Barely Balancing by Frohike

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Date: Mon, 25 Sep 2000 16:03:23 -0500

Subject: Barely Balancing by Frohike

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Barely Balancing

Author: Frohike

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Rating: R

Category: MSR

Spoilers: Not really. If you’re not a loyal viewer, you’ll miss a few in-jokes, but nothing major. If you want to be really picky, maybe little itty bitty ones from Tunguska on, but I promise, nothing you read will spoil any episode for you. Distribution: Baby, you can post this anywhere! Just leave my name and addy intact and be sure to let me know where it is, so I can come visit.

Disclaimer: Not mine, they belong to the Master of Yuppie Morbidity, 1013 Productions and Fox. They just followed me home, so I fed them, plied them with alcohol, had my way with the boys and shipped them back to LA; well, all except Krycek that is. I couldn’t fit him into this story, so I’ve given him his own series. You know what they say…a sexy, one-armed, triple agent is a terrible thing to waste. g

Mim, thanks for all the late night chats, for giving me the courage to continue when self-doubt threatened to consume me and for knowing all the right things to say. You may not realize it, but you keep me sane. You are my touchstone, my Furious Rose.

Woozle, thanks for the support, encouragement and the occasional slap on wrist when I got a little self-indulgent or lost my way. I appreciated all the comments, even if I didn’t agree with everything you had to say. Special thanks for pointing out all the times I confused its with it’s and vice versa. Good thing my students are too young to read this g.

To the gang at Philing, I love you all. Even the stubborn one who probably won’t bother reading this because it’s too long. I won’t mention names, but you know who you are g.

Feedback: Yes, please. Praise will make my day; flames will be used to lure Krycek to my side; either way, I win g. Can you say ‘incendiary device’? Sorry, inside joke. Talk to me people.

~~~~~~~~~

Barely Balancing 1/5 By Frohike

Parking garage, FBI offices Washington DC

She had no sooner buckled her seat belt, than the familiar sound of a cell phone hit her ears. Damn it, Mulder, what do you want now? she thought.

“Scully.”

“Agent Scully, it’s Byers, we’ve found something you might want to see.”

Scully rolled her eyes. “OK, I’ll call Mulder and we’ll be over as soon as we can.”

“No, don’t call Mulder,” Byers said quickly. “It’s about Diana Fowley.”

“I’m on my way.”

She wanted to race over there to see what the boys had found, instead she found herself unable to move. ‘What ifs’ flew through her mind at an alarming speed. Unable to stop the barrage of thoughts, she put her head down on the steering wheel. A tap on the window startled her out of her reverie.

“You OK, Scully?”

“Oh, Mulder, hi. Yeah, I’m fine, just a little distracted.”

Mulder frowned, having heard that line one too many times. “Are you sure? You look a little pale.”

“I’m FINE, Mulder, it’s just been a long week and I’ve got a lot on my mind right now.”

“Hey, I was just going to grab some dinner, want to join me?”

Scully gave him her best ‘stop-patronizing-me-I’m-fine’ smile. “Thanks Mulder, but I have plans for the evening.”

“Ooooh, hot date?? Anyone I know?”

“Actually, you do know her.” She laughed as his eyes widened. “Pop those eyes back in your head, Mulder. I promised my mother I’d have dinner with her tonight.”

“Well, there goes THAT fantasy.”

“Go home, Mulder.” Scully shook her head. “I’ll call you tomorrow.” With that, she started the car and drove off.

Lone Gunman HQ

Scully knocked on the door and heard the sound of little gunmen feet approaching. “It’s me, Frohike, open up.”

Frohike opened the door. “How’dja know it was me?” He stepped aside, allowing her to come into their lair.

“You always answer the door, Frohike. For guys who are so paranoid, you’d think you could be a little less predictable.”

Frohike looked at Langly. Langly looked at Byers. Byers looked at both of them. They seemed to be giving her observation careful consideration.

Scully cleared her throat impatiently. “Byers, you said you had something to show me…”

“Oh, right.” Byers reached up and straightened his tie. “We got a tip that Agent Fowley was meeting with someone outside of the FBI, so Langly followed her.” He opened his mouth to continue, but was cut off.

“Got a tip from whom?”

Byers looked at Langly and Frohike. Langly suddenly became very interested in the ceiling, while Frohike studied his shoes.

“Got a tip from whom?”

Byers looked at his partners and sighed. “Well, we decided that it would make things a little easier…if…we…”

Scully crossed her arms and glared at Byers. “If you, what?”

“If we bugged her home phone.”

Byers watched as Langly and Frohike slowly backed out of the room. Great, leave me here to face this by myself. Cowards.

Scully raised her left hand, gently pinched the bridge of her nose and began to shake her head. She didn’t know whether to yell at them, smile at them or kiss them. She peeked out over her fingers. Byers looked terrified and the other two were still inching their way out of the room. Cowards she thought. Yelling was out. After considering the consequences of kissing Frohike, she decided that smiling was the way to go. Slowly lowering her hand, she looked at Byers and gave him an evil grin. “So what did you find out?”

Byers let go of the breath he’d been holding, while Langly and Frohike rushed back into the room. “After we intercepted her call, Frohike and I followed her. I took these.” Langly picked up a manila envelope and handed it to her.

Scully hesitated a moment before opening the envelope. She reached in and pulled out a handful of photos; there were six of them, all showing Diana Fowley having an intimate conversation with him, CGB Spender, Cancerman. Each picture was more damning than the last; Fowley sitting across from him, leaning in closer, standing up, walking over to him, standing behind him, wrapping her arms around him. In every one, that black-lunged son-of-a-bitch was smiling. Smiling!! Scully didn’t even know the man could smile.

“Scully?” Frohike reached over to take the pictures. “Scully?”

“Oh,…what?” Scully looked up, surprised to find that Frohike was trying to gently pry the photos out of her clenched fists.

“We might want these later.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right. Sorry.” Scully released her grip on the pictures and allowed him to put them back in the envelope. Here it was, proof that Fowley was not to be trusted; proof that even Mulder couldn’t rationalize away. Well, at least not the Mulder she thought she knew; his blind spot for this woman was unparalleled. He has to see these. He has to understand that this woman is not his ally. Damn it, I have to make him listen to me.

“Scully, what do you want to do now?”

She didn’t move. Byers looked at the boys and shrugged his shoulders. Maybe she didn’t hear me. He had just decided to repeat his question, when Scully looked up.

“Byers, when was the last time you got good ‘n drunk?”

Casey’s Bar

Southeastern D.C.

After some discussion, the boys finally decided on Casey’s. Not their usual choice, but then again, they wouldn’t want to take Scully to their usual choice. That place was a veritable meat market of techno-geeks and nerds, not the kind of place a woman like Scully could go to relax. Besides, she needed to blow off some steam and the boys were afraid she might draw her gun on the first techno-geek that offered to ‘upgrade her modem’. At Casey’s, their biggest problem would be to keep Frohike in line, or so they thought.

They settled in a back booth where Frohike could keep watch on the entrance. Like gunslingers of old, he firmly believed in never sitting with his back to the door. Langly sat next to him, while Byers and Scully took the opposite side. When the waitress made her way back to take their order, the boys deferred to Scully.

“Let’s make this easy,” she said. “We’ll go with beer. Bring us a pitcher and make it a bottomless one.”

Four pitchers later

“Damn him, why won’t he listen to me? It’s always ‘you don’t know her like I do, Scully’, ‘she was there at the beginning, Scully’, ‘she’s trying to protect me, Scully’, ‘I love you, Scully.’”

Frohike choked on his beer. “You wanna run that last one by us again?”

“What one? What are you talking about, Frohike?”

“The last one, the ‘I love you, Scully’. When did Mulder say ‘ I love you, Scully.’?”

“In the hospital, after his stupid trip to the Bermuda Triangle. He didn’t mean it, Frohike, he was drugged.” Scully went quiet after that. The boys looked at her and at each other, not knowing what to do next. Byers turned to look at her.

“Did you want him to mean it, Scully?”

“No, of course not. Maybe. I don’t know.” Scully studied the half-empty glass in her hand.

Byers lifted her chin and asked her again, saying each word slowly, as if he were trying to elicit the truth from a small child. “Did you want him to mean it?”

Scully nodded her head, then drained the remaining beer from her glass.

They sat there quietly, no one knowing quite what to say. When the waitress appeared with a fresh pitcher, Scully poured herself another glass and drained that one as well. Byers, who was not much of a drinker, followed her lead. It was his fifth glass of the night and his low tolerance to alcohol was beginning to show. Without warning, he slammed his glass down on the table. “Damn him! Why do you let him get away with this Scully? He takes you for granted and you let him. Doesn’t he know what he has? And, while we’re on the subject, just what the hell is your problem? If you love him, don’t you think that you oughta tell him? Geez, the two of you are so afraid of…”

“Whoa dude, I think you’ve had enough,” said Langly as he reached for Byers’ glass.

“I have not had enough, Langly and why is it so damned hot in here?”

Byers reached up and yanked at his tie. When the knot loosened, he pulled the tie off over his head and threw it at Langly; then he reached up and unbuttoned the top button of his shirt. “So, are you going to talk to Mulder about this or do I have to do it?”

“Talk to him about what, my feelings, his feelings?” She frowned and shook her head. “He wouldn’t take me seriously. He’d just make a joke about my needing an exorcism or about a shift in planetary alignment. What would be the point?”

Byers got up from the table. “Okay, guess it’s up to me,” he said as he stumbled toward the door. Frohike and Langly exchanged puzzled looks. Scully raised her hands in the universal what-the-Hell-just-happened-here sign.

“You don’t think…” Frohike started.

“He’s going to Mulder’s apartment? Naaa, he wouldn’t…would he?” Langly finished.

Scully’s eyes widened. Oh my God, he’s going to Mulder’s? The thought frightened and excited her at the same time. So what if he goes to Mulder’s, what’s the worst that could happen. Byers is drunk, so Mulder will just give him a cup of coffee and send him home, right? Mulder wouldn’t take him seriously.

“Scully, we need to find Byers now!”

She looked at Langly. “Why, he’s a big boy, I’m sure he can take care of himself.”

“Um, Dana, it’s not Byers we’re worried about,” explained Frohike. “The last time he got this drunk… well…he…”

“He beat the crap out of Thinker.”

“Langly, will you stop finishing my sentences.”

“If you’d stop stumbling over your words, I wouldn’t have to.”

“Look you long-haired, punk-ass, I am perfectly capable of finishing…”

Scully slammed her glass down on the table. “Oh for Pete’s sake, will you two quit bickering. If he’s that nasty a drunk, we’d better get to Mulder and soon.”

Mulder’s apartment

Byers pushed the elevator button for the third time in as many seconds. Why the hell do they need an elevator to get to apartment 42 anyway? 42 should be on the first floor. Even the building Mulder lives in is screwed up! Finally, after a lifetime, (30 seconds) the elevator landed and the doors opened. He got in and paced until the elevator arrived at Mulder’s floor. He made his way down the hall to Mulder’s door. When he found 42, or 2, the 4 had fallen on the floor again why doesn’t he just fix that damned number? , Byers began pounding on the door.

“Mulder.” BANG, BANG, BANG. “I know you’re in there, Mulder, open up.” BANG, BANG, BANG. “Open the damned door.”

Just as he raised his hand to hit the door again, it opened. Mulder stood there and glared at Byers. “Get in here.” Mulder pulled Byers in and closed the door. “What the Hell are you doing banging on my door like that?” Mulder looked at Byers a little closer and caught a whiff of his breath. “Jesus, you’re drunk! Come on, I’ll make some coffee and try to sober you up.”

“I don’t want your damned coffee Mulder, I came here to tell you what a first-class asshole you are.”

Mulder looked taken aback. “Excuse me?”

“You heard me; I said you’re a first-class asshole.”

“Did I miss something here? I’ve been told that I’m one sorry son of a bitch, but a first-class asshole? What did I do now?”

Byers began to slowly advance toward Mulder. Not liking the look in Byers’ eyes, Mulder backed up, matching his pace step for step. When Byers raised his hand, Mulder actually flinched. He didn’t relax until he realized that Byers was only pointing at him. Byers shook his finger at Mulder and began to rant and pace the floor. “You are an asshole, because you treat Scully like dirt. You expect her to follow you with- out question, take your word for everything, trust your every instinct, then you ask her to make it all better when you screw up. She deserves better than that. Do you know how much you hurt her every time you defend that bitch, that Agent Fowley? She’s evil Mulder, evil, evil, evil! She’s working with Cancerman. Hell, she may even be sleeping with that black-lunged son of a bitch. You should see the pictures Langly took of the two of them together; maybe that would make you believe. Goddamn it Mulder, Scully loves you and…”

“Byers, hold on,” Mulder reached over and picked up an envelope, “these pictures?” He handed the envelope to Byers. Byers opened it and found a series of pictures very much like the ones Langly had given to Scully earlier that evening.

“Where did you get these?”

Mulder took the pictures and tossed them back on the table. “An anonymous source sent them to the office this afternoon. I had them analyzed. I was going to tell Scully after work tonight, but she had plans. Maybe I should have pushed the issue, but she looked so…distracted.” He paused. “Did you just say that Scully loves me?”

Byers felt his blood boiling. He glared at Mulder and started walking toward him again. This time Mulder didn’t move. He had no choice really, he was up against the arm of his couch; the only thing to do would be to sit down and that didn’t seem like a good idea.

“YOU KNEW! YOU’VE HAD THESE GODDAMNED PICTURES SINCE THIS AFTERNOON AND YOU DIDN’T TELL HER?”

He couldn’t contain his anger any longer. He clenched his fist, pulled back and prepared to knock Mulder on his ass. Just as he was throwing the punch, the door flew open.

“BYERS, NO!” Scully yelled. “MULDER, LOOK OUT!”

Too late, the punch had already been thrown. Mulder tried to get out of its path, but found his eye being rudely introduced to Byers’ fist. The impact knocked Mulder over the arm of the couch; as he hit the seat, his body slid off and he found himself lying on the floor. When Mulder finally opened his eyes, Scully was bending over him, getting ready to apply a cool compress to his aching eye. Off to his right, he saw that Langly and Frohike were holding on to Byers.

“He all right, Scully?” asked Frohike.

“He’ll be fine, as usual. His eye’s a little worse for wear, but he’ll survive.”

“Hey Scully, be sure to tape his explanation to Skinner for us, we could use a good laugh,” Langly added.

“I just might do that Langly,” Scully smiled up at him. “How’s Byers doing?”

“He’ll be fine in the morning, he’ll have one mother of a headache, but he’ll be his old anal-retentive self again.”

“Too bad, I kinda like action-figure Byers.”

Frohike and Langly laughed. Frohike hiked Byers up over his shoulder like a rag doll. “Come on action-man, let’s get you home,” he said.

The boys left, closing the door behind them as they went. Scully knew that it would be a long time before Byers would be able to look either of them in the face again. She smiled at the thought. Better send him a thank you note and a large bottle of aspirin, it’s not everyday that a man fights for your honor.

Mulder got up off of the floor and sat down on the couch. Scully joined him, sitting on the opposite end. She was still mad at him and didn’t trust herself to sit too close.

“Scully, would you mind telling me what just happened here?”

“Well Mulder, it would appear that you’ve managed to piss Byers off. What exactly did you say to him anyway?”

“ME! He came banging on my door, yelling for me to open up and then went on a rant about how I’ve been treating you. When I showed him the pictures I got this afternoon, he went ballistic and punched me.”

“What pictures, Mulder?”

Mulder didn’t say anything for a moment. Truth time old boy. Hope she doesn’t decide to take out my other eye. He pointed at the pictures sitting on the table. Scully reached over, picked them up and began looking at them. “You got these this afternoon? When? How come you didn’t show them to me?”

He could see that look in her eyes. Oh shit, she’s gonna go for the other one. “I wanted to have someone look at them before I showed them to you. I needed to be sure that they were authentic. And, I guess I just wasn’t ready to hear ‘I told you so’.”

“And?”

“And? What?”

“Are you convinced these are authentic?”

Mulder hung his head, unable to look her in the eyes. “Yes,” he whispered. “I didn’t want to believe it, Scully. Diana and I worked together for so long, she was there when I found the X-files…A part of me knew that she was lying, but I couldn’t make myself believe that she would betray me. Byers was right, I am a first-class asshole.” He looked up at Scully. “I’m sorry, Scully, I never meant to hurt you. You’re my anchor, the only one who’s never lied to me, the only one I trust.”

“Mulder, you may be a jerk, but I don’t think you quite qualify as a first-class asshole; not yet anyway,” she said, smiling. “I know it’s hard for you to let go of your beliefs, I just wish you’d trust my judgment once in a while.”

“Scully, I trust you, you know that, don’t you?”

“Lately Mulder, I haven’t been too sure.”

“Scully, no matter what I may say or do, I will always trust you.”

Mulder reached over and took hold of Scully’s hand. They sat there for a while, holding hands, not saying anything. “Scully,” Mulder said, gently rubbing his thumb across the back of her hand, “Byers said something else before you came to my rescue.”

Scully kept her eyes on the floor. She knew what was coming. I’m not ready for this. She took a deep breath. “What did he say?”

“He said that you loved me.” Mulder squeezed her hand. “Do you, Scully? Do you love me?”

She didn’t move. Come on Dana, here’s your chance. “Mulder…” She wanted to answer the question, really she did, but the words just wouldn’t come.

“Look Scully, I know you thought it was the medication talking, but when I told you I loved you in the hospital, I meant it. Maybe the drugs gave me the courage to say it out loud, but the sentiment wasn’t drug-induced.” He slid over until their legs touched, brought her hand up to his lips and gently kissed it.

She took a deep breath and raised her head to look at him. = He’s waiting for an answer Dana. = Mom? I don’t remember inviting you to play in my head. This is hard enough without you putting your two cents in. = Stop carrying on conversations in your head and answer the man already! = Yes, mother. “Mulder,” she began, again. “I love you, too.”

Mulder smiled and pulled her into his arms. They sat there, content in the knowledge and for now, it was enough.

9:27 AM
Lone Gunmen HQ

“C’mon buddy, you gotta get up sometime.” Frohike placed a cup of coffee on the nightstand next to Byers’ bed. He reached over and patted Byers on the arm. “Rise and shine, action-man, we got conspiracies to uncover and phones to tap.”

Byers opened his eyes, looked at Frohike, then tried to sit up. Big mistake! The pounding in his head forced him back down on his pillow. He closed his eyes and tried to form a coherent thought. It was then he noticed the taste in his mouth. If he had to classify it, he would have to say it tasted like three-day old gym socks. No, make that, three-day old gym socks worn by someone with an acute case of athlete’s foot. He ran his tongue over his teeth. No, that still wasn’t quite right. Got it, three-day old gym socks worn by someone with an acute case of athlete’s foot and stored in an equally old jock strap! He checked his teeth again. Yeah, that’s it. He opened his eyes. Frohike was standing over his bed, snickering.

“Go away, Frohike.”

Langly stuck his head in the door. “Hey Frohike, he up yet?”

Frohike stepped aside to reveal a prone Byers.

“Go away Langly.”

“No way dude, I got strict orders from Scully to give you this as soon as you woke up.” Langly walked over to Byers and dropped a bag on his stomach. It made a rattling sound as it hit. Byers winced, not from the impact, but from the thunderous sound emanating from the bag. He opened it and pulled out a large bottle of aspirin. Not the little 50-count bottle, this one had 800 tablets inside. Attached to the bottle was a note that read, “Thanks for coming to my rescue, action man. Scully.” He looked over at Langly and Frohike, then back at the note, a look of confusion on his face. Rescue? Action man? What the Hell is she talking about? Why is she sending me aspirin? What, exactly did I do last night? Why are these two idiots staring at me like I… A flood of memories hit Byers. Scully looking at some pictures. Casey’s Bar. Beer… lots of beer. Mulder. His eyes widened at the thought. Oh shit, Mulder! I didn’t… He lifted up his right hand and looked at the bruise forming around his knuckles. Oh man, I did… He looked over at his partners. “Would one of you mind telling me what happened last night?”

Home of the FBI’s most unwanted
9:27 AM

Mulder tossed the fifteenth pencil of the morning into the ceiling panel. They were up-to-date on their paperwork, for once, and had no new x-files to investigate. With Scully in Quantico performing an autopsy, he had nothing left to do. OK, so that wasn’t entirely true, there were plenty of old case files to go through, plenty of cases that Spender had let fall by the wayside, but he couldn’t concentrate on anything. Byers had opened up a whole new world of extreme possibilities last night with a few choice words and one mean right hook. He reached up to touch his swollen eye. Great, how am I going to explain this one to Skinner? He’d come in early this morning to avoid running into anyone, but that was not to be. Just as the elevator door was closing, a hand reached out. The door opened to reveal Skinner’s assistant. To her credit, she didn’t say anything to him about his eye, just gave him a smile and a cheery “Good morning, Agent Mulder.” I could say that Scully hit me. No one would have any trouble believing that. They’d probably all congratulate her on finally coming to her senses. He smiled at the thought.

“Agent Mulder, what the Hell happened to your eye?”

Mulder turned his head toward the door. Great, so much for having time to come up with a story. Think fast Mulder, time’s up. “Good morning, sir. I, uh, ran into a little …situation last night. It’s a long story.” He gave Skinner his best no-big-deal look and shrugged his shoulders. Please just accept that and go away. Please, please, please.

“Not good enough, Mulder, not this time. Kimberly said you looked like you went a round with Tyson last night and as Assistant Director, it’s my duty to investigate any incidents involving my agents. I’m going to assume that this injury was not incurred in the line of duty, so would you care to enlighten me as to the circumstances?”

“Let’s just say that I’ve been behaving like a ‘first class asshole’ lately and it took a right hook to bring me to my senses.”

“So Agent Scully did this to you?”

Mulder tried to stop the grin he felt forming. “No sir, if Agent Scully had hit me, I’d probably be in the hospital, instead of at my desk.”

Skinner thought about that a moment then shook his head. “You’re probably right. So, who did hit you?”

Mulder gave him a pained look. “You’re not going to let this go are you, sir?”

Skinner smiled. “Not on your life, Mulder, I’ve been waiting for a chance to kick your ass since that Bermuda Triangle incident. Now that someone has beaten me to the punch, so to speak, want details. Who was it?”

Mulder’s head dropped. He puffed out his cheeks, then slowly let the air leak out. “Byers.”

Skinner raised his eyebrows at the sound of the familiar name. “Byers? As in you-can-strip-Byers-naked, Byers? Come on Mulder, you can do better than that. Now, Frohike, I could believe, but Byers?”

Mulder stared at Skinner, gave him a half-smile, then shrugged his shoulders. Skinner watched him, waiting for a sign that Mulder was pulling his leg. When the sign didn’t appear, Skinner repeated the question.

“Byers?” Skinner took off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Would you please explain to me why and… how… he did this to you?”

Mulder took a deep breath. He wasn’t entirely clear on the events of last night himself, but he thought he had a pretty good idea of what happened. Opting for the truth, or as much of it as he could deliver, Mulder began his response. “Apparently, Agent Scully…”

“So, Agent Scully WAS involved in this?”

Shit. “Yes sir, apparently she received a call from the Lone Gunmen, concerning a case. The information upset her and the boys decided to cheer her up by taking her to Casey’s.”

“Wait a minute, you’re trying to tell me that Scully went out on the town with the Three Stooges? What the Hell did they have that upset her so much?”

“I don’t know. As I was saying, the boys took her out and during the course of the evening, the conversation turned to some incidents between Scully and myself. I guess that Byers took exception to my treatment of Scully. He showed up on my door, obviously drunk and proceeded to express his displeasure. Unfortunately, I guess I said the wrong thing and…” Mulder motioned toward his eye. “Scully and the rest of the boys showed up just in time to witness the event. When I came to, Scully was applying a cold compress to my eye and Frohike was carrying Byers out the door. “

“That’s it? That’s the whole explanation?”

Mulder threw his hands up. “That’s all I can tell you, sir. If you need more, you’ll have to talk to Agent Scully.”

Skinner shook his head and returned his glasses to their rightful position. “No, Mulder, I think I’ll just let this one go. I’ll let you get back to work.” Just as the word “work” left his mouth, a pencil fell down from the ceiling. Skinner raised his eyes upward and saw the pencil collection Mulder had started earlier. He leveled a glare at Mulder, who grinned sheepishly, then turned to walk out of the office. He stopped in the doorway and turned around. “Byers?” He shook his head again, then left the room.

Lone Gunmen HQ
11:45 AM

Four aspirin, three cups of coffee and one long, hot shower later, Byers finally felt capable of returning to the land of the living. How could he possibly make this up to Scully? She’d trusted him with her feelings for Mulder and he’d betrayed her with his stupidity. It had taken her years to learn to trust them and now…*Just call me Judas. Maybe it wasn’t as bad as he imagined. Maybe Mulder would chalk it all up to alcohol-induced insanity and forget the whole thing. Maybe he didn’t really tell Mulder that Scully was in love with him. Maybe…Give it up man, he won’t and you did and that’s just the way it is. He looked in the mirror, straightened his tie and ran a comb through his hair. Time to do a little damage control. * “Guys, I’m going out to do a little shopping.”

Langly and Frohike looked at Byers, then at each other. *Shopping? *

“So dude, time to buy a new suit already? You’ve only had that one, what… five, six years?”

“Ha ha. That’s rich, coming from a man whose, idea of formal wear is a clean T-shirt and black jeans. While we’re at it, the Sixties are over, get a hair cut.”

Langly opened his mouth, but before he could say anything, Frohike stepped in. “Enough with the wardrobe wars.” He looked at Byers. “So, what are we shopping for?”

“Peace offerings. I really screwed up last night and I need to make it right with Scully. With Mulder too, even if he did deserve it.”

Frohike nodded. “Not a bad idea, you don’t want to be on the lovely Agent Scully’s bad side. Mulder’s easy, I know a little shop…” Byers stopped him with a glare. “What?”

“I said peace offering, not ‘piece’ offering.”

“Aw, c’mon, Byers, if you’re trying to get back into his good graces, you gotta go with what you know he likes.”

“I do not have to cater to his baser instincts! I was thinking of hitting that used bookstore in Georgetown. Last time I was there, they had a number of books on the paranormal, maybe there’s something there that will compliment his collection.”

Langly and Frohike nodded their heads in agreement.

“So, what do you have in mind for Scully?” Langly asked.

Scully was another matter entirely. He didn’t think that a book would do the trick with her. *Yeah, right. Hey Scully, sorry about betraying your trust the other night. Here’s a first edition of The Exorcist. * Oh sure, that would really smooth things over. Not! No, Scully was going to require a little more thought, a little more soul searching and a whole lot of luck. “Nothing concrete. I know I’m going to regret asking this, but do either of you have any ideas?”

Quantico
12:15 PM

Scully walked out into the parking lot. No, not walked, more like skipped. She had finally freed herself from the clutches of the world’s most obnoxious pathologist and her spirits were soaring. McCullough was good at his job, one of the best pathologists in the Bureau, but he was also a royal pain in the ass! He had called her into his office to get a second opinion on some test results. Second opinion led to coffee, which led to McCullough making yet another attempt to ask her out. Apparently the first twenty-seven “no” responses failed to hit home. This time she laid it all out for him.

“Look McCullough, you keep asking me out and I keep telling you no. Aren’t you beginning to sense a pattern here?” She’d hoped that this would do the trick, but he just looked at her as if she was speaking Esperanto. *Sigh. “I’m going to say this very slowly, McCullough. I am not now, nor will I ever be, interested in going out with you. Is that clear?” He looked a little taken aback as he nodded his understanding. Yes! Houston, we have comprehension! With any luck, this rejection would stick and she would never have to have this conversation again. If all else fails, I could mention him to Byers over a couple of beers. * She snickered at the thought, then reached for her phone.

“Mulder, it’s me. I’m on my way back to the office. Meet me for lunch?”

Georgetown
1:55 PM

Two hours later, the boys finally agreed on the perfect gift for Mulder. Byers was not overjoyed by the selection, but it did seem to be a perfect blend of Mulder’s interests. On the back wall of Brendan’s Book Nook, a haven for the out-of-print and hard-to-find, Langly had found a copy of Sex and the Occult by Gordon Wellesley. Long out of print, this book covered the relationship between sex and various occult rituals. For Mulder, this could be considered the best of both worlds.

“Langly, that book got any pictures?”

Langly kept the book from Frohike’s grasp, while Byers threw him an “eat shit and die” look. “Grow up, Frohike,” they said in unison.

“Hey Byers, better hope Mulder doesn’t share this with Scully, this will give her nightmares for sure.”

Frohike stared at Langly, then shook his head. “After all she’s been through, you really think that a book is going to give her nightmares? For crying out loud man, Scully’s been abducted by aliens and psychopaths, attacked by a liver-eating mutant, stung by an Africanized bee and put into cold storage; you’re worried about a book giving her nightmares?”

“That was before Byers let the cat out of the bag, man. Suppose Mulder decides to finally open up himself? You don’t think having this book on his nightstand isn’t going to give Scully the creeps?”

Byers put the book down on the counter and reached for his wallet. *Nightmares. I bet she’s had some that she’s never shared with anyone, even Mulder. Especially Mulder. * “What about a dream catcher?”

Frohike and Langly stopped their conversation and looked over at Byers.

“You said that Scully would have nightmares if she saw this book; do you think that she already has nightmares? I mean, if I’d gone through everything that she’s been through, I’d have nightmares.”

They nodded their heads, shrugged their shoulders and muttered an assortment of “maybes, I guess so’s and I don’t knows.”

The owner handed Byers his bag. “If you’re interested, I have one. I bought a load of books at an estate sale a couple of weeks ago and found a bunch of stuff buried in one of the boxes. Most of it’s junk, but the dream catcher’s nice. I was going to put it up in back, but if you’re interested, I’ll be happy to sell it to you.” Byers nodded, so the owner went back to get the dream catcher. It took him almost fifteen minutes, but he finally located it. “Here it is. Sorry it took so long, I couldn’t remember where I put the darn thing.”

Byers looked it over. It looked hand-made and very old. The feathers were dusty and the beads a bit dirty, but nothing that couldn’t easily be cleaned. Overall, it was in very good condition. He was having a difficult time deciding, until he noticed the fetish in the web; it was a fox. He smiled. “I’ll take it.”

