Title: Southby
Author: Laura Castellano
Category: MSR, Physical and mental MT, sort of an X-file
Rating: PG-13

Spoilers: Minor ones for the Virtual Season 9 episodes 'Haunted' by Spooky, and 'Malevolence' by CindyET Virtual Season 9 episodes can be found at: http://imadethis2.tripod.com/archive.htm

Timeline: Mid-virtual season 9, but if you haven't read the stories (and you should!) all you need to know is that Mulder has been tormented by ghosts and by the evil from 'Grotesque' recently, and Scully has not believed his claims, even thinking at one point that he had finally gone 'round the bend .

SUMMARY: After an argument, Mulder and Scully decide to spend some time apart. Mulder visits a Texas coastal town, living in a cottage said to be haunted. Then, people begin to die...

Southby, Texas
March 21, 2002
3:53 p.m.

In the end, it wasn't even a big thing that had driven them apart, he reflected mournfully as he pulled his car into the driveway of the cottage. The big things they could handle. After all, he told himself for the millionth time, so often it had almost become trite, they'd battled mutants, aliens, and evil government conspiracies, and through it all they had managed to stick together. They rarely agreed on anything, and somehow it had not affected their ability to work together, and work well. They'd even managed to survive the things that had threatened to tear them apart, as if setting their minds to overcome the obstacle, both of them so determined--or was it stubborn?--that they eventually won out in the end.

Somehow the little things had wormed their way in, things like his lack of neatness, (he wouldn't go so far as to describe himself as "messy"), her lack of concern at keeping him informed of her whereabouts, his tendency toward lack of communication, hers toward denial...they didn't sound like insurmountable obstacles on their own, but added together, over time, between two people thoroughly used to living alone...now Mulder wondered if they'd ever had a chance.

The final blow-up had been about something completely trivial, but Mulder knew it was really just the straw that had broken the proverbial camel's back.

Mulder-Scully Apartment
Greenbriar, Maryland
March 19, 2002

They'd been putting away groceries--which they had bought together, miraculously without much disagreement--and she'd stuck the new can of grated parmesan cheese in the refrigerator. Scully was always complaining about the refrigerator in their apartment--how it was too full, how he never cleaned out his junk until it grew legs and walked out on its own, how there were unnecessary things contained therein. Seeing what she had done, thinking it was a simple error on her part, Mulder had removed the unopened can of cheese and placed it in the cupboard, next to the spaghetti sauce. It seemed logical to him.

Unfortunately, it hadn't seemed so to Scully. When she'd opened up that same cupboard to put away the instant rice, she'd taken the can of cheese and slammed it down on the counter.

"What?" he asked, startled at her sudden show of temper.

"That goes in the fridge, Mulder," she said with a sigh that seemed to express all her disgust at having someone in her home who barely attained human status at times.

"Sorry," he retreated. "I just thought I'd save a little space."

"Have you ever smelled rancid parmesan cheese, Mulder?" she demanded, opening the refrigerator and replacing it on the shelf. "Not that I think you'd notice," she muttered under her breath.

He heard her, and wasn't about to accept her criticism when he was clearly not in the wrong.

"Look," he insisted, removing the can again and indicating the small letters near the rim. "Refrigerate *after* opening."

"It needs to be refrigerated, Mulder." Her uncompromising attitude irked him.

"It doesn't say anything about refrigerating *before* opening, Scully," he pointed out. "*Before* opening, it's just fine to keep it in the cupboard."

"Then why does the grocery store keep it in the refrigerator case?" she demanded.

"The store I usually shop at doesn't."

"Oh, so your store is somehow superior to mine?"

Her eyes had been blazing and her cheeks red, and he hadn't known whether to kiss her or walk out. He finally settled on putting away the rest of the groceries in silence, figuring if he didn't say anything else, he couldn't get into anymore trouble.

He was wrong. He didn't set the fruit in the bowl correctly, Scully informed him, rearranging things to her satisfaction. And bread belonged *in* the bread box, not sitting on the counter in front of it. And would it kill him to put his dirty clothes in the hamper? The fact that he piled them neatly in the corner didn't change the fact that they were still lying on the floor, three feet away from a perfectly good hamper.

Once the argument digressed from his lack of ability in putting groceries in the cupboard and moved toward his habits in the bedroom, Mulder was correct in assuming his bathroom habits weren't far behind. He almost laughed when she accused him of never putting the top on the toothpaste tube, since it was *she* who was the offender in that area. By then, Scully was really on a roll, however, and he thought bringing up that fact might be detrimental to his good health.

To his credit, Mulder had tried to steer the conversation to less dangerous territory, but it seemed no matter what he said, she was there, ready for another attack. Finally, she informed him frostily that perhaps moving in together hadn't been such a great idea, after all.

That had hit him in the gut like a well-aimed fist. He hadn't expected it at all, and when she'd said it, he just stood there for a moment, waiting for the punchline, waiting for her to say she was just kidding. When it didn't come, Mulder took a deep breath.

"Do you really mean that, Scully?" he asked quietly. "Are you sorry we took that step?"

"Right now, yes," she said firmly. "Mulder, I still love you, please don't misunderstand me. It's just that we're so different. We drive each other crazy. I just don't think it's a good idea for us to live together."

Mulder grabbed a glass, filling it with ice water, stalling for time while he tried to process what had just happened. They'd been having a petty argument, hadn't they? Nothing serious, nothing that would cause a couple to break up, right?

"Scully, I'm sorry," he offered at last. "I'm sorry about getting into a stupid argument with you. I'm sorry about the clothes on the floor thing too, as long as you realize I'm not the only one with irritating habits."

Scully shook her head tiredly, sinking into a chair. Her face looked incredibly sad.

"It's not that, Mulder. We're both adults. If we can't live with someone else's quirks, we're in big trouble. The thing is, I'm just not sure...about any of this."

He gripped the glass tightly, willing his breathing to remain normal. "What part aren't you sure about?" he asked carefully. "Just the living together? Or is it our...relationship in general?"

"All of it. I just don't think it's right for us."

That had made him see red. "You may decide it isn't right for you," he told her icily. "Don't presume to make decisions for me."

"Fine," she told him in a voice that was equally chilly. "It isn't right for *me*, Mulder. Not right now."

"We've both given up our apartments to move in here," he pointed out. "Now you're suggesting one of us leave?"

"I'll go," she said immediately. "Maybe my landlord hasn't rented my old apartment out yet."

"Scully, your place was in a desirable neighborhood and the rent was reasonable. He probably had it rented before you were moved out. I'll go."

"But your old place--"

"I'll find a new place. Besides," he told her, indicating the room with a wide sweep of his hand, "I wouldn't want to stay here alone. Not after living here with you."

She said nothing while he went to the bedroom and quickly packed a bag. Mulder threw things into his duffel bag blindly, not really paying attention to what he grabbed, stuffing the bag until it wouldn't hold anymore. Then he threw it over his shoulder and left the room where they'd shared so much of their passion, not risking a glance back.

"I'll see you at work," she offered tentatively, but he didn't trust himself to speak. He started for the door, then turned back, grabbed a bag of sunflower seeds he'd picked up on their shopping trip that morning and stuffed it into the pocket of his jacket. He gave Scully a long look, hoping she would ask him to stay, wanting to kiss her one last time but not quite daring, settled for a caress of her face instead, and left before he could fall apart.

Mulder held himself together admirably while he drove aimlessly around the city, waiting for her to call his cell phone, tell him they'd both been foolish, summon him home. It didn't happen, and somewhere close to midnight he pulled up outside the Gunmen's lair. He didn't have anywhere else to go, and he didn't want to spring for a hotel room - somehow that made this seem too real, too final.

The guys were never asleep this early, and sure enough, a few seconds after he rang, he heard someone unfastening the numerous locks that secured the door. When it finally opened, all three of his friends stared back at him solemnly.

"Did you and the lovely Agent Scully have a lover's spat?" Frohike asked at last, stepping back so Mulder could enter.

"The lovely Agent Scully and I," Mulder said carefully, "have decided to step back from our relationship for a time."

It was funny, Mulder thought back now, staring up at the beach cottage on its wooden stilts - the way Frohike had reacted, you'd have thought it was *his* relationship that had been destroyed. He wondered for a moment if Frohike lived vicariously through him and Scully, then shook off the thought. It was simply too creepy to contemplate.

