Part II -- Ashes
Most of what they shared, after all, after all was done, was silence.
"It was all a question of silence," she said aloud to him, in his workroom, where she could no longer expect any answer, neither anger nor understanding.
The chalkboard was green, like the kind used in a classroom. Blood smeared its smooth surface; red fingerprints marred the pieces of white chalk that sat in a tray beneath. Scully shivered. The white tile and polished metal of the autopsy suite reminded her of the glacier in Antarctica, frozen and vast. Overhead lights cast pools of cold, harsh light. Scully stared at the chalkboard, transfixed by the macabre spectacle of scarlet stains amidst carefully recorded weights and measures.
She'd pulled off her gown and face shield. The high rubber gloves had been disposed of. The practiced hand of an assistant had long since cleaned the table and meat scales. Yet the chalkboard still sat, across the room, keeping record of the precise weight of a heart, a lung -- the viscera of a life and innocence stolen.
"The deceased is a Caucasian male, Tristan Robert Oliver, eight years of age. Preliminary diagnosis indicates cause of death to be blood loss stemming from three visible stab wounds to the chest, lower abdomen, and lower back. No other discernible signs of trauma are present."
Her voice on the tape recorder, though she barely recognized it.
"Height recorded at four feet, nine inches; weight, forty-one pounds in extremis. Low body weight is consistent with signs of advanced malnutrition. External physical examination reveals the stab wounds to be inflicted with, most likely, a small knife, not unlike a kitchen knife, though the exact type of weapon will be difficult to establish due to retraction of the skin once the weapon was removed. Detailed observations and sketches of the wounds can be found on page eleven of the attendant report."
Such small wounds, and purposefully so. He'd been intended to die slowly. Tristan Oliver had been stabbed with the express purpose that he gradually bleed his young life out onto the dirty floor of the Saks Mill Warehouse. After all, their murderer needed time to escape, time to leave before the FBI showed up. It was much more dramatic that way, to find the boy as he was moments from death, still hanging on for one last gasping, blood-flecked breath.
"Further external examination reveals the appearance of obvious edema in the face, legs, and arms. The stomach, also, is distended and swollen. Muscle mass deterioration is apparent in the shoulders, upper arms, and scapulae, as well as less severe deterioration in the upper and lower legs."
His body had turned in upon itself in an attempt to survive, cannibalizing muscle and soft tissue. Tristan had been held for three months and a week. It had been more than long enough. His tiny body was reminiscent of victims of famine, of disturbing images of countless small children, in Ethiopia and elsewhere, bellies swollen, eyes sunken and haunted. The perfect skeletal outline of a collarbone, an elbow, thin skin stretched tight. Those images on television and in newspapers, the distance making the horror seem less real. A horror the likes of which Scully had never imagined she would be forced to confront personally.
"There are symptoms of dermatitis -- peeling and flaking of the epidermis along the face, arms, chest, and back. Hair has a faint reddish tinge and can be pulled out easily, due to the deterioration of the roots. Again, all observations are consistent with advanced malnutrition."
On the tape, the pre-recorded Scully launched into the internal exam.
"The heart and liver appear markedly enlarged. Examination and gross dissection of the liver reveals signs of impaired synthesis and liver disease. Effusion of serous fluids into the interstices of cells in tissue spaces is resultant in more apparent swelling within the body cavity. Gross dissection of the kidneys reveals degeneration consistent with nephritis and is further supported by the laboratory finding of keytone bodies present in the subject's urine. Full laboratory findings are also attendant."
Tristan Oliver was in the early stages of renal failure. His liver and heart were giving out. Even had he survived the stabbing, if they'd arrived in time, it was doubtful that Tristan would have lived. Mental and physical retardation would have been likely. As with the other victims, Tristan had been starved to the point of torture. He was only disposed of when there was nothing left to destroy.
Not that these facts made it any easier, their failure the night before. They didn't make it easier at all. Before, she would have returned to the hotel, grim and assured, and tried to console Mulder with these observations. She would have tried to console him, in some small way, with the knowledge that they hadn't been meant to win, that there was no possible way for them to have won under these circumstances. It had been a "lesson." A malicious, abhorrent lesson. Before, but not now.
"Examination and gross dissection of the large intestine reveals signs of long-term infection and impaired absorption. The subject most likely suffered from chronic diarrhea for several weeks prior and up until the point of death.
"Basic and pertinent lab findings include an expectedly low concentration of albumin water-soluble proteins, a low plasma glucose, low plasma amino acids, signs of secondary immunodeficiency with a white blood cell count at less than 1500 mm3, an excessively low cholesterol count, decreased levels of Potassium and Magnesium in the blood, and the aforementioned presence of keytone bodies in the urine."
Symptoms of a body at war with itself, a body ravaged and fading away.
"Cause of death is officially noted as blood loss, but with the observed serious levels of deterioration due to malnutrition it should be noted that, in my professional opinion, the subject was a victim of prolonged starvation as a method of torture, though this is only an opinion and cannot be adequately proven."
Unbidden and unwelcome, the image of Tristan after the autopsy had been finished flashed across her mind's eye.
The body had been open and hollow, empty. Just the fragile remnants of his ribs remained, the sternum gone, no longer necessary to protect a heart that had ceased to beat. His face had been obscured by the scalp that had been pulled forward and over, the top of the head missing to enable the removal of the brain. She had stood in the cold sterility of the autopsy suite, mesmerized by the spattering of blood that had found its way to the floor, and had been trapped by her own suffocating sense of loss.
<"I'm going to close the body up now, ma'am.">
She almost hadn't heard her assistant when he'd spoken. She'd only nodded, unable to offer any more by way of assent.
Also unbidden was the memory of Mulder's eyes, staring down into Tristan's, as the child lay across her partner's lap, the tiny shapes of fingers etched in blood upon the canvas of Mulder's cheek and neck. How cold his skin had been, how warm the washcloth, as she had wiped those marks away. How he had murmured her name, faintly, so faintly, as she pushed the gory jacket from his shoulders. How even his lips had tasted of grief.
Behind Scully, the door leading in from the morgue opened.
"Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't know anyone was still in here."
Briskly, she gathered her notes and reports together, stuffed them into her briefcase. "That's okay. I was just leaving."
Brushing past the janitor, moving out into the night, she did.
Back at the motel, in the relative sanctuary
of her own room; her image was reflected in the mirror above the low dresser.
The bruises from her fall in the warehouse were livid. Facing the mirror, they wrapped around her shoulder, extending to the front. Horrid. She looked like she'd been beaten. Her fingers grazed the tear in the flesh of her bicep, and her breath hissed out, face twisting in pain. She should have gotten stitches. It would scar now.
But those injuries weren't what held her transfixed before the mirror. There was a bruise, a mottled circle of red, broken capillaries at the juncture of her neck and shoulder, along the tendon, another on her collarbone.
<Each of these bruises is a promise broken.>
The modest shape of bikini panties did nothing to hide the fainter bruises on her hips, the shapes of long fingers, larger and thicker than her own. Familiar fingers.
The last was the worst, she knew. Folding her arms behind her back, the clasp of her bra gave with a subtle snap and fell away. She shrugged it off, and took a deep, steadying breath before lifting her eyes to the mirror once more. On the underside of her right breast, just below the nipple. Faith teeth marks red against the pale skin. She could remember the scrape of his teeth vividly. She carried that memory with her like a phantom.
She hadn't slept last night. The day had stretched long and endless from the moment she had regained her fragile composure in her room after it had happened, through a dressing down from Moore, a visit to yet another crime scene, interviews with bereaved parents, and a long and terrible autopsy.
She couldn't recall how she had ended up on the bed, when she had curled herself into a tight fetal ball. Exhaustion, perhaps, had propelled her there without conscious thought, weeks of fatigue and then... this. In the end, it didn't matter. All that mattered was that she was curled on her bed, suffering and half-asleep, when he knocked.
He knocked, weakly, like he didn't want to be heard. How did she know it was him?
"Scully?" Feeble and watery, like he'd been crying.
<Scully is your creation, Mulder.>
"Scully, are you awake?"
She curled herself tighter, imagining that she was diminishing on the bed. The door was locked. He couldn't get in.
"Scully, I know you're in there. I saw the car in the lot." He sounded frightened and desperate, needy. "I need to know that you're all right." His voice was barely loud enough to be heard through the door, and it wasn't all he needed. He was as lost as she was, and he needed reassurance, that it would all be okay, somehow.
She just needed time -- time to sublimate it all, to push the heartache down into submission, time to recover so they would be able to move forward. They had to be able to move forward.
"Scully, please..." And if her heart hadn't already been broken, it would have shattered with those words, at their hopelessness.
Then there was silence. Her hands were trembling where they clutched around her waist. She concentrated on her breathing, on trying to slow it down, to stop the shaking. She assumed he had left.
<If I can just stand up, make it into the bathroom.>
Then there was the grinding twist of someone unlocking her door. She didn't even bother to wonder how he had picked the lock. She knew that she should move from the bed and didn't want to, didn't care.
The hinges on the door were rusty; they whined as the portal was opened. A blast of frigid air swept through the room, drenching her in goose flesh. The rusty wail again as the door was closed, and then nothing but silence filled with the sensation of his eyes on her.
<Please go, Mulder. Please. Leave me at least this much.>
He didn't go. Instead, after an interminable pause, she could hear soft footsteps approaching the bed. The footsteps stopped at the edge of the bed closest to her. She could hear the ragged sound of his breathing, a choked gasp. Was he crying?
<He could touch me if he reached out.>
He did. Fingertips grazed her shoulder, the one covered with angry bruises, a gossamer touch, like a sigh. She jerked back sharply, eyes snapping open. She moved fast, faster than he had probably thought her capable of. Reeling, scrambling, arms falling away to push against the bed as she moved, over to the opposite side and onto her feet. She was unconcerned with her nakedness. It hardly mattered anymore. And perhaps she wanted him to see. The damage.
They both froze when she had stopped moving, the bed a vast uncharted sea between them. One tear traced a jagged path down his cheek. He hadn't shaved. There were dark circles shrouding his eyes. His eyes raked over her body, nothing sexual in the gaze. There was a precise moment, when she knew his eyes had reached the most obscene of the bruises, his eyes growing impossibly wide, a flash of the most intense pain, and then shame, horror, revulsion. He closed his eyes.
Neither spoke for a long time.
With his eyes still closed. "I never..." He took a small step around the bed. His lips moved without sound. Another two steps, "never..."
She couldn't move.
He stopped a few feet away from her, and then stretched out a hand, slender fingers, ashen skin in the half-light. The touch was faint. He reached out and traced the discoloration along her collarbone.
"Don't." She almost hissed the word, fumbling back, away from his touch. "Don't touch me."
His eyes closed again, two more tears escaping.
Edging away from him, she moved closer
to the dresser, snatched her discarded blouse off of the ground, and clutched
it to her chest. It was cold in the room. She was shivering violently.
When would she have told him? As she was carrying him from the warehouse, bloody and shaking? When he had refused to speak in the car, mute with shock? While his hands had gripped her knees and pushed her legs apart? As she'd held him, crying in the aftermath?
"There was nothing to tell." So cold, her voice.
She felt frozen, glacial and solitary standing across the room from him. She was unable to explain the full spectrum of grief she was experiencing, unable to rationalize why even his slight touch seemed an embodiment of something, of a vague, unuttered promise that they had destroyed the night before.
The words escaped of their own volition. A whisper. "I feel dirty, Mulder." They were the worst words she could have possibly spoken. They were the truth.
The blood drained suddenly from his face, and he doubled over, as if punched in the gut.
<I'm so sorry, Mulder, for both of us. I don't know how to fix this.>
When he stood up again, his eyes were vacant, perfect nothingness where pain had washed the rest away. "I'm sorry, Scully." Mirroring her thoughts.
She hadn't wanted his apology, had dreaded it, in fact. She didn't blame him, and his regret was the most painful gift he could have offered.
Their eyes locked one last time. Her -- hair the only color in the room, white knuckles gripping a silk blouse like a shield above cotton panties, feeling frail and defenseless, hating that feeling. Him -- tears dry and eyes red-rimmed, a sort of barren acceptance, resignation, hardening his features into a mask of stone.
It wasn't supposed to be this way.
She looked away, eyes cast to the floor, and she heard his footsteps on the carpet, heard the snick of the door opening and shutting again. When she looked up, she was alone.
Scully was standing, hiding, between Agent Williams and Agent Marcus in a group of agents that had gathered around the conference table in the bullpen. A chair was pulled out, files spread in front of it, as if someone were sitting there. But the Agent who had formerly occupied that spot was no longer seated. Mulder swept the length of the bullpen behind the table in furious strides, pacing, taking his impotent rage out on the polished tiles of the floor.
"How did you know I'd be the first one up the stairs?" Mulder jumped into the conversation, seemingly unwilling to let their opponent make the opening move.
"It was an educated guess, actually, and an easy one at that. I knew that once you thought about it, you'd know where to go. I also knew that you'd need to be the first one there."
The phone had rung several hours after they'd arrived at the field office this morning. Mulder had spent most of the morning in interviews, going over what had happened. The biggest question had been over the firing of his weapon. He would only explain by saying that he thought that he had "seen something… someone." From the look on Moore's face, it had been a weak explanation, at best. Scully had left after that, her presence not necessary. She couldn't sit there, watch his lifeless expression, and pretend to be okay.
"Masonry, explosives; are there any other talents of yours we should be forewarned about?" Mulder again.
"Hardly talents, Agent Mulder, they’re necessary skills."
After leaving Moore's office, Scully had retreated to the flurry of activity in the bullpen, comforted by the rush and press of people around her. She'd willingly thrown herself into a pile of paperwork someone had cast her way, knowing there was nothing else to be done at that moment, feeling entirely incapable of deciding what to do next.
Williams had sat down opposite her at a desk, regarding her over the stacks of paper. He'd asked her if she was all right, laughing after realizing he asked her that same question with some frequency. Scully had been startled to realize just how badly she needed some sort of human connection and had found herself grateful for the concern in his dark eyes.
There was silence for a moment on the telephone.
When their adversary spoke again, there was genuine sorrow in his tone. His words were soft. "I'm sorry you couldn't save him, Agent Mulder. I know how badly you wanted to."
Abruptly, Mulder stopped in his tracks, and from her position between the two taller men, Scully could see the rage that flared in Mulder's eyes, a blaze that made them dark and frightening.
"I couldn't save him," Mulder spat, "Because you put a knife in his chest."
The killer was quiet for a moment. "Blame,” he finally said, "is a strange thing, Agent Mulder. It's complicated. Who do you blame for the miseries of your life? Other people? Fate? God? Yourself? Blame is not easy to quantify."
"It’s not that difficult," Mulder said, lowly, accusing. His voice rose with each of his next words. "Tristan Oliver was a living, breathing little boy until you took a knife and put it through his left lung, and then again into his stomach, and again in his back, leaving him to die, alone and afraid on the dirty floor of an abandoned warehouse." His pitch dropped, derisively. "That's not complicated at all."
Standing several feet away, SAC Moore was watching Mulder intently, almost suspiciously. He must have felt Scully's eyes on him, because he turned at her glance, made brief eye contact with her, and then turned back to face Mulder.
Everyone in the room was keeping a wide berth from Mulder, wider than was normal, wider than Scully had noticed during the whole of their investigation prior to the tragedy at Saks Mill. It had been like that all day long, and all day the day before. She felt sorry for him. She physically ached for the isolated sorrow he was living, but she could no more approach him than could any of the agents standing beside her.
On the other end of the telephone line, there was a frustrated sigh. "Still you fail to see." The kidnapper sounded sad, disappointed, and then, suddenly, imploring. "Look into yourself, Agent Mulder. Look at those children. It's all right there, staring you in the face, the lies."
"The lies?" Mulder was condescending.
"We have more in common that you would probably like to think, Agent Mulder."
A thought Scully shuddered to consider.
"We don't have *anything* in common."
"Oh, that's where you're wrong," the murderer corrected. He paused, and then his words became cryptic, strange. "They can make the choices for you, and you can even try to make it better, but you won't ever be clean. Don't think that just because you do good deeds, you search for justice, you lead a righteous life, that the stain is erased. It isn't ever absolved."
The look on Mulder's face must have mirrored the one Scully wore. She felt completely lost by the turn in conversation, knowing understanding was essential.
He continued, "I've seen you, Agent Mulder. You're as tainted as the others, as I am. But, like me, you were the victim. You didn't choose to become dirty. Someone else made that choice for you."
Mulder was speechless and still in his spot across the room. Scully hugged her arms around her chest, feeling cold and vulnerable, noticing the perplexed looks on the faces of the agents around her.
This lesson their murder had designed was beginning to feel more and more like an orchestrated punishment. Punishment for what, however, she had no idea. It was a punishment that involved agendas and plans, ways of thinking that pertained to some twisted sense of order they were completely unable to see. There was a feeling of dread, an utter lack of understanding, as if Scully were blindfolded and supine on the executioner's block, waiting for the ax to fall.
When the line disconnected, it was with a quiet, decisive click, and the room was washed with silence.
The cuffs of her black pants were wet and cold, soaked with dirty slush. She stepped from the car, into another puddle of melting ice, and felt the tug of wind on cold-prickled cheeks. On the other side of the car, Mulder emerged and shut the door behind him, moving up to the front gate of the house without a glance in her direction. Clouds hovered ominously in the sky, and she supposed that their joint choice of all back ensembles was a subconscious acknowledgment of mourning. Mulder stood at the front door, seeming tall and strange to her. She stopped beside him and rang the bell.
The house was quiet, dark, and she wondered if anyone was home. Then there was the faintest shuffling of feet on the other side of the door, the sound of multiple locks disengaging, and a crack appeared as the door was opened only as far as the chain would allow. From within the shadowed confines of the house, a face peered out at them.
"Mrs. Oliver?" Mulder asked.
She nodded, clutching her bathrobe tighter, but she made no move to unlatch the door.
"My name is Fox Mulder. We spoke earlier today."
She hesitated, and after a moment, moved to unlock the door. It opened to reveal a dark hall and the retreating figure of Madeline Oliver, who was walking slowly towards the living room without waiting for them to come inside.
Scully stomped the ice from her boots and stepped into the foyer.
After the last phone call, Mulder had sat dejected at the table for almost an hour. Scully and the other agents had retreated to their previous activities, and when Mulder finally rose from the table and approached her desk, he made only the most tenuous eye contact.
"We need to re-interview the families."
That's all he'd said, and no one had questioned him. So, with Mulder trailing behind, Scully followed the bereaved specter of Madeline Oliver into her living room. Madeline had been the only real witness to any of these events; she had been the only person to have any sort of contact with their killer, even if she remembered nothing of it.
