Title: Primal Fear
Summary: Mulder and Scully are sent to investigate a town in which the residents all seem to be all dying of fright. Why? And will the agents themselves make it through the ghost town alive? (Cue Ominous Music.)
Author's note: This one was hard to categorize. A bunch of different elements are in here--mystery, romance, psychodrama, humor (well, I tried, at least), you could even call it "general" since all those things usually show up in any given real X-Files episode . . . .
1) Culture of Fear
The woman sat huddled in the corner of her freezing bedroom, shaking violently. "Jerry?"
There was no response.
"Jerry," sh e cried out again, more desperately this time. There was a scratchy, almost feral sound in the back of her voice, and her uneven nails dug into the skin of her shoulders. "Jerry!"
Jerry, whomever that might have been, did not respond.
The woma n's ears registered a slow, deliberate creak from the staircase next to the room. Bloodshot eyes darted there and back, finally focusing on an empty point on the wall opposite her. The dirty wall. It didn't look as if anyone had been taking care to kee p the room tidy--in fact, the whole house was a decrepit mess. Including the pajama-clad woman, who hadn't left her room for--God knows how long. Her lips drew back from her teeth.
Her exhalation came out in a stutter. Did she hear the respir atio n of another creature slightly after each of her own breaths? And where was it coming from? The woman tried to stifle back a low moan and failed. She pressed her eyes shut and tried to squeeze herself farther into the space where the two walls met. Oh, God, what if the thing were already in the room with her? Or, worse, what if it planned to approach her in minute increments, one barely audible step at a time? Jerry, where are you?! her mind screamed, throat too tightly clenched with hor ror t o utter a sound.
Another three heavy footsteps came from the staircase, in quick succession this time. The woman opened her mouth to the ceiling and let out an animal shriek as a manic-eyed Jerry charged the rest of the way up the stairs, acr oss th e hallway, through the study next to the bedroom the woman was in, and straight out through a second-story window.
Fainting in terror, the woman didn't even hear him land in the snow outside.
2) On the Road Again
BUILDING, WASHINGTON, D.C.
Skinner leaned into his desk to address Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully more closely. "In other words," he said carefully, "I expect you not to fall into the same trap as did Agents Hemingway and Brown."
After a brief pause, Scully spoke up hesitantly. "Sir, let me just get this straight: The two agents previously assigned to the case succumbed to the same feeling of general hysteria and intense paranoia that supposedly envelops the entire town of Herd Crossing, Wyoming-"
"Does envelop the entire town of Herd Crossing, Wyoming," Mulder interrupted in a monotone.
"-and actually elected to take the next flight back to Dulles International rather than attempt to investigate why they exhibited the same symptoms as the townspeople?" finished Scully without missing a beat.
"Yes," Skinner said wearily. "According both to this wreck of a case report they handed me and their own testimony, they both currently feel extreme embarrassment and chagrin that they chose to act the way they did, but they are still unable to explain what came over them. The only way they can coherently describe it is that the atmosphere of paranoia was too thick to allow for proper working conditions."
"My guess would be that some local joker decided to dump an acid keg into the local water supply, sending the whole town and the first lucky agents who got thirsty on the job into a bad trip."
Scully coughed lightly. "Agent Mulder could be right, sir. The most efficient way of spreading some sort of mood-altering drug throughout a populace would probably be through the water supply."
"Don't think you're the first ones to consider that. If Hemingway and Brown hadn't at least had the presence of mind to bring back a water sample with them in their retreat to D.C., and if that water sample hadn't tested out to be free of any unusual contaminants, this wouldn't be an X-File. And they wouldn't still have jobs." Skinner slipped the water test results into the case file. "Every state and federal law enforcement official who's gone into Herd Crossing has come out shaking, and the locals are starting to suicide faster than lemmings. And you're flying out there tonight."
"It's not possible."
"It is so possible."
"You know it isn't."
"But it could be."
"No. It couldn't." Scully set down her coffee cup on her desk. "The common reference to fear as being 'contagious' actually has no connotations whatsoever to viruses of any kind. The propagation of paranoia is related not to any type of viral infection but instead to the human tendency to pick up on chemical signals that are unconsciously-"
"But it could be." At his own disaster area of a desk, Mulder was still holding the new casefile and looking at his partner sideways. "The town contains a chemical plant, Scully. A chemical plant that has been this close to being shut down for contravening the local hygiene and safety laws not once, not twice, but three times within the past five years. Don't tell me that's not significant."
Scully sighed, picking up her coffee again and taking a sip. "The presence of a leaky chemical plant in the town would help explain some of the problems the locals are experiencing, such as the high rates of birth defects and certain types of cancer. But there's nothing that that plant is producing that could possibly cause the creation of some sort of . . ." she raised an eyebrow, searching for the phrase Mulder had used just a few minutes earlier ". . . 'weird fear virus,' " she finished, looking at him with an air of finality. "And what's more is that you know it."
There was a brief silence from the FBI's Most Unwanted side of the basement lair.
"But it could be."
I knew it couldn't last, Scully thought ruefully. "Mulder, no matter how much you want to believe it, a chemical plant that specializes in the production of drain cleaner, hair dye, and, and spermicide,is just not going to be capable of causing viral mutations. Besides, you'll note that the factory workers reported feeling less fearful at work than at home. If the factory products were even capable of producing such a mutation-" Scully gave her partner a meaningful look, despite the fact that he appeared to be too absorbed in re-reading the casefile to notice "-then it would make more sense if the majority affected by chronic paranoia were the men and women working in the factory."
Mulder tossed the casefile back onto his desk and ran his fingers through his hair. "But they're not. It's the whole town. Wouldn't it make sense if the virus were disseminated through the smokestack emissions? That way, the people outside the factory would be affected first."
Scully stood up and began rifling through her purse for her car keys. "The idea of a virus being at fault certainly is interesting, but it still doesn't fit all the facts--like how outsiders passing through the town are unaffected, and how any symptoms of abnormal fear seem to wane inside the factory. And considering that Skinner didn't exactly give us a choice about going down to Herd Cows, Wisconsin, to check it out, I think we'll have more than enough of an opportunity to find a more likely reason for the occurrences."
"Occurrences," muttered Mulder, getting ready to leave. "Yeah, sure. I'll pick you up at seven. And it's Herd Crossing, Wyoming."
Scully gave her apartment one last once-over. If she left the gas valves turned on at home while chasing down nonexistent Wyoming fear viruses, there would be a disaster waiting for her once she got home; likewise, leaving a faucet dripping could result in an astronomical water bill.
Actually, this was the fourth "last once-over" that she'd done. "I might as well have just waited until half-past to even start packing," she muttered, frustrated with Mulder Time. She surveyed the blank face of the door, tapping her foot and wondering how he'd made it this far through adulthood in one piece. Not that it wasn't endearing when he finally showed up all disheveled and alert-looking, yelling-
"Hey, Scully, I'm here!"
A smile made its way across her face as Mulder made his entrance. "About time. Let's just hope you can drive fast enough to get us to the flight on time."
"Not a problem, Bright Eyes. Get your bags and let's get goin'." Mulder took off back down the hallway--Scully's suitcase in his arms, despite what he had said. Scully turned off her lights, slammed the door, and followed in hot pursuit.
The Hitchhiker's Guide to WYOMING
A car idled by the side of a dark road. The two occupants were silent.
Then Mulder slammed his hands violently against the wheel. "Dammit, Skinner!" he hollered.
"Yes, it was obnoxious of him to send us out here this late. No, it's not his fault that you misread the directions," snapped Scully, staring out the passenger side window of the rental car. "We can't be too far away, and the land is so flat we should probably be able to spot the chemical plant from some distance. If it were lighter out," she added after some consideration.
"Not this late at night. The bastard." Mulder shone his flashlight at the map. "That was a left turn we just took, right?"
"We didn't take any turn. We went straight at the crossroads."
"Before that." Mulder grimaced at the map, then messily re-folded it. "Scully, are you thinking what I'm thinking?"
"I hope not."
Mulder shot her a look. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Don't worry about it."
Mulder thought for a moment. "Look, Scully, our being lost on this road might actually help us out here."
"What, you think we're going to see a tractor-trailer conveniently labeled 'Herd Crossing's Own Toxic Hair Dye, Drain Cleaner, and Spermicide, Limited' heading down the road so we'll be able to follow it into town?"
"Look, earlier this morning--all right, yesterday morning--when Skinner called us into his office, he said it was a case that would require us to be more low-profile than usual. In other words, showing up in the dead of night and flashing around our badges is probably not going to help us here." Mulder watched Scully unbuckle her seatbelt, kick off her heels, and draw her petite legs up underneath herself. "We masquerade as lost tourists. We drive until we find some sign of civilization, which will hopefully help us find our way to Cowpatch Cross-"
"-where we can get motel rooms and be able to ride out the 'lost tourist' excuse long enough to figure out what's going on in town."
"That sounds almost as if it would work."
"Why so doubtful?"
"Because we're out of gas." Scully tilted her head at the dashboard readouts.
The car died.
There was silence along the long, dark highway. For a moment.
"That's not going to help!" Scully yelled, slamming her feet back onto the car floor. "We wait until morning, we hitchhike, that's all there is to it. If anything, it just adds verisimilitude to our act. Who would get stranded on an investigation job?"
Besides incompetent FBI agents? A tense Mulder shrugged and hissed air out from between his teeth, shaking his head slowly.
Another beat passed. "For what it's worth, I feel the same way as you do right now," Scully offered more softly.
Mulder's head jerked up. "What? Oh, right. Right, of course. So. Backseat?"
"I said, backseat?"
Scully shook her head. He definitely didn't mean what she thought he meant, right? "Mulder, I don't-"
"I should get it. I'm taller." Mulder took off his seatbelt and slid between his and Scully's seats into the backseat of the rental car. "Hope you don't mind my sleeping on top of your suitcase."
"Not at all," said Scully, realization dawning. "Go right ahead." She curled up in a ball on her seat and shut her eyes. It was going to be a long night, but at least it wasn't cold inside the car. Well, not very.
She tried really hard to remember that.