FBI Offices
4:15 PM

“Mulder, even you can’t believe in the existence of a Mothman! Come on, the wings and red eyes, it’s like something out of a bad Japanese movie! Are you sure these people weren’t having a Godzilla film festival that just got out of hand?”

“Scully, are you suggesting that the good people of Point Pleasant, West Virginia, were all stoned and having mass hallucinations? Because if you are, you should read the reports by…”

Knock, knock, knock.

“Mail call, agents. Must be your lucky day, packages just arrived for each of you.” Mulder started to open his mouth when he was cut off. “Before you ask, Agent Mulder, yes, it has been checked out for bugs and incendiary devices, just as you requested. You know I wouldn’t bring anything down here without giving it a once over.”

Mulder smiled. “I knew I could count on you, Lowell.”

Scully looked at Mulder, then at Lowell. “When did this happen? All packages are scanned before they’re brought into the building, why the extra precautions?” She stopped for a moment and considered her words. Shaking her head, she reached out for the package. “Never mind, look who I’m asking.” She rolled her eyes and put the package down on the desk. “Thanks Lowell.”

“No problem Agent Scully. See you tomorrow.”

Mulder opened his immediately. He pulled out the note that was attached to the neatly wrapped gift inside. “It’s from Byers. ‘Mulder, I hope you’ll accept this as an apology for my hitting you last night.’ I think he wanted to add a “but” in there Scully, what do you think?” He didn’t look at her to see her response, there was no need, he already knew the answer. With all the enthusiasm of a child at Christmas, he ripped open the wrapping paper. “Look at this, Sex and the Occult. Scully, do you realize how hard this is to find? I should let Byers hit me more often. Aren’t you going to open yours?”

“After seeing your treasure, I’m not sure I want to.”

Mulder leaned over and picked Scully’s package up off the desk. He shook it. “Sounds safe enough.” He waved it in front of her face. “Come on Scully, you know you’re dying to open it.”

“Well, I suppose if it’s from Byers it’ll be safe.” She took the package from his outstretched hand and sat on the corner of the desk. As she began to carefully peel back the tape, she heard Mulder’s ‘impatient’ noise. “Look, you may enjoy shredding wrapping paper, but I prefer to unwrap my gifts carefully. I’m sure Byers put a great deal of time into this and I feel it only right to show some respect for the effort.”

Mulder rolled his eyes and groaned. “You’re just doing this to make me crazy, aren’t you?”

Scully stopped unwrapping the package. “No, I’m doing this because this is how I like to unwrap my presents. Making you crazy is just a side benefit.” She gave him a smug ‘so there’ look, which he returned.

“No note?”

“I don’t see one, maybe it’s inside.” She peeled back the final piece of tape, put the box down on the desk and carefully folded the wrapping paper.

“Scullee!”

“‘Patience is a virtue.’ Mary Howitt, Mabel on a Midsummer’s Day.”

“‘Open the damned package, Scully.’ Fox Mulder, Federal Bureau of Investigation.”

Scully reached over and lifted the lid off of the box. She picked up the note that was sitting on top of the tissue paper and waved it at Mulder. “Told you it was probably inside.” She opened the note and began to read.

“So, what does it say?”

She looked up from the note. “It’s personal, Mulder.”

“I showed you mine,” he whined.

*Not yet. “And I appreciate your candor…quit pouting, it’s unbecoming in a federal employee.” Scully watched as Mulder attempted to use his ‘wounded puppy face.’ Does that really work on anyone over the age of five? She paused, staring at him, then sighed. Yep, sure does. * “For crying out loud, Mulder, here.” Scully handed him the note and watched his expression as he read.

“Scully, You trusted me with a confidence last night and I let you down. I hope that you will find it in your heart to forgive me someday. In the meantime, here is something to keep the nightmares at bay and sweeten your dreams. John”

“John? Scully, is there something you want to tell me? I’ve never heard anyone call him John.”

“Mulder, people do occasionally use their first names. My guess would be that this is how Byers is choosing to show his sincerity. I think it’s sweet.”

Mulder rolled his eyes. Scully reached over and smacked him on the head. “Cut it out.” Scully carefully folded back the tissue paper and pulled out the dream catcher. She held it up for Mulder to see. She looked closely at the beads and feathers, then noticed the fox fetish and laughed. “Subtle Byers, very subtle.” She handed it to Mulder, who groaned. “Looks old. What do you think, Mulder?”

“I’d say it wasn’t made recently. The beads and fetish are made of bone, not plastic, which tells me this one probably wasn’t mass-produced. The feathers look a little worn, the wood on the loop is splintered and the web work looks fragile. Yeah Scully, I’d say this one has been around a while. Do you know the significance of the dream catcher?”

“I know it’s put over cribs to help keep the bad dreams away.”

Mulder leaned back in his chair, adopting his ‘laid-back professor’ stance. “The dream catcher acts as a filter. Dreams come in two sizes, good dreams are small, bad ones large and clumsy. The dream catcher allows the good dreams to slip through the hole in the middle and fall on the sleeping person below, while bad dreams get caught in the web where they burn away with the morning sun. That’s probably what Byer’s meant by keeping the nightmares at bay.”

“Maybe I should get you one of these.”

“Don’t think so, Scully, I’d fill it up in less than a week.”

“Mulder, you said yourself that the morning sun burns off the bad dreams, how could you fill it up?”

“You’re asking me? Scully, if anyone could fill one of these things, it’s me.”

She frowned and nodded her head. He was right, he most certainly could fill a dream catcher. *For that matter, so could I.*

6:27 PM
Scully’s apartment

Mulder couldn’t sit still. This was the first time they’d been completely alone since the big confession. Lunch, while nice, didn’t count, they’d eaten in a crowded cafe downtown. The office certainly didn’t count, who knew how many bugs were there. He’d wanted to help with dinner, but Scully had tossed him out of the kitchen. I was not underfoot. He paced the floor until he spotted the dream catcher on the table. “Hey Scully, you got a hammer around here.”

Scully stopped chopping up the tomato for their salad and looked toward the living room. “Do I even want to know why you’re asking?”

Mulder walked in, carrying the dream catcher. “Just thought I could make myself useful and hang this over your bed.”

She reached over, opened a drawer and pulled out a hammer. “Ever used one of these before, G-man?” she said, as she closed the drawer.

“It’s been awhile. Let’s see, the heavy part here hits the flat part of the nail and hopefully drives the nail into the wall. Do I get the job?”

“I suppose so. Look in the drawer, I know I have a few picture hooks in there somewhere.”

Mulder opened the drawer and searched. He found a large picture hook and nail and showed them to Scully, before closing the drawer. “I’ll be right back,” he said as he turned to leave the room.

“Mulder?”

He stopped in the doorway and turned around. “Yeah.”

“Try not to break anything.”

Fighting the urge to make an inappropriate gesture, he smirked and left the room.

A short time later, Scully heard pounding on the wall, followed by an expletive and more pounding. She started to open her mouth, but her inner voice intervened. Don’t say it Dana, don’t say it. “You OK, Mulder?” Just had to say it, didn’t you?

Mulder came into the kitchen and returned the hammer to the drawer. “Scully, I hate to tell you this, but one of the strands in the web broke. It’s right next to one of the beads, so if we put a little drop of glue on it, we might be able to fix it so it’s not that noticeable.”

“For curiosity’s sake Mulder, how did it break?”

“Um…it fell when I…uh…hit my thumb with the hammer.”

“Glue’s in the drawer.”

“You want me to fix it?!”

“You broke it, Mulder, you fix it.”

Mulder shrugged his shoulders and opened up the drawer once again. “Scully, I know what I’m getting you for Christmas this year.”

“What’s that?”

“A tool box. I can’t believe you keep your tools in a drawer in the kitchen!”

“Why not? This way they’re always close at hand. Besides, I already have a tool box.”

“Where?”

“In the closet. I just keep the few tools I use most often in the drawer, that way I don’t have to drag out the box every time a screw needs tightening or a picture needs to be hung. Now, stop stalling and go fix my dream catcher while I finish dinner.”

Mulder raised his hand in a mock salute. “Yes Ma’am.”

45 Minutes later…

Scully put the last plate in the sink and rinsed it off, while Mulder poured them each another glass of wine. With dinner out of the way and nothing left to be put up or repaired, it was time to come to terms with last night. They’d managed to avoid the subject all day, but she knew there was no getting away from it now. She wiped her hands on a dishtowel and walked into the living room. Mulder was sitting on the couch staring off into space. She sat down beside him and picked up the wineglass from the table. “Mulder?” She waited for a response. “Mulder, where are you?”

He turned to her and smiled. “Sorry, just thinking. Scully, do you think we should call Byers and let him off the hook?”

“I guess we should. What are we going to tell him?”

“I was thinking we could tell him the truth.”

“And what ‘truth’ would that be, Mulder?”

Mulder stared at her, not quite sure what to make of that question. After a second, he realized what she wanted. She wants me to start. She wants me to tell her that I was serious last night. OK, if that’s what she wants, that’s what she’s gonna get. “I thought we could tell him that we’re not mad about last night, that it made us realize there was something here we needed to explore. I thought I should thank him for knocking some sense into me, for helping me to remember that you are the most important person in my life. I thought I should tell him that I finally told you I love you. How’s that for ‘truth’?”

Scully watched him, waiting for the punch line, waiting for ‘I had you big time’. When it didn’t come, she stared at the wineglass in her hand. “Mulder, we need to talk.”

She felt the wineglass being taken from her hand and heard it land on the table. A hand reached over and gently lifted her chin. Mulder gazed at her and smiled. What do you know, I really do ‘gaze’ at Agent Scully. “No more talking.”

Mulder moved in slowly, waiting for her to push him away. Last chance, Scully. He felt her hand touch the back of his neck and pull him in. That was all the encouragement he needed to close the gap. Their lips met in a sweet, almost chaste, kiss. He pulled back a little and watched a smile slowly spread across her face. He wrapped his arms around her, pulled her close and kissed her again. Soft, gentle kisses all over her face and down her neck as his hands caressed her back. Back to her mouth. Her lips parted to allow his tongue entrance. Their tongues explored the inner recesses of the other’s mouths, wrestling for control. She was lost in the sensation until his hand crept up and gently brushed the side of her breast. Scully broke the kiss abruptly.

“What’s wrong? What did I do?”

“Mulder…nothing. It’s not you. This is just more than I can handle right now. We’re moving too fast. I need time to think.”

Mulder’s hand reached out to touch her cheek. “Scully, it’s been six years, isn’t that time enough?”

“Six years together Mulder, but only twenty-four hours since we said the words out loud. I need a little time to let this sink in.”

“Always the rational one, aren’t you?” He smiled and rubbed his thumb across her cheek. “Take all the time you need, I’m not going anywhere.”

“Oh yes you are.” She stood up, grabbed his hand and pulled him toward the door. “Go home, Mulder.”

“You’re throwing me out? Aw, c’mon Scully, I promise to be good. Look, my hands will never leave my wrists, I swear!”

She opened the door, pulled him close, gave him a quick kiss and pushed him out the door. She locked it and secured the chain.

Knock, knock, knock.

“What is it Mulder?”

“I love you, Scully.”

“I love you too, Mulder. Go home.”

She leaned against door and listened to the sound of his footsteps as he walked away. I can’t believe I just sent him home, am I nuts? No, I did the right thing. That’s right, keep telling yourself that, Dana. Say it often enough and you might just believe it. Now what? It was just after eight, too early to go to bed. She went to the couch and sat down. Let’s see if there’s anything on tonight. Flipping through the channels, she found a program on government conspiracies, some documentary on why planes crash and a few sitcoms. Disgusted with the choices, she clicked off the set. Walking over to the bookcase, she discovered that she’d finally read all the books. Time to head out to the bookstore and lay in a fresh supply. She considered going out, but decided that with her present state of mind, driving wasn’t a good idea. Driving requires the ability to focus and her ability to focus dropped out of sight about the same time Mulder kissed her. When all else fails, take a shower. She learned a long time ago, that the sound and feel of water helped her concentrate on the problem at hand. Problem? No, Mulder’s not a problem, just a spanner in the works. A very nice, well constructed spanner. The kind of spanner that feels like it was tailor-made for you. The kind you’d be proud to take home to mother. Whoa, where did that come from? Two glasses of wine and you’re rambling, Dana. Shut up and go take a shower!

30 minutes later

Mulder’s apartment

Mulder walked into his apartment, tossed his keys on the table and picked up the phone. The number rang four times, before being picked up by the answering machine.

“Hi, this is Dana. I can’t come to the phone right now, leave a message and I’ll get back to you.”

An evil grin passed his lips as he left his message. He hung up the receiver and prepared to take a shower, a very cold shower.

Barely Balancing 2/5 By Frohike

**author’s note. Anything in == == denotes a dream sequence.**

Scully’s apartment
8:45 PM

The shower had worked its magic once again. Scully felt focused and completely relaxed. She dried her hair, put on her favorite pajamas and went out to make a cup of tea. I think a little Sleepytime ought to do the trick tonight. On her way out to the kitchen, she noticed the blinking light on the answering machine. “Oh, what now,” she said to no one in particular. Part of her said ‘ignore it’, but the other part wouldn’t let that happen. Pushing ‘play’, she braced herself for what she was sure would be bad news or, at the very least, a major annoyance.

“Scully, it’s me. I’m going to take a wild guess and say that you’re in the shower right now; are you sure you don’t want a little help with those hard-to-reach places? I’m home; I’ll be here all night, just in case you need me for anything. Anything at all, …really. I love you.”

Scully pushed rewind. After the third replay, she walked into the kitchen, opened the all-purpose drawer and pulled out a new tape. She took out the old cassette and replaced it with the new one. She wiggled it in her hand. Concrete evidence, Agent Mulder. There’s no going back now; I have your confession on tape.

Forgetting all about the tea, Scully turned off the lights and went into the bedroom. She opened the drawer to the nightstand and placed the tape inside for safekeeping. Then she looked at the dream catcher. The strand Mulder had ‘repaired’ was now dangling. In his defense, she noted that there really wasn’t much room for repair. Maybe she could try and restring it later. Better yet, maybe she should just leave it alone. It was old and she didn’t want to cause any more damage. It really wasn’t all that noticeable anyway. She turned off the light, crawled into bed and went to sleep.

March 25
12:56 AM

Scully woke with a start. She panicked for a moment, unsure of where she was. When reality settled in, she relaxed. Not again. It had been weeks since her last bad dream and she had begun to think that they were finally behind her. She closed her eyes and tried to go back to sleep, but found that her eyes didn’t want to stay shut. Letting out a sigh, she reached for the phone.

“Mulder.”

“Hi, it’s me.”

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing, I just couldn’t sleep and you did say if I needed anything….”

“You had anther one, didn’t you, Scully?”

“No…yeah…I think so. I can’t remember anything about it though. I just woke up feeling anxious and lost and…”

“And you needed to hear a friendly voice. Want to talk about it? Might make you feel better.”

“I know, that’s why I called.”

“Scully, do you want me to come over?”

“No Mulder, it’s late, I just needed to know you were there.”

“I’m here, Scully; I’ll always be here for you.”

“I know. Hey, Mulder… I love you.”

“I love you, too. Think you can sleep now?”

“Yeah, I think so. ‘Night Mulder.”

“‘Night, Scully.”

There was a brief moment of silence while each waited for the other to disconnect.

“Mulder?”

“Yeah Scully?”

“Aren’t you going to hang up?”

“I was waiting for you to hang up.”

“Mulder, this is silly. Hang up the phone and go back to sleep.”

“Can I come over?”

“No.”

“Then I’m not hanging up.”

“Mulder!”

“It’s your choice, Scully, either you hang up first or you let me come over. What’s it gonna to be?”

“Don’t make me tell Byers on you, Mulder.”

Mulder laughed. “Go ahead, I might get that copy of Tribal Mating Rituals of New Guinea I’ve been searching for.”

“So much for that idea. How about Option Four? “

“What’s Option Four?”

“Neither one of us hangs up and we both go to sleep.”

“Scully, if this is your idea of phone sex….”

Scully snickered. “Mulder.”

“What?”

“Shut up and go to sleep.”

Mulder smiled and tucked the phone between the back of the couch and his ear. “Guess it’s Option Four. ‘Night, Scully.”

“‘Night, Mulder.”

Scully tucked the phone between the pillow and her ear and went to sleep.

Mulder listened until he was sure she was asleep, before closing his eyes.

6:15 AM

Scully awoke to the aroma of coffee. She felt the weight of another person on her bed and a pair of lips on her neck. She smiled, but kept her eyes shut. “You hung up.”

Mulder pulled away from her neck and caressed her hair. “I woke up with a cramp in my neck and couldn’t get back to sleep, so I took a shower and decided to wake you up in person.”

“Mmmmm. What time is it?”

“Early, 6:15, we have a good fifteen minutes; more if you don’t mind being late,” he said, as he lowered his mouth to her neck and began kissing his way down from the back of her ear to the top of her shoulder. When she didn’t object, he worked his way back up to her lips. Gently, he kissed her, again and again. He was careful to keep his hands in check this time, hoping that she would make the first move. She placed one hand on the back of his neck, then began to run her fingers through his hair. The other hand made circles in the small of his back. After a time, he felt her hand slowly drift south.

Beepbeepbeepbeepbeep.

Shit! Scully reached over to turn off the alarm. They looked at each other, weighing their options. Taking a deep breath, Scully sat up and pushed herself off the bed.

“Time to get up, Mulder.” Realizing the opening she’d just left him, she watched as he started to reply. “Don’t say it, Mulder, I’m warning you.”

Mulder put on his best ‘who me?’ face and placed his hand on his chest. “Say what, Scully?” he said, as he made a show of adjusting himself.

She stared pointedly at him and raised her eyebrows. He stayed as innocent looking as possible before allowing a look of mock surprise to cross his face. “Agent Scully, I’m shocked! I never realized what a dirty mind you have.” He got up and walked toward her. When he was close enough, he reached out to her and pulled her in. “I think I like it,” he whispered in her ear.

“Why doesn’t that surprise me? Go get a cup of coffee and let me get ready for work,” she said, pushing him toward the door. “I’ll be ready in a few minutes.”

“Sure you don’t want any help with those pesky zippers or hooks or whatever fastening device you need to…fasten?”

“Go, Mulder.”

With a smile and a kiss, he left the room. Scully closed the door on him, for the second time in the last twelve hours. It’s a good thing it’s a workday. She shook her head. No it’s not, damn it. Why isn’t it Saturday? If it were Saturday I’d let him fasten or unfasten anything he wanted. She sighed and went into the bathroom to get ready for work.

5 PM
Office of the X-Files

Mulder sat at his desk, aimlessly picking up files, leafing through them, then tossing them back on his desk. He pulled up Solitaire on his computer, but only played two games before losing interest in that, too. He almost considered resorting to chucking pencils at the ceiling again, until he realized that most of the ones he had were already up there. Not really feeling like climbing up to pull them down, he sat back in his chair with a sigh. “So, what are we doing tonight, Scully?”

Scully put down the file she was looking at and turned to Mulder. “I don’t know about you, Mulder, but I have some errands to run. My kitchen cupboards are bare, I have dry cleaning to pick up and my bookshelves are in need of replenishing. After that, I plan on taking a nice warm shower and curling up with whatever new book strikes my fancy.”

“Want some company?”

Scully studied his face. He wasn’t leering or making any suggestive body movements. If anything, he looked lonely. “Tell you what, let’s stop by your place so you can change first. Then, on the way to my place, we can pick up the dry cleaning and do the grocery shopping. I’ll let you put the groceries away while I change, then you can take me out to dinner and the bookstore. How does that sound?”

“Sounds like a plan. You about ready to get out of here?”

“Ready when you are.”

Mulder got up from his desk, picked up his jacket and draped it over his arm. Scully picked up her purse and grabbed her jacket off the back of her chair as well. They reached the door together. Mulder turned out the lights before closing and locking the door for the night. He reached out to Scully, placing his hand in its customary spot on the small of her back and guided her to the elevator. Once in the elevator, Mulder put his arms around Scully. Neither spoke until they reached the car. Mulder unlocked the car door and held it open as Scully got in. He stopped before closing the door and leaned in close to her.

“Thanks, Scully.”

Ninety minutes later…

Scully hung up the dry cleaning and changed, while Mulder put away the groceries.

“Hey Scully, where should I put the pork rinds?”

She walked into the kitchen and picked up the bag. “I cannot believe I let you talk me into buying those things, Mulder. Pork rinds have absolutely no nutritional value; they’re nothing but fat and salt. A crunchy prescription for a heart attack. The bane of the snack industry.”

“Aw c’mon, Scully, everyone knows that Twinkies are the bane of the snack industry. Pork rinds are a wholesome all-American snack, loved for generations. Admit it, you love them.”

“Mulder, I do NOT love pork rinds!”

Mulder opened the bag and took one out. He held it out in front of him and began walking toward her. “Prove it.”

“What?”

“You heard me, I said ‘prove it.’ Come on Scully, just one bite.”

Scully folded her arms across her chest and arched her eyebrows at him. Mulder stopped in front of her and waved the pork rind under her nose. He wiggled his eyebrows and smiled. “Not backing down from a challenge, are you Scully? Come on, just one little bite.”

“Oh, for crying out loud, give me that.”

She grabbed the pork rind out of his hand and popped it in her mouth. Should have gotten the barbecue ones. “There, happy now?”

“Very. Now, how about letting me take you out for some real food?”

10 PM
Scully’s apartment

Lightning crashed and thunder roared around them as they raced from the car to the entrance to Scully’s apartment. Scully, clutching her keys, ran ahead to unlock the door, while Mulder followed, carrying her purchases tucked safely under his jacket. They hadn’t been out an hour when the sky turned dark and heavy with clouds. By the time they had finished dinner, the sky was just starting to drizzle. When they were finally done shopping in Barnes and Noble, the clouds had opened up and were in full dump mode; thunder and lightning followed, as they reached the car. They managed to make it into the apartment just as the power went out in DC.

Scully made her way to the bedroom, where she grabbed a couple of towels and Mulder’s emergency clothes. She always kept a change of clothing for him, for those times when he showed up bruised and bloody on her doorstep. They’d come in handy on more than one occasion. Scully used one towel to soak up the drips coming from her hair. She handed Mulder the other towel and clothes, then went in the kitchen to get a flashlight, some candles and matches out of the kitchen drawer. Let’s see him make a snide remark about my drawer, now. Turning on the flashlight, Scully walked back out to the living room and handed it to Mulder. “Here, take this. You can have the bathroom first. Just hang your wet clothes over the shower rod.”

“You sure? You’re wetter than I am.”

“Just go. I’m going to light a few candles so we’re not stumbling around in the dark out here. As soon as you’re done, I’ll take my turn.”

Mulder nodded and went off to change. Scully set up the first candle and lit it. She made her way around the living room, by candlelight, and lit three more. Satisfied that there was sufficient light in the room now, she returned to the kitchen and put the matches back in the drawer. Mulder came out of the bathroom, toweling his still damp hair, and surveyed the room. “Candlelight, how romantic. Agent Scully, are you trying to seduce me?”

Scully grinned, took the flashlight from his hand and went back to get dry. Under her breath she whispered, “Could be, Mulder, could be.”

Mulder pretended he hadn’t heard, but as soon as the bathroom door clicked shut, he sprang into action. Taking a candle, he went into the kitchen. Once there, he grabbed two wineglasses and the bottle of wine he knew she had in the refrigerator. He spotted a radio sitting on the counter. He turned it on, hoping that it had batteries. The radio came on, softly playing classical music. He tucked it under one arm, picked up the wine and glasses with one hand, the candle with the other and carried them back out to the living room. The candle went back to its original spot on the table. He put everything else on the coffee table. He quickly poured the wine. When he heard the sound of the bathroom door opening, he picked up his glass, sank back into the corner of the couch, closed his eyes and pretended to be lost in the music.

Scully stood in the doorway and watched him. Now who’s trying to seduce whom? She knew that he was aware of her presence, but played along all the same. He was trying so hard to appear nonchalant, why break the mood? “Mind if I join you?”

Mulder opened his eyes, but didn’t sit up. He pointed with his chin at the glass on the table. “I was hoping you would.”

Scully sat down on the edge of the couch. She picked up the glass, took a sip, then turned to Mulder. He crooked his finger, giving the ‘come here’ sign and she responded by slipping back into his arms. They sat there quietly, listening to the radio and the thunder, enjoying the closeness. Sleep was starting to claim her when a loud crash and a crack of lightning hit dangerously close to home. She jumped and almost screamed. Mulder pulled her back and tightened his grip. “I hate it when it hits that close.”

Mulder started to respond when he heard the DJ break in for a special news report. “…storm is taking its toll all over the DC area. Most of the city is without electricity and officials don’t expect to have power restored until mid-morning. They are asking that you stay off the streets this evening, if at all possible.”

“Looks like you’re stuck with me tonight, Scully,” Mulder whispered in her ear.

“Mmmmm. Maybe someone is trying to tell us something.”

Taking that as a sign, Mulder loosened his grip, turned Scully toward him and moved in for a kiss. She put an arm around his neck and held him in place. Now there’s a familiar gesture. Does she think I’m going to pull away? Fat chance, pulling away is your move, Dana. He resisted the urge to let his hands roam, remembering what happened the last time he tried that little move. His resistance held up for exactly five minutes, then the urge to touch her grew too persistent to ignore. He slid a hand up her side and cupped her breast. Going bra-less these days, Agent Scully? When she didn’t pull away, he ran his thumb across the nipple. Scully sighed and pushed closer to him. He moved his hand away long enough to slip it under her T-shirt. Now it was Mulder’s turn to let out a sigh of contentment. Scully pushed back and before he could protest, she pulled the T-shirt off, tossing it on the floor behind her. She started to move back into his arms, but he held her in place. He wanted a second to look at her before…CRASH!!!! Scully screamed this time and buried her face in Mulder’s chest. Mulder held her close until he felt her relax.

“That was quite a ‘girlie scream’, Agent Scully.”

“I’m supposed to have a ‘girlie scream’, Mulder. I am a girl, in case that slipped your mind.”

“I knew I was missing an entry in your case file.”

Scully chuckled. Then another flash of lightning and crashing thunder made the floor shake. Scully pulled away and grabbed her T-shirt. “I’m sorry, Mulder; I’m just too jumpy tonight. Maybe I should just try to sleep through this. Besides, we do have to go to work in a few hours.” She put her shirt on. “I think the next time, we start something, maybe we should allow for more time.”

Next time. Mulder liked the sound of those two little words. “Scully, tomorrow’s Friday…”

Scully looked at him and smiled. “So it is, Mulder, so it is.”

She got up, walked into the bedroom, coming back with a pillow and blanket in her arms. Handing them to him, she leaned over and gave him a kiss. He held the items and watched her walk back to her bedroom. He noticed that she’d left the door open. Was that an invitation after all? He stared at the door until he heard her get into bed. Better stay put, she said she wanted more time. Just you wait, Scully, just you wait. I think tomorrow’s going to be a very good day.

Scully’s apartment
2:45 AM

==Light. Blinding light everywhere. Cold metal table. Can’t move. Trying, every movement brings pain. Noises. Voices? Voices. Coming from behind the light. Who’s there? What do you want? Body held in place. Why are you doing this? Needle coming down. Pain. Get away from the pain. Can’t move. Can’t get away. Stop! Please! What do you want? No, no, no. MULDEEEERRR!!!==

Mulder woke with a start. He heard the screams coming from Scully’s room and bolted off the couch to reach her. She was asleep and having a violent nightmare. He crawled into bed with her and tried to hold her still. She fought back, screaming and clawing at him, leaving an ugly scratch on his arm.

==“Stop, stop! Let me go! MULDER, HELP ME!”==

He grabbed her arms and yelled. “Scully, I’m here, I’m here. Wake up. Come on, Scully, wake up!!!”

He continued calling her name until she stopped struggling. He tried holding her again. She tensed, but relaxed as she started to come back to reality. She opened her eyes. She was safe; Mulder had gotten her out of that place.

“You OK now, Scully?”

She nodded her head. “I’m fine, Mulder. It was just a nightmare.”

“Some nightmare! You always get violent when you’re having ‘just a nightmare’?”

Scully looked up at him, questioning. He looked at the blood streaming down his arm. She followed his eyes, then reached out to touch the scratch. “I did this? Oh God, Mulder, I’m sorry. Let me clean that up for you.”

She got up to get cotton, hydrogen peroxide and a bandage from the bathroom. While she was cleaning out the scratch, Mulder asked her about the dream. She was reluctant to talk about it.

“Scully, this is the second one in two days; I think you need to talk about it.”

“I don’t remember the one from last night. I told you that already.”

“But you do remember this one. Come on Scully, talk to me.”

She didn’t want to talk about it. Not now, not ever, but she knew he was right. Penny Northern had also encouraged her to talk, to fight, to remember in order to survive. Mulder was the last person she wanted to tell, but the only one she completely trusted. She put down the cotton and hydrogen peroxide and applied the bandage to his arm. Keeping her head down, she began. “I was dreaming about them and the tests. I was being held down. I couldn’t move, couldn’t get away from the needle pushing into my abdomen. It hurt. All I wanted was to get out of there, for you to come and take me away from them.” Scully was crying now and absentmindedly rubbing her stomach. She wanted to look at him, but couldn’t make herself; afraid of his reaction. Mulder lifted her chin, forcing her to face him. Tears were in his eyes. “I’m sorry I wasn’t there, Scully. I know I let you down. I tried to find you; I searched everywhere I could come up with. I knew you were out there somewhere. I never gave up. You know I never gave up, don’t you?”

“You didn’t let me down, Mulder. There wasn’t anything you could have done to stop it. I know that, I knew that at the time. I knew you’d keep looking for me and that gave me the strength to keep going. You were there when I was returned, fighting to find out what had happened to me. You were there after I woke up, bearing that silly video and my cross. You never let me down, Mulder, not for a second.”

