to her. She went for a short walk on the canal, just to get some fresh air and pick up a paper. Back at the hotel, she sat down in the greenery-surrounded cocktail lounge to read. The lounge was closed at this hour, but seating was always free.

There was no missing it. Half the front page was taken up by a photo of the devastation left where Dr Cogan's house had stood. The front and parts of the rooms immediately behind it were still standing, but the rest was a flattened shambles. There was no mistaking the place though, she recognised the gate as well as the remaining parts. It was believed that Dr Cogan had been in at the time of the explosion. Mulder's name was also in the article, someone had found his wallet, with the badge in it. No mention of the ocelot, Scully thought absently, apparently nobody thought a pet important. Her tears started welling up, and she made no effort to hold them back.

After a time, the anger rose. Anger with herself, mostly. This would not do at all. She had to respond with aggression. She could not despair. Not - Starbuck. Whose was that phantasy originally - hers, or her father's? Had she let him define her after all? And was she always on the lookout for the Ahabs of her universe to continue the definition?

She forced her mind back in gear. Nowhere did the article mention any bodies. But the heat of the blast had been tremendous. Yet - not tremendous enough to destroy Mulder's wallet? Also, the explosion had been rather controlled, the houses on both sides of Dr Cogan's were unaffected. An expert job, Scully thought, not believing for a minute that this was anything but premeditated arson. No mention of bodies - but she should not get her hopes up yet. It could be that the paper had reason to omit some facts. The thought that she might actually have to do an autopsy on Mulder's remains nearly made her break down again, but this time she fought her tears - teeth clenched - till she won. Then she got up and called the local morgue. After that, the fire brigade. Finally, the newspaper.

She thought she had herself well in hand, but it never occurred to her to look for the car keys before she left. She got all the way down to the public parking lot, before remembering that Mulder had taken their rented car. They had not used the valet parking, they never did. In an emergency, time was too precious. She wondered how often little things like this - a missing car, two husks of sunflower seeds - would creep up on her, reminding her. Then she went back to the hotel, washed her face, and reapplied her make-up for the second time this morning. When she was done, she called a taxi.

* * * *

Mulder woke slowly. His throat felt raw, and his entire right side hurt. He smelt of smoke all over. The ends of his hair felt singed and brittle when he brought up his hand to brush it aside. He could not see his hand, but it hurt - and it was shackled. He could feel the chains running between his hands and feet.

It was pitch dark, and for a moment he wondered if he had gone blind. Then he gradually made out a faint rectangle of milky light - a small window, either etched or grimy - probably both. Outside of the smoke, he could faintly sense the damp, stale odor of a cellar. Storm cellar he thought. A small place to huddle, waiting out the hurricanes, no permanent food storage. Too many roaches. And - rats? Even shuddering hurt.

But the vague scraping noise he had heard, had come from the door. As it opened, he could see a flight of steps in the light that fell in. Then the ceiling light came on, and Dr Cogan's neighbour closed the door behind him and came down the steps.

He was carrying an old shotgun over his arm, but he stood it politely in a corner before he turned to Mulder. For a while, the old man just looked at his prisoner. Scrutinising. Measuring. "Sorry 'bout those", he said finally, nodding towards Mulder's shackles.

Mulder looked down. "Heirlooms?"

The old man actually grinned a little. "Ye could say that. Only thing ah figured would hold ya for a while. Of course, ye might not feel like goin' anywhere for a while. Got some pretty bad burns there. Ah could give ya an ointment for 'em, if ya think it'll help."

"Right now, I just want some water."

The other nodded. "Sure. Help yerself. There's a tap over in that wall, it's clean. Long as ye don't come near me, yer free to move about."

Mulder eyed him warily but dragged himself over to the tap without interference. It hurt to move, and he wondered if the shackles had really been necessary to slow him down. The old man watched him carefully, standing close to his shotgun, but never reaching for it. "Toilet's through there", he said casually when Mulder was finished, nodding towards a wooden door behind him. "For when ya need it."

Mulder glanced at his shackles, then the shotgun. "Why the melodrama, Mr..?"

"Name's Erb", the old man said. "George Erb. Sorry. Thought you'd read the plate out front. Ah mean, FBI agents always go pokin' their noses everywhere. It's yer job, ain't it?"

Mulder chose to ignore the slur on his profession. It wasn't the first time. Maybe not even the twenty-first. "The last thing I remember", he said instead, "is everything going up in flames. How is Dr Cogan?"

"Sorry. Can't tell ya. Ah would assume after an explosion like that, she's dead, but then yer not, and ah really don't know what happened to her - or that cat o' hers. Found no traces of 'em when ah was over. You were the only one there, far as I could see."

"How did you know I'm with the Bureau?" Mulder asked. He had just realised that his wallet was missing.

But if Erb had taken it, he was not about to admit it. "She tole me", he said. "Housekeeper. She's a real bitch, but we talk now an' then, over the fence."

Seeing no immediate reason to doubt the man's statement, Mulder changed the subject. "You seem like a sane and sensible man, Mr Erb", he said. "So why..?" He held out his hands.

"Well.." Erb began reluctantly. "Ah'm really sorry 'bout this, it ain't Texan hospitality now, is it? But ah've got ta keep ya here for a couple o'days. Y'see - I might have ta kill ya."

Mulder closed his eyes. Maybe the guy was mad after all. Still, he could have sworn.. "Then why haven't you done so already?" he asked reasonably. "Wouldn't that have been practical?"

Erb chuckled in a way that definitely did not sound insane, just amused. "Got ta wait for mah orders, Mr Mulder", he said. "If they say ta kill, ah'll kill - but ah'd just as soon not. Can't second-guess 'em, no tellin' what they'll want this time. Frankly, ah'm hopin' they'll just say ta let ya go. Ah never wanted to get involved in this.."

"But you are, Mr Erb" Mulder said, opening his eyes to stare straight at his captor. "I'd say you're deeply involved. Kidnapping is a Federal offense."

"Oh, ah don't worry 'bout that. They'll keep me outta jail. Long as they need me, anyways."

"And who are they?"

"Ah don't know. No need ta know, they said. Pay me well, tho'. They've kept me in this house.. 'course, that may all change now.."

"If you don't know who they are, how do you get your orders?"

"Oh, ah contact someone. New one after each job, they gimme a name. Then ah wait. Guess mah contact contacts them - could be a whole chain o' contacts, for all ah know. One day someone's back with mah orders. Not alwuz the one ah tole, could be anyone. Doubt ye can get ta them, if that's what yer thinkin'."

"And if that is what I'm thinking, should you be telling me all this?"

Erb shrugged. "Doan matter. They're safe enough. Ah sometimes wish they weren't tho'. Grown kinda bossy lately. Won't let a man alone as much as they used ta."

"Heightened activity? Something important come up?"

"Ah wouldn't know. No need ta know, they said." He snatched up his gun with a sudden gesture that made Mulder instinctively dive for cover. Erb chuckled, apparently the 'joke' had been intended. "Oh, ah wouldn't use this", he said kindly. "When mah orders come through, ah mean. Too slow. Too messy.." He walked up the steps, and Mulder groaned inwardly. Either the man was subtly insane, or he just had an abominable sense of humour.

The light went out. "Sorry, can't leave it on", Erb said from the top of the steps. "Someone might wonder.." The door opened, and fell shut.

* * * *

The two U.N.C.L.E agents - emeritus and otherwise - stepped out of their car in Albertson's carpark for customers. Napoleon eyed the porch outside the store, frowning slightly. There were several people waiting, most of them female.

Ilya closed the car door and glanced over at the porch. "That's her", he said. "The redhead."

Napoleon mouthed a silent wow. His friend shot him an irritable look. "Try to behave, Napoleon. For once, act your age."

Napoleon glanced back, all innocense. "Who me? Sure, I'll be her kind old Uncle Napoleon. Provide a shoulder to cry on, that sort of thing."

Ilya's mouth quirked in the barest hint of a smile. "Somehow I doubt she'll prove to be the crying type. According to her file, Dr Scully is rather - formidable. Don't let her age fool you, Napoleon."

"As long as she isn't fooled by mine", Napoleon muttered under his breath.

Scully watched the two agents approach her. Something about them hinted very subtly that this was exactly what they were, agents of some sort. She suspected they had meant to give that impression, to make it easier for her to know them. Agents of what, though? More precisely, of whom.. As they came closer, she noticed that they were both well past their first youth, probably their second and third too. It made her a little uneasy, as they might well be the same generation as the leaders of the Consortium whose methods she knew all too well by now.

Napoleon walked up to her first, flashing his most winning smile. "Dr Scully, I presume?" he quipped, extending his hand. "Napoleon Solo. We spoke on the phone. Absolutely enchanted to meet you."

To her surprise, his liquid eyes backed up the tired old pleasantry. He really was enchanted to see her. And he did have a very charming smile.. She found herself returning it. "Dana Scully." She shook hands with him, then with his partner who introduced himself with a Russian name. Steel-blue eyes, searching.. but with a reassuring integrity to them, she thought. She did not know how it had happened, but suddenly she felt inclined to trust these two men.

Pretty little thing, Napoleon thought, and so tiny.. He felt all his old chivalry well up inside him, but knew he had better not let it show, these days. Chances were he would only insult her. Of course, if there were an emergency.. You're an old fool, Napoleon, he told himself sternly. This damsel is more than capable of kicking her own way out of distress. "So", he said aloud, "where do we go to talk? Is it too early for lunch?"

"I had a late breakfast, sorry", Scully said.

"I think we might as well stay out in the open", Ilya suggested. "How about the Dallas zoo?"

Scully rasied an eyebrow. "Next to chattering monkeys or squawking cockatoos? All right, I won't call you paranoid. Let's go for a walk at the zoo."

* * * *

"Well", Napoleon said, staring absently at some red pandas involved in a lazy wrestling match, "I can't say I've ever heard of the Consortium you mention, Dr Scully. Ilya?"

The Russian shook his head. "No, but I think they must be a subsidiary of Thrush, if the one you refer to as the Cigarette-Smoking Man is involved with them. We do know him for a Thrush agent. It is however entirely possible that the other members of this - Consortium are unaware of the connection."

"Mulder believes that they see themselves as some sort of human-extraterrestrial liaison", Scully said.

Napoleon chuckled. "Score one for Thrush propaganda. They're good."

Scully's wide-eyed, turquoise gaze nearly took his breath away. "You don't believe it?"

"Thrush in league with extraterrestrials? Let's say - not without proof. Sounds a little too much like God's on our side for my taste."

"An argument that's been offered by every army in every battle from the beginning of time", Ilya added helpfully.

"And if I've seen these extraterrestrials?" Scully asked, somewhat caustically.

