Title: Doppler Effect

Author: N. Y. Smith

Date: August 4, 1999

Spoilers: Through season 5 and FTF

Rating: PG-13

Notes: This is a sequel to Gothic. The setting and characterizations may seem bizarre if you haven't read it.



Many, many thanks to all of you who pestered, cajoled, and encouraged me into finishing this story. I nearly gave up on it several times, but I appreciate all of you--especially the ones who kindly pointed out the "plotholes"!



Special thanks to my faithful ed, Shannara. I'll learn to fix line length yet! <g>



Special thanks, also, to my family--they hate it when I write (just because I walk around like a zombie, mumbling about fires and aliens and murders). They'll be happy to have a decent meal again.



Anyway, thanks to all for your interest and support. It's been fun.



Archiving: Just let me know . . .

Category: MSR,AU,Sk/Other,A





Doppler Effect



Table of Contents

Chapter 1 Lability

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 1 Lability



The elevator car lurched clumsily, disturbing both of its occupants. The shorter occupant immediately reached for her companion who steadied himself against the back wall. An electronic voice announced the floor number before the polished steel doors parted. She pressed the "Door Open" button while he made his way into the hallway, his progress punctuated by a sadly familiar snick-swing-snick-swing. She walked by his side avoiding, as he did, contacting the eyes of those who stopped and stared. And whispered. Which was followed by the inevitable expression of pity, which he despised most. He had gone from "Spooky" to "poor Spooky" and he hated it. Hated them. Hated these crutches. Hated himself.

Thankfully, Skinner's office was near the elevator and they were able to duck inside before some kind soul made the mistake of expressing some sort of pity or kindness. The AD's assistant, Kimberly, greeted them both warmly and showed them into the sunlit office.

Their old boss met them at the door and ushered them not to the "hot seats" they had so often occupied in front of his desk but to the sofa and chairs against the wall. He waited a moment while the lanky agent selected the less-cushioned chair. Slipping his forearms from the C-shaped cuffs at the top, the younger man grasped the crutches and the chair arm firmly for support while he lowered himself into the chair with his good right leg. He laid the crutches on the floor next to him, unlocked the brace at his knee and tugged at the paralyzed appendage with both hands until it was bent like the good one.

All the while they carried on small talk about the impending holidays, their flight from Montana to DC, Scully's mother. Skinner had leaned back in the other chair, his ankle propped casually on the other thigh. His hands were tented and the new gold band on his left hand glittered as he gestured. "I'm not sure but I think Mary and I may have replaced you two as the top water cooler topic around here."

"Believe me, Sir," Scully replied, "that's a title we happily relinquish."

"How soon they forget," Mulder observed wryly. "How is Mary?"

Skinner fairly beamed. "Great. She's great. Still sick as a dog, but great."

"Will you be staying here for Christmas?" Scully asked.

Her boss shook his head. "We're leaving for Texas tonight. In fact," he leaned forward as he checked his watch, "she should be picking me up in about an hour."

"It will be nice to see her again," Scully said and then silence ticked away.

"Have you heard from Bynum?" Mulder asked, finally.

"Yeah," the AD replied. "He's in Cincinnati, head of Security for some electronics firm."

"Did his wife have her baby?" Scully inquired.

Skinner nodded. "Boy, somewhere in the nine-pound range."

"That's nice," she said wistfully.

Nearly a minute ticked by before Mulder stirred, "Why are we here, Sir?" He stretched out his good leg. "I mean, the visit's nice and all, but . . . "

Scully shot her partner a hard look.

"It's okay, Scully. I do apologize for infringing on your holiday plans, but something has come up that I think you'll be interested in."

"A case?" Mulder pushed himself upright.

"In a manner of speaking," the AD replied slyly as John Grayson's face appeared in the open door. "Come on in, Agent Grayson."

Grayson dragged a chair from the desk area and perched in it. "So, how is every body?"

"Peachy," Mulder replied sulkily, immediately ashamed when he noticed the rubber ball Grayson was pumping with his broken-arm hand.

"Fine, Agent Grayson," Scully replied politely.

"Have you talked about anything?" he asked the AD.

Skinner shook his head. "I thought we'd wait for you before we discussed our proposition."

"What?" Mulder asked impatiently.

Skinner grinned. "It's not a case, Agent Mulder."

"It's about 200 cases." Grayson continued despite Mulder's incredulous look. "It's simple, really. I've got 5 shiny new profilers and a backlog of cases. I need help. Which," he grinned evilly, "is where you come in."

"Agent Grayson has taken over the responsibility of the profiling section," Skinner explained. "While he is, on paper, staffed adequately, his people are very green."

"So I've asked for, and been given the budget for, a Senior Agent position," he glanced at Scully. "Two, in fact."

Mulder sat stone-faced but Grayson continued. "I envision one of the Senior Agents being responsible for managing the new agents' case load and the other being responsible for managing the Forensics of the unit as well as lending investigative expertise."

"And you're offering this to us?" Scully asked skeptically.

"Either or both, as you wish," Skinner confirmed.

"What about the X-Files?" Mulder asked. "What about Spender and Fowley?"

Skinner twisted his wedding ring. "Agent Fowley has been sent back from whence she came. Agent Spender," he paused, "has been given an assignment more appropriate for his, uh, talents."

Mulder grinned. "You dumped him in the Library."

Skinner returned the grin and nodded.

"And the X-Files cases?" Mulder leaned forward.

Grayson took a deep breath. "They're yours if you want them. You'll just have to work them in between ISU cases."

"And if we want to work just the X-Files cases?"

"No deal," Skinner shook his head. "It will be a long time before we can get approval again to create a separate X-Files Unit. Until then, this is the best deal going. Unless you've become attached to investigating fertilizer sales in Montana . . ."

"No!" they both said at once. Then they proceeded to carry on another of their wordless conversations before each nodded, albeit Mulder was the more reluctant.

"Well," Grayson stretched out the word, "our new offices at Quantico should be ready after New Year's. That should give you the time to get moved from Montana . . ."

"What about handicap access?" Scully asked quietly while Mulder closed his eyes, as if he refused to hear it.

"Whatever you need," Skinner promised.



Top



Chapter 2



As usual, Assistant Director Walter Skinner was as good as his word. Senior Agent Fox Mulder ambulated through the extra-wide portal into his new office at Quantico. It was, in actuality, glorified triple cubicle. At his request his books and files had been placed so that they flanked his worktable which was placed behind his desk. The four-drawer file cabinets had been replaced with 2-drawer models. Removal of the industrial carpet had exposed the concrete in the extra-large space between the file cabinets, worktable and desk. An executive chair with heavy-duty low-friction casters was pushed into the metal desk's kneehole. He worked his way through the opening to his workspace and leaned against the desk while he shrugged; the shoulder strap from his computer/briefcase slipped off the now-rounded shoulder and thumped gently on his new desk. Still balancing on his good leg, he twisted his arms from the crutch cuffs and shrugged off both his overcoat and suit coat. Scully reached for them but he held up a hand and smiled as he hung both from hooks on the bentwood coat tree that had been affixed to the top of the back partition. In the process he overbalanced but managed to plop, rather fortuitously, into the chair. Grinning sheepishly, he unlatched the brace's knee hinge and propped his bad leg on the chair leg and pushed off with the other foot. The chair glided smoothly and he deposited the black-enameled crutches behind a file cabinet in the corner where they stood ready, if inconspicuous. He rolled himself back to the desk and inserted the laptop into the docking station. At the sight of the light on the screen, his face lit up and he beamed to his partner the look of a child who'd done something very special.

Which he had. Dana Scully had watched the proceedings silently, ready to help but refraining unless asked. But she knew he wouldn't ask. He'd never asked, not since Patterson had changed everything 3 months before. He hadn't asked for the 6 weeks he was in the hospital and rehab. In the 6 weeks since then, he'd only asked out of desperation, failure coloring his request. It's good to be back, she decided. Montana was a place of failure; he didn't need that now. What he needed was success in both his career and his life. So she deposited her things on her desk in the adjoining cubicle, cringing at the effort he had to expend for even the smallest of actions. Damn you, Patterson, she cursed silently, blinking back the tears that seemed to come so frequently these days. She turned just in time to see that triumphant look and her heart sang again. It is good to be back, she nodded. But then he started to fidget in the chair.

"What's wrong, Mulder?" He was the kind of man who could feel a pea through a thousand mattresses.

"I don't know," he shifted in the chair then extended his hands over both the desk and the computer keyboard. "It just doesn't feel . . ."

She crossed into his space. "Put your hands on the keyboard, just like you're typing," she peered at him.

"I dunno. It feels like I'm sitting in a hole." He looked around for his crutches. "I think we need to raise it a little."

"Wait," she instructed. "Maybe you don't have to get up to adjust it . . ." She looked under the chair.

"Maybe if I press this lever . . ."

The chair seat thunked against her head as it fell. She tumbled back on her bottom and he immediately wheeled around.

"Are you okay?" He scooted closer to her, pulling her head against his bad knee to inspect the crown where she'd been rubbing.

"I was." She closed her eyes and rested her head against his knee for a moment. Until she spotted Assistant Director Skinner in the doorway. "Sir," she sat bolt upright, flushing scarlet.

"Scully was just adjusting my seat," Mulder stammered then flushed when he realized what he'd said.

Scully was scrambling to her feet, still rubbing her head.

Skinner couldn't help but grin. "Found the lever, huh?"

They looked at each other incredulously, not believing the had lowered himself to indulge in what could be categorized as a rank Mulderism. He deposited his things in the nearest chair and joined them behind the desk. "You can't adjust the chair while you're sitting in it," he held out a forearm and deftly lifted the agent to his feet and propped him against the desk. Then he grabbed the chair by the seat and planted a boot on one of the legs. "You have to hold down the pedestal and pull up the seat while the lever's depressed."

He jerked on the chair, then helped Mulder sit again. Mulder nodded approval.

"Not exactly handicap approved, but it will have to do until your other chair arrives."

"It's fine," Mulder murmured, his eyes cast down, suddenly sullen. "Thank you. Again."

The AD snorted exasperation as he planted both palms on the desktop and loomed over the desk's occupant. "I appreciate the awkwardness of your situation, Agent Mulder, but it's time to stop grieving for your loss and to move forward with your future. You owe it to your friends, you owe it to me, you owe it to your wife, but most of all, Mulder," he spoke gently, firmly, "you owe it to yourself."

Scully gave her partner's shoulder a comforting squeeze as she followed the AD around to the front of the desk.

"So," Mulder swallowed hard and forced a pleasant face, "are you here on business or was ad hoc chair adjuster added to your job description while we were in exile?"

"No, Agent Mulder," he replied with mock consternation. "Agent Grayson invited me to your staff meet-and-greet at nine. I made the mistake of telling Mary I was coming and she sent you and Scully this." He plopped a large gift box on the corner of the desk nearest Scully.

She cooed and protested, but Skinner waved it off, "There's no dissuading my wife once she sets her mind to something."

Scully read the card, "The shadows of yesterday make tomorrow seem brighter. Welcome home. Mary & Walt." Just like friends., Scully mused. She smiled and eagerly ripped the paper to reveal a coffeemaker. "Oh, my, Sir . . ." she gasped.

"Mary picked it out for your office. She thought it might help you spend less time gossiping at the coffee machine."

"We're more likely to be the topic under discussion," Mulder observed wryly.

But Skinner shook his head. "They're too busy trying to make sense out of mathematics of her burgeoning belly and my receding hairline."

"You sound like you like that," Scully teased.

The AD merely cocked an eyebrow while he checked his watch, "Showtime." He stood silently while Mulder collected his crutches and suit coat, then followed both agents into the common meeting area.

The conference area was at the center of a hollow rectangle of cubicles. Mulder and Scully's space occupied the corner and 2 flanking cells diagonally opposite from the small table that held the customary doughnuts, juice and coffee. Although there was no formal receiving line, informal protocol required that the attendees at least speak to the honorees before scarfing up the refreshments. While this tradition was usually only observed pro forma, the current attendees were seemingly anxious to size up the newly-minted Senior Agents--much to Mulder's chagrin.

So he made "nice"-mumbling innocuous greetings with a pasted-on smile-and even managed to shake a few hands without losing his balance and falling on his ass. Scully hovered nearby, never more than 2 footsteps away. Skinner maintained a position 4 steps away, close enough to assist but distant enough to salve Mulder's pride. Mulder, himself, would have killed for a cup of coffee and a bear claw-but that would have to wait until his hands were freed from the task his legs should have been doing. Finally, finally, Grayson found his seat at the head of the conference table. Mulder hobbled over to the coffee pot and poured a cup, all the while wondering just how he would get it back to the table. Thankfully, Scully appeared at his side and ferried the coffee, and the pastry he'd pointed out, to the seat next to hers. Steadying himself with the table and a crutch he lowered himself into the swivel chair much more gracefully than he had in his office earlier. Ta-da, he congratulated himself and laid both crutches on the floor between his chair and Scully's. As he looked up he realized the room had gone silent and all eyes were focused on him. He flushed crimson, they flushed scarlet and Grayson, thankfully, began his staff-meeting litany. Mercifully, he kept it focused and short. In closing he offered the Assistant Director the opportunity to speak.

"It has been both my privilege and my curse to supervise Agents Scully and Mulder for the past 6 years. I believe their addition to the staff in the Investigative Support Unit will only serve to enhance the Unit's already stellar performance record." He took a deep breath. "Now, I've already heard talk that these positions in ISU were created for them as a sort of payback for Agent Mulder's being disabled in the line of duty. I suppose, in one sense, that's true." Mulder winced. "In the past, the Bureau considered you useless if you were no longer able to wrestle a 20-foot alligator regardless of whether you needed that particular skill to do your job. But, it would be a shameful waste of resources if the Bureau discarded someone talented and useful because we were mired in the inertia of tradition. So, Agent Mulder's situation has forced us-no, it has allowed us- to redefine the paradigm." He looked around the room. "We're asking you to chart some new territory for us, ladies and gentlemen. But I think you're just the ones to make it work." He stood. "And if Agent Grayson has nothing further," Grayson shook his head, "let's get to it."



Top



Chapter 3



"It" took all day-reviewing case files with the "kids." Each of them were assigned 5 "newbies" who had each been assigned 10 cases.

In addition to packing up their wordly possessions and moving them back to Washington, they had spent the week between Christmas and New Year's familiarizing themselves with the cases. After a rather heated discussion about trying to match each case with a particular agent, they ended up just assigning the cases randomly. Each had summoned their respective charges one-by-one, taking time with the young agents to discuss the particulars of each case. Then the students were sent off to write profiles and evidence analyses of each case.

He had just gotten around to looking over his own case files when John Grayson appeared in the doorway, briefcase in hand.

"Okay, I'm impressed," the younger man said wryly and collapsed in a desk chair.

Mulder looked up owlishly, struggling to refocus on the chair's occupant.

"So, how was your first day back? Everything go okay?"

Mulder leaned back, nodding. "Yeah," he rotated his neck stiffly. "I'd forgotten what it's like to spend so much time behind a desk."

"You'll get used to it."

Mulder surveyed the younger man. "Is that what you expect of me-to sit behind a desk?"

Grayson gazed at the floor while the reply formed in his head, "I expect you to do whatever you need to do the job right without needlessly endangering other agents or yourself."

"And if that means fieldwork?"

"Then you'll do fieldwork. Remembering, of course, that you are now a Senior Agent with energetic young Turks at your beck and call. Take advantage of them so you can channel your energy into what you do best."

Mulder ran his fingers through a snowy patch of hair at his temple. "Just what do I do best?"

Grayson chortled as he stood. "That's easy. You out-think the bad guys." He paused at the door, allowing him to miss Scully scurrying into the room. "'Night, Mulder, Scully."

Both murmured goodbyes. "How was your lecture?" Mulder asked.

"Very nice, actually. I had forgotten how much I enjoyed teaching." She laid her coat and briefcase over the desk chair Grayson had used and sat in the other. "How was your afternoon?"

He shrugged as he pulled his laptop from its station and slipped it, and his files, into the case. "Just another day in paradise." He wheeled over and pulled his crutches from their hiding place, then rolled to the coat rack and retrieved the garments. He leaned the crutches against his desk and deposited the coats on top. Then he used the desk to push himself to a standing position and, leaning against the desk, slipped on both coats. Finally, he slung the case over his shoulder and, pushing aside the chair, grasped the handles of his crutches, C-cuffs pressing into his forearms.

"Ready?"

He nodded, so she slipped on her coat and lugged her briefcase to the door.

"Uh, Scully?" She paused. "Your collar."

She reached up to her neck.

"No, I'll get it," she heard the left crutch groan a little as he shifted his weight to it, then he handed her the other one. Silently she stood as he fussed, one-handed, with her unruly collar, his fingers lightly brushing against the back of her neck sending a shivering sigh that electrified all of her nerve endings.