Scully could hear Mulder shifting around in the back, presumably trying to get comfortable. She sighed, trying to stay quiet but feeling acutely uncomfortable. And not just because of the armrest digging into her back.
What on earth could possess an entire town to become more paranoid than the Lone Gunmen for months on end? And how did it cause two notably sane federal agents to slip completely out of character and turn tail to run? It probably was the water after all, Scully thought. If Hemingway and Brown had been disturbed enough to take off from--what was it? Herders' Cross, or something?--she wouldn't put it beyond them to have been in such a state that they accidentally took a water sample from the wrong source under the assumption that it would contain whatever the affected town's water supply did. Or--no, surely they wouldn't purposely falsify evidence. No one would be stupid enough to try passing off local D.C. water as a Wyoming sample. Would they? Scully sighed again, frustrated that Hemingway and Brown had acted so unprofessionally.
Speaking of unprofessional, were those snores emanating from Special Agent Fox Mulder's backseat? Scully twisted around to see the back of the car. Sure enough, he was sprawled across the entire back seat of the car, and he still didn't fit. He was right about one thing, she thought wryly, if he tried sleeping up front, he'd be too cramped to try driving by the time it got light out. If we could even drive at all, with the car in this condition. She squinted at him in the dark. His mouth was open slightly, and it was probably only a matter of time until he began to drool. Scully smiled, then abruptly realized what had been bothering her--she couldn't sleep with her contacts in, and of course her contact solution was in the suitcase that Mulder was currently using as a pillow. She gritted her teeth. To wake him up, or to destroy her eyesight?
Maybe there was a way to get at the contacts without disturbing him. Scully got out of the front passenger seat, shivering, and made her way--incurring a minimum of bumping-into-things damage--to the backseat. Mulder's suitcase had fallen to the floor: Surely it would be easy enough to put it under his head while removing her own. Scully stealthily lifted the suitcase and put her hand on top of her own case. Carefully, she slid her suitcase out from under Mulder's unconscious head as she substituted his case. "Yes," she whispered, retreating to her rapidly-cooling passenger seat. Unlatching her case, Scully quickly replaced her contacts into their saline solution. While she was at it, she dragged out a few of her shirts to drape over herself as blankets--after consideration, she took out some extras. Closing her suitcase, Scully leaned over into the backseat just long enough to to efficiently tuck some of her shirts around Mulder, who had to have been as cold as she was. Satisfied, she snuggled back into her own seat. And fell asleep.
Even before his partner's breathing evened out, Mulder's eyes were wide open and staring at the ceiling of their rental car. She expected him to be able to sleep now?
He shifted further into the lumpy seat cushion. The shirts smelled like Scully.
THE NEXT MORNING
Scully stirred. Her everything ached.
"Urgh." She creaked one eye open, flailing an arm for her bedside table and instead colliding with a cold hard dashboard. With a shock, Scully realized where she was and sat bolt upright--and regretted it as soon as her back twisted in pain. "Mulder?" She turned around to see the backseat devoid of both Mulder and her shirts, though his suitcase was still there. Where'd he go? she thought, panicky.
Did that just come from the roof? Scully abruptly quit breathing and reached silently for her gun on the floor. If there had been a sunroof, she'd be able to tell what was on top of the car, but as it was she'd have to risk going out the door if she couldn't figure out--oh. "Mulder?" she called upwards.
"Mulder, what are you doing on the roof?" Scully holstered her gun, put her shoes back on, and left the car. Sure enough, Mulder was standing on the roof of the car, waving around something long and bright white in his hand like a signal flag or semaphore. She squinted, realizing that she'd left both glasses and contacts in the car.
"Scully." Mulder jumped off the roof onto the pavement as Scully retrieved her contacts from her suitcase and turned back around.
"My shirts!" Scully grabbed for the 'signal flag,' which had evidently been constructed out of two tied-together white blouses.
"Yeah, I'm signaling for help," Mulder explained. "I'm not sure why I woke up with these on top of me-"
Scully blinked, remembering her nocturnal activities. She almost suspected something from the look on Mulder's face, but deciding that their current situation was a little more important than what he did or didn't remember, she ignored it. She fidgeted with with the shirts, untying their crude knot and tossing them back into the car.
"-but it occurred to me that a passing car further down the road might see them if I got up high enough. So far, nobody's stopped, which is either because they're too far away to notice me or because they don't care." Mulder exhaled loudly and slouched against the car. "Looks like it's just you an' me."
Hands on hips, Scully surveyed the road. Wyoming was flatter than she'd thought it would be--maybe this was just one abnormally flat stretch. She'd heard stories about huge forests. Still, the lack of scenery might make it easier for passing motorists to spot the unlucky agents. There was snow piled around, but it was melting and obviously a few days old, and the sky wasn't cloudy enough to warrant fear of another snowstorm any time soon.
"Mulder, do you see that?"
"See what?" Mulder followed his partner's gesture to the horizon. "Yeah, Scully, it's a blob."
"It's worth a try."
Mulder squinted past the acreage of snow and mud. "It could be mountains."
"It could be Herd Pass."
"Herd Crossing. And it looks like mountains."
"It's not mountains, it's too localized. There's no sign of any other tectonic activity-"
"But it could be."
Scully shot Mulder a look, but he was grinning back at her. She felt herself color slightly, mentally damning her traitorous fair skin. She shivered. "Mulder, this is probably not the greatest time to be fooling around."
"Oh, but we've got all the time in this world, Dana."
"You know that's not what I meant."
"What's not what you meant?" Mulder was already rummaging in the backseat of the car again. "Yeah, I know what you mean-"
A brief stomach flip.
"-I think I just saw smoke coming out from it, too-"
Okay, so that's not what he was talking about after all, thought Scully, trying to keep her mind in one place. Shut up. Not the time. Shut up and figure out how to get out of here. She meticulously folded her mistreated blouses and put them back into her suitcase.
"-so it's either the chemical factory or a volcano, which is kind of unlikely in Wisconsin-"
"-and I don't see anyone else coming along this road, so-"
"I do," Scully interjected again. Mulder popped back out of the backseat to follow her pointing finger a second time: Sure enough, there was a tractor-trailer approaching from the far distance of the road--the road that seemed to lead towards the chemical factory. Damn, if I'd kept waving those shirts a little longer, I could've pretended I saw it first myself, he thought, clambering back up onto the car roof, pulling off his jacket and waving it.
"Mulder, he'll see us anyway!" Scully yelled up to him, even as she windmilled her own arms in an attempt to attract the driver of the truck's attention.
Whether it was due to the jacket-waving, the arm-waving, or the fact that a car seemed to be broken down by the side of the road, the tractor-trailer did indeed slow down and stop by the now-frantic agents. The trucker rolled down his window and stuck his head out.
"Got a breakdown?" he called.
"Yeah, uh--oh shit-" Mulder half-jumped, half-fell off the car roof in an effort to reach the truck. Scully was right behind him as he ran up to the cab.
"Yeah, we, ah, weren't keeping an eye on the gas tank and so if you have any extra that would be a lifesaver, sir," Scully started.
"Even if you just give us a lift to the next town, we'd find some way to pay you back," Mulder continued.
The trucker sucked his teeth and shook his head slowly. "Sorry, but I can't fit you both in with me. I only got room for one other person here."
The two agents looked at one another, implicit in their faces that neither one was going to abandon the other with a broken-down rental car in the middle of Wyoming. They turned back to the trucker.
"Uh, about that extra gas," Mulder started.
"Yeah, sure. Hang on, I got some in the back." The trucker unbuckled himself and jumped down from the cab of the truck. The three headed around to the back of the trailer; the driver unlocked the door and hauled out a large can of gasoline from where it was perched on top of cargo boxes. "This is all I know for sure I can spare right now. It oughta be enough to get you to the next gas station," he advised, pointing in the direction the agents had driven from the night before.
"I can't thank you enough, sir," said Scully as Mulder headed back towards the rental car with the can, "but we were actually heading in the other direction. Do you know how far it is to the next gas station or rest stop if we keep going that way?"
The driver froze in the middle of re-closing the back of his trailer. Scully's stomach sank again as the man slowly turned around. She glimpsed a rictus of horror on his face before it smoothed into a more pleasant, if still somewhat disturbing and obviously forced, expression of concern. "Look, lady, you really don't want to go that way."
"Ah, sorry, is there something I should know?" Obviously there was something he didn't want her to know, or he wouldn't have switched his expression so quickly, she thought. The truck driver's lips tightened.
A few minutes later, Mulder capped the gas can and stepped back out from around the other side of the car. "Hey, thanks again for the-" he stopped. The truck was gone. Scully was standing in the middle of the road, looking pissed off. Uh-oh. "Uh, Scully?" He walked over to her. "What the hell just happened there?"
Scully was staring into the distance, where the truck was rapidly disappearing in a haze of tossed-up mud and snow remnants. "Well, Mulder, it seems like that town certainly does have a local reputation," she finally said. "All he would tell me before taking off was that it was dangerous, and that none of the trucks in his company stop there anymore. And that it's going to be impossible to catch a ride there, since everybody this end of the state border avoids the place like the plague. So it's doubly lucky he was nice enough to give us the gas." She turned to him, a small terse smile on her lips. "On the plus side, at least we know that we were on the right road after all."
The car ride had been mostly quiet, interspersed with a few speculations on the best way to go about infiltrating Herd Crossing. Scully thought it would be a good idea to rent hotel rooms in the next town over from Herd Crossing, so as to minimize inadvertently following in Hemingway and Brown's respective erroneous steps--there would be less of a chance of their accidentally drinking contaminated water or attracting unwanted attention. However, as Mulder pointed out, if what they'd seen so far was any judge, the next town over from Herd Crossing could very well be the city where their plane had landed. Or in Canada. Scully agreed to this point, though not without some reluctance.
"I'm just having some trouble understanding what could have spooked two seasoned FBI agents so badly that they ran back to D.C. as quickly as they could," she finally confessed as they drove along.
"We've seen some pretty strange things ourselves," pointed out Mulder. "I'll bet we've seen and done stuff those two aren't even able to have nightmares about--they haven't been working on the X-Files for the past few years."