"Are you sure?" Ilya asked. "And if you are, can you prove it?"

Scully sighed, and let him stare her down. "No."

Ilya tactfully refrained from asking which question she had answered.

They walked in silence for a while, ending up by the flamingoes. "So you say this - Thrush is an international organization?" Scully said. "We have reason to believe that the Consortium may be going international too. Unless they always were, and we only ever saw the influence of the American branch. We can't fight all their extensions, not from within the Bureau. But maybe you can.."

"We've been fighting Thrush for generations", Napoleon said. "So far, though both sides have won battles, neither has won the war."

Scully shook her head impatiently. "I'm not talking about Thrush, I'm talking about the Consortium. I don't think Mulder's dead, I think they've got him. And I want him back."

Her chin spoke of determination rather than unfounded defiance, and Napoleon felt a stab of envy of the unknown agent who was her partner.

"You see", Scully went on, "I was down to the fire department this morning, before I came to meet you. They had seen no bodies, but they had found these." She held up a wallet, a cellphone, and a camera. "They are Mulder's, I specifically asked him to bring the camera. The items are all but intact. They can't have been in the fire. If Mulder himself was no closer to it than that, maybe overcome with smoke, they would have found his body. If he were anywhere else, why leave his wallet? I think these things were left for us to find. Us, or anyone who might come looking. The wallet for identification obviously, to tell us that he was there, the cellphone to keep it out of his reach, the camera I don't know. Why leave the camera?"

"The only reason I can think of is that it contains pictures somebody wants us to see", Ilya said. "Why did you want him to bring the camera?"

"Dr Cogan's pet ocelot", Scully said. "There's something strange about her, particularly her claws. I'm not sure it's a lead, and if it is, I'm not sure of what kind, but I thought I'd check up on it. I went to see an old friend of mine who's a zoologist. He found my description inconclusive and said he needed to see a picture of the animal."

Napoleon shook his head slowly. "Doesn't make sense. As a reason for leaving the camera, I mean. You had both already seen the ocelot. Why make sure you got the picture?"

"We don't know that the picture is really there, Napoleon", Ilya reminded him. "But couldn't it be that someone wanted to make certain the picture fulfilled its purpose? To be examined by a professional zoologist?"

Napoleon clicked his tongue in doubt. "I think it's simpler than that. Somebody left the wallet and the camera as proof that Mr Mulder was in the house at the time of the explosion."

"To make it seem as if he were dead, even though no body was found?" It was Ilya's turn to sound doubtful. "Then why not scorch the things a bit more?"

"We may not be dealing with a rational individual", Scully mused, images of both the neighbour and the housekeeper floating through her mind. Neither had appeared to be off their rockers exactly, but.. "My guess is that if someone wants it to look like Mulder is dead, then that's the person who has him. Gentlemen, I think it's time we conducted a few interviews."

* * * *

"If you did not blow up the house, who did?" The stout old man, verging on the obese and known to his associates only as the First Elder, glared at the cigarette-smoking man in front of him.

The smoker glanced around him in the half-lit room, as always assessing his chances. Four men present, the First Elder included. Four old men. Three of them he had seen often, the fourth was an unknown, presumably someone who had stepped in to fill the Englishman's place.

"I don't know", said the smoking man, his voice as well-modulated and composed as ever. "But I could find out."

"Then why don't you?" asked the First Elder in his ominously quiet voice. "If there are more interests involved in this than we know about, it might upset our plans."

'Than you know about', the smoking man thought. He put out his cigarette in an ashtray on the mantelpiece. "I was not aware of any orders to blow up Dr Cogan's house", he said lightly. "Isn't it possible she did it herself?"

"Whatever for?" the unknown man spoke up. "If it had anything to do with events in Guatemala, why do it now, after all these years?

The phone rang. The First Elder picked up the receiver with a single, noncommittal word. "Yes?" He listened for a moment. "Well, if he's got him, then tell him to kill him", he said. "The sooner we get rid of Mulder, the better." He hung up. "Erb has taken Mulder alive", he explained tiredly, as if he could hardly be bothered to discuss the matter. His dark eyes were deep and disillusioned.

The new member rose from his chair and walked across the room to where the smoker was standing. The movement took on an added significance, in a group which rarely budged but preferred to do most of its work by delegation. So far, the smoking man had come to regard himself as the only truly mobile member of the club. He could see now that it might be time to reevaluate this view.

"Well, I can't say I ever believed him to be dead in the fire", the new man said. His accent was almost non-existent, but faint traces hinted at British origins. Not a Londoner this time though. Probably somewhere further north. "That was a clumsy arrangement if I ever saw one", he accused, obviously believing the smoker to have done the arranging. His glare under bushy brows grew hostile. "And don't give me that crap about 'turning one man's quest into a crusade'. It won't wash, and you know it. You got most everybody else to believe it, even my predecessor, but not me."

The smoker regarded him calmly through rising wisps from the ashtray. He filed the confirmation of the man's status away in silence. The Englishman had always been the hothead of the lot, the one most prone to self-deception by imagined ideals. In the end, those ideals had destroyed him. So far, it seemed as if his successor might take the same route, though possibly in the opposite direction. Going overboard to prove that he did not share the other's weakness.

The First Elder nodded. "You've been stalling all this time, for reasons best known to yourself", he said evenly, "and my patience has run out. I want Mulder dead, and I'm going to see to it that he stays dead this time." His words had a calm finality. "No more of your bungling. No he'll never make it, or he must be dead. This time I'll make damn sure 'the Spook' doesn't come back to haunt us." Throughout his declaration, he never raised his voice.

The flare of the cigarette lighter illuminated a creased face. The creases had deepened - in worry or amusement? As usual, it was hard to tell, but the First Elder rather suspected the latter reason. Anger started to boil inside him, but he clamped down on it. He was not about to give this man the satisfaction of losing his temper. Nor could he afford it. Most of his calculated calm was the result of a severe heart condition.

"You're tired of my bungling as you call it?" the smoking man asked innocently. "And yet you give such an important mission to a drifter you picked up off the road ten years ago?" He shook his head. "Erb has proved a good surveillance man over the years, but he's no killer. Let me take care of it."

For the barest moment, the First Elder hesitated. Then, "I don't trust you", he stated bluntly. "You brought in that housekeeper from nowhere, and you never let on where you found her.."

The smoking man shrugged. "She's a trained nurse."

"..you've had ample opportunity to finish off Mulder, yet you've never done the job", the First Elder continued as if nothing had been interjected. "You know what I think? I think you've been running your own race all along, and I'm getting tired of it." He really sounded tired. Very tired.

"You could have gotten rid of me at any time", the smoking man said calmly. He smiled. "Couldn't you?" The question fell towards the end, overstating the matter. The First Elder had 'bungled' things too, and they both knew it.

The heavy man did not answer. He had said more in one evening than was his wont, and the matter was now closed. The others acknowledged his decision. Even the newcomer had nothing more to say.

The smoking man put out his cigarette after only a couple of draughts. "I'd better be going. Maybe I should see to it that Erb doesn't - bungle his mission.."

He let himself out, closing the heavy, oaken doors carefully behind him.

* * * *

Mike Barthold looked up from the photo Scully had handed him. "This some sort of practical joke, Dana?"

Scully frowned in confusion. "No, why?"

"Sorry", he amended quickly. "Had to ask. It's not often I come across an animal I can't identify, but I have to admit I've never seen anything quite like this before."

"I'm sorry I couldn't get a picture of her with her claws extended", Scully said. "This is all.." she hesitated, unwilling to tell him too much. "All she would sit for", she finished.

The zoologist looked closely at the photograph. "I'm not sure the claws would have helped. Quite frankly, I can't place her." He frowned a little. "Is that her owner? I seem to recognise her from somewhere.."

Scully had debated with herself whether to split the photo, leaving Dr Cogan out, but at the last moment decided against it. "That's Dr Janet Z Cogan, you should know her work, she's in your field. Or was. She hasn't been working for a long time. She retired twelve years ago."

He whistled softly. "Dr Cougar! Of course! Her books on the large felines were required reading at the university. I recognise her from her photo on the backs of books, and from her documentaries of course. She looks a bit older here, must have been that what threw me. She seems quite friendly with her cat though; can't you ask her what species it is?"

It figured, Scully thought. He wouldn't have read the paper or watched the news. Totally absorbed in whatever interested him, and contemporary events were not it. Should she tell him? She had brought the paper with her in her briefcase, but - maybe not yet. She had rather wanted his unprepared reaction to the photo, in case he could throw some extra light on this matter. "We have", she said. "I just want - a second opinion."

"She claims this is an ocelot, and you think she's lying? Why would she lie about that?

Scully sighed. Apparently, Dr Cogan's condition was not known among those in her own field either. "I don't know, Mike. I'm not even certain she is lying." That much was true, anyway. "I'm sorry. I can't be any more specific than that."

He frowned. He desperately wanted to help. "I don't suppose you can get me a DNA sample? And a claw sheath, if you would, I'd like to measure its length."

Scully bowed her head in thoughtful defeat. Then she brought out the paper and handed it to him. "You never were one to keep up with the news, were you, Mike?"

"Not really", he admitted, accepting the paper. "Working with animals sort of gives you a different perspective of time. The daily news seem so fleeting.." his eyes widened as he looked over the front page. "Oh my - is this your case, Dana? But - how can it be, you came to me before this happened. Dana, what's going on here, do you think this has got anything to do with our ocelot?"

Scully did not particularly appreciate the reference to Hermione as our ocelot. "I don't know, and frankly, I doubt it. I just didn't want to leave any stones unturned. Dr Cogan's disappearance complicates matters.."

"Disappearance?"

"I know what it looks like, and I'm sure it was meant to look that way. But as neither hide nor hair has been found of her or the ocelot, we must consider them simply missing at the moment. That's all we know."

The zoologist scanned the columns below the picture of devastation. "This 'FBI Special Agent Fox Mulder'", he said, " - colleague of yours?"

"My partner", Scully informed him, her voice clipped. "Yes, he's gone missing too. Probably went with them. We might find all of them together."

Barthold looked at her closely. "But he hasn't contacted you?"

"His cellphone was left behind in the debris."

He refrained from mentioning payphones, stationary phones, borrowing someone else's cellphone, email.. she was the Bureau agent, she would have thought of them all. He saw her eyes going a little red around the rim. She was worried. "I'm sorry", he said before he thought, "were you close?"

Her eyes positively speared him with a turquoise flash. "I'd thank you not to use the past tense yet!" she said, a little too vehemently. There was a distinct tremble in her voice. His heart went out to her. There wasn't all that much he could do, but..

"Dana, can I keep this photo for a few days?"

"I suppose so.. may I ask why?"

