Secret World by Bonetree

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Secret World By Bonetree

Secret World cover

RATING: NC-17 for sexual situations, graphic violence, and adult language.

CATEGORY: S, A, X-File

SPOILERS: Everything through season five (this sort of takes off into its own world somewhere within season six…).

KEYWORDS: MSR, Angst, X-File, inferred rape (see author’s note below)

SUMMARY: Scully goes deep undercover to find the secret behind a mysterious death. But with what she learns, will she ever be able to come in from the cold?

ARCHIVE: Yes, anywhere you’d like, but please let me know where it’s going. Thanks.

FEEDBACK: Welcomed at AO3

DISCLAIMER: The following is a work of fiction. The characters of Mulder, Scully, Skinner, Maggie Scully, Emily, Melissa, Tina Mulder (and anyone else from the show who appears without provocation) are the property of 1013 Productions, Chris Carter, and Fox. No copyright infringement is intended, and no profit is being made from the use of these characters. All other characters are my own creation and they, along with the story in this form, are the intellectual property of the holder of the above AOL account.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This story is set post-“Goshen,” one of my earlier fanfictions. I don’t think you really need to read it beforehand to understand this story, but you might get thrown by some occasional references to something that happened in the Virginia mountains, specifically Afton Mountain, a year ago.  And because of these events, as this story begins, Mulder and Scully are already lovers. “Goshen,” a novella, can be found
here.

For the purposes of this story, season seven never happened. Most importantly, “Requiem” hasn’t happened. Sorry, no Babyfic here.

There is also, I should warn you, an inferred (not graphically described) rape in one of the late, late sections. I wanted to let you you all know ahead of time so you could avoid the story completely if that bothers you.

Other Author’s Notes will follow at the end of the story.

Thanks for reading.

Bone

Secret World

Sometimes, when you look around,
everything seems still and calm on the surface.
And then you detect
a little disturbance. And you know for sure
that underneath the surface
lies some other
secret world.
— Peter Gabriel

CHAPTER ONE

~~~

LOMBARD’S MARKET RICHMOND, VIRGINIA DECEMBER 19 8:23 p.m.

John Larivee thumbed through the Richmond Times-Dispatch on the counter in front of him, checking the want ads and wondering how guilty he should feel for looking for another job while allegedly doing this one. He decided that he shouldn’t feel very guilty, not for $6 an hour under the table. After all, he was working for people who kept a list of customers who bounced checks on posterboard by the door, just for the spite of it.

He glanced up at the three customers milling around the tiny shop’s Import Beer section — just added to keep up with the chi- chi new markets over on Main Street. The customers were all underage, sporting the requisite thrift store garb of the local college students, and he couldn’t care less. He’d sell them the overpriced beer anyway. He always did.

The cowbell on the door clanged loudly over the sound of Paula Cole’s newest — something about being somebody — and a blast of frigid December air leapt over the counter, a few papery leaves rushing in at the feet of the newest customer just as the door slammed shut behind him.

No, her, he corrected himself, noting the long hair trailing out the sides of her parka hood. Bright red hair. He pegged her for an art student and looked away without another thought. The song continued bleating around him, and he sighed, turning his attention to the first quarter of the Monday Night Football game flickering on the small television beside him. Dolphins 14, Jets 3.

“Help me.”

Larivee looked up quickly. The woman in the army green parka had appeared before him so silently that her voice was the first indication he had that she’d approached the counter at all. He actually jumped as she spoke. Watery blue eyes stared at him through the mass of tangled hair crumpled around her face.

“Excuse me?” He found himself leaning away from her as he met her gaze. Her face was blood red, her eyes awash in tears, her teeth clenched as if in pain.

She licked her lips, her head tilting to one side. “I need you…I need you to help me…” Some part of his mind registered an accent. Irish, he thought.

White hands fumbled on the counter, stretching around the edge closest to him. She looked like someone clenching the bar on a roller coaster, her face contorted in a sob now as she leaned forward, her forehead touching the glass, a puff of condensation billowing beneath her face as she cried out, the sound starting low in her throat and gaining momentum fast.

Larivee stood now and backed a step away, looked to one of the college kids who’d come forward at the sound, her face stricken.

“What…what do you want me to do?” he asked weakly, more to show concern in front of the kid than in an actual attempt to help the woman in front of him. He hated the city, hated the junkies. The last thing he needed this night or any other was a freaked out college kid looking for a Trip Doctor.

Instead of responding, her moan continued, getting more shrill, and then suddenly liquid. He looked down in horror as a stream of blood trickled over the side of the counter, racing for his feet. He jumped back as if shot.

“Hey, are you okay?” The young woman at the refrigerator case came forward, alarmed at Larivee’s reaction. She put her hand on the other woman’s prone back. The woman stiffened beneath her hand, the moan turning into a scream.

John stumbled backwards now, towards the phone hanging on the wall. He got the receiver off and dialed 911, his eyes never leaving the woman. At the sound, the college student stepped back quickly as well, the other two students suddenly behind her, their eyes wide, their mouths open.

The woman threw herself backward, her hands clamping down on both ears as if against some impossibly loud sound only she could hear. Between her hands, in a horrible second, the scream ended in a hollow POP, like a cork coming off a bottle of champagne. Then, between her hands, John saw…..nothing. A spray of gore, filling the room with quick, wet noise as her body dropped against the counter.

Then, just the eerily normal tones of the radio. The three students screaming. And the operator calling out to no one that help was on its way.

*

Larivee squinted his eyes against another flash as the police photographer snapped another picture from the doorway. He was standing at the back of the store now, as far away as he could get from the body at the counter that wasn’t yet covered with a sheet. The television had been left on, the game going into the third quarter beneath the blood drying on the screen. He stared at it numbly. Beside him, the three college students huddled together as though for warmth, all of them still staring, stricken, at the body on the floor.

“Did you hear anything like a gunshot?” the detective in front of him was asking. When Larivee didn’t reply, he leaned his head into the younger man’s line of vision. “Come on, son, stay with me here.” He enunciated each word as though Larivee were going deaf right before his eyes.

“No, nothing,” Larivee replied, his voice flat, monotone. “I told you everything I know. She just asked me to help her, and then this happened.” He nodded towards the counter again, his eyes never leaving the television.

The detective sighed, looked to the students. “You all say the same thing. You didn’t hear nothing.” They shook their heads silently in response.

“All right, boys and girls,” the detective said, stuffing his pad of paper into the inside pocket of his overcoat. “I’ve got your names and numbers. The owner of the store said he was on his way. So I guess you’re all free to go.”

To Larivee, the man’s voice still seemed impossibly far away. Nodding, he went to the front of the store, the students pressing close to the wall to walk around the body as the yellow police tape was raised to allow them to exit. Tucked at the back of the counter, Larivee pulled on his coat, ignoring the spatters of blood that covered it. He came around the corner just as the police were pulling something — a wallet, it looked like — from the pocket of the dead woman’s coat.

Shouldering his way through the police as the camera continued to flash around him, Larivee pushed out into the street, ducking beneath the yellow tape and through the small knot of curious onlookers who had gathered outside the store.

He would not go back to work there again.

*

FOX MULDER’S APARTMENT ALEXANDRIA, VIRGINIA DECEMBER 23 9:38 p.m.

The photograph of Mary Rutherford’s body lay neatly atop its open file folder, flickering in and out with the flashes from the television set in the darkened room. The police statement of John Larivee and the other witnesses gathered around it, the text neatly typed by the Richmond P.D. but too brief to do justice to the carnage of the photo, which was mercifully shot in black and white.

On the television, Ebenezer Scrooge reveled in the London Christmas morning, waltzing with his just-shed robe as he nearly sang that he was “light as feather, giddy as a schoolboy,” celebrating his somewhat coerced transformation from a “wicked old screw” to a man who kept Christmas in his heart all year round.

And though this was Fox Mulder’s favorite moment in his favorite Christmas film, he only had eyes for Dana Scully, naked on his lap, her breath coming in shallow, shaky breaths against his ear. He could still feel the fluttering inside her, her fingers pressing almost desperately to the flesh of his upper arms. Besides their breathing, the television was the only sound in the room.

He had watched her, held her, for some time now, mesmerized by the play of her body against his, around his. Sometimes when they made love, he sensed she wanted it this way, sensed how she resisted the gentle thrusting of his body into hers. Sometimes there was something she needed from being with him in this way that he couldn’t give her, and he’d sense it in her hands pushing against him, the way she rubbed her face against his shoulder, gripped the sides of his ribcage with her calves to disrupt the tender rhythm that his body found so easily once inside her.

He’d asked her if she was all right, and she’d hesitated before she replied, moving against him once, twice, the sensation running over his skin like a fine current. Despite the desire it stoked in him, he’d reached down and gripped her hips, stilling her. He whispered the question again, turned his face to just below her ear, pressed a long kiss against her there. This time, she’d released his chest, draped her arms around his neck until her hands found his short-cropped hair in the back.

“I want…” she whispered, puffed out another breath. He didn’t need to look at her to know her eyes were tightly closed. Then she’d said it again, and he nodded, laying his hands flat on her thighs, urging her to do as she wished, to completely take control. As she nodded and braced her hands on his shoulders, he held his lower body still, let her take what she needed from him.

It was a difficult thing for him to do, to give up this kind of control to her. But watching her take her own pleasure from him, her hips moving in maddening circles as her face dewed with sweat, her bottom lip caught between her teeth, her brow creased down in a concentration he found enviable and utterly erotic — he had to admit he loved it almost as much as finding his own pleasure within her. He’d watched her, listened to the soft moans she tried so hard to hold back, and marveled at how different lovemaking could be for a woman — she could be playful, or fast and almost harsh, her orgasm coming in a fleeting second, washing over her quickly in a gasp. Or she could take it agonizingly slow, with such care, as she was doing now, taking him so deeply inside her he felt he might disappear completely.

His mouth had found her breasts, taking first one nipple, then the other between his lips, smoothing the soft skin with his tongue, his teeth. He nuzzled at the creamy expanse of her neck, wordlessly urged her on, let her mouth find his as she needed it. Her cheek stroked his forehead. Her fingers gripped his hair as her pace began to quicken. Her fingernails raked his scalp as her breath fanned his hair, her chin lifting as she pressed his face into her chest, her body stiffening.

“Mu–” And she was shaking against him, a deep moan and she was coming, his arms going around her back, holding her tightly, one hand finding its way to her hair, smoothing it as he pressed a soft kiss between her breasts.

Now, she pulled back to look at him, her eyes sleepy and wet, her breathing still heavy as she met his gaze tenderly.

“You okay?” he murmured. There was something strained in his voice, his own need filtering into the quiet question. His hold for control was tenuous at best. He could tell from the way she stroked the back of his hair that she heard it, too.

She could do nothing but nod. Then she leaned down and kissed him, her tongue gently parting his lips and finding his. When she pulled away, the look in her eyes nearly brought him to tears.

And then she reached down and took his arms, guiding his hands down to her hips, thrusting against him gently. Her meaning was clear. He moaned softly in response. She returned her face to his shoulder, turned her lips to his ear, and began to speak.

“I love you,” she whispered, and he pulled her hips against his, pushing into her, already beginning to lose the feeling of his body inside hers, his own need held in check for so long, his fingers pressing hard as he moved.

Her voice was as vital as her body. It had always been that way. Her voice was, in fact, the first thing he’d fallen in love with, and it had become central to their lovemaking for him. The world spiraled for him as he lost his body, blotting out everything but the feel of her and the sound of her voice, first all of it, and slowly narrowing down to merely words, whispered to him like secrets…

So good… More… Don’t…. God….yes… Love You…. Yes… Mulder.. Yes…..

The last word for all of him, for everything that he was, and he cried out against her, thrusting into her one last time as his body shook, tiny explosions coming behind his eyelids as his fingers dug in, holding her against him as he emptied himself inside her.

Then her lips against the column of his throat, her nails combing through the wet hair at his temples, her calves pressing in, holding her body against his as he slowly came back to himself. Her hands turned his face up to allow him to find her lips. Again. And again.

The sounds of the television reentered his awareness, just audible over his harsh, desperate breathing.

And something else. A cell phone ringing. He groaned, both in lingering pleasure and dawning disappointment.

“Whose is it?” he murmured breathlessly, and she leaned back from him, looked at the two phones. He moaned again at the movement against his sensitive skin.

“Mine,” she replied, glancing at the display for the number. “It’s Skinner.”

“You’d better get it then,” he said softly, and with a final, lingering kiss, she moved off him, his hands guiding her carefully to her feet as she turned in the dark room and picked up the phone, tapping the talk button as she did so.

“Scully,” she said softly, and, trailing a hand on his thigh, she moved away, toward the privacy of the bathroom. He couldn’t blame her — his breathing could probably be heard in the next apartment.

Shifting a bit, he pulled the edge of the blanket he’d been sitting on up and over his bare legs, the sweat on his body chilling him now that Scully was gone. Then he leaned his head back and exhaled, closing his eyes.

Leave it to Skinner, he thought, both irritated and vaguely amused.

Since that night when they’d first made love almost a year ago, the night after they’d returned home after their ordeal in the Virginia mountains, they had managed to keep their relationship a secret from everyone at the Bureau. In fact, Scully’s mother was the only one who knew anything about it at all. (Mulder suspected, though, that the Lone Gunmen were onto them by now.)

He smiled wryly as he thought of the countless times he and Scully had been in one of their apartments and the cell phones had rung one after another as Skinner called them to assign them a case or ask them a question about something they were working on. They’d gotten good at keeping up the charade that they were apart.

Sighing now, he leaned forward, leafing absently through the photos and reports in front of him. Skinner had assigned them the case that morning, but they’d been wrapping another and hadn’t looked at it until they’d arrived at his apartment hours before.

He grimaced as he looked again at the headless body in the center of the pictures and read the reports of what had happened. The M.E.’s office in Richmond had done a preliminary autopsy on the body, but had found no cause of death other than the obvious — nothing to explain what had happened inside that young woman’s head. Scully would want to autopsy the woman herself, he knew. It was her standard procedure when they were assigned a case. It was so standard of her that he was having a hard fathoming why Skinner would be calling her at all.

Curiosity and something akin to a niggling sense of concern were coming over him just as Scully exited the bathroom and gathered up the work shirt he’d discarded in his haste not long after they’d come home. She balanced the phone on one shoulder, then the other, as she shrugged into it, buttoning a couple of buttons in the front to hold it closed. Skinner appeared to be doing most of the talking.

“Yes, sir, I’ve been through the file,” she said finally and looked up at him, gesturing with a “come hither” motion towards the bedroom. Obediently, he rose, padded naked to her, his hand trailing across her belly as he approached her.

“What is it?” he mouthed silently, and she held up a finger, shaking her head to forestall his interrogation, then pointed to the bedroom again. Pursing his lips in frustration, he turned and went where he’d been told, pulling back the covers on the bed and slipping beneath them. He rose up on one elbow to watch her.

After a series on “yeses,” which gave nothing away, she finally said: “I understand, sir. I’ll call Mulder and we’ll be on our way in the morning. Goodnight.” And she hung up the phone. He watched her disappear in the direction of the kitchen.

“What was THAT all about?” he called out, his impatience leaking out a bit in his tone.

She called back from the kitchen. “Well, this case, which was already interesting enough, just got a little more interesting.”

“How so?” he asked, sitting up a bit more.

She returned now, holding two glasses, a bottle of wine, and an opener. She placed the glasses on the night table as Mulder sat up, taking the bottle and opener from her. He was glad she wasn’t letting the phone call completely kill the mood, and smiled wryly.

She continued as he braced the bottle of wine between his knees and began to open it. “The police department in Richmond happened to be bored enough to run a background check on Mary Rutherford and they came up with something.”

“A criminal record?” he asked, his curiosity now piqued. With a tug the cork popped from the bottle.

She nodded. “Of a sort. When they ran the name through the FBI database, Mary Rutherford came up as an alias used by one Maura O’Brian. She’s an Irish citizen over on a visa, a visa that expired over eight months ago. And, she not only showed up as being wanted by Immigration, but there was something else. A flag by the CIA and NSA. Some agents from both divisions are going to be meeting us in Richmond tomorrow. We’re to go down there tomorrow so I can perform a second autopsy on the body.”

“What was she? IRA?” he asked, his brow creasing down. He could think of no other reason that the CIA and National Security would be interested in an immigration file. He poured the wine into the glasses, his brow creasing as he took in what she was saying.

“I don’t know,” Scully replied, and reached down, pulling the tail of the shirt up and over her head, standing naked before him in the dim light from the night table. “Skinner said he’d have a file messengered over to my apartment in the morning for us to take with us to Richmond.” She said the last with finality, as if to close the subject and everything else out. Mulder knew that tone, and welcomed it.

He pulled himself over to the edge of the bed closest to her, curled an arm around her waist and drew her to him, kissing her just below her navel. It was a long kiss, long enough for her to run her fingers through his hair several times, her eyes trained on the top of his head. She shifted her weight, leaning into him a bit more as his mouth began roaming her belly. She released a long, slow breath.

At least for that night, she thought, her eyes drooping closed dreamily, Mary Rutherford would have to wait.

~~~

INTERSTATE 95, SOUTHBOUND NEAR ASHLAND, VIRGINIA DECEMBER 24 7:03 a.m.

Mulder flicked another shell from a sunflower seed he’d been gnawing on out the driver’s side window, nibbling on the soft, salty seed as he turned and glanced at Scully, who was engrossed in the file next to him. Today she was back to her professional self, changed before him like quicksilver — her hair curving perfectly around her jaw just over the collar of her black trench, the white collar of her long shirt just visible. Her face was set in an almost grim, serious expression as she read through the file.

How she could change so much in a 12 hour period never ceased to amaze him. He smiled to himself, reaching into the bag for another seed, steering the car for a moment with his knees. Andy Williams was singing “Joy to the World” on the radio. Badly.

“So you were saying last night that the CIA and NSA had a flag on this woman?” he asked. They’d driven most of the way so far in near silence, allowing her time to read the files they’d picked up at her apartment. “Did you find out if she was IRA or not?”

Scully nodded, but didn’t look up from the file just yet. “She’s sort of IRA, they think,” she replied absently. “Apparently she was suspected of being a member of an arch-radical branch of the IRA called The Path, which has been operating for some time in the states. They were ousted from Northern Ireland by the Sinn Fein. Apparently, The Path’s sensibilities were considered too extreme for even the IRA.” She did look up at that, raising an eyebrow at the irony of the statement.

Mulder chuckled, both at her motion and at what she’d said. “Sounds like a bunch of choir boys.” he said finally.

She quirked a smile, then continued. “They refused to consider the peace agreement with the British government when it was first proposed, and the IRA was forced to break away from them in order to come to any sort of accord. The Path was useful during the Troubles, it would seem, even if their methods were extreme. They weren’t much use for peace.”

Mulder considered this. “So The Path split off from the IRA and came here? Why here?” He was struggling to recall the most recent briefings on the IRA presence in the U.S. Since it fell so far outside their usual work, he hadn’t paid it much attention and was regretting it.

Scully flipped to another page in the file, read it over. “There’s a strong pro-Irish grassroots movement in the U.S.,” she noted from the file. “A lot of the IRA’s resources come from people here, and not all of them are for peace. It’s likely that The Path found a sympathetic ear here and were able to move their base of operations and continue their work. It says here that they’ve been blamed for several bombings in Northern Ireland over the past three years, attacks on British personnel, ones not attributed to the IRA itself.”

Mulder nodded. He did remember reading something about a group operating in the U.S. Counterterrorism in the Bureau had been working on the case for years now. “So Mary Rutherford was in The Path.” He bit into another seed, spit the shells into his hand and tossed them out the window again.

“They believe so, yes. Partly because of her visa violation, and also because they’ve narrowed down the base of operations for The Path to Richmond. It’s close to D.C. and the I-95 corridor, easy to get people and information to and from D.C and the northeast, where they suspect a lot of their support comes from. Richmond’s just out of the way enough for them to be inconspicuous.” She pushed her hair back behind her ear, flipping through another few pages of the file. “They know they’re there, but they haven’t been able to get enough evidence that they were involved in any wrong doing to do anything about them.”

“So where do we come in on this?” he asked, gunning the engine to pass an eighteen wheeler that had appeared in their path. “This sounds like something for Counterterrorism or the boys at the NSA.”

“Well, the fact that we deal with unexplained phenomena is part of it, of course. We still don’t know what killed Mary Rutherford. And the other part is about me. They want my medical expertise on this case.” She looked at him as he glanced over. She knew he hated it when she was singled out from him, and she saw it in his quick look. She pressed on anyway. “They apparently are wondering if the cause of Mary Rutherford’s ‘accident’ is related to her suspected involvement with the terrorist activities.”

Mulder barked out a laugh at that. “You mean they think it’s some kind of terrorist weapon that did this?” He was incredulous now. “That’s a little paranoid of them, don’t you think? Isn’t it more likely she was just hit by something coming through the window, a sharpshooter or something?”

“You would think that, yes,” Scully replied. “Except for the fact that there were no entry points in the shop where this happened. No broken glass, no open windows, no one but the four eyewitnesses in the store. Nothing to show anything other than internal involvement.”

Mulder nodded now, the puzzle pieces starting to sift around in his head. He couldn’t make much sense of them. All they really knew for certain at this point was that Rutherford was dead. Cause of death unknown.

Finally, he let out a put upon sigh. “You know how much I hate working with the NSA on anything,” he grumbled. “They can be such cloak and dagger assholes.”

She smirked. “I hate working with them, too.” Her tone was teasing. “But hey, with any luck we’ll get down there, I’ll find out the cause of death, it’ll be something completely explainable. Then we’ll close the case and put their minds at ease at the same time.” She reached out and and stroked his leg affectionately.

“Let’s hope,” he replied sullenly. He knew neither of them believed a word she said.

They crossed a bridge, passed a sign that said they’d entered the Richmond city limits. Before them they saw smokestacks, an endless series of train tracks crammed with coal cars, an expanse of old buildings. Then, in the distance, the squat series of highrises that marked the center of town.

“We want exit 76B,” Scully volunteered, reading off the directions.

Mulder nodded, still glancing out the passenger window. “What an ugly town,” he remarked.

“Oh, it’s only ugly from the highway. There are some parts of Richmond that are beautiful. Rows and rows of Victorian houses, Civil War monuments, huge old trees.” Scully smiled. “I used to come here a lot when I was at UMd. I did some of my pathology training at the medical college here.”

She spoke with such a fondness in her voice that he had to smile again. But as they curved around the city towards the highrises in the distance, his smile melted away. Despite her enthusiasm, her warm hand still on his leg, he couldn’t shake the fact that he had a bad feeling about this case.

~~~

CHAPTER 2

~~~

STATE MEDICAL EXAMINER’S OFFICE RICHMOND, VIRGINIA 8:27 a.m.

Scully pulled her black coat around her more tightly as she exited the car, ducking her chin down against a sudden gust of frigid wind that came across the parking lot. She tucked the small briefcase of files under her arm and took in her surroundings, surroundings she found almost comforting in their familiarity.

The Visitor’s spaces were off to the side of what appeared to be a loading dock area, a concrete platform built up at just the level of an ambulance or hearse’s back door. From the loading dock, there was a few feet to a rolling metal door, like a garage door only much larger. Off to one side was another door, this one typically sized, its thick glass imbedded with screen. Beside it, a plain black and white sign announced: “State Medical Examiner Entrance — all visitors must sign in.”

A black Medical Examiner’s hearse was backed up to the loading dock, the gloved attendants pulling the stretcher out of the back, on which lay a form encased in a black plastic body bag. The metal door was slowly rolling up as the stretcher bumped up onto the concrete. Once it had risen to just above their heads, the M.E. personnel pushed the body into the large receiving area, disappearing into the warehouse-like building. Only the faint echo of the wheels on the hard stone floor reached Scully as she stood before the visitor’s entrance. She couldn’t feel an ounce of heat bleed out from the huge open doorway.

Mulder had opened the door, held it open for her as she huddled further into her coat and entered the cold building. He followed close behind her, letting her lead the way to the desk where a bored looking young black man was listening to the radio, his eyes on a magazine on his lap. The whole place smelled of industrial strength cleaners, the slight hint of formaldehyde.

“Excuse me,” Scully said politely. “I’m Special Agent Dana Scully and this is my partner Special Agent Fox Mulder. We’re with the F.B.I.” She nodded towards Mulder as the man looked up. “We’re here for an autopsy.”

The man put his magazine down, pushed a clipboard with a pen dangling from a chain attached to it. “I need to see your badges. Sign in here.”

As they both produced their badges and handed them over, the clerk wrote their badge numbers next to their signatures. Under the “subject” line, Scully had written “Mary Rutherford.” The clerk checked his roster, handed back the badges. “Your subject is in Bay 6. You can use Examination Room 3. It’s free now.”

“Thank you,” Scully replied.

“Have a better one,” the man called to their backs as they made their way down the hallway. Mulder reached from beside her and took the briefcase from underneath her arm as they followed the corridor into the building.

“So this is where you spent your wild medical school days?” he quipped, his voice and the sound of their heels echoing off the cinderblock walls. Several people had passed them but no one had said a word.

Scully nodded, looked up at him as they walked. “Yes, I spent a lot of nights here. Working the graveyard shift, if you’ll excuse the phrase. Richmond had a lot of murders back then. It was a great place to get experience without things being as hectic as D.C.”

She tried, with her tone, to lighten things up a bit. Mulder, she knew, had never been completely comfortable in morgues, despite his vast experience with them. She could always tell from his sometimes nervous conversation, the way he hovered back away from the table most of the time, the way she’d see him try to hide a gag at some of the things they’d seen. And the Richmond morgue was particularly cold, particularly dim and cavernous. She could see why it might give him the creeps.

They turned down another hallway, following a sign to Bay 6. As they rounded the corner to it, they suddenly found themselves confronted by two men, both in dark suits and long coats, standing outside the door to the room. They both turned to face them as they approached.

“Excuse us,” Scully said, and attempted to pass the men to get to the door. To her surprise, neither of them budged. She and Mulder pulled up short.

“Agent Scully, Agent Mulder,” one of the men said, reaching into his pocket. “I’m Agent Hirsch, CIA, and this is Agent Coulson with National Security.” Both the men flashed their badges.

“Well, hail hail the gang’s all here,” Mulder said from behind her, and both men shot Mulder a strange, almost disparaging look. “We heard you boys would be sitting in on this one, too. I guess you beat us here.”

Coulson looked at Mulder again, his face set in stone. “We’ve been instructed to take you to a briefing before you’re allowed access to the body.”

“Before we’re allowed access?” Scully repeated incredulously. She looked back at Mulder, and she could see his jaw was already working.

“It will all be explained to you in the briefing.” Hirsch said, like a robot. “If you’ll just come with us, please.” And the two men gestured with their arms, forcing them to turn back the way they’d come. Hirsch got in front of them and Coulson brought up the rear. To Scully, it felt like they were being corralled like prisoners.

She saw Mulder starting to say something to the back of Hirsch’s head and put her hand out, touching his arm quickly.

“What?” he asked quietly.

She shook her head once, her meaning clear. She saw him purse his lips in frustration, but he did remain silent.

“We need to sign out at the desk,” she said quietly as they reached the main foyer where they’d entered. The young man was no longer there.

“You’ve already been signed out, Agent Scully,” Coulson said from behind them, and Scully looked up, met Mulder’s gaze. She could tell from the tension in his face that his alarm bells were going off. Hers were, too.

They went through the door back out into the cold. Hirsch started leading the way to a black sedan parked beside the entrance.

“We’ll take our own car and follow you,” Mulder said, putting his hand on Scully’s arm and halting them both. Coulson almost ran into them from behind.

Hirsch turned. “It’s easier if you just ride with us, Agent Mulder.” He was clearly losing his patience now, but Mulder wouldn’t back down. He shook his head.

“Either we take our own car or we don’t come at all.” He stood his ground, toe to toe with Hirsch now. Mulder had a good four or five inches of height on Hirsch and was using it to his advantage, Scully noted. She sometimes envied him that ability.

Hirsch exchanged a look with Coulson, then blew out a frustrated cloud of vapor into the air. “All right, Agent Mulder. Have it your way.”

~~~

The wrought iron streetlamps were adorned with Christmas flags, bearing bright sprigs of holly on a blue background trimmed in gold. Scully watched them as they followed the government sedan through the streets of downtown Richmond, the streets crowded with shoppers. They nosed through the crowds, Mulder keeping his eyes on the black car with government plates that appeared to be leading them away from the heart of town.

“This is exactly what I was talking about,” Mulder was saying. “Cloak and dagger, mysterious bullshit.” He inched closer to the Hirsch’s car as they went through a yellow light going red. Hirsch wasn’t making it easy for them to follow, cutting in and out of lanes. Mulder was sent weaving through traffic to keep up.

“I mean, ‘allowing us access to the body?’ What is that? We’re not even on their case about this terrorist group. We’re just here to investigate the death. If they want us off the case they should just throw us off the case.”

Scully watched his profile as he drove, sighed. “Mulder, they clearly don’t want us off the case. Skinner said they wanted my medical opinion on the autopsy.”

Mulder shot her an irritated look, though it wasn’t directed at her personally. “Then why won’t they let you do the goddamn autopsy? What are we doing this briefing for? To learn the secret handshake? To pick up our decoder rings? This is ridiculous.”

“I agree with you,” she soothed. “I’m not taking their side, believe me. They’re giving me the creeps. Thank God you said we weren’t going to drive with them.” She had pictured them disappearing into some underground world presided over by the Smoking Man, or someone worse. Part of her still pictured that. She knew that Mulder did, too.

They pulled onto Belvedere, then took a left onto Franklin. “I don’t like this,” Mulder said.

“I know, I don’t like it either.”

“No,” he said softly, turning to look at her for a moment. “I don’t like them being so…interested in you like this.”

“Mulder,” she replied, frustrated now. “They’re not ‘interested’ in me in any unusual way. I’m an agent, a doctor, a pathologist. I have experience working on unexplained cases. It’s perfectly natural that they would want me to look at this.” She looked out the window, blew out a breath. She shook her head. “It bothers me when you get like this.”

“When I get like what?” he asked sharply.

She looked back at him now, her eyes hard on him and yet imploring. “When you’re so protective of me. You’re almost possessive sometimes, and I don’t like it.”

“I’m not any different than I’ve ever been, Scully.” He snapped on the turn signal, too hard, as he followed the sedan into the right hand lane.

“You are,” she replied, and now wished she’d never brought it up. “Ever since we….well, ever since Goshen, you’ve been getting more and more protective of me, Mulder. You have to let me do my job.”

“I’ve never not let you do your job,” he said angrily. The sedan was turning right now, into a circular driveway. Mulder followed it in. Scully realized from the valet parking attendants that they were at the entrance of a hotel, a very expensive hotel. The sign at the entrance said “The Jefferson.”

“Mulder, let’s just drop it, okay?”

As Mulder stopped the car, just before the parking attendant approached his side of the car, he turned and looked at her. The anger was gone from his face, replaced by an expression that seemed almost hurt.

“What’s happened between us doesn’t change the respect I have for your ability to do your job. I would never interfere with that.”

She met his gaze for a moment, the frustration going out of her. She nodded slowly as the valet reached down and opened Mulder’s door. He returned the nod and climbed out of the car.

Scully’s door opened, as well, and she got out, pulling the briefcase with her.

“Welcome to The Jefferson, ma’am.” the young clean-cut looking man before her said. “Do you have any luggage you’d like brought up to your room?”

“No, no luggage,” she said, brushing him off. Hirsch and Coulson were already out of their car, standing beside the entrance. Mulder handed off the keys to the valet, took the ticket and came around the car. They walked to the entrance side by side, the tension gone from between them. Hirsch turned and went into the hotel without saying another word.

Mulder and Scully followed them through the large open foyer. A bronze statue of Thomas Jefferson held court over the scene, a huge Christmas tree with gold and silver decorations fanned out behind him. They boarded the glistening elevator. Hirsch pushed the button for the sixth floor.

“Nice place,” Mulder said into the quiet as they rode up. “Not going cheap on the taxpayers, are we.”

“Yeah, thanks, we like it.” Hirsch replied sourly. Scully sighed. Mulder was never good at working and playing with others.

The elevator dinged as they reached their destination, Hirsch again leading the way down the corridor towards an ornate door. The small sign next to it said: “The Presidential Suite.” It was the only door on that entire side of the building, Scully noted.

Hirsch knocked, gazing directly into the peephole to allow whoever was inside to see his face clearly. The door opened and the four of them entered.

And Scully was amazed by what she saw.

The first thing she noted was that the room was the largest hotel room she’d ever seen. A large living room with a very high ceiling was the first room, furnished completely with couches, tables, and even a baby grand piano. Beyond it was a balcony, the French doors to it tightly closed but not obscuring a grand view of the city. A bedroom was off to the right, and to the left, a full dining room, the table large enough to hold at least 20 people. More rooms extended off of it.

The next thing she noticed was that the room didn’t look like a hotel room at all anymore. Computers, printers, fax machines, paper, was everywhere. And the place was jammed with people, men in suits and ties on telephones, behind makeshift work stations. She estimated there were at least 30 people in the room, all moving about. The room was buzzing with conversation and the sounds of machines running. Two men caught sight of them and came forward from the organized chaos of the room.

“Agent Scully, Agent Mulder,” the man said, extending his hand. They both returned the handshake. “I’m Richard Jessup, F.B.I. Counterterrorism Unit.” He forced a smile. “Welcome to Richmond. I’ve heard a lot about you both.”

I bet, Scully thought, but returned the stiff smile. “Thank you,” she said, before Mulder could say what she was thinking.

“It’s been a confusing visit so far, Mr. Jessup,” Mulder replied, shaking Jessup’s hand with mock enthusiasm. He jerked a nod towards Hirsch and Coulson, still standing stiffly beside them, their hands clasped in front of their crotches. “Nice welcoming committee.”

Jessup’s smile got more strained. “Yes, I’m sorry about that. You see, we weren’t expecting you two to come in on this case this early. We were unprepared for your involvement and have been trying to catch up.”

That got a gape from both of them, but before they could say anything, the other man introduced himself. “Ben Anderson, CIA Domestic Terrorism Unit.” His handshake was firmer, less friendly. “Why don’t we cut right to the chase and get you to Dr. Padden. He’ll explain everything to you to your satisfaction, I think.”

“I hope so,” Scully replied, and followed Anderson and Jessup as they started to weave their way through the room. She saw Mulder turn to Hirsch before following.

“We can take it from here, boys,” he said, patting Hirsch’s upper arm. “Why don’t you take a load off? There’s even a piano over there if either of you decides you’d like to tinkle.”

Hirsch forced out a fake laugh to that. Coulson glared at him. “Thanks, Agent Mulder. We’ll do just that.” Scully could swear she heard him say something else under his breath as they walked away. It sounded suspiciously like “son of a bitch.” But she could have been wrong.

They were led to the dining room table where several older men were sitting, folders in front of them. The man at the head of the table, greying, wearing glasses and a dark suit, stood as they approached.

“Agents Mulder, Scully,” he said softly. It was quieter in this corner of the large room. “Let me begin by apologizing for all the intrigue. I’m Dr. Robert Padden, Chief Inspector, NSA. Won’t you take a seat?”

They both peeled out of their coats, sat in the two seats beside Padden, across from two other men who looked to be about Padden’s age. Jessup and Anderson sat beside them.

“Begging your pardon, Dr. Padden,” Mulder said without prelude. “But just what the hell is going on?” Scully winced inwardly at his tone, but she shared his indignation. “We were under the impression that this autopsy was part of OUR investigation of this death, an investigation started by the Richmond P.D.”

“Surely you were told that there would be agents from the NSA and CIA here to meet you? I spoke to Assistant Director Skinner yesterday about this.” Padden, clearly used to being in charge, didn’t take Mulder’s bait. His voice remained flatly cordial.

“Yes, we were told,” Scully interjected before Mulder could reply. “But we were not told that these agents would be interfering with our investigation. And most certainly that we wouldn’t be denied access to the body, or be told we would need any sort of outside permission to perform our investigation.”

“Agents, please.” Padden held his hands up in a “calm down” gesture. “If you’ll just give me a moment, everything will be explained to you.”

Scully sighed. They weren’t going to get anywhere by being petulant at this point, that much was clear.

“Would you like some coffee?” Padden gestured towards the coffeemaker in the corner. “Something else?”

“Just answers, SIR,” Mulder grumbled under his breath.

“No, thank you,” Scully replied, her chin coming up almost defiantly. She refused to be bullied by the silent stares of the men at the table. She was also more than slightly aware that she was the only woman in the room.

Padden looked to the two men across the table from them. “I want to begin by saying that, of course, everything you’re going to hear today is classified information.”

“Of course,” Scully replied. Mulder nodded, as well. Padden continued, satisfied.

“Then let me introduce everyone first. This is Phillip Grant and Duncan Hall from Scotland Yard’s Anti-Terrorism division.” Both of the men nodded to Scully and Mulder, who nodded back. “They’re acting as consultants on this case.

“We want to have a clear understanding of what’s going on before you go into the autopsy, Agent Scully.” He pinned Scully with his eyes. “Mr. Grant?”

Grant, a balding man, also wearing glasses, cleared his throat and opened the file in front of him. He spread out several black and white photos in front of Scully and Mulder. They were all crime scene photos. The bodies, like Mary Rutherford, were missing their heads.

“This is the fifth body to turn up in this condition in the past year,” Grant said, his voice heavy with a British accent. “Two of them have been in Northern Ireland, the other three here in the States — one in Massachusetts, one in Philadelphia, and now one here in Richmond. All of the autopsies showed the same thing. No clear cut cause of death, other than the fact that their heads appeared to have exploded.”

“There was one other detail that isn’t in your report of the autopsy results of the victim here in Richmond,” Padden added. “An organic compound was found in the toxicology reports of all of the victims, one that we’ve been unable to identify.” He looked at Scully. “We were hoping you might be able to give us some insight into the nature of this compound, Agent Scully, when you do your autopsy and review the findings on the other victims.”

“Were all these people in The Path?” Mulder asked, picking up one of the photos to look at it more closely. This victim, a man, was wearing an army fatigue jacket and jeans. He appeared to be lying in a public bathroom. Scully was studying another, the gender unrecognizable, lying next to what appeared to be city trashcans in an alley.

“We haven’t been able to identify two of the bodies.” Anderson answered. “But we’re assuming so, considering the identical unexplained cause of death, and the presence of this organic compound in the bloodstreams. The other victims, the ones who happened to be carrying identification…all had connections with either the IRA or The Path itself.”

“Because of recent information that we’ve received in regards to this Rutherford’s death, we’re treating all of these deaths as homicides.” Padden said quietly.

“What sort of information?” Scully asked, laying down the photo.

Padden looked at both of them. “I’d rather not go into too much detail at this juncture. I will tell you, however, that we received word that Rutherford might be killed a few days before her death.”

“So you already knew that Rutherford was in The Path,” Mulder said, leaning forward. “Then why did the Richmond P.D. bother with the background checks on her? Why was her case sent to us?”

All of the men looked down, as though embarassed. Padden pursed his lips before he answered. “We didn’t realize Rutherford had been killed until a few days after the fact. We didn’t realize she was here in Richmond. The Richmond P.D. released the case to you in that interrum period. We didn’t get containment of the situation quickly enough.”

Mulder gestured to the room around him. “Even with all this here, you couldn’t get containment?” His tone was incredulous. Scully saw the men at the table squirm a bit more. Clearly some heads had rolled over this.

Padden nodded. “This command center has only been here for the past 36 hours,” he said. “We didn’t settle on Richmond as a base until this death. Again, because of recent intelligence. Suffice to say that we’ve recently had a break in the case.”

Scully nodded, looked down at the photographs again.There has to be a connection that they’re not telling us, she thought, something…. Finally she said: “Do these deaths have anything in common other than the cause of death and the victims’ association with The Path?” she asked.

Hall looked at Padden, who nodded. “Yes,” Hall then said. “There was a tremendous amount of funding from the Campaign for Free Ireland, an American fundraising group based in Boston, going into those areas when the deaths occured. And we believe that one man may have been in all of the areas when these people were killed.” Scully recognized from his accent that Hall was Irish.

“A hit man?” Mulder asked.

“Of a sort,” Hall replied. “He’s actually the head of The Path. His name is Owen Curran.”

“So you think this man ordered these deaths?” Scully asked.

Padden nodded. “Or that he was somehow responsible for them, yes.”

“And he’s here now, in Richmond.” Mulder said quickly. Scully could see that it was all falling into place for Mulder. It was starting to come together for her, too.

Beside them, Jessup nodded. “We think so. We believe they’ve settled here now. That’s why Dr. Padden was able to tell Assistant Director Skinner about Richmond being the base of operations for us yesterday on the phone. Unfortunately, we don’t have any sort of evidence linking him to any of the crimes or any other sort of wrong doing.”

“As you’re probably aware,” Padden added. “We believe this might be some sort biological weapon that Curran is testing on his own people. Some sort of toxin. That’s why we called you in, Agent Scully.”

Scully looked at Jessup. “Agent Jessup said that we came in ‘early’ on this case. You were expecting to involve us at some point?” Beside her, Jessup reddened.

Padden glared at him. “Yes, we were. Both of you. You for your medical and scientific expertise, and Agent Mulder for his profiling abilities. We need a profile of Curran, some idea of what might be motivating him. But no, we weren’t prepared for your coming aboard without us specifically asking for you. Your involvement at this juncture was simply fortuitous.”

Jessup leaned forward. “We’re also aware that you both have experience on…unusual cases, and this certainly qualifies. Though we’re fairly certain this has nothing to do with the paranormal.” The agents around the table smirked a bit at that. Scully watched Mulder sit back in his chair, feeling mocked. She did, as well.

“Anyway,” Padden interjected sternly, silencing the table. “We’re hoping that we can get to the bottom of what exactly Curran is planning. Between these deaths and the fact that he’s using up so much money right now….we’d like some answers on the ‘whys’ on both these mysteries. We’d like you to do your autopsy right away, Agent Scully.”

“Yes, sir,” Scully replied, and stood. Mulder followed suit, shouldering into his coat.

“I’m going to join Agent Scully and have a look at the body,” he said to the table. “I’ll start my profiling with the available evidence and move on from there.”

“Of course,” Padden replied, stood. He reached a hand towards them both. “We’re glad to have you both aboard. We’ll look forward to your reports.”

They both shook his hand, forced a smile. Scully was relieved that Mulder was too preoccupied to needle Hirsch again as they went out the door.

~~~

As the door closed behind them, Robert Padden looked to the men at the table, pinning them over the rims of his glasses.

“What do you think?” he asked, and the other men looked at each other for a few beats. Finally, Jessup spoke up.

“You can tell she keeps her head about her.” he said softly, shifting the photographs into the folder in front of Padden. “That’s her reputation in the Bureau, as well. Hell, she’s even a red-head, Curran’s type, from what we’ve seen. I think she’ll do perfectly.”

“If,” Hall added, leaning back, his face thoughtful, “you can find a way to get them apart. That’ll be the trick of this, I believe.” They all looked at him, then again at Padden.

Padden nodded, sighed as he closed the folder, tossed his glasses on top of it. “Yes, I have a sneaking suspicion that you’re right about that.”

~~~

CHAPTER THREE.

~~~

RICHMOND CITY MORGUE 10:32 a.m.

Scully pulled on her mask as two morgue attendants rolled the headless corpse of Mary Rutherford onto the examining table. From behind her, she could hear Mulder make a low sound in his throat at the sight, and she didn’t have to turn around to know that he had averted his eyes. She thanked the men and they left the room.

A microphone hung suspended above the examining table, and Scully flicked it on with a gloved finger. Below it, the body’s skin glowed an unearthly blue in the fluorescent of the silver overhead light.

“Second autopsy on Mary Rutherford, a.k.a. Maura O’Brian, by Dr. Dana Scully, Federal Bureau of Investigation. I will begin by reopening the torso for an examination of the internal organs.”

She heard Mulder groan again, though he’d come forward now to the other side of the table, his eyes scanning the body, taking it in. She reached for a pair of surgical scissors and started on the bottom sutures of the Y-incision, just above the shock of pubic hair on the white skin. She snipped the thick corded sutures in a series of snaps.

“She was underweight, wasn’t she?” Mulder asked, not taking his eyes off the body. Now that he mentioned it, she noted the protrusions of the woman’s pelvic bones and ribs beneath her thin skin. She stopped cutting and looked at the readout on the scale built into the table.

“Well, it’s hard to know her exact height considering.” She gestured to the ragged stump where the head should be. “But yes, she does appear a little underweight. 103 lbs.”

Mulder nodded, and Scully began cutting up the incision again. She hadn’t had a lot of opportunity to see Mulder working as a profiler, not for years now. She’d always been secretly fascinated by his skills in this area, the ones he was so famous for at the Academy. He had been considered one of the best Violent Crimes had ever seen.

He bent over, looking closely at Rutherford’s arm and hand. “There are some needle marks on her arms.”

“Yes,” Scully replied. She began parting the flaps of skin. “That was on the preliminary autopsy report. There don’t appear to be enough of them to confirm any long-term IV drug use.”

“And she bit her nails,” he said, picking up the hand to show to Scully. She noted the nubs of fingernails, the ragged edges of hangnails. While she waited for him to continue, she finished up clamping back the skin on the corpse before her.

“That, coupled with her being underweight…. I’d say she was fairly unhappy before her death. Under some sort of duress.”

“That would follow with what she said at the crime scene,” Scully replied. “She said she needed help, and the witness reported that she was crying.”

Mulder shook his head. “I think this was more long term. I think she’d been living under a great deal of stress for a long time before her death. It shows on her body. Even now.” His voice had grown very far away, his gaze both looking at the body and not. To Scully, he seemed as though he was talking only to himself. Despite the years she’d known him, his tone gave her the creeps.

Mulder moved to the head of the table, grimacing as he came to the nub of neck at the intersection of her shoulders. The skin was ragged, torn away in flaps. A small protrusion of spine nosed up through the folds of skin.

Scully lifted out one of the two bags nestled inside the abdominal cavity, a large moist bag where all of the internal organs had been placed after they’d been removed and examined. She began on the twist-tie as Mulder leaned closer for a better look at the neck.

“There’s no explosive residue here at all,” Mulder muttered, his face twisting into a grimace as he leaned a bit too close.

Again Scully nodded. “That was also in the preliminary report.” She took the organs out one at a time and laid them on the scale. Then, reading the weights one by one into the microphone, she placed them in a row on a small tray beside the examining table. Mulder had stepped back now, his expression that same faraway look.

“Whoever did this to her…hated her,” Mulder said finally. “They calculated this, knew this would happen this way. There’s a lot of anger in this.”

Scully wasn’t going to argue with that. As she moved to the woman’s neck, her fingers probing the area with needless care, she couldn’t help thinking there wasn’t a much more gruesome way to die. At least it would have been quick, though from the police reports that she’d read and from the amount of blood found at the scene before the head “detonated” (as it was described in the first autopsy) the woman had suffered terribly.

“What do you think caused this?” Mulder asked her from behind. His voice was still quiet in the room. The only other sound was the electric hum of the overhead lamp.

“My best guess at this point, based on what I’ve read and what I’m seeing here,” she began, pulling a small piece of bone from the tissue around the neck. “…is some sort of dental implant, some sort of explosive. Something so powerful that the damage it caused would literally blow away any residue.”

“You think she was fitted with a bomb? Why would she allow that?”

Scully shrugged. “Maybe she didn’t have a choice. Or it was implanted without her knowledge.”

Mulder crossed his arms over his chest, coming up beside the body again. “What are the chances of that being the case with all the victims?” he asked. When Scully didn’t reply, he continued. “I mean why would five people find themselves with enough explosives capped onto their teeth to do this?”

“Well,” Scully said, standing straight now. “It could be some sort of guarantee of loyalty that The Path requires of its members. Being fitted with the implants. Or they could have been placed there to ensure that anyone who crossed them could be effectively silenced.”

“I still don’t see these people happily lining up to have the things put in,” Mulder said softly. “I think your theory that they’re put in without their knowledge is more likely. If we’re even talking about some sort of implanted explosive.”

“I don’t know what else it could possibly be,” Scully said, going back to the torso. Another, smaller, bag was tucked beneath the ribs and she reached for it. Mulder felt bile rising up in his throat as he saw the tangles of red hair pressed against the clear plastic, realizing that this was what could be gathered up at the crime scene, the remnants of the woman’s head.

“I think I’m going to go back to the hotel, see what I can find out about this Owen Curran, start my preliminary profile.” He pulled off the gloves he’d been wearing, tossed them in a biohazard bin beside the table. He reached for his coat, on a hook by the door.

She looked up, the unopened bag still in her hands. “All right. I’m going to go back over the body, have a look at the toxicology reports and see if I can begin to isolate what this compound found in her bloodstream might be. I’ll call you when Ifinish.”

She sighed then, laying the bag down on the side of the table, remembering suddenly the day. “I guess I won’t be meeting the family tonight for Christmas dinner,” she said quietly. “I’ll need to give my mother a call at some point.” She could already hear the disappointment in her mother’s voice when she made the call. It gave her a twinge of guilt.

He looked at her, his expression regretful. “I’m sorry,” he said, shouldering back into his coat. “I know how important that is to you, to be with them.”

She quirked a small smile, chasing the feelings away. “This is important, too,” she replied, then met his gaze, held it for a beat. “And at least I’ll be with you.”

He returned the small smile, his eyes warm. “I’ll be back to get you.”

~~~

Mulder was sitting at a light, spitting another sunflower seed shell out the car window and listening to Nat King Cole telling him to have himself a merry little Christmas when his cell phone chirped in his coat pocket. He fished it out, tapped the talk button.

“Mulder.”

“Agent Mulder, what the hell is going on down there?”

“Sir?” he replied, confused. He did a quick scan to figure out what he could have done to piss off Walter Skinner enough for the Assistant Director to already be talking through his teeth. He came up empty.

“Don’t ‘sir’ me, Agent Mulder.” Skinner snapped. “I’m sitting here with a transfer order that was just faxed to me, signed by the head of NSA, moving you and Agent Scully out from under my supervision for an undetermined period of time and I’d like to know why I wasn’t informed — particularly by either of you — that this was coming.”

That feeling of concern that he’d been warring with since last night started to come over him again as the light turned green and he pulled into the intersection.

“I’m sorry, sir, I assumed you had been informed that Scully and I were consulting on this case.”

“Consulting, yes, but that’s not what this says,” Skinner replied, and Mulder could hear paper rustling. “Under the reasons for transfer this says ‘undercover operations.’ Now I ask you again, Mulder — just what the hell is going on?”

“What?” Mulder replied, incredulous. The concern went into full blown alarm as he immediately gunned the engine, changing lanes quickly as a horn blared behind him. “No one’s discussed any undercover operations with us, sir. I don’t know what –“

“I’m coming down there,” Skinner replied, and the line went dead.

~~~ THE JEFFERSON HOTEL 12:23 p.m.

Mulder knocked on the door to the Presidential Suite so hard that it sounded like he was going to break the door down if someone didn’t answer it. He watched the pinpoint of light in the peephole disappear, then reappear, and the door opened.

It had to be Hirsch, Mulder thought.

“Agent Mulder, you weren’t expected back for some time,” Hirsch said, dripping with politeness.

“I want to talk to Padden,” Mulder said without prelude, pushing past Hirsch and entering the spacious room. Several heads came up from workstations as he burst into the room, his eyes moving over everyone, looking for a familiar face. He was winded from rushing up the stairs, too impatient to wait for an elevator.

“What’s your hurry, Agent Mulder?” Hirsch asked from behind him. “You’d think you had somewhere else to be.”

Mulder ignored him as he saw Richard Jessup stand from where he was bent over a printer that was spitting out a long ribbon of paper. Mulder was instantly in front of him.

“Where’s Padden?” he asked, his tone angry, challenging. Jessup put his hands up defensively.

“Dr. Padden won’t be returning today, Agent Mulder,” he said. “Perhaps there’s something pertaining to your profiling that I can help you with?”

Mulder squared his shoulders, his hands going to his hips. “I want to know where you people get off volunteering an F.B.I. agent for undercover operations without consulting the agent or the F.B.I. I thought you were done with the bullshit intrigue this morning.”

Jessup paled, his voice nervous when he spoke. “I’m afraid I’m not at liberty to discuss that with you, Agent Mulder. Only Dr. Padden can speak about the details of this operation. You’ll have to speak to him tomorrow morning when he returns.”

“That’s not going to do it, Jessup,” he replied. “Now I want some answers, dammit!” His voice had risen to the point that more heads were turning in their general direction.

“Agent Mulder,” Jessup replied quickly. “You’ll get your answers, but not until tomorrow morning when Dr. Padden returns from Washington. ” He lowered his voice. “Now I can’t help you. I’m sorry.”

He really did seem to be sorry, and Mulder relented, blowing out a frustrated breath.

“All right then, yes, you can help me. Get me everything you know about Owen Curran. At least if I’m going to meet the man, I want to know something about him.”

Jessup swallowed, his face flushing. “I can get you that information, yes,” he replied, and gestured to the table where they’d met with Padden that morning. “If you’ll have a seat there I’ll get you all the information we have.”

Mulder stalked to the table, pulling his coat off and tossing it over a chair as he sat down hard in another. He took off his dark suit coat, as well, throwing it over his coat.

From the corner, he could see Hirsch looking at him, smirking at him knowingly. Mulder sat up straighter in the chair and glared back.

~~~

RICHMOND CITY MORGUE 2:34 p.m.

Scully leaned back from the stack of toxicology reports, rubbing at her tired eyes as she did so and blowing out a breath. The columns of numbers, the list of names of chemical compounds — it was all beginning to make her head swim. She found herself wishing for a moment that she’d gotten a little more sleep the night before.

She took the sentiment back as the memory of she and Mulder’s lovemaking came back to her in a warm rush. She smiled at the thought.

Pushing herself up from the desk, she stood with the reports and the legal pad she’d been writing on and went back to the examining table at the center of the room. Her autopsy was finished, the body closed again and a sheet drawn over the corpse, hiding the gory sight from view. Her scrubs, gloves, and apron had long ago been discarded.

She flicked on the microphone once again, reading from the notes she’d scrawled on the yellow pad.

“Chemical compounds identified from initial toxicology reports indicate the presence of a number of substances, including ondansetron, mianserin, cyproheptadeine and mescaline. According to my phone consultation with Bethesda Naval Hospital Pharmacology, all of these substances are serotonin-inhibiting compounds, including the mescaline, which is also a powerful hallucinogen.”

She began to circle the table, stretching out her back as she did so, continuing to speak. “I am unable to determine the exact effect these compounds would have had on the deceased, except to say that serotonin is associated strongly with sleep patterns and is thought to be the regulator of the so-called ‘internal clock’ of most animals, including humans.”

She turned the page of her notes, stopping at Rutherford’s feet. “Also, increased levels of serotonin have been found to be associated with feelings of well-being and an exaggerated feeling of self-confidence.” She sighed, stifling a hearty yawn.

“I can only surmise that the deceased, having had what must have been the majority of her serotonin neutralized by these compounds, would have experienced a severe disruption in sleep patterns and would have most likely suffered from mood disturbances. The presence of the mescaline also would indicate that she probably experienced some form of hallucinations. I will complete my report when I have access to Internet resources and when I receive a new toxicology report that will include serotonin levels in the blood specimens.”

She flicked off the microphone, went to the table where she’d been sitting and gathered up her briefcase, sliding the files and notes into it neatly. From the tape player set into the desk, she retrieved the tape that had been recording everything she’d said during the autopsy, popped it into a plastic case beside the recorder and slipped it, too, into the briefcase. She clicked off the desk lamp. Finally, she tapped the speakerphone, then punched in an extension.

“Front desk. Can I help you?”

“Yes, I need orderlies to return the body I’ve been working on in examination room 4 to the freezer, please.” Now she did yawn, covering it with her hand.

“They’re on their way,” came the bored reply.

“Thank you,” Scully called, and tapped the speakerphone button again, closing the connection. Gathering her things, she went to the hook beside the doorway, pulling down her coat. She turned and surveyed the room to make sure she had remembered everything she’d brought with her.

Her eyes fell on the corpse, the small shape of it beneath the sheet, the flatness of the area at the head of the table. The room was quiet, the only light the silver lamp over the body, throwing the floor around the table into shadowy relief.

Unbidden, the words from the police report came back to her:

I need you to help me….

A chill ran up her spine. She could almost hear it in her mind, could almost see the face she’d seen in the driver’s license picture contorting in pain, the fragile features, the blueness of her eyes.

She had been crying.

The flow of blood coming from her nose — or was it her mouth? The clerk hadn’t been able to tell. The shrill sound of the screaming….

I need you to help me….

Scully gathered her coat closer to her. It had grown colder in the room, it seemed. Or perhaps it was just that she was standing still, could just now feel the chill that permeated the concrete walls, the smooth cement floor. Her gaze stayed fixed on the sheet-draped form in front of her, the images playing in her mind again and again.

“I’ll help you,” she whispered finally as if to silence them, the words out before she realized she’d said them.

Shaking free from the strange mood, she turned and went out the door, retreating from the body, eager to put some distance. She reached into her coat pocket and brought out her cell phone, punched in speed dial one.

“Mulder, it’s me,” she said when he answered. She couldn’t quite shake the chill that followed her down the empty corridor. “I’m ready for you to come get me out of here.”

~~~

CHAPTER FOUR.

~~~

RICHMOND MARRIOTT 8:33 p.m.

When the knock came at the door, the last thing Scully expected was a full spread of room service. Mulder perhaps, finally breaking from the strange, quiet mood that he’d cloaked around him in the car. But not a rolling cart that set up into a full table with hidden leafs, the tablecloth a festive green and red. There were two covered dishes, warm bread shrouded with linen in a basket, a bottle of wine chilling in a bucket of ice. Two white candles in crystal holders. A sprig of holly dotting the center of the table in a small white vase.

“I didn’t order this,” was the first thing she said, taking off her glasses as she stepped out of the way in her stocking feet. She had, in fact, never ordered anything more than coffee from a hotel’s room service — she found it an extravagance. Despite this, she let the bellhop continue setting up the table.

“Yes, ma’am,” the man said, smiling as he pulled the cover off one of the dishes. Breast of turkey, cut neatly into a fan, festooned with parsley potatoes. “The gentleman in the connecting room ordered it earlier this afternoon for a dinner delivery.”

“Ah, I see,” she said, hiding a smile, and let him finish. The other plate was clearly Mulder’s — a thick steak. The room filled with its rich, dark smell.

As he stacked the plate covers, she padded to her purse, sitting atop her open suitcase, and pulled out a five dollar bill. She handed it to him as he straightened from lighting the candles in the middle of the table.

“Thank you, ma’am,” he said. “Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas,” she replied softly, a bittersweet smile coming as the bellhop withdrew, closing the door behind him.

She surveyed the table, and though it was lovely, she couldn’t help but think of her family’s Christmas Eve dinner. Her mother’s thick linen tablecloth she used only on special occasions would be out, covered with platters of turkey and ham, boats of gravy, china plates of yams. And everyone there — Bill, Charlie, Tara, little Matthew. The white lights of the Christmas tree playing on her mother’s crystal goblets. Her mother had said, her voice tinged with the disappointment Scully had expected, that they were even expecting a dusting of snow.

Sighing, she turned away from the table, gazed out the window at the view of the city from her ninth floor window. All of the high-rises were outlined in white lights, a slow ribbon of cars weaving through the narrow streets below. It was clear, and despite the glow of the city she could make out a few bright stars in the woolen night. There was something peaceful about it, and she felt herself relaxing a bit, letting the tension ebb out of her shoulders. She crossed her arms over her chest, rubbing the sleeves of her white shirt absently, as though for comfort.

Turning now, she went to the desk where her laptop screen glowed an otherworldly light. The autopsy report she’d prepared for the meeting tomorrow morning stared back at her as she hit “save” and closed down the machine, tossing her glasses haphazardly on the table beside it.

Mulder was right, she thought as she breathed in the warm smells of their meal. No more working tonight.

She was glad for the meal for several reasons. For one, she’d worked straight through lunch. For another, she hoped this was Mulder’s way of putting his own work down, the piles of folders he’d had stashed in the back seat of their car when he’d picked her up. She assumed that the profiling work had put him in such a halting, dark mood, and she wanted him to snap out of it. It had the exact feel of being around someone who had something to tell you but for some reason refused to do so. It made her uneasy to be around him when he was like that.

Plus, she thought, as she made her way to the connecting door, it was Christmas. And she wanted to be with him.

She opened her connecting door, knocked lightly on the door to his room.

“Mulder?”

She heard a rustling of paper, then shoeless footsteps coming toward the door. It opened and he stood before her, his eyes, behind his dark-framed glasses, rimmed with a touch of red. He’d clearly been reading for hours.

“Is dinner here already?” he asked as the aroma of steak and turkey drifted through the doorway. Instead of answering, she stepped out of the way to reveal the table.

“Good,” he said with a shy smile. “They remembered the candles.”

She returned his smile, stood up on her tip-toes and kissed his mouth softly, lingering there for a few seconds.

“Thank you,” she whispered, watching his eyes reopen as she withdrew her face a few inches.

“You’re welcome,” he replied, reaching up and smoothing her hair down gently. They gazed at each other for a beat.

“Oh!” he said suddenly, holding up a finger. “I almost forgot.”

She watched him retreat into the room, caught sight of the bed completely covered with open files, pictures strewn everywhere. He went to the table where his own laptop glowed on the desk, picked something out of a plastic bag with the name of some store on it. It was wrapped in red tissue paper, a crinkled bow hanging precariously on its top. Like her, he discarded his glasses on the table, rubbed his eyes.

“Mulder….you know I didn’t bring your present,” she protested, but a smile was tugging at her lips just the same.

“This isn’t your present,” he replied, kissing her again quickly as he returned to the doorway. “This is a substitute present. Now let’s eat. I’m starving.”

She stepped aside to allow him access to the room now, followed him to the table. He pulled the two chairs over from the desk, arranging them in front of the plates. Finally they sat, Scully eyeing the present as she did so.

“Nuh uh,” he said, covering it with his hand. “Not until we finish eating.”

She found herself grinning as she unrolled the silverware from its thick napkin. Mulder reached for the bottle of wine, opened it with the silver opener and poured them each a glass.

“Cheers,” he said softly, holding his glass up. She did the same, clinking their glasses together in the quiet. They exchanged small smiles as they did so.

Finally, they began to eat in silence. Scully watched him over the candle flames as they ate, saw his playful mood slowly evaporate, his expression growing flatter and more serious as he made his way through his steak. It made her concerned again, uneasy.

“Mulder, what is it?” she asked softly. She put down her fork and reached across the table, curling her fingers around his forearm.

He stopped eating and looked at her. For an instant she saw something almost like fear come across his features, but he stamped it down immediately.

“Is it the case? The profile you’re doing?” She wanted him to talk, to reassure her that he was alright, that they were alright.

“I don’t want to discuss this over dinner,” he said softly, though despite his words, he put his fork and knife down now, as well.

“Discuss what?” she asked, her eyes narrowing a bit in suspicion. She knew now why his mood had struck her as so similar to being around someone who wasn’t telling her something. Because that’s exactly what he was doing. “What are you not telling me?”

She saw him wince a bit, and knew she’d caught him. She withdrew her hand, leaning back in the chair. “Damn it, Mulder….”

“I was going to tell you as soon as we finished eating,” he hurried to reply. “I wanted you to have a nice Christmas and not have to deal with any of this. It’s bad enough that you can’t be with your family…”

“You’re not protecting me by hiding things from me,” she replied sharply. “We’ve had this discussion before. It’s an old one.” Her tone was frustrated, bluntly angry. “And it’s not your fault that I’m not with my family, Mulder. Stop taking that on. I’m here because I want to be here. You know that, don’t you?”

“Yes, I know that…” He trailed off, took in a deep breath. “All right, this is what I know. Skinner called me today, while I was on my way to the Jefferson. He wanted to know what was going on. He said he’d been told that we were being transferred to the supervision of the NSA.”

“But I assumed we are under NSA supervision,” she said, and he nodded.

“We are,” he replied, and met her eyes. “Just not for the reasons that we were told.”

“Then why are we here?” she asked, incredulous.

He took in another breath. “Skinner said we’re here for some sort of undercover operation.”

Scully blinked, looking at him for a few seconds in confusion. “We’re both going undercover?”

He shrugged slightly, speaking slowly, choosing his words with care. “I think it’s more likely that’s it’s going to just be me,” he said. “I’ve done undercover work with the CIA before. I have experience working with domestic terrorist groups. They’ll most likely want you to handle the medical angle of this, to work as support.”

She sighed now, crossed her arms over her chest. “I can’t believe you didn’t tell me this earlier. As soon as you knew.”

“I didn’t know what to say,” he replied, looking dejected. She could see in his expression the frustration he must have been feeling all day, the conflict in him about it, and she felt her angry feelings relenting.

“This is the first time you and I will be apart since we’ve been…together, and I…I just didn’t know what to say.”

“Mulder, you tell me the truth. That’s what you say. You treat me like what I am — your equal. You treat me like I’m your partner and you don’t keep things from me. Ever.” Though her words were chastising, her tone was not. He had looked down as she spoke, as though ashamed to meet her gaze.

“All right,” he said softly. “I’m sorry. I just didn’t want you to be worried any sooner than you had to be.” He looked at her now, showing her he meant what he said with his earnest gaze.

“I am worried,” she murmured. “I think this is too dangerous, what’s going on with this group and with these deaths. I don’t want either one of us to get any closer to it than we have to. And the thought of you possibly infiltrating this group…it does scare me.”

“That’s what I was afraid of you feeling–” he began.

“BUT…” she interjected quickly, cutting him off with both her words and her look. “I would never stand in the way of you doing your job. I mean, come on, Mulder. This is the second time we’ve had this discussion today. Part of us being partners — and lovers, for that matter — is that we have to respect each other’s choices. And one of the choices we’ve both made is to be involved in the work that we do. Even though it scares me to think of you doing this….I respect that you’ve chosen to do it.”

Now she reached across the table and took his hand. The candlelight caught in his eyes as he gazed at her, as though they burned with some interior fire. He smiled sadly.

“I am sorry,” he murmured. “Please understand that I only act this way because I don’t want you to be hurt, or afraid….I want you to be happy.”

She smiled at him, caressing the back of his hand with her thumb. “Having you in my life makes me happy,” she whispered. “You don’t have to do anything else to make me that way.”

With that, he leaned across the table around the candles, and she met him in the middle. Their lips met. Then again. They stayed that way for a long moment, their mouths searching each other out, looking for and finding answers in the elemental contact.

After awhile, he pulled back slightly, kissed her cheek, the corner of her mouth. “I want to lie down with you,” he whispered.

She shook her head. “You know the rules,” she said softly, pressing a small kiss to his forehead. “Not while we’re in the field.” He groaned, and she smiled.

“I didn’t say anything about sex,” he protested, his voice still quiet, as though he was unwilling to break the mood they’d spun around them. “I just want to lie down with you. Just hold you.”

She kissed his cheek softly, lingering. “All right.” And she snatched up the present from his side of the table and stood. He made a grab for it, but she was too quick for him. “I’ve got a couple of hours.”

“Before what?” he asked, standing as well.

“I’m going to Midnight Mass,” she replied. “There’s a beautiful cathedral here that I’ve been to before. I thought it would be a nice way to celebrate while I was away from home. One tradition I could uphold.”

“Such a good Irish Catholic girl,” he teased.

She smirked at him, then took his hand and led him to the bed, pulling back the covers. She flicked off the lamp beside the bed as he got in, laying on his side, holding the covers back for her. She climbed in, pressing herself back into him until every inch of their bodies was touching, their legs tangling beneath the blankets. He curled an arm over her, his cheek settling against her hair. She fumbled with the small present as they settled down.

“Can I open it?” she asked, feeling him smile against her hair.

“Sure,” he said softly. “Don’t get too excited. It’s just a little thing I picked up on the way to get you today.”

She elbowed him gently. “Don’t spoil it!”

With that, she tore into the tissue. In a few seconds she held what it had hidden — a small plastic snowglobe with a Dickens- like scene secreted within it, complete with buildings, streetlamps, and carolers whose faces were done up cheaply with paint. The base proclaimed proudly of the piece’s origins in China.

“You got me a snowglobe,” she said fondly, stating the obvious. She shook it and sent the street scene into a swirling blizzard of plastic flakes.

He leaned closer to her ear. “I wanted you to have a white Christmas,” he whispered, pressed his lips to the lobe of her ear.

She felt tears welling into her eyes suddenly, blinked them back as she rolled onto her back, holding his face with one hand as she kissed him, closing her eyes against the emotions washing over her. She felt his hand going across her middle to her waist, pulling her gently against him as he returned the kiss.

“I love you,” she murmured against his lips as they parted. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” he replied, nuzzling her. “I love you, too.”

They met in another kiss, her arms going around him. At his back, the snow continued to fall in the globe. They drew the quiet over them, let the candles on the table chase away the last of the darkness.

~~~

CATHEDRAL OF THE SACRED HEART DECEMBER 25 12:38 a.m.

The cathedral smelled of oiled wood and incense, and Scully breathed it in from where she knelt, just to one side of the high cupola that was lined with tiles in blue and gold. The lights on the altar illuminated the stained glass windows, throwing the dark faces of saints into chiaroscuro relief, their eyes staring down at the assembled crowd with inscrutable gazes. As with most Midnight Masses Scully had been to, the place was filled to capacity, despite the building’s size.

Beside her, a white marble statue of Mary stood, her arms spread wide as if taking in Scully and the entire crowd around her. At the altar, dressed in a green robe over a crisp white alb, his neck draped with a festive red satin hood, the elderly priest held up an enormous host high in front of him for all to see.

Despite the reverence of the moment — this, the Consecration of the Host — Scully couldn’t help but think of Mulder, how innocent and vulnerable he’d looked as she’d disentangled herself from his embrace, leaving him sleeping. He’d shifted in his sleep, clutching a pillow to him, immediately filling the space in his arms she’d left.

She’d stood, found her shoes, jacket and coat in the dimness of the room. The candles on the table had all but burned down, leaving small coronas of wax around their bases. She’d blown them out as she made her silent retreat from the room, downstairs to the valet who would bring their car around.

“He took bread, gave You thanks and praise, broke it, gave it to his disciples and said: ‘Take this, all of you and eat it.'” The priest was saying, his voice echoing around the vaulted ceilings. “This is my body, which will be given up for you….'”

Scully struggled to remain focussed on his words, but she couldn’t help but think that as early as tomorrow Mulder could be taken away from her, and the thought pricked at her chest, filling her with concern.

She wondered for a moment what it would be like to be without him by her side every day. Through the entire year since they’d become lovers, they had managed to not be apart for more than few days, and though they hadn’t done this on purpose, she knew there was some part of both them that didn’t want to be alone anymore. But thinking of Mulder with The Path…. She had to close her eyes against the flood of dread that overcame her.

“Then he took the cup; again he gave You thanks and praise. He gave the cup to his disciples saying: ‘Take this, all of you and drink from it. This is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant. It will be shed for you and for all men so that sins may be forgiven. Do this in memory of me.'”

Her fingers fumbled over the rosary beads curled around them. She blew out a slow breath, chasing the feelings away and sent them into a prayer, her eyes remaining closed as she whispered it to herself. A prayer for her family, for Emily. For Mary Rutherford. For Mulder. For herself, to have the strength to bear up to her own words to him that night as they drifted back to her again:

We have to respect each other’s choices….

“For safety,” she whispered. “For safe return.”

She stood for the Lord’s Prayer, grasping the hands of the strangers beside her. She held their hands tightly, seeking comfort in the touch, seeking reassurance.

Beside her, the statue of Mary looked on, seeming to glow in the light of the offering candles gathered at her feet. Her hands were frozen in place. Her expression was dim. And, ultimately, unreadable.

~~~

CHAPTER FIVE.

~~~

THE JEFFERSON HOTEL 11:38 a.m.

The glass turned over on the table as Mulder reached for it with jerking, trembling motion. Water ran in rivulets in all directions and Richard Jessup stood with his folders, shaking water from them.

“I’ll get a towel,” Jessup said to the table, and retreated into the bathroom. For his part, Mulder sat stone still, his eyes boring into Padden’s. The water soaked momentarily into the preliminary profile he’d prepared for the meeting before Scully reached from beside him and moved it out of the way.

They were an hour into the meeting when Padden dropped the bombshell on them. Scully was taken completely by surprise. She took small consolation in the fact that the men on either side of her seemed more so.

“Dr. Padden, I want to formally protest this,” Skinner said from beside her, fresh from his drive from Washington. His jaw muscles were rippling. “I object strongly to one of my agents being ‘volunteered’ for covert operations without going through the proper channels, including notifying me, her superior, in advance.”

“We’re sorry for the unusual nature of the assignment, Mr. Skinner,” Padden replied from the head of the table. “We’ve been trying to keep the knowledge of Agent Scully’s involvement as secret as possible. We felt that informing you before this juncture might have jeopardized the viability of the mission.” He sat back as he spoke, effectively dismissing Skinner’s protest. Skinner heaved out a frustrated breath and glared.

She could sense Skinner about to say something else and headed him off. She had her own concerns about the idea, and didn’t need him speaking for her.

“Dr. Padden,” she said quickly. “I’m not sure how it is that I make the best qualified candidate for this operation. It seems someone from Counterterrorism, someone with knowledge of the I.R.A. and The Path’s workings would be better suited for this particular undercover assignment.”

Beside her Mulder finally moved. He sat back, as though satisfied with her response. Scully could still feel anger coming off of him in waves. Jessup returned, the fringe of hair around his balding head in disarray, and began mopping at the table with a crisp hotel towel.

“That’s just it,” Ben Anderson responded from Padden’s left. “We don’t want someone from Counterterrorism. We want someone who can pose as a civilian in this, as someone not involved with the political aspects of The Path and its workings.”