"Yes, but almost all of our cases are completely unrelated. It's hard to predict whether or not anything we've learned in one case will actually be applicable in another." There was an uncomfortable silence. "It also worries me that we didn't get the chance to speak with Hemingway and Brown before we left. Their reports are almost completely incoherent, and speaking with them might have helped us figure out how to deal with whatever it was they met up with."
Mulder's face was set. "Maybe it wasn't that our schedules clashed, or even that Skinner wanted it all cleared up as soon as possible."
Scully turned to face him. "What do you mean? Are you suggesting that we were deliberately sent in here without all the information we needed?"
"You said it, not me." Mulder's face didn't change. "You're right, we have almost no idea what we're walking into. The only thing that's for sure is that there's something in that town that scares the shit out of anyone who steps into it, and someone didn't allow an opportunity for us to figure out how to arm ourselves against it."
The silence that widened was even more uncomfortable.
"One thing about our infiltrating a town of paranoiacs," Scully eventually said, "is that you're going to fit right in."
Mulder turned to her incredulously, swerving the car slightly. "Scully, you just said it yourself! Skinner didn't even give us a chance to talk to the agents who were on the case before we were assigned to it. How screwed-up is that?"
"Mulder, from the amount of information I got out of that trucker--or, rather, the lack thereof--I think it's fairly safe to say that whatever's in the town is also fairly hard to describe," Scully countered. "I didn't mean that we're walking into some conspiracy trap. It's more likely that Skinner just wants to deal with whatever the problem is in this town as quickly as possible so that no one else has to diefrom it."
"I know people have been dying. I just don't see the merits of rushing in as blind as the Light Brigade."
Scully shrugged and stared out her window. Mulder was obviously in a bad mood, and she couldn't blame him. "I think we're arguing the same side here," she muttered.
Mulder let out a deep breath. "Well, whatever the hell is going on, we'll find out soon enough. It looks like we're getting pretty close to the town."
His partner peered out at the approaching mass. "Yeah. I think I see a neon sign."
"Motel, with any luck."
It was probably too much to hope for that they could find a place to stay that wasn't a dive, Scully thought. She was right.
4) Herd Crossing: A G-Man Did It
The first thing that struck them in Herd Crossing was the stench. And "struck" really is the appropriate word here--it was almost like some kind of physical presence, Mulder thought, sleeve protectively up against his nose, that sucker-punched you right in the face and traveled straight down to your stomach from there. Where it roiled unpleasantly, and didn't go away even after you entered a building. Scully looked even more grossed-out than he was, probably because her apartment was generally in a higher state of cleanliness than was his. Whatever the reason, something was rotten in Herd Crossing. And it smelled far, far worse than a rat--even one that had died of severe trauma to the digestive system.
"Uh," said Mulder to the lady inside the motel lobby, trying to get his bearings. "Uh, we'd like to rent a room here for a while."
"Two rooms," gagged Scully.
"Two rooms," agreed Mulder, suppressing the urge to throw up.
The old lady behind the counter emitted a sort of sneering giggle. Bad marital problems, eh? she thought to herself, then noticed the absence of wedding rings on the agents' left hands. Real bad marital problems. Even the rings are gone.
Why in hell doesn't this old bat seem to smell anything? thought Mulder incredulously. Is she actually used to this? Is it some kind of regular phenomenon around here? Or is she just too old to have a functioning olfactory sense?
The old lady slid two keys across the counter. "Money up front," she lisped.
Scully fumbled in her purse for a moment, trying not to breathe, and slid her credit card across the counter. If she waited for Mulder to pay, he'd probably start hedging about the price of the rooms, and God knew she didn't want to hang around here any longer than was absolutely necessary. Maybe the smell will be better in our rooms. She signed the bottom of the receipt, keeping a copy for expenses reimbursement.
"Rooms are right down that hallway and to your left." The lady pointed.
"Excellent, thank you." Scully grabbed a key and started down the hallway at a fast clip. Mulder took the remaining key and started after her, then turned back to the counter, eyes watering.
"Uh, ma'am?" he called urgently.
"Don't you, uh, smell something?"
"Oh. Huh. Thanks." Mulder spun back around and headed after Scully.
"I'm just about the only one, though," he heard her call after him as he followed his partner into her room at a run.
Scully slammed the door behind Mulder, then flung her suitcase open on her ratty bed and began rifling through it with abandon.
"This is disgusting. No wonder the others all went nuts." Mulder violently spat a sunflower seed into the trash can near the door, then slumped down next to it. "If I had to live here, I'd be psychotic too."
"Mulder, as awful as this may be, I find it unlikely that it alone was capable of causing several dozen locals to commit suicide."
"I don't know about that." Mulder rolled his head to the side to get a better look at the tight-lipped Scully, who had located a small bottle of perfume and was spraying it around the room like a ward. "It smells like not only did the herd actually cross, it also experienced severe to lethal indigestion on the way through. Scully, that old lady said she didn't notice a thing."
"Yes, I heard her. She also mentioned that most everyone else did--that probably includes the other locals, too. She must be an anomaly." Scully sat down on her bed, mollified by the effects of the perfume, and tugged off her shoes again.
"And she's not exhibiting any signs of paranoia. The two have to be linked." Mulder ate another sunflower seed. "What's causing that horrible stink, anyway? Toxic emissions from the chemical plant? Jesus, you could reach out and squeeze industrial byproduct crap out of the air."
"Frankly, I don't see what else is capable of producing such a smell. We didn't notice a thing until we got close enough to this town to read the sign on the motel." Scully flopped down on the bed. "Of course, you realize the smell could be entirely unrelated to the reason why the town is going insane."
"I don't know about that either. Look, either way it has to be important that the first thing we found when we drove into Herd Crossing, a town reputed to hold only psychos, was a lucid woman. What were the odds of that?"
"I'd say the first thing we found was the smell, not the woman, but since that's probably not relevant to begin with I'll have to concede the point." Scully set her alarm clock on the bedside table. "Someone had to call the police first. Could it have been her?" She reached for the case file again as Mulder continued pensively staring at the ceiling. "No, these records say that the first call to higher authorities came from a younger married couple near the center of town, who said they'd noticed their neighbors acting funny. They called again a few hours later, saying they were now in fear of their own lives. A few similar cases started trickling in, then the number of reports exploded--then it dropped again, and flatlined."
"At what point did the state police come in?"
"Well, that rise and fall in the number of concerned citizens all occurred within a few days, which was also apparently the time it took for the Wyoming state police to decide that something was really out of the ordinary." Scully sighed and dropped the file again.
"Yeah, then they went nuts, called us, and we know what happened next. Look, let's go talk to the old lady. She has to know something."
BACK IN THE MOTEL LOBBY
"No. I don't get out much."
"You haven't noticed anything strange at all?" Mulder was incredulous.
"Nope, why? You Feds or something?" The old lady laughed in his face.
Scully coughed. "Excuse him, ma'am." Mulder shot her a dirty look, which she studiously ignored as she continued. "We just heard some strange things about this town as we were heading along the road, and we thought it would be interesting to find out what was going on."
"Why you going this way to begin with? Some kind of honeymoon tour of the northern U.S. of A.?" the old lady demanded, popping a peppermint candy into her mouth.
Mulder and Scully looked at each other. "You could say that," Scully said carefully. It wouldn't be anything approaching the truth, but you could certainly say it if you really wanted to, she thought silently.
"That's one damn boring honeymoon." The woman turned down the volume on her desktop radio and moved her chair closer to the couch the two agents were occupying in the lobby. "No wonder you wanted to check up on the first piece of interesting news you heard. So, just what is goin' on out there?"
I still can't believe she hasn't heard a thing or gone outside in almost three months. Mulder rubbed his temples. Even though he'd stooped to the level of spraying Scully's perfume on his own shoulders, the smell of Herd Crossing was causing his eyes to water. "We heard that all the townspeople were, uh, acting funny. Something about the water, maybe?"
"Hah, I knew it!" shouted the old lady triumphantly, slamming a fist down onto the counter. "They finally done it!"
"Knew what?" "Who did what?" Mulder and Scully leaned forward expectantly.
The old lady leaned forwards, too, eyes conspiratorially squinted. "Them damn G-men. They finally gone and poisoned our water supply. I knew I was right when I installed that emergency bunker in my basement."
Dead silence from the couch currently occupied by G-people.
"I got me a decade's worth of essential supplies of every kind in my very own fallout shelter, which is why I ain't left the motel in six months." The old lady self-importantly clacked her dentures and sat back in her chair. "Sure, I noticed I was getting fewer customers, but they're always scarce in the winter anyway."
Said silence continued. Scully's face appeared to be frozen in incredulity, whereas Mulder just looked slumped and disgusted by this point.
The old lady turned her gaze on Scully and tilted her head at Mulder. "So, what's he like in bed?"
"I can't believe what a waste of time that was." Mulder paced the length of his room. Through the thin wall, he could hear Scully spraying more perfume into the air.
"I know that, Mulder."
He spread his hands in disbelief. "She was interrogating us!"
"I know that, Mulder."
"And then she turned out to be a delusional nut job anyway! So much for the 'last sane person in town' act!"
"I know that, too, Mulder."
He let his hands drop. "I can't believe some of the lies you told her about me. That was just uncalled for."
"I'm good at it."
"I know that, Scully." Mulder flopped spread-eagled down onto his bed, staring at the ceiling. "Shit, what if she's right? You heard anything about federal plans to poison this place?"
"If I had, would I have agreed to come here and investigate why the citizenry is self-destructing?" There was a clinking sound.
"Raiding the minibar so soon, Scully?"
"Not quite. I had the presence of mind to bring a field testing kit with me, and I'm just trying to see if the water does indeed contain LSD or something similar."
"Wow, you're good." Mulder hoisted himself up onto his elbows. "Did I ever tell you that you're adorable in goggles?"
"That, I don't know, Mulder, and I think I could live without ever hearing it." More clinking. "But I probably wouldn't have thought of bringing the kit if you hadn't kept me waiting so long at my apartment. I only remembered it at the last minute."
"See, I am good for something."
"A lot of things. You can help me decipher these results, for one."