"Well, she might be a hybrid", he ventured. "Ocelot/something else. I don't know what, but I'd like to check that possibility. I have a couple of colleagues I can ask, who're more into that sort of thing than I am." He grinned a little. "Of course, it's a long shot without a DNA sample, but I'll just ask them to take it as a challenge."

"You mean - a genetically engineered hybrid?"

He shot her an astonished look. "No, what makes you say that? I was thinking, more like the conventional way. You wouldn't know if she's sterile, by any chance? Hybrids usually are."

Scully felt an old pang. Well, he couldn't know, could he? And she certainly wasn't going to tell him any sob stories. "No idea", she said, a little curtly. "Sorry", she added, before he could pick up on her tone.

But he was studying the photo again, and seemed not to have noticed anything unusual. Finally, he looked up. "I'll call you when I have something", he said. "Or when I know that I don't."

She nodded. "Fine. Here's my cellphone number. And - thanks, Mike.."

* * * *

Mulder stared into the muzzle of an old pistol that had not seen much care in the past fifty years or so. Which was a pity in a way, as the thing might well be a genuine antique. "You're not going to use that, George", he said softly.

Erb stared back at his prisoner. Mulder's face was serene under three days' stubble and fading burns. Shirt open at the throat. Shackles still on. Shit, Erb thought, hoping his indecision wouldn't show. "Got mah orders", he said aloud. "Came through this mornin'." He didn't need to say what those orders were.

"You've never killed for those people before, have you?" Mulder asked. He was fairly certain Erb had never killed anyone, period, but if the guy had a macho violence complex hidden somewhere in his psychological makeup, he might be touchy on that subject. Best leave him some face. "What makes you think you can trust them?"

"Alwuz treated me right so far.." Erb muttered. "Kept me in this house.."

"George", Mulder said, "Murder One is a serious charge, and you're not a professional assassin they might want to use again. What's to say they won't just drop you to be picked up by the police, or even turn you in themselves? For all I know, they might decide to simply dispose of you the same way you would me."

Erb looked slightly worried. A moment later, he lowered his gun. "Guess it won't hurt to wait a day or so.." he muttered. Suddenly, he smiled a little. "It ain't as if ah didn't know what yer tryin' here", he said. "Ah'm not a complete yokel, ya know. An' ah've been workin' for these people a long time now - surveillance jobs mostly. But - well, in these past three days ah've sorta come ta like ya. Don't wanna hurt ya if ah doan have to. So ah'm figurin', might as well give 'em a chance to change their minds.." He sat down on an empty, overturned crate, chuckling a little to himself. "Yer right, ya know. Ah'm no 'sassin. Still, if ah doan do it, they might send someone who is.."

Mulder had already thought of that. One problem at a time, though. For the moment, he felt reasonably safe from directly confrontational weapons. Erb wouldn't go through with anything like that, not unless he were drunk - but he did not seem to be a drinker, and if the Consortium were using him on a regular basis, he probably wasn't. However, it might still be a good idea to watch out for poison in the food.. Erb wasn't a subtle man, but if he got desperate, he might cast about for unusual methods.

"You're a good man, George", he said, taking care not to sound patronising. "I've enjoyed our talks. You said you were placed here to watch Dr Cogan? Any idea why?"

Erb shrugged, finally putting his gun away. He shoved it inside his belt, but only after fastidiously securing it. "Ah'm sure t'was that housekeeper o' hers. They didn't know who put her there, and they didn't trust her. Guess Dr Cogan was important to them somehow. So they musta figured they wanted someone to watch out - someone besides that housekeeper.."

Mulder filed that away for future reference. He knew that the Cigarette Smoking Man was responsible for bringing in the housekeeper. But apparently Erb had not been told. Maybe the Consortium had not been told? If so, whose errand had the Smoking Man been running that time? His own, most likely. Interesting..

Then Erb said something. "You know, she wasn't a bad sort, Dr Cogan. Too bad she couldn't talk.. Ah liked that dance o' hers, though. She mimed a story for ya, didn't she? That's the idea ah got anyways. She was tellin' ya sumpin'. Couldn't make sense o' the story though.." he chuckled. "But what a sight it was, her dancin' with that outlandish cat o' hers.."

Mulder looked up. "What did you say?"

"Well, she did, didn't she?" Erb said, almost defensively, as if he suspected he had just said something wrong. "She danced with the cat, ah'm sure she did. Ah mean, ah saw her! Ah was there, right by the window!"

Mulder swallowed. Could it be? What if Hermione had not been used as a substitute after all. What if Dr Cogan had really been 'dancing with the cat'. That outlandish cat.." His eyes began to sparkle as he smiled at Erb. "Indeed you were, George", he said. "Indeed you were.."

Erb stood hastily and made his retreat up the steps. "Forgot sumpin' on the stove.." he muttered vaguely on his way up. "Sheesh.." he added, just as the light clicked off and the door fell shut, leaving Mulder in darkness. Mulder hardly noticed. He was busy thinking.

* * * *

Napoleon looked around him in the prim little apartment with its pastel colours. Pale green in the kitchen, faint lemon in the sitting-room, murky brown upholstery on the two chairs, a small, grey twoseater with little pink and dusky red flowers all over it. The cosy home of a confirmed spinster, he thought. On the surface, anyway..

Jette Mortensen came in, carrying a tray with coffee cups and exactly seven kinds of cookies. Dutifully adhering to the traditions she grew up with, he mused. No more, no less. He flashed her his best smile. "Ms Mortensen - let me help you with that."

She gave him a puzzled stare as she expertly landed the tray on a small table in front of the twoseater. "I'm not arthritic yet, Mr Solo", she said caustically. "I've handled this tray almost daily for the past twelve years. Besides, serving coffee is part of my job."

If Napoleon felt reprimanded, he did not show it. He was used to having his courtesies turned down. More often with each passing year. The damsels were no longer as helpless as they used to be. Or had they ever really been helpless? "That's when you first came to this country?" he asked lightly. "Twelve years ago?"

She nodded for him to sit - all the invitation he got - and sat down herself before he had the time to take her up on it. A no-nonsense hostess, she began to pour the coffee for them right away. He sat down next to her on the sofa with a feeling of trying to catch a bus before it took off.

"That's right", she confirmed. "I was brought here from Denmark when it became obvious that Dr Cogan would need a housekeeper. I was working for the Company - I suppose they felt they owed her this much."

"And what Company is that?" Napoleon asked, gingerly testing one of the cookies. To his surprise, it tasted excellent - home-made, no doubt.

"United Feline Observation", she said. "The Hilleroed office, to be precise."

"Hilleroed?" Napoleon asked innocently. "I wouldn't have thought there'd be that many large felines to observe in the suburbs of Copenhagen. Or do you study the small domestic breeds as well?"

"The Hilleroed office is - was - mainly administration", she declared matter-of-factly. "Processing requests for grants and printing field reports. That sort of thing. We even had a small publishing branch for books and filmed documentaries."

"No medical facility?"

She looked puzzled for a moment. "Oh! You must be referring to my training as a nurse. No, that was something I brought with me when I started working there. Previous education. A mere coincidence, but I think that's what got me the job with Dr Cogan."

"You didn't work as her agent at all?"

Mortensen shook her head. "She never published anything after she - retired."

Napoleon frowned a little, pretending to have just thought of something he had meant to ask all along. "You said, when it became obvious that Dr Cogan would need a housekeeper. In what way did that became obvious?"

The dark-headed woman stared thoughtfully in front of her, picked up another cookie, and started munching on it. A sip of coffee, then, "I don't rightly know. My boss just came in one day, described the job to me, and asked if I wanted to go. Well, I had no family and I had always been fond of travelling, so I said yes. On the whole, I liked the job. I had some trouble with the locals at first, but once I got used to them and they to me.. and Dr Cogan was kind to me, in her own way, poor thing.." Her eyes glistened a little, as she recalled her employer's fate.

"Trouble with the locals?" Napoleon took another sip of his coffee. "What kind of trouble?"

"I think they were suspicious of me, for some reason. Dr Cogan was their neighbour, and well liked, for all that they can't have known her very well, her always being on expeditions and things. I was a foreigner suddenly brought in out of the blue to look after her. They didn't know my motives, and they didn't like me. Then that pesky George Erb moved in next door. After that, the others left me alone. He did not. I tell you, Mr Solo, if you are trying to find whoever blew up Dr Cogan's house, you have a talk with that man. I'm sure he knows something."

"Thank you, Ms Mortensen, I will. You're sure you had never seen him before he moved in next door to Dr Cogan?"

"Never", she assured him.

"And that was ten years ago?"

"Yes", she confirmed.

"You didn't know where he worked?"

"He doesn't work at all, as far as I know. Well, in the garden he does, growing carrots and things. What I mean is, he never goes away to work."

"So there's no chance he could be working for the same people you are?" Napoleon asked innocently.

To his surprise, she rose to the challenge. "And just what is that supposed to mean?"

"Ms Mortensen", Napoleon said, "have you by any chance heard of an organization called Thrush?" He steeled himself, preparing to draw his own weapon, in case she should prove to be armed. But she calmly finished her coffee, carefully returning the empty cup to its saucer. Then she smiled.

"Mr Solo, aren't you a little too old for this game? I'd have thought you'd be retired by now. We've had a pleasant afternoon, but now I'm afraid I must ask you to leave."

He did not move.

"Come now, Mr Solo, you don't want me. I'm just small fish, arresting me won't bring Thrush down. Besides, you have nothing on me, I haven't done anything but take care of Dr Cogan - not in the way you think", she added hastily. "Like I said, you'd better ask George Erb about that."

Napoleon stood. She was right, there was no more he could do here. He sighed. In his day, the mere mention of Thrush would have set off the fireworks. In his day.. maybe he really was getting old. He thanked her for her hospitality, and turned to go.

"Mr Solo?" she said. "For what it's worth - George Erb never worked for Thrush. Not to my knowledge anyway, and if we had been on the same job, I'm sure I would have been told. Good day to you now, and - may we never meet again."

He could not help but second her farewell blessing.

* * * *

"Didn't think you'd be out and about this time of day, old man. The sun's still up." Krycek tossed his head nonchalantly, ostensibly to get his hair out of his eyes. The careless gesture only served to display his nervousness to his interlocutor.

The older man lit a cigarette and squinted through its smoke. He smiled imperceptibly. It was good to know that he was feared even by a man said to fear no one. Also, that he was not trusted by his current ally. The boy had brains, he had to give him that. "Second-guessing me?" he asked lightly, not expecting an answer. He received none.

"Why did you call me?" Krycek asked, dispensing with further pleasantries. In a battle of words he was always at a disadvantage. Action however, that was his forte. But a man of action had to follow orders. All too often..