On his other side Scully noted a newcomer to the group, a young African American man — younger than she and Mulder, by the looks of him. He was built small, muscular beneath his black suit. He was listening intently, but his eyes, rimmed in silver glasses, weren’t on her. He was watching Mulder.

Phillip Grant piped up from the other side of the table. “You see, Agent Scully, there are too many gaps in our knowledge about their leadership, their operations. There would be no way to adequately train someone to pose as an actual member.”

“So you’re sending her in BLIND?” Mulder spat, his voice low and angry.

Beneath the table, Scully moved her foot surreptitiously over, pressing her toe gently against Mulder’s ankle. She knew he must be having the same feelings she was having last night at Mass, the same overwhelming concern. She also knew he was angry in that protective way that she had grown so wary of recently. She wanted to calm him, and was frustrated at how public they were, how she couldn’t get to him, despite the fact that he was sitting right beside her.

“Essentially blind, yes,” Padden replied, directing his response not at Mulder but at her. “It’s the best way to ensure your protection. You’ll be less likely to expose your cover if you’re posing as, well…basically yourself.”

“As myself?” Scully replied, confused but holding her expression neutral. There must have been ten men around the table, all watching her.

Padden looked to the slightly built, middle-aged man to her left. Scully remembered him as Duncan Hall. He nodded and began to speak.

“We have a contact involved with the Campaign for a Free Ireland in Boston,” he began, leaning forward and folding his hands in front of him on the dark wood table. His voice was thick Irish. “He’s placed very high up in the organization and lets us know from time to time where money is being allocated, what requests for supplies have come in from the I.R.A. groups working within the U.S., that sort of thing. Requests that require C.F.I. funding or other intervention.”

He started a file around the table to Scully. Skinner handed it to her, still holding his tongue. She opened, glanced at the contents.

“Three weeks ago our Boston contact received this e-mail from Curran.”

Scully read it aloud, for the benefit of Skinner and Mulder. “‘Require doctor or person with medical background. Must be placed at Medical College of Virginia Hospital in some capacity. We are taking care of a problem with our current contact.'” She put the folder down. “It’s signed ‘O.C.'”

“Rutherford was a nurse, working at Medical College of Virginia Hospital at the time of her death,” Hall added.

“That’s how you deduced that she — and subsequently the others — were murdered,” Scully said, the pieces falling into place “Because you assumed they were calling in a replacement for her specifically.”

“That was our thought, yes,” Padden replied. “It turns out that this was, in fact, the case. We’re not sure why they need someone with a medical background — whether it’s to treat the members of The Path who have been exposed to this unknown compound, whether it’s to gain access to the compound’s components themselves….we just don’t know. That will be your first task — to discover how exactly they plan on using you, and for what purpose.”

Scully nodded. “I understand,” she said softly, and saw Mulder turn to look at her now, his expression angry and more than a little surprised. “So I’m going to pose as this doctor they’re requesting. What will be my complete cover?”

Padden opened a folder he had sitting in front of him and began to read aloud.

“Your name is Dr. Katherine Black. You’re an internist in Boston who recently lost your license to practice due to professional misconduct. You’ve been recruited by the C.F.I. with promises of money — which you badly need, having lost your position — and with the falsified reinstatement of your license to practice in the State of Virginia. We’ve already arranged with the medical college to put you on staff in the outpatient clinic at the hospital and to allow you to use whatever resources you need for the completion of the operation.”

Ben Anderson spoke up now, fingering the garish tie around his pencil-thin neck. “This also works out perfectly for us, because you will have close contact with the members of The Path and hopefully this compound that they’re developing. And as you’ve already proven today with your report on the complete lack of serotonin in the victim’s bloodstream, only someone with your medical background and access to the labs in the hospital could isolate what they’re using and assess whether or not it’s a terrorist threat.”

Padden nodded. “That is your second task. Your third responsibility, a tertiary one for the purposes of this, will be to gather as much information as you can about Curran and The Path’s members and activities while you are exposed to them. We want names of members, contacts, locations of safe houses, that sort of thing. You will bring back this information at regular intervals to the task force we will assign to monitor you.”

Now he turned to Mulder. “Agent Mulder, you will be on that task force, working sometimes undercover to contact Agent Scully and bring back information that she relays. But your primary task will be to work closely with Agent Granger here — ” He gestured to the young black man seated beside him “– to develop a more complete profile of Curran, based on Agent Scully’s observations of him. We’re hoping the two of you can give us some idea of what his motives might be, what he might be planning.”

“I don’t need a new partner to do my profiling, SIR,” Mulder replied, his voice and manner tight as a bowstring. He gave Granger a withering look as he said it, and Granger met his gaze and then looked down at the table. “My place in this should be with Agent Scully, working with her undercover. I’m perfectly capable of doing my profile in that capacity. In fact, I could do a more complete profile if I had access to Curran myself.”

Now, Scully noted, it was Skinner’s turn to look satisfied. Apparently, Mulder had taken the words right out of his mouth this time.

“We thought of all that, Agent Mulder,” Padden replied. “But we can’t risk inserting both of you into this. We can’t come up with a plausible cover story for your involvement. This assignment is, however, perfectly suited for Agent Scully and her qualifications. The profiling aspect of the operation, as we’ve seen already from your excellent preliminary profile, is perfectly suited for yours.”

Again, there was that tone, Scully noted. Not quite condescending, but one which made it clear that Padden would entertain no argument. It sounded like how someone would talk to an idiot or a child, and she could see Mulder chafing. She was proud of him, however, that he kept quiet about his feelings. She knew that for him, it took enormous restraint.

Padden leaned back, taking in the table. “Now if that will be all, Agent Scully, Mr. Anderson and Mr. Jessup will be working with you tomorrow morning, making up your identification materials and going over your background in more detail. Agent Mulder, we’ve already assembled our task force of agents, and Mr. Hall will go over your duties in that capacity at a meeting at nine a.m. Now if no one has anything else to add?”

“I’d like to speak to you in private, Dr. Padden,” Skinner said from beside her, and Padden nodded.

“Of course,” Padden said graciously. “I think we can let everyone else go enjoy what’s left of this holiday then.”

With that, there was the sound of seats being pushed back, everyone rising. Mulder shot up out of his chair as though it were on fire, grabbing for his files and then his coat draped over the back of his chair.

“I want to speak to you in private,” he said to Scully quietly, firmly, leaning over her. She looked down, not meeting what she knew would be his angry glare, nodded and stood, gathering her things.

From their right, Agent Granger came forward, a game smile on his face as he approached Mulder.

“Agent Mulder,” he said. His voice was deep, resonant. Self- consciously, Granger adjusted his glasses, put a hand out. “I’m Paul Granger, with the CIA. I know these aren’t the best of circumstances, but I wanted to tell you how much I’m looking forward to working with you. Your reputation as a profiler is the stuff of legends over at the Agency.”

His hand remained poised in front of him as Mulder looked at him. Without saying a word, Mulder reached out, shook Granger’s hand once, hard, then put his hand on Scully’s back to usher her forward. They brushed past Granger, Scully giving him an apologetic smile.

“I want to see both of you in your hotel rooms in one hour,” Skinner said as they passed. His face was still red, his hands folded tight.

“Yes, sir,” Scully replied, and Mulder followed her out the door.

~~~

RICHMOND MARRIOTT 1:14 p.m.

Mulder tossed his car keys carelessly on the dresser in Scully’s small hotel room, peeling out of his coat. He remained silent, as he had been since they’d left the meeting. She’d allowed the silence to continue, wondering if it had given him time to perhaps cool down before they had the discussion she knew was coming. As soon as he opened his mouth, she realized it had had the opposite effect.

“How can you even think about doing this?” were the first words out his mouth. His voice sounded like it had risen an octave in the past hour.

She took her coat off, too. Slowly. Choosing her words carefully as she spoke them, keeping her tone measured, calm. “Well, for starters, I don’t recall being given a choice,” she replied.

“You could refuse,” Mulder replied. “When I went in with the New Spartans I knew I could have backed out at any point, just by refusing to go forward with it.” He was pacing now, not looking at her, a caged animal desperately looking for an exit.

“But you didn’t.” She stopped him with her tone and a stern look. “Because you knew that the work you were doing was important. And this is important, too.”

But Mulder wouldn’t be dissuaded so easily. “Scully, you don’t understand,” he said, something desperate in his voice now. “I’ve studied this guy Curran. If even half the things they think he’s linked to are true, he’s a cold-blooded murderer. He kills without conscience. There’d be no way to protect you from him if things went bad.”

“Then we’ll just have to make sure things don’t go bad,” she replied firmly. “Mulder, this is exactly the reason I joined the F.B.I. Why I chose not to pursue my career in medicine. I knew that my skills would give me the opportunity to make a difference, that I could distinguish myself. This is the perfect opportunity for me to do that.”

She’d approached him now, laid a hand gently on his arm. “Mulder, it’s going to be all right. From the sounds of it, I’ll have regular contact with you. You’ll be able to see that I’m okay.” She leaned up and pressed a soft kiss on his lips. “I remember how hard it was for me to stand back and watch you with August Bremer. But you came out of that fine. And I will, too.”

He looked down at her, the concern etched deeply into his face. “Scully, I barely came out of that operation with my life,” he said softly. Now it was his turn to reach down and take her arm, gripping it as though she were slipping away from him. “If it hadn’t been for ONE man’s split loyalties, I’d have been executed in that field. I told you that. I was lucky, that’s all. Damn lucky.”

“That operation was very different,” she said.

“Yes, this is deep cover,” was his quick reply. “This is much more dangerous.”

“Mulder,” she murmured, reaching up to stroke his cheek. “I really need your support on this. I need to know that you’ll have your feelings backgrounded enough that you’ll be there for me if I need you.”

Finally, she saw him relent, his face growing resigned as he blew out a breath, turning his face slightly away for a moment. Then he said: “You know I’ll be there for you. Always. And I won’t let my feelings get in the way of doing my job.”

Just then, there was a knock at the door.

When Scully opened it, Walter Skinner came in as though he’d been shot out of cannon.

“Sir,” she greeted as she closed the door behind him.

His tie had blown up over his shoulder and he was slightly out of breath. “Agents, I’m afraid I can’t do anything to stop either of your transfers to the NSA Operations Division. I’ve tried everything I know, but they’ve got you both locked in tight.”

“That’s all right, sir,” Scully replied softly. “I realize this has come as a surprise to us all, but Mulder and I are both willing to go forward with the operation.”

Skinner looked at Mulder, who was standing with his hands on his hips. He shook his head, let his head fall forward, avoiding Skinner’s probing gaze.

“Well, I have managed to do a couple of things. For one, I’ve involved the F.B.I. in on the surveillance team. There will be agents from the Bureau on the team monitoring you, as well as all Bureau tactical resources at your disposal.” He paused, straightened his tie. “The second is that I’ve gotten myself on their lead task force. I’ll be working with Dr. Padden on a consulting basis, so at least I’ll know if anything gets fishy, anything that might endanger either of you unduly.”

Both agents nodded. “Thank you, sir,” Scully replied. “I’m sure I speak for Agent Mulder as well when I say that we appreciate your involving yourself in this situation.”

Skinner nodded. “I’m just sorry I didn’t know about this sooner, when maybe something more could have been done to keep you both out of it completely. These inter-agency operations can be a little twitchy. I’d feel more comfortable if I had been consulted at the operation’s inception.”

“What do you know about Padden?” Mulder asked, sitting now at the foot of Scully’s bed. Scully stood next to him, her arms crossed over her chest.

“That’s the one positive thing I can say at this point,” Skinner replied. “He has a very good reputation. Ph.D. in Criminology from Georgetown. Worked as an agent in the NSA for 15 years or so before being recently placed in the director’s position. He’s done a lot to clean up the NSA’s operations, including all but shutting down the NSA’s involvement with the School of the Americas. I believe that he’ll at least be straightforward with me about the aspects of this mission as it unfolds.”

“That’s what I thought about Leamus when he approached me about getting involved with the New Spartans, if you’ll recall,” Mulder said quietly, anger creeping back into his voice. “And look how ‘straightforward’ he turned out to be.”

Skinner nodded. “It’s true, there’s no way to know for certain. Leamus was sort of an unknown quantity. I knew nothing about him before working with him on your undercover operation. Padden I do know. I think he can be trusted.”

Mulder nodded, acquiescing, though Scully could tell he still didn’t buy it, didn’t trust Padden. For her part, she found some comfort in Skinner’s words. There was a part of her that trusted Padden, too.

“I’m familiar with most of the people on that lead task force,” Skinner continued. “And I’ve worked with Jessup before. He’s a workhorse over at the Bureau. I think they’re on the up and up about this so far. Which is not to say that I feel comfortable with this operation. Not in the slightest. I still think the way this has been handled is odd, not going through the proper channels. It’s enough to raise a red flag for me.”

“Then I’m glad you’re going to be involved with this, sir, because I think you’re more likely to get straight answers out of these people than we are,” Mulder replied.

Skinner nodded, turned his attention on Scully. “You’re really prepared to go forward with this, Agent Scully?”

Scully raised her chin, nodded, her arms still tightly crossed over her chest. “Yes, sir, I am,” she replied firmly. “I feel that the information that can be gained warrants the risks involved.”

Skinner put his hands in his pockets now, relenting. “All right, then. This is going to move quickly from what I understand. They’re talking about flying you out to Boston in 72 hours. You’ll have just enough time to get your credentials and ID in order and for you and Mulder to return to Washington to gather your things. You should probably pack for the long haul, Agents.”

He turned, went towards the door.

“Thank you again, sir,” Scully said, letting him out.

“If you need anything else from me, I’ve gotten a room here. I’m in 312.” He nodded to Mulder, who nodded back in acknowledgement. “Oh, and Merry Christmas to you both,” he added as an afterthought.

“Merry Christmas, sir,” Scully replied, and closed the door behind him.

~~~

DANA SCULLY’S APARTMENT DECEMBER 27 5:36 p.m.

Scully had always been nostalgic about Christmas trees. Mulder knew this, having seen her leave the tree up for far too long after the holidays before. It seemed to give her some sort of comfort, and he found it endearing.

She hadn’t waited five minutes after they’d entered the apartment before she’d plugged in the tree’s lights, lighting up the angel at the top and sending the desiccated tree into a dance of sparkling white. Boxes of gifts still gathered around the tree’s base, not yet delivered to their recipients. Mulder spied a large box with his name on it, wrapped in silver foil paper and topped with a blue bow.

He could tell turning on the tree had cheered her up a little by the fleeting smile that came across her face as the lights came on, and he was glad to see it. The past couple of days had thrown a shroud of serious intent over her. He couldn’t remember seeing her smile since the night of their dinner on Christmas Eve, when he’d given her that dopey snowglobe, the one she was now playing with idly as she talked on the phone with her mother. He could glimpse her in the kitchen from the living room where he’d retreated to give her some privacy. He knew the phone call would be difficult.

“I’m sorry I can’t say more, Mom,” he could hear her saying. “I wish I could. But I can’t. I’ll just be out of touch for awhile.” A pause. “No, I don’t know for how long…yes, I know. If something urgent comes up, you can call the Bureau and leave a message with Assistant Director Skinner’s office. He said he would make sure the message got relayed to me.”

She continued talking as he zoned her out, spreading his arms across the back of the sofa, leaning his head back and releasing a long sigh.

It had been an exhausting two days, full of strategy meetings for him, background meetings for Scully. They had, in fact, seen very little of each other, managing only to sneak a couple of late dinners at their hotel. Even during those, he could feel her withdrawing. He recognized it as part self-protection, part distraction, but he was disturbed nevertheless. He wasn’t used to her being so distant.

“I love you, too, Mom,” her voice drifted back into his awareness. “I will be. Try not to worry, all right? Okay. Goodnight.” She hung up the phone, came back into the living room, still carrying the snowglobe. She stopped in front of him. He reached a hand towards her, and she took it. He was relieved when she brought it to her mouth, ran her lips lightly over his knuckles.

“You want to come into the bedroom and help me pack?” she murmured against his fingers. Her voice gave away her fatigue. He knew they were both already running on fumes, and the operation hadn’t even started yet. It was a fact he didn’t like.

“Sure, ” he replied, followed the gentle tug she gave his hand until he was standing. She led him into the bedroom.

He sat down on the edge of her bed, on top of the striped comforter. It was warm and he pulled his sweatshirt up over his head as he sat, revealing his favorite grey t-shirt tucked neatly into his dark jeans. He pulled one knee up onto the bed, turning a bit so he could watch her work on the other side.

Scully bent over and pulled two suitcases out from underneath the bed, unzipped and flopped the tops over onto the bed. Wearily, she began to open drawers, pulling out already neatly folded contents and placing them carefully in the dark cases. He gave a small smile when she folded the snowglobe carefully in between two shirts.

“I guess I’ll just do what you did and pack everything that’ll fit,” she said absently. “Since I have no idea how long we’re going to be gone.” She opened another drawer, basically emptied its contents a piece at a time into the other suitcase.

He watched her in silence, the sight of her packing her things making him profoundly sad. This was real, he thought. She would be leaving for Boston in the morning and then returning to Richmond undercover, leaving him, going into a situation where he wasn’t sure he could protect her, where he wouldn’t know if she would be safe. Where he wouldn’t see her for days, perhaps weeks, at a time.

He felt a lump rising in his throat and his eyes begin to burn. He swallowed and blinked the impending tears back quickly, but the thoughts remained, stabbing at him.

She was in her closet now, taking things off hangers and folding. On one of her last trips from the closet to the bed, she stopped and he felt her eyes on him, though he’d long since looked down, concentrating on a random spot on the comforter.

“Hey,” she said softly. He looked up, struck out of his introspection. “You still with me?”

He nodded, but he knew his face gave away what he was feeling. Placing two pairs of shoes into the suitcase, she came around the bed, standing in front of him. Her hands came out, cradling his head between them, her thumbs stroking his temples. He closed his eyes, reveling in her touch. He felt her take a step closer, now between his knees. He reached out and found her waist, her hips, without opening his eyes.

“I know this is hard for you,” she whispered into the quiet. “It’s hard for me, too.” Despite her words, there was still something flat in her voice, distant and a little numb. He couldn’t tell if it was from fatigue or something else.

Leaning forward, he pressed his forehead into her belly, taking in a deep breath. His eyes remained closed as his hands began stroking her waist absently. He tilted his chin up, rubbing his cheek, nosing through the flap of her untucked white blouse. When he encountered the warm skin of her belly, he kissed her there, lingering.

Her fingers wove through his hair now, stroking a bit more insistently, urging him wordlessly. His hands came around to her front, slowly undoing the buttons one at a time, starting at the bottom, revealing a widening triangle of creamy white skin. Then the lace of her bra. The shimmering, small shape of the cross resting against her chest. The stark outlines of her collarbones.

His lips now roamed freely, slowly, his teeth gently nipping. She took another step closer, holding his head against her body. His legs squeezed lightly around her thighs, his hands roaming over her back and buttocks.

When his mouth reached her breasts, his hands came up beneath her shirt in the back, fingering the clasp of her bra. He undid it, smoothing his arms around to cup her breasts beneath the now-loose fabric.

They didn’t speak. He knew there was no need for words, no real way for them to express the maelstrom of emotions churning in them. As his thumbs traced the bottom curve of her breasts, teasing her nipples as they moved, she leaned down to kiss him, her tongue slipping between his lips to slide over his. He stifled a moan, relishing the quiet.

He stood now, their lips still together, pushed her blouse down her shoulders and away to the floor. He tugged on her bra next, and she removed her hands from his cheek and neck long enough to discard it, as well. His hands went to the waist of her pants, his fingers fumbling with the button just below her navel.

Through it all she remained still, letting him undress her in the silence. He stooped to pull off her shoes and socks, then pushed the legs of her pants off one at a time.

She stood before him nude now, her gaze still on him, though she made no move to undress him. Seeing her stillness, feeling the distance that it seemed to imply, he pulled his own t-shirt over his head, returned his eyes to hers. Then he pushed his own pants and underwear down, kicking off his shoes as he stepped out of them. He pulled off his thick socks.

In a few more moments, Mulder had moved the suitcases, and they were beneath the covers on her bed. Her arms curled almost automatically around his back as he rolled over on top of her, balancing himself on his hands on either side of her head so he could look at her. Meet the longing but far away look in her eyes, the smooth mask of her face.

She had pulled so far away from him already, he thought, leaning down to kiss her cool lips, feeling her legs bend at the knees, cradling him in her hips. He watched her face as he entered her. She did not close her eyes.

~~~

CHAPTER SIX.

~~~

BOSTON POST ROAD OUTSIDE BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS DECEMBER 28 2:36 p.m.

Scully couldn’t remember the last time she’d ridden in a limousine. And she was fairly certain, without even doing a cursory search of her memory, that she’d never ridden in a Rolls Royce of any make. Yet here she sat, her gloved hands folded in her lap, looking out the window of the elegant silver car at the snow falling on the frigid Boston afternoon.

She glanced to the side again, taking in the profile of the man sitting next to her, searching for some change in his expression. She found none. She concluded that Malcolm Flaherty was either the most rude and dour person she’d ever met or that he had taken an immediate dislike to either her or the situation she presented him.

Considering the first thing he’d said to her, after his name, was “Nothing until we get to the house, please,” it was hard to tell which was the case.

She’d gotten off the plane and was approached by him, a dapper, bald man in a black cashmere overcoat and black derby-style hat. He carried a cane made of dark wood, though he had no discernable limp. He’d taken her arm, uttered those words, then led her past the gate and down to the baggage claim area.

“The car is out front,” he’d said curtly, glancing around as though afraid he was being watched, then disappeared out the automatic doors to the airport.

Now he was staring at the back of the driver’s black-capped head, his face set, a craggy sculpture. She found the silence unnerving and vaguely annoying.

She honored his instructions however, and kept to herself as they wove through the streets of the city, the snow falling heavy, a blinding white.

Against her will, an image of Mulder flashed into her mind, his body over hers, his back arching, his bottom lip caught between his teeth, his eyes a smokey gray as he pinned her with his gaze. A drop of sweat running off his chest onto hers as he moved.

She closed her eyes against the memory, finding something sad in it. He had tried so hard to reach her last night, to break through the wall she was building a brick at a time between them to make their separation bearable. He had succeeded only for a moment, when tears overcame her at her climax, her emotions — frustration, fear, sadness — giving in as surely as her body did to pleasure.

He’d held her for a long time after that, murmuring to her about how he was right there, how he’d always be right there, that this was nothing, nothing but a few weeks apart…anything that he thought would be soothing.

But she was not soothed; she simply stopped crying, growing numb after awhile, returning to the safe shell of her self-imposed control. She’d risen, leaving him in the bed with a mumbled apology about how they were going to be late. She’d watched his back, tense, as he threw his legs over the side of the bed and reached for his jeans. Then she’d gone to shower, the water washing the last of him away.

At six this morning, she’d left him standing in her room in jeans he’d pulled on in haste, his hands on his hips, his expression the most concerned she’d ever seen on his face. A simple goodbye — nothing more to be said — and she was gone, into the back of a yellow cab that took her and her two enormous bags to the airport. She boarded a plane, heading into a winter storm that had all but socked in the Northeast.

The car glided into a residential area now, the houses set far off the street, guarded by iron gates at the driveways. A snowplow lumbered by, spraying an arc of salt behind it that the car ground through, moving deeper into the tree-lined streets. Finally, they turned right onto the lip of a driveway, halting as the gate slowly opened. The uphill driveway had been plowed and was easily traversable, leading in a U to the front of an enormous mansion set at the top of the rise. The car stopped at the large double front doors.

The chauffeur got out, pulling an umbrella from the floor of the passenger seat. He rounded the car. He opened Flaherty’s door first and the old man stepped out, using his glass-topped walking stick as a ballast. When his door was shut, the chauffeur came around to Scully’s side and opened the door, holding the umbrella over her head as she climbed from the car.

“Bring the bags to the north guest room, Charles,” Flaherty called behind him as he led Scully into the house. A maid had opened the door when they arrived. Scully pulled off her gloves and placed them in the pockets of her coat as the maid took it. A butler saw to Flaherty’s hat, coat, and cane.

“Would you like something to drink, Dr. Black?” Flaherty asked stiffly, and Scully started a bit at the use of the name. It was going to take some getting used to to hear herself addressed that way. She hoped it caught on to her ear soon.

“Yes, some coffee would be fine,” she replied, and Flaherty nodded to the maid. “In the study, Maureen,” he said, and gestured for Scully to follow him through the huge living room to a pair of dark sliding doors. He opened them, revealing the study, the walls of which were lined with books, expensive paintings, dark wood. A fire was blazing in the fireplace, in front of which a circle of armchairs sat with a cluster of small tables beside them.

“Please, take a seat, Doctor,” Flaherty said, and there was nothing warm in the invitation. He slid the door closed behind them.

“Thank you,” Scully replied, and sat in a large red chair right beside the fire. The room had high ceilings and carried a slight chill. Flaherty sat in the chair opposite her, crossing his legs and regarding her seriously for a long moment. A clock ticked somewhere in the room. The fire crackled. Scully sat motionless, meeting Flaherty’s gaze, her chin coming up a bit.

“I did not expect someone so young,” he said finally, the last word dripping a bit with distaste.

She arched an eyebrow at that. “I can assure you that I have the experience and the preparation to take on this assignment, Mr. Flaherty,” she replied, her voice chilly but not defensive. “But I’m sorry if my appearance offends you.”

One corner of his lip went up. “No, you’re not. But you are attempting to defer, which I appreciate. That is a skill that will come in handy with our Mr. Curran, to be certain.”

Scully studied him for a beat. His voice was precise, but without accent, his clothing and manner impeccable, right down to the small diamond tack buried in his forest green tie, the exact lines of his tailored shirt and suit.

“Scully…” He said the name as though he were trying it out for size, to see if it fit her. “You’re Irish. Though I assume you’re one of those Americans who couldn’t care much less about this fact.”

“I never gave it much serious thought, no.” Her voice was measured, her eyes unflinching.

He smiled a bit more, clearly pleased by her honesty. “And I was told you are Catholic, as well?”

Scully nodded, though she wondered where he’d found that fact out. She hadn’t listed that on anything but her medical authorizations. Padden and his cohorts had been thorough, she thought.

“Yes, I am,” was all she said aloud.

“Hm,” Flaherty said, his hand going to his chin, one finger touching his lip. “That’s a stroke of luck.” He was still regarding her as though he were a scientist looking at a new species of mold, and she was irritated by it. “So hard to teach that to someone on the spur of the moment, as you can imagine.”

There was a knock at the door.

“Come in, Maureen,” Flaherty called, and the maid entered, carrying a silver tray. A gleaming coffee pot sat atop it, as well as two coffee cups and saucers, a squat sugar bowl and a creamer. She set it one of the larger tables, reached to pour. Flaherty shooed her away like a gnat.

“I’ll see to it, thank you,” he said, and the maid retreated, closing the doors behind her. Scully watched her go, noting how easily she took her commands.

Flaherty rose, went to the tray, poured the coffee.

“Cream and two sugars, please,” Scully said without being asked. Flaherty’s lip curled again, but he said nothing. He reached for the sugar cubes with a tiny pair of silver tongs.

“You say you have the experience to take this on, Dr. Scully,” he said casually, dropping the cubes into the coffee. “How many undercover operations have you been on, if you don’t mind me asking?” He poured the cream in, sending up a stormy swirl of white.

She crossed her arms at her chest. “Am I being interviewed for this position, Mr. Flaherty?” she asked. “Because I was under the impression that I already had it.”

She meant what she said, but there was another part of her that was being evasive. She suddenly wished she could say that she’d done what Mulder had done, risking so much with August Bremer and the New Spartans.

She pushed the thought down immediately — she’d been warring with this nagging feeling of insecurity since being given the assignment, but hadn’t admitted it to anyone.

And she certainly wasn’t going to give it away to Flaherty, or give him room to play on it.

“I see,” he replied simply, and brought her the bone white cup sitting in gold-rimmed saucer. He picked up his own cup — the coffee black — and returned to his seat. He blew on the hot liquid delicately, took a sip.

“To answer your question, you are not being interviewed. The die is cast as far as your placement is concerned. I’ve spent a great deal of time making up a plausible cover story for you, giving you a background that won’t arouse suspicion.” He leveled his gaze at her. “In short, I’ve risked a great deal already, Doctor, and I just want to be certain I haven’t placed such a sizable bet on…shall we say?….a questionable horse?”

“I was under the impression that you had risked this for your own sake, sir, not for mine,” Scully shot back. “I believe it was YOU who decided to be a source of information for the agencies involved in this.”

“And let’s not misunderstand that, either,” Flaherty returned, his voice sharp and rising just a touch in volume. “My loyalty is not to the U.S. government in this, but to the Irish Republican Army and to Ireland herself. My affiliation with the government is merely a convenience. I have risked this for Ireland’s sake, not yours. This operation serves MY purposes, not the government’s.”

“And what are those purposes, if I may ask?” Scully set her coffee down on the table beside her. She refused to keep up the facade that they were two acquaintances having tea any longer.

Flaherty heaved out a breath, regaining his composure. When he spoke, his voice had returned to its previous control. He rose, placing his cup down on the table. He went to the fire, pulled back the elegant screen and picked up a brass poker from the stand.

“I have spent the better part of my adult life working for Northern Ireland’s interests here in the States,” he said conversationally, poking at the fire. “I’ve spent a great deal of my hard earned fortune funding various I.R.A. causes, raising money, heading the Campaign for a Free Ireland. I’ve watched Northern Ireland’s people pay the terrible price for this destructive conflict, and have done what I can to help their cause in any way that I could.”

“You’ve funded murder,” Scully said under her breath. She couldn’t help but make her true feelings known.

Flaherty only smiled, looked back at her over his shoulder. “Exactly the naive American response I expected from you, Doctor. It’s all so easy to look at from here, isn’t it? You forget your own history. You forget that this country once went to war for its own independence against the British, and for many of the same reasons as Northern Ireland does now.”

“That was war. This is terrorism.”

“Terrorism is what happens when the enemy ensures that war is not a feasible option,” Flaherty responded blithely, turning over an orange log. Scully felt a blast of new heat and the old man’s face flared in the bright light.

“I see I cannot change your informed opinion on the subject.” His voice held more than a hint of sarcasm. “I would recommend, however, that you attempt to at least see the other point of view in this. After all, you’re about to become a loyal soldier in the name of the Cause.” He looked back at her again. “Or so it will seem.” He smiled wryly again.

“I’ve been fully briefed on the political situation in Northern Ireland,” Scully responded, and she picked up her coffee again, took a sip. “Considering it is part of my cover.” She emphasized the last word. “A small part.”

Flaherty stood now, replacing the screen. Outside, the snow continued to fall.

“Yes, you’re going to play the ignorant American, which shouldn’t be hard for you, I gather,” Flaherty said, settling back in his chair. “The brash idealistic Irish-American doctor who joined the C.F.I. out of loyalty to her heritage, and who has now, in disgrace, been recruited for a little task by some of the I.R.A.’s finest.” He said it all with great drama, as though he were retelling the plot of novel.

“I’m going to be a doctor,” Scully said simply.

“You’re going to have to be more than that if you intend to get close to Curran,” Flaherty said. “He is not a man who trusts easily, or often.”

“You know him then?” Scully asked, her curiousity piqued. Despite her briefings on him by Mulder and the others in the task force, she knew little about him. It made her nervous.

Flaherty nodded, took another sip of his coffee. “I’ve met him on one occasion, yes,” he replied. “Before the Path’s split with the I.R.A. He’s a very intense man, very magnetic. The kind of man who can easily influence people to his way of thinking. And he gets his job done, that much is for certain. Though it’s a job for which he is no longer needed, which he does not seem to understand.”

“I would think you approved of his methods,” Scully replied, her coffee cup in front of her lips.

“There was a time when I did, yes.” Flaherty said softly, placing his cup on the table beside him and leaning back. His eyes did not leave Scully’s face. “And make no mistake, if the peace process fails, I will again. But Northern Ireland has been decimated by this conflict.”

He gazed into the fire, the light throwing his face into shadows and orange light. His eyes looked faraway, and for an instant Scully saw his sadness, his exhaustion, the toll the years of conflict had taken.

“I’ve had friends — good friends — die or be imprisoned. This peace accord currently underway with Britain is the best opportunity we’ve had, or are likely to get.” He paused, took in another tired breath. “Most of us understand this. Owen Curran does not. He therefore threatens that opportunity.”

He looked at Scully now, his expression serious. His voice was quiet. “Thus, I am forced to resort to alternate methods to stop the destruction of this peace.”

Scully gaped at him. “You’re doing this on your own. This isn’t through the Campaign for a Free Ireland at all.”

Flaherty nodded grimly. “If your true identity is revealed to Curran, it is not only your life that will be in danger. I am the only connection between you and The Path. There will be no one else to blame.”

Scully nodded, letting a beat of silence pass as she considered his words. “I understand,” she said quietly.

Maybe that was what this whole thing was about, she thought later, bundled up in her coat and gloves and winter boots, carrying a black umbrella one of the maids had loaned her. She huddled beneath it, a stark figure in black against the landscape of still-falling snow.

Sacrifice.

She turned the word over in her mind as she walked through the immense garden on the grounds behind the house, trying to clear her mind. Trying to center herself after the whirlwind of change that had swept her up over the past few days, much as the snow was now being swept up by the cold wind into dim lights lining the snowy pathway that led through the barren trees.

As she made her way down the path, her boots making soft crunching sounds as she walked, she found her thoughts inexplicably drawn to her father. She thought of the sacrifices he’d made, the years of his children’s lives he’d missed, the time he hadn’t been with her mother when he spent those long months at sea. She thought then of how he’d disapproved of her choice to join the F.B.I. and wondered how he would feel about that choice now, seeing how much she was willing to give up, to risk, in the name of duty. Duty to the work she had chosen to do.

Still pondering this, she found herself in front of a small square maze of low bushes, a sharply cut, flat-topped hedge cutting an intricate path in the middle of a small clearing. Entering the maze, she made her way to the center, where a Celtic cross, carved in stone, stood, shouldered with snow. She stopped before it for a long moment, studying the figures carved into it, listening, drinking in the quiet. The wind began to blow and her eyes teared up. She blinked them away.

She could see it now so clearly. The loneliness her father must have felt standing on the deck of a ship, so far away from anyone or anything he loved — except the sea.

~~~

CHAPTER SEVEN.

~~~

U.S. AIRWAYS FLIGHT 289 30 MILES FROM RICHMOND INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT DECEMBER 29 4:33 p.m.

It had snowed in Richmond, just a few days shy of the new year. Scully watched as the winter landscape, scarred with the plowed black ribbons of highway, the patches of subdivisions, came into view. The plane continued its descent, dipping through the last of the thick clouds and into the gloaming light of early evening.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we are beginning our final descent into the Richmond metropolitan area. Please fasten your seat belts and return your tray tables to the upright position. For those of you remaining in the Richmond area, the weather report is overcast skies, temperature 31 degrees….”

Scully put the in-flight magazine she’d been pretending to read for the duration of the flight in the pocket of the seat in front of her. There was no need for her to adjust her seat; she’d been sitting upright, stiff as stone, since she’d gotten on the plane, feeling as uncomfortable with her body as she did with her new name. It was as if she wasn’t quite sure who she was or how she should behave.

The first thing to tip off this feeling of unreality, the feeling that something fundamental had changed about her identity, was the nearly empty briefcase beneath the seat in front of her. It had somehow been a comfort to her to have all the files on Curran and The Path, all the autopsy reports of Mary Rutherford and the other victims. It was all there if she needed to refer to it, if she needed to recall some vital detail. Now, she had nothing but her memory to carry her through, the files, all copies, burned in Flaherty’s fireplace that morning before she left.

So she’d spent the flight replaying facts in her mind, rehearsing as though she were an actor on a well-attended opening night.

First, she tried to recall everything she knew about Owen Curran.

Curran’s father, James, had died in prison after starving himself to death during a hunger strike. His mother had died soon after, leaving Curran, his sister Mae, and his brother, also James, orphaned at the ages of 10, 11 and 15, respectively.

James had entered the priesthood when he was 17 years old, and Curran and his sister had raised themselves on the streets of Belfast, soon becoming part of the I.R.A. No one was exactly sure when this was the case, though by the time James was killed in a protest when Owen was 14, Curran was already a suspected member. He’d been arrested and questioned in relation to a retaliatory attack on a British convoy on the outskirts of Belfast soon after the protest, but had been released because of lack of evidence tying him to the terrorist act.

All of the information about Curran’s youth had come from that questioning, and once he was released, Curran disappeared into a hazy series of blurred photographs and rumors about his involvement with various I.R.A. operations. He was reputed to be climbing the ranks quickly, but he stayed one step ahead of the British authorities, covering his tracks and connections with care.

Scully recalled the most recent photograph from the file well: Curran on a crowded street in Belfast, a cigarette dangling from one corner of his full lips. He’d been about 30 in that picture, the photo only a few years old. A distinguished nose, though crooked at the bridge from being broken. High cheekbones. Thick brows. Dark, closely cropped hair, already hemmed in gray at the temples. A scar running along the side of his mouth.

But what Scully remembered most were his pale blue eyes. Staring straight into the camera. Aware he was being watched, even in the midst of the bustling crowd.

“Owen Curran,” Mulder had said in his presentation to the task force, “…is obsessive to the point of paranoia. Cautious. Meticulous. A natural leader, as evidenced by his quick rise to power within The Path. He will be afraid to make any authentic affiliations with anyone other than his sister, Mae, and a few close advisors. However, with the exception of his sister, he won’t trust even those advisors completely because of his early exposure to abandonment.”

Mulder had come around the table, clicking on a slide of the picture she remembered so well. He stood beside the screen, his face even with Curran’s. “He carries a deep hatred of the British. He blames them for the death of his family, so his fight goes beyond politics and into the deeply personal. This makes him more dedicated and more dangerous.”

The flaps were coming down on the wings now, the plane filling with the sound of rushing air as the plane began to brake for its final descent. Scully stared out the window at snowy ground coming closer, the blue and white and red lights of the airport coming into view. Off in the distance she could see the city skyline of Richmond, the buildings still outlined in lights in the blue-gray dusk.

One of those buildings, she thought, was the hotel where she and Mulder had stayed, where Mulder would be still. She took great comfort that he was there. It scared her how much comfort she took in that fact.

Sitting up straighter, as if to shake those feelings away, as if to reassert her own confidence, she continued to recite in her mind the things that she knew about the case.

She was being picked up at the airport by Mae Curran. Little was known about Mae, except that she was always, it appeared, at her brother’s side. Scully had seen one picture of her in the series of slides in Mulder’s presentation — curly long black hair, pale skin dotted with freckles, the same intense blue eyes of her brother.

According to Flaherty, Scully would be staying with Mae, at least until she could find a place of her own. It had been meant as an offer of hospitality by Curran, and the task force had been pleased at this unexpected offer of access. Scully was pleased as well, but the fact still made her apprehensive. As long as she was staying with Mae, there would be no way for her to ever be “off duty” — she would have to be Katherine Black 24 hours a day. There would also be no way for her to meet in complete privacy with Mulder or anyone else from the task force that would be monitoring her.

She would make finding a place to live her first priority.

The runway rushed up, the plane lurching as the wheels touched down, the engines roaring as the plane slowed. She reached down to her feet, pulled out her small purse and the briefcase. Shifting in her seat, she was once again keenly aware of the absence of her Sig, of her coat pocket empty of her badge, of the wallet in her purse empty of every shred of her real self — even the pictures of her family. Everything had been replaced with the documents of her new identity. Without thinking, she held the purse to her chest as the plane taxied to the gate.

~~~

RICHMOND INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT RICHMOND, VIRGINIA 5:16 p.m.

The first lesson that Scully realized she was going to have to learn about being undercover was that she was going to have to abandon her prejudices.

She knew this the moment she walked off the plane and saw Mae Curran at the end of the gate area. Curran was wearing a brown suede overcoat and jeans, a grey wool scarf, her long curly hair pulled back in a loose ponytail. She held in one hand a sign with the name “Dr. Katherine Black” neatly written on it. Her other hand rested on the small shoulder of a five or six year old boy.

Scully wasn’t exactly sure what it was that she expected to find on her first meeting with a known international terrorist, but someone who looked like a kindergarten teacher was not it.

Shouldering her briefcase and purse, she went toward Curran, trying her best to appear casual and nonchalant. It was hard considering Curran was watching her so intently as she approached.

“I’m Katherine Black,” Scully said softly once she’d stopped in front of the woman and boy. Curran kept studying her for a few seconds, taking in her face, her eyes a little wide, as though she were surprised.

“Is something wrong?” Scully asked, feeling instantly nervous, as though Curran could already see through her cover.

The other woman tucked the sign under her arm, struck out of her staring. “No, of course not, Dr. Black,” she said hurriedly. “You just look very much like someone I used to know.” She put a hand out. “I’m Mae Curran. Welcome.”

Her voice was soft, a bit breathy. Heavily accented. A hesitant smile came to her lips as Scully reached out and shook her hand. The blush of color on Curran’s cheeks and the shyness of her manner surprised Scully again.

“And this,” Mae continued as she released Scully’s hand and looked down at the boy between them, “This is my nephew Sean. Can you say hello to Dr. Black, Sean?”

Scully looked down into the boy’s deep green eyes, smiled through her nervousness. He had an open, warm face as he looked up at her. His hair was a bright shade of red, not unlike Scully’s own.

“Hello, Dr. Black,” he said, his voice light as a bell. He did not have any of his aunt’s shyness, it appeared. Scully also noted the first gap in the information the task force had assembled on Owen Curran — they had not told her that he had a son.

“Let’s see to your things then,” Mae said softly, gesturing with her hand towards the corridor that led to the baggage claim area. As Scully passed her, she reached out and lifted the briefcase off her shoulder by the strap. “Here, I’ll get that for you.”

Scully let her have it, thanked her quietly. They moved with the throng of people coming off the flight, reunited families surrounded by boisterous children, businessmen talking on cell phones as though their lives depended on them as they hurried along.

“Dr. Black, were you told you’d be staying with me until you got settled in?” Mae asked as they walked, her hand firmly holding Sean’s as they moved through the crowd.

“Yes, I was,” Scully replied, glancing at the other woman’s pale face as they walked, struck once again by how gentle, how innocent Curran looked. It was only the lines around her eyes that gave her age as being over twenty. That and a certain heaviness in her carriage, a sadness, as though she were very world weary for being so young.

“That’s very generous of you,” Scully continued. “And you can call me Katherine.”

Since “Katherine” was her middle name, and a name she’d occasionally been called when she was younger, she was somewhat relieved to be able to use it. It gave her cover a touch of familiarity that she found comforting.

“All right, Katherine it is.” Curran smiled again, the same shy smile, as though she didn’t want anyone to see her doing it. “We’ll be going to the flat to drop off your things and then we’re going straight out again.”

“Oh?” Scully replied.

“Yes,” Mae continued, helping Sean onto the escalator going down. “My brother Owen wants to meet you tonight. He has something for you to do that needs taking care of right away.”

“I see,” Scully said, following right behind them. So soon, she thought….

Sean turned to her now, standing backwards on the escalator as they descended. “We’re going to a party,” he said happily.

“A party?” Scully said, smiling down at the boy. “Who’s the party for?”

“It’s not really a party,” Mae corrected, looking down at Sean as if to tell him to hush, then she returned her gaze to Scully. “There’s just a gathering to hear a friend’s band play at a local pub.”

“Ian is playing his guitar,” Sean continued, and began chattering people’s names, people who would be at the pub. Mae looked at Scully apologetically.

“Dr. Black will meet everyone when she gets to the pub, Sean. That’s quite enough talk for now.”

“No, he’s fine,” Scully said, smiling. It really was more than fine. The more names she heard the better.

They reached the baggage claim area and Scully took her place beside the conveyor. It was already moving, carrying the battered large and small shapes of bags around and around.

“If you don’t need any help with your bags, I’ll go ahead and get the car.” Mae gave Sean’s hand a tug to keep him away from the belt.

“That would be fine,” Scully replied. “I can take care of them. I’ll meet you out front.”

She watched Mae and Sean go, weaving through the crowd. She felt her nervous energy beginning to ebb a bit. She found Mae Curran not only accessible but friendly, likeable. And Sean’s presence had put her much more at ease.

There was something so normal about them. They were, in many ways, just a woman about her age and a young boy. People who also existed outside the dark agendas of The Path. Who went to a pub to listen to a friend play the guitar.

She felt herself calming with the thought. If she could do this assignment by approaching the people she encountered from a sense of common ground, it would make it easier for her to move among them.

And she was going to meet Owen Curran that night, apparently to find out what sort of task he had in mind for her this soon in the operation. She would have information for Mulder and the task force by the end of the night.

She kept her eye on the belt, watching for her bags and considered all this. Nothing was coming out exactly as she had envisioned. For that, she was grateful.

~~~

THE GREY MOUSE PUB 7:03 p.m.

Mae pulled the battered Chevy pickup into a spot in the crowded parking lot of the pub, the music audible even in the closed-up truck with the heat blasting. Scully could only make it out a bit, but she could tell it was upbeat and full of fiddles.

Sean was squirming between her and Mae. He’d been excited the whole time they’d been at Mae’s apartment on Grace Street, putting Scully’s things in her small bedroom. It had reminded Scully of one of the apartments she’d lived in in medical school, the room at the end of a long shotgun hallway, the furthest room from the kitchen and living room area. Two large windows, almost floor to ceiling, looked out on the brick side of the house next door. They were hooded with cheap plastic blinds.

The room was sparsely furnished: a full-size bed made up with clearly second hand blankets, capped with a cheap metal-slatted headboard; a dresser with six drawers; a small rug in the middle of the room; a round table beside the bed. Radiator heaters hissed at the persistent chill in the poorly insulated room.

Mae had apologized for the sparseness of it, but Scully had responded kindly that it was everything she needed until she found a place of her own. She’d set her bags on the bed and hadn’t even been able to take her coat off and relax for a moment before Sean started pleading with Mae for them to go.

Now, Mae turned off the truck and opened her door, stepping out in the frigid night air, Sean clambering out her side, as well. Scully climbed out the other side, slammed the door shut, met Mae and Sean in front of the truck.

“It’s a bit wild tonight,” Mae said, nodding towards the front door. “But my brother has a small room in the back where he conducts his business. It’ll be quiet enough for you back there.”

They entered the pub and Scully was immediately assailed by a loud Irish reel, a press of bodies, and a cloud of cigarette smoke. They picked their way through the crowd, people greeting Mae and Sean as they did so. Scully got many an interested look as she followed Mae — clearly they weren’t very used to strangers. She found it hard to meet all the curious stares.

A band was playing on stage — guitars, fiddles, hand drums, flutes. People were dancing in the one clear area of the entire bar.

They finally reached the back of the bar where double swinging doors guarded a small corridor. Mae led them down the corridor to another door and knocked on it. She’d been right. The music, while still loud, was at a tolerable level back here.

A huge man answered the door, more than a foot taller than Scully and twice as wide. He had a scowl on his face as he looked at Scully. Sean slipped by him and ran into the room.

“Mae,” the man said by way of greeting. “Who’ve you got here now? That doctor from Boston’s my guess.”

“It is, John,” Mae replied, and turned to Scully. “Katherine, this is John Fagan. John, this is Dr. Black.”

The man looked at Scully for another moment, as though he were debating whether to let her in or not. Finally he stepped aside, and that was his only greeting. Mae brushed past him, Scully following behind. As she passed Fagan, he gave her body a long, lascivious look; she felt herself redden, but met his eyes, forcing him to look her in the face. Once he had, she returned her attention to the room. She could still see Fagan smirking at her as she passed, then he closed the door behind them.

Three men sat around a round table covered with papers, beer glasses. Sean was on his father’s lap. Scully recognized Curran immediately. He was exactly the same as he was in the picture, right down to the close-cropped dark hair. He looked up at the newcomers in the room.

And locked eyes with Scully. His mouth hung open a bit and an expression of sadness, surprise, something Scully couldn’t quite name flashed across his face. Scully met the intense look evenly.

The other two men at the table had likewise turned to look at her. She met their eyes, as well, and she grew immediately concerned. They both looked haggard, almost emaciated. Dark circles clung to their eyes. One of them was lifting a glass of beer to his lips, and his hand was trembling. They were clearly very ill with something.

Curran snapped himself out of his state quickly, moved Sean off his lap and then stood himself, regaining a smooth hard mask of a face.

“Dr. Black, is it?” he said, forcing Scully’s attention away from the two men. “I’m Owen Curran. I’m the man who got you down here.” He put out a hand over the table, wiping it on his pants leg before he did so.

“Yes, I’m Katherine Black,” she replied, and took his outstretched hand, shook it lightly. “It’s good to meet you, Mr. Curran.”

He didn’t answer her, but rather gestured to the other men at the table. “This is Danny Conner. Jim Creeley.” The two men nodded, looking at her warily, but said nothing. “You’ll be working with them a good bit.”

Again Scully’s attention was drawn to the two men’s appearance. She’d never seen anyone look as exhausted. But Curran himself, Mae, Sean….they all looked fine, healthy. She wondered if Conner and Creeley had just gotten off some task that kept them up for a few days.

She nodded to them by way of greeting. Curran was looting around on the table, sifting through the piles of paper. Finally he found what he was looking for, a sheet of paper with a list on it.

“I need you to write some prescriptions for me,” Curran said, handing her the list. “There’s what I need, and I’ve put some people’s names on there for you to use as the dummy names for the scrips.”

Scully studied the list as Curran continued. “I want you to write the scrips, then have them filled at the pharmacy at the hospital. They’ll have everything you need. Jim and Danny here will pick them up after you’ve put them in. Just let me know once you’ve done it and I’ll send them to fetch them.”

Scully read the names of the drugs to herself: ketanserin, ondansetron, granisetron, satosetron. And mescaline, the powerful hallucinogen. They were all serotonin inhibiting drugs. Just like the ones found in Mary Rutherford’s blood stream during the autopsy.

“You sound like you’ve done this before,” Scully commented under her breath, still looking at the list.

“Aye, that we have,” Curran replied curtly, his voice lowering. It sounded like a warning, like the rumbling of thunder before a storm.

“May I ask what these are for?” she asked, though she didn’t really expect him to answer.

Curran reclaimed his seat, lifted Sean back onto his lap. “No, you may not,” he said flatly. “You’re getting paid to do what you’re told, Doctor. I’ll tell you everything you need to know.”

Mae was looking at her nervously. Curran stared her in the face now, his brows raised in a “do I make myself clear” expression. Behind her, she could feel John Fagan’s presence, and turned to glance at him. He was smirking at her again.

Finally she nodded, folded the piece of paper in half and stuffed it in her pocket.

“All right,” she said, and her voice was perturbed. She did not want to appear weak in front of this man. She got the feeling he would disdain it. “I’ll take care of it tomorrow when I begin work at the clinic.”

“Very good,” Curran replied, reaching for his beer. The band started up again, a man singing. He gestured to the door.

“You might want to go hear the band then,” he said, took a gulp of the dark beer. “They’re a pleasure to hear, and last I looked there was quite a party going on.”

Behind her, Fagan opened the door, the music flooding the room. Sensing that she was being dismissed, Scully angled her head at Curran. “A pleasure, Mr. Curran,” she said, her voice dripping with sarcasm and irritation, irritation she wasn’t having to muster much as part of an act.

Curran gaped at her, surprised at her tone. He wasn’t used to being spoken to like that, that much was clear.

“Thank you for the warm welcome,” she finished, then turned on her heel and, brushing past Fagan brusquely, left the room. Mae followed behind her and Fagan closed the door.

Once they were back in the corridor, Mae came up alongside Scully. “You’ll have to pardon my brother,” she said just loudly enough to be heard over the music. “He can come across a bit rude when you first meet him.”

“I see that,” Scully replied, not looking at her.

“But you might want to watch how you speak to him, though,” Mae continued, her voice lowering. “He has a way of dealing with people he thinks don’t give him the proper respect.” “I’ll try and remember that,” Scully said, though she had no intention of cowing. In front of any of them. Still, the image of Mary Rutherford’s body flashed into her mind. Relenting, she decided she would attempt to tread more lightly when she could.

They walked the rest of the way to the double doors in silence.

“So,” Mae said brightly, trying to break the dour mood. “Will you drink a pint before I take you home? Ian’s band really is quite good.”

Scully wanted nothing more than to go back to the apartment, unpack, attempt to settle in. And she’d never been one for bars or crowds. But she also didn’t know where her opportunities to glean information would be coming from, so she nodded, opening the doors to the pub, taking in the crowd and the noise.

“Sure, I’ll have a pint,” she said, and forced a smile, gesturing to the throng of people. “Lead the way.”

Mae smiled slightly, clearly pleased, and did just that.

~~~

Later, she lay on her back in the rickety bed, watching snow fall outside the window through the light filtering between the houses from the street lamps. She’d been so tired when they’d returned to the apartment that she hadn’t even unpacked her things. She’d opened one of the suitcases enough to find her travel alarm, her bag of toiletries and her pajamas and had gone straight to bed, trying not to listen to the muted sound of the television, which Mae was watching in the living room.

She considered her first meeting with Owen Curran, with Mae. She liked Mae, who seemed so open and trusting to her, the exact opposite of her brother. It was going to be hard getting close to Owen, that much was clear. But then, that was to be expected, she thought as she rolled over, facing the window now.

Her mind then replayed the names of the drugs he’d asked for again and again, searching for some connection, some way they could be used together, and for what purpose. It remained a mystery to her.

Shifting, she pulled the covers up closer to her chin. The radiators thumped and hissed, trying to fight the chill that bled through the old windows. She thought of how, when she was cold at home and Mulder was there, he would wrap his body around hers, pressing against her for warmth. If she closed her eyes she could almost conjure the feeling of his arm wrapped around her, his leg slipping between her knees, his warm breath at her ear sending a tingle down her spine that had nothing to do with cold…..

She missed him terribly. And so soon, too. She missed not only his body, but everything about him. Sharing a meal with him. Working late at one of their apartments, surrounded by files. Sitting in their office, arguing about some point or another. She wondered when she would see him.

Her last thoughts were of him as she slipped, exhausted, into a deep sleep. She slept heavy, the night cold, dreamless.

~~~

BROAD STREET DECEMBER 30 7:34 a.m.

Bus 19 took Scully straight down Grace Street, through the area around Virginia Commonwealth University and then onto Broad, the long main street of Richmond that led through the older sections of downtown. She looked out the window at the snow-capped glass walkway over the street that marked the 6th Street Marketplace. They passed beneath it, heading toward the tower of the hospital at the Medical College of Virginia. She started work in their outpatient clinic that morning.

She was sitting on one of the seats that faced the side of the bus. In front of her, several other morning commuters hung onto the overhead rings and swayed slightly as the bus lumbered down the street. She held her briefcase, filled with her falsified credentials, between her calves as they rode along.

The bus pulled over at a stop, the doors hissing open. A blast of cold air came in with a rush.

From her pocket, she pulled out the list of drugs, studying them again. The amounts that Curran was asking for were huge. There were over twenty names on the list, and nine drugs for each of them. She wondered once again what Curran could be up to.

Someone brushed up against her leg as several people pressed into the bus from the street. She pulled her leg away slightly, keeping her eye on the list.

“Excuse me,” the voice said, and she looked up immediately at the sound of it.

There stood Mulder, dressed in sweatpants and a hooded sweatshirt and coat, with a stocking cap on his head. He looked for all the world like a jogger, his cheeks flushed from the cold wind. He wore a day’s growth of beard, as well.

She felt a smile curling her lips as she looked at him, and he smiled back.

“No problem,” she said aloud.

He hung onto a ring as the doors closed and the bus lurched forward again, his other hand jammed in the front pocket of his sweatshirt. She couldn’t take her eyes off of him, nor could he stop looking down at her, it seemed. She could feel so much from just his gaze, and she drank it in.

Finally, she glanced out at the street as the hospital loomed outside the window. Standing quickly, she grabbed her briefcase and tapped the call strip for the driver. Now she was right beside him, close enough to smell the soap he’d used in the shower that morning.

His hand snaked out from his pocket. He reached down surreptitiously and tucked a small slip of paper into her gloved hand, which she closed her fist around as the bus stopped. With one last look at him, and with a brush against him as she moved to the door, she stepped down off the bus onto the curb. She could feel his eyes still on her.

The bus pulled away, and she watched it go.

Standing there on the freshly shoveled curb across the street from the hospital, she shouldered her briefcase, then opened the note he’d tucked in her hand.

“10 a.m. tomorrow at the clinic,” it said. “Under the name George Hale.”

Then there was another line, written smaller than the rest of the note.

“I’m right here. Close by.”

She was still smiling when she reached the other side of the street.

~~~

CHAPTER EIGHT.

~~~

J&J WAREHOUSE THE BANKS OF THE JAMES RIVER 10:34 p.m.

The water at this place in the James River was partially frozen. Huge islands of ice moved slowly past the triangles of lights thrown by Owen Curran’s car as it came to a halt, the tires sliding just a bit in last night’s snowfall. There was another car there, partially hidden behind the abandoned warehouse’s squat frame.

“He’s here on time for a change,” John Fagan said from the driver’s seat. Curran nodded and said nothing; instead, he took a long drag on his cigarette and opened the door, stamping it out in the snow as he stood. Fagan followed him out of the car, coming around to stand beside him as they moved toward the warehouse. A crack of light shone through the gap in the doors.

Fagan pushed the door aside, let Curran enter first. It was just as cold in the warehouse as it was outside, the metal walls offering no insulation from the winter night. In the corner, the source of the light — an electric lantern sitting atop a small stack of wooden crates. A man sat on a crate beside it. He wore an old army-surplus parka, jeans, and black boots, and was rubbing his hands together for warmth. His head jerked in the direction of the movement in surprise.

“Relax, Hugh,” Curran said, holding up his hands and he walked towards the light. “You’d think you were expecting someone else.” Fagan followed just behind him as Curran pulled up a crate to sit across from the man. Fagan remained standing behind him, his gloved hands clasped in front of him.

“It’s not that,” Hugh replied. “It’s just been so quiet in here you could hear a fuckin’ mouse get a hard-on.” He let out a half-hearted laugh, glancing nervously at Fagan, who didn’t share in it. But then, he rarely did.

Curran smiled indulgently, his lip crimping the thick scar that ran alongside his mouth. “Sorry to startle you then.” He regarded the other man in the strange electric light, noted his pale face, slicked with sweat, noted the fact that he was trembling.

“What’s the matter, Hughey?” he asked, his voice dripping with concern as he leaned back a bit and jammed his hands in the pockets of his jacket. “You not feeling well? The trip tire you out then?”

“That must be it,” Hugh said, trying to sound casual, though his eyes continued to dart back and forth between Fagan and Curran. He smiled a bit again, met Curran’s eyes. “Though I think another little pick-me-up would do the job for me.” He swallowed, the smile vanishing. “You got any with you, eh?”

“You know I don’t do that sort of thing, Hugh,” Curran said, reached from his pocket and pulled out another cigarette. He lit it, the flame flaring and turning the world red in the glare for a second. “You can get some back at the house after we finish having our little private conversation here. How’s that?”

“All right then…” Hugh swallowed again nervously. “Though I’m afraid I don’t have much to tell you.”

Curran blew out a puff of smoke, his eyes boring into Hugh’s. Behind him, John Fagan shifted his weight from one food to another on the cold floor. “What do you mean by that?” Curran asked. “You couldn’t get in to have a look around?”

“Oh no, no, I got in,” Hugh replied quickly. “I just…well, I didn’t get around to looking at the outside much. It seemed too risky at the time.”

“But that’s why I sent you, Hugh,” Curran said slowly, as though he were talking to a child. “And you’ve done more risky things than that before. I know that for a fact.”

He took another drag off his cigarette when the other man’s only response was to look down at the ground, then up again, his eyes continuing to flick around the room like an animal looking for an escape. Curran knew he didn’t have to worry about him running, though. Not with Fagan here.

“Could it be,” Curran continued almost casually, replacing his lighter in his pocket carefully. “… that your heart wasn’t quite in this, Hughey?”

Hugh looked down at the ground. “I just don’t understand what you want with that building. Why you’d be looking at the exits and entrances so carefully. It made me wonder what exactly I was doing up there.”

“You were supposed to be doing what you were told,” Curran said, his voice lowering. “That’s all you have to worry about, Hugh. Just doing what you’re told.”

“I’ve always done that in the past, yes,” Hugh replied. His voice gained a touch of confidence, strength. He even sat up straighter on the crate. “But if you’re planning what I think you’re planning here, I don’t want any part of it. And none of the others will either.”

Curran made a small “tsking” sound with his tongue. “Hughey, you’ve never questioned anything I’ve planned in the past. That’s why I picked you for this special task for me, because I thought I could rely on you in particular.”

He stared Hugh in the face, shaking his head slightly. “I’m very disappointed.” He cocked his head back to look at Fagan over his shoulder. “Aren’t you disappointed in Hugh, John?” he asked.

“Very,” Fagan replied with mock regret, his hands going into his pockets. He drew out a pair of handcuffs.

“What are you doing, Owen?” Hugh asked, his hands going to the crate he was sitting on, as though preparing to leap up at any second. “We’ve been friends for a long time, you can’t — “

“Aye, we have,” Curran said with a hint of regret in his voice. Just a hint. Then he nodded a bit, urging Fagan forward.

As Fagan moved, Hugh jumped up, tried to bolt for the door, the crate clattering across the concrete floor. Curran took a drag from his cigarette as Fagan wrestled the other man to the ground, jamming his knee into his back as he slapped the cuffs on him, trapping his hands behind his back. Fagan stood now beside him, keeping his foot squarely on Hugh’s back.

“What are you doing?!” Hugh shouted shrilly, the sound echoing off the metal walls of the warehouse. “Have you completely lost your mind?!”

Curran stood now, going to Hugh. He knelt down beside him, so he could look in his face. He blew out a long stream of smoke, and Hugh was forced to shut his eyes against it.

“No, Hughey, it’s you that has,” he said quietly, dangerously.

“What, you’re going to kill me, just like that? After all these years with you, you’re just going to kill me?” Hugh panted against the floor, struggling vainly against Fagan’s foot on his back.

But Curran only shook his head. “No, I’m not going to kill you,” he said softly. He reached down and ran a hand over Hugh’s curly hair almost fondly. Hugh looked at him, relief, but still some fear in his eyes. Curran leaned close so that he could whisper directly into the other man’s ear.

“But I am going to let you die.”

There was a beat of stunned silence. “What the hell are you talking about?” Hugh asked desperately. “Wha–?” Fagan kicked him in the ribs, silencing him.

Curran stood now, tossed his cigarette on the floor right beside Hugh’s face, stepped on it, grinding it into the concrete with his foot. He looked to Fagan.

“You’ll see to it then, John?” he asked quietly.

“Aye, that I will,” Fagan replied, handing over the keys to the car. “Don’t worry about a thing.”

Curran ignored Hugh’s pleas as he walked from the warehouse, closing the door against them. Then he slowly went to the car, got in, and pulled away into the night.

~~~

BELLE ISLE DECEMBER 31 8:16 a.m.

Mulder hunkered against a cold wind that swept off the rapids of the James River. He was on the suspension bridge beneath the Lee Bridge, a long walkway above the water that led to the tiny island in the middle of the river. Below him, he could see the tell-tale signs of a crime scene — the black body bag spread out on the sandy bank, the plain-clothes and uniformed cops knotted here and there, drinking cups of coffee for warmth. And the ubiquitous whine and snap of flashbulbs going off around a dim shape sprawled on the bank, one he couldn’t quite make out from this height. He sipped his own cup of coffee as the wind tore at his face with icy fingers and he quickened his gait.

Which only made the distance between he and Granger, who was trailing behind on his much shorter legs, even greater. Granger stepped it up, nearly trotting now behind Mulder, pulling his own coat around him. He had a stuffed briefcase tucked under one arm, his collar turning up in a sudden breeze.

“Agent Mulder,” he called. Mulder could tell that the younger man was getting out of breath and reluctantly slowed his pace a bit, turning to spare Granger a glance over his shoulder. They’d reached the winding ramp that would take them down to the ground, and Granger caught up with him there, taking up his place beside him.

“What is it?” Mulder asked, his tone flat, but attempting interest. Granger had been flitting around him like a fly all morning. Actually, he’d been doing it ever since yesterday when Granger picked him up two stops past the hospital where he’d left Scully. The young agent’s eyes had darted around behind his dark, prescription sunglasses with enough suspicion to make Mulder think he was picking up the President.

Granger, Mulder decided dourly, was taking this Secret Agent Man routine a little too much to heart.

“I didn’t get a chance to tell you in the car that I picked up all the copies of the reports of the other deaths before you came to get me, just in case we wanted to compare the settings, the weather, anything like that.” He fumbled a thick file out of the briefcase, proffered it to Mulder, who took it, jammed it under his arm without looking at it.

“Thanks,” he replied. “That was good thinking.” He only half- meant the compliment, but figured he’d throw the guy a bone. Maybe it would help him relax.

The task force had been monitoring the police scanners since Mary Rutherford’s death. Padden wanted to make sure that they kept ahead of the Richmond police should anything related to their case crop up like that again. Mulder had gotten the call at seven from Jessup.

One of the plain clothes cops came forward, his hands up to halt the two agents’ progress. Mulder shifted his coffee to his other hand, groped inside his coat packet and produced his badge. Granger had his out already.

“I’m Agent Mulder with the F.B.I; this is Agent Granger with the C.I.A.”

“C.I.A and F.B.I?” the cop said incredulously. “I’m Lieutenant Nachman, Richmond P.D.” He eyed the two agents almost suspiciously. “You sure you two are in the right place? I mean, all this for this poor son-of-a bitch?”

“We’re both profilers, involved in an ongoing investigation that we’re not at liberty to discuss.” Mulder said quietly. “We’d appreciate your cooperation.”

Nachman stuck his bottom lip out, considering, looking from Granger to Mulder and back. Mulder sipped his coffee, met his probing look blithely. Finally, Nachman shrugged.

He gestured toward the bank of the river where the photographers were gathered. “Well, there’s not much to see over there, but you’re welcome to it. Two joggers found him this morning, just like you see him there.”

“Thank you for your help, Lieutenant,” Mulder said, and he and Granger moved carefully over the rocky ground, toward the thin ribbon of sand that lined the bank.

Mulder tossed his coffee cup into a nearby park trashcan, dug around in his coat pocket and pulled out two pairs of rubber gloves. He passed one pair off to Granger as he edged through the two photographers, kneeling beside the body lying face down on the beach.

Well, he would have been face-down, Mulder corrected himself wryly. Had the body had a face.

Pale flaps of ragged skin were frozen to the collar of an army jacket. The corpse’s white hands were cuffed behind its back, thick bruises around the wrists. The neck vomited strings of icy tissue and the remnants of the spine.

Bile welled up into Mulder’s throat and he put the back of his hand across his mouth for a moment, averting his eyes. From the corner of his eye, he watched Granger kneel down and probe the tissue in the neck with his fingers, looking through the bottom of his bifocal glasses at the frozen gore.

“Do you mind if I turn him over?” Granger asked, turning to peer at the photographers.

“Be our guest,” one of the photographers replied. “We’re done here anyway.” With that, they retreated to their equipment cases, just beyond where the police were standing.

Once they were safely out of earshot, Granger leaned down, getting his arms beneath the body. Pushing with his legs, he flipped the stiff body over onto the snowy sand.

Mulder forced himself to look now. The bony bare chest, visible because the parka had come open in the swift current, the thin T-shirt pushed up almost to the base of the ruined neck. The man wore jeans, one black boot. The other foot was encased in an icy sock.

“It looks like he went the same way as the others,” Granger said, brushing sand off his gloves.

“Yes, it does,” Mulder agreed, putting his hand in front of his mouth again. He had the same sense from this body when he looked at it. One feeling. Incredible anger.

“And there’s not going to be any residue because of the water,” Granger was saying, probing the neck for pieces of bone, teeth, anything he could find. Mulder watched him in horrified amazement.

“There won’t be any residue anyway,” Mulder said. He had yet to touch the body.

Granger looked up at him. “But wasn’t Agent Scully’s report that she thought this was some sort of explosive dental implant?”

Mulder nodded. “Yes, that was her report, but I don’t believe that’s the case.” Now he did reach for the neck, pushing at the end of the spine. There wasn’t any sheering here — it was as if the head had just snapped off.

“But I thought, with her being your partner that you’d –“

“Agree with her all the time?” Mulder smiled a bit at that.

Granger gave him a quizzical look. “Well, not all the time, but…you didn’t say anything in the meeting about any other theory.”

Mulder leaned back on his haunches, blew out a puffy breath into the cold air, looked out at the river. “You haven’t had a partner yet, have you, Granger?”

Granger shook his head, looked down almost as though he were ashamed. “No, I haven’t,” he replied. “I haven’t been out in the field much.”

Mulder nodded. It wasn’t exactly a surprise to him, and he swallowed down any smartass reply he might have usually had, knowing that what Granger had told him was a concession.

“Well,” he said, turning his attention back to the young man before him. “Let me tell you something I’ve learned over the past six years. One of the first things you do for your partners is never challenge what they say in front of the brass. You can argue all you want in private, but once you get in front of your boss, you act as a team. Always.”

Granger nodded. “I see,” he said thoughtfully after a moment, staring down at the body. “So…what’s your theory then?”

Mulder stood now, peeling off his gloves. “I don’t have a specific theory as yet,” he said quietly. “But I don’t think we’re dealing with any sort of explosive device.” He shivered, pulling his coat around him more tightly. “As a matter of fact, I don’t think this is going to turn out to be any sort of conventional explosive at all.”

Granger stood, too. “What else could it be?” He suddenly looked at Mulder dubiously. “You’re not going to tell me that this is some kind of telekinetic thing, are you? One of your X- Files or something?”

Mulder smiled, a full-toothed exaggerated smile. “What if I did? What would you do then, Agent Granger?”

Granger smiled back, but it was a nervous smile. He stood and surveyed a train that had appeared on the tracks across the river. It blew out one long mournful note as it chugged along the opposite bank. He blew out a long breath.

“That, Agent Mulder, I can’t answer for you. Yet.”

