Title: Last One Standing
Author: Mabtng
Category: crossover (X-Files/The Stand)
Disclaimer: Mulder, Scully & everything X-File are owned by Chris Carter, Fox, and 1013 Productions. Most of the other stuff in this story is entirely based on the work of Stephen King and his book, "The Stand." Oh, there's a few characters in here of my own... But. This is solely done for fun...no profit is involved in any way...

Summary: Worldwide plague erupts and devastates the earth. Will Mulder and Scully survive it and the ensuing battle between good and evil?




"All these are the beginning of sorrows. . . "
- Matthew 24: 8




Prologue

Somewhere in California
June 14

"Shit! Shit! Shit!" was all the man in the biohazard suit could utter as he ran to the special phone.

There was no dial on this phone set. It was not needed. For this phone had only one reason to exist. . . a reason that all had hoped would never come to pass. He picked up the receiver and the other end began to ring immediately. It was answered on the second ring.

"Project Blue has gone out of bounds," the suited man spoke, trying to control his own panic.

"I see," the man on the other end responded coolly. "And what steps are being taken?"

"The carrier reached. . . and cleanup has begun in Arnette, Texas. . . but, as we expected, it will not be one-hundred percent effective. "

"Very well. Thank you for the information," the calm voice stated just before he closed the line down forever.




<<"And he told two friends, and so on. . . and so on. . . ">>




Houston Detention Center Facility
Houston, Texas
June 15--Tuesday

For such a bright and cheery day, it was down right nasty inside the lobby of the Houston lock-up facility.

Sergeant Walter Philkey watched the line of impatient folks from his stool perch behind the bullet-proofed glass facade of the front "desk." The stool rocked slightly, back and forth, thanks to the one only slightly shorter leg and it's user's boredom. But, as Sgt. Philkey always told the new personnel assigned to his beat, "They pays me the same. . . whether I talk ta' one person an hour or if'un I talk to two duhzun." Life could be worse.

So, Sgt. Walter Philkey, overweight and red-faced from too many years of wrapping his feet around a stool and dunking jelly doughnuts while waiting for the occasion of his retirement, took his time as he answered questions and handed out forms to young ladies with kids on their hips who wanted to come and visit their daddies in prison.

But then, the one highlight to his dull day arrived. A detective, obviously from back East, came in the door and flashed his badge. . . saying he was there to arrange the pick up a prisoner for extradition.

It was Sgt. Philkey's absolute and slightly power-proud pleasure to lead the detective to the head of the long line, enjoying some of the grumbles of displeasure from a few of the more nasty, brutish, and short folk still in line.

And he was amused to notice the cowboy boots on Mitchell's feet. Boots that undoubtedly still had slick soles and no wear on the heels from propping them up on desk tops. Why was it that these easterners always wore their neglected cowboy boots when they visited Texas? He looked at the boots once more. Nope. Judging by the way Mitchell was walking. . . like his toes were pinched and his calves were abnormally stretched. . . like he had a broom stick shoved up his ass. . . they weren't neglected. They were brand new. Must have got 'em at the airport. You could probably still read the size stamp inside. He wondered if ol' Detective "East" had even taken the price tag off.

As he pushed the release button for the security door to let "Detective East" back into the hallowed bowels of the jail, one of Philkey's buddies from the State Highway Patrol came through the front door.

Philkey waved to Trooper Joe Bob Brentwood and motioned for him to join the detective by the security door. Brentwood nodded and waved back. . . and promptly sneezed so hard that Philkey thought he musta bust a brain cell or two.

"Jee-zeus, Joe Bob! You trying to make your head explode or somethun?" Philkey exclaimed as the two men walked through the security door and by the entrance to the front work area.

Joe Bob grabbed an already heavily used and limp snot rag from his pocket and wiped his raw, angry red nose.

"Nah. Must be an allergy or something. . . just hit me this afternoon. I sure hope it ain't none of that summer flu shit. Summer colds are the worst. . . and I went and forgot my 007 notebook when I was here yesterday. . . thought I better come an' get it. It's got all my case notes for the past two weeks. "

Philkey nodded his agreement. "Well, go git yourself some coffee. It ain't too bad. . . Connors made it. Not that paint removing sludge Burke always makes. "

Joe Bob headed for the pot, stuffing his abused rag back into his pocket.

Philkey turned when he realized he had forgotten Det. "East. "

"So, what can I do you fer?" he asked, being sure to draw out his accent for a an extra measure.

"I'm Detective Mitchell, Arlington, Virginia P. D. I'm here to do the extradition paper work on a Ramon Smith. They said you'd have everything we need here. "

"Oh yeah. . . got it right here. Just waiting for the papers you're supposed to show me. "

Mitchell opened the folder in his hand and pulled out several forms, all filled out in triplicate, of course.

Philkey took the forms and started down his extradition checklist. A few moments later, he nodded. For once, a detective had all the papers needed. Definitely a first.

"Looks like you're set, Detective. When's your flight back home?"

"Tomorrow morning. . . 7 a. m. "

"Okay. . . Now, hang on here for a sec. . . I just want to check our transport schedule. . . "

Sgt. Philkey turned to peruse the various clipboards on the desk behind him. There had to be at least ten. . . all of them straining to hold the thick stacks of mostly ignored papers that had been shoved into their "mouths. "

Mitchell leaned over onto the counter. As usual, another case of hurry up and wait. And nothing was worse than having to wait around in an unfamiliar jail for some stupid prisoner. Well, maybe all the red tape and paperwork was worse. Either way, he wanted to get everything over with so he could come back tomorrow and pick the guy up, get to the airport and hightail it back to the Nation's Capital and his own private Barca Lounger and remote control.

Philkey interrupted his World Wide Wrestling Federation viewing fantasy.

"Good news, Det. Mitchell. You're in luck," Philkey continued. "The transport wagon has a pickup at the airport tomorrow morning. . . so they'll go ahead and take Smith all the way to the airport gate for ya'. . . give you a little more time to enjoy the fine sights and 'quiz-zine' of downtown Houston. . . "

Mitchell sighed in relief. Maybe this extradition wouldn't be so bad after all. The worst part of these "business" trips was always getting the prisoner to and from the airport. Once you were on the plane, things were pretty easy. . . even though you had to un-cuff your prisoner on the plane due to FAA regs. Like that was gonna save the bad guy's ass if the plane went down. Yeah. Sure. Just like those flotation devices would in event of a "water landing." Love those airline semantics.

Yup. Houston hospitality was looking up.

Now, he could bounce around town in his rental car. . . kick back and relax a bit before having to be on the alert again with a prisoner in his custody. Plus, he could use some time to let his aching feet rest for a bit. He had no idea what had possessed him to buy those damn cowboy boots at the Houston airport.

"Hey, that's a good deal," Mitchell remarked as he smiled for the first time that day. "What else do I need to do? Sign some papers or something?"

"Yup. Just give me your ol' Johnny Reb here and here," Philkey said as he pushed the forms down the counter to him. "Then they'll have you sign somethin' at the airport. And that's it. "

Mitchell signed the forms and returned them to Philkey just as Joe Bob chose to sneeze once again. Mitchell grimaced with sympathy.

"Hope you're cold gets to feeling better, there, Trooper. . ." Mitchell exclaimed and turned back to Sgt. Philkey. "And thanks for all your help. . . Guess I'll go get me some breakfast then. "

"Not a problem, Detective. I'm happy to be of help. I'll buzz ya' out the door here. . . and you might try Helen's Diner. . . it's just around the corner there. . . got the best breakfast in town. Lotsa grease. . . the eggs'll just slide from the plate down yer throat. . . "

The security door buzzed and Mitchell headed back into the lobby, looking forward to a large serving of bacon, eggs with tons of hot sauce, and hash browns.

He had no way of knowing that later that day, one Trooper Joe Bob Brentwood would be picked up by men in biohazard suits and spirited away to a quarantine facility to die.

For Trooper Joe Bob Brentwood had been at ground zero shortly after a certain "escapee" from a top level security "research" facility crashed his car and expired in good ol' Arnette, Texas. . . courtesy of what would soon be known as the Superflu.

So, Detective Mitchell really had no way of knowing that a third passenger had now joined him for his trip back to D. C.

Good ol' Captain Tripps, aka "Tube Neck," had been hand delivered by Trooper Joe Bob Brentwood into the custody of one tired Arlington Police Detective. No handcuffs required.

And Sergeant Walter Philkey returned to his work, not knowing that his forced "retirement" would be upon him before the end of the week. No one would find him as he sat, dead as a proverbial doornail, choked on his own swollen tongue. Dressed in his sweat-yellowed white undershirt, sitting before his television set with the cable that had been provided courtesy of the local installer who had too many parking tickets.

And no one would even care.

It just wasn't Sgt. Philkey's week.




A Dark Office in New York City
June 16
1100 hours

"So how long do we have?"

"We must be in our designated position within twenty-four hours. After that, it will be too late. . . they will know what's going to happen. "

"And everything is ready for us?"

"Yes. There should be no unforeseen difficulties. Now, the plane to Nevada is waiting. I suggest you all get on the helicopter and get to the airport now. "

"And what about you?"

"I have a loose end that needs to be wrapped up. I will rejoin you shortly so that we can continue our work. "

The other men quickly vacated the room, grabbing vital briefcases and small belongings before heading for the roof and the waiting helicopter.

The last man stood before the slat covered window, enjoying the last draw from his cigarette. That last draw was said to contain the worst of carcinogens. He smiled and let the smoke slowly curl from his lips and nose, creating a halo of blackened gray about his head.

True, things were happening quite a bit ahead and to the side of their schedule. . . and they had not calculated the results on the public at this stage. It would either be disastrous or victorious; but, at this point, there was absolutely nothing they could do to stop it. Only go along for the ride. . . and be there to wrest the controls after free fall.

But, there was something he could do to secure his own outcome.

He waited for a few more seconds by the window. He could hear the whine of the rotors of the chopper above as it prepared to lift off. He stepped back from the window and sat down in the cool leather chair behind the massive mahogany desk. His old, shriveled hands caressed the smooth arms. It really was a shame he would have to leave this behind.

A second later there was a blinding flash of light and the building shuddered with the concussion of a loud explosion.

The man calmly opened the elegant cigarette box that sat just beyond the dark green desk blotter and removed the next rolled victim. He smiled as he placed it in the corner of his mouth. Then, with a quick flick of his wrist, he struck a match and lifted the glowing stick in cupped hands to light his habit.

He savored the small crackling sound of paper and tobacco igniting as he softly inhaled, feeding the flame and encouraging its purpose.

Yes. It was his game now. His and his alone.




CHAPTER TWO

"It's a beautiful day in this neighborhood
A beautiful day for a neighbor
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?"
- Fred Rogers




Police Impound Lot S.
Arlington Mill Dr. Arlington, VA
June 17 (Thursday) 1500 hours

Arlington Police Detective D. J. MacInerny sat in her white Ford Taurus. Her seat back was reclined, the air conditioning set to full blast and the vents were turned appropriately to create a cyclone effect about her head and armpits. The driver's window was cracked open slightly so she could flick the end of her cigarette outside. The air was so humid, the smoke didn't even want to rise.

It was hot as hell.

*"Hotter than the air outta old Sad-dam's butt. "*

If it weren't for the fact the air conditioning in the office building that masqueraded as headquarters was completely fucked and on the fritz, it would have been a day that even she preferred to spend indoors. And that said alot. For "Mac," as her co-workers called her, definitely had a calling for the streets.

That was why she and many others loved working auto theft. She got the best of both worlds. The freedom of working her own cases as a detective and the chance to get out of those hot, confining uniforms and, at the still time, she got to "work the street." Cruising the night in confiscated sports cars, looking for bad guys, driving fast, jumping out, gun in hand, arresting car thieves before they knew what hit 'em.

Beat officers enjoyed working with the Auto Squad because the detectives still knew what the street was about.

At the same time, the inquisitive side of her was satisfied by the nitty gritty detective work she often had to do. Establishing patterns, using informants. . . crawling around stripped vehicles looking for information and clues. . . it was challenging. And, usually, the things she uncovered went far beyond car theft. It was rare that Mac arrested a car thief without finding a gun and/or drugs in his possession. Investigations often expanded to include murder, drug trafficking, and armed robbery.

Criminals of the late twentieth century were "renaissance" men and women. They preferred not to specialize in one area; but rather, they enjoyed branching out to dabble in all kinds of felonies and misdemeanors. The Whitman's Sampler of Crime.

*"Life is like a box of chocolates. . . "*

But these boxes only contained those deceptively good looking swirly-topped chocolates that you had to spit out after realizing they were filled with "mystery nougat" or some cherry-nut crap. Too bad that someone usually got hurt during the tasting process.

And it was too bad that the bad guys didn't give a rat's bee-hind that police departments separated their detective bureaus into specialties. So, often, it was Mac's job to examine the box of chocolates, cheating and slicing into a few until she found the ones filled with her specialty.

Which led her to the reason she was sitting at the impound lot on this humid, sweat-provoking afternoon. Yesterday, in the wee hours of the morn, Midnight officers had recovered the partially stripped remains of a Toyota 4-Runner along S. Four Mile Run Drive. No arrests had been made, but the recovering officer had paid her a visit at the end of his shift because of the strange circumstances involved.

The truck had seemingly been stolen. The driver's vent window had been broken out and the ignition was "punched." But, all identifying markers had been removed. The tags were gone, the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) plate was ripped from its place on the front dash, the stickers removed from the driver's door. . . and all papers had been removed from the interior. The VIN stamped in the firewall had been sanded down, making it impossible to read.

Someone went to great trouble to keep the car from being properly identified.

And the vehicle had obviously been used as a "battering ram." Its front end was crumpled in quite nicely.

Ordinarily, "Mac" would have run down to the impound lot as soon as she could; but her Wednesday dance card was soon to be filled. She'd arrived at 0530 hours to go through the stack of new reports, reading each and assigning it to the appropriate member of her unit whilst munching on her morning coffee and the bran muffin that was supposed to keep things "regular." Sometimes.

After her second cup of real coffee, which she grabbed during her second cigarette break from "The Grind" down the alley since the coffee in the Criminal Investigations Division did NOT promote regularity, she began her daily round of phone calls to victims of various auto thefts. True, the hour was still early, but it was usually the only time she could catch them. And, first on the "to call" list: the geniuses who left their doors unlocked and the keys in their ignitions and can't understand why their car was stolen.

When 0930 hours rolled around, she grabbed the pile of folders from her "Court" file and headed for the Court House across the plaza. With any luck, everyone would just plead guilty and she'd be out before noon. Then she could go down and take a look at that Toyota.

But, before she could hit the exit, she was waylaid by one of her squad members.


Detective Josh Mitchell had staggered through the lobby of the Investigations Bureau, cuffed suspect in hand. While "Mitch" was obviously pleased to be back home with his prisoner, he was also bleary eyed and brimming with a full blown, nasty cold. He turned his head as he sneezed loudly.

"Hey, Mac! Can ya' give me a hand with this guy?" He motioned toward one of the suspect "interview" rooms even as his nose dripped.

"Sure," Mac responded. It wasn't like she was actually looking forward to sitting in the court's crowded witness room while defense lawyers and Commonwealth Attorney's argued over pleas. The room was too damn hot and everyone was always in a lousy mood.

She had looked over the suspect as she took his arm. Ramon "Smith" was quite a catch. They had held at least ten warrants for his arrest for several months, but he had fled the area. Then, police in Houston, Texas had notified them that they had arrested Smith. The Arlington Commonwealth's Attorney had agreed to extradite Smith because of the number and serious nature of the charges. So, Mitch had headed off for Houston to pick the little shithead up. Free trip and generous meal allowances for Mitch with only a few hours' work as an "escort. "

Unfortunately, it looked as though Mitch had been sick and miserable for most of the trip.

Mac took Smith into the interview room, undid the cuff on his right hand, then recuffed him to the hook on the heavy table. As she turned to exit the room, she had to smile as Smith began to sneeze. Served the bastard right after running off to Texas to avoid the "Po-Leece." She hoped he choked on his own snot. But, only after they got to close out about forty open cases with his confessions and fingerprints.

Yup. It would be a good ol' day for Auto Theft Statistics. Worthy of at least two Coors at the end of the day.

She walked out of the room and ran into Mitch. Poor guy looked awful. . . all the way down to his cowboy boot tips. She felt sorry for him. He really was a good guy to work with. Funny, dependable, no desire to be anywhere but Auto. . . which meant he was safe and reliable. No Kevlar needed to prevent back- stabbing.

"You got everything under control here, Mitch?" she asked.

"Yeah, we're good to go. I just hate this cold. Can't imagine where I got it. Ron's parking the car. . . then he'll be here to help with the interview and processing," Mitch sniffed.

Mac had headed out the door to court.

Unfortunately, the "alleged suspect" in one of her cases was being a total prick and demanding a trial by jury. It ended up backfiring on him. . . the judge threw the book at him. The plea bargain the C. A. had offered earlier in the day woulda been a piece of cake. But, at least, Mac had felt a little better about the fact that she didn't get home until 1900 hours.

She had immediately fallen into bed, exhausted, not knowing why in the world her muscles and joints had begun to ache so much.

She might have smiled if she had known that poor Ramon Smith would choke to death on his own personal mixture of snot and phlegm before the week was done. No great loss.


So, Thursday had arrived. . . a brand new spankin' day. . . and, after the usual morning routine, it was finally time for Det. "Mac" to go into action.

*"Wonder Woman! . . . . "*

And it was no great sacrifice, cause the idea of hanging around the station for the rest of the day with a bunch of sweaty- bodied, tackily dressed detectives was not high on her list of things to do before she bought the farm. The ever-mingling aromatic combo of cops' and robbers' b. o. , old coffee, nuclear- blast surviving non-dairy creamer, ineffective roach spray, and dusty files was even too much for her desensitized smoker's nose.

With a quick word to her sergeant, she headed for the door.

"Just make sure you leave your radio on, Mac. Mitch called in sick today so we're short. . ." The Sarge's comment was interrupted when he bust loose with a sneeze.

"Bless you. . . and OK. Not a problem. . . just give me a holler if you need me." Mac grabbed a box of tissues from the table that held the Haines' Index and tossed it to him.

"See ya' later, Mac. . . and thanks. And be sure to grab a Big Gulp or something. . . it's hotter than. . ." he was about to offer an interesting metaphor that involved various parts of a prostitute, but then remembered all of the EEOC training he had been forced to sit through.

Mac smiled. She knew what he meant.

"Not to worry, Sarge. I already planned the 7-11 hit."

She had then immediately grabbed the keys to her assigned Taurus and headed out the door.


Once at the impound lot, she had donned the set of coveralls she kept in the trunk for "dirty" work. She had combed over the car for identifying information and came up empty. Usually, she could get enough information from other things in the car. Some manufacturers of high-theft vehicles were now stamping the VIN all over the various parts of the car. . . but, this particular model was not marked.

She would have to rebuild the VIN. It would be relatively easy to construct the first nine characters. They were a code created by the country of origin and specific vehicle characteristics such as engine cylinders, body style, model type, year of manufacture and restraint system installed. The hard part would be the last eight digits. Those were the individual "serial" numbers unique to the car. For those, she would have to work on the sanded down numbers of the firewall VIN.

*"We can rebuild him. . . . "*

She returned to her stash of tools in her trunk and grabbed some pieces of sandpaper and a small bottle of liquid. Then she set to work.

It was messy, elbow-grease-filled labor. She would vigorously sand down the metal over the VIN with varying textures of sand paper. Then, she would polish the metal with a smooth cloth. Then, she pulled out the small bottle. Carefully, she applied the acid inside to the metal.

After several cycles of this work, it paid off. Using a flashlight to provide oblique light, she was able to make out those last mysterious eight digits.

*"Come to Mama! "*

She had her VIN.

She had grabbed her cellular phone and called the ECC to run the VIN through NCIC and VCIN, which was the Virginia equivalent of NCIC. Moments later, she had her suspicions confirmed. The car was indeed reported as stolen. What she hadn't expected, however, was the note added to the NCIC report. The car was wanted by the FBI as being used in a suspected abduction in Maryland. The instructions called for an Agent "Scully" to be notified immediately upon its recovery and the car was to be held for her personal inspection.

*"So, La-de-dah. . . "*


So now, at 1500 hours, Detective D. J. MacInerny sat in her Taurus, engine running, A/C blasting, a sweaty and nearly drained Super Big Gulp of Coke beside her, waiting for the "Fibbie," Agent Scully, to arrive.

She flicked her tenth cigarette butt out the window as she stared at the nearly empty pack. Her switch to "Merit Ultimas" had been a concession of sorts. Rather than just plain out quit the full- strength Merits she had glued to her side for years, she decided to "taper off" first by cutting down to the "lighter" Ultima.

That had been three years. . . and about two-thousand packs. . . ago.

She snapped out of her reverie and reached for the radio buttons. She was damned tired of listening to Top 40 crap. And this new piece of shit, "Baby, Can You Dig Your Man. . ." was almost enough to make her eat her gun. It was about as bad as the country manure that Mitch always had to listen to on stake outs.

*"Mah dawg dun died, Mah girl, she cried Mah truck is shit Mah life's the pits. . . "*

And the Top 40 stations weren't any better. Q107 seemed to only play five different songs all day. . . all by the newest one-hit wonders. It was definitely time for some classic rock. . . maybe she'd get lucky and hear from some local boys like Steely Dan.

Steely Dan was a good bunch of boys. . . nice songs about local hangouts. . . places Mac herself had haunted in her younger and much wilder days when she still had some oats left to sow.

And some Mary Chapin Carpenter would be okay, too. Sure, she sang country, but she was a local. . . Mac remembered going down to the "Cellar Door" when she was a senior in high school, and the D. C. drinking age was still 18, to watch her perform.

As she reached for yet another cancer stick, a chill went through her.

"Oh, shit," she muttered even as her nose geared up for a full blown sneeze.

*"Ah can no help it, Cap-un. She's going ta blow! "*

It was like a snot grenade going off in the car.

She looked at the explosion of new greenish drops on the windshield before her. "Gross! Good thing no one else uses this car," she thought aloud. She rummaged under the seat for a paper towel and used it as a tissue.

"Hell of a time to get a cold," she muttered disgustedly.

She'd have to go get some of that echinak. . . echinake. . . echin. . . . whatever the hell that stuff was that her new-age sister in Southern California was always telling her to take.

She had just finished blowing her nose and performing the perfunctory examination of the towel to see what disgusting concoction had come out of her head when she saw the blue Crown Vic roll up the gravel road. If she listened closely, she could swear she heard the car scream, "Feds!" Mac returned her seat back to its normal position, folded and stuffed the "tissue" towel in her pocket, and threw the car into gear. There was no way she would walk in this heat when driving would do.

She motioned to the blue car as it crossed through the gate and they pulled up, driver to driver, their sides nearly touching.

"You Agent Scully?" Mac began, even as she eyed the auburn-haired federal agent.

"Yes. . . and you are. . . "

"Detective MacInerny. . . just call me Mac. I got your car up in the next row. . . if you wanna follow me around. . . I wanna keep my air conditioning close by. . . "

"Not a problem," the agent replied.


FBI Special Agent Dana Scully wasn't much up for slogging around in the heat either, and she knew that "Mac" had probably been sweating away for quite a while already today.

She tailed Mac through the impound lot filled with a sea of dead and neglected vehicles. They passed by several "car-casses" that had been completely gutted by fire. Scully smirked to herself. Processing these wrecks was a lot like the autopsies she performed on human victims.

You had to methodically go through each part of the body and pore over the exterior to find the secrets inside. All to uncover the truth of what had happened to this "victim" who could not speak for itself.

And you had to be totally anal and obsessed with your work as you performed it. . . or else you would miss something important.

Scully glanced over at Det. Mac as she threw her Taurus into park. Yup. Judging by the grease stains on her sleeves and the grime still lingering on the edges of her face, the Arlington detective was definitely anal retentive when it came to her job. And she probably had an oral fixation, too. . . most cops did.

She wondered how long it would be before Mac completed the picture and put something into her mouth.

It took about 3 seconds before Mac had popped another Merit Ultima into her mouth.

Scully parked her car behind Mac's and got out. The immediate greeting by a blast of sticky heat was not welcome. "Whoever had the brilliant idea to build the D. C. area on a swamp was a friggin' genius," she thought ingenuously as she plucked the plastered shirt from her chest.

Before heading over to Mac and the car she was there to examine, she opened the back door of the Crown Vic and pulled out a small Igloo cooler. It was time for some drastic kiss-up measures. . . cause it never hurt to resort to some cheap bribery to win a new ally.

Scully dropped the cooler on the hood of her car and popped it open.

"So, Mac. . . what are you drinking?" Scully inquired.

Mac's eyebrow raised as she mentally moved her respect for the FeeBee up a notch. She walked over to the cooler and looked inside.

Scully had prepared a cross section of beverages just for this purpose. She was very well aware of the potential hostility between locals and feds. . . and she knew that this particular detective must have been slaving away under the hot sun for most of the day, just waiting for her Federal Ass to get there. And, since Scully knew just how ridiculous this particular case would sound to the sweat covered local, she figured it would be a good thing to grease a few palms before having to reveal the sordid details of the case.

"Ah, the glories of working in a unit called the "X-Files"," she sighed to herself.

"Help yourself," Scully offered.

Mac smiled. "Thanks, Agent Scully. . . just what the doctor ordered. . . and it will certainly do until it's Miller Time," she replied as she scooped out an ice covered can of Coke. "How'd you know that my Big Gulp just died?"

Scully shrugged. "Let's just call it intuition. . . and experience. Now, is this the car in question?" Scully asked, pointing to the deceased Toyota 4-Runner.

"Ah-yup," Mac drawled in a fake twang. "Thar she be," she nodded as she opened the Coke with a crisp "swish. "

Scully began to ask another question but was interrupted as Mac erupted into a loud sneeze.

"Bless you!" Scully exclaimed.

Mac waved her off as she pulled out the paper towel from her pocket.

"It's nothing. Musta got some Coke fizz up the old nose. . . Now, you wanna tell me what's up with this baby?"

Scully mentally rolled her eyes. This was not going to be fun.

And Det. MacInerny would have agreed if she had known that she was spending one of her last few days in a police impound lot sweating buckets over a Toyota.

For Det. Mac's weekend plans were about to be permanently postponed. Instead of sailing on the Potomac River with her friends from the Tac Squad. . . she'd be laying on her bed, surrounded by used Kleenex. . . her blackened eyes forever open and unseeing as they stared at the ceiling.

If she'd only known it would end like this, she never woulda cut back from those full-strength Merits.




I-395 en route from Arlington to D. C.
1600 hours

One hour later, Scully was on the phone to her partner, Agent Fox Mulder.

"I'm not kidding, Mulder. This is not an X-File. It's obviously an insurance scam. Leon Di Capo was probably drunk and ran his car into something. He made the abduction story up to cover for the accident. . . then he probably dumped it somewhere he knew it would be stripped for parts. "

"And what about the punched ignition, Scully. . ." Mulder whined in reply.

"Mulder. When the Arlington detective and I examined it, it was obviously a half-hearted attempt to make it look as though it was punched. . . it wasn't even done well enough to start the car. We tried it. Besides. . . I don't think the dearth of alien technology would require them to punch the ignition of a Toyota 4-Runner with a dent puller. . . can't they just do a mind whammy thing? . . . "

Scully could picture her partner as he sighed in defeat over the phone.

"But, Scully. Maybe they wanted something in 4-wheel drive. . . I hear that Reticula has some pretty rough roads. . . "

Scully rolled her eyes.

"But we haven't really looked at the possibility of spectral phenomenon. . . . they might not have the techn. . ." he tried to continue, just wanting to yank her chain.

"I'm hanging up now, Mulder. I'll see you later. . ." She pulled the phone from under her chin and turned it off, then dropped it on the passenger seat.

As she continued across the 14th Street Bridge into D. C. , she moaned at the thought that it was still only Thursday.




*". . . They did eat, they drank, they married wives, they were given in marriage, until the day that Noah entered into the ark, and the flood came, and destroyed them all. Likewise also as it was in the days of Lot; they did eat, they drank, they bought, they sold, they planted, they builded; but the same day that Lot went out of Sodom it rained fire and brimstone from heaven, and destroyed them all. . . . "*
- Luke 17: 26-30




CHAPTER THREE




Washington, D. C. FBI Headquarters
June 19 (Friday) 1200 hours

Scully's sneeze filled the room. She reached out to the box of tissues on her desk and grabbed one, pressing it into service.

"Bless you," Mulder muttered. It was amazing that such a huge explosion could come from such a small. . . er. . . "height challenged" person.

Scully nodded her thanks.

Mulder sat back in his chair once again and glanced at the clock. Scully stopped her nose-dabbing and looked at her partner.

"What's up, Mulder? You got somewhere to be?"

He leaned forward, his full lips pursed and his brown eyes oh so innocently open wide.

"Well, actually. . . I was gonna head out early today and go up to Greenwich to see my mother for the weekend. . . thought I might leave before rush hour hits. "

Scully raised her brows in surprise. While Mulder and his mother had been getting along quite well recently, they still did not make a regular habit of visiting one another. Mulder saw the look on her face and continued to explain.

"My mother is changing some of her living will and power of attorney stuff and she needs me to be there to sign some forms. . . "

Scully hadn't meant for him to have to explain. . . after all, she wanted to encourage Mulder to have some more "family time."

"Sure, Mulder. . . have a nice trip. I'll see you Monday. "

"But, of course, I don't have to go. I could stick around if you think. . . "

"Mulder. . . Go ahead. I think it would be good for you to spend some time with your mother." Mulder, who almost always felt like a fish out of water in personal, touchy-feely situations, was obviously looking for an excuse to stay. And she wasn't going to help him.

"You sure, Scully? If you think you might need me to give you a hand or something, I can always do this another time. . . "

"Gee, there's the followup report on the car recovered over in Arlington. . . expense vouchers from our last trip. . . and three case reports to polish off. But, seeing as how you are allergic to paperwork. . . I think I'll manage somehow," Scully replied as she reached for another Kleenex and dabbed at her nose.

"You wound me." Mulder's dramatic response, hands held over his "pierced" heart, was completely lost on Scully as she sneezed once again.

"Bless you! Are you sure you're feeling okay, Scully?" Mulder's voice was now filled with genuine concern for his partner.

Scully cleared her throat and wiped at her runny eyes. She looked up and sighed.

"It's an allergy, Mulder. NOT a reason for you to stay in D. C. Go! Have a nice visit with your mom. . . enjoy the nice sea breeze and get away from all this awful humidity. In fact, stay a couple of extra days if you want. . . no since rushing back to this mess. Besides, with that Maryland abduction case cleared up. . . "

"Okay, okay. I know when I'm not wanted. But, why don't you go ahead and cut out a little early today yourself. . . go take something for that sneezing. . ." Mulder suggested as he grabbed his suit jacket and headed for the door.

Scully nodded blearily. "I just might do that. In fact, I might just go and visit my mom tomorrow. . . she asked me to spend some time with her this weekend. I'll just finish up that voucher and then I'll be off like the bride's pajamas. . . "

Mulder waggled his brows at her suggestive reference and smiled.

"And now you've given me a lovely image to hold onto whilst I'm gone. . ." Scully humphed in reply. "Have a nice weekend, Scully. . . and say Hi to your mom for me. . . I'll be back Monday morning. . . but you know where to reach me if anything comes up. . ." He held up his cell phone to illustrate.

"Yes, I know. Now, go," she waved him off, ". . . but no stopping for cockroaches or the alignment of planets. . . . okay?"

Mulder reached for the door handle, but as he opened it he turned once more.

"Scully. . . please promise me you'll look after that cold. . . . Let your mom spoil you a little. When you're not here this place is so. . . Well. I'd hate to have to do all the filing again while you're out sick. . . and I don't think the pencils could stand another flight to the ceiling. . . "

Scully was about to respond, but bit her tongue. She knew what her partner was really trying to say. After all they had been through. . . after her battle with cancer. . . the burning of their old office.

They were finally both healthy and in their new office. Back in the basement where they belonged. Working together again. Getting back into their familiar grooves, albeit grooves that seemed to involve much more unacknowledged physical contact. She softened as she remembered all the pencils that had been stuck in the ceiling tiles after her last "vacation." He would never fully admit it, but he did miss her. He really wore his heart on his sleeve sometimes.

"I promise, Mulder. But drive safely, okay?"

"It's a deal," he headed out the door. "And I'll call you tonight," he called out as the door closed behind him.

Scully leaned back in her chair. She had known he wouldn't forget their ritual. Ever since their return from their ordeal in the icy fields of Antarctica, they managed to touch base with each other every evening.

The conversations were never long. . . and never held much substance. But it was a cryptic and safe way for each of them to touch the other without having to actually express the deeper things that wanted to burst out. The calls were little pressure release valves.

And right now, for many reasons, those were the only releases that either one of them was prepared to deal with. And they both seemed comfortable with it, for now. Time. They just needed some time to rest and do a little physical and mental recharging before they could consider what had transpired in Mulder's hallway. What had almost transpired. . .

Her thoughts were interrupted by another sneeze and then the ring of the telephone. The single ring signified it was coming from an inside line. . from another extension in the Bureau. It would be safe to answer. . . cause she really wasn't in the mood to deal with outsiders today. The office was already too quiet and a heaviness was settling in her chest.

"Agent Scully," she spoke crisply, all traces of allergy and melancholy on hold as she got back down to work.




*"A Minneapolis cold is rotten. . . "*

Across the Potomac River, the Arlington Police Department's Detective Bureau was in disarray. Half of the detectives, including Josh Mitchell and D. J. MacInerny, had called in sick. And the ones that had reported to work were a mess of snot, Kleenex and that mysterious orange TheraFlu.

Captain Peter Holliman could only hope that this summer flu would pass by their station quickly. And with that thought, he reached for his own box of tissues.




Dana Scully's Residence
June 19 2305 hours

Scully sat on her pin-striped couch. The large soup spoon in her right hand was making an admirable bull-dozing attempt on the chocolate-chocolate mint chip ice cream quart-sized bucket that she held in her left hand.

The television droned on in the background. The late evening news was depressing as usual. Wars and rumors of wars, homicides, traffic accidents, pets up for adoption. The regular stuff.

Scully lifted the spoon to her mouth and let the cold ice cream slide down her throat. She was really becoming annoyed by the constant scratchiness that was developing just at the back. . . where you couldn't quite reach it. . . and that throat numbing spray hadn't helped at all. So, she resorted to the best throat medicine known to woman. . . Haagen Daaz.

She just wanted Mulder to call so she could carry herself off to bed and sleep off whatever allergy or cold this was. She really didn't want to show up sick on her mother's doorstep the next morning.

*"Hi, Mom. Long time no see. Now. I'm sick, so please take care of me the whole time I'm here so I can recover just in time to go back to my apartment. . . And, yes. Home made chicken soup would be lovely. . . with some Saltines, please. "*

No. That wasn't the route she wanted to take. She sighed as she dug for her next spoonful of medicine. At least she didn't have a fever.

Just as she closed her mouth around the spoon once more, the phone rang. She left the spoon in her mouth as she reached for the phone. . .

"Huh. . . ro," she sputtered around the stainless steel.

"Scully? You into the Rocky Road again?"




Mrs. Mulder's Residence
Greenwich, Connecticut
2330 hours

Mulder hung up the phone, amused. He loved catching his partner when her hair was down. . . or, as in this case, when her mouth was full of the stuff she would never admit to allowing in her diet.

Lately, she had been unfolding before him like a complicated origami sculpture. And he was enjoying the process of revelation. While lesser men would be tempted to simply tear at the paper, flattening it out immediately to see the secret pattern, he knew that his patience would reap many rewards.

And it was definitely the safest route for now. Over the past six years, they had both spent so much time being knocked over and battered about by outside forces. They just needed a little down time so that each of them could find their own footing again. Then, they could get on with walking down the path. Hopefully, together.

This evening's conversation had not lasted long. Not nearly long enough by Mulder's standards. And, from the wistful sound in Scully's voice, not by her standards either.

He told her about the drive to his mom's house. . . about the traffic jam on the Beltway that had him cooling his heels for a good forty-five minutes.

She asked about his mother. He told her that she looked great. The best she had in a long time. He could hear Scully's smile through the phone line. And he told her that his mom said hello.

He knew that his mother had harbored a soft spot for Scully ever since the younger woman had shown up at his father's funeral. Scully had given her the hope that her son was still alive. The fondness had grown when Mrs. Mulder had felt Scully's presence in her hospital room after she suffered her stroke. . . Mulder had never told Scully that, even though she had appeared unresponsive and comatose in her hospital bed, she had known Scully was there. And that she had taken great comfort in it.

They talked about Scully's mother. . . about her plans for the weekend. And Mulder begged Scully to snag some extra samples of Margaret Scully's infamous chocolate chip cookies for the office.

He had frowned when Scully had coughed into the phone. He was concerned when she turned her head to sneeze. . . several times.

She had reassured him that she was fine. . . just a little out of sorts.

And he had made her promise to hang up and go straight to bed. She had sighed and reluctantly agreed.

Then he promised to call her at her mother's the next night.

They hung up.

But, while it was a real pick-me-up to talk to her. . . he wished that she didn't sound so congested and hoarse.




Annapolis, MD
Residence of Margaret Scully
Saturday - June 20 1000 hours

"Burglar!" Scully announced as she entered through the front door of her mother's house.

Her mother came out of the kitchen, smiling as she dried her hands on a dish towel. "I guess I need to be more careful about who I give house keys to. . ." Margaret Scully responded as she walked over to give her daughter a quick peck on the cheek. her brow creased. Scully's face was a bit warm.

"Are you feeling okay, Dana? You look a bit flushed. . . "

Scully waved her off. "It's nothing. Just a slight touch of a cold or something. I just need to relax and keep drinking herbal tea and I'll be fine. . ." She tried to convince herself.

"Well, let's get you some tea then. Oh! And I think I've got something else you'll like. . . "

Curious, Scully dumped her overnight bag by the couch and trailed tiredly after her mother. It had taken most of her energy to get up, pack and drive this morning. The walk to the kitchen was not altogether welcome. But, she went along obediently.

A huge and slightly impish smile plastered itself on her face when she saw it on the kitchen counter.

Three cookie sheets covered with dollops of chocolate chip cookie dough. . . and, the prize. . . a mixing bowl that still held a generous lump of raw cookie dough. And the dough had her name on it. Amazing how that sight could make the sick rise up once more.

Margaret opened a drawer and pulled out a large soup spoon. She handed it to Scully with an indulgent grin.

"For once, there are no brothers, nephews or nieces to interfere. Enjoy, kiddo. "

Scully grabbed the bowl, plopped herself down at the kitchen table and dug in. She loved mornings like this. . . when she was the sole recipient of her mother's attention. She knew every thirty-four year old single woman's secret: You never outgrew the need for some quality Mom time. . . or the need to be spoiled. 'Cause Mom was the one person on the planet who still put you first. . . before everyone else.

And since her father's death, their bond had grown stronger. Her brothers were married. . . with families of their own. Families that had to come first. . . something she completely understood and agreed with. But, it meant that she and her mother had grown more dependent upon each other for attention. For all the little things you just need to share with someone. Someone who's interested in what you did today. . . The only thing wrong today was her annoying cold.

She looked up from her meal to watch Margaret put the tea kettle on the burner and then slide the cookie sheets into the oven. Yep. One thing was for sure. Mulder was gonna be one very happy G-Man when he got back to D. C. Maybe she'd take pity on him and just go ahead and take a box of cookies straight to his apartment instead of making him wait until he got into the office. She could see his silly grin of discovery now. Yes. She'd have to do that.

"Mom. You do realize that if you keep doing this, Mulder is simply going to move in with you. . . right?"

"Well, dear. You know I could simply give the recipe to you. . . that might make the living arrangements more enjoyable. . ." Maggie replied.

Scully's jaw dropped open. Her mother never ever teased her about men. And she had never insinuated anything concerning her relationship with Mulder.

"Mo-ther!" Scully warned.

Maggie simply smiled as she walked over to the fridge to grab the milk carton. She set it on the table. "Guess I must have touched a nerve. . . maybe I need to start doing a little more prodding. . . just to have some fun," she thought.

"Where is Fox this weekend?" She asked as she moved over to take the steaming kettle off the burner. She pulled two tea bags from the shelf and dropped them into two mugs and poured the hot water in to do its job.

"He's visiting his mother for a few days. . ." Scully mumbled through a mouthful of cookie dough. "They had some family business to attend to. . . "

Maggie brought the mugs to the table and sat down.

"So. What are we going to do today? Shall we shop or do we putter around the house?"

Scully pushed the now empty mixing bowl away and leaned forward, elbows propped on the table, cupping her chin in her hands.

"I'm not sure I feel up to any mall adventures today. . . how 'bout we just act lazy for a day?"

Maggie was concerned now. She leaned forward and put her hand on Scully's forehead and moved to feel her cheeks.

"Honey, you do have a slight fever. Why don't you go curl up on the sofa? I'll bring your tea in and we can just do nothing for a while. . . I'll even let you use my chair massage pad. . . "

"Mom. That's the best offer I've had in a long time," Scully murmured. She was suddenly very tired. Must have been the effort of eating the cookie dough.

She got up and moved to the living room, kicking off her shoes and toeing them under the end table by the sofa. She adjusted the massager pad so she could lay down on it. . . and promptly collapsed on top of it. She pulled the afghan from the back of the sofa and let it drape over her body. She hit the massager switch and let the pad go to work on her sore back and shoulder muscles.

As she began to drift off, she ran her tongue across her teeth, tasting the remnants of the cookie dough. She sighed happily as she felt her mother tucking the afghan around her.

This was a nice way to be sick.




Mrs. Mulder's Residence
Saturday - June 20
2300 hours

Mulder was not happy. Not that he minded talking to Maggie Scully. It's just that she wasn't the Scully he had looked forward to speaking with all day.

Scully had been asleep when he called. Mrs. Scully said she had been sick all day. . . coughing up a storm. But, she had felt better this evening. . . and her fever had gone down. Maggie had sent her to bed at 10 p. m.

Mulder had not hidden his disappointment very well. . . and Mrs. Scully had been sympathetic, and slightly amused.

She had inquired about his mother. He had told her that all waswell.

Then he asked her to tell Scully that he would not be back in D. C. until Tuesday or Wednesday. His late arrival in Connecticut on Friday, thanks to the traffic, meant that they had been unable to get some legal papers signed. They would have to meet with the lawyers on Monday morning. Hopefully, they would be done Monday and he could head back then. If not, he would definitely be in on Wednesday.

Mrs. Scully had promised to relay the message. She told him to enjoy his time with his mother and wished him a safe trip home.

Then she had hung up.

And now, Mulder felt miserable. Not that he had wanted Mrs. Scully to wake her daughter up just to chit chat with him. . . but. . .

He knew he wouldn't sleep well tonight.




*Ring around the rosies
A pocket full of posies
Ashes, ashes We All Fall Down*




Margaret Scully Residence
Sunday - June 21
0630 hours

Dana Scully awoke to the sound of muffled coughing. Only this time it wasn't her doing the coughing.

As she became fully alert, she realized that it was coming from her mother's bedroom. She waited for a few moments, but then slipped out of bed when she recognized that the coughs were not stopping. In fact, they were growing worse.

She exited her room and walked to her mother's bedroom door. She frowned when she could clearly hear. The coughs were wet and deep. . . that phlegmy rattle that comes with nasty things like pneumonia or tuberculosis.

"Mom?" she called as she knocked on the door. When she didn't get an immediate response, she opened the door and stepped inside.

The sun was shining brightly through the bedroom window, its strong rays falling across the bed.

Scully froze.

And then her feet flew across the floor to her mother's side.

Margaret Scully lay on her back, tangled in the bed sheets. . . desperately trying to find a respite from the fever that had overtaken her. Her dark hair was sweat-plastered to her scalp and neck.

Her puffy face was tinged with blue as she tried to stop coughing and catch a decent breath. Scully quickly realized that she was choking on her own mucous.

She grabbed her mother by the shoulders and sat her up, sliding in behind her to support her weakened body. She wrapped her left forearm across her mother's upper chest and used her right hand to pound on her mother's back as Margaret continued to emit strangled coughs.

After a few moments of pounding, Margaret expelled one huge hacking cough and a large greenish yellow wad of phlegm exploded from her throat and onto the front of her nightgown. . . and across her daughter's arm.

Margaret sat up straight and heaved in a giant gasp of welcome air.

Scully's right hand stopped its pounding and began to rub small circles of comfort across her mother's shoulders and back. Although it was debatable as to exactly whose comfort the back rub was intended.

Margaret's gasps for air soon evened out, her face returned to a flushed and non-cyanotic color. After a few minutes, she brushed at Scully's hands. She wanted to gain some sort of control back. . . and, looking at her nightgown and the sludge on her daughter's arm. . . she was more than a bit embarrassed.

"Like mother, like daughter," ran through Scully's head.

"Will you be okay for a sec, Mom? I'm going to go get you some water. All right?"

Margaret nodded while she tried to find her speaking voice. "Yes. . . I'll be. . . fine," she rasped, her own hand moving over her stampeding heart.

Scully got up swiftly and ran down the hall to the bathroom. She grabbed a handy floral Dixie cup and filled it at the tap. Then she opened the medicine cabinet and sorted through its voluminous but organized contents. Leave it to a mother and grandmother to have every remedy known to mankind. She grabbed the bottle of Robitussin expectorant formula and did a half-run back to the bedroom, being careful not to spill the water.




1000 hours

Scully sat on the sofa, television remote in hand. She stared with inattention at CNN as they discussed the new summer influenza season.

She reached for her mug of tea and took a small sip. Her throat was feeling much better. She could only hope that her mother bounced back as quickly as she had.

She had tried to get her mother to go to the hospital or to at least call her regular doctor; but, Maggie had vehemently refused. She didn't want to bother her doctor on his day off. "Besides," she had said. "My daughter is a doctor. "

Scully had relented to her mother's stubborn will. Maggie had her drag out the old vaporizer and it was now chugging away, hopefully loosening some of the phlegm still caught in Maggie's chest.

The acetominophen had seemed to help reduce the fever and aches. And Maggie had said that she just needed to get some sleep. . . that she would be fine.

Scully had tucked her in. Given her a bell to ring if she needed anything. . . and Maggie had promptly fallen asleep. Unaware that her daughter checked in on her every fifteen minutes.

And unaware that Scully had sworn to herself that she would handcuff and carry her mother to the hospital if her temperature went over one-hundred degrees again.




Mrs. Mulder's Home
Sunday - June 21
2300 hours

Mulder stared at the phone. His conversation with Scully had been painfully short. Scully had sounded tired and still slightly sick.

She had told him about her mother's illness. About her mother's refusal to go to the doctor. He had made a smart comment along the lines of "like mother, like daughter." She had given a half- hearted laugh. Until he heard Margaret Scully's cough in the background.

He had told her about his delay in getting back to D. C. She understood. It was not a problem.

Then Scully had said she had to go. Mulder said he understood and made her promise to call him in the morning as soon as she got into the office and let him know how things were going. . . and that he'd keep his cell phone by his bed if she needed him during the night.

She promised she would call. And then, she hung up.

He frowned. He had never known Mrs. Scully to be sick. He had always assumed that she was too. . . perfect to be felled by a simple flu bug.

And now he felt a bit guilty about his earlier plotting with Scully on the chocolate chip cookie caper. He sincerely hoped that Margaret didn't force herself into the kitchen tomorrow just to bake his favorite confection. He knew that it was aninnate Margaret Scully trait. . . to do something so selfless. . . just to make him happy.

His thoughts were interrupted by a sudden, overwhelming urge to sneeze. He had just managed to cover his mouth and nose with his cupped hands when it erupted.

He cursed. The sneeze had emanated deep in his chest. And it had brought forth an unpleasant scratchiness in his throat.

Damn. Just what I need. He got up from his bed and marched out of his room, down the stairs and into the kitchen. He put the tea kettle on and waited for the water to boil.

Maybe some herbal tea would help.




CHAPTER FOUR

"There was a young lady from Niger
Who smiled as she rode on the Tiger.
They came back from the ride with the lady inside
And the smile on the face of the Tiger. "
- Author Unknown




Monday - June 22
0630 hours

Margaret Scully was feeling much better. And Scully even agreed that she looked better. She was still a bit weak and her ribs were sore from all the coughing, but she was definitely feeling human again.

So Dana Scully prepared to head into work. Once showered and dressed, she packed up her overnight bag and headed down to the kitchen to grab a quick breakfast.

Her mother was already seated at the kitchen table, dunking a tea bag in her mug of hot water. She still looked weak, bleary circles under her eyes, but her eyes were alert for the first time in twenty-four hours.

Scully walked over and kissed her mother on the cheek.

"What was that for?" Margaret exclaimed in surprise.

Scully shrugged. "I'm just glad you're feeling better, Mom. I admit you had me worried yesterday. . . "

"I'm fine, Honey. I guess we both just had some twenty-four hour bug. Although I have to say that I would rather not feel like that again." She took a few small sips of her tea, but for some reason it just didn't taste good this morning.

Scully nodded her head in agreement as she filled her mug with hot water. She noticed that her mother had already set out a halved grapefruit and some cereal for her.

"Let's hope it has run its course. . . and maybe we can try this mother-daughter thing again next week. . . and do it right." Scully said, almost apologetically. She was disappointed that their time together had been ruined.

Margaret smiled and leaned over to brush some hair back from her daughter's face. "I'd like that, Dana. I just don't get to see enough of you anymore. . . and maybe Fox could come join us for dinner on Friday. I haven't seen him for awhile. . . "

"I'll ask him. . . I'm sure he'd love some of your special roast beef. . ." Scully ventured.

"Hint taken, dear," Margaret smiled. "Now. Just don't forget that box of cookies when you leave. . . Lord knows I can't eat them all." She got up and placed her still half-full mug into the sink.

"I'll remember. I thank you. . . and Mulder thanks you," Scully replied, trying to avoid the spray of grapefruit juice that squirted directly toward her eye. For a moment she wished that she was wearing her protective goggles. The ones she used when she conducted an autopsy. Then she went back to dissecting her grapefruit.

Margaret crossed back to Scully and placed a hand on her hair, smoothing it in a caress that only mothers know how to do. "I'm going to go up and take a nice long bath now. . . you'll be okay here?"

"Of course, Mom. I have to leave in about two minutes anyway. Enjoy your soak. . . and please call me if you need anything. I thought I'd come over after work anyway. . . "

"You don't need to do that, Dana. . . "

"Mom. Humor me. Besides. . . it's partly selfish on my part. I saw that lasagna in the freezer. . . and it's been screaming my name since yesterday. "

Margaret laughed. There was always one thing that would ensure visits from her children: the infamous Maggie Scully Cooking.

She bent down and placed a kiss on Scully's head and turned to leave.

"See you tonight then, dear. "

"Tonight, Mom. "




Scully's spirits lifted a bit more as she headed into work. For whatever reason, traffic was unusually light. Especially for a Monday morning.

At this pace, she would make it to work in record time. She could only hope that the afternoon commute would be just as easy.




As Scully drove westbound on Route 50, she never noticed a gray, all-wheel drive-cause-it's-the-need-of-every-suburban-road- warrior Volvo station wagon parked on the shoulder of one off- ramp.

If she had, she would have noticed Walter X. Beauchamp. The X stood for Xavier. And he had always hated his middle name. Even though his wife, Muffin Eleanor Richfield Beauchamp, the Sweetheart of Sigma Chi, thought it was just perfect for a Patent Law attorney. And it looked really nice on his degree from the Marshall Wythe Law School at the College Of William and Mary.

But, Walter Xavier had other things on his mind today. At the moment, he was draped over the front passenger seat, his head hanging out the door as he spewed a particularly lov-er-ly string of green and yellow crap out of his nose and mouth.

"What would Muffin say about this? It's green and gold. . . our school colors!" But he didn't think he'd share the color commentary at the next Alumni Chapter meeting. He snorted as he picked up a dirty paper towel from the floorboard and used it to wipe his nose and mouth clear. "Bounty. The quicker-picker- upper!" he wondered if "Rosie" had ever envisioned this use for her product.

Walter Xavier might have pondered this question longer, but at that moment, a particularly large wad of viscous mucous, the size of a baseball, decided to force its way from his chest. . . on its way to his mouth via his throat. Problem was, his throat was nearly swollen shut.

So, Walter Xavier Beauchamp turned purple while hanging out of his all-wheel drive Volvo station wagon. . . the one he and Muffy had bought when they started trying to conceive a Walter Xavier Jr. His neck swelled, his face expanded and grimaced as it turned blood black, his fingers clawing at his neck.

Walter Xavier died even as Muffy stood in her living room, wondering, between her loud sneezes, why her husband forgot his briefcase. But, she wouldn't have to wonder for long. No one would find her permanently poised on the living room sofa, legal briefcase in hand.

And Mr. Nigel Hammond never would get that patent paper filed to protect the design of his new and revolutionary invention: "Hammond's Recliner with built-in t. v. remote/beer cooler/tobacco pouch/spittoon/and BBQ grill. "

No great loss.




Mrs. Mulder's residence
Greenwich, Connecticut
0800 hours

Fox Mulder felt absolutely rotten. And no matter what he did, he was either too hot or too cold. If he used his blanket, he burned up. . . when he threw it off, he was freezing within moments. Was this how Scully had felt the other day?

He groaned. Maybe he just felt worse because he was sleeping in his old bed in his mother's house. And no matter how hard you tried to be an adult. . . when you got back under your parent's roof, you reverted back to all your old behaviors.

A quiet knock on his door roused him from his trip down memory lane.

"Fox?" his mother called from the hallway.

"C'mon in, Mom," he replied thickly. His throat felt so constricted. . . like he had swallowed a cantaloupe.

Teena Mulder glided into the room, carrying a small breakfast tray. Mulder noticed she was wearing those Isotoner slippers he gave her on her last birthday. For some reason, that made him very happy. Like he had actually given her something useful. . . something that made her comfortable for a change.

"I brought some things that might make you feel better. Think you can manage some juice and toast?" She placed the tray on the nightstand and sat down beside him, stretching out a hand to feel his forehead. "You've still got a fever," she said with concern, her brow slightly furrowed.

Mulder pushed himself up with his elbows and rearranged the pillows so he could sit up better.

"I feel pretty lousy, Mom. . . but I could try some of the juice. Don't think I can manage any food," his sentence was cut off by a series of harsh, fluid filled coughs.

Mrs. Mulder patted him on the back and waited for the spell to end. As the coughs slowed, she picked up the juice and held it out for her son.

A few moments later, Mulder was able to take the glass from her and tentatively sipped at it. He was thankful that she had chosen apple juice instead of orange juice. The acidic orange would have torn his sore throat apart. He let the sweet juice coat his ragged throat as he swallowed painfully.

Finally, the glass drained, he handed it to his mother, a shy smile on his face. "Thanks, Mom. Sorry I had to go and get sick on you. "

She nudged his shoulder slightly. "Don't be silly, Fox. I don't get to take care of anyone anymore. . . I'm sorry you're sick, but it is nice to have someone to look after," she admitted.

Mulder smiled. He hadn't seen this side of mother for many years. "I just hope you don't catch this bug from me. "

"Nonsense. Now. . . is there something else I can get you? Do you want to try this toast?"

"No thanks, Mom. The juice was fine. . . I'll just get some water and some Tylenol and see if that helps. "

"You stay there," Mrs. Mulder stopped him from rising. "I'll get the water and medicine for you. . . And then, young man, you'lllay back down and get some sleep. . . "

"But what about our meeting. ." Mulder tried to protest.

"I've already called the law office and left a message, telling them we'd have to come in tomorrow or Wednesday. So relax. Just let an old woman spoil her son for a day. "

Mulder laid back, resigned to his fate. . . albeit a not-so-bad fate. But, then he remembered something.

"Mom? Dana Scully is supposed to call me this morning. . . wake me when she calls?"

Mrs. Mulder smiled. "Okay, Fox. But only if you get some sleep now. We need to get that fever down. . . I'll be back in a sec with that water." She left the room and headed down the hallway.

Mulder sat back against his headboard. He was being spoiled by his mother and Scully was supposed to call soon. Maybe being sick wouldn't be such a bad thing after all.

Too bad he didn't realize that within two hours his temperature would be skyrocketing. . . and he would miss a very important phone call from his partner.

It just was not Agent Fox Mulder's day.




FBI Headquarters Washington, D. C.
Monday - June 22
0915 hours

Scully stood outside of Assistant Director Walter Skinner's office. . . in the antechamber as it were. This is where most agents, brown-nosers and snivelers alike, spent their time straightening ties and suits, smoothing hair. All to mask their nervousness and prepare themselves for the intimidating presence of their leader.

But, ranks be damned, Skinner had more than met his match in Agents Mulder and Scully. And he showed them respect and extended more than a little latitude to them because of it. And, therefore, Scully's nerves were not on edge; but, she still hoped she would be able to suitably cover for Mulder's absence. And, even though her mother looked better and said she would be fine. . . she really wanted to find a way to leave work as soon as possible and hightail it back to Annapolis. Just to be sure.

She looked up as Kimberly, Skinner's secretary, hung up the phone. Kimberly's eyes and nose were red and a telling box of tissues was close by her side. The more she thought about it, it had seemed as though she had heard in inordinate number of sniffles and sneezes in the Bureau halls on the way to Skinner's office. . .

"You can go in now, Agent Scully. . . "

Scully nodded and walked over to the door. She knocked twice and opened it, walking in and closing the door behind her.

Skinner stood and motioned to the chair in front of his large desk.

"Agent Scully, have a seat please. . ." he looked around expectantly. "Where is Agent Mulder?"

Scully sat down and began her explanation. "Sir, Agent Mulder is still in Connecticut. . . he had some important family business to attend to. . . "

"Oh," Skinner's brow tightened. This was not good timing.

Scully let loose with the sneeze she had tried to hold in.

"Excuse me," she said as she brought a Kleenex to her nose. "I am in contact with him and can relay any information to him if needed. . . "

"You might just have to do that, Agent Scully. . . although at the moment, I'm not sure what you should tell him. . . "

"Sir?"

"Some information has crossed my desk. . . it's sketchy at best. . . I thought you two might be able to dig up some more facts. . . "

"If you tell me what you have, Sir, I'll get right on it. . . "

Skinner sat down behind his desk and opened a manila folder. At first, he was only going to give the folder to Scully. . . not discuss it just in case they were listening in. . . but, then he realized that if he was correct about what was going on. . . they had other, bigger fish to fry at the moment.

He leaned forward and handed the folder to Scully.

"This came across my desk a short time ago. . . An APB for a military man named Campion. . . he's apparently AWOL from his base since June 11th or 12th. . . "

"Sir, I don't understand why we'd be involved in this. . . he's a simple AWOL?"

"That's what I thought at first, too. . . But, read on. There are also coded references to coordinating the search with the CIA and the CDC as well as USAMRIID. . . . and I checked the ORI on the secured teletype and it originates in Nevada. . . . this thing is big. There are references to "containment". . . . yet, they don't list any serious crimes committed by this man. . . and they aren't clear about exactly what needs to be contained. "

Scully's eyes widened. This couldn't be another case involving the black oil that Mulder had been exposed to, could it? Or another case involving bees?

Skinner could read her thoughts as she pored over the materials again.

"I don't know anything for sure, Agent Scully. I just thought you might want to do some follow-up. Right now, it seems as though there's some argument over exactly who should be handling this matter. . . But, I think this might be something different than our first hunch. I can't imagine any of our old friends sending out a teletype like this. As you and I are well aware, they have their own forces to deal with these kinds of problems. . . "

Scully slowly nodded. Suddenly, her throat felt thick. What exactly was going on? Why were the CDC and USAMRIID involved? Her stomach began to turn. A hundred sickly faces flashed in front of her. . . an Arlington detective sneezing all over herself. . . people in the grocery store yesterday, emptying the cold and flu product shelves. . . Kimberly. . . Mulder's mother. . . . her mother. She'd never seen her mom this sick.

She jumped up from her seat. "Excuse me, sir. . . I'll get right on this. . . "

Skinner did not even have a chance to give her his standard "Mulder and Scully Watch Your Back Warning." He sighed. His head was really beginning to hurt. He slid his thumb and forefinger under the bridge of his glasses and rubbed his sore nose.




X-Files Office
1000 hours

Scully pushed her way through the door to the office and headed straight for her desk. She needed to call Mulder right away. She picked up the phone and dialed the number to his mother's house.

It rang at least six times before Mrs. Mulder answered.

"Hello?"

"Mrs. Mulder? This is Dana Scully. . . is Mu. . Fox there?"

"I'm sorry, dear," Mrs. Mulder responded. "He's caught some kind of flu and he's in bed, asleep. "

Scully tried not to panic. . . she knew she was probably just being paranoid. . . but then again, paranoia was not always a bad thing. "What are his symptoms?"

"He's got a nasty cough. . . his throat is a bit swollen. . . and his temperature is 102 and still climbing, I'm afraid. I'm hoping the Tylenol I gave him will bring that down. "

Scully held her breath. She and her mother had had the same symptoms. And they had both gotten better, right?" Mrs. Mulder, it sounds like he has the same flu I just had. . . it should get a lot better after the first day. . . but, if it doesn't. . . please call me. . "

"Let's hope it's the same thing. . . it probably is. I know he's going to be disappointed that he missed your call, Miss Scully. "

Scully had to give a bittersweet smile. "It's Dana. . . You have my number, right? So you can call me if anything changes?" Her worry was obvious.

"Yes, it's right here by my phone. I promise I will call you, Dana. "

"Thank you, Mrs. Mulder. I'll try and check in with you tonight. . . "

Scully hung up the phone, a frown on her face. She had really needed to talk with her partner. He would instinctively know who to contact. . . how to proceed with the information Skinner had given her. She sighed and sat down behind her desk, her head in her hands. She still did not feel one-hundred percent. She still had a throbbing headache. . . a pounding pain behind her eyes. It made it hard to think straight.

But then, an idea struck. She grabbed the phone and dialed. Her call was answered after the second ring.

"Langly, turn off the tape," she instructed firmly.


Fifteen minutes later, Scully was on her way out the door, headed toward the office of the Lone Gunmen, the trio that made Mulder's paranoia seem mild. But, they had often helped the agents solve cases and uncover conspiracies. And, she had to admit, she had a definite soft spot for them. Langly, Byers and Frohike had been more than anxious to help Mulder find a cure for her cancer over a year ago.

As she reached for the door, however, the phone interrupted her escape. She debated for a moment over whether or not she should answer it. Finally, deciding it might be the Gunmen, she went back to desk and answered it before it could roll over to her voicemail.

"Scully. "

At first, there was no response.

"Agent Scully," she prodded once more.

Then a weak voice cracked over the phone line. . .

"Dana. . . Honey?"

Scully's stomach dropped down to her feet. "Mom? What is it? What's wrong?"

Her mother's voice was slurred. . . and broken by hard, deep coughs. "I'm not feeling very good. . . do you think you could. . . "

Scully did not need her mother to finish. "I'm on my way, Mom. Don't try to move. I'll be there as fast as I can, okay?"

"Okay. . ." Margaret Scully's voice drifted off.

"Mom!" Scully yelled in alarm.

There was no response. Scully didn't wait. She tore out of the office and ran to the parking garage. She grabbed the cell phone from her pocket and called A. D. Skinner's office.

She was surprised when Skinner answered.

"Sir? This is Agent Scully. . . I need some help. . . I was hoping Kimberly could. . . "

"Kimberly went home sick, Agent Scully. What is it you need?" Skinner could hear the panic in Scully's voice.

"Sir. . . it's my mother. She's at her home. . . and she's very sick. I need someone to call the Annapolis Fire Department and get an ambulance to her house. . . I'm on my way there now. . . but I'm afraid it might take me too long. . . "

"I'll do it right away, Agent Scully. . . just give me the address. . . "

Scully stopped short. God. She couldn't think straight. . . she couldn't even remember her own mother's address. . . Shit. Of course, she could remember every other address they had lived at during the first twenty years of her life. . . she just couldn't remember the most important one. . . Shit!

Skinner stopped her inner-tirade.

"Agent Scully, just concentrate on getting there in one piece. I'll pull your file up on the computer. . . I know her address is listed there. Hang up now and I'll call you back in a few minutes. "

Scully sighed in relief. "Thank you, sir. . . . thank you." She hung up the phone and jumped into her car. The tires squealed loudly as she raced out of the parking garage and onto the Washington streets.




Matilda Van Owen cursed as she barely managed to avoid becoming roadkill. The damned car had literally flown out of the damn parking garage. Damn Washington drivers! She shook her fist at the driver. It was one of those damned Washington Professional Women. . . the ones that always had those severe haircuts and blue suits and leather briefcases.

They always made her want to puke. They didn't know nuthin' about real life. Life that you live day by day. . . by the seat of your pants. Matilda reached up and tucked a few strands of graying and greasy hair up under her floppy knit hat. No. Dammit. They didn't know nothin'.

And they never had to deal with these damn colds like the one that hit her last night. She leaned over and coughed, hocking up a nice big ball of green phlegm, which she spat onto the damned street. . . adding to the mix of trash and suspicious fluids running at the curb.

Damn. This cold was gonna be the death of her.

And it was. At six p. m. that evening, she would lay down on her cardboard bed and never get up again.

No great loss.




Somewhere in Maryland Eastbound Route 50
1030 hours

"Dammit!" Assistant Director Walter Skinner cursed again as he swerved around another slow vehicle. He knew that he was probably still a good ten minutes behind Scully. . . and she was sure to be driving even more recklessly than he was.

He had hoped to overtake her on the road, but he had been slowed by sluggish drivers and by an inordinate number of cars that seemed to be abandoned at the side of the highway.

And he had been concerned when he saw several large National Guard trucks at the border between D. C. and Maryland. Something was up and it wasn't good.

And he had a suspicion as to what that something was. And that was the reason he was en route to Margaret Scully's home.

He had called the Annapolis Fire Department. It had taken at least ten attempts before he got through. . . he had been getting a busy signal.

But, when he got through, a weary recording informed him that all dispatchers were busy taking other calls. Walter Skinner knew that was bullshit. Thanks to all the Washington COG meetings he had attended, he knew the policies of all the local jurisdictions' emergency centers. . . and this recording went against every protocol.

He persisted, trying the number from his cell phone as he ran down to his assigned vehicle, a powerful Ford Crown Victoria. He kept getting either the busy signal or the recording.

As he had peeled out of the parking garage, heading toward Route 50, he had debated whether or not to call Scully. He had finally decided to wait until she would be closer to her mother's home. At least that way she might not wrap her car around a tree before arriving. In the meantime, he kept calling Annapolis.

He never did get through.




CHAPTER FIVE

Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned. - William Butler Yeats "The Second Coming"




Residence Of Margaret Scully
Annapolis, Maryland
Monday - June 22
1115 hours

If anyone had been on the street to listen, they would have heard the racing roar of a car engine and the whine of an overtaxed transmission as Dana Scully sped down around the last corner to her mother's home.

But everyone was tucked inside their own four walls.




Including Mr. James Freeman, the neighborhood busybody and the general bane of everyone else's' existence.

The man who regularly clipped his hedges so he could see into his neighbor's windows without so much as straining his neck.

The man who regularly watered his lawn just so he could keep tabs on all of the neighborhood children who would undoubtedly grow up to become serial murderers.

The man who regularly complained at every civic association meeting because someone had let their lawn grow a half an inch too long.

But, today, Mr. Freeman just didn't feel up to snuff. He lay on his sofa in his white undershirt and his brown plaid boxers with a can of Ensure by his side. He stared at the pile of kiddie porn magazines that he had removed from his secret hidey-hole.

He died the next day, a slimy mass of snot, pus and piss by a pile of smut.

No great loss.




Scully pulled up in front of the house, parked on the wrong side of the street and jumped from the car, leaving her driver's door open as she ran to the front door.

If Mr. Freeman had been watching, he would have called the police and demanded that the malfeasant parker be arrested on the spot.

The front door was unlocked and she burst through it.

"Mom? ? ! Mom? Where are you?" She frantically screamed as she ran through the house, checking each phone extension, heading toward her mother's bedroom. She came to a stop in the open doorway.

Margaret Scully lay crumpled on the floor beside the nightstand, the phone pulled onto the pile carpet beside her. Scully froze. Was she too late? She was scared to move forward.

Then her mother's chest rose with a rattling breath. Scully let go of the breath she had been holding and ran to her mother's side.

"Mom? Can you hear me? I'm here. . . I'm here," she gently called as she caressed her mother's face. Margaret was burning up with fever.

This was not happening.

Then Scully heard a noise from downstairs. Was the ambulance there? Why hadn't she heard a siren?

"Agent Scully! "

Scully recognized the booming baritone. It was Walter Skinner.

"Up here, sir. . . I need help!" She called. She listened as he ran up the steps. . . taking them two at a time.

"Back here. . . in the bedroom, sir! "

And then, Skinner was at her side, helping her lift her mother to the bed.

"Where's the ambulance? . . . And what are you doing here?" Scully demanded.

"Scully," he bowed his head in frustration, "I couldn't get through. No one was answering at the emergency center. "

"What?"

"The few times I didn't get a busy signal, all I got was a recording. . . I thought I better head after you to see if I could help. . . "

Scully nodded slightly as she digested Skinner's information.

"I have to get my mother to the hospital. . ." she stated simply.

"Then let's go. . . we'll take my car," Skinner replied. Then, before Scully could move, he reached down and scooped Margaret up into his arms. "Let's move. "

And they rushed out of the house.

And Scully never noticed that her boss was flushed with fever himself. . . and that his own breath had begun to rattle through his broad chest.




Residence Of Mrs. Mulder
1115 Hours

Mulder closed his cell phone. It had taken several attempts, but he had finally gotten through to the Bureau's communications center. And he had been fortunate enough to speak with someone he knew, a young and very helpful woman named Holly.

Holly had told him that dozens of agents and other personnel had called in sick. The Bureau only had a skeleton staff. . . and those who were at work were all sick, too. Even she had a horrible sore throat.

When he had asked her about Scully, she had paused. Then she told him what she had heard.

That Assistant Director Skinner had flown out of the building yelling out that he was headed toward Annapolis to help Agent Scully. . . and he had collared two agents in the hall and ordered them to get an ambulance to an Annapolis house.

Mulder's heart cracked.

"Scully. "

If only his mother had woken him when she had called earlier, even though he knew that he had been completely knocked out by his fever. He had only become coherent in the last fifteen minutes. Finally, the Tylenol and the many fluids his mother had forced upon him and in him had helped him turn the corner.

God. He needed to get up and go find his partner. But his body wouldn't cooperate.

He had to settle for punching the speed dial again.




Washington, D. C.
FBI Headquarters Communications Center

Holly frowned as the line disconnected. She hated delivering bad news. Especially to Agent Mulder. About Agent Scully. She considered them both friends. . . they had helped her and defended her a few years before when she had been victimized by a psychopath. She hoped that Dana was okay. She knew that Agent Mulder would worry himself sick about her.

She reached for her coffee mug, hoping the warm fluid would help to soothe her own aching throat. She swallowed. . . hard. If she didn't feel better by noon, she would go home.

And that's what Holly did. She went home to her Fairlington apartment with her two cats and curled up under an afghan knitted by her mother in Iowa. . . and, twenty-four hours later. . . she died.

And even though a window was open and they could have escaped, her two loyal cats remained by her side.




Somewhere In Annapolis
1135 Hours

Walter Skinner held his breath as he swerved around another abandoned vehicle. The number of idle cars was increasing as the day progressed.

He tried not to look in the back seat where Dana Scully sat with with her mother. Margaret Scully was laying across the seat, and Scully had perched herself on the edge of the seat by her mother's legs.

He tried not to notice how swollen the sick woman's neck was. How the bruises had crept up the sides of her neck and under her jaw, following and seeking out all lymph nodes in their path.

He tried not to hear Scully's quiet pleading as her mother's breath wheezed in and out of her mouth.

He tried not to smell the aura of destruction that filled the car and the air outside.

And he tried not to let Scully see that he knew that they were fighting a losing battle. And, as he wiped his own nose with a handkerchief, that he suspected he would also fall during the oncoming siege.

God. Where was Mulder? Was he dying, too? No way. Mulder had defied death too many times. He should be here with Scully.




Residence of Mrs. Mulder

Mulder kept punching the speed dial on his cell phone, trying to reach Scully or Skinner.

And he kept getting the same recorded answer: "We're sorry, but all circuits are busy. Please try again later. . . "




Annapolis Community Hospital
1140 hours

Walter Skinner had tried to maneuver his car through the sea of people into the emergency room driveway. It was impossible. Waves of walking, sitting and laying sick and wounded littered the sidewalks, the pavement, and the lawns.

A man held a useless pressure bandage around his son's bloody arm. . . a gusher that spouted courtesy of using the power saw in the garage as a toy.

Two women huddled together beneath a blanket on a sweltering day. . . their faces green with flu.

A mother and father trying to hold onto their three children, all of them coughing, their eyes bleary and red.

A man laying on the pavement, his femur sticking up through his pants. . . what he got for not bracing his house painting ladder properly. His buddies had dumped him there and fled in terror when they saw the multitudes of dying people.

And there were hundreds of others who were obviously felled by the flu.

Why wasn't any of this on the news? No one said anything on the radio. . . there had been nothing on the television this morning.

Skinner pulled the car over as close to the curb as possible and put it in park. He left the engine running as he opened his door and stepped out. He leaned back into the car to speak with Scully.

"Just hang tight here for a minute. . . let me see if I can get some help," he began.

Scully had finally lifted her gaze from her mother and she was now surveying the scene warily.

"Keep the doors locked and the engine running. . . I don't like the looks of this. You do have your weapon, right?"

Scully's eyes widened in comprehension. Things here were liable to get nasty very soon. There were too many people. . . there was no way they could all get treatment. She nodded.

"Look. . . I'll flash my badge and see if we can get some help. . . but be ready for anything. They've already got armed guards by the door. . . "

Skinner hit the power lock button and closed the door. He slowly wove his way through the crowds to the doors. For whatever reason, the pushing and complaining throng recognized an air of power and authority that surrounded the man and allowed him to pass.

The guards eyed him nervously as he approached. They fingered the safeties on their shotguns and pistols.

Skinner pulled out his badge case and held it up for their inspection.

"F. B. I. . . I'm Assistant Director Walter Skinner. What's going on here?" He demanded, taking a gamble that these were the type of men that responded to a hierarchy of authority. . . they were used to a chain of command.

They did not relax their stance, but one guard spoke.

"Sir. We've been instructed to bar all entrance to this facility. This hospital has been placed under quarantine orders. "

"By whose authority?"

"We received our instructions from the Hospital administrator. I was under the impression that he had received orders from somewhere else. "

"Look, men. I have a sick agent in my car," he tried to reason, conveniently sliding over the technicality that Margaret Scully was merely related to an agent. "Please let me take her inside to get some help. "

The head guard shook his head, although to his credit, he actually seemed remorseful. . . sympathetic.

"I'm sorry, sir. That's impossible. We cannot let anyone pass. . . "

"But she's sick, dammit!" Skinner's voice began to rise.

The guard lowered his own voice and leaned toward him, hoping no one else could hear. . . it would not be good to start a full scale panic.

"Look, sir. Even if we did let you in. . . there isn't anyone to help her. Nearly the entire medical staff has come down with this. . . whatever it is. And for whatever it's worth. . . *no* one has left this hospital for over six hours. But, I have noticed a change in the color of the smoke coming from the furnace. . . if you get my drift. If I could, I would leave. . . . but most of us here have wives and husbands on staff inside. . . I suspect we'll all stay here 'til whatever happens happens. "

Skinner swallowed the lump in his throat. He tersely nodded his understanding. "Good luck, then," he whispered and turned back to the car.

"Good luck to us all," the guard replied.


Scully had watched as Skinner approached the guards, but then her attention was diverted as her mother began to mumble something.

"Bill? Did you find the shirts I ironed?" Margaret rambled.

Scully grasped her hand tightly, trying to will her back to health.

"Mom? It's me. It's Dana. . . Mom? You need to wake up. . ." She begged, her voice hoarse with dread.

"Dana?"

Scully sighed with relief.

"Yes, Mom. I'm here. . . "

"Did you and Missy finish setting the table. . . your father will be home tonight. . . "

Scully bowed her head and laid it across her mother's chest. She prayed to God. She pleaded with him to spare her mother. . . she had never wanted to imagine this moment. . . she wasn't prepared to watch her mother die. Dammit! She wasn't supposed to have to go through this for another twenty years. . . after Maggie was old and thoroughly gray.

But, before she could finish her lament, her cell phone came to life.

She grabbed the phone from her pocket.

"Mulder? ! "

The voice on the other end hesitated for a moment. "No, Agent Scully. This is Byers." Byers turned his head from the phone to cough. "We've been trying to reach you about the information you asked us to look into. . . . "

Scully rubbed her forehead. The timing was miserable. . . but she did need to know what they had found. . . and she needed them to find Mulder.

"What is it, Byers?"

"Well. . . I can say we found some links for you. . . ," he sighed, "But it isn't very good news. . . "

"Tell me something I don't know," Scully replied as she looked down upon her mother.

"But we can't discuss this on the phone. . . can we meet?"

Scully shook her head. "No. . . I can't. My mother is very sick. . . I'm trying to get her to a hospital. . ." She paused as she thought of a drop spot. "Can you drop it somewhere? Say, the "Eight Ball?" She spoke in their prearranged code. The "eight ball" referred to a particular coat rack in Mulder's Apartment
that had billiard balls as ornaments. The Gunmen would know to place their information in a secret niche in Mulder's closet.

"That's fine," Byers replied. "And I'm sorry about your mother. . . hang on for a minute. . . "

Scully waited as Byers held a muffled conversation with Frohike and Langly.

"Agent Scully. . . as far as we can tell, the one hospital that is still taking patients is George Washington University. If you can get into D. C. , that is. . . "

"What do you mean, 'get into D. C. '?"

"They're closing off the bridges and roads. Virginia is completely sealed up. . . no one in or out. You can still leave D. C. and get into Maryland. . . but they won't let you back in. . . although they might allow an FBI agent with credentials to pass. . . "

Scully quickly digested the information. Her head reeled. This was too much too fast. How could things go from normal to hell in a handbasket so quickly?

"Thanks, Byers. . . and one more thing. . . "

"Anything, Agent Scully. . . "

"Can you try and get hold of Mulder for me? He's at his mother's house. . . and he was sick. . . "

"We'll do it, Agent Scully. . . just take care of your mother. . ." Byers sneezed before Scully could thank him. She waited a moment.

"Thank you, guys. . . and good luck." She hung up, not knowing why she had made her last comment. . . but she had a chilling feeling that it might be a very long time before she ever saw the three again.

If ever.




Residence Of Mrs. Mulder

Mulder yelled in frustration. He had finally gotten a connection on his cell phone. . . . only to find that Scully's cell phone was busy.

He wished that he could storm out of the house and pace the yard. . . to vent his frustration outside of his mother's hearing range.

But his body still would not let him stand. He fell back against his pillows and squeezed his eyes shut. . . trying to conjure up an image of Scully. . . one where she was completely well and safe.




Route 50 Washington, D. C. /Maryland Border Over the Anacostia River
1600 hours

Sergeant Tom Caldwell stared at the pavement that marked his post. This was a dirty job for a group of sick Army grunts. And it had been beyond weird to barricade a major bridge into the District. Something had definitely gone FUBAR.

He coughed and spat up the wad of gunk that left a miserable taste in his mouth.

One of his men called out. There was another news van headed their way.

He looked up to see the tan van approaching, it's little dishes and antennae sprouting from the roof. Damn. He was tired of these little shithead reporters pestering him simply because he was doing his job.

Of course, it helped that he and the boys had received orders to use any and all means necessary to stop these pricks. That meant he was judge and jury.

He smiled. The anger that had been building in his stomach had reached his head over an hour ago. He could actually hear the voices telling him exactly what to do to the next media mogul- wannabe that crossed his path and didn't show him the proper respect. Yessiree, indeedy-do! "Ten-hut!" and all that crap. He and his boys were ready.

The van stopped a mere ten feet from the barricade. A whiny little scrap of a man jumped down from the driver's seat. His cameraman sat in the front passenger seat. . . his camera already zeroing in on the unit.

Who the fuck did they think they were? Compromising national security like this?

Je-sus! His eyes rolled and he turned to his men and simply nodded. A big smile plastered on his face.

In perfect synchrony that would have made General Patton quite proud, the men raised their rifles and opened fire.

Eugene P. Smythe, fledgling reporter for Channel 7 news, who was only promoted to fledgling that morning because all of the regular reporters were out sick, was very aware of the first bullet as it twisted and bounced through his gut. . . snipping through intestines and dancing around his kidneys.

When he had dreamed of his big break in high school and college, he had never envisioned this. Not even when he pictured himself as a world renowned war correspondent. Of course, he hadn't pictured himself working in the mailroom of Channel 7 either. . . but that had happened, hadn't it?

The second shot hit a microsecond later. . . or maybe it was simultaneous with the third, fourth, fifth and sixth shots. Either way, it didn't matter. Cause the bullet behind Shot Number Two immediately and quite explosively removed the right side of his brain.

God. It just wasn't Eugene P. 's day. And he had never even gotten any airtime.

Sgt. Caldwell grinned in satisfaction as his men cleaned up the mess. That is, if dumping the bodies of the reporter and cameraman over the bridge and into the Anacostia River was cleaning.

They had just moved the van to side of the barricade when Sgt. Caldwell spotted their next victims.

A dark blue Crown Vic. . . and it looked like it had two occupants.

He grinned as his finger began to twitch over his trigger guard.




Skinner slowed as he approached the barricade. Something looked hinky. Maybe it was the news van at the side of the road. . . that was it. If there was a news van, where were the reporters and cameras?

He pulled over and parked about fifty yards from the barricade. Once again, he left the engine running.

Scully could see his concern. "What's wrong?"

Skinner kept looking ahead. "Agent Scully, I want you to climb up here now and get ready to take the wheel. Something is wrong here. . . "

Scully didn't hesitate to act. She recognized the tone in his voice and trusted it.

She slipped onto the seat beside him and he finally looked at her.

"I'm not sure what's going to happen. . . maybe nothing. Maybe they'll let us through with our credentials. I hope so. . . but, just in case. Be ready to haul ass out of here the minute I give you the signal. . . "

"But what about you, sir?" She protested.

"If things start going bad. . . ," he paused. "Your duty is to get yourself and your mother to safety. . . . Besides, I have a feeling that I'll be in the same condition," he motioned toward Maggie, "within a few hours. Just wait for my signal and do not hesitate to do what you have to do. . ."

For the first time, Scully noticed Skinner's pallor. . . the fever sweat on his brow. . . the rale in his breathing. A sadness enveloped her chest. . . the ache moved to her throat. He was quite possibly going to sacrifice himself for her and her mother.

She grasped his hand. Words seemed inadequate as she looked him in the eye. She hoped he could sense the gratitude, the friendship. . . the thanks. . . and the faith she had for him. She could remember every time he had come out of nowhere to back her and Mulder. . . the times he risked everything for them.

"I know, Agent Scully. . . . Dana. Same here. But, hopefully, my radar is off and all will be well. But, if it isn't. . . make sure you find your partner and kick his butt once for me." He smiled as he squeezed her hand.

Then, before she could react, he was out the door and walking toward the barricade.




Sgt. Tom Caldwell eyed the man who dared to approach. And what was that the man was removing from his pocket?

But, unfortunately for Skinner, before he could display his badge, identifying himself. . . Sgt. Caldwell caught a glint of metal at Skinner's waist. It was a gun! This man was an infidel! He was going to trick them and kill them all!

"Gun!" Caldwell screamed. . . . even as Skinner screamed out, "FBI! "

The men didn't wait for another word and they opened fire.




Scully could only watch in horror as Walter Skinner's body jumped with the impact of each round. He dropped his badge on the ground and his back hit the railing, and with one last blow to his shoulder, he was tumbling over the side and down toward the waters below.

There was nothing she could do for the man she had called a friend. The man who had saved her life. . . and Mulder's life. . . on more than one occasion.

The only thing she could do was follow his last instructions to her. She threw the car in gear, turned the steering wheel hard to the left and floored it. Plumes of black smoke exploded from the exhaust as her tires left their imprints in the pavement.

She could hear the staccato of gunfire as the soldiers turned their aim toward her. A bullet sang past her open window and she instinctively ducked lower in her seat, relieved that her mother was already laying down.

She ventured a glance in the rearview mirror, praying she wouldn't see a fleet of army vehicles in pursuit. And God answered her plea.

The soldiers had been instructed not to leave their post. They maintained their barricade, content that any threat she had posed was over.

But she was horrified to see that no one had even moved to retrieve Skinner's body from the river.

With tears threatening to blind her, she knew her only option.

She headed back to her mother's house.




Sgt. Caldwell surveyed the ground where his latest victim had dropped something. And some of his men accompanied him. His mistake.

Because they quickly saw the federal badge laying on the ground. They had killed a federal agent. . . a brother!

A mutiny arose and judgment was quickly passed.

Sgt. Caldwell's body was dumped over the railing, not far from where the FBI man had fallen.

No great loss.




CHAPTER SIX

I tell you, in that night there shall be two men in one bed; the one shall be taken, and the other shall be left. Two women shall be grinding together; the one shall be taken, and the other left. Two men shall be in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left. "
- Luke 17: 34-36




Residence Of Mrs. Mulder
Tuesday - June 23
1100 hours

The sneezing began at five in the morning. The coughs soon followed. And then, the fever hit.

Mulder walked to and from his mother's bedside. To the bathroom, to the kitchen. He brought her cold washcloths to wipe her brow. He brought her glasses of water and tiny and medium sized pills. And he brought her chicken broth and supported her head as he spoon fed her small sips of the warm liquid.

She was much sicker than he had been. He had felt almost normal by last night. Almost like he had never been sick.

He encouraged his mother to get as much sleep as she could. He only disturbed her to take the Tylenol. Then he waited until she awoke on her own to feed her the soup to ply her with fluids.

And he watched over her while she slept, checking her fever, covering her when she was cold, uncovering her when she was hot. Wiping her face and neck with a cool cloth, washing the phlegm from her lips and nose, from her hands. Massaging her feet when her legs cramped.

The only other thing he could do was wait.




The Qwik-EE Corner Market
Greenwich, Connecticut
1400 hours

Mulder walked up and down the nearly empty aisles. Even the Spam had been cleared from the shelves. There were only three or four other shoppers. And they all looked like shit. Snot-nosed and phlegmy. Walking dead.

They murmured rumors of who was sick, about bodies they may or may not have seen, about phone lines and t. v. signals that didn't work.

Mulder shuddered. He grabbed several bags of Ramen Noodles. . . he could make a broth and forego the noodles. And he grabbed several cans of frozen orange juice, a bag of hamburger buns, since there weren't any bread loaves, and some Ritz crackers, 'cause anything tastes good when it sits on a Ritz. Anything except whatever it was these people were coughing up, that is. He grabbed some other sundry items.

He took his basket up to the check-out counter and let the runny nosed clerk ring up the groceries.

"That'll be $32. 14, sir," the clerk snuffed.

Mulder handed over the cash, got his change, and he beat feet getting back to his mother.

The streets of Greenwich were scary. There were still some people milling about. Some of them walked around like zombies, delirious with fever. Some were shellshocked. . . they had lost family members. And some had stared at him with hatred in their eyes. Why was *he* looking so good?

He wanted to shout at them, tell them he *had* been sick. That his mother *was* sick. . .

But, instead, he broke into a run and tore through the streets to his mother's door.

He locked them inside. Away from the outside world that was falling apart.

But the barrier was really only an inch of wood.




1600 hours

Mulder almost fell out of his chair when his cell phone began to ring. He dove for his jacket, which was draped over the back of the sofa, and dug the phone out of the pocket.

"Scully? ?" He answered hopefully.

"Mulder?" the male voice excitedly exclaimed. "Man! We had just about given up. . . "

"Frohike? Is that you?" Mulder tried not to let his disappointment show. While it wasn't Scully, maybe they had news from her. Meanwhile, Frohike was still talking. . .

". . . you only knew what we had to do to get a signal. . . all the regular lines are out. . . we're bouncing this baby off a zillion satellites right now. . . not sure how long we'll be able to hold it. . . "

"Frohike," Mulder silenced him. "Have you heard from Scully? Where is she?"

Mulder was answered by silence. Then Frohike coughed. A long bout of coughing.

"Frohike?"

A few seconds later, he could hear the phone being passed to someone else. . .

"Mulder. . . "

"Byers. What's going on?"

"Sorry. We've all got the flu. . . what folks on the Net were calling Captain Tripps, at least until most of phone lines and servers went down for some unknown reason and now only a handful of people are still well enough and have the technology to get online. We think the government is shutting down communications. . . "

"What's happening? And where is Scully? Have you talked to her?"

"We talked to Agent Scully yesterday. . . and now we've lost all contact. Her cell phone is either turned off or her battery is dea. . . drained." He corrected his word usage. "Dead" was not a good one to use these days.

"How is she? Where is she?"

"We only got to talk to her for a moment. She had asked us to investigate some information she had obtained. Information that is possibly related to this 'epidemic'. We found some things, but couldn't risk a phone chat. . . she asked us to drop the information in our favorite place. . . "

Mulder nodded silently. He knew the spot.

"But. . . how *was* she?" Mulder insisted.

"She sounded tired. . . and a little sick. Mulder. Her mother was very ill. She and A. D. Skinner were trying to get Mrs. Scully to a hospital. It didn't look good, I'm afraid. . ." "Damn," Mulder muttered. "I should have been there. . . "

Byers interrupted. "Mulder. This is affecting *everyone. *The three of us all have it. And people are *not* recovering. . . people are dying everywhere. From what we can tell, it's worked faster on the East and West Coast, but the Midwest has also been hit. It's just a matter of time before everyone has been infected. There are reports from Europe, Africa, and South America. This is a world-wide pandemic. A very small percentage of the population. . . less than one percent. . . *appear* to be immune. But it could be that they'll merely have a delayed reaction. We just don't know. We only know that there is no safe place. "

Mulder winced as he heard his mother coughing in her bedroom. No one was safe. This thing was fatal.

"But, Mulder, what we found for Scully. . . all I can say is that *you* might be immune. . . maybe you'll understand better when you see what we turned up. . . either way. . . "

"What about Scully? Is she immune?"

". . . We don't know. . . maybe, maybe not. We just don't know. I'm sorry, Mulder. . . "

Mulder closed his eyes. This was all too much.

"I need to get back there," Mulder stated between clenched teeth.

"That's not a good idea. Not now. "

"What's going on? Why?"

"Towns, cities, states. . . everyone's putting up roadblocks. And they're shooting people that try to get through. D. C. has been completely closed off since yesterday. "

God. Scully.

"When we spoke, Agent Scully was still in Annapolis. We think she was going to try and get through to D. C. . . take her mother to G. W. Hospital. But we don't know for sure. I doubt they would have been allowed to pass through from Maryland. Odds are, she's still in Annapolis. . . "

"Thanks, Byers. Thank the guys for me. "

"Will do, Mulder." There was a long pause. "This is probably the last time we'll be able to speak, Mulder. We're all sick. . . and it's just a matter of time before electricity and other services shut down completely. We just want to wish you good luck. . . . "

"Thank you," Mulder choked. These men, strange and eccentric as they were, had been true friends. They had helped him and Scully when no one else would listen. They had helped to save Scully's life.

"Please, guys. If you find anything to help yourselves. . . use it. . . "

"Will do, Mulder," Byers forced the cheerful tone into his voice.

And the line went dead.

Fox Mulder felt very alone.


*

There are many shades in the danger of adventures and gales, and it is only now and then that there appears on the face of facts a sinister violence of intention -- that indefinable something which forces it upon the mind and the heart of a man, that this complication of accidents or these elemental furies are coming at him with a purpose of malice, with a strength beyond control, with an unbridled cruelty that means to tear out of him his hope and fear, the pain of his fatigue and the longing for rest: which means to smash, to destroy, to annihilate all he has seen, known, loved, enjoyed, or hated; all that is priceless and necessary -- the sunshine, the memories, the future; which means to sweep the whole precious world utterly away from his sight by the simple and appalling act of taking his life." - Joseph Conrad Lord Jim




Residence Of Mrs. Mulder
Greenwich, Connecticut
Wednesday - June 24
0900 hours

Mulder sat in a chair beside his mother's sickbed. He had drawn the curtains and left the lights off. . . they hurt his mother's eyes. He sat in the dark and listened quietly as his mother's life ebbed away.

He had one blessing. While she was seldom awake, those precious times that she was, she was lucid and aware.

And in those moments, they talked. Perhaps for the first time in Mulder's adult life.


"Fox?"

"Yes, Mom?"

"You do know that I love you. . . that I've always loved you? That your father loved you. . . "

"Yes, Mom. I know that. Sometimes I didn't believe it, but I do now. And that's what counts. "

"Yes, dear. "


"Fox?"

"Yes, Mom?"

"Do you think you'll ever marry that young woman?"

"What woman, Mom?"

"'What woman, '. . . Don't be silly, Fox. Your Dana Scully. "

"Why do you ask that, Mom? Do you think I should?"

"Yes. I do. I like her, Fox. "

"So do I, Mom. "


"Fox?"

"Yes, Mom?"

"Don't waste so much time. You should just tell her. "


"Fox?"

"Yes, Mom?"

"Are you scared?"

"I am, Mom. I am. "

"Don't be, sweetheart. I'm not afraid. Hold my hand, would you?"

"Yes, Mom. I've got it. "

"I'll always be with you, Fox. So will your father. . . and your sister. We love you. Remember that. Remember the good things. . . don't dwell on the rest. It's over. Done. "

"I'll try, Mom. "

"You've lived in the past for far too long. You're just like your father that way. I never understood that about either of you. Learn from the past, Fox, but live for the present. . and for the future. "

"I think you're right, Mom. "

"I think Dana would agree, don't you?"

"Yes, Mom. "


"Mom?"

"Yes, Fox?"

"I love you. "

"Yes, Fox. I've always known that. "


And at noon on June 24th, Mrs. Teena Mulder died.




My, Grandma. What big teeth you have! . . .




Residence of Mel Hampton
Greenwich, Connecticut
Thursday - June 25
0900 hours

Fox Mulder sat on the strange couch with the remote control in his hand.

Good ol' Mel Hampton was an electronics addict. Mulder could remember his mother's comments when Mel had his satellite dish installed. It looked like a part of the Very Large Array in New Mexico. Good ol' Mel.

The Hamptons were probably in their house up in Maine. They had houses everywhere. The man had made a fortune from the design of those child-proof bottle caps. The ones that *only* children could open.

He didn't think Mel would mind him sitting in their living room, thumbing through the zillions of television signals.

Anything to be out of his mother's house.

He had buried his mother behind the house. Under a shading elm tree.

It had taken him all afternoon yesterday to do it.

And now, he just needed to be out of that house. Away from the memories, recent and past.

So, when he had remembered Mel Hampton's huge satellite dish, he had retrieved the spare key his mother had hidden in a kitchen drawer and headed next door.

There wasn't much on the tube. Nothing of any import anyway. Lots of "I Love Lucy" and "Hawaii Five-O" reruns. No sporting events. ESPN was running some old "Highlights of the Super Bowls" shows. He kept searching.

Finally, he came to rest on what appeared to a local television news program. The logo on the screen said "WBZ-TV." It looked like a Boston station.

The anchor, Bob Palmer, was droning on, not really giving any news. But, suddenly, Palmer stopped and yelled, "Okay, right now!" The next thing Mulder saw was Palmer holding a gun in his hand.

What followed was shocking. Palmer told the viewers that army troops had been filtering and censoring the news for days. They had maintained complete control of the station. They had destroyed film, they had forced him to read their "sanitized" copy. . . under threat of execution.

Within minutes of the coup, Palmer was showing videotape. It showed sick and dying people crowding the city's hospitals. It showed weary doctors and nurses saying that there was nothing they could do for these sick people. There were truckloads of dead bodies being dumped into the Harbor.

And armed soldiers were everywhere. And they did not hesitate to shoot first and forget to ask questions later.

Mulder paled. Byers had been right. Their fragile society had crumbled in mere days.

It had become a dog-eat-dog world.

And Scully was out there. Somewhere. Probably alone.




Downtown Greenwich, Connecticut
June 25

Timmy Hoffman had never been an overachiever. In fact, he hadn't even been an achiever.

If you had asked his late mother if he had ever done anything for anyone or anything else in his entire nineteen years, she would have been hard pressed for a positive answer.

Well. There was that time when he was five. He had found a baby bird that had fallen from its nest. He had cradled it in his hands and brought it home.

He showed it to Vern, his older brother. Vern had taken one look at the sickly, crying animal and laughed.

"You dummy! Now he's gonna die for sure. His momma will never take him back. You're a bird-killer, butt face! "

Timmy had blinked back his tears. He hadn't meant to kill the baby bird. He wanted to prove his brother wrong and he went to scoop up the hungry creature so he could take him back to his nest, but Vern had intervened.

Vern grabbed the bird roughly. "Whaddaya want, butt-face? You want this dead bird?" He laughed. "Here. Catch! "

Vern spun around and threw the bird with all his might. It made a horrible splat as it hit the kitchen wall and slid to the floor.

Timmy had run from the house in horror and shame.

And he never cried again. Not even when Vern got his head cut off trying to jump onto a moving train six years later.

He still remembered that "splat. "

Now, Timmy was a big boy. Definite linebacker material. If he had been able to control his temper enough to play an organized sport. And if he had been intelligent enough to remember any of the team plays.

The rest of Timmy's family was already dead. His dad had died years ago, but his mom and his two sisters had expired this morning. Leaving Timmy to his own devices.

And his own devices included looting every house he came across. And his own devices had supplied him with more guns than he could carry.

He had found two buddies in town. And while Timmy wasn't sick at all, his pals, Wayne Hydell and Norris Johns, were. But they were still up for having some fun. Damn. If they were gonna die, they were gonna have some high times first.

They were armed to the teeth when they came across their next house.

The mailbox outside had a name on it.

Mulder.




CHAPTER SEVEN

"Man," says the Grand Inquisitor, desires "not only to live, but to have something to live for." However, this "stable object" of an other-directed life must, according to Christ's teaching, be chosen by man's free conscience, aware of good and evil and always able to choose between them. Such a choice causes "spiritual agony;" and therefore, "man prefers peace, and even death, to freedom of choice in the knowledge of good and evil. "

- Fyodor Dostoevsky "The Grand Inquisitor"




Residence Of Mel Hampton
June 25th
1700 hours

Fox Mulder had finally settled into a fitful slumber when he heard it. The distant sound of breaking glass. Then there were voices. Drunken voices.