Immediately he withdrew his hand, retrieved the crutch and set off to the parking lot. Tiny snowflakes were falling so she waited quietly under the porte-cochère as he struggled with the car. Opening the door was the first obstacle. Then he had to maneuver himself onto the seat and stow his crutches behind it. It took both hands to drag his lifeless limb into the car. He tugged on the door and the engine roared to life before he maneuvered the vehicle to the doorway where she stood.

"Need a ride, lady?"

She leaned into the open door. "Are you trustworthy?"

"Depends upon whom you ask," he snickered. "What's it gonna be, lady?"

"I think I'll take a chance." She planted herself in the passenger seat and the engine whined as they ramped up onto the highway..

A cloud obscured his sunny smile. "There are some who'd say you're wasting your time."

"There are some who would say you're wasting your time."

"They don't see what I see."

"My point exactly," she squeezed the hand that had drifted across the seat.

The silence was punctuated only by the whap, whap, whapping of the tires on the tarred seams in the pavement. Finally, he stopped the car in Maggie Scully's driveway.

"What if," he swallowed hard. "What if this," he held up their conjoined hands, "continues to be all Patterson's knife left us?"

"What Patterson took away," she stroked his thumb with hers, "was a very minor-very fun, but very minor-part of us."

"I wanted you to have it all," he whispered.

"And I enjoyed having it all," she replied, "but what is left is plenty."

The snowflakes had grown from fine to fluffy, dotting their dark coats as they walked, side-by-side, up the sidewalk, then up the steps, then into Maggie Scully's warm, glowing house.

"I'm going up for a shower," he sighed, looking up the narrow, steep staircase.

"I know, I know," Scully answered the sigh. "I called a realtor during lunch."

"Dana, is that you?" Maggie Scully's face peered at them from the kitchen door. She dried her hands on a striped towel as she joined them at the stairs. "So, how was your first day back?"

"Fine, Mom."

"Long," he said as he passed by the first landing.

A bell rang in the kitchen and Maggie Scully scurried to quell it. Her daughter followed at a more leisurely pace.

"So, how was it? Really."

Dana collapsed into the nearest chair. "Really? It was okay. They're going out of their way to be accommodating." She rolled her head stiffly.

"Which must be driving Fox crazy."

Dana smiled. "I think it's safe to say we are not accustomed to this much positive-" she paused at the sound of bumping in the bathroom above them-- "attention," she resumed at the sound of running water.

"Can he manage?" Maggie nodded at the ceiling.

"He didn't say he couldn't," Dana replied resignedly, "and I'm trying to let him do for himself." She pushed around a fork with her finger.

Mother measured daughter's mood. "That must be very trying."

The younger woman sniffed, "Frustration has become our constant companion." She propped up her head on her balled fist.

Maggie Scully turned and stared a long while at her daughter, long enough for the daughter to notice and smile sheepishly.

"Don't worry, Mom. We'll be okay." She flashed a reassuring smile. "I better check on him."

She didn't even wait for a reply before fleeing to her, their, bedroom. The door was not quite closed and light from the bedside lamp sliced across the darkness of the hall.

"Mulder?" she pushed lightly on the door.

He lay, face down, on the bed, haphazardly covered by the sheet and bedspread. His t-shirt and cotton jersey shorts clung to places he'd failed to dry.

She sat on the edge of the bed and his eyelids lifted slightly. "Are you ready to eat?" she asked. She gently ruffled the temples which had become considerably grayer since last fall.

"Tired," he soughed.

Switching off the lamp, she rested her hand on the still-raised scar Patterson had caused, listening to him breathe easily and peacefully. "Sweet dreams," she wished and prayed.



Top



Chapter 4



"Fox?" Maggie Scully pushed gently on the semi-closed bathroom door and the chatter of an electric razor greeted her. The object of her search was before her, standing, rather leaning, against the sink. He skimmed the razor over his face with his right hand and the left was propped against the cabinet, supplying the support for the good right leg in place of the bad. For a moment, she was struck speechless. Although covered by his favorite sweatpants, she could see the muscles of his right leg were robust and bulging while those of the left were, despite daily exercise, withering into atrophy. He was shirtless and his muscles were taut from the effort of maintaining his balance. With the exception of his arms and shoulders he was still thin, painfully so, and the evidence of Patterson's handiwork was a faded-scarlet cord-like cicatrix that seemed to tie together opposing ribs. Barely longer than the width of her small hand, it seemed unreal that such a small gash could cause such great harm. Still and all, the damage had not been as severe as Patterson had planned, as evidenced by the victim's standing position. But the damage had been profound enough that not a day passed that he, Patterson, was not still a part of their lives. His hazel eyes met hers in the mirror and she proffered the cordless phone she clutched.

"Mulder," his voice reverberated off the tiled walls.

Silently she closed the door, hiding from him, as had her daughter, the evidence of her profound sorrow.

Daughter was less sorrowful than aggravated. She stood in front of her dresser mirror, fuming over the fact that the cleaners had shrunk her favorite pant black suit. She rehung it with a distinct harumph and pulled out a navy skirted ensemble. She was fussing with the collar button on the cream silk shell when long, slender fingers brushed hers away.

"Where's my bag?" he pushed the facing back inside the vent.

"What bag?"

"My travel bag."

"Travel? Where are we going?"

"Not we; me. Grayson wants me to go with Livingstone to Cincinnati on the 'Schottsie' murders. Seems the third victim that turned up overnight wearing a dog-collar convinced the local PD they needed help."

She dragged the black case from the closet, depositing it on the bed. "When are you leaving?"

"Livingstone is picking me up in an hour so we can catch an 8:30 flight out of National." He tossed socks, crew shirts and boxers from their respective drawers through the bag's unzipped opening. A starched shirt did a rim shot off the flap before She intervened.

"I'll do it," she offered.

"I can do it," he refused.

She looked into the bag. "But can your shirts and suits take it?" She held up the shirt, a wrinkle already forming across its snowy front.

"Oh." He stood silent while she neatly packed his necessaries into the bag.

"Why don't you go pack your kit?" She held out the leather shaving tote.

He complied without discussion, feeling very much like the idiot who was sent off to "boil water" when babies came.

Two hours later he was trying, as best he could, to rush through National Airport at rush hour. Although it was probably his slowest trip ever through that portal, he must have been rushing because he arrived at the gate breathless. The gate attendant hurried them through the jet way and he managed to squeeze through the forward door, inching down the aisle until he stood at his row, 35, staring at the only empty seat in the section: next to a window.

"Sir, we can't take off until you sit down," a perky young flight attendant admonished.

"I'd love to sit," he replied, "but not there." He nodded to the vacancy.

"Sir, you have to take your assigned seat before take-off," her voice rose.

"Miss, uh," he peered at her name tag, "Brandy, even if I could get to that seat, which I doubt, I can't sit in it."

Livingstone stood stonefaced, mortified.

"Sir, are you refusing your assigned seat?" Her voice rose louder and murmuring began.

He took a deep breath, not wanting to get into a detailed discussion of the limitations of modern orthotics in such a public place. "I guess I am," he mumbled and hobbled toward the forward hatch which was situated between coach and the first-class section. He paused in front of the closed hatch. "I need to get off," he said simply.

"But the hatch is closed, sir; you can't get off," Brandy replied testily.

"I need to get off," he said again, more impatiently, his face flushing.

"What's going on here?" asked another, obviously older, attendant who'd appeared from behind the first-class curtain.

"This man is refusing to take his assigned seat," Brandy accused.

"I want to get off," Mulder repeated.

"His seat is inappropriate for him," Livingstone explained.

"Go back to your seat, Agent Livingstone," the Senior Agent growled. "I'll be along when I can get a flight."

"He's refusing to take his assigned seat," Brandy chanted again.

"Just let me off this thing," he implored. "Please."

"Sir, you can't get off; we've-"

"Thank you, Brandy," the older woman interrupted. "Is there something wrong with your seat assignment, Sir?"

He glanced awkwardly at the crutches. "I won't fit," he said quietly.

"What was his seat assignment?" the woman said sharply to the younger attendant.

"35A."

The older woman's eyes widened for a moment, then softened. "You may continue your pre-flight duties, Brandy." She glanced over her shoulder into the front section. "Let's see if we can find something that will work for you." She stretched on tip-toes, "There. Follow me, Sir." She showed him to and aisle seat on the right side of the front row of the first-class section.

"I can't. Thank you, but I work for the government and-"

"Of course you can," she soothed. "It's the least we can do for giving you such a lousy seat assignment."

"I don't know."

"I do. Now buckle up." She held out a hand. "Let me stow those for you."

He handed them to her, "Thank you."

She rewarded him with a smile, a real one, "My pleasure. Now, enjoy your flight."

Agent Livingstone had laid low the entire time, barely speaking as he retrieved Mulder's briefcase and garment bag from the overhead compartment, then slung them over his own shoulder. His wide, football-lineman form preceded his Senior Agent down the jet way and proceeded onto the concourse.

"Agent Livingstone."

Reluctantly, the younger man returned to the gate area.

"Agent Livingstone, you did not spend all that time training at Quantico to end up my personal porter."

The deep voice quivered slightly. "I know, Sir, but it's the least I could do after putting you in such a difficult situation."

"Livingstone," Mulder leaned hard against the black crutches, "you did not put me in a difficult situation. Bill Patterson did. And that brainless flight attendant."

The full-moon face brightened slightly as the extra bags thudded softly on the floor.

"Thank you." Mulder's face reddened slightly. "And now, having made that speech and in the absence of a porter, I am forced to ask for your assistance with *one* of my bags."

Livingstone smiled. "Certainly, Sir."

Mulder shouldered his briefcase and started down the concourse, then stopped suddenly. "And one more thing. Call me Mulder. 'Sir' sounds so *old.*"

"Yes, sir," the younger man replied automatically, then corrected, "Mulder."

The Senior Agent nodded approval and set off down the concourse again.



***



"Where the hell did all this traffic come from?" Mulder fumed while staring at the back of a beat-up sedan. "It's taken almost an hour from the airport. It'll be lunchtime by the time we get there."

Livingstone grinned, remembering Grayson's frank warning about Mulder's impatience. "He can be a real pain-in-the-ass," Grayson had stated flatly when he'd called that morning with the assignment. "It was bad enough before he got hurt and it's worse now. But if you keep your eyes open and ask smart questions, you'll learn from him in a month what you'd learn in a year from anyone else."

The younger agent watched his tutor fidget-drumming his fingers, fingering the foam hand rest on his crutches, adjusting the weapon and holster that seemed perennially in the way-like a racehorse in the starting gate. For the upteenth time he perched his glasses on his nose and impatiently flipped through the case folder, pages rattling as if fluttering in a stiff breeze. The younger agent nearly choked on a startling realization: Senior Agent Mulder was terrified. *Of what?* the young man wondered.

"Were you able to form any theories from the information contained in the case file, Agent Livingstone?" The pitch of the Senior Agent's voice was slightly higher than previously. He seemed to be breathing more rapidly.

"To be honest with you, sir," he paused while negotiating a slushy corner, "I'd rather wait until I see the crime scene for myself before formulating any theories."

The Senior Agent nodded with a small grin and gazed at the building and streets grayed with a mixture of old snow and grime. The tires sang as they crossed the Ohio River back into the downtown area. Veering crisply onto the narrow streets, Livingstone whipped up and down slender alleys so quickly that Mulder had barely found one on the map perched on his knee before they'd turned to another passageway in the warren of downtown streets.

"Do you know where we're going?"

"Yes, sir," the younger man replied, then colored slightly at his lapse in addressing his superior. "I was drafted by the Bengals after I graduated from Ohio State and managed to make it to October before my knee gave way."

"So the FBI wasn't your first choice."

The younger man squirmed. "Actually, sir, it was. But then the Bengals opportunity came up and, well, my dad had been taking me to Bengals games since I was old enough to walk and, well, I know they're at the cellar of the league but . . ." He paused, flushing deeply at the realization that he'd been blathering like some idiot teenager.

But Mulder only folded the map and pointed silently at the flashing blue lights at the mouth of the alley ahead. The younger man slumped visibly before whipping the rental sedan neatly into the only open space at the curb.

"Ready, sir?"

"Sir" did not respond, but remained statue-like in the passenger seat-- head bowed, eyes closed, hands trembling so hard that the crutches rattled.

"Sir?"

The hazel eyes popped open and the Adam's apple bobbed up and down. "Going back into the field is a little harder than I expected," murmured the Senior Agent, eyes focused on the flapping crime scene tape. His chest heaved one final sough. "Are you ready, Dr. Watson?"

"After you, Holmes, old boy."





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Chapter 5

It had been a miserable morning. For what seemed like the 10th time Dana Scully bolted for the restroom in response to her rolling stomach. Her breakfast long gone, she held a dampened towel to her neck, quelling for a moment the remnants of the nausea. Again she brushed her teeth and reapplied her lipstick, staring all the while at the dark circles beneath her eyes. Smoothing her clothing with a quick tug, she turned on her heel and strode purposefully out the door and into Assistant Director Kersh.

"Agent Scully," Kersh purred malevolently, "you look tired."

"I'm fine," came the acidic reply. The smaller agent returned the other's glare so intensely that Kersh finally relinquished the right of way and allowed her to pass.

"Where's Mulder?" he called from behind.

She paused before turning. "On assignment. Cincinnati, I believe."

"Alone?" the AD's voice betrayed incredulity.

"No; another agent accompanied him."

"Good." The AD stepped closer, his voice lowering to almost a whisper. "Cut the cord, Agent Scully."

"Excuse me?"

"Agent Mulder is, and always will be, a millstone around your neck."

"You're wrong," she protested lamely.

He grinned. "No, I'm not. You know I'm not. He was a drowning man before and Bill Patterson just handed him an anvil. He'll go under."

She shook her head furiously, mortified that her anger had shown in water rather than fire.

He moved even closer. "I don't know what binds you to him-whether it's love, loyalty or lust. But I do know that you must sever that bond before he drags you down with him."

"He won't do that."

"He won't mean to; but he will." He stepped away. "Life isn't a fairy tale; we don't all live happily ever after."

Shaking her head, she backed away, then bolted again for the bathroom door.



Detective Phil Braden saw the rental sedan pull up and turned and shook his head. Snowflakes had begun wafting down from the leaden sky, their frequency increasing with each passing moment. "Perfect," he said to nobody in particular. He turned and watched the visitors approach, trench coats straining against the bitter wind. One was a little shorter, but twice as wide. In his hammy hand he carried a briefcase. The other, taller and slimmer, picked his way through the snowy patches on crutches. "Perfect," Braden murmured sardonically.

"Detective Braden?"

"Oh, joy. The cavalry come to save us."

The graying agent maintained a benign expression and stuck out his right hand while the elbow remained in the crutch cuff. "Senior Agent Mulder of the Investigative Support Unit."

The detective grasped the hand grudgingly.

"Agent Livingstone," the younger man offered his hand and gripped more vigorously.

"You're wasting your time."

"Excuse me?" the younger agent's wide face contorted with confusion.

"We can solve this one ourselves. Regardless of what the brass thinks."

"Of course you can," the Senior Agent soothed. "We're just here to help."

The detective snorted. "We don't need your help."

The Senior Agent froze. "Do you mean you don't need the FBI's help or are you talking about us in particular?"

The detective shrugged.

"I suppose you were expecting the FBI to send something other than a cripple and a rookie?" Mulder said acidly. "Next time we'll bring a female agent so we can make a Gene Kelly movie-'A Gimp, a Girl and a Greenhorn.'"

The detective measured the older agent's heightened color and quickened breathing. "How long you been on the job?" he smiled, finally.

"Ten years too many."

The detective pulled out a small note pad. "The victim's name was Marshall Leahy, aged 42. Lived with his wife in one of those renovated houses down by President McKinley's house. Walked his dog to and from Riverfront Stadium every night."

"Saint Bernard?" Livingstone asked.

"Yeah, yeah, just like the other victims," Braden confirmed. "Anyway, he left for his walk about seven last night. The wife reported him missing about 10. Garbage collector discovered the body a little after 2."

"Just like this?" Livingstone asked.

"Just like this," the detective confirmed. "Hoisted by his own pitard, so to speak, or, in this case, leash."

"So what do you think happened?"

The detective led them to a tape circle on the sidewalk at the mouth of the alley. "We think he was bashed in the head here then dragged," he followed the parallel scuffs in the grunge of the alley, "under the fire escape. Then the killer took the leash off the dog and fastened it around the vic's neck, threw the leash over the fire escape landing and hoisted away."

"His feet are barely a foot off the ground," Livingstone observed.

"It was enough," Braden observed wryly.

"Agent Livingstone, is there anything we can observe at the scene that lends credence to the detective's theory?"

The younger man thought a moment then peered through the clear plastic bag at the victim's left hand. He looked around. "Has it been this cold since the victim was last seen alive?"

The detective nodded.

"The nailbeds are blue, indicating cyanosis. That supports the theory that death was caused by strangulation rather than the blow to the head."

Both the detective and Mulder nodded.

