Title: Out of the Everywhere
Authors: Kel and Michelle Kiefer
Written: March 2005
Email: ckelll@hotmail.com msk1024@yahoo.com
Category: Casefile
Spoilers: Conduit, En Ami
Rating: R
Archive: Just ask.
Disclaimer: Not ours. Sigh.

Summary: A missing child and a family with something to hide. In the aftermath of "En Ami," Mulder and Scully investigate a "classic alien abduction."

Comments: Huge thanks to an amazing team of betas: MaybeAmanda--thank you for helping us tighten the bolts, Marasmus--thank you for helping us see the true framework of the story, Syntax6--thank you for helping us hone and polish the characters and Sdani--thank you for reminding us that we needed to establish the foundation.

The X-Files may have listed it as "Lake Okobogee" but the spelling in Iowa appears officially to be Okoboji: http://www.vacationokoboji.com/2002/index2.html

Mom said it never happened, but Kevin remembered.

They were camping by the lake. Kevin wanted to sleep outside like a cowboy, but mom wouldn't let him. Not until Ruby offered to sleep outside with him.

Ruby was the coolest sister. She told him how cowboys ate beans all the time and that's why they had to sleep outside. Kevin pursed his lips and made fart noises, and Ruby laughed.

The next thing he remembered was waking up to horrible noise that shook the ground and bright light like an explosion. He thought it was the atom bomb. He screamed for his sister but Ruby was gone.

Mom said it never happened. She said Ruby made some mistakes when she was younger but it wasn't nice to talk about it.

But Kevin remembered. How Ruby disappeared. How men in suits took him away and his mom couldn't stop them. How an army of motorcycles tried to kill him in the woods, but somebody saved him.

Another man in a suit, but not like the others.

Kevin looked around his bedroom where childhood met teenage life. The posters on the wall competed with the soccer trophy from fourth grade. He really needed to replace the baseball and bat lamp with something less dorky. The bed was covered with a mixture of clean and dirty clothes. His mother hadn't felt well enough lately to bitch at him about the mess.

He opened his closet door and knelt down. Damn, but it was rank in there, probably from his scuzzy old sneakers. He pulled shoes, puzzle boxes, old toy cars and dirty clothes out until he located what he was looking for at the very back.

Blowing a layer of dust off an old Adidas box, he kicked the crap back into the closet. He sat on the bed and opened the box. He picked out a lucky half dollar, a Ken Griffey, Jr. baseball card, a red Matchbox car, one dog-eared photo of him and Ruby dressed up for Halloween when he was really little, and his favorite Batman action figure. Underneath all of that was a little white card.

Sometimes Kevin wondered if Mom was right. Maybe everything was a dream and Agent Mulder was a made-up hero like Batman. That's when he'd go back to his box of treasures. He held up the business card to read the printing.

Fox Mulder, FBI.

Scully knew it was wrong to find so many reasons to avoid the basement office but she still found herself jumping at errands to different parts of the building. She could just as easily have phoned Agent O'Hara with the tox screen results from the Phillips case. Reviewing the results line by line in person had been unnecessary. Flipping through O'Hara's vacation photos from Disney World was overkill.

She squared her shoulders as she descended the stairs to the basement office. It was time to face the music or more specifically, face the Mulder.

Over the last seven years, her relationship with Mulder had shifted and changed countless times. Though very private people, there were times when she and Mulder were so deeply connected it was hard to tell where one left off and the other began. Her road trip with the devil had been like a small earthquake in their relationship, the effects subtle but seismic.

She couldn't fault Mulder for less than professional behavior. He wasn't rude or insulting; he didn't criticize or belittle. Only someone who knew him well would have detected the anger seething under the surface.

They hadn't talked about what had happened since that awful day in Mulder's apartment when he wouldn't meet her eye. She still burned with humiliation over being duped like the green girl she'd once been.

He hadn't touched her in the past week. Even before they'd become lovers, Mulder had exercised an almost proprietary physicality with her, touching her far more than was seemly for a coworker. Scully was surprised at how much she missed that touch.

Lovers. She mulled the word over in her mind. It had begun a few months ago as Mulder recovered from brain surgery. A touch, a perfectly innocent, commonplace touch had turned into something resembling a caress. A kiss on the cheek somehow detoured to the right and arrived at her mouth. She'd always assumed their first time would be the equivalent of spontaneous combustion--a hot and sweaty tangle at the end of a tough case. How different the reality was from her imagination.

Their first time had been slow and careful, each caress deliberate, each kiss long and deep. She'd been rocked with amazement at the feeling of Mulder moving within her, stunned at her own response as she writhed beneath him.

Afterward, they'd both had tears in their eyes. Her trip with Spender had created a rift that tender lovemaking was unlikely to repair.

Maybe they could salvage their work relationship. They'd managed to dig out from some pretty big piles of crap as partners. Scully had less confidence about their ability to salvage their fledgling sexual relationship, though. How could they remain lovers if Mulder couldn't bring himself to look at her, much less touch her?

She stood outside the office, gathering her nerves together as Mulder's voice droned through the door. Scully remembered the first time she'd gotten up the courage to walk through that door, so many years, so many miles ago.

Mulder was hunched over, the phone cradled between ear and shoulder, when she entered the office. He didn't look up as he scratched notes onto a yellow legal pad. She wasn't sure he'd even realized she'd walked into the room.

"Okay. Yeah. Slow down. Did she mention any strange noises? Smells?"

She loved watching him when he was like this-- engaged, excited, alive. Mulder continued to ask questions and jot information on the pad.

"I want you to try and keep everyone calm, okay? I'm going to check out some stuff from here and see what I can find," he said, pushing back from the desk a bit. He saw her finally and gave a small nod. "I don't know. I'll try. All right. You too."

He hung up the phone, immediately turning to his computer. Scully stood, mesmerized, as his fingers flew over the keyboard.

"A case?" she asked.

"Looks like it might be." His eyes didn't stray from the computer screen as he typed away.

"Are you going to tell me about it?" she asked, annoyance creeping into her voice.

Seconds stretched into a minute with the silence broken only by the clicking of the computer keys. Finally, the printer hummed to life as pages began to print.

"Do you remember Lake Okoboji?"

Suitcases on wheels were definitely the single woman's friend, Scully thought as she pulled her bag behind her. Not that she hadn't always been able to carry her own suitcase. Or, she hoped, her own weight.

After checking in at the ticket desk, she set off for the gate. She kept an eye out for Mulder, finally spotting him sipping a cup of coffee and watching the panorama of air travel outside the big window. She wondered if things were ever going to get back to normal between them. For that matter, what exactly was normal for them?

Arriving separately at the airport was perfectly normal. Over the years, they'd flown out of DC hundreds of times. Sometimes, they arrived together, and sometimes they didn't. Of course, the last few months, they'd usually been together the night before and it would have been silly not to carpool to the airport in the morning.

It meant exactly nothing that Mulder had passed her ticket across his desk and said he would see her at the airport.

As she made her way to Mulder, she recalled the few case details he'd shared with her. The phone call had been from the now fourteen-year-old Kevin Morris asking Mulder for help.

Ruby, Kevin's sister, had a little girl who'd gone missing in what Mulder described as a "classic alien abduction" scenario. The child had been missing for almost two weeks.

Mulder must have caught her reflection in the window because he turned, smiling, just as she approached. His expression returned to the politely guarded look of the last week as he greeted her.

"They just called for handicapped passengers. I I wondered if you were coming," he said.

"I'm only five minutes late."

After takeoff, Scully was able to wrest the casefile away from Mulder. She smiled, remembering the early days when he would withhold the files until he had her airborne and unable to object to the flimsiness of the case by walking away.

Mulder flipped through the airline magazine, casting glances her way occasionally. Included in the folder was the preliminary police report logged into the missing children's database by the Sioux City sheriff's office. Destiny Morris, age 6, had been traveling back from Lake Okoboji in a 1990 Ford Aerostar with her mother, Ruby, when bright lights forced them off the road.

Ruby remembered nothing after the bright lights until she woke up in the dirt a few feet from the car. Scully's eyes kept drifting up the page as one detail drew her attention.

Mulder had put the magazine back in the seat pocket. His eyes were closed, his arms folded over his chest. She could tell from his breathing that he wasn't asleep.

"Mulder," she said, nudging him with her elbow. Her arm tingled at the contact.


"Destiny Morris is six years old?" she asked.

"Yeah," he answered without opening his eyes. "Why?"

"Ruby went missing in August of 1993. The police report lists Destiny Morris' birthdate as May 16, 1994. Ruby may have conceived before she disappeared."


"Or I suppose it could have been soon after. Even after reviewing Ruby's medical records, it could be hard to determine."

"Or it could have been during." "Possibly," she said, sneaking a glance in his direction.

For a split second, it felt like old times.

Scully raised the shade and gazed out the window. Being able to recognize the terrain below was always a little unnerving to her--too easy to picture the plane plummeting to those rivers and lakes and roads. But there were only fluffy clouds beyond the window right now. Unthreatening pillow-like clouds.

Scully drove out to the Morris house, while Mulder went to talk to the sheriff. Scully hadn't been surprised when Mulder suggested they split up after they checked into their hotel. Disappointed, maybe, but not surprised.

They were most effective working together, each listening to the witnesses from their individual point of view, each asking different questions. Without Mulder's ballast, she felt unbalanced, circling endlessly like a rowboat with one oar.

No one had answered the door when she'd first arrived. Scully heard the phone ringing inside the house as she tried to call, followed by Darlene's voice on the answering machine. She'd walked around the house, noting the swing set and Little Tykes playhouse in the backyard.

The mesh on the screen door was torn and the garden grown over with weeds, giving the property a neglected air. The mailbox contained no more than that day's delivery. The curtains were partly open, allowing Scully to see the newspaper spread over the kitchen table next to a coffee mug.

Scully retreated to wait in the rental car on the hunch that the Morrises wouldn't be gone for any length of time. And wait, she did.

Shifting in her seat, she noted that she'd lost all sensation in her backside. Several hours on the plane followed by over an hour in the rental car waiting for someone to come back to the Morris home had left her numb and irritable.

Her patience was rewarded when a car containing Darlene and Kevin pulled into the driveway, taking the corner a little sharply and leaving tire marks on the brown lawn.

Scully got out of her car, crossing the street to meet them. "Oh God," she muttered under her breath.

Darlene leaned heavily on her car, eyes squeezed shut as she swallowed hard. Thin and pale, she was almost unrecognizable from the healthy woman Scully remembered.

Her waxy skin had a grayish cast, covered by a thin sheen of sweat. She wore what Scully always thought of as a cancer patient head scarf. Had chemo robbed her of her hair? Her eyes had an odd, bird-like quality without eyebrows or lashes.

"You okay, Mom?" Kevin asked, taking her arm. He glanced at Scully, his expression both hopeful and disappointed.

"I'm all right, honey," she said, gently. Her face, when she looked up at Scully, registered recognition, then shock, then anger. "What are you doing here?"

"Mrs. Morris, I'm here because Kevin asked us to help find Destiny."

Kevin didn't meet his mother's gaze, keeping his eyes downcast. With a sigh, Darlene turned back to Scully.

"Kevin was mistaken. We don't need your help. I'm sorry you came all this way, but you might as well turn right around."

"Mom, maybe they can help."

"Kevin," Darlene began, her voice thin and reedy. Suddenly, her eyes went wide and her skin seemed tinged with green. She broke away from her son and stumbled up the steps, one hand covering her mouth as the other scrabbled anxiously to unlock the door.

She wrenched the door open, and a moment later, Scully and Kevin heard retching from inside the house.

"It must be hard for you," Scully said, quietly.

"It's okay," Kevin said as he studied the toe of his sneaker. He'd grown into a tall, lanky teen, all elbows and knees. Hair that had darkened from blond to sandy hung over his eyes. "I wish Mom would let me get my instructional permit so I could drive her. Sometimes she has to stop the car on the side of the road and throw up."

"How long has she been going for chemo?"

"This is the second round for her. But it's so much worse this time. I tried to call Ruby but they said Mr. Harriman had her take some papers out to Orange Center to get signed."

"We want to help you, Kevin."

"Did, uh, did Agent Mulder come too?"

"He's here," Scully said, fighting a smile. What an impressive shadow Mulder must have cast in Kevin's young life. Lord knows, he knocked her off her feet back then, too. "Agent Mulder went to see the sheriff."

A look of panic passed over Kevin's face. Poor kid. With all that had happened when he was a child, it was no wonder Kevin had developed a fear of authority.

The sound of vomiting started up again and Kevin looked as if he might cry. "I hate this," he said.

"Maybe I can help," Scully offered. At his skeptical look, she went on. "I'm a doctor."

That appeared to reassure him. When you're fourteen, FBI agents and doctors probably seem like they can solve anything. Kevin nodded and led her into the house.

The kitchen was messy--tomato sauce splatters on the stovetop, dirty dishes in the sink. Crayon drawings signed by Destiny were proudly displayed on the fridge door.

They found Darlene in the bathroom, slumped against the tub as she wiped her face with wad of toilet paper.

"Kevin, baby, I'll be fine. Go do your homework," she said, seeing her son.

Worry and fear spurring obedience, Kevin murmured his agreement and left. His departure revealed Scully in the doorway.

"Would you, please, just go away?" Darlene asked impatiently. "Can't you see this is a bad time?"

"What did your doctor prescribe for nausea?" Scully asked. She took a washcloth off a shelf, wet it and handed it over. Darlene sighed, leveling an angry look at Scully before she wiped her face with the damp cloth. Closing her eyes, she rested her head against the tub, obviously too tired to argue.

"I have some Compazine. But it doesn't always work and it knocks me out. I hate being a zombie--my family needs me."

"Darlene," Scully began, crouching next to her, "they can manage for a little while. You can't help them if you can't get off the floor."

Darlene nodded after a minute. "Okay. It's in the medicine cabinet."

Scully sorted through the cabinet, moving aside mouthwash and eyedrops until she found the amber pharmacy vial. Judging from the number of pills and date on the label, Darlene had only taken a few in the months since the prescription had been filled.

"Let's get you into bed," Scully suggested, helping Darlene off the floor and into the bedroom. "I'll bring you a pill after you're settled."

By the time Scully returned with the pill and a glass of water, Darlene was stretched out on the unmade bed.

"Kevin offered to get me some pot," Darlene mumbled around the pill as she brought the water to her lips. She took a small sip and then another. "I didn't know whether to be touched at his thoughtfulness or horrified that he knew where to get it. I decided on touched."

Scully smiled as she put the glass on the dusty bedstand amid crumpled tissues. She slipped Darlene's shoes off and pulled the covers over her, straightening out the rumpled sheets and blanket. Spying a wastepaper basket near the door, Scully moved it by the bed.

"I had cancer a few years ago," Scully said.

Darlene eyed her with new interest.

"You look good," she said. "You had chemo?"

"Yes. And other treatments."

"I'm getting Trantomycin," Darlene said.

Scully winced. It was one of the older drugs and one of the harshest, but for certain tumors it was still the treatment of choice.

"Where is your cancer?" she asked.

"Breast. What about you?"

"I had a tumor behind my nasal sinus," Scully said. "They couldn't operate."

"But you got better," Darlene said, her eyes locked on Scully's.

"Yes. I got better. I've been clear for almost three years."

"Mom?" Ruby Morris stood in the doorway, looking from her mother to Scully. How much did Ruby remember of her return six years ago? Darlene hadn't allowed more than a brief meeting before sending the agents away. "Kevin called and said to come right home."

The last time she'd seen Ruby, the girl lay dazed and pale in a hospital room. Her face had lost the roundness of childhood, the pretty features now set in worry. "He shouldn't have bothered you, honey," Darlene said, her words slurring slightly with drowsiness. "I don't want you to get in trouble at work."

"Don't worry about that, Mom. Mr. Harriman understands."

"I'm Dana Scully, with the FBI. I don't know if you remember me."

Ruby shook her head, looking confused. "I'm sorry," she said, looking at Darlene.

"My partner and I came here six years ago, when you were missing."

"Kevin called them...about what happened to Destiny," Darlene mumbled.

"Mom," Ruby said, moving forward to sit on the side of the bed. Darlene's eyes were drifting shut as the medication took effect, but she forced them open to look into her daughter's eyes and nod slightly, as if Darlene was giving her daughter permission to talk.