"Sure thing." Mulder dragged himself off his bed, shedding his overcoat in the process, and headed over to Scully's room. She was hunched over her table, staring at small slips of paper that were laid out in front of her, along with a few test tubes.
"The water at first glance seems to be fine," she said, looking up at him with wide eyes through the goggles. "But there's something else that's strange here."
What do you know, I was right about the goggles, thought Mulder. "Like what?" He took a seat next to her.
"Well, as I said, the results for the water seem to be fine--at first." Scully took off her goggles, leaving red marks on her face from the elastic. She set down the goggles on the table in front of her and picked up one of the slips of paper. "But it seems as if the test paper's being contaminated by the air before it has a chance to finish the curing process."
"Something in the air. I knew it," said Mulder tersely. "I still think the chemical factory's emissions have something to do with it. It's the only thing we can think of that would cause this godforsaken disgusting smell, for one-" Scully handed him a nose and mouth-covering mask, the kind she used for autopsies, strapping one on herself. Mulder looked at it as if it were the last life preserver on a sinking ship. "Scully, you're my angel." He put it on. "I could just hug you."
"Don't knock over the water samples," joked Scully through her mask. "What were you saying about the air?"
"Well, since it seems fairly certain that the test results for the water are initially normal and that the air is the only thing causing the results to go screwy, I guess we know that the water's probably fine. At least in terms of mind-altering chemicals, though it can't hurt to take an extra sample back to D.C. just in case there's something else in there that the field kit doesn't pick up on."
Scully held up a sealed flask of water. "Already thought of that."
"Great. So, as I was saying, the air's the killer." Mulder sat back in his chair, hands on his knees. "It's obviously driving the locals crazy. The receptionist must still be in the early stages because she hardly ever leaves the motel and would therefore get less exposure to the emissions. Her own developing paranoias--though she didn't really seem to be visibly afraid so much as suspicious--have obviously not reached the lethal stages yet."
Scully shrugged. "All right, well, it's a good sign in terms of our own safety that the water doesn't seem to be the culprit. Still, it means we have to go through a lot more trouble finding out exactly what in the air is causing people to turn against their own minds. I still don't buy your theory about the virus, though."
"Well, besides what we've already been over in terms of industrial chemicals being unable to affect viruses in that way--I'm just hoping that a fear virus can't exist because, if it is in this town, we've probably been exposed to it by now," she said reluctantly.
Mulder grimaced, not that this was visible through his mask. "Yeah. But Hemingway's field report states that he and Agent Brown began feeling edgy less than half an hour after entering the town."
"It's strange that they didn't mention the smell. Edginess, but not the smell." Scully glanced at her watch and sighed. "We've been here for about an hour and fifteen minutes. Personally, the only reason I felt sick is because of the smell, and since I can't notice it as much as before due to the mask and perfume, I'm feeling a lot better."
"If the emissions have a cumulative effect . . . ?" mused Mulder. "That wouldn't account for how quickly the other agents succumbed. Or why the old lady said that most people, which seems to include the locals, notice the smell. Which they wouldn't if it were something you could get used to, since the factory's been here for decades." He rubbed his forehead again. "There has to be something, some other factor, we don't know about yet."
"Well, we only just got here, after all," pointed out Scully, leaning back in her chair. "We can't expect to know everything about the town right away. We should probably go out and talk to whomever is still lucid further into the town."
"Probably whomever's still in the factory, too." Mulder stood up. "All right, let's go. But I'm keeping the mask on."
5) Ghost Town
"This is absurd. I don't hear a thing out of any of these houses." Scully looked to her left and to her right again, walking down the middle of a deserted town road next to Mulder. "And I still don't feel any abnormal fear."
"Almost all the shades are down in all the houses," commented Mulder in a low voice. "Anyone still in there definitely is still afraid. Of something, or someone."
"This is creepy." Scully buried her hands in her jacket pockets. "It's also sick. Who would want to terrorize every person in one small, isolated town?"
"Well, there are a lot of creeps out in the world." Mulder pulled on a pair of gloves--it seemed as if it were getting colder. "But I'm still in favor of the virus theory. If the government is testing out some kind of fear virus here, the town's isolation works in its favor--the virus' escape from a control group could paralyze the nation."
"I seriously doubt that the government is interested in producing a 'fear virus,' but I do realize that there are a lot of creeps, as you said. If the terrorization is actually intentional instead of accidental, it's got to be the work of someone who's obsessed with the idea of the entire town being afraid of him or her, or at least of the whole town being afraid because of his or her work. An egomaniac or sociopath, possibly someone who's been the underdog in local society for a while and finally gave in to the temptation towards wide-scale revenge." She sighed. If that were the case, it certainly wouldn't be the first time the X-Files agents had gone against a psychopath--though that type of experience never got easier with repetition. She dreaded the thought of encountering another criminal deluded enough to kill neighbors on a whim or because of their inner urges.
"You think that crazy old lady could've done it?" Mulder surveyed the houses. Was that the twitch of a curtain? No, probably just his imagination.
"She seemed harmless enough . . . then again, a lot of dangerous people do," admitted Scully. "I suggest that we take turns holding a lookout overnight just in case she does try something. But Hemingway and Brown didn't stay in the motel, did they?"
"No, they didn't. You don't think this could've been done by someone who was morally against something the factory was up to?" Mulder squinted at a house further down the street.
Scully laughed, tilting her head to look up at her partner. "Who would take offense at the production of hair dye and drain cleaner, of all things?"
"You forgot the spermicide."
"I hardly think that's any more important than the other products." Scully looked further down the street. Please don't let me get dragged into a conversation with Mulder revolving around the relative merits of spermicide.
"I dunno. Maybe an extremist pro-life group made the jump to considering sperm a potential human being to be protected at all costs?" Mulder snickered.
So much for that prayer. "And so they decided to take it out on the town by poisoning them?"
"Maybe. But there are bigger factories who produce this stuff. Why start with such a small factory?" Mulder stopped walking; Scully followed suit. He turned to face her. "There would've been reports of some kind of group threat in the case file if there were a group working against the factory. There weren't any."
Scully bit her lip. "Right. So no pro-life terrorists here." Then she noticed an expression on Mulder's face--he was looking past her, down the side street behind her. "Mulder?" She turned to see what he was looking at.
The side street was a dead end. At the end of it stood a two-story house--extravagant by Herd Crossing standards; most houses seemed to exist only on ground level--and one of the second-story windows had been shattered. There was also a body lying on the pavement outside the house. The long-legged Mulder outpaced Scully in their dash to the scene, then stood as she crouched over the body.
"White Caucasian male, probably in his forties or early fifties," reeled off Scully, feeling for vital signs. "From the way he's lying, plus all the glass and the broken window, it's safe to say this is a defenestration. Intentional or not, I can't tell. Left leg appears to be broken, he's probably got broken ribs too. Glass cuts over all his front. His pulse is very weak, but he's still alive!" She looked up at Mulder. "I don't know how long he's going to last," she said in a rush. "His lips are turning blue and there's blood all over the snow--I can't tell how long he's been out here."
"He's so far away from the house, he must have left the window at a pretty high speed," Mulder said quietly. "Either he had a running start, or he was thrown by someone several times stronger than he was. Falling by accident is out of the question here."
"It's probably a botched suicide, given this town's history. Can we get him back into the house before he freezes? I don't want to move a concussion victim, but he's going to die of exposure if we don't do something."
"Yeah--yeah, just let me-" Mulder ran up to the front door and tried the handle. It was locked. Wham! Mulder slammed his body weight against it. The door didn't budge--it felt as if there were at least several deadbolts in addition to the lock on the door. He moved back, then aimed and kicked just above the top lock on the door. There was a splintering sound and part of the door buckled, but didn't break open. Mulder moved back to try again.
"What?!" Mulder spun around to find the man, now wide-eyed and bleeding from the glass cuts on his face, trying to struggle up from the ground. Scully, who had leapt back from the man in surprise at hearing him yell at Mulder, moved right back to his side.
"Sir, please don't move, you may have a concussion and you've definitely lost a lot of blood," she began, trying to calm him down. But the man brushed her hand away.
"Don't open the door," he coughed out. "Don't--take me back--there--please," he gasped, and slumped into Scully's lap.
Mulder moved over and crouched down next to Scully and the man. "What's in there?" he demanded in a low voice.
"Don't scare this man any more than he already is," hissed Scully, trying not to alarm the man in her arms. "It can only make his condition worse."
"He's trying to tell us something," Mulder insisted. "What's in there?"
"I didn't understand before," the man choked out, twitching. "Anna . . . she's still in there . . ."
Scully looked up sharply at Mulder. "We have to make sure she's still alive."
"Can't be by now," gasped the man. "Left her . . . shouldn't have . . . but I knew I had to get out. Now--I'm gonna. . . ." his voice trailed off.
"What were you running away from?" demanded Mulder.
The prone man turned his frantic gaze on Mulder. "Don't know. Different each time."
"What do you mean by 'each time'?" asked Scully.
The man convulsed in a chest-rattling cough. Blood trickled out the corner of his mouth and onto Scully's skirt. "Everyone--fear--different-"
The two agents looked at one another.
"Paralyzes them--or they try--killing someone," he managed. "Everyone--different fear--different--different-" His voice cracked.
"You don't have to talk," whispered Scully. "If it hurts too much, then don't talk. We'll get you out of here."
"No." The man slumped further into her arms.
"What did this to you?" Mulder asked, more forcefully and intensely than before.
The man looked back at him, then his gaze roved away again across the front of the house. "I did . . . I knew . . . house wrong . . . ."
"You were afraid of the house?"
"It--in the house-" The man began to shake. "Not here--different-"
"Something was different inside your house?"
"No--everyone-" The man relaxed in Scully's arms. A moment passed.
She looked up at Mulder, eyes glistening. "He's dead."
They had had to leave him where he lay. No one would answer their calls for help, and all the neighbors' doors were locked. Passing by some houses, a smell of decay was overlaid over the almost palpable stench of the chemical plant.
Mulder and Scully stood in the middle of a different road, staring at the smoke coming from the chemical plant. A dark, sticky-looking gray, it was beginning to blend into the darkening sky.