"Further, the lack of scratch marks on the neck indicates that the victim never regained consciousness." He stepped around to view the back of the hanging corpse. "The location of the head wound, at the base of the skull, indicates the killer was shorter than the victim. The short distance he was lifted off the ground sustains that supposition. The lack of defensive wounds indicates that the victim was either surprised, or killed by someone he knew."

"Or someone he didn't feel threatened by," the detective corrected.

The young agent nodded. "Which brings us to the dog. If the killer were small in stature, how could he or she have manhandled that Saint Bernard during the attack? How big was the dog?"

"163 pounds."

Livingstone turned a 360-degree circle, eyeing the entire alley, before walking toward the sidewalk. "Suppose the killer waited here," he took a position just inside the alley, against a grimy brick wall, "and struck the victim as he passed. Then he dragged the victim inside the alley. What's the victim's dog doing? Saint Bernards are known to be protective; why didn't he protect his master?"

"Her master," Braden interjected.

"Her master," Livingstone nodded, rubbing his hands together. Then he wheeled and kneeled in front of the wall staring at a gleaming patch about 20 inches off the ground. He looked at them over his shoulder, cockeyed grin splitting his face. "Did you run a rape kit on the dog?"

"Excuse me?" both observers chorused.

"The dog. What better way to keep the dog occupied than to bring along a date?"

Mulder grinned. "And how did you come to this conclusion, Agent Livingstone?"

Livingstone pointed at the wall. "There's ice on the wall and judging by the smell it's not from the snow," he swallowed at how ridiculous this must sound. "The patch is about 20 inches off the ground which is too short for a man but just about right for a 160-pound Saint Bernard."

Braden blinked rapidly before speaking. "Now wait a minute. You're basing your scenario on the possibility that someone or something pissed on a brick wall sometime since the temperature last went above freezing?"

"Well, yes."

The detective rolled his eyes. The older agent's face was impassive, as if lost in thought. Livingstone shivered.

"It does make sense," Mulder admitted quietly.

Braden chortled.

"Look," Mulder offered. "You'd already figured out the part about the killer being smaller than the victim and the surprise attack."

Braden offered no refutation.

"So why can't you entertain this scenario? It narrows your suspect pool to dog owners, probably Saint Bernard owners, and gives you means of placing the killer, or at least the killer's dog, at the scene of the crime. With the right jury, it could make or break a circumstantial case. The DA will love you."

"If he doesn't die laughing. I know I'm gonna regret this," he shook his head, snowflakes flittering to the ground. "So," he addressed the younger agent, "where do you suggest we look for this diminutive large-dog owner?"

Livingstone's eyes grew wide, "The, uh, local kennel club membership? Maybe newspaper articles about past dog shows?"

"Yeah, and maybe we should ask Marge Schott," the detective replied. He motioned to the coroner's assistants who removed the body. "Well, Boy Wonder," he patted Livingstone on the back, "let's go find that dog with the smile on his face."

Mulder smiled proudly, following slowly, trying to recall the last opportunity he'd given Walter Skinner to feel that way.

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Chapter 6



She paused for a moment before presenting herself at the entrance to John Westley Grayson's cubicle. It was, in actuality, smaller than even her portion of the space she shared with Mulder, but the FBI seal and the picture of the sitting president imparted authority to the interstice. A phone was seemingly attached to his ear but he waved her to an empty chair with his free hand. She had barely settled in when he replaced the handset in its cradle and leaned back in his chair, elbows akimbo.

"So, how was your first week back?"

She paused, open mouthed. "I guess it is Friday," she said incredulously.

"Yep," Grayson nodded. "And you made it through without any major mishaps."

She smiled shyly.

Grayson leaned forward. "How's it going? Really?"

She shrugged. "As expected."

He grinned. "Mulder's driving you crazy."

"No," she replied. "It's kind of nice to see him utilizing his skills for something more taxing than interviewing fertilizer salesmen and farmers." She studied her tented hands. "I'm enjoying the forensic work and the return to teaching. It's just that it's so, um . . ."

"Tame?"

"Yes," she admitted. "We're accustomed to things being a bit more lively."

"I'd think, after Patterson, that you'd enjoy tame for a while."

"For a while. Is that why you gave him the Cincinnati assignment? With Livingstone?"

Guilt colored his face. "Look, Scully, it's no secret he's had a difficult time adjusting to his, um," he halted.

"Disability."

"Physical challenges." He swallowed hard. "It's to everybody's benefit to see that he is successful."

Her face colored. "Will you ever let him be more than the token cripple?"

Anger colored his countenance. "That's not fair. Skinner and I have stuck our necks way out there on his behalf. And people like Kersh are circling around with an ax just waiting for Mulder to fall flat on his ass so they can lop our collective heads off. But, more than that," he took a deep breath, "we need him, and you. We need your skill, your dedication. You're still the Bureau's best, even if you are a little slower than you used to be."

"Thank you," she said quietly.

"He's been down for 3 months, Scully. Let's give him a little batting practice before we throw a Nolan Ryan fast ball at him, okay?"

She nodded silently.

"What do you hear from Cincinnati?"

"Nothing. But then I've been afraid to call. I wouldn't want him to think I was worried about him."

Grayson grinned. "So, what can I do for you?"

She inhaled sharply. "A friend of mine has had a medical emergency and has asked me to present a paper of hers, one that I edited, actually, at a meeting in Reston tomorrow. I'll need to leave immediately if I'm to be properly prepared."

"Great," Grayson responded genuinely. "Go," he waved his hand. "Get out of here. Is there any message for Mulder?"

"No, I've left one at my mother's for him."

"Well, have fun. Wait; do you actually have fun at these meetings?"

It was her turn to smile. "If you can get beyond the graveyard humor. We pathologists are a pretty grisly group."

"I think I'll pass." He stood and offered his hand, "Enjoy. You deserve a break after the last 4 months."

"Thanks," his grasp was firm and warm, like Mulder's. Or at least how she remembered it. That memory stayed with her through the drive into the Virginia countryside.



*****



Few things felt as good as closing a case, even one as easy as this one. Well, Fox Mulder could think of one other thing that felt better, but it didn't look like he'd be experiencing *that* anytime soon so he would just have to settle for closing this case. The press conference looked like a love-in. The locals were happy, the Feds were happy, everybody was happy. Except for Fox Mulder who'd calculated that this happy gathering was occurring at same time as the last flight out of Cincinnati bound for DC. Still, he stood at the back of the law enforcement crowd, idiotic grin plastered on his face, Livingstone beside him, purposefully allowing the locals to bask in the limelight. Camera flashes popped as the florid Chief of Police stepped up to the microphone and announced the suspect's arrest and subsequent confession. Then he introduced Braden, the primary detective, who recounted the particulars of the case and the arrest.

Mulder enjoyed the anonymity and sought respite by leaning against the wall while Braden responded to innumerable inane questions posed by insipid reporters with lacquered hair.

A voice rose above the cacophony of voices. "Detective Braden, did the FBI participate in this investigation?"

Braden searched for the questioner, finally spotting the tall, lanky form next the exit. "Agent Dan Livingstone of the FBI's Investigative Services Unit was instrumental in the investigation."

Mulder peeked around Livingstone, at once hopeful and fearful that he had recognized the voice. The familiar but altered face nodded a tacit greeting as the Chief of Police pronounced a benediction of sorts on the event.

"So, Mulder," the questioner's greeting preceded the handshake, "were you a part of this little expedition or are you here to investigate reports of President McKinley's ghost riding bare as the day he was born on horseback past City Hall every time the moon is, um, full?"

"Bynum," Mulder replied, his face splitting into a full smile, the first in several months. "So, are you going for the Jolly Roger look?"

Reflexively, the back of Bynum's hand brushed the ovoid black cloth patch that covered his left eye. His smile darkened slightly. "Uh, yeah. You know how it is in the private sector; you've got to maintain that ruthless corporate pirate image."

Mulder inventoried the changes in his former colleague. The dark patch matched his dark suit which was cut just a bit too fashionably to be "government issue." The matching designer slippers, which Bynum now studied, bespoke someone who expected to spend his days in a nice, safe office rather than chasing down suspects. His hair, though, maintained the conservative image the Bureau favored. "It agrees with you."

"Well, you're not looking too bad yourself," he said, but it was a lie. The changes in Mulder were almost shocking. Gray had established a major beachhead at his temples. His suit bagged everywhere but the arms, where muscles filled the sleeves. Dark circles rimmed lackluster eyes whose laugh lines had deepened to full-fledged wrinkles.

"So, how's Mrs. Spooky?"

Mulder's breath quickened but he resisted the urge to respond harshly. This was Bynum, after all, who, barely out of surgery himself, empty eye socket swaddled in tape and cushioned gauze, had flown from DC to Billings to visit him in the hospital after Patterson's little late-night visitation.

"How's she dealing with your bad attitude now that she can't set that rotisserie bed you were in to 'spin'?"

Mulder nodded with a smile. "After 6 years together she's developed a variety of wicked coping strategies."

"She'd have to," Bynum agreed, his lone eye twinkling.

"Agent Mulder," Dan Livingstone bounded to his side, much like a large, clumsy puppy. "The locals are going out for a drink and," he stopped short, "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to interrupt."

"Tony Bynum, Agent Dan Livingstone," Mulder introduced flatly.

Livingstone's eyes widened at the mention of Bynum's name. "You were on the Patterson task force," he said breathlessly, then grasped Bynum's hand and pumped it vigorously. "It's an honor to meet you, sir."

Bynum winced and Mulder chortled at his discomfort. "You were saying, Agent Livingstone?"

Livingstone's round face colored like a stop sign. "Uh, yeah. The locals have invited us to join them for a drink. Some place called Spotty's."

"Cop bar," Bynum explained. "Under the old Ohio River bridge. Over a hundred years old and the best chili in Cincinnati."

"On the riverfront?" Mulder whispered to the former agent, shifting apprehensively.

Bynum sized him up. "We should be able to get around okay," he reassured quietly.

"Okay," the Senior Agent approved and the younger agent bounded after the departing policemen, again the happy puppy. Mulder and Bynum waited for a moment, then followed, treading heavily from the onus of Patterson's handiwork.



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Chapter 7



Walter Skinner paused in the hallway outside his Crystal City apartment, savoring the delicious fragrances he knew were emanating from his kitchen. He thanked his lucky stars that his Mary, like the Marys his brothers had married, was a wonderful cook. His tightening waistbands showed the results of her efforts. He twisted the key and strode through the door, setting his briefcase and coats on the side chair as he passed. He peeked into the kitchen, expecting he'd find her, as he had every day since she'd come home from Texas with him, putting the finishing touches on another flavorful repast. Pots boiled on the stove and a casserole, hot to the touch, sat on the counter. But she was not there.

"Wyatt?" she called, her Hill-Country inflection making his childhood nickname sound more like she was saying "white." Pleased as he was by her use of that appellation from a more innocent time, a threadiness in her voice frightened him.

He turned off the stove burners and followed the sound of her voice back to their darkened bedroom where she lay curled under one of his grandmother's hand-pieced quilts. His heartbeat shifted into overdrive. "Mary?" He sat gently on the bed and leaned to look into her eyes. "Mary, are you alright?"

Her eyes were hooded with approaching sleep and she nodded groggily. "Mm, hmm."

He could barely hear her for the pulse pounding in his ears. "What's wrong?" He stroked her cheek, his wedding ring gleaming in the sliver of light that invaded from the hall.

"I'm so tired," she whispered, raising her hand to his cheek. "I just need to rest a little before supper."

He started to object, to suggest that she call the doctor, but her deep, even soughs soothed him. Artfully he brushed his hand across her neck where he could feel her pulse, slow and strong. Her skin was warm, just right. He felt his own pulse calm. "Just rest," he whispered, carefully slipping his hand beneath the covers and spreading his fingers across her rounded belly.

She smiled a secret smile.

"Can you feel him?

"He knows you," she whispered and covered his hand with hers.

"What's he like now?" He could have sworn he felt a tiny flutter. "Or she?"

He could see her sleepy smile in the half-light. "He. I just know it," she said confidently. "He's about 5 inches long and weighs about 4 ounces. Soon he'll be sprouting hair."

"That'll be a relief."

She giggled softly and lowered her forehead to meet his. "He's a lucky little thing. We both are."

He held her gaze. "No, my Mary love, I'm the lucky one." He brushed his lips across hers and drew her closer, no longer needful of food or drink, fully satisfied by this union of heart, body and soul.



***

"Dana!" a distantly familiar voice shouted from behind her. "Dana Scully!"

Finally recognizing her last name, she stopped short, only to be nearly bowled over by the figure hurtling toward her.

Both of them "Ooffed," at the contact, but he managed to keep them both on their feet by wrapping his arms around her.

It took her a moment to realize just who "he" was. He had a beard, neatly trimmed and graying. His hair (why is such beautiful hair wasted on men?) tumbled black and silver on his shoulders. He towered over her, and his western-cut coat hung nearly to his denim-clad knees.

"Guy?" she gulped. "Guy Pembroke?"

"Dana Scully, it is you!" he drawled.

Her jaw hung slackly while she tried, unsuccessfully, to form words and sentences.

"Are you okay?" He released his embrace just enough to look her over. "I didn't hurt you, did I?"

"No," she said, words finally returning, flushing as she backed out of his embrace. He grazed her arm and she shuddered, causing her to blush even more. Nervously she brushed an errant strand of hair from her eyes with her left hand. Immediately he caught the hand and examined its decoration.

"Is this new?"

She nodded demurely.

"So, who's the lucky guy? Last I heard you and your partner were too busy to . . ."

He stopped short, then smiled broadly. "Well, you always were good at time management."

She turned deep crimson then shrugged. Pausing for a moment while her pulse returned to normal, she finally asked, "What about you?"

"Almost. Then I made the mistake of taking her to work." He made the motion of a rocket taking off. "Hasta la vista, baby."

She nodded silently.

"What about your guy? Is he a cutter, too?"

"No," she shook her head. "He's a profiler for the FBI. We work together in the Investigative Support Unit."

He rubbed his thumb across the manicured stubble on his strong chin. "A pathologist and a profiler-dinner parties at your house must be a blast."

She merely nodded.

"So, are you here for the party?"

"No, actually, I'm presenting for Trish Jacobs."

His eyebrows lifted, opening those brown eyes even further.

"She went into labor this morning," she explained.

"Oh." He stared for a moment at the toes of his boots. "Is your husband here?"

"No," she replied quietly. "He's on a case in Ohio."

"Oh," the rise in his voice made her heart skip a beat. "Maybe we can get a drink later-catch up on old times and such."

"Maybe," she said flatly.

He spied a clock. "Shit, I'm gonna be late. Look, it was great seeing you again, Dana."

"It was great seeing you, too, Guy."

"And I'm really looking forward to working closely with you in the near future."

Her eyebrows shot up.

"I've just accepted appointment as the Chief Medical Examiner for the State of Virginia."

She put on her best fake smile. "Congratulations." She looked at her watch then waved. "See you soon." She turned and nearly ran to her conference room.

"Bye." She heard him call.

"Oh, brother," she muttered with a shiver.



***



"You weren't kidding about the chili; this is great," Mulder confessed between heaping spoonfuls of the steaming soup.

"Two things you can always count on in a cop bar," Bynum began.

"Aside from the badge collection a some animal dressed up in blues?" Mulder waved a spoon at the stuffed toy Saint Bernard wearing a Sergeant's uniform.

"Aside from that," Bynum laughed. "You can always count on a cop bar to have good booze and good food."

Mulder took another bite. "The food I can vouch for but I'll have to take your word on the booze," he tapped Bynum's sweating pilsner glass.

"Sure you won't join me?" Foam clung to his upper lip after a gulp.

"Not if I'm planning on walking anytime soon."

Bynum stirred his chili uneasily. "I thought they'd pension you off after Patterson got through with you."

Mulder gulped his iced tea. "They tried." He shrugged. "But I guess I'm the Bureau's bad penny. All the sudden retirements in ISU raised the value of my coin, so-to-speak."

The silence between them was palpable in the noisy pub.

"Looks like you've got a future AD on your hands," Bynum tilted his glass toward the bar where Livingstone was buddying with the local cops. "Born to schmooze," he said with a curling lip.

Mulder shook his head. "He's okay. Knows when to talk and when to listen."

"Which he sure as hell didn't learn from you," Bynum grinned.

Mulder smiled in response, genuinely.

Bynum studied his companion for a moment. "How do you deal with it?" He pointed to the crutches leaning against the inside wall of the booth. "Not being like you were, I mean?"

Mulder froze. "I think the general consensus is that I deal with it badly." He gulped his tea again. "Although I think I'm much improved since the beginning when they told me I'd probably be paralyzed on both sides instead of just the one." He rapped his knuckle against the steel that enframed his left leg. "That news I took very badly. If I'd had any feeling below my stomach I've have jumped out of bed and hit somebody," he said wryly. "Lucky for me they were wrong and Scully and Skinner were around to keep me out of trouble."

"That's been a full-time job for both of them."

Mulder mouth curled upward but it wasn't a smile. "So, how's that son of yours? You haven't said a word about him all night."

