cover image

Title: A Thin Veneer
Author: Analise
Category: S,T, post-col, MSR
Rating: NC-17
archive: Please ask
Disclaimer: These characters are the property of Fox and 1013. No disrespect intended.

Summary: It was an accident.

This might be a wee bit strong for some, others might not even flinch...but there's some graphic violence here, and some sex too. That's why the NC-17, though that's more for the content than the sex. You've been warned. Enjoy.

Chapter One

I remember a time back, there were rabbits.

Out in the back of the main house sat a fairly sizable hutch that my Granddad built and it was full of bunnies. All different colors and shapes, sizes and breeds. They belonged to my older sister. She'd carry them around stroking and stroking them, their little noses twitching and quivering, their eyes wild and frightened. Always frightened.

Rabbits are scared of everything.

There was that book, that rabbit book. They made us read it in school. Watership Down. I only read the first part of it, it was dumb. As if rabbits had their own society. But the thing of it was, in the first part of that book it talked about how the entire world was the enemy of the rabbit. Every last living thing that walked the earth was the rabbit's enemy.

And it was true...and somehow important. In the mind of that soft, shaking creature, even *I* was dangerous.

I would think about that whenever I looked at my sister's rabbits. It made me feel bigger somehow. Even if they were just dumb animals. I would think of it at night when my dad would creep into my room and I would think of it as I pressed my face into my pillow to keep from crying out.

Rabbits were scared of me.

Mr. Ears was one of those massive, lop-eared rabbits. The kind with the ears that droop to the sides. He was big and gray with white patches. He was my sister's favorite.

It was an accident.

It really was. Somehow Mr. Ears got out of his hutch one night and when we came out of the house in the morning to do our chores, he lay dead in the middle of yard. His neck was broken.

No one could figure out how he had gotten out of the hutch so the blame fell upon my sister for forgetting to put him back at night. She sobbed and wept and stroked his dead fur, but my dad just shrugged and the mystery became a non-issue.

I stood over my sister for a long time, looking at Mr. Ears. His little black eyes were cold and hard, his nose no longer twitched, and he no longer looked at me with fear. His head sat at an odd angle on his body.

It was an accident.

It really was.

He pushed through drifts that reached his knees, new and heavy and wet. It still fell, collecting in his hair, his eyelashes, kissing the sides of his cold-flushed cheeks with spots of icy wetness. The pack was heavy on his back, pressing into his collarbone and rubbing raw spots against his shoulders. Tired muscles ached unrelentingly with each new lift of his snowshoes. It was getting dark, he thought. Hard to tell in the unrelenting gray of the storm, but the uniform lack of color seemed to be dimming.

He stopped for a moment, catching his breath and leaning against the frozen, ice-crusted bark of a large Douglas fir. Thickly gloved hands found the canteen at his waist and he spared himself a long drink of water so cold it made his teeth ache. Old habit sent his gaze back along the tracks he had left behind him, part of him wincing at the obvious spoor of his passing. It couldn't be helped. Hopefully the rising storm would cover all trace of his route. Otherwise he was leaving a neon sign for anyone with eyes and the inclination to follow.


He tugged his woolen cap down tighter over dark hair starting to fleck with gray and pushed himself away from the tree, continuing up the mountain. Over and done with. If only it could be. If only this could all be a nightmare they could simply wake from. He would get up out of bed, head for the FBI and chastise himself for eating spicy Thai food at 3:00am ...and he would laugh off the whole thing.


You can't really laugh off the end of the world. Can you?

He could smell the sharp tang of woodsmoke in the cold air and he picked up his weary legs with a surge of renewed energy, ignoring the extra resistance of the snowshoes as they dragged him through the soft, new drifts. Only a little farther. Definitely darker now. The trees were mere shapes of darker gray in the mist of the thick white snowfall by the time he topped the little rise that overlooked a motley collection of rough cabins. He paused over the tiny vale for a long moment, his breath chuffing steam into the frigid twilight chill as he surveyed the place that had become a refuge of sorts.

A tiny smile cracked the cold skin of his lips. No metropolis this. No take-out Chinese, no 24-hour cable TV, no multi-million dollar sports organizations, nor a cheap basketball to bounce around on the weekends. Not even weekends anymore. Nothing really, that he might have once considered part of his life.

But things changed.

Didn't they? Wasn't that a Universal Constant? But who knew they could change this much?

He let himself start moving again, the slope of the vale falling away under his feet, leaving him to slip and slide his way down through the snow, struggling to keep his balance under the heavy load of the pack he wore. It would not do to fall now, not when he was so close.

It had snowed considerably since he'd last stood outside this cabin, he thought. He found himself paused once more, staring at the rough-hewn door, seeing the warm yellow light stretching welcomingly from the cramped little windows. How long had it been? At least two months and change. He'd left in fall and now it was winter. It was with no surprise that he found himself a bit reluctant, even nervous to enter the tiny makeshift dwelling. He had lived the past month with ever-present gnawing worms of worry, but he'd forced them down deep. And there they festered still. There was no denying now that he stood here at the threshold of the present. So many terrible things could happen in the span of 2 months.

He should know, he'd lived through days that had lasted years.

In the end it was not he who opened the door, but she.

He stared at her, backlit by the soft glow of the fire that both illuminated and heated the room, and told himself she was no wraith of his imagination.

She was tired, he could see that right away...soft lines of worry and struggle had etched themselves onto the gentle curves of her face, lines that he knew he carried as well...lines that made them both real. But there was also an almost timid relief there, as if the emotion were afraid of exposing itself. Afraid of expressing itself in any way lest it be noticed and hunted down by its stronger brothers of despair and fear. Her small, lithe frame was rounder than it had been when he had left, her sharp lines and edges blurred and gentled. A copper glow limned her hair, lending her the look of a surreal postcard. A photographer's illusion of exaggerated color and beauty.

But she *was* real, and she was alive still. These small things were enough to make him shiver slightly with the unfamiliar sensation of joy.

She lifted a hand and he took it, letting her pull him into the warmth of the tiny hovel, the door shutting behind him on the falling twilight and the ever-darkening snowfall.

"It's really starting to come down out there." Pike said, his nose pressed to the glass of the small window, his chin resting on folded arms.

"I figured it would hit us tonight." His dad's voice was slow and soft. The boy glanced over his shoulder to peer at the man who lounged in front of the fire, parked in front of a tattered Scrabble board. He met his son's eyes with a smile. "Your turn."

Pike jumped down from his perch on the back of the chair and returned to his spot on the opposite side of the board, peering with 10 year-old annoyance at his small collection of letters. Four Es. What was he supposed to do with four Es?

His eyes drifted back over to the window again, his teeth clamping onto the inside of his cheek. His father caught the direction of his glance and he chuckled softly.

"Leave it be kiddo."

"Do you think he'll come over? What do you think he saw down there? You think he brought anything cool back?" Pike returned his gaze to his father, his eyes alight with excitement that had been present since he'd spotted the shadowed figure trudge by the window.

Chris shook his head and pointed at his son's letters.

"Your turn, Peter." Pike frowned.


"Just play your turn. He won't be answering anyone's questions tonight. You can wait till tomorrow just like the rest of us. Let him rest. He's just spent a very long time away. He has other things on his mind besides us."

Pike frowned at that.

"I suppose..." he admitted. "But..."

"No buts. Leave them be. Play the game." His dad's voice was firmer now and Pike knew better than to press. He slumped to the floor, settling himself onto his stomach on the worn old rug.

It took all his willpower not to simply leap up, grab his coat and head over there. How was he supposed to wait till morning? Mulder had said that he was going to bring him something cool.


"12 points." he said distractedly, his small fingers pressing the polished wood squares into a rough line.

"That the best you can do?" His dad asked with a smirk. "For 12 measly points you're going to give me the triple word score?"

Pike rolled his eyes dramatically.

"Not like you're not gonna win anyway, Dad. I don't even know why you play this dumb game with me."

"Because one day you'll beat me." Chris said, grinned sagely through his salt-and-pepper beard.

A knock sounded at the door.

The sound had barely registered in Pike's head before he had flung his body up and was racing for the door, a huge grin on his face.

"I told you! I told you he'd come over!" he said, skidding to a stop in front of the door, ignoring his father's instinctive leap for the rifle that hung over the mantle.

"Peter!" He warned sharply, one hand on the gun, just before the boy flung the door open.

Exposing, not Fox Mulder, but an old, sunken stranger. Someone that neither of them had ever seen before.

It was like a bucket of cold water had been dumped over the boy. He shrank back into the room, his eyes on the haggard, bearded face. The snow blew in from behind the man, cold air sucking all the warmth of the small space out of the open portal.

The silence of the room amplified the sound of the safety being flicked off the rifle. Pike scuttled over next to his Father, standing in the shelter of the gun Chris held pointed at the stranger's head.

Tall, gaunt, and haunted looking, the man peered at them through ice-pale eyes sunken into a scarred and pitted face that was half obscured by a filthy gray beard. He was dressed in a dirty gore-tex parka, hands and feet encased in thick gloves and boots. He wore a pack on his back and held a long, tall stick in one hand. An old-fashioned shotgun was strapped to the side of his load. At the sight of the rifle pointed at him, he dropped the staff and slowly raised his hands.

"Mean ya no harm." his voice was raspy and ill-used, it drove shivers up and down Pike's spine that had nothing to do with the chill air spilling into the room. Behind the man, he could see the snow falling thick and silent.

"You alone?" His dad's voice was hard and cool, so unlike the man he normally was.

A slow nod.

"Step inside and close the door, keep your hands up." Chris's eyes flicked down to his son. "Go and get Mulder and the others."

Somehow the words did not inspire the same exhilaration they might have had they been spoken 10 minutes earlier. But he inched past the stranger, grabbed his coat and shot out the door into the night.

Chapter Two

She rifled through the old cabinet almost numbly, sorting through the meager assortment of medical supplies stowed there. They were dwindling drastically, she thought offhandedly, her mind still spinning dizzily from the relief that coursed through her body. She had seen him off almost 2 months ago, each day passing with the possibility that he would never come back.

Now here he was, large as life and twice as dirty.

When she'd caught a glimpse of a shadowy figure outside her door, she'd thought at first that it was Denny again...the teen who had decided to make her his own personal object of obsession.

But it hadn't been Denny.

Mulder was lying on the low cot mattress, his boots still on and hanging off the end, one arm flung over his eyes. His other arm lay where she'd left it, wrapped loosely in an old shirt, dried black bloodstains showing through the thin cotton.

Carrying peroxide and gauze, she knelt next to the mattress and gently undid the makeshift bandage.

"It's nothing." He muttered as he lifted his arm from his face to crack his eyes open at her. "I told you." His cheeks and nose were still red and chapped from the cold and his eyes swam with exhaustion.

"I'll be the judge of that," she muttered softly, focusing on his wound. Minor indeed, she thought. He must have received it at least two weeks prior...and it was mostly scabbed over at this point. It was likely that it had been serious when he'd cut himself. He was lucky he would only be adding a scar to his collection and not losing a limb. He must have doctored himself well. Little for her to do, but she trained her eyes on it anyway. It was easier than looking into his eyes.

It had been necessary, she knew, for him to go like he had. Alone...without her. Necessary for everyone, for there were few who were able or qualified to do what was needed. And Mulder had always been one to sacrifice himself for others. But it was hard to accept his casual martyrdom, his inability to step out of the eye of everyone's need. After two years of almost unimaginable suffering, of watching everyone and everything she had ever loved or known die was hard to let him walk away like he had.

Even worse to know that she couldn't go with him. Almost involuntarily her left hand lifted to touch the telling swell of her stomach. A burden, a chain, a reason. The reason. It was why she could not go with him when he went. Neither of them would risk it. Not for anything. And there was plenty of risk beyond the cold haven of the mountains they hid in.

The virus still savaged what remained of the populace. The aliens' threat was vanquished, but their legacy remained. The monsters, the massive hulks that Pike had dubbed 'Shredders' still roamed the warmer climes. Unrepentant, uncaring and completely hostile.

Warm fingertips covered hers, smoothing over the flesh-wrapped bones of her slender hands and swooping lower to touch her stomach...almost reverently. She clasped his hand and pulled it away, bringing it to her lips to cover up the fact that she hated his reverence. Hated the reason that she was not able to share his risk instead of hiding in the shadows. She finally let her eyes meet his and she saw that his depthless chameleon gaze did not hold awe, but instead a deep fear. He had been afraid she would not be here when he got back. He had once confided in her, late at night many months ago, that he had an irrational fear that the moment she left his sight, she would cease to be.

Megalomania, that's what she had told him at the time, lightening the mood. Though essentially, it was true. He'd always been almost pathologically self-centered. Not a bad thing, not in her thinking. She preferred to stand alone on her own merits...and her control issues were certainly on a par with his egocentrism, but this fear was beyond that. When she had vanished from his life all those years ago, losing 3 months of her life, it had left its mark on him. Even now he was afraid that she would disappear if he were not there to watch her.

She smiled softly at him, pulling his cool palm against her warm cheek and leaning into it before setting it back on his chest and returning to his wound.

Silly man, she told him silently.

She cleaned the scabbed gash gently in the silence of the room, only the fire giving voice in its sibilant hisses and cackles in the corner. She would not ask, though the questions hung in the warmth of the room like the smell of pine smoke. She would wait for him to talk. To speak of what he had seen, what he had found... how he had cut himself seemed secondary. Certainly she had become immune to the savagery of this new world since she'd waded hip deep through the blood of its birthing. A wound like this would have had her on edge not three years earlier, now she counted him lucky that it was all he'd brought back with him.

It was not until the cut was cleaned and wrapped in the soft, white gauze that the honeyed gravel of his voice filled her ears.

"I made it as far as Helena, Scully." he said. His voice was so tired. She looked up at him, then, settling back on her heels at the side of the mattress and curling her hands into her lap. Her silence did not press him, she simply waited, not touching. He would not meet her eyes, his own green gaze fixed on the rough, low, flat ceiling of the cabin. "There was nothing there but the dead. I found a few of...Them...but they were bones. Shredder bones." He pulled his lips into his mouth sucking on them thoughtfully. "Someone shot at me about two weeks back, I ran...fell..." he lifted his injured arm a bit. "That's how I got this. Dropped into a steep ravine and cut myself on a tree branch. I never saw the guy who fired at me."

He finally turned his head and looked at her, shifting his long body on the bed to make room for her. She heaved her bulk onto the mattress next to him, curling her form around his, glorying in the sensation of touching him again. She could feel his arms sliding around her, pulling her closer...the weight and substance of her stomach between them... and unexpected tears bit at the corners of her eyes. Tears of simple relief that she was allowed this again. That he was indeed, still alive. The reality of it had not fully hit her yet, but it waited anxiously at the edges of her sanity...still worried that this was a dream.

"I did find a HAM radio, just like we hoped. And it works too." His voice rumbled in the cavity of his chest, sounding warm and hollow where her ear pressed against him. "Damned fucking heavy though. I'd been hoping to find a horse...something, but all the animals I saw were long dead. I found a few snowmobiles, but couldn't risk the noise."

"Helena is dead." she repeated quietly, sadly. So many in their makeshift camp had held out high hopes for the city. Even her, though she'd known better. Hope that a larger community might have survived, organized. That something of their old lives had managed to make it through. It would be bitter to discover that hope to be false. Another disappointment in a long line of them. He squeezed her shoulder, continuing.

"I didn't see any sign of the Shredders. The cold will keep them sluggish. It's possible that they'll simply die of starvation before the spring comes." Neither of them bothered to wonder how the victims had contracted the virus, it was far more important to worry about the things the virus created. Besides, at the end, the virus had been everywhere. Food, water, even the least in some parts, from what they'd heard. Vaporizing bombs similar to how VX gas was deployed had been detonated 200 feet off the ground over certain cities. The virus took out entire areas unilaterally.

"If they don't?" she whispered. "If they manage to make it up here?"

"I don't ...know." He admitted wearily. "We'll figure something out if they do." His words were matter of fact. He believed them. It was part of why they all looked to him. The confidence that he had had through this. That he wore on him like a mantle. She suspected that part of it came because he'd faced so many horrors in his life and the rest was simply that he did not fear the unknown like so many did. He'd spent most of his life seeking that very unknown, delving under the rocks and into the shadowed corners where no others dared look.

Or believe.

He'd always believed. It was easy for him to say 'we'll figure it out' and have others trust that they would.

"What else?" she asked finally. She knew that he would have saved the worst for last. That he was hoping, even now, to protect her from the horrors she already knew were out there.

"I came across a farm outside of Helena, a big one. Or at least what was left of it. The place had burned to the ground and I found four skeletons in the ashes." He stopped and she waited. She knew that there was more. "God Scully.." he stopped again and she lifted her head to look into his face. His eyes were clenched shut, his jaw tight.

"What, Mulder?"

"There was a woman. She hadn't been burned in the fire. I didn't see her at first, she was a little ways off from the main house. She'd been murdered." His eyes opened and he looked down at her. "She'd been pregnant." His hand moved to touch her belly as if he was reassuring himself. "The killer had cut her open...the fetus was ...gone." His last words were drenched in horror, a horror she felt crawling over her as she saw the truth in his eyes. The fear.

"How long ago had it happened?" She asked quietly.

"I'd guess at least 8 or 10 months. The cold kept some of the decay at bay, but the woman was pretty far gone.

