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Chapter Two: Variation on a Theme

Scully hated planes. The ambient engine noise made both conversation and sleep difficult, the food was lousy, and the in-flight "entertainment," if one could even use the word to describe it, was inane and full of commercials. Trans- Atlantic flights were even worse than regular flights; longer, more disorienting, and nothing to see below besides a grey-blue expanse of ocean, or nothing at all, once the sun went down. The only viable option was reading, but even Scully had a saturation point beyond which she could read no more. She had optimistically brought several technical references to read, but had quickly abandoned them for her well- thumbed copy of Pride and Prejudice. Mulder had fallen asleep half an hour after takeoff. He'd missed breakfast (bland melon, a tiny container of yogurt, and an egg/sausage/biscuit combination that Scully couldn't bring herself to touch) and was periodically twitching in his sleep.

After the flight attendants cleared away the remains of her breakfast, Scully decided to look through Mulder's impromptu dossier on their contact at the Brisbin Institute. Lumbar region popping in protest, Scully began rifling through her bag, which had been "conveniently stowed beneath the seat in front of her, when Mulder suddenly convulsed himself awake. He stretched as far as the cramped seat would allow and yawned.

"Welcome back to the land of the living." Scully was beginning to regret not using the overhead bin, even if she would have had to ask Mulder to reach it for her.

"Are we crashing? Did I miss the announcement about putting our heads between our knees?"

"Har har." Scully managed to yank the folder from her bag. After kicking her bag back under her seat (perhaps a little too forcefully, as the small child in the seat in front of her began crying), she began flipping through the documents inside. Mulder looked over her shoulder.

"A few smart cookies, eh Scully?"

"That's putting it lightly. Nobel laureates in nearly every discipline, the profits from patented organic compounds alone last year could feed the world several times over, and company gives out more grass-roots arts funding than the U.S. government, though nowadays that's not saying a great deal. I have the sneaking suspicion they're huggy types, too."

Mulder made a face. "Huggy research scientists? Wouldn't their pocket protectors get locked together?"

"If you had to wear a white coat all the time, you'd wear one, too!"

"You'll see me in stiletto heels before you see me wear a pocket protector."

Scully smiled at the mental picture, then returned to the dossier. "Mulder, you've forgotten something."

"I think I know what you're talking about, and no, I didn't forget."

"But you've only listed a few financial backers. Surely they receive more money than this per annum, unless 'anonymous donors' make up over 40% of their take."

"Aah, this is where it get interesting."

"Pray, continue."

"There was a probe a few years back because the government noticed a discrepancy between the amount one company claimed to have given and the amount the Institute says it was given."

"So the company tried to write off more than it actually gave. How is that interesting?"

"But the company wrote off LESS than the Institute said it paid."

"So our friends at the Brisbin Institute may have been padding corporate donations to cover up some shadowy donor or donors."

"Plus, there was no incentive for the corporate donors to say anything about the discrepancy; they got a better tax break. It'd been going on for years. It would still be going on if the whistle-blower had remained silent. And to top it all off, the fiscal year after the probe, which turned up nothing by the way, the Institute began claiming the huge anonymous donations that you see here."

"Mulder, may I ask why you chose to exclude this particular tidbit from the dossier?"

"Because it's extremely unofficial."

She let out an exasperated sigh. "The Gunmen?"

"Yes." Scully made a move to speak, but Mulder held up an admonishing finger. "I know their theories and information aren't always reliable, but it makes perfect sense. The Brisbin Institute has more money than God, and they're receiving dirty money. Well, not dirty per se, but less than lily- white. They cover it up neatly, but when that falls apart, they bribe the necessary people to stop asking questions and cover it up in a suspicious, but legal way." Mulder raised an eyebrow at Scully. "So the remaining question is, whose money is too dirty to claim outright?"

"It's probably just a perceived conflict of interest. I doubt the Brisbin Institute is training an army to take over the world."

"What about doing research with supplied money and equipment to aid an extraterrestrial race?"

"For crying out loud, Mulder, not everything is about aliens! Besides, if the consortium had anything to do with this, do you think they'd let us within a 100 mile radius of it?"

"That, Scully, is the $64,000 question."