After a moment, Darlene drifted off into sleep. Touching Ruby's shoulder, Scully nodded in the direction of the door. "Why don't we let your mom get some rest?"

Ruby nodded and followed Scully out of the room. They returned to the kitchen where Ruby set about clearing the table and stacking dishes for washing. Nothing pointed up how messy your surroundings were more than a stranger in your midst.

"Can I get you some coffee? Tea?" Ruby asked. She tied a dishtowel around her slim waist to protect her work clothes, a dark blue straight skirt and lighter blue short sleeve blouse. The garments were neat and basic--probably purchased at a chain store.

"Just some water, maybe," Scully replied. Ruby took a pitcher of water out of the refrigerator and poured two glasses.

"I just don't understand why all this is happening to us," Ruby said softly. "First Mom gets sick, then my baby..." Her voice trailed off into tears.

"Do you have a picture of Destiny?" Scully asked.

"Oh yeah," Ruby said, rising quickly. "I'll get some."

A minute later, she returned with a small pink photo album. Scully leafed through the pages, noting that Destiny was a solemn, rather petite child. There were some extra school photos at the back of the album.

"Her hair is so pretty," Scully said. "She must get her coloring from her father."

"I suppose," Ruby shrugged.

"Does her father stay in touch?"

"It's just us," Ruby answered.

"Can I have one of these?" Scully asked. "I'll return it."

"Oh, sure."

"Tell me about that night, Ruby. The night Destiny went missing."

"We were driving back from Spirit Lake."

"What were you doing at the lake?" Scully asked.

"We walked around--it's real pretty there. It was a nice day--Destiny fed the ducks." Ruby smiled at the memory. "She didn't like them getting too close. She kind of pelted them with stale bread. Then, we had dinner."

"Just you and Destiny?" Scully asked, sensing Ruby was leaving something out.

"Yeah," she said. "Just us. Anyway, time kind of got away from me and it was 9:00 before we set out for home."

"So you drove home. What route did you take?" Scully asked.

"We were driving home along the Route 71. There were hardly any other cars on the road. I forgot how much I hated driving that route when there's no moon--it was so dark. We'd been riding for about half an hour when the radio went dead. The engine kind of stuttered and then stopped. And then it got so bright--like white hot--like I was staring into the sun..."

Ruby's voice had become more and more agitated. She brought a trembling hand up to her face.

"The next thing I knew, I woke up lying in the dirt on the side of the road and my baby was gone."


For the first time in his life, Mulder understood how a man could raise his hand to the woman he loved.

That smoking bastard lured her in with a story that wouldn't convince a baby. "Get in the car, little girl, and I'll give you the secret to eternal life."

He'd always had confidence in Scully's judgement and common sense. He might tease her about being cautious and practical, but in truth he valued those qualities. He depended on her for counterbalance. So why the hell had she blithely climbed aboard the Smoker Express? Sooner or later they would have to talk about it, but because Scully was so stupid, he would have to spell it out for her.

When Mulder contemplated their conversation, it went something like this:

"Hey, Scully, do you know why Cancer Man insisted on taking you along for the ride? See, he's had my mother, and he took my sister, and my grandmother is dead. So that left you."

But Scully wasn't stupid, and that was the problem.

She was intelligent. She was intellectually rigorous. She was his touchstone, goddamnit. She was absolutely not supposed to run off with his archenemy for the sole purpose of proving she could be impulsive.

If she was trying to impress him with her spontaneity, he wished she'd restrict herself to the bedroom. Scully wasn't impulsive. She wasn't equipped for it. Her one foray into impulsive had nearly gotten her killed. He'd chalked Ed Jerse up as an anomaly in Scully's otherwise ordered life. Mulder was completely unable to explain away or understand her behavior now. It was as if he didn't really know her.

Perhaps he never had.

Was this payback for his so-called "ditches"? If she wanted to demonstrate that she could put him through the wringer, she could have taken a cruise without telling him. Gone on a religious retreat. He would tell her, "Next time you want to punish me, Scully, choose something that doesn't endanger your life."

Scully would glare and say, "Not everything is about you, Mulder."

This was about him, all right. This was all about him.

Not only had Cancer Man nabbed her to humiliate Mulder, Scully had taken the bait in order to impress him, or teach him a lesson, or scare the shit out of him.

It was hard to love someone who you also wanted to strangle, and working with her was harder still. He would have given her the slip and taken this case on his own, except he knew that would mean the end. They flew to Sioux City together, spoke cordially on the plane and checked into two rooms in a motel downtown. Everything was normal, or close enough.

"I'll talk to the police while you interview the family," Mulder had suggested. "Or do you want it the other way?"

Scully eyed him levelly before she answered. "Fine. I'll start with the family," she said.

He nodded and walked off toward the sheriff's office, leaving Scully the car for the drive to the Morris home.

They hadn't been any help to the family six years ago, not Mulder with his sympathy or Scully with her skepticism. Their visit had landed the National Security Administration in the Morris home. Black-suited operatives had slashed and smashed their way through Kevin's room, and then they'd dragged him away, screaming for his mother.

Darlene Morris might not even let Scully in the house. For that matter, the sheriff might refuse to talk to Mulder.

Sheriff Mike Linklater embodied most of the traits Mulder disliked about small town sheriffs, but also most of their typical strengths. Mulder remembered him as strongly paternalistic and full of pride about how well he knew his constituents. He hadn't bothered to investigate Ruby's disappearance because he had her pegged for a runaway, and that infuriated Mulder.

Later the sheriff had been a useful ally, using his local connections to dig up information and sharing what he learned.

Scully had criticized Mulder for being obnoxious to the sheriff, but Linklater didn't seem to hold a grudge. He appraised Mulder calmly from across his desk. "Agent Mulder of the FBI. What's on your mind this time?" he asked. "The Morris family," Mulder said.

"Oh, for pete's sake. Why don't you leave them alone?"

Mulder had the sudden feeling he'd been handed the wrong script, or that he was missing a few pages. The sheriff hadn't cared about Ruby's disappearance, but he wouldn't be indifferent to a missing six-year-old.

"Why do you say that?" Mulder asked.

"Last time you tried to help them, you had that little boy arrested as a spy."

Mulder could have answered that he wasn't responsible, because that was a different three-letter agency of the federal government. Or he could've pointed out that his partner had made the government pony up for the damage they did. It didn't seem worth the effort.

"How are they doing?" he asked.

"Minding their own business," the sheriff shot back, but then he answered. "Kevin's a good boy. He quit the hockey team when Darlene got sick, but he's keeping out of trouble."

"Darlene is sick?"

"Cancer. A bad one, it looks like. I think the biggest strain was on Ruby." He shook his head. "And she'd been doing so well, too."

"She used to be a wild one," Mulder said, echoing the sheriff's description six years ago.

"She cleaned up, once the baby came. She got her high school diploma and took a job at Harriman's Insurance Agency. I thought she'd put those wild days behind her, until... Well, she's under a lot of strain."

"What happened?"

"She came barreling in here one night, screaming that her daughter was gone. It was three in the morning, and she had some crazy story about car trouble and blinding lights. My deputy woke me up and I drove in at a hundred miles an hour, but by the time I arrived, Darlene was here, explaining how it was all a mistake."

"What kind of mistake?" Mulder asked.

"I guess Ruby got to partying again, maybe pulled off the road to sleep it off. When she woke up, she forgot she'd left the kid back home with her mom."

"So the child was never missing after all."

"Nope. She was safe with grandma the whole time."

"But what about your report in the missing children database?"

"My deputy entered it before Darlene showed up. I guess I'd better see about getting it deleted."

"Did Ruby seem like she'd been partying?" Mulder asked.

"She was hysterical, and she forgot where she left her kid."

Mulder kept his comments to himself as he left the police station and crossed the street to the library. There he used the phone book, his cell phone and his natural gift for deception to ascertain that Destiny Morris had missed more than a week of school.

Destiny was missing and Darlene was covering up. Ironically, the sheriff's efforts to portray Ruby as dedicated mother and dutiful daughter produced the opposite effect. The answer to Destiny's disappearance might be very close to home, and very brutal. Harriman's Insurance Agency, where Ruby worked, was only a block from the library. Mulder decided to drop in, hoping to talk to her away from her mother. As he walked down the street, he wondered how much Ruby remembered about her own disappearance. A car gone dead, bright lights, lost time--it could all add up to an easy set of lies.

Ruby was not at work, he found. He tried asking the young woman at the reception desk about her, fishing for whatever he could get, but the fish weren't biting and a middle-aged man came out from a side office and asked him to leave.

There was nothing more he could do until Scully brought back the car. Then he could drive to the scene of Ruby's alleged motor trouble or possibly out to Lake Okoboji. Maybe tomorrow Scully could nose around downtown while he drove out to talk to the Morrises. Or maybe it was time to rent a second car.

He couldn't avoid Scully forever. Eventually they would have to talk about what happened.

He walked back to the motel.

He heard the door open and close when Scully went into her room, and then the rap on his own door.

"Mulder?" she called.


He cracked open the door.

"May I come in?" she asked after a minute.

"Yeah. Of course." He moved aside.

"Is something wrong?"

He sat down on the bed and pulled on a shoe.

"What did you find out at the Morrises?" he asked.

"Darlene Morris has cancer, and she wants us out of her life. Ruby wants her daughter back. And Kevin is confused."

"No sign of Destiny?"

"What do you mean?"

"Darlene Morris told the sheriff her granddaughter was safe at home, and Ruby had made a mistake."

"She did?" Scully seemed surprised. "Well, I suppose that's understandable. She doesn't want him intruding when he can't help her anyway."

"That's one explanation. I'm sure you've considered some others."

"What, that Ruby killed her? Or Darlene?" She shook her head. "I didn't get that vibe at all."

"You didn't get that vibe?" he repeated sarcastically. Scully held her ground.

"No, Mulder, I didn't."

"What about Kevin?"

"Kevin? Mulder, Kevin was the one who called you." "Okay, fine. The Morrises are all pure as the driven snow. But you did look around? Maybe checked the bathroom for blood?"

"I had a good look, especially at the fixtures, edges and behind the toilet. I didn't see anything to indicate a crime scene or a major clean-up."

This was the real Scully. The shrewd investigator who looked for evidence. Who would never go joy-riding with Mulder's lifelong enemy.

"I also checked Ruby's car. The paint on the roof is blistered."

"You can do that with a propane torch," he said.

Scully's look was a mixture of distaste and annoyance.

"It sounds as if you have this all figured out," she said.

He sighed.

"Okay, tell me Ruby's version."

"She was coming home from the lake, around nine o'clock on Thursday night."

"Kind of late for a school night."

"She works Friday and Saturday nights."

Not exactly banker's hours, Mulder thought.

"Just her and the kid all day at the lake?" he asked.

"That's what she said. Do you want to hear the rest?" she asked.

"Sorry. Go on."

"She was driving east along the Route 71 . . ."

Mulder felt the hairs on his neck prickle.

"Very dark night, and not much traffic . . ."

He barely heard the rest. Engine stalled, radio and electronics went haywire, then the blinding light. Finally, waking up in the dirt and finding her daughter had vanished.

"Scully, think about what you're saying. They were at the lake, and I'm sure the road cuts by the lake. We don't have a motive, but that's a lot of opportunity."

Now Scully looked alarmed.

"Maybe we'd better take a look," she said.

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Scully drove, both hands on the wheel, frowning with concentration. Mulder wanted to ask about their destination. How had Ruby described it? Had she modified the details under questioning? Was she specific about distances? If he had been the driver, Scully would have had to share that information.

At first Mulder had been inclined to accept Kevin's description of an alien abduction, but now he held dark suspicions. Ruby had changed her story too many times for his comfort. It was all very sad, single mother, two jobs, and now her own mother sick, but it all added up to pressure. People under pressure do horrible things. Scully signaled left and drove the car across the median and onto the opposite shoulder. Mulder didn't notice any distinctive landmarks, but Scully seemed quite definite about the location. He grabbed a flashlight and got out of the car.

The ground was thick with weeds and brush. They would have to return by daylight, Mulder thought. His first instinct, whenever possible, was to view the site as it had appeared at the time of the incident in order to visualize things as the participants had.

If Ruby had taken the car close to the water, the signs would still be visible. But the body could be right here on dry land, hidden by the ragged vegetation.

He turned to Scully, who was on hands and knees next to the car.

"How big was she?" he asked.

"Thirty-six pounds, forty-two inches," Scully answered absently. "Ruby showed me the papers from her last physical." Tiny, Mulder thought. She could be anywhere.

"Look at this," Scully called. She was playing the beam of her flashlight along the ground.

Mulder joined her, leaning against the car and straining to see.

"The grass is scorched," he said. "At least that's what it looks like."

"Yes. Burned here. . . and here. . . but not there." Scully swept the light so that it revealed where a rectangle had been spared. "That would be where she stopped the car. The ground below was protected."

"Could be," he acceded.

Scully rose to her feet.

"I think that's about all we can do here tonight."

They got back in the car.

"We passed a diner," Scully commented as she started the engine.

"I noticed."

"I'm hungry. Maybe you can live on air and suspicion but I need something solid."

Scully patted a little more concealer under her eyes, closed the tube and dropped it into her makeup bag. She'd have to apply her makeup with a spackle trowel to approach normal looking this morning. Good thing Mulder could barely bring himself to look at her these days. She had jolted awake in a cold sweat at 4 a.m., her pajamas plastered to her skin. As she'd pulled the damp fabric away from her, Scully found herself a little surprised that she was wearing anything at all. And that she was truly awake. She'd dreamed that she'd awakened back in the bedroom at the inn in Pennsylvania where Spender had taken her after she'd passed out. Only in her dream, she woke up naked.

Scully had been too agitated to sleep after that. She'd watched an old black and white version of "The Phantom of the Opera" before the farm reports came on. Considering she hadn't fallen asleep until after midnight, she was in for a long, exhausted day.

Sleep had been in short supply since she'd gotten back from her trip to hell with the smoking man. She barely recalled her dreams upon waking, feeling only a vague sense of vulnerability. Once awake, she'd toss and turn and try to figure out what the hell Spender had done to her.

One thing was clear--there was no way she was going to tell Mulder what had happened. He was angry enough without adding more fuel to his fire.

What was it they used to say about rape victims who dressed provocatively or walked through bad neighborhoods? That they'd asked for it.

Not that Mulder would ever say that. He was too much of a gentleman. But it would kill her to think that he'd ever thought that--even for the tiniest heartbeat of a moment.

Most of all, she couldn't bear for this, too, to be all about Mulder. He had this habit of taking every burden upon himself and this violation would somehow end up being all about him.

Sometimes it felt as if she didn't get to own her tragedies.

Scully took a swig of coffee, thanking the gods of mid-priced hotel chains for in-room coffeemakers. She didn't think she could face breakfast, but coffee was non-negotiable.

Mulder wanted to talk to the people at Destiny's elementary school this morning. She hoped he would be satisfied with a drive-through fast food breakfast. Scully wasn't sure she could face a repeat of last night's nearly silent dinner.

For a man who knew how to turn on the warmth, Mulder could be cold enough to freeze her panties.

Scully knew that Mulder was questioning Mrs. Effels to learn about Destiny Morris. Mrs. Effels probably knew it herself, but she couldn't help responding as if Mulder's attention was a personal gift.

Mulder was a virtuoso, and the helpless schoolteacher was a violin.

The three of them were seated at the "reading table" in the back of the classroom, Mrs. Effels in her teacher chair, Mulder and Scully in uncomfortably small chairs. Mulder's knees had been up around his ears as he folded himself the child-sized seat. If things hadn't been as tense between them, Scully would have teased him about it later.

"Your power of observation is impressive, Mrs. Effels," Mulder said earnestly.

"I hardly think so, Agent Mulder," the teacher replied, but she leaned closer to bask in his praise.

Mrs. Effels had reported that Destiny was a high-strung kid who responded to frustration by screeching and flapping her arms up and down.

"Is it unusual for Destiny to miss school?" Scully asked, feeling almost like an intruder.

"She was out a lot over the winter. Children do get sick, you know." Mrs. Effels answered without taking her eyes off Mulder.

"Would you say she was a sickly child?" Mulder asked.

"Not sickly, just little things. Colds. Eczema. Allergies."