Bynum smiled. "Just remember you asked first," he warned as he pulled out a sheaf of snapshots. "He eats like a horse and sleeps like you, which means nobody in the house sleeps." He pointed to a snapshot of a huge straw hat that engulfed the dark-eyed infant. "But then, you and Scully will be finding out soon enough for yourselves."

Mulder stared intently at the photographs for a moment before shaking his head, slowly, hesitantly. He raised his eyes to meet Bynum's.

"Sorry. I had no idea."

Mulder shrugged diffidently. "Comes with the territory," he said flatly. "So, how are you dealing with your, uh, new fashion statement?" He stirred his now-tepid meal. "I thought you were getting a glass eye."

Bynum chortled. "So did I. But the socket was damaged worse than they thought. Damned shooter kept popping out."

"Can they do anything about it?"

Bynum blinked slowly, "There's another," his voice quavered, "operation they think will help."

"Are you gonna do it?"

Bynum nodded. "I'd do anything to make it so Renee can look at me again without being sickened."

"It's better than pity. Sometimes all I see in Scully's eyes is everything Patterson's knife took away from me. From us."

Laughter from the bar punctuated the silence between them.

"Oh, boy," Bynum said too loudly. "When you get maudlin it's time to go home. You think Wonderboy can hitch a ride to your hotel with his new-found friends?"

Mulder caught Livingstone's eye and pointed to his watch. Livingstone spoke briefly to a member of the gaggle he was addressing then waved them on. Mulder stood up with and audible "snick, snick" before putting the crutches to their use again. "Lead on, Eagle-Eye," he said with a sardonic smile.

"After you, Hopalong," Bynum returned, following his brother-in-arms slowly out the door into interminable twilight of their respective futures.





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Chapter 8



His plan had been to surprise her at her meeting. He'd gotten her message from Maggie Scully just in time to change his destination from DC to Richmond. It was late Saturday afternoon by the time he rounded up a porter, his luggage and a cab to the hotel. Convincing the desk clerk that he belonged with Dr. Scully took another 20 minutes so he'd missed her presentation. But he certainly hadn't missed the show, not by a long shot.

He'd made his way to the conference room just in time to see her exit the dais into the arms of a tall, dark cowboy. To her credit she'd managed to look very uncomfortable in that position, like an ambushed squirrel. The cowboy, on the other hand, had looked very comfortable with her in his unfettered arms. She'd spied Mulder immediately and had hurriedly extricated herself from the cowboy's embrace, displaying more caution than affection when she'd greeted her partner with a quick hug.

They had passed the day civilly, with Pembroke, an old med school chum of hers, ever on their heels. They had managed to ditch him just after dinner, but only by retiring to their room and to their respective sides of the bed.

"Thank you for joining me," she rolled over and stroked his back.

"My pleasure," he replied dryly. "You seemed to enjoy seeing your old friends."

"The best part was seeing you," a tiny hand slipped under his shirt, fingers tracing lazy circles on his belly.

A pleasant burning stirred within him, faintly, barely recognizable. He leaned carefully back into her, rewarded with angel kisses across his shoulders that fanned the embers warming him. The hand on his belly moved lower and the kisses on his back followed, tickling the scar at its center.

Instantly the burning turned ice cold, numbing, with black and bloody images flashing before his eyes. He froze.

As did she, feeling his muscles tense and his skin cool perceptibly.

Then muscles relaxed. "I'm sorry," he panted.

"It's alright," she soothed.

He shrugged her away and they spent the rest of the night hugging opposite edges of the hard bed instead of each other.

Sunday brought the drive home and a benignly pleasant lunch at a haunted inn just south of Alexandria. Dinner with her mother had been nice and normal, the discussion centering around the location and features of a home the realtor had called about. They'd contented themselves watching a Knicks game until Mulder's team had managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Heavily he'd ascended those un-beloved stairs and now he lay, freshly showered, beside her. Deeply, soulfully, he inhaled the fragrance of her soap and shampoo and shuddered. In his mind he imagined that fragrance, and her, over him, under him, around him.

He drifted off to sleep dreaming of their first night together, in the cabin in Miles City. Rabbi Edelsohn had conned him into playing basketball for the synagogue that night. The Rabbi had challenged Father Stickley to a game to benefit the local youth league and the honor of the synagogue was at stake. Scully's loyalty had been torn, since she was a communicant of Stickley's parish, but had finally sat with the ladies from the synagogue. The team from the synagogue had emerged victorious and were treated by the losers to wonderfully greasy french fries and gravy afterwards. Sometime during the evening Mrs. Edelsohn had referred to them as "the Mulders," which, rather than the grimace he expected, prompted a shy smile from "the bride." Upon their return to the cabin, she'd removed his pillow from the sofa where he'd been sleeping, taking it, and its owner, to her bed. Neither had left it since. The succeeding nights glowed golden in his dream, each like a shining bead on a precious strand, until that night, the last night, the night turned blood-red then black by Patterson's dark deed.

He awoke with a start, a shout riving his nightmare like the tip of Patterson's blade had severed him from his future.

"Are you okay?" Scully asked groggily.

"Yeah, yeah," he panted, heart pounding.

"Sure?"

"Sure," he reached for her but, touching her, was burned by the futility of his desire for her and withdrew. "Go back to sleep."

He rolled away, careful not to touch her in any way. His eyes had nearly slid shut again when the telephone tweedled them open.

"Mulder," he answered groggily. He "um-hummed" a few times before hanging up.

"What is it?"

"Another church burning. In Tennessee."

"They're accelerating."

"Yeah. Grayson wants me to fly down to Memphis in the morning to work with the ATF Task Force on refining their profile."

"Who's going with you?" Scully asked expectantly.

Mulder swallowed. "Stanley." He rolled away again. "G'night, Scully."

"Good night, Mulder."



****



The gray sky hung low, emitting a gritty rain as the temperature hovered near freezing, making a tapping noise on the windshield of the rental car. The hum of blacktop had given way to the crunch of macadam beneath overhanging corncob pines. Where the pines thinned, the wind buffeted the car, causing Agent Regina Stanley to yank the steering wheel defensively.

"People actually live out here?" she peered at a dilapidated house, hut actually, hemmed in by rusting barbed wire strung between rotten split-log posts swayed by the gusts.

Mulder's reply was supplanted by an off-balance grunt as he grabbed for a hand-hold when Stanley swerved to miss the remains of something recently gray and pink. She cut the wheels again to follow the sharp curve in the road and they both felt the tires break loose, a slow slide propelling them toward a deep ravine. Desperately she cut the steering wheel again and the tires finally regained traction, their sudden forward lurch driving them back across the rough road and onto a gravel drive that terminated at the smoldering carcass of a rural church.

The car crunched to a halt, spraying gravel like rose petals in the path of a royal. Heads spun their direction, interrupting the work of the dozens of firefighters, local policemen and ATF agents. Most returned quickly to their work, but one, tall and lanky, turnout coat flying in the wind, walked toward them, shaking his head.

"I'm sorry," Regina Stanley's blush warmed walnut complexion. "I'm really a very good driver but the weather-"

"Don't worry about it." Mulder buttoned his topcoat then tugged at the door handle. The wind caught the door and it flew open, nearly toppling the approaching figure. "Sorry," he shouted.

"I was beginning to get worried about you." He stuck out a hand. "Clayton Peale, ATF."

"Mulder," the Senior Agent shook the offered hand then tested the leaf-covered sodden earth with his crutch tips. He tilted his head toward the driver's seat. "Agent Regina Stanley."

"I see the Fire Department managed to save the lot," Mulder observed wryly.

"And the sign," Stanley added, rubbing her hand over the rough-welded letters that read "Oak Grove Baptist Church."

"They don't have city water out here and the closest tank truck was 15 miles away in Somerville. The rain saved what little is left."

Ash poofed wetly as a beam, already fallen, broke in two.

"What time did it start?" Stanley stepped gingerly over the slickened ash to stand at the foot of the worn stone steps.

Peale adjusted his hat to fend off the raindrops. "About nine last night. Services were done by eight; minister was gone by eight-thirty. A neighbor bedding down his livestock around 9:15 saw the flames and called it in."

"Suspects?" Mulder navigated around a smouldering ember.

"The Fayette County Sheriff is rounding up the local firebugs," Peale replied, then knelt and picked up something small, slender. "But I don't think we'll find our guy among them." His stroked the object with gloved fingers, then held it up. "Hand forged nail." He lifted the unburned end of a wooden beam. "Native bois d'arc, still strong as iron. Stood 160 years of war and flood and now some idiot burns it down. For what?"

"I suppose that's why we're here?" Mulder raised an eyebrow. "Standing in a driving rain? Our clothes all tarnished with ashes and soot?"

Peale chortled and carefully replaced the nail. "I guess you do wonder why I called this meeting," he pulled off his gloves as he led them around to the fallen steeple, "ten years into an ongoing investigation."

"It had occurred," Stanley replied dryly, further response cut off by Mulder's sharp look.

"Most of the fires have been match and gasoline jobs; light up and light out. But, here recently, something new has turned up at some of the fires." Peale kneeled and lifted the flaky remnant of a shingle with his pocket knife.

"It looks like an alarm clock," Stanley said slowly.

"Was there an alarm clock in the church?" Mulder leaned as far as he could, Stanley's arm flying up to steady him when he overbalanced slightly.

Peale shook his head. "That's ceiling plaster it's on top of. This was way up in the steeple."

Mulder's eyes gleamed. "How long have you been finding these?"

"Three fires in three weeks," Peale stood. "All on worship day. This is the first pattern we've seen emerge in 10 years."

"I'd say you need a profiler," Mulder suggested.

"I'd say you're right," Peale agreed.

Top



Chapter 9



"And so, the post-mortem examination of the victim can provide the investigator with essential information as to the method as well as the circumstances of a death. Are there any questions?" The surgical staples made an odd "thudding" sound that reverberated off the stainless steel laboratory surfaces as they pierced the moldering flesh of the corpse on the table before her.

Scully scanned the sea of vacant eyes surrounded by faces turned a comical shade of green. She had hardly said, "Dismissed," before they spilled out of the doors of the autopsy theater and into the hall like the ocean through a break in a seawall. Dan Livingstone plodded against the current like a tugboat against the tide.

"Agent Scully?"

She popped off her rubber gloves, signed a clipboard, and nodded to an attendant who pushed the cart bearing the body into a large cooler. She stretched stiffly, propping both hands in the small of her back.

"Yes, Agent Livingstone?" Her voice was stiff as she resumed scribbling on a clipboard.

"I can come back if you're busy," he offered.

Her head popped up, "Sorry." She stripped the paper from the clipboard, which she hung on its designated hook, and slipped the paper into a candy-striped case folder. "How can I help you?"

He shuffled his feet. "I've been going over these autopsies for this case." He held out a handful of file folders. "And I think I've got the gist, but something about the histamine levels seems odd." He opened the top folder and pointed, while the remainder slid from his hands. And, fortunately, into Scully's.

"Wait," she straightened the manila folders. "Let's go back to my office where we can spread these out and . . ."

"I'm sorry," Livingstone colored red, returning the folders in her hand back to the stack in his. "You've been on your feet all day and I know you must be tired given your situation and all . . ."

She shrugged a white lab coat over her blue scrubs, holding the door to the hall, "Histamine levels can vary widely without significance," her voice took on its 'lecture' timbre and she continued the dissertation into her shared cubicle. "And so, you see that variations in histamine levels may or may not be . . ." She stopped so suddenly that Livingstone twitched toward his weapon before seeing what had startled her so. It was roses - lots of roses, at least a dozen yellow roses in a milk glass vase with a big yellow bow. She blinked so rapidly it resembled a coquettish flutter then, hand trembling, reached for the card. Even after all these years, she recognized the compact scrawl:

Dana,

It was great seeing you again. Maybe we can have lunch some day and talk about old -and new- times.

Guy



Dana Scully stared at the note until it blurred and, the next thing she knew, she was ensconced in her office chair with Dan Livingstone's Charlie Brown face hovering over her.

"Are you okay, Agent Scully?"

"I'm fine." She held up a hand and Livingstone backed away slightly, "I've just been on my feet too much today without eating."

He frowned for a moment, then stood, crossing his tree-limb arms across his broad chest. "Then you'll eat," he insisted.

"Agent Livingstone, I am perfectly capable-"

"Of course you are. But, like the rest of us Type-A workaholic personalities, you seem to neglect the mundane things like taking care of yourself. Besides," his broad face split into a grin, "I don't think Agent Mulder would want his roses wasted on a sick lady, would he?"

***



Clayton Peale leaned against the nondescript SUV, ignoring the rain, "There have been over a thousand suspicious church fires since this task force was formed. Most of the burned churches had predominantly black memberships. While a few fires have been attributable to particular individuals or groups, most have been relatively unrelated, unsophisticated 'me too' burn jobs that would seem to indicate the arsonists, multiple, were simply choosing their targets based on opportunity."

"Until these last three," Regina Stanley propped her arm on the door of the vehicle.

Peale nodded, "The first of these fires, at the Corinthian African Methodist Episcopal Church in Lafayette Parish, Louisiana, occurred two weeks ago on Sunday night, Monday morning, actually, at 3 am." He fished around in his pockets then offered each a mint from a half-consumed roll. "The second fire occurred five days later, around 5 o'clock on Saturday morning at the Beth Israel Synagogue outside Greenville, Mississippi."

"He's cutting it closer, setting the fires nearer a time when people will be in the building." Mulder leaned against the hood of the vehicle, releasing the crutch handgrips and stretching his long fingers.

"Exactly," Peale agreed, "which is why you are here."

"Do you have any feel for where he'll strike next?" Stanley asked and pulled her gloves tighter.

"Hell," Peale leaned back, "I don't even know why he chose these churches."

Stanley rubbed her hands together, "Do we know it's a he?"

"The odds favor it," Peale twisted a gold band on his right ring finger. "Ninety-one percent of church fires were started by males-nearly 73 percent by Caucasian males."

"What else do the historicals tell you?" Mulder asked.

"That nearly 87 percent of the fires were started by persons under the age of 35. Nearly 80 percent of those were started by males under the age of 35."

Regina Stanley smoothed her elegant braids with long fingers. She was beautiful, regal-looking, out of place in this sea of coats boldly emblazoned with yellow alphabet letters. "How many of those use sheets as wearing apparel?" Her dark eyes burned.

"A few," Peale acknowledged. "But most of the suspects have been dumb rednecks with no particular political affiliation." He dragged long fingers over a weary face. "But those aren't the ones that worry me. This one, and I'm attributing all three fires to the same person, this one is gonna kill a lot of people. Soon."

"How?" Mulder asked. "How does he do it?"

Peale stood, shoving his hands into the deep pockets of his turnout coat. "Where would you say the fire was the worst?" When he tilted his head toward the ruins, a dribble of rain ran off the brim of his hat. Both FBI agents studied the ruined church.

"The entrance," Stanley answered. "He sets it in the doorway?"

"Close," Peale led them to the former entrance. "He sets the device in either the steeple or attic space above the vestibule." He pointed to a gelatinous-looking blob on a charred rafter. "He's clever because he uses components that are commonly available, like this 5-gallon water jug: you can buy it just about anywhere."

"So what does he put in the jug?" Mulder prodded the soft earth with his crutches for a solid surface, finally moving to the bottom stone step.

"Gasoline," Peale pointed to another charred beam. "You can tell by the color of the ash on the rafter."

"What's the alarm clock for?" Each of Stanley's braids was tipped with a glistening water droplet.

Peale grinned. "Now that's where he gets crafty," he said appreciatively. "He loads the clock with batteries, attaches it to a bigger battery. When the alarm goes off, the circuit closes and it sets off the device."

"Wouldn't the neighbor have heard it blow up?" Mulder looked across the woods to the next house.

Peale shook his head, "It didn't blow. He used a two-stage alarm clock. The first alarm was attached to an electrode-one of those little things you use to warm coffee-that warms a hole in the bottom edge of the jug allowing the accelerant to leak out. The next alarm ignites the gasoline, after it's had sufficient time to soak into the material below it. This 150-year-old wood made the perfect fuel."

"Nifty little device," Mulder deadpanned. "You ever see anything like it?"

"The alarm clock," Stanley began, "wouldn't he have had to plant the device within the past 12 or 24 hours? Surely someone saw something?"

Peale's shaking head stopped her. "The clock has a date feature to it, too. There's no way to tell when the device was placed."

"What about the clock?" Mulder shifted his weight stiffly.

"Over a million imported last year," Peale's reply darkened Mulder's expression. "Sold in dollar stores and electronics hobby stores all over the country."

"Time to call in the psychics," Stanley muttered.

"I thought that's why you were here," Peale grinned and Mulder sighed wearily. "Seriously, I have all the case files, forensics, evidence, the whole smash, waiting on you in a nice, warm conference room back in Memphis."

Stanley hummed approval, rubbing her hands together. "Well, I'm ready."