"Whoever did it was the human breed of monster, Scully. I'd lay odds that the same person or persons were responsible for burning that house down as well." His voice took on a lecturing tone, one she recognized from countless slide shows in a long-gone basement office. "The purpose of cutting an infant from a living womb...I think the killer had to have known the victim. Cutting open pregnant women was often used as a method of war, much like rape was. Keep the populace cowed and terrified. But this was different. I think that she knew the killer, there was no sign of struggle.." He sounded deadened, distant, as if part of him was running on autopilot. She caught her breath and laid a hand on his arm.

"Mulder. Stop."

She reached up and pulled his chin down until she met his eyes. She shook her head ever so slightly, conveying her insistence that he not do this to himself...that he not profile every atrocity he came across. It took too much of a toll on him.

He was relaxing slightly, as if what he'd seen was a burden that, once unloaded, allowed him to rest. His voice was slowing in cadence like a wind up toy running down. The weight he'd carried, the faith and hopes and fears of every one of the 14 survivors in the camp, it had been heavy and unforgiving. She knew he had felt every ounce of it with each step he'd taken.

His eyelids were fluttering as he tried to stay awake and she let her hand stroke his hair back from his forehead, trailing it down his thickly stubbled cheek and tracing the generous swell of his mouth.

"Sleep now, just sleep." She ordered gently.

He was just drifting off when the sound of a fist pounding on the door startled both of them upright.

"Mulder! Mulder!" It was Pike's voice, muffled beyond the door. "Come quick! There's a stranger!"

"Name's Hobb. Hobb Strick."

They had allowed him to sit by the fire and strip off his wet clothes, Lloyd had handed him a cup of hot tea...but there was no mistake that not a one of the six adults in the room trusted the newcomer. Under his dirty coat he was skeletally thin, his eyes burned with a strange light as he stared into the fire and rocked every so slightly to a rhythm that only he heard.

He looked up at the surrounding people almost myopically and then back down into the steam of his tea, the heat painting his cold nose red. He had not removed his knit cap and scraggly strands of white hair poked out from around the edges lending him the look of a homeless vagrant. Watery eyes set deep in a scarred face flicked from person to person like an insect...never stopping any one place long enough to invite attention. He had been humming softly to himself while they'd waited for Chris to shut the door behind his son.

He looked up at the five men and one woman with a bleary smile and rheumy eyes. Mulder guessed he was in his 70s.

"I was looking for a way over the Divide. Hmmm? Thought maybe that I could make it to Idaho. You know, I heard that there were a lot of survivalist types out there. Maybe they even managed to get organized if they survived the virus. Who better, right? Hmmm?" He looked up at Mulder almost hopefully, but found nothing but suspicion in the hazel eyes.

"What happened to your face Mr. Strick?" Scully's soft-rough voice came from somewhere over Mulder's shoulder.

His fingers came up and traced the air over the burn-marks on his cheek.

"These?" he asked unnecessarily. "I uhh..hmmm" His shoulders quivered a little and his chin sunk down against his shoulders like a turtle retreating into its shell. "There was a fire, hmmm?" It seemed all he wanted to offer.

Strick's fingers were working unconsciously in his lap, twisting and twining together incessantly.

"What direction did you come from?" Mulder asked, folding his arms just to give his hands something to do. "How did you find us?"

"I came from the east...uh...I-Iowa, hmmm?" he jerked his head in the general direction, his fingers continuing their ceaseless dry-washing. "Like I said, I was looking for a way over the mountains that wasn't on a road. Roads are dangerous." He swallowed and his adam's apple bobbed. "As fer how I found you...hmmm...I followed some fresh tracks. They led right here. I was hoping to find some friendly shelter before the storm hit, hmmmm?." His eyes trailed off towards the rafters of the old warming hut. "It's gonna prove to be a big one." His voice was soft.

His tracks. There was no helping that. Melchor pressed forward a moment later, touching Mulder's arm to meet his eyes.

"What's the point of this interrogation, Fox?" the little Mexican asked, frowning. "He's cold, he's tired...and he needs shelter. I know we all have right to be suspicious after last time, but he seems all right, and I think we all want to get back to bed."

He stared at the man for a long moment and then nodded. Melchor was right, he was just edgy from what he had seen. No, edgy wasn't a strong enough word, he was stretched taut as a guitar string. Every time he closed his eyes he saw the dead woman's mutilated body, her blood black and dried under the woodshed roof. Not that he hadn't seen worse horrors in the VCU, but it was just far too easy to see Scully's face in place of the dead woman's.

"Ok." He turned back to the old stranger. "Ok. You can stay here through the storm. Maybe longer if you want. We don't have a lot of room, but I think there's space in Howie's cabin." He glanced over at the big blonde midwesterner. Howie nodded, not thrilled, but understanding that he was the only one with space. His 'cabin' had once been the mess-hall of the little cluster of buildings. It was the largest. "I'm warning you though," he turned back to Strick, narrowing his eyes. "We're armed here, and we won't tolerate any crap from you."

Hobb seemed unaffected by the threat, and his face remained expressionless. Mulder couldn't help but feel cold fingers crawling up and down his spine every time he looked the man in his pale dead eyes. He glanced back over his shoulder for the first time and he saw the same vague unease echoed faintly in Scully's face.

Probably remembering the two men they had given shelter three months earlier, he told himself. They'd run off with half their stored food, all their vitamins and some ammo. Howie had earned himself a fairly serious concussion when he'd tried to stop them. Everyone was lucky it hadn't been worse. One of the two men had had a gun.

Howie was leading Strick out of the cabin and as soon as the stranger exited, he felt a sudden flush of weariness wash over him. He'd not gotten a lot of sleep in the weeks since he'd come across the murdered people. Not because he was afraid that the killer(s) might still be around, but because his dreams wouldn't let up. Lack of rest combined with the fairly heavy workout of hauling a pack on his back in thigh-deep snow had left him feeling like a pulped banana.

"Come on Mulder." The hand was pulling him effectively out of the cabin. He thought maybe he could hear people murmuring greetings and vague questions at him. A blast of cold air did little to clear his mind as they exited the heat and light of Chris's cabin and plowed through the falling snow. A series of gray shapes to his right were identifiable as Howie and the stranger making their way towards the ex-mess hall.

No stranger to sleep deprivation, he recognized the signs of a hard crash inching inwards on the perimeter of his vision. Scully's soft voice was echoing slightly as if she was speaking into a tin can.

Snow. Steps. Door. Bed.


He was gone almost before she got him onto the bed.

She brushed her lips against his forehead let her fingers stroke the side of his face. After she pulled his boots and socks off unresisting, reddened, blistered feet...she spread a wool army blanket over him and considered climbing onto the lumpy mattress with him.

It was only a momentary debate before she decided against it. Straightening, she rubbed the swell of her belly, reassuring herself again. It was something she had done almost constantly ever since she had learned of her condition. It was more than a miracle, but it was also a terrible burden. It kept her from doing much more than staying behind while her partner went out and risked his life.

She'd been down that road before and she pushed aside the bitterness, the uselessness she felt. She bent to the task of Mulder's pack, quickly and efficiently unloading it. Much like Christmas had been as a child or the thrill of seeing her father come home from a strange port bearing trinkets and gifts, there was the joy of discovering what Mulder had brought from that far-away land of their extinct civilization. These things were not brightly colored packages, but somehow they were even more dear.

Two large bags of rice, another of flour, one of oats, some white beans, a big bag of assorted Vitamin E, B, B-12, C and D, and a whole paper bag full of different kinds of seeds. Several different household chemicals that could be used for a myriad of things, a tightly rolled poly-fleece blanket, a crumpled pair of fluffy women's socks meant to double as slippers, thread and needles and other bits of useful things. The radio itself was carefully dismantled and packed securely within the folds of another blanket and several items of clothing that would fit an infant. She smiled at these, smoothing the fabric under her hands and gently setting them aside before returning to the pack.

A host of batteries spilled out of a side pocket, another yielded a large unopened bag of salted sunflower seeds, two small flashlights and a lighter. Mulder's knife and gun were produced from another along with bullets for both his weapon, hers and birdshot for the shotgun.

She smiled to see several dusty bottles of pre-natal vitamins, two bars of scented soap, shampoo and toothpaste. Luxuries these, and only for her, she knew. Somehow the sight of the red, white and aqua of the toothpaste tube brought tears to her eyes. With his limited space, he should have brought more food, medical supplies or some other necessity...but he had hauled her toothpaste and girlie-soap up the mountain. Harlequin eat your heart out, she thought with a wry smile. She would berate him later for wasting the space in his pack for her, but she knew that he knew that she was inordinately pleased.

There were other things in the pack. He'd managed to find insulin for Melchor and Jenn, there were clean syringes for her own small hoard of supplies and a few more miscellaneous medical items she'd asked for with no real hope of him being able to find them. She should have known he would.

In the last pocket she found the Penicillin she'd been looking for amongst a few other assorted luxuries he'd brought up for some of the others.

She put away the other things in silence, enjoying the simple peace of having him in the same room with her, enjoying the sound of his breathing. She would not think of the stranger, or of what Mulder had seen. She would not think of the dead city of Helena and everything that had been lost. And she would not think of the virus and the all-too-real monsters that now walked the earth.

For now, she could just be happy that he was back.

Chapter three

He dreamed the same dream.

The snow field blinding white within a distant ring of winter trees. Aching eyes squinting against the brightness. Trudging across it, sweat prickling along his spine even in the cold, feet crunching through the thick crust. The radio was heavy, pressing down on him with each step. He could feel the fear of being out in the open clearing adding to the weight on his shoulders... and then he smelled it.

It was not an odor that could be likened to wood burning, nor to the noxious choke of smoking oil...instead it was a sickening stench that could only be compared to distilled fear. A mix between burning hair and roasted meat. But it was old. Only a whiff of it caught at his senses. It had stopped him, and his conscious self began to beat at him, trying to make him keep going, to make him ignore the smoke. His conscious self already knew what he would see there.

But it was inevitable. His dream feet carried him forward carefully, keeping him low as he entered the copse. The smell was a little thicker here, denser...the smell of death.

It had been a farmhouse, maybe a ranch. There were many out here on the distant outskirts of Helena. There was a weathered old lodgepole pine entryway over the dirt road that bore a brand on it in clumsy woodburn. C Lazy 7. The main house had burned, but only incompletely. Several of the walls still stood, the skeletal, blackened bones of the frame. His spine crawled as he realized that the faint smoky smell was not just from burning wood.

At first he kept to the treeline, afraid of the silence of the farm. Moving carefully, his feet carried him on and the unease that swelled in him was choking, the foreshadowed fear of what he knew he would see overwhelmed him.

He ducked under the oft-repaired pole fence of the corral, his dream feet slogging through dry, grainy snow. The charred skeletons of four people in the main room were easily visible, the trio clustered together in death, the bones blistered and cracked from the heat...all dusted with a light layer of old snow. It looked like an adult and three teens.

Walking through the wreckage of the house, he crouched in front of the murdered family and simply stared at them, his mind coolly picking out details of the scene without even thinking about it. Some things were instinctive, and even now, two years after he'd left the life of a investigator...behind, he still found himself observing details with the same eye.

He'd forced himself to stand, knees popping and creaking like an old man's, turning his head from the tragedy. The dream began slowing down, his heartbeat sounding loud in his ears.

A woodshed stood in a protected stand of dead aspen trees, sheltered from the majority of snow. A lavender flash of color caught his eye.

His conscious self began to beat frantically at the glass barrier between waking and seeing what came next.

The crunching of his boots in the old snow.

Old black blood splattered the scene. Everywhere was a grisly Jackson Pollack painting of dark red fluid against the clean white canvas of the snow. Death he knew. Violence he was nearly inured to, but this was different. Her pale limbs were slender and white where they had not decayed, the cold had preserved her slightly. He could see one of her hands lying palm up next to a pile of neatly chopped wood, slim fingers curled almost peacefully.

The dream pulled him forward. Closer. She wore house clothes, clearly having been rousted from the indoors by her attacker, her feet clad only in filthy socks. Her face was obscured by the lavender shirt where it had been ripped up and back; but her bare, tattered torso, blue with death, gaped at him. She had been slit from crotch to sternum by a knife, and it was blatantly, horribly clear that she had been pregnant. There was nothing left of her midsection. The fetus was gone.

This was where his dream slipped its moorings from reality and veered off into darker waters. Three weeks before when he'd *lived* this nightmare he had lost what little he'd managed to eat earlier that day, retching and moaning on his knees in the snow, oblivious to the wet-cold seeping into the knees of his pants.

But now, in his dream, he walked towards the woman's corpse and his hand stretched out to push aside the lavender fleece shirt to expose the face.

Wide, lifeless blue eyes stared up at him from a face framed in coppery silk.


He surged into the waking world with a raw noise that seemed to have been birthed in a place deeper than his gut.

"Mulder?" Soft, soothing hands were stoking his back, brushing his untrimmed hair out of his face. He couldn't acknowledge her at first, simply taking deep breaths, forcing his jaw to unclench, letting the tight knot of fear and pain uncoil in his belly.

Every goddamned night for three weeks now. Would it never let him sleep again? Always the same. Always.

Her presence quieted him, her scent, her touch, her voice. Her reality.

He let himself bend over, pressing his palms into the hollows of his eyesockets, hard. Forcing bursts of light to blossom behind his lids. The small pain calmed him.

"Mulder?" she asked again. He heard the rustling of the blankets as she leaned across the bed and lit a candle with a small, yellow bic lighter. He let himself fall back onto the mattress, his eyes sliding down the swollen curves of her body with a desperate need to fight off the remnants of the dream.

"Just a dream." He said, surprised at how normal his voice sounded. He still felt like he'd been run through a rusty thresher.

She crooked her mouth to one side as if to tell him that he'd have to do better than that. He shook his head and tugged at her arm until she fell back down alongside him. The candle flame flickered in the air currents of the room, sending shivering pools of light and shadow dancing across the smooth lines of her face. In the corner the fire snapped and whispered to itself, burnt down to black and red embers.

"Just a bad dream," he repeated, letting his hand cup her cheek. "I missed you, partner." His voice lowered a notch, breaking a little under the weight of the inadequacy of his words.

"I have a way to fix that." She smiled softly. "Next time don't go without me."

He opened his mouth to answer her, but she placed a single finger over his lips, stopping him. "Just shut up, Mulder. I missed you too."

She lowered her soft mouth onto his, kissing him for the first time since he'd returned. He'd been living on memories of her taste, her texture, the incredible velvet touch of her lips and it was nothing in the face of reality. Slowly, skillfully, she chased away the lingering shades of the nightmare until all that was left was her, filling his senses. Light fingers painted trails of liquid pleasure down his neck, his chest, his ribs...pausing to wriggle under the shirt he still wore.

His bandaged arm came up around her, his palm filling with the curve of her bottom and squeezing until she let a breathless gasp puff past her lips. One thing about living up here in Grizzly Adams country was the fact that they habitually wore layers to bed at night to keep warm. Even with the fire going, the cabin was drafty. A bonus, however, was that by the time they struggled out of their clothes, they were both overheated from the effort. Desire was burning temporary life into his exhausted body, urgency replacing fear.

He captured both her wrists, holding her still and apart from him as they rose onto their knees out of the nest of scratchy, army-issue wool...examining her in the gentle light of the candle. It took his breath away. Her breasts were fuller than before, round and tempting in the warm glow...her cheeks flushed, her curves fleshed out. But it was the fertile swell of her stomach that captivated him. Still holding her wrists, he bent his head and ran a gentle mouth over the firm, warm skin...reveling in the shiver that quaked through her. She was easily twice as large as she had been when he'd left and it sent both a surge of fear and awe through him at the same time. Knowing that she hated the latter and wanting to be rid of the former, he pulled her forward until she straddled his thighs. Her eyes were limpid in the flickering half light, her mouth half-open and slightly swollen from his kisses. He almost came just looking at her.

Holding her arms to her sides, hampering her movement... he lowered his mouth to her breasts, his fingers entwining tightly with hers as he pulled a taut nipple between tongue and teeth. She made a tiny whimpering noise that shot straight to his groin, his erection twitching against her. The sensitive head was just brushing the wiry curls of her pubis and he could feel her tiny, anxious thrusts against him, rubbing at him even while he held her pinioned her with his hands.

The loneliness and worry of the past month vaporized under the onslaught of the thing between them. To say he had missed her was a lie. He'd withered a little more every day without her. It was almost funny, now, to realize how dearly he had depended on the artificial lifeline of their cellphones. She had always been a single speed-dial button away. No more. He had gone day by day wondering if she was going to be there when he returned.

He paused in his ministrations just for a moment, simply burying his face between her breasts, pressing her beautifully swollen body against his. He felt the brush of her lips in his hair and a hard, painful lump formed in his throat.

He fought the urge to give in to the simple need for maudlin tears.

Instead he curled his arms around the slender column of her back and guided her body down onto his. Her head tipped slowly back as he filled her, her slick wet heat surrounding him, a whisper of his name on her lips. His hands played across the smooth skin of her bottom, cupping her hips in his fingers and lifting her up and down on his shaft with aching slowness. Her freed hands trailed up his arms to curl around the back of his neck as he dropped his mouth to her breasts once more.

They moved together gently, reverently, living in each second, savoring each sensation. But it had been a long time, a long stressful time, and it seemed only moments before he felt her tensing deliciously in his arms, her breath coming faster, her fingers tightening in his hair. He had been close before he even entered her and he simply let his control go, feeling the crescendo rising in him, the pleasure surging powerfully through his body...washing away everything but the fact that she was alive, that he was alive...that they were together again.