Sitting gingerly on the edge of a plain, blue sofa, Scully looked into the eyes of the woman across from her. The shades on the windows were drawn back, allowing gray winter light to sweep across the room, which was otherwise dark. Madeline's skin was almost translucent, colorless, eyes red and swollen, showing an unmistakable lack of sleep. Her hair was pulled back into a messy ponytail that hung limp between her shoulder blades. She sat stiff-backed and defensive, waiting for them to continue.
"We're very sorry for your loss, Mrs. Oliver." Scully said, knowing how meager that sounded.
Madeline only nodded. "I already told the police everything I know," her voice rasped.
Mulder answered her, and the raw guilt in his voice was a fourth presence in the room. "We know that, and we're very sorry to intrude on you in this way again. We wouldn't do it if we didn't think it would help."
Tristan's mother seemed to consider this
for a moment. "It won't help bring my son back." Bitter and
She only stared back, unconvinced.
Mulder cleared his throat, looked nervously about the room, searching for a place to begin. He sat in an armchair next to Madeline's and across from Scully. The room was cold, the air thick with stale grief. A quantity of unwashed dishes sat abandoned on the coffee table. Scully remained quiet, allowing Mulder to figure out where he needed to go. She had no idea what he was looking for.
"I hate to make you do this again." Mulder's voice was compassionate, soft, forcing the guilt down by sheer force of will. "But could you tell us what happened on the night Tristan was taken? What you saw?"
Madeline sighed and looked down at her hands. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes, reluctance palpable in her demeanor. How many times had she told this story, Scully wondered. How many more times would she have to tell it?
"I don't really remember anything."
Scully wanted to flinch at the abused sound of Madeline's voice, at the obvious hours spent crying.
"I woke up," her voice was faint, eyes still closed, "and it was freezing, so I climbed out of bed to turn up the thermostat."
Mulder nodded, but Tristan's mother wasn't looking at him.
"I went out into the hall." Her face came up and she opened her eyes, looking at Scully, eyes pleading. "I didn't notice anything wrong. The house felt perfectly normal."
Scully swallowed the lump at the back of her throat.
Madeline's concentration returned to her wringing hands. "I walked down the hall to turn up the heat, and..." She stopped the unconscious motion of her hands, and her voice grew flat, impossibly quiet. "That’s it. The next thing I remember is waking up on the floor the next morning."
"No other memories have surfaced since that night? You can't remember anything after you raised the thermostat?" Mulder prompted gently.
The mother shook her head.
"Not even things that don't really seem like memories? Dreams? Flashes of strange images?"
Scully was unsure of where he was going with this.
Madeline looked up, a strange expression on her face. "Dreams?"
"Dreams, daydreams, hallucinations, anything," Mulder responded.
"I..." She was hesitant.
Scully moved forward in her seat. The muscles in her shoulders tensed.
"I've had this dream, the past four nights in a row." Madeline sounded unsure.
The look on Mulder's face was eager, the compassion and guilt dimmed by its presence. He said nothing, his silent method of encouragement.
"In my dream, it's dark. I can't
really see anything, where I am, but I don't feel lost or worried."
Her focus returned, and she caught Scully's eye again, clearly disturbed by the dream.
"That's it?" Scully asked.
Scully glanced over at Mulder, who had the look on his face she always associated with his inner forays into the world of his own personal darkness. He was searching.
Seemingly out of nowhere, he asked, "Why did you and your husband split up, Mrs. Oliver?"
Madeline's breath stuttered out on a small, surprised gasp. "I don't see what that has to do with my son's death." She sounded flustered and disturbed. Her ravaged voice made the question seem cruel.
Scully looked over to Mulder, confused.
Mulder recovered his tact, and his voice lost its edge. "Family history is always very important." His voice was calm, with the intonation that suggested this was just ordinary procedure.
Discomfort was evident in both Madeline's body language and voice. "We had been having problems for a long time." She fidgeted, the motion not born of grief this time, but of hesitance. "He... he couldn't find work. He's a musician, and gigs were coming fewer and farther between. We were having trouble paying the bills. I think he had more of a problem with it than I did, that I was making all of the money for the family. I think he felt like a failure."
Her speech tapered off. There was more. "And then, I met someone." There was guilt in that phrase.
"Met someone?" Mulder asked.
"Someone at work, a colleague. Henry and I had been so distant for such a long time, and I was lonely." Her voice dropped even lower. "When I became pregnant, Henry knew. It had been quite a while since he'd shown any interest in that part of our marriage."
The sister, Eliza, Scully thought. Scully broke into the conversation. "He asked for a divorce?"
Madeline looked up. "Yes, and I didn't object." The question of what this had to do with her son's murder was still apparent in Madeline's demeanor, and Scully noticed the trembling in the woman's hands.
Abruptly, Mulder stood. "Thank you for answering our questions, Mrs. Oliver."
Tristan's mother also stood. After an unsettled pause, she turned to walk the partners to the door.
"We'll contact you as soon as we find anything," Scully assured, as they were about to walk out onto the front porch.
Madeline's eyes had the haunted quality of countless other mothers, of Cynthia Deary, Grace Crane, and Roberta Hausner, mothers who were living their worst nightmares. Madeline blinked, the glimmer of unshed tears shading her pale eyes, and closed the door without reply.
The temperature was dropping, and the air
smelled crisp, heavy with snow. Ahead of her on the iced over walk
leading back to their car, Mulder’s expression was indecipherable, his
odd line of questioning a mystery.
He hung up.
"We have another one," he said, as they reached the car. But she'd already known, had been able to tell as soon as he'd answered the call. The first flakes began to fall as their car pulled away from the curb.
It was the same, always, always the same, same snow, same ice, same missing little boy.
Except this time, there was an added element of chaos. Police barricades kept the media and other on-lookers penned like cattle on one side of the street. Half a dozen news vans clogged the roadway along with several squad cars, three bureau sedans, and two tech vans. A perimeter had been established and was being patrolled by a Buffalo PD officer. Agents scurried about involved in various activities. Reporters hollered questions to anyone within earshot.
The weather was growing worse. It was only late afternoon, and already the sky had grown dark. Thick flakes of snow were gaining momentum and mass as they descended from the heavens. Scully had the beginning of an intense headache building behind her left eye, and she wondered if it was the weather or the circumstances.
The atmosphere was almost melodramatic in its tragedy. Flashing blue and red lights against the storm filled sky, the grim faced, somberly clad police officers and agents that moved back and forth across the street, the aura of panic that hung in the air.
Mulder brought their vehicle to a stop behind another bureau car.
Stepping into the maelstrom, Scully tugged the collar of her jacket tighter against the cold, fingers instantly numb, even protected by her gloves. The earlier thaw had melted the snow enough that the sudden drop in temperature again had solidified it into a seamless sheet of ice. Mulder had exited the car and was coming around the front when she started to walk up to the house. Her DC climate accustomed boots, which rarely saw this degree of cold weather, were not equipped to deal with the ice rink she was walking on. She slipped, her feet going momentarily out from under her, and he was there to catch her.
"Sorry," she mumbled, with one of his arms hooked around her waist, his other hand a vise around her upper arm, attempting to steady her.
He didn't say anything. He helped her right herself, and then released her, quickly, stepping back as if burned. They continued walking.
The officer at the periphery logged them in with barely a glance in their direction. They were halfway up the walk when another uniformed cop exited the house and came down to meet them.
"First at the scene?" Mulder asked, more of a statement than a question.
The uniformed officer nodded.
"The parents were away for the weekend," the officer started explaining, responding to Mulder's expectant look, "They were staying at a bed and breakfast in the country, and the kids were with a baby-sitter." The officer inclined his head in the direction of the street and Scully followed his gaze.
In the back seat of a squad car with the door open, a semi-hysterical teenage girl was clutching a steaming cup in her shaking hands, a blanket tossed over her shoulders, while two police officers stood nearby, one of them leaning down in conversation.
"The baby-sitter left the house to bring the sister to a friend's house, and Seth stayed here to keep an eye on one of his little brothers. When she got back, Seth was gone." There was a note of disgust evident in the officer's words, and Scully wondered if it was towards the parents who would leave their children for a weekend during this chaos, or towards the girl that had left an eight-year-old unattended long enough to be taken.
"We've gotten in touch with the parents, and they're driving back, but they won't be here for another hour or so."
Officer Phillips, a young man, maybe a year out of the academy, looked sickened and overwhelmed by the spectacle around him. He turned away from the baby-sitter and nodded in the direction of the house. "You two ready for the tour?"
They moved carefully up the ice-crusted walk.
Moving through the front door was walking from one form of chaos and into another. There were toys everywhere, brightly colored plastic in myriad shapes and sizes on the floor, the furniture, even littering the stairs at the back of the room. There were Barbie dolls, matchbox cars, Lego’s, a giant dollhouse, and a small fleet of toy trucks, amongst others.
"How many children are there?" Scully asked.
"Four," Phillips replied, "Seth, his sister Jill, who's six, and two younger brothers, Paul, one-year-old, and Christopher, three. The baby-sitter had the littlest, Paul, with her when she left the house. When she returned, she found Christopher screaming and alone in the living room."
Accenting the hurricane of toys was the glass, the omnipresent shattered glass. Crime scene experts moved through the wreckage with soundless, almost graceful efficiency. Photographs were taken by the score. Endless plastic evidence bags were filled and collected. The position of each piece of glass would be noted. Fibers that had been trekked onto the carpet by countless tiny feet would be catalogued. A million smudged fingerprints would be lifted, and none of it would yield anything.
It was enough to make Scully want to cry, to slink back to her motel room, climb under the covers, and cry. And then sleep. Sleep until this nightmare was over and she could wake once again to the prospect of another boring day of background checks and Mulder's forced witticisms that were nothing more than poorly veiled attempts to coax a smile from her during the mind numbing monotony of their day. She would embrace monotony now, but none of this was a dream, and she wasn't going to wake up anytime soon.
"We have something you're going to want to see." Phillips walked over the chest high counter that separated the living room from the kitchen.
When she walked up to the counter, Scully momentarily forgot the stony silence between her and Mulder. "Mulder, look at this."
He came up behind her and looked over her shoulder, his presence wrapped in the cold that still clung to them from the frigid outside air. On the kitchen counter, surrounded by the discarded remains of lunch, (milk glasses and bread crusts) an age yellowed photograph sat pristinely atop a sheaf of typed papers.
"This wasn't here before?" Mulder asked.
Phillips regarded the objects, hands stuffed into his pockets. "Not according to the baby-sitter."
It was obvious that it wasn't an innocuous photograph. The careful placement of the photo, the way it was creased and torn with age, the stack of printed papers it was perched upon; it was all too structured, too blatant.
Their opponent had left them a message.
The baby-sitter, Margaret Collins, was only sixteen years old. She answered questions between fits of sobbing, was understandably convinced that Seth's disappearance was her fault, and was terrified of having to face his parents. She hadn't seen anything. She hadn't heard anything. She didn't know anything.
The interview with the parents had been equally unhelpful. They'd blamed themselves. Peggy and Eric Leeds had left the interview devastated, walking past SAC Moore who stood at the edge of the bullpen with mouth a cold, flat line and shadows around his eyes etched by sleeplessness.
Moore hadn't mentioned it, but Scully knew. Pressure from above had to be intense. Another child had been taken and they were still no closer to a solution. The vast FBI bureaucracy, media-savvy political giants for whom headlines and solve rates were the largest concern, would undoubtedly be breathing down Moore's neck by this point. This was a high profile case. It was splashed across every major newspaper. It had gotten coverage by evening news programs across the nation. This was the kind of case that made careers, or broke them.
Scully and Mulder couldn't possibly sink any lower than they already had. Career advancement wasn't really an issue for them anymore. The only advancement they wanted was the one they weren't allowed to have -- back down to the basement. The only punishment for failure they would receive was the one they inflicted upon themselves. Mulder, especially, was good at self-flagellation.
Moore, on the other hand, had everything to lose. He was seated at the desk in his office, visible through the opened blinds. His chair was turned to face the window. From where she stood, Scully couldn't see his face.
She pitied Moore. As much as his attitude rankled, as furious as he made her, she had to understand his frustration, in some small part, frustration at a case that seemed unsolvable, at the tremendous pressure being exerted by the bureau brass, at being saddled with a maverick profiler who broke all of the rules and pulled rabbits out of invisible hats, making the rest of the world seem stupid in the process. His leadership was threatened, as well as his career. More importantly, beneath it all, Scully had the unmistakable sense that he really was a good agent and a good leader.
Scully sighed. The wind howled against the glass. The room reeked of desperation. She walked into the conference room.
Mulder was hunched over the table, a copy of the papers they'd discovered spread out around him. The war zone atmosphere within the room seemed to intensify by the hour. Mulder had added to the original chaos, bringing in stacks of books, piles of folders, tape recorders, speakers. There was the detritus of a million plus coffee breaks, his bizarre patterns of evidence arrangement. She'd grown accustomed to it, and to the pervasive lack of light he seemed intent upon.
Scully stepped into the room cautiously, watching as Mulder turned the page and continued reading. Finally, she broke the silence. "What is it?"
He looked up at her, his eyes unknowable behind the reflection of light against the surface of his glasses. She shivered, whether at the cold winter air or the strangeness of his gaze, she wasn't sure.
When he spoke, he started slowly, concentration returning to the neatly typed pages in his hands. After the first unexpected sentence, Scully slumped into the chair across from her partner and began to listen.
"To begin at the beginning," Mulder read, "we shall start at the point from which all proper legends must set forth, with the traditionally vague, the beautifully mystical... once upon a time."
"Innocence and Iniquity"
To begin at the beginning, we shall start at the point from which all proper legends must set forth, with the traditionally vague, “once upon a time.” Because once (whether it be in ages past or merely in imagination) upon a time there lived a faithful and honest widow. She was industrious and kind-hearted, toiling on a daily basis at whatever work she could procure in an effort to provide for her family. But despite this, she was a content and peaceful woman. She praised God every day for the blessing of his mercy and lived happily with her children.
The two sons of the widow were twins. Both had a shock of thick, dark hair and pure azure eyes. Each was tall and strong. Outwardly, they were alike in every way. Without fail, every time the family would venture into town, neighbors would exclaim at their striking resemblance. They were, in fact, so identical that their mother alone was capable of telling the two apart.
The only difference between the boys lay in their spirit, which was the method by which the mother was capable of discerning between them. The first born of the two she had named Merciful, for he was a meek and gentle child. The second she called Avarice, as a warning towards the greedy and immoral tendencies that were part of his nature.
One ordinary afternoon, the mother sent
both boys out to fetch water from a near-by river. They arrived quickly
at the river and proceeded to fill the wooden buckets to their brims.
Just as the brothers were about to turn around and return home, they heard
a small, delicate voice calling out to them.
Both boys stopped and looked out across the river, searching the swirling waters for the source of the plea. In the middle, caught up in a strong rush of water, the delicate, golden figure of a nymph could be seen struggling in the angry waters. She was no larger than the hand of one of the brothers, her reed thin arms churning against the waves.
"We have to help her," Merciful told his brother. "She will certainly drown if we don't."
Avarice, being mindful of only his own safety, scoffed at his brother's observation. "If we go swimming in those waters, we will surely be swept away."
From the center of the river, the nymph
called out again. "Please, the current grows stronger, and I grow
weaker with every minute passed."
When Merciful and the nymph reached the bank of the river, she climbed down from his shoulders, wrung the water from her gleaming hair, and regarded the brothers with eyes the color of starlight.
Now, as you know, in fairy tales no good deed goes unrewarded. Our little allegory is no exception. Once the nymph was finished wringing the water from her hair, she spoke to her brave rescuer. "Because you have risked your own life in the effort to save mine, I owe you much gratitude. In an effort to display that gratitude, I offer you a gift."
The diminutive creature raised her arms above her head, and with the graceful flick of her alabaster hands, a large gold box appeared suddenly before the brothers.
"This box," the nymph explained, "is truly magical. It is filled with an inexhaustible supply of gold. You need only lift the lid and the supply will always be replenished."
Stunned, Merciful bent down to the box
and opened the lid. Indeed, as the nymph had promised, the inside
of the shining chest was ripe with gold coins. In awe, Avarice reached
past his brother, dumped the valuable contents onto the forest floor, closed
the lid, and opened it a second time, only to find the coffer once again
brimming with riches. When the boys looked up again to find the nymph,
she was gone.
Avarice, as I'm sure my astute readers must already suspect, was not as excited by this idea. He had never been in the presence of such wealth before. Running his fingers through the cool, sparkling pieces, he was overcome by an insidious hunger, by anger at the thought of having to share this wondrous gift. Of course, it did not occur to him that it was his brother's toil that had won the precious receptacle. Instead, he imagined the lavish lifestyle he could lead if he were to take the box and leave the forest life behind forever.
Spurred forward by those greedy thoughts, Avarice turned towards his brother. Merciful was kneeling by the bank of the river, collecting gold pieces into the makeshift pouch of his discarded shirt. With a fierce push, Avarice threw his brother into the frenzied waters. Unprepared, Merciful smashed his head into a rock at the bottom of the riverbed and was carried swiftly and easily downstream. With his brother thus removed from the picture, Avarice picked up the golden box and headed for the road that led into town.
What Merciful did not know, what he could not have known, was that the path of the river had cast him into an uninhabited and desolate land, where the only citizens were the birds in the trees and the deer on the hills, where one could walk for years without the sight of another human soul. And so, as a result of his brother's deception, Merciful began a journey that would take him away from civilization for many years to come.
After traveling for several months and
leaving the boundaries of his native country behind, Avarice came at last
to a bizarre city, its turrets and pinnacles draped with thick, black crepe.
Not a window could be seen. Not a building remained uncovered.
Perplexed, the brother rode into the city to inquire about its unusual
appearance. Arriving at an inn, Avarice tethered his horse and ventured
inside to question the innkeeper. The tale he was told was unlike
anything he had heard before.
As it turned out, they had reason to worry. Without warning, a hideous and spiteful witch descended upon their city. She destroyed its bounty and raped its beauty. As a war prize, she took the king's youngest daughter. She cast a spell that sent the town and its people into the depths of poverty and despair. The only way the curse could be lifted, Avarice was told, was to journey to the witch's enchanted forest, climb to the top of the tallest tree in the wood, and slay the wretched crone, returning the princess to her people and breaking the spell.
Around him, Avarice could see the decaying remnants of the kingdom's plundered wealth. Uncaring of the tragic story, and sensing an opportunity not to be missed, he thanked the innkeeper and departed for his destination -- the crumbling towers of the once lavish castle. Moving up the stairs with arrogant ease, Avarice approached the king and made an offer. He had, after all, something that could vanquish the city's stark poverty. In his possession was the stolen gilt chest.