~~~

CHAPTER NINE.

~~~

MEDICAL COLLEGE OF VIRGINIA HOSPITAL OUTPATIENT CLINIC 10:23 a.m.

Mulder sat on the edge of the examining table, one foot tapping the metal side of it impatiently. He still wore the coat and jeans and boots, even though the nurse that had shown him in had curtly instructed him to change into the blue and white gown that sat haphazardly folded beside him. He would only take this “patient” cover so far, he decided, scowling at the windowless room.

He checked his watch. His appointment had been for 10:00. Scully was late.

Pushing himself off the table, he paced the small room, reading the posters on the walls to distract himself. A multicolored child’s drawing for public awareness about childhood immunizations. A graph on the prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases, complete with close-up pictures. He grimaced at that and continued his circuit of the room.

Looking up, he saw a Garfield poster taped to the ceiling, right above the head of the table, announcing how the cartoon cat hated Mondays. His eyes dropped to the table, saw the stirrups retracted into the side of it. He took a step back.

Sighing, he finally relented enough to remove his coat and toss it in the chair against one of the walls, folded his arms across his chest.

He was nervous about seeing her, he realized suddenly.

It had only been four days since they’d last spoken, but it seemed much longer to him. He remembered how frustrated he’d felt on the bus yesterday by his inability to talk to her, to touch her, really touch her. How he’d simply held her in his eyes, trying to convey all that he felt for her with his gaze.

She’d looked a little bit haggard, he recalled, and the memory concerned him. He knew from experience how being undercover could be a draining experience, always having to pretend to want or be something else. He tried to chalk her tired appearance up to that, and hoped he was right.

He heard a rustling outside the door, his chart being removed from its tray. Two knocks at the door.

“Come in,” he called.

She appeared in the doorway, dressed in black pants and boots, and one of her white work shirts. Over those, she wore a doctor’s lab coat, a stethoscope draped around her neck.

“Sorry to keep you waiting,” she said for the benefit of the nurse who was passing by the doorway before she could get it closed.

“Not a problem,” he replied, his lips curling up a bit as he looked at her. She made a very believable doctor. It was like looking at Scully as she would have been had she not joined the F.B.I., like looking at some secret side of her.

“What are you staring at?” she asked, laying the chart on the countertop near the small sink. She was smiling as well.

“You,” he said, leaning against the table, his hands planted behind him. “You look so much the part it almost fools me.”

She pushed her hair behind her ear self-consciously. “I’m glad I look the part, because I sure am having to act it. You’re the fifth patient I’ve seen this morning already. Thank God medical school is coming back to me so quickly.”

The smile melted off his face. “How are you holding up?” He said it softly, tenderly. She looked even more tired than she had yesterday.

She took a step towards him, drawn by his tone. “I’m okay. It’s been a busy few days, though.”

“Tell me what’s been going on.”

She leaned against the countertop now, crossing her own arms at her chest and began to tell him what she had experienced so far – – about the meeting with Curran, the names she could remember of the people she’d been introduced to. Mulder studiously wrote down the names in a small notebook he’d retrieved from his coat.

She then told him about the drugs she’d been asked to get, pulling out a copy of the list from the chart she’d brought in with her and giving it to him. He glanced at it, then folded it up and put it in his pocket.

“I’m surprised you’ve met Curran already,” he said. “I’d assumed from my initial profile that he would be more cautious about strangers than that.”

She nodded. “I am, too. But apparently he was willing to risk meeting me so soon because he needed me to write those prescriptions for him.”

“They’re the same drugs that were found in Mary Rutherford’s body?”

She nodded. “And those are massive amounts of them — see how many people they’re prescribed for?”

He nodded. “What do you think?”

“I don’t know what to think at this point,” she replied. “I do know that two of those men I met at the pub, Conner and Creeley, appeared to be ill, though Curran and those closest to him seem to be fine. Mae, his son Sean, his bodyguard….”

“Wait a minute,” Mulder interrupted. “Curran has a SON?”

Scully nodded. “Yes. He’s about six or seven I would guess. I asked Mae about his mother last night just in passing and she wouldn’t answer me. She changed the subject right away.”

He nodded, chewed his lip, putting this new piece of information into the puzzle that was Curran. This changed several things in his mind. A man with a child was a man with something precious to lose, something important to protect. And if he had a wife, as well….

He concluded that Curran would plan things with more care than he first realized. That he would be extremely unlikely to make any careless mistakes.

“You might want to check out the owner of the Grey Mouse,” Scully was saying, breaking him from his thoughts. “The licensing of the place, that sort of thing. See if you can find anything there.”

Mulder smirked. “I’m sure Padden will know the guy’s favorite food within five minutes of getting his name. You should see the operation now. There must be 40 new agents from three different divisions working in there now, including three doctors from Bethesda. You can barely move around in there when the whole task force is meeting.”

He paused, putting the notebook back in his coat pocket. “I’ve got some information for you, as well,” he said.

“What?”

He told her about the body that had washed up from the James that morning.

“He wasn’t wearing any identification, but we’re assuming at this point that he was Path or I.R.A., because the cause of death was identical to the others. The Richmond Medical Examiner is going to do the autopsy, following the steps you took with Rutherford. I’ll show you the report the next time we meet up.”

“Good, ” she replied, sighing, and ran her hands through her hair tiredly. “I haven’t heard anything about it. Nothing from Mae, at least. She seemed fine when I was having tea with her this morning.”

“Well, that certainly sounds like it’s working out all right. You staying with her.” His hackles had risen up immediately at the mental image of Scully sitting around a table drinking a cup of tea with this woman. His mood shift showed clearly in his tone.

“What?” Scully said, her gaze sharpening on him. “I’m living with this woman. I have to make an effort to do ‘normal’ things with her from time to time, for the sake of the cover and for the sake of my own sanity.” She paused. “Plus that, she’s kind of….nice. I like her.”

“You like her,” Mulder parroted back quietly. “Let me tell you a little story about Mae Curran. In 1977 there was a British mounted patrol stationed in Belfast, a contingent of about 30 horses. One day, a homemade bomb filled with nails and broken glass exploded in the stable where the horses were kept. Twenty- two of the horses had to be put down because of their injuries. And you know who the British questioned about that? A twelve- year-old little girl named Mae Curran who had begged her way in past the guards because she wanted to pet the horses.”

“Did they ever prove that she did it?” Scully asked, horrified.

“They never found out,” he replied. “She slipped out of custody before anyone could prove anything. Just disappeared back into the woodwork.” He paused for effect, watching her look down. “Think about that while you’re having tea with her, Scully.”

She looked up, met his eyes.

“Don’t forget who these people are,” he said gravely. “No matter what they may seem like on the outside.”

She nodded now, blew out a breath. “I understand,” she said softly. “It’s just so hard to imagine. If you could see her with Sean…see how she is…” She trailed off. He could tell by the expression on her face that she felt chastised for a moment. It flashed across her face in a flush of color.

“I’m sorry,” he said immediately, tenderly, and moved close enough to take her hand. “I don’t mean to talk you down. It just scares me, you being around these people, knowing what I know about them. I just don’t want your guard coming down.”

“No, you’re right, of course,” she replied quickly. “I know you’re just looking out for me.” He felt her fingers tighten on his hand, a small squeeze. She forced a smile up at him. He smiled back.

He wanted to let the moment linger, knew that she wanted to, as well. But she broke his gaze.

“Listen, ” he said, “One more thing. I’m not going to be seeing you on the bus again. It’s too risky if we make a habit of it. It’s hard to know if you’re being watched.”

“How will I contact you then?”

“Put an ad in the personals in the Times-Dispatch. Make it to George from Gracie. We’ll be watching the paper every day. You do the same — we may need to contact you, too, to get some information to you. And you should know that it may not always be me coming to you here — it might be Granger, or even one of the other agents. I’ll do everything I can for it to be me, though.”

“Okay,” she said, smiled. There was something bittersweet in the smile. “I think that will work.” She caught sight of her watch as she looked down, then started to say something.

“I know,” he interrupted. “You have to go. Come here for a second, though.”

With that, he gathered her into his arms. He felt her surprise at his spontaneity melt immediately, felt her bury her face in his shoulder, her arms tight around his back. He nuzzled her hair.

“I love you,” he whispered close to her ear. He felt her shiver, her grip tightening. “Please be careful.”

“I will,” she whispered back. “I love you, too.” Then she pulled away from him enough to find his mouth with her own. The kiss didn’t last long, but it spoke volumes between them.

They stepped apart and she looked up at him for a beat, then gathered up the chart she’d come in with and went out the door. He saw her have to make a concerted effort not to look back.

~~~

MAE CURRAN’S APARTMENT 2233 GRACE STREET 7:23 p.m.

Scully dropped her keys on the still-empty dresser in her room, peeled out of her coat and tossed it on the edge of the bed. She then put her hands on the small of her back and stretched the kinks out slowly as she yawned.

She needed a good night’s sleep, she thought, not the restless turnings she’d had the previous night in her room, the lamplight bleeding across her face for hours as she stared up at the ceiling. She was on edge, unable to quite adjust to her new surroundings.

She hadn’t told Mulder that when she saw him today. Though she knew the fatigue showed on her face.

She decided that perhaps finally unpacking her suitcase would be a good start to trying to mentally place herself where she was. She would be looking for an apartment of her own this weekend when she was finally off from work, but until she found one, she figured she should go ahead and settle in where she was.

Sighing, she pulled the suitcase off the floor. It was open, clothes nearly spilling out of it from her early-morning rootings for socks and underwear. She started taking things out a piece at a time, going to the dresser and opening the drawers, placing the clothes into their respective drawers.

Out in the hallway, she heard the front door open, keys jangling as they dropped on the countertop in the kitchen as Mae entered the apartment.

“Katherine?” Mae called down the long shotgun hallway. Scully heard footsteps coming towards her. “You home?”

Scully picked up a few more clothes, folded them carefully. “Yes, I’m in here, Mae.”

The footsteps drew nearer, and then Mae was in the doorway to her room, wearing a black sweater with a thick turtleneck gathered around her neck and a pair of worn jeans. There was still snow on her boots.

“You’re finally settling in, are you?” Mae said, smiling kindly. Scully glanced up at her and tried to force out the image of Mae as a child, carrying a bomb while she stroked the velvet nose of a horse. She managed to stifle it down quickly in the face of Mae’s smile.

It was too hard to make the two images mesh.

“Yes, I thought I would. It will probably be a week before I can find a place of my own, someplace furnished that will let me rent month to month. So I might as well get comfortable.” She strained a smile in return.

“That’s good,” Mae replied, coming into the room. She sat down on the edge of the bed. “You need some help?” Scully saw her eyeing the open garment suitcase in the corner of the room.

“Um, sure,” Scully replied, still pulling clothes out of the suitcase. “If you want to you can hang those up in the closet.”

“All right then,” Mae said, and stood. Just as she did so, Scully pulled out a shirt and it fell open. The snowglobe spilled out, rolling a couple of times and then coming to a stop on its side on the bed, the water inside forming little agitation bubbles on its surface as the plastic flakes swirled.

Scully went for it instantly, an irrational feeling of panic coming over her, as though the presence of the snowglobe, a remnant from her real life, would give everything away. Mae beat her to it, picking it up and giving it a little shake.

“Isn’t that cute?” Mae said, smiling at it. “It looks like an old Dublin Christmas scene!”

Scully quelled her panic, regaining her wits about her. It was, she told herself, just a snowglobe, after all.

“Where’d you get it then?” Mae asked. “A Christmas present?”

“Yes, it was,” Scully said, and she smiled a bit at that, remembering opening the package in Mulder’s arms. The warmth must have eased onto her face, because Mae saw it immediately.

“From a…friend?” She was teasing her now, Scully realized. Mae’s eyes were clearly mischievous at this newfound piece of information.

“Yes, it was from a friend,” Scully replied, snatching the snowglobe from Mae’s hands. She was hiding a smile though, a blush coming to her cheeks. “And you’re not getting any more out of me than that.”

Mae laughed at that as Scully put the snowglobe on her nightstand, returned to her suitcase.

“All right,” Mae said indulgently, feigning a put-upon tone. She stood and went to the garment bag. “I won’t press you for anything then. But why would you leave him to come down here, I wonder?”

Scully was struck by the irony of being asked that, when she’d spent the better part of the day at the clinic after Mulder left thinking the same thing.

“He….understands my convictions,” was what she said aloud. It was the truth, after all.

“I see,” Mae said, nodding as she began removing clothes from the suitcase, hanging them in the small closet. Scully was relieved that Mae seemed to be giving up on that particular line of questioning.

“What are you doing for the New Year?” Mae asked.

Scully heaved out a sigh. “Going to bed early, I’m thinking,” she said tiredly.

“Oh, you can’t do that!” Mae said, her face lighting up. “There’s a huge gathering at the Grey Mouse tonight — there’ll be music again and we’ll be celebrating the New Year twice, once when it’s midnight here and once when it’s midnight in Ireland. You can’t miss it.”

“I don’t know, Mae, I’m really ti-“

“No, no, I insist!” Mae interrupted, smiling. “I’ll even agree to take you home early if you’ll come out for just a little while, how’s that? There’s got to be more to your time here than work. We owe you that.”

Once again, Scully was torn between what she needed and what her job required of her. It would, after all, be a good opportunity for her to be exposed to the Path members again, maybe even get some new names. And she might see Curran again, as well….

“All right,” she said finally. “I’ll go for a little while, how’s that?”

“Excellent!” Mae replied, and returned to hurriedly hanging up Scully’s clothes.

Scully was struck by how excited she was — there was something so child-like about her. It appeared that Mae had not had a friend for long time and was badly in need of one.

Pulling the last of her clothes out of the suitcase, she turned to the dresser again, realizing that she could easily exploit this weakness in Mae to get information out of her. A heavy feeling settled in her belly.

She felt strangely guilty for having that thought.

~~~

THE GREY MOUSE PUB 11:33 p.m.

If it was possible, the atmosphere at the Grey Mouse was even more festive than the night before last, Scully thought. The same band was playing an Irish instrumental, a folksy sounding song with long solos for the fiddles and guitars.

The place was packed with people, though Scully and Mae had managed to secure themselves a small table near the back of the pub where people had been dropping by all evening to speak to Mae. Scully had been introduced to many more people, though she couldn’t, of course, tell from Mae’s introductions if the people were in the Path or not. Many of the people she met were Americans whom Mae introduced simply as “friends of Owen’s.” Scully had no idea what that meant, but kept a running list of names in her head just the same.

Mae was up for another dance with another man who’d come by the table. Scully was sipping a pint of Guiness, trying once again to get used to the heavy dark taste of the stuff when Owen Curran appeared at her table. For once, Fagan was not with him, which Scully was relieved about. Fagan made her more nervous than Curran did.

He sat down without being asked, straddling the low chair back as he sat.

“Mind if I join you?”

“You seem to have already,” Scully replied, keeping her tone carefully neutral.

He picked up Mae’s beer and swirled the liquid until tan bubbles came to the surface. “I just wanted to thank you for getting those things I needed to me so quickly.”

Scully had put the prescriptions in first thing that morning to be ready that afternoon. She assumed from what he said that Creeley and Conner had picked them up already. Whatever the drugs were for, she thought, he needed them in a hurry.

“You’re welcome. That’s why I’m here, isn’t it?” He was looking at her in a vaguely sad way, his eyes taking in her features. She could almost feel his eyes moving over her face.

His gaze dropped when he realized she was watching him, suddenly intent on his beer.

“Aye, it is,” he replied, taking a sip.

She studied Curran’s face for a beat, taking in his blue eyes, their sharpness gone to sleepy, the scar on the side of his mouth crinkling as he strained a somewhat friendly smile at her. The width and raised quality of the scar showed it had been a sloppy stitch job. She wondered if a doctor had even done it.

“You noticed this then, did you?” he said, running a finger over the scar.

Now it was her turn to look into her beer, embarrassed. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t mean to stare. It’s just as a doctor –“

“You’re curious,” he finished for her. “I got in a fight when I was a kid. I took a knife down my face.” He made a quick slashing motion down with his finger, punctuating it with a hissing sound for effect. He smiled at her again, making her feel slightly uncomfortable.

Like a shadow, John Fagan appeared from the crowd, leaned over Curran’s shoulder to say something into his ear. Curran listened for a minute, then nodded. “I’ll see to it, then.”

With that, he rose. “I hope you enjoy your evening, Dr. Black,” he said, taking one last swig of Mae’s beer. He all but emptied the glass.

“I will,” she replied, looking up at him.

She decided to take a risk.

“And my name is Katherine,” she added.

“Katherine,” he repeated. “All right, Katherine it is. Goodnight.”

With that, he rose, melting into the crowd. Fagan stood there, looking down at her, his lips forming a rough approximation of a friendly smile.

“So, Katherine….” he began, stepping a bit closer. “Can I interest you in a dance?” He put a hand out to her, apparently doing his best to play the gentleman.

Scully looked at his outstretched hand, then up into his sharp- featured, handsome face. His eyes were so dark they were almost black, shining in the lights. They reminded her of a shark’s eyes.

“No, thank you, John,” she said, leaning back a bit unconsciously. “I don’t dance.”

He smiled a bit more, revealing his teeth. “You do now. Come on. Just one dance.”

Her eyes gleamed as she met his. “I said no, thank you.”

Their eyes met, held. Like two immovable forces pushing each other across the table. He withdrew his hand, but started to say something else.

“John, what are you doing?”

Mae had come up behind him, causing him to break his gaze away from hers reluctantly. “Just trying to get Katie to have a dance,” he said cheerfully. He shrugged for innocent effect.

“Well, I guess she doesn’t want to,” Mae said lowly. “There’s a lot of women here to dance with, John. Best you be on your way to find them.”

Fagan held his hands up in a “hands off” gesture. “Sorry to disturb,” he said, and it was clear he didn’t mean it. “Goodnight, ladies.”

With that, he wandered off, towards the back of the pub. Scully watched him go.

“Don’t mind him,” Mae said with a forced casual tone. “He’s just a bully, that’s all. He can actually be quite nice when he wants to be.”

“It’s not a big deal,” Scully replied, sluffing off her nervous reaction to him. She reached for her beer, took a sip.

Mae picked up her own nearly empty glass. “That sneak!” she cried. “Owen’s been here, hasn’t he?”

“Yes, he just stopped by to thank me for getting him some things from the pharmacy for him. And yes, he drank all your beer, too.” Scully smiled at Mae’s exasperation, leaned over and poured half her beer into Mae’s glass.

“Here,” she said. “I can’t drink it all anyway.”

“An Irish girl who doesn’t like Guiness,” Mae teased. “Unheard of.”

“Sorry to disappoint,” she replied, smiling, just as the band stopped playing and the room erupted with applause. There was huge television just above the bar that everyone began to gather around. It was showing Times Square, the throng of people mirroring the crowd clustering around the set. Scully could just make out the ball, the clock counting down five minutes until New Year’s.

“There’s something I’ve been wanting to ask you, Katherine,” Mae said cautiously, running her finger over the rim of her glass.

“What’s that?”

“I don’t mean to pry,” Mae said hesitantly. “But I was wondering…” She paused for a beat.

“What is it?” Scully urged. She was simultaneously curious as to what she would want to know and afraid that it might have something to do with her cover, something she wasn’t playing right.

“It’s just….well, what did you do to lose your license anyway? Since I’ve known you, and I know that hasn’t been for long…it’s just that you don’t seem the type to make that grave a mistake. I was just wondering, is all.”

Scully was inwardly relieved. She had her answer all prepared for this one. It was just a matter of pulling the telling of it off convincingly. She paused for a moment, feigning reluctance to talk about this blot on her past.

“Well, strangely enough, it was prescription fraud,” she said, looking down with mock regret.

“Really? Is that all?” Mae replied, and barked out a laugh. “God, I was worried you’d killed someone or something like that.”

Scully laughed bitterly. “No, no, nothing so dramatic. But I did violate the rules of conduct for my profession.” She paused for effect. “It’s not something I’m particularly proud of. That’s one of the reasons I came down here. I love to practice medicine. I’ve worked my whole life to be able to do it. It was only my debts that got me started down that path in the first place.”

“I see,” Mae said, and she looked down at the table again. “Well, don’t feel too bad about that.” Her face grew deathly serious, sad. “We’ve all done things that we’re not particularly proud of.”

The statement was a loaded one, Scully knew, as she watched Mae purse her lips and take a long drink of beer. She wanted to press her, but the room had started a countdown, ticking down the thirty seconds before the New Year.

Mae turned her attention to the television, as did Scully. The seconds went by. The room grew louder in its litany of numbers. Finally the ball touched down, and the room exploded with a cheer of “Happy New Year!” It was loud enough to shake the glasses on the table.

Mae turned to Scully, raised her glass. “Happy New Year, Katherine,” she called over the tremendous noise. Then she leaned forward closer and spoke more softly. “To a fresh start.”

“To a fresh start,” Scully replied, and they clinked their heavy glasses together, drank, two quiet figures in the middle of the boisterous crowd.

**

THE RICHMOND MARRIOTT JANUARY 1 12:00 a.m.

Mulder pulled his beer off the night table in the dark of his hotel room, took a swig out of the long-necked bottle, adjusting his head on the two wadded up pillows behind him.

The tickertape was flying in Times Square on the television in front of him, people were kissing, waving signs, their breath coming in excited puffs as the camera panned the crowd. The ageless Dick Clark was raving about the people, the cold, anything the camera fell on. Mulder watched it all, expressionless.

Granger had asked him if he wanted to go down to the hotel bar for a beer to watch the ball drop, but Mulder had declined, preferring to spend the evening with his background checks, his computer, his beer, and his loneliness.

He took another drink from the beer, holding it in his mouth for a moment before swallowing it down in a huge gulp. His thoughts were on Scully, as they always were when he was alone now. He wondered for the hundredth time that evening where she was, what she was doing.

They had planned on spending this New Year’s together. It would have been their first as a couple. Just as they had planned on spending Christmas together. It was strange, the feeling that came over him at the thought. The holidays had never mattered very much to him in the past; they were just days for him to endure alone.

But now, the emptiness of the holidays, her absence from them, was needling him terribly. Pricking his mind with disappointment and the first hints of something akin to anger.

Who was she with?

Unbidden, Curran’s face flashed in his mind. The strong set of his features, the dark hair, the piercing eyes. He recalled the things that Curran was suspected of doing.

Smoke, a spray of blood, screams, running footsteps. The distant sound of siren wails.

Without his will, he suddenly pictured Curran looking at Scully, maybe even this night. The feelings in him intensified, burning into his gut like acid.

Then he saw her as Curran would see her. Strong. Capable.

Beautiful.

The spark of rage hit him in a flash, hurling him from the bed and onto his feet. Without even thinking, the beer bottle was out of his hand, smashing against the corner of the room, sending a hail of broken brown glass and a stream of bubbled liquid down the bland wallpaper.

He watched it, his chest heaving. The act both satisfied and disappointed him. He couldn’t afford to lose control, he reminded himself. He couldn’t afford to let these feelings welling in him get the better of him, or he would be useless to her.

With a tired and frustrated exhale, he snatched the remote off the night table and muted the sound on the television. He went to the window, watched the city blinking slowly below him. He was shirtless, wearing his worn jeans and bare feet, and a chill came through the thick closed window, sending him into a shiver as the heat of his rage dissipated.

Standing there above the city, he looked up into the night sky, clear and cold and black, seeking solace.

The moon hung suspended on its invisible cord, alone among the crowd of starlight surrounding it. It looked to him like the last light on earth.

~~~

CHAPTER TEN.

~~~

BROAD STREET OUTSIDE MEDICAL COLLEGE OF VIRGINIA HOSPITAL JANUARY 7 3:50 p.m.

Danny Conner shielded himself and his cigarette from a cold wind and the view of the street by leaning against the wall near the ambulance entrance. He put the cigarette to his mouth, holding it between his index finger and thumb to stabilize it against the shaking of his hand. When even that didn’t work, he reached up with his other hand and grasped his wrist, pulling in a deep breath of smoke.

The tremors would pass. It was simply a matter of waiting.

For perhaps the tenth time in five minutes, he glanced around nervously at the people moving in and out of the building, afraid of seeing a familiar face. He wasn’t supposed to be here. He knew this all too well. But ever since he’d seen the American doctor that night in the Grey Mouse just before the new year, he couldn’t get the thought out of his mind that maybe this would be the person who could help him.

Now it was just a question as to whether she could be trusted, whether she would keep his secret.

Remembering that night, recalling his stunned reaction to the tone she’d taken with Owen Curran, he reassured himself once again that anyone who would dare talk to Curran like that was someone with her own mind. Plus that, she wasn’t Path. Or even IRA. She was just a well-intentioned American doctor sent to be a prescription pad. One who had no idea what she’d really gotten herself into.

He glanced around again, steeling his nerves. He would risk it. He didn’t really have a choice. Not after what had happened to Mary and Hugh.

As he looked around, his eyes caught his vague reflection in the glass entranceway behind him. He was only 22 years old. He had to remind himself of this fact because the man in the reflection looked much older than that. Worn out. Used up. His dark hair was a mass of unruly spikes on top of his head, his face shadowed with the beginnings of an accidental beard.

Stricken by this funhouse-like reflection, he smoothed his hair down desperately, adjusted his coat around him, trying to make himself recognizable, even to himself.

He took another drag off the cigarette, his hand already recovering from its fit of shaking, then stumped it out in the sand-filled ashtray beside the doorway. Checking his watch, he stepped through the automatic doors of the hospital, seeking sanctuary from the cold.

~~~

POWHATAN ROAD ACROSS FROM THE GREY MOUSE PUB 4:07 p.m.

Mulder was gnawing on a sunflower seed and tossing the shell out the window of the car, his eyes intent on the newspaper in front of him. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Granger beginning to squirm, both from the cold and impatience. Granger’s eyes, however, remained on the doorway to the pub, a camera with a telephoto lens on it in his hand poised and ready. Mulder heard him sigh heavily.

“You gotta love a stakeout,” Mulder said through his teeth. He’d placed another seed in his mouth and was delicately working the shells apart. “You should have a little more patience, Granger. This is important stuff we’re doing here.”

The sarcasm was evident in his voice. He fluffed the paper again, folding it in half, keeping his eyes down.

“All right,” Granger said, releasing another long breath. “I’m sorry. I just wish we could do something besides sit here.”

Mulder smiled at the other man’s apology. Granger could never tell when Mulder was pulling his leg.

They were outside the Grey Mouse with three other cars of agents, all placed at various angles to the front and back doors, all trying to get pictures of the people coming in and out of the place for Happy Hour. Of the names that Scully had given him when he’d seen her in the clinic over a week before, Padden and his team had only been able to get information on a few of them. Most, it seemed, were using aliases. Padden hoped that by getting some pictures they could match the faces up with some of the Irish immigration files the NSA and the people from Scotland Yard had on hand.

Mulder guessed he understood the necessity of the operation they were performing, but it still made him feel like a cog in a machine. Apparently, Granger, though new at all this, was feeling the same thing. They were both, after a week of meetings and endless background checks, beginning to feel ground down by the whole thing.

Granger reached into a bag next to him, pulling out his dinner that they’d picked up on the way over. He began unwrapping it, handed Mulder the camera.

“Here, I’m going to eat,” Granger said. “Could you watch the door for a minute for me?”

Mulder took the camera, laid it on his lap without another thought. He was still staring at the paper, reading, once again, the personal ad in the “Between Friends” section that Scully had left in the paper that morning:

“To George. I sure hope you don’t mind that I plan on staying where I am, keeping up a good old-fashioned household. Stability is the key for me. Write me back when you get a chance. Gracie.”

He’d already told Padden and the rest of them what he thought Scully was getting at. She was going to stay with Mae Curran, not find a place of her own after all. He could only hope, from what she said about stability, that she thought that by staying put she could get the information she needed. That had been Padden’s take on the whole thing, and he and the task force were glad that she wasn’t moving, losing the inside access she had gained through Curran’s original agreement with Flaherty in Boston.

But Mulder wasn’t concerned about access at this point, or the free flow of information. It was what could be behind Scully’s actions that bothered him. Maybe she couldn’t leave? Maybe they weren’t letting her? Maybe something had slipped in her cover and she was afraid to make a move, afraid of exposing herself? His mind ran rampant with the possibilities.

A lot of questions and no answers in sight, he thought drearily, looking up at a car arriving in the parking lot of the pub as he spit the sunflower shells into his hand, then flicking them out the window. Scully hadn’t asked for a meeting in the ad — apparently she had nothing to report that warranted it.

Regardless of the reason for it, Mulder didn’t like the idea of Scully staying with that woman any longer than she had to. He was convinced that Mae Curran would have no qualms about killing her if her cover was found out. Everything that he knew about Curran’s background pointed to this fact.

Sighing, frustrated by the tedium of his assignment and his inability to do something proactive to help Scully directly, he put the paper down and picked up the camera, absently snapping a shot of the incoming car’s license plate.

A smell wafted into his side of the car, strong and full of spice. Mulder sniffed at it. It made his nose itch with its strength.

“What the hell are you eating, Granger?” He turned to the other man in irritation.

Granger had a foil-wrapped, vertical sandwich in front of his mouth, chewing a huge mouthful of whatever it was. The sandwich steamed in the cool air of the car.

“What?” Granger replied, his mouth full. He chewed and swallowed hastily. “It’s a couscous and tofu wrap. I picked it up at that middle-eastern place next to the McDonald’s you were in.”

Mulder barked out a laugh.

“What?” Granger repeated, smiling as though he were hoping to be in on the joke and not the butt of it. “What’s so funny?”

Mulder shook his head, peering through the camera at the incoming car’s passenger, who had just climbed out of the car.

“Nothing,” he said. “It’s just that I get saddled with a new partner and it figures that it would have to be another freaking tofu-eater.”

“It’s good,” Granger insisted, offering the sandwich across the space between them. “You should try it.”

Mulder waved him off. “Get that thing away from me,” he grumbled in mock anger, still smiling. “It stinks.” His eyes didn’t leave the figure beside the car, huge and close-up in the camera’s lens. He studied the man carefully, the smile fading from his face as he did so.

“Hey, you didn’t hear me complaining to you about that huge burger you ate,” Granger was saying, but Mulder ignored him. “And speaking of something that stinks….”

“That’s John Fagan,” Mulder interrupted softly, as though he were only speaking to himself.

He could see Granger lean over towards him, squinting, trying to make out the figure in the distance. “You think so?”

Mulder continued to stare at the man. He snapped a picture, then another. “I’d bet my life on it. From the way Scully described him to me at the clinic.”

The man was big, bulky with muscle beneath his long coat, almost oafish looking. But his face was keen with a suspicious look and a sharp intelligence. He looked like a bookish wrestler. Mulder watched him go into the pub, oblivious to being watched.

Curran’s bodyguard, Scully had called him. Mulder found himself wondering about what Fagan was like up close, wondering what kind of person he really was. Scully had been somewhat circumspect, hadn’t said much about him.

His mind began to play over the fact that this was one of the people Scully was spending her time with, and he knew so little about him. He wanted to know more. And he wanted to find it out for himself.

“Um….hey, I’ve got to take a piss,” Mulder said suddenly, putting the camera down on the seat beside him. He reached for the door handle.

“What?” Granger asked, putting a hand on his arm. “Where?”

Mulder gestured to the pub. “Well, that’s the closest place to do it, isn’t it?”

“Hey,” Granger said, his surprise showing on his face. “We’re not supposed to go in there. We’re just supposed to take pictures, remember?”

“Relax, Granger,” Mulder soothed, removing his arm from Granger’s grip. “I’ll be back in a minute.” He opened the door, climbing from the car.

“Mulder, this is damned irregular!” Granger hissed, clearly stricken. “You’re not following proper surveillance procedure. You’re going to get us both in trouble!”

Mulder ignored him again, slammed the door shut, jamming his hands into the pockets of his leather jacket, pressing himself against the door to let a car pass. He heard Granger swear through the cracked window just as he left the side of the car to trot across the street.

~~~

“What the hell is he doing?” Agent Coulson asked, watching Mulder through his car window. He was in another dark sedan, his vantage point the opposite side of the parking lot from Granger’s car.

Beside him in the passenger seat, Agent Hirsch’s lips curled up in a smirk as he put the camera up to his face. He zeroed in on Mulder in the lens as Mulder stopped before the pub door, looking from side to side as though making sure he wasn’t being watched. Hirsch waited until Mulder’s face was straight on in the camera, the sign for the pub over his head, before pressing down the camera’s shutter button.

“Hanging his ass out to dry,” Hirsch replied, and snapped the picture again.

~~~

The interior of the pub was dark and smelled faintly of pipe smoke. Mulder stood in the doorway for a moment, letting his eyes adjust to the lighting, and then surveyed the room. The place was fairly empty, lazy fans spinning on the ceiling, keeping the stale air moving. The place was quiet, only a murmuring of conversation here and there. A bartender was watching a television beside the bar, polishing a beer glass as he did so. Billiards was on.

Snooker, Mulder corrected himself, remembering the game from his Oxford days. It would be snooker.

The man he was convinced was John Fagan was sitting at the corner of the bar, nearest the television, drinking a glass of what appeared to be milk and eating from a bowl of pretzels. His long coat was draped on the stool next to him. He was watching the match on the television.

The place was definitely cautious, he thought. Almost every head had turned towards him, the obvious newcomer. Even the man he thought was Fagan was watching him out of the corner of his eye, though he didn’t turn his head away from the match.

Mulder averted his eyes from the man quickly, trying to be as casual as possible. He didn’t like the attention he was getting. He suddenly regretted that he’d come in at all, wondered if he might be possibly doing more harm than any good that could come out of it.

But he was in the bar now. He couldn’t very well just turn around and walk out. That would arouse even more suspicion. He decided he had to play it out now.

Seeing the sign for the bathrooms, he picked his way through the tables towards them, pretending to be watching the match as he did so.

One of players made a tricky shot across the length of the table, the dark ball disappearing into its pocket.

“Ah, John, will you look at that?” the bartender laughed. “Your bloke is losing this one for sure now, isn’t he?”

So it was Fagan, Mulder thought, turning a bit now to get a better look at him, memorizing the man’s profile. He kept moving, though.

Mulder entered the bathroom, relieved to be out of view of the bar. Standing before one of the urinals, he unzipped his fly, did what he’d come in to do for a long moment. He really had had to go pretty badly.

The door creaked open. John Fagan came in.

Shit….

Mulder closed his eyes, inwardly wincing. Then he reopened his them, keeping his gaze down, willing his very full bladder to empty. Fast.

Fagan took the urinal two down from him, rocking back on his heels as he took care of business. Mulder could see Fagan looking at him in his peripheral vision. He didn’t look back.

“Never seen you in here before,” Fagan said, his voice low, vaguely threatening, like thunder. Mulder sensed immediately some sort of challenge in Fagan’s tone, but he didn’t take the bait.

“Just came in to take a piss,” he replied, his tone friendly as he continued to look down. He didn’t want Fagan getting a good look at his face.

“Ah,” Fagan said, and zipped himself back up. He hit the flusher with his fist, straightened his jacket. He walked towards the door, and Mulder thought he was going to get off the hook clean.

Then Fagan stopped behind him, leaned close to his ear.

“Well, pick another place next time, Yank. Sod off.”

Mulder kept his face down. “I’ll be sure and do that,” he replied, his tone careful, still friendly.

“There’s a good man,” Fagan replied, smiling, and slapped Mulder on the back. With that he walked out the door.

“Son of a bitch…” Mulder swore under his breath. He’d had no intention of coming face to face with Fagan at all. It was a horrible miscalculation on his part and he knew it.

Finishing quickly, Mulder zipped his fly and headed out the door. Fagan was just taking his seat back at the bar, the bartender bringing him up to date on what he’d missed.

Mulder made it to the door, then stopped. Turning, he surveyed the bar again, imagining Scully in this cave-like place, with Fagan hovering around her. He didn’t like the image at all. Noting eyes still on him around the room, he moved quickly out the heavy wooden doors, back out into the light.

~~~

MEDICAL COLLEGE OF VIRGINIA OUTPATIENT CLINIC 4:32 p.m.

Scully entered the small examining room, the chart in hand, and looked with surprise at the man standing beside the table against the wall. The name on the chart had read “Bob Smith,” the reason for the visit listed simply as “headache.”

“Hello,” she said, striking herself out of her surprise. “Mr. Conner, isn’t it?”

“Aye, Danny Conner,” the man replied softly, nervously. His eyes darted into the hallway. “Close the door, if you would, please.”

Scully did as she was told, her eyes not leaving Conner’s face. She was struck once again by how ill the man looked, the deep circles beneath his eyes, his pale complexion. He still wore his navy peacoat, which hung on his shoulders as though it was on a hanger. His jeans bagged around his hips. Looking at him closely, she realized he was much younger than she had thought when she’d first seen him at the pub. His age was hidden well by whatever was ailing him.

“What can I help you with, Mr. Conner?” she asked, laying the chart down on the counter. Her tone was gentle but professional. “Is there something else that Mr. Curran needs from me, or are you here for yourself?” She sincerely hoped it was the latter, for his sake.

Conner looked down, his mouth opening and closing, trying to form words, and didn’t answer her. Scully noticed he was shaking slightly, as though he were overcome with a fit of nerves. She waited, unwilling to press him, afraid she might spook him even more than he already was.

Finally, he looked up at her. “If I come here as a patient, you’re not allowed to tell anyone that I’ve been here, right?”

Scully nodded. “Yes,” she replied. “You’re protected under doctor-patient confidentiality.”

“Does that include Owen Curran and Mae and the others?” he added quickly. “I know you’re here to do work for him, so–“

“That includes everyone,” Scully interrupted. “My work with Mr. Curran is separate from the work I do here as a doctor at this clinic.”

She said it reassuringly, but something in her was cautious, wondering if Curran had sent Conner here to test her, to see if she would keep a secret from him.

But looking at the man’s trembling, his sickly pallor, she decided to go ahead and play it out. This could be an invaluable opportunity for her, for the operation, she thought. She wanted desperately for him to let her examine him.

Though she wasn’t sure what it was that he was ill with, part of her thought it had something to do with the drugs she’d gotten for Curran the week before. Conner could, she thought, hold the key to the entire mystery of this.

And he’d walked right into her hands.

Conner was looking around the room uncertainly, something desperate in his eyes. She decided that she’d better put him at ease or he was bound to walk right out on her.

She took a step closer. He looked at her wide-eyed but didn’t move away. “I can tell there’s something wrong. Why don’t you tell me what it is.”

Conner was searching her face, as though considering carefully if she could be believed. Inside his pockets, she could see his hands shaking even harder.

Again she waited. It was like having a frightened animal in front of her. She held his gaze, nodded to him, reassuring him. His eyes darted to her, then around the room, then back to her.

Finally he spoke, his voice just above a whisper, as though he was afraid someone else would hear.

“I have a drug problem.” He looked down as he said it.

“What sort of drug problem?” Scully asked quietly. She had to play dumb about this, suppressing everything she suspected. She had to come at him as though she knew nothing or she might arouse his suspicion.

“Well,” he began. The words came from him haltingly. “You know those prescriptions you wrote out for Owen? Those pills I picked up for him?”

“Yes.”

“I’ve been taking those drugs for awhile now. And now that I’m on them, I can’t stop taking them.”

She nodded. So it was the drugs that were causing the symptoms she saw in him. “All right,” she said, crossing her arms in front of her chest. “Have you tried to stop taking them?”

He nodded. His eyes were very afraid. “Yes,” he replied. “Several times.”

“What happens when you try to stop taking them?” It was like talking to a child, the way he wouldn’t supply any information save what she asked for specifically. She kept at it, gently persistent.

He looked at her gravely, his breath heaving in suddenly. She saw tears fill his eyes and grew more concerned now. She took another step closer to him, putting a hand on his arm. Her brow creased down sympathetically.

This man wasn’t spying, she thought. This man was terrified.

“It’s okay,” she said softly. “I’m here to help you. It’s all right.”

“I can’t stop taking them,” he choked out, his lower lip trembling. He swiped at his eyes roughly with the sleeve of his coat. “I can’t stop…or I’ll die.”

“How do you know you’ll die?” She wondered if the drug acted like cocaine or speed, sending Conner into a fit of withdrawal so severe that it felt like he was going to die.

Conner looked at her, the tears spilling down his cheeks. “Because people have been dying already,” he whispered.

She looked at him, alarmed, comprehension dawning on her. Rutherford’s death, hers and the others, had something to do specifically with the drug itself. Not with some external device as she’d first suspected.

How, she couldn’t fathom. But she knew that the answer was inside Conner.

“You’re not the only one addicted to these drugs then,” she stated, reaching up and holding Conner’s face between her hands, her thumbs pulling down on the skin below his eyes, exposing his lower lids. His eyes were bloodshot, the lids pasty white.

“No,” Conner replied, doing his best to be still while she examined him. “There are a lot of us on them. Most of us, in fact.”

“Most of the people who work for Mr. Curran?” Scully clarified. She was checking the pulse in his neck now, her fingers cupped around his stubbly throat. His heart was racing. She couldn’t tell if it was from fear or from the drug itself.

He nodded beneath her hand. “Owen brought the drugs to us about six months ago, told us they would help us stay alert, that we wouldn’t need to sleep as much. We travel a lot in the work we do, so that was good. A hit of the stuff gives a good high, too, that lasts for a couple of hours. I started taking them a lot just for that. Then before I knew it I HAD to take them.”

“Sit down on the table and take off your coat,” Scully instructed quietly, steadying him as he pulled himself up on the table. He was shaking so hard now she was afraid his arms would give out under him. He shouldered out of his coat, revealing a baggy long-sleeved white T-shirt. He was thin. Too thin.

“Take off your shirt, too,” she murmured, going for the blood pressure cuff on the wall. She nearly had to double it around his upper arm. His bones were stark against the white, hairless skin of his chest. He looked to her like an overgrown, haggard little boy.

She put the stethoscope’s earpieces in her ears, pressed the flat circle of it against obvious needle marks on the inside of his arm, pumping up the cuff. She released the air with a hiss, watching the display.

“Your blood pressure is extremely high,” she said, shaking her head. “And when’s the last time you ate?”

He looked down, unable to meet her gaze. “I had something to eat a couple of days ago. You don’t want to eat much when you’re taking them.”

She nodded, filing all this information away. “How often do you sleep?” Considering the drugs inhibited, almost completely, serotonin production, she assumed that it wasn’t very often.

“I haven’t slept in over two weeks,” Conner replied, and his eyes shone again with frustrated tears. His tone was desperate.

“Two WEEKS?” Scully replied, horrified, halting her exam to look into his eyes. He jerked a nod.

“I try every night. We all do. But all we get are these strange dreams. Real dreams. Happening right in front of our eyes.”

That was the mescaline, she concluded to herself. The hallucinogen. She imagined that Conner and the others hallucinated quite a bit, especially if they were having to take the drugs regularly. That would be where the “high” Conner spoke of came from, too.

“Danny,” she began, looking him in the face. “May I call you Danny?” When he shrugged and nodded, she continued. “What happens when you try to stop taking the drugs?”

“Bad headaches,” he replied, shaking his head as if against a terrible memory. “Nosebleeds. I’ve never made it past that. The headache was too bad to bear for long.”

She recalled the police report on Mary Rutherford. She had had a nosebleed right before she died in that market.

“And you’ve tried tapering them off? Not just stopping them cold?”

He nodded. “I’ve tried everything I know to do,” he replied. “It’s always the same.”

“All right,” she said, gathering her thoughts. “The first thing I’m going to need from you is a sample of everything you’re taking. I see that you’re taking something else intraveneously?” She gestured with a glance at the track marks on his arms. He shook his head.

“No, it’s the same drugs you wrote the scripts for. We all end up taking them like this most of the time, though some people still take the pills or drink it mixed in something from time to time. I’ve found, though, that sometimes if it’s been awhile between fixes, it takes too long for the pills to work.”

“But how do you get the drugs in an intraveneous form?” she asked, confused. “I only write scripts for the pill forms.”

Conner rooted around his pocket, pulled out three vials of a dark liquid, each capped with a rubber stopper. He hesitated for an instant, but then offered Scully one of the vials.

“That’s what Owen gives us, that and single capsules. There’s a lab here in town that makes them up for him. Some of our people have jobs there.”

Scully took the vial, swiveled it around against the light, looking at it carefully. It was pure liquid, nothing suspended. Someone was processing the pills that she got from the hospital into some sort of drug cocktail, she realized. She would have to get into the lab as soon as possible and do a breakdown of it.

She popped the top off the vial carefully, sniffed at the contents. It smelled vaguely of hazelnuts. She replaced the cap, slipped it into her pocket.

“Do you think you can help me, Dr. Black?” He was looking at her with his wide, dark eyes.

She sighed, tried to smile reassuringly. “I’ll do everything I can to help you, Danny,” she replied. “I’m going to start by having some blood work done on you. See what we can see in that. And I’m going to run some tests on what you’re taking to see exactly what we’re dealing with. We’ll start there.”

She handed him his shirt and he pulled it on. Turning to the counter, she pulled out a lab sheet, began checking off boxes for things she wanted done with a blood sample. In the patient name block she wrote “Bob Smith,” just as he’d done. Then she turned and handed him the sheet.

“Take that to the lab down the hallway and they’ll draw some blood, all right? And I want to see you back here in two or three days. I should have the results by then and we can talk about them then.”

He was already back in his coat, standing beside the table as he’d been when she came in the room. He nodded.

“All right,” he said. “I’ll do my best to get away by then.”

“And in the meantime,” she said firmly. “Don’t alter how you’re taking the drugs at all. I don’t want to play around with them until I know what we’re dealing with.”

“Aye, I’ll agree with you on that,” Conner replied. He hesitated, then reached a hand out towards her. She looked down at it, shook it gently.

“Thank you,” he said softly. “I didn’t know where to turn. I hope I can trust you with this.”

She smiled gently at him, meeting his eyes. “You can trust me, Danny. Don’t worry about that. We’ll get to the bottom of this.” She just hoped she could deliver on what she said…

He smiled back, then stepped around her and went to the door, closing it behind him.

Once she heard his footsteps receding down the hallway, Scully picked up the phone, dialing Information.

“City and listing, please?” the operator responded after a couple of rings.

“Richmond. The Richmond Times-Dispatch.”

“Which department?”

“Personals section, please,” she replied. She turned away from the door, lowering her voice in case anyone might be walking by.

She fingered the vial in her pocket. It was the first big break in the case, and so soon. She couldn’t believe her luck.

She had to get to Mulder. Right away.

~~~

CHAPTER 11.

~~~

YOUNG’S TEXACO & U-HAUL ASHLAND, VIRGINIA JANUARY 9 8:43 a.m.

John Fagan and Danny Conner pulled up outside the dilapidated gas station, parked the late-model sedan in front of one of the vacant pumps. Fagan glanced around the side of the small building, saw the rows of battered U-Haul trucks gathered at its side. The trucks were still covered with a dirty layer of snow.

Conner sat almost completely still, as though any movement would deplete his dangerously low supply of energy. He blew a stream of smoke out the crack of the car’s window, tilted his head absently and took in the sight of the trucks himself. He shivered despite the heat blasting from the car’s dash. No emotion crossed his face as he looked at them.

Apparently satisfied with the selection of trucks he saw, Fagan reached down and turned the car off, his eyes following a man in a baseball cap that was leaving the gas station. He watched him as he got into his car and drove away.

“Stay here until I come out with the keys,” he said. “Then take the car back to the Grey Mouse. I’ll meet you there in the truck.”

Conner simply nodded in response, blowing out another puff of smoke, the cigarette trembling in his hand. He saw Fagan frown at his silence, knew it was a risk to show any disrespect to this man in particular, but for the moment couldn’t care less. He knew that he wouldn’t even be here unless Curran thought he was one of the Path members that could be trusted most, so a reprisal from Fagan seemed unlikely. If you were on Curran’s “A” list, nothing could touch you. Not even Fagan.

Fagan climbed out of the car, straightening his coat around him. He reached behind him into the pocket of his black pants, groping for his wallet, and for an instant Conner saw the gun that Fagan kept hidden at the small of his back, a not-so-subtle reminder of what Fagan could be capable of, and how quickly. He watched it disappear as the coat fell back into place and Fagan made his way to the door of the station. The bell on the door jingled as he entered and disappeared from sight.

Now Conner did lean back, crossing one leg over the other as he reached for the radio, flicking it on. He surfed the stations, rolling over news and the country/western stations until he heard Dave Matthews asking his lover to lay down, the haunting voice echoing in the car around him.

He took comfort in the sound, remembering, not so many years ago, how he and his friend Kyle would sit out on the fields around Ballycastle, a tape player beside them. They would lie on the greenest grass in the world, listening to this band and others. They would talk about America, the word passed between them like a secret. Both wanted to leave Northern Ireland and go there, start lives away from the poverty, the small town meddling, the fits of violence that had surrounded them their entire lives.

His lip curled up at the memory. God, what an idiot, he taunted himself as he looked back at that boy in the grass. The draw of a trip to America was what had brought him into The Path in the first place. That and his father’s urging to do something for the Cause. He still remembered watching the green rim of land disappear from the airplane’s window, stretching out to a seemingly endless expanse of sea below him, leaving everything he knew and was behind him.

Now he looked at the U-Haul trucks before him, realizing once again the irony of his choice. He’d left neither the meddling nor the violence behind him. Only Kyle. Those days of American music out on the grass overlooking the sea. The smell of the house when his mother baked bread in the mornings. And something else, something essential about the man he should have become, who was not the trembling figure who stared back at him from the side-view mirror. The man who had spent so much time doing things he’d never imagined himself capable of doing.

He closed his eyes, opened them again, like a blink in slow motion, willing the view before him to change, for the past five years to become nothing more than one of the waking dreams that haunted him night after night.

My God, he thought. What have I done?

He looked at the trucks again, stubbing out the cigarette in the car’s small ashtray, lifting the armrest between him and the driver’s seat. He slid across the seat until he sat tiredly beneath the steering wheel. He closed his eyes, covering them with a shaking hand.

~~~

MONUMENT AVENUE RICHMOND, VIRGINIA 8:16 a.m.

Scully crossed the wide circle around Meadow Avenue, looking up at the statue of Robert E. Lee on horseback, shining bronze in the winter sunlight. Her hands were deep in her pockets against the chill, her mind deep in thought. She stepped carefully through the patches of snow that clung to the sidewalk here and there, making her way slowly up Monument Avenue toward Mae’s apartment building on Grace.

She was returning from Mass at the Cathedral, some nine or ten blocks back. Though it was cold, she’d elected to walk, figuring the crisp air would help her clear her mind. She’d been unusually distracted when she’d gotten up early that morning, and had thought that the Mass would help center her, give her time away from Mae and the details of the case. She desperately needed time to herself, especially since she’d elected — at Mae’s insistence — to stay in Mae’s apartment for a while longer. She found she craved the solitude now like air.

So she’d risen early and dressed in the quiet, made her way to Mass while Mae was still sleeping.

She’d slid down to the very end of the dark wood pew in one of the back rows of the huge cathedral, the early light vaguely illuminating the stained glass window next to her. It had been a portrait of a shepherd carrying a lamb across his shoulders, who was being followed by a golden angel.

Beside her, in stone relief, the Station of the Cross titled “Jesus Falls the First Time” hung on the wall, and she’d found herself staring at it as people trickled down the main aisle, the usual light attendance for the seven o’clock Mass.

She’d knelt down to pray on the narrow kneeler at her feet, folded her hands in front of her, gripping them into a fist. The serenity she sought wouldn’t come. Her mind was too filled with the details of the case now, with Danny Conner and Mae and Curran. She carried the weight of her cover, her life with these people, like a burden.

And, as always, she was preoccupied with thoughts of Mulder. She felt his absence sometimes as though it were a physical presence. It was that real to her. Her thoughts of him followed her around throughout her days as tenaciously as her own shadow.

She would see him soon, though. She’d placed an ad for today’s paper, asking for a meeting. He would make an appointment at the clinic and she would see him again. She could almost picture him standing before her in one of the small clinic rooms, the feel of his body as she held him, the warm smell of him as she buried her face once again into his shoulder.

Finding solace in the thoughts of him, she’d felt herself beginning to relax a bit.

Not for long, though.

She had gone to the Mass to get away from her casework, and she’d walked right into the middle of it instead.

She could still recall her surprise at seeing Owen Curran and his son Sean come down the aisle. Though she knew that Curran would be Catholic, it still surprised her to see him at Mass. He hadn’t exactly struck her as the pious type. She was even more surprised when he turned, ushering Sean into the row where she was sitting, and came down to join her.

The priest was already making his way down the aisle with the altar boy and girl as he and Sean sat, precluding any conversation between them other than a softly mumbled “good morning” they exchanged. Sean’s greeting was a small but open smile.

By the start of the first reading, Curran was restless, looking around at the people peppered throughout the cathedral. Scully watched him out of the corner of her eye. Gradually, his eyes fell on a man sitting on the other side of the church, who likewise seemed to be looking for him. They nodded to each other, then Curran patted Sean’s leg and rose, slipping out of the pew. The other man did the same thing and they both disappeared out the back doors of the church.

Scully pretended to show no interest, simply sat with Sean and listened to the reading. Sean did not seem surprised at his father’s departure one bit.

By the second reading, an epistle of Paul, Sean had taken a deck of cards out of his coat pocket, sitting cross-legged on the pew. He fanned them out in his small hands, offered them to Scully. She recognized the “pick a card” game and drew one, looked at it, then reinserted it into the deck. Sean obediently began to awkwardly shuffle the cards, cutting the deck several times. Scully had watched him, amused. Then he looked through the deck and stopped on a card, showing it to Scully. She shook her head, smiling kindly at him. He flipped through several cards, showed her another. She shook her head again.

It took him seventeen guesses, but he finally chose the right one.

All this time, Scully half-listened to the Mass, half-thought about where Curran had gone, and what he and that man could be talking about. One thing she’d noticed about Curran was that he always seemed to have some important business to conduct when she saw him.

She wondered what exactly that “business” could be.

He’d returned, alone, at the beginning of the Eucharistic prayers. He’d reached down and tapped the cards in Sean’s hands, looking down at his son disapprovingly. Sean immediately slipped the deck back into its box, replaced it in his coat pocket. Then he stood up straight between his father and Scully, suddenly intent on the priest’s words.

He’d remained at attention through the rest of the service, walking soberly up the aisle in front of Scully to receive the Host, kneeling dutifully beside her when they returned to their seats.

For his part, Curran went through the motions by rote, his hands limply clasped in front of him as he knelt, his eyes darting around the church impatiently. The only thing he looked at with any attention was Sean as the young boy said his prayers. Curran was clearly, Scully thought, more interested in Sean than he was in God.

At the end of the Mass, Scully had bundled back up in her coat, helped Sean back into his. Curran took his son’s hand, turned to Scully.

“Thank you for watching him,” he murmured, looking slightly embarrassed. “I hope he wasn’t too much trouble for you then.”

“No, not at all,” Scully replied softly. She forced a smile at Curran; she found speaking to him made her decidedly nervous. He looked down almost shyly as she did so.

“Are we going to light a candle for my mother this time?” Sean asked, looking up at Curran, who flushed immediately and looked at Scully as though she’d just heard something she shouldn’t have.

“Aye, Sean,” he said quickly. “We have time this week. Come along.” Again, he had a hard time meeting her eyes.

“Bye then, Katherine.”

“Goodbye, Mr. Curran,” she replied formally, then reached down and put a hand on Sean’s hair, smoothing it down. “See you later, Sean,” she said, smiling.

“Owen,” Curran replied, and this time he looked her in the face.

She nodded. “All right, Owen.”

Curran tugged on Sean’s hand, who waved goodbye to Scully as they withdrew, walking down the aisle against the flow of people, heading toward the statue of the Virgin Mary at the front of the church. She’d joined the people going out the heavy wood doors of the cathedral, bundling her scarf up around her chin as the wind whipped around her.

Now she crossed over Allen Street, past the statue of Jefferson Davis, the hand he held outstretched to the city filled with a small dome of snow.

So Curran’s wife was dead, she thought. She wondered about the circumstances behind her death, how long ago it had been. She noted that Sean had called her “my mother,” as though he didn’t know her at all.

For some reason, she sensed it was important to find out what had happened to Sean’s mother, sensed that there was some clue there that would help her unravel the mystery of these people, what motivated them.

As she walked slowly beneath the stark branches of the huge trees lining the street, she realized she had nothing to base the feeling on. It was only her instincts that told her so.

~~~

CHURCH HILL 4:36 p.m.

Mulder leaned further against the back of the rickety bench, blowing out a breath of condensation into the evening air. He was high above the city, sitting on the rise of Church Hill that overlooked the cityscape. From here, he could see the rapids of the James River off in the distance, winding through the city like a dark ribbon. A coal train chuffed and clacked its way through the city on its raised track, heading off toward the hill on the other side of Richmond. Mulder could barely make out the mausoleum of Hollywood Cemetery, sitting like a snow white church, a silent sentinel on the city’s western edge.

The sun was setting over the James, the water glinting a pale pink in the gloaming light. Mulder shivered in his leather jacket, pushing the garment closer around him from within the deep pockets. He burrowed his chin into the black of his turtleneck, like a bird huddling into its feathers against the wind.

He watched the cars angling through the streets below him, his eyes drawn to the movement as he tried to ignore the cold creeping into his body and the thoughts that kept popping into his mind, pricking him.

He had fucked up. Pure and simple.

He closed his eyes against the memory of the meeting with Padden and Jessup and the others, the picture someone had taken of him entering the Grey Mouse shoved in front of him from across the table. He assumed from the glib look on that son-of- a bitch Hirsch’s face that it had been he who’d taken it. Mulder tried to not meet his eyes, though it was hard considering Hirsch had seated himself at a desk near the table, close enough so he could hear the fireworks.

And fireworks there were. Though Padden wasn’t the yelling type, it was clear he was angry. The words “foolish” and “unprofessional” had been peppered throughout the conversation. “Violation of proper procedure,” the phrase that had followed Mulder throughout his career at the Bureau, found its way in several times, as well.

“I had to take a piss,” he’d answered when asked why he’d gone into the pub. But Padden wasn’t biting. He kept talking as though Mulder hadn’t spoken at all. So Mulder sat there and took it.

Until they lit into Granger, who sat loyally beside him through the whole thing, silent.

“Hey,” he’d interrupted. “Granger didn’t do anything. He even tried to stop me from going in.”

Mulder had stepped in it so surely it wouldn’t hurt him to incriminate himself more, especially since he could tell Granger was taking it hard. It was probably the first time Granger had ever done anything wrong in his job. He wasn’t as used to the joys of being bitched out.

“Well, he should have tried harder,” Padden had responded, then continued in on Granger, talking about how partners were responsible for each other’s behavior, etcetera, etcetera. Mulder eventually tuned him out, though part of him wondered how many times Scully had gotten the same treatment over one of his little stunts.

Thinking of that and watching Granger seem to shrink in his chair, he felt suddenly very guilty.

The punishment had been swift and sure and was designed to hit Mulder where he hurt. He had been pulled off of surveillance duty indefinitely, doomed to the background checks that were taking place in the hotel’s opulent suite.

That meant, he was told specifically, that he wouldn’t be able to see Scully. They were afraid that now that he’d been seen in the bar, anyone who might be watching Scully at the clinic might recognize him as he went in to meet with her.

“You can’t do that.” Mulder still remembered the flush of anger — and panic — that had washed over him with those words. “Scully and I are partners. You can’t –“

“I can and I will,” Padden had responded evenly. “We’ll wait a while and give the people who saw you in that bar time to forget your face.” He’d turned to Granger. “Since you were clever enough not to enter the bar, Agent Granger, you will be the liaison for Agent Scully.”

“But Agent Mulder is much better suited to–“

“That will be all then, gentlemen.” And Padden and the others had risen from their seats, leaving the two of them sitting awkwardly at the table.

“What do we do now?” Granger had asked him. But Mulder didn’t have the energy to try and figure that out now. The fact that he wouldn’t be seeing Scully for awhile had knocked the wind and the fight right out of him.

“I don’t know about you, but I’m getting out of here.” Mulder had stood, grabbing for his coat.

“I’ll come with you,” Granger responded, reaching for his own jacket.

“I think I want to be by myself right now,” Mulder had responded, something flat, gruff in his voice that he couldn’t quite help. He’d tried to be kind, though. He appreciated Granger’s attempt at persuading Padden to let him see Scully more than Granger would ever know.

Then he’d stood, pulling on his jacket. Hirsch was staring at him, a satisfied look on his face. Mulder stared back at him for a beat, then left the room, escaping into his car and out into the city.

Mulder sighed, the memory making him feel worn out. He stretched his long legs in front of him, crossing his ankles. The coal train was just now disappearing from view on the other side of the skyline.

From inside his pocket, his cell phone rang. Tiredly, dug it out, tapped the talk button.

“Mulder.”

“Where the hell are you?”

Oh great, Mulder thought, wincing. Now he had Skinner to contend with, too.

“I’m just doing a little site-seeing to finish off my wonderful day,” Mulder replied dryly, cradling the phone against his shoulder while he pulled out his gloves and started to put them on.

“Don’t jerk me around, Mulder,” Skinner snapped back. “I’ve been on the road for three hours to get down here. Now where are you?”

He sighed, switched the phone to the other ear while he craned his neck to look at the street sign behind him. He told Skinner that he was on Grace Street, told him roughly how he’d found his way up here from the hotel.

“All right,” Skinner replied. “Stay there. I’m on my way.” There was a click as Skinner severed the connection.

Mulder sighed, replaced the phone in his pocket. Behind him, the streetlight crackled to life, sending a sodium, pale yellow light across the bench. He looked glumly at his faint shadow on the sidewalk in front of him, an unmoving, solitary shape on the cracked concrete.

When he closed his eyes, he could see her so clearly. Could see them both, sitting on a bench beside the Potomac, right near the Jefferson Memorial. They’d go there sometimes for lunch from a tourist snack stand, just to get away from the sometimes stifling distance they had to keep at the office.

It was such a relief to him to be able to touch her in the relative privacy of the crowds milling to and from the memorial, to reach up and smooth a strand of hair gently behind her ear.

Another memory came to him — him nuzzling an errant piece of hair from the corner of her mouth, the feel of her lips on his cheek, her breathing labored. The feel of her firm body beneath him, her hands as they smoothed over the curves of his buttocks, pressing him down, urging him to push deeper inside her. Her throaty cry. The shudder that went through him, his forehead against hers.

Then the quiet that followed as he drew the blanket over them both. She was already dozing as he did so, her head pillowed in the crook of his arm, her hand dreamily stroking the thin trail of hair that bisected his abdomen….

Headlights streaked the ground in front of him, interrupting his thoughts. The car parked on the street behind him. He didn’t turn as he heard the door open and slam shut. Big shoes ground on the street, coming closer.

Then Skinner stepped in front of him, obscuring his view. He looked up into the stern face wearily, unmoving. Skinner looked over his shoulder for a beat, his jaw muscles flexing.

“I understand you’ve been busy, Agent Mulder,” he said by way of greeting, returning a hard stare now to Mulder’s face.

It was all Mulder could do to keep from rolling his eyes. “Yeah, I have been,” he replied. “And there’s no need to chew me out about it. I already feel like my belly button is about to cave in.”

“Do you have any idea how embarrassing it is to be called down here to sit on you?” Skinner continued as though he hadn’t heard Mulder at all. His teeth were grit, his face taut. The streetlamp glinted off the metallic rims of his glasses. Mulder imagined the blinks of light as sparks of anger.

“I know, and I’m sorry you had to come down here at all. There was no need for them to call you.”

“Of course there was a need,” Skinner responded quickly. “Like it or not, I’m responsible for your actions, Agent Mulder. What you do is a reflection on me. And violating operational procedures like that is something I can’t even begin to defend.”

When Mulder didn’t respond, simply sat there glumly, Skinner blew a frustrated breath through his nose like a bull, looked away for a beat as though gathering his calm. “I hope you at least learned something going into that bar, something useful. I hope it was worth it.”

“Nothing is worth the punishment I got,” Mulder replied, then bit his lip when he realized how much he could be giving away with that statement about his feelings for Scully. He added quickly: “I’m on background checks, desk duty, until further notice, in case you haven’t heard.”

“Yes, I’ve heard,” Skinner said, jamming his hands in the pockets of his trench. “Which throws a wrench into the operation. Agent Scully will have to get used to relaying her information to Agent Granger now. The rapport you and Scully have as partners made the task force more comfortable with the information they were getting. They knew there was little chance of misunderstanding between you. They’re not so sure about Granger and Scully.”

“Hey, Agent Scully will give Granger the information a dozen times if that’s what it takes for him to get it down right. Don’t worry about that.” He couldn’t bear the thought of Padden and the others having any doubts about Scully, period. “And besides,” he added, “Granger’s not bad. Green, but not stupid. He’ll do fine with it.”

“I’m surprised to hear that you have so much confidence in both of their abilities on this, Agent Mulder,” Skinner grumbled. “Considering you wouldn’t listen to Granger when he told you to stay in the car and you don’t trust Scully’s retelling of things enough to keep your ass out of that place. You just had to see for yourself, didn’t you?”

Now Mulder leaned forward, a finger coming up to point at Skinner. “That has NOTHING to do with Agent Scully and my confidence in her abilities,” he snapped.

“Then what does it have to do with, Mulder?” the older man responded angrily. “What exactly were you trying to prove?”

Mulder put his elbows on his knees and rubbed his face with his hands slowly. “I don’t know,” he said. “I just….I saw John Fagan going into that bar and I wanted to know what he was like. I thought it would help me with my profile of him if I could see how he acted for myself.”

“Well, what did you come up with?”

Mulder thought about it, thought about telling him the truth. He hadn’t even told Granger the truth about the meeting with Fagan in the men’s room. He decided not to.

“I didn’t find anything out. Except that he likes to watch snooker on television. And he drinks milk.”

“Well, wonderful,” Skinner said, nodding. “That was worth risking blowing your cover over.”

“Look,” Mulder said sharply, looking up at him. “I’m sorry about what I did, all right? It won’t happen again.”

“Yeah, Padden’s going to see to that, at least for awhile. And I came down here to tell you that if something like that happens again, I’m pulling you off the case and returning you to Washington.”

“All right.” Mulder looked down at the sidewalk. Night had fallen now, the sky turned to blue and black. “I’m sorry you had to come all the way down here to tell me that.”

Skinner seemed to relent now, satisfied with Mulder’s show of contrition. “I had to come down anyway,” he revealed, relaxing his stance finally. “I’m going to spend the week down here with the task force. I’ve gotten things caught up in D.C. for awhile.”

Though Mulder was still feeling browbeaten by Skinner a bit, he had to admit that it would be a relief to have him around for a few days, to have someone around him that was familiar, someone whose workings he knew. The others he wasn’t so sure about. He didn’t know how many of them were like Hirsch, gunning for him, out to be there the next time he fucked up.

“I’ll be staying in the Marriott if you need to reach me for anything,” Skinner continued, jingling his car keys in his pocket. “In the meantime, keep it clean. And don’t stay out here all night. You’ll freeze your ass off.”

“Yes, sir,” Mulder replied dutifully.

Skinner started back toward the car, but Mulder saw him stop just behind the bench. He looked back him questioningly.

“What is it?”

Skinner’s jaw muscles worked for a few seconds, his eyes on the car. “I’m sorry about you not getting to see Scully for awhile. I know that’s got to be hard on you.”

Mulder was surprised, but kept it off his face. “Yeah, it will be,” he replied. “I’ll be all right, though.” He forced a small smile. “And so will she.”

“Yeah,” Skinner replied, then turned and looked at Mulder. He cleared his throat, clearing the gentle moment away with it. “Well, goodnight, Agent Mulder.” His voice had returned to its gruff tone.

“Goodnight, sir.”

Mulder returned to the view, listened to Skinner get into the car. Watching the cold night pull its blanket of dark over the city, he listened to it drive away.

~~~

THE GREY MOUSE PUB 7:39 p.m.

Owen Curran sat at the end of the bar closest to the television, though he wasn’t watching the football highlights that were streaming across the screen. His glassy eyes were boring into the dark wood of the bar, his hands cupping his empty third mug of ale, his fingers rubbing into the condensation still left on the side.

He was on his way to drunk, and he liked it that way.

The bartender came up from the other end of the bar, his expression concerned.

“You all right, Owen?” he asked, reached for the glass. Curran let him have it, picked up the cigarette from the heavy ashtray on the bar and took a long drag. He looked at the other man through the cloud of smoke he exhaled.

“Aye, Billy, I’m fine. Right as rain.” He smiled, but the smile didn’t reach his eyes. John stood there before him, looking doubtful.

“You sure there’s nothing you want to talk about, perhaps something on your mind?”

Curran shook his head. “No, nothing. Just another beer if you would.”

Again, Billy hesitated. “All right,” he said finally. “But I’m switching you over to shitty American beer this time. More water that way.”

“Whatever you say,” Curran replied, dragging on his smoke again. “Just keep it coming.”

As soon as Billy moved away from him, the good natured smile melted off Curran’s face. His gaze returned to the surface of the bar, his shoulders slumping. He closed his eyes, blowing out a long sigh.

The image formed again in his mind.

She stood on the emerald grass on the small rise near the farmhouse, the wind blowing her red hair across her face and billowing the skirt of her dress out behind her small frame like a flowered sail. She reached up and pushed the hair delicately from her face, revealing the deep blue of her eyes in the morning light.

And she was smiling at him. In the vision she was always smiling, that same knowing, tender smile he’d first fallen in love with all those years ago. Seeing it, he quickened his pace up the hillside toward her, feeling that this time he would reach her…

But he couldn’t.

Just as always, before he made it to the top to be with her, the vision ended, flaring out like a candle flame caught in a sudden gust of wind.

His eyes snapped open as she disappeared, filling him with a heavy ache. Billy was coming towards him, his expression worried again.

“You’re SURE you’re all right, Owen?” he asked, and put a hand on Owen’s arm.

“I’m fine,” Owen replied, pulling his arm free and snatching up the glass. He took a long drink of it, then smirked at the other man with mock bravado. “Now bugger off and go see to someone else.”

Billy smiled. “That’s more like it,” he said, patted Owen’s shoulder. His eyes were drawn to the door. “Ah, there’s Mae and her friend. I’ll let your sister see to you then.” And with that he drifted away.

Owen turned towards the doorway as Billy moved away, saw Mae and Katherine Black coming into the bar. Mae saw him looking at her and waved, her expression warm. Then he looked at Katherine, who smiled shyly to him and nodded. He returned the smile and the nod, then looked hurriedly away.

Inwardly, he cursed himself for his reaction. He couldn’t believe the effect the woman had on him. She made him feel like a boy was just learning his letters, and the feeling both irritated him and sent a warm flush through him that he almost welcomed.

It had been a long time since anyone had made him feel that way. Since he’d allowed anyone to let him feel that way.

He took another drink from his beer, smiling to himself. He still remembered her from Mass that morning, how she’d looked as he’d approached after his meeting, how she sat so close to Sean, playing that silly game with him. She’d looked like she was enjoying herself, too….

John Fagan’s appearance beside him struck him out of the recollection.

“Owen,” Fagan said, sitting on the stool beside him. He immediately signaled Billy with a single finger, who nodded and began filling a glass at one of the taps.

“John,” he replied, gulping down another mouthful of the weak, golden beer.

Fagan sat facing the room, his elbows on the bar behind him. He was surveying the room with a careful look, as though looking for something amiss. Instead of finding something wrong, Curran saw him smile. It was not a completely pleasant expression.

“Well, well, look who’s come in with Mae again tonight,” he said, accepting the Guiness from Billy without a word. “Did you notice?”

Curran felt another flush coming over him. This one he didn’t welcome.

“Aye, I did. What of it, then?” His voice was just above a whisper, feigning disinterest.

John reached for his beer, took a sip. “Oh nothing,” he said, keeping his eyes glued to one corner of the room. “Just enjoying the view, is all.”

Curran turned to see what he was looking at. Katherine was taking off her coat across the room. Even he couldn’t deny that the view of her breasts pushing against her sweater as she peeled the coat off was a hard thing not to admire.

John Fagan was giving her a wolfish look, his eyes moving up and down her body. Curran saw her look over, her face turning quickly away when she saw Fagan looking at her that way.

“Quit staring at her, John,” Curran said. “You’re making her uncomfortable.”

“Since when do you care if someone’s uncomfortable?” Fagan asked incredulously, and he elbowed Curran in the upper arm. He was still smiling, still looking in Katherine’s direction.

Curran turned to him, gave him a dangerous look. “I care right now,” he said angrily. “I said to quit staring at her.”

Fagan turned to him now, clearly surprised. “What the hell is wrong with you then?” he asked. “I like the way she looks. I’m thinking of doing something about it. Is that all right with you, Owen? Do I have to ask permission of you for that now?”

Curran slid off the stool, picking up his beer as he did so. He took a step to the side, stood right in Fagan’s face. Their noses were inches apart.

“You fucking stay away from her, you hear me?” Curran said softly, cocking his head to the side. “You and I have been friends for a long time, but I’m warning you now. She’s not for you, you get me?”

Fagan opened his mouth as though he was going to say something else, but instead, he closed it. Curran could see his teeth grind together, his cheeks flush.

“Yeah, I get you, Owen. Sure. Not a hair.” He forced a smile, took another sip from his beer, acting nonchalant.

But Owen had known him long enough to tell he was fuming. He could tell by the way Fagan wouldn’t break his gaze, how stiff and still he held his body. For the moment, however, Curran didn’t give a shit.

A few people, including Billy, were watching them from close by.

Seeing this, he finally took a step backwards, putting some space between the two of them. “All right then,” he said, and kept his eyes on Fagan as he moved away, down the bar with his beer. People watched him go silently. Fagan continued to stare.

He headed for his office in the back, suddenly desperate for some privacy.

As he went toward the back, he chanced a look in Katherine and Mae’s direction. Mae seemed to have missed the whole thing, chatting happily with one of the men from the bar.

But Katherine’s eyes were on him. He met her eyes, taking in the confused, concerned expression on her face. He looked away quickly.

He didn’t know what had gotten into him, he thought, pressing through a knot of people on his way to the back. He’d given too much away. To Fagan and to Katherine.

As he reached the back double doors and pushed through them into the empty corridor beyond, he vowed not to let it happen again.

~~~

CHAPTER 12.

~~~

MEDICAL COLLEGE OF VIRGINIA OUTPATIENT CLINIC JANUARY 10 9:37 a.m.

Paul Granger sat in the waiting room of the outpatient clinic, trying not to meet the gaze of the elderly man across from him who was staring at him pointedly. The man must have been in his 80s, sitting up straight, his legs slightly splayed, a cane between his knees that his large hands rested on. He had a blank expression on his face, which was as wide and as bland as a pumpkin.

Though the scrutiny seemed undirected and innocuous, it still made Granger uptight. He was trying to just blend in with the ragged, poor clientele of the teaching hospital’s clinic — he’d even dressed the part. Battered jeans and tennis shoes, an army surplus jacket he’d picked up at the thrift store last evening after the dressing down Padden had given he and Mulder. He’d wanted to make sure that he at least did THIS right.

Only his bright silver Armani glasses didn’t mesh with his outfit, but it wasn’t as if he could go without them. Their presence made him feel conspicuous, however, and the old man’s gauzy gaze wasn’t helping.

Granger crossed his legs so that his lap could cradle a copy of Parents magazine. He flipped through it idly, feigning interest, looking around every minute or so to see if anyone might be watching him. Just beneath his nervousness was a buzz of anticipation and excitement, his heart racing in his chest.

Forcing himself to relax a bit, he returned his eyes to his lap. There before him was a picture of a young black boy riding a red bicycle across the page of the magazine. Smiling faintly, he remembered how when he was a young boy, he would spend hours lying on the bed in the tiny rowhouse he shared with his mother and think about his father, Thomas, a man he knew only by name.

At that point he knew little about his father, but he would imagine so much. Lying there, he would look at the photograph of his father on the wall in his Baltimore City Police uniform, a stiff smile on his father’s face and an American flag behind him. Granger would stare at that picture and wonder about what his father’s life must have been like. In his child’s mind, he saw bank robberies, chases. And in his most detailed imaginings he saw his father working undercover, living incognito in some dark underworld.

Of course this was before he found out the truth — that Thomas Granger had been nothing more than a beat cop, one of hundreds of men who walked the city’s streets. His death had come from a startled thief at a 7-11, while his father was off-duty buying diapers and a six pack of beer.

The truth hadn’t stopped him from wanting to follow in his father’s footsteps, however, to drive him to make those fantasies about his father’s life a reality for his own. He had his mother, though, to thank for actually making him into what he had become. From the beginning, he had had to learn her moods, and he’d developed a natural ability for reading people.

“Charles Fuller,” the nurse called from where she’d appeared in the corridor to the examining rooms. Granger was relieved when a young woman stood from the seat next to the old man, giving the man’s arm a gentle tug.

“Come on, Daddy,” she said, and the man stood, his eyes never wavering as he did so, now looking over Granger’s head, his hand fumbling on the cane.

Alzheimer’s, Granger realized, and watched the man shuffle slowly away, his daughter guiding him by the arm.

Some profiler, he thought, rolling his eyes at himself. He hated how his nerves jangled him. Here he was, the top of his class at the Agency’s Behavioral Science Unit, and he was letting himself get rattled by an old man who probably didn’t know he was there at all.

His mother had always chided him for his nervousness. “You forget who you are,” she’d say kindly, her belief in who he was and what he could accomplish so sure in her tone, her eyes. He would hear that and remember who he was, just by seeing how he looked in her eyes. She’d done this for him all his life.

When he thought back on it, he realized that his mother had, in fact, been his first profile. An operator at the local phone company, she had been a profile in hard work, strict discipline, and lingering grief.