They sat quietly, staring at each other, neither one wanting to be the first to speak, neither one knowing what to say. Mulder pulled Scully close and put his head on her pillow. She moved as far into his arms as she could, listening to the beat of his heart. Before too much time passed, both were asleep.

Brendan’s Book Nook
9 AM

The next round of estate sales was coming up quickly and there were still a few boxes of books to categorize and shelve. Brendan picked up the nearest one and started sifting through the goodies inside. Not too much in the way of new or unusual offerings, but steady sellers nonetheless.

In the space of the next half-hour, he was able to dispose of all but one box. On the surface, this one looked pretty much like all the others, a couple of Grishams and a few gardening books were the first items he pulled out. As he dug deeper, the contents began to take on more of a theme. Each book related, in some way, to dreams; lucid dreaming, dream interpretation, symbolism of dreams, folklore about dreams, etc. There were a few books on his shelves related to dreams already, but putting these out would require making a whole subject heading.

In the bottom of the box he found a small book with no title. Nothing fancy, just a simple cloth-bound blank book, that can be had for a few bucks at almost any bookstore. Curious to see what was inside, Brendan picked up the book and started reading. The book was a dream diary. Fascinated, he read, completely missing his 10 AM opening time. If it hadn’t been for the insistent knocking of a steady customer, he might have forgotten to open at all.

The diary chronicled over a year’s worth of dreams, from the light-hearted to the bizarre. When he reached the halfway point, November of the past year, things began to change. The writer had acquired a dream catcher and was experimenting to see if the legends were true; could it really filter away bad dreams? He gave a detailed description of his dream catcher. Brendan recognized it as the very one that he had sold to those three odd gentlemen a few days earlier. Well, the tall one was OK, not quite a regular customer, but he did stop in from time to time. The other two, well, they were odd, especially that little, dumpy guy with the three days growth of stubble.

The entries stayed the same for most of the month of November. On the 27th, an entry note was made on the dream catcher. A strand had broken near a bead and an attempt made to fix it. Two days later, November 29th, the entries began to change. The first dream was a mild nightmare, nothing extraordinary. In fact, the writer could hardly remember any details. Each night’s dream became more and more frightening. The writing changed from small, beautifully handwritten passages to hurried, scrawl-like entries. By the end of December, the diary was almost illegible. Toward the end, what little Brendan could make out, seemed to talk, not of dreams, but of the dream catcher. The writer called it evil, possessed. Brendan closed the book. Ordinarily, he wouldn’t keep something like a diary, but this one gave him the creeps and, since he knew the new owner of the dream catcher, he felt an obligation to pass the diary on to him. He put the book on a shelf under the cash register for safekeeping.

11:18 AM
Offices of the X-Files

Mulder stomped back into the office and slammed a handful of files down on his desk. He knew Skinner calling him upstairs was a bad thing. Pulling his tie loose, he continued to stomp his way around the desk and dropped heavily into his chair. Scully watched in silence, waiting for an opening. Mulder settled back in the chair with a harumph and stared at her.

“Are you going to tell me what’s wrong, Mulder, or do we have to play Twenty Questions?”

He reached for the files and tossed them to her. She caught them before they hit the table and leafed through the papers inside.

“According to this, there have been a series of murders committed in the Mark Twain National Forest in Missouri. Tragic situation, but why do you have the case histories? Is there an x-file in here?”

“No, just a potential serial killer loose in the forest.”

“That doesn’t explain why you have the files, Mulder. This is the kind of the thing VC is usually called in on, not us.”

“Well Scully, here’s the problem,” Mulder said, as he started to rock in his chair. The sheriff in Potosi, that’s the town where the first victim lived, decided that he needed a little help from the FBI. Seems Sheriff Lee Dryden and Reggie were best buddies back in the good old days, so when he decided to call in the FBI, he asked specifically for me. Said that Reggie always told him that I was the best in the business and if Reggie said it, it must be true.”

“OK, we go to Potosi and help them out. What’s the problem?”

“Not we, Scully, me. Skinner doesn’t see the point in sending two agents out on this one.”

Scully’s expression changed from bewilderment to disappointment as the full meaning of those words hit home. “Oh. How long is Skinner sending you out there for?”

“For now, just through the weekend. They’re asking me to take a look at the crime scenes and put together a profile. If all goes well, I should be back on Monday.”

“When do you leave?”

“My plane leaves at 1:15. I should arrive in St. Louis around 3:45. Then I get to drive another two hours or so, to beautiful downtown Potosi, where I’ll be staying at the Mark Twain Motor Lodge.” Mulder leaned forward, elbows resting on his desk, head bowed. Scully walked over and placed her hand on his head. He looked up and gave her a half-smile. “This isn’t exactly how I envisioned spending this weekend.”

“Me either, Mulder.” She bent down and lightly kissed the top of his head. “Come on, we need to get you packed and out to the airport.”

4:47 PM

Scully paced the basement floor. After helping Mulder pack, they’d gone to the airport for a quick lunch and an even quicker goodbye. She couldn’t even kiss him before he left; the airport was too public and neither was willing to take the chance of being seen by the wrong people. When she first got back to the office, she tried to work. That failed miserably. Finally, around 2:50, she decided to do a little housekeeping. Starting with her corner of the office, she sorted through old papers, dividing them into two piles, file and shred. Mulder believed in shredding everything, right down to stray gum wrappers. After almost two hours of filing and shredding, the office started to look like it was inhabited by Felix Unger, not Oscar Madison. Or is that Oscar the Grouch? She started humming “I Love Trash” as she shredded the final pieces of paper. Funny how the songs from Sesame Street come back to you at the strangest times. That task completed, she sat in Mulder’s chair, where she made the mistake of looking up. Stuck in the ceiling were over a dozen pencils. No wonder I can never find a pencil in this place! Shaking her head, she climbed up on the desk and began plucking the pencils out of the ceiling tile. When she was finished, she put two in his desk and put the rest in a pencil cup on her side of the office. She looked at her watch. It wasn’t quite quitting time, but she decided to call it a day anyway.

6:45 PM
Potosi, Missouri

A few minor delays and a couple of wrong turns later, Mulder finally pulled into the parking lot of the Mark Twain Motor Lodge in Potosi. It wasn’t exactly the Ritz-Carlton, but he’d stayed in worse. As long as the shower put out plenty of hot water and the TV got more than the local farm reports, he’d survive just fine. Deciding to check-in first, he grabbed his bag and headed toward the entrance. His hand was reaching for the door when he heard someone calling his name.

“Agent Mulder?”

Mulder turned around to see who was calling him.

“You Agent Mulder?”

“That’s me. You must be Sheriff Dryden.”

“Friends call me Lee and any friend of Reggie’s is a friend of mine. As I recall, you go by Mulder, that right?”

Mulder nodded his head and smiled. After all these years, it was nice to meet someone who knew a little about him and was actually glad to meet him. That didn’t happen very often.

“Let’s get you checked in and I’ll take you out for some dinner. You haven’t eaten yet, have you? The town’s not much to look at, but the MT here has the some of the best food in town.”

They went up to the front desk and got his room key. Mulder agreed to meet Lee in the restaurant in fifteen minutes, saying he needed a few minutes to “freshen up.” Really, he was anxious to call Scully and let her know he’d arrived. He walked outside and around the corner to his room. As soon as the door closed behind him, he tossed his bag on the bed and pulled out his cell phone. The phone rang four times, before the answering machine picked up.

“Hi, this is Dana. I can’t come to the phone right now, leave a message and I’ll get back to you.”

“I’m here, Scully, where are you? It’s 6:55, that makes it 7:55 your time. Don’t tell me you’re in the shower again! I’m heading out to dinner with Sheriff Dryden. Call you later.”

8:10 PM
Scully’s apartment

Scully slammed the door and threw her purse on the table. An accident on the interstate had backed up traffic, turning her thirty-minute commute into a three-hour nightmare. She was tired, hungry and her bladder had reached its breaking point. The blinking light on her answering machine barely registered as she passed on her way to the bathroom.

Fifteen minutes later, bladder emptied and the days work clothes traded in for jeans and a T-shirt, Scully remembered the blinking light and went to check her messages.

Beeeeeep. “Hey Scully, hear you’re flying solo this weekend. If you’re not busy, give us a call, maybe we can get Byers drunk again. Got anyone else you want beat up?”

Scully flashed on McCullough and snickered. In the background, she could hear Langly laughing and Byers yelling something unkind about Frohike’s mother. She wanted to be annoyed with Mulder for having called them, but they were just too funny and she really needed a laugh after being stuck in traffic for so long.

Beeeeeep. “I’m here, Scully, where are you? It’s 6:55, that makes it 7:55 your time. Don’t tell me you’re in the shower again! I’m heading out to dinner with Sheriff Dryden. I’ll call you later.”

 Damn, missed him by fifteen minutes! The urge to play Mulder’s message a second time was strong, but she resisted. When did I become such a cream puff? Shaking her head, she went to the kitchen to make dinner. She poured a glass of wine, then explored the fridge to see what it had to offer. Not being in the mood to cook, she settled on a salad. As an afterthought, she grabbed the pork rinds from the counter as she went out to the living room.

Mark Twain Motor Lodge

Mulder closed and locked the door to his room. The quick dinner he’d hoped for had turned into an evening of fond remembrances of Reggie. He’d learned more about his late partner in one evening than he’d learned in all the time they’d been together. Looking at his watch, he was surprised to see that it was almost 10:30. Pulling his cell phone out of his pocket, he hit the Scully button and waited for the phone to connect. She picked up on the first ring.

“Scully.”

“Hey Scully, it’s me. How’s the world’s cleanest federal employee this evening?”

“Cute, Mulder. For the record, I did not miss your call because I was in the shower. There was an accident on the freeway and I was stuck in traffic for three hours. How was dinner with Sheriff Dryden?”

Mulder opened his briefcase and tossed the case file on the bed. “Interesting. I learned a lot about Reggie. As far as the case goes, we didn’t discuss it. Lee wanted to wait until morning, so we could start fresh.”

Scully shook her head at the sound of the latches on his briefcase opening. “Starting fresh isn’t in your nature, is it Mulder?”

“What do you mean?”

“I heard you open your briefcase. Why don’t you get some sleep and work on that in the morning?”

“What’s sleep? C’mon Scully, you know I don’t sleep. Besides, I’m stuck in the middle of nowhere on a mercy mission, when the only thing I want to be working on is seducing my partner. The sooner I get this done, the sooner I can get back to my original plan.”

“This ‘original plan’ sounds intriguing.”

“Want to hear more?”

“Nope, don’t want to hear about it, Mulder. I’ll wait until you can put it into action. Now get to work.”

Mulder smiled. “Yes ma’am.” He paused for a moment. “Night, Scully.”

“Goodnight, Mulder.”

Scully hung up the phone and suddenly felt very tired. She’d been fidgety and restless for hours, waiting for him to call back. Deciding to read for a little while before retiring, she picked up Vampire Bytes, the book she’d left on the couch beside her and began to read. The story was moving along decently, not a great work of literature, but entertaining all the same. A few paragraphs into Chapter Twenty, she realized that she no longer was paying any attention to the words on the page. Putting a bookmark in at the beginning of the chapter, she dropped the book on the coffee table and headed off to bed.

3:18 AM

Sleep had come easily, then the dreams started. The early ones weren’t so bad, just a little strange. This one was a doozy.

==She was alone, in a field behind a barn, frantically looking for something she’d lost. No idea what it was, but certain that it was here. A shot rang through the stillness and she ran in the direction of the sound. What she saw terrified and revolted her. People lined up in front of a wooden fence being systematically placed on the railings and shot in the head. The gunman then picked up a paintbrush and used the flowing blood to paint that section of the railing. No one ran; no one screamed. Like lambs to the slaughter, they just stood there, waiting their turn on the fence. She reached for her gun, but it wasn’t there. Neither was her ever-present cell phone. She was alone, unarmed and unable to call for backup. She crept toward the group, desperately trying to figure out what to do to help these people. Then she saw them, a woman and a young girl, both with long red hair. She moved closer. As she approached them, the little girl turned and smiled. “Emily!” she screamed, as she ran toward her daughter. All thoughts of personal safety and proper procedure left her mind, all she knew was that she had to get to Emily. She ran and ran, but never seemed to make any progress. Emily and the woman moved closer and closer to the front of the killing line. Scully’s feet refused to bring her any nearer, no matter how hard she tried. As Emily and the woman reached the front of the line, Scully screamed again. “No! Emily, run!” Emily looked at Scully, smiling as the woman gave her little hand over to the gunman. “NO, NO, NO!” As Emily was placed on the railing, the woman turned to look at Scully. Scully froze at the face before her. Melissa smiled. “She’s ours now, Dana. We’ll take good care of her for you.” A shot rang out and Scully’s world went black.==

Scully woke up, pressed against the headboard of the bed. She was soaked and shaking. It took a minute for her to figure out where she was; who she was. The images in the nightmare came crashing back and the floodgates opened.

8 AM
Potosi Sheriff’s Dept.

Mulder had been going over the case file for hours, by the time he wandered into the sheriff’s office. The killer’s MO seemed familiar, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on why. His instincts told him that these were copycat murders, but he couldn’t find the original in any of the databases he’d checked. It would come to him; it always did. He hoped that it would before another victim was found. Deep in thought, he almost walked right into Sheriff Dryden.

“Good, you’re here. Let’s go, there’s been another one.”

9 AM
Scully’s apartment

Once the shaking had stopped and her thoughts cleared a little, she’d gotten out of bed and wrapped herself in an afghan on the couch. She remained there, holding her knees in her arms, rocking, for most of the night. When the sun came up, she fixed a cup of tea and returned to the couch. The urge to call Mulder was strong, but she couldn’t bring herself to pick up the phone. He had enough to do without listening to her cry over a nightmare. This wasn’t the first nightmare she’d had and it wouldn’t be the last. It was, however, one of the most graphic and terrifying ones in recent memory. Where did those images come from? Why would I dream about Melissa allowing Emily to be killed; leading her to her death? God, Missy, I’m so sorry I wasn’t here to save you. The tears welled up in her eyes again and she allowed them to flow. She reached for the phone, but stopped herself from actually picking up the receiver. No, mom doesn’t need to hear any of this either. She was a grown woman, certainly she could handle this without using either her mother, or Mulder, as a crutch. Pulling the afghan tightly around her, she rested her head on the back of the couch and cried until she fell asleep.

9:23 AM
Mark Twain National Forest

It had taken them over an hour to reach the most recent crime scene, partly because the county coroner, who also doubled as the local general practitioner, had been busy stitching up a young man who’d been on the losing side of a fight with his skateboard. Jim Atkinson, the forest ranger on site, had found the body and had remained at the scene, until the Sheriff and his men could arrive. He was relieved to see them drive up the trail. This was the second time he’d found a body in his forest and he hoped he’d never have to repeat the experience again. Usually, he hated to give up control of a situation; this was not one of those times.

“You Atkinson?” Dryden asked.

Jim nodded in reply.

“Good, I’m Lee Dryden, this is Agent Mulder from the FBI.”

Mulder extended his hand to Atkinson, who gave Mulder a firm handshake in return. “How did you happen to find the body, Mr. Atkinson?”

“Well, Agent Mulder, there’s not much to tell, really. I was out here doing a routine check of the area and there she was. I radioed for help right away. That’s about it.”

“Sheriff. I think you need to come take a look at this.”

Lee and Mulder walked over toward the body. Dr. Hastings looked up at them, then pointed to the victim’s right hand. The hand had been forced into a contorted position and stitched so it wouldn’t lose its shape.

“Just like the other three,” Lee said, shaking his head.

Mulder was puzzled. “What do you mean ‘just like the other three’? There was no mention of anything like this in the report you sent. Are you saying that the other victims had their hands similarly contorted?”

“Yeah. It wasn’t in the report? No one really noticed it with the first one; hers hadn’t been sewn into place. It wasn’t until we found the second and third bodies, that this started to show up. I can’t believe that wasn’t written in the file.”

Mulder glared at Lee, then turned to the doctor. “What else can you tell me about her?”

“Well, she’s been strangled, see here, you can see the ligature marks. My guess is it’s from fishing line, same as the others. Won’t know for sure, ‘til I get her back to the clinic. From the looks of her, I’d say she died in the last twenty-four hours. If she’s like the rest of them, she won’t have been raped, but again, I need to get her back before I can say that for sure.”

Mulder and Lee got up and moved away from the body, to allow Officer Stanton to take the crime scene photos and mark the scene. As he started to walk away, Mulder turned to the officer.

“Make sure you get a picture of her hand.”

“Yes sir, Agent Mulder.”

Mulder caught up with Lee. He was not happy. “I want to see all the files you have on these murders. The ‘complete’ files this time.”

“Sure, Mulder. We’ve cleared a room for you; all the files are in there already. I’d planned on showing it to you this morning, but….”

Dr. Hastings and Officer Stanton, joined them. “We’re all done here. If you’re ready, we can get her bagged and back to the clinic.”

Mulder nodded, so Hastings went to his car to get the body bag. The two men bagged and tagged the victim, while Mulder and Lee returned to the Sheriff’s vehicle. Once the body was in the doctor’s car and on it’s way into town, Mulder and Lee left the scene.

Scully’s apartment

It was noon before Scully forced herself off of the couch and into the shower. The combination of the morning nap and running water did wonders for her thought processes. It was just a nightmare. No more, no less. Everything’s fine. She repeated this like a mantra, while she showered, dried off and got dressed, until she almost believed it.

While drying her hair, she made the decision to get out of the apartment and do something; anything at all. No firm plan, just get out and be wherever there were other, normal people, doing whatever it was that normal people do on a Saturday afternoon. Pulling her hair back into a ponytail, she went to the door to get the day’s newspaper.

Snapping off the rubber band, she tossed all, but the Entertainment section, on the coffee table, then sat down on the couch. The library was having its annual used book sale. No, just bought a bunch of new books. There were all kinds of movies to see. Nope, definitely don’t want to be in a dark theater. A home show at the civic center, a gun and knife show at the arena and an antique car show at the fairgrounds, also failed to pass muster. She was about to just give up and hit the mall, when she noticed the companion ad to the car show. Also at the fairgrounds this weekend, was a ‘giant’ flea market. “Over 240 vendors,” the ad exclaimed. Perfect, lots of normal people digging through other people’s treasures. This was something she knew ‘normal’ people did all the time. Until she had been assigned to the X-files, back when her life consisted of more than tracking mutants, chasing aliens and keeping Mulder’s sorry ass out of trouble, this was something she and Missy used to do for fun. Missy was great at finding the real treasures hidden amongst the tons of gadgets, doodads and thingamabobs. “Hey Missy, want to help me out today? I could use some help finding a couple of new candleholders. What do you say?” she whispered. She waited for a moment, half expecting to hear a reply, before picking up her purse and walking out the door.

Once in her car, Scully realized that she really didn’t want to do this all by herself. She wanted Mulder with her, helping her pick out something for her place or his place…*or our place… * But he wasn’t here. He was stuck in Bumfuck, Missouri. Not having any ‘normal’ friends left in town, she picked up her phone and called the only other people she knew.

Lone Gunmen HQ

“Frohike.”

“It’s me, Frohike. Are you guys busy today?”

Byers looked over at Frohike and gave him the ‘who is it’ look. Frohike mouthed the word, ‘Scully.’ “Langly’s having a Dungeons and Dragons weekend with a few of his weirdo friends and I gotta see a man about a new bugging device. Don’t know what Byers is planning. Here, talk to him.”

Frohike handed the phone off to Byers. “Agent Scully, what can I do for you today?”

“It’s silly, really, but I felt like getting out of the house and there’s this big flea market out at the fairgrounds *and Mulder’s not here *…I just didn’t feel like going alone. You wouldn’t be interested in going, would you?”

Byers fought the urge to add ‘and Mulder’s not here’ while she rambled out her request. If he were Langly or Frohike, the words would have come tumbling out of his mouth, but he wasn’t Langly or Frohike, thank God, so he kept his voice silent.

“Sure, I’ll go. When did you want to leave?”

“As soon as I can get there to pick you up?”

“OK, see you shortly.”

Scully took a deep breath. Things were looking a little better now. She wouldn’t have to be alone and, of the three, Byers was the one she thought would really be good at the flea market tango. “Hey, Byers…thanks.”

1 PM
Potosi Sheriff’s Dept.

Mulder sat in his temporary office; reading and rereading the case files on the four murder victims. Pictures from the crime scenes had already been put up on the bulletin board and he kept looking up from the files, to study them. He was most interested in the hands of the previous victims. A request to have the pictures scanned and the area showing the hands, enlarged, had been shot down. The office had limited computer equipment and the scanner was currently being repaired. For a while, he’d tried to use his glasses to help magnify the area, but it wasn’t enough. Finally, he’d gone in search of a magnifying glass. It seemed like a simple request; what kind of police station doesn’t have at least one magnifying glass? Apparently, this kind, as one could not be found. Lee eventually had to send an officer over to the clinic, to borrow one from Dr. Hastings.

When, at last, he had the magnifying glass in hand, Mulder took a few of the pictures down from the bulletin board and spread them out on the table, in the order of discovery. He moved from one to other, studying the contorted hand of each body. There was something familiar about the positioning. He, unconsciously, began to recreate them with his left hand. When he became aware of what he was doing, he watched his hand go through the motions. His eyes grew wide as a piece of the puzzle fell into place. He was rifling through the files, checking the names of the victims, confirming his findings, when Lee walked into the room.

“Find something?”

“Yeah.” He handed Lee the magnifying glass and pointed to the hand of the first victim. “Here, take a look at this.”

Lee looked at the hand, then at Mulder. Mulder moved the next picture in front of him and pointed to the hand of the second. He did the same for the third and fourth.

“OK, what am I supposed to be seeing here? All of them had their hands forced into an unnatural position. What does it mean?”

Mulder began making the motions with his hands. Lee watched, still not making the connection.

“I’m sorry, Mulder, I’m just not seeing it.”

“It’s finger spelling, one of the fundamental parts of sign language. Each letter of the alphabet has its own sign. Look at the first picture. See this sign? That’s the letter ‘c’. Look, here’s ‘c’, ‘d’, and ‘e’. I’ve checked the names of the first three victims, Caroline Blair, Delia Zeller and Elaine Wilson. See, ‘c,d,e’. Each of their hands has been used to reflect the first letter of their first names. Do we have an ID on the latest one?”

Lee stared at the pictures, then at Mulder, surprise and amazement in his eyes. “I’ll be damned. No, we haven’t put a name to her, not yet.”

“What do you want to bet that her name starts with ‘f’? I need you to find out if any similar murders have been committed in the last few months. If I’m right, there’s probably an ‘a’ and ‘b’ out there somewhere.”

1:30 PM
Fairgrounds

Scully parked the car. All things considered, they’d found a decent parking spot, not too far from the entrance to the flea market. For the first time since Mulder’s departure, she felt relaxed. It helped, that Byers had forgone his usual uniform of a suit and tie, in favor of jeans and a plain, green, golf shirt, with a little, embroidered alligator on it. Both items looked neatly pressed, but she wouldn’t have expected any less of him. In the spirit of the moment, they had agreed that, just for today, they would Dana and John, not Scully and Byers. Scully and Byers were stuffy, work-obsessed individuals; John and Dana were two friends out to have a nice afternoon.

“It’s really crowded.”

“Need me to hold your hand so you won’t get lost, John?”

He looked at her, raised his eyebrows and chuckled. Before he could censor himself, the words came out. “Sure, I think I’d like that, Dana. You never know what can happen in a crowd and I’d hate to get separated from my lovely companion.” As the words left his mouth, his eyes went wide. *Shit! Where did that come from? Oh no, she’s gonna kick my ass. I have got to stop spending so much time with Frohike! *

Dana saw the shocked look that crossed John’s face at his own words and stifled a laugh. *That man has got to loosen up! * Mulder was always telling her to ‘go with it’, so this time, she did. Without a word, Dana reached for his hand and started walking toward the rows of merchandise. John hesitated, not knowing quite how to react, until Dana tugged on his hand to get him moving. “Friends do, occasionally, hold hands, John. Remember, we’re normal people today…” She felt him relax. Holding back another giggle, she added, “…just don’t tell Mulder, he might kick your ass.” After a beat, she let go of the giggle. John, now completely relaxed, laughed with her.

“He’s not so tough. I can take him.”

3:30 PM
Potosi Sheriff’s Department

It took all of an hour for Sheriff Dryden to locate victims ‘a’ and ‘b’. The first victim was Alice Nichols of Sullivan, the second, Bonnie Harper from Festus. Mulder requested and received a map of Missouri. He started sticking pins in the map, representing each victim’s hometown and the location of her body. All of the victims had lived within a day’s drive of each other and all were found in the Mark Twain National Forest.

Mulder paced the room, talking to himself as he did; unaware that Lee was standing just outside the door, drinking a cup of coffee and watching him in action. “OK, we have six victims, all female ranging in age from 18 to 31, all killed in alphabetical order.” He looked down at the map. “What do they have in common?” He walked over to the bulletin board and looked at their pictures. “How did the killer know them?” He turned and put his fist up to his face, beating it gently on his mouth, then lowering it back down to his side. “What is the connection?” He reached up and ran his fingers through his hair and stared out the door, right into the curious expression on Lee’s face.

“Glad to see I’m not the only one who talks to himself. My momma used to tell me that it was a sign of insanity. Momma was wrong, not talking to yourself is a sign of insanity, don’t you think?”

Mulder shook his and smiled. “I don’t think I’m the best judge of sanity.”

“Reggie always said you think too much. ‘Course, he also said that was what made you so damned good.” Putting his cup down on the table, he walked over to the board and pointed to Elaine Wilson. “I don’t know about the others, but Elaine, she was one of ours, and something of a celebrity around here. She’d just won a full scholarship to MIT. Local paper did an article on her and the evening news did one of those hometown-girl-makes-good stories they do to fill up time on a slow news day.”

“When was this?”

“Oh, about a week ago, maybe ten days. I can check, if you want.”

“Do that. Also, let’s run a check on the other victims. I need to know if any of them had recently appeared in a paper or on the news; anything that might put them in the public eye. Do we know who the latest victim is yet?”

“Well, we think so. If we’re right, it’s Faith Olinger. She’s from Farmington. Dr. Hastings is waiting for her father to come down and give us a positive ID.”

“Good. I’m going over there, too. I’ll see if I can find out if she has anything in common with Elaine Wilson.”

4:30 PM
Fairgrounds

Dana found a beautiful pair of hand-thrown pottery votive holders, exactly what she had in mind for her bedroom. She was excited when she saw them and didn’t even haggle over the price. They were perfect. *Thanks, Missy. *

One vendor had a collection of UFO and alien-related toys, some dating from the early 50’s. When she saw the model of Gort, she knew it was meant for Mulder. She picked it up and showed it to John. “What do you think?”

He nodded his head enthusiastically. “Oh yeah, that’s Mulder all right.”

Another vendor boasted the largest collection of vintage ties in the US. Dana couldn’t resist making John look around for something to brighten up his boring, blue suit. With her help, he managed to walk away from the table with two, decidedly un-Byers-like ties. He looked at the dark blue one with the silver-grey lightning bolts and then at the red one with the navy blue tornadoes. *Interesting how she picked out the two with a stormy weather theme. * He never would have had the courage to pick up something like that himself, but she was insistent and he was more than willing to go with the flow. He knew he’d never hear the end of it, but it was worth it just to see her smile, for a change. He didn’t get to see Scully smile very often, but when she did, it was a sight to behold.

“Don’t you dare stick those in a drawer. I want to see you wearing them.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

John sniffed the air; something smelled wonderful. His stomach rumbled and he realized that they hadn’t eaten all day. He looked around to see where the smell was coming from. At the end of the aisle, he spotted a woman cooking sausages on a grill. Dana followed the direction of his gaze.

“Smells good, but John, you know those things are loaded with fat and chemicals.”

“I know they are. They take forever to digest.”

“They clog your arteries and raise your cholesterol.”

“They’re a heart-attack on a bun.”

“Research indicates that carcinogens are highest in food cooked over an open charcoal grill.”

“They drip and it’s almost impossible to get the grease stains out of your silk ties.”

They stood quietly for a moment, before exchanging looks. John took a deep breath, then grabbed her hand. “I’m starving! Let’s eat.”

3:50 PM
Dr. Hastings’ office

Mulder arrived at the clinic shortly after Doug Olinger. By the time he got inside, Mr. Olinger had already, positively identified his daughter’s remains. He was slumped in a chair, head in his hands and sobbing, when Mulder approached him.

“Mr. Olinger?” The man nodded. “My name is Fox Mulder, I work for the FBI. I know this is a difficult time, but I need to ask you a few questions about your daughter.”

Doug raised his head and looked at Mulder. “Who would do this? Who would do such a thing to my daughter? Can you explain this to me? Why is this happening?”

“I don’t know, sir, that’s what we’re trying to find out. We believe that your daughter, was the most recent victim of the same person who’s killed several other women in the past few months. We’re trying to establish some common ground, to help us determine how these women are being chosen.”

“Have you found anything yet?”

“Maybe, that’s why I need you answer some questions for me. Do you think you can do that?”

“Agent Mulder, I’ll do anything I can to help put this murderer behind bars.”

One hour later

Potosi Sheriff’s office

Mr. Olinger had been most helpful. Faith hadn’t made any new or unusual friends in the last few months, she didn’t know any of the other victims, she hadn’t received any threatening mail or phone calls, but she had appeared in the local newspaper. Eight days prior to her disappearance, Faith Olinger had placed an engagement announcement, complete with a picture of herself and her fiancee, in the wedding announcement column of the weekly paper. That made for a connection between two of the six.

As Mulder walked down the hall to his office, Officer Stanton handed him a file folder. “Sheriff asked me to give this to you as soon as you got in. He had to run out to Mrs. Barringer’s place. She’s complaining about kids knocking her mailbox over again.” He shook his head and rolled his eyes. “That woman calls or comes in once a week complaining about something. At this point, I’m beginning to think she’s knocking over her own darn mailbox, just to get the Sheriff to pay attention to her.”

“Maybe she’s just lonely, Officer Stanton.”

“I’m sure she is, sir, but I firmly believe that loneliness is a choice.”

Mulder tapped the file against his leg and looked down at the floor. “You’re right,” he said, raising his eyes up to meet Stanton’s. “That’s something I’m just finding out, myself.”