A deal was easily struck. The once proud king had been reduced to a vacant shadow of his former glory. The price demanded was the hand of the second princess in marriage and the assumption of the crown. And so, my students, the selfish twin came to rule over the devastated city as its new king, and his impressive greed finally found fulfillment in the subjugation of its people.
As we already know, Avarice was a wicked
and self-centered man. He found no joy in the presence of others.
His wife, who he married to secured his kingdom, he treated with such cruelty
that she shrank within herself, farther from reality and deeper into depression.
Contrary to this, and a most miraculous
occurrence indeed, was the king's bountiful and virtuous love for his infant
son. It was an emotion he had not known himself capable of possessing.
It stunned him with its intensity. With this miracle in mind, he
named the child. The heir to his throne came to be called Purity.
With a quest to fulfill, Merciful set out in the direction of the witch's enchanted forest, intent on rescuing the captured princess, resurrecting the town, and rescuing its people from the rule of his brother.
"You've been very prosperous in the years since I last met you," the nymph said, no sign of judgment in her tone.
The king remained speechless, waiting for the beautiful creature to make mention of his brother.
"I've come to offer you another gift," she continued, with still no mention of Avarice's heinous crime.
"What gift?" he questioned, curiosity piqued.
"Wealth beyond even your wildest dreams, beyond even your comprehension, wealth of such magnitude that it will make this room seem puny in comparison."
The king's was awed. "How?" he asked.
"There is a bear, a great lumbering beast," the nymph explained, "who sleeps at the edge of the pond beyond the city walls. All you have to do is slay the animal while it slumbers, make a pelt from its hide, and sleep one night wrapped in the fur."
"That's it?" The king's voice was unbelieving.
"When you wake," the nymph assured, "you'll
have your reward." And with those words, in a flash of warm light,
she winked out of sight.
"Please," the spider beseeched Merciful; "save me from this certain death, and I'll come to your assistance someday, should you need me."
Merciful took one look at the beautiful creature and, using a small knife from his pocket, freed the spider. "You owe me nothing," he told the spider.
"Thank you," said the creature, and with a bob of his glistening head, he moved into the darkness of the trees.
After another hour of walking, Merciful came upon a tree snake whose tail was trapped under the weight of a boulder.
"Pleassssse," hissed the snake, "I will most likely be eaten by a bigger creature if I can not escape to the ssssssafety of the treesssss. Rescue me from that horrible fate, and I will reward you sssssomeday, ssssshould you need me."
"I don't want a reward," Merciful told the snake, as he lifted the rock off of its tail.
It was soon after rescuing the snake that Merciful came upon the tree, which he immediately knew to be the tallest in the forest. It was gargantuan, its circumference encompassing more space than the house he had grown up in. It grew from the earth covered in thick, black bark. At a distance from the ground equal to twice Merciful's height, the tree divided into nine giant branches arranged in a perfect circle. They extended upwards indefinitely, forming a cup where they met and penetrating the clouds in the sky with their unimaginable height.
As I'm sure you might have already guessed, and as is the pattern in tales of this nature, the previous good deeds of our kindly brother came back to help him in his time of need. As he stood staring up into the heavens, the tree snake appeared.
"Thisssss isss the branch that leads to the witch's cottage," the snake told him, starting to wind his way up one of the tall branches.
As soon as the snake had explained this, the spider appeared. Without even relating his troubles, the spider spun an elegant and shimmering web of the most intricate and beautiful craftsmanship.
"This web is strong," the spider said. "You can climb it all the way to the top."
So, with the help of his new friends, Merciful began the long journey toward the top of the tree.
I am certain that, by now, my diligent readers have already sensed the coming tragedy. How painful it is to sense a thing, to know it is wrong, and be unable to stop its progress, because we know that we cannot stop destiny.
The fur of the bear shimmered in the moonlight, dark and luxurious. It was a smaller creature that Avarice had imagined. He moved forward on hunter's feet, bathed in practiced silence, and plunged his knife into the back of the beast.
From his frozen position, out of the corner of his eye, Merciful watched as one of the tendrils of smoke seemed to change shape. It gyrated towards the old witch, gaining form and substance as it moved, until the familiar figure of the snake he had saved could be discerned through the fog. The slender creature wrapped its body around the witch's leg and sunk its venom tipped teeth into the tender skin of her ankle, paralyzing the hag and freeing Merciful from his enchantment.
The witch slumped to the ground, and immediately, the spider appeared, weaving around the horrid woman a net of indestructible webbing. Merciful stepped easily over the prostrate figure, walking with assurance towards the tiny cottage.
Inside, he found the princess, a young woman of perfect, innocent beauty, chained to the leg of a table, busily peeling potatoes for the witch's supper.
"Come," he told her, as he freed her from her bindings, "I've come to take you home."
Overcome by weariness, Avarice heard the soft promise of "sleep now, you will have your reward when you wake," as he was sucked under by the sweetness of slumber.
Merciful had begun his ascent of the long staircase when he heard a mournful, faded plea.
"Father, why?" the voice begged. "Why have you killed me?"
The voice, Merciful noted, seemed to be coming from the drops of blood that coated the steps ahead.
"Why?" came the anguished, child-like question from each gruesome drop, as Merciful followed the trail they marked, reaching, at its end, the bedroom of his slumbering brother.
The sight that greeted our gentle brother was one he had not imagined, not even in his most horrendous nightmares. At the foot of the bed, with the mink pelt folded back to reveal the child's face, lay the murdered body of Purity, his brother's only child, while atop the bedding, Avarice was sleeping, his hands and arms covered in his son's blood.
Shocked and sickened, Merciful stepped up to the bed. In his ears, Purity's tear choked cry echoed over and over again, demanding justice. When he looked upon the resting body of his brother, he could see only the lifeless eyes of the dead child, the trail of blood that had slicked from the side of the child's mouth, the carnage on the stairs. Reaching for the knife at his belt, Merciful knew what he had to do.
His brother's eyes snapped open in shock, in pain, and finally, understanding, as Merciful sunk the blade into Avarice's chest and the wicked brother gained his reward.
She was still so tired. The hoped for revitalization from a shower and a change of clothes had done little to alleviate the fatigue that pulsated quietly behind her eyes. She had looked longingly on the folded back blankets of her bed at the motel, admiring the crisp neatness left by the housekeeper, imagining the softness of her pillow if she were to rest her head on its inviting surface.
Of course, Scully did not give in to temptation. Instead, she stood, ramrod straight under the hot tempo of the water in her shower and emerged with muscles only slightly relaxed. Picking out a change of clothes was a mindless affair. All of the members of her wardrobe were essentially interchangeable and equally lifeless. She had only succeeded in a partial drying of her hair before her arm had tired and she put the dryer down, leaving the rest damp. She applied her make-up with military precision and stark minimalism.
The bullpen, when she reentered the Federal building, was welcome warmth after the growing blizzard on the Buffalo streets. She had fishtailed twice on the iced over roads, thankfully without incident due to the lack of other drivers. By the time she slid the rental into a parking space in the government lot, her hands had been shaking slightly on the steering wheel.
Scully peeled her coat from her shoulders, discarded it over the back of a chair, and shivered as a melting bit of snow trickled down her ankle, inside of her boot.
"This is it!" Mulder exclaimed, from the other side of the room, drawing her attention. "This is the one!"
When she had left Federal Plaza to return to the motel, Mulder and the rest of the team had been pouring over countless yearbooks from countless towns containing countless faces of countless young boys in an attempt to match a face and a name to the image on their discovered photograph. Judging by the style of clothing, the picture had been taken sometime during the seventies, and was of a boy in his early teens, matching the suspected age of their murderer. Following a hunch, Mulder had requested copies of every junior high and high school yearbook from towns within a two hundred mile radius, and the resulting towers of books had swamped the large bullpen, growing still taller as more and more yearbooks were brought in for analysis.
Scully had been encamped at a long table with Agents Williams and Sandborne, discarding book after book, a photocopied image of the clue in hand, as the faces she was examining began to blur, melding into one strange, identical image. She knew, at that point, that she was no longer of any use to the search and had returned to the motel to change. She had not even bothered to ask Mulder if he wanted to accompany her.
Now, as other agents began to raise blood-shot eyes from those yearbooks, Mulder stood in front of an isolated desk in the corner of the room where he had been sequestered for the past twelve hours.
Moore had almost reached Mulder's side when Scully began to walk towards her partner.
"That's it," Mulder declared, slamming the book onto the cluttered surface of the desk. "This is our suspect."
Under the glow of a desk lamp, as Scully peered past the shoulder of her superior, the face that had graced the stack of papers discovered on the Leeds' countertop stared back at her, smiling, stymied in the awkwardness of early adolescence. In a column of names that ran parallel to the tiny squares of photographs, the face matched up with a name.
"What do you think it means?"
The road ahead was reduced to a span of visible concrete that extended no more than ten feet in front of their car, the rest having been obscured by a wall of white, as they drove through the blizzard. Scully had asked the question to take her mind off of the periodic slipping of their tires against the pavement.
"You mean besides the fact that our murderer has an obviously overactive imagination and has read way too much Brothers Grimm?" Mulder answered.
They were discussing their opponent's "fairy tale."
"There were some obvious symbols," Scully continued. "Notably, this theme of innocence and evil he seems obsessed by, and he followed typical fairy tale structures. I think I remember those bits about the black draped buildings and the speaking blood from a story I read back in college."
"What kind of reading were you doing in college, Scully?" Mulder asked, almost smiling, not taking his eyes from the road.
"That bit with the nine tree branches arranged in a circle is an oblique reference, I think, to Dante's nine circles of hell." She was looking out the window now, her speech slowed, thinking.
Mulder was quiet beside her. The windows were fogged. Scully wiped a hand over the glass, clearing the view, and discovered only darkness beyond. She couldn't see the side of the road through the storm, and feeling their forward motion while being unable to see evidence of that movement was like rushing through a long, black tunnel towards an unknown destination. Snow melted against the glass where her hand had been and the window quickly fogged over again.
"I think," Mulder began, "that he pictures himself as Merciful, the brother who, in the end, is rewarded for his good deeds but who also must commit a bloody act in order to set things right."
The windshield wipers pushed back the snow, only to be defeated as more fell in its place.
"And then there is the obvious corollary between the young son in the story and the kidnapped boys, the idea of innocence being slain. He's already explained to us that he believes innocence to be something sacred, something that we, as a society, have destroyed." Mulder paused, thinking. "But there's more in that story than those basic ideas, because we knew all of these things already, and this guy wouldn't be repeating himself for the hell of it. It has to have something to do with that picture, or he wouldn't have included the two together."
"You don't think it's a separate 'clue' entirely," she asked, using their suspect's word, hating that they were being led like this.
"I don't know," Mulder said, considering. "I don't think so."
There were two cars ahead of them, one driven by Moore and containing two agents Scully hadn't learned the names of, the other containing Sandborne and Williams. Looking to the road ahead, Scully could see no evidence of their companions. Only the light drumming of Mulder's fingers against the steering wheel and the futile efforts of the windshield wipers broke the silence. Scully leaned back in her seat, closed her eyes, and was instantly devoured by sleep.
Barcelona, New York was roughly sixty miles south west of Buffalo, near the Pennsylvania border and on the shores of Lake Erie. It was a small, quiet town with tree-lined streets and large open fields. On the outskirts of town, they passed the high school in question and pulled up to a deserted motel. Dawn was still several hours away. The snow had stopped, leaving a fresh eight-inch blanket atop the foundation already in place. When Scully stepped from the car, she sank into the frozen precipitation all the way to mid calf.
Arguing that nothing, including the high school, would be open for at least another few hours, Moore had squashed Mulder's protests and sent the team to their respective rooms for a brief rest. Scully had listened to the sounds of Mulder's pacing for a few brief, anxious moments in the room that shared a wall with hers until oblivion mercifully claimed her. She had not even removed her shoes.
The next sensation she became aware of was a light touch on her arm and someone softly calling her name.
"Go away, Mulder," she slurred, still held captive by sleep. "I'm too tired."
"Come on, Scully." The tone was gentle and the touch was, too. Her slowly returning consciousness registered the caress and stiffened, snapping her focus into place, sitting her upright in the bed. When she looked at Mulder, he was standing several steps away.
"Moore wants us all outside in fifteen minutes," he said, looking at her only briefly.
She didn't have time to answer. By the time she'd risen from the bed, he was already gone.
"Are you certain?"
The secretary tapped one long acrylic nail against her desk blotter and regarded the agents with a level gaze beneath silver eyebrows.
"Agent... Mulder, was it?" The secretary asked.
"Agent Mulder, I've been a secretary at this high school since I got married in 1965. I've seen thousands of children walk down that hallway." She gestured with a small wave to the pea green hall beyond. "And while I'll admit, it would be ridiculous for me to claim I remembered every single one of those faces, I certainly remember Jacob Childress. You could ask any person who worked here during the time that Jacob attended and they would all be able to remember that name."
"Why?" Agent Williams interrupted from his position near the door.
"Because of what happened to him," she answered, regarding Williams.
"What happened to him?" Mulder asked.
"He disappeared, Agent Mulder. From right out of his bedroom in the middle of the night, and they never found any proof of what happened to him."
Scully spoke for the first time during the interview. "They never found him?"
"No, they didn't."
"They didn't just assume he'd run away?" Scully responded.
"Eventually, that's what the investigation concluded," the secretary replied, looking directly at Scully. "They didn't have evidence to support any other theory, but anyone who knew that boy could tell you the police were wrong to close the investigation. Jacob Childress was a wonderful child. He was smart, hard working, used to deliver papers to my house every morning. He was devoted to his younger brother, and there was never any trouble at home with his parents. It just wasn't right, saying he had run away. It didn't make any sense. He was only fifteen years old.
"If you'll give me a minute," the secretary added, the tapping nail ceasing its motion, "I think I could probably dig up Jacob's file." She arched an eyebrow in question.
"That would be very helpful," Mulder answered, politely, and the older woman rose from her chair and left the room.
"Mulder, Jacob Childress can't be our suspect if he disappeared twenty-three years ago," Scully said, arms folding across her chest.
"He could if he was a runaway," Williams offered.
Mulder shook his head. "No," he said. "Scully's right. It's not our guy."
Williams looked like he was about to make a further protest until Mulder continued. "It doesn't add up, especially if what the secretary said about Jacob's home life is true. Our killer is definitely not the product of a happy home."
"But there is a connection?" Williams asked, doubtful.
"There has to be," Mulder responded. "I'm just not sure what it is yet."
Scully could hear the self-defeat in those words, and she looked up at her partner, caught his eye briefly before he looked away.
"Here you go," the secretary said, walking back into the room, holding a manila folder. "We have records that go back all the way to the school's first year in 1955. None of those have been put into the computer, and we keep the old paper records in a room in the back."
She handed the file to Mulder.
"If you don't mind my asking," the secretary continued, "why are you looking into Jacob's disappearance? It happened a long time ago."
Scully looked at Mulder, who didn't seem prepared to answer.
"We think Jacob might have a connection to a case we're working in Buffalo," Williams offered, somewhat clumsily, an obvious non-answer.
Scully cut off the conversation, "Thank you. You've been very helpful." She tucked her coat around her body, preparing to leave.
Mulder had already walked out into the hall, and Williams was holding the door open, waiting for Scully, when the secretary spoke again. "Jacob's parents still live in town," she said, to the backs of the retreating agents. "His mother goes to my church."
All three agents turned around in unison.
"If you want, I could give you their address."
Henry and Martha Childress had lived in the same house for over thirty years. It was a post World War II cookie cutter affair, a raised ranch with red clapboard and white trim. Flower boxes, empty in the winter cold, graced the front of every window. Carefully pruned shrubs were outlined in snow. Their mailbox, a colorful, novelty item shaped like a covered wagon, proudly proclaimed "2814, the Childress'" in bright, bold letters. Their welcome mat actually said, "welcome."
Scully stomped the slush from her boots, mindful of the clean, cream carpeting extending from the foyer. Martha Childress ushered them into the living room, her hands dusted with baking flour and a lace-edged apron around her abundant middle. Scully was struck by how utterly out of place four black-clad federal agents looked in such a place.
"I'm sorry," Mrs. Childress apologized, as she stepped over two toy trucks and a Teletubby. "One of my sons and a few of my grand kids are in town for the weekend." She spoke to them through the open passageway to the kitchen, sliding a large pan into the oven. "It's a bit chaotic around here right now." She spoke with a warm smile, as if chaos was a blessing. "You all can have a seat."
Moore looked hesitant, eyeing the over-stuffed couches, crowned each by a colorful afghan. Scully walked over to an armchair, and after shooing away a fat, orange tabby, sank gratefully into the plush cushions.
"Would you like some coffee?" Mrs. Childress asked, still in the kitchen.
"That would be wonderful, thank you," Mulder responded.
In a corner, Wheel of Fortune droned pleasantly from the television, its volume low. On the wall behind the set, framed photographs of every shape and size were displayed. Scully rose from her chair, moving to study the pictures.
They were of varying ages. The largest looked recent, the family all gathered around a dining room table, several adults, both of the grand parents, at least ten grand children, and in front of them a cake that said "Happy 40th Wedding Anniversary." Many of the pictures were of babies, or toddlers, or were school photos complete with missing front teeth. Scanning the various generations, Scully came at last to a familiar face. In the middle row was the unmistakable smiling face of Jacob Childress at fifteen years old.
"Mulder," Scully beckoned.
He moved to stand beside her, carefully outside of her personal space, and bit his lip slightly in consideration when she gestured to the picture.
"I already had a pot going," Mrs. Childress said, as she moved back into the living room laden with a tray and a collection of steaming mugs. "There's cream and sugar if you want it," she offered, and Scully detected a hint of nervousness in the woman's demeanor, as she settled onto the end of the largest couch.
Absently, Scully picked up a mug, wrapping her hands around its comforting warmth.
"Mrs. Childress, you said your husband would be home soon?" Moore asked.
"Yes," she answered. "Henry should be home any minute now." And after a beat, "Was there anything you needed to ask me. You said there were some questions you wanted us to answer. What kind of questions?"
Glances were traded around the group of agents.
Mulder was the first to speak. "We need to ask you about your son, Mrs. Childress. We need to ask you about Jacob."
The atmosphere in the car was defeated. They'd stopped at the police station before heading over to the Childress', searching for information about Jacob's disappearance. What little they'd found had been very basic. The investigation had been abandoned early on. The other agents had been left behind to sift through the files while Mulder, Scully, Moore, and Williams had talked to Henry and Martha Childress. Unfortunately, that endeavor also proved to be fruitless.
Henry and Martha knew little beyond what the agents had already learned. Jacob had been a bright boy. Everyone had loved him. His family had adored him, and then one night, he was gone. There were no solid leads, he was never found, and with four other children to raise, eventually, his family had grieved and moved on.