They stayed like that for a long moment in time, he cradled her body to his almost possessively, wanting to sustain the sensation of being able to forget everything but her. More than his lover, more than his friend... partner was still the best word for what they were.

It was she who broke the silence between them.

"You brought toothpaste, Mulder?"

His face was still pressed into her breasts as he started to chuckle.

"I love your idea of pillow-talk Scully." He grinned against her fragrant skin planting a final kiss in the hollow of her throat before she dismounted his knees. She must have peeked in his pack while he was passed out on the bed. He unfolded his legs out from under him with a groan, finally noting that they'd lost a little circulation during their exertions. "Yeah, I brought you toothpaste," he said as they both burrowed back under the covers again, resettling in each others arms. "I didn't know how else to tell you that your breath's been pretty rank lately."

She snorted, a huff of air against his neck.

"You're one to talk. When was the last time you washed? And what's with the beard? You're not keeping that, are you?"

"You been taking nagging fishwife lessons from Jenn while I was gone?" he asked, grinning down at her.

"I don't need lessons, Mulder, you bring it out in me naturally."

"You didn't need *me* to help you find your inner nag, Scully -ow!" He winced as she pinched one of his nipples sharply in punishment. "There wasn't a lot of opportunity for a quick shower out there. I did find some working plumbing in the outskirts of Helena, but as for the beard...what... you don't like it? I thought it fit right in with the whole Grizzly Adams thing we were cultivating up here."

"Tell you what, as soon as you befriend a giant bear and an old drunk prospector, you can grow it back. But first thing tomorrow, say goodbye to it. It scratches. I think you gave me a rash."

"Whatever you say *dear*." He said in his best browbeaten voice. She pinched him again.

" ...But feel free to wear the red flannel shirt with suspenders" she added. They both chuckled softly at the image.

They lapsed into silence again after he blew the candle out and just when he thought she had fallen asleep, she spoke.

"What are we going to do now, Mulder? We can't stay up here for much longer. If Helena is dead, where do we go?" It was rhetorical. She didn't expect him to answer something that she herself could not.

After two years of living on guesswork and luck, they still didn't know what to do.

No one could guess at the numbers...the cold statistics of who had lived and who had died. He only knew that most had fallen in that first wave of the virus, populating the lands with the hulking, mindlessly brutal Shredders. So many had died as the invaders birthed, more had died after...when they spread across the countryside killing randomly and ravenously. A sweltering summer had been chosen by the Invaders for their incursion, a summer heat that had hastened the development of the ancient species.

What had happened would almost be laughable if not for the tragedy of it. The way that you sniggered in horror at the videoed voyeurism of a skier wiping out, or a small child hitting his dad in the balls with a baseball bat.

When the First Stage was over and the newborn gray aliens had emerged from their molted monster-skins...they began to die.

Not from any organized resistance of the humans that had scampered underground...taking refuge like rats in the dark, nor from any brave, determined effort to create a working vaccine for the virus. No. While the humans hid, the earth itself rose to its defense.

It was an imminently common virus. One that every man, woman and child was born immune to. But the new invader was not.

And they had died.

They tried to fight it, but most of their traitorous human allies had perished at that point, and they were dying too fast to discover a vaccine of their own.

Within a year, they gave up and pulled out.

Humanity had crept back out into the daylight to see what had been done to their world. The invaders had not cleaned up their mess when they'd gone. The virus was still very much an issue, and a vaccine had still not been found. The First Stagers were still born, and they still killed indiscriminately. It was only once they pupated into their final form that the human virus killed them.

But when it was winter, the monsters did not metamorphosize. The cold stunted the development. So they hunted and they roamed, and they killed whatever they found. But they did not die.

The cities were packed with the long rotted, spongy corpses that the aliens had used to gestate in. Everywhere they looked, urban centers squatted like silent graveyards. Roads were clustered with abandoned cars piloted by the dead. Some had died from playing host, some had died at the hands of the newborn monsters and some had simply killed themselves or each other.

Hard to guess how many had survived. Mostly hybrids and a motley mix of humans. It didn't really matter. People formed groups, they tried to find places to reconstruct some semblance of safety and community where they would not be killed by the predators, human and not, that wandered everywhere.

Like the Hybrids, the Shredders could not be shot, not without bringing death upon yourself and everyone around you. It made things harder. It forced them up into the coldest reaches where the monsters did not wander, playing simple games of avoidance.

Which was where they were now. Hoping to wait it out until it was safe to come back down. Was it ever going to be safe? He curled his arms around Scully, pulling her close to him, his hand stroking her satin curves, reacquainting himself with her new body. It didn't seem that it was. The grisly murder scene he'd stumbled upon had reawakened him to the reality of *human* monsters. It was a danger that had no compunction about coming up here to get what it wanted.

The stranger's appearance tonight had driven it home just how vulnerable they really were. It was easy to forget after 10 months of relative peace in their imaginary Xanadu.

Neither of them spoke again. They simply huddled in the dark of the old warming hut while the snow fell outside, thick and inexorable while the fire talked quietly to itself in the corner.

One more month, he thought, curling his hand around her belly while she slipped into sleep. Three more weeks and they would both be able to protect their child on a more level playing field.

But it would be Spring by then. The cold wouldn't keep the monsters at bay.

And he did something he hadn't done throughout the entirety of their ordeal. Something he hadn't done since his sister was taken all those eons ago.

He prayed.

My father was an asshole. Can I say that word? I guess I can now that he's dead. If I ever cursed in front of him I'd usually end up regretting it pretty bad. Usually. It got to the point that I'd egg him on on purpose...just to watch him lose control.

He'd turn this queer shade of purple, his eyes sort of sinking into his skull. He never could take it when any of us would stand up to him. Sometimes even something as simple as asking a question would be akin to doubting his authority. I gained personal knowledge of the working end of his belt. And by that I mean the buckle.

My Granddad would try to stop him sometimes, but usually nothing could halt him once he got going. He was like that, my dad. I hated him after those beatings, but I hated my Granddad more for not trying harder to stop him.

I was the second youngest of five, and for some reason that meant I received most of his attention. No idea why. I was maybe around 8 when he first started looking at me like that. 9 by the time he started to come to my room at night. He'd threaten me, my sisters, my mom...everyone he could think of but Jesus himself if I dared to make a noise. I was quiet. Quiet like the rabbits.

Mr. Ears was quiet too when I'd broken his neck. Only the eyes gave anything away...all that fear. Fear of the power I held over him. The fear had gone away after I'd moved my hands just-so. It really had been an accident.

It was on purpose when I killed Lila.

But don't tell.

The tap on the window was expected and he hurried to the small square of glass before the sleeper up in the loft woke. Dim white light was peeking through the curtains, hitting him in the face as he pulled the fabric back to peer outside. Denny's pale freckled face filled the frosted pane, his hand gesturing impatiently. Pike could see 8 year-old Shanida behind him, her dark brown skin bold against the white of the snowfall that still gripped the camp.

He nodded at the older boy and let the curtain fall shut, tiptoeing across the room to gather up the clothes he'd piled in the corner the night before. He could hear the faint buzz of his Dad snoring up in the loft. As carefully and quietly as he could, he pulled his clothes, boots and jacket on and slipped out the front door.

Denny and Shan were waiting in the snow a few yards away under a tree. The flakes still fell thick and heavy in the oddly still air, low clouds clung to the mountaintops...obscuring all sign of the forest around them. It was eerily quiet.

He plowed his way through the drifts that had gathered, amazed by the fact that so much snow had fallen overnight. It was nearly up to his hips. He had grown up in Philly, he was no stranger to snow...but this, this was different than anything he'd ever seen. A childishly gleeful smile pasted his face as he joined his friends under the tree.

"So much snow" he whispered quietly to them, scooping up a thick handful. Shan just nodded, looking around at the socked-in vale with wide eyes.

"Will there be an avalanche?" she asked. Of them all, Shanida and her mom were the most affected by the mountains they'd all sought refuge in. Neither of them had ever been out of their burrough in New York, much less out in the middle of the wilderness, before the end had come.

Denny shook his head knowingly. The taller boy was from Montana. This was old hat to him.

"Nah. I seen worse storms than this. It'll blow itself out soon enough. Snow like this'll mean good water for the lowlands come springtime." He had the sound of a boy parroting words he'd heard spoken many times by adults, but Pike didn't mention that. Denny considered himself the 'leader' of their little group. He was bigger and older, so Shan and Pike just went along with it.

He did seem to know a lot about the world they now found themselves in. He knew how to catch squirrels and what the names of the wild animals were. He knew what their tracks looked like and he knew how to whittle a spear with his Swiss army knife. Once he had caught a fish with his hands. And he knew how to fire a rifle. That alone was enough to make them follow his lead. Even though he was a know-it-all and he always thought he was better than him and Shan.

"Come on. They'll be waking up soon. Everyone will want to know what Mulder saw while he was gone." Pike urged.

"He's back?" Shan blew a stream of smoky condensation out of her mouth experimentally, reaching up to tug her hat closer down around her ears as they trudged away from the camp and into the thick treeline.

"Didn't you hear the commotion last night? A stranger showed up too. He's staying with Howie." Pike said. Their voices seemed to echo a little queerly in the hollow white of the silent fall.

"A stranger?" Shan asked, her voice a little nervous. Pike knew she was remembering the last strangers.

"He's just one guy. Lloyd said he was old. We can handle him." Denny spoke with an annoyingly superior tone, as if he would have anything to do with any 'handling'. He was 15, not 25. Pike rolled his eyes at Shan behind the older boys back and she giggled, a little of her fear disappearing.

"Besides, as far as what Mulder saw, who cares? We already know that there's nothing out there but the virus. And Shredders." Denny said sagely.

"My mom said that Helena had a better chance..." Shan stated a little defiantly. "Because it's in the mountains, and smaller than the other cities we've seen. Maybe it got overlooked..."

Both Shan and Pike were silent for a moment as they remembered the gutted carcasses of St. Louis, Chicago, and Philly that they had passed through on their way west. Only Shanida had seen New York, and she didn't talk about it.

"There's no reason that Helena would be any differ'nt." Denny scoffed. "Not like the people who lived there are immune to the virus any more'n anyone else."

"Well, maybe the virus wasn't released there?" Pike said hopefully. "Maybe the electricity works there, and the supermarkets are open, and they still use cars ...?"

"Don't get your hopes up." Denny scoffed. "The adults already worked themselves up into believing that crap after Mulder suggested he would go down and look around. The real reason he went down was because those assholes stole most of the vitamins. He was just getting more for Dan- Dr. Scully. He doesn't give a rat's ass about the rest of us."

"That's not true-!" Shan started, but Denny cut her off, not ungently.

"Yes it is. You're gonna have to smarten up if you want to survive around here Shan. This isn't the city anymore."

"Shut up Denny," Pike said, frowning angrily. He didn't believe a word of it. "You shut up. Mulder saved us all. We would never have known that cold kept the Shredders away. We'd all be dead."

Denny only shrugged nonchalantly, a gesture he'd picked up from Lloyd.

Lloyd was the man who had found Denny wandering the forest on a foray for Elk the past fall. A big, cold man, solemn and gruff, he scared the hell out of Pike. The youth tended to avoid him with alacrity. He'd heard Cissy one day asking his Dad how a man like that had wound up attaching himself to a child. His dad, in his typical slow fashion, had remarked that there were few people who had the kind of heartlessness it would take *not* to take in an orphan.

Not that Denny would have liked that title.

Pike had lost his own mother to the virus, watching her body go spongy and clear within a day...and then birthing the horror that had been gestating inside her. His father had had the sense to lock the thing in the bedroom, giving them the precious few moments they needed to get away.

He pushed the thoughts aside, disliking the tearing grief that tightened in his throat every time he remembered his mother. He wondered sometimes if Denny ever thought of his dead family with sorrow...or if Shan missed her dad as much as he missed his mother. These were not things that anyone spoke of...the people missing from their lives.

The rock face they had been aiming for loomed ahead and he eagerly picked his steps up with the other two when they saw it.

"I hope she's Ok," Shan said, her hand going to her bulging pockets. Pike could see the edges of a piece of cloth sticking out and he suspected she had snuck some food from her dinner the night before.

A dark crack rose up in the whiteness, outlines blurred in the snow-thickened air. He'd been through that opening many times now, but it always made him think of Joey Diller's house. He remembered Joey's house the day they had run from the thing that had killed his mother. The front door had been wide open, a darkness just within. He'd had dreams about the empty mystery of that open door.

Denny crouched at the opening, peering inside. He pulled his flashlight out, but he didn't turn it on. All of them had been ingrained with the necessity to conserve batteries.

From inside the darkness, Pike could hear the chuffing breath of an animal. She was still alive. A thrill of relief shot up his spine and he glanced over at Shan to see the same excitement reflected there.

Denny crawled inside, and a moment later, he and Shan followed.

After only a few yards of low ceilinged space, the rocky walls opened up, exposing a dimly lit cavern of sorts. The floor was dry and cold with hard-packed dirt. Their breathing echoed loudly in the space and they waited a moment for their eyes to adjust.

They had built a nest of pine boughs in the corner of the cave and two rough-hewn bowls of wood rested in front of the makeshift bed filled with water. But it was the creature that lay on the pine needles that held their attention.

An elk calf lay on its side, eyes half open and chest rising and falling slowly. Shan walked almost timidly up to the animal, settling on her knees beside it and resting a hand on its thick, shaggy coat. In the dark, they could almost forget that there was a deep slash across it's throat, dark and crusted with blood. It had been attacked by something. A Shredder. That's what Denny said.

The calf must have wandered up to the high country to die.

"She seems a little better, I guess." Shan said in a small voice. "Maybe we should tell Dr. Scully about it. She could help." Shan had said that every time they'd come up here since they'd found it two days ago.

Denny made a snort of derision just as Pike had known he would. The 15 year-old believed that he understood the ways of adults better than his friends, but Pike wasn't so certain he shared that view. Denny insisted that the adults would just kill the calf, seeing no point in trying to keep it alive. 'An elk isn't meant for a pet' was what he said they would say. It *did* sound like something his dad would say. But he wasn't so sure that Dr. Scully would.

Pike came up and knelt next to Shanida, taking her hand as they looked at the wounded animal. He'd had visions when they had found it of having it as a friend when it was grown. It would follow him around and eat treats from his hand.

Denny had said that would never happen, but if he thought that, then what was he doing here? Why did he bring it water and food? Shan pulled the tied cloth out of her pocket and withdrew several half-crumbled Saltines. The calf didn't even lift its head to sniff the offering. Maybe she didn't like crackers.

"It's gonna die." Denny said flatly, staring at the half-open brown eye. Pike glanced over at Shanida to see the beginnings of tears on her cold cheeks and he glared at the older boy balefully.

"You don't know that! She's getting better..." he squeezed Shan's hand in empathy. His own throat was suspiciously tight. Did everything have to die? Images of his mother returned violently and he felt tears sting his own eyes.

A sound from outside, the distant rattle of tree branch on tree branch...a snapping echo in the hollow void of the snowfall.

The noise startled both of the younger children and they looked up at Denny a little fearfully. The older boy was staring out the crack into the blaring white, his hand clenching and unclenching on the big skinning knife that he always carried around on his belt. He said his father had given it to him. They must do things differently in Montana...his dad would never have given him such a big knife.

"Stay in here." Denny whispered, narrowing his eyes at both of them. Shan curled her fingers into the thick coat of the calf. And then he walked out of the cavern, his body briefly silhouetted against the white glare.

Pike looked at Shan, his breath fogging in the icy air of the cave, their fingers tightening on each others'.

"What could it be?" Shan whispered with wide eyes.

Pike shook his head, holding his finger up to his lips. It couldn't be a Shredder. Mulder said it was too cold up here for them. Only the sound of the calf's labored breathing could be heard.

And then, a shadow at the entrance.

"Come on out. There was nothing there. Musta just been an old branch giving out under the snow weight."

A brief moment to stroke the calf and then they were pushing out into the half-light of the snowfall. Denny stood a little distance from the opening staring into the nearby treeline with narrowed eyes.

"We'd better get back before anyone notices we're gone." Then the older boy simply turned and trudged off down the slope back to the camp, leaving them to hurry to catch up.

It was only once they were almost back to the camp that Pike noticed a large set of footprints pressed down amongst their smaller ones in the snow.

The tracks of an adult.

Chapter Four

Scully swam up from the first real night's sleep she'd had since Mulder had disappeared over the ridge two months before. His arm was slung heavily over her, his palm tucked under the swell of her left breast. His body was a warm weight at her back, his breath blowing softly against the nape of her neck.

She curled into him more closely, feeling the hard heat of his morning erection pressing into the softness of her bottom. Scully let her eyes close drowsily again, luxuriating in the basic animal pleasure afforded simply by lying abed with him, feeling his skin, his warmth, his arousal...proof he was real.

Lifting his arm and slipping out from under it without waking him, she bent and pressed her lips to his slackened cheek before pulling her discarded, overlarge poly-fleece back on over her goose-pimpled flesh to fight the chill. The fire had gone out, and that was a priority. She could fancy that her breath was fogging in the cold of the room.

The ashes were still warm and it was fairly easy to get a fire crackling and snapping again. There was plenty of wood. The rest of the camp made certain that she never had to go out and get it herself. Not that she wasn't capable, Howie had assured her when her eyes had started to spit blue fire, it was just that there was no need for her to split and carry wood when they were doing it anyway. She had rolled her eyes and let them.