Barely Balancing 3/5 By Frohike

**author’s note. Text in == == denotes a dream sequence.**

5:50 PM
Fairgrounds

After stuffing themselves on grilled sausages, Dana and John walked down the last row of booths. The vendors were in the last hour of their allotted sales time and a few were already packing up for the night. Finding nothing of interest, they reluctantly decided that it was time to go.

As they made their way back to the car, John noticed that Dana’s mood had already begun to slip. Her gait slowed and her face lost a little of its light. Not knowing what to do, or how to ask, he simply put his arm around her shoulders and gave her a squeeze. “He’ll be back soon.”

Dana nodded her head and tried to smile. “I know, its not just Mulder being away, it’s….never mind. I’m fine, John.”

Feeling braver than usual, he decided to push the issue. “No you’re not. Mulder might let you get away with that, but not me, not today. I know you’ve finally started to trust us, but when you turn to Langly, Frohike and me for companionship, that screams something’s wrong. Now, what else is upsetting you?”

Dana gave him a half-smile and patted the hand on her shoulder. “I’ve trusted you all for a long time. As for turning to you for companionship, outside of Mulder and my mother, you three are the only friends I have left. The work has become so all consuming that I haven’t had the time to keep up with the people I used to call friends. “

“You still haven’t answered my question.”

“Now you sound like Mulder.”

“I’ve been paying attention.”

“It shows.”

“Dana…” John slid his arm off her shoulders and turned her toward him. The look in his eyes made it pretty clear that he wasn’t going to let her get away with ‘I’m fine’ this time. She lowered her head and took a deep breath.

“I haven’t been sleeping well lately.”

“Nightmares?”

“How did you….Mulder told you?”

“No, just a hunch.”

“After my abduction, I had them all the time. I learned to live with less sleep. A year later, they started to diminish and after a while, they only popped up every so often. I’ve had three in the last week, each worse than the last.”

“Does Mulder know about this?”

“He knows about the first two; I haven’t told him about the last one.”

“Are you going to tell him?”

“No,” she sighed. “He’s in the middle of a case; he doesn’t need anything else to worry about. I’m perfectly capable of handling this on my own; I don’t need Mulder on his white steed to rescue me.”

“Well then, how about me?”

“John Fitzgerald Byers! Are you propositioning me?” Dana grinned at his shocked expression and watched as his face turned a lovely shade of crimson.

“That’s not…I mean…no,” he stammered. “I meant, if you don’t want to tell Mulder, how about telling me?”

“Breathe John, I knew what you meant. Anyone ever tell you you’re cute when you’re embarrassed?” She reached for his hand and they walked the final distance to the car. As she unlocked his door, she added, “Still, it’s shame to see those perfectly good ties not live up to their full potential…”

“DANA!”

6:50 PM
Potosi Sheriff’s Office

Mulder took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. Alice Nichols had just run her first ad as an independent realtor. Her face was prominently displayed in the Real Estate section of the newspaper and on several bus benches. Bonnie Harper’s eight-year old son had won a regional spelling bee for his age group. There was a nice picture of Bonnie and her husband helping Greg hold up his trophy. Delia Zeller was the lucky 100,000th visitor at the big grocery store in town. Her picture had been used in the following week’s sales ad and was proudly displayed in the front window of the store. Caroline Blair was still an uncertainty. No record of her appearing in print or on TV could be located. She was a graveyard shift DJ at a local radio station, but they didn’t run print ads or post billboards with pictures of the DJs anywhere. The station did do local events, like grand openings, but these were always handled by the drive time DJs. As far as Mulder could tell, she was the only one who broke the pattern. There’s got to be something I’m missing. He folded his arms on the table, then rested his head on them. He stayed like that for almost five minutes, before deciding to get out of there and grab something to eat. Maybe make a long call to Scully, too. He slid the papers back into their file, stuffed it in his briefcase and secured the clasp.

Lee poked his head into the room. “Geez, Mulder, you still here?”

“Yeah, still here. Actually, I’m on my way back the motel to grab something to eat.”

“Great, I’ll go with you.”

 NO! Mulder sighed. “Sounds good, let’s go.”

45 minutes later

“So what you’re telling me, is that this guy is picking his victims by the first letter in their names?”

“Yeah, my guess is that he’s collecting letters. Serial killers often take souvenirs from their victims. Ed Gein collected skulls and used them as bowls and drinking cups; he used skin to make lampshades. Ted Bundy took Polaroids of his victims. John Lee Roche collected cloth hearts cut from the clothing of the little girls he murdered. They take these mementos, to refuel their fantasies, to help relive past conquests. I’d be willing to bet that, when we catch him, we’ll find pictures of each of his victims in his possession.”

Lee pushed his half-eaten meal toward the center of the table. Mulder certainly knew all the right things to say to kill an appetite. Dinner with Mulder, the quick weight-loss plan for overweight Sheriffs. “Why do you figure he’ll have pictures and not something else?”

“He’s putting too much time into the hands, not to be taking pictures. The letters are symbolic of something and taking pictures would be the best way to record his conquests.”

“I gotta tell you, Mulder, this is way out of my field of expertise. Reggie was the one with all the drive to be a major crimebuster, I just wanted to help keep things safe in my own little Mayberry.”

“Sorry Lee, but Mayberry only exists during rain-delayed Braves games.”

“I guess you’re right about that.” Lee smiled sadly, and pushed back his chair. “I’m going home to get some rest. I suggest you do the same, Mulder. Looks like it’s gonna be a long day tomorrow.”

Mulder pushed his chair back as Lee stood up. Rising from his chair, Mulder picked up the check. “What’s rest?” he said, under his breath. “See you in the morning.” Mulder took care of the bill, then headed to his room. He didn’t think that rest would be coming, but a phone call to Scully, would be a nice break.

Scully’s apartment

After promising John that she would call if she needed anything, Scully drove home. She wasn’t looking forward to spending time alone, but she didn’t know what else to do with herself. Besides, it was getting late, Mulder would probably be calling soon and she didn’t want to miss him again. She parked the car, gathered her packages, and started toward her apartment. No sooner had she put the key in the door, did she hear the phone ring.

“Hang on, I’m coming.”

Quickly putting the packages down on the table, she ran to the phone, picking it up on the third ring.

“Hello?”

“Did I get you out of the shower?”

Scully smiled. “Mulder, we really need to do something about this shower fixation. Perhaps you should seek professional help.”

Mulder laughed. “I’m thinking total immersion therapy might be the trick. What do you say Scully, want to test my theory?”

“I’ll take it under advisement, Mulder,” Scully chuckled. “You sound tired, have you slept?”

“What’s sleep? How about you, any more nightmares?”

“I’m fine, Mulder. You’re still coming home Monday, right? I’m sure we can figure out a way to put you to sleep.”

Mulder ran his fingers through his hair. “Uh, Scully, about Monday, I think I’m going to be here a little longer than I thought.”

Scully’s face fell. “Why, what happened?”

“We found another one today. I know this guy’s MO, it’s familiar to me, but I can’t find anything to back me up. I’ve been through every case file I can think of, but nothing fits. This guy is playing some sick game and I can’t make the connection.”

“Mulder, maybe it is a game.”

“What do you mean?”

“Maybe this guy is playing a game, only in his version, the pieces are human. Maybe you should call Langly, he’s the expert on games.”

“Did I hear you correctly, Scully? You’re suggesting that I go to the Lone Gunmen for help? Isn’t that supposed to be my line?”

“I’ll admit that I’m not usually the one to ask the boys for help, but after the last few days, I’ve had a change of heart. I’ve grown quite fond of them. As a matter of fact, I spent the day with Byers.”

“You spent the day with Byers? Why?”

“Because Mulder, I needed to feel normal, you were out of town and, to be honest, the boys are the only friends I have left.” Mulder was quiet. She could hear him breathing, but he wasn’t making any effort to speak. “Mulder? You still there?”

“Yeah, Scully, I’m still here.”

“What’s wrong?”

“I guess I didn’t realize how isolated you’d become. I mean, I’ve never really had any close friends, other than you, but you’ve always had them. I’m sorry, I should have seen it before.”

“Mulder, before you start beating yourself up, this is not your fault. I’ve let my friendships slide. I’m responsible for my relationships, not you. I’ve made my choices and I don’t regret any of them.”

“Still, Scully, you had to resort to spending the day with Byers to feel ‘normal’? Isn’t that an oxymoron?”

“Stop it. I like John. He’s sweet and funny and a good friend. He can be very normal, given the right set of circumstances. We spent the day hanging out at a flea market, having a wonderful time. Granted, he can be a little stuffy, but he loosens up after a while.”

“Hmmmm, so it’s John again, is it? That’s the second time I’ve heard you use his first name in the past week. Should I be jealous, Scully?”

“I don’t know, Mulder, maybe. He was awfully attentive today and you are far away……”

Mulder’s mind raced. He knew she was teasing, but was there a hint of seriousness behind her words? Should he really be concerned about this latest tidbit of information? His stomach did a nervous flip and for a second, he thought he might actually be sick.

“Mulder? Are you OK?”

“I’m fine, Scully. I’m sorry, I just…” His voice was barely more than a whisper.

Scully shook her head. He really was a little jealous. “I was teasing you, Mulder. You know that, don’t you? I like John, but I love you. Do you hear me, Fox Mulder? I love you.”

“So, I’m not going to come home and find Byers sleeping on my half of the bed, then?”

“You don’t have a ‘half of the bed yet’, Mulder.”

“Point taken. Can I reserve half of your bed, Scully?”

“It’s been on reserve for six years, Mulder. I’ve just been waiting for you to finally figure that out.”

“Scully?”

“Yes, Mulder?”

“I love you.”

“I know. Try to get some sleep tonight.”

“I will, right after I call Langly.”

“Oh, he’s not there. Frohike said something about him having a Dungeons and Dragons weekend.”

“Well, he’ll just have to take a break. I can’t afford to let any more time go by. This guy’s already killed six women, I’d like to get him before he makes it seven.”

“Is there anything I can do on this end?”

“Yeah, there is.”

“What do you need me to do?”

“Pick up some leave forms Scully, because when I get back, I intend to spend a few days, permanently staking my claim to half of your bed.”

“Night, Mulder.”

“Night, Scully.”

Mulder hung up, but continued to stare at the phone. At that moment, he wanted nothing more than to say ‘screw it’ and book a flight home; then he pictured himself trying to explain his actions to both Skinner and the OPC. Get a grip, son. Pressing the power button, he made his second call of the evening.

“Lone Gunmen.”

“Hey Byers, it’s me. Look, I need to talk to Langly right away.”

“He’s not here Mulder. He went to Georgetown for a Dungeons and Dragons tournament. I don’t think he’ll be back until sometime tomorrow afternoon.”

Mulder ran his fingers through his hair. “Look, Byers, it’s important. Is there any way you can get a message to him?”

“I can try, but I don’t know if it’ll do any good. They don’t usually take messages in the heat of the battle.”

“Do what you can then.”

“Will do, Mulder.”

Mulder considered ending the call, but the desire to yank Byers’ chain was just too strong. I can’t punch him in the eye, but I can make him incredibly uncomfortable. “So Byers, I hear you and Scully had a date today. You trying to make time with my lady?” He barely held back a laugh as Byers began to choke and sputter. Gotcha ‘John’.

3:42 AM
Scully’s apartment

The dream catcher began to glow. The broken strand began to twitch as the light became stronger.

==Haze, cold, hard to see. Where am I? Hard table, white light, can’t move, can’t see. Help! Mulder, where are you?

“Hello Starbuck. It’s Ahab.”

Ahab?

“People would say to me, “Life is short. Kids, they grow up so fast, before you know it, it’s over.”

 I know Daddy.

“No you don’t Dana, you don’t know anything.”

Suddenly her eyes opened. Before her stood Captain Scully, wearing the tattered remains of his dress whites; his hat a mere brim held together by bits of shredded white cloth. He moved closer to her and she could see that his face and hands were burned and scarred, as if they had been exposed to intense heat. One eye was white and clouded over by cataracts. She tried to scream, but no sound would come from her mouth. She tried to move away, but she was frozen to the table.

“Coming to you, that last time, cost me my soul, Dana. Saving you, bringing you back, destroyed me. My life seemed the length of one breath, one heartbeat, my death is an everlasting Hell. A Hell I brought on myself because of you!” he roared.

His good eye glowed red, the bad one oozed blood that ran down his cheek, staining what was left of his dress shirt. Scully tried to breathe, but found no air in the room. She could only watch as he drew closer and closer. Tears fell from her eyes; the only movement permitted her in this space.

“We’ll be together again, Starbuck.”

He stood now, inches from the table, arms beginning to rise.

“We’ll be together, now!”

His arms reached out and grabbed her ankles, pulling her toward the edge of the table. She couldn’t scream, couldn’t breathe. Her hands broke free of their invisible bonds and she held on to the table for dear life. He pulled harder and harder, his rage growing with every tug.

“I SAID NOW!”==

Scully hit the floor screaming and struggling against the sheets, now wrapped around her legs. She flailed out against her father, but as her hand hit the nightstand, the pain opened her eyes. She screamed again and again, kicking at the sheets, until they released her legs and allowed rational thought to push its way forward. Looking around, she began to realize where she was, who she was, that she was home and safe. Safe? She felt the gush of tears as her mind and body collapsed.

She stayed that way for almost an hour, before feeling the throbbing in her left hand. Looking down, she saw that the hand was lying in an unnatural position. She tried to wiggle her fingers, but the slightest movement caused her to cry out.

Gently rising from the floor, she sat down on the edge of the bed and tried to assess the damage. From the looks of her hand, the swelling and the intense pain, she determined that it was most likely broken. Scully realized two things almost simultaneously: 1) she needed to go to the emergency room and have it set and 2) there was no way she was going to be able to drive herself. Calling her mother was out of the question. It would take her too long to get to the apartment and she didn’t think she could face her mother right now anyway, not after that dream. She could call Skinner. He was close enough, but he’d want a full explanation and he’d insist on calling Mulder. Since he was her boss, she’d have no way of stopping him from making that call. That left only one number on her list. She’d still have some explaining to do, but at least she would be able to keep them under control, where Mulder was concerned. Tucking the receiver between her right shoulder and her ear, she dialed.

“Lone Gunmen.”

“John? Is that you?”

“Dana?”

“I need your help. Can you come over? Right now. Please.”

Byers wanted to ask the questions that were forming in his mind, but the tone of her voice told him that this was not a good time. Scully needed help now; the questions could wait. “On my way.”

Byers hung up the phone and ran back to his room to get dressed. As he did, Frohike came stumbling out of the bedroom in his ratty bathrobe.

“Who was that?”

“Da…Scully. She needs help. I’m going over to her apartment right now.”

Frohike, now completely awake, headed back toward the bedroom, taking his bathrobe off as he walked. “Hang on, I’m coming with you. If Scully needs help, I’m wanna be there too.”

Byers sighed and shook his head. “All right, fine. Just hurry up, she didn’t sound very good.”

Scully’s apartment

After talking to Byers, Scully tried to get dressed. The shirt wasn’t a problem; she’d gone to bed wearing one of Mulder’s Knicks T-shirts that she’d ‘borrowed’ from his laundry basket a long time ago. Pants were another matter entirely. Sitting on the edge of the bed, she had been able to get both legs into her jeans and had pulled them up to mid-thigh, using only her right hand. She stood up and worked at pulling them up the rest of the way. By the time she got them up around her waist, she was exhausted. How the Hell does Krycek do this every day? Sitting back down on the bed, she looked at the zipper and sighed. Giving it tug, she managed to get it up less than a third of the way, before it stuck. You’ve got to be kidding me! Lowering the zipper, she tried again, only to have it stick in the same place. Three more attempts yielded the same results. Frustration overtook her and she broke down, almost missing the knock at her door. Holding her jeans up, she walked over to the door.

Knock, knock, knock.

“Scully, it’s Byers and Frohike, open up.”

Scully stood there for a second, trying to figure out how to hold up her jeans and open the door at the same time. “Hold on, guys.” Pushing her left hip against the wall, she reached over and unlocked the door with her right hand. “OK, it’s open.”

Frohike pushed the door open, stopping short when he saw Scully. Byers, not expecting Frohike to stop suddenly, bumped into him. “Frohike! What the Hell are you…. Oh my God! Dana, what happened?” He pushed Frohike aside and touched her tear-stained face. She leaned into his hand and the tears started anew. He put his arms around her and pulled her close. Frohike wasn’t sure what was going on, he was torn between concern for Scully and his jealousy at Byers’ current position. Damn, next time I’ll go the flea market and let Byers take care of business.

“It’s OK, Dana, we’re here. Shhhh, everything’s fine now. I’m not going to let anything hurt you,” Byers said over and over. When she’d calmed down, he pulled back a little and wiped the tears from her face. “What happened?”

Scully took a deep breath and stepped back against the wall as she felt the jeans start to slip. Her embarrassment was two-fold. Bad enough I’m crying like a baby in front of these two, I really don’t need to have my jeans fall down around my ankles. She reached down and hiked them back up, hoping that neither one of them would notice. “I had another one, worse than the other night. I don’t want to talk about it right now, John.”

John? Now Frohike was really jealous and beginning to feel like a third wheel. “Look, if you two would like to be alone…”

Byers shot him a look, the likes of which Frohike had never seen. Frohike took a step back. Byers turned back to Scully. “It’s OK, Dana, we’ll stay here as long as you need us. Frohike promises to behave. Don’t you Frohike?”

“I won’t make a sound.”

“Thanks guys, but that’s not why I called.” She pushed up her left hand. “This is why. I’m pretty sure it’s broken and I didn’t think I’d be able to drive myself to the hospital.”

“Jesus, Scully, what’d you do?” Frohike asked, shocked at the site of the purple, swollen hand in front of him.

“I must have hit it while I was sleeping. I don’t know. I woke up on the floor by my bed and felt it throbbing. I’m not sure what happened.”

Byers knew that wasn’t entirely the truth, but one look from Scully told him to keep that to himself. There’d be time later on, to find out what had really happened. He reached into his pocket, pulled out the car keys and handed them to Frohike. “Here, you drive this time. Come on, Dana, let’s get you to the van.”

Scully hesitated. “Uh, Frohike, could you go on down and start the van? I need to get something before we go.”

“Sure thing, Scully.”

As soon as Frohike was down the hall, Scully turned to Byers.

“Tell me what you need, I’ll go get it, Dana.”

“Oh, I’ll need my purse. It’s over by the couch.”

He walked over to the couch, found the purse and brought it to her. “OK, let’s go.”

“Um, John, one other thing.” Her face flushed. “The thing is…well…I was able to get these jeans on, but…um…the zipper stuck and I can’t get the button through the hole with one hand…and if I step away from this wall, I’m going to have to pick them up from around my ankles.”

Byers turned red. Cut it out, act like an adult, for God’s sake. “OK, we can fix that. I think this also falls under the category of one friend helping another. Sure, I can take care of this.” He stood there, unable to move.

“John?” She paused. “Now would be a good time.”

He shook his head. Scully pulled her shirt up over the top of her jeans. Byers reached over and took hold of the zipper pull. Holding the top of the jeans with one hand, for stability, he gently raised the zipper. It stuck. Trying not to panic, he gave it a tug. The zipper continued its way up to the top. He secured the button and quickly removed his hands and looked down at the floor. “There, all done.” He kept his head down, until Scully tapped him on the shoulder. Looking up, he saw the embarrassment in her eyes and felt better. Then, Scully snickered. John looked confused, which caused her to laugh even more. “What? What did I do?” he asked. He started to laugh also, but he wasn’t sure why.

“I just had a picture of Frohike coming back up to see what was taking so long and catching you with your hand…” She was laughing too hard now to finish her sentence.

“Funny, I was having a similar vision, only mine was of Mulder seeing us and deciding to pay me back for that black eye.”

Scully laughed even harder at that remark. Before they knew it, they were both half-silly from laughter. Regaining their composure was difficult, but they managed to put on straight faces.

“Come on, Dana, we need to get down to the van before Frohike comes back up after us.”

“I know, I know.”

He pulled her keys out of her purse and locked the door behind them. They walked down the hall and out the door to the van, where Frohike was standing by the running vehicle, tapping his foot. “For crying out loud, what took you so long?”

Dana looked at John, then started giggling all over again. John bit his lip to keep from giggling himself. Frohike just shook his head at both of them. “Get in you two. Man, Mulder leaves town for a few days, you break your hand in bed, Byers turns into an idiot and the two of you act like you should be picking out china patterns. Is there a full moon tonight?” He shook his head as he walked around to the driver’s side of the van. “Weirdness!”

4:15 AM
Georgetown Memorial

Scully had been seen almost immediately upon arrival. Being a doctor had many privileges, one of which was getting top priority on the patient list. The hand had been examined, x-rayed and wrapped in a cast. She’d managed to shatter three of the five bones of the metacarpus, put a hairline fracture in the lower phalange of her index finger and cause a pretty nasty sprain to her wrist. Scully sat in the examining room, trying to explain to the circumstances leading up to her injuries.

“Tell me, again, how you did this,” Dr. Childers asked.

” I was having a nightmare, it got out of control, I fell off the bed and must have hit my hand on the nightstand.”

“Do you often have such a violent reaction to your dreams?”

Scully dropped her head. “You’re the second person this week to ask me that. No, not usually, just the last few nights. The nightmares just keep getting more and more intense. I haven’t been able to get more than a few hours of sleep.”

“Are you under a lot of stress right now?”

Scully laughed. “I’m always under a lot of stress, doctor; stress and I are old friends. No, this is different. These started all of sudden and have been getting worse each night.”

“Hmmmm. OK, I’m going to give you something for the pain and something to help you sleep. If those dreams get any worse, I’d suggest seeing someone. I can recommend a good counselor here, if you’re not comfortable using one at the Bureau.” He walked to a cabinet on the other side of the examining room and removed two bottles, then pulled out his prescription pad and began to write. “Now, I know you know all this, but I’m going to say it anyway. Try not to use the hand, don’t stick anything down in the cast, take Benadryl if the itching becomes too annoying, call if there’s any more swelling or if you notice a difference in skin color or temperature and you’re off work for the next few days, doctor’s orders.”

“I can’t do that, I’ve got too much to do to take any time off. The hand is going to hurt no matter where I am, it might as well hurt at work.”

“Dr. Scully, it’s not the hand I’m most concerned about right now. By your own admission, you haven’t slept well in days and you’re having severe sleep disturbances when you do manage to fall asleep. In your present condition, I don’t want you behind the wheel or behind a desk. Go home, take the pills and see if they help you to sleep. Come back on Wednesday. If you’ve gotten some rest and haven’t done any more damage to your body, then we’ll talk about going back to work.”

Scully frowned at him, but nodded in agreement. Skinner wasn’t going to be too pleased, but she didn’t think taking time off would present a problem. She really didn’t have that much to do and performing any autopsies was going to be out of the question for the next six weeks anyway.

“Here, you go. You know what these are and what they’re for,” he said, as he handed her the bottles and the prescriptions. He then handed her a third piece of paper. “And this is a note excusing you from work.”

Scully smiled in spite of herself and stared at him in disbelief. “You’ve got to be kidding.”

He snickered. “Made you smile didn’t it?” He winked and returned her smile. “Try and get some rest, Dr. Scully.”

“Thanks, I’ll try.”

4:12 AM
Mulder’s hotel room

Mulder woke up to the sound of his cell phone ringing in his ear. As usual, the TV was still on and the file he was reading lay on the bed next to him. “Mulder.”

“Hey Mulder, Byers left a message, said you needed to talk to me. Don’t have much time, dude, gotta get back to the game. What’s up?”

“Langly?” Mulder asked, rubbing his eyes.

“Yeah it’s Langly, who’d you expect? Wake up, man, I only have a few minutes.”

“Sorry.” Mulder sat up and flipped the switch, closing his eyes against the assault of light. “I need to know about a game. At least it might be a game, I’m not sure. Scully thought I should talk to you, since you’re the game guru.”

“Game guru, cool. I like that. So, what do you need to know?”

“Do you know of any games where the player is a serial killer?”

“Geez, Mulder, there’s a bunch of them. Can you give me something a little more specific? What’s the killer do? How does he kill his victims? Dude, there’s a game out there for every conceivable kind of murder.”

“How about one involving the alphabet as a way of choosing victims?”

“No shit? You got one like that? Oh man, Mulder.”

“So there is a game like that?”

“Yeah, it’s called AlphaSlayer. Remember, I showed it to you about a year ago, when I first found it on the Internet. Frohike wussed out of our poker game and we went cruising to kill some time…”

“I knew this guy’s MO was familiar! You don’t happen to have the web address?”

“Offhand, no. Just do a search, it’s the only one out there.”

“Thanks, Langly. Good luck with the game.”

“You too, Mulder.”

7:00 AM
Potosi Sheriff’s Dept.

Lee and Officer Stanton dragged themselves into Mulder’s office, still half-asleep. They didn’t usually get called in so early on a Sunday and neither was too thrilled. “Don’t you ever sleep, Mulder?”

“No. Go get some coffee, I’ve found out how our boy picks his victims.”

Stanton went out to start the coffee, while Mulder pulled out his notes and his laptop. “Here, check this out.” He pulled up the AlphaSlayer website and pointed to the screen. “He’s playing a game, only his version’s not virtual.”

Lee sat down and began to read the rules of the game. Stanton handed him a cup of coffee, but Lee was wide-awake now. He read with amazement the simple, but gruesome rules before him. “God, Mulder! This is sick! They allow this stuff on the Internet?”

“Freedom of speech, Sheriff.”

“I don’t think this is what our forefathers had in mind.” Lee shook his head and sat back from the screen. His experience with computers was limited, mostly running background checks and playing the occasional game of Solitaire. He’d thought about getting one for himself, but after seeing this, he wasn’t so sure he wanted to bother. “Says here that the victims have to live within a reasonable driving distance of the killer’s home and they all have to have a web page with a guest book. To confirm a kill, you have to sign the guest book with a specific signature, then email the game master with the site address, so it can be confirmed and credited to your kill sheet. Jesus Mulder! This is sickening.”

Mulder frowned and nodded in agreement. “Take a look. This is why we couldn’t find a connection to Caroline Blair at first. He probably listened to her on the radio and if we pull up the station’s web site…” he typed in the address he’d memorized just a few hours earlier. “Here she is, on the DJ page. Scroll down to the guest book and look here’s our boy’s entry.” He pointed to an entry made the day before Caroline’s body was found, a single, red, skull and crossbones. “I’ve pulled up pages for all the victims, same message, all dated the day before the bodies were found.” Mulder pulled up each page and showed Lee the same message on every one.

“Oh my God. But Mulder, what about the other part of that rule, the part about being a reasonable driving distance? How can you figure that out from these pages? Sure, Caroline Blair’s had business address listed and so did Alice Nichols, but the rest of them didn’t.”

“I wondered about that myself, then I noticed that the radio station’s server was StLoNet.com. I checked it out and that’s where I found the home pages of all our victims.” Mulder typed in Faith Olinger’s name. “From there, all you have to do is take their names, do a people search on any of the big search engines and voila.” On the screen in front of him, Lee saw Faith Olinger’s name, address and phone number.

“Jesus H! I don’t believe it, Mulder. How in the Hell did you come up with this?”

“Something my partner said to me last night. I should know better than to leave home without her.”

“Guess so! Good thing you talked to her last night.”

“Yeah, she keeps me honest.”

Mulder smiled into his coffee cup, something that did not go unnoticed by both Lee and Stanton. Lee thought about making a comment, then decided to just let it go. If Mulder wanted to add anything, he was sure he’d do it in his own time. Besides, the quickest way to get on a cop’s nerves was to say something stupid about his partner. He figured that Fibbies might feel the same way.

“OK, so now we know how he finds his victims, all we have to do is figure out who’s next and get to her before this nutcase does.”

“Way ahead of you.” Mulder pulled a pad of paper out from his briefcase. “I was able to find eight names starting with the letter g. Taking the hometowns of the other victims into account, I think the first three are our best bets.” He pushed the pad toward Lee and Stanton. “Gail Hammond lives in Arcadia, Ginger Loethan in St. Clair and Gloria Martin in De Soto.”

“What about the other five on the list? Shouldn’t we try to get to them, too?”

“Of course, we’ll need to contact local police where they live and have them alert these women, just in case. So far, he’s only gone after women in this area of Missouri though. Look, two of these women live in Illinois, one in Alton and the other in Granite City. The other three live in Missouri, but they’re all in towns north of Interstate 70. So far, our boy hasn’t gone North of Interstate 44 and since he’s been dropping off the corpses in the forest, my guess is he isn’t going to stray too far, as long as he has a supply of victims so close at hand. Stanton, I want you to call the local authorities in the areas where these five women live. Let them know what we’ve found and ask them to take the necessary precautions to protect these women.”

Stanton reached for the list and left the room.

“In the meantime, we need to contact the Sheriffs’ offices in Arcadia, St. Clair and De Soto and have them explain what’s going on to these three women. They’re going to need protection. If this guy holds true to form, he should be going after one of them in next few days.”

9 AM
Scully’s apartment

Scully woke up with a start and looked at the clock. Oh shit! I’ve got to call Skinner. She reached for the phone, but found it gone. What the… She started to get up, only to be stopped by the sound of footsteps. Reaching for her gun, she slid her feet onto the floor and tried to stand up. Dizziness made her fall back down on the bed, so she pointed her gun toward the door, resting it on her cast for stability. “Who’s there? I’m a federal agent and I’m armed.”

Through the door walked Byers, arms raised, eyes wide. “It’s just me, Scully.”

Scully put the gun back on the nightstand. “You scared me. What are you doing here and where is my phone? I need to call Skinner. He’s got to be wondering why I’m not in yet.”

“Take it easy. Dr. Childers said I should take the phone out so it wouldn’t wake you up. He also said that it would be a good idea for someone to stay with you, just to run interference, while you got some rest. I’ve already called Skinner. He’s going to check in later on, to see how you’re feeling. Besides, it’s only Sunday, remember? Now, are you hungry?”

“Let me guess, you made me breakfast, too?

“Well, not yet. What do you want to eat?”