After trying to talk him into going home to a place that was no longer his home, Langly had offered him the use of the cottage.

"It belongs to my cousin," he explained. "Normally he'd rent it out, but lately he's having a little trouble keeping it occupied."

"What's wrong with it?" Mulder had asked suspiciously.

Langly grinned. "Right up your alley, Mulder," he replied. "It's haunted."

After hearing that, Mulder had hit the road, driving straight through, stopping only for coffee and to use the occasional restroom.

Southby, Texas
March 21, 2002
4:00 p.m.

It didn't look haunted, he thought, wandering through the rooms of the small cottage, but it did have an odd feel to it. He supposed it had to do with the place sitting empty for so long. Langly said it had been well over two years since his cousin had been able to rent it out, which Mulder thought was unusual, since it sat on a beautiful, mostly private stretch of beach along the Texas coast. Normally, Mulder would bet a place like this would go for over a thousand a month, at least during the summer. In late March, the area was all but dead. There was an elderly couple who lived half a mile from him, and three other cottages nearby that were empty right now, although Mulder expected they would fill up quickly once the vacation season began.

For now, he had his privacy, and it was all he desired. He'd spoken to Skinner, explaining that a personal situation had come about which made it necessary for him to take some time off, and Skinner had informed him that he had four weeks vacation built up, and since there were no serious cases pending, this might be the time for Mulder to use it or lose it.

"I don't want to leave you in a bind, Sir," Mulder had objected, but Skinner, as if reading his mind, had insisted.

"It's been over a year since you've taken any time off, Mulder," he replied. "Voluntary time off, anyway." Mulder could hear the slight grin in Skinner's voice, and winced, knowing his boss was referring to his propensity for injury. "Agent Scully can hold down the fort here for a while."

"I'll call you back with a number where you can reach me in case of emergency," Mulder answered, and if Skinner thought it odd that Mulder should give his emergency number to his boss instead of his partner, he said nothing.

Now, true to his word, Mulder picked up the phone, suddenly happy he'd let Langly arrange to have utilities turned on for him, and dialed Skinner's office number.

"Kim, it's Agent Mulder. Is he available?"

"I'm afraid not, Agent Mulder. Can I leave him a message?"

"I just need to give him this number. I'll be on vacation for a couple of weeks, and just in case he needs to reach me and can't get through on my cell phone--" He read off the number quickly, squinting at the paper on which he'd written all his pertinent information in the light that was growing quickly more dim. Apparently the storm he'd been keeping just ahead of for the last couple of hours had caught up to him.

"Sounds like you're a long way from home," Kim replied as she jotted down the number.

"Yeah." Suddenly, Mulder didn't want to talk to her, didn't want to talk to anyone. He wanted to be alone, in his silence, with his thoughts. He fingered his cell phone, still in the pocket of his jacket, and on impulse, thumbed the "off" button. "Kim, I'd appreciate it very much if you'd only give that number to A.D. Skinner. I'm...trying to get some peace and quiet."

Her hesitation was brief but noticeable. "Sure, Agent Mulder," she replied, and he could hear the surprise in her voice. Like the diplomatic woman she was, Kim refrained from further questions, but as Mulder replaced the old-fashioned telephone on the receiver, he knew he'd been less-than subtle. He hoped Kim would be discreet.

March 21, 2002
4:45 p.m.

The rain didn't come after all, even though the low-hanging, wicked clouds threatened. The humidity was oppressive, but Mulder opened the windows of the cottage anyway, figuring if it began to rain, he could close them all quickly. The air outside may have been oppressive, but the air inside was worse - musty, stale, with an underlying odor Mulder recognized but could not identify. It was as if an animal had crawled under the house and died, but after exploring outside thoroughly, Mulder concluded that the smell was only present inside the house. Oh well, he shrugged. It was a small price to pay for peace.

After unpacking the things he'd brought with him, Mulder surveyed his belongings with disgust. He had plenty of shirts, three pairs of sweat pants, and one extra pair of boxers, besides the pair he was wearing. He had a tube of toothpaste but no toothbrush, and his comb but no deodorant.

Knowing he'd have had to buy supplies anyway, he began mentally compiling a list while he drove the ten miles into the village of Southby. Southby, Texas, which might have been pronounced SUTH-bee anywhere else, but was most definitely SOUTH-bee here along the Texas coast, was a single-stoplight town fifty-three miles from Galveston. Main street boasted a small grocery store, which sold homemade barbecue in the back, a gas station, two churches and a VFW hall. The sign just outside the city limits proclaimed, "Welcome to Southby! Nicest small town in Texas! Population 237!" Mulder found it mildly interesting that whomever had painted the sign thought their population number warranted an exclamation point. He wondered if they had been impressed at how high the number was, or how low.

Considering there was nothing to do, and the town was dry as a bone, Mulder found it amazing that 237 people willingly called Southby their home. He wondered what the local teenagers did for recreation.

When he parked in front of Stewart's Grocery, two elderly men sitting on a bench observed him with quiet interest. He climbed from the car, noticed their stares, ignored them and went inside. Mulder grabbed things off the shelves, pitching them into his cart, and after adding frozen spaghetti and meatballs, couldn't help thinking of Parmesan cheese. For a minute, he even considered buying some, just so he could store it in the cupboard until after opening, but changed his mind. That would be nothing short of childish, and anyway, their fight hadn't been about cheese. It had been about fear.

Mulder completed his shopping quickly, finishing it off with a couple of barbecue sandwiches. He hoped to get back to his cottage before the storm hit, but when he went outside, one of the bench-sitters flagged him down.

"You staying in the Langly cottage, buddy?"

Mulder swung around. "Yeah," he said uncertainly. "What about it?"

"You know it's haunted, don't you?" asked the other man, who had to be one-hundred-ten years old if he was a day, Mulder thought.

Mulder dropped his bags of supplies on the front seat of his car, then took a seat on the upturned plastic bucket one of the men offered.

"I've heard a little something about it," he confessed. "Maybe you could tell me the whole story."

The men seemed a little surprised that Mulder didn't laugh off their statements, but they settled themselves, preparing for what promised to be a long recitation.

"Well, sir, it was about six years ago," the older man began. "By the way," he added, extending his hand for Mulder to shake, "I'm Bob Emory."

"Fox Mulder," he returned, giving the proffered hand a quick shake, then extending the same courtesy to Mr. Emory's companion, who introduced himself as Ray Katz. "So please tell me, Mr. Emory, what happened six years ago?"

"It was six years ago when Langston Cooper went completely nuts out there. Killed his wife, his wife's sister, and then himself. Probably would have killed their son, too, if he hadn't been off in Houston, visiting his grandparents."

Mulder nodded, leaning back and stretching out his long legs, crossing them at the ankles.

"Why'd he do that?" he asked, waiting intently for the answer.

Ray Katz shook his head. "Nobody ever figured that out," he replied. "Best anyone could figure, he was possessed by a demon."

Mulder's eyebrows shot up. "A demon?"

"Now don't go giving me your skepticism, young man, you don't know everything at your age."

"No, Mr. Emory, please don't misunderstand me. I believe in demons. I'm just curious as to what led people to believe it was a demon that caused Langston Cooper to kill himself and his family."

"Wait a minute," Ray interrupted. "You mean to tell me you actually *believe* in evil demons that come around and cause people to do things?"

Mulder nodded, a small smile playing about his lips.

"You mean, sorta like, 'The devil made me do it!'" laughed Ray.

"Something like that, yeah," he affirmed.

"Son, you're crazier than we thought!" Emory grinned.

"Wait a minute, you're the one who told me the place was haunted. What did you mean by that?"

"Aw, it's just a story the kids around here tell," Emory replied, pausing to lean over the side of the bench and spit on the ground. "We just wanted to pull your leg a bit, by way of welcomeing you to town. Nothing to it, just like there's never anything to stories like that."

"I heard the Langly family has had a lot of trouble renting out the cottage," Mulder commented.

"Yeah, they've had trouble, all right. Mostly because of the stories. Ain't nothing to them."

"Tell them to me," Mulder requested. "Even if they're nothing but myth, I'd like to hear them."

The two men looked at each other and grinned, and for the next hour, Ray and Emory regaled Mulder with every typical haunted house tale, all centered around the cottage in which he was now staying. He recognized most of them from the common urban legends he'd always heard, but one tale stood out.