"They're still working in there," Mulder said dully.
"We can't force any of the survivors to come out and talk with us," Scully said. She felt almost too tired to stand--they had been walking through the deserted streets for hours. Scully turned and surveyed the streets, looking for any signs of light or life.
"Too late, Scully."
She turned around to face Mulder. "What's too late?"
"They waited too long to send us. I'd be surprised if anyone outside the factory is still alive besides the motel owner," said Mulder, voice rising behind his mask. "Meanwhile, the people in there know there's something wrong and refuse to come out. Instead, they go on making drain cleaner, hair dye, and spermicide while their families die of fright in their own homes!" By that point, his voice had risen to a shout.
"Mulder." Scully's voice was low and painful.
He looked at her. "What?"
"Look," she continued, "that's exactly why Skinner wanted us out here. You know nobody could have predicted this, Mulder--even we've never seen anything like it before. That's why they sent in team after team of state cops, because nobody can know how to confront a threat as vague as indescribable fear and anxiety." She took a deep breath. "And the townsfolk are paralyzed; we can't expect them to do anything. Whatever this thing is that's contaminating the town, it's working very effectively, and it's not the victims' fault."
Mulder just looked at her.
"I--I know it's a tragedy, but-" Scully's voice broke. "We still have a chance to catch whomever did it. And we can't fault the factory workers for not knowing what's going on or how to deal with it," she finished weakly, trying to control herself.
The agents stood silently in the darkening street.
"Scully, what if I turn on you?" Mulder finally said.
"Wh . . . what?"
"What if I become delusional enough from whatever it is in this place to become so afraid of you that I shoot you?" he said levelly, staring into Scully's apprehensive eyes. "It's abnormal that we lasted even this long without becoming as sick as everyone else did."
"But I am afraid, Mulder," she whispered back.
"I, I'm worried . . . I can't tell if this is the same thing as the townspeople have, or if I'm just afraid of getting the fear that the townspeople are dying of--either way, it boils down to the same thing, doesn't it? I'm afraid, and what if I lose control of my fear?"
"But--if you're rational enough to think that far ahead, you must be fine," Mulder countered. He felt sick at the thought of Scully crumpled on the pavement like the other man--no, he wasn't going to think of that. He forcibly turned his thoughts away. No, she had to be fine. She had to be. His voice shook. "The man said it was better outside, didn't he? Didn't he?" Somehow, his hands had found their way to her shoulders, and his voice was rising.
"I--I don't know, he wasn't making much sense-" Scully turned her face away from his. The fluttering throb of the pulse in her neck, translucent in the dim light, seemed to betray an absurd vulnerability.
"He did, the last thing he wanted to do was go back inside," shouted Mulder wildly.
"Please don't," begged Scully, "don't you lose control, too, Mulder-"
"I'm not," Mulder said weakly, "I'm not," and wondered if he were. He realized that there were tears running down her face and dripping onto her nose and mouth mask, and that his own face was at least as wet. "Scully," he whispered, and she moved further into his arms.
She found her fear dissipating as she pressed herself as strongly into Mulder's chest as she could. "I don't think this is what the locals have," she finally managed as she felt his arms tentatively close more tightly around her own back. His face was in her hair. "That man ran away from the other woman in his house. The last thing I want to do is leave you."
"It takes everyone differently, he said."
"But I'm less afraid now."
"Me, too. But I don't know--we can't know--what this is anymore." They pulled apart, watching one another from about a foot apart.
"There has to be a clue in here somewhere," Scully said finally. "We still haven't gone into any of the houses. There has to be an unlocked one somewhere, or at the very least a window we can go in through."
"What was that?" Both agents jerked apart to follow the sound of the new voice.
"Mulder, there's a faint light coming from that direction," Scully said tensely. "Behind you."
Mulder spun around. "Further down the block," he said. "A storefront." He took off running as the voice started up again.
"Is someone out there?"
"Hold on!" yelled Scully, running after Mulder. The two stopped in front of a general store. The blinds were down, but there was clearly a light source present behind them. Mulder banged on the glass.
"Is anyone in there?"
"Yes, is anyone out there?" came a man's voice from inside.
"Sounds lucid," whispered Scully to Mulder, surprised.
"Yeah. Hey, who are you?" Mulder demanded of the door.
"I own this place," came the reply. "I heard you yelling at the factory doors. You're not from around here, are you?"
"Why aren't you affected like the others are?" Mulder continued, ignoring the man's question.
"I don't know," came the cagey reply. "Who are you?"
"We . . ." Mulder glanced at Scully. She shook her head and mouthed tourists. "We're on vacation; we got lost and found this place. What the hell is going on here?"
"Why don't you come on in?" There was a sound of footsteps, and then they heard the noises of deadbolts moving back.
The agents looked at one another. Mulder shrugged. "We can always go out through the window if he tries anything," he muttered. Scully bit her lip again.
"I guess so," she whispered. The door moved open a crack, revealing part of a face. After regarding the agents for a few seconds, the owner of the face opened the door the rest of the way and stepped back. Mulder and Scully entered the hardware store warily.
6) Some Answers
KINGSTON FAMILY HARDWARE STORE
It was dimly-lit inside the hardware store, though it was clear from the rows of fluorescent light tubes mounted on the ceiling that the large room was capable of being much brighter. Clearly, someone inside didn't want to be too conspicuous, Scully noted.
The man who had opened the door for the two quickly slammed it again behind them, re-locking all six deadbolts. "Can't be too careful," he explained at Mulder's frankly incredulous gaze. "Some people went crazy running through the streets a while back." The man looked fairly unkempt, probably out of stress, but sounded stable. His face was tense, but that was understandable-after less than a day in the town, even Mulder and Scully were out of sorts. For a native of Herd Crossing, the shopkeeper was amazingly calm and self-aware.
"Sir, would you mind telling us what's been going on here?" asked Scully levelly.
The man shook his head tiredly. "Not at all. Come on round to the back room, that's mostly where we've been staying these days."
Mulder and Scully shared a look. As the man moved off towards the back of the store, Mulder lifted the end of his jacket to show Scully that he had his gun. She tapped her side to indicate the presence of her own weapon. Reassured, the two started off after the man.
The back room was pretty much like any other staffroom, except that it was obviously more, well, lived-in than most staffrooms generally are. A teenaged boy looking to be about nineteen sat stiffly on a decrepit couch next to an equally tense girl who seemed about sixteen; both regarded Mulder and Scully with undisguised suspicion. Neither spoke a word.
"Have a seat." The storeowner gestured towards some more chairs scattered around the staffroom. Scully tentatively chose a metal folding chair; Mulder remained standing for a few seconds longer before choosing an armchair. The storeowner sat on the couch next to the two teenagers.
"I'm Gareth Kingston," the man said, looking straight at the partners. "This store's been in my family for generations. This here is Alice Newman, and this is Cecil Johanssen. My remaining employees." He indicated the teenagers, who didn't move a muscle.
"Now, the trouble started a few months ago," Kingston continued. "People started acting-well-suspicious, I guess. You'd see your neighbor through their front window as you passed 'em on your way someplace, wave hello, and they'd dive under the table screaming their lungs out like you tried taking a shot at 'em or something. Or shown 'em something disgusting and horrible."
Mulder and Scully looked at one another again from the corner of their eyes. Now that is "suspicious," thought Scully wearily. How long did it take before someone thought to call in the state police?
"It got worse," Kingston said fretfully, fidgeting slightly with his hands. "It got so you hardly saw anyone on the street. People from out of town stopped visiting Herd Crossing family-nobody much answered their doors anymore. I would see a few cop cars every now and then, but the cops never did nothing but break into a few houses and come back out running each time. Some didn't come out again. Eventually they stopped comin' altogether."
That's consistent with the case file, thought Mulder. But it doesn't explain why this man and the kids are here. "And you three aren't affected by any of this?"
The man shrugged. "I live upstairs, and don't have much call to go outside since I own the general store and have everything I need. I did go out a few times to try and figure out what was going on, but nobody would tell me. One lady tried shooting me. Eventually, I figured out it was hopeless. Those people are scared to death of something," he added forcefully, "and I'll be damned if I know what, because it's never come into my own home or store."
Scully spoke up. "What about your employees?" It's odd that they haven't said a word yet.
Kingston cast a worried glance at Alice and Cecil. "Alice is my niece. She's been working here for a few months. One day, back when it was just starting to get bad, she went back home after her shift was over, and couldn't get back into her house. The locks were all jammed shut, full of some kind of sealant from the inside, I guess, and her parents-"
Alice made a strangled sound. Cecil put his hand over hers.
Kingston gritted his teeth. "Her parents wouldn't let her back into the house. Said that she, well, wasn't their Alice. Then they quit talking altogether." He exhaled slowly. "Cecil, now-he's an orphan. He lived with his father on their farm, but then his father died of a heart attack some years back. The farm didn't have telephone service, so he had to walk twenty miles to get here. The local lawyers took care of dealing with the father's estate, but since he was a minor at the time, he still had to find a foster home. I took him in-nice kid; honest and hardworking. He chose to stay on here after turning eighteen-I can't afford to send him to college yet, though I'm saving up." Kingston got a distant look in his eyes. "Never married, myself; still, I've loved these children like they were my own."
Scully had picked up on a strange feeling from the scene a few minutes ago, but was having trouble figuring out why. Kingston seemed decent enough; sort of a surrogate father to both the youths. Alice was not openly crying, but her eyes were red and her lips were trembling. Cecil had barely moved a muscle since the entrance of the FBI agents; his attention was focused solely on his hand on top of Alice's. Scully glanced at Mulder, who felt her eyes on him and looked back. His eyebrows were already raised, sending a yeah, something's wrong message. They looked back to the trio on the couch.
"Well," Kingston continued, "Cecil's been with me this whole time, since he lives here. We've given Alice the spare bed upstairs, and we called all the people we could think of-even the damn FBI, though we hardly saw hide or hair of them," he added bitterly. "They showed up here one day, took some supplies, politely said they'd be back later, and run off somewhere."