He still remembered the way she looked sometimes, staring out the window of the kitchen as she washed their pair of dishes by hand, Granger himself behind her, dutifully doing his homework at the table in the waning light. Sometimes he would catch the expression that crossed her face, the faraway look of a loneliness that even he could not penetrate, her eyes dark and sad as a swan’s.

“James Griffin,” another nurse called, and Granger stood instantly, dropping the magazine onto the chair. He made his way to the nurse, who spared him a look of complete disinterest as she mumbled “follow me” and turned down the long, sparse hallway. He did as he was told.

His anxiousness was thick enough to cut. For starters, he was undercover, finally making real one of those boyhood imaginings, doing what his father could not. And on his first major assignment with the Agency, as well.

For another, he was meeting with Agent Scully, a person he found more intimidating in some ways than he found Mulder. And that was saying a lot.

He followed the nurse, thinking about his “partner.” He’d left Mulder behind a desk in the suite at the Jefferson, stiff in his suit once again and buried under a pile of files. Granger had given him an apologetic smile as he’d left after his morning briefing with Padden.

Mulder both intimidated and intrigued him. He’d studied some of Mulder’s profiles during his first year in the CIA’s Behavioral Science Division and had grown to admire the man behind the brilliant work immediately. Mulder was a bit of wunderkind, as Granger was considered to be, and in Mulder he’d found his first model of how a profiler should work. Before the age of 30, Mulder’s work had contributed to the capture of two serial killers, and Granger studied these cases, looking to see what made the profiles and the profiler tick.

That was one of the reasons he’d been so excited about working on this case. He’d been told immediately upon his assignment that he would be working with Mulder, even before Mulder knew that he himself was going to be on the case. Granger had spent the time before their meeting boning up on everything Mulder had done in his profiling career. He’d even looked at some of the X-Files, though he found the work strange and an unfortunate departure from the work Mulder had done earlier in his life.

Despite these feelings about the X-Files work, it still pained him to see the derision that was heaped on Mulder every time his name was mentioned. Granger himself was chided at times by his coworkers for checking into the work of “Spooky” Mulder and his chilly, composed partner.

The nurse led him into an examining room, pulled open a drawer and tossed two blue checked gowns onto the table against the wall.

“Down to your underwear and put these on. One open in the back and one on you like a robe.” The nurse spoke as though she said the words a hundred times a day. She probably did, he realized.

“But I’m only here for headaches,” he protested mildly.

“Dr. Black will want to do a complete exam,” the nurse responded. “She always does.”

With that, she left him alone in the room, closing the door behind her. Granger looked at the gowns, then at the door, uncertain of what to do.

Finally, making a decision to preserve the integrity of his cover, he peeled out of his jacket and began to strip down.

As he pulled the sweatshirt he was wearing over his head, his thoughts returned to Mulder, to the memory of Mulder nodding to him as he’d left the hotel room, a stern, worried expression on his face. The nod’s meaning was as clear as it would have been had Mulder spoken it aloud.

Don’t fuck up.

Mulder was having to trust him, and the profiler in Granger knew what that meant. In just the short time he’d known Mulder, one of the things he’d realized was that it was nearly impossible to earn the man’s trust. That Agent Scully had managed to do this, and for so many years, made her a force to be reckoned with as far as Granger was concerned. And the way she’d held her own against the entire task force, smoothly accepting this dangerous assignment….

He had to admit that he’d grown to respect her almost as much as he did Mulder. And he’d grown even more appreciative of their work together as partners.

Which is one of the reasons he found his position at the moment a bit nervewracking. He was going to try and take Mulder’s place as Scully’s liaison with the task force. And he felt ill-equipped to fill that space, and uncomfortable with being thrust in between the two of them.

He finished undressing, standing in the cold room in his white cotton boxers and bare feet. He pulled on the gowns quickly, relieved to have been given two so that he could cover himself completely. He hopped up on the table. Goosebumps raised up on the skin of his legs.

He didn’t have to wait but a few moments before there was a knock on the door. He started a bit at the sudden noise, but composed himself quickly as the door opened, pressed his legs together, pulling the gowns tightly around him for the sake of warmth and modesty.

Agent Scully entered the room, wearing a black turtleneck and black pants beneath her white jacket. She was looking down at the chart as she closed the door behind her.

“Hello, Mr. Griffin,” she said absently, then looked up at Granger. Her eyes immediately widened with surprise.

“Agent Granger,” she said now by way of greeting, suddenly smooth, calm. Granger still felt badly for initially rattling her.

The first thing he noticed was that she looked much more tired than the last time he had seen her.

“I’m sorry, Agent Scully,” he said, reaching a hand out to her. “I know you weren’t expecting to be contacted like this. The task force thought it would be prudent to choose another cover name for me.”

He could see the fake name typed neatly on a label on the chart she held in her hand. She took his outstretched hand, shook it once stiffly.

“That’s quite all right,” she replied, and attempted a smile, not quite succeeding. “I had wondered why I hadn’t seen a George Hale on my schedule. I was worried that I wasn’t going to be contacted today after all.”

“Agent Mulder couldn’t be here, so they sent me in his place,” Granger said, almost apologetically. He suddenly felt very much out of place.

“Is there something wrong?” Her brow had knitted at his tone.

He hesitated for a beat, saw her tense up as she noticed the awkward silence.

“He’s not hurt, is he?”

“No, no,” he said quickly. “He’s fine.”

Now Scully leaned against the counter, tossing the chart onto it as she crossed her arms over her chest. “What’s he done?” It was meant as a question, but came out as a resigned statement.

“Well,” Granger began. “I’m afraid he’s been pulled off surveillance.”

“Why?” she asked instantly. He could hear an angry note entering the even pitch of her voice.

Briefly, he retold the events that had transpired at the Grey Mouse. Color rose in her cheeks as he spoke.

“Are you sure it was John Fagan that he followed inside?” she asked when he’d finished. She seemed genuinely distressed at the thought.

“Mulder thinks so,” he replied. “Though he says that he just went to the bathroom and saw him sitting at the bar.”

“Damn it,” Scully said under her breath, looking at the floor and shaking her head. “Of all the people to follow! Fagan’s the most suspicious of them all.” She blew out a breath, ran a hand through her hair, pushing it back from her face in frustration.

“I’m sorry I didn’t stop him. I tried to, believe me.” He’d been kicking himself since the task force meeting with Mulder for not stopping him from going into the pub. He felt somehow that he should have found a way.

“It’s not your fault,” Scully replied, meeting his eyes. Her tone was frustrated, but also a bit sympathetic. She paused. “He hasn’t been pulled off the case completely, has he?”

“There was apparently some talk about it, but no, he hasn’t,” Granger said. “They’ve got him doing work on the photographs that we’ve been taking of people going into the Grey Mouse. He’s looking for matches with immigration and criminal files.”

“I see,” Scully replied, looking down at the floor.

Her voice was quiet, hard to read. But he was watching her reaction closely, reading her body language. She looked as though she had suddenly grown smaller, as though she were carrying a new, very heavy burden.

He wondered about the sadness. She and Mulder were even closer, he realized, than he’d originally thought.

As if she could see him puzzling her out, she stood, stuffed her hands in the pockets of her coat, suddenly all business. The view of her that she’d given away so briefly slammed shut on him like an iron door.

“Well,” she said, as if to clear away the previous discussion. “I did need to meet with someone. I’ve had a major break in the case.”

“Really?” he replied, his excitement slipping into his voice. He leaned over, looting in his coat for his pocket notebook and pen. He nearly flashed her in the process, and felt his face heat up as he sat back up quickly. He appreciated that she had noticed but had dutifully averted her eyes.

~~~

ROUTE 3 SPOTSYLVANIA COUNTY, VIRGINIA 10:30 a.m.

The battered 26 foot U-Haul rattled its way down the winding country road, stitched like a dark grey scar through the frozen Virginia countryside. John Fagan cracked the driver’s side window as he tapped out a cigarette on the steering wheel, pulled it from the pack with his thin, pale lips.

“You want a cigarette, Mae?” he asked, offering the pack of Marlboros across the bench seat of the truck’s cabin.

“You know I’ve been trying to quit,” Mae replied, ignoring the laugh that Fagan barked out at her response. “What’s so funny, then?”

“You,” he replied, lit the cigarette with the lighter he kept in his inside coat pocket. “You’ve been smoking as long as I’ve known. What are you, on some sort of health spree all of a sudden?”

“It’s a nasty habit, John,” she replied peevishly, reaching in her pockets and drawing out her gloves, pulling them on. “And besides, it’s too cold out to have the windows open. You’re freezing me to death.”

She watched him ignore her, as usual. He pulled on the cigarette and blew out a grey cloud of smoke. It immediately fled the cabin in a stream out the window.

They’d been on the road for about an hour and half, heading deep into the rural areas off Interstate 95, almost halfway to Fredericksburg. She kept seeing historical markers along the roadside, marking just about the entire area as a former Civil War battlefield. She could see them as small gold triangles on the map she had folded neatly on her lap, as well, and used them to mark their progress.

“You’re going to take left up here at Route 31,” she said, her eyes on the map.

“Are we getting close at least?” Fagan grumbled. She wasn’t surprised at his tone. She’d never known him to be particularly patient. With anyone or anything.

“Aye, it’s only about 15 more miles once we turn off.” She could see the turnoff looming in the distance, marked by flashing yellow lights at the intersection of the two country roads. As they slowed, she gazed out the window. A pair of black and white cows stared back from over a barbed wire fence on the side of the road, their ears pricked forward at the sound of the coughing, loud engine.

She looked out over the wide expanse of pastures, the soft hills in the distance, the clusters of trees off in the distance. The view made her somehow sad.

“If it was greener here, this would look like home,” she murmured wistfully, pushing her long hair behind her ear as Fagan made the turn onto Route 31. He gunned the engine and the truck lurched forward once again. He said nothing, the cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, trickling smoke into the space between them.

“Do you ever miss it?” She didn’t know why she was asking John, of all people, such a sentimental question, but she couldn’t help herself. “Ireland, I mean.”

“Nope,” he replied simply. He took the cigarette out of his mouth, rolled the window down a bit more and spit out it.

“Not at all?”

Now he did look at her, a quick hard look out of the corner of his eye before he returned his gaze to road ahead of them. “What would be the point of that?” he replied, his voice gruff.

“I just think it’s important to remember what it is we’re doing this for. To keep in mind where home is.” Her voice was quiet, earnest. His indifference bothered her, though she couldn’t quite name why.

“No point getting your knickers in a wad over missing it,” he said, pricking the sincerity of what she’d said with his words. “It’s a bigger mess now than it was when we left it to do the work. They can’t even remember what they’re fighting for over there anymore. Bunch of wankers at the peace table is what I say.”

“If you have such a low opinion of the place,” she asked, surprised and hurt by his words. “Why is it you keep doing the work?”

“I believe in your brother’s work, that’s why. When I look at what Ireland could be I see it as he sees it. No compromises. No fucking apologies or puppet Parliaments or any of the shit that they’re talking about over there now. Owen knows how things should be. I keep doing the work for him.”

He looked at her again, slowing to move around a tractor crawling near the shoulder, its hazards flashing. He swerved around it, kept going. “I’m surprised you have to ask me that, Mae. How is it YOU keep doing the work then?”

She avoided his look, returned her eyes out the window, to the morning sunlight streaming over the stubble of the fields. “The same reason as you, I guess,” she replied softly.

“You ‘guess’?” he parroted, and gave a short, brittle laugh. “That’s quite a testimonial, Mae Curran.”

He was mocking her now, and she knew it was a mistake to say what she had said. Especially to him. Her face reddened.

“You know what I think,” Fagan continued, his voice feigning a conversational tone as he flicked the cigarette out the window. “I think you’ve been around Americans too long now.” She saw him glance over again, as though appraising her. “You’re getting soft, like them.”

“I’ve done more for the Cause than you have, John,” she snapped. “I’ve given my whole life to it. You know that.”

“Yes, you and that American doctor, ” he continued, as though she hadn’t spoken at all. “I see you two at the pub, tucked back in a corner like a couple of school girls.” He tsk tsked her softly. “That’s not the Mae I knew of a few years ago. THAT Mae would be in the back room with Owen, doing what needed to be done, not chumming around with her girlfriend, gossiping, dancing with any American bloke who came up to ask her to the floor.”

“I AM doing what needs to be done,” she shot back, angry and more than a little bit ashamed. “Never question that. What do you think I’m doing in this bloody truck with you then?”

He laughed at her now, right out loud. “Touchy touchy, Mae,” he said, and tsked her again.

“Go to hell, John,” she said under her breath, which only made him laugh harder, showing his teeth. She flushed even redder.

Part of her knew he was right. In the short time that she’d known Katherine, she had gotten very much attached to her, to what she represented more than anything else. She hadn’t had a woman friend in years. She couldn’t even remember when the last time was that she’d had someone to talk to the way she felt she could talk to Katherine. Though quiet and a bit cagey about her past, Katherine had proven herself to be a good friend. Staying up late with her at the pub, listening to her endless stories with interest and patience. It was more than anyone else had done for her in years. Even Owen.

Fagan was still smirking, enjoying having gotten her goat.

She narrowed her eyes, shot him a look now. She wanted to knock that look right off his face.

“And as for Katherine,” she said quietly, dangerously. “You’re just pissed off because she won’t give you the time of day and you moon over her like bloody dog.”

That did it. The smile melted off his face instantly. His jaw muscles squeezed his teeth together immediately. She broke into a scornful peal of laughter.

“Fuck you, Mae,” he replied, and snapped on the truck’s blinker hard. Mae laughed at him again.

Up ahead on the right was what they had come all this way for — Taylor’s Feed and Seed, a huge sprawling nursery and agricultural supply store. Fagan downshifted, slowed as he maneuvered the truck onto the shoulder, then into the wide driveway. A sign pointed them towards “Bulk Pick-Up.” Fagan followed the sign, nosing the truck through the peppering of cars and other trucks in the parking lot.

“You know what to say,” Fagan said, stopping the truck and opening the door, and it was clear from his voice that he was hanging on to his anger.

“Aye, that I do.” Mae smiled at his tone as she climbed down from the passenger side.

They met in the front of the truck, walked together towards the warehouse-like building. There were two doors — one on the left marked “Farming Seed” and one on the right marked “Farming Fertilizers.” They disappeared into the one on the right, blending in with a group of farmers moving inside, out of the cold.

~~~

MEDICAL COLLEGE OF VIRGINIA OUTPATIENT CLINIC 12:18 p.m.

Scully popped open the microwave, pulled out the steaming cup of soup, then got a spoon out of the dish rack beside the sink in the small Doctor’s Lounge. She began to eat hurriedly, not even sitting down as she did so.

Only halfway through the day and she was already exhausted. She hoped the soup would help her some.

She hadn’t worked this hard since her residency, the clinic bringing her and the other three doctors a non-stop stream of patients throughout the day. She was barely keeping up with it, barely able to find time to eat before the next patient was there, waiting for her in one of the examining rooms. She wasn’t used to the schedule, and found it exhausting. Not only because of the time it involved — the consults with other doctors, the scrambling for information on new drug therapies on the Internet, all to catch her up from her years away from medical school — but because the patients were real people, with real illnesses, and they looked to her with an urgency that she found tiring and unsettling.

The quiet geometry of her morgue, the solitude of it, was appealing to her immensely. It was pressure, certainly, but of a different kind. One she was much more comfortable with.

She sighed. If she cleared her mind of the clinic’s pressures for a moment, she knew the real reason behind the depth of her fatigue — it was the blow she’d gotten that morning.

When she thought about the prospect of not seeing Mulder, possibly for the duration of the assignment, it made her almost physically ache. And coupled with that feeling was a low-grade anger that was gnawing at her, as though she’d swallowed a fist. Anger at him for following Fagan inside the pub, for wanting to take a direct part in the case badly enough to risk blowing the lid off the whole thing. For risking their meetings like that, for making it impossible for him to see her now.

She felt her eyes beginning to burn and took another sip of her soup, swallowing the emotions with the salty broth. She knew that wherever he was he now knew what a mistake he’d made. She was just glad he was still on the case at all. The thought of him sitting alone in the basement office in the Hoover Building while she did her work here…

But he was still close by. She found at least that thought comforting.

One of the nurses appeared in the doorway, catching her attention. “Dr. Black? Your 12:30 is here already. He’s in six.”

“Thank you, Shirley,” Scully replied and put down the spoon, sipping the soup straight out of the cup now to save time.

She sighed again. Had it been any other patient she was expecting, she most likely would have let him or her wait for a few moments so she could catch her breath. But this wasn’t just any patient. And the more time she got to spend with him the better it would be. She had plans that would take some time.

Drinking back the rest of the soup quickly, she placed the cup and spoon in the sink, pulling down a paper towel and dabbing at her mouth, then tossed it haphazardly in the trash. She picked up the chart that she’d been reviewing, the folder stuffed full of lab reports. Pushing her hair back behind her ear, she strode from the small room, following the corridor down to Examination Room #6.

She knocked twice, heard a small voice from inside the room and opened the door.

Danny Conner stood leaning against the table, still in his coat as before. Her physician’s eye appraised him quickly, finding the hollows beneath his eyes more pronounced than they had been before, his skin more pale. He was trembling still, perhaps a bit more than he had been when she’d seen him just a few days before.

In short, he looked worse.

She grew immediately concerned, closing the door behind her. She lay the chart she was carrying down on the countertop, going toward him.

“Danny, have you slept yet?” she asked without preamble. Her expression must have given her feelings away more than her words. He looked down as though ashamed.

“No, not yet,” he replied. His eyes darted along the floor, unable to meet hers.

“How about food? Anything?”

He simply shook his head to that. She could see tears welling in his eyes again. His emotions were so on edge, so close to the surface. She knew it was the physical strain on his body that must be making him that way. The lack of food and sleep.

“Go ahead and take off your coat and sweater,” she said gently, putting a hand on his arm and urging him up onto the table. He did as he was told, pushing the peacoat off his thin shoulders, peeling the ragged sweater he wore up and over his head, exposing his bony chest. He smelled as though he hadn’t bathed for a few days, either.

She reached for the blood pressure cuff, folded it over his upper arm, then put her stethoscope in her ears. She inflated the cuff in puffs, watching the readout. She released the air with a hiss.

“Your pressure is still dangerously high, Danny,” she said gravely as she tore the cuff off and returned it to the wall, tugging the stethoscope down to her neck, as well.

“Can you do something about it?” he asked, and his voice trembled a bit.

She pursed her lips, considering. “I don’t want to start you on any medications to lower it until I have a better handle on what this is that you’re taking.” She returned to the countertop, picked up the folder. “I took that vial you gave me to the lab and I’ve got a breakdown of what’s in your bloodstream.”

“What did you find?” he asked, and his eyes were very afraid.

She scanned the printout, trying to think of the best way to explain it to him. “Basically it’s like this: someone is using those drugs I’m getting for Owen Curran and compounding them so that they’re changing the chemical components of the drugs themselves.”

“What does that mean?” he asked, clearly confused.

“Well,” she said carefully. “In essence, they’re making a new drug out of them, one I’ve never seen before. It still has some of the effects of the original drugs — like the appetite suppressant, the serotonin-inhibiting factors that will keep you from sleeping — but it could also be interacting with your body in ways I can’t predict.”

His eyes shot around the room again, a trembling hand coming up to push the mussed hair out of his face. “So you can’t help me,” he said softly, and now the tears did come.

“No, no,” she said, putting a hand on his arm again. “I didn’t say that. I just think we’re going to have to run a lot of tests to make sure we do the right things to help you with this.”

He looked at her now, seeking the reassurance she tried to convey with her eyes. She smiled gently.

“Now you’ve talked about these headaches you’ve had when you tried to stop taking this drug,” she said softly. “So the first thing I want to do is take you downstairs and have an MRI done on your brain.”

She’d already made the appointment for him to go down as soon as she saw his name on her list of patients for the day. She’d told Granger about the MRI, as well. The drug was interacting some way — physically, chemically, she didn’t know which — with these people’s brains. The MRI was a way to find out exactly how.

“How am I going to pay for something like that?” he asked, stricken. “I don’t have any money–“

“Don’t worry about that,” she interrupted. “You’re a clinic patient. It’s taken care of.”

She handed him his sweater, gave him another reassuring smile. “I’ve already made the appointment. They’re waiting for us. Go ahead and get dressed.”

~~~

Scully stood in the control room of the MRI suite, just over the technician’s shoulder, her arms folded in front of her, her expression grave. Outside the window separating the room from the machine itself, she could see Conner being settled onto the narrow bed of the machine by one of the technicians.

She was just finishing helping him put soft plugs in his ears and had settled his head in a small cage-like apparatus designed to hold him still during the procedure. On its front was a microphone, and the room was filled with the sound of Conner’s harsh breathing.

Scully leaned over, tapped the “talk” button on the two-way system.

“Try to relax, Danny,” she said gently, but loud enough so that he could hear her with his ears plugged. “It’s all right. We’re just going to slide you into the machine and run the scan. You’ll hear some loud knocking sounds, like a jackhammer. Try to hold very still.”

“Okay,” he called back, his voice trembling. She could see from where she was standing that his legs, bare below the hospital gown he wore, were trembling.

“Should we give him a sedative?” the technician asked once she’d released the button. “He’s shaking like a leaf.”

Scully shook her head regretfully. “No, I’m afraid it will affect the scan,” she replied. “We’ll just have to hope his shaking doesn’t.”

Beside the machine, the technician finished securing his head, handed him a small call button on a cord.

“If you start having any problems, just hit that call button,” the woman said to him softly. They could hear her in the control room. “The microphone will be turned off during the scan, but if you need us, just hit that and we’ll take you right out, okay?”

He jerked an awkward nod from inside the cage.

“Now try not to move your head at all,” she said, and patted his arm, then leaned to the side of the machine and pressed a button. The narrow bed began to move, sliding into the tubular machine slowly.

Scully watched him carefully for any signs of panic — people sometimes became terribly claustrophobic in the machines — but found none. Once the bed had slid all the way in, when just his feet were showing out the end of the tube, the female technician returned to the control room, and the man behind the controls nodded to her.

“I’m going to start the scan,” he said, and when she nodded her assent, he tapped the controls. The machine whirred to life, thumping loudly from the other room. She saw Conner’s feet twitch with the onset of the noise.

After a few moments, the technician nodded. “All right,” he said. “We’re going to go for the first pass.”

“Go ahead,” Scully said, and focused her gaze on the readout screen. The ratcheting sound began in earnest now.

In a few moments, the screen began to glow, the shape of Conner’s head and brain lighting up the screen in colors. Scully watched the form take shape.

And leaned forward, her breath catching.

The technician leaned forward as well, checking the resolution on the machine, refining the image.

“What the hell?” he said softly. The readout resolved with even more detail as the scan continued its pass.

Scully’s mouth dropped open as she moved her face closer to the screen, her eyes widening. Her voice, when she spoke, was a hoarse whisper.

“Oh my God….”

~~~

CHAPTER 13.

~~~

MEDICAL COLLEGE OF VIRGINIA HOSPITAL 2:28 p.m.

The world above him was like a film, a strobe of light and dark.

Around him, the echo of wheels, the sharp tapping of heeled shoes, the occasional blurt of conversation of people that blurred out the corner of his eye in streams of colors. And the sound of his breathing, hoarse and loud and fast. He could feel his chest heaving with it.

The brightness began to hurt his eyes, sharp white light stabbing at him from the lamps suspended from the ceiling. The lights scrolled overhead. From the rate at which he passed under them and into the relative dimness that followed, he could tell he was moving quickly.

Craning his neck up, he saw the expressionless face of an orderly whose arms bracketed his head and view.

“Hey,” he called, and the man did not look down, or acknowledge him in any other way. He repeated the call. Nothing.

He looked down toward his feet, saw another man off to his right. The man’s arm was on the railings of the gurney he was lying on, guiding it down what looked to be a hallway with no end. A black line bisected the floor into the distance. The man had likewise ignored his call.

Maybe he was dreaming again. Maybe it was all a dream.

“What is it, Danny?”

He turned his head slowly in the direction of the sound, saw a hand wrapped around the railing right near his shoulder. Prim, well- manicured nails. A woman’s hand. He followed the hand up, the white sleeve of a lab coat, red hair, blue eyes looking down at him. Worry there.

She looked familiar but he couldn’t quite place her.

“What’s happening to me?” His mouth was dry. The light hurt his eyes so much. He put a hand up, shielding them.

“You’re okay,” the woman said. “You blacked out inside the MRI machine. We’re taking you up to a room. We talked about this a few minutes ago, Danny. Do you remember?”

He shook his head dumbly, thinking. Wait, yes. He remembered being inside the machine. A curve of white marred by the bars of something in front of his face. It was like being inside a coffin. And that noise, deafening pounding, like a hundred fists all around him.

He looked up into the face of the woman again. Dr. Black. Her name was Dr. Black.

“I have to go,” he said suddenly. “I have to get out of here….” He reached out, grasped the bars on either side of him, pulling his head off the pillow.

She reached down and put a hand on his forehead, gently but firmly pushing him back down onto the pillow. “Just relax, Danny. Try to relax.” She kept her hand there for a moment. Her hand was cool to the touch.

“No, you don’t understand….” He could feel the familiar sting of tears in his eyes, the emotion crawling up his throat, making his voice sound shrill, even to his own ears. “I have to go home…”

The view spiraled and he choked down a throat full of bile, his head swimming. They’d turned a corner. There were more people around now, on all sides of him. The stretcher pulled up short. He gripped the railings even tighter to halt the sudden sensation of falling.

“Just relax, Danny,” Dr. Black was saying. He could feel his breath coming in and out of his throat like fire.

People around him now. An elevator at his feet. He swung his head from side to side, looking at the faces.

A woman stared down from beside Dr. Black, an old woman holding onto the pole of an IV stand. He met her eyes. They were shocked eyes, looking down at him. On the other side, a doctor in surgical scrubs, his face craggy. Wax-like.

He turned back to the woman. Her face began to dissolve in front of his eyes, melting. Her eyes grew in their sockets. Her mouth disappeared.

“Wha–” He looked up at Dr. Black. She looked normal, worried lines forming on her forehead. The world was a haze behind her. His breath rasped, faster, hyperventilating…

“Danny, what is it?”

He turned to the doctor on the other side. His face was the same as the woman’s. All eyes. No mouth. The same with the orderly above him, huge black orbs staring down….

“Danny!”

He clenched his eyes closed and began to scream.

~~~

In her mind, Scully could still hear the screaming.

She reached up, put a hand over her mouth as she stood outside the Critical Care Unit room, watching her patient through the glass wall that separated them. A nurse was trying to insert an IV into the back of Danny’s hand. One of the orderlies was having to hold his trembling arm steady, despite the heavy restraints she’d ordered him to be placed in. It took the nurse several tries to get the needle set. She hung the saline drip on a hook beside the bed as she finished, adjusting the flow.

Danny was still trembling, even with the massive dose of thorazine Scully had given him as soon as she could get her hands on it after they’d arrived on the floor. He was conscious, as well, his face turned towards the heart monitor, apparently mesmerized by the jump of the red line across the screen. He seemed to be trying to ignore the nurse, the orderly. He avoided looking at their faces.

She could only imagine what it was that he saw when he looked at them. Whatever it was, it had terrified him enough to send him scrambling from the gurney, fists swinging, screaming shrilly for everyone to get away from him.

She’d caught the blow on the cheek and at the corner of her eye. It was already beginning to swell, a slight pulse of pain when she blinked. She touched it with her fingers self-consciously.

As the orderly and the nurse exited the room, Scully took a deep breath, blew it out, steeling herself as the orderly stopped in front of her.

“You want me to stick around, Doc?” he asked. “Just in case?”

“No, no, it will be fine,” she said with conviction she didn’t feel. “Thank you for all your help.”

It was this man who had wrestled Danny back onto the stretcher, pinning him there with his superior strength and weight until they could make it up to the unit. He had a cut on his swollen bottom lip.

“All right, then,” he said kindly. “Take care of that eye.” And with that, he was gone.

Taking in another breath, she entered the glass-enclosed small room, wishing there was a door to close behind her for the sake of Danny’s privacy. He was not taking all of the exposure, all of the attention of the medical staff well at all.

“How are you feeling?” she asked softly as she stood at the foot of the bed. He turned his face towards her, away from the machines that sent his heartbeat ticking off in the room in eerie beeps. He seemed relieved as he looked at her face, his lower lip trembling.

“I have to get out of here,” he said quietly, his voice cracking. “I can’t stay here. You don’t understand…”

She put a hand out, silencing him. “Danny, you blacked out in the MRI machine and you’ve just had a major psychotic episode. You’re going to have to stay here for a little while.” She hesitated. “Plus that, I would want you to stay anyway after what we found on the scan.”

Something in her tone made him pause, though he still had the “fight or flight” instinct in his eyes.

“What did you find then?” He seemed afraid but somehow resigned as well.

She took a step closer, now next to the bed. “Let me begin by saying I’m not entirely certain of everything I have to say to you. I’ve never seen anything like this before, so I’m making the best conclusions I can based on the findings at hand.”

“I understand,” he said softly.

She looked down, then up into his frightened eyes again. When she spoke, she did so slowly.

“It appears that something in the drug you’re taking is collecting in the fatty tissues of your brain and being stored there. It shows up on the scan as a plaque-like, chemically active residue on about 85% of the surfaces in your brain.”

“A residue?”

“Yes,” she replied quietly, her tone deathly serious. “It’s occluding the blood flow in your brain and causing swelling in an area of your brain called the hypothalamus, where a substance called serotonin is produced. This isn’t surprising since the drugs that I wrote out for Mr. Curran all affect serotonin production in the brain. The drug seems to be going right to the source, affecting the brain structurally in that area in addition to collecting in the tissues surrounding it.”

“‘Occluding the blood flow?'” he asked, his brow creased in confusion. “I don’t understand what you’re saying to me.”

She took a breath, tried again. “The drug’s residue is partially cutting off the blood flow to some parts of your brain. I’m assuming this is why you’re exhibiting so many neurological symptoms, like your shaking.”

“But you can cure all this, right?” His eyes were hopeful, though they were again awash in tears.

For the first time in her life, Scully was completely sure she had made the right choice in being a pathologist rather than a doctor. Danny was her first real patient. Knowing how much in the dark she was about what to do about his condition, and seeing the trust that he had in her to repair the damage caused by it….the juxtaposition of the two was too difficult to tolerate.

“I have a theory,” she said, keeping her voice level, promising nothing. “But first I need to ask you. You said that people had died.”

“Yes,” he replied softly. “Two people from the group here in Richmond already.”

“How did they die? Do you know?” She knew the answer already, of course, but wanted to know what Danny knew of it.

“I don’t know exactly,” he replied. “They just disappeared, both of them.”

So he didn’t know the method, she thought, pursing her lips. That was probably a very good thing, for his sake.

“What did Mr. Curran say about it?” She had earned his trust at this point — she felt it was worth risking more by asking more.

“He said that they had decided not to be in the group anymore, and that he didn’t know what happened to them after they left his ‘protection.’ We all knew what he meant by that, though — we all knew he had them killed.” He looked at her sadly. “Nobody just leaves the Path.”

She nodded. Given what she’d seen, what she knew of these deaths, she knew this was true. She looked at Danny solemnly.

“The drug must be what killed those people, Danny,” she said. “Mr. Curran is using it somehow to do this. I don’t know if he’s forcing an overdose or if being on it for too long a period of time causes it. But I’m not willing to risk that second option with you.” She paused.

“You’re going to try and get me off the drug right away, aren’t you?” He was, once again, very afraid.

“Yes. I want to begin this afternoon. I want to monitor your blood work and send you downstairs for MRIs every hour or so to see how your body responds to the withdrawal. I want to try to contain the withdrawal symptoms as you go through them. The key right now is to get you off of this completely so that no more damage can be done to your brain.”

He shook his head, the words coming out of him in a rush. “I can’t stay here. I can’t go missing for that long a period of time. I’m not even supposed to be seeing you about this at all. You don’t understand how Owen and the others are.”

“Danny,” she said firmly, “You don’t have a choice. Unless something is done about the presence of this drug in your brain you are going to die. The blood flow in your brain will become so blocked you’ll have a massive stroke and die.”

He fell silent immediately. She blew out a frustrated breath, hating to have to put it to him so bluntly. But she had to reach him somehow with how serious all this was.

“All right,” he murmured softly, the tears streaming down his temples. “I’ll stay for tonight. But I have to be out of here one way or another by noon tomorrow. If I go missing any longer than that, if I miss a meeting I’m supposed to be at tomorrow afternoon…” He looked at her sadly. “It won’t matter what the drug does to me.”

She nodded, looked down again, accepting what he said grimly. “All right.”

There was a beat of silence between them.

“Hey,” he said gently into the quiet, and raised his hand as far as he could inside the restraint, pointing to her face. “I’m sorry I hit you. I didn’t mean to hit you. Sometimes I get these dreams, you know? I can’t help myself.”

She touched the swollen spot again, forced a smile. “It’s okay. Just a bump. Nothing to worry about.”

A labtech entered the room, carrying a box of tubes and needles. Scully nodded to her and the woman placed the box on the table beside Danny’s bed, began pulling out the equipment she needed to draw his blood.

“We’re going to start off with a baseline, Danny. How long has it been since your last dosage?”

He considered for a moment. “About two hours before I came in to see you,” he replied.

“So about 10 a.m.”

He nodded. “I suppose so.”

“And I assume you have more with you? In your clothes downstairs? Just in case?”

He nodded again. “Four doses.”

“All right, then,” Scully replied. “I’m going to start a flow sheet. We’ll monitor what happens in your bloodstream as the day progresses. I want you to let me know of any changes in how you feel, all right? Anything at all. No matter how small.”

The labtech was tying a rubber tourniquet to his arm, swiping the well tracked inside of his arm with alcohol.

“I’m going to start with a drug to bring your blood pressure down,” Scully continued, going back to the foot of the bed. “I’m going to go write the order and then I’ll be back with you, all right?”

Danny didn’t even seem to notice as the woman slid the needle into his vein, the glass tube gurgling full with blood. “I won’t go anywhere,” he said, and a small smile came to his lips.

She smiled back, left the room, and the smile faded away, a heavy feeling settling over her. They had a long, very uncertain day and night ahead of them.

~~~

THE FAN DISTRICT 3:59 p.m.

Mulder snapped on his turn signal, nosed the government-issue dark sedan into the flow of traffic down Hanover Street, heading deeper into the close, historic area on the outskirts of the high rises of the city. Beside him, Granger sat silent, glancing over from time to time, his expression clearly concerned and more than a little perplexed. Mulder only paid him the slightest bit of mind, his emotions simmering.

He had really wanted to go out alone, nursing his loneliness and his disappointment and the worry he carried around like an iron chain, a chain that had had about a hundred links added to it with the report Granger had given Padden and the rest of the suits.

But there was another part of him that wanted Granger with him. He was his closest link to Scully, and there were gaps in the information Granger had given the task force that Mulder wanted filled in, answers that only Granger could give him.

Plus that, he had something he needed Granger’s help with, something he didn’t feel comfortable talking about at the hotel with everyone else around him. This was the best way to handle it.

“So where are we going to eat?” Granger asked, his tone forced casual.

“I can’t remember what it’s called,” Mulder replied, monotone, his eyes on the road ahead of him. He wasn’t even looking at the houses, the small restaurants they passed; he was simply driving for the sake of driving for the moment. “I’ll find it eventually.”

Granger looked away, out the car window. Mulder watched him out of the corner of his eye. It took about five more minutes for Granger to begin to squirm visibly. Finally, he blew out a breath, put his hands up in a gesture of surrender.

“Look, I can tell you’re pissed off,” Granger said finally, shifting in his seat again. “If you’re going to tear into me, go ahead and do it.”

“I’m not pissed off at you, Granger,” Mulder replied quietly.

“Then what is it? You’ve been like a statue since we left the meeting with Padden. I mean, come on, it’s a major break in the case, the potential for Scully to blow the lid off this whole thing. Everyone was pleased with the report. More than pleased. Everyone but you.”

Mulder saw a turn coming up, edged over and took a right down the small side street. He was looking for a place he’d passed the other night on a run through this part of town, a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant and tavern that had looked inviting.

“Granger, let me ask you something,” Mulder began. “Don’t you see it as a little convenient that this guy just appears suddenly at the clinic for Scully to examine?”

Mulder maneuvered the car slowly down the narrow street. Most of the streets in this part of town had been build for carriages, and the sedan was pressing close to the parked cars on both sides. He continued, his eyes glued on the car’s clearance. “I mean, potentially. Don’t you think there’s an outside possibility this could be something Curran’s doing to set Scully up?”

“She thought you’d be worried about that,” Granger replied gently. “She said she thought he was legitimate. She said he seemed too scared not to be.”

Mulder nodded. Padden hadn’t even seemed to care about this possibility. He was just happy that the lead had come up, so there had been little other discussion about what this Danny Conner could represent. It had stuck in Mulder’s craw, Padden’s lack of concern about Scully’s welfare.

“Yeah, come to think of it, I noticed that Padden didn’t seem too worried that the guy could be a plant.”

Mulder looked over at Granger now, surprised. Granger looked back, a serious expression on his face.

“That’s what you’re thinking, isn’t it?” Granger asked. “That’s what’s got you upset. That Padden didn’t seem to care.”

Mulder looked out the window, away from Granger, concerned about being so transparent. He locked his facial expression into an unreadable mask. “That’s something that concerned me, yes,” he replied flatly.

“I think the possibilities of what she could learn from him outweigh the risk. I think Scully would agree with that, too. That seemed to be her attitude when I spoke with her.” Granger kept his eyes on him, and Mulder could tell he was trying to be reassuring.

Mulder nodded again. “Yeah, she would think that,” he said, and perked up as he saw the restaurant coming up on the left, tucked between a series of old Victorian houses. A neon sign announced “Joe’s Inn” into the gathering gloom. He saw a space up on the right and pulled up to it, backing up and sloppily parallel parking, ending up with one wheel up on the curb.

“This place looked good the other night,” he said, turning the car off.

Granger looked at it suspiciously, hesitating.

“Don’t worry, Granger,” Mulder grumbled. “I’m sure they have something without meat in it.”

They exited the car, Mulder pulling his coat tightly around him. The night would be a very cold one.

They entered the small restaurant, which was just barely brighter than it had been outside. There were wooden booths set into the wall down one side, a long bar on the other side. The ceiling was pressed tin, the wood dark and oiled throughout the place. Mulder pointed to an empty booth and the bartender, a young woman in a sweatshirt, nodded.

“Go ahead and seat yourself,” she called. “Someone will be right with you.”

They slid into one of the booths, the menus already at the table, tucked up against the wall. Mulder noted that the place’s specialty seemed to be spaghetti, which suited him just fine.

Granger was perusing the menu, and Mulder found himself looking at him over his own menu, picturing him with Scully that morning. He found himself thinking small, random thoughts. LIke he wondered what she’d been wearing.

“So,” he said into the quiet between them. “How did she seem? All right?”

Granger looked up as the waitress appeared. “She seemed okay.”

“What can I get you gents to drink?” she asked. She didn’t have anything to write on.

“A Rolling Rock,” Mulder replied, and got a look from Granger. They were technically still on duty, Mulder knew, but he didn’t really care at the moment.

“And you?” The waitress looked at Granger expectantly.

“Um….” Mulder watched him warring with himself, his eyes on the menu. “I’ll have…the same thing.”

“Coming right up.” She went to the bar, ordered the beers. Granger was watching her go.

“Just okay?” Mulder asked, returning his eyes to the menu.

“What?” Granger asked.

“Scully,” Mulder replied. “She just seemed okay?”

Granger looked a little confused for a moment, as though he were groping for the right words. “Um…yeah. She looked pretty tired. But she seemed all right.”

Mulder nodded, his worry prickling him a little bit with the words. She’d seemed so tired when he last saw her. He wondered if she was getting any rest at all, and it concerned him.

“I guess….” Mulder hesitated, closed the menu, forcing a little smile. “I guess she was pretty pissed at me.”

Granger gave him a lopsided smile back. “You could say that, yes.” he replied. “But she seemed relieved that you at least weren’t off the case.”

Mulder nodded, as though they were discussing the weather, not the most important person in his life. He felt that he’d given too much away to Granger already today, and wanted to keep his feelings as under wraps as he could. He decided not to push it any further.

The waitress brought the beers, setting them down on bar napkins without glasses. Both he and Granger ordered a spaghetti, one dish called “Spaghetti a la Joe” and one called “Spaghetti Albert.” Then the waitress left them alone again.

Mulder shifted in his seat, shifting the conversation, as well.

“Tell me something, Granger,” he began. Granger took a pull from his beer and looked at Mulder questioningly. “Did you get to look at any of the information on Curran before I came on the case?”

Granger seemed puzzled. “No. They gave me the information at about the same time they gave it to you,” he replied. “Why?”

“Have you noticed,” Mulder said, sipping from his own beer. “That there’s nothing in there at all about Sean’s mother? Curran’s wife or lover?”

“Yeah, I did notice that,” Granger said, leaning on the table on his elbows. “I’ve wondered about that. I mean, we don’t exactly have what I’d call complete information on him, but it seems like there would be some mention of her in the records somewhere. Or some photos of him with her, or something.”

Mulder smiled a little. Sometimes he found he actually almost liked Granger. Despite himself, he mused.

“My thinking exactly,” was what he said aloud. “I think someone must know something about her. Someone at Scotland Yard or M16 or at Immigration either here or in Britain.”

Granger nodded. “It would seem if she was around him long enough to have a child with him that there would be some record of her, yes. Sean’s birth certificate, perhaps. But why are you interested in her? What’s so important about her?”

“That’s what I’m wondering,” Mulder said. “I’m not sure, but one of two things is true here. She’s either so incidental in Curran’s life that she’s beneath mention to the task force, or there’s something about her important enough for the task force to suppress.” He took another swig of his beer. “I’m not sure which it is.”

Granger seemed to consider for a moment. “I guess you’re right about it being one of those two possibilities,” he said.

Mulder sat back, rubbing absently at the condensation on his beer bottle with his finger. He looked at Granger with a glint in his eye. “It might be nothing, but how would you like to help me find out which one of those possibilities it is?”

Across the table, Granger looked concerned. “But if it’s something they’re suppressing about her, then it’s something we’re not supposed to know.”

“Right. And how the hell are we supposed to do a complete profile without personal information like that?”

Granger shifted a little uncomfortably. “Well, I guess that’s true,” he said. “But won’t we get in trouble if we go digging somewhere we’re not supposed to be like that?”

Mulder smiled. “Probably.”

Granger hesitated a beat, then shook his head, a small laugh coming. “You’re committed to getting my ass in a sling on this assignment, aren’t you?”

“I just want to find out the truth, Granger,” Mulder replied, still smiling. “If I get your ass in a sling along the way, that’s just gravy.”

And Granger laughed again.

~~~

2601 PARK AVENUE 6:39 p.m.

John Fagan pulled up outside the huge brownstone building, stepping out onto the frigid street. A light wind was coming down from the cobalt sky, caressing the trees and sending the bare branches rubbing against each other with a comforting sound.

He ignored it, pulling his coat up around his chin with his gloved hands.

There was a short stairwell leading down to a small door on the side of the building, an apartment door lit by a bare bulb in an ancient fixture. Taking the steps down, he rapped smartly on the door, his breath billowing out in front of his face.

He heard commotion inside, someone coughing. Then the door opened.

“Ian,” John grunted by way of greeting, looking into the dim apartment beyond. From the door he could see the mattresses and blankets spread out on the floor, the dim light of a television playing against the wall.

“John,” the young man replied. “Do you want to come in then? It’s cold as a well digger’s tail out there.”

“No, I can’t stay,” John replied, as if he’d want to enter the squalor of the apartment. “I’ve just come to fetch Danny for Owen. He needs him tonight for an errand.”

“He’s not here,” Ian replied, his voice lilting a bit with concern. “He’s not been home all day.”

“You haven’t seen him at all?”

“Aye, I saw him this morning, but not since. He went out about eleven and hasn’t been back.” The young man shivered in the door.

“Where did he go this morning?” Fagan asked sharply, anger and impatience creeping into his voice.

“He just said he was going out. He didn’t say where.” Ian squinted against the bright light of the bulb. It was clear Fagan’s tone made him nervous. “You sure you won’t come in, John? Have a smoke?”

Fagan shook his head. “No. I’m off to find Jimmy then. But you tell Danny when he gets in I want a phone call. The instant he arrives.”

“Aye, I’ll do just that,” Ian replied, nodding vigorously.

Fagan turned and left without another word, Ian closing the door behind him. He stalked off into the street, back to the car. Climbing into the driver’s seat, he started the car, moved slowly off into the deserted street.

He was, by nature, a suspicious man. It was what he got paid for. And he was earning his money as he drove away into the night.

~~~

CHAPTER 14.

~~~

HOLLYWOOD CEMETERY JANUARY 11 3:32 p.m.

She was a lone figure in black, sheltered beneath a black umbrella, walking slowly up the steep rise of the narrow road towards the overlook of the James River. The nearly frozen rain fell over the Civil War-era cemetery, putting a light glaze onto the faces of the majestic angels that capped several of the graves in this, the oldest part of the cemetery. Scully watched the face of one of them as she passed, its face turned up, its smooth eyes staring away from her to something beyond the cloudy sky. Its wings curved around its shoulders as if for warmth, frozen in stained white stone that was pitted with age.

The cab had dropped her off at the iron-gated entrance, as though the driver was himself superstitious about entering. From the cab window, Scully looked down the hill that marked the entrance to the vast grounds, saw her first glimpse of the blankets of shade cast by the huge holly trees that were the cemetery’s namesake. Scully hadn’t protested that the man hadn’t driven her in; she knew she could find a map at the office just inside the gate and that the mausoleum would be clearly marked on it. Besides, she was there well before the appointed time to meet.

Plus, the nearly sleepless night at the hospital had left her feeling cramped and buzzing with exhausted, nervous energy. The walk through the beautiful, quiet grounds would do her good, even with the rain.

The woman at the desk had even gone so far as to draw her a route through the maze of roads that wound through the cemetery’s various sections, the red marker line stopping at the highest point of the grounds. Scully had blushed as the woman stared at her face. She couldn’t blame her — she knew how bad she looked, her right eye nearly swollen shut at the corner from the blow Danny had dealt her the previous afternoon, the plum-sized bruise an angry blue rimmed with red. She found herself reaching up and touching it as she walked, covering it with her black-gloved hand as though she meant to wipe it away.

As she would wipe away the past day if she could.

Gripping the umbrella tighter, she breathed a billow of warm vapor that lingered for an instant in front of her face. She shivered inside her long coat, pulled it closer around her with the hand inside her pocket. The map crinkled there softly, memorized and now unheeded.

She passed another series of headstones, one of them a child angel asleep on top of a white marble slab. It struck her in a strange-off centered way, the face reminding her suddenly of Danny’s as he’d lain, drowsing, last night in the hospital, almost as white as the sheets beneath him. She’d watched him from the window outside his room, his eyelids fluttering like wings as his body fought off the exhaustion that crashed into him as the drug receded from his bloodstream. He mumbled softly to himself as his head turned slowly on the pillow in the closest thing to sleep he’d had in weeks.

She’d taken his sleepiness as a good sign, as she’d taken the drug’s concentration dropping off on the hourly lab reports.

Her relief had been short lived, however.

By eight that evening, around the time she was hurriedly eating a sandwich brought by one of the nurses from the hospital’s closing cafeteria, things with Danny began to take a strange turn.

First he reported the beginnings of a headache, and color began to rise in his cheeks. Over the course of the next hour, his trembling increased, until it appeared the he was shivering from intense cold. Even his breath shook as he drew in sharp, short pants of air.

At a little after 9:30, she’d taken him down early for his MRI as the headache grew gradually worse. She noted as they removed his restraints to take him down to the machine that he had grown weaker, his movements sluggish. He’d brought his arms up to cover his face as they loaded him onto the stretcher, as though he were fending off a rain of blows, quiet sobs wracking him. He had not acknowledged her in any way as she’d accompanied him down to the MRI suite, though she’d spoken softly to him the whole way, murmuring hopeful assurances.

Grimly, Scully had watched the scan appear on the screen before her. The chemical residue in his brain had grown more active, glowing in vibrant gold and orange on the readout. It now covered more than 90% of his brain and appeared to be continuing to spread.

When she’d returned him to his room after the scan, there had been no need to put him back in restraints. He was too weak now to be any sort of threat to anyone. She’d had to hold the cup of water for him when he’d begged for something to drink.

His body, which had been warring against the Edecrin she’d been giving him to lower his blood pressure, began to win the battle after eleven. His blood pressure soared, his face flushing a deep red. She switched him to another drug, a stronger one, but it had no effect at all.

At around 11:45, his nose began to bleed, first from one nostril, then, a few minutes later, from the other, as well. Scully and Ann, one of the night nurses, put on gloves and cleaned it away, plugging his nose with gauze, pinching the bridge to try and staunch the bleeding. Despite their efforts, the blood soaked through the gauze quickly, ended up in a narrow, thickening stream down the side of his face and onto the white pillowcase. Every fifteen minutes or so Scully came in with a small basin of water and a stack of gauze pads and mopped at it, feeling helpless to do much else.

As she wiped at his face, his eyes stared at a spot just over her shoulder, his mouth moving as though he were speaking silently to someone she couldn’t see. The gauze rasped on his week’s worth of beard. She’d watched his face, frowning, wondering who it was he was talking to, what was going on in his mind.

She’d reached the center of the cemetery now, the rain still falling steadily. Following the curve of the road around, she passed by the grave of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, and his family. Tiny tombstones fanned out around a central statue of Davis facing the city, all clearly the graves of infants. She paused for a moment next to one that was simply marked “Daughter.”

She remembered another time when she’d kept a vigil at a hospital, helpless. And at this time of year, as well. Emily in the hospital in San Diego, the way her small body had felt, hot as fire, as Scully lay next to her deep into the night. Until her daughter had finally, silently, slipped away.

Scully blinked back the frustrated tears and pushed the thought down. She kept walking. He would be here by now and she didn’t want to keep him waiting.

Ann had come in just after midnight to hang another bag of saline to keep Danny hydrated. Scully stood in the doorway, her eyes shifting between Danny and the bag that held his clothes beside the bed. The vials of drugs were there somewhere. She hung onto that knowledge desperately.

On her way out, Ann paused beside Scully. “If you won’t mind me saying so…” Ann had begun hesitantly.

“I know,” Scully replied quietly, halting what she knew Ann was going to say. Ann was in her mid-fifties, a seasoned Critical Care nurse and just old enough to act slightly maternal towards her. Scully found her behavior simultaneously endearing and annoying. It was Ann who had fetched her the sandwich for dinner.

And Scully did know. Danny was suffering terribly. She was close to giving up.

Ann nodded and left the room without another word.

The image of Mary Rutherford’s body had begun to occupy Scully’s thoughts, the reports from the scene of her death — the terrible pain she’d been in, the bleeding. She looked at Danny now, saw the flush on his cheeks, his chest rising and falling unevenly, his breath dry in his throat, stentorious.

She’d decided to wait until the next MRI, only fifteen minutes away. Then she would make her decision about what to do.

As she stood there, Danny had roused from the distant place where he’d been, his head turning slowly on the pillow until he faced her. His hand rose up weakly, urging her forward.

“Come here,” he said softly. “Come here. I want to tell you something.”

It was the first lucid reaction she’d had from him in at least an hour, and she was relieved. She came forward, stood next to the bed and leaned over him.

“What is it, Danny?” she asked, the heartbeat monitor skipping quickly behind her, the only sound in the room besides his breathing.

His eyes lolled, then looked behind her once again, suddenly intent, staring at a spot just over her shoulder. She found herself looking over her shoulder, as well, just to make sure something wasn’t there. She swallowed nervously as she returned her gaze to him.

“What is it?” she repeated softly. “What do you see?”

His eyes focused on her again, his hand coming up. His fingers held the sleeve of her coat lightly, his eyes very serious and intense on hers.

“There are two worlds,” he whispered.

Her brows squinted down in confusion. “‘Two worlds?'” she asked, her puzzlement evident in her voice.

He swallowed with effort, his eyes closing for a beat. Then he opened them and stared into her eyes again. “There are two worlds,” he repeated quietly, regaining his voice. “This world…the one that you and I live in here… and another world. A…secret world.”

“I’m sorry, Danny, I don’t understand what you’re saying to me.” She remembered shaking her head, trying to make sense of it. To Danny, it seemed very important, so she’d wanted to understand him.

“It exists…” he began, the words coming haltingly as he groped for them. “…in the same place and time as the world we live in…but it’s different. Anything can happen there.”

He swallowed, his throat clearly dry, then continued. “I see things from it. Glimpses of it. People and things and sounds… Everyone lives in it, too. They just don’t know it. It’s all around us…”

He’d stopped then, nodding as he gazed at her seriously. “You…you have a secret. A secret world.”

She’d frozen then. Was there some way he knew about her cover? Had she given something away? She held her breath for a few seconds, her eyes widening.

“What do you mean?” she asked finally, forcing her voice to be calm and level.

“Everyone has one…” he continued, his eyes rolling back and then focussing again. “A part of their life they keep hidden from everyone…a place where memories are real. For me, they come alive…”

She’d let out a breath, relief breaking over her. He was hallucinating, that was all.

“I need some water…” Danny breathed, tears coming to his eyes. A fresh line of blood had found its way down the side of his face from his nose. “Please…”

She poured him a cup from the bedside table, placed the straw back in it and leaned over to hold it close to his mouth. He drank slowly, taking breaths between each swallow.

Though she knew she should dismiss what he’d said as being irrational, she stood there and considered it as he drank. Some part of what he’d said struck something in her.

She’d found herself thinking suddenly of Emily, of the apparition of her that had appeared on Afton Mountain the year before. She had been as clear to her senses as Danny was now. It was as though something — the pain she’d been in, her closeness to death — had allowed her to punch a hole right into the world he spoke of. A world just out of view of this one.

She then thought about her life with Mulder, how they had to keep their relationship a secret from almost everyone in their lives. When she was with him, in that space they’d created just for them, it did feel sometimes like a separate world.

Danny had shaken his head, breaking her from her thoughts. His eyes clenched closed. “No…” he’d said, his head turning away from her on the pillow. “My head hurts so bad…it’s bursting my ears…”

“I’m taking you down for another MRI in just a minute, Danny,” she’d replied, fresh worry washing over her. “Then we’ll decide what to do.”

He looked at her earnestly, the tears flowing freely down his flushed face. “I need….I need you to help me…”

Again she caught her breath, the vision of Mary Rutherford’s body coming into her mind again, the image of the still form on the table, the sheet draped over her almost blue in the morgue’s otherworldly light. She remembered the words she’d said aloud, in answer to Rutherford’s own plea from the police reports.

She looked down at Danny, stricken. She put a hand on his forehead, and she said the words again.

“I’ll help you.”

The bag of his clothes was right next to the bed. One way or the other, she would fulfill that promise.

The rain was falling more heavily as she made her way along the road that overlooked the rapids of the James, the water turned white as it rushed over the rocky bottom, around the lip of Belle Isle visible on the other side. A coal train came into view, pulling over a hundred coal cars. She watched them go, black on gold on black. The sound of the wheels on the tracks was soothing in the damp air.

The roof of the mausoleum was in view now, just over the rise. To her right, a field of headstones spread across the ground as far as she could see, a garden of white stone across the barren ground. Every once in a while the bleak view was broken by a spray of flowers, the deep green of boxwoods. Angels jutted from the ground here and there, as though seeking escape from the earth, into the grey sky above her.

The next MRI, at around 12:30, showed the drug had completely taken over his brain and become more chemically active, the readout glowing an angry red. She knew what would happen next, though she did not know precisely how. It didn’t matter that she know at that point.

When she took him back to the room, the latest lab reports were waiting for her. The levels of the drug had begun to rise as the collected residue came out of the tissues and recirculated through his body. This explained his continued hallucinations.

He’d lain quietly as she explained it all to him, both of them exhausted and resigned.

“I’m going to give you a dose of the drug, Danny,” she said at a little after one.

“No….” he breathed, his hand going to his head instantly, as though speaking had shot something through his head. He whimpered, his breath choking on a sob.

She reached out and gripped his arm. “Danny, you’re dying. We’re going to have to go back to square one and find another way to do this.”

She let him cry for a moment, his hand going now to her forearm, gripping as hard he could, his arm shaking with the effort.

“There’s so many of us…” he whispered finally. “So many of my friends like me….almost all of us…”

She grimaced at the thought of a whole group of people suffering like this. And perhaps more to come.

Sensing the opening, she swallowed and looked at Danny grimly. “Danny,” she began carefully. “Is Curran manufacturing this drug as a weapon? Using you all as guinea pigs for something he intends to use in some other way? On more people?”

Danny had shaken his head, his eyes lolling again. He was having trouble focussing on her again. “No…” he whispered finally. “It’s just us…just the people in The Path…”

“But WHY?” Scully asked, her horror over the thought of intentionally exposing people to this making her voice angry, urgent. “Why would he do this to you?”

“People…” He held his head again, releasing her arm. “People have been leaving…going back to the IRA, to Ireland…” He closed his eyes, his brow creasing in pain. “I think it’s because….because he needs us. Needs us to be…loyal…to stay. Because of the bomb.”

~~~

She could still feel the chill that had run through her at those words.

“What bomb?” she whispered.

His eyes shot open at her words, as though he hadn’t realized what he said and she was the one bringing the subject up. He shook his head desperately, clearly realizing his misstep.

“No, no, I shouldn’t have said that…not to you…” At that point he had begun to cry again. “I didn’t want you…to be involved…” He turned his face towards the wall. His face flushed crimson, alarming her.

She couldn’t wait any longer.

At 1:16, she injected one of the doses from his jacket into the port of his IV, praying that she hadn’t waited too long.

She would never know how close they had come. But somehow, he had survived the night. After two more MRIs, both showing the residue losing its strength in his brain, becoming less active, she’d felt safe enough to go to the Doctor’s Lounge at the end of the hallway and steal an hour of sleep just before dawn.

She reached the mausoleum, an elegant building in white marble with open, iron gates at the arched entrance. A car was parked in front of it, a black, empty sedan beaded with rain. Puffing out a tired breath, she turned and entered the building, closing her dripping umbrella as she did so.

There was another entrance at the other end of the small structure, stained glass windows on either side. She could tell the view of the river was lovely, even from where she stood. Dim light came in through the doorways, shining on the black stone floor. Closer to the other entrance, two marble benches were set into the floor.

On one, Walter Skinner sat, though he rose as she entered. She was very relieved to see him, to see a familiar face. On the other was Bob Padden, huddled into a black trench, a dark hat on his head. He did not stand as she came forward.

“Agent Scully,” he greeted somewhat flatly, nodding, but not looking at her. “I must say when the phone rang in the hotel this morning, you were the last person I expected it to be.”

She sighed, suitably chastised. She’d expected this reaction from him.

“I’m sorry, sir,” she replied, her tone tired but formal. “I know it’s very irregular for me to contact you directly, but I felt the situation warranted it.”

Skinner had reached her where she stood now, his face concerned as he took in her appearance. She reached up and touched the bruise, shaking her head.

“It’s nothing,” she murmured, so only he could hear her. He was unconvinced, his jaw muscles working. He stepped aside, though, and gestured her forward, toward Padden.

She walked to the empty bench across from Padden, sat, drawing her coat around her legs for warmth. She shivered a bit. The mausoleum, being open, was very cold. Skinner took up a place to Padden’s right, his arms crossed in front of his chest, his expression still creased and worried.

Now Padden did look at her, his head cocking a bit as he did, though he said nothing about her eye.

“I’m sorry for the morbid nature of the meeting place,” he said, nodding to the room around him. “But I thought this would be one of the places where it would be most unlikely that we’d be seen.”

Scully nodded in acknowledgement, and he continued.

“Now what have you got that was so important that it couldn’t wait for you to go through proper channels?”

She looked down, wishing he’d drop it. She was here now and there was nothing to be done about it. When she looked back up him, her eyes met the challenge in his tone.

“For starters, I’ve discovered the use and method of the compound involved in the deaths of the Path members, as you assigned me to do when I took this case.”

He looked at her, clearly surprised. “Your contact in the Path? This…Conner?”

Briefly, she recounted the events of the night before, how Danny had reacted to the withdrawal, the actions of the drug that she observed, what Danny had told her about its uses. Padden listened impassively. Skinner stood stone still, though his eyes shifted between Scully and Padden. He seemed to be gauging Padden’s reaction to what she said.

“So it’s the actual withdrawal from the drug that is causing these deaths?” Padden said when she finished her synopsis.

Scully nodded. “Yes. My theory is that when someone does something to displease Owen Curran in some way, he kills them by withholding the drug from them, putting them in a circumstance where it is impossible for them to obtain it. After several hours — around 15 hours from the last dose, according to my calculations with Danny Conner — the drug, combined I believe with the incredibly high blood pressure that the withdrawal causes, reacts chemically and structurally with the brain tissue of the victims and results in the effects that we’ve seen.”

“With that kind of force?” Padden said, squinting at her incredulously.

“There have been reports of victims of heart attacks being knocked back by the force of the attacks hard enough to have broken the chairs they were sitting in,” Scully replied evenly. “I’m not certain how this catastrophic event takes place in these victims, frankly. I didn’t wait around with Mr. Conner to find out. But I do know that it is the withdrawal from this drug that is responsible for these deaths. I’m certain of that.”

Padden seemed to consider for a moment, then nodded. “I see,” he said. “And this information about the drug not being used as any sort of weapon? Do you think this Conner is a reliable source for that information?”

Scully nodded again. “I do, sir,” she replied. “He has not lied to me in my entire interaction with him, and he has no reason to lie to me now. I believe I’ve gained his trust, and that what he tells me is true.”

It bothered her for Padden to distrust what Danny had to say for some reason, and she felt the need to defend him. Probably, she thought, because she’d spent so much time with him, knew what kind of a man he was. And had witnessed so much of what he’d been through, watched him suffer.

And she had another reason to believe him, as well.

She looked from Padden to Skinner and back again. “There’s something else,” she began. Padden looked at her questioningly. “Danny told me last night that Owen Curran is planning some sort of bombing.”

“A bombing? Of what?” It was Skinner who spoke up immediately, his voice on edge.

“I was unable to obtain that information,” Scully replied. “He simply mentioned something about Curran needing the drug to ensure the loyalty of The Path members because he needed them for some sort of bombing.”

“He just TOLD you this?” Padden was clearly alarmed, but still doubtful.

“He was fairly delirious at that point and not quite in control of what he was saying. When he realized he had told me this information, he was immediately remorseful and didn’t speak of it anymore.” She looked at Padden, her expression grim. “But again, I believe he was telling the truth.”

Padden seemed to consider for a moment, then rose, walked a short circle around the bench to the wall slowly. He stood in front of the blocks, cut into the marble, that delineated the individual graves. He seemed to be studying the engraving on one of the markers, deep in thought.

“What’s the status of your cover?” Skinner asked into the quiet. “You’ve been spending a lot of time with Conner. Is Curran aware of this?”

Scully shook her head. “No,” she said softly. “I think that Danny believes that his life would be in danger if Curran knew he was contacting me about this. He seemed very afraid last night that someone was going to wonder about his whereabouts. And he insisted on leaving the hospital this morning, against my advice, because of a meeting he had to make this afternoon.”

“So your cover — and possibly your life — could be jeopardized if Curran found out about this.” Skinner was terse as he spoke, though she knew it was concern that was making him sound angry.

“I believe that could very well be the case, yes,” she said to them both, then looked down. She felt for a moment that she might have done something wrong, but shook the feeling off. “I believe that the information that I was able to gain through my contact with him warranted the risk.”

“We need to get you out of there,” Skinner replied, shaking his head. He turned to Padden. “She’s found out what you needed her to find out. There must be another way to find out this information about the bombing that doesn’t involve Agent Scully remaining in such a precarious position.”

Padden turned, still looking down, considering. “Yes,” he said, as though to himself. “Your position has potentially been compromised, that much is certain. But the information did warrant the risk. I wonder how much it’s been compromised, however.”

Skinner shook his head again, looking at Padden. “Whatever the risk, it’s reached unacceptable levels, in my opinion,” he said firmly.

“I didn’t say I wanted out,” Scully interjected, not liking the turn of the conversation. “I still haven’t found a way to get these people off of this drug. I’d like to continue my work on that. And there’s this bombing to investigate now, as well.”

Skinner shook his head. “Scully, that’s outside the parameters of what you were needed for operationally. Look, I know as a physician you’re concerned about these people, about Conner in particular, but it’s too dangerous. And the ATF is much better suited to following up on this bombing lead. Finding that information out will simply put you in more danger.”

Scully started to respond, frustrated at being whipped around, being talked about as though she had no control of what she did and how she did it. But Padden interrupted her.

“I’m afraid AD Skinner is right,” he said, and he seemed disappointed to say it. “With you removed from the picture, and with the information you’ve already provided to the task force about Curran’s activities, we could begin a full scale surveillance of Curran and find the information we need out that way. With you in place, we can’t do that because it might arouse suspicion of your cover. But with you gone, we could move forward on that definitively.”

“I’m not ready to come out,” Scully protested. “There’s still so much to learn.”

“It’s not your choice to make, Agent,” Padden replied gruffly. “We have to think of the larger operation, and with this bombing plot in the picture, time is of the essence. I want you to begin to withdraw.”

“I’ve only been here for two weeks. Don’t you think that will look a little suspicious?”

“We’ve had this planned all along,” Padden replied. “You have a family situation that requires you to return to Boston as soon as possible, as soon as you can be replaced. Mr. Flaherty has had some possibilities for your replacement in mind since the inception of the operation, so he should be able to call in someone fairly quickly. Your escape route is set. You just need to play it out, and wait it out.”

Skinner nodded. “It’s for the best, Scully,” he said quietly, sensing her displeasure.

Scully’s gaze dropped to the cold stone floor, her eyes closing for a moment as she exhaled a tired breath. She didn’t have the energy to fight them. And plus, a part of her knew both of them were right. She was in dangerous territory because of the work with Danny.

Now if she could just find a way to tell Danny she would be leaving. A frigid, dull ache settled over her as she considered it.

~~~

2601 PARK AVENUE 5:34 p.m.

Danny lay on his back staring up at the exposed beams of the ceiling, shivering beneath his thin blanket. The space heater sighed beside him, the only heat in the tiny apartment. At his feet, the television was on, playing some show about American doctors in Korea. The room glowed, the relative quiet broken occasionally by canned laughter leaking from the ancient set.

Leave it to the Americans to be able to laugh about a war, he thought, turning onto his side to look at the clock.

It was almost time for him to go back to the clinic to be checked by Dr. Black. Upset with him for leaving the hospital early that morning, she’d insisted on seeing him again this evening before the clinic closed at 6:30. He had to admit he didn’t mind going in. He still felt terrible, sluggish and weakened. The ordeal of the night before had taken a powerful toll on him.

It had been all he could do to hide how he felt from Curran when he’d met with him that afternoon. Curran had been unusually gruff with him, Fagan standing over his shoulder silently, glaring a bit more pointedly than usual. He’d retreated as quickly as he could, trying not to be paranoid about the two men’s reactions to him, and then come home and collapsed onto this thin mattress on the floor, resting as best he could.

Sighing, he pulled himself shakily into a sitting position, reached for the same dingy sweater he’d been wearing for days now. It was the only garment he had that was warm enough to fight off the persistent chill. He rose slowly, reached for his jacket, jingling his pocket to check for bus fare. He would have enough to get there and back.

Flicking off the television and the space heater, he shouldered into his jacket and went out the door, locking the deadbolt behind him. The rain was still falling, as it had been all day, though it seemed to be turning to sleet now. He raised his face to it, letting the icy drops hit his face. It felt good. He hoped it would snow.

He went to the corner, stood at the bus stop, waiting for the number 11 that would take him downtown. It chugged to a stop at the curb after only a few minutes, for which he was grateful. Climbing on, he paid his fare, then moved slowly to one of the back seats for the short ride to the hospital. The bus engine coughed as it pulled away.

**

Right behind the bus, unseen, a dark car pulled out, tailing it.

John Fagan tapped out a cigarette as he and the bus pushed out into the traffic on Broad Street, his eyes on Danny in the back seat just as a light snow began to fall.

His face lit up in a seemingly angry flare as the lighter flamed the cigarette to life. Then it blinked out, hiding him once again in the shadows and the faint dashboard lights.

~~~

CHAPTER 15.

~~~

MEDICAL COLLEGE OF VIRGINIA HOSPITAL OUTPATIENT CLINIC 6:20 p.m.

“Dr. Black?”

Scully turned as the only clinic nurse still on duty came around the doorway to the small doctor’s lounge. Scully held a cup of coffee, which was very old and strong and black by necessity. She was swallowing a long drink of it as she met the woman’s gentle, almost apologetic smile.

“What is it, Loretta?” she asked, and her voice was low and hoarse with fatigue, as though she’d been talking nonstop for days. She cleared her throat self-consciously as Loretta’s smile crimped a bit and her eyes grew vaguely concerned.

“That young English man, Bob Smith, just came in,” Loretta replied. “He doesn’t have an appointment but he says that you were expecting him today? I know it’s late, so I didn’t know if you’d want to see him or not.”

Scully dumped the rest of the bitter cup of coffee in the sink. Thank God he’s here, she thought. She had thought that he wasn’t going to come after all. And she’d been worrying about him all day, wondering how he was.

“Yes, I’ll see him,” Scully replied, doing her level best to sound nonchalant. “Go ahead and put him in a room.” She flipped on the water and started filling the cup to wash it.

“I’ll put him in Two,” Loretta replied, and hesitated, looking down shyly, indecisively.

Noticing this, Scully asked: “Is there something else?” She turned off the water now and faced Loretta once again.

“Well,” Loretta shifted a little. “It’s started to snow, and I was wondering if it might be possible for me to go on and head home.”

“Ah,” Scully said. It was still strange to her to be in charge of all these people, to have people asking her for permission to do things. She stifled a smile at Loretta’s discomfort with her.

“If you need me to stay, I’ll be happy to, of course,” Loretta rushed on. “But I’ve cleaned up the waiting room and gotten all the files put up and –“

“It’s fine, Loretta,” Scully interrupted. “Go ahead and go home. I can handle Mr. Smith.”

“You’re sure?” the other woman asked hopefully.

Scully did smile now. “Of course. It’s all right.”

“Okay then,” Loretta replied, returning the smile. “When you get done with the file just go ahead and leave it on the nurses’ station. I’ll update it and put it away for you in the morning.”

“Okay. Go ahead and close the place down then, except for the examination hallway.”

“I will. I’ll even put the lights out for you.” Loretta started to head down the hallway, but stopped, met Scully’s eyes. “You seem so tired, Dr. Black. I hope you get some rest tonight.”

Scully looked down, the smile on her face growing a bit tepid. She knew her exhaustion was showing, but it dismayed her a little to know how much.

“I will,” she replied quietly. “Thank you for your concern. I’ll see you in the morning.”

Loretta nodded, smiled again. “Goodnight then, doctor.”

“Goodnight.”

And Loretta was gone, disappearing down the hallway towards the waiting room.

Scully finished washing the mug she’d been drinking from, heard Loretta come down the hallway with Danny, opening the door to the examination room and urging Danny to put on a hospital gown, which she knew he wouldn’t do. When she heard the door close again and footfalls fading down the hallway, she squared her shoulders, tucked the mug into the drying rack, and headed towards the room herself.

She knew the minute she saw him that he must not be feeling much better than he had early that morning. For one, he was out of his coat and sweater, as though he was anxious to be examined. For another, he was lying on the examination table, his hands rubbing his temples, not standing nervously as he had been before. He turned to look at her as she entered the room, closing the door behind her.

“Headache still?” she asked by way of greeting.

“Aye,” he murmured, and returned his gaze to the ceiling. “I’m having a bugger of a time shaking it off.”

Scully nodded. “Go ahead and sit up for me,” she said gently, putting a hand on his shoulder and helping him up. His ribs jutted out like long fingers beneath his skin, his thin arms bracing him on the table. His arms shook hard as he pulled himself up, then settled into their usual faint trembling.

She reached for the blood pressure cuff. “The residue is probably still somewhat active in your brain, Danny,” she said softly as she wrapped the cuff around his arm. “You might have that headache for awhile.”

They sat in silence for a moment as she pumped up the cuff, released it, her stethoscope in her ears. She shook her head as she pulled out the earpieces, ripping open the cuff. “Your pressure is still elevated. More than usual, that is. I think your body is still readjusting to the drug being back into your system.”

“Any idea of how long it will take for me to start feeling some better then?” He looked at her with that same hopeful expression that tugged at her when she saw it. He had so much faith in her.

She regretted the shake of her head. “We’re in unknown territory here, Danny,” she replied. “I think you’ll probably feel some effects until the drug reaches an adequate saturation level in your blood stream that the concentration of the residue in your brain restabilizes. That could take several more doses — a few days even.”

“Should I take more of the drug? Would that speed this up a little bit?”

“No, no.” She shook her head again, reached up and cradled his head between her hands, pulling his lower lids down with her thumbs. “I don’t want you to play around too much with that. I don’t know if it’s possible to overdose on it, and I don’t want to risk your body any more than we have already.” She studied him, noted how pale the insides of his lids were, how bloodshot his eyes.

“All right,” he replied softly. He was clearly disappointed that there seemed to be nothing he could do to help this process along. Scully sympathized with him on that front. She was feeling pretty helpless and frustrated herself.

She replaced the stethoscope in her ears and listened to his heart and breathing. Both were still fast. Too fast.

“The clinic lab has already closed down for the night,” she said, hanging the stethoscope around her neck once again. “I’d like you to come in tomorrow to have some more blood drawn, to check the levels of the drug in your system.”

He hesitated, looked down, seemed to consider for a few beats. “I can come tomorrow afternoon, after my roommate goes off on an errand. That way I won’t arouse any more suspicion than I might have already.”