"The smell!" Ray said, shaking his head slowly. "They say there's nothing that can be done to get rid of it."

Mulder perked up at that. "Smell? What kind of smell?"

"Like something crawled underneath the floorboards and died," Emory confirmed. "The last family that stayed there didn't last two days because of it. That and the dreams."


"The dad kept saying he dreamed about killing his family. Both nights he slept in that house, he had the same dream. After two nights of it, they packed up and left. Ain't nobody rented that place since."

The men grew quiet after that, and Mulder squinted up at the sky. "I've been expecting this storm for hours. Is it ever going to start?"

"It ain't gonna rain today, son."

"No? How do you know?"

"Doesn't smell like rain," Ray explained. "You can smell it around here, when it's about to rain."

"All the same, you'd best be getting home," Emory urged. "You never know when the wind might kick up a sandstorm."

Mulder, who had heard all the ghost stories he cared to listen to for the day anyway, shook hands with the men again, thanked them for their company, and climbed into the car. All the way back to the cottage, he thought about the smell he'd been unable to identify, and the stories the men had told. He decided to make a thorough inspection of the place once he got back. Maybe he'd call Langly and ask him about the strange story the men had told.

At least it would keep his mind off Scully.

March 22, 2002
6:30 a.m.

Mulder rolled out of bed wearily. He'd tried to have a good night's sleep, and the bed had been comfortable, but the damn dreams that had plagued him throughout the night had ruined it. At one point he'd sat straight up in bed when he dreamed of chopping Scully into tiny pieces with a hatchet. The dream had been so vivid that Mulder had turned on the light with trembling hands, had reached for the telephone and dialed four digits of her phone number before reluctantly replacing it on the nightstand. It was four o'clock in the morning in Maryland. Scully would be furious if he woke her just to make sure she was okay, after the way they had parted. And that was assuming she was even at their apartment.

Shoving *that* unhappy thought away quickly, Mulder had lain back down, dimming the lamp but not turning it off entirely, and slept a restless slumber during which he dreamed all manner of unsettling, evil things, intangible, impossible to recall but difficult to shake off completely. At six-thirty he'd given up and decided to take a walk on the beach to clear his head. The sunrise over the Gulf of Mexico had been spectacular, and several times he found himself wishing Scully was there to share it with him. It was clear to him by now that their separation simply could not be permanent. He'd remain here for the rest of his vacation, if he could make himself stay away that long, and then he'd go home and they'd find a way to work it out. They had to. They needed one another.

Mulder shed his sweats and boxers in the bedroom, then surveyed the small bathroom for a minute. Langly had said the cottage was fully stocked with everything except food, but there wasn't a single bath towel hanging in the bathroom. Quirking an eyebrow, Mulder opened the door to what appeared to be a small linen closet, and froze in shock, staring at the bloody hatchet that sat atop the pile of freshly laundered towels.

He blinked, certain it must be a figment of an overtired imagination, but when he opened his eyes, the hatchet remained. The blood, as best Mulder could tell without touching anything, was fresh. It was partially congealed, but not entirely, and the bits of blondish hair and other matter that stuck to it turned his stomach. Backing away, Mulder slipped back into his boxers and reached for the phone.

March 22, 2002
8:04 a.m.

"When did you arrive, Agent Mulder?" the Sheriff asked again, and Mulder sighed patiently. He'd phoned the Brichard County Sheriff's Department as soon as he had discovered the recently used weapon in his linen closet, since Southby had no police department of its own, and after producing his badge, explaining who he was and that he was there on vacation, he'd told the Sheriff what he had found and showed him the bloody evidence. Sheriff Turner had been polite, but it was obvious he was far from convinced of Mulder's innocence.

"I got here late yesterday afternoon," Mulder told him for the third time. "I looked around the place, went to town and bought some groceries, walked on the beach for a while, and went to bed. I didn't even know this closet was here until this morning."

"And you opened it up and saw this hatchet lying there, and you didn't touch it, is that correct?"

Mulder nodded.

"And you saw and heard nothing unusual the entire time?"

"Not a thing. I did notice an odd smell, though, sort of like something dead. Faint, but persistent. I tried, but couldn't locate a source."

Sheriff Turner sniffed the air, wrinkling his nose. "It does smell sort of like a dead dog or cat might be lying around somewhere. I don't see what it has to do with the fact that there's a bloody hatchet in the linen closet."

Mulder shrugged. "I doubt it has anything to do with it, Sheriff. I just mentioned it because I found it strange."

"Nothing strange about it." Mulder turned to size up the man who had been searching outside the house. The Sheriff's Deputy was a large man, tall, solidly built, with sandy hair and bleached blue eyes that crinkled at the corners, as if he spent most of his time smiling.

"Agent Fox Mulder, FBI," Mulder introduced himself, showing his badge once more.

The Deputy stuck out a big beefy hand for Mulder to shake. "Deputy Sandy Flowers," he returned. At Mulder's quickly suppressed grin, he rolled his eyes like a teenager. "Yeah, I know," he chuckled, "but truth be told, I'd say you're in the same boat, Agent Mulder."

"Can't argue with that, Deputy Flowers. So, did you find anything out there?"

"Not a thing out of the ordinary as far as I can tell. As for your smell, I'm thinking it's either the scent of dead fish coming from the Gulf, or something out in that vacant field on the other side of the road. Lots of small wildlife around here."

"But if you'll notice," Mulder argued, "the smell is only inside the house. You can't really smell it outdoors at all. I thought it had to be something underneath, at first, but I didn't find any evidence of anything."

"Maybe something died and it's already been hauled off by another animal," Sheriff Turner said, clearly bored with this line of investigation. "Sandy, bag up the evidence. Let's take it back to headquarters and see if we can match the DNA on it to any of our current missing persons cases."

"Anybody go missing from Southby recently?" Mulder asked curiously, but the Sheriff shook his head.

"Not from Southby, but this county covers a pretty large area. Could be from somewhere else around here. How long you planning to be in town, Agent Mulder?"

"A little over two weeks. I go back on the ninth."

Sheriff Turner nodded. "We'll be in touch."

After seeing the two men out, Mulder again sniffed the air. The smell seemed to be slightly stronger, but he couldn't tell if that was true, or if he simply noticed it more because they'd been talking about it.

With a tired sigh, he went back to the bathroom to continue his previously interrupted shower.

March 24, 2002
1:47 p.m.

Other than the bad dreams, which plagued him again on the second night, Mulder spent an uneventful two days. He walked on the beach, he swam in the surf, he slept on the sand, where the nightmares seemed unable to reach him, and he ate. And he longed for Scully. Finally, unable to endure the silence any longer, he reached for the phone and dialed her number, resolutely, before he could change his mind.
She answered on the third ring, and for a moment Mulder was tongue-tied, uncertain of what to say to her. At last he settled for the old standby.

"It's me."

There was silence for a few seconds. "Mulder. Is--is everything all right?"

"Of course. Why wouldn't it be?"

"No reason," she said, sounding slightly exasperated. "I just didn't expect you to call so soon."

"But you *did* expect me to call?" he teased.

Her response held no hint of playfulness. "Let's just say I hoped. We have to talk about this sooner or later. We have some serious problems."

"I've been thinking about that, Scully. A lot. We have some problems, it's true, but I don't think they're serious."

"Mulder, our fight started over where to store a stupid can of cheese!"

"I know. That's what I mean. We manage to coexist in spite of our huge philosophical disagreements, and yet we fall apart over something trivial. Maybe we just need to learn to..."

"Not sweat the small stuff?" she asked, and he could hear her smile. It relaxed him.

"Yeah, something like that. I think we both have some serious issues concerning our fear of getting too close, but I'm sure we can work them out. If we both want to."

Her voice was soft. "I want to."

"So do I."

"So when are you coming back?"

"I'm not sure. I had a little situation, and the Sheriff wants me to stick around for a little while."

"The Sheriff! What kind of situation? Mulder, are you in trouble?"

He laughed, proud of the way he covered his nervousness, because when a bloody murder weapon mysteriously appeared in your house, and you were a stranger in a small town, of *course* you were in trouble, even if you did carry a badge. "I can't believe you'd ask me that!"

"I can't imagine why I would," she snickered.

"Let's just say there have been some...odd happenings.
Langly told me before I came here that this place was

Now he could hear her rolling her eyes, and smiled, imagining her look of patient irritation.