"And Destiny is not in school today?" he asked.

"No. She's been out since Friday of last week, actually." "Would you recall who reported her absence?" Scully asked.

"I'm not really sure," Mrs. Effels replied. "The message was left on the school's voice mail. I suppose it was her mother or her grandmother."

"But that was almost two weeks ago," Mulder said.

"Yes. After a week, Destiny's mom dropped off a note from her pediatrician. I kept a copy for my records," Mrs. Effels said as she walked over to her desk. After a few moments of searching, the teacher returned with a photocopy.

"Dr. Smolen," Mulder said. "Writes a neat note." "Yes," Mrs. Effels agreed.

"May I take this?" Mulder asked.

"Sure. I can get another copy from the office."

"What about Destiny's home life?" Mulder asked.

"I don't know what I could tell you about that."

Mulder nodded and started to stand. It was all the prodding Mrs. Effels required.

"She seems to get a lot of love and attention. No father in the house, but her mother and her grandmother try to make up for it," she offered.

"I'm sure there were ways you could tell," Mulder said, settling back in his chair. "Her lunch. Little sandwiches in cookie-cutter shapes. Fruit cubes. Soy milk."

Scully knew all about Destiny's food habits from her time with Ruby the day before.

"Anything else that made her stand out?" Mulder asked.

"Her clothes. She wore the same thing every day."

Again, this was old news to Scully. Every night Darlene would hand-wash the little dress because anything else was "too scratchy!" Every night Destiny wore the same nightgown.

"She sounds like a challenging kid," said Scully.

This time Mrs. Effels turned to answer her.

"Well, I'm not fond of the screeching. The other things. . ." The teacher shrugged. "Give her time."

"Child psychology isn't my field," Mulder began, "but from your description, I was wondering if Destiny might be autistic."

"To be honest, I had some concerns at the beginning of the school year, but she tested within normal levels. She's got some quirks, that's all."

"I think Destiny is very fortunate to have you for her teacher," Mulder said, and Scully thought he probably meant it.

"I remember when she was born," Mrs. Effels said. "I was teaching third grade then and Kevin was in my class."

"That must have been a big moment for him," Mulder said.

"He was a very proud uncle," Mrs. Effels agreed. "I'm sure half the class went home asking if they could get a baby too."

Mulder thanked Mrs. Effels for her help, taking the woman's hand and smiling into her eyes. If Mrs. Effels had been an ice cube, she would have melted into a puddle at Mulder's size 12 feet.

With one final ingratiating smile, Mulder walked down the hall leaving Scully to trail after him. Scully wondered if Mrs. Effels assumed she was a trainee agent following Mulder around and taking notes on how to conduct a proper investigation.

As he pushed through the main door into the bright sunlight, Mulder finally seemed to remember she was there.

"A pediatrician wouldn't write a note for a child he hasn't seen, would he?"

Of course, Mulder could have been merely musing to himself. He popped the door locks, the cellphone in his hand before he slid into the driver's seat. He pulled the photocopied note out of his pocket and smoothed it flat over the steering wheel. Scully settled herself beside him, listening to the familiar beep, boop, beep as he dialed.

"Good morning," he said in response to the tinny voice on the other end of the phone. "Bill Armbruster, here, from the medical claims department. Yes. That's right, Iowa General Health Care. You're right, we're the biggest around..."

A week ago, Mulder would have been playing to her as audience, smirking and showing off his chicanery. Now, his gaze was somewhere beyond the windshield.

"We're just auditing some of our records. Can you tell me the date of Destiny Morris' last visit? Nothing since the well-child visit in January? No...that matches our records exactly."

Mulder flipped his phone closed and pocketed it.

"So the note..."

"...was a forgery," Mulder finished her sentence.

Faced with Mulder's best pushy door-to-door salesman routine, Darlene Morris didn't stand a chance. His foot was wedged in the door before she knew what hit her. Reluctantly, she allowed them into the house.

"You look a lot better today," Scully said. Darlene's skin was less gray, her eyes clearer. But she still seemed tired, almost as if she had to concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other as she lead them into the kitchen.

"Chemo day is always the worst for nausea. I just feel drained the day after."

Darlene dropped wearily into a kitchen chair, her arms folded across her chest. Scully couldn't help but recall the reception they'd received six years ago when she and Mulder had been viewed as Darlene's saviors. Well, it was Mulder who'd been seen as the champion. Darlene had picked up on Scully's skepticism right from the start.

As she sat at the table, Scully remembered the first time she'd been there. How young she had been, how green. In those days, she'd put her trust in God, her parents and the United States government. When did her entire value system shift to Mulder?

"You're wasting your time here," Darlene said as Mulder took a seat opposite her. "Kevin shouldn't have bothered you."

"I don't think a missing child is a waste of time, do you?" Mulder asked, his expression as bland as a bowl of milk. If Mulder felt any sympathy for Darlene Morris, he'd buried it deep. His voice had a hard edge when he spoke again. "I mean, I can't imagine anyone turning down help to find a child. Unless, that is, they were hiding something."

"I don't know what you're talking about," she replied. Darlene pulled her sweater more closely around her.

"You lied to the sheriff, Darlene. You told them that Destiny was safe at home. Then you called her school and told them she was home sick. Did you forge the note from Destiny's doctor, Darlene, or was it Ruby?"

"There was nothing the sheriff could do," she whispered, shaking her head.

"Is Destiny beyond help?" he asked.

"No!" Darlene said, suddenly realizing that Mulder thought the child was dead. "Of course not."

"Darlene, we want to help you," Mulder said. "But we can't do anything unless you're honest with us."

"I am being honest. The sheriff can't help. No one can help. We just have to wait until they let her go. Like Ruby."

"I want to believe you, Darlene. Really, I do. But you made that very difficult when you lied. The sheriff believed you, but sooner or later, he's going to put two and two together and come up with four. He's going to call the school and find out Destiny has been absent since the night Ruby stumbled into the sheriff's office. And then they're going to call the pediatrician's office just like I did and find out they haven't seen Destiny since her last checkup. Forging a doctor's note is a serious matter, Darlene."

"You don't understand."

"I guess I don't and the sheriff isn't going to understand either. He's going to start asking questions like who might want to hurt a little girl, especially a difficult kid--"

"--She's not difficult," Darlene interrupted. "She's...different."

"Tell me about her," Mulder said. Scully knew what he was doing. 'Keep them talking' was the rule. Keep them talking and they might say something you could use.

"Ruby never told anyone who the father was. About a month after...after we found her by the lake, she came to me, crying. Said she thought she was pregnant. I asked her if it was Greg Randall, but she wouldn't say one way or the other. She never said so, but I think she thought that maybe 'they' did it."


Darlene shrugged her shoulders.

"You must have some idea," he said.

"I don't know. Sometimes, I don't think even Ruby knows. I remember holding Destiny in the hospital. She was so tiny and so quiet--it was strange the way she didn't make any baby sounds. I remember saying out loud--'where did you come from, baby dear'--like this hours-old baby was going to answer me."

"Out of the everywhere, into the here," Scully murmured.

Mulder's gaze shifted away from Darlene.

"It's a poem," Scully explained, feeling almost defensive under Mulder's scrutiny.

As they walked from the Morris house, Mulder weighed the possibilities.

Maybe Destiny had been whisked away by aliens, and Darlene knew no one on earth could do anything about it.

The other version was darker. He didn't think Darlene would hurt the child, but she might be covering up for somebody else. Someone she loved enough to protect, even if they had done something terrible.

Teenage boys were capable of heinous acts and audacious deceptions. Young mothers could also be cold-blooded killers. To Kevin Morris and his sister, "alien abduction" might just be the first excuse that sprang to mind, the way Mulder might plead heavy traffic or a flat tire.

He'd felt Scully bristle at his treatment of Darlene. The Scully he used to know wouldn't have been swayed by cancer-survivor sympathy. The woman who shot him a severe look as she got into the car was a stranger.

He wasn't without feeling. He had been stunned by Darlene's pallor and frailty. Well, maybe he was a shallow son of a bitch. His first thought on seeing Darlene's scarf-covered head and lashless eyes was gratitude that Scully had never lost her hair.

"You think that poor sick woman hurt her grandchild?" Scully asked. "Mulder, I saw her yesterday--she couldn't get off the bathroom floor without help."

Then maybe she had help, he wanted to say. Maybe she thought lying about what happened was the only way to protect what was left of her family.

"She lied, Scully," he said. "Ruby lied too, but only after her mother got to her."

Scully just shook her head. "After what happened six years ago, I certainly understand why Darlene doesn't have a lot of confidence in the authorities. It's not as if this attitude is new."

The familiar electric jolt of intuition buzzed up Mulder's spine. Darlene's attitude was not new at all.

"The truth has brought me nothing but heartache," Mulder murmured under his breath as he tapped the steering wheel with his thumbs.

"What did you say?" she asked, turning to him.

"In the hospital corridor, outside Ruby's room six years ago. Darlene said that the truth had brought her nothing but heartache. She'd faced ridicule when she told the truth."

Scully frowned a little.

"I remember that. I think she just wanted you out of her hair, Mulder. Ruby was back and that was all she cared about."

"It would have been a rare opportunity to talk to an abductee while the experience was fresh, before all the crackpot UFO groupies got to her."

Mulder's disappointment was not only for himself. Ruby needed the chance to talk about her experiences, and he was sure that Darlene would never let her have it.

"She said she was ridiculed all her life," Scully mused.

For a moment, all the tension between them evaporated. Scully's thoughts were following the same trail as his own. She might not arrive at the same conclusions, but he felt the almost forgotten joy of untangling a riddle with her.

"It just didn't make sense. Why would her sighting of a UFO bring ridicule, especially when she was one of any number of people who saw the lights?" Mulder asked.

"She was the one mentioned in that article you found. And didn't she take a photo? Maybe she got a lot of unwanted attention over that."

"Not likely," Mulder said as he pulled away from the curb. "Not the kind of attention that drastically affects behavior over thirty years later."

"So, where are we going?" she asked.

"You've given me an idea," he answered.

He hated microfilm machines. His stomach was roiling and he'd developed a headache deep behind his eyes from the spinning text. Scully probably had some Dramamine, but he was damned if he was going to ask her.

They had settled in at the Sioux City Main Library Branch and were working their way through the 1960s editions of the local paper. The periodical room was empty except for the two of them. They'd split the decade between them, and now Mulder was up to 1965, two years before the camping trip sightings.

"I'm done with the 60s, Mulder," Scully said leaning around the microfilm machine to see him. She looked as tired as he felt. Well, good. If he wasn't sleeping well, neither should she. "I'm starting on the 1970s."

A crack about drugs, sex and rock 'n roll was dying to be made, but he tamped it down. Mulder turned back to the whirr of his own microfilm reader as he advanced through 1965.

"Mulder! I think I have something here," Scully called out. Her voice echoed in the quiet room.

He jumped up and came around to stand behind her at the reader, fighting the urge to rest his hands on her shoulders.

"What do you have?"

"An article in the Sioux City Journal March 10, 1970 edition. 'Frank J. Morris was taken into custody on suspicion of foul play in the disappearance of his daughter, Darlene Anne Morris, age 13, who has been missing for two weeks'."

"Keep cranking."

Mulder leaned forward, scanning as Scully scrolled ahead, grabbing the handle from her when the follow-up article swam into view.

March 13, Darlene Morris was found wandering dazed along Route 71. Her father was released from custody.

"No explanation for the disappearance," Scully commented.

"Keep looking, but I don't think you'll find one."

"What does it mean, Mulder? One family, three generations . . ."

"We have to talk to Darlene again."

Scully nodded grimly.

"But no browbeating. No rough stuff."

"I'll leave the rubber hoses in the car."

Mulder walked out of the library, Scully's heels clacking along behind him. Fresh air brought welcome relief for his microfilm queasiness and they stood, blinking in the bright sunlight as their eyes recovered.

"Shit," Mulder muttered as he watched Sheriff Mike Linklater amble across the street from his office.

"He's been waiting for us," Scully answered in a whisper.

The lawman planted himself in their path, arms folded across his chest.

"Now, it can't be our fine public facilities that are keeping you here."

"That *is* one fine library," Mulder said.

"Look, I know you two were down at the school asking about Destiny Morris. FBI in town, people talk. So, what the hell is going on?"

"We're trying to find out," Scully said.

Mulder knew she didn't want the sheriff involved, but there was no way around it. Wisecracks and evasions wouldn't cut it.

"Ruby was right. Her daughter is missing," Mulder said. He could sense Scully's irritation.

Linklater's mouth tightened to an ugly frown and his breath rattled in his throat.

"Ruby was telling the truth that night, and the girl's been gone for two weeks?" he asked.

It took a minute for Mulder to realize that the sheriff's anger was mostly with himself.

"I'm sorry, sheriff. We weren't trying to keep you in the dark," Scully said.

"Two weeks wasted, and nothing done," the sheriff said. "Why the hell didn't you tell me as soon as you knew? I should report you for obstructing justice."

"Sheriff, our investigation is well under way," Scully said. "The Morris family is very leery about policemen, but they're starting to open up to us. I hope you won't jeopardize that."

"I don't think I heard you right, young lady. Are ordering me off this case" "Not at all," Scully said, in her most persuasive and earnest mode. "Agent Mulder and I are treading very lightly with the family right now. We're asking for a few days. I think we're getting somewhere."

Linklater was speechless. Mulder was too.

"We'll be sure to keep you in the loop," Scully added.

The sheriff heaved a huge, throaty sigh.

"All this time gone by, there's probably nothing left to lose. You've got two days. And you damn well better keep me in the loop, or I will lock you up for obstruction of justice."

Linklater's head was down as he crossed the street back to his office.

"Two days," Scully said with a note of satisfaction. "Mulder, what's wrong?"

"Nothing. I'm just trying to find a gender-free synonym for *balls.*"

Darlene only let them in because she didn't have the energy to argue. Scully had walked her back to the bedroom, insistent and reassuring, with a meaningful over-the-shoulder warning for Mulder to stay away.

He waited in the living room as Scully bustled in and out of Darlene's bedroom. He knew she made tea and guessed that the other trips involved medicines or blankets. When five minutes passed without Scully emerging, Mulder walked slowly and quietly to listen outside Darlene's door.

"He thinks I'm lying."

"He just has some questions."

"Why can't he believe me? He believed me last time."

They were talking about him, which made Mulder feel more like an eavesdropper than an investigator.

"Something happened where believing someone turned out to be an awful mistake," Scully answered haltingly.

He wanted to drag Scully out of the room and ask her what the hell she meant by that. If he had questions about Destiny's disappearance it was because most child disappearances involve people close to the child. That Scully had been Cancer Man's uneasy rider was irrelevant, and none of Darlene's business.

"You people can't help us, you can only make it worse," Darlene said.

"Like what happened to your father when you went missing."

"How do you know about that?" Darlene asked, all the color draining from her face.

"We read the newspaper accounts from 1970," Scully answered.

"My dad loved me! He never hurt anyone, and they arrested him!" She was too weak to raise her voice, but her anger was vivid.

"And what happened to Kevin six years ago . . ."

"They dragged him out of my arms, and you let them. And now he thinks Agent Mulder is some kind of superman who can bring Destiny back to us."

"I was so ignorant," Scully said.

"What?" Darlene sounded surprised at Scully's confession, but not as surprised as Mulder felt.

"I was naive and foolish, Darlene, but I assure you I am neither of those things now. I want to hear about your disappearance, but I also want to know about anyone on earth who might have taken Destiny. I may not be able to bring her back, but I will do everything in my power to see that innocent people aren't harassed or prosecuted."

Mulder was convinced, but Darlene sounded doubtful.

"You're asking me to trust you. I don't really have another choice," she said.

"Just talk to me."

Mulder leaned against the wall, making himself as comfortable as he could for Darlene's account.

"But Kevin will be home any minute. He'll want his snack."

"I'm sure Kevin can find his way to the kitchen. Besides, Mulder's here."

Mulder inched away from the door, treading carefully until he was back in the living room. It was a little dustier than he remembered it six years ago. The photos on the mantle were still there: the prom picture and Ruby on a pool diving board. The population had grown though, a middle school graduation photo of Kevin and an assortment of pictures ranging from a baby to a solemn faced little girl that had to be Destiny.