Quietly, he stood and moved over to the window that faced his mother's house. He stood, hidden by the curtains, and peeked out.

What he saw ignited a short fuse in his gut.

Three drunken assholes were breaking into his mother's house. They had the audacity to even break a front window and crawl inside, in full view of anyone who cared to notice. Of course, there weren't many folks around *to* notice. . .

He ran to the Hampton's back door and out into the back yard.

As he approached the low fence dividing the Hampton's property from his mother's, he reached to his waistband and pulled out his Sig Sauer. These sons of bitches were going to learn a lesson they would not soon forget.

With one quick jump, he slid over the fence and behind some bushes. He could hear the men rifling through the house, knocking tables over.

Enough was enough. Now, he just needed to get them all in one room at the same time. . .

He crept up to the living room window and peered in from the corner. Two in the room, the third was in the kitchen. . . What the hell? Was he making dinner or what?

He pulled his key from his pocket and slipped it into the back door. Carefully and oh so silently, he turned it in the lock. There. Now the door was open. He just had to wait for *his* opening. . .

Then, Timmy Hoffman entered the living room. He was bearing beer for his buddies.

They were laughing as they ripped through Teena Mulder's belongings.

"Damn. I had hoped we'd find some women here, if ya' know what I mean," Hydell grabbed his crotch to illustrate his rape fantasies. "I wonder where the bitches in this photo are?" He pointed to a mantel picture of Teena and Samantha Mulder.

"We'll go find some real soon. . . have some real fun," Hoffman reassured him.

Mulder's stomach turned and he let out a roar.

He lunged through the door and was in the living room entryway in a heartbeat.

"Freeze! Don't even breathe, you shitheads! "

All three men dropped their open beers.

The next minute seemed to happen in slow motion.

Wayne Hydell, neighborhood bully since the age of three, dove for his shotgun. Norris Johns, the token "Mikey" of the trio, dropped to his knees. And Timmy Hoffman tried to pull his . 357 Magnum from his belt.

Wayne Hydell was hit first. The bullet went straight through his right forearm, rendering the muscles there useless. He howled in surprise and pain. And he promptly fell back on top of Johns, who yelped at being covered with blood.

Hoffman was so busy being distracted by the spray of red from Hydell that he never noticed Mulder fly across the room until he felt the muzzle of the Sig pushing squarely against his forehead, right between the eyes. Mulder grabbed the . 357 and threw it down the hallway.

Hoffman's eyes widened in fear and he felt a rush of hot liquid run down his leg. The man before him was insane.

Mulder's eyes pierced through him. "Go ahead. Make my day," Mulder snarled.

"Look, Mister. . . we didn't mean any harm. We didn't think anyone was living here. . . . we'll go. . . ." he lied.

Mulder began to stroke the trigger. And just as Hoffman was sure he was going to lose what little brain matter he possessed, Mulder pulled the gun back.

Hoffman had just begun to sigh in relief when Mulder hauled back and punched him with a devastating blow to his gut.

"Get the fuck out of my house!" Mulder roared.

Hoffman, still doubled over, ran out the front door without a second invitation. He kept running until he was completely out of Greenwich. And then he ran some more. He never even glanced over his shoulder, for fear that he would see Mulder on his heels.

He would never forget that look in the man's eyes. And he would never forget his public humiliation, pissing his pants in front of Johns and Hydell.

His rage would build for a long time to come.

Johns hauled Hydell up from the floor and dragged his accomplice out the door. Johns was feeling much too sick to deal with nutcases like the owner of this house.

Mulder followed them to the doorway and watched as they fled. Satisfied they would not return, he slammed the door shut and locked it. He examined the broken window, then went to the basement to retrieve a suitable piece of plywood.

Ten minutes later, the window was secure and nailed shut. He went through the rest of the house and nailed all of the other windows shut.

Then, he set about cleaning up the mess the burglars had made. He had uprighted tables, sponged up the blood from the floor, and cleaned up a few broken glasses.

And then he saw something that made his heart stop. . . and fall. The picture of his mother and father. . . on a happy day. The one where a young Teena Mulder looked adoringly up at her brand new husband.

Hoffman had swept the picture from the mantel. And now the frame and glass were broken. And the glass had torn the photo.

Mulder sat down heavily on the floor by the shattered frame, all of his adrenalin and anger drained away. He put his face in his hands and sobbed.

He cried for everything he had lost. And because he had no idea who he was now. . . . what he would do.

God. He wanted Scully.




Wayne Hydell and Norris Johns made their limping way to the deserted town center and broke into a drugstore. Hydell was crying like a baby as he tried to bandage up his arm. He wouldn't let Johns pour any antiseptic on the wound. It would hurt too much. His mistake.

Within an hour, Johns was so tired of Hydell's bitching and moaning that he simply got up and left him.

Johns went back to his old house, where he died the next day, his throat swollen shut. Too bad he died on the back porch. . . out in the open. Exposed to all the town's hungry pets and wild animals. He was always such a big, meaty guy.

Hydell didn't know it at the time, but his case of the "flu" had really been just that. The common cold. So, he didn't die right away. Too bad for him. By the time his sniffles were fading away, his arm had swelled to the size of a mammoth deli tube of bologna -- angry black and green spider webbing crisscrossed the skin. And it smelled really bad. His fever climbed until it rivaled August in Las Vegas. His brain cooked inside his thick skull.

And, on June 28, he finally died, whimpering on the drug store floor amidst the Tampax and Depends.

No great loss.




Somewhere June 26th
2330 hours

The old man tossed and turned in his sleep. He didn't need many hours of slumber anymore. One of the so-called benefits of being geriatric. Just needed about five hours.

But, in his dreams tonight, the old lady wouldn't let him alone.

She kept singing that same old song. . .

"Climbin' up the mountain, children. . Climbin' on here for to stay; If I nevermore see you again, Gonna meet you at the Judgment Day. "

He walked up the country road, following her voice, until he reached a driveway, marked by a mailbox and a smattering of gravel.

He turned up the rutted path and stared as the house came into view from behind the trees that circled the front. The owners must have planted the trees many years ago. They surely didn't take root on their own. In these parts. . . and how did he know he was in Nebraska? . . . all nature provided were plains of grass and corn and wheat. When you saw trees, you knew there was a house nearby, 'cause people planted them there for a reason.

The singing stopped and he looked up. A woman, older than Methuselah, sat in a rocker on the front porch. Her eyes bore straight through to his heart.

"Well. Don' be just standin' there, boy!" She called, waving him up to her.

He walked up and took her gnarled hands in his own. Her hands were hard and strong from years and years of hard work.

"We need to speak quickly, child. "

He laughed.

"And what's crawled into your throat? Makin' you laugh at an old woman?"

"I'm sorry," and he genuinely was. He didn't want to offend her. "It's just. . . it's been a long time since anyone called me 'child. '"

She laughed. . . a hoarse belly roll. "Well, to me that's what you are. I've got children older than you. . ." and then she was serious. "And we're *all* children of God. . . whether you believe that or not doesn't matter. What *does* matter is why you're here now. . . "

"Why *am* I here? And who are you?"

"I'm just an old woman doing God's will. I don't pretend to know His answers. I jus' do what He tells me. . . and He's tol' me somethin' about you. . . "

The man stared at her doubtfully and cocked his head to the side. It was just a dream, right? He could go with it for now. . .

"You *think* this is a dream, child, but it is and it ain't. You'll understand later. For now, you just' need to know this. You *think* you're an old shoe, that your use is through. . . But God has other plans for you, child. He has one more mission left. And He needs you to be ready. "

"What is this 'mission'?" He asked, now intrigued, if still a bit doubting.

The ancient woman smiled and began to rock her chair. . . back and forth. . . "You'll know it when it comes, child. You'll know it when it comes. . ." She stopped suddenly and leaned forward, her breath falling across his face. "And it's coming soon. "

She pointed toward the road and he could just make out the form of a young woman. She walked with confidence, her auburn hair flitting in the wind about her face.

The woman smiled and waved to the old woman.

"That's right, child," the old woman called out. "You know what to do. You know what to do. . ."

The porch receded. . . the corn faded. . . and the old man awoke.

He couldn't remember his dream. And couldn't explain this sudden sense of urgency he felt. He fluffed his pillow under his head and rolled onto his right side.

Damn. He was gonna have to be more careful about eating spicy things so close to bed time.




June 26th
2321 hours

Mulder was walking down an endless highway. The landscape was flat and green as far as the eye could see.

He could hear the ears of corn whispering as he passed, the stalks rubbing together in the wind.

He could smell the summer prairie on his skin. . . in his clothing.

But, instead of the peace he knew he should feel. . . he was unsure. Nervous. Dread bubbled up into his throat.

The wind began to blow harder. The sky darkened and rumbled.

He looked to a rise on the horizon.

A man stood there. A dark man, looking east. His arms were raised high and his hands were motioning. . . as if to beckon him on.

He turned his gaze upon Mulder and Mulder gasped. The man's eyes were a glowing red.

Mulder turned and ran. The man laughed, his voice filling the sky.

"You can run, Foxy! But you just can't hide! "

Mulder ran faster and stumbled over a corn stalk that suddenly crawled across the roadway. He screamed and pushed himself up. . . .

To find himself in his mother's back yard, beside her newly dug grave.

But something wasn't right. The dirt was moving. He scrambled back on his hands and knees, terrified but unable to take his eyes from the site.

He could hear his mother's voice calling him. . . "Fox? Now why did you go and put me here? When I'm still alive? . . . ." But the voice wasn't *her* voice. It held no soul. Only darkness and cold.

He shivered.

Then a chalky white hand burst up through the dirt. It pointed directly at him.

"Why, Fox? Why! "




Mulder screamed and sat upright on the sofa. Sweat poured down his back and from his brow. It was only a dream.

He scrubbed his face with his hands. It was one helluva nightmare. . . one he'd never had before.

He stood and walked into the darkened kitchen. He desperately wanted to turn on the lights, but knew that it wouldn't be prudent. He needed to lay low for another day or two. . . make sure that the Three Assholes didn't come back to settle any scores.

He opened the fridge and pulled out a carton of water. He popped the cap and took a long, cool drink.

He had decided to move into the Hampton house for a few days. That way, he could still keep an eye on his mother's house, but he wouldn't have to actually *stay* in it.

And it helped that Mel Hampton had been a bit of a security freak. Once, when he had come up to visit his mom, Mel had brought him over and proudly showed off all the high and low tech devices he had installed to protect all of his electronic gadgets. He'd wanted to impress the FBI agent. It had worked.

Mulder had wished *he* had steel doors for his apartment.

So, he had spent the day of June 26th firmly ensconced in he Hampton's version of Fort Knox. He'd spent the morning searching Mel's huge video library, trying to find a movie he wanted to watch. But after reading the titles, he found it was too depressing. It reminded him too much of what was no longer going on in the outside world.

So, instead, he had picked two "Nature" documentaries. . . something about Cockroaches and one on the American Prairie Dog.

He had taken his time preparing his lunch. . . going to the trouble to make an egg salad sandwich from scratch. Anything to kill some time. Besides, he didn't think he'd be able to eat eggs safely for very long. . . .

He spent the afternoon trying to figure out how he would get himself back to Washington. . . or to Annapolis. There were bound to be more idiots like the Three Assholes out there. But the next ones might be a little bit smarter. They could lie in wait. . . and just blast him away.

Then, there was the problem of *how* to get there. A car would probably be out of the question. From just looking at the roads around Greenwich, he knew the interstates and main highways would be littered with abandoned vehicles.

He would have to find another way. Because he absolutely could not, would not fail in his quest.

He'd spend one more day here. Then he would poke his head out of the sand and do some reconnoitering.

But now, he stood in the dark with a jug of water at his hip, knowing he would never get back to sleep. He went back to the den and pulled out some more Nature videos. . . . he guessed he'd just have to sit and learn more about bugs. And who wouldn't want to do that?

He kept the volume low and mindlessly watched the flickering screen.



Downtown Greenwich, Connecticut
June 28
1100 hours

Mulder warily walked through the deserted town. He kept his gun at the ready. Just in case. But, he needn't have worried. There was no one else. The Three Assholes had apparently either died from the flu or moved on to greener and easier pastures.

The electricity had finally gone off this morning at 5: 52 a. m. At least, that's what the kitchen clock had said. He had missed the big moment, snoring away on the Hampton's sofa.

It had made his decision to venture outside a whole lot easier.

He hadn't seen many dead bodies. A man in his car. . . a woman in her doorway. Most of the residents had had the decency to lock themselves up in their homes before they expired. For that, Mulder was eternally grateful.

And the constant sea breeze on these streets meant that the smell wouldn't be too bad. As long as you stayed upwind.

It was eerily silent. The kind of silent that must have existed before man walked the earth. Just the ocean and the rustle of the wind through the grass and the trees.

He nearly jumped out of his own skin when he heard the door slam. It took him a few moments and a bunch of deep breaths before he realized that it was simply a screen door opening and closing in the sea breeze. He walked over to the little house and secured the door latch. Problem solved. Future heart attacks averted.

He continued his walk. . . heading toward the docks. If nothing else, he could go enjoy the view. Mulder had always been a loner. . . he had always liked spending time by himself. . . but that had been in his Pre-Scully days. He had gotten used to talking to someone, to sharing ideas. He had enjoyed annoying her on a regular basis. He liked having someone around who noticed when he was gone.

So, his thoughts were a mix of hope and fear when he heard a man made noise coming from the harbor.

The unmistakable whirr of a motor.




CHAPTER EIGHT

"We tell ourselves stories in order to live. . . We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the 'ideas' with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience." - Joan Didion The White Album




Greenwich, Connecticut
June 28th
1100 hours

Mulder ran toward the puttering noise of the outboard motor. Hefound himself by the docks before it even registered that he was about to run out of terra firma.

He pulled up short, gathering his brain back into his head, and quickly ducked behind several large packing crates beside one of the buildings by the wharf.

Stupid, Mulder! You don't even know who's out there. . . you could have been blasted full of lead before you could utter the words "Hidey-Ho, Neighbor! "

The noise of the motor raised in pitch as the boat apparently was drawing nearer to the dock. Mulder chanced a peek from behind his cover as the boat came into view.

It was just a small fishing boat. . . the kind where you and one buddy go out with a cooler and pretend to fish while you down a few brews on the lake, all whilst trying to keep the wormy bait out of the Bud.

Mulder surveyed the boat's occupant, who had now shut down the motor and was trying to maneuver to the dockside.

One man. One very old man. One very old man who, if you put him in a yellow rain slicker, you would swear you've seen him on a box of fishsticks in your neighborhood grocer's freezer.

Mulder blinked his eyes once, twice. Yup. He was the Gorton's Fisherman. And everyone knew you could "trust the Gorton's Fisherman."

But then, the Gorton icon made a huge boating faux pas. One that shattered the cherished battered fish fillet image. The old man stood up quickly. . . which wasn't a particularly wise maneuver in a boat that size. The boat teetered from side to side. . . . and promptly lurched aport. . . sending it's captain into the briny depths o' the sea.

"Gorton" let out an indignant cry as he flopped into the water with all of the grace of a dead carp.

Mulder was running down the dock in an instant. He grabbed a long scoop net and extended the pole out to the floundering swimmer.

"Here," he yelled over the splashes of water. "Grab hold. "

The old man was momentarily stunned to see another breathing human being, but the stinging salt water soon prompted him to take hold of the lifeline.

Mulder guided the man over to a ladder at the dockside. He offered a hand up as the man creaked up the wooden rungs.

Finally, the old man was standing before him, water dripping off the end of his large nose. A nose that was even more pronounced than his own.

"Thank you, son," he sputtered as he blew the water from his lips. He held out his hand to Mulder and Mulder shook it.

"I'm glad I was here. . . "

"So am I," the old man laughed. Then his laughter faded as he assessed the younger man. Trying to decide if he was a threat or a friend. He seemed to decide he had a new ally and his narrowed eyes opened once again.

"My name's Ezekiel Polk, but my friends call me Zeke. . . and since I'm running low on friends these days, I'm guessing you'll have to do. "

Mulder smiled. "Call me Mulder. It's good to meet you, Zeke. "

"Likewise, Mulder. And now, Mulder. . . if you'll give me a hand reeling in my boat. . . you can share in the benefit of my morning activities. . . "

Mulder's brow raised in curiosity, but he decided to go with the flow for the moment. Using several poles on the dock, they hooked the boat and brought it to the dock. Mulder climbed down the wooden ladder and was able to secure the boat to the dock.

It was then that he discovered what Zeke had meant. He had two crab pots. . . and they had quite a nice collection for the steamer. He grabbed the pots and heaved them up, one by one, onto the dock. Then he climbed back up the ladder.

"Now, Mulder. Let's say we take these babies over to the restaurant over there and cook us up some lunch. . . then we can get properly acquainted. "

Mulder nodded. His stomach was already growling.

They each grabbed a pot and headed toward the restaurant.




The Rusty Scupper
1300 Hours

"So. . . you were really an FBI agent? No shit?" Zeke managed between the cracks of his mallet on the steamed crab in front of him. They had used the restaurants grill to fire up the steamer. Zeke was seriously getting into the crab eating business. Bits of shell and melted butter decorated the lobster bib he had tied around his neck. Mulder's looked about the same.

"No shit. I lived in D. C. , but I was up in Greenwich to see my mo. . . ." Mulder stopped.

Zeke put his mallet down and reached one weathered hand across the table to lay it on Mulder's arm. "That's okay, son. Tonight, we can reminisce and remember. But only tonight. After that, you have to move forward. Think about where you're going. What you're going to do. We'll go insane if we don't. There must be other survivors of this. . . whatever it was. "

Mulder looked up. It was such a relief to have someone to talk to about all of this. He had been scared to hope. . . but now, he had an ally. Zeke could tell him if he was crazy for believing that Scully was alive. . . and if his absolute need to find out for sure was insane.

"There *is* somewhere I need to go, Zeke. As soon as I can. . . "

Zeke stared at the young man's eyes. . . studied his body language. He wasn't hard to read.

"Who is she, Mulder?"

Mulder did a double take. How did Zeke know?" Why do you ask that?"

"What? You think I was born yesterday? Mulder. I know the look. You've been separated from someone you love. Plus, you aren't wearing a wedding ring. . . and if you were married, your wife would have probably been with you to visit your mother. . . "

Mulder smiled and looked down into his beer mug. "You shoulda been the FBI agent, Zeke. "

"I'm sure. Now. Who *is* she, Mulder. "

"Her name is Dana Scully. "




One hour later, Zeke and Mulder were hunched over a bunch of nautical charts.

"This is quite doable, my friend," Zeke pronounced, gently slapping Mulder on the back. "With the friendly little yacht I procured yesterday, we can definitely make our way to Annapolis. And it will certainly be a safer and clearer journey than if you try to go over land. I'm sure all the highways are clogged with abandoned cars. . . not to mention a few crazy people running around with guns. "Yup. We can do this and be there in just a few days. "

"I'm game if you are, Zeke. . . "

"We can gather supplies today and get fueled up. . . and leave first thing tomorrow morning, if that's okay with you. "

"The sooner the better," Mulder remarked. Now that he had a viable plan, he was very anxious to get moving. But he knew that he still had one or two things he had to do in Greenwich first. His duties as a son.

He would take care of that business as soon as they were done with the supplies.

"Why don't you show me that boat you've been talking about, Zeke?"

Zeke let loose a giant smile. "Yes! You won't believe this baby! "

The men stood and began to clear their table. . . then burst out laughing. One small pleasure they now had. . . they certainly did not need to do the dishes! They dropped their plates on their tables and walked outside into the sunshine.


The Docks Slip #59
1430 Hours

"Here she is! My beauty!" Zeke exclaimed proudly.

Mulder let out a low whistle. Zeke had not been kidding. He had known that there were plenty of old-monied folk in the area. . . . but this yacht was gorgeous. Must have cost at least a million and a half. He read the name on her, "The Siren Of The Sea." Yup. Fitting.

"It's a sixty-five foot Pacific Mariner Luxury Motoryacht. It's got a cruising speed of twenty-two knots. . . but she'll go up to twenty-seven," Zeke rambled along as he walked alongside the boat, pointing out the finer details. It's got four staterooms. . . a luxury galley. . . a fully-stocked wet bar. . . a nifty entertainment center. . . two showers and a tub. . . teak cabinets and trim. . . "Yessiree. She's everything I ever dreamed of and more. "

Mulder looked up at Zeke. The old man was posed, his chest puffed out. All he needed was a pipe and a captain's hat.

"This is great, Zeke. . . but, um, do you know how to drive her?"

Zeke looked aghast. "Don't be silly my boy! Don't let that unfortunate incident at the pier fool you. . . just because a seventy-five year old man's legs don't act like they used to. I grew up on the water. . . down in Norfolk. I assure you this is one lady I can steer. "

"Then. . . Permission to go aboard, Captain, Sir?" Mulder offered a mock salute.

"Permission granted," Zeke saluted back.

The two men boarded and set to work, making a list of what they would need for their voyage.


The Siren Of The Sea
1800 Hours

The men had made quick work of their supply mission. Then Mulder had left Zeke to finish the refueling. When he returned, they would finish stowing all of the supplies.

Now, Zeke sat in the pilothouse, looking at the small harbor. While Mulder had not said much about where he was going, Zeke knew all too well that the young man had gone to tend to his "family business." He sighed.

It had been a long time since Zeke had any family to be concerned about. His wife, Marie, had died twenty years ago and they had never had any children. They were always too busy traveling. Too busy with their jobs. There had been times he had regretted the oversight. But, now, seeing how things had ended up, he wasn't sorry at all.

He decided to let Mulder keep his secrets. If the former FBI agent wanted to share, he would. In his own time.

Besides. Zeke had his own secrets to withhold. He hadn't told Mulder exactly why *he* had been at the shore when the epidemic hit. For Zeke had lived in Clinton, New York. . . a little town outside of Utica.

Two months ago, Zeke's doctor had given him the bad news. He had pancreatic cancer. He had, at most, six months to live. There was nothing they could do for him except to prolong his life by a few weeks courtesy of a bunch of nasty sounding treatments. Zeke had declined. Hell. He was seventy-five. He had no reason to fight nature. No family to be upset.

Instead, he had sold off most of his belongings and headed for the coast. He had been determined to purchase a small sailboat or yacht and spend the rest of his time at sea. . . going wherever the wind or his moods happened to blow.

When the epidemic had hit and he had not even had so much as a sniffle. He had to laugh at the irony.

But then, Mulder had come into his life today. And, for now at least, he had some purpose to living and breathing. He had to help this man find his loved one. Maybe he'd call it his last stab at achieving some good karma. Whatever.

He stood up and walked over to the pilothouse's mini-galley and opened up the fridge. These rich folk sure knew how to live. Zeke pulled out a beer and sat down in the pilot's chair. He popped the can open and took a long, cool swig.

And he waited for Mulder to return so he could finish his life's mission.




Residence Of Mrs. Mulder
1815 Hours

Mulder walked through the house one last time. He did not want to forget anything. He had closed all the closet doors. . . made sure all of the windows were tightly shut. And he had cleaned up his mother's room. Made sure the bed was neatly made. She would have liked it that way.

He had pulled out the old family albums from the hallway closet and removed two photos, carefully sliding them into a five by seven envelope he had taken from a desk drawer. Then he had packed the albums away with care.

He checked the kitchen to ensure that all was clean and in its proper place.

He checked the basement to make sure all of the laundry was out of the washer and dryer. . . that the lint trap was clean.

Then he went back up to his old room. Everything was as it should be. He sat on the bed and stared at the walls, ingraining them in his memory. . . hearing the voices of the past. Some of them happy. . . some angry. . . some sad. His hand smoothed a wrinkle from the bedspread.

He stood and walked to the door. With one last look at his past, he quietly closed the door and walked down the stairs. . . through the hallway. . . and out the back door, making sure it was locked.

He crossed the backyard to the small rise that afforded a distant view of the waters to the east.

He sat down beside the newly turned earth. Where he had buried his mother.

His conversation with her was silent.

Then he picked up his envelope and stood. . . brushed the grass from his pants. . . and walked away.

And he never looked back.




The Siren Of The Sea
1930 Hours

The sun was just beginning its slow fall to the west when Zeke heard the welcome voice.

"Permission to come aboard?"

Zeke opened a window and stuck his head outside to see Mulder standing on the pier below.

"Aye-aye, me matey. . ." His pirate's voice needed considerable work, but the smirk it evoked from Mulder made the embarrassment worth it.

Zeke noticed the envelope was carrying, but he didn't ask about it. Instead, he grabbed two more beers from the fridge and went down to meet his companion.

He held out one beer to Mulder, who gratefully took it.

"You go grab some ice from the galley. . . put in in the bucket from the sink. . . and dunk one of those six packs into it. Then, meet me up top," Zeke instructed.

Mulder was happy to do as he was told. He was on automatic pilot for the evening. For once, it was his pleasure to follow someone else's orders. That way, he didn't have to think.




Two hours later, the two men had a pretty good buzz going. They had talked about everything and nothing.

Zeke had told him about his "former" profession.

"I was a 'consultant. ' Basically, that's what you do when you studied international economics in college. You produce nothing. You contribute little to society. You get paid to sit around and think. . . then write papers and give talks with polysyllabic words that no one knows the real definitions of. . . and you wear a lot of coats and ties. . . and go to a lot of hoity toity cocktail parties. Occasionally, you get hired for spots on CNN talk shows. "

Zeke had been much more interested in hearing about Mulder's work at the Bureau, although he was a bit skeptical about some of the cases Mulder described. But he loved the tale about the cockroaches in Miller's Grove.

And it all made him even more curious about this Dana Scully woman. Finally, the second six-pack of Coors gave him the courage to ask.

"So, Mulder, my boy. You've told me of your exploits and adventures with your partner. But, now I want to *know* about this Dana. . . what is she like? Is she pretty or what?" Zeke grinned.

Mulder's tongue had been loosened and was about to spill the beans. But first, he took another sip of beer.

"Or *what*," he replied.

Zeke's eyes widened. "And. . . ?"

"We've been partners for seven years now. . . "

"And how long have you been *together, *?" Zeke interjected.

Mulder began to shake his head. "No. . . it's never been like that. . . not that I haven't *thought* about it. . . often. . . but the time was never right. . ." Mulder's face darkened. Maybe he would never have the chance to. . .

Zeke quickly interceded. "Mulder! We're gonna find her. . . and I wanna know what to expect! "

"Expect the unexpected, then," Mulder grinned. "She's a pistol. There's no one like her. She's short. . . but don't tell her I said that. . . like five foot two. . . and she's got the most amazing hair. . . the way it just kinda curls around her face. . . framing it.

"And did I mention that she's brilliant?"

Zeke nodded his head. Mulder had covered this part many times, but Mulder was oblivious.

"Yup. She is. She's a doctor. A pathologist. She's the one who could figure out what happened to everybody this week. . . she'd do that in a heartbeat. . ." he voice faded. . . but he found some strength to continue.

He smiled. "She'll never admit it, but she's the one who always takes in strays. . . dogs. . . me. . . And her father was a captain in the Navy. I doubt that he was the one who taught her, but she knows some really bawdy drinking songs. I found out once when we were stranded in, believe it or not, Antarctica. "

Zeke grinned and shook his head. Mulder sure had some stories.

"She said it would keep us warm. . . she taught me a bunch. Guess it worked. We ended up okay. A little frosty. . . but in one piece. "

"She sounds really special, Mulder. "

"She's my best friend," he replied.

Mulder reached over to the bucket and grabbed another beer.

"Which is why I'm so sorry I never told her how I felt. . . what I felt. . ."

Zeke leaned back in his chair, his jaw dropping.

"My God, man! With all those degrees, can you really be this stupid? You think *words* are what counts?" Zeke shook his head in disbelief.

"I was married to my Marie for over thirty years. And you know what? In that time. . . I think I can count the number of times we uttered "I love yous" on my hands and toes. You can *say* the words to anyone. . . words don't mean a single thing. What counts is what's in here. . ." he tapped his hand over Mulder's heart.

"So. . . you're not vocal kind of people. So what? Do you think that Marie and I loved each other any less simply because we didn't feel the need to announce it on a regular basis?" He shook his head. "Marie was my other half. If there's such a thing as 'soul mates' we were it. My life ceased to be real when she was gone. . .

"And good grief. From all that you've told me. . . the things she did for you. . . the times she followed you when anyone with an ounce of sense would have stayed behind. . . and the things you did for her. . . What? You think *normal* people do that? You *don't* get out much. . . do you?

"Mulder. Let me ask you this question." Mulder looked up and met Zeke's gaze.

"Think about all you've told me. . . when you add up all the facts, end to end. . . Does Dana love you?"

Mulder was silent for a moment. It seemed almost presumptuous to answer. After all, they were Scully's feelings. . . But, he needed to tell Zeke the truth.

"Yes," his voice cracked. "Yes, she does. . . she did. . . "

Zeke stopped him. "And, my dear boy. . . if *you* know that, don't you think that Dana, being that wise and brilliant woman, would know that you loved her, too?"

When he thought about it the way Zeke laid it out. . . Mulder had to agree. Yup. He'd been an absolute ass of an idiot.

"Then *why, * my boy, do you insist on beating yourself up about something you haven't told her yet?"

Mulder raised his head sadly.

"Because I might not find her. . . because she might be. . . "

"Mulder. I want you to listen to me. I don't know how I know this or why I know this. I just do. Dana Scully is *not* dead. You *will* find her. I'm gonna make sure you do. I think it's my job. "

Mulder just stared at the old man. He wanted to believe. Really wanted to. And when he looked into Zeke's eyes, it was hard to resist. He seemed so damned sincere.

Zeke watched his new friend. He had no fucking idea *why* he had just said that. But something in his head and in his gut told him that it *was* true. He just couldn't put his finger on who told him.

Was it just a dream?

He slapped Mulder on the back. "Look, my friend. . . my slightly drunk friend. Go down and go to bed. I'll clean this up. We need to shove off early in the morning. . . "

Mulder stood and began to carefully climb down the ladder to the lower deck. He stopped and looked up.

"Thanks, Zeke. . . for everything. "

"That's what I'm here for, Mulder. That's what I'm here for. "

And Zeke was absolutely right.




CHAPTER NINE

Fish heads, fish heads. . . roly poly fish heads. .




June 29th
0530 hours

The sea was achingly calm. And Mulder's stomach hoped it would stay that way as he undid the moorings and the "motor in motoryacht" did its thing.

They had plotted their route yesterday. From Greenwich, they would head into the Long Island Sound, to the East River, down through Hudson Bay into the Atlantic. From the Atlantic, they'd head up Delaware Bay to the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal where they would cut through to the Chesapeake Bay. From there, it would be clear sailing to Annapolis.

To Scully.

After Mulder finished his deck duties, he went up to join Zeke in the pilothouse. He settled himself down on the padded bench "settee" on the starboard side and propped his feet up as he gazed out of the slightly tinted windows.

He could have stayed outside, on deck, but he didn't feel much like being alone. . . . although he didn't feel much like conversation either.

Zeke seemed to sense this. For the next hour, the men only exchanged a few perfunctory words.

Mulder kept staring at the coastline. He watched as they circled around Greenwich Point. . . something he'd done dozens of times before. But, this time, it was final. No return trip ticket. And this time, he had left his baggage behind.

Zeke finally spoke.

"You know. . . I don't know if it's even the right time of year. . . but it sure would be nice if when we got into deeper water, we ran into some of those humpback whales that swim up hereabouts. . . . I'd like to think the big fellas weren't affected by all this. "

Mulder nodded.




As the morning passed, the massive landmass that was known as Long Island began to appear on the horizon. Soon, they would be sandwiched between it and the mainland.

"The Island Formerly Known As Long. . ." Mulder mused. Heck. They could rename the entire continent and there wouldn't be a big protest, he imagined.

"Yo, matey," Zeke called from his perch in the captain's chair. "I could really use some coffee about right now. . . you want to see to that?"

"Sure, Cap'n." Mulder stood and began to putter around in the pilothouse galley. A few minutes later, Mr. Coffee was spitting out a nice dark brew into the carafe.

Mulder grabbed a tall mug from the cabinet and filled it with the steaming liquid. "You like it black or what, Zeke?"

"Or what. Cream. . . no sugar," Zeke responded.

Mulder's hand froze. That was the way Scully always drank it. A shiver ran up his spine. Zeke must have noticed, because he turned around.

"What's wrong, son? Did I say something?"

"It's okay, Zeke. It just reminded me of someone. . ." Mulder got the cream from the fridge and poured in a few spurts. He put the cream away and stirred the mixture in the mug.

He carried it over to Zeke and the old man took it gratefully.

He wanted to investigate the shadow that had fallen over Mulder's face, but decided there were other things to discuss for the moment.

"We'll be hitting the East River soon. . . we should make sure everything's tied down properly. I think we need to get through there as fast as we can. . . "

Mulder looked at him, puzzled.

"Think about it, son," Zeke continued. "There were alot of folks in New York City. And most of 'em are probably dead. . . which, one, means the odor might not be too pleasant on this hot summer's day; and two, it means that there still *are* a few folks left and we don't know who those folks might be. Maybe they're nice. . . maybe they're not. And we can't risk stopping and getting to know everyone and finding out if their mamas taught them manners, if you know what I mean. "

Mulder ran his hand through his hair. He couldn't believe that *he* hadn't thought of this. This boat was gonna look like the Holy Grail to anyone near the shore. . . to hell with the fact that anyone could go out these days and take any boat they wanted. That wouldn't matter to many people. You always wanted what the *other* guy had. Humans were funny that way.

They would have to be on guard and ready. . . guns in hand.




Throgs Point, New York

It was mid-morning when they reached the point of no return. They curved under the Throgs Neck Bridge and began their journey into the heart of New York City.

Next, they passed under the Bronx Whitestone Bridge. The remains of the Bronx loomed to the right. Zeke and Mulder could see the black smoke rising from fires that would have to burn themselves out. . . if they didn't raze the entire city first.

Zeke nudged Mulder and pointed straight ahead.

"Riker's Island," he murmured. Mulder could barely hear him over the motor.

As they got closer to the island, a horrible thought occurred to Mulder. And the idea sank into his stomach. He wondered about all of the prisoners at Riker's. Had all the guards died and simply let the prisoners rot in their cells? What if some of those inmates were immune to the flu? Were they in there now, screaming themselves hoarse, dying of starvation, smelling the decaying corpses of their dead peers?

God. He wished the yacht would go faster and get them away from this place.

They circled the island and Mulder looked over to catch a glimpse of La Guardia Airport. Planes sat by the hangars and on the runways. He wondered how many planes had crashed in the past week when their crews succumbed to the flu. He quickly looked away.

The smell from the fires had drifted down heavily upon the waters here, and both men had to cover their noses. It wasn't that pleasant smokiness you get with a campfire. No. This was the stench of burning plastics, chemicals, wood, and rotting human flesh.

They could only pray for a shift in the wind soon.




Somewhere

Ronald Seymour and Serge Moloski sat in their boat, guns in hand. They were going fishing, so to speak. Seymour looked up to the bridge that loomed above them. Their pal, Traynor Simms, stood watch from the span. He would signal them when a "fishy" showed up so they could put out their "net. "

Seymour caressed his MP-5. He and his buddies had had a lovely day yesterday in Jersey, something that never would have happened before. . . they'd managed to procure quite a spiffy little arsenal. In fact, at the moment, he imagined they were better armed than anyone in the good ol' fucking U. S. of A. .

They'd spent their afternoon and evening having target practice downtown. It had been quite successful. A wet dream come true. Sitting atop a small "Sex Shoppe" building near Times Square, whacking off anything that moved. With the large population in New York before the flu, there had been a decent number of survivors. "Had been" being the keywords. He and his buddies had seen to that.

It was like shooting fish in a barrel.

By Seymour's count, which was now notched in his belt, he had offed at least five. . . while Moloski and Simms had bagged four each. Yup. A good day's hunting. Too bad they couldn't stuff 'em and mount 'em on the wall over the fireplace. That would be nice.

He could remember his daddy's trophies. There had been one elk, though, that had always scared the shits outta him. The elk's eyes seemed so. . . something. And the eyes followed him wherever he went in the room. It was creepy.

But not as creepy as Simms, now that he thought about it. Simms was a weird one. He and Moloski had found the nutcase just outside the Lincoln Tunnel. Simms was just jabbering and laughing like a fucking loon. They woulda just shot him and put him out of his misery. . . but they needed a third person for some of their grand plans, so they had spared him. For now. Until his usefulness came to an end. Then he'd get a quick bullet in the ol' noodle. Probably quick.

Then they'd get out of the city for awhile. It really was starting to smell. All those bloated bodies he had seen in the subways. . . the ones around Central Park. And no one to do the fucking clean-up. He'd go somewhere else for awhile, maybe Upstate, maybe south with the birds for the winter. He could make up his mind later.

For now, he pawed his gun like it was a horny prostitute and waited. They were gonna have some fun.




The East River Siren Of The Sea

Mulder stood on deck as Ward's Island came into view and with it, the entrance to the East River. They passed it on the Queens side. As they crossed under the Triborough Bridge, Manhattan came into view on the right.

This was also where their waterway narrowed. Roosevelt Island was in their path and they had to decide on which side to pass. Mulder pointed to the west. The Manhattan side. Zeke nodded from the pilothouse and steered west.

Mulder was staring, slack-jawed, at the still magnificent city, now devoid of the men who had built her. He couldn't tear his eyes away from it. It was like watching a speeding car crash into a wall. . . killing everyone aboard in a bloody, horrible fraction of a second.

He suddenly began to feel claustrophobic as the land on both sides closed in. Sweat trickled down his brow and his finger twitched on the shotgun in his hands. He didn't have to see the bodies to know how many dead surrounded their tiny boat.

Men slumped over the wheels of their taxi cabs. Women dressed in housecoats on Park Avenue, their curler covered heads lying face down in their Eggs Benedict. Children lying on their Star Wars sheets. . . never to use the Force again. Homeless people, their dead feet sticking out from their cardboard boxes. Every high- rise was a massive crypt.

Nope. He didn't have to see them. His imagination was filling in the missing pictures quite nicely.

So, Mulder was startled when he saw a very much alive man running across the Queensboro Bridge. As they got closer, he could see the man more clearly. His hair was sticking up at odd angles. . . and his clothing was ripped. And, he was jumping up and down, pointing. At them.

"Zeke! Floor it. . . or whatever you do with a boat! We got company!" He pointed to the bridge.

Zeke opened up the engines and the boat seemed to jump in the water.

Mulder watched the shorelines carefully. Then he spotted them.

Two men, armed with rifles, were in a tiny launch. Headed toward them. They were going to try and cut them off.

Zeke could see them, too. If these guys had friendly intentions, they would not be trying this stunt. They would have simply waved them down. He could only think of one thing to do. They had to use their sheer size to their advantage.

Zeke turned the wheel to set a collision course with the smaller boat. Even if they didn't score a direct hit, they could swamp the smaller boat with their wake.

When the boat turned, Mulder realized what Zeke was doing. He knew they couldn't afford a shooting match. The best they could do was stay low and let the boat be their offense and defense. Now he understood why the old man had chosen such a large yacht.

But, before he could act on this realization, the men opened fire.

Mulder was just a fraction too late in his dive to the deck. One bullet clipped him in the left arm. . . not deep enough to cause a debilitating wound, but deep enough to sting like hell.




"Fuck, yeah! I got me one!" Moloski yelled.

"Shut the fuck up," Seymour countered. . . a little jealously. "Get your hand on that wheel and get us closer," he screamed as he raised his own rifle.




Zeke had seen Mulder go down and was madder than a hornet who had his nest sprayed with Raid. He had first thought that the "wake" maneuver would be enough for these dipshits. . . but, now. Now he fully intended to ram his yacht up their asses.

He glanced out to the deck to see if Mulder was okay. Mulder was raised up on his knees, holding his arm. When he saw Zeke, he waved. He was going to be all right.

But Zeke was still pissed. These guys were gonna get what they deserved. Besides, if they got away with this, then they would undoubtedly kill other people. And who knew how many they had already slaughtered?

He set his course.




If Seymour and Moloski had any brains they would have figured out what Zeke was intending to do to them. But, Seymour was still so pissed that Moloski had scored a hit and that he hadn't. . . he wasn't using any brain matter at all.

As the huge yacht bore down on them, the thought did occur to Moloski. But, by then, it was too late. He tried to make a sharp left turn. . .

The side of the yacht clipped the starboard side of the smaller boat, sending both men into the water.

Moloski sank like a stone. Never took a single swimming lesson. Too bad. Cause it was too late to put on that "sissy looking" lifejacket. He tried to hold his breath as he sank lower and lower into the murky depths of the East River. His eyes bulged and his chest was on fire. Finally, he gasped for air. . . and the filthy water filled his lungs. He retched and gagged for a few moments. Then, he joined the rest of the bodies laying at the bottom with their cement shoes.

Seymour, on the other hand, could swim. But not fast enough. Their boat hadn't capsized. It had simply dumped them and continued its journey. And that journey happened to be a nice big ol' circle. Kind of like one of those Australian boomerang things. It always knew to come back to its owner.

And that it did. Seymour turned just as the motor hit his head, chopping it off quite neatly.

And Traynor Simms, seeing his buddies needed help, decided to render it by jumping off the Queensboro Bridge into the water below. He *might* have survived the jump. . . maybe. . . if he hadn't landed on the concrete pylons by the water.

No great loss.




Zeke had a grim smile of satisfaction as he slowed the yacht down. He was glad he had done what needed to be done, but it still sickened him a bit that he had taken another human life. Especially when there were so few of them left.

They had gotten past the United Nations and the Williamsburg Bridge. The tall buildings of Manhattan were looming to the west.

They were almost safe.

A few minutes later, they had rounded a curve and crossed under the Manhattan Bridge. The Brooklyn Bridge was just ahead.

"Hey, old man. I got a bridge I can sell ya'. . . it's real cheap," Mulder parried as he entered the pilothouse.

Zeke jumped at the noise and smiled. "Hey. We can split the damn thing between us." He looked at the blood on Mulder's arm. "How is it?"

Mulder shrugged. "I've had worse. . . I'll live. "

Zeke frowned. "That might have been true last week. . . when you could get to the hospital and have them clean you up and give you a tetanus shot and antibiotics. . . But now. Just let me get out into the Hudson Bay and we'll stop for a few so I can tend to that. "

Mulder swallowed hard. Zeke was right. All the more reason for them to find Scully, his personal physician. With his tendencies toward getting injured, he would need her. . . soon.

They passed Governor's Island and stopped midway between it and Liberty Island.

The Statue Of Liberty looked down upon them seriously as Zeke cleaned and bandaged Mulder's arm.

"Please, son. Tell me you've had a tetanus shot since the Cold War. . . "

"Not to worry, Zeke. That's one thing I *know* I've kept up to date. "

"Good. It would just suck if you survived all this only to die from lockjaw. "

"Yes, it would," Mulder replied. "Now. Why don't we just sit for a minute and catch our breath?" He saw that Zeke was looking a little pale from their adventures.

"You want a Coke or something? It's the real thing. . ." Mulder offered.

"Yeah, kid. I think that'd be a good thing. Maybe we should eat some lunch while we're stopped, too. "

Mulder nodded. "I'll fix everything. You just stay here," he started to duck down the stairs to the main galley. "Oh. . . and Zeke. . . you did good. That was a smart move you made. "

Zeke gave a weak smile. "You just go make our lunch. . . I'll keep an eye out up here for a bit. "

He looked up at the Lady of Liberty.

"So, old woman. We may not be poor, but we're tired. What say you gives us a little blessing and let us get to where we're going in one piece?" He bowed his head in thought.

The thousands of people who had come here from other countries. . . This was the first thing they saw as they were herded off to Ellis Island. It was their symbol of hope.

Maybe it would work for an old man, too. He tried something new. He said a quick prayer to a God he had always doubted. "Please let Mulder find this woman. . . please let her be alive and well. . . let me finish this bit of business. "

When he looked up, he was sure that it was merely the sun bouncing off the metal, but it looked as though the Woman with the torch had actually winked at him.




2100 hours

They had dropped anchor and decided to spend the night just offshore in a cove on the Great Bay, just north of Atlantic City. They thought the spot would be safe since all they could see on shore were trees and forest. No signs of life at all.

Other than the gigantic black crow. . . or was it a raven. . . that had landed on the bow. It had taken several attempts, but they'd finally shooed the obnoxious and creepy bird away. It had spent the next hour circling the sky above them.

Damn bird.

Neither of them had much of an appetite after their day's travel experiences, but they had fired up the deck grill anyway. There was no sense in letting the frozen steaks go to waste. And they would spoil as soon as they stopped moving, once the generator was cut off and the freezer died for the last time. And it would definitely be a long while before anyone would be having a nice neat cut of beef again.

Zeke wondered about cattle. He had noticed that some animal species seemed to have weathered the flu just fine. . . while others apparently had succumbed just like the good old Homo sapiens. There were cats and birds. . . and fish. But he hadn't seen any dogs or squirrels. He had no idea how cows had fared. And he wondered what would happen now that many species had probably been removed from the food chain.

The East River had been the worst. They had made their way into the Atlantic and were closing in on the Delaware Bay. The weather had been clear and it had been smooth sailing. . . except for the vivid memories they had of New York.

Last night, Zeke had noticed that Mulder was having nightmares. . . heck he was having daymares whenever he napped today. . . but he knew there was little he could do to help the young man.

Besides, Zeke had a puzzle of his own. He had always been such a vivid dreamer. . . able to recall even minute details of his dreams. But, for the past few days, he couldn't recall a single image entering his slumber. And that was odd. But he sensed that *something* was happening when he slept. He just couldn't remember what.

He looked over at Mulder who was reclined on the sofa. He was now merely pretending to sleep, but Zeke knew better. He still had those lines on his face. . . lines that were different when he dozed.

Wonder what images are in his head.




The dark man stood in the doorway, oozing a knowing smile.

"Come on, Fox. Why are you wasting your time? Dump this loser and take the boat. I can show you some *really* interesting things. . . don't you want those answers?" He tapped his cowboy boots on the tiled floor.

Mulder stood in the room. . . he now recognized it as his office. Only some things were missing. . . Scully's desk. . . her files. . . all traces of her were gone. His chest felt tight.

"What have you done with Scully's things?" He screamed.

"Why, Fox. I'm hurt. You just give me too much credit. *I* didn't do anything to her. . . . but, really. I think there are some more productive ways to spend your time. . . don't you?"

Mulder bolted. He tried to run past the Man. . . to get out into the hall. But the Man reached out and grabbed him.

Mulder fought and tried to peel the Man's hands from his arm. . . but when he looked down, he realized that the Man didn't have fingers. Long, sharp talons were gripping his flesh, tearing and ripping.

Mulder screamed in agony.

"I don't like it when people won't play my game, Fox," the Man spat into his face, his red eyes flaring. His breath was fetid. . . decayed. And Mulder was horrified to see that he wasn't a man at all. . .

He was pure evil.




CHAPTER TEN

Doubtless, despite his suffering, he had fallen asleep while walking, for now he sees another scene - perhaps he has merely recovered from a delirium. He stands at the gate of his own home. All is as he left it, and all bright and beautiful in the morning sunshine. He must have traveled the entire night. As he pushes open the gate and passes up the wide white walk, he sees a flutter of female garments; his wife, looking fresh and cool and sweet, steps down from the veranda to meet him. At the bottom of the steps she stands waiting, with a smile of ineffable joy, an attitude of matchless grace and dignity. Ah, how beautiful she is! He springs forward with extended arms. And as he is about to clasp her he feels a stunning blow upon the back of the neck; a blinding white light blazes all about him with a sound like the shock of a cannon - then all is darkness and silence!

Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek Bridge."
- Ambrose Bierce, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"




Docks At Annapolis, Maryland
July 1
1300 hours

The quiet rippling waves gently slapped against the side of the Siren Of The Sea.

Zeke sat on the deck, watching the winds move across the water. Mulder was below decks, getting his gear together. A backpack full of water, food. The necessities.

Yesterday, they had made their way up the Delaware Bay and across the channel to the Chesapeake Bay. They had dropped anchor last night in a small cove just inside the Bay.

During the night, Zeke had tried to ignore the moans and mumbled shouts coming from the younger man's cabin. He had figured that Mulder was so stressed from his worry about Dana Scully that nightmares were bound to prance through his slumber.

Once again, he could not remember if he had dreamt. But, when he awoke, he felt a renewed sense of purpose. And a renewed bond with Mulder. Like he was destined to walk beside him. . . at least for this time.

It was too bad that Mulder was so insistent on going through Annapolis alone. At least he had finally agreed to let Zeke wait for him in the harbor. Cause there was no way Zeke would leave until he knew the outcome of Mulder's search.

His thoughts were interrupted as Mulder came back up on deck. He slung the pack over his shoulder and shifted back and forth, not sure what to say.

Zeke made it short and simple.

"I'll wait here until morning, Mulder. . . unless you've changed your mind and you want me to come with you. . . watch your backside. "

Mulder shook his head. "I need to do this by myself, Zeke. But thanks. In case I don't come back. . . "

"No need, son. I'll be here waiting. I want to meet this Dana Scully. "

Mulder stepped off the boat and walked down the dock. At the end, he turned and gave Zeke one final wave. . . and then he was gone.

Zeke closed his eyes and said a prayer. Cause he knew that if Mulder found that Dana was dead. . . Mulder would not be coming back. He'd just sit himself down and let his gun meet his molars.




Mulder trudged up the slight hill from the docks. He had been down here several times with Scully. It would relatively easy to find his way to Margaret Scully's house.

Still, he was unnerved by the silence in the streets. Every time he had ever visited this place, it had been filled with tourists and uniformed Naval cadets.

The smells were even different. No wafting odors of crabcakes cooking in oil or coffee brewing. Only the stench of rotting seafood and human bodies.

He spotted a bicycle shop and decided to check it out. He was surprised to find the door unlocked. *Guess the owner had other things on his mind. . . *

He ducked inside and quickly found a ten-speed that was about the right size for his frame. He grabbed an air pump and a patch kit and exited the shop, being careful to close the door behind him. After all, there was no sense in throwing all manners out the door just because there was no one else around to care.

He hopped onto the bike and started his journey.




Residence of Margaret Scully 1430 hours

Fox Mulder was more than passingly acquainted with the odor of death. It had once even begun to arise from his own skin.

And, on more than one occasion, he had commiserated with local cops about "suspicious odor" calls. Rule of thumb: If the smell reaches out to where you park your car, grab your industrial sized jar of Vick's Vap-O-Rub, a couple of cigars for extra smoky protection. . . and pray that the medical examiner is in a good mood and responds promptly to your calls so you can get the hell away from the scene and burn your clothes. . . . cause there ain't no way to "Shout It Out."

Even if you've never smelled it before, you recognize it the first time it tickles across your nostrils.

Death has an achingly sweet aroma. . . with just a hint of its underlying evilness. Kind of what you get when your neighbor throws a two pound package of uncooked hamburger from the B-BQ party he had to cancel last weekend into the communal dumpster. . . and the "sanitation engineers" don't come until Friday and it's only Monday and it's the middle of August and the temperature is over one hundred degrees.

After less than a day, between gasps for fresh air as you rush through the parking lot, you wonder what the hell was wrong with your neighbor.

After all, hamburger meat freezes beautifully.




The stillness in Maggie Scully's neighborhood was more than unnerving. In the past, Mulder had secretly enjoyed the warm family vibes he got every time he turned onto her street. . . even though his visits to Mrs. Scully were usually under less than serene circumstances.

Now, with his bike propped up by a nearby tree, he stood on the front walk, shifting his feet from side to side in uncertainty as he looked up and down the block. Anywhere but the house before him.

He was on the verge of finding some kind of answer to the question that burned in his head and heart, but, he wasn't sure if he could truly bear what lay beyond the threshold.

A slight breeze moved down the street, bringing with it the smell of a neighborhood in decay. No doubt all of the houses were now guarding the stiffening and bloating bodies of their late owners. Or perhaps, some of them were empty. . . lonely sentinels waiting for their owners' return. Too bad they didn't know that their escaping owners only made it to the massive parking lot on Route 50 where everyone expired in their cars. The ultimate auto graveyard.

The only sign of life was the occasional scampering of a cat on the prowl, rushing through the untamed grass lawn jungles that were never to be mowed again.

Mulder paused for a moment. For the first time he realized that he hadn't seen any dogs since the flu hit. . . only cats. It figured. He hated cats. They were too aloof and only showed affection when they wanted something from you. In fact, they reminded him a great deal of one of his old flames. . . the infamous and improperly British, Phoebe Green. No. On second thought, that wasn't fair to the feline population.

He shuddered. He wondered how Phoebe had fared on her side of the Atlantic. It was doubtful that he would ever know the answer to that question.

But now one answer was within his grasp. And he had to see it through.




As he took one tentative step forward, he stared at the front facade of the Scully house. In a private and very guarded part of his mind, this smiling house had always reminded him of his favorite childhood tome, "The Little House."

The book's cover presented a comfy, pleasant little house on a grassy green hill with happy, puffy white clouds and an impossibly bright yellow sun looking down pleased from the heavens above.

Time passed, and the city soon encroached on the little abode that only wanted to be filled with love. Tall, ominous skyscrapers blocked it from the touch of the sun and skies and smog covered its once spotless paint and windows. The modern buildings appeared to sneer down upon the quaint little relic of the past.

No one lived inside anymore. Time passed. The door frame sagged, the windows cried dirty, broken glass.

Until, one day, a family found the house and moved it back out to the country where it was well-loved once more.




As Mulder stared at Mrs. Scully's home, the serene image began to blur. Before his eyes, the paint began to crack and peel. . . the wood siding groaned and crevices burst open. . . a horde of black locusts burrowed out from the walls, dripping to the ground in a blood-like trail.

The sound of the house's painful moaning filled his ears. Panicked, he looked up and down the street. The once smiling abodes now laughed and mocked him as more locusts poured out from them onto the ground and into the bug-blackened sky, carrying death on their wings.

As he covered his head to avoid the clawed creatures overhead, he was suddenly knocked to the ground by a fiery blast.

He peeked out from under his arms in time to see the impossible.

A lone, dark figure emerged from the inferno that had once been Mrs. Scully's home. The dark man's leering grin cut his face from ear to ear. His cowboy boots snicked on the sidewalk.

Mulder's eyes grew wide in horror as the man approached him, his arms held out. . . beckoning him.

"Come see your future, Fox. . . ," he hissed.

"No!" Mulder screamed and buried his head in his arms.

The heat licked at his back and legs. Mulder curled into a ball, waiting for the end. . .

"No! Scully!" He sobbed.

Suddenly, the heat was gone. The roaring sound of the locusts disappeared.

Mulder peeked out at the world once more.

He was alone in the stillness of the neighborhood. The houses stood as before. . . alone but unharmed.

Mulder stared back at Mrs. Scully's house. It was as he remembered it.

He drew his hands across his sweat-beaded face and rose on shaky legs.




The front door had been locked, so Mulder carefully made his way around to the back.

He was not prepared for what he found there.

A small area of turned earth, encircled with rocks. And on top of the mound of dirt, a cross, neatly made of more rocks and pebbles. A grave.

Mulder moved forward numbly, unaware his feet were even moving. He fell to his knees beside the grave. Was this what that vision had been about?

It couldn't end this way, could it?

There was no name. No marker. But he couldn't bring himself to dig through the earth to find out.

Instead, he staggered to his feet and went to the house, hoping that he would find the evidence he sought there.

The back door was unlocked.

Mulder hesitantly stepped inside. Somehow, it felt wrong to just walk in. . . without knocking. Kind of like walking across someone's well-manicured lawn without permission.

"Scully?" He called out. He didn't expect an answer and he didn't receive one.

The house was neat as a pin. He went from room to room, looking for a clue. Something that would tell him who was in the grave. His first hint was in the living room.

The Scully family album lay on the coffee table, open to the first page. He sat down to look. A picture of Captain and Mrs. Scully on their wedding day. The Captain stood straight in his starched white uniform. And Mrs. Scully was simply beautiful.

It was hard to imagine Margaret Scully as a young woman. In this picture, she was even younger than her daughter was now. But Mulder could see *his* Scully in her eyes. . . in her smile.

A sadness filled his heart. He felt he knew why this album was laying there. Had Scully sat here, on this couch, mourning her mother? And while he was filled with joy at having his first tangible sign that she was still alive, it was mixed with a profound sorrow. Margaret Scully had been a wonderful woman.

Mulder stood and made his way around the room. Then he spotted a piece of paper on the mantel above the fireplace. And he recognized the neat handwriting on the front. . . and the one simple name. Mulder.

He dashed to the mantle and grabbed the note even while his knees threatened to buckle beneath him.

He opened it with shaking fingers and began to read.




"June 29
Mulder -

I can only hope that you find your way to this note. That you are well and in one piece.

My mom died on June 23rd. God, what has happened, Mulder? Skinner is dead. He was shot while trying to help me get my mom to a hospital. The army or someone in the military had closed off D. C.

I've tried to reach you by phone. . . but, at risk of sounding like my paranoid partner, I think someone's shut down the circuits. I can't get through to anyone, not even the grocery store a few blocks from here.

I thought I would wait here, hoping and praying that you'd make your way here. And it was crazy enough for those first few days, with people running through the streets with guns. But, now there's no one.

Mulder, I need to know that I'm not the only one left or I might go insane. That is, if I'm not already. I have to admit, my Sig has looked very inviting these past few days.

But, I have to believe that there are others. And I need to believe that you are one of them.

So, I'm leaving this note for you, just in case. I'm headed back to D. C. To my apartment. Maybe the answers to all of this are still there. The "guys" were leaving some information at your apartment. Maybe there's something in those documents. Not that answers will make me feel any better. But, I do need to know. Guess you did rub off on me.

Mulder. Be safe. I really hope to see you soon.
Love,
Scully"




Annapolis Harbor
Siren Of The Sea
1800 hours

In all of his years, Zeke had never seen a more welcome sight. While Mulder was alone as he ran down the dock, Zeke could not miss the smile on his face and the tears in his eyes.

"Zeke," he shouted. "She's alive!" He waved the letter in the air above his head.

By the time he reached the yacht and boarded, Mulder was too out of breath to give any details. So Zeke did what any nosy old man would do. He grabbed the letter from Mulder's hand and read it.

The old man looked up and smiled.

"Looks like we're sailing to D. C. , my boy! "




CHAPTER ELEVEN

"I can't breathe
It's agony
Wondering where you are. . ."
Michelle Tumes - "Please Come Back"




Georgetown Washington, D. C.
July 2
1900 hours

Fox Mulder ran up the hill.

One more block. Just one.

Then he could rest.

Zeke settled for just keeping the much younger man in his sights. "Damn these old knees. The mind is willing but the body is weak. Gotta get me some of that damn Ensure or something," he spoke aloud.

It wasn't like there was anyone else around to hear.

The men had docked their boat on the Potomac River at the end of Wisconsin Avenue. . . down by that fancy shmancy restaurant that Mulder said had a model train running around through plastic tubes. A kind of Lionel Habbitrail.

The climb up to M Street was steep. . . and arduous. Cabs, cars and trucks were gridlocked on all the streets. It could have been any normal day of traffic in Georgetown -- except for the fact that some of the cars were occupied by their decaying owners. The rest had been abandoned.

But not the one with the D. C. vanity plates -- "DCLOYER." Frederick Anderson Wilcox, III, Esq. sat in his Lexus, his eyes swollen shut -- not that it mattered. He was deader and riper than a filet mignon that's been left in the sun for a week. *No more girlie microbrews, for you, sir. *He would never finish that multi-million dollar merger he had been sweating. No big loss.

And when they had passed the Georgetown Park shopping mall at the corner of M and Wisconsin. . . well, they had both been forced to cover their mouths and noses with their shirts and make a break for fresh air.

Three levels of dead shoppers and vendors and several layers of underground parking -- "sorry, no parking validation stamps today" -- that were now a tomb for a bevy of Washingtonians was a recipe for one giant Yuppie stink bomb. Not even the aroma of the Georgetown Leather store nearby could cut through the stench.

The clock of the Rigg's bank had stopped at 2: 13. A man lay sprawled out beside the ATM outside, his hand still gripping his Visa check card. A bitch of a way to avoid those ferocious ATM fees.

Mulder's legs were tight and shaking from the uphill run as he turned the last corner. . . and froze.

His eyes were locked onto Scully's building. Tunnel vision. He was dimly aware of Zeke calling after him. His vision blurred and his eyes stung. He reached up with one hand and wiped the sweat from his brow as it poured down his face. The act broke his immobility. Mulder turned back toward his old companion.

"This way, Zeke. . . it's right here!"

Zeke waved back and watched as Mulder sprinted out of sight. Then he paused for a moment to catch his weary breath. . . and to say a quick prayer to the heavens.

"God, I know we don't talk as much as we should. And it's my fault, of course. But. . . please don't let this boy down here. Please let his young woman be alive. I might be wrong, but I think that's why you put me here in this mess. . . to find her. So, for once, let an old man be right about his hunch. "

Zeke raised his head and looked up at the sky, his eyes scrunched against the sharp, setting sun.

"You heard that, right?"




Scully's Residence
1920 hours

"Scully! "

Mulder cried out his partner's name as he ran down her hallway. He had been concerned when he found the front security door broken out. Glass littered the carpeting. The looters in Georgetown had been vicious. He turned the corner toward her apartment and tripped.

He fell hard on his right side, the wind knocked out of his chest.

Mulder looked to see what had caused this particular trip to the carpet and shuddered, doing a quick scramble toward the far wall.

A young man -- or what *used* to be a young man -- was draped across the floor. A stereo had fallen onto the ground beside him, shattered into several pieces from its abrupt introduction to the hard ground. A looter caught in the act? Probably.

Mulder stared at where the right half of the man's head used to reside. Shotgun blasts in close quarters were not conducive to getting on the cover of People Magazine's *50 Most Beautiful* issue. Of course, what kind of rocket scientist thief steals a stereo when there's no power anywhere?

Mulder wiped the back of his hand against his suddenly dry mouth and stifled a horrified giggle. *I wonder if he was a chip off the old block? Did he have a good head on his shoulders? Or did he commit this act to save face? *He crawled away on his hands and knees as more bad puns reared their ugly heads.

Then, he was there. On the threshold.

He swallowed a groan. The door was ajar. Scully would never leave her door that way. Not if she could help it.

He pulled out his gun and pondered his approach. Slow and stealthy or Rambo?

He kicked the door and jumped inside the apartment as the door slammed against the wall, it's hinges unhinged. He moved on the balls of his feet, ready for anything in his combat stance.

"Scully?" He called out, even as his eyes scanned the room. There was no doubt that someone had been here. Papers were strewn about, an open bag of potato chips sat on the coffee table. They were the brand that Scully hid on top of her refrigerator. . . a guilty and pleasureful secret. She always forgot that Mulder was taller than she was. . . he could easily see any dust bunnies or secret, evil food stashes in her kitchen.

He moved down the hallway. The bathroom was empty. He kicked at the slightly open bedroom door and it swung in with a *thunk. *

She had been here. Recently.

But something had happened.

A loud thump in the living room made Mulder bolt back to the doorway, pointing his gun down the hall.

"Mulder?" Zeke called out meekly as he walked straight into the line of fire.

"God, Zeke! I almost shot you!" Mulder fell back heavily against the door frame and closed his eyes, took a deep breath.

Zeke walked up to his and put his hand on Mulder's shoulder. "Is she here, son?"

Mulder could only shake his head. He pushed himself upright and walked back into the bedroom. The closet door was open, several items of clothing had fallen off their hangers onto the floor.

Mulder stooped over and began to hang the articles back up, carefully fitting sweaters and shirts onto the properly padded hangers as he ran his fingers over the material. Scully would want her things to be neat.

Zeke studied the room and sighed.

"So, she was here and packed a few things. . . in a hurry it looks like. "

Mulder nodded. His disappointment had exhausted him. He wasn't thinking clearly.

Zeke came over and took him by the arm.

"Let's go back out to the living room and think this through. . . maybe she left you another note. "

Mulder's eyes widened. Why hadn't he thought of that? He pushed past Zeke and ran down the hallway. He tore across the papers on her desk, the coffee table. He checked the kitchen. Nothing. Where had she gone? And, more importantly, *why* did she leave? She would have known he would come here looking for her.

Zeke gave him his answer.

"Mulder?" Zeke called from the bathroom. "There's something here you should see. "

Mulder followed the old man's worried voice. He stopped in the doorway and stared as Zeke pointed toward the basin.

While he had been running around the apartment, he had missed the telltale signs. The trail. Dark little spots that adorned the carpet tracking from the living room to the bathroom. Red spots.

Blood streaked across the harsh white of the porcelain sink.

"Scully. . ." Mulder murmured hoarsely.

Zeke took matters into his own hands and began to investigate as Mulder stared at the blood.

"Mulder, look. She was probably injured, but she was still well enough to take care of herself. See?" He pointed at the medicine cabinet. Small bloodied fingerprints marred the mirror. Zeke looked into the waste basket and saw the remnants of bandages and gauze. The blood was dry.

"Whatever happened, she dealt with it and left here under her own power. And I'd say it was at least twenty-four hours ago. "

Mulder nodded.

"So, where would she go?"

Mulder finally found his voice. "She would go to my place. . . Alexandria. That has to be where she is. . . "

Mulder turned and headed for the door, but Zeke grabbed his shoulder from behind and spun the agent around. Mulder was angry and impatient. He knew where they had to go immediately.

"Hang on, son. Look outside. . . "

Mulder reluctantly looked out the window. The sun had sunk low on the horizon and would soon disappear completely. Darkness had crept well past the edges of buildings and trees.

"We have to get to her. . ." Mulder protested, already knowing Zeke's argument.

"Not tonight, Mulder. Think. It will be nearly pitch black by the time we get back to the boat. We have no idea if there are any survivors around. . . unfriendlies. And I have a feeling that this Dana of yours might just blow our heads off if we go bump in the night. "

Mulder smirked at the thought. Zeke was right. Dammit.

"Let's get back to our boat pronto. . . we'll push out a ways from shore. Give ourselves a little buffer zone. We'll head out first thing in the a. m. Then we'll find Dana when she'll be able to actually notice just how happy you are to see her." Zeke waggled his brows.

Mulder's face flushed slightly at the innuendo.

"Let's go, then, pardner. . ." Zeke drawled.

Mulder held up one finger signaling Zeke to wait a sec. . . and ran back to the bedroom. Zeke didn't follow but listened to Mulder as he rummaged around in the room. . . was that the closet door? A few moments later, Mulder emerged with a small backpack that appeared to be stuffed full.

Zeke gave him a questioning look, but Mulder said nary a word as he led the old man back outside.

They were silent as they made their way back to the river. Zeke didn't want to admit it, but he was worried. Mulder hadn't seen everything in the bathroom.

Zeke had made sure he didn't see the large pool of blood in the bathtub.

He once again silently raised his eyes to the heavens, asking for help.




CHAPTER TWELVE

"All night long on my bed I looked for the one my heart loves; I looked for him but did not find him. I will get up now and go about the city, through its streets and squares; I will search for the one my heart loves. So I looked for him but did not find him." - Song of Songs 3: 1-2




July 3
0230 hours

Fox Mulder ran through the darkened streets of Alexandria. He didn't know how, but somewhere he had taken a wrong turn. He was lost.

He ran down one street after another, each one seeming to be a bit longer and a bit darker than the last. If only he could find his way back to King Street. . . but he couldn't see any of the street signs. It was like being in a dream where he was back in high school and his teacher Ms. Kaiser -- and it was *always* that witch, no matter what the dream -- asked a question. He always knew the answer but couldn't speak. No matter how hard he tried, no sound would pass from his lips. And her foot would start tapping and her ruler was rapping against her thin, age- spotted arm. And if she wanted him to raise his hand, he could never quite lift his arm from his desk.

*Well. If 'Fox-y' doesn't know the answer. . . *

It was frustrating as hell.

He stopped and bent over, resting his palms on his knees, trying to catch his breath. . . gather his bearings.

He looked around. He had no idea where Zeke was. Was the old man still back on his boat? Or was he wandering around in this maze of a ghost town that had once been a boom town of shoppers and commuters with a hard-on for colonial brick?

Then. . . he heard it. Or perhaps he felt it first in that still- primitive area at the back of his neck where tiny hairs stood on end.

The distinct and mocking cry of a crow.

And Mulder knew that it was well past a good bird's bedtime.

He scanned his surroundings but could see nothing but the stuttered forms of abandoned buildings and apartments that had become crypts for the dead. He tried not to imagine the black stares of the occupants. Would their eyes follow his movements like a painted portrait? Hell. Who needed "American Gothic" when you had Mr. and Mrs. Hyrum P. Tibbett sitting in their Old Towne brownstone watching you?

The cry became more insistent, but Mulder could only helplessly stand and listen to it echo off of brick and cement. There was no way to trace it to its source. And he dearly wanted to peg the winged son-of-a-finch with a rock.

He had no time to defend himself from the sudden flutter of wings that batted beside his head. He yelled his outrage as a talon scratched across his face.

Damn. It had been going straight for his eyes! Where the hell was Tippi Hedren when you needed her anyway?

Mulder brought his arms over his head to protect his face and did the only thing he could -- he ran.

He had no idea how long he had been running, or even what direction he was headed, but soon, the hard pavement beneath his feet turned into dirt covered earth.

The earth was dark. . . fertile. A farmer's dream. And the air smelled different. The semi-sweet aroma of dirt and sky. Like Kansas after a summer thunderstorm. *No. Not Kansas. Nebraska. . . *But how did he *know* that?

Mulder stopped and lowered his arms tentatively, waiting for the crow to strike anew.

But the attack never came.

And instead of the bird's taunting cry, his ears picked up a tender, welcoming sound. Someone was singing. Was that a guitar playing, too?

Mulder found himself on a lonely plains road. The dusk light was enough to show his path between the fields of corn.

He followed the sound of the voice -- a woman's voice. He was careful, but not out of fear. For some reason, he felt safe here now.

After a few minutes, he found himself on a gravel strewn path that led to a small house. The song was loud enough now for him to hear the words. . .

"When the Spirit says move you've got to move, uh, huh. When the Spirit says move you gotta to move, uh, huh When the Spirit says move you gotta move, Oh, Lord When the Spirit says move you gotta move, uh, move, uh, move"

The old woman sat on her front porch, the guitar held in her dry, withered fingers. She smiled when she saw him and stopped singing, her fingers squeaked across the frets as she set the guitar down.

Mulder was unsure of what to say or do. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to make you stop. . . "

The woman laughed. It was hoarse and deep, marked by a lifetime of joy and grief. She smiled peacefully and stared directly into his eyes.

"I've been told not to call you Fox. So I guess that means I'm supposed to call you Mulder. "

Mulder's jaw dropped in surprise. "How do you know who I am?"

"*He* told me," she replied, pointing a finger heavenward.

Mulder's eyes widened with an *Oh that explains eeeeverything* expression. "But who are you?"

The woman actually clucked at him in amusement. "Everyone just calls me Mother Abagail -- had so many children, grandchildren and great-grandbabies. . . and there's some great-greats in there, too. It's just simple that way. "

Mulder smiled.

"But don't think this old woman is so soft that she'll fall for that charm of yours. . . I've seen more than enough of you men in my days," she teased.

Mulder purposely frowned.

They were both silent for a few moments, sizing each other up. Mother Abigail spoke first.

"You're a smart one, there. No doubt about that. Not like poor ol' Fred over there in town. Cow went and kicked him in the head when he was just barely weaned from his mama. Never was too bright after that. . . but he was a sweet child of God. It was probably better that he died of the sickness and didn't have to face what was coming for the rest of us.

"But, *you. *You want to know how and why you're here, doncha?"

"The question had crossed my mind, yes," Mulder replied. He shoved his hands into the front pockets of his jeans like a schoolboy. He felt almost guilty for wanting an explanation. And he had a feeling that if he got out of line, Mother Abagail wouldn't hesitate to whack him with her cane or grab him by the ear.

Mother Abagail patted the floor beside her chair with her cane. It was an invitation to sit beside her. He obeyed. And he found it oddly comforting -- like sitting at the feet of the grandmother he never knew.

She reached out and ran her arthritis gnarled hand through his hair. She pushed lightly at his head as she released him.

"You need a haircut! Just because some things have happened don't mean you can just go and forget to look presentable. . . "

Mulder looked into her eyes, serious.

"What *is* happening, Mother Abagail? I know this must be a dream. . . but *why? *

Mother Abagail's eyes narrowed. "You've been seein' him at night. The one with red eyes and the beast's hands. . . "

Mulder nodded in amazement.

"I can answer your question, child. He *is* real. . . just as real as old Mother Abagail before you. "

Mulder shuddered. He knew that Mother Abagail told him the truth. "How can I make it stop?" he pleaded.

"Fox, child. You listen to an old woman." She shook her bony finger and pointed to his heart.

"You won't be able to stop the evil one from seeking you. I know how he frightens you. . . how he won't leave well enough alone. He invades your dreams. It isn't for me to stop yet. . . perhaps, if God wills it, I will do battle later. . . but that is for Him to know. But, He has told me this. . . there is something you can do. A strength you sometimes forget. . . "

The woman stopped and looked to the heaven above, as though she had been interrupted from On High.

"What is it?" Mulder asked. He squinted at the skies above, but could not see anything.

Mother Abagail nodded and turned her gaze upon Mulder.

"Not yet, He says. He will tell you when your number is complete. "

"What?" Mulder stared at her. "How can I fight this? *You* brought me here. . . "

Mother Abagail chuckled softly and shook her head as she resumed the motion of her rocking chair.

"*I* did not bring you here. . . *He* did. He wants you to know that you are not alone. No matter what you may think. He's got His eye on you, child. But things will get much worse before this is all over. You must prepare yourself and those you love. God willin', we'll be around to see how it all comes out. But never doubt that He has a plan for you. There are things you must face. . . And He will show you what you need to do when you need to do it. . ."

She stopped and looked up again. "Yes, Lord. I'll tell him." She smiled at Mulder. "But you will have company on that road. "

"Scully?" Mulder rasped with a painful hope.

Mother Abagail merely smiled at him. But then, her smile seemed to fade and her gaze moved straight through him and out toward the darkening horizon. She wrapped her well-worn shawl more tightly about her bony shoulders.

"Best get goin' now, boy. There's a storm coming and I got me some bread to start bakin'. . . And I'll be seeing you again soon enough. . . "

The clouds rolled and coiled against the sky. They rumbled and roared in the distance. The tall rows of corn began to ripple and bend at the sudden onslaught of a heated wind.

Mulder turned up the road and began to run. His feet slid against the gravel. Sweat poured down his face. He could see nothing but dark sky, yet he knew he running from the face of evil. Evil that was trying to tap him upon the shoulder.

A gust of wind howled down the road and lifted him off his feet, throwing him to the ground. . .


Potomac River
Siren Of The Sea
0545 Hours

"I said, 'wake up, ' Mulder! "

Mulder sat bolt upright on the floor, his eyes open and wild. It took him a moment to remember where he was and to recognize that the nudging he felt on his shoulder was Zeke trying to rouse him. Then he realized that he had somehow fallen out of his bed and was now a tangle of long limbs and bedsheets upon the carpet.

Mulder ran a shaky hand through his hair and back down over his face. His dream had been more than vivid. . . and he remembered it all.

"What time is it, Zeke?"

"Time to get a move on, son. Sun's comin' up and we need to get to Alexandria. "


When he was sure the young man was awake, Zeke turned and walked stiffly from the cabin. His morning arthritis was getting worse. Maybe when they found this "Dr." Scully, she could help him out a bit.

And maybe. Just maybe these horrible dreams would stop. Zeke couldn't remember his exactly, but Mulder sure looked like he had a doozy of a vision. All Zeke was left with was that continuing feeling of *rightness. *That he was doing the right thing by helping Mulder. But there was also a nagging urgency to their mission -- urgency that was well in place even before he found the blood in Scully's apartment.

He headed for the galley to down his second cup of java of the morning. He knew that Mulder would be close behind.

He was right.


Alexandria, Virginia
Fox Mulder's Apartment
0800 hours

Mulder stood at the threshold of the fourth floor stairwell exit.

As his flashlight bounced against the door, he thought of how funny it was that you never really look at the spots you pass every day. The water stain of dubious origin on the wall beside the handrail, the crack in the molding along the wall by the elevator that never worked properly, the strange yellow discoloring of the supposedly red fire extinguisher beside Mr. Roger Johnson's apartment -- of course, everything near old Mr. Johnson and his false teeth always seemed to have a certain yellow tinge.

No. You never notice them unless something is out of place -- but, even then, you were more than likely to be wrong about the change. If someone repaints the hallway, you'll think it's new overhead lighting. If they change the carpet, you'll think it's new paint.

Now, as Zeke stood behind him, waiting for him to open the fire door and lead the way to good ol' Apartment 42, Mulder was upset with himself.

As the morning sunlight weakly sifted through a tiny, boarded skylight above, he realized that he could not even remember the color of the carpet in the hallway beyond. *His* hallway. The world as he knew it had come to an end and he was already losing the tiny details of his *life. *

Next thing he knew, he wouldn't be able to remember what *she* looked like.

"Mulder? Can we please get out of this stairwell?" Zeke prodded. His voice echoed across and down the not-so-sterile steps.

They had been lucky so far. First, because Mulder had only managed one loud "Scully!" outside before Zeke had strangled him. All they needed was for every surviving psycho to zero in on their location. Second, only the smell of death greeted them when they entered the building. No bodies. Yet. And Zeke really and truly wanted to keep it that way. But, he was certain that he would bolt out of this hole of stairs within thirty seconds if the former FBI agent didn't do something really quick. It was way too dark here, even with the flashlights. He could already imagine a bony hand dripping with aromatic rotting flesh reaching out for the cuff of his pants. . .

"Mulder! Open the damn door! "

This worked.

Mulder turned the knob and threw the door open. They were greeted with a rush of warm, stale, moist air. Zeke had no desire to find out exactly what or *who* made the air so moist.

The men emerged into the fourth floor hallway. Mulder directed his light to the right, Zeke to the left. No happy little corpses were waiting to explode. No signs of looters. In fact, there were no signs that anyone at all had been here for several days at least. No one *alive* that is. The residents that had barricaded themselves into their apartments early during the epidemic were quite clearly making their presence known now. Marking their territory, so to speak. For once, Mulder was glad that he had never gotten to know any of his neighbors.

The floorboards creaked in protest as the men made their way to Mulder's apartment. Mulder made a mental note for each door. Past Number 45 ("No more loud stereo crap at 4 a. m. from you, pal"). Number 44 ("Wonder what that big dog you snuck in past the landlord is doing about now, eh? Run out of Kibbles yet?" ) -- a snuffling snort from under the base of door accompanied that thought. Followed by a low and hungry growl. Zeke looked at Mulder. It was the first live dog they had encountered. Or rather *heard. *

"Big, mean dog," Mulder responded.

"Big, mean, hungry dog," Zeke murmured. They both moved to the wall on the other side of the hall. Mulder pulled out his gun.

Then they passed Number 43 ("The old lady who *always* had those old black, furry curlers in her hair. . . ").

Then they reached his apartment. Mulder tried the door. It was locked. For several moments, Mulder panicked. Where the hell were his keys? He hadn't thought about keys for days. Somehow, when the bottom dropped out of the civilization market, keys just weren't one of those things you worried about. He patted down his pockets.

"What's the problem? Lost your keys, son?" Zeke asked, almost amused at the irony.

Mulder looked at him, his eyes closed in annoyance. Without warning, he took one step back and with one well-placed kick. . . *Wham! * the door was now open.

Zeke chuckled. "You do that often, don't you?"

Mulder shrugged and led the way into his old lair.

One thing was quite certain. His fish were DOA. Deader than the dust bunnies that no longer hid under the sofa. Secondary victims of the flu.

To Zeke, it was hard to tell if looters had been inside or if a cyclone had managed to hit only the interior of Mulder's apartment. Papers and files and magazines were strewn about.

To Mulder, it appeared as though no one had been there since he left. . . ages ago.

Mulder moved quickly toward his hall closet while Zeke, fearing disease, tried not to touch anything. Mulder threw open the door and dropped to his knees. He began to rummage inside and within a few moments he had pulled up one floor board.

"It's not here," Mulder said simply.

"What's not here?"

"The package. . . some friends of mine said it would be here. . . "

"Could Dana have taken it?" Zeke asked hopefully.

"Maybe. But so could someone else. . . someone I hoped was dead. "

Zeke was surprised at Mulder's response. He knew that Mulder had secrets about his work at the FBI, but he had never even guessed at just how dangerous the job must have been.

"Let me check the bedroom. Maybe she *was* here. . ." Mulder shouted as he jumped to his feet and ran down the dark hallway into the bedroom.

Zeke tentatively made his way across the living room to the leather sofa and desk. He picked up a few stray items from the desk, trying to learn a little bit more about his new friend. A UFO-shaped paperweight, books on psychic surgery and auras. . . and a photo of a woman with auburn hair. *Dana Scully! * he realized. He smiled. Mulder had tried to describe her, but the words just could not do the woman justice. He was about to put the photo back down, but was rudely interrupted by a voice behind him.

"Move and you're a dead man. "

The voice was low, quiet, deadly serious, and definitely feminine.

"Whatever you say," Zeke stuttered. Where the hell was Mulder?

"Put your hands on your head and slowly turn around. If you even breathe wrong, say goodbye to your brains, you son-of-a-bitch," the woman demanded.

*Ooookay. Not a problem, * Zeke thought.

He did as instructed and turned to face her.

And, much to the woman's consternation. . . he smiled.

The woman was small. Definitely disheveled. Her shirt, some kind of sports jersey, was way too big for her, but she had turned back the sleeves a bit. She had attempted to push her hair back behind her ears, but her bangs would not cooperate. And her hair -- *auburn* hair -- could not cover the bruising below her left eye or the cut on her chin.

Definitely Dana Scully.

But the look in her steel covered eyes and the way she held that gun gave Zeke not one whit of doubt that she knew how to use it and would with little thought.

He was on wafer thin ice.

With his hands still laced through his thinning hair, he croaked out a plea to the heavens. . .

"Mulder?"

The woman's eyes grew large and she jumped when footsteps sounded -- coming down the hall toward them.

Then, just as Zeke was resigned to being shot and dying on that black leather sofa -- *At least it looks comfortable* -- in a hail of gunfire. . .

Mulder entered the room and saw her.

And she saw him.

"Scully?" "Mulder?"

Time stopped for everyone except Zeke, who wished there was still someone around to whisper his name like that.

Scully's shoulders suddenly sagged and her arms fell limp to her sides. Her eyes were glazed in disbelief and relief.

Zeke recognized the symptoms of shock. And he wondered if he would be able to get to her side to catch her if she started to collapse. . . but quashed that idea when he realized that she still held her gun. He looked to Mulder expectantly -- surely the agent saw what was happening to her. . . .

But Mulder was in the exact same state.

Just as Zeke was pondering over what he was going to do when both agents were sprawled across the floor, apparently something in the center of the Earth finally moved. . .

Mulder took two hesitant steps toward her. "Scully?" he whispered.

Scully, her arms still useless at her sides, moved toward him as Mulder opened his arms. . .

And then they were together.




CHAPTER THIRTEEN




Mulder's Apartment
Alexandria, VA
July 3
0820 hours

A fifth wheel. The ninth hot dog with that damn eight-pack of buns. <>The crumbly pieces that reside at the bottom of the Cap'n Crunch box.

Yup. That's exactly what Zeke was. He stared at the couple in front of him. Not even a crowbar could get between them. Zeke just wanted to quietly sneak from the room and allow them some privacy. If only they hadn't managed to block the lone exit.

But there they stood. As he watched, he wasn't quite sure what was holding them up. Mulder's arms were firmly wrapped around Scully's shoulders. One of his hands had sneaked its way into her hair, holding her head to his chest.

At some point, Scully had limply dropped her gun to the floor. And now her knees had buckled and Mulder was her sole support. Apparently Mulder hadn't noticed this development.

Zeke realized that he had to take some kind of action. He moved forward carefully and gently placed his hand on Mulder's shoulder.

"Mulder. . ." Zeke quietly prodded.

Mulder's reply was a combination shrug and small grunt.

"Mulder." Zeke's voice was firmer, stronger. His fingers tightened on the agent's shoulder.

"Mulder! "

The alarm in Zeke's voice finally got the younger man's attention.

"Scully?" Mulder tried to pull back to see her face, but she had become a dead weight against him.

"Let's get her to the sofa," Zeke ordered, pushing obstacles like the coffee table out of the way. He snatched up her gun and tucked it into his waistband.

Mulder nodded and with one swift move, he scooped his partner up into his arms.

As Mulder carefully laid Scully down, Zeke started looking around for pillows. "We need to elevate her feet. . ." Zeke announced with an air of medical authority that he didn't actually feel.

Mulder pointed toward his bedroom and Zeke was off like a shot. A few moments later, he returned with two pillows. Mulder was busy brushing the hair back from Scully's face. His fingers lingered over the cuts and bruises on her cheek and chin.

Zeke hesitated. For some reason, he did not feel it was his right to touch the woman. But Mulder sensed his presence and took over. He slid one arm under her legs and lifted while Zeke placed the pillows underneath her.

That accomplished, Zeke still needed something to do.

"Do you have any bottled water around here, Mulder?" Zeke asked hopefully.

"In the kitchen -- under the sink. . . "

Zeke shuffled off, happy to have a cause.




Scully began to stir. Her eyes fluttered but did not open.

"Scully?" Mulder prompted.

Her eyes still closed, she raised her right hand and rested it on his forearm.

"I'm fine, Mulder," she murmured.

In the face of such an absurd comment, Mulder did the only thing he could. He laughed. It was a release of relief and the joy of actually hearing her voice again.

"It's good to see you, too, Scully," he smiled as he slipped her hand into his own.

This time, Scully opened her eyes and took in her surroundings -- finally aware of where she was.

"What happened?" Mulder asked -- his question encompassing much more than her fainting spell.

"Must have low blood sugar. . . I haven't eaten anything since yesterday morning. I just need to get my bearings back here for a minute. "

Scully blinked a few times and then tried to sit up. Mulder slipped one arm behind her back to assist -- but his other hand never let go of hers. He watched her carefully, but she seemed to be okay.

"We'll get you something to eat," he began as he knelt in front of her.

"We?"

Mulder was about to answer when Zeke slipped back into the room.

"Is it safe to come in now?" he asked as he entered, his hands up in surrender -- a bottle of water causing one hand to slouch slightly.

"Scully, this is Zeke. Zeke -- Dana Scully. "

Zeke came forward and, after opening the bottle, he offered it to her. Then he gave Mulder a hard, teasing look.

"Geez, Mulder. I know you said she was beautiful, but you could have at least *warned* an old man to prepare his heart! *

Mulder was more than a bit flustered and Scully almost choked on the water as Zeke smugly sat down in a chair across from the sofa.

Mulder quickly released Scully's hand and stood. Keeping his gaze deliberately away from Zeke, he walked over to his backpack and removed a Power Bar from the side pocket. He returned to Scully and gave it to her.

"Thanks," she mumbled. Unconsciously, she scooted over slightly to make room for Mulder to sit down. And even though Zeke's amused countenance still made his ears burn, Mulder sat down beside her, his leg resting against hers -- needing that connection to her.

"Are you feeling better, Miss Scully?" Zeke asked.

Scully nodded slightly between chews. "Yes, thank you. And it's Dana. "

She examined the older man carefully. He was weathered. . . beaten by the wind and sun. He looked like a sea captain. She liked his eyes -- kind, but most certainly a tease.

But, she was concerned about the jaundiced pallor of his skin. She could even see it under his leathered veneer. She would have said something, but Mulder -- master at switching gears midstream, and mixing metaphors for that matter --interrupted her.

"Do you have the package the boys left here?" he prodded hopefully. He was obviously trying to move the conversation toward neutral ground.

She sighed and looked at him. She did not want to discuss the package yet.

"Yes, Mulder. It's over by the door in my pack," she tilted her head toward the entrance.

Mulder immediately stood and went over to retrieve it. As he did, Zeke watched Scully. He saw the stiffness in her back, the wariness in her eyes. And he had noticed how easily she had deflected any look or question about her wounds. Then he remembered that Mulder had not seen all of the *evidence* left in Scully's apartment. All of the blood.

He stood and went after Mulder. As Mulder picked up the pack, Zeke laid a hand across his forearm. He spoke in a low voice.

"Mulder. I know you want to look at this right away. I can see how important it is to you. . . but she," he gestured toward Scully, "Dana needs some rest. We should tend to her injuries. Besides, I'd feel much safer back on the boat. We can take care of this stuff back there. . . okay? I can't see how a few hours will make much difference. . . "

Mulder looked from Zeke to Scully. He saw the lines on her face. The ones that had conveniently disappeared from his vision the minute he thought of the package. His shoulders dropped. Zeke was right, as usual.

Mulder walked back in to Scully and knelt down in front of her.

"Look, Scully. . . if you're feeling up to it, I think we should get out of here first. Zeke has a boat. . . "

"A boat?" she interrupted. Her eyebrow arched with doubt. Since when could Mulder stomach the sea?

Mulder smirked back.

"Actually, Dana," Zeke chimed in. . . he couldn't resist, "it's a sixty-five foot luxury motoryacht with four staterooms, a luxury galley, a fully-stocked wet bar, and two showers. . . and the master cabin has something I think you'll like. A wonderfully deep, deluxe bath tub." Zeke wore an evil grin.

Scully turned to Mulder, completely serious. She patted him on the shoulder. "Mulder. It's been a really nice six years. . . but I think I'll go with him. "

Mulder mouthed a quick *ha, ha. *"I don't think he could handle you, Scully. Besides. . . he already gave *me* the master cabin. But I'd be willing to wrestle ya' for it, Scully. . ." Mulder waggled his brows. "

Zeke sighed dramatically. "Guess he'll have to come, too. "

Scully smiled at Mulder and ran her hand through his ruffled hair. "Yeah, Zeke. I don't think it would be safe for me to let him out of my sight now that I have him back. . . "

She let her words fade. She hadn't meant to say that much out loud. But Mulder let her off the hook for the moment.

"Think you can manage the walk?" Then, in a serious tone that surprised her, he added, "I could carry you if you want. . . "

Scully looked over Mulder's shoulder at Zeke, who was leaning in the doorway with a bemused and knowing look on his face. She turned back to Mulder.

"I think I can manage. The water and Power Bar were what I needed. . . "

"Okay. Just let me run back into the bedroom and grab a few things first. "

Mulder stood and zipped off to his bedroom. Scully and Zeke could hear him rummaging through drawers and the closet. Two minutes later, Mulder was back at Scully's side.

He offered her a hand. She took it and slowly rose, feeling the strength of his arm -- a strength that would make sure she did not fall. She was still a bit woozy, but she knew what had caused it -- and it wasn't simply low blood sugar.

But Mulder didn't need to know that right now. Besides, maybe she was wrong about her self-diagnosis.

Mulder clung to her like cellophane wrap on a CD as she took a few steps. When he was sure she wouldn't fall face first into the carpet, he gave her a little more breathing room.

The trio headed for the door.




Siren Of The Sea
1500 hours

Scully sat on the main deck, looking out at the abandoned docks. She was feeling much better. She and Mulder were together again, Zeke had prepared her first decent meal in ages, and the shower and shampoo had helped her wash away several days worth of grime and horror. And she was looking forward to a long soak in the bathtub before going to bed that night.

She and Mulder had agreed to pore over and discuss the Gunmen's package -- *more like a timebomb, * she thought -- after dinner. In the meantime, Mulder had slipped off the boat two hours ago saying he needed to pick up a few things -- run a few errands. She and Zeke had both argued with him, it was too dangerous for him to go alone, but Mulder had waved them off. Scully was in no shape to traipse around Old Towne and he wanted Zeke standing guard on the boat.

In the end, Mulder won, of course.

So that left her to sit and stare at the sky and listen to the ebb and flow of the river as its tiny wind-licked waves lapped at the sides of the boat.

She closed her eyes, trying to remember how a normal day in Alexandria had sounded -- the grinding of gears, the clopping of shoppers' feet against brick and cobblestone, the high squeal of brakes that needed to be replaced, the idling hum of engines waiting to be released by a green light, the "ahem" of someone clearing their throat. . .

No. Wait. That "ahem" was in the here and now.

Zeke stood above her, his face silhouetted in shade as his back held the sun at bay. A small cooler dangled from his hand.

He gestured toward the chair beside her. "Is this seat taken, Miss?"

"It's your boat," Scully replied with a small smile.

Zeke pulled the chair closer to Scully's, being careful to turn it so he wouldn't face the afternoon sun. He set the cooler down beside him.

"You look like you're feeling better -- less pale," Zeke ventured.

"I am. That shower and your cooking were what I needed," Scully replied. As much as she wanted to trust Zeke. . . as much as she wanted to have *someone* to confide in. . . she still maintained her guard. Years of flawless practice.

Zeke nodded silently. He leaned over and opened the cooler and retrieved two bottles. He held one out toward Scully. Water dripped down the side of the glass, over the label. She could see that it was some kind of designer, hi-protein, super nutrient juice drink.

"I think we both know that you need this. . ." Zeke explained.

She took the bottle, but stared into his eyes. Somehow. He *knew. *But just how much? She couldn't withstand his gaze any longer. She averted her eyes to scan the ingredients of the drink. Yep. Just what the doctor ordered. It was even one of her favorite flavors. Strawberry-Orange-Banana. She twisted the cap off and took a sip.

Zeke took her silence as an okay to keep talking. She wanted to be coaxed into a confession. And he was now wearing the white collar.

"Pardon me for being a bit forward, Dana, but I know you haven't talked to Mulder yet. . . and I suspect you do not plan on telling him the full details of what happened back at your apartment. "

She took another sip and stared back out at the dock.

"Mulder didn't see all of the blood, but I did. I didn't want him to see it. "

That reminder. She had to say something. Try and explain.

"It's complicated, Zeke. And I don't think you have all the history. . "

"The way I see it, *we* are the ones who choose to make things 'complicated. 'We can also choose to make things simple. Will not telling him make this -- whatever it is -- go away?"

She hesitated a moment before shaking her head. Of course her silence wouldn't make it "go away." But would saying it out loud, telling Mulder. . . would it *help? *

Zeke didn't wait for her verbal response.

"I didn't think so. Dana. Look at me. "

Scully turned. His look, his face -- he was just so damned sincere.

"All you have is each other now. The world we knew is gone. *Talk* to him. I know you trust him. I can see it plain as day. And I think he deserves to know the truth. "

Scully flinched at the use of the word. It hit close to the bone. Zeke pretended not to notice.

"Besides, Dana. You're a lousy liar and it doesn't become your pretty face. Not when it comes to your health. "

Zeke had done all he could on the subject and he recognized it.

He took her hand and slid back in his chair.

Silent.




They sat for some fifteen minutes before Zeke spoke again.

"I don't know how much time we have before Mulder gets back, so I'd like to. . . I need to discuss this with you now. We can't stay here in Alexandria forever. So, I'm sailing out of here tomorrow. Alone. "

"What do you mean, 'alone'?" She asked.

"Dana, I can't even explain this to myself very well, so I doubt it will make much sense to you. I just know that I finished what I was supposed to accomplish. I helped Mulder find you. But now, you two have a different road to travel together. You need to go west. . . somewhere on the Plains. . . like. . . "

"Nebraska?"

"Yeah. I think that's it. . . How did you know?" Zeke was shocked at first. But then he remembered Mulder's dreams. Had she been plagued by the same images? Images *he* could only faintly remember?

"I've been having dreams. . . ." Scully mumbled. She was silent for a few moments, trying to make sense of the jumbled scenes that replayed through her mind -- but then she remembered Zeke's words.

"But you still haven't answered my question. Why are you leaving?"

"I haven't said anything to Mulder. To be honest, I didn't think I'd end up so attached to the guy. He's a little spooky. Gets under your skin. And now, I can't find it within me to tell him. Better to let him think that this is really my choice. . ." He laughed. "Guess you and I are not so different after all, eh? Always leaving poor Mulder out of the loop. "

Scully smirked, left brow raised automatically.

"I know. I'm blabbering. But time is not going to stand still, even for me. . . You see, before all of this happened, I had already been handed my sentence. Pancreatic cancer. "

Scully paled, but tried to keep her composure. Poor Zeke had no way of knowing the button he had just pressed.

She cleared her throat to speak. "I'd noticed that something was wrong. I just didn't know how to ask. How long?"

"Maybe two or three more months. . . "

"Are you experiencing any pain?" "Some. But it it ain't too bad. "

"We could pick up some Demoral. . . something for the pain. It's not like you need a prescription. . ." she offered.

"Already taken care of, Dana. I've got my stash. And I figured I could use a little extra when the time comes. . . "

Scully shook her head. He was so matter-of-fact. Had she been that way when she. . . ?

"Zeke. You shouldn't be alone. Stay with us. . ." she urged.

This time he was firm. "No. That's not the way it's supposed to play out. . . "

"I don't care, dammit!" Scully countered.

"Yes. You *do. *You've had the dreams. "

Scully did not want to listen.

Zeke insisted. "Good and evil. Heaven and Hell. That's what we're facing now. We've been given hints. Guidance. *Mulder* has had the dreams, too, Dana. And the same way you *know* you need to go to Nebraska. . . That same thing is telling me what *I* have to do. I know with everything within me that I won't be on that road with you two. . . with my two dear friends. "

He sat back with a sigh.

Scully was at a loss. What could she say? She could feel that Zeke was right. . . she sensed it. They didn't have a choice in the matter.

Zeke scooted his chair over until it touched hers. He wrapped his arm around her shoulders.

"Don't worry about me, lass. I'll be just fine. If I were to die tomorrow I'd be fine. I've lived a full life. And I got Mulder back here to you -- more or less in one piece. I'm just ready for my curtain call. And I always wanted to sail off into the sunset. "

Scully laid her head on his shoulder.

"But," he teased, "if I were just a few years younger, Mulder and I would be out on that dock dueling for your hand, my dear. "

She smiled softly and sighed. "I know you'll do what you have to, Zeke. But can I just cast my vote now and say that it sucks?"

He gave her shoulder a squeeze and laughed. He looked up and spotted a familiar figure walking down the dock. He nudged Scully. "Here comes Romeo now," he teased.

Scully watched as Mulder bounced down the wooden planks, barely able to hold the two bulging paper bags in his hands. He had a goofy grin plastered on his face.

"Oh, lord," Scully groaned. "He's gone and done *something*. . . "

Zeke stood, but leaned over to whisper in her ear. "Nah. He's just happy to be back with someone he loves. . . "

And Zeke hustled over to assist Romeo.