"Mulder is being held captive, awaiting death", the smoking man said. "Perhaps you've been told?" No reaction. No matter. The smoker regarded the tip of his cigarette as if to check the glow. "I need you to free him", he said.

Krycek gave a snorting laugh. "Why? We're better off without him. And spare me the speeches about not making a martyr out of him. If anyone picks up where he left off, I'll take him out too." He considered briefly who was most likely to come out as Mulder's successor. "Or her", he added.

"I still have use for Mulder", the smoking man said calmly. "Whether or not I have use for you - well, that could depend on your success in this little matter." He waited for his words to sink in, for the telltale flash of defiance in those all but black eyes. "Come now, Alex", he said in his most reasonable voice, "You may hide from the others, it's easy enough. You may even hide from Thrush, though that's harder. But you can't hide from me. So why not simply do as I tell you? You'll be well paid, of course."

Still glaring, Krycek said, "All right then. Who has him, and where do they keep him?"

* * * *

Ilya looked down at the battered shotgun. "Is this how you greet all your visitors, Mr Erb?" he asked, slowly raising his hands.

"Ah doan like strangers", Erb said. "Been too many prowlers around lately."

Ilya's eyes narrowed slightly. The man might want to come across as some nutty yokel, but he was not convincing. He was not nutty, but he was afraid.. of what? Or more precisely, of whom? Obviously of someone he did not know by sight. "Lately?" Ilya probed. "Since when is that?"

Erb shrugged, jerking his head in the direction of the devastation next door. "Ever since that happened. Ya know how it is - people get nosy.."

"Don't you think you might attract more unwanted curiosity, holding that gun to me?" Ilya asked drily. To his surprise, Erb actually lowered his weapon, even put it aside, standing it against the fence.

"Guess it ain't much use anyhow", Erb muttered. "There'll always be more of you people. So - what's the message? You've got one for me, haven't ya?"

Ilya decided to play along. "What message did you expect, Mr Erb?"

Erb looked embarrassed. "Well, ah admit ah haven't done what y'all asked. Couldn't go through with it, ah guess. He's a bit weird, but he's a nice guy fer all that.. So ah guess ah kinda expected you'd want ta send someone else in.." he looked up, and the fear was back in his eyes. "Ah could move, ah guess.. leave the field to you people.. ah mean, ah wouldn't say anythin', ah understand. Just couldn't do it meself, ya know.."

The years had done nothing to diminish the Russian's powers of deduction. "But you are still holding him for us?" he asked.

"Oh yeah", Erb said, obviously anxious to please. "Hurricane shelter. Ah've been careful, alwuz turn out the lights after ah've been ta check on him. Ah left some of his things behind though, ta show there was people in the house.. make sure she'd be charged with what she'd done.."

He was almost babbling now, and Ilya found it increasingly difficult to follow the man's reasoning. "Who would be charged?"

"Housekeeper nacherly. Musta been her. Didn't see her around, but she's alwuz there. Never trusted that woman. She did it, alright. Couldn't a' been anyone else."

"You witnessed the explosion?" This was more than Ilya had hoped for.

"Ah'll say ah did.." The man broke off, suddenly worried. "Ah wasn't supposed to? Didn't know, nobody ever tole me.."

"It's all right", Ilya reassured him. "I just didn't think anyone could have been that close and survived. What did you see?"

Erb shot him a wary look and thought it best to answer truthfully. "Nothin' much, as ah had already turned to go. Then ah heard the sirens, an' looked back ta see what was up, an' - boom! Ah was lucky it didn't blow ta the sides much, jis'sorta lengthwise. Or ah mighta been caught in it too, y'see.. Went back an' found the FBI guy, he'd been lucky too, fire hadn't spread ta the front where the lounge was. Well, some had, he was a bit singed, but no more than that. No sign o' Dr Cogan or the cat. Ah thought they'd gone over towards the back and been killed, but now they say no bodies were found, so ah doan rightly know.."

"Just a minute, Mr Erb", Ilya said, "You heard the fire engines before the explosion?"

"Sure did. That's what made me think it's got to be arson. Someone knew. An' that someone is that Mortensen woman, sure as ah'm standin' here. She musta made her getaway well before it blew, 'cause ah never saw her around that day. But it was her, ye can bet on that."

"Any idea why she would have called the fire brigade?" Ilya asked calmly.

Erb shrugged. "Ta keep the damage down, ah guess. Keep it from spreadin' ta the neighbors."

"You'd expect her to be that considerate?"

"Considerate? Nah, not her. But tidy. Tidy she is, alwuz in control. She'd blow up one house, she wouldn't wanta make a mess o' the whole block."

There was a grudging respect in Erb's tone, and Ilya fought hard not to smile. The little old man did not look any too tidy himself. "Did you see anything else?" the Russian asked, "Anything before the explosion? Anything at all unusual?"

"We-e-ll.." Erb dragged it, "Ah saw her dance.."

"You saw the housekeeper dance? But you just said.."

"Nah, not the housekeeper. Tole ya ah hadn't seen her all day, didn't I? Dr Cogan. This Mulder guy, he asked her to dance, an' she.."

By now, Ilya was beginning to suspect that this little gnome of a man was playing him for a fool, but he couldn't be sure as yet. "You saw Dr Cogan dance with Mr Mulder?"

Erb chuckled. "Nah, not with him. For him. She was dancin' with that cat o' hers." He glanced at his visitor. "Ya doan believe me? Daylight's truth. Ah was right up there by the window. Thought ah'd keep an eye out, ya know. Ah saw her. He asked her to dance, an' she danced, at first by herself, then with the cat. Then the house went poof.."

Ilya groaned inwardly. Dr Scully had warned him her partner might seem a bit touched to those who did not know him, but this sounded as if Dr Cogan had gone off her rocker too. Then again, it was quite possible that he was missing something here. Something that Erb was leaving out without knowing it.. "And that is all you saw?" he tried, without any real hope that he would find out anything else.

Erb nodded. "Yeah. Only.. well, when ah reminded this Mulder guy of it, that she'd been dancin' with her cat, he went all funny like, well, as if ah'd just tole him some real good news. Guess he had forgotten all about it.. he is a bit weird, you know. But like ah said.. not a bad guy. So - what're y'gonna do with him?"

With a sinking feeling that it could not be this easy, Ilya replied, "Why, I could take him off your hands right now, if you wish."

Erb hesitated, then slowly shook his head. "Nah, ah'd rather ya waited till tonight - if ya doan mind, nacherly." He shot Ilya an apprehensive glance. "See.. ah figured if ah see when ya shoot him, ah'll be implicated. Witnessin' the murder of a Fed, ya know.. An' that would mean you people could blackmail me anytime y'all wanted - not that ah think ya would, y'understand", he added hastily, "but well, ya know what they say, 'bout safe n' sorry.. Anyways, so ah figured ah'd better be gone fishin'. Been plannin' ta take a few days off for that, once ah didn't have ta look after him anymore. Might as well leave this afternoon, then y'all have the place to yerselves. Shelter doors can be opened from outside, jis' pull the bar. Can't get into the house proper from there, but then ya won't need ta, will ya? Get the ladder from behind the garage, ye can get him out by the shelter doors. Used ta be steps down there, but they're gone.. Former owner musta taken 'em out, doan know why.."

"Thank you, Mr Erb", Ilya said, cutting off the man's ramblings. "We'll be back tonight then. Just see to it that you are not."

Erb nodded vehemently. "Oh, ah'll stay away alright. Wouldn't wanna get implicated. An' if ya doan mind my sayin' so, ah'd jis' as soon not see any of you people again, at least not fer a good while.." He broke off, looking frightened. "Ah mean.. ah doan mind workin' for ya, ah jis' figured ah could do with a small vacation, is all.."

Ilya smiled reassuringly. "We understand, Mr Erb. You go on and take your vacation. We'll take it from here. Don't worry about a thing."

Erb gave him a grateful grin, picked up his shotgun and scurried off, in the direction of the house. Ilya rather hoped the old man would have the sense to stay away for a long time, in case his true employers put in an appearance.

* * * *

Sitting in Scully's hotel room, the U.N.C.L.E agents were waiting for nightfall. That was as long as they dared postpone their rescue mission, because George Erb had clearly been expecting someone to come and take Mulder off his hands. And if he had been in contact with those people since Ilya spoke to him.. it did not seem likely, but delay seemed clearly inadvisable. All the same, Ilya had wanted Erb well out of the way first, and Napoleon agreed. "Also", he said, if we wait till dark, we might draw less attention to ourselves."

Scully pursed her lips in a half-smile. "I'd say people would be more likely to take an interest if they see something going on in somebody's backyard after dark."

"But they would see less", Napoleon optimistically insisted.

"There will be a full moon tonight", Scully pointed out.

"You can't see much by a full moon here", Ilya said. "Not in a city area. Too much pollution, too many street lights. Moreover, anyone who notes something suspicious will most likely turn a blind eye. They wouldn't want to know."

"You're not in Russia now", Scully said curtly, and for a moment, that actually seemed to throw him.

Then, with a wry smile, "Sorry, I forgot. In these parts, everybody is walking about armed.."

Scully was on the verge of retorting that this was more than likely to be the case in Russia too, these days, but Napoleon saw it coming, and silenced them both with a glance.

"Bickering won't get us anywhere." He glanced out the window. "Besides, I see the argument is all but moot. Time to get ready."

* * * *

It would appear that Agent Scully had been right. Someone was there before them. As they got out of their car - cautiously parked a ways down the street - they could vaguely see figures moving about inside the fence. There seemed to be five of them, although it was hard to be sure with only the faint street lights outside the gate for illumination. Napoleon cursed under his breath. He had not wanted Scully to come with them, but as they used to say in Section Two, there was no putting off a redhead. All the same.. she might be a fully trained agent, but for the FBI, not for U.N.C.L.E. He just wasn't sure it would be enough..

Scully spotted a laser dot being turned their way. "Get down!" she hissed, and they all took cover behind their car.

'On the other hand..', Napoleon mused, just as the shot went over their heads. Another one, then Ilya said, "You know, Napoleon, I think we must."

Napoleon nodded. "After you, Illya."

Scully who was already aiming her gun in the direction of the dark figures with the laser dots, asked them whatever they were talking about.

"Well, you see we are not on official U.N.C.L.E business", Ilya said, bringing out his own weapon and attaching the long range sighting piece. 'Napoleon especially', he added in his thoughts but did not say it.

"So strictly speaking, it's illegal for us to get into a gunfight", Napoleon filled in, following the Russian's lead in arming himself.

"On the other hand, this might be seen as a matter of self-defence", Ilya said, as he started to return fire.

"Although that would be stretching it", Napoleon added, starting to shoot also.

"We are naturally expected to know better than to place ourselves in this kind of situation", Ilya deadpanned, getting off another shot.