Mulder and Scully looked at one another again. So Hemingway and Brown had also made it to the general store. What had kept them from returning? Due to their status as three out of four known sane people in Herd Crossing, it was definitely worth it to keep tabs on the general store staff. Yet Kingston, Alice, and Cecil hadn't even gotten a cursory mention in the reports.
The shopkeeper was still muttering something along the lines of "taxpayer money, too, the rats" when his demeanor abruptly changed. "Where are you staying, anyway?"
"Motel on the edge of town."
"That's still open?" Kingston looked pensive. "Yeah, I guess it would be. Old Mabel never did get out much. Suspicious old crone."
Mulder glanced at Scully, whose face was set. He guessed she was picking up on the same thing he was-how had Kingston linked the motel owner's reclusiveness to her safety? Still, it meant that she had always been that paranoid . . . the addition of her bunker and emergency supply stock was not a recent reaction to any circulating mutant virus. But what was "Mabel"-and the general store's inhabitants, for that matter-managing to avoid?
"You can take off your masks, by the way," said the girl quietly. "It doesn't smell in here at all."
Scully gave her a long, flat stare. Mulder's hands moved to his mask, and he took it off.
"She's right," he observed. "Why is that? You live so close to the chemical plant."
Kingston shrugged as Scully tentatively loosened the elastic of her own facemask. "Well, I'm guessing you already figured this much out on your own-the town stinks because of the plant. Their production schedules shift, and so the stink coming from the emissions changes on an unpredictable basis . . . we never have a chance to get used to one smell before another one shows up."
"So you never really know what's going on in the factory?" questioned Mulder.
"Oh, we know-just drain cleaner and hair dye."
"And spermicide," said Mulder. Scully carefully kept her face impassive.
"Right, that too. What's the difference? FDA or some other group did testing, figured out there was nothing in the smoke that could hurt us. Just smells real bad, that's all."
"It's a government group."
Scully raised an eyebrow-Cecil had finally spoken. "Yes, the FDA is part of the government. The significance of that being . . . ?"
"They've got their own interests at heart." Cecil still hadn't moved his eyes from his and Alice's hands. "Sometimes when they used to come in here on their lunch breaks, the factory workers would say they had orders to mix different materials in ways they hadn't done before. They were making things the government hadn't tested the emissions from. The government must be protecting the workers, too-they don't come out of the factory anymore. Just keep on stirring their vats and making smoke."
"Huh," said Mulder, a distant look in his eyes. "Interesting."
"It's getting dark out," said Alice in her quiet tone. Scully felt a constriction in her heart-the poor girl had been through so much, even being disowned by her delusional parents. Parents who might or might not still be alive at this point. No wonder Alice was detached.
"You two should stay here overnight," said Kingston quickly. "It might be too dangerous to go out this late."
"The screamers haven't been out for a week or so," objected Cecil matter-of-factly. "I think they're all dead."
This town is like another world, thought Scully bleakly. A post-apocalyptic world that our own people abandoned.
After a moment, Mulder stood up. "Thanks for your hospitality, but we can't leave the motel owner alone." Not until we figure out whether or not she poisoned the town, at least.
"Ah, jeez, old Mabel," Kingston said, shaking his head. "I'm just glad she's still all right. You take her with her when you go. And you will go," he added forcefully. "You have to."
"What about you?" asked Scully. "Don't you want to leave, too? There's nothing left here, not until w-not until someone gets help."
"Maybe not for you," said Kingston. "I've lived here all my life. There's too much still here for me to leave behind. Not yet."
"What about the kids?" said Mulder, casting an eye on the silent pair.
"I'm not leaving," Cedric said. Alice didn't speak.
"I got gas in my car. Once we run out of food, we'll go. Until then, nobody goes anywhere," said Kingston. "I can't," he added awkwardly.
"Come on, Scully, let's leave before it gets dark." Mulder strapped his mask back on. "Thanks for your help, Mr. Kingston. I can't thank you enough."
"Just make sure they don't forget about us," said Kingston quickly. Scully looked into his eyes and saw quiet desperation staring back. Who was the 'they' he had such faith in? The law enforcement officials who had abandoned them, failing even to mention their existence to the people who were empowered to save them?
Kingston stood up. "I'll pray you get back safely," he added earnestly. "Cecil's right, there haven't been any people on the streets for a while . . . there used to be; they were dangerous . . . now they're gone."
Cecil stood up next to him. Alicia remained seated, staring off into space. "Don't you want anything to keep you safe?" he asked. "Just in case?"
"Well, if you've got any extra Mace spray," said Scully after some hesitation, "it wouldn't be unwelcome. But we can't conscionably take your food. I'm sure Mabel has some of her own that we can pay her for, either in money or by getting her out of here." She refastened her own mask.
Mulder's mind was on the stench that awaited them outside, as well as Mabel's oblivious nose. "And two room deodorizers, if it's not too much trouble," he added.
"And a map?" offered Kingston. "It's a long way back to the motel."
"And we won't let them forget about you," said Mulder.
Scully broke the silence between the two partners halfway back through the vacant streets. "Mulder, it's like the world ended for this town."
Mulder looked grim. "What if it spreads?"
"I'm not completely convinced that it's something that can spread, Mulder. I mean, look at us-we're fine. Look at Kingston and his employees-they're fine. Even Mabel's apparently as fine as she's ever been. There has to be something that these survivors have in common that has allowed them to elude the whatever-it-is that's stalking their town."
"I still can't believe Hemingway and Brown actually left before learning anything. No wonder their report was so full of shit."
"They were afraid," Scully said simply.
Mulder pressed his lips together. "There's something evil here, Scully. I don't know what it is, but it's insidious and it's persistent and it's not going to go away until either everyone here is dead or until we get rid of it. Whichever comes first. Because no one else is going to do a damn thing."
They walked for a while longer. The streetlights were out and the sky was dark; luckily, they each had the presence of mind to bring a flashlight along with their firearms. But even without the help of Kingston's map, getting back to the motel would have been fairly simple-the neon from the motel sign was the brightest point in the night.
"This whole damn scene reminds me of a zombie movie," muttered Mulder.
"Don't jinx us, please," Scully sighed. "The last thing we need right now is for all the townsfolk to decide we're what they fear the most and start trying to kill us as revenge."
"What they fear the most," Mulder mused. "That is essentially what that man was saying."
"Yeah. Though I don't think it's a suicide if you're driven to kill yourself," Mulder continued darkly, "as a consequence of someone else's deliberate actions."
"I don't understand . . . how could any individual know each and every citizen of this town well enough to know exactly what their greatest fear would be, then be able to make them believe it came true?" Scully asked. She looked up at the sky, then back down at the road unwinding in front of them. "That seems like far too much effort for any one person, but too malicious for a gang. Unless they're using something so vague but universally frightening that it instills a persistent fear of death in everyone who comes across it-that would work for a lone murderer . . . After prolonged exposure to . . . whatever it is . . . a person would be able to think of nothing but whatever doomsday fantasies personally scared them the most." Scully took a deep breath. "Living in a continuous, almost unbroken state of primal fear would be enough to drive anyone, even the FBI's best agents, over the edge. This town doesn't stand a chance."
Mulder nodded. "And someone wants it that way."
7) My Friend, My Fear
"It was nice of Mabel to give us dinner," said Mulder, looking down at his loaded paper plate. "Too bad I'm not going to be able to eat it."
"It's MREs-Meals Ready to Eat," said Scully, staring at her own plate. "Military food. How she ever got ahold of this stuff I don't think we'll ever know, but I'm guessing she kept it in her bunker for its long shelf-life." The two were seated at the table in Scully's room-it smelled better in there than in Mulder's, thanks to her earlier perfume-spraying, and they wanted to conserve use of the room deodorizers as much as possible. With no idea of how long they'd be stuck in Herd Crossing searching for the mystery fear-inducing factor, and no expectation of having the free time to go back and visit the general store anytime soon, the agents had decided to delay the deodorizers' installation. "I don't think this stuff has a shelf-life," she added, prodding something on her plate with her plastic fork. "I don't think it even has a name."
"Potatoes," said Mulder.
"But they're gray."
"I don't want to know how you know this."
Scully sighed. "Well, then, I guess we'll have to eat it after all." She remained immobile.
"I don't see you trying any." Mulder spat out a sunflower seed into his napkin.
"I was waiting for you to go first."
"Anytime." Scully warily watched Mulder shovel a forkful of unidentifiable stuff into his mouth. He chewed, looking thoughtful. "Is it safe?" she finally asked.
"Safer than your last diet program," he said, and forced himself to swallow. "I sure hope this water is as safe as you thought it was, 'cause I'm drinking it." Mulder chugged an entire glass of tap water in one go.
"It had better be," muttered Scully. "You know, I'm actually not that hungry-"
Mulder pointed his sticky plastic fork at her. "I ate some. You eat some."
"Fine. This part looks kind of like carrots . . ." Scully scooped some up and ate it.
Mulder waited until she swallowed. And then waited for the expression to wash over her face. Sure enough, Scully dropped her fork and grabbed her glass of water even faster than Mulder had.
"I lied. You did make me go first." Mulder popped another sunflower seed into his mouth, feeling self-satisfied and avenged.
Scully rolled her eyes. "How mature of you. Coincidentally, I'm starting a new diet."
"I'm not eating anything I don't recognize." Scully scraped the contents of her plate onto Mulder's. "Instant gratification and fewer calories. I can't lose."
"You know, that's very ungrateful of you. You know, I'll bet Mabel worked hard to steal this," Mulder accused, "and you're trying to treat me like a garbage disposal in return."
"I'm not trying, I am," shot back Scully, walking over to her suitcase and rummaging around. "Eat up and go back to your room. I'm taking a bath."
Mulder halfheartedly forced down a few more bites as an excuse to watch Scully gather her bath things. Hey, she brought the blue silk pajamas. And the pink bath salts. Not bad. When he finally audibly gagged on a mouthful of something reconstituted and yellow, Scully turned around, mild exasperation in her face.
"Don't force it, Mulder. Waking up to the sound of you being sick all over your own pillow, now that's something I should fear." She headed into the bathroom.
"Right." Mulder pushed away the plate. "Hey, Scully, I think I just found a use for your biohazard containment kit."