It was easier to pander to a man's need to play provider and protector than it was to fight it.

Once the fire was blazing, heating the chill air of the room admirably, she rummaged in the makeshift crates that functioned as cabinets and found the newly restocked bag of oats. First she would get oatmeal started before she made the first of many of the day's trips to the frigid latrine. Too bad she hadn't gotten pregnant during a point in her life when she had access to indoor plumbing. Timing was everything.

She scooped up a bowlful of the dry oats and set them nearby. Dry goods were really all they could store. There certainly was no long term refrigeration. The all-too-rare freshly killed meat had to be eaten almost immediately...though that was no problem for 13 people. 12 with Mulder gone. They had all forgone such things as flavor, though Scully had been learning what could be done with salt. She was concerned that she was not meeting the nutritional requirements her condition called for, but she did the best she could. The vitamins that Mulder had found for her would help.

There wasn't really anything else she could do till spring anyway. They had not had the time that fall to build a storehouse or any sort of a curing shed, so they'd just stocked up on what they could and prayed they'd make it through the winter.

It was amusing to think that the Indians had not wintered up this high. Even crusty old mountain men had known better.

Taking the blackened pot, she went to the door and cracked it open, planning on scooping up snow for water. Instead, she froze in the opening, the cold air biting at her hands as face...watching as the stranger, Hobb Strick, made his slow and careful way back across the camp to Howie's cabin. He slipped inside and a moment later the clearing was still again.

Frowning, she filled the pot with snow and withdrew into the warmth of the room. What could he have been doing sneaking around out there this early? Not like it necessarily meant anything...but she'd noted her paranoia was running higher and higher the bigger she grew. Shrugging it off, she set the pot on the iron hook Howie had drilled into the stone of the fireplace.

Mulder continued to sleep the sleep of the dead and she let him. She knew him. Knew how he worked. Long burn and hard crash. That was his pattern. It wasn't pretty, but it was how he did things. Always had. She gingerly arched her back and lowered herself into a chair to wait for the water to boil. It wouldn't be too long before people would be coming over to ask Mulder questions. Wanting to know what he'd seen, what he'd brought back. The radio was a prize, though she found herself a little frightened to discover if there really were people out there. Scared to find out there weren't.

Another noise from outside caught her attention and she craned her neck to see out the window. The three children trooped across the center of the camp, Denny in front. She smiled faintly at Pike and Shan, gamely struggling to keep up with the longer legs of the 15 year old in the deep snow.

Denny. Her smile turned wry. He was a nice boy, and he'd helped her out a lot the past month looking for medicinal plants in the woods, but he was getting on her nerves. She was capable of recognizing a teenaged crush...odd as it was to have a crush on a woman the size of a Volkswagon Bug. It really wasn't that abnormal though, as Mulder the Psychologist would tell her. The boy had no other real female objects to focus his budding adolescent feelings on. Cissy wasn't exactly his type, he being a white little Montana boy. Jenn was too old. Anna stayed apart from everyone, and she was Lesbian besides. Roz was a Hybrid. That left her... the short, pregnant woman.

Denny's more overt attentions were just going to have to stop. She'd tried putting him down gently on more than one occasion, but he wasn't getting it. She'd just have to be firmer. Especially when the boy started getting jealous of her partner. It was only a matter of time now that Mulder was back. As it was, he already talked of Mulder with scorn in his voice.

The water had begun to boil and she dumped the oats into it, stirring it for a moment before covering it and pushing to her feet.

She touched the pocket that still held the penicillin Mulder had brought back gently and then quickly pulled on her boots and her coat. A last caressing glance at his sleeping form and she pushed out into the haze of the snowstorm. She had time to visit Anna before the oatmeal was done.

It was not a loud, howling blizzard. Yet. The worst ones were always quiet, stifling, suffocating things at first. It spoke of a true storm to come. But now it just cast a silent unifying blanket of dense, heavy, wet snow over everything, hiding all. It was so eerie in the still, gray blankness... the fat falling flakes building up even as she watched. A last look back at the cabin over her shoulder and then she was pressing through the drifts past Chris's cabin, onwards down the slope to where four more shacks squatted in the opaque whiteness.

"Dana..." She heard her named called from behind and she stopped and turned in time to see Chris trudge up, his gray eyes concerned.

"What is it, Chris?"

"Have you seen Pike? He wasn't in the cabin when I got up this morning."

Scully smiled. Chris was a little overprotective of his son. It was understandable considering the world they lived in now, but Pike was a boy. And boys were always getting into things. Especially this boy. Peter was an especially bright and active child. Her mother would have called him a 'handful'.

"Yes. I saw him and the others pass by a few minutes ago. I think they might have been headed for your cabin." Chris was the only person in the camp in possesion of an actual board game, and the kids tended to spend a lot of time playing it. Especially since the snow had come.

A look of relief passed over the man's kindly face and he smiled at her.

"Thanks, Dana. How's Mulder? He looked tired as hell last night." She could hear the unspoken questions behind his words. He wanted to know what Mulder had found.

"Still sleeping." she shook her head then, her smile fading. "He didn't find anyone, Chris. But he did get the radio like we'd hoped."

"That's something, I guess." Chris reached up and rubbed at his reddened nose. He glanced in the direction Dana had been headed. "Going to check on Anna?"

She nodded.

"Ummhmm. Got some Penicillin. She'll be better in no time."

"I'll let you go then. Thanks," he said, gratitude for a number of things evident on his face. He turned and moved off in search of his son.

She resumed her slog through the snow, entering the treeline and following an obscured trail she knew by heart until the shape of Anna and Roz's cabin crouched before her far apart from the others.

Anna had mild pneumonia. Scully had managed to treat it with a few clumsily administered local herbs, but it lingered. Dr. Scully, Medicine Woman, she was not, though Mulder teased her unmercifully with the title. As for the pneumonia, the Penicillin would drive it away for good. The big bottle he'd found would be a good resource to have. No good against the virus, but still effective against the lesser ailments. Ailments that people still came down with. The humans anyway.

It was Roz, the Hybrid, who opened the door when she knocked. Disconcerting, she she always did when she looked at the tall brunette. She knew that Mulder had a harder time than she did. Roz was one of Samantha's clones, one of the many that they had seen over the past years. She was nothing like his sister, Mulder had told her time and time again. She was hard, unforgiving, and completely lacking a sense of humor. No surprise to Scully. What kind of a life had the woman had? This was no coddled younger sister, this was a pawn. An experiment. A lab rat. How could she not be hard?

But beyond her steely exterior, she was imminently capable of compassion and love. Scully knew that better than anyone, for she saw how she doted on Anna. Roz nodded at her, a flicker of something similar to relief in her eyes when she opened the door wide to let her in.

"Dr. Scully," she greeted her bluntly. "She's no better, but no worse."

Scully dug in her pocket and pulled out the bottle of penicillin with a little flourish and a wan smile. She was pleased to see Roz's amber-green eyes sparkle with hope.

"He's back then?" she asked, folding her arms tightly across her chest as she followed Scully across the tiny interior to where Anna lay abed. Roz had not been privy to the excitement of last night. Scully only nodded, kneeling down and dumping two of the round tablets into her palm. Anna lifted puffy eyelids to look at her, mustering a faint smile. The girl was only about 17. She'd been a hooker before the world ended and how she had managed to survive since then was something Scully didn't want to know. The scars on her face and side spoke of nightmares to hear the telling. Likely a run-in with a Shredder...and that was indeed the stuff of horror movies.

"Take this, Anna. It should do the trick. No more dirty tea." She smiled. Roz had brought a tin cup of water and Scully lifted the girl's lank-haired head to help her swallow. Anna breathed an obscured thanks from around a watery, bubbling cough and then Scully was testing her forehead and checking her throat. Her breathing was still stentorian, but far better than it had been a week earlier.

She pushed to her feet as Anna's eyes closed. Already she was anxious to get back to Mulder. Being in Roz's presence often did that to her. She had her brother's eyes. Or, she should say, she had Samantha's brother's eyes.

"Same thing, Roz. Lots of water, try to get her to eat. She should be better by tomorrow." She doled out two more of the precious tablets and gave them to the woman. "Give her these this evening."

"Thank you Dr. Scully." Roz said, her usual stiffness softening with relief. Scully nodded.

"We have a visitor. He arrived last night. Just wanted to warn you in case you saw him."

"Visitor?" Roz's eyes narrowed. None of them were fans of strangers. It was ironic, considering how much all of them wanted to find other survivors.

"Hobb Strick." She said. "He claims he's on his way to Idaho. Seems nice enough...if a little 'off'. He'll probably just stay through the storm. He's in Howie's cabin." She explained.

Roz stared at her for a long, uncomfortable moment and then nodded almost as if she was giving the notion of the stranger permission to be real.

"How's Fox?"

"Fine. Tired, but fine." She wet her lips, seeing no way around it. "Helena was like the rest. There was nothing there. Just the dead."

Roz's expression stayed the same, but her eyes registered her disappointment. Another nod, this one resigned.

Scully turned from her before she could ask anything more. "Wait..." Roz's voice froze her with her hand on the door handle. She did not turn, but she did wait.

An embroidered scarf was shoved into her periphery.

"Take this." The gruff voice said. Scully bit her lips. All the people here continued to try and reward her for simply using her skills. It was uncomfortable, but she had learned that they wanted desperately to do something to pay her back. She took the scarf. It had been cut from a standard, green, wool army blanket, just like so many of them used, but Roz had sewn a spectacular pattern into it with what looked like colored thread. She didn't ask where she had gotten the thread, but she did turn to look at the woman in gratitude and awe.

"It's beautiful, Roz. Thank you." She faltered, not knowing what else to say. The taller woman shook her head, her stern face open in a rare moment.

"Thank you, Dana. If Anna'd died, I don't know what I would have done. And thank Mulder, for all he's done for us. I've.." she stopped, uncomfortable with showing emotion.

Scully stood there for a long moment, stunned, not by the words, but by the circumstances in her life that had led to this.

In the end, all she could do was nod, turn, and leave. Trudging back across through the ever-rising drifts towards her cabin, and Mulder...the only constant in her life now.

Lila was the only one in my family younger than me. She was cute as a button and dumb as a post. My mom used to coddle her to no end. She never had to do chores. Never had to do much of anything beside look cute. She attached herself to me for some reason.

I couldn't stand it. I hated having to look down into that sweet little buttercup face. Hated her empty blue eyes. Hated how she was never afraid of me, not even when I yelled at her.

Most of all I hated that she never had to worry about the nightly visits from my dad. He wouldn't have dared...though I caught him looking at her from time to time. Mom watched her too closely, because she was special. She was pretty and she was stupid. Both reasons to make sure she was always safe. She was too stupid to understand the muttered threats my dad made to me if I ever thought of telling.

So I hated her. And a lot of that hate was from the fact that my mom, knowing or unknowing, never protected me from Him the way that she protected Lila.

My dad was building a cattle pond for the east field. He needed river stones for the bottom, to hold the visqueen layer down. I was the lucky shit that got called to gather the rocks...and of course, Lila followed along after. Not like she had to work too, she was just there to watch me and smile at me and love me. For no goddamned reason.

I brought the old mule and the wooden wagon we used to Hay the cows and slowly, I began to fill it with the smooth flat rocks of the riverbed. I worked until my arms screamed with pain, till my back ached and my fingers were cold and numb from the water. Lila sat on the river back staring at me the whole time with an idiot's grin on her face.

It was only an hour from sunset when she got up and walked to the edge of the river to watch me as I waded back and forth to the wagon bed with rocks dripping water down my forearms. And then she put one foot into the water.

I started to tell her to stop, to get the hell away from the river, to sit the fuck back down...

...but I didn't.

She took another step into the current and I watched her, rock in hands, the water rushing cold and sharp around my knees.

Another step, grinning at me like she was putting the first footprints on the moon, and then she slipped. Which was bound to happen. She splashed down into the river, soaking her clothes, gasping from the cold. And she began to cry.

If there's one sure way to earn a whipping, it's making Lila cry. She began to howl, red-faced and I dropped my rock back into the river with a splash and began to wade towards her.

I had honestly thought I intended to help her up, to put her back on the bank of the river...but really, in my mind, I knew what I was going to do. I wanted that feeling back. The feeling I got when I broke Mr. Ears' neck. I wanted to see that same fear in her eyes. Fear of me.

And so when I got to her, I did not help her up. I flipped her onto her back in the water and I pushed her under. I wanted to see her eyes, I wanted her to see mine.

It was believed without question when I brought back her body, sobbing tears that I am still not sure were entirely fake. I earned a whipping, yes...for not trying harder to 'save' her when she'd been 'swept away'.

But that night, when my dad stole into my room, I could close my eyes and remember her face when she'd the dumb animal she was...what I was doing.

And it wasn't an accident. It was all me.

The morning was waxing on. Not that you could really tell in this storm, but things did seem to be getting a little brighter. The new wind bit sharply into the exposed flesh of her face and she huddled down deeper into her new scarf, tucking her mittened hands deep into the pockets of the Gore-tex jacket she wore.

The tracks she had just made up to Roz's cabin were already covered, mere dips and bumps in the smooth surface of the snow. She pushed through the deep drifts slowly, trying not to overly exert herself. The baby tended to react to too much exercise and the last thing she wanted to do was disturb the pregnancy. It had been dicey as it was just getting to this point.

Of course, she wasn't even going to go into the fact that she shouldn't have been pregnant to begin with. Who was she to look a gift horse in the mouth? The circumstances were not those that she might have wished for, but when you were given a miracle, it was best not to make demands.

A noise in the woods to her right halted her progress and she peered out through the ghostly trees. A shape, moving furtively beyond a stand of silvered Aspen trees. She took a few tentative steps out off the path.

"Hello?" she called out, her voice echoing in the vacuum of the snowfall. For some reason her heartrate stepped up a notch, her mind replaying the horror story Mulder had told her last night.

Even now the thought of it made her stomach coil and churn dangerously and she stopped, one mittened hand on the icy trunk of a massive fir, forcing her gorge to settle.

"Hello? Is there someone out there?" She had never been one to simply dismiss something suspicious, and there was a stranger in camp. There would be no repeat of what the last strangers had done. She was no trusting Howie to be hit on the head when her back was turned. She could feel the hard weight of the gun she never went without tucked into the large inner pocket of her coat.

It was a little warmer in the thick of the trees, the wind did not bite so strongly as it did in the open. But it still shook and whistled in the treetops, sending a fine mist of dislodged snow spray down to mix in with the fat flakes. The crisp scent of pine sap and ice filled her senses, clearing her head, sharpening her mind.

There was nothing out here. She really had been seeing things. She provided a mental picture of herself, all pregnant 5 foot 1 of her, standing in the middle of a snowstorm chasing ghosts. Mulder would say she was being stubborn. He would see right through her false bravado. He'd say she was just trying to prove to herself that she was not a helpless pregnant woman. That she was just as capable as she'd always been.

Maybe so, she admitted reluctantly. Part of it was fear. This pregnancy came packed with it. A nice, built-in terror. Fear not for her own life, but for this baby. This child that shouldn't be, but was.

She stubbornly forced her legs to carry her a distance further into the woods, her eyes still scanning for that flitter of movement she'd glimpsed. A little ways in and she found herself cresting a rise, looking down on a thickly forested slope, granite rocks jutting from the earth here and there in shadowy monoliths.

In the surreal dusk she heard a sound under the moaning of the wind. A twig snapping.

Her breath caught and she spun around, her eyes scouring the blurry details of the white forest. Her hand closed around the grip of the gun in her pocket, quickly stripping off the mitten and shoving it inside her jacket. The handle was icy cold in her warm hands, her fingers white against the dark gray gunmetal.

"Who's there?" she called out, ashamed by how breathless her voice sounded.

Nothing. But now she could *feel* the eyes on her. She could almost fancy she heard breathing. Freezing fingers of fear traveled up and down her spine and she struggled to control the breath that was billowing from her lips like the smokestack of a train engine.

She was *not* afraid. Not of something she couldn't even identify. It was probably a squirrel.

"I'm armed!" she called out, moving in a little circle, squinting to see through both the snowfall and the false twilight.

Then she heard the unmistakable crunch of snow under a foot.

"Show yourself, goddamnit! I'm not afraid to use this!" Her voice was soaked up into the soft air of the snowfall.

The silence was like a palpable presence all its own. Even the moaning and twisting of the ever-increasing wind did not camouflage it. The cold was biting uncomfortably into her fingers and she knew that all too soon her hand would be nerveless. What in hell had she been thinking to walk out so far from camp alone? What had she been hoping to prove?

She gathered all the anger she felt towards herself and began to walk forward, the gun still out and ready, her eyes skimming all sides of the suddenly murky forest for movement. She managed to keep her cool for a grand total of 15 steps before she stumbled into a trot and then a lurching run through the deep snow, glancing over her shoulder for any sign of pursuit from her unseen watcher.

She was only about 100 yards away from where she'd left the path when she glanced over her shoulder to see a thin reddish shape standing like an apparition in the swirling snow holding a long shape that looked alarmingly like a rifle.

Her heart ratcheted up about twelve more notches and she dropped her false bravado and simply ran, cursing the ungainly bulk that reduced her to clumsily plunging through the snow. She could hear his breath now, chuffing in and out, the crunching of his feet in the snow. Her breath was growing short and she could feel a stitch forming in her side. This sort of thing was exactly what stimulated a miscarriage, but she couldn't stop. Every instinct she'd ever gained over her years as an investigator told her she couldn't stop.