“You don’t have to do that, I’m fine, I’ll just get up…” Scully tried to stand, only to find herself back down on the bed, closing her eyes to stop the room from spinning. Byers stifled a laugh.

“Maybe just some toast and a tea to start, Dana?”

11:45 AM
Potosi Sheriff’s Dept.

Gail Hammond, Ginger Loethan and Gloria Martin had been located. They were understandably shaken and more than willing to accept any help offered by the authorities. All that remained was the waiting.

Mulder studied the AlphaSlayer site, trying to find anything that might put a name to the killer. He sent a copy of the player list and the name of the webmaster, through the FBI databases, to track down the people behind the screen names. With any luck, the killer would be listed among the current players, not that he really expected it to be that easy.

11:51 AM
Scully’s apartment

Byers managed to get Scully to eat a few pieces of toast with raspberry jam and drink a cup of Earl Grey. He’d gotten her to take the painkiller, but she was refusing to take the sedative, saying that she just wasn’t ready to go to bed. He knew better. “Dana, you’re exhausted. Take the pill and get some sleep. I’ll be right here if you need anything.”

“No, really John, I’m fine,” she said, picking up the TV Guide. “Hey, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” is on AMC at noon. Want to watch?”

Byers let out a sigh. “OK, but only if you promise to take the pill and get some sleep when it’s over.”

“We’ll see.”

“No, Dana, not ‘we’ll see’! We watch the movie, then you take the pill. You’ve got to get some sleep.”

“John, I’m fine. Stop ‘muldering’ me.”

“I am not ‘muldering’ you! Have you looked in the mirror lately, Dana? You look awful.”

Scully glared at him. “Gee thanks, John, you sure know how to turn a girl’s head.”

“I’m serious. Come here, I want to show you something.”

Holding his arm for support, she allowed him to walk her to the bathroom and watched as he flipped on the light. “Look at yourself. Your color is all wrong and you’ve got bags under your eyes. I didn’t say anything yesterday, because you seemed to perk up when we were out and because I didn’t want to discourage you from talking, but you look even worse today. To be honest Dana, you’re scaring me.”

Scully looked at her reflection. He was right, she looked horrible. She wanted to argue that it was just the shock to her system from the broken hand, but she knew it was more than that. “OK, you win. I’ll take the pill, after the movie.” She paused and looked at herself a second longer. “Did I really look this bad yesterday?”

Byers frowned and nodded. “Back to the couch?”

Scully sighed. “Lead on, MacDuff.”

Byers took her to the couch, covered her legs with an afghan and placed a drink within her reach. Scully just shook her head as he fussed. “You would have made a wonderful mother, John.”

He stood over her, putting both hands on his hips and delivering his best look of exasperation. “Between Langly, Frohike and you, I certainly have enough experience dealing with infants, don’t I? Now shut up before I decide to send you to bed without your movie!”

4 PM
Lone Gunmen HQ

“Frohike.”

“Hey, Frohike, I need a ride dude.”

“I thought you had one already.”

“Yeah, well, I did, but Mannie’s kid got sick and we had to stop the game early.”

“OK, where are you?”

“Great. I’m just up the street from Byers’ favorite bookstore. How ‘bout I meet you there?”

“Be there as soon as I can.”

“Thanks, Frohike.”

3 PM
Potosi Sheriff’s Dept.

Results from Mulder’s search were starting to come in. Of the thirty-five screen names returned so far, none lived within what he would consider reasonable driving distance of the surrounding area. The closest person identified lived in Chicago, about a five-hour drive away, too far out of the comfort zone he’d established in his profile. There were still another twelve waiting to be identified. Among the names identified, was Michael Fustian of Orlando, Florida, the webmaster of the AlphaSlayer site. He called Mr. Fustian, to arrange a meeting for the next day. Then, he called the airport and booked a 6:45 flight out of Saint Louis that evening.

Mulder gathered up the papers scattered on the table and put them in his briefcase. On his way out, he stopped by Lee’s office.

“You’re going to Orlando? What if this guy hits again? Mulder, I’m gonna need all the help I can get to pull this off.”

“I need to talk to Fustian, Lee. Right now, he might be in the best position to fill in the missing pieces. If our man is playing AlphaSlayer with real victims, chances are it’s because the virtual game became too restrictive.”

Lee raised his hand and started to protest.

“Look, I’ll be back tomorrow night. He’s not going to kill this soon. He’ll need a few more days to track his newest victim.”

Lee rubbed his eyes and shook his head, then dropped the hand to his desk. “OK, Mulder, you’re the one with the expertise here. If you say we’ve got a few days, then I won’t argue with you.”

“I know this is difficult, but the ball’s in his court. If we can get a name, we just might be able to stop him before he takes another life.”

20 minutes later…

Mark Twain Motor Lodge

Mulder picked up his phone and hit the ‘Scully’ button. He tried to remember when it had gone from simply being a programmed number to the ‘Scully’ button. Probably one of those things that happen when you’re not paying attention. Kind of like falling in love with your partner. He waited for the connection, only to be greeted by the irritating sound of a busy signal. “At least I know you’re not in the shower this time.”

Grabbing his toiletry kit from the bathroom, he tossed it in the suitcase. He looked around the room to be sure he wasn’t leaving anything he might need in the next twenty-four hours. When he was certain he had everything, he closed the suitcase and took it out to the car.

45 minutes later…

The phone answered him with yet another busy signal. He looked at the phone with frustration. “Damn, Scully! What are you trying to do, set a world record for phone conversation?”

He dropped the phone on the seat beside him. He’d decided about fifteen minutes ago, that she must be talking to her mother. Scully wasn’t much for making extended phone calls, but Maggie…she was another matter entirely. Once Maggie decided to express herself, you had to just settle in and listen. She reminded him of that Snicker’s commercial. “Not going anywhere for a while?” He decided he’d buy Scully a bag of Snicker’s bars to put by the phone for Maggie’s next call.

4:30 PM
Brendan’s Book Nook

Langly walked up the street to Brendan’s. Figuring that it would take Frohike a little while to get there, he decided to go inside and see what he could find. The bell jingled as he entered and he heard someone call out a greeting from the back of the store.

“I’ll be out in a few. Call me if you need anything.”

“OK.”

Langly wandered back to see if Brendan had acquired any old government conspiracy books. He found a few dealing with the Kennedy assassination and pulled them off the shelf. He was still reading when Frohike came in the door thirty minutes later. “Find anything interesting?”

“No,” he said, holding up the book he was reading. “Check this out, the guy claims that Jackie shot JFK to get revenge for his affair with Marilyn Monroe.”

Frohike took the book and read the passage. He laughed and shook his head. “Oh man, we gotta pick this up for Byers. You ready to go?”

“Yeah, let’s get this and go home; I’m beat.”

They walked up to the register, but no one was there to ring up the book. Langly dropped it on the counter. “Hello?”

“Hold on, I’ll be right there.”

A minute later, Brendan came out from the back room. “Sorry to keep you waiting, I was trying to price out some of the books I just bought. Sometimes I lose track of the time. This be all for you today?”

“Yeah, this is it.”

Brendan rang up Langly’s purchase and handed him the bag. He looked at Langly, then at Frohike, trying to place their faces. “Have I seen you two before? You look familiar.”

Langly folded the top of the bag and stuck it under his arm. “Yeah, we were in here a few days ago with a friend of ours. He’s the one who bought that dream catcher you had in the back room.”

Brendan raised his eyebrows. “I knew I’d seen you before. Is your friend here? I have something I’d like to give him.”

“No, he’s not, but we’ll be seeing him this evening.”

Brendan reached under the counter and pulled out the diary. Giving it a wipe with his shirt, he handed it to Langly. “Would you mind giving this to him? I found it the other day. It’s the diary of the man who owned the dream catcher. Pretty creepy stuff. I thought he might like to read its immediate history. Might change his mind about hanging that thing up.”

“Sure, thanks. What do I owe you for it?”

“Nothing, I don’t sell old diaries, it would just end up in the trash.”

“OK, thanks, I’ll see that he gets it.”

5:15 PM
Scully’s apartment

==The smell of smoke everywhere. Overwhelming. No heat, no flame. The almost intolerable smell clinging to everything. Walls close in and hallways become impassable. Can’t breathe. “Where’s the door? Mulder, where’s the door?” No reply. Looking around, seeing nothing. The walls disappear from sight, but they’re still there. Can’t get out. Footsteps coming, the smell is getting stronger. More footsteps. Two, maybe three sets. Hide. Where? Footsteps in front, footsteps behind. “Mulder, is that you?” No reply. Hands grab. Laughter. The smoking man appears. Struggling, trying to break free. The hands tighten their grip. “LET ME GO!” More laughter. Smoking man takes a last drag, then tosses the butt to the floor. “You didn’t think we were going to let you just walk away from us, did you Agent Scully? That’s not how our little game is played. But then, you haven’t been following the rules, now, have you? Haven’t you heard? Resistance is futile.” Nods to the owner of the arms. Smoking man lights another cigarette. Takes a drag, then exhales slowly. “Game over, Agent Scully. My regards to your sister.” A soft ‘fwooop’ from behind. Stabbing pain in the back of the neck. “Nooooooooo!!”==

Scully woke up sobbing. She reached up to wipe her eyes, forgetting the cast on her hand, and smacked herself in the head; crying out in pain, frustration and residual fear. Byers heard the cry and ran into the bedroom.

“Dana, are you all right?”

Scully didn’t answer; she rubbed her head and avoiding looking at him. He reached out and gently pulled her hand away from her face. A bright red welt had already begun to form over her right eye. Byers touched the welt.

“I’d better go get some ice for that, it’s starting to swell.”

Scully reached for the tissues, dried her eyes and blew her nose. Byers returned, ice pack and a cup of tea in hand. He placed the tea on the nightstand and put the ice pack on her head. She took the ice pack from his hand and held it in place. “What happened, Dana?”

“Another one. I had another one,” she whispered.

“Want to talk about it?”

“No.” She paused and looked at the clock. “It’s six? Did Mulder or Skinner call?”

Byers shook his head. “They may have tried, but the phone’s off the hook. I didn’t want anything to disturb you.”

“Put it back. Mulder’s probably been trying to call. I don’t want him to think that anything’s wrong. When he does call, you’re not to tell him about any of this.”

“He needs to know, Dana. He’s not going to be too happy when he finds out you’ve been keeping these nightmares a secret.”

“You let me handle Mulder. He doesn’t need to know right now.”

Byers looked up at the dream catcher. He did a double take, then stared at it; a frown appearing on his face.

“What’s wrong, John?”

“Nothing, must be my imagination. I could have sworn I saw your dream catcher… glowing.”

“Glowing?”

“Yes, glowing. Like I said, must be my imagination.”

“Now I know you’ve been hanging out with Mulder too long.”

5:20 PM
Lone Gunmen HQ

Langly tossed the bag on the table and went in to take a shower. It had been a long weekend and the only thing he wanted right then was to wash off the hours of sweat and get into some clean clothes. “Hey Frohike, how long do you think Byers will be staying at Scully’s?”

“I don’t know. As long as she can stand him, I suppose. Why?”

“Think we should take that book to him?”

“Nah, it’ll still be here when he gets back. I doubt he’ll be taking too much time to read anyway; you know how he gets when someone is sick.”

“Yeah, you’re right. OK, I’m gonna hit the showers.”

“Thank God.”

Langly took off his shirt, rolled it into a ball and threw it at Frohike, hitting him square in the face. Frohike kicked it back into the hall.

“Punk ass.”

6:45 PM
Scully’s apartment

Byers reached to answer the phone.

“Don’t you dare, it might be Mulder. The last thing I need is for him to hear your voice on the other end of my phone.”

He pulled his arm back and waited for her to pick up the receiver. She let the phone ring one more time, before answering. “Hello.”

“Geez Scully, it’s about time you got off the phone! I’ve been trying to get through all afternoon.”

“Sorry Mulder, my mom called.”

“That’s what I figured. How is Maggie?”

“Oh, um…she’s fine. Where are you? The connection sounds funny.”

“I’m on a plane to Orlando. I found the guy that runs the AlphaSlayer site, so I’m flying down to meet with him. Hopefully, he’ll be able to give me something useful.”

“Are you going to be there long?”

“No, just until tomorrow evening. I’ll be back in Potosi around six tomorrow. Are you OK? You don’t sound right.”

“I’m fine, Mulder. Just need a little sleep.”

“Are you having trouble sleeping? More nightmares?”

“Nothing to worry about, I’m sure everything will work itself out once you’re home. Speaking of which….”

“It’s going to be a few more days. If this guy stays true to form, he should make his move by the middle of the week. I’m thinking Wednesday might be the day. I need to stay here and help Lee out, Scully.”

“Of course you do! I’m not asking you to come home and take care of me, Mulder. I just miss having you around.”

“I miss you, too.”

They sat quietly, listening to the other breathe, glad for the connection. There was so much to say, but neither could find the words. “Did you pick up those leave forms?”

Scully smiled. “Not yet. It’s only Sunday, Mulder, remember? Anyway, I don’t think getting some time off is going to present a problem. With all our accumulated vacation time, we could take the next few months off, with pay.”

“Just a few months? I was hoping for a lot longer than that.”

“You wouldn’t last two weeks without an x-file to investigate, Mulder. Who do you think you’re trying to kid?”

“You know me too well, Agent Scully. I’m not sure if that’s good or bad.”

“It’s good, Agent Mulder, trust me.”

“Always.” Mulder heard a familiar ding, then the captain asking that all cell phones, CD players and computers be turned off. He thought he heard something about turbulence, too, but he wasn’t paying too much attention. “Hey Scully, I’ll have to call you back later. They need all the cell phones off now.”

“OK, I’ll talk to you later. Bye.”

“Bye.”

Scully leaned over to place the receiver back on the phone. She leaned back on the couch and sighed.

“Feel better now?”

She jumped at the sound of Byers’ voice.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you.”

“No, it’s OK; I just forgot you were here.”

“I think I’ve just been insulted.”

“No, John, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean…” She turned to look at him and caught the grin on his face. Realizing that he was teasing her, she relaxed back into the couch. “Yes, I feel much better now.”

“Good enough to eat something?”

“You’re as bad as my mother!” She shook her head, then realized that she actually was hungry. “What did you have in mind?”

8 PM
Scully’s apartment

Byers and Scully settled down on the couch, to watch Harvey on AMC. Having another old movie fan in the place was nice, no fighting over what movies to watch and no threat of finding anything starring Jackie Chan. Nick Clooney was busy giving the viewers some behind-the-scenes items of interest on the film, when the phone rang.

“Hello.”

“Good evening, Agent Scully. How are you feeling?”

“Good evening to you too, sir. I’m fine, I just wish everyone would stop treating me like I’m an invalid.”

“Byers is there to make sure you don’t do any more damage to that hand, Scully. If I find out that you’re giving him a hard time, I’ll call for reinforcements. I’m sure your mother would love to stop by and help you out. Mulder, too.” Skinner smiled as he heard her let out a sigh.

“Et tu, sir?”

Skinner let out a laugh. “Feeling a little…paranoid…Agent Scully?”

“Comes with the territory, sir.”

“I guess it does, Scully, I guess it does. Put Byers on.”

Scully handed the receiver to Byers, who gave her a puzzled look. Scully shrugged her shoulders.

“Hello…yes…I see. I’ll see that she gets there.” Byers paused for a moment, then a huge grin crossed his face. “I’ll remember that. Good night.” Byers hung up the phone and sank back into the couch to watch the movie. Scully stared at him. He tried to avoid looking at her, but failed miserably. “What?”

“Well, what did he say?”

“He wants me to take you to your doctor’s appointment on Wednesday.”

“And…?”

“That’s all.”

“Come on, John, I saw that silly grin. What else did he say?”

“You really want to know?”

“Yes!”

“He said if you gave me any trouble, that I had his permission to kick your ass.”

Scully noted the self-satisfied expression on his face and decided to let her comeback slide. Every once in a while, you had to let them win or they became sullen and no fun at all. “Shut up and pass the popcorn.”

Barely Balancing 4/5 By Frohike

**author’s note. Anything in == == denotes a dream sequence.**

10 PM
DolphInn, Orlando

Horribly cute images of dolphins adorned the lobby and hallways of the DolphInn. Mulder thought he might gag from the motif. The ridiculous name was bad enough, but images of Flipper at Disney World, complete with the stupid mouse-ear hat, was more than anyone over the age of six should have to endure.

He slipped the key into the lock and said a silent prayer before opening the door. Please, let the room be dolphin-free. As the door swung open, he saw that his prayer had been heard and answered. The room was standard issue; brown flowered bedspread with matching drapes and ugly tan carpeting. Thank you.

After tossing his bag on the bed, he reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone, only to see the low battery light blinking. He frowned, then rummaged through his bag to find the recharging unit. “I know, Scully, if I’d plug this in at night I wouldn’t have this problem.” He considered calling her back using the hotel phone, but decided against it. It wasn’t that late, not for him anyway, but he didn’t want to risk waking her up; she’d sounded so tired earlier. Instead, he reached for the remote control to see what kind of offerings the TV Gods had in store.

11 PM
Scully’s apartment

Her fight had been valiant, but in the end, Scully had to concede the battle. The pill Byers had made her take an hour earlier, finally won. “You win, I’m going to bed.”

“Excuse me? Could you repeat that, please?”

“I said, I’m going to bed.”

“No, the first part.”

You little creep! You’re sounding more and more like Mulder every day. She sighed heavily and adopted her best ‘put upon’ look. “You win. Happy now?”

“Yes. Those are two words I don’t get to hear very often.”

Scully raised her eyebrow at him. “Glad I could be here to give your ego a boost.” She placed her good hand on the arm of the couch and tried to push herself up off the cushion. About halfway up, a wave of dizziness caught her by surprise and knocked her back down. This is really getting old. John got up and moved toward her. Taking her arm, he helped her up. As she stood, he put an arm around her waist, for support.

“Looks like you’re the one that needs the boost right now.”

“Ha ha. Don’t quit your day job, John.”

3:02 AM
Scully’s apartment

==“Scully, I’ve got to go now, the captain’s asking for all cell phones to be turned off. I’ll talk to you later.”

“Is there something wrong?”

“I don’t know…”

A loud noise, then the sound of the phone hitting the floor.

“Mulder?”

Scrambling sounds, screaming.

“MULDER!!”

More screams. BOOM!!! Then nothing.

“MULDER!!!!!!”==

Scully woke up screaming once again. Byers ran in from the living room, stumbling in the dark, until he could find the light switch. She was sitting up, holding her head in her hands, sobbing. He approached her carefully, not wanting to startle her.

“Dana? It’s John, are you OK?”

Scully shook her head back and forth. “No,” she whispered. “Help me up, I need to check on something.”

He walked over to the bed and helped her stand. She was shaking and unsteady, so he put an arm around her. She slipped an arm around his waist and put her head on his chest. “I need to check the news.”

He nodded and led her, slowly, to the couch, then turned on CNN.

“What are we looking for?”

“Plane crash.”

He already knew the answer, but he had to ask. “Anywhere in particular?”

“Somewhere between St. Louis and Orlando.”

He nodded his head and stared at the screen with her. She had her arms wrapped around herself as tightly as possible. He wanted desperately to hold her, but he stayed where he was. “Dana? Want me to check the Internet? It might be faster.”

She looked at him and nodded, then turned back to the screen.

He went to the computer and searched everywhere possible. No reports of any plane crashes in the continental U.S. Breathing a sigh of relief, he told her the good news. “All clear. Not a single crash reported.”

He logged off and returned to the couch. This time, he did put his arm around her. “He’s fine, Dana. Knowing Mulder, he’s probably asleep in front of the TV in some cheap hotel. Want to call him? You know he won’t mind.”

“No, you’re probably right. It was just a dream, nothing more.” She looked up at him and smiled. “Thanks for being here, John.”

He leaned over and kissed her on the forehead. “No problem.” Anything for you, Dana. Anything at all. “How ‘bout we put you back to bed and see if you can sleep now.”

5:45 AM
DolphInn

CRASH!!!

Mulder jolted awake, nearly falling out of bed. What the Hell? He walked over to the window and pulled back the drapes. Rain was coming down in sheets. Lightning hit all around, followed immediately by a thunderclap. Mulder frowned and rolled his eyes. “Another lovely trip to Florida. I thought this was supposed to be the Sunshine State.”

Completely awake now, he decided to forego a shower in favor of checking out the breakfast fare at the hotel. He wandered into the bathroom and gave his face a perfunctory swipe with his razor. Managing to complete that task unknicked, he returned to the bedroom to get dressed. As he finished, he unplugged the phone from the recharger and slipped it into his pocket. Tossing the recharging unit back into his suitcase, he briefly considered calling Scully, but decided to wait a few more hours. Or at least until he’d had breakfast.

6:30 AM
Scully’s apartment

She’d been awake for only twenty minutes. Her first thought was to wait until she was sure that Mulder was awake and had eaten something, but after a twelve minute wait that seemed to last two-hours, she picked up the phone.

“Mulder.”

“Did I wake you?”

“No, I just finished breakfast. I’m on my way back to the room to pack and kill a little time before I have to meet with Fustian. Hold on, I have to open the door.”

She could hear the sound of the key being inserted in the lock and Mulder pulling on the door.

“Sorry about that, the door sticks a bit, you need both hands to get it opened. You should see this place Scully; it looks like Flipper’s wet dream. Dolphins everywhere. There’s even a mural of a dolphin at Disney World. Kind of makes me want to buy stock in the companies that don’t advertise dolphin-safe tuna.”

“Sounds horrible.”

“Are you OK, Scully?”

“I’m fine now, Mulder. You didn’t call back last night… then I dreamed that your plane crashed. I was up at three this morning watching CNN; just to be sure it was a dream. It’s so stupid, but I just had to call to hear your voice.”

“Scully, this is really starting to concern me. Have you gotten any sleep in the last four days?”

“I’ll be OK, Mulder, this will pass; it always does.”

“I don’t know, this one seems to be lasting a lot longer than the others. Why don’t you see if Maggie can come stay with you for a little while, just until I get home.”

“Mulder, I’m a grown woman. I refuse to go running home to mother every time I have a bad dream.”

“OK, OK, don’t bite my head off! It was just a suggestion.”

Scully lowered her head, saying nothing.

“Scully?”

“I’m still here, Mulder. I’m sorry, there was no reason for me to snap at you like that.”

“It’s all right, I’m no prize after a few bad nights, myself.”

“Mulder, your grasp of the understatement never ceases to amaze me.”

“If you like my understatement, wait until you see my new and improved innuendo. The critics are raving. Roger Ebert gave me a big ‘thumbs up.’”

“So that’s what killed Siskel!”

“Ouch! Oh Scully, that was a low blow and…never mind.”

“Wise place to stop, Mulder. You don’t want to go there right now.”

“Maybe later?”

“We’ll talk, after you get home.”

“Hmmm. Sounds like I’d better catch me a killer, before you change your mind.”

“Mulder.”

“Yes, Scully?”

“Call me later?”

“I promise. Don’t work too hard today.”

“I won’t.”

10AM
Home of Michael Fustian

Fustian walked out into the living room and handed Mulder two lists. Mulder started scanning the pages. “OK, the first page is the list of current players. The other is the list of players who have registered, but are not currently hunting. As you can see, I ask each player to register using his or her real name, city and state of residence. I tell them it’s a matter of helping to confirm kills, but really, it’s a matter of nosiness on my part. I want to know where the nutcases live, so I can stay as far away from them as possible.”

He laughed at his own joke. Mulder raised his eyes, gave him a half-smile and returned to reading the lists. Fustian reminded Mulder of Langly. They had the same taste in glasses, a similar build and the same lousy sense of humor. But, where Langly had the long flowing tresses of an aging hippie, Fustian had short, spiked, bleached hair. Separated at birth?

“Yeah, well…uh…anyway, it’s all there. Is there anything in particular I can help you with other than these names?

“Do you keep track of the signatures each player uses to confirm a kill?”

“Sure, each player has to register a symbol before starting the hunt, that way no one is duplicating signatures. Saves a lot of confusion when I’m tallying up the kills each week. After a while, they just start to blend together, you know? Messed me up good before I started making everyone register. One time, I had three guys using a…”

Mulder held up his hand. “Mr. Fustian, could you show me the signatures, please.”

“Yeah, sure. Sorry, I don’t get a chance to talk to many real people anymore. Guess it’s a hazard of running a website. I spend all my time with virtual friends instead of having a life with actual ones. Come on, it’s on a disk in the other room.” He led Mulder through the house, to a room in the back. The room was stacked from floor to ceiling with books, printouts, CDs and miscellaneous computer equipment. The computer sat against the far wall. Above it hung a gruesome poster advertising AlphaSlayer.

Mulder’s eye darted about, taking in every detail of the room. His eyes stopped on the poster. Fustian noticed what had caught Mulder’s eye and grinned. “Pretty cool, huh? My brother had it made for me as a Christmas present last year. He figures we can use them as advertising, if we ever get the game released on CD-ROM. We’ve already got one company interested, but there are still a lot of the bugs to iron out.” He rummaged through a drawer, pulled out a disk and placed it in the disk drive.

“Charming. Mr. Fustian, doesn’t it bother you that someone is out there playing your game, using real people as prey?”

“Look Agent Mulder. People have been committing murder for centuries; it’s not a new phenomenon. Games allow us to act out our rage in a safe environment. They’re cathartic, not harmful. It wouldn’t matter if my game was out there or not; this guy would still be killing people. He’s just decided to use my game as a guideline to act out the killings. If it wasn’t mine, it would be someone else’s game, or book, or movie, or TV show. You know how it is, everyone’s a victim, and no one takes any personal responsibility for anything.”

“Aren’t you failing to accept responsibility just by saying that, Mr. Fustian? In effect, you’ve just proven your own point.”

“I believe in free will, Agent Mulder. I’m not twisting this guy’s arm and making him commit these murders, am I? I take full responsibility for the content of my site. There’s a disclaimer on the home page, stating that this is solely for entertainment purposes. Sure, every so often, I get an angry email, calling me every name in the book, for hosting such a despicable site. I answer, echoing their concerns, but defending my right to exist. I take responsibility for my actions, I don’t have to accept it for the actions of others.” He turned away and pulled up the signature file. “Here you go, names in one column, signatures in the other. They’re in alphabetical order, but if you tell me what signature you’re looking for, I might be able to get you there faster.”

“A red skull and crossbones.”

“Plain red skull and crossbones? No special features, like glowing eyes or dripping blood?”

“Just a plain red one.”

Fustian nodded his head and shook his finger in the air. “I think I know right where that one is.” He scrolled down the list quickly, stopping when he reached the name he was looking for. “Is this it?”

12:15 PM
Orlando International Airport

The phone rang four times before being answered. The voice on the other end was out of breath and sounded more than a little frazzled. “Yeah…uh…Sheriff’s Department, Stanton speaking.”

“Hi Stanton, it’s Mulder. What’s wrong? You sound like you just ran the fifty-yard dash.”

“I did. It’s a mess here right now, Mulder. Two of our men were injured in a car crash a few hours ago. Sheriff Dryden had to take Annie over to the hospital to be with Mitchell and our only other officer is home with pneumonia. I’m alone here until the Sheriff gets back.”

“Back up, would you Stanton? You’ve lost me. Take it from the top, but slow it down this time. First, who’s Annie?”

“Right.” Stanton paused to take a deep breath before continuing. “OK, Annie’s the lady who answers the phone for us. You can’t miss her; she’s usually right here when you walk in the door. She’s married to Mitchell.”

“OK. Now, what happened?”

“Warren and Mitchell were out on patrol this morning. Some dumb ass kid in a pickup ran a stop sign and broadsided the car. The kid’s fine, just some cuts and bruises. His pickup is totaled though. Stupid kid was worried about being late to class, that’s going to be the least of his worries now. Anyway, Warren’s gonna be all right. He has some good-sized cuts on his face and arms; Doc had to take a few stitches to close up a couple of ‘em. Mitchell’s messed up pretty good though. The impact set off the airbag and the damned thing broke three of his ribs and punctured a lung. Doc says he’ll recover, but he’s not going to be back anytime real soon. Annie will be back later in the week. She was shaken up pretty bad, so Sheriff told her take a few days off. It’s a good thing they don’t have kids yet, I don’t think she’s gonna be in any shape to take care of much of anything tonight.”

“How did the air bag break his ribs? I thought those things were aimed at the upper chest and face, not at the ribcage.”

“You’ve never seen Mitchell drive, have you? Strangest damned driving style I’ve ever seen. You know how you can adjust the steering wheel on most cars? Well, he sets the thing down as low as possible. Darn thing practically skims the top of his legs. When the pickup hit them, that airbag just sucker punched him right in ribcage. Good thing it was there though, probably saved his life.”

“I’m glad he’s going to be all right. Look, tell Sheriff Dryden that I may have found our killer. My flight leaves here in an hour, I’ll give him a call as soon as I get back.”

“Will do, Agent Mulder. Have a safe flight.”

2:10 PM
Flight 1121, en route to St. Louis

Mulder checked his watch for the fifteenth time in as many minutes. He’d gone over the case in his head a dozen times since the plane left Orlando and he needed a break. Picking up his phone, he dialed the only person he knew would help take him out of work mode for a moment.

“Scully.”

“Scully, it’s me. You busy right now?”

“No, I’m just doing a little cleaning around this pigsty we call an office.”

Byers shook his head at her and mouthed ‘liar.’ He sat down next to her on the couch. “I’m telling,” he whispered, as he reached for the phone.

Scully frowned and turned her head so that the phone was out of his grasp. “Grow up!” she hissed, covering the receiver so that Mulder wouldn’t hear.

Byers snickered, got up and went into the kitchen, not seeing the glare that would have let him know she was not amused.

“What was that, Scully?”

“What was what?”

“Sounded like you were talking to someone.”

“Oh, that was just Lowell dropping off the mail.”

“He’s early today, isn’t he?”

“So what if he is! Look Mulder, was there some reason you called or are you just here to discuss the promptness of our mail delivery?”