In short, they'd learned nothing more than they'd known after identifying Jacob's face in his 1976 Barcelona High School yearbook.
They were returning to the police station, to see if the other half of their team had discovered anything in the police reports, and if nothing of interest had been found, they were to return to Buffalo later that night. Moore feared they had been led away from the city on purpose, away from the activities of their suspect.
Unresponsive, Mulder stared out the window of the car as Moore drove. He would not look at Scully, who sat beside him in the back seat.
Scully closed her eyes. How many hours of sleep had she managed to catch in the past two nights? Four? Five? She didn't know. Fatigue had become a constant ache in her muscles, a tightness across her face, a permanent chill. Clouds were building in the heavens again, foretelling the possibility of another storm. Scully had begun to hate the snow.
"Stop! Stop the car!" Mulder, suddenly, screaming.
Williams looked back from the passenger's seat, startled.
"I said stop the car!" Growing in volume, in mania.
"Mulder, what..." Scully began, as Moore slowed the car, looking in his mirror to stare at Mulder.
"Agent Mulder, why should I..." Moore started to ask.
"I said stop the fucking car! Right now!" Mulder screamed, pounding his fist into the back of Moore's seat, tearing at his seat belt, as Moore slammed on the brakes.
The car stopped, Moore turned in his seat, a vein in his temple throbbing in fury. "Mulder, you better have a fucking good explanation for ordering me to stop this fucking car in the middle of the forest in the middle of the fucking night."
But Mulder was already gone, out of his seat belt and out of the car, his long legs carrying him into the darkness, back in the direction from which they had come.
He didn't hear her, or didn't care, and Scully was scrambling at her own restraints, at the handle of her own door, before following him into the night.
"Mulder wait," she screamed, but he didn't stop, and in the darkness, she couldn't even see him. Frantically, she pulled her pocket flashlight from her coat, almost dropping it as she ran, its feeble beam doing little against the perfect night.
Running blindly, the weak fissure of light sliced a white arch along the pavement, and the dark presence of shadowed trees hovered along both sides of the highway.
"Mulder, where are you!"
The forest was quiet, with only the sound of wind in the trees, Scully's harsh footfalls on asphalt, and her rapid breathing, echoing loudly in her ears.
Until, suddenly, he was there. She ran right into him, and he was frozen, silent, staring into the trees ahead.
"Mulder, what the hell?"
"It's here, Scully. Look," he said, foreboding and grim.
Still breathing heavily, she quelled her impatience and looked into the trees.
"Mulder, I don't..."
At first, she saw nothing. The forest along the side of the road was a vast, black canvas broken only by the faint shadows of trees. Then the clouds drifted away from their position covering the moon, pale, silver light filtered down from the heavens, and ahead in the trees, Scully saw something that made her breath catch in her throat.
Standing back from the road, surrounded by smaller trees, stood a gigantic oak. Its massive trunk was at least twenty feet around. It grew, straight and colossal until being split at about twice Mulder's height into a circle of nine tall, twisting branches.
"Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intarte." Mulder whispered the words that were engraved crudely in the thick, moss covered bark of the tree.
"Abandon all hope, ye who enter here," Scully translated.
"You were right, Scully," Mulder said, somberly.
The various other inscriptions adorning the tree ruined the proclamation somehow. Hewn into the rough wood were phrases like "KL wuz here" and "for a good time call Sandra," followed by, presumably, Sandra's phone number. Round and round the carvings went. Stepping closer to the tree, Scully found a Pink Floyd lyric inscribed near the base.
The other members of their small team had joined them in the forest.
"At least it's not the Grateful Dead," Williams commented, reading over Scully's shoulder.
"Hey, don't knock the Dead," she could hear Sandborne reply, indignantly, from a few steps away.
"Jerry's gone, Pete, get over it," Williams quipped, grinning only slightly, his tone subdued in the dark quiet.
The wind plastered Scully's trench against her back and legs, infusing her bones with ice. Whatever this place was, it was far too cold to be hell. Several decades’ worth of broken beer bottles in varying hues littered the ground, crunching intermittently beneath their feet, visible where the ground was protected from the blanket of snow by the sheltering branches of the tree. It was a veritable monument to under-age alcohol consumption.
"We had a place like this where I grew up," Williams commented, following Scully as she made her way around the tree, "except it was under an old train trestle." He stopped and nudged at some of the newer debris with the toe of his shoe. "Shlitz." He made a disgusted sound in his throat. "God, kids still drink that shit?"
Scully almost smiled.
Only faint traces of moonlight penetrated the dense canopy of trees, and the darkness was a weight, pressing down upon the frozen ground. The night wind, wet with snow, howled through the black, and even with several flashlights in attendance, Scully felt blinded. She jumped when she felt a hand on her shoulder.
"Agent Scully," Moore said, emerging from the darkness behind her.
She caught her breath with a shiver, more unnerved in this place than she usually allowed herself to become.
"I'm sorry," Moore apologized. "I didn't mean to startle you."
She didn't say anything, and Moore joined her in contemplation of the deeply etched letters on the trunk of the tree.
"Dante, right?" Moore asked.
Scully nodded and then shivered violently, clasping her arms around her waist in an effort to conserve warmth. She did not see the look of concern that flashed across Moore's face as he regarded her.
"The engravings aren't new," Scully observed, her voice determined against the cold. "In fact, they look considerably older than many of these other engravings."
"So it isn't our guy?" asked Moore. From Scully's small look of surprise, he added, "I caught the reference in the story, too."
Scully blinked, considering. "I don't know," she hedged. Her mind felt sluggish, smothered by ice. The inscriptions appeared too old to be of any significance, but if coincidences were just coincidences... She looked off into the dark morass of trees and saw a faint light moving away from the team.
"Agent Scully?" Moore asked, surprised, as Scully walked away from the tree and towards the light.
She didn’t answer him.
The large tree had been in the center of a small clearing, but as Scully moved deeper into the forest, the trees closed around her like menacing hands, their branches reaching down to graze her hair and brush her arms. Her gun had found its way into her gloved hand, but she followed the light based on recognition, not suspicion. She knew who had wandered off into the woods alone.
"Mulder?" she called, not yelling for some reason, as if there was a need to preserve the quiet of this place.
There was no answer, and she moved forward warily, reminded of Hansel and Gretel in the witch's wood, but with no breadcrumbs to mark her way. Twigs snapped beneath her boots, and her toes were numb.
"Mulder?" she called again, agitated, as the light ahead of her played hide and seek, winking out of sight occasionally amidst the trees.
After a few more steps, the trees cleared again, and twenty feet ahead of her, Scully's partner stood, still and silent in the night. Ahead of him, it was obvious what had caught his attention. Scully walked to stand beside him.
Seeming an extension of the ground it sat upon, the rotting specter of an old church crouched in the darkness. Decaying boards peeled away from its skeleton like skin, and one side appeared ravaged by fire. Planks over the windows had been torn down in some places. As Scully followed her partner closer to the building, she stepped over a faded sign that warned "Condemned. Do Not Enter." Disregarding the warning, Scully positioned herself outside of the main doorway opposite Mulder. She could barely see him in the darkness, and when she looked up at him before they opened the doors, she could not find his eyes.
The tall oak doors were soft with rot, their hinges nearly immovable with rust. It took both partners leaning their full weight upon the doors before they opened. Dust showered down from the braces, as the hinges finally screamed to life. Stepping into the ancient structure, the stench of mildew and rotted wood was heavy in the air, and the darkness was nearly impenetrable.
In the brilliant arc of light cast by Mulder's flashlight, two short rows of pews revealed themselves, separated by a center aisle. A hole in the roof, likely created by a large branch that was crashed across several pews, had allowed leaves and other debris to fall into the building. At the end of the short aisle, the lonely adornment of a crucifix presided over what must once have been the pulpit.
Scully walked over fragile floorboards to a small alcove along the wall. Raising her flashlight to investigate, she let out an involuntary scream when a black, indistinguishable mass descended from the ceiling. Claws caught in her hair, shrill squeaking noises near her face, and she flailed, dropping her flashlight with a clatter to the floor, as she fought to calm herself. Mulder was at her side within moments, his hand on her arm, his voice hasty and calming.
"Bats, Scully. They're just bats."
His hand was gone as quickly as he had placed it there.
Her breathing was rapid. She took several deep breaths and smoothed her hair down in a calming, self-conscious reflex, glancing about nervously. "What are we doing in here, Mulder?" she finally asked.
He gave her a blank look. "What do you mean, what are we doing in here?"
"I mean," she clarified, "that it's freezing out here, that the inscriptions on that tree are twenty years old, if they're a day, and that we have no reason to believe the tree isn't a coincidence to begin with." As if to reinforce her point, she started shaking again from the cold. She was being argumentative, she knew, but she was tired, so very tired, and couldn't clearly remember what it felt like to be warm.
"To say nothing of the fact," she continued "that you still haven't bothered to explain to me what that conversation with Madeline Oliver was all about."
Tired of being unable to see his eyes, Scully raised her flashlight to Mulder's face, causing him to flinch under the light. He appeared ghostlike in the eerie illumination. As she waited for an answer, he turned away from her and walked towards the crucifix.
"Mulder?" she called after him, her irritation growing.
With his back to her, his voice was almost lost in the darkness. "Madeline Oliver cheated on her husband, Scully."
She picked her flashlight from the ground, brushing some of the dust, dirt, and melting snow from her sleeves.
"So," she challenged.
"So did Roberta Hausner," he added.
Scully walked up the aisle and towards her partner. Mulder was standing, facing the giant crucifix. Christ, in his agony, stared down on the partners with sightless eyes.
"So did my mother, Scully," he added finally, quietly.
She didn't know what to say. She knew Mulder's suspicions about his paternity.
"He said I have something in common with these children, Scully. He keeps saying that."
"Mulder," she said, not sure where to begin. "This man is deranged. He hunts little boys and calls it necessary. He's picked you out as a target, and you're allowing it. You're allowing him to play on your guilt and weakness, and you're seeing things that aren't really there. You're letting him win, Mulder, letting him draw you into this sick game of his."
And you do this every time, she almost added. Every time, you open the door to these monsters, invite them in, and almost lose yourself in the process. She didn't say these things, but they were present in the tired repetitiveness of her previous words. They were present in her knowledge that Mulder had heard her say these things before.
"This man may be many things, Scully," Mulder said, coldly, turning to face her, "but he is not deranged. In fact, I'd say he's quite sane. He wouldn't be able to elude us so flawlessly if he were insane. His actions are too calculated, too careful to be those of a crazy man. His beliefs may be twisted, this purpose he sees himself imbued with may be evil, but his mind is rational, intact."
"But those families, Mulder," she argued, "you're only talking about two cases. Two out of six."
"We don't know that the other families don't have the same type of history, Scully."
"And we don't know that they do. In fact, according to the reports I've read, the Deary's had a stable, loving relationship. Alan Crane was still mourning the loss of his wife."
"Which tells us nothing," Mulder said, turning away from Scully once again.
"Mulder, you're making this personal. You're jumping to conclusions that require much more in-depth investigation before being made, and you're allowing your sense of betrayal at your mother's deception to fuel this hell bent self-destructive pursuit of yours."
He didn't turn around and he didn't respond.
Scully felt foolish, somehow, cast out without audience, ignored. "If you look too hard Mulder, you're going to see things that aren't really there," she offered, weakly, not sure why she felt almost frightened by this conversation.
Frustrated, she walked past Mulder and up into the pulpit to stand before the crucifix. Her eyes were drawn to Christ's feet, lifelike and mangled with trails of blood streaming from where the nails punctured the flesh. She'd been morbidly fascinated by that image as a child, that vision of torment and violence. It had awed and repulsed her at the same time. Such tremendous sacrifice, and she'd feared herself unworthy. Even now, as an adult, the depth of that sacrifice had the power to awe her, and she had endeavored with the decisions she'd made in her life to make herself worthy.
Leaning forward, something unusual caught her eye. On the wall beneath the crucifix, so small she would have missed it had she not been directly studying the object, several words were engraved. Kneeling, she had to peer carefully to make them out. The writing was crude, like graffiti, but the words were familiar.
<I wailed not, so of stone I grew within.>
More Dante. She'd studied the Divine Comedy as an undergrad, fulfilling a literature requirement. Like everything else she'd studied, it had stuck, her memory filing away phrases and translations that she could recall to this day. As a catholic, the poetry held a special allure. It was a creative, beautifully written description of the afterlife, intricately detailed. It had fascinated her.
It was another coincidence. Something nagged in the recesses of her consciousness. Her eyes scanned the wall around the words, following it down to the floor. Standing up, she turned around, looking at the floor. She took a few steps back, and the rotted floorboards wobbled beneath her feet. Something was there, near her feet. She sank down to her knees again.
<In His will is our peace.>
"Scully?" Mulder was standing behind her.
"In la sua volontade e nostra pace," she whispered.
"Scully?" Concern and puzzlement in his voice.
"More Dante," she said, distant, running her fingers over the words.
Mulder squatted beside her and caught her eyes. "What are you talking about, Scully?"
"Here," she explained, gesturing to the words on the floor, "and on the wall." She pointed to the inscription below the crucifix.
Mulder got up and walked over to the wall, finding and staring at the words.
Scully looked back down at the floor, rocking forward on her feet, and the floorboards wobbled again. They were loose. She peeled off her gloves. "Mulder..."
He turned around.
Scully traced the edge of the floorboard with her fingertips, finding a dent along the side. She pushed her fingers into the space, prying, and the board gave, lifting up with the sound of splintering wood. Only a few flimsy tacks held the board to the floor.
"Mulder, help me."
At first, Mulder seemed confused by her request, but she continued to pull up the loose floorboards. After a moment, he began to help. The boards came up in long strips. The tacks were not the usual, durable nails that held down the rest of the flooring. Dust filled the air, and splinters wedged themselves painfully under Scully's skin. She moved frantically, not looking up at Mulder, as the crawl space beneath the floor revealed itself, filled with dirt. Mulder was the one who began to dig the dirt away.
Scully watched, already knowing, dreading, as the first of the bones became visible. When Mulder stopped and looked up at her, the only sound she could hear was the hollow wail of the wind in the trees outside.
Ahead of her, the blaze from newly erected spotlights reflected off the snow-whitened earth, casting fingers of deep shadow beneath the branches of frozen trees. Other agents, fueled by purpose, strode across her line of sight, engaged in various activities. Their small team had blossomed into countless others, even in the middle of the night.
Scully cranked the controls on the car's heater up a notch.
The Buffalo field office had been contacted immediately, agents had been pulled from their beds, and at two o'clock in the morning, a full-scale forensic assault was being waged in the unforgiving winter wilderness.
The blast of hot air against her face made her cheeks tingle, and she held her fingers up to the vent, wincing as her dry skin cracked from the cold.
The deserted church was now a hive of activity. The body they'd discovered was still surrounded by the forensic team. They wouldn't be done for hours. Mulder, she also knew, was still presiding over the entire affair, refusing to leave, lips practically blue, eyes shrouded by black shadows. After they'd brushed the dirt from the top of the skull, Scully had pulled her gloves back on over bleeding fingers and sought the sanctuary of their car.
The passenger's side door opened, admitting a torrent of icy air. "It's too damn cold out there," Moore said, as he huddled into the seat, rubbing his hands together.
Scully looked at him blankly.
"I tried to get you partner to come in from the cold for a little while," he continued, "but he wouldn't listen to reason."
Moore reached into his pocket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. He pushed the car lighter in to heat it up. Seeming to remember the need for courtesy, his look towards Scully was a question. She shrugged, and when the lighter popped out, he lit the cigarette and took a deep drag. His exhale sounded filled with relief.
Scully had smoked as a means of rebellion in high school and as a method for relieving stress in college. She'd quit the night she'd autopsied a cancer-infested lung for the fist time, and with only a few, scattered exceptions, had never taken up the habit again. Tonight, surrounded by ice and death and exhaustion, she felt the stirring of craving for the first time in many long years. Mulder wasn't going to find out. He wasn't likely to move from the church until the entire body had been exhumed, carted off, identified, and given a proper burial.
Annoyed that she'd even considered Mulder's reaction to begin with, Scully turned to Moore. "Can I have one of those?"
He looked surprised but handed her a cigarette without comment.
When she pulled out the lighter, she felt a moment of hesitation. As she held it to the cigarette, watched the tip start to glow, and inhaled, she lost that hesitation amidst the rush of nicotine hitting her brain. She coughed.
Moore looked over at her, amused.
After sitting in silence for a few minutes, Moore spoke. "I feel," he began, "that I owe you and your partner an apology."
Scully looked out the window, feeling artificially alert and yet subdued by the cigarette.
Moore continued. "I judged the two of you too quickly, and I'm sorry for that." He seemed unsure of himself.
"Thank you," Scully said softly, turning to face her superior.
Moore smiled, catching Scully's gaze for a moment before turning away. Her respect for Moore had increased with those words. He wasn't apologizing because he felt it a duty. He was apologizing because he knew he had been wrong and he wanted to make amends. Looking through the windshield, a light snow had begun to fall, and in the brilliant illumination cast by the spotlights, it was beautiful.
After several more moments, Moore asked, "how long have you and Agent Mulder been partners?"
She felt herself flinch inwardly at the question. She closed her eyes for a brief instant. She wanted her words to be toneless, emotionless.
"Six years," she responded.
"Wow," Moore said, impressed. "That's a long time. That's rare."
It was. She knew. She simply nodded, watching the slow descent of the flakes outside.
"Has he always been this," Moore seemed to struggle for the right word, "focused?"
Scully wanted to laugh, but the pain in her chest swallowed the sound. "Not always."
Moore stubbed out his cigarette. His tone was one of frank, honest admiration. "He has a gift. I don't think I've ever seen anything like it."
The words husked out over the pain. "Yes," Scully agreed. "He does."
Moore's next comments held a note of personal suffering. "You two are lucky, to have someone around who understands what you do." He fumbled with the gold band on his left ring finger, a nervous habit of his she had noticed.
Scully wondered what history tainted those words, but she could not bring herself to ask. Fatigue burned behind her eyes, and the cigarette she held unfinished in her hand was making her nauseous. Ash fell unnoticed to singe the carpeting. Moore's words tore at barely hidden wounds. Scully, ashamed, wanted to hide.
There was the rap of knuckles against Moore's window. He opened it, letting light wisps of snow drift in to melt against Scully's warmed cheeks. Another agent stood outside in the night.
"We need you out here for a minute, sir," the agent said.
"I'll be right out."
Scully squashed her cigarette in the ashtray. "If it's all right with you, sir, I think I'm going to head back to the motel."