The pain was growing, her steps were slowing no matter how hard she tried to press on. As soon as she gained the path she spun around like a deer at bay, her gun out, her eyes wild. The world was a study in light gray, the figure was gone. She spiraled around with her gun a few times, trying to orient herself, trying to find the threat she knew had been there. Her uncovered hand was numb now, the pain of the cold had receded to a dull stinging ache.

Her breath was coming in sobs now, gulps of frigid air that seared her lungs and froze her nose hairs. Red coat, her mind reminded her when she saw nothing but trees. It had been real. Red coat.

Another noise. The soft sound of snow compressing under boots right behind her. She spun again, her gun still up, finger tightening on the trigger... and found her barrel pointing right between Mulder's eyes.

It was too much.

For the first time since her cancer three years earlier, she fainted.

Chapter five

"Call out if you need anything else." Chris said softly as he paused at the door. Mulder nodded, scrubbing a hand wearily across his forehead.

"Just let me know when you guys get back into camp...if you see any sign of elk where this guy said they'd be. I still don't trust him and Lloyd says it's pretty goddamned unlikely for elk to be up this high this time of year."

"I will." The older man shot a glance back over towards the bed again, and Mulder could almost see another question brewing. But Chris had always been the epitome of sense, and instead, the older man simply turned and pulled the door shut behind him.

Mulder dropped the bar on it without thinking and then leaned back on the rough wood and simply watched Scully sleep.

She had come to in his arms as he'd picked his way down the slope back to the clearing, and had insisted that he put her down. Reluctantly, he'd done so, but had not commented when she'd used his arm as a support the rest of the way. She would not talk about the gun she still clasped in her icy little hand, the fact that she was flushed and sweating, nor why she'd fainted.

When they'd reached the cabin, she'd barely made it to the bed before falling on it and slipping into sleep.

Almost as if she were coming down from a huge adrenaline rush.

Frowning, he slowly moved back across the room and tossed another of the logs that Chris had been nice enough to bring in, onto the fire. She was going to tell him what happened in her when she woke, he knew she would. He'd just never been the most patient of people. Especially when it came to her.

He leaned up against the wall and stretched his legs out in front of the fire. And he watched her.

Always his favorite activity. He had plenty of practice. Watching her had been the closest thing to intimacy that he'd allowed himself for so many years. It had taken the literal end of the world to allow them to drop the necessary and all-too-personal walls that had kept them apart in that one, final, most important way. They had finally expressed it out loud, acted on it. And if the world hadn't already ended, it wouldn't have ended for them.

A tap on the door interrupted his gentle exploration of the curves of her face. He got up quickly to answer it before Scully woke up. Pushing it open, the snow howled and beat into the crack he'd created and he found himself looking at the red-cheeked face of Pike.

The boy grinned at him and slipped through the breach easily, yanking the door shut behind him. Mulder held a finger up to his lips to indicate quiet and Pike nodded.

"Dad's just left with the others. Denny doesn't want to do anything and Shan is doing some stupid sewing thing with her mom." The boy grimaced to show his opinion of 'stupid sewing things' and went to plop down in front of the fire. He glanced across the room to where Scully slept and he bit his lip. "What happened to Dr. Scully? Dad didn't say."

"Don't know. She'll tell me when she wakes up." He said, wishing that he could be as confident of that as he sounded. He was still trying to decide if he wanted to boot Peter out or not.

"Can we play cards?" Pike asked eagerly. "I'll be quiet."

Mulder hesitated for a moment and then nodded. It wasn't like he had anything to do except wait for her to wake up so he could shake some sense into her. He reached up onto the crude mantle and pulled a worn pack of cards down. It was missing the King of Spades and the Seven of Diamonds, so they had to settle for games where it didn't matter as much.

"Five Card Draw." Pike said, grinning. Mulder had to smile in reply. He wasn't sure how the boy's dad felt about him teaching the kid to gamble, but Pike wasn't going to say anything and neither was he.

"We'll bet sunflower seeds." Mulder said, lounging back onto one of the two pillows and shuffling the cards as quietly as he could. The child thought for a long moment, his brow crinkling under his fair bangs as he folded his legs under him with the unthinking flexibility of the young.

"Ok. I guess if you don't have anything better." It was an obvious attempt to get Mulder to give up the goods. He knew that Pike had been itching to find out what he had brought back with him.

"I might. But I don't think you'll want to gamble with it."

"What?" The boy's voice was breathless with anticipation. Ah, the real reason he'd come over here then, Mulder grinned. If only adults could be this transparent.

He leaned over onto his side, stretching for his discarded frame pack and dragging it towards him. From one of the side pockets he pulled forth a small Nintendo Game Boy.

"All three of you are going to have to share this." Mulder said, handing it over. "And once this battery is gone, that's the end of it. I won't have you guys burning up our batteries on be frugal with it."

Pike's eyes were wide as saucers, and he took the toy from Mulder's hand like it was spun glass.

"You still want to play cards?" He asked the boy with a knowing smile.

Without a trace of guilt, Pike shook his head.

"I want to go show Shan!" he exclaimed. "Wait till Denny sees this!"

That took care of the decision whether or not to kick him out, Mulder thought as Peter exited the cabin at the speed of light. He was gathering up the mussed cards when Scully made a little snorting noise. He looked up to see her staring at him with one eyebrow raised.

"Why on earth did you bring back only one game? You realize they're going to be fighting non-stop over it, don't you?"

Mulder didn't reply, instead he moved to sit on the side of the bed, looking down at her.

"I only found one." He ran a hand over his itchy beard. "What happened out there Scully? Why did you have your gun out?"

She didn't hesitate.

"I saw someone. I sort of took a little walk out into the woods a ways, just checking it out.. and I could feel someone watching me. I'm sure someone was there. A red coat. I saw a red coat. I don't know who, but I started to work myself up...and that's when I nearly put a bullet..." she faltered to a stop, her fingers lifting up to gently touch the spot between his eyes.

Eyes that were hard with fear now.

"There was someone out there with you? You couldn't tell who?"

She shook her head.

"It might not have been Strick, you know, Mulder." She said, reading his mind. "It might not have been anyone. I think this pregnancy is making me more paranoid than you."

"Strick has a red coat." Mulder muttered. "You've never had a very active imagination Scully. If you think you saw someone, I have no doubt you did." He growled. "We'll get to the bottom of this when everyone gets back."


"Almost everyone went out with Strick to find this theoretical elk herd he claims he saw."

She smiled faintly at him, trying to head his paranoia off at the pass by distracting him.

"Everyone's gone, so why don't you lie down here and try to sleep. Don't even try to tell me that the meager 4 or 5 hours you got last night was enough."

He *was* tired. It was something that he was used to, exhaustion riding on his skin like a jacket he never took off... and the bed looked very inviting with her in it.

Her hand raised up and he let her take his and pull him down next to her.

Maybe the dreams would leave him be...just this once.


We buried her in a plot near the south pasture.

Mom was crying into Granddad's shirt and dad looked like someone had shot his best hunting dog. I was just numb all over. There was little regret, Lila had been a nuisance at the best of times. She wouldn't be following me around anymore.

I watched dad fill dirt in over the little coffin, shovelfull by earth swallowing the rough pine box. I could imagine the worms down there getting ready to feast, getting ready to devour that blank, stupid, pretty face. I kept seeing her frightened eyes through the water, her blond hair streaming and floating around her face like yellow snakes.

I felt my mom staring at me and I wondered briefly, dully, if she guessed. What would she think? What would she say? Her precious Lila was gone and I had killed her. I tried not to let a smile curl my lips. Not while she was watching. After a long moment, she looked back down at the coffin and resumed weeping.

The funeral, if that was what you wanted to call it, didn't last very long. We all had chores to do and my dad wasn't about to let us off the hook just because our sister had died.

I remember what happened next so clearly. Like it had been yesterday.

I was walking towards the woodshed to gather up logs to stock the house with when I heard my parents arguing. It was not an argument like I'd ever heard between them before. Normally when they fought, my dad did a lot of yelling and my mom used to end it when she ran crying from the room.

They were in the kitchen and no one else was around, but they'd left the screen door open to fight the summer heat. Flies buzzed incessantly in the air and the pungent odor from the cattle pens was thick in my nostrils. One of my dad's hunting dogs was asleep under the kitchen steps.

I would have paid no mind to their argument, their fights had long since ceased to bother me, but it was the hissing that caught me. They were hissing at each other in these low, angry voices. I sidled towards the house until I was just around the corner from the door. Their words carried in the heat of the summer air.

"..If I every find out that you did, Carl, I'll make sure you pay for it!" My mother was furious, spitting like a cat. My father answered in his low, bear-growl.

"I don't know where the fuck you got these crazy ideas Margie, but if you're threatening me, you'd better be prepared to put your money where your mouth is. How you could even think that I'd kill my own daughter..."

"I saw the way you looked at her. Just like the boys, only I made sure you never touched her. That musta drove you crazy. You're a sick man, Carl, sick. You need to get some help..." Her words were cut off by the sound of a slap. A slap I wish I'd given her. My hand was pressed over my mouth like I was trying to keep a scream in.

I staggered away from the house to the barn, managing to slip inside one of the stalls where I retched up my breakfast into the filthy hay.

She had known. She knew. She did nothing.

Somehow I had always imagined that my mom didn't know about what my dad was doing to us. I would indulge myself in these fantasies where she would find out one day and in a fit of outrage she would take us all away from him in the middle of the night like in the movies. We would go and live with her sister Halley in the city. And we would be free of him.

But she'd known all along.

The hatred I still feel even now always surprised me. So strong it seems to burn through my veins.

And I think that was when I decided what I would do. Mr. Ears had shown me the door... and Lila had helped me walk through it.

His brain would not leave it behind.

Again he saw the snowfield, smelled the faint odor of smoke and death.

Again he saw the charred farmhouse, his eyes replaying the sight of the people clustered against what had been the door. Why didn't they escape through the windows? Had they been blocked somehow? Was there no back way out of the house? Something was odd about the scenario. Something was odd about the way the skeletons lay. It tickled his mind, wouldn't let him rest...and then he was moving again, over to the eviscerated woman. Seeing the body, the gaping belly.

Scully's face.

There was something there. Something he wasn't seeing.


There were hands on his cheek, cool against the heat of his skin. He opened his eyes to see his partner's blue eyes inches from his, concern written in them.

"You were having a nightmare again."

He struggled to sit up, letting her help him untwist himself from the blankets. The room was cast in shadows from the fire in the corner, the windows dark.

"Jeez Scully, why did you let me sleep so long?" he asked, blinking blearily around. He *did* feel better, but he wouldn't admit that.

"You were tired." She said matter-of-factly. She was on her knees next to the bed and she pushed herself up onto her feet with some effort. He let his hand stroke across her distended abdomen as she stood.

"I thought you would nap with me." He said, aware that he sounded whiny. She smirked at him, moving slowly back to the table where her book sat upended.

"I only let you think that so you would sleep."

"Manipulator." He grumbled. "Is the impromptu hunting party back?"

"UmmHmm." She nodded, picking her book back up and lifting a mug of tea to her lips. "They didn't find anything, but Lloyd said that there were tracks. So maybe Hobb wasn't lying."

Mulder shrugged, bending down to pull on his discarded boots.

"Maybe. But I still want to talk to him." He muttered.

She had nothing to say to that, she just returned to her book, a tattered thing on herbal medicine.

"I'll be back." He said, yanking his gloves on. As he shoved his gun into his pants, she raised her eyebrows at him in a way that told him not to fall off a cliff or fight a bear or anything else abysmally stupid while he was out of her sight.

He nodded and slipped out into the night.

It was a new world now. The storm had stepped up from quiet suffocation to howling banshee. The wind whipped and bit at him as he made his way towards the lights of Howie's cabin. Treetops bent and groaned under the weight of both wind and snow. He tucked his head deep into his collar, suddenly realizing why Scully hadn't volunteered to come with him.

It was hard, cold work getting over to Howie's cabin. At least another foot of snow had accumulated since he'd fallen asleep that morning. Snow always looked so white, fluffy and innocent in small quantities. In large amounts it was a huge pain in the ass. He was nearly exhausted from pushing through it by the time he got to the stoop of Howie's cabin.

A knock, a muffled shout from inside, and he was shoving his way gratefully into the warmth of the interior. A table had been set up near the fire and Howie, Melchor, Jenn and Hobb were sitting at it, playing cards.

"Hey, Mulder. Feel rested?" Howie asked, gesturing him to an empty seat.

Cozy little scene. His eyes found a dirty reddish jacket hanging on one of the hooks by the door.

Fuck pleasantries.

"Strick, what were you doing this morning?"

Every eye in the room fastened itself on the stranger.

Hobb stared almost balefully at him.

"I went for a walk. I'd wanted to see if I could catch sight of those elk again. To repay you folks for letting me stay through the storm." His face was an innocent blank, giving nothing away, but the investigator in Mulder was screaming that he was hiding something.

Mulder frowned, his eyes narrowing.

"Did you see Scully ..Dana, out in the woods when you were taking your 'walk'?" he asked.

"No. Why do you ask?" Hobb asked, tugging a blanket closer around his shoulders.

"She said she saw you." Mulder improvised. She had not said any such thing, but the red jacket was implicating. The only other person in the camp who had a red jacket was Pike.

The room was silent. Waiting for the other shoe to drop. Strick pursed his lips and fidgeted, his hands beginning their dry-washing again.

"I just wanted to talk to her, hmmm. In private. She looks so much like... But she started running..." he murmured almost in sing-song. Mulder felt his teeth grit together.

Jenn and Howie gasped in stereo.

"Is she all right?" Howie asked, half-rising. "She seemed fine when I talked to her this afternoon..."

"She's fine." Mulder didn't mention that Scully was already starting to doubt that she had seen anyone at all.

He returned his gaze to the stranger and then his eyes widened slightly. A flash of a freestanding, lodgepole pine entryway shot through his mind's eye. C Lazy 7. There, on the corner of Hobb's blanket, was an embroidered C Lazy 7 brand.

He clenched his teeth, forcing the memories of the dead woman to recede.

"Where did you get that blanket?" he asked in a very quiet voice.

Hobb actually blanched, and Mulder had to force himself not to jump to conclusions based on extremely circumstantial evidence.

"I...I came across it. Found it somewhere along my travels." The man drawled, trying to be nonchalant.

"You found it." Mulder repeated coolly.

"What is it? What about the blanket?" Melchor asked, frowning. He'd set his cards down carefully, looking between Hobb and Mulder slowly.

"I came across a farm in the foothills outside Helena. A family had been murdered. That blanket bears the same brand as that farm."

Strick's mouth began working soundlessly, looking at everyone in turn.

"You think that.. you think I.." he was shaking his head. "No. No I wouldn't, I would never.." He began to swing his head back and forth almost violently.

"Mulder, just because he has the blanket, doesn't mean he's a murderer for god's sake." Jenn spoke up. Strick was shrinking away from the table, his head still going, his hands still twisting. He'd started a low hum, a tune that Mulder couldn't place.

He watched the man for a long moment and then nodded slowly, standing up.

"True. But I'm warning you right now Strick. Stay the hell away from Scully." His brain had put the image of the eviscerated mother on hold in his head. Stick had finally stilled, sitting and looking like a frightened rabbit. "You go near her and I won't bother with threats, I'll just kill you." He turned towards Howie. "You going back out to look for the ghost herd again tomorrow?"

Howie nodded, a little nervous in the face of the rather blatant threat Mulder'd just made to a shivering, hollow man.

"Yeah. I'd ..uh...planned on it. We need the meat."

"We do. I'll be going this time." His eyes drilled into the stranger. Hobb was staring almost impassively back at him now, his face eerily calm and collected. "Make sure to wake me in the morning."

He put one hand on the door before looking back at Hobb. The old man looked thoughtful now, staring back at Mulder with his head slightly canted. Almost like a dog's. For a moment he saw a glimmer of sharp wit, compassion and intelligence there before it vanished under the glassy shroud of Hobb's demeanor.

He filed the look away and stepped back out into the storm.

Chapter six

Scully set her book aside and stretched her arms over her head, trying to ease the cramp that had settled in the small of her back. Now that Mulder was back, perhaps he could make himself useful by giving her a backrub. When he returned from his manly posturing, she would ask him.

A knock on the door sounded, muffled by the wailing of the wind in the chimney flue. Frowning, she sighed. Mulder wouldn't knock and there really was only one other it could be this time of night. Even knowing who it was, her eyes automatically found the shape of her Sig. sitting on the table out of habit.

She heaved her bulk up and moved slowly to the door, hoping that her partner would return sooner rather than later. Opening the portal only reinforced that wish. Denny stood there with a weak, yet hopeful smile on his face. He was holding up a notebook.

"I was hoping you could tell me more about some of those herbs."

It was almost laughable, she thought. The transparency of his excuse to spend time with her. Had her excuses been that lame when she was in 8th grade offering to wash blackboards for Mr. Jackson? Probably, she sighed.

"What a coincidence. I was just reading my herb book." She said with a smile. Perhaps tonight was the night to try and get him to understand. She offered him a chair at the table and he sat down, still smiling shyly at her. She noted that he hadn't made one furtive glance around the room looking for Mulder. That probably meant he'd been watching the cabin to see when Mulder left. A little creepy, she thought with a sigh.

After he'd settled, she took her seat again and then took a deep breath. Better now than any other time. Mulder would be back any moment and that would make this little tete-a-tete impossible.