“Geez, sorry! No, no reason. I just needed a break from the case. Tell you what, I’ll call you back later.”

“Whatever, Mulder.”

Scully disconnected loudly. Mulder stared at the phone, feeling confused and a little hurt. “What did I do?”

Checking his watch, again, he decided to spend the last thirty minutes of the flight working out his frustration doing the crossword puzzle in the in-flight magazine. It wasn’t exactly the Sunday New York Times, but it would have to do.

2:15 PM
Scully’s apartment

Byers heard her slam down the receiver and debated whether or not to leave the relative safety of the kitchen. His better judgment told him to stay put, maybe wash the few dishes in the sink or mop the floor, anything to give her time to cool off from whatever it was that Mulder had said to make her angry. She’d been on edge all morning and he wasn’t terribly anxious to get in her way. Still, he couldn’t help but wonder why she’d ended the conversation so abruptly. Finally, curiosity won out over better judgment. He entered the living room and found her staring out the window. “Is everything OK?”

She turned around quickly, grabbing the windowsill for support as she did. The set of her brow reminded him of the adage ‘Curiosity killed the cat.’ Right now, he was feeling very much like that cat and wishing that he’d decided to mop the floor. “No, everything is not OK. What the Hell did you think you were doing trying to grab the phone away from me earlier? What kind of stupid, childish behavior is that? Damn it, Byers, I’m not a child. If I want to tell a lie once in a while to protect my privacy, then that’s my choice. I will not stand for you or anyone else passing judgment on the way I choose to handle my affairs.”

She pushed off the windowsill and started toward the couch. Or is she starting toward me, he wondered. The phrase ‘fire in her eyes’ crossed his mind. It was not a phrase he’d ever truly understood; he understood it now.

His every inclination was to step away from her. Far away. Her gait was unsteady though, so he held his ground, hoping it was the couch she was aiming for. About halfway to the couch, she faltered. He moved to help her, but the daggers her eyes threw convinced him otherwise. “Fine, I’ll be in the kitchen if you need me. I’d suggest you take your time getting to the couch, so you don’t fall and do anymore damage to yourself.”

“Jerk.”

Bitch.

He looked behind him, quickly. Tell me I didn’t say that out loud. Scully had just reached the couch and was paying no attention to his departure. Whew.

Once in the kitchen, he began taking inventory of the food on hand. They were low on a few miscellaneous items, so he decided to use that as an excuse to take a short hike. They’d been together a little too much and a break might be just the thing to calm her down. Won’t do me any harm either. “I’m going to the grocery store. Do you want anything?”

“No.”

“All right. I shouldn’t be more than a half-hour, forty-five minutes. Mind if I take your car?”

“Fine. Whatever.”

“Are you sure you don’t want anything? Some ice cream, maybe?”

“Was ‘no’ not clear enough? For crying out loud, will you just go already?”

The next thing she heard was the door closing and the lock being secured from outside. No ‘good-bye’, no nothing. Why am I being such a bitch? A cold chill ran up her spine, making her body shake uncontrollably. Tears of anger, frustration and exhaustion poured down her cheeks. Mulder, come home. Please.

2:30 PM
Pay phone outside of a grocery store

“Frohike, what are you and Langly doing for dinner tonight?”

“I don’t know, haven’t thought about it. Why?”

“Scully’s losing it. Maybe I’m losing it. I can’t tell anymore. Look, could you guys come over tonight. I’ll tell her I thought we could use the company before one of us kills the other or something like that. She’s getting worse, Frohike and I don’t know what to do for her.”

“That bad?”

“Yeah, that bad.”

“We’ll be over around five. Want us to bring anything?”

“After the way Scully was looking at me before I left…you might want to consider wearing a cup and a bullet-proof vest.”

4:30 PM
Potosi

Mulder tossed his bag and briefcase onto the dresser. Pulling his phone out of his pocket, he briefly considered calling Scully. After thinking back on their most recent conversation, he decided he’d leave that alone for a few more hours; he had too much work to do and too little time to do it in. He decided to go down to the sheriff’s office to update Lee on his findings.

4:45 PM
Scully’s apartment

Scully had said little to Byers about the boys joining them for dinner. In reality, she’d said little to him at all since he’d returned. Part of her was irrationally angry with him for issuing an invitation without consulting her; the other part was looking forward to seeing some new faces, even Frohike’s. Trying to reconcile her split feelings was taking all of her energy. An apology was in order from one of them and she was pretty sure she was the one. She watched him as he set the table, well aware that he was doing his best to avoid looking in her direction. “John?”

He stopped, took a breath, and without turning to face her, answered. “What, Dana?”

She waited to see if he would look her at her way. When it became clear that he wasn’t going to turn around, she started again. “John, would you please look at me?” He turned, then slowly raised his eyes to meet hers. “Thanks.” She paused, looked down at her hands, then up at him. “About earlier…I’m sorry. I know you were just teasing, just trying to lighten up my mood; I was out of line.”

“It’s OK, Dana. My timing leaves something to be desired.” He walked to the couch and sat down beside her. “I’m sorry about inviting Langly and Frohike over without asking you, but we need a break from each other and I didn’t know who else to call. Mulder’s out. You were adamant about not calling your mother. The only other person was Skinner and I didn’t think you’d want him to see you right now either. Frankly, if he’d been here earlier, I’m not sure I could have stopped him from calling Mulder. I’m not sure I’m doing the right thing by not calling him.”

“Please don’t call him, John. He seems to be sure he’s got a line on the killer and that the case will be resolved this week. He’ll be home soon and I’ll tell him everything then.” Noting the skeptical look he was giving her, she added, “I promise.”

“What did he say to you anyway? I heard you slam down the phone.”

“Oh. He didn’t say anything, that’s just it. He asked a perfectly innocent question and I just flew off the handle. I think he just wanted to hear my voice and I…”

“Went postal?”

“Yeah, went postal.”

“You need to fix that, you know. He’s going to obsess over that conversation and find some way to turn it into another Mulder Guilt Trip, if you don’t.”

“I know. I’ll call him later.”

Byers reached behind him and picked up the phone. “Call him now.”

Scully took the phone and placed it back down. “Help me up. I’d like to change before the guys get here. I’ll call him from the bedroom.”

He stood up, helped her off the couch and into the bedroom. She stopped him at the door. “I think I can take it from here. If you hear a ‘thump’, that’ll be your cue to come pick me up off the floor.” He laughed and let go of her arm.

“Change first, then call Mulder. If I don’t see you in about fifteen minutes, I’m going to stick my head in to make sure you’re all right. I’d like to able to do that without worrying about catching you undressed; I still haven’t recovered from the zipper incident.”

“Gee, and I so wanted to wear those jeans tonight. Maybe Frohike can help this time.”

“Go ahead, I’m sure he’d love to be of assistance.”

Knock, knock, knock.

“Look, there’s your humble servant now. I’ll send him right in to give you a hand with that zipper.”

“Don’t even think about it. Remember, I have a very protective Mulder in my corner.”

“Bring him on, Dana. I can take him.” He held his arms open and shrugged his shoulders. Dropping his arms back down, he laughed. “Get in there already, so I can open the door.”

He waited until her door closed before answering the knock. There stood Frohike, clean-shaven and bearing flowers. Langly had brushed his hair and had even pulled it back into a ponytail for the occasion. Byers pushed the door open and motioned for them to come inside.

“Thanks for coming over, guys.”

Frohike scanned the room. “Where’s Scully?”

Byers motioned for them to follow him into the kitchen. He didn’t want to chance Scully overhearing this part of the conversation. Opening the cabinet under the sink, he pulled out a vase and filled it with water. He put it down on the counter and pushed it toward Frohike. Taking the hint, Frohike removed the paper from the bouquet and placed the flowers in the vase. “In the bedroom, changing. She may be a little while; she needed to call Mulder. He called earlier and she blew up at him.”

Langly snickered. “What’d he do?”

“Nothing, that’s what I was trying to tell you earlier. She just went crazy for no good reason. I thought she was going to kill me for teasing her this afternoon. If her gun had been nearby, she might have. That’s why I called. She seems stable now, but wait until you see her. Her color is all wrong, she’s still not getting any sleep, in spite of the medication, she’s dizzy all the time and the nightmares are getting worse. Last night, she woke up screaming because she’d dreamt Mulder had been killed in a plane crash. I had to bring her out here to watch CNN, while I went on the Internet to see if there had been any plane crashes. I’m telling you, she’s on the verge of a breakdown and I don’t know how to handle it.”

“I gotta tell you, Byers, you’re not looking too good yourself. You want one of us to trade off with you tonight so you can get some sleep? I can hang out here, if you want, Frohike’s on night watch, so I’m free.”

“Thanks, Langly, but no. She’d never go for it. We’ve established a certain comfort level. Besides, if we do that, she’ll think we’ve taken this on as a chore and not as an act of friendship. I can’t chance doing something I know will upset her. Her emotional state is unstable, at best, I don’t want to be the one to push her over the edge.”

Scully’s bedroom

After she finished getting dressed, Scully picked up the phone and dialed Mulder’s number.

“Mulder.”

“Mulder, it’s me.”

“Hi.”

“About earlier…I’m sorry, I…I’m sorry, you didn’t deserve to be yelled at like that.”

“It’s OK.”

“You’re mad at me.”

“No, Scully, I’m not mad at you. I’m worried, I think you’re keeping something from me.”

“I told you, I’m fine. The nightmares are keeping me up and I’m losing sleep, that’s all. They’ll pass, just like they always do. This time’s just lasting a little longer than most, that’s all.”

“I want to believe that, Scully.”

“But…”

“But… I’m having trouble. Maybe it’s because I’m here and you’re there and I can’t look at your face when you tell me you’re fine.” Mulder looked up to see that Lee had come into the office. “Hey Scully, can I call you back later? Lee’s here and I really need to go over the information I got from Fustian.”

“Sure, I’ll be here.”

Scully put down the phone. Feeling a little better, now that she’d apologized, she prepared for the evening ahead. Getting up from the edge of the bed, she was hit by another one of those irritating waves of dizziness. Using the nightstand for support, she stood still and waited for it to pass. This was beyond annoying at this point. She’d taken both medications before, with no ill effects and she was eating properly, thanks to Mother Byers. True, she wasn’t getting enough sleep, but that still didn’t account for the constant dizziness. As bad as it was in the living room, it seemed to get worse whenever she tried to get up from the bed. Giving up, she sat back down on the bed and decided to ask Byers for some help. The last thing she wanted to do was appear weak in front of Frohike and Langly, but she was out of options. She tried to call out, but soon realized that they couldn’t hear her. So, she did the next best thing; the one thing she knew he would hear. Picking up the book she’d long since given up trying to read, she hurled it at the bedroom door. It hit with a loud bang. As soon as the book hit the door, she heard the sound of chairs being pushed back, followed by running. Five, four, three, two… The door flew open.

“Dana, are you all right?”

Scully gave him a little smile and slumped in defeat. “I can’t stand up. When I do, the room spins. Would you mind?”

Potosi Sheriff’s Office

Mulder hit the off button and tucked the phone back into his pocket.

“How’s your partner?”

“I don’t know. She says she’s fine, but…”

“But you’re worried about her anyway.”

Mulder nodded his head and frowned.

“You two…this is more than just a working relationship?”

Mulder reached up and ran his fingers through his hair. “I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t say anything. This is new to both of us. Everyone at the Bureau thinks we’ve been…for a long time. They must be smarter than either of us, we just recently figured it out for ourselves.”

“So you’re not…?”

“No, not yet. This case of yours dropped a little rain on our parade, so to speak.”

“OK, let’s do something about catching this guy then, so you can get back where you belong.”

Mulder smiled, relieved to be changing the subject. “The suspect’s name is Douglas Gale Longford.” He opened his briefcase and pulled out his notes, handing a copy to the sheriff. “Last know address is a residence in Bonne Terre; same hometown as Gail Hammond, by the way. No priors, so he’s either been very careful, very lucky or he’s just now branching out into violence against people.”

“What do you mean by ‘branching out’?

“Serial killers aren’t made overnight. They generally start out as disturbed children who take out their anger by mutilating animals. I’d be willing to bet that a number of small animals went missing in Mr. Longford’s neighborhood, when he was a child. After a while, animals don’t satisfy their need to hurt, so they move on to those they can intimidate. Some find a sexual release in killing that they can’t experience in their own lives, so you can figure that he’s not Mr. Popularity with the ladies. Most likely, he lives alone, has a menial job and few, if any, friends. Neighbors will say that he’s a nice young man, never caused any trouble, always paid his rent on time…you know the speech. Same one you hear on the six o’clock news every time one of these guys gets caught.”

Lee picked up the picture of Longford, giving it a good once over. “Look at this guy. He looks like the type you wouldn’t mind your daughter dating. Good looking, clean-cut, all-American boy next door.”

“Too bad people don’t come with ingredient labels.”

6 PM
Scully’s apartment

Byers and Langly took kitchen detail, leaving Frohike to entertain Scully in the interim. Byers chose to wash the dishes, in order to give both he and Dana a break from one another. Langly, however, was bullied into service by Frohike’s evil eye. He seemed like an easy-going kind of guy, but when Melvin Frohike put his mind to something, the best course of action was to get out of the way. Hell hath no fury like a Frohike scorned, a lesson Langly had learned the hard way many years ago.

Frohike helped Scully to couch, then sat down beside her. He wanted to say something comforting, something helpful, something to make her smile. He wanted to say all those things, what he finally said was something entirely different. “Hey, back off on Byers, will you? He’s only trying to help you out. I know he can be a real pain sometimes, but I’m fond of the little tightass and I’d like to see him come home with his ego intact.”

Scully glared at him. Her face tightened visibly, her mouth became a barely perceptible line on her face. He watched her good hand clench at her side and begin to shake. Oh ‘Hike, you’ve really stepped in it this time. He braced himself for the tongue-lashing to come. Then, as quickly as it flared, her hand unclenched, her face relaxed and her mouth regained its familiar shape. “You’re right, Frohike. He’s been a real friend and I’ve rewarded that by behaving badly and acting unappreciative. He doesn’t deserve that. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. My emotions are out of control and the people I care about keep getting caught in the crossfire.”

“So we’ve heard. How’s Mulder?”

“Byers told you about that?”

“No details, he said that you’d ended your last conversation with him on a bad note.”

“You could say that. I talked to him about it. We’re fine now.”

“He may be fine, Dana, but you’re not. You look lousy. Are you sure you don’t belong in the hospital?”

“So that’s where Byers gets his charm. Careful, you’re likely to turn my head with all those platitudes.”

“Sorry, I call ‘em as I see ‘em. Call Mulder; tell him you need him to come home. He’ll be here in a flash; all you have to do is ask. You know that, don’t you?”

“Of course I know that. It’s precisely the reason I won’t call him. He doesn’t have to protect me, I’m perfectly capable of taking care of myself.”

“Oh yeah, you’re doing a heck of job, so far. What are you going to do for an encore?”

Scully began to shake. Her face reddened and her eyes went black. Uh oh, she’s gonna blow. He slid toward the opposite end of the couch, preparing to bolt before she unleashed the tiger.

Langly entered the room carrying two bowls. “So, anyone for ice cream?” He watched as Frohike jumped up and headed toward the kitchen.

“Great, thanks Langly. You and Scully start without me, I’ll go give Byers a hand in the kitchen.”

Langly started to protest, but before he could form the words, Frohike was gone. He turned back to Scully and for a moment, caught a glimpse of what had sent Frohike running. Langly blinked his eyes, to be sure he’d seen what he’d thought he’d seen. When he looked at her again, the anger was gone.

“Langly?” She motioned for him to come over to the couch.

“Oh, right. Here, thought you might want something sweet to snack on. It’s Death by Chocolate.”

Scully raised her eyebrows, sighed, then rubbed her eyes. When her hand dropped to her side, Langly caught a glimmer of her previous face. Uh, oh.

“Chocolate, the cure-all for every woman’s problem, is that it? You men think that everything can be fixed by offering up some chocolate, don’t you? Did it ever occur to you that I might not like chocolate?”

Langly suddenly got an idea as to why Frohike had fled the scene. He was ready to do that himself and all he’d done was try to hand her a bowl of ice cream.

“Um…Scully, you do like chocolate. As a matter of fact, you told us this was one of your favorite flavors. That’s why we bought it. Did we miss a memo or something?”

“Just forget it.” She took the bowl from his hands and tossed it onto the coffee table. “I’m going to bed.” Pushing off the couch with her one good hand, Scully stood and took a step toward the bedroom. She made it as far as the end of the couch, before falling to the floor, her head just missing the edge of the table behind the couch.

Langly jumped up, dumping his bowl onto the floor. “Byers, Frohike, hurry up!”

The boys were out before Langly finished calling their names. Byers dropped to the floor beside Scully. “Dana? Can you hear me, Dana?”

Scully’s eyes fluttered open. “What happened?”

Frohike reached out and stroked her hair, both as an act of affection and to check for contusions. “You took a header, party girl. I think we wore you out.”

Byers stepped in, nudging Frohike aside. “Langly, go get a rag and clean up the ice cream by the couch. Frohike, go get a glass of water and the two bottles of pills on the counter and bring them into the bedroom.”

The two men set out to complete their assigned tasks, while Byers carefully helped Scully up off the floor and half-carried her into the bedroom. Frohike followed, pill bottles and water in hand. He gave them to Byers, then beat a hasty retreat out of the room. Scully didn’t protest when John handed her pills, simply popped them in her mouth, before reaching for the glass of water.

“Sorry about all this. I guess having them over was too much tonight. Get some rest. I’ll be in the living room, if you need anything.”

Scully shook her head, then rolled over and closed her eyes. Byers got up and started toward the door. “John?” He turned. “I’m sorry.”

He gave her a look he hoped resembled a smile, before closing the door behind him. Frohike met him just inside the living room.

“You weren’t kidding about Scully being on edge, Byers. She damned near took my head off before Langly got out here with the ice cream.”

“Almost a double beheading then, dude. She tried to tear me a new one just for telling her what flavor the ice cream was.”

“See? That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you. Scully’s losing it.”

Scully drifted off, unaware of the conversation in the next room. As she hit REM, the dream catcher began to glow.

9:45 PM
Outside the Longford residence, Bonne Terre

Mulder and Dryden watched for signs of life in the house belonging to Douglas Gale Longford. Earlier, an undercover officer, posing as a UPS carrier, had ascertained that Longford was at home. No one had entered or exited the house since, but it had been an hour since they’d seen any movement. Dryden was getting impatient. “Where is he? If he doesn’t make some noise soon, I’m going up there and peek in some of those windows.”

“No you’re not. He’s in there.”

“How do you know he hasn’t snuck out the back door? He could be gone, for all we know.”

“He’s in there. He’s planning his next move. Probably in the basement or in a back room, but he won’t leave until he’s ready to strike.”

“How do you know that? How do you know that he’s still in there?”

“I feel it. He’s in the final planning stage; going over everything to make sure he makes no mistakes. He won’t leave tonight; it’s too soon. Wednesday, that’s when he’ll make his move.”

“Then why the Hell are we sitting out here on a Monday night?”

“I could be wrong.”

Dryden growled and shook his head. “You know, Mulder, you’re a real pain-the-ass.”

“So I’ve been told. Look, I said I could be wrong, that’s why we have men positioned at the homes of each of the potential victims on the list. I’m not taking any chances with their lives. My instincts tell me that he’s still in the house and that he won’t leave until he’s ready to capture his next victim. It’s coming down Wednesday, of that, I’m sure.”

“You still think that Gail Hammond is next?”

Mulder nodded and opened up his laptop.

“What are you doing now?”

“Checking in on the websites of the targeted women. I’m hoping to find Longford’s signature on one of them. As far as we’ve been able to determine, the signature appears within twenty-four hours of the abductions. If we catch the signature in time, we can be sure to concentrate our efforts on one person, instead of spreading ourselves out watching all three.”

“So, if you find that signature, you’re going to pull the men off of the other stakeouts? What if he changes his mind and goes after one of the other women?”

“We’re not going to leave them alone. I’ve arranged for them to be taken to a safe house while we wait for Longford to make his move. He’s working on his own specific pattern; I don’t see any reason for him to make any changes now. But, just to be sure, we can have the other women in one place, freeing up a few more men to help us protect the most probable victim.”

“Anything on the sites yet?”

Mulder closed the laptop and placed it on the seat next to him. “Not yet. Look up there.” He pointed to a room on the second floor. The light was on and they could see a shape moving around. They watched as the shape moved from one end to the other. Finally, the light went out. “We won’t find that skull and crossbones tonight.”

“Why don’t you give that partner of yours a call? It’s gonna be a long night and it might do you some good to take your mind off things for a while.”

“No, not while I’m on duty. If this is going to work, we have to learn to keep business and our personal lives separate. I’ll call her when we get breakfast tomorrow.”

“I don’t know, Mulder, you said she didn’t sound right. You sure you want to wait that long?”

“No, but it’s what I have to do. If I call her, she’ll want to know what I’m doing. I’d have to tell her and she’d start quoting rules and regs. Then I’d have to listen to chapter and verse on how I don’t need to check up on her and that she can take care of herself. No, believe me, this is one call that will have to wait.”

11:52 PM
Scully’s apartment

The boys sat on the couch watching American Gothic on the SciFi Channel. Langly had tried to get them interested in the show when it ran on network television, but Frohike and Byers never quite understood the appeal. A few years later, when SciFi started running it, they couldn’t understand how they’d let it slip by. Byers and Langly had a secret desire to hold power over everything, just like Lucas, while Frohike wanted to get his hands on Selena. None of this was shared with the others, but it was there, nonetheless. The one thing they did share, was the credo of Lucas Buck: All truth is relative. Loyalty counts. Never let your conscience be your guide.

“You know, I’m not so sure I agree with that last part. Why shouldn’t you let your conscience be your guide?”

“Oh man. C’mon Byers, we’ve been over this before.” Frohike rolled eyes. “OK, look, your conscience is a faulty way to measure right and wrong. Faulty because what is frequently regarded as conscience is really fear. Fear, posing as conscience, keeps you from testing your limits; it keeps you down and doesn’t allow you to grow. I’m not saying that you should completely disregard conscience, you just need to be able to recognize which one’s doing the talking.”

Langly sighed. “No way, Frohike, you completely missed the point again. What he’s really saying is…”

Byers put his hand up. “Quiet.” He listened, leaning toward Scully’s door. “Hear that?”

Langly stood up. “Should we go in there and check on her?”

“No, not yet. Let’s wait it out, maybe it’s nothing.”

==Dana reached for a tissue. Reflex made her look at it after she wiped her nose. Blood. Just a drop, but blood all the same. Don’t panic, no big deal. People have bloody noses all the time. Reaching for another tissue. More blood than before. Grabbing the whole box. Blood coming faster and faster, puddling all around her. Deeper and deeper. Whirling and swirling around her, sucking her down into the middle of it all.==

Scully cried out. “No, no, no!”

Byers shot up off the couch and ran to the bedroom door.

Frohike looked at Langly. “I guess this is when we go in.”

When they got to the door, they saw Byers holding a distraught Scully. She was clinging to him like she’d never let go. He was gently rocking her and whispering something they couldn’t hear.

“Now there’s a scene you don’t want Mulder to see.”

“Shut up, Frohike. Look at her, she’s totally freaked.”

“Oh yeah, get a load of that dream catcher. Damn thing looks like it’s glowing.”

Byers reached for a tissue and handed it to Scully. “Here, see for yourself. No blood, Dana, I promise. It’s just a dream.”

Scully wiped her nose. No blood. No blood. She put her head back on Byers shoulders. “Just a dream?”

He held her close. “Just a dream.”

Langly and Frohike watched the little drama unfold before them. They watched as Scully checked for blood. They watched as Byers held and rocked her in his arms. They watched as Byers gently lowered her head back to the pillow after she fell asleep.

When Byers got up, they quietly left the room and went back to the couch.

“See what I mean? At least she went back to sleep this time. Although, I don’t know if that’s good or bad; every other time, I’ve had to help her come out here.”

“This may sounds nuts, Byers, but I swear I saw that dream catcher glowing.”

“You saw it glowing? I thought I saw the same thing a few nights ago.”

“That’s really weird. You know, that guy at the bookstore said that there was some freaky stuff about it in that diary.”

“What diary?”

“Oh man, I’m sorry Byers. Frohike picked me up at that bookstore after D and D. The owner gave me this diary to give to you. Said the guy who owned the dream catcher had written a bunch of weird things and he thought that you might want to have it. I left it at home. Didn’t think you’d have time to do any reading over here.”

“I think you better go home and read that book, just to be sure. Sounds too much like one of Mulder’s x-files to me, but I’m willing to give anything a try now.”

“You sure you’ll be all right here, Byers? I could stay, if you want.”

“No thanks, Frohike. I’ll be fine. You two go home and see what you find in the diary. Maybe I’ll go in and take that dream catcher down, just in case.”

“Good idea. You ready, Langly?”

“Yeah, let’s get going. Thanks for dinner, dude. It’s been…an experience.”

“Night, guys.”

Byers considered taking down the dream catcher right after the boys left, but decided to wait until he was sure Scully was asleep. He looked in around one, but she looked so peaceful, that he decided to leave well enough alone. He was afraid that any attempt to remove it now would wake her up and waking her was the last thing he wanted to do. Besides, he couldn’t quite believe in a haunted dream catcher; the very idea was ridiculous. In the morning, when the sun was up and his mind clear, he was sure that a rational explanation would present itself. He gave her one last glance, before closing the door; just missing the early seconds of the dream catcher’s renewed glow.

2:45 AM
Outside the Longford residence, BonneTerre

Mulder was rapidly losing his sense of humor. Stakeouts were terminally dull at best and nearing intolerable without Scully to keep him going. Lee had fallen asleep an hour ago and was busy snoring loud enough to wake to the dead. At least Scully didn’t snore; she drooled, but she didn’t snore. He fought the urge to get out of the car and run screaming down the quiet street, deciding instead, to check on the status of the websites. It had been almost three hours since he’d last looked and he didn’t think he’d find anything now either, but at least it would keep him occupied for fifteen minutes or so. Pulling down his bookmark menu, he clicked on Gloria Martin’s site first. Her webpage was smaller than the others and loaded quickly. No new entries in the guest book. Next, he clicked on Ginger Loethan’s page. A few new entries, but not the one he was looking for. On to Gail Hammond’s page. His finger hesitated before making the connection. It’s too early. It won’t be there. The page took a few seconds to load. He scrolled down to the guest book link and clicked on it. Oh, shit!

3:45 AM
Scully’s apartment

==Cold. Very cold. Can’t breathe, can’t move. Mulder. Mulder’s banging on the door? Wall? He’s yelling something. I can’t hear you, Mulder. Help me. Get me out of here. He can’t hear me. Lips won’t move; can’t move. Head screaming, but no sound. Please, Mulder, get me out! Shooting pain in my stomach. It hurts, Mulder, it hurts. Ripping, searing pain. Mulder’s eyes widen. He backs away from me. Another long tearing noise, intense pain. Screams. His, mine, ours. Oh my God! Claws reach for the door. Glass breaks. Blackness.==

Scully woke up with a start, feeling her abdomen for signs of… Feeling nothing out of the ordinary, she began to shake. Tears, involuntary and uncontrollable, streamed down her face. She heard herself sobbing, but was helpless to stop the noise.

Byers woke to the sound of Scully crying. He pulled himself off the couch and stumbled into her room. Stopping just inside the door, he watched her shake until he could stand it no longer. He went to the bedside and touched her hair. The look she gave him broke his heart. Without thinking, he crawled into bed, wrapped his arms around her and pulled her as close as he could, determined to stay with her until the shaking had subsided.

8 AM
Outside the Longford residence

Gail Hammond had more company than she’d ever wanted. There were men stationed outside her house and outside her place of employment. She had two officers assigned to her, Stanton and Officer Angela Hamilton. Her phones were tapped, the car was bugged and she was wearing a wire, for good measure. Right now, she couldn’t break wind without God, the police and the FBI knowing about it.

Mulder hated using her as a decoy, but there was no other choice; Longford knew his prey too well. Any change to the norm would send him running and put the investigation back to square one, not to mention endangering the lives of other women.

Lee reached over and tapped Mulder on the arm. “Look.”

The garage door of the Longford house opened and he could see Longford standing behind the car, peering into the trunk. He stood back, hands on his hips, looking first inside the trunk, then into the garage. Seemingly satisfied with its contents, he lowered the hood, then got into the car.

Lee notified the officers that Longford was on the move. When the car was out of the driveway, Mulder started their car and followed at a safe distance. The game was afoot, he only hoped that his “Watsons” were up to the challenge.

9:03 AM
Scully’s apartment

Scully woke up first, startled to find herself unable to move. When she opened her eyes, she found that she was tucked securely in Byers’ arms.

“Morning.”

“Morning to you, too. Would you mind explaining why we’re in this particular position?”

Byers yawned and reluctantly let go of Scully. She immediately scooted to the edge of the bed.

“Well?”

He rubbed his eyes and yawned again. “Do you remember what you were dreaming last night?”

“No. Why?”

“You woke up a little before four. I came in to see if you were all right and found you sobbing and shaking like a leaf. The look on your face…Dana, you were so frightened and so upset. I didn’t think, I crawled in here and held you. It seemed like the thing to do at the time. Looks like we both fell asleep.”

She glared at him. “That’s it? That’s the entire explanation?”

Irritated from nights of little sleep and exasperated by her attitude, he let his mouth run before considering his words. “No, Dana, that’s not it at all. I really slipped in here in the middle of the night to take advantage of your weakened condition. That’s been my sole purpose for staying here all this time and putting up with your crap.” He slid off the opposite side of the bed and stood up. “I’m going to go make some breakfast. Eat, don’t eat, it’s up to you.” He left the room, not bothering to shut the door on his way out.