Scully nodded. “Okay then. Come back tomorrow afternoon. I’ll be here and I’ll check you out again here before you get your blood drawn.” She looked at him, worry creasing her face. “For now, I want you to stay in bed, all right? I know you can’t sleep, but I want you to just rest as much as you can.”

When he nodded, she picked up his sweater, proffered it to him. “Go ahead and get dressed.” Then she reached for his chart, began recording his vital signs.

Her voice was more tired, more resigned, than she intended it to be. He heard it, as well. She could tell by the silence that stretched between them as he shrugged into the sweater, pulled on his dark jacket. He sat still then, looked at her.

“Dr. Black?” he began, and she looked up at him.

“What is it, Danny?” she replied softly.

“You won’t…well…” He looked down, his eyes shining with unshed tears. “You’re not going to give up on this are you? Because it didn’t work out last night?”

A heavy spot took up a place in her chest as she pictured telling him that she was going to have to leave for Boston. The guilt she felt was strong enough that she could taste it, a bitter stinging in her throat.

She considered telling him right there that she would be going, but thought better of it. They still would have a few weeks together, most likely. She might still have time to help him before she was forced to leave. There was no need to make him so upset now.

“No, I’m not giving up,” she said quietly, and though she did mean the words, she still felt bad for saying them. We have to think of the larger operation… Padden had said. And Danny’s needs weren’t part of that. Neither were hers.

Relief broke over his face, and he looked down again, nodded. She went back to jotting down her notes, let the moment drift away.

“What’s the next step then?” he asked after a beat of silence.

“The next step doesn’t involve you right away,” she said, still scribbling. “I’m going to go into the lab and break down this drug myself. See if there’s some way to modify it and remove the components individually so that I can make a different form of the drug you’re taking. My hope is that if I can make new forms by removing components one at a time, forms that you can still tolerate, we might be able to wean you off the drug that way.”

He considered that for a moment. “That sounds complicated,” he said, and his voice was worried.

She looked at him now, nodded seriously. “Yes, it will be,” she said earnestly. “I want you to try not to worry about it, all right? Just concentrate on taking care of yourself right now. I want you to make sure you eat every day, too, even if you don’t feel like it. Even a little something.”

“It’s been a long time since I ate,” he said doubtfully.

“Then start off slowly. Just some crackers or something. Some soup if you can possibly do it.”

He nodded. “All right. I’ll try.”

He slid off the table now, his legs shaking slightly as he put his weight on them. The past 24 hours were showing on him badly. As they were showing on her, as well. At least she would be able to go home and fall asleep.

She finished her notes, closed the chart and studied him for a beat. She was struck suddenly as she looked at him with how young he really was. Were it not for his beard, he could have been a teenager, the look accentuated by how thin and gangly he was.

She wanted to help him so much it hurt her. She would help him.

With this in mind, she reached into the chart, tore off a corner of paper from one of the flow sheets. She began to write on it.

“This is the phone number of the clinic’s emergency answering service. I’m going to be on call for the next couple of nights, so I’ll have the beeper with me. I want you to call if you start feeling any worse, all right?”

He took the number from her, looked at for a few seconds, then folded it up and put it in his pocket. “All right,” he replied, his voice soft, tired.

Reaching out, she put a hand on his upper arm, gave it a reassuring squeeze. “Go on home and go to bed,” she said, and dropped her hand. He had blushed when she touched him.

“Aye, I’ll do that,” he replied. Then he looked into her eyes, gave her a shy, sad smile. “Thank you, Doctor. For everything.”

She nodded, returned the small smile. “You’re welcome, Danny. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Goodnight then.” With that he turned, went slowly out the door, leaving her standing there.

A wave of emotion passed over her, a strange feeling of sadness. She felt her eyes stinging with it, and she had no idea why. Maybe it was the pressure of working with Danny that was finally getting to her, the urgency that her leaving placed on her work with him. That was probably it.

Or I’m just too damn tired, she thought, standing up straighter, tucking the chart beneath her arm. She needed to go home, shower, change her clothes from the day before. That was all she needed, she thought.

And with that, she chased the odd feeling away.

***

The only light in the large room came from long desk lamp on the nurses’ station at the other end of the room. The waiting room itself was bathed in darkness, every corner filled with it.

John Fagan sat in one of those corners, quiet as a tomb, his legs crossed casually in front of him.

He was a patient man. Not jittery. If he moved, he did so with purpose, like a spider does when something was caught in the gossamer strands of its web. He was rarely driven to any sort of sudden action. That is, unless he was driven the short distance to anger.

He wasn’t angry now, though. Not yet.

He watched dispassionately as Danny Conner appeared from the hallway, buttoning up his coat as he paused in front of the huge desk on the other side of the room. Once he’d closed the coat all the way, turned the broad collar up to protect his neck, he started forward again, not even looking around the darkened room as he went out the double doors to the clinic and out into the night beyond.

Again Fagan waited. A minute passed. Then two.

Katherine Black came out, already in her long black coat. She had a chart in her hand, which she set on the counter of the desk neatly. Like Conner, she busied herself for a moment with buttoning herself up.

Fagan’s gaze went slowly over her, watching how she moved. The way her hair came forward slightly as she looked down at the front of the coat. The nimble efficiency of her fingers as she buttoned, hiding her small body from his sight. He studied the fine line of her profile, her full lips.

She reminded him so much of Elisa.

When he looked at Katherine, he could almost see Elisa, sitting across from him at Halloran’s, back in Belfast. She had loved to laugh so much, her bright eyes shining as she ribbed him again for being so grim, so serious. She had always said if he didn’t lighten up, the work would carry off the best in him.

The memory surprised him by making him suddenly sad, even here where he had his work to do. He made a small, unintentional noise in his throat as, for an instant, what he was thinking got the better of him.

Katherine’s head shot up at the sound, scanning the black expanse of the waiting room quickly. Her eyes were wide, her body poised.

“Is someone there?” she called, her voice strong. He admired that she didn’t let fear overwhelm her composure.

That’s my Katie, he thought, pleased.

She looked around for a long moment more, then he saw her relax a bit, shaking her head, clearly convincing herself that she was merely hearing things. Then she reached down, picked up her briefcase, pulled the strap over her shoulder. Moving to the door, she brought out her keys from her pocket. She fingered for the right one.

Then, with one final look behind her, she went out the door. He heard the lock click closed behind her, then her footsteps receding down the hallway.

He waited another few moments to make sure she didn’t return. Then he drew himself up, walked slowly to the nurses’ station. The chart was there, bathed in the small circle of light that the desk lamp cast. He reached out slowly, picked it up, opened it. He read, turning pages. His jaw tightened as he did so.

Finally he closed the file. He’d seen enough.

He stood there for moment, his thoughts returning to Elisa in the pub. The contagious sound of her laughter…

Katherine Black might resemble Elisa, but she was not Elisa. Could not replace her. He knew that for certain now. He wondered if Owen knew that, as well, if Owen would have shamed him in front of half the pub if he knew what Fagan knew now of Katherine’s deception.

He was glad to be the one to tell Owen about it. He and Owen’s friendship — ten years of it — had been strained since the arrival of this woman. He hoped this would be the start of Owen not being so preoccupied with her. So that things could be as they were once again.

Tucking the chart under his arm, he went to the door to the clinic himself, turned the butterfly handle to the lock on the door and stepped out into the deserted hallway.

The snow was falling heavily as he went outside, dotting him with quickly melting, heavy spots of white. He climbed into his car, parked just off Broad, and started the engine up. He pulled off into the shower of blue-white flakes.

Out in the night, Owen Curran sat in the Grey Mouse’s back room. Fagan drove intently, his expression grim, serious.

He would not keep Owen waiting for long.

~~~

THE JEFFERSON HOTEL JANUARY 12 9:36 a.m.

Mulder sat behind his makeshift desk in the task force headquarters, files strewn haphazardly in front him, a cup of coffee in his left hand. In his right, the file he’d been compiling on Danny Conner, the young man’s immigration photo paperclipped neatly to the corner of the computer printouts and other materials.

He’d been staring at the photo for 15 minutes, since the task force meeting had let out, the meeting in which the group had been told that the “first phase” of the operation was coming to end, that Scully was being withdrawn as soon as possible.

The news wasn’t a surprise to him — Skinner had come to his hotel room last night to tell him. He’d known, he said, that Mulder would want to know immediately.

Skinner had also told him about the night Scully had spent in the hospital with Conner, what the man had been through. And he’d told him about the bombing. Mulder had taken all of this news with great distraction — he found it difficult to get beyond the fact that Scully would be coming home.

After Skinner had left, he had gotten himself back together a bit, however, pulled out his material on Curran and begun to read over it again. A little after 11, he called Granger in his room two floors down and asked him to come up and join him in looking over the materials. Granger had been awake, and had come right away.

“It wouldn’t be a personal target,” Mulder said later as the two of them sat in the uncomfortable chairs from the room’s table, both of them drinking a beer they’d ordered from room service. “Them” was on the television, one of Mulder’s favorites, and the sound of women screaming fell in as background noise as the two of them sat in the dimness of the room, the snow falling steadily outside the window.

“Huh?” Granger said, looking up at him from the television, his eyes wide.

“The bombing,” Mulder had replied. “Curran wouldn’t pick a personal target, not based on what we know about him at this point. It would have to be something with political significance.”

Granger considered for a moment. “Do you think it’s going to be here in the U.S. or that he’s planning something back in Ireland?”

“I’m not sure, but I would suspect it’s going to be here somewhere,” Mulder had replied. “He’s got too much of a concentration of manpower on the Eastern Seaboard, and remember what Padden said about there being a lot of money being funnelled into the areas where Curran was? I think he’s planning something really close by.”

Granger kept glancing at the television as the army of giant ants stampeded across the screen, decimating everything in its path.

“I can’t believe you haven’t seen this movie,” Mulder said, shaking his head. “You need to get out more, Granger.”

Granger looked down, smiled. “Now you sound like my mother,” he said, and Mulder laughed. Granger took a pull from his beer, looked out the window for a moment.

“It would be a British target, I suspect,” Granger said quietly. “I don’t think he’s got enough of an ax to grind with anything American at this point for it to be otherwise.”

“Yes, I agree,” Mulder had replied. “Bombing something on U.S. soil would be enough of a statement, punishment for us being so involved in the peace process. That would be a big enough of a ‘fuck you’ to the Americans.”

“Well, that narrows it down a lot,” Granger replied, watching as an ant gored a soldier, his rifle tap tap tapping, to no avail.

“An embassy or Consulates’ office,” Mulder said immediately. “Either in New York or D.C. would be my guess.”

“I’d guess D.C.,” Granger replied. “Considering he’s set up shop here in Richmond, only a couple of hours away. That would give him adequate access to be able to check the place out as often as he needed to.”

“And close enough so that if he was going to do something like a truck bomb or something, he’d be able to transport it easily.” Mulder took another pull of his beer, stared at the television.

“If I had to make a guess,” he said, his eyes far away now as he sifted through options. “I would say the British Embassy in D.C. That’s what I think.”

Granger considered for a moment. “Yeah, I think you’re right,” he said, a smile coming onto his face. Mulder had quirked a smile back at him. Granger was so easily pleased. He envied him that.

That’s what he had told the task force this morning at the meeting, when he and Granger had given their report about the possible targets for the bombing. Padden and the others had seemed surprised that the two of them had been able to come up with something so quickly.

“We’ll put the embassy in D.C. on full alert,” Padden had said. “And the one in New York, just as a precaution. Both Consulates’ offices, as well.” He looked around the table. “Does anyone have any idea about what method he might use?”

“Our guess,” Mulder piped up immediately, “Is that it would be truck bomb, a fertilizer bomb like the one we saw in the Oklahoma City bombing.”

“What makes you so sure?” Padden had replied, looking at Mulder over his glasses. His tone was clearly dubious.

It was Granger who answered him. “We believe,” he said, gesturing to Mulder and himself, “That C4 would be too difficult to obtain in the U.S., and too expensive. Plus, we believe that one of the reasons Curran chose Virginia to settle in and not a larger metropolitan area up north is so that he could be close to the tobacco farming country around Richmond. Buying bulk amounts of fertilizer here would be difficult to trace, considering the frequency of bulk purchases in this area.”

Padden looked from Granger to Mulder and back, considering. Finally he nodded. “We’ll go with that theory for now then. As a precaution, we’ll make sure that road blocks are set up around the entrances of both embassies and Consulates’ offices to keep deliveries away until they can be thoroughly checked out.”

Then he nodded, and added, somewhat begrudgingly, it seemed: “Good work, Agent Mulder, Agent Granger.”

Mulder smiled at the memory of that. Padden was still pissed off at him for going into the pub, and it looked like it had hurt him to say it.

He returned his attention to the picture of Conner in his hand, studying the face for a long moment. God, the guy was young, he thought. He was also struck by how little information there was on him. He’d clearly just become involved with the Path recently.

Only six years ago, Conner had been an electrician, working for his father’s business outside Ballycastle in Northern Ireland. Then one run-in with the British for purchasing detonating wire, which he had said was needed for a mining company he was rigging up explosives for. They’d let him go when the story checked out.

Then, like everyone else in the Path it seemed, he’d disappeared from sight, reappearing only as he crossed in through U.S. Customs in New York two years ago on a work visa for an electrical business in Boston — one of the Campaign for Northern Ireland’s front businesses, no doubt. Then nothing again.

He pictured Scully with Danny in the hospital. Skinner said it had sounded like the guy had suffered a lot while trying to go through the withdrawal from the drug. Mulder felt badly for him, but worse for Scully. He knew how helpless she would feel in the face of something like that. He knew she was deeply invested in helping Conner out. Skinner had told him she’d been reluctant to come out because of her dedication to helping him and the other people in the Path exposed to this horrible drug.

He put the file down, took a sip of his coffee, leaned back and looked at Granger across the room. Granger was intent on a computer screen, the image of the screen reflected in his glasses. He glanced up, nodded, put up a finger. Mulder nodded back.

Then he smiled again. Though it had taken some doing to get Granger interested in the project, he was warming to it now. Mulder’s little side project to find out about Sean Curran’s mother. Granger was trying to scare up some information on her using the CIA database computer station.

Finally Granger stood, going to the printer, standing there nervously as whatever he’d sent came out of the machine. He pulled it out, walked across the room towards Mulder, through the groups of people clustered here and there at various work stations across the room. Mulder put the coffee cup down as Granger got to the desk, looking up at him expectantly.

“I’ve got a name,” Granger said softly, pulling up a chair from a nearby desk and laying the piece of paper in front of Mulder. It was a copy of a birth certificate. Sean Owen Curran’s birth certificate, showing his birthdate as August 29th, seven years ago.

“Her name was Elisa O’Shea Curran,” Granger said, his voice still pitched so only Mulder could hear him. He pointed to the line where it said ‘mother’s name.” Mulder nodded.

“Did you run her name through the database?”

Granger nodded. “Yeah, I did, and the weirdest thing happened. When I enter her name, it tells me that I don’t have ‘adequate security clearance’ to be able to access the information. All the stuff on Curran comes up, but not his wife? It doesn’t make any sense.”

Mulder’s brow furrowed. Granger was right. It didn’t make any sense.

His feeling that something fishy was going on grew more acute. He glanced across the room to where another computer sat, unoccupied.

“Let’s check the FBI database,” Mulder said, and stood, smoothing down his tie as he did so. He and Granger made their way slowly across the room to the machine. Mulder sat, Granger taking up a place behind him, and logged into the system. The FBI shield lit up the screen, a search prompt at the bottom of it.

He put in Elisa Curran’s name, waited as the computer cycled, searching.

“Access Denied,” it said. “Level Seven security clearance or higher required.”

“Shit,” Mulder said under his breath. That would require someone as high up as Skinner to get the information. And he’d hoped to not involve Skinner in this.

He didn’t have a choice now. There was something important here, and he needed to know what it was. He had a very bad feeling about the whole thing.

“What do we do now?” Granger asked quietly behind him.

Mulder considered for a moment, coming to a decision. “AD Skinner’s been called away to D.C. for a couple of days,” he said, looking up at Granger. “We’ll have to wait until he gets back.”

“You think he’ll do it for us?” Granger asked doubtfully. “He might be involved in covering up the information himself.”

Mulder considered that, shook his head. “No, not Skinner,” he said. “If there’s some sort of cover-up going on, he’s not a part of it. He would never do anything to put Scully in harm’s way. I really believe that.”

Granger looked around the room to see if anyone was looking at them. No one seemed to be. He blew out a breath. “It’s hard to know who to trust,” he said, clearly frustrated.

Mulder leaned back, nodded. “Welcome to my world, Granger.”

He logged off hastily. The screen went dark, the FBI’s shield blinking out of sight.

~~~

J&J WAREHOUSE THE BANKS OF THE JAMES 3:34 p.m.

It had taken a little while, but Danny had gotten used to the strong smell of the fertilizer heaped to the ceiling of the truck, the thick odor of the diesel fuel. He was standing in the back of the truck, surrounded by the drums of the thick smelling fuel. And he was willing his hands to stop shaking enough for him to be able to twist the wiring that connected the drums to the small detonator and timer attached to the side of the truck.

Beside the truck, Owen Curran and John Fagan stood, joking about something. Danny had been nervous when they’d called him that morning, not wanting to have much contact with them until he was feeling better. He still felt like what had been through at the hospital two nights ago showed on him terribly, and he didn’t want to arouse any suspicion.

He reached for his wire cutters out his tool box, tried to get them in his grip. He fumbled, his hand shaking, and the cutters clambered to the floor, then down into the snow behind the truck. Curran came forward, lifted them up and wiped them on his pants leg, handed them up to Danny.

“You’re getting clumsy in your old age, Danny,” Curran said good- naturedly. Danny could see Owen watching his hand shake as he took the cutters. He laughed nervously.

“Aye, that I am,” he agreed immediately, and laughed again, turning to the detonator box once again.

“You all right to be doing what you’re doing then?” Owen pressed. John Fagan had come up to stand behind him, both of them looking up at Danny intently.

“I’m fine to be doing it,” Danny replied hastily, cutting and then twisting the final bit of wiring to the battery that would run the detonator. The display lit up with red numbers, all zeros.

“All right, I’ll trust you on that,” Owen said, and he saw Fagan smile out of the corner of his eye. Fagan was such a strange one, Danny thought, shaking it off. He’d always found amusement in the oddest things.

He wound the wire with some black electrical tape for good measure. He wanted it to be neat, despite the fact that it really didn’t matter. He did things the way his father had taught him. Meticulously. Even this. Especially this.

It was hard considering how bad he felt.

“All right, it’s ready to be set,” he said finally, replacing the cutters and tape in the box. “Just say the word when you want it done.”

“I want you to go ahead and set it,” Owen replied, and Danny looked at him, surprised.

“This early?” he asked.

“Aye, you can do that, can’t you? It doesn’t matter how many hours it’s set for, right?”

Danny looked at the detonator, then back at Curran and Fagan. “Well, no, it doesn’t matter, but I would think you wouldn’t want it armed until Friday morning.”

“No, I want you to go ahead and do it and be done with it,” Curran replied evenly.

Danny hesitated a beat more. Something was off about the request, to be sure. Then, as Curran and Fagan continued to stare up at him expectantly, he nodded.

“All right then…I’ll go ahead and set it.” He began to turn the small knob on the side of the detonator, counting out hours. “Let’s see, that’s….” He counted in his head. Friday, four days from now. 3:00 p.m. Curran had wanted plenty of time to make the drive that morning.

He continued to roll the dial. It was right on 4:00 p.m. now, the sun waning. That would make it 95 hours. He went ahead and set the display to that number.

It glowed red in the dimness of the inside of the truck. Hours, minutes and seconds.

His hand shaking, Danny reached down, touched a button. The detonator beeped softly, and the seconds began to count down.

“It’s done then,” Danny said, looked at Curran, who nodded, gave him a wide smile.

“Good work, Danny,” he said amiably. “Now let’s get the hell out of here. It smells like shit.”

Danny smiled, some of his nervousness ebbing with Curran’s laugh that followed his words. Fagan laughed, too, a soft chuckle. Danny sat on the edge of the truck, slid down, his feet crunching in the snow and he landed. He and Curran pulled the back door of the truck down and Curran put the padlock on it, gave the lock a satisfied tug.

“Let’s go get a beer,” Curran said as they shuffled back to Fagan’s car. “What do you say, Danny? A beer to celebrate your job being done?”

“Yeah, sure,” Danny replied, smiling a little at the thought. He liked this particular job being done. “I’ll have a pint with you.”

“There’s a good man,” Fagan said, and gave Danny a slap on the back. It was just a touch too hard and Danny had to struggle to hold his balance on the slick ground. Curran and Fagan laughed as he stumbled. Danny laughed, too. He really was getting clumsy.

They climbed into the car, Danny taking his place in the back seat as Fagan drove and Curran took the passenger’s seat. Fagan started up the engine, turned the car around and headed up the snow-covered access road carefully, then onto River Road that would take them back towards the city. Curran turned on the radio, music lilting into the car’s cabin.

In the back seat, Danny felt himself beginning to relax, his fatigue settling over him, let himself drift with the music, closing his eyes for a few long moments.

The meeting had made him miss seeing Dr. Black today, but he could always do that tomorrow. He should have a lot of free time now, time to himself. He could concentrate on spending time with Black now, working on getting himself off the drug.

Speaking of which, it was time for another dose. He’d used up everything he’d had on him yesterday. But he could get more at the pub when they got there. There was always plenty there.

He opened his eyes, looking out the window at the city in front of him, at Curran and Fagan’s silent forms in the front seat. They were on Broad Street now, on the other side of the city from the apartment. Fagan put on his blinker and headed onto the highway entrance ramp, heading east.

East?

“Um, John, you’re going the wrong way, aren’t you?” he asked nervously from the back seat.

Fagan said nothing.

Curran turned slightly in his seat, looked at Danny. His smile was gone now, his pale eyes looking dark in the gathering shadows.

“We’re going to go for a drive, Danny. Have a little chat.”

Danny’s heart skipped a beat, adrenaline coursing through him in a rush. The door locks clicked down around him.

“Owen, I –“

“Shut the fuck up, Danny,” Fagan growled. Danny bit back what he was going to say as he looked at Owen in terror. Curran was still staring at him with that same hard look in his eyes. Danny was forced to look away, tears beginning.

Oh God…God, please… he thought.

They pulled onto Interstate 64. The highway would take them away from the city, through the rural areas between Richmond and Newport News, to the Chesapeake Bay, the Atlantic beyond that. It didn’t take but a few more minutes before huge groves of trees — mostly pines — began lining the road. Danny could just make out their shapes as the sky faded into near darkness.

Finally Owen moved, reaching beneath the seat. He pulled out a black cloth bag, tossed it over the seat. “How about you put that on, Danny?” he said conversationally, returning his gaze to Danny’s face. Danny was crying in earnest now, his breath squeezing his throat as he fought down the panic.

“Owen, I’m sorry…please…”

“Put it on, Danny. Don’t fuck around with me. You’ve done enough already.”

Danny reached for the bag, gave Owen one last imploring look and hesitated. He heard Owen pull the hammer back on the gun before he saw the dark barrel glint in the highway lights, pointed towards him in the space between the seats.

He put the bag on.

~~~

2233 GRACE STREET 6:35 p.m.

Scully dragged herself up the small staircase to the upstairs apartment she shared with Mae, her briefcase feeling for all the world like it was filled with sand or bricks. Despite the full night of sleep she’d gotten the night before, she was still exhausted, filled with restless energy.

Danny hadn’t shown up at the clinic as she’d asked him to, and worry was gnawing at her, making her feel more tired. She fumbled with her keys, but before she could find the right one, the door opened for her. Sean stood there, a broad smile on his face.

“Hello, Dr. Black!” he said jovially, and Scully smiled back at him.

“Hello, Sean, ” she said, putting a hand on the back of his head as she went past him through the door. “What are you up to?”

“Aunt Mae and I were watching a video, but it’s over now,” he replied, following close behind her as she went into the living room. Mae sat on the couch, smiling warmly as Scully entered.

“She’s made it home from work two nights in a row!” she teased, standing. She wore her big turtleneck black sweater, faded jeans. Scully couldn’t blame her. It was always very cold in the old apartment.

“Amazing, isn’t it?” Scully replied, putting her briefcase down by the doorway to the kitchen.

“I’ve got soup on — we’ve already eaten, but there’s enough for you to have for dinner. I bought some bread. Oh, and I picked up a couple of things for you, as well. Some of that bagged salad you seem to like so much. And your disgusting orange juice.” She made a face.

“I can’t believe you don’t like orange juice,” Scully said, playing along. “That’s un American.”

“Ha!” Mae replied, coming forward and pulling Sean against her, patting his chest. “My point exactly. You Americans and your sweets…”

Scully smiled, found herself relaxing into the easy rapport with Mae. She pulled her coat off, gave Sean another brush on the head as she started for the back bedroom.

“Get changed into something good for dancing!” Mae called down the hallway after her.

“Oh, Mae, I can’t go out tonight. I’m too tired,” she called back. “And besides, the day I dance is the day I die.”

She heard laughter, then footsteps in the hallway as she flicked on the lamp at her bedside, tossed her coat onto the neatly made bed. Mae appeared in the doorway.

“I’m afraid you have to come out,” she said, and there was a little regret in her voice. “Owen called a while ago and said he needed to see you tonight.”

“Ah,” Scully replied, blowing out a tired breath.

“But Ian’s band is playing again so it’s bound to be a good time anyway!” Mae added hurriedly, excitement coming back into her voice.

“I’ll meet with Owen,” Scully replied, “But I’m not going to be up for much more. I’m on call tonight and need to be able to get to the hospital if I need to. It can’t be a late night.”

“That’s no problem,” Mae said. “I’m going to have to leave at around ten to take Sean back to Owen’s place and stay with him until Owen finishes what he’s doing at the pub. I’ll drop you off on the way. How’s that?”

“That sounds good,” Scully replied, going to the dresser and pulling out her jeans, a black cardigan. “Thank you.”

“I’ll leave you to get dressed then,” Mae said, reached in and pulled the door closed.

Scully sat on the side of the bed near the night table, sighed, rubbing her forehead. She wasn’t up for going out at all, but she needed to act as normal as possible right now. And she needed to start spreading the word that she would be leaving. The sooner she told Owen, the sooner Flaherty could begin finding a replacement for her.

Though she didn’t want to leave the operation at all at this point, she had her orders. She would tell Owen tonight while the opportunity to tell him in private presented itself. She would tell Mae tonight, too. And Danny….well. She would tell him soon.

The thoughts filled her with more nervous energy. She hoped getting out of all this went as smoothly as getting into it had.

Glancing around restlessly, her eyes fell on the snowglobe, shining in the lamplight. She picked it, shook it. She watched the flakes spin for a moment, her breathing leveling out.

Soon, Mulder, she thought, a warm smile coming through her exhaustion. It would all be over soon. She took comfort in that thought as she replaced the snowglobe on the table and began to slowly undress.

~~~

RURAL ROUTE 19 LIGHTFOOT, VIRGINIA (56 MILES FROM RICHMOND) 7:03 p.m.

They’d been off a paved road for some time now. Danny could tell from the rocking of the car, the crunching sound of snow beneath the tires. The rocking of the car made him feel vaguely nauseated, though that could be from the suffocating feeling of the bag over his head, as well.

He hoped that was where the headache, which had returned as they’d driven, was coming from, as well.

He’d stopped crying some 30 minutes before, though his breathing was still shallow and panicky, his shaking fingers stretched white around his thin knees. Fagan and Curran hadn’t said a word since Curran had told him to put the bag on. They’d been driving for a long time since then.

Once he had stopped crying, he’d tried to concentrate on the movement, the direction the car took as it left the interstate. He was trying to get his bearings, should he need to know the direction to the highway.

Plus, it gave him something else to concentrate on. Besides how dire his circumstances were becoming.

The car began to slow, turning. It came to a halt, the engine remaining on. He heard the doors unlock, then both car doors open, Curran and Fagan both climbing out of the car. Then the door to his left opened and a hand clamped down on his upper arm roughly.

“Get out of the car, Danny.” It was Fagan. The grip told him that before the voice did.

He stumbled awkwardly out and to his feet, nearly falling as he was pushed up against the trunk, his arms going out in front of him to break his fall, his hands ending up flat on the cool metal. Fagan grabbed one of his arms, twisted it up behind him. He felt the cold bite of handcuffs on his wrist. He struggled a bit uselessly as Fagan grabbed his other arm efficiently, locking his hands together behind his back and then pulling him up away from the car.

He heard Curran come up in front of him as Fagan held him in place. The bag was jerked roughly off his head. The cold night air hit his sweaty face, chilling him instantly. It only made his trembling worse.

They stood in the twin triangles of the headlights, the only light for miles as far as Danny could tell. They were off a narrow road, in a small clearing of a grove of trees. He met Curran’s probing gaze, his lip trembling.

“You know why you’re here, Danny,” Curran began flatly.

“Aye,” Danny whispered, willing the tears to stop but failing.

“Why are you here?” Curran cocked his head, as though intent on Danny’s answer.

Danny swallowed. “Because….because I went and saw Dr. Black…to try and get off the drug you’ve been giving us.”

“No.” Curran shook his head slowly, as though he were talking to a child. “That’s not why you’re here, Danny.” He took a step closer. “You’re here…” He poked his finger into Danny’s chest, his teeth gritting down. “…because you betrayed me, you son of a bitch.”

“Owen, I’m sorry,” Danny rushed to respond, tears flowing down his face. His breath puffed out in huge clouds in front of his face as his breathing picked up, panic overtaking him. “I haven’t told her anything else,” he lied. “I just feel so bad…this drug –“

“If I’d wanted you off the fucking drug I wouldn’t have put you on it in the first place!” Curran roared, and his hand came up lightning fast. Danny reeled to one side from the slap, Fagan steadying him before he fell.

When he looked at Owen again, Curran had regained his composure again. Danny drew himself up a little, squelching the panic down, nearly choking on it, but getting it down.

He would not go out on his knees. He closed his eyes for a second, promised himself that like a prayer.

“Check his pockets,” Curran said, his eyes not leaving Danny’s as Danny met his gaze now. The tears were still coming of their own volition, but there was strength in his eyes now. He saw Curran smirk a bit at what he saw in his face.

Fagan rifled through his pockets quickly — his jacket, his pants, the frayed ankles of his socks.

“He’s empty,” Fagan said as he stood again.

Curran nodded. “You know what’s going to happen to you, don’t you?” he said softly. “If we leave you out here, this far away from the highway, from access to the drug. You’ve been through a good bit of it, I understand.”

“I know, yes,” Danny said, and his voice shook at the prospect.

“I’m glad.” Owen smiled. “Because that’s what we’re going to do.” He nodded to Fagan behind him.

The next thing he felt was the blow on the back of his head from the butt of the gun. He reeled, his head swimming with the sudden pain. Fagan let him go and he dropped to the ground heavily. He could feel blood seeping from the back of his head and his eyes rolled in his head, fighting off unconsciousness.

“Tie his legs, just in case,” Curran was saying. His voice sounded very far away, as though he were calling through a metal tunnel. Danny tried to look up at him, but couldn’t focus his eyes. He saw a dark stain of blood seeping onto the blanket of snow beneath his head.

A moment later, rough hands on him, his legs tightly bound. The cold settling into him, his whole body shaking.

He saw feet in front of him now. Curran’s boots. One of them kicked out, catching him in the stomach, knocking the wind out of him. He coughed, hunching forward to protect his vulnerable belly from another blow.

“Goodbye, Danny,” Curran said, and Danny watched the boots withdraw, heard the car doors close.

As the car backed up, turning around, Danny tried to call out, but there wasn’t enough air in him to do it. The slow seep of blood continued to dampen the side of his face, mixing with the snow.

His head swam, his eyes lolling. He felt a light wind on his face, freezing cold. Finally, he stopped fighting it, let the world fade to black.

~~~

THE GREY MOUSE PUB RICHMOND, VIRGINIA 8:45 p.m.

Scully sat in she and Mae’s usual table in the back, watching the festivities around the pub blithely, willing the fatigue that clung to her away. Her eyes were once again drawn to the door as it opened, admitting a new group of people into the throng of the pub. There were so many people in there now that she was having a hard time even seeing the door at times. But she kept her eye on it when she could.

Curran wasn’t there yet. She checked her watch again, let out a frustrated breath. She was anxious to get this meeting with him over with. Her nerves were jangling her badly as she wondered how Curran was going to take the news of her leaving. She felt very vulnerable at the prospect of having to tell him, unsure of how he would react, unsure of how it would affect her cover.

She’s always heard that withdrawing from an undercover operation could be harder than getting into it in some cases. Especially when there was an informant to protect, like Flaherty. It had to come out smooth, seamless. She’s been rehearsing what she would say for an hour now, just to make sure it sounded right when it all came out.

Finally, about 10 minutes later, the door opened and Curran and John Fagan entered, both of them boisterously greeted by those closest to the door. She sat up straighter, pushing her empty glass of what was cheap red wine to the side. Curran was looking around the pub, in her direction. He saw her, started towards her through the crowd.

“Katherine,” he said gruffly as he sat in Mae’s chair.

“Owen,” she replied. “I’d started to wonder if you were going to make it at all.”

“Aye,” he said apologetically. “I’m sorry to keep you waiting. I had some business to attend to that couldn’t wait.”

She nodded. “I understand,” she said, and she truly did. She wondered at the status of the bomb, what he might be up to.

He cleared his throat awkwardly, reached into his pocket, pulled out a sheet of paper. She recognized immediately that it was another list of drugs and their amounts, plus the fake names.

“Time for a refill?” she asked tiredly as he handed it to her.

“You could say that, yes,” he replied, and a strange smile came over his face, as though he were enjoying a private joke at her words. She imagined, considering what she now knew the drugs were used for, that he did indeed find what she said amusing. His smile unnerved her, however.

As did the fact that she would be obtaining more of this drug to continue these people’s addiction. She didn’t like being a part of this, endangering these people. She knew, though, that without them they would all surely die. She comforted herself with that knowledge.

“I’ll take care of it tomorrow,” she said, folding up the piece of paper and tucking it into her pocket.

“Very good,” he said, placing his hands flat on the table as though he meant to push himself up and away from the table. She reached out, put a hand on his to halt his upward movement.

“There’s something I need to discuss with you, Owen, something important,” she said softly, and he relaxed back into the chair. He studied her intently.

“What is it?” he asked. “Is there something wrong?”

She looked down, as though gathering herself to speak.

Here it goes, she thought nervously.

“Owen, I’m going to have to leave,” she said softly, still looking down. “I have to go back to Boston.”

His jaw gaped for an instant. “May I ask why?” he asked finally, his voice low, but concerned.

“My mother is very ill,” she replied, going with the story she’d decided to fill in Padden’s vague “family situation.” She shook her head, feigning sadness and disappointment. “She needs me to come as soon as I can.”

He looked at her, his face unreadable. She could tell he was disappointed, but there was something else there, something she couldn’t name. “I’m sorry,” she said, trying to quell whatever the emotion was that he was having. It made her uptight, that look he was giving her.

Finally, he shook his head, shrugged, looked down at the table. “Nothing you can do, I suppose,” he said. “You’ve got to be there for your family. I understand that completely.” He picked up Mae’s nearly empty glass of Guiness, took the long last swallow, returned his gaze to her face. “When would you be leaving then?”

He sounded nonchalant now, but she knew he was anything but. Her leaving presented him with a complicated problem.

“As soon as you can replace me,” she said just loudly enough to be heard over the din of the crowd around them. The band was warming up for another set, as well, drums pounding haphazardly like an irregular heartbeat.

He nodded, but again she saw that same look on his face, the one that unnerved her. There was something…angry?… about it. More than disappointed. Something else.

“That’s fine,” he said flatly. “I’ll get in touch with Mr. Flaherty in Boston tomorrow morning and have him begin looking for a replacement for you. It shouldn’t take too long. Can you wait that long?”

She nodded. “I think so. I’ll wait as long as I can. If it takes too long, I’ll write you several scripts for the things you need to hold you over until a replacement can be found. Would that be all right?”

He nodded. “Sure. No worries. We’ll manage.” He forced a smile.

An awkward silence hung for a few seconds, both of them looking down. She saw him glance at her glass, at Mae’s beer.

“Well,” he said, his voice light and friendly now. “Let me buy you another drink. We’ll drink for your mother’s health and for a speedy replacement for you.”

She was relieved that the story had seemed to convince him, that it was holding. She didn’t really want another glass of wine — her head was a little heavy from the first one — but thought that accepting his gesture would probably be a good thing.

“Sure,” she said, and smiled at him. “I’m just having the house red.”

He stood, took her glass and Mae’s both. “All right, the house red it is. I’ll be right back.” And he disappeared into the crowd around the table.

Every once in awhile she could get a glimpse of him working his way to the bar. He reached it and the bartender came over instantly. Curran leaned forward, said something to the man, something that took a moment. Finally, the bartender nodded, wandered off behind the bar into the back.

Curran looked back, saw her watching him. He smiled again, nodded to her, held up a finger. She nodded back.

Finally the bartender returned, handed Owen the glass of wine, the tall glass of dark beer. Holding them both over his head as he picked his way through the crowd, Curran made his way back to the table, placed her glass in front of her as he sat.

“There we go,” he said cheerfully, and raised the glass in the space between them. “To your mum then. And to your hard work for us.”

She smiled, blushing. She picked up the glass, clinked it softly against his. “Thank you, Owen,” she said softly, and they drank.

The wine had a bitter taste to it, a strange undertone to its flavor. Strong and woodsy and almost nutty.

“This isn’t the same wine I was having before,” she said, looking at it.

“Oh, no, it’s probably not,” Owen replied. “He had to go for another bottle in the back. They were most likely out of what you were drinking before. Is it all right?”

She nodded, took another taste. She liked it. It had body to it. She held it in her mouth for a moment, enjoying the dark flavor. “It’s fine. Good. I just wondered.”

Owen watched her, smiling, his eyes running over her face in that way that made her uncomfortable. It was a wistful, almost sad look, though he tried to hide it with the smile. She found herself blushing again, which he also noticed. He looked hurriedly away.

~~~

LIGHTFOOT, VIRGINIA 10:39 p.m.

The first thing Danny Conner became aware of was that he was freezing. The second sensation, crashing into him as he came fully into consciousness, was that he had a splitting headache.

A very familiar headache.

“Oh God….” he moaned, turned his head, his eyes coming open. There was a big moon out, reflecting off the snow faintly, making the world an odd shade of blue.

He pulled on his arms, his hands numb in the snow behind his back. He kicked with his feet, but found himself restrained there, as well.

“Shit,” he swore loudly. He began to cry again. He tried calling out a couple of times, but the snowy world was so silent it was as if he were the only person left on the earth.

His head pounded and he knew he didn’t have much time. The thought sent a fresh rush of adrenaline through him.

Dr. Black. She would help him. He had to get to a phone. Something.

His breath heaved as he fought down the panic once again. Plus that, getting moving would at least keep him from lying there freezing to death.

He drew his knees up to his chest, his ribs still aching from the kick Owen had given him. Straining, he pushed his arms down as far as he could, pushing his buttocks back until they rested on the cuffed palms of his hands. His shoulders screamed from the strain.

“Just a bit more…” he said, his teeth gritting against the pain.

Finally, his arms slipped over his buttocks to his thighs. He rolled, snow creaking beneath him, until he’d gotten his hands over his feet and his hands were now in front of him. Sitting up quickly, he began to tear at the ropes binding his calves together.

“Come on, come on…” he chanted to himself, his head aching with every fast beat of his heart.

He pulled at the knot, unravelled the rope. Then he pushed himself up to a shaky standing position, his feet unsure beneath him. In the moonlight he could see the dark lines of the tire tracks, leading off into the night.

Slipping now and then, his hands bound in front of him and useless for balance, he started off at a slow jog down the road. His breathing, his heavy steps, were the only sounds in the frozen night.

~~~

2233 GRACE STREET JANUARY 13 1:34 a.m.

Scully sat in front of the television, absently flicking through the channels, the light strobing in the room around her. She sighed heavily, unable to settle on anything that interested her.

She’d given up trying to sleep an hour ago, had risen in her pajamas and robe and gone in to make herself something eat. Maybe she was hungry, she thought, and that was why she couldn’t sleep. She’d heated up and ladelled herself out another bowl of soup, but found that once she started eating it she didn’t want it at all. So that wasn’t it.

She imagined she was having one of those nights like she had in medical school, after pulling a couple of all-nighters in a row. When she would get so tired she couldn’t sleep. She was certainly wired in that way, her head buzzing.

Mae was still out, probably spending the night at Owen’s place with Sean at this point. She’d dropped Scully off at around 10:15 and headed out with the sleeping Sean in the passenger seat of the pickup, saying she didn’t know what time she would be home.

Scully wished Mae was home, though. She would have welcomed the company.

She was on her way back to the sink with her still-full bowl of soup when the phone rang. She nearly dropped the bowl in her surprise at the sound.

Putting her hand over her chest to calm her pounding heart, she went to the phone, which hung on the wall in the kitchen. She was, after all, on call. Maybe it was a patient needing her. One good side effect of the restlessness she felt was that she felt up to going to the hospital if she needed to.

“Hello, this is Dr. Black,” she said into the receiver, standing next to the stove’s small light. The room was otherwise dark.

“Dr. Black? This is Angie with the MCV Emergency Answering Service. You have a clinic patient with an emergency. May I patch the call through?”

“Yes, of course, go ahead,” she replied, reaching up and pushing her hair out of her face, shaking herself even more alert. She heard the line click over, heard the sound of labored breathing instantly.

“This is Dr. Black,” she said, immediately concerned. “What seems to be the problem?”

There were a couple more seconds of silence, then: “Dr. Black…”

She straightened immediately, alarmed. “Danny? What is it?”

“Dr. Black, they know….Owen knows…they…he knows what I’ve..what I’ve done…”

She felt her heart drop about six inches into her stomach, her breath all but stopping. “What have they done, Danny? Where are you?”

Again, just the sound of his heavy breathing. She heard him sniffle, a rough sound against the receiver as though he’d brushed against it with his hand. “I don’t know…I don’t know…”

“Where did they take you, Danny? Talk to me! Concentrate!”

Another beat. “Somewhere off…Interstate 64. I’ve been running…for hours. I finally found…a gas station…a phone booth…your number was still in…in my pocket. No one’s here…no one’s out here…”

Her breathing picked up as well as her adrenaline surged. “What exit, Danny? Do you know? I can get to the airport, rent a car, be there in –“

“It’s too late,” came the whispered reply. He began to sob.

She felt like she had snow in her blood at his words. “Oh God, they left you without the drug, didn’t they? You don’t have any with you.” Her hand went to her forehead again. She looked around helplessly. “Damn it, my sample is at the hospital…”

Her body was taut, poised to move, but she had nowhere to go. “When was your last dose of the drug, Danny? How long do we have?”

There was only the sound of his crying now, the sniffling, the rough sound as he wiped at his face. She could picture him so clearly in her mind. Alone in the night…a phone booth. His nose pouring blood as he trembled, the headache searing him.

“Danny, stay with me,” she implored. “We’ll figure this out. We’ll figure something out. Tell me the name of the gas station where you are.” She grabbed for the white pages on a shelf next to the phone, knocking down several bottles on the counter as she did so.

He continued to cry and she waited, her own breath coming fast as she stood there, the phone book in her hands.

She felt more useless than she’d ever felt in her life.

Her eyes filled with tears. She blinked them back, pinching the bridge of her nose as her lip trembled.

“Dr. Black…” came his whispered voice.

“What is it, Danny?” Her voice shook, though she tried to sound strong, strong for him It was all she could do.

“I just want…I want to go…home…”

The sound was louder than she expected, a sudden very wet noise. Then the receiver dropped, hitting against the phone booth walls. A crashing as his body hit the glass side of the booth and slid to the ground.

The knock of the phone as it swung, the sound growing less frequent almost immediately.

Otherwise, silence.

“No…” she cried into the phone, dropping the phone book onto the counter. She covered her eyes with her hand, the tears overwhelming her now as she slid down against the counter, settling on the floor, curled around herself, her legs drawn up to her chest. She wept openly.

She felt guilty leaving him alone out there in the darkness, wherever he was.

It took her a long time to hang up the phone.

~~~

CHAPTER 16.

~~~

BROAD STREET EXXON 2:25 a.m.

Scully heard music.

It was faint and rhythmic, bleeding through the noise of the occasional car passing by where she sat, huddled on a bus stop bench in the darkness. She looked for the source of it for a long time, her eyes wide as she scanned the station, the slick streets.

Finally, she decided it must be coming from a club well across the wide street, just in sight from where she sat. A blue neon triangle and the words “The Pyramid” marked the black-doored entrance. The occasional person milled in and out — a swaying drunk, a group of twenty-somethings coming out in a knot and a cloud of cigarette smoke, a garish prostitute who looked both ways before heading down the street into the darkness.

She watched all this, but did her best to concentrate on the music, the pulsing of it, tried to slow her breathing down. Wiping the last of the tears away with a gloved hand, she swallowed the rest of the emotion causing them as best she could.

She couldn’t cry. Not in front of him. Not now. And he would be there soon.

The phone booth where she’d called from was ten feet or so to her right, bathed in the pale light of a street lamp. She’d stood with her back to her street as she’d dialed the operator, her hand shaking from cold and distress, and placed the collect call to his cell phone.

When he’d picked up, the operator clicking her over through a haze of static, Mulder’s voice was clear, alert. She could make out the sounds of a television in the background. She hadn’t woken him.

“Scully, what’s wrong?” There was the sound of shifting as she heard him sit up.

“Mulder,” she began, willing her voice to stop shaking. At that point the tears were still coming, but she kept them out of her voice as best she could. “I’m on the corner of Boulevard and Broad, at a phone booth outside an Exxon station. I need you to come get me.”

“Has something happened with your cover?” He was clearly alarmed at her words. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine, Mulder,” she’d replied evenly. Her voice sounded so normal to her own ears that it was maddening, considering the turmoil her emotions were in. “I just need you to come get me for a little while. I need to see you.”

A beat of surprised silence. She could hear his breathing. She had scared him, and she was sorry for that.

“What about Mae Curran?” His voice was terse, urgent. She could hear him fumbling, moving around the room, the sounds of him getting dressed.

“She’s not home,” Scully replied patiently, but her voice trembled a touch again. “I was on call for the hospital tonight — she knows that. I’ve gotten someone else to cover for me, but left a note for Mae saying I was called in for an emergency, that I’d be back after work today at 6:30 this afternoon.”

“God, Scully, what’s happened?” The question sent new tears welling in her eyes, a new lump in her throat.

“I don’t want to talk about it on the phone,” she said softly. “Mulder, we have a whole day. Please…just come get me. I’ll tell you everything once we’re away from here.”

She knew what she was doing, what she was asking him to do. But for now it didn’t matter. Nothing mattered but getting away from all of this for a little while and seeing him, being with him.

“I’m on my way,” he’d replied after another beat. “Stay out of sight as best you can. I’ll find you.”

“All right,” she’d replied, and hung up the phone because she knew he wouldn’t say goodbye.

A bus lumbered to a halt in front of the bench she sat on, the door swinging open, the bus driver looking at her expectantly. She met his eyes and shook her head once, then returned her gaze to the street. The bus grumbled away.

After a few more moments, a dark car arrived in the turn lane on Broad, coming fast. She could see his profile in the dim light of the street. He U-turned, bumped into the driveway to the gas station, seeing her in the dark beside the phone booth immediately. Pulling up to just behind the bench, he stopped the car abruptly, the vehicle jerking to a halt, and leaned over to throw the passenger door open.

She took in a deep breath, stood, glancing around nervously to see if anyone might be watching her, then slipped into the car, closing the door behind her.

She turned and met his gaze, relief coming over her as she drank in the sight of him. His hair was slightly mussed from lying in bed, the dark shadow of a day’s growth of beard on his face. She saw the worry immediately appear on his face as he looked at her.

She hated that it was always so obvious when she’d been crying.

She found herself looking down at the seat, trying to keep her eyes from him, her hand going up to hide the swelling around her right eye before he saw it in the darkness.

Too late. His hand came out, pushing hers down. He cupped the side of her face, his thumb running over the knot softly. She found herself unconsciously leaning into his touch, into the warmth of his hand.

“It’s all right,” she said, catching herself almost immediately. She shook her head, reaching for his hand and pulling it down, holding it between both of hers. She wasn’t ready for tenderness from him. The tears were too close. She met his eyes again, which were wide and worried but still gentle as he looked at her.

“Please take me away from here,” she whispered, and was proud of herself that she didn’t cry as she said it.

He nodded mutely, turned to face forward again, removing his hand from her grasp for the moment. He threw the car into drive, pulled out onto the Boulevard, heading north away from the city. The ribbon of Interstate 95, trucks roaring by in flashes of light and color, appeared in the distance.

“Where are we going?” he asked finally into the quiet between them, breaking his silence.

“It doesn’t matter,” she murmured tiredly, leaning her face against the cool of the car window, closing her eyes for a beat. When she reopened them, he was on the entrance ramp to the highway. They merged, a huge sign immediately looming over their lane.

“We’ll go towards Charlottesville,” he said, taking the ramp the sign marked. “It’s about an hour away. That’ll give us plenty of space away from everything here.”

She nodded. “All right,” she replied. She had yet to remove her gloves, to look at him again. She was leaned against the door, as far away from him as she could get for the moment as she struggled to maintain her tenuous control.

She could see him glancing over at her, his face glowing slightly gold in the dashboard lights. “You okay?” he asked softly. “Are you hurt anywhere else?”

“No, nowhere else. I’m all right.” Now she did turn to look at him, though she had to face forward again almost immediately as her eyes burned. She stared out the windshield as the car moved from the outskirts of the city into the rural area beyond, the no-man’s land of farm country between Richmond and the mountains.

“Are you going to tell me what’s happened?” He was gently persistent, trying not to push her too hard. But she could feel the concern coming off him in an almost tangible wave.

She drew in a deep breath, steeling herself, glad for the dense darkness that now pressed in around the car. “Danny Conner is dead,” she said quietly.

His face shot towards her. “What? When?”

“Just a little while ago,” she replied. Her voice was soft, but tight as a fist. “I was on the phone with him when it happened.”

“Jesus, Scully…”

“Owen killed him,” she continued, cutting him off. “He’s found out that he was seeing me for the drug addiction. He killed him for it.”

She could hear a slight squeak as his fingers tightened on the steering wheel. There was a knot in his jaw as she looked over at him again.

“When’s the last time you saw Curran?” he asked, his eyes locked forward.

“Earlier tonight, at the Grey Mouse.” She leaned her face against the window again, relishing the cool against her cheek.

“How did he act towards you?”

“About the same as usual,” she replied. “The problem is…I didn’t know about Danny at that point, and went ahead and told him I needed to leave, to go back to Boston.”

Mulder shook his head. “Shit…” he swore under his breath.

“I know,” she said softly. “If he chooses to look at it the wrong way, it could look bad.” She sighed. “Let’s just hope he doesn’t look at it that way. My cover isn’t in jeopardy, but he does know that I know one of his secrets.”

“What did he say when you told him you were going to be leaving?” Mulder pressed.

“He was disappointed, but he was all right with it. He said they’d try to find a replacement for me as soon as possible.”

Mulder shook his head again. “He’s going to try to keep you from leaving,” he said tersely.

She accepted what he said, knowing he’d been profiling him for all this time, studying him. She sighed again, ran her hand through her hair tiredly, closed her eyes. “I’m going to be careful, Mulder. Don’t worry. I’m going to be wary of him, more than I have been. Just play it out. He hasn’t shown any indication that he was going to hurt me. I understand why he killed Danny — what Danny did was disloyal. What I did could be construed as just part of me being a doctor.”

“I’m not as sure as you are,” he replied, passing a truck on the right, hurling them faster through the darkness, as though the city itself were chasing them now.

She looked down, hesitated, then said it anyway. “I think…I think he has…feelings for me.”

Mulder’s eyes were on her again. “How do you know? Has he tried anything?”

She wanted to smile at how protective he sounded. What he said sounded like the question of a jealous boyfriend, not an FBI profiler.

She shook her head. “No, nothing,” she soothed. “But I did see him get in a confrontation with John Fagan at the pub one night. Fagan has been a little…interested, as well.”

His jaw muscles were flexing again. He shook his head, swinging back into the left hand lane. “We need to get you out of there right away,” he said.

“You know we can’t do that,” she replied. “I can’t just disappear. Flaherty’s life would be in danger.”

“Fuck Flaherty,” Mulder spit, anger and frustration overwhelming him for an instant.

“Mulder…” She reached over now, put a hand on his leg to calm him.

He blew out a frustrated breath. She could feel from his thigh how tense he was.

“It’s going to be okay,” she said softly. “We just have to be patient, and careful.”

He turned to her again. “And what is this?” he asked, his voice rising. “You and me out here like this? Is this ‘careful’?”

She looked down at her lap, silent for a moment. “Are you saying you wouldn’t have come if you’d known all that you know now?” she asked finally, her voice just above a whisper.

“Maybe,” he said instantly, haughty.

Though a part of her knew he didn’t mean it, that he was just speaking out of his fear, another part of her was sorely stung.

She turned and looked out the window, removed her hand from his leg, her eyes shining with tears. “I’m sorry I called you then,” she said flatly, struggling to hold the emotion that welled up in check. “Take me back.”

Despite her best efforts, a single tear escaped down her cheek. She wiped it away quickly. She kept her face turned away from him to hide it.

An exit was looming up ahead. He changed into the right lane. Her heart sank as she resigned herself to going back, alone again.

They passed it without him even slowing.

She felt his hand curl around the back of her neck, his long fingers caressing her beneath her hair.

“I’m sorry,” he murmured. “I didn’t mean that. Of course I would have still come.”

She still couldn’t look at him, her lip trembling. It was too much. First Danny. Now this between her and Mulder. When she needed him so badly. She struggled against the sadness in her, the nearly overwhelming sense of frustration, of grief.

Cupping her forehead in her hand, she moved closer against the door, her body stiff, meeting his attempt at connection, at apology, with silence.

Eventually, he removed his hand, trailing it across her leg on its way back to the steering wheel.

“Scully, I’m sorry,” he repeated softly. “I didn’t mean it.” There was something almost desperate in it this time.

She shook her head, kept her face turned away. The tears raced down her cheeks. She brushed them away, concentrated on the faint outlines of trees in the moonlight. She stared at them until the tears stopped, feeling as though some part of her were freezing over, burying itself in an almost welcome, numbing cold.

“Why don’t you try and get some rest,” he said into the stony silence, his voice showing his regret, his hurt. “I’ll wake you up when we get to Charlottesville, when I find a motel. Then we’ll both get some rest, figure this out in the morning.”

She bit her lip. She could not bring herself to answer him once again. She heard him sigh, saw him shake his head in frustration from the corner of her eye.

Finally, she leaned the side of her face against the window, despair settling over her. She pretended to fall asleep.

~~~

THE OVERLOOK MOTEL AFTON MOUNTAIN AFTON, VIRGINIA 4:39 a.m.

The motel had been visible from some distance, a small island of light on a high rise just off the highway. Mulder had watched it approach for several miles, saw the signs on the highway promising “The Best View on Afton Mountain.” Though it was dark and the view wouldn’t matter now, he wondered if some scenery would do Scully good when they woke up in the morning.

He had found himself smiling as they neared Charlottesville and he’d seen the signs for Afton, only a few miles beyond the college town. The distance between them now, the quiet that had stretched for so many miles, had made him immediately nostalgic when he’d seen the signs for the Afton, for the mountain of the same name.

He’d spent the time to himself thinking about their time on the mountain a year ago. Though the experience had been terrifying in so many ways, he found he could think only of the fact that they’d shared their first kiss somewhere on the side of that mountain. It seemed fitting that he drive the extra 20 miles to find their way back to that place.

Or so he hoped as he looked at Scully pretending to sleep beside him. She’d kept her eyes closed, her face angled away from him, for the rest of their drive, avoiding any further conversation with him. It had made him profoundly sad.

The snow was deeper here, as he’d expected, but the parking lot was neatly plowed. He pulled into a parking space in front of the two story building, all the rooms with sliding glass doors and balconies facing the valley behind him. The red “vacancy” sign glowed in the dark beside the office doorway.

Putting the car in park, he unhooked his seat belt, turned to Scully. He put a hand out gingerly and touched her shoulder.

“Hey,” he called gently. As he expected, she opened her eyes immediately, looked at him almost warily. The sadness of the events of her night and the hurt he’d caused was still in her eyes. He found her gaze hard to meet, but managed it.

“I’m going to go in and get us a room,” he continued. “I’ll be right back.”

“All right,” she said softly, looking away. He was relieved that she had at least spoken to him.

He climbed out of the car, keeping it running so the interior would stay warm. Pulling his leather jacket closer around him as a wind blew over the parking lot, he made his way to the office, the door jingling softly as he entered.

Within minutes, he was back outside, a key to one of the second story rooms dangling from his hand. The sleepy manager had promised the room would have the best view of the sun coming up, and that it would have everything they would need. “Even one of them little coffee makers,” the man had said proudly. Mulder had thanked him with a tired smile and headed out the door.

He came back to the car, opened the door. Reaching in, he turned the car off. Scully seemed frozen in place, her eyes staring out the window, as though she were mesmerized by the full, golden moon.

“You with me?” he asked gently. She turned, shook her head slightly as though trying to clear it.

“Yeah,” she murmured, opened her door, climbed out. He met her in front of the car, walked beside her up the staircase, up to the room. She kept her hands in her pockets and her body just out of his reach. He did manage to touch her back with his palm as he opened the door and ushered her in.

He flicked on the light, surveyed the room. It was fairly large but simply furnished — a queen-size bed and a night table on one side, two chairs in one corner around a simple round table, on which sat the promised four-cup Mr. Coffee. A bureau with a mirror beside the doorway to the bathroom, then two cheaply upholstered wing chairs gathered in front of the sliding glass doors that, for now, looked out onto only the dimly lit parking lot and a sea of night beyond.

He closed the door as Scully went to the bureau, pulling off her gloves finally and laying them down on the surface in front of her. He could see in her reflection that her head was bowed, her eyes down as though taking off her gloves required all of her attention. Slowly she began to unbutton her long dark coat, revealing a white work shirt, black pants. She’d dressed for work the next day, he realized.

He peeled his jacket off, went to the table and chairs, draping it over the back of one of the chairs. The room was cold to him, even though he wore jeans, a thick turtleneck, heavy socks and boots. He went back to the door, turned the heater, which was already running on low, up a few notches. He held his hand over the vent, satisfied.

Then he turned back towards her, his hands on his hips. She stood still, her hands on the top of the bureau as though she were bracing herself. Her back was still to him, though he could still see her face in the mirror. It was blank, her gaze remaining down, as though she didn’t want to even look at her own reflection.

He blew out a tired breath.

“Scully, please talk to me,” he murmured into the space between them. Now she did look up slowly, at his reflection in the mirror, their eyes meeting on the smooth cold surface.

“I’m sorry,” he said again. “I’m so sorry for what I said.”

She nodded, bit her lip. “I know,” she said quietly. “I know you didn’t mean it.” She averted her eyes again, and he saw a suspicious shine begin in them. She shook her head, stood up straight, tugging her shirt down as though trying to put herself back together in some way.

“Look,” she said, trying to sound casual, but her voice was trembling. “I’m just going to take a quick shower…get cleaned up.” She reached up and brushed a strand of hair behind her ear. He noticed that her hand was shaking slightly.

“Scully,” he implored. “Please don’t walk away from me.”

“I’ll be right out, okay?” she said, sniffed. “I’ll just be a minute.”

And she fled, closing the bathroom door behind her. He heard the water start up almost immediately, a soft hiss filling the room.

Looking down, he shook his head. He ran a hand through his hair in frustration, rubbed at his eyes, stood there for a long moment, at a loss.

He could feel the space between them stretching further and further, wide and silent.

He had to do something to reach her. He would do something, even if it meant risking doing more harm. The distance was that intolerable to him.

Knowing he was taking a chance, he crossed the room, sat on the edge of the bed, removing his shoes one at a time, then his socks. He pulled his shirt over his head, tossed it carelessly to the floor, ignoring the cold in the room that struck his bare skin. He stood, unbuttoned his pants, pushed them down over his hips, stepping out of them, leaving them in a hunkered mass at the foot of the bed.

Clad only in grey boxer briefs, he went to the door to the bathroom. He hesitated, his palm on the smooth surface, then his forehead, as he listened for any sound besides the running water. He heard nothing.

Pulling in a deep breath, steeling his nerves, he reached for the knob, turning it quietly, and stepped into the billow of steam on the other side.

~~~

She stood beneath the stream, the water almost too hot to stand.

The cheap, sharp smelling motel shampoo ran down her body in rivulets of bubbles as she smoothed her hands over her hair again and again, trying to smooth the turmoil of feeling out, as well. It reminded her of the way her mother had stroked her hair to soothe her when she was a little girl, and she took great comfort in the motion.

Bending her neck, she angled her head so that the water ran down her forehead, the top of her head, sending it over it her eyes, down the back of her neck. She let herself drift in the rising steam, in the gentle sound of water running as it echoed on the tiles around her.

For a moment, she lost it all. Danny on the phone. Mulder outside the door. For a moment she lost even herself, her mind as clear as the water, as blank as the walls.

Then, a hand on her shoulder, fingers closing down gently on her skin.

She jumped, gasping. She hadn’t even heard him come in through the flimsy curtain.

“Shhh…” he whispered, his lips on her ear, his other hand coming down on her other shoulder. “It’s okay…” He pulled her gently against him, his body pressing against hers from the back.

She knew that she should resent the intrusion. She even stiffened beneath his hands for a few seconds as a hint of the feeling washed over her.

But just after that feeling came the realization that she hadn’t really wanted to leave him in the room at all. That she just didn’t know what to say to him, and she didn’t want him to see her should she begin to cry again, to lose control.

Now his lips were beneath her ear. He nuzzled at her gently, his hands slipping down her arms, then beneath them, until they rested on her waist and in the stream of water.

It was too much, this closeness to him. His touch. The feelings rose up in her like a breaking wave. She tilted her head back against him, tears coming. Her breath caught in them. She bit her lip, her brow creasing down as she shook her head in frustration.

“I don’t want you to see me like this,” she whispered, and his grip on her waist tightened.

“It’s okay…” he repeated, his lips on her throat, sending a shiver down her body. She leaned back into him, turned her face into his, her lip still between her teeth as she shook her head again.

“Yes, Scully,” he murmured. “I’m here…”

Her body shook, the tears mingling with the water still on her face. His arms went around her waist now, his palms flat on her belly. He pressed his face against hers as she cried openly now, her hands gripping his forearms.

“I can’t do this anymore…I can’t…”

“Yes, you can,” he replied, his lips against her cheek, then gently brushing the bruise beneath her eye. “You’re doing so well. You’re doing great work on this.”

“But Danny–“

He pulled her tighter. “That’s not your fault. You did everything you could to help him. You know you did.”

She wanted to believe him so much, but she couldn’t. Not completely. Her head dropped forward to her chest, the tears still coming, and she said the words she had needed to say for weeks now, but could not.

“Mulder, I’m so scared…”

He nodded. “I know you are,” he whispered, leaning over her shoulder to press his lips to her cheek again. “I know. It’s going to work out, though. You’re going to make it through this. You are…”

She turned in his arms now, the water coursing down her back as she buried her face beneath his chin, her arms locking around his shoulder blades. She brushed her lips against his throat, pulling in a shaky breath.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered, her cheek against him now. She held onto him tightly.

He pulled back a bit, reached up and cradled her head between his hands, his thumbs brushing her temples gently. He met her eyes, his expression serious.

“Don’t ever apologize for showing me how you feel,” he whispered. “I don’t want anything to be between us like that. Anything left unsaid.”

She closed her eyes slowly, nodded. He smoothed her hair with his fingers, and she turned her head a bit, leaning into one of his hands dreamily. When she opened her eyes, she couldn’t tell if he was crying or not. His eyes shone.

He leaned down, pressed his lips to her forehead, lingering there.

She closed her eyes, unable to speak. When he pulled away, she turned her face up to him as his mouth came down again. Her lips parted beneath his, the kiss like a secret passed silent between them.

~~~

6:39 a.m.

There was a beacon, the light on a high radio tower on the other side of the mountain, and Scully watched it, hypnotized by the sight of the lazy red light blinking on and off in the waning darkness. The stars were still out faintly on one side of the sky, the other side glowing, filled with snow clouds. The storm was moving in from the west, backlit by the dawn, the clouds like a heavy lid over the sky’s grey-blue eye.

She was curled in one of the maroon wing chairs in front of the sliding glass door, her knees drawn up against her chest, her small nude body wrapped in Mulder’s leather jacket.

She hadn’t moved a muscle in over a half an hour. Her eyes never left the view outside, the light on the radio tower, the storm moving in over the Blue Ridge Mountains, edging its way towards the bluff the motel was perched on. Moving eastward towards the city an hour and a half away that she was desperately trying to forget.

Behind her, Mulder slept.

She craned her neck to look at him. The covers were folded across his waist, his bare chest exposed to the chill in the room. It didn’t matter though — he slept heavy, his breathing audible even over the faint rattle of the motel’s ancient heater. One arm was draped across his belly. The other lay out beside him, palm up, his fingers curled slightly inward. Light from the dim lamp on the night table was cupped there in his palm, pooled in the shadows of his fingers like water.

She’d lain beside him for over an hour after he’d fallen asleep, waiting for sleep to come to her, as well. But she was jittery — her body tired, but her mind busy, filled with random, anxious thoughts. Even his warm presence beside her had done nothing to calm her mind, even when she molded herself into his side, one of his legs trapped between both of hers, her arm tight around his chest, her cheek resting on his shoulder. He’d turned his lips to her forehead, caressing her hairline, murmuring softly to her that he loved her as his eyes finally drifted closed.

She’d stayed pressed close to him, waiting as she listened to his breathing slow and grow deeper, the arm he had draped over her shoulder growing heavy. Sensing that she would not wake him, she’d risen up on an elbow, her fingers smoothing down the sparse hair on his chest, taking comfort in the full, even rise and fall of his breathing beneath her hand. She watched his face for awhile. It was turned toward her and away from the lamplight, sending his features into velvet shadow.

Thoughts went relentlessly through her head like cars on an endless train. Curran’s face when she’d told him she would be leaving. Sean going through the deck of cards at the Cathedral. Danny’s last words on the phone, just before he slipped away from her. “I want to go home….”

She’d closed her eyes against the thoughts, wincing at that final memory. The peace she sought with Mulder fled her. She worried, too, that she was bringing something dark and unwelcome into their space, the space they’d worked for a year to hold only for them. Wracked with a tumult of feelings, one of which was guilt at not finding some peace with him here when their time was so short, she’d risen and padded softly away.

Which brought her to where she was sitting, shivering despite the thick jacket, her gaze moving over his still form on the bed.

The tears came suddenly again and she squeezed her eyes closed against them, which only sent them down her cheeks more quickly. A hand, slightly trembling, went to her mouth, covering it as though she meant to silence herself.

She could not understand why the emotions were so close to the surface, how she had so little control of them. She must just be so tired, she thought, the strain of the past few days making her raw, edgy. That must be it.

For the first time in her life, she could not seem to fathom her own heart.

It would be over soon, she reminded herself, pulling in a shaky breath that caught in her throat. All of this. She looked around the motel room, the sight of the strange room and the familiarity of Mulder painfully juxtaposed, making her feel unreal, lost and out of place.

Her eyes settled on him again, and her mind grasped onto the sight of him as though she were holding onto a rope. She remembered how she’d felt when he’d come into the shower, following her, refusing to let her push him away. The way he’d held onto her waist so tightly, as though afraid she would slip away from him.

Away from him completely, into that other, secret world.

She wiped her eyes roughly, as though shaking herself awake from the threat of a deep sleep. There had been another time when she knew they’d both felt her drifting away. It felt like a lifetime ago — her sitting at the stern of a wooden boat, attached to him by a thin line as he stood on that seemingly impossible shore.

She had not let herself go then. And she would not do it now.

With that thought she rose, shedding the jacket on the chair. She walked towards the bed.

Lifting the covers, she slipped beneath them, moved towards him until she was flush against his side once again. Then she reached down and lifted the blankets off his waist, pulling them down, past his hips, then his thighs, then his knees. He did not stir.

The tears came again as she pressed her lips to the column of his throat, his breastbone. The scar on his shoulder. The other over his ribcage, in the thin space between his ribs. The bump of his hipbone. The soft hair beneath his navel. The inside of his thigh.

He began to move in his sleep, drawing in a deep breath as his legs shifted slowly.

Outside a gust of wind creaked against the flimsy door frame. She pushed the sound away, curled an arm around his calf, grasping him behind the knee gently to halt his leg’s movement, her other hand smoothing over his hip.

She lowered her head, her hair falling across his abdomen…

A sudden intake of breath. She could sense by the tenseness of his body that he had awakened. She did not have to look up to know his eyes were on her, his gaze like a sudden heat. Her cheeks flushed with it.

After a moment, he whispered her name into the quiet, his hand coming up and stroking her hair, brushing it back behind her ear, giving him, she knew, a view of her face as she moved.

It only took a few more moments for his breath to hitch again, now with desire, his legs shifting despite her grasp. He moaned softly, his right hand coming up to join the left, alternately smoothing down her hair and caressing the side of her face.

As much as she loved giving him this kind of pleasure, a pleasure he couldn’t contain or hide, it wasn’t enough for her. Not now.

Pulling back, she trailed soft, open-mouthed kisses up his body now, over his side, across one dark nipple. His arms went around her as she rolled slowly on top of him, her thighs coming down on either side of his hips. She kissed his chest, then lifted her face so she could look into his eyes.

As in the sky outside, a storm was moving into his eyes as well, one filled with rich desire. But she saw concern there, too, felt him stroking her back as if in comfort. It wasn’t until she saw this in his expression that she realized she was still crying, her lower lip trembling.

He started to speak, but she reached up and covered his lips with a finger, shaking her head. He swallowed back his words, and after a few seconds nodded. She then replaced the finger with her lips, his mouth opening beneath hers, the kiss immediately deep, searching.

Her fingers tangled in his hair, still mussed from the shower, drawing him up from the pillow. His hands cradled her head between them, his fingers caressing her brow.

They stayed that way for a long time.

Finally, she leaned back on her knees, watched his face as she guided him inside her.

He bit his lip, his eyes squeezing closed as he held back a moan, honoring her desire for silence. As she leaned back a bit, her hands on his belly, his own hands found her breasts, and she arched her back, pushed herself against them, her head tilting back. Tears raced from the corners of her eyes, down her temples. She was helpless against them as the world narrowed to sensation, to image.

His knees drawing up behind her, deepening their contact so much that she gasped with the suddenness of it, shuddering…

His dark eyes watching her so intently, so much so that she felt as if she encompassed, for him, the entire world…

Sweat dewing them both despite the chill in the room, single drops running slowly down the length of her spine, the center of her chest, down his forehead, his temples…

Then Mulder’s eyes clenching closed as she leaned down, her lips trailing down his face, his hands on her hips, pushing into her with such intensity.

Her head fell back as she thrust against him, waiting for the tightening of her muscles, waiting for the readying of her body for release.

After several long moments, she realized that it would not come.

She could see the look of questioning, concern in his eyes as he looked up at her, wordlessly urging her to let the pleasure take her. But she knew that her body was not responding as it usually did to him. Something — fatigue, anxiety — was getting in the way.

Though a part of her was a bit disappointed, she refused to let it take away from the experience of being with him.

She could sense his concern, as well, especially when his hands left her hips, his thumbs moving down to the place where their bodies were joined. She reached down, shaking her head, and took his hands in both of hers, bringing them up to her lips. He looked at her, puzzled, again, but accepted what she wanted. She released his hands and they returned to stroking her waist, her breasts, her hips.

Leaning forward onto her hands on either side of his head, she increased the rate, the depth of her movements, her face over his now. She had not had the experience of watching him like this, of concentrating completely on his pleasure and being able to see it play over his face. There was something about being able to do this that made their lovemaking that much more intimate to her.

His eyes were wide, his breathing laboring. He was trying to hold back, struggling for control, waiting for her. She smiled to him, shook her head, then kissed him. She kept her face close as she continued to move, her own breath fanning his hair.

She could feel his entire body tightening, shaking with his need for release.

“Mulder, let go,” she whispered breathlessly, breaking the silence.

He shook his head, his fingers digging into her hips. “No…”

“Yes….please. For me.” Tears began again in her eyes as she said it. She meant what she said so much it tore at her.

She could see his brow crease down as he saw the tears, but he had heard what she said.

He pushed up hard against her, his hands cupping her breasts now. She moaned, leaned down further to allow him access to them with his mouth, and he nuzzled against her chest, his teeth nipping, his tongue smoothing over the silken skin of her nipples.

Then he leaned his head back against the pillow, his eyes squeezing shut once again as he gasped.

A few more thrusts and then he was shaking, his hips moving in slow, instinctual thrusts. He moaned deeply, said her name in a trembling, deep voice. She held his face between her hands as he shook beneath her, his eyes coming open and meeting her tender smile and gaze. Color flushed his face suddenly as his hips slowed their movements beneath her.

Finally she felt him beginning to relax, his eyes closing, his breathing still hard but evening out. She leaned down and kissed his mouth, lingering there. She moved her lips to his forehead, his cheek, his temple. His hands stroked her back.

“I’m sorry…” he whispered, pushing her hair behind her ears and meeting her eyes.

She shook her head. “Don’t be,” she murmured, and smiled to him again through her tears. With that, she draped her body down on top of his, shifting her legs so that they lay between his, her head under his chin.

They lay still for a long moment, their breathing settling, relaxing against each other. He kissed the top her head, rubbing his cheek against her still-damp hair.

Suddenly, her pulse pounded in her ears. The fatigue that had clung to her before settled in hard and she thought for an instant that she might fall asleep right there on top of him. A vague sensation of vertigo gripped her.