"Denny?" she asked, waiting until he looked up at her. He was really not bad looking. Likely he would be quite handsome when he grew up. Quite big for his age, he had light brown hair and a wide mouth full of straight teeth. She set a hand on his. "Denny, I think we need to talk."

To her surprise, his young face hardened.

"This is about Mulder, isn't it?" He asked. "he doesn't want me coming around anymore now that he's back."

Scully tried to imagine Mulder demanding that she stop seeing Denny and had to bite the inside of her cheek hard to keep from smiling.

"No Denny, that's not it. I just don't think we should spend so much time together anymore. I know you have...feelings for me, but it's probably not wise to let them continue." She touched her stomach as if it was exhibit A. Denny's dark brown eyes flicked to the evidence of her pregnancy as if it was incidental.

"What does that matter?" he asked. "It doesn't mean he loves you. It doesn't mean you have to love him."

She couldn't hold back the smile that time.

"You're right, Denny." She gestured at her stomach again. "This doesn't matter about that, but it doesn't change the fact that do I love him."

"And you're saying there's no room for some little kid like me, right?"

"I'm not saying that." She said, somehow sensing that she was walking on thin ice. "But I don't think it's a good idea for you to..."

His face was red. Humiliation, rage, was hard to tell. He stood up, upsetting the chair behind him.

"You spend time with Pike. Even Mulder does. Are you asking him to get lost too?"

"Denny..." her tone was placating now, never once had she imagined that things would go this badly. It was just as well she was no psychologist. "I'm not saying I don't want to spend time with you, I just think that you need to examine your feelings for me..."

He held up his hand, his face cooling into a mask of control that was eerie on a 15 year old.

"No. I get it. Mulder is back, you have no more time for me."

She sighed, not certain that there was anything that she could say that wouldn't make things worse. He was stalking to the door, grabbing his coat and yanking it on when the door swung open and Mulder tromped in, covered from head to toe in snow.

"Hey Denny," Mulder grinned at him. "On your way out already?"

Denny said not a word and instead stalked past her partner out into the snow, pulling the door shut behind him with a loud bang.

You would think that it would be difficult to plot your parents' murder.

It's not. I realized that right away. But I'm not dumb, though my Dad might tell you different. I needed the right opportunity and I had the patience to wait for it.

To tell you the truth, it wasn't so much my dad that I wanted to squeeze the life out of, it was my mom. The little bitch had allowed her own children to be used like playthings. My dad was just an animal, but my mom was *weak*. Weak like Mr. Ears had been.

And Lila.

Hard to say how long it was between the time I drowned my sister and the time when I killed everyone else. Maybe years? Maybe months? Each day crawled by in frozen vignettes of eagerness tempered with hatred. Every night I imagined a new way to kill her, a new look of fear on her face.

I walked through those days with the same demeanor I had always worn. My dad directed us through our chores on the ranch, my mom cooked for us...mended our clothes, life moved in its normal paces. She got pregnant again and seemed fairly happy about it. Why, I don't know. Just another brat for my dad to molest. Bitch.

When the virus came, we hardly noticed. Our ranch was distant enough from other places and my dad had never been one to socialize with the neighbors. We were his own personal slave-force, much as he had been for his Dad and so on. Our trips into town were curtailed with the end of the world, but little else changed. We had our own well, we had our own generator. Fuel would run out eventually, but not for a time.

It wasn't too long after the TV started to broadcast only white noise that I decided the time was right. It was easy enough to drug my dad and my brothers. There were plenty of cattle tranquilizers lying around the barn. I just slipped it into their food, leaving my mother's untouched.

I'd set the fire after I'd locked dear old dad up with Peter, Emily and Jason in the dining room. They were too drugged to put up much of a fight. Too drugged to know enough to be properly afraid of me. It didn't matter, they were simple detritus. It was my mother that I was focused on.

I helped her away from the house, her sobbing and wailing like music to my ears. Suffer, bitch. Suffer. I wished that my family could have been awake for their burning. I would have liked to have heard them scream.

Once we were a distance from the house, I simply pushed the cow down. She fell heavily, looking up at me like a stunned rabbit. The satisfaction that I felt when I let all my pretenses fall, when I showed her all the hatred I had for her, and she realized was glorious.

She was scared of me. This woman whom I'd looked up to and been nurtured by and had respected. She was afraid. Of me.

And then I'd pulled out my knife.

This dream was different.

Still the same ranch house, the same snow, the same burned frame...but this time Scully was with him. She stood at his side, still heavily pregnant, but wearing her sleek Bureau attire. Her hair was short and smooth again, shining crisply red in the afternoon light. He too, was wearing his work clothes. Long black overcoat and pressed suit.

They stood next to the corpse of the dead mother.

"This is not important. Look inside." Scully said, her eyes clear and blue as the sky overhead.

He walked forward, unable to stop himself from glancing back at the woman, unable to stop fixating on her, walking until he was right at the edge of the house's footprint. The skeletons were there, clustered in a clump against what had once been a wall. A door. Something about it. Had they been trying to get out?

That was it.

They had been locked in. Ok. So they had been murdered, burned alive. Why did he need to know this?


He turned towards the voice. Scully was gone. The dead woman stood in the doorway instead, her gapingly empty abdomen half hidden beneath her lavender shirt.

He looked again, reviewing every nuance of his memory. Something here. Something important. His feet walked him forward much as they had when he'd actually been here...past the skeletons. He'd looked at them enough.

A seared, heat-bubbled photograph. That was the clue his mind was shoving at him. Burned frame, browned glass. He leaned down and picked it up, looking at the photo --

"Mulder" A voice was in his ear, warm and soft.

His eyes snapped open and he found himself looking into Scully's sleep-rosy face. "Mulder," she repeated, "You have to get up. They're waiting for you."

"What?" he mumbled, sitting up and scrubbing his face.

"You wanted to go out with the hunting party." She reminded him. She was wrapped in a blanket kneeling next to the bed and Chris stood by the door, fully dressed.

"You can stay and sleep some more if you want." Chris said apologetically. "I'm sure you're tired."

The dream vanished as he remembered Hobb.

"No. give me a minute. I'll be right out." Chris nodded and left.

"You're really tired." Scully said gently. "You didn't even stir when Chris knocked." Her smooth fingers stroked a line down his cheek. "Maybe you should stay here?"

He shook his head and pushed himself up out of the warmth of the blankets.

"No way, Scully. I don't trust that guy. I'm thinking that he might be the one who killed that family down in the foothills. He had an item from the farm on him."

Her eyes widened slightly.

"I thought you said that scene was easily 8 or more months old. Why would he hang around there and then follow you up here?"

"I don't know." He was yanking on his long-johns. "But there's no way I'm letting him out of my sight till I get the whole story. He's lying about something, that I do know."

A few more layers padded on to his frame, he turned for his coat and snowshoes. Scully stopped him with a touch on his arm.

Her face was smooth and earnest when she took his hand and pressed it to her stomach. The gesture was more important than words and he leaned down to kiss her, a tender, intimate thing that left her on the verge of tears.

And then he was pushing out the door into the howling storm.

The blizzard had hit full force that morning, completely encasing the mountaintop in clouds, wind and snow. All around the small cluster of buildings trees swayed dangerously, snow blew and swirled and bit into every crack and crevice...coating the northwest sides of the trees with a thick sheet of ice. Drifts piled up almost to the roofs of some of the cabins, nearly burying the ones on the north side of the clearing.

It only set more of an urgency in Pike to get up. No need for quiet now that his Dad had left early with the others to try and track down the elk that were supposed to be around. He slipped into his warm clothes and managed to get the front door open wide enough to slide out, his snowshoes in one hand. He knew that Shan would not likely be coming out this morning, the weather was too much for her and it was hard enough for her to sneak out of her mom's bed as it was. But Denny...

He frowned. Where was Denny? Had he gone on without him? Or maybe he had gone with the hunters this time.

Tugging his hat down over his ears, he squinted into the howling maelstrom. A set of slowly vanishing tracks that pointed in the direction of the cave gave him his answer. Denny had already left.

Tucking his chin down into his collar, he began the long slog over the snow towards the cave.

Snowshoes made the going much easier, but they were no joy to walk in. Even with them on, he still sank about 5 inches with each step. Denny's tracks were getting harder and harder to see.

The trees shook and moaned over him, the wind driving icy needles into his exposed cheeks. It was mostly uphill to the cliff face and he found himself out of breath and sweating under his heavy coat by the time he reached the top of the rise.

Denny's tracks led right into the crack and he picked up his pace, eager to get out of the wind. Discarding the awkward snowshoes, he ducked into the tight confines of the bottleneck and crawled into the main cavern.

Only to be greeted with the sight of Denny crouched in a pool of blood over the calf, his darkly stained knife in hand. It was dark in the cave, but not dark enough to disguise the fact that, for some reason...

... Denny had cut the calf's throat.

"What are you doing?" Pike cried, rushing forward and falling to his knees next to the little animal. It was gasping weakly. He looked up at the older boy with hot, burning eyes.

Denny's face was little more than a mask.

"It needed to die." He said finally, his voice odd.

"She was going to be all right!" Pike's voice was high and stunned. He couldn't quite assimilate the sight of Denny covered in the little elk's blood, the big knife glinting dully in the dim light.

He staggered to his feet, his pants wet with blood at the knees.

"I...I" he didn't know what to do. "I'm going to go and get Dr. Scully. She'll be able to fix her..."

"No!" Denny said sharply, rising to his feet. "No!"

Pike didn't stop. He had tears on his cheeks now, but he didn't care. There was something terribly wrong here. Wrong.

"Pike stop!" Denny called. He could hear the sounds of the older boy's footsteps echoing in the rocky cavern as he scrabbled through the tight bottleneck. Frigid wind bit at the moisture on his face as he emerged into the snow. His snowshoes had already collected a thin layer of snow on them and he shook them off, lacing them onto his boots with trembling hands. He had to hurry, there might still be a chance to save her.

He hadn't managed to put one on all the way when Denny emerged from the cave, his face hard and spattered with blood, his eyes...

...his eyes sent a chill of fear down Pike's spine. He gave up on his snowshoes, startled into flight. He staggered one step, two, and sank to his chest in the soft, new snow.

Denny reached out and grabbed his collar, hauling him back to the opening where the snow was more tramped down. Terror surged through the boy and he felt his bladder give, hot and wet down his leg.

Pike stared up into the dark brown eyes, his own gray gaze glazing with his fear. Denny was still holding the gory knife clutched in one bloody fist. Even though this was a boy he had spent the last 8 months playing with, Pike had little doubt of his intentions.

He began to struggle frantically as he watched a look of pure animal pleasure cross Denny's face. And then the big knife lifted and fell, driving deep into his upper chest, severing muscle and tendon and biting into bone. Again it raised, blood flying from it...landing in the snow like red confetti.

He tried to speak, but his lungs were closing up. The pain was fading into a sort of blissful numbness, pretty spots dancing around the fringes of his vision.

His mouth opened to call for his Dad, but no noise came out.

It was getting quiet. The howling snowstorm was fading. The thwacking sound the knife made, his own heartbeat...these were the only things he heard before everything simply swam into black.

Chapter seven

The rattling of the windows and the groaning in the siding only made her feel somehow warmer and sleepier. She was curled up on the bed writing in her journal, listening with half an ear to the rage of the blizzard outside. The fire crackled merrily in the corner, keeping her company as it had for all the time that Mulder had been gone.

There was not much paper left in the notebook, but Mulder had brought her several empty ones, thank god. her condition left her with few options for things to do. Because she was basically excluded from most of the physical work that needed to be done in their little commune, she ended up spending a great deal of her time writing just to keep from going insane. The storm made it worse by relegating her to the indoors. She would be very glad when she was able to move around at a speed above a snail's-crawl and stand up without assistance from a crane.

Three pages of tight, neat script later and she was fighting to stay awake. Morning it might have been, but the darkness of the snow outside made it seem like dusk. This was the sort of day she remembered from her childhood snow-days. No school, it was the best of all worlds. Real, honest-to-god free time. She and Melissa and Charlie would troop out into the icy cold complete with warm coats, mittens and sleds...oblivious to the discomfort in their fingers and toes. Happy just to have that stolen time away from school and the pressures of childhood.

She smirked sleepily to herself, closing her eyes and resting her cheek against her upraised hand. How people went on and on about the joy and innocence and freedom of being a kid. If they could go back they would remember that it was just as trying as adulthood, it was all just a matter of perspective. School cliques, bullies, allowance and a lack of freedom were a child's life.

So vulnerable to the whims of adults. Innocence was perhaps the wrong word. More like naive and impressionable.

Her mind drifted as her hand touched her belly, feeling the baby kicking against her with a numb disconnectedness and a sad frown. This child wouldn't have any of that. He or she would have a whole new set of life rules to follow. She and Mulder would be flying sans net. If the newborn didn't immediately succumb to the virus that its parents were immune to, it would be growing up in a tough world. No swingsets or action figures or Chuck E. Cheeses.

Her lashes were drifting down over her eyes, the words of her handwriting blurring into a uniform gray. The banging on her door startled her fully awake, her heart leaping to arms and thudding hard against her ribcage.

Heaving herself up off the bed she automatically reached for the gun that she'd set on the table the night before. Its absence made her frown, but she immediately reasoned that Mulder must have taken it by accident.

She unbarred the door cautiously and peered out into the blowing snow. Shanida stood there, tiny in her coat, her dark brown hair spiraling this way and that in the wind, panicked eyes wide and filled with tears.


"My mom!" Shan wailed, reaching in to tug on Scully's hand. "Please! My mom! There's a fire!"

That was when she smelled the smoke.

Scully yanked her coat on and ran out into the snow, her senses immediately overwhelmed by the howl of the wind whipping across the snow. The fire was fanning itself to greater heights in the maelstrom, the orange-red of the flames leaping and sizzling in the wet of the storm. With mounting horror she saw that Jenn's cabin was likewise in flames, and an orange glow in the woods told her that Roz and Anna's was burning too. Everyone else had gone out looking for the damned elk.

She didn't hesitate. There was no way she was going to be able to put out the fire, she had to simply get Cissy out.

"Stay right here!" she yelled at Shan over the wailing wind, her voice sharp enough to cut. The little girl stayed. She plunged through the enormous drifts, staggered by the amount of snow that had accumulated just since the day before. One hand lifted to shield her eyes from the stinging ice bits that blew mercilessly into her face, her gloveless fingers growing quickly numb.

The fire was almost a blessed warmth. For a moment only...and then the heat quickly became a blazing foe, searing into her skin and burning her eyes. Sparks flew wildly around in the winds, threatening to catch in her hair and her clothes as she made her way to the door of the cabin.

The door was jammed shut from the outside. It took only a moment to realize that someone had shoved little chips of wood into the cracks between the door and the frame, making it nearly impossible to open. She struggled wildly against it for a moment, hearing the shouts of Cissy on the other side...her frantic pounding on the door. The windows were tiny, far too small to afford an exit.

She cast around for a tool, anything to use to unjam the door. Cissy's screams were getting louder but less frequent. The smoke was getting to her. A sudden pain lanced up her abdomen and she gritted her teeth, not against the hurt, but against the very thought of it.

There, against the side of the house, a mound of snow spoke of the stump that was used as a chopping block. With luck, the ax would be nearby. Abandoning the inferno of the stoop, she waded hip deep through the drift that had pressed itself up against the side of the house and began to use her bare fingers to dig in the snow.

Another pain doubled her over just as her fingers closed around the cold, hard shaft of something. Grabbing and yanking it with all her strength, she took a deep breath against the pain and withdrew the ax with something akin to terrified victory.

Flames had started to lick at the edges of the front of the cabin, curling up around the eaves with greedy abandon. The half-light of the storm was painted an eerie orange-red, giving the snow a bloody taint as she came back to the door and lifted the ax with everything she had, driving it clumsily towards the offending shims. Splinters flew from the frame, the blade missing the chips, but gouging alongside the top one instead. Another try and another, and finally, she sliced into the icy pine, freeing the top culprit. The second followed with only one blow and she wrenched the smoking door open.

Cissy tumbled out into the snow, choking and coughing, a smoldering wet blanket cloaking her head and shoulders. Scully caught a glimpse of the inside of the cabin, the room a living surface of flame, the entire east wall engulfed.

Staggering back, she let the third violent spasm wash over her, falling to her knees in the snow, her arms clutching over her abdomen. Her mind hadn't fully processed the fact that Cissy had been locked inside her cabin from the outside, but she did know that she still had to help Jenn and Roz and Anna.

Her cold-numbed fingers still clutched the ax hasp and she rose to her feet just in time to see Jenn's cabin collapse in on itself in a great blossom of flame. Her mouth dropped open and she could feel the distant echoes of shock battering at her shields.

Someone was tugging at her shoulder and she blinked into Cissy's plump, ash-smudged face, still clutching tightly to the older woman's arm.

"Dana, look at me." Scully's eyes met the firm gaze of the other's. "*I'll* go help Roz and Anna, you get back inside now! Shan, you make her get back inside!" Cissy's voice was reduced to a whisper against the wind and the sound of her own pain in her ears. She loosened a grip that no longer felt like her own and Cissy staggered out into the blur of the storm, her blanket still wrapped around her.

Shanida was pulling at her arm ineffectually, her little tear-strained face pale under the dark skin.

"Come on Dr. Scully, Mama says we have to get inside." Her voice was lost in the wind, but Scully saw her lips move, felt the urgency behind them. She let the little girl help her to her feet, curling her right arm protectively around her belly, praying that the pains would stop. The other hand still clasped the ax in a death grip.