"Don't tell me you're being stalked by yet another demon."

"Could be. Hey, Scully, I'll have to get back with you later. Another call's coming in. It could be the Sheriff."

"Mulder, I..."

"I know," he said softly. "Me too. I'll call you tomorrow."

"Well, Agent Mulder, it seems you're off the hook." Sheriff Turner's voice was a little friendlier than it had been previously, and Mulder hoped that meant they'd captured a suspect. All the same, he couldn't resist a bit of prodding.

"I wasn't aware I was *on* the hook. Does this mean you've found something?"

The Sheriff gave a short, nervous laugh. "Well, naturally,
being a stranger, and having something like this show up in
the house where you're staying--"

"The house where I'd been staying for less than twenty-four hours," Mulder reminded him. "What did you find?"

"Well, we ran the tests I told you about, and we found out who the victim is. Brenna Brookman, young girl who disappeared from these parts a couple of years ago."

"Wait a minute, did you say a couple of *years* ago?" Mulder demanded, taken aback by the revelation.

"Yes sir, that's what I said. We compared the hair on the hatchet to the hair her mother gave us from her hairbrush back when she first turned up missing. They were a perfect match. It's her, all right. No fingerprints on the hatchet, and none lifted from your cottage other than yours and the owner's."

"And nobody's seen or heard from this girl in two years?"

"That's right. My current theory is that she ran away back then, and maybe decided to come home for a visit but met up with foul play before she could let anyone know she was here."

"And my cottage has been vacant for so long--"

"Anyone might have seen it as a perfect place to stash a murder weapon. Although I don't believe the murder took place there. Place was too clean, but not *too* clean, if you know what I mean."

"Yeah, I do. I take it you haven't found a body?"

"Not yet, but now I'm thinking about that smell you mentioned. I'm wondering if the killer buried her beneath your cottage."

"But you can't smell it outside."

"I still want to have a look."

"Wouldn't the sand have shown signs of disturbance?" Mulder asked. "I mean, I realize the stuff shifts a lot, but--"

"Two days before you arrived, we had a terrible storm. Blew the waves up underneath all those cottages. It would have smoothed out any disturbance there might have been."

"But Sheriff, the blood on that hatchet was fresh," Mulder argued. "It couldn't have been several days old."

The sheriff paused. "Son, are you trying to give me a reason to suspect you again?"

"Of course not, Sheriff. I'm just searching for the answers."

"Well so are we, Agent Mulder, and I have to confess, that's the one thing I can't explain. I'm going to send a forensics crew out there tomorrow morning and have them dig under your cottage searching for the body."


"You still planning to stick around for a couple of weeks?"

"Definitely. I gotta see where this is going."

"You might want to check into a motel. If anything should turn up tomorrow..."

"I'll be careful not to disturb anything. I want to stay here, if possible, Sheriff. Maybe I can dig up something more on the case. No pun intended."

The Sheriff gave his agreement after a moment, and Mulder breathed a slight sigh of relief. He was almost certain there was something more than met the eye going on here, and if he was forced to leave now, they might never get to the bottom of it.

March 25, 2002
2:15 p.m.

Mulder was dressed and waiting when the forensics team arrived the next morning, and he observed them as they went about their work, carefully uncovering layer after layer of sand and dirt, searching for any sign of a body. It was just after lunchtime when one of them gave a triumphant shout, and everyone gathered around.

"Look here," said Sue Blanc, the woman who had uncovered the first clue. She carefully brushed away some sand from a small lump to reveal a severed human finger.

"Bag that, take it to the lab, and see if you can determine whether or not it belongs to Brenna Brookman," the crew leader instructed one of the men. "People, let's be careful here. It looks like we may have one in pieces."

The team worked painstakingly throughout the rest of the day, finally recovering the entire body. The head, legs and arms had been severed from the torso, the legs and arms separated at the knee and elbow joints, the hands and feet cut off and each individual finger and toe severed. Then each piece of the girl had been laid out in her shallow grave in its place, as if the killer had put together a gruesome jigsaw puzzle.

After they had packed up their things and left, Mulder wandered around the cottage aimlessly. Even though they'd removed the body, the smell was still there. In fact, it seemed stronger, which didn't make any sense at all.

He paused at the telephone, remembering he'd promised to call Scully, but he didn't feel up to that just yet. He hadn't eaten all day, and knew he should probably have some supper, but the memory of the corpse, coupled with the smell, made the thought of food unpleasant.

What he really needed, Mulder decided, was a beer, but since the entire county in which he found himself was dry, there was no hope of getting any such thing at the corner store. On the other hand, he reflected, nothing said he had to stay in Southby. There was no reason he couldn't get in his car, drive the fifty-three miles to Galveston, and score some Budweiser. Maybe even an entire sixpack.

Galveston, Texas
Gull's Point Pub
March 25, 2002
9:30 p.m.

Instead of scoring a simple sixpack, Mulder wound up in a bar, along with a dozen other people, most of them tourists. It was easy to see they weren't locals by their manner of dress - the natives wore shorts or jeans, for the most part, with t-shirts that were either very plain or bore the logo of a favorite beer or an odd saying. Most of the people in the bar were dressed either in business attire or wore shirts that announced "Galveston Island" or some variant of the phrase.

Mulder blended in fairly well with the locals, in his jeans and black shirt, but his lack of a tan and northern accent clearly branded him a visitor, if not a tourist. He sat at a corner table, slowly sipping his beer and quietly surveying the bar's other patrons, and he knew the woman was going to approach him before she did. She'd been checking him out for several minutes, her gaze wandering suggestively over his form while he'd pretended not to notice. At last she'd manage to catch his eyes, and offered a friendly smile, which he returned politely, but without enthusiasm. He hoped she would take the hint and move on, but when her attention clearly remained on him, he braced himself for an onslaught. It was not long in coming.

"Mind if we share?" she asked, seating herself at his table. "The bar's getting kind of crowded."

"There are plenty of empty tables available," he said, gesturing to a nearby one, not wishing to anger her or hurt her feelings, but lacking the mood for this type of nuisance. For one brief, insane moment he wished he had the comfort of Scully's wedding band on his finger, something that would clearly mark him as unavailable, but somehow he doubted anything as tiny as a wedding ring would get in this woman's way.

"My name's Clara Summers," she informed him, ignoring his clear invitation to seat herself somewhere else. "I'm in from Houston for the weekend, visiting my boyfriend, but we had a fight, and..." she shrugged, finishing off the drink in her hand, "now I'm here. Wanna buy me a refill?"

"Gee, I'd really like to, but I seem to have left my wallet in my other purse," he quipped.

Clara's face darkened for an instant, then she burst out laughing.

"That's a good one," she said. "Not many men have the balls to say a thing like that about themselves. You're not gay, are you?" Her eyebrow raised suspiciously.

Mulder sighed inwardly before saying with complete candor, "No, Miss Summers, I'm not gay. However, I'm also not available, and while I'm sure you're a very nice woman, I'm afraid you're wasting your time with me. I just came here to have a drink. Alone."

His annoyance turned to anger when she reached over and put her hand on his thigh. Her breath reeked of Scotch as she said huskily, "Everyone's available. You, me, everyone. All it takes is the right offer."

Mulder stood, leaving his beer unfinished. This had turned out to be a terrible idea, and it was a long drive back to his cottage. "Perhaps that's true," he told her bluntly, "but I haven't met the offer yet that would make me give up what I have. Good night, Clara."

He left the bar at once, not looking back to see whether her expression was stunned, angry or uncaring. He was sure any damage he'd done to her psyche would soon be healed by another Scotch and another man. Mulder had seen women like Clara before, had even gotten involved with one of them, back when he was young and stupid, and had no desire to go there again.

He remembered his promise to call Scully, but he'd forgotten his cell phone, and it would be way too late by the time he got back to his cottage. She would be asleep, and he hesitated to disturb her. Nevertheless, he was amused at his desire to confess the evening to her, tell her about Clara and reassure her that he didn't want any other woman.

On the other hand, if she thought he was in danger of being targeted by the likes of Clara Summers, she would probably hop right on a plane and come down, and that was a bad idea. Even though he both loved and missed her, he was still convinced they needed this short separation to sort things out.

He didn't like to keep secrets from her, and yes, she should definitely know about Clara. Maybe in ten or twenty years he would tell her all about it.