A huge case of ‘the guilts’ hit him as he busied himself preparing the morning meal. Nice bedside manner you got there, Byers. What’re you going to do next, find a puppy to kick? He opened the refrigerator, pulled out ingredients for omelets and tossed them on the counter. Not that he really felt like eating, but going through the motions would give him some time to regain his composure and formulate an apology. I’ll apologize, but she deserved everything I said, damn it. He slammed the pan down on the stove. Placing the cutting board in front of him, he picked up a knife and hacked up onion until it was reduced to a pulpy mass. The green pepper and mushrooms met the same fate, but he didn’t seem to notice. He stopped the vegetable slaughter when he heard the sound of shuffling coming from the other room. Scully seemed to be slowly making her way somewhere. Oh well, she’s on her own this time. But even though he tried to convince himself that he didn’t care, he kept his ears open, just in case. The sound got closer and closer, until he was sure she was coming toward the kitchen. He put butter in the pan to melt and began breaking eggs for the omelets. She wasn’t going to catch him showing any concern. No way, no how.

Scully made her way to the kitchen inch by inch, using every available piece of furniture to help remain upright. The dizziness was bad this morning, worse than yesterday, but she wasn’t going to give John the satisfaction of knowing she needed his help. I can manage just fine without you, John Fitzgerald Byers! Even as the thought passed through her mind, she knew that it wasn’t true. She did need him. With Mulder away, he was the only one she could trust completely and without hesitation. He’d proven that many times over the last few days. An apology was needed, a big one. Now, if she could just reach the kitchen without killing herself.

She made it as far as the dining room table, then stopped. The kitchen door loomed ominously in the distance. There was probably all of an eight to ten foot gap, but with no furniture or walls for support, it may as well have been a mile. Scully closed her eyes and inhaled deeply. I can do this. She opened her eyes and pushed off from the table, feeling somewhat like the little engine that could. Come on, just a little bit more. You can do it. Almost there now. Measured steps, continued self-encouragement and sheer determination got her to the doorframe, just as a heavy wave of dizziness hit. Her body tried its best to force her to the floor, but Scully held on, refusing to give in. She was too close to let it win; too close to let him win.

Byers heard her hit the doorframe with a thud. Ouch! That had to hurt. His first instinct was to turn around, but he resisted. She’s not on the floor, she’s not asking for help, just keep making breakfast. He poured the first of the eggs into the heated pan and waited for her next move.

Scully winced and rubbed the small knot forming on her forehead. Great, that’s gonna bruise. She looked over at Byers as he continued preparing their meal. Believing that he wasn’t aware of her presence made her feel a little better and gave her the strength to continue her final approach to the waiting kitchen stool.

Byers reached for the remains of the mushrooms and tossed some into the pan. He heard her push off the wall and start toward him. The green pepper and onion mush was on its way into the pan as he heard the kitchen stool squeak.

“I was going to add cheese to these omelets, but all I found was the fat-free variety that refuses to melt.” He kept his back to her as he said this, unwilling to look at her just yet.

“I’m not big on cheesy omelets anyway, the cheese tends to overpower the flavor of the vegetables.”

Byers folded the egg over, gently slipped the first omelet onto a plate, then added the eggs for the second omelet. He thought about offering to let her get started, but decided to make her wait another minute or two, while the second one cooked. We’re going to eat these damn things together, at the table, and she’s going to have to figure out how to get there on her own. Little Miss “I don’t need you” is going to have to beg for help, if she wants it. He tossed in the veggies and reached for the forks while the omelet finished its last few seconds of cooking. He turned off the burner, then slid the second omelet onto a plate. Picking up the forks and the plates, he turned to Scully. “OK, everything’s ready. Let’s eat.” Then he walked out to the table, put the plates down and sat in a chair, without a look back in her direction.

Scully sighed. I just got in here and now he expects me to go back out to the table? Fine, I’ll go back out to the damned table. Scooting the stool to the doorframe, then using the doorframe to pull herself, cut her arrival time in half.

As she stood in the doorway, she seriously considered asking John to help. She opened her mouth, just as he pushed his chair away from the table. Thinking that he was coming to help her, she readied herself to be gracious. He waltzed past her to the far side of the kitchen, where he picked up two mugs of tea. As he passed, he raised the mugs. “Almost forgot the tea.” He placed one mug next to each plate, then took his seat and waited for her to join him. He chuckled to himself and as he felt her eyes searing holes in the back of his head. Game, set and match.

9:05 AM
Bonne Terre

Longford made numerous stops after leaving his house. First, he stopped at a fast food restaurant for breakfast. Mulder and Sheriff Dryden went through the drive-thru window to grab some breakfast of their own, then parked so they could keep an eye on their suspect. After breakfast, Longford made a stop at a gas station to fuel up. He went inside to pay his bill and returned carrying a can of soda and a bag of chips. From the gas station, he made a stop at the library to drop off a couple of books. “Get a load of that, a serial killer and a responsible library patron. Go figure,” Lee said, as they watched with disbelief.

“Wouldn’t want to incur a fine and mess up his spotless record.”

From the library, Longford went to a sporting goods store. He came out a few minutes later carrying a small paper bag.

“Fishing line, right Mulder?”

“That would be my guess.”

Longford started his car and pulled out of the parking lot. His errands for the morning were almost complete. Next on his list was Gail Hammond. He looked at his watch. According to the schedule, he had twenty-five minutes before she made her mid-morning doughnut run.

Mulder followed Longford downtown to the law firm where Gail Hammond worked as a legal secretary. At ten every morning, she made a trip across the street to the bakery to pick up doughnuts for the office staff. Dryden felt sure that was when Longford was planning to make his move; Mulder wasn’t quite as positive. An open grab in the middle of the morning seemed like too much of a risk for Longford to take; too many people around to witness the abduction. However, he’d been wrong about the day, so he was willing to accept the possibility that he was also wrong about the time.

Lee radioed the others that they were on their way. Two men were already in the bakery, one posing as a customer, the other working the counter. Four others were waiting in various locations outside the office building. All had been cautioned to be extremely careful not to call attention to themselves. Mulder was still concerned that Longford would catch on and run before they could make the arrest, but he had to put his faith in the abilities of the officers on site.

Longford arrived at the bakery at ten-fifteen. He parked his car directly in front, turned off the ignition and waited.

Gail snuck a peak out the window. She turned to the officers assigned to protect her. “Is that him?”

They both nodded. Officer Hamilton pulled Gail away from the window.

“So what happens now? I just go over to the bakery, as usual, and let him grab me?”

Officer Stanton tested the wire one more time; just to be sure everything was working properly. “Scared?”

“Terrified.”

“Good, that means you won’t try to do something stupid. Just follow your normal routine. If Longford tries to talk to you, respond as you would to anyone else. Don’t let him know that you’re aware of his motives. I know that’s asking a lot, but it’s our best chance at getting this guy before he hurts anyone else.”

Gail gave him a tight-lipped smile. “You will be close behind me, right?”

Stanton squeezed her hand. “I’ll be there. So will the six other officers already in position, as well as Sheriff Dryden and Agent Mulder. Officer Hamilton will be in here listening to every word. Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. Ready?”

Gail closed her eyes and said a not so silent prayer to the Almighty. When she finished, she opened her eyes. “Let’s go.”

Barely Balancing 5/5 By Frohike

**author’s note. Anything in == == denotes a dream sequence.**

11 AM
Scully’s apartment

She’d made it to the table without further incident and the two ate their omelets in a tense silence. Scully’s resolve to apologize disappeared when he blew past her to get the tea. Byers’ resolve disappeared when…well, he didn’t know when it disappeared, but he was sure he wasn’t going to be the one to break first, not this time. He had, however, cleared both their plates from the table, instead of making her clear her own place. Not helping her get to the table had been a petty move, he wasn’t going to stoop that low again.

While he was in the kitchen cleaning up, she made her way to the couch and turned on the TV. The dizziness was barely noticeable right now. Maybe I need to eat more. She flipped channels, passing the morning array of talk shows and syndicated sitcoms, finally stopping on TVLand and a rerun of St. Elsewhere. The show had been her only indulgence in medical school and now, a return visit to the halls of St. Eligius brought back memories of more innocent times. Back then, liver-eating mutants and aliens were the stuff of science fiction and the only fat suckers around were liposuction machines. Now, they were her life’s work. She’d secretly dreamed of finding a hospital like St. Eligius to work in. It was under-manned, under-funded, and the staff consisted of misfits and socially dysfunctional individuals, but somehow, when you mixed it all together, it worked. Well, I managed to get half of it right. I’m definitely surrounded by misfits and socially dysfunctional individuals. The thought made her smile, then giggle.

Byers wiped his hands on the kitchen towel. As he was hanging it up to dry, he heard a strange sound coming from the living room. He peered around the corner. Scully’s giggles had turned to almost hysterical laughter. The sight and sound of her laughter lightened his heart and concerned him at the same time. When he realized what she was watching, he knew the laughter was wrong, or at least out of proportion. St. Elsewhere had its moments, but at its most humorous, it wasn’t deserving of that kind of laughter. It was time to break the silence. “Care to share the joke?”

Scully looked up at Byers and exploded into another round of giggles.

10:23 AM
Bonne Terre

“He didn’t go for her. The bastard just sat in his car and watched. You knew he wasn’t going to do anything, didn’t you, Mulder?”

“I suspected, but I didn’t know. He’s already a day ahead of schedule, or at least what I thought was his schedule. I wasn’t going to chance being wrong again. A grab like this is too public, too much room for error and too many chances for being seen. No, he’s got another time planned to make his move.”

“Well, what do we do now?”

“Let’s go talk to Mrs. Hammond again. I want to review her daily routine, walk through it, step by step. There’s something we’re missing, something that may be so routine, so automatic, that she’s taken it for granted.”

1:45 PM
Scully’s apartment

Scully never did explain her outburst of laughter, leaving Byers wondering about her overall stability, but at least she wasn’t glaring at him anymore. He’d tried to start a conversation once or twice, but she cut him off with short, clipped responses. The TV was on, but neither of them was watching. Scully spent most of her time staring blankly, while he watched for signs of…something.

“You want to talk about it yet?”

She turned to look at him. “Talk about what?”

“Something, anything. What happened this morning, maybe? You tell me.”

“If you’re looking for an apology, forget it. I had every right to be mad at you. How dare you spend the night in my bed, without benefit of an invitation? What the Hell were you thinking?”

“I was thinking that you were scared and near hysterical. I was thinking that you needed someone to chase the bad dreams away and since I was the only one here, it looked like that someone was me. You know you’re not the only one who hasn’t been sleeping well this week. I’m sorry Mulder’s not here to do all this for you, but until he gets back or the doctor says it’s OK for you to be alone, we’re stuck with each other and I will continue to take care of you the best way I know how.”

“Fine, I guess I can’t do much about that, now can I? Just don’t plant yourself in my bed again.”

“Don’t flatter yourself, Dana. Right now, yours is the last bed I want to find myself in. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to make us something for lunch. And no, you don’t get a choice, you’ll eat what I make, because I’m going to cater to my whims for a change.”

Scully watched as he stormed into the kitchen, suppressing the urge to throw something in his general direction. The sound of his exasperated huff as he stomped into the kitchen, was her undoing. John’s got more backbone than we give him credit for. She stifled a giggle. Stop it. This is not funny. I’m losing it again. Still? Mulder, where are you?

2:30 PM
Law office of Stegner and Wallace

Mulder had gone over and over the day-to-day routine of the office. Nothing stood out. Other than the daily run to the doughnut shop, there wasn’t a time when Gail was an accessible target. While Stanton and Lee took turns watching Longford from the window, Mulder paced the floor talking to himself. A noise from the other room disturbed his thoughts.

“Hey Gail, don’t forget to take the recycling bin out this afternoon.”

“Today?”

“Yeah, remember? The route changed last week, they’ll be coming on Tuesdays instead of Wednesdays.”

Mulder ran his fingers through his hair. “Are you the only one who takes care of the recycling, Gail?”

“Yeah, I badgered everyone into joining the program, so I take care of putting the bin out each week and yelling at anyone who accidentally tosses a can in the trash.”

“Where does the bin get picked up?”

“Out back, by the dumpster.”

“That’s it, that’s what he’s waiting for and that’s why he’s ahead of schedule. Changing the pickup day necessitated a change in his plan. When do you usually put the bin outside?”

“It’s usually one of the last things I do before leaving for the day, about quarter ‘til and five, I guess.”

“Lee…”

“I’m on it.”

3:45 PM
Lone Gunmen HQ

“Find it yet, Langly?”

“No. What the heck did I do with it? I remember bringing the bag in from the car, but I was so beat, that I can’t remember what I did with it once we got in.”

Frohike reached down and picked up a pile of papers, as well as something fuzzy that he wasn’t sure he wanted identified. As he surveyed the hellhole that they called home, a light bulb went off in his head. “Oh man, Byers is gonna kill us when he sees this mess.”

“It’s not that bad, dude, just a few extra stacks of paper lying around.”

“Oh really, Langly? Then perhaps you can identify this,” he said, dropping the unidentified fuzzy object on the table in front of him.

Langly poked the UFO with a pencil and was relieved when it didn’t try to poke him back. “Point taken. Grab the trash bags. I’ll start on this end, you start over there, and we’ll meet in the middle. With any luck, we’ll uncover the lost book and make the place Byers-friendly at the same time.”

“Good idea. I don’t think he’s gonna be in any condition to face this mess, not after the time he’s had with Scully. He’s had enough stress to last him for a long time.”

4:40 PM
Bonne Terre

Stanton watched from the window. Longford was nervously drumming his fingers on the dashboard and checking his watch. At 4:45, he started the car and drove down the street. Stanton turned toward Mulder. “He’s moving.”

Mulder nodded. Gail started pacing in earnest. “OK, Gail, it’s almost time. You ready?”

“Yeah, I suppose so. He’s really going to be out there this time, isn’t he? I mean, he’s really going to try and grab me, right?”

“You don’t have to do this, but…”

Gail bit her lip and tried to smile. “I know, but this is the best chance you have of catching him before he kills someone else. I understand that Agent Mulder, that’s why I agreed to help. Doesn’t make this any less frightening, though.”

“We’ve got officers staked out at every conceivable location; we won’t let him hurt you.”

Officer Hamilton motioned to Mulder. “Sir, he’s in position.”

Stanton picked up the recycling bin and carried it over to Gail. She took it from him. “Let’s get this over with.”

Lee took his position at the back door. “All right, we’re ready Mrs. Hammond. Just walk on out there like nothing’s wrong. We’re all around, he’s not going to get you.”

Gail smiled a close-lipped smile and nodded her head. She balanced the bin on one hip and used her free hand to open the door. Just like every other week. Pushing the door wide open, she moved the bin back in front of her and walked out into the alley. The pick-up point was only a hundred feet or so away from the door, but the fear pounding in her brain made the distance seem much longer. She couldn’t see Longford, but she knew he was there. Watching. Waiting. Finally, she reached the pick-up point and placed her bin next to the others. When she turned around, he was there. She jumped, but remembered that she was supposed to stay cool and let him make his move. “Oh, you startled me. Either I was lost in thought, or you move quietly.”

“Maybe a little of both,” Longford said, taking a step closer.

Gail moved to one side. “Could be. Well, excuse me I need to get back in and finish up so I can get home at a reasonable hour tonight.”

She’d taken three steps toward the office door when he slapped a hand over her mouth and started dragging her to his car. Gail struggled, trying to break free of his grip. She bit a finger, temporarily distracting him. As he looked down at her, she caught a glimpse of someone coming from the street end of the alley.

“Freeze.”

More footsteps. Soon, the whole alley was awash in cops. Longford froze, not knowing what to do next. This wasn’t part of the plan; he wasn’t supposed to get caught, he still had letters to collect. “No,no,no,no,no. Not yet. I’m not done yet.”

Mulder put his gun up to Longford’s head. “Let her go, Douglas, it’s over.”

Stanton inched closer and closer, hoping to help free Gail, should Longford decide to make things ugly.

Longford looked around. Everywhere he looked he saw armed officers training their guns on him. He slumped in defeat. “So many more to go. I’ll never get finished now.” He dropped his arms, allowing Gail to escape. Stanton grabbed her and escorted her to safety.

“That’s it, Douglas. Good move. You did the right thing.”

Two more officers advanced. They cuffed Longford and took him to a waiting squad car.

Mulder found Gail back inside the office, holding a cup of coffee, shaking and trying hard not to cry. He put his hand on her shoulder. “Thank you, you did a brave thing tonight. You may have saved not only yourself, but as many as nineteen other women. You should feel good about that.”

“Thank you, Agent Mulder. Maybe I’ll feel good about it later. Right now, I just want to go home and be with my family.”

Mulder nodded. “I’ll have Officer Hamilton take you home, I don’t think you should be driving right now.”

“What about my car? I can’t just leave it here. How will I get to work tomorrow without it?”

Mr. Stegner, one of the partners in the office came into the room as the words were leaving her mouth. “I’ll arrange to have your car taken to your house, Gail. As for you coming to work tomorrow, forget it. You’re off, with full pay, until Monday morning. Go home, be with your family.”

His words broke the last of her resolve and her tears came. “Thank you,” she whispered.

Officer Hamilton appeared, carrying Gail’s purse and coat. She handed them to Gail. “Come on, let’s get you home.”

7 PM
Scully’s apartment

Scully was feeling trapped and helpless. Byers had stopped hovering, but she desperately needed a few minutes to herself. She ran her fingers through her hair and was disgusted by how oily it felt. She needed a shower. If she had Byers put the kitchen stool in the shower, then she could sit under the stream and bathe herself without fear of falling, should she become dizzy. She could put her bathrobe and towel on the toilet, within arms reach of the tub, so if she needed help getting out afterwards, she wouldn’t have to worry about exposing herself. Satisfied that she’d thought through all the details, she decided to try it out on Byers.

“John, I want to take a shower. Before you object, hear me out.” Scully detailed her plan, then waited for his inevitable objections.

“I think that’s a good idea, Dana.”

“You do?”

“Absolutely. Go in and sit under the hot water as long as it holds out. Be warned though, I may knock on the door every so often, just to be sure you’re all right. Oh, you have to promise me two things: One, that you won’t make any attempts to stand under the water and two, if you feel at all dizzy, you have to call me before you try to get out of the tub. Deal?”

“Deal.”

“OK, I’ll get the stool set up and you can get in whenever you’re ready.”

For the first time in days, Scully smiled. Really smiled. Not that half-hysterical, “I’m losing my mind” smile she’d used a few times, but a real ScullySmile.

John couldn’t get the stool put down in the bathroom fast enough. She’s smiling, she’s happy and she’s likely to be in here for a good half-hour. He was more than a little excited about the prospect of thirty minutes alone. Thirty minutes out from under the watchful glare of one Miss Dana Scully. He checked the stool to be sure the grip strips on the tub would keep it from slipping. Between the rubber feet of the stool and the grip strips on the floor of the tub, he felt it would be reasonably secure. He draped a towel over the seat, as a cushion against the ridged rubber of the seat, then placed a second towel on the toilet lid. After looking around, he decided to move her showerhead rack of shampoo and assorted hair and body products down on the floor next to the stool. This wasn’t exactly ideal, but she’d be able to reach everything without standing. One last thing remained, the bagging of her hand to avoid getting the cast wet. “It’s all set, Dana,” he said, as he walked out of the bathroom. “Let’s get that hand bagged and you’re good to go.”

She held out her hand and waited while he wrapped her hand up in three layers of plastic, sealing each layer with surgical tape to be sure no water could get through. He made a move to add a fourth layer, but she stopped him with a glare. Her shower was waiting, damn it, and her patience was wearing thin. “OK, enough layers. I think you’ve sealed it off sufficiently, John. Thank you. Now help me to the door, I’ll take it from there.”

He looked at his work and decided that she was probably right. “OK, I’ll be just outside if you need me.”

“I’m fine, John. Now go.”

John closed the door behind him and smiled broadly. Thirty whole minutes! What to do first? He wandered out to the kitchen and noticed the full trash can. Not exactly exciting, but it had to be emptied. He removed the bag from the can and tied it securely. He considered telling Dana that he’d be out of the apartment for a couple of minutes, but the water had just started. She won’t even know I’m gone. Grabbing the keys, he closed and locked the door behind him.

The telephone rang seconds after John left. Dana didn’t hear it through the sound of the shower. The answering machine tried to connect after the fourth ring. Instead, it made a grinding sound as the machine ate the tape. The phone rang six more times before the caller gave up. Scully’s cell phone rang almost immediately. No one heard that either. Five minutes later, John returned, unaware that anyone had tried to call.

6:25 PM
Mark Twain Motor Lodge

Mulder hung up the phone, irritated by the lack of response on the other end. “Where are you, Scully?” She wasn’t answering her cell and now her answering machine wasn’t picking up either. He didn’t like this at all. Maybe she’d turned off the cell phone, but her answering machine? He paced the room, trying to decide what to do next. The last time they’d spoken, he’d had to cut her short, promising to call back later. Who knew that ‘later’ would turn into two days? The time before that, she’d practically taken his head off. Calling the Lone Gunmen was an option, but the last thing he wanted to do was to have Frohike and Company charging over to check up on her. No, sending the boys over was not a good idea. No sense sending them into the line of fire. He decided to be patient and wait a few hours, then try calling her again. That final report had to be filed anyway and he only had until tomorrow morning to get it finished. His flight home left St. Louis at 11:56 AM tomorrow and nothing was going to stop him from being on it. He’d been away long enough.

7:30 PM
Scully’s apartment

John unlocked the door and stepped back inside. He could hear the water running in the shower and a strange noise coming from inside the bathroom. Stepping to the door, he put his ear against the wood to see if he could determine what it was. His hand flew up to his mouth to stifle the laugh he felt trying to come out. It was Scully and she was singing. Or at least she thought she was. Don’t quit your day job, Dana.

7:45 PM
Lone Gunmen HQ

Langly hauled the last of the trash out to the dumpster. It had taken them four hours, but the place was finally Byers-friendly again. They still hadn’t found that diary, though. He frowned and tried to retrace his steps, for the fiftieth time that day. Frohike met him at the door. “Hey, you hungry?”

“Hmmm…what? Oh yeah, starved. What time is it anyway?”

Frohike checked his watch. “Geez, coming up on eight. How about we order in Chinese?”

“Order in? No way dude. I don’t want to bring anything back into the place until Byers gets back. Let’s go out.”

Frohike nodded his head. “Hang on, I’ll grab the keys.”

Langly met him at the van. Peering inside, he was grossed out by the state of their vehicle. We’re pigs! He heard Frohike walking toward him. “‘Hike, we’re pigs! Look at the van.”

Frohike unlocked the door and wrinkled his nose. “Aw man.” He sat down behind the wheel, reached over and unlocked Langly’s door. When Langly sat down, Frohike started the van. “Look, forget about it for now. Let’s go eat. We’ll deal with mess after dinner.”

7:53 PM
Scully’s apartment

John never did knock on the door. As long as he could hear Scully singing to herself, he knew she was fine. The water stopped. He could hear her pull the shower curtain back, so he waited a few minutes, time enough for her to get dried off and pull on her bathrobe, before he called out to her from just outside the bathroom door. “Everything OK, Dana?”

The door opened. “I’m fine, John.” She leaned against the door, combing her hair. “I could use some help getting this plastic off my arm, if you don’t mind.”

“Sure. No problem.”

He reached for the tape and began to unwind it. Scully’s knees buckled, almost causing her to fall to the floor. Byers caught her before she went too far down. “OK, let’s get you seated before we finish this.”

She tried to take a couple of steps, but even with his support she was having a terrible time staying upright. He realized that they’d never make it to the bedroom, so he scooped her up into his arms, surprising Scully, to put it mildly. “John! What the Hell are you doing?”

“I’m carrying you into your room, Dana. What does it look like I’m doing?”

She stared at him in disbelief. Being swept off her feet and carried into her bedroom by an attractive man was a private fantasy, but this wasn’t exactly how she’d played the scene out in her mind.

“Don’t look at me like that. We both know you weren’t going to make it, even with me holding you up. This was the logical solution.” He put her down on the bed. “Here you go. Now we can get this off your arm, without having to worry about you falling over and breaking something else.”

She sat there quietly while he removed the tape and plastic. Inwardly, she knew he was right, but it annoyed her to no end anyway.

“There, all done.”

“Thank you, John.”

“Still dizzy?”

She nodded her head and frowned. “I don’t understand why I can’t get rid of the dizziness. My body’s had ample time to recover from the trauma and I know I’m not allergic to the medications. I know I’m not sleeping well, but this is extreme.”

“Could you have damaged your inner ear?”

“I don’t think so. Maybe. I did hit pretty hard when I fell. My ear doesn’t hurt though.”

“Dana, you’ve been taking a strong pain killer. Is it possible that the medication is masking any pain? It’s a long shot, but that’s the only other explanation I can think of. Might be a good idea to have the doctor take a look at it tomorrow.”

“I will.”

“OK, I’m going to go get your medicine, then you are going to bed.”

“John, it’s only a little after eight. Besides, my hair is still wet. I can’t go to sleep with wet hair.”

He walked out of the room before she had a chance to finish her argument. After he picked up her meds and a glass of water, he stopped in the bathroom to get the hairdryer. Walking into the bedroom, he handed her the glass and meds, then walked to the nearest outlet to plug in the hairdryer.

“What are you doing now?”

“You said you couldn’t go to sleep with wet hair, so we’re going to eliminate that problem. Take your pills, then we’ll get your hair dry. And don’t even bother arguing, Dana, you’ve had your bath, now you need to sleep.”

She frowned, but agreed. He turned on the hairdryer and proceeded to dry her hair for her. Ordinarily, she would have fought him on that, but she realized that she really was tired, so she allowed him to continue. He realized that she was admitting defeat, but wisely said nothing. When her hair was dry, he turned off the hairdryer and combed out the tangles. “All done. You’ll have to fix it a little better in the morning, but it’ll do for now.”

“I’m sure it’s fine, John.” She gave him a little smile. “Thank you.”

“That’s what friends are for, right? Now, need anything else before I leave?”

“Actually…you could get my pajamas for me. I only brought the bathrobe into the bathroom with me.”

“Oh. Yeah. Sure. Where would I find them?”

“Second drawer. Get the blue ones.”

He opened the drawer and quickly pulled out the requested pajamas. There was no way he was going to get familiar with the contents of that drawer. The Mulder tally was growing in his head as it was; knowing the contents of Scully’s pajama drawer was one more mark against him. He handed her the garments, then said good night and closed the door behind him. Scully put on her pajamas and crawled under the covers.

“John?”

He was at the door in a flash. “What is it? Are you OK?”

“I’m fine. Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you. Is the ringer turned on in here? I don’t want to miss Mulder, if he calls.”

“No, it’s not. I’ll fix it for you.”

“That’s OK, I can do it. Thanks, John.”

“Good night, Dana.”

10:27 PM
Mark Twain Motor Lodge

Finally, the report was finished. Mulder looked at the clock and was shocked to find that four hours had passed since he’d last tried Scully. Damn, that made it 11:27 her time. Screw it. He picked up the phone. The phone rang three times, before she answered.

“Scully.”

“Hi Scully, it’s me. Did I wake you up?”

“Yes, but I’m glad you did. How’s the case going?”

“It’s over. We caught the guy this evening. I’ll tell you all about it some other time.”

“When are you coming home?”

“Tomorrow afternoon. My flight leaves here at 11:56; I should arrive in DC around 2:15.” He paused. “I’ve missed you.”

“I’ve missed you, too.”

“Scully?”

“Yes, Mulder?”

“Can I stay at your place tomorrow night? No pressure, I’ll sleep on the couch. I just want to be near you.”

“I’d like that.”

“Good. I’ll stop by my place first and get some clean clothes. The ones I have with me are getting a little ripe. How about I pick up some dinner and meet you at your place around six?”

“That sounds wonderful.”

“It’s a date, then.”

“Yes, it is.”

“Hey, let me give you my flight information. That way if there’s a delay, you won’t think I’ve stood you up.”

“Good idea.”

Scully reached into the drawer of the nightstand, pulled out a pen and paper and wrote down the information. “Got it.”

“Good. Go back to sleep now, Scully. You sound exhausted.”

“I’m pretty tired; it’s been a long couple of days.”

“Yes, it has. See you tomorrow night. Oh, and Scully?”

“Yes, Mulder?”

“I love you.”

“I love you, too, Mulder.”

She hung up the phone, hugging the note pad and feeling better than she had in days. A quiet knock on the door brought her back to the present.

“Dana?”

“Come in, John.”

“Was that Mulder?”

“Yeah. He’s coming home tomorrow afternoon.” She held up the note pad with his flight information. “He’s coming home,” she said with a smile.

“Good. Think you can sleep now?”

“Yeah, I think I’ll sleep well now. Good night, John.”

“Good night, Dana.”

12:30 AM
Lone Gunmen HQ

The boys pulled up in front of their home. Frohike killed the engine and started heading inside.

“No way, Frohike, you’re not leaving the van for me to do by myself.”

“Just going in to get couple of trash bags, Langly. Lighten up, will ya?”

“You got five minutes to get back out here man. Don’t make me come after you like last time.”

Frohike walked up to the house grumbling. “Geez, fall asleep one time and they never let you forget it.” He returned, less than five minutes later, carrying two trash bags and two bottles of beer. Langly took one of each.

“I’ll get the back, you take the front. I was going to make you do the back, but since you brought me a beer, I’m giving you a break.”

“You’re a cheap date, Langly.”

“Yeah, lucky for you.”

They worked quickly to detrash the van, tossing out what looked like months worth of fast food wrappers, newspapers and assorted weirdness. Frohike pulled a mass of something out from under the passenger seat in the front. “Langly. Any clue what this is?”

Langly moved toward the front of the van and peered at the oddity in Frohike’s hand. “I don’t know, man, and I don’t think I want to know. Get rid of it.”

Frohike tossed it into his trash bag with a shrug. Sticking his hand back under the seat, he felt something hard and pulled it out. “Well I’ll be damned. Hey Langly, I think I found the diary.”

“No way! Where was it?”

“Under your seat, man. You must have dropped it.”

“I know I brought that inside with me when we got home that day.”

“Well here it is, plain as day, my friend. Obviously you were mistaken.”

“Dude, I remember bringing it inside.”

“OK, fine, Langly, I brought it out here and hid it under the seat just to piss you off. Happy now? Look, it probably just fell out of the bag. What difference does it make? We have it now. Let’s get it inside and see what we can find out for Byers.”