Scully paused. "I'll admit, I find it very odd that Skinner volunteered us for high-paying consulting work."

Mulder grinned. "That's my girl. What else strikes you as odd?"

"The fact that you haven't suggested an alien abduction yet."

"All in good time, Scully. All in good time." Mulder yawned again. "Now that I've planted the seeds of suspicion in your mind, I think I'll get some more shut-eye. There's nothing I hate more than being jetlagged when I need to think clearly." He crumpled his suit jacket under his neck and lay back.

"Don't snore too loudly. I wouldn't be able to read, and reading is the only thing that's keeping me on this side of sanity."

"Well, if I snore I might drown out the noisy kid in front of you."

"When it rains..."

"...do as the Romans do. G'nite Scully. Or is that g'day?"

"Sweet dreams." Scully managed to focus on the dossier for another fifteen minutes, but then Mulder began snoring. At the end of her rope, Scully grabbed her book and stalked to the bathroom at the back of the aircraft. She opened the door, only to find an elderly gentleman leaning against the sink and reading an enormous book of considerable age. He jerked up at her interruption.

"I beg your pardon, if you need to make use of the lavatory, I will take my reading back to my seat."

"Great minds think alike," Scully remarked, holding up her own book.

His light blue eyes twinkled merrily at her from beneath snowy brows. "I take it you were also seated near the snorer? Or perhaps the distressed babe?"

"Equidistant from both, actually."

"Oh dear. Well, I noticed that there are four lavatories on this craft and that a majority of passengers are currently visiting the Land of Nod. I would consider it an honor if you would join me in my bathroom, but circumstances being what they are, my feelings would not be slighted if you decided to occupy the adjacent W.C."

Scully smiled. "Thank you for your generous offer, but I think I'll take the one across the aisle." She glanced at the spine of the book he was reading, though it was partially obscured by his hand. "Enjoy your 1001 herbs and fungi. I'm not familiar with Spore's writings, but I daresay the book considerably predates my assigned class reading." She turned to leave but he put out a hand to stop her. He was beaming.

"Herbs and fungi, you say? My dear, why didn't you tell me you weren't a Muggle?"

She regarded him warily. "Is that a phrase mycologists use to describe non- mycologists?"

The man threw back his head and laughed heartily. "Wonderful! But seriously my dear, what herbs and fungi text did you use in school if not Spore? It's required reading for all of my students."

"I don't recall, I didn't study plants and fungi as much as I did the human body."

"Aah, so I have a learned healer in my midst."

"'Learned,' is questionable, and I'm not exactly a healer. I have a degree in medicine, but I work in law enforcement. My partner has managed to talk me into doing some consulting, though it's not really my cup of tea."

"I prefer consulting to politics. It allows me to keep my hand in more things."

Scully grimaced. "Politics is one line of work that never interested me in the slightest."

The man smiled, the blue practically disappearing in the network of lines that surrounded his eyes. "I understand you perfectly. There aren't enough galleons in Gringotts to tempt me to the post of Minister of Magic. Meddling behind the scenes is much more interesting."

Scully couldn't have heard that right. "Excuse me?"

The man smiled, "I said, 'Meddling behind the scenes is much more interesting.'" Comprehension dawned. "Oh you Americans! Chairman of Magical Activity. President du Sorciere. El Jefe de Magico..."

"I beg your pardon, but I really don't know what you're talking about." The man seemed lucid, but undoubtedly delusional.

He regarded her with a shrewd look and put his hand in his pocket. "Does the word 'obliviate' mean anything to you?"

"Besides the obvious Latin root, no. Why do you ask?"

Before she could react, the man drew what looked like a baton from his pocket and pointed it at her forehead. "Obliviate," he murmured under his breath.

Scully's eyes glazed over for a moment, then returned to normal. She shook her head. "I beg your pardon, what did you just say?"

"I said, that the adjacent bathroom seems to be unoccupied." He held his book against his chest protectively.

She smiled. "Thank you, Mr...?"

"White. You're welcome, Ms...?"

"Scully. Enjoy your book, Mr. White. I'll be across the way if someone kicks you out of your bathroom and you need a place to read."