When Kevin came barreling into the house a minute later, Mulder was casually paging through a magazine.

"Awesome, right? A hundred times better than Taco Bell." Kevin took another bite of his burrito.

"Glad you suggested it," Mulder said. They were in the Mexicana Cafe, Kevin's favorite restaurant.

"Mom can't eat here anymore. Too spicy. I guess that's why she said it was okay for me to go with you."

"It's a good place to talk," Mulder said.

"Yeah, like we used to."

"I'm surprised you remember that," said Mulder. What surprised him was not that Kevin remembered but how much the memory meant to him.

"Of course I remember. You brought Ruby back. And you saved me from a million motorcycles." Kevin broke into a smile. "Well, maybe it wasn't a million. I was little then."

"There were a lot of motorcycles," Mulder confirmed.

"Mom says you didn't bring Ruby back."

"Your mom is right, Kevin. I didn't."

The boy sighed.

"Well, you listened to us and you believed us. Because it happened to you too."

Mulder remembered Scully warning him that he was too close to the case, that he was thinking about Samantha instead of Ruby. Had he been so unguarded and unprofessional that he told Kevin about his sister?

"Is that what I said?" Mulder asked.

Kevin put down his burrito, wrinkling his forehead as he tried to remember.

"I think so. You said about wanting so much for her to come back. Your sister, right? You lost your sister."

Mulder took a few seconds to ask himself if he was willing to exploit that connection, and decided that he was.

"Except she was my little sister. I was supposed to protect her."

"That's bogus. There's nothing you can do against those lights."

"Yeah, but they didn't believe about the lights. They were asking me questions like did I watch her in the bathtub."

"That's just gross."

"That's the kind of question policemen ask. Did she ever make me mad? Try to get me in trouble? Did I like to see her naked?"

"You had to answer those questions?"

"Yeah." Even after all these years, Mulder marveled that his father had let the police question him alone. By evening the family had a lawyer, but that first morning he'd been on his own, with instructions to just tell the truth.

"That's what the police are going to do to me, if Destiny doesn't get back in time?" Kevin asked.

"They might."

Kevin pushed his plate away.

"This is going to look really bad for me," he said.

"Did you do anything to hurt Destiny? Do you know where she is?" Mulder asked.

Kevin shook his head.

"But sometimes she really pissed me off so bad I wished she had never been born. And when she was really little . . ."

Mulder held his breath.

" . . . when Ruby or Mom would change her diaper . . . I'd try to get a good look."

"Why?" Mulder asked calmly, ignoring Kevin's embarrassment.

"Why? Cause I couldn't figure out how girls pee."

"They're going to ask you if you ever wished Destiny would go away. Do you want her to come back?"

"Of course I want her to come back," Kevin sputtered. "I want her to come back so Ruby will stop crying and so my mom won't be worried. You want to know how much I want her back? Every day when I get home from school, I turn the TV so it gets static. I watch and watch, but all I see is nothing."

"I'm sorry Kevin. Of course, you want her back. I know that."

Kevin nodded, his face drained of color. "What else?" he asked.

"Are you ever alone with Destiny?"

"Is that another question the police would ask?"


"Then that's going to look bad for me too," Kevin said. "I watch her every day from after school until dinner time."

Kevin trusted him enough to answer his questions and Mulder told himself that was all right. It wasn't about being professional or objective, it was about finding out the truth.

He only wished he'd picked a different restaurant. He doubted if Kevin would ever want to come here again.

Motorcycles still clogged the parking lot at the Pennsylvania Pub. The bar was every bit as noisy and smoky as it had been six years ago. The clientele was no less rough, and the floor still sticky with spilled beer. Some things never changed.

Mulder's eyes had sparked with excitement when he heard that Ruby moonlighted at the Pennsylvania Pub on the weekends. Scully could practically see the little wheels turning in his head--slinging drinks in a biker bar didn't fit in with Ruby's straight and narrow lifestyle.

Darlene had told them how hard Ruby worked--days at the insurance agency and weekends at the bar. With Darlene too sick to work, the extra income kept food on the table and a roof over their heads. Scully chose to think working here was noble, if misguided.

Changing her life seemed so important to Ruby. Working two jobs, taking care of her child, supporting Darlene and Kevin--it was a heavy burden for a young woman. That struggle had to be infinitely harder in the environment of the Pennsylvania Pub.

Scully followed Mulder to the bar, the pulsing backbeat of rock music pounding in her ears.

"Behave yourself, or I'll cut you off for the night, you old boozehound." The woman behind the bar laughed as she pushed a beer toward a large man whose backside overwhelmed his barstool.

"Jessie, you're breakin' my heart here," the man said clapping his hands over his chest.

Jessie was a tired-looking bleached-blonde with big hair--a marked change from the one-eared tattoo exhibit from years ago.

"What can I get ya?" Jessie asked. Her voice was gravelly, most likely from years of cigarette smoke and talking above the din in bars. Though her figure was trim, she was older than Scully first thought--probably near sixty.

"I'll have a Heineken," Mulder said. So this was to be an unofficial visit, Scully thought. Scully shook her head when the woman looked to her for an order.

Jessie delivered Mulder's beer and took his money. Mulder smiled at her, and just like Mrs. Effels earlier that day, the bartender glowed. Mulder really deserved some kind of award for being able to charm the tough and the meek and do it all in one day.

"Is Ruby here?" he asked, his voice as innocent and non-threatening as Scully ever heard it.

"Nope," Jessie answered as she loaded glasses onto a rack behind the bar. "This ain't her night."

Apparently, Mulder's charm had limited power in this universe. Scully stepped back a little to give him room to work his magic.

"Jessie--may I call you Jessie?" he asked. As she nodded suspiciously, he continued. "Ms. Scully and I are from the Insurance Underwriters Board-- this is just a routine background check."

Well, at least Mulder remembered she was there, Scully thought, even if it was only to lend credibility to his non-lecherous intentions.

"Background check?"

"Well, we can't very well give Ms. Morris more responsibility without a background check, can we?"

"Why the hell didn't you just say that," she said, slapping her hand on the bar. "So what do you want to know?"

"Tell me about Ruby: When does she work? What kind of worker is she?"

"Lessee. Ruby works Friday and Saturday nights. Wish she worked every night--drink orders are always up when Ruby is working."

"Pretty girl?" Mulder asked.

"Oh, yeah. The guys love 'em young and blonde. Kid really rakes in the tips too, but she says the day job is her ticket to somethin' better." Jessie shook her head. "I can't see how answering the phone and typing up insurance papers is gonna give her a leg up, but what the hell do I know. No offense to you two, of course."

"No offense taken," Mulder said, smiling. "Does Ruby socialize with the people here?"

"These bums? Not much. She's friendly and all, a nice kid. But she keeps to herself, mostly. She talks about her little girl sometimes but not much else. All I know is she shows up on time and works hard."

"Hey Jessie! We're dyin' a thirst down here."

"Gotta see to the drunks," she said, as she moved down the bar.

Mulder took a long pull on his beer. Scully wondered what he'd hoped to discover tonight and if he was satisfied. Not since the beginning of their partnership had she'd felt so out of touch with her partner.

"Who knew all those months doing background checks for Kersh would pay off," she said as she turned to face the crowd in the bar.

"Glad it wasn't a complete waste of time," he answered. Braced on his elbows, Mulder leaned back on the bar.

Scully watched the rowdy group playing pool. Two biker types were engaged in what was either a case of one-upsmanship or the beginning of a dispute. Scully's money was on a fistfight within the hour.

"Oh my God," she murmured as a young woman emerged from the crowd and walked toward them, a beer in one hand and a sly smile on her face.

"Well, look who's here," the woman said, taking a swig from the bottle. "Remember me?"

"Of course. How could we forget? You killed Greg Randall and tried to pin the rap on Ruby Morris," Mulder said. "Your parole officer know you spend time in a bar?"

"Not unless you tell him," Tessa replied, with the little feline smile Scully remembered from so long ago. Dressed in tight jeans and a short leather jacket, she fit right in with the other patrons. Scully wondered if the "ace of spades" emblem on the lapel was a fashion statement or a gang insignia.

"So, how much time did you do for murdering your boyfriend?" Mulder asked.

"Forty-six months plus time served," she answered. "The judge felt sorry for a poor confused kid."

"So confused you told us it was Ruby who was pregnant instead of you," Scully said.

"Or so confused you didn't know the wolves would go digging where poor old Greg was laid to rest." Mulder kept his tone bland, almost bored.

Her only reaction was a sly grin. Four years in prison hadn't changed Tessa much. Her cheeks were still baby-round, her eyes still small and hard. "So, how come you're here?" Tessa asked.

"Agent Scully wanted to get in some trout fishing."

"I thought maybe it had something to do with Ruby Morris's kid."

"I gotta say, Tessa, your track record as an informant stinks," Mulder said with a shrug. "But, hell, I love a gamble. Why do you think it would have anything to do with Ruby or her family?"

"I heard Ruby went to the sheriff, yelling her head off that the kid was gone. A kid I know was there that night--the loser got picked up for boosting a car. Anyway, this guy said Ruby's mother flew in there saying it was all a mistake. Now, I wonder how somebody makes a mistake like that."

"And I'm sure you have valuable information about that."

"You know, I was gonna tell you all about Ruby's rich boyfriend in Spirit Lake. Her *older* rich boyfriend. I heard he don't like kids," Tessa said, with a tiny smile. "But now I'm pissed off, so you can shove it."

"That's quite an attitude," Mulder said. "I mean for someone in parole violation."

"I was only tryin' to help."

"If you're so keen on helping, tell us the boyfriend's name," Scully said.

"Ask Ruby," she said.

"I'm asking you," Mulder replied. "You're such a helpful citizen, after all."

"I only seen him once," Tessa said, taking a long pull on her beer. "He came in to talk to Ruby. I think she said his name was Dan Walden."

"We should call Tessa's parole officer," Scully said as they walked through the pub's parking lot.

"We should," he agreed, blandly. He unlocked the doors and shot her a look over the car roof. "But not right away. She might be useful."

"Tessa Seers is about as useful as a viper."

"We have to talk to this Dan Walden." Mulder pulled out of the parking lot.

"All we have is Tessa's word that he's Ruby's boyfriend." "What time did you say Ruby came back from Spirit Lake?" he asked.

"Around 9:00."

"So what the hell do you think Ruby was doing in a strange town until 9:00 with a fussy little kid?"

"Even if she does have a boyfriend, that doesn't mean she's another Susan Smith."

Mulder blew out a slow breath, his fingers tapping on the steering wheel. "I don't understand you, Scully."

"What don't you understand, Mulder? How anyone could possibly disagree with you?" The stale cigarette smoke from the Pennsylvania Pub had permeated Scully's clothes, and the odor was turning her stomach. The argument with Mulder wasn't helping matters.

"I don't understand why you accept Ruby's story without question," he answered calmly.

He was painfully close to the mark. Scully had allowed Ruby to evade her question about Destiny's father. She hadn't pressed for more details of the evening at Spirit Lake.

"And yet you're buying Tessa's statement, despite her track record," she said defensively.

"I'm not *buying* anything. I'm approaching everyone with a healthy dose of suspicion. Like I always do."

Mulder was the master of the snap judgement. Often he turned out to be right, but he forgot all the times that facts disproved his first theory.

"You've got to be kidding," she said.

"What are you saying? I'm not a good investigator? I don't know how to do my job?"

"Isn't that what you're saying about me?"

"No, but . . ." He left the thought unfinished.

"But what, Mulder?" she asked. There was nothing constructive about their bickering, but his implication was a challenge she couldn't ignore.

"I always thought you were an excellent investigator," he said calmly.

His use of the past tense was another implication she couldn't ignore. She used to be an excellent investigator. Now she was a sucker who toured the countryside with the cancer man.

"And now, you're not so sure," she said. When several moments went by with no reply from Mulder, she continued. "It's pretty clear that I'm not adding much to this investigation. I think it would be better if I went back to DC in the morning." "But we're not finished here," Mulder protested.

"I'll complete my report tonight. You may find parts of it useful." She rolled down her window, hoping the cold breeze would dissipate the stench of tobacco. As if nausea wasn't enough, maddening tears pricked behind her eyes.

"Scully, no. Not like this. Please."

Her threat had triggered Mulder's predictable protest and now she wished she hadn't said it.

"We'll talk about it tomorrow," she said.

"I need you. You've gained Darlene's trust and Ruby's, too. And the sheriff's." He was so truly full of shit. Apparently Mulder himself was the only one who didn't trust her. She turned to him, amazed at his ability to backpedal so easily. His eyes seemed to plead with her, but her gaze didn't waver. "Okay, Scully, we'll talk about it tomorrow. So, wanna get something to eat? Some coffee?"

The night was chilly and Scully had to close her window. The stink of smoke was in her clothes and skin.

She shook her head.

"I have to wash my hair."

No silver tray, no linen napkins, just Styrofoam cups and paper bags. But it was the thought that counted. It was chilly at seven in the morning, in spite of the bright sunlight. Mulder crossed the parking lot from the little grocery across the street from the hotel.

Mulder hoped Scully would see his gesture as a peace offering, not a feeble attempt at a bribe. He had serious concerns that she had become too close to this case, but he hadn't meant to insult her.

He knew that his anger was fueled by fear. Scully had scared him half to death and he had allowed that to get in the way of the partnership. Somewhere they'd lost the ability to challenge one another without turning it into a fight. He didn't want to fight. Most of all, he didn't want her to leave.

Screwing up his courage, he knocked on her door.


Scully had a hairbrush in one hand as she opened the door, obviously surprised. She looked like hell, eyes shadowed from too little sleep. She was dressed, but her blouse was untucked, and her feet were bare save their sheer hose. The pink nail polish on her toes made her seem vulnerable, almost delicate.

"They say that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, Scully." Mulder raised the bags as an offering.

Her expression was guarded, and for a heartbeat, he thought she wasn't going to let him in. With a sigh, she moved aside. "You have coffee in there?" she asked, warily. "The very best that Lloyd's Superette had to offer." He crossed the room to unpack the bags on a small round table. "You went to a lot of trouble," she said.

"Not really."

He'd spent a ridiculous amount of time over his purchases, choosing carefully. Yogurt. Oranges. Mini muffins. Girly food.

Scully sipped her coffee and made a career out of peeling and sectioning an orange. Mulder ate a bran muffin, carefully picking out the raisins. The silence stretched until Scully broke it.

"We have a responsibility to the people we investigate to cause the minimum harm and disruption," she said.


"I know why you're concerned. You think I've lost my objectivity."

Mulder shrugged. "Happens to the best of us."

"For a man who sets such store by his own intuition, you have precious little respect for mine."

It would be easier to respect Scully's intuition if it hadn't taken her on Cancer Man's rolling rendezvous. "Intuition is fallible. I've been duped more times than I'll ever know," he said.

"That's why we'll conduct a full investigation. Push Ruby to tell us what she did that Thursday and who was with her. Trace her steps and see if her story holds."

"Good plan."

"But we're going to be careful, because we don't want to damage innocent people in the process."

"Even if we don't know who the innocent people are."

"The one thing I should have taught my kids is that all you can do is wait," Darlene said.

She still looked frail, but less ill. She'd allowed Mulder and Scully into her home with weary resignation, and they sat in her living room. Someone had done a bit of straightening and dusting since yesterday.

"Because they always brought you back," Mulder said.

That got Darlene's attention. She nodded warily.

"I don't remember much about it. It wasn't anything terrible. A few bad dreams, some odd bruises. Nothing that bad..."

"Until your father was arrested," Scully said. "My mother panicked. It had happened before, but this time was so much longer. Weeks instead of hours or days. She went to the police and the only thing they did was put my father in jail."

"And you were returned," Mulder said.

"That's right. Nothing by the aliens was as bad as how they treated him. If only I'd remembered that I wouldn't have looked for help when Ruby was gone, and Kevin would have been spared."

Mulder remembered Scully's outrage at the wild excesses of the NSA, seizing an eight-year-old and treating him like a spy. It was Scully who had pursued the matter, despite Mulder's cynicism. It was Scully's zeal that won an apology and a small settlement for the Morrises. "You can hardly blame Ruby for going to the police when she woke up on the ground with her child missing," Scully said.