Siren Of The Sea
2200 hours

The trio sat on the top deck, beers in hand. A bucket of water sat nearby, filled with dead sparklers.

Mulder had insisted on an early Fourth of July celebration. Zeke was all for it. And Scully had welcomed the distraction from her afternoon chat with Zeke.

To Scully's relief, Mulder had shown no interest in the Gunmen's files. Avoidance was always good therapy. So they had rustled up a tasty dinner, grabbed some brews, and lit their fireworks.

Now they had relaxed, their tongues loosened by the power of Bud. Zeke was taking the opportunity to offer the agents some advice - - Scully, painfully aware that they were parting words, and Mulder, blissfully ignorant.

". . . And I have to warn you two. I learned a few things being an economist. I'd guess that we're still in the "Luxury Fever" phase of this new world. Survivors are recovering from their shock and are realizing that money is no object. Literally. They're running down to the BMW and Cadillac dealerships, breaking into and sleeping in the big mansions -- Living as high on the hog as Donald Trump without electricity and phone service.

"But this ain't gonna last. Cars need gas, gas stations need electricity and regular visits by tanker trucks. Food left in grocery stores will either be depleted or spoil. Within the next few weeks, it will be survival of the fittest -- another winnowing, separating those who can use their wits and, yes, brawn, from those who cannot.

"Once this 'cut' is winding down, barter will be the way of survival. The way society comes back together. And *you, * my dear Dana, will be a valuable commodity. Not only because you are a beautiful, healthy young woman, but because you are a *doctor. *"

Mulder jumped in. . . "Scully can take care of herself," he said proudly. . . and with a bit of an alcohol-induced slur.

"I'm sure she can. But it's time for selective memory of your FBI training, friends. There is no law and order in America, and there won't be for a long while, I should imagine. It's Wild West Pioneer time. Don't let the restraint that's been drilled into you be your downfall. "

The summer crickets chirped. The water slapped against the boat. And Mulder belched.

Scully took that as a cue. "That's it boys. My bath is calling me. Good night. "

She squeezed Mulder's shoulder and then, to her partner's surprise, she walked over to Zeke, leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. She turned on her heel, only stumbling slightly, and carefully descended the stairs into the boat below.

Mulder's jaw was still agape as Zeke linked his hands behind his head, grinning ear to ear.



2300 hours

The men were both beginning to nod off. Finally, Zeke stood and slapped at the side of Mulder's leg.

"I think it's time you get down to your room. Dana is waiting. . . "

Mulder snapped to attention. Zeke chuckled.

"Mulder, my boy. . . Not that I mind your company, but I sure hope it dawns on you soon what you *should* be doing right now. . . "

Mulder stood quickly, holding onto his chair for balance. He nodded. Scully should be in bed. . . er. . . out of the tub. . . by now. He mumbled his good-nights to Zeke and headed down the stairs.

Zeke watched as Mulder's form disappeared from view.

"Take care of her, my friend," he whispered.


Across The Docks

In the distance, they waited. They watched the yellow lights as they bobbed above the water.

Their time would soon come.




CHAPTER FOURTEEN

"To think of time -- of all that retrospection, To think of today, and the ages continued henceforward. Have you guessed you yourself would not continue? Have you dreaded these earth beetles? Have you feared the future would be nothing to you? Is today nothing? is the beginningless past nothing? If the future is nothing they are just as surely nothing. To think that the sun rose in the east -- that men and women were flexible, real, alive -- that everything was alive, To think that you and I did not see, feel, think, nor bear our part, To think that we are now here and bear our part. "
--Walt Whitman "To Think Of Time"

"This is the end. . . "
--The Doors




Alexandria Docks
July 3
2305 hours

Robert Barker had been waiting for this moment all his life. He had been marked at an early age.

Back in 1967, after his mother Agnes had gotten knocked up by Freddy Lamprey in the back seat of his '65 Mustang, dear old dad had taken the manly route by immediately joining the Marines and heading out for Vietnam. Poor Agnes was left alone to deal with the *truth* and the *consequences. *Hence, *Bob* Barker's annoying name. 'Cause Agnes Barker just loved that game show.
And Freddy Lamprey had a really bad first week in country. Five days after touchdown he was sitting in a water soaked bunker when some VC kid came running in, grenades and explosives strapped over his entire body. There wasn't even enough left of Freddy Lamprey to send home in a shoe box.

So, by the age of ten, Bobby Barker was lacking in the fatherly figure department. And Agnes was determined to do something about it. Besides, she was real anxious to get Bobby out of the apartment so she could have some kind of social life.

The answer was the Boy Scouts Of America. The minute Agnes heard of the local group, she dragged Bobby to the meeting hall and dropped him off.

And that's where Bobby Barker met troop leader Richard Specter. And Richard gave Bobby *lots* of attention. He took him to John Wayne movies. They played Army Rangers together. Richard was a real *pal. *

And Agnes didn't give it a second thought when Bobby told her about the Fourth Of July camping trip Richard had planned. Hell. She was happy to have the brat out of her hair so she could party. Besides, Bobby had always kind of scared her. He had a real creepy way of staring at her. . . all silent-like. . . when she sent him to his room for being naughty. And he liked to rip the heads off his G. I Joes.

Richard had told Bobby that he was "special." So Bobby had done everything that Richard asked. It had felt funny, but it hadn't really hurt. And Richard had told him it was their little secret, so he never mentioned it. Not even when he grew older and Richard no longer called. And not even when he was arrested at age thirteen for stealing old lady Simmons' Pontiac, which was a piece of shitola if anyone cared to know. The transmission always slipped.

One thing he had learned from Richard: Always be prepared. And he had prepared for this moment on the Alexandria docks. Years of war games and Neo-Nazi training had built him up.

And, last night, The Dark Man had told him just what to do. "You're a special one, Bobby," he had whispered.

Bob Barker smiled. He had a new secret.

He looked to this accomplices, Hector Ramirez and Tony Washington. He hated their impure skin, but what was a guy to do with such limited resources? Use them to get what you wanted and then whack 'em. So, for now, they were a regular Anti-Mod Squad. Barker was Pete, Washington was Linc, and Hector -- who liked to dress up like a Latino chick and roll the johns in Southeast D. C. -- he was Julie, although not nearly as hot and certainly not as blonde as the chick on t. v. And not as tempting as the red head on the boat.

Barker made Washington and Ramirez check their weapons and he went over the plan with them one last time before they moved into action.

Oh, his fingers were itching.




The Siren Of The Sea
2308 hours

Mulder quietly opened the cabin door. Or at least he *tried* to open it quietly. Even the gentle tide of the Potomac River was just enough to maneuver the floor up and down and substantially decrease his hand to door handle coordination. Of course, those Buds hadn't helped either.

He winced as he thudded through the entrance. He looked up, expecting a scowl from a formerly sleeping Scully, but was relieved to see that she lay unmoving on the bed. She had to be very tired.

A kerosene lantern was secured to the table beside the bed. It was a concession they had made to save fuel on the boat. Its shadowy flickering light danced across the slumbering figure on the bed.

Scully was curled up on top of the covers, an obvious concession to the lack of air conditioning in the cabin.

Mulder was content to watch her for a few moments, just happy to have her here with him. He tried not to feel too disappointed that he had *not* caught her still in the bathtub. . . But then he noticed her sleepwear. Over her shorts she was wearing one of his old sports jerseys. He smiled.

Then, deciding it would be best not to invade Scully's privacy any longer, he headed over toward their backpacks which had been thrown onto the sofa. He wanted to look at the file the Gunmen had left at his apartment and figured now was as good a time as any.

"Mulder," Scully spoke, startling him.

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to wake you. . ." Mulder murmured.

"I wasn't asleep. "

Scully sat up in the bed and reached over to the lantern to turn up the light a bit. She ran a hand through her pillow mussed hair and squinted to see what Mulder was doing.

Mulder wasn't exactly sure what she wanted. "I'll just grab a few things here, Scully, and I'll get out of your hair. . ." And he started to pick up the pack with the file.

But Scully was on to him.

"Mulder. It's late. Let the files wait until morning. "

"But. . . "

Her look was pleading. What was going on?

He walked over and knelt by the bed. He lifted a hand to push back her hair so he could see her face. The bruising there still had a few colorful phases to complete before it would improve.

"Are you feeling better?"

"The bath was nice. . . but it's a little hot in here. . . "

"It's too bad we can't use the air conditioning. . ." But then a thought came to mind. He jumped to his feet and scurried across the room. Scully's puzzled gaze followed him. He dropped down behind the bar and opened the small freezer.

After several moments of rattling noises, he came back to the bed with a large glass and a towel in his hand. He held the glass up and she could see that it was filled with small ice cubes.

He ceremoniously dumped about half of the cubes into the towel and wrapped up the ends. Then he plopped down on the bed beside Scully. He lifted the improvised ice pack to the side of her face.

"This should help. . . and we'll try and get some of that swelling down a bit."

"Thanks, Mulder. "

She had lifted her own hand to release Mulder from first aid duty, but he stayed her.

"I've got it. . . "

He was a little surprised when she acquiesced.

After a few moments of silence, Scully mumbled, "Hope you don't mind me borrowing one of your shirts. I didn't have a chance to grab much from my apartment. . . "

"No problem. I'm sure that my shirt is much happier with this arrangement," he teased. "But, just so you know, I *did* grab a few items while I was in your apartment yesterday. . . I thought I'd surprise you tomorrow. They're over in my pack. . . "

Scully tried not to let her eyes tear up. Mulder was very pleased when he saw her grateful expression. No words were necessary.

As Mulder lifted the towel to check the progress of ice, his left shirt sleeve stretched up, revealing the bandage near his shoulder. How had she not noticed it before? Scully frowned and reached toward it. He shrugged her away and returned the ice pack to her cheek.

Scully's eyes narrowed with concern. "What happened to your arm, Mulder?"

Mulder shrugged. "The rumors about rude New Yorkers are true. . . "

Scully rolled her eyes in annoyance, but accepted his lack of explanation. Once again he was playing down some life- threatening event that she probably did *not* really want to know about in detail.

"Can you tell me what happened to you, Scully?"

She shivered slightly.

"I don't want to talk about any of it tonight. . . I just want to. . . "

"Are you sure you're okay?"

She placed her hand over his. "I am now. The rest can wait. Tonight, let's just let *now* be *now. *We can deal with the rest tomorrow. . . okay?"

Mulder saw what she was really saying revealed in her eyes. "This is what I *need* to do tonight, Mulder." He nodded in agreement and let the topic drop.

Fifteen minutes later, the ice was almost melted and Scully was asleep. Mulder lifted the towel from her face, using one dry edge to gently dry the small drops of water from her cheek. Once again, he wondered what had happened to her. What had she been doing while he and Zeke were trying to get back to D. C. ?

Reluctantly, he eased himself from the bed, turned down the lantern, and placed the towel over the bar sink to dry. He turned back toward Scully and the bed. It was very inviting, but he knew there was a perfectly good bed in the cabin next door.

He turned to leave. . .

"I think it would be better for both of us if you stayed," Scully called.

"Are you sure, Scully?" But as he asked this, he was already walking back toward the bed. His body betrayed his words. He needed to be with her as much as she needed to be with him. She was just being honest about it.

She nodded. . . "Yes. Please?"

He stood beside the bed as he stripped out of his t-shirt and jeans. He settled himself down beside her. He laid on his back. She was turned on her left side, facing the wall. . . away from him.

He knew she wanted to say something, but was afraid. . . she had turned from him so she could speak without seeing his face. His eyes.

"What are you so afraid of, Scully?" Mulder asked as he began to run his hand across her back, making small circles of comfort.

His voice -- that way a man's voice rumbles when he tries to whisper -- helped her find her own.

"I didn't think I'd find you. . . I thought I was alone. . . "

His hand stopped. He leaned forward and kissed her shoulder. "We'll never be separated again, Scully. I promise. "

Mulder continued to rub her back until her breathing evened out into the rhythm of sleep. He pulled her hair back so that he could see her face. . . and his heart stopped.

There was an angry, red swelling at the back of her neck. Where the implant had been placed under her skin.

"Scully? Wha. . . ." he started, but she was fast asleep and he didn't have the heart to wake her.

Was this why she had been so reluctant to go over the file? Why she didn't want to discuss anything except the present? She could be so stubborn. With this discovery, however, things were going to change in the morning.

His hand slid down her arm until his fingers reached hers and wrapped around them. With the renewed connection, he exhaled a long breath and closed his eyes, seeking sleep.




A few minutes later, when she was sure he was asleep, Scully opened her eyes. So Mulder had found it. She knew there was no escaping the conversation in the morning. Mulder would insist. On one hand, she dreaded it. . . on the other, she welcomed it. The worst part of the whole situation was not really *knowing* for certain. . . and Mulder would share that burden with her, lighten it, as they tried to find the answer together.

Restlessly, she rolled onto her back, closer to Mulder. Their hands were still joined and she placed them across her stomach. Still asleep, Mulder rolled forward with a sigh, his head coming to rest on her shoulder.

She closed her eyes once more. . . hoping to spared from the dreams for at least one night.




He was peacefully strolling through the rows of wind swayed corn when he heard her.

"You've done well, Zeke. . . but there is one last wall you gotta climb. . . "

Zeke spun himself around, expecting to see the old woman. . . but she wasn't there. He continued to walk and was just reaching the gravel road when the shout came. . .

"Wake up, Ezekiel Polk! Now! Trouble's here! "




They silently paddled their tiny craft toward the boat. . . cursing the old man's precautions. He had moved the big boat away from the dock before turning in. . . dropping anchor many yards from the closest solid object.

It only made their mission more complicated. And it really put Barker in a bad mood.

By the time Barker grabbed hold of the ladder at the boat's stern, his would be commandos were already out of breath. *Next time be sure to bring along some idiots who aren't potheads, * he grumbled to himself.

At Barker's signal, they grabbed their guns and began to climb.




It was the first time Mulder had been here with her. Nebraska. Hemmingford Home. . . or something like that name.

Mulder walked toward her, his hands outstretched. But just as she grabbed hold of them, she could hear Mother Abigail calling out. . .

"Fox! Dana! Be alert. He's coming now! "




Zeke rolled out of his bed and hit the ground running. *Not bad for an old fart, * he humphed to himself. He grabbed the closest weapon -- a flare gun -- and braced himself beside the door.

Carefully. . . oh so slowly. . . he cracked the door open.

Someone was on the deck. . . and they were definitely not his FBI friends.

"You punks asked for it. . . come and get it," Zeke lowly growled as he slipped quietly from his cabin and moved toward the bow. His only thought: get down to Mulder and Dana before their uninvited guests did.




Barker had already figured out who was where. He had studied the lights as they were turned on and off. The younger man and the woman were down here. . .

He motioned for Ramirez to stay put at the head of the passageway as he and Washington moved in on the master cabin.




Mulder and Scully were up and on their feet, moving toward their guns, when the door suddenly burst open.

Barker fired his shotgun into the ceiling, spraying everyone with wood.

"Freeze! "

Mulder stepped in front of Scully. . . keeping himself between her and the shotgun wielding lunatic.

Washington, who had been watching the festivities, bouncing up and down on the balls of his feet with excitement, lunged forward and, raising his rifle above his head, slammed the butt of the weapon down against Mulder's left temple.

"He said FREEZE, motherfucker! "

"Mulder!" Scully gasped as he fell back against her. She grabbed onto him and he managed not to fall somehow. . . staying conscious by pure determination alone. Scully used her bare hand to brush away some of the blood from his face.

"What do you want?" Scully demanded.

Barker laughed first. Then, Washington took his cue and joined in.

"You, we want," Barker leered, licking his obscene lips as he undressed her with his eyes. He grabbed his crotch for effect. When she did not react, did not cower in fear, he scowled and pointed to Mulder with his shotgun. "Him, we don't need. . . "

As Barker tightened his hold on the gun, preparing to fire. . . as Scully pulled Mulder closer to her side, hoping to protect him. . .

There was a loud commotion outside -- from Ramirez' location.

The sounds of a scuffle.

Barker headed toward the door -- frustrated by the interruption. He motioned to Washington.

"Bring them along. . . it'll be easier to do it outside. We can just push him overboard afterward. . . "

Washington did as he was told, roughly herding the two agents through the door and down the corridor behind Barker.

Scully couldn't put up a fight. Not while she had to support Mulder. . . but maybe Zeke was still okay. . .

That hope was quashed when they reached the outside deck.

Ramirez had knocked Zeke to the ground. . . his flare gun had skidded across the deck and was now resting beneath a chair.

Before the chaos settled, Mulder quickly whispered in Scully's ear, "Follow my lead, Scully. . . "

She responded with that particular nod that she knew only *he* ever saw. That slight tilt of the head. *Whatever it is, Mulder, it better be good, * she prayed.

Before any of the invaders could catch their breath. . . while their guard was still down. . . Mulder fell to the ground with a loud -- and very fake -- moan.

And before Washington could react, Mulder had rolled full tilt into his legs, sending him sprawling to the deck one way while his gun fell the other.

Scully was on the gun in a flash and brought it to bear on Barker. . . .

Barker, as all *brave* leaders tend to do when the shit hits the fan, ran. He dove around the corner to the starboard side for cover as she fired. . .

Mulder pinned Washington to the floor and was about to hit him in the jaw when the prick pulled a knife out from his belt. . .

Zeke saw Ramirez preparing to fire at Scully and called out. . .

Scully spun around just in time to beat Ramirez to the punch. His chest exploded in blood mixed with rather large chunks of flesh and he fell to the deck with an audible plop. . .

One down.

Mulder blocked Washington's upward knife lunge and used his weight in counterattack. . . the knife turned. . . Mulder's arms trembled with the effort. . . and the knife finally plunged into Washington's own chest, severing his aorta. . .

Two was out of the equation. That left. . .

Barker peeked out from his cover. . . he saw the woman. . . she was turned away. . . toward the man who had just offed Washington. . . she couldn't see him as he came around behind her. . . Hell. If he wasn't going to get to fuck her. . . no one would. . .

Zeke saw what was happening. He could see Barker's eyes and they left no doubt as to the shithead's intentions. With a burst of rage-fueled energy he screamed, "No!" and lunged toward Scully.




Later, Mulder would look back on this moment and swear that it lasted hours. But, in reality, it happened in the blink of an eye.

Barker's shotgun fired in a deafening explosion of powder and flame.

Zeke plowed into Scully's side and his momentum carried both of them over the rail and into the darkened waters below.

Barker roared his approval. He'd managed to kill two bird with one stone! Whaddaya know? Sometimes those stupid sayings *did* make sense.

But Zeke's bravery had bought Mulder a precious moment of time. He dove for the flare gun that still lay hidden by the deck chair. Barker turned at the sudden movement and racked the slide of the shotgun, preparing to fire and win claim to the boat.

Mulder grabbed the gun in both hands and rolled just as Barker fired off another round, blasting the deck chair into splinters. Mulder finished his roll on one knee and he raised the flare gun as Barker racked the slide.

But Barker was too slow. He had met his match and the *match* was about to be lit. Mulder fired the flare. In a burst of acrid smoke and sparks, the flare flew straight into Barker's right eye.

Barker's scream was abruptly cut short as his now lifeless body spasmed, still on its feet. It turned and collapsed into the river.

The Dark Man had said nothing about this! No more secrets for Bobby Barker.

"Scully!" Mulder screamed as he ran to the side of the boat and looked into the waters below.

All he could see were the ripples caused by the introduction of Barker's body.

There was no sign of Scully or Zeke.




CHAPTER FIFTEEN

"My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still, My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will, The ship is anchored safe and sound, its voyage closed and done, From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won: Exult O shores, and ring O bells! But I with mournful tread, Walk the deck my Captain lies, Fallen cold and dead. "

--Walt Whitman




In movies and in novels, you know how things are supposed to unfold.

When the Good Guy or his Faithful Sidekick appears to be mortally wounded, you get a death scene. Purpose is found. Hands are held. The music swells. Friendships, respect, and love -- of whatever ilk -- are affirmed.

It's a written rule. Or at least I'm pretty damn sure it's written down somewhere.

Then, in following the very best pulp and celluloid traditions, there is an aftermath of vengeance turned righteous justice. A show down. High noon. Gary Cooper cleans up the town. The sun shines anew. The Hero takes a grim satisfaction in his hard won and high priced victory. His best friend/girlfriend/. . . did not die in vain.

*My* friend deserved more.

As a law enforcement officer, I know that real-life death is not so pretty, neither is it neat. And, contrary to Hollywood legend, there is no romance or blaze of glory involved. And loose ends stay loose.

Yet, I had held out hope.

I stood on the boat and I searched the dark waters for some sign of Scully and Zeke.

Anything.

Nothing.

The water was surprisingly cool when I dove in. It doused the high-wire sweat from my skin and washed the blood from my face, but could not touch the deep sear in my gut.

I surfaced just after they did. My companions were a splashing duet of awkward limbs but a single conversation of water-wet coughs.

I swam and grabbed hold of a shirt. I could tell without peeking that its bearer was not the one who was struggling. . . coughing.

Oh, Zeke. Will you forgive me for my brief moment of elation when I saw that it was you? That Scully was alive, coughing and kicking? That *she* was the one tethering *your* body to the water's surface? Will you?

I know you understand. Actually, you probably would have been disappointed in me if I *hadn't* felt that way. (I think you invented and patented the Bullshit Detector, Zeke. You've seen through every one of my pretenses. . . and I promise that I'll take care of that biggest one of all. I *will* tell her. . . )

There was no time or strength for words as Scully and I dragged you to the boat. Pulled you aboard.

Scully was in no shape to perform CPR -- she'd swallowed a large part of the river trying to pull you up into what used to be called the Land of the Living -- but she tried anyway.

I watched her. Detached. Stunned. Unmoving.

It isn't supposed to happen this way, Zeke.

I don't know how long she tried to give you breath, but I finally awoke and stopped her, my hands on her shoulders. . . "Even if you could, Scully. . . there's no hospital. No trauma unit to call. . . "

She finally acknowledged the huge hole in your side. The hole in our hearts. (And there was something else in her eyes. Something I didn't understand and had never seen before. I will ask her about it later. )

But you see, for now, Zeke, I demand satisfaction. It's my right, dammit. But the Wicked Witch of the Potomac is already dead. I don't get to stare him down as I stroke the trigger in slow motion.

Damn.

I just have to hope you were happy with the Final Act we staged for you. Somehow, I think you liked it.

Your Siren Of The Sea
seemed to understand and concur as we set her adrift on the Potomac. And she willingly nurtured the flames we set.

You deserved a Viking send off, Old Man. For you brought her back to me, even though we both know that no man deserves her.

And, of all the losses inflicted. . . I think this hurts me the most.

And I see it in *her* eyes, too. Because of what you were.

Thank you, friend.

But. What have Scully and I been left alone to face? Somehow, I think that yours might have been the easier path.

Goodbye, Ezekiel Polk.




North of Winchester, Virginia
July 5

Mulder closed the journal after his first entry, hooking his pen around the next blank page. He had picked up the black spined composition book in Alexandria yesterday. . . when he and Scully picked up their road supplies.

*Scully. * He looked up.

She was leaning against a nearby tree. . . was it an oak? . . . staring out at what used to be called Interstate 81. Her arms were folded across her middle, her white front teeth had taken her lower lip hostage.

They had barely spoken since Zeke's "funeral." By a tacit agreement, they had moved quickly to leave Alexandria and everything in it -- or no longer in it -- behind.

After they watched the boat burn into the rising sun, they had grabbed their packs and headed straight into town. A Rite Aid -- drugs and bandages. Scully had taken care of the oozing cut on his temple. A Safeway -- canned goods and rice. Other staples for survival. The army surplus/gun shop around the corner from Mulder's Apartment
-- ammo and a few extra weapons chosen from the ones left behind or missed by looters.

And the Honda Motorcycle dealership.

They opted for one motorcycle. Riding in tandem felt safer. If they wrecked, they wrecked together. And one of them would always have their hands free to ride shotgun. As an added bonus, this one had some serious storage room in back. They still had to pack light, but they wouldn't have to leave any of their meager personal belongings behind.

They had serpentined their way west on Interstate 66. While the abandoned vehicles had made things difficult through Arlington, it could have been much worse (although the stench was already at level ten). Interstate 395 was probably unnavigable. But 66 was a limited access highway. Once they were past the Westmoreland/Washington Boulevard entrance ramp and past the exit to the Dulles Toll Road, their path had been easier. Meaning Mulder was much less likely to rear end some dead car and send both of them flying end over end.

Once they passed Fair Oaks, he had actually been able to open up the throttle a bit. They had only slowed as they approached the end of 66 and had to decide whether they should head south or north on Interstate 81.

They opted for the northern route because it had been less inhabited "before" and therefore might have fewer "dangers" to throw at them.

As they sped through the historic town of Winchester, Virginia, they both tried to ignore the exit signs that reminded them that their Big Mac and Hardee's Bacon and Egg Breakfast Biscuit days were over. No more Happy Meals, no more Teeny Beanie Babies, no more Clam Strips at Friendly's, no Thin 'n Crispy Pizza, no HoJo's Orange Sherbet, no more KFC -- or as Scully had once heard a police dispatcher dispatch, "Ken-Fucky Tried Chicken." Every highway sign was like a bell tolling.

They could have tried to find a non-occupied motel room in Winchester, but neither of them even suggested the idea. No. They didn't even have to discuss that they would find a spot to camp outside that night. . . somewhere down the road, far away from any buildings.

Perhaps they had exchanged three dozen words in as many hours.

But now, as Mulder watched his partner, he could tell that the dam was about to burst. The weight on Scully's chest had reached critical mass.

He stood, brushed the grass from his pants to give her a warning of sound and movement, and walked up behind her. He rested his hands on her shoulders as she continued to stare, unfocused, into the distance.

The gates opened with a sigh.


"I stood by and watched while they killed Skinner. "


He gently squeezed her shoulders. She kept going.


"My mother was sick. He was trying to help us. The guards at the D. C. line just opened fire on him. Mom was in the back seat. I watched him stumble and fall off of the bridge. . . and then I drove away. "


She looked at the ground distractedly. . . picked out a spot and sat down. Mulder folded up behind her on the grass. He laid his hand on her knee and listened.


"Somehow we made it back to Annapolis. To her house. I don't remember what roads I drove. . . we just arrived. She. . . my mother. . . didn't know what she was doing. She hit me when I tried to carry her from the car." She rubbed her cheek. . . "Mom never hit me. . . Ahab was always the one who handled the spankings. But she didn't know what she was doing. . . .

"I was rough with her. . . she gave me no choice. I had to carry her inside, but I couldn't manage the steps. I had to lay her on the sofa.

"I kept hoping. . . praying that her fever would break. That we would have time to talk. She would be coherent. I could tell her things. . .

"She died and I don't think she even knew who I was. . . "


Scully began to pick small blades of grass. . . she unconsciously tore each one into little pieces as she spoke, tossing each tiny bit aside when it was too small to be of use.


"I buried her in the back yard. And then I went back inside. Sat at the kitchen table. And I saw the tin of chocolate chip cookies she had made that weekend. . . for me. . . and for you, too. It was like they were the last real piece of her that I had. She had made them. And I couldn't bear the idea that any of them would go to waste. That I could miss having this last connection to her. . . So I ate them all.

"I was sick all that night. I don't know if was Toll House Overdose or grief or shock. . .

"The power went out the next morning. I stayed inside with the doors locked. I couldn't reach anyone by cell phone. I couldn't reach you. . . I didn't know where you were. . . if you were still sick or. . . I just didn't know. "


She shifted to lean back against Mulder's legs.


"I listened over the next few days as the sounds outside began to slow. No more cars, no motorcycles. The last outside noise I remember clearly is the sound of two gunshots from the house across the street. Mrs. Clemens had been very sick. . . but Mr. Clemens wasn't. They had been married for 54 years. . . I ventured outside and peeked in their window. I guess Mr. Clemens didn't want to be left behind. "


Scully reached back and found Mulder's hand. . . gave it a small squeeze before releasing it.


"I couldn't stay in that neighborhood any longer. The only thing that I had to hold on to was the hope that you were still alive. So, I left the note at Mom's for you and I headed back toward D. C.

"I drove as far as I could, but soon Route 50 was impassable. Too many cars with dead drivers. I began to walk. It was getting dark. . . and I heard noises. Human noises. Not friendly.

"The only choice I had was to crawl into the back of a Dodge Caravan and share it with the late Harper family -- they had personalized tags -- while I waited for the small group of looters to pass. "


Mulder winced. But it was fortunate for him that she did not give him the complete details of the Harper Family Crypt.

Scully took a deep breath to cleanse her nostrils of the memories they held.


"At sunrise, I walked down the next offramp and kept going until I came across a ten-speed. . . I hadn't ridden a bicycle in, what? 15 years? But, it's true. You don't forget. I got back on 50 and made pretty good time. . . the terrain isn't bad.

"I got to my apartment by late afternoon. The building wasn't too bad. I guess most of my neighbors left D. C. when things got bad. Whatever the case, I was glad I could seal myself up inside for a bit. "


She wrapped her arms around her middle. . . held them tightly against her ribs.


"Everything was fine until the next morning. I had a headache and I had let my guard down.

"I was trying to sleep on the sofa when I heard them break the glass security door. It didn't take them long to make their way down my hall. Heavy footsteps. . . one. . . two. . . three men, by my count.

"I was stupid and had left my gun in the kitchen. . . as I jumped up to retrieve it, the door came crashing in.

"And it was almost funny. This huge guy, dressed all in green khaki like some Stallone groupie, was standing there with this look on his face. . . He was just as surprised to see me as I was to see him.

"We both just stood there for a moment. . . then, I lunged toward the kitchen, but he was quicker. He grabbed me around the waist and pulled me back toward the hall, yelling out to his buddies.

"But, his two *friends* were having some kind of disagreement out in the hallway. . . something about a stereo and who had seen it first. . .

"As Mr. Khaki pulled me into the hall, there was a shotgun blast. . . This guy with greasy, acne scarred skin stood there with his shotgun, staring down at Bad Guy Number Three who was now missing half of his head.

"Mr. Acne looked up and shrugged. 'He was gonna rip us off, man, ' he explained. Unfortunately, it didn't take long for the two of them to turn their attention back to me. But, fortunately, their attention turned into a fight for 'ownership. '"


Scully's voice hissed over the last word. Her eyes narrowed with the memory.


"While they fought, I tried to retreat back toward my kitchen. . . to grab my gun. . . but one of them grabbed me. I think it was the Rambo wannabe. He punched me and I fell against the wall. But then he turned his efforts back toward Pizza Face. I guess he thought I was down for the count. Ha. "


Mulder smiled. He would have known better. . .


"So I made it inside and got to my gun. Two rounds into the hallway was all it took to send them running. . . I closed the door and slid my hall table in front of it, then I collapsed on the sofa to gather my wits.

"I knew that we had only reached a cease fire. There was no way they were going to leave me alone. They would wait for a few hours. . . maybe until dusk. . . and they (or maybe just one. . . ) would make a final assault.

"I wanted to get out immediately, but I knew my face was bleeding and I needed to see it. . . see if I could slap on a bandaid or something. But, as I got up from the couch, the room began to spin. I'm still a bit foggy about the next few minutes, but I did make it to the bathroom. There was blood on my hands, but I couldn't figure out where it had come from. My head was pounding. . .

"Then I looked into the mirror and saw what it was. . . "


Mulder tensed. Scully's voice grew soft.


"I had a nosebleed. And it wasn't from the punch I took. . . I knew that. But there was no time. . . I cleaned up as best I could.

"Then I grabbed whatever I could in about two minutes and took off for your place, hoping that those two asses would still be too busy fighting one another to notice I had slipped out of the building.

"And I guess it worked. Because here we are. . . "


Mulder let out the breath he had been holding. He was trying not to let his imagination run wild -- but that was usually impossible for him to do.

"Scully. . . "

Scully turned around to face him. Her look silenced him.

"Mulder. To answer you question -- yes. I've had two more nosebleeds since then. Like before. "

"But. . . but," he stammered. He grabbed her hand.

"I was scared to tell you," she ran her free hand through his hair. . . let it rest on his cheek. "But, Zeke reminded me of how much I need your strength right now. . . and how I couldn't keep any more secrets from you. . . "

Her hand dropped at the memory of Zeke.

"But are you sure, Scully? How can it be the cancer? How could it happen so suddenly?" Mulder shook his head. "Maybe it *was* the punch you took. . . "

"Mulder, I think it's safe to assume that whatever electronics are involved in controlling or monitoring this device are no longer operational. The chip has failed and now my body is rejecting it. I know you noticed the swelling on my neck. . . "

Mulder sighed. Nodded. Denial mode was not going to help them now. "So. What do we do now?"

Scully stared at her partner. Her eyes moved over his face, down to their joined hands. He said *we. *Zeke had been right, of course. About everything.

"I think we keep heading west. To Nebraska," she replied.

"I meant. . . about the chip. . ." Mulder insisted.

"I know what you meant. But I think that the only place we'll find any answers is there. With Mother Abigail. "

There. She had said it. She had mentioned the old woman's name. She was taking a leap of faith. Believing and trusting in someone she had yet to meet -- if the woman really existed at all.

Mulder sat up and wrapped Scully in his arms, resting his chin on top of her head.

"Then, I say we get moving. There's no time to waste. "

Scully tightened her grip around him. There was still one thing she had to tell him. To get everything out in the open.

"Mulder. There's something you need to know. Zeke never got the chance to tell you. . . "

"What?"

"Zeke was dying. He had pancreatic cancer. There was zero chance of survival. "

Mulder was stunned. Why hadn't the old man told him? He looked down at Scully and saw the pain in her eyes. It was the same look she had had on the boat, after her CPR on Zeke had failed.

He understood it now. He understood all of it. Zeke's insistence on helping him find Scully. All the advice. The bond between Scully and Zeke.

Zeke had sacrificed himself for them. Willingly.

But the story he shared with Scully would end differently. Of that he could have no doubt.

He stood and offered a hand up to his partner.

With only silent words, they packed their belongings onto their motorcycle and headed out.




They were oblivious to the dark storm clouds that loomed to the west.




CHAPTER SIXTEEN

"Secure yourself to heaven Hold on tight, the night has come Fasten up your earthly burdens You have just begun."
- Amy Ray "Secure Yourself"




Wheeling, West Virginia
National Road
July 4

Roscoe P. Buntz sat in the middle of the road and picked his nose.

He paused for a moment from his deep mining excavation efforts for a quick nugget flick to the right and a quick persistent leftover nugget flick to the left, for good measure.

Nope. For once, there was no one around to comment on his lack of public manners. And if you can't pick your friends 'cause there ain't nobody home, might as well pick your nose.

Not that Roscoe had ever had many friends. Or any, for that matter. He was a funny little man -- had been a funny little boy -- with giant ears and overhanging teeth and a deeply furrowed forehead with only one long, furious and wild eyebrow that sat heavily above both eyes. If John Hersey had been around to comment, he would have said that "one could imagine that there had a been a slight burrowing and gnawing tendency among his forebears," and that said forebears weren't that many generations removed.

Roscoe dug back into his nares with renewed gusto. The human race may have declined, but his allergies had not. And that damn Sinutab he took always dried his runny snot into diamond hard boogers.

"Yes!" he cried out as the last of the mother lode was deftly removed and discarded. He took a deep breath. No more obstructions or tuggings on the little nostril hairs inside.

As he massaged his nose back into proper alignment, he looked around and realized that there was no one there to share in this moment of triumph. With a disappointed sigh, he bent over and rested his chin on his curled up fist, his elbow resting upon a knee.

Wheeling had never been a pretty town. Even on a sunny day, there was a haze cast about. . . which was probably true of any eastern mining town, but Roscoe P. Buntz had never been anywhere else, so he thought it was something that everyday everyone everywhere experienced for the totality of their miserable lives.

He was born in Wheeling, raised in Wheeling, and had watched everyone else die in Wheeling. Of course, most of his line, parents included, had died out long ago. And his folks had never seen fit to have another kid. . . something about "Roscoe is reason enough for abstinence" -- whatever that was.

He sighed again, this time with more energy simply for the melodramatic effect. He was supremely bored. Wheeling had *always* been boring, but at least there had been cars and trains and smoke stacks and tourists. After everyone had "passed" -- cause his mother always said dead people had "passed," like they had been a gallstone or something -- he had made a to do list. But, he had gone through it too fast.

He spent the first and second day at the Fostoria Glass Outlet where his father had worked for so many years. It had been a mecca for tourists with hi-rise hair and mile-wide hips and high- water QVC polyester pants. The ones with expandable waistlines.

Roscoe had gone in armed with a baseball bat.

The sights and sounds of the crashing, arcing, tinkling crystal was beautiful. Like a prickly waterfall. The Ruby Red, Crystal Clear, Cobalt Blue, Olive Green, and Argon Yellow shards had blanketed the floor, some of them wedging themselves in the treads of his old Converse hi-top sneakers. He had snapped, crackled and popped as he walked for the next three days.

He hit home runs through Stemware and Plates the first day. The second was devoted to those funny little glass animals. . . and those weird things that were supposed to be ash trays and vases.

The sole survivor of the massacre had been a little glass bunny rabbit. Roscoe had spotted it just in time to check his swing. It was amber with a hint of flame orange around the tips of its long, fragile ears. Roscoe had smiled. It reminded him of Peter Rabbit. He had always loved that story. . . even though Mrs. Buntz had always made a point of reminding her son exactly what happened to little boys who did not mind their mothers. He'd had nightmares of being cooked in a pie for years.

Roscoe had picked up the bunny rabbit and carried it outside. He placed it oh so carefully on the front step before going back inside to play extra innings.

He had then hit, in no particular order, Mr. Verbeck's Five & Dime (where everything cost more than a dime), Roman & Sons' hardware (which even now had that clinging odor of sawdust and oil), The Do Drop Inn, and Mary Sue Bonner-Mitchell's Hallmark Emporium. Many Beanie Babies were gutted, burned, and mauled amongst the flowery "So Sorry About Your Loss" cards. Itsy bitsy teenie weenie beanie pellets bled freely across the mauve carpet floor.

Yesterday, Roscoe and his bunny companion had moved on to the infamous Elby's Big Boy where Mrs. Buntz had waited on tables -- a fitting occupation for her as she always seemed to be waiting on someone or something, or so she said. But then again, *everyone* in Wheeling, West Virginia was waiting for something. Something better.

He had a few minutes of mischief there, throwing greasy menus about and loosening the lids on the sugar dispensers. . . until he realized there wouldn't be anyone around to *accidentally* dump the sugar into their coffee. And where's the fun in that?

Finally, he had laid his bunny on a table and had crawled up onto the vinyl booth seat, still looking around self-consciously when the material wonked against his jeans in fart-like glory -- as vinyl booth seats always do in public places -- and had fallen asleep.

And that's when it happened.

That's when the Dark Man with the red eyes had come.

"Rooooooosssss-coe. . . ." he had called, his voice syrupy sweet -- but a fake sweet, like Sweet n' Lo.

Roscoe had tried to cower under the table with the old and used chewing gum and dried up, long forgotten green peas, but the Man found him anyway. He sat down on the bench across the table and waited for Roscoe to peek his ugly head above its chrome lip.

Dark Man pointed at Roscoe's bunny and it began to jump and rattle against the table, like the Man had sent out a bolt of electricity.

Roscoe shook, too.

Dark Man smiled. "You know, Roscoe my boy, you should be more careful where you put that little bunny. You wouldn't want anyone to take it. . . "

The bunny was gone in a poof! Roscoe cried out.

Then it was in the Man's hand.

"You wouldn't want anyone to. . . break it." The Man snapped the head off with a quick flick of his thumb.

Roscoe moaned, "No! "

The Man smiled a twisted smile. "There, there, Roscoe. It's okay. "

The bunny appeared, completely intact, right where Roscoe had originally placed it. Roscoe grabbed for it, wanting to protect it.

The Dark Man reached out and covered Roscoe's shaking hands with his own. He stared directly into the funny looking man's eyes.

"I only wanted to warn you. I would never hurt you or your bunny. I'm your friend. But there are others. . . Well, other people just aren't as nice. They'll take your bunny from you and kill it in a New York minute. "

Roscoe had no idea how long a New York minute was, but it couldn't be good. Not the way the Dark Man had said it.

"Who wants to hurt my bunny?" Roscoe asked in a wee small voice.

"A man and a woman. "

"But, there's nobody else here," Roscoe observed.

"I'm here, aren't I?" The Dark Man replied.

Roscoe slowly nodded his head.

"And *they* are on the way right now. Even as we speak. I came here because I wanted to warn you. . ." the Dark Man intoned, as smoothly as a well-turned batch of home made ice cream.

"Wh. . . . what can I do?" Roscoe begged. "Can you help me?"

"Of course! Of course, Roscoe, my boy. All you have to do is *one* thing for me. . . "

Roscoe swallowed hard. Only one thing. That shouldn't be so bad. Besides, it would save his bunny rabbit.

"Tell me what to do! "

The Dark Man leaned back in his seat as he laced his fingers together and gave them a hearty crack.

"First, Roscoe, you'll need to go get your daddy's gun. . . "


And now, Roscoe P. Buntz had to sit and wait. Sit and wait and pick his nose, his bunny by his side and his daddy's rifle across his lap.



July 5

They followed Interstate 81 north to Interstate 70 west and on to the little spit of Interstate 68. Through the rolling mountains of Maryland and into West Virginia. The towns were few and far between. Most had been very sparsely populated in their hey-days which weren't so many heys ago.

They cycled down the steeps into Morgantown. . . a speed trap using an alias. The Cheat River still flowed. The buildings still stood. But now the factories were silent.

Mulder had drowned out the drone of the bike for a while by popping a cassette tape into the bike's tape deck. . . the music piped straight into their helmets, only interrupted when one of them spoke through their helmet mikes to the other. But conversation was difficult when you were bumping along the highway and, after a bit, the music, too, was a downer.

The silent environment made them very self-conscious of every noise they made.

Besides, they needed to keep their ears as open as possible for any hints of danger.

When she got tired, Scully contented herself with wrapping her arms around Mulder's waist and leaning forward to rest against his back.

It wouldn't be long before they would reach Wheeling, West Virginia. Mulder had insisted that they stop there for the night.




Wheeling July 5

And Roscoe P. Buntz still waited. And a black crow watched.




July 5 1500 hours
Interstate 70 East of Wheeling

The motorcycle ride from Virginia had been depressing, despite its picturesque nature. Just more reminders of how small and alone they truly were. They had passed a few dozen cars, some abandoned, some that were now crypts. Luckily, these roads were not major thoroughfares. And these were the kinds of towns where the people had hunkered down to battle their illness. They hadn't fled to other pastures.

Interstate 79 took them back north to I-70 once more. Just in time for Wheeling, West Virginia.

Mulder's anxious squirming had begun when they saw the sign announcing "30 Miles to Wheeling." Scully had been puzzled by his excitement -- they had both been so weary this morning. . . she still was -- but Mulder had apparently found some fountain of youth.

But, her questions had been answered when they finally came to astop.

They stood on the shoulder of the raised highway, looking at the backdrop of the city. . . and one towering landmark in particular.

"Mulder! *This* is why we had to come through Wheeling? I'm sorry, but I refuse to believe that the Elby's Big Boy is the illegitimate offspring of Elvis. I mean, for one thing, he's about thirty feet tall and the King was what? Six feet? It's genetically impossible. And what would Elvis say about those overalls?"

Mulder's eyes were warm in the light as he grinned impishly and shrugged.

"Actually, Scully, I really just thought this would be a good place to stop and rest for the night. I thought we might be able to find a motel that's in decent shape. Besides, we need to get some gas. Our gigantic friend here is just a bonus," he replied and smiled up at the flip-haired behemoth that held an obscenely huge burger platter aloft.

Scully alternated her gaze between Mulder and the Burger Boy on hormones. She sighed. She *was* tired. . . and sleeping indoors on solid ground would be a welcome thing. She had the beginnings of a headache and could feel it building just behind her left eye.

She shook her head and squeezed her eyes shut for a moment, hoping to drive the birth pains away. Then she looked back at Mulder, who was still admiring his new monolithic friend.

"Fine, Mulder. Let's get off this highway then. . ." Scully announced and she headed toward their motorcycle.

Mulder turned back toward her and was about to make a triumphant comment, but he bit his tongue when he saw how Scully's shoulders were sagging. When she rubbed the bridge of her nose, he knew something was wrong.

He was at her side in an instant.

He laid his hand on her shoulder and turned her to face him. "What's up?"

"Noth. . ." she began. But she stopped herself and closed her eyes, remembering Zeke and his advice. She opened her eyes to meet Mulder's concerned gaze.

"I've got the beginnings of a headache. . . it's probably a good thing you decided to stop here. "

Mulder nodded. There wasn't much he could do or say. He opted for tenderly brushing her hair back from her face, tucking several strands behind her ears. He smiled.

"What?" Scully asked.

He continued to run his hands through her hair. "You've got helmet head. . . "

Scully playfully batted his hand away with an exasperated but amused look. "Well, buster, you'll have worse if you don't get me into town and get me some aspirin asap. "

Mulder helped her onto the bike and then climbed on in front of her.

A few moments later, they were headed down the next exit ramp into Wheeling.


*

Roscoe P. Buntz was just beginning to nod off when he heard it. . . or was that droning noise just part of his dream? His body jerked as he returned to consciousness. . . and in that moment, his rifle jerked with him, the rifle butt swinging widely out to his side. . .

And landing squarely upon his little glass rabbit. It shattered on impact.

"Nooooo!" He screamed. . . .

He stood, staring in horror at what had happened. . .

The droning noise was getting closer. . .

Roscoe P. Buntz wasn't aware that he was letting the rifle fall to the ground. . .




*Stop, Dana! Stop! * The voice in her head screamed. Scully clasped both hands to her head, the pain threatened to split her skull open. As she covered her eyes, she felt the wetness on her upper lip. She didn't need to look at her hands to know that it was blood.

*DANA! You must stop now! There's death ahead! *

Scully clutched wildly at Mulder's shoulders as she felt herself fainting. . . falling. . .

"Scully?" Mulder called out.

With every last bit of energy she could muster, she cried out. . .

"Stop, Mulder! "

Mulder brought them to an abrupt halt and was just dismounting, trying to hang onto his partner when he heard it. . .




The rifle hit the ground hard and discharged with a deafening roar. The sound echoed up and down the emptied street.

Roscoe jumped and stared at the gun. He had made a big mistake. He couldn't hear the motorcycle anymore. The Dark Man with the mean smile was gonna be pissed.

There was only one thing left to do. He grabbed the rifle and ran down the street. . .




"Scully! Talk to me!" Mulder pleaded, but Scully was incoherent.

As he used his bare hands to wipe the blood from her face, it hit him.

*Move, Fox! He's coming! You gotsta run now! *

Mulder winced. The voice was screaming inside his head.

*MOVE! *

He turned and looked down the street just as a crazed man came barreling around the corner two blocks away. There was no mistaking what the man held in his hands.

There was no place to go. He couldn't carry Scully to safety in time. He hopped on the motorcycle behind her, balancing her between his arms and legs. . .

He started the engine just as Roscoe dropped to one knee and took aim. . .

Mulder already had the throttle primed and ready as the bike kicked to life. The rear wheel fishtailed as they took off at high speed. . .

Just as Roscoe P. Buntz fired.

The bullet tore through the air where Mulder's right shoulder had been just a fraction of a second before. . . the tilt of the motorcycle had saved him.

Mulder hunkered over Scully and the bike, barely slowing down as he prepared to make an abrupt left turn at the next corner. . .

Roscoe aimed once more. . .

He fired. . .




CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

"Sunny day Chasing
the clouds away.
On my way
To where the air is sweet
Can you tell me how to get
How to get to Sesame Street?"
-- Sesame Street Theme Song




Somewhere

By the age of thirty-five, Roberta Parks had figured out her exact place in the world. Her apartment.

Locked inside her own little four-room space, Roberta didn't think much about the world outside -- which was fair since the world outside had scarcely ever given much thought to Roberta.

Her home-based merchandising business was booming enough to finance her home-based life. Her Acme paycheck went straight into her Citibank checking account via direct deposit. She paid her utilities, cable, credit card bills, and everything else using the internet or the delightfully convenient "Check-By- Phone." For life's necessities, there was Tele-Grocers, Pizza Hut and Take-Out Taxi. If she wanted to see recent movies, Pay- Per-View was ready and waiting for her order. Every week she ordered a new book from Booknook. com.

There were only three places that, on occasion, beckoned her to venture out: the neighborhood 7-11 store when she needed an emergency supply of Coca-Cola and cigarettes; the Post Office when she had to mail out packages to customers; and, the tiny Persian restaurant down the street that didn't deliver its mouth- watering kabobs.

Her telephone was little more than a means to reach the Internet. No family. No real-life friends. Just a 56k connection and a web of cyberfriends she knew only by screennames.

But Captain Tripps had put a serious cramp in her style.

She first noticed there was a problem when her number of Ginsu Knives orders plummeted. Then the Laser Pointers took a dive, followed quickly by the Veg-O-Matics. And the truth began to dawn on Roberta Parks.

Something wasn't right in Acmeville.

Then she saw the posts on the Internet newsgroups. At first, it was just the usual rantings about government conspiracies by the usual trolls and spammers. But within days, the *normal* folks in her regular groups were chiming in with their concurring opinions. And then, one by one, people stopped posting all together. . . there was silence in cyberspace and no one left to scream.

And then, the internet simply ceased to be. And Roberta couldn't even get a dial tone on her phone line. Or a program on television other than the "Hogan's Heroes" reruns the local Fox station ran for twenty-four hours a day -- which was okay for the first five hours since she loved that sergeant who went around yelling "I see nothink! I hear nothink! ", but it got old fast.

The coughs she had been hearing outside in the apartment hallway peetered out. She no longer heard the booming thud of car stereos outside her window. And the electricity finally went off.

So. She finally ventured outside. The lack of electricity is the mother of emigration.

She did okay as she passed the 7-11. The post office was next. And then the kabob restaurant on the corner. She stopped, her feet toeing the curb. She wasn't quite sure where to go or what to do. She had rarely ventured this far when things had been *normal. *But then again, *normally* she would be in a panic sweat by now with no walls to insulate her from the buzz of busy masses of humanity.

Nope. That wasn't a problemo today.

She lifted her right hand to shade her eyes from the bright sun as she looked up and down the wide streets.

The glaring light effectively washed out the faces of the dead. Roberta was very glad she had not worn sunglasses. This way, the dead looked like those folks in the movie "The Day After" -- *after* the bombs dropped and the director decided to represent the radiation by overexposing or overlighting the film. And it was a comfort to Roberta to see this as a movie.

It would be very easy to go back to her apartment and lock herself inside, but she knew that wasn't very practical. She had run out of water and food and, most importantly, Virginia Slims. And her two pack a day habit was rearing its ugly head again.

She looked at the bus bench across the street. The rotting body of a man stared blankly -- or would have stared blankly if its eyes were still intact -- its lightning blue jogging suit flapped in the hot wind.

"So much for the tofu and the exercise, huh, buddy?" She called out. . . and then she hacked a good while, having forgotten that she hadn't used her vocal chords in over two weeks and that 40 cigs a day put a cramp on yelling.

She began to laugh. She laughed so hard she cried and had to sit down on the curb. She stared at the gutter and watched the little black and red ants go about their business on the crispy pavement.

"See? I guess smoking ain't so bad for your health afterall," she exclaimed to the creatures, who duly ignored her, simply walking around her feet when they blocked their path.

She looked up again and tried to decide her next move. She quickly made up her mind.

"First things first," she muttered and headed back toward the 7- 11. For once she would be able to smoke in public and nobody was gonna bitch about it.


Two hours and ten cigarettes later, Roberta stood outside a small motel. Funny, she had never noticed it before when she drove down this street. But you never do notice places like the Seven Star Motel from your car.

She wasn't sure what had made her stop. . . but she was sure that the hairs on the back of her neck were at full attention.

Something wasn't right.

And then her self-contained world was shattered by one sound.

The wailing cry of a child.




Wheeling, West Virginia

He stood and stared in terror and shock. His fingers flexing with grief. What had he done? How had he failed again? Maybe all of this was just a bad dream?

But, no. The evidence lay prostrate at his feet.

There was nothing to do. It was pointless to run. There was nowhere to run to.

So he simply collapsed to his knees and awaited his fate beside the shattered body of his one faithful friend.

And then the Dark Man was upon him, coming from out of nowhere -- where evil always seems to originate -- to grab him by his neck and lift him from the gravelly ground. The Dark Man's booted heel finished off the remains of the little glass bunny with a grinding crunch.

And Roscoe P. Buntz stared Death in the face. The tendons in his neck creaked and threatened to snap. His intestines and his bladder unfurled and released in a hot rush that ran down his legs.

He knew what Peter Rabbit felt like when caught by Mr. MacGregor. . . he had gone "tharn" like those bunnies in that other rabbit book. . .

Roscoe had failed his simple mission and was about to pay. Roscoe Pie Deluxe.

The Dark Man's eyes glowed red and the heat from his hand seared Roscoe's neck. Horns began to sprout from his head, curling back behind his hairline. . . His neck thickened into a writhing sinewy mass of rage and muscle. His chest expanded with a howl. . . And Roscoe could feel the Man's fingernail daggers growing into the flesh of his neck.

"You moron! You re-tard!" The Dark Man screamed -- and then he tilted his head back and cackled with laughter.

And then he surprised the shit out of Roscoe, or would have if it hadn't already been set free, by gently setting him down and releasing his iron grip.

Roscoe fell to the ground, gasping for breath.

"I'm. . . I. . . sorry. . ." Roscoe sputtered.

The Dark Man stood above him, his hands on his hips. "Roscoe, Roscoe, Roscoe. I'm so disappointed. Why did I ever think you could complete a simple job?"

Roscoe looked up. Was there a way he could apologize and get out of this with just a spanking?

"I don't know what happened. . ." he began.

A swift booted kick to the ribs ended Roscoe's thought.

"Once a moron, always a moron. There's no use for you now. . . and I've got work to do." The Dark Man lifted Roscoe by the nape of his neck so that he now rested on his knees.

"Ple. . . ease. . ." Roscoe stuttered.

In a flash, a glass amber bunny rabbit appeared in the Dark Man's hand. It was whole once again. . . but it was no gift this time around.

Roscoe barely had time to scream as the Dark Man drove the razor sharp ears of the rabbit into his left eye socket. Roscoe's body was still spasming as the Dark Man pulled the glass figure out and drove it into Roscoe's right eye with a loud squish. He ground and twisted the bunny in tight circles until Roscoe P. Buntz was no more.

He let the dead man's body drop to the ground with a slurpy thud.

His eyes narrowed as he looked to the west.

He'd have another chance -- Soon.




St. Clairsville, Ohio
1730 hours

He stood and stared in numbness and shock. His fingers flexing in disbelief.

Until this moment, there had been no chance to consider what had happened an hour before, but now, their flight had stopped -- if even for only a few moments.

What had the hell had just happened in Wheeling?

He had *heard* it and *felt* it.

Mulder closed his eyes and shook his head, trying to clear his thoughts.

One moment, everything had been fine.

In the next, all hell had broken loose.

Scully crying out in pain, clutching him, almost falling from the motorcycle. He had stopped. . . had seen the blood on her face. But before he could take any action to help her, he had *heard* the voice inside his head, screaming. It was the voice of the old woman.

A crazed man with a rifle racing down the street. . . he had fired. Mulder had held onto Scully for dear life as they rode off at a precarious angle. He knew their backs presented an easy target for the gunman. . . he had only hoped he had Scully fully shielded and that when the bullet did hit him, he would be able to keep the motorcycle under control long enough to get her to safety.

There was a corner just ahead. . . a few more feet to safety. . .

He heard the next shot just as he felt the hot lead heading straight for his head. . . but. . . then it happened.

It was as if someone had scooped them up -- bike and all -- and moved them out of harm's way. Mulder had actually felt the warmth from the hand. And he had seen the bullet simply stop in mid-air.

No. That was impossible.

But it *had* happened.

But before he could argue the finer philosophical and psychological points with himself, he heard a faint rustling on the ground behind him.

Mulder turned to look. Nothing. It must have been his imagination. He had thought that perhaps Scully had finally begun to stir.

He had stopped their flight some twenty miles west of Wheeling. There wasn't much here, but the two gas stations and the little convenience store were enough. Food, fuel, and a relatively safe shelter was what they needed.

Mulder had laid Scully upon the grassy earth behind the store, underneath a nice shade tree. Hidden from the interstate. He had cleaned her face with water. Her shirt was a lost cause, but he would wait for her to wake up before tackling that problem.

Now, he crouched down beside her and watched. Her pulse was strong. Her breathing was deep and even, although her small nostrils never moved. Scully always had been a mouth breather. Her pale lips were slightly parted and he knew that if he leaned over her just right, he would feel the warmth of her breath on his face.

"Scully, it's time to rejoin the party," he whispered as he softly rubbed his thumb across the back of her hand.




Dana Scully stared at the old woman sitting on the rickety chair on the rickety porch. She spun around, looking for Mulder.

"He's not here just now, child," Mother Abigail soothed.

"What's going on? Why am I here?" Scully whispered.

Mother Abigail used a crooked finger to draw Scully closer to her. She reached out and took hold of Scully's hand. Scully could feel the arthritis-gnarled joints in the woman's hand. But while it appeared fragile, she could feel the strength of the old woman's grip.

"Dana, you're just here for a minute. He's waiting for you right now so I won't keep you. He needs you. You both have a hard road ahead. . . but it will be even harder for him. You already believe. He don't yet. But he will come 'round because he believes in you.

"I don't underst. . ." Scully began.

"You will, Dana. You will. But you must remember what I've said. You must keep a hold of your faith. We won't be talkin' for a spell. . . you need your strength to travel and it's dangerous for me to call on you right now. I'll keep on a talkin' to Fox. . . but he ain't gonna like it much I imagine. "

Scully smiled. Mother Abigail was right. Mulder wasn't primed and ready to be presented with his own personalized burning bush.

Then Mother Abigail placed the palm of her hand firmly on Scully's forehead. She closed her eyes to pray. . .

"Lord. . . I know. Please keep this child safe. Help her do what needs to be done. . . And I'll do whatever Your will demands. . . "

She opened her eyes and sat back in her chair. She waved her cane at a speechless Scully.

"Get goin' now, child. He's a waitin' for ya' and he ain't very patient. . . God willin', I'll see you soon. "Til then. . . He'll be sending you some help. . . "

And Scully reluctantly turned and the green fields slowly faded and turned into. . .




Green fields. What the hell?

"Scully?"

Her eyes finally opened completely. It was Mulder. And they were surrounded by green grass and trees.

"What happened?" Scully managed to sputter just before she began to cough.

Mulder grabbed a bottle of water and held it up to her lips, helping her take a few sips.

"That's better. . . thanks," she said, waving away the bottle. She looked up at Mulder. "What happened?"

Mulder sat back on his butt, happy to let his vigilance scale turn back a notch.

"We ran into trouble in Wheeling. There was a man there with a rifle. You grabbed your head in pain, your nose started bleeding, and then you were down for the count. The guy started shooting, I threw you on the bike, and we hauled ass outta there until we got here. . . "

"Which is where, Mulder?"

"Ohio. About 20 miles west of Wheeling. "

Scully stared at him for a moment, her eyes narrowing in thought. Mulder could feel Scully's own special "truth serum" lasering its way into him.

"Didn't you leave something out there, Mulder?"

Mulder didn't respond.

"I *heard* someone in my head. . . she was shouting a warning to us. I *knew* we had to stop. I think you heard it, too. "

Mulder looked up at the sky. The clouds in the west were tinged with smudgy grays and dark greens as the sun began to fall to the horizon. He stood, swiping the grass and dirt from his jeans.

"It's getting late and we can talk about this later. Right now I need to get us set up for the night. It looks as though we might get a storm. Will you be okay here for a bit?"

Scully sighed and nodded. She wanted to discuss what happened but it pointless to push him now.

As Mulder walked toward the store, she rolled onto her side and watched the western horizon.

Mulder was right. A storm was headed their way.

And if Scully had been looking to the east, she would have seen something else headed directly toward her. . .




CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

"One, two, three o'clock, four o'clock rock
Five, six, seven o'clock, eight o'clock rock
Nine, ten, eleven o'clock, twelve o'clock rock
We're gonna rock around the clock tonight. "
- Bill Haley & The Comets




Sometime Barstow, California

Time is a universal invariant.

There's Howdy Doody Time, Miller Time, Daylight Savings Time, Having The Time of Your Life, Contac Time Release Capsules, Hard Times, those "Dy-No-Mite" Good Times, Time Magazine, Hang Time, One at a Time (not to be confused with One Day At A Time with spunky Valerie Bertinelli), No Time Like The Present, and the Man of all Time: John Cameron Swayze.

All of which mean absolutely nothing if you are alone.

For only companionship gives meaning to time. When you're alone, why the hell do you need a watch? To make sure that you wake up from your nap in time to watch the new episode of "Ready, Set, Cook?" If there's nobody around to give a flying snot about whether you eat your Wheaties at six a. m. or at three in the afternoon while you watch Oprah, then why the hell should you care?

Aloneness quickly devolves into only two reflexes: pleasure and pain. Nothing more. No "shoulds" or "oughtas." Just eat, drink, sleep, scratch those itches wherever you want, thumb the remote, wear whatever you want, play computer games until 3 a. m. . . . *do* whatever you want. Avoid pain in the pursuit of pleasure and basic survival with no outside intervention.

For Roberta Parks, the last five years of incessant clock ticking had only been one thing: an inconvenience. The post office opened at 8: 30 a. m. and closed at 5: 00 p. m. The kabob restaurant was open from 11: 00 a. m. to 10: 00 p. m. Her "monthly visit" from "Aunt Martha" came every 29 days. . . like clockwork. Oh, thank heaven for 7-11 and its departure from the original meaning of its name. She could get her Virginia Slims ("Ultra Lights, please") at any hour of the day or night. It was the key to her survival. Birthdays came and went with nothing more than a notice from the DMV every few years when it was time for the renewal of her license. Holidays were only noted because on those days the post office was closed.

But, elsewhere, time kept on licking and ticking. And time is what brings change.

Even to Roberta Parks.

She stared out at the panorama around her. The California desert was not inviting in July. It brought to mind phrases like "Buzzard Bait" and "Extra Crispy Chicken."

She had stopped pedaling her bicycle at the crest of the last hill on Interstate 15 in Barstow, just underneath the welcome shade of an overpass. It was here, as the sweat burned off her back in the dry heat, that she had to make a decision.

Should she head to the southeast on I-40 or continue northeast on I-15? Which would be better: slightly mountainous desert or more than slightly mountainous desert?

Roberta stared down at the bundle behind her. It was moving again. It obviously wanted something from her. She sighed.

Barstow had been a washout. . . albeit it a handy one. Even though it was thoroughly deserted -- after all, who in their right mind, after surviving this plague, would actually *want* to stay there? -- she had been able to pick up some much needed supplies. Like water and powdered milk.

The bundle attached in a jerry-rigged stroller to the back of her bicycle let out a whimper. Roberta dismounted from her seat and, satisfied the contraption would not tip over, moved back to check on her passenger.

She paused to stretch her sore muscles. Sitting at a computer all day, every day for years had not prepared her for cycling up the Cajon Pass yesterday. With a load in tow. Luckily, today's 41-mile ride from Victorville to Barstow had been a much easier ride. Once she had cracked her neck and back into their proper places, she leaned over her cargo.

She slowly lifted the nylon jacket she had fashioned over the stroller as a sunscreen.

The bouncing little boy beneath was quite happy to see her and he thrust his hands out toward her, begging her to pick him up. His reddish blond hair was plastered to his skull and his soft, two year-old (she could only guess his age) cheeks were reddened by the heat, but he was still smiling at her.

"I'm firsty," he cried.

She looked up. By the position of the sun, it appeared to be about 11: 00 a. m. The kid must be hungry, too. And, through her sunburned nose, she caught a whiff of something else. A diaper change was in order. Baby bowels wait for no man.

Yep. Time had caught up with Roberta Parks.

Along with should and oughta.


July 5 1800 hours
St. Clairsville, Ohio

He had watched the woman and the man from the shadowing trees. During his three years on the police force, he had become very good at reading people and these folks were no exception. The woman was ill. The man was sulking. So, while they obviously were a team and they cared for one another, something had come between them.

That could either help or hinder his mission.

But still, he was very happy to see these two people. He had been waiting for them to arrive.

He hadn't seen anyone since his own family died, coughing and choking in their small, two-story house out on Highway 27. But his dreams had told him of this man and this woman.

He was prepared to do what he had to do. It was his new duty. And duty meant everything to him.

He saw his opening when the man walked away from the woman and entered the building nearby. The woman had no gun.

He stepped out of the shadows and headed for his target.




Scully drifted somewhere between wakefulness and dreams. . . the real world becoming a hazy mix of greys and greens.

So, when she heard the steps, the rustling of the grass behind her, she did not move. She was tired and was not in the mood to talk to a pouty Mulder.

But she was more aware now. She could hear him stop behind her, his breath coming in quick draws. He must have exerted himself inside the building. Or maybe he was injured and she hadn't noticed before...

She could feel the heat from his body as he sat down on the ground beside her. Maybe she should say something, make sure he was okay.

But then he leaned over her and stuck his cold, wet nose in her ear. . .

"Scully!" Mulder yelled from somewhere beyond, way beyond whatever was giving her a nostrilized version of a "wet willie. "

Scully eyes flew open and she froze.

Mulder stood over by the building, his hands out in front of him, palms out as if to stop time. . . or was he trying to stop her from moving?

Her eyeballs stretched to the left as she tried to get a glimpse of whoever, whatever was hovering over her.

She could see black fur. . . and some lighter fur. . . Which answered the "animal, vegetable, or mineral" question, unless it was, by some miracle, that ancient cantaloupe she had found once -- or twice -- in Mulder's refrigerator.

Mulder twitched in frustration. He had drawn his gun and he wanted to shoot, but there was too much risk of hitting Scully instead of his target.

Scully slowly, ever so slowly lifted her head and turned. . . only to be met by a very big, very wet tongue that quickly began licking away at her face.

The tongue was accompanied by a staggering wave of serious dog breath.

She groaned as she rolled onto her back and raised her forearms to fend off the slobbery assault.

"Stop!" She couldn't help but laugh as she tried to get a breath of fresh air.

Then, as quickly as it had begun, the "attack" ceased. The big dog moved to insinuate himself under her arm, resting his head on her stomach. He sighed, content.

Mulder approached cautiously.

"Hey, Scully. You never let *me* do that. "

Scully stared down at the dog, which she could now see was some sort of German Shepherd mix. She ruffled the fur on his head, and looked back to Mulder.

"You never asked, Mulder. . . "

The dog turned his head to stare at Mulder. Mulder froze. Scully, still cautious since she didn't know how long her bond with Fido would last, patted the dog's head softly and spoke soothingly.

"It's okay, boy. . . he's my. . . partner. "

The dog turned back toward her and gave her a bemused look. At least, that was how she read it.

Mulder continued forward and slowly sank to his knees on Scully's non-canine side.

"Are you sure he's a *he, * Scully?"

The dog snorted and stood up. The agents' eyes went wide as they stared at the evidence.

"Okay," Mulder conceded. "That answers that question. "

"So, you got a name, fella?" Scully murmured as she worked her hands around the collar on the dog's neck. She heard the jingle of the tags and knew she had hit paydirt.

The dog was quite patient with her as she pushed his head to the side so she could read the tags.

A flicker of recognition crossed her face.

"What is it?" Mulder asked, trying to lean over her shoulder so he could see, too.

The dog chose that moment to sit down, placing his head on top of Scully's thigh. She absentmindedly ran her hand through his fur as she turned to Mulder.

"Well. Our. . . ahem. . . large, furry friend's ignominious name is. . . "

"Must be good if you used a five syllable word to describe it, Scully," Mulder interjected.

As usual, Scully ignored him.

". . . Fluffy. "

Fluffy raised his head slightly at the mention of his name. Mulder winced.

"I feel your pain, boy. We'll come up with something else, okay?" Mulder commiserated and scratched the canine's ears.

"But even more interesting, Mulder," Scully continued, "He is, or was, a police dog. "

But before they could discuss it further, the ignored dark sky that had been threatening burst open. The trio was pelted with colossal, cold rain drops.

Mulder quickly helped Scully to her feet and made sure she could stand. He grabbed her blanket and tossed it over her so she could use it to deflect the rain, then he grabbed her pack. Not trusting her strength, he wrapped his free arm around her waist and they dashed off toward the building, Fluffy fast on their heels.


Somewhere in Nevada

The man was more than a trifle concerned. He thought that he had prepared for every contingency. That he had everything under control. His control.

The skeleton crew he had assembled were all the cream of the special ops crop. All of them "yes" men. No solo thinkers in the bunch.

There had been a flurry of activity immediately after his arrival, but things were leveling off and everyone was developing a routine.

But there was one thing he had overlooked. His two pack a day habit had rapidly depleted his reserves. . . and it wasn't like he was near a 7-11 where he could grab a few more cartons. And using the "patch" was not an option.

He took a long drag on his Morley and slowly exhaled.

It would be time for a field trip soon.


Barstow, California

Roberta Parks settled in for the night with her new charge. Her screaming leg muscles had insisted on a break so they had stayed put for the day. She could decide their travel route in the morning.


July 6 0700 hours
St. Clairsville, Ohio

Mulder kicked the motorcycle for the fifth time. For when all else fails, everyone knows that a good, swift kick heals a broken motorized device. Or it breaks your toe.

"Dammit!" Mulder cursed at the inanimate object. He spun on his heel for good measure before spinning back and stalking over to the motorcycle. He knelt down beside the engine and tried to convince himself that he actually knew what he was doing.

Fluffy wandered out of the gas station office and watched him warily. Scully wasn't far behind.

"What's the problem, Mulder?"

Mulder was quiet for a moment. Then, after a deep breath, he stood and shrugged.

"I'm not sure. The bike won't start. There's plenty of gas. . . the engine just won't turn over. "

"Let me see," Scully ventured as she headed over to help him.

She knelt down beside the motorcycle and began to examine various wires and hoses. Mulder stood, looking over her shoulder, his arms crossed in typical "like *she* can figure it out when I can't" fashion.

"Well," Scully began, "here's the problem. "

"What is it?" Mulder asked.

She pointed to a part Mulder couldn't identify. "There's no oil. There's a hole in the pan. . . we must have run her dry yesterday. Did you notice a burning smell?"

Mulder hung his head in disgust. "I wasn't paying attention, Scully. By the time I got you here. . . "

Scully cut him off by placing her hand on his arm. She could understand why Mulder missed it. He had been worried about her. And the "hole" had most likely been caused by a too close encounter with a bullet. . .

"I don't suppose there's anything we can do to get it running. . . "

"No, Mulder. I think we need to find alternate means of transportation. "

Mulder slowly panned his surroundings. Nope. Not a chance in hell that a handy Honda or Harley dealership was gonna be around the bend.

"And I think," Scully continued," that our alternate means will involve our feet -- at least until we reach a large town somewhere. "

"Are you sure you're up to it, Scully?" Mulder looked her over from head to toe. She was bruised and bedraggled. Her hair was pulled back into a ponytail. Her face was pale. The night's rest had helped -- even though the whole office had smelled like wet, dirty, large dog thanks to Fluffy. But, they had been warm and dry and there had been no surprises for once. The rain had lasted until around midnight before a clear front blew in behind it.

This morning the earth had that electric fresh aroma that always follows a good washing. And now he could see that Scully had a new sparkle in her eyes. He suspected that Fluffy's sudden appearance in their live had caused the change. Dogs had a way of doing that.

"I'm fine, Mulder. Really. And we do need to get moving. "

Mulder nodded. It was dangerous to stay in one place for too long these days.

"Feets it is then," he agreed. "Besides, it'll be easier on Fluffy. It would have been hard for him to keep up with the bike. "

Scully squinted and looked around. "Speaking of Fluffy, Mulder. . . did you see where he went?"

"Somewhere where nobody knows his name?" Mulder ventured as he, too, began to look.

Scully started toward the station office and store. "I was getting some breakfast ready. Maybe he went back inside. . . "

"If that dog ate my Wheaties. . . "Mulder grumbled as he headed after her.

A few moments later, as he turned the corner from the office to the convenience store room, he ran directly into Scully. Her only reaction was to point toward aisle one.

"I think we now know how 'Fluffy' got his name," she mused.

The furry dog sat in the middle of the aisle, both of his paws holding a large plastic jar in place before him. He had gnawed through the side and was burrowing his nose and mouth into the jar. And now he was covered in white, sticky goo. . . goo that was better known as "Fluff" -- marshmallow creme of the desperate.

Fluffy lifted his head to stare at the humans. His tongue clicked as it worked frantically against the roof of his mouth in a rhythmic attempt to remove every blob from his teeth and gums. His paws were covered in it. . . his face was covered in it.

Finally, Scully decided that she needed to do something before the dog got sick.

"Fluffy!" She yelled, borrowing a few pages from her own mother's book of guilt. She towered over him and glared. She pointed toward the door.

"Out. Now. We *will* be cleaning you up. Now. "

Fluffy, who had been quite happy up until this point, did the only thing he could do. He cowered. He risked a glance at Mulder, but the man offered no help or support. He merely shrugged.

As Fluffy exited the room, Scully turned toward Mulder. . . and Mulder made the fatal mistake of laughing.

"There's a water tank out back, Mister. Here's the baby shampoo." She picked up a small bottle of golden fluid and threw it at him. He caught it with fumbling hands.

"Go. Wash. Now. "

Mulder didn't even try to argue. But it was nice to see Scully so feisty again. He turned and walked outside.

Scully turned back and looked at the mess on the floor. At least it wasn't like she had to clean it up. Maybe there were some positive footnotes to the end of the world.

She spent a few minutes rolling their sleeping bags and tying them to their packs. Then she grabbed a box of Pop Tarts and a couple of bottles of orange juice from the defunct fridge compartments. It wasn't gourmet, but today these Strawberry Pop Tarts were the breakfast of champions.

She smiled. The Pop Tarts were the un-frosted variety. Very good. She secretly harbored a deep hatred toward that multi- colored splecky stuff they used to frost the tarts.

She carried their breakfast outside and quietly sat beneath a tree, where she could watch Mulder and Fluffy without them noticing her.

The bath was not going well. Well, it would have been okay if *Mulder* was the one who needed to get clean. Finally, Mulder grabbed the dog's muzzle and leaned down to whisper something to him. Scully couldn't hear it. . . but, whatever it was, it seemed to work. Fluffy was now the poster child of cooperation.

She opened one of the juice bottles and took a sip. It tasted good, even if it was warm. She still had a slight headache from yesterday, but at least there hadn't been any more nosebleeds.

And, she suddenly realized, there hadn't been any more dreams. She doubted that Mulder had any either. . . he had slept like a log, nestled up beside her.

She sighed. She didn't think they would stay at bay forever. But she was thankful for one night's peace.

But, as Mulder finished up and Fluffy shook himself dry, she couldn't shake the feeling that they were being watched.

And Dana Scully was right.




The black crow took to the skies with a loud flutter of his wings. He headed west, following Interstate 70.




CHAPTER NINETEEN

Oh, I'm feeling it now
I feel so unnecessary
This is the kind
This is the kind of stuff
To make you feel like you
Want to do something nasty
Like waste some chicken gravy
On your white shirt
Right down front here we go y'all

You work both arms and you work both feet
Use a dab of gravy, you're right on the beat
You flap your arms And your feet start kicking T
hen you know you doin' the funky chicken
--- "Do The Funky Chicken" Rufus Thomas




Ludlow, California
1400 hours

When she was a little girl, Roberta had many dreams. At first, she was determined to be an astronaut. Then "Emergency!" landed on television and, thanks to Johnny Gage, she was sure she wanted to be a paramedic. The next year, she was destined to be just like Mrs. Dean and be a fifth grade teacher. A short time later, she proudly announced that she would become the first woman President of the United States.

Roberta stood on Interstate 40 and looked down at her tiny charge.

"You know what, kid? For all I know, I *am* President now! You wanna be Vice-President?" She laughed.

It had been a long time since she had dreamt of anything other than earning enough money from her internet sales to retire to a remote cabin in Montana.

But now. . . she was having other dreams. And these dreams did not involve bank accounts or the greeting of foreign dignitaries.

These dreams kept her up at night and haunted her during the day.

Little Moses didn't seem to be bothered by them at all. She knew the kid's name wasn't actually Moses -- she had read his real name on the diaper bag she had found in the motel -- but she preferred this nickname. After all, she had rescued him from the proverbial bulrushes. . . even if they *were* only a pair of fake potted ferns.

It was time to make camp. The sun was beginning to set. She pushed her bike and the stroller toward a small outcropping of rock. . . it would give them some cover and hide any light from their campfire. The fire was handy for keeping wild animals at bay.

Too bad the fire wouldn't ward off the dreams, too.


"Tin soldiers and Nixon's coming
We're finally on our own
This summer I hear the drumming
Four dead in Ohio

Gonna get down to it soldiers are cutting us down
Should have been down long ago
What if you knew her and found her dead on the ground
How can you run when you know. "
-- "OHIO" Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young




West of Dayton, Ohio
July 8 1700 hours

There are very few things in a dog's life that top the sensation of having his nose in the air with his ears flapping in a 45 m. p. h. breeze. Fluffy was in doggie heaven. His nose was pointed toward two o'clock, his eyes were squeezed closed, and his ears were pointed back as the wind rushed by.

It sure beat the previous two days of paw-eroding walking on hard pavement. Well, except for the occasional bug that smacked him in the side of the head. He could have followed Scully's lead and tucked himself behind the bug-spackled windscreen, but, where was the fun in that?

He turned his head slightly and let it bob in the current like an airplane wing.


Scully watched Fluffy as he leaned over the edge of the motorcycle sidecar. She was tempted to join him or at least stick one arm out into the wind, but one arm was wrapped firmly around the dog's body to keep him from falling out -- Mulder liked to take curves at a rather precipitous clip -- and her other hand had to be ready to use her gun.

This section of Interstate 70 was relatively deserted and Mulder was taking advantage of it.

She looked over to Mulder. He seemed to be enjoying the drive. She was, too, for that matter. They had walked for two days from St. Clairsville to Cambridge. Mulder and Fluffy could have made it to the small city much faster if they hadn't kept their pace light for her benefit.

But she wasn't complaining about the kid glove treatment. She had secretly wished that they could have gone even slower. Her body needed more time to recoup from the events of the past few weeks.

Then they had hit the jackpot in Cambridge. Mulder had located a motorcycle dealership that had sidecars. Their transportation/dog problem was solved. Scully was more than willing to share a seat with Fluffy and deal with dog fur in the face as long as it meant no more walking. She had already worn out the soles of her tennis shoes.

But the walking had finally given them a chance to discuss a few things. Like what the Lone Gunmen had found. . . the telex papers she had retrieved from Mulder's apartment.

While the papers held no concrete evidence, all of the roads seemed to point to one man: The Cigarette Smoking, Black Lunged, Son-Of-A-Bitch, Bastard. She had come up with that string herself and was damned proud of it.

The communiques made several vague references to the black oil. . . which had led the Gunmen to believe that Mulder was immune from the plague. His exposure in Russia and his subsequent vaccination appeared to have been fortuitous after all.

But she was the giant question mark. She had no idea what she had been exposed to during her three-month disappearance or the true purpose of the chip that had been inserted into her neck. Would the failure of the chip cause her cancer to recur? She was fairly certain that it would. And she had been blunt about that belief with Mulder, just as she had promised Zeke.

Mulder had taken it well. It was as if the words gave him something tangible to fight. A mission that allowed him to block out all the other devastations that had occurred.

But she had held something back. . . a fear that niggled inside of her. . . the idea that the *chip* had been what made her immune to the Superflu. And if the chip had failed. . . how long would it be before the hammer fell? Was the virus, or whatever had caused the flu, still around? Did it have a long "shelf life" like hepatitis, or was it more like AIDS. . . an organism that could not live long outside its host? She had become aware of every little catch in her throat, every beginnings of a sneeze.

She wanted to share this with Mulder, but she needed to offer up some kind of proof to herself before she crossed that bridge. It was bad enough that her nosebleeds and headaches had returned. And, after all, it all boiled down to one thing in the end: they had to find a way to reactivate the chip. Soon.

"Scully," Mulder shouted over the roar of the engine and the wind.

She looked at him, unaware that he had called her several times. He slowed the bike to a rolling stop and pointed to the skies in the west.

The angry, boiling green and black cloud covered the horizon. Now that they were stopped, she could also feel the cold wind beginning to flow in from the west.

They were headed directly toward a storm. A mean storm. A summer midwestern storm. That shade of green usually meant only one thing. . . tornado. And there wasn't any weatherman around to show off his Doppler radar.

"We need to find cover soon," Mulder noted.

Even Fluffy seemed nervous as he looked to his two humans for a solution.

"Where are we, Mulder?" Scully asked. She had been too busy with her own thoughts to pay attention.

"We're about 25 miles past Dayton, but it's only a few more miles until Richmond, Indiana. It's probably our best shot. "

"Richmond it is, then. . . let's get moving. "

Mulder nodded and they quickly took off, directly toward the threat. Sometimes a charge was wiser than a retreat. Although Scully hated to consider the idea that they were playing chicken with a meteorological event. As George Bush -- or was it the Church Lady -- would have said, "It just isn't prudent. "

She grabbed hold of Fluffy's neck and hunkered down in the sidecar as they headed for safety in the heart of darkness.


Ludlow, California

Roberta stood on a desert highway, the noonday sun pounding on her skull, broiling her brain. The heat rose off of the pavement in waves. . . the soil at the roadside sizzled and crackled.

The voice sounded again in her ear, "Keep movin', Roberta. You bring that little one to me. . . you can rest here. "

The voice was old and kind. Sweet. She had heard it before. She wanted to obey it.

But she couldn't move.

Because up ahead she could see the evil signs. The silhouettes of men hanging on crosses, their carcasses left to dry and mummify in the baking sun. Nature's own Easy Bake Oven.

The men's faces were contorted by their death masks. Jaws hung open, eyeballs receded back into their sockets. Hair tufted up from patchy scalps and blew back and forth in the wind. Their fingers were shaped like claws. Long, black, and thin.

Above them hundreds, thousands of birds filled the skies. Large black birds with razor sharp talons. Their cries rose until the noise was deafening.

Then half of the swirling mass landed on the road before her.

"Not this way, not this way!" They mocked in a high-pitched singsong tone.

They began to march toward her, inch by inch, hitching their heads from side to side to reveal their yellow-red eyes.

She tried to back up, but her feet were frozen in place. The birds cackled. But their focus was beyond her. They weren't after *her*. . .

They were after Moses.

"Not this way! "

And then Roberta was covered by them. She could smell the decay on their wings and beaks as they latched onto her, tearing her flesh.

She screamed and hit them away with her bloodied fists, but they kept coming. She could see them near Moses' stroller.

"You MUST keep MOVING!" The old woman's voice was back.

The birds heard it, too, and squawked in pain, their wings beating against the air.

Roberta broke free and ran for Moses.

But, just before she could reach the child, a hand shoved her from behind and she sprawled across the ground.

The dark man with the searing red eyes stood above her wearing a crooked smile.

"They said, 'NOT this way! '"

And as he advanced toward her, Roberta closed her eyes and screamed. . .


Roberta sat bolt upright, sweat pouring down her face and back. It had been a dream. The same dream as the night before. . . and the night before that. She examined her hands to be sure. There was no blood. No injury.

She rolled over toward Moses who was lightly cocooned in a roll of blankets beside her.

Moses slept the innocent sleep of babes. She dusted the hair from his forehead before leaning back to relax and catch her breath.

"Keep movin'," she muttered under her breath.

She flopped onto her back in frustration. Fat chance she was going to sleep now.


Richmond, Indiana 1715 hours

One of the worst things about tornadoes is that you never know exactly when or where the damn funnels are going to touch down. If you're looking to the west, it'll hit you from the east. If you're looking behind you, it'll land flat splat on your head. And if it's hailing warthogs, you'll never even see the twister coming until you're blindsided.

The hail hit just as they hit the Exit 156A off ramp. Mulder and Scully were somewhat covered thanks to their helmets, but poor Fluffy was being pelted. Scully pulled him against her and tried to shield him with her body as Mulder maneuvered them toward the first sturdy structure he could find.

The Rodeway Inn was definitely out. That particular motel was built by the little pig with the straw.

And the Motel Six wasn't any better. The little stick-supplied pig constructed that one.

But, then Mulder zeroed in on the best target, the Cracker Barrel restaurant. And it wasn't because of the delectable corn bread or the melt in your mouth pot roast. He remembered one particular feature that all Cracker Barrels had. . . a huge stone fireplace. It wasn't as good as an underground shelter but they didn't have time to search for one. All he could do was pray that it was a real stone fireplace and not one with a Bob Villa patented fake stone facade.

As they turned onto the service road that led to the restaurant, the heavens opened and the cold rain poured.

The sudden drop in barometric pressure was almost audible.

The wheels spun on the gravel road as Mulder turned into the large, tour bus accommodating parking lot. He slowed them just for a second so he could survey the place. It was shuttered up and deserted. And the doors were obviously locked tight. This was no time for lock picks.

"Hang on, Scully!" Mulder screamed as he opened the throttle and the motorcycle sped toward the double front doors.

Scully hugged tight onto Fluffy and did exactly as Mulder had ordered.

The doors smashed in with a splintering crash of wood and a thundering rain of glass. The cycle tipped and Scully's windscreen was shattered as it slammed against the remnants of the center doorpost. Mulder hit the brakes as hard as he could as they careened through barrels of horehounds and lemon drops.

The cycle came to rest against the audiobooks trade center display. The "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus" tape teetered on its shelf and fell, dropping directly on the top of Mulder's helmet.

Fluffy didn't wait for an evacuation invitation and was off like a shot before his companions could react.

"Fluffy!" Mulder shouted as the dog ran to the far side of the restaurant and into the kitchen.

But there was no time to worry about Fluffy. Mulder slid off the bike and launched himself toward Scully. He didn't wait to see if she was still in one piece. Throwing debris out of his way, he simply scooped her up into his arms and headed toward the stone fireplace.

Outside the wind was beyond a scream and had become a non-stop, tickets non-refundable train.

Mulder tossed Scully over the hearth and into the fireplace even as he was diving in on top of her. He heard her soft grunt as he landed on her side and was happy to know she had survived the crash. He tucked his limbs around her and hoped their asses were covered.

As the blackness enveloped them, it was impossible to think, let alone speak and be heard.

The shutters were ripped off their hinges and the windows blew inward.

Mulder hoped Fluffy was okay. He hoped the stones were real. He hoped he wasn't smothering Scully.

The ceiling lifted and fell, beams crashing to the ground.

Mulder could have sworn that he saw one of those triangular peg board games flying at them, the little white pegs looking like lethal darts. . . seeking revenge against the agents for all the times they reached genius level and jumped their way down to one peg.

He prayed he wouldn't see any flying cows or witches on bicycles. . .

As the world fell apart, Mulder's hands searched for Scully's face. He was surprised to realize that it was just below his left ear. . . he hadn't noticed her quick breaths against his cheek. Until now.

She was warm. And awake and aware. She moved beneath him until they were face to face.

A large wooden table slammed against the chimney.

And Mulder and Scully did the only thing that any normal man and woman would do in the face of imminent death. . .




CHAPTER TWENTY

I feel stormy weather moving in about to begin
Hear the thunder
Don't you lose your head
Rip off the roof and stay in bed. . .

. . . Humidity is rising
Barometer's getting low
According to all sources,
The street's the place to go
Cause tonight for the first time
Just about half-past ten
For the first time in history
It's gonna start raining men.
-- "It's Raining Men" Two Tons Of Fun (aka: The Weather Girls)




31 miles East of Ludlow, California

It was just like her dream. Her nightmare.

Roberta stood on Interstate 40, astride her bicycle, and stared at the rocky, infertile horizon to the east.

There were crosses. Lots of them. And she was certain that they were not empty. They weren't ads for some church and they weren't markers for fatal car crashes. Not unless a fleet of tour buses had crashed there.

Her dream had been a premonition. Evil lay ahead. And there was no way she would go forward. There had to be another way. . . a safer way around.

She pulled out her Rand-McNally Pocket Map and thumbed to the right page. There was her answer. . . only a few miles back to the west. She even remembered the dry, dusty exit.

Route 127. . . or at least she thought it was 127. It was hard to tell. Whatever it was, it led north to Interstate 15. . . "The 15" as everyone in Southern California had called it. The pathway north to Mecca. They would head back to the exit.

She looked over her shoulder to check on Moses. He was sleeping peacefully. She sighed and blew a few sweaty strands of brown hair from her face. She was actually happy the kid was too young to understand what was happening.

And she was determined to get him to the old woman in Nebraska. Somehow, she knew all would be set right when they got there.

She put her feet to the pedals and made a U-turn.

They headed toward Las Vegas.




Richmond, Indiana July 8

There are some things that go beyond inevitability.

A ball dropped from the Leaning Tower of Pisa freefalls until it hits the ground. . . Stanley finds Dr. Livingston, Rice Krispies snap, crackle and pop, Bartles sits on the porch with Jaymes, Laverne schlemiels and schlomazzles with Shirley, and a run-on sentence eventually ends with a period.

Maybe it was the painful uncertainty of Scully's health. Perhaps it was the ferocious wind that still threatened to pick them up and scatter them together to the four corners of Indiana and several other Midwestern states. Or it could have been precipitated by the pounding adrenalin in their veins from staring at death one more time. . . and, perhaps, outdistancing it again for a brief moment. The need to affirm just how alive they both felt when surrounded by so much destruction.

Neither of them were sure who set it in motion, but neither of them questioned, analyzed, or regretted it when it happened. For it was meant to happen.

As the wind howled, their lips met.

The raging air around them was filled with creamers, salt shakers, fake antique Burma Shave signs, and Hashbrown Casserole dishes.

And Mulder and Scully kissed.

The closed metal vent in the flue above them heaved and sighed against the air pressure.

And Mulder's ears pounded with the blood from each pulse as Scully's fingers dug into his hair, his neck. . . And even that roar faded as her mouth devoured him.

If they were going to die, this was the way to go. Mulder was positively certain about it.

He had no way of knowing how long it lasted. But eventually, air became a necessity.

And when they pulled back, breathless, the roaring had stopped. The wind had stopped.

The only sounds were the steady beat of a cold rain and the pained groans of the wrecked building that surrounded them.

They were still alive.

Flashes of bright lightning illuminated the area as Mulder looked down upon his partner.

He tenderly brushed the hair from her face, letting his fingers trail lightly down to her chin. Then, without a word, he stretched over toward the opening of the hearth and peeked outside.

It was safe to venture out.

He rolled off of Scully and moved outside, offering her his hand to help her out. Scully slid into the open, wincing once or twice at the movement.

As she stood, Mulder's hands moved over her, brushing her off. . . checking her for injury. The whole time, Scully watched him, examining him for any signs of damage.

They both had some new bruises and fresh cuts. . . and their clothes were a more than a bit sooty and wet, but they were both in one piece.

Finally, Mulder laid his hands on her shoulders and looked her in the eye with a smile.

"Did I ever tell you, Scully, that Cracker Barrel is my favorite road stop?"

With a raised brow and a knowing smile Scully responded, "No. But I can certainly see that it has its charms. . . "

She lifted her hands to his face and guided him toward her. . . their eyes closed as their lips met. . . .

And the golden silence was pierced by a frantic, but distant bark.

"Fluffy!" Scully started.

They both turned toward what had once been the kitchen area. It was a disaster.

Glass and rock popped under their feet as they made their way under, over and through fallen rafters and two-by-fours until they reached the main kitchen.

Fluffy continued to bark, but it was muffled.

"We're coming, boy," Mulder called. He pointed toward a battered steel door. . . what had been the walk-in freezer.

They worked quickly at removing the debris from in front of the door. A few minutes later, Mulder threw aside the last impediment and wrenched open the door.

Fluffy promptly bounded out and jumped up on Mulder, his large paws thudding against the surprised agent's chest, his tail waving at a hundred miles a minute.

The dog was obviously in one piece.

Scully peered into the walk-in with a chagrined look. "Why didn't we think of coming in here?" she asked.

Mulder wrested himself from Fluffy -- which meant the dog was free to assail Scully now -- and peeked into the tiny steel room. Yep. Scully was right. The dog had more sense than he did. . . but then again. . .

"I dunno, Scully. . . our place had some high points," he rumbled in the most suggestive voice possible.

Scully, much to his shock, grabbed him by the collar and pulled him inside the room, "Get in here, G-Man. "

Mulder was fully prepared to perform whatever service Scully wanted, doggie witness or no.

He was sorely disappointed when Scully let go of his clothing and proceeded to shake out her wet hair.

"If nothing else, it's dry in here. . . and I'm tired of rain, Mulder. And I'm ready for bed. "

Okay. She had a point. And they were definitely less than hygienic at the moment. Some things could wait. Sleep could not.

They rummaged about until they had several large cardboard boxes that they could break down into floor mats. Mulder dug his way back out to the motorcycle and was very happy to find that while the cycle was trashed, most of their belongings were still intact in the "saddle bags." He pulled out their packs and returned to Scully.

After a quick and modest change out of wet clothing, they all settled down on the floor.

Except this time, Scully was firmly wrapped in Mulder's arms.

And Fluffy was quite content to schmooze his way under Scully's arm.

As they drifted off to sleep, Mulder made sure to mutter, "Don't get used to that spot, dog. I have other plans. "

Fluffy grunted and went to sleep.




Now laughing friends deride tears I cannot hide
So I smile and say "when a lovely flame dies, smoke gets in your eyes
Smoke gets in your eyes, Smoke gets in your eyes
-- "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" by Otto Harbach and Jerome Kern


Somewhere in Nevada

He walked down the long corridor, past each yellow-white light. . . beacons placed exactly twenty feet apart and eight feet from the ground. They were ordered and neat. . . just as he had planned this entire operation.

He looked at his watch. Only fourteen hours more. He needed to rest first. . . then he could concentrate on their first outside excursion since the "main event." The plans were set, the maps were drawn, the route was chosen.

It was time to take a gander at what their. . . his operation had wrought. And if they just happened to pass by a 7-11 or a Costco warehouse store with several dozen cartons of Morleys. . . well then, so be it.

He lit another cigarette as he turned the last corner before his office. . . and he stopped cold.

The soldier who was assigned to stand guard over his domain was gone. The door was ajar.

He approached the door cautiously. He knew that there was no way that the guard had gone inside. And there was no way the trained man would have left his post willingly. But, intruders from the outside were an impossibility, were they not? After all, he had designed the high-security system himself.

He stopped just to the side of the door jamb and listened, willing his heart to slow its loud beating within his chest.

"Well. Don't just stand there. . . come on in," a man's voice called out laughingly. . . invitingly.

The man took a drag from his forgotten cigarette and pushed the door open. He left his right hand in his pocket, comfortably gripping the steel of his Walther PPK, his finger notched inside the trigger guard. He hadn't survived this long by being stupid.

And as the door swung inward, he saw the visitor through the ever present fog of smoke.

The dark man sat behind the smoker's desk, his booted feet resting atop reports, maps and blotters. He wore a shit eating grin.

"Sorry about the mess," the Dark Man said as he gestured toward the corner. The guard lay on the floor in a bloody heap, his eyes burned out, his chest cavity a giant weeping wound. "He just didn't seem to want to understand that I wanted to see you. "

The smoker tried not to wince. He stared at the Dark Man, trying to formulate a plan. . . something he was normally quite accomplished at doing.

"Who are you?" he asked calmly. He had seen worse death than this.

"Oh! Excuse my manners. Randall Flagg is the name. . . but I understand you've been mistaken for me once or twice. Ironic, isn't it?"

"What exactly is it that you want?"

"Me? Nothing. Nothing at all. But, I do have something I know you'll want. . . "

"I doubt that very much," the smoking man replied with his usual bravado.

"Don't be so quick to dismiss me, Jimmy Boy. . . that *is* your real name, isn't it?"

"Jimmy Boy" cringed. No one. NO ONE knew that.

"Oh! I forgot," Flagg tsked. "You haven't used that in over forty years. . . last name you used was Charles Spender, wasn't it? So. Charlie. Are you listening now?"

"Yes." Spender's voice was low and choked. His cigarette had turned foul. He dropped it to the ground and stepped on it, snuffing it out.

"Good. Very good. A wise decision. Almost as wise as your decision to let go of that pack of Morleys in your pocket. "

Spender was stunned to find that his Walther PPK had vanished. Instead of the comfort of deadly steel upon his skin, he felt the familiar cellophane boxed weight of a new pack of cigarettes. He quickly pulled the pack from his pocket and stared at it in disbelief. His bowels tightened to a pucker factor of ten as it began to dawn on him who was before him. . . what *he* himself had unloosed.

Randall Flagg paid no attention to Spender's surprise and continued his speech.

"First let me deliver some bad news. . . A certain two FBI agents survived your little plague. Of course you knew that would happen, didn't you? And they suspect you are alive and will undoubtedly want to come after you. . . but maybe this is good news?

"I'd say you need some leverage when they turn up. . . something to help you be done with them once and for all. . . or to allow you to use them as you see fit. . . that was your original plan for the woman, wasn't it?

"I just wonder what that leverage could be. . ." Flagg's voice trailed off with a particular lilt that showed he knew he held the trump card in this game.

"Obviously you know. . ." Spender tried to keep a stone face. He tried.

"I understand you're about to make a little cigarette run. . . nasty habit those cancer sticks. . ." Flagg pointed to the smoldering butt on the ground.

"And if I am?" Spender cleared his throat, he could feel the bile in the back of his throat, his stomach was turning. . . and he knew who was causing it. Unconsciously, his left hand dug into his suit pocket in search of a Certs.

"I suggest you head here," Flagg pointed to the map on Spender's desk. "There's a woman who is traveling with a child not her own. She calls him Moses. . . but that's not his real name. . . kinda like you, huh? I've *arranged* it so they will pass here. . . "

"Who is the child?" Spender bluffed with his best nonchalant tone.

"You sure you want to know?"

Spender's eyes narrowed. "What's your price?"

Flagg laughed. "Price? You sold yourself a long time ago. . . You're already owned. You just go here and do what I say. You'll get what you want and, at the same time, you'll be removing a potential thorn from my side. . . ridding me of a pesky nuisance. I'd call it an even deal. "

"What's the child's name?"




Richmond, Indiana

Mulder stared at road before him. It was dark, but the horizon to the west still held fingers of light.