Scully had no way of knowing if any of them hit anything. It was all a variation on entrenched warfare; all she could do was fire and duck, fire again, duck again. The two U.N.C.L.E men's guns proved to have a better range, but it did not sound as if anyone inside the yard was wounded, and the fire from that direction was kept up much the same as before. She was just making ready to change clips, when there was a shout from further up, right by the house. She could not hear what was said, but the fire stopped as if on command, and five people came running out the gate, and piled into a car just outside it. Three of them got in, then Scully popped up out of cover with her well-conditioned battle cry: "Federal Agent - FREEZE!" Her gun was held steady against the roof of the car, with a firm, regulation two-handed grip.

One of the men by the gate threw off a shot in her direction without aiming, and she answered it, but was powerless to do more than detain them for a second or so. Just enough time for Ilya to take a shot at a rear tyre. As ill luck would have it, the bullet ricocheted off the hubcap. Then the last two men had joined the others, and the escape vehicle promptly took off. Apparently, this lot had no respect for the FBI. We should have shot out their tires before, Scully thought. Still, there was no way of knowing that it really was their car. Skinner would have had my hide if it had been Erb's. Come to think of it, maybe it was Erb's..

Dejected at not having been in a good position to make an arrest, she glared at her companions. "And just what are those?" she asked, indicating their firearms.

"U.N.C.L.E Specials", Napoleon said.

"A little more efficient than a Sig Sauer", Ilya explained.

Scully rolled her eyes briefly heavenward. Men would display such delight over their toys.. "Let's go check on Mulder", she said, holstering her own service 'toy'. "I don't think they got him. They didn't seem to be dragging or shoving anyone." She fiercely kept her anxiety out of her voice. If those people had left Mulder behind, what condition could he be in?

But as they threw open the shelter doors, it was all too evident that the storm cellar was empty. The lights had been left on, illuminating most of the place. There was hardly any need to climb down to investigate, but the three agents did so anyway. They all felt the need to make sure, Scully most of all.

They found the small toilet, but that too proved empty, as did any space under the flight of steps that had not been immediately visible from the ladder. Scully went over to the discarded shackles and examined them closely. No trace of blood. In fact, no such traces in the whole cellar, which gave her some hope. All the same.. what sort of man would subject anyone to such positively medieval confinements..

Ilya came down the steps after having felt the door. "It is as Erb said. He left the door to the house locked. I don't think your colleague is hiding in the house. However, he appears to have sensibly taken the matter in his own hands and - escaped."

* * * *

"Why am I assuming you're not doing this out of the goodness of your heart?" Mulder probed. The dark man beside him never took his eyes off the rearview mirror. Nor did he answer. "Come on, Krycek, you're always sent by someone. Always somebody's pawn, ordered this way and that. So whose idea was this?" Mulder's psychological training stood him in good stead. He knew how to be a pain in the ass, when he wanted to be. The quick flash in those intense eyes told him he had struck true.

"Don't question your luck, Mulder", Krycek said curtly. "You don't have a need to know."

"I always have a need to know", Mulder said truthfully. "You might say it's second nature."

Krycek did not answer. Verbal sparring was not what he was here for. He drove on in silence for a while, one eye ever on the rearview mirror. Slightly amazed that no one seemed to be tailing them as yet, he made a decision. "I'll drop you off at your hotel", he said. "It's the first place they'd look for you, if they were looking. But, I don't think they will be. They must have realised that they just passed up this chance."

"You sound even more paranoid than I am", Mulder taunted. "Who're they?"

"I didn't ask", Krycek said.

"No need to know?"

"Exactly. But I suspect you have a pretty good idea anyway."

Mulder shook his head, trying to make the gesture convincing. "There seems to be an awful lot of different organizations involved these days", he said tentatively. He had the satisfaction of seeing an involuntary blink, just significant enough to be noted. "The Universal Franchise Organisation.. the United Feline Observation.." No reaction to that, anyway. "And then of course there's always the usual plotting gang, with their tendrils in Government.." Still no reaction. "For all I know, there could be more." This time, perhaps, the quiver of an eyelash. "Maybe I should hold that thought.."

"Maybe you should, Mulder", Krycek said unexpectedly. "And maybe you should keep it to yourself. Want the advice of a younger man but an old soldier? Fight your government if you wish. Don't take on the world." He pulled up the car at the back of the hotel. "I'll forgo the valet parking, if you don't mind. Now, get out."

Mulder opened the car door on his side and was roughly pushed out before he had a chance to question Krycek's odd advice. When the door slammed shut again, the car was already well underway.

* * * *

The three agents returned to the hotel in silence, Scully driving. They would need some time for planning, time to decide where to go from here. It all rather depended on what had become of Mulder, and while each of them was forming some kind of theory, none of them was sharing it with the others as yet. There would be time enough for war concils when they got back.

* * * *

Scully was the first to walk into her room - even though Napoleon had tried to hold her back, as they saw the light under the door. "Mulder!" she called out, delight and relief plain on her face as she walked up to her partner - and stopped abruptly, well inside his personal space but short of touching him. Longing to be close to him, wary of invading him and being pushed back by some well-placed sarcasm.

But this time he just smiled and took the final step to close the gap between them, pulling her into his arms and holding her tightly, still smiling into her hair - furtively sniffing it and hoping she would not notice.

Napoleon sighed, and put his hand on Ilya's shoulder. "Illya, I think we'd better.."

The embrace immediately broke apart, and both participants turned to face them. "No! It isn't.." they began in unison, almost as if they had been afraid to be left alone in this situation, Napoleon thought. Odd.. things certainly weren't like they used to be, he mused.

"We'd like you to stay", Scully found her composure first. "In a way, this is your case too. We have things to talk about." She quickly made the introductions - noting that Mulder showed remarkably little surprise at her mention of U.N.C.L.E. She had just prepared herself to launch into a lengthy explanation, but for some reason it did not seem to be necessary.

Napoleon noted it too. "You've heard of us?" he asked, as he extended his hand to Mulder.

"Not until quite recently", Mulder admitted. "Say about half an hour ago."

Scully raised an eyebrow. "Where were you, Mulder? We tracked you to that place next door to Dr Cogan, but when we got there it was all empty."

"Except for some rather unpleasant individuals", Ilya added drily.

"Unfortunately, they got away", Napoleon supplied.

"We must have just missed each other then", Mulder said. "Sorry about that, but I take it I should be glad I didn't meet the guys you chased off the premises. Actually", he turned to Scully, "Krycek sprung me."

"Krycek??" they all marvelled, with the kind of emphasis that told Mulder he had been wrong in assuming that only Scully would know that particular name.

"Krycek", he confirmed, then added, "He wouldn't tell me to whom I owed my unexpected rescue, but he did say something else. He told me I could fight the government if I liked, but not to take on the world."

Ilya nodded to himself. "Wise man."

"I wouldn't go that far, Illya" Napoleon muttered. "But apparently he has his moments."

"Now that was only the second cryptic piece of advice I had been given in the last few days", Mulder resumed, "so I figured it was time I called some decryption specialists."

"Bureau specialists?" Ilya frowned. "What good would they be with obscure advice?"

Mulder shook his head, smiling. "No no, these are freelance. Very much so, I might add. Three oddball friends of mine who take an interest - not to mention pride - in keeping track of conspiracies against the American people. And the people of the rest of the world, while they're at it, it would seem."

Scully bowed her head just barely enough to hide her smile. She had a distinct fondness for the Lone Gunmen. They had helped her save Mulder's life often enough.

"I gave them Krycek's statement verbatim", Mulder went on. "They said there have always been international syndicates, but that they did not think Krycek was a member of the mafia, and could I please be a little more specific? So I asked them what they knew about our two 'UFO' organizations. Someone - I think Langly - whistled me straight in the ear, as he made the connection. Then they all started talking at once, and it was a while before I could make anything out, but the essence of it seems to be that both companies are subsidiaries of a worldwide - conspiracy if you like, named Thrush of all things. Apparently, it's been around since sometime last century, with none the wiser, which is pretty good for a conspiracy whose aim is to take over the world.. Which my sources claim in all seriousness that it is. They also gave me the name of Thrush's main opponent. An equally worldwide organization called U.N.C.L.E"

"United Network Command for Law and Enforcement", Napoleon said.

Mulder looked at him. "I have to admit, that and bit worries me. Law enforcement I understand, but.."

Napoleon smiled noncommittally, refusing to be drawn out.

"Is Thrush also an acronym?" Scully asked, with a quick glare at Mulder, possibly a warning for him to behave.

Nappoleon caught the look. She seems to have him well in hand, he thought. "Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity" he recited aloud."

"What?"

"That was our reaction too, the first time we heard it", Napoleon admitted. "There's some indication - as with many catchy company names - that the expansion came up as an afterthought. Still, it's the accepted one."

"Who decides who is undesirable?" Mulder wanted to know.

"Why, they do, obviously."

"Not exactly, Napoleon", Ilya spoke up. "Their leader does. The Ultimate Computer. I should expect that is why subjugation of humanity is in there."

The two FBI agents stared at them. Either these two elderly men were completely nuts, or the X-files concept had suddenly taken on a couple more dimensions.

"That's true", Napoleon mused, "they always claimed to have an ultimate computer."

"They still do, Napoleon. And why not - after all, it's supposed to be 'ultimate'. My guess is it's been using the human members of Thrush - with their consent most likely, as they are not easily fooled, but they may well believe themselves indispensable within their own lifetime at least."

"Using them for what?" Mulder asked, not sure whether he was trying to humour these two characters, or if he really wanted to know. Probably both, he decided.

Ilya shrugged. "To prepare for the machine takeover. Then it will really rule the world." He paused momentarily, as if debating with himself how much to say. Then, "I used to hold the view that a chaotic system - the world as we know it for instance - could not be controlled. But perhaps the machines will come close. If they customise it. Change what they can, and discard that which cannot be adapted. They might have to throw away quite a large part though. The takeover might not be far off. Leading cyberneticists today predict that it will take place sometime within the next fifty years."

Scully nodded. "That much is true, Mulder. I've read those articles. I don't know why I didn't pay more attention to them at the time."

"Classic case of repression?" Mulder suggested, eliciting the anticipated glare from his partner's sea-blue eyes.

"Does this mean you're giving up, Illya?" Napoleon's tone was light, joking, but his dark eyes had a worried gleam.

Ilya had known his partner long enough that the lightness was not fooling him. "I'm still fighting Thrush, aren't I?" he muttered surly.

Mulder decided it was time to get the subject back on track. "The only thing my sources couldn't tell me was why Thrush would take an interest in Dr Cogan's research. Their best guess was that if Thrush - or rather, their affiliated company - had sent an immunologist with her, it had something to do with the outbreak of the so-called black virus in the area. I assume you have heard of that?"