She could feel Moore regarding her, as she held her hand over the keys in the ignition.
"Yes, of course, that's fine." He paused. "Agent Scully," he sounded hesitant, "are you all right?"
He was genuinely concerned, and that concern threatened to further shred her already battered defenses. She did not look up. She turned the keys and brought the engine to life.
"I'm fine, sir. Thank you."
The traditional excuse sounded feeble to her ears, and she hoped that Moore would interpret it as mere exhaustion. She hoped that she could appear as infallible as she always feared she could never be.
Sleep came in drifting snatches of unease. Her dreams escaped her upon the moment of waking, and their ephemeral ghosts lingered over her in the dim wakefulness she suffered before falling back to sleep again. She had removed shoes, socks, holster, and bra before collapsing to the bed. Curled in upon herself, she'd pulled the covers over aching bones and had shivered herself to sleep. She had been resting for barely two hours when she heard the knock at the door.
Caught in the trance of half-sleep, she stumbled from the bed, pushed the hair from her eyes, and stood on bare feet in front of her motel room door.
"Who is it," she demanded, voice raspy with sleep.
The reply she received from the other side forced her fully awake, and her fingers trembled not from cold, as she reached up to disengage the lock.
"What are you doing here?" Scully asked, her voice weary and defensive.
Mulder stood on the walkway beyond her door, icy sleet running from his hair, his coat unbuttoned, eyes hollow. Cold wind swept through the room. Scully felt small and vulnerable in her bare feet.
"Can I come in for a second?" he asked, careful and quiet.
She studied him for a moment, hating that she hesitated, but hesitating, nonetheless. His skin was the white of freshly fallen snow. He had to be freezing. Acquiescing, she stepped back from the door. He walked into her room and stood facing away from her in the center of the carpet. Scully moved to switch on the bedside lamp. The darkness hid too many things.
Watching his motionless form, she saw him drag in a trembling breath. Water dripped from his hair and down to the carpet. Without saying a word or casting a look in his direction, Scully walked into her bathroom, retrieved a towel, and handed it to Mulder. He took it from her with eyes downcast, the curve of his lashes a dark comma against his pale flesh.
She moved away from him, as he raised the towel to his head and roughly scrubbed the water away. When he was done, his hair poked out in a million different directions, still mangled by that ghastly haircut. It was a look she found endearing, even amidst this pained awkwardness.
Silence blanketed them both, and Scully felt cold and clammy. She wanted to take a long, hot, forgetful shower. Mulder's shoes had left a trail of muddy footprints across the drab motel carpeting. She would have scolded him for that once.
"It's Jacob Childress," Mulder said, suddenly, shortly, final and filled with dread.
Scully stumbled over dangerous emotions. "How... how do you know that?"
He did not look at her. The towel dangled from his hand. "I just know."
He did, and she did, too. She did not want to know.
"We'll need Jacob's dental records before we can confirm anything," she cautioned, lamely.
His voice was lifeless. "Yes, we will."
She wondered how the years had brought them to this place. Were they solely to blame? Could they have avoided it? Or had the accumulated sorrows of their life together finally tipped their precarious balance. She felt stymied and impotent, powerless to sift through the depths of blame and resentment, the conversations they'd never had. How could she explain to him now, after all of these years? How could he? They'd bound themselves together with chains of shared sorrow and purpose, and the little milestones of a forming connection had never occurred between them. She could not leave him, yet sometimes, she felt that she could not stay, that she should not.
They'd sacrificed their connection upon a pyre of words, both said and unsaid, and in the process, had forgotten how to speak. They'd not always been this way. How could they be expected to rebuild their partnership out of nothing more than ashes?
"How can there possibly be a connection between Jacob and these kidnapings, Mulder?" she asked, her voice rough. "Jacob Childress disappeared twenty-three years ago. Our suspect would have barely been a teenager, at least according to your profile." In her mind, Scully could see the tear-stained cheeks of Martha Childress, the resignation, the fierce determination, and the love for a child she had lost almost a quarter century before.
Mulder's shoulders sagged. He turned and slumped into the armchair across from her bed. "I don't know. I don't know the connection yet." He paused. "But there is one, and it's important. It's very important."
Mulder closed his eyes, and Scully stood ten feet away, unable to move. The collar of his shirt was wet. His tie was missing. His pant legs were covered with wet mud. She missed him. She missed him so much.
She walked to stand before him, touched his hand gently. "Mulder, you need sleep."
His eyes remained closed.
"Mulder, it's late."
He was awake, she knew. Countless nights together, and she knew the patterns of his breathing better than her own. He opened his eyes and regarded her, unspeaking. Suddenly, he reached out and clasped cold fingers around the hand she had removed from his. Neither spoke. They stared at one another.
"Scully." It was not a question. It was a statement.
What would it be like to sleep in his arms, she wondered? To wake there? Could he, with his strong arms and familiar, cherished presence, ease this persistent ache that she felt? Could she ease him? Her heart was breaking, because she feared she might never know those answers now.
Her muscles tensed, and she tried to move away. His hold on her hand was too strong.
"Mulder," she warned, "I think you should go now."
"Scully," he said again, and his voice broke on her name, tears choking the sound.
He pulled and she followed. Opposites attract. She had always followed him, as a compass towards true north, even when she knew that she should not. He pulled, and she was weak, she folded, falling to her knees, a supplicant. His hands slid up to frame her face, watching her with haunted eyes.
"Mulder, please," she pleaded, as she felt her eyes fill with tears, felt one slide down and over her cheek.
When he spoke, he sounded lost, bereft. "I'm losing you, aren't I?"
She felt as if there should be some physical manifestation of the pain she was feeling. She could not answer him. They were losing each other. She closed her eyes, and two more tears slipped away.
He touched his forehead to hers. "I can't lose you, Scully. I can't." He was crying, the sound strangling his words, shortening his breath. "I can't lose you."
She was caught up in the tidal wave of his familiar scent. Rain and sweat and fatigue, the barest hint of faded after-shave. She didn't want to leave him. She wanted all of the comfort and reassurances that his presence promised. Even though she'd never wanted his protection, she'd always known he'd give it, that he gave it, without her ever voicing a need. She wanted nothing but the feel of his rumpled work shirt beneath her cheek, the wide breadth of his chest, the sound of his heartbeat. Please, she thought, desperately, don't make me leave him.
The touch of his lips to hers was different than the last time. That time had been fueled by desperation. This time it was fueled by fear.
His lips were damp with tears, pulling at hers, begging her not to abandon him. She opened to him on a soft, desperate cry, not able to recognize the sound as one she was capable of making. Her arms hung at her sides, fists clenched. She could not touch him. His fingers moved from her face to comb roughly through her hair, to pull her closer, and she stumbled. Unbalanced, she tottered forward and into him, fingers scrambling against his forearms.
This was as much her fault as his. She had followed him to this place. She was kissing him back. She did not protest, did not even try. He was warm. In this place of constant cold, he was heat. The stroke of his tongue against her own was life amidst too much death.
She leaned roughly against him, and she could feel him shaking where their bodies touched. They rose in unison, one of Mulder's hands sliding to grip her waist, the other anchoring her mouth to his with fingers splayed across the nape of her neck. A clumsy tango was enacted as they stumbled back the few steps necessary to fall upon her bed.
It was too much, his warmth, his scent, the roughness of his fingers as they pushed beneath her blouse to skitter across her belly. The memories descended without mercy. He closed one warm hand around her breast, and she could remember, before, his teeth grazing her there. She slid buttons free on his shirt, felt the life in him as his muscles clenched under her touch, and she could remember the feel of him within her. Raw and deep, and it had been Mulder touching her that way, knowing her in that way; and it had destroyed her.
How had she forgotten? How had she pushed all of those memories beneath the granite of her self-control? The sensations tore across her awareness now. The moment as he had broken within her, his warmth flooding her, and she had mourned, because it had been over, and it could never be taken back. The way her spirit had escaped her, crying out, writhing -- things she did not do -- and it had all been too primal, too earthly. She had disconnected herself from the gritty reality of the flesh for far too long, and she could not remember herself that way, had been shocked to discover Mulder in that way.
It had been as if she had been living in the warm darkness of a dream, only to be torn forcefully into the screaming light of day, terrified at the reality she was not ready to confront.
Now was Mulder murmuring her name against her neck, his tears dampening her skin, now was his arms holding her tightly, her bare chest flush with his, feeling him breathe.
"You're all I have," he whispered desperately. Her carotid artery throbbed against his lips.
She knew this. She knew. That was the problem. She had never wanted to become the center of his world. She did not want to be his reason for living. She knew that he would die without her. It was a burden, a terrible responsibility she had never asked for.
Her skirt had ridden up, and his fingers
stroked slowly along her thigh, venturing higher with each pass.
Powerless against her body's intentions, her legs fell open without her
permission. The press of him against her there flooded her with heat
that was drowning.
These were the eyes of her partner, her companion for the past six years. They had looked on her with compassion, sorrow, anger, and love. She knew these eyes, and when they locked with hers, she was staring into the soul of the man she had grown to love, unclouded by the mindless haze of lust they had allowed themselves to be consumed by. His cheeks were tear-stained, his eyes red-rimmed. Her eyes were sticky with her own tears.
What were they sacrificing here?
She couldn't think. Her head felt heavy, her limbs leaden. Mulder rolled abruptly away from her before she could form a coherent thought, dumping her gracelessly onto the bed. Stunned, Scully pulled the sides of her blouse together. Across the room, Mulder's bare chest rose and fell in heavy, labored breaths. He stared at her with wild eyes.
She pulled absently at the hem of her skirt, trying to smooth it back over her hips.
This thing between them was so dangerous. It would be easy, too easy, to succumb to the look in his eyes, the look she knew was in her own eyes. This had always existed as a possibility between them. They had always known it. They had fought it, fought against each other and themselves for years. Perhaps it was fighting this that had driven some of the distance between them. Perhaps that had nothing to do with it at all.
Outside, the wind rattled the glass, a terrible beast seeking entry.
"Scully," he tried again. "I'm sorry."
But he had nothing to be sorry about. As terrible an idea as this was, as many issues as lay unresolved between them, she had wanted him. She wanted him still. This was a truth she was finally starting to see. She pulled herself up from the bed, started to walk towards him.
"No. Scully, stop." His voice was rough. "I... I just can't have you near me right now," he apologized.
"I think I should leave," he said.
She could feel tears building again in her eyes. She nodded faintly. She would not let him see her cry.
A week ago they had crossed a line she had despaired of their ever crossing, and they had done it in such a way that it had left her feeling angry and alone. She did not know if she was ready for this, didn't really know if she would ever be. More importantly, she didn't know if Mulder was ready. Not that long ago, she had fumed with jealousy over the reappearance of Diana Fowley in his life. Lately, he seemed more frustrated than ever by her inability to believe, unable to understand that after everything she had lost and sacrificed to this crusade, her faith in science and her need for proof were the only things she had left to hold on to. The X-Files were gone, raped and pillaged in this constant war they were fighting. A fate more hideous than anything she could have imagined in her most twisted nightmares lay waiting for the entire planet, just over the horizon. At night, she sat up unable to sleep, filled with an unnamable dread.
She had thought, had hoped, that they would be able to bury this mistake between them. She had been wrong. Mulder, standing a few steps away, looking at her as if his world were burning, was proof enough of this fact.
She watched him as he gathered his clothes together, as he slid back into his wrinkled shirt and soiled jacket. She watched as he walked slowly to her door. She watched as he paused in the open doorway and regarded her with depthless eyes. She watched as he turned from her and walked away.
They needed to fix this, somehow. Only, here, in this place, under these circumstances, it was not possible. She was terrified that by the time they were able to confront what was happening between them, it would be too late.
Jacob Andrew Childress had been fifteen years old at the time of his death. Dental records showed the presence of a small filling in the right upper bicuspid and a congenitally missing adult molar. As a result, the baby tooth had never fallen out. Both anomalies matched the teeth of the skeleton found beneath the flooring of the abandoned church. Further evidence of the body's identity was discovered in a healed fracture along the child's left femur. The year before his disappearance, Jacob Childress had suffered a bad fall on his first ski trip to Vermont with his parents. He'd worn a cast for six weeks, and it had been covered with scrawled signatures by the time it was removed. Afterwards, he'd kept the cast as a memento, much to his mother's dismay.
Scully smoothed her fingers over the pages in the file, wishing it weren't true, wishing she didn't have to drag this family back into the grief they had managed to recover from twenty-three years ago. Across from Scully in the living room, Henry Childress held the hand of his wife, who cried quietly as she regarded the agents.
"We knew," Henry Childress said, softly. "In our hearts, we knew almost right away. We held a memorial service five years after he disappeared, but we'd known for a while before that point. We could feel that he was gone."
Martha Childress nodded and sniffed into a tissue. A fat orange cat, sensing her discomfort, jumped up into her lap. She stroked its fur with shaking fingers.
Scully sat in the same chair she'd occupied on their last visit, holding an untouched mug of coffee. Her stomach felt filled with acid. Across the room, Moore stood stiffly near the fireplace. He'd accompanied Scully and Mulder on their trip to inform the Childresses of their son's fate.
"Mr. Childress, I don't quite know how to ask you this," Mulder started, sitting in another chair angled to face the couple. "It's a difficult question, and I want the two of you to know that I wouldn't be asking if I didn't think the answer was very important to what may have happened to your son."
Scully and Moore exchanged a look; Moore seemed perplexed by Mulder's turn in conversation, while Scully had a feeling she knew where this was headed.
The look on Henry Childress' face was wary and expectant.
Mulder's tone was careful. "Has you or your wife, in the history of your marriage, ever been involved in an extra-marital affair?"
Scully glanced quickly at Moore. He was shocked and looked ready to put an end to Mulder's questions. Apparently, Mulder had told him nothing of his suspicions.
Martha Childress looked as if she had seen a ghost.
"We haven't spoken of that in years," Henry stammered, obviously shaken. "It happened so long ago."
Scully could feel herself becoming more alert, sitting up straighter in her seat. Mulder became more animated, too, restraining himself by obvious force of will.
"What happened?" Mulder asked, no trace of anxiety revealed by his words.
Martha was staring into her lap, concentrating on the cat.
"I'd really like to know what this has to do with our son," Henry stated defensively.
Mulder replied, "We're not entirely sure of the connection yet, but your son's death may be related to a series of kidnappings; kidnappings with a pattern of extra-marital affairs within the families."
That was over-stating things, Scully thought.
Moore's lips were drawn into a tight, perplexed frown.
Martha interrupted, her voice small. "Related how?"
"We're not sure yet," Mulder replied honestly.
"Martha, you don't have to..." Henry tried to caution his wife.
"But it might help you figure out who did this to Jacob?" Martha asked Mulder, ignoring her husband's warning.
"It might," Mulder agreed.
She seemed to consider this, continuing to stroke the cat absently. Its enthusiastic purring could be heard from where Scully sat.
"I had an affair," Martha admitted bluntly. "It happened a long time ago. I told Henry about it afterwards, and he forgave me. It was stupid and I regretted it. I still regret the pain it caused our family."
Henry had moved a hand to rub his wife's shoulders, supportive of her in her admission.
"I was in the Air Force," Henry explained. "I was away for long periods of time. Martha didn't have to tell me about the relationship. I would never have found out on my own."
Mulder was contemplative, gnawing gently on his lower lip. "Do you remember the name of the man you had the affair with, Mrs. Childress?" he asked.
The question was clearly upsetting, neither spouse seeming willing to dredge up this part of their past. "His name was Adam Hathaway," Martha whispered.
"How did you two meet?"
Martha sighed in defeat, her lips trembling. "At work. I was a secretary, and he was a client of my employer. I'm not sure exactly what kind of work he was involved in." Her voice dropped even lower. "It was a short acquaintance."
Henry had stopped watching the exchange and was looking, stone faced, through the large living room window.
"And how long ago was this?"
"I'm not sure," Martha stammered. "We had been married almost fifteen years, I think. So that would have been around 1971."
"Which would have made Jacob ten years old or so at the time?"
"Yes. That sounds about right."
Mulder stood up. "Thank you both for your time," he said. "We'll contact you as soon as we know anything."
Scully hurriedly placed her coffee on the small table. Moore followed after Mulder with a scowl on his face. Pausing at the door, Scully looked back at Martha and Henry as they escorted the agents from the house. She handed them one of her cards.
When Scully looked back at the house from
the iced over walkway, she could see the couple leaning into one another
for support, Henry's arm curved around his wife.
The bottom of the tub was like ice. Her hair plastered itself to the cold tile wall where her cheek rested against the slick surface. Arms like a vice around her waist, she shuddered in time to the pounding of hot water upon her back, desperate for warmth.
Scully did not know which frightened her more, that she had become so dangerously emotional, or that these emotions were so foreign and upsetting to her. There had been a wall of perfect silence she had surrounded herself with in these past several years. It had protected her. Behind it she had hidden the things that she had felt no horror could ever destroy -- the sound of her father's voice when he read to her, her mother's sugar cookies, her faith in God, Mulder's gentle smile. She had retreated to its comforting embrace to rebuild and regroup after countless horrors. Time and again it had given her strength to keep moving, had forbidden her to forget that there were points of light in this dark world. That silence, which had once sustained her, seemed now filled with noise.
The water was growing cold. She shut off the tap and stepped out into the steam filled bathroom. She wrapped a towel around her shuddering shoulders.
So many pieces of Mulder had gone to build that quiet place. His love and concern, his brazen fortitude, his child-like perseverance and belief, his chivalry, his sad eyes, the way he sometimes said her name. She had never told him that she had been quietly hoarding pieces of him within her. His violent intrusion on the night after the warehouse had shattered that place.
She moved into the bedroom in search of the clothes she had lain out precisely on the bed and found Mulder seated beside them. His head was down. He did not speak.
"I didn't hear you knock," she finally said, lamely, harsher than she had intended.
"I didn't," he responded.
Unsure of how to react, she stood motionless for several seconds. Cold water shivered down from her hair, propelling her into action.
"Mulder, I need to get dressed."
He did not reply.
"Mulder," her tone was impatient.
He looked up eventually, severing her impatience. "I got a phone call."
'So what,' she almost said. 'Leave me alone. I'm cold.' But the look of dread on his face forestalled her words. Her skin felt suddenly crawling. She did not want to ask.
"A few minutes ago," he said, the words dead sounding, hollow. "I almost didn't come up here."
Scully walked slowly over to the bed, picked up her clothes without looking at Mulder, knowing he did not look at her.
She retreated to the bathroom before she responded, needing to cover herself before she could face this. "I don't understand," she answered around the half-closed door, hastily pulling on a pair of jeans and a sweater. "You weren't going to tell me?"
Mulder didn't answer.
She tugged her wet hair into a messy ponytail as she emerged from the bathroom again.