Mulder looked across the glade, church surmounting a small hummock in its center. "Just give me a minute," he said absently, then gingerly made his way around the tree line, Stanley following silently. Peale followed with his eyes, noting the places where Mulder would stop, rotating his head for a full view, then move on. He finally finished his circuit and, fumbling with latches at the hip and knee, lowered himself awkwardly into the low-slung rental car. He propped the now-muddy crutches in the middle of the seat, just about where a shotgun rack would be in a squad car. He flung his wet coat over the back of the seat, then dragged the useless limb into the car, following with the good one. A sloppy plume of gravel announced their departure, leaving Peale with peppered with questions about the new investigators.



***



A familiar pair of boots appeared in the periphery of her sight as she tried to concentrate on the autopsy report in her hand.

"Are you okay?" the deep voice that belonged to the boots sounded tender, but concerned.

"Good news travels fast," she answered ruefully.

Skinner sat in the desk chair in front of her, allowing her the distance of the desktop. "Are you okay?" he asked more forcefully.

She nodded silently.

"Is it the cancer?"

"No."

"Scully," he laid his hand on the desk, "Dana," he said so softly, "Are you pregnant?"

She bit her lip then whispered, "I hope so."

"Does Mulder know?"

Shock, then dismay registered on her face. "Does it show?"

"Not much," he responded. "But it won't be long," he cautioned. "Does he know?"

"He's had his mind on other things," she said, as if it answered his question.



***



Mulder wasn't a drinker but he would have killed for anything alcoholic. So here he sat, in this new-but-somehow-shabby hotel bar, nursing a 7-Up with a twist, the new information about this case rolling about his brain like the marble on a roulette wheel, looking for a logical memory slot. He'd digested all of the ATF files in one sitting, perched on an uncomfortable chair in the temporary task force command post hastily installed in the conference room shared by the Memphis offices of the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Stanley had followed right behind him, making copious notes, until fatigue had set in somewhere after nine. Their hotel, quite conveniently, shared a parking lot with the office building and he'd dropped Stanley off at her room, answering a call from someone she had addressed as "Sweetheart."

He wondered what his "sweetheart" was doing right now, at 10 o'clock D.C. time. He should call her, wanted to call her, longed to hear the lilt in her voice as she called his name. But if he called her, she might get the impression that he still cared about her. So he remained in this bar, new but already worn, nursing his soda. Adding a shot of 7-year-old anything to the 7-Up would have improved his disposition considerably. But it would have been disastrous on his still-rusty cognition and his already-unsteady ambulation. *Damn.*

"How about some company?"

Cheap perfume assaulted his olfactory senses. Scarlet nails, too perfect to be real, clawed possessively at his right arm. False lashes feathered the violet-lensed eyes and the hair color was one shade too red to be anything but bottled. He sipped from the tumbler in his left hand, trying to ignore the intruder, but she was persistent.

"A handsome man like you shouldn't have to drink alone." She pressed herself against him. He twisted the glass in his hand enough so the gold band glittered practically in her face. "Oh, honey, you're not gonna let a little thing like that keep us from having fun are you?"

"Uh-huh," he said and stared straight ahead.

She stepped back enough to drape her arm around his shoulder, in the process dislodging something that had been leaning against the bar. She bent over from the waist, not a good idea in such a short skirt Mulder decided, and picked up the items. She handed them to the occupant of the next stool, "I'm so sorry, it was really clumsy of me to . . ."

"They're mine," the same hand that had been flashing the wedding ring earlier reached around her, taking the crutches and leaning them against the bar on the other side.

She spun around, eyes betraying shock, then disgust, then the dreaded pity. "I, uh," she stepped back, "I need to powder my nose." She smiled a Cheshire-cat smile, "I'll be right back." She backed away a few more steps then turned and practically ran out the door.

He stared at the bubbles rising in his glass marveling at how even that dimwitted floozy had been smart enough to run like hell when she saw what he was. So why was his brilliant Scully stupid enough to remain, even when he *tried* to run her off? She deserved more; she deserved better; what could he do to make her see it?

*Well,* he snorted at himself, *it won't be having an affair, will it?* "Bartender?"

"Yes, sir?"

He stared at his glass and at the damned things propped next to it. "Nothing," he tossed a few bills on the bar and made his way upstairs to his room.



Top



Chapter 10



There were times in Dana Scully's life when seconds passed like hours, hours like days, days like years. The sun peeping under her window shade had signaled the end of one of the longest nights of her life. She had crept down the hall, pharmacy sack in hand, like a teenager who suddenly had cause to watch the calendar. And now, now, she was spending 60 eternal seconds waiting, hoping, praying. She rubbed her hand over the little bulge in her belly wondering, for the millionth time since midnight, what it would be like to feel a tiny heart beating under her own. Wondering what it would be like to feel those tiny arms and legs stretch in protest of the cramped confines. Wondering what it would be like to feel that tiny hand reach for his father's hand splayed across the outside of her bulge. Wondering if that, that miracle would finally put life back in Mulder's smile. The second hand on her watch passed its goal, she held her breath as she picked up the wand that foretold her future, then, with a sob and a gasp, she smiled.

There were times in Fox Mulder's life when seconds passed like hours, hours like days, days like years. The sun peeping under the insulated window curtains had signaled the end of one of the longest nights of his life. He'd hobbled to the shower, steaming water failing to warm the chill that had settled within him. He'd dressed and, like every morning, he spent several minutes trying to find a comfortable, but utile, location for the holster clipped to his belt. The hands on his watch reached their goal and he limped to the bed, releasing the catches that allowed his leg to bend to a sitting position. He trapped the telephone receiver between his ear and shoulder and, hands trembling, he punched familiar numbers into the keypad. He passed the eternity before she answered wondering. Wondering what her life would have been like had she not met him. Wondering what her life would be like after him. Wondering how he would live without her.

"Hello?" She sounded sleepy.

"Good morning," he said evenly.

"Good morning yourself," her voice brightened. "How's it going?"

"Fine," his voice cracked and he cleared his throat. "Look Scully, I didn't want to do this over the phone," *Liar,* little voices in his head accused, "but I don't know when I'll get back to Washington."

"What is it, Mulder?"

"I just, well, I think we should wait on the house."

"Why?" her voice sounded cautious.

"Because," he drew and held a deep breath before exhaling. "Because I'm going to get a place of my own when I get back."

Silence answered him.

"It's just not working, Scully; it hasn't in a long time."

"How long?" her voice trembled.

"Since before Patterson," the little voices in his head chanted *Liar, liar* again. "I just didn't know how to tell you." Only static answered him. "Scully?"

"There's someone else."

"You know better," he replied quietly.

"No, I don't." She paused. "I'm not sure what to do next . . ."

"Get a lawyer," he desperately tried to control the quaver in his voice. "I'll sign whatever you think is fair."

"Mulder, there's something I need to tell you. I'm-"

"Look, it's better if we just do it. No reason for you to waste any more time on a lost cause."

"And if I don't think it's lost?"

"Then, for one of the very few times in your life, you'd be wrong. I've, uh," he swallowed hard. "I've got a meeting to prepare for . . ."

"Then I guess this is goodbye." He could hear the tears in her voice.

"Yeah." His heart pounded. "Goodbye, Scully.

"Goodbye, Mulder. If you need anything-"

He felt his heart stop. "I won't." Carefully, he replaced the handset, then leaned forward, hands tented, fingertips chafing his aching forehead. The gold band on his left hand gleamed dully. He studied it until a tear splattered. He tugged on the ring, her ring, trying to pull it over the bony knuckle, but he could no more remove it than he could remove her band around his heart.

She replaced the telephone handset, her right hand stifling a sob, her left guarding the bulge in her belly. The sweet joy that had fulfilled her just a few moments before soured to a bitter emptiness. Desperately she rubbed her hand over her belly, her ring snagging a button. Angrily she tugged at the golden circlet, the one he'd given her, trying to pull it over the pale knuckle, but she could no more remove it than she could remove his band around her heart.



***



Every time she turned around that morning, her belly was in the way. "Just like your father," she patted the bulge then smoothed the scrubs as white-faced students filtered into the stainless steel room. She pressed her fingertips on her eyelids, praying the redness not concealed by her artfully-applied makeup had lessened. Her stomach rolled and she slipped quietly into the storage room to munch a dry soda cracker pinched from the cafeteria, washing it down with a ginger ale so popular among the Bureau's coterie of "Fertile Myrtles."

She took another sip, spying the calendar on the wall. It was still turned to last October. She touched her fingertips to one particular date, smiling ruefully at the irony that the night Patterson's knife had changed everything would also be the night another change began in their lives. Even Mulder would recognize the obvious cosmic symbolism. Mulder. Her eyes stung. Mulder. Is. Leaving. Me. Us. Warm tears rolled down her cheeks and she stemmed them with a rough paper towel.

Summoning up facts from her long-ago OB rotation, she wondered if it were time for the onset of the "Hormone Fairy." Almost three and-a-half months? Time or not, he's here, she smiled. The whispering in the autopsy room ratcheted up to a buzz, and, wiping her face again, she took a deep breath and assumed her place behind the drain table.

"As we discussed yesterday, the autopsy can be a valuable source of information for the investigator." She unzipped the body bag and her day began.



***



"Now what?" Mulder stared with exasperation at the steaming coffee cup he'd just prepared. He scanned around the break room for a rolling chair, finding none, of course. With an audible huff, he leaned one crutch against the table and hobbled over to the coffee maker. On the hobble back to the table over half the cup spilled on the floor, scalding his hand. He set the cup on the table, bumping it as he sat, sending the free crutch to the floor with a bang and sloshing more of his coffee onto the table. As he bent to retrieve the crutch, he overbalanced, saving himself with the other crutch.

"Good morning."

*Shit.* He straightened to find Clayton Peale's lanky form walking to the coffee maker. "Morning." Peale slipped in one of the little coffee puddles and Mulder flushed scarlet. "Sorry."

"How long you been on those?" Peale daubed at the puddles with a crumpled napkin.

"Three months."

Peale refilled Mulder's cup. "Line of duty?"

Mulder nodded.

Peale picked up both cups and led Mulder to the conference room, flipping the light switch with his elbow. He set the cups on coasters on the stone-surfaced table. "Anybody I'd know?" He watched intently as the FBI agent performed his sitting ritual.

"Bill Patterson," Mulder stared at the steaming cup for a moment before taking a drink.

Peale's eyebrows shot up. "Well, you don't waste time with little guys, do you?"

Mulder chortled.

"What'd he do to you?"

Mulder stirred his coffee. "10-inch chef's knife just below the 6th thoracic vertebrae."

"That's a rather clinical description."

"My lady is, was, a doctor." His lips thinned as he tapped the table restlessly.

"Split up?"

Mulder nodded.

"When?"

"This morning."

Peale studied his cup. "Sorry."

Mulder shrugged and opened the file he'd been tapping.

"Hi," Regina Stanley's cheery greeting belied her sleepy expression. "Been here long?"

Mulder shook his head and continued reading the file before him.

A young agent, eyes bleary and suit rumpled, presented Peale with a stack of papers and lingered for a short conversation. *Night duty officer,* Mulder surmised, watching the young man's lead-footed departure. Peale began separating the papers into several neat stacks.

"Overnight calls to the Arson Hotline."

"Anything worth looking at?" Stanley asked.

"Oh," Peale drawled. "We have the usual. The crackpots or the lonely," he ruffled a piece of paper before laying it in a stack. "Investigate someday," he lay a sheet on the tallest stack. "Investigate soon," he topped a thinner stack. "And investigate now," he tapped the bare table where a stack could have been.

"Do you ever get anything off of it?" Stanley handed Mulder a pad for the computer he'd unpacked.

"Actually, we have," Peale nodded. "Mostly about the one-off, one-time arsonists."

"But nothing about these fires?" Mulder tapped on the tiny keyboard until his case notes appeared on the screen.

Peale shook his head. "What about you? Come up with anything?"

Mulder mimed Peale's last motion. "Still trying to find significant similarities between the sites." He flipped through a thin folder. "Your information on this last one seems a bit thin."

Peale flushed slightly. "It's only been a day, Mulder."

"I know," he said apologetically. "I just thought Stanley and I might drive out and interview this county historian Mrs. . . ." He held his glasses in front of the file folder. "Doyle. Maybe she can give us more information about the church."

Peale eyed the Senior Agent, a question forming on his lips that he stifled. "Suit yourself."



Top



Chapter 11



It was days like this that made government employee Fox Mulder consider a job in the private sector. In fact, after the last three days private practice was looking better and better. Telephone jammed in his ear, he pinched the bridge of his nose while listening to yet another lonely senior citizen describe, in excruciating detail, information about a fire in East Nowhere that had absolutely nothing to do with the last three. He feigned interest by "umming" occasionally, marginally successful at stifling a yawn. He glanced over at Stanley, who stretched stiffly and rolled her eyes in his direction.

Finally she replaced the phone in the cradle and sighed. "Wow, and I thought Mrs. Doyle was a talker!"

Mulder grimaced and made a rolling motion with his free hand while "umming" again. He finally banged the receiver in the cradle with a puff.

"Look, Mulder, I know you prefer unstructured interviews where the witness does all the talking but I don't think I can stand another call like that." She jotted a few notes on the paper before placing it face-down in another stack. "Especially after Mrs. Doyle."

"We learned a great deal from our visit with Mrs. Doyle."

"Yeah, I've got four taped hours of information about everyone who's passed through Fayette County, Tennessee, in the last fifty years. Everyone except the person who burned down the Hickory Grove Missionary Baptist Church."

"You never know what will turn out to be important, Agent Stanley." He reshuffled a stack of call reports.

Stanley smoothed her hair. "I know, I know," she acknowledged. "It's just that it's six o'clock Thursday night and, with the exception of a new recipe for banana bread, we don't know any more than when we arrived here four days ago."



"Welcome to Southern Law Enforcement," Peale interjected, leaning wearily against the door jamb.

Mulder frowned and began stuffing folders into his briefcase with Stanley following suit.

"Have you all eaten?" Peale drawled.

Stanley flashed a surprised expression. "No, actually, we haven't."

"Good," Peale stood up. "The FBI SAC managed to get us a table at John Willingham's."

Mulder replied with a questioning look.

"You eat ribs, don't you?"

Stanley replied with a lip smack and a "Yum," while Mulder hesitated.

"You go ahead. I'm not really hungry."

"Sorry," Peale said curtly. "Working dinner; attendance is mandatory."

A double "snick" signaled Mulder's rise. He shrugged until his briefcase was balanced on his shoulder.

"After you," Peale waved them out the door with an exaggerated gesture, ignoring Mulder's sulky frown.



* * *



"Is it 'some day' yet?"

Dana Scully jumped as a familiar countenance materialized in the pool of light from her desk lamp. "Guy," she panted. "You startled me."

"Sorry," he smiled so broadly it brightened the room. "They're holding up well," he brushed a still-fresh rose petal.

"Um, yes, they are. Thank you."

"You're welcome."

His eyes held hers until she looked away, blushing. The scent of his aftershave enveloped her and she was taken back to Anatomy class where she first noticed how he always smelled wonderful. What was it? British Sterling? She inhaled it deeply and blushed even more when she noticed his Cheshire-cat smile. She stood and squared her shoulders. "Why are you here, Guy?"

He did not reply until he'd looked her over, appreciatively, reverently, without even a trace of lechery. "I had to come to Washington on business, so I thought I'd have dinner with my old friend and her husband."

"Mulder's out of town."

Pembroke grinned broadly. "All the better." He stroked one thumb over his palm. "I assume you're working late because you have no plans?"

"I'm working late because I have a great deal of work."

"Unless you've changed that's work that could easily be delayed until tomorrow." He lifted her coat from the rack and held it open for her.

"I'm married, Guy. You're wasting your time."

"Great," he said glibly. "You can tell me how wonderful married life is over a steak at the Palms."

Scully's mouth was about to refuse but her rumbling stomach accepted the offer. She flushed again.

"See, it's settled," Pembroke replied, smoothing her coat over her slumping shoulders.



***



Mulder chunked the foil-lined bag into the tiny refrigerator that sat next to the microwave in his mini-suite. He shrugged his briefcase onto the desk and circled around to the dressing area, enjoying the extra-wide paths of his handicap-equipped room. The extra handholds allowed him to undress without having to coordinate support from the hated crutches. After a perfunctory shower he limped to the bed, lifeless foot leaving a trench of sorts in the carpet. With much effort, he dragged all of his limbs into the scratchy bed, realizing too late that the lamp was out of reach.

"Damn." He pushed and scooted until he could reach the switch and, in the darkness, lost his balance sending the contents of the bedside table crashing to the floor. He leaned, retrieved the glowing clock and returned it to its place. He groped on the floor for a moment for the telephone book and the Gideon Bible. "Screw it." He returned to the supine position and gathered the extra pillow in the crook of his arm, longing for she who was, at once, both silk and steel. "Damn." He rolled to the center, hot tears softening the coarse linens.



***



"Hello, kitten."