Instead, he cranked up the radio after locating a classic rock station broadcasting out of Houston, and headed for Southby. Galveston might be a nice city, he decided, but for him it was a bust. He wouldn't come here again.

Southby, Texas
March 26, 2002
6:10 a.m.

He was awakened the next morning by someone banging on his door, and after sleepily reaching for his sweat pants and slipping them on, Mulder made his way to the kitchen. The one eye he'd managed to pry open told him it was just after six, and Mulder glanced longingly at the coffee pot before opening the door.

"Sheriff?" He was surprised to see Sheriff Turner and his deputy on his doorstep so early. "Did you learn something more about the case?"

"Agent Mulder, we'd like to come in and have a word with you." The Sheriff sounded formal, with no trace of the friendliness he'd exhibited the day before, and Mulder wondered what could have happened now. Wordlessly he gestured the men inside and they all seated themselves around the small kitchen table.

"What's up?"

"Agent Mulder, did you by any chance drive into Galveston
last night?"

Mulder stared at the Sheriff, puzzled for a moment, trying to ignore the bad feeling that was gnawing at the edges of his consciousness.
"Yeah, I did. Why?"

Deputy Flowers placed a photograph on the table in front of him. "Did you happen to see this lady?"

Mulder picked up the photo and studied it. The woman in the picture was heavily made-up, her hair teased and sprayed into a much different style than he remembered, but there was no mistaking the coy expression she wore or the piercing green of her eyes.

"I met her, briefly. She said her name was Clara Summers and that she was in town visiting her boyfriend. What about her?"
"She's dead."

Mulder was stunned. "Dead? How?"

"She was hacked to bits," the deputy told him, "just like Brenna Brookman."

Mulder felt his face draining, and wondered if he was about to be accused of murder yet again. This had an all-too-familiar feel to it, and the whole situation seemed all at once surreal. He rose, mechanically, and opened a cupboard.

"Coffee?" he asked the men.

"Agent Mulder, did you hear what I said?"

"Of course I heard you, Deputy. I'm sorry the woman is
dead, but what does that have to do with me?"

"You were seen with her last night, at a bar in Galveston."

Mulder turned to face them. "If you have witnesses who say I was with her at the bar, you must also have witnesses who will tell you I left before she did, alone, and that we did not spend more than five minutes together. Did anyone question her boyfriend? She told me she'd had a fight with him."

"What were you doing there?"

Mulder dumped coffee crystals into a mug. "I went there to have a drink," he replied. "I was bored, restless, and I just wanted to get out for a bit. I was home by eleven."

"Can you prove that?"

He thought for a minute, then felt relief wash over him. "I can't prove I was actually tucked up snug in my bed at that time, Sheriff, but I do have a receipt from the gas station down the road that will show I filled up my car at about ten forty-five last night. What time was Miss Summers murdered?"

"Coroner hasn't determined that yet."

"Well, I can show you the receipt." Mulder disappeared into the bedroom and returned a minute later with his wallet, opening it up to produce the small scrap of paper. "Ten forty-seven p.m. last night." He handed it to the Sheriff. "And if you care to check, you'll see I have a full tank of gas, which would mean I didn't drive back into Galveston after I filled up."

"Unless you drove into Galveston, murdered Clara Summers, then drove back to Southby and filled up again."

"I couldn't have," Mulder told him steadily. "I was probably the last customer the station had before they turned off their pumps at eleven."
The way the Sheriff nodded told Mulder he'd been aware of the gas station's closing time all along, and that angered the agent.

"Look, Sheriff, if you plan to accuse me, I'd appreciate it you'd cut through the bull and just do it. Otherwise, I have some things to do this morning," he told them pointedly.

Turner stared at Mulder for a long moment before pushing back his chair and rising. "I'm not accusing you of anything, Agent Mulder. At least not yet. However, I would appreciate it if you didn't cut your visit short."

"Are you telling me not to leave town?" Mulder challenged.

"Not at all. I'm *asking* you not to leave sooner than you'd planned." The Sheriff sniffed the air, wrinkling his nose. "Damn smell is worse than before," he commented on his way out.

Mulder didn't reply as the men trooped out of his kitchen, but after the door shut behind him, he realized his hands were shaking. With a muttered curse, he filled the cup he still held with water and stuck it in the microwave, jabbing at the buttons viciously. He was a hairsbreadth away from being accused of murdering one person, maybe two, and the thing he wanted to do most--run back home to Scully--would be the single worst thing he could do right now.

He waited until the microwave bell dinged, then took out his coffee and blew on it, venturing a small sip of the hot liquid. Well, he told himself fatalistically, taking the mug into the bedroom to shower and dress, in a situation like this, there was only one thing for him to do.

He'd just have to solve the murders before he was arrested.

March 26, 2002
8:00 a.m.

He fixed himself another cup of coffee, stronger this time, before going downstairs to his car. He wanted to drive back to Galveston, see if he could track down some of the people who'd been in the bar last night and question them about Clara. He wanted to find her killer, but more than that, right now Mulder wanted to turn suspicion away from himself. Surely someone there could vouch for the fact that he'd left before Clara, and that he'd been alone. That wouldn't provide him with an airtight alibi, but it would help.

Besides, Turner was right - the stench this morning seemed much stronger, and getting out of the cottage for a while seemed like a great idea.

Just out of Southby, he glanced at the gas gauge, knowing it would show the tank to be full, and yet somehow needing to reassure himself. His heart lurched in his chest when he saw that it sat at one fourth of a tank.

"What the hell?" he asked aloud, forcing himself to bring his eyes back to the road ahead. "That doesn't make any sense!"

He'd been sitting at three-quarters of a tank when he had left last night, and by the time he'd returned from Galveston, the car had been sucking fumes; that was the reason he'd filled up last night instead of waiting until morning. Then he'd parked his car in front of the cottage and gone to bed, where he'd slept all night. So how did most of his tank of gasoline disappear?

And for that matter, why the hell couldn't he keep his eyes open this morning? For once, the dreams had not come and he'd slept peacefully. He should be well-rested, but instead, Mulder felt like he'd been run over by a truck.

"Okay, let's think this through," he insisted, still talking out loud. It helped to pretend he was bouncing things off Scully. "First of all, what happened to the gas? Well, I can think of two possible answers. Either I have a leak in the tank, or someone else drove my car last night. No, that's not right--I can think of *three* solutions. There's always the possibility I did drive somewhere else last night, and just can't remember for some reason. That would also explain why I'm exhausted this morning. Sleepwalking? I've never had a problem with sleepwalking before."

Mulder finally lapsed into silence, mulling over the problem all the way to Galveston, and when he reached his destination, the only conclusion he had come to was that he might very well be in a world of trouble.

The police in Galveston had been less cooperative than Sheriff Turner, and Mulder had been unable to learn anything new from them at all. He did manage to wangle the name of a couple of witnesses from a clerk, with a well-practiced pitiful look, but that had proven scarcely more fruitful. The first witness he'd spoken to had had very little to say, beyond the fact that he remembered seeing Mulder at the bar last night and hearing his "Yankee accent." The second could confirm he'd left alone, but stated Clara Summers had soon followed. Hardly enough to prove his innocence, he reflected.

Clara's boyfriend, the one she'd claimed to have argued with, remained nameless as far as Mulder was concerned, although he suspected the Galveston Police Department possessed that knowledge. Logically, the man would be the most likely suspect, and Mulder wondered if he had been questioned. He was experiencing a growing unease that he was the odd man out in this situation, the easy scapegoat among a horde of locals. He hoped he was wrong, but Mulder was not unfamiliar with small-town attitudes, and while Galveston barely qualified as a city, Southby was the smallest of the small.

He went back to the cottage, exhausted and discouraged, and decided a nap was definitely in order. The odor had receded somewhat, and he was able to fall into a deep sleep almost immediately. The dreams came again, as he'd been certain they would, but as it turned out, it wasn't nightmares that awakened Mulder, but the sound of police sirens.

March 26, 2002
3:47 p.m.

He raised his head wearily, still feeling wiped out even though his watch told him he'd slept nearly three hours, and watched out the window as three Brichard Police Department cars and an ambulance raced past. Telling himself it was most likely nothing more serious than a car accident, he dragged himself up from the bed and went to the kitchen. He was starving.