"He wants to meet."
She felt confused and frightened. "Meet who? Meet you? What are you talking about, Mulder?" But her fear stemmed from the fact that she already knew, or she thought that she knew.
When Mulder looked up, there was the faintest echo of hope in his voice and on his face. "He says it's a reward for finding Jacob, no strings attached, no time limit, no risk for the child. He's willing to hand over one of the victims."
She hadn't expected that, could never have suspected that.
"He's willing to return one child to me, to me alone, on the sole condition that I don't try to trap him and that I come by myself. He called it 'a gesture of good faith.' "
"Good faith!" Scully sputtered, "How can he talk about good faith? He's killed four children. You can't possibly think he'll honor any deal he makes, that this isn't some kind of trap."
"It isn't a trap, Scully."
"He's insane, Mulder!"
"No, Scully. He's not. And he honored the terms of the last deal he made. Tristan Oliver wasn't killed until we arrived *after* the specified deadline, and our suspect had every opportunity to harm me in the warehouse if that was what he had wanted, but he didn't."
"Can you even hear yourself," Scully asked, incredulous. "You talk about deadlines and honor in connection with a man who tortures young children, starving them practically to death before dumping their emaciated, naked bodies in the snow. He may not be insane, Mulder, but he's evil. That you can even think to make deals with this type of person is preposterous."
"I've already made the deal," Mulder answered, lowly.
"Mulder," her voice was ragged. "No."
"I didn't have a choice."
Realization crawled over her with icy fingers. "You were going to do this without telling me, without telling anyone. You were going to drive off alone in the night without saying a word."
Tentative. "I'm coming back, Scully," he reassured.
"What if you don't?" she asked, staring only briefly into his eyes before darting away. "What if you didn't come back, and I had to wait, never knowing what had happened?"
His voice was gentler now, less cold. "I told you, Scully. I'm telling you right now."
"But you almost didn't, and you still expect me to just let you do this."
"What choice do we have, Scully? It's a child's life." His tone turned beseeching. "If we can save one of these children, at least that's something. That's one more life than we've managed to save so far. I can't not do this, Scully. I can't risk that we might have had a chance to save this child."
That he had said 'we' instead of 'I' did not escape her. He was being careful with her, considerate. It softened her, which was probably the desired effect. When she spoke again, it was quieter, with an attempt at reason. "If we do this, without telling Moore, it could mean our jobs. You must know that. We're on thin ice already."
"You can't come with me, Scully." He said it with regret, knowing the argument she would muster.
Of course, she thought. It always came down to this with them. She only stared at him for several moments, refusing to enter into their tired back and forth debate over her safety and his desire to protect her. Her gaze unnerved him eventually, and he looked away, studying his hands. She knew that he had been told to go alone, but there wasn't a chance in hell she would actually allow that to happen.
"If you try to go without me, Mulder, I'll be on the phone to Kersh ten seconds later." Deadly serious.
He looked up at her, astonished and betrayed.
"I'd rather see you out of the bureau than dead," she said.
Mulder rose abruptly from the bed, pacing furiously across the room and back again. He looked like he wanted to punch something. He looked like he wanted to yell at her. "I have to be there by midnight," he said, anger tightly restrained.
"Be where?" she asked, standing carefully away from his frustrated pacing.
She could see the internal argument he was having with himself, knowing that she was serious with her threat. Finally, he stopped moving, turned and faced her.
Stars glittered with obscene beauty against the smooth black of the night sky. It was a clear, cold, perfect winter night. The air frosted from her lips in billowing white clouds, and everything seemed made of glass, fragile and pristine.
Mulder's fingers were curled with obvious tension around the steering wheel as he drove. Scully wanted to reach over, to feel them loosen and uncurl under her touch. She watched him, knowing that he could feel her gaze, wondering what he would do if she were to try such a thing. Would he flinch away from her? Or did he miss her touch as much as she did his?
If he felt her gaze, he gave no indication. Instead, he filled the silence of the moving car.
"Our suspect killed Jacob Childress" he began without preamble.
Shaken from her reverie, Scully could manage only a wary, "Mulder..."
"It's the only option that makes sense," he continued as if he hadn't heard her interruption. "How else could he have known where the body was buried? Jacob Childress had been beneath the floor of that church for twenty-three years. His death has an obvious significance for our suspect -- the reference in the story, the photograph. Why else lead us to the body? Why go through all the trouble?"
"But how is the death of Jacob Childress, a murder our suspect would have to have committed when he was just a child himself, part of this 'message' he's trying to deliver?" Scully asked. "If he'd been on this sick crusade since such an early age, why did the murders start now? Wouldn't they have been ongoing since Jacob? It doesn't make sense."
"Unless it's only a related event and not necessarily a part of his larger mission," Mulder countered, fingers drumming in thought against the steering wheel. "It's part of the message, though. It has to be, but I'm still uncertain as to what, exactly, that message is."
He paused, chewing on his lower lip. "It's not as simple as infidelity. That's too vague. If that were all there was, then why not kill the parents?" Mulder was musing aloud. "After all, technically, they're the guilty ones. Are the children the products of a tainted union? Is that the innocence he feels has been violated? That would seem to be the logical conclusion, but then how does Jacob fit in to all of this, and, again, why not just punish the parents?"
Scully shifted in her seat, watching Mulder puzzle things out. Earlier that day, Moore had been less than receptive to Mulder's notions about the connection between the families. He had mentioned the sheer commonality of divorce these days, that in any sample of families from Buffalo, you were bound to find more than a few broken homes. He had become even less receptive when Mulder had continued with how he felt the killer was identifying the children.
"What if," Scully interrupted Mulder's
debate with himself, "this Adam Hathaway is somehow related to our suspect?"
She flinched under his gaze, her words slowing, becoming more careful. "If everything you say is true, then the only possible connection I can see between the death of Jacob Childress and these recent murders would be a personal connection between our suspect and Jacob."
"And the only connection that would make sense," Mulder continued, "in light of the infidelity, would be that the man Jacob Childress' mother was sleeping with was personally connected to our suspect."
They looked at each other, sharing the realization, with so many of the pieces still missing.
After a pause. "It's his father," Mulder said.
Scully looked out the window, watching the skeletons of cold-stripped trees beyond the glass. Her natural inclination was to reign Mulder in when he made too sudden leaps in logic. But this felt right, and she thought, perhaps, that sometimes her readiness to reign him in had helped craft some of the distance that existed between them.
On the road ahead, visible in the bright gleam of their headlights was a sign that read, "Welcome to Whirlpool State Park."
They flashed their badges, but the lone guard only looked at them curiously before allowing them through the gate. Their car wound amongst the evergreens, snow all around. They parked in the vast visitor's lot, deserted in the cold. When Scully opened her door to step outside, she was greeted by the distinct roar of the falls just a short distance away.
She had come here once as a child, on one of her family's many cross-country road trips. All she could remember of that experience was dropping her ice cream after Bill had pulled her hair.
"Where are you supposed to meet him?" she asked.
They trudged cautiously across the lot and over to the path that led to the overlook. "I'm not sure," Mulder responded.
The path curved through trees whose branches
hung low and heavy with ice. Scully's boots crunched through the
snow, Mulder's flashlight revealing a white path ahead. The snow,
not cleared since the last storm, was past her ankles. She struggled
to keep up with Mulder's longer strides. The sound of the falls was
like thunder, growing louder the farther they walked. In the darkness,
Scully could see nothing beyond the faint path and the snow-capped trees.
"What now?" she asked.
Mulder turned to face her, his face hidden in the black. He did not say anything, casting his flashlight in a wide arc, scanning the trees that bordered the clearing. He began to walk towards the trees.
"Mulder?" She was alarmed, glancing about anxiously, as if there were any hope of identifying a threat from beyond the trees.
"Mulder wait!" She followed him through the dark and stopped where he had stopped, just at the edge of the forest.
"Do you hear that?" he asked.
The wind whistled through the trees. Niagara rumbled behind them, devouring bedrock. She started to shake her head.
"Listen," he insisted.
She did, teeth chattering, and the sound was so faint she felt she had only imagined it. A child's cry.
Mulder disappeared into the trees with the sound of crunching ice and snapping twigs. She stumbled after him, branches clawing at her face, straining to hear that sound again. Mulder had stopped a few paces away and was sweeping his ineffectual flashlight across the gaunt specters of reaching trees.
In the gloom ahead, there was a flash of red.
Mulder crashed through the branches that
stood in their way, Scully beside him. Propped against a tree, half
covered in snow, sat a small child, unmoving, a thin red jacket his only
defense against the cold.
Scully was on her knees in the snow within seconds, peeling off her gloves and probing the cold, cold skin of the child's neck for a pulse.
"He's alive," she said, already running her hands over the small body in search of injuries. Finding none, and knowing that the boy was close to death, she said a brief, fervent prayer that there were no spinal injuries and scooped the child into her arms.
"He needs a hospital, now," she told Mulder, as she made her way back out of the trees.
Mulder did not move to follow her.
She turned around at the edge of the tree line. "Mulder?" Her tone was frantic, preoccupied with the weakly fluttering pulse of the child in her arms.
"He's here, Scully," Mulder said, before she had a chance to question him. "Take the boy back to the car and call the paramedics."
"That's what I'm doing, Mulder."
"I'm staying here."
She couldn't argue. The boy didn't have time.
And although it was against every instinct in her possession, though she would never willingly leave Mulder in danger, though her mind screamed in protest, she went.
The snow slipped beneath her feet as she tried to run, trying not to fall, trying not to jostle the fragile life held against her chest. The boy was so small and so cold. She couldn't hold her flashlight and carry the child at the same time, so she navigated almost blindly, following the trail of footsteps in the snow.
The parking lot arrived in her vision like a god send, and the car was unlocked. Wrenching open the passenger's side door, she laid the seat back and leaned across to turn the keys in the ignition. Cranking the heat controls to the maximum, she worked to undo the child's wet clothing while, at the same time, fumbling to dial her cell phone. Static crackled on the line and she cursed loudly. She wouldn't be able to get service from where they were. She would have to drive to the ranger's station.
Retrieving a blanket from the trunk of the car, she wrapped the child carefully, his drenched clothes removed and tossed aside. Pushing the hair back from his white skin, she identified the face of Stephen Gains, their suspect's fourth victim.
"Hang on, Stephen," she whispered, as she climbed into the driver's seat. "You're going to be all right." This last was a plea, or a prayer.
The car's engine rumbled to life, headlights cutting a hopeful slice through the night. She had her hand poised over the gearshift, ready to throw the car into drive, when several other cars came tearing into the parking lot and stopped a handful of feet from where she was parked. She couldn't see anything beyond the blaze of light. A figure emerged from the nearest car. It was SAC Moore.
Scully opened her car door and closed it quickly, attempting to keep as much heat as possible in the car.
"What the hell did you two think you were doing!" Moore raged, walking towards her.
"I have Stephen Gains, alive, in that car," Scully interrupted, her voice quiet and hard, "but he's hypothermic and he's in shock. If he doesn't receive medical attention *now* he is going to die. So whatever reprimand you're about to issue, it's going to have to wait."
Moore's expression went from anger to shock in the space between heartbeats. "The paramedics are right behind us," he assured.
"How?" Scully wondered, disbelieving, the possibility that this child might live blossoming in her chest and stealing her breath.
"We had Mulder's phone tapped."
Her mind turned in that instant, the worry for the boy's life taken out of her hands with Moore’s arrival, and Mulder was alone in the woods with a murderer. The red lights and wailing sirens of the ambulance hurtled into the parking lot, the doors opening wide with white lights, and Scully turned and ran, back toward the trees. She heard Moore calling her name as she ran and ignored it.
She'd left her flashlight in the car, where she'd dropped it as she scrambled for her phone. The moon had secreted itself behind snow-laden clouds, and the darkness she stumbled through was almost perfect. But the clearing was straight ahead, and she could hear the sound of the falls growing closer. She ignored the cold of melted snow that soaked her knees from where she had kneeled in the forest. She did not feel the bite of the wind on her exposed hands and face.
The trees opened up ahead of her, and she was at the overlook again, Niagara's commanding presence filling the night.
"Mulder!" She called, turning to look towards the trees. "Mulder!" But she couldn't see, and the sound of the falling water deafened her to any slight noise.
She moved into the forest.
The moon peeped from behind the clouds, casting weak light. It was barely enough to see by, but Mulder's boot prints could be discerned between the trees, and she followed their path.
A gust of icy wind rattled the bony fingers of the trees that surrounded her, and Scully shuddered. The forest whispered to itself, secrets in the night wind. An unreasonable current of fear, or dread, tightened along the back of her neck. She held her gun tighter in her hand.
She was frightened of losing her way, of
wandering too far into the indistinguishable wilderness. She moved
carefully forward, hearing only the sound of crunching snow in answer to
And a strong arm wound its way tightly across her neck, pulling her back into the solid mass of another body. She choked, tried to cry out, and found her feet lifted off the ground. Before she could register what was happening, the gun she was holding was wrenched from her grasp. She kicked ineffectually at the air and sputtered for breath.
"Agent Scully," a voice murmured into her ear, "We meet at last."
Wet snow rained down from the branches of trees overhead, shaken by the night wind. Scully struggled to breathe, the arm of their murderer clasped tight across her throat, making her flail about, desperate for air.
"That was too easy," he whispered into her ear, his breath hot and damp. "I expected more of a fight, but I suppose you were preoccupied by the whereabouts of your partner."
Scully kicked feebly, her heels thudding against the legs of the kidnapper.
"Agent Mulder promised to come alone," he hissed. "He lied to me." His hold on her throat tightened. "I would stop struggling if I were you." For the first time, Scully felt the press of a blade against her throat, held in the hand of the killer. He was strong, almost as tall as Mulder. He held her off the ground with one arm; the other was pressed across her abdomen, holding her gun.
"Be very careful about the movements you make." His voice never rose above a whisper. To reinforce his warning, the killer increased the pressure of the blade against Scully's throat. There was sharp, sudden pain as the metal sliced into her flesh. A trickle of blood traced a warm path down her neck and under the collar of her jacket. "I could kill you at any time," he told her.
She stopped fighting. His hold on her throat loosened.
"That's much better," he soothed, his voice almost obscured by the roar of the falls nearby.
Scully tried to focus, dizzy from lack of air, breathing deeply. She was still bleeding. She did not know how badly she had been cut. A faint light could be seen moving amidst the shapes of the trees ahead. None of the other team members would have had time to come this far. It could only be Mulder.
"What," the murderer asked, a vicious taint to his voice, "do you suppose your partner would sacrifice in order to keep you safe?" He pressed his face close along side hers, his lips grazing her temple, almost a kiss. "A great deal, I imagine," he answered in her stead.
Scully shuddered in revulsion.
"We're going to move very slowly," he continued, strengthening his grasp around her abdomen, beginning to walk forward. "Remember that I have your gun." As if she could have forgotten.
Ice and branches cracked beneath their feet. Mulder would be able to hear them coming. But Scully was an effective shield, blocking the body of their enemy. She knew Mulder would never attempt a shot with her in the way. Their murderer, apparently, knew this, too.
The trees thinned, moonlight breaking into the darkness. Mulder could be seen making his way along the edge of the river, his flashlight scanning the tree line to his right, a steep plunge down to the swirling waters off to his left. A branch cracked loudly beneath the kidnapper's feet. Mulder whirled, his gun extended. The horror that crossed his face was palpable. Scully's heart ached. She knew, too well, the things he would do to secure her safety. She wanted to scream. <Mulder, he has my gun!> But she couldn't speak, the weight of the arm across her throat severing speech and breath.
"I hope your aim is exceptionally good,"
the killer cautioned, no longer a whisper, drawing Scully once again up
from the ground, the knife digging into already wounded flesh.
"Let her go!" Mulder ordered, death in his tone.
"Now why would I do that?" The kidnapper asked, “So you can shoot me? I don’t think so.”
Scully could feel her grasp on consciousness slipping, as she was deprived of oxygen.
"If you hurt her, I'll kill you," Mulder warned, flat and serious, his gun unwavering.
"I've no doubt you would," their suspect concurred.
There was silence for several heartbeats. Mulder's eyes sought hers, begging her to be okay. She wanted to respond, to reassure him with the silent communion they had always shared, but the edges of her perceptions continued to dim. Eyelids heavy, Scully fought the wave of lassitude that threatened to drag her under.
"What do you want?" Mulder asked, panic lacing his words as he noted the droop of Scully's head, the spreading stain of blood.
The killer paused, contemplating. His strangle hold slackened temporarily, and Scully choked, coughing, sucking in gulps of icy air.
"I want," the killer began, as if unaware of Scully's discomfort, ignoring Mulder's exclamation. "What I truly want is impossible. What I'll settle for is recognition."
"Recognition?" Mulder asked, eyes locked with Scully's. "Of what, your skill, the righteousness of your purpose?"
The murderer huffed a soft laugh. "Righteousness? You make it sound so... fantastic. It's really very simple, what I'll settle for. It's so very little."
"What then?" Mulder demanded, desperate.
Not answering, the kidnapper rested his face against the top of Scully's head, smoothing his cheek against her hair. He breathed deeply, slowly. He sighed, seeming almost content. Ten feet away, Mulder shifted, obviously restless and terrified, on his feet. Nauseous, Scully tried to focus on the pain of the laceration on her neck.
"Is honesty so much to ask for?" the killer asked, his face still pressed to Scully's hair. She could smell his stale breath washing her face. Her toes barely grazed the ground, and she tottered slightly, each movement affecting her ability to breathe.
"Honesty?" Mulder asked.
"It's as if the whole world's forgotten the meaning of that word, its importance. Honesty, purity, innocence -- values we once held in high esteem, and now they're nothing, meaningless, relegated to the status of idealistic fantasy, trodden on like dirt beneath our feet." He was not insane, Scully thought, but his cryptic words belied mania beneath the thin veneer of sanity. "You think you've figured me out. You think that you can understand me, but you understand nothing. You know nothing."
Even if she were able to breathe clearly, Scully knew she would pass out from blood loss eventually. Mulder knew this, as well.
"I know your father's name was Adam Hathaway," Mulder spat, "and that he cheated on your mother, and that you killed the son of the woman he cheated with in some sort of revenge."
If the kidnapper was at all surprised by Mulder's revelation, he did not show it. "Adam was the first man, Agent Mulder," he explained, as if to a child, "and he lived without sin until the weakness of another tarnished his world and his innocence was lost forever. Mankind has suffered for millennia because of that weakness."
Mulder was taken aback. "Is that what you’re doing, punishing the parents for their weakness by murdering their children?"
"Almost, Agent Mulder, but almost isn't good enough."
Scully could actually feel the collar of her jacket becoming damp with blood.