Napoleon nodded. "It's been on our files since that very first outbreak in 1986. The Black Virus, or the Black Oil Virus. We investigated the case back then, but found no conclusive evidence of Thrush activity. No one knew then that Ward Baldwin's son had any connections with Thrush. The information we had stated that father and son had a severe falling-out when Walt was about 20, and that they had had no contact since. Now Krycek tells us this was an immaculatey maintained front, and that the virus somehow ties into the case on more levels than one. But like your own sources, he was unable to provide any details, and most of what he said sounded like his own conjectures."

Mulder gave them a searching look but decided that part would have to wait. "Another - source of mine", he said with a trace of disgust that was not lost on Scully, "gave me to understand that this virus might have been planted. Is there any chance that Thrush could be behind it?"

Ilya nodded. "It is fully possible. It's the kind of thing they would do, if they stood to gain by it. In view of the fact that the outbreaks so far have been limited enough to be considered test scenarios, I'd say it's even likely that they are behind it. However, we have no proof, and it is equally likely that they have simply seized on a fortuitous coincidence. I think we may safely assume that they are involved, but that is all."

"Any chance that the virus could have - extraterrestrial origins?" Mulder just had to ask. In view of his own and Scully's experience with the virus, it was indeed hard to see how it could be anything else. Still, there apparently was no end to Terran ingenuity either.

"We have never discounted that possibility", Ilya stated calmly.

Mulder nodded. It would have to do. "Any records of Thrush having a space program? Surely an organization aiming to take over the world should have resources enough for that?"

"We didn't think so until recently", Napoleon said. "They had saucer-shaped stratjets back in the sixties, based in Denmark just like your current 'UFO' companies. We managed to sabotage that particular line of development, as it was seen as an armament effort." He did not mention that he and Ilya personally had effected the sabotage. Humility was not his forte, but he knew better than to boast of classified missions. "Of course, we followed up the matter regularly, but saw no evidence of renewed attempts. Then, as we started looking into this matter of the younger Baldwin again, we discovered what became of the stratjets. They are now space-going vessels. Mainly prototypes as yet, but they are being tested - in space, not just in simulations."

Scully silently walked over to the closet. She rummaged around for a while and came back out carrying a shard of something that could be metal or plastic, or perhaps some other substance, enamelled. "Could this be their work?" she asked, as she handed the object to Napoleon.

Ilya and Mulder both joined Napoleon to peer at the object. Ilya tapped it tentatively. "I'd have to analyse it", he said. "I can't say offhand what material it is. Might be a new composite. But of course it could be Thrush manufacture. Their resources are quite impressive."

"Impressive enough to manufacture a new symbolic language?" Mulder asked gently. "If these markings are geometric figures, they're not like anything I've ever seen."

"I was thinking of some sort of 'super-cube' for this one here", Scully said.

"Like a super-ellipse, starting from a square, and in three dimensions?" Ilya mused.

Scully shook her head. "Sorry, 'super-cube' is a simplification; it was just my first attempt to get my mind around it. It's nothing as straightforward as that. For a start, I think there are far more than three dimensions involved. It's not a holographic image - not to my eyes anyway. In fact, there's no telling how many dimensions are represented here, not without knowing what the original should look like - or indeed what graphical convention has been used in its representation."

"So it can't be just a random figure thrown together to create an 'alien' look?" Napoleon asked.

"Unlikely", Scully said. "But still possible, if Thrush mathematicians are very good at representing their calculations graphically." She turned the shard around to get an 'upside down' view of the figures. "Maybe their Ultimate Computer could do it."

"Where did you find it?" Mulder asked.

"The supposed space craft is at the bottom of a lake. Krycek broke off a piece of the hull and gave it to me to show to you."

"Broke it off?"

"It took some breaking. Using special tools."

"Krycek told you this? And you believed him?"

Scully pursed her lips. Apparently there way no was she could spare him the details. "I saw him do it."

"You mean you were down at the bottom of some lake - with Krycek? Alone with him?" Mulder's voice was raspy with worry, and he made no real attempt to hide that fact.

"Mulder, nothing happened. He only wanted me to see for myself where he got it, so I wouldn't have the same reaction you just did when I told you. Mulder, if he had wanted me dead or raped or abducted, he wouldn't have had to go miles out of his way for that."

Mulder closed his eyes briefly. "Just where is this lake?"

"Uh - I don't rightly know. Several miles north-by-north-east of here, going by the sun, but I fell asleep in the car.."

'Oh-oh', Napoleon thought, but the explosion did not come.

"Why didn't you call me?" Mulder asked softly. Too softly. Wounded to the quick by his partner's cavalier attitude to her own safety.

"He wouldn't let me", she said. "He was afraid I'd slip you some code word and you'd bring in the Marines. Paranoia seems to be the only thing keeping him alive these days." She looked at him for a while, as if they were alone in the room. "Mulder", she said gently, placing both her hands on his arms as if to embrace him, "I'm ok. Really."

"Worrying after the fact is a singularly useless activity", Ilya said to no one in particular but hoping it would prove helpful.

The couple - for so he had to think of them - made no sign that they had heard him.

Interesting, Napoleon thought. They are so well matched, so well trained, both so competent, and he still worries when she goes off alone? Maybe things haven't changed as much as I first assumed.

But then Scully said, "We've got to put Antarctica behind us, Mulder. We can never face them again if we don't. And then they will have won."

"You said something like that last time too", Mulder said. He shook his head. "I just don't know how much more I can put behind me, Scully."

"Don't let them get to you", Scully warned, a sudden edge of steel in her voice. "Even if they do, don't let them break you. Promise me that."

Mulder seemed about to protest, but then he nodded wordlessly. As promises go, the gesture was rather noncommittal.

Napoleon was beginning to realise he might have misjudged these two youngsters. This sounded more like shell-shock than the kind of possessiveness that had been the norm in his own most active days. In fact, Mulder did seem a little unstable for an FBI agent. Still, Napoleon knew from his own experience that when extreme flexibility was called for, instability was considered acceptable. Most likely, this guy was an asset to the Bureau, as well as a calculated risk.

Ilya cleared his throat. "I think we are all agreed that this piece of material could come from an extraterrestrial vessel, though it seems even more likely that Thrush manufactured it."

Scully stepped back, breaking contact with Mulder who said, "I don't know, I might have something that makes the extraterrestrial theory a little more plausible."

Scully looked at him as if trying to read his mind. "Does this have anything to do with your first cryptic piece of advice? You said there had been one before you were admonished not to take on the world. I've been meaning to ask you what the first one was."

Mulder nodded. "I believe Hermione is an extraterrestrial."

Scully rolled her eyes briefly. "Someone told you this?"

"Not in so many words. All my source said was that since I had brought up the United Feline Observation, maybe I should follow that lead. At the time, I naturally thought that he meant the company. But later, George Erb said something that made me realize I should have observed the so-called ocelot. Which you did, Scully. You said yourself there was something strange about her. Her claws, remember?"

"As well as her coat and size. But I never said she was an EBE. What did Erb tell you?"

"He drew my attention to something that I had seen but possibly misinterpreted. You see, I asked Dr Cogan to dance for me. To dance her story for me. There was no other way she could communicate it, so I thought, why not give it a try."

Ilya whistled softly. "So that was why.."

Mulder grinned briefly. "Erb told you? He was flatfaced against the window at the time. Actually, what made me think of it was Dr Cogan's TV. It was running Finian's Rainbow, you know the one where this mute girl, Susan the Silent, dances all she has to say, because she's unable to speak. And I was thinking about you referring to Dr Cogan as Silent Susan, Scully. So I just thought what the hell, and asked her to dance her story.

"To my surprise, it worked. She did dance, or rather mime, all that had happened to her in the jungle. I could make out most of it as corresponding to what we knew, including Dr Baldwin's death by the virus, though not if she had anything to do with that or not. But there was a part that I could only interpret as a close encounter - third kind, meeting an EBE, but no abduction. For this part, she used her cat to represent the EBE, or so I thought. But later on, while he held me captive, Erb reminded me that she had been dancing with that outlandish cat o' hers. And I thought, what if Hermione really was the alien, and not just used as a stand-in, as it were? She could have used me for that, but she picked the cat. What if the cat is the real item? She never told me what happened to the EBE, and I'm beginning to think maybe she didn't want me to know. My guess is she was taunting me. That she never thought I'd make the connection - as I very nearly didn't."

"Mulder", Scully said soberly, "Just because Hermione is atypical for an ocelot doesn't mean.."

"You talked about her to that zoologist friend of yours. Did you get the chance to show him the picture I took, or was the camera destroyed in the fire?"

"No, I've got it. I showed him the picture, and he said he'd like to keep it for a while, but he couldn't say.."

"A practising zoologist, and he can't say? Doesn't that strike you as a little odd?"

Scully sighed. "Mulder.."

But there was no holding Mulder back now. This was his field, and he knew it. "Think about it, Scully. Not even an expert can tell what she is, she looks like an ocelot only if we allow for some oddities, but her claws are way off the mark. Almost as if they were retractable fingers."

Scully's eyebrow climbed as she made a mental note to ask Mike about this particular aspect.

"For all we know, her tail is prehensile", Mulder went on. "You said it looked that way, though you didn't actually see her use it. Still, she looks vaguely like an ocelot. She could pass for one. Don't you see, Scully, who in this anthropocentric world would suspect a cat of intelligence? I can see why Dr Cogan felt it was quite safe to taunt me about it. I deserved to be taunted - I should have seen it sooner."

Scully sank down on the armrest of an easy-chair. She felt that it was her responsibility to - bring him back to Earth, but right now she did not really know where to start.

Then, to her surprise - and quite likely to Mulder's as well - the quiet Russian decided to back him up. "N'emetskaya.." he said softly.

"Doesn't that mean 'German'?" Napoleon asked. "Feminine form?" he added, just to show off.

Ilya smiled imperceptibly. "That's just it. Originally, it meant 'dumb' - in both senses of the word. The usual erroneous assumption that one who does not speak, also has no thoughts. Then, as it was found out that there were other peoples than Russians, who could not be expected to know the language, but who could not be safely ignored all the same, the wordcame to denote the most common kind of foreigner, and the word for 'dumb' was shortened to n'emkij. In Hermione's case, that would be n'emkaya. That word still holds both connotations - 'mute' and 'stupid'. People never learn."

"You yourself did not believe Dr Cogan aware of her surroundings, when we first met her, Scully", Mulder gently reminded his partner. "Wasn't that mainly because she didn't speak?"

Scully smiled slightly. "What, do you believe Dr Cogan is an alien too?"