Oh please don't ...she wouldn't even let herself finish the thought.

The door of her cabin loomed comfortingly before her.

Shut tight. That gave her pause, her investigator's mind, never dulled by things like panic and pain, reminding her that she had left it wide open when she'd rushed out into the blizzard. Her hand curled more tightly around Shan's little fingers.

The calm yellow square of light that bespoke her cabin's lone window, beckoned. She stretched her neck slightly to see inside and her breath froze in her throat as she spotted Denny, calm and smiling, sitting on her bed...cradling her missing gun.

The pieces that fell into place made no sense. A distorted Cubist puzzle. Denny had her gun? Why had he gone inside her cabin while she'd been struggling to free Cissy from her living furnace?

Because, her mind supplied calmly, he set the fire. He jammed the door. There is no one else here.

Another pain ripped through her belly and she bent over, feeling a red hot poker thrust into her. She wasn't sure what to be more afraid of, the 15 year old stroking her gun or the cramping of her uterus.

"Come on," Shan was tugging more insistently at her now, "Mama said to take you inside!" The young voice was nearly lost in the wind.

"We can't go in there, Shan." Scully said. "We have to hide." Where those words came from, she didn't know, but they were true.

Shan, to her credit, didn't ask why. She blinked up at Scully, dark crinkly hair coated with a carpet of white...fear in her eyes.

"I know where we can go."

This was stupid.

What had his life been changed into that they were wandering around in a snowstorm looking for a herd of elk?

Lloyd insisted that the storm would work in their favor, even though they could no longer see any sign of tracks. The elk, if they were actually up here...which was doubtful, would bed down to wait out the storm. They needed to find a heavily wooded area with a good wind break, and they would find the herd.

Regardless of that, here he was, originally an academic...used to using his mind to solving dilemmas...forging through freezing winds and zero visibility and generally freezing his balls off. This whole pregnancy thing was just a scam to keep Scully inside and warm while he had to go out into the wilderness and play Alley Oop.

Thoughts of Scully reminded him of his main reason for being out here to begin with and he let his eyes scour his companions until they found the reddish blur that spoke of Hobb Strick.

The man had seemed a little more lucid as they had slogged through the snow, saying little but not resorting to the off-key humming that had been his hallmark since he'd appeared the night before. Mulder's textbooks would say that humming was the attempt of the disturbed mind to distract itself from thoughts it didn't want to have.

Textbooks aside, he wasn't entirely sure that it wasn't an act. He knew that Hobb had been to the Ranch where the family had been murdered, but whether or not it was before or after the deed was a mystery.

He dropped his pace a little, falling back out of his place in the line to where Hobb staggered unevenly through the snow.

"Why did you want to talk to Scully?" he asked, staring through the whirling flakes at Hobb's profile. The man was gazing almost sightlessly into the snow.

"She reminded me of my daughter. Hmmm. My Margerie." he whispered, his hands pantomiming the bulging stomach of a pregnant woman. Mulder was certain that the man didn't even know his own hands were moving.

He felt his hands clench involuntarily in their gloves as a rush of ice that had nothing to do with the storm rushed up his spine.

The one connection to the Farm that he hadn't thought of.

"What happened, Hobb?" Mulder murmured, keeping his voice steady and undemanding, playing his hunch.

"He locked them up in the dining room. It was in the center of the house, there weren't no windows. He just locked them in there, jammed the doors with something." The old man shook his head. "I never woulda guessed that he'd be so angry. I knew about what Carl was doin' to the boys, but I didn't interfere. It wasn't my bizness. That's what Margie always told me. Always told me, hmmm?"

Mulder had no idea what the man was talking about, but he didn't press him. Instead he just nodded sympathetically while he kicked himself for not realizing how damaged Hobb really was. His ludicrously confrontational air the night before was the complete opposite of the tack he should have taken with the man. Some psychologist he was.

"Shame about Margie," he bluffed, trying to draw Hobb out.

"Terrible." The old man's voice was shaky with tears now. He still stared straight ahead into the hypnotic gaze of the swirling flakes. "She deserved better than Carl. I always said so. My little girl. She took me in when my Catherine died. Such a gentle thing. Too gentle for him. Wha..." he shook his head, suddenly stopping in the snow. "What kind of monster could do that to his own mother, hmmm?"

Mulder already knew what 'he' had done to his mother.

"How did you get out of the fire?" he asked gently, his eyes drawn to the burn scars on the man's cheeks.

"Hmmm. I was in the cellar when Denny lit the house. He musta forgot about me down there. I was able to get out. He was gone by then...but I saw what he had done to my girl. Poor Margie...hmmm." Hobb turned and looked Mulder right in the eyes. "I thought I saw him the other morning, thought I saw him..hmmm." He hung his head, his lips starting to mouth words to himself, the humming starting up again.

Mulder was stunned for a long, drawn-out moment.

"Denny? Our Denny?"

The little boy, Denny?

Not so little, Mulder, not so little. Nearly as tall as you. Strong from a life of working on a farm. 15 yes, but age was no prerequisite for madness. He'd been found in the woods by Lloyd not too long after Mulder'd dated the murder at the Farm. They'd taken a goddamned monster into their midst.

A monster that had a cute, harmless crush on Scully.

"What is it Mulder?" Chris had spotted the look on his face and he'd stopped when Mulder had, his eyes moving from Hobb to Mulder and back.

Hobb was forgotten. Chris was ignored. So were the rest of the hunters. He spun awkwardly in his snowshoes and began to run as fast as he could. Barely noticing when Chris, after a moment's hesitation, took up at his heels.

I waited for her.

It was only a matter of time before she came back. She couldn't get too far in the deep snow, and I'd already seen that she was trying to rescue stupid, fat Cissy.

Her gun felt heavy and smooth in my hands, the metal warmed from my touch. My dad had taught all of us to use weapons. Too bad we never used them on him. I'd done one better, though, I'd fried him like a marshmallow in a campfire. I only wish I could have seen it.

It wouldn't have been like watching my traitorous mother die though. My dad would have never begged. He would have never pleaded and sobbed and looked at me with fear in his eyes.

It wouldn't have been worth it.

The fire was dying in the corner and I briefly considered rekindling it so it was nice and warm in here by the time she returned. It would be soon now.

That was when I saw a shadow move outside the window, a ghost in the snow, a shape against the illumination of the cabin I peered from. I cupped my hands around my eyes and pressed my nose to the cold glass, squinting out into the murk of the storm.

There, lit in orange paint against white-gray, were two figures. One large and one small. Scully and Shanida. I grimaced momentarily at the thought that Shan hadn't died in the fire...she'd always reminded me of Lila. A worthless little nuisance.

I quickly pulled my coat from the rack and bundled up carefully. No need to hurry, how fast could Dana go in this snow? Tucking the gun safely into my pocket, I stepped out into the blizzard.

Scully didn't know where the little girl was leading her. It could be nowhere, she might be dragging her out into the middle of the forest. All she knew was that it was uphill, she couldn't see more than two feet in front of her face and the snow was up to her chest.

It was small consolation that there seemed to be somewhat of a beaten trail, what hadn't been filled in by wind-blown snow. She followed the child, step by painful step, her breath heaving and steaming in the frigid air, forcing her legs to move...ignoring the ripping pain that lanced through her at more and more regular intervals.

Was it premature labor? God no. Please no. She couldn't be having the baby now. Not after everything.

She couldn't even get up the breath to ask Shan where they were going. She simply struggled upwards and onwards into the maelstrom, trying to count her steps in an attempt to recognize the passage of time. Sweat alternately beaded and froze on her face, stray dampened strands of hair stiffened with ice.

The eight-year old was still wearing her snowshoes, but they did little good in the soft, powdery, dry drifts. Their pace was little over a crawl and Scully risked a look over her should to see if they were being pursued.

There was nothing in the soup of the storm. And somehow that was even more frightening that seeing a pursuer. Another spear of agony wrenched her to a stop and she huddled over herself for a long moment, simply breathing hard gasping breaths.

"Come on, it's not much farther..." Shan urged. The girl didn't sound that frightened, just a little upset... and Scully reminded herself that she likely didn't know that Denny had lit the fires...hadn't see the boy sitting with her missing gun.

She forced her burning muscles to move, made her lift her legs and continue up the slope that wasn't ending.

A massive blackish shape rose up out of the blizzard, towering over her and Shan. A cliff face. The pressure on her hand tugged her forward almost right up against it, and then there was a break in the rock...a slash of dark calm. Shan's little hands were pushing her towards the entrance and she crouched down, sliding down from the height of the snowpack into the opening, a mini-avalanche following her in.

It was still icy cold, but the wind was broken. It battered and howled against the rock face futilely, but found no entry. She scooted a little further into the passage, seeing that it traveled back into the rock a ways, but waiting for Shan.

The little girl tumbled into the mouth a minute later, withdrawing a tiny flashlight to fight the darkness of the cavern. The snow had nearly blocked the entire opening, rendering the interior in an impenetrable half-gloom. As soon as the light flicked on, Shan screamed.

There, half buried in the snow that had encroached into the entryway, was Pike.

Chapter eight

I took the time to put on showshoes, hat and gloves. It was hard to describe what I was feeling just then. An odd mix of eagerness and need and anger, building and swelling in my breast. I kept feeling that rush that had consumed me when I'd held Lila's head under the water, when I'd stabbed Pike and watched his blood flow red onto white. There was even a giddy euphoria at the more indirect deaths of Cissy, Jenn, Roz and Anna. Just the thought that it had been me who had decided that they were to die.

I was the one who held the controls.

I thought briefly of the rest of the camp, the others who would be returning later this evening. Mulder. Foolish Lloyd. I supposed that I would be gone by the time they got back, though it distantly occurred to me that they might come looking for me.

The storm was the perfect foil.

The falling snow would cover my tracks by the time I finished here. I could leave and they would never know which way to follow. I smiled to myself as I began the slow climb up to the cavern, squinting in the blowing snow. It would have been nice to kill Mulder, of course. But I was reasonable. Dana would have to do. After all, it was she who had decided that I was ...

I didn't finish the thought, uncertain that I wanted to.

My breath chuffed out into the morning air, steaming and billowing in an opaque white cloud. If I glanced over my shoulder I could make out the remains of Jenn's cabin smoking and smoldering. It had collapsed in on itself, going up in a much more spectacular blaze that my own home had. My dad had built a portion of the farmhouse out of brick. And brick didn't burn that well.

I wondered if they had screamed as they burned. Or if they had just passed out from the smoke. I remember my older brother Jason telling me once that people in the Middle Ages would get burned at the stake for heresy, but that they would usually die or pass out from smoke inhalation before they ever started to burn. Somehow that took a great deal of the horror out of it.

The cliff face loomed before me and I saw that so much snow had fallen just since that morning, the opening to the cavern was nearly covered.

I wondered if they had found Pike.

I paused at the entrance and pulled Dana's gun out, making sure that the skinning knife I'd stolen from my Dad's tool shed was still in my pocket. Just remembering the heady sensation of ripping my traitorous mother open was sending all the blood to my head. Seeing that look of fear and terror on Dana's face would be even better than seeing it on mom's.

Since I actually cared what Dana thought.

Flipping the safety off the gun, I slipped down into the opening of the cave.


She closed her eyes and tried to calm her breathing, trying to remind herself that, though he was a cold-blooded murderer, he was still only a 15 year old boy. She had fought off far greater threats.

Not unarmed and 8 months pregnant, her inner voice hissed venomously.

There was not a wealth of choices, however. Shan huddled against the wall behind her bulk, a shadow in the shadows. The cave was almost completely dark without the flashlight, but their eyes had adjusted somewhat to the dark. That would be an advantage of sorts.

She had not even been certain that Denny would come after them, but the sound at the entrance had destroyed that fragile hope. Shan's sobs had finally settled into a frightened silence after they'd pulled poor little Peter's body from the snow and laid him in the cavern next to what looked like a dead animal of some kind.

The fact of the child's death hadn't sunk in yet, and she wasn't going to let it until the danger was over. For now she just gripped the cold, smooth handle of the ax in numb hands and waited...pressed against the rocky wall nearest to the bottleneck passage that led to the outside.


Any doubts that it was Denny were erased when he called out her name softly. "I know you're in here. I followed your tracks."

His voice sent chills up and down her spine. Not because she knew he was a murderer, but because the words contained no warmth, no cold, nothing. They were spoken in the tones of the dead.

There would be no reasoning with him. No coaxing or pleading or cajoling. He would simply kill. She remembered a long-ago discussion with her partner one rainy day in DC. They'd been organizing the filing system, a task they'd saved for just such a day, and she'd come across the profile he'd written up for Tooms. It had been perhaps the only candid discussion of length they'd ever had about his profiling skill and he'd told her several things about serial killers that she still recalled to this day.

'They share the same realities as you and I, he'd said. They go to 7-11 and they watch A-Team reruns, but they have forsaken for one reason or another, the seemingly innate moral sensibilities that most of us take for granted. I, for example,' he'd lectured as he sat against a file cabinet with his sleeves rolled up and dust on his chin, 'know that it would be wrong to kill my mother and eat her brain. I would be repelled by the very thought of it. But the serial killer is deeply fucked up at the most basic level. He may not see another life as anything but a symbol, or a conquest or an archetype...whatever construct he's created in his own mind to justify it. When he kills his mother and eats her brain, he might be trying to regain his childhood or steal her thoughts or maybe he just likes the taste of human brains. Most serial killers can't be reasoned with because you would be reasoning with your own set of rules. And those just don't apply to the pathological killer.'

Not much help, Mulder, she told her memory. How about you shed some light on how I'm supposed to get out of this? The pains in her abdomen were increasing in frequency. She wasn't certain, but she didn't think they were true labor contractions.

And that worried her almost as much as the pains themselves.

A pebble skittered across the cavern and she saw the shadowy shape of Denny pause at the bottleneck opening, perhaps sensing her there with the ax or just being cautious, she didn't know. Her heart was thumping wildly against her ribs and she reminded herself again that this 15 year old was not the harmless boy who had sat at her table and pretended to learn about natural medicine. This *boy* had murdered Peter, Jenn and possibly others. This boy was about to murder *her*.

She lifted the ax higher, waiting for him to make one more step into the cave. She could see the vague shape of her gun in his hand and she knew it would just take one squeeze of the trigger to kill either her or Shan. The little girl was shaking against her back and Scully prayed that she would remain silent.

She whimpered.

Scully saw Denny swing his gun hand around. She couldn't wait any longer and she let the heavy blade fall, swinging with all her strength. It struck the metal of the gun and the thing went off with an ear-shattering retort that momentarily deafened her. Sparks flew from the rocky floor to her right as the bullet ricocheted off the stone. The Sig went clattering out of Denny's grip, landing somewhere in the darkness.

She heard the boy swear...watched his form shift as if moving his hand into his pocket for another weapon. Too dim to see, but she guessed it was a knife.

"I wish I could see your face." He said softly, wistfully.

"Why?" she asked, not sure if talking to him was a good idea or not, but not knowing what else to do. She began to inch to her right slowly, thinking to perhaps slide in a wide semi-circle around him and find her gun.

His eyes were adjusting quickly and she watched him track her movements, matching them easily. Moving towards her. Luckily he still hadn't noticed Shan.

"I want to see your fear. Not quite so laughable anymore, am I? The little boy with the crush? The joke you share with Mulder at night? Maybe now you'll wake up to the fact that I'm as much a man as he is."

"Yes, you've proved yourself all right." Scully said, her voice reasonable. "Proved that you're a small man. A petty man. A man who would kill a 10 year old boy. Did Pike laugh at you? Did he threaten you? Or were you just being a bully?" Scully was unable to hide the rage she still felt over Pike's murder and it bled into her voice. The contempt she felt for the brutal, mindless act.

"He was going to show you the elk calf. He was going to tell you that I killed it."

Calf? She remembered the dead creature they shared the cave with. Peter, that bright vibrant boy, had been killed to hide the death of an animal? She shook her head at the senselessness of it, still backing slowly away from Denny. The boy was most definitely holding a knife. A big one from the look of it.

"It was stupid," Denny admitted. "Killing it wasn't worth it. It didn't help. It wasn't the same."

"The same as what?" Scully asked, chills running down her spine at his words, though she couldn't name why.

"When I killed Her. She doesn't know it, but I saved that baby. Saved it from Her and from Him. I hid it in a place he wouldn't find it."

Oh God. She knew what he was talking about. It was the same thing that had been haunting Mulder. The terrible scene of ...*Denny's* crimes. She was speechless for a moment and then her hands came up to touch her belly, as, as if on cue, another pain, worse than the others, nearly brought her to her knees.

She could feel Denny watching the pain bend her body double, his form still easing towards her. She straightened with an effort and lifted the ax threateningly.

"You're not going to be able to do this Denny. Even if you kill me like you killed the others, there's no way that they will let you get away. You think that you can run? From Chris? From Mulder? You are severely mistaken if you think so. You know what Mulder and I did before? We were FBI agents. It was our job to chase murderers like you. Believe me, you won't get far."

She took a deep breath, taking a chance by lowering her ax and letting her voice go soft and pleading. "You know you don't want that Denny. You need help. Let us help you."

He just laughed. Not a laugh of disbelief or scorn, but just of joy. He loved hearing her plead.