“Mulder…” she whispered into his throat, a touch of fear in her voice as she held onto his shoulders.

“It’s all right…” He nuzzled at her, kissed her forehead.

“No…” she breathed. “I’m dizzy…”

He held onto her and gently rolled her to the side, then on to her back, taking a place beside her, his upper body over hers so that he could look into her eyes. His eyes were serious, concerned, taking in her face. He stroked her hair softly as she closed her eyes against the wash of fatigue and dizziness.

“Are you all right?” he whispered. He put an arm around her, gripping her ribcage just below her breast as though trying to balance her.

Almost immediately, the feeling began to ebb and she opened her eyes, looked up at him. His expression was so tender and worried that she gave him a small smile. “I’m okay,” she murmured. She stroked his cheek. “Just tired, I think.”

It was the only explanation she could come up with for the strange feelings, and though he looked dubious, he accepted what she said, reaching down to bring the blankets up over them. He lay down next to her, pulling her into the crook of his arm so that her head rested beneath his chin. Craning his neck, he kissed her forehead. She relaxed, her body curved around him.

She smiled to herself as she felt the peace settle over them. The distance that had been between them before was finally gone, exorcised. Now it was just the two of them, their private space returned to them.

“I love you,” she whispered against his skin, and she felt rather than saw him smile, his lips on her hair.

“I love you, too,” he replied gently. “Now I want you to sleep, okay? You need to get some sleep.”

He was already halfway there himself. She could feel his body growing warm and heavy.

“I’ll try,” she whispered, curling her arm around his chest and settling down completely against him.

As she felt him drift on into sleep, she looked out the glass door she’d been sitting in front of before. It had begun to snow, huge flakes that glowed almost blue in the dawning light.

Like the snowglobe Mulder had given her for Christmas. She had a sudden, very real vision of herself, sitting on the bed in Mae’s apartment, shaking the globe, the flakes swirling, identical to the ones before her in the window.

She shook off the strange vision, blinked it away and pulled Mulder closer.

An inch of snow had collected on the balcony railing before she finally fell into a light, dream-filled sleep.

~~~

CHAPTER 17.

~~~

2233 GRACE STREET 10:37 a.m.

Owen Curran had arrived early at the apartment Mae shared with Katherine Black, and had decided without a moment’s thought to go ahead and let he and Sean in with his key.

Sean made straight for the television, flicking through the cable television channels with an ease that Owen found decidedly American and thus a tad unnerving. He eventually settled on some channel that advertised itself as the Cartoon Network, proceeded to sit a foot and a half away from the screen, kneeling, his hands still jammed in his coat pockets. Then he sat in rapt silence, mesmerized by the multicolored creatures playing across the small screen.

Curran watched all this from the counter in the kitchen where he was sipping a glass of orange juice from the fresh carton he’d found in Mae’s refrigerator.

“So this is what Mae lets you do when I bring you over here?” Owen grumbled, and Sean turned, looked down like a puppy who’d been caught with a shoe.

“Sometimes, Daddy,” he replied. “Only sometimes.”

Owen grunted at Sean’s attempt to cover his sister’s ass. He’d have a talk with her about this when she got in. With Sean not being in school, and having not been for some time, Owen didn’t want his son’s mind being rotted out. He wanted his son outside, out in the world. At least as much as their lives could allow. He sighed at the thought.

For now, he reminded himself. Just for now.

Taking the glass of juice with him, he wandered down the shotgun hallway of the ancient apartment, passing Mae’s room, the door opened and revealing a riotous mess of clothes strewn across the floor, an unmade bed. Dull white light was coming in the two windows, the snow still falling outside from the storm that had begun earlier that morning.

The sight made him smile a bit. One thing about Mae, he thought. She was predictable. Even in her tendency to scatter a mess everywhere she went.

Going down the hallway a bit more, he passed the small bathroom, then came upon what could only have been Katherine Black’s room. The closed door alone told him that.

He reached for the door knob, pushed the door opened with a creak, peered inside.

The first thing he noticed was the light aroma in the room, a slightly stronger version of the faint fragrance he picked up from Katherine when he sat across from her, a clean, bright scent that managed to permeate even the dense fog of cigarettes at the Mouse. He found himself inhaling deeply, savoring the unique, utterly feminine smell.

The second thing he noticed was that the room was impeccably neat, the bed made smooth, the two cheap pillows placed just so at the base of the metal-slatted headboard. There was nothing on the floor anywhere, save the cheap, mismatched rug. A small cosmetic bag centered on the dresser, a gathering of bottles of creams and things. On the night table, a small travel alarm and something else, something he couldn’t identify from the doorway. He stepped inside the room further to investigate.

Picking up the snowglobe, he peered at the scene inside, wondered at why someone as no-nonsense as Katherine would have something so trivial and frivolous. It wasn’t even a nice one, he thought, giving it a rough shake, listening to the sound of the water sloshing.

It must have sentimental value, he decided, placing it carefully back down on the night table. The thought bothered him for some reason he couldn’t name.

Emboldened now that he was inside the room, he went to the closet, looked at the neat rows of shirts, pants, jackets, shoes. The two dark suitcases stacked on the shelf at the top.

Everything had a place, and was in it, he thought wryly, closing the door.

Just then, he heard a noise below him, the front door to this side of the duplex opening. It would have to be Mae — there was no one in the other apartment on this side, and only one occupant on the other side, a young man who was gone sometimes for weeks at a time travelling for work. Mae pretty much had the place to herself, which was why she’d chosen it in the first place.

They’d both learned the value of privacy, the necessity of it for the work.

He retreated from the bedroom quickly, pulling the door closed and making his way back up to the kitchen and living room area just as Mae came in the door, covered with a fine dusting of snowflakes.

“You’re early,” Mae said softly, and he could tell immediately there was something in her expression, something clouding her over.

“Aye,” he replied, doing his best to ignore it. He didn’t really have the time or the inclination to get into anything with her.

Mae pulled off her coat and scarf, hung them on the rack by the door, came into the kitchen, picking up the kettle and going to the sink with it immediately for tea.

He heard it fill for a moment before she spoke.

“I’ve just come back from breakfast with Ian,” Mae said, their backs turned towards each other. He took another swig of the orange juice, made a face at the incredibly strong taste of it, swallowing it quickly to get it over with, his eyes on Sean and the television.

“Oh?” he replied, feigning interest. He knew what was wrong with her now.

“Yes,” she replied. “He said…he said that Danny Conner didn’t come home yesterday after a meeting with you. Not all night or this morning either.”

“That’s a shame,” Owen said flatly, facing her now as she finished filling the kettle and set it gently on the stove. Her eyes were down, remaining down even after she’d turned on the burner. She hesitated for a moment.

“What happened to him, Owen?” she said quietly, so that only he could hear. She turned to him now, meeting his eyes. There was something dark in her gaze, and he sensed the challenge immediately.

“Don’t you go asking questions you really don’t want to hear the answer to, Mae.” He put the glass down, his eyes not leaving hers.

She closed her eyes, shook her head, blew out a pained breath. “For the love of Christ, Owen, why?” Again, she pitched her voice low, mindful of Sean in the next room, just over the counter and the dingy couch.

“I don’t think you want to know,” he said, trying to warn her off again.

“I do,” she replied instantly, her voice hardening with her resolve.

He crossed his arms across his chest. “All right,” he began, glancing at Sean to make sure he was still engrossed in the television. He was. “The little bastard has been seeing Katherine to try and to get off the drug.”

He saw her tense up immediately at the mention of Katherine’s name. And at the mention of the drug. It was an old argument between them, and this wasn’t going to help bury it, for certain.

“That fucking drug?” she hissed. “He wanted to get off that drug and you killed him for that? Jesus Christ, it’s bad enough you put all these people on that stuff and turn them into fucking zombies, but now this?”

“Aye,” he said, his voice just above a whisper, and angry. “And it’s not about the fucking drug, Mae, and you know that. I don’t need to explain myself to you.” Something dangerous crept into his voice and he stared her down.

“Don’t you take that tone with me,” she warned, her face hardening. “Not with me.” She didn’t flinch as she looked at him. “Danny was sick on that drug. They all are. I don’t blame him for trying to get off it.”

“They’re on that drug for a reason, Mae,” he replied, his voice still angry. He caught himself though, decided to choose his next words carefully. There was only so much Mae actually knew about the drug, only so much he wanted her to know. He drew in a deep breath and spoke more calmly.

“They’re on it so that I know they can be trusted to do the work. Danny decided he didn’t want to be a part of that. Then so be it. But if he’s not with us, he’s against us, as far as I’m concerned, and anyone against us, well…you know what happens to them. What’s always happened to them.” He looked at her, probing her with his gaze as though trying to strip her anger away with his eyes. Then he said the words he knew would silence her.

“And incidentally, since when are you so squeamish about that? After all these years, eh?”

She shook her head, looked away. He had her there and he knew it. Reminding Mae of the things she had done usually shamed her out of whatever high-horse she’d climbed on. She had no defense against her past.

He could tell from the heavy, resigned sigh she let out that she was giving in to him, leaving him be about Danny.

The television continued to chirp and bang in the living room. Sean laughed delightedly at something he saw, the sound jarringly out of place with the conversation they were having. Owen looked over at Sean, taking comfort in the sound of his son’s laughter.

“I want you to promise me something,” Mae said after a moment, and he looked back at her.

“If I can,” he said evenly.

She looked up at him sharply at his response. “No, I really want a promise from you. For me.”

He thought about it a moment, his haughtiness coming out of him a bit at the earnestness of her gaze. He really didn’t want to fight with her. Besides Sean, and he supposed John Fagan, she was all he had left in the world.

“What is it?” he asked softly.

“I don’t want you to hurt Katherine,” she said softly, seriously. “She’s not a part of any of this, no matter what she knows about the drug. Just find a replacement for her and let her go home. Please.”

He was quiet for a moment. She’d never made such a request of him before. Never singled someone out like that. He’d never seen her be so loyal to someone who was not him or Sean.

A feeling crept into his gut as he let that fact sink in. Simmering anger. Resentment, running deeply through him. Warring with the other emotions that he had surrounding Katherine — the respect he had for her, the nearly uncontrollable desire. All coming together in a confused mass of conflicting feelings.

Outwardly, he gave Mae a small smile, forcing himself into composure. “I won’t hurt Katherine,” he said softly, wanting to believe what he said was true when he saw the look of relief that came over Mae’s face.

“You promise me that?” she pressed.

He nodded simply. “Aye,” he murmured. There was something almost sad now in his voice, but she didn’t pick up on it. She smiled, nodded.

“Thank you, Owen,” she said softly. The kettle began to whistle lowly behind her and she turned away from him to retrieve it. She put it down on one of the cool burners. “I’ll be right back — go ahead and make you and Sean a cup.”

“All right,” he replied, matching her tone. “Take your time.” And she departed down the hallway to the bathroom, closing the door behind her.

He waited a few seconds as a moment of hesitation came over him.

Then he moved as he had always moved. With purpose.

He went to the refrigerator, pulled out the carton of orange juice he’d just opened, the one he’d suffered through a glass of just for the sake of opening it because he knew that Mae never would have. Not for her, and not for Sean, either. They both hated the stuff with a passion. He wasn’t particularly fond of it himself. It was like drinking thin, strongly flavored syrup.

Which made it perfect for his needs.

Reaching into his pockets, he pulled out four smokey glass vials.

He’d emptied them all into the carton, shaken it and replaced it in the refrigerator well before the door to the bathroom opened and Mae came back out to join him.

~~~

THE OVERLOOK MOTEL AFTON MOUNTAIN AFTON, VIRGINIA 11:17 a.m.

Her fingers were twined tightly in his hair, holding his face alongside hers as she threw her head back and gasped with him. Their breathing was the only sound in the room, the only sound in the falling snow that had draped the world outside in stillness, silence.

She pushed back against him dreamily, into his abdomen against her lower back, pressed her legs down against his, the fronts of his thighs tight to the back of hers. His arms squeezed around her as she did so, his right across her side, his left beneath her in the curve of her waist. His hands trailed up now from between her legs to her waist, holding her there as his chest heaved against her back.

Gradually her grip on his hair loosened and she simply ran her fingers through the damp strands. She turned her upper body slightly so that she could kiss his mouth and the rough contours of his face for a long moment, closing her eyes as he returned the kisses tenderly, first her lips, then her cheeks, her brow. Finally, he buried his face against her throat, nuzzling her dewed skin slowly.

Eventually she pulled her arm back down, gripping his forearms as they both settled their heads back on the pillow, still breathing hard. She hummed softly, smiling, her eyes still closed, as he pinned her in a firm embrace, his lips brushing against the crown of her head.

“Hmm…thank you,” she whispered, shifting her legs so that she could rub her foot against his calf. She felt him smile at her words.

“You’re welcome,” he murmured, nudging his nose into her hair and kissing the back of her neck now, lingering there. “Though I feel like I should be thanking you…” She smiled, as well, as his warm breath sent a shiver down her body.

They were quiet for a long time, drifting, almost dozing again.

Then someone started up a car, the high cough of the engine coming through the thin glass of the door to the balcony. Scully opened her eyes, shifting slightly with the sound. It was a sudden reminder that there was a world outside the room, a fact that she’d been doing her level best not to think about. It was so easy to just lie here with Mulder, in the warmth of the bed, his arms tight around her, his body so close to hers.

But there was much to be concerned about, and it slowly began to seep back into her awareness.

He must have felt the change, as well. A subtle tenseness in her body, a tell-tale stillness. He lifted his head off the pillow, pressed his lips to her temple for a few seconds, then whispered into her ear.

“Not yet?”

She shook her head, her grip tightening on his arms. “I’m sorry,” she replied. “I can’t help it. It’s getting late and I’m a little worried about the snow…about a lot of things…”

“I know,” he said softly, leaning back down on the pillow again, sighing. “I know you are. I am, too.”

The time glared back at her as she looked at the clock. Almost noon now. She moved again slightly, anxiety beginning in her.

“Are you hungry?” he asked, sensing her need to act now, which she appreciated. “There’s a little restaurant just down the road. We passed it on the way in. We could get showered, go get something to eat. Talk this out.”

She considered this for a beat. “I’m not hungry, but I’ll sit with you while you eat, have some juice or something.” She yawned heartily, stretched back against him, his hands coming up to her ribs as he pressed another kiss just below her ear.

“You need to eat something,” he said as she pushed herself into a sitting position, her legs dangling over the side of the bed. She stretched again. She’d slept fitfully, and for only a few hours, and she felt like it. Maybe forcing herself to eat would help her feel a little better, give her more energy to face going back.

With this in mind, she nodded, turned back to him.

“I’ll try, okay?” She reached a hand down and cradled the side of his face, her thumb running over his lip lightly. He returned her nod, ran a hand down her back as she rose. The room was cold and the sweat on her body chilled her instantly.

She looked down at him, lying there still on his side. He’d risen up on one elbow, the blanket covering half his hip. He met her gaze, and she could see the worry he’d had the night before on his features, etched into his dark eyes.

“It’ll be all right, Mulder,” she murmured, and he hesitated, as though he were going to say something. He bit it back, though, and finally nodded. She could tell from the resigned look on his face that he wasn’t at all sure of what she said.

That was only fair, she thought as she withdrew to the bathroom. Because neither was she.

~~~

CASEY’S DINER AFTON, VIRGINIA 1:18 p.m.

Scully had ordered eggs, scrambled hard, two pieces of wheat toast, orange juice and coffee, the eggs requested at Mulder’s insistence. Over the sounds of the grill sizzling in the short-order kitchen, of Hank Williams on the radio behind the counter, she listened to Mulder, who spoke at irregular intervals as he dug into his western omelet and the greasy mountain of cubed brown potatoes arching around it.

She had to smile as she watched him eat so voraciously. Lovemaking had always given him a healthy appetite.

She picked at her own food, hoping he wouldn’t notice that she’d only eaten a few bites as she pushed it around the plate.

“If he’s interested in you at all romantically, I don’t think he’s going to be quite as willing to let you leave as he’s acting.” Mulder was saying.

“Well, he can’t make me stay,” she replied, taking a sip of her coffee. “I even told him if he couldn’t find a replacement soon I’d write him scripts for the medications he needs to tide him over until he could. He knows I’m going to leave whether he finds someone right away or not.”

Mulder stabbed at the omelet, thinking. “How have you been with him?” he asked.

She looked at him, perplexed by his question. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, have you been passive with him? Or forward? Like, what do you think he thinks of you at this point?” He ate, waiting for her to respond.

“I’m not sure what he thinks,” she said softly after a moment. “To be honest, he’s always made me a little nervous. He looks at me very intensely, and he’s very nervous around me, too.”

The waitress came by and refilled their coffee with the disinterested expression Scully expected, halting the conversation for a beat.

“I suppose you could say our interactions have been fairly balanced,” she continued after the woman had wandered away. “We’ve spoken almost exclusively about business; he’s asked me to do things for him, and I’ve agreed to do them.” She took a delicate bite her eggs, nearly gagging as she chewed and forced herself to swallow. She decided she must have been more anxious than she was aware of, and put her fork down.

“Has there been any occasion when you disagreed with him?” Mulder asked, leaning forward. “When you’ve reacted against him? Even in a small way?”

She considered this. “Yes, the first night I met him, when he annoyed me with how he talked to me. Like I was property, something he could just order around. I chafed at that, and he knew it.”

“He’s probably admired you since that night for reacting to him that way,” Mulder replied. “Probably no one else in his life does that.”

“No, I don’t think so either,” she said softly. “The closest to doing that would be Mae, but she seems to let him be for the most part. She’s aware of how dangerous he is, I think. She warned me that night to be careful to give him the ‘proper respect.'”

“That’s probably part of the reason he finds you attractive,” he said, and she could see something dark cross his face. The thought clearly disturbed him.

“I think you’re right,” she said softly, took a sip of her juice. She didn’t have the same problem with drinking as she did with eating, and she was glad for that.

“That’s what you have to keep doing.” He put his fork down, worrying a spot on the table with his finger.

“What? Standing up to him?”

“Yes,” he replied, nodding. “You have to do that if he oversteps in any way. It’s your greatest protection at this point. I’m not advocating that you take him on completely, by any means. But he’ll continue to respect you if you show strength, and I think he’ll be more willing to let you go, and less likely to hurt you, if he respects you.”

He met her eyes, concern there. “That is,” he added quietly, “If you’re certain he isn’t showing any signs of hurting you already.”

She shook her head. “No, he’s given me no sign that he plans on doing that. I think if he was going to hurt me, he would have made some sort of threatening comment or gesture to me last night, after he killed Danny.”

She hesitated, then forced herself to continue. “I think you’re right. That the little bit I’ve stood up to him…and him being attracted to me anyway, are working in my favor to protect me.”

She didn’t like the turn she’d made in the conversation. She knew it frightened him. It frightened them both.

He nodded, continued staring down at the spot on the table, his finger still working on it. She looked down at the table as well, into her plate of uneaten food, let out a tired breath.

“If he makes a move, I want you to get out of there.” He looked up now, as did she at the seriousness of his tone. Their eyes locked. “I don’t care about Padden or Flaherty or any of this. I want you to come out right away.”

She looked away from his probing gaze, nodded slightly.

“I mean it, Scully,” he pressed. “I know how much you want to do this right, but I don’t want you risking your life. Not any more than you have already.”

“I know,” she replied softly, and reached across the table to take his hand. “I’ll be careful, Mulder. I am being careful.”

He looked at her seriously, as though he had to make himself believe her. Finally, he nodded, looked out into the light snow still falling, his fingers twining with hers. She followed his gaze out the window. The windshield of their car, parked right in front of the diner, was already covered with a light dusting.

She looked at him across the table, at his face still dark with stubble, his eyes haunted as they took in the scene outside the window. She wanted nothing more than to go back to the motel, check back in, stay another night with him, to feel that sense of safety once again.

Shaking herself free of the thoughts, she sighed, gave his hand a squeeze. “We have to get going,” she said into the silence between them.

It took him a moment to pull his attention away from the view outside as he resisted what she said, to nod and release her hand and pick up his keys and the check.

~~~

BROAD STREET RICHMOND, VIRGINIA 7:03 p.m.

Scully leaned her head against the side window of the #13 bus as it rumbled down Broad, following the partially occluded moon back into the city’s historic Fan District. The snow plows were still out, grinding the streets with sand and salt and giving the streets a bright patina in the headlights and street lights.

She let out a breath. So far, it appeared as though she had eased back into her life in Richmond without a hitch.

She and Mulder had returned around four that afternoon. He had taken her back to the hospital, headed into the huge parking deck that sat on the edge of Interstate 95 and next to the hospital. He’d found a spot in the dim, cavernous place, back in a far corner where there was no one around.

He turned towards her, his expression profoundly worried and sad.

She’d immediately crossed the space between them, her arms going around him, her head beneath his chin. Immediately, his arms circled her, one hand resting on the side of her head, pressing her against him.

They’d held on tightly for a long moment, both of them saying nothing.

Then, knowing she had to go, she turned her face up towards his, kissed him, lingering.

“I’ll see you again soon,” she said, hoping that what she said was true. Considering the alternative wasn’t something she could do just then.

“Yeah,” he’d agreed, pushing her hair behind her ear. “Take care of yourself, all right?”

“I will,” she’d replied. “You, too.” She kissed him once more.

They exchanged “I love yous” in whispers, as though afraid someone would hear.

Then she’d forced her eyes away from him as she opened the car door, got out and headed for the hospital, leaving him behind.

She’d spent a couple of hours in the clinic seeing walk-ins. She’d told them she wouldn’t be in that day, but they welcomed her help just the same. Then she’d made a visit to the pharmacy, dropping off the prescriptions that Curran had given her the night before.

It felt like a lifetime since he’d given them to her. It amazed her how much could happen in one day.

She opened her eyes as the bus swung onto Allen Street and she stood, pressed the call bar. The bus slowed as it reached the corner at Grace, stopped, and she stepped off it onto the snowy sidewalk, made the short walk up the street to Mae’s apartment.

The lights were all on, glowing in the darkness.

“Hello, Dr. Black!” came the now traditional welcome from Sean as she entered the apartment.

“Hello, Sean,” she replied, smiling tiredly. “Mae.”

He and Mae were sprawled on the floor in the living room, a card game spread before them. Mae smiled to her warmly as she dropped her keys on the counter.

“You look knackered,” Mae said fretfully. “Hard day at the hospital then?”

“Yes, a long one,” Scully said, going for the cabinet and drawing out a glass. She went to the sink, filled it up with water, took a long swallow.

Mae stood, went to the counter separating the two rooms as Sean began to clean up the cards. Mae looked at her, her smile now decidedly apologetic.

“We have to go out for a bit, but then I’ll bring you home and you can get some rest.” She said it regretfully.

Scully had to keep her face from showing her dismay at the prospect of going to the pub for another evening. She wondered what Owen could want from her now, since the medications had all been ordered.

It made her instantly nervous. What if he wanted to confront her about Danny?

“All right,” was what she said aloud, trying to sound casual.

“I’ll even buy you a drink after you meet with Owen,” Mae offered. “It’ll help you unwind, help you sleep once you get home.”

Scully nodded, found herself smiling. Mae made things sound so simple sometimes, as if she perpetually thought that everything would work out fine in the end. Scully was glad that some part of her had escaped the years with Owen and the IRA unscathed, intact. She liked this aspect of Mae, and wished she could muster some of that optimism herself.

Sean chattered all the way to the pub, asking Scully about her day at the hospital, who she’d seen, what was wrong with them, a relentless barrage of innocent questions. Mae told him several times to “let Dr. Black be.”

The pub was, for once, fairly calm. Most of the tables were full, but there wasn’t the usual throng gathered around the bar, and the Irish music was coming only through the speakers.

Scully looked around, saw Curran sitting at the bar, a beer in his hand. John Fagan sat beside him, talking to him with what appeared to Scully to be a sense of urgency. Curran was alternately responding and then waving him off, and Scully wondered what they could be talking about.

Curran then caught sight of them and raised a hand, smiling to her. Though she thought it might just be her nerves that made her think so, there seemed to be something a little…forced?…about the smile. Something almost sad.

They made their way to a table, coming out of their coats. By the time they were situated, Curran had come over. He looked slightly rumpled, worn jeans and a green cotton shirt with the sleeves rolled up. His cheeks were flushed, which only made the scar alongside his mouth stand out more starkly.

Sean immediately went to him, wrapping his arms around his father’s waist in a tight hug. Curran staggered a little bit with the force of it, put a hand roughly on Sean’s head. Scully realized from this and the heaviness of his lids that he was more than a little drunk.

“There they all are,” Curran said, attempting a lightness in his voice that he didn’t quite reach. He looked to Mae, then focused his attention on Scully again, that same strange smile on his face. “What are we drinking then?”

“Whatever it is, I hope not as much as you’ve had,” Mae chided him, though she was smiling. Curran grinned back, flushed even brighter.

“Aye, I’ve had a bit,” he said to her. “Come on, what will you two have? I’m buying and I’ll even go get it for you.”

“You’re waiting on us now, too?” Mae laughed. “If that’s the case, I’ll have a Guiness.” She looked at Scully. “Katherine? What should Owen fetch for you?”

Scully smiled, trying to share the joke. It was hard for her because for some reason she couldn’t quite name, she didn’t like the idea of Curran not being in complete control of himself. “I guess I’ll have the same,” she replied.

“All right, I’ll be right back,” Curran replied, and, disentangling himself from Sean, he made his way back to the bar.

“Lord only knows what he’s celebrating tonight,” Mae said, watching him go. Then she turned back to Scully. “When he gets back, I’ll leave you two to attend to whatever business he’s got for you. When you’re finished with that and your beer I’ll take you straight home and come back.”

“Thank you, Mae,” Scully replied, and meant it. “That’s very kind of you.”

“Well, it’s the least I can do for you. You work your bum off at that hospital. I don’t know how you keep it up, looking as tired as you do all the time.”

Curran returned now on his slightly unsteady feet, placed the tall glasses of dark beer in front of them with care.

Mae picked hers up and rose, gestured to Sean. “Come on, Sean, let’s go say hello to Michael and Annie for a minute while your dad and Dr. Black have a chat.”

“All right,” Sean agreed, and he and Mae withdrew.

Curran sat down heavily in the chair Mae had just vacated, his half empty beer sloshing in the glass. Nervous, Scully took a swallow from her own glass, trying to appear nonchalant, casual. It was hard to do considering Curran was staring at her so pointedly, a lopsided smile on his face.

“Mae said you wanted to see me,” she said finally, wanting to break the odd moment.

Curran leaned forward, halving the space between them. “Aye, that I did, Katherine,” he said softly. “That I did.”

There was something almost intimate in his voice, something strangely, overtly familiar. As was the look he was giving her. Dreamy and wistful and tinged with longing.

Scully didn’t like either the tone or the look one bit.

“Well,” she said, her voice quiet but firm. “What is it that you would like me to do for you?”

He shook his head, glanced down at her hand around the glass. “Nothing,” he said softly.

“Nothing?” she repeated, incredulous. “You called me out here for nothing?”

“Aye,” he replied, smiling as though sharing some private joke. Then he looked into her face again and his brow squinted down.

His hand came up and cupped the side of her face, his thumb brushing over the still obvious bruise around her eye.

She stiffened, surprised, unsure of how to react. Her eyes grew very wide.

“I’d like to get my hands on the person who did this to you,” he murmured. “I don’t care how sick they were. I don’t want anyone touching your face.”

Alarm bells shrieked in her head, but she stayed calm, decided his actions were nothing more that drunkenness badly mixed with concern. That was all it was, she thought, so she held still.

Until his hand moved down to her jaw and his thumb traced gently over her bottom lip.

Now she turned her face away, leaned back slightly and put a hand up on his forearm, pulling his hand down gently.

“Please don’t, Owen,” she said softly, afraid to reject him too forcefully, afraid of angering him. But she remembered what Mulder had said about standing up to him if he overstepped.

And he had definitely just overstepped.

“And why not?” he asked, his voice still toned for the bedroom, not the bar. “You’re beautiful.”

She felt herself blush and looked away. “We have a business relationship, Owen,” she replied, keeping her voice neutral but firm. “Nothing more.” She thought that might sound too harsh, and hurried to add: “I just don’t need any attachments right now. Especially not with me leaving so soon.”

Then she let go of his hand, picked up her beer and drank, trying to dismiss the conversation, return the mood to the cordial distance they’d had before.

He leaned back, his elbows on the table, his eyes down. “I see,” he said flatly. She could tell the rejection had stung him, no matter how gently she’d tried to deal it. He picked up his beer, took a swallow, as well.

They sat in an awkward silence. Owen pushed his beer around the table. Scully sipped from hers, desperate for something to do with her hands.

“There was something I did want to tell you,” he said finally, monotone, though he slurred slightly.

“What’s that?” Here it comes, she thought.

He looked at her, and his eyes were dark, intent on her now. Vaguely threatening. It surprised her how quickly he could change.

“I’ve sent Danny Conner away. You won’t be seeing him down at your clinic anymore.”

She looked down, then back up at him again, meeting his eyes evenly. “Danny is very sick,” she said, forcing the present tense. “He’s simply my patient.”

“He was your patient,” Owen replied tersely. “You won’t be seeing him anymore. And as far as what you know about what’s ailing him…I trust that you’ll keep that to yourself, as part of your work you do for me.”

There was so much she wanted to say to him about that particular subject, but she figured she’d probably said enough to stand up to him tonight. She didn’t want it to appear as though she were taking him on about everything.

“All right,” she replied. He nodded, seemed satisfied with her response. He got to his feet a bit unsteadily, straightened his shirt, picked up his beer and started to turn away.

There was one thing she felt compelled to say, however.

“Owen?”

He stopped, turned back to her, his brow raised in question.

She met his gaze. “Don’t call me if you don’t have anything for me to do for you, please,” she said firmly, and watched his face flush further. He looked away, shifted slightly on his feet, as though he wanted to say or do something but couldn’t.

“I’m sorry,” she added quietly. “I don’t mean to seem ungrateful. I’m just very tired.”

She could see his jaw work for another second. Then he nodded.

“All right, Katherine. No problem.” He gestured to her beer, gave her a tense smile. “Enjoy the rest of your pint then,” he said, trying to sound kind. “And the rest of your night.”

“I will, Owen,” she replied, forcing a smile of her own. She was glad things could end between them in some sort of truce, uneasy as it might be. “And thank you for the beer.”

**

Back at the bar, John Fagan had watched the entire exchange, his mouth set in a grim, angry line. When Owen came back toward him, he faced forward again, pretended to be intent on the television behind the bar.

Owen sat down beside him, drank down the rest of his beer. The bartender, Billy, came forward, pointed to the glass.

“You want another, Owen?” he asked, and Owen nodded, pushing the glass towards him. Billy wandered off towards the tap.

Fagan let the silence stretch for a moment, then turned to Owen, staring at his profile.

“That didn’t seem to go very well, if you don’t mind me saying,” he said quietly.

Curran shrugged, trying to appear indifferent. “She’ll come around, John,” he said quietly. “It’s just going to take a little more time.”

“You mark my word, Owen. She’s trouble,” Fagan said, shaking his head. “I can feel it. Her wanting to leave just as she finds out about the drug? It looks damned peculiar to me.”

“She’s just spooked, is all,” Owen replied, staring at the television. “She’ll come around.”

Fagan joined him in watching the show for a moment as his temper, his frustration rose in the silence between them. Then he glared into his beer, steeling himself.

“I want to do a check on her,” he said finally.

Owen didn’t turn as he spoke. “She’s already been checked by the people in Boston. There’s no need to look at her again.” His voice had gone lower, edging toward anger. “You’re just being paranoid.”

Fagan took another drink from his beer. He leveled his gaze at Owen again.

“And maybe you’re not being paranoid enough,” he countered. “And I don’t understand why. With so much at stake right now.”

He paused, considering, then leaned closer to Owen, lowered his voice. “No, I do understand why,” he said. “I do.”

Owen turned to look at him now, his brows raised. “And what is it you think you understand?” he asked bitterly.

Fagan met his gaze, regret coming into his eyes as he spoke. “She’s not Elisa, Owen,” he said firmly. Color rose in Owen’s pale face once again, but Fagan pressed on. “She never will be.”

Curran looked away as Billy returned with the beer, placing it in front of him.

“Here are these, as well,” Billy said, his voice quiet, and he slipped two empty vials on the counter. “I made it a double for her, just like you asked.”

“Thank you, Billy,” Curran said, and he fingered the vials on the counter, then slipped them into the pocket of his jeans. Fagan watched him, then shook his head again.

“All the drug in the world isn’t going to turn her into what you want her to be,” he said softly.

With that, Curran turned on the stool, picked up his beer, his eyes fixing on something across the room. Fagan turned and followed his gaze to where Katherine and Mae were putting on their coats. He could see that Katherine’s beer glass was empty.

Curran stood close, looked at him now. He swayed slightly, his eyes bleary but still angry. His mouth moved as though he was going to say something, explain himself in some way. Then he simply shook his head.

“Fuck you, John,” he said quietly, and turned away, heading for the back of the bar. From the corner, Sean broke away from the couple he was sitting with, trailing close behind his father as he went through the double doors and was gone.

Fagan sat there for a moment in surprised silence. Rage boiled in him as he watched Mae and Katherine move toward the bar’s front door.

You fucking bitch, he seethed as Katherine disappeared from sight. I’m on to you. He just doesn’t see it yet, but I do…

He had to get her away from Owen right away. He had to find a way.

Looking around the bar, wracking his brain for something he could do, his eyes fell on the glass still on the table.

Putting his beer down, coming to a decision, he gestured to Billy, who came right over. Fagan reached for his long coat, put it on.

“Billy, you got one of those plastic baggies back there? A fairly big one?”

Billy shrugged. “Aye, I’ve got a few for keeping the nuts and such in overnight. Why?”

“Just get me one, will you? And put my drinks on my tab. I’m going home.”

“All right, John, all right,” Billy replied, and reached into a cabinet behind the bar, drew out the zip-loc bag, handed it across.

Fagan thanked him and rose. He snatched up a bar napkin, as well.

Moving slowly through the bar, he went to the table where Katherine had been sitting with Owen. Opening the baggy, he cupped the napkin in his hand, reached for her glass. Carefully, he placed it in the baggy, zipped it closed.

He tucked it inside his coat, glancing around to see if anyone had seen him do it. As far as he could tell, no one had. Satisfied, he turned and headed for the door.

~~~

2233 GRACE STREET 9:46 p.m.

Scully turned over in bed, pulled the covers more tightly against her shoulder, willing the chill that had enveloped her body to pass. Her gaze fell on the floor beside the bed, on the two triangles of dim white light that the street lamp poured out through the windows. It made the room feel more barren, more lonely, and she closed her eyes against the feelings the sight brought over her.

She missed Mulder already, the side of the bed behind her feeling especially empty this night. The feeling was accentuated by the fact that she was yet again having a difficult time falling asleep. If this kept up, she thought dejectedly, she was going to be visiting the hospital pharmacy again, this time to get a sedative for herself.

She sighed, rolled over again, facing the night table, the blue numbers of the clock glowing at her. Beside it, the snowglobe sat, its flakes settled on the bottom of the scene, the figures in it frozen in their places and knee deep in the plastic snow. Reaching out, she lifted it, rolled it slightly with her wrist, pushing the snow up against the inside of the domed plastic top, then down again, sending the scene into motion.

She set it down, watching as the flakes swirled around and finally began to settle once again. She rolled onto her back and closed her eyes, blew out a slow breath.

She did not remember falling asleep.

Cold dots of wetness on her face, the soft sound of something tapping on the sheets beside her.

She opened her eyes on the dream.

Snow, huge flakes falling through the room, glowing almost blue in the street light coming through the window, settling over her, the bedspread, the night table. She sat up and watched it, amazed by the dream, by how real it seemed. She smiled, holding her hands out to catch the cold soft flakes.

The triangles of light began to move across the floor, like a stream of sunlight moving in accelerated motion as the day went by. She wondered at it, and in the dream she rose from the bed, drawn to the window to investigate.

Looking out, she saw a scene bathed in white, the same heavy flakes that were falling in the room blanketing the world outside as well. She was compelled to be out in it. The scene was so quiet and peaceful and filled with magic.

Unable to resist, she peeled out of her pajamas, reached into the closet for a sweater, going to the dresser for her jeans. She pulled on a pair of boots and went out into the hallway, bathed in darkness.

The door seemed impossibly far away, but she made it to it, put on her coat and left the apartment.

As she went down the stairs, she revelled in the dream, knowing she must be sleeping soundly for it to seem so real, so detailed. Her mind had been so restless that she wasn’t surprised that it could conjure something so strange and compelling. She smiled as she made her way on to the street, the strange blue snow still falling.

On the corner, four figures stood stone still next to the bus stop sign. As she approached, she laughed. They were the carolers from inside the snowglobe, big as life but still flat and plastic. They were standing there silent, their faces painted on sloppily, just as they were inside the globe. She reached out and touched one of them. It swayed slightly as though it wobbled on a base.

She heard a sound and looked down the street, which was otherwise deserted. A bus was coming, its flat wide face nosing through the shower of snow, its headlights glaring. She stood on the corner and decided to take a ride.

The bus pulled up the curb, the door opening with a hiss. She stepped up, dug in her coat pocket for a handful of change and dropped it into the fare collector.

Then she froze as she looked at the bus driver.

There, dressed in his crisp white Navy uniform, his medals shining, sat her father. His hand was on the handle to the door, his other on the huge wheel of the bus.

“Dad?” she whispered, cocking her head at the strange vision.

“Hello, Dana,” he said, though he did not smile. “Go ahead and take a seat. I want to take you for a ride.”

She did not like the fear that leapt into her at seeing him, the sadness. Silently, she edged towards a seat near the front of the bus, her eyes not leaving Bill Scully in the driver’s seat until she’d sat down. Then he pulled the door closed, sat back, and the bus pulled away. She watched the carolers stream by and then they were gone.

Turning, she looked towards the back of the bus. Three black men looked back at her impassively, curious, but said nothing.

And in the back of the bus sat Danny Conner, staring out the window. He turned for a moment and looked at her, but said nothing, as well. Then he returned his gaze to the world outside.

She felt tears stinging her eyes and turned back towards the front. It did not surprise her that the dream would have him in it, considering how recently he’d died, and how guilty she felt about him. She expected he would haunt her dreams for a long time.

The view streamed by as she settled down in the seat, watching the Victorian houses out the window, their lights blinking on and off as they passed. She stared at the back of her father’s head, his strong hands on the steering wheel as they headed down Grace. Outside the snow continued to fall.

She felt restless, unsettled, as though she were turning in her sleep somewhere very far away. She tried to steer the dream, thinking of something positive, conjuring feelings of comfort to ground herself.

It was then that Mulder appeared beside her, his hand reaching out and gripping hers. He looked like he’d looked that day when he’d dropped her off, still wearing the turtleneck and jacket, the dark jeans. Only now he had shaved, his dark hair neat, his eyes no longer tired, but bright, shining.

“Hey Scully?” he asked, and she looked up at him.

“What is it, Mulder?”

He looked out the window as though trying to gauge where they were, then turned back to her. “When the bus stops at the Cathedral, I want you to get off.”

“Okay,” she replied, puzzled. “But aren’t you coming with me?”

He shook his head. “No, I have to stay here. Where you’re going I can’t go. What you’re seeing I can’t see.”

“What are you talking about, Mulder?” It was like he was speaking a fear she’d always had. That they would someday be separated, like on this case, but for good this time. Like her abduction.

Where she’d gone, he could not go. What she’d seen, he could not see.

“Don’t worry,” he whispered, leaned down and kissed her gently. His lips were warm, inviting, and she realized she was shivering. “I’ll be right here on the bus. When you get done, you come back here and I’ll be waiting for you.” He flashed her a wide smile. “I promise.”

She smiled now. He would always be there, waiting for her. She knew that. Comforted by the thought, she reached up and cupped his face. Kissed him again.

She could see the circle of Monroe Park ahead, the huge hulk of the Cathedral off to the right. The bus slowed as it neared it, pulling off to the side. The stained glass windows glowed almost too brightly in the darkness and she looked at Mulder uncertainly.

“It’ll be okay,” he said softly, gave her hand a squeeze. “You should be all right in there.”

“All right,” she replied, and edged her way to the front of the bus. When she reached the front, just as the bus stopped, she looked over at her father. He kept his face forward, his eyes wide and unblinking.

“Go on in,” he said softly, his voice monotone.

She didn’t like this dream version of her father, she thought. He was too much like her real father had been — distant, vaguely mysterious. But she did as he told her. She’d almost always done as he told her.

She stepped out onto the curb, the wide bricked circle that led up to the steps of the Cathedral. The bus door hissed closed behind her. She took a few steps towards the church, a sudden feeling of fear coming over her.

Behind her, the bus pulled away.

She spun, her eyes wide, and ran toward it. She could see Mulder — he was standing now, his palms banging on the window. He was silently screaming her name.

“Mulder!” she called, taking a few more running steps toward the bus. It was no use. It was going too fast. She stopped, stricken.

That same restless feeling came over her, as though she were trying to shake herself awake from the dream, tossing in her sleep. It didn’t surprise her. The dream was not taking a good turn, as far as she could tell.

She turned and faced the Cathedral. The door was open, an orange glow oozing out onto the stone steps.

It was church, she reminded herself, shaking off the feeling of dread. She had always been able to go there when she was upset or frightened. It had always brought her comfort.

With this in mind, she ascended the stairs, went in through the door.

There must have been ten thousand candles lit all around the place, lining the walls, the main aisle, the altar. It was almost too bright to look at, and she brought a hand up to shield her face.

“Hello?” she called.

She expected someone to answer her. She had a feeling that she was being watched.

Her voice echoed in the huge empty space. Nothing. No one there.

No, wait. Someone was there, she realized, looking at the confessionals that lined one wall. All of the lights were out on them but one. A green light was lit up over it, signalling that a priest was present, ready to hear her confession. She went towards it.

Pushing the dark curtain aside, she stepped into the booth, sat on the hard wooden seat. The screen that separated her from the priest was closed, but she could hear him, hear his breathing. It was almost too loud given the space between them. Like he couldn’t catch his breath.

She composed herself, folded her hands in front of her.

“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It’s been over six months since my last confession.”

The breathing grew louder, the sound filling the small booth. It was a hollow sound, almost inhuman. Fear pricked up the hairs on the back of her neck.

“Father, are you all right?” she asked, and the fear was in her voice now.

No response. Just the breathing getting louder. And that unsettled feeling, getting stronger.

Wake up, it seemed to say. Time to wake up, before it’s too late.

She stepped out of the booth, trembling, stood before the black curtain that hid the priest from view.

“Hello?” she called again, and her fear slipped slowly into terror.

Her hand shaking, she reached out and pulled back the curtain slowly, the orange light falling in the darkened booth.

Her hand shot to her mouth and she choked on a scream, throwing herself backward.

The statue of the Virgin Mary rose from the booth.

It came slowly towards Scully, its head turned to one side as it studied her, its round marble eyes unblinking as its stone feet echoed on the floor with each heavy step.

Scully turned and ran, a scream tearing from her, out the wide double doors and out into the night.

Her feet pounding on the pavement, her arms pumping, her coat billowing out behind her. The world around her seemed to shift, going slightly out of focus. The snow stopped falling as she tore across the street, straight in front of an oncoming car.

The blare of the horn broke the remnants of the hallucination, the car squealing to a stop as she flattened her hands on the hood, snapping back into awareness.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” the driver barked indignantly. “Are you crazy or something?”

She jumped the side and he peeled away, his horn blasting her again for good measure.

She stood on the sidewalk, her head spinning with waves of dizziness, her mind swimming. She looked around desperately.

A street just like any other, a convenience store across the street, a handful of people standing outside staring at her in shock, having seen her near-miss with the car.

She had no idea where she was, or when it was, or how she’d gotten there. There was only one thing of which she was certain.

Owen had drugged her. The beer at the pub…

Oh God, she thought…

She put her hands to her head, breathing heavily, and began to tremble with cold and fear.

She closed her eyes, willing her mind to be calm, to be clear.

When she opened them again, she turned away from the wide-eyed gawks of the people around her. Not knowing where she was going, she pulled her coat tightly around her and made her way slowly down the street.

~~~

CHAPTER 18.

~~~

HOLLY STREET OREGON HILL RICHMOND, VIRGINIA JANUARY 13 7:31 a.m.

The unmarked police car turned off Pine Street, made its way down the steep incline of Holly, edging carefully on the icy street to the small, neglected playground at the street’s dead end. Detective Jim Shanahan, Richmond P.D., blew smoke out his car window tiredly as he saw the dark car parked in the uneven circle, the driver watching his approach intently.

Pulling up behind it, Shanahan stopped the car but kept it running. He wanted to keep the interior of the car warm, and besides, he wasn’t planning on sticking around for too long. This was just a quick errand on his way to the precinct.

Shanahan recognized John Fagan immediately when he climbed out the car, though he’d only met him one time. Fagan had been at a pub with Owen Curran in Baltimore where Shanahan had gone for a Campaign for a Free Ireland event some time ago.

He remembered Fagan well — a dark hulk of a man who sat by rather quietly as he and Curran talked at length about The Troubles, about the problems with the peace process and the concessions the Sinn Fein and the IRA were making.

Shanahan hadn’t known much about Curran, only that he was one of the Cause’s respected leaders. He figured, however, that Curran was somehow tied to the violence, considering how cagey the young man had been about some aspects of his work.

Shanahan’s grandfather had been an Irish Volunteer, killed in the 1916 Easter Rebellion, so the thought of Curran’s violence didn’t really phase him a bit.

Curran had mentioned something about possibly coming to Richmond at some point in the future. Hearing this, Shanahan had smiled amiably, told both men to look him up if they came to town, told them to call “if they needed anything.”

Apparently that time had come.

He opened the car door, stepping down on the butt of his cigarette, crushing it into the snow. Fagan stopped at the juncture of the two cars as Shanahan approached, his hand extended.

“John, it’s good to see you again,” Shanahan said, smiling. Fagan forced a smile in return, shaking his hand.

“Jim,” Fagan replied, nodding. “Thank you for coming right out.”

Shanahan noted that the other man looked uncomfortable, shifting on his feet, as though he were trying to come up with some sort of small talk yet wasn’t quite capable of it. Shanahan figured he’d spare him the trouble.

“Oh, it’s no problem, none at all,” he hurried to reply. “You said there was something I could do for you?”

“Aye,” Fagan replied, and reached into his inside coat pocket, drew out a plastic bag with a glass inside it. “I was wondering if you might find a way to fingerprint this for me.”

Shanahan took it from him, studied it for a beat. “Well, sure, I can do that. I’ll just send it down to the lab and tell them it’s for some other case. But what do you need fingerprinting done for?”

Fagan averted his eyes, then looked back at Shanahan again, his eyes narrow.

“Nothing really,” he evaded. “Just being on the safe side.” He gestured to the glass. “You’re going to get a lot of prints on that. At least three sets. One of them will be Owen Curran’s, just so you know.”

Shanahan nodded. Seemed easy enough.

“All right, John,” he replied, tucking the glass into his coat pocket. “I should probably have it back to you sometime late tomorrow.”

“That’s soon,” Fagan said, obviously pleased. “I expected it to be longer.”

Shanahan smiled. “What can I say? It’s a light week around here. So much less going on with people when it’s this cold outside.”

Fagan gave him that same weak smile in return. “That’s good for you then,” he said, then moved from one foot to the other again, clearly wanting to get away. “I should call you tomorrow to find out what you’ve got on it then?”

“Sure,” he said. “We can meet back here and I’ll pass along any information I can find out for you.”

Fagan extended his hand, and Shanahan shook it once again. “All right, Jim. Thanks. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”

And with that, he turned and went back to his car. Shanahan did the same.

Once back inside the car, the heat blasting amid the occasional burst of conversation from the police radio set into the dash, Shanahan reached into his pocket and set the glass on the seat beside him, stared at it.

He’d always wondered what he could possibly do, besides give the money he did, to help these people out.

Driving off, he smiled to himself. He felt satisfied and glad to be of use.

~~~

RICHMOND MARRIOTT 7:48 a.m.

Mulder awoke to the persistent sound of someone knocking on a door.

He rolled over in the bed, still half-asleep, threw his feet over the side and rose, clad only in his boxers. Groping around the floor, he found his jeans, which lay in a heap at the foot of the bed.

The knock was repeated, more urgently this time.

“Mulder?” a voice called. Granger. And he sounded a little frantic, as well.

Mulder went to the door, holding his pants in one hand as he opened the door with the other. Granger stood there, already dressed smartly in a dark suit and red tie, a file under his arm.

Mulder winced, imagining how he must look. He was sporting two days worth of beard and nearly vertical bed head from going to bed straight from a shower the night before.

“Mulder, pardon me for asking, but where the hell have you been?” Granger asked, and he came into the room as Mulder stepped aside to allow it. He closed the door, turned to Granger, and leaned down to step into his pants.

“I needed a day off,” Mulder said, finally waking up. “I went up to the mountains for the day.”

“It would have been nice if you’d told me, for God’s sake,” Granger replied, his voice rising in frustration. “I spent the whole day yesterday covering for you. Padden was asking where you were. He was pissed off when he couldn’t reach you on your cell phone. You could have at least left it on.”

“Well, it’s good to know I’m missed if I don’t come in,” Mulder replied as he zipped and buttoned his jeans. “And I didn’t turn the phone off. It just doesn’t work in the mountains around here.”

He ran a hand through his hair, forcing the strands into some semblance of order as he went for the phone. “I’m going to get something from room service. Have you eaten?”

Granger sighed. “I’ve eaten already, thank you,” he said curtly.

Not wanting to be ungrateful, Mulder turned to Granger as the phone rang in his ear. “Thanks for covering for me, by the way. What did you tell them, anyway?”

“I said you’d gone up to D.C. for something personal. I didn’t know what to say.”

Mulder believed that. If there was one thing he knew about Granger it was that the man would make a lousy liar.

Room service picked up and he ordered eggs, toast, a large pitcher of coffee. When he hung up, Granger began to speak again.

“A lot happened yesterday,” he said, opening the file. Mulder could see a crime scene photo clipped to one side of it. “There’s been another death.”

Granger handed the file over to Mulder, who took it.. He grimaced immediately at the color photo. Danny Conner in a telephone booth, leaning on his right side against the wall, his head missing, blood and matter spattered everywhere.

His eyes were drawn to the phone receiver, still hanging down beside the body. He imagined Scully on the other end of that line, what she must have heard. He shook his head.

Glancing at the report, he saw that the body had already been identified through fingerprints.

“I’m worried about Agent Scully,” Granger said quietly. “What if they found out she was seeing him?”

Mulder handed the file back to him. “Yeah,” he replied. “I’m worried, too. But she’ll know if things get bad. She’ll know if she needs to come out.”

“I hope you’re right,” Granger replied. “Oh, and Assistant Director Skinner came back late yesterday. He’s staying a couple of floors down. If you really think that he’s going to help us get past that security block…”

Mulder perked up immediately. “He’ll do it. Skinner doesn’t like secrets much more than I do.”

He glanced to the desk where his laptop sat, a borrowed printer beside it. The computer’s top was open, the room’s modem line plugged into the back of it.

“We can get the information from here on my computer,” he said, and went for the phone again. He dialed the desk, got Skinner’s room number. Then he punched in the extension.

Skinner picked up on the first ring, clearly already up and alert.

“Skinner,” he said crisply.

“Sir, it’s Agent Mulder.”

“Mulder, where the hell have you been?” Skinner snapped. “I come back down here and you’ve gone AWOL for the day. Congratulations — you’ve managed to piss off Padden again.

“I took a personal day,” Mulder replied, satisfied with the half-lie.

“Nice of you to ask permission. You–“

“Yeah, I know, I screwed up again,” Mulder hurried to admit, just to get it over with. “Look, sir, could you join me up here in my room? I need your help on something, something important.”

There was a beat of silence. “You need my help?” Skinner replied, clearly suspicious.

“Yes, I do,” Mulder said, urgency creeping into his voice. “There’s some information on a woman named Elisa Curran, Owen Curran’s wife, that is caught behind a security clearance wall and I can’t get to it.”

Skinner was silent again.

“Sir,” Mulder pressed into the quiet. “I’m concerned that there might be information in that file that could affect Agent Scully’s handling of this case.”

“And what makes you think that?” came the reply. Mulder glanced at Granger, who was standing tensely in front of the bathroom door, his arms crossed over his chest as he listened to Mulder’s side of the conversation.

“It’s just a hunch Agent Granger and I have,” he replied. “We’re trying to do a complete profile of Curran, trying to guess what he might be up to, and we need that information in order to do that. Plus that, it doesn’t make any sense that all the information is available on Curran himself, but the information on his wife is not. Something seems wrong with that to me.”

Skinner sighed, clearly irritated. “I think you’re being paranoid about that, Mulder, as hard as that is for me to believe about you.”

It was all Mulder could do to keep from rolling his eyes.

Skinner continued. “I’m sure it’s just an oversight by the task force, not opening that file up for you to get to.” He paused, as though considering. “All right, give me about 30 minutes and I’ll be up there.”

“Thank you, sir.” Mulder replied, relieved, and the line cut off. He hung up the phone, looked at Granger.

“Well?” Granger asked.

“He’s going to do it,” Mulder replied. “He doesn’t want to, but he’s going to.”

“That’s good news,” Granger replied, relaxing a little. He stepped out of the way as Mulder headed for the bathroom. He paused in the doorway.

“Hey, let room service in, will you? I’m going to shave, get cleaned up before he comes up.”

“Good idea,” Granger said, quirked a smile at him. “You look like a bum.”

Mulder just smiled back and closed the door.

~~~

2233 GRACE STREET 8:20 a.m.

Scully started at the sound of a knock on the door, though the knock was gentle, almost hesitant. She had not been asleep. She had been focussing her eyes on the door, the only thing in the room that didn’t seem to be fuzzing in and out in her vision, that wasn’t rolling like it was washed with waves.

She’d been staring at the door for hours, since she’d found her way back to the apartment at two that morning and hidden in her room, willing the strange visions to go away.

Her breathing was shallow and fast as the door opened a crack and Mae stuck her head in, meeting Scully’s wide-eyed gaze.

“Katherine?” Mae asked, clearly worried. “Are you all right?”

Scully nodded, pulled the covers more tightly over her shoulder to hide her clothes. She was still wearing her coat.

“I’m all right,” she replied softly, evasively. “I’m just not feeling very well today. I think I’m going to take the day and stay in bed.”

Mae stepped into the room now, dressed to go out. Scully had vaguely heard her get up and shower. “I heard you come in late last night. Another night at the hospital?”

Scully nodded. “Yes, an…emergency I had to attend to. Everything’s fine now, though. I’m just too tired to go in this morning.”

“Yeah, you look exhausted,” Mae replied. “I hope you get some rest, start feeling better.”

“Thanks.” Scully strained a smile.

Mae drew her keys out of her coat pocket. “Well, I’m taking Sean up to Washington for the day. I’ve promised him a trip to the Air and Space Museum for a long while now and today’s the day.”

Her voice had an almost forced lightness that Scully found puzzling, something in her too-casual tone…

She’s lying, some dim, unaffected part of her mind concluded. She blinked slowly.

Mae continued. “I should be back by this evening, after I drop Sean off at the pub with Owen.” She frowned again as she studied Scully’s still form. She shook her head regretfully. “I’m so sorry you’re ill. I’ll check in on you when I get back in, okay?”

“Thank you, Mae,” Scully replied softly. “I just need to rest. That’s all. I’ll be fine.”

“All right then,” Mae replied, clearly unconvinced. “Sleep well.”

She disappeared out the door, down the hallway, and out the front door to the apartment. Scully heard her turn the deadbolt as she left.

She turned her head slowly, looked out the window, the light so bright it hurt her eyes. Again she blinked in slow motion, struggled to focus her thoughts.

The interaction with Mae had taught her two things, she thought as she stood, made her way slowly down the hallway toward the kitchen.

The first was that Mae may have been going to D.C., but not for the reason she said.

The second was that Mae clearly knew nothing about Owen slipping her the drug last night. She was too genuinely puzzled and concerned about her ailment to have known, she could tell. The thought relieved her somehow. She felt a little safer in the apartment now.

For the hundredth time that night, she thought of leaving the apartment, getting to a phone, calling Mulder. In the fear that had gripped her throughout the night — on the bus as she found her way back home, on the walk up the stairs to the apartment, during the hours she’d lain on the bed, watching the room distort around her — she had considered getting out.

But Mulder had been right. She did want to do this thing right, back out as cleanly as she could. And she knew about the drug now, knew how she was being given it. There would be no more doses. Her guard was up now, and she would not let Curran fool her again.

Her thoughts came like bullets as she walked slightly unsteadily down the hall, her vision unreliable, verging on vertigo.

She would confront him about what he’d done, she thought, anger simmering in her. She would put a stop to it by telling him she knew what he was up to. And she would tell him she was leaving right away now — Friday, the day after tomorrow — whether he was willing to let her go or not. She would use his attack on her with the drug as the reason for her hasty departure, buy a plane ticket to Boston today on one of her falsified credit cards. She would have the time of the flight ready to tell Curran when he began to protest.

She had it all figured out now.

She could take care of this herself.

She held tight to that belief, sure of it.

Once in the living room, she took off her coat, hung it on the rack. The room around her looked fairly normal, and she relaxed some. It was just a little too bright. That was all.

Though she wasn’t hungry in the least — and wouldn’t be any time soon, she knew — she went to the refrigerator, pulled out the carton of eggs, a loaf of bread she kept there to keep it from the apartment’s occasional mouse, the cartons of milk and orange juice.

She had to eat. Rest. Ignore some of the drug’s symptoms and keep her strength up in preparation for whatever withdrawal symptoms might be in front of her. She knew the drug had to build up a concentration in the brain tissues in order to be lethal. She just didn’t know how many doses it would take for that to happen.

Surely just one wouldn’t do it, she thought, forcing herself to remain calm. Surely not. Danny had been on the drug for months, and the concentration of it had been so high in Rutherford’s body when she examined her…

Pulling a skillet out from the cabinet, she set in on the stove, reached for a bowl to mix the eggs.

There was a persistent whispering in the air around her, like a dozen voices speaking softly all at once.

Gathering herself, closing her eyes and drawing in a calming breath, she picked up an egg, cracked it on the side of the bowl, doing her best to shut the sounds out.

~~~

RICHMOND MARRIOTT 9:49 a.m.

Mulder was combing his hair, his suit and tie smartly in place, when Skinner knocked on the door.

Granger let him in, only a few minutes after he’d let room service enter with the food that they’d placed on the desk beside the computer. The plates were still covered with their silver covers on the platter, untouched.

Mulder could hear the two men greeting each other as Skinner entered the room, heard the door slam shut again. Then Skinner was in the doorway behind him, his hands on his hips in the reflection in the mirror.

“Thank you for coming so soon,” Mulder said, finishing cleaning himself up. He glanced at himself in the mirror, saw that he looked presentable for the first time in days. Then he turned to Skinner.

“Let’s just get this over with, ” Skinner said curtly. “The three of us are supposed to be at a meeting with Padden at 10:30 to go over Scully’s extraction plans.”

“All right,” Mulder said, left the bathroom, leading Skinner to the computer. Skinner sat in the uncomfortable chair, scooted forward on it slightly. Mulder and Granger stood behind him, one over each shoulder.

Skinner tapped on the keyboard, waited as the computer dialed up. Then, once he’d gotten to the FBI’s main screen, he entered the database, logging in with his password. The screen lit up with a graphic of the FBI shield, a search prompt glowing at the bottom in a small rectangular box.

“What am I looking for?” Skinner said tersely, his hands poised over the keyboard.

“Her name is Elisa Curran,” Mulder volunteered, and then spelled her name for Skinner. He tapped it in, hit enter.

“Searching…” the computer flashed for a few seconds.

Then the screen filled up with text. The three of them began reading immediately, leaning close. A graphic was trying to load in the upper right hand corner, the bar at the bottom of the screen stuck a quarter of the way over as the computer requested the graphic file. Ignoring it, they read.

“She was IRA,” Granger said, his eyes scanning the readout.

“Or Path,” Mulder added. “It’s hard to tell which.” He kept his eyes on the screen, going over the material.

“She was tied to several bombings…1984, 1986, 1992…” Skinner read aloud. “Apparently pretty active in the organization. They could never find her, though, to make anything stick.”

“What’s it say about her death?” Mulder pressed, and Skinner scrolled down the screen, skimming for the information. Mulder stopped him about halfway down the page.

“There it is,” he said, pointing to the readout on the screen. He read the information aloud. “She was killed in 1993 in Belfast. A bombing in a marketplace filled with British soldiers. Twenty-seven casualties, including her. She was blamed for it. A suicide bombing, it was called.”

He shook his head, looked at Granger.

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Granger said, reading Mulder’s thoughts. “Sean would have been a year old then. She wouldn’t have killed herself like that, I don’t think.”

Mulder nodded, gnawed on his lip, deep in thought.

Granger returned his gaze forward as Skinner continued scrolling down the screen, hunting for information. “Maybe it was accidental,” Granger said, shrugging. “She was supposed to leave the bomb somewhere and it went off before she could get away from it.”

“That’s unlikely,” Mulder replied. “She’d been doing this for years. She was Curran’s wife. She would be much more careful than that.” He stared at the readout, noted absently that the graphic was still loading.

“Then why were they so willing to pin it on her?” Granger asked.

Mulder shrugged. “She was there, she had a known background. She seemed an easy place to pin it. That’s my guess.” He looked out the window, standing, his arms crossing in front of his chest, deep in thought. He shook his head again.

“The only thing that makes sense is the thing that wouldn’t make sense, ” he said cryptically.

“What do you mean?” Skinner asked, looking up at him.

Mulder was silent for a beat, thinking. It all suddenly made perfect sense to him.

“She wasn’t supposed to be there,” he said with conviction, looking at Skinner and Granger. “She was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. I bet she didn’t even know there was going to be a bombing at all. I bet Curran didn’t either.”

“So you think that Curran’s own people killed her?” Skinner asked doubtfully, shaking his head as he tried to make sense of it.

Mulder looked out the window again. “Yeah, that’s what I think,” he murmured, nodding to himself. “Not Curran’s people specifically — but IRA, yeah.”

He nodded to himself. It was the only reason the mother of a baby would find herself dead in an incident like that.

“No one claimed responsibility for the bombing,” Granger read aloud from the ending of the file. “So it still could have been her.” He glanced up at Mulder.

Mulder shook his head. “I don’t think so. I wonder when this was in relation to when Curran began his split with the IRA…” His mind turned the possibilities over as Skinner scrolled up to the beginning of the file.

The load bar at the bottom of the screen had disappeared.

“Let’s print all this out,” Skinner said. He hit the command to do just that, and the printer sprang to life, pulling in a piece of paper and running across it noisily.

They hit the top of the document.

All three men froze, confronted with the graphic in the upper right hand corner of the screen.

Mulder stood up straighter, taking in the photo. Curran and a woman. Her face was turned towards the camera, as though she were aware she was being photographed.

She was small, a few inches shorter than Curran. Big luminous eyes, sky blue. Red hair pulled back, strands curved around her cheek. Full lips, thin, Roman nose.

She could have been Scully’s sister. Or Scully herself, as she’d look if she’d lived a different life.

“Oh shit.” It was Granger who spoke first.

Mulder was struck dumb, still, for a few seconds. He could feel his blood pressure rising. His heart beginning to race, anger roiling in him. Fury.

“Mulder–” Skinner began, turning to him.

But it was too late. Mulder had grabbed the first page of the printout and was halfway to the door before either of the other two men had a chance to react.

“Mulder, wait!” Skinner called to his back. But he ignored them, grabbing his coat from the chair beside the door, heading out of the room. He could vaguely hear the commotion behind him as Granger and Skinner sprang into action, struggling to catch up.

He hit the stairs, spiraling down nine flights so fast he wasn’t even aware of how long it took, how many turns. He burst onto the lobby in a dead run, headed out to the street in front of the huge hotel.

There were several cabs there, waiting. Mulder caught the eye of the driver of one of them, sitting there listening to music and smoking a cigarette.

“Take me to the Jefferson,” Mulder called, climbing into the back seat, the photo still clasped in his fist, crinkled. “And step on it.”

“You said it, not me,” the driver replied, and pulled away from the curb, leaving the motel behind in a blur. Mulder could hear Skinner and Granger behind him, calling to him.

“Don’t do anything stupid!” was the last thing he heard from Skinner’s mouth, and then he was too far away, his voice lost in the traffic.

Mulder stared straight ahead as the cab turned onto 24th, pushing up the steep hill from Shockoe Bottom into the heart of the city. He stared as though the force of his gaze alone were propelling the car forward, his will the only cause for the vehicle’s speed.

As they bumped over the cobblestones that marked the historic district, he looked down at the printout in his hand again, staring at Elisa Curran’s face. Fury boiled over in him again. And just beneath that, panic as a realization struck him.

What he had told Scully about standing up to Curran…

Oh fuck, he thought, his hand going to cover his mouth as he looked out the window.

He’d known Curran would try to control Scully, the way he controlled everyone and everything in his world. But this was different. The resemblance was so close that Curran couldn’t help but project some of his feelings about Elisa onto Scully. Those projections would become more real to Curran than Scully was herself.

If Curran’s grief was as great as Mulder imagined it would be — given the way she’d died, the age of Sean at her death, his and Elisa’ shared history and purpose — then Curran’s need to see Scully as Elisa would be very important to him.

His need to control her would be that much more acute because of this. And Scully standing up to Curran would force him out of seeing her as Elisa. Curran would resist this.

As the cab swung into the circular drive of the Jefferson Hotel, Mulder shook his head, the rage piqued again at him having not had this information before. Before he’d told Scully what he did.

Because Curran would do anything to keep Scully from destroying those projections, those images, of her as Elisa in his mind.

Even if it meant destroying Scully herself.

The cab stopped and Mulder dug in his pocket, tossed a handful of bills at the cabby and told him to keep the change. Then he was out of the cab, in the foyer and up the stairs, taking them two at a time, his anger building with each step.

Mulder reached the Presidential Suite, banged on the door with the side of his fist.

“Slow down, Mulder, where’s the fire?” Hirsch patronized as he opened the door to the suite. Mulder glared at him, brimming, as he looked at Hirsch’s smirking expression. Then he caught sight of Padden just in view in one of the seats in the dining room area.

“Get the hell out of my way,” he rumbled, pushing past Hirsch roughly on his way through the room.

“What did you say to me?” Hirsch was saying behind him. Mulder ignored him, stampeding into the dining room. Hall, Anderson, Jessup. They were all there, unaware of his entrance, talking to each other.

Mulder went to the edge of the table across from Padden and slammed the printout down in front of him and on top of a neatly stacked pile of printouts, sending half of them into Padden’s lap. Padden looked up at him, shocked and already angry.

“Agent Mulder, what–“

“You want to tell me who this is?” Mulder asked, his voice pitched loud enough to get the attention of everyone in the room, and the next.

“You can’t come charging into here like this–” Padden began, but Mulder slammed his fist down on the table, right on top of the picture, stunning Padden into silence.

“Tell me who this is!” he repeated, shouting, and now Padden looked down at the printout. Jessup and Anderson were looking at it, as well. Only Duncan Hall was not. He was looking at Mulder.

“I don’t have the slightest idea who this is, Agent Mulder,” Padden said, levelling his gaze at Mulder.

“You fucking LIAR!” Mulder spat. Padden opened his mouth to speak, but Mulder continued. Jessup and Anderson had risen from their seats.

“It’s Elisa Curran,” Mulder continued. “Owen Curran’s wife. Notice any resemblance to someone we know, Padden?” He held the photo up, pushing it into Padden’s face so that Padden was forced to lean back or be struck.

“Some resemblance, yes,” Padden said quietly. His eyes bore into Mulder’s now as he ignored the photo.

Mulder put the piece of paper back down on the table, leaned back, his hands on his hips. Behind him, he was vaguely aware of Skinner and Granger coming into the room, coming up behind him. Granger reached out and got a hand on his arm.

“Mulder, calm down…” Granger was saying.

Mulder pulled it away sharply, his eyes not leaving Padden’s. They were staring each other down as though trying to see which one of them would blink first.

“Why was this information about Elisa Curran sealed?” Skinner said through clenched teeth from just behind Mulder. “You knew this all along, Bob, didn’t you?”

Padden spared Skinner a look, but said nothing as Mulder rushed to continue.

“That’s what you were betting on, weren’t you?” Mulder rumbled, breathing hard with fury. “That Curran would take one look at her and she’d have an in with him. He’d be more willing to trust her because she seemed familiar. Am I right, you bastard?”

“You had better get hold of yourself, Agent Mulder,” Padden said, the warning clear in his voice.

“And then you suppressed the information so that she wouldn’t know. So that I wouldn’t know.” His hand came up, his finger pointing accusingly, his face flushing scarlet.

“You used her body for BAIT, you son-of-a-bitch!” His voice was a roar, and everyone seemed to freeze at his words.

“That’s it!” Padden said, slapping his hands on the table and standing. “I”m sick of your theatrics and your insults, Mulder! You’re off the case! I want you out of here today.”

“Bob, you can’t do that–” Skinner began angrily, and Padden glared him down.

“I just did it,” he interrupted. “Mulder clearly can’t keep his personal feelings in check enough to be of any use for this. He’s endangering Agent Scully further with his lack of perspective.”

I’m endangering her?” Mulder repeated incredulously. “Padden, do you realize how hard it’s going to be to get her out of there? He’s not going to let her go. He might even kill her rather than let her get away from him.”

“That’s no longer your concern, Agent Mulder,” Padden replied, his voice rising. “We’ll take care of getting Agent Scully out just fine without your help.”

His voice lowered. “Now I want you out. I don’t want to see you here again. If I do, I’ll bring you up on charges at the FBI for violations of procedure and insubordination so fast your head will spin. I’ll have your shield before this is done.”

“And I’ll fight you on that,” Skinner replied instantly, stepping up beside Mulder now. “And if something happens to Agent Scully at this point I’m going to hold you personally responsible for it. You can bet your life on that.”

Padden said nothing to Skinner. He was still staring at Mulder.

“Out.” Padden pointed at the door.

Mulder stood there a few seconds longer, his face flushing even more.

“Come on, Mulder,” Granger said calmly from behind him, putting a hand on Mulder’s arm again. “We’ll figure this out.”

Padden looked at Granger now. “And I suggest you be careful about your allegiances, Agent Granger, or you’ll find yourself in the same boat as Agent Mulder.”

Granger looked away, said nothing. He simply tugged on Mulder’s arm again and managed to turn him around.

Skinner and Padden faced off now, and Mulder really wanted to stay to hear it. But he withdrew, Granger beside him.

Halfway to the door, Hirsch stood in front of Mulder, his arms crossed at his chest.

“Back off,” Granger warned.

Mulder and Hirsch stared at each other. Hirsch was smiling.

“Way to go, Spooky,” he said. “Off the case and everything. Nice piece of work.”

“Fuck you, Hirsch,” Mulder said, and tried to push him aside.

Hirsch stopped him with his hand on his arm. Mulder looked down at his hand, then up into his face again.

“Oh, and about Agent Scully,” Hirsch continued, pretending to brush at Mulder’s sleeve. “I don’t know why you get so upset about Padden using her body for bait. I’m sure she doesn’t mind, the little cherry. I mean, hell, look how well it’s worked on you –“

In retrospect, Mulder didn’t remember his fist coming up.

Only the sickening sound of bone breaking, the small bones at the bridge of the nose. A sudden spray of blood, and Hirsch going down in a heap on the floor. Then Skinner’s voice telling him to get the hell out of there, and Granger hussling him to the door before he got a chance to lean down and hit him again.