"I don't blame her, I blame myself. When Ruby came back, she was very confused. She had no memory-- even of the weeks before she was taken. I thought it was better if she didn't know about what happened to Kevin and me. Maybe if I'd told her, she'd have known to keep quiet and wait it out."

"You weren't there that night, Mrs. Morris. You can't be sure of what happened," Mulder said.

"I know where you're going with this," Darlene said. She was too weak to shout, but her anger and disgust were obvious.

"We're just trying to find out what happened to Destiny," Scully said.

"So what's next? Maybe Ruby did this all herself. Threw her baby in the lake and said it was aliens. Or maybe I did it. Or Kevin. And when Destiny comes home, you'll say how sorry you were to have caused so much trouble. But meanwhile you have our names all over town, and everyone whispering what we did to our baby."

"There's no way Ruby could have done this, not without help." Darlene gasped, but Scully held up a hand and continued. "If this wasn't an alien abduction, it was an elaborate hoax, and whoever did it will be caught. But if it was aliens, we still need to cover all the bases because you know that's what the cops will do."

"None of us hurt Destiny," Darlene said, cold fury in her voice. "I don't know who would want to hurt such a little girl. I want you to leave now. I'm tired." "Call me if you change your mind. Or if you just want to talk," Scully said as they retreated, despite Darlene's stony glare. Mulder didn't speak until they were back in the car.

"I thought I was supposed to be the bad cop," he said.

"I was just trying to be honest," said Scully.

"Let's just hope we can get to Ruby before Mama reminds her to beware of strangers with badges."

Mulder didn't know what to expect when they arrived at the insurance company, but Ruby was ready to cooperate. She told her boss she needed time off for something personal and that she'd be sure to make up the hours before her next paycheck. He agreed with a shrug.

The sheriff's office seemed like a poor locale for the interview, and the Morris home was off limits, which left the motel. One of the nice things about having a female partner was that you could take a female subject back to your room without fear of innuendo.

"Destiny's coming back soon, that's what my mother says," Ruby told them. "Three weeks is about the maximum."

"Your mother told you to lie to the police," Mulder said.

Ruby was startled by the accusation.

"You understand about that," she said, turning to Scully.

"You used a forged doctor's note to cover Destiny's absence from school," Scully said.

"Because I had to. You know I couldn't tell the truth."

"What is the truth, Ruby? What happened that night?" Mulder asked.

"The truth is what I told Agent Scully. I was driving home late at night when the car went dead and the bright light came. I passed out and when I woke up, she was gone."

"So you reported her disappearance to the sheriff," Mulder prompted her.

"I was so frightened. I drove to the sheriff's office and told the officer what happened, and then I called my mom."

"Your mother convinced you to change your story," Scully said.

"She told me things I never knew. That I had vanished the same way as Destiny, but no one believed her. How the cops wrecked our house and took Kevin away."

"So you decided to tell the police that Destiny was fine and there was nothing for them to investigate," Mulder concluded.

Again she turned to Scully.

"How can the police help me if Destiny's on board a UFO? All they can do is make trouble for my family."

"Ruby, think about what happened that night. Your car failed, you saw bright lights, and you lost consciousness. It might not be what you think," Scully said.

"It could be a hoax. Anyone with some basic mechanical know-how could rig your car. You could have been drugged," Mulder explained.

"But who would want to do that?" Ruby asked.

"What about Destiny's father? Would he try to kidnap her?" Scully asked.

"I don't even know who it is," Ruby answered in a whisper. "Some boy maybe slipped me something to knock me out? Or did it happen when I was missing? I never knew."

"That must have been terrifying," Scully said, her voice gentle. Ruby nodded silently.

"Sad story," Mulder said dryly.

Ruby cringed, and for a moment she looked as if she might cry. Scully's expression was questioning.

"I'm telling the truth," Ruby said, her voice shaking.

"You didn't tell us about your boyfriend," Mulder said.

"I don't have a boyfriend," she protested.

"Tessa Seers told us you do," Scully said.

"Someone respectable. Rich. He could make your life so much easier--but he doesn't like kids," Mulder said.

"You don't know Tessa. She's crazy," Ruby protested.

"But Tessa's the one who told us about Dan Walden. And you lied to me, Ruby. You told me you spent all evening alone with Destiny. Just you two. Dinner alone. Out by the lake alone," Scully said.

"Feeding ducks in the dark," Mulder added.

"No more lies, Tessa. Tell us the truth," Scully pressed.

Ruby swiped at her tears, swallowing hard as she tried to compose herself.

"Dan's not my boyfriend. We kinda dated a few times, that's all. And he loves kids, so Tessa's wrong about that."

"An older man," Scully suggested.

Ruby nodded in Mulder's direction. "About like him."

He didn't doubt that Scully would have a lot of fun with that comment later on, but for now she was all business.

"We heard he's rich. Settled," she said.

"He's got a good job," Ruby affirmed. "Look, if I tell you what you need, could you just leave him out of this?"

"We'll do our best," said Scully. It was a flimsy promise even by FBI standards, but Ruby seemed satisfied.

"He's a high school principal--acting principal, anyway. It would really mess things up if you start spreading his name around."

"You were coming back from his place when your daughter disappeared," Scully guessed.

"That's right. I have to work Friday nights, so Destiny and I went out there on Thursday. He made us dinner and then we played Hi-ho Cherrio."

"He cooked dinner for Destiny?" Scully asked, and Mulder remembered Mrs. Effels commenting that Destiny was fussy about food.

"Spaghetti. He chopped it up and I put some butter on top, and she was fine with that."

"How long did you play Hi-Ho Cherrio?" Scully asked.

"Well, how long *can* you play Hi-Ho Cherrio? I guess we played about half an hour, and then we watched videos until Destiny fell asleep."

"What time did you leave?" Scully asked.

"Around nine. You know, Dan's not the kind of guy I usually date. The first time he came in to renew his homeowner's policy, I didn't give him a second glance."

"Too old for you to notice," Scully supplied helpfully.

"Not just the age. Thinning hair, thick glasses. But once you get to know him, none of that matters."

"You said you haven't seen Dan since Destiny went missing. Have you talked to him?" Scully asked.

Ruby looked uncomfortable.

"I've been avoiding him. I'll call him up when my child is back, but right now... it's too hard to explain. Most people wouldn't understand."

"Your friend Tessa made it sound like the perfect romance, except Destiny was getting in the way," said Scully.

"She's really not my friend, and she's weird--even weirder than back in high school."

Mulder remembered Tessa as a remorseless killer with an inexplicable interest in dishing the dirt about Ruby Morris.

"Weird? How?" Scully asked.

Ruby seemed surprised that Scully would ask.

"She's just out of prison for killing Greg Randall, and she wants to hang out with his old friends, like nothing ever happened," she said.

"What else?" asked Mulder.

"She wants me to go camping with her. I should take Destiny, and she'll take her little girl, and we'll have a cook-out by the lake."

"I thought she gave her baby up when it was born," Scully asked.

"But now she's talking about getting her back."

Mulder felt a jolt of apprehension.

"Ruby, when did Tessa come back to town?" Scully asked.

"Let's see... about a month ago."

Mulder calculated a week between Tessa's arrival and Destiny's disappearance. He and Scully exchanged glances.

"Do you have a phone number for Tessa? An address?" asked Mulder, but Ruby shook her head.

Scully was supposed to be the skeptic while he was the believer, but something about this case had made them switch personas. Scully searched for little green abductors while Mulder played the odds that Destiny Morris had vanished at the hands of a relative.

Blinded by preconceptions and preoccupied with their own wounds, they'd both been sloppy. If Destiny was dead in a ditch or ringing 'round the moon in a UFO, then time didn't matter. If she'd been kidnapped, then time was everything.

"We had her and we let her go," Scully said bitterly as she pulled the seatbelt across her chest and clicked it into place.

"We still don't know that Tessa is involved," Mulder reminded her. He turned the ignition key and the car roared to life.

"She was released from jail about a week before Destiny disappeared. I'm not ready to chalk that up to coincidence."

"We'll find her."

"She's not at the address that's registered with her parole officer, and she walked off her job the second day," Scully said. "We should try her mother's address."

"I'll call the sheriff to run her down for us," Mulder said, flipping his cell phone open.

Scully's eyes narrowed.

"The sheriff?"

"I want to talk to Dan Walden." He turned to face her. "I want *us* to talk to Dan Walden."

"Do you think he's involved?"

"Ruby tried to hide him from us," he reminded her.

Scully seemed satisfied.

"And we can follow the route Ruby took coming home."

"Your father is going to kill you," an obviously furious mother hissed at her bored-looking son as they left Principal Walden's office. "What were you thinking, Tyler?"

Tyler shrugged, ambling past Mulder and Scully as he left the area. His mother hurried after him, shaking her head in disgust.

"The principal will see you now," the secretary announced, tripping Mulder into a vivid high school flashback. A meeting with the principal about a very serious matter. His mother's mortification and tears on hearing he'd been caught with a Penthouse magazine hidden inside his notebook. In the end it was the principal who had to reassure her that Fox was most probably a normal boy.

Mulder filed into the office after Scully, reminding himself that he'd grown up to be a federal agent and not a sex offender. "Mr. Walden, I'm Agent Mulder and this is Agent Scully."

Dan Walden stood to greet them. He was a small man with a high forehead, and at first glance he seemed to defy Tessa's description of "old" and "rich."

"Please, sit down?" he asked. "Is this about one of my students?"

"No, sir, this is personal," Scully said.

Dan Walden gave a nervous smile.

"I didn't know the FBI investigated stolen credit cards," he said. "We're investigating the disappearance of Destiny Morris," Scully said.

Mulder watched the man's face at the news and saw total surprise.

"Destiny? That's terrible," Walden said.

"Then you know her?" Scully asked.

"I met her, yes. And I know her mother. My god, they were just at my house."

"You were one of the last people to see the girl before she went missing," Mulder said. He had no reason to pressure the mild-mannered principal, but it might be productive.

"That was a couple of weeks ago. They both came for supper," Walden said.

"What did you think of Destiny? Lots of people find her difficult," Mulder said.

"I only met her the one time. I thought she was a cute kid," Walden said. "What happened to her?"

"That's what we're trying to find out," said Scully.

"Destiny's been missing since that night?" Walden asked, shaking his head. "I had no idea. Ruby didn't return any of my phone calls. I thought... I just figured Ruby didn't want to see me anymore."

"Was the age difference a concern?" Mulder asked. "I mean, you seem like a settled kind of guy. Ruby's not much older than your students."

"I thought about it. I knew we'd attract a lot of gossip," Walden said, his face reddening.

"Did anyone know Ruby and her daughter were having dinner with you?" Mulder asked.

"I don't think I mentioned it to anyone."

"How did you make the arrangements?" Scully asked.

"I knew she moonlights at a scruffy bar and I drove down to talk to her there."

"When was this, sir?" asked Scully.

"The weekend before. That Friday."

"So you met her in the bar and invited her to dinner."

"Her and Destiny. She was nervous about letting me meet her daughter. I, uh, thought it was about time."

"Did anyone seem particularly interested in your conversation?" Scully asked.

"Well, it was a biker bar. I stuck out like a sore thumb."

A crowded Friday night with a meek-looking stranger talking to the popular young waitress. Mulder could picture the scene.

"Everyone was watching, but did anyone try to get closer?" he asked.

"Well, not that I noticed at the time. But later I had some suspicions."

"Go on," Mulder said.

"A couple of days later I realized my Visa card was missing. I thought I just lost it, but when I reported it they told me about some pretty strange charges."

"Charges you didn't make," Scully prompted him.

Walden actually smiled.

"Size seven ladies' biker boots with buckles up the side. Princess Dahlia's night-time collection. Leather motorcycle jacket with custom ace-of-spades lapel insignia. And express delivery on all of it."

"Not your style," Scully acknowledged, but she was sending frantic signals to Mulder.

He didn't need Scully's coaching. Tessa's short leather jacket was unforgettable.

"We're going to need to to contact your credit card company," he said.

"I have the numbers right here." Walden passed a stack of papers across the desk and then his telephone.

"Thanks," Mulder said as he started to dial.

"Will this help you get Destiny back?" Walden asked Scully.

"I hope so."

"If I hadn't been so pushy about meeting her, this wouldn't have happened," Walden said.

Scully gave the expected response, but Mulder was focused on his own conversation with the anti-fraud division at Visa. For once his FBI credentials brought him cooperation, but the answer he found was a dead end.

Tessa's purchases had been shipped to an address he already knew. Her mother's house. He was about to tell Scully the bad news when she snapped her cellphone shut and put it away.

"Thank you for your time," she told Walden. "Let's go, Mulder. The sheriff found another address."

Highway 71 threaded past Center Lake and then between East Okoboji and West Okoboji Lakes. It wasn't the only route to Sioux City, but it was perhaps the most direct. And it was the way Ruby had driven.

Scully shot him little glances when she could risk taking her eyes from the road. She was ten miles over the speed limit, hurrying to an address that *might* be Tessa's residence.

"Must be pitch black on this road at night," she observed.

Mulder kept his eyes on the sides of the road, watching for breaks in the trees.

"It'd be easy for someone to tuck into one of these paths and wait unseen."

"Is that what you think happened?" Scully asked, slowing as the road curved.

Mulder sighed.

"It would fit some of the facts," he said.

"It's been two weeks," she reminded him. Two weeks was long enough to erase tire tracks and foot prints.

"It can't hurt to look."

He looked but didn't find. Finally they passed the point where Ruby's car had failed under a blinding, blistering light.

"We can try again if that address doesn't pan out," Scully said.

"Another longshot," Mulder said.

The address supplied by the sheriff was an abandoned building, popular with local derelicts and criminals. The cops kept clearing it out, but the squatters and junkies always returned. Mulder suspected that the only connection between the building and Tessa Seers was that the sheriff didn't like either one.

"Tessa was evicted from her approved housing. She's not with her mother. She must be staying somewhere, Mulder."

"So the sheriff gave us the location of the local nuisance property. We'll be stuck busting up a meth lab or something, to save him the trouble."

"Greg Randall used to live there. It's not just a random address," she said.

"You didn't tell me that part."

"Besides, I've never busted a meth lab."

They spoke little for the rest of the ride, just a few exchanges to verify street signs and directions. Mulder's thoughts flipped from the best scenarios to the worst. If Tessa wanted to replace her own lost child, she would take care of Destiny, not hurt her. But Tessa was malignantly self-centered, and Destiny was a high-strung, difficult kid. Even if Tessa planned to play mommy, something could easily go wrong. There was some comfort in knowing that Scully must be mulling the same thoughts. The highway changed from scenic lake views to miles and miles of nothing before the outskirts of Sioux City came into view. Mulder could see railroad tracks from the highway and remembered reading somewhere that Sioux City had been a major meatpacking center in the late 1800s. Trains would have been integral to that.

But then again, trains had been used for hauling more than just beef around the country.

The road paralleled train tracks for a couple of miles. If there was a "wrong side of the tracks," this was definitely the place. It looked like the wrong side of the planet.

It might have been a bustling neighborhood years ago, but few of the houses appeared to be habitable. A group of children played on the hardscrabble front lawn of the one house on the block that looked like people lived in it.

Scully slowed the car as Mulder read off the last of the sheriff's directions.

A small, ugly pink house sat alone on one corner, windows and door boarded up. Next door was the putty-colored two story building the sheriff said was probably the home of Tessa Seers.

There were boards on the windows, but several had been pried away. Mulder was sure that as soon as the authorities nailed them up, vagrants pulled the boards down. The paint job had given up the ghost years ago.

Scully stopped the car and they got out. The torn screen door hung on its hinges, the wooden door behind it was ajar. As they approached the front door, both of them automatically felt for their weapons.

Mulder pulled open the screen door and knocked on the frame.

"Hello? Anybody home?" he called. The wooden door creaked as he pushed it open. They waited quietly for a minute, then Mulder called out again:

"Pizza delivery. Hot pizza. Pepperoni pie from Papa Dino's."

When no one responded, he stepped into the house, Scully following.

The furniture was battered and dusty, but a short leather jacket draped over the back of the threadbare orange couch suggested recent habitation. A jacket with a custom ace of spades emblem.

A takeout tin overflowing with cigarette butts decorated the battered end table. Scully wrinkled her nose at the stink.