He shuddered in the cold wind. But as he wrapped his coat around himself tighter, he was bumped from behind. Before he could spin around to see what hit him, he was buffeted from side to side as two long, endless lines of people walked by him. He was trapped between the unbroken threads.

He tried to speak to them, but they were unhearing. . . unseeing. They trudged in an infinitely slow march toward the west. Their pale faces were unlined. . . their dark eyes were rimmed with red. Their clothes were black. . .

It was a funeral procession.

Mulder began to run, desperately searching for a break in the lines. . . any way out. He ran for miles, unable to stop, for when he did, the people pushed him toward the west.

He fought his way east, but the tide still pushed. Until finally, exhausted, he fell to his knees and buried his face in his hands.

"Get up, Fox!" cried Mother Abagail.

Mulder looked up and he was no longer on the dark road. He was in a green field, surrounded by warm sunlight.

He staggered to his feet, looking for Mother Abagail.

"Where are you?" he called as he spun around.

"Right here, child," she softly called.

Mulder turned and she was suddenly standing before him, her knotted cane firmly in her right hand and planted in the soil.

"What's happening?"

She lifted her cane and tapped him on the foot. "It's a warning, son. A wake-up call to you. . . tellin' you what lies ahead. "

"I don't understand. . . "

"You and Dana must get moving. You mustn't stop for anything or anyone. . . Do you understand this ol' woman?" Her eyes were crystal clear as they bore into him.

"I don't know. . . "

"You remember these words. No one. You stop for no one. HE can appear as a helpless babe. . . a woman with child. . . an old man in crippled pain. . . but it's all a LIE. It's his trap. He knows your weakness. You stop for no one until you see me. Is that clear?"

Mulder nodded mutely. What the hell was going on?

"If'un you don't listen. . . it will be the life of Dana and what she holds dear. . . "

"I understand!" Mulder suddenly shouted. . . Mother Abagail knew his weakness, too.

"Remember," her voice faded. . .


And Mulder bolted awake.

And Scully and Fluffy slept peacefully.




Somewhere in Nevada

Charles Spender waited for an answer to his question.

The Dark Man smiled a fetid grin and answered. . .

"The child's name is Matthew Scully. "




CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE




East of Indianapolis, Indiana
July 10
1400 hours

Mulder scanned the small town ahead.

Things had gone relatively well for the past two days. They had left Richmond behind yesterday morning. The town had been demolished. Boards, bricks, paper, and household debris covered the grounds and they had to watch every step to avoid the injury a sudden fall would cause.

It had been Scully who suggested that they follow Highway 40 instead of continuing on Interstate 70. Highway 40 paralleled the interstate all the way to Indianapolis, and while the interstate was nearly devoid of any past civilizations, 40 was lined with small towns. Small towns that would hold the supplies they needed. Like transportation.

The trail of destruction ended only a few miles west of Richmond. As they peered back at the remains it looked as though a giant vacuum cleaner had come down from the sky and sucked up the town only to vomit it out like a hairball.

They had found the Schwinn bicycles that night as they picked their way through another tiny ghost town. There wasn't much they could do for Fluffy until they found another motorcycle shop. Until then, they agreed they would pedal along slowly enough for the dog to keep up. It hadn't been hard. The highway was straight and flat. . . and Fluffy had seemed to enjoy the exercise, pretending to chase after them, barking and nipping playfully at their heels.

But even Fluffy fell silent as they reached the first buildings at the edge of town. There were no signs of life, but it was always best to be cautious. Fluffy lifted his nose into the wind. . . he smelled nothing but death and he shook his head and snorted a few times to get rid of the odor.

"What say we find a store, grab a few things and get out of here before stopping for some lunch? I'm starting to get hungry," Mulder asked.

Scully was tired but she nodded her head in agreement. She preferred limiting their stops to the open road, too.

They rode slowly into town, searching for a grocery store. When they finally found the local mart, it was obvious they were out of luck. The place had been ransacked, probably during the initial panic of the plague. The only remains were some fuzzy, sprouting potatoes and some seriously dented cans of stewed tomatoes and peas. And risking botulism was not high on their list of things to do.

They moved on with some disappointment, but things began to look up a few blocks later as Rosehill's Cafe came into view. They parked their bicycles out front and moved cautiously toward the door.

The screen door was closed, but the inside door was unlocked. Mulder peeked inside the window to survey the situation. The walls of the place were covered with old calendars with pictures of everything from "new" 1955 model cars to farm equipment to insurance ads. Mulder took this as a good sign since he firmly believed that the greatness of any diner was directly related to the number of out of date calendars and menus it posted.

The glamour of the place was only marred by one thing. . .

"Looks like one dead man inside. . . but everything else looks undisturbed. Wanna try?"

Scully took a breath and nodded. Mulder turned the doorknob and they entered, but Fluffy sat down outside and refused to go inside. Mulder was puzzled by this, but he shrugged it off. He walked over to the side window and opened it to let in some cross breeze first to clear the stale musty air, then he moved toward the kitchen. Scully stayed put and stared at the dead man.

Harvey "Hec" Shannon sat in his regular booth. The booth he occupied at every breakfast hour and every dinner -- 'cause that's what they called the noon meal hereabouts -- every day of the week except Saturday. He had been addicted to Natty Rosehill's bacon and grits and creamy chipped beef for over fifteen years.

Hec had never been a rocket scientist. . . he had a hard time boiling water. . . but he was always a hard worker down at Billy's Garage. And he enjoyed the company at the cafe, the feeling of belonging. If he was sick and missed a meal, the Rosehills always checked in on him to see if he was all right. Which was nice, since he didn't have anyone else.

So, when the plague had hit and everyone was dropping like flies, Hec, his nose dripping and his chest welling, went to the only place he could think of for help. The cafe. He had waited there, in his booth, snotty greased bandana in hand, wondering if Natty was gonna come back and feed him some chipped beef on toast.

And he had waited until he choked and keeled over onto the formica table, his big red nose pressed over the yellow laminated menu that was sealed to the table top.

Scully stared at the dead man. He had apparently been such a thin, reedy old guy that there really wasn't much of an odor. He was just sitting there, not bothering anyone. She had passed many bodies since this nightmare began, but few had evoked such feelings of sympathy from her. Maybe it was his greasy overalls and the way the old man sat so patiently in the booth. Perhaps it was simply because he had obviously died all alone. Whatever it was, it prompted her to find an old checkered table cloth behind the counter and cover him with it. Just a small touch of kindness for someone who had died many days before.

Mulder was coming back into the front room from the kitchen as Scully performed this service. He stopped in the doorway and watched quietly, not wanting to disturb her. When she was done. . . after another moment of silence out of respect. . . he cleared his throat softly. She looked up.

"I think we've got some paydirt back here. C'mon back and let me know what you think," he said, motioning with his hand.

Scully followed him, trying to ignore the strange detachment she now felt. Her head was clouded. Not painful, just not really there. She wasn't feeling sharp and she wasn't quite sure why.

They rummaged through the shelves and found several useful items. . . rice, dried beans, some cans of corn and some of peaches, some Bisquik for campfire doughboys, and some Spam -- which was to be used only in a dire emergency according to Mulder.

Mulder also found a phone book for the Indianapolis area and they had found the address of a motorcycle dealership. One that should have suitable transportation for them and their furry new friend.

They grabbed their goods and headed back outside; but, as they started to get onto their bicycles, Fluffy began to circle Scully's, whimpering and whining.

"What's wrong, boy? It's time to get moving. . ." Scully urged.

But Fluffy would have none of it. As she got on the seat, he grabbed hold of her pants leg, his teeth firmly embedded in the cloth of her jeans.

"Let go, Fluffy," Mulder demanded, as Scully tried to shake the dog loose.

Fluffy wouldn't budge. When Mulder dismounted and headed toward him, Fluffy let out a low growl. He continued to tug on Scully until she finally had to dismount, too.

Scully gave Mulder an alarmed look. "What is going on, Mulder? Is he sick?"

Mulder tried to sneak up and grab Fluffy's collar, but the dog jumped to the right. He let go of Scully and lunged at her bicycle. He knocked it over with one good charge.

"Fluffy!" Mulder yelled. It was not a good time for the dog to throw a temper tantrum. He stormed over to the bike and began to pick up the supplies that had been strewn in the fall. "Damn dog," he muttered.

"Mulder?" Scully mumbled a few moments later.

But he didn't look up.

Then Fluffy barked insistently. And Mulder turned around just in time to see Scully's eyes roll back in her head as she collapsed to the ground, blood pouring from her nose.

"Scully!" Mulder was at her side in an instant, feeling for her pulse, listening to her respirations. She was alive but unconscious. He quickly turned her onto her side to keep her from choking on her own blood.

Fluffy whined softly, refusing to leave her side. He rested his head upon her hip and looked to Mulder, begging him to do something.

And it suddenly dawned on Mulder.

"You knew this was about to happen, didn't you, boy? That's why you wouldn't let Scully get on her bike. . . you knew she'd get hurt?"

Fluffy just continued to stare at him sadly.

But it all made sense in a weird, X-File sort of way. There were dogs that could anticipate epileptic seizures in their owners. It was believed that the dogs could either pick up changes in a human's "electric" field or that they could pick up a change in scent brought about by this electric disturbance. Whatever it was, it appeared as though Fluffy was in sync with Scully and the chip in her neck.

The sun was beating down and sweat began to pour off of Mulder's face.

"Let's get her inside," Mulder said, grateful to have a living being still able to hear him, even if it couldn't understand him fully. He scooped Scully up into his arms and carried her into the cafe.

He went through the dining room and through the kitchen to the office at the back of the building. He laid Scully down on the outrageously orange vinyl clad sofa there, being careful to keep her on her side. He ran into the kitchen and grabbed several towels, then he ran back to Scully's side, placing two of the towels under her head to catch the blood. He checked her pulse and respiration once more. They still seemed okay.

Then he heard Fluffy barking outside.

"I'll be right back, Scully," he whispered as he gave her a quick kiss on the forehead. He ran back out to the bicycles.

Fluffy was pacing back and forth in the street, looking east -- down the road. The dog stopped pacing when he sensed Mulder's presence. His eyes still glued on the horizon, he began to growl.

Mulder squinted and tried to see what Fluffy was riled up about but he couldn't see anything. He looked at Fluffy. He looked at the bikes. He looked back down the road.

Fluffy barked again. With urgency.

Mulder decided that it might be prudent to heed his friend's warning. After all, dogs certainly had keener senses than humans. He grabbed his bike and carried it into the cafe. Then he returned to grab Scully's Schwinn. He quickly heaved it inside before returning to the street to gather the scattered supplies.

Fluffy growled. Mulder looked up. He couldn't see exactly what was coming, but he could see the familiar flashing glare of sun against metal as it flew down the highway. . . a car. It looked to be about three miles out. Mulder wrapped his arms around the supplies and hightailed it into the cafe.

"Fluffy!" he yelled, and the dog ran inside, his work accomplished.

Mulder frantically rushed to get everything out of sight, pushing the bikes into the back of the kitchen, while Fluffy ran back into the office to be with Scully.

Mulder could actually hear the car now as it sped toward them. As he lunged for the front door to lock it, he prayed that whoever was coming would just keep going.


Kelso, California Sometime

Once upon a time, not so many years ago, in a land far, far away, Roberta Parks had held down a job in the outside world. Not just a go-to-work-pick-your-ears-'til-payday job, but a *meaningful* job. She had looked forward to each shift, knowing that she would make a difference.

And it kept her busy enough and more than satisfied enough that she forgot to notice that she had no life beyond it.

So, when she was forced to leave it behind, she had left her life behind. Along with her emotions and purpose.

Emotions hadn't been of much use to her for quite some time now. For the only one she felt, the one that would sneak up on her in quiet moments, was sadness. An empty, chest-aching pain that often crept into her apartment at 2 a. m. as she laid in bed, staring at the ceiling, all too aware of the vacant space in her queen-sized bed.

It wasn't that Roberta dwelled much on sex, or the lack of it. . . it wasn't a real necessity for a fulfilled life and she had never understood those who treated it as such. Other than for procreation, it was a *want, * not a *need. *But, she did think that intimacy. . . companionship was a need. Life was rather pointless without it. Like her own life.

She would ponder over her face in the water-speckled bathroom mirror, wondering what vital component was missing. Her long brown hair wasn't bad. . . the stylists all loved it, anyway. Her blue eyes were deep and round. All her features individually seemed fine. But, somehow, when they were all added up together, something somehow was missing. Like a homemade vegetable soup you've slaved over all day only to find in the end that it's missing some unknown spice or herb. Maybe a bayleaf or some Emeril Special Seasoning.

No one had ever called her ugly. But no one had ever told her she was pretty either.

When she had an outside job she had often come in contact with little kids. And she always made a special point of telling the girls that they were pretty. And she was always being sincere. It had occurred to her even then that she would have felt more confident about her looks if only they had been affirmed one time by an outside source. If only once someone had cared enough about her to see that she had some beauty inside or outside.

So, before Captain Tripps, Roberta had pretty much resigned herself to the fact she would never marry, never have children. . . which had been okay when she had a job with real purpose. But it sucked when she did not.

But things had changed now, hadn't they? She had a new purpose. Little Moses. At the moment, the kid was crawling around inside their pup tent, playing hide and seek with her sleeping bag.

His hoarse laugh was one of carefree wonder as he pulled the bag over his head again and Roberta yanked it off with a flourish.

Moses never cried for his mommy anymore. . . but he did constantly need to touch Roberta. When they weren't on the bike, he always needed to be within easy reach of her. He wasn't "huggy," he just needed the reassurance of contact.

She was happy. . . relieved. . . to give it.

She remembered all too well the scene of the motel room where she had found him. . . She shuddered. She had seen bad things before, but that scene was at the top of the list.

Roberta took a long swig out of her water bottle and wiped her mouth with the back of her dusty hand. This area had a very appropriate name. The Devil's Playground.

She had learned quickly that travel between 11 a. m. and 4 p. m. in this region was virtually impossible -- unless you were a glutton for heat stroke. Nope. It was far wiser to hit the road before dawn then stop and set up a little camp in the shade for these prime sun hours.

So, she had found a rocky overhang just outside of Kelso where she could set up the tent. Here they were protected from the worst of the sun and the hot winds. Of course, she had been careful to check the area for any wild denizens who might have had the same thought. She hated snakes.

Moses began to settle down from his play, his eyes beginning to droop, so she got him situated in the corner of the sleeping bag and waited for him to doze off so she could take care of some business of her own.

Once the toddler was asleep, she opened her backpack and removed her Glock 9mm handgun and a small gun cleaning kit. It was a good idea to make sure it hadn't picked up any sand or grit during their desert travels.

She couldn't shake the feeling that she would need the weapon soon. And her new purpose demanded that she be ready.

Then she heard it. The thump, thump of rotors. . .


Indiana

It appeared like a fireball out of hell. All smoked up and roaring with the anger only a supercharger could provide. A flake-gold 1932 Ford deuce coupe, complete with flames painted down the sides. The shark fin on the roof announced its owner in flamed letters: The Kid.

Mulder crouched behind the front counter, where he could stay hidden but still see out the front windows.

He had hoped that this guy would just pass on through, but there was no such luck. The Ford slowed, its engine still growling and crackling loudly.

Finally, it came to a sudden stop directly in front of the cafe. Mulder cursed under his breath.

Then The Kid got out of his car. And he was the last thing Mulder expected.

He was a rebel with Coors for a cause. An open can was glued to his left hand.

His hair was piled high and covered in grease all the way back to his out-dated duck tail. His jeans were so tight you could tell he was circumcised. His black boots had heels so high you could tell he had a height inadequacy complex. His leather jacket was covered in zippers, his name was emblazoned in fancy embroidery on the back. . . and three rabbits feet dangled from his clothing.

The Kid stretched and let out a loud, odiferous belch. It lasted long enough that he could have gotten through the entire alphabet if he had tried. And he was very careful not to spill a drop of his precious brew.

But Mulder's eyes were glued to the two gunbelts that crisscrossed his waist. Each holster held a . 45 that dangled over a hip.

The Kid staggered a few feet from his precious vehicle and stopped, tilting back on his heels as he unzipped and whipped out his one-eyed snake with his right hand. With his left, he took another swig of Coors. Then the pissing began.

He started to giggle as he watched the flow. With a warped artistic flair, he rotated his hips, adjusted his aim and began to spell his favorite beverage on the hot, faded pavement.

"C. . . O. . . O. . . R. . . Sssssssss," he hissed as the flow reduced to a few last drips of punctuation. "Coors in and Coors out," he gurgled as he took another long drink. "Ain't no shakin' necessary," he commented confidently as he closed up from his "bizness. "

Then The Kid teetered back to rest against the trunk of his car, being mindful not to scratch or dent anything. He looked up and down the street, as if he were trying to make a decision. Then he pulled out one of his guns and began to spin it around his finger.

Finally, The Kid settled on a target. The glass windows of the cafe.

The bullets flew, shattering glass and bouncing off formica and chrome as Mulder dodged and belly-crawled his way back toward Scully.

When he reached the office, he closed the door tightly and took a deep breath. He chanced a quick peek through the door's peephole -- this must have been where they counted the money at night. So far, The Kid was staying outside. At least the bullets had stopped flying.

Mulder turned back to check on Scully. He thought for sure that the gunfire would have woken her. But she hadn't moved. Fluffy sat dutifully beside her, his chin on her arm. . . giving her face an occasional lick in the hopes she would wake up and shoo him off.

Mulder knelt down beside her and noticed that her breathing had evened out and the bleeding had stopped. Maybe now she just needed to sleep it off.

Then he realized that things had gotten awfully quiet outside. And quiet didn't mean good. He rose and moved to the door. . .


The Kid was damned tired of not having any real targets. It had been at least two days since that stupid "MO-ron" in Alabama called his Ford a "Pussy-Mobile." He'd given the prick a good one hundred yards lead before he fired. Got him right smack in the back of the head. And his brains had looked just like shit. . . so that saying was true, after all. Then The Kid and his Ford had done a little gear grinding over Shit For Brains' carcass. His ass was now a permanent part of the pavement in the sorriest state in the Confederacy.

He'd been driving around ever since, looking for more Coors and more targets. And this town didn't look like it was gonna help either cause. Until he spied the cafe. . .

He strode up to the front door. It was locked, but that "warn't no problemo" as he lifted his booted heel and gave one swift kick. The door swung back against the wall with a bang.

The Kid had hoped for some live company as he surveyed the room. Nope. Just a dead guy in a booth. A dead guy in a booth with a checkered sheet over him. Or maybe the guy wasn't really dead. . . maybe he was just hiding. . .

The Kid drew his guns and opened fire. The first two shots hit the Sheet Man. Then he turned his guns on the rest of the place. Bullets flew through the kitchen, they bounced off the pots and pans. . . one headed straight through the office door. . .

The Kid was about to head to the kitchen when he caught movement in the corner of his eye. He spun around to fire both guns, but the hammers fell on spent chambers with two hollow clicks.

The Kid's eyes widened in horror as the Sheet Man billowed, his cloth rising up from the booth.

"Oh, Shit!" The Kid muttered. The man was dead but he wasn't. He was a zombie or some fucking monster -- which wasn't that hard to imagine these days. . . the dead all just waiting to rise and claim the few lucky son-of-bitches who had beat Captain Tripps.

The Kid bolted for the door, pulling his car keys from his belt loop. . .

"Shit, shit, shit. . . ." he stuttered as he jumped in and started her up. . . he was gone in a cloud of smoke and burning rubber.




The wind coming through the side window began to die down and the tablecloth over Hec Shannon came to rest, leaving the man in peace once more.




Mulder stared at the bullet hole just two inches from his head and tried not to think about what almost happened. He had no idea what had scared The Kid off, but he was not going to look a gift horse in the mouth.

"Mulder?" Scully stirred and Fluffy woofed softly.

He turned to find Scully trying to sit up.

"What happened and why am I on this god-awful orange couch?" she gasped as she rubbed her temples.

Mulder chuckled with relief and returned to her side.

"I'll tell you in the morning, Scully," and he surprised her with a quick kiss on the lips. "Let's just get some dinner together and then get some sleep. . . I don't think my legs will travel any more today. "

So they ate dinner inside the cafe and settled in for the night.




Kelso, California
Sometime

Charles Spender had never really enjoyed riding in helicopters. They buffeted around, close enough to the ground that if you weren't very careful, you'd be puking your guts out within minutes.

He and his team had been circling the Kelso area for some twenty minutes when he finally spotted what they were after. The green tent was carefully ensconced under a rocky outcropping.

"There!" he told the pilot. The men in back readied themselves for landing.

A few minutes later, they were on the ground and the men were deployed. . . it was just a matter of time.

Spender stood in front of the chopper, inhaling his newly acquired cigarette.

He'd give it one more minute. . .




Roberta stared through her binoculars at the man who was obviously in charge. His men had encircled her camp and were very close to the small cave where she had taken Moses at the first sounds of the helicopter. There wasn't anywhere else for them to go.

She studied the man below. . .

Roberta had always been aware of right and wrong. She just hadn't had to think about it much over the past few years. But the rules were still emblazoned in her brain.

There were varying degrees of wrongness. Kinda like the phases of the moon. A fingernail moon wrong was when you got your peanut butter on someone's chocolate. Not too bad. . . and you could eat the evidence. A quarter moon was when you lied about why your homework wasn't done. A half moon would be sneaking into the kitchen and using your mother's Holy Sacred Calphalon Frying Pan and ruining it by burning it with grease. . . and she had paid for that particular transgression. Three quarters would be stealing or robbing a bank. And a full moon would be murder.

She only needed to look into this man's eyes once to know that he had seen a lot of full moons in his time.

"Roberta Parks!" The man called out. "It's pointless to try and hide. We know you are here. If you come out now, you and the child will not be harmed. If you do not. . . you will die today. "

How the hell did he know her name? Roberta stared at the armed men. They were organized. They were a unit. They stank of "government issue." Special Ops types. She had no doubt the man was telling the truth. They would kill her in a heartbeat. And they had the equipment to easily find her. Her Glock was no match for their weapons. There was nowhere to run. It was just a matter of time.

She stood, still holding Moses, and stepped out of her hiding spot.

She could hear the guns bearing down upon them.

"Hold your fire!" Spender commanded. "A wise move, Miss Parks. Or should I say. . . *Officer* Parks?"

"Do I know you?" Roberta responded coolly, tightening her hold on Moses.

"No. But I know all about you and your illustrious career. You're a long way from home aren't you?"

"Thanks for your concern," Roberta spat.

"So, Officer Parks. Do we do this the easy way. . . or the hard way?" Spender spoke smoothly between draws on his cigarette.

Roberta stared at him, suddenly realizing for the first time that she hadn't smoked a cigarette in over five days. . . and seeing for the first time just how ugly a habit it was.

"I've never been one for taking the easy way out," she replied.

"Very well then. . ." Spender threw his cigarette down and nodded to his men.

They rushed Roberta and had her weapon before she could reach it. She fought them for Moses, but there were too many of them. One of the goons grew tired of the struggle and slammed his rifle butt into her right temple. She staggered but did not fall. . . but they had taken Moses.

One of the men handed Moses over to Spender. . . Roberta lunged toward him, but the other men held her back. Moses screamed and wailed, kicking out with his little feet, arching his back away from Spender.

"You son of a bitch! Moses!" Roberta screamed.

"Now, now. We both know his name isn't 'Moses, ' don't we? It's Matthew. Matthew Scully. "

Roberta's eyes narrowed with hatred. "If you so much as disturb one hair on his head. . ." she spat.

"What? What will you do, Officer Parks?" Spender laughed. "Nothing. "

Spender handed the squirming Matthew to one of the men and strode over to Roberta.

He lifted his gun and pressed it to her head, right between the eyes.

"What will you do?" he smirked again.

Roberta took a steadying breath, but she refused to close her eyes. . . she wouldn't give him the satisfaction.

Spender pulled the trigger. . .




Indiana
2200 hours

Mulder sat bolt upright in the darkness, suddenly awake, causing Scully to jump in surprise.

His mouth moved in shock. . .

"Roberta?" He turned to Scully, who was still too stunned to speak.

"Scully. . . Matthew's alive! "




CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

"He'll wrap you in his arms
Tell you that you been a good boy
He'll rekindle all the dreams
That took you a lifetime to destroy
He'll reach deep into the hole, heal your shrinking soul
But there won't be a single thing that you can do
He's a god, he's a man, he's a ghost, he's a guru
They're whispering his name through this disappearing land
But hidden in his coat is a red right hand

You'll see him in your nightmares
You'll see him in your dreams
He'll appear out of nowhere
But he ain't what he seems
You'll see him in your head, on the TV screen
Hey buddy I'm wanting you to turn it off

He's a ghost, he's a god, he's a man, he's a guru
You're one microscopic cog in his catastrophic plan
Designed and directed by his red right hand"
-- "Red Right Hand"




Rollin's Motorcycle World
Indianapolis, Indiana July 11

It's true what they teach you in your first days of Evidence 101. Every time you go into a room, you leave a part of yourself behind and you take something of that room with you when you leave. Now. The discerning criminal (or cautious fellow) knows how to minimize this. He can't eliminate it entirely, but he can make his passing more invisible. And that effort alone says something about him. It shows he is methodical. . . he looks to his future by attempting to conceal his past.

And it stands to reason that a man who *doesn't* cover his tracks also reveals his nature. He's careless, perhaps arrogant. He *wants* to leave his mark to announce his presence to everyone, "I was here!" He's a dog pissing his way around his territory.

Mulder had become very adept at reading human *spoor. *

As he walked through the motorcycle dealership, it was impossible not to notice that he was not the first customer since the Superflu. And since he and Scully made a habit of sizing up previous tenants wherever they stopped -- their survival depended upon it -- he began his check list.

It began with the method of entry: a shotgun blast to the front display window. The subject was impatient and careless. He didn't care if anyone else heard him.

Definite danger sign. It would have set off the "Lost In Space" Robot in a heartbeat.

He noticed the first aid kit on the floor, its contents strewn about. Bandaid remnants and a holey sock sat nearby. The subject had switched to new shoes. . . probably boots by the location of the sock holes. . . and had blisters.

Then he moved on to the food remains. This would tell him many things.

The amount and placement of debris could tell him how many people had dined there. It appeared there had been four here.

The specific food items and their preparation was another clue. Did they eat canned tuna packed in oil or did they opt for tuna in spring water? Did they choose Jif or Peter Pan? Did they use a fork or a spoon? And did they take the time to cook, or did they eat their food cold, straight from the can?

The mess here told Mulder that all of the occupants had been male. The combination of meal courses alone told him that.

Trouble had been here. And it had chowed down on Bush's Baked Beans with Honey Barbecue Sauce, Hi-Ho Crackers, Skippy Extra Crunchy Peanut Butter, Jumbo Spicy Hot Slim-Jims, and Twinkies. Budweiser had washed the meal down. Yup. Definitely guys.

The remnants of the baked beans had "adobe-fied" wherever they had dripped and dropped while the subjects ate straight from the cans -- and the degree of dryness indicated they had been here only 24 to 48 hours earlier. The Hi-Hos had been dipped and double-dipped directly into the peanut butter jar, leaving crumbled bits of golden brown behind. And the Bud cans had all been crushed against someone's forehead.

Then there was the rank odor in one corner where the men had taken aim at a Honda sign. Musta been some pissing contest.

And if there had been any doubt about the nature of these men, it was quickly dispelled when Mulder found the empty boxes that once held dozens of Winchester . 38 PlusP rounds and Remington shotgun shells.

Mulder was glad that he had left Scully outside while he looked for a motorcycle. She had enough to worry about without seeing and smelling this crap. Hell, so did he for that matter. Like his dreams that insisted that they stay away from all human contact. . . or the fact that he had blurted out his dream last night about Scully's nephew. But right now, he did not want to think about his dreams and what they might or might not mean. . . if they were true. He had more urgent matters to attend to.

Scully was sitting in the shade of a tree across the street and Fluffy had been quite content to stay there with her. They were fairly well hidden from view, but Mulder would have felt a whole lot better if he knew where these men had gone. . . were they lurking around the corner?

He quickly got down to business, picking out the right motorcycle and getting it ready.




Scully was certain that she was losing her mind.

It wasn't the kind of certainty you have when you get home from the store and you just know that you bought milk, even though you can't find it. Or when you know that you ordered your steak medium rare but the waitress brings it medium well.

No. It was a confirmable certainty. The kind you have when you leave on a trip and you just *know* that you turned off the stove. Or when you go to bed and you know that you've locked the front door.

You *know* because you went back and checked it at least three times. Then you went back and checked again to just make sure you really checked correctly.

And Scully had checked her mental status at least the perfunctory four times now.

*Scully, Matthew's alive! *

Three words. An excited utterance. Admissible in almost any court. Three words that held a crushingly cruel hope.

It had been obvious that Mulder regretted his sudden outburst.

And now, what was she supposed to believe? Whether they had fully discussed it or not -- and they hadn't -- they were moving west because of their dreams. Shared dreams. Dreams in which an African American woman as old as Methuselah was calling out warnings to them. . . warnings that had already saved their lives. And while Scully had now ceased to hear them, dream them. . . whatever. . . Mulder's antennae were still tuned in. . .

But was his vision of Matthew real?

And what if it was? Where was her nephew? Were her brother, Bill, and his wife still alive? In her heart, Scully knew that answer had to be no. But where in the world could she even start to look for Matthew? And who was "Roberta," and was she with him?

Scully wiped her hands across her face. It was all too much. She had already resigned herself to the idea that her entire family was gone. And in a twisted way, it had made all of this easier. Painful, yes. . . but it meant that she could focus on the here and now, herself and Mulder. But, if Matthew was alive. . . it changed everything.

The best thing to do in the face of tragedy and chaos is to keep busy. That way you don't have to think about what is really happening. That's what she had always done at bad crime scenes. Focus on the task at hand. . . when that's done, find another task. As long as you don't stop, you don't have to feel.

Busy. Busy enough not to think about her family, Skinner, the Gunmen, Zeke. . . . dead bodies everywhere. She didn't have to consider what had happened in a fireplace in Richmond. . . how Mulder had kissed her and she had kissed him right back.

She didn't have to think about the chip in her neck.

All they had to focus on was getting to Nebraska. . . and Mother Abigail. One step at a time.

But this news about Matthew had thrown everything out the window.

And all she wanted to do was curl up into a ball and pull a blanket over her head. She was so tired. Everything was crashing down around her.

Fluffy stood up beside her and gave himself a good shaking, his tags clinking like a weak tambourine with no sense of beat. Then he sat back on his haunches and began to scratch. And scratch.

The scritching noise was enough to get Scully's attention. She leaned over, stretching her hand out to scratch his ears. Fluffy happily tipped his head toward her and let out a throaty noise that sounded an awful lot like an "Ohhhh yeah." A few moments and scratches later, Scully felt something small and hard in Fluffy's fur. She lifted one of his ears and examined it, quickly finding the culprit.

"Oh, Fluffy. . . Damn. We're gonna have to give you a flea bath or something, aren't we?"

Fluffy merely whined. The word "bath" did not evoke pleasant images. Last time Scully had said "bath" he had ended up in a wrestling match with Mulder. And Mulder had summoned the audacity to threaten him where Scully, the nice lady, couldn't hear. Mulder had said something about "fixing" him. . . and while Fluffy wasn't sure what "fixing" meant. . . he knew it couldn't be good.

"Scully!" Mulder called from across the street.

They looked up and saw Mulder slowly pushing a motorcycle and its sidecar from the rear of the dealership. It looked as though they were back in business.

Scully stood, wiping her flea-ed hands on her jeans.

It was time to get back on I-70 and head for Illinois.

She could be busy again. She would think about non-flea problems later.




Somewhere in Nevada
Sometime

In one split second, Charles Spender had a vision.

A vision of being covered in fluffy Johnson's baby powder, holding a crinkly tube of Desitin ointment, with several torn Huggies tabs attached to his forearms and a suspicious wet spot on the front of his shirt from when he forgot to dodge to the right, all while being surrounded my special ops men armed from their legs to their molars and dressed in black.

And this is what saved Roberta Parks' life. At the last possible second, Spender had turned his wrist to the right. The bullet had exploded past her left ear and continued its path until it had nestled itself in some rocks beyond.

The men had hustled her and Matthew into the chopper. . . and now, here she sat.

The room was not meant to be comfortable. The walls were a cold concrete. The floor was hard concrete. The ceiling held two fluorescent lights that had that incessant buzz mixed in with the occasional and unpredictable flicker.

The lights cast a sickening yellow white glow on everything in the room. And everything consisted of Roberta, Matthew, two cots with white sheets and army blankets, one metal office chair. . . definitely World War II surplus, and a small round table. The room was not designed for small children. How these men thought that a two-year-old would actually sleep on a cot was beyond her.

Roberta had quickly placed the thin mattresses on the floor, making one large bedding area where she could sleep without worrying about Matthew rolling out of bed.

A small bathroom off the main room offered a minimum of privacy. A toilet, a small sink, and a shower stall with no curtain. . . a lot like a high school locker room. . . and with about the same smell.

She had no way of knowing for sure how long they had been here. There were no windows. . . and besides, she was positive they were several stories underground. And she had lost track of how many meals had been served after about the tenth meal.

She had seen very little of the man. . . the leader since their arrival. A different guard brought each meal. She had been surprised when they had honored her requests for proper meals for Matthew. They'd even brought in some paper and magic markers for the kid to draw. And one guard had even brought in a tennis ball. . . and she really wondered where he had found *that. * But she suspected those gestures were more of a case of them not wanting to have to listen to Matthew wail and cry rather than any humane inclinations.

For whatever reason, they wanted Matthew in good shape. And they were keeping her in one piece only because she kept him happy.

It was hard to piece together exactly *why* Matthew was so important, but she had put her detective training to good use and had overheard a few murmurs the first day. Something about a man and a woman who would be coming. Bits and pieces about an experiment and that the woman was vital. And that Matthew was their guarantee of success.

And Roberta had already put two and two together and surmised that the arrival of these two people would be her demise. And possibly Matthew's, too.

Matthew, for his part, had adapted fairly well to their new environs. Of course, he was probably just ecstatic to be out of the heat. He had spent his time trying to make a tent out of one of the cot frames using the blankets. Once that was accomplished, "Hide and Seek" had been very popular for about half a day. Now, he seemed content to take his paper and markers into his tent and draw. . . emerging when he had a new masterpiece to give to Roberta. She had absolutely no fucking clue what his latest picture was supposed to represent, but she had made a grand show of praise and nodding as he was apparently trying to explain it to her. . . his face completely serious as he pointed to each swirling blob and yabbered incoherently.

She wasn't sure, but she thought he said something about a fluffy dog.




Somewhere in Illinois

The young man cursed as he removed his shiny new Army boot. What had he been thinking when he ditched his old Converse pair? The damned blister had burst and was now oozing all over his new socks. As he slapped on a few new Bandaids, he looked over at his companions. They were all just waiting for him to issue a command. They knew they were on some kind of mission. A payback mission only he knew. A mission that burned hot in his gut, eating him from the inside.

If this young man had ever paid attention in school, he might have learned that revenge is a dish best served cold. Not that he would have comprehended the lesson -- he probably would have thought that you should even a score by locking your enemy in the family Kenmore freezer -- but, it just might have helped him calculate his current situation a tad bit better.

For one thing, he had surrounded himself with tooth-impaired idiots. Veritable clones of two of his old hometown buddies. His old, currently and forever *dead* hometown buddies. And these new guys had hot and itchy trigger fingers, just like he did.

Les Campana, who was currently biding time practicing his fart range, was a National Guard freak with a one-track mind. He was determined that they round up as many broads as possible for their own private gang-bang harem. Almost understandable to the man when he considered that it was unlikely that any woman in the free-world with even an ounce of brain matter had ever even entertained the thought of talking to Campana. . . the back of his head was suspiciously dented, almost concave, like his brain hadn't quite risen to the occasion. His nose was so upturned that he was at risk of drowning whenever it rained. . . and his back and the one inch of his thick neck were so hairy that the poodles in his neighborhood had been jealous.

The young man had run across Campana in Ohio. . . Campana had apparently broken ranks with a group of National Guardsmen who were starting their own "harem". . . and Campana hadn't fit in. They'd been cruising ever since, picking up Watts and Krieger along the way. And somehow, he, the youngest, had ended up as leader.

So, per his orders, they now sat, camped in Illinois. Waiting. The harem collecting would have to wait for just a bit. He had unfinished business and he intended to take care of it very soon.

He had seen the man. The man who had humiliated him. There was a woman with him now. . . on the road. Following Interstate 70. Heading right for Illinois.

Headed directly for him and his camp.

Timmy Hoffman, formerly of Greenwich, Connecticut, smiled. It was time to recreate that "splat" sound from his youth. And maybe Campana could start his harem. Two birds with one stone.

He grinned.




Vandalia, Illinois
July 12
0900 hours

Scully stared out at the highway as Mulder finished packing their gear on the motorcycle.

They had stopped for the night in Vandalia -- also known as the middle of nowhere -- and not in St. Louis as planned. The traffic around Indianapolis had been very heavy and it had taken them considerably longer to maneuver around it than they had calculated.

Their current plan -- because plans were very important for sanity at this point -- was to get past St. Louis today and find some kind of water supply. . . enough to get all of them cleaned up.

She slapped the back of her left arm. Damn fleas. Fluffy had managed to infest everyone in less than a day. She had caught Mulder scratching and slapping several times during the night. They'd had to break their new habit of closeness at night because of it. They were all too damn itchy. But, she had sorely missed the contact.

Mulder closed the saddle bags and gave a whistle for Fluffy, who immediately bounded over, anxious for the breeze on the road. Scully responded, too, much to Mulder's surprise.

She boldly walked up to him, pulled his face toward her and planted a kiss on his lips.

"What was that for?" He stuttered.

"Nothing. Everything. I missed you last night," she replied and climbed into the sidecar before he could act.

"Let's go find that water!" Mulder exclaimed as he jumped onto the bike.

Fluffy piled in on top of Scully, who let out an ooomph upon impact, and they were off.

Headed straight for Timmy Hoffman and company.




CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

"He-ah looka like-ah man." - Miss Swan "Mad TV"




Cahokia Mounds
Illinois Interstate 70
July 12
1030 hours

"Krieger, come in," Timmy Hoffman barked over his CB radio.

"Yeah, I'm here," Krieger's voice crackled back.

"Any sign of 'em yet?" Hoffman asked.

"Nope. I haven't seen nothin'," came the reply.

"Well, keep your eyes open and let me know the minute you see 'em coming. . ." Hoffman ordered.

Hoffman leaned back against the grassy mound. He drummed his fingers against the stock of his M-16. . . the one he had commandeered from Campana's National Guard supplies. He dug the heel of his boot into the soft ground.

The great mounds of green-covered earth rose above him, but he ignored their quiet mystery. He couldn't have cared less if one or one thousand ancient people were buried there. He'd never heard of the damned mounds in his life and wasn't about to start reading those handy tourist signs now. Not when there were more important things at hand.

They had a plan, but waiting for the prey was killing him. Krieger was sitting at the I-70 interchange with the 255 loop. He would spot the man and woman, give Hoffman the call and follow behind them after they passed to the west. Then, as they passed the Cahokia Mounds, all hell would break loose. Hoffman smiled. The duo would never know what hit them. Hoffman, Campana, and Watts would hit them from the sides. . . Krieger from the rear. With any luck, the man would quickly be toast -- Hoffman planned on emptying a full clip into his stinkin' body and watching his carcass dance -- and the woman would be theirs to use for a bit.

He just had to wait.




Interstate 70

"Mulder. I'm not kidding. Stop!" Scully shouted above the drone of the motorcycle engine as she scratched her neck with one hand and maneuvered Fluffy's rigid leg and painfully digging paw from her lap with her other. The dog had been insufferable for the last five miles, whining, getting into her face, and trying to leap from the moving vehicle.

Mulder sighed and eased them to a stop just before the left hand exit to I-255.

"I was hoping we'd all hold out until we got to the Cahokia Mounds. You know, they're an ancient mystery. . . who built them, what was their significance. . . Great picnic spot. . ." Mulder began.

"I'll give you an ancient mystery, Mulder," Scully muttered as she heaved the dog from her lap and jumped from the sidecar. She scratched and rubbed her arms and legs, desperately hoping to kill a few dozen fleas. Then she turned toward Fluffy. . .

"And *you*. . . What's your problem?"

Fluffy whimpered. He looked west, toward the Cahokia Mounds. Then he looked toward I-255 to the south. He shook his head and barked. He seemed to be in pain.

Scully realized something was wrong and felt guilty for yelling at him. Maybe he was sick. . .

"Fluffy?" She started toward him. . .

And with one moaning bark, Fluffy took off running. Scully started after him, but stopped after only a few steps. She'd never catch the canine. By now, Fluffy was halfway down the exit ramp onto I-255.

"Get in, Scully!" Mulder called and motioned her back to the motorcycle. He started the engine and she climbed aboard.

With no hesitation, they took off after Fluffy.


"Holy shit!" Krieger shouted as he hit the ground with his hairy, fat fingered fist. Four empty beer cans clattered from his lap as he stretched for his CB mike. Hoffman was gonna be royally pissed off.


When the radio came to life, Hoffman's heart surged into his throat. The game was about to begin.

"Krieger to base, Krieger to base! "

Hoffman keyed the mike. "What's happening?" He demanded.

"They done went the other way! They're going down 255. . . "

Hoffman was silent, his blood pounding in his temples.

"Did you copy, Hoffman? What do you want me to do?" Krieger sounded scared. He was probably sure Hoffman would blame him.

"Follow them. Do NOT let them see you. We'll be right behind you. Do you understand?" Hoffman bit off each word.

"10-4," Krieger replied, with a fake military crispness.

Hoffman slammed the butt of his M-16 into the ground. He stood and shouted to his two companions.

"Grab your gear, boys. There's a change in plans. We're taking this show on the road. "

The three men grabbed their packs and weapons and headed toward their bikes.


Krieger stumbled over himself as he tried to pick up his gear and get to his motorbike. It was too late to regret that six-pack of Bud. Hoffman was already going to have his ass and the man and woman were getting further away. He needed to hurry.

He jumped on the bike, turned the key and kicked it to life, the rear tire sliding as he took off.

But his judgment -- what little he naturally possessed -- was impaired. He was going a little too fast. The curve onto I-255 was a little too steep. And he had too little experience with motorbike brakes.

With just a little too much pressure he managed to lock up the front wheel and then he was flying through the air, head over ass. The last thing Krieger saw was the guardrail just before his face hit it at sixty miles per hour.

His neck snapped like a Boston Market chicken bone as he flipped over the rail and down the embankment.

And the squirrels, raccoons, crows, and wild dogs rejoiced. A regular Hometown Buffet smorgasbord.




Interstate 255

It was nearly five miles later before they caught up to Fluffy. The dog was badly winded, but he was now sitting at the side of the road, as if wondering "What the hell took you so long?" Of course, it would have helped Mulder and Scully if he had actually stayed on the road during the chase. Most of the time he got to cut through fields while they had to follow the road.

Scully got to him first.

"What the hell was that all about, boy?" She demanded, but keeping her voice soft. She knelt down beside him.

Fluffy responded by licking her face.

"Well, what do we do now?" Mulder asked, his hands perched upon his hips.

"I don't know. Where does this road lead?"

Mulder walked back to the motorcycle and pulled the map from his pack. "Well. . . maybe it's a good thing we ended up down here. I- 255 turns into I-270 and it will take us around to the south and west of St. Louis until we get back to I-70. We can just keep going this way. Should be less traffic. . . "

Scully scratched Fluffy's neck. "Wish I knew what you were up to, fur-face," she muttered. "Mulder, I'm sorry we missed the Cahokia Mounds. "

Mulder shrugged, trying to cover his disappointment. "Maybe next time, Scully. They'll still be there with their secrets. "

The trio climbed back onto the motorcycle and continued on 255.




Hoffman and his band barely acknowledged Krieger's broken body. If anything, Hoffman was pissed that he had lost his tail on the man and woman. And he was pissed that Krieger had destroyed a perfectly good motorbike. "Dumbshit. "

The delay was going to cost them.

The trio climbed back onto their motorcycles and headed south on 255.




Interstate 270/Interstate 44 Interchange
1300 hours

Mulder stared at the mess in front of them. The 270 bridge that crossed over Interstate 44 was a sea of stalled, burned, and congealed vehicles. There was absolutely no way to maneuver around them.

"Look, Mulder," Scully pointed to the northeast. An enormous black mushroom of smoke, oil-slick smoke, filled the sky. Occasionally, a few licks of flame could be seen above the trees and rocky hills.

"I'm guessing we need to head west on 44 from here. . . not that we have much choice anyway," Mulder stated. "It's a little out of our way, but we can still cut north later. "

Scully nodded her agreement. In these days of no fire departments, distance was their only weapon against fire. "Let's get moving. I don't feel right here. "

They threaded their way across the highway and down the up ramp to Interstate 44.

They never noticed the black crow that was perched on the bridge railing. Watching and waiting.




St. Clair, Missouri
1630 hours

It was a beacon in that "only in the Show-Me State of Missouri" kind of way. A tribute to the tackiest of tourist roadside kitsch. A shrine to what had once been the rolling two-laned hills of Route 66.

Behold! An Arch. It was scaled down from it parent model to the east. And this Eero Saarinen homage was the Gateway to the West Side of the Arch Motel.

Its neon lights had been extinguished long before the Superflu. . . slowly burning from "Arch Motel" to "Ach Motel" to "Achoe" before someone said "Bless you," and pulled the ever- lovin' plug. But while its role as keeper of weary wayfarers had ceased, the owner had still resided there, keeping the little cottage/cabins from falling apart in the hopes that the arches would someday return to public favor.

Mulder happened to be ahead of his time. There was no way he could resist its siren call. It was destined to be. The lynchpin. . . the omen. . . had been the giant green-plaster dinosaur at the Sinclair gas station a few miles earlier.

This land was made for Mulder.

"Trust me, Scully," he smiled as he doubled them back onto the service road and pulled up under the arch.

Fluffy impatiently jumped from the sidecar and gave a ferocious shake, then he settled down for a good scratching.

Scully wanted to join him. It had taken them forever and a day to get here from St. Louis. The traffic jams from I-270 until the town of Pacific were hell. Things had cleared up a bit after they passed the Six Flags Over Mid-America theme park. And now, even her fleas were jumping with impatience.

"Mulder, the only way to earn any brownie points right now is to find us some water. Lots of water. . . "

"Keep the faith, woman," he replied. "I have a hunch you'll be singing my praises soon," he added cryptically.

Mulder tripped off to the cabin marked "Office." He peered into the windows. No one home. Good sign. The door was locked, but it was nothing his old plastic Macy's card couldn't handle. At least the plastic still had some use. Mulder fingered his wallet as he slipped the card back into its place. It was silly to still be carrying the ratty leather thing, but old habits die hard. He slid the wallet back into his pocket and entered the cabin.

It was thoroughly unremarkable. A table, a sofa, and one double bed. Everything looked clean. Truly a bit musty, but there weren't any diseases lurking in the shadows.

He walked to the rear window and peered outside. Bingo! Jackpot! Scully was going to be thrilled. The faded signpost he had noticed two miles back was still accurate. God bless the Ozarks.

A hand powered water pump. A giant homemade jacuzzi tub. All connected to one of the many underground hot springs that peppered the region. No electricity necessary.

Mulder exited through the back door and got down to work.




I-70/I-44 Interchange

Being the follower is a time consuming profession. They had to check every exit for signs of their prey. So far, nothing. But now. . . now they had met an insurmountable obstacle. A sea of cars and trucks.

Where had they gone?

Hoffman and his men searched for clues. He saw the dark smoke on the horizon and surmised that the man would never have headed that way. That left West. . . on I-44.

The trio got back on their bikes and headed out.




The Arch Motel
1700 hours

It was truly amazing how fifty plus pounds of dog could become an immovable object when the word "bath" was uttered. Four stiffened, knobby legs were firmly levered against the muddy earth.

Mulder had grabbed Fluffy by the collar and now the band of leather was almost pulled over the dog's ears. Fluffy's head was lowered and his butt was raised high in the air.

Mulder switched tactics and tried to simply wrap his arms around the dog and pick him up, but Fluffy countered by rolling onto his back, his paws flailing, blocking Mulder's every move.

Finally, after watching this charade, Scully had had enough. She calmly walked over to her pack, removed one item, and walked back over to the water pump. She held the sacred item aloft. "Oh, Fluffy!" She called sweetly.

The males stopped their wrestling and looked up.

Scully slowly waved the magic white jar of "Fluff" for all to see. Fluffy whimpered and wavered. He knew he could not resist the power that was marshmallow. He squirmed out from beneath Mulder and bounced over to Scully, leaving Mulder in the mud.

"Sit, Fluffy," Scully ordered, and the dog obeyed. "You'll only get this if you behave," she scolded. She set the jar down and got busy with the soap and water.

Mulder had no choice but to stay. Scully had banned all of them from going back inside the cabin until all fleas were pushing up daisies. That meant washings for all and a good hand laundry for their clothes.

Fifteen minutes later, Fluffy was squeaky clean and Scully was feeding him "Fluff" with a spoon in order to keep him that way. Mulder finally approached, globs of mud dripping from his elbows.

"What'll you give me if *I* take a bath?" he pouted.

"Start filling up the tub and I'll think of something, Mud Boy," Scully replied. "And get out of those clothes. We'll soak our stuff while we soak in the tub. "

*We? * Mulder thought. Did she way "we?"



1900 hours

In the end, they had decided to get all of their dirty work over before bath time. While Scully got to work on some of their dirty clothing, Mulder had run back to the Sinclair gas station - - the one with the cool dinosaur -- and had siphoned some gas from the underground tanks. They would be good to go in the morning. He checked the spark plugs and the oil (thanks to a few pointers from Scully). . . no use wasting the resources of a full service station.

After he had returned, dinner had become a necessity before anything else. So, while Mulder had scrubbed the grease-stained shirt he had been wearing in an old washtub, Scully had rustled out some canned tuna, crackers, and peanut butter. They ate together as they took turns working the pump, filling the tub with hot springs water.

When the tub was full, Mulder shuffled Fluffy back into the cabin. He left the back door open, but latched the screen door closed. When he returned, Scully was already stripped and in the tub. It was a good thing the sun had begun to set. . . it meant that Scully's body was shaded and hidden by water and shadow. . . and it meant that Mulder's blush was also hidden.

Scully waited expectantly.

"Turn around and don't peek, Scully," Mulder requested as he started to take off his jeans. She laughed and turned away. Seconds later, she could hear him sliding into the water, a long "Aaaaahhh" escaping his lips as the warm water enveloped his skin.

"You can turn around now," he smiled.

And there they were. Face to face. Naked. Scully was surprised to find that she wasn't embarrassed at all. She was quite comfortable, actually. Of course, the wonderfully soothing water was a factor. She decided not to analyze it. She let her head fall back against the edge of the tub and closed her eyes, letting her body relax and float, hoping to wash away the headache that had nagged her all day. Mulder did much the same. The water was heaven.

They talked of little things. . . how nice it was to be clean again. . . where they might travel tomorrow. . . and then, ever so slowly, the conversation turned.

"Mulder, can I tell you a secret?"

"Ooooh. Talk on, girlfriend." Mulder was all ears.

"No. Never mind," she resisted.

"Scully! You know I love secrets. Especially *your* secrets," Mulder insisted.

"I miss my Saturday night ritual," she murmured.

"Did it involve feathers and leather?"

"I miss soaking in the tub and then curling up on the sofa to watch Mad TV," she murmured, her fingers playing on the water's surface.

"Which part did you like? Miss Swan or Stuart?"

"Actually. . . "

"Go on. . ." Mulder prodded.

"Funky Walker, Dirty Talker. "

"Get *so* out of here, Scully! No way! "

"Way. "

"Then hit me with a line, G-Woman, "

"No way, Mulder, "

"It's either that, or you get out of this tub and do the walk," Mulder smirked. It was a double-dog dare. He knew Scully couldn't back down. "Talk the talk, or do the walk. . ." he chanted.

Scully's chin jutted forward, little drops of water dripping from it.

Mulder was fully prepared to give her hell. The words were already forming on his lips, begging to be set free when. . .

"Bay-bee, I'm your VCR so get over here and slide your Joy Luck Club into my slot," she crooned, her voice all throaty and oozing sex.

Mulder choked.

"I want you to take your cue stick and sink that eight ball into my corner pocket." She let the words ricochet off her tongue.

Mulder's jaw dropped, his eyes glazed over like a Krispy Kreme doughnut straight from the oven and lying in the sun.

"Bring that gun of yours over so I can rack your slide," she continued mercilessly.

Oh, jee-zus. Dana Scully was talking naughty funk-o-rama style and it was seriously turning him on. If he'd only known. . . he woulda dressed up like "Shaft" a long time ago.

"I'm the Mounds Bar and I need some nuts. . . so give me some of your Almond Joy. . . "

Mulder's head slowly slipped beneath the steamy water. Then he rose again, letting the water gush from his still opened mouth.

Scully watched him. . . smugly. She was challenging him. What can *you* do, Mister?

"Um. . . here, I've got one. . . Love Muffin, I want you to pour your Magic Shell Chocolate over my ice cream cone until it's hard as a rock. . ." he stuttered.

"Huh?"

"You know, Scully. Magic Shell. That chocolate stuff you pour onto ice cream and the cold makes the chocolate get all hard. . . "

Blank stare. That's all he got.

"Hard, Scully."

Time for another tactic.

"Hey, Scully," he began as he slowly inched his way across the tub toward her. She narrowed her eyes as she watched him.

"Look what I can do!" he exclaimed as his hands slapped across the water, soundly splashing her full in the face.

When she didn't respond, just sat there, water dripping from her hair to her face to the tub, Mulder slowly inched away, an "Oops!" expression on his lips.

"Very adult, Mulder," she said calmly. "And here I was just going to tell you I was in the mood. . ." her voice trailed off as she waggled one brow. . . slightly.

Mulder swallowed. "I'm sorry, Scully. Please don't let my juvenile behavior stop you. . ." His voice was rough. She couldn't possibly mean. . . Could she?

Scully pushed away from the side of the tub and moved toward him. She would have looked like a cat on the prowl. . . if they hadn't been in a giant tub of water and if her hair wasn't soaking wet and if cats had lips like Scully's lips, and if Scully had fur. . . but she was still prowling.

He sucked in his breath as she met him face to face, her breath caressing his cheeks. He was frozen as she trailed one wet finger from his forehead, down his nose and onto his upper lip. Her other hand was sliding up his very naked arm. . . up his shoulder and neck. . . it was in his hair.

"Look what *I* can do," she purred just before she leaned forward and. . .

Forcibly dunked his head under the water.

The battle was on. Mulder erupted from under the water and Scully lost her footing, falling back. Mulder pounced. Soon the two were wrestling and splashing until Mulder grabbed her from behind, securing his arms around her waist.

And suddenly, they were all too aware of their state of undress. Their hearts were pounding and they were both still gasping for breath from their "fight." Mulder pulled her closer to his body, letting his chin rest on her shoulder. He kissed her gently on the neck and she sighed.

Scully moved her hands across his arms, caressing them. Mulder responded by loosening his grip and turning her around to face him, his hands still attached to her waist, hers now resting against his chest.

He lowered his head, she raised hers and then their lips were together and nothing else existed. Mulder vaguely realized at some point they had somehow moved from the middle of the tub and now his back was against the wall. With a sudden splash of water, Mulder flipped them around so that Scully's back was against the wall. . . better for leverage.

As he moved lower to worship her neck, Scully wrapped one leg around his hip.

"Oh, god, Scully. You don't know what you're doing to me here," Mulder groaned.

She smiled. "I think I have a *vague* idea," she whispered into his hair and pulled him even closer. The water buffeted against the sides of the tub, lapping back against them, lifting them up and down with its rhythms.

When Mulder traced her collarbone with his tongue, Scully lost her grip and her arms flailed against the water.

Which caused the introduction of an unknown variable.

Fluffy couldn't stand it any more. The man and the woman were having all sorts of fun in the water and he was stuck inside. With one enthusiastic bounding he burst through the screen, ripping it from the door.

Several leaps and two ladder steps later and he was soaring through the air. . .

"Oh, Mulder. . . ." Scully sighed. . . . and then she was sputtering for breath as a large, furry object landed in the center of the tub, nearly washing them away in a huge tidal wave.

Fluffy was upon them before either Mulder or Scully could regain their footing or their senses. His happy woofs were only slightly covered by the pats of his paws on the water as he dog- paddled around the pair with glee.

"Fluffy!" Mulder roared and attacked.

Of course, Fluffy thought it was all an innocent game and frolicked all the more as Mulder tried to grab him and toss him out. He finally got hold of Fluffy's collar and turned in triumph toward Scully. . . only to find that she was already out of the tub, wrapping a towel snugly around her body.

Fluffy used the distraction as a cue to soundly lick Mulder's face. But Mulder could only watch as Scully walked back inside the cabin.

As she closed the door behind her, Mulder growled at Fluffy, "You, dog, are sleeping on the porch tonight. "




Les Campana groaned. He had watched the tub scene through his infrared gear. . . and there was lots of infraredding going on down there. And he just *knew* that the man was now in that cabin humping away at *his* bitch. Too bad his goggles weren't strong enough to read their images through the cabin walls. . .

He wanted to storm the damn cabin and shred them both, but Hoffman had insisted that they wait until morning. First light, he said. When they've dropped their guard.

He had sent Campana into the tree line of the craggy hill that overlooked the Arch Motel. He had first watch. He was not to take any action unless discovered. Hoffman had some twisted plan to kill the man face to face. . . . but it was killing Campana.

He had already jacked off twice and knew he would be doing it several more times before Watts took over watch.

He decided to give up being angry and indulge in a few more fantasies of his own. . . involving all the many things he had planned for the red-haired slut below.

And he knew that the Dark Man in his dreams would supply a few ideas even *he* hadn't thought of. . . all in the name of fun.




The room was lit by only one waxy white candle. Mulder eased into the cabin, Fluffy following behind in spite of orders.

Scully was already reclined on the bed, her back to them. Mulder quickly shuffled Fluffy off into the small bathroom and shut the door.

He crept over to the bed and sat down gently beside her. "Scully?" he whispered.

"I'm awake, Mulder." She opened her eyes and her dark gaze bore into him. Mulder was unsure of how to proceed.

"I'm. . . I'm sorry about what I did out there," he murmured, his head bowed.

Scully sat up abruptly. "God, no! Mulder. Don't say that! "

"But I thought. . ." Mulder was confused.

She reached out and placed her fingers over his lips. "No. I want this to happen. We *both* want this. But I can't right now. . . it was a lucky thing Fluffy chose the entrance he did. "

Even in the dim light she could see that Mulder was still leaping to the wrong conclusions.

"It was nice to be out there with you. . . forgetting everything for a few moments. Very nice. . . but the fact is, 'Mud Boy, ' that my mind is willing but my body isn't able. "

Mulder slid his hand across the bed sheets and laced his fingers with hers. "I thought you were feeling okay today. . . is there something you aren't telling me?"

"No, Mulder. I *was* feeling better. I *am. *There were no nosebleeds -- since I know you want to ask. But, as good as you feel to me. . . and you *do* feel wonderful. . . my body just won't. . . *respond* the way I want it to," she explained, hoping he would understand.

Mulder's eyebrows raised with the dawn of understanding. "You're just tired, Scully. We've got plenty of time for *this. *" He stroked her hair and pulled her to his chest, wrapping her in his arms.

Slowly, they eased back together against the pillows.

"You know I also need to find out about my nephew, don't you?" Her voice was small. Hesitant.

"Scully. It was all just a dream. . . "

"Was it, Mulder? Was it? I think it's real. Based on our experiences the past few weeks, I think you know it's real, too. And I think you'll have more of these dreams. . . "

"With more information about Matthew?" Mulder finished.

"Yes," Scully choked.

Mulder pulled her closer against him and kissed the top of her head. "I hope so, too, Scully. For you. "

Scully squeezed her eyes tightly at his words, her heart aching for all the things she wanted. . . time, rest, Matthew. . . and most of all, Mulder.

As she finally drifted off to sleep, Mulder continued to stroke her arms and stomach, soothing her.

"Soon, Scully," he thought. We'll have your answers soon.

Mulder knew he would get no sleep that night.

Which was an unfortunate thing. . . Mother Abagail waited and waited. She prayed for "Fox" to meet her. . . She needed to warn him.




July 13
0615 hours

When Scully awoke, she was still in Mulder's arms. He was staring down at her with a crooked smile.

"Did you get any sleep?" she asked.

"I got plenty of *rest, *" was his response. "But now, I need to go visit that little boy's tree outside," he smirked as he kissed her forehead and disentangled his limbs from hers before sliding off the bed and into a pair of jeans.

Scully watched his fine butt walk out the back door before making any moves herself. Then she heard Fluffy scratching at the bathroom door. "Guess someone else needs to go, too," she muttered as she crossed the room, scratching her head. "These damn men that can go use a tree. . . I'd like to see them squat just once. . . "

Fluffy was more than grateful to be released from his prison. He jumped all over Scully with heartfelt thanks.

"Off, Fluffy! Lord! You have morning breath! Here. . . let's get you outside." She started for the back door when it happened. . .

The world opened up in a hail of gunfire.


Mulder had finished his business and was walking back to the cabin when it happened. . .

It was the second round from Hoffman's M-16 that caught Mulder in the leg. He fell to the ground and rolled behind the tub, grateful for the cover.

He looked down and saw the blood gushing from either side of his right calf. It was through and through. The bullet had hit him from the side. He didn't think any bones were broken, which was good, but he was losing a lot of blood, which was bad.

He tried to peek around the edge of the tub to see where the shooter was, but a new barrage of automatic fire forced him back. Damn. It was the wrong time to be caught without his gun.

"Mulder!" Scully screamed from the doorway.

He could just see her. . . she was kneeling, using the doorframe as cover.

"I'm okay! Stay inside! "

A shower of bullets rained down upon both their positions in response. Scully quickly surmised that this meant there were at least two shooters. She reached for Mulder's gun which was still nestled in its holster. Perhaps she could throw it out to him. . . otherwise, he was a sitting duck.

But the angle was wrong. She couldn't throw the gun to him and he couldn't move out to a better position without making himself an easy target.

Then Fluffy entered the equation. With a quick snap of his jaws, he clamped down on the holster and grabbed the gun from Scully's hand. Before she could grab his collar he was airborne, flying off the back porch and landing just shy of the tub.

Scully tried to lay down cover fire, firing off at least eight rounds. . .

Hoffman fired a burst, but Fluffy was too quick. Within two seconds he had reached Mulder's side and delivered the weapon.

"Fluffy, I take back every threat I've made. Good boy!" Mulder enthused and kissed him on the head.


While Scully's attention was diverted toward Mulder, Les Campana was creeping up to the cabin's front door. He chanced a peek through the window and smiled. There she was, taking cover behind the door frame, wearing nothing but a long t-shirt. He was growing harder by the second, his cock twitching and itching in anticipation. Maybe he wouldn't have to wait until later. He could sneak into the cabin, grab the bitch, and get a "slam, bam, take that, ma'am," before Hoffman and Watts were any the wiser.

She fired out the back door toward Hoffman.

Yup. He could wait until she had emptied her gun and had to reload. That would be his chance to rush in and get the drop on her.

He didn't have to wait long. She fired two more rounds and then he heard the telltale snick as the slide locked back. . . He burst through the door, his shotgun ready.


CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

"Everybody's always talkin' 'bout who's on top.
Don't cross our path 'cause you're gonna get stomped.
We ain't gonna give anybody any slack.
And if you try to keep us down we're gonna come right back.
And you know we're Hangin' Tough Hangin Tough"
-- Maurice Starr "Hangin' Tough"


The Arch Motel
0625 hours

Scully spun around and dropped to a crouch position as Campana burst through the front door. She had just begun to slide the new clip into her gun. . .

The boom of the shotgun blast was deafening in the small room. Plaster fell from the ceiling in chunks as the pellets made their impact.

"Drop it, bitch!" Campana roared. Scully's hands slowly continued to slide the clip home. "Do it now or I'll blow your fucking head off!" Campana stomped toward her.

Scully laid her gun down and carefully stood, her hands raised by her shoulders, her elbows only slightly bent. . . just the way she had been taught at the Academy. This man was a psycho. . . his intentions were quite evident by the tent pitched in his pants. Her only chance would be to bring him closer to her.

"Smart bitch, aren't you?" Campana sneered. "Turn around and put your hands on the wall." Scully complied. "Spread your legs. . ." Scully obeyed but she shuddered inwardly at the words. No wonder they now trained law enforcement officers to use the phrase "Spread your feet. "

Campana held the shotgun to the base of her skull with one hand while his other greasy hand performed a mock search. He pinched her breasts and took great delight in lifting her t-shirt and fingering her groin. Scully tried not to throw up.

"I've got something extra special to deposit right here," he hissed in her ear. "Something your dead boyfriend out there could never give you. . . "

Scully's blood boiled but she forced herself to laugh at Campana. "What? That nubby little pencil-dick of yours?"

It had the desired effect. Campana used his left hand to slam her head into the wall. Scully was dazed, but before he could re-aim and fire the shotgun she pushed off the wall, spinning her body and windmilling her left arm over and around the shotgun barrel. . . trapping it securely underneath her arm.

Campana pulled the trigger and the gun fired. . . but it was too late. . . the blast hit the wall. . . and he was locked in a life or death battle with Scully as they fought for control of the gun.


Fluffy had considered Mulder's protection his primary duty. Mulder was injured and in the open while Scully was safer inside. But, the roar of the shotgun blast from inside the cabin had changed his priorities.

"Scully!" Mulder screamed.

There was no answer.

Fluffy could see Mulder was struggling to get up. . . trying to get to the cabin, but the bullets were still flying around them and his wounded leg would never let him move fast enough. Fluffy knew what he had to do. He ran.

Watts leaned out from behind his tree cover to fire at the dog. And Mulder saw his chance. He fired three rounds, hitting Watts in the arm and chest. Watts fell, dead. . . his aorta sliced clean through. Mulder ducked back down as Hoffman opened fire. Water poured from the holes that now peppered the hot tub.

Fluffy had paused for cover beneath the back porch. Now he could hear the pounding against the floorboards of the cabin. A struggle was in full swing.

As Hoffman's burst of gunfire subsided, Mulder raised his gun and fired blindly toward Hoffman's position. "Run, Fluffy!" He yelled.

Fluffy did not hesitate. He jumped up onto the porch and flew toward the door.

As Hoffman began to fire at the dog, Mulder took a chance. He knew he couldn't stay behind the tub. He was seriously out- gunned and it would just be a matter of time. . . about two shots. . before he was out of ammo. He needed to move. To outflank Hoffman. While Hoffman's attention was on Fluffy, Mulder rolled back from the tub toward the wood pile ten feet back. The pile bordered the tree line.

Hopefully, Hoffman wouldn't notice and that would give Mulder an opportunity. Then he could get inside to Scully.


Scully struggled with Campana, her left arm still wrapped over the shotgun barrel. He had not been able to pump the slide. . . he couldn't fire another shell until he did.

Campana raised his left foot and kicked Scully squarely in the hip. She grunted and stumbled, but kept a partial grip on the gun with her left hand; but, Campana saw enough of an opening. His left hand finally free, he grabbed the slide and pulled back. Hard.

Scully cried out in pain and anger as the slide caught on and pinched the web of her hand, ripping the skin. As Campana fired, she was able to clamp the shotgun under her arm once again. The shot went wild, destroying the oh-so-scenic hotel sale watercolor painting over the bed. The pellets missed Scully, but the hot metal barrel of the gun was searing into her skin.

With new rage, she punched a right to Campana's nose and was rewarded with a bone-shattering crunch. Campana's hands instinctively rose to his face. Scully grabbed the shotgun with both hands and pulled. Campana wrestled back. . . the tug of war ending when the gun slipped through their blood-slicked leverages and tumbled onto the floor.

They both froze for one instant. Then Scully dove for her own gun as Campana dove for his. Scully reached her gun and slammed the loaded clip home. Campana grabbed his shotgun and racked the slide. Scully pulled back on her slide and was looking up to aim. . .

And she was staring down the barrel of Campana's shotgun.

"Bitch. "

Time slowed. Blood dripped from Campana's broken nose. . . all Scully could hear was her own heartbeat, her own labored breathing.

In the space of one pulse, as Campana began to pull back on the trigger. . .

*Oh god, Mulder. . . *

. . . A giant locomotive of fur barreled through the the broken screen door and flew at Campana.

The man tried to raise the gun at his new target, but Fluffy was already upon him. The shotgun flew across the room. Scully ducked as the gun hit the far wall with such violence that it discharged.

Now Campana was screaming bloody murder. Fluffy had taken him down and he was flat on his back. . . and Fluffy had a lock-down, tearing bite on his balls. Blood poured from his groin and his screams became higher pitched and hoarse. He started to punch Fluffy in the head and chest.

There was nothing Scully could. . . or desired to do to help Campana. It was a dog-eat-scum world now. But then Campana pulled a knife from the sheath on his belt.

"Fluffy!" She screamed as he sliced at the dog, catching him across the leg.


Hoffman squinted as he scanned the situation. Watts was dead. And he had heard at least two shotgun blasts from inside the cabin. That sonuvabitch Campana. He should have known that reject wouldn't stick to the plan.

That left him and the man he had come to kill. He cocked his head to the right and listened. There were no sounds from behind the hot tub. Maybe one of his rounds had hit theman. The man might already be dead or dying. Damn! That was no good. The whole point was to *watch* the asshole die.

Hoffman rocked back and forth on his feet. He chewed his lower lip. . . like his late brother Vern had done just before stealing their father's beer money. . . and he remembered how well *that* had turned out. Should he go and check? Still no noise.

"Ah, fuckit," Hoffman muttered. He let the muzzle of his M-16 lead him out of the trees and into the open. He crept up to the circular tub. . . leaned against the leaky, wet wall. Slowly. Inch by inch, he tiptoed around the circle, anticipating that first bloody glimpse of the man's body. His fingers twitched and sweat poured down his face, off his nose. When he had almost reached the back side of the tub, he paused to take one deep breath.

He jumped forward and out, opening fire with his M-16.

Grass flew, splatters of mud flew, and droplets of hot springs water flew. . . but no blood flew. No body was there to dance with the bullet impacts. The man was gone.

"What the fuck?" Hoffman was in disbelief.

"You lookin' for me?

Hoffman spun around, ready to fire. . . but he was too late. Mulder fired his last two rounds directly into center mass, which happened to be Hoffman's chest. Hoffman fell back in slow motion, his eyes wide in disbelief.

His last thought was that he should have stayed in Greenwich.


Heedless of her own safety, Scully dove on top of Campana's arm before he could strike again. All three began to roll around in a twist of arms and legs. With Scully in the way, Fluffy had relinquished his grip on Campana and the man was using it to his advantage as he forced the knife closer and closer to Scully's chest.

Fluffy took the only option he had left. What his K-9 training taught him to do. Just as the knife pricked through Scully's shirt, just as it broke through her skin, Fluffy lunged. His large teeth and strong jaw sank into their target.

Campana felt the sharp vise on his throat, but there was nothing he could do to help himself. He reflexively dropped the knife to reach for his throat. He felt the flesh being ripped open. . . his air was gone. . . blood began to fall in a fountain upon his face and everything else within three feet as his jugular popped open.

He tried to speak, but only emitted a bright pink, frothy gurgle. His eyes bulged open as death hit him squarely in the Adam's apple. His arms and legs twitched once. . . twice. . . and then it was over.

Les Campana was dead.

On her knees, Scully looked at Campana's body. It was pointless to try and take a pulse. . . the man's carotid pulse point was *gone. *And while she knew that he would not pull a "Halloween" kind of resurrection, she followed her training and tossed his knife across the room, out of the reach of his cold, dead fingers.

She turned to Fluffy. His muzzle was covered in blood and he was trying to lick at the knife wound on his left front leg. Fluffy would be okay.

She needed to get to Mulder. She grabbed her gun from the floor and pushed herself to stand, steadying herself against the bed when she got dizzy. She was only vaguely aware of her own condition and appearance. She listened while she regained her balance. All quiet on the outside front.

She cautiously eased over to the doorway, Fluffy now at her side as he, too, was concerned for Mulder. She glanced through the screen door. Nothing.

She raised her gun and slowly opened the screen door. . . and stepped outside onto the back porch.

And saw a blue jeaned-leg on the ground, sticking out from behind the tub.

"Mulder! "

She trumbled down the steps and across the grass.


In the split second between his two shots, Mulder had recognized the punk he was killing. The punk *kid* who was falling and dying. The kid from Greenwich. The one who broke into his mother's home. All of eighteen or nineteen years old.

And now he was playing with M-16s.

And Mulder realized what the entire shootout had been about. Revenge.

As Hoffman died in front of him, Mulder sagged against the wood pile. The adrenaline gone, he was beginning to feel the effects of blood loss. The calf of his wounded leg seized up with a ferocious cramp and his leg buckled. He fell to the ground with a choked moan. As his face touched the dewy morning earth, he wanted to get back up. . . he *needed* to get to Scully. But his body just wouldn't cooperate. His fingers clawed at the earth, hoping to somehow inch him closer to the cabin.

"Mulder! "

He looked up just in time to see the blood covered images of Scully and Fluffy running toward him. A nightmare apparently come true. "Scully!" he moaned.

And then Mulder passed out.


And woke up on Mother Abagail's front porch.

"So. You decided to give an ol' woman a visit now," her dark pruned face peered down at him.

"Wha. ." Mulder sputtered as he sat up. This wasn't the Arch Motel.

"Don't worry," she smiled, pointing above. "He'll be sending you back soon enough. But we need to talk a spell. . . and this was our chance." She patted the chair beside her and Mulder climbed into it. "You've been avoiding Him," she stated.

"Who?"

"Who. God. Don't you know that when He wants your attention He'll get it? Even if he has to hit you over the head with a stick?" She lifted her cane and gently tapped him on the back of the head. "I *tried* to warn you about that boy Timmy Hoffman. "

"That was his name," Mulder's spoke more to himself than to Mother Abagail.

"But you didn't come to meet me. Don't make that mistake again, Fox," Mother Abagail continued.

But Mulder was in his own world. . . "Timmy Hoffman," he repeated.

Mother Abagail took notice of where his dark thoughts were headed. "Fox. Wake up. That boy was a dark seed long before you met him. There was evil inside him and who knows how many more good folk he would have murdered. You only did what you had to do. To protect yourself and your woman. "

Mulder's eyes widened at her choice of words. "Don't let Scully hear you say that," he chuckled, imagining her reaction.

Mother Abagail laughed and shook her head. Over a century of livin' and she still couldn't figure out the whole women's/men' movements rants. What did it have to do with love and self- sacrifice?

"But, child, we have business to see to." Suddenly she was deadly serious. "I know where the little boy is. . . "

Mulder jumped at the revelation. "Matthew? Where is he?"

"In the heart of your enemy's camp. . ." she warned.

"Where *is* he? Who has him?" Mulder was almost shouting.

"He has many names. . . but all of them smoke too much. . ." she said with distaste, as if the tar and tobacco was in her own mouth.

Mulder's stomach dropped. His fists clenched. He should have known. "That son of a bitch. . . Tell me where he is." It was a demand, not a request.

Mother Abagail's face was hardened, but not unsympathetic. She looked directly into his eyes unblinking. "Not yet. You're not ready. "

Mulder was choking back his anger. . .

"You keep coming back to see me. Stay on your present path. . . south and west. All three of you need to rest up for what will come. "

"What's coming?" Mulder insisted.

"Oh, hush up. How does Dana keep from going crazy with you and your questions. . ." She looked up to the heavens. "I know, Lord." She closed her eyes in peace. "Patience. That's what we all need, child. You follow that road a short spell. You'll know where to stop. . . you'll see the sign. You rest there for a fortnight. . . you do know what that is, right?"

Mulder nodded, but he still wasn't sold. . . "But where is Matthew? I have to tell Scully. . . "

"No," Mother Abagail was firm. "You have to see me in the old, wrinkled flesh first. Then you'll be ready. No harm will come to Matthew before that time. "

"How can I possibly accept that? On faith?" Mulder spat.

"Well, now," she replied. "You're here talking to me plain as day, ain't you? If you really believe that Matthew is alive. . . how do you think you found that out? *He* told you. Just like He's telling you now what you must do to prepare. . . So, you accept both packages or you reject them both. You can't have it both ways. And if you don't believe Matthew is alive. . . then what difference will the delay make?"

Mulder couldn't answer.

"One more thing, Fox. It will start you on the right path. Your new friend. . . he's working out well?"

Mulder smirked. "He has his moments. . . "

"Then look at his injured leg. . . Ask yourself why he survived the plague. Why did anyone survive?"

"I don't understand. . ." "You will when you talk to your wo. . . Dana. Remember all that I said. . . and move quickly today!" Her voice faded. . .


"Mulder. . ." the voice called him.

Mulder awoke to Ozark skies. His head was still on the grass, but he was on his back, his legs propped up on some pillows. . . and, more importantly, Scully was soothing his face with a cool washcloth.

"Scully," Mulder smiled dreamily.

She hovered over him, the lines of concern on her face slowly diminishing as she smiled in relief.

"You had me worried. . . You should have woken up a long time ago," she said. Her voice was hoarse with waiting and fatigue.

Mulder was becoming more alert, aware of his surroundings. Scully was seated beside him, one hand held the washcloth and her other hand was resting lightly on his chest. *Hmmmm. Nice, * he thought. It was only marred by the ache in his leg. He lifted his head a tad to take a peek. His pants leg had been cut open to the knee, his wound was bandaged.

"How long have I been out?"

Scully sighed. "Over an hour, Mulder. . . I was worried you had internal injuries that I couldn't find. . ." her voice trailed off. No need to rehash that scene. "How do you feel now?"

"Thirsty," he croaked.

Scully handed him a small bottle of water, helping him to lift his head to take a sip.

"I feel okay, Scully. Well, my leg hurts and I'm a little weak. . . but everything else feels fine. No head trauma and no internal injuries. "

Scully sat back on her heels and wiped her hands across her face. Now Mulder could truly look at her. . . and what he saw scared him. Her shirt was covered in blood. . . there was blood on her forehead, along with some bruising and swelling. And now he could see that she had wrapped her left hand in gauze bandages.

"Scully! Are *you* all right?" Mulder pushed himself up on his elbows. He was surprised he didn't get dizzy. . .

"I'll be fine, Mulder. Most of this isn't my blood. . "

"Most?"

"I cut my forehead and my left hand. . . but I'm still in a lot better shape than the guy in the cabin. . . "

Mulder raised a questioning brow.

"He's dead," Scully continued. "Fluffy killed him. . . I'd say that Fluffy saved both of our butts today. "

Mulder nodded quietly. "Where is Fluffy?"

She pointed and Mulder looked to his left side. Fluffy was curled up at his feet, keeping watch.

"What happened to his leg?" He asked, pointing to the bandage on Fluffy's left front leg.

"He was cut with a knife. I got him cleaned up as best as I could. . . but he should have stitches. And so should you. . . we need to find a hospital or doctor's office. . . "

"We can do that. . . "

Scully looked up at the sky. . . she was thinking. Should she bring it up? Mulder could read her like a book.

"What else? Is it about Fluffy?"

"Fluffy's fine, really. But, I found something and I'm not quite sure what to make of it. . ." Mulder's dream came back to him with crashing detail. . . "You found something on his leg. . ." he stated.

Scully's jaw dropped. How did he know?

Mulder knew her question. "I spoke with Mother Abagail while I was. . . gone. . . She asked me how or why Fluffy survived the plague. She told me to look at his leg. . . what did you find, Scully?"

Scully squeezed his hand and swallowed the bile in her throat.

"A tattoo. Letters and numbers. . . "

"A military serial number?" Mulder asked.

"No, Mulder. We've seen these numbers before. Cataloging humans. . . and the letters. . . . They appear to be DNA code. . . "

Mulder looked from Scully to Fluffy, his stomach turning.

What the hell was going on?

"Scully. . . We need to get out of here. But first, we need to look at the bodies of these men. Now."




CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for it is light that makes everything visible.
- Ephesians 5: 11-14


Nevada
Sometime

A true secret is a lot like acid reflux. Once it enters your body, it makes it way down your throat and sits in your gut, roiling and boiling, constantly wanting to creep back up and out, burning its way to the tip of your tongue.

But there ain't no R-o-l-a-i-d-s relief to soothe secret reflux. And funny how "secret" is so close in spelling to "secrete". . . as in to ooze out. Cause that's just what a secret wants to do.

Charles Spender swallowed down the searing juices in this throat. Smoking never was good for the stomach. He stared out at the desert around him. The underground complex was well hidden. You could walk right over it and never know it, unless you knew what to look for.

He had done a good job and he was quite proud of that fact. But, there was bitterness in that pride. No one else knew all that he had done. The steps he had taken. All the sacrifices he had made in the name of saving humanity.

It was fortunate he had the foresight to make his own plans. He had known there was a high probability for a breech in their security. And he had been the only one to plan for that contingency. When the breech occurred, he was ready. The others were not. And their hastily laid plans. . . those plans had been at cross purposes with his own. And those plans had been selfish. Not good for humanity.

So, he had taken the proper steps. And now he stood in the desert, alone with his sacrifice. What good was sacrifice if no one knew about it? Spender dropped his cigarette and toed it into the dry ground.

The burning fullness in his throat swelled again. He reached into his pocket for his roll of antacid, pulled out three tablets and fed them into his mouth. They were a chalky mint. He chuckled to himself. They had been able to put a man on the moon, but they couldn't make a simple antacid tablet that didn't leave residue all over your mouth. He grimaced as he swallowed. Soon, the medicine would do its work and tamp down his reflux symptoms for an hour or two.

And soon, he would be face to face with the two people left who would be able to grasp the magnitude of what he had done. True, once he had them in his custody they would never have the opportunity to share this truth with anyone else. . . but that did not matter. He just wanted the satisfaction of seeing their comprehension. He wanted to see their faces when they learned the truth.

For secrets and lies all eventually lead to the truth.



Somewhere

Racing down the highway in excess of one hundred miles per hour, Roberta felt as though she was trying to suck the entire world into her head through a straw. Damn tunnel vision.

*One one-thousand, two one-thousand. Keep your distance. *

Everything had focused down to two tail lights of a stolen Volkswagen Jetta. One used in an armed robbery.

*Breathe. Move your eyes right and left. Breathe. *

All she could hear was the crackle of voices on the radio and the strained roar of her Crown Vic engine. She was outdriving her siren quite handily.

The chase began to slow ever so slightly as the Jetta took an exit ramp off of the interstate.

"2 Adam Baker, he's taking the Manchester exit. . . headed north. . . "

"10-4, 2 Adam Baker, suspect is headed north on Manchester. . . "

The driver of the stolen Jetta punched it the minute he made the corner. Roberta followed suit, praying her brakes were still there.

"He's still headed north, passing Pinecrest Rd. . . traveling at a high rate of speed," Roberta radioed, proud of herself for remembering not to feed any potential law suits by stating their actual speed. She was very happy that it was the middle of the night which meant little to no traffic hazard.

She kept glancing in her rear view mirror, hoping to see the red and blue lights that would indicate she had some backup. Nothing yet.

As they approached the next intersection, the driver of the Jetta slammed on his brakes and tried for a left turn, but his wheels locked up, his angle was all wrong. Roberta jabbed at her own brakes, trying to keep out of the impending collision. Her tires squealed and burned, the car fishtailed.

The Jetta exploded in a rain of metal and glass as its passenger side hit a light pole. The driver, stunned, but too stupid to know better, jumped out of the car and ran.

"He's 10-50'ed at Randall and Manchester. . . he's bailing. . . headed between the apartments on the west side. . . I'm in foot pursuit!" Roberta slammed her car into park and leapt from her car -- well, she got out as quickly as one can when your wearing a constricting Kevlar vest and a zillion pounds of equipment and ammo on your Sam Brown belt -- and gave chase.

As the suspect jumped a short fence, she saw the dark object in the suspect's hand. . . it looked like a 9mm. "2 Adam Baker, suspect is possibly 10-32! "

"10-4, 2 Adam Baker, attention all units, suspect may be 10-32," dispatch replied.

Roberta's heart was pounding, her lungs screaming for air as she jumped the fence.

She stopped and listened. There was no sound. It was dark back here between apartment buildings, away from the street lights. She drew her gun and approached the west corner of the first building carefully. She peeked around the corner quickly. No sign of movement. Just four or five dumpsters and a ten foot wooden fence. A dead end between the buildings. The suspect had to be there.

A door behind her opened with a loud bang and she swung around, prepared to fire. . . only to come face to face with four kids. They'd piled outside to see what all the commotion was.

"Get inside now!" Roberta hissed in a whisper as she turned back to the dead end alley. She kept one eye on the door to make sure it closed as the kids went back inside.

The best thing to do would be wait for backup. . . wait for K-9. She was prepared to do that.

But then it happened. The rear door of the building across the alley opened and an old woman walked outside carrying her trash bag. The woman was already rounding the corner into the alley.

"Stop!" Roberta yelled as she lunged out from behind her cover. The woman stopped, her eyes widening. She dropped the bag and ran back behind the building, but it was already too late. The suspect had seen his opportunity. Roberta was out in the open.

The suspect jumped out from behind one of the dumpsters and raised his gun.

Roberta had only one chance. She dropped to the ground and opened fire just as the suspect pulled the trigger. His shot went wild over her head. Her shot hit its mark, center mass, and the suspect was down. Gurgling his last breaths.

Roberta stood on rubbery legs and made her way toward the downed man. She kicked his gun toward the fence. She handcuffed him and rolled him onto his back. Then she grabbed her portable radio to call for an ambulance.

And that's when she saw him. One of the little kids. A little kid who hadn't listened to her command. A curious little kid who had stuck his neck out and peeked where he shouldn't. Just in time for a suspect's wild shot to him squarely in the chest.

"Oh, Jesus," Roberta whispered.

"2 Adam Baker, I need medics! Shots fired, suspect is down, and a civilian is down! Medics!" Roberta screamed into her radio as she ran, her legs seemingly mired in quicksand until she reached the kid's side.

There was blood everywhere. Dark, unforgiving, taunting blood. It stained the kid's blue cotton Pokeman t-shirt. The bullet hole sat right in the middle of the Pikachu's head.

Roberta ripped the shirt open and put her head to the kid's blood wet chest. The blood poured out of the wound like water from a hose. She couldn't detect any respirations. . . there was no heartbeat.

By now, several people had filtered out of the buildings. . . including the kid's friends. A painful wail rose as a woman, dressed in a robe and curlers, ran outside. The mother. She fell to the ground beside her baby's head.

"Marvin!" She screamed.

Roberta began CPR. When her hands slid in the blood, she moved them back and tried again. When the kid's bloody mouth filled her own she spat it out and kept going.

"One-one-thousand. . . "

Neighbors could see Roberta was trying to save the boy. . . they held the mother back slightly.

Where were the damn sirens?

More blood poured from the kid's chest. From little Marvin's chest. Roberta frantically tried to scoop up the blood and put it back inside his chest. It didn't work.

Marvin's eyes were glassy and dark. No one was home. Hope had left the building several minutes ago. But Roberta refused to give up. . . even when the witnesses around her had seen the truth. She pressed on.

A man nearby saw the dead suspect and ran over toward the body.

"You sonuvabitch!" And he began his own version of vigilante justice, kicking at the downed man. The dull thuds echoed through the alley and a hush came over all the witnesses.

"One-one-thousand. . . "

"You fuck. . you killed him" Thud. Thud.

"Three-one-thousand. . . "

Roberta couldn't do anything about the man, even though he was her responsibility now. She looked imploringly at two of the bystanders. They could hear sirens. They nodded to her and ran over to restrain their friend before the other cops arrived on the scene.

"Breathe, dammit!" Roberta gasped.

Then latex-gloved hands were pulling her away. . . far away. . . someone was taking her gun from her holster. . . leading her to the ambulance. . . washing her face, her hands, rinsing her mouth with saline solution and hydrogen peroxide. She choked and coughed on the liquid.

More sirens.

And over it all, Roberta could hear the mother. . . could see her pointed finger. . . "You did this! It's your fault! "

Hands guided her into the police cruiser. She turned to face the driver. . . her sergeant. What should have been her sergeant. . .

The Dark Man's face beamed back at her, his white teeth reflecting the yellowed street lights. His red eyes tore through her.

"Someone's got a secret," he singsonged. "Someone's got a secret! "

She pushed herself back against the door, pawing at the handle, trying to get out. . . to no avail.

The Dark Man raised one hand and traced her cheek with a bloody finger.

"And I know it now, too, Roberta," he smiled.


"No!" Roberta screamed as she sat up in bed, sweat pouring down her face.

Matthew sat up, roused by the commotion. He began to cry. Roberta reached out and grabbed him, held him close, rubbing his baby sweat back until he hiccuped to calm.

She listened as his breathing evened out. That way she didn't have to think about how her own breaths were still strained and her heart still raced.

That way she didn't have to remember her secret.



July 13 1100 hours
Interstate 44

The dead do not always reveal their secrets.

Scully wasn't exactly sure what she had expected to find, but she thought she would have found something. Perhaps it had been too much to ask for a huge neon sign dramatically pointing to a suspicious mark on all three bodies. A sign that read, "The Truth is here. "

Instead, they had discovered nothing. Zilch. Nada. Campana had been the only one old enough to have a smallpox vaccination scar. . . and it was minuscule. There were no suspicious scars on their necks, no half-moon cicatrices on their backs.

She had volleyed several theories back and forth with Mulder, but in the end, that's all they were. Theories. Guesses.

They knew from Scully's own previous research that smallpox vaccinations had been used in the past to catalog people. . . but what did that mean for all of those born *after* 1977 when the last known smallpox victim died and smallpox was declared eradicated a short time later? Children born after the late 1970s were no longer vaccinated for smallpox.

So, if Mother Abagail's hint-filled dream revues were accurate and there had been more than mere natural immunity deciding who would survive Captain Tripps, how was it done? Had some substance been introduced into the food chain? No. That wouldn't be right. . . because then the survivors would have been found in clusters since families and towns ate from the same sources.

Perhaps it had been introduced via one specific food, one that not everyone ate or drank. Maybe it was in random Willy Wonka Bars or in every millionth Twinkie. . . or it could have been in the cheesy residue of Cool Ranch Doritos. . .

There was no way to know for sure. All they could do was make their best guesstimate. Some -- probably including herself, Mulder and Fluffy -- had been singled out and tagged for survival early on. And some had come out on the "lucky" side of the random draw. Somehow. Without her full autopsy accoutrement, there was no way to tell to which category Hoffman and his friends belonged.

She had wrapped all three bodies in white sheets and left them behind the wood pile at the Arch Motel. There had been no equipment or time to bury them. She had let Mulder talk her into the brief examinations of the bodies, but there was a limit to her patience when his health was concerned. She need to get Mulder away from the battleground and to a place with real medical supplies.

So an hour later she found herself trying to maneuver the motorcycle around all the ruts and potholes as they made their way west on Interstate 44. Since leaving the Arch Motel, they had passed few towns of any real size. . . and none that looked as though they had a hospital.

Scully was growing more anxious with each mile. Mulder's wound needed to be cleaned in a more sterile environment than what she had among the dirt and pine needles behind the motel. And they needed to find antibiotics. . . the temporary *dressing* she had applied wasn't good enough. To her amazement, it had taken Mulder a good thirty minutes before he had noticed exactly *what* she had used to staunch the flow of blood from his leg. . .


"Oh, my god, Scully. . . you used. . . I can't even say it. . ."

"Sanitary napkins, Mulder. "

"And what are those flappy things?"

"They're called 'wings, ' Mulder. . . "

"Oh. My. God." He couldn't even look anymore. "Please, Scully. If I suddenly get the urge to shave my legs and start having volatile mood swings. . . just shoot me."

"I believe that's exactly what got us to this point. . . "

Scully had noticed that he never dared to touch the *dressing* again. This from a man who had never left a bandage in place for more than five minutes in his life. She had carefully filed that handy observation away for future injuries.


Now Mulder sat in the sidecar, Fluffy in his lap. Both males were pretending their injuries didn't hurt. Except when they hit a bump in the road. Then they both grimaced. . . or, rather, Mulder grimaced and Fluffy snorted. And Mulder's face was several shades whiter than normal. Scully kept searching for a blue roadside "Hospital" sign, but, so far the only interesting signs had been the billboards for Merremac Caverns. . . "Jesse James' Hideout - As Seen On TV's 'Real People'." Mulder had actually wanted her to stop and visit.

After driving for more than an hour, she finally saw something that gave her hope. A sign for the the town of Rolla, home of the University of Missouri at Rolla. There had to be a hospital there. . . more than likely a regional one with a well stocked emergency department. It was a mere six miles ahead.

The first exit didn't seem to hold much promise. Just a shoe outlet store in the middle of nowhere. But as they rounded the next bend, civilization was before them. She eased them up the steep exit ramp. She followed the large, blue "H" signs past the " affle Hous ," the Exxon and Delano stations, and the Dunkin' Donuts. They passed by the generic two story motels and the green-roofed Denny's. . .

Scully's eyes caught briefly on the large stone construction of St. Patrick's Catholic Church as they crested a hill and followed the sharply curved road. . . and she came to an abrupt halt as her eyes beheld something new.

Mulder and Fluffy sat up at attention. Mulder was pale and a bit weak, but he wanted to see why they had stopped. His gaze froze on the sight.

Mulder knew he had found his holy grail. Mother Abagail had been right. This was his sign. This was where they must stay and rest.

"I can't believe this, Mulder," Scully muttered. "Do you see that?"

Mulder smiled dopily and nodded as he stared at his miraculous sign. A dramatic, albeit scaled down, re-creation of Stonehenge. Created out of stone courtesy of some diligent UMR students.

"Luuu-cy, we're home! This is where Mother Abagail wants us to stay, Scully. "

Scully gave her partner a concerned look, then rolled her eyes when she saw his goofy grin.

"Oh, brother. Let's find that hospital," she mumbled as she eased off the brakes and they continued down the road.


Phelps County Regional Hospital

Scully pushed on the defiant and non-functional sensored doors to the Emergency Room.

"You need a hand?" Mulder called from the sidecar. Fluffy woofed.

Scully shook her head. Like either one of them could do any better. A few more shoves and she was inside.

She nearly choked on the dead, stale air. It was dark as she moved away from the outside doors. She pulled the flashlight from her pocket and moved onward.

A few tears of sweat trickled down her back as she stepped over the bodies of two nurses. Their blue scrubs had turned brown with bodily fluids.

She breathed through her mouth in tiny inhalations. It was way too quiet in here. She passed the nurses' station. One man in a white lab coat sat behind the counter, his face flat against the computer keyboard. The little keys had become congealed on his face, his eyes were open, but black with blood. His throat was swollen like a boa constrictor that's eaten a horse.

Scully hurried past. She jumped with she thought something moved to her left. She took a deep breath. It was only one of the dividing curtains caught by a small breeze from the open doors. Right? There is was again, this time to her left.

Shit. I gotta get out of this place.

Everywhere she looked there were dead people. They had come here for help, but it had become their tomb.

Shit. Run.

She rushed behind the nurses's station and started grabbing supplies.

All the while, she couldn't shake the feeling that the dead were watching.




Rolla, Missouri
821 E. Pine Street
1245 Hours

The house was exactly what they needed. The huge "For Sale" sign out front was a good start. It had not been inhabited when the flu hit. Meaning no dead bodies waiting to party down. Scully had even found a front window unlocked. She crawled inside and was soon coming out the front door to help Mulder inside.

The furniture inside was sparse. An old, but still decent sofa. An oak coffee table. One recliner that pretended to be made of leather. And a beaten and subdued, faux bamboo standing coatrack from the Early WalMart Period stood in the corner. It would all do quite nicely.

Once she had Mulder settled on the sofa, Scully ran back and forth to the bike, retrieving their supplies. Then she moved the bike behind the house, away from easy discovery.

Then she got down to work.

"How's it look?" Mulder asked, making a point *not* to look at his own leg as she worked.

"I've seen worse, Mulder. "

"Yes. But were any of them alive?"

"You were, Mulder. You must be feeling okay if you can complain and fidget this much. . . "

"Ow!" Mulder howled as she poured the water/hydrogen peroxide mixture into and through the wound.

Fluffy sat in the corner in some trepidation. He knew he was next on Dr. Scully's agenda.

"I know it hurts, but just be glad we found the hospital supplies. Otherwise I might have had to resort to the methods of Jesse James' day. . . "

"Do I even wanna know, Scully?"

"Well. With a through and through wound, if you were shot with a dirty ol' bullet and you wanted to make sure the wound was clean. . . you coated a cloth or handkerchief with alcohol and then you threaded it through the wound and. . . "

"I'm sorry I asked," Mulder moaned at the thought.

Scully coated the clean wound with a betadine ointment and then carefully dressed the wound.

Mulder behaved as Scully set up the coatrack as an IV stand, hanging a bag of D5 & 1/2 and a bag of antibiotic. He barely winced as she inserted the IV cathether into his arm. She removed the needle and attached the line.

The bag of antibiotics was empty in thirty minutes and she quickly switched over to the dextrose/saline solution. Time to get Mulder rehydrated.

An hour later, Mulder was feeling much better. And now exhaustion had taken its toll on Scully. She could barely keep her eyes open. She had stitched up Fluffy's leg and he was sleeping happily beside the sofa.

Scully checked Mulder's pulse and, satisfied that he was no longer shocky, she removed the IV catheter.

Mulder watched her as she tried to clean up the medical debris on the floor.

"Scully. Why don't you take a break? Get some rest?"

"I can't, Mulder. There are things I need to do. . . I need to go find a store, grab some canned goods. . . "

But Mulder could see how pinched her brow was.

"You have a headache, don't you?"

"I'm fine, Mulder," she sighed.

"Well then. At least get your butt over here so I can take care of *your* cut," he remarked, pointing to his own brow.

She relented, handing him the betadine and a bandage as she sat at his hip. Mulder gently removed the bandage from her forehead and winced. Talk about a headache. He dabbed at the wound with the betadine and tenderly put on a new bandage.

"Good as new, Scully," me murmured as he leaned forward to place a light kiss on the spot.

But Scully was already asleep.

Mulder smiled as he leaned back with her until they were both reclined. He draped her arm over his chest.

She could explore the town tomorrow.




And the black crow circled the small town, keeping watch.




CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

". . . a little ditty 'Bout Jack and Diane, Two American kids growing up In the Heartland. . . "
-John Cougar Mellencamp




Rolla, Missouri
Sometime

There were just no words that could do justice to the experience that was Super WalMart in a small town.