~~~

CHAPTER 19.

~~~

THE GREY MOUSE 8:36 p.m.

Owen Curran sat in his usual chair in the nearly empty storeroom that he used as his office, where he’d come to get away from the music and the crowd outside in the bar. He’d even managed to lose John, who was arguing politics with some American. It all made him tired and he wanted none of it tonight.

Finally, in the relative quiet, he closed his eyes, indulging the vision once again…

The hillside wasn’t as steep, it seemed, as he walked toward the farmhouse, the breeze somehow warmer, more inviting as it came in off the water. She was standing right where she always was, there at the top of the rise, beside the stone wall where he used to play with James and Mae when he was just a boy.

The world around was a blown-back blanket of green and smelled of the sea.

She was turned away from him, looking out over the field beside the house that was dotted with his father’s sheep. He felt lighter as he made his way up to the path that led to the house, smiling, his eyes taking her in. Her flowered skirt had blown against the front of her thighs, revealing the curved outline of her body to him.

As he stood before her at last, his hand came out to nestle in the warm red strands of her hair. His fingers curved around the back of her neck, turning her face toward him.

Blue eyes looking back at him, the corners touched with the smile she gave him. He stepped closer to her, closing the distance between them, put an arm around her middle and pressed her against him. He looked with longing into her face.

Katherine’s face.

Her lips were new to him, but felt as familiar as Elisa’s, her mouth opening beneath his…

A knock at the door.

He pulled himself up straighter in his seat, confronted once again with the reality of his office.

“Come,” he called wearily, regretting the loss of the daydream, and looked up at the door as it opened.

Mae entered, her cheeks flushed from the cold night air, her scarf still wrapped tightly at her neck. Her hair was pulled back into a loose ponytail, her eyes bright but somehow worried. He smiled as he looked at her, though the sight of her also made him sad.

Things were going to change so much, so soon. There would be a lot for her to deal with, to adjust to. He hated that part of all this.

“How goes it then?” he asked, hiding what he was feeling behind the easy greeting. He gestured to a chair across from him.

“I’m fine,” she replied. “But I think we’ve got a problem.” She pulled at her scarf and coat as she settled into the chair.

“What’s that?” he asked. “Where have you been all day, anyway?”

“I went up to Washington,” she replied, leaning forward. “To check out the embassy one last time. Did you know they’ve been put on some sort of alert? That it’s crawling with security, and that there are roadblocks up at the entrances, front and back now?”

He shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “Mae, you didn’t need to go up there to do that,” he said, shaking his head.

“I thought it wouldn’t hurt to have one more look,” she replied. “And plus, I needed to drive, to get out of town for a day to clear my head.” She looked down at the admission, then up at him again, her expression grave.

“What are we going to do about this? We won’t be able to get the truck up anywhere close to the building with all the roadblocks.”

Owen shook his head, pushing at a piece of paper on the table in front of him absently. “It’s nothing to worry about, Mae” he said firmly, and with a finality that seemed to close the subject.

He was looking away from her, down at the table, but he could feel her surprised gaze on him. “What do you mean it’s ‘nothing to worry about’?” she replied. “Don’t you realize what this could mean? Besides the fact that it interferes with the execution of the operation itself, it could mean we’ve got a leak somewhere. Doesn’t that concern you a bit?”

The latter of those two facts did concern him mildly. It seemed a little odd that there would be heightened security at the British Embassy right when he was planning this thing, but he dismissed it as simply being an unfortunate coincidence.

“Everything’s going to be fine, Mae,” he said, and leaned back in his chair. “Don’t fret so much. It’s all under control.” He glanced to the side, unable to meet her eyes.

“What are you up to, Owen?” she asked quietly, cocking her head at him as she did so.

He looked at her, kept his face blank. “I don’t know what you mean,” he replied flatly.

“Don’t give me that,” she replied, shaking her head. “You’ve been so cagey about this whole thing, since the start. Doing the surveillance yourself, hand-picking the people to actually carry it out. And then this business with the drug. I’ve never seen you act like this before.”

He looked away. A part of him wanted to tell her everything so badly. But he couldn’t risk her not understanding this thing he knew he had to do, couldn’t risk her interfering with his intricate plans.

Once it was all done, she would understand why he had kept so much from her. And she would agree with him, stick by him. As she’d always done.

“I just want this done right, that’s all,” was what he said aloud, sounding earnest. “It’s our first major operation here in the States. It’s a different situation, a new one. I’m just trying to be careful.”

She continued looking at him. He could see that she still doubted him. It worried him, in that way he’d always been worried when she didn’t approve of something he did. He was annoyed at the feeling, since it made him feel like a child again.

There was another knock at the door. He was relieved at the interruption.

**

Scully heard Curran call for her to come in and gathered herself up, moving her hand away from the doorframe, which she’d been using for support. She noted with some dismay that her hand was trembling. She stood up straight, her chin out defiantly.

Taking in a deep breath, she opened the door.

Mae and Curran looked at her, Curran coming to his feet slowly. He glanced at Mae.

Yes, Scully thought with some satisfaction. I’m going to do this in front of her. See what she thinks about this, you son-of-a-bitch.

It was Mae who spoke first. “Katherine?” she asked, concern in her voice and expression. “You look like you’re still ill. What are you doing out of bed?”

“I am still ill,” Scully replied quietly, stepping into the room. Her eyes didn’t leave Owen’s. “Why don’t you ask your brother what’s wrong with me?”

Her hands clenched into fists, both in anger and as she willed her body into control as best she could. She was only marginally successful. The room was swimming in and out of focus around her.

“Ask Owen?” Mae asked, looking from one to the other in confusion. “I don’t understand…”

Then Mae looked at her hands, took a long look at her face.

Her mouth dropped open and she stood, spun to face Owen.

“Owen, you didn’t,” she whispered. “God, tell me you didn’t.”

“He did,” Scully said calmly. “But he won’t anymore.”

“Jesus Christ, Owen, you promised me,” Mae continued, her eyes boring into him. Scully watched the exchange, satisfied with being the wedge that was quickly sinking between them.

“You can’t stop taking the drug now,” Owen said, ignoring Mae for the moment, facing off with Scully. “You know what will happen if you do.”

“I don’t know what will happen,” Scully replied, keeping her emotions and her voice under fierce control. “I just know that I won’t take any more of the drug. And I know that I’m leaving. I have a flight out on Friday at eleven in the morning. I’m going back to Boston. I’ve already written the scripts for you and put them in at the hospital pharmacy.”

“You can’t leave,” Curran said, and anger had begun to creep into his voice. She could sense his frustration rising as she wriggled out of from under his grasp with her words.

“I’m leaving,” she repeated simply, staring hard into his eyes, meeting the challenge there. She knew she was in perilous territory, but was mindful of Mulder’s advice, of the precariousness of her situation and the urgent need to get out as quickly as possible.

“You’ll be dead before you can get on the plane,” he said softly, dangerously, raising the bet. He came around the table as he said it.

Scully swallowed, hiding the wave of fear that pushed through her. She didn’t know if he meant that the drug would kill her or if he had something else in mind.

“Owen, don’t you dare,” Mae said, and her tone was eerily similar to her brother’s. They looked at each other. Curran’s face flushed.

“Stay out of this,” he snapped. “This isn’t your affair.”

Mae closed the distance between she and Owen in a few steps, her hand shooting up, her palm catching him across the mouth soundly. Owen’s head was turned aside by the force of the blow, then he snapped his face back towards her, fury and shame in his eyes. He was stunned into silence, his hand going to his mouth.

“Like hell it’s not,” Mae said softly. “Since when isn’t any part of the work ‘not my affair’? Don’t you forget what we’ve been through together, Owen. Don’t ever forget that.”

Scully watched all this, amazed. She was simultaneously pleased by it, and, despite herself, embarrassed for Owen. She stood by silently, averting her eyes.

Owen continued to stare at Mae, dropped his hand, stood up straighter, regained his composure. Then he looked toward Scully, ignored Mae again.

“You understand what I’m saying about you not being able to go, don’t you, Katherine? You better than anyone.” His voice was forced casual as he attempted to pull his control back over him.

“I don’t believe you,” Scully replied softly, doing her best to appear unruffled. “I don’t believe that the drug will be lethal with this little exposure.”

She watched for Mae’s reaction. She got it.

“Wait a minute…” Mae said, looking from one to the other. “That drug is lethal?” She turned to Owen. “You’ve got them on something that could kill them?”

“It will kill them,” Scully said. “I’m sure that’s what happened to Danny Conner. That’s where he’s disappeared to.”

“Goddamnit, Katherine, shut up!” Owen took a few steps toward her, his hand raised. She stood her ground, pleased to see Owen losing his control over the situation again, and over his temper.

Mae stepped between them quickly, her hand up towards Owen, pointing in warning. Her movement halted his advance towards Scully.

“Stop right there,” she said angrily. “Enough of this. I don’t know what the fuck has come over you, Owen, but I’m saying enough.”

She kept her eyes on Owen, but spoke to Scully. “How did the drug kill Danny?” she asked.

“He died because the drug was kept from him,” Scully replied. “If the drug is withheld from the people who are taking it, every one of them will die.”

Mae stared at Owen now, her hand dropping. “It’s almost all of them, isn’t it? You’ve done this to almost all of them.”

Owen looked between Mae and Scully, his cheeks scarlet with rage, his fists balled at his side. “They’re fine, Mae,” he said tersely. “They stick by me and they’re fine.”

“Fucking hell, Owen, most of them would have stuck by you anyway,” Mae said, and her voice rose in anger.

“Enough!” Owen shouted into her face. “I don’t owe you shit, Mae! I don’t owe anyone SHIT!” He looked at Scully again. “And as for you, Katherine — the drug works fast. If you want to live, you’ll have to stay.”

“I don’t believe you,” she repeated, her chin coming up again defiantly.

Before he could reply, Sean appeared in the doorway, pressing in behind Scully and standing beside her. He looked up at all three of them, and Scully could see by his expression that he had heard at least some of what had transpired.

“Daddy?” he asked softly, nervously. “Why are you shouting at Aunt Mae and Dr. Black?”

Owen looked down at him, his eyes still flashing with anger, his chest rising and falling heavily as he tried to contain his emotions.

“It’s okay, Sean,” Mae said as gently as she could muster. “We’re just having a little discussion, that’s all.”

She reached a hand towards him and he went to her immediately. She pulled him against her, her hand resting on his chest protectively. She looked at Owen, accusation in her eyes, daring him to say another word in front of his son.

Scully felt herself relax some, knowing their discussion was over now — Mae would make sure of that.

“Why don’t you come home with Dr. Black and me, Sean?” Mae said, forcing a cheerful tone. “We’ll make some popcorn and watch a film and leave your dad to his business.” She nearly spat the last word out.

Sean looked to Owen, his expression a little afraid. Scully ached for him, caught in the middle of all this. It was no way for a child to live.

“Is it all right, Daddy?” he asked uncertainly.

Owen took another deep breath, then withdrew behind the table again, sat, pretending to shift through some papers in front of him.

“Aye, go with your aunt, Sean,” he said gruffly, staring down. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Mae turned and started to lead Sean out. Owen’s eyes came up again as they went towards the door and glared at Scully, his expression dark, dangerous.

“Goodbye, Owen,” she said quietly, and with conviction.

“Oh, you’ll see me again, Katherine,” he replied softly. Then, as Mae went out the door with Sean, he lowered his voice and added. “You’ll be begging to.”

Scully looked at him a beat longer, refusing to appear to back down. Then she followed Mae and Sean out the door.

~~~

MEDICAL COLLEGE OF VIRGINIA OUTPATIENT CLINIC JANUARY 14 (THURSDAY) 9:43 a.m.

Paul Granger pushed back the hood of his sweatshirt as he entered the double doors to the clinic, pausing amid the small clusters of patients seated in the waiting room area. Unzipping his jacket, he scanned the patient’s faces, trying his best to appear casual and not draw attention to himself. None of the faces from the files back at the hotel were in attendance, he decided. Satisfied, he made his way to the large nurse’s station at the back of the room.

He was a little early. His appointment wasn’t until ten. With that in mind, he signed in on the clipboard, wrote “Dr. Black” in the “Physician” column, and took a seat in a chair close to the station.

He hunkered down in his seat, avoiding the faces of the few patients around him, and picked up a magazine, a copy of Sports Illustrated with the playoffs preview on the cover. He was glad to actually be interested in the article the magazine promised. Though he was less nervous than the last time he’d met Agent Scully here, he still had the jitters and needed some sort of distraction.

He couldn’t shake the feeling that something would go wrong or that someone would recognize him for the imposter he was, as unlikely as that might be.

Flipping open the magazine, he tried to settle down. He knew where part of his anxiety was coming from. It was the fact that he’d just finished going with Mulder to a cheap motel outside the city, moving him in for the duration of Agent Scully’s assignment.

This done, of course, without Padden’s knowledge.

Padden was expecting Mulder to return to D.C., to quit his work with the task force as ordered, and Mulder had tried to make it appear that he was doing just that. He’d checked out of the Marriott to get out of Padden’s sight, and then requested a week off from an apparently large pool of vacation time in a phone conversation with Skinner that morning. He’d heard only one side of the conversation — a very no-nonsense, official request for the time off. He’d even told Skinner where he’d be spending the time, here in scenic, balmy Richmond, completing the formality of the request.

Granger smiled to himself and the unspoken agreement between A.D. Skinner and Mulder — Skinner wouldn’t order Mulder away, no matter what Padden had to say on the matter.

Which all now made a Granger a spy on two fronts — the task force itself, and for Mulder. He would be feeding information to both sources now, the information filtering to Mulder without the task force’s knowledge, he hoped. It was this added bit of subterfuge that was rattling Granger’s nerves at the moment.

Because he would catch it in the ass but good if Padden found out what he was doing. And though he was loyal to Mulder, a part of him still cared if he got pitched off the case.

“Mr. Griffin?” a nurse behind the desk called, and Granger stood, went to the nurses’ station still carrying the magazine. He wasn’t being called back to the examining rooms and the breakup in the routine he expected sent his nerves up another notch.

“Yes?” he said as he reached the counter. “Is there something wrong?”

“Well, yes and no,” the nurse replied, holding the clipboard. She was a short, heavy set woman with salt and pepper hair and her voice was kinder than her expression. “It says here you have an appointment with Dr. Black?”

“Yes,” Granger replied. “She’s who’s seen me when I’ve been here before.”

The nurse looked at him apologetically. “Dr. Black is no longer with the clinic,” she said, shaking her head. “I thought you should know that Dr. Sanderson, one of the other attending doctors, will be taking her place for your appointment.”

“I don’t understand,” Granger said, struggling to contain the alarm he felt from his voice. “Since when? Is something wrong?”

The woman shrugged. “She apparently called in yesterday and said she was no longer available. I don’t know why, I’m sorry. It was all rather sudden.”

She looked at him, and he knew he wasn’t being entirely successful at hiding his emotions by the concerned look she gave him.

“Will it be all right for you to see Dr. Sanderson?” she asked.

Granger’s mind was still racing with the possibilities of what could have happened, his eyes now on the counter as he considered them all.

Realizing she expected an answer, he was struck out of the thinking long enough to say, distractedly: “No, no. I’ll…just find another doctor somewhere else, thank you.”

“I’m sorry,” she offered again.

“It’s all right,” he said, smiling tensely, and went to the chair he’d been sitting in, replacing the magazine on the table beside it.

With that, he headed quickly to the door.

~~~

CROSSROADS MOTEL 10:12 a.m.

Mulder was just closing the door to his tiny motel room with his foot, a bag from Burger King containing a bacon, egg and cheese Croissandwich in one hand and a piping hot cup of coffee in the other, when his cell phone began to chirp from his coat pocket.

Hurrying to the small pressed-wood table beneath the garish wicker light, he set both the bag and the cup down and dug in his pocket for his phone. He glanced at his watch as he did so, confused at the time. He was expecting Granger, but certainly not this soon. His appointment had started only a few minutes ago. He stabbed the talk button.

“Mulder,” he said, his voice already tense.

“Hey, it’s Granger,” came the reply. He could tell from the slight hiss in the background that Granger was in his car.

“What the hell’s going on, Granger? Why aren’t you with Scully?”

“Mulder, something’s happened,” Granger replied. Mulder froze, his back straightening.

“What? What’s happened?” he demanded quickly, his voice rising with his alarm.

“Scully’s apparently trying to get out,” Granger replied, a bit breathless. “She’s quit the job at the clinic. She wasn’t there when I got there to see her. I called in and Padden ran a check on her credit cards while I was on the phone. Apparently, she’s bought a plane ticket. Jessup ran a check through the USAir and found out she’s booked herself on a flight out to Boston at eleven tomorrow morning.”

Mulder spun towards the window, his jaw clamping down, his fist balling as he felt the sudden urge to DO, to go somewhere.

Something had gone wrong. Something with Curran. He’d told her to get out if he made a move and now she was suddenly going.

Shit….

“They’re contacting Flaherty now in Boston, to see if he’s found a replacement for her and didn’t bother to tell anyone,” Granger continued.

“I don’t think that’s likely,” Mulder said tersely. “He’s got too much at stake in this to make an oversight like that.” He paced a couple of steps towards the window, back again. “She’s in trouble.”

“I was on the phone with Skinner. He said that we shouldn’t jump to any conclusions at this point. That she might have everything under control.”

Granger was clearly trying to soothe him — as Skinner had been when he relayed that message through Granger for his benefit — but Mulder would have none of it.

“She might be making a clean exit somehow but I don’t think she’s got everything under control. Curran’s done something, I’m sure of it. Scared her somehow. Forced her to go so quickly.”

Granger blew out a breath into the phone. “Yeah, I’m afraid I agree with you. It’s not like her to do something this fast, is it?”

“No,” Mulder snapped. “She’s much more cautious than this.” He shouldered out of his coat, threw it viciously across the chair back. “Where are you anyway?”

“I’m just leaving the city center now. Padden sent me out to the Grey Mouse to see if anything unusual was going on there.”

“Well, when you get done there, come back here, will you? I want to go over these files again with you, everything we’ve got on Curran, Fagan, Mae Curran, Elisa, Danny Conner. See if there’s any clue about what might be going on that we’re overlooking somehow.”

“But what do we do about Agent Scully?” Granger asked.

“There’s nothing we can do,” he said angrily. “We’re just going to have to wait and see if she gets on the fucking plane tomorrow. There’s no way to contact her, and trying to do surveillance on her at her apartment would be too risky. With any luck you’ll see her at the pub and be able to tell if she’s all right at least.”

“I hope so,” Granger replied somewhat doubtfully.

Mulder shared his feeling that a sighting at the pub was a long shot.

“Just get here as soon as you can, all right?” he said quickly.

“I will,” Granger replied as Mulder hung up.

~~~

2233 GRACE STREET 12:35 p.m.

Scully sat in the living room, curled on the battered, thrift store couch, her hands over her ears, her eyes alternately opening and closing as the vision washed over her.

Outside the windows on either side of the television, the glass was being battered by the muffled thumping of a hundred white wings, a storm of barn owls bashing themselves against the windows, trying to gain entrance into the room.

Scully watched them, the black curves of their talons, the snow white of their wings, the heart-shaped moons of their faces shot with the shock of dark beaks, the sound of their screaming….

She tried going into another room, but the birds just followed her to whatever room she went into, clamboring at the windows, including the cramped bathroom where she’d hidden just after the hallucination started. Finally, she’d given up on hiding from it, found her way back to the couch, the television on for distraction, but the sound overpowered by the hammering of the soft, white bodies.

She kept her ears covered as she stared at the television, the local noon news flashing across the small screen, which fuzzed in and out of focus as she looked at it. She cringed at the intensity of the hallucination, wondering about it.

She’d been fine through most of the night, though she had not slept at all once again. Only a few times did she find herself inside some vivid imagining, the room blurring out around her to be replaced by some other time, some other place, for a few seconds. She’d closed her eyes and rode them out as best she could.

Mae had risen twice in the night to check on Sean on the couch and had cracked the door to check on her. Both times Scully had pretended to be asleep to avoid any conversation, though she had to admit to taking great comfort in Mae’s vigilance and protectiveness towards her. It made her feel like it was unlikely she would end up out in the night once again, lost on some strange street in the darkness, haunted or pursued by God only knew what from the depths of her mind.

Mae had come in again in the morning around ten. She and Sean had been up for some time, Scully knew, Sean watching television, the bright sounds of it reaching Scully all the way in the back bedroom as she lay staring at the dull white light out the windows for hours.

When Mae came in, Scully was sitting up in bed, already dressed, her legs thrown over the side, her head bowed from exhaustion.

“I’ve made you some breakfast,” Mae had said, looking at her in concern as Scully’s chin rose from her chest slowly so that she could meet Mae’s gaze. “I know you probably don’t feel like eating, but you should try to have something. Just some toast and some juice, maybe some coffee if you can do it. It might help you ride this out a bit easier.”

Scully had thanked her, risen, and gone into the living room, situated herself on the couch beside Sean, trying to draw comfort and a sense of normalcy from his small presence as he caught her up on what was happening on the cartoon he was watching. Mae brought the toast and the tall glass of juice, and Scully had consumed both silently, fighting off the nausea that the toast produced.

At around 11:30, Mae had departed with Sean with a promise to return as soon as possible to spend the day with her.

“Thank you, Mae,” Scully had responded, smiling faintly. “I’d…I’d like that.”

“All right then,” Mae replied, returning the smile. “I’ll be back straight away.”

And she and Sean had departed.

It only took about 20 minutes for the hallucination to begin. Scully wondered in some dim part of her mind if Mae’s absence contributed to its onset, as though being left alone gave her mind too much ability to concentrate, to become suceptible to the drug as it worked its way out of her tissues, flooding her body once again as it had done to Danny when he’d been going through the withdrawal from it in the hospital. She remembered how the drug had spiked as the residue became more active in his brain, and assumed that was what was happening to her, as well.

It will pass, she told herself as one particularly large owl flapped against the windows, its talons scratching loudly on the glass. All of it would pass and she would be all right. There was no sign of headache. No pressure in her head, no nosebleed.

She watched the owl, shook her head as if to clear it, fighting down the fear at what her mind could produce.

She just hoped the hallucinations didn’t get any worse. This odd vision had rattled her taut nerves badly enough. Another sighting of her father, or anything like the vision of the night before last, and she felt she might not be able to handle it without breaking down, which she was trying hard not to do as it was.

She just kept telling herself that it wasn’t real, that it would pass soon enough as the time since her exposure lengthened. She recited it to herself over and over as she closed her eyes. Her hands trembled slightly against her ears.

This is not real…she thought. It’s not real…

She opened her eyes again at the faint sound of keys in the lock, as the deadbolt clicked over. Scully watched the door come open, terror gripping her at what she might see if this, too, wasn’t real. But then Mae came in, pulling off her scarf and coat, meeting Scully’s wide-eyed look with deep concern.

Scully could only imagine how she looked, clenched into a ball on the corner of the couch, her hands covering her ears.

Mae hung her coat and scarf up, came forward until she was kneeling in front of Scully. She reached up and took hold of Scully’s wrists gently, drawing her hands down, holding both of Scully’s between both of hers.

“It’s all right, Katherine,” she said softly. “It’s all right. Nothing’s going to hurt you. What you’re seeing…it can’t hurt you.”

Scully closed her eyes, her brows squinting down. “That’s hard to believe,” she replied. “It all seems so real…”

“Aye, but it’s not,” Mae responded instantly, giving Scully’s hands a tight squeeze, as though trying to force her into the present moment, into the real, with her touch. Scully found herself disentangling her hands from Mae’s so that she could grip the other woman by the wrists. Mae did the same. As though Mae was holding her over a cliff’s edge, Scully thought. Barely keeping her from falling.

Scully opened her eyes again, looked at Mae. It was like looking at a photograph, Mae in focus in the forefront, and the entire background lost in a blur, like Mae was the only real thing in the room. The sounds of the owls grew fainter as Scully held her attention on Mae, drawing in a deep breath.

“All right,” Scully said, nodding. She released Mae’s wrists, though Mae held on for a beat longer.

“I’m going to make you a cup of tea then,” Mae said firmly. “Then we’ll sit together for awhile.”

“Okay,” Scully replied. Mae could have told her they were going to fly to the moon and she would have agreed to it. Mae was grounding her so well. She would do anything she said.

With that, Mae released her hands and stood, going into the kitchen. Scully could hear the kettle filling, the heavy metal on metal sound as Mae placed it on the burner, the clicking of the gas stove as the burner lit. She concentrated on all the small noises.

The sounds of the birds got fainter, then finally disappeared completely.

She chanced a look at the windows. Nothing there. Only the oblique light of the winter day coming in through the old, distorted glass. Relief drifted over her.

Thank God, she thought, and felt herself beginning to relax.

The sounds of the television filtered back into her awareness, a commercial for Rob Roberts, the traffic helicopter pilot, an overhead view of the city swooping across the screen. The view made her vaguely nauseated again, like vertigo. She reached for the remote and switched the television off.

Leaning her head against the couch, she watched Mae at work in the kitchen across the counter that separated the two rooms.

“How was it, seeing Owen?” she asked quietly.

“We’re not what you would call ‘getting along’ at this point, let’s put it that way,” Mae replied, setting two saucers and two teacups on the counter, Twinings tea bags trailing out of the cups’ sides.

“I’m sorry,” Scully replied. Part of her felt for Mae, at war with her brother, her only family left besides Sean. But another part of her was, of course, glad for the schism. Mae wasn’t like Owen. She had too much humanity left in her to be like her bastard of her brother, no matter what she might have done in the past. Scully was sure of that.

“Don’t be sorry,” Mae said, her voice hard, her eyes down on the cups. “You of all people shouldn’t be sorry. Look what he’s done to you.”

“Yes,” Scully replied softly. She thought about it for a moment. “You’re so angry with him…like he hasn’t done something like this before. Is he acting differently than he usually does?”

Mae seemed to consider for a moment whether to respond or not, then put her hands on the counter, blew out a breath, shaking her head.

“He’s never been like this before, no.” Her tone was quiet, as though she were confiding in Scully. Which, Scully realized, she was. “I mean, he’s always had plans for things, always had something in the works, but he’s never been as guarded, as paranoid, as he is right now. And he’s never done things to his own people that were so purposefully cruel and distrustful. I don’t know what’s come over him.”

She paused, shook her head again. “And he won’t discuss his reasons with me, which is strange in and of itself.”

She paused for a moment, and Scully watched her, blinking slowly. The sound of her own slow breathing was very loud to her ears.

Then Mae looked at Scully, something imploring in her expression. “You have to understand something about Owen,” she said, and Scully was uncertain whether Mae was about to try to convince Scully or herself to understand and accept what she going to say.

Both, she decided.

Mae continued. “After our parents died…and then when our brother, James, was killed…Owen made the Cause his entire life. It’s consumed him, and in a very personal way. I’d like to say that he does everything he does for Ireland, but I think it’s more than that. Or maybe less.” She hesitated. The words were already coming from her haltingly, and she seemed to be forcing herself to continue. Scully waited patiently.

“Though it pains me to say it, I think there’s a fair bit of pure revenge in Owen,” she said finally. “I think he’s spent his whole life making people pay for what he’s lost. It’s what drives him deep down.” She looked sad as she spoke. “It’s not something I’m proud of for him. It makes me sad for him, in fact, because I think he’s spent his entire life in a rage. The only time he was happy…well…was when he was married to Sean’s mother. Elisa. And then she was killed, too. He’s never been the same since then. Not even Sean has made that up for him.”

She met Scully’s eyes. “You favor her a great deal, you know,” she said softly. “A bit too much, in fact.”

Scully blinked again, pieces of the puzzle of Owen falling into their places slowly in her addled mind. That certainly explained his attraction to her, she thought.

“That’s why he felt the need to try and control me with the drug,” Scully said, lifting her head off the couch. “He doesn’t want to lose me, too.”

Mae considered. “I think you’re right about that. I think that’s a big part of it. The other part is that he just doesn’t like people leaving him at all. Once he becomes attached to them. I think that’s why he started using the drug when he first found out about it. About a year ago.”

“Where did he find out about it?” Scully asked. This was a question that she’d been wanting to ask for quite some time.

Again, Mae seemed to hesitate, but continued just the same. Scully realized how much Mae truly trusted her. It pleased her in an off- center way. That Scully could find out information, but it also made her glad that Mae trusted her on a personal level. Because some part of her trusted her, as well.

“We have…some affiliations with some other groups…some in the Middle East. We exchange supplies with each other, information when we can. One of those groups had developed the drug, but never used it for what they intended it for. The production of it takes a good bit of energy and resources. Which this group didn’t have. Owen traded the information about it for some…supplies.”

The kettle began to whistle behind her. She seemed glad for the distraction, turned to get it. Scully sat still, taking in what she’d said. After a moment, she spoke.

“What happened to Elisa?” she asked softly. “Did the British kill her?”

Mae turned back towards the cups, pouring the steaming water slowly. She shook her head.

“No. It would have made thing more simple if they had, though.” She finished pouring the water, turned to replace the kettle. Then she went to the refrigerator for the milk, poured it into the small, chipped creamer on the counter, replaced the milk.

“Elisa went to a market to do some shopping one day. Owen had been having some…problems…with other members of the group, enough that he was being left out of meetings about some things.” She sighed, as though the memory pained her. “Well, there was a bombing planned for the market that day, and Owen didn’t know. So Elisa didn’t know.”

Scully gaped. “The IRA killed her?”

Mae nodded. “It was an accident. People were very sorry about it. But I don’t think Owen’s really ever let it go. Or ever will.”

Mae gathered up the creamer and the sugar bowl, came around the counter and set them both on the coffee table. Then she returned to the counter, picked up both steaming cups of tea by the saucers.

While she did this, Scully considered what she’d said.

The Path’s split with the IRA suddenly made a lot more sense to her. A lot of things did. Curran’s need to control her. Even the tension between Mae and Owen. Mae’s past showed someone loyal to the Cause, to her brother’s part in that. Owen’s was starting to point toward a loyalty only to himself.

“Now I’ve got the whole day cleared out to help you through this,” Mae said quietly, setting the saucer in front of Scully and going to a chair caddy-corner to the couch. She sat, her cup and saucer held delicately in front of her. “What should we do?”

Scully leaned forward, took the cup, bobbed the tea bag up and down slowly. She shook her head.

“I don’t know what to do,” she said honestly. “I don’t know what to expect.”

“Well then,” Mae replied, crossing her legs. “We’ll just play it by ear, as they say. Just relax.” She smiled reassuringly.

Scully smiled back, pulled the teabag out of the cup and set it on the saucer. She leaned back, blew across the steaming surface of the tea and took a sip, trying her best to do as Mae said.

~~~

THE GREY MOUSE 6:34 p.m.

Owen Curran sat in his office in the back room of the pub, his arms crossed over his chest, his eyes on the table. He was a dark, lone figure in the room, his black sweater and deep blue jeans matching his mood to a tee. Outside in the pub, another band was playing, the pub already crowded, even though it was early in the night.

But no sign of Mae, he thought broodily. The bartender had strict instructions to come get him the minute Mae showed up, even if she didn’t come back to see him in the office. He would find her out in the pub, try to make things better between them. Tomorrow was going to strain things between them enough. He wanted them to be on firm ground when the events of the day unfolded.

He shook his head as another thought entered his mind.

There was no word from Katherine, either.

He wondered how she was faring. Truthfully, he didn’t know what effect her withdrawal from the drug would have. He didn’t know much about how long it took to addict someone to the point that going off it would kill them. No one had tried to stop taking it this soon after being exposed.

She was so fucking stubborn, he thought bitterly. Just like Elisa that way. Part of him wouldn’t be surprised if she let herself die rather than come back to him to get more.

But then there was the drug he’d planted in the juice. He was satisfied to think that she might not be going through withdrawal yet at all.

She would come to him, he decided, and picked up his beer, taking a swallow. He reached for his cigarette, smouldering in the ashtray, and took a long draw off it, forcing himself to relax.

He just needed to be a little more patient. Keep his wits about him. And concentrate on tomorrow. Try to stay focussed on that.

There was a knock on the door, and though he’d just pledged to think only of the bombing, he found himself sitting up straighter, wondering if it was Mae or Katherine after all. He called for whomever it was to come in, forcing the anticipation out of his voice, set the cigarette back in the ashtray quickly.

John Fagan entered, holding a file folder, still bundled up in his long dark coat and gloves, clearly having not stopped at all on his way through the pub. He looked at Owen seriously as he closed the door behind him.

Owen’s shoulders fell a bit as he saw Fagan, and he leaned back in the chair again.

“Owen,” Fagan said softly, and came forward into the circle of light thrown by the single bulb over the table.

“What is it, John?” Curran replied tiredly. “I’m not in the mood for much company tonight, to be honest with you.”

Fagan held the folder in front of him, not quite offering it to Curran. “I think you’ll want my company right now,” he said quietly, his voice grim. “I think you’ll want to hear me out, though you’re not going to like what I’ve got to say one bit.”

Owen glared up at him, took another sip from his beer. “What are you crapping on about, John?” he grumbled. “I’m not in the mood for any gaming. Out with whatever you’ve got.”

Fagan nodded, though Curran could see he had flushed a little over his tone with him. “All right, Owen. Out with it then.”

He opened the folder, looked at the contents for a few seconds, then turned it and slid it across the table towards Curran, into the bright light of the lamp.

Curran looked down at it. A computer printout of some sort, with a picture of Katherine in the corner. He glanced at it, then away.

“What’s this then?” he asked, looking up at John accusingly.

Fagan shifted from foot to foot uncomfortably. “I did a check on her, like I told you I wanted to do. I ran her fingerprints through a cop here in Richmond, that Detective Shanahan we met in Baltimore, remember?”

Owen pursed his lips, anger boiling in him as his voice rose. “I told you she’d already been checked, John. Goddamnit, you never fucking listen anymore, do you–“

“Will you read the bloody file, Owen?” Fagan shouted, interrupting him. “She’s a fucking FBI agent!” He pointed down at the file, jabbing a finger at the printout. “Read the fucking thing!”

Owen was stunned into silence, his eyes remaining on Fagan for a few seconds, as though waiting to be told that he was kidding. Then his eyes fell on the folder. He noted the FBI logo on the corner of the page, beneath her picture. Her vital information scrolled beside the clearly dated picture.

Special Agent Dana Scully, he read silently. University of Maryland Medical School…FBI Academy…current assignment: “classified.”

His hand came up to rub his temple and his forehead as he continued reading. Fagan stood before him, waiting.

“My God…” Curran said softly, fingering the pages. He didn’t turn to the next page. He’d seen enough.

“She could know about the bombing, Owen,” Fagan said into the quiet. “We might need to call this thing off tomorrow.”

Curran was silent for a long moment. He could feel color rising in his cheeks, rage beginning to come up in him. Indignation. Shame at being told this by Fagan, at being so easily duped.

And something else. A very deep sense of personal betrayal that he was finding difficult to even tolerate.

He struggled to hold it all down, forced his voice to a calm, flat monotone, forced himself to concentrate. “No, I don’t think she would know about that. Nobody knows but you and me and a couple of others…I think that’s all right.” He swallowed, looked to the side, away from the file and from Fagan.

“What do you want me to do, Owen?” Fagan urged softly. He was standing there, poised to do something, whatever Owen told him to do. As he’d always been, Owen realized.

God, what a fool I’ve been…he thought, closing his eyes.

The image came to his mind again, completely unbidden. Elisa — or was it Katherine? — on the hillside again, him walking towards her. He reached her, her face swimming in and out of focus, turning first from one woman to the other.

Then the memory came crashing in. He winced against it.

At the wake. Alone in the drawing room of his parents’ house…going to the coffin, the tears streaming from him as he pushed open the lid, the choked cry that came from him as he looked her, half her face blown away, her body torn so badly she was wrapped entirely with a tight, uneven sheet…

He covered his eyes for a long moment, then his mouth, hoping Fagan wouldn’t notice the suspicious shine in his eyes. He clenched his jaw down, cleared his throat, dropped his hand to the file, fingered the pages again.

The rage warred against the anguish, turning him cold. Ice cold.

“Owen?” Fagan looked at him uncertainly. “Are you all right?”

“Aye, I’m fine,” Owen said softly, his voice still monotone, all business. He cleared his throat.

“Here’s what I want you to do for me, John,” he began. “Mae is coming to get Sean in the morning, early, around eight or nine. She’s keeping him for the day while we drive up to D.C.”

“All right,” Fagan replied, waiting.

“Once Mae is out of the house…” He reached into his pocket, drawing out his keys. He slowly pulled one off the ring as he spoke. “I want you to go in there with this… “

He pushed the key across the table, looked up at Fagan, his eyes deathly still and serious as he spoke again.

“…And I want you to kill her. I don’t care how. Just get rid of the body before Mae comes home with Sean, then meet me back at the warehouse. We’ll go from there.”

Fagan reached down and picked up the key, looking at Owen almost warily.

“You sure about this, Owen?” he asked softly.

Owen nodded. “Aye,” he said quietly, returning John’s gaze.

Fagan nodded. “All right then,” he replied, and, fingering the key in his black gloved hand, he tucked it into his coat pocket.

Owen dismissed him with his eyes, and Fagan withdrew, closing the door silently behind him.

He sat for a long time, unmoving.

He looked down at the file folder, trying to gauge the way he felt at that moment. Nothing. It was as though something in him that he’d kept barely kindled had died out, gone to dust. As though it had never really been there at all.

Reaching out once again, he fingered the corner of the folder, slowly turned it over, hiding the picture as he pushed the file, and his emotions about it, shut.

~~~

CHAPTER 20.

~~~

MALCOLM FLAHERTY’S HOUSE OUTSIDE BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS JANUARY 15 (FRIDAY) 3:47 a.m.

The spotlights threw the shadows of the falling snow against the stone of the Celtic cross in the center of the low maze of bushes, the amber light throwing the ancient carvings of saints into stark relief and dotting them with falling shadows. Around the cross, night hung heavily, the stars obscured by the thick clouds, the moon straining a faint light in one corner of the sky.

For a long time all was still, quiet. The snow fell silently, only the faintest wind disturbing its slow spiral.

Then, from behind one of the cross’ shoulders, a gloved hand appeared, gripping the edge of the sculpture as a dark shadow of a head appeared in the sharp bend. A warm fog of air puffed out in front of the man’s face, slipping out from the small hole in the black ski mask. The man’s keen eyes used the higher vantage point to scan the grounds, to take in the stone path lined with dark skeletons of trees that led to the back of the house.

Seeing no one around, his other hand came up. He gestured forward once, twice.

Three other dark shapes moved quickly through the maze, around the sides of it, moving as silent as the snow. The man leapt down from the cross and followed the other three down the path, hugging the edges where the dim gas light was faintest.

They gathered, a huddle of shadows, at the house’s rear entrance, a set of wide French doors that opened onto the stone patio. The man gestured to one of his companions, pointing to the security system keypad set into the brick beside the door. His companion nodded, reached into his black jacket, pulled out a set of tools in a small zippered case, tiny tools designed for intricate work.

In a few seconds, he had the keypad off its base, the pad trailing multicolored wires that still connected it to the wall.

The alarm began to beep in warning, ticking off what the man knew to be a thirty second countdown before it activated the house-wide alarm and alerted the police to the presence of an intruder.

The man was not fazed by this. His companions weren’t either. They simply stood close to the house, glancing around through the eye slits of their identical masks.

The one with the tools worked carefully, snipping a blue wire, a red. He loosened two screws that held the two remaining wires to the base with a small screwdriver. Then, pulling out two small pieces of tin foil from his kit, he folded them carefully into paper thin squares, slid them gently between the heads of the wires and their contact points.

The beeping of the alarm ceased immediately, the light on the panel going from red to green.

Reaching into his pocket again, the one with the tools produced a small gun-like device, placed the business end of it into the lock beneath the scrolled bars of the doorknobs. There was an audible click. He withdrew the instrument and pulled open the door.

The man entered first, the other three following behind, their feet barely making a sound on the floor. The house was dark except for a light on the foyer, throwing a dim glow onto the large staircase that led up to the house’s second and third levels.

He stopped in the mouth of the foyer, in the darkened hallway that they’d followed from the back of the house. He put a hand up to halt the movement of the others, which they did in unison.

He held up a finger, pointed down one corridor that radiated off the round foyer. One servant, he conveyed silently. At the end of the corridor. Probably the butler, asleep in his quarters.

He pointed down the opposite corridor, the one that led to the study and another hallway toward the front of the house. He held up another finger, pointed down that way. Another servant. He put a finger over his lips. The other men nodded, understanding their leader’s instructions.

Now he pointed up the steps, his hand flat, then tilting as it indicated the incline of the stairs. His hand veered sharply off to the right, stopping suddenly against the palm of his other hand, indicating a door. He pointed to his palm, nodded. The others nodded as well. Their target was behind that door.

They were all on the same page, and the man was pleased.

Drawing his gun, which was fitted with the smooth cylinder of a silencer, he came out of the shadows quickly and began his ascent up the carpeted stairs, the others close behind, their weapons also drawn as they made their way up onto the landing. Their bodies were mere outlines against the hallway windows, gauzy shapes in the lights at the back of the house.

They moved slowly, the target nearly in sight now, as they inched toward the closed bedroom door at the end of the long hallway.

**

Malcolm Flaherty came awake suddenly, his head turning towards the door to his room instinctively. His breathing was a bit fast as he looked around the room, looking for anything amiss. Nothing seemed to be. The fire crackled in the fireplace on the far wall, sending a play of yellow light around the room. His grandfather’s clock ticked on the mantel, and as he sat up in bed, it struck ‘four’ in a light series of bells.

He could swear he heard something out in the hallway. He had always been a light sleeper.

He swiveled, slipped his feet out from beneath the covers, then his legs, stepping into the bedroom shoes he kept there, side by side. He reached for his robe at the end of the bed, blue pin-striped silk, like his pajamas, slipped it over his shoulders, and rose.

For a long moment he stood beside the bed, tying closed his robe fastidiously, just listening to the familiar sounds of the house at night. All the usual sounds were there, even the breeze against the windows, the slight creak of wood and glass as the wind caressed them.

But there was something else there, as well. He felt sure of it. He had not become the man he had without being innately cautious.

He watched the door to his bedroom, watched the crack beneath it. Nothing. No movement, no shadow, no sound.

The door was locked, he knew. It always was at night. And only Maureen and Michael, the maid and butler, had additional keys to the room.

He waited a moment longer and still heard nothing. He was beginning to feel he might have imagined the whole thing, or if the soft noises had been some holdover of a dream. He felt himself relax a little with that thought. After all, the house was a fortress, alarmed at every entrance, every window.

It was probably Michael moving around downstairs to the kitchen. He decided on that as the answer. He would go downstairs to make sure, however. He might even have a word with Michael to urge the man to be more quiet in his late night (or early morning) roamings.

Reaching for the key on the nightstand, he went to the door, pushed the long skeleton key into the lock, gave it a turn. He pulled the door open and stepped out into the chilly hallway beyond.

He stood there for a moment, letting his eyes adjust to the play of shadow and light on the long corridor.

Suddenly the shadows against the walls came to life.

They moved in on him so quickly he didn’t even have time to cry out before there was a large, gloved hand over his mouth, an arm across his chest, pinning him against a large body behind him. Then a masked man standing before him with a pistol pointed at the center of his forehead.

His eyes were wide in their sockets, the sound of alarm he’d intended to make at the first sight of motion lost in a moan in his throat as the man behind him hustled him backwards, nearly dragging him, the man with the gun taking measured steps forward to keep the pistol’s barrel almost flush with his skin.

They reentered the bedroom, two other figures coming in behind the man with the pistol, closing the door silently behind them.

The entire proceedings — from the moment he’d stepped out of the bedroom to his return to it under restraint — had taken less than 10 seconds.

The house returned to quiet as the men waited, listening for any sign of life from downstairs. Flaherty started to make another sound, but his head was jerked back hard by the hand over his mouth, silencing him.

They were military, he knew this. There was too much control and precision in their actions, too much of an ability to act as a unit, for them to be petty thieves after his television, his wallet.

No, these men wanted something far more valuable that any of that, he thought calmly. They had come for him.

British spies. M16, no doubt.

He smirked beneath the hand over his mouth, meeting the man before him’s eyes challenge for challenge. The man cocked his head, noting this, nearly smiled. He jerked his head to the side, signalling for the man holding him to remove his hand. He cocked the pistol, however, to ensure that there would be no outburst.

“I wondered when you might get here,” Flaherty said quietly, attempting to pull his regal composure over himself, despite how precarious his position might appear.

The man cocked his head to the other side, clearly puzzled by Flaherty’s words.

“Oh yes, I’ve known you were coming for quite some time,” Flaherty continued, gaining confidence with each word. He even managed to draw himself up a bit against the man holding him. The other two men had flanked the one with the gun (clearly the leader), standing still as stone.

“Go ahead and name your threat, the price you demand for me to stop the work I’ve been doing. Not that it will do you any good, mind you. My loyalty is and always shall be to Ireland and her freedom from your tyrannical control. Your threats mean nothing to me. But go ahead. Out with them.”

He felt strength in saying the words, reassurance that he was taking some bit of control over his situation. They were just here to frighten him, he said to himself. To try to frighten him. The British had no stomach for assassination, and certainly not the assassination of American citizens, no matter what they were involved in.

The man seemed surprised for a moment, then he smiled widely beneath his mask, glanced back at the two men behind him. They smiled in return, as if on cue. The man behind him chuckled once quietly.

The gun did not move from just in front of his forehead as the man continued the same wide smile. He gestured with the gun, jerking it down. The man behind him crushed Flaherty to his knees on the thick rug, just in front of the fireplace, then tussled him around until he was facing the fire, his arms pinned at his side.

One of the other men came forward with something. Electrical tape. He wound it around and around Flaherty’s wrists behind his back. He did the same to his ankles.

Flaherty endured it all silently, still trying to maintain his certainty that they were simply attempting to frighten him. That he was just getting the full show, the full effect.

But if he let himself feel it, somewhere in the back of his mind, fear was beginning to gnaw at him. The men’s silence engendered it. He expected intimidation, even perhaps torture as they threatened him.

But not this silence.

The clock continued to tick on the mantle. The sound seemed to be getting louder to Flaherty’s ears. The fire popped, hissing into the room with its heat and amber light.

“Why don’t you tell me what it is you want?” Flaherty tried again, and some of the haughtiness had come out of his voice. There was a slight tremor there, just beneath the surface.

The man with the pistol had come up close behind him again.

“We don’t want a thing from you, Mr. Flaherty,” the man said softly.

Flaherty’s face fell, his heart leaping into his throat.

Irish. They’re Irish. Oh my God….

“I just came up to deliver a message is all,” the man continued. Flaherty felt the round muzzle of the silencer against the back of his head.

“Why?” Flaherty found himself saying. The word was so alien to him, the pleading tone of it, that he didn’t recognize it as coming from his own mouth at first.

“I think you’ll understand the ‘whys’ of this when you hear the message, Mr. Flaherty, sir,” the man said lightly, conversationally. “Are you ready for the message?”

The gun pressed into his skull harder. He clenched his eyes closed, his tongue growing thick in his mouth.

“Well, are you?” The light conversational tone was gone now, replaced by something lower, darker. “Say yes or no, Mr. Flaherty.”

Flaherty pulled in a shaky breath, his eyes still closed, attempting to compose himself as best he could. He decided that if he was going to go out on his knees, he could keep a shred of dignity. Meet the man word for word.

“Yes,” he said softly. He opened his eyes, looked into the fire. A log fell slightly, sending off a small cloud of sparks that blinked in the air in front of the fire and then vanished.

The man leaned close to his ear, as though he meant to whisper a secret. “Here it is, then…” he said softly, then his voice did drop to a whisper.

“Owen Curran sends his best.”

The man leaned forward a bit more to he could look into his face. Flaherty met his eyes. “You got the answer to your ‘why’ now, then, Mr. Flaherty?”

Flaherty pulled himself up more. The Ireland he’d fought for his entire life was now in his bedroom, about to end his life. “Yes,” he murmured. “I understand.”

The man stood again, the muzzle of the gun returning to the back of his head. “That’s good,” he said. “He wanted you to understand.”

He pulled the hammer back on the gun, the sound cold, efficient.

Flaherty closed his eyes against shot.

~~~

CROSSROADS MOTEL 8:32 a.m.

On the night table, beneath the cheap lamp that Mulder had left on the night before while he’d been reading and watching television, the cell phone began to ring.

Mulder’s eyes came open slowly as he drew in a deep breath, turned his head toward the sound. The file that was open and lying flat on his chest shifted slightly, paper slipping from it to rest on the mattress and floor. He put his hand on it as he sat up a little more against the headboard and reached for the phone, pressing the talk button on its way to his ear.

“Mulder,” he called, sleep still in his voice. The television was playing softly on the bureau against the far wall, Katie Couric and Matt Lauer yukking it up over something. He grimaced at them, reaching for the remote to mute the sound. He felt like he had a hangover from having so little sleep.

“Mulder, it’s Granger,” came the somewhat breathless reply. “We’ve got a problem.”

Mulder sat straight up now, instantly awake. Files rained down on the floor. “Is it Scully? What’s happened?”

“Malcolm Flaherty was killed in his house last night. A professional hit. He was found in the middle of his bedroom, his wrists and ankles bound with electrical tape. A single shot to the back of the head.”

Mulder swung his legs over the side of the bed quickly. “Flaherty’s dead?” he repeated, his voice rising.

“Yes,” Granger replied. “They’re not sure when. The medical examiner is still working on him. The butler found him this morning. Nobody heard anything. The house alarm was shorted out. The people knew what they were doing, that’s for sure.”

“They know about Scully,” Mulder said with conviction, and swore under his breath.

“Padden’s not so sure about that,” Granger replied, trying to sound hopeful. “It could just be another splinter group. There are so many, after all. It could have been someone pissed off with Flaherty for something else. He had dealings with a lot of questionable people, Padden said. It could have nothing to do with Scully or Curran at all.”

“That’s damned unlikely,” Mulder spat back, standing now, looking around for his pants. The room with its cinderblock walls was chilly, and as Mulder stood there in his grey boxer briefs the hairs on his legs rose up in goosebumps. “We’ve got to get her out of there,” he said tersely. “We’ve got to get her out right now.”

“There’s no way for us to do that, Mulder, without risking blowing her cover,” Granger replied reasonably. “We’re not sure it’s been blown, and storming into that apartment with a bunch of agents might just endanger her more. She’s got a ticket out at 11:00 a.m. Padden thinks the best thing to do it to simply see if she gets on that plane. He says if she doesn’t, then we’ll know if we need to put an extraction plan into effect. She’s going to be fine. Just be patient.”

“Patient my ass,” he said angrily. “Padden’s got a little too much patience about this whole thing. He’s willing to risk her too much. I bought a ticket to be on that plane with her. If she doesn’t get on I AM going to that apartment to find her. I don’t care about any ‘extraction plans.'”

Granger was silent for a moment as Mulder pulled on his jeans, balancing the phone on his shoulder. Mulder could almost feel the man’s tension at being privy to his unauthorized plans, but he gave the man credit for not arguing with him about it.

“It just wouldn’t make any sense, Mulder,” Granger continued finally, sounding genuinely puzzled. “Curran killing Flaherty, I mean. Flaherty’s the one who supplies him with everything he needs, isn’t he?”

“Curran’s been doing nothing but kill his own people for months now,” Mulder replied, buttoning and zipping his jeans.

“But why risk killing Flaherty now?” Granger replied. “I mean, even if he did find out about Scully, wouldn’t it be detrimental to him to just kill him that suddenly? Like shooting himself in the foot?”

“Not unless…” Mulder stood up straight, still, his mind sifting through the massive amount of information he’d read the night before, and in the days previous. Things were beginning to fall into their place in his mind.

“Not unless he was sure he wouldn’t need him anymore,” he said softly.

“‘Wouldn’t need him anymore?'” Granger repeated. “How could that be?”

Mulder nodded to himself, paced a couple of steps. “I think the bombing’s going to be today,” he said, a little breathless himself now as he raced through the possibilities, the facts.

“What?” Granger said, alarmed. “How do you know that?”

Mulder turned toward the window that looked over the balcony, the cheap curtains slightly cracked to let the grey morning light in. He nodded again, feeling certain of himself. “That’s the only way he would be able to kill Flaherty. Because he didn’t need him anymore. To get ready for it. Because it’s today.”

“Mulder, begging your pardon, but you’re making a big leap here,” Granger said dubiously.

“I’m not, I’m not. Hold on…hold on just a second…” Mulder went back to the side of the bed, pulling files off the floor, flipping through them, looking for the right one. He’d been looking at them for so long he felt like he had them memorized. He rifled through the stack until he found the file on Elisa Curran. “There’s something in here…I remember reading it but I didn’t make the connection until you told me about Flaherty…”

Granger was silent as Mulder skimmed the file, his finger running down across the text, the phone on his shoulder again.

“Dammit, what’s today’s date, anyway?” Mulder asked quickly. “The fourteenth?”

“No, it’s the fifteenth,” Granger replied impatiently.

Mulder’s finger continued down the paragraphs, suddenly stopped. “Here it is,” he said. “Elisa Curran was killed on January fifteenth in Belfast…the bomb went off right at 3 p.m.”

Granger was silent for a beat. “But why would he want to bomb the British Embassy to mark the anniversary of Elisa’s death? And why kill Flaherty now? He didn’t have anything to do with that.”

Mulder’s mind raced, his eyes focussed on the picture of Curran and Elisa on the corner of the file. He thought of the bombing in the market, Elisa Curran in the wrong place at the wrong time, a fact of which he was certain. Curran cut out of the loop. He thought of Danny. Of Mary Rutherford. Hugh Cromes, the body that had washed up on the beach at the river. All the others.

The last puzzle piece — Flaherty’s death — clicked into place in his mind. He smiled through his tension.

It all made perfect sense now.

“Because he’s not going to bomb the British Embassy,” Mulder said at last.

“What?” Granger asked incredulously.

~~~

2233 GRACE STREET 8:53 a.m.

Scully’s hand shook as she poured her second glass of juice of the morning, emptying the carton. Mae was at the stove behind her, fetching the kettle for tea, the television chatting in the other room, laughter from a studio audience leaking into the room and seeming strangely at odds with the silence of the apartment’s two occupants.

Scully looked at her hand with concern as she set the empty carton down, making a fist in front of her face as she studied her hand’s tremble. The shaking was getting worse, not better, as time wore on. She was at a loss to explain the drug’s symptoms in her, and it was beginning to worry her. They were lingering on too long.

And she had spent another entire night awake, for awhile staring out the windows, lying still in her bed. Finally, she’d risen and gone to her closet, bringing her suitcases out and laying them on the bed, carefully packing her things in preparation for leaving. It had taken her a long time, but she had been glad for the distraction.

That was three nights now without sleep. And it was beginning to take its toll on her. Concentration was difficult. Her emotions were close to the surface, threatening to overwhelm her.

She remembered that Danny had told her he’d gone over two weeks without sleeping.

No wonder the man had cried all the time, she thought, taking a sip of the juice.

And she stopped.

Held it in her mouth.

There was something strange about it, something in the texture, the taste. As though something had been collecting at the bottom of the carton and had just been poured out with the last of the juice.

Mindful of Mae, whose back was still turned, she spit the mouthful of juice back into the glass, set it back on the counter. She reached for the empty carton, reopened it, gave the interior a sniff.

Orange juice and something else. Something faintly chemical.

Oh God…

“Mae?” she called, keeping her voice soft, steady.

“Uh huh?” Mae replied, pouring the tea and pulling out two pieces of toast from the toaster.

“Has…has Owen been here in the past few days?” She tried to sound as casual as she could, but panic was starting in her, her heart pounding.

“Um…yeah,” Mae said distractedly, buttering the toast. “He was here a couple of days ago, I guess, dropping Sean off.” Then Mae put the knife down, turned to her, her eyes widening. “Why?”

Scully turned slowly, held the carton out toward Mae’s face. Mae locked eyes with her, took the carton, smelled the contents deeply.

“That son-of-a-bitch,” Mae whispered angrily, reaching out and gripping Scully’s upper arm, as though she meant to keep her from falling. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t think of it at all.”

Scully nodded, her hand going to her mouth. “It’s okay,” she said softly, putting a hand on Mae’s arm. “Just…just excuse me for a minute.”

She brushed past Mae, heading down the long hallway to the bathroom, entering the room quickly. As she passed the sink, she grabbed her toothbrush, knelt in front of the toilet.

Within a few moments her stomach was empty. It wasn’t even difficult because the thought of what she’d consumed made her feel so sick.

At least one dose of the drug would not be completely absorbed into her system, she thought with some relief. She stood in front of the sink, brushed her teeth, then wet a wash cloth and pressed it to her face, the cool water feeling good against her flushed skin.

“Are you all right?” Mae asked from the doorway, where she’d poked her head in shyly.

“Yes,” Scully replied immediately, her voice stronger than she felt. She put the wash cloth down and pushed her hair behind her ears, trying to put her reflection back together.

“Katherine, I’m so sorry.”

Scully looked at Mae in the doorway, nodded simply. “It’s not your fault, Mae,” she said quietly.

“You’re still going to leave today? Even knowing you’ve been exposed to more of the drug than you thought?”

Scully nodded. “Yes,” she replied. “I’m going to go before any of this gets any worse. I still don’t think I’ve had enough for it to be lethal, but if I stay Owen will keep trying to get more of it in me. I have to get away.”

Mae nodded, looked down. “I understand,” she murmured.

When she looked back up, there was determination in her eyes. “I’m going to talk to Owen this morning about whether there’s a cure for all this. I’ve never heard him speak of one before, but he may know something that he hasn’t talked to me about. He’s kept so much about the drug from me, that could be the case.”

Scully nodded, feeling a little hopeful at that. “Thank you, Mae…I hope that’s true. I don’t know if he’ll give the information to you even if he does have it, but I appreciate you trying.”

Mae nodded. “You’re welcome,” she said softly. “It’s the least I can do for you.”

She hesitated, as though she needed to work up her nerve to say something. Then she looked up, met Scully’s eyes.

“I’ll miss you, Katherine.” She smiled sadly. “You’re the first real friend I’ve made in I don’t know how long.”

Scully returned the sad smile. “I’ll miss you, too, Mae,” she replied, and meant it. Despite her cover, despite Owen, all of it — she did consider Mae a friend. No matter how strange the circumstances of that friendship.

She did, however, feel a little guilty about Mae calling her a “real friend.” Mae didn’t even know her real name.

Mae looked away, then back at her earnestly. “I’m glad you’re getting away from all this, though,” she said with conviction. Then she looked away again, her eyes shining.

“This bloody mess…” she added under her breath angrily.

Scully was surprised by her words, but only nodded. She’d known Mae had her regrets about some of the things she’d done, but she didn’t realize she felt this strongly against the work she was doing. She supposed the falling out with Owen had a lot to do with that, his treatment of her, his deception.

It must be hard, Scully thought, to believe in something that seemed to be based on so many lies.

Mae shook her head, drew herself up a little straighter, looked at her watch, brushing the conversation away.

“I’ve got to go get Sean,” she said. “I’m late doing it already. I’ll be staying there for a bit, but I’ll be back in time for us to take you to the airport.” She forced a smile. “We were the first ones to see you when you got here; it seems only fitting we’ll be the ones to see you off.”

Scully smiled back. “Okay,” she said, nodding. “I’m just going to take a shower, get cleaned up. I’m already packed for the most part. I just have to put a few things in the suitcases. But I’ll be waiting for you when you get here.”

“All right,” Mae said. “Have a good rest of your morning. I’ll see you in a bit.” And she withdrew down the hall. Scully heard her put on her coat and go out the door, bolting it shut behind her.

Scully looked at herself in the mirror, her shoulders falling now that she was by herself. The exhaustion she felt was intense, bone- deep. She noted the dark circles beneath her eyes, the paleness of her skin. She was leaning on her hands on either side of the sink, but she could still feel the slight tremor in them.

She was going to be sick. She knew that. She might even need to go into a hospital when she got back to Washington to monitor her as she went through the withdrawal.

Closing her eyes, she prayed that was all she’d be in for.

Scully sighed, pushing the thought away as she stood and headed into the hallway, going down towards her room. She looked with relief at her suitcases laying open at the foot of the bed.

Going to the bedside, she began to slowly undress, pulling the loose shirt she wore over her head, stepping out of her sweatpants and underwear, which she tossed on the bed. Her white robe was on a hook behind the door, and she reached for it, slipped it on quickly to avoid the chill in the room. She returned to the bathroom.

Pushing back the cheap shower curtain, she turned the old handles on the claw footed tub until she got the water good and hot, popped on the shower. She took off her robe, lay it across the sink and stepped into the tub, let the steaming water beat over her, clearing her anxious thinking temporarily away.

**

In his black car on the corner, John Fagan watched Mae come out the door to the building, fumbling with her keys as she headed toward her dilapidated pickup parked just out front. He noted with satisfaction that she seemed too distracted to look around as she unlocked the door, climbed in and edged out onto the street.

He waited for several minutes after she’d disappeared around the corner to make sure she wouldn’t return for something, finishing his cigarette calmly, his eyes narrowing as he looked at the door to the building, studied the upstairs windows for any sign of activity. He saw none.

Finally he opened the door, snuffed out the cigarette with his boot, then made his way across the street, going in the building quietly, walking carefully up the steps of the landing.

He unzipped his jacket, reached for the key in his pocket with one hand while the other glanced over the pair of handcuffs in their holder at his belt, then finally went to the holster at the small of his back, unclipping the strap that was holding the gun securely in place. A roll of electrical tape bulged out of the other pocket.

He wouldn’t need any of them, he thought, smiling to himself with anticipation. Not right away, at least.

He stood outside the door for a long moment, listening. He heard the television through the thin door, and something else. A hissing. Water running.

Pleased with this, he slipped the key in the lock, turned it slowly, almost silently. Then he pushed the door open a crack, stuck his head in to look into the living room. Seeing no one there, he entered the apartment, closed the door gently behind him.

Steam was drifting out the bathroom door in the middle of the hallway that led to the back of the apartment. He could hear Katherine in there, bumping and squeaking in the midst of her shower. Edging down the corridor, stepping carefully, quietly, he went to the doorway.

He peeked around the corner slowly, the sink coming into view, a white robe draped over it. Then the toilet, the battered radiator beneath the curtained window. Finally, he’d craned his neck enough to see the side of the tub, the shower curtain gaped open a bit at the foot of it.

Katherine stood with her back to him, close to the showerhead, rinsing shampoo from her hair, smoothing her hands over the top of her head.

He watched raptly as the bubbles from the shampoo made their way down her body, over her creamy back, the soft curves of her buttocks. He followed them all the way down her body for a long moment, mesmerized.

She began to turn and he ducked back behind the doorway quickly, taking a step back for good measure. He held still.

He was a patient man, particularly when it came to tasks like this one. Knowing he had the element of surprise in his favor, he relaxed, pressed against the wall.

He waited.

**

Scully finished rinsing, reached down and flipped the shower off, turned the handles of the tub, both squeaking loudly, until the flow of water had stopped. The sound of the television talking to no one, the drip of water, filled the air around her as she stepped out, reached for a towel and began to dry herself.

She stood before the mirror and shouldered into her robe, tying the belt tightly as she rubbed the towel through her hair. Once she’d gotten it down to damp and smooth against her head, she draped the towel around her neck and stepped out into the hallway.

From the back, a sudden sound of movement, then something crashing into her with all the force of a train, an arm going around her waist tightly, pinning her arms and lifting her slightly off her feet. The cry of surprise she’d been about to let out got caught in her mouth behind the gloved hand that clamped down over it with enough pressure to bruise. Her eyes widened in terror.

Though she couldn’t turn her head to look, she knew from the size and the strength that it was Fagan. Two words came up through the fear that welled in her:

They know.

She was sure of it.

He began to hustle her forward, towards the bedroom. Gaining her wits about her, she kicked back with her legs. Her feet caught him in the knees hard and he stumbled. She took advantage of the break in his concentration and balance to free her hand. She clawed his face, skin coming up beneath her nails.

“Fuck!” he swore, and dropped her. She hit the floor on her feet, fell forward onto her hands and scrambled up, running for the bedroom.

She could hear his heavy footfalls coming after her as, panting with exertion and fear, she slammed the door closed behind her and turned the lock. Immediately she heard his body hit the door, him cursing, the wood rattling on its hinges.

Frantically, she looked around the bedroom for something to use as a weapon, wishing for all her life that she’d violated Padden’s order and hidden her gun in her suitcase.

Fagan’s body hit the door again, and she could hear wood beginning to give.

She knew she had to take him out first. There was no other choice.

She moved quickly, stepping up beside the door, every muscle in her poised to attack. As he hit the door again, she swallowed down the fear and steeled herself, the wood finally splintering.

Fagan burst into the room, and Scully sprang, screaming to shock him for an instant. She got both arms around his neck and squeezed.

His hands grabbed at her wrists as his breath wheezed in his throat. She held on, though, her arms shaking with the effort.

He staggered, choking. Then he backed up suddenly, driving Scully into the wall beside the door with a grunt. She gasped but managed to hang on. He took another step forward and drove her into the wall again, and this time the pain was bad enough that she let go, tumbling to the floor.

“Come here,” he snarled, and reached down, grabbing her by the hair and hauling her up. Wincing, she drove her knee up into his groin and when he let go again, she took off.

She had to get out of the apartment, she chanted to herself as she tore down the hallway. Or at least to the phone, barring that. She had to get out, or get somewhere here, now…

She raced for the door, got a hand on the doorknob, but Fagan grabbed her, pulling her back, crushing her against him. She kicked back again, struggling, and got away, flinging herself toward the kitchen with Fagan only a few steps behind. She grabbed for the phone, began to dial. He slammed into her, knocking her against the counter hard, the receiver flying. His hands closed down around her throat.

She couldn’t breathe at all, his grip was so tight. Desperately, she groped in the sink behind her, felt the smooth handle of a knife. Grasping it, she swung wildly.

The point made contact with his cheek, sunk in. She could hear it hit his teeth as he screamed, the knife sticking in his face and slipping from her grasp as he turned away from her. He let go of her again, his hand going for the knife and drawing it out as she staggered toward the living room once again.

She made it three or four steps before she felt him knock into her legs. She hit the floor, he first thing striking the hard wood was her face. Her vision fuzzed, blood immediately coming from her nose. She tasted blood in her mouth, as well.

He flattened himself on top of her, pinning her to the floor, his ankles over hers, immobilizing her legs. Clearly in a rage now, he lifted her head up, turned it to the side and slammed it down on the floor viciously once, twice.

The world shrank to a tunnel as her eyes lolled, her body going limp. She turned her face against the floor, fighting off unconsciousness. She felt the cold bite of a handcuff on one wrist, then the other as he pulled her arms back hard.

“No…” she cried, the side of her face and temple throbbing, her vision blurring. She could barely breathe with his weight on top of her. He leaned up for a moment, his knee digging into the small of her back, and she could hear something ripping. She gasped for breath, drawing in a lungful of air and shouting the word again.

The cry was cut off as a thick piece of electrical tape was drawn across her mouth, a hand pinning her head down onto the floor. His other hand pulled at her robe, pushing it roughly up her back.

God, no…she thought as more and more of her skin was exposed to the air, his hands moving over her body freely now.

Not this…

She closed her eyes, swam in a muddy pool of pain and near- consciousness.

She prayed for the darkness to come.

~~~

CHAPTER 21.

~~~

2233 GRACE STREET 10:03 a.m.

In the background, the sound of someone slamming around in the kitchen, drawers opening and closing. The television just behind her. Heavy footsteps going down the hallway and coming back again, the occasional sound of cursing.

But the sounds were distant, as though she were underwater and was hearing things happening on a surface she could not reach.

She blinked slowly, watched the light shine in dusty beams against the countertop, the light bending, shifting as her eyes opened and closed.

The loudest sound, loud as a slow, low drumbeat, was the tap of drops of blood coming from her nose. They ran down the slick surface of the tape over her mouth in a thin stream to the floor, gathering a tap at a time in a small, thickening pool against her jaw and the side of her face.

Then her breathing, wet and slow. The faint sound of her heartbeat as it pulsed in her ears, throbbed across the side of her head. It felt like something was being shattered across her temple, her cheek, with each beat, the pain coursing, tunnelling her vision now and then.

It was all she could feel. The rest of her body was a mystery to her.

She closed her eyes, her brow squinting down as she shifted her head against the hard floor. A small noise came from her throat at the slight movement. For an instant it felt like she had fallen lightly asleep. The pain vanished into the ether.

Then she was hovering over herself, seeing her body at the center of a hazy tunnel of light, weightless, as though she hung from the ceiling on a thin white string.

She was on her side, her legs curled up against her chest, her arms locked behind her back, her upper body turned toward the floor. Her robe was high up on her thigh and had slid off one shoulder slightly, exposing the pale of her arm and back. The white of the robe was spotted with blood across the back. There was a huge red smear across her bare shoulder.

The side of her face that she could see, her temple, the curve around her eye, was red. Already swollen.

She looked down at herself in the vision for a long moment, watched the slow, shallow rise and fall of her chest. It was the only thing that assured her she was actually still alive somewhere below her.

Then a figure entered, standing before her. She looked down at the top of his head, his hand up beside his face, holding something against his cheek.

“You bitch,” he said to her body, his voice low, as though it had gravel in it. His words were slightly stilted, as though he couldn’t move part of his mouth. “Look what you did to my face.”

He reached out with a foot and put his boot on her upper arm, gave her a hard shove, nearly pushing her over onto her back…

And with the touch, the string snapped and she crashed back into her body, the pain rushing in. Not just from her head now. From her entire body. Memory, awareness came with it. She wanted to scream with all of it.

Instead, she pulled in a huge breath, opened her eyes and looked up at Fagan.

Blood had run down the side of his face, his throat, into his collar. The towel he held to his face was matted with it, his hand and wrist covered.

For a long moment they simply stared at each other. She met his gaze steadily, defiantly.

“No fucking tears, FBI?” he asked, shaking his head slightly. “You’re just going to try to tough it out then, aren’t you?”

She blinked slowly.

In her mind, she suddenly saw Mulder, sitting beside her on a bench. He was looking at her with a smile that touched his eyes, making them warm, inviting. He reached out and put a hand on the side of her face, cupped her cheek, his thumb running lightly over her temple…

She returned her attention to Fagan, her eyes hardening.

Yes, she said with her eyes. Yes, I am.

He must have heard her, because his rage flared, his mouth going to a thin angry line. He dropped the towel, exposing the wide gash in the side of his face. Reaching behind him, he took out his 9mm pistol, pulled back the hammer. Then he bent quickly, grabbed Scully by the ankle with his free hand.

She pulled against him, kicking with her legs uselessly. Her head was spinning with the movement. She was too weak to fight much against him anymore.

He dragged her across the floor, through the living room and then down the hallway towards her bedroom in the back.

~~~

OWEN CURRAN’S APARTMENT 1903 KENSINGTON AVENUE 9:21 a.m. (40 MINUTES EARLIER)

Mae Curran pulled up outside her brother’s apartment building, parallel parking carefully into a space just outside the old Victorian building. Breathing out slowly, she leaned her head against the steering wheel, closed her eyes, steeling herself.

She had felt uncomfortable with her brother in the past, small disagreements over small things. But she had never felt this way about him.

This was as if she were going to visit a stranger. The distance between them had grown that wide. Katherine stood between them, certainly, but there was something else, as well. Something she couldn’t quite name.

Leaning back, she pulled the keys from the ignition, climbed from the truck, the suspension creaking tiredly. She checked her reflection in the salt-covered side window of the truck’s battered cap, pushed her hair behind her ear self-consciously.

She wanted to look strong, stronger than she felt, and she wasn’t sure she was going to pull it off. It was all the stressors of the day piling on her that gave her the tired, troubled air she saw there. Katherine and her illness, and the thought of her leaving that morning. The conflict with Owen she felt so deeply, certainly. Knowing all of them would be going into hiding for awhile after the bomb went off today, that they might even be forced to move again if the authorities became suspicious.

She didn’t want to do that. She was contented where she was, as contented as she could be this far away from her real home, a place she wondered now if she would ever be able to return to. The thought, which she’d had often in the past few months, filled her with sadness.

Then, gnawing at the back of her mind, was the potential loss of life caused by the bombing itself. There was a time when she had a stomach for casualties, believed in the inevitability of deaths in the name of the work they were doing.

That time had, at some point, passed.

She sighed, wondered when it was exactly she’d lost her tolerance for the life she had chosen. When she’d lost her belief that the sacrifices had been worth it.

She pushed the thoughts away as she went towards the house, climbed the wooden landing to the door. Once inside, she walked slowly to the first floor door that marked the entrance to Owen’s apartment.

She knocked, though she had a key. The door did not seem to be open to her enough to use it.

Sean opened the door in his jeans and a flannel shirt, his shoes on but untied. He was holding an action figure in one hand and looked up at her silently.

There was something in his eyes, in his silence, that concerned Mae immediately. She went into the apartment and knelt down in front of him to embrace him.

“You look like you’ve lost your best friend, little man,” she said softly, rubbing his back, forcing her voice to be light, teasing. “What’s the matter then, eh?” She could hear Owen in the back bedroom, moving around.

“Daddy’s packed up all my things,” Sean replied quietly as Mae pulled away to look into his face again.

“He’s done what now?” she asked, and then she looked around her.

Sure enough, there were suitcases by the door. Five of them, enough for all of Sean and Owen’s things.

“He says we’re going to go far away,” Sean said, and his lip trembled slightly. “That we’re leaving today.” He put the action figure’s arm in his mouth, something she hadn’t seen him do since he was a little child.

Something sunk in her as she listened to him, her fears about what Owen wasn’t telling her boiling up and threatening to show on her face. Instead she forced a thin smile, stroked Sean’s hair.

“I’m sure he means that we’re all just going away for a few days,” she soothed. “Try not to worry, all right?”

She stood, not wanting to leave him, but wanting to talk to Owen. She walked a few steps to the small television, turned it on, then returned to Sean, led him by the hand and settled him down on the couch.

“You just watch a little television while me and your dad have a talk, all right? I’ll be right back.”

He said nothing, his eyes on her, wide and wet. She turned away from him reluctantly and went down the hallway to the large bedroom in the back.

Owen was standing in front of his chest of drawers, dressed in black pants and a turtleneck and his black leather jacket and boots. In his hand, a pistol, another one lying on its side on top of the dresser, bullets sprinkled about. He was loading the gun in his hand, paused as he looked up at her, his expression unreadable.

She stood in the doorway, her arms crossed in front of her. She wanted to appear angry, but she knew that she probably looked afraid.

“I want you to tell me what’s going on,” she said quietly. “And I don’t want any bullshit this time. What have you been keeping from me, and why?”

He looked away from her now, down at the gun as he pushed another bullet into it. He sighed, hesitated for a moment, shaking his head.

“I’ve wanted to tell you for a long time,” he replied finally, matching her volume. “But I was afraid you would interfere, try to stop me from what I know has to be done.”

“What are you talking about?” she pressed, impatient with his quietness, with his unearthly calm. Usually on days before an operation he was keyed up, nervous, careful. This was different

“And where are we going?” she continued, unable to stop the questions now that they had started spilling from her. “Why haven’t Ian or any of the others told me that we’re going? As far as I know everyone’s still at their work, still–“

“They’re not coming with us,” he said flatly, interrupting her. He still would not look at her. “It’s just you and me and Sean and John. The others are staying here.”

She was stunned into silence for a beat.

“What?” she asked softly. Her eyes had widened.

“We’re leaving them,” Owen replied, cocking a bullet into the chamber as he finished loading the gun. There was a strange tone in his voice. Something almost dreamy to it, content. “All of them.”

She simply stared at him, her mouth opening and closing for a second as she struggled to find words, for her mind to catch up with what she was hearing. “But Owen…none of them know, do they?”

He shook his head immediately. “No, they don’t,” he replied calmly. “There’s a lot they don’t know. But it will all become clear to them today. Everyone will know today.”

She replayed his words in her mind, wondering at the strangeness of them. What was there for them to know about the operation that they didn’t already? Unless…

She swallowed, her mouth suddenly dry.