Mulder moved to the next room, but Scully stopped to examine the jacket. Unmistakably, it was the one Tessa had worn the night before. The stale smoke smell that clung to it brought back the memory of the Pennsylvania Pub. Exploring the pockets produced a checkstub in the name of Tessa Seers and credit cards in the names of Joyce Yamamoto, Francine Wilkins and Dan Walden.

"Scully, look at this," Mulder called.

Scully found him in a small bedroom. The windows were smudged and grimy, but someone had swept away the cobwebs and dust. The bed was covered with bright new linen and frilly pillows. A Raggedy Ann reclined against a large teddy bear, smiling hopefully.

The room was waiting for a little girl who never came. Toys in sealed boxes were stacked on the floor. Little dresses hung in the doorless closet, tags intact.

Destiny had vanished two weeks ago from her mother's car, but she hadn't made it to this new home.

"Something went wrong," Scully said.

"I'll call the sheriff. Tessa's too dumb to cover her tracks," Mulder said.

"They'll nail her," Scully said. She couldn't bear to look Mulder in the eye.

"I botched it," Mulder said. "Let's get out of here before we fuck things up for forensics."

Destiny was probably dead long before Kevin's call brought them into the case. Scully took comfort in that, feeling disgusted with herself for doing so.

A noise from the front of the house snapped her from her musings.

"Wayne, is that you? And where's my favorite little girl?"

Tessa's voice, excited and happy.

"Don't pounce," Scully whispered. Tessa would be in the room in seconds. Scully's warning was a reminder to herself as well as Mulder. No accusations. Be friendly. Let her talk.

"Oh, damn. I shoulda known Wayne wouldn't be caught dead driving a Taurus," Tessa greeted them. Smoke drifted upward from the lit cigarette in her hand.

"Hi, Tessa. Nice house," Mulder said.

"Yeah, and I didn't invite you," she said.

"We were hoping you could help us. You seemed to know a lot about Ruby and her boyfriend," Scully said.

Tessa brightened.

"You weren't exactly nice yesterday," she said, taking a drag of her cigarette. "I don't even know why I should tell you anything."

"So we can catch Ruby, and make her pay for what she did," said Mulder.

Scully couldn't have pulled off that line, but Mulder's monotone made it work.

"If I help you, maybe you could help me," Tessa said. "I could probably tell you a lot about that boyfriend. I have a friend who's good at that stuff." "How about you tell us where they hid the body," Mulder said.

"How do I know where crazy Ruby woulda hid the body?" Tessa asked.

"You gotta help us if you want us to help you," Mulder said. "I bet we could get them to turn on the water here. Electricity, too."

"I got friends who can do that stuff," Tessa said.

"What kind of help do you need?" Scully asked.

Tessa tilted her head to one side, then the other, pursing her lips as she thought. With exaggerated care, she flicked ashes into the tin on the coffee table.

"There's this guy who said he'd do a favor for me."

"And why would you need our help when you've got such useful friends?" Scully asked.

"Maybe you can scare him a little, make him do what he promised."

"I don't know, Tessa. So far you haven't given us much," said Mulder.

"I gave you the boyfriend. Ask him where they put the body." Tessa sounded impatient, even indignant.

Mulder looked at Scully, but the pantomime was for Tessa's benefit. His face said that he wasn't interested, that Tessa would have to give them more.

"The guy who owes you this favor. What's his name?" Scully asked.

"Wayne Tenner. He's kind of a geek, but he knows about computers and stuff."

"Where's the body?" Mulder quietly brought the subject back to Destiny.

"That's all you care about, isn't it?" Tessa was offended.

"You want help with Wayne, you have to help us too," Mulder said.

"Oh--at the lake!" Tessa blurted. "That's where they dumped the body."

She's lying, thought Scully.

"Lake Okoboji?" Mulder asked.

"Well where else?" Tessa asked.

"She's buried there?" Mulder asked.

"Yeah. Now, I don't know where you're gonna find Wayne, but there's people at the Pub who can tell you."

"Or did they dump her in the water?" Mulder asked.

"Yeah, could be they just dumped her in the water," Tessa agreed. "This guy Wayne, he knows where my daughter is. Found out they live in Council Bluffs. He's gonna pick her up from her school."

"Which is it, Tessa? They buried her or they threw her in the lake?" Mulder's anger was rising. Scully wondered if he'd really been listening.

"Tessa, where is your daughter?" Scully asked.

"They gave her to a married couple and they named her Elizabeth, but that's all they'd tell me. Wayne found out their last name was Carpenter and where she was, and he's supposed to get her back."

"You fixed up this room for her," Scully said. "For Elizabeth."

Tessa nodded. "I think I'm gonna keep that name, too. It's pretty."

Mulder scrubbed his fist against his forehead.

"This is all about... *Elizabeth.* Not Ruby's child," he said.

Tessa wrinkled her nose.

"I've seen Ruby's kid--she's a creepy little freak. Elizabeth has long blond hair. I think maybe she'll be a singer."

Mulder picked up the Raggedy Ann doll from the bed, fingering the red yarn hair. "We'll talk to Wayne for you, Tessa. I'm sure Elizabeth will be very happy here."

He handed Tessa the doll and with a hand on Scully's arm, guided her from the room.

"Don't forget," Tessa called after them. "Ask at the Pub."

Mulder kept his hand at her back all the way to the car. Scully could practically feel electrical current through her clothes.

"Drive around the block," Mulder instructed after they'd gotten in the car. He had his cellphone out and was already dialing the sheriff's number. "Tessa's been a busy girl," Mulder said as he waited to be put through to the sheriff. "Here she is working to tear one little kid away from her family and she still takes the time to implicate Ruby and Dan in the death of another."

Scully slowed the car as she swung back onto Tessa's street.

"Keep back a few houses," Mulder said. "We want to be able to see if Tessa leaves but not have her spot us."

Scully listened as he finally got through to the sheriff and began to outline what they'd discovered: the room prepared for Elizabeth, the credit cards in Tessa's possession.

"That's Wayne Tenner, T-E-N-N-E-R. Tessa described him as a computer whiz. I don't know if he's armed, but I'd consider him dangerous. The kid's name is Elizabeth Carpenter. According to Tessa, Tenner is supposed to be snatching the girl from her school in Council Bluffs." Mulder listened for a moment, fidgeting in his seat. "Yeah. We'll keep the residence under surveillance until your men get here."

He turned to her as he disconnected. "The sheriff is sending a detail to pick Tessa up. He's calling the Council Bluffs PD."

Tessa was obviously home to stay, at least for a while. They watched the house, but she never emerged. The sun was setting, the sky painted pink and purple behind the ugly gray of the house. They sat in silence, each absorbed by their own thoughts. Mulder worried a thumbnail as he kept his eyes on the house. Scully concentrated on not having to pee.

"Hope they don't barrel down here with sirens blaring," Mulder said. As if in response, a police cruiser silently glided past before stopping in front of Tessa's house.

Five minutes later, an angry, struggling Tessa was escorted out of the house and into the cruiser. The look she shot at them as the car passed by would have curdled milk.

"I don't think Tessa likes us anymore," Scully said.

"Then I guess the day hasn't been a total loss," Mulder replied.

The sun was almost gone now. Scully could feel the waves of frustration coming off Mulder. Another day ending and still no solid leads on Destiny.

"We're back to square one," he said.

"Yeah," she agreed. "We'll start over in the morning. On the other hand, if I don't get something to eat soon, it isn't going to be pretty."

They drove back to their hotel, stopping along the way to pick up a pizza and a bottle of cola. Mulder knew better than to argue with her when she'd missed lunch.

Mulder followed her into her room, holding the pizza while she cleared the small table of papers and her laptop. Scully kicked off her shoes and dropped into a chair. They were somewhere between hell and normal; she just wasn't sure which they were closer to.

"Warm soda and cold pizza," Mulder said as he handed her a glass.

"Mmmm," she answered after she took a sip. "And it's flat, too." Too much cheese and what tasted like ketchup for sauce, the pizza was only barely adequate, but she was starving. She was on her second piece before Mulder settled down with his first.

Long legs stretched out before him, Mulder took a huge bite of pizza. His cellphone rang while he was mid-chew and Scully smiled at his *every damn time* expression.

"Mulder," he answered, around his mouthful of pizza. He sat up, suddenly alert and listened intently. "Thanks, Sheriff. Please keep in touch."

"Well?" Scully asked after Mulder hung up his phone and prepared to take another bite of pizza.

"They haven't located Wayne Tenner, but he's got a record--convicted on embezzlement when he was 24. Since then, he's been mostly unemployed. Elizabeth Carpenter is safe at home--Council Bluffs PD has a watch on the house and they'll have officers down at the school tomorrow."

He dropped his pizza back on the paper plate, tossing his napkin on top.

"What's the matter?" she asked.

"I'm picturing Kevin's face tomorrow, when we tell him we're no closer to finding his sister."


"Destiny," he said.

"You mean his niece."

"Yeah," Mulder said, slowly shaking his head as if to clear it. "Yeah, niece."

"I know you're frustrated, Mulder. But your instincts told you something was up with Tessa. You may have saved Elizabeth Carpenter."

He shrugged. "I just wish we had something to tell the Morrises."

"I've got to take a shower," Scully said, rising suddenly. She felt as if the cigarette smoke had settled on her skin like a grimy film.

Mulder gathered up the greasy plates and napkins.

"I'll get this out of your way," he said.

Scully grabbed her pajamas and toiletry kit. "It's okay, Mulder. You can finish your dinner."

"I'm finished," he replied. The hotel shower had a safety feature to prevent scalding and a water-saving device that limited the flow to a sputtering drizzle. Scully showered for a long time, soaping and rinsing, shampooing and repeating. Mulder was gone when she emerged from the bathroom. Sighing, she took a comb through her hair and got into bed.

It wasn't late, but she was tired. She turned on the TV, flipping until she found a familiar rerun to block out her thoughts. As the crowd at Cheers greeted Norm once again, she drifted in and out of sleep.


Someone's face was inches away from hers, grunting and wheezing, the breath fetid and rank. Someone's mouth was on hers, bitter-tasting and foul with tobacco, the tongue pushing past her lips. Someone's hands were on her breasts, roughly mauling and pinching her nipples. Someone was kneeing her thighs apart and penetrating her--painfully, ruthlessly.

Something obscured her eyes, and her hands were restricted above her head, preventing her from defending herself. She tried to shrink away from the mouth and hands, from the thrusting, from the weight pressing her into the mattress, but she couldn't escape.

She screamed and screamed against the mouth that covered hers. The air was filled with the sound of her attacker grunting and her own guttural cries.

The skin on her hands was rubbed raw as she struggled against whatever bound her. The ties loosened until she pulled a hand free. Her other hand slipped from the bindings and with one swift motion, she pulled the blindfold off and pushed the attacker away. Looking into his glittering eyes, she saw the pure evil there.

"No! Oh my God, NO!"

"Scully, wake up. You were having a bad dream."

She jolted awake as Mulder gathered her in a comforting embrace, whispering gentle words in her ear. "S'okay. It wasn't real." She buried her face in the hollow of Mulder's neck, breathing in the warm, salty smell of his bare skin. Hot tears pricked her eyes as he rocked her back and forth. How long had it been since Mulder had held her in his arms? Weeks? It felt like years. She dreaded the moment when he would remember that everything was different now and turn her loose.

She could still smell the Smoking Man's foul breath, still taste the bitterness of his mouth. Her stomach twisted in disgust and she broke from Mulder's hold, stumbling into the bathroom. She hung onto the sink, as waves of nausea passed over her. When she was sure she wasn't going to vomit, she sat on the edge of the tub.

"That must have been some dream," Mulder said as he wrung a washcloth out and pressed it against her forehead. Scully gratefully took the cloth and bathed her face and neck.

"It was...oh God, I can't even talk about it."

Mulder sat next to her on the edge of the bathtub. Scully sat forward, elbows on knees, her face buried in the washcloth. She felt his hand massaging circles on her back.

"I think you have to, Scully," he said softly. "You can't keep it all in."

"It wasn't real." Scully jumped up from the tub and walked into the bedroom. "It wasn't real," she repeated as if doing so would ensure it stayed a dream. This was definitely something she wasn't prepared to talk about with Mulder.

Her pajamas felt clammy, sticking to her skin and leaving her chilled. She rummaged in her suitcase, pulling out a t-shirt. Mulder had followed her into the bedroom, standing expectantly with his hands on his hips above his low-slung sweatpants. "Thank you for waking me up, but I'm fine now," she said, her eyes trained on the wall just beyond Mulder's face.

"Oh yeah, you look fine. Really. The dead-white, deer-in-the-headlights look really works for you."

She thought about asking him to leave so she could change, then decided it didn't matter. He'd seen her naked plenty of times, although never in the past few weeks. Turning, she stripped off the pajama top. Her skin felt scorched under his gaze as she pulled the t-shirt over her head.

"You were screaming for someone to stop--to let you go. What was the dream about, Scully?"

"Nothing. It was about nothing," she said angrily. "It wasn't 'nothing.' Someone was hurting you. Someone was . . ." His inflection switched from declaration to question. "Raping you?" "Drop it! Okay? Just leave it alone."

"No. I won't 'just leave it alone' when it's affecting you like this. You look like hell."

"Why, thanks for noticing." Exhausted, she sat on the bed, afraid her legs were going to give out.

"You don't think I know you haven't been sleeping? How long has it been since you slept the whole night through? Since your little trip?"

"I wondered when you'd get around to mentioning that."

"What were you trying to prove? That you could be reckless too? That you could be just as irresponsible and half-assed as me?" "You think I was copying you? Think again, Mulder. I knew exactly what I was doing."

"What did he do to you, Scully?" he asked, standing over her.

She wasn't about to sit and let him use his height advantage. She stood, brushing past him to take a drink from the bottle of water on the dresser.

"Did he rape you?" Mulder asked in a soft voice. He moved closer to her, hunching a little so he could see her face. God, don't let him be tender with her. She could handle him angry. Gentleness would peel her layers away and leave her naked and defenseless.

"No," she said a little too forcefully. "At least I know that much."

"Scully?" His hands were like iron bands as they gripped her upper arms. "Was there a question in your mind? What are you saying?"

Every ounce of energy deserted her until Mulder's hands were the only thing keeping her from landing in a heap on the floor. She wanted to tell him to go to hell, that it wasn't any of his business, but she didn't have the strength to fight any more.

"He drugged me. I'm not sure how, but I fell asleep in the car and woke up the next morning in bed...in my pajamas."

Mulder's anger cut through her like a knife. His grip on her arms tightened until he realized what he was doing. Then the anger in his eyes turn to pain.

"Sorry," he said, releasing her. "I'm sorry."

"He didn't hurt me, Mulder." He snorted, skepticism plain in his face. "At least not physically."

"He's a sick, fucking bastard and I should have killed him years ago."

"I had a full exam--every possible test. I went to the doctor that day, right after we left the office building."

She would remember that day forever: standing on the sidewalk after they'd left the empty office where she'd met with Spender, bright sunlight nearly blinding her as Mulder walked away. She'd clutched the car keys so tightly they left marks on her palms.

"Why...why didn't you tell me?" he asked. Emotions played over his features--anger, pain, sorrow, guilt, and maybe pity. He moved closer, taking her by the shoulders, gently this time.

"You weren't speaking to me, remember?" She shrugged out of his arms and returned to sit on the bed. He looked properly discomfited. Scully sat against the headboard and drew her knees up to her chin. "And when you forced yourself to talk to me, you were sarcastic."

Mulder's head was down, one hand massaging the back of his neck. "I'm sorry," he said. "I'm sorry you didn't feel like you could talk to me."

"I know you were frightened, Mulder. I know what that feels like, and it's pretty rotten," she said.

"I wasn't frightened, Scully. I was full-throttle, stark staring terrified. Scully--you could have been killed."

"It was a calculated risk. No matter what you think, I didn't do this casually--I took every precaution I could."

"You could have been killed!" he shouted, running an impatient hand through his hair. "You trusted the devil and thought that a few 'precautions' would save you? How could you be so fucking stupid?"

"What do you want from me, Mulder? Do you want me to apologize like some naughty child? Well, I won't. I'm sorry you were scared, but, damn it, I'm not sorry I did it."

"I don't want an apology. I just want to know you won't ever do that again."