All thoughts of the frozen enchiladas he'd planned to have for dinner fled seconds later. The stench had grown worse, far worse, to the point that it was almost unbearable, and Mulder slapped a hand over his nose and gagged. He backed out of the house quickly, wondering for a moment if the refrigerator had quit working and all the food inside spoiled. No, he told himself at once, this wasn't a rotten-food odor. It was unmistakably the smell of death. God knew he'd smelled it enough times before in his career.

He ran back inside just long enough to grab up his cell phone, then made it out before taking another breath. He knew the entire Brichard PD was probably out at the wreck site, but he could at least leave Sheriff Turner a message. Surely, for the smell to have grown so much worse, there must be another body buried beneath his cottage--perhaps more than one.

To his surprise, the Sheriff answered his cell phone on the first ring.

"Sheriff, this is Agent Mulder. Sorry to bother you while you're busy, but I think when you get a chance, you'd better send your forensics team back out here."

"Agent Mulder, are you at home?"

"I'm--yes, I'm at my cottage."

"Stay put. I'll be there in ten minutes."

Turner hung up before Mulder could ask any further questions, but in his gut he already knew the truth. It wasn't a car accident that had caused the police and ambulance to go screaming by a few minutes earlier.

There had been another murder.

He was waiting beside his car when Turner and Deputy Flowers arrived. Sheriff Turner wasted no time in confronting him.

"Agent Mulder, where were you two hours ago?"

Mulder pointed to the bedroom window. "Sleeping. Been there since just after lunch. I woke up when your cars drove by."

"Long nap," commented Turner.

"I was tired." Mulder was irritated, and feeling less and less like playing this man's game. "Look, Sheriff, let's get to the point. There's been another murder, hasn't there?"

Turner's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "How would you know that?"

Mulder shrugged. "Just a guess, from the way your entire force turned out, and the fact that the stench in my cottage is unbearable now."

Deputy Flowers looked confused. "What does one thing have to do with the other?"

"Look, Deputy, I know it may sound odd to you, but bear with me. My partner and I work on unusual cases, ones that sometimes embrace the paranormal, and I think there's more going on here than a mere flesh-and-blood killer."

Turner's eyebrows rose nearly to his hairline. "Paranormal?" he questioned incredulously. "Are you trying to tell me you think these murders are being committed by *ghosts*, Agent Mulder? That's the most ridiculous--"

"Not ghosts," Mulder corrected calmly. "Demons. Or more likely, just a single demon. I believe the smell in my cottage comes not from the body that was buried beneath it, but from a sort of portal to the demon's home dimension."

Flowers stared at Mulder for a few seconds before bursting into loud guffaws. He laughed so hard tears streamed from the corners of his eyes, while his superior looked on, unamused.

"I'm sorry," Flowers apologized at last, bringing himself under control. "It's just that for a minute there I thought you were serious. You've been talking to those old geezers that hang out down at Stewart's, haven't you?"

"Sandy," Sheriff Turner said, nudging his Deputy, "just look at him. He *is* serious."

Flowers' laughter gradually faded away as he realized the Sheriff was right. "Wait a minute," he said slowly. "You're honestly trying to tell us you think these girls are being killed by a--a--"

"Demon," Mulder supplied helpfully.

"A demon." Flowers almost rolled his eyes, but caught himself just in time, and Mulder bit back a smile; the Deputy's reaction was so like Scully. At least Mulder knew what to expect.

"Look, gentlemen, I understand your reaction, really, I do. Believe me, it isn't uncommon, but I assure you, there are things in this universe that most people won't - most people *can't* believe in. My partner and I have seen--"

"I don't care about what you and your partner claim to have seen," Sheriff Turner interrupted, "and I'm not interested in hearing your take on what is nothing but a tired old ghost story. Can you prove your whereabouts for the past few hours, Agent Mulder?"

Mulder sighed in frustration, casting one more glance at the cottage. "No."

"Then I'd like you to come down to headquarters for further

"Are you arresting me, Sheriff?"

"Not yet."

Mulder nodded. "I'll come with you, but not before I call my partner. I want her opinion on this situation."

Mulder turned his back and dialed Scully's number, giving her a terse rundown of the situation. Her alarm was apparent.

"Mulder, they're not going to arrest you, are they?" she demanded. "Do they have anything at all that links you to these crimes?"

"The fact that I'm a stranger in these parts seems to point suspicion my way," he drawled. "Look, Scully, just get here as quick as you can, will you? I'll be waiting for you at the cottage, but believe me, we'll have to go to a hotel to sleep."

After disconnecting, Mulder dashed inside, grabbed up his wallet and ID, then took a deep breath once he'd reached fresh air again.

"Buddy, that reeks," Flowers said sympathetically, having caught a whiff of the air as Mulder raced out the door.

Mulder sniffed his shirt, expecting to find it permeated with the foul smell, but to his surprise, all he detected was the faint scent of laundry detergent. "That's odd," he said, but no one seemed interested in his observation, so he kept it to himself.

Brichard County Police Headquarters
Brichard, Texas
March 26, 2002
9:30 p.m.

Mulder had followed the Sheriff to the station in Brichard, twenty-five miles from Southby, with Deputy Flowers riding along with him. When they arrived, he was escorted into a small cubicle of a room, equipped with nothing except a table and two chairs. He seated himself, uninvited, and waited for the routine grilling to begin.

It was as bad as he'd expected, but he was unable to tell them anything more than he already had, and to their obvious frustration, they had absolutely no evidence on which to hold him. In fact, it was pretty clear they had no evidence at all. No fingerprints, no murder weapon, no traces of blood...nothing.

Four hours later, when they finally allowed him to leave, Mulder met up with a team of detectives coming in the main door.

"Damn, that stench was awful!" one of them, a woman with long brown hair, was complaining. "I'll probably never get it out of my clothes!"

"Don't you worry your pretty little head about it, Howell," her partner teased. "I don't think you brought any of it home with you."

The woman gave her male companion a look worthy of Scully's best glare, then dissolved into laughter. "Asshole," she said affectionately, punching the man in the arm.

"Ow!" he moaned, grabbing himself as if she'd really landed him a hard one. "I should get hazard pay, working with you!"

As they passed, Mulder turned back to the Sheriff. "I take it you had my place searched while I was out?" he asked stiffly.

"I had a warrant."

The agent gave a curt nod. "I'm sure you did."

He left without another word, seething all the way back to the cottage, taking the official document they'd left taped to his refrigerator and wadding it up into a ball.

Southby, Texas
March 26, 2002
10:17 p.m.

Curiously, the smell had diminished somewhat, and although it had not disappeared completely, Mulder knew he'd be able to sleep there that night, after all. Sleep with Scully, he reminded himself, for although she would arrive late, there would still be enough hours before dawn for a proper reunion. Damn, but he'd missed her, and whatever differences they had would simply have to be worked out. Living without her was obviously not an option. Maybe couples counseling was what they needed, although he doubted Scully would agree. Oh well, he told himself, time enough to decide all that later.

For now, he showered, ate, and parked himself in front of the television, turning it down low for background noise. He needed to think and the way Mulder thought best was to totally unloose his mind, giving it free rein.

He started out by going over the facts as he knew them: three women had been murdered, all of them cut apart in a most gruesome manner, and there had been no witnesses to any of the crimes. The first one had happened before he'd come to town, but the fact that the murder weapon had been discovered in his cottage didn't help his credibility any. The sharp instrument used in the subsequent murders--probably another hatchet, or a meat cleaver, according to the medical examiner--had not been found. There was no physical evidence recovered from any of the crime scenes that might point to who had committed the murders.

On the other hand, if his theory was true, and it was a demon committing the murders, somehow the demon had to be gaining possession, however briefly, of a body. Demons were notorious for using unsuspecting, vulnerable humans to complete their dirty work.

The stench in his cottage, he was now convinced, was evidence not of another victim, but of the portal through which the demon traveled from wherever it normally resided. The odor had been worse this afternoon, just after the third murder, but had diminished a few hours later.

So the demon was traveling to this dimension here, in his cottage, and possessing...who? Was it the cause of his nightmares? Did the demon, traveling through his bedroom, perhaps, to reach its target, leave behind thoughts of dark, evil acts that somehow invaded his dreams with their putrid images? And why was he so tired? It seemed to Mulder that, since coming to Southby, he'd done an unusual amount of sleeping, and yet his eyelids still felt like they were made of lead.