"What about the Dearys? What about Alan Crane? How do they deserve to be punished?" Mulder was trying to draw the murderer out, to take his focus away from Scully. She only needed a moment, the slightest chance for movement, and she could attempt to break free. The killer had yet to relinquish his hold in the least.
"That's what I meant," the killer said, sighing. "You see only the obvious, the surface truths. You don't look deeply enough. That's why you're still unable to understand. I had hoped that your personal experiences would lend you a deeper insight into all of this. I'm sorry to see that I was mistaken."
Before Mulder could respond, the killer brushed the thumb of his knife hand over Scully's jaw, a blood smeared caress. "My vision's become clouded lately," he admitted. "I'm not sure why. At first I thought it was fatigue, that I needed a rest," he paused, becoming wistful. "You're so lucky, to have something this real, this honest." He continued to draw his thumb in a reverent manner over Scully's frigid skin.
Mulder had still not relaxed the aim of his weapon, and Scully could see his arm begin to tremble from the strain of keeping it raised.
"But I've sensed something lately, something I still don't understand." His tone had become angrier, frustrated. The murderer's thumb dug into the flesh of Scully's throat. Her racing pulse throbbed against the pressure.
Suddenly, there was the sound of motion in the trees behind them. Scully felt the kidnapper's posture stiffen. He did not turn around, keeping his concentration on Mulder and his gun.
"FBI, freeze!" Williams emerged from the forest at their back, but Scully could not see him.
"Agent Mulder," the killer cautioned, "I suggest you tell your friend to back off." To reinforce his suggestion, Scully's feet were drawn further from the ground, her air supply diminishing once again.
"Federal Agent! Let the woman go!" Williams shouted, moving closer.
"Williams!" Mulder yelled, "Stay back!"
How many of the team members had made it this far into the forest, Scully wondered? Cornering this suspect would not force him to surrender. She felt certain it would only spur him towards violence. Williams was behind them. He could not see the knife or Scully's gun. For the first time since this had begun, Scully began to sincerely fear for her own life.
Mulder edged forward.
"Agent Mulder," the killer warned.
Mulder took another step.
"I will kill her," the murderer continued. Scully felt her heartbeat pushing a slow, steady stream of blood from the wound on her neck. "I suggest you put the gun down."
Mulder stopped, considering, and Scully could see the decision in his eyes. It was the decision she always knew he would make. His life for hers. He was the focus of the killer's interest, not Scully. Before he lost control of the situation, before any more of the team arrived, he could attempt to secure her safety. The kidnapper might release her. Mulder would be defenseless.
"Mulder, no," Scully managed, the words strangled. The killer jerked her body roughly in retaliation.
Sickened, Scully watched as Mulder lowered his weapon to the ground.
"That's good. That's very good," their suspect congratulated. "Now give it a good kick."
"Mulder..." But her protest was cut off by the arm against her neck.
Mulder complied, watching her all the while, his expression begging her forgiveness.
In the sky overhead, dark storm clouds drifted over the moon, plunging the edge of the river into momentary darkness. She did not want to die, not like this, cold and terrified, while Mulder was forced to watch. She did not want Mulder to die like this. It was too soon. There were too many things she hadn't said, too many words still lost beneath the confusion of her emotions. She wasn't ready.
Williams was still behind them, but he had not spoken or moved again. Scully could barely see the outline of Mulder's figure.
The killer shifted, seemingly unnerved in the darkness, and the knife relaxed against her throat. Scully took the meager opportunity. Everything happened at once. Dizzy from blood loss and oxygen deprivation, she was conscious of very little as the events unfolded. Only later would she be able to sort out the melee of sensations and sounds.
With all the strength she possessed, she shifted, turning sharply in an attempt to knee the murderer in the groin. She never reached her target. At the same moment she began to move, Williams, who obviously had no idea of the knife at Scully's throat, attacked from behind. The knife slipped, carving a jagged gash up and over Scully's jaw, missing her jugular by inches. She was thrown to the frozen ground. Scully's hand came up to her jaw, blood filling her hands and staining the snow where she had landed. She tried to push wet hair from her eyes, snow covering the side of her body.
There was the sound of a single gunshot. In the darkness, Scully lifted herself from the ground, staggering, in time to see Williams stumble backwards.
As the clouds removed themselves from the surface of the moon, Mulder rushed at the kidnapper. Scully saw the gun knocked from the killer's hands, sinking into the wet snow. The pair struggled, grappling, and Mulder was punched savagely in the gut. They were a blur of bodies moving towards the edge of the river.
Scully scrambled in the snow, trying to find one of the guns. Near the base of a tree, only a handful of feet from where Williams lay bleeding, she located Mulder's weapon. She grabbed it, hands shaking, wet with her own blood.
Taking aim was hopeless. The tangle of arms was impossible to differentiate in the darkness. The killer lurched, and Mulder's elbow impacted with the side of the suspect's head. Then Mulder was knocked violently backwards, their opponent using the entire weight of his body in the assault. Their feet faltered in the loose rocks and snow near the cliff's edge.
Scully had no choice. She took aim. She said a silent, desperate prayer. She fired.
She was not sure whom she had hit. The murderer released his hold on Mulder, stepping back from the edge, blocking Scully's view of her partner. At the same moment, she heard a brief shout from Mulder, the sound of scattering rocks. The killer darted into the forest. Behind him, Scully watched, horrified, as Mulder tumbled over the river's edge. Her scream echoed in the silent wilderness.
She was cold, so cold. Scully was swaddled in something silver, could feel an alien current of warmth moving up her arm. She fought the darkness that clung to her vision, rising, the cold, numb feeling being replaced by pain and light. She opened her eyes.
She was in an ambulance, wrapped in a silver space blanket. Paramedics hovered over her, adjusting the catheter that delivered warmed plasma into a vein in her arm. Moore stood nearby, in the open doors, concern softening his stern features.
"Mulder?" She managed, struggling to sit upright. The well-intentioned paramedics tried to push her back down.
"It's all right," Moore interrupted them. "Let her up."
They looked displeased and backed away from her reluctantly. She sat up, dizzy, almost passing out again as soon as she was up. She lifted a hand to her throat, feeling the sutures that traced a grisly path over her jaw and onto her cheek. She flinched in pain and drew her hand away.
"You'll probably need plastic surgery," one of the paramedics offered, trying to sound compassionate.
She knew that. She didn't care. "Where's Mulder?" she demanded.
Moore looked uncertain, like he didn't want to tell her the truth, whatever that truth was.
"Where is he!?"
"They're trying to retrieve him now," Moore began.
Scully didn't wait for him to finish. She lifted her legs over the edge of the gurney, placing her feet on the ground.
"Oh, no you don't!" Moore opposed, jumping up into the ambulance to block her escape. "You've lost a lot of blood and you're practically hypothermic. There's no way in hell you're going back into those woods."
"I need to know!" she shouted.
Probably in an attempt to calm her, Moore explained. "He went over the edge. We're not sure how yet. He's about forty feet down, on a ledge overlooking the river."
Scully wanted to throw up. She closed her eyes. "He's alive?"
"We think so, yes." After a pause, "how did this happen?"
Scully kept her eyes closed, trying to calm her breathing. "The kidnapper captured me. I was stupid. I wasn't paying enough attention. He forced Mulder to drop his gun. Williams attacked him from behind..." Suddenly, she remembered Williams being shot. "Agent Williams?" she asked, opening her eyes, "Is he all right?"
Moore's expression was grim. "He's been taken to a nearby hospital. His condition is critical. The bullet punctured one of his kidneys."
Scully dropped her head into her hands. "And the kidnapper?"
"Still missing," Moore answered, disgusted.
Scully looked up. Beyond Moore, in the sky outside, she could see a spotlight from a helicopter hovering over the river, no doubt attempting to rescue Mulder. Red and blue lights from assorted law enforcement vehicles decorated the parking lot. A manhunt was underway.
"I fired my weapon. I had no choice," she blurted, watching the light move across the sky. "I think I may have shot Mulder." The words sounded wrong, unreal, falling from her lips like shards of glass, the world shattering around her.
Moore didn't respond, obviously knowing no reassurance could be adequate. He turned to face the sky as well.
Mulder wasn't dead. He couldn't be. She had always told herself she would be able to feel the moment he left her. The nausea was thick, suffocating. She swallowed in an attempt to keep it down. She leaned back against the pillows, a litany playing in her head... she would know, she would be able to tell if he was gone. She closed her eyes. The darkness swallowed her once more.
When Scully woke again it was to the rhythmic beeping of a heart monitor. Her eyes fluttered, barely opening. A headache burned behind her eyes; the laceration on her face throbbed.
"Does it hurt too much, dear?" The voice beside her was kind, soothing.
She opened her eyes fully, looked up. A nurse stood next to the bed, reaching down to take Scully's pulse.
"We can get you some medicine, if the pain's too bad," she offered.
The nurse patted her on the hand. "I'll be right back."
After the nurse left the room, Scully took a quick mental inventory of her condition. She was no longer hooked up to an IV. A web of electrodes connected her to the heart monitor. Other than that, she was unencumbered by medical paraphernalia. Her head hurt, but the pain was bearable. One by one she peeled the sticky electrodes from her skin. The heart monitor began to wail. She reached over and turned it off. Swinging her legs out of the hospital bed, she attempted to stand.
The room swayed momentarily, steadying as she gripped the handrail on the bed. A tentative step forward, and another. Across the room, a pile of clean clothes -- not the ones she had worn to the falls -- were folded neatly on a chair. She wondered whom she had to thank for that.
Dressing was a slow process. The pile of clothes even contained clean underwear. She wasn't sure whether to be embarrassed of grateful. As she was fastening the last button on her blouse, the nurse returned.
"What are you doing out of bed?" she asked, shocked.
"I'm checking myself out," Scully declared evenly.
The nurse tried to reason with her. "That's not a good idea."
Scully forestalled any further protests. "I'm a doctor, and I'm more than capable of determining what's in my own best interest," she said, trying not to sound rude.
The nurse handed Scully a little plastic cup with two Tylenol3 inside. "… the worst patients," Scully heard her mutter as the nurse left Scully alone in the room once more.
Scully dry swallowed the pills in one gulp. After putting on her shoes, she followed the nurse out of the room. Looking in both directions, she was surprised to see SAC Moore seated in one of several hard, plastic chairs farther down the long hall. He looked up as she walked towards him, standing and meeting her half way.
"Where's Mulder?" Immediate and impatient.
"What are you doing out of bed so soon?" he asked, rigid and worried at the same time.
She persisted. "Where is he?"
"He's fine. The paramedics lifted him off the ledge right after I spoke to you in the ambulance. If you fired your weapon, it didn't hit Mulder. Other than a cracked rib, several lacerations, and a possible concussion, he was uninjured."
Scully was speechless for a moment, her anxiety and fear blossoming into an overwhelming sense of relief.
Moore watched her closely, concerned. "You should be resting."
"Well," she responded, "I figured since someone laid my clothes out so nicely..."
"I had a feeling you wouldn't obey doctor's orders," Moore admitted, ducking his head slightly.
Scully hadn't expected that. She smiled, genuinely grateful. "Thank you, Sir."
Moore nodded, seemed embarrassed, and continued hastily. "There was a good amount of blood in the snow, and while we know that most of it's yours, there was some near the edge of the river that we're not sure about."
Scully's eyes widened. "I never went near the river's edge."
He didn't seem surprised. "We found you in the snow near Agent Williams, unconscious in a pool of your own blood. We suspect that you managed to injure the kidnapper, but we'll have to wait for the lab results to come back before we can be certain." Moore paused, shaking his head slightly in frustration. "If he was injured, it wasn't badly enough to impede his escape. We've set up road blocks and have a full scale search underway, and still we've found no sign of him."
It wasn't over. The nightmare wasn't over. Overwhelmed by weariness, Scully felt frail and scraped raw, exhausted enough to cry.
"And Agent Williams?" she asked, eyes dry, strong despite herself.
Moore's entire expression fell. He looked down the hall, away from Scully, mustering strength. "He lost his left kidney," Moore said, still turned away from Scully. "He's been out of surgery for several hours, and the doctors have moved him out of the ICU, but he hasn't regained consciousness yet."
Scully didn't want to ask. She had no choice. "And Stephen Gains?"
"Is in a coma. Because of the degree of malnutrition, there's the possibility of brain damage."
At the end of the hall, late afternoon sunlight spilled across the polished floors. She had been asleep the entire day.
"What room is Mulder in?" she asked, needing to see him.
Moore finally looked her in the eye again. "He's not in the hospital anymore."
"He's even more obstinate that you. As soon as he was conscious, he checked himself out."
Scully felt abandoned. How many times had she woken in a hospital bed with Mulder at her side?
"He stopped by your room before he left," Moore added, as if sensing her distress. "He almost got himself thrown out by an orderly for badgering the doctor into a full report on your condition."
She felt only marginally better. "What about Agent Williams?"
"Down the hall and around the corner. Room 208."
Scully turned away from Moore, started to walk down the hall.
"Agent Scully," he called after her.
She turned around.
"You saved that child's life. I hope you know that."
One life, only one out of so many. She didn't respond. She continued to walk down the hall. Down the hall and around the corner, the regularly spaced reflection of overhead lights on the floor, the steady rhythm of her heels, the sound of her own heartbeat. She counted her breaths, trying to focus, trying to hold the exhaustion at bay for just a few moments longer.
She looked up. Agent Sandborne, Agent Williams' partner, stood a few feet away, his arm around a crying woman. Scully stopped, not wanting to intrude. They didn't seem to notice her. Sandborne spoke soothingly to the woman, too quiet for Scully to hear. The woman swiped at her tears with the back of her hand as Sandborne patted her on the shoulder, steering her down the hall and away from Scully.
Scully looked at the room they had been standing in front of. Room 208.
Inside, Agent Williams had not been nearly as fortunate as Scully. He was besieged by a riot of wires and tubes; blinking, beeping machines monitored his every breath, every beat of his heart. His skin was pale, as white as the snow he had lain in. Scully was relieved to notice that he was no longer on a respirator. His chest rose and fell in an even, slow cadence, assisted only by an oxygen mask.
She stood at the foot of the bed, knowing she should leave. She turned to go.
"Agent Scully..." Williams' voice rasped behind her.
Turning to face him, she smiled widely. "Agent Williams, welcome back."
His eyes were open, regarding her.
His lips moved soundlessly for a moment. He coughed, the sound dry
and painful. Scully moved to the side of the bed, poured a glass
of water from the pitcher and held it to his lips.
Placing her hand over his, she responded. "Thank you. You saved my life."
Williams shook his head. "I almost got you killed."
"No. You risked your life to save mine. You almost died."
He looked pointedly at the obscene line of sutures marring her face. "So did you."
"I'm alive," she assured, though she could still feel the knife as it had torn into her flesh, could still feel her hands filling with blood.
"How's Agent Mulder?"
"He's fine," Scully responded, a slight quaver in her voice. "He already checked himself out of the hospital."
Williams looked at her intently, some unvoiced comment apparent in his eyes. He looked down at his hands, folded neatly atop the blankets. "My fiance was here," he said. "I woke up for a moment earlier and she was crying. I tried to speak to her, but I couldn't."
The woman from the hall, Scully assumed.
Williams started coughing, turning his head to the side and flinching in pain. Scully reached for the glass of water again. He noticed and shook his head. She put the glass back down.
He took a deep breath and continued speaking, his voice very faint. "When I asked her to marry me, she was concerned about my job, concerned that I would die in the line of duty and leave her alone." He sighed deeply. "And now, after all of this, I'm starting to question what's important to me, and if it's worth it, this job, what we risk, and what we sacrifice."
Scully couldn't look him in the eye, uncomfortable with such personal admissions. Was it worth it? Lately, she had to struggle to convince herself that it was. The job she had once loved was no longer the job she had. Lately, when she tried to convince herself that she would miss the FBI, she realized that the only thing she would truly miss was working with Mulder. The rest had become steeped in frustration, lies, and suffering. She had sacrificed so much. They had both sacrificed so much. Did she even know what was important to her anymore?
"Agent Scully," Williams interrupted her musing, his tone hesitant. "I don't know you, and I don't know your partner, but I do know what it's like to try and endure this job alone, what it's like to make this job the only thing that matters. You won't survive it. Neither of you will."
Scully felt the tears she had defeated before threatening again. Was she that transparent? Was her loneliness apparent to everyone but herself?
Williams started coughing again.
"You should get some rest," Scully said, still shaken.
He nodded, closed his eyes.
Scully left the room, feeling exposed. The sense of overwhelming fatigue had not left her. The nightmare she felt trapped in chased her from the hospital. She fled, seeking rest.
In the parking lot back at the motel, rough winds buffeted the taxi as she stared up at the tall building. She had paid the driver. She had unbuckled her seat belt. The key to her room was held in her hand. She stared up at the building, at the ugly metal staircase that ascended its side, the scattering of lights that glowed from various rooms. Mulder's light was on. There was only one more flight of stairs to climb from her room to his, and she needed to see him.
She got out of the car and started to climb the stairs. Cold wind slapped against the side of the building. Night had fallen, draping the city in darkness. She had no idea what she was going to say to him. Outside of his door, Scully hesitated. She needed sleep desperately, but she knew she would never be able to rest until she had seen that he was okay. She knocked.
Inside, there was the sound of movement, shuffling. The shades by the window were drawn back; the locks were quickly disengaged. Mulder threw the door open, staring at her in dismay.
"What are you doing out of the hospital?" he asked, standing in the frame of the open door.
"I could ask the same of you," she challenged.
He backed up, allowing her in.
The lights were out, the television on, sound muted. Light poured into the dark room from the open bathroom door. Turning around, she faced Mulder as he closed the door. His hair was damp, shirt unbuttoned. Under the flickering light cast by the television, he was an unfamiliar presence, shadowed and strange.
Tears stung her eyes, and she hoped he could not see them in the darkness. It seemed he was always unfamiliar to her now.
"Scully," he began, not moving from in front of the door. "Are you sure you're well enough to be out of the hospital?"
Was she sure? No. She wasn't sure of anything anymore.
"I'm fine, Mulder."
He sighed, didn't say anything.
"What about you," she asked, lamely, "are you all right?"
"Never been better," he quipped, bitterness in his tone, walking past her and into the bathroom.
She watched him from the darkened bedroom. Reaching down to pick a wet towel from the floor, he winced, gasping in pain. He dropped the towel again, straightening stiffly.
"It's nothing," he tried to reassure. "I took a shower, and the tape on my ribs got wet and peeled off."
"You know you're not supposed to get it wet," she cautioned, fumbling for words.
He shrugged out of his shirt, the simple action seeming to pain him. There was a thick spool of medical tape on the counter, and he picked it up, tearing off a long strip with his teeth.
