He was back home. It looked different now. It was dark, musty and a haven for cobwebs. The furniture wore dingy white sheets and tents of heavy, clear plastic. He stood in the living room, poignantly fingering the family pictures on the mantelpiece. A blue, glowing light slowly began to brighten the room. Mulder turned his head and stood stupefied as a small figure emerged from a gently swirling vortex and walked towards him. She was wearing the same pink overalls and flowered shirt that she had been the last time he saw her, and her long pigtails still framed her round, freckled face.
"I think I came to the wrong place," she spoke as she glanced about at her surroundings. "But it looks sort of the same." Then she faced Mulder. "I'm looking for my brother. His name is Fox Mulder. Do you know him?"
Mulder dropped to one knee and viewed his little sister from a lower level. "It's me, Samantha. I'm Fox."
She took a step back and shook her head adamantly. "No, you can't be. Fox is just a little boy. He's bigger than me but he's still little."
"I was little, a long time ago when you first went away. I grew up."
"You couldn't have grown up," she protested. "I haven't been gone that long. I told my new dad that I wanted you to come stay with us. I cried and cried so much that he finally said okay." She was close to tears now. "Why did you have to go and grow up, Fox?"
"I'm sorry, Sam. I had no choice. But you can come stay with me now. I'll take care of you."
"Where's Mom and Dad?"
Mulder couldn't find the courage to tell her that their father had been murdered by persons unknown and that their mother -- suffering from a massive stroke -- was no more than a human vegetable in a nursing home. Apparently, his expression and his silence had given her a bit of a clue.
"Something bad happen to them?" she asked, to which her big brother only nodded. "My other dad's real nice, Fox. My mom is too. I even like my other brother. He's a lot like you used to be, only... I know he's not you."
Mulder timidly reached out and took her hand in his. "Will you stay?" he asked, biting back the tears with a forced smile. "I need you so much."
"I want to, but I don't think they'll let me."
"If you want to stay, I promise I won't let them take you from me again."
She smiled for the first time and threw her arms about his neck. He squeezed her tight, sighing deeply at the recovery of this most sought after treasure. That peaceful moment of bliss, however, was shattered by the loud, roaring sounds of the vortex as it suddenly came to life. It doubled in size and created a huge vacuum to which items were being sucked in left and right. Samantha screamed as her legs flew up into the air, her arms still clinging about her brother's neck. Mulder held her tightly with one arm while his other reached out for something to anchor himself. He managed to grab the leg of the sofa as the sheets and plastic from the furniture flapped madly in the air suction of the vortex and eventually flew into it.
Mulder felt his grip slipping on his sister. He squeezed his eyes shut, hoping to summon up enough strength to hold on. But with each second, he could feel her inching away until he held her only by her tiny hand. "Please, God," he prayed, "don't let me lose her again. Please!"
Quinn stirred awake at the sound of the muffled plea. He sat up and looked over at Mulder whose left hand was extended upward, reaching out for some invisible goal. "Samantha! No-o-o!" he cried out. Not sure how to wake the sleeping agent or even if he should, Quinn placed his hand in Mulder's opened palm. Long, slender fingers grasped him tightly. The desperation in their search for contact calmed.
Mulder suddenly bolted upright in bed, his breathing heavy and his heart racing, his eyes open but unseeing. The identity of the hand he held clutched to his chest was still unnoticed. Quinn placed a gentle touch at his back.
"Mulder, are you okay?"
"Fine, Scully," was the murmured reply. After the moment it took to orient himself, Mulder recognized that the less than petite hand he held did not belong to either his sister, nor to Scully. He let go of it and turned his back to Quinn, placing his feet on the floor.
"You were having a nightmare," said Quinn.
"Yeah, I know. I was there."
"It was about your sister, wasn't it?"
"Look, I'm sorry I disturbed you. Why don't you just go back to sleep. I won't bother you anymore."
Mulder got up, grabbed his trousers from a nearby chair, quickly slipped them on and walked silently into the kitchen. He drank a glass of water and afterwards was prepared to sit in the darkness all alone for the rest of the night. The small light over the kitchen stove came on. Mulder was slow in reacting to Quinn's presence.
"I'm sorry I woke you up," he apologized meekly.
"It's okay. Mind if I join you for a little while?"
"I'm afraid I'm not very good company right now."