Lou Ella Tyson lived for Sunday afternoons at the WalMart. First thing on Sunday morning, she got her 312 pound body -- it was a glandular problem, you know -- out of bed. Then she nudged her husband, Jim, awake. Then she marched down the hall and roused the four kids.

After stacks of pancakes smothered in Land O'Lakes and Mrs. Butterworth's and a side of one pound of bacon washed down by Tang, the Tyson family would head out the door for Sunday services. But not before Lou Ella threw the pot roast in the oven.

Three hours later, the pot roast and potatoes were on the table for Sunday Dinner, which usually involved at least two fights between the kids. . .


"Mrs. Peabody says that Jesus loves me more than you! "

"Nuh-uh! Moooo-oom! "

"Did, too! "

"Jeremy! Stop teasing your sister. Whatever gave you the idea Mrs. Peabody said that?"

"She said that 'Jesus loves the *little* children' and Sarah isn't little. She's a lard ass! "

"Mooo-oom! "

"Jeremy! Go to your room! "

"Lard ass, lard ass, lard. . . "

Smack. End of discussion.


Once the dishes were done and the kids were outside tormenting the neighbors and Jim was molded to his recliner in the den, remote control Krazy-glued to his right hand, Lou Ella had her chance to escape.

She hefted her "big-boned" body into the station wagon and headed toward her Mecca.

It truly was a mystery why no cultural anthropologist ever set up a field study in the wilds of the Sunday Super WalMart. Papers could have been written, discussed, discoveries made, National Geographic specials filmed. It would have been easy to set up an observer's blind somewhere. . . like, say, behind the bulk sized Charmin' Family Packs.

Contrary to every man's opinion, there was a method and order to Sundays at Wally World. And Lou Ella always had a plan of attack and she always knew her place in the social order.

It started at the massive sliding front doors. At the cart depository. Only women with small children in tow were allowed the special carts with the blue safety belt strap. To take one when you had no children would be a sin. Stares and whispers would follow you throughout the store.

Lou Ella wrestled with the carts each Lord's Day, huffing and puffing until she managed to free one non-special cart from the mesh of wheels and baskets. Invariably, she got the cart with the one wheel that spun around in place and squeaked and protested down each aisle, attracting snickers from every child she passed. She saw it as a special burden she had to bear.

Her next move depended entirely upon which end of the store she had entered, determined, of course, by her parking space. If she entered the south end, she hit the health and beauty section first. She'd pick up the Suave strawberry shampoo, some Preparation H, a little Icy Heet for Jim, and all the "female" things she needed. You didn't want to run into anyone you knew in this "private" section, so she went about her business quickly here.

Then it was on through the toys and videos and electronics. . . glancing at the TV and VCR combo she wanted Jim to buy for their bedroom. This led to the paints and then the automotive supplies, on past the tire shop and the arts and crafts corner. A right at the back led her past the camping/fishing/hunting nooks, past the linens and towels and pillows. . .

Next stop, the center section. Clothing for the whole family. This was the one day she was free to pick up all those female unmentionables. She was always careful not to draw attention to herself there. . . no sense letting someone see the size of her Playtex underwire bra and control panties. She carefully tucked those in her basket, underneath the blouse she didn't need but picked up anyway to cover the private things in her cart.

Once done with the clothing, she moved on past the housewares department. She tended to slow here, gazing longingly at the microwaves and lamps, the blenders and the non-stick frying pans. Then common sense would overcome her and she'd move on to the important shopping.

She entered the grocery section. This is where all socialization took place. Amongst the eggs and the Corn Flakes, the bibb lettuce and the chicken thighs. Lou Ella could always count on several impromptu church committee meetings, PTA ad hoc discussions, and several miles of gossip here. All real townswomen's business was conducted next to the frozen foods. It didn't hurt that the frozen foods section was also where Mrs. Donna Raymond, trusted WalMart employee for twelve years, always set up her food samples table on Sundays. Little tiny colored toothpicks held such wonders as toaster pizza, BBQ chicken wings, cheese cubes, and the salami of the week. The ladies of the Second Avenue Baptist Church Flower Committee were always well fed during their meetings.

Lou Ella had always been careful to limit herself to four toothpicks of goodies in public. She had to maintain her glandular problem front. Besides, she knew she could go home and finish off that bag of Lays and the box of chocolate Hostess Donettes she had in her cart.

But, on this, her last day of WalMart glory, Lou Ella didn't feel like gossiping. She didn't feel like coveting the T-Fal either. Her whole family, Lou Ella included, had the flu. Jim and the kids were all bedridden. The whole town had been dropping like flies. Lou Ella just wanted some Robitussin. She picked up the family-sized bottle of red liquid and headed for the checkout stand. But no one was there. The store was virtually deserted.

She mopped her sweaty brow just before a gut wrenching cough gurgled up from inside her, forcing her to bend over. Dark phlegm caught in her throat and she tried to clear it. She couldn't breathe. Her overworked chest swelled, her heart screamed. She staggered toward the door, still clutching the Robitussin. She made it to the cart depository before keeling to the ground. Dead and blue before she hit the floor.

And there lay Lou Ella Tyson. No one left had the energy or inclination to move her body.




Rolla, Missouri July 15

Scully tried not to trip over the bloated woman in the doorway as she made her way into WalMart. It would definitely spoil this moment.

She had been waiting nearly forty-eight hours for this, her chance to finally get out of the House of Mulder and Fluffy. Both males had been doing their utmost to drive her insane. The first day had not been bad. She had been worried about their injuries. . . and they'd all been too tired to get into any trouble.

But yesterday. Yesterday they were both well enough to begin complaining. Mulder kept wanting his pillows fluffed. Scully suspected he just liked the view when she had to lean over him. And he was bitching and moaning about wanting ice cubes. She had wanted to suggest he take a flying leap to Antarctica. . . but then she bit her tongue. They had both been there, done that, gotten the freezer burn and the t-shirts to prove it.

And Fluffy. Fluffy. The damn dog couldn't decide if he wanted in or out. She was running to the door every five minutes.

And nearly every hour, she had to help Mulder waddle over to the RV across the street to use its facilities. True, she couldn't really blame Mulder. All that IV fluid had just really kicked in. But each trip meant another round of innuendoes and Mulder Hands that liked to slip off of her shoulder into other territory. She might have. . . she *would* have enjoyed it if either one of them could actually follow through with what he was pretending to start. . . but all it did now was make her cranky. But at least she could be thankful for the RV bathroom. . . otherwise, she'd be helping Mulder to a tree.

Tonight they were planning to move into the upstairs bedroom. Mulder swore that he could manage the steps. . . and they both desperately wanted to sleep in a bed for a change. It would be a challenge all around.

This morning, she had felt slightly energetic and she had an excuse to get out of the house. They needed supplies. Even Mulder couldn't argue with this. . . they were down to the cans of Spam. And they needed some sheets for the bare queen-sized bed upstairs. But, he did make sure that she was armed to the teeth before she went out the door. And he had set a strict time limit. Two hours. No more or he and Fluffy would be barging their bloody and battered way through the town.

Mulder had also suggested that she check the pickup truck parked next door. If she could find the keys, it would be much easier to haul supplies back. She had actually liked that suggestion. The roads around town appeared to be fairly clear. Luckily, Rolla had been a typical small town. She found the keys dangling in the ignition.

Scully entered the store and her jaw dropped open. Granted, it stunk to high and holy hell thanks to the rotting Meats and Produce Sections. . . but it was still by the far the largest store she had been in in nearly a month. And it appeared as though the store had been spared of looters.

The smell was beginning to get to her so she was relieved to see the Health and Beauty section just to her left. She high-tailed it straight to the Vick's Vap-O-Rub shelf and grabbed a jar. She dipped her finger in for a big gob and slathered it above her upper lip, just below her nose. She took a deep, mentholated breath. Much better.

She frowned. Her hand was getting better, the gash in its web beginning to heal, but it was a bitch to keep a bandage on it. She walked down the aisle and found the large dressings. She found a size and shape that might stay put and opened the box.

After she re-bandaged her hand, she headed back to the checkout counters and grabbed a stray shopping cart. It was time to get down to work.


Eighty minutes and four grocery carts later, Scully stood outside the WalMart and stared at her take in the bed of the pickup. She went through her mental checklist: Saltines and Ritz; cans of tuna, pork & beans, peas, potatoes, Vienna Sausages, chili, and various other meat products; Cheez-Whiz (her guilty pleasure); sunflower seeds for Mulder; Alpo for Fluffy; a few bags of chips; Cap N' Crunch and Crispix; gallons of bottled water; V-8; some powdered milk; and a bottle of vino. That was good for the food. Then there were the drugs she grabbed from the pharmacy, which included some Percodan for her ever-increasing headaches. She pocketed those. . . no reason for Mulder to know. He had some Tylenol 3 from that she had grabbed at the hospital for his leg.

And she had been very happy to grab soap and shampoo along the way. And while she was still in the Health and Beauty Section, she grabbed an adjustable cane for Mulder. He'd need it. No more Scully-groping for G-Man.

The Camping and Hunting section had yielded a gold mine of goodies. Knives, some new sleeping bags, a two man tent, some ammo for their guns, and a few other surprises that she planned to foist upon Mulder when the moment was right. And she hadn't forgotten the charcoal for the nice grill behind the house. Tonight they could eat like royalty.

She'd also picked up some clothing to replace their ripe attire. They might not win any fashion shows, but at least they'd feel clean for a bit. Oh, and she'd picked up pillows. And sheets. She hadn't forgotten the sheets. The deluxe, satiny smooth ones.

With a nod of satisfaction, she jumped into the truck. . . and froze as the hammer of pain shot through her skull. She leaned forward on the steering wheel, resting her head as she tried to breathe.

*Not now, dammit! * she chanted to herself.


Scully wasn't sure how long she had been out of it, but it was plain to see that she would have to change her shirt before heading back to the house. Her entire front was covered with blood. She checked her nose and was relieved to find the bleeding had stopped.

She slid out of the driver's seat and gripped the side of the truck as she made her way back to the new clothes. It took her a moment to realize her hand had left a bloody trail on the metal.

*Damn. *

She grabbed a new shirt and ripped off the store tags. Then she pulled off her bloodied shirt. She wadded it up and, looking in the truck's side mirror, she tried to remove all the blood from her face and arms. Then she wiped down the side of the truck. In the end, it wasn't completely clean, but it wasn't obvious either. And she doubted that Mulder would be up to examining it with Luminol any time soon. Maybe it would rain and the water would wash away the evidence. Wishful thinking.

She put on the new shirt, praying that Mulder wouldn't notice the change. If he did comment on it, she would simply say she wanted to wear a clean shirt. He might buy that.

She was still weak, so she grabbed a can of warm V-8 juice. It wasn't particularly tasty, but she downed it in a few gulps. It seemed to help.

Once again, she climbed into the truck. This time, however, she was able to make her way back to the house.




July 16 marked the day that Mulder discovered corn. Or rather, he noticed that the neighboring house had a large field in back and some serious planting had taken place. The tomatoes had been too ripe and were rotting. . . but the corn. Corn on the cob. Corn on the cob roasted on the grill.

Scully gamely cooked the ears of corn while Mulder coached her from the back porch between his spittings of sunflower seed hulls. He had some sort of competition going with himself, trying to break his spit distance record or something. She laughed. Fluffy occasionally added a bark of approval. And their dinner had been wonderful.

They had found an SUV -- a black Ford Expedition -- at the town dealership yesterday and had both agreed to ditch the motorcycle and side car. The roads ahead of them were much more likely to be clear. . . and neither one of them relished the idea of driving through the Southwest with no air conditioning. And there was room enough for all their supplies while still leaving an area to stretch out and sleep if necessary. The Expedition now sat in front of the house, ready for a quick escape if the need arose.

Mulder's leg was doing much better and he was getting around with his cane quite well. He might not even need it in a day or two. And Fluffy already acted as though he had never been injured at all. It was nice to have some good news.

So Scully was really glad that Mulder hadn't commented on her pale face or her forced energy. She hoped he hadn't noticed. But she *was* feeling better today. She hoped the feeling would last.

Neither of them noticed the jet black bird that looked down upon them from the oak tree next door.




July 20

Scully was having a hard time falling asleep. She was tired and her head ached, but she had too many things flittering through her mind. She was going to spring her surprise on Mulder tomorrow. His leg was doing much better and she was sure he'd feel up to the event.

Mulder was flat on his stomach, his left arm draped across her waist, pretending to sleep. . . but she wasn't fooled. Mulder never breathed through his nose when he slept. In sleep, his mouth dropped open, looking like a gasp of pleasure. Besides, his left leg had just insinuated itself into a pretzel like shape with her left leg. Fluffy was snoring on the floor by the bed.

She didn't hear it when it entered the airstream, but her rapidly scrunching nose detected it. Men. Men were pigs.

"Mulder, I love you. . . but that damn well better have been Fluffy and not you and the result of your sunflower seeds! "

Mulder froze. "What did you just say?"

"You heard me," she muttered, pulling her pillow over her head so she could bury her nose in the cover. . . let it act like an air filter.

"I'm not so sure I did." Mulder stared at the top of Scully's pillow.

"I mrpheuiphed ih bedder beh phhhupphy hoocud da heeez," was her response.

"What?" Mulder exclaimed as he ceremoniously removed the pillow from her face, holding it just out of her reach.

Scully stared at him, her chin tucked down against her chest, her eyes glaring. "I said. It better had been have been Fluffy who cut the cheese, Mulder. "

"Oooohhhhh, Scully. Are you threatening me?" Mulder teased.

She didn't respond.

Mulder inched his way up and over until he was almost on top of her, staring down into her face. "I don't think that's *all* you said," he taunted.

"Oh?" Scully acted innocent.

"But. Just to set the record straight. It wasn't me and it wasn't the sunflower seeds. "

"Fine. Then Fluffy gets a change in diet tomorrow or else he sleeps elsewhere. . . "

Mulder could only give a slight nod in agreement. He had become engrossed with a slick spot at the corner of Scully's mouth.

Scully soon had lost her own train of thought as she stared into Mulder's darkening eyes. . .

A loud windy explosion filled the air.

"Fluffy!" They both yelled as they tried to cover their noses. Mulder threw the pillow at the dog.

Fluffy, one ear askew thanks to the pillow, stood with a yawn and ambled out of the room in search of a quieter place to sleep. The man and the woman were way too noisy.

Mulder looked back at Scully, but the mood was broken. With a disappointed smile, he brushed some hair back off of her forehead before flopping back on his side of the bed, face into the mattress.

"Mulder. My pillow's on the floor. "

Mulder, with extreme economy of movement, slid the pillow from under his own head and dropped it on her face. Scully gratefully placed it under her head.

She stared at the ceiling.

"You know, Scully. . . if I'd known it would cause you to utter sudden declarations, I would have broke wind a long time ago. . . "

Scully smiled.

"And just for the record, G-Woman. I love you, too. "

Scully found his hand and wrapped hers around it, just as she fell asleep.




July 21 Noon

"We're doing what?" Mulder had asked.

"We're going fishing, Mulder," Scully replied as she handed him a rod and reel. "I promise, you'll enjoy this," she had smiled.

And now they sat on the banks of Maramec Springs, their feet occasionally dipping into the icy cold water. . . which had also proved to be a wonderful cooler for their soda cans and wine bottle.

It *was* nice. The park was some ten miles east of Rolla and it had once been the site of giant iron forges. Then it was converted into a park with a small catfish farm. And it all added up to some great fishing. For Scully, at least. She'd caught three huge whiskered-fish, but Mulder hadn't caught anything other than a few sun rays. But he didn't mind. It was peaceful here and Scully was smiling. And Fluffy was frolicking around by himself. What more could he ask for?

Scully laughed.

"What is it? What's so funny?" Mulder asked in amusement.

She looked at him and it stole every ounce of oxygen in his lungs. She was beautiful.

"I was just remembering the rule. . . "

"And what's that?" He leaned back on his elbows, watching the sun play off of her hair.

"That the person who catches the fewest fish has to clean the day's catch. . ."

Suddenly, catching a fish was the most important thing in Mulder's life.



1730 hours

"The fish were wonderful. . . you did a really nice job with all those fish guts, Mulder," Scully gently teased.

"I was happy to continue a tradition, Scully," Mulder replied. He was way too comfortable to complain. He was full of delicious grilled fish, he was reclined on a soft blanket under a shading tree with his head resting upon Scully's stomach. Nope. Nothing to complain about.

"This was a good idea, Scully," he said as he pulled her hand onto his chest. He closed his eyes, content.

But not for long. Scully tugged on his arm, "C'mon up here, Bait Boy. "

Mulder complied and soon had Scully nestled comfortably against his side. But she wasn't content with that. Her hand drew slow, lazy circles across his chest. He purred. Then she grew bolder and rolled until she was nearly on top of him.

She started with his neck. . . soft, light kisses. She moved on to his chin. His eyes were still closed, but the corners of his mouth were slightly turned up in pleasure. They were both humming now. . . until she reached his lips.

His eyes opened and they paused. "This is nice. This is good for now," he whispered. And she understood what he was saying. He knew they still had physical limitations. It was going to take more time to heal. And she loved him for it. For understanding what she really wanted right now.

"So, Scully. Wanna neck?" He smirked.

"What do you think, Mulder?" She smiled.

And that's exactly what they did.




July 26 1500 hours

"Mulder. I know you're impatient, but we agreed that we'd leave tomorrow. Mother Abagail told you to wait until then. Right?" Scully stood in the living room with her hands on her hips.

"I know, I know," Mulder conceded. "I just. . . My leg is at least at eighty percent. . . I need some answers." He fidgeted on the sofa.

Scully sighed. She understood exactly how Mulder felt, but she had enjoyed their time here in Rolla. It had almost felt like a normal, domestic life. The kind they had never had. But it was time to move on. . . Matthew was out there somewhere. She had to find him. *They* had to find him before it was too late. . . before her headaches became much worse. . .

"Why don't you and Fluffy go for a last walk about town. See if you can find anything else we might need for our trip. "

"You're sure I can't help you with something here, Scully?" He asked. . . but she could tell he liked her idea.

"Go. Both of you. I was just going to get the grill going for dinner. . . it'll take a while for the coals to get hot. Don't worry. I'll save the packing for when you get back," she shooed them outside.

"We'll be back in just a bit. . C'mon, Fluffy," Mulder called.

And they were off.




Scully had the coals nicely stacked and the flames were starting to do their work. Now she just needed to prep a few ears of corn for the grill and get a pot of water ready to heat so she could whip up some Mac & Cheese.

She bent over to pick up the grill rack from the ground and it hit her like two tons of bricks. The pain pierced through her sinus cavities and into her eyes.

She gripped her head and staggered to the back porch. She raised a hand to her nose as she leaned against a post. No blood. Yet. Maybe she'd get off lightly this time.

But her body was drained. She looked toward the sky. Clouds were rolling in fast, but they didn't particularly look like storm clouds. Mulder would probably be gone a bit longer. She could go upstairs and take a short nap. Dinner wouldn't take long to fix. . .

She limped inside and made her way upstairs. She fell across the bed, barely taking the time to toe off her shoes. Then she was asleep.

Outside, the wind began to blow. A black bird called out.

The red hot barbecue grill began to shudder and rock in the wind, each gust teetering its thin legs.

A strong burst rushed in against it just as the bird swooped from the sky, tapping the lid with its talons.

It was just enough.

The grill spilled onto its side, sending up a shower of burning embers. Embers that floated on the wind toward the house. . .

Scully slept on.




Mulder's leg was growing a bit stiff and he was just about ready to head back to the house. He and Fluffy had done a grand tour of the downtown main drag, peering into shop windows, investigating the bank. They'd even found a local FBI field office. Mulder was puzzled by that -- the FBI in Rolla? -- until he realized that there was a small nuclear reactor on the campus of UMR. Then it made sense. He wondered what poor soul had been assigned here. Or maybe the guy or gal wasn't so poor after all. . . there was some good fishing up the road, doncha know.

They were just checking the last building when Fluffy froze. He whimpered and began to back into the street. He barked at Mulder. Loudly. He ran a few feet down the street then stopped, turning back to look at Mulder. It looked as though he wanted Mulder to follow him.

"What is it, Fluffy?" Mulder asked, trying not feel as though he was appearing in an episode of "Lassie. "

But Fluffy was already moving. Mulder turned and looked back toward the house. And he saw it. Smoke. Thick, black, billowing smoke. Coming right from where the house was located.

Mulder began to run.




Scully awoke coughing. It took her a few seconds to realize why. Smoke had almost completely filled the bedroom. She struggled to to get up. . . her head still hurt. She almost stood, but then realized that she needed to get close to the floor, where the air might be clearer.

She dropped onto the floor on her hands and knees and started to crawl for the door. She had left it open which was why the smoke had filled the room so quickly. She carefully peeked her head out into the hallway. The smoke was thicker here, but she still couldn't see any flames. . .

Until she reached the top of the stairs. She looked down and could see the flames whipping around the living room, headed for the hallway and the staircase. She didn't have much time.

She began to crawl down the stairs. She kept her eyes on the front door. Her escape.




Outside, the flames caught on neighboring houses, the winds kicking and encouraging each spark on each shingle and board. There were now four houses on fire.




Scully was half way down the stairs when pieces of ceiling began to fall in arcs of flame. The paint on the walls blistered and popped, but she still hugged the wall, trying to avoid falling debris.

Just a few more steps. . .

*Where are you, Mulder? *




The thing about a structure fire is this. It doesn't put out that lovely waft of campfire s'mores and smoky dreams. When man- made things burn, the air is acrid. The word "acrid" was probably invented to describe it. The air is filled with an overwhelming mix of PCBs, PCVs, QVCs, PSATs, and other sundry things that go by acronyms.

One little breath will coat your mouth, your teeth, your throat, and your lungs until your throat wants to close up shop. You feel like someone lined your airway with Saran Wrap. One lungful is enough to make you sway on your feet. Two can make you pass out.

And then there's the heat. You don't need to touch a single flame to get burned. The heat boils on the ceiling and in the walls until your sweat actually turns on you and cooks your skin under your clothes. In just a flash, you've got a good second degree burn going.

Which is why all of those dramatic TV shows with people running into burning buildings to save small children. . . moving down hallways. . . taking five minutes. . . are all such bullshit.

But Fluffy hadn't seen much television. His four legs covered the ground quickly as he ran toward the house, leaving Mulder far behind.

He could hear Mulder screaming, calling the woman. Scully. But Fluffy could see no movement inside the house. The flames billowed on the front porch, licking at the eaves above, the smoke a thick curtain before the bedroom windows of the second floor.

Fluffy never thought twice as he flew across the threshold and jumped through the flame-draped open window into the living room.


"Scully!" Mulder cried out as he ran down the street as fast as his still-healing leg would allow. His eyes were already watering from the smoke that was settling in the air. The heat rose around him, circling him like he'd been melded onto a barbecue spit.

Oh, god. Everything around him was burning. . . Scully!

Almost there. . .




Scully had almost given up, was gasping for her last breath when she felt something tugging on her shirt. Whatever it was, it was insistent.

Then it licked her across the face. Fluffy. He could lead her outside. . .

She felt out with her hands until she found the dog's collar. She grabbed onto it.

Fluffy pulled and he dragged them both toward the front door.

Almost there. . .

She felt the paneled wood of the door and pushed herself up off the floor, trying to stand so she could turn the door knob. Fluffy took a few steps back to allow her room.

The heat was already searing through Scully's clothes and Fluffy's fur. . .

Something in the ceiling groaned.

It cracked.

And the world caved in. . .




Mulder shielded his face with his arm as he thundered up the front steps. . .

He ignored the pain as his hand latched onto the white hot doorknob. . .

"Scully!" He screamed as he threw the door open. . .

There was a horrible crash. . .

Sparks and debris flew through the air and something hit him squarely in the chest. . .

And he was tumbling back. . .

Down the front steps. . .

And everything went black. . .




CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

"There was loneliness, too, as the sun set, but only rarely now did doubts return. Then I felt sinkingly as if my whole life lay behind me. Once on the mountain I knew (or trusted) that this would give way to total absorption with the task at hand. But at times I wondered if I had not come a long way only to find that what I really sought was something I had left behind. "
- Thomas F. Hornbein Everest: The West Ridge




Rolla, Missouri
July 26

Mulder hit the ground on his back, knocking the breath from his lungs. A fraction of a second later, a heavy weight landed on his chest. . . then the weight fell off of him to the side. . . and the light was back. Along with the smoke and the deep orange-red flames that shot toward the skies above him.

He coughed as he tried to suck air back into his body. He rolled over and heaved himself up onto his hands and knees.

What the hell had happened? He was at the door, yelling for Scully and then. . . Scully!

He looked up at the house and stared in horror. The front of the structure was now a skeleton of flame. The heat was pushing him back even while his heart urged him forward.

"Scully!" he screamed.

"Mulder," a voice coughed.

Stunned, he looked to the ground beside him. The dead weight that had knocked him senseless, what he thought had been debris. . . it had been Scully. He had been so blinded by smoke, heat, and panic that he had never looked.

He immediately crawled to her side. The heat from the flames was already too much, they had to move, there was no time to examine her to see if she was okay. The whole neighborhood was going up in flames, the wind was whipping around them, threatening to become a full-blown firestorm.

Scully was still wracked with coughing, but Mulder could not take the time to be gentle. He scooped her up into his arms, ignoring his stiff leg, and ran for the Expedition. As he reached the passenger door he set her feet on the ground, but he kept one arm around her, supporting her weight as he opened the door. He lifted her up into the seat and slammed the door shut.

"Mulder," Scully tried to call out, but he was already running around to the driver's side.

He jumped inside and flipped down the visor. The keys tumbled down into his shaking hands. He shoved the key into the ignition and turned it. . . the engine roared to life.

"Mulder, we can't leave Fluffy! "

Mulder could only choose to ignore her. He could feel the flames lapping at the car, licking at the tires. He put the Expedition in gear and floored the accelerator.

Scully turned in her seat, trying to work the door handle as they fled down the street. Mulder steered them around burning debris with one hand as he grabbed for Scully with the other.

"Scully! Stop! "

"We can't leave him, Mulder. . . "

"It's too late, Scully. Stop. "

She stilled, her head bowed against the hot glass of the passenger window. She let it sear into her skin.

"But he saved my life. . . he led me. . . he pushed me outside just before. . ." she couldn't continue.

Mulder felt the heaviness in his own heart. There was no way around the knowledge that he was betraying a friend.

"I know, Scully. I know." He reached over and touched her shoulder. When she didn't turn, he slid his hand down her arm and grabbed her hand, locked onto it. "But there was nothing we could do. The fire was too much. . . it was already too late. "

Scully remained silent, but she returned the grip on his hand. Mulder looked in the rearview mirror. They had outdistanced the flames, but the fire was spreading rapidly. Soon it would devour the entire town. They only had one choice. Get back on the highway. Head west on 44.

The wind was blowing harder now. . . that summer kind of wind that carries a thunderstorm.

And, sure enough, the cold, fat drops began to splat against the windshield just as they pulled onto westbound 44. Mulder hoped that the rain would be able to drown the fire and keep it from marauding across the countryside.

Scully could only stare out the window in between bouts of coughing and hacking. They were deep spasms as her lungs and throat tried to clear themselves of toxins and fill up with clean air.

They had driven some six miles west of Rolla when she startled Mulder. . .

"Stop the car," she cried hoarsely.

"What?"

"Stop now, Mulder! "

He pulled over to the side of the road -- out of force of habit. The car was still moving slightly when Scully threw her door open and she stumbled out. She fell to her knees, retching upon on the gravel and grass.

The truth had hit her suddenly and she needed to expel it from her body.

Mulder quickly turned off the engine and ran to her side. He bent over her and put a supporting hand on her back.

But she quickly slapped it away.

"No! Leave me alone. . ."

"Scully. . ." Mulder tried to get her to look at him, but she merely turned her face away. She rocked back and forth on her knees as she fought each surge of nausea.

"No, Mulder. It was all my fault," she groaned.

"What are you talking about, Scully?"

"It was all my fault. I had a goddamned headache and I went to sleep. I went to sleep and I left the hot coals. . . and the fire started. It's all my fault. Fluffy's dead and I might as well have put a gun to his head. . . "

Mulder was at a loss. He had no idea what to do to comfort Scully. To ease her conscience.

The rain poured down upon them now, soaking their clothes and skin. Scully shivered between each bout of vomiting.

"Oh, Scully," Mulder whispered. He laid his hand on the back of her neck, lightly drawing her hair back from her face. He held it there as she was sick. Soon, his other hand ventured to her back, rubbing it soothingly.

After several minutes, Scully sat back on her heels. She was pale and weak, but it appeared that the worst was over.

"Are you better now?" Mulder asked gently.

She nodded slightly, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. And then the shivering hit her more strongly.

"C'mon, Scully. Let's get out of this rain," Mulder prodded. He helped her to her feet and led her to the car. She numbly acquiesced as he reached across to buckle her in. He closed her door and went around to the driver's side. The only sounds Mulder could hear were the rain drumming on the roof outside and the chattering of Scully's teeth inside.

He reached back behind his seat and retrieved a towel. When Scully didn't take it from him, he decided to do it himself. He dabbed and wiped at the water on her face, her neck, her hands. Then he ran it lightly across her hair. Once satisfied, he draped the towel across her shoulders.

"I'm tired, Mulder," Scully mumbled. Her eyes were wide open, but glassy.

Mulder brushed the damp hair from her face. "There's an exit just a few miles ahead. This rain should have put out the fire. It should be safe to stop there. "

Scully closed her eyes and let her head fall back against the seat. Mulder started the engine and they headed for the exit.




Cookin' From Scratch Restaurant & Truck Stop
Newburg, Missouri
July 27
0100 hours

Mulder had just about decided that it would be impossible for him to fall asleep. Water dripped from the downspout outside with an uneven beat. The type of a-rhythm that can drive you nuts. Behind it was an unsettling quiet, only broken by an occasional smoky cough from Scully as she slept. Oh how he wished Fluffy were around to snore and even pass wind. . . normal night sounds. He missed that damn dog.

To make things worse, the floor was hard. *Argh. *He rolled over onto his back.

Even the yellow vinyl chairs that filled the dining room around them conspired against him. Their spindly little brown legs looked like a morass of creepy crawly things from this floor- based vantage point, and they all seemed to move just a little bit whenever he turned his head. He could swear that he was catching the conspiracy of furniture subterfuge just within his peripheral vision.

He had found this Restaurant/Truck Stop That Time Forgot just off the interstate. Once he had gotten Scully inside, it had taken forever for her to stop shivering. It was like her body had forgotten how to be still.

He had stripped off her wet clothes and helped her to don dry sweatpants and an oversized rugby shirt. He'd even tucked her cold, little feet into some nice, thick WalMart tube socks.

Scully had refused to lie down until she had brushed her teeth, but he couldn't blame her. So, he had grabbed a new brush and some toothpaste from the gift shop shelves -- shelves that were packed with St. Louis Arch snoglobes and Route 66 refrigerator magnets. Then he stood in the bathroom, watching over her, as she brushed with some bottled water. She was so weak and disheartened, it had pained him to see how her shaking left hand held a deathgrip on the basin.

Finally, he had wrapped her up in a warm sleeping bag. He sorely wanted to crawl in with her, but she was sending out other signals. She wanted him close by. . . but not too close just yet. She needed to deal with the anger she had for herself first.

Mulder laid on his back, on top of his own sleeping bag, and stared at the water stains on the ceiling. If he turned his head just so, he swore that one stain was Abraham Lincoln on a Schwinn bike. Or maybe it was Snoopy dancing with the Twelve Disciples. He wasn't quite sure.

Damn. Why couldn't he make himself stop thinking? Whenever he closed his eyes he saw a litany of horrors. The smoke, Fluffy charging into the house, the flames all around. And his mind moseyed over to all kinds of "what ifs," and not just the obvious ones.

He thought of the nuclear reactor at UMR. Had the fire reached it? Was poisonous radiation seeping out into the air even now? God. What about all of the other nuclear facilities in the country? Didn't they have to be maintained to prevent melt downs? And what about all of the nuclear weapons that were laying about?

Finally, Mulder had had enough. *He* needed the contact and he hoped Scully would understand. He carefully rolled over. Maybe it would be okay if he kept the sleeping bag material between them. Nestling up to Scully's back, he eased one arm over her waist. She reflexively arched back closer to him.

He kissed the crown of her head with relief. "We'll be okay, Scully," he promised softly.

And his eyes slowly closed.




"How you doin' there, Fox?"

Mulder opened his eyes and was surprised to find himself on a brown and green plain, facing snow capped mountains. He'd been expecting the usual corn field.

Mother Abagail stood over him, her stooped figure blocking out the sun. He covered his face with his hands.

"I'm afraid I'm not very good company right now," he muttered.

Mother Abagail laughed. "That's assuming an awful lot, boy! "

"I guess it is," Mulder replied, one side of his mouth lifting in a sarcastic smile. He sat up, but broke his gaze with Mother Abagail.

"You're feeling another loss," she stated.

Mulder nodded. "That damn. . . sorry. . . that silly dog. Fluffy. I guess he grew on me rather unexpectedly. His scruffy ol' fur. His bad timing. . . "

"Seems to this old woman that he had some *good* timing," Mother Abagail smiled as she tapped the bottom of his foot with her cane.

"That he did," Mulder conceded sadly. "He saved Scully's life. And mine. Why did he have to die?"

Mother Abagail did not respond. She had a sad yet peaceful calm about her eyes.

"Scully blames herself for his death," he continued.

"And *you* don't?" Mother Abagail reached out to poke him in the shoulder for emphasis.

Mulder hung his head. "Jack Kerouac aside, I can't say I'm liking this life on the road deal," he stated.

"Uh-huh. Well. I'm on the road now, too, Fox. "

Mulder looked up in surprise.

"Seems He has chosen a new home for all of us. You come on now and join us in Boulder, Colorado. "

"Boulder? Is Matthew there?" Mulder hoped.

Mother Abagail shook her head. Youthful impatience. "Ya'll come to see me first. You know you must. You need. . . "

"What I *need* right now is some justice!" Mulder shouted. "Justice for Scully and for that damn dog. . . for Zeke. . . and for all the people who those men have killed! "

"Those men?" The old woman questioned sharply. "Who're 'those men'? And what good is *your* justice now? There are none of your courts left, none of your laws. Only *His* law remains. Only His justice. You need to focus on what is truly important. Not the *whys* or the *whos* but the *hows* and the *whats. *Those are the only things we can use for good. And *He* will help us all by leading *you* to them. "

Mulder shook his head in frustration. "I wish I could have the same faith in your God that you hold. "

"That's all right, child. You say you trust no one, but I know that's a lie. Your deepest desire is to trust in something outside of yourself."

She stared Mulder in the eye. He couldn't hold the contact, it was too intense. This woman was seeing right through him.

"Scully's getting sicker and I don't know what to do. . . who can I trust now? What do I do to help her?"

"Just love her, Fox. And bring her here to me. I've got something important you both need. Keep movin' and don't look back. The Lord *is* watching over you. He has a plan for you. "

"Yeah. Well. It sure would be easier if *He* gave me a sign or two. . . it doesn't even have to be a burning bush or anything. Just something simple. . . "

The light was beginning to fade. . . along with the scenery. . . and Mother Abagail. Sleep was calling him.

As he faded back into the dark, he could hear Mother Abagail laughing.




Cookin' From Scratch
July 27
0800 hours

"Scully, you have to eat something," Mulder urged as he took another bite of his Brown Sugar Cinnamon Pop Tart.

Scully winced at the frosting on the faux pastry before she warily eyed the store shelves in search of something edible. Her stomach was still off and her equilibrium was not quite right. She suspected that the latter condition was the root of the former.

She reached out to finger a travel pack of saltines. She could probably handle these. And the salt would be a good thing. Saltines and bottled water it was. She picked up the pack and opened it.

Mulder seemed to be satisfied as she began to nibble on the crackers, smiling as little crumbs landed on her shirt. He wasn't going to push any further. He picked up their sleeping bags and carried them out to the Expedition.

Scully went down another aisle of shelves, stopping when she found what she really wanted. Dramamine. She had just opened the box when Mulder came back inside. He looked at the evidence in her hand.

"What's up, Scully?"

She went ahead and popped one dose from its blister packet, put it in her mouth and washed it down with a swig of bottled water.

"I'm not sure how my stomach will take the car ride today, Mulder," she answered.

Mulder's expression insisted that she explain.

"My balance is off," she conceded. "It could just be an inner ear infection." A sigh. "Or it could be related to the headaches. I don't know. . . but it started last night. . . "

Her look made it clear to Mulder that she didn't believe the "inner ear" theory at all. He closed his eyes for a moment so he could think.

"Will it help if we put you in the back this morning? I can put the seats down and we can lay out one of the sleeping bags. . ." he offered.

"It might," she said gratefully. He wasn't suggesting they stay put. . . that was a good omen. "At least until this Dramamine kicks in. I really should have taken it an hour ago. "

"Okay, then. I'll set up the back while you get things together in here. "

Scully smiled thinly as Mulder went back outside. Her job this morning was to try and replace some of the food supplies they had lost in the fire. While they had packed some of the goodies from WalMart into the Expedition straightaway, they had lost some of their food and beverages. She grabbed two boxes from a back store room and started to fill them with goods from the store shelves. She was careful not to bend over and not to stand up too quickly.

And through it all, she tried not to think about Fluffy.


0845 Hours

The portable electric cooler was plugged into the cigarette lighter and its fan was happily humming away. This was a truly great invention. It was their ticket to cold beverages. So much better than drinking warm V-8 juice.

Mulder eased them down the gravel-strewn onramp and onto I-44. If the road cooperated and there weren't any large traffic jams, he hoped to make Springfield by lunch time.

As they hit the highway pavement, Mulder kept one eye on the road and the other on the rear view mirror -- watching Scully. He had arranged a semi-comfortable bed for her in back. The Dramamine had kicked in and began to make her drowsy just as they left the restaurant, so she was now zonked out on top of her sleeping bag. He prayed that she could stay that way for a few hours.

He was so busy watching Scully that he almost had a heart attack when it happened. His "road eye" caught a tiny glimpse just in time for him to slam on the anti-lock brakes.

The Expedition screeched and squealed and hydroplaned on the wet pavement as everything inside it shifted forward, including Scully.

"What the. . ." Scully muttered as her head hit the back of the passenger seat.

"Holy shit!" Mulder exclaimed as he looked out the windshield, his eyes wide in disbelief.

And the vehicle kept sliding forward. . .




CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

"You road I enter upon and look around, I believe you are not all that is here, I believe that much unseen is also here."
- Walt Whitman "Song Of The Open Road"




Interstate 44
July 27
0850 hours

The time it takes for a motor vehicle to come to a complete stop is roughly equal to 0. 25 times the square root of the distance in question divided by the coefficient of friction of the roadway. However, this never even entered Mulder's mind as they continued to slide. It only made him stomp harder on the brake.

"Hang on, Scully!" Mulder yelled. . .

The Expedition finally came to a slippery stop, its front bumper just resting against the obstacle in the road. And everyone had forgotten to look at a stopwatch.

All Mulder could do, his white-knuckled hands still gripping the steering wheel, was stare out the window and laugh.

"Mulder?" Scully scrambled onto her knees in back. Rubbing her sore head, she crawled up in between the front bucket seats. Puzzled by Mulder's reaction, she looked out the windshield.

"Mulder?" she repeated.

"Yes, Scully?" He was still chuckling.

"Can you please tell me why us almost crashing into a giant church billboard is so damn funny?"

This, of course, only made Mulder laugh even harder. He fumbled for the door handle and finally managed to slide out of the car onto the road. He stood there, hands on hips, shaking his head in disbelief.

The large billboard had apparently been tipped over by a storm -- maybe last night. And there it now sat, on its side, in the middle of the interstate.

Its artwork included the source of Mulder's laughter. A spindly, completely unprofessional painting of a burning bush. Along with Noah's Ark and a cross. "Come visit the Ozark Church of Signs & Wonders! Behold the Power of God! (Take this exit. . . We're right next to Imo's Pizza! )"

"Mother Abagail, you do have a sense of humor," Mulder smiled. Then he frowned as he realized that Scully was climbing out of the car.

"What are you doing, Scully?"

"I was going to ask you the same thing. . . what's going on, Mulder?"

Mulder continued to shake his head in disbelief. "It's just something that Mother Abagail told me last night. "

Scully stared at him. "You didn't tell me that you dreamed. . . "

Mulder held up his hand to cut her off. "I was a planning on discussing it with you later today. . ." He leaned forward to brush some hair back behind her ear. "When you were feeling a bit more coherent. "

Scully looked him in the eye and could see that he was telling her the truth.

"But right now," he continued, "I better get this. . . sign. . . out of the road so we can get moving again. "

"How can I help?" Scully asked.

Mulder again was shaking his head in disbelief. . . this time at Scully, who was barely able to stand under her own power. Her eyes were already drooping shut, the adrenalin from their near accident wearing off.

"You can help by getting back in your sleeping bag instead of trying to stand here in a Dramamine-induced coma. C'mon." He flicked the automatic locks switch on his open door, took her by the elbow and led her back to the rear cargo door. He lifted the door open and helped her crawl back into her nest.

"Just hang on here a bit, Scully. I'm going to go try and move the sign myself. And if the ol' Mulder-Heave-Ho doesn't work, I'll be back here for some rope. I can tie it off to the bumper and pull that sign off the road if necessary. "

Scully nodded and closed her eyes, ready for sleep to claim her again.


0920 hours

Scully tossed and turned in her sleeping bag. She was just too damn hot. She threw the top half of the bag off of her body, praying that a cool breeze would waft through the still open cargo door. No such luck. Not in mid-summer Missouri.

She sat up, rubbing her temples, her headache mostly gone. It had left behind a wooziness along with an incredible thirst. *Must have been the Dramamine, * she thought. She reached over for a bottle of water. As she took a few sips, she looked forward to check on Mulder's progress.

He looked hot and sweaty, but he almost had one lane of the highway clear. With one final grunt, he pushed the last bit of debris out of the way.

Soon he was back at the cargo door, using his shirt tail to wipe the sweat from his face.

Scully lazily enjoyed the view of his hard stomach before offering him some water. "Here you go. . . "

"Thanks," he replied as he took the bottle from her hand. He took a long, deep drink. "How're you feeling now?" he asked.

Scully shrugged. "A little funky from the drugs, but no headache. "

"Good," he said as he wiped his mouth with his forearm. "I've gota lane clear so we can get going now. . . You wanna stay back here?"

"I probably should," she replied, although she wanted to ride up front with him. "Just promise you'll set the A/C on full blast for a while, okay?"

"You're reading my mind again, Scully." He waggled his brows. "And that really turns me on. . . "

"What doesn't?" she teased as she laid back down.

Mulder closed the cargo door and climbed back into the driver's seat. He started the engine and put the Expedition in gear.

"Oh, crap," Scully muttered. She'd left her water bottle by the door and she was still thirsty. With a slight groan, she sat up and started to fish for it by the back door.

Mulder began to drive carefully around the sign, not wanting to puncture a tire on any debris he might have missed.

Scully finally found the bottle and was just about to lay back down when she looked out the rear window. She squinted, trying to clear her vision.

Mulder was about to hit the accelerator and make up for lost time. . .

"Mulder!" Scully called out.

"What?" His foot automatically moved toward the brake when he heard the tone of her voice.

"Stop the car! "

Mulder immediately stopped the vehicle. He threw it in park and turned around, worried that Scully was sick again. "What is it?"

She pointed at the road behind them. "It's Fluffy!" she exclaimed.

Mulder looked back at the highway, but he could see nothing but pavement and trees. He looked at Scully. Was she hallucinating things out of guilt or wishful thinking? Maybe the medicine she had taken. . . or her headaches. . . were making her delirious.

"I don't see anything, Scully," he said softly.

"He's back there, Mulder. I saw him," she insisted.

Mulder turned off the engine and got out of the car. He stared down the road. Still nothing. He walked to the back and opened the cargo door. Scully's eyes were bloodshot, but her chin was set. He reached out and put his hand on her forehead to check for a fever.

"Dammit, Mulder! I'm not seeing things! I'm not imagining this. "

Mulder looked at her doubtfully.

"Look," her voice shook as she tried to speak calmly. "Just do me this favor and go back for a look. Please?"

Mulder chewed his lower lip in thought. He couldn't refuse her, no matter how futile he thought the request. No matter how disappointed he knew she would be when he found nothing.

"Okay, Scully. Okay." He nodded. He even returned the small smile Scully offered. Then he went back to the driver's seat and pulled out a shotgun. Carelessness was not an option. He handed the gun to Scully and she took it without question. He had his own gun in a holster at his side.

Mulder started walking. . . no sense in risking the tires with another drive by the billboard remains. The temperature had started to rise toward its afternoon zenith, and he could already spot the ripples rising from the pavement on the horizon.

As he got further from the car, he became aware of how thick the trees and how tall the grasses were that lined the highway. More than enough cover for anyone. . . or any thing. . . that wanted to ambush the unsuspecting soul. He rested his hand on his gun, taking comfort in the feel of metal and the sound of the unsnapping holster. He was ready to draw and fire if necessary. Everything, every warning Mother Abagail had given him about distractions and dangers swam through his head.

He slowed and let his eyes shift from side to side. He'd gone well over one hundred yards and still saw no signs of life. Scully would just have to accept that there was nothing there. She had seen nothing real.

He began to turn around when he caught movement out of the corner of his eye. Something was in the tall grass at the roadway's edge. He drew his gun and spun toward it.

The grass rustled. . . and it started to part.

Mulder planted his feet and took aim. . .

And was greeted with the most pathetic and yet the most welcome sight he could imagine. His hands dropped to his sides as he quickly holstered his gun.

"Fluffy! "

Fluffy wore a coat of rain-streaked soot that hung on singed hair. And his paws seemed to be very tender as he hobbled toward Mulder. Fluffy sat down at Mulder's feet, heaving what sounded like a sigh of relief.

Mulder knelt down beside the dog, softly rubbing those furry ears, and fighting a lump in his throat. He could only guess that Fluffy had been walking in the tall, softer grasses for miles, only venturing out onto the hard pavement highway for brief moments to get his bearings. What a miracle that Scully had happened to look out the window just in time to catch a glimpse of Fluffy before he headed back into the grass. Otherwise. . . otherwise they would have left him behind. Again.

Fluffy gave a whimpering bark of joy and his tail wagged back and forth, albeit painfully. Mulder wasn't sure if he would hurt Fluffy by picking him up -- or damage his own still weakened leg, but he couldn't let him walk back to the Expedition either.

He bent over and scooped Fluffy up into his arms. Fluffy flinched a little at the contact, but he still made an effort to lick Mulder's face raw.

Mulder laughed. "Good boy. Let's get you back to Scully," he said as he turned and started back to the car.

Scully was out of the car and fumbling around for medical supplies when Mulder arrived with his patient. She had laid a blanket on the ground and directed Mulder to place Fluffy on it.

At first, Scully was all business. Even when Fluffy slobbered all over her face. She had pulled two gallon jugs of water from the car and used it and a large sheet to wash off most of the remaining soot that the rain hadn't taken carried away. The only real damage appeared to be dehydration, hunger, and some second degree burns on the pads of his feet. She set to work with antibiotic ointment and bandages, all the while seeming to ignore Fluffy's looks of happiness and adoration.

But Mulder could see the truth. Her hands were shaking. Her eyes had little pools of water in their corners. Hell. So did his. He sat back on his heels and watched, staying out the way, letting Scully do what she needed to do to exorcise her own demons.

Finally she was done, and Fluffy's paws looked like something out of "The Mummy," but the dog was on cloud nine. But Scully was now trying to find something new to do. Her hands flitted about, looking for trash to clean up or something.

"Scully," Mulder tried to grab her attention, but she ignored him.

"Scully," he reached out and grabbed her arm. "Just stop. "

She did, but she seemed at a loss.

"He's back. He's alive. And we've got him back because *you* spotted him. And look at him. I don't think he's holding any grudges, Scully," Mulder gently stated.

Scully looked at Fluffy. The dog focused his big brown eyes upon her.

"What did we do to deserve such devotion, Mulder?" She asked quietly.

Mulder gently squeezed her arm. "I don't know, Scully. I've been asking myself that same question for almost seven years now. "

Scully turned to face him, was searching for words. . .

But Fluffy had unfinished business. He'd been waiting for the moment he could make eye contact with the woman. As soon as she began to turn away, he awkwardly pounced with a happy yip.

Scully laughed, tears now flowing down her face, as Fluffy adorned her with his version of kisses. Mulder bowed out to grab a dish from the car. He filled it with water and laid it out for Fluffy. Thirst finally won out and he left Scully for the bowl. She reached over to him and scratched his ears, leaning in to kiss him on the head.

"I missed you, you Mutt," she whispered.




Interstate 40
August 2
1430 hours

"Tra la la la la la la Tra la la la la la la One banana, two banana, three banana, four Four bananas make a bunch and so do many more Over hills and highways the banana buggies go Coming on to bring you the Banana Splits Show Making up a mess of fun Making up a mess of fun Happiness for everyone Tra la la la la la la Tra la la la la la la"

This was the song that Scully could not get out of her head. Every time she closed her eyes, she could see Fleegle, Bingo, Drooper, and Snork. All giant mutant animal. . . things. . . developed by some demonic children's television programmer in the late 1960's. Come to think of it, though, Mulder *did* have Fleegle's eyes. . . and that long tongue. . .

<>

*No more Percodan for you, missy, * she thought as she shook her head to rid herself of the damn theme song. Of course, that was more than likely to simply move the jukebox in her head onto such magnum opus works such as "Ultraman" or "Mighty Mouse". . . or maybe even "Speed Racer." Not that she could even remember more than the first two lines of the "Speed Racer" theme song when she was lucid.

Speed Racer. That would be Mulder. Did that make her Trixie? Fluffy would be Chim-Chim. . . . Skinner was Pops, Pendrell would have been. . . oh what was his name? The skinny mechanic guy? Hmmm. No Spridel casting. . . that kid deserved to be shot. He was worse than Scrappy-Doo. Who could be Racer X?

She stopped herself. It was too hard to think of those people they had lost.

She rubbed her eyes and looked out the window. From the road signs, it looked as though they were almost in Amarillo, Texas. Good. Her stomach was ready to be at rest. No more road motion.


Seven days of road churning had done enough damage. . . even if they were half-days of driving. Her car-sickness had slowed them considerably, but Mulder refused to push. He kept insisting that Mother Abagail told him not to. Four or five hours driving a day was enough.

When Scully wasn't laying in the back, fighting nausea, she and Mulder had taken to playing road sign games to keep their sanity in a very empty world. Fluffy, his paws healing nicely, would just sit and watch them with amusement. Occasionally, he'd woof out something that sounded like a laugh or a guffaw, if only to be part of the joke.

Missouri had held their favorite sign so far. . . a little one just west of Newburg on their first day: "This section of highway is kept clean by Licking Youth For Christ." Mulder had actually snorted water out of his nose when he saw that one.

The next day had netted several signs around Springfield. There was the Bass Pro Shops store, complete with a bass dangling from a hook and a waterfall -- all of which prompted them to stop by and grab some fishing and hunting gear. Then there were all the tacky and glitzy signs for Shoji Tabuchi and Andy Williams in Branson. And, of course, the "World's Smallest Cathedral." And the signs with paintings of people driving Jeeps into "Fantastic Caverns." Who woulda thunk that the Ozarks held so many treasures?

The Bass Pro Shops stop meant they only made it Joplin. . . on the state border. . . that night. But that brought the wondrous "Precious Moments Chapel" signs into view. With lots of ads for the gift shop and all those little "precious" figures. Scully had wanted to gag. Even the Dramamine didn't help.

Then they were in Oklahoma. It had such welcoming signs as "Don't drive through smoke" and "Hitchhikers may be escaped convicts!" Ironic considering they were on the "Will Rogers Highway." Which also happened to be a toll road before the Superflu. Scully did have to admit to herself, however, that once you got past the creepiness, it was rather fun to drive right on past those toll booths without having to stop.

And all along the roadways there were signs for the lovely "Houston Vasectomy Reversal Clinic." Mulder always cringed when he saw that one.

Tulsa hadn't been too bad, the roads not too cluttered. They'd spent the night in the Expedition, not in the mood for dealing with a motel's "previous" guests that never had gotten around to checking out.

But Oklahoma City had been a different kettle of fish. The highways were clogged every mile or so. Each time, Mulder had to stop, hook up the chains to their tow hitch and drag stalled cars out of the way to make a clear path. If he was lucky, the cars had been abandoned. He wasn't always lucky.

It took two days to get around the city and over to the junction of Interstates 44 and 40. . . where 44 ended.

Last night, they had made it to Elk City, Oklahoma and they had lucked out. They found an empty Days Inn where the rooms had small kitchenettes with gas stoves. And Scully had been thrilled to find that there was still some gas in the lines. It lasted just long enough for them to whip up a halfway decent hot meal. They'd gone to bed full and happy.

They had headed out this morning for the Texas Panhandle.


"Oh, god. That's just mean," Mulder grumbled and pointed to another highway billboard.

The "Big Texan" restaurant had littered the highway to Amarillo with large signs advertising their 72-ounce steaks. . . and here was another one. But this one had an arrow pointing to an exit just ahead. Yup. There it was. The land of great steaks and baked potatoes and steak fries.

"We could always grab a chainsaw and find you a live cow, Mulder," Scully muttered unsympathetically. The last thing she needed was to ponder was rare, red meat.

Mulder scrunched his nose. It was not a pretty image. He was a man who wanted no knowledge of his dinner's previous life history, thank you very much. Time to change the subject. Fortunately, a building on the south side of the highway gave him his opening.

"Ooh! Scully! How 'bout we stay there tonight?"

Scully followed his gaze over to the Pepto-Bismol Pink "Camelot Inn" motel. It was hideously decked out with towers and decorations that were *supposed* to make it look like a medieval castle. Maybe it worked with tourists in the 1950s.

It didn't take a genius to read the look on Scully's face. "I'll take that as a 'no'. . ." Mulder murmured.

A few miles later, they spotted their omen. Their signal to stop. A monolithic plaster cow stood on top of a building in the middle of a shopping plaza called "Wolfen Square. "

"No chainsaw jokes," Mulder rumbled as they pulled off the highway and down the exit.

The plaza was perfect for their needs. Much of it was hidden from the highway, so they would be safe. And there were two gas stations, a donut shop, and two small family-type restaurants. Everything they needed. . . plus a grassy area where Fluffy could get some much needed exercise.


1830 hours

Dinner was not a formal affair, but the camp stove they'd picked up in Springfield had done an admirable job of warming up some Stagg's Beef Stew and Potatoes. Fluffy had really chowed down. . . a good sign that he was almost fully recovered from his brush with death.

Mulder had managed to fill the gas tank at one of the nearby stations and now they could relax for the rest of the evening. Scully appreciated the down time.

Mulder pulled out their sleeping bags and laid them down on the grass like a large blanket. As the sun finally began to fall from the sky, they stretched out together, Scully resting her head on Mulder's arm, her hand draped across his stomach. They would spend the night in the van for safety, but there was no reason they couldn't enjoy these moments outside.

"We're getting close, Mulder," Scully spoke drowsily.

"Yeah, we are. Maybe just three or four days 'til we're in Boulder," he replied, letting his fingers trail down her arm.

"I meant, close to Matthew," Scully raised up slightly to look at his face.

Mulder nodded and closed his eyes. What she meant was "close to the end." And as much as he wanted answers, as much as he wanted to make it to Boulder and Mother Abagail, he wasn't blind. He could see that Scully's health was deteriorating and she was slipping away from him. He wished that he could make each of these days last longer, stretch them out to triple their natural length. He tightened his hold on her.

Scully could see what Mulder was thinking. She wanted the same thing. She laid her head upon his chest and closed her eyes. It *wasn't* fair. Would it ever be their time? Could they ever be able to just stay put in one place together? Or would her time run out before they ever had the chance to know what peace was. . .

But for now, Mother Abagail was waiting just a few days away.

And so was Randall Flagg.




CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE

I tried to catch a cold
As he went running past
On a damp and chilly
Afternoon in autumn.
I tried to catch a cold,
But he skittered by so fast
That I missed him
But I'm glad to hear you caught him.
-- "Catching" by Shel Silverstein




Somewhere in Nevada

Charles Spender took a long drag on his cigarette, enjoying the crisp burn that leeched down his throat as he stared at the defiant woman before him.

"And why, Officer Parks, should I allow you your request?"

"You really are a fucker, aren't you?" Roberta responded. "What the hell am I gonna do? We're in the middle of the godawful desert with no food, no water, and no transportation. You think I'm gonna pick the kid up and try to hike out of here?"

Spender appraised her from head to toe as he took another deep draw.

"You're the one who apparently wants this kid alive and in good shape. He *needs* to go outside and play. . . even if it's just for half an hour." Roberta took a breath and tried to calm herself. Through the mocking halo of smoke she could see that Spender was thinking it over. No use blowing it with four letter words. . . . yet. "Look. He's just a kid. He needs some fresh air. Just let me take him outside for a little while. I'm sure your goon squad will keep a close watch. . ." her voice faded. It was pointless to argue any more. Her point was made, take it or leave it.

Spender watched as the ashes grew on the tip of his Morley. He dropped the cigarette and stepped on it, crushing it into the smooth, water-sealed cement floor with a twist of his foot. Then he reached into his pocket and pulled out an ever-blue wrapped roll of peppermint Life Savers. Roberta was stunned and appalled when the bastard actually held out the roll toward her, silently offering one to her. Her eyes glared her response and Spender shrugged as he pulled back the bits of foil and removed one mint, popping it into his mouth.

"Very well, Officer Parks." The mint clicked against his teeth. "You can have your half hour. But I'll have your word that you will not try to escape. . . "

"Fine," Roberta answered through gritted teeth, she could see the outline of the mint in Spender's mouth as he had tucked it into his cheek pocket so he could speak. She hoped he choked on it.

"As you said, it would be very foolish for you to try anything. . ." His words were so smug, so sure. It made Roberta's blood boil.

The worst part was, he was right and he was holding all the cards.


Roberta leaned against the cinderblock wall -- part of the tiny "utilities" shack that was the only above ground evidence of their new home -- and watched as Matthew hopped around in the scrubby brush. It was damn hot for so early in the morning, but he was having the time of his life, running around, trying to follow every move of some tiny desert lizard thing that she really hoped wasn't poisonous. Damn. She knew she should have paid more attention to the Discovery Channel.

She had to give the kid credit, though. He seemed oblivious to the armed guards that watched over them from a short distance. She was guessing that the boy had gotten used to guns and uniforms thanks to his father's line of work. . . *Don't go there, Roberta, * she chastised herself.

Matthew pounced and stood triumphantly. "'Berta!" he cried out, holding the little lizard aloft with a grin. But she was sure the lizard wasn't grinning.

"That's nice kid, but let's let the lizard go back to his other little lizard friends now. He looks tired. "

He stared at the creature in his chubby hand, trying to decide if a lizard could look tired. Finally, he oh-so-carefully placed the animal back down on the ground where it took off in a frantic run. Matthew watched its retreat for a few seconds, then he was back to searching the ground for more prey. Playing his own version of "Hide and Seek."

Roberta watched him as he searched, the sun gleaming off of his soft hair. It was hard to believe this was the same kid she had found in that motel. . . she shuddered. She tried not to think about it, but whenever she closed her eyes, it was there. She couldn't hold it at bay any longer. She could only hope Matthew couldn't remember.

Very few people have watched death claim a life. And fewer still have been present at a violent death or viewed its aftermath. But Roberta had seen all of them. Many times. In fact, she'd seen so many violent death scenes that, even if she missed the main event, she could re-enact the entire game quite accurately, play-by-play, in her mind.

And this is exactly what she had done in a small motel in California. It seemed like it had been a lifetime ago, but it was only a few weeks past. She would never know all of the details of what had produced the tableau she had found, but she had little doubt of the mechanics or of the emotions felt by one of the victims. . .


Earlier in Southern California

Bill Scully tugged at his uniform shirt collar for the fiftieth time in four hours. Even with the open neck, it always managed to poke his throat. . . his wife, Tara, tended to go a little nuts with the spray starch.

"Honey, you're fidgeting again," Tara chided him. He lifted the offending hand in surrender and placed it back on the steering wheel. Not that he needed to have either hand on the wheel at the moment. Damn. This traffic was going nowhere fast.

It was boiling hot in the car. Southern California in summer dry hot. And it wasn't helped by the fever he was running. He looked over at Tara. He knew she felt like hell, even worse than he did. She'd been up coughing all last night. . . but she was a real trooper. No complaints. She'd even thanked him when he got up to give Matthew a cup of water at three a. m. Like he would have let her get out of bed with that cough. . . with her pretty face so flushed.

He looked in the rear view mirror. Matthew was sound asleep in his car seat, his head drooped over to the side at an angle only almost-three year-olds could achieve without a visit to the chiropractor. His little sausage fists would jump occasionally as the boy dreamed whatever little boys dream. Bill was amazed that the kid wasn't sick. Usually, Matthew was the one who gave the flu to everyone else.

His eyes moved from Matthew to the traffic lined up behind them. The highway was packed. One hell of a way to have their leave cut short.

He had finally finagled two week's leave from the base down in San Diego. He and Tara had decided to head up the Pacific Coast Highway for a peaceful family vacation in the Morro Bay area. And things had been fabulous at first. . . days spent by the water, watching the elephant seals and otters. . . sunset strolls on the beach, swinging Matthew between them as he reveled in the mixed sounds of Tara's and Matthew's laughter. It had actually made his crusty ol' Navy heart swell with pride.

Then everyone started to get sick. Including he and Tara. It was a flu that they couldn't shake. Poor Tara never said a word, even when her face turned a patriotic red, white, and blue from the persistent phlegmy cough.

Two days later, his pager went off. When he checked with his CO, he'd been told to report back on base by noon the next day. Everyone at the base was sick and personnel were dropping like flies. And the CO reported that it was apparently a nationwide epidemic. All bases were going on alert. Bill knew the CO wanted to say more, but they weren't on a secured line.

So, the next morning, they were packed and on the road, their flu be damned. . . and they were now stuck on the roads of the greater Los Angeles area along with seemingly every other SoCal resident.

Half the cars on the highway were either stalled or abandoned. And the tempers of those drivers left with functional vehicles were flaring. Bill's own patience was getting shorter and shorter.

He had abandoned the 101 freeway for the 118, thinking it might be a clearer path to Interstate 5, but traffic was backed up from the San Fernando Valley past Simi Valley. It was a no win situation. Each time he managed to maneuver around one group of stalled cars, he'd get stuck behind another clotted mass.

And then Tara started coughing and couldn't stop. Bill watched in growing panic as she tried to gasp for breath. He reached over and began to pound on her back, hoping to help clear her throat. Her face turned a furious red. . .

"Tara?"

Only choked coughing in response.

Bill wrenched the steering wheel to the right and pulled over onto the shoulder, ignoring the horns of those who were trying to use the roadside as a traffic lane. Just as he was about to jump out and run around to Tara's side, she coughed up a large wad of phlegm and took one enormous breath. The proper color returned to her face. She reached out blindly and grabbed his wrist in a tight grip as she concentrated on sucking in much needed air.

"Honey? Are you okay? Can you breathe all right?"

She patted his hand in reassurance and nodded. She even had the beginnings of that peaceful smile she always gave him right before he went into full Navy command mode. The one that defused him. The one that totally disarmed him.

Tara started to speak, but her voice was too hoarse to form words. Bill turned around to the back seat and reached into their cooler. He grabbed a bottle of water and opened it. . .

"Here, Sweetheart," he said as he helped her lift the bottle to her lips for a few sips.

He chanced another glance over his shoulder. Unbelievably, Matthew was still sound asleep, emitting small toddler snores for good measure.

He glanced at his watch. It would be dark soon. Not good. Not with the roads like this and the other drivers practicing their road rage techniques. He looked again to Tara. They needed to stop. She needed to crawl into a bed and rest.

He could see an exit just ahead. Topanga Canyon. Time to get off the Ronald Reagan Freeway.


7-Star Suites Motel

Bill pounded on the "Ring for Service" bell at the front desk. But there was no one in sight. Where the hell was everyone? He glanced over his shoulder at Tara and Matthew. . . they were sitting in the car under the outside registration car port. Matthew was freed from his car seat and was climbing all over the place.

"Dammit," he muttered.

The keys to the rooms were hanging on a peg board just behind the desk and it looked as though there were plenty of vacancies. Besides, the parking lot outside was nearly empty. He went behind the desk and tried the door that apparently led to the back office. Locked.

After a few more minutes, he decided to take action. He found a vacant room number in the desk ledger and he quickly scribbled a note for the clerk and wrapped it around a one hundred dollar bill. Then he grabbed one of the room keys and headed for the car. He would settle the bill later. Right now, he needed to take care of his family.

It was unfortunate that he hadn't looked more closely at that back office door. If he'd looked at the floor, he might have seen the blood just beginning to ooze out from under the door.


"Shit! Did he see anything?" Darrell Kent sweated as he ran his fingers through his grimy hair.

Ronnie Potts leaned back over to look out the security peephole, trying to keep his toes out of the muck below. "Damn! This guy bled like a drunk at the blood bank. . ." he balanced himself with his fingertips against the door and peeked out. "Nah. He didn't see shit. . . what the hell kind of uniform was that?"

"Navy or Marines or something like that," responded Dirk Bendix, who rounded out the trinity of opportunists as their brains. Which wasn't saying much.

Kent bent back over the motel safe. He spun the dial in frustration and then slammed his fist down on top of the box. "Dammit, Ronnie! Fucking brilliant! Go and kill the one guy who can open this damn thing *before* he opens it. . ." he growled in frustration.

This had not been part of the plan.

Prices on the street for meth and every other drug of choice had more than doubled in the last week as the Superflu spread. Sick addicts were pounding the pavement for medicine to alleve their aches and pains and their "doctors," those guys on the street corners, were becoming fewer and farther between as they, too, succumbed to the sickness. All this added up to the need for more creative, *bigger* ways of fundraising. . . only Ronnie had now blown it for all three of them.

"But. . ." Ronnie began to protest.

Bendix reached over and smacked him up side the head. "Just shut your pasty white face. . ." he ordered. "We'll just have to go with Plan B. "

"What's that?" Kent asked.

"That Navy boy had a nice car. . . looked like he had a roll of cash, too. . . And his wife might come in handy. . . "

Ronnie's fingers twitched and his arms began to shake. Cash for his habit and a bitch on the side. Not bad for a dishonest day's work.


Room 123

Bill Scully had finally gotten the air conditioner going at full blast.

"There. . . that should help," he said as he turned around toward his wife.

Tara was dutifully trying to unpack Matthew's diaper bag. Bill quickly crossed the room and took her by the arms.

"That's enough. I'll take care of Matthew. You get into bed," he said as he led her over to the large king-sized bed. Tara was too exhausted to protest. She let Bill draw back the covers and she crawled under the sheets, her eyes closing almost the minute her head hit the pillow. Bill bent over and kissed her forehead.

"Do you need anything, Hon?" he asked.

"Mmmm. My throat could use a little Coke or something. . . maybe ice," she replied hoarsely.

"Okay. Your wish is my command," Bill replied. Matthew was busily playing with the potted fern in the corner of the room. Bill walked over and scooped him up, carried him over to the bed and deposited him next to his mother. "You watch over Momma for a minute, okay, Squirt?"

"Momma!" Matthew yelled, a grin on his face. The little boy leaned over and laid a gentle hand on Tara's face. Even he could tell that his mother was sick.

"I'll be right back," Bill called to them both as he grabbed the ice bucket from the table and headed for the door.


Bill walked outside and headed down the walkway, past the fire extinguisher and axe, toward the ice and soda machine alcove hidden around several corners.


Matthew saw that his mommy was going to sleep. He rolled off the bed and headed toward the large fern. It would be fun to play Hide and Seek with his Daddy. . .


The three men moved quickly as they watched the man leave the room. They were in the doorway before the door fell shut. . .


Bill was on his way back, he had just turned the last corner when he heard Tara scream. He dropped the ice and ran. . .


"Shut up, bitch!" Bendix yelled as he backhanded Tara across the face. "Where the fuck is the money?"

"Go to hell!" Tara cried, blood spitting from her mouth onto Bendix' face. As the angry man prepared to hit her again, the other men began to ransack the room, dumping suitcases and rifling through drawers. She frantically searched the room for Matthew. . . where was he?

Bendix punched her squarely in the nose and there was a sickening crunch as the bones splintered and rammed back inside her skull. Her body fell back limply on the bed.

"Did you find it?" Bendix yelled to his partners.

But before they could answer, a tornado of rage barreled into the room.

Bendix went for the gun at his waistband, but Bill Scully was too fast. He swung the fire axe high above his head and hit a home run into Bendix head, the axe blade ably penetrating the man's skull, making short work of his brain. Blood spattered everywhere, from walls to ceiling, as Bill wrenched the blade free from the dead man.

His backswing was just in time as Kent charged him from behind. The axe blade buried itself into Kent's stomach. Kent gave an "oomph" sound as he staggered back, his hands coming up to his gut. He looked down and could see his severed intestines spilling out. He lifted his hands and tried to stuff his innards back into his body just before his knees gave way, tumbling him face first onto the floor.

That left two standing. Bill and Ronnie. And both could only see red.

They squared off then moved to circle one another around the room. Bill still held the axe, Ronnie had his hunting knife. Ronnie parried, Bill swung. If Ronnie had had any brains, he would have run out the door when he had the chance. But Ronnie was lacking in IQ. He still wanted his fix and he needed money to get it. Money that the man before him possessed.

After another minute, Ronnie became impatient. . . and that was his downfall. He lunged toward Bill but failed to watch his feet. His old treadless Nikes were no match for the slick blood and brain matter on the floor that was still oozing from Bendix' cracked head. Ronnie fell like a sack of wet flour on top of Bendix and Bill moved in for the kill.

His first swing caught Ronnie at the back of his right knee. Ronnie screamed in agony as he felt flesh and bone and sinew cleaved and separated. His hand reflexively reached for his dangling leg as Bill raised the axe once more. Blow number two caught Ronnie in the side. The air was removed from his lungs by the force of the blow, the anger behind it. . . his scream was silenced. Ronnie collapsed on the floor beside Bendix and did not move.

Bill stood above the man's body, the blood covered axe handle slowly slipping through his hands. He looked to his wife on the bed.

"Tara?" he choked in fear.

Bill threw the axe toward the front door and leapt toward Tara. His hands framed her face, frantically caressed her hair back. Blood had poured from Tara's nose and dripped onto her shirt. He shook her.

"Tara, honey! Wake up!" But Tara didn't respond, her head hung limply from her neck, like a rag doll. Bill pressed his fingers to her neck, searching for a pulse. Nothing. He stifled a sob.

"Tara!" He cried as he let his head fall upon her still chest.

Suddenly his eyes widened in horror.

"Matthew!" He screamed out as he bolted upright. Where was his son? What had those bastards done to his son? He jumped up and started to search the room. . .

And all of his military training fled. . .

Ronnie was desperate. He knew he was going to die. But like hell was he going alone. His fingers found the gun still in Bendix' waistband. . . And with his last ounce of energy, borne out of sheer rage and a haze of three years of methamphetamine abuse, he pushed himself up above the bed. . .

He took aim. . .

Bill almost collapsed in relief when he saw movement behind the potted fern. He started forward. . .

The blast hit Bill in the right occipital region and exited like a bursting dam through his left temple. Bill's body hit the floor two feet short of the fern.

Ronnie fell back to the ground with a smile on his face. And that's how he died.

And Matthew Scully peeked out from behind the potted fern.

Hide and Seek was over for the day.



Highway 36 Northwest of Denver, Colorado August 5 1500 hours

Even in the best of situations, the highways of the southwestern United States are godforsaken rivers of asphalt. The middle of summer is not the best of situations.

Yet, Interstate 40 from Amarillo, Texas still led to Highway 104 at Tucumcari, New Mexico, which led to Interstate 25 at Las Vegas, N. M. , which headed north to Colorado.

And that's the path that Mulder, Scully, and Fluffy had followed.

They had spent the first night outside of the small town of Las Vegas. . . which was nothing like it's Nevada namesake. It was a few gas stations, stores, houses, and some railroad tracks in the middle of nowhere, servicing the skiers that descended upon Taos to the northwest in winter.

The empty roads meant easier traveling and better rest for all of them, especially Scully.

Pueblo, Colorado had greeted them on August 4. A flat, brown plain that laid beneath the shadows of the mountains to the west. It was a funny town to be chosen as the repository for every U. S. government information pamphlet ever known and advertised on television.

Now, as they approached Boulder. . . as they neared Mother Abagail, they were nervous, apprehensive. What if their dreams had been wrong?

Mulder slowed the Expedition and they came to a stop beside the sign that told them they only had two miles to go. They could see the town from here.

He looked over to Scully. She was alert today, her hands clenched and wrapped around her stomach. She licked her lips nervously.

"We're almost there, Scully," he said softly.

She nodded without turning toward him. Her gaze was straight ahead.

"You okay?" He asked.

Now, she turned. "Yeah," her voice cracked slightly. "You?"

Mulder gave her a small smile of reassurance and reached for her hand. He threaded his fingers through hers. "We'll be fine. We'll find Mother Abagail. . . you'll get some rest. . . "

"And we'll get some answers," Scully added with determination.

"Yes," Mulder agreed.

"So, why am I nervous?" Scully asked with an embarrassed and crooked grin.

Mulder loved looking at her in moments like this. Even though her face was drawn from their hard days on the road. . . even though he knew she had a headache now. . . at moments like this, when she let him in, when she gave him another piece of her armor. . . she glowed. His heart ached with so many warring emotions. A bittersweet joy.

He leaned over and pulled her face toward his own. His lips only brushed hers at first. Then she deepened the kiss, her hands moving to lay claim to the back of his neck, pulling him harder against her.

Finally, Mulder pulled back slightly, both of them gasping for breath. He rested his forehead against hers, his eyes closing as he cherished feeling her breath upon his face.

"Whatever happens, Scully. . ." he began.

"We better get moving, Mulder. Mother Abagail is waiting. . ." she whispered. But her expression made it clear she knew what Mulder was trying to say and she felt the same.

In the back seat, a sleepy Fluffy sat up and barked. Then he gave himself a good shake, his tags flapping and clanging.

"At least we know Fluffy agrees," Mulder murmured.

Scully smiled as Mulder sat back into his seat. She reached back to scratch Fluffy behind his ears, which made the dog scootch up between the front seats and sigh with contentment.

"Boulder or bust, right?" Mulder quipped as he guided the vehicle back onto the highway.

It wouldn't be long before they found a new civilization. . . but what else would they find?


Las Vegas, Nevada

Black leather was never considered the best clothing for these environs. But common rules were not something this man followed. He drove his truck onto The Strip, ignoring the looks of curious pedestrians.

He liked the feel of quality leather pants. The creaks and crunches of a black leather jacket. Granted, he knew he would have cut a better picture arriving on a motorcycle, but that mode of transportation wasn't a possibility for him. He'd had to settle for a Land Cruiser.

He slowed as he reached the Man's headquarters. This was where he was to receive his instructions. His mission.

The one mission he had been born and trained to fulfill. One that included the names Spender, Mulder, and Scully.

He stopped the car and pulled the keys from the ignition. He used his good arm to open the car door and got out.

The armed men at the door did not try and stop him as he entered the casino. Mr. Flagg had told them to expect this man.

Nope. No one was to interfere with Alex Krycek.


CHAPTER THIRTY

I will stand at my watch and station myself on the ramparts; I will look to see what he will say to me, and what answer I am to give to this complaint. "

"Then the Lord replied:
. . . 'For the revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it; It will certainly come and will not delay'."
- Habakkuk 2: 1-3


Boulder, Colorado
August 5
1600 hours

"Not what I expected," was all Mulder could say to describe the scene as they drove through the outskirts and toward the heart of town.

Boulder was a skeleton of buildings with a stretched and hairy skin of green lawns that had grown out of control. All of her internal organs -- her people -- were gone. Not dead and lying in wait. Simply gone.

"Where are the bodies?" Scully whispered.

There was only sparse evidence that anyone had ever really lived here. It was even safe for them to roll down their windows and breathe the air. Something that had been impossible in every other town of any size through which they had passed. The air in those towns and cities had rotted along with their inhabitants.

But the air in Boulder was still amazingly fresh and crystal sweet. Occasionally, a brief whiff, a hint of decay was carried along by the wind, but it was bearable.

Why was Boulder so different?

Mulder slowed as they turned a corner onto Broadway and everything was normal until he suddenly hit the brakes.

"Look at that, Scully," he exclaimed, pointing to the left side of the street.

A pile of charred rubble, twisted steel I-beams, and the remnants of concrete walls existed where a building had once stood. The buildings around it were not burned, but they were smoke stained and some of their glass windows had been suspiciously shattered.

"It looks like a fire bomb went off," Mulder guessed.

"It must have happened before everyone died. See. . ." Scully pointed around the scene. "Someone fought back the flames. They prevented the fire from spreading. "

Mulder nodded. He gently eased his foot back down on the accelerator and they continued their journey, realizing that they would probably never know what had happened or why.

For they had no way of knowing. . . yet. . . that this bombed out shell of ash was the reason that Boulder was miraculously devoid of its dead residents.

And they would never know that deep beneath the destruction lay the charcoal remains of the harbinger of the rumor and raid that started it all.


When folks began to sneeze and drop dead in Boulder in the early days of the Superflu, Peter "Rocky" Kepler had been absolutely *certain* that the whole apocalyptic enchilada had been birthed and swaddled in one Boulder building.

The Boulder Air Testing Facility.

Sure. Those government types *said* that all they did was monitor windmill thingies and the like to test for air pollution and all that environmental crap.

But Kepler had known better. Until six months ago, he had worked as a janitor in the building. He had seen all those suspicious looking computer printouts. All those labs inside. All those centrifuges and locked filing cabinets and Bunsen burners from Hell.

In fact, he'd been fired because he had found them out. Of course, *they* said it was because he had entered a lab with a lit cigarette and had ruined several experiments. But Kepler *knew. *He'd looked at those papers. Papers that talked about air contamination. And *everyone* knew that "contamination" meant death. Right?

He spread the rumors through the usual diarrhea-esque channels. Cafes, bars, the barber shop, hardware store, and anonymous tips to the local paper, "The Camera." And sure enough, it spread like shit thrown into a hurricane.

And so did the residents of Boulder. After all, who in their right mind would stick around if there was even an ounce of truth to the rumor? It was plausible. It was a well known fact that the government did all sorts of things to civilians and then covered it up. Right?

It had been easy for Kepler to sit back and wait until the panic had whipped itself into a full-fledged frenzy. It had been a piece of cake to grab a few of his cronies and head toward the Boulder Air Testing Facility, gasoline cans and rag fuses in hand. It was a cinch to break in and head straight toward the basement, to the room where Kepler knew they stored a veritable cornucopia of volatile chemicals.

They had thought their fuses were long enough to give them time to escape. Too bad they had forgotten one critical lesson. The one that makes gas stations put those "No Smoking" signs all around the pumps. Liquid gasoline becomes "air-borne" gasoline the minute you pop the cap of the container open.

Kepler lit the match, the match lit the room, the room lit Kepler, and a flamed running Kepler lit his buddies as they became a display of fireworks that would have rivaled the 1976 Fourth of July show in Washington, D. C.

The Fire Department had been able to rally enough sickly men and women to prevent a town wide conflagration, but once the fire was extinguished, no one had the time or energy to investigate a case of arson. Which left the crispified remains of Kepler and his buddies untouched in their final grave.

But, thanks to Kepler, Mother Abagail and her friends would now have a nice town to call home.


1630 hours

Fluffy breathed deeply through his upturned nose and panted the air back out through his open mouth, the air mixing with the wind to dry his hanging tongue.

They were almost there. Almost to the Old Woman. He could smell it. He shuffled his paws for better leverage and nudged his head further out the window, straining his neck up between the Scully Woman's seat and her door. He reflexively closed his eyes when she reached up to scratch the underside of his neck. Oh. Yeah. Right. There.

This would be a really good day.

*

Mulder turned the last corner, his heart hammering several rap songs against his chest. Was that an M. C. Hammer production or was it Vanilla Ice ripping off Queen and David Bowie again? Whatever the beat, Mulder knew its cause. The strangeness that neither he nor Scully had needed a map to find their way. They just knew where to turn as they drove through Boulder. At one point, Scully had called the phenomenon "Mother Abagail Radar. "

"Mulder," Scully interrupted his thoughts. He looked up as she grabbed his hand. "Look, Mulder. "

A crowd of people, perhaps twenty in all, stood on the green lawn. A smattering of folk had spilled out of the white picket- fenced yard and onto the front sidewalk. A few turned to look as the Expedition drove up, but most kept their gazes glued on the front of the house. Toward the porch.

Mulder strained forward in his seat, trying to see, but a large bush blocked his view.

Fluffy was prancing around in the back by the time they came to a stop. He let out an ear-bursting happy howl as Mulder and Scully hurriedly fumbled with their doors. . .

*

They were outside, walking forward, making their way. Moving around that large bush.

And there She was. Mother Abagail. Sittin' and rockin' in a chair that looked to be almost as old as she was.

Scully wasn't exactly sure what she should feel. How does one act when an image from a month of dreams, an image your skeptical mind doubted and waged war upon, an image that saved your life, an image that said your nephew has survived against all odds, becomes reality? Her legs were numb. Her whole body was numb. She was dimly aware that Mulder was still beside her and that they were both moving forward.

There was a possessiveness in the air, coming from the crowd around them and directed at Mother Abagail before them, but the people still parted and allowed them to pass.

"That's right," Mother Abagail spoke. "I've been waitin' on these two quite a spell. "

"Oh!" thought Scully dumbly. "That's why they moved aside for us. . . "

Fluffy had grown impatient and didn't understand the human concept of awe that had apparently taken hold over all of the men and women present. All he knew was a sense of happiness and peace. The Old Woman. It was safe beside her.

Fluffy bounded forward with a victorious yip and pounced up the front porch stairs, his tail wagging furiously.

This was enough to break Mulder from his trance. He lunged forward, trying to catch the large canine before he tackled the frail woman. He missed.

"Fluffy!" he yelled in vain.

Mother Abagail raised a gnarled but strong hand in amusement. Fluffy somehow managed to hit the brakes and restrain himself at the last minute and slowed his kamikaze approach. With a happy snort, he laid his head across Mother Abagail's bony thigh and raised one paw to rest on her knee.

"You been a good ol' dog, huh?" Mother Abagail scratched behind Fluffy's ears and patted him on the back.

"Fluffy. . ." Mulder warned through clenched teeth. He was thoroughly embarrassed.

"Don't you worry, Fox. . . He's not botherin' a soul," Mother Abagail smiled.

Mulder was dumbfounded. "You know my name. . this is real. . ." he whispered. Mother Abagail simply nodded. Mulder grinned. Amazing.

"I've been waitin' on you and Dana. We got lots to talk about, don't we?" She looked to a large man wearing a beaten and weathered straw cowboy hat who stood on the porch beside her and gave him some kind of signal. He took the cue and began to move the other people away from the yard.

"Ya'll head on home now. Mother is tired. She'll see ya'll tomorrow. . ." the man spoke soothingly but insistently with a definite Texas twang. The crowd obeyed.

Mother Abagail turned back to Mulder. "And we will talk. But not just yet, Fox," she added, her eyes narrowing as if getting ready to gauge his reaction.

Before Mulder could voice his disappointment, Fluffy jerked his head up from Mother Abagail's lap and looked to Scully. He barked insistently.

Mulder turned just in time to see Scully begin to sway, even as her eyes were wide open and locked on Mother Abagail.

"Scully!" Mulder grabbed her before her knees buckled. He moved to set her on the porch steps. She blinked, still conscious, but weak and not altogether aware. He was relieved to see that there was no blood gushing from her nose. At least not yet.

"Ralph," Mother Abagail directed her large "assistant." "Go grab a washcloth and some water. "

"Yes, ma'am." And Ralph hurried off into the house.

Mother Abagail planted her battered old cane firmly on the ground and raised herself out of her chair. She creaked over to the steps and laid her hand on Mulder's shoulder. When he looked up, she could see the traces of desperate tears in his eyes. He was pleading for help.

There were times when Abagail Freemantle found it very hard to listen to, obey, and accept God's timing. She swallowed the dryness in her mouth. Please, God, give her enough strength for all three of them. In Your time.

Ralph bustled back to them and handed the cloth and water to Mulder. Mulder dampened the cloth and held it to Scully's forehead, slowly bathing her face with a soothing coolness.

"Ralph here has already found you two a house. . . I think ya'll best get Dana into a comfortable bed," Mother Abagail spoke as she reached for Scully's hand. "This child will be fine. She's just tired from your journey." She smiled down at Scully.

*

Scully was confused. How did she end up on the porch steps? She could smell Mulder, up close and personal. He was holding her? Oh. Yeah. She had gotten dizzy.

Her eyes focused on what was above her. Mulder's chin. He missed a spot when he shaved this morning. She wanted to reach up and run the soft of the back of her hand against the rough of his chin. Her hand was a lead weight that would not cooperate.

Her eyes moved as she felt someone else take hold of her hand. The old woman. Mother Abagail. She was real. And she had a mole on the tip of her chin. And there were at least two coarse, straggly hairs popping out from the middle of the mole that needed to meet some tweezers. And there was power in her tender, loving grip. Scully could feel her thoughts becoming more focused. Her mind was clearing.

Mulder held a glass of water to her lips and she gratefully accepted the liquid, drinking it in with small sips. She raised her hand to Mulder's forearm.

"I'm okay now, Mulder. Let me sit up. . ."

"Easy does it," Mulder said with relief as he helped her raise up.

Mother Abagail watched the way Mulder helped the young woman. Her brows raised in amusement. "You two is married, but you ain't," she stated matter-of-factly. Then she laughed when she saw the quizzical looks on their faces. "Guess we'll be talking about that too, in a spell. "

Ralph moved down the sidewalk, leading the way to the Expedition. Mulder and Scully moved slowly, Mother Abagail by their side. Ralph opened the passenger door and Scully eased herself into the seat. Fluffy squeezed in and jumped into the back seat.

"That's my red pickup over there. . . ya'll can just follow me up to your new house," Ralph pointed up the street and Mulder nodded. Then Ralph headed off for his vehicle.

Before Mulder could close the passenger door, Mother Abagail laid her hand upon his forearm.

"I'm so glad you both made it. God has special plans for you." She paused when she saw Mulder's skeptical look. "Fox. It doesn't matter what you believe right now. But you be here bright and early in the mornin'. Seven sharp. We'll get down to business then. "

Scully nodded. "We'll be there," she said. And Fluffy woofed in approval.

Mother Abagail shook her head, but gave the younger woman a kind smile. "No, honey. This one is just for me and this here fox," she chuckled at her own pun. Heck. It wasn't like she was too old to notice a cute one when she saw one. "You rest in tomorrow. Get your strength back. . you'll be needing it soon enough. You leave Fox to me. "

Scully raised a brow and looked to Mulder. She wasn't sure how he felt about this schedule. Well. She knew he wouldn't like the seven a. m. part. . . but he looked like a high school student who had just been called into the principal's office for hauling a Chevy up on top of the gymnasium.

But Mulder finally nodded. "I'll be here, ma'am." He closed the door and walked around to the driver's side as Mother Abagail gave a satisfied nod.

As they drove off behind the red pickup, Mother Abagail turned her face heavenward and said a few prayers.

She didn't know everything that tomorrow would hold. But she knew enough. There were darker days ahead.

And they would be darkest for Fox Mulder and Dana Scully.




CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE

Where there is faith
There is a voice calling,
'Keep walking 'You're not alone in this world, '
Where there is faith,
There is a peace like a child sleeping,
Hope everlasting and
He who is able to bear every burden
To heal every hurt in my heart.
It is a wonderful powerful place.
Where there is faith.
- "Where There Is Faith" by Billy Simon


Boulder, Colorado

It was the house that Jack Yuppie built.

Either that or someone who had a serious case of Lincoln Log envy. The log cabin home sat at the end of a street where houses were few and far between, comfortably hidden from public view by a copse of large trees. The sound of the nearby river echoed through the air.

By no means was it a back-to-basics model. Whoever had built this had possessed serious money. It was meant to only be lived in a few months out of the year, perhaps weekends. The owners probably had a condo in Vail, too. They had left no expense un- spent.

A massive stone fireplace was the focal point of the living room. The ceilings were somewhere in the clouds above of Pikes Peak, making ample room for a huge loft. All of the furniture was made of wood. Definitely not from Ikea. And there were fish mounted on the walls around the room. Mulder had been sorely disappointed when Scully had stated that it was highly unlikely that any of the fish were going to jump out and start singing, "Don't Worry, Be Happy." These were not your $19. 99 Billy Bob Bass variety.

Their jaws had continued to drop as their walk through proceeded. Not only did the kitchen have the latest professional appliances - all made to look rugged, of course - but there was also a wood burning stove in the corner for that "pioneer" feel. Handy these days. Just too bad you had to chop the wood.

There was a deck out back, complete with built-in gas grill. Fluffy had immediately taken a liking to the huge back yard. He lumbered off and plopped himself down beneath a comfortable pine tree. He was fast asleep in minutes.

Ralph had discreetly excused himself from the tour at that point, seeing himself out. "I'll see you folks later. . . Oh! And for now, Boulder Creek's just a ways out back if you wanna wash up. I'll be back first thing in the morning with some supplies." Then he was out the door and gone. Leaving Mulder and Scully to discover the bedroom alone.

If they hadn't been so tired, and if Mulder hadn't still been so concerned about Scully, they would have been in awe by the cavernous room. Instead, Scully simply walked over to the king- sized bed and collapsed upon it.

Mulder had lifted each of her tiny feet and removed her shoes, placing them neatly on the floor. He looked up to find her fingering her necklace, frowning.

"What?" he asked.

Scully pulled the cross and chain straight off from her neck. One of the links by the clasp had come open. "It broke," she said sadly.

Mulder reached out and took it from her. He examined it carefully. "It's just a loose clasp. I'll find something to fix it first thing tomorrow. I'm sure I can rustle up some small pliers after my visit with Mother Abagail."

Scully nodded tiredly. She trusted to Mulder to fix things. He understood how important the necklace was to her. She closed her eyes and rolled onto her side, making room for him.

Mulder laid the necklace onto the nightstand. Then he sat down beside her and removed his own shoes, which he lined up beside hers. He laid down and rolled over, pulling the edge of the comforter with him to cover them both.

As he wrapped his arms around her, she whispered, "Good night, Mulder. "

But Mulder lay awake for the the next hour, planning his strategy for his chat with Mother Abagail in the morning.


August 6 0700 hours

Mother Abagail was seated in her front porch rocker when Mulder arrived, pushing herself back and forth with leverage against the cane she held in her right hand.

"Good morning, Fox," Mother Abagail said as Mulder sat down on the chair beside her on the porch. She sniffed. Loudly. "You smell a might better than you did yesterday."

She laughed at Mulder's look. The one always given with the sudden and shocking self-discovery of B. O. Mulder not-so surreptitiously turned his head and pointed his hefty nose toward his right armpit, hoping to find nothin' but Arrid.

"Don't worry. You musta had a bath this mornin'," Mother Abagail reassured him.

"A cold one. Boulder Creek is no sauna," Mulder rued.

"My first husband always said that a cold baptism ev'ry now and again was good for a man." Mother Abagail's eyes dazed over for a moment as she rocked in her chair and remembered. Her first had been a good man. There was a curse about living to be some 108 years. She had outlived most she cared about, her long list of children included. Yes, there had been grandchildren, greats, and great-greats before the Flu, but no one was left that had shared her roof.

"So. What can you tell me about Matthew?" Mulder interrupted.

Her eyes narrowed and her chair stopped its movement. Lordy. The young man sure cut to the heart of the artichoke.

"God isn't needin' to tell me everything, boy. "

"But what *has* he told you?" Mulder insisted.

She sighed. "I know that the boy is alive and well now. He has someone with him who loves him. Who would die for him. Tell Dana that," she punctuated the last with a twitch of her cane.

"Where is he?"

"That I can't tell you. . . "

"Can't or Won't?" Mulder persisted.

She eyed him patiently. "When the time comes for actin', God will see to it that you know. "

"You keep saying that. . . but why?"

"'For the revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it; It will certainly come and will not delay. 'You ever hear a' that, Fox?"

"I'm sure you'll tell me it's from the Bible. . . "

"Ol' Testament. But true today. When I was little, my daddy gave me a handful of seeds and a hoe and a little patch of land behind the house. It wasn't much, but it was mine. I went and worked and planted and I waited and I watered and I watched.

"When those first tomato vines came up I was a jumpin' all up and down. And then those tomatoes began to pop out all over, small and green. But I couldn't wait, I kept watchin' over 'em, but I wanted to pick at least a few, just to satisfy my appetite. I snapped those green tomatoes off the vine and bit into 'em like they was apples. I was sick as a dog all night.

"Those tomatoes hadn't *turned* yet. They weren't ready to be picked. They didn't have all the ingredients they needed. . . they needed more sun and water, more time. Time to make everythin' just right for pickin'. And because I was so itchin' for an early bite, I got sick and lost my stomach all over mama's clean floor, and that vine I had picked from never did grow right after. . . "

Mulder ran a frustrated hand through his hair.

"Do you see what I'm gettin' at here, Fox? All the ingredients ain't there yet. I ain't privy to what all those ingredients are. . . but you and Dana have got to wait until God says it's ripe. If yous don't. . . Well, I don't want to see the result. "

"If you were me, would you be willing to wait based on that story?"

"Child. All I done all my life is wait. I kept on wonderin' why God wouldn't just take me Home, let me go peaceful in my night sleep so I could be with Him and those I loved. But I kept on havin' birthdays. . . even got mentioned by that Willard Scott fella a coupla times, went over to the Holchak's place to watch since I didn't have no television set. My joints kept getting all knotted and hard as hickory nuts. And God still didn't call me. But now I know. He had His purpose for me still bein' here. So, yes, I think I know a mite bit about patience."

She looked at him smugly as he leaned his head back and stared at the porch ceiling. *There, boy. You just stick that in your craw for a while. *




0800 hours

Scully moved her neck from side to side, trying to work out the kinks, as she made her way to the front door. It was a good thing she had been up and about or else she never would have heard the knock at the door. She gave a stern look to Fluffy as she passed his lazy body that lay on the hearth. Nary a bark out of him. "Some watchdog," she muttered to him. Fluffy humphed and rolled onto his other side. He knew there was no danger.

As she approached the door, Scully could see through the window that her visitor was the wonderfully affable Ralph Brentner. Right on schedule and true to his word.

"Good morning, ma'am. It's good to see you up and about. You look a mite better," Ralph said with a kind smile as she opened the door.

"Good morning. And thanks. I do feel better. "

"Here are the supplies I promised last night. Mother thought you might be needing a few things." Ralph raised the large box he was carrying for her inspection.

"You didn't have to do that. . ." Scully began.

"Well, I'm thinking that I'm Boulder's new version of the 'Welcome Wagon' and it just wouldn't be neighborly if I didn't do something," Ralph joked.

Scully smiled and held out her arms to take the box, but Ralph shook his head.

"Un-uh. Nope. You ain't carrying this heavy thing. You just show me where to set 'er down. "

With an amused shake of her head -- it would be pointless to argue with a Texan -- Scully pulled back the door to let Ralph come inside. Lord, it was nice to be around some normal people again. She led him into the kitchen and Ralph gently set the box down on the breakfast table. Then he opened up the top flaps to show her the spoils.

"This is great!" she exclaimed as she rummaged through the contents. Ralph smiled. It looked as though he had done his job right.

Scully stopped her excited treasure hunt and looked up, embarrassed. "I'm sorry! Can I get you some coffee? It's not the best, but Mulder found a camping coffee pot this morning and we set it up on the grill out back. . . we didn't get around to getting some wood for the stove. "

"That'd be nice. . . if it ain't a bother," Ralph replied.

As Scully crossed back to the cabinets to grab some styrofoam cups, she suddenly realized she was still in the robe she had donned after washing up this morning. She took a moment to make sure she was securely covered before she turned back around. She placed the cups down on the table.

"Do you mind helping yourself? I really should go throw some proper clothes on. . . I'll be right back to join you. "

"Not a problem, Ma'am," Ralph smiled.

Scully stopped in the doorway and turned around. "It's Dana. . . "

"Okay, Dana. And I'll even get your cup poured. "

Scully smiled gratefully and headed for the bedroom.




Mulder had walked right into the mine field. And now Mother Abagail had him doing penance by snapping beans into a large pot that sat between his feet. She said that someone had found a garden nearby. . . and that meant slow-cooked molasses snap beans for dinner.

All had been quiet between them for a good half hour. Just the snip snap of the beans and the plunk as they hit the pot.

But she interrupted the silence.

"You and Dana are funny. . . Lord knows you got an odd relationship," she mused.

Mulder took the bait. "What's that supposed to mean? You don't even know us. . ." Snap, snip went the beans.

"I know enough. I know that you're opposites. And I know that you think you know what makes you so different from Dana. That her high-falutin' science means she has to touch to believe. That she's the thinker and you be the feeler. And mayhaps that's true. But that ain't what makes you different. "

Mulder's expression said it all. *Oh, really? *He tossed a few more beans into the pot.

"What makes you different is *your* past. You cling to it like a newborn to its mamma's bosom. You let it control everythin' you do or say or believe. You think your past made you what you are and that you have no choice.

"But Dana. Dana has always let her *future* decide her present. She always is lookin' ahead, down the road, what does she need to do now to be prepared for tomorrow. And because she looks ahead, she has hope. You can't be havin' hope in things past. . . things that are done with. You can chase 'em forever but you'll never catch 'em.

"And the reason you two are still together, why you're *married, * is that Dana has enough hope for both of you. She has hope in *you. *




When Scully returned to the kitchen, her cup of coffee was on the counter, but Ralph was nowhere to be seen. Then she heard it. The sound of an axe splitting wood. She walked out onto the back deck and put her hands on her hips.

"What are you doing?"

Ralph paused mid-swing, a bit chagrined that he had been caught. "Well, I just thought you two could use some wood and seein' that I'm here and bit more rested than you. . . "

Scully looked at the pile he had already created.