*Damn. Busted.* "Hi, mom." She'd hoped to avoid Maggie Scully again tonight, as she had managed to do all week.

"Work late?"

"Um, not really." She laid her coat over the handrail of Mulder's beloved stairs. "I had dinner with a friend."

"Oh," her mother cooed, "anyone I know?"

Dana hesitated. "Guy Pembroke. From medical school."

Maggie Scully, usually unflappable, was definitely "flapped." "Does he still have all that hair?"

Dana smiled. "Yes, and he's become the chief medical examiner for the state of Virginia despite it."

"Oh." Maggie stood and switched off the television. "How's Fox?"

"I'm sure he's fine."

"You act like you haven't talked to him recently."

"I haven't." She bit her bottom lip. "He informed me Monday night that he wants to live apart."

"Why?"

"He says he hasn't been happy for some time."

"Have you been having problems?"

"Not to my knowledge." Her hand brushed her belly. "Mom, I'm . . ." she stopped, "really tired. I think I'll go up to bed."

Maggie Scully wrapped her arms around her baby girl. "Sweet dreams, kitten. I'm sure everything will be alright." She smiled until Dana was out of sight then bolted for the telephone. "Walter?" she said into the mouthpiece. "We need to talk."



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Chapter 12



Walter Skinner's boot heels landed heavily on the tile floor of the hallway to his office. There were a few people in this world he tried not to disappoint and Maggie Scully was near the top of that list. She'd earned his admiration over countless cups of coffee in innumerable hospital waiting rooms while worrying over Dana and Fox. She was a self-sufficient woman; years as a Navy captain's wife had seen to that. So when she'd found herself desperate enough to ask him to interfere, it had been nearly impossible to refuse her. But he had. And she'd been angry. He'd grinned into the mouthpiece at the revelation that Scully's legendary temper indeed was matrilineal. But still he'd refused to interfere. And she had not understood. Neither had Mary. Both wanted him to haul Fox Mulder back to Washington and drill some sense into that proud, self-pitying, thick skull. As if he could. There was only one person Fox Mulder listened to when he was like this and that was Scully. Wasn't this the perfect little Catch-22 courtesy of Bill Patterson?

Skinner marched down to the coffee room, pondering Patterson's work as he seasoned his steaming cup. He returned to his office at a more leisurely pace, mentally examining the conundrum like a plain-wrapped parcel with no return address. If he handled this one badly the whole thing could blow up in his face. What had Patterson figured wrong? Where was the flaw in his profile of Mulder? Where had that warped mind erred in his analysis of the friendless loner who'd worked in Behavioral Sciences as a young man? The cogs in Skinner's brain ground to a halt, jammed by the word "friendless."

He sat, smiling, in his leather chair, morning sun streaming over his shoulder, plan of action percolating in his mind. No doubt his lovely Mary had already called Dana Scully, arranging some sort of outing to "lift her spirits" and convince her not to give up on Mulder. One down.

As sure as the sun had risen, Maggie Scully had already called Mulder, dismantling by sheer force of will his feeble justifications for leaving her daughter. Two down.

So, with the contestants in this little battle of affections bowed from the actions of their respective so-called picadors, it was time for him to dispense the last passes of the faena. Using his authority as a muleta, he set in motion the events that would lead to their moment of truth. He poked at the telephone keypad, hoping for voice mail, and getting it. "Grayson, this is Skinner. I'm catching heat about the lack of progress in the church arsons. Get your agents back for a Monday morning progress report. My office, nine o'clock." Ole.



***



"I gotta get an unlisted hotel room," Mulder muttered to himself as he crossed the empty parking lot to the ATF offices. First there was Maggie Scully and her sweet, but firm, demand for an explanation of why he was leaving her daughter-as if he could tell her. Then there was Grayson's demand for an explanation of their lack of progress on this investigation-as if he could explain that, either. Well, he could explain it: they didn't have shit. They had the device and nothing else. Sure, there was the statistical mumbo-jumbo with which he usually began a profile. But after that, there was nothing-- no unique physical evidence, no circumstantial evidence, no witnesses, no leads, nothing. He pressed the button at the top of the ramp that operated the automatic door, then leaned against the back of the elevator to steady himself on the short ride to the second floor.

The aroma of freshly brewed coffee led him onward like a siren's song until he pushed his way through the office doors and into the conference room. He shrugged his briefcase into a padded chair that had become his office. Leaving one crutch balanced against the chair, he hobbled to the break room, feeling nearly normal as he returned with a steaming cup of coffee in his freed hand.

He balanced the remaining crutch with its mate, gold band glittering when he placed his left hand on the sturdy table for balance. Lowering himself gracefully into the chair he recalled the times he'd toted coffee up the groaning stairs of the Montana cabin to rouse Scully from her slumber. It was his favorite time of the day. Her eyes would flutter slightly as his weight swayed the mattress, then she would prop herself up and reach, eyes still shut, for the warming brew. Invariably their hands would tangle for a delicious moment until she would grasp the mug firmly, caffeine opening her sleepy eyelids. It was on just one of those mornings, after tucking a silky titian lock behind her ear, that he realized that, not only did he love her but, he was in love with her. And now, for both of those reasons, he was leaving her. He closed his eyes to stem the tears and sighed.

"Good morning." Regina Stanley set her own steaming cup on the table. "You okay?"

Mulder flushed, realizing he'd been twisting his ring. "No, uh, yes," he croaked. "Skinner wants us back in DC on Monday. Status report." He gulped coffee to soothe his suddenly dry throat.

Stanley groaned. "What happens next? Grayson sends out a new team?"

Mulder winced and shook his head. "We'll monitor from Washington, acting in an advisory capacity to the task force as they develop new information."

"Did we strike out?" Fear colored the timbre of her rich alto.

"Well, we sure didn't hit a home run."

Stanley hung her head.

"Look," Mulder consoled. "We don't get 'em all. Sometimes I think we're lucky if we get any at all."

"So, why do you even keep trying?"

Mulder studied his palms for a long moment. "Because," he said roughly, "because sometimes we do get them." He propped his head on his hand, eyes closed.

Stanley leaned in close, her face even with his. "Does it feel good?" she whispered.

His eyelids parted slightly and he grinned.

"Agent Mulder?" The bleary-eyed night duty officer stood in the doorway, amass in wrinkled wool. "There's a little old lady on the hotline insisting she talk with someone in authority about the fire in Fayette County. Should I take a message?"

"No!" He punched the blinking button on the handset. "Agent Mulder . . ."



***

Dana Scully followed the waiter to the nearly-hidden booth at the back of the diner just a few blocks from Quantico. When she sat her pocket made a quiet crunch from the handful of pink telephone messages she'd stuffed in it on her way out the door-each with "Pls call" checked and "Guy Pembroke" on the Name line. He'd been nothing if not persistent since their very pleasant dinner together. She'd been nothing if not very distant since their entirely-too-pleasant dinner together. It had been nice -- talk about friends, the horses he raised, classmates, everything but their respective jobs.

She'd felt almost normal, with a normal woman's appreciation of the spectacular sight seated across from her.

His long, salt-and-pepper mane and close-cropped beard, sparkling clean and neatly brushed, gave him an untamed air that appealed to her. His southern accent made words roll off his tongue like honey. Add darkly burning eyes and a ready smile and you had a mighty appealing package for almost any woman. Except Dana Scully. Appreciative as she was of his charms, every one of them reminded her of how Mulder used to be-and could still be, if he chose. Mulder's hair could only be described as a barely controlled anarchy, defying all but the most stringent attempts at control. The invading gray had softened his features, making the laugh lines less noticeable. His eyes had burned darkly, too, but his smile was used only sparingly-seemingly he reserved it for her. His beard was a prickly stubble he would scrape oh-so-lightly across her bared shoulder on those golden days and nights when they closed out the world and explored each other with passion ranging from languorous to frenzied. The next morning he would bring her coffee to their bed and they would bask in the glow of the passion they knew would never wane so long as it was stoked by their love. But it had died in an instant. With the glint of a knife and the glare of an evil eye, the passion had been cut away from them and, seemingly, the love as well. A warm tear stained her porcelain cheek and she colored hotly, knowing she was surrounded by the prying eyes and enquiring minds of her colleagues.

Fortunately the attention of her colleagues was focused on the angel gliding toward her, golden hair crowning a glow that seemed to surround the tiny figure. Diamonds and gold glittered on her left hand when she raised it in greeting, her coat parting to reveal the sweater-clad tummy that bulged with its joyous cargo.

"Sorry I'm late." Mary Skinner tossed her worn leather purse into the corner of her bench. "Everything seems to take longer these days," she plopped in her seat and smiled warmly.

"So I'm about to find out,"Scully replied quietly.

Mary squealed and grabbed Scully's hand before her face fell. "Oh, no."

"Ironic, isn't it?"

"Well, what did Mulder say?"

"He doesn't know." Mary's disapproving expression stopped her. "I don't want a baby to be the only thing keeping us together."

"That's romance-novel rubbish." The waiter intruded with dripping water glasses which Mary allowed him to deposit before waving him away. "That's exactly what Mary Tom Skinner told me when I said the same fool thing to her." Her Texas twang broadened. "I was afraid that Walter and I had not had enough time to get to know one another before we married; that, as bizarre as it may sound, all we'd have in common was the baby."

"What did she say?"

"She said she and Tom would have split up a hundred times through the years if it hadn't been for their children."

The waiter reappeared, leaving only after he'd taken their order.

"Love is more than just a single rope that connects two people, Dana. It's made of many strands like passion, hope and friendship-each lending strength to the other so that when one is weak, the others hold firm."

"I wish I could believe that." Scully turned her reddening face to the wall. "I wish he could believe it."

Mary Skinner reached across the table, taking Scully's shaking hand in hers. "He knows it, Dana. He's just too afraid to trust it. To trust himself."

"I trust in it."

"Then tell him."



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Chapter 13



The long, low brick house sat in a double-deep lot, expansive lawn exquisitely manicured even in the dead of winter.

"Oh, my god," Stanley whispered as they turned down the winding drive.

"What's wrong?" Mulder asked.

Stanley smiled. "Nothing. It's absolutely perfect."

"What?"

"The house." She jammed the gear shift into Park and jumped out of the car, eyes filled with wonder. She pointed as Mulder lifted himself from the car with relative grace. "Exposed rafters, cross-gabled roof, tapered porch supports, ribbons of casement windows - a beautiful rendition of the Craftsman school."

"You mean Frank Lloyd Wright?" Mulder followed her up the porch steps under the porte cochere.

"No, no, no." Stanley scolded. "Greene and Greene, you know, the doctor's house from 'Back to the Future'."

"Oh." The doorbell chimed real chimes somewhere deep in the house. "And you know this because . . ."

"My dad's an architect. A real student of the Prairie and Craftsman schools."

A pair of blue eyes crowned with silver hair peeked out the high leaded panes on the dark, wooden door.

Stanley held up her ID while Mulder called through the door, "Agents Mulder and Sc-Stanley, FBI, to see Mr. Robert Polk."

The eyes disappeared as the lock scraped. The creaking door revealed a tall, lean, elegant woman seemingly in her late fifties. "I first called on Monday," she scolded. "Why didn't you respond then?"

Mulder shifted restlessly. "Because we were too stupid to understand the importance of what you were saying," he confessed.

"I'm Libby Polk." The older woman's expression changed from vinegar to honey and she beckoned them inside. "Robert's in the garden room."

They followed her through tastefully decorated sitting and dining rooms, over gleaming wood floors and vibrant antique carpets, past exquisite burnished paneling, under custom-made light fixtures and chandeliers. Their destination was, indeed, the garden room for the entire back wall was casement windows showcasing the dormant, but neat, gardens beyond. Twin fans buffeted the warmth from the large stone fireplace from the high ceiling back to floor level.

"Robert?"

A figure stiffly rose from the chair at the fireside, offering his gnarled hand while holding a withered arm close to his chest.

"I'm Fox Mulder, Mr. Polk," Mulder returned the handshake after shifting his crutch, and weight, to the other hand. "This is Agent Stanley."

"They're here about the churches, Robert," Mrs. Polk prompted when confusion clouded the gentleman's face. The face brightened.

"My father, Agee Polk, was an architect, very busy around here after the first World War." Robert Polk's voice was as rusty as the old garden gate. "But during the Depression, everybody quit building, so there wasn't much work for him. Then the WPA came along and commissioned a book about rural Southern houses of worship. They commissioned a lot of artists and writers, just to keep them busy until the economy turned up again." His voice drifted off.

"Robert, the book," Mrs. Polk prompted again.

"The book. They asked Papa, and an historian named Orrin Marcus and an artist named Callicot Burton to research write and illustrate it. Both Papa and Dr. Marcus had served in the war and had families, but Cal Burton was a young man, just starting out, just a few years older than I. I was fortunate enough to be asked to travel with them."

The older man coughed fitfully before sipping from a fragile teacup. "We went all over. Dr. Marcus had been hurt in the war and was on crutches but even Cal and I had trouble keeping up with him. We'd spend anywhere from a few days to a week at each place, staying long enough to get the whole picture, so to speak, about each site." The older man paused breathlessly.

"How many churches did you visit?" Mulder leaned closer to the gentleman, voice gently cuing their storyteller.

"Oh my goodness, over a hundred," Polk smiled. "Took nearly two years from start to finish. By that time the Depression had ended."

"What happened to your materials?" Stanley asked, almost fearfully. "Do you know their current location?"

"Of course I do, young lady," the older man chided. "We donated them to the University library when Marcus retired in '90."

"The University of Memphis library," Mrs. Polk explained from her perch on the arm of Polk's sturdy chair.

"It's a shame they weren't published," Stanley lamented.

"Oh, but they were," Polk said brightly, waving his hand until his wife retrieved a handsomely bound folio from the built-in shelves next to the fireplace.

The old man stroked the dusty leather cover with his gnarled fingers, halcyon memories dancing over his furrowed face. "It was the last book published by the WPA. Hand-etched, hand-set, hand-sewn, hand-bound. A true work of art." He held it out shakily.

Mulder grasped the book as it slipped from the gnarled fingers and opened it reverently across his lap. Stanley leaned over his shoulder eagerly while Mulder gently turned the sturdy pages until the Oak Grove Missionary Baptist Church was revealed to them, surrounded by the cottony dogwoods of spring. The schematic was labeled in a fine, regular hand and the text transcended the prosaic to near-lyricism.

"It's beautiful, Mr. Polk," Stanley marveled.

Mulder's eyes clouded for a moment as he thought how much Scully would enjoy seeing this beautiful volume. "May we borrow it, sir?"

Polk appeared distressed. "That was his father's personal copy," Mrs. Polk explained. "I'll get you some copies from the attic."

"We have boxes of them upstairs," the older man explained while Mrs. Polk was away.

"You have a beautiful home, Mr. Polk." Stanley leaned on the banquette that fronted the bowed wall of casements. "Did your father design it?"

Polk nodded. "My father was a great admirer of the Greene brothers, even corresponded with them in his youth. He was able to build quite a few homes in the Craftsman style in the years between the wars. But this was his jewel."

Stanley nodded, then hopped to help Mrs. Polk with the books. "There's one for each of you. Don't bother returning them, we have plenty."

Polk coughed again, raggedly, breath deserting him.

"I hate to seem rude, but we've an appointment . . ." Libby Polk apologized.

Mulder stood rapidly. "Thank you, Mrs. Polk, Mr. Polk."

"Thank you so much." Stanley hugged the books even as she walked backwards down the brick walk to their car.

"Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house." Mulder chided.

"I'm not coveting," Stanley corrected. "I'm admiring."

She finally relinquished the volumes in the car, laying them on the front seat beside her.

"So what's our next move, Agent Stanley?" The scenery sped by.

Stanley thought as she negotiated a turn. "Find out who else has the book-libraries, galleries, bookstores. Ugh, that's gonna be a lot of work."

"Not necessarily," Mulder braced himself against the door. "What would you do if you wanted to check it out of the library?"

"Go to the desk and see if they can get it," she smiled craftily, "through Interlibrary Loan."

Mulder nodded and smiled. "The rest we can leave to the idiot ATF agent who fouled up the report to start with."

Stanley grinned. "And what will you be doing in the meantime?"

Mulder tapped the books. "I'll be refining our profile."

Stanley snorted. At the next stop light she lifted the front cover. "Uh, Mulder?"

"Yeah?"

She lifted the cover of the second book. "These are autographed."

"By Mr. Polk?"

"By all three," her voice quavered until the car honked behind them at the changing of the light.

Mulder ran his fingers lightly over the leather bindings, wondering just how he could make a gift of this beautiful book to his, formerly his, beautiful Scully.



***



His beautiful Scully did not feel beautiful. All she felt was fat. And anxious. And lonely. The wilting roses caught her eye and she dumped them into her trash can on top of the stack of neglected phone messages from their sender.

"Any word from the travelers?" She spun around to find Dan Livingstone's large frame filling her office. "Sorry," he apologized when she grabbed the half-wall to maintain her balance. "Do you think they'll come home for the weekend?"