Quinn filled a glass with water and sat at the kitchen table across from Mulder. "I've had some rough nights like that myself," he said after a couple of sips from his glass. "It was after my dad died. I was eleven. I still get them from time to time, usually around Christmas and Father's Day. I guess it's easier for me. At least I have what they call... closure. I know exactly what happened to him, I know where he rests. Only problem now is, I just can't get back to him. Or my mom. I really miss her. I see versions of her from time to time, and that helps, but it's not the same."
There was silence for several moments as each of the young men sat reflecting inwardly. "I dreamt she came back to me," said Mulder. "She was still this little girl and she had come back looking to take me with her. Only I was all grown up now and she didn't understand how I could have grown up when she had been gone for only a short time. But she agreed to stay with me anyway, and I promised her I wouldn't let them take her away again. But the vortex started to pull her in and I couldn't hold on." He shook his head mournfully. "Why did I have to be so pig-headed? Why did I insist on trying to keep her here with me? It would have been so simple to just follow her back to her world."
"It was just a dream," Quinn pointed out.
Mulder grunted. "Yeah. Just a dream."
Quinn sat studying the heartbroken man across from him and came to an important conclusion.
"You know. There's a funny thing about sliding. In the beginning, our slides always took us to the same city and the same year. Then one time we landed in San Francisco but it was a whole different era. It was when I was a kid. I met myself at a time I was going through a rough period. My father had just died, and I felt I had no one to turn to. So I was able to go to myself as an adult and help me through the bad times.
"We thought it was some sort of weird magnetic curve that caused the time difference. But Wade suggested that maybe it was some sort of emotional curve caused by the need to make things better. We thought that was why we ended up here in Georgia instead of our normal San Francisco. We thought that Rembrant's uncle needed our help for some reason. But I don't think that anymore. I think the real reason we're here, is because you need our help."
Mulder perked up at that last statement, but remained silent.
"When you stop to think about it," Quinn continued, "it's the only thing that really makes sense. So, if you're still interested, you're more than welcome to come with us."
Teardrops he hadn't realized he'd been holding at bay, escaped Mulder's eyes and trickled down his cheeks. Quinn reached out and patted his arm compassionately.
"Don't stay up too late, Mulder. I guarantee, you're going to need the rest."
Oct. 18 8:42 a.m.
When Scully came downstairs in the morning, she couldn't find Mulder anywhere inside the house. She looked out the front window and sighed heavily when she saw him sitting casually on the car hood, his back to the house and his eyes cast upwards to the yellow and red leaves of the tall oak above him. She went outside and approached him cautiously, trying to keep the fallen leaves from crunching beneath her feet but having little success.
"Don't you know you can't sneak up on a person in the middle of fall in the middle of Butts County, Scully?" said Mulder without turning around.
"How did you know it was me?"
"How could I not know? Is breakfast ready yet?"
"No, I don't think so," Scully replied as she came to stand next to her partner.
"We're having grits. Have you ever eaten grits before, Scully?"
"No, I can't say I have."
"There's nothing like 'em. Of course, you have to cook them just right. If you use too much water, they become runny, and if you use too little water, they become stiff and clumpy. You want them just the right consistency so they're thick enough to cling to the spoon but still smooth enough to pour into a bowl. Then you add just the right amount of salt and butter, and serve with bacon, scrambled eggs with cheese and a hot, buttered biscuit with gravy. And you have to make sure you eat 'em while they're still hot because when grits begin to cool, they quickly develop a skin over them."
Scully grimaced mildly. "I'm glad you told me. So, I take it, you've eaten quite a few grits in your time?"
"No, actually, I've never even seen any up close. I'm just going by what Mr. Brown told me when I said good-morning to him."
Mulder reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a small envelope which he held out to his partner. "Scully, I'd like to give you something."
"What is it?" she asked before accepting it.
"It's the key to my safety deposit box, the password to my savings account and a few hastily written instructions on what to do with them."
"What do I do with them?" she asked, grasping the envelope in her hand.
"Well, I don't have time to make any formal arrangements. I need for you to do a couple of favors for me. There's a special fund set aside for my mother's care. I'd like for you to maybe check on her from time to time to make sure she's being looked after properly. Also, I need you to see that the payments are made on my apartment. If I haven't returned in a couple of months, then I'd like for you to put my things in storage and let the apartment go. I mean... I know it's a lot to ask at the last minute, but I'd really appreciate if you'd do it for me. "
Scully shook her head, frowning upon Mulder's futile preparations. "Mulder, this is completely unnecessary."