"Thanks, Ralph," she sighed. "But I'm sure that's enough for now. Come on in and talk with me. It's been a long time since Mulder or I had anyone else around. "

Ralph nodded. He understood exactly what she meant. When he had finally left his town in Texas, he had been alone for many days before he had run across two young men on the highway. Nick Andros and Tom Cullen. He had been so happy to see them that it didn't matter that Nick was deaf and dumb (but a sharp one at that) and Tom was what folks always referred to as "slow." All that mattered was that they had shared his dream. They had been headed for Mother Abagail. And it was so nice just to hear someone else breathing!

In fact, here in Boulder, Ralph was almost in heaven. He felt needed. In his forty-five years, he had never been one to hold down a steady job. . . he always got too busy fixing some neighbor's sink, or cleaning out Mrs. O'Mealy's rain gutters. He could fix just about anything. He was absolutely the best neighbor you could ask for. One that would give you the shirt off his back. But he was absolutely terrible about punching a time clock. His head just wasn't screwed on that way. But, now, here he was in Boulder. A town waiting to be fixed, full of folks who needed his kind of help.

As Scully walked back into the house, Ralph bent over and grabbed an armful of firewood. He carried the wood back up the steps and into the kitchen, placing it in the old-fashioned box beside the door.

"Thanks, again, Ralph. You have no idea how much I appreciate your help," Scully said as she walked to him and handed over his cup of coffee.

"It's my pleasure, Ma'am. . . Dana. "

Scully gestured for him to have a seat at the breakfast table and they both sat down.

"So," Ralph began. "Is it true you two were FBI agents? Did you ever shoot anybody?"

Scully almost spewed coffee out of her nose.




"You two have decisions to make in the days ahead and I can't be there to help you. Only *He* can. But you can help Dana. Make sure she remembers her future. Don't let her dwell on the past, on the things that might have been. That's useless worry and a world of heartache. "

"I don't understand," Mulder protested.

"You will when the time comes, child. You will. "

Mulder lowered his head in frustration.

"There's one more thing you be needing to do now," the ancient woman continued. "You've got something in your pocket. . . pull it out here now. "

Mulder's eyes widened in surprise. How did she know? Even he had forgotten it already. He stretched his right leg out and dug into his pocket. He pulled out Scully's cross. Mother Abagail held out her hand and he reluctantly gave her the necklace. She examined it for a moment, smiling as she rubbed her thumb across the gold cross.

"There are some tools in the kitchen, under the sink. Take this pot of beans inside there and go grab those small pliers and we'll fix this," she stated firmly as she looked at the broken clasp.

Mulder stood and did as he was told, going inside to the kitchen. He returned a short time later with the needle-nosed pliers. As he sat down, Mother Abagail handed him the pliers and gestured to him, telling him to get busy.

He set to work as she rocked and talked.

"I want you to remember something. There ain't no more justice of the peace and there ain't no more courthouses and legal papers. And there ain't many preachin' men left. "

Mulder looked up, puzzled at where this was headed. Mother Abagail frowned and pointed back at the necklace. He got back to work.

"There ain't no FBI, and there ain't no more rules about blood tests and papers. So, it only matters what's in God's eyes now." She stopped rocking and leaned forward, placing her hand on Mulder's. "And in His eyes, you two is married. "

Mulder could have sworn he saw something in her eyes. Was she giving her blessing for him to "consummate" his relationship with Scully? Or was she giving him her God's blessing? And wasn't it a tad bit disturbing that God was interested in their sex life? But then the look was gone. She had turned her focus onto the necklace.

"Looks like you're all done with it. "

He held it up. The links were united again. "Scully will be happy to have this back," he nodded.

But Mother Abagail shook her head. "No. You mustn't give it back to her. "

"Wha. . . . "

"Put that cross around your neck, child, and don't you never take it off. That's God's Will. Do you hear me now?" Mother Abagail's face was firm. Set. She expected absolutely no argument. When Mulder hesitated, she chastised him. "Put it on now. Do as I say and don't question. . . there'll be regrets if you do. Regrets for both you and Dana. "

Finally, Mulder acquiesced. He opened the clasp and hung the cross around his neck, dropping the cross under the collar of his shirt. What the heck. He could take it off when he got back to the house.

"And don't be thinkin' you're gonna fool this ol' woman. You keep that on." Her eyes bored into his.

Mulder shifted uncomfortably. The woman was serious. And she *knew* things somehow. Perhaps he should listen to her. . . for now.

"Okay," he mumbled.

"You promise me, Fox. "

"I promise," he said as he looked her straight in the eye. She nodded with satisfaction.

"Now. I guess you best be gettin' back to Dana. I sent Ralph up there with some food and sundries. You two should be settin' well for a spell. "

Mulder rose and was about to walk down the porch steps when two men entered the yard.

"Good morning, Mother Abagail!" The younger man called with a wave.

"East Texas! Glen! You two come over and meet our new friend," Mother Abagail called back.

Mulder gave the men a twice over. "East Texas" was about his age. Mid-thirties. He wasn't a big man, just average build, but he was solid. A working man. His hands were rough and leathered. He looked like a plain talker. "Glen" on the other hand was somewhere around sixty. He was wearing one of those weekend jackets with patches on the elbows, a well-chewed pipe in the pocket. Definite professor type. New Englandy-looking.

"Stuart Redman, Glen Bateman. . . this is Fox Mulder. He and his woman, Dana, just got in yesterday. We've just been talking about things," Mother Abagail stated.

Glen was the first to come forward and offer his hand to Mulder. They shook and exchanged the usual pleasantries. Then Stu stepped forward. His hand shake was firm. This was a man that measured you by your hand shake, Mulder decided. He looked Stu straight in the eye. "Good to meet you," Mulder said.

After a moment of appraisal, Stu grinned. Apparently Mulder had passed the test.

"Where are you staying?" Stu asked.

"Scully and I are up the way about a mile or so. It's a pretty deserted street," Mulder replied.

Stu nodded. "This is the one you were waiting for, Mother? The reason you sent Ralph out to find a house?"

Mother Abagail nodded.

"We're glad you could join us, Mr. Mulder," Glen said formally. His enunciation confirmed Mulder's suspicions. Definitely from New England and well educated. Probably taught English or History, or perhaps, Sociology.

"You can just call me Mulder. "

"And this. . . 'Scully'. . . that's Dana?" Glen prodded.

"Um. . ." Mulder stuttered.

"Fox and Dana have an unusual relationship. You'll understand when you see them together," Mother Abagail interrupted.

"Well. Good then. We were just about to set out some plans for today and tomorrow, Mulder. You want to join us?" Stu asked.

"Thanks, for the offer, Stu. I'd like to. . . but I need to get back to the house. Scully. . . 'Dana'," he directed pointedly at Mother Abagail, "hasn't been feeling well. "

The men nodded and Mulder headed down the steps.

"Hey! Mulder!" Stu called.

Mulder turned around.

"If Dana's feeling better tomorrow. . . a few of us are getting together around 5 p. m. down at the park. We'll share some dinner. . . shoot some hoops. . . You play basketball?"

Mulder grinned. Wide. "I play a little," he replied.

"Well. Then meet us there. It'll give us all a chance to get to know each other. You can't miss the park. It's down this street, about half mile east," Stu pointed.

"We'll do that, thanks," Mulder called as he headed for the Expedition. His mind was spinning, but he wasn't quite sure what to think. While the thought of basketball in the near future was a diversion, it was hard not to think of everything Mother Abagail had said. All she had warned.

He needed to get back to some sanity. He needed to see Scully.




Mulder arrived back at the house just as Ralph Brentner was driving off. Ralph gave him a "Howdy, neighbor" salute with his hat and Mulder reciprocated about as well as a Vineyard-boy could with one of those two-fingered side action wave-salutes. *Welcome back to society, Mulder. *

He parked the Ford and got out. Scully was waiting expectantly for him in the front doorway.

"Ralph brought us some supplies," she explained before he could ask. He nodded. "How did it go with Mother Abagail? What did she want?"

Mulder placed his hand on her back. "Come inside and I'll tell you. "


CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO

"Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour." - 1 Peter 5: 8


Boulder Recreational Park
August 7
1730 hours

Who needed chicken soup for the soul crap when you had basketball? The would-be players had wasted little time with improvised picnic food and idle chit chat before hitting the court asphalt. Mulder had gladly joined Stu and the others. There was Dick Ellis, a veterinarian who was acting as town doctor these days, and Harold Lauder, who had arrived in Boulder with Stu and his group. Then there was Ralph and some guy named Teddy.

Scully sat at the picnic table, Fluffy laying at her feet, watching the male pick-up game rituals with some amusement. First, there was the usual finger pointing and shoulder slaps as the six men divided themselves into two teams. Ah. Women should be able to mobilize that quickly. Of course, picking teams for sports was the *only* area where men could mobilize without argument.

Next came Scully's favorite part. The "who is shirts and who is skins" question. She smirked when she saw Mulder and his team mates pulling their t-shirts over their heads and tossing them to the sidelines. *Yes! *

"You two knew each other from before. "

Scully looked up to find Fran Goldsmith standing next to her. "I'm sorry?" she asked. She had been rather distracted by the view.

Fran sat down beside her, cradling her slightly swollen and definitely early-pregnant belly. "You and Fox. . . Mulder, I mean. You knew each other from before. "

Scully nodded hesitantly. After her conversation with Ralph the day before, she and Mulder had agreed to maintain a low profile. There was no telling how people would react if they knew that they had been employed by the Feds. So many people were certain it was a government conspiracy that had caused the Superflu. Hell. She and Mulder were *certain* it had been a conspiracy. But there would be major problems convincing a bunch of angry and grieving folks that they were not involved, that they had actually been working to uncover the evil deeds of men unseen. Luckily, Ralph had agreed to help keep everything as mum as possible, outside of Stu and Glen.

"I knew Harold before, too. We're both from Maine." She nodded toward one of Mulder's team mates. "Wonder what the odds are of that happening?" Fran mused.

"Pretty slim. But lucky for us, I think," Scully responded. She absentmindedly ran one of her bare feet across Fluffy's back. The dog sighed.

"Harold and I were never really *friends* before, but I was glad to have him around when everyone else was gone. . ." Fran's voice trailed off, almost indecisively.

Scully watched her, trying to look as though she wasn't really watching her. Fran was young. Twenty at the very oldest. In some ways she acted her age, but in others. . . Well, everyone had aged these past few weeks. She tried to imagine what it must be like for this young woman, being pregnant and facing this uncertain future. Scully's first thought had been, "We don't know if babies conceived before the flu are immune. . . Oh god." But she had kept that one to herself.

The dynamics at the picnic between Fran, Stu Redman and Harold Lauder were interesting, to say the least. Stu had apparently linked up with Fran, Harold, and Glen somewhere in New England and they had made the cross-country trek together. *That* must have been interesting. Scully could sense the tension coming off them in waves, despite the pleasantries they exchanged. Fran had paired up with Stu -- a good match, she thought -- but she could see the resentment and posturing in Harold's body language. And she wasn't entirely sure that Fran and Stu were aware of the full extent of Harold's feelings.

Scully's kinesic and interrogations training taught her to read the signs. Harold was a time bomb waiting to go off. He had, no doubt, been a geeky guy before all of this mess. His time on the road had given him a tan and some new muscle tone. His acne had cleared up, but she could still see the tell tale marks he wanted to hide. He was nineteen years of hormones ready to burst. Hormones with a very keen brain and a serious inferiority complex.

She had already decided to steer clear of Harold. He would be way too interested in her and Mulder's pasts.

Her thoughts were interrupted when Fran nudged her with a teasing elbow, her eyes glued on the basketball court. "You're lucky. Mulder got 'skins. 'I was hoping Stu would," she mock-whined.

"Well," Scully responded. "We sure wouldn't be watching this game for the score, now would we?"

Fran laughed and the two women leaned back to enjoy the game.

And Fluffy enjoyed his backrub.

*

Things weren't looking too bright for Mulder's team. While he and team mate Dick Ellis had been fairly consistent in scoring, Harold Lauder had become merely a body on the court. Everytime the kid got the ball and tried to hit the lane, he was immediately stuffed and snuffed by Stu. Not good.

He watched as Dick passed the ball to Harold and, once more, Harold tried to go inside. And, once more, Stu jammed him and ended up with the ball. Mulder lunged forward and hit Stu's blind side before the man truly had control of the ball. He reached in and, with one quick movement, he had stolen the ball.

"Time!" Mulder called, his hands forming a "T" for special effect. As the players relaxed and took a few deep breaths into their lungs, Mulder motioned his team into a private huddle. It was time to change strategy. They were down by eight with about five minutes to go.

"We need a change of plans," Mulder began.

Dick nodded his sweaty head and glanced surreptitiously at Harold before speaking. "Any suggestions?"

"Harold, I think you can be our secret weapon," he stated, looking Lauder right in the eye.

Harold's eyes widened. He hated to admit it, but he was way out of his element. He had spent his years reading, not dribbling.

"You know physics. . . math stuff, right?" Mulder asked, even though he already knew the answer.

Harold nodded. "Of course. "

"That's all this is. Geometry, physics. . . the laws of motion. See the court as a graph. Angle your shots accordingly. . . use that mind of yours," Mulder said as he pointed his finger to Harold's head.

"But they'll block me out," Harold admitted uncomfortably.

"That's why you'll take all your shots from outside. Don't even try to go to the basket. You'll have several shots before they ever suspect and send someone out to cover you there. And then, when they do, that'll open up the lane for me and Dick. "

"Shoot. . . From outside. . ." Harold hesitated.

"Think. Math." Mulder insisted.

"Hey, Mulder!" Stu hollered from across the court. "What is this? Are you playing or not? Of course, since we know already who's gonna win. . . "

"We're coming!" Mulder yelled back. "Right Harold?"

Harold's eyes narrowed as he looked at Stu. Stu taunting them. Him. But the look passed quickly. He didn't want to risk being discovered. He turned back to Mulder. "Let's go," he said with new confidence.

Harold Lauder had made three shots from the field before Stu's team could react. Mulder's plan worked. The lane opened up and his team scored 5 unanswered baskets, taking the game just as Glen Bateman called "Time!" from the sidelines.

The men shook hands, wiped their sweat with their shirts and trudged off the court, pretending that every muscle didn't ache. Mulder took an extra moment to retrieve Scully's cross from his pocket and put it back around his neck. He could see her at the table, watching him. She smiled. She didn't understand why Mother Abagail had given him the order, but she seemed to like the idea of him wearing it.

He paused one moment to stretch out his calf muscle, the one that had taken the bullet only weeks before. It was stiff, but not too painful. Then he headed back to the group.

Mulder was too busy zeroing in on Scully to notice the special gleam in Harold Lauder's eyes. A gleam that wasn't pride or happiness at a game well played. No. It was a gleam of victory over a mortal enemy. And a look that seriously disapproved of the newfound camaraderie between Mulder and Stu. . . and Scully and Fran.

*

The rest of the evening at the park was comfortable and uneventful. A small society beginning to take form. From what Mulder could gather, the folks around them were the core group. The ones that would be chosen to lead. Besides the basketball players, there were Susan Stern, Tom Cullen -- who *was* slow but had a huge heart as well as a huge build, Glen -- who *had* been a college professor, and Nick Andros.

Nick was quite amazing. Though deaf and mute, Mulder thought that perhaps the young man might be the best communicator in the bunch. His hand and pencil flew across his note paper, actively participating in the conversations, Ralph acting as reader. And his eyes seemed to catch everything, every nuance. He was an astute observer. And from what Stu had told him, Nick was special to Mother Abagail.

What a motley crew.

They all enjoyed the evening. A respite from the work that would have to begin again tomorrow. They already had people trying to get the power and the water going again. And they were starting plans for burial committees and the like to deal with the bodies of people who did stay in Boulder after the flu hit. It was enough to make your head spin. It was enough to make you get comfortable and forget that there were other things to be attended to.

But Stu had reminded him. As folks began to drift off, heading back to their homes, Stu had pulled Mulder aside.

"Mother Abagail wanted me to remind you that she wants to see you both day after tomorrow. . . "

Mulder nodded.

"And, she wanted me to make something clear to you. . ." he said.

"What's that?" Mulder asked.

"She said that we're not to ask you to join up with all these committees. You and Dana are to stay home and rest. She said you two have something to do. That you'll be leaving Boulder. . ." The last was formed more as a question. Mother Abagail hadn't told Stu what was going on. She hadn't told him about Matthew.

Mulder decided it wasn't his place to tell anyone, but he had to say something. "She's right, Stu. We do have some unfinished business. But we really appreciate the help and friendship you guys are giving us here. And it's a big help to Scully. "

"Is she feeling any better?" Stu murmured, deciding he wouldn't pry into the rest of the matter.

"She'll be fine," Mulder said firmly. Too firmly. "Good night, Stu. Thanks for inviting us. "

Mulder headed back to Scully and Fluffy and they walked back to their car. Stu watched them go. He really wished that Mulder had truly believed that Dana would be okay.


2130 hours

"That was nice," Scully sighed as they drove up to their new home. She made no move to get out, so Mulder didn't either.

"Hey. You feeling okay? Not too tired out?" Mulder asked as he reached out to caress some strands of hair back behind her ear. Her hair had grown out. And he really liked the new length.

"Actually, this is the best I've felt in days," she replied. She turned her head and planted a kiss on the palm of his hand.

Mulder had to swallow back the urge to swoop her up into his arms and carry her inside to the bedroom. He'd been in overdrive all evening. After the game, Scully had constantly been beside him, leaning into him, touching him lightly on the arm, the back. . . the neck. He shuddered and closed his eyes.

"What is it, Mulder? I really do feel fine," Scully insisted.

"No. I mean, I know you feel better. That's not it," Mulder tried to explain without having to really explain.

He looked at her. Was that a smirk she was giving him? What the hell? But before he could say anything, do anything, she was out of the car, Fluffy on her heels. He pounded his head on the steering wheel in frustration a few times and then got out, trudging up to join her at the front door.

"Mulder. I hope you know that you're not coming to bed tonight without a bath," Scully warned as they walked inside.

"You gonna join me in the crick?" He asked in a suggestive drawl.

But instead of waving him off as usual, she actually stretched her neck from side to side, her eyes closed, weighing the matter. She pulled her shirt from her sticky skin with one hand. Then she opened her eyes and looked at him dead on. "That just might be a possibility tonight." She started walking toward the bedroom, never even looking back. "I'm getting some towels. You, sir, make sure that the synchronized swimmer stays inside this time." And then she was out of sight.

Mulder looked down at Fluffy, who was sitting patiently by his feet. Fluffy looked back at him with big, brown, oh-so innocent eyes.

Then the scramble was on. Mulder dashed about, making sure that every window and door was secure. He ran into the kitchen and poured out a huge helping of dog food into a huge bowl and set it on the floor. Fluffy heard the familiar clinks of Dog Chow on porcelain and enthusiastically ran in to see his late night snack offering. Not only was there manna from heaven, but Mulder had also emptied a large bottle of water into his water dish. . . AND the man had laid out a few dollops of marshmallow Fluff on a dish.

Fluffy's tail was going a mile a minute. What had he done to deserve all of this? He approached the Fluff. But suddenly, Mulder blocked his path, dropping to his knees and cupping the dog's face with his hands.

"Understand this, dog. Tonight. You. Stay. Here. Consider all this payment. Got it?"

Fluffy could see that he was serious. Deadly serious. His head was still immobile, but his eyes could go back and forth between the Fluff dish, the food, and Mulder's face. Choices. His stomach made the final decision and he gave a soft "woof!" that seemed to satisfy Mulder for the man let go of his head.

Fluffy started to chow down, barely noticing when Scully joined Mulder at the door and the two walked out the back, making sure the door was firmly closed.


2200 Hours

"Scully?"

"Hmmm?"

"Please tell me what precipitated this. . . "

". . . This?"

"Yes. . . th. . . Oh. My. G. . . that! "

"So which do you want to know, Mulder?"

"Wha. . . ?"

"I thought so, Air Mulder. "

"It was the game, wasn't it? Scully?"

"Hmmm?"

"Your turn. . . "

Splash.

Drip.

"Yesssss. "

"Say something, Scully?"

"I said, 'yes. 'You took off your shirt for the game. . . "

"I thought so. "


"Mulder?"

"Hmmm?"

"I love you, but so help me, if that thing that just brushed by my leg wasn't genetically attached to you. . . "

Splash.

"Where, Scully? Oh shit! I think it just nibbled on me. . . "

"Mulder? That definitely wasn't me. . . "

"Would you think any less of me as a man if I suggested that we streak back to the bedroom now?"

"From what I can see right now. . . not a chance. "

Splash. Splash. Rustle. Pat, pat, pat, pat, pat. . . .




All of Fluffy's brain cells were concentrating on the door that led outside. Why in the world had the man Mulder given him so much water to drink? He whimpered softly for the fourteenth time in as many minutes.

He was so preoccupied with not making a mess that he barely noticed Mulder and Scully when they frantically dashed inside, only slightly covered by towels.

They ran in, Fluffy ran out.

Mulder closed the door as an afterthought.




2400 Hours

Fluffy had resigned himself to sleeping on the deck by the back door. His friends seemed to be occupied inside. He couldn't see them, but he could hear them. Loud and clear.

As time passed, however, he began to sense that maybe he *needed* to be outside. He raised his head to sniff the air. What was that scent? It was human, but it held something else. He had smelled it before. It was sweet, but not like the flowers outside. No this was a sweet he had tried to eat before. Something that tasted sweet but made him very sick. What had his old master called it? Chocolate? That was it.

Something wasn't right. He sat up, alert, and kept watch.


He watched from across Boulder Creek. He wasn't sure why Fox Mulder and Dana Scully had so unnerved him, but he was damn sure going to find out. Before they found him out.

He raised the nightscope to his eye and zeroed in on the house once more.


August 8 0530 Hours

*There's a naked man in my bed! * Scully's eyes popped open in shock. Then she looked over beside her and smiled. *Nope, Dana. There's a naked Mulder in your bed. *

He was sprawled out on his stomach, his right leg trapped under her right leg. Scully raised herself up on her elbow, deciding to get more comfortable. Burrowing under the covers, she draped half of her pleasantly achy body over Mulder's back, resting her head on his right shoulder blade.

*Much better. Nice pillow, * she thought, just as she fell back into slumber.


0900 Hours

Mulder sat up and stretched as far as his limbs would reach, grimacing as several muscles and joints realigned themselves in his body.

"Please tell me we can just stay like this for the next week, Mulder," Scully mumbled into her pillow.

Mulder smiled and reached over to run one finger down the curve of her back. "Good morning, Mary Sunshine. "

Scully turned her head to the left. Her hair was drooping over her face so she could just see him through the strands. And he was beautiful. She raised her eyebrow and smiled. "That was. . . wow. Amazing, Mulder. "

Mulder leaned over and kissed her on the temple, but that wasn't enough for Scully. She rolled over onto her back and tugged him down on top of her. He willingly obliged her request and found her lips with his own.

He finally broke the kiss and rested his head on the pillow beside her. "God, Scully. I wish I'd met you when I was fifteen. . . "

Her puzzled look demanded an explanation.

"If I was still fifteen, I wouldn't have to get up now and crack all of my joints before going into the kitchen to get some food and make some coffee. I'm gonna die without some sustenance. . . Necessito comida, woman. "

"Ah. But if you were fifteen I'd get thrown in jail for corrupting a minor, Mulder. "

"You, Scully, may feel free to corrupt me like this any time, any where." He leaned down to plant one more quick kiss on her lips before rolling off the bed.

His knees almost gave way, but he steadied himself with a hand on the bed. He started out the door. . .

"Ahem. Mulder?"

"What?"

She waved at his body. "Not that I don't enjoy the view. . . in fact, turn around once or twice there. . . . But I suspect this is the kind of place where folks drop in unannounced. . . "

"Oh." Mulder returned to the foot of the bed and dug through a duffel bag. He finally found some boxer shorts and a pair of blue jeans. Scully tried not to sigh in disappointment as he put them on.

"You want breakfast in bed, madam?"

"No. You go on. I'll be back out to join you in a few. . . "

Mulder nodded. He started to head for the door, thought better of it and turned back to give her another a kiss. "Love you." Then, he headed out to the kitchen.


"Oh, shit! I'm so sorry, Fluffy!" Mulder exclaimed as he opened the back door. The poor damn dog had spent the whole night out there. Crap!

Fluffy was tired. He'd been keeping watch all night. The strange scent on the air had finally gone away a few hours before, but he didn't want to let his guard down. He wearily trudged inside, took a few quick laps from his water bowl, then made straight for the blanket by the hearth. His bed. He laid down and was soon fast asleep.

Mulder watched the dog, confused. Was Fluffy sulking because he'd been left outside? It made him feel like a heel. He promised himself that he'd make it up to the mutt.

Then he got busy with breakfast.




August 14
1000 hours

Six days of sheer and unadulterated bliss. That's what they'd had.

Mother Abagail's words to Stu had carried plenty of weight. Aside from two visits from Ralph with supplies, one visit from Fran and Stu for coffee and a town update. . . well, they'd been left alone to their own devices.

Scully grinned as she sat on the living room couch and thought of each and every one of those devices. Mulder was good medicine. While she still didn't feel one hundred percent -- she'd had a headache or two. . . or three -- she did feel good enough that she didn't *care* when she had a headache. When the headaches came, she could just curl up on the sofa or in bed with Mulder. No driving, no forced marches, no travel. Just food, bed, and Mulder. What else did she need?

They'd only ventured out once. To see Mother Abagail on August Ninth. They thought that the old woman was going to give them more information. . . something else to put in their arsenal to help get Matthew back. But, instead, it ended up simply being a dinner of pan-fried trout and corn on the cob, with a side of some really good biscuits. Nothing else. No meaningful conversation. Nada. The only thing she seemed concerned about was the fish. . . and whether or not Mulder was still wearing the cross. She seemed satisfied shen she saw it around his neck. And then there were her parting words.

"You'll promise me you won't be leaving until we talk again. You mustn't leave before then. "

Scully and Mulder had reluctantly made the promise.

They'd returned home stuffed with good food, but frustrated. And that equaled an upset stomach for Mulder that night. He had already decided that he would give Mother Abagail until August 16th -- one week -- to come up with whatever pronouncement she was going to make. Then they were out of there, "God's blessing" or not.

She frowned. No matter how hard she tried to think otherwise, this time at the log home was merely a rest stop. A carefully constructed illusion that could not last much longer. Her health was on an upswing at the moment, but that wouldn't last. She knew that from experience. And each downturn would take her down just a little farther than the last.

A knock at the front door broke her contemplation.

"I got it!" Mulder called from the kitchen. She watched as he crossed to the door. He hadn't been feeling well this morning. Some kind of stomach upset. But he had still been out chopping wood and puttering around in the kitchen.

Scully stood as he opened the door to reveal Stu Redman.

"Hi, Stu. Come on in. . . I've got some coffee in the kitchen. . ." Mulder began.

"No, folks. I can't stay long," Stu replied.

Scully walked to Mulder's side. There was something about Stu's expression that she didn't like.

"What is it?" she asked.

Stu shuffled from foot to foot. "Well, first, I wanted to tell you that we've scheduled a town meeting a few nights from now and we were hoping you both would be there," Stu asked.

"We?" Mulder asked.

"Mostly the bunch from the picnic. Me, Fran, Nick, Glen, Ralph, Susan. . . and a few others you haven't met. Like Larry Underwood. We've kind of set ourselves up as an ad hoc committee. "

Mulder nodded. "Well, we'd like to be there," he looked to Scully and she nodded. "But that's gonna depend on Mother Abagail. . . on what she tells us. We need to leave soon. "

Stu grimaced and looked at the ground.

"What is it, Stu? Is Mother Abagail sick?" Scully asked.

"I don't know. "

"What do you mean, you don't know?" Mulder demanded.

"That's one of the things we'll all have to discuss at the town meeting. Mother Abagail has gone missing," Stu replied.

"What?" Scully exclaimed. "Has someone taken her?"

"No, no," Stu replied, trying to calm their law enforcement instincts. "She left a note this morning. Something about needing to go into the wilderness. She thinks she's let her pride get in between her and her God. "

"Did she say when she was coming back?" Mulder asked incredulously.

"No. She didn't. Just said she had to get right with her God again. "

"Oh that's just perfect!" Mulder threw up his arms and stalked out of the room, back into the kitchen.

Stu was unsure of what he was supposed to do. Should he follow Mulder and try to calm him down?

"It's okay, Stu," Scully told him softly. "I'll talk to him. We'll be in touch about the meeting later. Okay?"

He nodded and backed out the front door. He got back into his truck and drove out.

Scully leaned against the front door. She could hear Mulder stomping around, banging dishes and tossing styrofoam coffee cups around.

She walked to the entryway between the living room and the kitchen and watched as he ranted.

"That's it!" Mulder announced. "If she can take a vacation, we're outta here. Get your stuff together, Scully. . . we'll leave in an hour." Mulder stomped back toward the back deck. "Where's Fluffy?" he called as he opened the door and stepped outside.

Scully was not sure what she should do. But she was rather pissed off that Mulder seemed to take it upon himself to decide what she should do.

"Fluffy!" Mulder yelled as he paced the deck. Scully could see him through the window. He was clenching and unclenching his fists. "Fluffy!"

Scully quietly made her way over to the door, deciding that they would have to discuss this before things really got out of hand.

"Mulder," she called softly.

"Wha. . ." he began as he spun around to face her. But before he could finish that final consonant sound, he doubled over in agony.

"Oh, God. . . Scully," he choked as he blindly reached out one hand for her. Then he was down on his knees, his arms crossed tightly around his abdomen.

"Mulder!" Scully rushed to his side.

He seemed determined to follow the laws of gravity so she helped him down onto his side on the wooden deck. She brushed the hair back from his forehead, feeling for a fever.

"What is it, Mulder? What's wrong?" She urged.

His eyes were squeezed shut in pain, but he forced them open so he could see her face.

"It hurts. . . my stomach. . . "

Scully managed to peel his arms away from his stomach and she began to feel the area. She pressed down on his lower right quadrant. He gave no reaction. But when she released the pressure. . .

"OH GOD! Make it stop!" He yelled.

"Shit, shit, shit," Scully cursed under her breath. "Fluffy!" she screamed.

The dog immediately popped out from behind the trees and ran to her side.

"God, please let him understand," Scully prayed silently. She turned to Fluffy. "Go stop Stu, Fluffy. I need help! "

Fluffy never hesitated. He knew that the nice man named Stu had just left the house. He could catch him and make him come back. With a woof, he took off, full speed, around the house and down the driveway.

Scully turned back to Mulder. There was little she could do. She couldn't move him by herself. She laid a calming hand on his forehead and leaned down to kiss his hand. "We're getting help, Mulder. You just need to hang on for a little bit. Help's coming. . ." her worried voice trailed off.

Mulder opened his eyes once more and tried to focus on her face. "It's my appendix, isn't it?" he asked with dread. A few weeks ago, appendicitis was nothing a quick trip to the hospital wouldn't cure. But now. . . now it was almost surely a death sentence.

Scully nodded. She was trying not to let the tears escape from her eyes. Oh God. It couldn't end like this. Mulder grabbed her hand and gripped it tightly.

"Fluffy will get help, Scully," he whispered.

She tried to smile, tried to believe. "You're going to be fine, Mulder. I love you." She bent over and kissed him just before another wave of pain passed through his body.

Scully did all she could. She held his hand, prayed. . .

And kept looking for help to arrive.




CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE

"This is the real world, muchachos, and we are all in it. "
---Charles Bowden "Blood Orchid"




Las Vegas, Nevada

Alex Krycek was bored out of his mind. He played with the ice at the bottom of his glass, swirling it round and round in the last drops of whiskey. He let the wet glass slide through his fingers until it rested on the bar below.

He raised his head and scanned the noisy casino. Lots of people and lots of noise from lots of slot machines that were happy to be back in action.

All those people. But no one much talked to him. Of course, he was quite certain that was because of the interest that Randall Flagg had paid him. Everyone was too scared of Flagg to get involved in Krycek's business. Business that Flagg had taken into the realm of his personal interest.

Krycek hadn't talked to Flagg in over a week. Which was fine by him. Flagg made his old bosses look like choir boys with halos. He took one last swig of watered down whiskey and swallowed hard as he remembered that meeting up in Flagg's penthouse suite that commanded a view of all things Vegas.

"So, Alex. I hope you've found comfortable accommodations here," Flagg grinned as he stood behind the bar and made himself a drink.

"Everything's fine, thank you," Krycek clipped back his quick response. He was eager to leave and return to the relative anonymity of his room. But Flagg had requested the meeting and he already knew that you did not refuse Randall Flagg.

He'd seen that the day after he arrived. That poor slob named Loughlin had stolen some gas for his motorbike. When Flagg asked him about it, Loughlin denied the theft. Everyone in the casino had been privy to the scene that followed as Loughlin's brain began to boil. Steam actually came out of his ears. Krycek could still hear the man's screams of horror. Screams that stopped only after a stream of hard-boiled brain matter leaked out of Loughlin's nose and ears onto the very busy carpet pattern.

"Tell me, Alex," Flagg started as he crossed the room with his drink. With one sudden move, he jumped over the back of the sofa and into a comfy seated position. He held up his glass and examined it. Not a single drop spilled. He smiled. "What did it feel like when they cut off your arm?"

"Excuse me?" Krycek cleared his throat.

"Did it hurt? Were you scared? You can tell me, Alex." Flagg's voice dripped. . . something.

Krycek didn't answer. He knew there was no *right* answer to give Flagg. Men like this, and that was using the term "men" haphazardly, they would use any answer he gave against him.

"What's the matter, son? Cat got your tongue? Or no! I guess I should say 'Cat got you arm? '" Flagg laughed, but the menace was plain to hear. But he didn't wait for Krycek to respond. "I understand you have some unfinished business to take care of out there in the desert. "

Krycek kept silent. Kept looking forward.

"It sure would be easier if you had two good arms, wouldn't it?"

Suddenly, Krycek could feel sensations where they should not be. And these were not simply phantom pains. He'd dealt with those before. He looked down as he raised both arms. He closed his eyes and willed his fingers to bend. He opened his eyes. Ten fingers flexed at his command. He stared in disbelief.

He didn't notice that Flagg had moved to stand directly behind him. "Now. Ain't that something, Alex?" he whispered in Krycek's ear. "Two good hands to wrap around Fox Mulder's scrawny little neck. Two good arms to hold that bitch Dana Scully down on the ground while you finally get a well deserved piece of her ass. Just say the word, Alex, and I'll be there to give you a hand. Or a whole arm, so to speak," Flagg tempted.

But Krycek could only close his eyes and remain silent.

After a moment, Flagg spoke again. This time his voice came from the area of the sofa. "Fine, Alex. Have it your way. For now. Even if your way just isn't as much fun. "

Krycek opened his eyes. Sensations disappeared and he was back to one good arm. Flagg was sitting on the sofa as if nothing had just happened.

"I can respect the strong and silent type, Alex. But when the time comes for you to leave here and finish your little *errand, * you might want to reconsider my offer. After all, Spender might hear about your impending arrival. You know how little birdies like to talk. . . "

Krycek somehow managed to keep his straight face. But he took the threat very seriously. Surprise was the key to success in his plan for revenge.

"You can go now, Alex. I'll let you know when it's time to hit the road." Flagg dismissed him with a simple wave of his hand.

Krycek turned and left the penthouse. He only allowed his legs to turn to unset jello after he grabbed the scotch from the mini bar in his room. The bottle had only helped slightly at keeping his nightmares at bay that night. He was sure to up the dose the next night. And the next. . .

The bartender came over and poured him another whiskey, careful not to let the neck of the bottle touch the glass.

"Need some more ice?" the bartender asked.

Krycek shook his head and lifted the glass. He downed the whiskey in one shot, his tongue and teeth careful to keep the ice remnants out of his mouth.

And the gamblers kept pulling at the one-armed bandits. The bells kept ringing. And the dollars and quarters -- which were pretty much worthless but no one had seemed to realize this yet - - kept falling and clinking against the metal trays.

And a bored Alex Krycek went back to swirling the ice in his glass.




Somewhere in Nevada

Roberta Parks sat on the floor of her sparse room with her back against the cold cement wall. She slowly bounced her head against the wall. Matthew was in the corner, drawing various blobs of art. She, however, was now plagued with boredom.

There had been no escape from their quarters for several days now. And no answer from the guards when she questioned them as to why. And it had been several days since Mother Abagail had come to her in her dreams. There was no escape. Nothing to ponder. Nothing to wrap her mind around.

The ennui had entrenched itself so deeply that she had resorted to reciting various song lyrics, snatches of poems she could remember, even phrases from Nabisco boxes.

"This package is sold by weight, not by volume. . . "

She had moved onto another category. "I'll take History for one- thousand, Alex," she mumbled. She tried to conjure up the words from the Declaration of Independence.

"When in the course of human events. . . . um. . . it becomes necessary. . ." She stopped and frowned. Why the hell couldn't ABC's Schoolhouse Rock have had a Declaration of Independence song? They had Conjunction Junction, the Interjection song (which was her personal favorite), and that annoying "I'm Just a Bill" thing. Damn. Another thing she should remember bites the dust. Well, if she couldn't recite the Declaration, thanks to Saturday morning television, she could sing the U. S. Constitution preamble.

"We the People In order to form a more perfect union. . . "

Damn.

". . . provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare a-and. . . "

Matthew dropped his crayon and stared at her.

". . . duh-duh-duh, duh. . . liberty, For ourselves and our prosperity, Do ordain and establish this Constitution O-of the. . . United States o-of America. "

Matthew burst into applause.

And even as she forced a smile and bent in a mock bow, Roberta's toughened heart broke a little as she realized Matthew would never know the significance of what she had forgotten.


August 14 Boulder, Colorado 1035 hours

The United States of America was a country proud of her traditions. The advent of the horseless carriage at the dawn of the twentieth century spawned more symbols related to rites of passage than nearly every other modern convention combined.

And, to Stu Redmond, Texas seemed to be the mother of most of those automotive rites. Summer nights consisting of beer, muscle cars and Chevy Pickups driven down dust-clouded country roads, an hour or two of cow-tipping, and then, feeling up Mary Jane Smithers in the backseat while Jerry Lee Lewis sang "Great Balls of Fire" on AM radio KRDA.

Then there was the strange male custom of tying anything under the sun to the back bumper of your buddy's car. Somehow, the tin can post-marriage ritual had devolved into steer skulls, metal trashcans, and rural mailboxes attached oh-so-quietly in the deep darkness of night to Bubba's Ford.

But none of those things, thought Stu as he looked in his rear view mirror. . . None of those things had fur and barked.

"What the hell?" Stu muttered as he slammed on the brakes and pulled over to the side of the road, forgetting that it was seriously doubtful he would be blocking other traffic. He got out and left the door open, the engine running.

Fluffy barreled toward him and at the last minute put on the brakes. Stu could have sworn that he saw a skidding smoke rise from under Fluffy's paws.

"What is it, boy?" Stu asked.

Fluffy barked between pants.

"I don't understand. . ." Stu exclaimed impatiently. He had more important things to tend to than a riled up canine. Things like the whereabouts of one Mother Abagail. A small search party had already started looking and he was on his way to join them.

Fluffy was too wound up to be patient. He jumped into the front seat of Stu's truck and barked once more.

"Stu, you there?" The CB radio in the truck crackled to life withRalph's friendly drawl.

Stu looked at the dog and then moved to answer the radio.

"Yeah, I'm here, Ralph. "

"You got an ETA? We're dividing up territory for the search. And in the middle of it we got a kid down here who was bustin' up some windows in the abandoned houses. We're not sure what to do with him. "

Stu sighed. Mischief. This is what happened when you started getting everybody back together in a semblance of civilization. Some of the natives were bound to get restless. And at seriously inopportune times. They needed to focus on finding the missing Mother Abagail.

"Gimme about twenty, Ralph. I got a dog in my truck and I've got to get him back up to Mulder's or they'll get worried. "

"10-4, Stu. Tell them howdy for me. "

"Will do. Over and out." Stu put the radio mike back in its holder. Then he heaved himself up into the driver's seat, pushing Fluffy over to the passenger side. "Move over, boy. I'll take you home. Scully's gonna have your hide when she hears you've been playin' in the street. "


Stu forgot his admonishment to Fluffy as soon as the dog led him around to the back of the house. Mulder was writhing on the ground and Scully was in obvious distress as she knelt beside him.

Scully looked up as Fluffy ran to her side. Relief spread over her face. "Stu! Help me! It's his appendix. . . "

Stu tamped down the dread in the pit of his stomach. He had seen this only a few weeks before. That outcome had not been good.

Scully squeezed Mulder's hand one more time. "Stu's here, Mulder, and we're going to get you to the clinic. Just hang on a little longer. "

"Sure thing, Scully. But I hope you won't be disappointed if I scream just a little bit. . . ah. . ." Mulder grimaced and tightened his hold on his side.

Stu knelt down beside him, looking to Scully for guidance. "How's it hangin' there, Mulder," he tried to joke, but the concern was evident in his eyes. And Mulder was too busy groaning to hear the question.

"Look, Stu," Scully began to instruct. "We need to lift him and get him into the back of your truck. "

Stu looked at Scully and then looked at Mulder. Mulder was too heavy to carry all the way around the house. "Look, Dana. I'll bring the truck back here. . . less carrying time. "

Scully nodded her approval and Stu ran back to his truck. Scully reached over to Fluffy and pulled him to her. "Good job, Fluffy," she murmured into his ear as she took solace in the dog's strength. "Thank you. "




Boulder Clinic
1100 hours

Stu had called Ralph on the radio as soon as they hit the road. Ralph put the scramble on and got all the right people to the clinic -- that being their resident vet/doctor Dick Ellis and his newly appointed assistant, Susan Stern. Then there were the concerned friends whose job it would be to pace the floors of the waiting room. Ralph, Tom, and Glen were there. So was Harold Lauder, who was making a great show of "being a man" and saying things like "I'm sure everything will be just fine. There's nothing to worry about. "

But Harold was truest to himself when Stu's truck pulled up and then men put Mulder and a gurney and wheeled him into the clinic, passing the small waiting throng. Harold almost puked when he saw Mulder's pale face and when he heard Mulder's guttural cries of pain. Harold slunk back to the far wall of the waiting room.

The flurry of activity slowed as the doors to the makeshift O. R. swung shut, leaving all non-medical personnel behind. Stu walked over to the far wall and he swept the beads of sweat from his forehead with his hand.

He couldn't get past the not so distant memory from their time on the road. He had traveled here with Fran, Harold, and Glen. And others. One young man had been with them. Along with his older girlfriend. The man had been struck down with appendicitis. They had all tried to help. Had even found an old surgery book and some surgical instruments in a doctor's office. Stu had been the surgeon. But the man had died not long after Stu made the first cut. The girlfriend overdosed on pills a short time later. Suicide in the face of hopelessness. He shuddered at the dark memory.

"Stu?" Tom asked the all-consuming question with one word.

"It'll be all right. Mulder is in good hands," he responded, hoping it was true.




Dick Ellis and Susan Stern had made the most of their prep time. Ralph had been sent out to rev up the emergency generator. They had a table ready. Anesthesia was good to go. The i. v. was standing by. So was the intubation tray and the assortment of surgical instruments. Only two things concerned Dick. Would Mulder make it to them before his appendix burst and would he be able to remember those nice neat stitches he learned in school? Most of his patients weren't overly concerned with scarring since fur usually covered the evidence. . .

The doors burst open and Mulder was there. And Mulder was not quiet when he saw Dick.

"Scully? Isn't Dick a vet? I'm not barking here," Mulder questioned nervously.

"Hey, we have an advantage here over my regular patients. You only have two legs. Besides, real doctors work on more than one species." When Mulder only stared at him through gritted teeth, Dick continued. "I assure you. I can do this in my sleep. "

"Fine, Doc. As long as you do this in *my* sleep I'll be happy. Now give me some drugs!" Mulder moaned.

"Is he always this way?" Dick turned to Scully.

"Only on his good days," she replied as she forced a smile and brushed the hair from Mulder's forehead.

"Then let's get to work and get him on the table, folks," Dick returned to business.

They moved Mulder onto the table and Dick took charge. He leaned over Mulder to explain what was happening while Scully went into autodrive as she helped Susan prep the patient. She grabbed the scissors and Mulder's shirt fell by the wayside. The pants went next.

Dick leaned over Mulder to reassure him.

"Okay, Mulder. We're gonna get an i. v. going in a second and then we're going to get you gassed up and feeling good. I'm gonna intubate you for the procedure, but you won't even know it. And I'll try and keep the scar small, okay?"

"Sure, Doc. Just remember this is not a neutering procedure, okay?"

Dick smirked. He had the i. v. inserted quickly. As Susan moved to put the mask over Mulder's face, Dick couldn't resist the urge to lean over and pat Mulder on the head. "Good boy, atsa good boy," he murmured.

As the gas hit Mulder, his eyes rolled back in his head, his eyes fluttered shut, and he tried not to scratch himself with his left leg.




1200 hours

Fluffy was sitting directly in front of the operating room doors, his head on his paws, when the doors finally opened. A very relieved looking Dick Ellis stepped outside to face the waiting throngs. Fluffy shuffled up to an alert position, his paws sliding on the linoleum floor.

"Well, Dick?" Ralph prodded.

Dick gave an exhausted but relieved smile. "You got him here just in the nick of time, Stu. Mulder came through the surgery well. We've got him on i. v. antibiotics and, barring any infections, he should be just fine. "

"That's damn good news, Doc," Stu exhaled and crossed the room to shake Dick's hand.

Ralph jumped over to a bag stashed on a nearby table and pulled out a bottle of water. He crossed over to Dick. "Here ya' go, Dick. Good job! "

Dick took the water with a nod of thanks as he fell back into one of the waiting room chairs. "I confess I was a bit worried. But the FBI must make 'em tough. He's one lucky G-Man. "

Harold's ears perked up. FBI? What the hell?

"How's Dana doing?" Glen asked.

"She'll be fine. She was something in surgery. You'd a never guessed that she used to work on dead folks doing autopsies and such. I imagine she'll be glued to Mulder's side for a while." Dick replied. He took a swig of water before continuing. "Is there any word on Mother Abagail yet?"

Ralph shook his head. "Nope. And we need to get out there lookin' again. "

"Well, while you guys get to work, I should get back to my patient," Dick said as he stood and headed back into the O. R.

"He's right, fellas." Stu agreed. He turned to Tom. "Tommy. Why don't you stay here and keep Fluffy company. And you can help Dana if she needs anything. "

"Sure, Stu. I can do that. M-O-O-N. That spells help. I sure hope you find Mother Abagail. "

"We do, too, Tom," Stu answered as he, Glen, and Ralph headed out the door.

Harold Lauder shuffled slowly behind them. He was still reeling from the information that Mulder and Scully were FBI agents. Would that force him to change his plans? He had known something was different about them. He had just had no idea *how* different. His mind went into high gear.

He was going to have to do something about these agents or else all could be lost.

As Harold finally reached the door, Fluffy raised his head. There was an evil odor in the room and it was coming from Harold. Fluffy let loose a deep, guttural growl. Tom Cullen was confused and he sat down beside the dog and scratched his ears.

"What's the matter, fella? Dick says that Mulder's gonna be okay. "

Fluffy's eyes followed Harold as the young man exited the building. Only then did his growling stop. He walked away from Tom and planted himself back in front of the door to the operating room. He knew he had to keep himself between Harold Lauder and his friends, Mulder and Scully.




1500 Hours

Scully stood from her chair at Mulder's bedside and stretched her lower back. Maybe the new world order could do something about the old, unbelievably uncomfortable hospital chairs. She stepped over to Mulder and let her hand rest on his chest.

Mulder was resting comfortably now. The surgery had been quick, with no unexpected complications. Dick Ellis had been superb. Mulder had roused about fifteen minutes later, singing "Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head," but had quickly gone back to sleep, thanks to a nifty shot of Demerol. He had been in and out of reality ever since. But everything looked good. For that she was grateful.

"Hey, Dana. How's our patient?" Susan Stern stuck her head in the doorway.

"He's been asleep for about thirty minutes now. His vitals are strong," Scully answered.

Susan stepped inside and put her hand on Scully's shoulder. "Then why don't you take a little break, eh?"

"I don't think. . . "

"Don't be silly. He's not going anywhere. And if he tries, I'll be right here while you're out." She turned Scully to face her. "Besides, Dana. Pardon the expression, but you look like shit. You need to go eat something. Grab some water or soda. "

Scully bowed her head and raised her hand to knead the muscles at the back of her neck. Susan had a point. She did feel like shit. She was tired and she had more than the beginnings of a tension headache. She sighed.

"Look," Susan began, "Tom rustled up some sandwiches and stuff. The food's all in the lounge across the hall. Dick has been storing equipment and supplies there from the animal hospital down the street, but we already cleared a spot at the table for you. Go. "

Scully nodded. She leaned over Mulder and kissed his forehead. "Be right back, G-Man. "

She exited the room and was met by a very anxious Fluffy.

"Hey, Furball. You being good?" She asked as she scratched his neck. Fluffy was ecstatic to receive her attention.

"Fluffy's a great dog," Tom answered. "He and I were about to go out to play for a while. "

"Sounds like a good idea, right, Furface?" Scully kissed Fluffy on the head just before she stood. "I'm just grabbing a bite to eat, Tom. You all go ahead outside. "

"Are you sure, Dana? Do you need anythin' else? Stu said I should help you," Tom asked, his hands stuffed down the front pockets of his large overalls.

Scully smiled. "I'm fine, Tom. Mulder will be fine. Besides, Susan said you already got some sandwiches for us. Thank you. And thanks for taking such good care of Fluffy. "

"It weren't nothing. "

"Well, thanks anyway," Scully insisted. "Now. You two go outside and play. It's a nice day for it." Scully crossed the room and went into the lounge, closing the door behind her.

"Let's go, boy," Tom called as he headed for the door.

But Fluffy now refused to budge. He looked at Tom and then he looked at the lounge door. Tom came over and tried to grab Fluffy by the collar, intending to nudge him out the door.

"C'mon, Fluffy. You heard Dana. She told us to go outside and play. "

Fluffy wriggled away and yipped once. The sense of urgency in his stomach was beginning to boil. He ran to the lounge door and planted himself beside it.

"Dang dog. What's got into you?" Tom pouted.

Scully walked over to the counter and looked through the food offerings. The sandwiches weren't fancy -- it looked like a cornucopia of Underwood Deviled Ham offerings -- but the bread was fresh and homemade. She grabbed one and unwrapped it from the cellophane cover. Then she grabbed a bottle of Lipton Iced Tea and headed for the table.

Susan hadn't been kidding. Dick had brought over all sorts of items from the Animal Hospital. Boxes of stuff. She idly rummaged through a few of the boxes. Small catheters, accessories for x-ray and scanning devices. . . an Avid scanner. She stopped. An Avid Scanner? She remembered Fluffy and the unusual tattoo on his leg. Could he have a microchip?

She looked up when she heard a scratching at the door. Speaking of Fluffy. . . She turned the scanner over in her hand. Avid scanners could read all kinds of microchips placed in animals, ones made by different manufacturers. Maybe she could run this over Fluffy and see what happened. . .

The scratching at the door became more insistent. And now, Fluffy was barking.

But Scully couldn't hear the dog clearly. Her head seemed to be covered in cotton. Her vision was narrowing. She was dimly aware of what was starting. She turned toward the door and took a step. Two steps. She felt the warmth on her upper lip. She raised her hand to her nose.

And the flow became a torrent of blood. Her legs collapsed and she fell to the floor.

Fluffy howled at the door and began to ram it with his body. . .


CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR

"Diana's words came in the same matter-of-fact tone. 'Well, it's important that we learn the most effective and efficient methods to be used against them. ' The woman reached into another cage, then grasped a large, fluffy guinea pig. As the terrified creature squeaked and struggled, she opened her mouth - wider, wider - her jawbone seemingly dislocated at the last second, and she lowered the frantic animal between her lips. "
-- "V" by A. C. Crispin


Somewhere North

The man sat just to the side of the road, his palms splayed against the ground. The afternoon sun burned into the earth and he felt the warmth reverberate from his worn fingertips to his aching shoulders.

He had been on walkabout. Most men did walkabout to have dreams and visions. He did it to escape them. It wasn't working.

He'd lost his family long ago. At least he thought it was a long time ago. Recent history had made time subjective. He did know that they were gone before the Superflu took everyone else. And now, when he tried to picture their faces, he wasn't sure if he remembered them as they really were, or just just how he *thought* they were. He even had to say their names aloud from time to time, just to remember. He was not sure of his own name now. And it wasn't terribly important anymore. Names were only important to differentiate you from others. Others were few and far between.

When the flu had hit and everyone around him was dropping like wasps in a cloud of Raid, he had tried to catch it. He had carried sick folks to the hospital. He had lugged the earliest bodies to the overstocked morgue. He had made it a point not to wear gloves or a mask. The sick had sneezed and coughed their phlegmy last breaths upon him. He was covered in green and yellow snot and germs. Yet he had survived with nary a tickle at the back of his throat.

His life since then had been an exercise in aggressive carelessness. Outright suicide was out of the question. His old beliefs still ran too deep. Along with a promise he had made to someone special long ago. So, he had placed everything in the hands of fate. When faced with either one hell of a mountain route or a "kind to grandmothers" level plain, he took the high climb. He drove motorcycles that had seen better days at high speeds across highways littered with dead cars filled with dead and rotting people.

And in spite of his "man is an island and a neutral country" policy, he had interfered with more than one yahoo who had grandiose plans of raping and pillaging. Armed yahoos.

But, for whatever reason, he had always emerged unscathed. Mountains were climbed. Highways were navigated. And the yahoos were all dead, courtesy of Smith and Wesson and Glock. Life's a bitch and then you live.

The would-be victims were always sent on their way. Away from him. He rarely spoke. One of the women he rescued had dubbed him "Clint Eastwood." He preferred John Doe. It reminded him of Gary Cooper. Several of the women had asked him if he would go with them to Nebraska or Colorado. He had simply walked away.

Oh, the Old Woman had talked to him in the middle of the night. She had called him by his old name. But so had the Dark Man. He had tried to block both of them out of his head. Valium had helped for awhile, but soon he was having to up the doses to reach success. The doses were getting too high. Then came the booze. But bourbon had made the dreams worse. The Dark Man always came when he drank bourbon.

So he chose the simple road of ignoring it to make it go away. When the Old Woman called him to Nebraska and Colorado, he went north. When the Dark Man summoned him to Nevada, he headed farther north. Now he was traveling in circles. For some reason, perhaps some embedded patriotism, he hesitated to cross the old border into Canada. He bounced north, then west, then south, then east, to north again.

He had no idea where those circles would lead him.




Dana Scully sat just to the side of the road, her fingers splayed across the guardrail that stood between her and a most precipitous drop down the green and rocky mountain side.

It was a long way down -- and a long way up. The problem was, as she turned around to glimpse the peak above, she had no idea which way she had been headed. She didn't have a car or a motorcycle. How had she gotten here? And where was here? There were no highway marker signs in sight.

The only sound was the wind. No birds. No insects. The sky above was an odd color of fiery red -- like an angry sunset. The clouds seemed to be unnaturally stretched across the horizon. The heavens seemed low, close to the earth. It was enough to make her feel claustrophobic. And very alone.

She looked back over the rail, scanning the area for anything that might pinpoint her location.

"Nice view, huh?"

The man's voice came from behind Scully. She spun around, her hand automatically reaching toward the gun she always kept near the small of her back. But her hand came up empty as she faced him. Her gun wasn't there. She raised her hands into a defensive position, her feet shifting on the ground for better balance.

"Whoa! Take it easy," the man exclaimed, his hands raised in a gesture of surrender. "I come in peace," the man tried to joke.

Scully looked him over from his brown haired head to his boot clad toes. He appeared to be about thirty-five years old. He wore a brown bomber jacket and blue jeans. The frayed cuffs of his denim shirt stuck out from under his jacket sleeves. His hands were tanned and weather beaten. But his fingergnails were clean and well-manicured.

"You can't be too careful these days," Scully stated cautiously.

"No, you can't," the man agreed.

"So," Scully continued, "You won't mind if I ask you stay right over there. "

"No problem, ma'am. I'll just sit right here." He sat down on the guardrail, some ten feet away from Scully.

"How'd you get here? I didn't hear you," Scully asked.

"Oh, I'm just hoofin' it. Breakin' in these boots, so to speak," he answered. "Where you headed?"

Scully was not inclined to answer him. She glanced back down the mountain side. Something wasn't right. She didn't know this guy. She was supposed to be with another.

"I just came from down there. Not much to see. I'm headed to the top now," he tilted his head into the sun, facing the mountain summit. "Got to be better up there. "

Scully didn't respond.

"By the way," he continued as he stuck out his right hand, "My name is Ron Banner. "

Scully appraised him once more. She didn't move to shake his hand, but she did acknowledge him. "My name is Dana. "

"Nice to meet you, Dana. So. Wanna join me on the trek to the top?" Banner smiled invitingly.

Scully hesitated. Something was gnawing at her gut. "No, thanks. I think I need to stay here for a bit. "

"Whatever for, Dana? There isn't anything here for you. "

"I think. . ." Scully stammered. "I think I'm supposed to be somewhere else. Someone else should be here. . ." She bit her lip, fearing she had said too much.

"Are you sure? I could use some company on the way up. . . "

"Yes. I think I'm going to head down there." Scully was uncomfortable. Her head was beginning to hurt. Right behind the sinuses.

"Oh, Dana. I'd think you want to go up. Why go down where you've already been. I thought you were more adventurous that that." His voice held disappointment. But it wasn't the kind of disappointment a friend or parent would show. The kind that wants you, expects you to be a better person. No. This was the pout of a petulant child.

Scully shifted uneasily. She hadn't told Banner that she had been at the bottom of the mountain already. *She* didn't even know that. She began to back away from him. "No. I think I'll be going now. You can go ahead and climb to the top if you want. "

"No. I think you should come with me," he said as he stood up and walked toward her.

"Stay back!" Scully warned. Her heart began to race as she stared at his face. It was transforming into someone else. As if a facade on a building was chipped away to reveal the true nature of the ugly structure beneath. The pieces kept falling away. *Banner. He said his name was Banner. A banner is a flag. Flagg is the Dark Man. *"Oh my god," she mumbled as she comprehended the sick joke.

He jumped forward with lightning speed. There was no time for her to prepare her footing. He held her arm in a vice like grip.

"Time to climb, Dana," he sneered, his face a bright blood red. "I think I've been patient enough!" And he began to drag her toward the uphill roadway.

"Get away from me, you son of a bitch!" Scully struggled back. She kicked at him, but he deftly avoided her feet. Then she fought back with gravity, becoming dead weight as he dragged her. When his grip relaxed slightly as he tried to adjust his hold, Scully seized the opportunity. She swept her right leg into the back of his knees, knocking him onto his back.

Scully scrambled back, trying to regain her balance as she stumbled to her feet. The blood pounded in her head with a frantic, painful rhythm.

"Scully! "

She spun around, looking for who was calling her. Was it Mulder? Her vision was fading. Her hands flew up to help her find her way. When they hit something hard, she realized she was back at the guardrail.

"Scully!" the voice cried again.

"Mulder!" She frantically called. "Mulder! "

Flagg was upon her in a heartbeat, grabbing her around the waist. She wrapped her hands around the guard rail and refused to let go.

"Now, now, Dana. That isn't playing fair. I just wanted to show you. . ." he began to tug with forceful jerks. . . "the. . . nice. . . view! "

But Scully kicked him in the kneecap on his last tug. He growled in anger as he released his hold upon her. She tightened her grip on the rail even as she raised her right leg to kick Flagg in the face.

Flagg was ready for her, but his rage had gotten the better of him. He grabbed her leg midair in an iron grip and bellowed as he heaved her into the air. "You bitch! "

Scully felt herself rise up and over the guardrail. She was falling end over end, down the mountainside. . . She closed her eyes as she waited for the inevitable. "Mulder!" She screamed with her last breath.

Flagg's chest heaved with each breath as he looked over the rail, realizing what he had done.

He threw his head back and roared.




Boulder Clinic
August 23
2000 Hours

He lifted his head from the chair back and spoke.

"A lot's happened this week, ScullyLet's see. What haven't I told you? We covered my brand new scar. . . told you that I think that guy Brad has the hots for Susan. Oh! Did I mention that Fluffy has a new friend? Glen's dog Kojak made it to town the other day. Just walked in out of the blue. He was all beat up. Had to walk the several hundred miles from where Glen and Stu and their gang had to leave him 'cause they couldn't get him on their motorcycles. . . but, wow. He honed right in on Glen. Amazing. Dick Ellis is thrilled to have a dog for a patient instead of another FBI agent. "

Mulder gingerly leaned forward in his chair and lifted Scully's hand from her bed. He slowly traced each of her fingers, memorized each line on her palm. Such pale fingers. Such strong yet fragile hands.

"C'mon, Scully. It's time to wake up," Mulder spoke softly. There was no response.

He slid back in his chair with a slight grimace. His sweatpants were better than jeans, but the waistband still cut into the stitches from his appendectomy. The discomfort was a constant reminder that all of this was real. Not some nightmare.

It had been nine days since Dick Ellis had carved him open. Nine days since Scully had collapsed, covered in her own blood. He had awoken a few hours later, expecting to see Scully's face beaming over him, expecting to see her raise her eyebrow and hear her warn him not to pull any more stunts like that again. But Susan Stern was there instead.

His fingers drummed against the bedsheets in an ever quickening rhythm.

Dick had rounded up several folks in Boulder who had the same blood type as Scully. Even without all of the fancy equipment they'd had in Washington, D. C. , he had been able to stabilize Scully within a few hours.

A "real" people doctor had arrived in town the next day. George Richardson was an older man, full of down home bedside manner and plenty of valuable experience. He had taken charge of Scully's case from a relieved Dick. George expected Scully to wake up anytime now, explaining that her body had been saving energy to heal itself and that's why she was still unconscious. But the news still wasn't good.

His right knee bounced as his agitated heel tapped on the floor.

She wasn't going to get much better. All they could do was put the equivalent of a small bandaid on the large evil that invaded her body.

It was a miracle that Scully had survived this long. He fingered the cross that he still wore around his neck, sliding it back and forth on the chain. Dammit. Mulder wanted another miracle. He surged out his chair, ignoring his side, and leaned over Scully, his hands on either side of her shoulders.

"Dammit, Scully. Wake up! Scully! We did not come this fucking far just for you to give up in the middle of bum-frickin' Colorado. Matthew is out there and we still have to find him! Wake up! "

The door burst open and Susan Stern and George Richardson barged into the room. Fluffy stuck his head inside from his sentry post in the hallway, but did not want to face a loud Mulder.

"Mulder, what the hell are you doing?" Susan ordered, her hands on her hips.

"Hey, Doc. Susan. Maybe you can settle an argument here between me and Scully. We both agree that you shouldn't drink out of the milk carton because you leave germs. But, can you take a swig from a bottle of Listerine?" Mulder asked sarcastically. He was drained from his outburst and his long vigil. He pulled himself up from the bed and shuffled back into his chair. But he still kept hold of Scully's hand.

Susan looked to George for guidance.

"Mulder, you're exhausted. You need to get some sleep," George gently stated. Susan moved over to the bed and straightened the sheets, checked the i. v. lines.

"No. I'm not leaving," Mulder stated as fact.

"There's a bed just down the hall. I've got it all ready for you," Susan offered.

"No. "

They were at a stand still.

"It's pointless to argue with him," a small voice whispered from the bed. "I should know. "

"Scully?" Mulder's voice broke with relief.

There was a flurry of activity as George and Susan maneuvered around Mulder to check the condition of their now aware patient. Fluffy bounded in with an excited bark but Susan deflected him from the bed with a straight right leg block to the side.

"How are you feeling, Miss Scully?" George asked.

Scully blinked her eyes a few times to clear the film of coma- induced sleep and focused on the new doctor with some puzzlement. For a moment, she wasn't sure if she was truly awake or if she was in some strange dream. . . where people weren't what they were supposed to be. Then she saw Mulder hovering over her again. She calmed.

She cleared her throat before answering. "Water would be good," she rasped and licked her parched lips. "And some Listerine, if Mulder hasn't gotten to it first," she added as she squeezed Mulder's hand.

Mulder jumped into action and poured a cup of water from the pitcher on the bedstand. He stuck in the straw and bent it to an accommodating angle. With his free hand, he helped Scully lift her head so she could take a much appreciated sip. She lay back again, exhausted from the simple effort.

"Where is Dick?" Scully asked, her eyes closed.

"This is George Richardson, Dana. He came into town last week and we're lucky to have him. He was chief of staff at his community hospital in Green Valley, Arizona," Susan explained.

"We're gonna take good care of you, Dana. And you've got some friends here that have been mighty impatient for you to wake up," George informed her as he looked pointedly at Mulder and Fluffy, who was now laying in the corner of the room.

"What happened?" Scully asked.

"You had another. . . episode, Scully," Mulder answered.

"Luckily, Fluffy was there and got everyone's attention so we found you right away," Susan added. She didn't mention the fact that Tom Cullen was so upset that he tried to hide in broom closet after he found Dick. For some reason, he had thought that he was the cause of Scully's illness. But Dick had convinced him it wasn't his fault and had gotten the man to go and help find blood donors for Scully.

"Dick Ellis gave you a transfusion and lots of fluids. . . got you stabilized. He did an amazing job considering the lack of working equipment and supplies. We did manage to get the x-ray equipment up and running and took one series. . ." George let his voice taper off. He knew that Scully was a doctor.

"I can guess what it showed," Scully whispered.

George shook his head in frustration. "I'm sorry we don't have more sophisticated equipment in running order. And it's going to take time to train people to use what we do have. "

"It's okay, Dr. Richardson. I understand. There's not much you could do anyway." She paused and looked at Mulder. "We've been down this road before," she added before succumbing to a series of weak coughs.

When they subsided, Mulder handed her a kleenex to wipe her mouth.

"We had to intubate you for a little while so I expect your throat will be a bit scratchy for a few days. But, you need your rest now, Dana," George said, raising his hand to stop Mulder before the younger man could say anything. "Your visitors can stay as long as they let you rest. I think they'll be good medicine for you. "

Mulder gave the doctor a look of thanks.

"We'll get some ice chips for you in a sec -- we're the only ones in town with ice, so use 'em -- And I'll have someone bring you some dinner in a little while. We need to get some food into you, bring your energy level back up. Eat as much as you can, okay?"

Scully nodded. George and Susan started for the door. "Now, get some rest," George instructed. "That means no talking, Mulder. "

"Thanks, Doc," Mulder nodded gratefully.

The door closed and they were alone.

"Hey," Mulder said as he caressed the back of Scully's hand with his thumb.

"Hey," she responded.

Mulder leaned forward and kissed her forehead.

She smiled, but a second later her body jerked with a start as she remembered. "Mother Abagail! Have they found her?"

"No," Mulder shook his head. "There's no word. They stopped the active search two days ago. It was just too much of drain of man power. And Mother Abagail's note made it pretty clear she didn't want to be found. "

"But. . . "

"Later, Scully. Rest now. I'll fill you in on everything later. "

"But how are *you* doing?" Scully insisted, trying to see his side through his loose shirt.

"I'm fine, Scully. No complications from surgery. Just a little sore. Rest. Now. I'll be here when you wake up and we'll talk more." He leaned over and pulled the bed sheets up to her shoulders, tucking her in. Then he leaned over and kissed her again.

Scully's eyes slowly closed. She had so many questions, and she wanted to tell Mulder the fuzzy details she remembered of her strange dream, but sleep descended upon her like a sea of fog, its waves washing out all thought.

Mulder relaxed in his chair with a tight smile, finally taking time to acknowledge to himself that his side was, indeed, sore. He pulled his blanket from the back of the chair and draped it over himself. He was careful to make sure that he fell asleep facing Scully. His breathing slowed and deepened as he got his first real rest in over a week.

Fluffy remained in the corner. He was relieved to see Mulder and Scully both sleeping peacefully. And he was satisfied that the young man who always smelled mean, Harold, had not been back to the hospital. The threat level was down -- for now.

Fluffy let his head drop down onto his paws. He took a deep breath and let it out with a sigh. He needed to stay alert, but he also needed some rest. This might be the best chance to sleep. There were friends just outside the door. Yes. He would sleep. But he would keep one ear open.




August 25
2200 Hours

It had been a busy week for Harold Lauder. Tonight, he sat in his dark living room, reclined on the couch in his boxer shorts, a can of Coors in his hand. A nice warm beer after a hard day's work. He let out a small belch. He frowned. Even his burping ability could be seen as weak.

Never mind. What he lacked in noxious fumes, he had made up for in other ways this week. Woo boy, had he.

His first success had been at the town meeting on the eighteenth. In front of some six hundred spectators -- a number that surprised even him -- he had shocked the hell out of Mr. Stuart Redmond when he proposed that Stu, Fran, Nick, and their cronies be elected as the Town Council. He hadn't insinuated himself onto the committee as he knew Stu had expected. Instead, he had thrust himself forward as a good and upright citizen of Boulder. Eat that, Stu!

He took a swig of beer. And grimaced. He had never liked beer. Never understood anyone who did. It was nasty and bitter and had a habit of getting caught in the dam of his throat. But, he thought as he took yet another drink, such were the things you did to try and fit in. And he was doing just that for the first time in his life. It was a confusing feeling.

He had joined the least popular, yet the most respected committee. The Burial Committee. The name was merely a euphemism. It should have been called the "Go into every building and find all the leaky, disgusting dead people, haul 'em away, and burn 'em before everyone dies of disease Committee." Not many people stayed on the committee for more than one day. Harold kept going back each morning. Which meant he and the other regulars had formed some kind of bond. He wasn't used to that. He needed to shrug it off because he couldn't go down that road anymore. He had to keep focused on his plan.

Randall Flagg had helped Harold cross another line that week. "Cross" another line. . . Harold laughed. Nadine Cross, an older woman, had shown up at his doorstep. She was all dressed up and ready to be of service. Harold had shortly thereafter received the first and most amazing blowjob of his life. He was a man now. Granted, apparently normal sexual intercourse was a no-no - - according to Nadine -- but Harold didn't have a great problem with that. As long as the blowjobs kept coming. He had always been better at receiving than giving.

He lifted his right arm and flexed his bicep muscles. Amazing. Hard work had a way of filling a body out, even if the owner still did have a penchant for PayDay candy bars during times of stress. For just a moment, he had a fleeting thought of remorse. In a perfect world, Fran Goldsmith would look at him now and fall at his feet. And Harold would have given her the world. He dropped his arm. The world wasn't perfect, and he had already made his pact with the devil. There was no turning back now.

And he could hear the clock ticking above his head. Someone was getting suspicious. He had seen signs that someone had been snooping inside his house. Luckily, they hadn't found his journal. The one he kept hidden behind a loose rock in the fireplace. The one that expressed his true feelings for everyone in Boulder. But the fact that they were looking was warning enough. He had a short list of names on his burglary suspect list. Stu, Fran. . . and the FBI agents. He would need to take some decisive action.

Harold Lauder knew his time in Boulder was running out.


CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE

"Ah, ha, ha, ha, Stayin' alive, Stayin' alive. . . "
- The Bee Gees


August 30
Boulder
1800 hours

Scully sat on the back deck of the house nursing her tea. She wrapped her hand around the mug, gauging its heat. The liquid had just now reached the perfect temperature. Not too hot, not too cool. As Goldilocks would say, "Just right! "

It had taken exactly four-hundred and twenty-nine of her heartbeats for the tea to reach this point after Mulder poured the boiling water over the tea bag. She had counted each one. To his credit, Mulder hadn't said anything when he brought her the tea and noticed her fingers on the pulse point in her wrist. His eyes had narrowed a bit, but he remained silent. He had carefully set down the mug next to the bear-shaped honey bottle and the plate for the used tea bag, then he walked back inside.

Four-hundred and twenty-nine down, she had no idea how many or how few to go. They had taken so long to count, but had passed by so quickly. Yet, so much could happen in those fast four- hundred and twenty-nine numbers. What was Matthew doing during those beats? Was he laughing or crying? Sleeping or playing? Was he alone? Did he have his finger shoved up his nose in his favorite pose?

She laid her head back against the deck lounger. From his sprawled position beside her chair, Fluffy released a snorted sigh. He hadn't moved during the entire countdown. For that matter, he hadn't left her side since George released her from the hospital yesterday morning.

There had been no point to extending her hospital stay. There was little George could do for her beyond making her comfortable. And she was much more comfortable at home -- what had become her home of sorts -- with Mulder. Besides, it was a drain on the hospital's resources to keep her there. It had taken alot of attention and precious fuel to keep the generator running for her room.

Physically, she was weak. Her body was still recovering from the blood loss. But, she had suffered no more episodes since the main event. She just needed rest. Her mental well-being was another matter. It did not want to rest. It wanted her to get on the road immediately to find Matthew, before it was too late. The promise to Mother Abagail be damned. Time was a-wastin'.

She leaned over and scratched Fluffy's neck. "What do you know, boy? I'm just as impatient as Mulder," she mumbled. She shivered in the cooling air.

Fluffy took the scratch and the conversation as an invitation to join her on the lounge chair. He inched his way up and slowly insinuated himself beside her, his nose and paws finding a way under and around her right leg. She gave in after a few seconds and soon the whole dog was on board, his head resting contentedly on top of her thigh.

She scratched his ears, enjoying the feel of his soft fur on her fingers. Then she lifted his head and leaned forward to look at him eye to eye. "Ya' know, fur face, I think it's almost time for you to have a bath. I know Mulder didn't give you one this week. "

Under normal circumstances Fluffy would have whined and protested, but this time was different. He liked getting attention from Scully, even if it meant he had to suffer the indignities water and soap could bring to a dog of his caliber. He quickly stuck out his tongue and licked Scully's face.

"Yuck!" she laughed as she wiped the doggie spit from her cheek.

"Fluffy!" Mulder shouted as he came out onto the deck, a blanket in his hand.

"It's okay, Mulder," Scully responded, rubbing Fluffy's head again. "Fluffy's just being my leg warmer," she added.

Mulder stared at the dog doubtfully. Fluffy stared back with big brown innocent eyes -- albeit eyes with a triumphant gleam. "The sun's going down soon. I thought you might like a blanket," Mulder stated as he held the blanket up for her to inspect.

"Thank you, Mulder. I'm sure Fluffy and I both appreciate your thoughtfulness," Scully answered with a soft grin.

Mulder grumbled good-naturedly as he helped Scully lean forward and he draped the blanket over her shoulders. "The dog can get his own blanket," he mumbled with a smirk toward Fluffy. Then he turned serious, letting his hand drift to smooth Scully's hair where the blanket had mussed it.

"Dinner will be ready soon. Do you need anything for now?"

"We're fine, Mulder. I think I might just take a nap for little bit. "

"Do you want to go inside?"

"No. I'm fine here. We'll be just fine. "

"Okay. If it doesn't get too cold, maybe we can just eat out here tonight," Mulder said.

Scully nodded. He leaned over and kissed her gently. It was just an illusion of domestic bliss, but he wasn't in the mood to shatter it just now.

As Scully closed her eyes to sleep, she caressed Fluffy's head, reminding herself that she needed to talk to Dick about scanning Fluffy with the Avid scanner. She kept forgetting to do that. . .

Mulder went back inside. And as he tinkered around the hot wood stove, he prayed for more time. "Mother Abagail, where are you?"




1900 hours

"Coming!" Mulder yelled as he ran to answer the knock at the front door, a damp dish towel still tossed over his shoulder.

Stu stood at the front door, an arrangement of wildflowers clenched in his hand.

"For me, Stu? You shouldn't have!" Mulder exclaimed as Stu stepped inside.

"Very funny, Mulder. Fran sent these over for Dana," Stu countered as he thrust the flowers forward awkwardly.

"Hang on to those for a sec and you can deliver those to the lady yourself," Mulder said as he led Stu into the living room. "We just finished up dinner," he continued as he wiped his damp fingers on his towel.

Fluffy was dead to the world on his doggie bed in the corner. He lazily raised his head an inch to let everyone know he was still on the job but not feeling compelled to move since it was only Stu.

Scully was relaxing on the sofa. Stu headed toward her. "Dana, it's good to see you with some color in your cheeks!" Stu exclaimed as he leaned over and gave her a kiss on the cheek. He held out the flowers. "Here. Fran wanted me to give you these. "

"Thanks, Stu." She gently set the flowers down on the end table. "Has there been any word on Mother Abagail?"

Stu shook his head. "No. And you know I'll make sure you get the word as soon as I know anything. "

"I just made some coffee, you want some?" Mulder asked from the doorway, suddenly realizing that he was looking way too domesticated.

"No, no. I'm just fine. I just wanted to check in on you and maybe discuss a few things," Stu answered.

Scully gestured for Stu to sit and he chose an easy chair. Mulder joined them as he sat down beside Scully, sitting where she could lean back against him.

"So, what's the news?" Mulder asked.

"Well, the good news is that we might have the electricity runnin' again tomorrow. "

"That's great news," Scully responded. She ran her fingers through her hair. The idea of using a hair dryer again was enticing.

Mulder's eyes narrowed. "And what's the bad news?"

Stu chuckled for a moment. "No bad news tonight. Unless word about our growing bureaucracy can qualify as bad news. "

"It might," Mulder muttered, memories of Washington, D. C. red tape still flowing through his head.

"No, really. And this is a big part of why I'm here. We're having a meeting day after tomorrow at Nick and Ralph's house. All the council and the heads of the various committees. Sort of a progress report and planning meeting. And I think we could use your help, Dana. "

"Me?" she asked.

"Yeah." Stu paused. He bowed his head as he tried to come up with the right words. He was clearly uncomfortable.

"Just spit it out, Stu, before you choke," Mulder prodded.

"Well. I kinda got myself appointed as Sheriff of these here parts. . . "

"Oooh, Scully. I feel a Roy Rogers' song coming on. . ." Mulder quipped, although his tone clearly showed Stu that he approved of the appointment.

"Anyway," he looked to see if Mulder was going to wisecrack again. Mulder waved him on. "That sort of makes me the Public Safety chief for now. And some of us on the council have some concerns about the Burial Committee. "

"What concerns?" Scully leaned forward.

"Concerns about disease. I mean, the guys on the Burial detail are doing a great job. A job nobody else wants to touch. But we need to know if we're going about this business in the right way. We sure as hell don't want some epidemic sprouting up just as our population is passing the one-thousand mark. We need to check our procedures and then we oughta have some plan in place just in case folks do start getting sick. . . "

"You need to know if your. . . disposal methods are sound. And you need to know what signs and symptoms to look for in case something does start to break out," Scully continued his train of thought.

"Right. That's it!" Stu exclaimed, grateful Scully was in the gist of things.

"I don't know, Stu. Scully hasn't been out of the hospital for more than. . ." Mulder stopped when he caught Scully's look of frustration. She finally had a chance to feel useful. To have something important to do instead of just sit around the house waiting, and here he was cutting her off at the knees. "What about Dr. Richardson?" He finished.

"George was the one who suggested we ask Dana. He needs the help and he can't make it to the meeting. He's on duty at the hospital tomorrow. Hell, he's always on duty at the hospital. Although he does have Dick Ellis working for him as a paramedic now. "

"So, Dr. Richardson thinks it's okay. . ." Scully said. She was looking at Stu, but Mulder knew the remark was directed at him. Mulder raised his hands in surrender. He let one hand fall on her back and he began to massage her muscles there. His way of apologizing. She signaled her acceptance by leaning back into the massage.

"Great then. It's settled," Stu grinned. "The meeting starts at eight, but most of us are headed over a little early for some barbecue. There won't be any steaks, but Fran has developed some kind of burger from canned tuna. . . and we'll have lots of corn on the cob and greens. Say six-thirty?"

"We'll be there," Scully responded.

"And I guess I better get a move on. Fran'll get all over me if I don't get home at a decent hour tonight. "

He stood and Mulder followed suit, seeing him to the door. When they reached the door, Stu spoke quietly.

"Can I talk to you outside for a sec?"

Mulder nodded. He hollered back toward the living room, "Scully, I'm gonna see Stu out to his car. Be back in a minute! "

"Okay," echoed back from the area of the sofa.

The men stepped outside and Mulder closed the front door.

"What's up?" Mulder asked.

Stu gestured for him to sit down on the steps. Mulder raised his eyebrow. It must be serious if he was sitting down. Meanwhile, Stu paced.

"I know I'm the one they appointed to do this law and order thing, but I could sure use your help, Mulder." Stu was uncomfortable asking for assistance. It wasn't the way of life in East Texas where a man stood on his own two feet. But his mamma didn't raise no fool either. Mulder knew ways to get information that he did not. He knew technical things that he did not.

"I don't know how much I can help, Stu. Scully needs me. . . and I just don't know how long we'll be sticking around. . ." Mulder's voice trailed off.

Stu knew that Scully had been doing better the past few days. But he also knew from Susan Stern that her days appeared to be numbered only in the low double digits. Stu doubted that Mulder would last long after that.

"Well, I really would appreciate your help in one matter. We can see about other things after that," Stu said.

Mulder crossed his arms across his chest to ward off some of the evening chill and sighed. "I can't make promises to you. All my promises are tied up in Scully. But I'll do what I can for you. We owe folks here alot, especially you. What's the problem?"

"In a word -- Harold." Stu grimaced as he stated it out loud.

Mulder nodded with a frown. He had suspected as much. Harold Lauder had made his stomach churn from day one. There was just something not quite right in that smug boy's head.

"I have to confess," Stu began, "I thought he would take off for Las Vegas and Randall Flagg a week after we got here. He looks like he's trying to fit in, but I don't know. I can't help but get the feelin' that he's up to something. Like he's got his own agenda and it ain't necessarily what's best for the rest of the folks in Boulder. "

"What do you think his plan is?" Mulder asked.

"I don't know," Stu responded. He looked down and kicked at a small rock. It skittered across the pavement. "But Frannie's gone and got it in her head that it involves hurting me. "

Mulder leaned back on the stoop and chewed on the information for a moment. "She may be right, Stu. "

"What do you mean?"

"C'mon, Stu. You can't say that you haven't noticed the evil eye he gives you everytime Fran is around. The boy is so jealous he can't spit straight. In his mind, you represent everything he hates. All those years he was a geek who was tortured at school. He wants to exact revenge upon you. "

Stu could only nod. Mulder was right. It was obvious. Had been since the day they met.

"But I wonder, too," Mulder continued. "Why hasn't he taken off for Vegas. I've noticed that some other people have been slipping out of Boulder in the middle of the night." He looked at Stu, his eyes closely watching Stu for any reaction as he went on. "Although, I suspect that a few of those who left didn't do it to go and join Flagg and his minions. I suspect they were sent. "

Stu remained quiet. The council had agreed to keep information about the three spies they had sent West top secret. He knew Mulder was a safe bet, but he had given his word. No one could know that Judge Farris, Dayna Jurgens and Tom Cullen had been sent to ferret out intel about what the Dark Man was doing. Checking the Air Force bases and nuclear weapons to see if Flagg was planning on attacking Boulder in the near future.

"I know you can't say anything, Stu. But it's a smart thing to do," Mulder set Stu's mind at ease. He stood up to head inside. "Let me see what I can find out about our friend Harold. I'll let you know when I've got any ideas. "

"Thanks, friend," Stu waved.

"But, Stu!" Mulder turned and called out at the last second. Stu turned to face him.

"Yeah?"

"Canned tuna burgers?" Mulder gulped, his throat feeling constricted.

"Yeah," Stu replied, a lump in his own throat.

Mulder shook his head and went inside the house. Stu turned and walked down the driveway, headed home to Fran and the canned tuna.




2200 hours

Harold Lauder sat in his basement, hunched over the workbench. A tinny old boom box blasted out the most popular disco hits of the '70s. All he needed was a mirror ball and roller skates and then the Bee Gees ambience would be complete. Instead, he was surrounded by snips of assorted wires, blobs of discarded electrical tape, batteries, and other sundry items he had picked up around town over the past week.

The Dark Man had showed him in his dreams exactly where to look to find the most important ingredient to his current project. The lovely storehouses of the old Boulder Department of Public Works. A quick trip to his local Boulder Public Library gave him the book that showed him how to bring it all together. Your tax dollars in action.

Three days and counting. All he had to do was be ready for the meeting at Nick and Ralph's house on September 2.

He turned up the music on his boom box and got ready to boogie.




Boulder
September 2
1800 Hours

Mulder had quickly dubbed September First as "The Day of the Blender." They had gotten the electricity turned on, sure enough. And then the electricity crashed.

It seemed that everyone in Boulder when the lights first went out had left every high powered appliance in the "on" mode. Never bothered to turn them off. Of course, dying was a pretty good excuse for not following politically correct energy conservation procedures. But all this meant that a new Boulder committee would have to be formed. The "Go Around To All The Buildings And Turn Everything The Hell Off So We Don't Blow Another Generator Or Turbine" Committee.

Just one more thing for the agenda of tonight's meeting.

"Are you sure you want to go to this meeting, Scully?" Mulder asked as he hopped around the bedroom, pulling on his dark socks and shoes.

"Yes, I'm sure," was her muffled response as she pulled a shirt over her head. She looked him over from head to toe. "Mulder, is there some reason you're looking like Johnny Cash? What's with all the black clothing?"

Mulder looked down at his clothing, his arms held out from his sides. Black pullover, black jeans, black socks. They were there for a reason, but Scully didn't need to know the details. She didn't need to be worrying while he was funky poaching at Chez Harold.

He walked behind her and wrapped his arms around her. She tilted her neck with a smile and he nipped her ear. "I just know how the Man in Black turns you on," he whispered, letting his breath blow across the side of her face.

She shivered. "Don't start anything we can't finish, Mulder," she sighed with disappointment.

Mulder turned her around to face him. "But I'm the happiest man on earth just standing here like this, right now. "

Scully pulled his head down and kissed him with a smile. "Let's go, G-Man in Black. "

Mulder gave her another quick kiss and then he turned to grab their jackets. He held Scully's jacket for her as she slipped her arms into the sleeves.

"You think Fluffy will be okay here by himself?" She asked, a little concerned about the idea of being separated from her furry companion.

"I'm sure he'll be fine, Scully. I already told him no parties and no having friends over while we're gone," Mulder lectured lightly as Scully smirked. "He's happy by the fire right now and I filled his bowls. I even left the back door cracked open so he can get outside if necessary. We won't be out that late. "

Scully nodded like a reluctant parent and they headed out the door.




Nick and Ralph's House
1930 Hours

Dinner was winding down and everyone was cleaning up the corn cobs, baked beans residue, tuna burgers which had been surprisingly good, and paper plates to get ready for the meeting.

Mulder watched Scully from across the back lawn. It was the first time she had been out and about in public since she had gotten out of the hospital. He had been pleased to see her talking and laughing with Fran and Susan Stern. Susan had made sure to take Scully under her wing, make sure she wasn't overdoing it.

In fact, right now Scully was sitting at the picnic table with Susan and Ralph. Ralph was doing a great job of keeping her glued to her wooden seat, not letting her lift a finger to help in the cleanup.

It would be a good time for him to make his quiet exit. He had already arranged it with Stu. He looked around the crowd and finally found Stu around the side of the house talking to Glen. He walked over to the two.

"It's time now, Stu," Mulder stated quietly.

Stu nodded. "Are you sure it'll be okay? He hasn't been seen around for two days. . ." Stu cautioned.

"I'm sure it'll be fine. Maybe we just got lucky and he and that Cross woman took off for Vegas already," Mulder responded, although he wasn't sure he believed the theory.

"Okay," Stu replied. I'll let Scully know in a few minutes. "Good luck, Mulder. "

And Mulder headed off into the darkness.




1952 Hours

Scully looked around the yard but she still couldn't find Mulder. The meeting would be starting soon. Where had he gotten off to? She stood and headed into the house. Maybe he was helping Ralph get the chairs set up inside. As she walked in the back door, Stu was waiting for her, just inside the kitchen.

"Dana," he said.

"Oh, Stu. Have you seen Mulder? I'm thinking maybe I need to get him a leash. "

"Shoot," Stu exclaimed as he hit himself in the forehead. "I promised him I'd tell you and I plum forgot. . . "

"What?"

"I asked him to run an errand for me. He left a little while ago," Stu said, not entirely comfortable with the deceit, but at least it wasn't a complete lie.

"But the meeting will be starting in a just a few minutes," Scully protested.

Stu lowered his voice and leaned in toward her, as if to share a secret. "I kinda had the impression that Mulder wasn't real keen on sitting through meetings. "

Scully shook her head. Typical Mulder.

"Look, Dana. Don't be mad at Mulder. It's really my fault. I'm the one that asked him to go," Stu tried to run interference.

"And I'm sure you had to force him," Scully remarked.

"Okay, folks!" Ralph's voice bellowed from the living room. "Let's get this show on the road! "

Stu headed into the living room, relieved that Ralph's call had saved him from more questions.

Scully followed slowly behind him. She knew there was more to this than Stu had told her, but she didn't have the time or energy to prod any further. As she took a chair beside Susan, she eyed Stu carefully. Yup. Something was up.

She'd get to the bottom of it right after the meeting.




1953 Hours

"C'mon, you old dog. Mother Abagail could use your help right now! "

Fluffy sat up from his bed, his senses fully alert. His ears perked forward. He had heard the old woman's voice.

"You're been a good boy. Now don't make this old woman wait. . ." the voice trailed off.

Fluffy knew the nice woman was weak. She needed his help. With a yelp he bounded for the back door and ran into the night.




2000 Hours

It had taken him almost thirty minutes to make the hike to Harold Lauder's house. Mulder had enjoyed the chill of the summer evening. The walk had given him the chance to get back into federal agent mode, planning his recon of Harold's lair.

He crouched behind the bushes at the edge of Harold's dark yard. There were no signs of life. Harold's motorbike and Nadine's puny Vespa were gone. No lights in any window.

He crept toward the house and peeked in the windows. Nope. Nobody home. And it looked as though Harold had left in a hurry.

Mulder walked around to the back and opened the back door. He stepped inside.




2005 Hours

The meeting was already boring. Scully had always been good at managing to sit through these things, but that didn't mean she enjoyed all the details people always wanted to dwell upon. Two men were already arguing about how to assign housing to new arrivals in Boulder.

Where the hell was Mulder?




2008 Hours

Fluffy found Mother Abagail a few blocks away. Her frail bones could barely keep her standing. Her skin was rough and dry after weeks in the wilderness. And she was so very cold. Fluffy ran to her side. Mother Abagail could only whisper as she placed one hand on Fluffy's shoulder to lean upon him.

"I knew you would be comin'. . . but we gotsta hurry, dog. There's danger. "

She took several steps aided by Fluffy, but age and the elements were against her. Her knees began to buckle.

Fluffy whined and barked as she collapsed onto the ground.

"Go, dog. Get help!" She whispered urgently with her last remaining strength.

Fluffy ran, barking wildly as he headed for the nearest occupied house. It was just down the street.




2010 Hours

Mulder edged his way down the stairs into the basement. There were no clues upstairs, and somehow, Mulder knew Harold was a "keep the secrets below ground" type of guy.

When he reached the bottom stair, he shone his flashlight across the room. There was a workbench. He moved forward to investigate.

Wires, batteries, Radio Shack walkie-talkie boxes. And little tiny samples of a crystallized substance on the table. A book laying front cover down. . .

Oh, god. Mulder knew what Harold had done in this very room. And the target came to him with crashing clarity.

He ran.




2011 Hours

Three people ran behind Fluffy toward the woman.

"Mother Abagail! "




2018 Hours

Mulder ran as fast his legs would carry him. "No, no, no, no, no! I've got to get there in time," his mind screamed. He ignored the pain flaming in his side from his recent appendectomy. He didn't care if he tore something open and let his guts spill out onto the Boulder streets. As long as he got to Scully in time.




2024 Hours

There was a commotion on the front lawn. The sounds of motorcycles arriving. Someone went to the door to see what was going on.

"They're saying something about Mother Abagail. . . what?" The man stuck his head back out of the door. "They're saying that Mother Abagail is back! She's come back!" Then Stu and Ralph were running out the door, followed by a few others.

But suddenly, something was wrong. A sharp pain lanced through Scully's head. Her hands snapped up to her temples.

"Run, Dana! "

It was Mother Abagail's voice. The excited voices in the room were now just a din of unintelligible noise.

"RUN! Get out of the house now! "

Scully wasn't the only one who had heard the message. Several people were looking around the room, panic forming on their faces. And in a moment when everyone should have been rejoicing, everything became eerily still. Fran broke the silence.

"Everyone get out of the house now!" she screamed, her eyes wide with fear.

Scully started grabbing the slow movers and pushed them toward the door. She could almost hear the clock ticking, each second snapping in her mind. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Nick running toward the hall closet. What the hell was he doing? She turned to go after him, but then someone grabbed her arm and pulled her toward the front door. There was no time to fight. She glanced over her shoulder and saw that Nick had picked up a shoe box from the closet floor.

"RUN Everyone!" Mother Abagail's voice bellowed with unbelievable power.

Scully's feet cleared the doorway onto the front porch.




2025 Hours

Mulder turned the last corner and could see the house just ahead. Something was going on because there was a small mass of people on the front lawn. Folks were running to and fro, hither and yon. No one seemed to be in charge.

Then he could see people running out of the house. They were grabbing those on the lawn and pulling them away.

*Thank God! Maybe they found the bomb. . . . *

He scanned the runners for Scully. Where was she?

There! There she was. Running out the front door. He was still three houses away, but he yelled anyway.

"Scully! "

And the world exploded.


CHAPTER THIRTY-SIX

"Grandma got run over by a reindeer
Walking home from our house Christmas Eve.
You can say there's no such thing as Santa,
But as for me and Grandpa, we believe. "
- Elmo & Patsy


September 2
2026 Hours

Mulder was thrown back by the initial blast as the house exploded into a million lethal fiery pieces. He rolled to his feet in seconds, just in time to see a second wave of fire erupt from what remained of the house. The wave flew out and across the lawn, about five feet above the ground. And then, just as quickly, it was sucked back into the remains.

There was a brief silence, as if everything in the world was holding its collective breath.

And the night erupted into screams.

He ran, shielding his face from the bright flames and the heat. Bodies were everywhere. Some were moving, some were not. Some were in pieces that were still moving as they rolled in the debris.

He ran, unable to breathe, to the area where he last saw Scully and started crawling through the bodies and debris. He rolled bodies over, threw debris aside. Where the hell was Scully? He grunted and gasped with each effort. Jagged shards of wood and nails gouged at his arms and hands as he dug. The heat from the fire made his skin sting.

Others were around him now, searching for survivors. Shouting all around. Shouts of pain and horror.

He almost missed her. Would have crawled right past the brutally mangled body. But there, sticking out from under the dead woman with blonde hair, a small woman's foot. He stopped. He knew the ankle that peeked out just above the shoe.

"Scully! "

He fell to his knees. The dead woman's body was hard to move. She was nearly cut in half, a circular saw blade embedded in what remained of her back. The back of her head had been turned into mush by some unknown flying object and little bits of brain tissue were already congealing in her long hair. Her limbs were riddled with nails and splinters of wood. Blood and flesh were everywhere. He gingerly rolled her to the side and bit back a groan when he saw who it was. Susan Stern.

His groan turned to panic when he saw what he had uncovered.


Scully was overcome by a world of deafening darkness and dripping gore. And an all-encompassing need to breathe. She could feel the sharp blades of thick grass prickling into her face. *Ralph must have used that push mower to cut the lawn today, * she thought.

There was a sticky wetness on her back, it trickled down the back of her neck, into her hair, around her ear. And there was an unbelievable pressure bearing down on her. She coveted the air that she knew must be around her. She needed to move. Now.

She willed her arms to push against the earth, but they didn't budge. She dimly realized that they were both trapped beneath her body. Her lungs were on fire. Her thoughts were getting fuzzy around the edges.

Suddenly, the weight on her was gone and she could feel herself being rolled over, her arms flailing free. She tried to suck in a gallon of air, but her lungs wouldn't work. She could feel the vibration of her throat as she gasped, but could not hear it.

A hand alit on her face and stayed there. It was warm, so warm. She realized then that her eyes were closed. She tried to open them, blinked. A bright orange-red flared in front of her. It was too bright. She turned her head slightly and opened her eyes again.

An insane man was above her, holding her, she discovered as more of her body became aware. His face was contorted as he shouted something she couldn't hear. . .


"Scully!" Mulder screamed. "Talk to me, Scully," he pleaded as he cradled her in his arms. He ran his hand across her face and her eyes fluttered. He gasped in relief.

"Scully. Please. . . "

She remained silent, her eyes dazed. He moved his arm from the back of her head and became frantic when he saw the blood on his skin. He began to run his hands all over her, brushing away the blood, trying to find the source, the injury that had to be there.

"Where are you hurt, Scully? C'mon, say something Dana. "

But even though he kept looking, he could find no gushing wound or bones jutting out at wrong angles. Only a few scratches and some fresh bruises. It took him a moment to notice that she was wheezing, gasping for air. Her face was red with the effort. He realized that, between the explosion and Susan landing on top of her, she must have had the wind knocked out of her. He gently laid her down on the ground on her side. He rubbed her back, trying to help her relax enough to find her breath. She began to move more coherently.

"It's okay, Scully," Mulder soothed. "Just relax and breathe. I'm here. "


Scully coughed and then heaved in a huge gulp of air. She coughed again. But the oxygen was flowing. And through the roar of her ears, she could make out words once more.

"It's okay, Scully," were the words.

Oh. The insane man must be Mulder.

"Tell me where you're hurt." She could barely hear Mulder's words, but could now see that he was shouting. That muscle in his neck was straining. It always did that when he yelled.

She took a moment to take stock of her situation and the condition of her body. She felt like she had been in a car wreck, her muscles were tight and sore and her stomach had that sick, dropping feeling that followed trauma and preceded shock. She wiggled her fingers and her toes. Good. They worked. Then she carefully moved her arms and legs. No big problems there.

Mulder watched her carefully. Her limbs seemed to be okay. She lifted a hand to her head. Well, that wasn't surprising. She'd more or less just been hit by a train. Bound to have a bit of a headache.

"Mulder?" she queried as she looked up at him and made her first eye contact with him. She was confused. She could barely hear her own voice.

"It's okay, Scully. There was an explosion. But you're okay," Mulder said as he brushed her hair from her brow.

"An explosion?" she asked. That explained the ringing in her ears. That explained the almost uncomfortable heat she felt on her face. She began to look at the scenes around her. Oh god. The house blew up. Now she remembered. "Where is everyone? Did they make it out okay?" she asked, trying to leverage herself into a sitting position.

Mulder fought her for a moment, then gave up and helped her to sit up, trying to turn her body from Susan's remains. "I don't know how many were hurt, Scully. But some didn't make it," he admitted.