Allowing them to close, Mulder leaned against the back of the couch, opening himself up, trying to reach that part of himself that solved crimes almost subconsciously, making what appeared to be huge leaps in logic that always made sense in retrospect. Before he could reach any conclusions at all, he was lightly snoring, sound asleep.

March 27, 2002
2:20 a.m.

Scully entered the cottage quietly, certain Mulder must be asleep, since he hadn't answered her light knock, and set her bag beside the door. Her call to the Brichard County Sheriff earlier in the evening had yielded nothing of substance. From what Deputy Flowers had said, coupled with what he had *not* said, Scully concluded that the only reason her partner had not yet been arrested was because of the lack of physical evidence. That and the small but important detail Flowers had let slip--that the angle of the blows to each victim indicated an attacker nearly eight feet tall. Mulder was a tall man, but there was no way he met *that* description.

The room was dark, except for the glow from an infomercial playing on the television, and as her eyes adjusted, she made out Mulder's shape sitting up on the sofa. His features were twisted into an expression of disgust, and his hands clenched and unclenched against his thighs.

Due to the nature of their work, it wasn't uncommon for either of them to suffer nightmares, but normally when Mulder had one he woke up, shook it off, and went right back to sleep. This writhing and contorting he was doing was completely out of character, and it worried her. Hoping to wake him gently, she flipped on a lamp. The sudden light caused his eyes to fly open, and the look of stark terror contained in them shook her to the core.

"Mulder?" she asked cautiously. "It's me."

The expression of horror was gone almost immediately, and he grinned weakly up at her. "Hey, Scully," he said by way of greeting.

She seated herself beside him and took one of his hands, still clenched into a fist, in both of hers. Rubbing it, she smoothed away the tension in the muscles. "You okay?" she queried. "You appeared to be having a bad dream."

He nodded soberly. "I was, it--" All at once his face went almost blank, and Scully was reminded of the time he'd shown her what he called his "panic face." He had looked just like this then, only without the deep circles beneath his eyes and the haggard look about his unshaven jaw.

"Mulder, what is it?" she asked anxiously. "Tell me!"

"Oh my god, Scully," he breathed, squeezing her hand tightly. "It's me!"

"What? What are you talking about? What's you?"

He jumped to his feet and began to pace back and forth frenetically. "Me, I'm the killer!" he explained.

"Mulder, you're not making sense! You're not a killer!"

"Not me, not exactly, but he's using me. That's why I'm so tired, it's because when I think I'm sleeping, I'm really not. I'm out murdering innocent women."

"That is the craziest thing you've ever said," she told him flatly. "Sit down, Mulder, and tell me what you're talking about. Start at the beginning."

Finally, at her insistence, he did so, explaining with growing agitation his theory that the demon was possessing him while he slept, using him to commit its evil acts. When he had finished, Scully stared at him steadily until he stirred, suddenly uncomfortable.

"What?" he demanded.

She rolled her eyes. She couldn't help it, it was a natural reaction. "Mulder, where do I begin? That's the craziest story I've ever heard."

"Oh, don't go back to that, Scully. Don't start accusing me of losing my mind again!"


"I am so *tired* of this! Every time we come up against something that doesn't fit into your narrow, scientific view of the world, you just write it off as being either impossible or insane, without ever considering that maybe you don't have all the answers!"


"I won't even begin to list the times you've completely denied what you've seen, Scully. You want to talk about crazy? How sane is it to constantly rewrite history?"

He had approached, little by little, until he towered over her, positively glowering down at her, but Scully stood her ground. Even though she tried to ignore the shiver of--could it be *fear* that was washing over her?--she reminded herself that this was Mulder, for god's sake, this was her friend, her partner, her lover. He'd die before he would hurt her.

He seemed to have spent his sudden burst of fury, and she stared up at him with challenge in her eyes. "I was right, Mulder," she quipped at last, "you have gone insane."

Her slight joke broke the tension, and he grinned sheepishly, running a hand through his already mussed hair. "I'm sorry, Scully, I just...haven't been sleeping well," he offered lamely.

"No, don't apologize. Much as it pains me to admit it, you may have a point."

"I *may* have a point?"

She stared resolutely at his chest. "I can admit that I do sometimes have trouble accepting what we see in our work."

He nodded.


He snorted.

"Look, let's get back to our original conversation, shall we?" she insisted. "Tell me you don't really believe you're possessed by a demon."

"Well, not right this minute." A flash of realization him him then. "That's what the dreams are all about!" he told her excitedly. "My mind is trying to remember, but somehow he's suppressed my memories."

Unable to deal with this just now, she shook her head, exasperated, and turned toward the kitchen. "What have you got to eat, Mulder? I'm starving."

March 27, 2002
3:00 a.m.

"What's that smell?"

Mulder sniffed the air, and his face fell. "Damn. Scully, it's happening again." He didn't even try to control the panic in his voice - even if she didn't believe him, he knew the truth. The growing odor signified something was about to happen...something bad.

"Do you have your cuffs?"

She stared at him again, as if he'd gone completely nuts. "My cuffs?" she asked blankly.

"Yeah. Scully, I want you to cuff me to the bed. And before you make any kinky jokes, know that I have a good reason for this request."

"*Me* make kinky jokes?"

"Yeah. You know how perverse your sense of humor can be," he said, his face deadpan.

She sighed, and tossed him the pair of cuffs she pulled out of her pocket. "I'm not doing this, Mulder. You want to chain yourself to the bed, be my guest, but I won't be responsible for it. Call me prudish, but it's just not my thing."

"Damn," he teased, snapping one of the metal bracelets about his right wrist, "and here I was hoping to lure you over to the dark side."

He hooked the other end of the handcuffs around the old-fashioned wood headboard, then spread out over the bed. "Nice and comfy," he joked, tugging at the cuff. He was securely fastened to the massive bed, and without a saw, or the handcuff key which he tossed her, he wasn't going anywhere.

"Wait a minute," she protested, catching the key clumsily. "Where the hell am I supposed to sleep?"

"Couch?" he suggested. At her look, he pleaded, "Come on, Scully, humor me. I'd give you the bed, but..." He jangled the cuffs, waggling his eyebrow at her.

She sighed. "Fine," she agreed, albeit grumpily. "But I'm warning you, Mulder, if I wake up with an aching back, you owe me the mother of all massages."

"You got it."

She approached him, and he drew back slightly. "Scully--"

"Don't I even get a goodnight kiss?"

He smiled. "Yeah."

She threaded her fingers through his hair, tilting his face up, devouring his lips hungrily. All at once, Mulder was reminded just how long it had been, and with his free hand he pulled her closer. His tongue slipped into her warm mouth, assaulting hers with frantic insistence, and just as he heard a moan escape, uncertain which of them had emitted it, she pulled away.

"Hey!" he protested.

"Sorry, Mulder," she said sweetly. "I'd love to sleep in that bed with you, but you made the rules."

"Yeah," he groaned, falling heavily onto his back, bouncing up and down on the mattress. "You're right."

"Of course, you could always change the rules..."

"No," he sighed with real regret. "Not tonight, Scully. I'm
afraid of what might happen."

"Mulder, nothing's going to happen."

"Don't you smell it?"

She sniffed the air. "It's gotten stronger."

"It always does, just before there's another murder."

Apparently unwilling to argue further, Scully just left the room, and a few minutes later he heard her bunking down on the sofa. Willing his mind to think of anything but the longing he felt for her, Mulder closed his eyes. Maybe if he could go to sleep quickly, this night of torture could be over and he could take Scully and blow this town.

Assuming all was still well come morning.

Scully punched the pillow for the hundredth time. It was impossible to get comfortable on this couch, but she supposed explaining that to Mulder, a sofa-sleeper from way back, would be pointless. Not only was her makeshift bed hard and lumpy, but the odor in the cottage was rapidly becoming unbearable, and opening the windows did no good. Tomorrow, she vowed, the two of them were going to find the dead cat under the house, or the dead rat in the walls, or whatever was causing the stench, and eliminate it. Then, maybe they could spend a few blissful days together on the beach before returning to the reality that was Washington DC.

Finally, after tossing and turning for well over an hour, she buried her face in the pillow. It was the only way she could bear to breathe. She wondered how Mulder was faring, but other than his light snore a little while earlier, she'd heard nothing from the bedroom.

March 27, 2002
4:07 a.m.