"Look, I know you don't believe, but please, indulge me a little longer."
She blew out a hopeless sigh, then gave in to his request. "All right. So how long should the storage last? Until you run out of money?"
"No. No that wouldn't be wise, would it?"
"Then how long? One year, two, three --"
"Three," Mulder cut her off. "I'm sure three will be more than enough."
"Right. Well, I guess that's everything then," Scully stated in a mocking tone. "Your mother, your apartment, your money... looks like you've thought of everything. Oh wait! You forgot something. What about your job, Mulder? What do you want me to tell Assistant Director Skinner? That you've quit; that you're taking a leave of absence; that you fell down a large rabbit hole --"
"I don't believe you're taking this very seriously."
"Did you honestly expect me to?"
"I expected you to be my friend. Up until now, that always meant that you at least respected my beliefs even if you didn't agree with them."
She felt suddenly ashamed for slighting him. "I'm sorry," she apologized whole-heartedly. "I just think you're getting a little too carried away with all this."
"Scully, I know it's hard for you to accept it, but these people are for real. They're planning on leaving in an hour, but they haven't made any arrangements for transportation. They don't have cab fare or bus fare. They haven't asked Mr. Brown or myself if they could catch a ride someplace. If they were the ones that disappeared from this world a few months ago, they haven't bothered to call home to let anyone know they're alive and well. I checked the phone records a little while ago. I've managed to catch each of them alone at one point and do my own interrogation. Their stories all match. Why would they lie about being Sliders? What purpose would it serve?"
"To confuse you. Mulder, people have used your beliefs against you before. You have enemies, and they would like nothing better than to see you destroyed, either all at once or a bit at a time. And I'm not sure I can handle having to pick up the pieces when this all comes crashing down on you."
"In an hour, there won't be any pieces left for you to be picking up. And even if I am still standing in this universe an hour from now, then I'll handle it. You won't have to." He held his hand out, willing to take back the envelope he had given her and relieve her of any further responsibilities.
She started to give it to him, then changed her mind. She had to admit to herself that though her mind was dead set against the possibility that Mulder or his new friends would be sliding within the hour, there was that section of her heart that actually wanted him to go off and realize his lifelong dream.
"Why don't I just hold on to this for awhile," she said, offering no reason why she should. Her eyes held him with compassion, and that's all the explanation he needed.
"Thank you," he whispered.
They held their gaze until the shrill chirping of Mulder's phone broke the spell. He reached into his pocket and pulled it out. "Hello, Mulder here," he responded into the mouthpiece. "Oh, hi, Daphne." Scully rolled her eyes and turned away from him. "Yes, I slept very well, thank you.... Yes, as a matter of fact, we did find them. Thanks a lot for your help.... Yeah...? Are they still there?" Mulder asked in a suddenly serious tone. Scully looked at him with concern. "Yes, Daphne, you did very good. Thank you."
"What is it?" Scully asked as soon as he hung up.
He slid off the car's fender and shoved the phone back into his pocket as he spoke. "Well, you might not believe in the Sliders, but apparently, someone else does. Daphne says that three men just left the diner. They were asking about our friends inside. She says they all look like death warmed over."
"The infamous Black Squad?"
Mulder nodded. "She said she didn't tell them anything, but that one of them went over to check out the pay phone."
"Mulder, if they run a trace, it won't take long for them to figure out where we are. We've got to get them out of here."
Mulder and Scully rushed back into the house and quickly, but quietly explained the situation they were all facing. Quinn voiced his concerns about their host who was clanking about in the kitchen out of earshot.
"What about Cleatus? Do you think he should come with us?"
"I think he'll be okay. As long as they believe he doesn't know anything."
"But with us taking off so suddenly," said Wade, "they'll suspect we knew they were coming, won't they? And if we knew, then they'll figure he has to know something."
Mulder gave the problem a little thought. "I've got an idea. I'll talk to Cleatus. Scully, go ahead and get them to the car."
As Scully carried out his orders Mulder approached Cleatus in the kitchen.
"I know y'all said y'all didn't want no breakfast, but I knew as soon as you smelled this bacon frying up --"
"Mr. Brown, I'm afraid we can't stay for breakfast," Mulder apologized sincerely. "We really do have to be going. My partner and I have a plane to catch. And we told Rembrant and the others that we'd drop them off at the bus station on our way."
"Oh, they need to go to the bus station? I'll drive 'em."