Scully's face turned sick as she saw the evidence of broken bodies around her. Mulder tried to divert her attention.

"What about you, Scully? Where are you hurt?" He held up his hand, letting her see the blood there.

"I'm sore, Mulder, but I think I'm okay. I don't think I have any wounds. . . it can't be my blood," she responded as she looked herself up and down.

"Oh god." Mulder closed his eyes.

"What?" Scully asked.

He bowed his head. "It must all be Susan's. . . "

"Where is she?" Scully started to turn around but Mulder stopped her. Pulled her against his chest.

"Susan's dead. I found her on top of you," he confessed.

"But Mulder. . . . Shit. It was her. She's the one who grabbed me and pushed me out of the house. I tried to stop and get Nick, but she wouldn't let me. . . She was behind me when. . ." She stopped, choking on the words.

"She saved your life, Scully. "

Scully nodded. Her body sagged and Mulder held her tighter to him, wanting to take away the guilt he knew she felt.

Ralph lumbered up to them and fell to his knees beside Mulder. His left hand was covered in blood and it looked as though he might have lost a finger or two.

"Are you two okay?" Ralph asked breathlessly.

"We'll be fine, Ralph. What about your hand?" Scully tried to get a look at it, but he tucked it in closer to his body.

"This ain't nothin. 'There are folks here who need a lot more help than I do," he said sadly.

They were interrupted from further conversation by Stu's voice. He was screaming at the top of his lungs.

"Fran! Oh, God. Help me! "

With one look from Scully, Mulder moved into action. He scooped her up into his arms and moved her back some fifteen feet, where the radiating heat from the fire was lessened considerably.

Scully released her hold on him as he set her down. He scrambled to his feet and ran after Ralph to help Stu.

Scully managed to get to her knees. She stared out at the debris. She started to look toward Susan's body, but had to turn away once she saw her bloody hair.

One more time she had been saved from death's grip. It was like she was on life's merry-go-round and couldn't get off. Was it some sick joke? She had cancer. There was no cure. How many more people would have to die to save her limited life? Why was she so special?

She buried her face in her hands and silently cried.




September 3
1800 Hours

Scully slowly shuffled through the door into the house, Fluffy nosing at her heels. He had been waiting for her on the front driveway all day. Ever since he returned from the house where Mother Abagail was being tended.

"Scully?" Mulder called from the kitchen. From the clattering noises she heard, he was making dinner.

She let her jacket slide from her shoulders onto the floor as she followed the sounds.

"Scully?" Mulder called again.

He walked to the doorway and saw her. No more words were necessary. He opened his arms and she walked straight into his embrace, letting his strength hold her tired body up against earth's unrelenting gravity.

After a minute or two of silence, he kissed her on the top of her head and lifted her up into his arms. He carried her to bedroom and gently laid her on the bed. She looked up at him questioningly when he stepped back from her.

"Gimme just a sec. I've got to take dinner off the stove. Be right back," he promised as he quickly jogged from the room.

Scully simply stared at the crisp white sheets on the bed. Fluffy wandered into the room, his head held low, and jumped up onto the stuffed chair in the corner.

Mulder was a man of his word and was back in seconds. He grabbed a blanket from the foot of the bed, crawled in behind Scully and draped the blanket over both of them. He wrapped his right arm around her waist and pulled her to him.

"Seven people died. Two more won't make it through the night. Over twenty injured," Scully recited to him. Her voice was flat.

Mulder let his hand slide up her arm, massaging it softly. She had been working so hard. Ever since the explosion almost twenty-four hours ago. George had needed all the help he could get and Scully and Dick Ellis were it. While they triaged and treated the wounded at the hospital, George had to be at Mother Abagail's side. She was being cared for in Larry Underwood and Lucy Swann's house. That had placed so much burden on Scully.

At the explosion site, he had helped an insanely frantic Stu remove a giant sofa that landed over an unconscious Fran. Then they had spirited everyone off to the hospital. It had been a madhouse. Scully, in spite of her own soreness and injuries had jumped into the fray and there was no way Mulder could have stopped her, even if she needed the rest for her own well-being. She had only taken five minutes to down some Advil and to rinse the blood and gore from her hair and skin.

There had been a brief respite with the good news that Fran and her unborn baby were going to be fine. But Scully had kept on working through the night.

So, needing to be a part of some useful action, Mulder had taken off with the posse that searched for Harold Lauder. But Harold was long gone. They had found the spot where he had activated the bomb. The Sunrise Amphitheater had provided him and Nadine Cross a beautiful vista of the small city. A perfect view of the fireworks and death below. They had taken off right after the deed, leaving only Harold's walkie-talkie behind as evidence of the crime. The walkie-talkie that had been used to set off the dynamite.

The posse had returned home, knowing there was no way they could catch the duo. Let Flagg have them. Mulder had a feeling that the people of Boulder would never be able to inflict as much pain upon Harold Lauder as the Dark Man in Vegas would. But it was a grim satisfaction.

"Any word on Mother Abagail?" Mulder murmured. He had tried to go over to Larry's to find out for himself, but the whole town was there now, waiting in the streets. There had to have been over six hundred folks there, just waiting for some word. He had given up and returned home to wait for Scully.

"No. There's been no change. She's still in a coma. George doesn't see how she'll ever wake up. But if she doesn't. . ." Scully couldn't say it. If she didn't wake up, then their wait in Boulder had been pointless.

"Hey!" Mulder stopped her. He rolled her over to face him and he rested his forehead against hers. "She came back for a reason. She will wake up. Besides, I can remember someone else who was in a coma. Someone else who the doctors said would not wake up," he reminded her. He kissed her nose, but her mouth still turned down in a small frown.

"You're right, Mulder," she agreed softly. "But that's the other thing I'm frightened of. What she'll say when she wakes up. "

Mulder stared into her eyes, unsure of what to say. Her face was lined with exhaustion, dirt, and small flecks of blood. "Let me get some hot water ready and I'll give you a bath. You'll feel better. . . then we can stay in bed as long as you want. "

She nodded. Staying in bed with Mulder. That's all she wanted. But the hot water. . . "You'll join me?"

"In the bath? Not a chance I'd miss it," he softly teased. He pushed himself up on his arms and leaned over her. "I love you, Scully. Everything will be okay," he whispered and then he kissed her.

She closed her eyes to nap, trying to believe his words, while Mulder headed to the kitchen to heat up the water. He tried not to think about what the last day meant to her already tenuous health. He fingered the cross around his neck. And he tried not to think about her fears. Because with all the chaos around them, he hadn't realized that he feared the same thing.

What was Mother Abagail going to tell them? And would Scully be up to the task?




September 5

The people of Boulder had been walking around in a daze for two days when they were offered their first ray of light. Literally. The Turn-Off Committee had completed their work and Brad Kitchener had finally gotten the power turned on. It was going to be a strange adjustment, getting used to the hum of fluorescent lighting once again.

And the vigil outside Larry Underwood's house continued, although the numbers of people in the street had begun to dwindle.

George had sent Scully home after her second all-nighter and told her not to come back. Everything was back under control.

So, Mulder, Scully, and Fluffy sat in their house and waited. Living in a kind of limbo. It was more trying than watching Dutch Boy dry on the wall.


September 6
0205 Hours

The pounding at the front door set Fluffy to barking. Fluffy's barking awoke Mulder and Scully. They both sat upright in bed.

"Who the hell could that be at this hour?" Mulder grumbled loudly, rubbing the sleep from his face.

"I don't know," Scully replied as she stood, trying to ignore the muscles that screamed with every movement. She grabbed her jeans and pulled on a sweater. "But it can't be good news. . . "

It took them only a minute to get dressed and they both headed cautiously for the door. Mulder was careful to make sure his gun was loaded and ready to go, held tightly in his hand at his side.

The knocking got louder. "Open up, Mulder. It's me! Ralph! "

Fluffy stopped barking when he heard their friend's voice. Taking their cue from the dog, Scully and Mulder both relaxed a little. Mulder peeked out the window. "He's alone. It's okay." He unlocked and opened the door. Ralph was out of breath, his face red.

"What is it, Ralph?" Scully asked.

"It's Mother Abagail. She's awake," he panted. "And she wants to see you two. "

"She's awake?" Mulder was stunned.

"It's a miracle," Ralph continued. "She's asked to see you and to see me and Stu, Fran, and Glen and Larry. But she wants to see ya'll first. Can you drive over in your car? I gotta get over to the hospital and pick up Fran. "

Mulder nodded. While Scully got her coat, he grabbed his car keys and they headed out the door.


Larry Underwood's House
0230 hours

They walked in the door quietly, the room feeling like a church. George led them over to the bed where Mother Abagail lay. It looked as though the old woman was asleep, but as they reached the foot of the bed, she turned her eyes upon them. Her face was sallow and bony, her skin merely wrapped upon her bones. The veins in her hands stood out sharply and looked more fragile than rice paper. Scully could feel her tears begin to form. Mulder felt a lump in his throat.

Mother Abagail motioned for them to come closer. She patted the bed, telling Scully to sit beside her. They obeyed. Mother Abagail turned her gaze on George and the doctor took the cue to leave the room.

"We gots to hurry here, Fox. Dana. I've already called for the others. But your calling is a different path." She looked directly into Mulder's eyes. "It's time now. His time." She tightened her grip on Scully's hand.

"I don't know if we can," Mulder murmured, his eyes straying to Scully's pale face.

"You can. You must. He didn't bring you this far to abandon you now. He will help you, Fox," Mother Abagail insisted, her scratched voice raising in pitch and volume.

With her free hand, Scully reached out and touched Mulder's shoulder. He saw the determination in her eyes.

"What do we do, Mother Abagail?" he asked in a whispered voice.

Mother Abagail closed her eyes, as if she were reciting from memory. "You will leave this very morning with the companion whom God sent to you in your hour of need. Today you will start northwards. You will take your truck, but only drive on the roads He has chosen. "

"How will we know which roads. . ." Mulder interrupted.

"You will know. He will show you the way. You may take water and food, but no medicines. . . "

"But. . ." Mulder attempted to interrupt once again.

Mother Abagail's eyes tightened and her grip locked onto Scully's arm. Scully's eyes widened as she began to speak for Mother Abagail.

"Take no aspirin, no medicines for pain, no thing to relieve suffering made by man. This must be obeyed." Mother Abagail's grip on Scully's hand relaxed and Scully came out of her near stupor. She looked at Mulder in amazement.

Mother Abagail began to speak again, now certain that Mulder was paying attention. "You must keep that cross around your neck, Fox. Dana, you see to it. "

"Will this lead us to Matthew?" Scully asked hopefully.

Mother Abagail sighed. "Yes, daughter. The child is there. But so is great danger. I cannot see all that He sees, but He has told me that two will go, and three will return. "

"What does that mean. . . 'three will return? 'So we find Matthew and bring him back here?" Mulder insisted.

"I can't say, child. The Lord don't tell me everythin. 'Mayhaps there's more. But the time has come for you to go. This old woman can hear the others comin' now and I gots to talk to them, too." And Mother Abagail released her hold on Scully's hand. She shifted uncomfortably in her bed. It was obvious that each breath took so much effort.

"Mulder. We have to go," Scully said as she tried to push herself off the edge of the bed to stand. Mulder quickly helped her, knowing how much it cost her to simply move. She squeezed his hand in thanks, as reassurance, in support.

"Thank you, Mother Abagail" Scully spoke softly as she gingerly leaned over and kissed the old woman's forehead. Mulder followed suit.

"God keep you both," Mother Abagail called as the two slowly left the room and headed toward the trials ahead.




The man who had dubbed himself as John Doe was agitated. The pattern of his circular path had been forcibly broken. The highway was blocked. There was no way around it, even on his motorcycle. The bridge over the arroyo was gone. And there was no way around the deep chasm. This meant he had to take another path.

All paths led southward. And the dream that invaded his sleep last night had been the strongest of all. The voice had told him where to go. It had told him to leave now.

He revved the engine of his Harley. He had a fleeting vision of performing an Evel Knievel jump of death above and into the arroyo ahead. It would be easier.

He backed off the throttle and lowered his head. He turned his motorcycle toward the south.

"Dammit all to hell," he growled.

He started southward, opening up the throttle. *Time to meet your fate, once and for all, Dirty Harry, * he decided as he peeled down the highway.




Las Vegas
September 7

Alex Krycek was grimly enjoying his scotch at the small bar when the temperature of the room dropped twenty degrees. The idle chatter that had surrounded him all morning ceased. He could hear the sounds of people shuffling out of the room. He finally tore his eyes from the ice in his glass to look into the bar mirror.

Flagg.

"Alex, my boy. Long time no see," Flagg oozed in his mock- friendly tone.

Krycek just stared back at him in the mirror. Flagg laughed and strutted over to him. He clapped Krycek on the shoulder, left his hand there so his fingers could dig into the bones and muscle there.

"Don't apologize, son. I know you're anxious to get on your way. And I want you to, too. "

Krycek raised his eyebrow at that. He lifted his glass and took another drink.

"Just thought you'd want to know that it's time for you to leave," Flagg whispered as he leaned into Krycek's ear. "Go and take care of our business in the desert. "

Krycek looked at the mirror again and found Flagg was returning his gaze. Without a word, he started to slide off his stool, to head out on the road. But, Flagg's hand clamped down painfully on his shoulder.

"Just be sure, Alex boy, that you don't fuck it up," Flagg threatened.

Krycek nodded ever so slightly and Flagg released his grip. The Dark Man stepped back and waved his arms toward the door.

Krycek took the cue and walked out. He never looked back as he headed outside and onto the road.




CHAPTER THIRTY-SEVEN

"The itsy bitsy spider went up the water spout. Down came the rain and washed the spider out. . . "




September 6
Boulder, Colorado
0600 Hours

"Are you sure about this, Scully?" Mulder stopped beside her as she examined the contents he'd already loaded in the cargo area of the Expedition.

She did not turn. Just continued to stare at the boxes and packs. "Yes, I'm sure. That box with the pork and beans should definitely be moved over by the tuna."

Mulder sighed in frustration. "I'm being serious here, Scully. "

Scully smiled softly and raised her hand to hold Mulder's cheek. "It isn't a matter of being sure, Mulder. Right now, I just have to believe in what Mother Abagail told us to do. I have to believe we'll go out there and find Matthew, that there's a reason behind all of this. "

Just as Mulder was about to try and form some kind of reasonable rebuttal, they were interrupted by the friendly call of Ralph.

"Howdy, Mulder. Dana." Ralph lumbered up the drive and joined them at the rear of the vehicle. With his non-bandaged right hand, he tipped his straw cowboy hat back on his head as he looked inside at the supplies. "Looks like ya'll are about ready to head out." Ralph's voice was upbeat, but worry lines were etched across his face.

Fluffy ran over to Ralph and greeted him with the proper two paws on the man's chest. Ralph gave the dog a hearty scratch behind the ears, which satisfied the canine. Fluffy dropped back to the ground and got back to supervising everything. So far he had been satisfied. Especially after seeing Scully stow a plastic bag filled with jars of marshmallow Fluff.

"Yeah," Mulder said. "We're just about done loading everything. Should be leaving in a few. "

"Can I help?" Ralph asked.

"No. Really, Ralph. We've got it under control," Scully replied.

Ralph stood, rocking back on his heels, unsure of what to say.

"What did Mother Abagail say to you guys after we left?" Mulder asked as he lifted two jugs of water into the Expedition.

"Well. . . she's sending us off for a bit, too," he answered. His voice quavered a bit with nerves.

"Who? Where?" Scully asked.

"Me, Glen, Larry, Stu. We'll be headed out to see Flagg. "

"Oh, god," was all Scully could say as she closed her eyes.

"We're leaving in about an hour. The others had stuff to do, things to take care of. . . I just thought I'd come up here and give you guys a proper send off." Ralph rattled on, gaining some courage with each word, some certainty that the journeys had to be. But he could still see that Scully was worried for him. "Now, Dana. Don't worry too much. The way I figure it, when I see Flagg, I'll just start singin' a tune. That oughta scare the cow chips outta him. "

They all laughed, but the fear was still there. And what was left to say? Mother Abagail was sending them all out into the unknown. And they were all obeying her with little question.

Mulder wanted to tell Ralph that all of these Mother Abagail escapades were insane and that they should all just stay put in Boulder, making the best of what they had left; but, instead he stepped forward and stuck his hand out to Ralph. They shook hands with a firm grasp. "Thanks for everything, Ralph. Tell the others. . ." Mulder didn't finish.

Ralph nodded. "I will. "

Scully gave him a hug and then lifted up on her toes to kiss him on the cheek. "Good luck, Ralph. I think Mother Abagail and her God will watch out for all of us," she whispered in his ear.

Ralph cleared his throat. "Ya'll take care of one another, okay? You, too, Fluff-man. "

Fluffy barked when he heard his name. Ralph clapped Mulder on the back and, with one last look at his three friends, he walked away. Headed down his own path.

Mulder broke the sad silence. "Well. That's it. Did we forget anything?"

Scully shook her head. He reached up and pulled down the liftgate, closing it with a firm push. He wrapped his arm around Scully and they stood, looking at their home. He squeezed her shoulder once. "Ready?"

"Yeah. Let's get out of here before I change my mind. "

They herded Fluffy into the back seat and then they both climbed in.

They drove away, never looking back at Boulder and the friends and the safety they were leaving behind.




September 14
Idaho

Mother Abagail had been right. God, or someone with serious Transportation Department credentials, had been showing them their route.

And a long and scenic route it had been. They had headed north into Wyoming. They were diverted west when the highway was blocked by the debris of several 18-wheelers. Then north again when a bridge had been destroyed. And northwest by a landslide. And west again. The directions were as plain as the nose on Mulder's face.

But Mulder was not thrilled with the time table. What the hell was this? Mother Abagail and her God send them off on their way, then they make them drive around the country in circles, with no clear destination? Well. If he had ever wanted to see America, he would have called Amtrak. He was beginning to understand how Moses must have felt those forty years wandering in the wilderness. Apparently, God still hadn't gotten the latest maps from the Auto Club.

Scully was doing okay, considering. She never complained. Even when she'd gotten two or three of her brain splitting, lay down in the back seat headaches and she didn't have even a damn aspirin to take, thanks to Mother Abagail's strict rules, she hadn't complained. Instead, she had actually seemed to be enjoying the views as they drove across and around and up and down Wyoming into Idaho. Fluffy apparently agreed with her. His nose was always either pressed against the window glass or, if the window was open, sticking out into the wind, sniffing in the scents of the rolling grassy hills and the Rocky Mountains.

Mulder had gotten quite good at siphoning gasoline from underground tanks at defunct service stations. And he was pretty sure he could now give any self-respecting Boy Scout a run for his money in the camping under the stars department. There hadn't been too many towns along the way. Their path steered clear of the old cities. So there wasn't much in manufactured housing for them to use.

But there had been plenty of food and lots of streams and rivers along the way. Fluffy had even snagged a few fish. Scully suggested that they may have to start calling him Bear or Kodiak.

Mulder was happy for each of these moments with Scully and Fluffy. But he was an impatient man. No matter how reluctant he had been to begin this journey, once he finally jumped in the water, he wanted to start swimming immediately. None of this treading water crap.

"Mulder. . . "

He was surprised Scully was awake. He had been so wrapped up in his impatience that he hadn't noticed the change in her breathing as he lay on his side, his arms wrapped around her.

"I thought you were asleep." He lifted his head from his pillow and loosened his grip upon her waist. She rolled to face him.

"I can't. "

He tightened his grip on her and pulled her into his chest. "What's up? Does your head hurt?"

"No headache." He could feel her shrug slightly. "I guess it's just the jitters. We're getting close. I can feel it," she spoke softly.

Mulder kissed the crown of her head. Her hair was so soft. He closed his eyes. Maybe patience could have its rewards. This was one moment he wished would last. Scully shivered and he ran his hands up and down her arm.

"I'm not even sure Matthew will remember me. It's been so long. . . "

This is what Mother Abagail had meant when she talked to him so long ago. Back in Boulder, Scully had been the one who was gung- ho to get under way while he had dragged his feet with doubt. Now, he was champing at the bit and Scully was being Thomas. They needed each other to balance out their hopes and fears.

"He'll know you, Scully. Hey. You have that Scully scent thing going for you," Mulder replied, not altogether in jest.

"Scully scent?" He could hear her eyebrow raise.

"Yeah. Sure. I'd know it anywhere. And so would Fluffy," he replied innocently.

And, on cue, Fluffy raised his head from his own blanket beside them. With a shuffle of limbs, starting at their feet, he nosed and shimmied his way under and up the blanket until he was planted cozily under Scully's arm.

"What am I gonna do with you guys?" She laughed.

After a moment, Mulder leaned forward to see her face. "You know, Scully. No matter what happens. We'll face it together. "




September 16
Nevada Highway 305
1645 Hours

The high-pitched whining had started some thirty miles south of Battle Mountain, Nevada - also known as the middle of freaking nowhere. It was unbearable within five minutes. Fluffy was hiding his head under a blanket in the rear cargo area, whimpering when he couldn't block out the noise.

"It sounds like a Tasmanian Devil mating with a chalkboard," Mulder yelled over the din.

"Mulder, contrary to your delicate beliefs, it's not going away on its own. Stop now," Scully ordered.

He obeyed and braked the Expedition to a halt. The whining continued. He cut the engine and, with a sputter, the squeal was gone. He looked to Scully as she opened her door and slid out, her feet dropping to the ground.

He popped the hood and then got out, giving Scully little berth as he stared over her shoulder at the engine. She ignored him, having devoted her attention to the problem at hand. Putting her hand on Mulder's shoulder, she stiffly climbed up onto the bumper so she could get a better look. This gave Mulder a better look at her behind, for which he was always grateful. Out of curiosity, he peered under her arm at what she was doing. She fiddled with hoses and rubber things he could not quite identify.

Damn. He knew he shoulda taken auto shop in high school instead of astronomy. But then, who knew he'd be standing here in the middle of Nevada after the collapse of the world? The astronomy class was taught by the fabulous celestial body named Giselle DeLa Croix. Shop was taught by the eight-and-a-half-fingered Mr. Schnapps. It had been a no-brainer at the time.

After a few minutes of prodding, banging, and under the breath muttered swearing, Scully climbed down from the front bumper and stood with her greasy hands on her hips, trying to stare the engine into submission.

Uh-oh. That look meant they were screwed.

"Do I want to know?" Mulder asked with a wince.

"The fan belt is shot. And we sprung some leaks somewhere along the way. The coolant and oil are nonexistent," Scully, wiping a greasy hand across her sweaty brow before she could stop herself. "Shit," she exclaimed as she looked at her blackened hands.

"Hang on a sec." Mulder jogged back to the cargo door and opened it. As Fluffy jumped out for a much needed pit stop, Mulder pulled out two bottles of water and some paper towels. He poured some of the water onto the towels and returned to Scully. She patiently stood still as he wiped the grease from her face. The cool water felt good on her sun-pinked skin. Mulder went to work on her hands.

Scully tried to take the towels from him. "I can do that myself."

But Mulder refused to give up his efforts. He trapped her hands between his. "Nope. The mechanic needs to let her cleanup crew do their job." She relented.

"So," Mulder started as he carefully and delicately cleaned her skin. "What do we do now?"

Scully rolled her neck, feeling the sun bake through her muscles as she thought. She looked down the highway to the south, then to the north. It would be a damn hot crap shoot either way. "Well, we're about thirty miles or so south of Battle Mountain. It's probably fifty miles to the next town if we continue south. Even with the car like this, if we fill the radiator with water, we should be able to drive a few miles before it gives up the ghost. If we take it very slow in low gear. I say we head back to Battle Mountain and try to find another car. "

"All done," Mulder said as he released her clean hands. He looked to the west, following the sun's path in the sky. "We've got about another two hours before sunset. Let's give it a shot," he agreed. He went to get a jug of water to fill the radiator.

When they were done with the stop gap repairs, Scully looked over her shoulder to see Fluffy sniffing around at the side of the road. He immediately raised his head, sensing her glance. "Let's go, Fluffy," she clapped her hands.

The trio got back into the car and headed back north.




1730 Hours

"Oh, come on! Not now! Just a little farther!" Mulder shouted as he pounded the steering wheel. But all of the pounding did not do anything to CPR the car's dying engine. The car sputtered and smoke began to spew out from under the hood. He had to stop and cut the engine.

Scully was out in a second, fire extinguisher in hand. "Mulder, pop the hood. . . but don't open it all the way! "

Mulder did as he was told before he jumped out, making sure Fluffy was on his heels, and Scully went to work dousing the fire with the extinguisher. Luckily, the fire had not gotten its full wind yet, so a few short bursts knocked it down.

"Good work, Scully," Mulder commented as he stared at the slightly blackened hood. The burned oil smell wasn't pleasant.

"Just lucky we decided to put this extinguisher up front," she replied as she set the device down on the pavement. It was a practice they had started shortly after their fiery experience in Rolla, Missouri. They could ill afford to waste seconds searching the back of a crowded SUV for an extinguisher in an emergency. Not when they had no fire engines as back up.

Mulder looked up and down the highway. It was going to be a long hike. They were still at least fifteen miles from Battle Mountain. Probably closer to twenty. He looked at Scully. In spite of being exposed to the sun for the past several days, she looked drawn and pale. She had not admitted it, but he knew from the pinched look in her eyes that she had been suffering from a constant headache for at least a week. Not a searing pain, but a low grade, unrelenting throb. She was in no shape for a desert walk.

"What now?" Scully asked as she walked in front of the car, hands on her hips.

"It'll be dark soon. We should get ready to camp out in the car tonight. But I'd feel better if we weren't out here in the open." Mulder wished a hill or tree would magically appear.

"You're right, Mulder. Look," she pointed. "There are some scrub brushes about 30 feet from the road. Not exactly perfect, but it might be just enough. If we can push this monster that far. "

Mulder's back was already aching just thinking about it. He rubbed the base of his spine. Then he ran his hand over his still red appendectomy scar. His abs still weren't fully up to snuff. Ouch. "It looks doable. The ground's pretty flat here and we'll have some downward momentum when we drop off the pavement. "

"Okay. So how do we want to do this?" Scully asked. She wasn't thrilled about the pushing either, but, as they had taught her at the Academy, when cover wasn't available, concealment was the next best bet.

Mulder raised his hand up to stop Scully from making the protest she was going to make in seconds. "No arguments this time, Scully. You get behind the wheel and steer while I push," Mulder insisted.

"Mulder, I. . ."

"Nope. No arguments, Scully. Just get in there and put it in neutral. "

"But, Mulder. . . "

"Dammit, Scully. You're in no shape to be pushing this thing around in this heat and, besides, Fluffy can't steer. He doesn't have opposable thumbs." Mulder was ranting now.

Scully didn't say a word. She just got in the car and popped it into neutral. She waited until she was out of view before smirking. Her plan had worked. She knew she couldn't push the damn car. It would also be a feat for Mulder. But she knew what happened when he got pissed off. He became Energy Man. And that was what they needed.

"Ready!" Scully called out, trying to sound annoyed.

Mulder stood at the back of the Expedition, wiping his sweaty hands on his pants, muttering various comments about stubborn women. He continued to rant as he placed his hands on the vehicle.

Fluffy trotted up next to him, then sat down and tilted his head, wondering what the man was huffing about. Humans could be strange sometimes.

With a huge growl that started somewhere around his toes and raised up until it emerged from his throat, Mulder planted his feet on the pavement and heaved his body into the rear of the SUV. It creaked at first, moving at an achingly slow pace, but then physics took over and they were rolling.


1930 Hours

"So, Mulder. Now I know why you wanted to push the car by yourself," Scully commented.

"You know me so well. Oh, yeah. Right. There." Mulder groaned with relief.

Scully pressed her hands deeper into Mulder's back. He was sprawled on his stomach and she was on her knees, straddling his thighs, giving him the best back massage he had ever received.

A few minutes later, Mulder sighed as Scully finished the massage with a kiss to his bare back and she rolled off of him to lay at his side. He propped his head up with one hand and watched as she lay on her back, staring up at the darkening sky.

"So. What's our plan?" she asked quietly.

Mulder reached out to lightly run his fingers down her arm. She rolled onto her side to face him.

"Well. First, we sleep," Mulder began. "Then at sunrise, I get to walking before the heat gets too bad. I figure I can make it to Battle Mountain in about four to five hours. If I'm lucky, I can find a car and get back here before early afternoon. "

"If we're lucky," Scully sighed. She didn't even try to convince Mulder that she should go with him. But, she wasn't going to let him go alone. "Mulder. I want you to take Fluffy with you," she stated firmly.

Mulder's first reaction was to argue, but he bit his tongue when he saw the worry on her face. "I don't know," he began tentatively. "It might be better for him to stay here. "

"No. I'm not the one walking into the unknown. I can see around this area for miles and I'm a big girl with a very large shotgun. "

"I just got very turned on, Scully," Mulder interrupted.

Scully shot him a dirty look and continued her train of thought. "You'll be poking around buildings where anyone or anything might be hiding. Take Fluffy. "

Okay. So Scully had a very good point. And Fluffy was a good companion, Mulder thought. "Okay, Scully. You win this point. But I get the next one," he smiled.

Satisfied, Scully turned on her other side so Mulder could tuck her into his chest and wrap his arm around her. Dinner could wait for a bit. Now if she could only get the nagging worries out her stomach.


September 17
0530 Hours

"That should do it, Scully," Mulder stated as he finished tying down the last blanket over the passenger side windows. He surveyed their work. They had effectively made the SUV into a tent, keeping the fierce sun out of the interior of the vehicle. One blanket acted as a lean-to on the driver's side, facing away from the road where it wasn't as noticeable. This way, Scully could leave that door open, allowing air to circulate. It wasn't going to be a chiller, but at least it might be tolerable.

"Thanks, Mulder. I'm sure it will help," Scully said as she grabbed a few items from inside the car.

She joined him at the rear bumper, handing him a backpack filled with bottled water and food. Mulder slipped it on, then he leaned over to give her a quick kiss.

"You've got your gun and plenty of ammo, right?" Scully asked.

"I've got what I need right here," Mulder replied, patting the gun in his holster and the extra ammo clips on his belt. "And you've got the shotgun ready?"

"Just call me Annie Oakley, Mulder," she replied, pointing to the gun that rested against the left rear fender. "Be careful," she said quietly.

"I will." Mulder leaned down and kissed her gently on the lips. "And you watch your back, Annie. "

"I will," she promised.

"Fluffy!" Mulder yelled and the dog jumped into action, his tail wagging to and fro with entirely too much energy. "Let's hit the road, dog face. "

Fluffy barked with excitement, barely letting Scully take the time to give him a head scratch goodbye.

And then, the two were off. They walked several yards before Mulder turned around.

"Annie Oakley? You have no idea what ideas you give me, G- Woman," he called out.

"We'll discuss those ideas when you get back, G-Man," she returned.

Mulder gave her a thumbs up and then turned to walk again with a silly grin. He made it ten more yards before he turned again.

"Promise?" He asked.

"I promise!" Scully answered.

Another thumbs up and Mulder began to walk once more. Fluffy was getting dizzy trying to figure out the man's steps. But after a few yards, Mulder began to turn around again. . .

"Mulder! So help me if you turn around one more time and stick that thumb up. . . You look like a damned Mentos commercial." Scully threatened, albeit with a murmur of a nervous laugh running beneath.

Mulder snorted and got back to his hike. As he and Fluffy hiked, he did cheat a few times, catching a glimpse of Scully as she watched from her perch on the rear bumper of the SUV. But after a few minutes, her figure vanished in the waves of heat from the desert sand.

Back at the car, Scully suddenly felt very alone.




Alex Krycek watched the goings on below him as sweat beaded on his forehead. Even mornings were hot here. He leaned on the large boulder that provided him cover and used his good hand to open a bottle of water. He took a long swig. And another. No sense in becoming dehydrated.

It was almost time to take action. His prey was in sight. And, more importantly, his prey was splitting up. His job would be easier.

*Yes. Split up. Move further apart. Get out of earshot. That's right. *

He carefully placed the empty water bottle on the ground. No point in making a mistake now and ruining the element of surprise. His body was now taut as he waited to spring into action.




The man pulled out his binoculars for the twentieth time that hour. He could see that the woman was completely alone now. Her man and dog were long out of view. His task would be easier now.

He had to be careful. He peered up at the sky. The sun was beginning its rise to full strength. It would be good to act now. No telling when the man and dog would return. He checked his weapons. They were good to go.

He looked back down at the woman by the car. She was moving now. Getting back inside. She was laying down across the back seat. The blankets hanging on the side of the car now blocked his view of her.

But he was confident that this was his chance. Gun in hand, he began to make his way down the rocky slope that stood between him and the woman.


CHAPTER THIRTY-EIGHT


". . . When we get in trouble
And we're in a fight
Who's the one
Who just won't turn and run?
Who believes in
Doing good and doing right?
Kimba the White Lion is the one. . . "
- "Kimba"

"The time has come for judgment to begin at the house of God. . ." 1 Peter 4: 17


Somewhere in Nevada
September 17

Ah. The joys of powdered eggs, freeze-dried imitation bacon, thawed and toasted frozen bread, and orange juice made from frozen concentrate. Who the hell missed the old world order? Life just couldn't get any better than this.

Roberta Parks sat in the small commissary with her chair tilted back slightly against the hard wall. Breakfast had been eaten but not tasted. She toyed with her glass of orange juice, tilting it to and fro. At least the beverages were okay here. The freezer room had to have at least five thousand cans of the Minute Maid stuff. Apparently Son-Of-A-Bitch Spender had a thing for O. J. Who knew?

She looked around the room. The breakfast "rush" of five men -- what she now called the midnight shift -- was over. She was alone and unguarded. Well, as alone and unguarded as one could be in an underground, locked down facility with video surveillance, surrounded by Cro-Magnon thugs with big guns.

It had taken awhile, but S. O. B. Spender had slowly allowed her and Matthew more freedom within the facility. After all, where could she go? She was still shadowed when she moved about. And she and Matthew were still locked "snugly" in their room from 2100 to 0600 hours. But, Spender's "allowance" had broken some of the tedium from their days. Not only hers and Matthew's, but also the security detail's.

While she was relieved to have a little breathing room, she was still disgusted with herself for falling for Shithead Spender's grand plan. He had replaced blatant prison with something more insidious. Regimen. He knew that with her background in law enforcement that she, like all of his soldiers, would be more comfortable -- more docile -- in a disciplined environment where there was some appearance of freedom. It had worked. Of course, it also worked because Spender knew she would never leave little Matthew behind. Funny how her "free" moments always seemed to be when she was separated from Matthew.

She picked up her glass and downed the rest of the watery juice. It was about time to go back to the room and fetch Matthew for their morning "recess" outside. She had left the little boy in the care of their morning security man. They had some kind of catch ritual going on with an old baseball.

She cracked the kinks out of her neck. She wasn't too worried about Matthew when he was under the nose of the morning guy. She had learned the different personalities that surrounded their days and nights. She had even come up with names for their security detail.

In the late afternoon, they were usually supervised by Spock. He said very little, just raised an eyebrow on occasion. And his huge hands looked like they would deliver a superior Vulcan knockout grip. In the late evening, there was Kirk. The "Get. Intheroom. Now" man. He had bad hair and needed an 18-hour girdle. He was replaced from 0001 hours to 0500 hours by Bones. The "Dammit, I'm a soldier, not a babysitter" whiner.

By far, her favorites were Scotty and Uncle Fester. The day guys. Scotty did his best to beam Matthew up from his barren surroundings. He was good for Matthew. It was the little things. Like how Scotty seemed to be genuinely glad to see them in each morning. And the fact that Scotty was the one guard who left his MP-5 elsewhere when he came to take his watch. True, he kept his 9mm in the holster at his side, but he always seemed to be mindful not to touch it while around Matthew. None of that subconscious resting the hand on the butt of the gun. Scotty was the one who suggested that Roberta start taking her breakfast breaks alone. And there was nothing duplicitous in his eyes. He must have been a father in another life.

She and Matthew were always sad to see him go at 1000 hours. But, at least he was replaced then by Uncle Fester. Fester was a tad strange, his head was shaved and his short body looked like a beer barrel in combat gear. But he was still safe. He liked the kid, so that gave him a huge leg up in Roberta's book. Even though he had a strange way of showing it. . . like the day he brought in the sticks and string and taught little Matthew how to snare a rabbit. Okay. So maybe that *could* come in useful these days.

She leaned forward and stood up from the chair. It was time to interrupt the baseball game. She exited the room and walked down the hallway, moving to the side as two guards passed by.

And she stopped. There was a sudden niggling at her brain. A cold shudder moved up her spine. The old woman hadn't appeared in her dreams for ages, but this was the same feeling she had in those dreams.

Something evil was coming. She started running toward their room. Matthew. She needed to be with him.




South of Battle Mountain, NV
0700 Hours

Scully sighed as she laid back across the seats of the Expedition. It was already hot and the temperature was sure to climb well into the triple digits. Top it off with the beginnings of a headache and you had the makings of a lovely day.

She rubbed the bridge of her nose, trying to massage the ache there and coax it back into remission. This ache was a little odd. It wasn't her usual "hit me in the eyes with a sledgehammer, whydoncha" pain. This one was a low-grade throb. And it made her stomach queasy, but it wasn't though a contents breach was imminent. Very odd. She wasn't quite sure what to make of it. Was this the sign of the next stage? Was her vision about to disappear before her eyes?

She closed her eyes and decided to stop thinking all together about her head and her health. She would just concentrate on Mulder's safe return with a new car. She would just tune into the sounds of the desert and go with the flow.




The man had begun his trek down the rocky slope, always mindful of readily available boulders and scrub brush that could be used as cover. And he always kept one eye on the car. It just wouldn't do if the woman popped out suddenly and plugged him with her shotgun.

It was slow going. He had to time this right. Make sure the man and dog were not coming back too soon, but yet, give the woman long enough to be sapped by the morning heat and let down her guard. He'd move forward, stop, wait for ten minutes, then move on.

It had taken him almost two hours. But just a few minutes more and he'd be on top of the SUV, ready to complete his mission.




Krycek kept his eyes on his prey as he began his careful trek downslope. His artificial arm made it more difficult as he tried to keep gravity from pulling him down the hill too quickly. It just wouldn't do if he kicked rocks loose, alerting his prey to his presence.

The man below him stopped his walking and Krycek froze, ducking behind a large rock. The man scanned his surroundings quickly, his gun at the ready. Then, seemingly satisfied that he was just being a shit-for-brains paranoid, he lowered the barrel of the weapon and continued on his way.

Krycek waited for a few moments before he started to stand. He looked down at his false arm with disgust. This was going to make things more difficult -- dealing with multiple targets was always risky, but this cut his odds considerably. Perhaps he should have taken Flagg up on his offer. After all, it wasn't as though he hadn't already sold his soul long ago.

Just as he started to step forward from his hiding place, five fingers clamped down on his shoulder. Hard. It drove his down his knees. Krycek gasped. The grip lessened and Krycek spun around on the ground, ready to act. . .

And came face to waist with Randall Flagg.

"You rang, my boy?"




"Don't even fucking move." Her voice was cool as steel in a freezer.

The man froze. *Shit! Shit! Shit! *How had this happened? He had crept up to SUV, certain the woman was still inside. He had oh so quietly made his way to the leanto on the far side of the vehicle. And he had just poked his head around the door to surprise the reclined woman when. . . He heard the snick of a shotgun safety behind him. Just far enough away that he couldn't do anything about it.

"Drop the gun!" She demanded.

He obeyed.

"All of them," she ordered.

Damn. She was good. Certainly not a shrinking violet. He pulled the . 45 from his waist and dropped it to the ground. He started to reach for his boot, but thought he ought to say something.

"I've got a . 38 in my boot," he explained.

"Take it out. Slowly," she responded.

He went with the program. With his weapons on the ground, he slowly dared to stand up straight. This crouching forward crap was killing his back. He glanced sideways at the tinted glass window and could see her behind him. Her red hair was blowing in the dry wind. She was in a combat stance. One that was ingrained, a habit learned by rote. She was a professional. And she was beautiful.

"Who are you?" Scully demanded.

"Well. I guess you could just call me J. D. ," the man responded.

It only took a moment for Scully to make the connection. "What? Is that supposed to stand for John Doe? Not funny. "

"Lady, you've got a nice big shotgun pointed at me. J. D. can mean anything you want," he responded only half-jokingly.

Scully studied "John's" body language carefully. He was being cautious, not moving. His body was taut. And yet. . . His hands and the muscles in his neck were relaxed. And the tone of his voice. It didn't sound angry or threatening. Inconvenienced was a better description. She would take a risk in letting him turn around so she could see his eyes.

"Okay, John. Turn around slowly. And keep those hands up. "

"Whatever you say, Dana," he answered.

And Scully's heart stopped.




If Krycek had been a lesser man, he would have crapped his pants. Instead, he defied Flagg's intimidating eyes and stood up straight.

Flagg's eyes narrowed at the move, but he restrained his anger. "Look, Alex. Son. I'm a busy guy. Lots of stuff going on back on the home front. But, I heard that you might need a little *hand* out here. "

Krycek couldn't miss the emphasis Flagg placed on the one word. Unconsciously, he looked down at his useless left arm.

"So. I've got something you need. All you have to do is ask," Flagg invited.

Krycek stared him in the eyes. "I think I've been doing pretty well on my own," he responded coolly.

Flagg stuck the tips of his ten fingers under the waistband of his jeans and arched his back as he looked down at the scene below. "I dunno, Alex. You are a pretty resourceful guy. I'llgive you that. But. Even you have to admit that you're outnumbered here. Just think what you can do with two good arms. With two hands that can hold and use weapons. . ." Flagg leaned in closer. "Think what you can do with Agent Scully. What you can do to Mulllllder," he tempted, drawing out Mulder's name enticingly.

Krycek swallowed the dust in his throat and his eyes glazed over as visions of strangling the FBI agent danced before him. Choking Mulder with *two* hands.

He turned his focus back to Flagg. He nodded.

And then, in an instant, his left arm was whole. He flexed his fingers in amazement. Then, the energy filled him. Along with a buzzing rage that filled every cell of his body. It was as though his brain was outside of him, circling above him. All he could feel was pure hate. Where he had once hid some doubts, he now only held certainty of mission and purpose.

"I have to go now, son," Flagg intoned, barely reaching through the blur of Krycek's mind. "Duty calls. Now. Go take care of these fuckheads for me. For you. Nothing can stop you now." He reached out and nudged Krycek down the hill.

"And don't fuck it up. . ." were Flagg's last words of warning as his body disappeared.

Krycek blinked the sweat from his eyes. A huge black crow sat where Flagg had been. With a loud thump, thump of its wings, it took flight, disappearing in the rays of the sun.

He looked back down the hill. His first target was in sight. He had no second thoughts as he headed for it. He had sold his soul for an extra foot of arm.




"How the hell do you know my name?" Scully demanded. She was angry and unnerved. Why did she feel like she was always in the dark? Always only a card in someone else's poker game?

"Would you believe a little old woman told me?" John asked.

Scully had no idea how to respond intelligently. All she could do was keep her cards close to her vest.

"What woman?" she asked doubtfully.

John Doe could see the battle in the Scully's eyes. He knew he had touched a nerve. Truthfully, he had doubted his response would elicit such a reaction. He had thought he was nuts for believing the woman in his dreams. Was it possible he wasn't crazy? He took another gamble.

"Mother Abagail? I think that was her name. . ." he said softly. He saw that Scully was wavering. He ventured on. "She said that Dana needed my help. *You* needed my help. Although, I'm starting to think she was wrong. You're pretty damned good at watching out for yourself," he mused.

This was too much for Scully. How could she begin to trust this man? He could easily have been sent by Flagg. She'd seen his tricks before. If only Fluffy was there. He could smell a lie a mile away. Her head was throbbing in a new spot. Her skin was growing moist and clammy. Her knees were rubberized. Shit. Not now.

"Hey! "

She could just hear John Doe's exclamation as her vision dimmed and her knees buckled.


Battle Mountain Joe's Stop 'N Go

Mulder sat on the stoop of the store as he downed another bottle of water. Fluffy was lapping away at the water Mulder had poured into an old hubcap he had found by the gas pumps.

It had taken them a little longer to get here than Mulder had planned. He had hoped to jog a good part of the distance, but the twinges of pain from his appendectomy had slowed them. He hoped he could find a good vehicle quickly and get back to Scully.

He took stock of his surroundings. Not many cars around. But he had noticed a few back behind the store. Hopefully one of them would work. They couldn't all be junkers. If they were, his cause might be sunk. Battle Mountain appeared to have been a virtually deserted and forgotten mining town that had seen its heyday come and go long before the Superflu came to visit.

"Let's go check 'em out, Fluffy," he said as he stood, taking a moment to stretch the muscles in his back.

Fluffy let out a small woof and trotted around the corner of the building, headed toward the back lot. Mulder followed closely behind, bemused at Fluffy's unbounded energy.

He headed over to the row of cars, some of which were beyond deceased. But there was one Suburban that looked promising. He just prayed that his personal mechanic -- Scully -- wouldn't be needed to get the baby going.

He dropped his backpack as he walked around the vehicle, checking the tires and body. Everything looked fine until he reached the left rear tire. Yup. Flatter than Mary Katherine Swoboda's chest in ninth grade. He got his first break when he peeked underneath the car and saw that the spare was still in place. Good. He could do the flat tire change thing. But, he was gonna check the engine first. No since going to all that work only to find out the engine was a bust.

Fluffy was bouncing around in the distance, barking and carrying on as he bounded around the scrubby brush and some old boards. *Must be chasing a rat or something, * Mulder guessed.

He climbed into the driver's seat of the Suburban and looked around for the keys. He pulled down the visor. It just couldn't be that easy. He let out a whoop when the keys fell into his lap.

Fluffy looked up briefly. . . then he went back to rat chasing. Much more fun than trying to figure out Mulder. Now. Where did that plump rat with the ugly tail go to? There was hole in one of the boards on the ground. He gave a low woof and pounced on the board. . .

Mulder stuck the key into the ignition. He was surprised to find that his sweaty hands were shaking slightly. Nervous? Nah. It wasn't as if the fate of free world lay in this moment. Right?

He turned the key. And he almost hit his fist on the roof as he let out a cry of victory. The roar of the engine was a thing of beauty. He looked down and checked the gas gauge. The tank was even full. Yes!

But his euphoria was interrupted by a horrible yelp. A Fluffy kind of yelp. He looked out the door towards the dog. His view was partially blocked by a stack of boards, but he could just make out the dog's dark fur. Fluffy was struggling, pulling against something. Oh. Crap.

Mulder turned off the engine, dropping the keys on the floormat, and he ran over to help his friend. He stopped short when he saw the problem. Fluffy had gotten one of his legs caught inside the hole of a board. It looked painful. The poor pup's fur was beginning to mat with blood.

"I'm here, Fluffy," Mulder tried to soothe. "Let me see if I can get your leg out. "

Fluffy seemed to calm a little, only letting out a small whine as Mulder knelt down beside him. He patted the dog on the head. He shifted his body around so that he was kneeling on the boards in front of Fluffy.

The boards creaked. *That did not sound good, * Mulder thought. Haste might be a good thing at this juncture. Trying to hurry while not causing Fluffy further injury, he pushed two fingers down into the hole and found the hangup. A nail. Damn.

"Hang on, we're almost there, boy," Mulder promised.

He pushed down hard with his fingers. The rotting wood around the nail gave and Fluffy was freed. He pulled his paw out and began to lick the wound.

Mulder stood, his knees creaking. . . or was that the wood? What the hell was under these boards anyway?

And the boards at their feet let out a stomach wrenching shriek.

"Oh. Shit. Sorry Scully." Mulder muttered as their world caved in.




There was something amazingly beautiful in the the final gurgle of a dying man. Alex Krycek was surrounded by beauty today. It had only taken him fifteen minutes to kill five men.

After dispatching the troops above ground, he entered the small cinderblock building and quickly found the hidden staircase that led to the bunkers below. He twisted and snapped the neck of the first guard he met at the bottom of the stairwell. He shot the one who rounded the corner moments later. Six. Seven. What lovely sounds.

But someone got wise. The alarms sounded as he opened the door to the bunker. Oh well. No matter. Just an inconvenience. He looked up and saw the surveillance camera. He raised his gun, grinned, and fired. He could hear running feet coming down the corridor toward him. He reached into sack he carried on his waist. It was a good time to use the grenades. He wondered what noises he would hear next.




Spender cursed as he stared at the video screen. That son of a bitch Krycek had actually grinned at him. "Well, we'll see who's grinning after my soldiers are done with you," he muttered.

He grabbed his radio and sent all of his forces to finish off the invader. Then he grabbed his own gun and headed off to see to the woman and the boy.




When the alarms sounded, Roberta scooped up Matthew and headed toward the bathroom door. Uncle Fester was torn between staying put and following Spender's command to kill the invader. He looked at Roberta. She could sense the evil outside her door. She knew in her heart that this was not a "rescue" mission. Hell. It didn't take a rocket scientist. No one even knew she was here. . . But what about Matthew? She was scared for him.

She nodded to Fester and he headed out the door. Moments later, though, the door flew open again. Roberta jumped, tightening her death grip on Matthew. She found herself breathing a sigh of relief when she saw it was Scotty.

"What's going on?" she demanded.

"There's an intruder. He's already killed. . ." he paused, afraid he shouldn't reveal too much. Then he looked at Roberta and Matthew. He really did like the kid. He looked like his own son. . . his son that died from the Superflu. He made his decision. "Our guards up top are dead. The guy is inside the compound now, on this level." Scotty closed the door and ran across the room. He grabbed a chair and pushed it up under the door knob.

"It's not much, but I'm not leaving you guys," he offered.

Roberta appreciated the determination in his eyes. She had been right about this one. But her thoughts were shattered when an explosion rocked the ground. The chair was blown away from the door. She stumbled. And just as she was about to fall, Scotty was there, gripping her by the shoulders. Steadying her.

"Oh. Shit," Scotty whispered.


CHAPTER THIRTY-NINE

"Speak up, destiny, speak up! Destiny always seems decades away, but suddenly it's not decades away; it's right now. But maybe destiny is always right now, right here, right this very instant, maybe. "
- "A Canticle For Leibowitz" by Walter M. Miller, Jr.


The Compound Nevada

In all of his years of black ops, Scotty had never questioned his duties. To be blunt, questions got you killed. The men he had worked for saw to that.

He had been in Army Special Forces for three years. He had loved the job, but it meant never being home. Sometime between his jaunts in Colombia and Bosnia, his wife had left him, taking their one-year old son with her. He hadn't seen them in over three years. So he had nothing to go home to. And the vultures had swooped in. They had picked and plucked until he was sucked into their world.

Now, he barely remembered his real name. Hell, it was never used. He didn't even have a credit card or checking account. His old Army file, along with his pictures and fingerprints had been erased. He had no home. There was no proof on earth that he had ever existed. And he knew that his wife -- ex-wife -- and son had been in New Orleans when the flu had hit. He could only assume they were dead.

He hadn't seen much of the human devastation. His group had been whisked off to this god-forsaken place at the first hints of trouble. He couldn't be sure what had really happened, but the men in his unit had whispered a very few rumors. That their "boss" was the one behind all of it. Scotty had tried not to think about it. He had succeeded for a short time. But then, things got complicated.

As the dust settled in the room, he looked at the woman and the boy. *Roberta and Matthew, * he reminded himself. They had names. They deserved better. Maybe it was time to make up for what he had done to his wife and son. What he had done to himself.

He flexed his fingers against the grip of his weapon. He had made his decision. He wasn't waiting for more explosions. He had to act to protect. Letting his MP-5 slide from his hands to hang by its straps, he grabbed the mattress off the bed and ran toward the bathroom. He threw the mattress into the small room.

"Take him in there, now!" He ordered Roberta.

She looked at him for a moment and he could see the questions in her mind. What had made him thoroughly cross the line to her side? And why the hell couldn't there be another way out of here so they could just escape? But taking time for questions would get them killed.

Scotty was breathing heavily, his neck muscles were taut. "Move!" he insisted, keeping his voice low. He grabbed her by the shoulder and started to push her into the bathroom.

Roberta went with the program. Scotty was trying to buy them some time. And her main responsibility was to Matthew, who -- God bless him -- was quiet and obedient in her arms. The boy sensed Scotty's fear.

"Get down in the shower stall. Use the mattress as extra cover. And stay put until I come back to get you," Scotty instructed. He grabbed a chair from the room and shoved it into the bathroom. "Place this under the knob. It's not a perfect lock, but it's better than nothing. "

He started to close the door as Roberta moved to place Matthew in the stall, but then he stopped. He took his 9mm from his holster and handed it butt end first to a stunned Roberta.

"You might need this. It's good to go. You've got fourteen rounds in the clip, one in the chamber," he stated.

"Thank you," Roberta said. She let her hand linger on his for a moment before she took the gun. He simply nodded at her in respect as he lifted his MP-5 and prepared for action.

"Watch your back," she whispered as he closed the door. Then he could hear as she turned and tried to get bunkered down with Matthew.

Scotty ran to the northeast corner of the room, to the side of the main door, and took up a combat stance.

They would have to get through him before he would let anyone harm Roberta or Matthew.




Battle Mountain, NV
1030 Hours

He was entering into another dimension. A dimension of sight and sound and. . . pain. "Holy mother of pearl!" groaned, lying flat on his back as he finally got some air back into his pancaked lungs. His arms flopped bonelessly at his sides for a few moments before his hands found his chest and stopped to rest.

"I will not stand on rotting boards. I will not stand on rotting boards. I will not. . ." Mulder mumbled. Then his eyes widened. He heaved himself up into a sitting position.

"Fluffy!" he coughed out through the still settling dust. It took him a few seconds of the-shin-bone-is-connected-to-the-knee-bone to realize that his neck still worked and his painfully tender head could actually turn. He squinted as he searched through the din of dirt and indirect sunlight. But then he heard the quick pants of his friend. He looked to his left and could just see the furry side of the dog on the other side of a broken pile of boards.

"Talk to me, Fluff-Man," Mulder intoned as he tried to make his way over to him.

Fluffy didn't disappoint Mulder. He heaved his body once, then twice, and rolled onto his stomach with a grunt. Then he pushed himself up with his paws until he was sitting, his back arched and his head hung low as he tried to snort the dust out of his nose while still trying to breathe. Mulder could see that Fluffy's right ear was flipped and turned inside out in that doggie pillow head kind of way.

"Hey! Fluffy!" Mulder smiled, though still concerned that the dog was hurt.

Fluffy turned his head, letting his eyes slowly re-focus. His tail wagged limply when he saw that Mulder seemed to be okay. He gave a weak woof. Then he began to cough.

"Take it easy, boy," Mulder soothed as he finished his half-crawl to the dog's side. He gently patted Fluffy on the back until he stopped his coughing. He framed the dog's face in his hands for just a moment in relief. "How ya' feelin', mutt?" he asked as he reached up and flipped the ear back to its rightful position. Fluffy, of course, had to have a good reflexive head shake after that. Then Mulder stroked his fur lightly, using it as a chance to check him for injuries.

Fluffy was beginning to regain his senses and some strength. He had been winded as badly as Mulder, but, aside from the cuts to his paws and foreleg, he could feel no real pain. He let Mulder continue his calming strokes because he thought it made the man feel better.

"Well, pal," Mulder spoke as he started to survey their predicament. "It looks like we both escaped the broken bones this time. But let's not test our luck again." Fluffy whined his agreement. "Now. How the hell do we get out of here?"

Mulder looked up. They had fallen a good fifteen feet into what appeared to be some kind of air shaft for a long-abandoned mine. There was a hole in the rock wall on the left that was boarded up, which was just as well. The hole looked too small for him to try and crawl through it. And he didn't have a flashlight, so exploring would not have been an option anyway.

No rope. No food. No water. And no handholds in the wall to the surface.

And his head was really starting to ache. He wanted a nap. Gritting his teeth against the aches, he laid down beside Fluffy, gingerly tucking his right arm under his head, and closed his eyes. This was all he could do right now.

Their only hope was Scully.




The Compound

Spender staggered down the corridor, his ears still ringing from the grenade blast. The emergency lighting cast a reddish glow. The halls had been devoid of life. When he had rounded the last corner he had started to stumble over the dead bodies. His security force was gone.

But where the hell was Krycek?

He peered ahead and could see that the door to the woman and boy's room was ajar. No! Krycek couldn't have. It would ruin everything. That son of a bitch!

He pushed forward and stood outside the room. He paused to listen. All was quiet. He held his pistol in his right hand as he leaned forward and pushed the door open with his left. Still no movement inside.

Cautiously, he inched forward into the room.

"Drop it!" Scotty yelled.

Spender turned and looked his former employee in the eye. He lowered the muzzle of his gun slightly, but he did not drop it.

"Mr. Ryan, isn't it?" Spender queried.

Scotty cringed. He hadn't been called that in many years.

"I'm not the enemy here, Mr. Ryan," Spender continued. He glanced toward the still open door. "The enemy is still out there. And his name is Alex Krycek. Don't think for a minute that he won't come in here and kill us both." He watched Scotty's eyes for some kind of sign.

"Where are the woman and boy?" Spender asked.

"They're safe," Scotty replied brusquely.

Spender scanned the room. His eyes fixed on the closed bathroom door.

"They're not safe," Spender commented. He looked back at Scotty. "They won't be safe until Krycek is eliminated. "

"You brought them here," Scotty replied as he slowly moved to place himself between Spender and the bathroom door. "I'd hardly you call you a safe alternative to the unknown out there. "

"You're wrong, Mr. Ryan. I think we both want the same thing. Nothing can happen to that boy. "

"And why is that? Why don't you tell me why the boy is so important to you?" Scotty insisted.

But Spender had no chance to answer.

"Yeah," Krycek coolly stated as he fired his gun from the doorway. "Why don't you tell me about the boy." He stepped in the room, his gun now trained on Spender.

But Spender was looking at Scotty. The bullet struck Scotty directly between the eyes. As the blood blossomed from his forehead, his knees buckled. He fell forward with a dull thump. He had been right. Questions did get you killed.

Krycek frowned when saw that Spender still held a gun. Without warning, he fired again.

Spender gasped as the bullet struck his right hand, exploding between his second and third knuckles. His gun clattered to the floor.

"Sur-prise, sur-prise," Krycek grinned.


Battle Mountain, NV
15 feet below ground
1100 Hours

Mulder was awakened by the skittering off little rat feet across his chest. "Aahh. . ahhh!" He grimaced and quickly wiped at his shirt as the two rats scattered and ran into a hole in the wall. "Great. Mutant desert rats. . ." he grumbled.

Mulder frowned. His nap didn't seem long enough. Maybe ten minutes long, he thought, as he glanced at the sunlight now poised overhead. He was tired. And he ached. He suddenly realized that, while he was sure he hadn't broken anything, he hadn't even bothered to check his own body to make sure he wasn't bleeding to death or anything else unseemly. He looked around but didn't see any giant red pools. A good start.

Fluffy was roused from his own nap and he sleepily watched Mulder go through his post-trauma ritual.

Mulder ran his hands across his face and over his head, looking for bumps, lumps, and assorted things that didn't rhyme, but hurt nonetheless. Nothing too bad so far. Then his hand moved down to his neck. A few stinging scrapes. But he paused. Something was missing.

*Put that cross around your neck, child, and don't you never take it off. That's God's Will. Do you hear me now? *

Mother Abagail's words of warning echoed through his head.

"Shit! "

He checked his shirt, inside and out. The cross was gone. He frantically sifted through the dirt.

Fluffy watched, but couldn't figure out what Mulder was doing. Did the man need him to dig, too? Fluffy dug his sore paws into the ground, thinking that he'd know it when he found it.

*Where the hell. . . Oops! Maybe I shouldn't say hell. . . * His eyes searched the debris that surrounded him. He'd managed to snag and scrape just about every part of his body on the way down. He started to search through the pieces of wood. Less determined men would have quit, but Mulder not only remembered Mother Abagail's words. He also knew how important the tiny object was to Scully.

Finally, as he moved one more shard of wood stuck in the sand, he saw a glimmer of hope. A tiny glint of metal caught in the sunlight from the shaft above. He dove for it. His fingers wrapped around the delicate chain and he lifted it from where it was ensnared. He stared at the cross in relief.

*Put that cross around your neck, child. . . *

"If the five second rule applies to dropped Oreos, I think we get at least a few more seconds for a cross. Right, Fluffy?" Mulder asked the dog, who had stopped his excavation efforts and was wagging his tail because the man was obviously happy now.

Mulder examined the necklace. One of the links by the clasp had been stretched open. He hooked the necklace back together, then he squeezed the link until it was closed once more. Then he opened the clasp and placed it back around his neck.

He hoped that Mother Abagail was satisfied with the effort. And he hoped that the Rats From Hell stayed wherever the hell they had gone.




South of Battle Mountain
1200 Hours

Scully was shocked to find herself waking up fully alert, her senses intact. It was the first time in months that she didn't have to peel her way through layers of fog. She could feel the sandy dirt shift under the blanket beneath her body. She could hear the whirr of the fan from the portable cooler in the car. *How long was the car battery gonna run that thing? * She could smell the dusty heat of the high noon sun.

And she remembered John Doe. *J. D. * She could hear him breathing somewhere just to her right. Why was he still here? A hundred reasons ran through her mind. None of them terribly inviting.

She tried to sense his mood by the rhythm of his breath. But she wasn't the only one who was keeping the beat.

"Hey. You want some water?" J. D. 's voice was gravelly yet gentle.

Scully debated whether or not to open her eyes and acknowledge him. She still hadn't worked out a plan of action.

"Look, no sense playing possum. I know you're awake. You snore when you're asleep," J. D. commented.

"I do not snore," Scully rebuked, her eyes popping open. J. D. was sitting beside her. And he was actually laughing at her. She let her hand slide up to her nose, pretending she was just taking care of an itch. She was relieved when she found no traces of blood there. She looked up and could see that J. D. had placed her underneath the shade of the "leanto." She began to sit up, but J. D. stopped her.

"Wait a minute. . . just slow down," he ordered as he moved closer. "Let me help you. I really don't want you collapsing again on me." He held out his hand. She hesitated, but finally took it and he helped her sit up. Then he quickly handed her a cool bottle of water from the cooler.

She was still wary as she took the water, peering under the bill of the brown John Deere cap he had donned to look him straight in the eye. He seemed to sense that she would need some space before she would begin to trust him. He sat back on his rear, giving her the extra distance. And he made a point of making sure she saw that his hands were empty. He was unarmed. Not what she had expected.

She took a long drink of water. "Thank you," she conceded as she wiped a drop of water from her chin with her forearm. As she talked, she let her gaze cautiously wander, looking for signs, searching for her weapons.

"How long was I out?" she asked. Her eyes moved slightly left and down.

"About two hours. I was beginning to worry that you'd smacked your head when you fell. What happened?" J. D. was watching her carefully. There was something about his eyes that made her think he was trained to watch every nuance. To interpret every glance. It wasn't something a person casually picked up. It came from years of experience.

Scully shrugged. She looked him in the eye again. No sense in being too obvious. But she still hadn't found her shotgun. "I guess I was just running a little low on water. "

"You faint often?" J. D. chided. His disbelief was evident. "'Cause you don't strike me as the swooning female type." He tilted his hat back slightly, wiping his sweaty brow with his hand.

Scully was tired of the personal analysis. "And you don't particularly strike me as the gentleman type. "

J. D. laughed. "You got that right." He watched as Scully resumed her visual reconnoiter. Then, to her surprise, he put her out of her misery. "Your shotgun is in the truck, right behind your head." He pointed to the gun.

Scully turned and saw that he was telling her the truth. She wanted to grab the gun, but she did not. She turned around and looked up at the sky. The sun was blocked by the tarp overhead, but she could tell it was close to noon. Mulder and Fluffy should be returning soon. What was going to happen then?

"Look, Dana," J. D. began. "I don't know when your friend is supposed to return. I'm guessing that he headed back to that last town to get a new truck. . ." He paused when he saw her questioning look. "I took a look at the engine while you were. . . sleeping. Anyway, I know he was on foot. So, if he got lucky and found something pretty quick, he should be back within the hour or so. Am I right?"

Scully did not respond.

"I don't know what I have to do here," he held up his hands in frustration. "I already told you that the old woman sent me to help you. She wouldn't leave me alone. She told me to find you here. And she was a real nag. "

Scully tried to hide her smirk of agreement. Nag and Mother Abagail could, at times, be synonymous.

"And if I had wanted to hurt you, I had every opportunity to do just that after you keeled over. Or, at the very least, I could have taken your weapons and supplies, leaving you here to bake in the sun as buzzard bait. I don't know what else I can tell you." He leaned back and let his head rest against the car. He seemed to have run out of convincing arguments.

"Why don't you tell me why you were watching us. Why you waited until Mu. . . my friend left before you came down here," Scully hit the nail of suspicion on the head.

He sighed and banged his head lightly against the side of the car. "It was a tactical decision. It was crazy enough traveling hundreds of miles simply because of some dream that I'm supposed to help someone. But any sane man can see that if you don't want to get your head blown off these days, you wait until the odds are even. Let's see. . . Me against two people, two guns and a dog, or me against one armed woman. I figured I had a better chance if I talked to you one on one. Then we could both talk to your friend. And I wouldn't become a chew toy for your dog. "

Scully hesitated for a moment, but then she gave him a slight nod. "That's fair enough. For now. "

"Great. Just fucking great," J. D. muttered. "Then, you won't mind if I grab a nap while we wait for your friends to come back," he grumbled as he stood.

Scully was on the alert, her body tensing, as he moved toward the lift gate of the SUV. He opened it and she was about to grab the shotgun when he spoke up.

"Take it easy," he said, hands raised. "I'm just gonna use one of these sleeping bags as a pillow. The rocks out here suck. "

Scully sat back down, but watched his every move as he took out the bag and shut the lift gate. He walked back into the shade of the leanto and plopped the bag down. Then he got down on the ground and made himself comfortable. He pulled down his cap so that it covered most of his face and he crossed his legs at the ankles.

"You all comfortable now?" Scully asked with some disgust. The man was arrogant if nothing else.

"Oh, yeah. I'm just fine. Just wake me when Mulder gets back," he yawned.

Scully's eyes narrowed. He had known Mulder's name all along. She had begun to believe his story, but she sure hoped that Mother Abagail had known what she was doing.

She took this moment of limited privacy to rub the bridge of her nose and massage her sinuses. There had been a strange sensation just before she had passed out. Not unlike when you've been suffering from severe congestion and, suddenly, one of your nasal passages clears and you can breathe again. Like a draining sensation.

Her head didn't really ache now. She was still a little off, but not fuzzy. She wasn't sure what to make of it. She just prayed that it wasn't a sign that the cancer had moved on to other pastures within her body. She would have to be very careful from now on.

"Hurry up and get back, Mulder," she whispered to herself.




The Compound

"You know, you really should do something about that hand. You're bleeding like a stuck pig," Krycek laughed. There was an unfamiliar giddiness in his throat. Flagg's touch had thrown open doors in Krycek's mind that he had previously only glimpsed, or maybe just jiggled their doorknobs. His eyes burned. He was super aware of everything around him -- sights, sounds, smells. He could smell the sweat on Spender's neck. He could nearly taste the copper saltiness of the man's blood. And he could see his reaction to the New and Enhanced Krycek.

Spender trembled with anger. He absently tried to clench his fists, but stopped when the pain shot through his right hand. Krycek loved watching the worm squirm. He took special delight as Spender fumbled with his left hand to remove his necktie. It took several attempts, but he finally removed the tie and wrapped it securely around his injured hand.

"I think you might be the only man born who would come through this apocalypse and still wear a suit and tie. Wanna die with your dress shoes on?" Krycek's voice was syrup and acid. If you got stuck in the words, you'd burn.

"I see no need to abandon style in the face of adversity," Spender commented as he tried to regain composure.

"Then maybe you shoulda shopped somewhere other than Crazy Eddie's Discount Warehouse. "

Spender didn't bite at the obvious bait. He wasn't one to trade simple insults. Instead, he fished in his pocket for his sedative of choice -- his Morleys. It took some maneuvering, but he managed to remove one cigarette and place it between his lips. Krycek couldn't miss Spender's look of defiance when he took out his two-hundred dollar gold lighter, flipped open the lid, and lit it on the first flick of the thumb. *Damn. When did the vulture stop using matches? *

The smoke rose in the room, creating a wavy halo around Spender's head.

"So. Where were we? Oh. Yeah." Krycek smirked from ear to ear. "Why don't you tell me about the two you've got holed up in there?" Krycek demanded, nodding toward the bathroom, but keeping his gun trained and ready on Spender.




Battle Mountain
1700 Hours

Mulder looked around the kitchen and was satisfied. The filet mignons had been seasoned with kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, seared in butter in the cast iron skillet, and now were in a 450 degree oven. The shallots and fresh tarragon were chopped and had reduced with the white wine and vinegar. He had stirred the reduction into the egg yolks over the double boiler. And he had drizzled the melted butter into the sauce while he whisked like a madman.

Scully was sitting at the kitchen table with a glass of Zinfandel swishing around in her right hand, between sips. Sips made possible by her full, luscious, red lips.

Oh. Yeah. This was the perfect dinner.

She stood and sauntered over to his side. She was wearing her black silk negligee. The one that made that delicious noise as it glided over her skin. She stood on her tiptoes and brought her mouth to his left ear. Her tongue reached out to trace his lobe. . .

She slurped noisily.

*What the hell? *

Mulder sat bolt upright and looked down in disgust at Fluffy. The dog didn't even have the decency to look guilty. Mulder frantically wiped the dog spit off of his ear.

"Keep your tongue to yourself, Fluffy," Mulder grumbled.

He looked at his surroundings. *Still stuck in this damn place. *He looked up to the sunlight that was now waning as it illuminated the dust at the top of the dry well.

"Crap," he shouted as he picked up a rock and threw it up toward the opening.

"Shit," he yelled as the rock hit the side of the opening and ricocheted back down at him.

Fluffy quietly watched Mulder. It was damned frustrating being a dog sometimes. He had been worried about the man. Mulder had been sleeping too long. Fluffy needed some comfort. He felt stupid for falling into this hole. So, he had licked Mulder's ear. Fluffy sighed.

Mulder tried to gauge how much time had passed. Too long. Where was Scully? Was she okay? How long would it take her to figure out that something had happened to her "rescuers?" And how in the hell was she going to make that long walk? All by herself.

"Dammit!" Mulder yelled. He winced. Okay. *That* hurt. No more yelling. What he wouldn't give for a tall glass of cool water and a huge honking steak. He rubbed the back of his neck, hoping to loosen a few sore muscles. Add a bottle of Excedrin Migraine to the dinner order.

He was beginning to get a crystal clear picture of being trapped in this hole for all eternity. His stomach rumbled. Why didn't he eat an early lunch today? And why did he have to leave his pack over by the truck up top? He could just imagine the little scavenging animals out there having a field day on his food. He growled, which made Fluffy sit up and take notice.

Fluffy. Hmmm. Mulder looked down at the dog. Dog. Hot dogs. Steaks. He could just see the shape of a dog on a spit over a roaring fire covered in Sweet Baby Ray's BBQ Sauce. Much better than rat kabobs. "You're sick, Mulder," he muttered as he shook his head and looked away from Fluffy. He couldn't believe he was thinking these things.

Fluffy watched Mulder. The man was tired and grumpy. Fluffy could see that even though he was suffering from the heat and dehydration. And he was hungry, too. But he wouldn't go there now. Every time he thought about it, he kept picturing rump roasts and hot dogs magically appearing on Mulder's body. Fluffy gave himself a good shake to rid himself of these bad thoughts.

Fluffy decided he would try and erase his guilty food images by making Mulder feel better. After all, Mulder as a friend was better than Mulder as a rump roast. With a sigh, he laid his head down on Mulder's leg.

Mulder felt more than a twinge of guilt for snapping at Fluffy. And for picturing the dog as a one-course meal. He set to work, scratching the mutt behind his ears.

"Don't worry, Fluffy. Scully is strong. She'll find us and get us out of here. We just have to be patient. "

He'd give her a little more time. If she wasn't there by daybreak, he would have to find a way to make the impossible climb.

He gently moved Fluffy's head off of his leg and stood, deciding to examine the walls one more time before the light totally faded. He ran his hands over the crumbly earth, wondering what had been in these mines. Gold, silver? Whatever it was, the construction had been pretty shoddy. This air shaft had few supports. Crap. He was so not looking forward to spending a dark night here.

He had just stepped over a small pile of old boards when he heard it.

*No, no, no, no, no! * The chant ran through his head. That could not possibly be what it sounded like. He looked down at the ground through the corner of his eye. *Shit on a stick. *The rattle filled the air, first high, then low in pitch. It could be exactly what it sounded like.

The rattlesnake was coiled at his feet. Mulder knew it had to be a freak of nature. An X-File. It was dirty brown and freaking huge. Most likely a man-eater. And it was mere inches from his left foot. Things could not get much worse than this.

The only worse thing would be what he heard next. The sound of a second rattle to his right.

"Oh hell. . ." Night was falling and the snakes were coming out to play.




South of Battle Mountain
1700 Hours

"Mulder should have been back hours ago." Scully stood on the road, her arms crossed about her stomach, watching the lifeless horizon.

J. D. had been watching her for over thirty minutes. She hadn't moved from the road. Sometime after his nap, they seemed to have called a truce. She still didn't trust him fully, but it was good enough for now. Somehow, he doubted she trusted anyone completely. With the possible exception of Mulder. But he couldn't know for sure. He hadn't met the man. Hadn't watched them together except from a distance.

The clock was ticking and J. D. knew that something had gone awry. Maybe Mulder got hurt on his walk. No. The dog would have probably returned alone. Something else had happened. He was betting that they ran into trouble somewhere in the town. Who knew what kinds of yahoos were holed up there?

J. D. noticed the looks that had been cast his way. Dana had been toying with the suspicion that *he* had done something to Mulder before he had arrived on the scene. He gave her credit for dispelling that idea by herself. He had seen the moment when she realized that the idea made no sense. For one thing, she probably would have heard something. He had shown up not that long after Mulder had departed, considering that sound carried far in a silent desert surrounded by hills. And, if he *had* hurt Mulder, he wouldn't have stuck around here with her, sitting in the hot desert sun for nothing. He would have taken what he wanted and taken himself down the road.

But the time for thinking had passed. They needed to take action. If they didn't do it now, it would be too dark -- too dangerous -- to mount a search. And while he wasn't sure he really wanted to find Mulder, the old lady had made his job perfectly clear. He was to help *both* of them. It was time to get to work. Time to force Dana's doubts aside.

"It's time I went and got my bike," J. D. commented.

"Your bike?" Scully asked.

"What? You thought I walked out here? My motorcycle is up behind the hill over there a ways. Should take me about 30 minutes to get up there and about ten to ride down to the road. . . if I don't take a header over a rock." He grimaced at that image.

"I'm going with you." Scully stated it as fact, her jaw set.

"Hey! No arguments here. At least for the ride." J. D. agreed. "I have a feeling Mulder would try and dismember me if I show up without you," he reminded her.

She nodded. J. D. sensed that she refrained from mentioning that Mulder, if they found the guy in one piece, just might dismember him anyway.

"But it would be stupid for you to hike up there with me," he braved her death stare. But she softened a little. The hike idea was a bit much. "Just do me a favor while I'm up there. . ." J. D. began.

"What's that?" she warily asked.

"I don't want any 'fainting spells' while you're on my bike. Drink and eat whatever you need now," he insisted.

"Sure. Fine. Just get the damn motorcycle," she waved him off with the back of one hand.

J. D. grabbed a bottle of water and he headed out, all the while mumbling to himself about being a Boy Scout.

Scully walked over to the rear of the SUV and sat on the rear bumper.

"Come on, Mulder." She prayed that he had simply done something silly like twist his ankle. She hoped that, for once, he hadn't done his usual and dropped himself in the middle of hell.


CHAPTER FORTY

"Should auld acquaintance be forgot. . . "




Battle Mountain
1710 Hours

Fluffy was on his feet at the first rattle. The hair raised on his back as if he had suddenly been struck by lightning. His ears perked up and forward. His front shoulders tilted back and his head tipped down, his body ready to spring. A member of his family was threatened. This is what he had trained for the first three years of his life. He was in the zone.

Fluffy was ready to strike when the second diamondback revealed itself. And Mulder was standing right between the two snakes. Fluffy had to make a decision. He quickly looked at each snake, sniffed the air for clues. The snake on the right seemed to be the most aggressive and was a foot closer to the man. He would defend against that one. But he needed Mulder to be prepared, to act in tandem against the other snake.

The snake's head moved forward and back as its tail rattled harder. Fluffy needed Mulder to understand. Quickly.


When you're in law enforcement, you become genetically attached to your gun. And it's just like an arm or a leg. You take it for granted. You never notice it until it isn't there. You become accustomed to its heavy weight on your hip. You even get a little callous or a perpetual bruise on the inside of your arm, just above your elbow, from years of tucking your arm in to check that your extra appendage is there. To make sure your gun is there beside you.

Mulder had completely forgotten about his gun until his arm performed that instinctive maneuver. He wanted to slap himself on the forehead, but he didn't think the snakes would appreciate the sudden move. But now, he was faced with a dilemma. He could definitely pull his gun from his holster and shoot one snake before it bit him; but then he'd have to do a one-eighty and hit the other snake. Not good odds. He'd have to take them though.

Then he heard Fluffy's low woof. He turned his head slowly and could see the dog was poised and ready to jump the snake on his right. *Good dog! *Fluffy glanced up at him and Mulder could have sworn the dog was doing a three-two-one countdown.

"Do we go *on* one or is it 'three, two, one, *go*? '" Mulder asked, his voice only shaking slightly.

Fluffy just gave him a very pointed "Not now!" look. Lord. He had to have learned that from Scully. She hadn't seen "Lethal Weapon" either.

With a sharp bark from Fluffy, they were off.

Fluffy jumped. The snake jumped up and out with a sudden burst of energy. . .

Mulder drew his gun. . . the snake began to move. . .

Mulder fired.




The Compound

One drip. Two drip. Red drip. Nope. No blue drip. Only red. Spender looked at the growing puddle on the floor. His makeshift bandage wasn't holding up very well. He lifted his arm and rested his injured hand against his chest. He could feel the blood adjust to the new forces of gravity. It began to drip down toward his elbow. He needed to ignore this. Krycek was enjoying the show too much.

Spender weighed his options as he looked up and stared down the barrel of Krycek's gun. Krycek had always liked to make a dramatic entrance. When he had burst through the door, Spender had taken one look at the man's two good arms and, for the first time in his life, his heart had frozen mid-beat.

Krycek had sold his soul to Flagg. And the man standing before him was no longer the errant errand boy of the old consortium. That *boy* had been a short stubby little piece on the chess board. He had been easy to manipulate and sacrifice.

The man before him was something new. Spender could see Flagg in his eyes. But, a thought was nipping at the edges of his brain. He was missing something important.

Roberta Parks and Matthew Scully. Flagg had been the one who had disclosed their existence. Flagg had *led* Spender to them. But, Flagg had not seen fit to tell Krycek. Maybe Flagg wasn't as omnipotent as he pretended to be. Maybe Flagg had some insecurities after all. Spender knew how to deal with the insecure.

"You know, my trigger finger only has so much patience. . ." Krycek prodded, his index finger tightening on the gun.

Spender knew he had to lie. And it had to be the most convincing prevarication he had made in his long, twisted, conspiracy-filled life. He would have to believe the lie. And hope his nose didn't grow.

"Knowledge is power. And I don't like to share either of them," Spender began.

Krycek sneered and moved his gun down a fraction of an inch. He pulled the trigger. Chips of concrete peppered Spender's lower legs. He was quite pleased that he hadn't even flinched. He had to look a little hesitant before offering answers or Krycek would see right through him.

"Since you insist. . ." Spender continued in a steady, dry voice, seasoned by years of tobacco. "This woman and child are important to our survival. "

"Our survival? I'm doin' just fine." Krycek flexed his new arm.

"Our survival," Spender answered with disdain. Krycek always chose annoying times to be ignorant. "As in us. The human race." Spender detected the slight reflexive rise in Krycek's brow. "It probably hasn't occurred to you, but in all probability children of the people who survived this plague will not be immune to it. They will die within weeks of birth, if not in utero. "

Krycek was quiet for a moment. He seemed to be adding up the facts while assessing Spender's veracity. He finally spoke, his gun bobbing slightly up and down with each word. "You're so sure of this. . ." His voice was hedged with doubt, but Spender knew he could cut down the hedge with his axe.

"Alex. Of course I'm sure. You know where this Superflu originated. We were trying to solve this problem when some idiot in the lab got careless." Spender didn't have to fake his own disgust.

"What has that got to do with the woman and boy in there? And what has that got to do with me? Why should I care?" Krycek let his gun point toward the bathroom.

"Surely even you can't be so short-sighted, Alex. I know that in the past you sometimes had problems grasping the bigger picture, but you always understood how something could affect your own survival. No children, no future. No future, no point to survival of the fittest. "

Spender paused. Even though Krycek looked like he wanted to give him a few more holes, he was grasping the picture Spender was painting. He had pushed far enough to establish his credibility. No sense in getting shot again. It was time to tame the insults and focus on details. He had to orchestrate this very carefully.

"Perhaps it would be wise now for me to introduce you to my. . ." He looked at Krycek's gun and raised his good hand as if to apologize for a dinner faux pas. "*Your* guests. . . "

Krycek nodded. His face was still clouded with suspicion as his gun tracked Spender's walk to the bathroom door.

Spender raised his left hand and knocked on the door. He hoped that Roberta Parks was as quick-witted as he thought she might be.

"Doctor Parks? Would you please come out here with the boy?"




1715 Hours

Mulder's ears were still ringing from the echo of the gun blast that had quite effectively blown off the damn snake's head. Ringing so loudly he almost missed the pathetic yelp behind him.

"Fluffy?" He spun around, ready to fire in case the other snake was still alive. He need not have worried. Fluffy had done a job on the snake. Its head was separated from its body. The dog had one helluva bite.

His eyes tracked across the dimming light. Fluffy had moved away. Mulder couldn't see him well, but he could hear the low whining. Fluffy moved into a stronger shaft of light. He was limping. He sat down heavily and began to lick his leg.

"Oh god. Fluffy?" Mulder rushed to his side, nudging Fluffy's head out of the way so that he could look at the leg. He ruffled through the fur, exposing the skin, inch by inch. His stomach dropped.

There were two puncture marks.

"Dammit!" Mulder yelled. Fluffy winced at the loud noise. Mulder closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "I'm sorry, boy." He petted Fluffy's head, gave his ear a little scratch.

He went through the card catalog of his brain, trying to remember everything he had ever learned about snake bites. He knew that most rattlesnake bites were not fatal to humans, but dogs were a different story. It depended on where the bite was and how much venom entered the wound.

Where the hell was Scully? He needed her calm doctor's veneer about now. What was he supposed to do? He started running through what he'd read in books, seen in movies, and learned on the Discovery Channel.

Okay. Scratch the old "whip out a knife and cut the wound to suck out the poison" routine. Not only did he not want dog fur between his teeth, he knew that this method did more damage than good. Same went for a tourniquet.

His mind stopped racing, clearing out the adrenaline that was muddling his thoughts. The cards began to fall into place. Right. First and foremost, he had to keep Fluffy calm and not let him move. That would slow the spread of the venom. Next, he needed to tie something above and below the wound. Not a tourniquet, just something that would slightly restrict the bloodflow and the swelling.

He looked around, trying to find something to use. Nothing. That meant he needed to use his own clothing. He gripped his shirt sleeve and yanked on it, trying to tear it from the garment. Hell. They always made this look so easy in the movies. But the Hanes Beefy-T wasn't gonna cooperate without serious surgery with very sharp instruments.

*Socks! *Mulder fell back on his butt and unlaced his boots. He stripped off his gym socks. They would do. "Sorry about this, Fluffy. At least I put on a fresh pair this morning." Fluffy didn't protest.

Mulder tied one sock off two inches above the bite and one sock two inches below. He made sure he could still fit a finger under the ties, that they weren't too tight.

"Scully will be here soon, Fluff-butt. She'll know what else to do," Mulder promised as he sat at the dog's side, stroking his fur, keeping them both calm.




1800 Hours

Scully held onto J. D. for dear life as they sped north on the highway. There had been no sign of Mulder or Fluffy along the highway. So they had to have made it to Battle Mountain.

She glanced over J. D. 's shoulder and could see the outline of the town on the horizon. They were almost there. Just a few miles more.




The Compound

Roberta stood, poised by the door. She had received her B. A. in Spanish Literature from an excellent college -- her ability to spew Cervantes had been a real boon to her law enforcement career, doncha know -- and she had been in the middle of her master's thesis in criminal justice when she retired from the department, so she had bagged that. She was pretty damn sure she would have remembered receiving a doctorate.

What the hell was that sonovabitch up to now? She had heard the gun shots in the room beyond. Where was Scotty? Her gut told her he was probably dead. And her gut was seldom wrong. Her right hand tightened on her gun.

"Doctor Parks. You really should come out here now. "

Was it her imagination, or was the jerk emphasizing the word *doctor* just a little too much. Something was up. The man was asking to her to go along with some kind of game.

Should she go out and play? Matthew was still sitting in the shower stall, obedient as ever. His little face was turned up, his soulful, innocent eyes spoke. He adored her. He would do anything she wanted.

Dammit. This was why she had left the police department. She didn't want this responsibility any more. The power to decide someone else's fate. An innocent child's life in her hands.

Another knock at the door. Someone was getting impatient. She had to decide.

She could go out, gun blazing. Wouldn't that be pretty. She shook her head. The vision of Matthew shot and bleeding through his tiny shirt. No. No. No.

She cleared her throat. It was so dry. She locked her eyes on Matthew.

"Hang on!" she shouted. "We're coming out! "

She moved over to the shower stall. She stashed her gun under the mattress as Matthew watched.

"Let's go, kid," she whispered as she scooped the little boy into her arms. She kissed the top of his head. "It's gonna be okay. "

She walked over to the door and removed the chair from under the knob.

She opened the door and stepped outside. Spender gave her a satisfied smile. And a quick glance that seemed to beg for her silence. He stepped back and she took everything in at once.

Scotty's body was on the floor, a huge pool of blood and brain tissue was growing beneath his head. She pulled Matthew to her tightly, keeping Scotty out of his sights.

She could see the man who now held the power in this room. A younger man. Their was evil in his eyes. The same evil she had seen in her dreams.

"Turn around slowly," the evil man ordered. "And keep your hands where I can see them. "

Roberta complied. It was a good thing she had left the gun in the bathroom. Finally, the man seemed satisfied that she was unarmed.

"Alex Krycek," Spender began the introductions. "This is Dr. Roberta Parks and her son, Matthew. "

Roberta didn't look at Spender. She focused on Krycek. "I have a little boy here," she said as she adjusted Matthew's weight on her hip. "Can you please cover this man with a blanket?" She tilted her head towards Scotty's dead body.

Krycek shrugged. Spender did cover duty. He lifted the sheets and a blanket from the floor and covered Scotty, taking care to cover the blood with the dark blanket.

"Thank you."

"You're welcome, Dr. Parks." Spender stood and walked toward her.

Roberta now followed Spender's lead. She didn't trust him, but she could tell that he had read her body language.

She would play along, for now.




Battle Mountain Joe's Stop n' Go
1820 Hours

J. D. hadn't needed any prompting from Scully when they pulled into the town. He immediately steered for the first habitable building in view. The gas station slash mini-mart. He pulled up beside the single garage bay door. Scully was climbing off the minute the motorcycle came to a stop.

It didn't take long to find the evidence they needed. Fluffy's paw prints were everywhere in the dust and dirt. Mulder's empty water bottle was still on the front stoop of the mini-mart.

Scully was about to run pell-mell around the town, shouting Mulder's name, but J. D. grabbed her arm and halted her.

"Hang on, Dana." He ignored her glare. "Look. We know they made it here. But who knows who else might be here. Let's just take a few precautions, okay?"

Scully took a deep breath and J. D. let go of her arm. "They were looking for a car," she suggested.

"I think I saw some out back. Let's take a look. But be careful." J. D. pulled out his gun and waited as Scully did the same.

They split up to go around the building from both sides. As Scully edged around the back of the garage, she saw it. Mulder's backpack sat on the ground beside an old Suburban. The door of the vehicle was still open. But she couldn't see any sign of Mulder or Fluffy.

She saw J. D. as he came around the other side. She gave him a quick signal before she ran over to the backpack. She looked inside the car, around it. There was no sign of foul play.

J. D. covered Scully, but at the same time, he was scanning the area. It was a mix of living and dead vehicles and debris. Your basic dead town junk yard. Tiny critters scuttled around from heap to heap. Critters that wouldn't be hanging around if humans were on the prowl. That was a good and bad sign.

Then he saw the footprints and paw marks. They led over behind a pile of boards.

Scully looked up and he signaled her. He crossed the yard and followed the prints. They led to a gaping hole. Surrounded by freshly broken boards. Oh shit. "Dana!" J. D. yelled.

Scully came running.


Below, Mulder was trying not to fall asleep. He needed to stay alert for Fluffy's sake. . . and in case any of the diamondbacks' relatives decided to avenge their untimely deaths.

"Dana! "

He sat up straight. Fluffy jerked his head up. He had heard it, too.

"Scully!" Mulder screamed. Fluffy added a weak bark.

A shower of dirt and dust cascaded down from above and Mulder tried to cover his face. When he next looked up, stifling a cough, Scully's face was peering down at him.

"Mulder! Are you okay?"

"I'm fine, Scully. But Fluffy's been bitten by a snake. Get us out of here! "

Scully's head disappeared from view, but he could hear her talking. Talking? Who was she talking to? And, when he thought about it, who belonged to the male voice that had shouted her first name?

"Scully?" He called out.

It took a moment, but she appeared again. "What is it, Mulder?"

"Um. Is there something going on up there I need to know about? Like who is up there with you?" He was really trying not to be paranoid, but history had shown him many times that a little paranoia was sometimes wise.

"It's a long story, Mulder. . . I'll tell you when we get you up here. "

"But you're okay, right?" Mulder persisted.

She smiled. "I'm *fine, * Mulder. And right now I'm glad I have some help in pulling your heavy body up here. Now. Hang on for a sec. We've found a rope and we're figuring out a harness for Fluffy. You'll be up here in no time." She disappeared again.

Before Mulder could lower his though, she was back, doubt etched on her face. "You're sure you're okay, right?"

Mulder smirked. "I swear. No broken bones. Just some scratches. "

Scully ducked out of view. Mulder turned to Fluffy and started to get him prepped for the lift.

"I told you Scully would come and rescue us. "




The Compound

"Dr. Parks. Mr. Spender here was just explaining how you're the savior of mankind. Please do continue. . ." Krycek turned to Spender, but he kept his gun pointed at Roberta and Matthew.

Roberta looked expectantly at Spender. This just *had* to be good.

Spender reached into his pocket for another smoke. He was in no hurry. He lit it and took a long drag.

"Dr. Parks is a virologist. Probably the last of her breed, so to speak. As such, she is the only human left on earth who might be able to find a way out of mankind's predicament. With the information I have for her, we can begin to find the answer. "

Krycek eyed Spender, but then his focus turned to Matthew. Roberta, in turn, studied Krycek.

"I'm sure you can guess how this man used my son to force my cooperation," she spat.

"Spender likes to insure his work," Krycek replied. "But what does this have to do with Mulder and Scully?"

Spender was surprised, but didn't show it. So Flagg had told Krycek about the agents. It wasn't a disaster yet, but it was going to get interesting very soon.

"Do you honestly believe that Mulder will ever leave either one of us alone if he knows we're alive?"

Krycek chewed on the thought. A look of decision came over his face. And once again, Spender saw the pall of evil fill the man's eyes.

"You," he pointed to Spender. "Down on the ground by the bed. "

Spender complied, his knees cracking as he lowered himself to the ground beside the metal bed frame. Krycek pulled out a set of handcuffs and snapped one cuff around Spender's good hand. He cuffed the other end around the metal frame. There was no way Spender was going anywhere. He apparently didn't feel that Roberta was a real threat, making no move to handcuff her before he headed out of the room.

"Wait!" Roberta called out.

Krycek stopped and waited. "Well?"

"Can we at least take this man out of here?" She pointed to Scotty's body. "Please? For my son?"

Krycek looked her over from head to toe. "Fine," he said with a slight nod. "Move him. "

Roberta placed Matthew in the bathroom, where he wouldn't see the gore. Then she walked over to the body. She tamped down all feelings of sorrow. She couldn't waste her energies on it. She wrapped the man's head securely in one of the blankets to minimize the blood trail. She grabbed him by the arms and pulled.

It took some effort, but she finally managed to drag Scotty into the hallway. All under Krycek's watchful eye and gun. He motioned her back into the room. The moment she was inside, he slammed the door shut. She could hear the lock fall into place.

Roberta waited for a full ten count before she ran to examine the door. It may have suffered some superficial damage in the earlier grenade blast, but it wasn't going to budge now that it was locked from the outside.

Damn. It was going to be a long wait for the unknown.




Battle Mountain
2200 Hours

Once Mulder and Fluffy were on the surface of the earth instead of below it, everything had been about Fluffy. Mulder and the new guy, J. D. , had carried the dog into the mini-mart and laid him on the store counter. And Scully had gotten down to work.

Mulder had taken his degree of worry cues from Scully. She had gone at it like a mad woman at first, shaving fur, moving bandages, pressing on things that Mulder was pretty sure Fluffy didn't want pressed. She had Mulder and J. D. running all over the store for supplies. Flashlights were lit up everywhere once darkness had settled in.

Finally, Scully had stood up, brushed the sweaty hair from her face, and put her hands on her hips. She didn't think Fluffy had gotten a full dose of venom. He would be out of the game for a week or so, he might have some permanent tissue damage, but there was little they could do about it out here. He would need a vet like Dick Ellis -- in Boulder. But, Fluffy should live. She gave the dog a big kiss on the head.

Then Scully had turned to Mulder and, with a scrunch of her nose, she had sent him over to the store shelves to retrieve some soap and a sponge while she grabbed some disinfectant, Bandaids, and a flashlight. Leaving J. D. to tend to Fluffy, she had led Mulder out to an old hand well pump at the side of the gas station. Mulder took the hint, stripped off his shirt, and started to wash off.

"So. You really trust this guy? This J. D. ?" He asked as he scrubbed the soap through his hair. The moonlight illuminated the suds that were forming.

"I don't know. I guess. He said that Mother Abagail sent him to help us," Scully replied quietly. "It was hard to argue with him considering the circumstances. "

"I'm not sure I like it," Mulder replied as he rinsed out the soap, trying not to get any in his eyes. Scully handed him a clean shop towel she had found in the store.

"I don't think we have a choice. "

"What do you mean?" Mulder scrubbed the water from behind his ears.

"I mean. . . We have to keep going. We're almost to Matthew. Much as I hate to say it, we can't wait for Fluffy to get better. We're going to have to leave him here with J. D. "

Mulder winced. He hated the idea. "Well. Why don't we leave this up to Fluffy? I'm not gonna leave him with someone he hates. "

Scully nodded. "Let me take care of those cuts. Then we'll go inside and plan for tomorrow. See how Fluffy is doing. "

"You just wanna keep me with my shirt off, doncha G-Woman?" Mulder teased, trying to erase the recent close call and the hard decisions ahead.

She stood up on her toes and kissed him lightly. The only acknowledgement of the worry she had felt. "You read me like a book, Mulder." Scully then unceremoniously turned him around and dabbed the disinfectant on his scraped back.


Ten minutes later, they headed back into the store. And they couldn't believe their eyes. J. D. had made a "nest" and had moved Fluffy from the counter to his cushy new blanket and pillow home. Fluffy was resting his head on J. D. 's leg while J. D. fed the dog canned tuna with a plastic spoon. Fluffy's tail wagged limply -- Mulder recognized it as a ploy for sympathy.

"Still concerned, Mulder?" Scully nudged him with her elbow.

J. D. looked up, a little embarrassed at being caught. "Oh. I didn't hear you guys come in." He saw their amused looks and shrugged. "What can I say, I'm a dog kinda guy. "

"How's he doing?" Mulder asked.

"He doesn't seem to want to get up. . . and he keeps nosing at the bandages, but his appetite looks good," J. D. replied as he scooped out another spoonful of tuna.

"Keep doing that and he'll never get up." Mulder's comment was rewarded with a whine from Fluffy.

Scully walked over and sat down beside J. D. "We need to talk, J. D. "

"What's up?"

"Mulder and I need to get moving in the morning. . . but Fluffy shouldn't be traveling. He's needs to rest for a few days. "

"And?" J. D. asked, although he was already seeing the bigger picture.

"And," answered Mulder, "We want to ask you to stay here and look out for Fluffy. "

J. D. nodded and thought for a moment. He put down the empty tuna can and scratched the dog's ears. "Who in the hell would name their dog "Fluffy" anyways?"

Mulder shrugged while Scully shook her head. "He was a K-9 officer before the Superflu hit. . . "

J. D. 's eyes widened, but not in surprise. "I knew there was something about him. But can you imagine some cop standing on the street corner at midnight screaming out, 'Sic 'em, Fluffy! '?"

"So, how about it?" Mulder asked.

"Sure, I don't have a problem with it. But, I gotta ask. What's so important that you two have to hightail it outta here?"

Mulder and Scully exchanged glances. He reached out to touch her arm. Her head didn't move, but Mulder saw the nod.

"Scully and I are. . . were FBI agents."

J. D. 's eyes narrowed slightly at Mulder's confession. "You two were Feds. . . that explains a few things, I guess. . ." his voice trailed off.

"To make an incredibly long and unbelievably crazy story short, we received information about how this flu was started. By whom. And that man is out here somewhere. . . "

"And you two plan on taking him down on your own? Are you insane? Let's get our own SWAT team together. I've got good weapons stashed. . . "

"No," Mulder stopped him short. "The man has hostages. We believe he is holding a woman and a small boy. . . "

"A well-coordinated tactical team can still. . ." J. D. tried to argue.

"The boy is my nephew. Matthew." Scully's words stopped the debate.

"Jesus, I'm sorry, Dana. Anything you need. . . we'll do it your way." J. D. sighed and leaned his head back against the wall.

Scully was surprised at the emotion behind J. D. 's voice. Someday she hoped she could learn more about this new friend. "What we need is for you to take care of Fluffy. He's been a great bodyguard and a good friend. It'll be easier for us. . . for me, if we don't have to worry about him. "

"Consider it done, then." J. D. held out his hand and Scully took it, giving it a small squeeze of thanks.

"We'll head out first thing in the morning," Mulder added.