“We’re not…we’re not bombing the British Embassy today, are we?” she asked softly, and hated the tremor in her voice. “That’s why you were so unconcerned about the security there. Because that’s not where you’re going today at all.”

He shook his head. “No,” he replied, meeting her eyes. She looked into their darkness. They seemed bottomless.

My God, she thought, terror gripping her. Somewhere along the way, quietly, without her noticing it, he had gone insane.

“Where are we bombing, Owen?” she pressed carefully.

He looked out the window. She watched the strange smile in his profile, stood still, waited for him to answer her.

“Do you know what today is, Mae?” he asked softly instead of answering her. “Do you remember?”

She thought about it, rolling the date through her head. The answer came immediately to mind. “It’s the day Elisa was killed,” she replied, and now a tear did escape down her cheek. She brushed it quickly away.

He nodded, looked down. “Yes,” he said, and his voice was suddenly tinged with anger. “And it’s time for them to pay for that. And not just that. It’s time for them to pay for their betrayal of me, of the work. All of them. The Americans, too, for the part they’ve played in this, brokering this peace that will destroy everything we’ve fought for.”

Time for them to pay…

The words seemed to echo in her mind, and she closed her eyes as what he was saying sunk into her, burning in her like acid.

It wasn’t the British he was after. Not anymore. The Cause had become tangled in his mind somehow with the death of Elisa, she realized. His loyalties were now confused, the things that motivated him corrupted with rage, with grief.

He was going after the ones responsible for Elisa’s death, for the compromises for peace. It was the Irish themselves who were the targets now, she realized. The Irish and the Americans.

And there was only one place close by where the two intersected.

“The Irish Embassy then?” she choked out. The tears were flowing freely now. She wiped at her face quickly, fighting for control.

He looked at her, nodded once, seemed pleased she’d come to the answer herself, as though her being able to do that made it make more sense.

She cleared her throat, looked down. She had begun to shake as the madness of what he was doing washed over her. It went against everything she believed in and had spent her life fighting for.

And she’d been a party to it all this time and not even known it. As, she suspected, most of them had been.

She struggled for calm as she looked at him warily. She was uncertain now of what he might do should she make any move against him, say anything that might displease him. It was as though she were an owner of a dog that had suddenly, silently, gone rabid.

“Who…who knows about this?” she asked.

He shook his head. “Hardly any of them know. Danny knew. Hugh Cromes. John knows. A few of the others. The ones driving the truck today, of course. But the rest of them don’t know a thing about it.” He drew in a breath, looked at her. “It’s better that they never knew.”

She covered her eyes as she listened to him. He talked about these people, her friends, people she’d known for years, as though they were dead.

Which perhaps they were.

“They’re all going to die, aren’t they?” she whispered, lowering her hand, her eyes freshly washed with frustrated tears. “When we leave them…there’s no cure for the drug, is there?”

His eyes were lifeless as he looked at her. Like a doll’s eyes. Or a shark’s.

“I suppose they will,” he said gruffly, indifferent. “I needed them on the drug to make sure they would stay to do the work, to not turn their back on me like so many were doing before I put them on it. They’re all IRA anyway, or used to be. I’m finished with them now. With all of this.”

Mae felt something in her give with that, something tearing away.

“But Owen,” she said shrilly, stricken, her emotions taking over. “They were loyal to you! To the work! Jesus, they’re our friends! How can you do this to them?”

He turned to her quickly, took a fast step toward her. He got an arm across her chest and pushed her up against the doorframe roughly. She cried out as her back hit the wood, Owen’s face pressed into hers. His eyes were wild, and whether he intended it or not, the gun was beside her face.

“You and John are the only ones I trust to stay loyal to me, the only friends I’ve got!” he roared. “And the work is OVER! The Yanks and the Sinn Fein are seeing to that! So they’d all leave! They’d all leave me soon enough anyway!”

His forearm was across her throat now. She looked into his eyes desperately, terrified.

“Owen…you’re hurting me…” she said softly, trying to keep her voice level. “…and don’t yell with Sean in the next room…please…”

He held her for a second longer, then withdrew, releasing her. He was looking at her, anger still in his eyes, as though daring her to raise her voice to him again. She saw it and looked away, deferring immediately. He’d grown too unpredictable, too dangerous.

She was actually afraid for her life.

She closed her eyes, feeling her world breaking apart around her. When she reopened them, her face was a blank mask, her emotions buried.

“I’m going to take Sean back to my apartment and wait for you there,” she said softly.

“You can’t do that,” Owen said instantly. “At least not right away.”

Her heart skipped another beat. “Why?” she asked, her voice still calm, level.

He tucked the gun in the holster at the small of his back, opened the drawer and set the other gun inside it, pushing all the bullets in with the side of his hand.

“I’ve sent John over to kill Katherine,” he said. There was no regret in his voice when he said it. There was no inflection at all.

Mae went cold all over.

“Why did you do that?” she murmured. She felt suddenly sick.

He finished gathering things off the dresser, putting things in his pockets. “Because your good friend Katherine is an FBI agent.”

She gaped for a few seconds.

“That can’t be,” she said incredulously.

“It’s true,” he said flatly. “John fingerprinted her. We got the information last night. So don’t you be going over there for an hour or so. Give John time to clean up his mess before you take Sean over. Then go and pack your things and get ready to go.”

Mae swallowed down the knot in the her throat, looking down at the floor, as though the answer to all she was feeling was there around her, somewhere just out of sight and reach.

“Where are we going?” she asked faintly, unable to meet his eyes. Her voice sounded strange to her. Like a little girl’s.

“I don’t know yet,” he replied. “I’ve been taking money out of the Free Ireland account a bit at a time over the past few weeks — I’ve got about $20,000 now, lining those suitcases. After today we won’t have the CFI to rely on anymore, that’s for certain. But this should be enough to get us all settled in someplace.”

She was silent, forcing her face into some semblance of a normal expression as her emotions reeled.

“Anyway, ” Owen continued, oblivious to her plight. “I’ve got to get down to the truck. John’s meeting me there when he’s done.”

When he’s done…

She nodded, numbing inside. “Okay, Owen. Sure.” She forced a smile.

He came up to her by the door, standing close, put a hand on her shoulder. “It’s really going to be all right, Mae,” he said. “You’ve wanted to leave the work for a long time. I’ve known that. Well, now we’ll be done with it. Get a fresh start. Just the four of us. I’ll be better this way. Better for Sean.”

He leaned over and kissed her cheek softly. She recoiled a bit from his touch and prayed he wouldn’t notice. He didn’t seem to. Then he was out the door, going down the hallway. She heard him say goodbye to Sean for a long moment, telling him he’d be back that afternoon. Then he was gone.

She stood for a long time in the doorway, staring down at the floor, listening to the sound of the television, to Sean’s silence. Her mind kept going to the Path members — Ian and the others — who would be dead soon. She thought of the people at the embassy in Washington, so vulnerable and so unaware.

She nearly drowned in her own helplessness.

Then she thought of Katherine, their friendship, which she believed was more than a convenience. She didn’t know how she knew that for certain, but she did.

Then she thought of Katherine with Fagan.

Her hand shook as she checked her watch — she’d been gone from Katherine about 25 minutes. She didn’t know if it was too late.

Inside her, something released, like a fist slowly opening. She heaved in a deep breath, let it out.

She knew now what had to be done, and quickly.

“Jesus Christ…” she breathed, and wiped roughly at her face.

Going forward, her feet moving as if of their own will, she went to the dresser, threw open the drawer and pulled out the other gun, a Sig Sauer. She dropped the clip out of it expertly, fumbled for bullets one at a time, clicking them into the clip efficiently. Then, using the palm of one hand, she slapped the clip home, put the safety on.

Beside the bullets in the drawer, the blunt cylinder of a silencer. She screwed it carefully onto the end of the pistol and stuffed the gun in the deep pocket of her coat.

Moving swiftly into the living room, she saw Sean still sitting on the couch. He was looking up at her expectantly, that same wide-eyed look on his face. She went to the sofa, knelt down, tied his shoes quickly one at a time.

“I’m going to put you and your dad’s suitcases in the truck, Sean,” she said, urgency in her voice as she did so. “I want you to get a few of your toys and games and such and put them in your little knapsack, all right?”

She finished tying his shoe, the bow a little too tight. She left it though. “Now hurry. We’re going to go back to my apartment for a little while and then we’re going to go for a little drive.”

“All right,” Sean replied, wiggling off the couch. There were several action figures, cards, strewn on the floor in front of the television. He knelt and began gathering them.

Mae eyed the suitcases, steeling herself. Then she took hold of the biggest one by the handle, opened the door.

~~~

2233 GRACE STREET 10:15 a.m.

Mae parked at the corner, though there were spaces in front of her building. On the opposite corner, she could see John Fagan’s car.

So he was still here. Maybe it wasn’t too late…

She put the car into park, adjusted the heat up a touch and looked over at Sean, who was fumbling with his seatbelt.

She took his hand, stopping him from releasing it.

“I’ll tell you what?” she said to him. “Why don’t you just wait in the truck for me? I’ve just got to get a few things together, and you can stay here and play with your cards and listen to the radio until I get back. Will you do that for me, Sean? Stay right here?”

He was still, looking up at her. She cursed, for the first time, his sensitivity. It was so difficult to lie to him and him not know it.

“I don’t want to stay in the car,” he said, shaking his head.

She blew out a frustrated breath. “Sean, I really need you to mind me right now, okay? I need you to stay in the car.”

“I want Daddy to come home,” Sean said softy, his lip trembling.

Dear God, she thought, her hand pushing back her hair.

“Your dad’s busy, Sean, you know that. He’ll be back later. We’ll see him later. Now can I trust you to sit right here? Not get out? Just sit here and play with your things?”

Sean seemed to consider, the tears coming still. Finally he nodded.

She reached out and brushed at his tears, cupped the side of his head. “I’m sorry to be so short with you, Sean. Things will be better when I get back, I promise.”

“Okay,” he said quietly, folded his mittened hands in his lap.

Mae smiled at him, a strained, nervous smile. “That’s a good boy,” she said softly, and reached for the radio knob, turned it on, music wafting through the cab. She turned it up just a bit, to make sure any sounds from the outside didn’t come in.

She opened the door, stepped out, and looked at her building from her vantage point on the sidewalk. She took in a calming breath, let it out, her hand going to the gun inside her pocket and fingered it, rubbing gently over the barrel, gathering herself. Then she made her way down the street.

~~~

In her mind, Scully was with her mother. The family together at Christmas, the crystal out, light shining off the faceted glasses as though they were made of diamonds. Her mother sat beside her — black sweater, pearls. Across the table, Charlie continued his story, his hands in the air as he punctuated a point with a sharp jab of his fist. Scully’s mother laughed, and Scully along with her.

It felt so good to laugh.

She picked up her wine glass — it seemed to glow, filled with something as golden as light. She put it to her lips…

Her face hit the nub of a nail top on the floor and she moaned, lifted her head as best she could. Her hair dragged out behind her. The pressure around her ankle tightened, the pace of her movement quickened. She looked up, reorienting herself. The ceiling spun around her and then she stopped suddenly, her leg dropping.

Above her, Fagan was panting with the effort of dragging her, fresh blood coming from the wound in his face. His face was still filled with rage, the corners of his mouth turned down in a scowl as he looked at her, hatred flaring in his eyes.

Scully lay very still. He swam in and out of focus, and for a moment, she was not certain if he was really there, or if he was part of some terrible vision.

If it all had been.

Vision or not, she met his stare, her breath heaving in and out hard with pain and fear. She was silent, however, which only seemed to enrage him more.

“Fucking get up!” he shouted, and reached down, grabbing her by the arms and twisting her around.

She remained limp, her head lolling painfully on the floor. He continued to pull her up until she was crouched on her knees, the undamaged side of her face against the floor. Then he reached out and took hold of her hair, hauled her backwards until she was kneeling. He kept his hand clenched in her hair as she swayed unsteadily.

The pace of her breathing picked up as she felt the muzzle of the pistol press into the back on her head, just above where his hand held a fist of her wet hair. She held still, her mind racing despite the cloud of pain that had settled over her.

Around her the room seemed to shift suddenly…

Then she was with Mulder in their basement office. The first day they’d met, his glasses glinting in the fluorescent light as he swivelled in his chair and looked at her. He said something, but only his mouth moved. No sound came out.

The only sound she could hear was her own breathing. Fagan speaking faintly, as thouigh from a great distance, in the background. Angry. Taunting.

Donnie Phaster being hustled away as Mulder’s finger tilted her chin up and she lost herself in his embrace. As she pressed her ear against his chest, she could hear his heartbeat…

Or perhaps it was simply her own, here, now…

The feel of Mulder’s body inside hers, his chest pressed against hers, his eyes closing…

Fagan jerked her head back again, but the pull of vision, the memory, was too strong…

Then they were on the bench again, his hand coming out to caress her, his rough thumb moving across her temple. She wondered vaguely why that moment kept returning to her. She couldn’t even remember the day, what they were talking about…nothing.

It was his eyes. She could see in them at that moment how much he loved her. It was as real as he was.

Her vision flashed bright and she closed her eyes against it, as though she were looking at a city made of entirely of light…

She could feel tears welling again, but she would not let them come. She heaved in a huge breath, swallowed them down with the blood that had gathered in her mouth from the tear on the inside of her cheek. Both nearly gagged her.

Fagan jerked at her head back again, leaned down to her ear, the gun beside her face now. He was screaming at her, asking her if she was ready for something. She could not quite place what it was…

Something hard — his loose belt buckle — clapped against the back of her head.

She kept her eyes closed, did not make a sound.

Her mother laughing.

Mulder’s smile, the light playing on his face, sending half of it into shadow…

A shot rang out, the ping of a silencer.

She felt oddly light for a moment, felt Fagan’s hand release her hair. It had been all that had held her up and she slumped to the side, the injured side of her head making contact with the floor again. She sucked in a breath in pain.

Then something falling behind her. The clatter of a gun bouncing on the wooden floor. A cry of pain and surprise, a long stream of curses. Then footsteps — slow, even footsteps — coming towards her.

She opened her eyes, turned her head, disorientation and confusion overwhelming her as she was suddenly there, forced back into the present. It was like a door had been open and had just now slammed shut.

Mae walked behind her, towards the sound of the cursing. Scully rolled slowly to her other side as Mae stepped past her, saw Fagan on the floor, a widening circle of blood on his chest. He was on his back, pushing backwards with his feet toward the wall, looking up at Mae as she neared him.

“What the fuck are you doing?!” Fagan nearly shrieked.

Scully watched Mae’s face. It was as though Mae were wearing a wax mask. No color. No expression.

“I’m sorry, John,” Mae said softly and raised the gun again. She fired.

Scully flinched at the muffled sound, looked down at Fagan and his head fell back, a hole in the center of his forehead, a blossom of blood and brain on the wall and floor behind him.

Scully heaved in breaths, hyperventilating. The strain was too much for her already taxed reserves and her head slumped back to the floor. She kept her eyes on Mae, though, who was still standing over Fagan, the gun still raised, as though she were frozen in the moment, unable to move outside of it.

Scully made a small sound in her throat, the beginnings of a sob. The tears did come now, welling quickly and racing down her face.

The sound seemed to snap Mae out of wherever she was. She turned her head slowly towards Scully, looked down at her. Their eyes locked. Mae was crying, as well now. She put up a hand to cover her face for a few seconds, then covered her mouth. Then she finally moved, pocketing the pistol and kneeling down beside Scully.

“Katherine?” Mae said softly, her hand touching the rapidly swelling side of her face. “Dear God…”

Scully closed her eyes, a sob lurching her. Mae got her fingers underneath the corner of the tape across her mouth, worked it up gently, slowly, so as not tear at her skin. When she had it off, Scully gasped for breath.

“Oh God…” Scully said, her voice weak, raspy, as though she had been screaming for hours.

“Shh…it’s all right,” Mae said quickly. “Let me find the keys to the cuffs. Hold on…just hold on…”

~~~

RICHMOND INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT 10:47 a.m.

Mulder stood with his back against the column outside Gate 22, watching the last of the passengers trickle onto the 11:00 a.m flight bound for Boston. He checked his watch for the third time in as many minutes, jammed his hand deep into the pockets of his leather jacket.

In his other hand, his own ticket for the flight, the boarding pass flapped out, ready to be taken and torn by the attendants guarding the gate, all of whom had been watching him from time to time as he stood there, waiting.

Finally one of them, a young African-American woman in a crisp uniform, came forward.

“Sir, is your ticket for this flight?” she asked gently, standing a few feet away from him.

“Yeah,” he replied, his anxiety making his reply terse. “Yeah, it is.”

“Well, we’re getting ready to close the doors. If you’re going to board, you need to do it now. We can’t reopen the doors once we close them.” She looked down at the suitcases at his feet. “And those are too large to bring on board as carry-ons. We’ll have to check them for you.”

He looked down at both his bags. He’d kept them with him in case Scully didn’t show for the flight.

He closed his eyes, cursing to himself. He’d looked at every person who had boarded that plane. Scully was not among them.

He reached down to stuff the ticket in the side pocket of the smallest bag, grabbed both suitcases by the handles, lifted them, faced her. “No, thank you,” he said flatly. “I won’t be getting on after all.”

She nodded. “All right, sir,” she said, slightly puzzled, and withdrew. He watched her speak into what looked like a CB mouthpiece, heard her tell another attendant on the plane to close the doors.

He looked down, shaking his head, hoisting the bags up as he turned and started the long walk back to the front of the airport. If she was going to try to get on the plane, he would see her come through this way.

But he knew she wasn’t coming. Something had happened. He was sure of it now. And he was going to Mae Curran’s apartment whether Padden liked it or not.

Surely there would be some clue as to what had happened to her there.

With that thought in mind, he stepped onto the escalator, pushed past several people as he kept walking down the moving stairs to quicken his pace.

~~~

2233 GRACE STREET 10:54 a.m.

“Okay, hang on, just hang on…”

Scully leaned heavily on Mae as they made their way slowly down the steps to the apartment. Scully’s head rested against Mae’s shoulder, her eyes down on her feet as though she could will them to stay under her with her gaze.

“Just a few more,” Mae was saying. “Stay with me now.”

Scully took the last few steps too quickly, Mae holding her up as she nearly fell.

The concussion was bad, she thought, though her thinking was strangely detached, her mind seemingly far away from her body. She held still while Mae opened the door, urged Scully through it.

“Four more,” Mae said, and Scully negotiated them a bit better than the more narrow ones going up to the apartment.

Then she found herself standing on the sidewalk, Mae’s arm still tight around her waist. The collar of her black coat was turned up, but the chill of the January wind made her shiver instantly. She was too close to shock for it to be otherwise. She looked at Mae’s truck on the corner, small puffs of vapor coming from it as it idylled in the cold.

“Don’t let…” she began softly, swallowing hard against the bruises coming up on her throat. “Don’t let Sean see me like this.”

“He won’t, Dana,” Mae said patiently. “We’ve talked about this…he’s not going to see you.”

Scully had told Mae, haltingly, who she was while Mae had steadied her in the shower, a shower that Scully had insisted on taking despite Mae’s vehement assertions that they had to go right away.

“So what do I call you then?” Mae had asked tersely, her bare arms wet as helped Scully wash the huge smear of Fagan’s blood off her shoulder.

Scully could hear the hurt in Mae’s voice and was sorry for it. She turned her face away from the spray of water, looked back at her.

“My name is Dana Scully,” she said softly. “And I’m sorry to have lied to you all this time about who I am.”

“You were just doing your job,” Mae had said quickly, helping her turn around so she could rinse. “I know all about doing your job.”

Scully met her eyes, though the vertigo was threatening to overwhelm her again.

“My friendship with you…wasn’t part of my job,” she said quietly.

Mae held her gaze for a few seconds. Finally, she had nodded.

“We’ve got to hurry,” she’d said then, brushing the subject away.

Now they made their way slowly down the street. The glass window of the back of the truck’s cap was open, the tailgate down. When they reached the back of the truck, Mae helped Scully sit down on the tailgate. She glanced inside the dim enclosure.

Sean was standing up on the front seat, peering through the back window into the truck bed.

“Sean, sit down!” Mae called. “Dr. Black’s just not feeling well and is going to have a little rest in the back. Now sit down.”

He hesitated, but did as he was told.

Inside the truck bed, Mae had made a makeshift pallett of blankets off both their beds, their suitcases all pushed up against the back of the truck’s cab.

Scully began to shift slowly backward, her head throbbing with the exertion.

“Let me help you,” Mae said, and climbed in, took Scully under the arms and hauled her back. Scully imagined she was trying to be as gentle as possible, but in the interest of speed she was a bit rough. Scully’s head rolled against her shoulder as Mae pulled her, settled her down on the blankets and pillows.

“It’s cold back here, but at least you can lie down,” Mae said. “I just wish we’d had time to dry your hair so you wouldn’t be so cold.”

Scully nodded. “I’ll be fine,” she said softly. “Don’t worry about me. Just get us out of here.”

“All right,” Mae said softly. “You knock on the window if you need anything.”

With that, she scrambled out of the back of the truck, slammed the tailgate up and the cap flap down and disappeared from sight.

Scully lay in the near-dark, pulled the blankets up closer against her chin, her teeth chattering. She felt the truck begin to move as Mae pulled out, driving fast.

~~~

11:24 a.m.

Mulder looked up the steep stairs to the second story landing at the door to Mae Curran’s apartment, reached beneath his jacket and pulled out his gun. Then he quietly went up the stairs, stood before the door.

He put his hand on it, leaned in, listening. There wasn’t a sound from the apartment. No television, nothing.

He reached down, tried the knob. It turned and the door opened a crack.

Pushing his face in first to glance around, the gun following right behind, he looked around the living room of the apartment. Nothing seemed out of place.

Until he saw the spot of blood on the floor, the faint streak of it leading toward the hallway.

He stepped in quickly now. “Hello?” he called, every muscle in his body tense. He could feel sweat beading his brow, though it was very chilly in the apartment.

He stared down at the blood spot again, edged his way around it as he walked slowly, soundlessly, through the living room to the corridor beyond.

He checked the first bedroom. Nothing in there, just some clothes and things thrown around, the bed stripped, the dresser drawers open and empty.

It looked like somebody had left in a big hurry, he thought.

He returned to the corridor.

It was like following a trail of breadcrumbs, though it was smears and droplets of blood. He stopped at the bathroom, his gun still drawn and out before him. He looked around it, as well. The shower curtain was wet. There was water on the floor. Someone had just taken a shower, he realized. Then his eyes caught sight of something on the floor.

Scully’s white robe. He’d know it anywhere.

He knelt, picked it up, studied the folds of it. The back of it was stained with blood, the shoulder, the arm.

“Shit,” he whispered. He stood again and went back into the hallway.

The trail of blood led to the back bedroom. He swallowed hard, his mouth suddenly dry as he contemplated what he might find. He closed his eyes against the images coming into his mind.

This could be it, he realized. He could walk into that room and find her body just like that. His breathing picked up a couple more notches as the thought went through his mind. His heart was racing.

Stepping carefully around the blood, he went to the bedroom, peaked around the door.

His gaze fell on John Fagan’s body between the two windows. He was lying in a huge pool of blood that had run in small streams across the floor.

Swallowing again, licking his dry lips, Mulder entered the room, went to Fagan’s body. He holstered his gun as he saw the hole in the man’s head. It was the size of a grape.

A wound on his face, too, he noted. And in the chest. Then the shot through the head, execution style.

He tried to piece together what happened, his mind turning over the evidence of the crime scene he’d gathered so far. He struggled to remain calm while he did it.

There’d been some sort of struggle, he realized. Most likely between Fagan and Scully. It was Scully who had wounded Fagan’s face, he decided, and it was that wound that had spread the drops of blood all over the floor.

But someone else had done the shooting. He knew this for several reasons. First, he knew that Scully didn’t have her gun with her. Second, the 9mm handgun that was laying against the wall was the wrong size bullet to have made a hole that size in Fagan’s forehead. And third, Scully would never simply execute someone. The shot in the chest, maybe, but not the one in the head.

Mae had been here, he decided. It was the only thing that made any sense.

He went to the closet quickly, threw the door open. It was empty. He looked around the room, still breathing hard. Nothing to show that Scully had even been here at all.

Except….

His gaze fell on the night table, the silly snowglobe he’d given her still resting there beside her alarm clock.

He went to it, picked it up, gave it a shake absently. As he watched the snow fall inside the plastic globe, he tried to quell his anxiety, his thoughts racing along with his heart.

Mae had Scully, he decided. She’d killed Fagan.

But why?

Perhaps they argued over her and the shots ensued?

Or had Mae done it to save her?

Either way, he knew they were together — it was just a question of whether Scully was a passenger or a hostage.

He would go to the Grey Mouse, see if anyone had seen Mae there. That was as good a place as any to start.

Pocketing the snowglobe, he stepped carefully out of the bedroom, headed out the hallway and back out into the street.

~~~

CHAPTER 22.

~~~

J&J WAREHOUSE THE BANKS OF THE JAMES RIVER 11:33 a.m.

Owen Curran sat perfectly still on a crate outside the warehouse. Even the ash of his cigarette had grown long with his stillness, a thin trail of smoke coming up and drifting in front of his face. His eyes were on the road along the river.

Every now and again he blinked. Otherwise, he was stone.

His emotions had shifted in the past half hour from mild anger and annoyance to anxiety and something with the metal taste of rage. John should have been here an hour ago. Forty-five minutes at the outside. He knew they were on a tight time schedule, and knew better than to keep Owen waiting this long.

Something had happened to him, Owen decided, the ash of his cigarette finally falling as he glanced down at his watch without moving anything but his eyes. Katherine — the FBI agent, whoever she was — must have found a way to get away from him, disable him, something. Perhaps she’d known they were on to her and she’d had backup, agents with her in the apartment and John had been arrested.

He doubted that. The death of Flaherty would clue the Feds into the fact that he knew something, but he didn’t think they could get to Katherine before Fagan had.

There were footsteps behind him on the rocky ground, coming closer. He leaned up on the crate, took a drag on the waning cigarette, did not turn.

“Owen?” the man — Peter — said softly. “Begging your pardon, but I don’t think we can wait any longer for John. We’re cutting it with only an hour to spare as it is now, and if there’s any traffic…”

Owen flicked the cigarette down on the ground, rubbed his hands on his thighs to warm them up, then stood, facing Peter and the other three men who were milling around the truck restlessly.

“Aye,” he said, his voice devoid of emotion. He held it in like a kettle. He nodded toward the truck. “You and Conail go on and get in the truck, check that you’ve got everything you need and that it’s ready. Send Timmy to the car. I’m going to make a quick call and then we’ll be on our way.”

“All right, Owen,” Peter said, and walked away. Owen dug in his coat pocket, pulled out the cell phone he rarely used but that John had insisted he have so the two of them could be in contact. He punched the talk button awkwardly, held it up to his ear to hear the tone for a second. Then he began to slowly dial John’s cell phone number. He’d been reluctant to call him before now, afraid of interrupting what he was he doing. But that time had passed.

After 10 rings a voicemail picked up: “The customer you are trying to reach is unavailable…”

He hung up quickly, his anxiety rising another notch. He dialed again. His own number at the apartment.

He’d get to Mae, put her on the trail of what had happened to John.

It rang. He waited. Nobody there.

His face reddened slightly as he hung up the phone again. He dialed a little more quickly this time, his hand shaking slightly as emotion welled in him. Mae’s number this time.

Behind him, the truck rumbled to life. Just behind that, his own car started up.

Ignoring them for the moment, the sense of urgency that the sounds fostered in him, he let the phone ring again.

Five, then ten times. Fifteen.

His jaw was a block of iron, his teeth clenched as he hung up the phone and stuffed it into his pocket roughly.

His breath blew a quick warm cloud into the frigid air as he exhaled, frustrated and — almost — afraid. He looked out over the river, seeking solace, the rapids blown back over the rocks like soft white hair.

He didn’t know what it all meant. But he knew something was terribly wrong.

Turning back toward the truck and car, he looked at the men there, waiting for him, watching him. They were good men, he decided. They were up to the job, and they were all that he needed. He would have to believe that.

He looked up at the sky, tension overtaking him. They were out of time.

He turned and walked quickly towards the car, got in and they pulled away, the car leading the truck up the narrow road, through the city, and onto the interstate, blending in seamlessly with the traffic heading north.

~~~

THE EMBASSY OF IRELAND 2234 MASSACHUSETTS AVENUE, NW WASHINGTON D.C. 2:20 p.m.

Walter Skinner leaned forward anxiously in the front seat of his car as he heard the rhythmic coughing of a helicopter going overhead. He searched for the source of the sound, saw the bright white and orange of a private helicopter streak by, and scowled. It wasn’t the chopper he was expecting — a FBI chopper he’d ordered out of Quantico to survey the area around Embassy Row.

He checked his watch, cursed under his breath in frustration.

He needed that helicopter here now.

This thing was so thrown together, he thought bitterly, shaking his head. It was a miracle he’d even managed to get the resources he had on such short notice.

And he wouldn’t have had to even do that if Padden wasn’t such an intractable bastard.

Granger had called him that morning after a conversation with Mulder in his motel. Briefly, and breathlessly, Granger had told Skinner about Mulder’s theory. Skinner had agreed to tell Padden, despite the fact that he himself had doubts about the leap that Mulder was making with all this.

He still found it hard to believe that Curran, a man who’d spent his entire life fighting for the Irish Cause, would turn on his own people. He hadn’t spoken of those doubts to Padden, however. Still, Padden had immediately dismissed the theory, calling it “unfounded.”

That had pissed Skinner off.

Over the years, despite their differences, Skinner had grown to trust most of Mulder’s instincts (at least when the case didn’t involve a ghost crawling up someone’s ass, or aliens landing in Times Square, crap like that). Mulder had been right too many times for Skinner not to trust them. So to see those instincts dismissed so out of hand made Skinner strangely protective of his agent.

And he knew 90% of the reason Padden was sloughing it all off so easily was because it had come from Mulder.

“What is he still doing working on this case?” Padden had demanded. “I wanted him out of here.”

“He’s taking some personal time,” Skinner had replied softly. “He’s not acting in any official capacity on this case anymore.”

“‘Official capacity’ is a loose term when applied to Agent Mulder, Mr. Skinner,” Padden had replied gruffly, staring at him over the rims of his reading glasses.

You’ve got me there, Skinner had thought wryly, but didn’t say it aloud. He’d merely reiterated Mulder’s reasons for this theory about the bombing, calmly, seriously.

After some more argument, which Padden had only half-heartedly participated in, he had agreed to send part of the task force of agents, including a CIA Bomb Squad, to the British Embassy, in case the bombing was indeed today. But he refused to believe the Irish Embassy would be the target, calling the theory that Curran would attack the Irish “rubbish.”

Not even Flaherty’s death would convince him that it might be true, though Skinner had tried that angle as well. Padden brushed that off with a few words about Flaherty’s dealing with other splinter groups, and left it at that.

Skinner had walked out of the hotel suite with three feelings. The first was the beginnings of a killer headache, which wasn’t uncommon when he dealt with Mulder. The second was irritation and anger at Padden for being so clearly biased against anything Mulder would say. And the third was an itch to get on the horn with Quantico and act.

Just in case Mulder was right.

Mulder had still seemed sure of himself when Skinner had talked to him earlier in the day, while Skinner and Granger were driving to D.C. Mulder had called, told him about Scully not showing for the plane, about what he’d found at the apartment.

“Goddamnit, Mulder, you went to the apartment?” Skinner spat, and Granger had tried to look innocent beside him. Skinner glared at him.

“Mae’s got her, I’m sure of it,” Mulder had replied, ignoring the question. “And since she hasn’t called me yet, I’m going to assume that Mae’s keeping her from calling.”

“Yeah, that would follow,” Skinner said after a beat, regret in his voice. “What are you doing now?”

“Looking around the city for her. Driving around. I’ve gone to the Grey Mouse, asked about Mae. Not surprisingly, nobody answered me.”

Skinner considered for a few seconds. But only a few. He knew what he had to do. He took in a deep breath, resigning himself to it.

“I’m going to pull all the FBI I can off the task force, have them start looking for Mae and Scully. I agree with you that Fagan’s body and the blood on the robe is enough to indicate she’s in trouble. I’ll have them put the known Path members under active surveillance, see if Mae turns up at any of their apartments.”

Beside him, Granger looked over, surprised, then out the window. He was shaking his head slightly. Skinner sympathized. He was seeing his own career heading for the drain, too.

“So you’re not going to tell Padden at all,” Mulder said.

“No,” Skinner replied. “I’m going to act on my own on this. I don’t think Padden will risk blowing the entire operation for her safety.” He hated the words, but they were the truth and he knew it.

Mulder had grown angry with that, but Skinner had then told him to try and stay calm, to continue looking as best he could. He knew Mulder had to feel like he was doing something toward finding her.

As soon as they hung up, Skinner had immediately called down to Richmond and put the search for his missing agent on.

Now, here in the car outside the embassy, he sighed, frustrated and worried about Scully, about the risk he was taking with his career with all this. And he was tense about the stakeout.

For now, he had to forget about Scully and concentrate on what he was doing in the here and now. If anyone could find her it was Mulder, and Skinner knew he had to leave him to that task.

Another rumbling in the sky, this one deeper, more resonant, and Skinner leaned forward again, saw the familiar shape of a white FBI surveillance helicopter chug by overhead. His walkie-talkie burst into static for an instant, then:

“This is Chopper zero-one-niner calling AD Skinner,” a voice called from the small speaker. Skinner picked up the radio and depressed the “talk” bar.

“This is Skinner, go ahead.”

“Sorry we’re late, sir,” came the reply. “The President’s helicopter was up and about and the air had to be cleared. We’re starting our surveillance of the area now. What are we looking for?”

Just then, Granger jogged up to the car, climbed into the passenger seat, closed the door behind him. He nodded to Skinner.

“The building’s cleared,” he said, out of breath. “We did it as quietly as possible.”

Skinner nodded his approval, depressed the “talk” bar again. “The suspected target is the Embassy of Ireland, the brown and white building just beneath you,” he called into the speaker, eyeing the copter, which was hovering just overhead. Skinner’s car was across the wide street, parked on the corner. “The building’s been evacuated, so we’re looking for any sign of activity, front or back. Also, be on the lookout for any sort of truck coming towards the building.”

“Affirmative. We’ll circle and try not to look conspicuous. We’ll report back if we see anything.”

“Skinner out,” he replied, and dropped the radio on the seat between them. The chopper overhead veered to the left and disappeared from Skinner’s sight beyond the tops of the buildings. Now he turned his attention to Granger.

“All locked up?” he asked, and Granger nodded, looking across the street at the entrance to the embassy. The large iron gates were closed, barring access to the circular drive in front of the structure. The guards who were usually there at the front of the building were gone.

“Everyone’s at a safe distance,” Granger replied. “We evacuated the buildings on either side, as well, just in case.”

Skinner studied the tactical layout in a few glances. He could see the bomb squad truck — camouflaged as a plain white delivery truck — waiting on the far corner. A unmarked dark van filled with FBI Counterterrorism was also parked beside the embassy, just beside one of the high gates. Peppered around the street in front (and all around the back, too, he knew) were dark sedans filled with agents, all FBI. Granger was the only non-FBI personnel on the stakeout. The rest of Padden’s interagency task force, or at least a part of it, was 10 blocks up Massachusetts Avenue, covering the British’s ass.

He checked the street for anything unusual. Just a few pedestrians, mostly men and woman in suits, the occasional touristy looking family. On the next block was a park that took up the entire block — large trees, people on benches, others milling about.

Everything looked fine. Normal.

He checked his watch again. 2:35. If Curran was going to show at three as Mulder had predicted, he would be doing it soon.

Christ, you’d better be right about this, Mulder, Skinner thought, grimacing a bit. The embarrassment he would feel at having scrambled so much manpower for this, should nothing happen, was already beginning to rise in him. Not to mention his anticipation of the chewing out he would get from his superiors…

He sighed, pushed the thought away. He’d committed himself now and there was nothing to be done about it.

With that thought in mind, he reached into the backseat of the car, pulled out two kevlar vests, an FBI jacket. He handed the jacket and one of the vests to Granger, began unzipping his own jacket so that he could put the bulky vest on himself.

“Here,” he grunted as Granger took the vest. “Put those on.”

Skinner watched the young man fumble with the vest awkwardly. The gravity of the situation was just seeming to dawn on him. Skinner understood why — for Granger, this had been just one big puzzle to solve, something to be done behind a desk, a computer screen. Now it was something different. It was real.

He hoped Granger could take the pressure, should things really get out of hand. He didn’t need to be worrying about Granger and dealing with Curran and his cohorts at the same time.

Granger seemed to get ahold of himself suddenly, began undressing quickly, pulling the vest on over his workshirt. Then he slipped into the blue jacket, “FBI” emblazoned in yellow letters across the back.

“Looks like I joined the wrong agency,” Granger said, laughing nervously.

“I could have told you that already,” Skinner quipped back, trying to lighten the mood.

A burst of static and a voice filled the car’s cabin again: “Chopper zero-one-niner to AD Skinner.”

Skinner snatched up the radio. “Skinner here,” he said tightly.

“We’ve got a rental truck with a dark sedan leading it that we’ve been watching coming your way for a few blocks. The sedan just pulled off and is circling the block, going around your back. The truck is heading right for you, four blocks north, driving pretty fast. It’s a U-Haul.”

Skinner saw Granger tense up beside him.

“Agents Nelson, Maloy, do you see it?” Skinner called. All of the agents had radios like this one, all on the same frequency.

“Not yet,” came the reply after a puff of static. “We don’t see…wait, here it comes. Yes, big U-Haul. I’d say a 26 footer. Two passengers, both male. The truck’s got Virginia plates, though that could mean nothing, of course. It is in a bit of a hurry.”

“Fall in behind it as inconspicuously as you can,” Skinner said tersely. “Agents Parkins, Fawkes, let me know when it passes you. Markum and Dooley, see if you can find that sedan. Chopper, what street is it on? Can you still see it?”

“Still parallelling on Connecticut…slowing now…it’s turning on the cross street on the other side of the embassy, slowing again…it’s parked now, the right side of the street, within view of the building.”

“Parkins here…the truck just passed us.”

Skinner felt his heart rate beginning to pick up. Beside him, Granger looked down the street, his hands in fists on his legs. His foot was tapping absently.

“Fall in behind it, as well, Parkins,” Skinner said. “Counterterrorism Unit One, get ready. We’ll let the truck get to the gate, if that’s even where it’s going, then I want you all out of the van.”

“We’re ready, Mr. Skinner,” came the reply of another, deeper voice.

They waited now, both he and Granger staring down the street. Skinner turned and looked ahead of them, aware of the car on the next cross street up. He wondered if Curran was in the car, just in sight of the building so that his men could make it to him and they could all get away before the bomb went off.

“There it is,” Granger said, sitting up straighter.

Skinner turned, saw the nose of the U-Haul appear at the very visible edge of the street, coming closer. Behind it by several dozen feet each, he saw the two cars following. In a few seconds he could hear the huge diesel engine groaning its way toward him. He held his breath as it drew closer, waiting to see if it would begin to slow.

It did. Moved over to the right hand lane, approaching the gate and the van of agents just beside it. The two FBI cars passed it as it stopped in front of the gate so as not to arouse the driver’s suspicions.

The van stopped at the gate.

“They’re home,” Skinner said softly into the radio. “Everyone out on three. One…”

Granger reached beneath his jacket to his shoulder holster, pulled out his gun, holding it below the window. Skinner did the same as he spoke.

“Two…”

He reached for the door handle. Granger did as well.

“Three.”

The back of the van opened, agents in black riot gear spilling from the back, assault rifles drawn. Granger and Skinner hit the ground running, racing from the car, dodging a car whose horn screamed as he and Granger tore across the street.

“FBI! OUT OF THE TRUCK!” the lead CT man was screaming, his weapon raised towards the driver’s window of the truck. The driver and passenger dropped in their seats, disappearing from view.

“Get your asses back up here!” the same man shouted. “OUT! OUT!” The ten men behind him froze, their weapons all trained on the cab as Granger and Skinner approached, their guns also drawn.

What happened next happened so quickly no one had time to move.

The driver’s door swung open and the air was filled with the sounds of incredibly rapid gun fire, blasting from the barrel of an assault rifle in a star-shaped strobe of fire. The passenger had also stood and began spraying the assembled men with gunfire, as well, shattering the windshield in the interest of getting a clear shot.

Everyone who didn’t fall right away from being hit dropped and rolled, or retreated back to the van, firing back. Bullets ricocheted off the door and hood. The two gunmen ducked down again, avoiding the shots, then rose to fire again, sending the agents scrambling away.

Granger and Skinner had hit the ground at the first sound of gunfire. Raising his head to look at the four or five men dropped in front of the truck, Skinner looked for Granger, who was lying on his stomach, his gun in his hand beside his face, his other arm over his head. Skinner couldn’t tell if he was hit or not.

Steeling himself, he scrambled to his feet, went to Granger, hauled him up by the back of the vest and pulled him back toward the car. The gunmen must have caught sight of their movement because the ground around Skinner was suddenly popping with bullets. He ran serpentine, pushing Granger in front of him, reached the car. Throwing Granger over the hood unceremoniously, he leapt after him, bullets tearing into the side of the car as both men landed in a heap on the other side of the hood.

“What kind of fucking gun is that?!” Granger shrieked above the noise, leaning against the tire. The agents at the van and the men in the truck were still exchanging gunfire. There was the sound of screaming, cars squealing to a halt. Someone bolted past both of them on the sidewalk, covering his head.

“H & Ks!” Skinner shouted back. “G36 assault rifles!” He chanced a look over the hood, looking at the exchange. “And just what we need is a firefight when there’s probably enough explosives in that truck to blow a hole to fucking China!”

The bomb squad was coming out of the back of their truck now as reinforcement — they weren’t supposed to come out until they were needed to diffuse the bomb, but someone had clearly decided they were needed now. They began winding a path across the street at a fast run, getting in behind the truck.

Skinner got off a few of shots towards the cab in a vain attempt to cover them, and had to duck down as the car was once again riddled with bullets in answer. The car’s windows shattered, raining bits of glass down on him like sequins.

“Shit!” he swore, coming back up. Granger came up with him this time, his gun out in front of him.

The CT team members were firing again, the bullets hitting the inside of the cab now as the two gunmen ducked down, protected by the front of the truck and its huge engine.

Then, from the left, he heard the sound of tires squealing and jerked his head in that direction. A black car was coming fast down the street. Seeing it, the men in the truck leapt from the cab, one firing one way, one firing the other to keep the teams pinned down.

Skinner and Granger ducked down to stay out of sight for a moment, expecting the car to stop to pick the men up. They glanced at each other, nodded, understanding the plan of action. They would fire when the car stopped.

But Skinner didn’t hear the sounds of tires squealing, braking, nothing. Only one of the men screaming at the passing car as it whizzed by. Skinner stood quickly, saw one man in the car, got a good look at him.

It was Curran, his eyes forward. He didn’t even glance at the men who’d left their cover for rescue.

Then, someone got a clear shot — a burst of gunfire from behind the truck and one of the gunmen fell, his rifle clattering on the pavement. The other man was desperately running after the car, looked back at his companion, who lay unmoving on the street, his eyes wide and afraid.

Skinner stood, taking advantage of this distraction, and dropped him with a shot to the chest. The man tumbled in a heap on his back in the middle of the street.

“GO! GO!” someone was yelling, and Skinner recognized it immediately as the Bomb Squad leader, his team flying towards the back of the truck, a huge pipe cutter in the first man’s hands. He immediately began working on the lock.

“Come on,” Skinner said to Granger, and they ran around the car, across the street to the two gunmen, kicking the weapons away from them. Skinner knelt next to one of them, Granger the other. Skinner put a hand on the man’s throat, checking for a pulse. Nothing. He turned to Granger, who looked up at him and shook his head, as well.

They both holstered their weapons and ran for the truck just as the lock gave beneath the cutters. Skinner didn’t need the door to come up to know what was inside the truck — he could smell the fertilizer and fuel from where he was standing.

As the door rolled halfway up, two of the squad members, both encased in kevlar and padding, their faces covered with thick plastic shields, leapt up onto the back of the truck, seeing the detonator set into the side of the truck immediately.

Skinner could see the display from where he was standing.

00:04:29…

00:04:28…

Shit….

“It’s no good!” One of the two men in the truck shouted. “Clear the area! On the double!”

There wasn’t enough time to attempt to diffuse it. The best they could do was get out of the blast radius.

He looked at Granger. The man was standing there, breathing hard, looking around the street, at the buildings, the street, the people huddled on the sidewalk nearby.

“Come on!” Skinner called to him as the squad and the CT team scattered back toward their vehicles. He started running back towards his own car, praying that the vehicle would still be in running order.

He expected Granger to be following him.

He was wrong.

Reaching the car, he turned and caught sight of Granger climbing into the cab of the truck. He gaped for a second in disbelief.

“GRANGER!” he shouted finally. “What the HELL are you doing?”

The other man didn’t answer. He got behind the steering wheel and Skinner heard the engine trying to start. It coughed, cut out. Coughed again. Then it rumbled to life.

“Get out of there, Granger!” Skinner screamed. Granger had turned the heavy steering wheel, gunned the engine a bit, the nose pointing now away from the gate now. Slowly the truck began to move, heading down the street. The engine groaned in protest from the damage done to it by the gunfire.

“Goddammit!” Skinner hissed, ran for the car. The bomb squad and the CT team were in their trucks now, pulling away. He climbed in, tried to start the engine. Like the truck, it wouldn’t turn over right away.

“Come on! Come ON!” Skinner shouted. He watched the truck lumbering down the street.

Where the hell was he going? Skinner thought, panting. Then it came to him.

The park. He’s headed for the park, he realized. A huge clearing. Deserted now since the gunfire had started. Away from any buildings.

Granger reached the open area, aimed the truck at the sidewalk and bumped up onto it. Then he was plowing through the hedges, around a low, heavy looking stone wall that marked the perimeter of the park. Then he was heading off into the clearing.

Skinner turned the key one more time, and this time the car reluctantly started. He threw it into gear, did a fast u-turn, heading after the truck.

Granger had gotten about 50 feet into the park when the truck suddenly stopped. The driver’s door flew open and Granger scrambled down, running for the street. Skinner could see him from where he was, a half a block away. His arms pumping wildly, his legs a blur.

He wasn’t going to make it to him in time, Skinner thought bitterly.

~~~

“Get down! Get down!” he wished, his teeth clenched. He kept driving towards the park, though he knew he was endangering himself, as well.

He stared at the truck, the driver’s door swinging.

Time seemed to float for a moment.

Then a flash so bright Skinner felt as if he’d been thrown into a fire. His eyes seared with it. An amazing sound, so loud it made his ears scream with pain. It felt for an instant like the air was being pulled out of the car, out of his lungs.

His windshield dissolved into bright shards in front of him. He covered his face with his arms, glass ripping through his jacket as his feet crushed the brake pedal down, the car skidding to a halt.

Around him, the sound of glass shattering from hundreds of windows around the street from buildings, cars. Fire rained down on him, the axle of the truck slamming down in front of the car, bouncing once with the sound of twisting metal. He had just enough sense to throw himself onto the front seat as it careened over the top of the car, smashing down on the trunk with a crash.

Then, just as suddenly as the blast had come, suddenly, things were still around him. Just the sounds of things burning now, sirens. He lifted his head and peered through the gap that had been the front window, trying to shake himself back into full awareness. He felt dazed.

Granger…

The thought was enough to pull him back to the present. He climbed out of the car, stiff, pained from being jolted around so badly. There were pieces of burning debris all over the street, several cars on fire and jostled around by the curb closest to the park. He looked into the park itself, saw a crater where the truck had been, trees down. The side of the building closest to the park was black, but was still standing.

Lumbering painfully towards the sidewalk, he scanned the ground around him.

“Granger!” he called. Only the sounds of flames and sirens replied.

Someone was running up behind him. Agent Mosely, who’d been watching the back of the building.

“AD Skinner!” he called, putting a hand on Skinner’s arm. “Are you okay?”

Skinner looked down at his arms, saw blood dripping from slashes in the arms of his jacket. He had a gash in his head, too, which he was just now noticing. He pressed his hand against it and looked at the blood uselessly.

“Yeah, I’m all right,” he said breathlessly. “Help me…help me look for Granger. He was in the park when the truck went up.”

“All right,” Mosely said, and ran ahead, swerving around mounds of debris. Skinner trotted up the sidewalk toward the park. He looked around, heaving in deep breaths. He felt sick.

“Sir!” Mosely called from just off to his left. “He’s over here!”

Skinner turned and went towards Mosely, who was kneeling on the ground behind the dividing wall. About ten feet in front of it was what was left of a small tree. The trunk was snapped off about 10 feet up as though a giant hand had reached down and plucked the top of the tree right off.

As he neared, he saw the unmoving form behind the wall. He quickened his pace.

Kneeling down across from Mosely, he looked down at Granger.

He lay on his side, his arms and legs askew. His face was bloodied and cut, and there was blood dripping from one of his ears. His jacket was torn up, charred. His glasses lay in a twisted, cracked pile in front of his face.

“He’s alive,” Mosely said quickly. “Barely.”

Skinner breathed out, his hand on the side of Granger’s head in relief. His own head was reeling.

“He must have gotten behind this wall just in time,” Mosely continued, looking up at it. A few stones were missing from the top of it, but it was otherwise intact. Skinner looked up at it, nodded.

About 30 police cars were careening down the street, ambulances following them, no doubt alerted by the firefight before the explosion.

“Get a paramedic over here right away,” Skinner said softly, and sat heavily against the wall. He was suddenly very cold.

“I will, sir,” Mosely said, steadying Skinner with a hand on his arm again. “Just relax. I’ll be right back with someone.”

Skinner nodded, moving his hand from Granger’s head to his shoulder protectively.

The man had just done one of the stupidest and bravest things he’d ever seen.

“Too much time with Mulder,” Skinner said to Granger’s still form. Then, despite Granger’s dire condition and his own, he began to chuckle softly, punchy and overstressed and going into shock.

He covered his mouth to stifle the sound, sitting there amidst the chaos of people running, blackened buildings, and piles of flame.

~~~

PETRO TRAVEL PLAZA LEBANON, TENNESSEE 10:34 p.m.

Mae Curran held Sean’s hand as they made their way across the parking lot, which was well-lit and drenched with rain. They stopped for a huge tractor trailer to rumble by, on its way to the crowded diesel pumps on the other side of the huge truck stop.

In her other hand, a small cup filled with thin cream of chicken soup, the lid keeping it from spilling as she walked along in the cold rain, leading the sleepy boy beside her. She had taken him in to eat something, had her fifth cup of coffee for the day.

They’d been on the road for over eleven hours and it was showing on both of them.

“When are we going to stop?” Sean asked from beside her for the umpteenth time. His voice was low and tired.

“In a few more hours we’ll stop, Sean. Just a few more.”

She didn’t mind answering that question. It was the one about when they were going to see Owen that she found too difficult to answer.

They reached the truck, parked beneath a light in the parking lot so that the interior of the truckbed would be slightly lit for her. She’d looked in on Scully through the side window of the cap when they stopped, saw her curled on her side, lying still, her eyes closed. She hoped she’d been asleep, though she hadn’t been all day as Mae had stopped periodically for gas and bathroom breaks for them all.

She hadn’t wanted to disturb her if she was sleeping at last.

She placed the soup on the roof of the truck, fumbled with her keys, unlocked the passenger door and helped Sean crawl into the seat. On one of their earlier stops, she’d pulled out a blanket from the back that Scully wasn’t using and put it in the front seat for Sean. She pulled it over him as he slumped over onto his side, already half asleep.

“I’m going to check on Dr. Black again, Sean,” she said softly, rubbing his leg gently. “I’ll be right back and we’ll get on our way.”

He didn’t respond, and she quietly shut the door.

Going around to the back of the truck with the soup, she unlocked the cap’s window, pulled it up, then pushed the tailgate down. Moving carefully, she climbed up into the truck, edging closer to where Scully lay beneath the covers. Scully hadn’t moved since Mae had gone into the restaurant with Sean.

“Dana?” she said softly, reaching out to touch her shoulder. As she did so, she realized that Scully was breathing heavily, her chest rising and falling visibly, quickly, beneath the covers.

Scully’s eyes opened immediately, though they rolled back a bit as she looked up at Mae. She hadn’t been asleep after all, Mae realized with a grimace. The drug must have been keeping her from sleeping still, despite her injuries, her fatigue.

She was lying on the side of her face that wasn’t hurt, and the side facing Mae was darkly bruised and extremely swollen. Her left eye barely opened at all. Both of her eyes were going black, the left slightly darker than the right.

“Mae?” she breathed.

“Yes, it’s Mae. I’ve got soup here for you. I want you to try to eat some of it.”

She pushed Scully’s mussed hair behind her ear gently. She noted that though her friend’s face was deathly pale, her cheeks were flushed bright red and her brow was shining with sweat, despite the cold in the truckbed.

Scully shook her head slightly. “Sick…head hurts.”

“You haven’t eaten all day. You need to eat something.” Mae’s voice was firm, but tender. “Come on…help me now.”

She took the lid off the soup, then leaned down, pushed Scully onto her back slowly. Scully moaned softly in pain at the movement. Mae got an arm under her, tilted her head up slightly, carefully put the cup to her lips.

Scully swallowed a little bit of the lukewarm, pale liquid. A bit more. Then she turned her face away.

“No,” she whispered, her hand coming up from beneath the covers to push the cup away. Her movements were weak. Sluggish. Mae pursed her lips in frustration, let her head back down on the pillow and set the cup down, replacing the lid.

Beside her, Scully said something under her breath, her brows furrowed in pain, her hand on the side of her head.

“What’s that now?” Mae asked, leaning over her again. It had sounded like “mulder,” though she couldn’t make sense of the word. She fussed with the covers, noticing that Scully was trembling all over, as though she were freezing.

Scully didn’t answer her, closed her eyes, turned her face away, mumbling something that again Mae couldn’t make out. It was as though she were speaking to someone just beside her.

“What did you say to me just then?” Mae asked again softly. She put a hand on Scully’s hot cheek, turned her face toward her. Scully’s eyes opened, lolled a bit. Once she’d focussed on Mae’s face, she seemed more lucid, though her breathing was still fast, shallow.

“I want you to call Mulder,” she said weakly, but at least she had regained her voice for the moment.

“Who’s Mulder?” Mae shook her head in confusion.

“He’s my…partner,” Scully replied, and her brows squinted down harder. Speaking seemed to make the pain she was feeling worse, but she pressed on, her voice quiet but urgent.

“He’ll be looking for me. And I need…I need him here…”

Her voice trailed off to a whisper with the last of it, and Mae saw the tears she’d been expecting for some time, since she’d found Scully on the floor in her apartment, shine in her friend’s eyes. They did not fall, however.

Though Scully’s words tugged at her, Mae shook her head reluctantly.

“Dana, I can’t have anyone knowing where we are. Owen–“

“Mulder won’t…he won’t tell anyone,” Scully interrupted, her hand going from her head to rest heavily on Mae’s forearm. “He’ll come by himself. I promise. Tell him where I am. Please.”

Mae considered for a moment as Scully closed her eyes again, her head turning slowly on the pillow again, as though she could shake the pain away. Rain tapped lightly on the roof of the cap.

Mae’s first instinct was to ignore Scully’s request, keep driving, keep putting distance between them and Owen. But then she thought of her friend, how alone she must feel. How much she was suffering, how much she had suffered already.

It seemed like getting her someone she knew to tend to her was the least she could do for her. Seeing as how she couldn’t take her to a hospital, have her properly cared for.

Plus, they were going to have to separate at some point — both of them together made for too conspicuous a target. And Scully was in no condition to take care of herself, nor was she likely to be for some time.

Calling someone made the most sense, she decided. As long as that someone could be trusted not to bring the Feds or Owen down on them.

The fact that it was Scully’s FBI partner she was asking for didn’t exactly fill her with confidence that that wouldn’t happen…

“Wouldn’t you rather have someone else?” Mae tried. “Someone who’s family?”

Scully didn’t open her eyes as she spoke, though a small smile touched her through the pain she was in.

“He is…” she whispered, trailing off as she grew still except for her breathing, exhausted but, Mae knew, not asleep.

She sighed, grasped Scully’s hand and tucked her limp arm back under the covers. She could see her breath in the small space they occupied and shivered.

They were going to have to stop soon anyway, she realized. Scully was getting worse, not better, as time wore on. She didn’t know if it was her injuries or the drug, or both.

For starters, the least she do was get Scully out of this cold.

“All right then,” she said at last.

~~~

POE’S TAVERN RICHMOND, VIRGINIA 11:02 p.m.

Mulder stood at the corner of the bar among a knot of other patrons, all of them staring up at the television behind the bar. They were all silent, listening to the news report.

“…for more on this, we go to James Castle, who is in Washington at the site of today’s terrorist bombing.”

The picture shifted to another reporter, this one standing outside a line of police tape, firetrucks’ red sirens strobing through the darkness around him.

“Thank you, Gene,” the reporter said, pressing the pickup into his ear a bit more against the noise at the site. “The FBI is not releasing much information about this attack at this point, but we have managed to find out a few details for you.”

Mulder listened to the report about the intended target of the bombing, the Irish Embassy, which he could see just behind the man on the screen. The reporter recapped the events as he knew them at this point — a truck bomb that was parked in front of the closed gate, the FBI agents who were waiting there already, tipped to the attack. The massive shootout that ensued between the passengers of the truck and the agents.

Mulder took no pleasure in being right about what Curran had been up to. He could see the battered forms of cars in the background, charred black. The curtains in the windows of all the buildings in sight were flapping out the windows in the night breeze, the panes shattered from the force of the explosion.

“Jesus Christ,” someone said from the group Mulder stood within. “Can you believe this?”

“No shit,” someone agreed.

Someone shushed them and Mulder returned his attention to the television.

The reporter looked down at his pad again. “The other news I can report to you at this hour is the number of casualties. There are 12 confirmed dead: three civilians, six federal agents and three others, two of whom are the gunmen who drove the truck carrying the bomb. A third body was found shot on a cross street, an apparent execution. There are no details on the two assailants, and no arrests have been made. The names of the dead have yet to be released, pending notification of the victims’ families.”

He got away, Mulder thought bitterly, his jaw tightening. Curran got away. There was no way he would have carried out the bombing himself, so he wouldn’t be one of the gunmen. And that third body…probably one of Curran’s companions, as well. Someone else who got in Curran’s way.

Dammit….

“There are also 27 injured, 9 of them critically. Several people from nearby buildings were caught by breaking glass when the bomb went off. Also among the injured is the as-yet-unidentified federal agent who drove the truck into a nearby park, moving it away from any buildings before it exploded and thus averting further destruction and loss of life. As it stands, only three buildings sustained major damage, but none were destroyed by the blast, a fact that law enforcement officials here at the scene find miraculous, given the size of the bomb.”

Mulder had already tried both Granger and Skinner’s cell phones after he heard about the attack on the radio while he was driving around the city. There was no answer on either one of them. And now to find out there were six agents down…

He ran a hand through his hair in frustration, an all-consuming feeling of worry biting at him as he looked down at the floor, his eyes clenching closed with it.

It was official. Everyone he knew that had to do with this case was missing now.

Part of him wanted to go to D.C., see what happened to Granger and Skinner himself. But this is where Scully had last been. This was the place to begin looking for her.

And as concerned as he was for Granger and Skinner, Scully had to come first.

“Hey buddy?” the bartender called to him. “Order’s up.”

Mulder pulled himself out of his frustration and came forward, taking the bag of food he had ordered. That was why he was in the tavern in the first place. He’d yet to eat all day.

“$6.75,” the bartender said, and Mulder dug for his wallet, paid the man quickly. With one final look toward television screen, he turned and headed for the door.

He’d try the Grey Mouse again. Maybe Mae would be there.

Yeah, right…

Just as he was pushing that cynical thought aside, his cell phone chirped in his pocket. His heart skipped a beat and he bolted for the door and the quiet of the night outside.

Once he was standing a few feet from the door, he jammed the talk button.

“Mulder,” he bit out, holding still.

There were a few seconds of silence, as though the person on the other end were not certain what to say.

“Mr. Mulder?” came a female voice. Heavily accented.

His hands went to fists, squeezing the bag he held tightly.

“Where is she?” he asked quickly, angrily.

“I guess you know who this is then,” Mae replied. She sounded a little put out, probably by his curtness, his tone. He turned toward the parking lot, calming himself. He had to treat this like a hostage negotiation. He had to keep his cool.

“I know you have her, Mae,” he said more evenly now.

“Aye, that I do,” she replied. Her tone was unreadable. She didn’t sound like she was going to make any threats, he thought, but he couldn’t be sure.

“Let me talk to her,” he said quietly.

There was another beat of silence. “You can’t talk to her,” she said, and now she did sound apologetic. He couldn’t tell if it was sincere or not. “She can’t come to the phone. She’s hurt.”

Mulder’s stomach filled with bricks and plummeted. “How bad?”

“I don’t have time to go into all this with you now. I want to tell you where we’ll be, so you can come. And I need you to come alone. I need your word on that. She said you’d do that.”

Mulder pulled in a calming breath, though his eyes closed. “All right,” he said. “You have my word. Tell me.”

He could hear a rustling of paper — a map, no doubt. “I’m heading for Memphis, to a place outside the city called Millington. There’s a state park there — Shelby Forest. When we get there and I find a place for us to stay, I’ll call you again to let you know where we are.”

Tennessee? he thought, stricken. That was hours away. He started for the car.

“All right. I’m on my way. When do you think you’ll be calling me?” He climbed in, slammed the door, tossing the bag of food on the passenger seat.

“We should be there in four or five hours, I think. Give me another hour to find a place to settle.”

“All right,” Mulder replied quietly, starting the engine.

He hesitated, forced himself to continue.

“Mae, can you give me your word that you won’t hurt her?” He had to ask.

There was another pause. “I’m not going to hurt her, Mr. Mulder,” she said almost sadly. “I’ve paid a lot for her life as it is. Now come and get her.”

The line clicked, went dead.

Mulder hung up, set the phone carefully beside him on the seat.

He’d begun to sweat, fighting down his emotions — anger at his current state of helplessness, and how far away he was from her, how much of a head start Mae had on him.

He would have to trust her, though it went against everything in him to do so.

Throwing the car into reverse, he backed out of the parking space, jammed the car into drive and headed out of the parking lot down Main towards the interstate. The radio was playing softly in the background, and he found the input to be too much.

He reached over, flicked it off, made his way into the long and starless night.

~~~

CHAPTER 23.

~~~

GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY MEDICAL CENTER WASHINGTON D.C. JANUARY 16 10:03 a.m.

Paul Granger awoke to the sound of the telephone ringing by his bedside, opened his eyes onto the sparse furnishings of his hospital room, the outlines of everything washed in his myopia.

He licked his dry lips, turned his eyes slowly toward the phone as it continued its shrill ringing. He couldn’t turn his head in that direction — the heavy plastic neckbrace precluded any movement of his head. His arm, casted from the shoulder down and held curved out like a white wing, pointed uselessly toward it, his fingers poking from the end of the cast. He flexed his fingers as he looked at them, groaned as he came fully conscious and his body began to throb like one huge connected bruise.

The phone, persistent, continued to ring.

Reaching out with his uncasted arm, he fumbled for the call button. When the nurse answered, he asked her to come in and get him the phone. She said she’d be right there.

He waited, wiggled his toes slightly outside the cast on his lower right leg, held up above the mattress in a traction sling.

It was like taking inventory, making sure everything was still connected and still moved. When he’d thrown himself over the wall the afternoon before, the sound of the explosion roaring behind him, he’d wondered if he would fly apart before he landed.

He moved his toes and fingers again slowly, revelling in the simple pleasure of it.

Now if he could just get someone to bring his spare glasses, he’d be as content as he could be given his circumstances.

The nurse entered, reached for the ringing phone and brought it over to the rolling table perched over his chest. On it sat a cup of room temperature water capped with a bent straw. She set the phone down, looked at him sympathetically.

“People should know to let you rest,” she said fussily. “You should tell whoever that is that you need to be left alone for a little while.”

He looked up at her, swallowed painfully. “I will,” he croaked, cleared his throat. She checked the drip on his IV and wandered back out of the room as he reached for the receiver.

He wondered who it could be. His mother was already in D.C., staying at a nearby hotel to avoid the long commute from Baltimore to see him.

Lifting the receiver, he put the phone to his undamaged ear slowly.

“Granger.” He cleared his throat again.

“Good morning,” came the reply. “It’s about time you got the phone.”

Granger found himself smiling through the dull pain he was in. “I should have guessed…” he said, his voice hoarse.

“Who else would be a big enough asshole to let the phone ring 40 times in a hospital room?” Mulder replied. He was chewing on something. Probably those damn seeds he ate all the time in the car. Mulder’s voice was low, soft. Very tired. “How you feeling?”

“I’m all right,” Granger lied, though it was sound hard to sound casual around a neckbrace.

“Bullshit,” Mulder replied. “Skinner already told me you look like plaster convention. I hear you did a pretty crazy thing.”

Granger closed his eyes, swallowed. “Yeah, I don’t know what I was thinking,” he whispered.

“You weren’t thinking,” Mulder retorted. “But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. What you did saved a lot of people’s lives. It was the right thing to do. I’m just sorry you’re paying for it now.”

“Skinner was pissed,” Granger said hoarsely. “Came in last night in a hospital gown and a pair of slippers and bitched me out. Gave me a lecture about acting on my own, taking unnecessary risks…”

“Yeah, I know that one really well. I could dance to it.” There was a pause. “Don’t worry. You’ll get used to it.”

Granger could hear a smile in Mulder’s voice. He realized that in a strange way, he’d just been paid a compliment. It pleased him in a way he couldn’t name.

“Where are you?” he whispered, letting the moment pass. “Where’s Scully?”

“I’m in Southwest Succotash, Tennessee,” came the reply. “On 40, somewhere west of Nashville. On my way to a little town called Millington. Mae Curran has Scully and that’s where she’s stopped with her.” A pause. “But you aren’t supposed to know any of that. Neither you or Skinner.”

Granger groaned, feigning dismay. “You just had to tell me then, didn’t you?” he asked, regaining his voice for a moment.

“Rule number two, Granger,” Mulder replied after a beat. “Never lie to your partner, if you can at all help it.”

Granger felt that same pleased feeling come over him. He smiled.

“All right, fair enough,” he said. “I don’t know a thing. Is Scully all right?”

There was a pause, only the cell phone hiss answering for a moment.

“I don’t know.” Mulder’s voice was softer now. Granger could hear the worry. “I don’t think Mae is going to hurt her, though she’s hurt already, apparently.”

Granger reached for the cup of water, aimed the straw roughly at his mouth, took a swallow to ease his throat.

“I’m sorry to hear that about Scully,” he said softly. “How has Mae seemed?” He had to admit that the profiler in him was curious about Curran’s sister. They knew so little about her, and what they did know wasn’t particularly good.

“She’s hard to get a read on,” Mulder said. “I’ve talked to her twice now — once last night, and once about 5:30 this morning when she called to tell me where they are. She’s been very matter-of-fact with me, not giving anything away. She won’t discuss Scully’s condition with me over the phone at all. She’s cut me off when I’ve tried to ask.”

Granger winced. “I’m sorry. I know that’s got to be driving you nuts.”

“Well, I’ll know soon enough, I guess,” Mulder replied, brushing Granger’s concern off. Granger knew it was something Mulder had a hard time accepting from anyone.

“She’ll be all right,” he said, though he had no facts to found the statement on. “She’s one of the toughest people I’ve ever met. She’ll be okay.”

Again, the static answered. “Yeah,” Mulder said finally. He didn’t sound convinced. Granger knew he wouldn’t be until he saw Scully for himself.

They sat in a companionable silence for a moment. Granger coughed, his throat irritated from the talking.

“You’re going to be all right though?” Mulder asked finally.

“Yeah. A couple of months out probably. But I’ll be okay.” His lips curled with a small smile again. “Come visit me in rehab when you two get back to D.C. or something, all right?”

“We will,” Mulder replied. “I want to hear this whole story–“

There was a commotion in the hallway and AD Skinner came quickly into the room and stood beside the bed. He was dressed now, a suit, trench, looking very official except for the huge bandage on his forehead.

His arm came up as he saw what Granger was doing. He pointed to the phone with a bandaged hand. “Hang up,” he said tensely but quietly. “Hang up right now.”

Granger looked at him, the command not registering for a second.

“Hang up, Granger, ” Mulder said immediately, forcefully. “I’ll find you. Or you find me. Take care.” The line went dead.

Granger replaced the receiver, looked at Skinner questioningly. Skinner was a bit out of breath, glancing around as though he were looking for anything out of place.

“What–?” Granger began, but Skinner shook his head sharply, cutting him off.

Padden and Duncan Hall came into the room, Padden looking at Skinner as he did so. His eyes were flinty as he turned them on Granger.

“Where is Agent Mulder?” he asked without prelude.

Granger looked up at him, blinked, surprised at the anger in the question.

Then his gaze hardened. His face grew expressionless. There was no hesitation when he spoke.

“I have no idea.”

Padden’s lips thinned in anger as he looked back and forth from Granger to Skinner.

“I’m warning both of you. You’re standing in the way of this investigation by keeping your knowledge of Agent Mulder’s whereabouts from me. And I’ll have your hide for it.”

Granger ignored the threat as his brows squinted down at the rest of what Padden had said. “You make it sound like Mulder is the one you’re investigating,” he said softly.

“He is,” Padden spat back. “John Fagan’s body was found in Mae Curran’s apartment yesterday afternoon. Shot through the head with a caliber matching Mulder’s service weapon. And his fingerprints were found on both the front door and in the room with the body.”

“What?” Granger asked, aghast, wishing like hell he could sit up. “You’re accusing Mulder of murdering Fagan? He couldn’t have.”

He saw Skinner giving him a look. Keep quiet, the look said. Granger heeded it. There was so much that Padden didn’t know about Mulder’s activities. They were all unauthorized and would only serve to dig the hole that Mulder was in deeper. He’d let Skinner do the talking, let him reveal what he thought was right to reveal.

Padden nearly smirked. “AD Skinner has told me about him waiting for Agent Scully at the airport yesterday, which he also wasn’t supposed to do, might I add. But that doesn’t put it out of the realm of the possibility that he could have killed Fagan. The ME puts the time of death at somewhere between 11 a.m. and noon yesterday. Mulder had plenty of time to get to the apartment to kill him.”

“That’s crazy. Why would Mulder do that?” Granger’s voice was cracking again as he spoke.

Padden glared at him again. “We know about Mulder looking for Agent Scully yesterday, about AD Skinner’s unauthorized use of task force manpower to search for her. My theory is that Mulder went to the apartment looking for Agent Scully when she didn’t appear for her flight and confronted Fagan there.”

“And what if he did?” Skinner replied angrily. “Like I told you earlier this morning — Mulder had a right to defend himself if that was the case. Which it is NOT.”

“Then how do you explain those fingerprints? The bullet match? And the fact that Mulder didn’t report having found a body to the police?” It was Duncan Hall who spoke, his accent thicker with his anger.

Skinner looked at him, sighed. Granger saw the position he was in. He was going to have to give something away here.

“Mulder went to Mae Curran’s apartment looking for Scully. I know he did that, yes. But Fagan was already dead when he got there. I can promise you that.”

“Killed by who?” Padden asked. “Agent Scully? She didn’t have her weapon with her, or at least she wasn’t SUPPOSED to have it with her. Knowing that she works with Mulder, there’s no telling what kind of orders she might have broken in this mess…”

“No, Mae Curran killed him,” Skinner replied, his ire rising at the insinuations about Scully now. Granger could see it on his face.

“You keep saying that, Mr. Skinner,” Hall replied quickly. “And I’m bloody well telling you that is not possible. I know these people a hell of a lot better than you do and Mae Curran would not take an action like that.”

“You’re wrong,” Skinner said softly, angrily. “You didn’t believe that Curran would bomb the Irish Embassy either and look what happened yesterday afternoon.”

Padden stared a hole into Skinner and Granger’s lip curled up with satisfaction. Padden looked like an ass for not listening to Mulder, and Padden knew it.

“Let me tell you what I see,” Padden said quietly, not responding to Skinner’s comment. There was something dangerous in his voice. “I see two agents. One of them having abandoned an undercover operation without proper clearance and disappeared into thin air, despite her continued tactical importance for the case…”

“‘Tactical importance’?” Skinner asked. “You mean like chum has ‘tactical importance’ when you’re shark fishing?”

Padden stopped him with a raised hand, continued softly.

“And I have another agent who has made questionable and meddling decisions throughout the course of his work with this investigative team to the point that he was thrown OFF the case. Who then continued to make questionable decisions, participating in the case with both of your assistance and on his own. Who then offers information, unlikely information, about a bombing, which, it could be argued, shows evidence of some knowledge of the operation. And who is now placed, through fingerprints and ballistic evidence, at the scene of the murder of one of the major conspirators of the case.”

He looked at Skinner and Granger. “Now don’t you find any of that a bit strange, gentlemen?”

Granger and Skinner looked at him. Granger closed his eyes, anger overwhelming him.

“You’re trying to frame him for YOUR fuck-up,” Skinner said sharply. “You’re trying to frame Mulder and get Scully back to use her to try and catch Curran–“

“That’s enough, Skinner!” Padden shouted.

“–who probably wouldn’t have gotten away had we had the proper resources available to us, instead of you having them sitting 10 blocks up the street with their thumbs up their asses.”

“Enough!” Padden said again. He pointed in both of their general direction. “Where are Agents Mulder and Scully? And I’m warning you this time: I want an answer.”

Granger looked at him evenly, his face expressionless again. Skinner did the same thing.

“I have no knowledge of either agents’ whereabouts.” Skinner said softly.

Granger looked at him. “Nor do I,” he whispered, his voice gone.