"Mulder, do you know how to tape up a cracked rib?" She doubted he had even the slightest clue.
His arms dropped to his sides, limp. "No."
She felt herself walking into the bathroom, standing beside him, taking the dangling piece of tape from his hand.
"Let me do that." She couldn't look him in the eye.
He acquiesced, turning to her in profile, lifting his arm. The smooth skin of his chest was still damp from the shower. It was too pale. He had lost weight. The outline of his fragile ribs could be seen beneath the soft skin. Still, even if his face was no longer familiar to her, he smelled the same. Those were memories from before, his arms around her, his scent. She reached out, wanted to trace her fingertips along those delicate bones, reassure herself that he was here, whole, and not a stranger.
She could feel him flinch as she secured the tape in place. He didn't make a sound. Instead, he turned back to face her, looking down at her. She refused to look up and meet his gaze. Staring at the center of his chest, at the fine hairs sprinkled there, the way the muscles stretched over bone. If she were to press her face to his sternum, she would be able to feel his heart beating. In the past, when he had held her, that sound had been a comfort.
His gaze was like a demand. <Look at me, Scully.> But she couldn't. Everything about him now made her feel as if her heart were breaking anew -- the feel of his skin, the sound of his voice, the distant memory of his heartbeat beneath her cheek.
Strong, gentle fingers reached down, tilting her chin up. She closed her eyes, avoiding his gaze. Those same fingers curved upward, glancing gently over the row of black sutures that defiled her throat and face.
"You're so beautiful," he said, awed and heavy with sorrow. His large hand cupped the side of her face.
She opened her eyes, looked up at him, at the reverence and sadness he regarded her with. The warmth of his hand touching her was electricity scalding her skin. Hypersensitive. That's how it had been, being with him, everything amplified. She had barely survived it, like being electrocuted. He demanded so much from her without ever saying a word.
Her lower lip trembled, on the verge of tears. The strength she was clinging to, the strength she needed in order to survive the rest of this ordeal, that had allowed her to come this far, threatened to crumble in the wake of his touch. He demanded too much. She simply couldn't be that vulnerable. It would destroy her. The tragedy of their lives together had required that she sacrifice her emotions, that she bottle them up, stow them away. This beautiful thing she shared with Mulder, this rare, elemental, ephemeral thing, was a gift she had hidden carefully like a smooth stone kept deep in her pocket. It was all she had. She didn't know any other way to survive.
She stepped back, his hand falling away.
"I've already lost you, haven't I?" he asked. Hollow.
The tears broke free of their own accord, and Scully felt her strength torn asunder, the years welling up inside her, redolent with grief. The weight of it all pressed down upon her. Stinging, the tears rolled over her broken skin and she made no move to wipe them away.
"I didn't realize I was yours to lose," she said, stepping back again, distancing herself. His nearness was too much. She couldn't think, couldn't breathe with him so close. Their habit of sharing one another's space, almost breathing the same air, had vanished. His touch no longer embodied only comfort and familiarity.
He shook his head, looked crestfallen, dumbfounded. "How can you even say that?" he asked.
"Mulder, what are we? What is this?" She gestured to the space between them. "This relationship -- I'm your partner, you care for me, and I care for you, but we're not lovers." Even now, even after, that title could not be applied to their relationship. "I don't know what we are."
"I thought we were friends." Ineffably sad.
Friends, Scully thought. Friendship didn't involve teeth marks on pale flesh or the memory of his hands on her hips, lifting. Friendship implied communication, something they'd scarcely managed during the best of times. With the title of friendship there was the assumption of emotional support and sharing, but even in their togetherness they remained isolated, lonely.
She smiled sadly. "Yes, Mulder, I want to believe that, too. And once, I think I did believe it. But we barely talk anymore, Mulder. We haven't for some time now." Since before Emily, she thought, since before the cancer. "There are times," she admitted, "That I think you can barely stand to be in the same room with me. I know that I make you feel the same way, sometimes."
He was staring at the floor, a look of anguish on his face, not denying it, not even trying to.
Her voice had gone very quiet. "I don't know how it happened, and I don't know why, but somewhere along the line we stopped trusting one another -- not with our lives or in the context of work -- but with everything else that matters. Maybe we never had that trust to begin with."
All of the emotional issues that they had avoided, had ignored, had been dredged to the surface by their actions after Saks Mill. It had forced her to examine the meaning of their relationship, and the bulk of her sadness came from the fact that she had discovered that she could not define what they were to one another. It wasn't healthy, to feel as if you would die without the presence of someone in your life and to be unable to even talk to them when you needed support, to be completely unable to reach out.
His voice was soft. "I trust you, Scully."
She shook her head, couldn't look at him.
"I do," he insisted, stepping closer to her once more, invading her space. "I trust you with *everything* that matters." Vehemence battled with sorrow in his words.
She closed her eyes. "You don't, Mulder. Not with so many things." Scully measured her words carefully. "And I'm not just talking about Diana or the times you've ditched me, or even what you kept from me about the Lombard Research Facility. Some of that I can attribute to your misguided need to protect me." She opened her eyes. "It's everything else, it's all the times you've shut me out, all the times I've shut you out. We're both lonely, damaged, and we can't seem to trust one another enough to communicate when it truly matters."
His hand, shaking, came back to cradle her damaged cheek. "You're the only thing that matters to me, and now I've lost you. I don't blame you for not trusting me."
But she was not the only thing that mattered to him, and they both knew it. Time and again, she had been forced to the recognition that he was captive of a larger goal, prisoner of the quest he had pledged himself to when only a child. He wanted to love her completely, she knew he did, but he couldn't. Part of him would always be lost to her, lost even to himself. She, too, had begun to lose pieces of herself to this quest.
Her voice faltered. "But it's not just a matter of trust. Even that isn't enough anymore." She stared up at him, "I wish it were as simple as that."
His hand dropped away, frustration hardening his features. "I don't know what to say to you anymore, Scully. I don't know what you want."
Scully paced towards the window, staring through the gap in the curtains at the dark winter night beyond. She tried to articulate the mass of dread that had lodged itself in her heart during these last few days. "Mulder, do you see a future for us?"
There was no reply from behind her.
"Because I don't. All is see ahead of us is a never ending downward spiral." Her tone was flat, desolate. "I see us moving farther and farther away from the rest of the world, so isolated that we forget what it means to be happy, what it means to be alive. How is all of this supposed to end? With one of us dead and the other wasting slowly away?"
She didn't need his confirmation to know what he would do in the event of her death. She knew already how she would react to his.
"I used to think it was you always dragging me along, dragging me around in a terrible cycle of death and revenge and tragedy, but lately I've come to realize it isn't just you anymore. I drag you along just as often, with my own motivations, my own personal tragedy to fuel my self-destruction." She paused, unsure of where she was going with all of this. "I just... I want to know where it all ends. I need to know that somewhere, somehow, there is an end."
And not an end that meant her, grieving and alone.
"I can't promise you that, Scully. You know I can't"
Of course he couldn't. She knew.
Why were they here? Where were they going? They were no closer to finding Samantha or the men responsible for her cancer, the men responsible for Emily. They were no closer to any type of justice. All that they had gained was sorrow, and they had lost so much. Mulder knew all of this. The knowledge was present in his listlessness, his defeated posture, in the way he seemed to have aged a decade in only the past few years. He had seemed so young when they had first met.
Scully watched the wind as it whipped loose snow though the cold air outside. Flakes were blown against the window, melting when they reached the warm glass.
She had aged, too. She felt old, time-battered, scarred.
"I don't recognize myself anymore, Mulder." The admission surprised her. "I used to smile. I used to laugh." Her eyes were too dry for tears. "So did you."
The air shifted, carpet rustling as he moved towards her. He stood behind her, laid a hand on her shoulder and squeezed gently. "I recognize you, Scully." So quiet. So sure.
Looking at their reflection in the window's glass, she wanted to believe him. She spoke to the ghost of his reflected eyes. "I feel so lost."
Their relationship had always escaped definition, but with the freshly added sexual element she had become keenly aware of all the real world trivialities that they had cut themselves off from, the future they would never be able to have together. Still watching the reflection of his dark eyes, she wanted to shock him, to jolt him into some understanding of the grief she felt.
The words scraped their way from her throat. "What happens now, Mulder? Are we going to move in together, get married?"
In the glass, his eyes darted away from hers.
"Of course not," she answered for him, bitter. "We both know that." She had never been sure that marriage and family was the future she wanted, but the option had been taken from her. For better or worse, till death do us part, she was joined with Mulder. Apart from him she had no definition anymore. Her family barely recognized her. Friendships had all drifted slowly away. With him, she did not know what she had. She felt powerless to divorce herself from him.
A single tear traced the contour of his cheek, reflected by the window.
"Mulder, what happened between us after Saks Mill wasn't about planning a future together. It wasn't even about love." The realization of exactly what they'd lost settled within her; her heart mourned. "It was about two lonely people seeking comfort in the midst of tragedy. I never wanted our relationship to turn into that."
He had not wiped the tear away. Another followed in its path. "Scully, I know what happened wasn't about love, and I'm sorry for that..." his voice broke, "...I'm so sorry about that."
Crumbling, Scully felt her own tears as they splashed against her hands. She turned to him, automatic, powerless, and he fell into her, crushing, begging with the pressure of his body folding against hers, begging her not to leave him.
"...but I do love you," he gasped into her hair. "I do."
She knew. She always had. But she could not help but wonder, even as his frantic kisses dotted her hairline, even as he stole her breath with the force of his embrace, she could not help but wonder if in a perfect world he would feel the same. If they had met outside of their present circumstances, at a bar, at the Laundromat, if she had chosen a career in medicine, if he had become a professor at some small university, if they had run into one another on the street one-day -- maybe he jostled her at the newsstand, pushed by the press of rush hour sidewalk crowding, and she spilled her coffee on his new suit. Maybe she apologized, he swore it was no big deal, she offered to pay for his dry cleaning. Maybe it passed them both by in the blink of an eye, just another chance encounter between strangers. Would she have chosen him? Would he have chosen her?
She felt foisted upon him, a burden he had not wanted, even though he might swear otherwise. Sometimes she felt that he had been foisted upon her. The choice had been stolen from them. Fate had thrown them together and then, one by one, had ripped everything else away, until only they remained, cloistered, wretched and lacking.
He was kissing his way down the bridge of her nose, his breath finally washing heavily across her lips. Her eyes were closed, waiting for his kiss, waiting for the inevitable. "Would you have chosen me, Mulder?" She whispered the question against his lips.
His breathing was rapid. She doubted he had any idea what she was asking. "I love you, Scully. I can't lose you," was all he said before he crushed his mouth to hers.
It wasn't an answer, and her heart mourned for that, too.
Only one thing was certain to her anymore, and it was a fact she had only recently been forced to acknowledge. The touch of Mulder's lips against her own, the taste of his skin, the frantic pulse of his fingers against her flesh; the electricity between them was real. If she'd ever had any doubt about the chemistry that throbbed between them, there was no question now. The reality was obvious when he kissed her, when she opened to him without thought, sharing his breath, needing the rasp of his tongue and teeth, craving it.
It probably wasn't healthy. It didn't solve anything. It only made their desperate circumstances more complicated, but there was no avoiding it. They had tried for far too long. The denial had been like fuel for a fire, accumulating across their years together, becoming volatile, incendiary. An explosion of hands and lips and sighs, rendering logic useless, defying explanation, and capable of pushing tragedy aside for a handful of brief, exquisite moments.
Her back was pressed to the cold window, as his mouth worked frantically against hers. The force of their kiss made the wound on her throat ache. His hands were smoothing over her hair, down her neck, her back, curling around her waist and plastering their bodies together. There were no solutions to the bevy of problems she felt besieged by. Nothing would erase the years and suffering they had endured, but they could forget, for a little while. She could lose herself in the brutal mystery of his kiss, the sting and fission of their bodies moving in tandem.
Every millimeter of her skin felt electrified, anxious. She dragged her teeth across his lower lip, biting softly, and he gasped into her mouth.
Breaking away, he moved down her throat, kissing along her pulse, avoiding the grisly line of sutures. She allowed her head to fall back against the window, limp and panting. Breathing was impossible. She felt dizzy. He trailed his wet mouth over her blouse, dragged his hands around to capture her ribs, steadying her, grazing the sides of her breasts.
The bruises she had obtained from her fall at Saks Mill were still tender. The gash on her arm was still healing. She felt like a prisoner of war, bloodied and beaten. Mulder towered over her, sliding his hands roughly over her breasts and back around her waist, pulling their lower bodies firmly together.
She cried out, shocked by the sound of her own voice, and he stopped, broke his mouth from hers and regarded her with fierce eyes.
"I'm sorry, Scully." Hands still anchoring her hips to his. "I'm sorry..." His frantic gaze skittered over her eyes, her lips.
She shook her head, one hand moving to his face. "Don't be," she whispered raggedly, tracing the softness of his bottom lip.
He captured one of her fingers between his lips, sucking gently. "I can't help it," he murmured, releasing her finger, lips trailing over her palm.
It was surreal, the two of them like this, surreal, frightening, and elemental. She shook her head again. "It's okay," she assured, terrified he would stop, knowing she should stop him. "I know."
Eyes locked, they began to move, walking backwards, not even stumbling, towards the bed. He released his hold on her hips, stepping back so he could begin to loosen the buttons on his shirt. Watching him all the while, she followed his lead, working the fastenings on her blouse, releasing the zipper on the side of her pants, allowing them to puddle on the floor. He was working on his belt, Scully only a step away, when they reached the bed.
They stopped. Exposed, vulnerable, she stood before him. Scully folded her hands behind her back to release the clasp of her bra, and Mulder froze, mesmerized. The scrap of cotton fell away without a sound, and she moved when he seemed incapable, placing her hands over his belt, working it free, releasing button and zipper, drawing them inexorably forward.
"Scully." Her name fell like an orison from his lips, seeking benediction.
"Shhh..." she urged, sliding her hands under the elastic of his boxers, removing that barrier, too.
Bared, Mulder sat on the edge of the bed, parting his knees so she could stand between them. Taking a measure of control was calming, assuaging her terror and making her bold. She pushed lightly against his shoulders, and he fell backwards, naked below her. Unknowing of how the transformation had taken place, or when, Scully crawled over her partner and friend, her erstwhile protector and savior, and she felt a measure of trenchant calm returning to her psyche.
Straddling his waist, Scully watched as his hands traced the slope of her hips, the curve of her breasts, whispering over her sternum, skimming each nipple, lingering in the notch of her throat, breezing over the roundness of her shoulders, trailing down her arms, fingers linking and clasping with her own. Pain was reflected in his eyes as they held hands, almost chastely, examining one by one the physical damage done to her body over the course of this investigation. Blaming himself, she thought, as always.
Enough of blame, she vowed, enough of guilt and resentment. She'd had more than enough. Sex might not be capable of fixing any of their problems, but it would at least allow them a short reprieve. All of the pain would be waiting for them as their bodies cooled, their breathing slowed, and dawn broke in the aftermath. Now, in the moment, she wanted that respite. After would come soon enough.
Reaching behind her, she grasped him, tightly. His eyes slammed shut.
She squeezed, fingers sliding upward, and then down, fascinated by the sweat that beaded on his forehead, the way his jaw was clenched. She swiped her thumb briskly over the tip and his eyes popped back open.
"Scully," he warned, looking shocked and amazed.
She wanted it, wanted him to lose control, wanted him to make her forget, to make them both forget.
"Ahhh..." he gasped, as she continued the motion of her hand. "Scully," he growled, sounding practically feral. That was how she felt -- wild, unfamiliar, outside of herself. It was a comforting place to be. She wanted him to join her there.
Suddenly, his eyes seemed to glow, and he moved his previously stalled hands, brought one to hold her waist, the other to graze the front of her last remaining piece of clothing. Tensing, his fingers pressed against the thin, damp cloth, moving lower.
Heat burst across her entire body; her hand began to shake where she held him.
"I know it's not right," he whispered, his fingers working her through the thin fabric. "I know that I shouldn't want you like this." Sadness even as he dipped his hand behind the waistband of her panties, even as his fingers slid against her, rough and hot. "But I do."
He sat up abruptly, yanking his hand from where he touched her. "God help me, but I do."
She came up on her knees, wriggling to shed her last remnant of protection, and positioned herself unsteadily over his lap.
"God help us both," she begged, the eye contact between them unbroken, hypnotizing, as she lowered herself, expanding, burning inch by inch.
He had flipped them, was above her, moving within her, whispering her name. She drilled her fingers into the muscles of his back, pushing and pulling. She couldn't close her eyes, was powerless to break contact with his gaze. They watched each other, climbing higher and higher, greedy and desperate.
It couldn't last, was too consuming to endure. Seeing herself reflected in his eyes, feeling the way she was invaded and devoured. Only Mulder, she thought. Only Mulder had power enough over her to make her *feel* this much. Only he would ever be able to rend her defenses so completely. With one arm to support himself above her, he snaked the other between them, his eyes as dark as flint, and pushed her over the edge with a subtle flick of his fingers.
Perhaps she screamed or wailed. Perhaps she made no sound at all. It was all a black, blurring emptiness. Helpless, her body convulsed, betraying her years of studied reserve, stripping her raw. Panicked by the ferocity, she wanted it to stop, couldn't control her voice or her movements, flailing, wave after wave breaking across her muscles, forcing tears from her shuttered eyes. He kissed them away, lips stuttering across her temples, still moving inside her. She was crushed into the mattress; he was crushed into her body, so deep she could not bear it.
"...love you... love you so much... too much..."
Just as she thought she would start to scream, nerves over-sensitized, tremors still racing through her body, he shattered above her, choking on her name. His head collapsed beside hers, their tears mingling. Still joined, she swept her trembling hands over his sweaty back, trying to remember how to breathe.
Finally, he lifted his head from her shoulder. "Scully," he said, fingertips smoothing her tears over her skin, eyes wide and solemn, terrified. "What's happening to us?"
There were no answers she could offer. She turned her head to the side, looked over at the dark window, felt the cold that seeped around its edges, seeped across her skin. Mulder buried his head in her neck once more, and she held him, shaking, while everything that they had known and been disintegrated around them in ashes.
Darkness. Sometime during the night Mulder had risen and turned out the bathroom light. Blankets were pulled over them both; Mulder curled naked around her.
They were not alone.
As the needle slipped into her arm, Scully could hear the rasp of unfamiliar breath above her face, could see the dim outline of a dark figure that hovered over the bed. It was the last conscious recognition she was able to make. Darkness descended, as she vaguely felt Mulder's limp body being lifted from her, distantly heard a familiar, hated voice.
"How could you! How could you do this? Why?!"
She surrendered to the void.