"I didn't bring it. Don't flush that stuff, it'll get stuck and Mabel will sue us." He heard the water start to run in Scully's bathtub. "Just put it in a bag and drop it out your window unobtrusively. Or in the trash can. Your trash can, might I clarify."
"Right again." Mulder looked around and tossed the laden plate, contents and all, into Scully's trash can. "Yeah. I think I'll be off now."
Scully waited until she was sure Mulder had left her motel room before she closed the bathroom door and removed her clothes. The bathwater looked as if it had reached the perfect temperature, and the addition of bath salts made the dingy, half-lit motel bathroom smell almost familiar.
"That kit better have been right about the water safety," she muttered, stepping in. "Oh, that's good." Scully carefully submerged herself in the tub and began soaping up.
At that point, an energetic "Hey, Scully!" emanated through the wall.
"Mulder, this is a very bad time for you to be bothering me," Scully yelled back, running a comb through her damp hair.
"I just wanted to let you know ahead of time that I'm going to start running a lot of water, just in case it turns out your greatest fear is being flooded to death in a motel bathtub, so you won't freak out once you hear it."
"Running a lot of water? Mulder, what are you doing?" Scully heard a faucet blast into life surprisingly close to her own ear. "And where exactly are you doing it?" she demanded.
"I guess these bathrooms are just a plywood sheet away from one another. Heh." Mulder rapped on the wall and stepped into his own room's bathtub.
Scully let out a sigh of frustration and covered her face with her facecloth. "Mulder, would you by any chance be doing this on purpose?"
"Nah," said Mulder derisively. Scully heard a splash.
"Great," she muttered. "So much for my relaxing."
"I have this thing about cleanliness."
"First time I've ever heard of it."
Mulder sat pensively in the tub. "You know, I think I like showers better."
"Good for you." Scully shampooed her hair.
"Whoops, dropped the soap . . . damn . . . ."
"Dammit, Mulder, am I going to have to listen to a play-by-play recount of 'Mulder Takes a Bath'!" yelled Scully in frustration.
"You know you want to."
"I know I want you to stop." At least take that distracting leer out of your voice, thought Scully. This really isn't the time or place for that kind of thing. Though, is there ever?
A silence followed.
"I don't mean to be rude, Mulder," Scully finally said, "it's just that I am having serious trouble keeping my own sanity while fully aware of the fact that we're staying in a town full of people who are either dead or on their way to dying of fear."
"Yeah." What was that tone in his voice? Had she offended him?
You started it, Scully thought angrily. It's not my fault this time. "Mulder . . . ." She rinsed out her hair.
Yes, there definitely was something else in his voice now. "Look, why don't we both finish up as soon as we can," she offered, "and then we can get back together and talk about the case some more."
"Remember that Fluke Man thing?"
Scully looked down at the drain. "That's really something I would prefer not to think about right now, Mulder."
"Why'd you bring it up?" Scully asked, massaging conditioner into her hair.
"I dunno. It just came to me."
"Are you trying to scare me now?"
"Wha? N-no. No."
If I didn't know better, I'd think he were frightened of something, thought Scully worriedly. Time to hurry this up. "It's all right."
"Yeah." But Mulder's tone was dark.
He knew there was something wrong. He didn't know how, but he was starting to worry about the walls around him. All four of them were so thin-and he hadn't even bothered to lock the bathroom door, but now it seemed as if doing so would have been a good idea. But getting up to lock it now would involve leaving the tub, and if he did that, then if there were someone waiting for him on the other end of the door, they would know he knew they were there. Unless he could do it really quickly . . . or if he left the room another way.
Mulder shook his head. What the hell am I thinking? There's no one on the other side of the bathroom door. There is, however, a very naked Dana Scully right on the other side of this wall-which is obviously just cheap plywood coated with discount-store tiles-and I know I would get dismembered if I busted through it. Especially since I'm not exactly wearing anything, either. He shivered. Damn, maybe he had contracted some kind of fear virus . . . and if that were the case, he was probably already doomed no matter which wall he walked through, so what the hell did it matter if he left the door locked or unlocked? Or if he jumped through the wall into Scully's room? Then again, dying of fear might be less painful than the wrath of a Scully scorned.
He pulled the plug in the tub and stepped out again.
"Done so soon, Mulder?"
"I thought you didn't want me there to begin with."
There was no good answer to that one. Scully kept quiet, rinsing her hair again. Something really is wrong, she thought. What if he were right earlier? What if he does turn on me? She shivered, too. That thought was unbearable. Mulder was too smart to let that happen to him-and she was too smart to let it happen to her, either. Right? She heard him toweling off just a few feet away from her. These rooms really are small, thought Scully distractedly.
Mulder stood in front of the bathroom door, dressed in sweatpants and a faded Georgetown University T-shirt with the sleeves cut off. To open the door, or to not open the door? That is the question. . . . The hell with it. He wrenched the door open, and let out a sigh of relief to be met with nothing but the smell of violets. Violets? Oh, yeah. He had cheated and put the room deodorizer in early. It didn't smell too bad, actually, though Scully's perfume had been better. He walked through his room and got under his warm bedsheets, feeling at ease. He remembered the feel of her fingers tucking her shirts around him the previous night.
Scully finished up in her own bath, pulled the plug, and dried off. She didn't feel as relaxed as she usually did post-bath, but she was in a town full of dead/insane people with a scantily-clad Mulder on the other side of a plywood wall, so that was understandable. She got into her own nightclothes and cleaned up her bath things, carrying them back into the motel room. Since it was starting to smell of the chemical plant emissions again inside her room, she sprayed some more of her perfume. That's better. I wonder how Mulder is doing.
"Mulder?" she called out.
"Weren't we going to discuss the case?"
"Uh, you know what, I'm actually kind of tired right now. Why don't you just set your alarm clock and we can talk about it tomorrow morning?"
He didn't sound too tired. Scully shrugged, then remembered he couldn't see her. "Sure, whatever you want." She fiddled with her alarm clock. "Is five-thirty too early for you?"
"You're joking, right?"
That was more like it. Scully smiled and put her clock back down on the nightstand. "Well, I guess I'll see you in the morning, then." She got into her bed and turned off the light.
But it wasn't too long before a vague feeling of uneasiness crept over her.
"Mulder?" she called out again.
"Just checking." She turned over in bed. Why had she thought that he might not be there?
"Scully? Are you all right?" There was an edge to his voice.
"Uh, yeah. . . . Yes, I'm fine."
There was a pause. "You sure?"
"Yes, I think so. Yourself?"
"Yeah, I'm okay."
It was silent for another fifteen minutes afterwards, in which they both drifted off.
FIFTEEN MINUTES LATER
Mulder was woken up by the heartrending banshee wail. He jackknifed bolt upright in bed, then froze. Was there something else in the room with him? He realized that his heart was pounding so hard he could feel it in his scalp and in his toes, and that he was covered in sweat. He had been dreaming about . . . about . . . Scully? No, he was dreaming about the absence of Scully-she was gone, and he knew she was never going to come back. Not this time.
"Scully?" he called. "Scully!"
There was a thump very like the sound of a petite woman forcibly throwing herself against a wall, which is unremarkable because that's exactly what it actually was.
"Scully! You're there!"
"Mulder, where are you?" Scully's voice was frantic.
Mulder's heart nearly stopped-was someone in her room, too? But he couldn't move. He was paralyzed, just like he had been that time when Samantha-
"Mulderrrr!" Scully screamed, voice breaking.
That was it. Mulder threw himself sideways off his bed, rolling so as not to get hit by the gunshots that weren't there. He practically ripped his bedroom door off its hinges in his haste to get out; it slammed behind him. He was taking off down the hallway as if there were a fire behind him.
The next door over was locked. He rattled the handle and slammed the door with his fist.
"Scully, open the door!"
(Scully on the floor. Scully splayed out all broken like a porcelain doll someone was dumb enough to drop. Light dances in the sky. Scully gone, Scully not there. Nine minutes? Three months?)
"What have you done with Mulder! Bring him back!"
(Mulder gone. Bloodstain on the shredded bedsheets, cigarette smoke in the air. Claw marks on the windowsill. Piece of a prosthetic arm on the floor. A gray green field with a gravestone.)
"I am Mulder! Dammit, Scully, open the goddamn door!"
Scully wrenched open the door and dragged him inside with a brute force that he hadn't known she possessed, then slammed the door again behind him. "You're here! You're here!" She flung her arms around him and began to sob uncontrollably into his shuddering Georgetown shirt.
Mulder almost fainted. She was safe, he had done it, somehow they had gotten rid of the source of fear, and Scully was out of danger. He crushed her against him, breath catching in his throat.
"They took you," sobbed Scully, "I saw your grave-"
"Ssh, it's all right," Mulder whispered, tears dripping into her hair. "We're safe." Then he froze. His head rose up, and he stared at the wall opposite them.
"Mulder?" Scully turned her face up to look at him. "Mulder, what's wrong?" Her stomach clenched again, and a doubt began to bloom in the back of her mind.
"Scully, what's behind me?"
"A-a door, Mulder," stammered Scully, loosening her grip on him. "Your back is to the door," and there was an undercurrent of distrust in her voice.
He sounds dangerous, Scully thought frantically, he sounds-he sounds-
"What's behind me? Who's behind the door, Scully?" Mulder's voice rose. "Who's behind the door?"
-he doesn't sound like Mulder.
"WHAT HAVE YOU DONE WITH MULDER!" she shrieked, hurling herself against him, aiming hands at his neck. Mulder flung her back, the force throwing her halfway across the room again. She stumbled, tripped over a stray shoe, and fell backwards across the bed.
"Scully-Scully-where are you," hissed Mulder, eyes roving wildly around the room. "I'll find you, I'll kill them-"
Scully lay prone on the bed, too afraid to breathe. There was a fake Mulder standing there, and she was too scared to move-too frightened to breathe. Her hands spasmodically opened and closed on their own; she couldn't even blink. Her breath sounded as though it were coming from a long way off-she sounded like a cornered animal.
The Mulder-thing was beginning to tense up his body. He was going to leap on something. On Scully? She heard a squeak and realized it was from her own throat. But she still couldn't move.