“I know I brought that damned thing inside,” Langly muttered under his breath.

“Jesus, Langly! Will you shut up already?”

1:10 AM
Scully’s apartment

It had been over an hour since Mulder’s call. Scully seemed to be sleeping soundly. Byers hadn’t heard anything from Langly and Frohike, so maybe they’d given up on the ridiculous idea that the dream catcher was possessed. He shook his head. I can’t believe I even considered the notion.

He wandered out to the kitchen to put his glass in the sink, then returned to the couch to bed down for the night.

1:52 AM
Lone Gunmen HQ

Frohike and Langly had been taking turns reading excerpts from the diary out loud to each other. The story just kept getting weirder and weirder with each entry. Once the nightmare pattern started becoming clear in the diary, they knew their fears were not without some basis. As the nightmares got worse, the diary entries became more disjointed.

“Oh shit, ‘Hike. Listen to this. ‘The dream catcher glows. I don’t know how, but I caught it tonight, when it thought I wasn’t looking. It thinks it can fool me, but I know better.’ “

“Creepy.”

“Didn’t you say you thought you saw it glow the other night?”

“Yeah, so?”

“The entries stop three days after this guy first noticed the glow.”

“We had dinner with Scully Monday night. This is Tuesday. No wait, technically, it’s Wednesday.”

They exchanged looks, then grabbed the keys and ran for the door.

2:07 AM
Scully’s apartment

Byers finally fell asleep around 1:30, comforted by the lack of noise coming from Scully’s room. He prayed that, tonight, she would be free of the demons that plagued her dreams. He missed the glowing light that came from her room at 1:59, the silent messenger that signaled the onset of the nightmares.

==“Mmmm, that’s nice. Right there, Mulder. Oh yeah, that’s the spot. God, I’ve missed you.”

Warm fingers caressed her breasts. Kisses on her neck. A mouth closing over first one nipple, then the other. Sucking, then biting. Not hard enough to hurt, just enough to arouse. Hands traveled lower. Touching her belly, touching her thighs, touching the damp curls, touching her…“Oh God!” Fingers moved inside her, first one, then two, finally three. Reaching, pumping, probing, taking her breath away with every movement. She felt him shift, positioning himself between her legs, ready to make that sweet thrust that would finally join them, make them one.

“Open your eyes, Dana.”

“Mmmmm, don’t want to.”

“Open your eyes, Dana.”

“No Mulder, let me keep them closed, just a little while longer.”

“Open your eyes, Dana. Please. I want you to look at me.”

She struggled to open her eyes. As they fluttered open, he thrust into her.

“Oh my God! John, what are doing? Get off of me!”

She screamed and fought, hitting him as hard as she could, trying to kick, but finding her legs wouldn’t cooperate. He grabbed her arms and pinned them to the bed. She tried to fight, but she couldn’t move. All she could do was scream.

“You know I’ve been in love with you for years, don’t you Dana? I know you think you love Mulder, but you’ll love me in time. You’ll see. He won’t be there to get in our way anymore. I’ve taken steps to insure that.”

The words chilled her to the bone.

“What do you mean you’ve taken steps? What have you done, John?”

He grinned at her, his eyes taking on a greenish glow. Pulling her up, without leaving her body, he turned her head toward window. Her eyes took a moment to adjust, then she saw the lump under the windowsill. The room suddenly turned bright and in the glaring light, she saw Mulder. His eyes were open, but vacant. Blood still flowed through two holes in his chest. In his arms lay a single, yellow rose.

She started to scream once again. Her stomach churned and threatened to empty itself.

“I told you I could take him. He wasn’t so tough.”

As the words left his mouth, he began to laugh, long and hard. She screamed and screamed, until her world went black.==

The screams woke John and he rushed into the room, turning on the light as he entered. Scully was tangled up in the sheets and she looked like she was pounding on someone or something. Without thinking, he grabbed her arms and tried to pull her into an embrace. She caught him on the side of his head with her cast. It made his eyes rattle in his head, but he kept at it until he had both arms securely wrapped around her. “Dana. Wake up, Dana. It’s all right; it’s all right; I’m here. Come on, Dana, wake up.”

She started to calm down, but when she opened her eyes and saw him, her screams started anew. “GET OFF ME! WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO MULDER!” She flailed wildly at him, dangerously out of control. He let go of her and ran for the door.

“Dana? I haven’t done anything to Mulder. He’s still out of town. He won’t be home until this afternoon, remember? You just spoke to him a few hours ago.”

“HE’S RIGHT OVER THERE, JOHN. YOU KILLED HIM, YOU KILLED HIM. HOW COULD YOU?”

The boys banged on the door, but no one answered. John heard the knock, but was afraid to step away from Dana’s door. Dana screamed again.

“YOU KILLED HIM, YOU BASTARD!”

Langly picked the lock and Frohike almost knocked him down trying to get through the door first. He ran into the bedroom and put his arms around Scully. “It’s OK, Scully, we won’t let anything hurt you anymore. Langly, get Byers out of here.” Frohike held Scully as she clung to him, crying hysterically in his arms.

Langly tugged at Byers, leading him away from the bedroom door. “You OK?”

“I didn’t do anything to her, Langly. She thinks I’ve killed Mulder. I think she’s seeing him in her room. I didn’t do anything.”

“Chill, Byers. I know you didn’t do anything; it’s the dream catcher. The thing’s possessed. It’s not your fault.” Byers turned to Langly. When he did, Langly saw the huge bruise forming on the side of his head. “Jesus, Byers, what happened to your head?”

John reached up. “Here?”

Langly nodded.

“Scully clocked me with her cast. What do you mean the dream catcher’s possessed? That’s ridiculous.”

“Damn! Lemme go get some ice for that, man. It’s gonna hurt like a mother later on.” Langly got up to get the ice, but stopped before he left the room. “Here, read the last few entries and you tell me if you still think the idea’s ridiculous.”

John tried to read the entries, but he could still hear Dana crying hysterically in the next room. He wanted to go see her, but he knew that would be the worst move he could possibly make at the moment.

Langly came back with an ice pack and held it out to him.

“Do me a favor, Langly? Go check on Dana. I can’t go in there, but she might let you. I need to know how she is.”

“Sure, Byers. Put that ice on your head.”

Langly walked down to Scully’s bedroom and peered inside. Frohike was holding on to her for dear life as she sobbed hysterically against him. He looked toward the door and motioned for Langly to come in. “Get the van started, we’re taking her to the hospital. I think she’s snapped. She keeps saying that Mulder’s under the window, dead, and that Byers killed him and raped her.”

“Oh man, Byers is gonna freak when he hears that!”

“He’s not gonna hear that. He doesn’t need to know any of this, all right? We know it’s not true, but he won’t be able to handle the guilt. Did you see him when we walked in? He’s barely holding it together as it is. Now, go start the van. Tell Byers to call Skinner. He can swing by and get Byers. Tell them to meet us at Georgetown Memorial.”

“On my way.”

Langly relayed the message to Byers. He wasn’t thrilled at having to be the one to call Skinner, but it had to be done.

Frohike passed Byers on his way out the door. He was carrying Scully like a babe in arms, making sure her head was facing away from Byers. John raised his hands in frustration. Frohike shook his head. ‘Don’t worry,’ he mouthed. John stood there, feeling helpless, as he watched Frohike take her out the door. When they were gone, he picked up the phone.

“Skinner? It’s John Byers. I need your help.”

3:43 AM
Georgetown Memorial

Byers paced back and forth across the waiting room. When he’d heard the doctor request a rape kit, the boys had had no choice but to tell him of Scully’s accusations. Skinner assured him that they were only doing this as a precaution, but Byers still felt guilty. The doctor called Skinner back into the examining room, leaving the boys to care for Byers. They understood his frustration, but the pacing was starting to get on everyone’s nerves.

“Mr. Byers?”

He looked up to see a nurse calling to him.

“Yes.”

“Mr. Byers, Mr. Skinner asked me to take a look at that bump on your head. Will you come back here with me please?”

“It’s nothing; I’ll be fine.”

“He thought you’d say that. He asked me to remind you that Miss Scully will be most upset if she finds out that you haven’t taken care of your injuries.”

John frowned. Damn Skinner for knowing just the right buttons to push! He nodded his head and followed the nurse back to an examining room. Skinner came out a short time later.

“Did Byers go with the nurse?”

“Yeah, she just took him back a few minutes ago. How’s Scully?”

“They have her sedated now. She should sleep for a couple of hours. What the Hell happened, Frohike? She keeps insisting that Byers shot Mulder and raped her. Now I know that Byers didn’t shoot Mulder and the rape kit proved negative, not that I believed he raped her, mind you, but where Scully’s concerned, I’m not taking any chances.”

Frohike and Langly exchanged glances, debating on how much to tell Skinner. They decided to go for broke and tell him the whole story, as they knew it. Skinner listened attentively. He was having a difficult time with the possession aspect, but after all the years of dealing with Mulder, he wasn’t surprised to find himself accepting their explanation. He agreed with their decision to keep the rape allegations from Byers. That man had been through enough and telling him that part would serve no purpose. “And you have this diary?”

“Yeah, it’s probably still over at Scully’s. I gave it to Byers to read before I split to start the van.”

“Has anyone called Mulder? He should be informed of Scully’s condition.”

“Uh… well you see…Mulder doesn’t exactly know about any of this.” Seeing Skinner’s surprised expression, Frohike continued. “Scully was adamant about him not knowing anything. You know how she feels about having anyone coddle her, most of all Mulder. She made us promise not to call him.”

Skinner nodded his head and frowned. “I didn’t call him when she broke her arm, because I knew she wouldn’t want me to bother him in the middle of an investigation for a personal matter. I did assume that she’d tell him, though.” He sighed. “So you’re telling me that he has no idea about the arm, the nightmares, anything?”

Frohike and Langly nodded their heads.

“Great.” He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out his cell phone.

“Mulder, it’s Skinner. I need you back in DC now. No, it can’t wait. Get to the airport and get your ass back here ASAP; Scully’s in the hospital, she’s had breakdown. Yeah, we’re at Georgetown Memorial, Langly Frohike, Byers, and me. We’ll stay with her, but she needs you. Yes, Mulder, I’ll tell her.” Skinner dropped the phone back into his coat pocket, then turned to the boys. “Someone want to tell me when these two finally figured out their relationship?”

“What do you mean?” Frohike asked.

“Mulder just asked me to tell Scully that he loves her.”

Langly and Frohike shifted uncomfortably in their seats.

“Wait, does this have anything to do with that shiner that Mulder was sporting last week?” They looked at him, then at each other. “Never mind, I think I’ve got the picture. It’s about time they figured it out.”

The nurse who’d taken Byers earlier walked back into the waiting room. “Mr. Skinner?”

“Yes?”

“We’re going to admit Mr. Byers, for observation. He has a concussion and appears physically exhausted. He’s not too happy about it, I’m afraid. Would you mind coming to talk to him? He seems terribly concerned about Miss Scully and I think he’s going to fight the sedative until he hears from you.”

Skinner got up from the couch and followed the nurse to Byers’ room. He assured Byers that Scully was resting comfortably and that she would be well cared for. “You did a good job, Byers. Get some sleep now. We’ll let you know how she’s doing. I promise.”

John nodded his head and let the sedative put him to sleep.

4:17 AM
Mark Twain Motor Lodge

Mulder tossed on his clothes and began shoving everything else into his suitcase. He picked up the phone and dialed Lee. “Lee? I need a favor. I know it’s early, but I’ve got to get to the airport now. It’s Scully, she’s in trouble. I need to get home, Lee. Thanks, I’ll be waiting.”

Lee shot up out of bed and threw on the first things he found. Grabbing the keys to the squad car, he raced over to the MT to get Mulder. He squealed into a parking space, just as Mulder came out of the door. Mulder opened the car door, tossing his suitcase in the back seat. As soon as the car door closed, Lee backed out of the space and floored it out of the lot. “What happened, Mulder?”

“I don’t know. Skinner called and said that she’d had a breakdown and that I needed to get home right now.”

“We’ll get you to the airport as soon as humanly possible then. Did you call to see what the flight schedule is?”

“No, I didn’t think that far ahead.”

Lee picked up the phone. “Hey, it’s me. Call the airport. Tell them we have a federal agent who needs the next flight out to DC. We’ll be there in about an hour.” He hung up the phone and switched on the lights and siren. “Taken care of, we’ll have you out of here and on a plane before you know it.”

They spent the next hour in relative silence. Mulder kept looking out the window, then at his watch, then out the window again. He didn’t have any sunflower seeds, so he settled on chewing his thumbnail instead. By the time they arrived at the airport, his thumb was raw and bleeding. “Jesus, Mulder! You’re bleeding all over the upholstery.” Lee reached into the glove compartment and retrieved the first aid kit. He pulled out a Band-Aid and handed it to Mulder. “Here, take care of that thumb.”

Mulder gave him a half-smile and put it on while Lee grabbed his suitcase out of the back seat. “Come on, let’s see who has the honor of carrying you home.”

When they entered the terminal, a representative from United met them. “Agent Mulder? We’ve been waiting for you. Sheriff Dryden’s office called and requested that we hold the flight until you arrived. Let’s go, shall we?”

“Well, Mulder, I guess this is it. I want to thank you for all your help. We couldn’t have done it without you.”

“Just doing my job, Lee. Besides, Reggie would have haunted me for the rest of my life if I’d let you down.”

Lee chuckled. “I believe he would have at that. Take care, Mulder. Bring that partner of yours down to visit sometime, OK?”

“You got it, Lee.”

Mulder reached out to shake his hand, but Lee pulled him into a bear hug. “Now get out of here, you’ve held up this gentleman’s plane long enough.”

Mulder smiled and waved good-bye.

“Right this way, Agent Mulder.”

7 AM
Georgetown Memorial

Scully awoke and was startled to find that she wasn’t in her own room. She had no recollection of being brought here and no idea as to why she was there in the first place. Her first instinct was to call for a nurse to get an explanation, but she decided to wait and try to bring up her memories of last night, on her own. She closed her eyes, but try as she might, the last thing she could remember was falling asleep after talking to Mulder. “Damn it, what happened last night?”

“You went caveman on Byers, that’s what.” Scully’s eyes flew open and found herself looking at Frohike, standing in the doorway.

“Frohike? What do you mean I ‘went caveman’ on Byers?”

“You don’t remember anything?”

Scully sighed in frustration. “No, I don’t. Are you going to tell me what happened and why I’m in the hospital, or are we going to continue to play this little game all morning?”

Skinner pushed past Frohike and walked over to Scully’s bedside. “I would suggest that you stop badgering Frohike, Agent Scully. You had…an incident…last night. Frohike made sure you got here in one piece.”

“What kind of ‘incident’, sir? Frohike said I did something to Byers. What did I do?”

Skinner and Frohike exchanged concerned looks. They knew that the truth would come out sooner or later, but neither was sure if now was the proper time. Skinner made the decision to tell her, but before he could, Dr. Childers came into the room. “Nice to see you again, Agent Scully. How are you feeling?”

“I’m fine. Would someone please tell me what the Hell happened last night?”

Dr. Childers glanced at the chart at the end of the bed, for no other reason than to have something to do, while he stalled the inevitable. She needed to hear what had happened last night, but the circumstances were delicate, at best. He took a deep breath and began. “Your friends brought you in early this morning. You said that you had been raped and that your partner had been murdered by the man who raped you.”

Scully looked shocked at the revelation.

“You don’t remember any of this?”

She shook her head.

“We did a thorough exam, rape kit and all, but found no evidence to back up your claims. Mr. Skinner and Mr. Frohike stated that your partner was very much alive and that they didn’t believe that the person you accused of raping you was capable of committing such a crime.”

“Who did I accuse?”

Skinner and Frohike looked at Dr. Childers. Childers nodded his head, giving them permission to fill in the missing information. Frohike took Scully’s hand and squeezed it. “Scully…” he paused, not quite knowing how to say it. “Langly and I showed up to give Byers some information about that dream catcher he gave you. When we got there, you were screaming and Byers was holding his head. You kept saying that Mulder was dead, that Byers had killed him. You were pointing over to the corner of the bedroom, insisting that Mulder was lying there dead. You also said that Byers had raped you. We had to keep Byers out of the room to get you calmed down. We called Skinner to come get Byers, then Langly and I drove you here. We’ve been sitting outside your door all night.”

Scully’s hand flew up to her mouth. She’d accused John of raping her and killing Mulder? The idea was beyond her comprehension. How could she have done that? John would never hurt her or Mulder. Mulder wasn’t even in town. “Oh my God, Frohike. Where’s John, I need to talk to him.”

“Uh, well, you can’t really talk to him right now.”

“Why not? Where is he?” She looked from Frohike to Skinner to Dr. Childers. All three of them looked uncomfortable. “You didn’t have him arrested, did you?”

“No Scully, he’s not under arrest,” Skinner said. “He’s down the hall. You…uh…clocked him with your cast when he tried to calm you down. We had to admit him last night.” Upon seeing Scully’s horrified expression, he added, “He’s fine, Scully. The doctor wanted to keep him overnight for observation. He was pretty upset by the whole incident. They had to give him a sedative to knock him out.”

“Can I see him later? I need to talk to him, to apologize.”

“That’s up to his doctor,” Skinner said, looking over at Childers.

Childers nodded his head. “I’m sure that can be arranged. We should be releasing Mr. Byers later this morning.”

“Good. How about me, can I go home now? I feel fine.”

“Sorry Agent Scully, but you’re going to be with us for another day or so. I want to run a few tests to, see if we can determine the cause of this dizziness you’ve been experiencing. It also wouldn’t hurt for you to get some rest. Mr. Skinner tells me that you still aren’t sleeping. On a positive note, it looks like your arm is healing nicely, in spite of your activities last night.”

Scully opened her mouth to argue, but looks from both Skinner and Frohike stopped her. Skinner had on his best ‘don’t argue with me’ look, while Frohike had his patented ‘I’ve got a plan’ face on. Dr. Childers, seeing that he was going to get no argument from his patient at this time, left to go about his morning rounds. As soon as he was gone, Frohike began to fill her in on their suspicions about the dream catcher. By the time he finished, Scully was on the verge of believing, while Skinner was rubbing his temples and shaking his head. “You’re not really buying this crap, are you Scully?”

“Well, no sir, but if you have a more plausible explanation, I’d be willing to listen. All of this started the night Mulder put the dream catcher up in my apartment and the pattern does follow that reported by the previous owner…”

“Oh, speaking of Mulder, he’s on his way home.” Skinner stopped to check his watch. “He should be getting in about forty-five minutes from now. Frohike, why don’t you and Langly go pick him up. I don’t think he’s going to be in any shape to drive.”

Frohike nodded in agreement. “Will do. See you later, Scully.”

Scully stared at Skinner. “You called Mulder? Sir, I didn’t want him to know about any of this until he got home.”

“What would you have me do, wait until it was convenient to tell him the woman he loves has had a breakdown? He’s going to be furious with all of us as it is. If I had known that this relationship had taken a new turn recently, I would have called him days ago.”

Scully blushed from embarrassment at Skinner’s words. How in the world had he found out?

Skinner tried hard not to grin. “Oh, by the way, Mulder said to tell you he loves you.”

“Sir…I…”

“Forget it, Scully. It’s about time you two figured it out.”

8:45 AM
Dulles Airport

The boys rushed over to the screens and checked arrival times. On the positive side, they’d made it to the airport with fifteen minutes to spare. On the negative, the gate was on the other side of the airport. Frohike sent Langly ahead, saying he’d meet them there. “I’m getting too old to do this running through the airport routine,” he mumbled.

By the time they arrived at the designated gate, the passengers were just coming down the chute. Mulder came barreling out, almost knocking over a businessman in the process.

“Mulder, over here,” Langly yelled.

Mulder made his way over to the boys. “What are you doing here? How’s Scully?”

Langly grabbed Mulder’s bag and started toward the exit, while Frohike explained. By the time they got to the van, Mulder was fuming and the boys knew it. They got into the van and waited for the inevitable to occur. Mulder sat in the back, strangely quiet. Frohike wasn’t sure if this was a good sign, or a very bad one. “Mulder?”

“What?”

“You wanna say something? You’re freaking us out.”

Mulder leaned forward in his seat, resting his elbows on his knees. His face was set in a tight-lipped frown and his fingers were locked in a death grip with each other. He let out a long breath, shook his head and sat back against the seat.

“Look, we wanted to call you, but Scully wouldn’t let us and Byers thought he could handle everything until you got back. We didn’t make the final connection between her nightmares and the dream catcher until early this morning. I know you’re pissed, but hey, when it comes down to having to decide which one of you to side with, she’s gonna win every time, man.” Mulder gave Frohike an incredulous look. Frohike grinned and shrugged his shoulders. “Hey, you just yell; Scully kicks ass and takes down names. I’m not getting on her shit list.”

A grin slowly crept across Mulder’s face; Frohike had a point. Mulder dropped his head and started chuckling at the absurdity of the whole situation. He’d traveled halfway across the country to chase a serial killer and missed an x-file in his own backyard. Frohike gave him a puzzled look.

“Relax, Frohike. You’re right, I wouldn’t want to be on Scully’s shit list either. I just want to get to the hospital to see her. Langly, can’t you make this bucket move any faster?”

“Mulder, I’m pushing the speed limit as it is. Skinner sent us to pick you up to make sure you got there in one piece, so chill out; we’ll be there soon.”

Frohike shifted in his seat. “Speaking of Skinner…Mulder, do you know what you said to him this morning?”

“Said to him? What do you mean?”

“When he called you to tell you about Scully. You don’t remember?”

“Remember what? Frohike, it’s been a long week, could we cut through the crap? What did I say to him?”

Frohike grimaced, then blew out a deep breath. “Just before you hung up, you told him to tell Scully you loved her.”

Mulder replayed the conversation in his head and his eyes opened wide when he realized that he had, indeed, told his boss to tell his partner he loved her. “Oh shit!”

“Don’t worry, Mulder. Skinner’s glad you two finally figured it out. Everyone’s known for years, we’ve been waiting for the two of you to catch up.”

9:20 AM
Georgetown Memorial

Scully was asleep when Byers came knocking on her door. He started to leave, but Skinner insisted he come in and sit for a while. “I don’t want to disturb her.”

“Byers, stay put. She’s worried about you. She doesn’t remember any of it; we had to fill her in. When we told her she’d accused you of raping her, she was horrified. She knows you wouldn’t hurt her.”

“God, no! I’d never do anything to hurt Dana.”

“I know, John.”

Skinner and Byers turned toward Scully. She reached out her hand to John, waiting for him to come close. He hesitated, but finally moved toward her when she smiled at him. “Dana, I am so sorry. If I’d known that I was in your nightmares, I never would have come into your room last night. I wouldn’t…I couldn’t…do what you thought I did.”

“I know, John. Let’s just forget the whole thing ever happened, OK?”

“I’d like that, Dana.”

“Good. How’s your head? They tell me I hit you pretty hard last night.”

“Well, I’m only seeing one of everything now, so I guess that means it’s getting better. They’re going to release me later this morning.”

Scully smiled and closed her eyes. “Guess I’ll have to find a new babysitter now.”

Mulder, Frohike and Langly walked into the room, just as the words were leaving her mouth. Byers started to say something, but stopped when Mulder shook his head. He approached the side of the bed, then bent down and kissed her. She didn’t have to open to her eyes to know whose lips were on hers. Raising her good arm, Scully circled his neck and brought him closer. They stayed lip-locked, until Skinner cleared his throat. Not that he wasn’t amused by the show; he simply felt it prudent to remind them that they were not alone. They reluctantly released each other. “Agent Mulder, might I remind you that you are on duty and that Agent Scully needs her rest right now?”

The boys snickered at the distinct lack of sternness in Skinner’s tone. Mulder smiled, but never took his eyes off of Scully. “About that, sir. After I file my report, I’d like to request a leave of absence to care for my ailing partner. I don’t think she should be left alone and I know I have plenty of vacation time coming to me.”

“Maybe you’d better consult Agent Scully, before you go making assumptions about what she needs, Mulder. How do you know she even wants your sorry ass hanging around her apartment?”

Mulder opened his mouth to reply, but Scully beat him to the punch. “Sir, there’s no one else’s sorry ass I’d rather have around right now, than Agent Mulder’s.”

That did it for the boys. Langly and Byers choked and sputtered, while Frohike grumbled something about always losing to the pretty boys. Skinner chuckled, in spite of himself, then cleared everyone out of the room, leaving Mulder and Scully alone.

Mulder pushed the hair back off of Scully’s face. She closed her eyes and began to nod off, once again. “I’m pretty irritated with you, you know? You should have told me what was going on, Scully.”

She wanted to open her eyes, but the need to sleep was rapidly taking control of her system. “I know, Mulder. Gotta sleep now. We’ll talk later.”

“Count on it, Scully.”

He climbed into bed with her and snuggled up close. “I love you, Scully,” he whispered.

“Love you, too,” she replied, before dropping off to sleep.

11:28 AM
Scully’s apartment

After springing Byers from the hospital, the boys made a stop at Scully’s apartment to collect Byers’ things. John made sure that Scully’s place was clean. He had Langly empty the trash and sent Frohike off to the grocery store to pick up a few things to be sure that Mulder wouldn’t have to worry about leaving the apartment for food for a day or two. The doctor had told him to rest for the next few days, but he had one thing to take care of before could happen. He went into Scully’s bedroom and removed the dream catcher. Langly spotted the object in his hands and turned pale at the sight. “Geez Byers, get rid of that thing.”

“What do you think I’m trying to do. This is going straight down to the furnace and I’m staying until I’m sure the damned thing is incinerated.”

“I’ll come with you. I’d like to be sure that thing doesn’t reappear myself.”

Langly saw the diary on the table and picked it up. “What about this? Think we should hang on to it?”

“No, let’s get rid of that, too. I don’t want any trace of this thing left for Scully to see when she gets home.”

Byers’ head was pounding as they walked down the steps into the basement. Just a few more minutes and he could go home. He just hoped that he would be able to make it back up the steps without Langly’s help. The closer they came to the furnace, the harder the pounding became. His eyes lost their focus and he almost fell down the steps. Langly caught hold of his arm just in time to keep him from falling.

“Easy dude, maybe you should let me take it from here.”

“No, I need to do this. I bought the damned thing; it’s up to me to destroy it.”

Langly nodded his head in agreement. “I see your point. This thing has some major bad karma to it and since you bought it, you have to be the one to get rid of it so you don’t add anymore karmic debts to your soul, right?”

Under normal circumstances, Byers would have jumped all over Langly’s karmic debt crap. These were not normal circumstances. “Yeah, right, whatever. Look, just help me down the steps will you please? My head is killing me.”

They made it down the stairs and over to the furnace. Langly opened the gate and tossed in the diary. It caught fire and burned quickly in the flames. They watched as the pages turned to cinders and floated in the heat. When the book was reduced to ashes, Byers tossed in the dream catcher. A noise, something like a scream, sounded out in the belly of the furnace, then a flash of green light, before the dream catcher caught fire. The web went first, popping and cracking as the strands broke away from the frame. When the final strand separated from circle, the frame itself burst into flame and burned quickly down to nothing. As the frame disappeared, Byers’ head ceased its pounding.

“That was freaky. Did you see that flash of green?”

Byers nodded his head. “It’s gone now. Let’s see if Frohike’s back , I want to go home.”

Scully’s apartment

Two days later

Dr. Childers had run every test in the book, but couldn’t determine the cause of Scully’s dizziness. After her first solid night’s sleep, her symptoms had disappeared, so they decided to chalk it up to extreme exhaustion and leave it at that. The nightmares had disappeared, as well. Having no excuse to keep her any longer, Dr. Childers signed her release papers.

Mulder pulled up in front of Scully’s apartment. Neither had said much since leaving the hospital. Over the last two days, they’d talked about her nightmares, the murder case, Byers and the boys, everything but what would happen when she got out of the hospital. Now that they were finally here, he wasn’t sure how to proceed. Getting out of the car might be a good place to start. He pulled the key out of the ignition and opened his door. She really didn’t need his help, but she knew that Mulder would like taking on the role of the chivalrous suitor, so she forced herself to stay still until he opened the door.

“Thank you, Mulder.”

He smiled, then opened the back door to retrieve her overnight bag and his, somewhat larger, suitcase. The original idea was for him to leave last night, pack his bag and bring it over to her apartment, but once he’d finished packing at home, he found that he was more interested in getting back to her side, than worrying about where his suitcase was. Now, with his arms full of luggage, he regretted that decision. Good thing Scully was strong enough to make it to the door without his help.

Scully unlocked the front door and went inside. She smiled when she saw the fresh flowers on the table, a gift from the boys. Mulder walked into her bedroom and put her overnight bag down on the dresser, then carried his suitcase back out to the living room and put it beside the couch. Scully frowned. “Mulder, what are you doing?”

“What?”

She pointed to the suitcase. “That. Why is it out here?”

Mulder shrugged. “This seemed like the right place to put it, Scully. We haven’t exactly discussed the sleeping arrangements. I didn’t want…I wasn’t going to make any assumptions.”

Scully pursed her lips, then nodded her head. “I see.” She walked into the bedroom, leaving Mulder standing there, not knowing what to do with himself. He ran his fingers through his hair, trying to decide what to do next. “Mulder, would you come in here, please?”

He walked slowly to the bedroom door and peered inside. Scully was sitting on the edge of the bed, waiting for him. She motioned for him to enter, then pointed behind her. On the pillow was a small card. He couldn’t read it from the foot of the bed, so he looked at her, then moved toward the head of the bed to pick it up. The writing on the card made him chuckle. “Reserved for Special Agent Fox Mulder, FBI.”

“Does that clear things up for you, Mulder?”

He bit his lower lip and came back to sit next to her.

“Are you sure, Scully? When we started this, you said you needed a little more time. Besides, you just got out of the hospital…”

“Mulder!”

“What?”

“Are you trying to talk me out of this?”

“No! I just want to be sure that…”

Scully gave him an exasperated look. “Mulder, shut up and kiss me.”

He smiled. “Yes ma’am.”

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