Mulder pretended to consider that just long enough to have her worried. "Not really", he said then. "But she could have picked up the cover of silence from Hermione. I strongly suspect that Dr Cogan is not as mute as she seems."

Napoleon could not help marvelling at this. He had never known a woman who could stay silent for any length of time. "Do you really think that's possible? She must have kept her silence for twelve years!"

Mulder smiled. "Reportedly, she always was a headstrong lady. Maybe she talks with Hermione."

"But why?"

"Simple", Mulder said. "If you can't speak, there's no point asking you questions."

"There was for you", Napoleon reminded him.

Mulder looked a little sad. "True. I only hope I didn't blow her cover."

"You don't think she's dead then?" Ilya asked interestedly.

"Erb said there were no bodies. I think she staged the fire and escaped with Hermione. Maybe she meant for me to get caught in it, and that was why she could afford to show me the whole story. She didn't seem quite the type, but if her secret is important enough to her to render her effectively mute for twelve years.. who knows? Apparently, there's some suspicion floating around that she somehow used the virus to kill Baldwin, and that this shocked her badly enough to make her lose her voice. I don't believe the latter part, but maybe she could kill to protect Hermione."

"Mulder, I hate to do this to you", Scully said, "but you have considered the other obvious possibility, haven't you?"

Napoleon was looking forward to this. Trust this young lady to put things into their proper perspective.

"For all we know", Scully continued, "the vessel I saw is of Thrush manufacture, and Hermione is simply a hybrid of different feline species, artifically cloned. Mulder, it could all be another hoax! Or, if our usual crowd is behind it, they could even have used some extraterrestrial DNA, but that's as far as it goes. And they could have put Krycek up to giving me that piece, so as to bring the whole thing to your attention and set you chasing wild geese again."

Napoleon closed his eyes. He wasn't exactly sure this was what he had wanted to hear.

"They must have paid Dr Cogan pretty well to keep her mute all these years, just to convince me", Mulder pointed out.

"Besides, Krycek is on his own these days", Ilya said. "He didn't want us to know, but it's obvious. He works for no one now, but himself. And he may have started to call in a few old debts."

Mulder and Scully both gave the U.N.C.L.E agents a searching look. "That's what I've been meaning to ask you all along", Mulder said. "How did you two meet Krycek?"

* * * *

Scully was awakened by her cellphone. Groaning, she groped around for it on her bedside table and only managed to knock it to the floor. She peered at the clock radio. 08.15. She knew she had meant to set the alarm, but apparently she had not. She had never meant to sleep this long, she never should have agreed to Napoleon's offer of a late dinner for four last night. Especially as the agent emeritus had his standards and would not settle for an order of pizza or something from room service. Not when they were all free to have a proper dinner in downtown Dallas, complete with a full-bodied wine.. She groaned again, and finally managed to pick up the phone off the floor. To her amazement, it had not stopped ringing.

"Scully. Yes, that's me. Special Agent Dana Scully of the FBI. Who is this?" She listened for a moment, coming wide awake in the process. "Is he all right?" she asked then, while getting out of bed. "Yes, yes, but how is he? I'm a medical doctor, just give me the details.. I see. Well then, can you get me someone who does know?" She listened some more while squirming out of her pyjamas. "Ok, I'll be right over. See you there. Bye."

She dashed for the bathroom, had a quick shower, and got dressed in record time. Then she knocked on Mulder's door, the one leading to the bathroom. No answer. Well, it figured. He had to be through both his morning run and his breakfast by now, but why hadn't he tried to wake her? Right then, there was a knock on her front door, and there he was, a paper bag containing two bagels in one hand, and a small pot of coffee in the other.

"Breakfast?" he greeted her innocently, with no reference to her sleeping in.

She smiled ruefully. He could be awfully sweet when he put his mind to it. "I can't, Mulder, I'm sorry. I haven't got the time."

"You've got to eat something."

"Believe me, Mulder, that late dinner was quite sufficient. I'm still full. U.N.C.L.E's expense account must be more generous than ours."

"Comes from being an international organization, I'm sure", Mulder muttered. "So what's your hurry?"

"I had a phone call this morning. Mulder, Mike was attacked. He's in hospital. I've got to see him."

"Your zoologist friend? What happened?"

"Someone broke into his apartment, and he surprised them, was all I gathered. They called me from the hospital - apparently because he asked them to, I had given him my cellphone number in case anything came up. They couldn't give me any details though. I know he's alive, and that at least at one point he was lucid enough to ask somebody to phone me, but that's all I could find out."

"I'm coming with you."

"Mulder, there's no need. Why don't you contact the U.N.C.L.E men, and.."

"I may have a few questions of my own. If your friend is up to it."

Scully sighed. "All right. Just don't harrass him."

Mulder gave her his most innocent look. "Who, me?"

* * * *

They were led down the corridors by the same orderly who had called Scully. She had been expecting them, but she solemnly asked to see their identification before taking them anywhere. Mulder thought she displayed some curiosity over their badges - presumably, this was the first time she had seen FBI badges in real life.

As they walked down the corridor behind the orderly, Mulder said, "I hope you kept the negative, Scully."

She glared at him, understanding immediately what he meant. "Of course I did!" She frowned a little. "It can't very well be anything else, can it? I mean, they must have been after the photo?"

"Either that, or he's associating with the wrong kind of people. How well do you know him?"

"Mike?" She nearly laughed. "He wouldn't.." she broke off, considering. "Hardly at all, these days", she admitted.

The orderly stopped in front of a door and held it open for them. Scully was relieved to see that it was not an IC unit, but a normal hospital room, with five other people in it. Two of them were up, playing chess in a corner by the window. The other three looked up with mild interest as the visitors entered, but soon returned their attention to their books and crossword puzzles.

Mike Barthold was in the bed closest to the door, and he was asleep. Scully's heart skipped a beat. He looked so vulnerable lying there, a few scratches on his face and a black eye which made her suspect a concussion from a blow to the back of his head. Other than that, he seemed fairly unharmed. His hair was raven black against the white pillow, all brown highlights taken out by the contrast. The hair looked impossibly soft, and Scully had to fight an urge to touch it.

The bearded intellectual, Mulder thought derisively. Or possibly the bearded bohemian. Unless he just thinks it makes him look roguish. He quickly decided that he did not trust men with beards. Well, except for Byers of course, and possibly the late X - though who knew how far X could really have been trusted.. The effort at generalising his antipathy did not work. He was too well trained not to know where it came from.

"I don't know if it's advisable to wake him", the orderly said nervously, "but if you are a medical doctor, Agent Scully.." She sounded almost helpless.

Scully gave her a reassuring smile and touched her friend's shoulder in a gentle shake. His eyes opened immediately, and she could see by the different sizes of his pupils that she had been right. He really had a concussion. "Mike?" she said softly, "What happened?" She was about to add do you remember? as it was highly likely that he had temporary amnesia as well, but her FBI training got the better of her medical one, and she stopped short of handing him a chance to avoid her questions, in case he should feel like it.

Mulder noted the softness of her tone, and forced himself to ascribe it her bedside manner.

"Dana?" Barthold said, audibly dry-throated, and Mulder looked away as Scully helped her old friend to a drink of water. Her patient groaned a little as he sank back down on the pillow, and Scully's eyes filled with compassion, as she could well imagine the kind of headache he must have. Mulder for his part was sure the man was faking at least half of it.

"Mike, I'm sorry, but I need to know what happened. Think you can tell me?"

He closed his eyes, remembering. "I had been over to the college photo lab to see if it would be possible to make a copy directly from the picture you gave me. I figured it might be years before I came across anything like this cat, but if I ever did, I'd want a picture for reference. A copy from a print would be grainy, but it's sometimes possible to make one. Turned out, this print could not be copied. Well, it was just an idea. As I got home, I found the door unlocked, and some people rummaging about, looking for something. Four of them, that I could see. So I asked if there was anything I could do to help - you know, icy-like", he added with a self-ironic grin that made Mulder positively hate him, "and that's when someone jumped me from behind. I know, I know, you don't have to tell me, it was stupid of me. For some reason it never occurred to me that they must have thought I was armed. Good thing they didn't shoot me. I'd say your photo saved me, because by then they must have figured out that there was a clear possiblity that I had it on me."

Scully nodded gravely. "Did they find it?"

He tried to nod, but gave up the idea. "At least I didn't have it about me when I woke up. The old lady next door had heard the commotion and come to investigate, the dear old soul. The burglars had left the door open, so she walked right in and found me. She's the one who called the ambulance."

Mulder spoke up. "I know this may sound weird, but is there any chance she could have taken the photo?"

"She never touched me. I woke up as she pressed the doorbell, rather insistently." He grimaced at the memory. "I told her what had happened, and then she called the ambulance. When I thought to check, I didn't have the photo."

"She pressed the doorbell even though the door was open?"

"Something our generation might do well to learn", Barthold said. "It's called manners."

So he had picked up on the faint hostility in Mulder's tone. Mulder had to admit it had been there, and he cursed himself for not quite concealing it. Great, now Scully was giving him a questioning look too. "Tell me, Mr Barthold", he persisted, "Did you recognize the burglars? Any of them?"

"Of course I didn't - sorry, I know you have to ask", Barthold amended generously. "No, the four I saw, I had never laid eyes on before, and the one who jumped me I didn't see at all."

"Can you describe them?" Mulder asked formally, although he knew that the burglars would in all likelihood prove to be a dead end.

"Male, three whites, one black, T-shirts and jeans, sneakers.. just a general impression, the details could be wrong."

"You haven't given me any details", Mulder informed him unkindly.

Scully glared at him. "I think we'd better go now, and let Mike rest." She turned to her friend, and squeezed his hand. "Take it easy now, Mike, and see that you get enough sleep. There isn't much else to do for a concussion, it has to take its time. Just rest." Then, just because she couldn't resist, she brushed his hair out of his face and let her fingers run through its full length, before she stood. It really was soft.. She was rewarded by a look of such delight that she wondered if perhaps she had just made a serious mistake.

She heard the door bang shut behind Mulder, with a little too much emphasis for a hospital environment. She hastened to follow him, taking extra care to thank the orderly on her way out, as she strongly suspected that Mulder had not quite found the time to do so.

* * * *

The two men from U.N.C.L.E were waiting for them at the hotel. "Your rooms have been searched", Napoleon said. "Professional job, they disturbed very little. You'd better check to see if anything's missing."

"The staff claims nobody's been up there since you left", Ilya added. "Not even the cleaning personnel had been there yet, when we arrived and were told to go on up and wait for you. Someone must have paid them well to turn a blind eye - unless they do it habitually."

"No chance it could be a common hotel thief?" Mulder asked without any real hope.

"That rather depends on what is missing, doesn't it?" Napoleon said lightly.