"The lady is too kind. Goodbye for the present, Ms. Scully."

She smiled and closed the door. His smile rapidly faded as he probed the cover of the book with his wand. The Muggle shielding charm was undoubtedly in place. To her, his book should have looked like Olsen's Standard Book of British Birds. But if she wasn't a witch and she wasn't a muggle... He shook his head sadly. The United States's so-called Board of Sorcerers seemed tragically incompetent to have allowed anyone with magical talent to be completely unaware. It never could have happened in Great Britain. Still, it was not his place to interfere. He made a mental note to inform the Ministry of her presence, lest some accidental magic throw the ministry into panic over an undeclared witch.

Alone in her bathroom, Dana tried to read, but she couldn't concentrate. Something was tickling the back of her mind, something she'd forgotten. It was even more distracting than Mulder's snoring. Exasperated, she returned to her seat. Fortunately, Mulder had gone back to silently twitching, and the child in front of her was no longer shrieking. Scully reclined her seat, lay her head back and fell into a fitful sleep.

<*> <*> <*> <*> <*> <*> <*>

An indeterminable amount of time later, Scully was rudely awakened by the drink cart crashing into her elbow. She yelped in pain and surprise. Mulder, who had been conversing with the person seated behind him though the crack between his seat and the window, winced sympathetically.

"Ooh, I hate it when that happens!" He reached for her injured elbow, but she yanked it out of his reach.

"Don't!" Her voice was strained. "I'll be fine." She experimentally flexed her arm and sighed. "I'll have a pretty bruise, but no permanent damage done, I think."

Mulder knew better than to coddle her when she was like this, but couldn't resist offering, "I'll go get some ice from the flight attendant."

To his surprise, Scully capitulated gratefully. "Thanks. I wouldn't trust myself not to do irreparable harm to whomever was behind that horrible cart. While you're there, can you get me some water?"

"Sure. You just slept through the last drink go-round before we land."

Scully rubbed some of the grit out of her eyes. "What time is it?"

Mulder somehow managed to step over her into the aisle. "I have no idea. My watch went on the fritz sometime during the flight. I do know that the pilot gave us the one-hour warning already, so we've probably got forty minutes to go. We don't have to be at the Institute until tomorrow afternoon."

"Thank heaven for small mercies," she murmured, as he took off after the drink cart.

<*> <*> <*> <*> <*> <*> <*>

When they finally exited the plane at Heathrow, Scully had never been less happy to see the sun... well perhaps the morning after her college roommate's bachelorette party, but not for a goodly while. The merry sunshine poured through the windows and made Scully feel even more dehydrated and tired than she did on the plane. She would have happily traded her soul for a pair of shorts and some comfortable shoes. While she waited for Mulder to finish in the restroom, she noticed Mr. White being greeted by a severe- looking gentleman who was ostentatiously dressed in black. "Ah," she thought absently. "I'm not quite the least appropriately dressed person here. If he's Mr. White, perhaps his friend is Mr. Black."

Though she couldn't be sure through her bleary eyes, she could have sworn that Mr. White was surreptitiously pointing her out to Mr. Black. She felt a hand on her arm and turned to find Mulder smiling at her.

"The guy with the beard was sitting behind me. A most entertaining conversationalist. He told me an excellent joke about a doctor, a cop and a lawyer who are all on a deserted island..." he stopped when he saw the look Scully was giving him.

"Mulder, I just want to get to take a shower and go to bed. Can we get out of this blasted airport, please?"

"Why Scully, I haven't had such a straightforward offer since I was at Oxford! Perhaps it's something in the air..." He breathed in lasciviously through his nose.

Laughing in spite of herself, she batted his leg with her handbag. "Watch yourself, you could end up carrying all the luggage." She held up her bruised elbow pathetically. "Especially with me being the first casualty of this endeavor."

Mulder grimaced unconvincingly. "To the baggage claim, then?"

"Indeed." Scully turned to wave goodbye to Mr. White, but he and his friend we gone.

It didn't occur to her until she was on the verge of sleep between starched hotel sheets that she didn't see Mr. White or Mr. Black at the baggage claim either. But Scully was much too tired to care at that point.


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