She studied Livingstone carefully. Was he fishing for information about Mulder for the rumor mill? He didn't seem the type. Was he just making friendly conversation? "I don't know. It would be unlike Mulder to leave before the case is closed."

"Oh." His shoulders drooped. "Have you heard how it's going?"

"Sorry," she shook her head. She stuffed file folders into her briefcase. "Was there something else, Agent Livingstone?"

"Uh, no," he muttered, leaden steps betraying a heavy heart. "Have a nice weekend, Agent Scully."

"You, too, Agent Livingstone."



Top



Chapter 14



"Shit!" Clayton Peale exclaimed. "You're telling me, at 3 o'clock on Friday afternoon, that we need to notify law enforcement in 101-"

"102," Stanley corrected.

"-jurisdictions that they need to find and search the old churches in their jurisdictions?" Peale paced. "Isn't there some way to narrow the field?"

"I'm still working on selection criteria," Mulder shifted uneasily in his chair. "But in the meantime, I think you should commence the searches. Setting up still watches wouldn't be a bad idea either."

Peale's face turned a purple-red. "Explain to me again why you're so high on this old book as the arsonist's catalog?"

Mulder turned to Stanley. "First, sir, each of our sites is in the book with illustration, detailed plans and exhaustive history. This is the first significant commonality we've noted among the fire sites despite exhaustive searches by the Bureau's documents section." She folded down one finger. "Second, the book is, surprisingly, widely circulated. Interlibrary loan," she cut her eyes at her senior agent, "indicates there are at least two thousand copies scattered across the continental United States. We're still trying to identify libraries whose copies are missing." She folded down a second finger. "Thirdly, our time is short. We have little more than twelve hours to search and secure the Jewish and Seventh-Day Adventist meeting houses. We've little more than 36 hours to search and secure the remainder. The time pressures require that we begin immediately to co-ordinate the efforts of local agencies."

"You understand, Agent Stanley," Peale propped both hands on his hips, "that we're dealing with rural law enforcement with low arrest numbers and that it's just as likely that Sheriff Andy Taylor is just as likely to be in a duck blind as his office this time of day?"

"You know she's right, Peale." Mulder defended.

"I know, I know," Peale acknowledged. "I just wish we were doing this on Monday instead of Friday."

"We could have been," Mulder said pointedly and Peale colored before nodding.

Peale took a deep breath as he stepped into the "bullpen." "Listen up, people," he commanded. "We've got a lot to accomplish and we don't have much time."



***



They ate in an uncharacteristically thorny silence, Mary jabbing at her food rather than eating it. Her fork clanked loudly on the plate. "I just don't understand why you don't haul him back to Washington and knock some sense into him."

Skinner wiped his hands and face, pushed his chair so he faced her and propped an elbow on the clothed table, chin cradled in hand.

Mary continued. "If you don't, he'll just hide out in the field, going from case to case, until it's too late."

A smile lifted his countenance.

Her pale face colored. "Well, say something."

"What do you want me to say?"

She jumped out of her dining chair, her head only a little higher than his. "I want you to say you'll do something!"

Lightning quick, he pulled her into his lap, wrapping his arms around her. "What do you want me to do?" His breath warmed her cheek.

She sat ramrod straight. "I want you to," tears welled, "I want you to make it all better." She buried her face in his chest, tears staining yet another silk tie.

He stroked her hair. "I know you do," he said gently. He leaned forward slightly then dangled a handkerchief in front of her.

She daubed the tie, then her face. "After all they've been through, I just hate to see it fall apart now when they really need each other."

"They won't."

"How can you be so sure?" She sniffled.

"Because they love each other, even if they've forgotten it for a while." He chuckled. "Besides -"

"Besides what?"

"Mulder has a nine o'clock meeting in my office on Monday."

"That doesn't guarantee . . ."

"Scully doesn't know it yet, but she has one at nine-thirty." He lifted one eyebrow.

"You rat! You let me go on like that, make a fool of myself-"

"You're such a beautiful fool-"

"While you knew all along you were doing just what I wanted."

He shook his head. "I'm just giving them the opportunity, Mary. The rest they have to work out for themselves, like you, like me, like every two people who choose a life together."

"I thought you said you never played games."

"I lied," he grinned.

She pushed his glasses up on top of his head and pulled his face to hers. "I love you."

"I love you."

"How do I know that's not a lie, too?"

He smiled and stood, still cradling her in his arms, and carried her away.



***



Mulder pushed his still-maladjusted glasses back into place, focusing on the clock at the corner of his computer screen, then grimacing. He pulled his glasses off with a sigh, leaning back in the chair stiffly. He groaned disgustedly.

"What is it, Mulder?" Stanley peered over her screen at him.

He slid files into his briefcase. He weighed his response before discarding the face-saving lie in favor of the truth. "I gotta get out of this leg iron."

"I could do without these heels." She stood. "Why don't we continue this at the hotel?"

His eyebrows shot up and she grimaced.

"Are you sure your reputation will stand it?" He jabbed.

Stanley smiled. "How has Agent Scully put up with you all these years?"

Mulder hung his head. "Endless patience."

He'd left Stanley to tote the books, which he couldn't have carried anyway, back to the hotel. She'd followed silently, depositing one volume, arranging to meet again, in his room in one-half hour. He propped one crutch next to closet, draping his coat over the wooden hanger. He held tightly to the handrail as he leaned to retrieve his trousers from the floor and draped them with the suit coat. Leaning against the wall he unbuckled the belt that secured his brace at the waist. Then he unbuckled the cinches at the thigh and the calf, finally slipping his limp foot out of the ankle plates. He hopped to the shower, letting the hot water wash away the fatigue and defeat.

Regina Stanley froze at finding Agent Mulder's door propped open with the night latch. She put her hand on her weapon and rapped gently on the door.

"Come in."

She pushed the door open gently, sweeping the room with one gaze. "Are you okay?" She pointed to the door.

He was propped up on pillows, clad in sweats and socks, files scattered all around him on the bed. "Sorry. I'm not exactly mobile without the brace."

His right leg was propped up, supporting the pad he was scribbling on. The left leg was flat on the bed, strangely angled, like there were no bones supporting it. How did he get around without-

"Agent Stanley?"

Regina Stanley flushed. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to embarrass-"

"It's okay. I'm still not used to it either." He tapped on the laptop next to him. "Have you been able to make any more sense of this?"

She sat at the table, shaking her head. "I've looked at it from vegetation, location in the county, global position, even categorized the former use of sites into Indian burial ground, voodoo sacrificial site, former temple mounds-nothing comes up common among our three sites."

"Sometimes it's not that obvious. It could be the direction the building is facing, the angle of the sun at sunrise or sunset, almost anything."

Stanley leaned forward. "Is it really that important to know why or how? We can search all the sites-"

Mulder leaned his head back against the headboard. "If we want to catch him, we'll have to maintain surveillance on over a hundred sites for an indefinite amount of time. We can't do that."

"Now what?" She propped her head in her hand.

"I've made a few notes," Mulder waved her over and she dragged the chair with her, the leg ruffling pages of the blue-covered Bible that still lay where Mulder had dropped it the night before. He leaned over and retrieved it, glancing at the page before returning the book to the night stand. He pulled the laptop on the night stand so Stanley could see it. "Now if you take the angle of the door frames-" He stopped short, grabbing the Bible and madly searched through it. Then he stopped.

"What is it, Agent Mulder?"

He smiled and shrugged. "When in doubt, consult the prophets."

"Excuse me?"

He peered through his glasses. "And the Lord shall cause his glorious voice to be heard, and shall show the lighting down of his arm, with the indignation of his anger, and with the flame of a devouring fire, with scattering, and tempest, and hailstones." He closed the Bible. "Isaiah 30:30."



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Chapter 15

"Oh, great, a religious fanatic," Peale groaned wearily as he paced the conference room. "I suppose these churches weren't holy enough for him?"

"In a sense," Stanley agreed. "We'd already looked at former use of the site as a possible selector, and discarded it because the previous uses were all different."

Mulder leaned forward. "But we had made our category too narrow. If we broaden the selector to include the churches whose sites were formerly used for any pagan religious purpose, that includes our three previous fires and about fifty fewer possibles."

"Now we're getting somewhere," Peale nodded. "Look, it's past midnight. There's nothing we can do but wait for the reports from the field and most of the locals are not gonna go prowling around at night looking for a bomb. So grab a few winks while you can."

Mulder leaned back, nodding in weary assent.



* * *



"Dana?" Maggie Scully called from the top of the stairs, just as she had at the front door, and the kitchen after returning from a Saturday afternoon shopping trip. She shivered and realized the attic door was open, cold air rushing into the hall. "Dana?" she called from halfway up the stairs.

"Up here, Mom."

Maggie mounted the stairs and searched the clutter for her daughter, finally spotting her perched on a claw-foot piano stool, swallowed by Mulder's favorite sweater.

"What on earth are you doing up here, Dana? It's freezing."

Scully looked up from the box in her lap. "I'm okay, Mom." She tugged on the sweater. "I'm nice and toasty."

Maggie grunted disbelief but did not disagree. "What are you doing?"

Scully shrugged. "Looking through some old pictures." She held up a snapshot of a much younger Maggie and her groom who was grinning quite lasciviously as he removed the bride's wedding garter. "I can't believe you left this one out of the album."

Maggie squinted at the photograph then blushed slightly. "You should see the one I threw away."

"Mom," daughter mock-chided mother. "Next thing you'll be telling me you and Dad slept together before you got married." She shot a sly look at her mother.

"I'll tell if you will," Maggie challenged with a Cheshire cat smile.

"Touche."

Maggie pulled out a picture of two red-haired girls, one tall and lithe and the other short and delicate-looking, swinging up-side down from a tree. "What was it like, Dana? When you and Fox married?"

Scully prayed for forgiveness for the lie she was about to tell her mother. "It was nothing special, Mom. No big deal."

Sorrow tinged Maggie Scully's voice. "Oh, Dana."

"We didn't really plan it. It was after a basketball game. Father Stickley was there and Rabbi and Mrs. Edelsohn and afterward we just went home." She grinned, a little proud of her creativity with the actual time line of their "wedding" day.

Maggie blinked away a tear. "I guess I'd hoped it would have been more special."

Dana brushed the tear from her mother's face. "It was special. Because we were no longer afraid to give each other the one thing we'd held back all these years-our hearts." She stroked her mother's hands. "I miss him, Mom." She leaned into her mother's shoulder. "I miss him every moment of every day."

Maggie stroked her daughter's hair. "It'll be okay, kitten. He'll come to himself soon and everything will be okay." Please, God.



***



Sunday morning dawned yellow and crisp in Memphis. It also dawned without a single report of a bomb in any of the sites on their possible list. Mulder stalked the office, leaning heavily on his crutches after only six hours of sleep in the previous forty-eight. Stanley had watched his expression darken with each successive "all clear." Peale's expression mirrored Mulder's, although he tried to reassure the visiting agents that it was "just a matter of time."

"But how many will die before then?" Mulder had asked bitterly.

Peale had responded by reminding them it was time to leave for their flight back to Washington. They had arrived for their flight early and Mulder had paced the long concourse, stopping to stare out the viewing window at each gate.

"Which sites haven't reported yet?" He'd asked as she slumped wearily in the gate area.

Dutifully she'd pulled out her notes, reciting the four locations, ending with Chesterfield County Virginia, just outside Richmond, and two hours from Washington. His eyes had lit up and he'd changed their destination to Richmond. Since their luggage was still traveling to Ronald Reagan National Airport, Stanley had wondered if it were possible to envy inanimate objects. They'd touched down in Richmond shortly after ten, leaving just enough time to rent a car and drive to the Olivet United Methodist Church, established in 1789 in a bend of the James River. It sat in a grove of dogwood trees under a towering canopy of bare old-growth oak trees. The defoliated branches painted spidery grey lines against the vibrant blue sky and the fresh snow on the ground. The small church itself was stone, roofed in slate, with massive doors at the top of stone steps. Set apart from the chapel was a brick building, considerably newer but still ancient. Modern cars seemed malapropos in the historic setting.

"Can you manage in the snow?" Stanley asked quietly.

Mulder nodded and exited the rental car, making a snick-slush as he progressed to the church building. The snow had been brushed from the steps and they climbed them easily, pausing to look up at the ceiling in the narthex. It seemed disturbingly undisturbed. Quietly they found seats near the rear of the sanctuary, standing immediately as the congregation recited, "We believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth, and in Jesus Christ His only Son our Lord . . ."

A pop above and behind them turned Mulder's head and attention.

"Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary. . . "

The ceiling creaked about three rows forward.

"Suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried, the third day he rose from the dead . . ."

A series of pops also caught the attention of a young man near the front of the congregation.

"He ascended into Heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead . . ."

The ceiling roared and the air darkened but the ceiling glowed and fire rained down on the congregation like the wrath of God.

In unison the congregation rushed toward the narthex, finding it an inferno. Many protected their heads with hymnals, pew Bibles, purses, coats. Frozen for an instant by the terror welling within him, Mulder finally noticed the young man he'd seen earlier using a chair to bash one of the stained glass windows. Mulder rushed to the nearest one and, from his knee and outstretched braced leg, used his crutches to remove the glass. He grabbed the nearest strong man and tossed him out the window, the cinders on the man's jacket steaming in the frigid air.

"Catch them as they jump," he called to the man and immediately pushed out an old woman Stanley had shoved into his hands. People rushed the window but Stanley held them at bay while the air turned thick and black, grabbing children and the elderly and pushing them toward her boss. Some he dropped into the waiting arms below and others jumped on their own, pouring out of the opening nearly as fast as the smoke.

The cinders swirled brightly around them and Mulder felt his arm burn, shedding his coat at the flicker of a flame. Soon his muscles were burning and his lungs screaming for something other than the smoke. He gasped while heaving the terrified parishioners to safety. There was a loud crack and slate clattered on the polished pews, sending a cloud of embers heavenward. The fire whooshed up in search of its life-giving oxygen, the heat searing Mulder's face. After what seemed like forever he turned and saw only Stanley, backlit by a fiendish glare.

"Jump," he shouted. Stanley looked around one last time, unluckily, as a storm of slate and fire rained upon her.

"Stanley!" Mulder croaked, smoke-filled-lungs unable to provide air for more than a whisper. Reaching into the smoking pile, her found her collar and heaved her out the window, following her in an oomphing heap. Propping himself with his braced leg and scrambling with the other, he dragged her into the snow, steam rising from her limp form. He felt hands pulling them away. With what he knew to be his final breath he gasped, "Tell my wife I still loved her," before he slipped into the empty darkness where he knew he would find Death.



Top



Chapter 16



The trip from Scully's house had taken just over an hour, Skinner managing to break the speed law in every jurisdiction they crossed. Scully had spent nearly the whole time on her cell phone, trying desperately to find the whereabouts of her husband. The Chesterfield County Hospital didn't have him. The Chesterfield County Coroner's office knew nothing of him-neither did the Sheriff's Department, nor the Fire Department. In desperation she called around about Regina Stanley, with equally uninformative results.

So by the time they reached the crime scene, Scully was nearly frantic. Clayton Peale had arrived by small plane but knew nothing. Witnesses on the scene recalled seeing two people matching Mulder and Stanley's description lying motionless on the ground; they assumed they were dead. Following the only lead, they drove to the coroner's office.

The grizzled coroner shook his head. "Don't know anything about the female, but I do have one victim-male, age 30-45, fits your general description."

Scully gasped.

"May I see him?" Skinner asked.

"I'll go," Scully insisted.

Skinner simply shook his head and left her in the shabby green concrete block waiting room. He returned just moments later with a grim smile. "It's not him," he said simply, holding the door for a sooty fireman and a grim-faced young woman before roaring off to the county hospital.

"Mulder," Scully demanded. "M-U-L-D-E-R."

The admitting clerk flipped through a stack of cards, shaking her head. "No Mulder."

"Okay," Skinner prodded, "what about Regina Stanley?"

The clerk shuffled her deck before pulling a card. "Are you members of the family?"

Skinner pulled himself to his full, intimidating height. "I'm her boss at the FBI. Where is she?"

"I don't have the exact location on her; it's been a madhouse around here with all the fire victims . . ."

Scully spied a familiar face leaning against a wall outside a treatment room. "Agent Livingstone?"

The young agent's head snapped up, tears staining his round face. "They won't tell me anything. I'm her fiance and they won't tell me anything."

Skinner's eyebrows had bounced at the word 'fiance' but he caught the arm of a scurrying nurse and cornered her.

"What about Mulder?" Scully asked.

"He's here, I think." Livingstone replied. "But I don't know where."

"Agent Livingstone," Skinner said gently, "Nurse Wilson will take you to see Stanley now."

Livingstone's face brightened and he disappeared with the nurse down the hall.

"What about Mulder?" Scully asked timorously.

Skinner took her arm and led her back up the corridor, peering at room numbers before stopping in front of Treatment 13.

"Just tell me if he's alive," Scully begged quietly.

"He's alive," Skinner answered and held the door for her.