"Really, that won't be necessary. Rembrant left some important papers in a bus station locker that I need to pick up anyway. So it's best that we just all go together now."
"Well, all right then. Let me just turn this off." Cleatus turned off the stove and set his cooking aside so that he could go say a proper farewell to his house guests.
The good-byes were short but nonetheless heartfelt. Wade gave Cleatus a kiss on the cheek, and he received a warm bear hug from Rembrant. The travelers piled into the car, with Wade seated between Rembrant and Arturo in the back and Scully squeezed between Mulder and Quinn in the front. They waved good-bye to their generous host and drove off posthaste.
"So what did you tell Mr. Brown?" asked Scully when they had gone about a mile down the road.
"I told him that you and I have a plane to catch but that we had to drop our friends off at the bus station first. So when he's asked why we left so suddenly, he'll have something that'll stand up."
"So where are we headed now?"
"You don't think they'll have someone waiting for us there?"
"At the Atlanta airport, yes. But there's one a little further south in Macon. By the time we can get down there, it should be close to sliding time."
"Damn!" Quinn cursed under his breath, just loud enough to be heard by sharp ears.
"Quinn, what is it?" Scully asked.
Quinn shook his head regretfully. "Guys we're going to have to go back."
"I don't think so," said Mulder.
"If you ever want to realize the joys of sliding, we have to go back."
"Mr. Mallory," Arturo's voice boomed, "you didn't!"
"We were in such a rush to get out of there...."
"You remember exactly where you left it?" Mulder asked.
"No. I just know I don't have it on me now. Unless one of you guys picked it up."
"Not me," Wade sighed.
"Sorry, Cueball," said Rembrant.
Mulder slowed the car and prepared to turn around. "We just have to hope that the Black Squad doesn't get there before we do. Scully, why don't you call ahead. Maybe Mr. Brown can locate it for us and have it waiting when we get there."
Scully couldn't believe that they were actually turning around and going back for that supposed miracle gadget. She wanted to slap some sense into her partner, but she knew he wouldn't be satisfied until he saw this farce all the way through. She reluctantly dug out her cell phone and placed the call. She waited through several rings before Cleatus finally answered with a subdued, "Hello?"
"Hello, Mr. Brown, this is Dana Scully."
"Oh, it's you," Cleatus responded in an uncharacteristic gruff voice. "What do you want?" he asked, sounding nothing like the cheerful, hospitable man they had just said good-bye to barely ten minutes ago.
A warning bell went off in Scully's head and she chose a cautious route. "I'm sorry to disturb you, but I believe I may have left my fountain pen on your coffee table. It's black and gold with my initials on it."
"Yeah, it's here," came the unexpected response. After a brief pause, he added, "Are you coming back here for it?"
"Could you hold on just a second, please?" She muted the phone, then spoke to Mulder who was already curious about her conversation. "Something's not right. Mr. Brown asked if I was coming back to pick up my imaginary fountain pen he just found."
"Shit!" Mulder hissed. "Tell him we won't have time."
Scully spoke into the receiver again. "I just talked to Mulder and he says we won't have time to turn around and come back. Would you mind very much mailing it to me? I'll call you back with an address later. Gotta run now. Bye."
"What's going on?" Wade was the first to ask the question on everyone else's mind.
"We think that the people who are after you are already at Mr. Brown's house," Mulder answered. "They were probably telling him what to say over the phone."
"You don't think they'd hurt him, do you?" asked Rembrant.
"There's no reason they should," said Scully. "Sounded like he was cooperating with them." She looked to her partner. "Now what?"
Mulder responded by stopping the car and backing it into a nearly invisible dirt road, shielded by kudzu-covered trees on both sides. It was either somebody's half-mile long driveway, or the local highway patrol speed trap hideout. At any rate, it made a good hiding place and they could still see passing traffic. Mulder parked and turned off the engine.
"Are we just going to sit here?" asked Arturo.
"For now," said Mulder. "Give them a little time to try and catch up with us. Hopefully, Scully's performance convinced them that we weren't coming back. Then when they reach the expressway, they'll head north to the bus station and airport while we go south. In the meantime, does anyone know any good "Knock Knock" jokes?"
Arturo grunted. "I'm afraid there's no such thing."
A few minutes later, a large, black sedan zoomed by at least thirty miles over the speed limit. "Did that happen to resemble a bat out of hell?" said Mulder dryly.
"Where's the highway patrol when you need them?" said Scully.
Mulder started the car. "Okay, gang. Here we go again."