The air between them crackled with electricity. Scully straightened her legs out before her, studying the fabric of her pajama bottoms.

"I can't promise that," she said, quietly. "Mulder...what he offered me...no more cancer, no more suffering. Look at what's happening to Darlene. How could I not take that chance? After what I went through--how could I not do everything possible to make sure no one ever has to suffer like that again?"

"Nothing--no promise, no cure would be worth risking your life."

His voice was thick with emotion. She wanted to go to him, to put her arms around him, but getting off the bed and standing before him was as far as her body seemed able to go. Tears blurred her eyes as she looked at his stunned face. "Mulder, the only person who can decide what my life is worth is me."

"I know that," he said. "But...you have to know what you mean to me."

"I do know. And I know what you mean to me. Mulder, you took some pretty big risks over the years to find out what happened to your sister. You came close to dying a dozen times over to discover 'the truth'. And why? Because you thought the gain was worth the risk. If you had it to do over again, would you change anything?"

His eyes burned into her, and she almost laughed at leaving the king of words speechless. Silently, he shook his head.

"Mulder, I know you don't want to hear this, but under the same circumstances, with the same objective, I'd go with Spender again."

"I can't lose you."

"You think I want to lose you?" she asked. "You've been so distant, I thought I already had. I can't live this way, Mulder. You have to find a way to get past the anger."

He stared at her, stonily. Clearly this wasn't going to be easy for him.

"I'll understand if you can't. But I need you to let me know one way or the other."

His body recoiled as if he'd been struck.

"You know I don't have any choice," he said.

"I'm giving you a choice. Take all the time you need, but--"

"I can't undo what he did and I can't live without you. So it's like you said. I have to get past the anger."

Mulder was still angry, still hurt, but he had given her what she asked. He would deal with it. They would deal with it together.

Scully reached out and took his hand. "I know this isn't easy."

Mulder squeezed her hand, his eyes downcast.

Poor Mulder. The revelation about the pajamas was salt in an open wound. No sooner had she poured in the salt than she ordered him to get over it.

"Try to get some sleep. I'm going to take a shower," she said.

Mulder nodded, eyes darting to the connecting door.

That was part of her plan. Mulder would be able to retreat to his own room without feeling he was running out on her. She knew he preferred to be alone when he had to work through something. Besides, she needed another shower. She felt as if she'd run a marathon. Scully retrieved clean underwear from her suitcase. The t-shirt she'd put on after the nightmare would do for sleep.

The water felt like a renewing force, washing the exhaustion from her body along with the tears Scully no longer tried to hold back. Finally, relaxed almost to the point of coma, she turned off the water, and reached for her towel.

A loud noise from the next room jolted her. It sounded like something heavy had hit the wall, or perhaps Mulder had slammed the door. She pulled underpants up over damp skin and slid into the t-shirt.

Scully gasped when she walked into the bedroom. She had been so sure that Mulder would waste no time in making himself scarce, but he sat on the bed, one hand cradling the other.

Mulder had the good grace to look sheepish as he followed her gaze to the fist-sized dent in the wall by the bed.

Mulder winced as she rolled his knuckles between her fingers. "Nothing broken, but they're going to hurt tomorrow. I'll get you some ice."

"It'll be fine. Come on," he said, straightening out the covers. "Get in bed."

He sounded firm and assured, but Scully knew he was reeling from her ugly revelation. She wanted to console him and ice his bruised hand, but Mulder didn't like to be consoled.

She got into bed, leaving plenty of room for Mulder to perch on the side. Instead he slid in beside her.

"In case you have another dream like that," he said.

"Thanks," she said.

Mulder wanted to be her protector. She wouldn't deprive him.

Mulder stayed in her room for what was left of the night. If Scully had tried to throw him out, she would have been in for another fight. She was lucky he let her go to the bathroom by herself.

She slept in his arms, accepting the protection he needed to give. She slept, but he did not.

Mulder couldn't sleep because he had work to do. He had to come to grips with what the smoking man had done to her. He had to reconcile the Scully he thought he knew with the maverick who ditched him on a whim. She didn't sound like a maverick when she explained it; she sounded like an accountant.

She talked about risks and benefits, about entering into a possible trap for a potential gain of inestimable value. She sounded very rational, very Scully.

That was a relief, because her desperate stunt had made him wonder if he really knew her at all. Logic, forethought and caution were her holy trinity. Was he wrong? Had she changed? Had he changed her?

It felt better to know that before ditching him and flouting her beloved FBI regulations, she had run the numbers.

And she didn't regret it. If he was waiting for her contrition, he would wait for a very long time, she had told him. She'd had about enough of his freeze-treatment, and if he couldn't find a way to get over it...well, that just wasn't an option.

He knew he'd been aloof, but not because he wanted her to repent and beg his forgiveness. All he really wanted was her promise that she would never, ever do anything like that again. Instead he got her cool assurance that she would do it again, given the right circumstances, plus an ultimatum.

He had to get past it, she said, as if he didn't know that himself. It couldn't be undone and he couldn't let her go, so there he was. Get over it.

He had to get over "it," even when "it" included Scully drugged and helpless as Cancer Man took off her clothes, and then dressed her in pajamas, to make sure she knew about it. To make sure Mulder would also know about it. With an armful of pliant, warm Scully, it was hard to conjure up the anger that had burned within him of late. All his anger was for the smoking man. If that bastard ever crossed his path, Mulder would beat him to a bloody pulp and make an afternoon out of watching him die.

His knuckles throbbed. Damn good thing this motel was built like a boomtown condo or he would have fractured something.

There was no evidence that the smoking man had tampered with Scully's implant or abused her in any other way. He had drugged her and stripped her--for what? If that bastard's goal was to drive them apart, Mulder had played right into his hands.

If he hadn't been so selfish and angry, Scully might have been able to tell him what had happened. His biggest complaint in their relationship had been the barriers Scully built around herself. It killed him to know he was the cause of a whole new set of reinforcements.

Never again, Mulder promised himself. He and Scully might argue at times, even rage at one another, but never again would he shut her out.

Scully sighed and turned onto her side, and Mulder turned with her, spooning against her back. Sleep would be good, but this was good too.

Scully woke up, stretching like a cat beside him. If she noticed the raging woody pressing into her side, she said nothing.

Mulder stroked her arm, the flesh warm from sleep. She turned to face him, brushing his hair away from his forehead. "I felt like such an ass," Scully said quietly. "So ashamed."

"That's how he wanted you to feel. He's the only one who did anything shameful, Scully. You have to remember that."

"How could I be so fucking stupid? Your words, Mulder."

"A calculated risk. Your words, Scully."

The eye contact was lost, with Scully rolling onto her back.

"I let him set me up. Like wearing a short skirt into a waterfront bar when the fleet is in."

Mulder propped himself up on one elbow, resting a hand on her flat stomach.

"A calculated risk. You were risking your life, and my sanity. I don't think the strip show was part of your calculation."

"God, no."

"We knew he was a bastard and a murderer. He gave us any indication he was also a sick fuck."

"I was afraid you'd think I was asking for it. I got what I deserved."

"I would never think that. It doesn't make any sense," he said.

Finally she turned her face toward him, looking deep in his eyes as she spoke.

"I'll never forget how it felt to wake up with my clothes gone. Knowing I'd been unconscious and naked, and wondering what the hell he'd done to me. I felt angry and frightened but most of all humiliated, and that's the feeling that won't go away."

She was telling him what she'd needed to say two weeks ago, when he wouldn't listen. He pulled her closer, hugging her to his chest.

"You told me last night that I had to get past the anger. Scully, you have to find a way to get past the humiliation."

She nodded. "That pitiful, lonely old man with his lungs full of tar. He tried to seduce you with sleeping pills and lies because that's all he has. He thought he could wedge us apart with anger and humiliation, but he can't. Let him keep his anger and his humiliation because we don't want them."

"Oh, Mulder. I wish it was that easy."

They ate in the motel's coffee shop.

Scully, who always took her toast dry, asked for butter on the side. Mulder returned the favor by ordering bacon instead of sausage. Scully wouldn't touch sausages but she sometimes helped herself to a strip of bacon.

Once the coffee was served, it was back to business.

"You're worried about Kevin, but I dread having to face Darlene," Scully said.

"Kevin still believes we can help them," Mulder said.

"While Darlene knows we're nothing but trouble."

"We have to start over, as if we were first opening the case. They're all going to hate us," Mulder said.

Scully's shoulder's slumped. Her phone rang and she sighed before she answered.

Mulder sipped his coffee as he listened to Scully's half of the conversation.

"Darlene," she explained when she ended the call. "The sheriff came by this morning."

"He gave us two days," Mulder reminded her.

"He obviously counted Thursday as 'day one'." Scully replied. "She said he was courteous. Mostly he was asking for the identity of Destiny's father."

"Sounds reasonable."

"She thinks Kevin overheard and she's upset."

"Kevin's 14, and it's a valid question."

"We need to get over there."

"She needs to cooperate, Scully."

"I can help her to do that."

They finished their coffee and drove to the Morrises. The family would be hitting that point where they could feel hope dissolving like snowflakes in the sun. Two weeks become three and then six and then you calculated the time in years.

Mulder wished he had more to offer. He was good at pulling answers out of his ass, but even that had limitations.

Ruby's car was parked out front, and it took Mulder a moment to realize that it was Saturday. The days all tended to blend together on the road and he often forgot about weekends.

Scully was out of the car and up the steps before he could get his seatbelt off. He certainly could use this as ammunition if Scully ever called him on getting too close on a case.

Darlene answered the door, looking shell-shocked as she admitted them into the kitchen. Her hands shook as she picked up her coffee cup, and her eyes were red.

"You had to bring the sheriff into this," she said.

"Darlene, we didn't have any choice," Scully said.

"My poor baby. I thought Kevin was going to cry when the sheriff came to the door. I don't know if I've ever seen him that frightened, even the night Ruby disappeared."

"Where is Kevin?" Mulder asked. He wasn't sure if Kevin would even want to talk to him, but he hoped he could bring some comfort to the kid.

"He's watching TV." Darlene jerked her head in the direction of the living room.

Mulder found Kevin lying on the sofa, pad and pencil in hand. Static hissed from the TV. He looked up as Mulder entered the room.

"I keep trying to open my mind, but nothing is happening," he said. Kevin looked like he was on the verge of tears.

As Mulder crouched next to Kevin, he remembered the child so long ago who'd gotten messages in binary code when he could barely tie his shoes. In subsequent abduction cases, Mulder had looked for that phenomenon, but he'd never found it repeated.

"Maybe you're trying too hard," Mulder said, softly.

"We're not going to find her, are we?" Kevin asked.

"You don't know that. Agent Scully and I are going to start from the beginning and retrace our steps. We're going to keep trying."

"What the hell are you doing, Kevin?" Darlene stood in the doorway looking even more drained of color than before. "Turn that off right now."

"Please, Mom," Kevin pleaded, tears finally brimming in his eyes.

"This is stupid! What has gotten into you?" His mother's voice became louder and more shrill with every word.

"What happened?" Ruby bounded down the stairs, breathless, perhaps hoping the raised voices were a good sign or maybe terrified that they were in reaction to something awful.

Darlene was wheezing now, either from the shouting or from the emotion that was finally coming to a head.

"I'll shut it off, Mom. Please don't be upset."

"Wait," Mulder said, looking at the TV. An idea was bubbling up from deep in his consciousness. "Ruby, I want you to sit down."

Obviously puzzled, Ruby allowed Mulder to guide her onto the sofa.

"What is that?" Ruby asked, staring at the TV.

"I was trying to find the messages, like when you were gone," Kevin said.

"I don't get it," she said, looking from Kevin to Mulder.

"Humor me," Mulder said. "It's an experiment. I need you to clear your mind."

Everyone was silent as Ruby stared at the TV screen, the only sound the white noise of the static.

"What do you see?" Scully asked.

"Zeros and ones. It looks like some kind of computer code," Ruby said.

"Binary code," Mulder supplied.

"How long has it been going on?" Ruby asked.

Kevin stared at her blankly for a second, then he handed his sister the pad and pencil.

As if in a trance, Ruby dropped to her knees in front of the TV. Her hand moved automatically over the page, making small marks while her eyes never strayed from the screen.

"How did you know," Scully whispered, leaning close.

"She was with Destiny when the abduction occurred," Mulder murmured. "Just as Kevin was with Ruby six years ago. She's the conduit."

Kevin watched in fascination as Ruby filled the page.

"It's just garbage," Darlene said.

"Can't you see it, Mom?" Kevin asked. "You gotta squint your eyes."

Mulder tried to read a pattern in Ruby's scratchings, but nothing emerged.

"It's a . . . hut," Scully said.

Mulder took a step back and studied the page again, letting his eyes lose their focus. A crude picture emerged.

"It's at the lake. Remember, Mom?" Kevin asked.

"The lake. That's where Ruby came back to us," Darlene said. "I went there every day the first week Destiny was gone, looking and hoping." "A concession stand." Scully asked. "But we didn't see anything like that at the lake."

Ruby finished writing and looked down at the paper.

"I drew this?" she asked. "It's Pop's hot dog stand. You used to take us there, Mom."

"What are we waiting for? We should go right now," said Darlene, suddenly decisive.

Mulder felt waves of hope followed by waves of caution. The rendering was indistinct. It could have been any concession stand anywhere. It could have been Fran's Franks and Frappes back on Martha's Vineyard.

"Let's go," said Scully.

The others crackled with optimism, and Mulder felt detached as he followed the mob out the door. The Morrises had piled into Ruby's Aerostar and Scully waited impatiently by the Taurus.

"We need directions," he reminded her. He could find his way to Lake Okoboji, but not to the spot in Ruby's drawing.

He started the car while Scully hurried over to talk to Ruby. Then Scully climbed into the minivan and Kevin ran back to join Mulder.

"I know the way," the boy said.

Mulder followed Ruby's car, so that Kevin's instructions about upcoming turns were helpful but not actually necessary.

"You didn't really need me," Kevin commented.

"I don't like following blind," Mulder said truthfully.

"Pop's is on the other side of the lake from where we used to camp. . . where they took Ruby," Kevin said. "It's been closed a couple of years."

He looked out the window, occasionally shooting glances at Mulder. Mulder kept the van in his sights. Ruby was speeding, taking the curves a little too sharply.

"Hope the sheriff doesn't give your sister a speeding ticket."

"Everyone else is so sure Destiny'll be there. Except us," Kevin said.

"I hope she'll be there," Mulder mumbled.

"Me too. But maybe she won't."

They rode in silence for a few more miles.

"Turn there," Kevin said. "You have to follow the road around to the shore."

The trees lining the road still bore their new green leaves. The sun glinted off the mirrors on the car in front of them and dappled the road. Finally, they emerged into a gravel parking area bordered by split-rail fences. The Aerostar jerked to a halt and Mulder parked beside it. Before he could kill the ignition, Kevin jumped out of the car and broke into a run.

"Kevin, wait!" he called, as Kevin disappeared down an asphalt path. Scully and Ruby were still by the minivan, standing next to Darlene's door. Maybe the bumpy ride had been a strain to her, or maybe it was something more serious. Mulder was going to tell Scully that he would run after Kevin and she should stay with the others, but Scully had made her own decision, and she took off after Kevin.

Scully thought it was safe to leave Darlene. Good enough. Mulder put all his energy into tearing after Kevin and Scully. The trail led down through the trees, probably down to the lake. Most of the asphalt was worn away or cracked, with weeds and brush growing through. There was just enough left to make running treacherous, and to send him the occasional click of Scully's heels against the blacktop.

Kevin's voice drifted back to him, shouting for Destiny.

Mulder caught up to Scully.

"That way. Hot dog stand," she told him breathily as he passed her.

"Destiny! Destiny!" Kevin's shouts grew closer as Mulder reached the end of the path.

The trees thinned, leaving a modest strip of patchy grasses that sloped into a sandy beach.

"Destiny!" Kevin was screaming at the top of his lungs.

Mulder could see the hot dog stand, a weathered wooden structure boarded shut. A board nailed across the counter area declared, "Closed for the Winter" in peeling paint, but several winters had come and gone since the message was written.

"Kevin," Mulder called, still trying to catch his breath.

"She's got to be here!" Kevin yelled. His angry kick split the pine board that covered the doorway.