Scully couldn't say what woke her; perhaps it was an unexpected noise, perhaps just a sense of wrongness, but whatever caused her to suddenly open her eyes saved her life.

She saw the shadow in the doorway that separated the bedroom from the living area, and without thinking, acting purely on instinct, Scully rolled off the couch and across the floor. An instant later, the shape rushed for the sofa, an inhuman cry bursting from its chest. In the moonlight, she could see his hands as they raised and fell, destroying the hapless piece of furniture with the small hatchet. It was too dark to identify the attacker--she could only see that he was incredibly tall--but as his hands rose again, the moonlight illuminated the metal cuff around the right wrist.

The smell of death was overwhelming.

Unable to grasp the implications of what she was seeing, Scully scrabbled for her weapon, which she'd placed on the small telephone table which stood against the far wall. She hoped the attacker wouldn't notice her movements, but before she was able to reach her gun, he turned toward her. Slowly, the hulking form, far too tall to be Mulder, began advancing on her. Forcing herself to act rather than think, Scully grasped her weapon, took aim, and fired.

The first shot missed the shape, but the second, aimed directly for the creature's thigh, hit home. With an unearthly scream, the attacker dropped his hatchet, which went spinning across the floor, and fell.

By the time Scully was able to switch on a light, the odd screams had given way to distinctly human moans, and when the lamp illuminated the room, she saw her partner, clutching his leg, blood pouring out between his fingers.

"Oh my god! Mulder!" Acting quickly, she grabbed some towels from the kitchen, pressing them against his wound hard to try and stop the bleeding. "I didn't see you there," she babbled, unable to believe she'd shot her partner *again*, praying the wound would be superficial. "I shot at an attacker, and you must have been right behind him...I don't know where he went. We've got to get you to a hospital, Mulder. Sit tight, I'm going to call an ambulance."

She made the call, then dropped down on the floor beside him once again. "They'll be here in a few minutes," she promised, smoothing the hair back from his sweaty brow. "You hang on, do you hear me?"

He nodded weakly, then raised his right arm off the floor.

"Better get rid of these," he said, breathing heavily. "Wouldn't want...anyone to get..wrong idea."

She fetched the key, and slipped the cuffs off him gently, sliding them back into her pocket. Briefly she wondered how Mulder had managed to escape from the bed, but there was no time to think about that right now. Grabbing a blanket off the couch, she covered Mulder with it, then tucked the pillow beneath his wounded leg.

As she worked, Scully kept up a running, one-sided conversation. "You're gonna be fine, Mulder. I am so sorry. I can't believe I didn't see you there. Where do you suppose he went? I'll have to get the Sheriff to search the place thoroughly, he might still be around. Maybe he had an accomplice. Do you think--"

"Scully," he whispered, his face pale, and she stopped, leaning close in to hear him. "It was me."

She froze for a few seconds, then shook her head resolutely. "No. That isn't possible. The man I saw was at least seven and a half feet tall, Mulder. It wasn't you."

He grimaced as waves of pain shot through his leg, and decided arguing with her could wait. Exhausted, Mulder closed his eyes, and as the ambulance sirens approached the house, he allowed himself to drift into an attractive state of semi-consciousness.

He heard Scully let the paramedics in, felt them examine him, listened to her answering their questions, but when they moved him to the stretcher, the pain became too much.

Just before falling completely over the edge, Mulder had a realization that made him feel chilled all over, although later, Scully would tell him it was shock.

The smell was completely gone.

Brichard Methodist Hospital
Brichard, Texas
March 29, 2002
9:30 a.m.

"So, do I get sprung?" he asked hopefully when Scully opened the door of his hospital room. He'd been here for two days already, and in Mulder's opinion, it was high time they went home. To their apartment. Together.

"Tomorrow," she said brightly, and then seeing his crestfallen look, reminded him, "I know you feel much better, but you lost a lot of blood, Mulder, and they want
to be sure you're able to function before they release you."

"I don't have to function," he pointed out. "I have you to take care of me."

"I have to go to work. You, on the other hand, are on forced medical leave until Skinner says otherwise."

"Ohh," he groaned, tilting his head back to stare at the ceiling. "He's not pissed off at me right now, is he?"

She seated herself beside the bed. "I wouldn't be so sure of that. You did take your vacation rather abruptly. You'll be lucky if he doesn't decide to sideline you for a month."

"He wouldn't do that," Mulder contradicted firmly. "Skinner might be a hardass, but he's not a cruel man."

Scully didn't smile. Instead, she took his hand, caressing the fingers lightly. "Mulder?"

He examined her face closely, noting the way she refused to meet his eyes and the slight flush on her cheeks. "Let me guess," he said wryly. "This is where you try to convince me to seek psychiatric help. Again."

Now the smile came, briefly, but it was enough to lessen the tension in the room. "I'm just worried about you," she said, her voice soft. "You've been through so much lately, and the stress--"

"This has nothing to do with stress, and you know it, Scully. This has to do with you not believing me. Again."

She shook her head slowly. "No, it doesn't. I told you, it was very dark in the room, and the man I saw was much taller than you. I don't know who it was, or what exactly happened, and when I turned on the light, I found I'd shot you. I checked the bed. It appears he broke it in two--without a weapon. I don't want to damage your frail ego," she teased, "but whoever attacked me was much larger than you, and much stronger. You probably don't remember because you were tired, and then the shock of my shooting you..." She swallowed hard before continuing. "In the confusion, anything could have happened, Mulder.

"I know exactly what happened."

"You're still insisting that you're a killer?"

"No, not me, exactly. The demon was using my body, but it wasn't *me* doing it. I don't remember any of the acts. I don't even remember attacking you. Only that I suddenly woke up on the floor with a hole in my leg."
"That's because you didn't attack me, Mulder. You wouldn't."

"I must have driven back to Galveston after I'd gone to bed, killed Clara Summers, then driven home, all while under the control of the demon."


"I think he was able to make use of my knowledge and intellect, which is why they were never able to find evidence. As a law enforcement officer, I'd know better than most how to cover up a murder. He wouldn't want me arrested, or he'd lose his access to a body. I can't explain it, but I think he's somehow confined to the house, unless he can possess a human being."

"You were not possessed."

"I was puzzled at the first killing, but now I think I've put it all together. I couldn't have killed Brenna Brookman, because I wasn't even in town when she was murdered."

"You didn't kill anybody."

"I think it was Langly's cousin, the owner of the cottage. I think while he was there, preparing for my arrival, the demon entered him, used him to kill Brenna, then withdrew."

"You just proved my point."

At last Mulder seemed to take notice of her. "I what?"

"Your own words, Mulder. You said the demon used Langly's cousin to kill Brenna Brookman. If--and bear in mind I'm only humoring you because you're injured, but *if* that were true, how can the landlord be blamed?"

"He can't. Not really. It was entirely against his will."

"Then, if--and bear in mind I'm only humoring you because you're injured, but *if* a demon entered your body to commit the other two murders, how can you be blamed?"

Mulder had nothing to say.

"Would you hold yourself to a higher standard of responsibility for something over which you apparently had no control?"

At last he had to shake his head, but his acknowledgement was sad.

"Good. Now, I'm going to go find some lunch. If you're good, and give up any idea you might be harboring in that brilliant mind of yours that involves making some kind of confession to the Sheriff--a confession that would be nearly worthless, by the way, since there is absolutely *no* evidence against you--I'll bring you back some real food."

"I'll be good," he answered promptly. Mulder had tasted a lot of hospital food, but this particular hospital was truly at the bottom of the scale, and he'd barely eaten enough to stay alive since he'd been here.

"Good." She kissed him, first on the forehead, then firmly on the lips. "I won't be gone long. You try to get some rest."

Mulder smiled until she left the room, then let his lips slowly curve into the worried frown they wanted to hold. What she said made sense, as it always did, but his own feelings were so positive...he knew he was right.

On the other hand, there was nothing to be gained by a confession. Scully would hire him the best lawyer in America, should he ever even come to trial, which was unlikely. It was more probable he'd find himself locked in an asylum than a prison, and what good would be served in either case? He wasn't a danger to himself, and he certainly wasn't a danger to society.

With a deep sigh, he closed his eyes, but opened them again a moment later. He held up his hands, examining them carefully, each crevice and callous, considering whether they were truly capable of murder.

And wondering if they would ever feel clean again.


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