Scully soon verified that the piece of hull was gone, as well as the negative of the picture of Hermione. Nothing else, as far as she could tell. Hardly common burglars then. She sighed, and plopped down on one of the armchairs. "The story of our life", she muttered. "No evidence. They always take it back, don't they?"

"Maybe they just want us to know, not to tell", Mulder said. "But who are 'they' this time? Our usual government-related ring, or Thrush?"

"Could be both", Napoleon ventured. "If your plotting friends put Krycek up to get that piece of hull for you, Thrush could have had wind of it and taken it back."

"Or it could be a personal initiative", Ilya said. "There is some overlapping between Thrush and your opponents, I believe. Someone could be a double agent."

"Krycek?" Scully mused. "You said he works for himself these days. If he just wanted us both to see the piece, but not to leave it with us.. But what about the negative? I find it hard to believe in that kind of coincidence."

"The question is", Napoleon said, "where do we go from here? Do you plan to get your evidence back?"

Mulder bowed his head in thought for a moment. Then, "I don't think so", he said. "It's probably buried so deep inside one of Pentagon's vaults or Thrush's bunkers by now that we'll never find it. We'll have to learn the truth some other way. Find new evidence."

Scully stared at him. "Giving up, Mulder? It isn't like you. We can't let them win, you've said so yourself often enough."

He gave her a long, sad look. "But you see, Scully, I don't think they did win this time. I think Dr Cogan gave them the slip too. And it just occurred to me that if we prove Hermione to be an alien, and we hunt her and Dr Cogan down, we'll most likely be playing right into their hands."

He hesitated for the barest moment, then added, "There's something I haven't told you, Scully. "Before I went back to Dr Cogan's that day, I had a talk with the Smoking Man. Yes, he's the other source I mentioned, the one with the first piece of cryptic advice.. He called me, said he had something to tell me. Well, as usual he told me nothing, just dropped various hints about the UFO companies being a front for something much bigger - that would be Thrush of course - and for the rest of that talk he tried to pump me, to find out what I knew about Dr Cogan and Hermione. He seems to have been involved from the start, from right back when she returned from Guatemala - but I had the impression not even he knows about Hermione. I think he suspects, but he can't be sure, which means he's no closer to the truth than I am."

"Maybe he just wanted to find out how much you knew."

Mulder shook his head. "I don't think so. He seemed genuinely disappointed that I couldn't tell him anything he didn't already know. Scully, I'd give anything for the truth that's mine to give, but I won't hand over Dr Cogan to him. Or Hermione either."

"And if Hermione really is an alien?" Napoleon probed. "Don't you feel you should turn her in for reasons of security?"

"What do you expect - Invasion of the Space Ocelots?" Mulder deadpanned. "Hermione has been living with Dr Cogan for twelve years. So far, there's been no sign of any others like her - unless you know something we don't? No, I didn't think so. I think she's alone. Utterly alone, with only Dr Cogan for company. I think she's stranded here, with no chance of getting back to her own people. If I thought it would help, I'd tell any authorities that might take an interest. But there's no authority that I can trust, none that might not be infiltrated by those whose only interest is in her DNA and any other useful features she might have."

Napoleon slapped his old friend on the shoulder. "Come on, Illya. Seems like once more it's a draw between us and Thrush."

"As between us and the government-connected consortium", Scully said.

Napoleon grinned. "Wouldn't be an interesting game without a few draws, now would it?" He took her hand, and bowed over it but stopped short of actually kissing it. "Goodbye, fair lady. I sincerely hope we meet again sometime" He was rewarded by a radiant smile which cheered him no end. 'I haven't lost it yet', he mused contentedly.

* * * *

When the two U.N.C.L.E agents had left, Scully gave Mulder a worried look. "Mulder, are you really sure about this? Do you really want to drop the case?"

He nodded. "According to the papers, Dr Cogan is presumed dead. No bodies were found, but neither was she. My report will back up the official theory." He stared thoughtfully in front of him, then added, "I hope she found a good hiding-place. She might need it."

"And you don't regret never finding out if you were right about Hermione?"

He smiled a little. "Of course I do. I would have loved to confront your hippie friend with her, if just to see him lose his composure."

Scully's eyebrow climbed dangerously. "Mike is not a hippie, Mulder. Why this sudden resentment anyway? What have you got against him?"

"Probably all that you feel he's got arguing for him. Must be a male thing.." He grinned defensively to deflect all further questions on the topic, and headed quickly for his room.

"If so", said Scully's cool voice behind him, "maybe I should tell you that I'll be going after Krycek next."

Mulder stopped in his tracks. She had been with him too long. She was taunting him back. "Krycek hasn't got a beard", he retorted. "At least he didn't have one last time I saw him."

"I don't care about his looks", Scully said cheerfully. "I want his blood.."

* * * *

Somewhere on the long way to New York, Napoleon had just taken over the wheel. He glanced over at his friend, notably at the shard of unknown material in Ilya's hands. "I was just wondering", he said. "I didn't see you take it, but I assumed you must have. That's why I took such care to find out their reaction."

"This is too big for the FBI", Ilya stated calmly. "It didn't feel right leaving this kind of evidence in their hands - if evidence it is."

"You'll have it analyzed of course?"

"Of course. Though I think I'll do it myself. I want to be sure."

"And then what? If it really is what we think?"

"Same as if it isn't. I'll file it away."

Napoleon nodded, as if he had expected this answer. "And the negative?"

"I'll make a few more prints, then file everything."

Napoleon looked thoughtfully at the road ahead. "It seems almost a pity. They were nice kids, I was sorry to see them so disappointed."

"I though they were quite reasonable about it", Ilya said. "Actually, I tried to tip them off. I can't be sure, but I think Mulder understood. That perhaps he let me have these items."

Napoleon shook his head. "I wouldn't be so sure. Hard to tell though. His concern for Dr Cogan - and Hermione - was genuine."

"A man of strong emotion", Ilya commented, and from his clipped tone it was impossible to tell whether he approved of this trait, despised it - or envied it.

"So are we dropping the case too?" Napoleon asked.

"For now. But we'll be watching Thrush, as usual. Very closely. And if Dr Cogan should ever need protection.."

"Don't you have a retirement coming up?" Napoleon asked innocently.

Ilya grinned his rare, full-toothed grin, and it took years off him. "All the more time to watch, Napoleon.."

* * * *

The grey man climbed up the winding path with remarkably little effort. Despite his smoking habit he had kept himself fit, at least to the extent that he was still able to run for his life, whenever the need arose. Living dangerously had its price, but perhaps its benefits too.

Reaching the little cabin, he looked once around him, to make sure that the woods held no surprises. The pines were silent, noncommittal. He knocked on the door, and waited. He gave himself time to light a cigarette before he repeated the knock.

The door opened to reveal Dr Cogan, as serene as ever, showing no surprise or indeed any other feeling, except that she seemed somehow fascinated by the smoke.

"Good morning, my dear", the smoking man said. "May I came in?"

She seemed not to have heard him, she just kept staring at the smoke. All right, he could take a hint. People were so fastidious about smoking these days.. Usually he would smoke anyway, taking the opportunity to upset and intimidate people. But that was out of the question here, as he was for once less than one hundred percent certain of exactly what he was dealing with, and he did not want to scare her away again.

"Very well", he said, remaining on her doorstep. After all, it was a fine day. "Nice place you got here", he added, with a sweeping gesture of his cigarette, taking in the wild woodland scenery around them. "I rather thought you'd be coming here. Don't worry, I don't think any of the others have guessed. I have, after all, known you the longest."

She did not seem worried at all. She just stood there, waiting. Pale eyes clear and untroubled behind her glasses. Well, he was not about to be fooled this time.

"I'm going to assume that you can understand what I'm saying", he told her. "If you wish to keep pretending otherwise, that's your problem, not mine. I came to make you an offer." He waited for this to sink in. There was no sign that it did. "You see", he continued, "I was feeling sorry for your - companion. It can't be easy for her here, all alone?" He watched her intently for a reaction but found none. "She can't get back, can she?" he added, and the question fell at the end, as if this were already a known fact. "To her own people, I mean. Wouldn't she want to?" He dropped the cigarette, and for once he actually put it out, as if out of unconscious concern for the possibly flammable environment. "You see, I think it could be arranged. For a price of course, but we can discuss that later."

The mute woman did not stir. A faint wind in her hair was all that moved about her. He wondered if she had even heard him. But she must have. He could not be so wrong, not about this. "The technology exists", he said. "It didn't back then, but it does now. Prototypes as yet, but they can get her out to where she can be picked up by her own kind. It wasn't possible before. If it had been.." he broke off. Better not overdo it. "Would you deny her this chance?"

Still no answer, just a slow, benign smile that seemed unconnected to anything he had said.

He brought out a notebook and tore out a page, wrote a number on it. "If she's interested, call me at this number. I'm sure you can", he added maliciously, as he pressed the note into her hand and folded her fingers over it. Then he turned abruptly, and started back down the path.

* * * *

Dr Cogan was standing at her drawing-room window as she heard the cat-flap in the kitchen. She sensed more than heard Hermione come in, as the ocelot never made much sound. The big cat jumped up beside her to sit between the potted plants in the window.

<What did he want?> said the oddly feral voice Dr Cogan so often heard in her head.

He wants to send you back, he says, she thought back, and as usual, Hermione seemed to pick it up. He says they've got the ships now, to get you far enough out for your people to pick you up.

<He knows nothing,> said the voice disdainfully. <He's just probing. My people wouldn't be looking for me. I was on my own.>

I know, Dr Cogan thought. Investigating the virus. Did you ever find out who planted it? She concentrated, but there was no answer. Maybe because she herself didn't know it, she thought absently, then wondered where that thought had come from. Hermione never answered any real questions. It was all small talk with her. Wonder if all our cats are telepathic too, Dr Cogan thought. Only we never thought to check. Not even I thought to check. What if it's a universal feline trait? Maybe we wouldn't find their thoughts very interesting though.. If she had hoped to needle Hermione with that one, she got no results. Back in the house she could hear the big wall clock ticking. The ocelot began washing a paw.

<I don't trust him,> came the voice again, when the paw was duly washed.

Dr Cogan nodded. An echo of her own feelings. Good, that settled that.

<I hope you didn't take him up on his offer. He's only trying to trick us.>

Don't worry. I won't accept if you'd rather not. But are you sure? Don't you want to get back to your people?

<I can wait.>

Dr Cogan felt the headache coming on. The one she usually had after talking with Hermione. Perhaps they were not very compatible. She quickly excused herself and went to lie down. To rest from the voice in her head.

Hermione remained in the window, watching the path. There were woodland pigeons on it today. She enjoyed studying birds. Especially the ones with some size to them.



* * * The End * * *

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