"I'll go first," Mulder said, but Kevin pushed his was into the abandoned structure, leaving Mulder to follow.

A little daylight leaked through the doorway and the cracks, and Mulder aimed his flashlight over Kevin's shoulder. Spider webs, feathers and animal droppings, but no sign of the missing child.

"There's nothing here," Kevin said.

"Mulder?" Scully called from outside. She looked questioningly when he and Kevin came out from the hot dog stand, and he shook his head.

"It isn't fair!" Kevin was desperate and furious. He circled the hot dog stand and then walked down to the beach.

"Take him home," Mulder told Scully quietly.

"He won't go with me, Mulder. He might go with you."

Kevin was down by the water's edge inspecting a wooden dock.

"What if this wasn't an alien abduction, Scully? We don't know what we might find."

"The trees are singed," she said, looking back toward the woods.

Kevin had turned his attention to a large padlocked dumpster near the dock.

"You guys got a bolt cutter?" he called hoarsely. Scully, who had been so sure she couldn't tear Kevin from the scene, decided to give it a try.

"Let's take your mom home now, Kevin. Maybe we can come back later," she said.

Kevin ignored her.

"I came here to find Destiny. Are you going to help me or not?" he asked Mulder.

Mulder took out his picklock.

"I hope you know what you're doing," Scully said.

"Just be ready to pick up the pieces."

With Kevin at his elbow Mulder worked on the lock until it opened.

"Stand back. I'll look first," he said woodenly. Kevin turned away, even letting Scully hug him as Mulder swung open the heavy metal lid.

"Empty," Mulder said, with obvious relief. He shined his flashlight across the rusty interior. God bless Pops, who apparently washed out his dumpster at the end of the season.

"Good," said Kevin. "Now what?"

Mulder thought a stiff drink would be nice.

"We need someone to examine the sand for glass," Scully said.

Mulder seized the suggestion as a way to keep Kevin safely occupied.

"Silicon fuses into glass at high temperatures," he said, leading Kevin to the beach.

Kevin poked through the sand.

"You want me to look for hunks of glass?" he asked doubtfully.

It wasn't going to work, Mulder thought. He and Scully had work to do, and Kevin shouldn't be here at all.

"Mulder, listen," Scully said suddenly. "Can you hear that"?

"Hear what?" he answered absently.

Kevin shot to his feet.

"That's her! She's back!"

In a flash Kevin was across the beach and Mulder was after him.

Kevin was wearing sneakers. Kevin was 14 years old. Mulder didn't even try to keep up. As he neared the woods, the screeching grew louder. No wonder he hadn't paid attention at first. It sounded like some kind of bird. A loon, maybe.

Up ahead Kevin veered sharply and ran into the woods.

"Destiny, don't move!"

There was terror in Kevin's voice and Mulder picked up his pace.

"Kevin! Help me!"

A little girl's voice. She was really alive and she was here.

Mulder caught up to Kevin, and then he could see her. A very small girl in a dirty yellow dress fluttering her hands in front of her face.

Not twenty feet away was a gray wolf.

Mulder drew his gun.

It wasn't moving but clearly it had chosen Destiny for its prey. It lowered its head and wagged its tail, but for the moment it didn't approach.

"Don't move, Destiny. He won't attack if you're standing still!" Kevin called to her. "I saw it on the Discovery Channel."

"Help me, Kevin! Kevin!"

She had that little-girl scream that rips through your eardrums and tears up your heart, and Kevin apparently forgot his own advice.

Fist raised and bellowing like a siren, the boy charged at the wolf.

It came down to this: Destiny was alive, or she was dead. How fitting that the key to her fate would come to them in a binary code.

Since her arrival in Sioux City, Scully had thrown in with the theory that Destiny was alive. That aliens had taken her and would soon return her. Mulder had mulled the same evidence but his theories kept turning to human abductors.

Two cars traveling to the lake: another binary choice. Scully rode with the abductees. Ruby chattered nervously. Darlene was silent.

Ruby drove with a heavy foot, slamming on the brakes when the road curved. Darlene's face was gray and sweaty when they finally parked. Mulder pulled in next to them, but before Scully had a chance to talk to him, Kevin streaked past, running down to the lake.

"Stay with your mom," Scully told Ruby, and she followed him.

Kevin was losing control. It was a matter of luck that he didn't twist an ankle in his wild race. His screams sounded hysterical.

Scully hung back as he charged from the hot dog stand to the beach. Hopes withered as they realized the battered structure housed nothing more than dirt and debris. Dread gripped her as she pictured Destiny in the underbrush, floating in the lake, in a shallow grave.

Mulder wanted her to take Kevin home.

When Scully heard the first piercing cry coming from the woods, she knew it at once. She recognized Destiny's famous shriek even though she had never heard it.

Again Kevin took the lead, and then Mulder. Scully tore after them through the trees.

She heard Destiny scream for help and Kevin scream for her to stay still. Drawing her weapon, Scully ran toward the shouts.

There, in a clearing ahead. Mulder, gun drawn. Destiny--finally! A wolf, a gray wolf, still scrawny from winter. Kevin, running, screaming. Running at the wolf. Gun? No clear shot. Then the crack from Mulder's gun.

The wolf in flight. But Kevin, falling, fallen, hard on the ground.

"Kevin!" she screamed, running to him.

Mulder wouldn't have taken that shot. She knew it. As she reached Kevin he was halfway to his feet.

"I'm okay. I heard the gun and I dropped," he said.

"I fired in the air," Mulder said, and Scully only nodded. She'd known that.

Destiny was screaming without words.

"She sounds like a car alarm," Mulder muttered.

"Is she hurt?" Scully asked, pushing past Mulder. Destiny's hands flailed, and her screams rose and fell, punctuated by her breathing. As Kevin picked her up, Scully examined the child. There were no obvious injuries beyond a few scratches on her arms and face. Scully managed to catch one of Destiny's waving hands, but didn't see any burns or cuts.

"Does anything hurt?" she asked the child, but Destiny apparently wasn't capable of doing more than shrieking.

"Oh my God!" Ruby shouted as she burst into the clearing. Behind her, Darlene struggled to follow, wheezing and out of breath.

"Mommy!" Destiny practically leapt from Kevin into her mother's arms. Ruby was crying, her face buried in the child's neck.

"I can't find any injuries, but she was screaming and shaking her hands," Scully said.

"What is it, Baby?" Ruby asked softly. "I bet I know what's the matter? Kev, take her for me."

Kevin held Destiny as Ruby pulled a wetnap out of her pocket. "I think it's the sand," she said as she wiped the child's hands. "See? All clean now. Okay?"

"Okay," Destiny answered, rubbing her fingers together. "Okay now."

As she entered the waiting room, Scully could not hide her smile.

In the space of hours, Kevin had transformed from a frightened, anxious boy to a perfectly normal teenager. The beep beep of his Gameboy filled the air as he sprawled, boneless, in his chair.

In the next chair, Mulder smiled at Scully. The sight of him, standing and walking over to her, made her heart beat a little faster. She was always aware of her partner's beauty, like a low-level buzz of attraction. But it wasn't until a case was resolved--when the adrenaline rush subsided and life slowed back to normal time--that she felt the power of this thing between them.

"How is she doing?" he asked. Doctors were still checking Destiny over, with her mother and grandmother standing by. It was Darlene that had Scully worried. The events of the morning had taken a great deal out of her. She'd been leaning heavily on a counter in the examining room.

"Destiny is fine. The same kid that went ballistic over sandy hands managed a blood draw without a peep."

"Are they doing the tests we need?"

"Darlene was pretty resistant but Ruby agreed to it," Scully said. "I asked them to do a CBC with a differential. It'll tell us what we need to know."

"Whether she shows signs of sustained weightlessness."

She nodded. Scully's admiration of Ruby continued to grow. The young woman had shown great strength and maturity as she comforted both her daughter and mother. Allowing them to investigate what had happened to Destiny was a brave act.

Scully wasn't sure she would have had that courage.

"Is she being admitted?" Mulder asked.

"The doctors want to, but Ruby just wants to get her home. She's probably right."

"Will she let us talk to Destiny?" he asked, probably remembering his lost opportunity with Ruby years ago.

"I think so," Scully said. "But Mulder..."


"I'm not sure how useful that's going to be. When we were driving here from the lake, Ruby asked her where she'd been. Destiny kept saying she'd been 'here." She seemed completely unaware of where she'd been or how long she'd been gone."

"She's an odd little girl," Mulder said quietly, so Kevin wouldn't overhear. "Maybe someone who deals with young children..."

"Maybe," she mused.


They turned as Sheriff Linklater entered the room.

"I heard you found Destiny Morris," he said, extending a hand to Mulder. "Good work, agents. How is she?"

"She seems fine," Scully answered as the sheriff shook her hand.

"That's good. Still no clue as to who did this?"

Mulder shook his head.

"Probably a waste of time, but I sent a team over to the lake to work the scene for evidence."

"That's good," Scully said. She doubted they would find anything.

"Actually, I came here to tell you that Council Bluffs police picked up Wayne Tenner at the elementary school. It was a lot closer than it should have been, frankly, given your heads up. Tenner almost had her out of the schoolyard before they got him."

"But Elizabeth is safe?" Scully asked.

"Thanks to you," Linklater said.

Scully shot Mulder a sidelong smile. "It was Agent Mulder who made the connection."

"Tessa was enjoying this a little too much," Mulder said. "Whenever she tries to get someone in trouble, it's a dead giveaway she's up to something herself."

"And how's this for a kick in the head," Linklater said. "We question Tessa after Wayne was picked up and she says she had nothing to do with it. 'Why'd she want to be saddled with a whiny kid, anyway,' she says."

"Good old Tessa," Scully said. "She's nothing if not consistent."

"Wayne's been talking his head off," Linklater said. "Apparently, Tessa had him so 'het up' he didn't know his ass from his elbow. He's a shy little geek. Tessa paid attention to him--took him to bed, and he'd have done anything for her."

"Including abduction," Mulder said.

"Absolutely. She told him she was framed for Greg's murder and tricked into giving up her child. Said she couldn't be happy without her little girl, so he had no choice but to get her daughter for her. I don't like to count my chickens, but with his confession, I think we've got a good case against both of them. They're never gonna get close to that little girl again, if I have anything to say about it."

"I'm glad they're safe," Scully said. "Both Elizabeth and Destiny."

"You know, I watched Ruby and Tessa grow up. There was a time, I wouldn't have given either one much of a shot at a future. Wild behavior, lots of boys, underage drinking. But there was always something sweet about Ruby. I'm real glad she turned her life around. Real glad."

The door to the waiting room opened, and Darlene entered, looking more relaxed than Scully had seen her in days. She sat down next to her son.

"Hey Mom," Kevin said. "I'm hungry."

Darlene laughed, ruffling his hair. "A sure sign all is right in the world. Your sister should be out in a minute and then we'll get something to eat."

Moments later, Ruby pushed through the door, Destiny wrapped around her like a baby monkey. Ruby's smile illuminated the room as she walked over to Mulder and Scully.

"I don't think there are words to say how grateful I am. Thank you for coming here and helping us."

"Me too," Kevin said, his voice cracking a bit as he gave Destiny's foot a playful tug. "Thank you."

Darlene nodded, as if unable to find her voice. Her eyes were shining with tears as she put her arms around her children.

"We're just glad Destiny's safe," Mulder said. "You probably should get her home."

"Yeah," Ruby said, tears rolling down her cheeks.

Destiny waved goodbye just as the doors closed behind the Morrises.

Their flight back to DC was at 8:30 the next morning, so they had an early dinner at one of Sioux City's nicer steakhouses. They returned to the hotel to pack and make an early night of it.

Packing for Mulder was fairly haphazard. It rarely took him more than ten minutes to stuff his clothes back into the suitcase. It wasn't long before he wandered into her room to watch her meticulously fold each garment as she laid it back into the bag. "I could help you," he said, lounging back on the bed.

"I've seen your work, Mulder. Thanks, but no thanks."

"Suit yourself," he said, smiling.

Scully carefully brushed her black jacket and slacks and hung them in the closet for the next day. Mulder's eyes followed her as she moved around the room.

When the last item was neatly placed in the case, she zipped it up and carried it to a spot by the door.

"I'm going to get ready for bed," she said, grabbing the pajamas and toiletry kit she had left on the bed. After she washed up, Scully stepped into her pajamas, wondering if Mulder would still be in her room when she came out. Things had improved between them since they'd cleared the air, but they still had a long way to go.

She smiled as she came out of the bathroom to find Mulder, shoes off, sprawled out on her bed, flipping through the channels on her TV.

"Hey Scully--Seinfeld's on. I think this is the one with Mulva."

"Oh, I love that one," she said as she sat beside him on the bed.

They stacked the pillows against the headboard and sat back against them. She smiled at the sight of her bare legs next to Mulder's long slack-covered ones. Her feet ended somewhere past his knees.

They laughed at the Seinfeld episode and at the Friends one afterward. This was one of her favorite rituals on the road. The same five or six syndicated comedy shows were on every affiliate station across the country. She and Mulder would seek them out as if they were comfort food. "Feels like old times," he said, taking her hand between his own. "Feels good."

It did. She turned to smile at him, finding his face inches from hers. Tilting his head, Mulder moved closer until he was kissing her.

It felt right, his lips on hers. She kissed him back, her hands bracketing his face. Mulder's hands gently skimmed over the satin of her pajamas, finally stopping to cup her breast through the fabric.

She felt herself stiffen as she remembered waking in another set of satin pajamas. Had that repulsive bastard touched her this way?

"I'm sorry," Mulder said, voice soft as he touched her face. "I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable."

"It's okay," she said, quickly. She jumped off the bed, raking her fingers through her hair. "You were right. I have to get past this. I'm letting that...person get to me and that makes him so much more important than he deserves to be."

"If there is one thing I know," Mulder said, moving over to stand before her. "It's that he isn't worth one second of your time."

His hands were on her shoulders, not pushing, not pulling--just holding her steady. That was Mulder, she thought. Steady. There for her. Scully smiled up at him.

"When you're right, you're right."

Her fingers rose to the top button on her pajamas.

His hands were warm and soft as he pushed the satin over her shoulders and down her arms. She wound her arms around his neck, stretching up to kiss him. Mulder's hands traveled up and down her back, finally slipping inside her satin boxers to cup her bottom.

He lifted her against him, walking them over to the bed. Stripping off his shirt and slacks, he watched her eyes carefully. Scully held his gaze, trying to convey the trust and love she felt for this man.

She kicked off her pajama bottoms, and pulled him down to cover her with his solid weight.

She wanted him, and now--no slow foreplay tonight. Scully didn't want to chance more unwelcome thoughts creeping into her consciousness.

In a moment, Mulder was in her, filling her in more ways than she could count. His mouth covered hers, kissing her breathless. They moved as one, Scully rocking to meet each thrust of his hips.

She wanted to shout in triumph when they both reached satisfaction minutes later.

Afterward, lying in his arms, she raised her face to look into Mulder's eyes.

"You know, when we first became lovers, I thought we should have rules about it."

"Somehow that doesn't surprise me," he said teasingly.

"You know what I mean. Guidelines so it wouldn't interfere with our work."

"When approaching an intersection the agent on the left must yield to the agent on the right."

Mulder's lighthearted nonsense was the most wonderful sound she could imagine. She settled back, letting her head rest on his arm as she tried once more to make her point.

"Never during an active investigation."

"Never smile at a crocodile," he replied.

"Only at home, never on the road."

"The old-timers reverse that one," Mulder said. "They call it the 500 mile rule."

"What's that?" she asked.

"You can cheat on your wife if you're at least 500 miles from home," he explained.


"You're the one who likes rules."

"I'm not completely abandoning rules. Some of them are good, like requiring male visitors to put the toilet seat down."

"But no rules about this?" he said as his fingers traced lazy circles on her skin.

"Life is uncertain, and what we have should be cherished. I need you, Mulder."

"I need you, too. And I love you. And it helps me sleep." He yawned.

It was becoming harder and harder to keep her eyes open. The rise and fall of Mulder's chest under her head was hypnotic. Scully molded herself against his warm flesh. It was easy to forget the pain in their lives when they were both warm and safe in each other's arms. She didn't doubt that the demons were waiting for them, but here, together, they could rest and heal.

"Good night, Mulder."

**The End**

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