She could hear Mulder tsking in her head. 'Didn't I tell you that you can't reason with them if you use your own rules? They don't follow those guidelines. They have their own reality. You have to learn that reality if you hope to understand them...if you really want to talk to them.' He was right, of course. But this was his goddamned specialty, not hers. After Denny was dead, she could cut him open and find any empirical evidence that might explain his mental illness. That was her venue.

He was only three feet away now, close enough that she could almost make out the glint of his eyes, the faint whuff of his breath. She lifted the ax again.

Too late.

He lunged at her, the speed of the young, the agility of the eager.

The knife bit into her shoulder, the panic sending another bolt of pain tearing through her...almost nullifying the bite of the blade.

A crack and roar filled her senses, blacking her hearing out, driving her back. She felt herself stumble, falling...falling...another thunderous retort snapped in her ears before she hit the rocks, the back of her skull connecting with a sharp edge. Stars exploded behind her eyes, multicolored whorls of brilliance. The pain swelled up in a flood, engulfing her, surrounding her in black water.

Sending her into oblivion.

It was the apocalypse.

No. That had already happened.

This was worse.

The snow was howling around him like all the furies of hell as he staggered into the clearing that the cabins clustered around. Sweat was slippery against his body, the hair around his face frozen and stinging his cheeks. He stopped momentarily at the edge of the treeline, his breath burning in his lungs, his side hitching in a terrible cramp.

Two of the cabins were on fire. Well. Mostly. Both had collapsed in on themselves, but flames still leaped and stuttered in the whipping wind, smoke hanging thick in the air. He took a step forward, eyes wide, pain in his side forgotten. The cabin he shared with Scully was untouched, but the door hung wide open, blowing to and fro in the wind, occasionally banging hard against the log wall behind it.

"Oh my god." Chris's voice was behind him, as out of breath as he was. "What happened? What's going on, Mulder?"

He could hear the panic in Chris's voice, the fear for his son, but he didn't have the capability to spout useless reassurances.

He slogged towards his gaping cabin, dragging his snowshoes through the fluffy white drifts that heaped obscenely high, stopping at the doorway. Snow had already blown inside, piling onto the floor almost two feet in. In the half-light of the storm, he could see that her coat was gone.

"Fox!" His head whipped around at the cry, the syllable torn and muffled by the wind. Two figures, silhouettes against the gray-white, emerged across the clearing, struggling through the snow. One was tall, pale and razor-thin, the other round, dark and earthy. Roz and Cissy. Neither were wearing snowshoes and their progress was slow.

"Where is she?!" He made three shuffling strides towards the women, his eyes felt hot and dry in their sockets.

Cissy shook her head and as she neared, he could see terrible burns on her face and hands, Roz too.

"We've been looking. Her and Shan, Pike...and Denny. They're all gone."

"Pike too?" Chris gasped.

Roz nodded.

Mulder jerked his head once, sharply.

"Denny. Is he the one who set the fires?" He already knew, but part of him wanted confirmation.

Cissy and Roz exchanged glances.

"We thought it was the stranger. Strick. Our cabins were jammed shut from the outside. You don't really think it was Denny, do you?"

He didn't have time for this.

"Have you checked all the cabins for them?" he growled.

Roz frowned.

"Of course." She snapped. For once he didn't see the hybrid as his sister, he saw her simply as another person who didn't know where Scully was. And therefore of no use to him.

He spun away from the pair, distantly aware that Chris had thrown open the door of his own cabin, casting around on the ground for tracks. Mulder's gun was in his hand and he hadn't remembered reaching for it. Both Roz and Cissy were talking, but their voices had receded into meaningless babble. Even the wailing of the wind quieted in his head. All his attention focused on the palette of the snow.

She hadn't taken her snowshoes, she would have left a noticeable trail. If only the storm wasn't so eager to cover any and every feature that might possibly help him.

A piece of army green and rainbow poked up out of the snow three yards up the hill. Lunging at it, he pulled it free of the snow and shook it off. It was a scarf that looked familiar.

"That's the scarf I gave to Dr. Scully." Roz's voice came from behind him, diluted in the wind. He looked up the hill. Why would she have gone this way?

And then he heard the unmistakable sound of a shot fired, the retort echoing off the mountains around him, making it difficult to triangulate on it. He froze, every nerve poised and listening.

Another shot.

He knew where to go.

Gun in hand, he began to push up the slope behind the cabins, only now noticing faint signs of passage here. Chris huffed behind him. A rough, moon-quality texture to the smooth expanse of snow. As if someone had pushed their path through it eons before. Why would she run out into the storm? Denny might be a killer, but even pregnant she was a match for him.


Unless he had a gun. Unless he had her gun. A thousand other circumstances were flying through his head as he forced his aching legs and body to climb the hill, to lift the heavy snowshoes, to duck his head down into the stinging wind. The temperature was dropping, making the snow lighter and drier, but also making the air painful to breath.

"Denny?" Chris ground out, his voice breathless and hard. "How can that be?"

Mulder didn't answer.

The faint trail led straight to a rock face, a cliff that loomed up over him, disappearing into the low clouds not 100 feet up. He and Chris followed the path the way up to a wall, and there was a crack.

Still gripping his gun, he slid in without hesitation and ran right into Shan.

She immediately clung to his leg, shaking like a leaf, sobbing desperately, tugging on his jacket while she gulped for a breath. Chris slid into the cave a moment later, his rifle in his hands.

"Shan, what is it? Where's Scully? What happened?" They were in a very low, cramped passage and Shan still didn't speak, she just turned and scrambled back down the tight space into the dark. He had to get on his hands and knees, but he followed, emerging into a wider area a moment later.

"Scully?" he called, panic tingeing his voice. "Shan?"

"Peter?" Chris's own fear just as evident.

"Over here." Shan's voice hitched with sobs. He pulled his own little maglite out of his pocket and flicked it on.

The first thing the beam of light swept over was the still, quiet form of Pike. The little boy lay on his side, his gray eyes wide open, his small face a frozen mask of peace.

The sharp pain of horror he experienced at the sight was nothing to the sound that Chris made.

"Oh God, no." It was a whisper that spoke of the past two years of fear and struggle, beginning with the death of his wife and ending now with the murder of his only child. Mulder's peripheral made out Chris staggering forward, violently kicking the hindrance of the snowshoes off his feet as he went.

His own heart clenched in his chest and he brutally forced the staggering wash of grief aside, a shaking hand trailing the light towards the sound of Shan's young voice. He found the little girl kneeling between two crumpled forms, Scully's gun clasped tightly in both small hands. The boy was clearly dead, shot in the back. Denny.

And there, not a foot away, lay the unmoving form of his partner. He dropped both flashlight and gun in his haste to go to her, his knees cracking on the rocks as he dropped unthinking down next to her.

"Scully?" His heart was pounding brutally in his throat as he reached trembling fingers to her throat. The pulse that beat there nearly incapacitated him with relief. He lifted her head from the rocky floor, feeling the sticky heat that spoke of blood at the back of her skull. There was more blood pooling around her left shoulder, fumbling fingers discovering another wound beyond torn fabric.

Carefully maneuvering her up against him, he drew an arm around her, his forearm brushing against her swollen abdomen...and he felt the wrenching tremor that tightened her muscles even through the sleeve of his jacket.

Oh... No.

"Shan!" He snapped out, he could still hear the 8 year old sobbing not six inches away. "Go and get your mom and Roz. Now! Hurry!" She hesitated only for a moment, like a rabbit in oncoming traffic, before she broke and ran, her footsteps receding into silence. She was still clutching Scully's gun like it was a part of her hands. The two women wouldn't be far, they would have followed Chris and him up the mountain.

Chris himself would be no help right now. The man was sobbing softly in the darkness.

He bent over Scully, brushing his lips against her ice cold cheek, whispering meaningless noises of comfort to her.

A scuffle of sound at the entrance. Mulder glanced up, expecting to see the capable visage of Roz...and finding the sunken shadowed face of Hobb Strick instead. The old man stood stone still, looking at the still form of Denny with eyes that seemed sad and old and clouded.

"I saw him up here that first morning, hmmm? Didn't believe it was him. Thought I was seeing things." Hobb's voice echoed faintly in the dark. "Always liked him best when he was little. Margie's other kids were deadwood. Worthless, stupid, no sense. He was always thinking, doing. He started to change when...his dad things to him. To his brothers, hmmm. Bad things. I shoulda done something. Margie said it wasn't my business what Carl did with his boys...and there was no stopping him anyway. I shoulda tried anyway. Shoulda taken Denny away, hmmm."

Mulder was only listening with half an ear. The man was talking in a reedy sing-song, his voice almost inflectionless.

"When you said his name I knew I'd really seen him. I knew he'd go for your little gal there. Just like his ma. She looked a lot like her. I cut up here through the snow...know these woods pretty well. Used to hunt up here in the summers." A deep sigh rattled out of his chest and Mulder finally looked up in the darkness, trying to find Hobb�s outline.

"Best thing for him really." His voice was small now. "Had to shoot a good dog of mine once. A good bird dog that got ina tangle with a foaming badger. Loved that dog. Terrible to have to kill something you love. Denny was a good boy once. I think."

The last was added so softly that Mulder wasn't sure he'd heard it. He no longer cared one whit what the man said or grieved about or regretted. He just wanted Scully to wake up and tell him that everything was all right.

Her stomach tightened horribly under his hands again and he bit back a sob of his own. The fear that had coiled in the pit of his stomach was surfacing like a rank sea monster. When she'd gotten pregnant all those months ago, his first reaction had not been joy or wonder. It had been terror. They were not in the same world anymore. There was no net to catch them on this tightrope. No doctors or hospitals or drugs or sterile rooms.

She had reassured him that babies had been born for thousands of years without such things and that *she* was a doctor. She would be fine, she said.

She would be fine.

God Scully, wake up.

Her world fluttered in and out, frozen moments in time.

Dark shapes and bobbing lights, echoing voices and the sensation of hands on her.

Blinding white and biting cold, strong arms curling under her back and her knees, cold wet snowflakes kissing her cheeks.

Tearing agony ripping through her body, wetness between her thighs.

Softness beneath her and the alien sensation of warmth against her skin. Voices, some concerned, some angry, some choked with grief.

Mulder's face.

"Scully?" His voice was rough. Her peripheral caught sight of his hand just before it cupped her cheek, brushing a stray strand of hair back from her damp forehead.

"Where?" She managed only the one word, her eyes flickering around unsteadily, unfocused.

"Back in the cabin." His hand continued its soothing movement and she allowed it, just because it felt so good. "He managed to stab you in the shoulder, but it's not deep."

He wasn't telling her something. Something important.

Her hand flew down to her belly, expecting to find it flat and dead, instead coming contact with the same reassuring curve. Her gaze lifted to Mulder's. She was remembering the pain.

"I think it was false labor, Scully." He breathed, answering the unspoken question. She could still hear echoes of the terror that must have gripped him while she was unconscious. "I timed them once we got back here and they were uneven. Braxton-Hicks, maybe. Baby's fine, I listened to the heartbeat with your stethoscope."

She managed to smile weakly at him.

"Have you been reading Richard Scarry's Big Book Of Pregnancy, Mulder?"

That coaxed a shadow of a grin out of him.

"I had to do something while you were out, and I'm no good at knitting."

"How long *was* I out, Mulder?" she frowned at him. His face smoothed into a mask.

"Two days."

She just blinked, then wet her lips uncertainly.

"Two days." She closed her eyes, remembering everything that had happened. Poor little Pike.

"Chris...?" she started, opening her eyes again and looking up at her partner.

"He's...not good. We put Pike and Jenn in the cave and sealed it off. Chris is strong, but most of his strength was for Peter." Mulder shook his head. "That boy was all he had."

Her own grief over the death of the little boy was still unresolved. Too young.

"Denny?" She had to fight over the name. The sound of his mirthless laugh in the dark of the cavern was still alive in her head.

"Dead. Shan shot him. Somehow. Saved your life. She hasn't talked about it. She's been having nightmares...but I think she'll be ok. It'll take a little time." Mulder shook his head at the tragedy of it all, his face tight. "Turns out that Hobb was Denny's dear ole Grandpa, that's how I knew to come back for you. The old bastard knew his grandson was a killer and he *saw* him the other morning and said nothing to anyone." Mulder sounded like he wanted to spit. "Hobb's gone. He left yesterday, said he was sorry...for what that's worth." His mouth was a hard line. "As for Denny...we left him out for the animals."

It sounded harsh, but all Scully had to do was remember Pike to agree with the tone of Mulder's voice. His hands were back on her hair again, his face softening suddenly.

"How do you feel?"

"Tired, Mulder."

Her face was solemn, her eyes locked on his. "It's never going to be easy again, is it?"

"Was it easy before?" he quipped, his gentle face belying his words. Her hand reached up and clasped his, entwining their fingers.

"Sometimes it feels like we're a million years away from the life we used to have. Other times it's just like it's never changed. Just the skin over it has."

"Still the same monsters to kill." He nodded, the edge of his mouth lifting slightly.

"At least we had indoor plumbing then."

"And TV. I really miss TV Scully. The fireplace just isn't the same."

They chuckled softly together, not quite able to laugh with all the death around them.

They never really had, she thought. Even back then.

Suddenly the unborn kicked her hard, startling her...reminding her that it was still there. At that moment, she'd never felt anything so wonderful. She pulled Mulder's hand down to the movement, tears filling her tired, burning, unfocused eyes.

"Monsters or not, Mulder. I think things may be getting better soon." She said, smiling through her bleary tears. "Maybe for the first time ever."

++++++++ Epilogue ++++++++

Water dripped steadily outside the window in a cheerful gurgling rhythm, splashing in the already saturated earth. A fresh, wet, pine smell was blowing in the open doorway on a chilly mountain breeze. To him, the cold fragrant air felt like heaven. It blew inside the tiny space, clearing the stale winter odors out of the corners and setting the frayed cloth they used for a tablecloth gently swaying. He watched the movement with a small smile on his mouth.

The coming of spring would mean many things, most of them bad, but for now he just wanted to revel in the fact that winter was over. Soon enough they were going to have to find another place to hide, soon enough the Shredders would make their way up the warming mountainside. He didn't know what they were going to do next, knew they were looking to him for the solution, knew that he was going to have to reach into his top hat and hope he didn't pull out a dead rabbit.

Peter gurgled something unintelligible and he returned his attention to the tiny infant and away from the hypnotic sway of the faded red tablecloth, tugging the massacred and resewn scrap of wool they'd fashioned into a cap down on his head.

She had been right, of course. Everything had been fine. Not a single one of the nightmarish complications he had conjured in his imagination had come to pass. Certainly, it had been a difficult and long birth, Scully wasn't built for something that size to pass through her, and there had been some tearing. She'd told him what to do in that same tone of voice that she used in a crisis, that hard-as-nails, do-exactly-as-I-say *when*I-say-it voice. And he had, of course. She'd passed out not soon after he and Cissy had attended to the red-faced, purple infant and he'd gingerly tended to her poor torn body. She wasn't superwoman...but she was damned close.

"There you go, Butch. All the women will want your number now." He grinned down at the baby who blinked back at him with wide, measuring green eyes peeking out from under the oddly shaped cone of what had once been one of his best wool socks. Scully had cut them up and sewn them back together into a lumpy, gray *thing*. At least there was something Scully wasn't good at. Sewing.

If his admiration for her could grow any more after that hellish night of labor, he wasn't sure what it would take. Perhaps she could construct a television out of pine cones and mud.


Scully's voice was calling to him from outside the cabin, excitement evident in her voice. Listening for her, he was suddenly aware of a new sound. One he hadn't heard in a long time.

The sound of a motor.

Slinging the baby up against his shoulder, he stepped out into the crisp air of the afternoon, his boots squelching in the slushy puddles of melting snow and mud. Scully was waving imperiously at him from over past Howie's cabin, disappearing behind it as soon as she saw him coming.

The alien sound grew louder as he approached and he finally recognized it as the generator. They'd found the thing rusting away in a back shed when they'd first arrived, but hadn't been able to make it work. Then winter had come and the shed the old chunck of metal was kept in had been thoroughly snowed under. Melchor had claimed that he could get it working once spring rolled around and his assertion was the prime reason Mulder had dragged the HAM radio up the mountain several months earlier.

As he rounded the side of the cabin he saw Scully, Melchor, Roz and Howie standing around a warped and splintered picnic table, the HAM set neatly on a faded tarp.

And it was happily humming static at them.

The grin that consumed his face was echoed by every last person around the table. They stared at the metal box like it was spouting the word of God and not just white noise.

"Have you tried to find an active channel?" he asked, handing Peter over to Scully when she wordlessly held out her arms.

"We were waiting for you and the others." Howie said. Behind the smile, Mulder could see fear. It was the same fear they all felt. That the radio would find nothing at all.

It took Cissy five minutes to appear, Anna, Shan, and Chris behind her.

The small crowd gathered around the table, suddenly silent while Melchor began to fiddle with the dials. It seemed like hours of screeching static, but Mulder thought it was more likely five minutes. He felt a touch on his knuckles and without looking, he opened his fingers to fit Scully's free hand into his.

And then they heard the faint distorted sound of a distinctly human voice through the noise. Melchor's hands were trembling slightly as he adjusted the knobs and there it was.

"...Sand Point, Idaho." The voice said. "Take I-80 to Boise. North on Rte 34. This is a recording. If you can hear this, please respond on channel 45. Someone will pick up. We have the power running in Sand Point, Idaho. Take I-80 to..."

The recording ran through almost 5 times before the cheer finally went up.


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