Mulder advanced. Past her, past the bed. His lips were moving silently, his eyes were round, and she did not recognize him. In Scully's mind, his features melted and reformed into any number of old nemeses-fetishists and serial killers; people who had tried to kill her and people she had killed; demons she hadn't known she had or had buried to keep from remembering. She closed her eyes, willing herself to remember a prayer to God. But she didn't want to die-
A low, trembling "there you are" growled from deep within Mulder's throat. Scully's mouth opened and shut.
And then, all of a sudden, Mulder charged the wall. Colliding shoulder-first, he actually burst through the thin wall and straight out into the other side, into the freezing cold night. A rush of nauseating air invaded the bedroom in a foul gush.
There was a thump from outside as Mulder fell over.
Scully's breathing calmed down. Her twitching slowed, and her hands relaxed. Something in her hindbrain seemed to become cooler and clearer; internal emergency dials slowly returned to normal. Something rational woke up, and demons went back to sleep. After a minute, she gagged on the repulsive air and sat up coughing.
Mulder had been in there with her . . . ?
Scully turned hesitantly around and saw the man-shaped hole in the wall. "Oh, God, Mulder," she moaned, and ran over to it. Mulder was sitting in the snow outside, staring up at the dark sky.
"I fell for it, Scully," he said in a dead voice, but she knew him for who he was.
"Mulder-Mulder, are you all right-I didn't know you, oh God, I didn't-" Scully rushed out the wall and over to him; hesitantly, her arms encircled his shoulders. "Get inside-"
Mulder looked back down, looked her levelly in her confused eyes. "The room deodorizers. Someone poisoned the liquid that atomizes when you plug it in. Mabel doesn't buy any because she can't smell a thing."
Breath caught in her throat.
"I plugged mine in. It smelled like violets," he said. Mulder looked back up at the sky. Scully followed his gaze. Between the clouds of industrial smog, so out of place in the middle of Wyoming, the glint of a few uncertain stars were visible.
She looked back at him. "I thought you were gone again," she said in a low voice. "Dead," she managed.
He didn't look back at her. "I thought you were gone, too. It was like Samantha's abduction, I couldn't move even when you screamed for me."
"And then I thought you weren't even Mulder," Scully forced out, and then choked on her own words. Still kneeling, she buried her face in Mulder's shoulder as tears silently dropped down his face. Their arms closed around one another and they rocked each other back and forth in the melting snow and cold mud. Gradually more steady.
"I thought I was chasing after you," said Mulder. "I thought I saw you disappearing."
"Sshh," said Scully into his neck. "We're safe."
They stayed like that for a few minutes. Until their breathing calmed down. Scully slid back from Mulder, cupping his face in one hand.
"We should unplug it," she said. "In case it spreads to Mabel's room."
"She's downstairs in her own personal fallout shelter, she'll be fine."
"We have to unplug it or we'll never be able to go back in there to get our things."
"Can't we stay out here tonight?"
"We'll die of exposure. Neither one of us is wearing much clothing."
Mulder stood up silently, and Scully followed suit. They walked back through the hole in the wall and then through Scully's room and the hallway, holding their breath. Mulder reopened his room and unplugged the deodorizer as Scully flung open the windows, then he locked it into the room's microwave oven.
"I'm afraid that if I throw it outside, it could contaminate part of the outdoors as well," he said softly. "I have no idea what the hell this stuff is."
"We should move to a room that's further away until the chemical can dissipate from our rooms," answered Scully, moving back to her room to gather her things.
There wasn't really any question about sleeping arrangements. They found an unlocked motel room further down the hallway, dropped their suitcases on the floor, changed into dry clothes, and climbed wordlessly into opposite sides of the bed. They fell asleep seconds later, chastely holding hands and too exhausted to even talk over what they had done and discovered.
8) Ending It
DIRECTOR WALTER SKINNER'S OFFICE
Skinner took in the sight of the two agents sitting opposite his desk. Neither one seemed to be looking at him. "Agents Hemingway and Brown are on indefinite leave," he offered.
"Mr. Kingston is, of course, heartbroken that his adopted son turned out to be the premeditated murderer of roughly seventy-five percent of Herd Pass, Wyoming, but it turns out that Alice knew all along what was going on. Cecil was a delusional egomaniac who believed that Alice must have been rebuffing his advances because she loved someone else in the town, and so he tried killing everyone else to eliminate the imagined competition and win her affections." I can't believe I just said that, thought Skinner. It sounds almost like the plot of a daytime soap opera, except it involves federal crimes such as premeditated murder.
Is there something interesting stuck to the wall behind me? Skinner gave a cough, increasingly irritated. Agent Scully's eyes slowly drifted in his direction, then shifted quickly back to their previous focus. On the blank wall behind him. "This, of course, makes Alice an accomplice. At no point did she attempt warning anyone of Cecil's intentions, though she probably would have acted had Cecil moved to poison her uncle. He was careful to keep the contaminated supply of air deodorizers apart from the general store's-accidentally killing himself and Alice with fear would do nothing to further his cause."
No response (except a tic in Agent Mulder's jaw).
"Your efforts have saved the remaining population of the town," Skinner said.
Skinner sighed. "You've been back here for a day now," he said, voice lowered, "after cleaning up the town and arresting Johanssen, and you haven't done a thing. The tests on that chemical he cooked up showed that the effects leave a victim's system within minutes of their removal from contaminated areas. Am I to believe that there's still something wrong with you?"
"Agent Mulder, Agent Scully," he said in a dangerous tone (well, more dangerous than usual, at least), "look at me."
Immediately, both sets of eyes snapped towards his and held the gaze dispassionately.
"Much better." Skinner relaxed slightly into his chair. Another victory for me. "The department's proud of you. Spend the remaining two days of this work week however you choose-you'll be paid no matter what."
"Yessir," they both replied in a monotone.
Skinner gritted his teeth. "Now get the hell out of my office."
"Yessir." They stood up. Scully left the room first, ushered by Mulder's gentle hand on her back-but Mulder turned back to face Skinner at the last moment before leaving.
"It's 'Herd Crossing,'" said Mulder, a decidedly insubordinate look in his eyes, and closed the door quietly.
THE X-FILES BASEMENT
Scully wasn't sure what denial/avoidance game they were playing this time. "Pretend like it never happened"? "Lose ourselves in another case right away"? Whatever it was, she was tired of it already, and they hadn't even really started yet. She dropped her head into her hands.
Imagination is a miraculous thing. Albert Einstein's recurring childhood fantasy was of himself riding on top of a beam of light. As he grew up, he remained fascinated with his young daydream, and started to imagine what a beam of light would actually look like if one were to sit upon it. The young patent clerk's idle musings eventually lead to his discovery of relativity, among other groundbreaking concepts. But even as one person's dreams can enlighten the world, another person's can bring it unspeakable pain. Cecil had had a dream, and look what that did. And your own imagined dreams can be your downfall; if you become dependent on one person and that's your whole future right there, if something then happens to that person—you're gone, too, you have nothing left. Scully knew how dangerous that was.
At what point did one person surrender their autonomy and gain dependence on another? Somehow, without her really realizing it, Fox Mulder had infiltrated every aspect of her life without her permission. Her days revolved around their work. Sometimes her nights did, too. Over the years, they had gotten each other into and out of trouble too many times to count. And her thoughts often returned to him on their own- and not only during waking hours, though she'd never admit to that. Hell, her 'greatest fear'-according to that toxic paranoia concoction of Cecil Johanssen's-was that Mulder was lost and gone forever. It certainly wasn't as if they'd never encountered either homicidal maniacs or hallucinogenic substances earlier in their travels, but their reactions to this case had been so deep and so personal that it was hard to put back it down again. You can't step away from the way a case has affected you, and forcing your most innate fear to die is close to impossible. It is symbiotic to your love.
It was all still so fragile. Every moment since their revelation in the snow, she'd been all too conscious of how delicate the balance was between them, as well as how tenuous was the other balance between them and the rest of the world. They could still lose each other in the space between two heartbeats-end up investigating the other's appearance in an X-File, or even their complete and total disappearance from the known world. Not all of their cases got solved, either-
-and that was probably enough along that train of thought for now, unless she wanted to have some kind of breakdown. Scully drew in an unsteady breath and released it. She heard the slight click of a sunflower seed hitting the basement floor. He's so untidy, she thought wearily.
She didn't budge. Maybe if I don't look, it will go away.
Mulder knew her too well for that. Not only did she have a decent sense of hearing, Scully's shoulders had also tensed slightly upon hearing him speak her name. "Scully. You all right?"
The answer was as quick and sharp as ever. "Well, about as 'all right' as I can be after recovering from yet another bizarre attempt on our lives," said Scully in a falsely sarcastic tone. Her voice was dangerously close to breaking again.
Mulder let out a long, slow breath. What are the odds, he thought, of Dana Scully's brain being in Herd Crossing, Wyoming, right now? "That's good," he managed.
The only sound was that of their co-workers moving around above them, bees in a hive.
Mulder finally stood up, hideous tie askance. "Let's go to the park."
Scully looked up, tension sliding off her face. A barrier was gone. "Let's." She stood up, and took his hand in hers. They would be capable of confronting the future-they were both holding onto what they valued most, and that was strong and real enough to take precedence over their fear. When the basement door swung shut behind them, there was no one there to keep it from slamming.
Awww. Fluffy Moment. Sorry I'm not so great with endings-this is the best I could do, but it came off a little sappy . . . still, it's not like they don't deserve it. If this were a Western, and if I had total ownership (!), let us just say that riding off into the sunset might be in order. Ah, well, a girl can dream. (And I know I can't be the only one who has marveled at the cheap dramatic irony of a company named "Fox" owning some of the rights to, well, you know who.)
And you have my apologies for the lame title this chapter ended up with. Like I said, conclusions are not my forte. Regardless, you really don't want to see the other title ideas that I mercy-killed due to their terminal case of being even worse than this one.
Well. Anyhow, I had fun writing this. Again, sorry about the bizarre posting schedule. I can't thank enough the people who reviewed; it means the world to me. :)
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