torch, May 1997

Disclaimer: No, I don't know what I'm doing. But I needed a break from the angst. :-) Do not archive this story without permission.

The picture of innocence

He walked into the dim room like a nervous supplicant walking into a temple, hoping for a miracle but not really expecting to get it. He'd just been downloading his mail when disaster had struck, and he'd barely had time to leave his problem in the hands of the right people before going to work. Then he'd sat around turning his case reports into dadaistic poems until Scully had started to drop sunflower seeds inside his collar.

Now he was back, and the guys were fussing with their computers as usual. Frohike patted his arm. "This is really interesting. Sit down, have a beer."

He didn't think he was capable of relaxing enough to even open a can. "What have you got?"

"Miller's, Heineken—"

"On the crashed disk."

"Oh." Frohike handed him a beer anyway, and Mulder accepted it.

"Thanks." He threw a nervous look at Langly, who'd appeared out of nowhere and was watching him across the table.

Byers tore his attention away from the screen and fixed him with a serious look. "The data is very fragmented, but using a program we modified last week we managed to extract some of the files and piece them together roughly."

"Did you look at them?"

"Well. Yes."

"We were surprised." That was Langly.

"Very surprised." Byers loosened his tie a fraction.

"That gold lamé g-string looked good on you, though," Frohike added thoughtfully.

Mulder felt himself blush. "I was undercover."

"Only barely." Was that a suggestion of a leer on Byers's face?

"Don't worry about it." It was strange how reassuring Frohike could sound for someone who spent his life telling others not to trust anyone.

"We won't tell anyone." Langly's eyes were wonderfully earnest behind the glasses.

"Thanks, guys." Without thinking, he'd opened his beer can, which was good because he definitely needed a drink right now.

"Wouldn't dream of it." Byers loosened his tie a little more.

Frohike cleared his throat. "We had no idea you were into... games."

"Oh. Er. Those pictures were on there, too?" Something told him he wasn't really pulling off the surprised look he'd hoped for.

"Parts of them." Langly sounded unaccountably smug. "We were able to reconstruct most of the images."

Frohike nodded. "Was that Alex Krycek in the handcuffs?"

Mulder felt his ears burn. "Look, guys, that was a long time ago—"

"Looked like you had some nice wrist action there."

"Too bad it wasn't video," Frohike agreed.

"Actually," Byers put his own beer can aside, "I did make an animated gif. Look here."

Mulder looked, and wished he hadn't. He'd forgotten about the cat o' nine tails. Tried to forget. Getting his sex life captured by the camera had been the second most stupid thing he'd ever done. First place, he was starting to realize, was reserved for asking the Lone Gunmen to retrieve his files once the hard drive had crashed.

"I can't stay long," he said weakly. "If you could just give me what you've managed to retrieve so far?"

"We need to put in a lot more work on this," Langly said.

"A lot more."

"You could stay and help." Oh God, they were coming closer. And Byers had taken his tie off.

"No, no, really, guys, I have to go, Scully's waiting for me—" He took a step backwards and bumped into Langly, when had the man come up behind him? "Really."

Frohike had taken hold of his arm again. "But Mulder, it would all go a lot better if you stayed here."

"And helped us."

"Yeah, we could really use a helping hand—"

* * *

He sat bolt upright and sucked in several deep breaths before reality returned. Couch. Living room. Apartment. Home. Weird dream. Jeez, where did that come from. Mulder shook his head and sat up, then stood a little shakily. It was morning, he might as well get going. He turned the computer on as he went past and headed for the kitchen to make coffee.

When he came back he held the mug in one hand and typed with the other, logging in. There wasn't much mail to download, and he sipped his coffee as he watched it — watched it — watched it—

Damn. Well, that didn't necessarily mean that, that, his fingers flew over the keys, that... Error messages flashed across the screen. Mulder put his coffee mug down and buried his face in his hands.

The damn thing had crashed.

He was never going to see those pictures again.

* * *

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