J. D. nodded. Then, as he looked at Mulder and Scully, he suddenly became self-conscious. He gently moved Fluffy's head off of his leg and he started to stand. "Look, folks. You guys can stay here. . . I'll just head out back. . . "

"No," Scully interrupted. "You stay in here with Fluffy. Mulder and I can make other sleeping arrangements. "

"You sure?"

"Yeah, we're sure," Mulder replied as he stood. He helped Scully to her feet and they headed out of the store.


They had made a bed in the back of the Suburban. It was comfortable and the nightsky view was gorgeous. They sat on the back tailgate, looking at the stars, a blanket draped across their shoulders.

"Were almost there, Mulder." She shivered.

Mulder knew that in Scully-speak this meant "What's going to happen to us? To Matthew?" He pulled her back against him and wrapped his arms around her. He rested his chin on her shoulder, his mouth next to her ear.

"You *are* feeling okay, aren't you?" he asked softly.

"Really, my health seems fine. No nosebleeds. I'm just. . . I don't know. . . "

"On edge?" He offered.

"Yeah," she admitted.

"Then sit back, Miss Scully, and let me tell you a bedtime story. "

Scully leaned to the side and turned her head. She raised her eyebrow, one side of her mouth turned up. Mulder waggled his brows right back at her. She decided to go with it and relaxed back into his embrace.

"It's the bottom of the ninth and the Kansas City Monarchs are up by four. The Homestead Greys are just three outs away from losing. The great Satchel Paige is on the mound. "

"Baseball," Scully muttered. "This is about baseball. Why not a story about chess or backgammon. . . or Goldilocks and the Three Aliens. . . "

Mulder ignored her. He knew he could draw her in.

"First batter up. . . goes down swinging. One out. Second batter comes up to the plate. He fans air. That's two down. Next guy up gets wood on the ball for a triple. So, there's one man on. And the next guy in the batting order approaches the plate.

"But the great Satchel Paige doesn't want the game to end this way. Oh no, Miss Scully. You see, Josh Gibson, the best hitter in the world, is only two more slots down in the order. Satchel Paige wants Josh Gibson. "

Mulder could feel Scully's smile against his cheek.

"So. He does the unthinkable. He walks two men who were certain strikeouts to load the bases. And he waits for the man who at one time had a . 467 batting average. The man who once hit sixty- nine homeruns in a single season. The man who would be the tying run.

"Gibson slowly strides up to the plate, his bat resting on his giant shoulder. The bill of his cap is turned up. His left sleeve, as always, is rolled up. His biceps are bigger than an anaconda, his hands are the size of platters. He plants his feet in the batter's box, he looks up for the first time and stares at Paige as he takes one slow practice swing. His feet are planted flat on the ground. His upper body strength does all the work. It can send a ball over five hundred feet through the air.

"Paige just smiles. And he yells to Gibson, 'Three fastballs. 'He's telling Gibson exactly what he's going to pitch. But Gibson is a man of few words. He simply takes one more slow swing. And maybe his jaw tightens the slightest bit.

"Paige begins his windup. He raises his right arm once, twice, then he's into the throw. The ball whistles down the lane. It must be going one hundred miles an hour. It's gonna be low and inside. Gibson waits. . .

"And the ball appears in the catcher's mitt before the crisp sound of ball against leather echoes through the park. Strike one. Paige smiles as the catcher returns the ball. The catcher flexes his sore fingers inside his glove as he crouches down. Gibson's eyes narrow.

"Paige's arm goes up once, twice. The ball sails. It's gonna be high and inside. Gibson's in his slight crouching stance, waiting. He lets it pass by. Strike two.

"The crowd is roaring. It's come down to one pitch. A battle between the mound and the wood. The greatest pitcher against the greatest batter.

"The catcher is ready. The umpire is in his stance. Gibson is alert, his biceps flex as his hands tighten their grip the bat.

"Satchel's right arm goes up once, twice. The ball is flying low, so low. . . it can't be in the strike zone. . .

"Are you still with me, Scully?"

She slapped his shoulder. "I might have to hurt you. . . "

Mulder grinned. Then he broke the suspense. "Gibson waits, it's gonna be a ball. . . But it's Satchel's rising heat. At the last second, it rises from Gibson's ankles and blows right by his knees. . .

"Strike Three! Game over. Paige had set up the drama. He called the show. The crowd goes wild. . . "

Scully was still for a moment, deep in thought. Mulder's stories usually had some kind of point to them. "You think that cigarette smoking bastard is calling the show. That he thinks he's Satchel Paige. "

Mulder kissed her forehead. Bright girl. "Except this time, Scully, Gibson is gonna hit the ball out of the park. "


September 18 0630 Hours

Scully looked out the back window as she and Mulder pulled onto the highway and headed south.

J. D. stood in the doorway of the old store with his hands braced on the doorframe. He wasn't a waving kind of guy. But the nod of his head said everything. He wished them luck. He'd watch out for Fluffy. *Watch your back. *

Fluffy had limped his way to the door against doctor's advice. His head was hanging low, wedged between J. D. 's leg and the doorframe. It was so hard to not feel like they were deserting him.

Scully sat back in her seat and took a breath to quell the aching lump that was stuck in her throat. The road ahead seemed to go on forever. But the end would be there. Soon.

Mulder reached out and pulled her hand over to entwine with his, resting on his thigh.

"We're getting Matthew. And we're gonna hit it out of the park, Scully. "

They continued down the road.


CHAPTER FORTY-ONE

"There's danger on the edge of town, Ride the king's highway. Weird scenes inside the goldmine, Ride the king's highway west, baby."
- The Doors




The Compound
September 18
0030 Hours

Krycek had never been a chipotle with his eggs kind of guy. But when in Rome -- or the state of Sonora, and a beautiful young Mexican woman brings you eggs smothered in a deep adobe-brown chipotle salsa, that's what you eat. Heartburn and gas be damned. It was a hazard of the job.

Mexico had never been his first choice for a refuge home away from home, but it was convenient. And it did have a few more advantages. When he needed to lay low, this was a good place to stay on his back. Not in the big tourist cities, but in the small towns. The people there made it a religion to keep their noses in their own business. They had generations of practice.

Then there was avoiding unnecessary notice. Normally hard to do when you're missing an arm. But the people of this region worked the land. And they knew the secret to beating the sun in the fields. The workers always wore long sleeved shirts. Krycek had never fully understood this habit of migrant workers until he had sat in the Mexican sol. He could now appreciate the practice for its practicality as well as for letting him keep his prosthetic arm covered without the strange looks and whispers.

He had been waiting for things to cool down from his latest double dealings before venturing back into the United States. Moving from town to town, from Chihuahua to Sonora, for four weeks when the first hints of trouble blew through on the rumor mill.

It was a mere five days later when Captain Tripps paid his first visit to the town. His first victim was a celebrity -- though not in a good way like, say, Clark Gable. This man with a phlegmy cough and Niagara Falls sinuses was beheld with the awe reserved for curiosities like The Elephant Man. You couldn't help but look, but you sure as hell didn't want to touch.

Krycek knew the Flu for what it was. The beginning of the end. And he was pretty damn sure he knew where it came from. Word was spreading that Mexico and the U. S. were closing their borders. A "quarantine," they said. He started making arrangements accordingly.

Fifty C notes bought him a seat on Pedro Robles small plane. He had used Robles' services in the past, when something needed to be smuggled across the border with no questions asked.

Krycek was concerned when he arrived at the improvised air strip and saw the pallor of Robles' face. The pilot had to be in serious denial not to recognize that his hours were numbered. Krycek did not relish the idea of flying with the sick man, but he had little choice. There was no other way across the border - - and there was no way in hell he was going to be stuck in Mexico as the full scope of the Flu dawned on everyone. He was a gringo from the country that caused the pandemic. Yeah. He was sure the natives would let him live.

They took off with a sputter of engines that were not happy with their fuel quality. They had headed directly west, out over the Gulf of California. Robles turned the plane due north. They were headed straight for El Centro, California.

They almost didn't make it. Robles had them flying so low in the dark night -- and he was coughing up so much mucous and other suspicious fluids -- that they almost didn't clear the last set of rocky crests before the expanse of the Imperial Valley.

Robles didn't even cut the engine when they landed, barely even came to a stop. Krycek had jumped onto the field and the plane immediately did a 180 degree turn and was off.

Krycek doubted the Robles would be able to make the flight back to Mexico. He had watched as the plane bounced across the field, lifting up, touching down, only to bounce back up again. The air finally caught beneath the wings and the plane was aloft. But it seemed to be going up and down, the wings waggling feebly.

Krycek started to run in the opposite direction. He had a feeling. He looked back over his shoulder and knew his gut was right. He slowed his run, unable to take his eyes off the impending disaster. The plane was approaching the hills to the south. The nose was still down. There was no way Robles could gain altitude in time. . . The fireball lit up the face of the rocky hills.

The dreams had started that night, somewhere west of El Centro. And they would not let go. He no choice but to follow where they led him. Las Vegas. Responding to Flagg's beck and call.

*

He picked up the bottle of Makers Mark from the desk and took a long swig. He had to hand it to Spender. The man had some good booze stashed in the bottom drawer of his desk amongst the cartons of Morleys.

He looked to the monitors on the wall. They were all working. The perimeter alarms and cameras were set. It hadn't taken much work to get everything running again. He had even managed to rig a portable radio to monitor any conversations his prisoners might have. His years of covert work had paid off.

Monitor Three showed the room where his captives were held. Spender and Dr. Parks were securely handcuffed to the bedframe. He zoomed the camera in. Spender's face was pale in his slumber. His wounded hand had probably begun to fester by now. He panned the camera. Dr. Parks was a mystery. She was not happy to be there, but she was keeping her mouth shut and following his orders. Although, she had scowled when he had returned to the room and handcuffed her to the bed. She had wanted to go to the bathroom before he locked her up, but he had refused. She didn't argue with him, or rather, the gun in his hand. Of course, she was only trying to protect her son. The boy was asleep, lying across the doctor's lap. Good. Now if Mulder would just get to the door so he could take care of business once and for all.

He ran his left hand through his hair, pausing afterward to stare as he flexed his fingers. After a life of doing a fairly good job of watching out for number one on his own, had he made the right decision? It was hard to know. His thoughts had become muddled. His *own* thoughts were muted. When Flagg had appeared and offered his *gift, * all Krycek had felt was rage. A need for the arm. He couldn't refuse. It had been physically impossible to resist.

Now he wondered if Flagg had manipulated his decision. He shook his head and squeezed his eyes shut. Every time he thought of Flagg, the rage returned. All he could see was his own hands wrapped around Spender's throat, the bones in the old man's spine cracking, his windpipe popping. He could feel the blood on his hands as he plunged his knife over and over in Mulder's body. He could hear the wind being sucked from the agent's lungs, the grunt as he fell to the floor.

He took another swig of bourbon and gasped as it burned down his throat.

He glued his eyes to the monitors. Just a little more time.



0400 Hours

They moved slowly, ever aware of the security cameras. Mother Abagail, God, Fate, or Lady Luck had led them to this dirt road yesterday afternoon.

Scully was surprised when Mulder had pulled the Suburban to a halt on the highway, turned off the engine. He hadn't said a word. He just pointed to the side of the dusty road. The motion sensors were carefully hidden between rocks, but they were still visible to a wary eye.

She had pulled out the binoculars. It had taken some searching, but soon they spotted the cameras that dotted the roadway. Yeah. They were in the right place. Mulder pulled the car a little further down the road, just to be safe. They hunkered down and waited for the cover of darkness. Few words were exchanged. Neither of them had the vocabulary or the energy. All they could do was hold one another.

Now they were trying to take advantage of the statistics that had been used on countless battlefields before -- the human senses were at their worst during these twilight hours. Guards were not alert, night shift workers were at their lowest productivity. All Mulder and Scully needed was a little inattention and a lot of luck.

They stayed off the road, traveling behind the line of cameras. At least this way they were only exposed to half of the eyes. They kept on the alert for motion sensors.


0600 Hours

The deceptively small building was just ahead. They circled around it, choosing to approach from behind. Mulder crept around one side, his pistol in hand, while Scully did the same on the other side. They met on either side of the door. The high-tech key pad told them they were in the right place.

"Whaddaya think the odds are this is unlocked?" Mulder whispered, as they both examined the pad.

"Oh, I'd say slim to none, Agent Mulder," Krycek called out as he stepped out from behind the building with his MP-5.

Mulder and Scully both raised their guns, but Krycek was faster. He laid down a row of automatic fire that bit into the sandy ground at their feet.

"Drop the weapons. Now." Krycek demanded.

A litany of curses passed through Mulder's head. He considered ignoring the order, but realized the idea was fatal. They complied, dropping their guns to the ground.

"Kick them away. "

The agents obeyed.

"And, now, Mulder. Get lift those pant legs up," Krycek barked.

"Damn. And I didn't shave today," Mulder complained. Inside, he cursed. There went his backup weapon. As he lifted his pant leg and removed the snub-nose . 38, he couldn't help himself. "I never would have pegged you as a leg man, Krycek. Ass man, maybe. . . "

"Only when the ass is Scully's. Toss it over there," Krycek responded coolly. He pointed with his left hand.

*Oh, shit, * thought Mulder. He felt Scully stiffen behind him. Krycek had two arms. There was only one way that was possible. Flagg.

Krycek smiled as he saw their recognition. "Like the new model?" He waved his fingers at them. "Rather handy to have." He laughed at his own joke, then stopped suddenly. He reached to the small of his back and drew out a set of handcuffs. He tossed them at Scully. "Pick 'em up and put 'em on. One cuff on you, one on him. "

The agents had no choice but to do as told. Scully started to snap one cuff around her right hand. . .

"No way!" Krycek stopped her. "Put the cuff on your left hand. Cuff Mulder's right." Nothing was slipping by him today.

The cuffs were on.

"Up against the wall," Krycek instructed them. "Hands on the wall. Feet back. Further. Spread your legs. "

Mulder cursed. In this awkward position it was physically impossible to take any action. And he was aware that his longer right arm was pulling the cuff on Scully's left.

The search began. Krycek started with Scully, making sure that Mulder saw that his gun was pointed directly at the base of Scully's skull. All Mulder could do was feel relief that at least Krycek didn't take the opportunity to cop a feel. He was all business. And he didn't miss the knife at Scully's waist or the handcuff key in her pocket. *Damn. *

Krycek was just as thorough with Mulder. Ammo and two knives hit the ground. His handcuff key went into Krycek's front pocket. Mulder thought it was over when Krycek stepped back. But Krycek had other ideas. He just couldn't resist.

He balled his hand into a fist and punched Mulder in the kidneys.

"Why the hell did you do that?" Scully yelled as Mulder fell to his knees, dragging her arm down with him.

"Payback's a bitch," Krycek shrugged. "On your feet! Time to join the rest of the gang below. "

Scully helped Mulder to his feet. Krycek kept his weapon trained on them as he punched the code into the keypad. The door opened with a hiss.

Then they were inside.




Roberta was abruptly awakened when the door flew open. A man and a woman stepped inside, followed by Krycek and his gun. The man and woman were handcuffed. *Shit. *This had to be the two agents Spender had been waiting for. The reason she and Matthew had been held here. She prayed that her cover wouldn't be blown. If it was, she had no doubt she would be joining Scotty out in the hallway.

She saw the flash of recognition. . . *Relief? *. . . that passed over the woman's face when she saw Matthew. She knew the woman wasn't Matthew's mother. What was she to him? Matthew was rousing in her lap. *Oh crap. *She pulled him up with her free hand and held him to her chest, trying to keep his eyes away from their new company.

"Dr. Parks, meet Agents Mulder and Scully," Krycek gloated.

Krycek pushed the couple forward, forcing them toward her. He tossed the handcuff key to Roberta.

"Unlock your cuff from the frame. "

She obeyed, struggling to hang onto Matthew.

"Now hand the key to Scully." At Roberta's puzzled glance, he pointed to her. "The chick," he commented.

Roberta handed the key to Scully. Krycek then motioned for her to lock her cuff back on the bed frame down at Spender's end. She complied, sinking back to the floor. She watched as he made Scully unlock her cuff and toss the key back to him. Then she threaded the cuffs through the bedframe and refastened the cuff around her wrist. Mulder pulled at the cuffs in anger. None of them were going anywhere.

Krycek relaxed his stance. He was firmly in control of the situation. "Now. I've got a few things to do. Gotta have everything ready." He turned to Roberta. "Give me your son. "

Roberta's eyes widened. In her peripheral vision she saw the shocked reaction of Scully. "No way," she refused.

Krycek strode over to her and grabbed Matthew's arm. "Give him to me now. I have no reason to hurt him unless you all misbehave while I'm gone, now do I?"

Roberta still was not giving up without a fight. Krycek finally got tired of arguing and he kicked her in the side. He pulled the boy away and strode toward the door. He turned at the open door. "Remember. You all behave and the boy will be fine." He exited and slammed the door shut.

"No!" Scully exclaimed as she fought against the cuff. But Mulder quickly quieted her. He was just as confused as she was, but he didn't want them to make a mistake.

Mulder turned to Spender. "Are there ears in here?"

Spender nodded and pointed to the air vent in the ceiling.

Roberta silently watched. Without a word, merely a nod, Mulder and Scully got to work. It only took her a moment to realize their objective. Krycek had used hinged cuffs to secure them to the metal frame. Big mistake.

She winced as she watched them maneuver their wrists against the frame, first his, then hers, then back again. She knew it had to hurt like hell, but it was necessary. Hinged handcuffs were excellent at limiting a suspect's mobility -- it was very hard to maneuver your hands under your feet to the front your body, and it was next to impossible for the suspect to try and pick the lock. But their weakness was in their tensile strength. She had once arrested a large man who had managed to twist and break three sets of handcuffs before they got him into booking. She had added three charges of destruction of property to his list for his efforts.

She watched as Scully's cuff drew first blood. Not surprising since she didn't have as much padding around her wrist bone. What was surprising was the teamwork. It was hard enough for one person to do, let alone two people trying to coordinate their movements. She caught the quick glances Mulder gave toward Scully, the worry, the pain each time she bit her lip to stifle a complaint. But she saw the look on Scully's face. There was no way in hell that woman was going to stop. Roberta seriously thought that Scully would gnaw her own arm off to get Matthew away from Krycek.

Roberta pulled once more against her own cuff. Damn chain-linked cuffs. There was no way she could ever break them. The chains were too strong. Dammit. She wanted to get into the bathroom, grab the gun, and start filling Krycek with holes, preferably starting in the groin area and working her way around in a random pattern. If only she had been able to get the gun earlier. . . she had even begged him to let her *use* the bathroom. But it would have been a mistake. Matthew was in the line of fire and Krycek had searched her when he handcuffed her. And if she had gotten it earlier, there had been nowhere in the room to conceal it. She had decided then that she had to be patient. That an opportunity would present itself later -- when Matthew would not be in danger. Maybe this was the beginning of that moment?

The rattle of her handcuff chain made Mulder look at Roberta. From his eyes, she could see that he read her anger and frustration. Her need to protect Matthew. There was very little time to act. She needed to let Mulder and Scully know about the gun in the bathroom. Shit. Charades was never her game. She was always partial to Parchesi. And she had to do this quickly. Krycek might be able to monitor *sounds* from the radio on his belt, but he wouldn't be able to *see* until he reached a monitor.

She held up her free hand and mimicked the form of a gun. Mulder's brow creased. Oh hell. Hadn't he ever played Cowboys and Indians without a real gun? She pretended to shoot. His eyes widened in recognition. Then she pointed to the bathroom. He was getting it so far. But how in the hell was she supposed to pantomime a mattress? *The things they don't teach you in the police academy. *She chose the shower mime instead. No easy feat, and he wasn't getting it. He was getting that glazed over, jaw opened look her ex-boyfriend got whenever she talked about shopping. Luckily, Scully glanced up to see what was distracting her partner. By the time Roberta was pretending to shave her legs, Scully got the message. *The gun is in the shower stall, * Scully mouthed. Roberta nodded in relief.

The agents got back to working on the cuffs. They just needed enough time.

Five minutes later, the hinges were beginning to give. Sweat was trickling down Scully's back. Both of their wrists were raw, bruised and bleeding. It occurred to Scully that they might cause permanent nerve damage to their hands, her hand was already achy and her fingers were numb.

The first hinge snapped apart. They adjusted their angles to work on the remaining hinge. So close. . .




Krycek had been an assassin for a long time. It was a part of his job description. He had been a kind of sergeant in the Consortium's army. He had done many things on the job. But there was one thing he had never done. One thing of which the very idea made him ill. Rape. Rough sex, yeah. But never with a completely unwilling partner.

But today he could not shake the thoughts from his head. There was no better way to make Mulder suffer than to take Scully. He was growing hard just thinking about it. He'd even leave the doors open so Mulder could hear Scully scream.

He tugged the boy down the hallway to the room he planned to use. He needed to get it ready. Make sure everything was in place. Duct tape, handcuffs, a gag, a bed with clean sheets -- because he didn't want to be rolling around on dirty linen.

He stopped at the doorway and rubbed his face. Took a deep breath. The nausea was building in the pit of his stomach. What the hell was he doing? But just as quickly, the nausea fled. His eyes could only see red. Anger and revenge. He would do this. He would enjoy every minute of it. Flagg would want him to do it.




The door to the room flew open and banged back against the wall. Krycek entered, holding Matthew's arm with one hand, his gun with the other.

"You," he pointed to Scully. "You're coming with me. "

"Like hell she is," Mulder growled.

Krycek spoke to Scully. "When I give you the key, unlock your cuff and hook it to the frame. "

"What the hell do you want, Krycek? Take me instead!" Mulder argued.

Krycek laughed. "I don't think I'd enjoy that nearly as much," he said as he grabbed his crotch. "You just don't turn me on as much as Agent Scully. "

"You son of a bitch!" Mulder yelled. He almost jumped to his feet, revealing the state of their handcuffs, but Scully stopped him.

"Alex," Spender entered the conversation. "I would have thought such an action beneath even you. You have what you want. We're all here. There is no need for you to stoop to something so disgusting."

"Go on over to your mom, kid," he snarled as he nudged Matthew toward Roberta. "Time to take care of some other business." He pointed his gun toward Spender.

But little Matthew was confused. He knew the other lady, too. he recognized her red hair, her kind eyes. He knew her name. The mean man had said it. He took a step toward Scully.

Scully wanted to shake her head. *No. *

"Aunt Da-na!" He shouted and ran toward her.

"What the fuck?" Krycek shouted in surprise. They had *lied* to him. The rage built in his chest, rising to his head.

Krycek raised his gun. . .

But as he fired, the klaxons from the perimeter alarms suddenly sounded and everyone jumped.

And all hell broke loose.

And, with one final tug of desperation, so did Mulder's and Scully's handcuffs.

Spender grunted in pain as the bullet struck.

Mulder rushed Krycek while Scully grabbed Matthew to shield him. Roberta reached over to check on Spender. Blood was gushing from a nick in the femoral artery in his left leg. Without thought, she shoved her palm down hard, trying to clamp off the artery.

Mulder broadsided Krycek, his hand knocking Krycek's gun to the floor. The two men wrestled, Mulder driving Krycek back against the wall, his left forearm across the man's chest. Mulder raised his right arm and punched Krycek in the face. Krycek barely felt it. His anger had numbed him to pain. He drove his knee into Mulder's groin.

Scully needed to help Mulder. She scooped Matthew up into her arms and practically threw him into the bathroom, over by the shower stall.

As Mulder fell, Krycek tried to scramble for his gun, but Scully had different ideas. She charged and threw herself into his side, driving back him into the wall. She elbowed him hard in the gut and could hear him wheeze.

But Krycek wasn't giving up. He brought his fists together and brought them down with all his force on Scully's back. She fell to the ground. She tried to push herself up, but Krycek was ready. He reared back, then kicked her in the side of the head. She fell and rolled to the side, dazed and bleeding.

"Scully!" Mulder roared. He launched himself once more at Krycek.

But Krycek had already managed to pull out his knife. The Mexican dagger blade gleamed under the fluorescent lights. As Mulder charged, Krycek lashed out. Mulder tried to turn and hit the brakes, but the blade still found the flesh of his left arm. As his body flinched instinctively from the injury, Krycek kicked out, his foot hitting Mulder squarely in the chest.

Mulder fell flat on his back, the wind knocked from his lungs. Krycek jumped on top of the agent, straddling him before he could react.

"This was too easy, Mulder," Krycek grinned.

Krycek's arm came down in an arc from above, the tip of the knife headed straight for Mulder's throat.

"Mulder!" Scully screamed.

A blinding glint of golden light flashed in Krycek's eyes as he drove the blade home. He jerked slightly.

The blade made contact with something hard, it bounced from his grip. Mulder grunted underneath him. Krycek's right hand scrambled to reach the knife while he held the wounded agent down with his left arm. His fingers found the handle, he lifted it up. . . and froze. The blade tip was completely bent. It was useless.

He looked down. Instead of seeing a mass of blood, all he saw was the cross around Mulder's neck and the rage in his eyes. Mulder arched his back, throwing Krycek off to the side.

Scully pushed herself up, trying to focus and find some kind of opening, some way to help Mulder. She saw that Krycek's gun was laying on the ground a few feet away. She grabbed it and pointed it at Krycek. She squeezed the trigger, but nothing happened. *Dammit! *The impact with the hard floor had jammed the clip causing a double feed. The gun would not fire. She frantically tried to clear it by ripping out the magazine, but the release would not work.

Suddenly, a small movement caught her eye. Matthew was standing in the bathroom doorway, holding something in his hands.

"Matthew! No!" Roberta screamed.

As Mulder and Krycek wrestled on the floor, Krycek had regained the upper hand. He repeatedly punched Mulder in his injured arm. He wrapped his hands around Mulder's throat. As he squeezed, he pounded Mulder's head against the concrete.

Everything was moving in slow motion. Scully staggered toward Matthew. The world was still fuzzy, but the dark object in his little hands had taken shape. Gun!

She reached the boy and grabbed the weapon from his hands. With her sore still-cuffed hand she shoved the boy back into the bathroom as she spun around to face Krycek, raising the gun with her good hand.

She took aim.

Mulder strained for air, the blood to his brain was being cut off. The world was growing dim.

Krycek delighted in the feeling of the flesh beneath his fingers. His strength knew no limits. Foam frothed from the corners of his mouth.

The gun fired.

"Payback's a bitch," Scully muttered as she fell to her knees.

Mulder watched as the red mass exploded from Krycek's brain. The man's face froze in an "Oh!" expression. Mulder pushed him off and Krycek slumped to the floor.

He struggled to sit up, finally settling for moving on his hands and knees to Scully's side. He reached out and pried the gun from her fingers.

"Mulder?" Scully whispered, his face finally coming in to focus before her.

"Yeah. It's okay. I'm okay. Krycek's dead," he soothed.

Scully scanned him from head to toe. It was impossible. She had seen Krycek plunge the knife down. "But. . . he stabbed you. I saw. . . "

Mulder grabbed Scully's hand and brought it to his neck. he placed her fingers on the cross.

"Mother Abagail made me promise. . ." Mulder choked out, his fingers kneading hers as she saw.

In the middle of the cross, there was the mark of the knife.

As Mulder took Scully into his arms, the reason for the still sounding alarm revealed itself.

Fluffy came bounding into the room, despite his limp. He was ready for action and seemed disappointed when there wasn't any. But he was overjoyed to see Mulder and Scully. He ran over to them and showered them with barks and tongue.

"Did we miss everything?" J. D. stood in the doorway, a gun in each hand.




1200 Hours

The first minutes after the arrival of J. D. and Fluffy had been a flurry of action as Scully shook off her own injuries and tried to save Spender's life.

Whatever her mixed emotions, she couldn't watch him die. Not when they still needed answers. Not when he had just inexplicably put himself in harm's way to keep Krycek from raping her.

She sighed as she looked at the tourniquet on his leg. There was little she could do for him, except prolong his life for a few hours. Even with the medical supplies and equipment in this facility, she couldn't repair a damaged femoral artery. The tourniquet was the only thing keeping him alive. If she loosened it, he would bleed out within a minute or two.

The temporary fix was painful as blood collected above the tie. She had given Spender a small dose of morphine to give him some comfort. He had refused more. He insisted he wanted to retain some alertness. Nevertheless, he had been in a drug-induced sleep for the past two hours.

She looked up as Roberta brought in a tray of food from the commissary. "I thought you guys might be hungry. It ain't much, but J. D. seems to be okay in the kitchen. "

"Thank you," Mulder offered as he crossed over to check out the food. He nodded his approval. Chicken soup with cheese toast. It would be the best meal they had eaten since leaving Boulder.

Scully joined them by the small table and rested her hand on Roberta's shoulder. "Thank you." She meant more than just a thanks for the food. She had seen Roberta's protectiveness of Matthew.

Roberta nodded, still unsure of what to say. "Matthew's running around with Fluffy in the commissary. I think Matthew is trying to teach him how to play baseball. "

Mulder laughed. Scully ducked her head and smiled. It was hard not to cry with relief. The ordeal was over.

"How's he doing?" Roberta nodded toward Spender.

"I'm doing much better, thank you, Officer Parks," Spender replied from his bed. His voice was soft, but strong.

"Officer?" Mulder questioned.

"It's a long story. . . we'll talk later," she replied. "I think you probably need to talk to him first." Mulder nodded. "I'll be with the boys if you need me," she said as she left the room.

"We don't have much time," Spender feebly motioned them over to him with his good hand. The agents walked to his bedside.

"We're here," Mulder stated. "Feel like filling us in on what's going on?"

Spender nodded. "It's a long story. I ask you to please just listen. Let me start from the beginning. I'll tell you as much as I can. "

Mulder and Scully were doubtful, but they agreed. Mulder pulled up two chairs and they sat beside the ailing man.

"You know some of the details. The nature of the group of men with whom I worked. . . "

They nodded. Spender fumbled in his shirt pocket, trying to find something. He looked up at Mulder and the agent knew what the man wanted. He reached for Spender's jacket and pulled out the pack of Morleys. Despite Scully's disapproving look, Mulder handed Spender a cigarette and then lit it for him.

"Thank you," Spender coughed on the first drag. He saw Scully's frown. "Agent Scully, would you deny a dying man his last cigarette?" She didn't respond.

"What you don't know about is the divisions within the Group. While some of my colleagues tried to negotiate a way for the survival of a few select people, and a few more tried to find a way of defeating them. . . "

"With the vaccine." Scully interjected.

"Yes. The vaccine. While they pursued their own agenda, I and a precious few of my associates chose to pursue a more practical route. They already had too many soldiers in place. They had infested our people at an alarming rate and trying to administer a vaccine was too impractical. How could we possibly manage to reach every man, woman, and child on Earth? The soldiers would never allow it to happen.

"No. It had to be on a much larger and immediate scale. And I knew there would be sacrifices necessary in order to save the many. "

"What do you mean, 'sacrifices'?" Mulder hissed.

"What do you think I mean, Fox?"

Mulder winced at the use of his given name.

"If a ship is sinking and it only has lifeboats for fifty of the one hundred people on board, do you save that fifty? Or you do you make everyone go down with the ship because you have some so- called moral objection to having to choose life for only half of the passengers?" Spender took a drag on his cigarette. His shaking hand was the only sign of the pain he was feeling.

"You tell me, Fox. When you rescued Agent Scully from Antarctica, how many people did you leave behind in those pods to die?"

"You bastard," Scully's fists shook beside her. "How can you even compare what Mulder did to your actions?"

"How can you not? It's exactly the same dilemma. Or is your life so much different and more important than the clerk who scans your groceries at the corner market?" He paused. "For the record, in hindsight, I agree with Agent Mulder's decision. "

Mulder moved in front of Scully to deflect Spender's personal attack. But neither of the agents could respond to his comments. Spender, in his disgusting way, was right. The only thing that surprised Mulder was that Spender was not gloating about it. On the contrary, he seemed to hold some kind of deep sadness or regret.

"What did you do?" Mulder asked, his voice low and, this time, non-accusatory. Scully placed her hand on his back when she heard his tone.

Spender thought for a moment before he answered. He also noticed the change in Mulder's demeanor. He was surprised. But grateful that maybe he would have the chance to explain what had been done to someone who could appreciate the entire picture. Not appreciate in a "you did a great job" kind of way, but with some understanding of how difficult it was to do something that had to be done. This is what he had been hoping for from the moment he knew Mulder and Scully were on their way to his lair.

"There was only one thing that could be done. In one motion, we had to kill off those who had already been infested with the *aliens, * and we had to make the remaining population an unviable option for those who still sought to invade us. "

"The Super Flu," Mulder surmised.

"Yes. That was part of it. We developed a strain of flu that was fatal to 99. 95 percent of the population. But we also developed a serum that could protect humans from the flu. A serum that could be delivered on a massive scale without the notice of the enemy. Most importantly, the serum was eventually fatal to the invading parasites. Once administered to our population, we would be safe from the planned invasion. Our bodies would not be acceptable as hosts. And those who were already taken, they would be dead, one way or another." Spender watched the smoke rise from his cigarette as he thought of what should have been.

"So what happened?" Mulder asked.

"An idiot in the lab, sabotage," he shrugged. "We can never really know for sure. The only reason there were any survivors beyond those naturally immune to the flu is that we had performed a few trial disseminations of the serum on the general public. "

"What trials?" Scully moved from behind Mulder.

Spender pointed for his jacket and Mulder picked it up from the chair by the bedside and handed it to him. Spender reached into the pocket and held up the answer.

"Lifesavers?" Mulder asked incredulously.

"One of our doctors had a morbid sense of humor," Spender admitted. "Operatives replaced one serum laced candy in a roll. Never more than one or two in any locality. Just a few to test the viability. We had plans for other foods and beverages to be used when the real time came. Things like flour and bottled water for foreign nations. And, because of our American eating habits, we planned to use more fattening foods in the United States. My personal favorite was using that cereal shaped like flying saucers. . . "

"Quisp? Is that your idea of a joke?" Mulder was indignant.

"I'm surprised, Agent Mulder. I thought you, of all people, would appreciate the use of the product. As I recall, it used to be one of your favorites," Spender replied.

"So. How many human guinea pigs did you kill to get this serum?" Scully demanded.

"Agent Scully. We followed proper protocols as much as circumstances allowed. There was too much at risk. We had to know. We included animals in our testing. The thought had occurred to us that the alien parasites could choose to infect the higher brained animals among us if they could not infect humans. So, we checked the effects upon apes and canines. It was very effective among dogs, although, there were very few immune survivors of the tests when the flu was unleashed, pardon the pun. "

"Mulder. . . Fluffy?" Scully asked.

"You tattooed the dogs, didn't you?" Mulder asked.

"Yes. I believe they were marked with some shortened form of their DNA codes. We used dogs marked for military and law enforcement use. Their routine physicals made it easy for us to monitor their health. And they were implanted with an identifying chip. . . "

"The same as the one in my neck?" Scully murmured, her hand straying to the mark on her neck.

"No. Your chip was only needed in special circumstances. "

"What do you mean?" Mulder prodded.

"Those circumstances were not under my control. But, why do you think I wanted you to come here? Why it was so important?"

"One last jab for old times sake before you killed us?" Mulder mused.

"Quite the opposite, Agent Mulder. Agent Scully, how has your health been this week?"

Mulder frowned and looked toward Scully.

"I feel fine," she answered with determination. But both Mulder and Spender heard the catch in her voice.

"Let me guess," Spender said as he dropped his used up cigarette to the floor.

Mulder stepped on it in disgust.

"You began experiencing headaches, nosebleeds, and other nefarious symptoms shortly after the Flu had run its initial course. After all the power, all the communications had failed.

Scully did not reply. She fixed her iron gaze upon him, refusing to acknowledge anything.

The corner of Spender's mouth lifted in a gesture of recognition. Spender often wondered why Agent Scully was so stubborn, but he had always held a certain respect for her grit. "You knew that the cancer that had gone into remission with the return of your *chip* had returned. And it was progressing rapidly. "

Again, no response from Scully. But, this time, Mulder's agitation was evident. The agent's knee was bouncing up and down, his body ready to explode.

"But then, as you approached this location, something happened. A different kind of headache, perhaps?" He looked at Scully expectantly. This time, there was a minor crack in her facade. Her eyes always gave her away.

"Scully?" Mulder saw it, too.

Scully cleared her throat. She spoke to Mulder, but kept her eyes on the floor. "While you were in the town, Mulder. It was. . . like something drained away. I woke up and instead of the usual hangover, I was just tired. . . "

Mulder reached out and grabbed her arm. "Why didn't you tell me?" He demanded.

Spender rolled his eyes. Sometimes he truly wondered what the woman saw in Mulder. "Now is not the time, Agent Mulder," he reprimanded. "You're missing the point. "

"Oh? And what's the point?" Mulder turned his anger at Spender.

"Agent Scully is better. The cancer is once again in remission. "

"What are you talking about? That's impossible," Scully whispered.

Spender shifted his leg slightly, holding back his groan of pain. He had gotten this far. He would finish.

"I ask again. Why do you think I wanted you to come here?"

"Again. Because you're a sick bastard," Mulder snapped.

"Agent Mulder. I have never been accused of being an altruistic man. I've craved knowledge and I've used it to achieve power. But, I can say that I have derived more pleasure when my position and power have run concurrently with. . . programs. . . that tended to improve the human condition. Because, despite my reputation, I do appreciate justice. I do not delight in the harm of innocents. "

"But who gave you the right to divine the innocent from the guilty?" Scully demanded.

"A fair question, Miss Scully. I could say that it was thrust upon me. I could say that I chose it. Or, I could just reply, who gave *you* the right to do the same?"

Scully was quiet. Spender gave in to a grimace of pain.

"I believe I'd like another shot of morphine," he mumbled.

The doctor in Scully could not refuse his request. The request of a dying man who still had answers. She lifted the vial, stuck in the needle. She pushed the syringe into Spender's thigh. He sighed quietly as the drug took effect.

It required great effort, but he forced his eyes open. "Thank you, Agent Scully." She didn't respond. "Much as I'd like to continue our question and answer session, I believe my time is running low. You both need to just listen. "

Mulder frowned, but Scully gave him a slight nod.

"Agent Scully *had* to come here. I knew this. Randall Flagg was the one who told me where to find your nephew. I only intended to use him to ensure that you both came here. Unfortunately, Flagg used Krycek, too. "

Mulder started to mutter something, but Spender weakly lifted his hand to stop him.

"It's not. . . what you think." Damn. It was getting harder to form words. To think. "When the satellites failed, I knew the chip in Agent Scully would also fail. Her cancer would return.

"This facility has the only working transmitter that can keep the chip functioning. I knew she would die unless you came here. And, believe it or not, I did not want that to happen. . ." His words trailed off, his eyes closed.

"Why?" Scully asked, her voice cracking. It was almost too much to believe.

Spender's eyes opened slowly, still drooping. "I already explained this. Please. . . I knew you and Agent Mulder were the only ones who could act on my information. To make sure this terrible accident wasn't all in vain. *They* are still out there. Even though they have no hope of survival, they will try. You, Agent Scully, are mankind's last defense. You must remain vigilant. Everything you need is here. . . the labs, the equipment. Use it wisely. The threat will not come today, but it will come in the future. "

There was little Mulder or Scully could say.

Spender forced his gaze upon Scully. "But *you. *You must remember that you can never leave this place. . . "

"What?" Mulder exclaimed.

"The transmitter. It only reaches. . . about a one hundred mile radius. Leave and you *will* die." Spender's body had fought enough. His eyes drifted shut and he fell into a morphine assisted sleep.

Mulder and Scully staggered to their feet and moved to the bed on the other side of the room before collapsing in confusion and exhaustion. They had no words. All Mulder could do was wrap his arms around Scully and draw her down to lay beside him.

Neither one of them noticed when Spender woke a few minutes later. He turned his head slightly and could see the two agents on the bed. *Good. *His left hand reached under the blanket for the tourniquet on his leg. Loosened it. The blood gushed.

Spender smiled. His mission was complete.

And he closed his eyes and died.


CHAPTER FORTY-TWO

"This is the end, my beautiful friend"




The land was green with corn and the evening wind was cooling and soft with a gentle ebb and flow. The sun was just inching below the horizon to the west. It was a perfect night.

Scully curled her bare toes into the soft grass, feeling the blades bend and straighten, furl and unfurl. The red-orange sun was so big out here. It almost consumed the sky.

The air was silent of birds. The only sound was the creak of wood upon wood behind her.

"It's been a time since we visited, Dana. "

Scully spun around, her toes ripping into the tender sod. Mother Abagail was sitting on the front porch of her old Nebraska home, rocking back and forth in her ancient chair.

"Mother Abagail? But how. . ." Scully was speechless.

"Yes, child. I went home to the Lord just after you and your man left Boulder. But we still have some unfinished business," Mother Abagail motioned her to come over.

Scully walked over and sat on the porch steps, at Mother Abagail's old feet. The woman reached out a bony hand and Scully took it in her own.

"You've done well, child. You obeyed God's will and He delivered you from evil. "

Scully smiled, her eyes glimmered with unshed tears. "We found Matthew," she said softly.

"And he's a precious one, child." She placed a finger under Scully's chin, raising her face. "He favors you, I think." She pulled her hand back into her lap, a darkness crossing her face. "But you've got hard choices to make ahead. The Dark Man is still out there. God will deal with him, it's not your battle to fight. "

"How?" Scully asked.

"That's not for me to say. But you must still be careful. Watch out for your new family there. Danger lies in the days ahead. No one must leave the area of refuge God has provided you for twelve days. Then, those who are destined to leave must go. "

"What do you mean, Mother Abagail? I don't understand. . . "

"You will, child. You will. . ."

Scully's vision dimmed around the edges. The old woman was getting further away. . . she could just hear her voice.

"Twelve days, Dana. Remember. Watch the skies. . . "




The Compound
September 19
0900 Hours

Scully awakened slowly, the fingers of awareness tapping insistently across her face. Her head felt like a thousand hippos were doing the Macarena in her brain. Where was she? Oh yeah. She could smell the cement of the underground room. There was a slight buzzing noise coming from one of the overhead fluorescent lights. She could feel the scratchiness of the army blanket that covered her.

She remembered finding Spender dead. And Mulder and J. D. doing burial detail. And she could recall falling asleep a little while later with Mulder after he had placed an ice pack against her head.

Now there was a dead weight rolled against her left thigh. Keeping her eyes closed, she reached out with a limp arm. Fur. Not Mulder. She sighed. At least Fluffy wasn't in her face.

"Hey, sleepyhead," Mulder's voice was soft from across the room.

She opened her eyes as he sat down beside her, the bed sagging under the added weight. Mulder reached out and smoothed the hair back from her face. She didn't miss how his hand lingered on her forehead, checking for fever. And she didn't miss the white bandage that was wrapped around his wrist. *That's right. *She had put it there. *Damn handcuffs. *Now she could feel the rawness under the matching cocoon of gauze around her own wrist.

"How ya' feeling?" He asked.

"Like I got kicked in the head. . ." she whispered, her voice dry.

"What a coincidence, huh?" Mulder half-joked. He reached for a glass of water on the table beside the bed. He helped her raise up, take a long sip of water.

"Thanks. How's your arm?" She squinted against the bright light to look at his bandaged bicep.

"Fine. My doctor did a good job with the stitches," Mulder smiled. "You feel up to some food?"

Her stomach rumbled at the mention of food. Scully looked around the room. With no outside light, it was hard to mark the passage of time. "What time is it?"

"A little after nine," he responded.

"I guess I missed dinner," she commented, braving her headache to sit up a little more.

"Scully, it's nine o'clock in the morning. You missed dinner *and* breakfast. "

She was stunned.

"Where's Matthew?"

"He's with Roberta. "

Scully tried to hide the tiny stabs of pain Mulder's reply caused. She hated to admit to herself that she was jealous.

She ran her hands across her face, being careful of the sore spot on the side of her head. Fluffy roused from his comfortable perch, sitting up and nudging her arm. She looked through her fingers and stared at the dog.

"What is Fluffy doing here, Mulder?"

"Making sure you get some rest. You were running on adrenalin yesterday, Scully. I'm not surprised at all that you conked out after all that you did. Getting up before the crack of dawn for a raid, creeping through the desert with your crazy partner, taking part in the Celebrity Deathmatch, taking care of Spender, me, Fluffy. . . listening to the load Spender dumped on us. I was shocked you made it as long as you did. After you crashed, J. D. and I decided to do some. . . um. . . 'clean-up' in the hallways. Roberta took Matthew away from the mess. And Fluffy volunteered for 'Scully Watch. '"

Scully shook her head. "No, Mulder. I mean, what is Fluffy doing *here? *He and J. D. were supposed to stay put. . . "

Fluffy barked every time his name was mentioned. Scully tried not to wince. Hoping to quiet him, she reached out and scratched his ears. She ran her hand down to his leg, checking the bandages there. The swelling was pretty much gone.

"I know. I guess we all forgot to convince the *dog* what was best for him. J. D. says he went nuts about eight hours after we left. Wouldn't leave him alone until they got in the car and followed after us. But he seems to be no worse for the wear." Mulder paused. "There's a lot we need to talk about. Bring you up to speed. "

"You've talked to J. D. and Roberta? What did you tell them? Did you tell them what Spender said?" She asked warily.

"Bits and pieces. Just the basics," he commented. He could see the worry on Scully's face. Even after the downfall of the modern world, she was still a private person. "Don't worry. I just told them the general story. I was worried that if I gave any more detail they'd think I was crazy. "

Scully snorted a small laugh, in spite of her mixed emotions.

"But as Roberta said to me, 'Six months ago I woulda had you locked up for a good long psych evaluation. But now, considering we all ended up here because of our mutual visions of an old rocking chair woman from Nebraska and a man in pointy boots who is evil incarnate -- Gee. I guess that *sane* is a relative term. '" Mulder laughed as he remembered the look on Roberta's face. He could believe that she had been a street cop.

He thought Scully would smile at the story, but her face was lined with worry instead. "What's up?"

"Mother Abagail," she softly replied. "I just talked to her. "

Mulder's eyes widened. "It looks like we both have a lot to talk about. "

"She gave me a warning -- kind of," Scully took Mulder's hand.

"What about?"

"About leaving here. About *any* of us leaving this area." She saw Mulder's puzzled look. "We need to go find Roberta and J. D. to talk about this. I really don't want to explain it more than once. "

Mulder reluctantly nodded and helped her out of bed.




Topside
1030 Hours

Roberta sat against the building wall, nursing her freeze-dried coffee and powdered creamer that had never been anywhere near a cow, trying to wrap her brain around everything Scully had told them.

She was fucking tired of Mother Abagail's riddles. She had never even met the old woman. And she was damned sick of this hole in the ground. It would be so easy just to get up in the middle of the night, grab one of Spender's many vehicles, and take off for parts wherever.

She picked up a rock and threw it. *Shit. *She knew she couldn't leave. Didn't have it in her to abandon those she had to come to care for. Twelve more miserable, freakin' days.

J. D. was off playing some mutant form of baseball with Matthew and the "No Stinkin' Snakebite's Gonna Keep Me Down" Fluffy. Unfortunately, the dog kept picking up the ball and turning the game into catch-me-if-you-can. J. D. had just dropped the stick of a bat and was chasing Fluffy. Matthew seemed to be running interference for Fluffy, blocking J. D. 's every move. Finally, with a great roar, J. D. charged Matthew and picked him, flipping the giggling little boy over his shoulder. He dropped to his knees and fell onto his butt, letting the boy win the wrestling match. J. D. held up his hands in surrender.

Roberta laughed. J. D. looked her way. As Matthew rolled off his stomach and ran to catch Fluffy, J. D. stood slowly, his hands supporting his now aching back. He called out to Matthew, "I gotta take a break, kid. You and the dog stay right around here!" And he headed over to Roberta.

"Is this seat taken?" He asked.

She gestured for him to sit. "Knock yourself out. "

"I think I just about did that," J. D. replied as he sat with a groan, using the wall for some extra support.

Roberta tilted her head toward Matthew and Fluffy, who were now running around in circles. It was impossible to tell exactly who was chasing who. "Looks like you made two friends for life there," she commented.

J. D. nodded. He worked his neck, trying to get rid of the kinks. But Roberta knew he was very aware of her gaze.

"Pretty remarkable for a guy with your background. . ." she continued.

J. D. froze for just a moment. "What do you mean by that?" he asked. His face became more guarded.

Roberta shrugged. "I watched you yesterday. . . handling the dead bodies, dealing with the weapons. You scream 'ex-military. 'I'm guessing Army Rangers or Marines. "

"Is that so?" J. D. asked.

"But it's more than that. The way you sat through our 'briefing' this morning with Scully and Mulder. The way you stand -- with one foot back -- in a classic 'field interrogation' stance. The way you watch everyone. And the way you talk. That accent. You were NYPD." She surmised.

J. D. held his breath, let it out slowly. "Well. Don't we all make quite the quartet. And they said law and order was dead today. "

"So what was the big deal? Why the secrets?" Roberta leaned forward.

J. D. sighed. "Let's just say I don't have the most pleasant memories. "

"You and me both," Roberta muttered.

"And, I wasn't quite sure how to bring it up with Mulder and Scully." He stopped and Roberta gave him the *go on* look. "I mean, they had already admitted to me they were FBI agents. I shoulda told them then that I was FBI, too. "

"Why the hell didn't you? Still embarrassed over J. Edgar's dresses?"

"I don't know. I guess I still thought I could leave the past behind. . . *that* life is over now. I *want* it to be over," he admitted.

"So, how's it feel?"

"How's what feel?" J. D. puzzled.

Roberta smiled. "To be able to breathe again now that you got all that weight off your chest?" Unconsciously, she reached out and put her hand on his chest.

J. D. 's eyes narrowed at her touch. Roberta could see it in the turn of his mouth. There was a spark he hadn't felt in a long time. In an instant, he was seeing Roberta Parks in a new light. And she felt a connection she had forgotten could exist. Years of self-imposed exile could do that.

"I'd say," he started slowly, "that it feels like a good way to start. "

"Good," Roberta nodded. "Then let's continue." She held out her hand and he took it. She shook them up and down in greeting. "Hi. My name is Roberta Parks. "

He smirked. He could play, too. "Nice to meet ya'. And my name is John Doggett."




Commissary
1030 Hours

Mulder looked out from the kitchen to watch Scully. She was holding an ice pack to the side of her head. It was going to be one spectacular bruise.

But he knew the source of her pain lay elsewhere. She refused to talk about it. He wanted to tell her that he understood. He desperately wanted her to talk to him. To let him carry some of her frustration and grief.

So he waited for the right signal. The opening. And he puttered around in the kitchen prep area, making Egg Beater omelets with frozen bell peppers and onions. Thank god Spender liked to eat halfway decent food and he stocked his commissary accordingly.

When the omelets were folded and the orange juice poured, Mulder walked into the dining area with two steaming plates. Scully did not even look up until he placed a plate in front of her.

"Eat up. You're getting a Mulder specialty this morning. "

Scully examined the food. Deciding it might be edible, she lifted her fork with her free hand and began to pick at the omelet. The ice pack had begun to leak, little trails of water were making their way down to her jaw.

"Here. Let me get you a fresh pack," Mulder said as he took the pack from her hand. "You eat while I'm gone. "

She nodded and shoveled the eggs up to her mouth mechanically.

When he returned a few minutes later and handed her the new pack, she had managed to eat about half of the omelet. She lifted the ice to her head. As he stared at her plate, Mulder decided it was time to talk, signal or no signal.

"You know, it's going to hurt no matter what you do. "

She took another bite of omelet, swallowed. "The ice dulls the pain," she responded evenly. She took another bite.

"You know what I meant. And I wasn't talking about your head," Mulder countered.

She shot him a hard glance. "Of course I know what you meant. My answer is the same. "

"Jesus. Talk to me Scully. I'm here for you. Tell me how I can help. . . "

"Dammit, Mulder!" She slammed her fists on the table, dropping both her fork and the ice pack. "What am I supposed to say? I finally get to this godforsaken place and find my nephew and then I find out that I'm condemned to stay here or die. You know I can't keep Matthew here when he has a chance of a happy life in Boulder. You know that all I want to do right now is hold him, play with him, never let him out of my sight. But how can I do that to him when I know I'll be sending him away? So, instead, I push him away. I let some stranger care for him, watch his every move. "

Mulder tried to choose his words carefully. "Scully," he reached across the table and took her hands in his. "We don't know everything about this place yet. Who knows? We might be able to rig that transmitter and take it on the road. . . "

"The last time I checked, neither one of us had a degree in electronics, Mulder. You can barely program a VCR. . . "

Mulder winced. He didn't need to be reminded how he had called her in to save the day on that one. He couldn't help it if he never read an instruction manual in his life. "Okay, Scully. I'll give you that. But. That doesn't mean there isn't someone in Boulder who *can* do it. You can't give up hope. We still have, what? Twelve days before anyone can leave here. That's twelve days we can explore everything in this place, learn as much as we can. "

Scully closed her eyes and took a deep breath. "I know that Mulder. But it's too much to hope for. If Spender had wanted the device to be portable, I think he would have done it -- given what he told us yesterday. He wanted us to stay here. "

What could Mulder say to that? Scully could see through false promises. And he had a hunch that she was right. Spender never would have made it easy for them to get away.

"God, I hate being trapped here," Scully muttered.

"What?" Mulder asked.

"I hate being tied down. The funny thing is. . . You know, my apartment in D. C. ? I lived there longer than anywhere else is my life. I think I never felt tied down there because our work always kept us on the road. I was never *in* my apartment for long. I've never *wanted* to be tied down to anyone or anything. . ." She paused when she saw Mulder's hurt look.

"Mulder. I'll always be *committed* to you. But you've never tied me down. . . "

"Ooooooh, that gives me ideas, Scully," Mulder suggested in his most lecherous voice.

She smacked his arm lightly. "You know what I mean. And now, for the first time in my life, I *want* those ties that root me to one place. I want Matthew and a home. But *this* place is not a home and it never will be. "

Mulder stood up and moved around to Scully's side of the table. He leaned over and picked the ice pack up from the floor. He sat down beside her and gingerly lifted the pack to her face. When Scully tried to take hold of the pack, he brushed her hand away.

"All I can promise you, Scully, is this. I will always be here for you. We may send Matthew to Boulder before us, but I will *never* stop searching for a way for us to follow. I want that home, too. "

He put the ice pack down and cradled her face with both hands. "I love you, Scully. Don't ever lose sight of that." He leaned forward and brushed her forehead with his lips. He kissed her bruised cheek. Her nose. Then he lingered on her lips, tasting her omelet, then her fear, and, at last, her trust.

Their kiss drifted to a close and he ran his thumb across her lips.

"Now. I think it's time we told Roberta and J. D. about this. We owe it to them. "

She nodded. "Let's wait until dinner, okay? I really just want to get back in bed and take a nap. "

"It's a deal. C'mon. I'll tuck you in." He stood, offering her a hand, and they headed back to their room.




September 24
1000 hours

Over the days, Scully had taken up residence in the labs, investigating every piece of data and research she could find. She wasn't finding anything very useful. But it was her excuse to avoid contact with Matthew and Roberta. J. D. , or *John, * had been neutral territory. He was safe for he seemed as guarded as she was. She only brushed him off when he suggested that she was spending too much time in Spender's office. Good thing the compound was big enough for everyone to find their own space.

And Mulder. Mulder had his own plan to distract her. He seemed to have sex on his mind twenty-four hours a day now that she was back to normal health. Okay, so the rendezvous in the janitorial supply closet had been interesting. She had a feeling that, from now on, every time she smelled Mr. Clean she was going to have to get down and dirty real quick.


Roberta spent her time trying to get Scully to interact with her nephew. But Scully was damned stubborn. Roberta could empathize with the woman. She knew how she felt when Matthew had recognized his aunt. She felt like her guts were being ripped out through her very constricted throat.

But now that she knew the truth -- that Scully had to stay in this stinking hole until they found a solution, that Scully was entrusting Matthew to her. . . she had realized how silly her feelings had been. Matthew had plenty of room for *all* of his new parents. That boy bounced back faster than a Superball shot out of a canon.

And someday, when he was old enough to understand, he needed to know how hard his aunt had fought for him. He needed to have memories of her until they could be both be in Boulder. Now if she could just make Scully understand that.

And now if she could just keep the little imp away from the intercom system they had discovered. But the damn units were everywhere and Matthew loved the buttons.


Fluffy just amused himself by moving from room to room all day, watching everyone do their own thing. And since none of them were talking too much to each other, it also meant he got more than his share of treats. He had a pretty good route worked out. Hit the commissary in the early morning with Roberta and Matthew. Head over to the lab where Scully was eating. Then head back to the commissary for a Mulder breakfast. He was going to become one fat, happy dog. He got to play with Matthew in the afternoon. And if Mulder and Scully answered the door when he scratched at night, he got a nice bed. If they ignored him, he went to find John. It was a pretty good life.


Days of work had netted some interesting finds. Lots of guns and ammo, enough equipment to survive a nuclear war, decontamination areas, and radios of all types out the wazoo. But Mulder and John had gotten tired of their assigned job of listing inventory. So, today they had been exploring. And they had found new toys. Spender hadn't just stored a few Jeeps in the compound. No. In a bay they now called the "aircraft carrier" because of the lift that went up through the ceiling, carrying vehicles to ground level. . . there were Humvees. One even had a CD player complete with a Rolling Stones CD.

The two men had their plan when they headed in to the commissary for a mid-morning snack. The fact that everyone else was there at the moment, made the plan easier.

"When Scully and I headed down here," Mulder began nonchalantly, "We transferred everything from the Expedition into the Suburban. But we parked the Suburban back out on the highway. We left all of our gear -- and most importantly, all of the Fluff. . . "

Fluffy barked and jumped.

". . . back in the Suburban. And now, here we find a fleet of lovely Humvees. The way I figure it, who are we to look a gift all-terrain super vehicle in the mouth?" He and John innocently shrugged.

Roberta rolled her eyes.

"Go." Scully conceded. She knew it was pointless to stand between a man and his toys. "You boys go out and play rough and drive your big car and get it out of your system. Just remember not to go out too far," she reminded them as she thought of Mother Abagail's warning.

"Okay, Mom!" Mulder answered.

John and Mulder were all grins. Scully could just imagine the wrestling match that was going to take place over the keys. Mulder walked over to Matthew and picked him up, holding him high in the air. "Whaddaya say, kid? Feel like going for a ride?"

"Yesssss!" Matthew yelled, clapping his hands. As they headed out the door, Matthew called, "Fluffy!" And the dog was hot on their trail.

Scully and Roberta shared the look of women everywhere who have experienced the strange rituals of male bonding.

"Oh, brother," Roberta murmured. She looked down at her "snack." A peanut butter sandwich made courtesy of the warehouse sized tub of chunky peanut butter in the large pantry. There were lots and lots of tubs. All of them crunchy. Not one damn Smooth Jif in the lot. The bastards.

"God," she moaned. "I would kill for an In-n-Out burger. A double-double with cheese oozing over the sides with their special sauce and their homemade fries on the side. And a chocolate shake to wash it all down. . . "

Scully looked at her own sandwich. Made of cold, individually wrapped cheese product. She dropped it onto her plate. "Cool Ranch Doritos. . ." she dreamed.

Roberta nodded vigorously. "And the only thing that gets rid of Dorito breath is. . . "

"Chocolate," they said together.

"I miss my vanilla bubble bath. . ." Scully mused.

Roberta fingered the strands of her hair. The line of demarcation from her last coloring job was so clear it was Bride of Frankenstein-like.

Scully saw the look. "Oh don't even get started on hair. . ." she moaned.

Roberta rolled her eyes in agreement. "I don't know what I'm supposed to do. I used to mark dates in my life by 'B. C. ' and 'A. D. '. "

The *huh? * look on Scully's face was classic.

"Before Clairol and After Dyeing," Roberta explained.

They both laughed for awhile. And then the laughter faded and was replaced by an emptiness. Neither of them liked to dwell on what had been lost. It was too debilitating.

"I know what you're doing, Dana," Roberta broke the solemn silence.

"What are you talking about?"

"This whole building a wall between you and Matthew thing is what I'm talking about. "

Scully was deathly silent.

"I think it's a mistake you're going to regret," Roberta said softly.

Soft was not a tone that normally came from Roberta. Scully wasn't sure what to say. She sighed. "I don't know what the right thing is anymore. "

"I think," Roberta countered, "that your brother would have just wanted you to love Matthew for each moment you have. "

Scully's eyes widened in surprise. "I never told you he was my brother's son. . . "

Roberta seriously considered trying to cover her trail. But she lowered her head. She had to be honest. Dana Scully had been in law enforcement. And in the lovely "breaking bad news" police training course, they teach you how to tell the news to different sorts of folks. There's a special category for cops. It's called compassionate bluntness. Leave no unanswered questions. Shit.

"Your brother and his wife died protecting Matthew. . ." And so she began the story of a motel in California and how her journey began. And how Matthew had entered her life.

"Thank you for telling me, Roberta," Scully whispered, her voice hoarse with tightly restrained emotion.

"I'm glad I finally did. I think you needed to remember how precious every moment is. No matter what the outcome may be. "

Scully bit her lower lip and nodded.

"Now," Roberta said in her usual loud voice. "How 'bout we get us some of that crappy coffee with that white powdery shit and then try and find some ice cream?"

The freezer did not yield any Rocky Road. But there was chocolate.




September 30
1900 Hours

Scully was on edge and it was bleeding over into the moods of everyone else, even Fluffy. Mother Abagail's "twelfth day" was drawing to a close, but there had been no sign. No burning bushes, no giant billboards, no dove of peace, no bluebird of evil. Zilch. Nada.

They all watched her as she paced. Twelve steps to the counter. Turn. Twelve steps to the door. Fluffy followed in her every step, looking up expectantly at every turn to see if this one was the last.

Roberta was trying to ignore the other woman while drawing alphabet stick men with Matthew at a corner table.

"Scully, will you please sit down?" Mulder begged from his chair in the commissary. "You've been bouncing back and forth like a game of Pong for hours. "

Scully stopped pacing, instead going over to the serving counter and grabbing a handful of popcorn from the basket J. D. had prepared. She didn't even look at the kernels as she began to systematically nibble, one kernel at a time.

They all stared at her strange behavior as John leaned over to whisper in Mulder's ear. "Why don't you take her topside? Get some fresh air. "

Mulder silently nodded his agreement. He stood, walked over to Scully's side and placed his hand firmly on her shoulder. "C'mon, Scully. Let's go for a walk. "

She looked up at him mutely, worry lines creasing her forehead.

"Please," Mulder leaned in to whisper. "If for no other reason than to give Fluffy's paws a break. "

Scully looked down at the dog. She had no idea the mutt was acting as her shadow the whole time. "Oh." She dropped her popcorn leftovers to the floor for Fluffy to crunch up and she let Mulder lead her by the hand.

"We'll see you guys later," Mulder called over his shoulder as they exited the room.

They arrived at the surface a few minutes later. Mulder wedged a rock in the door to keep it from closing completely. He never fully trusted those electronic locks.

"I'm sorry, Mulder," Scully rubbed her arms as she felt the breeze of the cooling desert. He came up behind her and wrapped his arms around her. He kissed her neck. "I just can't help but feel that we're on the edge. Something is going to happen. Mother Abagail said it would. "

Mulder nodded, his hair brushing against the side of her face. "Whatever it is, Scully, it's beyond our control." He turned her around to face him. "But. I also know that something or someone has protected us this far. Maybe I'm just getting carried away with this whole 'fate' thing, but I can't believe we'd get this far, find Matthew. . . only to get zapped. "

"Zapped?" Scully smiled.

Mulder shrugged. "You know what I mean. Besides. We've made it through together. That's all that matters in my book. "

He leaned forward and his lips brushed hers. When she looked into his eyes and he saw her reassurance, her renewed confidence, he went back for seconds. A greedy portion.

The blinding bright explosion of light flooded the sky, flaring through their closed eyelids.

They broke apart, but Mulder held her closely by the arm. They stared at the growing cloud to the southeast.

"What the f. . ." Mulder gasped.

"Oh my go. . ." Scully whispered.

Before they had finished their words, the ground began to rumble and rock, knocking them both to the ground. Mulder rolled to his side, determined to reach Scully. As he threw his arm over her back, he glanced over his shoulder and he almost screamed. He could *see* the blast wave as it hurtled toward them from the mountains on the horizon. It was dark brown, filled with sand and debris. It was every "Duck and Cover" atomic nightmare from his childhood. Nightmares filled with the deceptively slow- speaking but demonic Bert the Turtle.

"Run!" Mulder shouted as he scooped Scully to her feet. He pushed her toward the building just a few feet away. But she stopped short and he plowed into her. Oh god. The rumbling had knocked the rock loose. The door was sealed shut. No time for the keypad.

Scully had seen the hurricane of dirt, too. She grabbed Mulder by the arm and pulled with all her strength. They dove behind the north side of the building, Mulder sandwiching Scully between himself and the base of the building. He wrapped one arm around Scully and the other arm around his head.


When Mulder and Scully had headed topside, John had moved into the control room. He knew he was being paranoid, but he still wanted to keep a watchful eye on his friends. After all, Mother Abagail had always been right on the money in the past. He sat down and glued his eyes on the outside monitors.

The blinding flash had stunned him. Was it a serious camera malfunction? But then, the earth had begun to rumble. *No, no, no! *This could not be what he thought it was. He grabbed the intercom and yelled at Roberta to take cover. Then he was on his feet and running.

When he reached the stairwell to the surface, he was bouncing around like a drunk in a pinball machine. He grab the handrails and heaved himself up toward the top. He hit the door with his shoulder, but it wouldn't budge. The quake had jammed it shut.

"Shit!" He groaned as he forced his shoulder into the door. He had to get to Mulder and Scully.

The door finally burst open. He was shocked to see Mulder and Scully standing before him in one piece. But there was no time to speak. Dust was floating in the air, making it hard to breathe.

"Get inside, Mulder!" Scully yelled.

All three ran into the building and John heaved the door shut with all his might.

"Okay. What the fuck just happened?" John yelled.

"I think Las Vegas is toast," Mulder said in disbelief.

"Oh, god," Scully gasped as the truth dawned on her. "What about Ralph and the others. . . they were supposed to be there. "

"I don't know. . . "

"Toast?" John asked. He needed some clarification.

"As in nuked," Mulder replied. "Scully? Did you see how that blast wave just seemed to. . . stop? Right before it got to this building?"

Scully nodded. She wasn't even going to venture a guess at why it hadn't reached them. . . Divine intervention or just the good fortune of distance.

"Look. I don't wanna seem insensitive, but you got any ideas what we're supposed to do now?" John interjected.

Scully looked at them all from head to toe. They were all covered in dust and grit. "First, we get out of these outer clothes. Now. We leave the clothes here and we get downstairs to the decontamination showers. And don't forget to leave your guns up here, too. They were exposed. "

They all began to remove their shirts and pants. There was no time for modesty, although, after a pointed look from Mulder, John made sure he didn't catch even a glimpse of Scully's fair skin.

"When we get to the intercom below, John, you contact Roberta and have her shut down the outside air vents," Scully instructed as she slipped out her jeans.

They all started down the stairway.

"After the showers, we grab the Geiger counters from storage. I'm hoping we're far enough away that we didn't just get dosed. . . and since we're northwest of Vegas, that with the weather patterns, we won't receive fallout here."




2130 Hours

They were scrubbed and lotioned and dressed. And Scully had them scouring every inch of the underground compound with the Geiger counters. John wasn't sure he knew understood exactly how to read the infernal device, but the audio part of the counter sure helped. If he heard a lot of rapid clicking, that was bad. He hadn't heard that sound yet.

They met up in the hallway, just outside the stairwell to the surface.

"So far, so good," Scully. She looked to the stairwell door. "I want you two to wait here while I go closer to the surface. "

"No way, Scully. I'll go," Mulder objected.

She put her hand on her hip. "Fine, Mulder. You show me that you can tell the difference between 0. 5 rads and 10 rads and you can go. "

Mulder stood and stared at his Geiger counter. He pursed his lips.

"I thought so," Scully remarked. "I'll be right back." And she pushed open the door and headed up the steps.

Mulder, embarrassed, turned to John, hoping to save face. "But I could tell you the psychological dynamics of what just happened here. . . "

John smirked. "Yeah. We both failed our high school science class. "

Their wait was short. Scully returned less than ten minutes later, slightly out of breath from the stairs. She was carrying their guns in a plastic bag.

"I think we're in the clear," she said, relief evident in her eyes. "The stairwell is clear. And when I checked outside it was 0. 7 rads. Within twelve hours, it should be much lower. You can actually see the winds to the south, carrying the fallout east. I think even our groundwater should be safe here. We can have our guns back once we give them a good cleaning. "

"What does all this rad stuff mean?" John asked.

"A radiation dose is cumulative. 0. 7 rads means that how many rads you're accumulating each hour. It should be much lower by morning. "

"Is that level safe?"

"As long as it drops off. Considering that anyone at the heart of the blast received over 500 rads in an instant. Yes. These levels are safe. Especially since you'll be headed north. Away from the contaminated area. "

"What do we do now?" John watched Scully and Mulder for the answer. The duo shared a long look.

"Now," Mulder stated, "We get you guys ready to leave in the morning. "


*

The Commissary
October 1 0700 Hours

"We've got the Humvee ready in the 'carrier hanger' and it's all packed and good to go," John announced as he joined everyone for breakfast.

"When do you want to head out?" Roberta asked quietly.

"After breakfast, I guess. No reason to rush, though," he shrugged apologetically. He wasn't an insensitive man, but he was a practical man. They needed to get going while the going was good. Snows would soon be falling in the mountains. Every day would count if they wanted to reach Boulder before the roads were blocked. And the sooner they reached Boulder, the sooner they could find some way to help Scully get out of this place.

He sat down beside Mulder. "So, you think you've got that ham radio outfit figured out yet?" He asked, referring to the old set they had found in the radio storage room. It must have been put there as a backup for extreme situations.

"I think so," Mulder answered. "You just twirl all the knobs all over the place, right?" He teased.

"Ha ha. I wrote down the frequency I'll try to use. It's next to the mike. Give us three weeks to get to Boulder and track one of these sets down. Heck, someone there has probably already found one and is trying to find other survivors around the world. On October 22, at 1700 Hours, we'll try and contact you on this frequency. Okay?"

"Got it," Mulder replied. But his heart wasn't in the conversation. He was staring at Scully. She had Matthew on her lap and they were sharing some kind of Cheerios cereal.

He wasn't sure what had happened, but a few days ago, something inside her had changed. She had started connecting with Matthew. Playing with him, making up stories, drawing pictures. She had Matthew's drawings taped up to their dorm room wall. And Matthew had a stack of Scully's drawings packed in his carry-all in the Humvee.

As sad as she was, she had found some peace. He could tell by the way she held her shoulders. The way the lines around her mouth had relaxed.

He turned to Roberta and they shared a knowing look. And it dawned on him that she had triggered this change in Scully. "Thank you," he mouthed silently. She smiled shyly. He was glad that Matthew would be with such a good man and woman. And dog.

Fluffy had his face buried in a bowl of tuna. *Eeeeewww, * Mulder thought. The dog was gonna have killer breath today.

The breakfast respite was all too soon over. John and Mulder headed to the Humvee. They would raise it to the surface while the others took the stairs.

All of them were silent as they made their ways topside.




0815 Hours

"We're still at 0. 5 rads here. It should get lower every mile north you travel," Scully explained as she held the Geiger counter out to John. "You know how to read this now, right?"

"We'll be fine, Dana," he nodded. "And I know," he held his hand up before she could talk. "We pull over and find good shelter if the levels rise about 1. 0. "

"But that shouldn't happen," Scully replied. Her heart was hammering in her chest. She was sure everyone else could hear it. She turned around and lifted Matthew up, letting him come to rest on her hip.

"You, young man. You have fun on your trip," she said, placing her index finger on his little nose. He laughed and stuck his finger on her nose.

"Be good and listen to Roberta and John," she whispered in his ear. She breathed his smell in deeply. His soft hair tickled her face.

"Guess we're all set then!" John called out.

Holding Matthew tightly, Scully moved toward the Humvee. At some point, she felt Mulder's supporting hand at the small of her back. It stayed there as she placed Matthew in the back seat, buckling him with the system John had rigged. A car seat would have been better, but you made do with what you had.

"All set, munchkin?" She asked as she latched the final buckle.

"All set!" Matthew yelled, a goofy grin on his face.

John and Roberta got into the Humvee quietly. Scully leaned over and kissed Matthew's forehead. "I love you, Matthew," her voice was soft.

"Love Aunt Dana!" Matthew hollered, his messy lips puckering up. She leaned over and let him give her a drooling kiss. He smiled.

Scully stepped back and closed the door, her hand lingering on the metal.

With a heavy heart, Mulder walked over to Roberta's door. He handed her a plastic bag that held a stash of jars of Fluff. It suddenly seemed so heavy as he lifted it through the window. "Here, he's addicted to this stuff. But only give him two spoonfuls at a time or he'll get sick. . . and it isn't a pretty sight. "

Roberta took the bag with a certain reverence. Sure it was just a few jars of marshmallow, but it stood for so much more. It was the passing of a responsibility. Of friendship. This man and woman were entrusting her to care for the two beings they loved most. The ache that she felt in her chest threatened to become tears in her eyes. They had given her their trust. And, more importantly, they had given her a purpose to her life.

Fluffy stood between the two bands of people. He owed his allegiance to Mulder and Scully. They were his man and his woman.

He wanted to spend his evenings sitting by a warm fire with Scully, her soft hands finding just the right places around his ears to scratch. Her low voice soothing him to sleep.

He wanted to spend his days playing with Mulder, teasing the man when it was bath time. Running down all the sticks and tennis balls Mulder could throw a thousand times before he tired.

It had been a good life with them. They cared for him when he was hurt or sick. They loved him. He loved them. He would do anything for them.

Which is why he knew what he had to do. He must go and protect the little boy, Matthew. He must play with him and love him. Take care of him for Scully and Mulder. That's what they wanted. What they were asking him to do. Even though he could see the sadness in their eyes.

With one last woof, he turned and jumped into the SUV. Mulder shut the door behind him, letting his hand linger for a second on the frame.

Roberta looked to John. He nodded and started the engine. With one last look out the window to Mulder and Scully, he put it in gear and they drove away.

Fluffy stood in the rear window, focused on Mulder and Scully. Keeping watch until they disappeared from the horizon.

"Fluffy!" Matthew blurted out.

The dog climbed down from his perch at the window and went to his new future. He even managed to wag his tail.




They watched the car as it disappeared from the horizon, their arms wrapped around each other.

Scully was surprised to feel the wetness on her face. She had believed that she had used up all her tears in another life time.

"You know something, Scully?" Mulder asked as they both continued to stare at the empty horizon. She tightened her embrace.

"Mother Abagail told me that my weakness is that I hold on to the past. I'm going to promise you, Scully. We have a future. We will find a way. It's not the way I hoped for, but I'll grab it.

"We just have to start here. "




Two weeks later, in Boulder, Colorado, the community's first communications engineer had arrived. Joseph Fratello had always had a knack for fixing transmissions towers.


"I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say: My purpose will stand. . . "
- Isaiah 46: 10


THE END


AUTHOR'S NOTES

LOTS AND LOTS OF NOTES: This is where I get to throw out a few asides for each chapter. What elements of the story were real? Does that Cracker Barrel really exist? How 'bout the Big Boy in Wheeling? Well. Here are the answers and maybe a few clues as to how this story got written.

GENERAL NOTES:

A word about the original characters in LOS: In fanfic, there's a fine line between creating original characters that can contribute to an XF story, and letting those original characters take over the work. I think (could be wrong here) that readers want interesting new characters, but they don't really want to read page after page about them -- after all, this *is* the XF and they're about Mulder and Scully and the other XF characters. So, with the exception of Roberta and Fluffy, my solution to this dilemma was to kill off my original characters fairly quickly.

Fluffy gets a lot of screen time, but I think that works because a) he ain't human, b) he's cute and furry, and c) almost every scene with Fluffy is all about his relationship with Mulder and Scully.

Roberta was more difficult. Since she had little time "onscreen" with Mulder and Scully, she ended up being used as a foil for Spender much of the time. And every time I was tempted to go off on a long tangent with her, I had to nip it in the bud. I had to remember that the story wasn't about *her, * but it was about Mulder and Scully and how she ended up in their *business. *

I don't know if I was completely successful with the balancing act. Was it too much or was it too little? It is something I'd like to hear about from readers. Did the original characters all serve the story? Or did the story end up serving them?

Locations: With the exception of Mulder's hometown, I've been to every location in this story. I don't think it would have mattered if this was a different kind of story, but because the details and landmarks in this post-Superflu world were so integral to plot details -- transportation, clogged highways, availability of food and water, where would M&S sleep -- I think my travels helped immensely. I tried not to get bogged down in detail, but I hope the little things (like the name of a restaurant or hotel) helped make the story more believable, or made it something readers could relate to a little bit better.

As for most of the really gross, dark, disgusting stuff (like all those "no great loss" death scenes): I have no idea where they came from. I'm really a happy, upbeat sort. Sometimes you just get to typing and it pops out of nowhere. Or maybe it's from a game of trying to conjure up hideous ways for these hideous guys to kick the bucket. Or maybe it's from reading too much Stephen King. : : shrug: : I have to admit that it takes a lot to gross me out because I've seen quite a bit in RL. And I think RL is a whole heck of alot scarier than anything written on paper.

But for those things I can point to, read on.

CHAPTER ONE:

The whole Houston Detention facility scene: Well, the interior description isn't accurate, but that whole thing is based on an extradition I did there oh so many years ago. And the folks there were real nice and didn't comment on the cowboy boots I had just bought. (BTW, I still have and love those boots! )

CHAPTER TWO:

Okay. I admit it. Arlington Police Detective D. J. MacInerny is about as close to a "Mary Sue" as I'll ever write. (Hence, Ihad to kill her off quick! ) She even smoked the same brand I did while I worked. And the whole scene at the car impound lot is true, down to the restoration of the VIN. "The Grind" coffee/muffin shop isn't really called "The Grind" (that was coffee house in Rolla, MO I frequented), but there *is* a coffee/muffin place I went to every morning. Religiously. But I always got a blueberry muffin. No stinkin' bran for me.

The Cellar Door was (is? ) real. We'd sneak down there when the D. C. drinking age was still 18 so high school kids could get past the door.

CHAPTER THREE:

Things I learned: When one detective in the Criminal Investigations unit got sick, everyone got sick. Never keep the Kleenex box (or the candy bowl) on your desk. All the other detectives take them.

And the whole "Mrs. Scully's chocolate chip cookie dough" scene: That's one of my weaknesses making it into the story. "Mom mabtng" makes amazing dough. Battles with my siblings (and nephews/neice) are still fought and won. Injuries are nursed. I have the scars to prove it.

CHAPTER FOUR:

Regarding Walter Xavier Beauchamp dying in his Volvo: I am allowed to make any comments I want about the school colors of the College Of William & Mary. After all, my parents and I paid them quite a lot of money.

And I think this is the first "No great loss" character. (I think most readers noticed this phrase is only used for the non- sympathetic characters -- not for our good guys. ) Someone asked if this was inspired by "Slaughterhouse Five." Well, you gotta ask Stephen King. Readers of the book should recognize the line. He used it often. (Darn. Wish I could take credit for it, though. )

CHAPTER FIVE:

The Holly scene: My friends know that I am definitely not a cat kinda gal. But, some of my best friends have cats. I thought Holly would have cats. And they'd be loyal in that cat kind of way. And since I knew about the dog who would later appear in LOS, I decided to give my friends a nice "cat moment." One or two of them purred, anyway.

The Skinner/Scully race to the hospital scene: For those of you from the D. C. area, I have to admit that this was not based on any "Annapolis Community Hospital." When I wrote it, I was envisioning Arlington Hospital (or whatever it's called now). So, if you know Arlington, then maybe that adds some detail for ya'.

The bridge/Sgt. Caldwell scene: Sgt. Caldwell is loosely inspired by a character in the horrific movie "Earthquake." If you've suffered through Victoria Principal's scenes in that one, you know which guy I mean.

And, yes. I hated killing Skinner off, but there was no way I could sustain his character throughout the story and I knew it. But I made sure I gave him an honorable death. : )I love Skinner.

CHAPTER SIX:

In the Qwik-EE Mart scene: The Ritz crackers line was inpsired by a game some of my friends used to play. They just had to prove that *anything* tastes good when it "sits on a Ritz." I'll spare you the details, but the game included insects. . .

Mulder watching Mel Hampton's Satelitte feed: The whole newsroom scene is straight from "The Stand." Just a little added thing for those who have read the book.

CHAPTER SEVEN:

"Hydell didn't know it at the time, but his case of the "flu" had really been just that. The common cold. So, he didn't die right away. Too bad for him. By the time his sniffles were fading away, his arm had swelled to the size of a mammoth deli tube of bologna -- angry black and green spider webbing crisscrossed the skin. And it smelled really bad. His fever climbed until it rivaled August in Las Vegas. His brain cooked inside his thick skull. "And, on June 28, he finally died, whimpering on the drug store floor amidst the Tampax and Depends. "

I gotta say that this was one of my favorites bits in LOS.

When Mulder is choosing videos from Mel Hampton's library: I mentioned the documentary on the American Prairie Dog for a reason. I had just been on a drive to Denver and the highways in Utah evoked images of a mass extinction or "Suicide of the Lemmings." There musta been a dead, squished prairie dog every fifty feet along the roadside. I finally decided it was some teenaged prairie dog ritual where they had to play chicken with cars to get in the Prairie Dog Crips -- and these were those who failed the initiation.

CHAPTER EIGHT:

Yes. I confess. The entire character of Zeke was inspired by a shopping trip to Von's. I was in the frozen fish section and I saw the Gorton's Fisherman. Therefore: Zeke. (BTW, you should try the "Zeke's Crabcake" recipe up on the website. They are yummy. )

The Siren of the Sea: I found it on some website. Beautiful boat. I wish I had that boat. The specs mentioned in LOS are straight from the web site.

CHAPTER NINE:

The whole New York City scene is an homage to the scenes in the book where Larry Underwood has to escape the city on foot. I gotta admit, it's hard for me to read these scenes now. I wrote that chapter a long time ago. I don't know if I'd write those parts today.

CHAPTER TEN:

This chapter begins with one of my favorite quotes/epigrams. The first time I saw the short film based on Bierce's story ("An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge") back around 1973, I was floored. And did ya'll know that the film premiered in the U. S. as an episode of "The Twilight Zone?" (Even though it wasn't produced as such. )That film still gets to me.

Mulder arrives at Mrs. Scully's House: When I was a kid, I always had to hold in the sentimental tears when I read "The Little House." The pictures in that book. . . I might choke up now. I put that in here because I thought it was perfect to represent the haven of Mrs. Scully's house and how Flagg would twist the image into something evil.

The letter: This is the first news of Scully we've had for a while. I chose to follow Mulder and ignore Scully's side of the story because I wanted the reader to be in Mulder's shoes. To feel his uncertainty. Don't know if it worked.

CHAPTER ELEVEN:

The whole Georgetown Park Mall area scene: There have been times I have been stuck in traffic around Wisconsin and M and I truly did wonder if everyone else wasn't dead in their cars. They were driving like they were dead. The only thing I didn't mention here was my favorite Argentian restaurant "Las Pampas." It's on M St. just a block or two from Wisconsin Ave. Or, at least, it *was. *I haven't been back there in a while.

Mulder falling over the dead looter in Scully's building: Well. I had to put in a dumb criminal commentary somewhere. The world as we know it has ended. There's no electricity. Give the flu a few more days for virtually everyone to be dead and the stores will be free of charge. But, no. Some idiots who survive the flu effects still need to commit burglary. And steal stereos they can't even use. Du'oh.

CHAPTER TWELVE:

When Mulder and Zeke enter Mulder's building: I won't go into great detail here, but that is how you feel when you're going into a closed space and you know there's an old dead body(ies) somewhere, but you aren't sure where. I'll leave it at that.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN:

First paragraph: "A fifth wheel. The ninth hot dog with that damn eight-pack of buns. <>The crumbly pieces that reside at the bottom of the Cap'n Crunch box. Yup. That's exactly what Zeke was. "I just want everyone to know that I take every opportunity I have to promote Cap'n Crunch.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN:

Where we get introduced to the "Scully's chip ain't workin' no more" idea. Well. Remember I wrote this somewhere around the end of 1998. I originally had some other ideas bouncing in my head about this (like - maybe it was the only thing that made her immune from the Flu, and now it was failing), but ended up with the "ticking time bomb" arc because I thought it would fit in neatly with Spender's plans in the end.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN:

Bye, bye, Zeke. : sniff: Zeke was a symbolic character in a way, and this was time for him to make his exit. Akind of out with the old world, and in with the new world. He prepared them to face the new.

His funeral was inspired by a scene in the Burt Lancaster movie: "Rocket Gibraltar. "

And Mulder and Scully take it on the road! These parts were fun for me. I've traveled the roads they take many times. And it was a challenge to try and imagine: What would I take on the road with me in this situation? And I had to keep track of everything they took. What gets left behind at various points. What ends up being important later on?

We get to hear Scully's shortened version of her time alone during the Flu. Okay. The scene where she hid in the car with the dead family - that kinda grossed me out. But I put it in to reinforce her will to survive.

CHAPTER SIXTEEN:

Wheeling, West Virginia. When I was growing up, every year, my family packed up the station wagon and headed off to visit family in Rolla, MO. Wheeling was a "must" stop. We always had to stop at the Fostoria place and we HAD to eat at Elby's Big Boy. I'm happy to say that both are still there. And. I have Roscoe'slittle amber glass bunny myself.

P. S. - Morgantown *is* a speed trap. You're forewarned. ;)

Roscoe P. Buntz - He was the first of a number of original characters that I played with in LOS so I could bring them out later in a book of original short stories I am writing. I really did like Roscoe for some odd reason. And his whole nose-picking thing was a direct reference to King's love for boogers.

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN:

Roberta Parks makes her entrance. Funny, she apparently lives in my neighborhood because that's the world I described. And I think some readers should be able to identify with her internet habits.

The exit at St. Clairsville, Ohio is really there. I usually stop at the old gas station there when I'm driving cross country back to Virginia.

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN:

I can't believe I put poor Roberta on a bike on I15 in Barstow, CA in July! Anyone who's ever been there in the summer knows. Unfortunately, I had to do it to get her east. You don't have much of a choice in Southern California.

Fluffy makes his grand entrance! Fluffy owes his name partially to my addiction to the old Food TV Network show, "Ready, Set, Cook." If you watched the show, you'll understand. If not, sorry! I also worked with a K-9 dog who was briefly named Fluffy. Fluffy got his name changed because it was too dang embarrassing when we yelled his name in public.

And poor Spender. He ran out of cigarettes. I just had to put that in there (for more than the plot reasons). Any smoker on the planet knows you never end up packing enough smokes for your trip.

Oh! And Mulder murmurs some unidentified threat to Fluffy in order to get the dog to cooperate for his bath. Don't know if anyone caught it when the threat was revealed many chapters later.

CHAPTERS NINETEEN & TWENTY:

Roberta is stuck on Interstate 10 in the middle of nowhere. This has got to be one of the scariest places on the planet for motorists. Between Barstow and the CA/AZ border. Don't EVER enter this stretch of highway without a full tank of gas!

Richmond, Indiana and the Tornado: Yup. The Cracker Barrel is right where I put it. I *always* eat there when I'm on the road in those there parts. It does have a stone fireplace. In fact, I always stay at the Lee's Inn right next door so I can have easy access to Cracker Barrel. Gotta have that Hashbrown Casserole.

Matthew Scully: The whole showdown between Flagg and Spender could have gone down several roads. Either Spender is totally evil and makes a pact with the devil, or he does what he always does: uses Flagg to further his own plan. At this point we don't know. . . and I left it open so I could change my own mind if I wanted.

Which also brings up the question of why I chose to have Matthew enter the equation at all. Well, a recurring theme in LOS seems to be the whole "Mulder stuck in the past, Scully has hope for the future." But, with Scully pretty sure her future is nil now, I wanted to give them both an impetus for moving forward. And Matthew kind of represents the innocence that has been lost by Mulder and Scully as well as the rest of the post-Flu world. Matthew is the hope for the future. (Not that I really thought it all out that way at the time I was writing, but it sort of developed in my head as the story continued. )

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE:

Regarding this quote: "Mulder took this as a good sign since he firmly believed that the greatness of any diner was directly related to the number of out of date calendars and menus it posted." This quote is absolutely true. I have scientifically proven it. The best diner ever is just outside of St. James, MO, on the state road en route to Maramec Springs Park.

The appearance of "The Kid" who shoots up the town: The Kid was a character in the novel. I thought he would be easy to work into LOS.

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO:

Spender fires the gun in his face-off with Roberta: The *only* reason I didn't kill Roberta off here was because I could never picture Spender changing a toddler's diapers. Roberta was saved by Huggies.

And Timmy Hoffman makes a reappearance. Hoffman is based on the bully in my second grade class.

Vandalia, Illinois *is* in the middle of nowhere on I-70. Never get stuck there in a blizzard.

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE:

The Cahokia Mounds (Native American Burial Grounds) really are there. Go visit.

The fire Mulder & Scully see when they reach the I-44/270 interchange is an oil refinery that's just northeast of their location. My LOS sounding board, Nicole Mason, wanted to see them blown up, so. . .

Yes. The Sinclair Dinosaur and The Arch Motel really exist. Both are absolutely as tacky as they sound. Remember that this stretch of highway was the old Route 66. And there are many reminders of its heydey along this road. The Sinclair station is still operational, the Arch Motel is not.

And, FWIW, "Miss Swan" is my fave on "MadTV. "

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE:

Just about everything in Rolla is real. You can probably tour the town based on what's in these chapters. : )"Stonehenge" *is* there. If you ever go there, be sure to eat at "MaidRite." Get a MaidRite and onion rings. The shakes are really good, too.

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX:

Guess how I spent my Sunday afternoons when I lived in Rolla? Yup. Super WalMart. Ya'll now have the complete layout of that store.

As for Lou Ella Tyson: She's based on several women I knew in Rolla. The path she takes in the store is the path I always took while shopping.

Maramec Springs is a state park. They have a catfish farm there. GREAT fishing, too. A freezing cold spring/river comes up outta the depths of a cave there. You *don't* want to wade in the water unless you have arthritic legs. I like to go there and tease the catfish. (You can feed 'em, so they're conditioned to respond when you wave your arm over the water. . . thinking you're throwing in food. Heh heh. So, just wave your arm and they go nuts. . . )

There is a nuclear reactor on the campus of UMR, so there is an FBI office in town to run background checks and stuff. I felt sorry for the agent assigned there.

The fire at the house: This is a major nitpick I have with movies, tv, and written fiction. The ones where people go running around burning buildings like the only way they'll be hurt is if the flames actually touch them. Truthfully, I should have made Scully a lot sicker for at least a day longer just from the smoke inhalation. If you've ever been anywhere near a burning building, you can probably understand what I'm getting at. Structure fire smoke is not anything like your backyard barbecue, or even a forest fire. When you breathe in hot smoke filled with chemicals, it just seems to coat your throat, like a film of saran wrap. And it burns. That's why more victims die from the smoke than the flames. As for the heat involved. . . let's just say: How does it feel when you stick your hand in your oven a few inches under the active broiler? Not good. Now multiply the temp of that radiant heat about three times. That's a structure fire.

CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

"Cookin' From Scratch" really does exist at the Newburg exit on I-44. It's one of those wonderful greasy spoon restaurants that has routine specials for each day of the week. You always have to go on pan-fried chicken night. I know folks who eat there *every* night.

And it is amazing. Every single gas stop and restaurant along the old Route 66 has the most wonderfully tacky 66 merchandise. Who knew there were Route 66 condoms?

Mother Abagail appears to Mulder: This parallels the book, where Mother Abagail and a small group move from her home in Nebraska to Boulder. It was one of my first nightmares at trying to make LOS dates coincide with dates in the "The Stand. "

Back at the restaurant: Had to get in another dig at frosted Pop Tarts. Yeck. I hate the frosting.

As they hit the road again, I mentioned their portable electric cooler/heater. If you like road trips, these things are fabulous. I don't know what I'd do without mine. It holds plenty of soda and bottled water, plus anything else you want cold. No worries about ice. And if you wanna keep a casserole hot on the way to a covered dish dinner, you just flip a switch, and it's a heater. Which can also come in handy if you get stranded in winter and your car dies. . . as long as ya' got battery power, you've got a little heat.

The brake slamming ending scene: Can't tell you how many thought Mulder was about to hit Fluffy.

CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

Opening Whitman epigram: Gotta say that I love this Whitman poem, "Song of the Open Road." When you get out west and point your car off the main highways, the possiblities seem endless.

Oh. BTW, that equation I give for the stopping time of a motor vehicle came straight from my Accident Reconstruction manual.

"Come visit the Ozark Church of Signs & Wonders! Behold the Power of God! (Take this exit. . . We're right next to Imo's Pizza! )": I love the sauce on Imo's Pizza. I confess. And there really are signs like this all over I-44 in Missouri. (more on that in a bit)

The return of the Dog: Did anyone actually believe I'd kill Fluffy? Please. ;)

The Theme from Banana Splits: How many readers out there remember this show? (I think it's on Cartoon Network now. . . cool. ) You could always tell if the episode was gonna be a "Danger Island" day because then the intro at the beginning with the mutant animals was really short. Then you'd get to see a young, gorgeous Jan Michel Vincent running around the Island. If they started with a musical number, you knew it was a stupid cartoon day.

And I apologize for bringing up the whole Speed Racer theme song. That song bounced in my head for two freakin' weeks after I wrote this bit. Argh. And I never liked Spridel. BTW. . . am I the only person on the planet who watched Ultraman? That show rocked. I just got the 20th Anniversary of Ultraman video. : )

The road from Missouri to Texas: The Licking Youth for Christ sign really does exist (although it's not on 44). Everything mentioned in this section is real. The only one that truly creeps me out is the "Precious Moments Chapel." I've always thought someone should write a story where Mulder and Scully investigate this scary place. Maybe they could get trapped in there at night. Eek!

The Days Inn in Elk City, OK. This is a great, cheap hotel. (I think it was $29/night last time I stayed there. ) Looks like a dump outside, but the tv gets cable with a bunch of stations including SciFi Channel. Yay! There's also a great home cookin' restaurant across the street now (at the HoJos). Nice place to stop for the night.

Amarillo, TX: No offense to Texans, but I call this the "Armpit of Texas" (partly because of the stockyards just west of town). Every location described here exists; although, unfortunately, the cow at Wolfen Square was taken down. : : sniff: :

I'd also like to say that Scully's illness came in handy here as I had to stretch their trip out in order to make dates match up with the book. Can't tell you what a headache this was sometimes.

CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE

The scene between Roberta and Spender: Did a bit of foreshadowing here with the Life Savers. One thing about writing something so long and complicated -- you get to plant all sorts of ideas in the early parts of the story. The trick is to foreshadow, but not write yourself into a corner. If I had changed my mind later about Spender and the Flu, the Life Savers could have fallen by the wayside without nary a second thought. But, it became very important when I *did* decide to use the candy as a part of the plot later. There's a number of these moments throughout the story. Some things I used again, some I did not. So you *mention* things almost as asides, never place too much import on them until you commit yourself to an idea later.

Bill and Tara Scully: I've always been disappointed that so many fanfics depict Bill as a total jerk with no redeeming qualities. I think we only saw his "over protective big brother" routine on the show. He must have had some decency about him to have been married to Tara. She was always so perky and nice on the show. But, I think all of us are a bit different with our blood family than we are with the rest of the world. We revert to childhood habits, methinks, when we're with siblings (who we haven't even lived with in years). So, I wanted to give Bill a scene that showed where his heart really was. His wife and his son. And I wanted to show his sense of duty in some way. I hope it worked. And yes, the 7-Star hotel exists here in the San Fernando Valley. They have nice jacuzzi suites. : )

Las Vegas and the appearance of Krycek: I just had to get this man in some leather and put him in LOS. ;)

CHAPTER THIRTY

Mulder and Scully arrive in Boulder: The flashback to the Boulder Air Testing Facility is from the book, although I filled in the details. In the book, the new refugees find an old paper that refers to the facility. I wanted to flesh it out a bit.

Ralph Brentner is introduced: The first (other than M. A. and Flagg) of the main novel characters to make an appearance in LOS. I always liked Ralph the best.

CHAPTER THIRTY ONE

The house in Boulder: This is where I get to play a bit. Ever watch one of those apocalytic movies and wonder how *you* would survive it? What simple everyday things we take for granted would no longer be around? All I could think as I wrote this was: what happens when all the canned tuna is gone? Even Twinkies have a shelf life. They might have two years of canned good stores; then, I hope they find a way to produce some food! Same goes for medicines like penicillin. And what about simple things like salt and pepper and flour? Good thing LOS ends when it does!

Scully's cross necklace breaks: Another foreshadowing event, although, I committed myself a short time later when Mother Abagail warns Mulder to wear it and not take it off. I still had to work out a few details about why, but it was part of the plan from the very beginning.

Mother Abagail gives Mulder a lecture on patience and faith: I always thought Mulder needed this on the show. And this is where she tells him he looks too much to the past (echoing his mother's comments as she died), which is rather important by the end.

CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO

The basketball game: We get to meet the rest of the Boulder gang from the book. I was sorry I couldn't do more with all of the novel folks, but there wasn't time enough in the universe, and it made it harder to connect the timelines.

Mulder and Scully finally do *it*: Sorry it wasn't on screen, folks. Aside from the fact that I just can't write smut, I desperately wanted LOS to be about the character of Mulder and Scully. About their differences and the things that bound them together. Their emotions, rather than what their bodies were doing. The outside forces that shoved them around. I thought smut would have taken something away from the story by distracting the reader. I thought "less is more" was the way to go. . . let the reader fill in the blanks. I know some readers didn't like this. Sorry.

Appendicitis, oh my! This is another parallel to the book. In the novel, a guy gets it on the road with Stu and company. They try to operate, but none of them have any medical training and the guy bites the dust. Another one of those creepy consequences of the Flu. A simple illness or injry now means death. This episode also goes back to Mulder's "patience" conversation with Mother Abagail. She goes missing and Mulder is ready to run off immediately, in spite of her warning. His appendicitis forces him to be patient.

CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE

Krycek meets with Flagg: Krycek rejects Flagg's offer for a new arm. Another foreshadowing event. Krycek still has some reservations about Flagg. Later on, it will be harder for him to make the right choice. Like Spender, he thinks he can use Flagg. But the tables are turned on him.

Roberta quotes Schoolhou