He was breathing; she could hear it. It sounded ragged, rough beneath the face mask, but he was breathing. His left cheek bore an angry red blotch the color of a boiled lobster and the remaining visible skin and his white shirt was heavily sooted. His left pant leg was split up to the knee, exposing the steel brace and a bandage that covered almost eight inches of the mid-calf. She bumped into a chair and he shuddered, red-rimmed eyes darting toward the door.

"Scully," he croaked, sitting weakly.

"Just lie still," she ordered, hand circling his arm.

He grasped his left leg and pushed it over the edge of the examining table, following it with his right. He folded his arms around her tightly, burying his face in her hair.

"Are you alright?"

"I am now," he rasped. "I was afraid," he coughed then inhaled from the oxygen mask again. "I've been afraid for a very long time."

"So was I," Scully whispered. "Until I remembered that together we have nothing to fear."

"Love me still?"

"I never stopped.



***

There were times when Walter Skinner appreciated the fact that he had some federal weight to throw around. He was glad he could use it now to secure a private room with a rollaway bed for Agent Regina Stanley and her terrified fiancé. He was also glad he could use it to hasten the discharge of Agent Fox Mulder. Scully approached with a sheaf of papers.

"I have you to thank for this?"

Skinner smiled. "Let's just say there's another hospital that has Fox Mulder on the list of pain-in-the-ass patients they'd rather discharge than put up with."

Scully returned a weary smile. "How's Stanley?

"Concussion, busted ribs, some second and a very few third degree burns. Overall, she's in great shape considering she had a burning roof fall on her."

"Mulder said she saved a lot of lives today."

"I'm told they both did," Skinner sighed. "Now get out. I made reservations at the hotel across the street. You can spend the night before you go back to DC."

It was Scully's turn to sigh. "How can I thank you? For everything?"

Skinner grinned broadly. "Don't name your baby Walter."

"Deal," Scully agreed.



***



"Mulder, you're being stubborn again," Scully chided. "You've never walked on just a cane with your brace."

He took a few hesitant steps. "Well, maybe it's time I tried. To do better, I mean. In a lot of things.

Scully shook her head and steadied him as they walked across the street to their hotel room.

"Let's get you down on the bed," she said after turning on the light, but he was already halfway to the shower.

"I've got to wash off this stuff."

He leaned against the wall and she removed his clothing. "Another casualty of the cause," she observed, dropping his shirt onto the blackened pile.

"Tell me this is a handicap room," he begged.

Scully peered into the shower. "Yep."

He smiled, "Leave it to Skinner."

Scully nodded as the last of the clothing and orthotics lay on the floor. She left Mulder leaning against the wall while she adjusted the water temperature in the shower.

"I'm not helpless, you know."

"I know." She draped his arm over her shoulder, acting as his crutch until he was secure on the seat in the shower.

Mulder closed his eyes and turned his face to the water, enjoying even the sting as the water pelted his burned cheek. He felt a soft hand soap his face gently, then rinse it. Tiny fingers lathered his chest luxuriously. He hummed contentedly, but his eyes shot open at the sensation of a smooth, bare thigh against his.

"Hi," he said softly.

"Hello, yourself." She replied, pulling him forward while she lathered and rinsed his hair. "Long time no see."

His eyes traveled up and down her figure, starting and ending with her face. She planted a kiss on his cheek. "Too long."

She lathered and rinsed all that remained. "Much too long." She brushed her lips against his, sending sparks along nerve paths recently untraveled, starting a fire in his belly too long unkindled.

He returned the kiss, her belly pressing hard against his. "I'm not sure I can . . ."

"I am," she said confidently, handing him the soap.

He smiled and lavished attention on her long-neglected body, ending with her belly, his long fingers measuring its new roundness. Abruptly his face lifted to hers, a hopeful question glowing in his eyes. She looked into the soul that was united to hers and nodded.

Joyously he pulled her close, silently thanking the makers of the hotels for the water that never ran cold.



Top



Chapter 17

"Good morning." Walter Skinner poured two more cups of the Richmond ATF office's coffee and handed them to Scully.

She followed Skinner down the hall to the conference room, Mulder hobbling alongside. "Who was the casualty?"

"Fireman named John Green. Found him under a section of collapsed roof just three feet from the open window."

They paused as Skinner opened the door, Peale's booming voice shattering the morning quiet. Ceremoniously, Mulder pulled out a chair for Scully and, hand brushing the small of her back, guided her to it.

Skinner noted the secret smiles they'd been sharing since their arrival, praying they were evidence of a rapprochement. "Rest well?" he asked pointedly.

"Better than I have in a very long time," Mulder answered.

"Good." Skinner sipped from his cup while Peale continued his telephone tirade. "Green's funeral is tomorrow. I think it's a good idea for the Bureau to be well-represented."

"It's the least we can do," Mulder agreed.

Peale banged the handset into its cradle. "Nothing," he bellowed. "One dead, dozens injured and still we have nothing."

"How did we miss that one?" Mulder asked. "Why wasn't the church searched before the service?"

"Because the fax fell off the machine in the Sheriff's office. They found it this morning," Peale grumbled.

"Too late for Green," Skinner said wryly.

Peale nodded. "Funeral's tomorrow at two in Richmond. Y'all staying?"

Skinner nodded.

"What about Stanley?" Peale said quietly.

"They're gonna keep her a few days longer, then send her home." Skinner looked at Mulder. "Overall, I'd say we were very lucky."

"No shit," Peale agreed. "What was it like, Mulder? On the inside?"

Mulder shuddered, stilling at Scully's touch. "It rained fire, like the Old-Testament judgments of," he pulled the pilfered hotel-Bible from his briefcase and searched through it, "of Sodom and Gomorrah where God sent down fire and brimstone from the heavens."

"So this guy sees himself as dispensing the wrath of God?" Peale's brow furrowed.

"That's the best explanation I have so far."

"I don't suppose that explanation comes with a description?" Peale smirked.

"I wish."

"So do I. Now we'll have to spend hours and days checking over these stacks of arrest reports, accident reports and tickets from the jurisdictions around the four fires." Peale crinkled his nose.

Skinner doffed his jacket and reached for a stack. "Many hands make light work."

Mulder groaned but put on his glasses and tackled a stack of his own.



***



"You know what I wish, Scully?" Mulder called from the bed into the bathroom.

"I'm almost afraid to ask." Scully stood at the mirror, combing her wet hair.

"I wish they'd put the name of the city on the back of the hotel room door." He followed her with his eyes from the bathroom to their bedside. "How many times have we been in a situation where we woke up unsure even of what city we were in?"

She sat on the edge of the bed and adjusted their only travel alarm clock. "Mulder, how many times have we been in a situation where knowing the city wouldn't even have begun to help us?"

"Spoilsport. You're curbing my creativity," he mock-pouted.

She rolled to face him, stealing a corner of his pillow. "I was hoping you'd redirect that creativity more in the vein of last night's, um, artistry."

He draped an arm across her hip. "I cannot believe I'm hearing such talk from the mother of my child." A smile spread across his face.

"I believe such talk is just how I came to be the mother of your child," she replied with a smile of her own.

"I don't seem to remember much talking at all," he pulled her belly close, so close he could feel the roundness.

She scooted even closer, tangling herself in and around him. "Then stop." She brushed her lips along his eyelids, then his cheeks, then his slightly opened mouth. "Talking."



***



"Mary, you know I'm glad you're here, but I really think this trip was too much for you." Skinner tossed the room key on top of the television.

"Wyatt, I'm pregnant, not sick." She stood as tall as she could, hands braced in the small of her back.

"Still, I think you should lie down for a bit," he picked up the telephone and pressed the flashing message light. His face clouded and he slammed down the receiver, growled, "Scully," snatched the key from the television and grabbed Mary's hand before the door slammed behind them.

Mary Skinner could barely keep up with her husband's determined strides down the hotel corridor.

"What's wrong with Dana?" She tugged at his hand. "Oh, God, Wyatt, it's not the baby is it?"

Skinner shifted restlessly in front of the elevator. "Mulder said in the message that they were afraid," the elevator beeped, "she might be having a mis-" The doors slid open.

"Hello, sir," Scully said flatly, her eyes fixing on Mary Skinner's belly.

Skinner's chest tightened. "How are you, Agent Scully?"

"Fine." She cast her eyes downward and led them back up the hall. Skinner looked at Mulder, who shook his head. Scully stood quietly as Mulder opened their door, across from Skinner's room. Mulder gently guided her inside, the door slipping shut behind them.

The funeral was held in the First Methodist Church of Richmond. Traffic arteries around the church were clogged with police and fire cruisers from 5 different states, according to Mary Skinner's count. Skinner whipped his rental car into an open place and they walked to the packed sanctuary, finding empty seats about halfway back.

"Do you think they'll come?" she asked.

Skinner shrugged but left enough empty space on the pew for them. He busied himself with refolding the paper containing the order of service, marking the hymnal with offering envelopes from the pew rack.

"They're celebrating communion," Mary pointed to the paper.

"Are these seats taken?" Dana Scully asked quietly from the aisle.

"They're for you," Mary answered, standing and wrapping her arms around Scully as she moved into the pew.

Skinner offered Mulder his hand then sat in silence. Their eyes were red-rimmed and puffy, complexions wan.

"There never was a baby," Scully explained sadly, just loud enough for Skinner and his wife to hear. "No pregnancy, no miscarriage, just the stress-induced delusions of a barren woman."

Mulder slipped his arm around her shoulders and Mary Skinner took her hand.

"I feel so foolish," she said.

Skinner leaned over his wife toward Scully. "It's never foolish to have hope," he consoled, twining his fingers with his wife.

Scully stared at the cross in the nave, wondering what God would put her through this. She thought of loss-the life of this young man, of Emily, of the children she and Mulder would never have. She felt empty, hollow, barely noticing as Clayton Peale passed while exiting the church during a prayer. Hollowly she mouthed the words, taking no notice of their meaning. Mechanically she allowed herself to be led first to the car for the ride to the cemetery, then to the grave side, where she stood between Mulder and Mary. Again she uttered words without meaning them, finally remaining silent, wrapped in her own sorrow, distant.

But the words from a familiar voice called her back-words of faith in a God in whom he professed no faith, "In thee, O Lord, do I put my trust." Other voices were calling her, too. "Let me never be ashamed. Deliver me in thy righteousness." Mulder held the citation before her, drawing her close, sharing his strength, "Bow down thine ear to me; deliver me speedily. Be thou my strong rock, for an house of defense to save me."

Her eyes met his, and her words professed faith in the Father and in her mate, "For thou art my rock and my fortress; therefore, for thy name's sake lead me and guide me."

She smiled at him, her rock, drawing from him strength and faith. Sorrow may be her life's companion, but she found, at her side, a refuge from the darkness.

"You'll never believe what happened." The pastor was intoning the benediction as Peale stepped up behind them.

"What?" Skinner asked loudly over the sudden burst of conversation among the mourners.

Peale grinned. "A gasoline tanker burned after being struck by lightning in the parking lot of the Mission of St. Augustine on Sugarloaf Key. The driver was killed, burned to ash in the extreme heat. Found on the steps of the mission, unassembled, was a battery, a water jug, an alarm clock, a coffee warmer and a gasoline can. The trucking company confirms the routes would have taken the driver near all the burned churches just a few days before the fires."

"Who was it?" Mulder asked.

Peale grinned. "Willadeen Gerard. A 53-year old grandmother from Savannah, Georgia. Very religious. Her family was shocked."

"Apparently, the Almighty really didn't appreciate her help," Skinner observed.

"Lucky for us," Mulder said sourly.

A bemused look spread over Peale's face.

"What's so funny?" Scully asked.

Peale bounced his eyebrows at Mulder. "I was just thinking how the arsonist differs from your profile."

"I never said profiling was an exact science. Judging by this case," Mulder grumbled, "it's hardly even an art."

"Yeah, well it never hurts to have a little Divine intervention now and then," Peale consoled.

"Amen," Mulder whispered, drawing his Scully under his chin. "Amen."



Top



Chapter 18

A hot, July wind warmed the Texas Hill Country but the baby in the long, white gown did not notice. He was sleeping peacefully in his mother's arms surrounded by family and friends who promised, before God, to teach him how to be a good Christian man. He stirred as his cousin, the minister, anointed him, finally letting out a healthy wail when the bright afternoon sun shocked him out of his nap.

Scully had laughed at the child of their friends, smiling at the joy on the faces of the parents. She had congratulated them sincerely, tears falling only during the drive from the church to the ranch on the Blanco River. Ancient oaks cooled the rear lawn the ranch houses shared, much to the comfort of those tending to the cabrito in the fire pit.

Seemingly, most of Blanco County was in attendance for the celebration of the baptism of the firstborn son of Walter and Mary Skinner. Mulder's closer inspection revealed, though, that the attendees were mostly children of the prolific oldest and youngest Skinner brothers with several life-long friends thrown in for good measure. Wearing sockless loafers, a white sport shirt and pleated trousers in the sea of ropers and cowboy hats, khaki slacks and madras shirts Fox Mulder felt like, well, like a Yankee in Texas in July. But they kept offering him iced tea, so he knew he was tolerated, if not accepted. Mary Tom Skinner, as they all called Tom's wife, kept encouraging him to eat. Mary Will, brother Will's wife, kept his tea glass full.

Mulder marveled at the quantity of food still remaining on the serving table as he filled his plate for the third, or was it the fourth, time.

"Finding enough to eat?" Skinner munched a crisp pickle spear.

"There's enough here to feed a small third world country."

"Mulder," Skinner grinned, "there's enough people here to be a small third world country."

Mulder choked on a grape, then laughed. "How many of you are there?"

Skinner muttered to himself before answering. "Over thirty."

"And counting," Mulder nodded at a young pregnant woman.

"That's John's wife. Number four for them." His face darkened a bit. "How's Scully holding up?"

Mulder smiled thinly. "Okay, generally. She's teaching more classes now and the new house needs a lot of work-"

"I cannot believe you bought a house recommended by Frohicke."

Mulder chuckled. "It was too great to pass up. One story Craftsman bungalow, lots of trees, wood floors . . ."

"Any ghosts?"

"Not so far."

"Sounds nice." Skinner studied his boots for an instant. "What about a family?"

"We're, um, working on that," Mulder stammered. "Registering with agencies for now." He chewed his bottom lip. "It'll be years before . . ."

"But you're interested?"

Mulder nodded.

"Bring Scully up to the kitchen in Tommy's house. There's someone we want you to meet."



***



Scully had been reluctant to leave her shady chaise lounge, but finally joined him, feeling like they'd walked into a courtroom as soon as they stepped into the kitchen. The "jury" consisted of all three Skinner brothers and their wives and Tom's minister son, John, and his very pregnant wife.

"Whatever it is, we didn't mean to do it," Mulder quipped nervously.

The judge smiled. "You're not here because you've done something, son. You're here because we need your help."

"How?" Scully asked.

Mary Will Skinner introduced the baby in her arms. "She's been placed three times and returned three times."

"Why?" Scully asked fiercely, gently folding the tiny child into her arms.

A giggle burst from the slender face that was capped with a shock of unruly auburn hair. The tiny hand brushed the creamy face above her then grasped the shirt that appeared on the other side. Gently Mulder smoothed the wild hair, which resisted his attempts at control.

"She has a birth defect," the judge said plainly, but Mulder and Scully barely heard it.

"Her legs are misshapen," Mary Tom explained. "It's nothing, really, but it will require that she wear braces to straighten them."

Scully tenderly massaged the spindly bowed legs. "It's not so bad," she cooed.

"She is, in all other respects, a perfectly healthy and happy infant," the judge reassured.

"How could anyone give you up?" Scully nuzzled the peachy cheeks, speaking only to the child.

"Why us?" Mulder asked, tickling the little girl with his finger.

"It was our idea, actually," Walter Skinner's Mary said timidly. "As soon as we heard about her we knew you were a perfect match."

Mulder looked at his friends, then at his wife. The expression on her face was nearly beatific, like it had been when they'd thought she was pregnant so long ago. He looked down and the child's expression was the same, as if God had sculpted them both from the same fine porcelain.

"She's the answer to our prayers," Scully whispered, hot tears baptizing the child of her heart.

The judge clasped his hands together. "Then it's settled."



***



The newly-purchased crib stood in the corner, used currently as a rack for a finely carved bois d'arc walking cane. It was her domain during the daylight naps when Ma Maggie kept her while her parents were at work. But at night, while Ma Maggie slept, she slept in the middle of the big, soft bed, lulled to slumber by the contented beating of her parents' hearts. They lay down on either side of her, cooing and stroking until she stilled, then offered silent but heartfelt thanks for the friends who'd stitched together their almost-broken family, then, as they would for many years to come, they prepared for their own rest. Hands knit together on her tiny back, they'd lightly kiss her tiny head, then ardently kiss each other.

"Good night, Mommy," the daddy said.

"Good night, Daddy," the mommy replied.

And together, forever together, they whispered, "Good night, Samantha."





*************